My three computers (MacBook Air saga, cont..)

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Three months into my use and ownership of both a MacBook Air and a Mac Mini, and nearly 30 years into my use and ownership of computers in the CP/M -> DOS -> Windows lineage, I keep waiting for the moment to give a "complete" and panoramic view of the pluses and minuses of each approach.

That moment will never come. So I will resume the piecemeal descriptions offered before (here and in previous installments).

For reference: my three-working-computer setup here at Beijing HQ, in a posed but not entirely unrepresentative configuration. On the left: venerable Thinkpad T60 running Vista and a zillion Windows-style programs. On the right: the MacBook Air in all its svelteness. In between, a Mac Mini, connected to a big flat-panel display and a Mac-style aluminum keyboard.

http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_5373.jpg

I still use all of them, through day by day the trend is, ratchet-like, in the Mac direction. I wouldn't be embarrassed to have a multi-system life for quite a while ahead, since each has its strengths --and since I don't regard this as a religious or cultural all-or-nothing decision. As soon as I even think about trying to present the ins and outs of each system, I get nervous about what a long chore that would be. (Also, I know that David Alison's excellent blog has over the last few months chronicled in exquisite detail every shift, surprise, irritation, how-to, and satisfaction he has gone through during his switch to the Mac.)

So I'll make this manageable by doling out three or four points per post, which cumulatively may someday represent the complete Mac/PC almanac so many people dream of.

Today's three points:

1) The sublime elegance of VMWare Fusion. My technological hero through this process is not Steve Jobs -- or even Linus Torvalds or some similar dark horse you would come up with. It is whatever band of geniuses invented VMWare Fusion. I found this utility slightly tricky to load --but once it was installed, it let me run PC programs and Mac programs side by side, in normal screen windows from which you can cut and paste text back and forth. My cherished PC program Zoot is there in a window right alongside the Mac's Scrivener or DevonThink Pro. And so are Microsoft Outlook and Word 2007.

I have learned to be skeptical of the assurance that something "just works." But for me, over three months, Fusion has just worked and -- this is the part that sounds like a commercial -- it has let me run all my tried-and-true favored PC programs faster and better than I can run those same programs on my Windows machine. They start up faster; they freeze less often; they let me spend more time doing the job.

Of course these programs have an advantage: under Fusion they are actually running on Windows XP, not Vista as on this ThinkPad. (My wife has our XP machines.) This leads us to the second point for the day:

2) The bottomless villainy of Vista. I am sure I would not be in the middle of switching platforms now if I hadn't bought a Vista-equipped laptop 15 months ago. I wouldn't have gone through with the switch if the Mac side weren't ready with its new Intel-based computers and its mature utilities like Fusion. But I was driven away by Vista; nearly a year and a half after it went on the market, Vista is still an unbelievable dog (as many senior Microsoft officials knew before it was released.)

To me, 99% of the problem turns on slowness. The computer is slow to start up, slow to shut down, slow to detect and connect to wireless networks, slow to get programs like Outlook up and running so you can do something with them. Immediate quick anecdote: I am in the Beijing airport as I type. It has taken my Vista/ThinkPad at least eight minutes to come fully to life, to recognize the local wifi network, to become responsive with Outlook, to stop its disk churning, and all the rest. The MBAair was ready to go in well under one minute. (On the other hand, the MBA has no built-in ethernet port -- and since I didn't bring along the little dongle that creates a port, I can't connect it to the hard-wired only, no wi-fi, network where I'm sitting.)

3) The willful inelegance of the Mac keyboard. There is one thing about the Mac Way I definitely don't like, and that is the layout of the Mac keyboard. Having only one mouse button on the keyboard is deliberately inconvenient. (Yes, you can get a mouse with multiple buttons; yes, you can replicate the right-click effect with control keys, but it's less convenient.) The Mac laptop keyboards lack what the rest of the world understands as a DEL key. (Yes, you can kludge around it.) If you've spent decades learning the muscle memory routines for PC keyboard shortcuts, it's a nuisance to have to relearn them. Whether or not the Mac layout is objectively better or worse than the PC's, it's different, which requires countless small adjustments. On the brighter side: the actual typing feel of the MacAir keyboard is fine.

The whole keyboard question is one reason I like the MacMini a lot: you can plug any keyboard you want into it via the USB port, including the fancy ergonomic ones made by Microsoft and many other manufacturers.

Sooner or later, three more points (including about MBA's battery, operating temperature, and so on). Have to do this a bit at a time.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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