Five Years Since the Switch

Five years ago today I made the switch from Windows to OS X and, while I've not stuck with Apple's preferred OS on my hardware for the entire duration, the move has been incredibly illuminating. It's been said on numerous occasions on this site, but the first computer I could call my own was an ancient off-brand 8088 back in 1994. It was on that machine that I learned how to program in Turbo Pascal and Watcom though a pair of books that were instrumental to my understanding of software development. From 1994 through to 2012 the core ideas in those books were used over and over and over again across thousands of projects, evolving as the field developed new processes and techniques. Core to the understanding, though, was that software should be written for the lowest-grade of hardware whenever possible. We can't assume everyone has the latest and greatest computer on their desk, nor should we make people suffer for our own impatience at finding the most efficient means to solve a problem. While I still very much stick to this core idea as much as possible, the platform switch in 2012 brought about a slightly different area of focus when designing digital solutions, and it's one I'm still actively learning about today.

For the first eighteen years, my primary goal was to create great software that would solve the problem at hand as efficiently as possible. The interface that people would see was often an afterthought, though I always tried to make the various elements line up and look good. After using iOS for a bit and seeing just how important interface design can be, I started to take it much more seriously.

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works.
— Steve Jobs

While watching parts of Apple's big hardware release a few weeks back, they played an audio snippet with the above quote from the late Steve Jobs. A lot of people have heard this quote, but I wonder how many people think about it.

At the day job I've been working on a project for almost two years1 where I've tried very hard to think more about how the software is supposed to work rather than how "tight" the code is or slick the interface might be. When designing new functions and features, I try to collect as much information as I can from the people who will wind up using that part of the system because, at the end of the day, they are my customer. The software is used by people across the organization with very different sets of goals so, sometimes, the best solution is to write two or more interfaces that draw from the same source of data, but display the information differently. Sure, everything would work if I were to just make a single, unified view that people could then selectively ignore. But I want the software to actually work … so I ask questions. Lots of them.

Despite working with software for almost a quarter century, I still feel there is a lot left to learn. Every platform has taught me something valuable that is just as relevant today as it was days, weeks, months, or years ago when I would heavily lean on them. DOS taught me the importance of efficiency. Windows taught me the importance of object oriented coding. PalmOS taught me the importance of resource management. Linux taught me the importance of community building. iOS/OS X taught me the importance of designing tools rather than solutions. The web taught me the importance of picking a standard2 and sticking to it. The next area I expect to work in will involve a great deal of voice interaction, and I look forward to the evolution in thinking that move will bring.

  1. it's really hard to believe this much time has passed already

  2. there's an XKCD joke in here …

What's the Alternative?

John Gordon recently wrote a short blog post explaining that he can no longer recommend people make the switch from Windows to macOS when shopping around for a new computer. The reasons he cites are quite valid, from Apple's recent abandoning sprees on software, hardware, and business sense, to the high cost of entry for machines that have arguably mid-range specs. While I can agree that the average person may not be willing to invest a grand or two in hardware before investing even more money in applications that may or may not work as the operating system evolves year over year, it's important to ask one question: what's the alternative?

After months of investigation, I settled on picking up a 2015-era MacBook Pro and replacing OS X — as it was known at the time — with Ubuntu. I've been happy with this decision for the most part and have even gone so far as to contribute updates to drivers that allow people to get better performance out of their Bluetooth radio. I chose the MacBook Pro not because I wanted a quick way to jump back to the safe confines of Apple's ecosystem, but because the alternatives were just not worth the money.

When it comes to buying a computer, a person really needs to consider how they'll be using the machine. Will it be something you're looking at for more than an hour or two a day? Then it simply cannot have a low-resolution screen. Will it be something you'll type on a lot? Then the keyboard needs to match your hands just right. Will it be something you'll carry from place to place? Then it had better have a really good battery, or be light enough that carrying the ridiculously bulky charging adapter is slightly more bearable. Then there's the problem of the hideously awful touchpads that seem to exist on every notebook not designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China. I spent months looking for a good-quality notebook that met these 4 criteria and a few other details and always came away disappointed.

