In this second part of this festive series, I'll dig a bit deeper into the physical, interface and usability differences between my 12" Powerbook G4 and 17" Precision M90. As always, everything is completely objective and accurate here, especially the parts that say "x sucks! or "y rocks!!!!11\\\"
Because of the obvious differences between a 4 lb quasi-sub-notebook (it's small, light and bring-anywhere) and a 9 lb "mobile engineering workstation" (it's huge, overpowered, unwieldy, and has More Cowbell(tm)), I also included in this comprehensive-ish review the new 17" Macbook Pro I recently had the chance to play with.
I won't be including comparisons of specific applications and tools on OS X and Linux; I'll save that for next time. Instead, we'll look at the initial impressions, feels, grooves and vibes one gets from the initial computational experience with each machine. Or something.
1. The ordering experience
Apple: Ordering from the Apple website is very breezy. They usually pay for shipping if you buy anything reasonably expensive - which isn't too difficult, since everything is overpriced. What a deal! What's less breezy is waiting for shipping (a rough estimate is from 2 to 120 weeks on most parts), so the alternative is to go to Apple store, where pretentious art-school dropouts sit at the "Genius Bar" (ahem...) and recite Apple marketing copy when all I want to know is how to lease a damn computer from them. 3/5
Dell: Of the PC manufacturers, Dell probably has the best online configurator / shopping tool (asides from Alienware, which, well, is owned by Dell). Shipping for my customized M90 took about 5 business days. They lose points, though, for requiring me to Fax a document to them... Fax?!? People still actually use those? 3.5/5
2. The unboxing ceremony
Apple: Opening an Apple product is, as always, an exercise in capitalist beauty. Everything is packed in nice and tight in the box, seams are invisible, and both the inner and outer packages are works of art in themselves. Hell, the cardboard they use even feels as soft as toilet paper (Disclaimer: We are not responsible for physical injury which may arise from attempting to use Apple packaging in lieu of toilet paper). 4/5
Dell: Dell still ships their top-of-the-line computers in ugly, brown, 1980s boxes that start decomposing in your hand the moment you touch them. If it weren't for the ugly DELL logo all over the box, there is no indication as to what is inside. A computer? Bathroom tiles? A frozen rack of lamb? Medical Refuse? The latter is possibly not completely wrong, since the box is filled with sticky icky styrofoam. Each individual item is wrapped several times over in nasty plastic, with its own styrofoam "pouch", God knows why. Mother Nature cries a little bit every time someone buys a Dell. -3/5
3. The goods
Apple 12" Powerbook: This sexy little number was quite a looker when I got her in 2004, and she's aged pretty well. It's pretty much a consensus that when it comes to laptops Apple makes the best-looking status symbols out there. I'm a minimalist, so the Powerbooks' clean brushed metal casing made me very happy. The powersupply is also nicely done, though a bit convoluted. I actually thought that those little movable plastic winglets were ill-conceived "powersupply stands" until a kind stranger showed me that they're actually meant to wind the cable around. Nice slot-loading DVD player. All ports on side of computer, not in the back. Nice. 2x USB, 1x Firewire, Modem / Ethernet, Headphone, Mic... wait a second, why doesn't the Mic work? What do you mean I need a powered microphone to use it? What's wrong with you people? 3.5/5
Apple 17" Macbook Pro: See above. Ooh, two firewire ports (one of which is FW800). But only three USB ports? Hrmph. I use a lot of USB devices, and daisy-chaining or using a USB hub bothers me because that's just not how I roll. PCMCIA slot, cool... but I don't have any use for that anymore. Magnetic power cable is a bit... unimpressive, considering the sheer amount of marketing energy Apple put into hyping it. 3.5/5
Dell Precision M90: Oooh, six USB ports, built-in card reader, built-in DVI, VGA and S-Video ports (no stupid dongles) Great! DVD-RW is the old-school tray, no big deal. But only one firewire port? And it's 4-pin?!? O-tay... For a PC, though, it looks way (way...) better than any other PC laptop I could find. Nice metal casing, super solid (screen doesn't "flex" like on so many other PC laptops). Obvious design cues from Apple. 4/5
4. First sight
Apple: The screen is... nice. Bright enough. Perhaps slightly clearer on the 17" Macbook Pro than on my old Powerbook. Decent 1680x1050 resolution (vs. 1024x768 on the old pbook... I know it's only a 12" screen, but come on!). After about a year, my keyboard started to permanently imprint itself onto the screen. Uncool. 3/5
Dell Precision M90: (WUXGA option) Brighter than the sun. Crystal-clear, tack sharp, and no dead pixels. I've heard negative reviews about the WXGA+ screen, but this one seems flawless to me, maybe with the exception of some barely-noticeable vignetting at the edges in very dark windows areas. 4/5
