Switching to Mac - Two Years Later

It's now the two year mark for my switch from Windows to Mac. Over the last two years I've gone from a Windows developer exploring the Mac as a compliment to my Windows and Linux machines to a full time Mac user that spends the vast majority of my time in OS X.

I didn't wake up one day and say "Wow, I hate Windows. I'm going to switch to Mac". I bought a little white MacBook, put it on the desk next to my primary Windows machine and started playing with it. Though technically underpowered compared to the dual screen, custom built PC I spent all of my time on, I found myself constantly reaching over to the MacBook to use it. The environment was fresh and new to me and I began to really enjoy the user interface consistency that OS X and the vast majority of Mac applications shared.

For such a small device the performance was excellent too; though it was the least expensive of the MacBook line of computers it didn't feel like a compromised machine. Applications loaded quickly and I could run several large applications at once and see very little performance impact. In the past when I purchased the least expensive Windows based laptops the machine was barely usable out of the box; it needed to be cleaned of all the "extra" applications and within a month of using it the performance would start to deteriorate. Not so with the Mac.

In relatively short order I went from having a MacBook to purchasing a Mac Pro, which replaced my primary Windows desktop. Whereas the MacBook was quick, the Mac Pro was—and still is—remarkably fast. With dual 2.8Ghz quad core Xeons and 12GB of RAM, I was suddenly able to run a huge number of applications seamlessly.

The bottom line is I'm really happy I decided to "try out" that MacBook two years ago. Computing—as a software developer the place I spent a huge number of my waking hours—became fun and exciting again.

Tips For New Switchers
Over the last two years I've learned a lot about helping people make a successful switch from Windows to Mac. Here is a quick summary of some tips that can help you or someone you know make the transition easier, along with some links to blog posts on the topic:

1) Learn the keyboard
As a touch typist the first problem I had when I started using a Mac was adjusting to the keyboard. A Mac has a Control, Option and Command key to the left of the spacebar, Windows has Control, Start, Alt in that same spot. The more advanced a keyboard user you are the more time it will take you to adjust. Keys like Home and End exist on a full size Mac keyboard but they don't perform the same actions they do on Windows. Backspace and Delete swap labels but not functionality. All of this leads to a lot of missteps initially; invest the time to learn the keys.

2) Be prepared to deal with MS Office files
Nobody at Apple would ever want to admit it but for now DOC, XLS and PPT files are the common language of the business world. You will want to find a solution to open, create and edit Microsoft Office files quickly and easily. The most obvious way to handle this is to get the Mac version of Microsoft Office. While I personally have it installed on one of my Macs, lately I've been using Neo Office to handle those types of files. Though technically you can use iWork to handle that, creating DOC and XLS files in Pages and Numbers requires extra steps that make it a challenge.

Blog Posts: I hate my Mac!

3) Learn about DMG files
If you download a new application over the web chances are it will be packaged up as a DMG file. A DMG file is a disk image and presents itself like a physical CD / DVD would when it is loaded up on your Mac. TUAW has an excellent 101 style overview of them. DMG files are important because of tip #4.

4) Learn to install applications
If you are coming from the Windows world you will need to adjust to how 3rd party applications are delivered on Macs. In Windows most downloaded applications come in the form of a self contained setup program. Double-click it and it starts an install wizard. On Mac you will generally receive a DMG file (see tip #3 above). Inside it may be a PKG file; which can be double-clicked to start an installation program. In some cases the application will just be contained in the DMG file; you drag that into your Applications folder to "install" it. The process is simple once you learn it but not obvious if you are new to Macs.

5) Time Machine is your friend
Go out and buy an inexpensive external hard drive that you can use to run Time Machine, the backup program that comes with OS X. It's seamless, backs up your machine every hour and quickly allows you to either grab an older version of a file you've recently modified or perform a complete restore on the machine. I don't need to use Time Machine for restoring files too often but when I do it's a glorious feeling that I've got backups when I need them.

6) Learn about windows
I'm not talking about Windows the operating system, but the windows in OS X. In Windows when you want to close an application people often just click the X in the top right corner of the window. On OS X the majority of the time clicking on the little red circle that turns into an X when you hover over it will also close the window of the application but not actually quit the application. Maximizing a window in OS X doesn't make it full screen like it does in Windows.

