Should I join the Cult of Apple?
April 11, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

This long-time PC user is thinking about getting an iMac and needs advice from current iMac owners.

I've been a PC guy since the days of DOS and they have served me well over the years. I started building my own systems about 10 years ago because I like choosing my own parts. But recently, I've been giving more thought to switching to an iMac. Here's why:

- It seems to have better accessibility features. I have a significant physical disability (I'm essentially a quadriplegic) and I can navigate Windows just fine, but my on-screen keyboard (WiViiK) hasn't been updated since 2003. KeyStrokes for OS X seems to have many more customization features, including the ability to create customized templates for games (yes, I'm something of a gamer). I could also use One Finger Snap, an OS X utility that would let me use my single adaptive switch as both a left and right mouse button.

- I could still run any Windows apps I need using Parallels or another virtualization solution.

- iMacs have a smaller footprint than my behemoth of a tower.

- They just look cool.

Here are my questions:

- What are your experiences with the current versions of the iMac? If you made the switch from Windows, what frustrations did you encounter? What do you wish you had known before you made the switch?

- How well do virtualization solutions like Parallels really work? What are their limitations?

- How do iMacs fare as gaming rigs? I play mostly strategy and RPG games.

I'm currently using a pretty nice Windows rig that I built in late 2007, but I could probably sell it on Craigslist if I decide to get an iMac.

I appreciate any insights you can provide.
posted by wintermute2_0 to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
- How well do virtualization solutions like Parallels really work? What are their limitations?

My Dad was a lifetime Windows user who made the switch to an imac. Iv'e mostly been a mac user all along but I teach classes and support people who use PCs. He had a weather station he wanted to run on his Mac that required input from a serial cable. The serial - USB dongle was not a big problem (though it's worth noting) but he had a hard time getting the software to run inside the emulator, it was hard for him to get his head around nothaving to assign a specific USB port (the whole "oh it will just work" part did not reassure him though it wound up being mostly true). It did run, but he had to run the emulator at all times to get the program to continue to monitor incoming traffic -- this makes sense but neither of us had thought about it -- and Parallels is a bit of a processor suck.

His other concerns were the big wide screen -- he uses bifocals and the big iMac screen was wide enough that if it was close enough for him to see it, the edges of the screen were outside of his focal range and got blurry, so he went with the smaller screen.

We learned something about the mouse. My guess is that you're not going to be using the standard Apple mouse, buy anyhow... my Dad has a significant tremor and was having an impossible time right clicking on the Apple mouse. Like it just wasn't working. I'd be screensharing with him and showing him "see, like this" but he couldn't make it work. The problem was that the Apple mouse is a marvel of engineering where no matter which side you press down on, it wouldn't right click. Apparently this is because it "senses" where your fingers are and my dad never really lifted his left finger off the mouse. Sort of weird.

I'll think on other issues I might have with him or mine. I enjoy the high contrast big screen and the quietness of it, personally.
posted by jessamyn at 11:51 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your specific questions are a bit too techy for me, but I switched from PC to Mac almost a year ago and wish I had done so sooner. As is often said, Mac just plain works, and it looks great.

It took me a little while to get used to, but the learning curve was worth it. I got the one on one training with it and totally recommend it -- the instructors are great at explaining things without talking down to you and let you learn at your own pace. The tech support kicks Microsoft's ass, IMHO.

I don't know if this would help you, but I've noticed you can set up one on one shopping appointments on apple's website -- that was how I decided on which mac to get.
posted by cestmoi15 at 11:52 AM on April 11, 2009

1) The current version of the iMac rocks. I'm running a MBP with 24" screen and find it the optimal size and the LED backlight is brighter than (with the same black level) my spendy 20" NEC display. I use a Microsoft Natural keyboard and MS mouse so it's almost a PC. The weakest link in the iMac package is the optical drive [I hate laptop-quality drives]; I have a separate DVD burner in a firewire external case that I use CD stuff.

2) I just use the Apple-suppled BootCamp solution that is fully supported in 10.5. I have 2 Macs and 2 PCs so I have plenty of Windows options.

3) A GT-130 iMac does pretty well on gaming:

Barefeets testing.

When in Windows you can download and install the NVIDIA or ATI OEM drivers, though the BootCamp download might have suitable Apple-approved Windows drivers, dunno.

