A Critical Review of Mac OS X

Last Spring, I took my wife into Apple Land. Being the geeky guy that I am, I looked at my spouse’s dying computer (slow and down to one working USB port), her low-grade phone, and her old, laggy tablet and figured it would be a good time to jump whole hog into the Apple ecosystem.

My wife is a lifelong Windows user but I talked her into switching over and she soon had a Mac Mini, an iPad Air, and an iPhone 5s. Her favorite from that lot is probably the iPhone since its camera and data connectivity is a quantum leap over what she had before. The iPad is in second place with the Mac bringing up the rear.

I don’t think she really dislikes the Mac so much as we are still in a learning curve. It takes some time to get used to looking for the menu of a given application at the top of the screen or remember to look in the Apple menu for a given option.

A plus for the Mac includes Hand Off, a function which allows you to “hand off” whatever app you were using on the Mac to the iPad or vice versa. (Feel nature calling while you’re looking at a web page on the Mac? Grab the iPad, swipe up from the bottom left corner, and the same web page will open up for you right where you left off.) We both really like the Magic Track pad. That slick little platform makes it easy to zip around a big screen. The computer’s speed is also a big plus since we got the mid-range Mac Mini with a 2.6 mhz i5 dual core and eight gigs of RAM. We don’t need to bother with an antivirus so we don’t have to deal with it slowing down the system. It’s also handy to be able to set a reminder on the Mac and have it pop up on your phone while you’re out and about.

I initially approached the Mac thinking it would be as bullet proof as I’d heard. Alas, such was not the case. The first problem occurred when I was setting up the computer. I had already created a user and, not knowing any better, had chosen to set up the iCloud Keychain since that was a default option. The system hung. We waited a few minutes and … nothing. Still a spinning beach ball, the Mac equivalent of a Windows hourglass. I had to shut down and restart the computer, create another user with the same name (had to have a different Home folder of course), skip fooling with the Keychain, and we were able to boot log into our shiny new Mac.

And then, since I wanted her Home folder to have the same name as her first name, I reassigned folders and deleted users until I had her user set up the way it should have been in the first place.

After a few days, we discovered the monitor had to be turned off and on to start working again after the Mac woke up from sleep. I searched online and soon found that this was a known problem with a lot of Mac Minis; the wake up signal wasn’t making it through the HDMI cord to tell the monitor it needed to rouse itself from slumber. There wasn’t really a solid consensus on what the solution to this was so I followed the recommended workaround and replaced the HDMI cable with DVI-D. The monitor worked fine after this.

Coincidentally, an Apple sales person was at Best Buy when I went in to do the cable exchange. I told him about the trouble I was experiencing and he had no idea what I was talking about. He recommended I call Apple Care. I didn’t take him up on it.

People talk about Macs being intuitive. This isn’t really the case. Once you learn how to use a Mac it’s intuitive. If you have no previous experience with how to navigate Windows, a Mac’s layout and controls may be intuitive. However, if you are like most folks and coming over the Windows world, you are going to have to relearn a lot of stuff.

Take cutting and pasting a file, for example. There are hoops to jump through if you want to move a file by right clicking on it instead of just dragging it from one folder to another. You right click the file you want to move, select Copy, open the folder you are moving it to, right click on a blank space, hold in the Alt key, then select Move Item Here. That’s one key stroke and Google search too many.

On the internet front, my spouse found she couldn’t watch videos on the Encore website so she downloaded Silverlight. They still wouldn’t play. I tried removing Silverlight (more on program removal later), reinstalled it, and still no joy. Cross platform fail. Hey, at least Safari got pin tabs in El Capitan.

Installing a program on a Mac is really simple. Assuming you don’t get something through the App Store (which works the same as the App Store on an iPhone or Google Play on Android), all you have to do it pull the downloaded program’s icon into your Applications folder. That’s it. No progress bar or installation windows to click through.

But whoever is in charge of the way programs are uninstalled from a Mac needs to get up to speed with how things work in the 21st century. I uninstalled Microsoft Office 2011 before installing Office 2016 and found that you have to manually remove every little piece of the program by tracking down the files and folders and putting them in the Trash. Apple needs to get a clue and find a way to automate this process. I felt like I was using Slackware with a prettier UI.

We’ve had some hiccups in the last few days with Word, Excel, and Skype but I’ll cut M$ and Apple some slack since both parties are still adjusting to the changes brought about by El Capitan. Some disruptions are to be expected after an OS upgrade.

