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Mac userfriendliness

Filed under: General — Thomas @ 10:53


I never really got why the Mac is thought to be so userfriendly. This weekend we planned to backup and upgrade an older 2007 iMac running 10.4 Tiger to 10.5 Leopard.

I first wanted to make sure we could make a bootable copy of the hard drive. We got a WD MyBook Studio which is supposedly what you'd get for a Mac, with a fancy e-ink display for name and space left.

When attached to Firewire it first of all was not recognized at all. Over USB it worked, and recommended we do a firmware upgrade. After doing the firmware upgrade and rebooting, the drive wouldn't light up anymore. A heavy paperweight, essentially. Trickery with dmesg showed that something does get recognized on the USB port, but that's it. After an hour and a half of trying out various firmware uploading tools, we gave up and sent it back to the store, and settled for a standard no-additional-firmware USB drive.

Let Superduper run for a night backing up 120 GB of drive over 4 hours, and we were good to go (incidentally, I created two boot partitions, so after naming the first one 'Bootie', the second one named itself. A for the system drive, B for the first boot drive, and C for the second.)

Then comes the reboot. You're supposed to hold the Option key during boot. With Macs, this always gives me anxiety - do you start holding down a key before or after you turn it on ? Can you hold it down while you are rebooting ? When can you let go ? There are simply no clues. Between the sound, the grey screen, and the apple, you have no idea what is going on. At least, with the usual PC boot screens, you can check for common problems like 'is the keyboard even working'. I get Apple Anxiety all the time.

In this particular case, apparently I misremembered what the Option key was in the first place. I was holding down that four-lobed rotated clover key. But apparently Option is the Alt/railroad join key.

How is not labeling a key with the same name your software uses considered userfriendly by anyone ?

After holding down that railroad join key before rebooting until a boot menu pops up, we could choose the Bootie drive and boot from it. At least that bit was easy to use, and worked.

Make another backup just in case, then reboot with an official install CD of 10.5 from work.

This time you have to hold down the C key. I still don't understand why having to search the net for random information JUST so you can boot from a CD is so much better than a simple boot menu and a prompt to get into it.

And after a lot of whirring and booting into the installer, it simply pops up a message saying 'Mac OS X cannot be installed on the computer.' This software cannot be installed on this computer.

No further explanation. How hard could it be to tell me ?

Googling, it turns out that grey install discs are tied to a specific model. The disc came from a MacMini.

And again, after much Googling, it looks like the 30 euro retail version of Snow Leopard can be installed over Tiger on intel Macs, so maybe we should just wait until Monday to upgrade.

Now, if only we could actually get the CD out of the drive when rebooting, as the installer runs from CD it doesn't let you eject, and when you reboot I don't know the magic key combination to eject... and I just *know* I've had to do this before on a MacMini and all I remember is that it was some stupid combination of tricks...


  1. “How is not labeling a key with the same name your software uses considered userfriendly by anyone ?”

    What? On my MacBook Pro I’m using right now, I have Alt/Option (the Option key), and ⌘/Command (the command key)… It’s the same on my external keyboard (the thin aluminium one)… Unless your Mac is old enough to use the one that just used the symbol (⌥).

    Comment by Stephen — 2011-04-17 @ 11:32

  2. @Stephen, it does indeed use that symbol. It’s a 2007 iMac.

    Comment by Thomas — 2011-04-17 @ 12:17

  3. Hold down a “mouse” button while the machine is off. Turn it on but keep the “mouse” held down and the disk will be ejected.

    ( http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?path=mac/10.4/en/mh1750.html )

    Comment by Anon — 2011-04-17 @ 11:44

  4. Userfriendliness does not mean that everything works all the time.
    Nothing is perfect.
    Mac OS, just like Linux, is a niche OS. Chances are, peripheral manufacturers don’t test at all with anything besides the last two Windows releases.

    And you complaints about holding keys: Sorry but that’s just whining. Get the manual, open it, read it!
    I mean seriously: When I got my iBook, it even had a sticker on it, telling me to put in the CD and hold C when powering up.
    But hey, I’m a helpful person even to those to lazy to RTFM: Hold down the mouse button while powering up to eject.

    Comment by Markus S. — 2011-04-17 @ 11:48

  5. Markus, I’m not complaining that things don’t work. I’m complaining about not being told why things don’t work.

    In the case of the WD MyBook Studio, specifically targetted at Mac, your comment doesn’t hold.