But getting a Mac for games is still something of a non-starter since the usability add-ons aren't going to be available to the Windows environment.
posted by mrt at 11:58 AM on April 11, 2009

How well do virtualization solutions like Parallels really work? What are their limitations?

VMWare Fusion is a processor hog. You don't want to leave it running all the time (at least I don't) because it makes everything else as slow as sludge. I've heard similar things about Parallels, though I've never used it myself.
posted by alms at 12:43 PM on April 11, 2009

- What are your experiences with the current versions of the iMac? If you made the switch from Windows, what frustrations did you encounter? What do you wish you had known before you made the switch?

Each has its own strengths & limitations. I liked having real unix beneath the desktop after years of using alternate DOS shells that did pretty effective but just weren't unix.
I found less choice of (freeware) applications for OS-X but eventually found most of what I wanted, once I learned where to look (Google was my friend, but by no means the only friend needed). I had no problem getting a Kensington trackball to work - once I found a (shareware) driver.
Finder is a poor second to Explorer (ooh! it hurts to say that). Where in Windows, Explorer runs the desktop, the file manager, the file-selection dialogs & pretty much functions everywhere as your interface to the OS, Finder runs the desktop and file manager. File dialogs look like Finder, but they aren't, and they can't do the kinds of file-y things (other than selecting) that you get used to in Windows.
Having a single, shared menu bar at the top of the screen and possibly at some distance from the current window, took some getting used to (and sometimes still does).
There's a little less consistency from app to app under OS-X about things like which menu contains what kinds of items.

OS-X has no registry! Everything is either in the application's folder tree or in a folder in the user's Library, and the library is far more transparent and less brittle than Windows' registry. Installing and removing applications leaves lots fewer droppings to cruft up the system than doing the same under windows.
Networking is cinch to set up and use.
Fewer reboots are needed, and even then, logging out and logging back in is usually sufficient.
I get some sense of "the Apple way or the highway" and get cheesed off when some of Apple's apps want me to work their way rather than my way but there are good, free alternatives to e.g., iPhoto & iTunes (I think in files; their concept of media libraries cuts crosswise to the way I choose to work).

- How well do virtualization solutions like Parallels really work? What are their limitations?

I do keep an XP VM handy, running in Sun VirtualBox (free) for the odd Windows app I couldn't find an acceptable replacement for. I was prepared to move on to one of the paid virtualizers if I had to but I've been completely satisfied with VBox/XP and haven't looked any further.
A VM/guest OS will be a little slower than the same OS running directly on the hardware, and obviously running two OSes will need a lot more memory than running just one. It got interesting at first, learning to switch between the different habits required for each of the OSes when I run both at once.

If you can try a Mac (and Linux, too, for that matter) for a few days, I recommend it as an exercise, even if you ultimately choose to stay with Windows (but I bet you'll switch...)
posted by TruncatedTiller at 2:27 PM on April 11, 2009

What are your experiences with the current versions of the iMac? If you made the switch from Windows, what frustrations did you encounter? What do you wish you had known before you made the switch?

I love my iMac and have since gone on to buy a MBP for work. I switched to it summer last year after a decade of hard core windows use. I found the "Missing Manual" book to be invaluable to my transition over. I can't think of any specific things I wish I had known before switching. I believe the key to switching successfully is to approach OSX with a totally blank slate. Often I would approach tasks with the question "This is how I did it in Windows, how to I replicate that here?", rather then "What is the OSX way of doing X?"

How well do virtualization solutions like Parallels really work? What are their limitations?

I find them great. It's 99% like running Windows normally. Their main limitation is GFX processing. Don't expect to be able to play games through it. But that's where Bootcamp shines, being able to boot into Windows properly and take full advantage of the machine's hardware.

How do iMacs fare as gaming rigs? I play mostly strategy and RPG games.

I use mine to play a lot of WoW and it handles that as well as my gaming rig that I replaced it with, even at full res with settings set pretty high, if not maxed out (I can't quite remember and I'm writing this on my laptop) and that's even while running a second 24" monitor off it at the same time!
posted by Hates_ at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2009

I was a PC user for 7-8 years, then a Mac user, then a PC user, and now I'm back to being a Mac user. I prefer Macs overall, but both have advantages. I think the reasons you gave for wanting a Mac are probably pretty good. Here are two things I can add to the conversation:

1 - The most frustrating thing about having a Mac is that the universe isn't built for them, the universe is built for PC's. So, finding software is harder, occasionally something won't run correctly online, or there won't be a "Mac version" for some application or other. This is less and less of a problem all the time, but it still comes up occasionally.

