Saturday, January 26, 2013

Macs and PCs

So you know that I'm now an independent consultant/contractor and working with a larger defense contracting firm.  I work from home.  And I've had a Mac for over four years now.  As much as I love my Mac, though, it just wasn't cutting the mustard for work.  So I bought a Dell laptop with Windows 8.  Which is a bitch.  But everything will work out in the end.  And now, the rest of the story.

I've been a Mac proponent ever since I got my little Macbook.  They're high-quality items: the hardware is sturdy, the software (mostly) just works without drama, and once you get used to the Apple way of doing things, they're intuitive.  I thought my Mac would perform well for work.  After all, it can read Word documents and save in Word format, and read Excel documents and save in Excel format, and email is email, right?

No.  Yes, the Mac will read Word documents, but then it saves in Apple's own Pages format.  You have to tell it to "export" a document into Word or PDF format if you're going to send it on to your cohorts on PC's.  That leaves you with at least two versions of the same document on your computer.  And the conversion process is not entirely error-proof, as I discovered when a client complained about some hammered files.  It's the same with Excel spreadsheets, which are opened in Apple's Numbers program, and Powerpoint presentations, which are opened in Keynote.  Now Apple's programs are not bad.  Pages is a really good word processor, and Keynote is as good as Powerpoint, but Numbers is only a basic spreadsheet that is nowhere near as powerful as Excel.  And there's nothing in the Apple world to compare to Microsoft's Access database (at least, not without spending lots and lots of $$$).

The Mac's Mail system had its own issues.  My computer monitors several email accounts, and it seemed to occasionally pick an email account at random to send from.  So instead of sending from my official work email address, it would sometimes send from, say, our joint personal address.  Very embarrassing and unprofessional.

So it was clear to me that I needed a separate computer specifically for work, and that the computer had to be a PC of some sort.  We've had two Dell computers in the past, and I worked on Dells in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I went with what I knew.  I ordered a 17" Dell Inspiron laptop with Microsoft Office Professional.  It came with Windows 8 installed, rather than the older (safer?) Windows 7.  The UPS guy delivered it this past week and I've been playing with it since then.

The reviews are mixed so far.  On the positive side, I've had no more embarrassing faux pas with my email addresses.  Outlook works well - it's much more capable than the Mac's Mail, anyway, and to my eyes, it's much easier to find, sort, file, and store emails.  It's a relief to be able to work with ONE version of a Word or Excel document rather at least two.  Excel can do so much more with spreadsheets than Numbers can.  And I've got some Access database files that I can finally open up and fiddle with.

On the negative side, I've got a few things to gripe about.  For starters, this Dell computer is not built at all to the quality standards of our previous ones.  The keyboard is flimsy and the casing doesn't feel sturdy.  It is nowhere near the same class as my 4-year old Macbook.  But all the hardware works and the 17" screen is nice.  If you're looking for a sturdy computer, though, go with the more expensive Dell Latitude or a Lenovo (previously known as IBM).

Although Microsoft Office works fine, this new Windows 8 system is a kluge.  Microsoft took two good operating systems, one for the tablet and one for desktops and laptops, and jammed them together.  It's like taking a football lineman and a tennis player and making them play each other's games while tied together for a 3-legged race.  They're built to do different things and they just don't play well as one.  I had to go over to Barnes and Noble to pick up a "Windows 8 for Dummies" book (the large one, over 1,000 pages) just to get started.  Good thing I did, too, or I'd never have figured it out.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, is intuitive.

One of the annoyances of Windows 8 is that a lot of things are "apps" and open only in full-screen mode.  Things like the Reader program that opens PDF files.  Whose bright idea was that?  I want to be able to open PDF files in windows that I can resize as necessary, so that I can look at the PDF file in one window while making notes or writing emails about it in another.  Win 8 doesn't give you that option.

Another annoyance is that some programs open up as both "apps" and "programs".  Internet Explorer is one.  If you open it as an app, it's full-screen; open as a program, it's in a window.  That in itself is not a problem, except that they are really two entirely separate things.  If you save a bookmark in the app version, it doesn't save in the program version.  Dumb.

But most of this is minor.  Microsoft is betting the farm on Windows 8, so I think they'll make major improvements in Windows 8.1 and 8.2.  Meanwhile, what I've got is now taking care of business, so I'll keep it.

Lessons learned:
- If you work from home, you need separate computers for your work and personal worlds.
- Macs are great, but they don't play very well in a primarily PC business network.
- If you want a sturdy computer, don't get a Dell Inspiron.
- If you get Windows 8, get one of the many books to tell you how to use it.

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