The Efficient Mac User

Switching the Small Office from Windows to Macs

- 2006.06.28 - Tip Jar

When it comes to efficiency in computing, one of the biggest steps to take is uniformity: If your computing setup is different in the various locations and settings where you compute, your efficiency will necessarily decrease. On the other hand, if you can approach something akin to uniformity - that is, if every computer you use is identical or nearly so - efficiency will go through the roof.

(I won't go into the psychology of this, but perhaps it will suffice to say that this idea has been demonstrated powerfully in a number of ways.)

Among other things, my desire for efficiency is what led me to change my office from Windows PCs to Macs. In this column and the next, I'll walk through the details of this project.

Why Change to Macs?

It's fair to ask: Why change to Macs? I'm an administrator at a small private school, and, like all schools, we can't afford unlimited resources to put toward computers. So why should we change them?

The short answer is that the timing is right. To begin with, I'm a Mac user, and I'm also the new administrator - the fact that my laptop is a Mac makes a difference here.

The headmaster has indicated that his next laptop will be a Mac, too. And, by strange circumstances, all of our support staff has turned over at the same time - and the new staff will have to learn our system one way or another.

If ever we would change computer systems completely, now is the ideal time.

The time is right from the vantage point of our existing hardware, also. We own three desktop PCs: one is at the end of its useful age for daily rigorous use; the second is at the point of needing substantial upgrades; and the third is nearly new. With the first two, money will be spent on hardware one way or another. In all cases, they represent potentially good machines for the right circumstances - but not ours (except the new one). We can sell them on the used market and recoup some of our expenses.

(By the way, we also have a number of older low-end Macs that have been donated to the school; I'll be selling these also, through the Low End Mac Swap List. If you're in the market for some good used equipment whose purchase will support education, keep your eye out for these.)

The Macintel Transition

The timing is also right from the perspective of new Mac hardware. With Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop, and Intel Macs available, it's easier than ever to switch - even in a context where there is some latent dependency on Windows software.

Finally, the switch will offer a substantial safeguard that every small organization should be mindful of. This move broadens the gap of time between today and the day when our school needs to hire a full-time IT professional. The bottom line is simple: Setup, maintenance, and network expansion is easier and more straightforward on Macs than on PCs. Period. (More on this in my next column.)

First Things First

The first step was to get some new Macs. So I went shopping, and, as has been the case several times, I found what I was looking at Apple's refurbished equipment.

I knew that I needed an Intel Mac, so I looked for that first. I scored a Mac mini with a Core Duo chip and 512 MB of RAM for $150 off of retail. We already had a Samsung LCD display with one of our Wintel systems, so this fit well into my plans.

I also knew that I wanted an iMac, since I was replacing a CPU and display for the other machine. I wasn't concerned about getting the latest model, or even the last G5 model, but I did want it to be factory refurbished and AppleCare-eligible. Again I scored big, getting a 17" iMac (the last generation before the iSight G5) with 256 MB of RAM for just over $700.

Rounding Out the Hardware

The iMac came with a keyboard and mouse, but I added a Mighty Mouse to the mix. I've used my sister's Mighty Mouse enough to know that I really like it - in fact, if didn't prefer a trackball at my desk at home, I would probably go with the Mighty Mouse for my own setup.

For the mini, I got an Apple keyboard. My new administrative assistant is also an artist and will be doing a bit of graphic arts for our school, so I also got a Wacom Graphire 4x5 tablet. The Graphire comes with a mouse (so that the tablet functions as a mousepad) but also has the benefit of a stylus for higher-end graphic work.

Because of the graphics work - and because the school has run into trouble with color correction in the past when using a professional printer, we also got a Spyder 2 color calibration system. The Spyder is an amazingly straightforward system to use that combines a basic hardware sensor with a robust but user-friendly software interface. We'll use the Spyder on my Administrative Assistant's Mini to calibrate the Samsung LCD display for her graphic artwork.

