Apples to lemons

I started using (read: was simply given outright) a MacBook Pro for work purposes, because my latest employer is a Mac-only environment. That has been a... VERY interesting experience.

See, the thing is that I am a Windows-to-Linux guy, but I actually grew up using the old Apple IIe, WAY back in the day. For all of you snot-green kiddies who look to me like toddlers in diapers falling over and making gurgling noises - i.e. anyone under the age of 25 - that is a very, very old and absolutely classic machine.

Apple has a very special place in my heart for long-standing historical reasons.

I learned how to use a computer because of Apple. My classrooms in elementary school were all fitted out with at least one Apple Macintosh LC III, which was a real joy to use. The old Apple machines were blocky and beige, but their operating systems were simple, straightforward, and more or less idiot-proof (at least, by the standards of the time).

For anyone who has children, the "idiot-proof" part of that statement is rather important, because, as Any Fule Kno, there are NO more wantonly destructive idiots than small children with stubby fingers and itchy noses.

Fast forward a year or three, and I had my very own personal computer, an Apple Macintosh Color Classic that my mother originally owned as her first computer, and which I used with unrestrained and uninterrupted glee for several years. And a few years after that, I got my mum's old Power Macintosh 6200 (or at least, that's what I think it was).

So my memories of Apple's Mac lineup are very fond ones, to say the very least. I loved using those things and I learned a lot about computing from them.

But then, around the year 2000 or so, I was introduced to the spawn of Beelzebub.

Oh yes. That was around the year that I got my very first really-for-real Windows 98 PC. It ran Win98SE, it was considerably uglier than the iMacs that were released at around that same time, and it certainly wasn't anywhere nearly as well-designed.

But it was quite a bit more powerful, even though it was something of an entry-level model. And I quickly learned that Windows was a whole different beast relative to the point-and-click simplicity and elegance of the Mac's old Gershwin operating system.

That's not to say that it was difficult to use, overall. Windows was even more stupid and dumbed-down, in many ways, than any Apple product. See, Apple's core philosophy under Steve Jobs was: maximal function within an elegant form, designed to make life as easy and uncomplicated as possible. Windows, on the other hand, was a confused mess of an operating system. Windows 98 came from the branch of Microsoft's operating system family tree that emphasised maximum hardware and software compatibility in order to corner the home market - at severe costs in terms of reliability and stability.

It was basically a real mess of an operating system, and things never really improved with that branch of Windows.

But then along came Windows XP, probably the second-best OS that Microsoft ever released. That was when Microsoft had the bright idea of combining the UNIX-inspired stability and reliability of enterprise-level Windows NT, with the hardware compatibility of Windows 98. The resulting fusion was superb, and really gave Microsoft a complete hammerlock over both the corporate and home markets.

A few years after WinXP came out, Apple began its transition into the handheld devices market, and was beginning to do really rather well in that field. It was at this point that Apple's insistence on form combined with function was really starting to pay dividends for the company. They were doing quite well indeed.

At that point, I had long since moved away from Macs. Apple's OS X was definitely a vast improvement over both the previous versions of that flagship system, and over the available options from Microsoft and pretty much everyone else, at least in terms of having a slick look and feel. But I decided eventually to concentrate my efforts on using Windows at work, and Linux at home, starting in 2008.

So I never did get around to putting in any serious time with using Mac OS X, in all of its various versions.

Now that I've been more or less forced to use it, what do I think of it?

Well, that's where things get interesting.

I have used... oh, let's see... 8 different versions of Windows over my life. (Win95, Win98, WinNT, Win2K, WinXP, Vista, 7, and 10. I hated Vista with a sheer visceral loathing. My feelings about Windows 10 can only be described in words that would make even the most foul-mouthed of drunken sailors blanch.) I've used at least a dozen different Linux distributions over time. I currently use Linux Mint at home, as I have done for something like 5 years or more.

I've gotten good enough at using Linux that I helped bring my dad around to using first Ubuntu and then Mint (and functioned as long-distance tech support, willing or otherwise, for years), and have since helped one of my own blog readers become a Linux user (with, again, long-distance tech support thrown in). I know how this stuff works, and I love it.

So it's fair to say that I know a thing or ten about how good operating systems look and feel, and I know a well-designed, easy-to-use operating system when I see it.

And I don't think I have ever come across a system that looks as beautiful as Mac OS X, but feels as monumentally stupid.

What I mean by this is that I feel like I'm deliberately being held back from doing half the shit that I would take for granted in any Ubuntu-derived Linux distribution.

