Windows 7 experiments

I occasionally spend one or two days running Windows 7 exclusively on my Early 2008 Macbook Pro (aka MBP4,1 for those “in the know”). Today is one of those days.

As I posted earlier, I recently installed that latest and greatest version of Apple’s Bootcamp drivers, now fully compatible with Windows 7. As a result, the trackpad is finally functional—albeit with only basic functionality: tap to click, two-finger-tap to right-click, and two finger scrolling; no pinching, swiping, etc.

I spent the morning writing a referee report (that is, an evaluation of a paper submitted to an academic journal for possible publication). I typed my report in LaTeX , using the Sublime Text editor. I contributed an updated LaTeX package, which implements key features from the fantastic TextMate LaTeX bundle; more on this in a future post. For my own LaTeX work, I use the SumatraPDF viewer, because it supports backward and forward search with a variety of text editors, including Sublime Text: this is one of the key features I implemented in my contributed package [and yes, I’m very proud of it :-)]. I use Foxit Reader for other PDF files, not Acroread (which is slow and intrusive in many ways); however, SumatraPDF is getting so good that I might switch to using it exclusively as my PDF reader. Finally, I run the MikTeX distribution, which is pretty much the industry standard under Windows.

The above comprises my basic work setup. Overall, I’m pleased with the resulting environment. MikTeX is very fast, and Sublime Text is a sweet editor; I basically don’t miss TextMate, except insofar as my LaTeX bundle is still a work in progress in many respects.

PDF viewing under Windows is an inferior experience relative to the Mac. There, I’ve said it. The basic issue is font rendering. On the Mac, any document viewer that uses the system-wide PDF rendering facilities gets you both anti-aliasing and subpixel rendering. Also, font hinting is very subtle, so you still get to recognize and appreciate the distinguishing features of different fonts, and, most importantly, characters are nicely “dark,” not washed out. On any other platform I tried, you have basically two alternatives. One is Acroread, which gives you subpixel rendering, but heavy hinting and hence horriblydistorted, spindly characters; also, for LaTeX editing purposes, you cannot get inverse search with Acroread (you seemingly can get forward search to work, but it’s hacky). The other alternative is to use one of the open-source viewers, such as SumatraPDF, TeXworks, or (under Linux) Evince, Okular, or xpdf. All of these use PDF engines (basically, either MuPDF or poppler) that do not implement subpixel rendering, but only antialiasing; luckily, SumatraPDF and TeXworks both turn off font hinting (on Linux, this sadly depends on the distribution you use). The net result is that font shapes are correct, but a bit fuzzy (this is font-dependent) and washed out.

[Please note that the above comments pertain to PDF font rendering only. I do not wish to enter the perennial Mac vs. Windows font rendering debate. I decided long ago that that’s a matter of both taste and habit, so I have nothing useful to say about it. However, I use PDF documents all the time, and my opinion is based on experience and observations over an extended period of time.]

But, font issues notwithstanding, existing Windows PDF viewers are serviceable; they get the job done. So, no major complaints as far as my work set-up is concerned.

For email, I use Thunderbird 3, which is great (on Windows; not so much on the Mac, unfortunately). The University’s SMTP server does not allow off-campus access, so I set up a ssh tunnel via my office machine. For file synchronization, I use the wonderful rsync. And, for occasional software development, I use svn. The easiest way to get these three wonderful pieces of software (ssh, rsync and svn) running under Windows is to install cygwin. This is, essentially, a Posix compatibility library and, more importantly for my purposes, a collection of unixy tools, including a fantastic bash shell. It’s what I need to get the “warm fuzzy feeling” that I’m still home, sort of, even when I’m running Windows🙂 All of the above works just fine.

For Web browsing, I use both Firefox (now at version 3.6) and Chrome 3. My parents and in-laws are recent Skype converts, and love being able to see the kids from 5k miles away. Not much to add here. Windows Explorer is a fine file browser—better than the Finder in some respects, worse in others. Nothing much to say here.

Windows 7 is very pretty. The many Aero features are still no match for Expose’ and Spaces; although you can get approximations of those with third-party apps, my admittedly limited experience is that these do not work nearly as well as the original, and they are not well integrated with the OS. One thing I love is the ability to launch programs in the taskbar via Win+<number>. If, say, Thunderbird is the first program in your taskbar, next to the Windows orb, type Win+1 and voila’, Thunderbird appears. Very neat! Under OSX, the best you can do is Ctrl-F2 (I think… maybe Ctrl-F3) followed by the initials of the program you want to run. Not as convenient.

The bottom line is that Windows 7 is very useable on my machine. The only serious issue is really battery life. As  I posted previously, I barely get 3 hours of light use, compared with 4 1/2 on the OSX side. This just won’t do for serious, prolonged use. A Google search for “windows vs osx battery life” brings up several interesting links, but it’s hard to get a clear picture. What I know is that my in-laws recently got a nice (and cheap) Samsung R52something laptop (can’t remember the exact name, sorry). It gets about 3 1/2 hours, maybe 4, but it’s lower-specced than my MBP, so that may not be so significant. I hear that Lenovo laptops get much higher battery life, even with comparable specs…

Comments, and especially advice on how to maximize battery life, are welcome!

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