Together in harmony: Mac and PC

Rafe Needleman loves his Mac but can't give up his PC. Here's how he stays productive using two different operating systems at the same time.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
6 min read

Shortly after I bought a MacBook, I posted an (unpopular) article in which I vented about learning and using the new platform. I'd been a Windows guy for 20 years, and although I knew a transition to OS X would require effort, I didn't expect it to be quite so frustrating.

But I have since found a way forward with the machine. Rather than trying to jam it into my well-established workflow and have it replace my Windows laptop, I'm now trying to use it alongside my PC. It's also the only computer I travel with. And with a few tricks, I've found it to be a positive and productive experience.

Side by side on my computer keyboard (oh Lord...)
At work, I like using the MacBook for instant messaging, Twitter, Skype, for researching and browsing, and for anything involving video. My old ThinkPad is slow, and offloading these apps from it during the day is a small help. I still use my PC for e-mail, since there's as yet no reasonable replacement for Outlook if you work at a company that runs Exchange servers, and for writing and taking notes, since my fingers know their way around a PC keyboard.

Although I'm using two computers, I use only one primary keyboard. Thanks to the old open-source app Synergy (and the Mac version called SyngergyKM), I can control the Mac from the keyboard that's connected to my ThinkPad. I have my MacBook on a stand to the right of my Thinkpad's external monitor (recommended: the Rain Design mStand), and when I drag the mouse off the right edge of the Windows screen, it appears on the MacBook. The keyboard then controls the Mac as well. Even better, copy and paste works between the machines (although, awkwardly, the keystrokes for copy and paste are different on a PC and Mac--I'm still learning to adapt to that).

After a rocky start, now I put my Mac on a pedestal, literally. (The screen and keyboard on the left are connected to a Thinkpad laptop.) Rafe Needleman / CNET Networks

Setting up Synergy was not intuitive. But using it is. I now move between the platforms sometimes without really being aware of it.

Previous experiments
Before settling on Synergy, I used a KVM (IOGear MiniView Micro USB) to switch my external monitor between my Mac and PC, but the context switching slowed me down, and the lack of cut-and-paste between the machines made using them together difficult.

I also experimented with going all-Mac, hardware-wise anyway, running Outlook in a Windows XP virtual machine (VMWare Fusion) on the Mac, and devoting an external monitor to it while I ran OS X apps on my MacBook's built-in display. That solution, I found, was about 95 percent of the way there in terms of speed and the way the Mac handles the external keyboard I have. But that last 5 percent--keys that work differently on the Mac and the PC--was killing me. I may give in and try some keyboard remapping in the future, or I may buckle down and force myself to adapt. But for now, the Synergy solution works well for me.

Hitting the road
When I'm on the road, my old laptop stays on my desk at work, and the Mac comes with me. Since I don't want to have to think about where my data files are, I synchronize my working directory on my PC to a directory on my MacBook. That way, when I save a file on one machine, it just shows up on the other. There are a few solutions available to do this, but my pick is Microsoft's free app Live Sync. It's a peer-to-peer sync service--there's no "cloud" storage involved--so both my computers need to be on at the same time to get the files synced up. But since I no longer turn off my Windows laptop, this is fine. And unlike most of the sync solutions out there, Live Sync is free and puts no effective limit on the amount of data you can synchronize.

I have been using Microsoft Office for the Mac for productivity on the road. Honestly, I hate it. In an absolute sense it's not a bad suite, (except for Entourage, which truly is bad) but the user interfaces and feature sets of the Mac apps are different from the Windows versions in Office 2007 that I know. I find Open Office a more familiar experience on the Mac.

When I'm not in the office, I of course still need my e-mail, and I use, as I said, Outlook running in XP under VMWare Fusion for that. I upgraded my MacBook to 4GB just to give everything enough room (no problems with that, by the way). Outlook on my Mac works well, especially now that I have it set up so URLs I get in e-mail open up on Firefox on the OS X side of the machine, and e-mail links I see on the Web go straight to Outlook on XP, no matter which browser I'm in, on OS X or Windows.

I use Spaces to keep my Windows virtual machine visually separate from the OS X apps. I run it full-screen on its own desktop. I did try running Outlook in "Coherence" mode as an OS X-like app, but I find that putting Outlook in its own corner makes for a smoother cognitive experience.

I've avoided using any tools that purport to make a Mac more PC-like. I don't want to re-make OS X so it works like Windows. I'd rather learn, myself, how to work within the design of Mac. One concession I have made to my old habits is to install the Mac app Witch, which gives OS X an equivalent to the Alt-Tab task switching command on Windows. (The Mac's native Command-Tab shortcut Mac switches among open OS X windows, but not minimized ones, which Alt-Tab does on XP and Vista.)

More sync
I'm also a fan of apps that synchronize themselves over the Net. I take notes on Evernote, and since it syncs via its own servers, it really doesn't matter if I work on my Mac or my PC or on the iPhone app or the Web site. My data's just always in front of me. This is also true, of course, with pure Web apps like Google Docs--if you use these for productivity, you don't have to worry about keeping track of which files are where.

Foxmarks is a good tool for the multi-platform Web surfer. This little Firefox plug-in synchronizes your Web bookmarks and passwords across Firefox installations, no matter the operating system. I wish it worked with Chrome as well, though.

But why?
Am I more productive on my two-platform setup than I would be on a homogeneous configuration? Honestly, no. It's also more expensive- not just in terms of hardware but also the software licenses for all the extra Windows stuff on the Mac. I'm doing this experiment because my friends who are Mac users seem happier with their computing lives than the Windows people I know. I wanted a piece of that. It's also my job to understand technology platforms and products, and without hands-on Mac experience, I was missing an important perspective.

Now that I'm learning to live with the Mac, I can see why people like it. It's slicker, smoother, more enjoyable to use. I did learn the hard way, though, that moving from the PC to Mac is not something you can do overnight, nor in some cases at all--not if you want to maintain productivity. But if you have to use both platforms, it is possible to set up a system that not only lets you take advantage of the best of each world, but brings those worlds together in a way that makes them, just slightly, more than the sum of their parts.

More: Tom Merritt and I recorded a Real Deal podcast on this topic.