You can have a good keyboard or a good screen, not both. You can have decent expandability or good battery life, not both. You can have a fast processor or a thin formfactor, not both. Buying just about any product will require a person to prioritise certain features, but one expects the decision to be less painful the higher up you go in the product line.

The HP Spectre 13 x360 came very close to what I was looking for in terms of hardware, but was limited by 8GB of RAM and a keyboard that just didn't feel very good. Lenovo's T450s was also close, as it allowed for hardware swapping along with a mostly-acceptable battery life and decently-comfortable keyboard, but was limited by the screen's awful pixellation and colour fade.

As a person who looks at a glowing screen for 10+ hours a day and interacts with the keyboard almost exclusively1, any machine that cannot offer both solid typing and crisp text2 simply cannot become a tool I rely on.

So what are the options?

Dell does have some decent machines, yes. The screen's aren't all that great, and the keyboards feel cheap, but they'll do. The same can be said for HP, Lenovo, Mouse, and System76. Nothing from any Japanese manufacturer is even worth mentioning anymore, as it's all lowest-quality-highest-price plastic crap. Even Sony, once the pinnacle of amazing-screens everywhere, is barely worth a cursory glance at an electronics shop. Try as I might, there just hasn't been a compelling notebook from any manufacturer in the last five years — if not longer — that comes anywhere near what a MacBook Pro can offer in terms of screen quality, keyboard usability, battery longevity, and overall build quality. Yes, a person needs to resign themselves to the fact that the unit is ultimately a non-upgradeable appliance, but it's still the best-made appliance out there. And, if you're willing to go with a store model to save a few hundred dollars, you'll wind up paying the same as you would for a top-of-the-line HP or Dell that comes with an infuriating touchpad that you leave disabled 90% of the time.

When people ask me for advice on what computer they should buy next, I still ask the basic questions. What's the main purpose? How long will it be used for every day3? Who will be the main person using it? And then I make a recommendation. Sometimes it's for a tablet. Sometimes it's for a notebook. And in those instances where somebody is looking for a decent quality notebook, I'll recommend either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro … which then has its operating system replaced with whatever the buyer is most comfortable with soon after getting it home.

Ideal? Maybe not. But it's better than the alternatives.

  1. I have not used a mouse in over five years, and I have no plans on ever going back to those horrible things.

  2. Crisp Japanese text. Roman characters are tolerable with awful pixellation some of the time, but it's brutal when trying to read complex kanji consisting of 12 or more strokes.

  3. then multiply this number by at least two

Indistinguishable from Magic

Earlier today Matt Gemmell wrote an impassioned article on his website where he decried the current state of Apple's software and how it makes very expensive electronics horribly frustrating to use, and even harder to justify buying. The post has been taken down1 but, in the short time that it was available, people from across the planet wanted to weigh in with their opinions about how "Apple is doomed", offer technical support, or otherwise openly mock this person who has clearly invested a great deal of time, money, and effort into this wholly artificial realm we refer to as the Apple Ecosystem. Like Mr. Gemmell, I have also invested a great deal into Apple's hardware and software over the years. I came in just as it seemed that everything Apple touched turned to gold, and I left when my rose-coloured glasses eroded, revealing that Apple's world was just as incomplete and prone to error as any other platform a person might choose.

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology …

One of the many things I like about modern hardware is just how sleek everything has become. Smooth lines with seamless transitions between metal and glass abound. Processors thousands of times faster than anything we might have used while growing up can now be found in a wristwatch. Batteries can go on and on. And the screen resolutions available today are really nothing short of breathtaking. Our modern consumer electronics today are light years ahead of what we could have imagined 15 years ago. Looking at the sorts of complaints people have with our current range of devices, I wonder if this isn't the actual problem that we're facing: we've benefitted so much from so little in such a short amount of time that we don't realize just how much "more" we're expecting from electronics manufacturers, and these vendors are simply unable to keep up with our laundry list of expectations.

