Mar 08

MacBook Air

I’ve had my MacBook Air for a month or so now, and wanted to write some things down about it. The bottom line is that for me, it is so far a really great machine that I like a lot. But it’s decidedly not for everyone — I think for most folks that it won’t be a good choice, but it will lead to more work to slim down laptops overall, and eventually start to make them more invisible.

The physical characteristics are all completely wonderful. It’s light, it’s thin (so thin that it’s actually hard to find a good bag to carry it around in), and the feel of it is just terrific. It’s a clearly different feel to carry it around, and when it’s closed on a table it tends to disappear. In general, it just gets in the way less than most other computer technology does. It’s hard to overstate how good the physicality of the machine is — it’s the best feeling machine I’ve ever worked on.

The screen is incredibly, incredibly bright. And I’ve come to really like the flat chiclet keyboards that the MacBooks (but not the MBPs) ship with. I also really like the SSD in mine, although, as reported many places elsewhere, it doesn’t seem worth the $900 premium — but in my experience, in addition to making the machine mostly totally silent, it makes application startup & switching feel very very snappy, even on the slower MBA processor. And overall, the machine runs much cooler than my last Intel MBP — never gets too hot.

I’m a little indifferent to the multitouch trackpad — it’s not super-easy to map gestures to command key combos, so only a few applications have support presently — which means that it’s not yet becoming muscle memory for me to use pinching & swiping. Maybe once the new MBPs with multitouch become more prevalent we’ll start seeing better support.

It’s consistently annoying that there’s no battery life indicator on the outside of the laptop — so I have to open the machine to figure out if I’ve got any juice left.

But the main problems, really, are that (1) there’s very little disk space, and (2) the ports & connectivity are very minimal. Disk space is self-explanatory — with 64 GB, I haven’t really fully moved in — have left most of my music and all of my movies and photos off the machine so far, not to mention all my virtual machines. That’s causing me to move more aggressively to using web applications for everything — I now use Pandora for most of my music listening (and have discovered a couple of great bands already), Google Reader for my newsfeeds (in particular because it lets me read news in a synchronized way on my iPhone), and mint.com for our finances (no more Quicken, which I was running Windows in a VM for). And for someone like me who works at a Web company, it’s a great prop (“runs Firefox great! what else do you need??”). [and, btw, it does indeed run Firefox 3 Beta 4 wonderfully — it’s a really nice release that I think everyone is going to be very happy with.]

The ports are a bit of a bigger problem. No optical drive, so far, is okay, although it makes it pretty tough to do things like recover from a catastrophic failure. We have an external drive at the office, which I’ll undoubtedly have to use. The remote disk stuff is neat, but not particularly performant. Sort of have to ante up for the ethernet adapter, too, and it’ll help if you get an external USB hard drive — since there’s no firewire, you can’t start this machine up in target disk mode (and can’t connect to one in that mode), so overall it’s a big PITA to get even a few GB moved around.

None of that stuff is a huge problem for me, for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve had a lot of Macs over a lot of years, and I’m resourceful (relative to the mass market) in terms of getting outcomes that I want in over-constrained situations (like no ethernet). More importantly, though, I’ve got more machines around when I need them — an iMac in the office at home, a community superdrive at work, etc. Lots of folks have written that the MBA is a great secondary machine for traveling & such — that’s not my situation — mine is the primary machine, but I’ve got enough supporting infrastructure around to make it really work.

Anyway, I like it, and it’s making a big difference in how much junk I end up carting around — it’s way smaller, lighter, and still provokes double takes at how thin it is. So far so good.

Nov 07

stacks and bins on leopard

this is a really beautiful hack to address the unfortunate icon mess that stacks in the leopard dock are. i’ve been looking at my new bins all day and am super, super happy that i changed it. it’s the small things.

Oct 07

data detectors in leopard

I’m really happy that something called “Data Detectors” has shown up in mail.app (at least) in Leopard. This is something that ATG (Apple Technology Group — the research labs) had prototyped maybe 10 years ago when I was there. The idea is that we tend to get certain types of semi-structured data in e-mails: suggested meeting times, contact info, things like that. Here’s an example from my in box yesterday:

Now when I hover over “Monday November 5th at 2:00pm”, I get a clickable menu with 2 items: “Create New iCal Event…” and “Show Date in iCal”. Selecting the first gives me this menu, mostly filled in with all the right information (note that it even picked up San Francisco as a location later in the sentence – amazing! – even though it didn’t understand enough about the context to get it right):

For my money, this is just one of the coolest things ever. Works for contact information, too — tends to work well on the contact blocks at the bottom of peoples’ e-mails. (Although I think I’d like contacts to be somewhat more automatic — I’d like to just have a big always updating database of all the contact info in all my mail all the time, synced to my iPhone — so while I think the data detector tech is really neat here, I think the usage context is a bit different.)

