MacBook Air – mixed feelings (or is it just me)

If you read my Twitter stream, you’ve probably realized I’d been stupid enough to decide to do another multi-vendor experiment: I’m trying to figure out whether an old grump can adapt to a MacBook Air.

Warning: What follows is a rant. You might want to skip this one and read something more technical.

No problems so far with reliability or software stability. I love the design (who doesn’t), the speed, the weight, and the fact that OSX is Unix-based. Opening gedit from a remote Linux box on which I have to change a few config files, doing ssh or running perl without installing tons of add-on software is a godsend ... but I still have the feeling that MacBook is a toy designed for creative people, not for people who have to get a job done.

Let’s start with the menus. There’s a reason I know every possible shortcut and Ctrl-Shift-Alt/Something/Something-else-totally-weird combination in every program I use – I can blind-type and I don’t want to waste my time moving to the mouse, carefully positioning it to the top of the screen (not top-of-window, that would be way too close), and wandering through menus to select what I need.

I can use most of the Windows applications I need without mouse. I almost never use Mouse in Word and PowerPoint is the only major exception, but even there I use mouse only to position the objects (and I would use arrow keys if I could somehow select the objects) and deal with the keyboard stupidities Microsoft created in place of the traditional menus. With Mac, using Office for Mac or any other program, I waste more than half of my time playing with the trackpad.

Oh, did I mention that my Thinkpad has a TrackPoint so I can move the mouse without moving my hands? Can you imagine how frustrated I am with all the extra movements I have to do? How much time I waste doing that? Probably way more than I gained due to MacBook’s fantastic speed (I haven’t ever seen a Windows system as responsive as MacBook Air running VMware Fusion). Oh, you do know how simple it is to do drag-and-drop with the TrackPad (you almost don’t have to move your fingers). Welcome to the Trackpad hell ;)

No, I won’t even mention that all Alt/Ctrl the keys are in the wrong position (or that I have to press Alt-arrow to get the behavior of Ctrl-arrow, and Cmd-R to get the behavior of Ctrl-R). That’s just my muscle memory; I can get over it ... but there’s something else fundamentally wrong with the Cupertino Fruit Company – the morons think they are above standards.

You see, every single country in this world has its own keyboard standards (US and UK included, but they do have slightly bigger market share than some other countries ;). In Slovenia, the keyboard should look like this ... and it does on every single computer I’ve ever seen (years ago you couldn’t even sell a computer if it didn’t have the right keyboard), apart from Mac. Steve & Co obviously thought they are above those minor details; Y and Z are switched on their keyboard, and it has several other characters in the wrong position, not to mention characters like @[]{} that are in totally unexpected places (and they’re not even shown on the keys, so you have to guess where they might be hiding). Probably doesn’t matter to people who peck-type, but for some of us it’s a major annoyance.

To add insult to injury, VMware Fusion does the proper thing, so my Windows 7 running within Fusion has everything at its expected place ... but that only works as long as I don’t look at the keyboard.

Then there’s the language thing. I happen to be used to Slovenian keyboard, so I use laptops with this key layout. I happen to be writing in two languages (English and Slovenian) and want to use spell checker. No problems on Windows – you can define any combination of language/keyboard layout, so I’m writing this post using English language (so the spell checker kicks out all my stupidities) and Slovenian key layout.

The wise guys @ Cupertino Fruit Company know better – who would ever want to write in more than one language? The language and keyboard layout are tightly coupled in OSX. You cannot write in English using Slovenian keyboard. Who would ever want to do that?

There’s probably some obscure configuration file I can hack to have it my way (pointers appreciated ;), but the narrow-mindedness of the standard setup is astonishing.

Last but definitely not least, the Office for Mac applications are broken in too many details (yeah, they do look the same and read the same files). Let’s start with the Outlook – it allows me to import my Windows Outlook file, but doesn’t want to use its Inbox. What? You want me to have “old” and “new” Inboxes? How stupid to you have to be to do something like that?

