iMac Journeys, Part Three

The Thinker by Rodin

I promised when I got my iMac last year that I would give you periodic updates on my experiences, pro and con. Okay, I have been a bit tardy, having last written about my iMac last July. My iMac is now a routine part of my life and frankly, I give it less thought that I ever gave my Windows-based PCs. That is for the better. I now spend hardly any time fussing over my computer and a lot more time being productive with it.

I am finding that the myriad cool features that come with my iMac matter a lot less than its ability to behave consistently and reliably. I want it to work when I turn it on and go off promptly when I turn it off. I want it to be rather simple to use and wholly consistent when I have it on. Yeah, it is nice that it has a built in camera and microphone, but being introverted I hardly ever use these features. It is also nice that it takes up a lot less real estate on my desktop than my Windows PC. It is so quiet that most of the time I have to listen hard to know it is working at all. (The old PC always let me know it was alive by the continual whirr of its hard drives.) I like its wider screen and how everything looks so crisp and shiny on its monitor.

I also like how fast the system boots up and shuts itself down. My Dell desktop PC at work is patched most nights to address the latest security vulnerabilities. I generally don’t have to reboot it often, as I just log off and on. However, when I do have to reboot or cold start it, it takes many minutes as Windows XP applies patch after patch after patch. I have no idea how much money our agency spends pushing out these updates and patches to the thousands of PCs across our agency, but it must be a huge sum of money. In contrast, it takes about thirty seconds from when I turn on my iMac until I get a log in prompt. Shutting it down is faster. Leaving it in sleep mode is also an option. Applications generally run spiffily too, typically loading within ten seconds. Only a few times in the seven months I have owned an iMac have I had to Force Quit an application. (A Force Quit means the application was probably poorly written, and is not a reflection on the Mac OS/X operating system itself.) It froze up on me just once.

Like Windows, my iMac wants to be upgraded periodically, but it rarely pesters me more than every few weeks. When the software update icon jumps up and down on my Dock, it is not so often that I find it annoying. I have changed it to check for software updates monthly, so it will be even less bothersome.

What am I not doing? I am not wasting hours worrying about things like is my Norton Antivirus subscription up to date, or is my firewall sufficiently advanced, or has my machine been hacked or whether my hard disk needs to be optimized. I have yet to need to call Apple’s technical support line. I am not sure I will develop the same skills for troubleshooting my iMac as I painfully learned over the years using Windows. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t need to.

My experience suggests that the primary value of an iMac is its simpler environment, which is reliable and consistent. I expect it to be smart enough to heal itself. I assume, but do not know, that the Mac OS/X operating system is optimizing the hard disk in the background. I assume that if it needs more virtual memory it creates it automatically. I assume that if I have some vital data that it is being properly backed up somewhere. (To do this you first need to connect it with an external disk drive and then enable Time Machine.) I assume that it is secure and recently verified that my documents cannot be seen by other users on my machine.

There are some quirks. On my PC I pull out flash drives all the time without worrying about using the Windows approved method in the system tray. Do the same thing on my iMac and it gets very concerned, popping up a worrisome system notice. Just as at some level Windows is just MS-DOS with a graphical user interface, an iMac at some level is just a very fancy user interface for the Unix operating system. In the Unix world, you “mount” drives and “eject” them when you are done with them. A flash drive should not be treated like an external drive but it is. Perhaps the next version of OS/X will chill when it encounters a flash drive.

Nor is Apple immune to trying to get you to open up your wallet. It is very pushy with its iTunes software, just as Microsoft is with its MediaPlayer. Fortunately, my needs are simple. I have no desire to keep a large MP3 library. I have learned to avoid iTunes. If I want to hear an MP3 file on my MP3 player, I find it on the Internet and in Firefox right mouse click on the link, choose “Save Target as…” and point it to my MP3 player. I have no inclination to rush out and buy an iPod just so I can have the full integration with iTunes. At least I will have no inclination until my MP3 player dies and then I will consider it.

There is little cause for concern about software availability for the Mac anymore. So far, I have had little difficulty finding Mac versions of Windows software. My needs though are modest. Quicken is available for the Mac, and both TurboTax and TaxCut are as well. I just finished filing my taxes with TaxCut and it was frankly a superior experience to doing it on Windows. Of course, if you are a big gamer you may not find this to be true. If you really want, you can run Boot Camp and have Windows on your iMac. I am not sure why you would want to do that since you then have to deal with all the hassles of Windows on your iMac. It is better to do a clean divorce and get liberated.

