Switching... from Mac to Windows
25 September 2004
I recently had to make a (temporary) switch from a PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X 10.3 to a PC laptop running Windows XP, so I thought I'd collect together a few notes on the experience, trying to be as objective as possible in the process.
I'm a software developer, primarily developing applications in Java for both PC and Mac. I do a lot of travelling, and having constant access to a laptop with access to all my email, current development projects, word processor, and so on is therefore absolutely essential for me.
My personal machine, which is also my main development machine when I'm on the road, is a 15" PowerBook G4 (1.25GHz, 1GB RAM, 80GB HD, DVD burner), which I've had for nearly a year and been very pleased with in that time.
The only problem with it was that I ordered it as soon as the model was introduced and it suffered from the white spot LCD problem that affected some of the early batches (not dead pixels but blotches caused by some sort of problem with the glue used at a guess). By no means a showstopper fault, and it took me nearly a year to getting round to doing anything about it, but I thought I'd better get it fixed before the warranty expired. (This was before Apple introduced their warranty extension program for this fault.)
I duly arranged to have it returned it to Apple for repair therefore. The turnaround could be as little as a few days, but a couple of weeks was more likely, so I knew I had to have another machine in the meantime. I therefore decided to buy a cheap PC laptop, mainly to keep me going in the short term, but I thought it might be useful to have around as a spare machine at home more generally (next time my 6-year old son is desperate to play that Lego Racers game he borrowed from a friend, for example!).
Choosing a PC
I have very little interest in hardware, even with Apple hardware I only just keep abreast of their current models but with PCs even less so. So, I wasn't about to carefully research hundreds of web sites and magazine reviews to work out which make and model would deliver the biggest bang per buck. My criteria were relatively simple I thought, a medium-sized display, internal WiFi to connect to my AirPort network at home without an awkward aerial dongle sticking out, a FireWire port to connect to a FireWire hard drive and play a bit with Microsoft's video software, and that's about it. Apart from that, I really couldn't care less about processor speed, graphics memory, and so on.
So, off I trotted into a few local computer shops to see what sort of cheap laptops were available.
Curiously, in PC World, just about the cheapest laptop of any kind, and certainly the cheapest with FireWire, was a little Apple iBook at £649 (incl. VAT). A very cute machine, but one which would have made no sense in the context of my current requirements, so I kept looking.
Of the standard makes the Sonys all had FireWire (oops, I mean iLink!) but they weren't so hot on WiFi, IBMs were expensive and not a single model of theirs supported FireWire, and Dells were even uglier than most PC laptops, and most were coming in at £900 or £1000 or more (incl. VAT), which was slightly more than I wanted to pay.
I saw one machine at a Time shop which seemed to meet my requirements precisely at a cost of £699, and was even styled quite nicely, but unfortunately when I tried to buy it I found it was actually a build-to-order machine, even though it was on display in the shop. I'd have to wait at least a week or ten days to get it, which was no good to me as I'd already arranged collection of my PowerBook.
In the end I found an HP Compaq nx5000 on London's Tottenham Court Road, with a 1.4GHz Centrino, 256MB RAM and XP Home Edition at £700 (incl. VAT), which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Only 802.11b rather than 802.11g, but a pretty good price and available to take away, so I plumped for that (plus another £50 to bring it up to 512MB, which I think is a realistic minimum for any machine these days).
Unpacking my new HP laptop showed that it came with standard, utilitarian packaging (polystyrene foam, brown cardboard) of the type you might expect a VCR or coffee machine to come in. Perfectly functional, and complete with battery and mains adapter, a slim user guide, and a couple of installation and reference CDs. Unlike Apple's product packaging, which is a delight to behold in itself, no particular effort seemed to be spent on presentation, though of course for most people the quality of the packaging is hardly a priority when choosing a utility product.
