Mac Musings

Sick and Tired of Windows

Dan Knight - 2010.01.20 - Tip Jar

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In the past week, I've talked with a few people who are sick and tired of their Windows computers. One is ready to throw here laptop in the trash, as soon as we get a MacBook to replace it. Another has had ongoing computer problems, Geek Squad returned it to her without completing its work last time around, and it's going on six weeks without her PC.

People are tired of the Microsoft song and dance. Once upon a time they justified buying a DOS or Windows PC because it was what they used at work. Now it seems that they always have to work on their computer - run antivirus, Patch Tuesday updates, reformat and recover their hard drive, deal with corrupt registries, and who knows what else.

In fact, it's gotten to the point that Windows computers have a hidden restore partition by default. That says a lot about how reliable Microsoft and it's vassals consider Windows.

If Apple did that, Windows users would laugh at us. But when the PC industry does it, it just seems like common sense. My last Windows PC, an Acer notebook, dedicated half of its 40 GB hard drive to the recovery partition. Talk about a rude awakening when I saw how little free drive space I had!

All of this got me to thinking about Macs. Not only because Macs don't have viruses, rarely take weeks to repair, and tend to last a long time, but because Apple has a real opportunity here to market the reliability and stability of OS X against Windows.

Every modern Mac ships with a recovery disc. It's called the Install Disc for whatever version of OS X shipped with your Mac. There's no need for a recovery partition, although there are definite advantages to having a second bootable partition on your hard drive (being able to run diagnostics on your boot drive without booting from a slow DVD is one of them).

And since the introduction of Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard", every Mac comes with a marvelous backup program, Time Machine. With a backup drive and the Install Disc, you have everything you need to recover your Mac should the worst happen.

Time Machine is even smart enough to warn you against backing up to a separate partition on the same hard drive. After all, if the hard drive fail, you lose both your original and the Time Machine backup. You can ignore the warning, but you do so at your own risk.

The Most Important Accessory

The most important accessory every Mac user should have is a second hard drive. It should be bootable, so you can run diagnostics on your main hard drive, and it should be used for Time Machine backups of your primary drive.

My suggestion is that you partition the backup drive, using one partition for Time Machine and one for a clone of your first hard drive. (You can create clones using SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner, which are inexpensive and free respectively.) With a clone, you can boot from an exact copy of your hard drive - as of the last backup - and then use Time Machine to bring things up to date.

The backup drive need not be a portable, bus-powered, notebook drive, although that might seem like a great idea. You might be better off buying a desktop drive, which will cost less, have greater capacity, and won't be packed with your 'Book when you travel. You definitely want to avoid the possibility of someone stealing both your MacBook and your backup drive!

If you're running Leopard, any sufficiently large hard drive should do the job. I'd say "sufficiently large" is big enough for a full clone plus a full Time Machine backup, so twice the capacity of your primary hard drive is a good starting point. (Tiger doesn't have Time Machine, so you'll need a different backup strategy. If you just clone the main drive, your backup drive should have the same capacity.)

If you're not using a Mac Pro or Power Mac, your only practical solution is an external hard drive. Unless you're still running a G4 or G5 PowerPC Mac, any sufficiently large USB 2.0 drive should do the job. FireWire is a bit faster, but USB is adequate, all Intel Macs have USB 2.0, and Apple has phased out FireWire on some MacBooks.

If you're still running a PowerPC Mac, you definitely want FireWire. Although PowerPC Macs can boot from USB drives (if you know the trick of holding down the Option key during startup), USB is a lot slower on PowerPC Macs - and none of the G4 Power Macs have built-in USB 2.0. FireWire is the way to go.

If there's any chance you'll be using the same drive to boot both Intel and PowerPC Macs, be sure it has both FireWire and USB 2.0 - and that you partition it so it can boot both types of Macs. Intel-based Macs use a partitioning scheme known as GPT, and only they can boot from GPT hard drives. Both PowerPC and Intel Macs can boot from APM (Apple's old partitioning scheme) hard drives, which is the format you must use to create a universal boot drive.

If you do have a Power Mac or Mac Pro, consider a second internal hard drive. It's a lot less costly than an external drive, doesn't take up any space on your desk, and avoids extra wires. Best of all, it's probably going to be faster than USB or FireWire. This is how I backup my Power Macs. (With a Mac Pro or Power Mac, you can even have separate clone and Time Machine drives.)

