The end of my Mac journey

The end of my Mac journey

Summary: It's time to send back my loaner MacBook Pro and iPod Touch to Apple. Were they everything Apple promised they'd be?


A couple months ago, Apple sent me a MacBook Pro and an iPod Touch to evaluate as an instructional platform. The Apple salesperson essentially dared me not to fall in love with Snow Leopard, the 15" MBP, and the Touch for creating, managing, and pushing educational content to students. I challenged myself to explore the platform more thoroughly than I ever had with my MacBook which I essentially used just like any other computer. Maybe I'd been missing something, since, until that point, the value proposition of Apple hardware had been pretty much lost on me.

Although I'd hoped to chronicle my use of the MBP more regularly, life got in the way, so I set my other computers aside and just used the heck out of the loaner Mac, doing both my daily work and producing as much multimedia content as possible. I managed the content on both the loaner iPod Apple sent me and my son's Touch to get a feel for working with the iPods as 1:1 devices or in classroom sets. Podcasts, music, books, PDFs, you name it - if it was educationally relevant, I pushed it out there. I tested Adobe CS5 (and fell in love with the latest iteration of Photoshop) and had my oldest son (who is headed to film school in the fall) create all of his movies in the latest version of iMovie.

So what happened? Have I been wrong as I fell further out of love with my aging MacBook? Have I been unimpressed with Macs simply because we haven't been pushing them to their full potential?

Read on to find out...

Let me start by saying that I'm absolutely right to fall out of love with my old MacBook. I use the term "old" very loosely: I've only had it for a couple of years. However, the anemic integrated graphics (Intel's GMA X3100), 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, and DDR2 memory mean that creating the sorts of multimedia content that Apple is promoting to their educational customers is time-consuming at best. My MacBook remains very well-suited to writing, surfing, and generally consuming content. There is certainly nothing on the Web that it can't handle and productivity apps, whether cloud or desktop-based, run just fine. Ever tried encoding a half-hour movie? Not the best of times.

That being said, it was always easy (if on the slow side) to create movies and get them out to YouTube or DVD. When my kids needed to make movies for school, they used my MacBook, not a 17" HP laptop with the same processor but a good discrete video card. iMovie was just plain easy.

So enter the loaner MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, this machine shipped to me just 2 days before Apple announced its fully refreshed lineup of MBPs featuring Core i5 and i7 processors, so this was another Core 2 Duo-based Mac. However, the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT and nearly doubled RAM and bus speeds certainly upped the performance a bit over my MacBook. I remained uncertain, however, how this hardware, though quick, could justify the nearly $2200 price tag. It had to be about the software and the ecosystem.

So about that user experience...

And, of course, it was. That's what Apple is all about: user experience. Seat of the pants impressions? Snow Leopard was fast, even without the fastest hardware on the planet. It was certainly comparable with Windows 7 (again, in terms of sheer feel; I didn't bother with benchmarks since they're meaningless to most educators) and approaching the speed of Lubuntu. It made me wish I could have gotten my hands on one of the new i7-based Macs because it would have screamed.

The speed is important, but far more important was usability. A lot of Mac fans aren't thrilled with the new version of iMovie, but I have to say that the new interface is so darned intuitive, it almost begs you to make movies. My son, after a few minutes of adjustment from the previous iteration was also really pleased. The same goes for the rest of iLife. Between Garage Band, iMovie, and iTunes, creating professional-looking podcasts and videos was a piece of cake.

We all know that, though. Even if you don't like OS X or Apples in general, it's hard not to admire the ease of use associated with iLife. Most teachers either don't have the time, training, interest, or some combination thereof to learn the ins and outs of non-linear video editing. However, with a single day of professional development, it would be very easy to have teachers creating and aggregating content for students on their iPods or for in-class presentations (at least for all but the most technophobic of teachers).

So can this intuitive set of software tools and an ecosystem of hardware tools on which to disseminate content (iPods and iPads) justify the cost of the systems?

