New Work Computer

February 23rd, 2013 1 comment
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Macintosh

Several years ago I wrote about making a transition to the Mac world with a 13″ MacBook. That was my main computer for several years. Back in 2009 when I first got it I wrote about a whole host of things I hated about the Mac. Like the fact that there was no decent enterprise e-mail client. That the ‘DEL’ key on a Mac is really a ‘BACKSPACE’ key. That the ‘COMMAND’ key is ridiculous. Most of what I wrote is still true. Outlook 2010 for Mac is terrible, so e-mail is still painful on a Mac. It is a pale comparison to its Windows sibling. Visio is still better than OmniGraffle. The only thing that improved is that Office for Mac got VBA functionality so people can write their own functions.

So earlier this year I finally had the chance to replace my work laptop. I opted for a Windows Ultrabook – a Toshiba Portégé Z935 to be precise. And this thing so unbelievably rocks it isn’t even funny. I had the option to get a MacBook Air, but I am totally glad that I didn’t. Being back in the Windows world in my corporate life is so much easier. And I’ve been able to configure this machine to do some really cool stuff.

Like the way I am running an Ubuntu 12.04 virtual machine on an external Western Digital USB hard drive. That’s right – a complete Linux install that runs perfectly on an external (hardware encrypted) hard drive. Running in VMWare Fusion as a guest OS on my Windows 7 machine, this thing kicks butt. I use it primarily as a Python and web development environment, but having the ability to whip up a quick web server doesn’t hurt. I also love writing documents using Restructuredtext as well. It supports multiple monitors and I haven’t had a single hiccup with it’s install on an external drive.

I’ll probably write more about this configuration soon, but for now – it’s awesome.

Switching to a Mac – One Month In the Enterprise

December 16th, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Macintosh

I’m going on a solid month now integrating a MacBook in to a real enterprise network where real work needs to get done and where, like it or not, Windows is the dominant operating environment. As I’ve discussed previously, I found the overall experience of the switch to be relatively easy, with a few hiccups along the way. But as I get deeper and deeper into trying to get my daily work done I am finding more and more quirks about the Mac that just make things difficult.

To disagree, a bit at least, with Mark Crump, the Land of Apple isn’t all “rainbow-farting unicorns frolicking in meadows.” As both he and I discovered, there are some issues which appear when you are a minority Mac user within a great sea of Microsoft products. And I will preface my further discussion by admitting that I work in a very Mac-friendly environment. Sure the official builds and the underlying infrastructure is all Windows-based, but in a largely academic/research environment like the one in which I work, ignoring other operating systems just isn’t possible. So unlike most enterprise users, I have an official “Research Computing” arm of IT to which I can turn for all kinds of help with my Mac. Need instructions on setting up Apple Mail to work with Exchange — it’s on the Research Computing website. Ditto for Entourage. Want Entourage to connect to the LDAP server so you have some semblance of address checking like in Outlook — that configuration is posted too. Samba shares? Yup — every corporate server has one. So all-in-all I have it easy as far as Mac users in the enterprise go.

But there are still some quirks.

Printer Support

Even with all the underlying support at work, connecting to printers is still a pain. The most infuriating part (for most of my Mac colleagues at least) is that one needs an IP address to connect to any of the enterprise printers. Trying to find their share names via their print servers just doesn’t work for some reason. Many of the Mac users give up printing at this point, thinking that finding an IP address is too hard. But here’s a little secret to make it easy with no calls to the Helpdesk: ask a windows-using colleague to print a test page on the printer to which you wish to connect. The printer’s IP address is usually right there in the middle of the information printed on a standard Windows test page, somewhere by the port information. In fact, you can often identify Mac users around my office by the Windows printer test page we all have hanging in our cubes in case we need to re-map a printer.

As far as home printer support goes, I am having an even harder time. I have a Lexmark X7675 all-in-one at home and no matter what software I download from Lexmark or what I try, I cannot print to this machine with my MacBook. I can see it on the network, but I just can’t print.

