Six Months of Using Macs: The Great and the Awful

For the last six months, I’ve used a 2014 Mac Mini and a 2016 12-inch MacBook as my only computers.

Before that, I was a lifelong Windows user with occasional forays into Mac use, either at work or at school.

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Windows/DOS was my preferred platform growing up because of gaming…and because it’s what we had around in the house. I never hated Macintosh the way some Windows users do. To me, it was just this different other thing. My dad had a hardware Mac emulator at his office to do graphic design on. That was cool. I used it to play Crystal Quest and Life or Death.

Two years ago, I bought an Alienware 13 laptop and replaced my behemoth of a desktop PC. I was looking for something portable, reasonably capable, and energy-efficient.

Then, after hearing good things about the Mac version of Scrivener, last summer I bought the cheapest Mac Mini. I know. It’s not a powerhouse. It has a solid processor…but a completely unremarkable 4GB of slower RAM, and a basic 5400 RPM hard drive.

The Mac Mini became my new main desktop and the Alienware was awkwardly confined to the living room to be a way-too-powerful Netflix box. A week or so of use was all it took for me to get hooked on some of the usability benefits of Mac OS. I had been interested in taking the plunge on a 12-inch MacBook since their launch in 2015, thanks to their combination of svelte design and reasonable power. But that’s a lot of money to spend on a whim. The Mac Mini was the proof of concept, to see if I could convince myself.

I took the plunge on the MacBook a few weeks after the Mac Mini, and the transition was complete. The Mac Mini was my main home work computer, and the MacBook was for everything portable. This worked out decently well…until the Mac Mini problems began. I knew that its lesser hardware might some day be a problem. But I didn’t think the problems would begin so immediately.

A few days ago, I delegated the Mac Mini to living room Netflix duty and the Alienware 13 returned to be my main home work and gaming machine. I was hesitant to do this at first but now I’m so happy that I did it.

I’ve learned a great deal about Mac OS, my personal tastes, and the limits of computer hardware in the last six months.

Here, in no particular order, are the Great and Awful things I experienced during six months of being a dedicated Mac user. I’ll split out my experiences by system.

Mac Mini

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My 2014 Mac Mini is one of the most maligned computers in the history of Apple. Its hardware was, in many respects, a slight downgrade from the older models. Light updates to port specifications, GPU performance, and energy standards weren’t enough to make up for the lack of quad core processors, the scaling-back of already-limited user upgrade options, and expensive up-front costs for basic things like more RAM or hard drive space.

I still bought one. It’s still the cheapest way to get into Mac OS. You just have to bring your own peripherals. And that works…sort of.

Great Things

Power Use and Efficiency- The Mac Mini struggles to use more than 40 watts. This is amazing. It’s a quiet, cool, lean system that barely uses any power. If you’re worried about having green electric appliances, the Mac Mini is an excellent and efficient choice.

Peripheral Compatibility- It’s easy to hook up a variety of PC components to a Mac Mini and just go. Almost any mouse and USB keyboard will work, and my existing monitor plugged in just fine as well. Sometimes this backfires. More on that in the next section below.

OS Usability- MacOS does a lot of smart things. Installing and managing programs and applications is slick and efficient compared to Windows. Updates are more seamless. Desktop management is fantastic, with multiple virtual desktops and a great windowing system. It’s quick and easy to get around in the OS…if you have peripherals made by Apple.

Okay. Here we go.

Awful Things

Peripheral Compatibility- It’s technically possible to use a PC keyboard and mouse with a Mac Mini. But it’s an unpleasant experience. The additional keyboard keys on Windows and Mac keyboards are different, so you’ll have to transpose them in your head every time you want to hit the “Command” or “Option” button on the keyboard, since those keys don’t exist on PCs.

Mouse support is worse. Mouse acceleration and movement curves in MacOS are designed exclusively around Apple mouse products…and there’s no way to change them. So, if you use a non-Apple mouse, things are going to feel weird and wonky. Some third-party tools exist to help mitigate this, but that’s a clumsy solution for an OS that’s about simplicity of use.

Also, I’ve had issues with both HDMI-based monitors I’ve plugged into the Mac Mini. Basically, every couple of boots, the monitor just won’t turn on unless I hard reset the system into recovery mode. A little searching reveals this is a known bug…and that Apple doesn’t seem to care about it that much. I suppose the Mac Mini is the runt of the litter at this point, and most Mac OS users are on laptops. Also, they’d probably rather I was using a display port-based display.

I have a USB DAC/Amp from Creative Labs that technically supports Mac…but 2/3rds of the time when I plug it into the Mac Mini, it doesn’t work. I have no such issues on my PC.