As I mentioned, my son starts a film and communications degree in the fall. His program requires that he have a Mac with specs that can handle pretty serious video editing (although we don't have to buy Final Cut Pro until his sophomore year, which, at $900 academic, is a welcome relief), so a MacBook Pro is the obvious choice for his graduation gift. Even buying through his school's web store, a well-equipped Core i7 15" MBP hits about $2200 and I didn't buy the extended warranty or geek out overly on any category.

We could certainly go lower for a teacher, but if we're investing in the training and student devices so that teachers can rapidly find or develop and deploy educational materials, they'll be needing MBPs as well. The new MacBooks are pretty good, but for anyone who has used a Core i5 or i7 equipped machine versus a Core 2 Duo, the difference is fairly noticeable. So a reasonably-equipped Core i5 15" MBP would set most schools back around $1700. If you want to sync all of the content the teacher is creating to student iPods or iPads, then you better invest in a cart that can handle simultaneous synchronization. There's another $2300 and that doesn't even include the iPods.

Not that creating a comprehensive solution would be cheap using Windows- or Linux-based PCs either. However, there are plenty of good quad-core, discrete graphics laptops running Windows 7 in the $1000 price range. If the iPod is your 1:1 device of choice, then you need a Mac to handle the simultaneous syncs mentioned above. However, videos and podcasts can live in many places and be accessed in many ways by students, many of which are probably cheaper than buying in to the full Apple monty.

So what's the bottom line?

Obviously, I've been wrestling with these ideas over the last two months. Keep in mind that the costs I noted above don't include the virtualization software that Apple provided on my loaner (Parallels and VMWare Fusion) to run Windows software or that the performance of said software was only mediocre. It didn't include Photoshop, which I'm increasingly finding to be really useful in a variety of settings and which actually has some powerful educational applications (although the entire CS5 suite ran like a champ on the MBP). It doesn't include the productivity software of your choice and the Mac doesn't run a particular suite of really useful content creation tools: Microsoft Office 2010 (without that virtualization software, that is).

Office and Photoshop (and whatever else you and your students and staff need) will add costs to PCs, too. Right now, however, the cost of entry into Mac-land is definitely higher than it is for PC-land, even if you're looking at mid-range machines oriented towards content creation.

Which leads me to the bottom line of my adventure: define your requirements and know your users. I know, way to sit on the fence, Dawson, right? But that message is key. If you're ready to push towards 1:1, how are you going to do it such that it's transformative and not just expanded "computer time"? A strategy could very well be built around an Apple ecosystem, using iPads or iPods for every student (or even MacBooks if the UI and iLife suite resonates with students and staff) running content assembled and developed by staff on higher-end Macs.

Equally effective strategies could be built around Classmate PCs, Android smartphones, WebOS tablets (sure, we'll see those soon), standard netbooks, thin clients, or non-Mac laptops. Any of these situations might be cheaper, more flexible, or fit better with existing infrastructures and applications.

In Mac-centric scenarios, the user experience may be such that reduced training costs, simpler administration (Mac OS X Server remains extremely easy to use for schools that lack adequate technical support), or low cost of 1:1 devices (at $200, the 8GB iPod Touch is actually a pretty good deal, although I'd watch out a flood of inexpensive Android-based devices to come) may offset enough of the costs of a Mac deployment to make the higher cost of entry irrelevant. Macs tend to have slightly longer lifespans than other computers as well, largely because the software and hardware degrade nicely for repurposing to less demanding tasks. How many of you still have colored iMacs and big white eMacs in production settings?

Make it happen

The cost itself, though, is irrelevant if teachers don't embrace the solution. If you save incredible sums of money by deploying Linux on computers you and your students assembled, but teachers don't bother creating rich, engaging content for students because the software is immature, then you've actually wasted a lot of money and thrown away a golden opportunity to change the way teachers educate and students learn. If you spend the money on an Apple hardware and software stack but just keep right on teaching the way you've always taught (with some extra web quests and more typed essays for good measure), then you've also wasted money.

