Why Macs annoy me

Originally published 2001 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Macintoshes annoy me.

Not for the usual reasons, mind you.

Macs don't annoy me because they're expensive. There ain't no law against 25% margins. Apple can charge whatever they want for their products.

Macs don't annoy me because they stop you from doing things that Apple think are more trouble than they're worth. Yes, Mac OS hides the system's giblets from the hapless user. But, importantly, it also doesn't require Joe Average to fool with said innards.

Windows often hides technical things that you need to be able to access to make something work. Hands up everybody who enjoys using Regedit?

And Windows also forces you to deal with other technical things that you shouldn't need to know about. If I had a penny for every time Windows had asked me where to find a file needed for a program installation, when that file was in the same directory as the installer I just double-clicked...

Well, actually, if I had a penny for every time, I'd only have a few bucks. But you get the idea.

Macs don't annoy me because of their patriots, either. Yes, there are Mac fanatics who believe Steve Jobs when he says the latest G4 Power Mac is <Austrian>Perspex tissue over a supercomputer endoskeleton</Austrian>. But they're heavily outnumbered by the wiggy wiggy werd up Purple Shineypants PC tweakers who buy 15,000RPM SCSI drives for Windows ME boxes.

They're all dumb.

But it's not a platform's fault if idiots love it.

Macs also don't annoy me because they come with expensive unpopular technology included as standard. Apple have always done that, and it's a great thing. There's a long list of things for which all computer users would have been waiting longer were it not for Apple. It starts with the floppy drive.

No, what irks me about Macs is incompatibility. Expansion card incompatibility, in particular.

A PCI expansion card for one system should be able to be used in any other system with PCI slots. The same goes for AGP. That was the idea of the standard.

But it doesn't quite work that way.

You see, x86-compatible PCs are "little-endian". Multi-bit numbers are stored with the least significant bit first. Macs work the other way around - they're "big-endian". And no graphics card will work in a Mac unless it supports both the Mac's unusual way of handling colour, and both data formats. It has to be "bi-endian".

What this means is that you can't just drop any current PC graphics card into a Mac and expect it to work. If a PC card - a 3dfx Voodoo 3 or 4, say - can be made to support the Mac way of doing things, the way you make it happen is by flashing the card's BIOS. Which is an arcane ritual which may not actually be possible on the Mac, but have to be done on a PC.

But don't worry. Because most graphics cards can't be made Mac-compatible at all. Not the original GeForce; not any GeForce2 except the MX. Some GeForce3s, but not others. Not a PC Radeon card, despite the availability of Mac Radeons. And as for the different flavours of STMicro Kyro - fuhgeddaboutit.

So if you're an enthusiast with multiple computers, you can save a few bucks, at the expense of considerable time and aggravation, by converting a PC graphics card into a Mac one. Regular schlubs need not apply, though.

When I first wrote this column, Apple were selling the then-fairly-new GeForce3 cards for $AU1200 - the usual 25% margin over the price of PC GeForce3s at the time. They don't seem to be selling any upgrade video cards at the moment, but you can of course buy them from other resellers. For your extra money, the special Apple GeForce3 gave you two monitor outputs. One of those nifty Apple Display Connector ports that gives you video, power and USB in one cable, plus a normal VGA output as well.

At the time, though, Apple weren't selling any CRT monitors. They direct-sell a couple of Mitsubishi Diamond Pro CRTs as of the time when I'm putting this column up on the Web, but those are just beige boxes like you can buy at any PC hardware store. The only non-LCD screens with actual Apple logos on them nowadays are the ones that're built into the cheap CRT iMacs.

This is a fine example of that making-people-use-the-new-expensive-technology policy, but it means that new Mac buyers on some sort of budget are likely to opt for a normal cheap PC screen (from Apple, or from someone else) to go with their Mac. Which means they'll use the VGA output connector. So they might as well have a PC card anyway. If it worked.

The Mac hardware differences that make it impossible to do what AGP and PCI were supposed to do are there for a reason, and not a trivial thing to change. But that doesn't mean they're not darn annoying for hardware junkies like, well, most of the people that are probably reading this.

Macs use ordinary RAM and normal IDE hard drives now, at least. And USB stuff works on anything that's got a driver for it.

But if you want the power on the cheap, you still want a PC.

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