I know that Apple wants me to use all Apple devices. They want me to have their phone, computer, watch, Beats headphones, and dumb wireless air pods. I get it. And I like their phones. But part of the promise of the Mac Mini is that it will replace your PC, seamlessly. It doesn’t really do that. Instead, it subtly encourages you to upgrade/change out all your accessories for Apple stuff so that it works better.

Lackluster/Inconsistent Performance- Perhaps the most frustrating thing about my Mac Mini is how sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it’s just fine. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes I get nothing but the spinning beach ball of death.

I feel a little like iJustine at the beginning of this recent video. She’s talking about a much more powerful Mac, but still having the same sorts of performance issues.

At first, I thought this was related to processor power management. In Windows, you can control how much you want the CPU to clock up and down in order to save power, or battery if you’re on a laptop. On a Mac, you can’t do this. You can’t even see what speed your processor is running at right now. I figured that my inconsistent performance was related to the CPU not properly spinning up when I needed it to.

Turns out I was wrong. I found a tool put out by Intel that shows the current speed of the CPU…and it pretty much stays pegged at 2.4Ghz, just below the max turbo speed.

So, it turns out I’m being let down by the inconsistent performance of the RAM and the hard drive. In true Apple fashion, these problems have been slightly more exacerbated with time, as more updates come out.

I use Adobe Audition a lot for work. On the Mac Mini, it sometimes loads in about 10 seconds, which is about what I’d expect for a computer with its specs. Other times…it takes about 2 minutes.

Ugh.

Restricted OS Access- I don’t really like the way the file system is set up on Mac OS. It’s very Linux-like, and it’s very hard to get at important files. I imagine this is by design, so you don’t screw things up. But it’s so limiting after years of using Windows. The usability stuff at the top level of MacOS is great, and better than most equivalent stuff in Windows. But the basic file management is awkward, and ten times out of ten I’d rather have easy access to all of my files than have to dig through awkwardly-named directory structures.

Lack of old Software Compatibility- It’s pretty easy to get old stuff running on Windows. 16-bit software presents a small challenge thanks to the nature of modern 64-bit CPU’s, but it’s still possible with a little fiddling/emulation. A few years back, Apple killed off old software compatibility. Guess I won’t be playing that old copy of Crystal Quest.

Emulation of older platforms is more difficult too, just because most of the development communities for that software are focused on Windows or Linux. Open Source software is a little hard to come by in a compatible version. If you’re into emulation of old games, weird things don’t work, like proper mouse support for Genesis games in Retroarch. I have no idea why.

MacOS in general is a polished, well-thought out experience. But it sacrifices some big stuff to get there.

Lack of Games Support- I know that Mac has never been a mainstream gaming platform. And actually, Mac is in a better place for gaming now than ever before, with tons of games available on Steam. About one-third of my large Steam library works on Mac.

However, optimization of those games is all over the map, and the Mac Mini doesn’t have very powerful gaming hardware, so performance can by iffy. I wrote an article about Torchlight recently. The game runs worse on my Mac Mini than it does on my 12-inch MacBook, even though the Mac Mini theoretically has more CPU and GPU oomph (More on that later!). The Mac version is also missing some minor graphical options, and doesn’t have save game cross-compatibility with PC.

2016 12-inch MacBook

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People hated this thing when it was first launched in 2015. They didn’t like the keyboard. They didn’t like the specs. They didn’t like the single USB port.

Lately, Apple fans have moved on to hating other things, like the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7 or the weird hardware issues with the new MacBook Pro.

I actually think that most of the complaints about the 12-inch MacBook are reactionary and unfounded. But that doesn’t mean I’m without complaints.

Great Things

Sleek Design- The 12-inch MacBook has perhaps my favorite design ever for a portable computer. Yes, I know that even thinner PCs and Chromebooks have launched since, and I know that not everyone loves the all-aluminum look. But I think it’s great. It’s so light, and smooth, and clean-looking. It’s amazing that they were able to cram so much into so little space, and still have it feel like a premium machine that deserves its price point. I like holding it.

I’m weird.

Excellent Screen- The display on the 12-inch MacBook is gorgeous. It’s easily a match for the far more expensive IGZO 1800p display in my Alienware, in terms of raw quality and color reproduction. I’d happily edit photographs or video on the thing without fear of incorrect color values. Its taller-than-average aspect ratio is well-suited to documents, too.

Excellent Speakers- The whole sound package on the Mac Mini is surprisingly good. The included DAC/Amp powers my DT770 headphones quite well, and the speakers are loud enough that I can quickly show movie trailers to my girlfriend or my dad without fear of them sounding bad.

