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A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac

I’ve been on the front lines of the Mac-PC war for as long as I can remember. My first work computer was an IBM PC with an 8088 CPU. I liked it so much I forked out the money to buy my own machine: an IBM PC XT clone running an 8086 chip, and bulging with 640KB of RAM and a whopping 20MB hard disk.

Since then, I’ve written dozens of books and hundreds or thousands of articles, columns and blogs about PCs and Windows. Along the way, I’ve earned the unending enmity of plenty of Mac folks. At one point several years ago, I was targeted by hundreds of Mac fans in an e-mail barrage because I used to write a column about shareware that covered only PC software and ignored the Mac. More recently on my Computerworld Windows blog, I’ve been called various schoolyard epithets when I’ve written anything remotely critical about Macs or people who use them.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I accepted a new assignment from my editor (sort of a follow-up to my article “Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows”) to give up my PC and try living for two weeks on the Mac. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

I asked for a laptop rather than a desktop, and what showed up on my front door about a week later was the latest MacBook Air, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 1.83 GHz, 2GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeoForce 9400M graphics processor and a 128GB solid-state hard disk. It sported a 13.3-in. screen and weighed in at a very svelte 3 pounds. And so began my journey with a Mac.

An initial look at the OS

If you haven’t yet touched or used a MacBook Air, take it from me: This is the most beautiful piece of hardware you’ll ever see. Plenty of other people have rhapsodized over it, so I won’t waste the space here extolling its virtues.

How light is this machine? I took it to a nearby cafe to work, and when I left, I panicked halfway down the street. My backpack was so light, I was convinced I had accidentally left it at the cafe. Of course, it was safe, sound and snug in my backpack—I simply hadn’t felt the weight.

At $2,500 for this configuration, though, this is not a machine for Everyman or Everywoman, particularly in these trying economic times. However, my assignment wasn’t to test and review this particular computer, but rather to report on the Mac experience compared to the PC experience. So with a few exceptions, I’ll focus more on the Mac OS X and the Mac way of doing things, rather than on this particular model.

For PC users, Mac OS X takes some getting used to, but once I did, I found it a more elegant, polished piece of work than Windows (either XP or Vista). With so many nice little touches, it seemed as if I was finding a new one every day.

At first glance, the Mac OS X layout is spare compared to Windows. Apart from an icon representing the hard disk, there are no initial icons on the desktop, no Start button or Start Panel, and no pinned programs. Instead, there’s a single Dock across the bottom of the screen, similar to the new taskbar in Windows 7. There’s a reason for that similarity, of course: Microsoft took the idea from Apple. After all, why not steal from the best?

The Dock took some getting used to, because of its double-duty as both a program launcher and a task switcher. Because I was used to the pre-Windows 7 taskbar, I constantly checked the Dock first to see what programs I was running, but it was no help because the icons were a mix of those pinned there and those that I had recently launched. Only after one of my editors pointed out that there are small, glowing blue dots underneath running apps did I find out that there’s a way to differentiate between apps that are running versus apps whose icons live permanently on the Dock. But those dots are so faint and subtle as to be of very little use.

I quickly discovered the command-Tab key combination for cycling through open programs, much like Alt-Tab in Windows. Still, I wanted better visual clues to show what I was running — preferably thumbnails or a preview of some kind. And then I discovered Exposé, a superb feature for viewing, organizing and switching between your running windows.

To use Exposé, you just press the F9 key (Fn-F9 or F3 on a MacBook Air), and you’ll see previews all of your open windows nicely arranged against the desktop. Click any to switch to it.

There’s a lot more to Exposé as well; Press F11 to get to the desktop, and F10 to see thumbnails of all windows open in your current application. You can also customize Exposé so that when you move your cursor to a specific area of the screen you can perform an Exposé function.

As for launching programs, the Dock isn’t the only way to do it. You can also run them from the Finder, which is a more impressive and useful version of Windows Explorer. And you can put aliases on your desktop to run programs and access files and folders.

