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?

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I also ran into somewhat of an oddball issue, possibly because of the way I got the Windows .ISO image onto my Mac. I downloaded the image from my Microsoft Technet account via a Windows PC, and chose to download the file to my Mac via the PC. After the file downloaded, the Mac OS changed the extension from .iso to .img. I had to change the extension back to .iso in order for VirtualBox to use it to install Windows. Once I did all that, though, Windows installed as it normally did on a PC. After setup, Windows ran fine in its own Mac window.

There were a few things I had to get used to, notably switching the focus of the keyboard between the Mac OS X and the window running Windows. By default, pressing the left Command key switches from one to the other. I also had to re-learn some keyboard commands for inside Windows. For example, when you're in Windows, you can't just press a Function key such as F8. Instead, you have to press the Mac's fn key simultaneously with the Function key. When you do that, it works fine.

In addition, because there's only one button, not two, on the MacBook Air trackpad, you can't right-click. So you need to hold down the Command key while clicking; that's the equivalent of a right click.

By default, my virtual Windows machine ran in 800-by-600-pixel resolution, but you can change that as you would normally in Windows. As a result, the VirtualBox window will resize larger to take into account the higher resolution. However, at resolutions higher than 800 by 600, Windows behavior was sometimes a bit flaky on my MacBook Air, with a small portion of the Windows screen cut off at times. It may be that a bit of troubleshooting would solve the problem, but it wasn't enough of an issue for me to pursue it.

Windows ran normally and recognized all the necessary hardware and network configurations; I was even able to browse the Internet using Internet Explorer. It was a little slow, and running it also slowed down the Mac somewhat, particularly when I ran multiple applications. Overall, though, it worked like a charm.

Living with a Mac

Success! Here's Windows running as a virtual machine on a MacBook Air.

Click to view larger image

In fact, I was able to perform a bit of magic, and was able to remotely control PCs on my home network using my Mac when I was away at a Wi-Fi hot spot. I ran VirtualBox with a virtual Windows machine, launched Internet Explorer, then connected to a Windows Home Server that I'd set up for remote access to my PCs. I was then able to run my PCs remotely, including running Outlook and accessing my e-mail. Controlling a PC remotely with my Mac was not something I ever expected to do, but it was simple.

The final verdict

What did I learn after several weeks of living with the Mac?

First off, I had expected there to be a longer learning curve, and had thought that in the long run there wouldn't be much of a difference between the Mac and a PC. After all, an operating system is just an operating system.

To a certain extent that's true. When you use productivity applications themselves, there's not a great deal of difference between using them on a Mac versus using them on a PC. However, when it came to the operating system itself, there's certainly a difference, and a substantial one. Mac OS X is simpler to use and easier to configure, yet has more bells, whistles and "eye candy." And much of that eye candy, such as Exposé, is not just elegantly designed and entertaining, but quite useful as well.

That's not to say that every aspect of the Mac is superior to the PC. Vista's Network and Sharing Center, and especially the Network Map, is an excellent, simple, all-in-one destination for networking that Mac OS X would do well to emulate.

Overall, though, Mac OS X beats Windows. There, I've said it. And lightning hasn't struck me yet.

However, there's no doubt that you often pay extra for a Mac; there really is a Mac tax, even if Microsoft has overstated the amount of that tax. But after living with a Mac, I can understand why people would be willing to pay the tax.

Am I giving up PCs for the Mac? Certainly not. I've got multiple PCs at home, including those that run Windows XP, Windows Vista and a beta of Windows 7. And I've got one that dual-boots into either XP or Linux running Ubuntu. Replacing all those machines with Macs would be prohibitively expensive, and simply not worth the effort.

As for the MacBook Air, for a portable machine, it's perfect in just about every way but one -- its price tag. Still, I've bit the bullet and am buying one, used. This isn't about productivity or getting work done; it's pure machine lust.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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