The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

The Dark Side Part 1: First Impressions

I've been using computers seriously now for eight years. I first started in grad school, where I studied Electronc Arts, and have been going strong ever since. The whole time I've worked on nothing but the Macintosh operating system. I've even made a career of the Mac, and am currently a Mac SysAdmin.

Two days ago, my Dell laptop arrived.

My decision to buy a non-Macintosh computer was a practical one: I want to learn. Specifically, I want to learn other operating systems, particularly Windows and certain flavors of Linux that will (currently) only run on non-Apple hardware. I'm tired of living with blinders on. As a SysAdmin, I feel compelled to see what lives on the other side of the computing street.

So, after two days of Dell ownership, I wanted to record my initial impressions with the new system.

First off, Windows does, indeed, suck. I'm shocked at how primitive and arcane it is. Doing anything in Windows seems to take twice as many clicks as it does in Mac OS X. Some configuration panels have nested windows that, when opened, close thier parent windows, forcing you to navigate the filesystem to return to the original configuration panel. There are inconsistencies like this throughout the OS that make using it maddening, particularly when you've been working on the Mac OS for so many years. And it's slow and ugly. I've spent much of my time trying to get the look of the GUI somewhat more palatable, and it's gotten better, but it's still nowhere near as attractive as the Mac.

The Dell hardware is also comparitively ugly, but for the most part, my Inspiron 600m seems well built, and has a decent keyboard and a nice monitor. Most of my usabilty troubles come from not being familiar with the key commands for this system. I'm a bit surprised at how sluggish the machine seems comapred to my aging 867MHz PowerBook Titanium, but this may be due to the Dell bloatware that comes preinstalled. We shall see.

Anyway, I'm not going to go into too many details at this point, as I'm still quite the newbie, but I did want to document the out-of-the-box experiences and problems I've had thus far. For the record, the system is a Dell Inspiron 600m, Pentium M 1.6 GHz, with 1.5 GB of RAM and Windows XP Professional pre-installed. Here we go:

1. Firing up the Dell, the first thing that struck me was the immediate sense of paranoia accompanied by the experience. You are instanly greeted with a number of popups warning you to upgrade your OS and your virus and privacy software, and check your firewall settings -- stuff I've only secondarily had to worry about on the Mac because its' either not an issue, or it's well configured in the first place. I find it ironic that the software that's supposed to prevent others from taking over your computer does so much taking over itself. I could hardly use the machine for the first few hours as I was so busy responding to popups and alerts. On the Mac, when you log in for the first time, there's nothing but peace and quiet.

2. I had hoped that updating OS, antivirus and privacy sofware would be fairly easy. It wasn't. (In all fairness, updating third party software is always a pain, even on the Mac.) The first -- the absolute first -- thing I installed was Firefox. I've had instantaneous problems with Explorer on Windows (yes, I have a tiny bit of Windows experience) and even I know not to use it. And getting Firefox was a breeze. In fact, it's almost exactly like it is on Mac. That's nice. Go Firefox! Updating the OS was weird and confusing. I was first alerted to my update needs by one of those little icons in, to use Mac parlance, the toolbar at the lower righthand portion of the screen. Then I was taken to the Microsoft site, where the software began downloading. I was never quite sure what was going on after that, but apparently at some point, the software installed itself, as I was alerted that it had completed and prompted to restart. During the download and install procedure, other popups appeared alerting me to third party updates.

3. Attempting to download and install the third party updates was even more mysterious and vexing. The bundled antivirus software warned me on numerous accounts that I had security holes, but never gave me clear advice on what to do about them. They just said vague things like "Make your computer more secure," which, when clicked, took me to a website where I could download updates for my antivirus software. I have no idea what these updates included. Were there new virus definitions? I don't know. Everything seems obfuscated behind the idea of making things "easy" for the user. The problem is, you never really know what's happening on your machine.