In Linux, the shell terminal is a vital part of the operating system. You don't have to use it, but life is vastly easier if you do. The keyboard shortcuts are deliberately designed to reflect Windows as much as possible. The super keys all focus on "Ctrl". It's easy to figure out, memorise, and use all of the various keyboard shortcuts that allow you to switch between tabs, copy, paste, write/receive/send emails, open and close applications, and generally do things quickly and efficiently.

In Mac OS X, everything appears to be designed deliberately to reduce the amount of space that you have to work with. It really is a literal walled garden, where the garden itself is truly beautiful and harmonious and lovely - but the walls are topped with razor wire.

When you open a window, the system deliberately forces you to accept the dock at the bottom of the screen - until you maximise that window, and then the system moves it into a whole new window using a really cool effect. And yeah, the effects look fantastic, I'll grant that.

But then let's say you want to copy something using the trackpad. In Windows or Linux, it's a doddle. You open up an image in a web browser, right-click on it by tapping the appropriate part of the touchpad, and say, "Copy Image". Then you paste it in by going to the place where you want to paste and press Ctrl + V.

In Mac OS X, it's rather more annoying.

There is no right-click setup by default, which is a concept that I simply cannot fathom - you're deliberately removing an entire sub-menu's worth of contextual functionality. And, yes, before the Gamma-spergs rush in to correct me, I know, you're supposed to click on the trackpad with two fingers instead of one in order to access that feature. I'd like to show the person who came up with that design idea two fingers...

Anyway, you figure out how to right-click, eventually, and then you go to "Copy Image", and then you go to wherever you want to paste, and you press "control + V"... except that's the wrong key. You have to press that silly cloverleaf key instead, which sometimes acts like an "Alt" key, and sometimes like a "Ctrl" key, and sometimes like nothing else on Earth.

It's like somebody deliberately designed the system to be obtuse, even though this is supposed to be the easiest out of all of the operating systems to use.

And that's before we get to how limited and stunted the office productivity suite on a Mac is.

Now, I'm a Word/Excel/Access guy. I HATE PowerPoint and consider it to be the bastard love-child of Bill Gates and Lucifer's mutant half-troll daughter, though I can do it quite well if I have to. (Read: someone holds a gun to my head and says that I have to create a deck of slides with fancy graphics. As I may have mentioned before, I REALLY HATE POWERPOINT.)

The Linux equivalent is LibreOffice, which is actually better than Office in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to compatibility. I will readily concede, though, that Microsoft's Excel blows ALL of its competitors out of the water - nothing else comes remotely close. LibreOffice Calc is very good, but it doesn't have anything like the ease of use that Excel does, and its critical weakness is the fact that it is not capable of giving you the same kind of extremely useful IDE to work with the Visual Basic for Applications programming language. (It's a toy of a language, make no mistake, but you can get a lot done with VBA if you know your shit - and I do.)

The Mac equivalent is called Numbers, and it looks and feels like Excel's severely inbred retarded cousin.

When I use Numbers, I can't scroll on and on forever like I can with Excel or Calc (or Gnumeric, for that matter). I can't do pivot tables and data analysis - and I'm not just pulling that out of my ass, Numbers literally doesn't have a Pivot Table equivalent and cannot do the kinds of basic ANOVA and regression analyses that Excel can do. Calc can do both of those things with ease - and, unlike Excel, it's FREE.

Everything about OS X is beautifully designed... and yet, somehow, unbelievably obtuse.

I'll give you another really simple example: changing your login profile photo.

Now, despite considerable evidence to the contrary that you can find scattered throughout the pages of this blog, I'm not generally a stupid man, and I'm certainly not a Luddite. And I am very used to using UNIX-like systems - that is literally what Linux is. So I know perfectly well how to go into my Linux Mint system, open up the Users and Groups application in the Administration section, click on my user icon, and find the "Browse for more pictures..." widget that allows me to go find whatever picture I want for my login window.

It takes me all of about 3 seconds to do this.

On my work MacBook, I sat there for, I shit you not, twenty minutes trying to download an icon from the Web into the Pictures folder and import it into the widget in the Users and Groups section that allows you to set that as your profile picture. No dice, despite repeated attempts - and by the way, despite the supposed drag-and-drop functionality of OS X, if you actually want to move or copy something in Finder, it's a HUGE pain in the ass.

It wasn't until I actually went and looked it up that I realised that all you have to do is drag and drop a picture onto the user icon to set it in Mac OS X.

This was annoying, to say the very least.

And, as I mentioned before, it's quite a pain in the butt to sit there and drag and drop things between Finder windows in OS X, even with tabbed browsing. In fact, I can't do what I can in both Windows and Linux, which is to Cut an object, and Paste it into where I want. Nope, can't use those shortcut keys - I have to copy whatever it is manually, then go back and delete the original file.

