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Mac Users and the Macs They Use

by Giles Turnbull
Running Mac OS X on Windows

When you read the articles and weblog posts by prominent Mac users and Mac pundits, do you ever find yourself wondering what kind of computer setup they're using?

I do.

So I recently contacted a bunch of Mac professionals--journalists and developers--to ask them straight out: what Mac do you use? And what do you like about it?

Here's what happened.

Leander Kahney

The Cult of Mac guy is famed for uncovering stories of extreme Mac fandom. But what kind of cult does he have in his own home?

As you might expect, I have several Macs.

Until recently, I used to use an eMac at work, which I bought myself with my own money. Over the years here at Wired News, I've been obliged to use a variety of Windows boxes, but after several years of constant headaches--crashes, viruses, you know the score--I couldn't take it any more. There was a stink from the IT guys because the eMac was "unsupported," but of course it just worked. Now I'm one of the few people here who doesn't need much tech support any more (some others switched also). A couple of months ago, I lucked out, inheriting a dual-processor Power Mac G5 from our designer, who's no longer with us. It's nice and fast (dual 1.8GHz, 2.25GB RAM), and rock-solid reliable. I have all kinds of apps and windows open simultaneously. I reboot it once a week or so to clear out the memory.

At home, I have a Power Mac (1.6GHz), which I thought was pretty fast until I got the dual-processor machine. It's OK for most things, but gets bogged down sometimes, which I find unforgivably aggravating.

I also have a PowerBook G4 (Aluminum, 1.25GHz). It's hands-down the best computer I've ever owned. If I had to choose one machine, it would be this one. It's fast enough for most tasks, and it's got enough bells and whistles to do everything. The high-res screen is gorgeous. And it looks great. I still marvel at how beautiful it is. The classic design doesn't age. If only it were as fast as a desktop.

We also have an iBook G4 (1GHz, 12-inch) and the eMac from work. The kids hardly touch the eMac. They prefer to bash on the PowerBook and the iBook. The iBook is also a fantastic machine. It's almost indestructible. After a couple of years of abuse from the kids, it hasn't had a single issue, except for a crack on the lid around the screen. Now that I think about it, this is remarkable. For a lot of things, the iBook seems faster than the PowerBook, like web browsing and starting up. Both Wi-Fi and battery life are great. It gets three or four hours from a charge. It's a great family computer. We often use it for movies on interminable road trips--plug it into the minivan's stereo, and the kids are trouble-free for hours.

The browser is the one app I can't live without. It's used for everything--finding stories, writing and publishing them (the WN publishing tool is browser-based), blog writing, email, shopping, banking, etc. I use Safari, but I'm slowly switching over to Firefox because of all the fantastic plug-ins available. For a company based on open source software, it's a shame Apple doesn't make Safari extensible.

Jonathan Rentzsch

Jonathan Rentzsch writes code and his popular development-oriented weblog. But what Mac does he tap on as he sits in that mysterious red shed? I fired up iChat to find out.

Turnbull: First off, what machine are you using these days? Or, if you have several, which do you use most?

Rentzsch: My main machine for the next few days is my old TiBook 800. Recently, I've been lured to the raw power of desktop machines, so my main machine will become a Quad G5 I have on order. I tried to wait out the PowerBook G5, but we all know the story there <grin>.

My next PowerBook will likely be an Intel one.

Turnbull: What spec have you gone for on the G5? Or will you do some upgrades yourself?

Rentzsch: I'm getting it with the NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT upgrade. The base 6600 card seems paltry, while the Quadro FX seems excessive. I'm also bundling AirPort+Bluetooth, 30" Cinema Display, and modem (I need to send faxes here and there).

I'm going with the lowest memory configuration. Apple wants a left arm and leg for ECC memory. (The Quad is the first Mac that supports ECC memory, so I'm looking forward to it.) I'm buying my memory from Crucial.

Initially, when the Quad came out, they didn't list any ECC memory choices, but now they do.

Turnbull: Is the move from a laptop to a desktop something new for you?

Rentzsch: Yes. I've been using PowerBooks as my main machine for over a decade now. I keep trying out each new PowerBook generation, but the speed+capacity just wasn't there.


How old is the TiBook then? Will you miss it, do you think? (Sometimes, machines like that end up becoming old friends to some people...)

Rentzsch: The TiBook is around three years old now. And yes, it's worn to my shape--the paint peeled where my wrists rest <grin>.

