No-nonsense Notebook

By Nimish Chandiramani Published Date
01 - Jul - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jul - 2007
No-nonsense Notebook

You're the professional on the move. You need a hassle-free platform to go about your daily business. Will it be Vista, Mac OS X or Linux? Read on

While the world's waited for Vista, the alternatives-Linux and Mac OS X-have had the time to garner some attention; fans of those systems have lost no opportunity to tempt you to forsake Microsoft and join their ranks.

In light of these developments, it's about time we took a look beyond all the hype, the cheeky advertisements and the fanaticism, and found out which of these systems wins the productivity war. More professionals are going mobile these days, so we'll be looking at how they fare as laptop platforms. A lot of things will hold true for desktops as well, naturally. In the ring are Windows Vista-any new laptop you buy today will come with it; OS X Tiger on a MacBook Pro; and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED-a paid distribution, or distro), as well as Ubuntu, which is widely regarded as the best free Linux distro. You can also buy support for Ubuntu in India-we're looking at solutions where people get paid to solve your problems.

Our Methods And Madnesses
We spent a couple of weeks with each platform, and went about our daily business-surfing the Internet, e-mailing, creating and editing documents, tinkering with new applications, and generally getting our lives organised. And so it begins…

Into The Interfaces
Working in Vista isn't too different from working with XP, though it's better in many ways. There's a taskbar item for everything, so no more using [Alt] [Tab] to hunt for dialog boxes that lost focus. Buttons are more indicative-the confirmation dialogs in Vista say "Perform Action" and "Don't Perform Action" (depending on the action, of course), so you don't need to read a lecture.

You no longer need to hold down [Ctrl] or [Shift] to select multiple files-you can enable checkboxes in Explorer's Folder Options, and do exactly what that implies: check the files you want to select, or use the checkbox at the top to select all files. [Alt] [Tab] is bigger, and features application thumbnails. If you have a graphics card that can handle it, there are pretty effects too.

Mac OS X delivers a substantial culture shock to first-timers. Desktop icons are to the right of the screen, the control buttons have gone over to the left, and application menus have moved to the top of the screen rather than within the window itself. Then there's the Dock, a Quick Launch toolbar and taskbar rolled into one. Application icons jump when it is starting or if it has a message for you.

Still, after a couple of hours of poking and prodding, OS X's design becomes easy to work with. Some things continue to bother us, though-most notably the fact that selecting a file and hitting [Enter] renames it! To run the file, you have to use [Command] [O] or [Command] [Down Arrow].

OS X isn't the most keyboard-friendly platform either, so we found ourselves using the touchpad more often than we'd like. We're used to using [Alt] [letter] combinations to get to menu items, but you can't do this with OS X: you have to access the menu bar using [Ctrl] [F2] first ([Ctrl] [Fn] [F2] on a MacBook or MacBook Pro) and then use the arrow keys to navigate to the menu you want. While its Finder function has support for drag-and-drop, you can't use shortcuts like [Command] [C] to copy files. These instances can be quite frustrating.

Both SUSE and Ubuntu are based on the GNOME Desktop Environment, but they've customised it differently. SUSE prefers the Windows-style look-taskbar at the bottom of the screen, a start menu with your favourite applications that even responds to the Windows key. There's

This is a pretty silly thing to have to deal with in OS X-if you have minimised many documents of the same type, the only way to tell them apart is by hovering your mouse over them-more undesirable trackpad activity

a search text box in the start menu à la Vista, though searches aren't "live" (as you type). There aren't any cascading menus: your applications are presented to you, neatly categorised, in a window. There's even a search box to filter your selection; effectively, you have two-click access to all the items you need.

Ubuntu, too, takes the two-click approach. Applications are only a sub-menu away, though preferences and administration options are two steps away.

GNOME's Nautilus File Manager is very Explorer-like, just lacking eye-candy. GNOME also features taskbar buttons for every item on the screen. Overall, we prefer the taskbar-button approach that Windows and Linux have.
Pretty Pretty

OS X was the first to woo potential customers with shiny graphics, and "ooh"-inducing transitions; Microsoft followed suit with the Aero effects in Vista, and Novell started its own XGL project for 3D effects in Linux. Cool effects can make working slightly more pleasant, but does all this fanciness really help?

One of the supposedly utilitarian features of Vista's Aero is Flip 3D, which "uses the dimension of visual depth to give you a more comprehensive view of your open windows, helping you sidestep chaos even as you juggle myriad open files and programs." After starting Flip 3D, you scroll through open windows like a Rolodex. But remember that Flip 3D causes entry-level graphics cards (NVIDIA's 6600 and thereabouts) to stutter a bit.

