Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Switch to a Mac: 3 Things I Find Most Useful As a Grad Student

I’ve been a PC user all my life, but in June, I got my first Mac, a black MacBook. It immediately became my primary computer and my overall experience has been rather positive. Right now I can’t see myself switching back.
There are many great features in OS X, and also some downsides (why is Office so bad?!), but here are three features that I’ve found to be most useful so far as a grad student:

1. Preview For PDFs: Using Mac’s built in Preview app is like driving a Ferrari after riding a bike (Acrobat or Acrobat Reader). Adobe does a lot of good things, I’ll admit, but making programs that take an eternity to load is certainly not one of them. For a grad student that has to open papers in pdf format all the time, the slowness of Acrobat can be more annoying than getting email replies from professors, especially when you’re in literature search mode browsing through a bunch of papers in a given sitting. Preview, on the other hand, is lightning quick. You can highlight text and screen capture images just as easily as Acrobat as well.

2. Quick Look: Imagine being able to peer inside a huge variety of file types, super fast, with a click of a button. That’s Quick Look. When you are looking for a particular paper inside a directory with tons of them, for example, and the filenames aren’t clear enough, what do you do? Certainly you can start opening them one by one, but that quickly turns into a mess. By the time you find it you can have 10 to 20 files open. With Quick Look, you just browse into the directory, hit space bar, and you have an instant preview of the pdf, and of course you can use the arrow keys to scroll through all the other files in the directory to find what you’re looking for. Think of Windows image preview for more than just pictures, and with the ability to scroll through the whole document; I’m talking PowerPoints, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, even movies. You can even click play on a movie in Quick Look and watch it right there. This is one of those features that after using it for a day, you wonder how you made due without it.

3. Time Machine: Backing up files regularly is the thing everyone knows they should be doing but aren’t. Here to solve that problem is Time Machine, the slickest little backup program I’ve ever seen. Backing up with it is so ridiculously easy that if you have it and aren’t backing up your stuff, you deserve to lose your data. Harsh, but you seriously don’t have an excuse. How easy is it? Well, basically, you don’t have to do anything. Once you designate a drive as your Time Machine drive, it backs stuff up for you every hour automatically. If your drive is an external hard drive that is not always plugged in, it automatically starts backing up the moment you do plug it in. Leaving your back up drive plugged in during a particular class or group meeting is a great way to never be behind. And this isn’t the kind of backup you’ll only use if your entire your hard drive fails. It’s not all your files stored in one huge compressed dinosaur of a file. It backs up your entire computer, as is, so you can browse through all your backups and find just one file if you need to. Serious convenience.

What do you find most useful on your Mac? (other than Quicksilver. Yes, I have it. Yes it makes me feel like Merlin Mann.)


Alex said...

I've had mine for just over a year now and I'm hooked. One thing I really like about Macs is the amount of open sources software that's made for it. Schoolhouse has become my default note taking app for class, and Adium is a much better chat application where I can have AIM and Gchat in the same window.

Other good open sources apps are Caffeine (which prevents the screen from dimming) and Vienna (a great RSS reader).

The best Apple software that really blows MS Office away is Keynote. It is SO much easier to do more than in PowerPoint.

Bdizzy said...

Cool. I'll check these out.

About Keynote, the problem I see is that my colleagues use powerpoint so I'm constantly having to share files with them, how is it in reading and outputing .ppt files, does it do those conversions without a lot of mistakes?

Anonymous said...

One tip to remember from an old Mac user....

Always recommend Windows to your competition.

Anonymous said...

For PDF papers, try Skim (a free Mac app; I like Preview in general, but Skim easily beats it for longish "text-oriented PDFs". Skim is particularly strong when you're actually writing a document whose final form is PDF (e.g., using LaTeX).

Anonymous said...

"how is it in reading and outputing .ppt files, does it do those conversions without a lot of mistakes?"

I am a Ph.D chemist. Keynote saves VERY well in ppt format. And don't neglect PDF as a format; PDF fonts tend to look better than Windows fonts, IMHO.

To Gradhacker: YES-- Preview is a ZILLION times better than Acrobat. It would "obsolete" Acrobat, but for some authoring features it doesn't have.

--Tom B

Bdizzy said...

Keynote is sounding better and better. And is it just as good with reading ppt files? I know macs in general are terrible with .wmf or metafiles in general (or at least that has been my impression) but I imagine everything else should convert to keynote fine?

Anonymous said...

"And is it just as good with reading ppt files?"

In my experience, yes.

--Tom B

swain said...

Here are few tips for using Preview as a publication viewer.

Partners in Grime said...

The Free Mac Classroom is a collection of Mac freeware geared toward university students.

I am a lover of children's literature said...

I have three Mac's and I would be hard pressed to get rid of any of them, especially with great free software such as QuickSliver andGrowl available, among others.

Nice post, by the way.