The only real drawback of separate internal drives is that if someone breaks in and steals your Mac, you lose your backup as well. Then again, anyone who breaks in is just as likely to take any drives connected to your Mac....

What About Time Capsule?

You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned Apple's Time Capsule, a combination WiFi router and backup drive designed to work with Time Machine. That's mostly because it's an expensive backup solution, and we're all about computing within your budget.

Time Capsule is also going to be slower than a directly connected hard drive, and you can't boot from it, as you could from a directly connected hard drive.

That said, if you have more than two Macs in your home or office, backing up to a single remote drive can make a lot of sense, especially if you don't already have a wireless hub or need to upgrade it. It won't be cheaper than buying a third-party WiFi router and separate backup drives, but it will be a lot more convenient. This is especially true for notebook users who like working wirelessly.

Yet another option is a dedicated server, a great way to use an old Power Mac. Load it up with RAM, hard drives, and OS X, enable file sharing, mount your volume, and connect with Time Machine. If you already have an old Power Mac, iMac, or eMac, this could be a lot more affordable than Time Capsule, and it will work with your existing WiFi router.

The Perfect Desktop Mac

The perfect desktop Mac is both affordable and expandable. The Mac mini is affordable, the Mac Pro is expandable, and there's nothing in between. iMacs and Minis don't have room for a second internal hard drive, short of removing their optical drives. Today's budget solution is a Mac mini with an external hard drive - plus those wires.

In terms of simplicity, the Mac mini is a perfect model. All it needs to be truly expandable is a second hard drive bay, maybe a slot for an internal Blu-ray drive, more RAM capacity, and one or two PCI Express slots. Better yet, make it a bit larger so there's room for a pair of internal desktop drives, and you've got the midrange Mac that many of us have been asking Apple to produce ever since the Power Mac G5 was introduced (starting at $1,999 - $500 more than an entry-level Power Mac G4) in 2003.

The "Mac in the middle" would take away a chunk of Mac Pro sales, costing Apple some profits. But it would also take away a percentage of Mac mini sales, making up some of that with the middle Mac's higher price. It might cost Apple a few iMac sales, but then again it could result in more Apple display sales.

From my perspective, it would be the perfect replacement for a Power Mac, with room for two internal hard drive, Intel processing power, and the ability to work with the keyboard, mouse, and monitor I already use.

But the biggest market for a midrange Mac is the Windows user who wants a desktop computer that just works, won't be outgrown in a few years, and gets them away from Windows. Remember, half of all new Macs sold in Apple's retail stores are purchased by Windows users. A middle Mac would be a real draw for anyone with a Windows desktop who thinks the Mac mini is too tiny or unexpandable to be a real computer. (We Mac users know better, but many of us still want internal expansion options.)

And this would also take a big bite out of the Hackintosh desktop market. (Take that, Psystar!)

Selling the Middle Mac

There's great potential for a midrange Mac, whether it's a traditional minitower or desktop configuration - or even an extra-high Mac mini. PC users buy based on specs more than usability. Expansion slots and drive bays are a real selling point even if they'll never use them. That's just the way they are.

With a Mac in the middle, Windows users could have a second internal hard drive just for Windows if they so desire. Any Mac user could have a second internal hard drive that was bootable for running diagnostics and available for Time Machine backup. After all, Windows and its restore partition have shown how important that is to Windows users.

Apple has a long history of innovation, but perhaps Apple has been living in its own universe for so long that it doesn't understand how PC buyers think. While half of new Macs sold in Apple retail stores are going to Windows users, that represents maybe 5% of the PC market. That means that 95% of PC users are sticking with Windows, whether due to familiarity, fear of change, or not seeing a Mac that looks and specs like a desktop PC.

Apple has made huge strides in the notebook market, and with a midrange Mac, perhaps 1% more Windows users would see a computer that makes sense and change platforms. Maybe more than 1% - if Apple ever gives them the opportunity.

Apple is great a creating new markets and seems poised to do that for tablet computing, but it's ignoring a huge market by not offering a Mac between the Mini and the Mac Pro.

Update: It's been brought to my attention that there is another reason for the restore partition. Microsoft makes it financially advantageous for PC makers to use a restore partition in lieu of shipping new PCs with Windows install discs, a step Microsoft takes to combate piracy.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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