The reality is that for me at least there is no longer any compelling reason not to buy an iMac. Microsoft has even written a version of its Remote Desktop Connection for the Mac. If necessary, I can access my desktop computer at work from home on my iMac, although it is a strange experience to see my iMac with a Windows Start button down in the bottom left corner.

One thing you can do to ease your adjustment from Windows to the iMac is remap the Control and Command keys. You can do this under System Preferences, Keyboard and Mouse. Just swap it so that the Control key works like the Command key and the Command key works like the Mac Control key. This means you do not have to relearn how to copy and paste between Windows and the Mac. Since you do this so frequently, you can save yourself the hassle of unlearning something that for many of us is hardwired into us.

The iMac is not computing nirvana, but it is where the personal computer should be had it evolved intelligently. That should be a compelling reason for anyone to consider ditching their Windows-based PC. My daughter is starting to agree, and is now saving for her own Macbook. She too has developed the expectation she should be able to just use her computer, rather than having to continually fuss over it. I suspect that when she too joins the Mac collective she will wonder why she waited so long.

Caught in the Quicken web

The Thinker by Rodin

I have often joked to my wife that Microsoft’s greatest invention was its random behavior generator. If you run the exact same software, using the exact same data on the exact same computer day after day you should get exactly the same results. Except that, this does not happen in the world of Microsoft Windows. I believe this thanks to their secret random behavior generator. Some days you can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You think that things are finally predictable, only to discover later that either something surreptitious is going on under the hood, or some sort of bizarre behavior that never manifested itself the last hundred times has occurred.

Because of its secret random behavior generator, Microsoft has ingeniously generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. This has forced us to upgrade, buy new versions of their software, reformat our hard drives and reinstall Windows, and even buy entirely new computers. We also pay money to call their technical support lines to maybe solve these mysterious problems. What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? By buying an iMac, I have demonstrated that I am now sane. Release me from the rubber room, please. I now have a computer, which while not perfect, works predictably with me instead of against me.

As I documented, it is not a trivial process to move from Windows to a Mac. There is a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn. There are some inevitable compromises. You may not find precisely the same software for the Mac as you will for Windows, but you can come close. As in the case of Quicken, you can expect to pay more money for the privilege of having it work on a Mac. What you get in return is consistency and reliability.

Quicken may be the exception. I found that moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac was a hugely frustrating experience. Quicken is not some fly by night company. It has been around for more than twenty years and owns the lion’s share of the personal finance market. It has expanded into the business market with its Quickbooks line. It also offers an array of online services. You would think that such a large and well-financed company would offer a version of Quicken for the Mac that is consistent with Quicken for Windows. You would think that you could simply move over your data files and use them transparently.

Sorry, no. Moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac feels very much like trying to solve some bizarre and distressing Microsoft Windows problem. I mean the real irksome kind, where you are reduced to hacking Windows registry entries and upgrading drivers in the wan hope that maybe you will return to some level of consistency and reliability. Quicken blew it big time with Quicken for the Mac. For some bizarre reason it is largely a different product than Quicken for Windows that also looks and behaves quite differently than it Windows version.

Ironically, Microsoft did a better job of porting its Microsoft Office Suite to the Mac than Quicken did with its flagship product. I installed Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac and there is almost no inconsistent behavior with the Windows version. Yes, you get feature windows that sit outside the main window. That is standard Mac stuff. In addition, you have to use the CMD key where you would normally use the CTRL key. That is about it.

With Quicken for the Mac, not only are the features I took for granted missing, but also all sorts of things both subtle and overt are markedly different. For example, you might want to have your register show the date column first and then the check number column so it looks like your paper register. There is no way to do this with the Mac version, which markedly slows down the process of entering transactions into Quicken. Moreover, why is the category field now on the left and the memo field on the right? It would have been just as easy to keep it consistent with the Windows version.

All these sorts of annoying inconsistencies though pale compared to the hassle of actually moving your data from Windows to the Mac. First, according to their own knowledge base, you must go through the hassle of exporting each type of data (accounts, categories, etc.) to a QIF file, which is painful. It also tells you to do things like shorten your account and category names and to move over data in a stepwise manner, which is also painful. Yet despite all this, I was not successful moving over my Quicken data. Instead, I got repeated “Transaction File Full” messages while importing. I was reduced to calling their technical support line and waiting for a call back. Their technician was anxious to end the call early because their support closed at 5 PM. However, he did give me some useful advice. He told me to create a new QIF file with all my data in it and import just that. The good news was that it appeared to worked.

