Living on Air: A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac

Windows expert Preston Gralla was challenged to work with Apple's MacBook Air for two weeks. Will he ever go back to a PC?

I've been on the front lines of the Mac-PC war for as long as I can remember. My first work computer was an IBM PC with an 8088 CPU. I liked it so much I forked out the money to buy my own machine: an IBM PC XT clone running an 8086 chip, and bulging with 640KB of RAM and a whopping 20MB hard disk.

Since then, I've written dozens of books and hundreds or thousands of articles, columns and blogs about PCs and Windows. Along the way, I've earned the unending enmity of plenty of Mac folks. At one point several years ago, I was targeted by hundreds of Mac fans in an e-mail barrage because I used to write a column about shareware that covered only PC software and ignored the Mac. More recently on my Computerworld Windows blog, I've been called various schoolyard epithets when I've written anything remotely critical about Macs or people who use them.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I accepted a new assignment from my editor (sort of a follow-up to my article "Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows") to give up my PC and try living for two weeks on the Mac. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

I asked for a laptop rather than a desktop, and what showed up on my front door about a week later was the latest MacBook Air, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 1.83 GHz, 2GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeoForce 9400M graphics processor and a 128GB solid-state hard disk. It sported a 13.3-in. screen and weighed in at a very svelte 3 pounds. And so began my journey with a Mac.

An initial look at the OS

If you haven't yet touched or used a MacBook Air, take it from me: This is the most beautiful piece of hardware you'll ever see. Plenty of other people have rhapsodized over it, so I won't waste the space here extolling its virtues.

How light is this machine? I took it to a nearby cafe to work, and when I left, I panicked halfway down the street. My backpack was so light, I was convinced I had accidentally left it at the cafe. Of course, it was safe, sound and snug in my backpack -- I simply hadn't felt the weight.

At $2,500 for this configuration, though, this is not a machine for Everyman or Everywoman, particularly in these trying economic times. However, my assignment wasn't to test and review this particular computer, but rather to report on the Mac experience compared to the PC experience. So with a few exceptions, I'll focus more on the Mac OS X and the Mac way of doing things, rather than on this particular model.

Living with a Mac

Exposé shows thumbnails of all of your open windows against the desktop.

Click to view larger image

For PC users, Mac OS X takes some getting used to, but once I did, I found it a more elegant, polished piece of work than Windows (either XP or Vista). With so many nice little touches, it seemed as if I was finding a new one every day.

At first glance, the Mac OS X layout is spare compared to Windows. Apart from an icon representing the hard disk, there are no initial icons on the desktop, no Start button or Start Panel, and no pinned programs. Instead, there's a single Dock across the bottom of the screen, similar to the new taskbar in Windows 7. There's a reason for that similarity, of course: Microsoft took the idea from Apple. After all, why not steal from the best?

The Dock took some getting used to, because of its double-duty as both a program launcher and a task switcher. Because I was used to the pre-Windows 7 taskbar, I constantly checked the Dock first to see what programs I was running, but it was no help because the icons were a mix of those pinned there and those that I had recently launched. Only after one of my editors pointed out that there are small, glowing blue dots underneath running apps did I find out that there's a way to differentiate between apps that are running versus apps whose icons live permanently on the Dock. But those dots are so faint and subtle as to be of very little use.

I quickly discovered the command-Tab key combination for cycling through open programs, much like Alt-Tab in Windows. Still, I wanted better visual clues to show what I was running -- preferably thumbnails or a preview of some kind. And then I discovered Exposé, a superb feature for viewing, organizing and switching between your running windows.

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