The Computer Blog

Sunday, November 23, 2003

On Apple’s 20 inch iMac

Like a lot of Apple watchers, I couldn’t figure out what the market might be for an iMac with a 20 inch flat panel screen. But after seeing one this weekend, I have to answer that I’m one of the folks who is interested in the machine.

My wife and I both initially thought the machine would look out of proportion, but it doesn’t. The screen glides with the same smooth feel of its smaller brethren, just with a little more resistance due to the larger screen’s mass. Just like the smaller versions, the screen stays put once you stop moving it. And, like the 20 inch Cinema Display, the brightness and clarity of its screen surpasses those that have come before it. It makes you want to look at it.

I’ve told lots of folks that if you’re a writer there isn’t a better computer for you than a flat panel iMac. The 15 incher provides a writer with an almost intimate experience where the written word is indeed the object of your affection; the iMac all but disappears. It is a little less so with the 17 inch flat panel iMac and even more so with the 20 inch. The 20 inch is less of a writer’s machine as it is a good, general all-purpose machine capable of graphics work, desktop publishing, and movie editing, if you can stand having only a single processor G4 as your CPU. That’s not to say that a 1.25Gz G4 isn’t snappy. It is for most everyday tasks. It’s when you wander into creative graphics or publishing territory that one wants more.

As a compromise between the power of a dual G4 PowerMac and the intimacy and good looks of a flat panel iMac, the new 20 inch iMac fits the bill. With a $2195 price tag and a lot of screen territory, the machine is probably a bit much for the average college student. However, if you like the iMac’s form, need a larger screen than what has been offered in the past, can live with single CPU power, and can afford it, then by all means swing by your nearest Apple store or retailer and take a look. I’d love to have one myself, but I can’t figure out how to pay for it and am not willing to give up the intimacy of an iMac with a smaller screen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Fixing Out of Synch Audio and Video using FCE

It’s only been recently I learned that most camcorders come set from the factory to record using 12 bit audio. That’s not a problem if you’re just dumping the tape to a VCR; but if you’re dumping it onto your computer (whether PC or Mac) especially to burn to DVD, you’ll usually find that somewhere in your video editor’s timeline or, worse, in the DVD itself, the audio and video falls out of synchronization. This is because DVD’s are encoded using a 16 bit audio format, as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve since reset my Sony TVR720 camcorder to 16 bit audio, and there it stays. But I still have left some irreplaceable footage (like mountain lion and wedding videos) recorded in 12 bit audio. How was I going to fix the synch problem if it came up?

To experiment with that, I recorded an hour’s worth of footage using 12 bit audio and dumped it onto my Quicksilver PowerMac and into Final Cut Express. I had often paused the camcorder during filming and found that the pauses were often where the out of synch problem would begin. So, using the Razor Blade tool, I cut both the video and twin audio tracks. To move them right, I simply clicked on the appropriate track and typed in a number representing the number of frames I wanted it to move. Most of the time, the number was “+3”. This moved the track 3 frames to the right. I then played the remaining footage on the clip to see if it was in synch. If it was, I selected the “Modify/Mark in Synch” menu item with all the applicable clips selected.

In two out of three clips, no further manipulation proved necessary. In the last clip which was longer than the others, I noticed that the audio and video was in synch at first but then fell out again much later. Theorizing that the effect of an “out of synch” condition was cumulative and that I was only slightly out, I told FCE to move the audio tracks “0.5” to the right. That proved to be the magic bullet.

When I run the video in FCE, it all looks good. I’ll burn this footage to DVD using iDVD in another night or two and see how it does. I have no reason to think that it all won’t work, but it’s best not to assume anything.

On Apple’s Newest…

Yesterday, Apple released a new 20 inch flat panel iMac and a new dual 1.8Ghz G5 PowerMac. I’ll have to see one of the new iMacs before I can truly say how I feel about them; my first impression is that a 20 inch screen seems almost out of proportion to the iMac’s 10 inch base. Maybe it will work just fine. Maybe, I’ll even want one. I’ll comment here as soon as I get to play with one and see.

