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Leaving the Mac or: How I Learned to Love the PC (Once Again)

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Apr. 14th, 2013 | 05:57 pm

Because of the experiences I've had with Microsoft Windoze and cheap PC hardware over the years, I've learned to hate them. Hate them with the passion of a thousand white-hot burning suns. Macs, once Apple came out with Mac OS X, were a shining beacon of light in an otherwise crap-filled universe. They were fast, stable and secure. You paid more, but they were very capable, and if you ran into problems, there was only one phone number you needed to call and all your problems would be taken care of.

Alas, times change. Over the past few years, some of the things Apple has done can only be explained by what amounts to actual hostility not only to customers but to shareholders as well. People whose credit cards get unauthorized charges from Apple's iTunes store - when they don't have an account - are told to bugger off by Apple. There's other stuff as well that just turned me off to Apple as a company, such as building computers which are virtually impossible to service unless they're taken into an Apple store. I suppose it's typical American corporatism, coupled with more cash than God Himself could hope to have. But there are technical reasons as well....

I had a very reliable and capable 20" iMac for about six years. Recently, it died while I was in the middle of backing up half a terabyte of data. It turns out, the hard drive had died. The kicker is, this hard drive - like pretty much all modern hard drives - has a technology called S.M.A.R.T. It can detect potentially fatal problems with the drive, and report them to the computer. Then, the computer would notify the user. I've had this happen on computers at work: it almost literally screamed at me:

Not so with the Mac. I did a forensic analysis of the drive, and the fact that it was dying was quietly reported in a system log that normal users wouldn't even know existed! If I had seen that error, which had been logged a week before my computer went down, I could've saved all that data. Now, I might be able to get about 10% of it, and only after processing it all by hand. Mind you, this is something I usually charge clients $250 an hour to do, and data recovery shops will often charge over $5,000 for it. And there are still no guarantees of getting anything back at all!

To get to the hard drive, the computer must be disassembled almost completely. So it wasn't a question of popping the drive out and replacing it. After being burned once by Apple, and now knowing that the newer computers are even more expensive and less friendly to self-service (and I'm not going to take my computer through the DC metro to the Apple store), I had a decision to make: just take the hot poker and stay with Apple, or take two hot pokers and go back to PCs running Windowz?

Fortunately, there was a third option. After about two months of looking for the right hardware, I bought a Dell Optiplex and customized the hell out of it. It turned out to be just as expensive as a MacBook Pro, but it is much more capable. The equivalent PowerMac would've set me back over $4000, and it would not have all the options I got on my Dell! The particular model I bought is a business-level machine, which tends to have better components than a consumer-level machine, so it should last longer. I had thought about getting a laptop, but laptops are only made to last a maximum of five years. It's not really worth the premium of having something portable.

As soon as I got my new computer, I set it up at my desk, then formatted it. This is the cool part: I installed Linux. It's a freely available operating system (some types of Linux offer technical support for a fee). It's secure, stable, fast, and user friendly. It's a bit quirky so Windows and Mac users would have a small learning curve, but it's doable. And, guess what? Mac OS X is based on a variant of Linux known as BSD (for the more technical people reading this, I know Linux and BSD aren't the same, but I'm not writing this for technical people!). You can do database, word processing, spreadsheets, statistical analysis, desktop publishing, raster graphics, vector graphics, audio editing, video editing, games, and on and on. Pretty much anything you can already do on Windows or Mac. And it's all FREE!

For those who run applications only available on Windows, there's VirtualBox. It creates a computer within a computer, so you can run Windows as if it were on a real computer. This virtual computer and the host Linux system can communicate with each other so you can share files between the two. You can run games in it, too. Here's a screen capture of what it would look like:

The physical computer is running Linux, and there are two virtual computers: one running Mac OS X, and another running Windows XP.

I've got the same setup on my primary machine at work, and my work-supplied laptop. For the laptop, there were a couple tweaks I had to do so it would support solid state disks better, but otherwise it works just as well as Mac OS X or Windows would, and even better! The cool thing about Linux is you can download the software, burn it to a CD/DVD, boot from it, and play with it without having to install it. This is a chance to see whether you'd like it or not. The same cannot be said of Windows or Mac OS X.

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