Transform education with 1:1, folks. This is where we need to head and I don't just mean having kids type their work. It wouldn't be hard to justify the costs of Apple hardware if you're headed down this road since the user experience itself promotes adoption. My two months immersed in Mac-land certainly demonstrated that Apple products have a lot of value buried under all of those dollar signs.

However, if you, your staff, your parents, and your community have a clear direction and vision for really changing the face of education with technology as a catalyst, then there are plenty of brilliant, cost-effective solutions that aren't ever preceded by a lower-case "i" or followed by the word "book."

The key is transforming education. How you get there is up to you.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Hardware, Mobility

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • "Equally effective strategies"? **Headache** and hidden costs from running

    <i>"Equally effective strategies could be built around Classmate PCs, Android smartphones, WebOS tablets (sure, we?ll see those soon), standard netbooks, thin clients, or non-Mac laptops. Any of these situations might be cheaper, more flexible, or fit better with existing infrastructures and applications."</i>

    To be fair, it is needed to say that if one would include costs of additional software (instead of iLife, which is not offered for PCs) of comparable quality, and, mainly, huge hidden administrative costs (there were researches about -- quantity of work-hours that are hidden in managing PCs alone is striking, let alone managing another couple of platforms like WebOS and Android), then you should have included the <b>option where those PC-Android-WebOS "effective strategies" could cost more.</b>

    Let alone the fact that <b>managing those various platforms itself is headache independently on cost</b>, and <b>user experience would not be even close to level of consistency and coherency with MacOS/iPhoneOS solution</b>. So, eventually, quality and smoothness of education would differ.

    Also, it should be noted that <b>Apple offers significant discounts for its equipment for education purposes</b>, so even bare cost will be not that high or pricier than that of HP and Dell in comparable configurations (though they do not offer comparable configuration: there is no yet real competitor to iLife in terms of quality and consistency; lets see if this situation would improve in the future). It might be even <b>cheaper</b>, considering applications loaded, let alone the quality of those applications and of user experience those provide.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey

      @denisrs...not sure who at the MAC shop told you this..but MAC is just one option that offers the same features.. can get the same results in any decent Linux distro these days....the combo of ubuntu, google docs, open office, moodle kill this. ..not to mention the rich feature set of apps available for this platform...also you need to remember that MAC OS is just a glorified BSD implementation...
      with regard to Windows..I am guessing you went to a school with a MAC is shame you have not seen a real Windows implementation where it is setup properly...I unfortunately see too many amatuerish attempts that lead to bad reports and extra costs...and I guess it is these bad ones you refer to...I can demonstrate the same TCO for Windows and not believe all the MAC hype about TCO...btw...I am not anti-MAC. I have one and it does the job...thats all..
      Remember that technology is just a tool....a tool that is do a job that meets a set of requirements.....all the above choices are possibly correct answers in this space...MAC may well be the best choice as it is suited ideally for small implementations (<1000 users)...
      • RE: The end of my Mac journey

        "MAC OS is just a glorified BSD implementation..."

        No. OSX is a certified UNIX, it doesn't use BSD anymore.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey


      iLife may be cheap, but it does not automatically confer quality.

      You obviously do not have experience administering OSX clients, there are STILL administrative costs as well as issues such as documentation and configurability.

      If you want consistency and coherency with MacOS/iOS solution, may the force be with you. But that is not the one size fits all education solution.
  • Losing sight of the goal

    "<i>... teachers dont bother creating rich, engaging content for students</i>"<br><br>It sounds to me like you're losing sight of the goal. Yeah, it would be great to have a full production team that can write, direct, narrate, score, etc., full blown commercial-quality educational films. But it's time to start getting realistic. These kids are eventually going to have to go out into the real world and get jobs. They are going to need the skills to do research, evaluate information and produce value themselves. They will not be able to rely on having employers or whoever produce detailed videos for them. They will need to be able to read and evaluate plain-paper primarily-text documents that maybe contain a few charts or graphs. They won't develop good reading and analytical skills from a bunch of flashy videos. And producing halfway decent quality video takes a LOT of time. If it doesn't LOOK pretty, people get turned off pretty fast and lose sight of the INFORMATION being presented.<br><br>When I was in high school there was a TOTALLY BLIND guy who wanted to take a biology course. The science teacher agreed to make clay models of all the textbook illustrations. The guy actually got a good grade. And that convinced him to study METEOROLOGY in college! He actually found a college that agreed to do the same thing, and he ultimately GRADUATED COLLEGE with a DEGREE in Meteorology.<br><br>And then REALITY reared its ugly head. No EMPLOYER was willing to waste the time and money building models. Even TEN YEARS after graduating college the guy STILL was trying to get a Meteorology job. (True story!) Expecting teachers to create "rich content" that really needs that kind of computing horsepower described is really taking them far off course.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey

