A Mac Users Guide to Windows Applications

My 3.5 year old MacBook Pro decided it had enough of the work I was putting it through and stopped booting almost 3 weeks ago.  The process is underway to get a replacement into my hands (quad-core yumminess), but until it makes it, I’ve been using a Windows laptop I bought only to run Altera’s Quartus II simulator for  my Digital Logic classes.  The first part of this exile was spent trying to find applications to replicate all of my normal workflows.  Here’s what I have found.

A quick note: I find web interfaces feature-poor and clunky, so even if a web application exists for one of these things, I would immediately dismiss it.

Email

On the Mac, I’ve never found the default Mail application to be insufficient and usually a lot better than Entourage (from the old MS Office suite).  I haven’t tried the new Mac Outlook.

Mozilla Thunderbird is probably the best standalone email client, and that’s a pretty pathetic statement.  It does give you a unified inbox for multiple email accounts (like Mail) and there are precious few clients that will do that.  I played around with Windows Live Mail, which has a much better-looking interface, but doesn’t support a unified inbox and is unreliable actually sending email.  A really interesting option was Inbox2, but since it stubbornly refuses to look like a Windows application and uses a very dark interface, I don’t really care for it much.

Thunderbird displays all the characteristics of your average open-source software.  Options and preferences are scattered everywhere according to somebody’s idea of what makes sense.  The setting that bothered me the most was how it handled quoted text in reply emails.  It defaults to putting the cursor after the quoted text, which nobody does.  I mean, really.  When you try to change that setting, it isn’t under “Options”.  Nope.  It’s under “Account Settings”, because obviously everybody wants to be able to change that quote handling uniquely for each email account.  Searching is terrible and mostly non-functional.  The Lightning calendar plugin doesn’t seem to work for me.  Attachment handling is pretty bad, because all of the visual clues for an attachment are hidden near the edges of  the window.  It’s really easy to miss.  The one compliment I can give it is noticing the keyword “attached” and prompting you to actually attach a file.

For all of these shortcomings, I settled on Thunderbird as the least horrible client.  I won’t miss it going back to my Mac.

Word Processing

I actually use three different applications for word processing.  LaTeX is for all professional documents that do not absolutely have to be in Word format.  Microsoft Word is for all professional documents I can’t do in LaTeX.  All of my personal documents are done in Apple’s own Pages, simply because the documents it makes are beautiful.  That, in the end, is what I want from all of my office apps: beautiful documents.

MS Word obviously does this well enough in Windows.  But I don’t have Office installed on this machine, because it’s supposed to be a backup, a special-purpose machine.  I do have LibreOffice.  The word processing program is sufficient to generate documents if you need to, but don’t bother opening files generated by MS Word, because they end up looking like garbage.

I installed TeXworks for editing LaTeX documents, which is okay.  It’s default templates are a little weird (especially the one for the article class) and I don’t like how it hides the output console after the interpreter is done.  Then there’s this awesome error message you get if you try to print the displayed output:

Unfortunately, this version of TeXworks is unable to print Pdf documents due to various technical reasons.
Do you want to open the file in the default viewer for printing instead?
(remember to close it again to avoid access problems)

Deleting .aux and .log files is a frustrating procedure and it leaves these .synctex.gz files all over.  It forces a paginated, non-continuous view of the output PDF.  In short, while it might be inspired by TeXshop on the Mac, it is no TeXshop.  At this point I have no desire to install MikTeX or TeXnicCenter just to overcome some small limitations that will go away once I get back to my Mac.  Also, you won’t catch me using TeXworks on my Mac.

I don’t know if there’s an equivalent to Pages.  If I was stuck on Windows forever, I might look for something.  For now, I just don’t care.

Presentations

I almost exclusively use Keynote on the Mac.  It opens PowerPoint files well enough not to mangle them and makes beautiful presentations.  I’m sorry LibreOffice, but your templates suck.  The rest of the functionality might be okay, but there has to be a balance between the presentation of the material and the content of the material and LibreOffice isn’t giving you enough of the “presentation” goodies.  PowerPoint is where it’s at, if you have to do presentations.  I’d sooner learn Beamer for LaTeX-based presentations than suffer through LibreOffice.

Web Browsing

Finally an area where the Windows applications aren’t remarkably deficient.  Whether you’re using Chrome, Firefox (ugly), Safari or even Internet Explorer, lots of good options.  It was easy to sync up Chrome on my Mac and in Windows so all of my bookmarks and preferences carried over.  Lovely.

Twitter

According to my profile, I’ve been tweeting for 3 years now.  I’ve bounced around between clients on the Mac, starting with Spaz, brief flirtations with TweetDeck and DestroyTwitter, a long stint with Tweetie for Mac until it got bought by Twitter, a while with Kiwi before settling back on the official Twitter application.  What I like about the default application and Kiwi is how simple and sparse they are, while still looking elegant.  While I spend all day reading stuff off the Twitter feed, I only have one Twitter account.  All I want to see is my default feed. I don’t need to see my Direct Messages all the time or my @Mentions or trending topics or hashtag searches or any of that.  That’s what’s so nice about Kiwi and the official app: You can easily configure them for that kind of usage.

