New Laptop Update

People have been asking what I think of the MacBook Air I got the other day. Well, now that I lived with it for two whole days, some thoughts:

* From an industrial design standpoint, it’s hard to find much fault with the physical build of the computer. The whole seamless aluminum unibody construction is esthetically nice and sturdy feeling, and the screen is sufficiently roomy thanks to size and resolution that I don’t feel cramped or unable to access anything on the screen. The processing guts are also chugging along fine, although I paid extra for the i7 processor and the extra large hard drive, so factor that in. As for no optical drive, well, I have an optical drive on my desktop computer and I’ve used it once in the last six months, to transfer some pictures on a CD. So it’s not something I’m missing. The only place the computer falls down a bit is in the keyboard, the response of which is not as crisp as I’d like. But on the other hand, the lighted keys? Sweet. As expected.

Oh, one other minor complaint: The “m” on the keyboard looks like the “w” was just turned upside down. Yes, I know “m”s looks like upside down “w”s anyway, but usually the typeface makes some adjustment. This one doesn’t. It really messes with my typeface feng shui.

* As noted before, I’m not having any problems adapting to OSX Lion, because I haven’t used a Mac OS for a number of years, but have been using iOS, and because the other laptops I have are sufficient old and/or have sufficiently crappy trackpads that I never regularly bothered with multitouch gestures on them. So Lion is reasonably close to my recent Apple UI experience, and I have no conflicting multi-gesture habits to mess me up. So, good for me. What I don’t know is apparently working for me. I know some Mac folks have run in horror from the “natural scrolling” regimen that Apple has imposed on them; I hope one day they will heal from the trauma.

* I’ve had some folks ask me whether getting a Mac means that I am going to finally free myself from the shackles of Microsoft Word and embrace the creamy goodness of Scrivener. The answer is: no. I did download the trial version of Scrivener yesterday to see whether it made any more sense to me on the Mac than it did on the PC, when I was trying the beta version. In short, no, it really didn’t; it still seems designed for a writing process so far removed from mine that all I can really do with it is stare at it and wonder how people use it at all. I played with Pages briefly and it is as I remembered it from a few years ago, which is, a nice little program if you’re not doing anything very serious. So I went ahead and downloaded Word for the Mac and will probably be using it as my primary word processor on this computer as well.

And that’s my two-days-in review.

43 Comments on “New Laptop Update”

  1. Are you using this mostly at your desk, or moving around…? I’m curious about the limited screen space, and if you’re using an external monitor with it or just the wee screen.

  2. Oh, great–now I’m fixated on the M and W on my keyboard, and seeing that yes, they are the same, just vertically flopped. Damn you, Scalzi! Next I’ll be obsessing how the P is just a legless R, the F is a footless E, and the T is just an I with a hat.

    At least the C isn’t a sideways U.

  3. As a note – with a free download from and a little config you can access the desktop CD/DVD from your Mac Air as if it was installed. Very nice for software installations.

  4. My “W” and “M” are not inverts. Hmm.

    I am a big fan of OpenOffice which is all the word processor (and spreadsheet manipulator) I need.

  5. You may find some of the tiny, niggling differences between Word as rendered on a PC running Windows and Word on a Mac will drive you nuts. Truly minor, negligible things, like the size or shape of the popup find/replace window, or something equally trivial. At least, that’s what happened to me when I first started using one. Rest assured, this will not pass. (Don’t get me wrong, my macbook pro is still a great machine, but since I still use a PC as well, I can never “stop” being used to the Windows version). And dammit, here I am 4 years later and the differences STILL drive me freaking nuts!

  6. I’ve been a big fan of the Mellel word processor ever since I moved to the Mac world. (Word always gave me hives, and OpenOffice felt sluggish.) Might be worth checking out.

  7. John, have you tried Pages from Mac?

    Love it now, but it drove me nuts until I created a template for a blank page to my specs, then set it as the new document default in preferences. I mean, who writes in Helvetica?