The machine is going to stay active. I still need a machine to run 10.2 and 10.3 for backwards compatibility testing, and I need a presentation+conference machine. So it's not going dark anytime soon. It's just that its fan won't be pegged all day, every day.

Turnbull: One more little thing: can you pick out one application you couldn't live without?

Rentzsch: Heh. You've stumbled upon my dirty little secret.

I have a bunch of essential apps, some Apple (Xcode, IB, Safari) some 3rd party (PasswordWallet, AppKiDo, OmniGraffle), but I have one app that's always active and completely critical: Emailer 2.

Turnbull: !

Rentzsch: That's the old email client distributed by Claris way back when. It runs under Classic. It mirrors the PowerBook G5 game I've been playing.

I keep on waiting for something better. Year after year, nothing shows up. I've resigned to write my own, since Classic isn't supported on the Macintels and no client otherwise comes close to what I want.

Turnbull: I can see that. I've had my own moans about email clients recently.

Rentzsch: Yeah, most of the geeks are email-client-unhappy these days.

Michael Tsai

Creator of SpamSieve and About This Particular Macintosh, among many other things, Michael Tsai has something of a cult following of his own.

What Mac do you use now? If you have more than one, which one do you use for most things?

G5 tower for most things. (Also have a 12" PowerBook and a graphite iBook for testing.)

Tell me some of its specifications.

Dual 2GHz, 2.5GB of RAM, dual 20" Dell displays, Macally ICEkey, Apple Pro Mouse.

What do you like about this machine?

Lots of screen space. It's almost 2 years old, but still relatively fast.

What don't you like about it?

It's noisy and not nearly fast enough, e.g. Xcode still feels slow.

What do you plan to purchase next?

The first Intel-based iBook or PowerBook.

The piece of software you can't live without?


Joe Kissell

Tell us about your Mac.

My main machine these days is a 2GHz 20" iMac G5, with a second 20" widescreen display (a Dell 2005FPW) running, thanks to Screen Spanning Doctor. That machine has 2GB of RAM and a 400GB hard drive. I have several other Macs I use for testing, travel, and server applications.

What do you like about this machine?

I like its compactness, speed, display quality, and especially the fact that it can be coaxed into supporting a second non-mirrored display. And, since I bought this before the ones with the built-in iSights came out, I have the adapter that lets me put it on a VESA arm, which gives me more flexibility with how I use my (physical) desktop.

What don't you like about it?

Well, two 20" displays are great, but two 30" displays would be better! Other than that, I'd like a bit more volume from the internal speakers, many more USB ports, and FireWire 800. But these are really minor quibbles. I'm pretty content with this machine for the time being.

What do you plan to purchase next?

I'll be taking a hard look at the first crop of Intel-based PowerBooks. My 1GHz Titanium PowerBook is getting a bit long in the tooth. But actually, my next purchase will probably be a color laser printer, now that those are getting to be affordable by mere mortals.

The piece of software you can't live without?

LaunchBar, without a doubt. It drives me crazy to try to find and launch things on machines without it.

Andy Ihnakto

Andy Ihnakto, publisher of a colossal waste of bandwidth and contributor to a dizzying variety of publications, print and digital, was happy to talk about his hardware. We fired up iChat, and spent some bandwidth together...

Turnbull: What Mac are you using now? (If you use more than one, which one's your favorite)?

Ihnakto: Well, the MVP of my menagerie is a 15" Aluminum PowerBook. I have a bunch of different machines but THIS is the one that handles all of my email, and all of my contacts and appointments. It's also the one I do every bit of my writing and research with.

Turnbull: Heh, snap! I use a 15" al pbook too.

Ihnakto: And it's always been that way with my PowerBooks. I buy a new one, I transfer the contents of the old hard drive onto the new one, and move on as before. I started with a PowerBook 100 in school, and on a shelf in my office you'll find all 6 previous PowerBooks, in a neat little row.

I even have a big "7" on the lid of this one.

Turnbull: Nice.

Ihnakto: I figured that if Pete Townsend put numbers on all of his stage guitars...who am I to say that it's wrong?

(It also has the advantage of making sure someone doesn't confuse Lilith 7 with someone else's 15" alBook, at a conference or in airport security.)

Turnbull: Tell me some of #7's specs then.

Ihnakto: Lessee: 1.25 GHz, only a modest amount of RAM (512M...from the factory), but swapped out its original hard drive for a 100-gig model. I think it's coming up on its second birthday. Still working great and I won't buy Lilith 8 until the IntelBooks come out. I mean, the good ones.