Apple 12" Powerbook: Over the past 2 years, the machine performed admirably enough. The G4 processor was good at what I initially needed it to do (which wasn't much), and handle Photoshop duties well. But as soon as I started working on some heavier-duty video stuff, it quickly reached its limits. Why does Apple even bother including iMovie or pretending that Final Cut Pro can run decently on this machine? Encoding a movie with a few simple transitions took hours, and rendered my computer useless for any other tasks. Not much fun. The Geforce FX 5200 video card could've also been a bit livelier. On the bright side. 3/5
Apple 17" Macbook Pro: The Intel Macs are, indeed, much quicker than the old PowerPC ones. Applications launch much quicker, mutlitasking is more transparent, video rendering is less annoying. But - and this is more a bone to pick with OS X than with the hardware performance - Macs still feel "sluggish" to me. Launching appls, scrolling through windows, resizing... none of it feels like it's done in realtime. Working on the desktop doesn't really convey that feeling of "instant gratification" that I get in Linux. Things happen smoothly, but they don't happen fast. It feels like I'm watching a movie of a desktop, rather than interacting with one. The hardware, again, is not to blame: dual-core 2.33 Intel procs, lots of fast ram, fast hard drive, decent video card... wait, scratch that. If I'm paying north of $3000 for a laptop, you can bet that I'd want something more than a bargain video card (ATI X1600) in my machine. I still like playing games occasionally, so sue me. 3.5/5
Dell Precision M90 (with Ubuntu Linux Edgy Eft 6.10): The definition of fast. Despite having a slightly slowler (2.16 vs. 2.33 Ghz) Core 2 duo processor, Linux on this machine definately feels much more responsive than OS X. I'm using Gnome, though I have no preference between it and KDE. Clicking on something launches it immediately, with little to no lag. Saving documents, moving stuff around, getting email, editing settings... everything feels instantenous and realtime. After installing Beryl as a 3D window manager, things get a little more "fluid" and "OS-Xish", but never to the point of feeling like I'm waiting for things to happen like I do in OS X. My only gripe is that "not-emulated" applications from MS Windows run under WINE tend to choke up a little, but that's a small price to pay. On OS X, you need to reboot to run any Windows apps, and that's assuming you have Bootcamp and a valid MS Windows copy lying around to install on your nice new Macbook. And then there's the insanely incredible video card on this thing, the NVIDIA Quadro FX2500 512mb. Short of getting a dual-videocard setup, it's the fastest solution available for laptops right now. 5/5
6. Interface and desktop
Apple OS X: Everyone loves
Raymond Redmond OS X, with its fancy effects and glassy icons and clean layout and expensive car. It would be hard not to argue that OS X was the best computing user interface experience of the past few years. This, of course, is completely subjective. Some people actually prefer the look of Windows XP over OS X. More power to them. Me, I couldn't care less. Nice effects and cool transitions are fun for about an hour, after which they get really old. What really matters is how functional all of it is. Don't get me wrong; eye candy is important. Technology is built for humans, not the other way around - we have a right and a duty to make everything beautiful. But eye-candy is not a means in itself; it is a means to an end.
That end, of course,
is impressing your friends getting work done.
In Mac OS X, if I want to enable hidden files, I get to see all the hidden files. Including ones I can't get rid of or otherwise ignore. .ds_store files anyone? I have to jump through hoops to get the desktop to behave exactly how I want it to. After countless hacks, little applets and add-ons, I still can't. Mutliple desktop support still isn't built-in - need to download a 3-year old app for that. NTFS, ext2 and other common filesystems aren't very well-supported, so sharing files between operating systems is daunting to say the least, and happens to be something I need to do. In terms of organizing my data and actually having my own taxonomy to manage the files I need to work with, the current state of OS X just doesn't cut it. Not even with genie minimize. Out of the box, what do we have that, say, Windows XP doesn't? iLife? Ok. I wonder how many people actually use any of the apps except the force-fed iTunes and iPhoto apps. 2.5/5
Linux: You can probably guess where this is going. With so many choices out there - Ubuntu or Red Hat or Gentoo or FreeBSD or Debian? Gnome, KDE or XFCE? Beryl or Compiz? - you can make your machine do exactly what it is you want it to do. The customization options are endless. The granularity to which you can fine tune your workflow, your desktop your filesystem management, etc. is just amazing. I don't want to get into app details now - I'll do that in the next segment. 4.5/5
In the end, it doesn't really matter what OS I, you or anyone else uses. The point is that anything you can do in Mac OS X, or that she can do in Windows, I can also do in Linux. And because of the way I work, I can do it faster, better and more freely in Linux than I could hope to do in OS X or on Windows.
The scoring system is, of course, a joke. You prefer OS X? That's fine; it's a pretty big world we live in, there's room enough for all of us. :)