The Computer Blog

Sunday, July 27, 2003

The shortsightedness (and arrogance) of some people…

Scott Blum, the CEO of Buy.com, this week chose to launch his own online music store (BuyMusic.com) to compete with the iTunes Music Store. That’s fine. What has angered me is the hypocrisy he has displayed by copying as many aspects of the Apple operation as he could while publicly running them down. Additionally, buyMusic.com has locked out anyone except those using Windows and Internet Explorer.

Now, Mr. Blum, you won’t miss my music business. I haven’t bought any downloaded music, yet. I tend to buy CD’s. If I do buy downloaded music, I’ll look at Apple’s iTunes music store anyway. Most of my machines are Macs and my wife and I both use iPods to cart our music around. They’re incompatible with the .wma format as are many other music devices. Nothing like picking a proprietary format…

What you need to realize, Mr. Blum, is that you have lost a customer for Buy.com as well. Over the years, I have used Buy.com to buy components and software for both my Macs and my Windows machines. I had every intention of continuing to do so until I saw your attitude toward those people using the Mac platform. Frankly, I’ve always considered the platform wars nothing short of petty and ridiculous. That’s where I put your comments, and why I won’t consider using Buy.com in the future. There are plenty of other online retailers who are just as cheap and efficient as your company, no matter which platform I’m buying for.

Besides, I don’t think I have much to worry about. Not only was alienating your Mac customers (many of whom use a Windows machine for one reason or another) a stupid business move, but you’re going to have some real competition soon from Apple itself. In case you didn’t know it (and apparently there are indications on your website you don’t), iTunes for Windows is coming this year. Let’s talk in a year from now and see how you feel about your comments then, and what the reality of the business world might have taught you about them.

By the way, my cable modem came back on a little after noon today. That made for a 28 hour outage, but at least they got it fixed.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

About Time Warner High-Speed

We have a cable modem hookup with Earthlink via Time Warner Cable. It is 8:09 p.m. on Saturday night, and our high speed Internet connection has been out for about twelve hours. This is the second time in the last few months we’ve seen an outage. We’ll see how long this lasts. If they fix it soon, fine. But if it’s down in the morning not only am I going to have a chat with them about a reduced bill; but if this becomes a habit, I’m going to rethink whether I want to go back to DSL.

I just talked to them at 8:30 p.m. They have no idea what's causing the outage or when it will be fixed.

On Apple Displays and PC’s…

I know I have some money coming in soon, so I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a 20 inch Apple cinema Display to replace the 17 inch screen currently on my 1.25 dual CPU MDD. I wanted to then switch the 17 inch screen over to my Quicksilver PowerMac which is currently running on a Samsung 760v (17 inch) LCD. My Quicksilver and my XP machine are both running off the same monitor, keyboard, and mouse via a little CompuCable manual USB KM switch. I’ve been investigating what it would take to run the PC and the Quicksilver using a 17 inch Apple Cinema display instead.

As always, the answer involves money and a new piece of equipment. The best answer seems to be a hybrid ADC (Apple Display Connector)/DVI (Digital Video Interface) KVM (keyboard, video, monitor) switch from CompuCable. Like most things that involve the Mac, it’s fairly expensive. But even at its $279 online price, it’s still a lot less expensive than the Gefen ADC KVM switch retailing at $450. At that price, it makes more sense to buy another 17 inch Cinema Display for an extra machine than it does to buy the switch.

Yes, you can find cheap KVM switches if your monitor has VGA input, that is. I did just that when I set up my current systems. My little manual CompuCable switch was on sale, reduced from about $30 down to $15. I added two VGA cables and two USB cables I already had, and I was (and am) in business.

I spent some time today at the local MicroCenter and discovered that Belkin now makes a 2 port KVM switch that supports DVI. It retailed for $200. I could make that work if I added Dr. Bott’s DVIator for $95 (this allows an ADC monitor to run via a DVI port) and a couple of DVI cables that cost $35 each! But that put my costs at about $100 more than buying the CompuCable switch which comes with DVI and ADC cables. Obviously, I decided it was not worth going the Belkin/Dr. Bott route. It was not only more expensive but it was more complex.

When I got home, I spent some time tweaking my old 570v. I adjusted brightness, contrast, and gamma and got a damned good presentation out of it, one generally on par with my Apple Cinema Display. I may or may not decide to buy the 20 inch display when the money shows up. I need a copy of DVD Studio Pro, and at $500, it’s not exactly cheap. I’d be much wiser to buy the software and use the rest of the money to pay off what I’ve already got. But there is no guarantee I’m going to be that sensible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Read my Lips...(Check Your Camcorder's Audio Settings!)

