Switching... from Mac to Windows (part 2)
In a way, I quite like the look of XP. It's bright and colourful and not unpleasing on the eye (though I still prefer the Aqua appearance of Mac OS X). One of the things that struck me immediately about the appearance of XP is that there seems to be no consistency in the size or appearance of controls. You have a great big (nay, enormous) red X in the corner of every window and then tiny, fussy illegible icons in the quick launch bar. Font sizes and styles seem to be all over the place too.
The real problem, though, is not with XP's appearance, but with things not always behaving consistently and predictably, which is of course a cardinal sin when it comes to good user interface design.
Things like using the Start menu to turn off the computer are well known and the long-standing butt of jokes, but on the whole bother me very little. Once you get used to finding system-ish commands in a particular place it matters very little what it's called, provided that it's consistent. Often that consistency is lacking though.
Usually, it's quite little things. Perhaps an operation doesn't have an obvious inverse operation. If closing my laptop lid puts the computer to sleep, why doesn't opening it wake it up again?
Or the lack of common user interface guidelines for things like keyboard shortcuts. One in particular that keeps catching me out is that there's no consistent shortcut for the Find command. Ctrl-F sometimes works, but isn't universal (in Word and Internet Explorer it does a Find, while in Outlook it forwards the message!)
Often, the behaviour of the system seems to be governed by strange and arcane rules, which must presumably be following some kind of logic but are very difficult to fathom if you don't know them.
Take Microsoft Word. Select some paragraphs and click the Numbering toolbar button. The paragraphs get numbered from 1. Pressing it a second time and they revert. Good, it toggles. I understand that concept. Press it a third time. Uh-oh. Now the numbers start from some random value and what's worse, the formatting of some other numbered paragraphs several pages previously has been screwed up!
Or press Alt-Tab to bring up a list of open windows. If you want to go through them in turn finding a particular window you'll see that each time you bring it up the order is different. Perhaps it's random, perhaps it's the window's Z-order, or perhaps it's the process's current scheduling priority. Who knows?
There are quite a lot of oddities related to the handling and ordering of windows. Anyone who has used Windows will be familiar with those annoying popup windows from another application that suddenly pop up out of nowhere in front of the window you were typing text into, which are particuarly worrying if you happen to be typing in something like a password at the time. The opposite thing can happen too. Several times I found myself with a window that wouldn't close but just beeped whenever I clicked on the close icon. Eventually I learnt that the reason was that there was an invisible modal dialog behind it somewhere asking me if I wanted to save my changes!
One feature of XP's handling of windows I do like is that when you close the last open window of an application, the application itself is closed. On the Mac, some applications behave like that, while most stay open, potentially continuing to use resources even though you think you're finished with them.
On the other hand, Windows gets a bit muddled between what's an application and what's a window. If you have Internet Explorer running and double click on the Internet Explorer icon a second time you will get a new process (another instance of the application), but if you click on a link or HTML document you will get a new window within the same process. The difference only becomes apparent if you exit the application, or it crashes.
Bring up Windows Task Manager and consider how sloppy its terminology is. The "Applications" tab claims to list "tasks" but actually lists windows, and has an "End Task" button which actually kills the process (including all the windows that process has). In the case of Internet Explorer that may or may not be all your IE windows depending on how many IE processes are running. And there's no way to find out which process a particular window in the Applications tab belongs to.
Conversely, while the "Processes" tab does actually list processes, there's no way to find the application name it relates to, or whether it has any open windows or is just a background task. If you're worried about performance or memory usage (one of the main reasons for using Task Manager) then you just have to know or guess that iexplore.exe is Internet Explorer. And woe betide you if you're a Java developer and are trying to work out which particular program is suddenly using up all the processor time when you have 4 or 5 different java.exe processes running and no way to distinguish them!
Another problem I have is with the little area to the right of the task bar. I'm not even sure what it's called, is it a launch bar, the notification area, or still called the systray? I think of it as a launch bar, because I click on icons and things open, but I believe “notification area” is technically correct.