      @Rick_R I agree. Education should be about giving students fundamental skills and encouraging them to develop more abstract skills. The students should be developing the "rich content" not the teachers.
      • RE: The end of my Mac journey

        @mr1972 is about fundamental skills...too often we hand hold all the way...and when you let go...they fall in a heap....if the content developed can lead to investigation, questions and have a winner.
  • Do-Little Dawson Strikes Again!

    Bravo sir. Once again you've gone out of your way to prove that you couldn't define the word objective given the oxford dictionary. It's a shame we can't attract quality minds to teaching, but I suppose at the prices school districts can afford to pay, the best they can get are useless, self-righteous, pompous, arrogant dorks who can't read a specification document, much less utilize an analytical thinking process like yourself. I'm glad your arithmetic experience allows you to determine that the 900 USD worth of parts in the macbook isn't worth 2200 USD. However, despite that realization, you once again go off the deep-end with 'ubuntu!!!!' like some blind lemming with severe ADHD who is unable to focus on the topic at hand for more than 10 seconds. Not only that, but you somehow see fit to compare CS5 on real operating systems to mobile phone and web operating systems running some magic, unnamed software. You also automatically discount windows because you're incapable of doing research. Once again, you go out of your way to prove that time means nothing to you, a concept your children hopefully do not inherit.

    And of course your kid is going to film school! I mean, why not follow in daddy's proud footsteps of contributing nothing to society aside from close-mindedness and a willingness to malign and pigeon-hole without a shred of evidence. "Oh but I'm helping kids and training the future!" No, you're pushing your political agenda and living vicariously through tomorrow's leaders in an environment where they're too inexperienced and impressionable to realize that you know absolutely nothing about the real world, and are setting them up to be little more than close-minded, belligerent failures like yourself.
    • Ok if your not a poisonous troll.

      @Tea.Rollins: Here is a tip, get off the juice. Note the intense over reaction, that is the roids talking.
  • education effectivity

    You don't need all this expensive electronic hardware to teach effectively.
    The cost of outfitting school children with all this stuff is going to be way too high. Add in the support it will require and your typical school district will founder in the expense.
    The challenge of teaching will remain. Good teachers will succeed and the poor ones will present the same problem they always have. It's just going to be much more expensive.
  • Focus on requirements, not favorite devices and software

    Like businesses, those selecting technology for education should focus on the requirements and not on specific devices or applications.

    One of the requirements can be that an application can run on many platforms. Tell the software vendors that there is no money for applications that only run on Windows, only run on Linux, or only run on OS/X. There are -many- development languages and tools that make this possible.

    The vendors, including open source vendors, will go where the money is. Support diversity.
    • Not realistic

      Again, not realistic. The reality is that most ed software vendors are not going to support multiple platforms. They just don't have the market of an MS Office, big name Antivirus, QuickBooks, or similar software. The only reason they still support Macs at all is that Apple's strategy years ago was "sell cheap to schools so kids will get used to Apple, and when they get into businesses they will continue to buy what they feel comfortable with."

      The problems with that strategy are:

      (1) Between leaving high school and leaving college they switched to a PC for software that isn't available on a Mac (this was before OSX)

      (2) By the time they were in a position to make buying decisions for a company they long ago switched to PC's.

      But the strategy did mean that Apple has a much larger share of the ed market than the mainstream market because they still substantially discount to schools and students.