However, there were some problems. The import program ignored many transactions, making the account balances incorrect in many cases. As I had taken care to trim my account and category names as instructed, I expected no problems. The problems were occurring in transactions with category names I could not change on Windows, those “automatic” categories like _401KEmployerContribution.

Searching the Quicken support forums I found a number of people with similar problems but no one who had a solution. A number of people like me though were frustrated and tearing their hair out. With 18 years of Quicken data, going through probably one hundred thousand transactions and fixing those ones did not import or imported incorrectly was not a viable option. Why could Quicken not at least provide an error log? What to do?

I figured that as a last resort I could just create a balance adjustment so that at least the account balances would be accurate. Except that in most of my accounts, the option was disabled. Naturally, I sent an inquiry to Quicken. Their customer relationship management software just automatically pointed me to articles I had already read. Of course, no human was actually going to bother to read my email. That, like, costs money! Instead, just have a computer parse it for keywords, send an email with likely matches and hope the customer goes away!

In desperation, I was reduced to changing my opening balances. That was the only thing that Quicken for the Mac would allow me to do. So now, my account and share balances are correct, but I have no idea whether it is calculating my stock portfolio values correctly, because I am not certain that all buy and sell transactions were recorded correctly. Nor am I confident that any income or expense reports will be accurate. All this for the privilege of paying $69.99 for a Mac version, which you can get for about half this price and which has about 10% less functionality than the Windows version!

Quicken though keeps sending me emails that it is still vitally concerned about my problem. I cannot be bothered to respond because it is clear even they do not know what to do. If I had to guess, I suspect their advice would be to stick with the Windows version. However, I will not shell out $80 or so for Parallels or install Boot Camp to run Windows on my Mac. My whole goal of moving to a Mac was to put Windows behind me.

There is hope. Reputedly, Quicken is rewriting Quicken for the Mac from the ground up for a future version. Maybe then, it will have the same features as in its Windows version. Maybe then, moving over your data will be simple. Maybe then, future customers will not have to troubleshoot this bizarre accounting stuff largely by themselves. As for me, I feel justifiably disgruntled and used. This is no way to treat a loyal customer.

iMac Journeys, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

After a couple weeks, my iMac and I are settling in comfortably together. There is little sign that this marriage will require a quickie Las Vegas divorce. Mostly I love what I am experiencing. However, after having spent the last fifteen years in the bizarre world of Microsoft Windows, I can see it will take some time for me to reorient my brain to think like a Mac.

The extra peripherals have arrived and are installed. The most important one is this matias OS/X keyboard. Finally, I can type reliably again, although this keyboard is of no higher quality than any other plastic keyboard I have used. The chicklet keyboard that came with my iMac just was not working out. Also installed is a super quiet OWC Mercury Elite Pro external hard drive. It is hooked up via an ultra fast FireWire 800 cable to a FireWire port on the back of the iMac. It has 250 gigabytes, which is about average for an external hard drive these days. Its real virtue is that it lets me enable perhaps the most important but most neglected software built into the OS/X operating system, a utility called Time Machine. Time Machine not only keeps hourly, daily, weekly and monthly backups of my hard disk automatically, but also has a cool interface so I can go back in time to easily retrieve previous versions of a file. Using it to search for previous versions feels a little bit being Tony and Doug in that 60’s TV show Time Tunnel. Its main virtue is not that it keeps backups. You could do that on a PC for many years too. Its virtue is that it does it all automatically so you never have to think or even worry about it. Like much else about the Mac, after a tiny bit of set up, it just works.

That is not to say I have not had a few quirks. Mac Mail, an otherwise excellent email program, hung on me yesterday. Fortunately, OS/X figured it out and gave me the option to restart it. In addition, Mac Mail got confused today. It told me that an email in my Inbox was from X when actually it was from Y. Hopefully this is just a momentary glitch because otherwise I really like Mac Mail. I like the way that when you are focused on a message it automatically highlights other emails in the folder from the same person. I like its slick integration with IMAP mail servers. IMAP essentially lets me put all my email on GMail, but has the advantage of a much nicer user interface than GMail. Of course, if all my email is in GMail, then I can access all ten years of my email from any browser.