It's Time We Slow Down

When I first entered the world of Apple software, I was pretty fortunate. The iPod Touch, though a marvel of engineering, was a relatively simple device running simple software and performing simple tasks. The first version of OS X I used was 10.6 Snow Leopard, arguably one of the most refined versions of the operating system given that there were zero new features and a slew of fixes that resulted in standing ovations at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference all those years ago. Coming from Windows, the Apple world just felt so much more cohesive because updates rolled out at a slower pace than those from Microsoft. With more time between releases, new updates and features could be more thoroughly tested and refined, meaning that the majority of the bugs reported from people would — ideally — be more of an edge case than the rule. This is clearly not the case anymore, and not a week goes by where a semi-popular web personality doesn't lament Apple's declining software quality or lack of cloud infrastructure skill.

One might suggest that people who aren't happy with Apple should move to another ecosystem that is more in line with their values, but this isn't always realistic. One cannot simply swap out Google for Apple or Oracle for Microsoft. These sorts of migrations often take a great deal of time, planning, and money. More than this, people shouldn't be expected to always vote with their wallets. Moving from one platform to another 10 is not a feat that can be completed in a weekend nor is it an effective way to send a message. At the end of the day, the best way to send a message is to openly communicate, and I say it's time people stop demanding so much pseudo-innovation from their electronics and instead ask companies to slow down and release their hardware and software products when they're ready and not a minute before.

Traditional computers such as desktops and notebooks do not need to be replaced every year, so companies should focus on building machines to last 5+ years. Cell phones do not need to be replaced every year, either, so why push out an update that appears to be little more than an incremental update over last year's model but with a substantial price tag? Tablets and watches are in the same boat. Heck, just about every electronic device we use on a regular basis could likely switch to release a new model every three years with minor revisions to accommodate problems during the intervening months. Many people will undoubtedly disagree, but today's hardware is good enough for the vast majority of what we want to do. Why must we continually push the envelope?

With a slower hardware release cycle, software developers will have more time to focus on the less-tangible aspects of our systems and strive to make improvements. Some new things could certainly be introduced during this time, but this in-between time would really be the time for the devices to be polished and refined while people also become more accustomed to using the tools they already have.

The amount of change that we've all seen in the last fifteen years has been nothing short of amazing, and this change has resulted in some phenomenal effects on societies around the world. By slowing down we won't diminish anything that's happened thus far and we stand to gain greater benefits if the functional lifespan of our difficult-to-recycle electronics is extended thanks to a slower release schedule. Will this hurt the bottom line for a number of people who are already wealthy? No doubt. But we cannot expect our tools to continue their evolution at such a breakneck speed. We're seeing the faults and cracks in our systems already, but it's not too late to do something about it.

A three year hardware release cycle with a longer software cycle would go a long way to changing our perceptions of modern electronics from being the occasionally frustrating objects they are to devices indistinguishable from magic.

  1. Though intrepid investigators may have some luck in finding a cached version of his article, titled A Declining Trajectory.

Review: OS X Mavericks

Apple released the latest version of their desktop operating system for free less than 48 hours ago, and I hopped on the update as soon as I possibly could. This meant that I left my computer on and unattended in the office while I sat in a classroom helping a student proofread their doctoral thesis. Fun times. After a day of using this latest version, all I can say is this: it's nice.

Mountain Lion, the previous iteration of the software, was the first Mac operating system I ran on a Mac. I've had experience running 10.6 Snow Leopard on a Lenovo notebook, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get a real Mac1. With Mountain Lion, I was able to fully immerse myself in the Apple way of doing things which, truth be told, took less than a week to acclimate to. Some of the things I liked about the last system carried forward in the new system, and some of the things I had come to take for granted, like the relative speed, only got better.

When I say that Mavericks is faster, it's no exaggeration. The system is much, much snappier than before. A great deal of this has to do with the reduced animations and smarter use of system resources. One example of this can be seen when pulling up the springboard. What used to take 1 entire second is now down to a fraction of that time. My 3 year-old computer feels new again.

The only issue that I've noticed so far isn't so much a topic for Mavericks as it is an item that VirtualBox needs to resolve; which is dual-monitor support. With the new methods for dual-monitors, the second screen in a VM has a thin line where the OS X menu bar would sit. It's there constantly, and only on the secondary screens. This is an issue when I try to run presentations in PowerPoint.

Aside from this, though, it's a rock solid update that I will enjoy using.