4. Another update I was alerted to was a driver update for my graphics card. This also led me to a website, complete with instructions. The instructions told me to look for the downloaded update in C:\DELL\DRIVERS\r98704, but this folder does not exist on my system. I have no idea where the update was downloaded, nor whether or not it was installed. But the alert has gone away.

5. Making a wireless connection proved challenging as well. It turns out that either Windows or my wireless card is not capable of WEP 128 bit encryption. Once I figured this out (and I will admit, the popup alert from the configuration panel was helpful towards doing so), I was forced to switch my wireless network to WPA. This is actually okay with me. I prefer WPA and had only switched it to WEP because of bugs in Mac OS X Tiger that initally prevented me from using WPA. (These bugs appear to be fixed as of Mac OSX 10.4.2.) The other problem with connecting to the wireless was that Windows and the Dell-bundled software were competing for control over the network card. So at some point, I went to the network configuration panel and there were no wireless netoworks. They had seemingly disappeared. What had actually happened was that the Dell-installed software had taken over the connection. Turning off that software fixed the problem. But this is a big part of the reason why the Mac experience is so much more seamless. You rarely see third party software competing for control over hardware or OS level functionality. It's all handled by the OS.

6. I will say this. There is one feature of my Dell machine that I truly appreciate, and that is the trackpad tap-sensitivity control. This is something that has been absent on the Mac forever. I like using the touchpad for clicking, but on the Mac it is far too sensitive for my style, the result being that I end up clicking when and where I didn't mean to, and causing general mayhem. On my Windows machine, I can configure the tap sensitivity to my liking. And doing so makes tap-clicking very usable. It's nice. And I already miss it on my PowerBook.

So, at this point, all the alerts seem to have subsided, and I'm just trying to learn and acclimate myself to the new machine. Now that everything's updated -- at least to the best of my knowledge -- let's see how it goes. I'll be reporting more on my experiences in the future, particularly when I get to installing Linux, so stay tuned.

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8:43 PM

This has been roughly my experience with the Windows platform: at first glance, it's all shiny and gleamy and pretty. However, as soon as you actually want to *do* want to do anything, you're screwed. Configuation options are either (a) limited in number, (b) well hidden, or (c) so numerous and poorly described that you're never sure what any of them do.

Even worse, as soon as anything goes wrong, you're up the proverbial creek. There's very limited logging, error messages are generic and don't tell you what's actually wrong..

Everything on a windows systems seems carefully designed to keep you from knowing whats going on, or being able to change it in any way.

(Background: Linux admin by profession, Mac user by choice, Windows admin only because I've done a lot of work in smaller companies where I was expected to handle everything)    

3:17 PM

Yeah, it's kind of amazing that this is the most popular OS in the world. I would hope (and kind of secretly believe) that as alternatives like Mac OS X, and particularly Linux, begin to gain momentum we'll see Microsoft gradually lose ground and start to have to be competitive. They're so big it'll take time, but I feel like it will happen. It's also amazing how little Windows has changed since I dallied with it almost a decade ago.

I also find it somewhat depressing that I just spent $1400 on a computer I barely want to use, especially when, otherwise, I'm surrounded by Macs.

But I'm really looking forward to learning Linux. With Windows I just feel like I'm learning a harder way to do everything I already know how to do. But with Linux I feel like I'll really be learning something new. I hope so anyway. At least I'll have a shell. More and more, I feel lost without one.

Anyway, thanks for taking time to comment.


1:23 PM

Windows? Yeah - what he said. What's with the limbo-state of unplugged network interfaces and no loopback address? And then when you set up a MS Loopback Adapter it says “nonono! You can't make this! 127.x.x.x is reserved for these complicated magical things called ‘loopback’ doofers.” So I set it to in the Registry and it's none the wiser.

Then those modal dialogs! It's like Photoshop on crack! Let me out I wanna do something else!

