Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Windows wow, Macs meh

First day back at work = first time in nearly a fortnight of having to sit and stare at this lump of obstructive machinery perched on my desk in front of me, otherwise known as an Apple Mac Pro 3.1. Mac OS X Version 10.5.8; processor 2.8Ghz Quad-Core Intel Xeon; Memory 4 GB 800 MHz DDR2 FB-DIMM. Apparently.

All kinds of wibble is spoken by either side in the endless Windows vs Mac debate. The Mac camp generally plug for assertions of superior technology, easier troubleshooting, better software ...

Let me state my definitive case on this.


One thing and one thing only am I interested in where computers are concerned: how they arrange their files, and how they let me interface with them. Two things only am I concerned with. How they actually achieve this is of the sublimest indifference. I have stated before that I don’t care if a little goblin climbs up behind the screen every time I press a key and inks in my chosen letter. I consider the possibility my computer is so energy-inefficient that an entire parallel universe might suffer heat death just to supply the power for a game of Minesweeper, and the ennui overpowers me. If it does what I want, when I want it, that’s good enough for me.

I am remarkably consistent in my views, might I add, because I used to think Macs were better – back in the days of DOS and then Windows 3.1. This is hardly a meaningful statement because throwing darts at the keyboard across the room was a better way of interfacing with the computer than Windows 3.1 allowed, but I do want to emphasise the consistency of my philosophy. I’m not grinding a technological axe here, folk.

So here is why, in their current incarnations, Macs fail and Windowses win.

1. The desktop ornament has no hash key. Let me repeat that. The desktop ornament has no hash key. Having repeated, let me rephrase that. The stupid pile of overrated junk lacks one of the most common symbols required for HTML coding. It’s not quite like leaving the letter ‘e’ off the keyboard but it’s pretty similar to leaving out the ‘r’s or ‘n’s.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you get a # by pressing ALT+3. Hardly intuitive.

2. Minimising applications. I gladly admit that a strength of the Mac is the ability to minimise all open applications with a simply keystroke, specifically F11. Windows could well do with this. However, Macs then go and blow this advantage by having all the applications pop back into view when you select just one of them, missing the point that you actually had a reason for choosing to minimise them all in the first place. I wonder what it could have been?

3. CMD/CTRL + TAB. Related to (2), Macs nicked the Windows shortcut of cycling through minimised applications by pressing CMD+TAB. Except that once again they singularly miss the point of what the user is trying to achieve. The chosen application comes back to the front, i.e. the menu bar in the top left of the screen now relates to that application. But the open window of that application stays resolutely minimised, requiring you to click on it with the mouse anyway, missing the point of a freakin’ keyboard shortcut, you morons.

A Macficionado once tried to explain to me how I could recreate this Windows effect using Spaces - in other words, jump through one extra hoop to get what I can already do in Windows because the system is helpfully designed that way.

4. The inexplicable hang-ups. Even when running a native Mac app, the thing can inexplicably freeze for a few seconds, then remember that it has a fuming user sitting not too far away who is entertaining thoughts of what he could usefully do with a pickaxe, so decide to show a pretty coloured spinning wheel to defuse the situation while it tries to remember what it was doing. Mac software runs more quickly? My nads it does.

5. File selection. Windows and Macs both allow you to choose different icon styles when looking at a folder: small, big, thumbnail etc. But only Windows allows you to select multiple files with a single sweep of the mouse regardless of the icon view.

Let me turn to C.S. Lewis here, possibly for the first time ever in this particular debate. He commented that when he was small he liked lemonade but disliked wine; as an adult, he liked both wine and lemonade. Therefore the growing up has enriched him with an additional experience. He would be impoverished by adulthood if he now liked wine but disliked lemonade, keeping the net total of likes at one.

If Windows lets you do two things, and Macs only one, the superiority or otherwise of the underlying technology is irrelevant. Windows is better. It’s simple maths.

6. Folder listing. Related to 5: Windows and Macs list the contents of folders alphabetically (or by size, or by type etc.) In the alfy view, however, Windows lists first the folders, then the files. Macs list the whole lot in simple alfy order.

It is likely that I might select multiple files to copy/move/whatever. How likely is it that I might select a mixture of files and folders? The answer you’re looking for (hint) is ‘unlikely’. The Windows way of doing it is more helpful.

7. Shortcuts. In Windows, the pop-up menu buttons often have shortcut keys associated with them: rather than click on ‘Save’ or ‘Discard’ you can just hit S or D. On a Mac you have to move the mouse. Again I invoke C.S. Lewis. Windows lets you do more things, more easily, therefore is better.

8. Menu bars. I won’t go into the plusses and minuses of a menu bar that stays in one place as opposed to a menu bar for each open window. I suppose they both have their points. But guess which one I prefer and which one I find prissy and didactic.

So there you have it. A definitive set of arguments that will surely settle this old chestnut once and for all and bring the Applistas defecting over in flocks. Y’know, I might have brought down a mighty empire today. I feel pretty good about that.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Ben. Last year I spent some of my time providing Mac technical support in a reasonably sized organisation and I sympathise completely with your complaints, especially regarding the hash key.