Every part of the operating system shows a similar combination of simplicity and elegance. Want to get a rundown about every aspect of your hardware and software? Click the Apple icon in the upper-left-hand part of the screen, select About this Mac, then click More Info and you’ll be able to easily browse through screens of useful, easily accessible information. Similarly, selecting System Preferences from the Dock lets you customize many aspects of the operating system.

There’s a lot more and I could spend more time writing about Mac OS X, but you get the point. While it takes a little bit of getting used to for a Windows user, it’s an excellent operating system.

Networking with PCs

I approached the next task with a bit of apprehension — getting the Mac to work with the Windows-based PCs on my network. I had tried this with Linux, with limited success at best, so I was worried that I would face the same issues with the Mac.

The initial work—getting the Mac to recognize PCs on my network—was a snap; it took no work at all. I launched Finder, saw all of my Windows PCs in the Shared area and was able to connect to every one of them — Windows Vista PCs, Windows XP PCs and even a PC running a beta version of Windows 7. I merely had to click the PC to which I wanted to connect, click Connect As in the upper-right-hand part of the screen, type in my username and password, and I was in. I could open and save files just as if I was connected using a PC.

But it wasn’t a two-way street. None of my PCs could see my Mac or connect to it—the Mac was essentially invisible to them. The problem, I discovered, was that in order for the PCs to see the Mac, the Mac needed to be configured for PC networking using the SMB protocol — the Samba networking protocol used in Linux.

Given that I couldn’t get a Linux machine to play properly with my PCs using Samba, I wasn’t optimistic about getting the Mac to work. In fact, with a bit of help, I was able to fix the problem. It’s certainly not obvious or intuitive, but if you know the steps, you can do it. Given Apple’s push to get PC users to switch to the Mac, though, the company would do well to simplify the PC network setup on its Macs.

Before connecting a Mac and a PC, you need a few pieces of information. First, you need the name of your workgroup on your Windows network. If you’ve given your workgroup a name other than the Windows default name, just use that. By default, the workgroup name in Windows Vista is WORKGROUP, and in Windows XP, it’s MSHOME.

If you’re not sure of your workgroup name, in Windows XP, right-click My Computer, select Properties and click the Computer Name tab. Click Change, and you’ll see the Workgroup name. In Windows Vista, right-click Computer and select Properties; you’ll see the workgroup name in the “Computer name, domain and workgroup settings” area.

You also need to know the IP address of your router — the internal IP address it uses on your network. If you don’t know it, check the manual or the vendor’s Web site. If you have a Linksys router, the default IP address is 192.168.1.1.

Now that you have that information, you’re ready to get your Mac recognized on the network. On the Mac, select System Preferences —> Networking and select your main means of networking. In my case, because I was using the Air’s wireless connection, this was AirPort. (If I wanted a hardwired Ethernet connection, I’d have to purchase a $29 USB Ethernet adapter.)

Click the Advanced button and select WINS. In the Workgroup field, type in the name of your network. Click the + button underneath the WINS Servers box, type in the IP address of your router and click OK. Back on the main Network screen, click Apply.

Go back to the System Preferences screen and click Sharing. Check the box next to File Sharing, and add any folders or users you want to share. Then click the Options button and check the box next to “Share files and folders using SMB.” Check the box next to your account name and click Done.

That should do the trick—at least, it did it for me. Once I did that, all of my PCs saw the Mac on the network. I was able to connect to the Mac in XP, Vista and Windows 7, and access its files and folders as easily as if I was doing it from a PC.

I have a network printer, and finding and installing it was also exceptionally easy via System Preferences. When I chose to add the printer, the Mac operating system quickly found the device on my network and installed the driver. At that point, all I had to do was print. Very nice.

As easy as networking with the Mac is, there is one feature I miss from Windows Vista — the Network and Sharing Center, and particularly the Network Map, which draws a map of your network, including all devices, including your home router. From the map, you can easily browse to any device and get information about it. Mac OS X would do well to emulate that.

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