Back in October was my one year anniversary as a Mac user from when I first bought an iMac as an experiment into the Apple world. For me as for many the iPod was the gateway drug into Apple and Intel Macs made it easy for me to make the transition.
I did love my iMac, but as a one piece computer it had it’s drawbacks. At one point I had three USB harddrives hanging off of it for backup and for Windows programming I do for work. It certainly worked fine, but the lack of upgradeability on the iMac is limiting. Because I love screen real estate I wanted to add another monitor to give me a total of three and the solutions for doing this on the iMac are less than optional.
So in October I took the plunge and bought a Dual Quad Core 2008 Mac Pro. This isn’t just a computer, like most Apple products it is a work of art. I loved how easy it was to add 3 more internal hardrives to it and another video card all without needing any tools. What amazes me is just how quiet this powerful machine is. I wouldn’t even know it was on if it wasn’t for the power LED and of course the signal to the monitors. It has power to spare and even when I have multiple virtual machines running it is hardly taxed at all. I bought 8 gigs of third-part ram and was pleased to find that I could still use the 2 gigs it came with to give me a total of 10 gigs of ram.
It use to be if I was working in Visual Studio in a virtual machine I couldn’t really run another program that was cpu intensive. I love to convert text to audio to create audiobooks using the built in voice Alex, but my iMac to reduce to a crawl when I did so. The Mac Pro does it effortlessly even if I am running Visual Studio and watching a DVD or EyeTV at the same time.
Power to spare which is a good thing because I hope to make this a machine to last 3 or more years. Now I admit to being a hardware junky and I use to build a new Windows machine every year to year and a half to get the most power I could. Plus I love the fact that the Mac Pro is so upgradeable in that I could add a Blu-Ray burner later even if Steve Jobs calls Blu-Ray a bag of hurt. If Apple had made a Tower similar to an iMac I would have been happy with that, but then again as a geek just saying Dual Quad Core makes me smile and the Mac Pro is built to last. One thing I have been suprised about in the Apple world is the number of users that can use older machines and the fact the later OS releases will run just fine on them and in fact can even improve performance. Something that never happened in the Windows world where each new OS ideally needed new hardware.
After three months of using the Mac Pro the honeymoon is over, but I still love the machine. Now I can hardly wait for Snow Leopard to come out which will make its number of cores more efficient and more powerful.
Part of the transition to OSX is of course leaning to use Finder since file management is always such an important part of life in a operating system. Finder in Leopard is definitely improved, but since I often move files around from one folder to another I wasn’t finding the experience to my liking. In Windows though I almost never use Explorer either. I guess I just don’t like single pane file managers. In the days of DOS I use to love Norton Commander which was a dual pane file manager and Windows 3.1 and before also use to have a dual pane file manager. When Windows 95 came out I started looking for a Norton Commander clone to suit my needs and for over a decade I have been using a program called Servant Salamander. Silly name, but very powerful and has a ton a features I use often.
I think one of the basics a file manager should have is the ability to bookmark folders and then easily access them. This way you can easily move to your most used folders rapidly. Servant Salamander allowed you to use keyboard shortcuts to these folders and I found this indefensible. Unfortunately the file management program that come with OSs just don’t give you this capability and have very little flexibility as far as customization.
So I started looking for a file manager for OSX that had the flexibility and the power I wanted. I looked at a couple of dual pane file managers for OSX, but didn’t find any too my liking. Forklift is pretty good and had some of the features I wanted, just not enough of them. There is a freeware dual-pane file manager for OSX and other OS’s called muCommander that gives some basic features, but it doesn’t give you a solid OSX interface and has limited features.
Looking around I started seeing Pathfinder recommended by many users. When I looked at the screenshots I wasn’t much impressed with it looking like a standard file manager. But I ended up downloading it to check out the trail. It has a lot of features and is highly customizable and has a real enjoyable interface. It was the drop stack though that really sold me on it. The drop stack is an area that allows you to drag one or more files into it from multiple folders if you want. You can then easily change to another folder and drag the files from the drop stack into it. This gave me a much better experience in moving around files like I was use to in a Norton Command clone. I also like that it has multiple ways that you can access frequently used directories. There is a shelf where you can just drag favorite folders to, a tab bar where they can be placed, and even a Folder History panel that you can use that shows you a list of the last folders you have accessed.
So I ended up buying Pathfinder when my trial expired and wouldn’t you know it just a couple of days later it shows up as 20% off at MacSanta. Oh well.
Machine Virtualization has come a long way over the years and it is about to the point that an OS running in the virtual machine runs just as fast as it would natively. The latest generation of processors support virtualization to make it even better.
