Working with Apple in a Windows world

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A confirmed Windows user finds the Apple business environment the same'but different

Like most Microsoft Windows users, I've heard both good and bad things about Apple Computer Inc. products. I had played with Macs before but until this review had never really used one for an extended time.

My mission was to see how easily an experienced Windows business user could transfer desktop navigation skills as well as existing documents, spreadsheets and presentations to the Mac OS environment.

I've often heard that Macs are very intuitive, but I found the opposite to be true, maybe because I am so used to Windows.

At first touch, my test unit, a G4 iBook, was unlike any other notebook PC I've used. The hard, white Plexiglas-like shell felt sturdier than the usual plastic shell.

Big cats

The iBook came loaded with the current Panther version of the Mac OS X operating system. Apple in 2001 radically shifted its OS design, moving to a Unix base with open-source architecture. That means the OS code is available to see and modify, like Linux.

In contrast with closed Microsoft Windows OSes, which are accessible only to Microsoft Corp. partners, OS X is much more versatile and more adaptable to modification.

OS X has gone through a number of versions, all designated by an animal name. The first was called Puma. Then came Cheetah, Jaguar and Panther. The latest, which made its debut last month, is Tiger.

At power-up, the OS mirrored the super-clean lines of the hardware. Graphics looked great. Icons had tons of detail.

The built-in AirPort wireless Internet connectivity produced an excellent signal in places where my PC wireless cards get only marginal reception. That's probably because AirPort is based on the IEEE 802.11g specification, more advanced than 802.11b but still backward-compatible.

The super-sharp LCD made it a pleasure to look at graphics and movies. The iBook also had a FireWire port for hooking up an iPod or other peripheral faster than over a USB port.

Now for the minuses. I didn't care for Apple's touch pad and don't understand why touch pads have become a notebook industry standard. Even pointer stick nubs, which tend to get stuck, are better than touch pads in my opinion.

This is a minor point, but it bothered me that the iBook's backspace button is labeled Delete, yet it still performs the backspace function. I constantly kept erasing the wrong part of a sentence. Instead of removing the letter to the right of the cursor, the delete button would erase the character to the left of the cursor.

There is no right mouse button. Windows mice generally give you options with the right button and execute functions with the left button. Apple mice have only a left button. So, to find your options, you must go to the menu bar. This single detail makes everything else in the Mac OS environment a little more difficult for a Windows user.

Backwards

Furthermore, the close button, as well as the minimize and maximize buttons, are on opposite corners of the open window. That might not seem too important, but it's indicative of all the things you must relearn to comfortably navigate a Mac'sort of like driving a car in Britain. Everything is basically the same, just on the opposite side.

I also had a tough time getting to the applications I wanted. Panther does have a cool tool bar on one side of the desktop. At first it wowed me, but after using it a while, I found that it doesn't automatically list all the computer's applications, although it does work faster than the Windows program menu. It's really more of a glorified shortcut bar, and I prefer to see all my shortcuts all the time.

Experienced Mac users know you are supposed to locate your programs and files through the Finder. I did like its setup much better than its Windows counterpart. Finder is much more logical, with all the applications and files organized in easily understood categories. You can effortlessly get from the address book to e-mail messages. Nonetheless, I disliked not being able to see all the running applications.

Apple has tried to ease this by putting an expose feature under the F9 key. F9 tiles all the open applications on the desktop. But I found it much slower than just having the open programs' icons at the bottom of the screen.

Also, when F9 is depressed you can't navigate within the tiled screens. You can only choose the one program with which you want to work.

Among the Panther features I liked better was the real-time search in the Finder toolbar. The search starts as soon as you type any character into the find field. I understand that Tiger improves on this useful feature.

Another good feature is FileVault, an encryption tool that's just one of the many security features built into the Mac OS architecture. Simply having an open-source methodology in the first place puts Apple systems in a more secure position than PCs. According to Apple, there has never been a successful virus attack on Mac OS X systems.

I found the iBook ran just fine on Windows networks. Apple has been working on that for years. Panther compatibility is based primarily on open standards, but Panther also supports many proprietary protocols, file formats and other Microsoft-specific technologies such as Active Directory and Exchange mail servers, Microsoft's virtual private networking server and Office applications. The administrator cannot tell whether a new connection is a Mac or a Windows machine.

File formats

Many Mac applications use the same file formats as Windows apps: JPG, GIF and TIFF graphics files; MP3, MP4, RA, WMA and WMV audio files; and ZIP and Adobe Portable Document Format files.

