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Switching Gear(s)

This is it, I’m finally going to do it. I’m going to switch.

For those unfamiliar, Apple had a big marketing campaign about two years ago now to “switch”, i.e. to change from the Windows platform to the Mac platform. This campaign actually met with a modicum of success, at least in part based on the integration Macs have with the very successful iPod. Sure, you’ve got iTunes on Windows as well for a similar interface, and I use it today with my black iPod Nano that I bought about a year ago. It’s OK, but clunky. Add to that it takes forever to start up on Windows XP pro for reasons I have still yet to explain.

Now, I’m not one of those who switched two years ago… and I resisted switching a year ago when I bought my iPod, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Macs. Hell, I have one at home; it’s a seriously upgraded Power Computing PowerCenter 120… now sporting 256Mb of RAM and a G3-400 overclocked to 500Mhz. The old SCSI drives are still a sore point, but I’ve never really seen much need to upgrade it because I tire of it heating up my study with alacrity every time I turn it on. Hell, I even ran OSX on that hardware up until an update around 10.2 screwed something up and it wouldn’t boot into OSX any more. I did a reinstall, but to be honest my heart wasn’t in it; the PC120 was a good machine for its time, but about 18 months ago I retired it to my closet. It’s peering out the open door as I type, looking over my shoulder jealously as I tickle the keyboard of my PIII-700 laptop typing this little missive.

This little laptop, a Toshiba 3490CT laptop with extended battery pack has been a little workhorse. As a pro-grade laptop it has taken beatings that many consumer-grade laptops would have given up the ghost… and it was a little champ during my England vacation last year when I carted it across England and Ireland, then back again. Its compact size, light weight and nice efficiencies made it the perfect biking companion (motorbike!)

It doesn’t run Windows very well any more. It’s got a legal license for Windows 2000 Professional… which is all fine and good until you start adding Service Pack 4 and all the post SP4 hotfixes, then the strain of the circa 2000 hardware starts to really show. The 256Mb RAM limit makes XP a bear… it’s a hardware limit that annoys me to no end. So when I took it on my vacation I put Fedora Linux on it. Worked pretty well, but was not the most efficient use of the harware. Fedora’s nice, but it adds a lot of “weight” to the OS in terms of software I didn’t really need. Earlier this year I put Gentoo 2006 on the box in order to squeeze the last little bit of performance out of the box. It’s been a rock. I only install the software I need, and it gets the job done. It’s still small and light, and boots pretty quick.

So where’s the problem? Well, there are two major problems I see with this laptop today:

(a) Increasing Requirements: In the time since I started using a laptop, I have really expanded in my requirements. Sure, this Toshiba is pretty decent for running Firefox and Evolution (for email), but I’ve pretty much got to shut everything else down if I want to run OpenOffice and actually use it. The 256Mb RAM limit becomes problem numero uno.

(b) The Tinker Factor: The only problem I have with Linux is the desire to tinker is great. Sure, I could stop and get my work done… but I tend to fail because I find something to fiddle with or tinker with. Sometimes it’s because I try to do something new and find I don’t have the software installed. So I start an “emerge” for the software if it’s in Portage and sit back and wait for it to compile. Then while it’s compiling I think of something I can do while I wait, I go off and fiddle with some other part of the operating system (like tuning the power management interface), and by the time the emerge compile has completed I’ve completely forgotten what it was I was going to work on in the first place.

For someone with ADD, that second one becomes a real problem rapidly.

Similar problems exist in Windows. I don’t like the fact that in Windows the user is always a privileged user, and that’s primiarly how viruses spread so easily in that environment. On the Mac, it’s a UNIX-based OS, so the user is a standard user who has to authenticate to a root level to do anything truly significant. Sure, it’s not as tied down as a true UNIX or even Linux, but it’s better in security than Windows. As a result of this, the tinker factor comes back into play, because I spend a lot of time on Windows boxes fixing perceived and known problems, patching, upgrading my virus protection and so forth. As a result, I still don’t get work done.

Add to that the hardware requirements of Windows these days are pretty high; I can’t effectively run Windows on my Toshiba because XP is unbearable, especially once you stick XP SP2 on the box. I’ve tried it, I don’t like it.

OK, so these are my software requirements. How about a cheap, newer Windows box like the Acer I bought Rebekah? Well, the problem is Rebekah is primarily a home user. Consumer grade laptops are usually good for someone who uses their laptop around their house… maybe a local coffee shop. They’re not really designed for the “mobile professional” who beats his laptop around frequently, throws it into a duffel bag, occasionally drops it off a hotel desk while trying to get comfortable in the chair without tangling in the power cord… that sort of stuff. That puts consumer-grade laptops pretty much out for me, which means about 80% of the laptops you buy at Best Buy aren’t an option for me.

I love this Toshiba because it is a pro-grade laptop; it’s sturdy, has a very bright and usable screen and has a 5 hour battery life. I kid you not. OK… so it’s 1.5hours with the built in battery and another 3.5 on the external battery pack (which I pretty much leave permanently attached), but that’s an awesome amount of usage. Especially when you consider these numbers are with a PCMCIA wireless/g card installed. Most consumer-grade laptops you’re lucky to get 2 hours out of… you’d be tied primarily to places you can plug in. Even places with free WiFi Internet access rarely have power sockets you can use.

So again, battery life and sturdiness drive me into the pro-grade laptop market. The laptops start in the $1300 range and rise from there depending on options.

