The new apple of my eyeBy Martin Hansen. Published: 17th Nov 2008, 16:33:52 | Permalink | Printable
Would you swap your dusty Acorn for a polished Apple computer? Martin Hansen has been checking out the world of Steve Jobs and his range of shiny kit.There's a confession I need to make right away: I'm not typing this article on my trusty Iyonix. I'm using a brand new Apple MacBook Pro. "Oh God!" I hear you cry, "Hansen's left the fold." Well, not yet but, like Adam in Eden, I'm being tempted.
As my daughter's birthday coincided with this year's Wakefield show, I missed the premier event on the RISC OS calendar. However, being a subscriber to RISCOS Ltd's Select scheme, I received a CD of the show release of RISC OS 6, (aka Select 4i4) a couple of days later. I immediately began getting to grips with this significant upgrade, and did a review half done, but my interest was hijacked by adventures in the land of apples. Apple computers, that is.
First, let me make it clear that this state-of-the art machine upon which I am typing is not mine. It belongs to Helen, my partner, who some of you met at the Guildford RISC OS show in 2006. There she proved to be particularly adept at selling copies of the MathMagical Sudoku program. I mention this because I want you to understand that Helen has known for some time that alternatives to Windows exist. Alas, when it came to replacing her aging Windows machine, I just could not persuade her that an Iyonix would do. This is not to say that my Iyonix has never impressed Helen. We frequently use it to slim down material that she is sent for posting on her work-related website, and we once used it to hack a Powerpoint file. The stark fact is, alas, that the Iyonix, launched at the Midlands show on November 30, 2002, is five and a half years old. Helen wanted an up-to-date machine.
As we asked around we realized that, between us, we had three friends who had recently bought a computer. This rather confirms recent news reports that, in spite of the credit crunch, IT products are selling well. One friend, a medical researcher, had bought a windows laptop for his 16 year old daughter. Another friend, a clinical psychologist, an Apple MiniMac as the family machine. The third, a graphics designer, an Apple MacPro desktop machine for his marketing partner. Thus, although we had ruled out a machine that ran RISC OS natively, we were aware that many people are looking into what Apple has to offer. So, we did too.
For my part, I knew that Virtual Acorn, following many requests at the various RISC OS shows, had released a version of their RiscPC emulator for Apple's shiny machines. I have VirtualRiscPC running on my daughter's Windows desktop machine and I know it is an excellent substitute for the real thing. Helen and I were both keen on the idea of a laptop. Whether Windows or Apple, via emulation, I could have the latest version of RISC OS running as fast on a modern laptop as it did on my Iyonix, if I wanted it.
After checking the state of her bank account, Helen decided that it was worth making the fifty mile trip to the Apple store in Birmingham. If they could impress, she could buy. For me, walking into the shop was a real eye opener. The place was buzzing with people clustering around the twenty or so active machines on display. I joined a crowd around a large table where punters were playing on four of the new Air laptops. This device is incredibly lacking in thickness. "Where is the room for the battery?" a perplexed customer asked me. I was at a loss to answer. I think we are probably all familiar with walking into a box-shifter Windows computer store and having a frustrating conversation with the Saturday lad who knows nothing about half of the products he is trying to sell. Apple sell a less diverse range, which makes it easier to know more about what is for sale but, even so, they obviously train their staff very carefully. Helen and I were soon deep in conversation with a sales assistant, called Junior, who certainly knew his stuff.
Helen had prepared a long list of questions concerning the ease with which she would be able to switch from being a Windows user. It was one hell of a step into the unknown for her, and she was well aware that, at 1,400 quid, it could turn out to be a very expensive mistake. For work she would have to be able to continue to send and receive Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint files. She would need to be able to continue to manage her website, for which she currently used Dreamweaver. Her internet surfing had to cope with YouTube, Facebook, Ebay, Amazon and have the ability to access, via the web, the Blackboard virtual learning environment. Windows Vista users had been running into problems in doing this recently. Straight-forward desktop publishing would be required plus, of course, email.
I got the impression that the questions we asked were ones that Junior had fielded many times and one by one we were shown, on the MacBook Pro laptop between us, that none of them would be a problem. In order to keep my ten-year-old daughter interested we talked for a bit about computing in the old days. What wonders would she come to see in her lifetime? She had recently noticed some impressive drag-and-drop in the film Iron Man. Junior had been a Spectrum user and new a lot about the BBC Micro. Yet when I mentioned RISC OS he scratch his head: 'Never heard of it, mate'.
Rather than purchase Microsoft Office for the Mac, Helen bravely decided to go for iWorks which contains three applications, Pages, Keynote and Numbers which are, respectively Word, Powerpoint and Excel file-compatible products. She was pleased to learn that Dreamweaver was available on the Mac, although not sold by the Apple store.
Our sales assistant was very keen to show us the MacBook Pro's dexterity in intelligently and effortlessly managing large photographic and video collections and I was impressed with the ease with which a video clip slide show with sound could be rustled up. OK, it was a rehearsed party piece, but as I'm working with video clips on RISC OS at the moment, it was of more interest to me than might have otherwise been the case. While we were being served, I noticed two desktop machines being sold. It was like being at one of the frantic RISC OS shows from days of old; I guess the Apple store is like this every weekend.
