March 7, 2004

I am now a laptop-only person, having retired my last desktop machine from active service. My company is a little unusual in issuing laptops to all the engineers and desktops to everyone else — other places I worked usually went the other way. I was issued a Powerbook G4 15″.

This is the geek’s favorite, but I’d been skeptical. I love my Thinkpad: the ease of updating libraries with Debian, all the apps I need to work, and the best keyboard and pointer in the business. I’ve even developed the nipple-shaped depressed callus on my right index finger from using the Trackpoint all day and night. But I figured I’d give the Powerbook a shot, even though it’s far more glamorous than any machine I’d normally buy for myself.

There’s been plenty of stuff I don’t like. The one-button trackpad is in fact as lame as I expected. The layout of the Apple button makes you cramp your hand to cut and paste, and every so often I get a weird white-cursor-like character in emacs. The Finder is an idea whose time has gone. I much prefer the Gnome or even the Windows conventions for minimizing running applications and switching between apps. The inability to get a ps -ef listing bugs me — and I don’t actually care if ps -aux is more secure, thanks. Having icons jump up and down in the dock to get your attention is incredibly annoying. The machine isn’t really a full Unix distribution from the factory, you have to know to install all that stuff. The filesystem is basically two different ones welded together — the upper-cased top-level directories that you can see in the Finder window by default, like /Music and /Applications, and the lower-cased Unixy ones like /usr and /var that you can only get to via the command-line. This gives a disturbing Eloi and Morlocks feel to the whole production. The drag-and-drop paradigm and the command-line paradigm just aren’t melding in my mind — like it took me forever to figure out that you had to double-click disk images and drag the resulting binary to the Applications directory. I still haven’t figured out how to delete certain developer apps, like Apache, and I don’t like the lack of choice in which ones to install. A lot of the apps that come with the machine just aren’t very good. And finally, you will have to buy a new computer bag, because Thinking Different means your new machine will be slightly too long for any normal bag.

But, with an open mind and not a little work, you can in fact make your Powerbook as useful as a Linux box and twice as pretty. The good thing is that there are a lot of projects around to make OS X apps that borrow a lot of the best ideas from Linux apps. This is what I’ve had to add so far:

  • Before you do anything else, you must find and install the Developer tools package (rummage around Applications -> Installers). It ain’t Unix until you have gcc.
  • Mozilla Firefox. Safari lacks XSLT support and doesn’t work with Mod-pubsub, so it’s of little use to me.
  • Fink. This package lets you use apt with OS X. It installs in /sw, which you’ve got to add to your PATH.
  • Fire. iChat doesn’t support all the IM protocols, and has this amazingly kawaii (and I don’t mean that in a good way) cartoon-bubble interface.
  • Emacs. The version of emacs that comes with the machine only runs in the terminal. You can find a better-compiled version with menus and scrollbars.
  • iTerm. Must… have… tabbed… terminals! And the OS X terms are notably slow.
  • OpenOffice.org (which requires X11). Sorry Bill, no more money from me. Plus, I work with roughly equal numbers of people who use Windows, Mac, and Linux — OOo is the only one that supports all three.
  • Ogg Vorbis plugin for iTunes. I’m not crazy about iTunes though… might consider switching back to xmms.
  • Changing the name of the machine… I can’t live with something called “Joyce-Parks-Computer”. It’s Park, dammit, not Parks! Look for the Sharing setting, which I would never have figured out in a million years.
  • Two-button Bluetooth mouse. It’s apparently all set up for a better pointer, they just don’t provide one.

Now for the upside. It was definitely nice not to have to spend a week on basic hardware configuration issues, I must admit. I rather like compiling my own stuff, but the disk image system is definitely easier (once I figured out the drag-and-drop thing, that is). Power management and connectivity are top-notch, miles ahead of Linux. And the visuals (screen, shiny lickable buttons, anti-aliasing) are all excellent, if over-fancy in parts. But the bottom line to me is that I can make the Powerbook into something close to a Linux box — except without ps -ef.

One Response to “Powerbook”

  1. […] my last go-round with a Mac, I’ve found a couple of new projects that rock. I’m using Adium instead of Fire now, […]

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