VMWare for years has been on the cutting edge of virtualization and owns a slew of patents in the field. Parallels is another virtual machine product for the Mac that has gained a lot of attention for the features it has and got to the market before VMWare’s latest offering for OSX. I decided though to go with VMWare’s Fusion since from what I have read and some of the reviews of it that it utilizes both cores of a dual core processor and that it is totally written in Cocoa from the ground up giving it both better speed and memory utilization.
So I downloaded the 30 day trial of VMWare and had it installed quite quickly. Using the wizard I setup an XP Pro virtual machine using an XP Pro .ISO file and had it up and running pretty quickly. Once setup on the VMWare menu you can install VMWare Tools to make integration better. I then installed some of my favorite windows app in it such as Dreamweaver and was putting it to use with no problems. The clipboard integration between the virtual machine and OSX is seamless. Nicely you can also just drag and drop files between OSX and the virtual machine – this is a great feature.
Normally windows runs in it’s a single window, but you can also run it full screen or in unity mode. Unity mode though allows you to have Window’s windows along side your OSX ones. The Unity mode integration with the Dock is excellent. Windows programs show up in your dock just like OSX ones. You also get both OS’s windows in Expose making it easy to find or switch to another window regardless of what OS it is running in. Previously I used a terminal hack to give me a stack of recently accessed programs and this stack has both the OSX and Windows programs/documents I have accessed.
I would totally love Unity mode if it supported multiple monitors. When you switch from single window/full screen mode to unity mode you can only have your windows on the monitor that you were on when you did this. So you need to put the window in the monitor you want to use for Windows programs before you switch to unity mode. I was able to change the display setting to make the monitor seem wider and could partially move onto the other monitor so a window that did not take up very much screen real estate could be placed on the other monitor. Currently Parallels also does not support multi monitors it is is suppose to be something that will happen in the future.
VMWare Fusion even has support for Direct X 9 and could even be used for gaming. I haven’t tried this out yet not being the gamer I once was. I might try putting Microsoft’s Visual Studio on the Virtual Machine to check out how it performs. I have some projects written in C# that are quite complex and would give me a good idea how fast the virtual machine really is.
Fusion also works with a Bootcamp partition if you have one and will even convert any of Parallels’ virtual machines to work with Fusion.
VMWare Fusion is very intuitive. I didn’t have to read any instructions to get things up and running. I am quite impressed by this product, but I am also pretty glad that their is healthy competition between Fusion and Parallel. This is a win-win situation for users. What is great though is that I can easily see that when in the future my PC gets a little long in the tooth that I will confidently be able to buy a Mac Pro to do all of my work in Windows and OSX on the same machine.
Update: When my Vista PC died I wasn’t too upset and have just switched to my iMac full time. I have found that Visual Studio 2005 and 2008 run just fine on Fusion and I have had zero problems developing using these tools during the last couple of weeks. Now that I have to run Windows programs in a virtual machine it gives me a much better test and I am really pleased at the performance and it feels to me as if I am running my programs on a dedicated machine.
As a windows/Mac user it is pain to deal with how mainly Alt is used on the Mac instead of Ctrl for many common commands such as copy, paste, etc. I would have remapped the Mac, but by keyboard sharer program Synergy didn’t work with the remapped keys.
One thing I found though is that I much preferred the Alt key combinations over the Ctrl key combinations. You can much easier anchor your thumb on the Alt key and then press the other key and it is much less awkward. So I decided to remap the keys on the Windows side to match the OSX instead. A freeware program called AutoHotkey turned out to do the trick nicely. It took a little work to come up with a script that did what I wanted, but now my Windows keyboard layout matches the OSX with Alt-C for Copy, Alt-P for paste, etc. The program also allows you to specify which Alt key to use, so I programed just the left one so that the right Alt key combinations worked as they did before. I am going to do the same thing to my work machine since I like these key combinations much better.
I have been curious to test out how well using virtual machines to allow me to use some Windows apps under OSX would work out. So I figured this would be a good excuse to upgrade from the default 1 GB of ram to the max allowed of 4 GB. I had heard that Apple’s prices for memory were pretty high, though I was surprised to find out how high. When I first started looking last month these were the prices and in fact still are.
Woo Nelly! If you buy a new machine and have them upgrade the memory this is what they are currently charging.
Obviously I started looking around at other dealers. When I first started looking prices were mostly around $300 dollars for two 2 GB sticks. Though through one Mac site I found a reference to a recommended dealer where the price was $158. When I ended up buying the memory it was down to $117. They have great response time considering that I ordered it late Friday and had it arrive on Monday. They also allow you to send in your previous memory to receive a rebate. This is pretty cool because otherwise the 1 GB stick that came with the iMac would have just gone to waste. I somehow doubt that it is worth the $150 dollars Apple would charge.
