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Switching To The Mac: The Real Story

Written by CNET's Rafe Needleman, the Real Technology column appears Thursdays on

Apple's compelling advertisements may have you believing that moving from a Windows computer to a Mac is both a simple and a rewarding experience. I certainly believed it. In my circle of friends and co-workers, I observed that Mac users were to a large extent happier with their equipment and software than the Windows users. Most people I know who have moved from PCs to Macs never regretted the decision. The few people who had moved the other way seemed to have done so reluctantly. And I know only two of them; I know dozens of PC-to-Mac switchers who are delighted they've moved.

So figuring that I was going to be in good company, I made the switch. In December, I bought a new MacBook for myself, and a second one for my wife. We both needed new computers, and I thought it'd be a good time to move up to what everyone told me would be a superior experience.

Here's what we found: In many ways, the Mac experience is indeed superior. But the process of moving from the PC to the Mac is not nearly as easy or as straightforward as the advertising leads you to believe. And people who have switched a long time ago apparently don't remember how difficult it was.

In a previous story that I wrote shortly after I first tried to make the switch, I talked about technological inertia. That's what can prevent the switch from a PC to a Mac from being a happy experience -- the hardware you have that you want to work with your new computer; your expectations of how computers "should" work; and the muscle memory you have developed that lets you use the computer you have quickly, without thinking about it. All these expectations will be challenged when you try to move to a new computer paradigm, such as from a PC to a Mac.

The Big Mistake
Before making the switch, I studied the Mac, read blogs, talked to friends, and learned about the changes I'd be forcing on myself. Going contrary to popular advice, which recommends running the new Mac and the old PC side-by-side for a while, I decided that the best way to make the switch would be to go cold turkey. That way, I thought, I'd force myself to learn the new Mac applications, new keyboard shortcuts, and new Mac mindset. I wouldn't have to switch my brain back and forth between platforms, and while it would be difficult for a while, I thought it would be quicker, like learning a language by moving to a new town in a new country where nobody speaks English.

In practice, I couldn't do it. There's only so much immersion a person can take in a day before he or she gets fatigued. And when your income relies on using a computer, you cannot afford to mess around with a new platform all the time. Sometimes, you just need to work.

For instance, I had a bear of a time adjusting to the MacBook's keyboard. It's missing keys I'm used to, like a forward-delete key (the "delete" key on a MacBook actually functions like the "backspace" on a PC), PgUp, Home, End, and so on. All of the things these keys do can be accomplished by pressing various key combinations on the MacBook, but getting those new keys into your muscle memory takes effort.

So going cold turkey didn't work for me, and it didn't work for my wife, either. We both ended up running our PCs and Macs side-by-side for a period of time (I still do), although the amount of time on the old PCs has been decreasing a little bit each day.

Other issues conspired to make the switch more difficult than we expected. There are some things that just don't work on the Mac. Not things that work differently, which I was prepared for. I'm talking about things that are supposed to work but don't, like the software that comes with Blackberry smartphones (my wife is a Blackberry user) that's supposed to synchronize your calendar between the phone and a Mac. It just flat out doesn't work (at least, it didn't for her). Or the software that comes with a Sprint cellular modem that's supposed to connect you to the network. Again, it doesn't work (for me). Apologists for the Mac will say that I cannot blame Apple for these faults. True, but that's not really the point. When you buy into Apple, you're buying into a promise, and the promise is undermined by bad apps.

Now, there are workarounds for these and problems we had, and for many users the apps do work, but the Apple message that all technology "just works" with Macs is hyperbolic. Sure, a lot of things work beautifully. But, just as with Windows, there are miserable examples of buggy and flawed products that don't work as advertised for everybody who has them. And for us, there were far more of them than we expected.

Getting Into It
It's been about two months since I bought the Macs. After the first few weeks I felt the need to step away from the machine for a while (it's you, not me, I said to my MacBook). But the Mac has now become part of my daily routine and it's working well. And I have some advice for other people trying to make the switch.

The smartest thing I did was to drop my philosophical opposition to using the Mac and Windows side-by-side. In fact, I'm running both operating systems on new MacBook. There are different ways to do this, but I'm using VMWare Fusion, which lets me run Windows XP at the same time I'm running OS X. Apple's free solution, Boot Camp, turns your Mac temporarily into a Windows machine, but you can't run OS X at the same time; you have to reboot. The only thing I need Windows for is my e-mail application, Microsoft Outlook (which raises another complaint: If your business uses Outlook on PCs, be warned that there is no equivalent Mac app that does the same thing as well -- not even Entourage Microsoft's own business e-mail program for the Mac.) I set up Fusion so Web links I get in e-mail open up on the browser in OS X, and e-mail links on the Mac side open up in Outlook on Windows. It works well. However, to do this you need to buy both a copy of Fusion as well as a license for Windows. I'm bothered that I have to run Windows on my Mac to get my work done. But at least I can.

I also discovered the benefits of Spaces, the OS X app that lets you set up different "virtual desktops" on your computer. You can of course run multiple applications at the same time on the Mac or and Windows PC. What Spaces does it let you group apps together into their own desktops that you can easily flip between. I put VMWare Fusion to support my Windows setup on one desktop, and OS X on another, and I can quickly slide between them with a shortcut key. It's really slick.

I bought the Mac because I needed a new computer, not because there were any specific Mac apps I needed to run. I still haven't found any software that will do something on the Mac that I can't also do on the PC. But that's OK. I have Microsoft Office for the Mac for word processing, and it's fine. I use iTunes for music, and it's the same as on my PC. The new iPhoto is nice, but as a frequent Windows user and someone who's got enough change going on at once right now, I'm sticking with Google's Picasa, recently made available for the Mac. Other favorite apps I have work on both Windows and the Mac: the browser Firefox, the note-taking app Evernote, Skype, and Twitter clients like Twhirl, that run on Adobe's cross-platform AIR framework.

But although it's not offering me raw capabilities I can't get on Windows, I enjoy the Mac a great deal. The hardware is brilliant. It's not just thoughtfully-designed (except for the keyboard that's missing key buttons), but beautiful to look it. The MacBook's trackpad lets you use multi-finger gestures to switch between apps and spaces, and it's a complete joy to use. The platform is also robust: My Mac itself has yet to crash despite the dozens of apps I've put on it (some of which have crashed themselves), and it goes into sleep mode and wakes up reliably, unlike every Windows PC I've ever used. I basically never have to shut it down.

The Mac is a lot more fun to use than a Windows PC, but I can't say that it was worth the switch financially. The MacBook is expensive and I've lost time toward training myself to use it. I'd recommend a Mac to almost anyone starting out, but caution Windows users that it takes far more time to become comfortable with the platform than is generally understood.

Rafe Needleman writes about start-ups, new technologies, and Web 2.0 products as editor of CNET's Webware. E-mail Rafe.
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