A PC Guy’s Review of Mac OS

As the decision to upgrade to Windows 10 looms for many, another popular consideration will be to not upgrade at all and instead go the Mac route. Here are some considerations if that path is weighing on your mind. I am a day-to-day Windows PC user, but well versed in all the major operating systems. I’ve spent a lot of time with all versions of Windows desktop and server, 5 versions of VMware (Linux based), 4 versions of Android (Linux based), some RedHat, Ubuntu (Linux),  and finally got around to having extended play time with a new 13" MacBook Air running Mac OS X: El Capitan (also Unix based). It has been on my bucket list for a while now to finally see what all the fuss was about on the other side. I’ve used Macs and “i products” in passing over the years but these are completely different animals compared to the Mac OS products. My goal with this extended test drive was to see what it would be like to function using a Mac day to day. Could I do everything I’m used to doing or would there be sacrifices? Are there amazing things that I’ve been missing out on? How is the experience? This is just me being honest and sharing my perceptions as a long time PC power user. Take it or leave it. If I missed something or you know of a method I didn't identify, please drop a note in the comments.
TL;DR - I played with a MacBook for a month, here’s what I think about it. System under test:

Hardware is a Commodity

There are many famous party lines that come from the Apple camp: “It just works”, “Creative types and design studios use Macs”, “Macs are more secure”, “Macs are immune to viruses”, “A Mac is a 6 year investment”, and so on. For many, Mac vs Windows is religion and the debate will rage on until the end of time. One thing for certain is that hardware has become a commodity that is increasingly difficult to differentiate with alone. Apple as a general business model plays in the higher-end computing space with the minimum investment for a new MacBook ~$900. The mistake that many Apple converts seem to make is comparing their cheap, old, ailing $300 PC to a new $1000+ Mac and professing love for the superior device. Unless you just flat hate Windows for some reason, to make the comparison fair it needs to be apples to apples (pun). There is no low-end in the Apple portfolio which currently consists of 11 Mac OS-based products and this business model has suited them well. On the PC side, comparatively high-end hardware would be the likes of the Dell XPS 13, 15 or the Microsoft Surface Pro/ Book which are equally premium devices. Internally, these devices share many similarities: the same high performance CPUs from Intel, memory modules from the same chip makers, PCBs, LED screens, aluminum, glass...even the same manufacturing facilities in many cases (FoxConn). The look and feel of these devices is specialized and the marriage of software with carefully optimized hardware is where harmony occurs. Apple owns both ends of the story, as does Microsoft: hardware and software design. These product lines can ensure a native and pure user experience without any 3rd-party interruption or deviation detracting from the experience intended by the designers. This is exactly the reason why I use a Nexus 6P as my smartphone.
Here are the specs of largely similarly spec'd devices between Apple and Microsoft, although they clearly leap frog each other in some regards to make a 1:1 comparison almost impossible. To get a Core i5 CPU in the Surface portfolio (Skylake), minimum buy in is $1000 and that doesn't include the $130 Type Cover which you would probably want. Going beyond 128GB SSD and 4GB RAM in a Surface puts you at a much higher price point than a MacBook Air with 256GB SSD and 4GB RAM. It is worth mentioning that the display resolution is much higher on the Surface at 2736x1824 also with .6-inches of additional screen real-estate.
The main areas these companies have innovated from a physical perspective, besides choosing optimized CPU/RAM/Disk combinations, is in specific features unique to each platform; Apple had the first all aluminum chassis and one-button touchpad, Microsoft Surface has a customizable kickstand and detachable keyboard, Dell XPS has almost zero bezel with an incredible display. Apple’s Thunderbolt (trademarked by Intel) and Lightning connectors require expensive specialized cables. You will also find some of the industry standard connectors the likes of USB and HDMI but they seem to be slowly pushing towards proprietary connectors like the ipad/iphone. The standout hardware feature for me on the MacBook Air is the battery life and it isn't exaggerated. The Air is definitely light but I find the curves of the device to be generally too sharp. The Air slid out of my hands and from a 2" drop the corner of the laptop hit my end table and put a gouge in it. No damage to the Air thankfully. Being so thin it can also be a pain to open with only enough space to get in a finger nail. While a premium feeling device I'm often afraid of damaging it as it seems very fragile.
Both the Mac and Surface have magnetic power plugs, though executed very differently, Apple introduced first via their patented MagSafe technology.