    It also has awesome page layout capability if you need it.

  8. The “m” on the keyboard looks like the “w” was just turned upside down.

    I say the “W” looks like an inverted “M”. At least it does on my MacBook Pro.

  9. Seconding Dana’s endorsement of Pages. I write the first draft, figure out what in those bones the story is trying to say, and improve through character and world building in second. Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary. Pages does with beautifully without offering significant help over every little conjunction and adverb.

    The first two weeks, I was detoxing from MSWord for Mac, and yes, it took me a while to figure out the tricks my specific process requires, but ten years on, Pages is what will keep me coming back to Apple. It handles 1000+ page manuscripts without a bobble, and it syncs well with the iPad, making the iPad excellent for editing. I’ve written at least a million words in the last few years, all in Pages. I don’t even notice the application, which to me says it does it’s job in being unobtrusive.

  10. I can’t fault you, John, for sticking with Word: most of the publishing world has workflows built around that application. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to switch to something else if you then have to contend with editors and production staff who all use Word and expect you to use it, too.

    I say this even though I am a big fan of both Pages and of Scrivener (I even edited Kirk McElhearn’s ebook about how to use Scrivener earlier this year; interestingly enough, that ebook was produced using Pages).

  11. I’ve been using Nisus Writer Express on my Mac, and like its stripped down barebones simplicity. It opens quickly, and does the basic word processing very well. I like the little window showing the word count as it can be put anywhere on the desktop.

    Open Office, at least on my older computer, feels like it loads slower than molasses. I can’t speak for Word as I haven’t used it since 1988. I have downloaded Scrivener, but not tried it yet.

  12. One thing I really missed with Word for Mac was the keyboard shortcuts. Everything had to be done by mouse and all the super-fast keystroke formatting stuff I’d learned on a PC was useless.

    I’m using Scrivener now, but mostly because I think it can be made into a really useful tool for me. So far it’s still cumbersome.

  13. Re: Scrivnener. You really need to have Marko Kloos come over and sit down to show you the ways you can use it. It’s one of those tools that is so big, so diverse, so powerful that the initial glance at it will make you slump forward, go “Buh…” and shuffle back to Word.

  14. I use Scrivener, but only to create story outlines and character/setting background. I like being able to switch quickly among those different topics rather than having everything in one long document or a bunch of different windows. But actually writing in it was a bit much, especially since I like having all my background material in a separate window, so I can consult it while writing in the story window.

    I’m trying to adapt to Pages — I need to create a template, as Dana mentioned, so I don’t go through setup hell with each new story.

  15. Chang:

    Well, see. That’s the thing. I don’t want to have to retrain myself in a process I don’t use in order to use a word processor. I’d just like to write. To this respect, I suppose I’m very much like those writers who are still using typewriters (or WordStar, or whatever) to write, since what works is what works. I don’t think I’m irrationally tied to Word — I use Google Docs quite a bit because it works for me for short stuff — but at the same time there’s no point abandoning a currently-updated software that’s also the industry standard and that I’m used to, especially if it would require to change how I write.

  16. #12 “I can’t fault you, John, for sticking with Word: most of the publishing world has workflows built around that application. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to switch to something else if you then have to contend with editors and production staff who all use Word and expect you to use it, too.”

    That’s a common misconception–that you have to use Word because everyone else does. I have been a Neo/OpenOffice user for years. The only accommodation I need to make is to “save as” a word doc when I send a file to an editor. Track changes works seamlessly between the two programs. And recently I forgot to save my .odt file as a .doc, and my editor opened it just fine, so it seems like World may now be supporting open document format.

  17. Evernote. Awesome if you use multiple devices across different platforms – MacAir while travelling (50%), Lenovo laptop/brick at work, iMac on the desk at home, Android tab at Spinellis. All synched and all free! I currently have the first few paragraphs of about 11 novels I’ll never get near making any progress on let alone finishing, and they are all there blinking at me everywhere I go.