How STUPID is that?!?

In Linux I could do the whole thing in literally one line in the terminal:

mv ~/myfile ~/Documents/myfile

That's it. No muss no fuss. In Linux, I can open up a terminal window just by pressing Ctrl + Alt + T, and I'm off to the races.

I could do that in OS X in the terminal too, actually... if only I could find it. Which isn't easy because I have to go to Launchpad, then gaze in awe at the beautiful screen that pops up, then click on "Other", and then find the terminal.

At every level, it's form over function, beauty over benefit, aesthetics over applicability.

And the thing is, it doesn't stop at the software - or rather, it didn't even start there. It actually started with the hardware.

Let's do a little comparison exercise between a MacBook Pro, like the one I'm now using for work, with an approximate equivalent workhorse Wintel laptop. It's instructive to see the differences in design philosophies and the resulting price points.

So here is Apple's most basic MacBook - the entry level, the low bar, the one that says that life didn't quite turn out as well as you had expected:


That MacBook Pro is exactly the same as the one that I'm using right now.

What's the price-tag on that thing?

US$1,299.

That is a LOT of moolah for something that just looks a bit pretty, has precisely two USB-C ports, and comes equipped with a very slick-looking operating system.

To me, that smacks of a serious rip-off, especially when you can find a Windows-based laptop for a hell of a lot less, and then simply throw out the WinDOZE operating system and install something much more sensible instead.

In fact, the $1,300 price-tag is not the full story. This is before taxes, and before you end up paying a lot of money for all of the various adapters and dongles and things that you'll need in order to get your non-Apple hardware to talk to the thing.

If you have a USB stick - tough shit, there is no port to use on your MacBook to read it.

If you want a mouse, the Magic Mouse costs like $80 - whereas a really good Logitech or Microsoft optical mouse will run you at less than half that and will come festooned with buttons designed to make your life easier, not harder.

If you want to plug in an HDMI/DisplayPort monitor, you will have to buy an adapter for that. In fact, you'll have to buy a multi-port adapter anyway, at some point, just to use your own laptop.

Want to bypass a wireless network and go direct to a LAN cable instead, for security and connection stability? Nope! Can't do that!! No LAN port!!!

Why did Apple get rid of all of those ports? Because they wanted to make the MacBook Pro as thin and light and beautiful as possible.

And in the process, they sacrificed all of the necessary functionality that would make it... well, y'know... USEFUL.

Ah, but the Mac user will contend that the power of his system more than makes up for that!

Oh, really?

Let's take a look at a comparable laptop from my personal favourite brand, Lenovo. I've been using Lenovo T-series laptops for my last three personal computers. I love these things. I love the form factor, the keyboard, the ruggedness, the absolute reliability, the engineering, the precision, the power, the features - everything.

I trust Lenovo ThinkPads like I trust my own damned right arm.

So let's look specifically at the entry model Lenovo ThinkPad T480:


What are the specs on the nearest comparable model - i.e. one that has an SSD and at least an i5 processor set?
  • 7th Generation Intel® Core™ i5-7200U Processor (2.50GHz, up to 3.10GHz with Turbo Boost, 3MB Cache) (dual-core)
  • 14.0" HD (1366 x 768) anti-glare
  • 8 GB DDR4 2400MHz
  • 512 GB Solid State Drive, PCIe-NVMe OPAL2.0 M.2
  • Integrated Intel® UHD Graphics 620
  • 720p HD Camera with ThinkShutter and microphone
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • Intel Dual Band 8265 Wireless AC (2 x 2) & Bluetooth 4.1 with vPro
  • 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 1** (one Always On)
  • 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 1** Type-C (Power Delivery, DisplayPort, Data transfer)
  • 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 2** Type-C / Intel Thunderbolt 3 (Power Delivery, DisplayPort, Data transfer)
  • Headphone and microphone combo jack
  • 4-in-1 SD card reader (SD, MMC, SDHC, SDXC)
  • HDMI
  • RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
Well now, ain't that interesting...

That "basic" laptop is almost as fast, has a bigger screen, has faster RAM, comes with an SSD that's 4 times larger, comes with a whole stack of ports built in, and has an Ethernet jack. That isn't the base model in the T-series family, by the way. The base model of the T-480 family has a 500GB magnetic disk drive. But otherwise it's pretty much the same laptop.

You want to know what the total cost is of that package?

US$663.15, after discounts, with same-business-day shipping.