My Mac is just phenomenal at finding stuff easily. There is always Spotlight, which is a super fast and super easy to use search index of your computer. However, many applications, like Mac Mail, have a program-specific version of Spotlight integrated into it. In Mac Mail, for example, there is a convenient search box. Type anything in there and you do not even have to hit Return for it to start searching. It starts showing a results window specific to folder you are focused on in Mac Mail. It took a while to figure out how to import my email on my Windows machine. I was using Mozilla Thunderbird. Mac Mail would not let me directly import it from my PC version of Thunderbird. So I had to install Thunderbird for the Mac and import from the mailboxes on my PC. Then I used Mac Mail’s built in import facility for Thunderbird for the Mac. Forty thousand plus emails saved over the last ten years imported quickly and flawlessly.

So far, I found equivalents for various PC programs that I was used to using. I used Webdrive to remotely access computers as drive letters inside Windows, using the familiar FTP or SSH protocols. You can do this with a Mac but it is something of a hassle to pass the authentication information in an automated manner. ExpanDrive is an OS/X equivalent to Webdrive. I also needed a good visual code merge tool. WinMerge is a Windows solution that is neat and has the virtue of being free. I found a Mac equivalent called DeltaWalker that unfortunately is not free. That is the general problem with Mac software. There is a lot more free stuff for the PC than there is for the Mac. I do not mind paying extra money for this software for the conveniences built into the OS/X operating system.

Quicken for the Mac remains an issue. It is a little disappointing to pay $69.99 for the software to discover that it cannot even do some of the same features as my Windows version. For example, it cannot do scheduled transactions. This is annoying but right now, the larger problem is simply getting my 18 years of financial data moved over. I tried the conversion tips but they did not work. I get a “transaction file full” error when I move over my transactions. It looks like I will need some phone support from Quicken to clear this hurdle. Unfortunately, this means that I cannot donate my Windows machine quite yet.

The Mac has a cool multiple desktop feature called Spaces. The only problem is that old habits break hard. I find myself ALT-TABbing a lot, which in the Mac world is CMD-TAB but it does the same thing. I will refine these skills with time.

I really like The Dock, which is something like the Windows task bar that hangs out on the bottom of the screen, only bigger and with better icons. Unlike the Windows task bar, which only shows running applications, this one allows you to store shortcuts to your favorite applications. It also tells you which are running by placing a small luminescent blue dot beneath it. The Dock is always there so you do not have to navigate using a Start button. If an application needs your attention, it does so by jumping up and down. It is hard to miss and kind of cute!

I have just begun exploring some of the OS/X utilities. I have a movies folder and it is neat how in the folder view you can see a sample frame from the movie automatically. In addition, OS/X is smart enough to provide right and left arrow buttons on each side to let you easily browse your movies. There is also a scroll bar available to quickly zoom through your movies. On the other hand, I find some things annoying about the iTunes program. It does not seem to like Windows media and there is no conversion utility to turn them into MP3s, at least that I have found. Naturally, it wants to sell me iTunes. Moreover, iTunes seems to want to only work with an iPod. I own a Creative MP3 player. So far, to store music to it I have to mount it as a device and copy and paste MP3s into it.

I like OS/X’s Sleep mode. Windows has a Hibernate mode that most people do not use. Unlike Windows Hibernate, which can take thirty seconds or more of disk activity before it goes into hibernate mode, it is just a few seconds with the iMac. This is very convenient. Sleep mode uses very little power, and it takes only a couple seconds for the iMac to wake up. So I do not have to feel that guilty leaving it in sleep mode overnight. Everything is where I left it and fully accessible.

Unquestionably, OS/X is a superior to any edition of Windows. I would not characterize it as completely intuitive or 100% reliable. However, it is generally very consistent and reliable. With my memory upgrade to four gigabytes, it is also now blazingly fast. With its faster memory, it can download files much faster than my Windows machine. I figured the problem was that my Internet connection was relatively slow. It turns out that my Windows memory was the major bottleneck when I downloaded files.

Ah, engineering. That is what you really buy when you buy an iMac: premium hardware specifically designed to operate with the premium software. Using Windows is like driving on a gravel road. Using an iMac is like driving on a newly paved interstate highway with no traffic. It feels slick because it is slick.

More iMac adventures to follow.

iMac Journeys: First Impressions

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in January, I pledged to buy an iMac this year. I did not actually receive my iMac until Monday. Unbelievably, it sat in its packing box for four days. Hey, I was busy doing other things like buying a car for our daughter to drive to college. Last night I finally felt that I had sufficient leisure to open it up. I placed it temporarily on a card table next to my aging and noisy Windows desktop computer.

