Sunday, August 29, 2010

A First Look at Windows 7 and Snow Leopard (Finally)

OK, so I tore myself away from CP/M and my Atari 2600 long enough to get my first exposure to Windows 7 and Snow Leopard today. We got my older daughter a new Eee PC laptop to replace one she drop-kicked (accidentally, by all reports), the replacement runs Windows 7. Last week I decided I to do upgrades of some of the Macs around the house to Snow Leopard. So I picked up a family pack of that, and did an install on one of my systems while Windows 7 was "initializing" on the new computer.

Windows 7

Let me be upfront about it. While I'm not a Windows "hater", I don't have any great love for it as an operating system. I don't think it's got any particular technical excellence about it, it's got a legacy of problems that tend to persist from version to version, but by and large it gets the job done when the job has been written to do its thing in Windows in a fairly competent fashion. I run Win XP on one of my boxes, I may upgrade someday when some particular need drives me to do so. It's not that I resist it, it's just that right now I've pretty well got that system whipped into shape, and I don't feel the need to repeat the work just to be on the latest and greatest.

When the time comes, I'll move on. That time isn't now.

My daughter, however, has her new Eee PC. I ended up being the one who got the machine started up for the first time today. I wanted to make sure it was functional within a time frame that would allow me to take it back to the store for a replacement if it turned out there was a problem. So I got to start up and use Windows 7 for the first time.

First Impressions

My first impression is that it's not all that different from earlier versions of Windows. The first image that comes to mind with Windows 7 is "new curtains in a miner's shack." It's still got that sort of clunky, crunchy Windows feel of how it does things, with some new art slapped in in those places where new art is easy to slap in. It doesn't feel all that new.

Of course, I think "new" is something the Windows audience felt they had enough of with Vista (which I found usable but somewhat more annoying than XP, and certainly no real improvement on its predecessor, at least for what I use it for.) So the retro feel may be intentional. Or it may just have been easy.

It's got a slight case of "I wanna look like a Mac"-itis, but not obsessively so. It still looks and feels like Windows, with half-melted icons being more the norm than when they first started appearing in the days of Windows 98.

Overall impression: Meh.

I won't be rushing to upgrade any time soon.

Snow Leopard

I'll preface this by saying that I think the user experience for Leopard has been a big step backward for the Mac. Tiger still sits at the top of the Mac OS X versions for me. Leopard's ability to deal with networking, both by itself and in conjunction with other Mac and non-Mac systems, is a big step backward from the "it just works" standard of Tiger.

Over the past few years, Macs have declined from being my multiple primary systems to being ancillaries in terms of my regular use. My little Eee PCs, originally purchased for use when travelling or at my easy chair, have supplanted my Macs. Given that I can buy 3 Eee PCs for the price of a single Mac, I'm in no hurry to go out and buy a new Mac.

(scroll down to skip Mac rants)

Add to that the fact that my current Mac systems are all replacements for hardware that failed under coverage by AppleCare. I bought my original systems at full price--well, I get the minimal educator discount. It meant something once, but my desktop I got as a refurb from Apple with no educator discount because it was cheaper than the educator discount. Apple had actually not solved the problem with the "refurb" when I received it. Fortunately I found it easily enough. The CTRL keycap was inverted on the keyboard and sticking, preventing the machine from booting until I pulled it off and put it back on properly.

That was the last of the G5 iMacs, and it was a great system for years. Then it started having problems. It had also had a problem I'd lived with for years--the headset plug didn't put out audio. I took it in to the Apple Store for both problems, having stated that it had both problems in every call prior, and stating so again in the store while the "Genius" was filling out the repair sheet. After about a week, Apple insisted my computer had no problems. I asked if they'd fixed the audio, they were ambiguous. I insisted that the system did have a problem that was causing it to go into thermal shutdown, even on moderately demanding app. I told them to keep looking. Some too-long period later they called back and told me they'd replaced the power supply. I asked after the audio. They said the audio output was fine.

I got the computer back, it ran great. But the audio jack was still dead. I'd given up substantial work time to go to and fro to the Apple store at the far end of Sacramento (the one in Roseville didn't exist yet), and I was ticked as can be about the audio jack still not working. When I called AppleCare they said there was no record, anywhere, of me stating that problem. I only said it on, like, EVERY call and interaction I'd had with them, repeatedly, with special EMPHASIS to make sure it didn't get lost in the face of the other shutdown problem.

(still ranting, scroll down to skip)

Apple refused to let me ship it back and forth for repairs, the way I have for the repairs for my PowerBook and MacBook (3 and 2 times, respectively.) The only offer they could give me was to replace it with a current model.

I should have stuck with the bad audio output. I've hated the new iMac ever since I've got it. Yeah, it's got "better" graphics chips, a Core 2 Duo processor as opposed to a G5, but the shiney screen shows me nothing but the window in my office. Fat load of good that does me. What am I supposed to do, work in a darkroom? My G5 worked great in the same location, this aluminum thing is an abomination. I often consider picking up a used older white iMac, and donating this thing to my school. Assuming I don't throw it out a window, first.