7) Find some great applications
OS X is a pretty complete operating system and comes with enough applications to get any web oriented person up and running. That said, there are tens of thousands of applications that you can use to make the most out of your Mac experience. Over the last two years I've cataloged the applications I've found and without a doubt those are my most popular blog posts. Whatever your interest is, chances are someone has created a nice little application to service that need.

Hopefully this will help some of the more recent switchers out there. You can grab a complete list of my Switching to Mac blog posts (currently at 71) by clicking on the Switching to Mac label on my blog.

Have a tip for helping a recent switcher adjust to a Mac from Windows? Drop a note in the comments below!


Ast A. Moore said...

An excellent post, Dave!

Has it really been two years? (Hugs Dave.)

David Alison said...

@Ast: Thanks Ast. Really hard to believe that two years has gone by so quickly.

Anonymous said...

Just saw your blog and I enjoyed reading it. Like most people, I have my own favorite software to suggest, but I'll leave that for another day. However, for the new Mac user, particularly if the have a Mac friend, I do have a suggestion. When I'm helping a new Mac user, I immediately get them an AIM account (assuming they're not going to pop for MobileMe) and familiarize them with the concept of screen sharing. It will save you boat loads of time in the end. Many times, I've launched iChat, established a screen sharing session (which includes audio sharing automatically) and helped a friend work through a problem. It's pretty slick to show them and talk to them at the same time.

Robert said...

My tip after 6 months of Mac ownership: don't be fooled by the hype -- it will not "just work."

It is a computer, just like all other computers. Some things will work like you want them to and others will drive you to tears. The tears part will especially come when you're used to knowing your old operating system and its idiosyncrasies inside and out and on the Mac you won't even know anyone you can ask for help when you get lost. Your muscle-memory will betray you. Some of the different design philosophies between different operating systems will baffle you because you're used to a subtly different set of metaphors and you didn't even realize it. You'll lose access to applications you used to have and love. For a while, you won't even know how to take a screenshot. If you expect it to "just work" this feels like death by 1,000 cuts.

After 6 months of my Mac being the only computer I use at home, I'm getting pretty familiar with a lot of this now. However, I am totally guilty for falling for the promise of an easy-to-use no-hassle computer and I felt entirely betrayed for a long time by those who told what a dream it was to make the switch. There's a lot to love about a Mac, but there's other stuff too and I don't think it gets discussed except for in religious wars.

dougplummer said...

I have been working on my wife for about a year to switch to a Mac. The campaign keeps facing setbacks, however, as when she watched me go through an inelegant upgrade to Snow Leopard. Lately, she's gotten an iPhone and is dealing with the mishmash that is iTunes. I hate iTunes too, so we're united on that one, but it's become another arrow in her "I hate Macs" quiver.

I am also frustrated by the lack of any good Mac accounting software. I'm a Quicken user, and the Mac version is dreadful. IBank is much weaker, particularly with data entry. It's the only reason I still keep XP on my MacPro.

David Alison said...

@Robert: This is one of the reasons I did this blog - to document what it's really like to switch. As you point out, there are blind fanatics on both ends of the spectrum. The hard core "everything works perfectly all the time" crowd does a disservice to what people will really experience. Yours is indeed a good tip.

That said, I do believe that in most cases the Mac "just works", however that's because I took the time to understand why Macs are designed the way they are. I can see where someone that just takes it at face value, as a better Windows than Windows, would find a lot of sharp edges.

@dougplummer: I'm with you on the accounting software. iBank is serviceable as a very basic personal banking tool but I've found the online tools have outpaced most of what can be installed locally. Quickbooks however remains the king of the hill for small business accounting and the Mac version is... painful. I've kept my Windows XP VM around mainly to be able to run Quickbooks.

Polymath said...

Believe or not I went through a similar experience 3 years ago. I bought a MacBook (basic one) to compliment my Windows Thinkpad workstation laptop. Despite much lower in specs, I found MacBook also fast and hassle free. I originally intended to use the Mac about 10 to 15% of the time, but after a month later, I found myself using it 80% of the time. When I realized this, the writing was on the wall. I went out and bought the MacBook Pro, and I never looked back.

