Mac Mini: first impressions

I’ve been using the Mac for a little over a week now, and in general, it’s pretty slick. Before Apple made the move to a Linux-based operating system with OSX, I had little use for Macs. The UI was clunky at best, and the inability to multitask was a show-stopper.

Disclaimer: I access the Mac via a KVM switch, using a multi-button mouse and a professional Windows keyboard with mechanical switches. But more often, I use the Mac through a VNC connection from my main Windows PC.

Keyboard issues

Because I’m not using a Mac keyboard, I had to figure out how to press Mac-specific keys, but that turned out to be easier than I expected. OSX recognizes different keyboards and maps keys appropriately. For instance, when accessing the Mac directly, the Alt key works as the Option key, the Control key is the Command key, and the Windows key is the Apple key.

The biggest problem I had with the keyboard was the Home and End keys. On Windows, those keys move the cursor to the beginning and end of a line, respectively. On a Mac, they move the cursor to the beginning and end of the document, respectively. This messed with my motor memory in a big way, and I looked at a variety of remapping solutions. Eventually I was able to fix this by creating the file ~/Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict and adding these lines:
{
/* Remap Home / End to be correct :-) */
"\UF729" = "moveToBeginningOfLine:"; /* Home */
"\UF72B" = "moveToEndOfLine:"; /* End */
"$\UF729" = "moveToBeginningOfLineAndModifySelection:"; /* Shift + Home */
"$\UF72B" = "moveToEndOfLineAndModifySelection:"; /* Shift + End */
"^\UF729" = "moveToBeginningOfDocument:"; /* Ctrl + Home */
"^\UF72B" = "moveToEndOfDocument:"; /* Ctrl + End */
/* Remap Ctrl-left/right to go to previous/next word */
"^\UF702" = "moveWordLeft:";
"^\UF703" = "moveWordRight:";
}

Update: This solution for the Home and End keys seems to work for all applications, with one exception: Firefox. I reported the problem on Mozilla’s Bugzilla site as Bug #918859.

Another keyboard problem I’ve run into is that the Enter (Return) key works differently on the Mac. In Windows dialogs and Explorer, Enter opens the currently-highlighted item. If it’s a folder, the folder opens; if it’s a file, the file opens. Makes sense to me, and it’s something I do all the time. Oddly, on the Mac, Enter renames the highlighted file or folder. I haven’t found a permanent solution to this, so in the meantime I’m trying to remember to use Alt-O (Command-O) to open folders/files from the keyboard.

One final keyboard difference worth noting is the fact that there is no Insert key on the Mac. On Windows, this key toggles between insert and overtype modes. On the Mac, you’re always in insert mode.

No single-button mouse for me

I’m glad I can use my multi-button mouse. Again, I’m just so accustomed to right-clicking UI elements to show context menus that I would have a hard time changing to the Apple approach, which is to hold down the Control key and click the (only) mouse button.

Installing open source software

I recently moved all my public-facing services onto a new, powerful Linux computer. Almost all of my work with the Linux server happens at the command line. I don’t find either of the graphical UIs most commonly used on Linux (KDE and Gnome) all that compelling. In any case, I’m now comfortable using the APT system to install and manage open source software packages in Linux, so I was surprised to find nothing similar on the Mac. A bit of research led me to a tool called ‘Homebrew’; having installed this software, I can now download and install software using the ‘brew’ command, which is similar to APT.

Remote access with VNC

Although my KVM works well with the Mac, I find it more convenient to use remote control software. This allows me to continue to use my Windows machine as my primary work environment while providing quick access to the Mac. OSX includes a VNC server, but it’s disabled by default. Enabling it is a simple matter of going to the Sharing panel in System Preferences, putting a checkmark next to Remote Management, assigning the users who should have access, and configuring access (click the Options button). There are numerous VNC client software packages available. I’m currently using TightVNC, which was simple to set up and seems to work reasonably well. Just point your VNC client at the name displayed on the Remote Management settings page on the Mac to connect.

Remote login with SSH

I’m accustomed to accessing my Linux server via command line interface using SSH. This also works for the Mac, but again it has to be enabled first. To do that, again go to System Preferences. Put a checkmark next to Remote Login, and assign the users who should have access. Connect using an SSH client like Putty.

Miscellaneous Mac weirdness

One thing that has always bothered me about the Mac is that closing an application’s windows doesn’t close the application itself. Well, usually. That’s part of the problem: there’s no consistency to it. Some apps close when you close their last open window, and some don’t. A very odd design choice in any case.

Now about those three little buttons at the top left of windows: there’s a close button (the red ‘X’), a minimize button (the yellow ‘-‘), but what does that third button do? It’s a green ‘+’, so one might reasonably expect it to maximize the window, right? But sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Weird.

One final bit of weirdness is the way icons work. When you click an icon, for example on the desktop, you see a nice square frame around the entire icon, regardless of the shape of the icon’s image. This encourages a belief that the Mac understands that the shape and size of the icon’s image is not important in terms of selecting (or double-clicking) the icon. That belief is erroneous. In fact, if an icon’s image has any transparent ‘holes’, you cannot select the icon by clicking on any of the holes. As a result, some icons are easier to select that others, and trying to select an icon with a lot of transparent areas can become an exercise in frustration. On Windows, clicking anywhere inside the square boundaries of an icon selects it.

Must-have free desktop software for the Mac

(cricket chirping)

Seriously. Most of the desktop software I use on my Windows PC is free or open source. That’s relatively rare on the Mac, at least in my (admittedly limited) experience. I guess there’s a general understanding that Mac owners have money to burn. The App Store doesn’t even allow sorting or filtering search results by price.

About jrivett

Jeff Rivett has worked with and written about computers since the early 1980s. His first computer was an Apple II+, built by his father and heavily customized. Jeff's writing appeared in Computist Magazine in the 1980s, and he created and sold a game utility (Ultimaker 2, reviewed in the December 1983 Washington Apple Pi Journal) to international markets during the same period. Proceeds from writing, software sales, and contract programming gigs paid his way through university, earning him a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) degree at UWO. Jeff went on to work as a programmer, sysadmin, and manager in various industries. There's more on the About page, and on the Jeff Rivett Consulting site.

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