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A Mac Pro is a Force to be reckoned with

For those that follow this blog regularly you know that yesterday I went out and bought a Mac Pro to compliment the MacBook that started my adventures into the Mac world after spending the last 24 years in the DOS/Windows camp.

I won't go into too much detail here because my first day post with the MacBook and subsequent posts leading up to this one make it pretty clear that I have been impressed enough to actually switch to Mac. But didn't I switch to Mac back when I bought my MacBook? No, not really. I was still actively using my Windows machine on a daily basis because it's where my development work gets done. I just constantly found myself wanting to spend time on my MacBook. It was new and interesting and even though I've had a couple of stumbling blocks early on I was just drawn to the machine. OS X is a deceptively powerful OS, one that combines a nice simple interface for novice users with incredible flexibility for people that want to dig in just a little. It seemed like every day I found some cool new feature within OS X which is why writing this blog has actually been pretty darn easy.

There were just a couple of things that frustrated me with my MacBook - and they were simply because I was trying to make a small, highly portable machine perform heavy duty desktop tasks. Working with the screen on the MacBook just didn't provide the kind of real estate I needed; even with a 320GB hard drive added in I was limited in disk space and I really need more than just 2 USB ports if this is going to be my primary machine. I love it as a travel system though - I was just ready to replace my Windows desktop with a Mac and really make the switch.

My earlier experiments with VMware Fusion had gone really well and I was confident that I could actually switch completely to Mac now and simply run Windows inside a VM for my development work. I considered the iMac but ultimately decided on a Mac Pro. I already had some beautiful monitors in the dual Samsung SyncMaster 204Bs and I love the idea of running Fusion on an 8 core system. The price of the Mac Pro seemed a bit steep but in reality I ended up paying less than I did for my state of the art XP rig just over a year ago.

Buying Refurbished
I had mentioned on this blog several times that I was ready to go "all in" and get a Mac Pro and several folks recommended that I should consider buying refurbished directly from Apple instead of buying new. The comments I received were that the refurbished machines were just like buying new except that they 1) cannot be customized from Apple and 2) come in rather plain looking cardboard boxes.

Here's what mine looked like when it arrived yesterday:


Sure, it wasn't the pristine packaging you get with a new Apple system. Ok, that was a non-issue for me. According to Apple they take in machines that are returned for a variety of different reasons and then go through an exhaustive set of tests to recondition the product for resale. What I found inside the box was what appeared to be a brand new machine. The only flaw I could find was a tiny little nick at the top edge of the keyboard. That was it. Going this route saved me $400.

The Mac Pro Main System
When you buy a Mac Pro you are buying a nearly complete system; the only thing you really need to purchase is a monitor, though external speakers are also recommended. When I pulled out the Mac Pro I promptly placed it on a towel on my hardwood floor and opened the case. The fit and finish of the aluminum case is fantastic. No tweaking or pushing to align pins so the case cover fits.

Inside is the cleanest looking interior I have ever seen on a desktop PC. My Windows XP machine is a jumble of interior cables and wires. Even using tie straps (which I do) you can only do so much cable management inside a custom built PC. The Mac Pro interior is stunningly clean. Installing the drives and memory took me minutes. Adding the new drive in went so fast that I pulled it back out, set up my little Canon SD1100 in video record mode and shot a video of it. I was that impressed.


Adding to the memory was also very simple. There are two risers in the lower portion of the system that slide out by tugging on the two large holes at the end of the card. The DIMMs are inserted into the cards and they are placed back in - pretty basic. The memory itself must be matched up to like memory - RTFM on this one. I had 2 1GB sticks that came with the machine, 2 1GB sticks that my friend Dr. Michael Roach at Digital Apple Juice sent me since they were extras after he bought his Mac Pro and then I ordered 4 2GB sticks from OWC. This gave me a total of 12GB of memory - plenty to do everything I need for the foreseeable future.

Initial System Performance
Once I had fished all of the external cables and had the Mac Pro sitting in the primary location I went through the startup process. The Mac Pro came to life quickly and before too long I was in OS X and ready to go. It recognized that I had two new drives in the system and prompted me to run Disk Utility on them. I simply created two full size partitions using Mac OS Extended (Journaled) on each drive. It took all of a couple of minutes before both drives were ready. So much better than the hours it would have taken than the default Windows option to partition and format those drives for NTFS on a Windows machine.

The system itself is extremely fast, as I expected it to be. The first thing I did was install VMware Fusion and move my Windows XP image from the MacBook over. It took a little configuring and reactivating Windows XP but very quickly my VM was up an running. Once is was up it ran Windows and my entire development environment perfectly. I could run it in full screen mode if I felt nostalgic, keep it in a window or even run it in Unity mode, which VMware supports. My development environment just appears as a "Windows" looking window on OS X.