If I were shopping for a G5 right now, I could see where the dual 1.8 Ghz might be attractive. At $500 less than the dual 2.0Ghz model, its price/performance ratio might make it attractive. But, I have to admit, I’m still more attracted to the dual 2.0 Ghz model, though my real strategy is to wait for the dual 3.0 Ghz models that will come out sometime next year. The middle of the line model then will be the 2.0 Ghz models or faster, and those would be fast enough for me.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Full Circle

There’s no inexpensive way to convert videos edited on the Mac and exported in QuickTime format into Windows Media or Real Media formats. (The only product I’ve been able to find to do that is Cleaner, and it’s $500.) I’ve also been wanting to fly a bit more on Flight Simulator 2004 and the other flight simulators. All of that means I’m using my Windows XP-powered PC more than in the recent past. As you may or may not know, that PC was in another bedroom. I started looking last week at how I might move the PC back into my office, known around my place as “The Studio”. This past weekend, I finally hit on a furniture arrangement that would work.

I spent the whole weekend working to get the PC in the room and hooked up to the network. I now have 3 Macs and 1 PC crammed into my small office, linked together by both Ethernet and USB. Every machine has some access to every printer (an HP Laserjet 2100, an HP Deskjet 940C, and a HP Photosmart 7150) and the Epson Perfection 1660 Photo scanner in the room. I say “some” because…ONCE AGAIN…the PC proved to be the least cooperative neighbor. In fact, if not for the Windows computer, I would have finished Saturday night instead of late on Sunday afternoon. The hilarious thing is the Macs worked perfectly with equipment designed for Windows , and the PC the stuff was designed for didn’t seem to want to work with it at all.

One would think that moving the PC so it’s right next to my wireless router might have improved its ability to sign on automatically. That didn’t prove to be the case. Screwing around with a wireless network sign-on became irritating in short order. After playing with it for several hours and trying various software tricks, I broke down and drove to Best Buy and bought a PCI-based Linksys 10/100 Lan card, substituting it for its wireless Belkin brother. But the PC’s really troublesome behavior came when I tried to hook it up to my burgeoning USB network.

On Saturday, I had bought a Belkin USB switch and some USB 2.0 cables to add to a Belkin 4 port mini-USB 2.0 hub. I wanted to use them build a switchable USB network that would allow any Mac or PC in the room to print to any USB inkjet or scan using my Epson scanner. When I hooked everything up, I found the Macs worked as expected but the Windows machine was unable to see the scanner or printers if they were hooked up through the switch. A direct connection worked fine as did a connection through the 4 port hub alone. But not through the switch, even though it was purely mechanical.

On the off chance that my troubles might have to do with the VIA USB chip controller on my motherboard, I mounted a 5 port SIIG USB 2.0 PCI card in the Windows PC and tried again. This time, the PC saw the scanner; but when I tried to actually scan an image, I got an error message saying that the scanner did not send the image and could see the scanner light flashing, telling me it was hung up. However, mounting the same card in my Dual 1.25 Ghz MDD PowerMac (running OS 10.3) resulted in flawless operation. Once again, I can only use the Windows PC via a workaround!

A PC is like an ex-wife. You think you’d like to go back to it until you spend a few moments with it, and then you realize once again why you left.

Despite that…

I am going to upgrade my Windows PC. While I’m still defining what its role in my new production world will be, I have discovered it will take only a BIOS flash and some new memory to support running an AMD 3000+ versus the AMD 2000 I’m running now. I haven’t decided if I’m going to re-run the Cinebench tests using that CPU since the whole G5 vs AMD issue seems to be dead for now.

One interesting thing I discovered while doing my normal investigation into what bang I get for my money, I took a look at the AMD 3000+ vs the AMD 2800+. In some tests at Tom’s Hardware web site, the 3000+ was actually slower. For the money, the 2800 seems a much better value.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Mac iPod on a WinXP PC…

A couple of weeks ago, I said I wanted to see if a Windows XP computer running MacDrive, an application that lets a PC see Mac disks, could work with the new iTunes for Windows and a Mac formatted iPod. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you it works like a champ. I finally got a chance to try it tonight when I stumbled on my “lost” copy of MacDrive 5. I loaded the software up; and during the installation process, it asked me if I wanted to download an update. I answered I did. The update downloaded just fine but the installation routine hung because it needed to update files being used by the Update Wizard. I worked around that by closing the Wizard and leaving the Setup routine running. When the installation finished, I was surprised by another window that let me know that MacDrive could configure iTunes to work with a Mac formatted iPod, and it asked me if I wanted to let it do that. Of course, I answered “yes”. The window disappeared., and I rebooted the PC and fetched my iPod.