The Mac Basics

Mac OS X is referred to as a “Unix-style” OS which finds its roots in BSD Unix originally from the 1970's and came to Apple courtesy of the acquisition of Steve Job’s company Next Computer, first introduced by Apple in 2001. In Unix every object within the file system is just a file with all functions under the control of a kernel, a very simple concept. Applications, settings, disk images... files can be removed or restored. It's really that simple. In Windows things can get more complicated with file associations, DLLs, registry entries, environment variables, etc. Unix also means that everything is case sensitive, folder names, filenames, usernames, app names...everything. Windows is more lenient, case sensitivity only applies to passwords.
For the most part the standard computing experience has become largely ubiquitous now across all platforms with a GUI (thanks Xerox). Point, left click or double-click and things happen. There are some pretty substantial differences in the Mac universe coming from Windows however. For one thing, right-clicking is really down played on a MacBook. In fact, on the MacBook track pad there isn’t even a right-click button, this is done using a 2-finger tap if required. Where there are things to be right-clicked, like apps pinned to the dock, the resulting context menus are pretty sparse. This isn’t really good or bad necessarily, just different. You can also of course add an external USB or “magic” wireless mouse and everything will work exactly the way you’re used to.
Something else that is very different is that all contextual menus for all apps are displayed on the top bar next to the Apple logo. Whatever the active app in the foreground will change this contextual menu list at the top left of the screen. Comparatively in Windows, any apps that have context menus are included within the app windows themselves. I found myself looking for settings sometimes and forgetting to look through the menus at the top of the screen.
Coming from what seems like a very intuitive set of controls in Windows 10, in the Mac I find that controlling the sizes of the various app windows doesn't seem at all as user friendly as it should be. The red close and orange minimize bubbles do essentially the same thing: minimize a running app. The red close bubble simply removes the affected app from view, it does not actually close it. To actually close an app, it must be killed which is done using command+q or right clicking the icon in the dock and selecting quit.  
If you click the green full screen bubble, it moves the app to a new dedicated desktop view to the right with the dock and top bar minimized. To just get an app to completely fill your main screen with all the other running apps, you have to manually drag out the corners, I don't like this. You can push the option button and hover over the green bubble which changes it to a + which will auto-expand the app vertically, but it does not fully maximize horizontally to fill all 4 corners of the active window.  
In Windows, you also have 3 buttons on every app Window but in the upper right-hand corner. These buttons do exactly what they advertise: minimize a running app to the task bar, restore an app window to a chosen non full screen size or maximize it to fill the entire screen and close (kill) the app.  Pretty simple. 
  Whether minimized or "closed", running apps are also visible in the dock and have a grey dot beneath their icons. Unless you force kill an app with command+q it will keep running.
Stacks can be created in the dock to the right of the app section separator which are limited to folders and have 3 basic display options. These are most like Taskbar toolbars in Windows that expose shortcuts to any folder you choose. I use these extensively to quickly navigate to heavily used files and folder. 
App grouping is only allowed within Launchpad, not the Dock, and works just like IOS by dragging apps on top of each other.  Windows does not allow app stacking on the TaskBar either, but does provide much richer customizable right-click jump lists that give specific contextual actions for a particular app. Mac only provides very basic options for each app:
  Windows right-click Jump Lists:
Launchpad is where officially installed apps are displayed. To open you can click the rocket ship icon in the dock, push the F4 button on the keyboard, or use a 3-finger + thumb pinch gesture to bring up the screen below. This is very IOS-esque in that you can drag icons on top of each other to create folders and if an app is removable it can be done so here with a long mouse click followed by clicking the associated X to remove. You cannot uninstall apps from this screen by dragging them to the trash. Apple is also pushing users towards only installing apps from the trusted Mac app store which insures the publisher of an app and minimizes risk of a user installing something malicious. Installing apps from the Mac App Store requires logging in with an Apple ID that becomes tied to the device.
Both Windows 10 and El Capitan offer a collapsible notification panel on the right side of the screen, both leaving a little more to be desired. Apple's panel is clean with displays of weather and stock info with a separate notification tab while Windows show only notifications but provides several toggles to enable/ disable common features. Ideally there should be a combination of these two approaches with toggles, notifications and live data sources. Apple's notification panel appears to be for apps only, much like a mobile device. I had a pending OS X system update but no notification of it anywhere outside of the App Store. Apple's panel is on the left below, Windows on the right. Image12[1]image16[1]
Both Mac and Windows mobile keyboards have 5 physical special keys, Macs have 6 total functions. For Mac: fn, control, option/ alt, command and shift. PC has Ctrl, fn, Windows key, Alt and shift. The Apple Command key most closely relates to the Ctrl key in Windows and as a result because of placement had me reaching for the fn key frequently on the Mac, being furthest to the left. Command or control +C (Mac) or Ctrl+C (Windows) = copy, command or control +P or Ctrl+P in Windows = paste and so on. The Windows key and Alt key are largely optional in Windows save for special shortcuts or using the classic Ctrl+Alt+Delete combination. In Mac the control and option keys are used far less but some combinations require them like switching tabs in browsers = control + tab or control+ shift + tab. I find myself reaching for the control key more often and having to correct and hit the inner command key.
The MacBook delete key should really be labeled "backspace" because this is what it does unless you hold the fn key, which changes the behavior to what is more generally expected.
Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201236
Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-10/keyboard-shortcuts
Mission Control is a neat feature that has been refreshed in El Capitan that shows all open apps arranged against the backdrop of your screen so you can see it all at once. Three fingers flicked up sets things in motion and shows a holistic view of app windows open. Command+ tab works too just like alt-tab in Windows. Add a new desktop workspace by clicking the + sign in the top right corner. I don't see an option to kill or close any of these windows from this view, you can only choose between them or drag one onto a different workspace. Image5_thumb[1]
Windows does essentially the same thing with the Window Key + Tab combination but cleanly aligns the displayed apps instead of staggering them. You can also kill apps from this view if desired by clicking the X in the corner of any app window. New desktop workspaces can be created by clicking the + sign in the lower right corner. Look familiar?

