Mac Pro – First Impressions

Mac iconI’m really impressed. Five Star ratingfive stars. Let me state up front that this Mac exceeds my wildest expectations. It’s everything I wanted, runs incredibly faster than any PC I’ve ever owned or built, and the software is everything you expect from Apple, if not more.

Having jumped ship from a Mac Clone to PC’s in 1997, I have a lot of investment in home-built PC’s, a huge software environment, and considerable PC “learning curve” acquired in the last 12 years.

But I’ve always wanted to install a test server right on my own box. I’ve been uploading drafts to test regions on my server for years and testing them there. Of course I do a lot of WordPress nowadays, a great, no-brainer web-based solution for blogs and entire websites. But, of course also , I still customize with Perl and HTML, I’m starting to use PhP, and I’m thinking about jumping into Ruby/RAILS.

The sticker here is that, to do this, if you’re going to use a PC to develop for a unix box, you either need to dual-boot your PC and install Linux, or install some Apache for Windows kludge. I’ve tried similar paths before. Although I know my way around unix (not just the shell) and have hundreds of hands-on hours on an employer’s server, I’m unwilling to invest in the learning and maintenance curves for these kinds of hybrid solutions.

Apple runs on a unix core. :-)

I brought home a Mac Pro 2.66GHz Quad-Core on Tuesday. On Thursday I made a brief announcement on the Summitlake home page, “Thumbnails and Macs“.

Included in the box is the machine, Apple keyboard and mouse, a USB keyboard extension cable, a manual the size of a CD case, and software installation and backup CD’s. The manual is also published on a PDF on the drive. I’m sure David Pogue or the TidBITS staff have written a “Take Control of Your Mac” book.

But: if you’re comfortable with any modern desktop computer, you don’t need a bigger manual to run and enjoy a Mac. Old-time friends from my Apple User Group days will remember how I preached the virtues of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. Macs are intuitively easy to use for newbies. They’re a relief and pure delight to people transitioning from Windows. Speed? It’s like switching from dialup to broadband. You get used to it really fast.

2.66GZ Intel Quad CPU, 3GB memory and 620GB SATA HD installed.

Apple Mac Pro, 2.66GZ Intel Quad CPU, 3GB memory and 640GB SATA HD installed.

  • One 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon
  • 3GB (3x1GB)
  • 640GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA 3Gb/s
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB
  • One 18x SuperDrive
  • Apple Mouse
  • Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (English) and User’s Guide
  • Technical Specifications at Apple Site

Pricing: You can shop around for your Apple, but retail is pretty much set to Apple Store prices. I did find a lower web price at Frys.com, but their web site indicated the item was only available at the physical stores, which do not necessarily honor web pricing. I ordered mine at Computer Center, a very friendly and helpful local authorized Apple dealer less than two miles from my house. I drove down and picked it up in two business days at the Apple price.

Software included: Mac OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard (includes iTunes, Time Machine, Quick Look, Spaces, Spotlight, Dashboard, Mail, iChat, Safari, Address Book, QuickTime, iCal, DVD Player, Photo Booth, Front Row, Xcode Developer Tools)

Software Added (so far): Fetch, Komodo Edit, TextMate, Sun OpenOffice, 1Password.

Fetch is the venerable old FTP for Mac. The two edit programs are for development across a spectrum of development languages. TextMate is really cool (and not available for PC). Sun has long provided a free version of its Office suite, and seems much more than “adequate” for the usual home office tasks, especially since it works well with MS Word and Excel  formats. While the Mac keychain is probably adequate for secure password management, 1Password is much more robust, and actually a pleasure to use. It provides encrypted support not only for login passwords, but “wallet” financial credentials and identity profiles.

Since this is mainly a development machine, I have no plans to install MS Office for Mac. I’ve already installed Sun Office (free) for those times when I want to create or open a Word doc, spreadsheet or such. For the indefinite future, I’ll continue to handle mail, household finances and accounting, and most other comon tasks on the PC as I transition develeopment onto the Mac.

Networking: For PC users, this issue has to make one hold one’s breath. As far as the Mac is concerned, a properly configured PC is just another machine on the network. No more Mac-PC conversion routines! And my desktop PC can see and transfer files to the Mac. I used my beloved PC file synch program Super Flexible FileSynchonizer (I see there’s now a Mac version too!) to transfer all my development files, HTML and Perl projects, pictures and more. I do have an issue on the PC side – no other machine in the house, Mac or PC, can see inside my main desktop PC. My Mac works over the ethernet LAN with my living room music server PC just fine. To move files from Mac to my main desktop PC, Apple’s “Drop Box” works great on both sides. I just never have been able to figure out the issue in the main desktop PC side since its July XP reinstallation.

Mail, Web: The native Apple Mail works great. I have it set up for a Gmail and dedicated “Mac” summitlake mail account. I have years of Outlook .pst mail archives on the PC and have no plans to port all that. The Safari browser works unbelievably fast – I thought I had a ComCast problem when it was an IE8 problem :-(. I may eventually install Firefox on the Mac (for test purposes) but am suitably delighted with the Mac Safari. Interestingly, the Safari for Windows display is so lackluster it revives memory of those old rumors about software sabotage. Safari for Mac gives the best displays and most vivid text I’ve seen anywhere.

Audio: The Mac has hi-def Line In and Line Out audio connectors (standard miniplug), and optical audio in and out.  I have no optical audio-in on my mini stereo that drives the computer room music, but the old-fashioned RCA inputs work just fine. You know it wouldn’t be long before I fired up iTunes on the Mac. iTunes allows sharing of music files over a network, so on my Mac I can play my entire 250GB collection, stored on the PC’s. I tried switched A-B tests (Mac-PC) on the same favorite tunes, playing at the same time on both machines. The sound remains absolutely awesome – I can’t tell any difference in the A-B tests.

Upgrade Plans: I ordered a 6GB Kingston memory upgrade from NewEgg (Apple charges an enormous premium so, don’t go that route). Corsair prices were also good. This is the PC3-8500 SIMM. Also, a 1TB Hitachi SATA hard drive #2 (for backups and maybe my 250GB iTunes collection). Adobe Photoshop Elements is cheap; it does about everything the full version does that I need, so I ordered that too.

Wish List: a dual DVI graphics card or one really big dedicated monitor. I currently run the Mac through a KVM switch on a shared monitor.

Other: The Apple Keyboard is actually pretty good. I’m picky. I have no room for multiple keyboards and use one old Keytronics and MS optical mouse through the KVM switch for both desktops.

Conclusions: this is one big, fast 64-bit machine and should remain state of the art for some time. The downside is of course that I can’t just drop in a new third party motherboard and CPU any time I feel like it – at least, Apple doesn’t sanction the hack needed to make that solution work :-).

Windows 7 is coming out as a native 64-bit OS, but the Windows software community is way behind the curve in upgrading apps to support it.  I predict it will be many years before I start thinking about a Mac Pro hardware upgrade. I expect to continue using my PC’s for years to come, but their role in this household will be somewhat downgraded.

Installing Mac apps is a snap: just drag the app to the apps folder. They even have a one-step, no-navigation window for this purpose. Everything about the interface is intuitive and consistent across the OS and all apps. Drag-and-drop works everywhere, not just when the programmers feel like it. From plugin time to first use is about one minute. It’s even better and easier than ever.

The Mac Pro is one very exciting machine. At last, a machine and OS that vastly exceed expectations. It was a big decision. I’m delighted to be on board again.

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