I had no problems running CD-ROMs and DVDs. Mac OS X follows the ISO 9660 standard for burning disks so they can be read by both Mac and PC systems.

Peripherals also got along well. The OS instantly recognized an external Dell Inc. USB floppy drive, and it could read and write to the disk. The only thing I had to get used to was clicking the eject button in Mac OS before I could physically remove the disk.

Basically, my problems with the operating system boiled down to the fact that Macs are more hot-key-oriented than mouse-click-oriented. That's ironic'Apple pioneered the mouse. If you can get used to hot keys, Macs are great. If you have a problem remembering hot keys, Macs will be slower for you.

I never did get totally comfortable with the Mac interface because I was constantly switching back and forth between the iBook and Windows. But I found enough attractive features in both Apple hardware and software to make me want to improve my OS X skills.

The indispensable application for those who need to bridge the gap between PC and Mac environments is Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, Standard Edition. Office 2004 requires at least Mac OS X Version 10.2.8, 256M of RAM and 450M of free storage. It's my Reviewer's Choice.

Installation was a breeze, as I have come to expect of most new applications. The full suite took less than 15 minutes to install.

For me, the heart of Office is Word, and Word 2004 didn't disappoint. My favorite addition was the notebook layout view. As a law student and frequent taker of notes, I prefer the layout view for recording meetings and lectures in a journal format.

I could assign outline headings and easily search them later. The formatting palette had controls to set the importance level. I could flag entries with exclamation points, question marks or check boxes for future reference. I could even insert audio clips from an interview.

Another great Word addition is an improved Track Changes tool. When you compose a Word document and send it off for input or approval, you can follow later changes via color-coded comment notes at the right side of the document. Instead of placing comments in the text to be displayed only when triggered by the cursor, the page layout view moves them to the right side in balloons. Any deleted text is out of the way, while additions are in the appropriate place in the main body.

Another useful addition is the Compatibility Report, which automatically finds format problems between versions of Office for Windows and Mac OS. If an outlining format does not seamlessly translate between Office 2002 for Windows and Office 2004 for Mac, for example, a red window pops up to suggest possible solutions.

A reference tool connects the dictionary and thesaurus features with the Internet so you can look things up in the online Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia. The clipboard, now called the Scrapbook, can search and organize multiple copies of text, objects and images to paste into your documents.

My one big complaint about Word for Mac was the spell-check feature. The familiar red underline appears for misspellings, but without a right mouse button, you cannot instantly correct the typos or blunders. Instead you have to hit the hot keys or go to the toolbar menu to run the spell checker. This really slowed work down for me.

Word isn't the only application that has gotten a Mac OS X facelift. Entourage 2004, Office's personal information manager and e-mail application, has a far beefier spam filter. After writing last month's review of anti-spam software, I must say this is one of the better filters.

Microsoft touts Office 2004's Project Center as the integration point for all Office applications, but many of my colleagues and I haven't found it much of an improvement over the standard Entourage tools.

The new toy in PowerPoint is the Presenter tool. Doesn't every presenter sometimes need to modify a slide show while it's going on? Now you can, working with the presentation on the notebook screen at the same time the audience watches the slide show on the big screen. This truly falls into the category of 'why didn't someone think of it sooner?'

My documents all moved seamlessly between Windows and Mac versions of Office. I tried multiple versions of Office for Windows with all kinds of macros and font changes, and no problems occurred except that older versions couldn't run some features of newer versions. I couldn't tell which OS a document was created under, and Word could even open documents created with AppleWorks.

Trouble spot

I did run into trouble with Corel WordPerfect documents, which Office could not convert at all. When I worked for the U.S. Senate, the business standard was WordPerfect. The only way I could get my old WordPerfect files to open was to save them in WordPerfect as Word files. The conversions were not perfect, and I routinely had format problems going from one medium to the other.

AppleWorks, Apple's Office equivalent, doesn't come close to Office as a robust business suite but does the bare minimum, much like Microsoft Works. It converted only AppleWorks files and basic text files. It did have an option to open Word files, but the conversions almost always had formatting problems. AppleWorks is adequate for writing simple letters, but I wouldn't use it for business.

I'm considering an Apple system as my next home computer because of the power of the OS and the rich media applications. Now that Apple has made it so easy to integrate Mac OS with Windows environments, there's no reason not to buy it. Just make sure to buy Office for Mac at the same time.

David Thang D. Luu, a law student at the University of Maryland, previously was systems administrator for Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

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