Oct 07

first thoughts on leopard

so far so good. i put one of the last developer releases onto my macbook pro last thursday and have been happily using the new os x release since then. i had meant to do a clean install, but accidentally did an install over the top of tiger, and it works like a champ, honestly.

performance seems really good — most things are snappier than with 10.4 (i think). lots of little upgrades that make things better — smarter finder windows, better wireless UI, stuff like that.

the visual redesigns are driving me a little bit crazy — in particular all the stuff where they’re showing off new effects. the sort-of-but-not-really-translucent menu bar is driving me a little bit crazy, but the translucent menus everywhere are the most annoying thing in the whole system — i just don’t understand why anyone thinks that’s a good idea. they’re not super-translucent, but enough so that the stuff behind them really impacts legibility of menu choices. it’s a bummer.

the new dock is mostly just silly. shadows & reflections everywhere. shiny effects, but mostly distracting, honestly.

calendar has been pretty completely reworked, and it’s a much more refined look now. i’m finding it not quite as readable as it used to be because there’s no active calendar notion anymore (where the appointments would be dark color backgrounds with bold white text) but just the active item. but on the whole, better.

mail has gotten a lot better, i think. more refined visually, although still with the icky lozenge buttons. you can drag top level folders around in the sidebar now, which is much better. there’s an activity display that tells you what’s happening on the network now (very helpful). i like the RSS subscription capability — i’ve subscribed to a small number of feeds that i treat more like my e-mail workflow, and it’s working great, although html display doesn’t seem to be working. for me, the jury is out on To Dos and Notes. we’ll see. data detectors are neat (they give context menus on things like phone numbers & addresses, but are a little subtle for me — i keep forgetting they’re there.

i’m unsure about time machine yet. backed up over the weekend, but don’t have enough incrementals to know whether i like the user interface or not yet. (early best guess: i think they’ve done an admirable job in making backup easy to understand, but their tools are miserable for actually finding something you’ve lost.)

coverflow is visually stunning, and basically useless. not just in itunes, but everywhere, in my opinion.

i’ll have more thoughts before too long. but for now, seems like a good upgrade — doesn’t yet feel like a completely new OS. feels decidedly incremental, although i think that will start to change as new applications get released from 3rd party developers using things like Core Animation.

i also think, fwiw, that the user interface on the Mac is both good and starting to get a little bit confused. toolbars are incredibly inconsistent, even from one Apple application to another, let alone 3rd parties. i think it’s going to get a lot more jumbled for a while, as developers start to throw in HUDs and animations for everything, and as we start to get more and more direct manipulation with rich media types. (in the coverflow view of the new finder, for example, you can flip through the pages of PDFs, play movies, etc.) i have a feeling there’s going to be a large amount of experimentation with new styles of interaction now. i think, also, that it’s going to be influenced more & more by flingable interactions like on the iPhone.

anyway, so far so good.

Oct 07

iWork 08

I’ve been trying to use iWork 08 for the past month or so — and here’s what I think so far… Keynote is the absolute best presentation building tool around. Nothing better right now. It’s nearly impossible to make a deck that looks anything but fantastic. Playing around with wide screen views now, not to mention voice overs, saving to YouTube, etc. Great evolution on an already very good application (as soon as you change your brain to think in a particular way).

Pages, the word processor/page layout application sucks less than it did before, and is mostly usable now, even in track changes mode. I mostly don’t need to open up Word anymore (painful on Rosetta) at all. There are a few things that don’t work quite right, but mostly it’s acceptable.

Numbers is basically a toy. Math performance is very very slow; interoperability with Excel is crappy. No pivot tables, only 150 numerical functions, and basically the quirkiest spreadsheet you’ve ever seen. On the other hand, like the other 2 apps in the suite, it creates documents that look beautiful. I think it’s basically a presentation tool for calculations.

For $79, Keynote is worth it by itself. If you’re not doing complicated spreadsheets or lots of contract work, I think it’s getting to the point that with iWork and googleApps, there’s really no reason to buy Office. It’ll be a close decision when Office 2008 comes out for the Mac. I’m honestly not sure I’ll get it. From time to time I need to do complicated contract work (lots and lots of revisions — I’m unsure that I trust Pages for this at present), and sometimes I need to throw a few tens of thousands of rows into a spreadsheet to do some analysis (and I don’t think there’s any way to do that right now that isn’t Excel).

But for 95% of everything I do, I’ll not use Office again to create new documents or share them with others. I think that train has left the station.

[a slight aside: I actually really like the ribbon UI in Office 2007 on Vista — I think that’s a good innovation (and one that will look completely out of place on the Mac). i also think that the newest version of Excel is fantastic. but not fantastic enough to really want it, and not fantastic enough to justify 4x the price of iWork or an infinite pricing markup on google spreadsheets.]