MacBook Migrant: My Week With A Mac

MacBook Migrant: My Week With A Mac

Whenever I whinge about my PC experience, Lifehacker readers often suggest I should use a Mac instead. Next week, I’m going to give it a try and see just how easy it is to switch from one OS to the other by using a MacBook all week as my main machine.

Before everyone wearing an Apple T-shirt gets too excited, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I have no intention of permanently migrating to a Mac, for the simple reason that I travel constantly, so for me a subnotebook (or however you want to label it) is a core requirement for size and weight reasons. Apple don’t play in that space, so they’re not in the picture. Size, in this context, definitely matters. I’m mentioning this right up front and banging on about it a bit because when I last discussed why I wouldn’t buy a Mac, everyone ignored this detail, even though it is, from my own point of view, the single most relevant issue when picking a machine.

The purpose of the exercise (carried out with a 13-inch MacBook that Apple has loaned to me for the purpose) is to test just what’s involved in shifting from one platform to another, and document some of the less obvious details for people who want to make the shift. In an era where many applications run in browsers and only the seriously geeky launch a command line, it’s often argued that switching from one GUI-based platform (Windows) to another (Mac) is a fairly straightforward process. What’s ignored in that assumption is the myriad fiddly details a veteran Windows user has picked up over the years, which are likely to be resolved quite differently.

Sure, on one level, that comes down to hitting Google for the solution, and there might well be some things that simply aren’t an issue on a Mac, but I’d like first-hand experience of how often that happens. If nothing else, I hope to list some of those common answers in one place. If it turns out there are no issues to document, I’ll be the first to fess up, but it seems monumentally unlikely. As a fellow tech hack once remarked: “Macs are computers. Computers have problems.”

For the most part, I’ll be sticking with whatever’s supplied on the machine. I am going to install Firefox, since I rely on a fair raft of extensions that won’t be available if I just use Safari and that’s a needless source of frustration. I’m going to use web mail, which should be rather less of a transitional shock than trying to shift from Outlook to Entourage or Mail. As a dedicated mouse shunner, I will inevitably be spending a fair bit of time looking up keyboard shortcuts, but at this stage I don’t envisage installing Quicksilver or other helper apps — I want to see how far I can get going with what’s available in the native OS X environment. (For the same reason, I don’t intend to be using any virtualised solutions to run Windows.)

I realise that some people will argue “a week isn’t long enough”, but it’s the longest period I can fit into my schedule without going on the road. And to be honest, a week should be more than long enough to get a feel for what’s necessary to get a system up and running — getting comfortable might well take longer, but that’s a little outside the scope of what I’m looking to do.

Throughout the week, I’ll be posting about my experiences here, and seeking pointers from Lifehacker readers if there’s a particularly gnarly or annoying issue. I’ll also be commenting occasionally on Twitter with the tag #macbookmigrant. And I’ve organised a mid-week meeting with Apple guru and MacTheMag editor Matthew JC Powell to talk me through anything I’ve missed.

While I get ready to unpack the shiny new MacBook sitting on my desk for next week’s exercise, what do experienced Mac migrants suggest I bear in mind? Share your advice in the comments.


  • Keep in mind that new computers are always boring, regardless of what OS it runs. It’s always nice to open the package and switch it on for the first time, but when you arrive at your desktop and everything is blank and empty, it’s almost disappointing.

    Same goes for your normal computer if you format it and do a fresh Windows install (or Mac or Linux).

    A new computer is like a couch. It takes time to make a groove.

    As a self-professed Apple fanboy, I fear that this initial boredom will lead to negative reviews which I don’t think are necessarily fair because of this initial boredom stage..

    Also it’s a little unoriginal.. There are like fifty million blogs and reviews and articles and forum posts about people making the switch.I wonder how your article/s will be any different.

    • Boring truly isn’t going to bug me (even assuming it’s true). The process of getting it more like a couch is to a fair extent what I’ll be writing about.

      And yes, I’m well aware that it’s ground that other people have covered. On the other hand, it’s not ground that has been extensively covered at Lifehacker, and it is an issue that comes up with some regularity in the comments and in email. Rest assured there’ll still be all the other regular stuff on the site if you don’t feel there’s anything in it for you.