There is no shortage of Twitter clients for Windows, but they all suffer from the basic problem of expecting that you have 10 accounts or want to see 18 columns of different feeds.  After trying a bunch (including a long stint with TweetDeck), I settled on MetroTwit.  It’s relatively full-featured, handles links and images pretty well.  It really freaks out anytime the laptop goes to sleep though, so I spend a lot of time exiting and restarting the thing.

Audio and Video

Thank goodness for iTunes and VLC.  Windows Media Player (and Media Center) are okay, but just don’t feel right.  Each time I want to play a DVD, it seems like the controls get stuck on the screen.  I’m sure there’s a way to deal with it, but I never have to “deal with it” with my normal Mac applications.

One of my most common workflows is converting the WMA files on my voice recorder into .M4A files for consumption by my students.  This has proven to be a major pain in Windows, since you either have to pay for a converter or use iTunes.  The iTunes method works, but I end up with a lot of garbage in my Library, can only convert one file at a time and you can’t queue up future conversions.

Various

While Visual Studio is still my benchmark for IDEs, I don’t do much of my coding in an IDE anymore.  I program in UPC for my Ph.D. work.  There is a UPC distribution for Windows, but it’s a 2.1 GB download, because it needs the Cygwin infrastructure.  I miss the Dock.  The Windows 7 taskbar is only okay, not great.  I desperately miss the Cmd+~ shortcut to cycle through windows of an open application.  I also miss multi-touch gestures on the trackpad that actually work.

 

So I’m surviving.  At the end of the day, I miss my Mac though and all of the applications it has.  There are options, but all of them seem to have some shortcomings, whether they are major or not.  I’m looking forward to getting the new MacBook set up and shoving this machine back on the shelf.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Mac Users Guide to Windows Applications”

  1. you write:
    It defaults to putting the cursor after the quoted text, which nobody does. I mean, really. When you try to change that setting, it isn’t under “Options”. Nope. It’s under “Account Settings”, because obviously everybody wants to be able to change that quote handling uniquely for each email account.

    Putting *your* response before the quoted text makes it difficult on your reader to (a) tell WTF you’re replying to, and (b) means that you end up with a huge “trail” that, to understand, you have to read bottom-up (except that within each piece, it’s top-down again).

    Making life difficult for your reader is contrary to every bit of direction you should have gotten in school about how to write. The burden of communication lies with the writer, not with the reader; making the reader’s life difficult is a sign of a poor writer.

    However, there are two cases where it makes sense to put your response (as opposed to an introduction or a summary) in front of the quoted text: (1) to establish dominance (my thoughts/time/rank are more important than yours), and (2) business.

    Communication in business is all about CYA and SEP — comprehension is a secondary purpose in the business environment. The important feature of business communication is that the entire history of the email exchanged be preserved so that the whole mess can be dumped on someone new, who can then see who has been involved and what their response(s) have been.

    This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about managers who can’t actually respond to an issue, but who are the gatekeepers and coordinators of the resources that *can*. They can shuttle around an issue until the appropriate resources can be identified (SEP), and wash their hands of it, saying “Everything I know about this issue is right there in that email!” (CYA).

    So what this means is that if you’re actually interested in having a conversation with friends and family via email AND want to use the same mail client for business email, you need to set the quoting policy on a per-account basis.

    A global policy is only useful if you write the same way to friends and family as you do when you write to your boss or subordinates. To be fair, a lot of people do this, but then again, those same people are *terrible* at expressing themselves anyway. You come to expect orange comic-sans on a yellow background with animated smiley-faces terminating every other sentence from them, so the “common usage” argument doesn’t really hold.

    All that being said…. the rest of article and criticisms seem spot-on.

    1. I understand your argument here, but respectfully disagree. It can certainly be irritating to scroll back through a long conversation thread where the newer posts are closer to the top, yet our traditional reading order would demand the train of conversation to flow from top to bottom.

      However, my experience is that people don’t have long email conversations, nor are they often dropped into the middle of a conversation they would need to catch up on. And while it would certainly be awkward to see the answer to a question before you actually see the question, I don’t think most people forget why they’ve emailed somebody — and if they do, the context of the reply reminds them what the question was in the first place.

      I think the biggest issue that drives this is the actual technology of the software. When the email client loads the message, it always starts it at the top. In a system where the most recent material is above the quoted text, this means the most relevant part of the conversation is displayed. On an iPhone, for example, an answer to a question might be displayed easily in the 2-3 line preview of the email — if it’s at the beginning of the email. In a system where the most recent material is below the quoted thread of conversation, loading the message at the top means the least relevant part of the conversation is displayed (and foils short previews). So now I have to scroll down to an arbitrary place in the email to find the new material or read through the entire conversation anew.

      If the client could maintain state of where I was at the last time I viewed a message or could automatically load a message with the new material visible, then I would quickly become an “after-quote” kind of person. Until then, I want to see the most recent bit of discussion when I load the message.

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