I generally knew what to expect from my three-hour Mac tour back in January. Mine is not the souped-up iMac, just the base $1199 model available on the Apple web site. It comes with a twenty-inch monitor. Originally, I was going to get the Mac mini, which is a small Mac box minus the peripherals. When I added up all the options, extra memory and bigger hard disk that I wanted, it was not that much more expensive to just buy the iMac. Particularly since I was not paying for it, but the government was (I paid for it with our stimulus check) I felt more inclined to go with a pricier model. Except for paying sales tax, my iMac was essentially free. (More specifically my grandchildren will be paying for it. However, since my daughter does not plan to have any children, I guess it is free.)

There is not much to assembling an iMac since the motherboard, CPU, memory and disk drive are stuffed somewhere inside the housing of its flat panel monitor. Also inside (but not obviously) there is a camera and a microphone. Presumably, the “i” in iMac is not just for “me” but also for “integrated”. Apple’s selling point has always been that you are getting a completely engineered package, with software optimized to run on a particular type of highly engineered hardware. Part of the reason that Microsoft Windows is so lousy is that it is expected to work with a broad range of off the shelf computer peripherals. When you control the hardware, presumably you have extra time to work on stuff that matters, like the ultra slick OS/X Leopard operating system that comes with the iMac. There are just four things to plug in: the power cord, the keyboard, the mouse (which plugs into the side of the keyboard) and an Ethernet cable.

I am sure some iMac bigots will tell me I am so full of it, but putting the on-off button behind the left side of the flat panel monitor is counterintuitive. I guess doing so would make the iMac itself look less “clean” since, as we know, Apple is big on aesthetics. For a few minutes, it did not seem to boot. Perhaps it did not power on right away because I expected something to happen instantly. Don’t panic. Press the button and give it a few seconds.

Also a disappointment: its Chicklet keyboard. It has to go. Fortunately, my friend Jim Goldbloom knows exactly what replacement keyboard to purchase. So while overall Apple does a great job of design, they have a few minor deficiencies. I do like its mouse though, and its tiny scroll wheel. I know some people hate it, but think it is much easier to manipulate.

I have just begun dabbling with the OS/X Leopard operating system but the features I saw in January are even more appealing now that I own one. OS/X has a curious absence of OK and Cancel buttons. In general, the Mac design is that when you make a choice it should be instantly set. This is one of those obvious user interface ideas that seems to have eluded Redmond and I really like.

The first application I installed was the Firefox web browser. I used the built in Safari web browser to download it. It was straightforward to install, but because a Mac is not a PC, it behaves a bit differently. I also struggled with moving my bookmarks. I eventually found the bookmarks.html file, put it on my flash drive, and then loading it from my flash drive. I had to reorganize the bookmarks I imported for them to appear on the bookmarks toolbar. I also need to move my cookies, which I am sure can be done, but Firefox provides no obvious way to do it.

Mac Mail was simple to set up. Mac Mail is a very slick email client that I look forward to exploring and integrates slickly with the iChat and iCalendar programs built into OS/X Leopard. I can already tell that it will be better than Eudora, my previous high water mark for an email program. I pointed it to the GMail IMAP server. IMAP allows your email to stay on the server. I could not figure out why the email was not moving into my local inbox. Since I had never used IMAP before, my confusion was understandable. Particularly nice about Mac Mail is how the Mail icon on the dock will show you the number of new messages. Moving my 10 years of email out of Thunderbird and into Mac Mail looks like it will be challenging.

Spotlight (which does ultra fast searches of your hard disk), the Dock (which anchors programs to an easy location near the bottom of the screen) and Spaces (which lets you divide your screen into multiple windows and place applications in each, essentially giving you multiple desktops) are all neat features. They demonstrate how far more usable OS/X is compared with Windows. Doubtless, I will discover much more in time. I need to buy an external USB hard drive soon so I can enable the Time Machine feature in OS/X. This lets you easily go back in time to see and retrieve previous versions of documents. It also transparently performs a general backup of your files.

There are some peculiarities with the OS/X Leopard interface compared to Windows. You can only stretch windows by dragging the bottom right corner of the window, rather than grabbing a side of the window. In addition, even though your application may not take up the whole window, a context specific menu always appears at the top of the screen.