For work I have a Dell Latitude. That’s a good laptop, but not really what I’m looking for. I have no intention of running Windows except as a secondary OS, but obviously that legal license then plays a part; that’s one plus of buying the Dells. However, I’ve never been overly enamored with Windows, and of course if I put Linux on a Latitude then I have the “Tinker Factor” in play again. Kinda defeats the object a little.

As I said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Macs, but why didn’t I switch two years ago? Well, quite simply; although I don’t much like Windows I do have a need to run Windows applications. As such, I need a machine that can handle both. Dual-boot is one option, and virtualization is another. I’m a firm believer in virtualization, but the best the classic PowerPC-base Mac could offer was emulation of Windows… quirky and slow at best. However, this year something radical happened; Apple switched their product line to Intel processors, dropping the PowerPC like a hot potato.

I’ll admit, when it first happened I was a little taken aback. The PowerPC was one of the reasons I liked the Mac; it was a nice architecture and spiritual successor to my favorite CPU architecture to work on; the Motorola 68000 architecture. Sure, it was flawed as hell to program in assembly, but it was also a very slick processor with a nice memory-mapped device interface that was incredibly flexible. I coded for these on the Atari ST, Amiga and Mac in the early days… nice CPU.

However, I analyzed why I liked Macs and realized the operating system (being the part you really use and see every day) was the part that really made the difference. And as operating systems go, OSX is easily the best operating system on the market right now.

Sure, disagree if you like… but consider this: OSX is already widely recognized as the easiest-to-use and gives the best out-of-the-box experience of any operating system currently available. Plus, it’s also UNIX-based… and getting “down and dirty” with the OS is as easy as launching a command window. But you don’t need the command window to run the OS… genius.

I already know I’m more productive in OSX than I am in either Windows or Linux. In fact, I’d say that I’m least productive in Windows because I spend much of my time fighting with the logical inconsistencies or bizarre behavior of Windows. I used OSX for some time, and once the initial “wow factor” wore off (which was significant), I was far more productive than I am in either Windows or Linux.

As a side note, a desktop Mac would be nice, but to be honest I’m tired of being tethered to my desk every time I want to work on stuff. I want mobility; I want to take my computer to a coffee shop like I do with my Toshiba… but instead of tinkering, upgrading or surfing the web I actually want to be able to sit down and just start working… and get stuff done. Maybe I’m growing up, but I have insufficient spare time as it stands… being able to be flexible and productive is going to be a far greater use of my time.

So what am I doing? I’m going to buy myself a Macbook Pro. My ideal specs are a 15 inch model, 2Ghz with 1Gb of RAM and 100Gb HD. Ought to be more than enough for now. In fact, I want to buy this laptop to try to get 6 years out of it; same as this Toshiba has survived (though I’ve not owned it that long). I can expand it to 2Gb of RAM if I need it later, and I can change out the hard-drive if I get a real yearning for speed. Plus, a quick look on Ebay tells me that Apple machines in general maintain their value well.

So what does the MBP give me? Well, a Mac with OSX Tiger (10.4) for a start. It also gives me a modern machine with EFI instead of BIOS, plenty of storage, a dual-core CPU and some really nice features like the illuminated keyboard. Believe me, I can see a need there. I can also pick up a copy of Windows XP (or use the retired license from a machine I broke down recently) and install it using Boot Camp (dual-boot software for Mac to boot Windows on the hardware). Alternatively, I can use Parallels Desktop (virtualization software) to run both OS’s concurrently and get the best of both worlds without having to reboot. I can have Windows running, switch over to use my Windows apps and then go straight back to OSX for my regular work. Priceless.

So why not buy a base Macbook? They’re a lot cheaper, and have the same CPU… but the video chipset is not as advanced and frankly although the Macbook is a damned nice little machine it’s still just a high-end consumer-grade laptop… and all that entails. I’ve played with one and was impressed… but I don’t like the glossy screen (a real pain in the arse in environments with fluorescent lighting) and I think the Macbook Pro has more longevity value for me.

Now, a part of me wonders if I should do it now, or wait until the 64-bit version comes out (rumors are flying about a September launch). However, I need to upgrade my laptop now realistically in order to really start using it properly, and really there’s no advantage now to going 64-bit. It’ll be next year before the OS itself will take advantage of the 64-bit power, but even then applications will take another 6-9 months. Add to that the fact that the 64-bit Merom chip has been released in a package that’s pin-compatible with the 32-bit Yonah (currently used in the Macbook and Pro) in order to provide a “drop-in upgrade”, but the chipset to really unlock the features of this chipset won’t be released by Intel until 2Q 2007. Hell with it, there’s always going to be something new on the horizon.

Maybe I’ll end up buying when Merom-based units come out… maybe I’ll get one. There’s a possibility that Merom-based MBP’s won’t be released until January’s big Macworld show… I don’t feel like waiting that long.

Besides, in my opinion, the 64-bit Merom will buy maybe another 6 months of longevity… because clock-for-clock the Merom is only about 5-10% faster than the Yonah. And given Apple’s history, they’ll support the Yonah architecture for many, many years. It takes a speed increase on the order of 20% for most people to notice… I think I can survive. Besides, going from a PIII-700 to a dual-core 2Ghz monster machine? I’m gonna be too blinded by the light to care.

Of course, I’ll post more as I have an update.

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