I'm sure that it's by design and it's meant to reflect the current state of the system and what you're most likely to want to do, but the fact that the icons always appear in a different order, sometimes are there and sometimes not, and do something different each time you click on them is something I personally find infuriating. I think it's meant to be an example of Windows being helpful, but having the computer second guessing me (and often getting it wrong) is generally not what I want.
If clicking or double clicking on something has a particular action one time then it should always have that action, there shouldn't be ambiguities about what or might not happen.
Windows XP Service Pack 2
Even installing the much-vaunted XP SP2, which presumably Microsoft have put a lot of effort into getting right, was not without its frustrations.
One day I got a message from Automatic Update in the notification area telling me new software was available, so I clicked the message to start downloading SP2 (some 80MB+) and the window closed. At the same time, the Automatic Update button itself disappeared from the launch bar. Now, I think I remember reading somewhere on the web that SP2 will download in the background and resume where it left off if the transfer is interrupted, but this is far from clear from the messages displayed to me. How do I know it's still going, or how long it will take to finish? How do I cancel it if I obtain it from CD in the meantime? Most crucial of all for my purposes, how do I suspend the download if I make an expensive GSM dialup connection to check my email on the train and don't want the SP2 download to keep the connection open?
I went on in this state of uncertainly for several days, until I decided that it probably wasn't doing anything after all. I then looked and found an “Installing Updates” window via “Help & Support”. Here I pressed OK and it displayed a succession of encouraging messages: “Downloading Windows XP Service Pack 2 (update 1 of 1)... done!” “Initializing installation... done!” “Installing Windows XP Service Pack 2 (update 1 of 1)...”.
Simultaneously with the last message, a message popped up in the task bar notification area: “Updates are ready for your computer. Click here to install the update.” so I selected the recommended option, Express Install. Then, a little while later, I got the message “Automatic Updates: Updates were unable to be successfully installed. The following updates were not installed: Windows XP Service Pack 2”.
This was all quite confusing, but thinking about it, I think what must have happened is that, just like when I tried installing the Bluetooth USB driver, I ended up with two completely different installers running, one launched manually via Help & Support and one via automatic update. Not unreasonably, the second failed.
Anyway, it looks like the Help & Support one completed the download and the installer is running. However, why so soon? Originally it said 75-200MB was needed, and seemed to be downloading at about 12KB/sec. Then 20 minutes later it was finished! Much quicker than expected, with no explanation forthcoming, so I started to worry again. Did my download rate suddenly increase? Did the installer overestimate the size of download needed because I was up to date with previous automatic updates? Did it resume from my earlier attempt at downloading? Or did an error occur and I have a corrupted, truncated download, that will only become apparent later...?
I'm a Java developer, so one of the first things I had to do was install the Java Development Kit and my preferred IDE, which in my case means Eclipse. Although Java and XCode are pre-installed on Mac OS X, downloading what I needed for Windows, as expected, proved to be no problem.
Then there's the shell. I don't use it often, but as a developer I do occasionally find a command line useful, perhaps to pull lines matching a pattern out of a log file, or to manually run a jar command. With Mac OS X I'm spoiled in having Unix there under the hood, and not being able to type something like "grep" when I need it feels like a huge handicap – like using a calculator and finding the decimal point key doesn't work, so you have to multiply everything by 100.
I managed to remedy this by downloading the free Cygwin Unix toolkit for Windows, but still found using the DOS command window to be only barely tolerable. Why isn't it possible to select some text using the mouse and copy and paste it easily, for example? To be fair, though, most users aren't expected to use the shell (on either platform), so it's no surprise if vendors don't put too much effort to be put in to making it nice to use.
Security and spyware
The problems with security and malware on Windows, including viruses, worms, keystroke monitors, popup ads and rogue diallers, have been well documented, so I don't have much to add here. I don't believe I've become affected on my machine, but of course I may never know if I was.