Integrating useful applications will be a challenge. The Mac simply does not have the breath of software that Windows has. I determined though that it did not matter for the applications I needed. There is a version of Quicken for the Mac but you cannot easily export your data from the Windows version to the Mac. You have to trim account and category names to 15 or fewer characters, remove special characters from your investment fund names and then export to QIF (Quicken Interface Format) files. QIF is the equivalent of storing a spreadsheet as a tab delimited file, in other words it is very basic. I have a feeling I will be I will be uttering some swear words before I successfully have Quicken working with my Windows data on the Mac. The Mac version of Quicken tends to lag a year behind the PC version, which is not a problem for me because I tend to upgrade only every other year. I am a bit miffed because even though I own a copy of Quicken, I apparently cannot upgrade to the Mac for a reduced fee. In fact, Quicken charges a premium for its Mac version: $69.99. Yikes!

I need the equivalent of Microsoft Office soon. Apple has its own peculiar version called iWork. I am sure it is spiffy, but given the ubiquity of the Microsoft Office Suite, it is probably too much of a transition. I am more likely to install OpenOffice, since it is free.

I also want something equivalent to Choicemail for the Mac. ChoiceMail is a client-based white-list email filter. It requires people who are not in my address book to authenticate at a web site using a CAPTCHA interface. I suspect there are Mac Mail proxies out there but they will take time to locate and install. Mac Mail does have a reasonably good spam filter, but like all spam filters, it is not perfect. I should also be able to get Dreamweaver for the Mac, since I have a license for it for Windows. I hope that any upgrade costs will be minimal. In addition, I need to figure out how to easily mount to external web servers so I can keep earning bucks in my side business. Since OS/X is a certified version of Linux, this should not prove too challenging.

Stay tuned for more observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the Mac in the weeks ahead. As you might expect, my impressions in the first twenty-four hours are quite positive.

Mac Attack

The Thinker by Rodin

Is it too much to ask your PC just to work? Apparently so. I have been living in the Microsoft universe almost universally since 1988. Why did I buy PC after PC and keep putting Microsoft on it? Was it because I thought that MS-DOS or Windows was the neatest and most reliable operating system in the world? Ha! I was never that naïve. No, I stayed with Microsoft all these years like most of us because I needed the applications that ran on it.

Around 1995 I did briefly flirt with OS/2 Warp. I installed the sucker (it came on something like a dozen 3 ¼ inch diskettes) and enjoyed its nice snazzy features. For compatibility, I ran my Windows 3.1 programs in protected memory. It did not take too long though before I was running Windows 95. Did I hate OS/2 Warp? Not at all. It was a cool operating system. The problem was that its applications, if you could find them at all, were generally crap compared to the Windows equivalent.

The reality was that until I could run applications that were the same or as good on another operating system, I was stuck in the Windows universe. After spending a couple hours yesterday with my friend Jim Goldbloom learning about his Mac, I realized: I do not have to take it anymore. Soon Bill Gates, it is gonna be see you later sucker. I just hope this time I do not have to come crawling back because of some killer applications that are just not available for the Mac. (Even so, I can now run a Mac in dual boot mode and run Windows on it, or buy Parallels and run Windows Vista at the same time.)

Currently it takes three to four minutes to boot my machine. It is a couple years old, and has plenty of memory and CPU and runs Windows XP. My wife built it for me (she does these things for friends and family.) I am not entirely sure why it takes so long to boot up. When it was new, it only took about 45 seconds. It is probably because when you have to build a software fortress around your PC every time you use it, it just takes time. There is the ZoneAlarm firewall. There is the free Avast! Antivirus software. There is my Webroot Spy Sweeper program. However, there are all sorts of other stuff, much of which I am only dimly aware of getting loaded and entertaining my CPU. Likely, some of it I do not actually need anymore. Perhaps there are tricks I could learn from a Windows Secrets book on how to speed up things. Perhaps it is just getting old. Booting my PC in 2008 takes longer than it took to boot my Commodore 64 in 1984 and load a program like PaperClip off my floppy disk. That took about two minutes, which seemed intolerably long back then.