  18. @sclazicce #19: It may or may not have to change the way you write. I get what your saying though. I think for me, making the switch from Word to Scrivener it took a couple of tries. I didn’t “get it” at first because I was used to using word since 1988! But I was frustrated since Word repeatedly ate several documents and farted them out into the void without a trace. No backups or nothing. Scrivener seems to be almost infallible in that regard with redundant backups. For me I didn’t find the workflow was that hard to change. I did have to sit down and write a whole story and then a novel to get into it. Now I’m putting everything in Scrivener and use Word for formatting.

    But I really, really didn’t get it until someone sat down with me and showed it to me and that was Marko @ VPXII (DIRTY DOZEN SALUTE!)

    Clearly I have a lot to say about it!

  19. Harry Connolly, #15: I’m no Word for Mac booster, but it’s not true to say that “everything has to be done by mouse”. Just as in the Windows version, there are a ton of built-in keyboard shortcuts and you can reconfigure them–and even create keyboard shortcuts for actions that don’t have them by default–pretty much all you want.

    I don’t know who said it first, but it’s as true now as it was 20 years ago: Word is a great word processor, but you have to clean and gut it first.

  20. As for Evernote, I’ve tried it multiple times, and its insanely bad Mac text handling throws my out every times. Hard returns and paragraph breaks that I carefully set up in documents entered on the Mac go haywire on the iPhone, and vice versa. People have been complaining about this for years, and it’s no better now than it was in the beginning. Instead of Evernote, I simply use Dropbox to sync a tree of textfile notes-to-self documents.

    TNH likes Evernote a lot, but she uses it to organize and tag a vast collection of images and saved web pages, something it’s very good at.

  21. Kirby Crow@13: “Never mess with a man’s word processor.”

    Same with source code editors for programmers. A friend of mine says trying to standardize editors is like trying to standardize underwear. (She was a programmer and is now a military officer, so I imagine she knows what she’s talking about.)

    I have Scrivener and it strikes me as a great tool if you need a writing system. But if you already have a system, it’s just another word processor. For anyone interested in Scrivener, there are some great video tutorials that make it much easier to understand.

    As much as I wanted Evernote to work for me (it matches how I write code pretty well) the editor portion was just not doing it. I hate typing on the bottom line of a window, but I couldn’t scroll down past it to bring the last line up higher. The lack of a word count bothered me too, plus the local copy of my Evernote notes is embedded in a special file.

    To get the write & read anywhere capability, I use Dropbox and whatever editor is at hand. Scrivener takes a little extra setup to use with Dropbox, but there’s a video to explain how to do it.

  22. @20 It’s not a misconception: it depends on the publisher. If tracking changes is all that’s required, something like Pages is not a bad way to go. But if your publisher has a whole Word-based toolchain, including specialized styles and macros that are Word-specific, it is more trouble than it’s worth. I say this from personal experience.

    Besides, John wants to write. His tool of choice has become second-nature to him so he can focus on the writing, not the word-processing interface. I’m not going to tell him to fix what isn’t broken for him. Writing is hard enough without adding layers of “how the @$#% do I do THAT with this software?” on top of the process.

  23. John, I’m sure you have no desire for more word processor recommendations, but the only reason I prefer to write on OSX is because of Bean. ( It has a running word count, which is important for me, and handles plain text better than Word. At least in my opinion. Plus it’s Open Source. (Please donate if you like it though, because really, I’d pay an embarrassing amount for the program)

    It only exists for OSX, which really annoys me. If you like simplicity, speed, and a running word count, however, it’s hard to beat.

    So there is your unwanted software recommendation for the day.

  24. To upgrade to OSX Lion, I have to upgrade from Word 2004 — which I enjoy using as I am so familiar with it, and have extensively customized — to either 2007 or 2011.

    [I’d love another app that duplicated the handful of key features I use, such as revisions, and was seamlessly able to open and save Word docs as I have to exchange some back and forth with co-workers.]