On of the first applications I installed was iStat menus so that I could keep an eye on the system as I was installing and working with applications for the first time. Displaying the logical CPUs in the menu is almost comical since I now have 8 little graphs showing CPU. The only task that seemed to make the machine work hard was when I imported 20K + pictures into iPhoto.

I'm still going through and trying to figure out which of the many applications I've been playing with on the MacBook will make it over to the new machine. My photo and video collection are already on it, my complete iTunes library is now there and I have just a few more key pieces that were on the Windows machine that will now be on the Mac Pro.

Peripheral Hardware - the Mighty Mouse and Keyboard
My Mac Pro came with a full size thin aluminum keyboard. While it has the same key spacing and feel that my beloved MacBook does, it is not as comfortable to type on as I hoped it would be. I have to arch my wrists a bit more than I am used to and lose my place on the "home" keys pretty easily.

This is in part because I am coming from using the split keyboards from Microsoft for so many years. I am going to keep trying to get used to the Mac's native keyboard for a little longer but may end up either moving the Microsoft keyboard over to the Mac Pro or try to find a split key model that is specific to Mac.


Unlike the keyboard, which I may be able to tolerate, I could not get used to the Might Mouse. While I love the little track ball that serves as the scroll wheel, the buttons on it just feel odd. When I use my mouse I have a tendency to rest my palm on it and I felt as though I was activating the mouse all the time. I also really struggled to get the right clicking to work.

Fortunately I have a Logitech mx510 gaming mouse that has drivers for OS X. This mouse works fantastic and with the additional buttons I am able to activate Spaces, use the forward and back buttons, etc. quite easily.

A Name for the Mac Pro
After much debate - basically me talking to myself yet again - I decided to name the new Mac Pro "Force" as in the Force from Star Wars. Thanks to Roger for being the first to suggest that one when I asked for a little help. 

The Force is strong within this one.

29 comments:

Eric said...

I don't know if anyone has mentioned this yet, but Disco is a really great app for copying/burning CDs and DVDs

David Alison said...

@Eric: I hadn't heard of that one. I found an open source application called Burn that has worked really well for me.

VesperDEM said...

Amusingly enough, I tend to use Disk Utility that comes with OS X for most of my CD burning needs. It allows you to burn ISO's easily, which is mostly what I typically burn.

When I do need to burn something other than an ISO, I tend to use the stuff that comes with OS X as well. iTunes for music, Finder for files, etc...

I do have Burn since it's free. But I really haven't used it. I also have Disco. I got it when it was in beta. I have used it a couple of times, but I find it a little confusing to use. It's supposed to allow you to backup something that won't fit on a single CD/DVD by burning to several CD/DVD's, but I have never tested it and have heard a lot of complaints about it early on. I suspect they have fixed any bugs, but still. I backup to an external HDD using Time Machine now. Before, I used SuperDuper!.

By the way, I hate the "Mighty Mouse" too. For gaming it's totally useless. It "can" recognize right-clicks and left-clicks, but it can't recognize both buttons being pressed at the same time. It just assumes you mean left-click if you have your fingers on both sides of the mouse. A lot of games use both buttons for doing something. In World of Warcraft, you use both to look around. I was never able to "look around" with the Mighty Mouse. I'm using a Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000 myself. Not the best, but I haven't really found a "wired" mouse I like for gaming, so...

tzs said...

I think that what determines whether or not you have problems with the Mighty Mouse is what you left click finger does when you right click, and vice versa. Let's call the finger you left click with L, and the right click finger R.

Suppose you are sitting there, with L and R resting on the mouse. Some people, when they press down with L to click, also raise R, and vice versa. I'm one of these people, and have no problems at all with the Mighty Mouse.

Other people only move the clicking finger, so if they click with R, L stays on the mouse, and vice versa. I think it is these people that have trouble.

The Mighty Mouse only uses one button for both L and R click. It decides which you mean by what fingers are touching the mouse when you click, and so those of us who lift the non-clicking finger don't have a problem, while those of you who leave all fingers on during a click can confuse it.

David Alison said...

@Tzs: Thanks for that explanation - makes a lot of sense. When holding the mouse my fingers are always in contact with the mouse's surface, which would explain the problem I have with it.

VesperDEM said...

@tzs: This is my point about gaming. You can't be holding both the left and right buttons down on a Mighty Mouse. It's the main reason I stopped using it.

I too really loved the little trackball it uses for a mouse wheel. However, that too had some pretty nasty problems. I use the "center" button all the time to open links into new tabs. The MM trackball is too sensitive and wound up scrolling the browser when I attempt to click on a link with the center button (trackball button in this case).

It's really kind of surprising that Apple, the company that makes the iPod and iPhone/iPod Touch can't design a decent multi-button mouse. Sad really.

Chris Howard said...