Unfortunately, after unpacking the laptop, I also found that the box contained some shards of broken glass (source unknown – it wasn't from the LCD) and the case was scratched quite badly. I went back to the shop the same day and they exchanged it without a quibble, and the replacement was perfectly ok after that.
More significantly of course, the differences in attention to styling and presentation extended from the packaging to the product itself. I hope it doesn't sound too patronising if I say that PCs have improved a lot in the last few years, but in comparison to the clean industrial design of my PowerBook I still find myself saying "yuck!" every time I look at a PC laptop. There are just so many flaps, panels, covers, screws, labels, switches, and knobbly bits sticking out, with no apparent function or coherence between them. My particular machine also had loose covers, and a removable optical drive which didn't sit properly in its bay.
And D-type connectors! I used to solder D-type connectors to make my own leads, nearly 25 years ago when I first started playing with computers, but I don't think I've touched one for at least 10 years or so. How quaint to see them again in 2004!
On the plus side, though, the HP is fairly compact and slim, and if you don't look underneath or at the back you miss most of the really ugly bits, so I guess it's quite liveable with.
Setting it up
I'm not exactly new to Windows, having extensively used every version of Windows and NT since Windows 3, owned several PCs of my own, and done most of my professional work on them. This is the first time for a few years that I've set one up from scratch myself though (rather than having it done by somebody from IT Support).
Using the wizard that came up to create a new user, copying the main files I needed off a backup DVD I'd burnt on my PowerBook, setting up some useful "Send To" menu shortcuts, and so on were all quite painless, so no problems there.
Then I tried to connect to my wireless network at home. First I used the Airport admin tool on my Mac to make a note of the hex equivalent WEP password, which I knew I'd need. Then, on the new HP laptop, I went through all the options I could find in "Network Connections" and properties for the wireless LAN adapter to try and set it up.
No matter what I did, it kept saying "wireless connection unavailable" and wouldn't see my network. I tried manually typing in the network name (even though it's discoverable). I tried the "Troubleshoot" wizard (which is a nice idea, but completely useless as it has no context sensitivity). Nothing.
Only later did I discover a little button hidden away at the top of the keyboard that causes a blue LED to light up and actually powers up the wireless card. Foolish me, expecting "Use this device (enable)" in the wireless LAN adapter properties to do anything of the sort, or expecting it to display something helpful like "powered off" if that was why it wasn't working!
Once I found the magic button, however, and typed in my password, it worked like a charm. It connected to my existing AirPort network and I was able to browse and download files with Internet Explorer to my heart's content.
OK, I had basic Internet access. Next I had to choose and configure an email client. I have a copy of Office 2002 for Windows, so I seemed to have a choice between Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express or Eudora for Windows.
First, I tried Outlook, as I thought the big brother of Outlook Express would have more industrial strength features. I managed to configure it as an IMAP client quite easily, but I couldn't work out any way to get it to download and keep copies of all messages locally. As this is for my laptop, my normal way of working is to download all my messages before setting off on a journey and read them on the train while I'm offline.
Outlook Express will happily do just that, but Outlook seemingly not, so, no matter, I switched to Outlook Express instead.
I also tried Eudora. I generally use Eudora on the Mac and find it to be very capable, especially for managing and searching vast amounts of locally held mail, but unfortunately Eudora 6.1 for Windows has a totally different user interface from Eudora 6.1 for Mac OS X, and one that I found to be completely unusable, so I stuck with Outlook Express.
Outlook Express works quite well most of the time, but is not without problems.
For example, I don't like the way it hides the email address of a sender or recipient and only displays their name. I get a lot of email from friends and family members who have both work and home addresses, and if I want to reply it's useful to know which account they used without having to fumble about looking for the Internet headers.
It also seems somewhat buggy. Outlook Express seems to get easily confused about whether it's online or not. Sometimes when I compose a message and press “Send” the window closes and the message goes to my Out box, but sometimes the message stays open. If I then try to close it it asks "are you sure, do you want to save it?" No, I don't want to save it, I want to send it, so I press Send again. Only later do I find I've sent two or three copies of the same message!
