Mac Switchback, Act III 11

My initial reaction to my new Powerbook was euphoria, followed by annoyance as many things didn’t work as well as I’d expected.

I’ve now settled into a state somewhere in the middle. I haven’t had another hard crash requiring a battery removal and restart. And the USB hard drives that mysteriously refused to load before are mysteriously working again. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m still not happy about how long it takes for applications to load, and that it’s usually a 2-3 second wait for the Apple menu to drop down, but most things are acceptably fast.

Nonetheless, I’m still getting the kind of inexplicable problems I assumed were more common on Windows. For example, OS X suddenly decided to change my default browser to Opera, which I didn’t even realize was installed on the machine. Several attempts to change the setting to Firefox in the Safari preferences didn’t work — it just switched back as soon as I closed Safari. Reinstalling Firefox finally did the trick. About 75% of the comments I’ve gotten say, in essence, “that doesn’t happen on a Mac. You must be smoking something.” The other 25% say, “yes, OS X isn’t really as stable as everyone thinks, but it still has many advantages.”

The good news is that, as I get used to the particularities of OS X, I’m enjoying it more. I’m gradually fixing my biggest annoyances and replacing features I miss from Windows through 3rd-party utilities. I’m feeling more as though I made the right choice — it’s just a matter of time to adapt.

My sense is that the Mac is clearly a better computer for the majority of users, who run a limited number of standard application, and for the ubergeek types who enjoy hacking into the Unix underbelly of OS X. For the in the middle, the “power users” like myself, the difference isn’t quite so clear. I probably use 10 applications on a daily basis, and 20 on a weekly basis, and I do all sorts of things to optimize the efficiency of my computing experience. The idea of tweaking the Windows Registry didn’t terrify me, so the advantages of the Mac don’t feel quite so stark. But they are still there.

11 thoughts on “Mac Switchback, Act III

  1. Kirk McPike Jul 5,2005 4:37 pm

    Some of these issues do sound strange, and very annoying. I’ve never seen anything like that default browser problem you’ve described. Did you try trashing the related preference files?

    In any case, just out of curiosity, what takes you to the Apple Menu so much?

  2. Kevin Werbach Jul 5,2005 4:59 pm

    Kirk, I haven’t yet tried to find the preference files. I generally knew where things like this were on my Windows box, but everything is different on the Mac. And it’s not entirely intuitive to me. I still haven’t figured out the difference between my “home” folder, my “applications” folder, my “documents” folder, and the hard drive icon on my desktop, which appears to be somewhere else entirely.

    As for the Apple menu, I go there mostly for the applications submenu, since I often need apps that don’t fit onto the dock. Also system prefs, since it’s faster than the dock. I also go there for restart and shut down, which I’ve had to do several times a day (mostly, of late, after I install something). I’m using the Fruitmenu utility to add functionality to the Apple menu — who knows, maybe that is causing the slowdown.

  3. silas Jul 5,2005 6:18 pm

    That sounds strange indeed. Is it a new Powerbook, or did you buy it used? I have a 1st-generation Powerbook G4 running at 500 MHz, and even with lots (8+ or so) of applications open and active, it never takes more than a quarter or half a second to pull down a menu from the menu bar or Dock. The new Powerbooks are very speedy and should be near-instantaneous. It’s likely FruitMenu that’s causing the problem. I use WindowShadeX and ClearDock, and I notice that Unsanity has not been the best/fastest at making their apps Tiger-compatible. Here’s a tip if you really want to to keep FruitMenu: make aliases of your favorite, most-used applications (by right-clicking on their icons and selecting “make alias” and drop all these aliases into a folder called “favorite apps” or something. This folder can be anywhere; your Home folder is probably a good place for it. Then drag the folder to the Dock, near the trash can. Then you can get a menu with all those apps by right-clicking on that folder in the Dock. Voila: your very own customizeable Start menu! (Sort of.)