Then there’s Word. No useful shortcuts apart from basic text editing (see above for my opinion about keyboard shortcuts for menu actions). Even worse, some things just don’t work (example: highlighting). Full-screen is a joke. I spend twice the time to write something in Word for Mac than I do on Word for Windows.

Before you tell me I should switch to a completely different application suite on Mac (and you’re probably right), here’s the problem: I have years of emails and gigabytes of existing content that I’m frequently using. I cannot switch to something completely new. Lock-in? Definitely.

I’m not giving up (yet) ... I’m just disappointed that I’m back to the old “laptop + PC” days, only this time it’s Thinkpad (for serious work where speed matters) and MacBook Air (for the office meetings and travel). Too bad ...


  1. A few comments:

    Regarding keyboard layouts - you can create your own with this:

    Regarding spellcheck, MS apps will use their own dictionaries last I checked, so any fix that works for the rest of the system isn't likely to work in them.

    Regarding keyboard shortcuts, have you tried a tool like Quicksilver to give the Mac global keystrokes and launching? Makes trips to the mouse much more rare:

    Outlook for Mac is a 1.0 product at this point, and is somewhat rough around the edges - many PC to Mac switchers I've worked with have expressed inadequacies with it. Importing a PST converts it to discreet file/item so you're not getting file format level lock-in.

  2. First of all, thank you for not telling me I'm a moron ;)

    Will definitely try to figure out what I can do with keyboard layouts and shortcuts - these are the major issues so far (as I said, I can get used to most other things).

    As for spellchecking - the default language of the new text you type into most Office apps is inherited from the system settings, so if I type using Slovenian keyboard, Word assumes I'm typing in Slovenian (Chrome, for example, uses English spell checker regardless of keyboard layout ... hold on, there's a thought ... maybe yet another Word option ;) )

  3. Pipi, resist. When I got my first MacBook I was totally lost and I know I'm more on the side that actually does things and not designer.

    After some time I got used to it and started to use new shortcuts and all the new movements that I never got before.

    Some year ago my MacBook died and I had to use PS with windows (because of lid-closing and sleep failures of Linux at that hardware). It was a horror, hell freezed over for me. Half of the time I had to wait for windows to reflect on something, everytime I opened the lid there was several minutes of waiting and if not that I spent considerable amount of time fixing windows. Not to say that I was totally lost with shortcuts and movement, that I forgot with pleasure.

    After 5 weeks I got my new MacBook Air (wanted 4GB of ram and that is "built to order" and with that I got my life back and was able again to do some work in time.

    Takeaway from the story: You use what you have, when you get used to something better and more usefull it's hard to go back, because you just imagine all the time how would your original system work.

    Resist, get used to it (a month or two), explore, ask friends for useful tricks, use them and you'll be good :)

  4. Ivan, please get yourself an ultrabook with win7. the speed and responsiveness is due to the SSD, not the OS.

  5. for example:

  6. Dmitri Kalintsev26 November, 2011 00:44

    Ivan, you can set up your own shortcuts for most menu items in individual programs.

    Go to System Prefs -> Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts -> Application Shortcuts -> "+" (or start typing word "shortcuts" in Search box on Systems Prefs panel)

  7. In my experience, running Office for Windows in a Win7 VM results in a more useful setup than trying to use Office Mac. I am unimpressed with all parts of Mac Office, but Mac Outlook deserves an award for unimpressiveness.

  8. I can understand some of your pain. I am from Germany, and one thing made my move to my first Mac, which was an iBook, easier than for others. I had already switched to US keyboard layouts on my PCs, simply because all those characters you need for programming languages were difficult to reach with the German layout.
    So, when I made the switch to Mac, I ordered my iBook from Apple with an US keyboard. This spared me the move from German PC layout to German Mac layout, which differ a lot.

    What I love about Mac OS X is the built-in Tftp server. And should you need a terminal emulaion, just use screen.