    But I have read many reviews that both new versions of Word are slow and buggy.
    Are many of you having better luck with the software?

  25. But, really, you can’t say you’ve tested the Macbook Air until you’ve taken it to the coffee shop, right…? :-)

  26. While we’re making unwanted software recommendations, I use a Mac OS X program called Storyist for all my fiction and quite like it. The front page of the website also notes that Storyist for iPad is imminent as well.

  27. Dave H@25

    Now I have a mental image of the Word paperclip with underwear on its head. Thanks for that. I hate that little bugger anyway. XD

    I’ve tried a half-dozen non-standard word processors, and more “Author” client programs than I can shake a stick at. None of them worked for me. When I originally started writing on a computer, I began with Word Perfect. This was a huge mistake as the industry gravitated to Word, Corel WP was soon “non standard” and I had to keep making accommodations for the editors who could not open the files (like using .rtf format).

    Eventually, I bowed to the will of the gods and switched to Word, learned that, and stayed with it.When I got a new computer and needed a new version of Word (not included) everyone assured me that Open Office was just as good, and free, Well, they were half-right. It was free. My system of Word and index cards works for me (which is what John is saying), and anything that messes with a working system is just lag and all kinds of unwise.

    I love the look of Scrivener. It’s cute as hell. It’s the shiniest-looking wee thing ever. I just wish I could plug it straight into my brain and make it write stuff for me. Alas, it has a learning curve, and it frustrates me that I have to stop and go “What’s this button do?” when I’m trying to write. It’s like being constantly interrupted by a terrier nipping at your ankles or something.

    I invariably close it down and just open a blank page in Word. :) Still… Scrivener…it’s so FLUFFY!

  28. I’ve found that Scrivener is handy for organizing my notes. But Jer’s Novel Writer is still what I keep going back to when it’s time to do the actual writing part of the process. It has all the simplicity that Scrivener doesn’t (none of that “what’s this button do?”), and yet still has a lot of organizing ability, including a database feature and notepad that are completely out of the way. The downside is that Jer has stopped developing it fulltime.

    Most text editors/word processors have your cursor at the bottom of the screen. Scrivener puts it at halfway – you see your text in the top half, then blank page in the bottom half. There was an earlier version of Jer’s let you set your cursor anywhere you wanted, and I really miss that function.

  29. I’m a big fan of Ulysses, very fast with a minimal interface that basically organizes a project as a set of text files. Worth a free trial before switching to Word which in my experience is crazy slow and clunky on OSX…

  30. I’ve moved over to Scrivener due to bit rot with my previous Markdown-based process, but what I really lack is a graphical organization method that I’m actually happy with.

  31. Yo, John, what do you mean Pages isn’t for anyone wanting to do something serious? What am I missing by using Pages?

  32. Funny how you comment on someone’s blog, get a reply, and realize how silly your question looks. But thanks for your reply. On scrivener: i jot down ideas on Stickies, and those eventually get sent to Scrivener as a sort of filing system that i can organize later. Actual concentrated writing in Pages. Prefer Pages to Word because I like its full screen mode better than Word. Thought Id expand on the subject. Lion’s full screen functions rock.

  33. I really do like Scrivener. It took some setup, but now that I’m using it, I really do like being able to set up each chapter/scene in its own document that can automatically be compiled. I have a dropdown to the left of my workspace with a list of the chapters–including notes or summaries I need to include about them–and can even keep my former drafts in the same workspace to refer back to without the need to keep multiple instances of Word open.

    I wrote the first draft of my WIP in Word 2007 on my PC as a single document, but when I went to revise, I decided to take the time (maybe 2 hours total) to separate it into separate documents within a Scrivener file and learn the software system. Really, it fit in with my own process better than I had hoped because it was easier for me to go back and check Chapter 22 in just a second instead of scrolling through hundreds of pages to get there (yes, I know, better labeling would have allowed a nifty CTRL-F in Word for that, too).

