Adam gets a MacBook, and it's not the end of the world...

layout: post published: true Date: 2012-04-13 Tags:

posterous_url: posterous_slug: adam-gets-a-macbook-and-its-not-the-end-of-th

A week ago today, my Thinkpad's keyboard failed for the third time in a year.

This wasn't entirely unexpected (being, after all, the third failure), but it was still very disappointing.  Three times in a year, the laptop's keyboard failed in the same manner: a number of keys simply stopped working, in a relatively random fashion.  Unfortunately these keys were rather important ones, like "a", or "t", or the spacebar.  Not the kind of keys you can do without.

The previous two times I was under warranty, called Lenovo, and got the keyboard replaced.  This time, I decided enough was enough and simply replaced the laptop with a different model. This time around, I purchased an 11" Apple Macbook Air.

People who know me well have found this very amusing. In general, I'm not very much of an Apple fan: the company has continuously demonstrated a disregard for technology standards, I find the App Store paradigm scary (as it has bad implications for general-purpose computing), and they have generally done a poor job of participating in an open-source community which they depend on for much of their software. So why would I buy a Macbook?

  • The industrial design is fantastic (compared to most PC laptops)
  • Some of the hardware is more reliable (mostly the chassis, as internal components are roughly identical)
  • It interoperates well with the rest of the home network, which includes an Airport/Time Machine, an iMac, and an iPad (per Leigh)
  • More OS flexibility: instead of just Linux and Windows, I get to choose OS X as well. (without Hackintosh silliness.)

The last one is really what decided me, with a healthy consideration of hardware reliabilty included. In recent history all of my laptops have had a native Windows install, but also included a Linux virtual machine in which I spent the majority of my time. On the Macbook, I increase my flexibility a little: now I have OS X as a host operating system, and both Windows and Linux are virtualized. And while I'm still spending plenty of time in both Windows and Linux, OS X is actually beginning to seem pretty decent.

Five days in, the experience has been pretty good overall, but not perfect. A brief list of pros and cons...


  • The hardware really is pretty nice. I like the keyboard, it's ridiculously thin and light, and it's very well-designed for usability. 
  • Performance is similarly good. 4 GB RAM + a 128 GB SSD is quite fast, if not quite as spacious as I like.
  • I've found the default tools in OS X to be pretty usable, and it's nice to have a UNIX operating system as my base OS. Most (but not all) of the open-source utilities I expect are all present.
  • The Terminal app is friendly enough to allocate itself its own virtual desktop (or "Space", or whatever) when in full-screen mode. Nice feature.
  • Integration with the Apple-centric home network. Having the Time Machine as a convenient and automated backup system is rather nice, though I still might have to invest in a decent RAID for peace-of-mind.
  • It serves as a very effective host for pretty much any OS I've chosen to test with it. Linux and Windows both work pretty well, though my testing is incomplete. (So far, I spend most of my time in Linux.)


  • I really miss my Thinkpad's TrackPoint. The Macbook has the best touchpad I've used, but I loved the TrackPoint.
  • I'm having a hard time getting used to various keyboard shortcut variations, but that's a minor complaint.
  • I like the SSD's performance, but I'm having trouble getting used to the space constaints. I'm a lot more reluctant to build random VMs for testing than I was previously, and that bothers me. Invest in an external VM store?
  • The sysadmin in me is bothered by the fact that I can't open up the case... but I never really bothered with the Thinkpad either, did I?
  • I miss having a real package manager (vs Linux). I don't care what you tell me, homebrew is not an acceptable alternative.  It's nowhere near as extensive as a Linux package manager, less stable, and far too focused on the webdev community (vs my native land of scientists and HPC).
  • Related to the first part: Apple really seems to dislike the GPLv3 license many recent GNU utlities are released under, and so it doesn't duplicate Linux utulities very well. (conventional gcc is missing, bash is old, etc.)
  • OS X is not as stable as I expected... in particular, I'm seeing the whole system refuse to restore if I sleep too long with VMs running. That is rather disappointing.

So on the whole, a pretty decent laptop. My anti-Mac prejudice, while not entirely unfounded, at least failed to recognize the high build quality of the physical hardware and the fact that it's just as usable in Linux as the Thinkpad was. (To recognize the latter fact, I purchased a minor customization...)

The major question for the future will be which OS I spend the majority of my time in, long-term. I really am impressed with OS X as a UNIX with good hardware support, but the lack of a decent package manager is really frustrating much of the time. Installing scipy should not be that difficult, dammit! So most of my software development and experimentation has still been under Linux, so far.

I do love the hardware, though. I have totally failed my saving throw against shiny this round...