It tended to hang up a lot too, forcing me to kill the process. At least, it used to freeze regularly for the first week or so but was OK after that, so I'll probably never know what was wrong to begin with, or what I changed to fix the problem!
One day somebody mailed me some JPEG images and Outlook Express helpfully displayed the warning "Some attachments can contain viruses. Are you sure you want to download this attachment? Display this message in future?"
At first I thought that if Outlook Express is incapable of distinguishing files of type .bat, .exe, .scr or .pif on the one hand, which do contain executable code, and .jpg, .gif or .mp3 on the other, which don't, then it's not surprising virus writers are having such a field day. If I can't display an image from somebody I know without dismissing this message how likely am I to see the warning when I really need it? On the other hand, perhaps they already knew about the embarassing JPEG security flaw even though it was unannounced at that time. (The more I hear about buffer overruns, the more I'm convinced Java got things right by insisting everything is checked automatically!)
I have an assortment of USB peripherals around the house, so I wanted to try them out on the new machine.
I already knew I could plug a Microsoft IntelliMouse into a Mac and the scroll wheel and right hand mouse button would just work (and do as expected to bring up a context menu in most applications). But what about the other way round?
Well, I plugged an external Apple keyboard and mouse into the HP and, guess what, it also worked! Things like my printer and scanner, a USB keychain flash drive, or my digital camera also all just worked on both platforms, so full marks to USB there. The only slight difference I noticed is that XP takes a little longer because it insists on running its Hardware Device wizard each time you plug in a new device, but that's only once for each device, so not a problem.
I seem to remember that this wasn't always the case and that Windows 98 and NT would often prompt you to reinsert the installation CD at inopportune moments to load some driver, so I presume the difference is down to Windows XP and how many drivers each OEM vendor chooses to pre-install on the hard disk. Mac OS X has always tended to include a very complete set, and with today's huge hard disk capacities I think that's definitely the way to go (on all platforms).
If you do plug in a device that the XP hardware wizard doesn't recognise, don't make the mistake of saying “Yes” when it asks you if you want to search for a driver automatically. The wizard will promptly sit there for 10 full minutes or more, searching all your disks and volumes, and while there is a Cancel button, it has absolutely no effect in all that time!
On the road
The final thing I wanted to sort out before sending off my PowerBook was Internet access when I'm away from home or the office, for which I generally use the modem in my Sony Ericsson T610 phone, connected via Bluetooth.
The HP didn't have built in Bluetooth, but I had a spare USB Bluetooth adapter lying around, so I tried using that.
Although Windows recognized it as a Bluetooth device when I plugged it in, it didn't have a suitable driver for it. I therefore downloaded and ran the driver from the manufacturer's site, and followed the instructions when I was told to “install the usb bluetooth device now”. As soon as I did, however, Windows' own Add Hardware wizard kicked in and started prompting me for drivers, so now I had two separate applications open, both independently trying to install the same software! Needless to say, the installation didn't work.
Despite making several attempts, I failed miserably to get Bluetooth working. The whole process, and the error messages shown, was very confusing and muddled but in the end it turned out to be because I had the wrong type of adapter, or wrong serial number, or wrong software version. Or something. At least, I think so.
(Incidentally, the confusing behaviour I had just observed, with two programs independently vying for control of the same process, was not restricted to adding hardware, and exactly the same thing happened later when I tried updating Windows XP using its own automatic update mechanism.)
Back to roaming Internet access. I was a bit worried the next time I had to stay away in a hotel but hadn't yet sorted out dial up access. However, then I discovered something unexpected. The wireless reception of the HP was significantly better than that of my PowerBook, and in built up areas of London I was usually able to find an open network to connect to. Free, zero setup Internet access, (almost) wherever I needed it – excellent!
