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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!)