Impressions of Mac OS X, a month or so later

layout: post published: true Date: 2012-05-24 Tags:

posterous_url: posterous_slug: impressions-of-mac-os-x-a-month-or-so-later

[[posterous-content:cqlBEjozEpbejkxFqaHD]]Warning: purely subjective rambling follows. Not trying to start a flame war. (But hey, I have half an hour to kill.)

A little over a month ago, my Lenovo Thinkpad netbook suffered yet another hardware failure and I bought a Macbook Air, more or less in disgust. Most of my problems with recent PCs had been with the chassis' physical build quality, and if nothing else, Apple seems to do a decent job on that front. I had never used Mac OS before for any length of time, but I took the risk on the assumption that I'd treat the Mac like I did my Windows PCs: mostly work in Linux VMs. 

I preface all this by saying that I've had no complaints whatsoever with the physical Macbook: the chassis is rock-solid, the design is as shiny as everyone said, and I adjusted to its physical layout almost instantly. Cudos to Apple there.

As for the OS, I have mixed impressions. In my personal experience...

Things Mac OS is great for:

  • Everyday command-line tasks. I really like that my host operating system actually has a sane command-line, as opposed to Windows where I muddled through with a mix of Cygwin and PowerShell. There are some funky choices for what tools are included and left out -- mainstay tools like watch aren't included by default! -- but it's still nicer than Windows.
  • Working with remote systems. Related to the last point: I love having OpenSSH in the base system.
  • Virtual desktops. Or "Spaces" in Mac parlance. Still not as nice as Linux virtual desktops, but acceptable most of the time.
  • LaTeX editing. I find MacTeX at least as usable as Windows MikTeX, and easier to use than dealing with LaTeX package management on Linux. It's possible I haven't dug into the Linux LaTeX experience sufficiently, but for the moment the Mac wins on typesetting.
  • Anything involving a web browser. But that isn't really a differentiator, so is Linux, Windows, and anything else where you can install Chrome or Firefox. I should say, I find the built-in browser (Safari) almost as unpleasant as Internet Explorer.
  • Shininess. Aesthetics matter even to me, and it's absolutely the prettiest operating system I have ever used.
  • Fellow users' tech-saviness. I don't know how it was in OS 9 days, but OS X does seem to attract a more knowledgeable class of users than Windows. A much higher proportion seem to know about the command line, occasionally use it for something useful, or even start up a Python interpreter to program something. I like it. (Linux is higher, but there are a lot fewer of us.)

Things it's less good for:

  • Package management. Windows isn't good at this either, but that's no excuse. Third-party package managers like Homebrew are nice, but not an acceptable replacement for apt-get or yum. The Mac App Store seems like to might be trying to turn into a package manager, but I have my own issues with that.
  • Gaming. It isn't as bad as I'd thought it might be, based on admittedly older impressions, but the support of games for OS X is still not great.
  • Platform IDE. If you think that Xcode is an acceptable replacement for Visual Studio, you and I are living in different universes. Not that I spend much time in IDEs, and the Mac scores points for making it easier to work with standard Unix tools, but every once in a while I might want to put a GUI on something not in a web browser. 
  • Software development. In general I still find the dev experience much much friendlier on Linux. I concede that my complaints are less relevant in web development, and based mostly on my HPC bias: In particular anything involving Fortran, C, OpenMP, MPI, or integration with high-performance libraries is just painful in Mac OS. OK, if all you want to do is serve a web page, it does ok... but even then, performance sucks compared to Linux.
  • Generic technical friendliness. Wherein I lump the points where Apple makes it less friendly to be a technical user of their software, including:
    • Worse developer tools in general than both Windows and Linux. 
    • Worse outreach to developers than Microsoft.
    • Less useful technical forums... which is odd, considering how many more users (by percent) seem to be technical.
  • Fellow users' response to complaints. Is this the flip side to the better tech-saviness? Every operating system has something to complain about, but in my personal experience, Mac users react much worse to unfavorable reviews than other users. I previously thought this might just be a stereotype, useful for making jokes, but then I ran into it myself. If you say "[Operating System] really freaking sucks at doing [Useful Task], can you help me out?", the responses seem to be:
    • Linux: Over-technical but maybe working solution. "Oh yeah, I've had trouble with that too. But you know, it works better if you re-compile the kernel with these options, uninstall the app package and install from source with this other option, and/or reset your BIOS like so."
    • Windows: Suggestion of alternate software that fulfills 80% use-case. "Microsoft sucks! I wish they'd fix that. But in the mean time, there's this other software that you can download for free (if lucky) / pay $19.99 for (consumer) / pay $3000 for (enterprise) that should get you most of the way.
    • Mac: Questioning of your worth as a human being. "I don't understand why you'd even want to do [Useful Task]. That seems worthless. And by complaining, you've just shown that You Don't Understand."

Despite my comlaints, though, I'm enjoying it more than Windows on the whole. I have a Windows 7 VM installed, but it's not getting tons of use (except some gaming) and I do find myself spending a lot of time in OS X.

I still have a Linux VM open almost all the time, though.