A couple of minor shortcomings caught my attention which I'll mention here least you think we were too easily wowed by Junior, our likable salesman. I was surprised that a screen resolution of 1280 by 1024 pixels was not available. Apple laptops can match this horizontally but not vertically where they tops out at around 800 pixels. This is exacerbated by the icon bar running along the lower edge of the screen, as in does in RISC OS, and a Mac OS 'feature' that prevents application windows from covering it. They slide down behind it instead. Under RISC OS this space is routinely made available to resized or dragged windows and is effortlessly regained when required, as I explained along with several other tricks and tips in a previous drobe article. As a workaround, Mac OS X makes it possible to run the icon bar down either side of the (wide) screen but, even so, having got used to a 1280 by 1024 screen over the last five years, having less was going to be a step backwards.
Another small gripe: American-English is foisted upon the user. If sold in England, surely the machines should be set up with English-English as the default? For example, I've just checked what screen resolutions are available on this laptop and the word 'color' is all over the place and causing considerable irritation. In this Pages Wordprocessor, 'colour' gets highlighted as being spelt incorrectly and, after a ten minute faff around, it's not obvious to me how to switch to UK-English, if indeed that's an option.
It is also very strange to only have, effectively, a one button mouse. To my surprise, Helen liked the laptop's finger pad with which one guides the mouse around the screen. It was, she explained, much bigger than any she had tried before. I just smiled. As I use Pages to type out this article, I'm finding that I keep wanting to click menu to cut and paste. This even although I looked up 'cut and paste' in the slim user's guide over a week ago and grasped that the Mac way of doing this is via a couple of keyboard shortcuts. Not as good as RISC OS there, then.
These are, of course, minor quibbles, and, after a good hour and a half in the shop, I had no problem in endorsing Helen's decision that the MacBook Pro was the computer for her. Another one sold.
Happy days are here for Apple. They managed to get a new operating system, Leopard, out at the start of the year, having previously launched the iPhone which, let's face it, is one of the most desirable, albeit also amongst the most expensive, mobile phones currently on the market. True, a slowing in the rate at which iPod sales were growing took the shine off the value of Apple shares at the start in 2008, but these are now back up following the successful launch of their ultra thin Air laptop and surging desktop and laptop sales.
Virtually a done deal
All of which makes Virtual Acorn's move in getting a Mac version of their RiscPC emulator out a timely move. For me, paying 119 quid for the emulator is not currently on the cards as I am already a Select subscriber, already have an Advantage Six Windows machine running the emulator and have an Iyonix and three StrongARM Risc PCs knocking around the place. I'm also not sure what I could say about it running on a Mac in a review. It's RISC OS. It does what RISC OS does. What I will say is that if I had no other access to RISC OS then the Virtual Acorn product would be seen as a god-send and on my list of absolutely essential purchases.
Although I am liking the Mac, I am aware that without software like Draw, Paint, BBC BASIC and TechWriter, to name but four bits of software in daily use here, most of what I do on a computer would grind to a halt. Curiously, having a Mac in the house is inspiring me to start finding out more about what software is available for it. And I don't doubt that I'll be spending time exploring the Mac landscape over the months to come. Irrational as it is, l have never felt any desire to do this with Microsoft products.
New learning curve
I shall finish with a few comments about how I, a seasoned RISC OS user, reluctant Windows user, but absolute Apple novice, am getting along with the new machine.
The first thing that strikes you with the MacBook Pro laptop is the quality of the thing as a physical object. It is a beautiful thing to hold and to handle. It powers up quickly with many standard applications already on the iconbar, waiting to be clicked and explored. I already had a wireless router in the house which the machine found effortlessly and within ten minutes of getting the laptop out of the box, I had the drobe website on screen via the built in web browser, Safari. This browser is excellent and has had no problem accessing any of the sites on Helen's list, mentioned earlier.
A desire to copy a photograph from a website, and paste it into the Keynote application proved to be problematic. Highlighting the photo and then dragging and dropping it did not seem to work. I don't doubt that there is an easy way of doing this, but it was not intuitively obvious to either of us. Eventually we found that by first copying it, then pasting it into Pages followed by a further copy and then paste into Keynote worked. (Using those keyboard key codes for cut and paste !) The manuals that come with typical Apple products seem very lightweight to me, and even the 25 quid extra book we bought, Leopard: The Missing Manual was of little help with this particular issue.
The Mac OS X desktop is, however, very slick, robust and solid. I don't think that anyone who has used RISC OS (or for that matter Windows), would have any difficulty in driving it. Like the case, it is polished, elegant and refined. In operation, it tries to intelligently anticipate what you are likely to want to do next. On the one hand this takes the pressure off a user to, for example, organize their folders and files methodically: the machine does it for you. On the other hand, this has made me feel that I don't quite know what is going on under the surface. It will be interesting to see if this feeling passes as I get more used to the Apple way of doing things.
When I first had contact with the Apple machine, I did feel a wave of resigned depression sweep over me. The slickness and sophistication of the product is awesome. It's also great to wander into WH Smiths, for example, and see two or three Mac magazines on sale, browse through them, and buy if there is an idea or article that captures your interest. The whole Apple thing is a reminder of where RISC OS once was and still should be: a viable, cutting edge alternative to Windows.
As I've started to get to know the Mac laptop more I am starting to realise that it's not so much 'better' than RISC OS, as simply 'different'. RISC OS remains an enthusiasts OS for amateurs and hobbyists who like tinkering with the guts of their machine. The RISC OS community is small, snug and friendly while still achieving some quite remarkable things with minimal resources. I don't see myself making a switch, but a merge is taking place. The good thing is that I don't feel as if I am being assimilated, unlike my experience with Windows. I hope Apple continue to do well, and they are certainly making modern day computing more interesting through their innovative products. I'm pleased, Helen and I have got an Apple in our garden.
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