Sometimes after I’d burn a DVD, and especially when I would use my PC for that task, the burn would go well. But when I’d play back the DVD, the audio and video would go out of synchronization. I could never figure out what was causing it.

Now I know.

The DVD standard, and the standard for most professional audio processing, is 16 bit audio. Did you know that nearly all digital video camera manufacturers build in 16 bit audio into their cameras but default them to 12bit? Not only is 12 bit audio noisier than 16 bit, but the mismatch between the audio and your editing and burning software (which is expecting 16 bit audio) is responsible for the “out of synch” audio problem.

If you’re going to shoot video that you subsequently want to burn onto a DVD, go into the camera’s setup and make sure that the audio is set to 16 bit.

Where the hell is DVI...

Both my XP machine and my Quicksilver PowerMac have ATI Radeon 9000 Pro video cards in them. The XP machine has VGA and DVI video output ports, and the PowerMac has ADC and DVI video output ports. They’re hooked up via a manual switch box that lets me use one or both machines via the same keyboard, mouse, and LCD monitor. It’s working great using a Samsung 760v TFT LCD.

At some point, I’d like to replace my 17 inch Apple Cinema Display with a 20 inch Cinema Display. When I get to there, I’ve been toying with the idea of replacing the Samsung with the Apple 17 inch display. Therefore, I’ve been looking for a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch with an ADC or DVI port. And there are some. But they are so expensive it makes no sense to pursue one.

The inexpensive KVM’s all have VGA ports. Obviously, DVI has not taken off the way some predicted it would. I’m sure it will at some point; but when that will be, I don’t know.

I’m going to either have to sell the 17 inch Apple Cinema or pull off the Quicksilver Powermac and put it on its own desk. Time will tell which approach I take.

Monday, July 21, 2003

About this website…

Last night, I prowled through some of the statistics logged by my web server. I was surprised (but not totally since I know the site is listed in the sci.space.shuttle newsgroup FAQ) to see that the LaunchZone is the most highly visited. That’s the section I’ve done the least work on for a long time and probably won’t work on for a little while, yet. I’m working to finish up, or at least balance out, the other website sections before I come back to it. Most of my time is spent on my blogs (the OpinionZone and the ComputerZone), but when I’m actually adding other material to the site, it’s mostly in the OS X (Oh-S-Ten) section of the website. Once I get some material in each of the OS X sections, I plan to go back and fill out the Win XP section (also in the ComputerZone), and then add more to the WritingZone. Only then do I plan to come back to the LaunchZone and begin finishing the Contingency Abort section. The latter is long overdue, I know, but I’m doing this all at my own expense. So, I hope both my readers are not too disappointed.

I might also add a “FlightZone” or “AvZone” to talk about my aviation experiences, provide a clearinghouse and perspective on aviation issues, and to inform folks about aviation events. I’m still thinking about whether I’ll do that at all; and if I do, whether I’ll leave the LaunchZone alone or fold it in as a section underneath the “FlightZone”.

In the Computer Zone, I will add a section about Panther, Apple’s upcoming release of OS X, after I finish the OS X section I’ve already started and if I’m running it. I know that the most helpful stuff in both the XP and OS X sections will be the tips, tricks, and troubleshooting sections, but they will be the last sections to go up. For my own sake of continuity, I need to finish the basic sections first.

I would like to add some forum sections to the site, but I’m not sure how easy or hard that will be to do. I'm still looking into that.

To give myself time to do more video editing, most updates to the site will occur on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There will be exceptions to that, but I’ll try to keep to at least that schedule. Use the “Latest Updates” section on the home page to keep track of what’s new. Come back often, and if you’d like to see any material here that’s not or if you’d like to offer constructive comments, drop me a line.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Bad,Bad Belkin!

To finish up the hardware reconfiguration of my Quicksilver 2002 PowerMac, I went in search of a USB 2.0 card. I own an Epson Perfection 1660 Photo scanner, and it uses USB 1.1 or 2.0 to relay its scans to the computer. Obviously, I wanted USB 2.0 because of its greater transfer speeds. So, I stopped by a local Best Buy and took a look at what they had. The card that looked the most promising of the ones I could see was a Belkin 5 port USB 2.0 PCI card. Under its system requirements, it stated that it worked as USB 2.0 under Mac OS X with the following caveat: “USB 2.0 under OS X requires third party driver.”

