Can a Windows geek learn to love Snow Leopard?

Summary:In the interests of science, I've been dividing my time lately between a Mac running Snow Leopard and a PC running Windows 7. My goal is to gain hands-on experience with Apple's hardware and software to go with the years of experience I already have with Windows. My first challenge: assembling a suite of Mac software to replace my familiar Windows tools. With one exception, I was able to find everything I needed. Here's what I chose, and why.

In the interests of science, I’ve been dividing my time lately between a Mac running Snow Leopard and a PC running Windows 7. My goal is to gain hands-on experience with Apple’s hardware and software to go with the years of experience I already have with Windows. With a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms, I can respond rationally when OS-related food fights break out in the Talkback section below. (If you’ve spent any time in the Talkbacks, you know it doesn’t take much to set off either side. And yes, I have a Linux box here, too, but this month I’m all about the Mac. Thanks for understanding.)

Just getting set up so I can do my daily work on an alien platform has been an interesting challenge. I do my job at a desk, not in a coffee shop or on the road, so I prefer a desktop PC with as much screen real estate as possible. To that end, I’ve connected the Mac to a 24-inch display running at a resolution of 1920 x 1200. I’d prefer dual monitors, but the Intel GMA950 graphics on the Mac Mini aren’t up to the challenge.

The Snow Leopard upgrade was uneventful; it took about an hour, and nothing appeared to break. After it finished, I used Boot Camp to partition the system drive and install Windows 7 Home Premium so I can compare common tasks on Windows 7 and Snow Leopard using absolutely identical hardware. (For the record, both systems perform very well—no complaints.)

And now the fun part: assembling a suite of software to help me handle daily work. With one exception, I was able to find everything I needed. Here’s the list, broken down by category.

Default web browser

I tried Safari 4.0 and absolutely hated it. It's painfully slow, and the deal-breaker for me was its far-from-perfect integration with LastPass. Firefox 3.5 is much faster, familiar, and works with the same set of extensions I use on the PC. An easy choice.

News reader

My favorite on Windows is FeedDemon. Fortunately, it has a superb counterpart on the Mac in NetNewsWire. Both use Google Reader as their back end for syncing, so I can mark a post read in one place and have the changes synced to the other. Serendipitously, NewsGator released major updates to both programs today. Excellent!

Business productivity

I have a copy of Office 2008 for Mac, Home and Student Edition. It has the programs I need (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage), but the license (PDF) specifically prohibits "use in any commercial, non-profit or revenue-generating business activities." I have no ethical qualms using this edition for short-term evaluation purposes but will need to replace it with a copy of Office 2008 for Mac Business Edition eventually. That will cost about $200.

Blog post editor

Oh dear, this one is going to be troublesome. Microsoft's Windows Live Writer is so good that not much can compete with it on any platform, especially at the price (free). I'm using 30-day trial versions of two Mac alternatives, MarsEdit and Blogo, which cost $30 and $25 respectively, and can't say I'm bowled over with either one. Any other suggestions?

E-mail/contacts/calendar

All of my e-mail, contacts, and appointments are managed via Microsoft Exchange using a hosted account at MailStreet.com; I've been a Mailstreet client for several years now and am generally happy. When I heard that Snow Leopard offered built-in support for Exchange, I thought, "Great!" Sadly, the support extends only to servers running Exchange 2007 with the latest service pack. My account is on a server that's still running Exchange 2003, so Apple's mail client isn't an option. (Neither is IMAP, which brings its own hassles.) I could move my hosted account to another server running the more recent Exchange version, but it would cost more and be a significant hassle, so for the time being I'm using Entourage, which is included with Office for the Mac. Oddly, the specs for Home and Student edition say it lacks Exchange support, but I had no trouble hooking up to my mailbox. It's a serviceable replacement for Outlook, and I’m hoping to adjust to the alternate interface sooner rather than later.

Twitter client

As an Adobe AIR app, TweetDeck works identically on PC and Mac, making it an easy choice. Oddly, my TweetDeck account doesn't seem to be syncing columns across platforms, nor did it pick up several preferences.

Music and media

OS X includes iTunes 9. That's fine for playing MP3s and AAC-formatted files, which together represent about half my media collection. Unfortunately, iTunes on the Mac absolutely refuses to do anything with tracks ripped in WMA format, which constitute the other half of my collection (many of them in WMA Lossless format). Converting all those tracks to alternate formats would take several days and isn't an option, so for now I'm using VLC. It's a perfectly adequate bare-bones playback program but a terrible library manager. Unfortunately, several hours of searching haven’t turned up anything better. Songbird is a well-meaning mess that barfs up error messages when it tries to play a WMA track. Amarok is unsupported and officially listed as "unstable." Flip4Mac adds WMA support to the QuickTime Player but does nothing to make library management easy. So I’m still looking.

Remote access

This is an interesting category. I'm spoiled by the superb Remote Desktop feature in Windows, which offers excellent performance across the board. When I use the Remote Desktop client to connect to another Windows machine over my network, the experience is the same as if I were sitting in front of it. There's an open-source Remote Desktop client for OS X called CORD, which does a good job of connecting to my Windows machines. But I haven't found any acceptable way to make a remote connection in the opposite direction. The only option I've found to connect remotely to this Mac is with VNC. That's fine in a pinch but is painful for more than a few minutes' work.

Photos and videoI don’t especially like iPhoto, but it gets the job done. On the other hand, iMovie is excellent and sets a very high bar for the new Windows Movie Maker.

 

And that’s the list. Anyone else gone through the same exercise? What software choices did you make?

Oh, and fittingly, I wrote half this post on the Mac and finished it on Windows.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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