Why We Are Leaving the World of the Mac.

Hi everyone.

This is going to be quite a lengthy blog post, and also I know a slightly contentious one, but I wanted to chronicle my experience of my journey into the world of using an Apple Mac. It has been one of initial excitement and anticipation, but which soon turned to annoyance and frustration. Do stay with me as I get this out of my system and write it all down.

Background.

I have been using computers since 1981. I have used (I think) all of the popular screen-readers which are available particularly on the Windows platform. In the mid-1990's, I discovered JAWS, and while after a short time of obtaining it I explored other options, in the late 90's I realised that if I wanted to be productive particularly in my professional life, I had to return to it. This is what I did and have been using it since then.

This year, we realised that I needed to look at getting a new computer to replace my Windows7 primary desktop. It needed to be a high spec machine as we were investing for the future. I needed to be able to carry out the admin tasks related to our business, together with fulfilling my requirement to undertake complex audio production projects. But of course I wanted it for my leisure time as well, (what there is of it), including using Facebook and Twitter. Finally, I thought there was a possible need for the computer to accommodate my internet broadcasting software, together with all the soundcards I use in conjunction with it. I thought, if we are buying a machine for the future, I may well want that again at some time. Just because I do not use it now doesn't mean to say I won't do so again.

I read a lot on social media about the Mac. The Mac versus Windows debate is a controversial one, and many Mac users, can I say, are quite fanatical about it. They think it's brilliant and there is nothing which can beat it. I thought that if they were so adament about this then there has to be some truth in it.

Earlier this year then was the time to decide. A lot of people were talking about the fact that you could install Windows onto the Mac if needed, and because of the job I do, entirely centred around JAWS, it would be foolish to think that I couldn't live without Windows, however good the access via the Mac may be. But given, as I thought, Windows could be installed, maybe I could have the best of both. Maybe I could take my time learning about the Mac when I could, and use Windows to get my work done. Oh boy, how wrong I was!

The Research.

Having made the decision, I did not buy the machine online. Of course I researched it, found the machine I wanted, but realised I would have to have it custom built as I wanted a greater specification than was offered. When that research was done, I called Apple, and had a good discussion with them about it. Every time I have telephoned Apple, all the customer Service representatives have been extremely thorough and knowledgeable. So,, I put in an order for the MacBook Pro with 15 inch retina display, 1 TB of SSD storage, 16 GB of RAM.

Because this was a custom build, I had to wait a couple of weeks for the machine to arrive, but it did so on the date Apple said it would. I deliberately did not rush into unboxing it and switching it on, because I knew I was going to have to go through an initial learning period and computer setup. I took my time and, the following weekend, my wife and I together unpacked it and switched it on.

While I had been waiting for the Mac to arrive, I plunged into a lot of research, so at least I would have an idea as to what I was doing. I first purchased a book from a specialist organisation which would teach me how to use the Mac. This book left me with an enormous number of questions. I also found that the writing style did not give numbered step by step examples of how things should be done, the order of progression was at best illogical to follow, and I could not in all honesty say it was a good learning aid. For example, nowhere in the book does it mention how to connect with people using social media including Skype and Twitter. While I accept these would use apps outside of Apple's primary environment, these are services which are so widely used and are commonplace within society, I cannot see how they could have been overlooked. No mention was made of using the calendar either, something which I was looking forward to as my appointments would sync across devices. I am sure other people love the book though, and I am glad for them.

I turned then to other forms of learning. People on Twitter were enormously helpful and I would like to thank them all for their kind assistance. Jonathan Mosen also helped a lot. When he purchased a Mac, he collected together some good resources, including some shortcut key guides and links to web pages, which he passed to me. That was the best learning tool for me, and without it, I am not sure I would have got as far as I did. I also purchased his audio tutorial about the Amadeus Pro audio production software, because that was going to be essential for what I needed the computer to do.

The Mac Experience.

The first thing we noted upon unboxing was how wonderful the hardware is to look at. It's a beautiful design, lovely and slim, and she sits on my desk without taking up too much space. The way the computer is made is I feel the best thing about it.

From a usage perspective, what impressed us most when we switched on the Mac for the first time was the VoiceOver screen-reader tutorial. It is beautifully done. It guides you through the most common navigational techniques you would need to learn, and given I had already done a lot of reading, I was able to get through it fairly quickly. but if someone had not undertook the research, it still would be possible to learn the basics from the tutorial.

I would say within a couple of hours, I had customised my speech preferences and installed an app for Twitter, so I thought I was doing quite well.

The manner in which you work with the Mac operating system is quite different to Windows. While there are shortcut keys you can use to move to specific places on the screen, or perform common actions, a lot of the navigation involves exploring each element in a logical sequence and "interacting" with them. You're dealing with an object navigation paradigm on the Mac that's quite different from the Windows way of doing things, and in some ways, it has advantages. When you navigate the screen, you're kind of getting a glimpse of the whole of it. For example, you may see that there is a table, a scroll bar, and a list of items on the screen. To actually work with any of those objects, you interact with them. You find an element, interact with it, stop interacting with it, and move onto the next control. There is an advantage here because it does mean you can read most things which are on the screen. But I was beginning to see that I didn't have what I might call the immediacy of windows. If you encounter a control within Windows, you just work with it right away, you do not have to say to the computer, "I want to work with this item".