    I’m not sure why it’s more userfriendly to have to dig for your manual instead of being told on the screen what to do. I definitely have never had to read a manual to figure out how to boot a PC from an external drive. It tells me while booting!

    Thanks for the tip, we were able to reboot by choosing the hard drive as the next boot device. But holding down a mouse button to eject ? How is that more userfriendly than a working eject button ?

    Comment by Thomas — 2011-04-17 @ 12:17

  6. Nothing beats: sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

    Comment by Phil — 2011-04-17 @ 12:50

  7. @Phil, exactly, but at what point do you pay Steve for the privilege ? :)

    Comment by Thomas — 2011-04-17 @ 13:03

  8. Hey, you, last time I checked, gentoo and ubuntu worked fine on an iMac ;)

    Comment by Palin — 2011-04-17 @ 16:17

  9. I’m half sympathetic to you, half to Markus. It’s not so much user-unfriendliness as a lesser-supported option. Apple expects that someone advanced enough to dual boot will take the time to learn the correct keys to hold while dual booting. Though I never liked the symbol-only markings on keys (which persists on some non-U.S. layouts to this day).

    To boot from a CD, you could have simply held down “Option” in the same way as for booting from a different partition. That magic key gives you the choice from booting from any mounted partition (though you’ll need to wait a bit for the CD to mount, which is where the “C” is meant to be a shortcut). There, one unique key for booting. :-)

    Next, your keyboard undoubtedly comes with a key marked with the “eject” symbol (same symbol as on a CD/DVD player). Simply hold it down while you boot, and the disc is ejected. Not sure why you’d consider that user-unfriendly; the only difference to a non-Mac is that it’s a soft key instead of a button on the drive.

    Third, you can hold down any of the above keys (including the ones you discovered or the louse button) anytime after you power on. The key will be recognized by the time the tone chimes. So that should re dice some anxiety. ;-)

    As for the “C” key or mouse button, those are remnants of the past. Just as power users expect shortcut keys in their apps, those have been kept for old power users. But besides “Option” or the eject key, you probably don’t need to learn a key unless you’re a tech. Again, an expectation that if you need advanced ratites, you’ll learn them. Doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    Signed, a die-hard Fedora user but ironically typing this on my iPad. :-D

    Comment by John — 2011-04-17 @ 17:11

  10. @John, thanks for the explanation. I personally don’t think that being able to make a bootable backup (so you can rescue your system if you have a hard drive failure) something that should be for advanced users. It sounds pretty essential to me, although the amount of people that don’t even think about this possibility is staggering. And what good is a bootable backup if you can’t actually figure out how to boot from it ?

    Comment by Thomas — 2011-04-17 @ 21:50

  11. Ratites = features. Nice one, auto-correct.

    Comment by John — 2011-04-17 @ 17:12

  12. Re dice = reduce
    Louse = mouse, but I kind of like that one

    Comment by John — 2011-04-17 @ 17:13

  13. Yup, mac software is beautiful but dreaded where I work part time.
    Everyone in tech support dreads the moment a cust notifies them that they are using MacOS.
    That and third party wireless utilities :D Admittedly I have had issues with customers who have a had a friend install a distro and mess with the default ui.
    Hard to troubleshoot an issue when the user has completely customized the ui :)

    Comment by mrmcq2u — 2011-04-17 @ 17:22

  14. Server-side, MacOS is an overrated experience as well. Server-side you’ll see more poorly-engineered software and bad design choices that go unfixed for multiple major revisions. Workgroup Manager (WGM) is a program admins on MacOS X Server use quite frequently to set application defaults and organize computers into groups, so it’s important that WGM works and the features it offers actually perform as advertised.

    WGM still has window resizing bugs, WGM doesn’t show nested group relationships in a useful manner (which makes useful group design that scales up very hard to work with), WGM fails to add computers to group via AD computer entries in a way that makes that computer behave as if it is a group member, and occasionally WGM really messes up a computer group’s membership for no apparent reason (machines can’t be removed from a group, machines can’t be added to a group). The workaround for the latter is to destroy and re-create the group.

    The login restriction offers admins a neat idea: users who may login must be a member of one set of groups and not be a member of another set of groups. This would be a great way to implement a ne’er-do-well group–drop a user in a certain group and deny them login access so they go to management and complain. But login restrictions pushed down from MacOS X Server hasn’t worked with AD or OD groups since at least 10.4. Client-side service ACLs on the loginwindow process isn’t the equivalent of what you’re supposed to be able to push down with WGM; the two-group arrangement I just described does not exist with service ACLs. A couple summers ago my work organization’s former Apple rep came to our site and verified a couple of these bugs, filed a bug report with Apple on their proprietary bug tracker about the login restriction bug and there it sat. To this day login restrictions remain unfixed. I don’t blame the rep, it wasn’t his job to fix the software. He did his job and more pointing us to service ACLs. Apple server-side software engineers, on the other hand, have had plenty of time to fix these problems but no fix arrives; these remain features that are clearly supposed to work and be used but are useless due to bugs.