    Not sure how locked down the machines are where you are but you could try the instructions here so you can use your keyboard as a standard UK keyboard. You could then even bring in a standard PC keyboard.

    Also, might be worth looking for other file managers on Mac. I didn't really look into this as I used the command line quite a lot but I'm sure better options exist. The thing that drove me insane regarding the Mac file manager was the lack of a sensible way to go up to a previous directory in a hierarchy.

    Regarding the spinning wheel of death, is that using Microsoft Office or a Mac application. If it's a general issue then you might want to do a permissions repair (Open 'Disk Utility', select your machines hard drive and click 'Permissions Repair') on your hard drive as fragmented permissions can really slow a Mac down.

    Hope this helps.

  3. Ben, I don't think I've ever heard you so excited :-)

  4. Marion: 'tis the scent of battle!

    Pete: thanks. It is pretty locked down and subservient to an IT Support team that use Macs as grudgingly as I do ... however, I'm used to the keyboard now and I would still have one that doesn't show the hash. The spinning wheel can occur with any software. (And actually, going up one level of the hierarchy is one thing that's actually easier on a Mac! Or was until W7 came along. See, fair, me.)

  5. Anonymous10:59 pm

    2 - Cmd-H will hide all windows belonging to the active application and select the next-most-recent one, which is very similar behavior to 'minimise' in Windows.

    3 - minimising on OS X is a bit pointless. If you want to get to another application that's behind your current one, you could use hide (see above), Expose in a screen corner (zoom all windows out, click on the one you want), or clicking on the one you want in the dock. If you want to get to the desktop, another screen corner setting can be 'show desktop' (I grant you, screen corners shortcuts can be very annoying if you keep activating them accidentally; that's why I don't have one in the top left.) Then, because you *didn't* minimise the program you then want to go back to, you *can* use Cmd-Tab to select the old program. Note I'm talking about programs rather than windows - Windows treats every window like its own program, OS X has hierarchies and modified commands for dealing with just-this-app's-windows and every-window open; I can dig out the shortcuts if you'd like...

    5 - um, in 'icon' view you can draw selection boxes in folder windows (make sure you're not over an icon or a name when you start the click); in 'details' you can select adjacent files by clicking and dragging (again, don't start over any text - even stuff like the date modified - or it'll be interpreted as a click-and-drag). In Snow Leopard you can then click-and-drag selected items by starting the click over text or whitespace in the selected group of files - in Leopard a click in the whitespace of some selected files would just select that file.

    7 - depends strongly on the application, exactly as in Windows. The Apple-recommended settings are enter for safe option, space for the unsafe option (like 'discard'), and esc to cancel; you can also turn on tabbing through buttons in system preferences. To be honest I found this a bigger issue in the Windows apps I used to use than the Mac apps I use now, although that could just be because I find this trackpad faster than my old mouse...

    In the end, Windows - Mac comes down to personal preference - as you note above. It won't help trying to do things 'the Windows way' on a Mac, just as it doesn't help trying to do things 'the Mac way' on Windows; if you (are forced to, like OGH) switch, you unfortunately need to learn the way round a new system - which inevitably will seem 'wrong' at first. Take the menu bar; I got used to it being on every window in Windows, but the way it means the toolbar is always in the same place, and frees up space in minimal apps like Transmission, can be a benefit.

    In the end, maybe the lesson is that switching is a bad idea!

  6. Anonymous11:07 pm

    I forgot to mention, you can also set up custom keyboard shortcuts for all applications in System Preferences > Keyboard, so if there's a toolbar menu item you use a lot you can make a custom shortcut to it - like your 'discard without saving' (maybe).

  7. Anonymous11:10 pm

    Argh argh argh. Sorry about multiple-comments. 'Go up one folder' in Finder is Cmd-up, without which I would have gone mad long ago.

  8. I feel that something has to be said for apple hardware. This was the main factor in my decision to move to a mac in the summer. It's solid, extremely well built, high resolution, lightweight, massive multitouch trackpad, full day-long battery life plus all the little things. The os works so well with the hardware. The software both have their different ways and quirks, pluses and minuses but it the hardware that swings it for me.

  9. Anonymous4:57 pm

    Hilariously, I found out ten minutes ago that option-3 moves to the third tab in Firefox for macs, rather than producing a hash. I suppose the correct answer to this would be remap the shortcut key that does it, not to have a keyboard that includes a common symbol.

    Everything else is situation-dependent, sometimes behaviour is more useful in Windows than OS X and vice versa. But the hash key, Christ.

  10. Anonymous9:58 am

    There's also the myths that 'Macs don't hang'. Mine does, frequently. It did so ten minutes ago and that wasn't unusual. I find myself using 'Force Quit' to stop applications that have hung more than you might expect (well actually _you_ might expect it to happen quite often; it does).
    And with you on the lack of a # key and also PgUp/PgDn in the same way that Windows does it.
    I am still using this four-year-old MacBook and wishing I'd taken my bro-in-law up on the offer of a spiffy slightly-secondhand Windows laptop a few months ago.

  11. Anonymous8:23 am

    Arrghhh - posted long comment here which is now entirely lost because blogspot did not like my wordpress id :-(



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