  1. Even though I ran a hacked version of OS X on a Lenovo PC in a Virtual Machine, it was a much nicer, smoother, less frustrating experience than I had with Windows up until that point
Image from Felix

One Year With a Mac

One year ago today I purchased my very first Mac, a 2011-era MacBook Air with a 13" screen and 128GB of storage. The machine was not new, and had been handled by literally thousands of people before I ever got to it. It was a display model unit, and I bought the device for a song1. Over the last twelve months I've managed to get a lot more meaningful development work done than I have ever done in a one year period. This is despite the fact my full time job has nothing to do with writing code. Aside from a few hiccups here and there, the switch from Windows to OS X was relatively painless. To be completely honest, I'm absolutely surprised.

Ten years ago if you would have told me that I'd be using a Mac today I would have scoffed. I liked the design of Apple's towers, but disliked their other products. OS X was, for the most part, laughed at by the geeks in my circles as it was slower than most Intel-based computers and didn't have nearly as much software. The argument from the Apple camp was that if you wanted great software for the Mac, then you could simply create it. While this was certainly true, it was not something that most people (I knew) were really interested in doing. Learning a whole new operating system to recreate the tools that already existed on a platform you were already familiar with and could customise to no end didn't sound like a great way to use time, energy, or money. Macs were more expensive back in 2003. The people I associated with were, for the most part, young adults with no money.

Not a winning combination.

But here we are, at the tail end of 2013 and I have all but eliminated Windows from my computing cycle. This is despite having used every version of the software from 2.1 all the way up to Windows 7, and having learned how to eke every bit of performance from the system. At the end of the day, I had grown tired of configuring and maintaining my machines, performing routine settings flushes, and generally getting upset with the inevitable slowdowns that would happen on the system after an average of 22 weeks of operation2. All I asked from the software is that it get out of the way and let me focus on my work.

Windows couldn't do this very well. Truth be told, most of the computers I had ever owned that ran Windows were probably never really good at doing what they needed to do. It wasn't so much a fault of Microsoft's software, but a fault of the hardware vendor that built the machine.

All of this changed with the MacBook Air, though.

Despite being used for a year at a rather large electronics store in the heart of Nagoya Station, the machine was in incredibly good condition. The screen was bright and beautiful. The keyboard felt right. The touch pad didn't register false touches while I was typing, which meant the cursor wouldn't jump around while I was putting together ridiculously long blog posts about something that could be summed up with just a single sentence and a picture or two. All in all, it felt just right. Choosing the Air was a bit of a struggle, though, as I considered options for the better part of six months. Would the screen resolution and lower weight of the MacBook Air be sufficient for what I want, or would it be better to get the MacBook Pro and live with a lower screen resolution but the ability to expand the RAM and hard disk?

As a year of happy Tweets, ADN posts, and blog articles have attested, I've been very happy with the MacBook Air and consistently surprised by how much it can do. The battery, despite being two years old, continues to deliver a solid 7 hours or more of untethered functionality. The screen doesn't have a single flaw. The two gripes I do have are little annoyances that are nothing compared to the problems that I had with the last Windows notebook I used3. What are these issues?

Chrome will occasionally lock the computer up for 5 seconds while something sucks up 100% of my processing power, and I get a spinning beach ball when I start closing a bunch of apps back to back when shutting down for the night4. Pretty tame complaints. There is no chance I'll go back to a Windows-powered machine for my personal computer anytime soon. Windows 9 would have to be absolutely amazing to entice me, as 8.x just doesn't offer anything I'm looking for.

Raves aside, the Mac is certainly not for everyone. For people who want to do a lot of stuff in Word or Excel, a Windows-powered machine will always be superior. People who want to have access to a wide range of "free" software and utilities will probably enjoy Windows more. People who bring their personal computers to work5 will undoubtedly need to use Windows in order to be compatible with their peers. Perhaps most importantly, people who want absolute control over what components go into their computer will find Apple's iron-fisted insistence that their sleek devices never be opened after the sale to be too much to take.