Dave, I agree on the Mighty Mouse. In fact, for me I found with prolonged usage I was developing RSI.

I switched both my mouse and keyboard. Now have a MS Natural split keyboard, and a Logitech Marble Mouse (a trackball). I love the trackballs and I've converted my kids as well. I do prefer the finger ball ones to the thumb-ball ones. I reckon everyone should use one! (Ok, except those who need a graphics tablet - which I do use too from time to time.)

And now, Dave, there's only one step left in this journey of yours - which I've thoroughly enjoyed following.

And that is? To become a Mac developer.

David Alison said...

@Chris: So if I attach the Microsoft keyboard does the Start key map to Alt/Option on the Mac side and the Alt key maps to the Apple/Command key on the Mac side? The more I type on the Mac keyboard the more I am getting used to it though, and now when I slide over to the MacBook there is no adjustment needed.

As for Mac development, that is indeed my intention. Once I get the web portion of my application completed I intend to create a custom client version of this for Mac.

devburke said...

Yeah, like was already said, right-clicking with a Mighty Mouse only works if you lift your left finger off the button. I loved the Mighty Mouse at first, I really liked the button configuration, but actually, the scrollball (which you liked) is its biggest downfall, in my opinion. Remember why we all switched away from trackball mice? How annoying it was when they got dirty and you had to clean them? Well, use a Mighty Mouse for long enough, and you'll have the same problem. Only you can't open it up to clean the rollers. It's really frustrating. I wouldn't stick with the Mighty Mouse if I were you.

Chris Howard said...

Dave, in the keyboard system preferences, you swap the modifier keys for Option and Command for the MS keyboard only.

You could make a killing as a Mac developer of corporate apps. Most Mac developers target smaller business or home users. There's so many holes in Mac corporate software. Of course there's a bit of chicken and the egg too - i.e. there's holes coz there's few users and there's few users because there's holes. So which does come first? Users or apps?

David Alison said...

@Devburke: The Mighty Mouse is already back in a box and unlikely to come back out.

@Chris: Thanks for the tip on the MS keyboard. I may hook it up just to see what it's like.

As for Mac corporate applications - well, the big movement in applications development is towards web based applications where the platform end users have doesn't matter anyway. That's really where my focus is.

Where I see the opportunity is in combining the web model with rich client side applications; it gives you the best of both worlds. By creating the web application you have ubiquitous access; combine that with web services and a custom client for off-line activities and you get the rich user interface experience people really like.

I would really like to try my hand at building native Mac applications but it will have to be after my initial web based product release.

Chris Howard said...

Dave, continuing off on the development tangent, what's you impressions of the AIR/Flex platform? I'm a big fan of Buzzword and Photoshop Express looks great too. The Adobe stuff looks more next-gen then any other web apps I've seen.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I last got a new hard drive, but I can't remember it ever take more than a couple of minutes to get it ready for use with NTFS. I was surprised to read your negative comment on that.

Ed said...

Fantastic blog on making the switch. I'm in the same boat as I just purchased a MacBook Pro but still work (somewhat...) on a ridiculously powerful PC with two monitors (although mine are two 24" LCDs). I know what you mean when you say you try to find excuses to use the Mac more. It's a great machine. I've noticed, as a semi-professional photographer, my Photoshop/Lightroom workflow is so much smoother.

12GB of RAM!? Man, I put 4GB in my MBP and thought it was awesome. Maybe I'll grab a Mac Pro...although I can't help but think I won't be able to play many games on it regardless of BootCamp.

Fred said...

Hi Dave,
It's such a pleasure to read you.
I've been using Macs since the first Mac128k arrived in France ... and thus it's always hard for me to explain why I much prefer macs over other PCs.
Your blog does it with ... Force ;-)

Plus I like your switcher point of view and the way you share this with the rest of us.

FYI: I have two mices, the MM for most tasks (I love the design and the scroll ball) and another one more conventional for gaming (they are both plugged in most of the time).

About CD and DVD, but not about burning them, give a look at Disktop.

Very Best Regards

David Alison said...

@Chris: On Air/Flex, I really like where Adobe is going with this. Though I only had the trial (which has likely expired by now) I slammed together a really quick web page hosting a Flex based application and it looked and ran exactly the same on Mac, Windows and Linux.

There are two downsides to the model: the UI is static and fixed and means that subtle differences in the way each OS renders a control means the applications look generic. As an example, tabs in Windows look very different than the blue buttons that normally represent tabs on OS X. This is minor but those are some of the UI subtleties that people quickly notice.

The second is that as of today there is no iPhone support and I doubt that the Google Android API will support Flex apps either - it requires a LOT of processor to run. This will be a non-issue as phone processor speeds pick up but I think it's going to be a challenge for a while.

Other than these two issue Flex is very, very compelling and something I'm going to look at in more detail down the road. I just have to talk Adobe into giving me another trial ;-)

David Alison said...