OK. That I knew. But what exactly did that mean? They wouldn’t be dumb enough to market a card as USB 2.0 and then not supply drivers, would they? Who did they think the third party was supposed to be?

To make a long story short, obviously, it wasn’t them. The card worked great as a USB 1.1 device, but there were no OS X drivers on the enclosed CD nor were there any at the Belkin website.

After researching the other cards Best Buy had on their website and at the store I had gone to, I decided to take the Belkin card back and swap it for a 5 port SIIG USB 2.0 PCI card. Not only were there OS X drivers on the SIIG website, but the card had a $10 rebate attached to it.

The SIIG card works like a champ. To quantify the difference in performance, I scanned an 8 x 10 photograph using Epson Twain 5 drivers and Photoshop 7 using the card before the USB 2.0 drivers were installed. Under USB 1.1, it took 34 seconds for the photograph to appear on my desktop after I clicked the “Scan” button (Manual mode). After I loaded the USB 2.0 drivers and rebooted, the same scan took 19 seconds (USB 2.) to complete.

On the other hand, Belkin is being irresponsible by marketing a USB 2.0 card without USB 2.0 drivers for OS X and inferring, however confusingly, that it is Mac compatible. Frankly, unless they’re willing to provide drivers or tell you where to find ones to use, they need to remove any Mac reference from their packaging. If you’re a PowerMac owner looking for a USB 2.0 PCI card, look at SIIG, IOGEAR, or Orange Micro. Avoid Belkin at all costs.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

It Ain't Broke But They Fixed It, Anyway!

Yesterday, I took a visual tour of Apple’s upcoming release of OS X named “Panther”. I wasn’t impressed. (You can see it at: http://208.189.136.121/PantherPreview/html/PantherPreview00.html.)
In fact, I found some of the interface tweaks—and I’m talking about the graphical appearance of the OS—a turn off.

The more Apple moves toward grey or metal finishes, the more they look make the Mac look like Windows. Yuk!

There’s an old saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This often seems to be an axiom that software companies enjoy flaunting their defiance of it. That’s fine if it’s on their dime. But when they tweak things and want me to pay for it, it’s a different matter altogether. That’s especially true when the tweak is less elegant than the original; and, for me right now, that appears to be the case with Panther.

The elegance of the visual interface of OS X is one of the more attractive things about it, its appealing technical aspects aside. In Panther, Apple has applied iTune’s metallic skin to almost all system interfaces. I’m okay with that in and of. I run my XP computer with a Style XP skin called “Gbrushed” which does the same thing. But Apple applied theirs in a way that often makes the dialog boxes inelegant. I’m hearing from other folks, too, that the metal skin treatment is inconsistent. Those are not good things.

In the bigger picture, I have to wonder if Apple is headed down the same road Microsoft plundered. One of the reasons I wanted off Windows was Microsoft’s continual tweaking of the operating system, especially when they made it incompatible with applications or hardware I was using. Critics would often say that Microsoft appeared to be tweaking Office or Windows just to tweak it. Apple appears to be doing the same thing? Why? Is it to justify Apple’s charging $129 for each incremental update of its operating system? My upgrade costs are becoming a bit much. Because of that, I’m going to take a harder look at what I’m going to get for my money and whether the update is really worth it. In the case of Panther, it might not be.

I won’t make any final decisions about Panther until it’s released, I see the reviews, and play with it on a machine in a CompUSA store, at a Micro Center, or in an Apple Store. But for now, I’d say the odds of me springing for Panther are not huge. Jaguar is good enough.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

A tale of reconfiguration

Call me irresponsible. Call me insane. Call me needlessly in debt. There is a new computer baby in the house, and it is a Dual Processor 1.25 GHz Mirrored Door Drive (MDD) PowerMac G4.

I fell in love with the Mirror Door drive computers a little over a year ago. They had everything I thought was wrong with the Quicksilver line: dual optical drive bays, more hard disk capacity, and a really nice looking case. Since the introduction of the G5, the prices on the MDD’s had dropped; and my wife and I were in Houston’s Galleria at the Apple Store looking at a single processor 1.25 GHz model. Attached to it was an older gent playing a keyboard with a mixer on it. That caught my wife’s attention immediately. Turned out the fellow was a school band director and interested in using the G4 and the keyboard to compose and record music. That really intrigued my wife. She was drawn to it.

I wanted another G4 PowerMac so I could do the majority of my work on OS X. While my little iMac was working just fine, I had bought it just to write on. I didn’t consider its 700 Mhz CPU really powerful enough for desktop publishing or heavy graphics work. (Yes, I know that it will work.) I felt I needed at least a 1Ghz CPU. Even though the new G5 looked like it was going to be a lot faster, the price drop on the G4’s made them a better value for me right now.

