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The Sound of Silence

October 6, 2011
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One of the biggest surprises I’ve encountered in moving to my mac came once I’d gotten my data off my PC and was ready to turn it off for the first time since I’d gotten the mac. Until then I’d been running them side-by-side, using Synergy to run both machines with one keyboard and mouse (Synergy has some issues with Lion, but that’s a subject for another post). As is my habit, I’d just been leaving both machines running all the time. When I finally turned off the PC I was greeted by the sound of … nothing.

Compared to my PC, the Mac Mini was just incredibly quiet. Now, my last PC was a homebuilt box that I’d put together myself, without any particular attention paid to quieting. It had a CPU fan, of course, and a case fan to keep the air moving. It also had a sizable fan on the graphics card (an NVidia model where the fan takes up the slot next to the card itself). I’d grown so used to the constant drone of these three fans that I barely even noticed them until they were gone. That’s what made the Mini’s silence so shocking.

The Mini really doesn’t make any noise at all most of the time. If I run it hard enough, the fan does kick in for a while to keep it cool. Unlike my Macbook Air, where the fan kicks on a few minutes after I fire up Keynote, I really have to do some serious computation to get the Mini’s fan to come on. Something like rendering in Final Cut Pro X or firing up a 3d game like Portal. When I’m just doing everyday tasks like browsing the web, running a text editor, or replying to email, it’s almost totally silent.

One side effect of this is that stuff I wouldn’t have noticed before becomes very noticeable. When one of my external drives fires up to do a time machine backup, for instance, it always catches my attention. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all under the fan noise of my PC. I’m sure I’ll get used to it though.

The Mini’s quietness is a small thing, but I think it’s emblematic of Apple’s approach to hardware design. Great hardware is not just the product of inspiration from on high, it’s fixing every little annoyance until there’s nothing left but an elegant experience.

Moving Bits

October 1, 2011
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As with any new computer, the first order of business after you get it hooked up is to move your data from the old computer to the new one. I kept my PC running side by side with the Mac for a while until I had this done.

Migration Assistant

My first attempt was to use Apple’s Windows Migration Assistant to move data from my PC to the new Mac. The ability to move data and settings from one Mac to another using the migration assistant has been around for a while, but the ability to go from a PC to a Mac is new in 10.7.

Unfortunately, it seems like there are still a few bugs in the system. The directions in the migration assistant software on the Mac were a bit confusing, but with a bit of googling I was able to find the appropriate support page on Apple’s website. From there I was able to download the Windows Migration Assistant software on my PC.

Once I had the software installed on the PC, I fired the migration assistant up on both computers and waited … and waited … and waited … Nothing. I ran through a couple of reboots on both computers and messed with my Windows firewall and network settings. Still nothing. Eventually I decided that it would be easier to just migrate everything manually than continue to try and get this to work.

Judging by what I saw online while trying to get this to work, I’m not the only one suffering from these issues. This is really something Apple needs to fix. When a PC user buys a new Mac and decides to use this software to migrate their data, this will be one of their first major interactions with Apple software. As it stands, this is not give a very good first impression.

Dropbox

Thankfully, there are several innovations that make it easier to move data and settings from the PC to the Mac. Chief among them is Dropbox. I’ve been a Dropbox user for quite a while, using it to keep my home desktop, work desktop, and laptop in sync. I’ve had nothing but good results from them and they exceeded my expectations when it came to transferring data to my new mac.

I downloaded the Dropbox software on my Mac and logged in to my account. I’m running pretty close to the 2 gig limit for the free account, so I expected that the process of downloading my data to the new Mac would take a couple of hours and tie up my internet connection. Instead, I found Dropbox was moving the data much faster than my internet connection would normally allow. A quick google search later and I was reading about Dropbox’s LAN sync feature. If you have two computers running Dropbox on the same local network, rather than downloading everything from Dropbox’s servers (or rather, Amazon’s S3 service) they will transfer the data directly over your local connection. Given the vagaries of local network configurations, I was pretty impressed that they’ve been able to get a feature like this to work.

As I mentioned, I’m running close to the 2gb limit for a free Dropbox account. I’ve been holding off on upgrading to a paid account until I can take a look at iCloud’s syncing solution. From what I’ve read, iCloud will at least have the benefit of a bigger free data cap, but no far Apple hasn’t managed to make synching data across multiple devices anywhere near as simple and easy as Dropbox.

USB Hard Drive

Of course, I’ve got a lot more data than just the 2 gigs in my Drobox account. In addition to documents that I’m not synching using Dropbox, I’ve also got a big iTunes library and lots of photos. I backed these up to an external USB hard drive and transferred them to the Mac.