I couldn't be happier with the switch, and now instead of pulling my hair out while using Windows, I find working with computers fun again.

Just thought I would share.


Anonymous said...

One Mac difference that can bite you is the Finder's behavior when you move or copy a folder into a directory which contains an identically named folder. The Mac will *completely* overwrite (not recursively merge contents with) that folder. A confirmation dialog warns you, but who reads those?


sunbeamrapier said...

Excellent article. I switched to Mac some years ago after 30 years in IT, much of that supporting largish Windows networks. I bought an iPod and fell in love with it, but had problems with my Compaq notebook ripping music (it would screw up if i tried to do any other work while it was ripping). So I bought a Mac Powerbook - with some trepidation. But it installed itself painlessly on my wireless network and I was hooked. It even worked with my Win2003 network in the office, and I then started replacing all my WinXP desktops with iMacs.

There are still some things about the Mac that I discover from time to time - it annoys me that Apple provide such minimal manuals, and the online help is almost completely useless: I spend more time trying to figure out what an american would call something! Apple can write good manuals - the Final Cut Pro manuals are really excellent. Apple please note: Less is NOT more when it comes to documentation!

Apple suffers from the same lack of international focus that bedevils most american companies. I could not add the address of a friend in Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka was not on the list of countries... Finding, and switching, all the american spelling options to australian english or UK english is also a chore, but XP was worse...

I am on my fifth Mac now - a 15" Macbook Pro - and I have a Mac Mini for visitors and for playing music. Oh, and I still have my original iPod... I have to tap it on the corner every now and then to release the sticking disk, but it has given great service over several years...

I use iWork rather than Office - I always hated MS Word (I spent 10 years at Wang) and I love the clean, simple interface of Pages... I have the Adobe suite (but I hate it also - its SO clumsy to use), ProTools and Final Cut Pro. I have used iWeb (which is a fantastic tool for anyone creating a simple website) and iMovie before I switched to Final Cut.

When I worked for Wang we could install a 100+ user system which could be managed by 1 person. With the advent of Windows support costs went through the roof. Everything about Windows was clumsy - the development environment was just awful after the elegant 4GL tools on the Wang VS. But the Mac takes me back to that time when technology actually helped you do your work - when you use a Mac you don't notice the operating system, and you dont spend time in the equivalent of control panel, or deinstalling and reinstalling drivers... You just use it.

It just works. Like the advertising says.


Neil Anderson said...

Screenshot — Command-Shift-3
Selected area of screen — Command-Shift-4

Anonymous said...

Best advice to my Switchers? Get them to use the Help menu. For instance when i clicked on Help and put in "screenshot", it gave me a whole series of links to tutorials. The Help on OSX is _really_ good. It works in System Preferences as well. Type in what you want to do and OSX hilights the appropriate Pref. On Snow Leopard it will even run a little video of what each thing does. Try it for the Trackpad and click the ? button. Want to know which pref to use for a PPPoE setup? Type it in and OSX will show you where.

The Help will even open applications and control them to show how something is done.

I think people from Windows dismiss OSX Help because they think it's like the Wizards or the truly abysmal Help function in Windows.

There's hundreds of hours of tutorials and in-depth docs for OSX. They just aren't printed on dead trees. Great resource. They even have a couple of Windows to Mac videos specifically for Switchers right on the main page ;) Takes them from basics like windows and apps and how to open and close them, command keys, delete, backspace etc etc.

A lot of ex-PC people are surprised by the amount and quality of these tutorials. It also encourages them to explore OSX and iLife, because the tutorials are task orientated rather than a listing of features. I show it to them and they go "Cool, i didn't know you could do that with iPhoto".


Fred said...

Dear Dave

It has been a real pleasure to read you over the past 2 years

Being myself a mac user since the very first one, I enjoyed the way you described your experience … and I leant a couple of things from you

All the best

David Alison said...

@Anon: Outstanding suggestion - wish I had thought to include that. The video tutorials on the Apple web site are excellent and best of all, free. In addition I've had excellent luck with many of the Mac oriented forums out there. Lots of helpful, knowledgeable people.

@Fred: Thanks for reading Fred! Glad you get some value from this.

Christopher said...