A lot of people criticise “ignorant” users who leave their networks with a default blank password, but as a wireless traveller I very much appreciate it. Of course there will always be some people who would abuse such openness, but I would like to live in a world where the default assumption is that one can trust strangers not to vandalise everything they encounter and which isn't physically guarded or bolted down.
I'm reminded of the little hut on the Offa's Dyke long distance footpath that I found once, where some local resident would leave cakes and drinks out for the benefit of weary walkers, together with an honesty box for any contributions one chose to make. I don't know whether the networks I found were open by design or by ignorance, but either way I wish there was some way of finding out who the owner was and leaving them a message of thanks!
Another unexpected advantage I found with the HP is that, unlike my PowerBook, I don't worry about leaving it in my hotel room! Whether rational or not, I always feel a PowerBook is more desirable as a target for thieves, but I guess the main reason I worry about the PowerBook is that emotionally I'm more attached to it. It's a desktop replacement machine for me and all my data is on there, so losing it would be a huge inconvenience to say the least.
Having praised the performance of the built-in 802.11b card, I have to say that the way the Windows XP software handles wireless networks is often very confusing and frustrating.
The basic problem seems to be that it's very slow to respond to changes. As a result, the status information it displays and behaviour it exhibits is often out of date.
For example, after leaving home I might turn the wireless adapter off and use the computer on the train for 2 hours. When I get to my destination I turn the computer on from standby, push the button to turn on the wireless adapter, and a little notification message pops up telling my I'm now connected to the network “AirPort Home”. Quite impressive, as that network is more than 100 miles away!
Another common occurrence is that the message "One or more networks are available. Click here to list" will pop up. I dutifully click and get a list of networks, from which I select the one I want. It then asks me "Allow connection though network is not secure?", even though this is one of my preferred networks that it should connect to without asking, but never mind, I check the box and press OK. But then nothing happens, until a new status message pops up telling me "No wireless networks available". Why? Now, I might guess that the network didn't allow me access or perhaps the signal strength was too low, but either way, when I pressed OK I would expect the command either to have succeeded or display an explicit failure message.
The messages that keep popping up in the notification area can be quite amusing. There's the nonsensical “A network cable was unplugged” that appeared from time to time to describe my wireless Bluetooth network adapter, or apparently contradictory messages telling me “Wireless connection unavailable” and “One or more wireless networks are available, to see a list click here”. These appear simultaneously, almost on top of each of each other (one is tool tip text, the other a notification message). Another message will tell me "Wireless Network Connection. Connected to: BT Public. Signal strength: no signal". But as long as you remember that these messages refer to a state that the network adapter may have had at any point in the hours or days since you last booted the machine, not necessarily right now, then all confusion is lifted!
One benefit of having a laptop with you when staying away on business is that you can watch a film of your choice in your hotel room at night. I don't watch DVDs on my laptop that often, but one night when I was staying away I didn't want to work or read and there was nothing on television, so I went out and bought a DVD. I took it back, loaded it in the HP and... nothing happened: “Windows Media Player cannot play this DVD because a compatible DVD decoder is not installed on your computer”.
Apparently I'm missing an MPEG2 playback license, which costs money. Usually the relevant software and license is included when you buy an external DVD ROM drive, so it's understandable that Microsoft don't automatically include a license that may not be needed with every copy of XP. I could purchase a license and download the software online (at a cost of about $10) or possibly even get it off one of my HP installation disks. If I'd been at home or in the office and had an Internet connection (or my install disks) available then this would have been trivial to solve, but unfortunately neither of these were true – if I'd been at home I wouldn't have wanted to play a DVD on my laptop in the first place.
The cause may be trivial, but unlike my PowerBook, which can play DVDs straight out of the box, my new PC laptop let me down miserably the one time I needed this capability.
[Part 1] [Part 2]
Copyright (C) Rolf Howarth 2004. All rights reserved.