Turnbull: What do you like about this machine--and is there anything you don't like about it?

Ihnatko: What I like about it is that it's perfectly suited to my needs.

Ihnatko: One of the (many) perks of my job is that I am required to learn as much as I can about as much as there is. So right about the time that I was considering upgrading my TiBook, Apple introduced the 17" and 12" PowerBooks. So they were sending me some hardware to test out for a month. And I spent a whole weekend using nothing but the 12" and nothing but the 17"...and neither of them were "right."

The 12" is just too small. I'd been jonesing (and in print, bitching) about the need for an ultralight PowerBook since the glaciers retreated from North America. And yet, once I had was just too small for day-to-day use. Not enough screen, no place to rest my hands, and if I actually worked with it in my lap, I had to keep my knees together to support it.

I loved the 17", but it was just such a pain in the butt to move it around. If I wanted to head to the library or a coffee shop to do a little work, I had to stick it inside a special bag. That's no good.

But the 15" is the perfect form factor. Big enough screen to keep a chat window or a tool palette in view alongside your document windows, small enough that you never really stifle an impulse to take it somewhere.

That said, Sony lent me one of their TEENY little Vaios over the summer. Fell in love with the thing and actually considered buying one. Never any excuse whatsoever for leaving it behind. But definitely not as my "this is my entire workspace" Mac.

What I don't like about it is that the keyboard backlighting sometimes makes the keys LESS legible instead of more legible (like when the light from the screen washes it out). I wish it weren't so damned difficult to take apart. Replacing the hard drive was a huge production, and with all of the abuse I give my keyboards, I like to be able to pop them out and give them a good undercarriage cleaning.

Wish the case would take a little more abuse, too. Suffice to say that Lilith 7 has acquired a lot of character over the past two years.

Turnbull: So you say you'll wait for the good IntelBooks--is that because you always expect version 1.0 of anything to be bad, or because you have a bad feeling about the Intel machines in particular?

Ihnatko: Chiefly because Lilith 7 is working just fine, and I'm certain that the PowerPC and Intel Macs will be on equal performance footings for at least another year.

Also, iMacs and PowerBooks are always just a little dodgy on first release. Apple keeps thinking up new ways to design these things and they're all wonderful...but that means that no one can really predict what happens when you try to build 300,000 of them.

Turnbull: What hardware do you think Apple should drop in order to create a superlightweight?

Ihnatko: Depends on how they sell it. Only one thing is absolutely not on the table: battery life. If this hypothetical machine can't go four hours between charges, there's no point in even trying.

So you chop down the screen to 1024 width. Easy. You slim down the keyboard. Can be done. Believe it or not, I'd consider deleting the optical drive. If you choose to redefine this thing you're building, you can get away with a lot.

Turnbull: I'm with you on the optical drive.

Ihnatko: If it means super-slim, super-light, and (maybe best of all) One Less Thing To Break or Make Noise, it could be a winner.

Compensate by giving it a freakin' huge hard drive, to anticipate all of the music and videos that you're going to have to store locally. That said, one of the reasons why I gave that Vaio such a strong review was because they deleted nothing, and yet still had a tiny, functional computer that went 6 hours on battery.

Turnbull: What's the one app you couldn't live without?

Ihnatko: Oof. If you only rely on one app, then you need to get out more. If we scratch from the list any app that comes with the OS (like a browser, a mail client, even a word processor), I'd have to go with OmniOutliner. I use it as a database, I use it for accounting, I use it for ordering ideas, I use it for snippets of information that otherwise defy's a Big Deal. My book publisher wants me to do another book for them, and in the space of three or four days, I've gone from "What do I want to write about?" to jotting down a few ideas to having a long and now somewhat organized book outline to send to my editor. All thanks to OmniOutliner.

Turnbull: Great, thanks Andy.

Mac Mac Mac Mac Mac

So what have we got in our tiny little survey? Two PowerBooks, an iMac G5, a Quad G5 Power Mac, several spare iBooks, and a handful of fascinating choices of essential software.

Also, everyone is waiting for the Intel Macs before they spend more money (although some have purchased very recently).

My thanks to everyone who agreed to take part, and gave up some of their valuable time to talk geekery with me. There were a handful of others well-known Mac users we approached to talk to, but time ran out to talk to them all. Thanks to them too.

If anyone wants to add their choice of Mac in the comments--Steve Jobs, you're welcome to pile in here--then please feel free to dive right in.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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