I often tell people that I use Macs because they make me more productive. But what does that really mean? How do they make me more productive, and why can’t I get the same benefit from Windows? This article is an attempt to shed some light on the subject.
1. Mac OS X: Isn’t She Beautiful?
Some Windows users think Mac users are too “unserious” because many of us care about aesthetics. I could try to dispel that rumor. Instead, I will embrace it and put it right where it belongs: up front. How the operating system and software looks might not seem like a big deal. But think about it – depending upon your practice and business model, you could be staring at your computer screen for 5 to 10 hours a day. If you’re looking at something for a quarter of your waking hours, doesn’t it make sense to want it to look good?
II. Mac OS X Has Many Productivity Enhancers
The Mac OS X interface has plenty of what I like to call “productivity enhancers.” I have listed only four in this article, but you will find many more if you spend the time to learn Mac OS X.
A. The Dock
The dock (the icon bar at the bottom of the screen) has gotten a lot of criticism, but I find it simply amazing. It combines the quick launch bar and task bar from Windows. It’s better than both, though. The icons in the dock are dynamic. So, for example, the Mail icon shows you how many unread messages you have. The iCal dock icon shows the current date.
The biggest plus for me is the ability to put dock icons in whatever order I want (by clicking and dragging – and once I put the icon somewhere, it stays there). The Windows task bar, on the other hand, lists applications in the order that you opened them. If I close an application or it crashes, the application will move to the end of the list. That’s frustrating. With the OS X dock, my applications stay put. That means less looking around if I am switching back and forth between applications many times.
For more about the dock, read this article by Apple.
Drag-and-drop has been in Windows for a long time. Almost everyone should be familiar with two of the oldest drag-and-drop functions: dragging a file from one window to another and dragging highlighted text from one part of a document to another. Windows supports drag-and-drop, but supports little more than those two basic features.
Many more things interact via drag-and-drop in Mac OS X than in Windows. The dock icons for many applications can be dropped on to varying effect. Dragging a file onto a dock icon will normally open the file using that application. Dock icons can perform special actions when dropped on, though. For example, dragging a file (or files) onto the dock icon for Mail will create a new Mail message with the file(s) included as attachments. Mac OS X also supports dragging from places you might not expect. For example, the icon in the title bar of most document windows can be dragged (related tip: you can also Command-click on the icon to see the entire path of the file’s location). You can also drag an email address in Mail to an Address Book entry to add the email address to the contact information.
These are only a few examples, but they should demonstrate how drag-and-drop makes work go faster in Mac OS X.
The next big Mac OS X productivity enhancer is Exposé. Exposé is a way of accessing your windows that is much faster than Alt-Tab (although Mac OS X supports that also). Exposé has three separate functions (and each of these can be activated by a key press or, if you have a mouse with extra buttons, a mouse press).
First, Exposé can slide all your windows off screen and to reveal the desktop (much like the Show Desktop quick launch bar button in Windows). Second, Exposé can shrink all of your open, non-minimized windows so that they all fit on the screen. While shrunk, you can move the mouse to a window and select it by clicking the mouse button (or, if you are still holding down the Exposé button, by releasing it the Exposé button). All windows will then return to their normal size. Third, Exposé can perform the same shrinking operation on all of the open windows for the current application.
Exposé greatly speeds up switching from one window to another. This is particularly true when the Exposé function is linked to a mouse button (like one of the two secondary buttons on my Mighty Mouse). Exposé shines even more when dragging something (for example, a file) from one application to another. Click-and-drag in Exposé works the following way:
- Click the left mouse button and begin to drag from window A
- Press and hold the Exposé button to reveal all open windows
- Hover the cursor over window B
- Release the Exposé button to select window B
- Release the left mouse button wherever you want to drop what you are dragging
Using Exposé to drag-and-drop makes moving files between folders a snap.
For more about Exposé, read this article by Apple.
D. Simplified Application Installation
I always worry when I install an application in Windows. Will the application install an older version of a DLL (a library file used by many programs) on top of the current version and break one or more of my programs? Will the program be totally gone when I uninstall it through the Add or Remove Programs tool?
I don’t usually have any of these worries in Mac OS X. Installing a program in Mac OS X is usually as simple as dragging the application to the Applications folder (not only does this leave me worry-free, but it also makes copying an application from one computer to another a breeze).