Overall, printer support in Leopard has proven frustrating for me, though I am able to get my work done thanks to the Windows XP desktop I also have in my cube and the printer test page trick.

Entourage is not Outlook (reprise)

I said this before and I’ll say it again. Entourage is a pale facsimile of Outlook. I finally couldn’t take it anymore — I have now ditched Entourage except for quick offline e-mails, and am running Outlook in Parallels cohesion mode (on Vista Professional) as my day-to-day e-mail client. What a relief. My rules work again, my calendar updates free/busy information quickly, my messages are colored & highlighted, and I have my beloved Sperry Attachment Save add-in and Auto-archiving working again so I don’t clog up my mailbox with junk. It’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Add to this my corporate configuration for secure access without being attached via VPN and I am a happy e-mailer again. Perhaps I’l come back to the Mac for e-mail when Microsoft releases Outlook for the Mac in late 2010, but until then, good-riddance Entourage and Mac corporate e-mail.

What really broke the camel’s back for the e-mail thing was Entourage’s lack of support for tables. Seriously … there are a lot of tables in corporate e-mail, and yet Entourage can’t create tables. Unbelievable.

Oh, and a special message to all the Mac grumps who constantly lament Microsoft’s implementation of HTML e-mail formatting in Outlook and insist on berating anyone who uses it: f’ you! War’s over and you lost; HTML won, so get over it. If you’re that insistent go back to using Elm, Mutt, or Pine and leave the rest of us alone.

That Infernal ‘delete’ Key

I’ve mentioned this before: the ‘delete’ key on a MacBook is really a BACKSPACE key. And this becomes more apparent in Windows, like when trying to delete e-mail in Outlook via the reading pane. The secret in Windows is that ‘fn-delete’ makes the ‘delete’ key work like a ‘delete’ key should. Please, Apple, label the key correctly and call it a backspace key. Pretty please?

How Do You Survive Without VBA?

Seriously? How does anyone get any serious analysis done in Excel without at least occasionally having to program a custom function. If only to simplify the syntax that other users may have to deal with when entering complex formulas. Just the other week I helped someone who was building a large spreadsheet that needed to parse a string in some cells. He had a formula that looked like: =IF(ISERR(FIND(” “,H2)),H2,LEFT(H2,FIND(” “,H2)-1)). He was hoping to get other people to use the sheet. I was able to turn that into =FirstTextBlock(H2,””) using simple code like this, which I wrote in 60 seconds while eating a pastrami sandwich:

Public Function FirstTextBlock(strSearchIn As String, strDelimiter As String) As String

FirstTextBlock = Left(strSearchIn, InStr(strSearchIn, strDelimiter) – 1)

End Function

Isn’t that much cleaner? Over the years I have written some very useful and complex functions in VBA, including a whole automated Sales forecast linked to that laid out a dashboard of custom graphs and included deferred revenue calculations for contract maintenance functions. All with the push of a single button (don’t ask why Sales didn’t just do this inside — that’s a whole different story.) All of this just isn’t possible on a Mac. Shameful.

OmniGraffle Isn’t Visio

OK, this isn’t really fair. From what I’ve seen playing with the demo version OmniGraffle could be a better Visio than Visio. But, I’m just not used to it and I really don’t feel like putting in the hours to learn the program. So, for 99% of what I need to do lately, which is mocking up web page designs to discuss with developers, I use Balsamiq Mockups. People can argue all they want about what the right method is for mocking up page ideas, but for me Mockups works. And as for tools like Axure, well, let’s see: Axure = $589, Mockups = $75. Done and done … Mockups it is.

So there you go … 1 month under my belt with the Mac. We’ll see if it continues to be unicorns and rainbows.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Switching to a Mac – Week 2

December 7th, 2009 2 comments
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Macintosh

It’s been about a week now since I traded in my trusty Dell / Windows Vista PC at work for a new MacBook. I have accumulated a few additional thoughts on this transition.

