My First Three Weeks with a Mac

I don’t normally produce things that are purely opinion, but before I bought my first Mac I read a number of articles and watched a number of videos comparing MacOS with Windows and they mostly appeared to have a clear pro-Apple bias. Even as someone who'd never used a Mac I could see that a number of them contained claims that were clearly untrue – I've never seen Windows 10 crash, for example (although my Mac crashed three times in the first week), and I've never had a virus in any version of Windows. I thought, therefore, that others might be interested in my experience.

It's not entirely true that I'd never used a Mac before. I did briefly use a Mac back in the 80s when I was a student. I was distinctly underwhelmed. It reminded me of GEM and the other monochrome GUIs that were around at the time and was clearly inferior to my Acorn Archimedes.

I also had a more recent experience with MacOS when it took me the best part of a morning to get a colleague's MacBook Pro to print through our Windows network.

These experiences lead to a general antipathy towards Apple, even though my first smartphone was an iPhone 3GS. I liked that at the time, but as it started to get long in the tooth I switched to a Nexus 5 running Android and couldn't believe how much better it was in every way – including being half the cost of the equivalent iPhone.

This wasn't helped by books I've read and films I've seen about Steve Jobs and Apple. Although I liked his ideas about naming them (no complicated or obscure combinations of letters and digits, and keeping the same name after updates, like cars), it seemed that his desire was to charge customers as much as possible for products. This contrasts with Google, where physical products are seen as "complements" to their main business – low cost items to promote engagement with its core activities of searching and generating advertising income. That's why a Chromecast is significantly cheaper than Apple TV, for example.

So I'd always considered Apple products to be poor value – the only computer that's been remotely tempting is the Mac Mini.

I work for a local authority service for students who are out of school, and our students use their own computers. These used to be exclusively Windows-based, but more recently there's been an explosion in the number of platforms used, with students having Macs, Chromebooks, iPads, Android devices and (just the one student had) Linux.

Then Apple switched to the M1 processor. I like the idea of something that's a bit different – I already have Ubuntu and a Chromebook – and it reminded me of the Acorn Archimedes and RISC-OS. The M1 Mac Mini was also cheaper than the previous Intel versions and had the same spec as more expensive MacBooks and iMacs, but had better benchmark results due to its active cooling.

Looking at second-hand prices and educational discounts, I realised that I could try a Mac, see what the fuss was about, understand what my students were telling me about their Macs, and then sell it without much of a loss if I didn't like it. The price I paid for it also compares favourably with "silent" Windows PCs.

So here's a summary of my first three weeks of using the Mac. Obviously it's the summer holidays and things might change when I use it more for work, but it's already configured and ready to go for lessons.

The Good

Something that's always irritated me about my casual encounters with the Mac is its non-standard (for the UK, at least) keyboard. The biggest benefit of the Mac Mini is that you can use your existing monitor, keyboard and mouse. Photography is one of my hobbies, so I could stick with my Calman-calibrated monitor and Wacom graphics tablet. M1 Mac Mini with 90s PC keyboard and mouse

I'm using it with a 90s PC keyboard and mouse, the graphics tablet and wired gigabit network connection. It's small, but that isn't really a benefit – if it was bigger I'd put it under the desk.

My first surprise is that a Mac Mini produces sound – not just beeps, but you can happily watch YouTube videos, etc., without the need to plug in additional speakers (although my monitor also contains speakers that work through the HDMI connection, so I didn't really need that feature).

I also like that it doesn't make any noise. It's actively cooled and does contain a fan, but I've never heard it produce any noise at all.

My Windows PC dual boots into Ubuntu, so I'm familiar with some aspects of Linux. Although I believe that MacOS is based on Unix rather than Linux, lots of things do look familiar if you've used Linux before – file management dialogues, some of the settings, the way the close, minimise, etc., buttons are at the top left and the menus are detached from the application window at the top of the screen, for example.

Given my previous experience of trying to print from a Mac to a shared printer, and the difficulty of connecting Linux to a samba share, I was a bit anxious about setting up printing and networking on the Mac. But I needn't have worried. It took about a minute to get it printing to my elderly LaserJet 6P via a JetDirect box, and finding network shares was as easy as in Windows – they just appeared in the file finder utility.

Next job, installing applications. There seem to be more versions of familiar applications available for the Mac than there are for Linux (although there are often open-source alternatives for Linux). I easily installed Microsoft Office (albeit without Access), FileZilla, BlueGriffon, Darktable, Edge, Chrome, Firefox, Adobe Connect, etc., and drivers for my graphics tablet and Canon camera. The only thing I've yet to find is a decent alternative to Paint.net. Settings from Office and FileZilla were transferred from Windows to MacOS by exporting to a file and importing them in again – they are file compatible.

Pleasingly, most of the keyboard shortcuts are the same – as long as I remember to hold down the Windows key (I'm using a PC keyboard, remember) instead of the Ctrl key.