    Comment by J.B. Nicholson-Owens — 2011-04-17 @ 18:14

  15. […] I never really got why the Mac is thought to be so userfriendly. This weekend we planned to backup and upgrade an older 2007 iMac running 10.4 Tiger to 10.5 Leopard. I first wanted to make sure we could make a bootable copy of the hard … mac – Google Blog Search […]

    Pingback by thomas.apestaart.org » Mac userfriendliness | Macbook Groups — 2011-04-17 @ 21:02

  16. @Thomas, you’re welcome. I agree, it’s very convenient to have a bootable backup, but I believe that the expected (and therefore supported) way is to use a bootable CD/DVD. While I’ve never seen any official statement (in part because I haven’t looked ;-) ), I think that Apple expects for you to use Time Machine and boot from the install disc to reinstall. It’s actually very convenient; I’ve used it successfully more than once.

    The “Apple Way” could probably be summarized as often being a single method, which is supported, while permitting other methods that aren’t supported. You’re basically running into this: while you can use third-party or alternative solutions, Apple has implicitly encouraged you to use their way. In this case, Apple encourages you to make a separation between data (Time Machine drive) and system volume. The internal drive is unseen, and therefore part of the machine (as far as the uninitiated user knows), and the install disc is a failsafe, like a spare tire which only serves until you can get the main device up and running again.

    The Apple way of encouraging/forcing you to do things can be frustrating, and can lead to some of their strongest criticisms. But it also allows them to nurture this “just works” ethos (which is usually reality if you follow their way, but much less so if you “stray” from the path). I see it boiling down to a difference in cultures: Apple supplies one supported way, which works very well; other platforms encourage many ways, each of which works to varying degrees.

    Coming from a Linux background as you do, I can understand that you might interpret the limitations as user unfriendliness. I personally think that the platform is much more flexible (and open to alternatives) than other periods, especially compared to the very beginning (no arrow keys on the keyboard to force mouse usage!). And while there are arcane key combinations to do things like boot from an alternate volume, at least they have nice mnemonics (“Option” gives the choice of volume; “C” for “CD”; “eject” for, well…). The main difference is documentation (“F12” is hard to remember, but there is a reminder that flashes on my Dell’s screen – though often it disappears before I’m ready to press the key, and I have to reboot again anyway).

    – This time, sent from a desktop browser and no typos :-)

    Comment by John — 2011-04-18 @ 08:53

  17. It’s kind of silly to complain about the software not working as you are basically pirating it. If you get the original you’ll find that it comes with a booklet that has all the information you need.

    Comment by me — 2011-04-18 @ 08:56

  18. @me, I’m not pirating at all. This is an official MacMini install DVD, unused on any other computer, not even the MacMini it came with.

    Comment by Thomas — 2011-04-18 @ 09:03

  19. The “user-friendly” way to select which drive or disk to boot from is to launch System Preferences, click on “Startup Disk”, select the disk you want to boot from, and press the “Restart” button. But the main thing to remember about Mac OS X is that user-friendliness is not the primary focus; the primary focus is on shiny, pretty, uncluttered appearance. You can’t mar the beautiful and clean startup screen with something ugly like menus or prompts. ;-)

    Comment by Nick — 2011-04-18 @ 14:53

  20. It was preinstalled on that Mac Mini in the factory. Note by the way that that Mac Mini also comes with a booklet with all the information, just like the iMac and I’m also quite sure the model the discs are for is printed on the discs.

    Wether you think licenses that attempt to tie software to a particular piece of hardware are valid or not is up to you of course, but what do you expect? If you attempt to restore the discs that come with an HP laptop on a Dell, it’s not going to work either.

    Comment by me — 2011-04-18 @ 23:57

  21. “I still don’t understand why having to search the net for random information JUST so you can boot from a CD is so much better than a simple boot menu and a prompt to get into it.”

    GNOME also struggles with the ever-troublesome distinction between distractions and rarely used features. (I think GNOME 2 balances much better than Apple, though.)

    Comment by not me — 2011-04-20 @ 18:22

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