It doesn't have to be this way

Tired of viruses, lost files and the 'blue screen of death'? In the first of two articles about waving goodbye to Windows, John Dodds switches to Apple's OSX

It was the sight of a friend's new company laptop on his study desk that did it. It had only a 12-inch screen, and the keyboard was tiny and cramped; it just wouldn't work for a non-touch typist like me. It seemed like miniaturisation gone mad - but it also emphasised the sheer bulkiness and age of my three-year-old Gateway desktop running Windows 98.

It was the sight of a friend's new company laptop on his study desk that did it. It had only a 12-inch screen, and the keyboard was tiny and cramped; it just wouldn't work for a non-touch typist like me. It seemed like miniaturisation gone mad - but it also emphasised the sheer bulkiness and age of my three-year-old Gateway desktop running Windows 98.

Latterly, like the majority of Windows users, I had experienced the "blue screen of death", lost numerous hours of writing to files that then just vanished or refused to open, and increasingly witnessed the havoc wrought by viruses. Now I had a reason to buy the Apple machine I'd always coveted.

Lacking any knowledge of the hardware, I sounded out experts. Many of them gave rave reviews. There are no known viruses that affect the Macintosh OS X operating system, and - knowing people whose Windows machines are dragged through treacle by ever-larger antivirus software - that was a definite plus. Finally, there was the style. The awards given to Apple for design speak to me: increasingly, I think that good product design leads to a better consumer experience, both physically and mentally.

So I parted with just over £1,500 for a 15-inch PowerBook with a 60-gigabyte hard drive, Firewire, Ethernet, wireless and USB connections and a DVD-rom/CD burner. (I decided against the extra expense of a built-in DVD burner.) I picked a laptop for its portability and compactness - it weighs 2.6kg (5.7lb).

It was a thing of beauty straight out of the box. Even something as mundane as the power supply adaptor is sleek and elegant. (This can make you feel guilty about using non-Apple product attachments, which can seem rather like sticking a satellite dish on the outside of a listed building.)

The elegance extends to the ease with which everything fits together - this really is plug and play. When you switch it on, a confident fanfare sounds and a huge fulgent screen springs to life: only 15-inch, but it's pretty much all picture. Indeed, it compares well with the portable TV I have in my bedroom, and this plays DVDs as well.

Then it hit me. This is not a Windows machine. What do I do? Where are the familiar things? Why has the mouse only got one button? What's a Dock? And, most of all, where's the taskbar?

Technically, OS X is a Unix environment, but that's an excessively jargon-ish term. All it really means is that you can have multiple users with differing levels of access and manipulation. ( Windows XP also offers multiple users with different privileges - Network editor.)

I had prepared by reading lots of books and, while these are all better written than their Windows equivalents, and give a sense of a community of which you want to be a part, the reality is still a little daunting.

But, two months in, I have a prevailing sense of security and safety. There's been not a sniff of system meltdown. The software and security updates are easy, convenient and (via broadband) fast. The sense of considerable computing power and massive processing going on is very evident, but it feels secure behind the OS X firewall and a router; and all with no need for antivirus software.

Then again, sometimes others react to my purchase with horror - principally, any large organisation providing internet services. Seeking to use a non-Windows machine for my broadband connection via my own choice of router caused a sharp intake of breath and backtracking away from effectiveness guarantees at every ISP I approached. This is very irritating. It's as if they think Apple is some weird home-build outfit rather than a top-level innovator. After all, with modern equipment, internet configuration is pure plug and play. In fact, all BT needed to tell me was the applicable set-up user name and password. It's that simple.

A different issue emerged in setting up my Wi-Fi connection. (Apple calls it Airport). The absence of a confirmation message left me thinking I'd done something wrong, but all I needed was to unplug the Ethernet link: it switched over automatically. I had expected a Windows-style confirmation of success, but Apples don't prompt you when something's gone right, such as plugging in a disk or setting up a wireless router. They just silently incorporate it. That's a major difference in approach: Windows thinks it's a surprise worth telling you about when something works. Apple doesn't.

And the software is great, too - once you get some. Despite being more expensive than the iBook, Apple's other laptop, the PowerBook comes without business software. There's plenty of preloaded consumer software (iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, Mail and a great address book) but it seems churlish that it is the iBooks, not the PowerBooks, that get Apple's Works business suite.

The rudimentary TextEdit word processor was insufficient for my purposes, so I opted for Microsoft Office for OS X. Why? Compatibility with everyone else; and because, like so much OS X software, it is built from the bottom up for Apple sensibilities rather than being a quick rewrite of the Windows version. One feels very much that OS X software writers are users first and techies second.

So it's all the more irritating that some third-party software is inferior to its Windows counterpart. Yahoo Messenger's OS X version has no obvious microphone capability, and Windows-using friends keep referring to icons that don't seem to exist on my version. Apple's stand-alone iChat messenger service is compatible with AOL, but I've never had an AOL account.

As with many of the niggles, this is an issue of transference when you move files and software relationships from Windows. Starting afresh, it might not be so evident. I left most of my old files on the PC. Ones I needed, such as accounts and spreadsheets, I e-mailed to myself as attachments. They all opened perfectly.

What's it like to use? Browsing is good: Safari (Apple's answer to Internet Explorer) can "multitask" with multiple "tabs" in the same window and has a built-in pop-up blocker. And your customised Favourites are easily accessible on a horizontal menu-bar incorporated just above the web content; there's no need to pull down a menu bar and then click the item, as with Internet Explorer. And the recent security scares about the Windows browser and spyware make me glad that I'm using an Apple machine.

What about navigating your own files? The Finder seems a useful file organiser, though the visual simplicity of Windows Explorer was pretty much perfect. However, OS X's Dock - its equivalent of the Windows taskbar - is annoying. The large icons suggest it will be easy to use, but I miss being able to read the taskbar for the name of the applications and documents you have open - which would be especially useful on a slightly smaller laptop, where windows inevitably overlap.

Also, when working with multiple windows it is sometimes difficult to find what you want, and the thinness of the side sliders of any window demands very accurate cursor control. I have often found myself working on the wrong documents or applications because they were already open or lying dormant on the desktop beneath.

Other annoyances include trying to get both time and date displayed, and the single-button mouse - no doubt there's an internal Apple logic, but it's still irksome. Much more annoying is the lack of a forward delete key. You can use a combination of keys, but I've still deleted the wrong text many times. Also, files downloaded from the web are all dropped into a separate folder, rather than one you specify. But these are minor quibbles.

The key lesson is to read ahead. You take a different journey on an Apple. If you're not a techie, it's a slight morass at first. However, it's a journey worth making. The initial expense was quite high, but I can't see myself needing more power or capabilities for years. PCs now seem positively clunky. I, for one, won't be struggling to peer through any Windows any more.

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