    I’ve never heard of anything like the default browser problem you’re having. Maybe it’s a permissions issue? Try repairing permissions (/Applications/Utillities/Disk Utility, highlight the boot drive and repair permissions, should take That sounds strange indeed. Is it a new Powerbook, or did you buy it used? I have a 1st-generation Powerbook G4 running at 500 MHz, and even with lots (8+ or so) of applications open and active, it never takes more than a quarter or half a second to pull down a menu from the menu bar or Dock. The new Powerbooks are very speedy and should be near-instantaneous. It’s likely FruitMenu that’s causing the problem. I use WindowShadeX and ClearDock, and I notice that Unsanity has not been the best/fastest at making their apps Tiger-compatible. Here’s a tip if you really want to to keep FruitMenu: make aliases of your favorite, most-used applications (by right-clicking on their icons and selecting “make alias” and drop all these aliases into a folder called “favorite apps” or something. This folder can be anywhere; your Home folder is probably a good place for it. Then drag the folder to the Dock, near the trash can. Then you can get a menu with all those apps by right-clicking on that folder in the Dock. Voila: your very own customizeable Start menu! (Sort of.)

    I’ve never heard of anything like the default browser problem you’re having. Maybe it’s a permissions issue? Try repairing permissions (/Applications/Utillities/Disk Utility, highlight the boot drive and repair permissions, should take < 60 seconds). Also, if you repair permissions after software installations and OS upgrades (ie 10.4.0 to 10.4.1), your computer will stay happy and snappy. Re: restarting, just don't do it. It's not generally necessary until something like an OS upgrade forces you to. Indeed, some background housecleaning tends to get done late at night, so I find it's best to keep your computer on and awake while you sleep -- though I admit that is difficult with laptops. My (creaky, old) Powerbook was only restarted 10 times in 1.5 years of heavy use: once for each Panther upgrade and then again when moving to Tiger. Finally, on organization: the hard drive icon on the desktop is just a representation of the boot drive's root directory ("/" iin Unix, the equivalent of "C:" in Windows). It's like an alias, so notice that if you look at your desktop within a window, it won't show up. So you can't burrow infintely through windows. The "Applications" folder is the equivalent of the Windows "Program Files" folder, and resides at the root. Most applications will be installed here -- and to uninstall, you generally just drag them from here to the trash. Your "Home" folder is a subdirectory of the "Users" directory, which resides at the root. It contains all your personal data, and other user accounts on the computer can't get at it unless they know your password. Your "Documents" folder, along with your "Pictures" "Movies" and "Music" folders, is simply a place in your Home folder where you can store data. You don't need to use it -- I keep a lot of stuff on the Desktop instead -- but it's just there for your organizational convenience.

  4. egarc Jul 6,2005 1:06 am

    Kevin,
    The Home directory is your user account. Try creating a new user (enable fast user switching for some eye candy) then check the user directory. You should see both users. For added security, enable FileVault to encrypt your Home directory. It takes a few minutes initially but it provides security from someone getting ahold of your laptop and using Target Disk to get to your data or if they yank the hard drive and put it in an external case. Each user can use FileVault with individual passwords. With a modern Mac, there is no slowdown.

    The difference between the Library folder in root and the Library folder in the user folder is the root Library is for application data that is available to all users and the user Library is for that user only.

    The preferences are plist files located in the Preferences folder in the user Library. They contain application preferences, settings and registration codes.

    Go to versiontracker.com and download MainMenu. It will run all sorts of maintenance scripts such as the cron scripts, repair permissions and general housekeeping scripts. I’ve been using OS X since Public Beta and do housekeeping once every few months. I’ve never had to endure a clean install because of problems.

  5. Kevin Werbach Jul 6,2005 1:20 pm

    Silas, it’s a brand new machine, maxxed out on every option, with OS X 10.4.1 preinstalled. You can’t get a faster laptop from Apple, which is why the speed issue is so disappointing.

    As for the restarts, sometimes it’s applications that require it, but not always. Today, for example, when I took the Powerbook to my office, it recognized the external monitor but the display icon disappeared from the menu bar. I turned it back on, but it didn’t show the display mirroring option I use, and I couldn’t get the built-in display on the Powerbook to work (hitting F7 did nothing). Oh, and it didn’t recognize the Ethernet connection. Restarting made it work fine.

