I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

Summary: I've had a Mac sitting alongside my PC for more than a year. This week, I decided to get serious about my cross-platform experiment. But I’m not “switching” in the way that Apple defines this term. I've found a better way.

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It's true. I'm switching to a Mac. Of course, I'll be switching back to a PC shortly after, and then switching back to the Mac sometime later, and then back and forth - switching from Mac to PC and vice versa - for the foreseeable future.

For more than a year I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to add some Mac and OS X experience to my portfolio of PC skills. I bought a Mac Mini almost exactly a year ago, trading an older model for the most up-to-date model Apple offered at the time, with a Core 2 Duo processor and discrete Nvidia graphics. I’ve used that machine sporadically over the last year, sometimes for lengthy stretches, other times for brief experiments and simple tasks. I've done several reinstalls, with and without Time Machine backups, and at least one full OS upgrade along the way.

But last week I finally decided to get serious with this experiment. After a few tweaks and some careful cable-swapping, I now have 24-inch monitors lined up side by side, each running at full 1920x1200 resolution and sharing a single keyboard and mouse.

Here's what my desktop looks like. The shared keyboard and mouse are about 21 inches in front of the dual displays and not visible here. (And yes, that is a SpongeBob Squarepants pen holder on the left side of the desk. Eat your heart out.)

  • The display on the left is being driven by an HP Pavilion Elite desktop PC with an i7-920 CPU, 10GB of RAM, and an upgraded Nvidia graphics card. I bought it as a refurb from HP's official outlet site more than 10 months ago for a mere pittance. The PC I received was new, in its original box with a factory warranty. (It cost $659, and I added about $300 worth of after-purchase upgrades). [Note: this paragraph has been updated to reflect the source of the PC.]
  • The display on the right is connected to the Mac Mini. This model doesn’t include user-upgradeable memory (and I don’t feel like prying it apart to do the upgrade). I purchased it as a refurb from the Apple Outlet for $744 (it arrived in original box and was indistinguishable from a new machine). I paid another $100 for the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. It has its stock 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive.

The beauty of this setup is that I’m not “switching” in the way that Apple defines this term. I’m not forswearing one way of doing things for another, not undergoing a religious conversion, not pledging allegiance to a brand identity. I’m not giving up Windows and using a Mac exclusively, or vice versa. Rather, the goal is to be comfortable enough to move between machines and use the best tools on each one with as little friction as possible.

The secret of truly being able to use these systems side by side is a free, open-source program called Synergy, which runs on both the Mac and the PC and allows the use of a single keyboard and mouse without any switching. If I drag the mouse pointer to the far right side of the PC monitor and then keep going, the pointer appears on the Mac, where I can click or double-click any object on the Mac desktop. Dragging the pointer back to the left edge of the Mac display and then beyond moves the pointer back to the PC.

It wasn't especially easy to set up Synergy, but after a few false starts I got things working properly. On the next page, you can see what the Windows Synergy control panel and corresponding Preference Pane on the Mac look like.

Page 2: Getting everything set up just right -->

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Because I'm using the PC's keyboard and mouse, I have Synergy set to run as a server on the PC. In fact, if all goes well I plan to configure the utility to load as a system service at startup, so I don't need to mess with it at all.

I had trouble with the Stable and Beta versions on the official download page. What finally worked was a 64-bit version of Synergy+ version 1.4.2-r812, which I grabbed from the Latest packages mirror. I had to copy a few DLL files from the folder containing the 32-bit version to get past some error messages.

The Mac version on the official repository is a bare-bones command-line tool. Not fun or easy. Fortunately, using my favorite search engine I tracked down a package called SynergyKM, which bills itself as a "GUI wrapper" around the synergy command-line tool. I'm using version 1.3.1, which connects fine to the PC despite the apparent version mismatch. The SynergyKM client connects to the Windows server with a few simple selections in this custom preference pane.

What Synergy does that is so special is that it allows the keyboard to follow the mouse pointer, so that I can click in a window or text entry box on either the PC or the Mac and start typing. I’m using a wireless keyboard paired with the HP PC because I like its size and feel (and I hate the tiny Apple keyboard, which also has no numeric keypad). It also shares the contents of the Clipboard, which is amazingly useful.

On the Mac, I use DoubleCommand to remap keys so that I don’t get too confused when I switch modes. If I were to use the itsy-bitsy no-keypad Apple keyboard I would look for a similar Windows utility.

The PC is running 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate with Windows Live Essentials 2011 and Office Professional Plus 2010. The Mac has the latest update to Snow Leopard (10.6.5) with iLife ’11 and Office for Mac 2011. I have Windows Live Mesh running on both machines keeping a couple of local folders in sync. I have Dropbox installed on both machines as well. In addition to the native browsers on each machine, I also have up-to-date copies of Firefox and Google Chrome available, so neither platform is hurting for browsers.