Dave - Its been a year since I switched to Mac, and your posts were an invaluable resource during the transition, especially the favorite applications. Thank you.

To DougPlummer - I finally gave up on Quicken and went with Mint. Not as robust, but in 20 minutes it does 90% of what Quicken did without the headaches. My gut says this will all be cloud based before too long.

Question - Any hints on how to archive/convert an entire mailbox folder into a single PDF? This is KILLING ME. I.e., in my practice, I need to take old client files and save them in a format that can be readable for both PCs and Macs...the MBOX format doesn't cut it. Any thoughts?

David Alison said...

@Christopher: Glad the blog helped! I had a blog post that covered PST / MBOX issue a while back: Outlook Conversion Time. I talked about a specific application I used that worked fairly well called O2M. You should read the comments though because there are a couple of excellent suggestions in there on applications you can use.

Lee said...

Christopher: "Question - Any hints on how to archive/convert an entire mailbox folder into a single PDF? This is KILLING ME. I.e., in my practice, I need to take old client files and save them in a format that can be readable for both PCs and Macs...the MBOX format doesn't cut it. Any thoughts?"

Try the following:

1. Click to select the mailbox folder in Mail.

2. Select all messages in the mailbox

3. Select menu File>Save As..., pick the desired options and save (e.g. "Mailbox X Msgs")

4. Open saved file (e.g. "Mailbox X Msgs") in TextEdit and print to PDF

Result: All mail messages archived as a single PDF.

Hope that helps.


Nelle Flanders said...

Thank you so much for chronicling your experiences. I have found your posts to be immensely helpful and refer to them time and time again.

David Alison said...

@Nelle: Thanks for the nice comment! Lately I've managed to clear some more time to write so I'm hoping to get the blog to be more active moving forward.

David Orriss Jr said...

I love reading your blog, Dave... I've been using Macs about a year longer than you. And I still find new things in part because of this blog.

Thanks for the effort.

David Alison said...

@David: Back at you Dave - thanks for reading!

Mitch Rushing said...


Long story short. I switched years ago and ultimately started a practice built around ERP on a Mac. Actually its cross-platform so great way for a business to run their ERP database on a Mac server and use Mac, Linux or Windows clients until all the Windows machines die.

To your and others' point about small business accounting applications for Mac and Mac accounting software. Quickbooks for Mac is limited to a single user, so not the best application. Having been an almost original Quicken user (been using the Mac version since my switch), I like Intuit - but they don't put nearly as much effort into their Mac products.

Seeing a glimmer of an opportunity to compete against QuickBooks on the Mac, we've been offering an installed and supported version of PostBooks for the Mac. A far more robust application than the Windows version of QuickBooks or even the enterprise edition of Quickbooks.

More information's here:

Ben said...

great posts Dave. I'm a Java developer and Windows user and have been considering "the switch" for about a year now. I bought a Mac Mini to play around with 6 months back, but lost interest after I tried Windows7. Its been solid for development and a major step up from XP/Vista.

So, I'm curious if you evaluated Win7 at all during your switch and if you have any thoughts on how it compares...

David Alison said...

@Ben: That's a great question. As I mentioned when I started this blog, I was really frustrated with Vista and that made OS X that much easier to accept. At the beginning of this year I built a new PC for a project and used Windows 7 as the OS. I was seriously impressed; MS had addressed many of the issues that I was having w/ Vista and overall the environment felt solid, stable and was visually appealing.

If you are looking for a reason to switch I think that the "Windows is unstable and crashes" issue has mostly been removed from the argument because of Win7. As a developer you will want to make sure the tools you need to be productive are available and well defined. That should probably be your primary vehicle for evaluating a switch. Can you get all of the tools you need to build the apps you currently (or want to) work on?

I will say this about switching in general though: it presents a great opportunity and lots of motivation to explore for new tools. Switching was what got me to consider and ultimately migrate to Ruby on Rails as a development platform and I've been ecstatic about that ever since.

Hope this helps!

Ben said...

Dave, thanks for the Win7 feedback. I might hold off on getting a MBPro until I really need a new laptop...if they weren't so expensive I would have done it a while back. Then I can run Win7 in VMWare and use each where it makes sense. I've also been doing Django might be a better candidate to switch over to OS X...