Exceptional Touchpad and Keyboard- Odds are pretty good you hate the butterfly mechanical switches in the new MacBook and MacBook Pro. But I think they’re great. They provide a nice, clickly, responsive feeling. They feel robust in their design. They respond at every single spot on the keycap. I know that they barely travel and that they can feel weirdly like typing on a flat screen, but I think they’re a great piece of engineering.

The touch pad is also wonderful. Or trackpad. Gotta use my Apple terms. It uses force touch to simulate clicks, and it has a great smooth response to it. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s several times better than the touchpad on my Alienware.

Great CPU and SSD performance- The special mobile CPU in the MacBook is blisteringly fast for the amount of power it consumes, and the SSD is the fastest I’ve ever used. Too bad I don’t really have anything that can truly flex that power outside of writing software and Chrome. It’s far more suited to tasks like writing, basic editing, and web browsing than to pro video use or gaming.

Battery Life- This ties into that special low power Core M processor. The battery life is excellent, in spite of having a relatively small battery. I can happily use the thing for a whole day with no wall plug…as long as I’m not doing too much gaming or other intense CPU work.

Awful Things

Cheated Screen Resolution- In spite of having nearly as many pixels as the ludicrous display on my Alienware…the MacBook cheats. Its default resolution is just 1280 by 800, and then it scales that up to the resolution of the screen. This is why Torchlight runs better on my MacBook than on my Mac Mini. Now, this upscaling looks very very good, and running at 800p saves on performance for the Core M processor and its basic GPU…but it still feels strangely disingenuous. My Alienware 13 displays my desktop at a true 3200 by 1800. And anything else I ask it to. Sure, sometimes it struggles, but I can still totally push it there. The MacBook doesn’t have a hope of that.

Lacking GPU- The integrated GPU in the Core M isn’t great. It’s okay. It performs well in basic games, and it keeps things running smoothly in the OS, but it’s no powerhouse. I know that power/heat are limiting factors, and something had to go to keep the CPU as relatively impressive as it is. But it’s still a bummer. Kind of like the disappointment people have had over the CPU/GPU combos in the new MacBook Pro.

That Darn USB C Port-I almost never plug any peripherals into my MacBook. I have one basic USB converter dongle. I’ve barely used it. It’s much more convenient to just think of the USB-C port as a charging port. I could buy a more expensive dongle that lets me hook up a monitor…but then I’d be back in that awkward Mac Mini position of once again having to use an Apple mouse and keyboard for best results. I only want to have one set of peripherals at my desk, and I’m going to keep the ones that work best with my PC.

Lack of a Touch Screen- The touch bar on the new MacBook Pro is a weird compromise. Please Apple. Please make a laptop with a touch screen. Everyone is doing it…where by everyone I mean all of your competitors. My Alienware has a touch screen and it’s great. I miss it on my Mac. Just do it Apple. Come on. I don’t care that the OS wasn’t designed around it originally. The touch bar is a tacit admission that people want touch. That, and the massive success of the iPhone.

Final Thoughts

I still love my MacBook as a portable machine. But my older, less sleek, less-infused-with-new-tiny-compact-tech Alienware 13 is a much more capable computer for every basic task I need to do. It powers through video and audio editing. It runs games well on medium to high settings. It has a plethora of ports. And it cost about the same.

I didn’t expect my i7/GTX960M Alienware to be fully outclassed by lesser hardware, but I did expect that the smooth experience and closed system would carry me closer than they did.

There’s the rub really. Apple does provide a smoother, more user-friendly OS experience, as long as you don’t want access to the deeper file system. They do have a more closed hardware system which leads to easier compatibility…but only with Apple products. Their stuff costs more than the competition, and sometimes you’re getting great style and portability to go with that. But you’re also getting less raw speed.

I’m glad I did thisMac experiment. I learned that the MacBook is a perfect portable writing and internet machine for my needs, and I can even play some Torchlight in 800p that’s scaled up on my display and looks good. But at home, I really need a PC for peak performance. I do enough editing and gaming and tweaking/using of old software that Windows is the best platform for me in that space, especially given the cost/performance ratio of higher-end Macs.

The Mac Mini is serving well as a Netflix machine so far in the living room…on those boots where it decides to turn on the monitor, at least. ;)

Thanks for reading!

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I wrote this whole article sitting next to a guy in a cafe using Air Pods on his older 13-inch MacBook Pro. How did he get Air Pods??? Did he wait six weeks? I refuse to wait six weeks for my stupid purchase. Whenever I can easily get some, I’ll be reviewing them! I imagine by then everyone will already own them, but hey.

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