OS X has a good number of tricks up its sleeves; moving over the icons in the Dock enlarges them and the surrounding icons proportionately, making your desired icon easier to click on. Hit [F11], and all windows slide into the edges of your screen, revealing the Desktop. Hitting [F9] starts Exposé, which arranges all your windows on-screen-hover over them to find out what they are, and click on them to switch. On a MacBook or MacBook Pro, you'll have to hold down the [Fn] key and then hit [F9]-quite off-putting.

With SUSE and Ubuntu, you can either enable Desktop Effects from their respective administration menus, or install Beryl, a window manager built specifically to take advantage of all that XGL has to offer (the default used otherwise is Compiz). In all cases, workspaces are arranged on a 3D cube. If you hold down [Ctrl] [Alt], click on the Desktop and drag, you can view the cube as if you were holding it in your hand-imagine an actual rotating cube, with one window on the left, a document window on the top, and so on! Before XGL, you would switch between workspaces by moving your mouse cursor over the Workspace Switcher and using the scroll wheel-no keys to hold down, and considerably less mouse movement.

The verdict on the experience: in descending order, it's OS X, Vista, and Linux. The effects in OS X feel like a part of the OS, as opposed to the "slapped-on" feel of the other two. Apple developers know exactly what hardware the OS is going to run on (viz. the latest iMacs, MacBooks, etc.). Vista and Linux need to run on anything from a Pentium 4 to a Core 2 Duo system, so the option to turn off effects is a must.
Graphics aren't everything, though.

When you install Beryl on Ubuntu, you get to use the "transparent cube" to see all your applications. It's nice, but still not a great boost to usability

They Call Me The Seeker
Integrated search is a very handy thing to have on your PC-let's look at our contenders' offerings.

Vista's new Start Menu is commendable-no more infinitely cascading menus; menu items expand and collapse in the left pane of the Start Menu, and perhaps the most important addition is the Search box. Type in the first letters of the application or file you want, and Vista will search for it as you type, and display the results right there. It even supports searching for the first few letters of each word-"win me pl", for example, will bring up Windows Media Player. This has almost completely replaced Start > Run for us. The search box is also present in Windows Explorer, so instead of navigating through folders, you just enter the filename in the search box and Windows searches for the file in real-time. You can also search by document content, and add "tags" to files (like "vacation goa" for your Goa photos) to enable quicker searches. All very nicely done, though the indexing service does sometimes suck up resources.

The thing that started it all was OS X Tiger's Spotlight, which indexes all the files on your Mac. It's accessible through a simple shortcut ([Command] [Space]; remember, we're on a laptop and don't want too much touchpad activity). You can also add "Spotlight Comments" to files-the precursor to Vista's tags-for quick searches.

SUSE comes with Beagle Desktop Search pre-installed, and there's a search box in the start menu as well. While Beagle is a competent tool-it indexes your files, e-mail, address book, and even sticky notes-it doesn't give you results as you type. You need to install Beagle separately in Ubuntu-the pre-installed search tool is about as fast as XP's default search.

And now to the heart of the matter.
The Applications
You have an OS, and it naturally follows that applications must exist for it. With Vista, the question doesn't arise-so we'll talk about OS X and Linux.

That there aren't applications for OS X and Linux is a myth, but the likelihood that you won't find a Mac or Linux version of your essential tools is quite high. There's often an alternative, but then you need to assess the quality of that alternative before making a switch.

Keynote is one of those "killer apps" on the Mac. It's a brilliant alternative to PowerPoint, and is much easier to use

In the office suite department, you can opt for either Microsoft Office 2004 or for the Mac (the latter for Linux, too). If you're used to the Office 2007 interface on Windows, however, it's like going back in time, so we'd recommend waiting till Office 2008 releases for the Mac later this year. Read about more software for OS X in this month's Fast Track. Applications for the Mac-especially the paid ones-feel tightly integrated with OS X and are quite easy to figure out.
You can also run Windows applications on OS X and Linux using CrossOver-we recommend this option over Wine because you pay for the support, and if you're working with applications that handle critical data, you want a minion who's paid to solve problems you encounter. On the Mac, you can also use BootCamp or Parallels desktop to run XP or Vista, so you can run Windows-only applications when you need to, and switch back to OS X for the rest of your work.

Weighing these alternative methods to run Windows applications against the alternatives depends on how many Windows-only applications you can't live without. You'd feel like quite the jackass if you bought a MacBook Pro for over a lakh only to find yourself using Windows XP on BootCamp more often than OS X. Ditto for Linux-you'll rest easier running Windows applications on Windows.

Getting Them, Throwing Them
On Windows, applications leave traces behind, and there's the task of removing those traces-like cleaning your Registry. What do OS X and Linux offer?