    • “New computers are always boring, regardless of what OS it runs”

      “As a self-professed Apple fanboy, I fear that this initial boredom will lead to negative reviews which I don’t think are necessarily fair because of this initial boredom stage”

      So – despite the fact that all new computers are boring when you turn them on for the first time, it’s unfair if it’s a Mac?

      This is no different than him buying a new Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, Lenovo, whatever… and using it for a week to write a review.

  • Use spotlight! It is your ‘Start’ button.

    I’ve had my iMac for nearly 18 months now and it took me far to long to work out a sure fire quick way to launch applications. The answer for me at least was ‘Spotlight’ it is the magnifying class in the top right hand corner (near the clock). Mouse over it and then type the name of the application or function you think you want to run and see if it brings up any hits.

    Good Luck and I look forward to following your progress.

  • Just remember one thing.
    Forget everything you know about Windows and when you are trying to do something sit back and think “Whats the easiest way to do this?” and chances are that will be how it’s done.

    • I think “What’s the easiest way to do this?” is a very subjective question, based as much on prior habit as anything else. For instance, I think the easiest way to eject a CD is with an eject button. Don’t have that option on a Mac 🙂

      • There’s an Eject button on the keyboard 😉

        I have been working on Mac’s and PC’s for the past few years.

        I have found that Mac’s are far easier to use, but Windows have far more Programs available for it. However in saying that, Parallels 5 and VMware Fusion 3 run the windows environment unbelievable well which is why the Mac gets my vote 🙂

      • ” For instance, I think the easiest way to eject a CD is with an eject button. Don’t have that option on a Mac :-)”

        Statements like this don’t exactly inspire confidence that you is approaching this little experiment with an open mind!

        It’s pretty clear from what you have written here and in the past that you don’t expect you’ll enjoy the switch, and I fear that it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

        For this experiment to be worthwhile I think you have to do your best *not* to think of it as a Mac, but merely as an unfamiliar OS.

      • It’s funny how defensive the Apple fanbois all just got. I would like to do the same experiment with an open mind but I don’t think I’d be swayed from Ubuntu.

        I had the same experience assuming that there was no eject button on macs … on the keyboard? How is that intuitive? It looks like just another key for input.

        Ok now I’ve gotten on my rant, how is it intuitive to turn an ipod OFF by holding down PLAY? That’s just bizarre!

  • I highly recommend x-cuts as a desktop widget ( for quick access to the correct keyboard shortcuts.

    It was shortcuts that baffled me the most when I switched. Do you use Cmd, Option, Ctrl or Shift?

    I still wanted to throw my iMac out the window after a few months. But after three years I will never go back (other than my W7 virtual machine which runs Windows only software).

  • D’oh! Point taken re the eject key, thanks y’all. But I think the point about intuitiveness remains (especially given the convoluted process I’ve just been through to install Firefox — no way was that easier than in Windows).

    • You make a fair discussion that you will only use the vanilla Mac with no added applications, yet you install Firefox! Which is not one of the best behaving mac applications; Safari is much faster. So it seems you pick exceptions to suit yourself rather than a fair and balanced comparison. What I’m trying to say is it’s ok to install Firefox, then it should be ok to install Quicksilver or other tools. And I’m sure you’ve installed many a utiility in Windows that you find useful.

      I wonder if you’ll compare it to vanilla windows?

      I’m a switcher and I now prefer the Mac yet I still develop for Windows almost exclusively. The thing I mist most from Windows are the keys used for navigation within a document; they are much more logical.

      • If I didn’t install Firefox, I’d spend a lot more time making up for two core extensions that I use day-in and day-out and getting frustrated by their absence. So the Mac will, I think, come out better for the installation (and the fact that it was a somewhat odd install won’t get undue weight in the full write-up). In any event, how applications install matters on both platforms.

        I’m not aiming for a “this is better than that” comparison: I’m largely aiming for “this is some stuff to remember if heading from Windows to Mac”, and to increase my own knowledge of the Mac platform.

    • This is classic, Windows blindness.
      You expect it to be an icon in the start menu but there is no start menu..
      Except there is!
      Click the Applications folder in the dock and you get a display of all the apps in your apps folder!
      The other option is the aforementioned Spotlight (or Quicksilver/Butler/Launchbar type launcher).. un-windows like but better.

      2 options, one is VERY Windows like, the other un-Windows like..
      Cmon Angus, are you even trying?