2 - On a related note, running Windows on a Mac is pretty seamless. I use VMWare and do not have any processor hog problems, as were described above. I can let it run while I do other things on the Mac side and I don't really notice a difference. I used Parallels for about 6 months but then I trashed it. I got a lot of crashes with it. On the other hand, VMWare has been 100% flawless. I love it. Also, if you get to know the "Spaces" app that comes with OSX, you can actually assign a "desktop" to Windows and another desktop to OSX, then flip back and forth between them with a simple keystroke. Pretty sweet.

My wife made the switch less than a year ago. She was pretty frustrated for about 6-8 weeks ("where is that?" "I can't find my..." "how do I do...?" "Why did it do that?") - but now she is converted and I occasionally hear her on the phone telling friends that she'll never go back.

That's my experience. Hope it helps. Good luck.
posted by crapples at 7:05 PM on April 11, 2009

One thing to note on the current iMac model is that the screen is extremely glossy. This is fine most of the time, but in certain lighting situations (i.e. with a large window behind you) the glare can be distracting. They may have added the option of a matte screen, or maybe this was just on the laptops.
posted by martini at 8:23 PM on April 11, 2009

I generally like using my iMac, but sometimes I wish I'd gone for something more upgradeable instead. The only thing you can properly upgrade in an iMac is the RAM, and chances are your processor and graphics card will get outdated pretty quickly. I mostly play older games, so it is not a huge deal, but still... I also wish you could display other video sources (an Xbox 360 and so on) on the screen, but that is not really possible.

For my next PC I will probably get a Mac Mini (which, for day to day use of OS X, would probably be fine) connected to a nice monitor with extra video in ports, with a dedicated Windows box for gaming. It would cost more, but I think the flexibility would be worth it.
posted by fearthehat at 8:32 PM on April 11, 2009

I bought the "top" iMac in October, and I like it so far. I had a few months experience working on an iMac before that, at work, and that might have helped me adjust (because any annoyances were blamed squarely on the Powers That Be rather than my own poor taste in computing hardware.)

I haven't tried using Parallels or Fusion, people I know that have tried it generally are not over-fond of it, finding it to be sluggish. It certainly isn't well suited to gaming. I do have Windows XP installed, using Boot Camp, which is perfectly good for gaming purposes, and although I've never really had cause to use it for anything else it's nice to know I have some Windows capability in case I need to use an obscure application with no OS X equivalent.

I find the OS nice to use in general, particularly iPhoto. There are definitely some idiosyncrasies around the place but nothing too terrible. I did discover the other day that you can't "cut" files in Finder and paste them into another folder, with OS X insisting that you instead open another folder in a new window and drag them across. That's probably the worst thing I've found - i.e, not that bad.

I do really like that it looks cool, and occupies very little space, and runs quietly.
posted by so_necessary at 9:54 PM on April 11, 2009

what frustrations did you encounter?

The mouse acceleration curve in OS X frustrated me greatly. Using the mouse is actually painful for me, as it was for the author of the linked article. There are fixes available, but I'm still experimenting with them.
posted by kidbritish at 10:20 PM on April 11, 2009

I made the switch to Mac over two years ago, never looked back. I was a big linux/unix fan beforehand so I love the underlying command prompt. Toughest part of the switch was the inversion of the control/command keys and the way end/home behave differently on OS/X editors than they do in Windows/*nix. Finder (File explorer) behaves a bit differently than Windows/Gnome/KDE/etc. and I don't necessarily believe it's the best way, but after a little getting used to it I don't recall what my major beefs were.

Accessibility is a big plus in OSX, there are several options that are either built in (zooming in for example) or can easily be turned on (tabbing to fields, etc.) that make it great.

