Blog

No More Apple

[I didn't really intend my first blog post here to be so long, but that's kind of the way this turned out. Sorry!]

For the first time in my adult life, I don't own or use a single Apple product or service for my personal use. This is a strange situation for me, as I've used Apple computers going back to the early tombstone Macs, and my Masters thesis was typed out on a Powerbook 180. I've had multiple desktop and laptops since then, and have been an Apple defender (mostly). Heck, I even worked at frog design, which did much of the early Apple industrial design. For several years I used Aperture, Apple's pioneering foray into high-end photo management/editing.

But.

About 5 years ago things started niggling at me. I was getting really dissatisfied with how Apple was handling cloud-based services like email, calendering and contacts, and made the switch to Google for those. At the same time, I switched from iPhone to Android, and haven't look back since. I moved to Lightroom from Aperture. But I continued to use Mac laptops and Mac OS as my core computing experience. I hated Windows, and the laptops were mostly junk. I'm an industrial designer at heart, and I have a whole photography project dedicated to well-designed physical products, Mass Made Soul, and I just couldn't bring myself to use those plasticky, cheapo Dells and HP's.

That changed recently, when I bought a Microsoft Surface Book running Windows 10 as my personal computer (I still have a 13" MacBook Air that work supplies me). No-one was more surprised than me that I made this switch.

I realize this puts me into a currently very small minority - usually the switching goes from Windows to Mac. But that's fine, I've always been an underdog brand supporter (hence Apple for so many years, Fuji and Pentax before that rather than Canon or Nikon, and now, bizarrely, Microsoft is the underdog).

But the Surface Book is really appealing for a photographer: a great screen with a 3:2 ratio that perfectly matches the files output by my Fujifilm cameras, so they are really immersive when viewed full-screen. Enough horsepower and capacity to be a travel machine, without being too heavy. And it's got touch and stylus for photo retouching, which is often so much faster and easier.

I bought it before the new MacBook Pros were announced, and the loss of the SD card slot and older USB slots reinforced that I'd made the right decision. (Fuji cameras are pretty good with wifi, but it's still slower to set up and transfer than just whipping out an SD card. Plus, the sneakernet approach doesn't drain the camera battery, important when you're out in the field.)

The sleek, unrepentant edginess of the Surface Book design reminds me of the Powerbook G4 Titanium that was such a huge breakthrough for Apple in 2001 (same year the first iPod was launched). The clever electro-mechanical engineering in it is the type of thing that Apple used to do. It has much more personality than the MacBook Pros, which have become like Toyota Camrys - reliable, serviceable, good value, but so commonplace as to be boring. I quite like the quirky gap between the top and bottom when the Surface Book is closed, even though it makes it thicker. And the rounded edge when it's folded up is comfortable to carry around in your palm with it tucked under your arm.

Why switch?

Beyond these factors, it's been clear for a while now that Apple is just not that interested in its pro users or more demanding creative users. In both hardware and software, Apple has shown that its focus lies on mainstream consumers, which I understand from a business standpoint, but is a shame given that pro creatives basically kept the company alive during its dark decades.

This isn't just about performance and hardware updates - the latter of which Apple has been shamefully slow on in recent years for its high end machines. It's also about transparency and respecting your customers. Before Aperture finally died, it had been neglected for years, with no communication from Apple as to its roadmap or indications that it was even being properly supported by the company. Apple seems to have forgotten that creatives live as much by their workflows as they do by shiny hardware and speed - and is either oblivious or uninterested in supporting workflows that don't fit its vision of how the world should be - wireless, minimalist, single-minded, and all within the Apple ecosystem. That's just not how the world works for a lot of people.

The recent TouchBar not withstanding, Apple's resistance to touch on Macs is maddening. Touch capabilities just make so much sense for creative work. And I'm not interested in the half-baked apps, performance and storage on the iPad - maybe OK for light stuff, but not for culling through a 1,000 images and editing the keepers. Eventually maybe the iDevices will get there, but in the here and now the Surface Book gives me the best of both worlds.

Instead, much of the enhancements to MacOS have focused on the Apple ecosystem (more $$ for Apple that way), which I've abandoned, and integration with iPhones and iOS (ditto), which I don't have. So there's very little that I've found compelling for several years of MacOS updates, and in fact the garish colors it uses now I find really unattractive and distracting - I want my content to be my focus, not the OS chrome.

Another impetus for switching was OneNote, which is far, far superior on Windows, and I was really attracted to taking notes by hand and the drawing/markup capabilities that OneNote offers with pen-based machines like the SurfaceBook. When Evernote changed their pricing plans earlier this year, despite being a longtime paying customer I had started looking at OneNote, and switched over several months ago.

I'm also excited to get back into sketching, something I used to do daily as an industrial designer, but am now pretty poor at. So I've got Sketchbook Pro and Sketchable both installed and have been enjoying using the Surface Book in tablet mode.

So what's it like to switch?

As a piece of hardware, the SurfaceBook is great. I have a higher-end but not top-spec i7 model, and get 7-8 hours of typical use on battery. The Windows Hello login (infrared 3D camera to do facial recognition) is great, even more convenient than the new MacBook Pro's TouchID.

I love being able to use it like a regular laptop, or turn the screen around (with keyboard facing away) on my lap if I'm more in consumption mode that's all touch-driven (web surfing, YouTube videos). And I'm now constantly trying to press on and swipe the screen of my MBA...you just get used to fluidly moving between different modalities, hard to go back. I was worried about screen wobble as the computer is basically all in the screen portion and it's a bit top-heavy on that crazy hinge. But it's been a non-issue.

The keyboard on the SurfaceBook is one of the best I've ever used, period. Just a delight to type on. I wish it had dedicated keys for controlling screen brightness (Fn-Del and Fn-Backspace work, but hard to remember and completely non-obvious.) I haven't tried the new MB Pro keyboards yet, and I understand some people like them, but the Mac Book one I detest.

The Surface Book means a new AC adapter...but heck I'd need to throw out the several Mac power cords I've gathered over the years anyway if I were to get a new MB Pro. And guess what, the SB connector is MagSafe like!

It definitely takes some adjusting with the new OS. But I like how the Start menu works in Windows 10 and how quick it is to type to find what I need (like Spotlight but just a touch more convenient). I never really cared for the MacOS dock, and generally kept it to less than a dozen items so they could be a reasonable size and quickly found/accessed. (Typing into Spotlight was used for everything else). The 2D Start menu gives you much more freedom to group things logically, and make the hit targets larger or smaller depending on the prominence you want, rather than most- and lesser-used apps all being the same size in the dock.

Windows Explorer definitely needs a visual overhaul as it's really out of step with the newer, flat look of the OS UI, and keyboard shortcuts are messily inconsistent, but I'm adapting (and try to spend as little time in Explorer as possible). Seer provides most of the Quick-Look functionality of Finder, something I couldn't live without.

Windows 10 is for sure not as polished as MacOS, but between web-based apps and Lightroom, there's not much else right now that I'm doing with the machine, and these work the same across platforms.

Will it stick?

We'll see how things go over the long haul. Maybe I'll get dissatisfied again and switch back, or Apple will reinvigorate its approach to pro/creative-focused machines and software, or there will be some killer app/feature that I must have that will make me return to the fruit fold. But for right now, somewhat to my surprise and not without some complaints, I'm quite happy with Microsoft and Windows.

Techno Buffalo on switching from Mac to Windows, with some good tips.