Dr MacLove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Apple

tumblr_lvuw7pdsFg1r2r3c4o1_500Back in the 90s it was easy; if you were a graphic designer, or some kind of proto-hipster with a trust fund you used a Mac. Everyone else used a PC. Then in the 2000s Apple started making iThings, everyone started going absolutely batshit crazy over them, and suddenly Macs were everywhere as well.

I’ve used both in parallel since about 2003 – I started off with a G5 power mac as a desktop complemented by a Windows laptop, but that’s now reversed with a Windows 7 PC on my desk at work, and a MacBook Air. This shift was significant – the desktop is what’s provided to me by my job, the laptop is my personal computer; what I choose to buy for myself.  Despite using OS X since 2003 I only really started liking it when I got my first Apple laptop – a 2009 MacBook Pro. This was also around the time that I got an iPhone 3G, which seemed like some incredible advanced artefact from the future compared to the chunky ‘smartphone’ I was using before that ran Windows Mobile 6.5; an unbelievably awful OS which I could never get to work as it should. I’ve since swapped the Pro for a 2012 MacBook air, bought an iPad mini, and am on my third iPhone, so my conversion is pretty much complete. I’ve looked at Android ‘phones and tablets, honestly, I have. Some of them are very nice, but the OS just always seems too…  busy. Maybe it’s my age, but I just want something I can pick up and use without a massive learning curve. I’m happy to stand up and say I’m an Apple-guy, and it took a while, but I’m finally actually OK with that.

It took a while, but I’ve now found Mac versions or fairly close equivalents for all the software I used on my PC. At first I sometimes used to boot into Windows using bootcamp to use a couple of applications, but I deleted the partition a while ago – I just wasn’t using it anymore. I probably won’t be spending money on any Windows machines for the foreseeable future. I know that Mac vs. Windows is one of the most hackneyed, pointless and bitter debates on the entire internet, but I just couldn’t resist setting my own bit of troll-bait out. Here, then, are the major reasons I became a Mac convert – your mileage may vary, personal opinions only, blah blah.

The MacBook Air
The Air is the machine that kicked off the ultrabook trend and, to my mind, PC manufacturers have still yet to equal the Air’s amazing combination of power, usability and portability. My 2012 model is greased-lightning-off-a-shovel fast – it chews through a set of fMRI pre-processing twice as fast as my old MB Pro, and that was no slouch either. The 2013 models are even faster, with better graphics and a frankly ridiculous 12-hour battery life. If you can live with a relatively small (128/256Gb) amount of storage, it’s a peach of a machine. Plus, I can carry it around all day and barely even notice the weight. For my money, the Air is the best value computer out there – I don’t think the step-up in performance you get with the Pro is worth the price, personally.

The Apple Trackpad
Using the trackpad on a Windows laptop feels like going back to the stone age after you’re used to the fantastic set of multi-touch gestures on an Apple laptop. Have never found one on a PC that even comes close.

Migration Assistant
Remember the excitement of getting a new computer and then the agony of re-installing all your applications, and tweaking the system to get it the way you like it? That pain doesn’t exist for me anymore. Apple’s Migration Assistant lets you do a time-machine back-up of your old computer on to an external  drive, plug that into the new one and everything is reproduced; your applications, desktop, OS settings, bookmarks, everything. It’s awesome.

OS X’s system of virtual desktops is brilliant, and essential for me, now that I’ve got used to it; flipping between desktops with ctrl+left/right arrow keys is fast and smooth, and means you can really extend the limits of what can be done on a 13″ laptop screen. I have no idea why Windows doesn’t implement virtual desktops.

In the last couple of years I’ve switched to using FSL as my main fMRI-analysis platform. FSL is developed on Macs, runs well on other Unix systems, but needs some kind of unix-emulation to run on Windows. Urgh – forget it. I do like being able to open up a terminal and institute little tweaks to the OS and applications as well. Of course Matlab/SPM and BrainVoyager also run beautifully on OS X.

To install an application on OS X you drag it to a folder. To uninstall it you drag it to the recycle bin. That’s it.

Mac-only software
Osirix is without any shadow of a doubt, the best free DICOM image viewer available, and it’s Mac-only. Other things like Automator I’d really miss too, plus of course Apple’s super-fast and comprehensive spotlight search is awesome.

No crapware
You know all that shit you have to uninstall as soon as you get a new PC? Free trials of anti-virus software, media players, desktop icons that link to shitty Yahoo services you have no intention of ever using? Doesn’t exist in OS X.


