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I’m Not a Mac #6–OS X Elements I’d Like to Take With Me

(Graphic: Some things I have to hand to Apple. The ease of Time Machine backups is one of them.)

This post is part of my “I’m Not a Mac” series, chronicling my controversial migration away from Apple Computer after 15 years as a Mac user. Find other entries in the “I’m Not a Mac” series archive.

The last thing I want to do in this series is make Mac users happy–especially the rabid Apple fans who spent lots of time raging in previous comment threads. But there are elements of Mac OS X I love. They won’t motivate me to stick with the operating system, but I’d sure like to take them with me when I finish migrating to a new OS.

Primary among them is Time Machine, Apple’s point-and-click, behind-the-scenes backup functionality. I used to be a fan of ShirtPocket’s SuperDuper backup software which accomplishes a similar goal until Apple baked dead-easy incremental backups into the OS, itself.

Sure, Apple’s strategy isn’t perfect–especially when, as recently happened to me, you need to temporarily move a USB backup volume from plugging into your server, where it’s accessible over your network, to plugging directly into your local machine. Without some fancy footwork in a Terminal window, Time Machine just won’t recognize the same drive is still there. (Then again, maybe I should file this right back under Apple software that’s dumbed down for the masses?)

I like how Windows 7 provides a similar, GUI-based function in its Backup and Restore Center. And I especially appreciate that Windows 7 would allow me still to choose as my backup disk a volume on a Mac network. That’s important because I want to keep my media center server (read: my old, old Macbook) running OS X as a fallback OS environment until I’m fully settled in a new OS. And if I go with Linux as my new OS, I’ll need to keep OS X on my server machine in order to run iTunes and have any way of moving music and photos to my iPhone since Apple won’t port iTunes to Linux and the Linux community hasn’t (yet) finished devising a workaround.

Unfortunately, Linux doesn’t have a history of graphical, user-friendly backup solutions. That’s understandable, since the OS has long been the choice of tinkerers and other computer geeks (ahem, like me) who prefer a truly customizable computing environment. That means there are a wide variety of backup solutions requiring you to configure them in a Terminal window or offering up old-school, text-based lists of previously backed-up items when it comes time to recover a file you’ve lost.

Since Linux is the front-runner for my new-OS affections (and especially the proprietary driver-friendly Linux Mint), that’s also annoying. I know I can use the almost baked-in rsync or Time Machine-ish solutions like Flyback or Back in Time, but as Linux users regularly note in community forums across multiple distributions, the lack of a clear, easy, GUI-licious backup strategy may be a roadblock to some users considering adopting the OS. (I’m pulling for Linux, but honestly, one look at the ridiculous verbosity and Terminal-happy strategies presented on the Ubuntu 9.10 documentation page on backups is enough to make the average home user run screaming back to Redmond.)

It’s not a roadblock, though, and I’m sure I’ll make do with what’s out there if I choose to go through with an OS switch to Linux. Equally important to me is the ability to customize my desktop. Not that I have all that much choice about my menubar and dock in Mac OS X, but I have grown great affection for old die-hard Mac application launcher DragThing. With it, I can append folders full of app and document shortcuts anywhere on–or just off of–my desktop as I see fit. Windows has long had numerous app launchers like DragThing, but none that I know of comes close to the Mac software’s finesse and ease of customization.

On the Linux side, launcher-like “drawers” are baked into the OS taskbar. But unlike DragThing, unless I’m missing something, you can’t label the drawers so you can actually see what’s in them before you open them. That’s a hindrance. (If anyone knows of a DragThing-like app on the Linux side of things, I’d love to know about it.)

Another feature I’d like to take with me when I go is Mac OS X’s Stacks, newly updated in Apple’s recent Snow Leopard OS, which allows me to (in Windows and Linux parlance) “pin” frequently used folders of applications and documents to the dock and, more importantly, easily navigate through their hierarchies by simply clicking on them. I use that feature now to instantly drill down to find important client folders and work items.

Windows 7 won’t let you pin folders to its taskbar in a similar way. Try to pin a folder and the OS asks you if you want to indirectly pin it to the taskbar’s Windows Explorer icon. Requiring you to open another app’s Jump List in order to access a frequently needed folder seems like an unnecessary step to make users take in the name of efficiency or speed. You can pin frequent folders to the Mac-clone RocketDock launcher, but the drill-down functionality of OS X’s updated Stacks still isn’t there (yet, I’m thinking.) Meanwhile, Linux will let you go ahead and add a folder to a taskbar. But like Windows’ third-party RocketDock, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get a Stacks-like content preview to pop-up.

Overall, though, no matter how loud Macworld or PC Mag may shout that the desktops of their respective OSes of choice are “customizable,” out of the box compared to Linux, they almost aren’t. Without third-party help, Mac OS X won’t even let you rearrange the notification items in the menubar’s “taskbar” area. And unlike Windows, that menu/taskbar is staying put at the top of the screen. Your main–and only real–choice? Deciding whether you want your dock on the bottom or to the left or right of your screen. At least in Windows 7, you get the choice to put the taskbar on the top of the screen, too.