      • Where exactly did I say I expected it to be an icon in the start menu? As it happened, I half-expected it to be an icon on the dock. But the point is that the Firefox install was a little fiddlier than I’d expected. That said, I’m presuming (like most things) installation will become more obvious the more of it I do.

    • Angus,

      I have some anti-venom for you if you need it.

      I’ve been tempted to make the switch but if I do, do I need to get catty and defensive and deride people if they struggle to use an OS on the first day after years of getting into the nitty and gritty of another OS?

  • I have been unable to use “just” one or the other, I continue to float between Windows and Mac for both home and work.

    Number one Mac complaint, in a work environment, is one that doesnt come up often in general discussion, but it’s a shit:

    The “save” dialogue box (common to all applications in mac) – it fails to remember any size settings when in list view even on the most humongous monitors and automatically defaults to hiding any navigation to useful locations you may want to put things.

    The other complaints lower on the list are general “Finder” stuff plus Microsoft’s ability to totally fark up Office for Mac over and over again (and no, Open Office or iWork are not even close to realistic alternatives to anyone who works in a primarily PC MS Office environment).

    Good luck!


    • I would also be very wary of Microsoft Office:mac 2008. It feels very much like a second-class citizen compared to the Office 2007 for Windows.

      * Most significantly, my Office:mac still crashes a lot (before service pack 2 it was at least daily, it’s improved a little after service pack 2, but it’s still not stable), whereas WinOffice for Windows very rarely crashes for me (Visio 2007 is the only application that occasionally crashes for me).

      * Document recovery on Office:mac is also significantly worse – I’ve never been able to recover an unsaved document, whereas WinOffice has a much better chance with a more recent unsaved copy.

      * Ridiculously, Office:mac can’t reliably read WinOffice documents. I come across the occasional WinOffice document that doesn’t render properly in Office:mac (I’m a Word/Excel user). iWork and OpenOffice are also out-of-the-question for me because it butchers my even moderately complex documents, let alone my complex documents. OpenOffice’s Office importer is getting better, so I do tend to check up on it from time to time, especially given the problems Office:mac has.

      Given these issues, I find the best option for full WinOffice compatibility and stability is to run WinOffice within a VM on my Mac. Running Office 2007 also gives me lots of features that didn’t seem to make it into Office:mac (eg. only selective components of the UI for the new graphics engine was ported into Office:mac – there are things I can do on WinOffice that I simply can’t find the UI to do on Office:mac, however opening the same document on Office:mac renders the components correctly, live preview of formatting changes didn’t make the port either, etc.)

  • I think the comments above highlight the real issue that you will run into with your review. You haven’t even begun to write your review, and already people are starting to complain about your method, and whine that you haven’t given it enough time etc etc.

    Ultimately, I think what you are doing is great.. If you can find an objective way to compare the 2 platforms, and provide intelligent comment, then, in my opinion the week was well spent 🙂

    ^ Sounds like a great idea, a tool to tell you the shortcuts.. Find that addon 🙂

    Good luck 🙂

    A windows Fanboy..

  • I know you’re a keyboard man, but the track pad is nice and close on a macbook. Learn the finger swipe things- they are really handy. (2 for scrolling, etc.) You do need to use all of your fingers (which weirded out a friend- ‘where is the scroll thing at the side of the touch pad?’) but you do when typing (well you should..) anyway.

    Apple tab to swap apps. Apple ~ to swap windows in the app.

    Set up some useful hot corners.

    • oh, and I prefer the 3 finger sideways in firefox to switch tabs, and the pinch-rotate to go back-forward, this could be really annoying by accidentally making firefox go back-forward when scrolling.

      You can set it up in firefox about:config then look for browser.gesture.swipe.left (and right) and set it to Browser:PrevTab (NextTab) and browser.gesture.twist.left (and right) to what the swipe used to be.

  • HI Angus, I have a couple of comments, based on watching several switchers from PC to Mac.

    (1) Most people trying this initially find themselves doing something involving a “wizard” on a PC and looking for the mac equivalent that does not exist. My favourite was my wife who after using Word on a PC for two years couldn’t figure out how to insert a picture in a “Pages” document. She kept looking for an “Insert” menu. I showed her how to “drag and drop” an image in. Windows heads seem to invariably look for the complicated way to do things when they start out on a mac.