To install an OS X application, you just download a .dmg (disk image) file, mount it by double-clicking, and drag the application to the Applications folder to your hard disk-that's it! Some applications come with installers, but the former is what you'll encounter more often. When you're done with an application, just drag it to the Trash and it's gone! All this sounds too good to be true, and it is. The application as it appears to us-a .app file-is actually a folder, much like the application folder in your Program Files directory-complete with executables, settings and so on. There's no system registry, so when you delete the .app file, the application is gone. However, a lot of applications store information-particularly user-specific settings-in the Library/Application Support folder (the OS X equivalent of the Documents and Settings folder in Windows), and these files remain even when you've deleted an application-you'll have to manually remove these.

With SUSE and Ubuntu, you can install software through online repositories. This works better than installing through downloaded packages because of the evil of dependencies. Application A won't run if you haven't installed library B, and library B is incomplete without libraries C and D. Both distributions have their own official repositories, but they aren't configured with the SUSE install, because the software available isn't part of your support contract. You have to add the OpenSUSE repositories manually, and this isn't pleasant-it took us many tries to even get a connection to the server, and the operation would fail even then. Ubuntu is much better-you can start installing applications seconds after your first login, and the selection is vast.

In both cases, dependencies are automatically installed-the flip side is that you need a fairly fast Internet connection and a large download limit.

The Security Angle
Security has been a priority in Vista's development, we've been told time and again, but the number of exploits mushrooming for the new OS says a lot more. True, it takes security a bit more seriously-users aren't logged in as Administrator on the first run, and User Account Control (UAC) ensures that every application making changes to the system is authorised to do so. UAC can be a bit of an annoyance sometimes, and the fact that there's an option to turn it off is its first flaw. In Linux and OS X, any application that's making modifications to

Vista even makes you authorise its own Control Panel applets before they make major changes. UAC isn't foolproof, and it can get on your nerves but it's a good thing to have regardless

the system needs you to enter the root password, so even if malicious code does enter your machine, it can't do anything without root access.
The *nix architecture-on which both OS X and Linux are based-is inherently more secure. Nobody can argue with that. If you're going the Vista way, don't forsake your anti-virus and anti-spyware tools anytime soon.

Decision Maker

The Laptop Experience
Most of what we've talked about thus far applies both for laptops and Desktops, but there are a few things exclusive to laptops. If you own, or plan to buy, a tablet PC with Vista, you're in for a treat. Tablet support has been built into Vista from scratch, so it doesn't feel like the hack that Windows XP Tablet PC Edition felt like. You can use your handwriting to enter text in any field that accepts it-the handwriting dialog is always waiting in a corner of the screen. Handwriting recognition is impressive to start with, and gets better as it learns your nuances. You can also assign "Pen Flicks" for common tasks like copying text or executing a keyboard shortcut.

When you go the Mac way, you get to enjoy the great touchpad features. The touchpad driver responds to touches from two fingers as well, so while you can use a single finger to move the mouse cursor and tap to click, using two fingers lets you scroll and tapping with two fingers becomes a right-click. As you start getting used to this, the single click button at the bottom of the touchpad starts to seem redundant.

Linux users have some respite, though-there is a Linux driver written for Synaptics touchpads (nearly all laptops use them) that lets you use multiple fingers-find it at touchpad_driver.html-assuming  your hardware supports it.

The Bottom Line
Just like on Desktops, Vista is the safe choice. It's Windows, so it's familiar territory, applications are in abundance, you'll get it pre-installed on a nice, reasonably-priced laptop today, and the tablet PC experience is another feather in its cap.

Between the two Linux distributions, we recommend Ubuntu, with paid support to help you through your growing pains (find the Indian support firms at It's quite gentle on the first-time user, but you need to tweak a lot of options to make it suit your needs-too many-and sometimes even simple things like installing PostScript fonts to work with a Windows application under Wine can turn out to be mammoth tasks. When things go wrong with Linux, they usually go horribly wrong.

In terms of the overall experience, OS X on a MacBook or MacBook Pro comes up tops. You don't have to worry yourself about the latest viruses (unless there's a new Mac virus), you don't have to "spring clean" if it starts to get sluggish-which it doesn't, regular format-reinstalls will be a thing of the past, and the touchpad experience sets it apart from the competition. It's quite the idiot-proof OS as well-and it still stands strong. The only trouble is the price-an entry-level MacBook costs Rs 67,000, and the MacBook Pro starts at Rs 1,15,800. If you've got the money and have no Windows-only applications tying you down, head to the nearest Apple retailer.  

Nimish ChandiramaniNimish Chandiramani