The documents and photos went pretty easily. The iTunes library was a bit more complicated. My PC was set up with a small, fast C: drive and a bigger, slower D: drive. I’d moved the iTunes data files to the D: drive to free up space on C:, but the iTunes database was still on C:. I copied both parts over to my Mac via the hard drive, but getting the folder structure put back together the way iTunes wants it took some trial and error.

Online Services

My transition over to the Mac was made a lot simpler by the fact that I use lot of Google services. Getting my mail, calendar, and RSS feeds on the new machine was just a matter of logging in to the Google websites from the new machine. Of course, Apple’s solution to these issues is Mobile Me. While I’m a Mobile Me subscriber the only thing I really synch through the service are my contacts.

Conclusion

Apple’s Windows Migration Assistant was a disappointment, but Dropbox really came through for me, as did Google and Mobile Me. While I dug out the hard drive to move big data, online services are definitely the future when it comes to switching machines. Indeed, as more data migrates to the cloud it may eventually make it almost irrelevant which machine you’re using. Hopefully iCloud will be a big step in this direction.

My Hardware

September 21, 2011
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I thought I’d open this blog by talking a bit about my hardware setup. Here’s a picture of my desk right now.

My desk (yes, this is unusually clean).

Mac Mini

  • 2.5Ghz Core i5 dual core processor
  • 8gb RAM
  • 500gb 5400RPM hard drive

Coming from the PC world, the Mac Mini was really the obvious choice. I’ve got the monitor, keybard and mouse taken care of already. As with many of it’s computers, Apple offers the Mini in two base configurations and lets you customize them a little bit from there. I chose the higher end configuration (2.5Ghz processor and an AMD graphics card instead of integrated graphics for $799) and upgraded the RAM. I decided not to go for the faster Core i7 processor option. $100 for an extra 0.2 Ghz just wasn’t worth it to me. If a quad core upgrade was available I would have chosen it, but the only way to get a quad core processor on the Mini would have been to get the server version. I would have really liked to upgrade to an SSD, but that was just out of my price range. I may do a DIY upgrade sometime in the future when SSD prices come down.

Monitors

  • Dell 24-inch
  • Dell 19-inch

I’ve been a devotee of dual monitors for quite a while. They really provide a tremendous increase in productivity. The combination of a widescreen monitor and a standard one works quite well. On the widescreen display I can either run two windows side-by-side without too much cramping, or run one application that benefits from a big display (like iMovie or iPhoto). The 19″ display gives me a place I can park my mail or RSS reader and have it available, but out of the way.

One of the shortcomings of the original Mac Mini was that it couldn’t directly handle dual display output. There were workarounds (devices that presented two monitors to the Mini as one really wide display) but there wasn’t any native multi-monitor support. Thankfully, Apple has fixed this problem in more recent machines. The Mac Mini has two graphics outputs: an HDMI port and a Thunderbolt port. It comes with an HDMI to DVI adapter, and I ordered a Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter (Thunderbolt is backwards compatible with MiniDisplayPort).

These monitors were the ones I was using on my PC. Even if you’re not getting one of their computers, Dell has some fairly good deals on monitors. They’re obviously not stylistically up to par with Apple’s displays, but they provide a lot of pixels for a reasonable price.

Keyboard

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a keyboard snob. I started using a mechanical switch keyboard a few years ago and now I find it painful to go back to a cheap keyboard with rubber dome switches. Apple’s keyboards are better than a lot of PC keyboards, but they still aren’t quite4 as nice as a good mechanical switch keyboard. A Matias Tactile Pro would fit better with the Mac stylistically, but given what I dropped on the Das Keyboard I’m not about to pay another $150 just to have a white keyboard. I did spring for the replacement Command and Option keycaps that Das Keybaord sells so my modifier keys would be nice and maclike.

Pointing and Gesture Devices

  • Microsoft Trackball
  • Magic Mouse
  • Magic Trackpad

Three pointing devices may seem a bit excessive. Really I only use two of them at a time. I’ve been a longtime trackball user. I wore out a Logitech model and replaced it with one from Microsoft. I also had a Apple Magic Mouse that I got for use with my Macbook Air (never did use it much, since I ended up preferring the trackpad). I really like the gesture capability, particularly moving forward and back in Safari (to the point that I get annoyed when Apple software has forward and back buttons but doesn’t support the forward and back gestures). I’ve been switching back and forth between the two.

Given how much I like the multitouch trackpad on my Air, I also decided to pick up a Magic Trackpad. I’ve been running it on the left side of my keyboard and primarily using it for gesturing rather than pointing. The big multitouch surface is great; it’s real easy to shift the left hand over to do, say, a three finger swipe up (to switch apps) or down (to switch windows).