At the end of the day, the tools we choose to use are a personal choice. Mocking someone for using Platform A over Platform B is not only a waste of time, but an insult to people's ability to make their own decisions. One thing is clear, though: I will not be changing platforms again in the near future. For all of Apple's faults, there are a dozen hidden gems that make my computing experience that much more reliable, consistent, and trustworthy. And it's this last point that matters the most. If I cannot trust that my tools will be operational when I need to use them, then I cannot confidently agree to certain deadlines or expectations. With my MacBook Air, I've consistently delivered to my clients on or before the due date. It is, to be completely honest, the best all-purpose computer I've ever owned.

Buttering Up The Mac

So tired of these messages. Every 8 days, it seems, my relatively new MacBook Air slows down and has dead links to files that no longer exist. I can see the remnants of these files in Finder, and any attempt to wipe them from the system results in error after error. It's like Windows95 all over again! If only we had something better than HFS+ … something along the lines of ZFS or BTRFS1 would offer some amazing improvements over what we currently have.

Hopefully Apple will resolve these constant problems with a future release of OS X. I would gladly wipe the storage clean and start over from scratch just to get a better file system … one that is preferably optimised for use with solid state disks2. It's embarrassing for an operating system as advanced as OS X to be using a file system as ancient as HFS+.

Playing With Voice Dictation

Years ago I was playing with the idea of using voice dictation software to control my computer at the time, but it never really took off. Now, however, computer technology has advanced to the point where the system can easily understand what we're saying and putting together a simple and consistent fashion. There are still a few issues that need to be worked out, for example the use of punctuation as well as the use of flow when we're speaking. For the most part, however, I believe he we will begin to move away from using keyboards to use your voice instead.

Earlier today I was listening to the latest episode of Mac Power Users, a podcast that discusses how we can get the most out of our digital tools in order to be more productive and escape the madness that comes from information overload. On this episode Clayton Morris from FOXNews discusses how he uses Apple technologies at work. He walked through a number of his processes, what applications he uses, why he uses them, and some of the problems he has tried to overcome in order to be effective at his job without ignoring the people around him; something a lot of us fail to do1. A lot of what he said didn't interest me until about the 20 minute mark when he mentioned using voice dictation on his Mac by double-tapping the Fn key.

Hidden Functionality

Truth be told, I had completely forgotten about the voice dictation feature in OS X until today. Speaking to my computer had always seemed like a gimmick. Aside from a few questions to Siri, I've barely scratched the surface of using my voice to interact with a machine. That said, having used the function to construct this post, I can tell you this: it's very, very difficult.

Switching between applications kills the function. I can't dictate to one application while working in another. The microphone isn't picking up a lot of my words, either … I've had to switch to the headset that I use for Skype calls to ensure 95% accuracy when constructing sentences. What's worse is that I can't use natural language to communicate my instructions. I would love to say "Scratch that last sentence" before starting over and having the computer instantly understand that the current sentence should be wiped and, after the command is issued, a new sentence is appended to anything that might already exist. Pauses in speech are not recorded as commas, periods, or ellipsis … which makes my particular writing style much more difficult to duplicate.

Although I have no plans of posting voice clips to this site, I do like the idea of using my natural voice to construct posts on various topics. This would allow me to focus more on ideas rather than the words that are flying across the screen. There would undoubtedly be some thinking pattern changes required, but it's nothing that couldn't be practiced in a few weeks. My only worry, though, involves the use of the Internet. Anything I have dictated into an application requires an Apple server somewhere on the planet to transcribe it. This means that creating blog posts while out and about will be more difficult unless connected to the web, which is not always feasible. I really do like the concept, but it will take some time before I can work voice into my workflow … something that has, for the better part of 20 years, been done in almost complete silence.

Where's All My Storage Gone?

Since moving from Windows to the Mac something bad has happened. The writing has been written on the wall for months, but I was just too lazy to do anything about it. Unfortunately, it's now too late to do anything about it. I must sleep in the bed that I've made. What's the problem? I'm not micro-managing storage usage, anymore.

Back in the good ol' days of using Windows1 I would regularly keep an eye on the amount of storage being used by the Operating System, my personal files, media, applications, caches, and everything else. This was all part and part of having a healthy and responsive computer for years at a time rather than a machine that feels as sluggish as a brick after six months. I learned very quickly how to optimise the system and keep everything running at peak efficiency for as long as humanly possible, and all it required was a massive mental catalogue of where all of my data was sitting. All 31.5TB of it.