Having said all that, of course there are annoying things that drive me crazy about OS X too. No system is perfect after all…

No Cut/Paste
You can copy and paste files between two file locations, but you can’t CUT and then paste. Seriously Apple, is this really a problem?

Annoying behaviour of the green button
The green button at the top of the window that I still think of as the ‘maximise’ button – it’s annoying. It seems to re-size the window pretty much randomly. I hate it.

For the love of all that is holy Apple, will you please do something about the benighted clusterfuck that is iTunes? It’s utterly heinous.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments. If you think Windows 8 is the greatest OS ever devised, please say so. Personally I think it’s a botched, compromise that tries to bring touch-functionality to laptops and laptop-functionality to tablets and does neither well, but hey, that’s just my opinion. Windows is like Star Trek movies – every other one in the series is decent, which means Windows 9 should actually be pretty usable.

Anyway – flame on!


About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on August 1, 2013, in Hardware, Software and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. If one does need to use Windows on a Mac, would you recommend booting into a partition or using something like VMware Fusion (independent of cost)?

    • I’ve got no experience of VMWare I’m afraid, but I’ve done it both ways – i.e. booting into a separate partition, and virtually using Parallels. Both work fine – I ended up preferring Parallels for the sake of convenience – rebooting every time you want to switch is a pain. However, if you want to run anything memory heavy you’re better off doing it with Bootcamp, obviously.

      There’s a free virtualisation option called VirtualBox though – https://www.virtualbox.org/ I’d give that a try and see if it suits your needs.

    • It can be done the other way around too, using a “Hackintosh.” In my opinion, it depends which OS you are more comfortable with. As someone who is using PC more but find Macs to be more efficient at media editing, I’ve build a system to run primarily WIn 8 and have another partition for Mountain Lion. It does take more preparation (for example, some hardware may not be compatible), having said that, it can cost less to build the same specs machine and can buy Apple accessories to go with it!

      Nice article Matt!

  2. Christina Van Heer

    Hey Matt,

    I’m finding my Macbook Pro (2011) increasingly annoying to carry around, and was thinking of getting an air instead – from your experience does it run things like MATLAB and Python fast enough compared to your old Macbook Pro?



    • Hi Chris,

      The SSD (solid state disk) in the MB Air makes a huge difference – really speeds things up compared to a traditional hard drive. I’m pretty sure you’ll find a modern Air MUCH faster than a 2011 Pro – they’re just insanely fast. And much easier to carry around too of course…


  3. Any thoughts on Mac/PC/Unix servers for an neuroimaging lab? We’ve been using windows servers for years but need an upgrade. One server would serve a dozen users, and we’ll probably be using SPM for the forseable future. Apparently Remote Desktop is faster than either X11 tunneling or VNC, which would be our Mac/Unix server options.

    • Hi,

      In my lab we use a remote linux cluster (48 cores, 256GB of RAM!) which is great in some ways, but does sometimes involve a lot of tedious shuttling of data back and forth. Personally, these days I’m a fan of doing as much as possible locally – desktop systems are so capable these days I see little need for much more grunt than that. If you want a unified system for lots of users though I can see why a server might still be attractive. I’m afraid I’m not really much of an expert on server-side stuff… Most labs I know of use a Linux system for their servers though. I’m fairly surprised that Remote Desktop is faster than X11 forwarding – I guess it might depend on the system and how many users, etc. You might think about trying out NX as well (http://www.nomachine.com/products.php) – similar to VNC but supposed to be faster/slicker.

      Sorry – not very useful!

      • To the contrary, this helps a lot! We would also like to run models on local machines (as well as the server), but then this would entail a more global lab conversion, since we have a bunch of windows desktops and we’d be worried about compatibility between different distributions of SPM, or even differences in preprocessing on different platforms (e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22675527). But i want FSL commands at least once a day (so convenient sometimes), and emulators have never been convenient for me. NX looks interesting, I’ll give it a try!

  4. I thought you could cut and paste by doing command+c and then option+command+v?

  5. Hi Matt,

    Great blog, wish I’d found it sooner!

    I was wondering if you have any thoughts: ordering an iMac for my desk at work. How much RAM and storage would you advise? I previously ran my analyses on the main servers using an in-house program, but now I’ll be using SPM/MATLAB to analyse fmri (inc. resting state). I’m not sure yet how or ‘where’ this analysis takes place, locally or main servers, and what this means for the iMac specs I’ll need (and price!)

    Thanks for any help!

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