Anyway, my wife agreed to let me buy a single processor 1.25 G4 Power Mac I insisted on buying her the midi device, a Roland Eridol midi-Keyboard ECR-30. I walked toward the rear of the store, found a salesperson, and asked him to see if they had the computer and the keyboard in stock. As he disappeared into the rear storeroom, I noticed a stack of computers in boxes stacked in a corner. Some of them were marked “HOLD” and some of them were marked as returns. A PowerMac was marked as $1399. What model was that? Looking closer, I realized that it was a dual 1.25 GHz MDD! WOW! New machines were retailing at $1699. At only $1399, this one was only $100 more than a new single-processor 1.25 Ghz machine. When the salesman came back, I asked about it: why had it been returned? Had they refreshed it? Was it really $1399 and available? He remembered the woman who had bought it. She had taken it home and then decided it wasn’t what she needed and brought it back the same day she had bought it. He didn’t think she hadn’t even opened it.

That was too good a deal to pass up! So, after agonizing over it for about 30 minutes, we bought the keyboard and the MDD and took them home.

The new MDD PowerMac was configured as a “basic” model with only 256MB RAM, not enough to load up Final Cut Pro 4.0. I ordered 1GB of DDR RAM from Crucial (http://www.crucial.com), paying about $150 for it, one half what I would have paid Apple. The computer only had a combo drive (DVD/CD-RW) mounted in the top optical bay, so I moved it to the bottom bay, pulled a Pioneer DVR-105 (DVD-R/RW) out of my Quicksilver PowerMac, and put it in the top bay of the MDD. I replaced the new computer’s small 80GB hard drive with Maxtor 160GB and 120GB (7200 RPM, 8MB buffer) hard drives I had in the Quicksilver. The new dual 1.25Ghz MDD PowerMac G4 now sports 1.2GB of DDR RAM, 160 and 120 GB 7200 RPM hard drives, a 4X Pioneer SuperDrive, and a 12X DVD/32X CD-RW combo drive.

With that taken care of, it was time to reconfigure my Quicksilver. While the new MDD would become my primary video editing machine, I wanted the Quicksilver to be my desktop and web publishing machine, my backup video editing machine, and my machine for everyday tasks other than writing. So, to get it there, I pulled a Maxtor 120GB 7200 RPM (8MB buffer) hard drive and an Apple Superdrive (DVR-104) out of my flat panel (700 Mhz) iMac and put them in. I added in another Maxtor 120GB 7200 RPM hard drive from a Firewire hard drive to it, and then moved the reconfigured machine over to the U-shaped desk that houses my Windows XP machine. Using USB and VGA cables, I hooked them via a Compucable USB/KVM switch to an Apple keyboard, a Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer, and a Samsung 760V LCD display. I can now run them separately or at the same time from one desk. It is an ideal set-up.

To get my iMac up and running again, I pulled an 80GB Seagate (Apple branded) hard drive out of another Firewire case, bought a Samsung 352B combo drive (52X CD-RW/16X DVD) from CompUSA, and installed them both in the machine. I moved an Airport card from the Quicksilver over to it. The iMac is on its own desk; and with the Quicksilver, the MDD, my XP machine, and my HP Laserjet 2100 printer eating up my router’s wired Ethernet ports, the iMac was moved to the wireless side of my home LAN.

(There’s another story about the iMac and getting it to run with Jaguar, but I’m saving that for later.)

Since my Quicksilver was going to be my backup video editing machine, I wanted to get a copy of Final Cut Express to run on it. I also needed a Firewire 4pin/6pin cable to hook up with my video camera to it. Apple really made my day yesterday. As you may or may not know, Adobe discontinued Mac support for Premiere; and, as a result, Apple’s offering Premiere users a switch to Final Cut. If you send in a Premiere CD, you can get a free copy of Final Cut Express or $500 off Final Cut Pro 4.0. (See the Apple website if you’re interested in that deal.) Well, it just so happens I have a Pinnacle DV200 kit (for Windows) lying around. Inside it is a copy of Adobe Premiere 6.0 (full version), a 4pin/6 pin Firewire cable, and a 2 port Firewire card. Needless to say, my copy of Premiere 6.0 is on its way to Apple, the Firewire cable is on the Quicksilver, and the Firewire card is in my XP machine where it took the place of a 3 port job that will work in my Macs.

Yesterday was a very good day!