It took a few seconds for the PC to recognize the iPod and figure out what to do with it, but about 15 seconds or so after I had attached the iPod, iTunes launched with my iPod firmly in tow, just like I was on one of my Macs. I played Alanis Morisette’s “Thank You”, and it sounded great! Well, at least as well as it could with the speakers I currently have on my Windows PC. Might have to buy better speakers if I’m going to play my iPod on it…

I have one of the second generation Firewire iPod's, by the way. I'm not sure if one of the newer ones will work.

iMovie 3.03 and iDVD 3 Stalls…

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work lately using iMovie and iDVD; and I’ve noticed that on a couple of occasions the encoding process seems to stall. I’m not sure why that is, yet; but I have discovered that starting both applications from scratch after rebooting usually clears it.

Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out how to recover the hours that a “stall” eats up…

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Apple’s Quality Assurance or Lack Thereof…

You’ll find several places in this blog where I’ve commented on the apparent lack of quality control from Apple. I’m not the only one who thinks this is a current problem for the computer manufacturer. A recent article in MacWorld talking about the new PowerBooks noted problems with a significant number of “out of the box” units they’d received. Now, there is another article on the same at subject the Ars Technica website.

I listened to a pitch by an Apple sales rep at my workplace recently and he noted that Apple really likes their price points. Consumers don’t. They are high compared to their competition (PC’s), and Apple has been able to get away with them because they have brought unique and easy to use products to the table. However, if the product doesn’t work because of a hardware or software defect, then consumers will balk at paying any price at all, much less more money than they would have had to for a competing product that will let them do the same thing.

This is the box Apple has put itself in. No one doubts that Apple is the most innovative computer company out there, but its continuing quality control failures run a real danger of being the iceberg in this Titanic’s voyage. This is the company’s biggest problem. “Zero defects” needs to become as much an Apple motto as “Think Different”.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Running with Panther…

I’ve been running Panther without seeing the problems others have, especially when it comes to external Firewire hard disks. I have Jaguar mounted on a Firewire drive and have been using it when I needed to use my CD labeling software.

Even when I’m booted up the external hard drive, I can access the other hard drives in the machine. I can actually access the Applications folder under Panther. For grins, I tried to see if I could launch Photoshop. It did try to launch, but didn’t make it. I also tried to access my Users folder and subfolder on the Panther hard disk and found myself locked out. Nice security. To be able to get files I want from the other hard disk, I found I needed to move them to the Shared folder.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned I wasn’t crazy about the silver and metallic coloring applied in Panther. I learned of a little utility called “Whiteout” that changed a resource file and would restore an Aqua interface to the Finder and a few other applications like iChat, Safari, and iCal. While I did like what it did to Finder, the utility didn’t affect the silver on the title bar on most applications and also turned the nice blue Apple (on the Apple menu) into a black one. In the end, the black Apple bothered me more than the original Panther coloring. Whiteout also includes an uninstaller. I’ve used it several times to install and uninstall the program.

That’s not to say that running Panther has been trouble free. I’ve seen a few iMovie crashes in Panther, but I don ‘t have enough info to decide whether it’s due to the application or the OS. I suspect the latter, though, because I’m seeing spurious crashes of several applications and the initial explanation in the debug box is the same, i.e., some kind of exception error; and those crashes have been on two separate machines.

An iMovie crash…

I had about 45 minutes worth of video dumped into iMove when it crashed. I halted the camera and re-launched iMovie. The application saw the camera; but when I hit iMovie’s “Play” button, the camera did not respond. I disconnected the camera and turned it off (to recycle its electronics), quit iMovie, and rebooted the PowerMac. Once it was back at the Panther desktop, I reconnected the Firewire cable to the camera, turned it back on, and re-launched iMovie. It found the camera again.