The Aluminum iMacs have a small memory access panel on their bottoms help in by one screw. There is a plastic tab that you unfold and use to eject the memory that was in the machine. This plastic tab was quite slick and I had a lot of difficulty using it to eject the memory. Mainly since even when fully extended the memory still hadn’t fully ejected. After some fuss though I finally go the default 1 GB stick out and the two new sticks installed quited quickly and soon had the machine fully booted up and ready to install VMWare Fusion. I will write about my Fusion experience later.
If you are running two separate computers as I am you could soon go crazy using two keyboards and two mice.
There are hardware solutions called a KVM switch (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) that allows you to use just one set to control everything, but these can be semi-pricey and you have to manually switch between what system they are controlling.
I didn’t need a monitor solution since I setup my main monitor to work with either system and could simply select the source at the press of a button. I did though need a good solution for the keyboard and the mouse.
Thankfully there is a great free open source software called Synergy that allows you to use a keyboard and mouse on one system to control another system via a network connection. Synergy is just plain great software and I use to use it with my main PC and a laptop. There are versions of Synergy for both the PC and the Mac and they inter-operate beautifully. Even better is that you can do copy/paste operations from one system to another. It is great to just move the mouse cursor from one system to the next and the keyboard automatically works with whatever system currently has mouse focus.
Lifehacker has some good instructions for how to set this up for a dual systems (specifically a PC and a Mac). The interface for setting up the PC version isn’t exactly pretty and a little confusing to get going. Though someone has created a GUI wrapper of Synergy for OSX that is much easier to setup.
Synergy once setup just plain works and you soon forget about it and just go to work using its capabilities.
I have been using multi-monitor configurations for quite a while and I can now hardly deal with only having the real estate of one monitor.
Previously I had a dual-monitor setup with my home PC and now that I have an iMac I have three monitors on my desk. The inner (and outer) geek in me rejoices at having so much screen real estate, though when I am doing my work I really gets tons of use out of such a setup and can get things done much more quickly that way.
I soon found that working with my iMac I really missed not having another monitor to work with. But even I draw the line at having four monitors on my desk as being a way too excessive. Just the energy requirements can seem extravagant. Though after seeing Al Gore’s three large monitor setup and a wide screen tv I don’t feel as bad.
My main working monitor is a 22 inch HP widescreen and I thought about maybe getting a switch so that I could go between using it with my PC and my iMac. I found a much better solution. This monitor had both a DVI and VGA display adapters which and a button in the front to switch between the two inputs. This was perfect since some monitor switches have a problem with ghosting if their is not enough shield around the VGA side.
This though is one thing annoying about Apple and sometimes their willingness to choose aesthetics over functionality. Their newer machines instead of using a standard DVI port, uses a mini-DVI port – an Apple only standard. Now this can make sense on a laptop where space is limited, but there is plenty of room on the back of an iMac. Now I have to admit the arrangement of USB, firewire, ethernet connector, and the mini-DVI port is quite aesthetically pleasing since every port looks roughly the same. So since this is not included with the computer you have to buy a mini-DVI adapter to be able to connect it to an external monitor. In my case instead of just buying one DVI cable I had to add the short adapter (which at 19 bucks is about the same as the much longer DVI cable.) Regardless though this is a much better solution than a monitor switch, which would have probably cost much more to get one that wouldn’t have ghosting problems.
I have to admit how pleased and happy I was in the how simple it was to setup. After I hooked up the new cable to my monitor with the adapter, the iMac recognized that an external monitor was being used and started to use it immediately. With Windows I always had to set it up first to start using the new monitor and to stretch the desktop onto it.
OSX System Preferences does allow you to set the screen resolutions for both monitors or if you want to mirror them. You can also set the arrangement of the displays depending on whether the external monitor is the left or the right and to also set which monitor has the menu bar. The preferences for the dock allow you to move the dock, but the options are only left, right, and bottom. It would have been nice to have a little more control of this since the bottom position refers to only the first monitor.
I did have one glitch at first where the context menu would come up on the first monitor even when you had right clicked something on the 2nd monitor. But a reboot cured this.
I do love how rock solid video is in OSX. On Windows if I moved a screen with video from one monitor to another you would often get glitches until you had dropped it in place.
Another thing I love about OSX is that you can easily set the wallpaper for either monitor independently. In Windows this is not supported directly, though there is a recent freeware program called Display Fusion that allows you to do this. In OSX just right click the display and select Display Desktop Background and you get two dialog boxes (one on each monitor) where you simply select the background you want to use.
So now when I am doing Windows intensive work I can switch my monitor to work with the PC and still have access to one Mac screen and when I am doing mainly Mac stuff I can switch the monitor source to the Mac and still have one Windows screen. This works great.