Taskbar customization options in Linux, however, practically require a seatbelt. At least in GNOME (with KDE, one of the two leading Linux desktop environments), compared to Mac and Windows the choices are astounding. Not only can you decide to use multiple taskbars, but you get to choose exactly which items to display on each of them and where to put those items, to boot. That includes application menus, battery icons, search widgets, sign-off buttons, Wifi indicators…essentially any item you’ve ever seen in a Mac menubar or a Windows taskbar and most likely any item you ever will is pinnable, removable, and movable at whim on a Linux taskbar–on however many taskbars you choose to surround your screen with.

The previous paragraph is absolutely no news to Linux users. However, much like my reaction upon learning this, I’m sure a few Windows–and yes, even Mac–users out there have their jaws on their knees right now. It’s just this idea of an OS that works with me instead of against me to create the kind of computing environment that works best for…well, for me (as it should be for any user) that keeps me coming back to the idea of migrating to Linux.

Of course, that’s this week. Although I’ve zeroed in on two potential new Oses at this point–Windows 7 and Linux Mint–those may change as my explorations deeper into each of them continue. So leaving Mac aside, I’m curious to know the wider OS community’s opinion on the relative merits of Windows vs. Linux. Let me know your thoughts in the comment thread below. Your input has been great guidance so far and I’m grateful for it.

Categories: "I'm Not a Mac" Series

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


6 replies

  1. Hi Mike,

    I just came across your entries about your switch from Mac. I wish you luck as you explore different options. It sounds as though you’ve done far more research than most and will likely find a good solution.

    Well-wishes out of the way, I wanted to plug two different options:

    First, you might consider using Windows as your primary OS and then running a virtual machine for Linux. Though I am mostly a Linux user (there are several scientific programs I need that are Unix only), it isn’t the primary OS on any of my five computers.

    Rather, I run it in a virtual machine. Due to some tweaks in the Kernel (called paravirtualization), Linux knows when it is running natively on hardware versus when it runs in a virtual environment. Such awareness allows for the Kernel to optimize itself depending on the environment it happens to be running in.

    This greatly improves performance. On my main computer at work (a quad core scientific workstation), I sometimes forget that I’m working in a virtualized environment.

    With this arrangement, I can use Windows and its superior hardware support while still having access to all of the Open Source tools I’ve come to rely on. It really is a best of both worlds scenario. Moreover, I can have multiple Linux desktops installed at the same time; each one corresponds to a different testing environment.

    If you go this route, you might want to look at VirtualBox, a free solution from Sun. I personally use VMWare workstation 7 (and would recommend it to anyone), but it can feel a bit pricey when there are free alternatives.

    Second, if you are looking for a good Unix backup GUI, you might take a look at Time Drive:

    It puts a wrapper around the excellent command line utility, Duplicity. (I’m also one of the main devs, so I have a bit of a conflict of interest. But it never hurts to plug your own program.)

    As a sometimes Mac user, I am also sorry to hear about the treatment you’ve received. But, if I say something negative about the mother-ship, I get similar comments. What is truly terrifying, however, is that they come from some of my scientific colleagues. You would think that intelligent people with advanced degrees wouldn’t be quite so snickered into the same cult-like mindset.


    Rob Oakes

  2. Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Copy is great for backups IMO of course it lacks the GUI based systems you seem to prefer. There is a commercial product called “Genie Timeline” that I’ve read has almost Time Machine quality aspects to it you could try out their 30 day trial and go with that, for windows 7 only of course.

    As for something like Dragthing, after cruising around the Dragthing forums and finding a user asking if there ever was gonna be a port for a windows environment (snarky, elitist, comments included) some of the users suggested these:

    Launchmate (it’s commercial though)
    Cooltabs (looked interesting but not my thing)
    RKlauncher (looks like rocketdock IMO but with more complexity)
    Objectdock (the mac user who promoted this one gushed about how he/she could customize it to look almost like a MAC among other things)
    I also recommend Nexus dock which includes, among other things, a way to skin it to look exactly like MacOSx leopard 🙂

    Try those, however I feel like Windows 7’s dock is good enough for me and for anything to complex Rocketdock is still my choice.

  3. More annoying in Windows is that if you move the taskbar to the top or side of the screen then applications, in particular MS applications, will lay over the top of the taskbar. Sometimes all the way, sometimes part way. It’s annoying as all get out. Applications just EXPECT it to be at the bottom.

  4. Thanks, Andy. These are kind of cludgy, though, huh? I’ll try out the folder pinning hack (#65 above) as soon as I can to see how it works. Do you think Microsoft will “improve” the Windows 7 taskbar at some point and let folders be directly pinnable there?

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