Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When being "objective" is being "biased"

I did the most unconscionable thing a few weeks ago. Something I've resisted for a very long time. I bought a Mac. For the first time. Ever. I'm not against Macs or Apple in general (I own an iPod and a Zune), in fact I find them very quaint and highly capable. Ever since they succumbed to the Intel juggernaut, my interest was piqued. They are no longer tied to what had become a "boutique" CPU, the PowerPC, but rather to a tried-and-true, mainstream, continuously developed and advancing architecture.  Say what you will about all the flaws (and there are many) with whole x86 architecture, it is here to stay, is getting some serious industry investment from both Intel, AMD, and even VIA.  Remember the whole IA64 (Itanium) phase?  This just proves the point that even Intel cannot stop the force they created.  AMD, recognized this early on and created the AMD64 extensions to the existing x86 architecture.  Eventually, Intel realized that they're only reasonable course of action was to jump onto that bandwagon.  It is the biggest example of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."  Apple finally realized this when the powerPC just wasn't able to keep up in terms of raw CPU power and the onslaught of the multi-core CPU. Apple had to cut costs, and the easiest way to do it was to join the commoditized-to-the-hilt x86 industry.  Yes, this is old news.

I'll get to the real motivation for swallowing my pride and buying the Mac in a moment. This article popped up on my RSS feed and it really resonated with me.  Regardless of the comments, which all too painfully only served to prove the author's point (and which I'm sure there will be comments to this post which will do the same thing), it was interesting to see something I've long suspected, actually put into words.  It was also so apropos since I've, sort of, joined the ranks of Mac owners. The gist of this article and the book from which it is excerpted (from what I can gather), is that we're all very passionate, like to "belong," and want to feel validated and sometimes even lauded for our choice in car, home, clothes, spouse, occupation, religion, computer, etc... Yes, I admit that I sometimes feel much the same way as the stereotypical Apple-fanboy when confronted with valid, well-reasoned, unbiased analysis.

This hit home all too well lately because, well, this new Mac is not really mine.  Yes, I was involved with its purchase, but I don't actually use it.  See, my wife has decided to return to school and formally pursue something she's come to really enjoy over the past few years, graphic design and layout.  It started with doing monthly newsletters for the local Mothers of Twins club (my daughters are twins), then on to doing other various projects, and finally culminated in doing the entire Scotts Valley High School annual Football program.  She's already committed to do it again for the Fall-2008 season. She has used PCs (natch) for many years and has a very nice 17" notebook. Now that she's back in school, which is where she's at while I write this post, it became painfully obvious that there is a very clear bias in this particular field toward the mac.  Sure, the same applications are available for the PC, but to be truly "accepted" shouldering a mac really helps. Most printers happily work with raw files from these specific applications and will actually charge hefty fee if you submit work using certain PC-only applications. It also makes the professor actually want to talk with you.

Here is where this whole Mac-fanboy, "Apple can do no harm," attitude really hit me.  As relayed by my wife, this professor unequivocally stated on the first day of class that you must use the Mac version of the applications.  The pure shock and horror on the professor's face when asked if one could use the PC versions had to be priceless. A similar attitude was expressed when my wife submitted some homework which had a few things marked off.  The professor actually told her that she must not have used a laser printer because a laser printer would have printed correctly.  Well, that chapped my hide to no end... I wanted to load up my nice COLOR laser printer into the truck, drag it up to her class and plop it into the middle of the professor's classroom and insist that they prove to me that this is not a stinkin' laser printer! (no, it is not one of those dye-sublimation or "melted crayon" printers) That lasted for only a few moments as I stood there speechless and dumbfounded.  Upon further examination and obtaining more information, it turns out that it wasn't printed on the same brand and model laser printer that the professor used.  See this is a design and layout class for printed medium, and to grade the work, it is not about the content (which is usually that funky fake Latin text), but about its layout and presentation on the page.  So where things are is more important that whether or not you spelled some word correctly.  Ok, that makes sense, she'll have to use the school's laser printers instead of ours.

The whole purchasing experience was just too surreal.  You walk into an Apple store, and it is literally like being a voyeur to this whole cult-like Apple... thing...  I just cannot explain it.  We'd already researched exactly which Mac we're going to get and we'll use my wife's student ID for a discount.  It was simply a matter of walking up to the machine we wanted, point to it and grunt a few syllables about how we're going to pay for it and instruct the resident drone to walk back through the stainless steel door at the back of the store to obtain said box of Jobs' magic.  The top-of-the-line 17" MacBook Pro is certainly a sexy bit of hardware. You just cannot deny that. That was nearly four weeks ago. At about two weeks into this, things started going a little south on us.

Once some of the applications needed for the class arrived (after getting some nice deep student discounts), it was time to install them.  I get this frantic message from my wife saying that the machine won't recognize the disk, and now it won't even boot!  Hmmm, ok...  not. good.  Oh, yeah, the whole "see I knew it!" flags started popping up in my head all over the place.  They do have flaws!  Eventually, she was able to eject the disk, after making some really horrendous noises and still never recognizing the disk.  Less than two weeks old, and the Super-drive is dead.

You gotta love this, you can make an appointment at the "Genius bar" online.  So we did.  Drove back to the store and met with the "Genius" (yes, I'm snickering here...).  We explained that we've had the machine for barely two weeks and only now had an occasion to use the drive and this is what happened.   They tested it and, sure enough, no workee.  Just nasty noises.  I was ready for what happened next.  I asked if they're going to "send it in" for repair.  I was all ready to explain that if they went down that road, I'd be a little irritated because, to me this was a failure that left the factory in that condition and why should we be without the machine for however long it takes to fix it.  Also, I'd just be inclined to return it for a refund.  Luckily, they saw the logic agreed to simply replace the machine.

Yeah!  They're going to replace it... not so fast, there buckaroo. It turns out that we'd bought the machine only a few days before Apple decided to announce some minor changes to the whole MacBook line.  New things like LED backlit LCD, multi-touch track pad, newer Penryn-based CPU.  That all meant they were out of stock.  Rats.  They said they'd call once the new machines were in.  (I've heard that song and dance all too often) For the next week, we called the store several times and still no shipments. We contemplated simply getting a refund and ordering online, but that would mean not having the machine for school.  Finally, yesterday, they actually called. A new machine had been set aside and to come in anytime.  After arriving, we explained why we're there and they walked back through those sterile stainless steel doors, and returned with a box to which was affixed a post-it note with my wife's name on it.  Nice.

After about another hour as they transferred the documents, settings and applications, we were on our way.  And, yes, I did have them test the drive to make sure it worked :-).  All-in-all, Apple's service was pleasant and understanding.  I'd have to say that the hardware is no higher or lower quality than a solid ThinkPad or some of the newer Dells (older Dell notebooks had, ahem, some real issues).  They're certainly more "artsy" looking than a pure utilitarian PC notebook. And OS X? It's just different. Some things I like about it, and others just make me want to scream. I can say the same things about XP or Vista.

I'm sure many will see through my "unbiased" view straight to the obvious bias in this post.  And for those Apple-haters, I hope this redeems me; sitting next to me here in my home office, is a new, home-built, overclocked quad-core, 4GB, Vista x64, 512MB nVidia 8800, 1TB raid, PC rig that I had to build to seek forgiveness and cleansing from committing  Apple-adultery ;-).