I'll add some RAM to the iMac - but we already have an extra 512 MB stick, so this won't cost us anything (assuming that the stick we have is compatible with the iMac). And our existing printers will work with Macs, so we won't need to replace them immediately.

Finally, we bought AppleCare for both Macs, so they're covered under that excellent protection plan for three years.

Software Next

In many ways, our software lineup was already in need of upgrade, supplement, or change altogether. Apart from Microsoft Office XP, we had a genuine need for a more complete software solution for a number of issues that we faced.

But let's start with Microsoft Office. We were running Office XP, the 2002 vintage of Office for Windows. The latest version for Windows is Office 2003, and a new version is due out soon. However, Microsoft Office for the Mac is up to the 2004 edition, and many of the new "gee-whiz" features promised for the upcoming Office for Windows are already implemented in the Mac version. Further, Office for the Mac, Student & Teacher Edition, can be had for a mere $149 (less if you count the rebates currently running) - and it comes with three licenses, so both of our office Macs are covered. That's the best price for an "upgrade" I've ever gotten from Microsoft.

We've also purchased a license for Parallels Desktop, the virtualization platform that has just been announced in a final release version. We also bought a copy of Windows XP Home edition, since all of the copies of Windows we had were hardware-bundled. Now we've got Windows XP running virtually on our Mac mini - and I have to tell you, it works very well.

For desktop publishing, we've been using Microsoft Publisher (perhaps because it was bundled with our copy of Office). Publisher is a pretty good program for desktop publishing - and for the money it is the best thing going on the Windows PC. In fact, we will keep a copy of Publisher installed in our Parallels Desktop virtual machine.

But Publisher isn't available for the Mac, and even if it were, I don't think I would run it. Instead, we got licenses for iWork 06 for both Macs (and for about the same price that one copy of Publisher would cost us). Pages will replace Publisher more than adequately - it's easier to use, more feature-rich in ways that Publisher feels stinted, and exports to a more functional set of output options, including PDFs.

(By the way, Keynote also replaces PowerPoint for me every time - I do hundreds of presentations a year for classes, lectures, seminars, and meetings, and I have consistently found it to be a superior presentation application.)

We seriously lacked software in the area of graphical editing for photos and other graphics. Our Wacom tablet came with a copy of Photoshop Elements 3.0, which is more than enough for us - especially combined with iPhoto.

We'll be using Intaglio for vector graphics; Intaglio offers most of the features we might want from something like Adobe Illustrator, but for less than 1/4 of the price.

Another shortcoming of our existing system was file management. Spotlight is a great start - and obviously much more than what Windows XP has to offer. But I wanted something more, and DevonThink answered. DevonThink Pro allows us to manage our documents in ways that we will benefit from immensely. It's probably overkill - perhaps Yojimbo would have been sufficient. But I know DevonThink well, and I like it for what it does.

We've been using QuickBooks to manage our books for a few years, so a change to QuickBooks for the Mac was no problem at all - Intuit has figured this transition out and made it very easy.

SMS Software

Finally, we needed a major upgrade in our school management system (SMS) software. We've been using an SMS product that required a license renewal annually to the tune of $500 - and for that renewal we got the privilege of another year of a system that has not been updated since 2000; it looks and feels like a Windows 3.1 application. Worse, it's based on Microsoft Access, so it's not portable to the Mac.

Rather than pay $500 to that company, we put it toward a pack of licenses for FileMaker Pro 8 - enough for both office Macs, my laptop, and the headmaster's Dell laptop. We also got FileMaker Server so we could seamlessly interact with our SMS database regardless of which computer we might be using.

We also bought a license for School Recordkeeper Pro, which is a great solution for a number of reasons: the interface is clean and pleasant, it's loaded with information and reporting options, and it works easily whether you're accessing it from a Mac or a PC.

This leads us to networking, which is assumed in the FileMaker Server scheme. I'll give details on that and the other setup solutions I developed in my next column. LEM

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