    As much as this sounds like an ad, I’m really impressed by the software. If I were as entrenched in a routine and system as John is, though, I might have been more resistant. Since it’s my first novel’s manuscript and a few short stories, it was easier for me to adapt to it since it fit the process/system I wanted in my head. One document for a novel felt really clunky for me, and it bogged down Google Docs whenever I uploaded it there.

  34. Everyone I see complaining about Word seems to be using 2003 or 2007, and I absolutely can’t blame them. However, Word 2010 (Windows) is an entirely different beast when it comes to writing novels (and blogging, too, actually; easy enough to one up M$’s already awesome Live Writer). Unfortunately, I hear that the new Mac version, Word 2011, is possibly worse than the last Mac version (maybe almost as bad as some bastard offspring of 2003 and 2007 with some horrifying Mac-centric mutations), so you guys are going to want to stick to something else (not like that’s a problem, you guys have all the most interesting looking editors and processors like IA Writer, Byword, the good version of Scrivener, Ulysses and a dozen others, at least).

    Admittedly, I spend waaay too much time hunting for and experimenting with tools, but I think that makes me at least a bit knowledgable. I’m primarily intersted in so called “distraction free” tools, though I’ve mellowed on that a bit with age. My considered choice on PC is WriteMonkey, which, while looking largely similar to Q10, Darkroom, JDarkroom, Textroom, PyRoom, FocusWriter, ZenWriter, etc. when you initially fire it up, has more power under the hood than all the rest put together, not to mention has the best looking render engine (something that becomes readily apparent after spending hours working in each one ;-p ). However, I still suppliment with other editors like SublimeText (a super cool coder’s editor project/session management, as well as keeping a handful of daily use files up and ready), ResophNotes (meant for short notes, but as long as you set it to save the notes as individual TXT files and you have everything you’re working on in one folder, the thing can be an engine of creation, or at the very least, better than average recall) and, spookily enough, Word 2010 (well, only spooky that I embarked on my journey across all these tools trying to get away from Word 2003).

    I know, everyone is chanting Scrivener, Scrivener out there. I’ve given the Window’s betas several chances, and likely will give them a few more (may even purchase the thing when it releases, just so I can use the half off code I earned as part of winning the Nano last year), but so far, it mostly feels like fighting a buggy, bloated mess that isn’t even working its way toward something I’d find useful (and so far, isn’t even withing sniping distance, appearance-wise to some of the screens of the Mac version I’ve drooled over in the past). Its not that I don’t understand what its trying to do, how its supposed to be helping, but there’s just too many layers of “help” between me and what I’m trying to do. I lump it in with Liquid Story Binder and Spacejock’s yWriter. It doesn’t match the stripped down usability of yWriter (nor have the backing of a writer whose works you can easily get ahold of), and it doesn’t even approach the bottomless pit of cool that is LSB (notice how I phrased that; LSB is cool, there’s really no way one can deny that, but can you write a book with it? I’d actually love to hear from someone who has).

    The features, as I see them center around being able to find and order the smallest chunks of text that make up a novel, basically the scene (or chapter or whatever terminology you work with). You want to know who is in which scene, who is the PoV character for each, where each occurs, and keep track of important props that might float through your story. Scrivener or LSB or yWriter all have various (sometimes multifarious) means of doing these things. I submit that with a touch of forthought and a negligible amount of effort during the writing process (far less than any of the big three above would extract), similar or even better functionality can be obtained within a single file document from WriteMonkey, Word 2010(PC) or ResophNotes (though Resoph can also handle it with multiple files; Mac folk, don’t forget that Resoph is the Windows clone of Notational Velocity, which actually has multiple forks where different people have added and refined functionality in different direction, just so you 5% of computer users can have 3x the choice of us 90% of computer users ;-p ).

    I’ve rambled too much already, but if anyone is interested in how I work it, just let me know.

  35. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get several emails with
    the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

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