Business-like, isn't he?




    There's More for Mac Users in Superstore Aisles than Many Realize

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published online in LowEndMac Mac2Windows column May 19, 2004

     Mac users tend to be passionate about their computers in ways that Windows users rarely are. They know that their computers simply offer a better user experience than the majority platform.

    Still, there can be those moments of doubt, times when even the most committed Mac user asks her or himself whether they've made the right choice. Some of us have those dark nights of the soul when wandering through the brightly lit aisles of a computer superstore.

    My hometown, Vancouver, BC, doesn't have an Apple Store -- there are currently none in Canada. There are several good Mac retailers, but far more computers, peripherals, and gadgets are sold in electronics superstores. The biggest is the Canadian-based Future Shop chain (recently purchased by US-based Best Buy). They do sell Macs. There are always a couple of eMacs and iBooks off in a corner somewhere, but far more of their stock is PCs, printers, software, drives, routers, and such.

    Wandering the aisles of this and other computer superstores need not be as depressing an experience for Mac owners as it may seem at first. These stores stock more products for Macs than it might appear -- more than the local Mac-specialty stores, in fact. But don't try to ask the store's salespeople -- they won't know, and they'll probably try to sell you a PC.

    Take a walk down the printer aisle. Nearly all the printers, scanners, and all-in-one models from HP, Epson, Canon, etc. connect to a computer with USB and come with both Windows and Mac drivers (if not in the box, the drivers can be downloaded from the company's website). The display models may have a sticker on them listing OS X compatibility along with Windows. Even if it's not on the hardware, it probably says so on the box. (If you're not sure, check the company's website before buying).

    Nearly all digital cameras work flawlessly with Macs.

    It's the same story with wireless routers and access points. Most can be configured using a browser, meaning they can be set up from a Mac as easily as a PC just by typing an IP address into the browser of your choice. And the 802.11b or g standards (though not the less-popular 802.11a) will work fine with Apple's AirPort or AirPort Extreme wireless adapters. (There may be a trick or two needed to set up wireless encryption, however. To use encryption with my Linksys wireless router, Mac users need to know to enter a '$' in front of the long passphrase, for example).

    Editor's note: If you have older Macs or networked printers, you might need a router that supports AppleTalk -- something I discovered my new USRobotics router doesn't do. Off to the apartment where there's no old hardware for it. dk

    Cables and blank CD and DVD discs are commodity items; they're no different for a PC or a Mac. (Though you may need to know whether your DVD burner uses +R/+RW or &endash;R/-RW blank discs: Apple's SuperDrives use &endash;R/-RW blanks.)

    If you have a desktop Mac model, you can probably use any of the standard PC-style IDE hard drives; your Mac even uses the same kind of RAM as an equivalent PC. (There are several kinds of RAM in common use these days. Whether you're buying for a PC or a Mac, you'll need to know what to get, but once you know, you'll end up with RAM that would work in a PC as well as in a Mac.)

    DVD-burners can be somewhat problematic. I have an external FireWire case that I used to use with an IDE CD burner. More recently, I tried it with an HP DVD burner. It worked fine with my PC, but my Mac only saw it as a CD-ROM drive. Knowing that Apple's SuperDrives are really re-branded Pioneer hardware, when I found a Pioneer A-05 DVD burner on sale, I gave that a try. It works fine with both my Macs and PCs. Note however, that Apple's iDVD software won't work with third-party drives.

    Few non-Apple MP3 players work nicely with Macs, however. Companies that once offered Mac support tended to drop it after Apple released its iPod/iTunes combo. I have two MP3 players that work with OS 9, but not OS X (and not with OS X's classic mode either). A few models may appear as an external hard drive, letting you drag and drop songs to them.

    Palm OS PDAs (including models from Palm, Sony, and Handspring) will work fine with Macs, although it will take some third-party software to make a PDA running Microsoft's pocket version of Windows (such as models from HP/Compaq and Toshiba) connect to a Mac.

    USB mice and keyboards from companies such as Logitech and Microsoft are Mac-compatible and let Mac-owners get to use PC-style scroll wheels and extra buttons.

    While there's more Mac-friendly hardware in the electronics superstore than one might think, walking down their software aisles is less uplifting. A few educational or kid-game programs offer both Mac and Windows versions on the same CD, but most application packages stocked are PC only -- even if the company has a Mac version, and even if both would fit on the same CD. (Adobe's affordable Photoshop Elements, which offers 80% of the power of Photoshop for 20% of the price, is a rare example of an application for grown-ups that includes Windows and Mac versions on the same CD.)

    You can tell yourself that most of this PC software is unnecessary junk, and you would probably be right. But it's still frustrating, especially for game players, who are often forced to wait six months to a year for the Mac version of a popular game to be released -- if it's released at all. (If you're a game player, or have one in the family, you might be best served by getting a game system like Sony's Playstation 2).

    Despite the game gap, there's more than enough stuff in the typical electronics or computer superstore to keep a Mac user in gear, even if the store's staff may be the last to realize it.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. You can E-mail Alan