26 February 2011

A MacBook Air running Windows 7 is the greatest PC ever made.

When asked what type of computer to purchase my response is almost automated.  If you are not an expert and can afford the extra bucks you should purchase a Mac.  If you need the least expensive system money can buy then hop over to Costco (great return policy) and buy whatever Windows system you like because they will all be equally (un)reliable.  My years messing with Windows and OS X has drilled into my head that OS X is the superior operating system and Apple hardware was overpriced hardware you had to buy to get it.  Still, I had never personally switched my home environment to OS X so it was not a completely educated recommendation.  This is the story of my journey into the Macintosh universe.

For those that are impatient I will jump to the conclusion:  The MacBook Air has become the greatest computer I have ever owned and worth every penny.  I do not make that comment lightly because, until this system, the Amiga 3000 (released in 1990) was the finest combination of hardware and operating system (I still love Workbench OS) ever created.  However, a MacBook Air running Windows 7 is stunningly elegant, intuitive and remarkably easy to use.  In fact, I struggle to find a single reasonable complaint about this system and would recommend it highly to anyone who is moderately comfortable setting up a WiFi connection.

Yes.  I just said “running Windows 7”.  Let me explain:

When it comes to computer hardware Apple is in a class that no one can touch.  Is there phone hardware out there that compares to the iPhone (ignoring antenna design)?  Is there an MP3 player that compares to the Nano?  Is there a pocketable everything device that compares to the iPod Touch?  And there is nothing that compares to the iPad.  Better yet, despite the reputation these products are dirt cheap compared to the competition.  That elegant hardware ability extends into the Macintosh line as well; however nothing prepared me for the perfection that awaited me with a MacBook Air.  I am fairly certain dictionary publishers around the world will include a photo of the Air under the definition “perfection” in their next edition.

On the software side I admit that Apple has been hit and miss in my book.  They make their products simple but they also are often buggy and limited.  Then there are examples like iTunes that are bloated pieces of junk that would be destroyed were it not for our addiction to Apple’s amazing hardware.  But there are examples of brilliance like iOS for which no peers currently exist.

When I gave up Windows 7 for OS X I expected an astounding iOS experience.  I would limit myself to what can be done in the OS and add my needed productivity software and live with the results.  Sure, I might complain about the technical limitations but ultimately it would be easy for me to get whatever I wanted done.  No doubt becoming a “switcher” would be a painless experience and I half expected I might never return my home use to Windows ever again.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Now, some things were dandy in OS X.  Chrome works great and synced my bookmarks automatically.  Microsoft Office works just as well as the Windows equivalent for standard use.  Photoshop and Acrobat, despite being Adobe products, worked dandy.  And despite being  right about the OS being limited I found OS X to be on par with Windows 7 on ease of use.  The thing that shocked me was how buggy the experience was.  There were even roadblocks on my ability to switch Apple Windows software to the Mac such as not being able to convert my iTunes library over.  (Really, Apple?  Really?)  Here are the highlights of my adventure:

A surprising percentage of the American workforce uses remote control type applications to work on a somewhat routine basis whether it is Citrix, Terminal Services, VNC, GoToMyPC or whatever else.  Because I am a geek I am using these systems most of the day and what I found is OS X has serious problems.  At the most basic, activities like right mouse clicking seemingly never work no matter how many keys you hit or setting up the right mouse button in OS X and using an external mouse defeats the purpose of a laptop.  Heck, pressing “delete” and having it delete an email or document also was an epic fail and would have strange results.  The list goes on but suffice it to say that OS X is not an ideal environment for my day job.

When it comes to basic computing functionality the right mouse button is as basic as it gets.  Yes, there is a setting to turn it on buried in there but the operating system was not built for it.  A button opening a context menu is a significant boost to productivity and Apple seems hell bent on not showing Microsoft got something right.  If you build your software around single button simplicity it only raises the comedy of multi-touch commands.  Do not misunderstand me, I actually love multi-touch and after one day in OS X I could never live another day on a touchpad without two finger scrolling.  However, Apple has valuable screen real estate taken up with a menu bar at the top of the screen that should be abandoned for a right mouse click context menu.

