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A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac

The keyboard conundrum

Windows users will find that the Mac keyboard will take getting used to, and it’s more difficult if you’re using the MacBook Air keyboard, which has fewer keys than the normal Mac and dispenses with some common keys such as Home and End.

Generally, the Command key works like the Windows Control key — for example, to move forward or backward a word at a time, use the Command key in concert with the left or right arrow key. Most difficult to get used to was the Mac’s Delete key, which works in the exact opposite way as the Windows Delete key — it deletes text to the left of the insertion point, rather than the right. (In other words, it works like a PC’s Backspace key.) To delete to the right, you have to hold down the Fn key while pressing the Delete key. To delete entire words in this way, you hold down both the Fn and Option keys while pressing Delete. (There is an extended Apple keyboard that has a second delete key, but I was working with the Air.)

The multitouch trackpad gestures also take some getting used to. I would suddenly find my application unaccountably zooming in or out, without any apparent action on my part. The cause: I accidentally brushed two fingers against the trackpad. Move two fingers toward one another on the trackpad (in a pinching gesture) and you zoom out; move the fingers away from one another and you zoom in. There are other trackpad gestures you can use as well, for rotating pictures, for example.

In general, with a little bit of re-learning, I did get used to the MacBook Air’s keyboard. I did miss the Home and End keys, though, and have yet to find any key combination that gives their PC equivalent on the MacBook Air.

If you’re looking for help with keyboard shortcuts, Apple has a very good list of them. And anyone who wants to rearrange their Mac keys, to make them more PC-like, for example, can use the free utility DoubleCommand. You can have the Mac keyboard Home and End keys work on a Mac like they do on a PC, for example, and you can swap the Alt (Option) and Command keys. (On the PC keyboard, the Alt key is to the right of the Ctrl key; on the Mac keyboard the Alt key is to the left of the Command key.)

I found that the single-click trackpad of the MacBook Air was inferior to the two-button trackpad of a PC. It’s simpler to right-click an item to get an options menu than it is to press the Option key and click the spacebar, which is what you have to do on the Air. However, the scrolling trackpad is quite nice; you can scroll through documents by moving two fingers down the trackpad. And, as I mentioned previously, there are other gestures that you can use well, for zooming in and out of documents and more.

Running Windows on the Mac

One of the big benefits touted by Mac users has been the Mac’s ability to run Windows as well as Mac OS X. Boot Camp, which is part of the Mac operating system, lets you set up the Mac as a dual-boot machine that can boot into either Windows or the Mac OS. However, I was more interested in running Windows inside Mac OS X as a virtual machine, so I had to find another solution. Parallels Desktop and VMware’s Fusion will both do that, but each costs $79.99, and I wanted a free alternative.

I found one: the free, open-source VirtualBox from Sun. I had heard that it ran more slowly than Parallels Desktop and Fusion, but you can’t argue with free.

Macworld’s Rob Griffiths on Choosing a virtualization application

Windows XP running in Sun’s VirtualBox
Creating a virtual Windows machine in VirtualBox is relatively straightforward, with some potential gotchas along the way. You’ll need either a Windows installation disc, or else an .ISO image of the installation disc. I chose to go with the .ISO image. Once that’s in hand, you download and install VirtualBox, and then run it. To install Windows as a virtual machine, you launch a wizard, and first choose and name the operating system you’re going to install.

Next, you choose how much RAM you want to give to it. This is an important consideration, because any RAM you give Windows won’t be available to Mac OS X. You need to balance both their needs for sufficient RAM. I chose 768MB for Windows, which seemed a reasonable compromise.

As you go through the rest of the wizard, most of what you’ll encounter is self-explanatory. One thing that may confuse you is that you’ll need to create a virtual hard disk in which to install Windows — something that really should be done at the beginning of the process. So when you’re asked where to install Windows, you’ll need to go through the process of creating a virtual hard disk.

I also ran into somewhat of an oddball issue, possibly because of the way I got the Windows .ISO image onto my Mac. I downloaded the image from my Microsoft Technet account via a Windows PC, and chose to download the file to my Mac via the PC. After the file downloaded, the Mac OS changed the extension from .iso to .img. I had to change the extension back to .iso in order for VirtualBox to use it to install Windows. Once I did all that, though, Windows installed as it normally did on a PC. After setup, Windows ran fine in its own Mac window.

There were a few things I had to get used to, notably switching the focus of the keyboard between the Mac OS X and the window running Windows. By default, pressing the left Command key switches from one to the other. I also had to re-learn some keyboard commands for inside Windows. For example, when you’re in Windows, you can’t just press a Function key such as F8. Instead, you have to press the Mac’s fn key simultaneously with the Function key. When you do that, it works fine.

In addition, because there’s only one button, not two, on the MacBook Air trackpad, you can’t right-click. So you need to hold down the Command key while clicking; that’s the equivalent of a right click.

By default, my virtual Windows machine ran in 800-by-600-pixel resolution, but you can change that as you would normally in Windows. As a result, the VirtualBox window will resize larger to take into account the higher resolution. However, at resolutions higher than 800 by 600, Windows behavior was sometimes a bit flaky on my MacBook Air, with a small portion of the Windows screen cut off at times. It may be that a bit of troubleshooting would solve the problem, but it wasn’t enough of an issue for me to pursue it.

Windows ran normally and recognized all the necessary hardware and network configurations; I was even able to browse the Internet using Internet Explorer. It was a little slow, and running it also slowed down the Mac somewhat, particularly when I ran multiple applications. Overall, though, it worked like a charm.

In fact, I was able to perform a bit of magic, and was able to remotely control PCs on my home network using my Mac when I was away at a Wi-Fi hot spot. I ran VirtualBox with a virtual Windows machine, launched Internet Explorer, then connected to a Windows Home Server that I’d set up for remote access to my PCs. I was then able to run my PCs remotely, including running Outlook and accessing my e-mail. Controlling a PC remotely with my Mac was not something I ever expected to do, but it was simple.

The final verdict

What did I learn after several weeks of living with the Mac?

First off, I had expected there to be a longer learning curve, and had thought that in the long run there wouldn’t be much of a difference between the Mac and a PC. After all, an operating system is just an operating system.

To a certain extent that’s true. When you use productivity applications themselves, there’s not a great deal of difference between using them on a Mac versus using them on a PC. However, when it came to the operating system itself, there’s certainly a difference, and a substantial one. Mac OS X is simpler to use and easier to configure, yet has more bells, whistles and “eye candy.” And much of that eye candy, such as Exposé, is not just elegantly designed and entertaining, but quite useful as well.

That’s not to say that every aspect of the Mac is superior to the PC. Vista’s Network and Sharing Center, and especially the Network Map, is an excellent, simple, all-in-one destination for networking that Mac OS X would do well to emulate.

Overall, though, Mac OS X beats Windows. There, I’ve said it. And lightning hasn’t struck me yet.

However, there’s no doubt that you often pay extra for a Mac; there really is a Mac tax, even if Microsoft has overstated the amount of that tax. But after living with a Mac, I can understand why people would be willing to pay the tax.

Am I giving up PCs for the Mac? Certainly not. I’ve got multiple PCs at home, including those that run Windows XP, Windows Vista and a beta of Windows 7. And I’ve got one that dual-boots into either XP or Linux running Ubuntu. Replacing all those machines with Macs would be prohibitively expensive, and simply not worth the effort.

As for the MacBook Air, for a portable machine, it’s perfect in just about every way but one — its price tag. Still, I’ve bit the bullet and am buying one, used. This isn’t about productivity or getting work done; it’s pure machine lust.

[Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, includingHow the Internet Works(Que, 2006).]

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