A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac

Installing and upgrading software

For a Windows user, installing software downloaded from the Internet on a Mac takes some getting used to. At first, I found it quite confusing. When I downloaded files, they showed up on the upper-right-hand side of the desktop, as if they were new hard drives, and it wasn’t clear at all what needed to be done at that point.

By clicking on one, I managed to stumble on an installation routine. But then when it was done, I wasn’t sure how to run the program. Unlike Windows, there was no icon on the desktop, and no Start button for accessing installed programs. Eventually, I found the applications in the Application folder of Finder, and ran them from there.

Once I learned how to install software, though, it became a breeze. Generally, when you download a program to install to your Mac, you’re installing a disk image — which is why it shows up on the desktop like a disk. Double-click it and, from the folder that opens, double-click the file with an extension .pkg. At that point, you’ll be walked through the installation process.

Once you’ve installed the software, you can run it from the Application folder, put it permanently on the Dock and run it from there, or create an alias for it on the desktop and run it from there. You can now delete the disk image from the desktop by dragging it to the Trash.

Upgrading software was straightforward and simple as well. Select Software Update after clicking the Apple menu, and you’ll see a screen like the one pictured nearby. By default, all updates will be checked. Uncheck any you don’t want done, and leave those checked you want updated. Then click the Install button, follow the instructions and you’re done. Depending on what you’ve installed, you may have to restart the Mac. I upgraded from Mac OS X 10.5.5 to 10.5.6 in this way, and it went off without a hitch.

Getting work done

With everything set up, it was time to get work done.

When it comes to applications that ship with the operating system, Mac OS X beats Windows hands-down. The iLife suite of applications—including iPhoto, iMovie, Garage Band and iWeb—is superior to anything you’ll find in Windows. You won’t need them for work, but for home use, they’re excellent.

Given that I’m a writer, and also need to occasionally use spreadsheets and sometimes presentation software as well, I needed an office suite—and the Mac doesn’t come with one. Because an Air is not an inexpensive device, and applications are tough on the wallet, I decided that I would try, if at all possible, to get by without paying for software.

Apple offers a reasonably priced office suite in iWork ’09, which costs $79 (or $49 if you pre-order it on a new Mac), but I decided to go for a free alternative. I had previously used the Windows and Linux versions of OpenOffice.org, and decided to give the Mac version a try. As expected, it was straightforward, simple to use, and offered all the features I needed for writing, spreadsheets and presentations.

Then I found out about NeoOffice, an open-source office suite based on OpenOffice.org. NeoOffice has a number of Mac-specific touches not included in OpenOffice.org, such as floating palettes, the ability to use trackpad gestures to zoom in and out, and a more complete set of available menus when no files are open. I found myself using NeoOffice more than OpenOffice.org, but either suite is excellent—there’s no need to purchase Microsoft Office.

Both office suites handle Microsoft Office formats, including .docx files, so there was no problem with document compatibility with Word files. The suites also recognize Word markup, and their markup is recognized by Word.

I found only two relatively minor compatibility issues. First, although I could read comments inserted in documents, I couldn’t add comments of my own—that feature seems nowhere to be found. (The ability to add comments may be added to OpenOffice 3.1 when it’s released.)

Second is that both NeoOffice and OpenOffice.org have a minor bug related to page numbering in documents created in Word. If you create a document with a starting page after one — for example, if you’re writing a book and need to start a chapter on page 24 — neither NeoOffice nor OpenOffice.org will recognize that. Instead, they’ll substitute one for the starting page number.

I also found one anomaly between OpenOffice.org and NeoOffice—in OpenOffice.org, the Command-Delete combination deleted an entire line of text, while in NeoOffice, it back-deleted a single word.

As for Web browsers, I tried both Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s own Safari (the beta of Version 4.0), and found Safari slightly faster, with some very nifty features, such as a panoramic thumbnail display of your favorite sites.

Both Safari and Firefox work with Foxmarks, an add-in that lets you synchronize your bookmarks among different computers. Foxmarks also works with Internet Explorer. So I was able to use any browser on any computer, and my bookmarks would synchronize among them. This let me switch between Safari and Firefox on the Mac without any issues at all.

I was extremely pleased to find that the Mac also supports Microsoft’s Windows Live Sync software, which lets you keep files and folders synchronized among multiple computers. In this way, I could work on my Mac on documents, which would be automatically synchronized back to my PC, and vice versa.

Windows users will at first be confused by one operating systemwide feature related to applications that is quite disconcerting — an application’s menu is separate from the application window, and lives at the very top of the desktop. So, for example, if you’re working in an application, and the window is not maximized, you won’t find the menu in the application window itself — it’s at the very top of the desktop.

More disconcerting still is that when you minimize an application, the menu of that application remains open at the top of the screen, even though you may be now looking at an altogether different app. For example, if I was working in NeoOffice and then minimized it, the NeoOffice menu remained active, even though I was now looking at Firefox (whose window was initially underneath NeoOffice’s window). Admittedly, once I clicked in Firefox, its menu became active. But I never did get used to this, and found it continually confusing.

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