External Storage

  • MacAlly external enclosures each with 2tb Samsung drive

One of the things I did even before buying my Mac was to look for some advice on backup. I found the Mac Power Users and Maccast podcasts very helpful in this regard. I bought a MacAlly external drive enclosure and filled it with a 2 terabyte Samsung drive. This was a more expensive route than just getting a USB external drive, but the MacAlly enclosure supports Firewire 800, giving me much a faster connection than USB 2.0. It also makes it possible to upgrade the drive in the future when drive prices come down. Right now I’m using this drive for Time Machine. I’ve got another identical drive/enclosure setup on order that I’ll put a clone backup of my hard drive on.

The Journey So Far

September 16, 2011

I’ve got a long history with Apple. My first exposure to an Apple product, to any computer really, came in 1982 when I was five years old. It was an Apple II with a cassette tape deck for a storage device. I was using it as part of an research project at Arizona State University, they wanted to see how well kids adapted to desktop computers. This may seem strange today when we know that kids take to computers like a duck to water, but at the time that may not have been so obvious (or maybe it was; obviousness has never been a bar to academic research).

A few years later my parents bought an Apple IIe. I also had access to Apple IIs at school. My Mom was an elementary school teacher, so I had to hang around for an hour or so after class let out until she was ready to go home. I whiled away many hours playing Oregon Trail using MECC Writer and messing around in BASIC. My youth was a time of 5 1/2 inch floppies and green phosphors on a black screen.

Unlike a lot of people, I can’t remember the first time I saw a Mac. I never had the “Wow, this is the future!” moment that a lot of people talk about. As time went by, the Apple IIs at school were just gradually replaced by Macintoshes. In junior high, I took a computing class that had us doing some HyperCard, Logo and a bit of light programming. At home, my family upgraded to the Mac in the early ’90s.

Up until this point, I’d never really used a PC. My Dad had a laptop with Windows 3.1 that I played with occasionally, but all my computing experience had been on Apple platforms. However, when I went off to college in 1995 I had a choice to make. PC or Mac? These were some dark days for Apple. It was before Steve Jobs came back and the Classic MacOS was getting a bit long in the tooth. Windows 95 had just come out and while it wasn’t as polished as the Mac, it didn’t suck the way Windows 3.1 did. In the end, I went over to the dark side and bought a PC. I would remain primarily a PC user for the next decade and a half.

Apple first started luring me back with their mobile devices. I bought an iPod Nano in 2005, when it first came out. It was really the combination of great design and the small size that drew me in. I still think those first and second generation Nanos are the apex of pre-touch iPod design.

I carried the Nano everywhere. Along with a cellphone, of course. I’d also been using a handheld organizer for several years at that point (originally a Palm III, but later a Windows CE device). The sheer number of devices was a real pain in the ass.

When Apple came out with the iPhone, I was interested. I was still in graduate school at the time and the cost, of both the device and the data plan, was an obstacle. I went to the Apple Store and played with it, and the touch interface really had me hooked. I was about to graduate, so when the iPhone 3G came out I went ahead and bought one. This was really the device I’d been waiting for. Web and email everywhere, all my music and podcasts, cool apps and games, and it was also occasionally a phone.

When Jobs announced the iPad, I didn’t require much persuading. Some people mocked it as “an iPod Touch with a bigger screen” but that was exactly what I wanted. I preordered the 3G version and waited impatiently for the month after the WiFi version came out. Much like the iPhone, the iPad was love at first touch. Carrying a laptop was a burden, one that I only bore when I really needed it. The iPad went with me everywhere. I even broke down and got a man-purse for it (a Tom Bihn Ristretto).

My first foray back to the Mac came in 2008 when I got a Macbook Air. Much like with the Nano, it was really the size and Apple’s industrial design that got me. I was tired of lugging around my 15-inch HP laptop and looking for something a lot more portable. There just wasn’t all that much out there in the PC world that was thin and light but still had a full size keyboard and a decently large screen. The only options were some Sony and Lenovo models that didn’t look anywhere near as nice as the Air and cost even more (so much for the ‘Apple Tax’).

While it got me back to MacOS, the first generation Air just didn’t have the horsepower to be a full desktop replacement. I used it for a lot of Keynote presentations (Keynote itself was a revelation compared to PowerPoint) and some web browsing and email when I was on the road. Still, it exposed me to OS X, and to the tight integration between hardware and software that’s an Apple trademark. I loved the multitouch trackpad gestures. It also gave me a peek at the ecosystem of highly-polished third-party software that’s available for Mac. Programs like OmniFocus, TextMate and Scrivener were just light-years ahead of their windows counterparts when it came to design and ease of use.

This summer, the time came for me to replace my home desktop computer and I decided to take the plunge. The prodigal sone finally returns to the fold. Last week I got a Mac Mini and I’m loving it.

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