      But smaller vendors with more specialized programs simply can't support multiple platforms. Realistically, no one is going to write Linux-only commercial ed software and anything written for PC will run on a Mac, either with Boot Camp or Parallels. Diversity is a nice politically correct concept but it doesn't face the reality of limited resources and a limited customer base, and especially a customer base that tends to be really cheap.

      There's also something he doesn't mention--a lot of school districts hire outside vendors for specific installations. Those vendors get access to special licensing for academic-version software. In addition to installing the software legitimately at schools, the vendors often do freelance work for small businesses (maybe 5-15 PC's total). They get jobs by offering the academic software at way-below retail.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey

      @pwatson ypu lost me after the first paragraph which is brilliant...after that, sorry, it is not going to happen...well..there is WEB 2.0....
  • Indeed ... THE HIDDEN COSTS

    HIDDEN COSTS -- As @denisrs alluded to... EXPERIENCE can be worth everything. While I haven't had the pleasure of running on any of the latest greatest Mac hardware (I'm exiled on an old iBook w/TIGER at the moment) ... THE MAC in this case just works seamlessly and that's worth a lot.

    As an everyday Network Administrator / PC support guy I can tell you from experience that the extra cost of maintaining a PC (at least it has been for me) runs anywhere (tasks/$$wise) from 5:1 to 8:1 above my daily Mac regimen.

    My friend sent me an old iBook he wasn't using... I've literally had to make no more than 2 major upgrade/updates within the last 2.5 years. Sure you might have a small browser/player update here and there but none of this UPDATE TUESDAY CRAP !EVERY! TUESDAY and the like. On the PC I'm constantly updating anti-virus, running spyware programs, running 3 different cleanup programs, etc., etc. -- and at least two of those happen EVERYDAY.

    At some point (I'm beyond that point) that gets all to frustrating. You start looking in the mirror and saying ok what is my time worth... yeah I know this costs more up front... but this takes more hours to maintain... you do the math.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey

      @mhayes_z <i>Sure you might have a small browser/player update here and there but none of this UPDATE TUESDAY CRAP !EVERY! TUESDAY and the like. On the PC I'm constantly updating anti-virus, running spyware programs, running 3 different cleanup programs, etc., etc. -- and at least two of those happen EVERYDAY. At some point (I'm beyond that point) that gets all to frustrating.</i><br><br>You do those manually? I'd be frustrated too. Personally I schedule those to happen automatically, at 3:00am... when no one is using the computer. No frustration required =)

      And what's with this "!EVERY!" Tuesday? It's one Tuesday a month (except for out of band patches). You don't really use Windows, do you?
      • RE: The end of my Mac journey


        "You do those manually? I'd be frustrated too. Personally I schedule those to happen automatically, at 3:00am"

        It's called Software Update. Press a button. Or set it for automatic updates.
    • RE: The end of my Mac journey

      @mhayes_z ....5:1 or 8:1 !!! really...don't know what to say here..I am amazed..
      Group Policy...WSUS...a decent AV (not a free one)...just to start...
      One nice little tool out there even restores the device settings back to how they were originally...nice huh...

      seriously...get some training....
  • Good Job, Chris.

    As close to unbiased and thoughtful article on the subject that can be found. Rarely do I commend you, but today "Good Job".

    And also very appropriate for me as I just got off the phone with a "eff"ing arrogant Apple SE this morning!!! I believe in using the right tool for the job (cost effectively too), but some people just can't see things as being the right tool unless it has thier favorite fruit/peguin/flag/logo affixed to that tool!
  • 100 dollar quad core laptops!?!

    Let me know where I can find that!

    Or did you mean to say $1000 ? :)
    John Zern
  • Q: Proper typing technique?

    Do you teach kids how to type - like I learned to use typewriters? Do you emphasize the importance of posture - especially keeping the wrists up? I would hate to read about kids getting carpel tunnel in high school and unable to use their hands by 30 (or have permanently numb pinkies like myself . . .).
    Roger Ramjet