And how does it perform? Some things are noticeably quicker than on my nine-year old Windows PC – particularly those that involve resizing or moving graphics – but I don't do a lot of things that are processor intensive. Browsers and Office windows appear quickly. 

The Bad

In a nutshell, everything is just that little bit more difficult on the Mac than it is in Windows, which is ironic given that their main marketing message seems to be ease-of-use. I'm sure that a lot of the perceived difficult is lack of familiarity, but even simple things, such as adjusting the volume, or taking a screen shot, seem to require more steps or more complex key combinations. There are at least three different ways of installing applications and two different ways of uninstalling them, so I'm sure that even experienced Mac users wouldn't be entirely sure what to expect in each case.

One thing that took some getting used to is that things don't always just work after you've installed them. After installing the Wacom drivers, for example, I found that my graphics tablet still didn't work – I needed to go into Settings and change some permissions. The graphics tablet doesn't work before login, either, whereas it worked without installing any software under Windows and Ubuntu.

I still had an Apple ID from when I had my iPhone, so I didn't need to set up account, but one thing that frustrated me during set-up was the keyboard layout – despite selecting a "British" keyboard, I couldn't type some of the symbols in my password. It turns out that Apple's idea of "British" is like no keyboard I've ever seen, and what I needed to select was "British PC"!

Two of the things that Apple users bang on about is that their computers aren't always updating and crashing, unlike Windows computers. Well, in the first two weeks of use the Mac Mini required to large MacOS updates and three times it crashed so thoroughly that I needed to turn the power off. On each occasion I was just browsing the web with only a browser open (not always the same browser).

It's a little bit strange not being able to delete things with the Del key (you need to drag them to the rubbish bin), or use the keyboard to operate controls on forms and dialogues using keyboard shortcuts – although you enable a feature to allow you to tab between controls and press them with the spacebar, like in Windows. Again, I'll most-likely get used to it – as I will with the fact that you seem to be able to drag files onto an application's icon at the bottom of the screen, but not into the application window itself.

One thing I have noticed is that while some applications run more quickly than on my nine-year old PC, it doesn't actually appear to be any quicker to start. I haven't timed it - it might be psychological effect as Windows shows splash screens while you're waiting but with the Mac it's black then… login screen – but my perception is that it takes longer.

Currently I'm missing Expression Web and Paint.net but I know that the former is no longer available for new Windows PCs either, and I'm sure that there's an acceptable alternative for the latter. I will miss Access in the future, but I still have a Windows laptop from work.

BlueGriffon is sort-of usable on MacOS Big Sur, but it doesn't work properly – the dialogue boxes are blank with no text or buttons – so I'm still looking for a free for a free WYSIWYG web-page editor. I've checked in various Apple forums and I'm not sure that what I'm looking for exists.

Finally – I miss the optical drive (for ripping CDs for the car) and card reader for my photos, but you can buy external ones. The number of USB sockets is a bit of a joke – add a keyboard and mouse and they're full - but USB hubs are also cheap. 

The Ugly

When I was reading comparisons of Windows and Macs the one thing that everyone mentioned was the superior user interface of MacOS. In my opinion, the appearance of the user interface is the most disappointing part of the Mac experience.

Obviously it's subjective, but it all looks a bit dated, inconsistent and, well, a bit wrong. It's a bit like when you compare, say, a Renault with a Toyota – one looks stylish and one looks like a toaster. Maybe the Apple design aesthetic is not for me.

The thing I'm least happy with is the way it displays fonts. It's heavy – everything looks bold. In Windows there's that utility for refining the way that anti-aliasing works to display fonts to your taste. To me, the Mac looks like they used that and chose the most wrong settings. ChromeOS and Android don't seem to be like that.

The sizing of things also seems to be a bit random – using the default settings, the buttons at the top of the windows, for closing, minimising, etc., are tiny, but when you're looking for an application, the icons are massive. Again, it's probably what you're used to.

Finally, while Ubuntu does the same thing, it seems strange to have two lots of menus (both in the application and at the top of the screen) in familiar applications such as Microsoft Word – i.e. there's an Insert tab in the ribbon and an Insert menu at the top. 

In Summary

People told me that I'd love the Mac and that there'd be no going back. Do I love it? No. Do I think it's OK – yes, probably. I've yet to find anything that it does better than Windows, but there are things that it does as well. It'll be interesting to see whether I get used to the way it displays text, or whether it'll always irritate me.

Will I keep it? Some of my irritations and down to unfamiliarity, so it would be unfair not to give it more of a chance before it ends up on eBay.

If I keep it, will it be my only computer? I doubt it. I'll report back once term starts in September.

Two Month Update

I've now had the Mac Mini for two months, and I'm still not keen on the way it displays fonts, and there are still the minor irritations of the mouse pointer being at the top-left of the log-in screen when you turn it on, and forgetting to use Cmd instead of Ctrl, but I might eventually get used to those. As I've started to use it on a daily-basis for work-related activities, though, there are two new things that annoy me intensely:

This blog was originally written in August 2021.