The Switch, Part 2: First Impressions

If you missed it, read part 1.

Apple sure knows how to make a good first impression. The Powerbook arrived 3 days early. I’ve been playing with it during most of my free time since then, and I have only great things to say about it. I’ve actually procrastinated the writing of this post simply because I always want to keep exploring OS X and all of the cool things about it.

Right now, I’m listening to streaming radio with iTunes while typing in Microsoft Word 2004. I’ll start with Microsoft Office. Simply put, the Mac version is better than the PC version, as far as I can tell so far. Installing it was a breeze.

Let me touch on installation for a minute. Programs come as CDs, DVDs, or disk image files called DMGs. When you double-click a DMG file, it mounts as a disk on the desktop, like any other disk. Most installation disks contain only a handful of files, and most programs are completely contained in one file. Sure, it’s really just a mask for a complex tree underneath, but I never see that and I certainly never need to know about it. To install the program, you drag this single file… into your Applications folder, or wherever you want to install it. To uninstall the program, you drag this single file… into the Trash. That’s it. Hardly anything has an “installer” program. And there’s no Registry to worry about. If you move a program (simply by dragging it somewhere else), all shortcuts to it are automatically updated, behind the scenes, to point to the new location.

The DMG system is flawless. I bought the Mac version of SimCity 4, and I was annoyed that it forced me to have the CD in the drive whenever I wanted to play it. It’s a laptop – I don’t want to carry one particular disc wherever I go, just in case I want to play this game. So I decided that I’d try to create a DMG of the CD and see if it could fool the program. I expected that I’d need some weird hack like Daemon Tools for Windows, but I figured that I’d look into the system utilities anyway.

Applications. That’s a reasonable place to start. Alright, how about Utilities? I probably need a utility. Hey, I bet Disk Utility could help me out. There’s an Image menu. New… I want a new image. From Device: SimCity 4. Wow. That was easy. A few minutes later, I had a DMG of the first disc of SimCity 4, and it worked exactly as I had hoped it would: I can now play SimCity 4 whenever I want, wherever I am, regardless of whether I have the CD with me.

By the way, SimCity 4 works almost exactly like the desktop version. An update from the publisher’s website is critical though, because without it, it won’t play in any widescreen resolutions. This was a pretty stupid move on the publisher’s part – almost every Macintosh system sold today has a wide-aspect LCD screen.

Battery life is a bit shorter than I expected, but it’s still excellent for such a giant, bright screen in such a slim, lightweight package. Under my current usage, with the screen at maximum brightness, WiFi under constant streaming, and the speakers at medium volume playing music continuously, I can get about 2:45 from a charge. Dropping the screen brightness makes the biggest difference – at a lower brightness, I can get almost 4 hours. And with the backlight completely off, in what I call “MP3 player mode”, a charge lasts almost 5 hours. Not bad at all, especially considering that the G4 CPU wasn’t designed specifically to be a mobile processor like Intel’s Pentium M.

The speakers are spectacular. They’re still laptop speakers, and the 1-inch diameter doesn’t allow for much bass response, but the general quality and volume are excellent. This isn’t saying much, but they’re the best laptop speakers I’ve ever heard. And somewhere, there’s even a built-in microphone with decent quality. I learned about this when I discovered the built-in limited-command voice recognition system. You can’t dictate documents with it (although if you’ve used modern voice-recognition software before, you probably wouldn’t want to), but you can speak commands from a predefined list containing such things as, “What time is it?” (the computer then speaks the response) and “Open my browser.” And while there’s no microphone port, a Line-In is present, and the headphone jack provides amazing sound quality and plenty of power to drive big headphones.

Today, I needed an external microphone to record something with extremely high quality at work. I plugged in my external USB SoundBlaster and waited. Nothing happened. I went into the Sound section of System Preferences, and the “USB Sound” device was listed as an output choice, as well as its Microphone, Line In, and S/PDIF sources listed as inputs with full level controls. No drivers were needed, and it worked beautifully. When I was done, I unplugged it, and OS X quietly switched all of the settings back for me.

Dual-monitor support is equally easy. I plugged in an external LCD with DVI, and it automatically added it as a second monitor at the external monitor’s native resolution. When I unplugged the DVI cable, it automatically switched back to single-monitor mode and moved all programs back to the main screen. If you want the main monitor (the one with the menu bar) to be the external one, it’s as easy as dragging the little white bar from one little screen icon to the other in the Display preferences. Similarly, dragging the little screen icons will rearrange their logical placement.

Now, let me tell you about Expose. Among other things, this is a window-switching feature of OS X. Command-Tab still works just like Alt-Tab on Windows, but if you want something cooler, you can activate Expose by your preference of pressing hotkeys or moving the mouse to a corner of the screen. When you do this, all open windows from all programs are zoomed out and arranged on screen so that you can see all of them at once, regardless of their shapes and sizes. Moving the mouse over any of the zoomed-out windows shows a text overlay with that window’s title, and clicking on any window activates it and zooms everything back to “normal” size. This isn’t just some graphical hack, either – the windows are actually scaled down, and the windows continue to behave normally, including the continued animation of graphics on web pages.

Well, I’m going back to play with my new toy. You’ll have to wait for part 3 for more.