Friday, January 9, 2009

Is Apple losing its appeal?

I made the switch from PC to a Mac Pro a little over two years ago. I wanted a taste of the simple life that I had heard so much about. I liked my Mac so much that I went fanatical about Apple products. Here are some of the Apple products that I have purchased:
  • Mac Pro
  • Aperture (for photography)
  • iWork '08
  • iLife '08 upgrade
  • .Mac
  • Apple TV
  • iPhone
  • iPod
  • Airport Extreme
  • Bluetooth Wireless Mighty Mouse
  • Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard
  • 23" Apple Cinema Display
  • Lots of music from iTunes
That's a lot of stuff (and money). But I'm starting to see Apple in a different light. Sure, the TV ads are fun, but what are you really getting when you buy into Apple?


One thing I have to admit is that the Mac hardware is excellent!

The Mac Pro case is well designed and you can easily install a hard drive or memory in less than 5 minutes without even breaking out a screwdriver! I wish I could find a PC motherboard and case like this at Newegg. My only complaint about the Mac Pro system is the weight due to the all-aluminum case. This thing is a monster, weighing in at close to 45 lbs.! I had to take it down to an Apple Store one day to have WiFi installed. If you ever have to do that, bring a dolly to roll it around on.

The 23" Apple Cinema Display is a beautiful screen. It's bright and the colors are rich. It too is quite heavy. I have experienced some ghost images in the dock area, which may be burn-in. That's disappointing, and I will probably contact Apple about it soon since it is still covered under Apple Care.


I purchased the Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard because it had such a small profile. It lacks a number pad, which I really don't miss as much as I thought I would. Number pads are convenient if you type in a lot of numbers, but otherwise it's pretty much just wasted desk space. However, I find that I miss the deeper keys of a regular keyboard. I have gotten somewhat used to this keyboard, but I still find that I have an easier time typing on my regular Logitech keyboard at work. Also, I frequently see "Lost Connection" messages for the keyboard, although the keyboard still functions fine.

The Bluetooth Wireless Mighty Mouse takes a lot of getting used to if you've never used one. Some people swear by it... I swear at it! It doesn't feel comfortable at all. I have big hands, so that may be part of the problem, but I have to make a kind of umbrella shape with my hand to use the mouse. I have to squeeze the left and right sides of my hands together to get a grip on the sides of this skinny, low-profile mouse. My hands often feel cramped. If my hands are dry (as they often are in the winter), it makes it even harder to keep a grip on the shiny, slick surface of the mouse. The small scroll ball constantly stops working due to dust/dirt/particles that get in there with regular use. Since you can't open the mouse and remove the ball to clean it, you have to go through this ritual of turning the mosue upside down and rubbing the scroll ball around rapidly and tapping the mouse against the desk. The bottom of the mouse also gets dirty pretty quick and I am constantly scraping the dirt off.

The AirPort Extreme router is simple to set up (with a Mac). What can I say... it's a router! It only has three network ports, instead of four like most routers. Mine is one of the earlier ones, so it lacks Gigabit speeds. Unfortunately, the wireless signal was not very reliable. I ended up replacing this router with a D-Link DIR-655 Extreme N Wireless Router which has worked flawlessly for me.


Now let's talk about the real reason why people switch to a Mac. The software and its ease of use.

Apple ships iLife on every new Mac. iPhoto '06 was the probably the most significant factor towards my purchasing a Mac. I wanted something simple to use to organize my photos and fell in love with iPhoto. Great piece of software! If you like doing creative things with photos, such as calendars or photo books, iPhoto does this very well and photo calendars that I have ordered from Apple have been excellent quality. Much better quality than calendars that I have ordered from Kodak and Shutterfly.

Getting drawn into the world of Apple, I got a .Mac (later renamed MobileMe) subscription so I could have a cool email address. But I soon realized that .Mac was complete garbage. The email contacts would not stay synced between my Mac and the online .Mac web mail. There was no online calendar to sync with the calendar on my Mac. The photo sharing site was a nightmare to navigate or tell people how to get to. And, Apple was charging about $100 per year for what other companies such as Google were giving away for free.

Then in early 2008 Apple released iLife '08 for about $79. Even though iPhoto is the only application that I use in the iLife suite, I purchased it anyway for the revolutionary upgrades to iPhoto that I had seen Steve Jobs show off at Macworld. Once I got it, I was less than impressed.

Apple just announced iLife '09 a few days ago (another $79), which does seem like an improvement over last years version, but guess what else got released a few days ago... Google Picasa for Mac! Picasa is a great photo manager just as easy to use as iPhoto... and IT'S FREE! With Picasa now available on Mac, I will no longer be forking over $80 a year to Apple for iLife.

I wanted to get more serious about photography, so I was faced with the decision to choose between Apple's Aperture 1.5 and Adobe's Lightroom 1.0. After trying them both briefly, I chose Aperture because it was a little easier to learn and it was something else with the Apple brand to buy. After only 3-4 months of using it though, I saw how more functional Adobe Lightroom was and I ended up switching to Lightroom. Aperture was a huge memory hog and chugged at any less than about 1.5 GB RAM. I have not tried Aperture 2, but I have heard good things about it. I am happy with Lightroom 2.

At the same time that Apple released iLife '08, they also released iWork '08. This was Apple's answer to Microsoft Office. They had previous versions of iWork, but they lacked a spreadsheet application to compete with Excel. With my Apple goggles on, I dove in with promises of ease of use and full compatibility with Office. It is a pretty application... I'll give it that much. But I found that Office files that I opened in iWork (and vice versa) usually did not retain the proper formatting. This is vital! If Apple wants to be a serious contender with Microsoft Office on Macs then they have to get formatting issues resolved. I ditched iWork after a couple months and went back to using Microsoft Office.

One area where Apple truly excels is their operating system. Mac OS X is an extremely solid OS, and at $129 it is at an attractive price. OS X only comes in one version too, so there's not any confusion with multiple versions such as the case with Windows Vista (4 different versions!). The downside is that software is not widely available for Mac OS X as it is with Windows, and those Windows programs that do get ported over to Mac are usually inferior to their Windows counterparts.


The final Apple products that I want to mention are the iPhone, iPod (5th Gen), Apple TV, and iTunes Store.

The good: All of these devices/services are outstanding. The hardware is built well and looks aesthetically pleasing. And the interface on each of these devices is extremely well designed and simple to use.

The bad: Apple likes to have absolute control over the services it offers. In order to use any of these devices, Apple makes it so that iTunes is the only software that you can use to sync your media to each of the devices. Apple doesn't license it's 'FairPlay' DRM to anyone else, so anything from iTunes that has DRM can only be played on an Apple device such as Apple TV, iPhone, or iPod. Apple has created this closed system that doesn't play well with outsiders. Apple has recently announced it's intent to drop DRM for the music it sells, which is definitely a welcome step in the right direction. Unfortunately if I want to upgrade my iTunes music purchases to non-DRM versions, Apple is going to charge me to do so, squeezing out even more money.


The smoke and mirrors of Apple is fading for me. In the next few months I think I will be building myself a new Windows PC and selling my Mac Pro. I am currenlty beta testing Windows 7, and that is leaps and bounds better than the disappointment that is Windows Vista. Even though it is still in beta, Windows 7 is solid and snappy, and feels like a retail product.

I have additional thoughts on iTunes, the iPhone, and Apple TV, but I'll save those for another day.

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