Obviously, even though the PC and Mac cost roughly the same, the PC contains far more powerful components. For some tasks, like transcoding a video file, that makes a performance difference; but my focus is on core business and personal tasks. When moving between platforms takes no more effort than moving a mouse, I have the freedom to switch any time I want.

I vastly prefer this arrangement to the alternatives:

Switching between desktops. Having a second machine in an alternate location doesn’t work. That’s the arrangement I tried with the Mac, and it penalizes the machine in the secondary location, which never has the right lighting, or the right seating, or the right monitor. And it needs its own keyboard and mouse, which takes up desktop space.

Virtualization. I love virtual machines for test scenarios, but they aren’t a fair way to compare Macs and PCs. For starters, using virtualization requires that I use an Apple-branded Mac as the host. Apple won’t allow OS X to run in a VM, so using another host OS and hardware is not an option. Virtualization always penalizes the guest—my PC gets to use my new Nvidia GTX 430 GPU for some tasks, and it doesn’t have to go through virtualized hardware for routine tasks.

Boot Camp. In this scenario, which I have tested extensively, Windows 7 is at the mercy of Apple hardware and drivers, running with a layer of Apple software that must be present before Windows can load. It doesn’t really give the platform a chance to show its strengths. And constantly rebooting for OS switches slows down productivity. It’s fine for tests, but not for work.

Hackintosh? Oh please.

Anyway, I’m happy with this arrangement for now and I’ve probably used the Mac more in the last week than I did in three months before that. And I know I’m more productive.

As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post in Word for Mac 2011, saving it in the Work subfolder (in my Home folder on the Mac), which in turn is synced with my desktop PC via Windows Live Mesh. I’m then opening the saved file in Windows Live Writer on the PC and getting it ready to publish

Coming up next: the hassles of platform switching, and a side by side comparison of the latest Office versions on each platform

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

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209 comments
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  • Thanks you

    Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences.
    Richard Flude
    • Experiences...

      @Richard Flude <br><br>I have been doing essentially the very same thing for the past 3 years. But I do it a bit differently. I run only a MacBook Pro with 8GB RAM which is way more than adequate for the Snow Leopard OS. Then I run Windows 7 Pro x64 or Win XP Pro in a VM that gets its very own monitor. Win XP gets a 3GB allotment of RAM as it cannot address more than that. Win 7 gets 4GB which is adequate for it to run easily and the virtual GPU with a "dedicated" 256 MB RAM is more than adequate for Aero and all of my 3D CAD programs (all 64 bit builds). <br><br>Thanks to VMWare and the nVidia graphics with 512MB of dedicated RAM, 3D apps in the guest are very smooth and have yet to be a performance issue for SolidWorks 2010 loading and manipulating large assemblies with 4 or more levels of assembly hiearchy. It is a common myth that the host OS and hypervisor unduly load the CPU and guest performance suffers greatly. Performance impact is on the order of 10%-15% which I can live happily with given all the other advantages.<br><br>Now I can move my mouse back and forth and select which OS I wish to interact with. But even more importantly, I can cut and paste between OSes and their apps as well as transfer files with a simple drag and drop (not needing drop boxes for file transfers). Also VMWare allows for shared folders obviating the need to run synchronization software in both host and guest.<br><br>Even better experiences come at the end of the day, obviously =) I just minimize the Windows window to the dock and close the machine. It stays in standby until the next morning or time I need it when I open it and immediately start to work. Click on the Windows dock icon and it's back to full screen too. How nice! No booting! Just instant on computing in any OS or application set that is best for the tasks at hand.<br><br>BTW Office 2011 for the Mac seems just a little more easy to use but is not substantially different than Office 2010. I have mot had any formatting issues or file translation faux pas yet.<br><br>And I agree that simple photo editing on old or free Windows apps is just easier than the ones that came with the Mac. Unfortunately, they don't work in Win 7 Pro x64 so I am force to close it and start Win XP to use them. Fortunately, Adobe Lightroom is more than able to do most of the same simple tasks and runs in both Windows and OS-X (legally with the same license).<br><br>I have found that having a foot in both Mac and Windows camps has its advantages. <br><br>I am glad that Ed is starting to see these as well. <br><br>Just shhhhhhh....<br><br><i>don't let NonZealot hear about this...</i>
      jacarter3
      • Oh, but NZ has a MBP...

        @jacarter3... on which he runs Windows 7 strictly. He claims that Steve Jobs threw him under the bus on NZ's purchase of the Mac.
        Snooki_smoosh_smoosh
      • That sounds like him...

        @Snooki_smoosh_smoosh

        Gee, I hope the bus is okay...