HALF THE PRICE for something that isn't really all that much less powerful, but has a whole lot more ports. And you're only really sacrificing power in the graphics card and a little bit on the processor side - the turbo boost doesn't really kick in until you have very heavy loads running.

And the thing is, I could customise a Lenovo T-series laptop to have discrete graphics, a 512GB SSD, 16GB of RAM, an i7 quad-core processor with hyperthreading, and all of those ports, and it would still be only about $200 more expensive than the bottom-end MacBook Pro. In fact, that's exactly what I'm using right now - a late 2017-model Lenovo ThinkPad T470p that's been juiced up and is running Linux Mint.

Now, a Machead might argue that a T-series laptop is not at all comparable to a MacBook Pro, given how much lighter the latter is - which is indisputably true. Using my mum's trusty digital kitchen weighing scale, I performed a very rough and ready calculation which indicates that my ThinkPad T470p weighs in at 2.2Kg, while my work-issued MacBook Pro weighs in at only about 1.8Kg.

So let's take a look at one of Lenovo's ultralight offerings, in the X-series range. Specifically, the X380 Yoga, which basically flips between a laptop and a tablet depending on user preferences:

This puppy comes with:
  • 8th Generation Intel® Core™ i5-8250U Processor (1.60GHz, up to 3.40GHz with Turbo Boost, 6MB Cache) (quad-core)
  • 13.3" FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS anti-reflective anti-smudge multi-touch
  • 8 GB DDR4 2400MHz
  • Integrated Intel® UHD Graphics 620
  • 128GB Solid State Drive, SATA3, 2.5"
  • 720p HD camera with microphone
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • ThinkPad Pen Pro (Garaged)
  • 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 1** (one Always On)
  • 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 2** Type-C / Intel Thunderbolt 3 (Power Delivery, DisplayPort, Data transfer)
  • HDMI
  • Mini RJ45 (mini RJ45 to RJ45 dongle sold separately)
  • MicroSD card slot (microSD, microSDHC, microSDXC)
  • Microphone/headphone audio combo jack
And the total cost of that thing?

US$1,019.25, without customisation and add-ons and all of that good stuff. And its total weight is about 1.5Kg or so. And it has a touchscreen, which the MacBook Pro base model doesn't, AND it can flip over and become a tablet with a stylus, AND it has loads of ports.

Once again, we see that, while Apple's base model is certainly no slouch in the performance department, even the absolute bog-standard base model of Lenovo's X380 range beats it all hollow in terms of technical specs, performance, power, speed, and ports.

And that is all before we get to the biggest bugbear that I have about the MacBook Pro:

The keyboard.

Anyone who has ever used a Lenovo keyboard knows how brilliant these things are. The keyboard is one of the major selling points of the ThinkPad family. Lenovo very smartly decided to leave this, the best feature of the old IBM ThinkPads, intact as much as possible for as long as possible. When they switched to the chiclet-style keyboards, they really worked hard to keep the classic comfort, ease of use, and proper feel of the keys, and they succeeded brilliantly.

When you press the keys on a Lenovo keyboard, you feel like you're working on something solid and very well engineered, with really great tactile feedback and a very comfortable typing position.

When you're using a MacBook Pro's keys, on the other hand... you feel like you're clicking a bunch of plastic tiles on a kid's play set.

I could easily rant on and on and bloody on for another ten thousand words or so, but ain't nobody got time for that shit, so let's just cut right to the heart of the matter here:

Apple's products look absolutely beautiful. They really do. I love how slick they are and how beautifully designed they are and how well everything fits together on these things. They've figured out how to make Millennial hipster douchebags (Lord, forgive me my redundancies) sitting in artisanal coffee shops (is that the sound of a shotgun being primed?) feel even more smug and superior because they're somehow "smart" for using a Mac. They've done a phenomenal job of marketing their products and creating tremendous brand value for themselves.

But, if you want real value for money, and as long as you aren't interested in playing the absolute latest games - which by the way you mostly can't play on a Mac anyway... buy a powerful Windows laptop, then install Linux on it, then customise your computer to do what you want to do, the way you want to do it.

You'll save a pile of money, you'll have a much more powerful computer, and you'll have the freedom to use your own PC the way you always wanted to. And you won't have some poofter Steve Jobs wannabe telling you how to use your own stuff.

Comments

  1. Didact,

    Agree with you. Mac's excessively priced computers have always been a deal breaker for me. I"ve never been a fan of Windows but learnt to live with its stupid quirks. I've dabbled with LINUX. I like both Kubuntu and KDE Linux Mint (I find GNOME non intuitive)

    And there's more software available for Windows and it"s more reasonably priced.

