Switch to Macintosh

Why I did not switch to Apple Macintosh earlier.

I should be an obvious customer for a switch to a Macintosh. In 2003, after a frustrating year with a new IBM notebook, I swore I would never again buy a computer with Microsoft Windows. Well, especially not one with a Windows XP Home pre-install on the hard drive, and no CD-ROM copy of the product.

I thought about Linux, which I've played with in a desultory manner from time to time. I'm reasonably happy about putting a computer system together from a selection of components (having done it many times since the 1970's, when it involved soldering numerous TTL chips into a bare board). So while visiting Sydney I asked a technically competent friend who maintains numerous Linux machines in a massive graphics related business. He told me about taking a month and three kernel compiles to get his home system the way he wanted it. This wasn't a good sign.

I considered dumping mainstream computers entirely, and using my Psion PDA for everything. However the low powered Psion display just can't compete with strong sunlight (and I'm in the tropics). The internet applications tend to struggle with massive email and newsgroup downloads, while the ancient Opera browser can't handle some sites. The Psion could handle everything else I normally do, and is really easy to use, so it was a tempting thought.

That left Apple, and not much else. There isn't an Apple shop anywhere nearby, but on trips to capitol cities (Sydney, and Brisbane), I dropped into an Apple dealer at each city to have a look at macintosh.

Initial Impression of Macintosh

Some of the Apple Macintosh gear is visually stunning, especially the flat panel displays, and non-traditional models like the iMac. When what you are used to is a cheap but boring beige box, the flashy industrial design of the Macintosh line is a real eye catcher. The desktop machines, with the exception of the acceptable enough low end all in one eMac, also really look stunning. The Macintosh iBook and Powerbook notebook computers are not as far ahead of some of the Windows notebooks in looks, but are still very distinctive and impressive.

What Software Do I Need for Macintosh?

That depends upon what you do and what you want. I'm not in business, and don't play computer games, so my demands are actually pretty low. I mainly want to ensure I can move my own material to the next computer I own, so I want to mostly avoid locked proprietary file formats in favour of common open standards.

For my internet purposes, I mostly use a text editor (for writing HTML and Postscript), a news reader, and a CSS aware web browser. I would want a simple spreadsheet, and a simple database that could accept and create CSV files. I figured it was unlikely that these were not available on a Macintosh.

For email I only need POP3, not IMAP, and an ability to handle infrequent attachments. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of spam these days, and a dial up connection, I also couldn't function without the ability to filter, delete and bounce email from the POP3 server without downloading much more than the headers. On PCs I used a third party product, MailWasher. I'm not yet sure an equivalent exists for the Macintosh.

I don't need any messaging software, nor do I need an extensive office suite, such as that from Microsoft. I've never used any sound players, and have no interest in them, and pretty much the same for graphics, so I figure whatever comes with a Macintosh would be massive overkill.

Software Not Available for Macintosh

The items I couldn't see for the Macintosh were PsiWin, for connecting to my rather dated Psion PDA. Psion emulator, actually part of the Psion software development kit. Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping programs, that will do moving map displays.


The Macintosh lacks pretty much all legacy peripheral ports. Basically none of my old peripherals work directly on a Macintosh, and since I'm generally happy with the peripherals, I can't see any good reason to alter them.

Without any RS232 serial port, I can't see how you could connect to my Garmin GPS, and all the GPS I know seem to use a 4800 baud serial connection (although there are now some PCMCIA card ones).

I couldn't connect my Psion PDA, which has a serial port and IrDA. I could however probably get a Macintosh to read a CF card from my Psion.

I couldn't connect to my X10 home controllers which only use RS232, nor to many microcontroller development kits.

I couldn't connect to my Hewlett Packard LaserJet 5MP, which has two parallel ports, IrDA, and an old Appletalk port.

I couldn't connect to my parallel port scanner. On the other hand, a scanner is a very cheap peripheral to replace.

Survey Results

I looked at some end of year service and reliability survey results reported by Australian Personal Copmputer magazine in November 2003. For this sort of thing, I prefer not looking at Macintosh related magazines in case of blatant bias (as distinct from selection bias).

In desktop systems Apple got three excellent rating out of six, for pre-sales, performance and reliability, while no other company got any. More importantly, only 19% of Apple users reported contacting tech support, against 31% to 45% (average 37%) for the PC users. Likewise, only 20% of Apple users reported a fault, against 27% to 41% (average 37%) for PC users.

In notebook computers the results were all over the place, with 25% of notebook PCs getting two excellent rating out of six. Again Apple was the only company to get three excellent ratings.

Why I dropped Windows

In early 2003 I bought an IBM Windows XP laptop that rapidly annoyed me so much that I stopped trying to use it and gave it to my partner. There was nothing particularly wrong with the IBM hardware, especially for a cheap laptop, except for them inexplicably leaving out the serial port. I could get a serial port with the optional docking station, so that at least could be solved.

The problem was that Windows XP security (or rather the potential lack of security) and configuration (to the way I wanted it) drove me nuts. I bought a nice thick book of configuring XP, but XP Home lacked a lot of the things XP Professional included. I did a fair amount of web searching for security information, but I just couldn't be sure that I had actually found ways of closing all the security loopholes. I couldn't figure out any way of removing Internet Explorer, and various networking components, for instance.

So I looked at throwing out Windows XP Home and replacing it with an earlier Windows that I could run securely. Mostly I manage this by removing the components I think are insecure, and don't want to use. This means ripping out IIS, Windows Messaging, Outlook Express, and Internet Explorer, removing all software that opens ports (except ones I know about), and installing a firewall.

The trouble is that all my Windows CDs are updates (since my PC originally came with Windows in floppies), and can't be just used to put Windows on straight from the CD (normally I start a reinstall from a floppy disk). Nor is it easy to restore XP if I destroy it, as that came pre-installed on the laptop hard drive, and could easily be destroyed while trying to repartition and reformat the hard drive. Can't make a rescue disk, as the IBM lacks a floppy drive, and can't write CDs. Now obviously I can eventually find how to turn an Windows update CD into a bootable install CD, but it is probably going to take some effort.

Around this time, my old desktop system power supply failed, followed by the motherboard. A replacement motherboard I had of the same vintage was too flakey to use. That had left a usable replacement computer more urgent, as I was down to using only my 133 Mhz Toshiba laptop. It did however free up a legal copy of an earlier version of Windows, plus all its upgrades.

I'm not particularly interested in having anything to do with Linux (which seems perfect for geeks, but I only want a computer as a simple tool these days). That seemed to leave changing to Macintosh as worth investigating.

I hope you have enjoyed www.ericlindsay.com.