It's all about the apps

One thing that differs greatly between Mac OS and Windows is basic construct of managing applications, namely installation and removal. The safest way to operate in the Mac world is by installing apps only from the Mac App Store that have verified publishers, as discussed in the Security section below. Most application installs for Mac OS will come in the form of an Apple disk image which is a .dmg container file that usually houses a single .app file, constituting the application itself. If you're very lucky you'll get an uninstaller as well, more on this in a minute. The absolutely fantastic "Get Info" right-click item displays the details of the Evernote dmg below.
Launching this particular dmg opens the Evernote installer which quite simply provides a dialog to drag and drop Evernote.app to the Applications folder, which constitutes the entire install process, no other dependencies. Pretty simple.   
Once installed all properly installed applications will be visible in the Applications folder. To remove an application, dragging the .app file to the trash does the job. 
All of the preceding assumes perfect conditions with well behaved apps. The problem is that technically you can "install" an app anywhere, in any folder and execute it. Nothing mandates that you install everything to the Applications folder so if you aren't careful, you can lose track of where these applications live. Not only that but the removal of applications is not a clean process at all and there is no native assistance to facilitate a proper clean up, leaving app clutter in the file system. Moving an app to the trash is the uninstall. Everything must first go to the trash, there is no sidestep. Any files associated with an app are not always cleaned up when performing this uninstall, however.
Somewhat remarkably, many people turn to 3rd-party apps to facilitate the clean removal of apps in Mac OS. One of the fan favorites and best I tested is called App Trap. App Trap runs in the background monitoring anything that goes to the trash and can be configured to start when you log in. Once installed it assumes its proper place in the System Preferences page like a piece of the core OS.
Image(9)[3] image[34]
Moving an app to the trash signals App Trap that something is being uninstalled. It will find any associated files and offer to delete them as well, which would not have happened during the normal app deletion process. 
Some VERY well behaved apps will come packaged with an additional uninstaller app. This uninstaller would need to be saved somewhere and run later if need be to cleanly remove the app and all associated files. Of all the apps I tested with, the only one that came with an uninstaller was LastPass. Kudos to that great dev team!

