My Trial Switch, ep. I

As previously noted, I’ve just bought myself a nice shiny MacBook Pro, to replace an old reliable 5-year-old Thinkpad T40, which ran Linux.

Initially, I was contemplating installing Linux on this one too, and dual-booting. But right now, I’ve decided to give MacOS X a go — why not? I find it’s worthwhile updating aspects of my quotidian computing environment every now and again, and it seems everyone’s doing it. ;) I’ll log my experience on this blog as I go along.

(Worth noting that this isn’t my first Mac; back in 1990, I was the proud owner of a free Macintosh Plus for a year, courtesy of TCD’s “Project Mac” collaboration with Apple Ireland. I wrote a great Mandelbrot Set explorer app.)

First off, the good news: the hardware is very nice indeed. It’s light in weight, esp. compared to my T61p work laptop, the screen clarity is fantastic, and the CPU fairly zooms along — unsurprisingly, given that the T40 was 5 years old.

In addition, the multi-touch touchpad is wonderful; I’m looking forward to lots more multi-touch features.

Unfortunately, some of the other hardware design decisions were pretty wonky. By default it’s quite tricky to keep the laptop running with the lid closed — it seems a decision was made to use passive cooling via the keyboard, so once the lid is closed, that heat cannot escape, causing overheating. There’s a third-party extension I can install to allow it anyway, but it’s festooned with warnings to overclock the fan speed to make up for it… ugh. Since I need the ability to be able to remotely login to my laptop from work if I should happen to forget something, or to kick off a long transfer before I come home, this means I have to leave the laptop open permanently, which I didn’t want to do.

In addition, I initially thought my brightness control was broken, since the laptop screen fluctuates in brightness continually. Turns out this is a feature, responding to ambient light — a poorly-documented one, but at least it’s easy to turn off in System Preferences once you know it’s there.

(Unfortunately, a lot of MacOS seems to consist of poorly-documented features that are hidden “for my own good”. The concept of switching seems to involve me abdicating a good deal of what I’d consider adult control of the machine, to the cult of Steve Who Knows Better. This is taking some getting used to.)

On to the software… what’s getting my goat right now are as follows:

Inability to remap keys (CapsLock key, the useless “+-” key, a lack of “spare” keys for scripted actions)

Up in the top left corner of “international” MacBook keyboards, there’s a useless key with a “+-” and double-S symbol on it. I don’t think I’ve ever typed those symbols in my entire life. I want a ~ there, since that’s where the ~ key lives, but for some reason, MacOS doesn’t include keyboard-remapping functionality to the same level as X11’s wonderful “xmodmap”. It seems this third-party app might allow me to do that, or maybe something called ‘KeyRemap4Macbook’?

This Tao Of Mac HOWTO seems helpful on how to support the “Home”/”End” keys, for external keyboard use.

Focus Follows Mouse

This is a frequent complaint among UNIX-to-Mac switchers. It seems that some apps do a hacky version of it, but then you’ve got this inconsistent thing where you lose track of which apps will automatically pick up focus (Terminal, iTerm) and which ones need a click first (Firefox, indeed everything else). Unfortunately, it seems an app called CodeTek VirtualDesktop would have fixed it, but seems to have been abandoned. :(

Programmable Hotkeys

I use a few hotkeys to do quick window-control actions without involving the mouse; in particular, F1 brings a window to the front, F2 pushes it to the back, F12 minimizes a window, Ctrl-Alt-LeftArrow moves a window half a screen left, and Ctrl-Alt-RightArrow moves a window half a screen to the right. Those are pretty simple, but effective.

This collection of Applescript files, in conjunction with Quicksilver, look like I may be able to do something similar on the Mac. Here’s hoping. LifeHacker suggests that the default for minimize is Cmd-M, so that’s what I need to remap from, at least…

This is a big issue — Dan Kulp had a lot of hot-key-related woes, and wound up going back to Linux as a result. Evan reported the same. I like the idea of MacOS, but my tendonitis-afflicted wrists need their little shortcuts; I’m not willing to compromise on avoiding mouse usage in this way.

(by the way, in order to get F1/F2/F12 back, check the “Use the F1-F12 keys to control software features” box in the Keyboard control panel. Thanks to this page for that tip; it has a few other good tips for UNIX switchers, too.)