There was a very interesting article on Daring Fireball a little while back comparing Windows with the "broken windows" of run-down neighbourhoods. His thesis is that the reason there is so much malware for Windows compared to the Macintosh is not that technically one is inherently better than the other but that Mac users have zero tolerance for “crapware.” By contrast, Windows users are perhaps so used to being bombarded with popup ads, software being installed without their knowledge, things not working as expected, and having to constantly reboot to sort out problems (or worse, re-installing the operating system), that they just shrug their shoulders and put up with bad software as being an inevitable part of life. This in turn allows such software to flourish unchecked, in a self-perpetuating cycle.
I don't know if that's true or not, but based on all the little niggles and inconsistencies in the user interface of XP that I've observed, which users seem to accept without complaint, it's certainly plausible as a factor.
Blue screen of death
On another occasion I tried again to play a DVD, after having installed the WinDVD software from InterVideo. This time my DVD played fine, but the next time I restarted my PC I got the infamous "blue screen of death". However, the message flashed up so briefly I was unable to read what it said before the computer rebooted, so I don't know if it had anything to do with WinDVD, or any other software that may have been installed without my knowledge in the preceding days.
Each time I insert a CD or DVD Windows XP is always very keen to run any installers that may be present, despite me turning off every autoplay-related option I can find. It's possible that one of these applications, designed to "enhance my viewing pleasure", resulted in an unstable system, or maybe I have been infected by a virus or other piece of malware after all.
Whatever the cause, Windows XP now refused to boot. I was given the option to start Windows normally or use the last known good installation, neither of which worked, so had to restart in "Safe Mode". I was then able to restore my system to a previous checkpointed state and after that I could reboot normally, so while I would still like to know why my machine suddenly became unstable, Windows was at least able to recover from it fairly painlessly.
The good points
So, is there anything from the Windows XP user interface other than the points I've already mentioned that I think I'll miss when going back to Mac OS X? Undoubtedly. XP is by no means a user interface disaster.
While I like the column view in Finder, I also quite like the tree view in Windows Explorer (referred to variously as “folder” view or “browsing”). Sometimes one, sometimes the other would be appropriate to what I'm doing. Personally I never use icon view on either platform, and I get annoyed on the Mac when I open up a new folder and it always seems to revert to showing icons.
Windows' tool tips are very useful. While plenty of Mac applications have tool tips too, they are by no means as universal on the Mac as they should be.
Using copy, cut, paste and undo to move files around seems slightly more robust and intuitive on Windows than in the Mac's Finder, where it was introduced only relatively recently.
Finally, even if the usability is sometimes not as well thought out, most Windows applications undoubtedly have a lot of consistency to them, such as having common toolbar icons (there is a large library of standard icons available to application developers), or right clicking on an object and having a Properties option available.
I don't how useful it is to directly compare the PowerBook and HP hardware. One was near top of the range, the other near bottom of the range, and the first cost nearly two and a half times as much. It's a year older (with price and performance improving all the time of course) but still has a vastly higher spec: DVD burner rather than CD rewriter. 80GB rather than 30GB disk. 1GB RAM rather than 512MB. Higher resolution, high quality widescreen display (apart from white spots that is), better graphics processor, DVI output. Gigabit rather than 10/100 ethernet. 802.11g rather than 802.11b. Built-in Bluetooth, backlit keyboard, FireWire 800, battery status LEDs, etc. The list goes on. And much, much better styling and build quality – I've already mentioned things like poorly fitting covers and drive bays.
On the other hand, the HP does have longer battery life (nearly 4 hours, rather than 2.5 to 3 hours real use, which I don't think is just down to having a newer battery) and much better wireless reception. I also quite like the hibernate mode of the PC (deep sleep, where memory state is saved to disk and the computer is powered off), whereas my PowerBook only supports sleep (low power standby mode).