    Again, this is a familiar routine from Windows, when doing something like plugging in a different monitor. I guess I’m just not one of the lucky ones who can avoid restarting in those situations.

  6. Kevin Werbach Jul 6,2005 1:41 pm

    Thanks for the help regarding the file locations. I guessed some of that, but it’s all still very confusing.

    It sounds like my inuition that the hard drive icon on my desktop is a good place to put files, as it has been on every machine since my 1987 Mac SE, is no longer true on OS X. I have to go three folders deep each time?

    On Windows, I never used “my documents” or any of that stuff — I kept most things on the desktop or in one of two folders within the root hard drive directory. With OS X, it sounds like I need to keep track of 4 or 5 different directories, and always check whether something is installed for my “user” account or “all users.” This makes sense for shared machines or companies that want to control what employees put on their laptops, but I’m the only one using this Powerbook. I guess Apple just doesn’t design for that use case.

    So far, I find that about half of applications install in the “home” directory, and half in the “root” directory, so I’m constantly moving them to keep everything in one place. At one point, I accidentally deleted my applications folder, because I got confused which one was which. And then there were multiple application folders with numbered names in the trash, so it wasn’t immediately obvious which one to undelete.

    I use a Unix hosting account, so I’m familiar with cryptic directory trees that have to be memorized. I know under OS X is BSD, just as DOS still lurks under Windows. I’d have thought that, for core things like directory structure, Apple would want to hide that from users. I guess I’ll get used to it.

  7. egarc Jul 7,2005 10:26 am

    Kevin,
    It sounds like you are making this harder than it is. Three folders deep? Have you discovered spring loaded folders and the sidebar? In the finder, go to file/preferences. Change the delay on spring loaded folders to as short as possible. Then go to your desktop, grab a file or folder and drag it to the hard drive icon or any other folder on the desktop, the folder will open (keep the trackpad button depressed) then drag it to the documents folder on the sidebar (keep the trackpad button depressed), then drag it to any sub folder or any other folder in the sidebar. You should get the picture by now.

    How the hell did Mac OS install applications in the User directory? It sounds like you may have created an Applications folder in the user directory and put the applications there yourself. All self-installing applications go into the applications folder in the root directory. That is where all applications should go.

    As for the restarts, download Onyx and run all the maintenance scripts. If that doesn’t fix it, give Apple a call, you may have a hardware issue.

    The file structure for OS X is the simplest I’ve ever seen. If you are the only user for the computer, you can literally leave files and folders anywhere you want on the computer and use Spotlight to find them. It’s just that Apple has made it easy to keep everything organized.

    Even though I’ve NEVER had to do this (since OS X 10.1 and on four Macs), you might even consider backing up your important data and applications and do a clean reinstall of Tiger.

    I hope this helps.

  8. Kevin Werbach Jul 7,2005 11:03 am

    Yes, my applications were in my user directory. I don’t recall how some of them got there originally, but once they did, I made the (erroneous) assumption that was where they all belonged. Again, I’m not used to distinguishing when I’m on my computer as a “user” and when I’m not. That was never in my consciousness for Sysem 5,6,7,8,9, or Windows 95,98,2000, and XP.

    Now that I understand that, on OS X, applications “belong” in one place and other files “belong” somewhere else, and which places those are, I can make aliases to get access to the folders I want.

    I’ve run several programs to do the maintenance scripts. Each time, it seems to make things run a bit faster, but I’m still getting frequent slow performance. I haven’t actually had crashes, just hangs and odd behavior (like files not opening when I click on them, or menu commands not doing anything). When a 15-second spinning beachball counts as a hang and when it’s just a delay is sometimes hard to tell.

    Sadly, I don’t see how calling Apple and saying, “my machine is slow, and I often have to restart it” will get me anywhere. There’s no real pattern to the problems — it feels just like my experience with Windows, except that I haven’t had any disk errors or persistent problems like sleep mode no longer working.