@Anon: On the hard drive NTFS formatting time under Windows - The last time I built my Window XP based machine I had two Seagate 150GB 10K RPM SATA drives and formatted the boot disk from the Windows XP installation screen. It was a raw disk from Newegg.com and had not been used. As I recall it took a very long time to go through that formatting.

@Ed & Fred: glad you're enjoying the blog!

Mike Roselius said...

David - congratulations on the MacPro purchase. I've been trying to find an excuse to ditch my KVM connected to a Windows home built and a PowerMac - but neither machine wants to give up the ghost - and I don't think the "warden" will allow another computer purchase until I actually "need" to make one (silly girl)

One thing - FYI - and you may know this - but as I understand it, VMWare is only going to allow you to address 2 of your 8 cores in your virtual machine. This is better than Parallels which (as of this version) does no multi-proc.

I do believe that if you bootcamp boot to your XP installation - you can address more of those 8 cores - so if you are doing some heavy duty compiling etc - might be worth thinking about.

Either way, Windows will limit you to 3 gb addressable memory unless you go 64 bit.

Looking forward to more adventures with the Mac!

David Alison said...

@Mike: Getting clearance from the tower is a key point - and it isn't always easy. Good luck with that man! I've been running the Windows VM for a while now and it is performing splendidly. My application is not too intensive and Visual Studio is actually a very efficient application so it's performing really well.

Dimitrios said...

Where did you find Mac drivers for your wired Logitech mouse? So far the only drivers from logitech, that I have found, are for their wireless mice.

David Alison said...

@Dimitrios: Here is a link to the driver I am using.

Hendrik said...

Apparently the Logitech drivers are rather evil hacks.
Take a look at for example or this blog post and the links therein.

Most of the blue screens that people were getting when upgrading to Leopard and which Apple was blamed and ridiculed for were due to Logitech drivers using unsupported system hacks.

After reading some of this I installed and purchased Steermouse instead. Kind of sucks that I have to pay for a mouse driver that doesn't screw up the system, but I figured it is worth it.

Hendrik said...

Somehow blogger keeps screwing up my comments with links. Not sure what I am doing wrong. The preview looks fine but after commiting it is all screwed up. Anyway, here are the two links in text form:

http://daringfireball.net/linked/2008/april#tue-15-lcc/

http://blog.macromates.com/2007/logitech-control-center/

Hendrik said...

Oh and I should add that I have heard nearly exclusively bad things about Disco. Seems the developers sold lots of copies based on novelty value (smoke simulation while burning, slick looking interface) and then completely stopped developing it into an actual robust disc burning program.

Tom said...

To clarify on the NTFS format speed vs Mac (HFS+), it's all in what the format does.

Windows has an option called quick formatting, and even on the largest of SAN arrays, this can take just a few moments to a few minutes. All that happens is the partition table is altered, some areas are blanked to ensure no redundant copies of the filesystem metadata get confused, and the space is declared ready for data.

Without quick formatting, the drive marks out the area in the partition map, then goes over the whole drive writing 0s basically. Windows has different defaults depending on the version and even where you get to the formatting tool. During setup offers one way, while the GUI another. Quick is going to be fine in most situations, so it's puzzling why MS didn't just default to that.

The Mac Disk Utility defaults to quick in pretty much every situation, but offers to go over the whole disk as an option. It even has secure erase functions that meet DOD specifications, but thats very timely as it goes over the disk multiple times with random junk and all 0s and 1s.

David Alison said...

@Tom: Thanks man - very helpful. I don't recall an option for Quick Format when installing XP directly from CD onto a new drive, though I do recall seeing the Quick Format option when inside the GUI. I could be wrong on not having the option. As I get a fair amount of traffic I am going to correct my original assertion.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I love the keyboard and Mighty mouse - these have virtually eliminated the creeping symptoms of RSI I was beginning to suffer from. I think some of the 'ergonomic' mouse designs actually tend to force your hand into an position that feels unnatural.

I'd try persevering with the keyboard though. It's extremely low profile means that your wrists aren't cocked back so much, and therefore the pressure on the carpal tunnels should be less.

That said - we're all wired up differently so just go with what feels right for you ! After all, does it really matter which keyboard or mouse you use compared to someone else ? ! I would recommend using a Mac-specific keyboard layout though, because those command keys are awful useful.

David Alison said...

@Anon: The keyboard is growing on me. I'm not too worried about which keyboard I use other than making my wrists comfortable. I do agree that matching up the keys is important for me though - which is why I'm trying to stick with the basic keyboard.

Eytan said...

If you end up using any of the MSFT keyboards (I use the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000) just download and install their Mac software for mapping of the keys...
I used a Natural Keyboard Pro at home, but like the Mac Pro keyboard so much I have switched at home.