Switch to Macintosh

Why I did not switch to Apple Macintosh earlier.

I should be an obvious customer for a switch to a Macintosh. In 2003, after a frustrating year with a new IBM notebook, I swore I would never again buy a computer with Microsoft Windows. Well, especially not one with a Windows XP Home pre-install on the hard drive, and no CD-ROM copy of the operating system.

I thought about switching to Linux, which I've played with in a desultory manner from time to time. I'm reasonably happy about putting a computer system together from a selection of components (having done it many times since the 1970's, when it involved soldering numerous TTL chips into a bare board). So while visiting Sydney I asked a technically competent friend who maintains numerous Linux machines in a massive graphics related business. He told me about taking a month and three kernel compiles to get his home system the way he wanted it. This wasn't a good sign.

So when I happened to be visiting Silicon Valley, and since I knew him from the old days when I helped with Applix manuals, I asked Andrew Morton about desktop Linux for my sort of use. He allowed as how it made a really great server. I do believe that, just as I'm more than certain Andrew has and will continue to do a great job on the kernel.

I'm no longer particularly interested in having anything much to do with installing and woking on Linux, It seems perfect for geeks, but I only want a computer as a simple tool these days. Actually, that was all I ever wanted back in the 1970's, when I had to learn how to do things like add lower case chip and one bit wide memory to a computer that lacked lower case.

What about dumping mainstream computers entirely, and using my Psion PDA for everything? The low powered Psion display just can't compete with strong sunlight (and I'm in the tropics where strong sunlight is a given). The internet applications tend to struggle with massive email spam and newsgroup downloads, while the ancient Opera browser can't handle some sites. The Psion could handle everything else I normally do, and is really easy to use, so it was a tempting thought. However Psion got out of PDAs in 2002. The NetBook models I buy come from left over 1999 stock that a company in Malaysia still has a bunch of. Not precisely encouraging for the long term future.

Using embedded computing also seemed to have some potential, but also considerable limits. For example, I bought a portable digital camera card to CD burner that also doubles as a DVD player. Gear like Ethernet connected FTP servers that present to the outside world as a web server also looked interesting, as did some of the fancier all in one printer, copier, scanner etc., combinations.

That seemed to leave changing to Macintosh as worth investigating. It also left not much else on my computing horizon.

There isn't an Apple shop anywhere nearby. There isn't even a traffic light nearby within 150 kilometres. On trips to capital cities (Sydney, and Brisbane), I dropped into an Apple dealer at each city to have a look at Macintosh.

Initial Impression of Macintosh

Some of the Apple Macintosh gear is visually stunning, especially the flat panel displays, and non-traditional models like the iMac.

When what you are used to is a cheap but boring beige box, the flashy industrial design of the Macintosh line is a real eye catcher. The desktop machines, with the exception of the acceptable enough low end all in one eMac, also really look stunning. The Macintosh iBook and Powerbook notebook computers are not as far ahead of some of the Windows notebooks in looks, but are still very distinctive and impressive.

However in briefly visiting these two dealers, it was pretty obvious to me that I didn't know enough about even how to use a Macintosh. I didn't even know what questions to ask about the models.

Another downside would be having to change the entire look of my room, from grunge and clutter. After looking at a Mac shop, it is obvious I need a genetically engineered neatness gene, transparent furniture, and futuristic appliances! All that would be a great challenge for me.

What Software Do I Need for Macintosh?

That depends upon what you do and what you want. I'm not in business, and don't play computer games, so my previous demands were actually pretty low by modern standards. I originally typed this on a 200 MHz PC, and my (working) notebook is a 133 MHz Toshiba. I also travel extensively, and usually have absolutely terrible internet connections (or no connection at all), via motel phone line or even slower and more expensive cell phone.

I mainly want to ensure I can move my own material to the next computer I own. I want to mostly avoid locked proprietary file formats in favour of common open standards. For some reason, I don't trust Microsoft to provide that. Mind you, given their history, I don't trust Apple either.

For my internet and writing purposes, I mostly use a text editor (for writing HTML and Postscript), a news reader, and a CSS aware web browser. I would want a simple spreadsheet, and a simple database that could accept and create CSV files. I figured it was unlikely that these were not available on a Macintosh.

For email I only need POP3, not IMAP, and an ability to handle infrequent attachments. I want mailboxes to be stored in plain text format, just like in Unix. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of spam these days, and a dial up connection, I also couldn't function without the ability to filter and delete email from the POP3 server without downloading much more than the headers. On PCs I used a third party product, MailWasher. I'm not yet sure an equivalent exists for the Macintosh (it was built in to the Apple mail application).

I don't need any instant messaging software (it came with iTunes sound player comes with a Macintosh would be massive overkill.

Actually, I was totally mistaken about sound and video. I found iLife looked pretty interesting. I ended up putting 2800 digital photos into iPhoto while driving around Australia, and for the first time ever, had my photos totally annotated and up to date. I also managed to put about a day of classical music into iTunes (I had only a handful of CDs with me in the car). I suspect I will eventually put all my CDs onto hard disk. I viewed a DVD on the Mac, and although I was only mildly impressed, it was convenient at the time, so I'll probably use that again. Garage Band was impressive enough that I got a MIDI keyboard.

Software Not Available for Macintosh

The items I couldn't see for the Macintosh mostly related to my cell phone, my GPS and my Psion PDA, which have not been produced since 2002. I figure Windows system will continue to work until the PDAs all die, and I can use this when needed.