    I cant say anything abou Microsoft Office, as we are an OpenOffice/Libreoffice shop.

  9. and forgot, for terminal get iTerm :) much much better than original...

  10. A while ago, I wrote a compact overview of my switching experience (about 3 years ago), including things I still miss from Windows, things that just took some time adapting too, and things from OSX that I now miss on my work Windows 7 laptop.
    Perhaps, you find it interesting.

  11. Couldn't agree more; thank you for the link.

  12. If the keybindings bug you, I'd strongly suggest checking out KeyRemap4MacBook:

    You can do a lot to get the keyboard layout you want with this, perhaps even getting the right mix and match of English+Slovenian use that you desire. And, if there's some configurations of general interest to Slovenian users, the developer will probably add it -- seems pretty responsive.

    There's a similarly-powerful took for configuring trackpad behavior called:

    But I don't have as much experience with it.

    Also, for the person who recommended iTerm, specifically you want iTerm2:

    AFAICT, there's no lack of keyboard shortcuts for MacOS. In some cases, there's a surplus of them to compensate for the one-button mouse. The problem is in their poor documentation and inconsistency across applications.

    And yeah, the OA situation on MacOS mostly sucks. VMWare Fusion is a godsend in that department.

  13. You have the makings here of a good "I am a PC" "I am a MAC" guy commercial.

    I am heading that way too. Taught myself to touch type 10 years ago for ccie lab but nowadays trying to keep up with all the shortcuts is a pain. The mouse "intellie track" not so intelligent IMO, is one of my biggest gripes too. Some laptops let you turn it off. Same here with the old laptop etc. I figured eventually we should be able to take all of our data, cloud it(private) and no matter the device just have our virtual desktop for everything we need. (sans sniffers and spetrum analyzers etc). dependent on network pipe of course.

  14. Ivan, you may also want to take a look at Parallels Desktop, I personally prefer it over VMware on my MacBook. If you run Fusion just to have a Windows 7 client on your laptop, I strongly suggest considering parallels.

    Admittedly, the MS Office on Mac is not as good as the Windows version and I know many ppl who actually run office over parallels (not that I like it though)

    One point that I personally like about Macbooks is that, from my experience, their LCDs have been by far superior.

  15. Ivan,
    I am in the process of looking at a new Macbook and thought I'd decided on a 15" Macbook Pro.. there were a few sway points away from the Air that I could see; Unknown performance running virtual machines (I use Windows in Fusion for the odd thing) - how have you found it? I know a lot of performance hits these days are down to the drive and having an SSD sorts a lot of this out. The other niggle for me [as a network engineer] was the lack of a built-in Ethernet port. I love the portability of the Air but that Ethernet port is all-too-important I think..

  16. Haven't done any real performance testing, but the Fusion VM seems pretty fast (faster than my Windows box, but that's probably due to SSD drive).

    Ethernet port - here's a "solution": You can probably get it much cheaper, but it won't be in the "just right" color ;)

  17. It is just you. 2011 Mac Book Air is the best PC I have ever owned. So far no VM's or Microshaft products installed. Just bought it so for sure not my primary PC. I don't pick it up all the time yet... but love when I do 8-)

  18. i love my thinkpad. and when i read this post my love is aggravated. :D mac isn't for technicians

  19. Ivan

    I totally agree - I bought my wife a new iMac and after 2 weeks she brok down in tears as simple things took ours to do. Bootcamp and Windows 7 saves it - so much easier!

  20. Ivan, you probably want to change the title of this post to "MacOS - Mixed Feeling.."... As none of your complaints are specific to MacBook Air per se ;)


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Ivan Pepelnjak, CCIE#1354, is the chief technology advisor for NIL Data Communications. He has been designing and implementing large-scale data communications networks as well as teaching and writing books about advanced technologies since 1990. See his full profile, contact him or follow @ioshints on Twitter.