Most of the software I use isn't particularly processor intensive, so it's difficult for me to say much about the relative performance of the two machines except to say both are plenty fast enough for most of my needs.
The HP does have a tendency to freeze inexplicably from time to time, sometimes for quite noticeable periods, but I suspect this may have more to do with Windows XP and amount of RAM than the hardware itself. For example, right clicking on a folder to bring up an Explorer context menu, or clicking the Play menu in Windows Media Player will sometimes freeze the computer for 10 seconds or more. And why deleting an ordinary file from the desktop sometimes displays the “deleting file” animation for nearly a minute I will never know!
Thinking about it, and looking back to machines I've owned and used in the past, the biggest surprise is how compatible and similar Mac OS X and Windows XP are, rather than how they differ. I'm sure there's a vastly bigger difference in capability and usability, and even familiarity, between a recent machine and one four years older of the same platform, than between comparable machines of different platforms.
Consider moving from a lowly eMac running OS X to an old PowerMac G3 running Mac OS 9, say, or from a Centrino running XP Home to a 486 running Windows 98. Suddenly there's no USB, no DVD, no WiFi – not even a modem or Ethernet port included as standard!
Conversely, if you put a modern Mac and Windows PC on the same network you can happily share files between them in either direction, print to a PC printer, move images and documents between them, and for the most part open and edit the documents equally effectively on either platform. Anything you're used to doing on one platform (such as viewing your photos, playing music or DVDs, browsing the web, checking your bank statements, reading or sending email, synching address books, running Office, running development tools, designing web sites, editing video, and so on) you'll be able to do just as effectively on the other, with only relatively minor differences in ease of use or functionality between the two.
The differences are more subtle. When I mentioned my experience with the missing DVD decoder to a PC-using friend, he seemed as surprised that everything to play DVDs was included on the Mac as I was that it wasn't included on the PC. I thought that was quite amusing, but also very revealing about the relative expectations of PC and Mac users of their respective machines.
It's probably true that many of the clichés in this debate are true. Steve Jobs always likes to compare the Mac with prestige car brands such as BMWs. Personally I'm not that struck on BMWs, but I think it's a fair analogy. My own preferred example is that of the Sony widescreen television I bought a few years back when widescreen was only just starting to be popular in the UK. It wasn't cheap, and now five or six years on I can buy a similar set from a no-name brand at my local supermarket for a fraction of the price. Does that mean I regret my original decision? Not one iota. I guess it's a lifestyle statement, in part because I'm an early adopter of technology, in part because I value quality and style. It's my choice, and I will defend my value judgements vigorously, but I accept they're not for everyone. There are some people who will buy the Sony, but there will also be plenty of people who prefer to wait for better value sets to come along at Tesco's a little later.
I'm probably slightly biased, but the main differences between the Mac and PC experiences does genuinely seem to boil down to difference in attention to detail (and the old chestnut, ease of use).
If all you measure something by is GHz and price then by and large that's all you'll get. Everything else you either have to fight for, or is down to luck. Fortunately, PC users are becoming more sophisticated and starting to value other factors such as style too, so the design and usability of PCs and the software that runs on them is improving all the time.
Having more sophisticated users who value quality as much as price is both an opportunity and a threat for Apple. It's a balance between factors such as how many of these users look to the Mac next time they upgrade their machine and how fast the PC manufacturers recognise and respond to this new demand. Both are happening ever more, and it will be interesting to see which is the dominant trend over the next few years, but, either way, it's we the users who are the winners, as we have a wider choice of higher quality and more capable machines than ever before.
Meanwhile, I'm finding that my sojourn into the land of PC owners has been interesting and nowhere near as much of an upheaval as I thought. Windows XP is a very capable modern operating system, but not as slick or well polished as Mac OS X in my opinion. I'll miss the improved wireless reception of my HP, but I can't wait to get my PowerBook back and have fun again on my computer!
Copyright (C) Rolf Howarth 2004. All rights reserved.