App ShoutOuts

There’s a lot to like about many of the apps included in Mac OS and here are some that I found particularly good.
Spotlight is like Start search in Windows 10 but decoupled from any anchoring bar and movable anywhere you like. Back in the XP days I used an app called "Launchy" that brought the same features to Windows. Apple has partnered with Microsoft after a tiff with Google so web search results in Spotlight will be returned from Bing. This appears to be unchangeable to the chagrin of many users.
Finder is the file system explorer utility and has a couple of pretty great things going for it, namely embedded tabs and column view. There are still no tabs natively within Windows 10 and the 3rd-party tools that added this functionality in Windows 8 don't work well at the moment. Looking at the entire system disk, labeled "Macintosh HD", you can see that there are only 5 folders visible. I would prefer to see the entire contents of / here and the CLI method of enabling hidden system files doesn't appear to be working with this build of Mac OS. Hidden files and folders are easily enabled in Windows Explorer, for comparison. Connecting to network shares, especially Windows-based shares, will place .DS_Store metadata files for every folder touched. This happens locally too but since these files are hidden, Mac users probably never see them. This can be disabled by running the following command in the Terminal:
defaults write com.apple.desktopservices DSDontWriteNetworkStores true
Activity monitor is concise and effective with the energy tab serving as the killer unique feature. I find Windows Task Manager + Resource Monitor is a bit more advanced but this is still really good.
Printers & Scanners is a dead simple configuration utility that can be a real bother in other OSes, Linux especially (nightmare). Apple did a really good here making both functions extremely simple and easy to setup. No driver package to download, no ink buying nags, network scanning works natively...really impressive.
Terminal is a standard inclusion with any Linux distro and wields incredible power for those that know how to harness it. For some functions there is simply no GUI alternative so it's mandatory. I'm a huge fan of man pages.
Automator is an extremely robust automation tool that can be used to create a multitude of macros, scripts, workflows or services across a wide range of inputs and variables. This is probably the single neatest built-in app geared towards power users with a ton of potential to simplify many tasks.
Parental Controls gets a very special mention as Apple has done this incredibly well! No other OS, Windows, Android or Linux features controls this powerful or complete. The way it works is simple, you either create a new account managed by Parental Controls or you convert the account you're logged in with.
Select the age of the user, name and whether the password will be local or based on iCloud.
From this point you can set specific limits for individual apps, websites or weekly time limits. The only thing missing is the ability to set time limits for specific apps (i.e. Minecraft is only allowed 1 hour per day). That would be incredible. You can also easily copy settings from one account to another for multiple kiddos.
Boot Camp Assistant is an oldie but goodie allowing you to dual boot Windows on your Mac by carving out a dedicated partition on the hard disk to which you can install Windows. There are other solutions that solve this problem a bit more elegantly like VMware Fusion, but Boot Camp is native. (Interesting logo they use for Windows)