Seriously, frustrations were minimal, YYMV.
posted by furtive at 10:35 PM on April 11, 2009

I used to come into these questions and say "Don't do it -- you'll never adjust" (this was after buying a tibook in 2001 and finding it really cramping my workflow), but after six months of 'forced' daily use of macs at work, I have to eat crow and say that the mac experience is, for many types of users (particularly developers), simply better. At this point, there's no way I can use windows to get anything done, development-wise -- it's either linux or OSX, and OSX is a far more pleasing experience. I still use windows daily on my laptops, but it's mostly for browsing and other light tasks. Any serious work is going to get done on my mac. What helped me get over the hump was learning to depend on keyboard shortcuts (alt-tab, alt-tilde) instead of the dock, because the dock absolutely sucks if you try to use it like the windows toolbar. I also tend to use the command line for file management tasks over Finder, because I still don't 'get' the finder paradigm (i much prefer explorer's layout for GUI file management) and it's faster.

Parallels totally sucks. I'm sure many people will argue with me on this point, but it does -- it totally sucks. It's usable but unpleasant and crashy. It is likely you will find yourself opening parallels as little as possible, and honestly, I've probably used it like 5 times in the last 8 months or so of 8 hour-a-day usage -- and that was only to open Internet Explorer for compatibility testing. I hear the bootcamp experience is better.

I play games rarely if at all (and haven't played a game on a PC in the last year or so), so can't really speak to how that experience is on the new intel-based macs.
posted by fishfucker at 1:31 AM on April 12, 2009

The hardest thing to get used to with OS X is not having to fix it all the time. I work in both worlds, but recently stayed in one for longer than usual. When I returned to the Windows world, I was surprised at how much I resented the complex maneuvers I had to make in order troubleshoot and fix.

In addition, any VMWare Windows machines you run under OS X will be using identical virtual hardware, which in turn makes them not only portable, but easier to snapshot and repair.

All in all, it's a pretty weird, disconcerting experience.
posted by Area Control at 4:50 AM on April 12, 2009

One thing to note that I haven't seen mentioned above is speech recognition. On Windows, you can get Dragon Naturally Speaking. On Mac, you can get MacSpeech Dictate. Naturally Speaking does great dictation, as well as command and control. MacSpeech recently integrated the Naturally Speaking speech recognition engine, but does not have all the same features as Naturally Speaking. I don't have a Mac, so I haven't tried or demoed MacSpeech, but if you're a quadriplegic, you should definitely look into speech recognition.

My experience with using Dragon is that the dictation quality is high, but actually doing the command and control functions ranges from easy and quick (activating menus and functions, starting programs) to complicated and annoying (some web browser functions, moving the mouse).

Vista, Windows 7, and OSX each have speech rec built in, but they are not really comparable to Dragon. I mean, they are great for free, and would be good to try to see what it's like, but don't offer all the same features.

Also, if you do decide to try speech rec, you have to learn to work with it as much as it will learn to adapt to your speech. It's not easy, but it can be worth it.
posted by reddot at 7:21 AM on April 12, 2009

The only frustrations I dealt with as a lifelong PC guy when switching last year was the occasional PC-only software that I wanted to use natively. Really, though, most apps have Mac equivalents that are equal or superior, and you can use a windows VM for the rest.

I have used both Parallels and VMWare -- both are memory hogs if you have a lower-spec system, but can run almost as fast as a native OS. This is especially true for tasks where you stay in windows for a while; I don't know how OSX handles memory in a technical sense, but it seems to page out a whole bunch of stuff to make room for VMWare when I'm using it, and the only slowdown is when I switch out of windows to other apps and OSX has to page that stuff back in.

I don't use Parallels anymore because VMWare was just as fast and much less buggy. It's actually more rock-solid than any physical windows box I've owned, and the snapshot feature allows you to set a complete restore point before installing questionable software or messing with the registry.

I don't do much gaming, but I can say that you get what you pay for with a Mac. It's really a well-built machine. The only problem you might have down the road is lack of aftermarket upgrade options to play the latest and greatest. I believe that it's easier to get at the innards of a mac pro than an iMac, but you're still rather more limited than with a PC.

Keep the windows VM sandboxed and you can surf worry-free; if you need to download something for the VM, just do it in OSX and drag it from one desktop into the other.

There are lots of previous questions from switchers, if you need help with the transition or finding apps to replace your old favorites.

I second the idea that you try one out for a few weeks if possible or have a sales pro walk you through their features one-on-one, because Macs are not for everyone. But almost everyone, yeah, I think so.
posted by Chris4d at 12:29 PM on April 13, 2009

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