Another area where Windows 7 shines is the taskbar.  It displays, launches and browses applications better than the Dock plus is easier to use, too, which is something the folks in Cupertino should take note of.  More importantly, the Dock does a poor job of tracking and finding open applications.  A number of the programs I used daily would be running but would not be retrievable or even displayed in the Dock for no reason I could comprehend.

Then there are the things Apple has no control of.  Flash, Java, Silverlight, Amazon downloads – heck, even Netflix showed hiccups and crashes that I never experienced in Windows.  Chances are this is because the parent companies are not devoting as many resources to their Mac applications but it is important to keep in mind that many of the complaints (flash[cough]) are really problems limited to OS X.

Sure, there were geeky complaints, too, but I will only bother you with the one that I think applies outside of the land of propeller heads:  The way Windows handles drive mapping and network functions is not only more powerful but is also easier to use if you are connecting to non-Apple devices.  While most home users could care less I think this distinction is important in a device that does not have huge amounts of storage for backup and access to media.  Yes, Apple has easy to use hardware like Time Capsule that dismiss the complications but if a home user might have non-Apple hardware they are connecting to then this issue is somewhat critical.

Probably my biggest complaint was the giant pimple growing on top of the MacBook Air with OS X.  Lift the lid of the Air and poof you are back at work.  Well, until you click on a web site or try to access something on the network, that is.  As it turns out it takes a second or two (or three) for the network connection to come back to life.  It seems petty but for someone who is taking breaks from working on the computer throughout the day it started as a mild irritant and within a week was infuriating to get web page load errors when I was moving faster than the computer.

I could have lived with the limitations but it seemed too close to perfection to let them go.  I love the hardware, live for the double finger scrolling and adore the instant-on availability of fmy system but the bugs were aggravating.  So, I did the unthinkable.  I purchased Windows 7 Home Premium and installed it.  Was it a two hundred buck improvement?  No.  It was worth far more.

After bootcamping into Windows 7 I found all of the bugs disappeared.  All of the web “standards” (Java, Flash, Silverlight and so forth) were back to their clean and fast running selves again.  The taskbar had returned and remote controlling other Windows systems was as easy as it ever was.  Mapping to servers and other computers was straight forward and drive mapping to our NAS happened automatically.  The biggest surprise was the advantages that traveled with me.  Yes, when Windows comes out of sleep mode from lifting open the lid it does so with the same speed of OS X but it does it without the delay to access the network.  Keyboard commands suddenly work properly.  The two finger scrolling continued to work in Windows.  And, surprise-surprise, I had two mouse buttons on the built-in touchpad!  (Really, Apple?  Really?)  Another benefit was that Windows 7, when set up properly for solid state memory, had as good or better battery life likely due to use of TRIM commands and other basic functions that OS X has yet to pick up.

Based on my experience it sure seems that the MacBook Air runs Windows better than it does OS X and had me questioning why the Microsoft Store does not sell the MacBook Air with Windows 7 pre-installed.  The combination of the two makes for the finest computer I have ever owned.  Now, I am not saying everyone should buy a MacBook Air and install Windows 7 on it.  For those that are technology challenged I highly recommend an iOS device like an iPad since it will accomplish nearly every basic computing task a home user may need.

OS X is an operating system for those that have already bought into the Macintosh universe.  It is a fine piece of software but unless you already have an OS X software library the current version seems a step or two behind Windows 7.  Sure, if you are at risk for getting malware than OS X is nice because there is less out there, but those folks should buy an iPad instead.  If you are technology challenged and need a mouse equipped system to connect to the office then get a cheap Windows laptop for work and an iPad for everything else and it will still cost less than a Mac and be risk free for computing.  However, for those who have some technology skills, I cannot imagine missing an opportunity to install the best on the best.  Yes, it is not cheap but combining a MacBook Air with Windows 7 is the computing equivalent of platinum and this half-switcher could not be happier.