Remember to convert the filesystem: "convert c: /fs:ntfs" And then defrag twice. And fix the minimum and maximum sizes of the pagefile to the same value or you end up with a fragmented pagefile! There's so much to do to Windows before you even start using it. It's not an OS, it's a POS.

Then again, there are lots of decent Linuxes:

Suse 7.2 is nice and clean and riddled with features (it was on a lot of magazine cover DVDs recently - at least it was in the UK). I wouldn't go for any of the ‘easy to use’ Linuxes, (Mandriva, Ubuntu, Xandros and their ilk), because they tend to hide things away. They're targetted at a Windows audience. Bad.

Suse uses rpms for package management. This is straightforward. The other approach is Debian's apt-get thingy, which fink borrows. Source tarballs are fun for particular values of ‘fun’.

If you want to try-before-you-install, get Knoppix. This is a Debian-style Linux. There's also Auditor Linux, which is based on Knoppix, and is oriented around network engineering tools. If you like 'em, you can install 'em.

Fedora - don't be fooled by it being ‘the latest Red Hat Linux’ - it's bleeding edge. If you feel like looking for nonexistent drivers, install Solaris instead ;-)

I won't mention finding a torrent for Mac/Intel... Oops.    

5:50 PM


Thanks for the tips. I'm pretty swamped right now, with no time to try anything even remotely resembling Linux, or even to mess around with Windows. But soon... I'm already fantasizing about setting up Linux/Windows dual-boot on the Dell (yes, I am a masochist), but there's shit going down in the lab that precludes my doing so.

Also, I tried Debian awhile ago, and couldn't get it going, but then I had no idea what I was doing. I've messed with Fedora a bit and will need to familiarize myself with both that and Red Hat in the near future, as my job will require it. (I think we use Fedora because we have 64bit machines. At least I'm pretty sure that's the rationale. I should find out.)

Anyway, thanks again. Oh yeah, I'm tempted to try install OSX86, but it sounds like a real pain in the ass. Keeping the disc image, though, for historical purposes. Have you tried it?


8:58 PM

Hey man. I feel your pain. I have always used Windows for the past 10 years with the exception of a brief owning of a PowerMac back around 1995. I bought my first Mac last week. I bought a PowerBook G4 15" maxed out. I can't agree with you more on your comments. Booting my new Mac for the first time out of the box was truely a breath of fresh air. Like you said, very peaceful and calm.

I'm a developer during the day and program on Windows. Each day I get more and more irritated by Windows after using my Mac all evening (or my Mom's Mac Mini.)

I can honestly say I will never ever again build a Windows machine. Windows is truely way behind OSX. Using Wireless networking on the PowerBook is so easy, it's funny. I go to one place and one place only, click once, maybe twice, and I'm surfing.

iTunes, awesome. iPhoto, wonderful. Windows and all its 3rd-party crap tries to make you feel dumb and that you should be afraid. I truely believe its all part of a money-making scam. Poor poor average Joe user has not a clue.

I want keep on ranting on your site. I love the fact I have switched, at least at home and mom's house. Truely a breath of fresh air!    

1:38 PM

Yay! Switchers! Or, as I like to call them "switchaz."

A friend of mine recently remarked, after having switched from Windows to Mac, and then having to use Windows again, how much she liked the Mac now, and how difficult Windows was to go back to. She'd started off on Windows. And she's not a systems type. So it's not like she loves the Mac, or any platform, for that matter. She just finds, now that she's used both, the Mac to be much easier to use.

Still amazes me that Windows is so dominant, particularly in the home market. Even my mom, who hates Windows, is impossible to convince when it comes to switching to Mac. Which I guess is good, as it means she asks me less about her systems problems. Of course, if she switched, she'd have far less to ask me about anyway. But the level of resistance (and ignorance) is astounding. Mom was shocked to discover that you can surf the web on Mac, just like you can on Windows.

Well, without the spyware and popups, that is.    

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