    A lot comes back to the speed issue. Spotlight often only lets me type 3 characters before I have to wait a second or two in order to keep typing. Again, I gather that’s not everyone’s experience. Maybe a reinstall of Tiger is the only option, but now that I’m using this as my primary machine, that’s an ugly prospect. I can’t afford to take that much time off from work. And a big reason I switched to the Mac was to avoid situations like this.

  9. egarc Jul 7,2005 6:20 pm

    Hey Kevin,
    I too have a new Powerbook and have recently noticed some slowdown and somewhat erratic behavior. I checked Activity Monitor and saw that kernel_task was using 7-8% CPU so I Googled “kernal_task powerbook” and found that this is a common issue for the new Powerbooks. People have narrowed it down to an issue with the new trackpad. Apparently, Apple is aware of the problem and hopefully will issue a fix with the next OS update.

    The only time I’ve noticed severe slowdown is when I’m multitasking a CPU intensive application like DVD2oneX. For some reason, kernal_task is having a hard time allocating CPU time and letting DVD2oneX hog the processor. Otherwise, I haven’t experienced slowdown with Spotlight or any other applications.

  10. silas Jul 7,2005 7:43 pm

    I will say that when I upgraded from Panther to Tiger, an “Applications” folder appeared in my home folder… I didn’t think that was supposed to happen, and I’ve since deleted it. Especially on a single-user machine, programs are better off in the root “Applications” directory, not in the user account.

    That said, you are definitely overthinking things. On OS X anything can exist anywhere and it should run fine; the only problems are permissions issues, ie you can’t get at another user’s files; but that’s not so much a problem as a security benefit. You don’t want other users getting at your files, and in any case you’re on a single-user machine so it’s moot. But you can certainly keep files in the root directory or the Applications directory; all that will happen is that those directories will get cluttered when you look in them (and this is ostensibly obviated by Spotlight). And you can keep apps in your home folder or anywhere else and they should run fine; the only problem is again organizational — you might forget where you put them. Therefore, as a matter of convenience only, it’s easier to keep all apps in the root Applications folder and documents somewhere else. The only thing to really note here is that all Apple apps (Safari, iTunes, etc.) should stay in the root Applications folder, since they get updated by Software Update and that’s where Software Update expects them to be.

    I’m not sure why apps might be installed in different places, since 1) you can control where apps are installed, and 2) for most apps ‘installation’ is a simple drag and drop. FWIW, I believe you can easily fix things by dragging them all into the Applications folder; you can move (most) apps around after installation and nothing should break.

    Again I can’t speak to the speed issue, since I’ve only used older, slower powerbooks, except to say that I was wary when they put in the new trackpads. The old trackpads were fine, especially when augmented by Ucontrol and Sidetrack. As to things like the computer not forgetting some settings: that sounds more like a software bug. I make a point of reinstalling the OS whenever I buy a new machine, just to make sure I’m starting from scratch; it sounds like a clean reinstall may or may not help here, but if that’s too much of a pain (eg if you have no easy way to back up your data) and don’t mind restarting every now and then, then maybe it’s not worth it.

  11. Kevin Werbach Jul 10,2005 5:15 pm

    I finally figured out why the Mac OS file hierarchy was so confusing for me. On Windows (set up for a single user, personal machine), you occasionally have to authenticate through an additional dialog box to add or change things that require “administrator” privileges. Otherwise, the action only affects “your” user account. OS X is the opposite. The default (e.g. the root hard drive folder) applies to all users of the machine; it sometimes takes an extra authentication dialog box to associate something with “your” user account. Both are logical, in context.

    I was assuming that the “best” way to install things like applications was in the manner requiring the extra authentication step, but that turns out to be incorrect on OS X. Once I started down that path, I tied myself up in knots.

    I still keep forgetting which directory is “root” and which is “home,” but now I understand where
    the distinction does and doesn’t matter.

Comments are closed.