Upgrades and Software

So, there’s two main contenders for the “apt-get for Mac” throne — Fink vs MacPorts. Fink takes the Debian approach of downloading binary packages, while MacPorts compiles them from source, BSD/Gentoo-style, on your machine. Since I’m not looking at the source, or picking build parameters, or auditing the code for security issues there and then, I don’t see the need to build it — Fink wins.

One thing though — the installer for Fink informed me that I needed to run “Repair Permissions”, which took a while, and found some things that had somehow already been modified from their system defaults, I’m not sure why. This left me slightly mystified. I then was later told that this is now considered ‘voodoo’. wtf.

Mind you, Daring Fireball suggests that the Mac software update are so poorly implemented that they require essentially rebooting in single-user mode, which sounds frankly terrifying. I hope that’s not the case.

BTW, it’s worth noting that IMO, AWN is as nice as — possibly nicer than — the Dock. ;)

Anyway, that’s post #1 in a series. Let’s see how I get on from here. (thanks to Aman, Craig and Paddy for various tips so far!)

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  1. Craig Hughes
    Posted September 23, 2008 at 18:28 | Permalink

    Re: key-remapping

    You might be able to fake it by writing a key trigger in Quicksilver which generates a “fake” keypress of the key you want instead, though that would be quite hacky. Caps Lock can be easily disabled (or remapped to control, opt, whatever) iirc in the Keyboard control panel, under “Modifier Key…” button on the Keyboard tab. It’s incredibly silly that they let you remap modifier keys there but not any key….

  2. Jeremy
    Posted September 23, 2008 at 18:37 | Permalink

    Remapping Caps Lock to Control (or whatever) is built in to the Keyboard System Preferences.

    Look at Butler for hot keys (and a lot more).

    You can remap all the regular keys on the keyboard. See Ukelele which is essentially a GUI for the system keyboard layout functionality.

    Repairing permissions is cargo-cult voodoo at best. The software updates work great as long as you haven’t gone in and done Windows-style messing with the system.

  3. David Malone
    Posted September 23, 2008 at 19:42 | Permalink

    Strangely, I manage to swicth back and forth between vtwm and Mac OS without too much trouble. I almost never reach for the wrong short cuts. I was delighted to find that the spaces short cuts are the same ones I’ve been using for tvtwm/vtwm.

    If you don’t want to reach for the mouse much, you should learn to use the command+~ (cycle through windows) and command+tab (cycle through apps) shortcuts. Another useful one is command+H to hide an app, which puts it at the end of the list of apps to cycle through. I used to use minimisation a lot before I learned these, but between spaces and these shortcuts I don’t need it much now.

    (I could never find a keyboard shortcut which would undo minimisation, which was a bit of a pain when I did use it.)

  4. Posted September 23, 2008 at 22:02 | Permalink

    Sounds like its gone really well Justin. No doubt you are already aware but is an excellent resource for lots of Mac related arcana.

  5. Liam Bedford
    Posted September 24, 2008 at 05:50 | Permalink

    I run my macbooks with the lid closed a lot. It’s not as easy to do as with a thinkpad, but the easiest way I’ve found is: plug in external monitor, put laptop to sleep, then plug the power (or external usb device) in, which will wake it up, with only the external monitor enabled.

    It’s a pain, and definitely not up there with thinkpads + docking stations. It also seems to end up with the fans running after a while.

  6. Posted September 24, 2008 at 09:28 | Permalink

    I started out using fink but eventually switched to macports. I found macports to be more reliable and up-to-date than fink – less general pain.

    Also as Liam mentioned, the macbook will wake without turning on the screen if you close it and let it sleep, then plug in an external monitor and keyboard.

  7. nishad
    Posted September 26, 2008 at 01:02 | Permalink

    Well, this should be entertaining, JM :-) Please post frequent rants. BTW I can recommend DragThing ( as being worth the money.

    Also, I think your ludicrous +-/S-symbol key is an artifact of your European home. US keyboards don’t have it.

  8. Posted September 29, 2008 at 14:56 | Permalink

    @Liam: yeah, I’ve heard about the external monitor thing; this is a “true” laptop, though, so there’s no ext monitor or keyboard anywhere near it.

    hey Nishad! is it true you’ve taken up golf and bodybuilding? wtf did Sush do to you!?!

    by the way guys, feel free to recommend more sites/apps. I’m totally new to this, not having used a Mac in over 10 years. (and thanks Craig for the mail)