Another fundamental difference between Mac OS and Windows is the way each OS handles security, although functionally they are actually very similar. The underpinnings of Mac OS X are based on BSD Unix so follows a very old but proven security framework which includes POSIX compliance. As is the case in any properly secured environment, you do not run as root. Period. You elevate ad-hoc and explicitly ask root to execute things for you when required, but your user account is limited in its ability to change the OS globally. This isn’t entirely the case in Mac OS as your account is basically root and the real root account is disabled. Windows by default is set up exactly the same way, which is also the first thing I change when building PCs for others. If you try to execute something that needs elevation, the OS will prompt you to allow or deny the operation by entering your password. This is ideal and preferable to simply clicking "yes".
If you inadvertently attempt to allow an operation that violates the default security policy, for example, installing a program with no signed publisher, that operation will fail. You would first need to intentionally relax the global security policy or provide consent to run the specific application that violates the policy. The bottom line is that by default there is less chance of doing casual accidental damage by being tricked into installing something bad. In the case of Mac OS, you first need to unlock the security settings to allow changes, then modify the "allow apps downloaded from" policy. This feature is known as Gatekeeper and was introduced in Mac OS 10.8. By default Gatekeeper limits users to apps downloaded from the Mac App Store which are verified and probably mostly proven safe. Windows does not have this type of restrictive protection yet, but if they're smart, it's on the roadmap.
Before you can even install an app from the internet at large, you must first purposefully change the security policy. Otherwise you will receive a warning alerting you to the fact that what you're downloading is not from the trusted App Store. Once the security settings are relaxed you will cease to be warned.
User account management is pretty basic when dealing with the Users & Groups UI. Account creation and password management are pretty standard activities.
The advanced options dialog reveals the UID, shell and home directory as well as one of the groups the user is assigned to. To dig deeper into group membership or other account properties you have to use the Directory Editor portion of the Directory Utility or the Terminal CLI. Strangely, there appears to be no native method to return a full list of group memberships for a single user account without writing a script.
The first user account created in Mac OS during initial setup is added to the local administrators group which coincidentally is recorded identically in Windows as "BUILTIN\Administrators". Your account can approve elevation requests but is required to complete password prompts when elevation is required. In the dscl output below you can see that my user account thos is a member of more than just staff like the GUI reported.
In the Unix world, the all-powerful core user group is "wheel" also known as the System Group in Mac OS and as you can see here only root is assigned. Under normal circumstances you should have no need to make your user account part of wheel nor should you alter its membership. Most users will never know this even exists.
As is the case in Windows, the Root account can be enabled if you know what you're doing and really need it. Most users will be fine being prompted for elevation or running “sudo” in the Terminal to purposefully elevate a particular command. Attempts to SU to Root will fail, as the account is disabled.
If you really want to enable the Root account, it is done via the Directory Utility, you can get here easiest via Spotlight. Click the lock in the lower left corner to allow changes, then Enable the Root User from the Edit menu and set a password.
Now you if you rerun SU in the Terminal it will succeed.
New in El Capitan is a technology called System Integrity Protection (Rootless) that limits what the root account is able to write and modify within protected directories of the OS. This helps to prevents root takeover malware and keeps the original parts of the OS installed pristine as signed by Apple. App sandboxing also prevents apps from accessing critical system components. Windows 10 does something similar to both of these measures with Universal Apps that are sandboxed and Protected Processes.
Keychain is another Linux-based security utility used to save and manage passwords, certificates and encryption keys. If you have been prompted for a password to do anything, there will be an entry in the keychain.
Mac OS has 2 firewalls: PF and Application Firewall , neither enabled by default. There's a long history of the firewall in Mac OS and how each works but for the average user neither will be used. The firewall included in Windows is stateful, policy-driven, bidirectional and enabled by default.
All updates are handled from the Updates tab within the App Store app. Drivers, system updates, app updates, everything happens here. Apple has been criticized in the past for being slow to release fixes for critical system vulnerabilities, it appears they're making an effort for more frequent releases. I haven't used a Mac long enough to know what the expected behavior is here but as you can see below there was a pending OS X update which actually contains some pretty serious security fixes. There was no notification of this given anywhere, had I not opened the App Store I would have had no idea. At the opposite end of the spectrum and something I don't particularly like in Windows 10, is that updates are now not only mandatory but so are automatic reboots. This will ensure that the user base stays patched but breeds the same resentment you have for your IT department at work, for the exact same reasons.


While this certainly falls under the context of security it's worth calling this out separately to highlight as a significant topic. First things first: is Mac OS immune from malware? Absolutely not. While there are a number of built in protection mechanisms that may usually do a very good job of keeping you safe, Mac OS is still software written by people and software will always have vulnerabilities. A popular line that I've heard many times over the years is that Macs are immune to viruses. To most users malware is malware and mechanically indistinguishable as a virus, trojan or worm. You've installed something bad and now bad things are happening, whether you know it or not. In 2015, CVE listed Mac OS X #1 on their list for software vulnerabilities, just ahead of IOS running on the iPhone. Taken with a grain of salt, the number of severe vulnerabilities is a smaller percentage of that total number but the point is, Mac OS is not invulnerable to security problems and as the user base increases the target will only get bigger.
Do you need to run full time antivirus in Mac OS? If you stick to the Mac App Store, maybe not. Adware is a bane these days and something that the most fastidious users could still encounter. I know most Mac users don't think antivirus software is necessary, some think it's a sacrilege, but it's probably worth running something like Malwarebytes Anti-Malware for Mac regularly if nothing else. Adware leaves an obvious trace of its presence, other bad stuff doesn't. If you never check and blindly assume you're ok, because:Mac...you're asking for trouble, sooner or later. As of 2012 Apple stopped promoting a "virus free" computing experience on its website following the aftermath of the Flashback Trojan and Mac Defender which impacted a large percentage of its user base. Good default protections, impervious to trouble, no.