    (2) Number 1 is a trivial thing, but you will find a myriad of “trivial” things, and because nothing is located where you “muscle memory” thinks it is, this can be very frustrating. At that point it is very easy to stop and say “I can’t figure out what these mac heads are on about, macs aren’t easier to use at all!”. Try to calm the frustration and get past that point, because once you do, everything will start clicking into place and eventually you’ll find yourself doing things in a different way from what you used to, but quite effectively anyway.

    Good luck, and have patience. Peter

  • When I read “the myriad fiddly details a veteran Windows user has picked up over the years” I felt like you had a closed mindset before you started. Are you going to give the Mac a demerit point every time it’s not the same as Windows? If you are, then why are you trying something different to Windows?

    • I’m perfectly willling to accept that things will be different to Windows — the main issue is to identify where those points are. I’m not aiming to identify demerit points, but I am interested to see just how much the “it just works” mantra Mac users often use translates in reality for someone who has a lot of Windows experience.

  • Keyboard shortcuts for a Windows to Mac switcher:

    Speaking from experience as I took the dive and switched to a Mac 18 months ago after using Windows since Windows 3.1, here are my personal tips to ease the transition for keyboard friendly users switching from Windows to Mac:

    * The most significant thing I found was that while Ctrl is the most common shortcut key on Windows, for example Ctrl-X, -C, -V, Cmd is the most common shortcut key on Mac. The problem is that I’m used to the left Ctrl key (I hardly use the right Ctrl key) is in the far left corner, whereas the Cmd key is just left of the space bar. As I still need Windows on a daily basis and constantly switch backwards and forwards between Windows and Mac (I have Windows running in a VM on one monitor and Mac running on another monitor), every time I swapped OS’s (which would happen dozens of time every day), I kept pressing the wrong shortcut key just after the swap. I tried living with it for a month, but it was too counter-productive. I eventually decided to configure my Mac to swap the positions of the Ctrl and Cmd keys so that pressing Ctrl-X on the Mac would map to Cmd-X, performing my desired shortcut. I did this by going to System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Modifier Keys and remapping the Ctrl and Cmd keys. While this may be sacrilegious to Mac fanbois, my productivity is more important and it made cutting and pasting between Windows and Mac (my most commonly used keyboard shortcuts) straight-forward.

    * I’m also very used to tabbing through controls to get to where I want to (instead of using the mouse) coming from a Windows background. The problem is the default setting on the Mac only tabs through list and text boxes and skips other controls. To change this to tab though all controls like Windows, goto System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts and change Full Keyboard Access at the bottom of the dialog to “All controls”. This setting changed the tab behaviour to be more Windows like.

    Those are my tips – you might want to experiment with them to see if it makes things a little easier for you.

  • Not installing Quicksilver is like chopping off your left arm cause you’re a right hander..
    You’ll manage without it, but life will be a whole lot easier and better with it!
    I can’t believe it hasn’t been transitioned across to Windows, or for that matter incorporated into MacOS itself!

    Keyboard Shortcuts will get annoying for you with the whole Control/Command key mixup.
    You can switch the settings (in the Keyboard preferences area) to make the control key act like the Command key though.

  • i’m not altogether sure that a week is going to n=be long enough to get a real feel for the platform. I “switched” to the Mac in late 2004 and for a few weeks regretted my decision bitterly. This, I believe, was simply that I was so programmed in the Windows way that the Mac was too simple. The example that sticks in my mind is the first time I tried to uninstall something – I was looking for the Add/Remove Programs section – it didn’t occur to me to drag the app to the Trash!

    In contrast my Mum bought a Mac after struggling with Windows for years and the first I knew of it was when I receive an email from her .Mac address!

    Now I use Mac as my hardware and Windows and OSX as I need to. I have Windows 7 Professional which is running very well in VMware Fusion 3 with 2Gb RAM dedicated to it and runs my MS Office and business apps. Lets face it – Office 2008 on a mac sucks! On the Mac side I do all my web design/video/multimedia work. If I really needed Windows video editing software or was a game fan I could install Windows on a Boot Camp partition.

    So in conclusion – I guess I am an Apple fanboy – but in a different sense. To me the big plus is that the hardware gives me the best of both worlds and I use Mac and Windows daily. I know you can build a Hackintosh to do much the same – I have a Lenovo S10e running OSX far better than it ran Windows – but I just don’t know if it will still work after the next OSX update so this remains experimental.

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