PsiWin, for connecting to my rather dated Psion PDA, and converting word processor, spreadsheet, data and other files. One reason I got a Macintosh model with a PCMCIA slot is so that I can at least backup my Psion memory to Mac via the Compact Flash card. I'd heard USB to CF converters on Macs gave problems when used in conjunction with a Psion.

Psion emulator, so I had a better PDA keyboard, actually part of the Psion software development kit. I didn't use that often, but it was real convenient. I'll probably dedicate my old Toshiba to that.

Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping programs, that will do moving map displays. I do this on my Psion PDA in conjunction with my Garmin GPS. The Mac has no serial port, so it can't be used. However I've seen Mac GPS and map web sites, so there may be alternatives.

My Ericsson GSM phone works perfectly via IrDA with my Psion for internet access. No way to connect it to a Mac. However some more recent phones tend to have Bluetooth instead of IrDA.


The Macintosh lacks pretty much all legacy peripheral ports. Basically none of my old peripherals work directly on a Macintosh, and since I'm generally happy with the peripherals, I can't see any very good reason to alter them. This seems a pretty serious problem to me. It was enough to make me stay clear of the Macintosh until about a year after Windows really infuriated me.

Without any RS232 serial port, I can't see how you could connect to my Garmin GPS. All the GPS I know seem to use a 4800 baud serial connection (although there are now some PCMCIA card ones). I don't know of any Macintosh compatible GPS.

I couldn't connect my Psion PDA, which has a serial port and IrDA. I could however probably get a Macintosh to read a CF card from my Psion (CF card works fine for backup and file transfer, apart from the Mac adding hidden files).

I couldn't connect to my GSM cell phone, which uses serial and IrDA.

I couldn't connect to a Kodak DC240 digital camera, which uses a serial port. Luckily my replacement Pentax GS330 has a USB port, so it may work with a Macintosh. (CF camera card works fine in Mac, USB not tested.)

I couldn't connect to my X10 home controllers which only use RS232, nor to many microcontroller development kits.

I couldn't connect to my Hewlett Packard LaserJet 5MP, which has two parallel ports, IrDA, and an old Appletalk port, none of which are available on current Macintosh. (A cheap USB to parallel converter worked fine. The printer uses Postscript and the Mac prints fine.)

I couldn't connect to a Canon BJC80 portable printer, which has parallel port and IrDA.

I couldn't connect to my parallel port scanner. On the other hand, a scanner is a very cheap peripheral to replace.

No connection to my parallel port web camera, however given I have hardly ever used it, that doesn't seem a major concern.

Survey Results

I looked at some end of year service and reliability survey results reported by Australian Personal Copmputer magazine in November 2003. For this sort of thing, I prefer not looking at Macintosh related magazines in case of blatant bias (as distinct from selection bias).

In desktop systems Apple got three excellent rating out of six, for pre-sales, performance and reliability, while no other company got any. More importantly, only 19% of Apple users reported contacting tech support, against 31% to 45% (average 37%) for the PC users. Likewise, only 20% of Apple users reported a fault, against 27% to 41% (average 37%) for PC users.

In notebook computers the results were all over the place, with 25% of notebook PCs getting two excellent rating out of six. Again Apple was the only company to get three excellent ratings.

Why I dropped Windows

In early 2003 I bought an IBM Windows XP laptop that rapidly annoyed me so much that I stopped trying to use it. I gave it to my partner to hide before I defenestrated the thing.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the IBM hardware, especially for a cheap laptop, except for them inexplicably leaving out the serial port. I could get a serial port with the optional docking station, so that at least could be solved. It also didn't have a floppy disk, but I figured I didn't need one.

The problem was that Windows XP security (or rather the potential lack of security) and configuration (to the way I wanted it) drove me nuts. I bought a nice thick book about configuring XP, but XP Home lacked a lot of the things XP Professional included. I did a fair amount of web searching for security information, but I just couldn't be sure that I had actually found ways of closing all the security loopholes. I couldn't figure out any way of removing Internet Explorer, and various unwanted networking components, for instance.

So I looked at throwing out Windows XP Home and replacing it with an earlier Windows that I could run securely. Mostly I manage this by removing the components I think are insecure, and don't want to use. This means ripping out IIS, Windows Messaging, Outlook Express, and Internet Explorer, removing all software that opens ports (except ones I know about), and installing a firewall.

The trouble is that all my Windows CDs are updates (since my PC originally came with Windows in floppies), and can't be just used to put Windows on straight from the CD (normally I start a reinstall from a floppy disk). Nor is it easy to restore XP if I destroy it, as that came pre-installed on the laptop hard drive, and could easily be destroyed while trying to repartition and reformat the hard drive. Can't make a rescue disk, as the IBM lacks a floppy drive, and can't write CDs. Now obviously I can eventually find how to turn an Windows update CD into a bootable install CD, but it is probably going to take some effort.

Around this time, my old desktop system power supply failed, followed by the motherboard. A replacement motherboard I had of the same vintage was too flakey to use. That had left a usable replacement computer more urgent, as I was down to using only my 133 Mhz Toshiba laptop. It did however free up a legal copy of an earlier version of Windows, plus all its upgrades. I did get Windows 98SE onto the IBM laptop, but had to add about 45 MB of custom drivers. After all that, I never got the sound card (or any sound at all) working. The IBM is functioning, and I am using it, but it isn't pleasant.

Apple Mac
Psion Epoc




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