I suppose you can say that it was good of Apple to replace my systems. And it was. But I would much rather that the original systems just worked, or maybe even got repaired as I asked.
Both replacements are significantly worse than the original systems I bought in terms of usability. I say they're lower quality, too. Even though they contain newer technology components.

(end of Mac rants, you may safely continue reading)

So, I'm certainly no Apple fanboi. I've been distressed at the general direction they've gone over the past few years, though I think the Unibody laptops are a big improvement over the floppy sloppy Macbook they sent me to replace my third-time-broken PowerBook G4 (after much sturm and drang and wrangling over the phone over the course of several weeks, but that's another story.)

So...Snow Leopard.

Part of the reason I wanted it was that Leopard is limited in its video modes. My MacBook lives in my living room, since it's too fragile to use as a regular travelling notebook computer. It went back to Apple twice while it was covered under AppleCare for problems. I used that system with utmost care when I was going places with it. I put it in a padded case, didn't overload the case, set it with good airflow on a flat surface. It broke, not once but twice.

So now it's sitting on my entertainment center, pretending to be a much cheaper Mac Mini. So far, it's still working though I have to be careful since it runs hot as the devil--the airflow with the screen either closed or open is not nearly enough. It's a botched design.

OK, so Leopard and the older versions of Mac OS won't do a stretched display to fit my widescreen TV. The graphics chipset in the MacBook is certainly capable of it, but the OSes refuse to acknowledge this. I get 4x3 display resolutions listed for my TV, nothing else. I tried a third party solution. It hosed my system's display settings so bad I was afraid it was going to end up bricked. Fortunately, I managed to recover by booting off an external backup drive and get the system restored. And I got rid of the third party solution.

Last week I wandered into the Apple Store. I've been considering Snow Leopard for a while. Whenever I gripe about Leopard my other Mac user friends tell me I need to go to Snow Leopard. They're short on details, however, so I've been dragging my feet. I've heard such things before.

I walked up to one of the Macs in the Apple Store, one hooked up to an external display (not a TV, though. I didn't see anything with a VGA adapter on it) and opened up Display Preferences. I see the option "1024x768 (stretched)". Aha, I think, maybe now I can make the Mac use my widescreen as a widescreen without looking entirely wrong. (Isn't looking good supposed to be one of the Mac's strong points?)

(minor Apple Store rant in next paragraph, but it's brief)

That, with what else I've heard, and the relatively low price, had me picking up a copy of Snow Leopard at Fry's the other day. No, not the Apple Store. I don't know what was up there, but when I walked up to the front of the store looking like I wanted to buy something, none of the Apple associates even so much as looked at me. I have no idea what was going on. I considered banging on the counter then yelling "I want to give Apple my MONEY, does anybody here care?", but I decided to leave rather than risk an encounter with the mall police. So I closed the deal at Fry's a few days later.

(I finally get to the Snow Leopard install here!)

The install went pretty well, except when I got to the "optional installs." I felt like the installer was rushing me into doing something to my drive that I didn't even know what it would be. I hit a point where I was afraid to click to move on any further, since I expected it to give me a choice of what software packages I would and wouldn't want to install. I felt like it was going to go ahead and put who knows what on my system without my say-so. So I stopped and hit Firefox to find out what was up.

It turned out that I did get a choice, two screens past the point where I felt like it was going to commit me to installing 30 pieces of trial crapware on my system. There weren't 30 pieces of trialware in the package, it was the sort of thing I expected, X11 and the base Mac apps like Calendar and so on. But from the point where I balked, I couldn't tell that.

I also couldn't tell if I should have selected things I already had on my system, like X11 and the new Safari. Had it upgraded the old packages during the main OS install or not? I had no idea, and ended up just selecting Rosetta, figuring I could check version numbers on the other stuff and come back later.

So far as I can tell, I have the latest versions of the other software, but within the installer I had no way of knowing that based on what I was being told by the installer and the choices it gave me.

Once Burned, Twice Shy

I'm pretty goosey about OS upgrades on the Mac. An iLife upgrade on my wife's G4 tower a few years ago turned a fine system into a haunted system that never worked properly ever again. It left her with a bunch of corrupted family video files, and stopped her in her tracks from doing a wide range of video related tasks.

At this point Snow Leopard is pretty well indistinguishable from Leopard. There's a slider on Finder to adjust the sizes of the icons in icon view, but otherwise Finder still appears to be as stupid as it's ever been.

Video Modes?

And the video modes. No luck. Sure, I can stretch the display on my built-in LCD display. Whoop de doo. But I'm still stuck with nothing but 4x3 aspect ratio display options on my TV. This infuriates me. I've been able to make this adjustment in Windows since Win98, possibly even Win 95. The chipset is capable of it. The computer shouldn't need the screen to tell it what aspect ratios it has, it's the computer that does the stretching, not the TV. I'm going to call AppleCare and ask to make sure I'm not missing something, but at this point it looks like my MacBook won't even be up to the job of media computer.

Maybe I'll trade my daughter my MacBook for her new Eee PC, and put that on the TV instead.

Snow Leopard Overall Impression: Bleah.

Here's a Quarter, Kid. Go Get Yourself a Real Computer

Where's my Amiga 500? I need some quality computer time. The 21st century is waaaay over-rated.

Does it say anything that I get more excited over new browsers these days than new OSes?

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