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My month with a Mac

Apple's iMac lives up to its reputation for easy setup and does most tasks you need. But the Mac's new operating system takes time to learn.

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 15, 2002


photo
[Photo: Apple Computer Inc.]

For Windows users feeling blue, Apple Computer has a simple message: Switch.

Abandon those blue screens of death. Chuck those maddening "This program has performed an illegal operation" messages. Escape from the Microsoft mess. Try a Mac.

So, for a month, I accepted Apple's challenge, highlighted in its current advertising campaign showing former Windows users who are now happy Mac campers (www.apple.com/switch).

The bottom line: I was able to do almost all my usual computing activities, though even on a Mac it's hard to escape Microsoft's influence completely. Nor did I escape software glitches and machine freeze-ups.

I considered buying a Mac once, about 11 years ago, when we were looking for our first home computer. I got as far as the price tag. I don't recall the exact numbers, but it was much more than a PC and a budget killer.
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That's how I got started on Windows, and Macs never re-entered my thoughts when I bought five more computers over the years. Windows was far from flawless, but it worked for my needs. I learned to work around or live with some of the regularly appearing problems, which I think have become something of a national pastime.

The first inducement for the Mac test came from readers. When I spoke to the Sun City Center Computer Club in the spring about Windows XP, something rare happened: A few people asked about the Mac as an alternative because of concerns about the latest version of Microsoft's flagship operating system.

Microsoft created a fresh set of problems with its XP system, starting with a registration process that many find offensive.

Based on e-mail and calls to Tech Times, people are particularly skittish about upgrading from earlier versions of Windows out of fear that hardware and software won't work with XP.

Besides, a couple of Mac enthusiasts, Site Seeing columnist Jules Allen and Tech Times designer William Lampkin, urged me to give the Mac a try, if only to check out the differences. Fair enough.

For our test, Apple loaned us its high-end iMac, with a 15-inch flat-panel monitor, 800-megahertz G4 processor and 256 megabytes of random access memory. It also sent an iPod, its portable MP3 music player.

Apple lived up to its reputation for easy setup: It took maybe 15 minutes from opening the box, connecting four wires and going through the registration process to working.

I had to crawl on the floor only once, to connect to a router in order to share a cable Internet connection on a network. The mouse and keyboard plug into the base of the machine, which sits on the desk.

I tried to look at the experience from two perspectives: How easy would it be for a newcomer to computing to pick up, compared with Windows XP? And how would a Windows user have to adjust to a new operating system?

The iMac gave a dazzling first impression. It's a cool-looking machine, maybe too elegant for my dumpy home office. And the monitor is absolutely gorgeous, crisp and bright. It has everything to be the digital hub that Apple and others in the tech industry are touting, including software to handle music, videos and photos and a DVD burner.

But we need to go beyond external beauty. The first negative was the mouse. It's smaller than I'm accustomed to and I missed the right-click function, which I find convenient on Windows. I'm told the same function is available on the Mac with a mouse bought from a third party that uses a USB connection.

I did most of my regular activities -- but not everything -- on the iMac that I do on the PC: I surfed, checked e-mail, paid bills and played with digital photos and music. Moving Microsoft Office files between the PC and Mac was no problem. I also transferred by e-mail attachments my Internet Explorer Favorites folder and my Outlook Express address book.

I'll let our March 25 review of the Mac's digital video editing capabilities stand because I don't do video. I didn't try to move my Quicken files to a borrowed machine either. I liked the iTunes software for handling digital music and loved the iPod portable music player.

IPhoto is fairly basic, with a few more features than Windows XP's photo handling functions. One needs additional photo editing software for serious work on either operating system.

Despite the hype that mastering a Mac is intuitive, the truth is it may take as much time for a newcomer to learn the iMac as it does for Windows XP. My Mac-addicted colleagues and Virginia Chilcote, who has been active with the Bay Area Mac Users Group for years, acknowledged that the Mac OS X operating system takes time to learn.

While the iMac has an easy-to-understand user manual, Help functions that are better than Windows and an onscreen tutorial, many newcomers likely will need some help from a veteran getting started, as many do with Windows.

"There are basics they have to get from somebody," said Chilcote, who also works as a consultant to train newcomers on the Mac. "They're just staring at the screen. They need to be told in a little bit simpler form."

And despite Apple's promise to rescue computer users from mystifying Windows trouble messages, I encountered plenty on the Mac. Some examples of the cryptic messages:

An unknown (-50) error occurred while updating the Internet preferences.

Your preferences destination folder is write protected. Error -61.

The alias "*Launch AIM*" could not be opened because the original item cannot be found (America Online's Instant Messenger had been working, then stopped).

And the machine, which has two operating systems, OS 9.2 and OS X (pronounced 10), sometimes starts up in the older OS 9.2 for no apparent reason and only reluctantly lets you get back to OS X. (Some older Mac programs won't work on OS X, so OS 9 is necessary.)

Outlook Express worked fine when I set it up for my Road Runner e-mail, but Entourage (the Office Mac version of the fuller Outlook program) refused to receive messages.

An attempt to install Norton Internet Security on the iMac caused it to freeze, not an unusual problem when installing programs on Windows.

I also could not sync my Pocket PC handheld with the Mac, which handles the competing Palm operating system.

I'm certain that part of the problems was my lack of familiarity with the Mac. Yet, I'm also certain that problems such as these cause confusion and anxiety for newcomers, no matter what machine they use.

Mac has a far better reputation for stability, yet I have not had a blue screen of death in almost a year using Windows XP.

Veteran Windows users probably will have an easier time switching to a Mac, but they'll need to do some homework if they use specialty software or want to hook into a corporate network.

They will have to adjust to new terminology and file systems. For example, the functions to maximize, minimize or close windows are on the left, with green, yellow and red buttons on the Mac. On Windows, you have an X, a minus sign and a document icon on the upper right.

On Windows, it's called the desktop; it's the Finder on the Mac. The Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen becomes the Dock; shortcut icons on Windows are called aliases on the Mac.

So would I recommend that people consider a Mac? Absolutely. Even though I was still asking how, where, why questions at the end of the month, over time I would grow comfortable, as I have with Windows. Would I buy one? Probably not, mainly because of my job.

More software is available for the Mac than a few years ago, but it is still not equal to Windows. Much of the software I receive to review is Windows-only. That's particularly true for games, an important point for my teenage son, who voted yes on the iPod and no on the Mac for that reason. (Mediafour recently started selling XPlay, a $29.95 program that will let the so-far Mac-only iPod work with Windows, at its Web site, www.mediafour.com.)

I could use an emulator such as Virtual PC that allows Windows programs to run on a Mac, but that makes programs run slowly and I wouldn't see the programs as they were designed to work.

Those are just some issues to consider, not disqualifiers. One important plus for the Mac is that it simply is not Microsoft. Having a viable alternative in the consumer market is critical, and the Mac is the main hope in that regard. (Linux supporters will protest, but I have a difficult time seeing it make serious inroads into the consumer market.)

Price is also important, and an area where Apple once simply wasn't competitive with PCs. Now, Apple's prices have improved, with iMacs starting at $799. That's still more than low-end PCs: Dell and Gateway, for example, both offer $599 machines.

The one place the playing field hasn't been leveled is market share. Apple has about 5 percent of all desktops. Windows is at more than 90 percent -- and growing.

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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