Jumping to Conclusions

The MacBook is a nice machine with a proven hardware design and a pleasing user aesthetic in Mac OS X. Mac OS takes most of the user functional shortcomings of open source Linux and makes standard operation simple. While pleasing overall, the experience isn't perfect and leaves some such as myself longing for more. Many of the same basic features are slowly appearing in all computing environments, things like notifications bars and mobile apps, as the slow evolution to unify mobile and desktop experiences steadily marches ever nearer. It's getting increasingly difficult to determine who implemented what specific feature first anymore as all of these companies stand on each other's shoulders to implement design elements as a matter of standard practice. If you think that a single company graced by divinity can be the forever and definitive source of all design origination, well...nothing I say is going to convince you otherwise. To many the Mac represents the epitome of computing and something that should be desired, at any price point, over anything available in the inferior PC ecosystem. A powerful brand fueled by consistent and overwhelming Hollywood product placements helps to remind us, that if it's cool, it probably has an Apple logo.
I was completely and utterly smitten on the first day I spent with the MacBook, but this feeling surreptitiously waned over several weeks as I acclimated, and what first seemed like magic metamorphosed into something merely satisfactory. I found that as the weeks went on, I was using the MacBook less and less and had organically reverted to using my XPS with a complete lack of remorse. While I like a lot of what Mac OS does, I find that Windows 10 on the XPS or Surface just does most of the same stuff better. As a devout student of technology and nuanced explorer of things new and different, all tech that crosses my bench gets a fair shot.
So while the Mac is a fine product in its own right, and after a thorough trial with a nice piece of gear, I admittedly still prefer the Windows PC, especially when compared Windows 10. Warts and polish. I use high-end laptops, hand build high-end desktops and run enterprise anti-virus, life is great.  Hardware, while a commodity, most certainly matters! Do not buy any piece of desktop or laptop computing equipment from any vendor at the middle or low end of the market spectrum. Just don't. Do not encourage your family members to do so either. Especially now with core components in a state of quality not easily exhausted by available mainstream software, your hardware will last longer. No, you do not have to purchase an Apple computer to have a high quality computing experience, despite what you've seen or heard. If you buy a quality system , the likes of which highlighted in this post, it will last until you're ready to upgrade again.   
The Good:
-So simple but I really love the right-click "get info" context
-Spotlight is fantastic
-Finder: tabs + column view = incredible! 
-Parental controls (Microsoft and Ubuntu please pay attention!)
-Printing and scanning is fantastic. Printer setup in Linux is a mind bogglingly difficult thing to do. In Mac OS it's simple and incredibly functional
-Automator is a really neat power tool that holds a lot of potential for those that can use it
The Mediocre:
-The dock is ok for what it does but I prefer the way Windows handles Jump Lists and open apps
-There is far too much variation in keyboard shortcuts between command and control keys for my liking
-I don't like the root directory / being hidden in Finder by default; protecting system files from tampering is understandable but I want to see the entire file system without having to jump through hoops
The Ugly:
-By default, any folder (local or network) you connect to in Finder will drop hidden ".DS_Store" files everywhere. Really annoying.
-App uninstall process is abysmal requiring 3rd party software to achieve a clean removal
-I'm not a fan of the function of the red, orange, green bubbles on every window, nor do I like having to manually drag app windows to get a full view on my main screen

Additional Resources

Ars Technica review of El Capitan
Removing adware in Safari

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