Entourage is not Outlook. This is an understatement. Entourage is a poor substitute for Outlook and Microsoft should be utterly ashamed of themselves for allowing the Mac Office suite to ship without a proper corporate e-mail client for this long. I have finally read that Microsoft will be releasing Outlook for the Mac in late 2010, but come on … to go without a real corporate e-mail client this long is a traveshamockery! What’s missing in Entourage? For me, primarily the ability to effectively manage my e-mail via Auto Archiving, using the setup I wrote about here. Entourage has no real archiving capabilities, and it can’t even read .pst files, so my old Outlook archives are worthless. Holy crap, Microsoft … if you’re going to use a non-standard format (PST archives) for one of your flagship products, at least have the decency to support the format in the rest of your stuff. (And I know I can use programs like EEAX to archive messages in Entourage, but it’s still a pale imitation of Outlook’s built-in capability.)

The other thing I miss from Outlook is the ability to color-code messages based on parameters. In my case, having message where I was in the “To” address come in colored vs. messages where I was only CC’d.

I miss my HDD activity light. I never thought it would be that important, but I really miss seeing the blinking drive light telling me the system is at least doing something. I can’t tell you how often I think the Mac has frozen. Maybe I’m just conditioned to Windows and Mac people don’t ever think that the system has locked because it rarely does … but I still need some reassurance. The HDD light is like my Windows security blanket; as long as it’s blinking, I know my little machine is working.

One Note & Visio, I miss you too. I’m sure there are Mac equivalents for these programs — maybe even better ones. But right now I miss both of these programs enough to be extra thankful for Parallels so I can have them running. Especially One Note. And I know many people say that OmniGraffle is better than Visio, and they may be right. But I am much more a technical drawer than a creative drawer, so Visio works great for me.

Ability to Run Internet Explorer. I know, I know. Firefox is my default browser for all things personal. But in my work life I am a Product Manager of a web-based tool that is used by a large community held hostage to Internet Explorer for various reasons. So I need to run IE to test this site frequently. Currently, Parallels allows me to do this, but going through the trouble of installing a virtual machine and a whole second OS is something that even most moderately advanced users aren’t going to do.

Parallels Desktop kicks ass! This is one well designed piece of hardware and running Parallels on it is truly a pleasurable experience. If one is willing to go through the very minimal hassle necessary to install Parallels and a second OS, the payoff is well worth it. Hell, this MacBpok runs Vista Ultimate as fast (if not faster) than my Dell while running OS X and Mac applications. I am truly impressed.

What the f*&k is a ‘COMMAND’ key? I know it’s been around since the dawn of the Apple personal computer, but let’s face facts … the ‘CONTROL’ (‘CTRL’) key won the war. Like VHS vs. Beta, one is victorious and the other deserves to be thrown to the dustbin of history. ‘COMMAND’ and the little clover symbol had a good run but it’s time to pack it in. Hell, even Homer Simpson figured out what the ‘CTRL’ key did.

The backlit keyboard and auto-dimming screen are great. As someone who types on dark trains a lot, I am very appreciative of the auto-dimming screen. On dark sections between train stations the screen doesn’t singe my retinas, but when we pull in under the lights, it brightens so I can still see it. Brilliant! It took a bit of time to get used to it, but now I think it’s an awesome feature.

That’s my take after a week … I admire the Mac very much as a piece of well designed hardware. But I’m not sure I’d spend my own money on one. Honestly, though most things work well enough, there isn’t really that much less tweaking required for the Mac versus a PC. I’ve had a great time configuring virtual machines and other features over the last week, so the idea that a Mac will just come out of the box perfectly equipped for anything you might want to do is complete rubbish. In a real corporate world, you’d better be prepared to tweak it.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

Joining the Mac Cult – Getting a New Macbook

December 1st, 2009 1 comment
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Macintosh

For more than the last year I have used my own personal Dell Studio 17 laptop running Windows Vista ultimate as my primary work machine. I have lots of reasons for this, but it’s not the point of this post to lay them out. Rather, I want to post my thoughts as I trade in the Dell for my first Mac laptop in 16 years. Yes — I admit it, proudly in fact, I owned an original Macintosh PowerBook 140 that I bought new in 1991. In fact I wrote the paper for my senior project in college on that machine, and drew the graphs too. I still have it in my basement, though the disk drive is dead so it doesn’t do much anymore.