After it’s all said and done, OS X is simply an operating system just like Windows or a Linux distro is an operating system. Choose whichever one meets your needs and budget. I like OS X despite its weirdness, my wife kinda likes it (she might not like Windows 10 any better), and if Linux didn’t exist I would probably be using a Mac for software development. OS X isn’t head and shoulders above Windows; both platforms have their issues. Pick one that floats your boat and go for it.

A Geek and a Spare Desktop

So, a few weeks ago I pulled my old Windows 7 laptop out of the closet and found out it still worked. (Won’t hold a charge and the battery and DC adapter have already been replaced but it works fine while plugged in.)

I did a clean install of Win 7 Pro with drivers (glad to finally have an excuse to use that back up image), downloaded a metric buttload of updates, installed Chrome, Java, GData, and Minecraft, and gave it to my 8-year-old son. He was ecstatic to be able to play Minecraft with his sister and I got my old Linux desktop back.

The desktop is an old eMachines T5234 32-bit that originally came with Vista (ack!). It didn’t take long for the power supply to crap out, so that got replaced by a much improved unit (a Thermaltake, maybe?), an extra cooling fan was installed, and I maxxed out its RAM to a full 2 gigs (crazy!).

I had used a plethora of Linux distros on it over the years. Over the course of the two years or so my son had it, the desktop had ran Slackware, Fedora (when Chrome started getting wonky), and then CentOS (when Fedora started locking up).

It had been a few years since I had tried to install a modern Linux distro on the machine. This time around, I focused on the LXDE desktop to try to get the most of its limited resources (the aforementioned 2 gigs of RAM, an AMD Athlon 64 dual core, and a NVIDIA GeForce 6150SE chip) and quickly started running into problems: openSUSE had insane video tearing, Fedora had disappearing menu icons, Lubuntu 14.10 was almost stable but Firefox caused massive video tearing when launched. Ditto for Linux Mint with the MATE desktop.

A Debian netinstall with LXDE exhibited the same video problems when I upgraded to Testing. I did a fresh install with Stable and it was, well, stable. However, IceWeasel ESR was sluggish on Facebook and I found myself switching back and forth between Chromium for speed and IceWeasel when I need to use Flash. (Should have checked to see if a pepperflash plugin was available for Chromium.)

I wound up going back to what was already on the desktop when it came back to me: CentOS. No video tearing with the old reliable Gnome 2 desktop (Gnome 3 is an abomination. It’s like the Gnome developers looked at Windows 8 and said, “Pshaw. We can make a desktop suck worse than that. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) and CentOS is as stable as the day as long.

Same blessed problem with Firefox ESR, though – it’s just too sluggish! I tried to find some way to install Chrome but Google isn’t showing the Chromish love to old Linux kernels. A popular user repository installed an old version of Chromium and scripts for pepperflash. Problem was that pepperflash didn’t work.

Which left me with the nuclear option: Arch. This distro’s installation process isn’t as scary as Linux From Scratch or FreeBSD but it’s not for the faint of heart. I had tried to install Arch at some earlier point in this saga but it refused to boot despite having been on the same machine in years past. My problem was likely rooted in trying to preserve my /home partition in the install process to avoid having my old data wiped out. I rsynced my home onto an external hard drive, wound up using GParted to partition the eMachine’s drive to Arch’s liking, and made it through the install process.

After several hours of pain and suffering (most of which involved trying to figure why the flip the USB drives wouldn’t automount), I had a working, lightweight LXDE desktop. It didn’t come with Firefox (Arch doesn’t come with much of anything; you build it yourself) so I installed Chromium and a working (!) pepperflash plugin from the AUR for speedy browsing. And there haven’t been any video issues thus far but it’s only been a few days.

Arch is a bleeding edge, rolling release so maintenance will definitely be required. At this point, however, I’m a happy camper. Everything is working the way it’s supposed to and the old desktop is almost speedy when unburdened by extraneous cruft. (Well, it’s not like I’m using it for video editing.) My digital life is good.

There may be a full write up on my Arch experience in the future. It’s a fun distro but bleeding edginess can sometimes cause kiniption fits. We’ll see how things work out.

Windows 8 Follow Up

Fickle geek that I am, I succumbed to Microsoft’s fiendishly clever marketing campaign and upgraded my Windows 7 Home Premium laptop to Windows 8 Pro last night. (Richard Stallman appeared in a flash of smoke as I clicked the Send button to finalize the $40 upgrade payment. I kept him from inflicting serious bodily harm upon my person but he did manage to pull all of the proprietary codecs off my CentOS desktop.) Continue reading