It’s (Not) So Easy to Switch

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If you’ve read previous entries then you know that I prefer Mac OS X over Windows (any version).

Apple runs some very clever commercials. I’ve enjoyed most of them, though I thought the recent “Genius” commercial was a bit pretentious. I can’t claim from personal experience as to how knowledgeable most Apple store staff are, but I’m well aware of how “un-knowledgeable” retail staff often are, in general.

My primary issue with the “Get A Mac” campaign is that it glosses over many aspects of the switch process. While Apple certainly has every right (and reason) to promote it’s products as much as possible I think it’s also going a bit far to claim (or at least give the impression) that a Mac is best for everyone.

Switching to a Mac is not an easy process for everyone, especially anyone planning to use one in a corporate environment.

Now, Apple does a good job of primarily focusing on the “average consumer” and most consumers probably would have few issues with switching over to a Mac for home/personal use (the only major issue would be with learning how to use a new operating system and applications but I believe would be easier for a person to learn OS X for the first time than it would be with a Windows system).

Those who may have a difficult time are, as stated earlier, those who work in a corporate environment that is usually dominated by Microsoft Windows and it’s related applications.

That’s not to say one cannot switch to a Mac in such an environment; it’s just not as easy.

For home use one usually is only concerned with being able to use existing media files (such as photographs, videos, and songs) and completing common tasks that include balancing financial accounts and communicating via the Internet (e-mail, Web). The majority of media files are supported on most platforms so that’s rarely much of an issue and for common tasks there are a variety of applications available. The only home use that tends to hold people back from switching is hard-core gaming, which often excludes the more technical users who would have less difficulty switching to a new operating system.

Once in a while one may need to use a Windows only program and in such cases virtualization using a program like Parallels or VMWare is now an acceptable choice with the introduction of Intel-based Macs (it was possible prior to the switch to Intel-based Macs but virtualization of x86-based operating systems required more processing power because of the differences between the PowerPC and Intel architectures). But the corporate user may very well experience much taller hurdles.

The availability of Microsoft Office for the Mac solves some of these problems. For example, I’d prefer to use Mail.app instead of Entourage but the calendar/meeting invites are not adequately cross-compatible so I’ve settled with using Entourage. Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint are also provided. Unfortunately, several Microsoft Office apps that are necessary for some are not available for the Mac, such as OneNote and Access. A corporate user may also need to use several Windows-only apps that are critical to one’s daily tasks. Enter Parallels to save the day… mostly. Parallels is a great advancement in providing end-users with a low-cost virtualization capability and especially within OS X.

However, even though the speed is good it doesn’t run at 100% the speed that a BootCamp Windows XP install runs at (one article I recently read indicated that a virtualized Windows XP session runs about 2/3 of the speed it would run using BootCamp – often my virtualized sessions seem to run at or near full speed). Parallels works well but if you’re planning to rely on it you’ll need plenty of RAM. Most information I’ve read so far recommends that you have at least 1 GB of RAM that you can dedicate to Parallels and several suggest at least 2 GBs, which is the RAM cap for current MacBooks. I’m working with a total of 1 GB so I can only dedicate about 512 MB to Parallels, which is a strain and probably the cause of frequent pauses inside and outside of the virtual machine while it’s running (especially when initializing a VM or switching between OS X and Windows).

While Entourage has been available in Office X and Office 2004 for the Mac as an Outlook replacement, anyone who has switched to it will realize that Microsoft hasn’t gone to any lengths to make it easy to jump from the Windows version of Outlook. Generally, if you plan to migrate your mail, calendar, and address book from Outlook for Windows you’ll end up installing another e-mail client on the Windows system, importing into that client, importing your info into the same client but in a Mac version, and then importing from that client into Entourage. It can be a lengthy process if you have a large PST file to deal with.

To save some effort I purchased O2M, which converted my e-mail folders directly to MBOX format (which saved me the trouble of importing into and out of other e-mail clients). One odd thing about importing into Entourage with the MBOX files is that it doesn’t support importing this format from the Entourage “Import” menu option. The solution is simple and that is to drag the MBOX files into Entourage where they’ll be converted. Yet, I don’t understand why I couldn’t have simply chosen “Import” and then selected all of the MBOX files at once to import. Instead, the import function of Entourage expects to import from an e-mail client that is already installed on the system.

There are many cross-platform issues one must consider before changing platforms. You’ll find that the Mac is capable of dealing with many Windows-based files out-of-the-box (more so than Windows). Moving to a Mac from a Windows-dominated environment is certainly viable, but it’s probably not going to be an easy move and a single incompatibility can be a deal-breaker for some. Perhaps the most important aspect of such a move to consider is how much technical computer experience you already have. While going through the switch process I didn’t have to pickup the phone to call a helpdesk and ask questions. I already had years of experience working with Windows and OS X and several cross-platform issues.

I do not suggest that those considering switching should not do so, but they should be aware that it may not be as simple as Apple marketing efforts may imply. Do some research first and figure out what you must have, what you can do without, and what you’ll gain by switching.

Updated 06/18/2006: Swapping out a 512 MB stick with a new 1 GB stick has made a significant difference in the performance of Parallels. With a total of 1.5 GB swapping between a Parallels VM and OS X is now much smoother and the system exhibits only a very negligible pause.

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