Another thing which hit me right away was the llack of customisation of the speech output. This was brought home to me with the Night Owl app for Twitter. I had a lot of problems here because I found I was getting far more speech output than I wanted, even when working in other applications. While after a time I suppressed a good deal of it, I would still hear terms such as, "1 row added", whenever a new tweet arrived. There were also various other idiosyncracies which began to annoy me which I seemed unable to do much about.

Lets talk about word processing using the TextEdit program. One thing which I found very disconcerting was interaction with the insertion point or cursor. If you want to read text letter by letter, you first use the Right Arrow to go forward and the Left Arrow to go back. You Add the Option key to read word-by-word. The Up and Down Arrows will read line by line. While navigating by letter, moving to the left, you may hear a character's name. If you then move to the right, you will then hear the name again. This can get very confusing and frustrating, meaning that you do not always know the location of the cursor precisely, certainly if you have come from a Windows environment. The character is spoken twice because you are moving the cursor to the left or right past the last character or space.

Naturally the Mac does have its own individual ways of managing files and folders, working with the web, email management and listening to songs with iTunes. I felt in the main that, while these for me would not be as rapid as using Windows even over time, they would all be things I could work with.

Where the Problems Arose.

Apart from the learning curve involved with the Mac, I had some problems which were apparent right away. First, the lack of USB ports. The MacBook Pro has 2 USB3 ports. This was not going to help. I have a large number of USB devices including sound cards I need to use, and so it was clear I was going to have to get a USB hub or two. Fortunately andre Louis came to the rescue and recommended a particularly good one, which has worked fine.

Next, making extensive changes to the keyboard. If I was going to use Windows, I had to make some changes to the keyboard layout so as to accommodate the JAWS keystrokes. This involved jumping through quite a lot of hoops to get it to the point where I was happy, but with the help of people on Twitter and some Applevis podcasts, I did get there, although when using Windows, the keyboard language would often switch from UK to American for no reason that I could understand.

Now to getting Windows on the machine. After a lot of research including listening to podcasts, I thought that using Windows under a Virtual Machine would be the way to go. This would mean I could do work on the Mac side while still undertaking my usual Windows-related work.

With the help of a good friend Scott Erichsen, we did get this done without sighted assistance. But after a short time, I realised that the audio reproduction using this method was not very good. There was quite a lot of crackling, there would be some computer freezing when trying to use too many programs at once, and I could not easily switch from the Mac to Windows and keep my Braille display active. I am relying on Braille quite a lot at the moment so this was fairly critical.

So, the next step was to try the Bootcamp route, where put simply, I could choose the operating system to boot into. I wasn't prepared to do this without sighted assistance. I telephoned RNIB's technology squad, and after about five weeks, they got back to me with someone who may have been able to help. By then, the problem had been solved. I took it to a local computer store who did the task quickly and efficiently.

Even with Windows under Bootcamp, I find that after an hour or so, slight crackling noises will be present, either when I am listening to audio and particularly when recording. This was not only irritating to me but also was spoiling the audio productions I was making and I always try to adopt a very high standard with those.

I now come to a problem I haven't discussed yet and this is one of visual presentation of documents. Given we are running our business without any sight between us, our documents have to look as professional as they can. For that reason, I use JAWS extensively. JAWS presents the very best level of information surrounding document layout, including character indentation, colour information, header and footer details, extra spacing between words, table dimensions, sizes of graphics such as logos, form field prompts, and so on. It is not an exaggeration to say that I need all that feedback and more. VoiceOver does not give you that information as far as I could tell. This means I was having to use Windows more and more and, of course, if I am doing that, where is the advantage to me in having this piece of equipment?

Lastly, I found that some of the JAWS scripts I use on a personal basis to get things done would not work under Windows on the Mac. It seems that JAWS has a hard job of finding information on the screen in this way, and so some things I would expect to work did not. This is nothing to do with Windows8.1 as they do work under that environment under normal circumstances. It has to do I think with the way JAWS is interpreting information using that display on the MacBook Pro. I need those scripts to work.

After a particularly frustrating time trying to produce a good piece of audio this past week, it was brought home to me that this was definitely not the right machine to have. With all the juggling with the keyboard to make it work in the way I needed it to, the learning curve for the Mac operation, the clunkiness of the VoiceOver interface as a whole, the lack of formatting information, the apparent audio inadequacies, the fact some of my JAWS scripts would not function, this is far more trouble than it is worth. I think I am patient, but not that patient.

Conclusion.

After a good deal of agonising, thinking whether I should give it more time, I have made the decision to sell the machine. If anyone is in the UK, and would like to make an offer for it, I would consider it.

I am absolutely sure that for those who would like to use the Mac, they would find it an excellent device. This machine is very powerful, and there's no doubt that the SSD drive makes it very snappy and responsive. But it isn't for me. I have to place a lot of demands on this machine, particularly under Windows, and lets face it, the Mac isn't designed for that. It's designed to run the Mac operating system, and that, by itself, it does well.

In closing, there is one other point I have not mentioned. My wife Lulu and I did think that we might learn how to use the Mac together as it would be an education for us both. We thought that if I could get a head start first of all, get it customised to a level we could use, then we could both explore more of its functions. Over time, Lulu then may feel that she would like one of her own. That is now not going to happen. Lulu likes the design of the machine, but after all we have been through in the learning process, she is not convinced either that this is the right product for her. She has completely supported me in the decision to sell it, and we're just glad to get back to Windows.
You can read the full specification of the MacBook Pro here.

The MacBook Pro was upgraded to accommodate 16 GB of memory and 1 TB of SSD storage. A USB Apple keyboard with numeric keypad is also included.

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