Uninstalling a program in Mac OS X is equally simple. Mac OS X programs store data in predictable places. The application’s preferences are stored in the user’s Library/Preferences folder (usually in a file ending with “plist”), not in a monolithic registry as in Windows. If the application starts acting weird, I simply delete the preferences file to reset the application back to its default settings. Data files are also usually stored in a predictable place, the user’s Library/Application Support folder.
Most applications can be uninstalled manually by deleting the Application, Preferences, and Application Support folder. There are also applications, like AppZapper, that can help track these down and make uninstalling an application a one step process (just like in Windows, but without the worry).
III. OS X almost never breaks …
Mac OS X is built on a solid Unix foundation. Consequently, it’s less prone to hacking, viruses, malware, and system-wide crashes than Windows. You should be able to comfortably use Mac OS X without a virus scanner and multiple malware detectors. OS X is not bullet-proof, however. Social engineering attacks are always possible, and you still have to remain vigilant.
IV. … but when it does, it’s not so bad
Backups are pretty easy in Mac OS X. Full system backups were always easy with Super Duper and programs like it. Time Machine, a new feature in Leopard, adds another level of protection. In fairness, backups are pretty easy on Windows too. Recovery on Mac OS X is much more flexible, though.
If your system crashes and you need to restore from a backup, you have two primary options. First, you can restore your hard drive from the backup. This is the fastest and most straightforward way to restore. It might not always work, though. The cause of the crash may not have been immediately apparent and might have made it into the backup. That’s when the second option can be useful. When performing a fresh installation of OS X, you can import user information and applications from another computer (or a backup). That way, you know the operating system is going to work. The only real risk is that you might have lost some data (which couldn’t be helped regardless of how you restored your computer).
Mac OS X has another neat feature for recovering data called Target Disk Mode. Target Disk Mode makes the computer acts like an external hard drive (hold down the “t” key while the computer is booting). When I transitioned from my laptop to my desktop, I booted my laptop in Target Disk Mode and plugged it into my new desktop. The laptop hard drive appeared as an external Firewire drive, and I was able to import my old accounts.
V. Great Applications
Mac OS X has lots of great applications (you can read about a few of my favorites here). Microsoft can also say this about Windows. The last few releases of Mac OS X have seen great new tools for developers, though. Mac OS X now has several Core Services that make designing applications easier (e.g. WebCore – for browsers, Core Image – for graphics, Core Data – for databases). That’s where OmniWeb, Pixelmator, and Bento came from. When a Core Service is available to make life easier, programmers can focus on usability and extra features.
The latest addition to Mac OS X is a central database for contacts and calendars, allowing other applications, like Bento, to read and write directly to the Address Book and iCal databases. Time Machine also stores its backups in an accessible way, so developers can write applications that use the data stored in the Time Machine backups. If history is any guide, we should start seeing great applications that use these new features in the next 6-12 months.
VI. Mac OS X plays great with Windows
Networking OS X and Windows is easy (in fact, Macs seem to have an easier time of it than Windows computers – especially if you use a laptop and travel to many different locations). OS X has Exchange support via Entourage (in Mac Office) and Domino support via Lotus Notes.
When you need to run Windows, just launch Parallels Desktop (Shop for it!) or VMWare Fusion (Shop for it!) and run Windows via virtualization. The two solutions have a slightly different set of features, but they are each constantly trying to catch up to the other (kind of like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis). Data exchange is easy between a virtualized Windows and Mac OS X – folders can be shared, cut-and-paste works, as does drag-and-drop.
Spotlight is so great that it deserves its own separate treatment. Spotlight is a system-wide search feature that is similar to Google Desktop. Spotlight indexes your entire filesystem, allowing nearly-instant keyword searches on file names, the contents of files, and spotlight comments (tags or other comments that are attached to files primarily for spotlight searching). In Leopard, Spotlight became even more advanced, allowing complex boolean searches and searches of network drives. A combination of file tagging, spotlight searching, and time machine makes for a great basic document management system. I wrote more on that subject here.
VIII. Tomorrow, Something New
The above list is far from exhaustive. In fact, I am finding new ways that using a Mac boosts my productivity all the time. Stay tuned for updates to this article as I discover them.