With OS X, though, I've left the little things to the Mac for the most part. Having picked up a MacBook Air with just a puny 128GB storage device means that I need to keep an eye on how much storage is being used from time to time, but it's nowhere near as bad as Windows 7 where three or four gigabytes of storage space could disappear in a week with updates you never asked for2. So when I ran DaisyDisk on my system today I was in for a little surprise when I couldn't account for nearly 8GB of storage …

What is this /private/var/vm folder, and why does it have such large files inside? VirtualBox is in a completely different folder and doesn't use this directory at all!

Turns out this VM folder is actually where OS X writes the contents of the system's RAM when it goes to sleep. As a heavy user of the sleep function, I can appreciate the usefulness of this folder … but wish it didn't use up so much space. One way to get around having this much storage use up is to not use the sleep function at all. Swap images would continue to be written here, but the 4.2GB sleep image would not exist at that size.

That's not going to happen, though. I love the convenience of being able to just close the lid of the machine and walk to another room. It's this ease of portability that makes this MacBook Air the best machine I've ever owned, and the best machine I've ever used3.

Being the idiot I am, I'm starting to wonder if it's possible to change the location of these files without seriously affecting system performance. By putting these files on a semi-permanently-installed memory card that's left in the SD card slot, one might free up some of that precious storage space that we all crave so much.

No … I must resist the urge to micromanage OS X like I did Windows. There's just way too much work to accomplish.

Hater's Gotta Hate

One of the common potential consequences people face whenever they post an opinion online is exposing themselves to a great deal of vitriolic feedback. This happens to us all quite a bit, but I am sometimes absolutely dumbfounded by how much someone can shout, holler, and scream about something that has absolutely nothing to do with them. Earlier this last week I received a lovely comment from someone who believes I'm stupidly giving money to Apple and saying everything they do is great, and yesterday I received a very, very, very long email telling me just how stupid I am for switching from Windows to OS X. Although these emails typically receive a one-way trip to the trash bin, I thought it would be interesting to answer this one here, as a fake reply address was provided through the contact form1.

So here's the gist of the message:

Two years ago you loved Windows and hated Mac. Now you love Mac and hate Windows. What the hell is wrong with you? How could you give in to the marking machine? You paid the Apple tax, and now Steve Jobs has even more money to lord over the people of China. If you loved HP so much, why didn't you buy another one? You used a netbook for years, so why not just upgrade to a newer model. I would have cost you a lot less, and you'd be able to do whatever you want with the hardware.

Ah, hate mail. So much to say, so little time.

The hater does make a point, though. Two years ago I did enjoy using Windows and despised anything with a fruity logo on it2. That changed after using an iPod Touch for a while, though. Things just worked, and I didn't need to reboot the device twice a day in order to be productive on it. That, and the keyboard actually worked better than any other on-screen keyboard I had seen or used up until that point. A few months later I gave OS X Snow Leopard a go in a Virtual Machine. I didn't like it at first but, after a few hours, I did see the allure of the system. Over the course of the next two years the idea that a Mac computer would be a better investment than a Windows-based machine solidified as I saw such a horrible amount of churn coming out of companies like Dell, Asus, Acer, Toshiba, Samsung, and even my beloved HP that it became impossible to like anything these other companies were putting out. It was all the same cheap, ugly, plastic, WXGA crap that I had rejected in 2003 when I bought a really nice Hewlett Packard machine3

I'm assuming the hater who sent the message has either read some of my older posts or has been a semi-consistent reader over the last few years, so they've more than likely seen the string of posts that were made where I was actually talking about my desire to get a new machine. Getting a Mac was not an overnight decision. A year of research passed before the decision was made to abandon Windows-based computers. Both this blog and my Twitter history4 proves the point. But I would really like to take a closer examination of one particular point made by the hater: the Apple Tax statement.