I have enough PC savvy to know what the real problem is: Windows is an operating system that is about as lithe as an elephant. Windows was never engineered. It started out as a rickety shack in the backyard. The Microsoft “engineers” kept adding rooms, only they learned carpentry from Alf and Ralph Monroe from Green Acres. Bill Gates was the oily Mr. Haney. We were the foolish Douglases. No matter how crappy their operating system and software was we kept buying because we had to have those compatible applications. Moreover, we needed those applications because we had to share stuff with others, and they were running those applications. There were times when Windows 3.1 would GPF on me every fifteen minutes. Windows Me, released in 1999, was nearly as bad.

We got some relief with Windows 2000. It looked like Alf and Ralph had finally figured out how to add a room to the house without the rain coming in through the roof. It was somewhat acceptable and my applications ran okay. Gradually I could go days or weeks without getting General Protection Faults or BSDs (Blue Screens of Death). Windows XP proved that Alf and Ralph could even put up wallpaper right.

Still, Windows annoyed me. It is like my first car, a 1970 Toyota Corolla. Back then, they were cheap and crappy cars. The good part was that the car was elementary enough that I could do a lot of its servicing. Windows is like that. If you are not part PC geek, running Windows is like driving a car around with the oil nearly out. You can do it, but you are being stupid.

You should not have to be a hardware geek to run a desktop computer. You should not need to subscribe to an online newsletter like Windows Secrets because, well, there should be no secrets between you and your personal computer. Moreover, the damn thing should just run, and run reliably. There is a reason I drive a Honda Civic instead of a Yugo. I have better things to do with my time than take the damn thing into the shop all the time. All these years I have wanted to say the same thing about my PC, but could not.

I avoided a Mac for years not just because my software wouldn’t run on it but also because there were still a few kinks in the machine. They are gone. The OS/X Leopard operating system is as solid and reliable as UNIX, because it is UNIX. It is UNIX with a highly optimized graphical user interface that will finally enable me to do my work without much thinking, instead of a gadget I have to regularly fuss over. I do not think about how a screwdriver works. Why should my computer be a mysterious black box that occasionally requires some guru skilled in a black art to fix it?

OS/X Leopard is slick and effortless. I needed Jim there though as my tutor. The problem with learning the Mac is you have to unlearn Windows. You have to erase the idea that computers have to be mysterious or obscure. Need to find something? Click on Spotlight, type what you are looking for and see the results instantly appear. Lost something but you have not backed up your files recently? Not a problem. Time Machine, sitting in the background, can find it for you. Do you want the version of the file on November 5th or December 8th?

Where is that big rectangular box with all the hardware stuff in it anyhow? There is no box. The computer is built into the monitor. What sort of special cable do I need to get the photos off my cell phone? You do not need a cable; the Mac is Bluetooth enabled. Just where do I attach my web cam? Umm, it is built into the monitor, along with a microphone. It’s just there because it should be there. You have just been trained by Microsoft to spend your odd hours plugging in things to your PC and fussing with drivers. With a Mac, most of the time you just assume it is already there.

I went with Jim through all my myriad software requirements. Can I get Microsoft Word for the Mac? Yeah, you can buy it if you want, or use the Word processor that comes with it, or install the free OpenOffice suite, which is compatible. Browser? Safari is bundled with it, but you can run Firefox for the Mac, keep all your bookmarks and still use its many neat extensions. I am a web developer. Can I run Dreamweaver? Of course, you can get a Mac version. I keep all my financial stuff in Quicken. Yes, there is a Mac version for it too. What about my whitelist software? I hate spam and need a challenge-response system for people I do not know. The Mac Mail program will probably suffice with a little tweaking of the rules. If not, there are doubtless many free applications written for the Mac that can be your proxy that you can download from Apple’s website. Is there the equivalent of Webdrive, which lets me write to a web site as a Windows drive letter? Umm, drive letters are so PC. You do not need to remember drive letters anymore. You simply mount the sucker, and a SAMBA mount pointing to a server on the Internet will suffice. Will it recognize my printer? Just connect it. Unless it is more than a few years old, it will work transparently.

Bottom line: I do not need to put up with Windows anymore. I can finally be liberated.

I will not be rushing down to my Apple store to buy a Mac but I am making plans. I am wondering: will the Mac mini be all I need? After all, I already have an excellent monitor. Whichever Mac I buy I know that my desktop computer will be one less thing about which to worry. I will be driving a Ferrari, not a Yugo.

Sadly, I still will have to use Windows at work. I cannot escape Windows entirely until I retire. I do look forward to the day when I can purge Windows from my brain. It is impossible to have zero latency between my ideas and executing them on a computer or on the web. The Mac is likely the closest I will get to getting there.