Anyway, I was encouraged to upgrade at work to a company machine, but I saw no advantage in getting a company Windows laptop — after all, I could configure my own laptop exactly the way I wanted it. But, when a slightly used Macbook 13″ became available, I decided it was time to try something new. At least this was I was getting to use something that I would never buy for myself; Macs are simply waaaaay too overpriced for normal people. I get that the hardware is well designed and everything, but come on — $999 for a bottom-of-the-Apple-line “starter” notebook? The low-end shouldn’t cost more than $750 tops. Anyway — here are my thoughts on the first day.

For the record, this machine is running OS X 10.5.8.


I’m really struck by how little the interface has changed in 16 years. Seriously. I’m tempted to go and get my PowerBook out of storage and fire up Word Perfect. Don’t get me wrong, the dock is nice and the “genie” ninimize and maximize animations are nice, but other than that not much has changed. One could argue that perhaps this is because Mac got the interface right in the first place, but I’m not so sure.

One thing that is grating on me right now is that one can only resize a window by dragging the lower-right corner. On a Windows machine one can drag any side of the window. Windows is much more convenient.

13″ Hardware

Making the leap from a full 17″ desktop replacement to a 13″ compact is a bit unsettling for me. A few things are already jumping out at me. For example, there is no different BACKSPACE vs. DELETE key. Only a DELETE key which actually works like a BACKSPACE key. That’s a pain. And there is no END key for returning to the end of a line after editing something. That’s a pain too. Perhaps there are some Command sequences which will help that I haven’t figured out yet, but I wish I had the keys.

I’m also learning the two-fingered scroll gestures on the Mac trackpad. Not sure I like them better than the dedicated scroll areas on my Dell, but I’m not sure I hate the gestures either. Time will tell.

One thing I know I am missing is some indication that the machine is working. Particularly a HDD Working LED. There are times when I think this thing is not responding and then the program I started will suddenly appear. I wish I could see the little drive light spinning to be sure it’s alive.

One thing I am loving is the video. My Dell had no problem driving the Acer 23″ monitor on my desk to full 1920 x 1080 resolution, but I was impressed that this little Mac could also. I scrounged the mini to VGA adapter I needed from a co-worker and in 30 seconds I had an extended desktop running on two monitors and beautiful 1920 x 1080 on the big screen. If you’ve never used a screen at this resolution, it’s life-changing. I can now clutter my virtual desktop nearly as much as my real one!

OS X Installation

When I received he machine, I wanted to ensure that the previous user’s information was deleted. So I reinstalled OS X from the original DVD and erased the previous information. I have to say that I like a Windows installation better. First, Apple could at least let the machine boot from a DVD without having to press and hold the C key. It took a bit of searching to find that little trick. And then the install was very poor at telling me what the heck it was doing. It took 15 minutes just to tell me that it estimated it would take another hour and a half to complete. I admit that Windows isn’t really speedier, but at least it tells you all the different stages. I was worried that OS X was stuck in a couple of places.


I will give Kudos to Apple – I haven’t touched a Mac in 16 years, but after completing the installation this afternoon I was able to both set up my work wireless connection (802.1X / WEP authentication) and get this thing tethered to my Windows Mobile phone via a Bluetooth PAN with a bare minimum of Googling for instructions. The wireless seems robust all around. In fact I’m writing this post on my train ride home while tethered to my Dash 3G phone. Take that Apple.


So my overall impression is positive. I’m sure I will grow to like the small form factor and so far the connectivity has been robust. Things are easy to configure with a minimum of fuss. So overall I’m impressed. Now — to get my VPN working!

Categories: Technology Tags: ,