Transitional Costs

It's true that we can buy a Windows-based PC for as little as 40,000円 here in Japan. As of this writing, an investment of 40,000円 will get you a notebook with a 15.6" screen at 1366x768, a 500GB hard disk, an Intel Core i3 processor, a BluRay Reader/DVD Burner combination drive, Windows 7, and a host of pre-installed crapware that would never survive more than 30 seconds in my house. For many people this would be good enough. A computer is a computer is a computer, after all. I would be able to copy my existing data over in the very same format, install the same applications I've been using for years, and get everything up and running in less than an hour. I should know … I've done this many, many times after reformatting a computer for whatever reason. Tack on another 8,000円, and I'll have an extended warranty that'll give me upwards of 5 years of protection with the very real possibility of receiving a new "equivalent" PC in a few years should anything really bad happen to the device.

It's function with a chance of win! What's not to like? As for the software I'd install, there's Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate, Office 2010 Professional, phpDesigner, a bunch of O&O utilities5, and a handful of utilities that allow me to develop software for desktops or the web. Total cost of the software? 138,900円 as of this writing. It would be stupid to throw away this software investment!

Or would it?

My MacBook Air was bought used for 72,000円. From there I have spent a grand total of 11,450円 on development software and 8,350円 on other applications such as the Mountain Lion update, Koku6, and a few other little programs that make me a little more productive. Grand total of the transition from Windows to Mac? 91,800円. This is by no means a small amount of money for me, and it took years to save it. Would I have really been that much better off buying a Windows-based machine? In order to answer that, we need to look at the next item on the agenda: portability.

Size Matters

One of the biggest considerations I was making when researching which computer I should invest the money into was portability. As a person who earns a living doing what I do7, I need to carry around a lot of paper. Really … a lot of paper. Textbooks. Student worksheets. Handouts. You name it. When I go to client offices around this part of Japan, the amount of paperwork I lug around can weigh as much as 4kg. That might not sound like a lot but, when you're carrying it for upwards of five hours, it takes its toll on your back. I've had two hernias in the last five years and there is a constant reminder from the bottom two discs in my spine that I shouldn't be carrying too much. I've lost as much weight as I possibly can8, so the next bit of weight to be lost has to be from the stuff I carry. The Acer netbook that was forever by my side weighed 1.3kg, and that was a bit much some days. I needed something that was about the same, or lighter. Also, because I spend a great deal of time on the train, there needed to be some excellent battery life with the device. The netbook was good for 20 minutes on a good day, and less than 5 if there was anything plugged in to a USB port. It's not hard to see why Noteworthy took so darn long to come to market.

So I did some research. A lot of research. Which Windows-based notebooks would offer the portability that I wanted with a 12.1~13.3" screen that had a resolution higher than WXGA9, a Core i5 processor, and at least 5 hours of battery life. The keyboard is also quite important, but the number one issue for me was screen. I look at text all day long. I write software at every opportunity, and IDEs take up a lot of screen real estate. If I am constantly displaying and hiding side panels, then the screen is just too small. I don't want to have floating things slide into view with a mouse hover. I don't want to have my work environment crammed into a tiny space, either. So screen resolution is the only way to get around this problem.

Another important factor for the screen is colour calibration. For a long time my website had a bunch of mis-matched colour elements because I could not see the difference on my screens. A great example of this would be the profile image on my site, which I've included here. Can you see the difference between the left and right screen shots?

On my Acer, there was no difference at all. Even though I am colour blind, having accurate colour matching is important.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that I would have to get one of the better Windows-powered notebooks manufactured by Sony, Toshiba, or HP. None of the others come even close to offering a rich colour gamut on their machines.

Alright, now we're FINALLY getting somewhere. I've just listed three manufacturers. So let's take a look at the other elements.

An example of a thin, light, and long-lasting Sony notebook with a great screen that photo professionals online swear by would be the Z-Series VPCZ139FJ/S. Last September this model sold for 225,000円. That's quite a bit over my budget. How about a 2011 model? I can't seem to find them anywhere … nobody is selling last year's models, and eBay or Yahoo! Auctions is a little too shady for my tastes10.

How about a thin, light, long-lasting Toshiba notebook? The R-731 has everything I could ever ask for … except the screen resolutions. This is supposed to be the best machine out there, but it ships with a non-upgradable 1366x768 resolution. Have you seen or used Visual Studio on a system with a 1366x768 resolution? No? Then you would never understand why I can't use them without wanting to pull my hair out after 15 minutes. Regardless, what's the sticker price? 149,800円 to start? That's a bit over budget as well. I really want to keep the cost of a machine under 100,000円. How about last year's models? There were a few on, a popular discount website here in Japan, but the starting price was 98,000円 for a basic machine. That's a bit pricey for a unit that ships with a screen I'd be pissed off about before even starting the thing up for the first time.