    I want to have a LINUX computer again and might buy a less expensive model and install KDE LINUX Mint and have a commuter computer

    xavier

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are other Ubuntu-derived implementations out there which I like. ElementaryOS is basically Ubuntu with an OS X-style skin, and Zorin OS has a lot of the nicer aesthetic features of Win7 in it, which I have tried and generally liked.

      I find KDE a bit too heavy and graphics-intensive for my liking; Mint's Cinnamon desktop manager is about the right compromise between style, form, and functionality for me. But, of course, preferences vary by individual.

      I want to have a LINUX computer again and might buy a less expensive model and install KDE LINUX Mint and have a commuter computer

      Yeah that's the way to do it. Any decent laptop which strains to run WinDOZE 10 these days, will simply fly when given a proper Linux distro.

      Delete
  2. I'm inclined to agree with you in many ways.

    But to be fair, the one thing you haven't given credit for on the MacBook is the screen, which is better than anything I've seen on a moderately priced Windows laptop.

    Having done Win 3.11, OS/2 Warp, NT4, Win98, Win2k, XP, 7 and 10, plus everything from Slackware to CentOS, I'd never had a Mac until nearly 2 years ago when I had the opportunity to buy a lightly used 2015 MacBook Pro 15" from a colleague. Having wished for something that had the good points of Linux but the productivity of Windows, It was an itch I had to scratch.

    It took me a few months to really decide I liked it, and to this day, the Mac implementation of MS Office is infuriating. In addition, I still need to use Visio and Project, which don't even exist on the Mac, and nor do any viable equivalents. Hence I still have to run a Win10 VM on the Mac for those exceptional cases.

    But I really like the hardware package.. aesthetically and ergonomically it's the nicest laptop I've had in 20+ years of laptops. The only thing this one lacks is an ethernet port, so I use a Gigabit USB3 adapter on the rate occasion I need to. The KB on this model is far far better than the later butterfly keyboards, which have been a disastrous engineering choice by Apple. As such, if this 2015 MacBook were to come to grief, I'd go on ebay and get another of the same generation - I'd not have one of the newer ones with the shitty KB.

    To this day, I still wish I could have a pure Linux desktop machine (I like Mint) but, while its great as a server, until there's fully integrated and native MS Office, it's just not going to work for me.

    Also, anyone who tells you they can work just as quickly on a laptop as they can on a properly equipped desktop PC doesn't do anything particularly technical or involved. You can't beat a beefy i7 with 64GB, 2x QHD monitors and a nice clicky Cherry keyboard.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But to be fair, the one thing you haven't given credit for on the MacBook is the screen, which is better than anything I've seen on a moderately priced Windows laptop.

      That's a very good point and I definitely missed out on this in my rant above. I'll certainly concede that Apple's Retina display is, without question, amazing.

      Also, anyone who tells you they can work just as quickly on a laptop as they can on a properly equipped desktop PC doesn't do anything particularly technical or involved. You can't beat a beefy i7 with 64GB, 2x QHD monitors and a nice clicky Cherry keyboard.

      I agree. I restricted myself purely to laptops here but there is nothing close to using a desktop with multiple monitors and all of the peripherals at your fingertips.

      Delete
  3. I've had Thinkpads for decades. Also had a Mac at one point. For personal business I have two T431s models that perform flawlessly. I bought them on ebay for $160 each.

    I became a fan when I dropped a T41 out of my backpack, on the corner of the screen, and all that happened was a dinged corner. I've traveled all over with these things. They are like old jeeps or Land Rovers. Never stop. By comparison, I've ruined other models by the dumbest of events. Like dropping something on the back of a screen from like 4".

    Thinkpads are insanely cheap to fix. I've replaced screens (on ancient ones), and keyboards when I've spilt on them for pennies. By the way, I spilt wine in a T61. It went "poof" and stopped running. I took it apart, doused it in alcohol, blew it out with my compressor, let it dry, and it was right as rain.

    While a Macbook may be elegant as it ever was, the new laptops for windows & linux have passed that bar awhile back.

    My new work laptop is a Thinkpad X1 Carbon. It's far more elegant, useful and cool as any macbook. It's not all that bigger than a Macbook, and is just as sleek. It has HDMI, USB, and the new fast USB. Forget what it's called. It has a small dock that runs any legacy connection I need.

    It has a retina type screen that's so clear it hurts my eyes. It has an i7, with 24G of RAM and a 1T SSD.

    It is, by far, the nicest laptop I've owned. My only complaint is the corporate security policy makes it irritating to use.

    ReplyDelete

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