        LOLOL ;)
        jacarter3
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @jacarter3 I am using Windows 7 Pro on a Core i7 940 with 12G of ram and found a hackintosh ISO image I put on VMWare Workstation with dual monitors so I could try out OSX just because I wanted to know what a Mac was like. I have no intentions of buying a Mac (or iPad) I am strictly a Windows guy. Having them side by side I am able to use both at the same time which is far better than having to reboot to a different partition or machine. I also have Ubuntu and BSD on VM's for the same reason. I use XP Mode (but not very often as Win 7 runs everything I have thrown at it)
        bvonr
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @jacarter3

        NZ was fired, that's why is not here 9 to 5 anymore. Don't worry, they hired a bunch of other full time bloggers.
        theo_durcan
    • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

      @Richard Flude "Looking forward to hearing more"

      Indeed, this is interesting, not so much about a platform conversion, but the software used to share a keyboard. I would really like to see one of these multiple machine configurations in person. My first question is whether or not the clipboard (copy & paste) is shared, and secondly whether volumes (HDDs and CD/DVDs) are shared and whether files can be moved from desktop to desktop (meaning the actual file on one desktop can be copied or moved to the other platform's desktop).

      It sounds like great stuff, especially for handing off CPU tasks to another machine, like using another Mac or PC to do video encoding. I hope for a followup article, Ed!
      Geotopia
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @Geotopia

        Synergy does support clipboard copy & paste between computers. Occasionally it flakes out and I have to restart both client and server to get it to work again.

        Synergy does not map drives nor synchronize files. Ed's post says he uses Dropbox and Windows Live Mesh on both machines to keep files synchronized between machines.

        Synergy does work on Linux too.

        -Craig-
        cmollerstuen
    • fair go

      Good to see Ed giving Mac a 'fair go' with 2Gb Ram against a Windows machine of 10Gb Ram. I am sure his style will give equally fair comparisons.
      Tom6
      • Wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't a Mac

        @Tom6 <br><br>It wouldn't be a problem if it was a cheap generic PC; just add RAM, or pull the old RAM and replace it. But some Macs both solder in the RAM and offer no free slots to add - so in a way, the comparison is entirely valid.

        And, as Ed says, the two machines cost the same - so if Apple gives less bounce for the buck, let the comparison reflect that.
        cquirke
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @cquirke <. But some Macs both solder in the RAM and offer no free slots to add - so in a way, the comparison is entirely valid>

        Could you name one? Slips my memory.
        781lc
    • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

      @Richard Flude

      I have to use Macs to test our software compatibility and I'm so glad I use Windows for work and play. I find the Mac UI to be a mixture of the 1990s and a game designed by a 14 year old boy with ADD. I'm so happy when I get to go back to Windows.

      I know you can get used to anything and obviously Mac users love it, but it still feels like a mess to me. That top menu bar is so Lotus 1-2-3.

      In the end the OS is just the platform for applications and I've seen nothing on the Mac that didn't have a better choice (and lots more of it) on Windows.

      So good luck with it Ed, but I really can't see the point ;-)
      tonymcs1
      • Yet most of the &quot;new&quot; UI elements of Win7 ...

        @tonymcs@...

        ... were lifted directly out of OS X. Since Windows 7 still has code in it from the 1990s, I wouldn't be so quick to judge.
        RationalGuy
      • Of course, RationalGuy

        A great many people tend to like the new UI of Windows 7, so let us try and minimize Microsoft's work and vision on it by crediting Apple for it.

        :|
        Tim Cook
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @tonymcs@... 2 words Garage Band & Logic Audio for Musicians these are best in class and in Garage Bands Case has been copied by many but not in a good way so Tony your talking rubbish i also fix PC's that come in from my fellow Musicians and they are usually atrociously slow so don't talk crap buddy cause you hav'nt experienced enough apps to comment!
        johnpall9
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        Did you ever notice that in Windows there is a menu bar for the 'desktop' and another for each application? ... unless you maximize then you would call it Window and not Windows.
        john_gillespie
      • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

        @johnpall: Garage Band is just a poor toy of a copy of an older version of Sony's (formerly Sonic Foundry's) Acid. Logic was an also-ran PC DAW program (also on the Mac and the Atari ST) when Apple bought the company. There are much better options on Windows: Acid, Sonar, Nuendo, Protools, etc. Or even on the Mac, for that matter (the latter two at least used to be fully supported in MacOS, i assume they are still around).
        Hazydave
    • RE: I'm switching to a Mac. Here's how (and why)

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  • Exploration and Productivity

    Writing an article using iPad would have been awesome (reality: painful). For exploration, I think the experiment of Windows + (Synergy) + Mac is ok. But for productivity, I seriously doubt. Why would you write an article in Mac and post it using Windows Writer? You can all do this in Windows (with ease).
    iluvmsft