No … let's look at something from HP. Although I've been sadly disappointed by their advertising campaigns featuring the idiot idol group, AKB48, they have made some of my favourite computers to date. So, something thin, light, with great battery, and a wonderful screen, in a  13.3" form factor? The Envy lines have always caught my attention, but they start at 14.5", and the screens since 2010 have all been limited to 1366x768. These units, however, do ship for as little as 82,000円. Now we're getting somewhere! But WXGA resolutions on a 14.5" screen? That would piss me off even more than it would on a nice, slim Toshiba. I don't want to see pixels. Go ahead and laugh, but I want to see the difference between ば and ぱ without squinting at the screen or zooming in. English speakers may get slightly annoyed when they can't tell if a capital 'I' is an 'i' or an 'l', but it gets 100x worse when you're looking at Japanese words like 看護婦さん or 履歴書 and all you see are black splotches and unintelligible lines.

I can already hear so many haters telling me "don't read Japanese on it, stupid."

Alas the Envy lines were out of the question. How about one of the better business-class notebooks?


There wasn't a single business or professional-class notebook that offers what I was looking for with a sticker price less than 280,000円. The workstation-class machines do offer the resolutions I am looking for, but not in anything smaller than 15.4" and in a heavy, albeit attractive, magnesium-alloy-wrapped shell.

Of course then there's the problem of writing software for iOS, a mobile platform that has millions of people who will gladly drop 85円 on a disposable application, on a Windows machine. Virtual machines only go so far, and there is way too much hassle involved with OS updates.

So let's review. In order for me to have a computer with a decent battery, a decent screen resolution, and a decent weight, either I can spend over 225,000円 for a Sony Z-13, or I can get a decent battery and weight in a Toshiba R-731 for 149,800円 at the expense of the screen resolution, or I can get none of the above for 0円 because computer hardware manufacturers have been pushed to breaking point by the millions of consumers who scoff at spending more than 80,000円 for a quality computer because a computer is a computer is a computer, and that pink one over there is just 39,000円 brand new.

I'm quite happy with the fact that I could spend as little as 91,800円 for a previous-generation model computer and all the software required to turn it into my primary development machine. I'm so happy, in fact, that I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity to turn back time and do it all again. So there we go. If spending less for something clearly good enough makes me an idiot fanboy, then so be it. One thing is clear, though; this decision was 100% mine and the people who don't agree with it should really find some other travesty of justice to rally against.

The Perfect Evernote Client for Mac?

To get around some formatting issues in the Mac version of Evernote, I took the drastic measure of installing the Windows application in a Windows 7 virtual machine1 and downloading my several gigabytes of content currently stored in the cloud. By doing this, I can now write a rough draft in the native Mac client before switching over to the Windows client to clean up the formatting, make any revisions, and mark it for publication on this site. Crazy. There must be a better solution … another client.

But there isn't. There are currently five applications in the Mac AppStore that come back when searching for Evernote, one of which being the main client distributed by Evernote Corporation themselves. While this application is sufficient for a number of basic purposes, there are a number of areas where the offerings on iOS and Windows exceed what is possible on OS X. This makes no sense to me. I want to be able to indent a block of text. I want to be able to imbed images without having the item turn into a senseless gibberish that Noteworthy doesn't (yet) know how to decode2. I want to be able to cut and paste HTML without having a bunch of strange things happen to tables and CSS.

It shouldn't be so hard to be productive on a Mac … this is not what the cheerful, brightly-lit commercials from Apple have us expect from software on their platform. Does this mean I need to take matters into my own hands?

Over the last few days I've been dabbling with some ideas in Xcode and think I might be on to something in terms of simple UI design and functionality. There is still a lot that needs to be done3, but the project shows some promise. I wonder if releasing a competing editor to the default Evernote clients would ruffle some feathers at Evernote Corporation …