However, error messages popped up telling me that there were some “stray files” not associated with my current project. Upon examining the files, I knew that they were associated with the project and iMovie had lost track of them. I wanted to just import them back into the project but found that the File/Import function was greyed out. Making sure “Clips” on the iMovie interface was selected, I then tried dragging and dropping the files onto the Clipboard. That worked. I recovered all the clips but one using that technique. It apparently had gotten corrupted, but it was a clip I really didn’t need, so I didn’t bother trying to recapture it.

Pioneer DVR-106BK in a Mac…

I ordered a Pioneer DVR-106BK from one of my favorite vendors, Multiwave at http://www.mwave.com. I wasn’t sure if Panther (Mac OS 10.3) would see the drive as a Pioneer DVR-106D and grant full burning support or whether I’d have to flash the firmware to a “true” Pioneer 106D using a utility furnished by “Flashman”. The drive labels showed the model as a DVR-106BK but System Profiler in Panther showed the drive as a Pioneer DVR-106D with full burn support. I haven’t used the drive to burn anything, yet, but I have no reason to suspect that it won’t work as advertised.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

From Houston to Toronto…via iSight

Last week, my wife made a trip to Toronto for a conference. She had been dropping hints for at least a month that she thought we might want to look into getting a couple of iSight’s for video chatting while she was gone. We’ve both been interested in exploring that, but I didn’t spring for it because money’s been tight lately and it didn’t make sense to buy just one. Secondly, it wasn’t clear to us whether the hotel she was staying in had broadband Internet coverage.

Once she got there, she found they did support broadband at a pretty standard $10/day, though they did make a little over the top profit by not supplying Ethernet cables for hooking up and charging $10 to sell you one. In any case, she asked me to get an iSight, Apple’s new little video chat camera. I bought one the next day at CompUSA for the standard U.S. price of $149.99.

If you haven’t seen an iSight, it’s shaped like a little cylinder and uses a “metal mesh” design for its skin akin Apple’s G5. As all things Apple, it is sold in an elegantly designed black box that opens outward from its middle to display white plastic trays holding the camera and three plastic clips. While the clips are built to cover Apple’s iMacs, eMacs, Cinema Displays, iBooks, and PowerBooks, the only clip that just clips on is the one for the notebooks. The others have a circular base covered with adhesive (and protected from sticking to unintended objects by a waxed paper bottom) that you’re supposed to stick on the display somewhere. (A more elegant solution can be found using MacMice’s iSight Clips.) To get the correct perspective, I installed the iSight into its tallest clip, one that will stand on the desktop by itself, and set the pedestal on top of a rather flat, upside down flashlight positioned in the center of a 17 inch Apple Studio LCD. I hooked the camera up to my Dual 1 Ghz G4 PowerMac; my wife had only a 700Mhz G3 iBook on her end. Both computers were running Panther, Mac OS 10.3.

On the first evening, we hooked up using iChatAV and its “one way video chat” feature. I could hear her clearly without any clipping or dropouts, and she could both hear and see me without any problems. Connecting up was very easy, and the experience was so pleasant I asked her to see if there was an Apple retailer where she was where she could get an iSight. Searching the web, I found one for her named “Computer Service Centre” that was about a mile from her hotel. She traveled there the next day and bought an iSight there at the slightly elevated price of $165 U.S. We tried hooking up that evening, but the second night did not go so smoothly. It took us about an hour of fiddling with it to get any audio flowing across both sides, apparently due to some kind of loose connection on her end. Once we did, it worked pretty well, with slight audio drop outs on my wife’s end I suspect were due to her little G3’s struggles to keep up. Still, I’ve tried video chatting before; and iSight is the first thing I’ve used that not only does a good job but was easy to set up and relatively inexpensive. If either of us were going to travel a lot, we’d want at least a 1Ghz G4 notebook to run iSight well.

Now that she’s home, I’d like to set the cameras up using her 800 Mhz G4 iMac and my 700 Mhz G4 iMac and see how they do. We can run them across our home network using Rendezvous. The only problem now is being too accessible…

Smart Move!

Microsoft is now offering a half million dollars for information leading to the arrest of hackers responsible for some of the recent viruses that have wreaked Internet havoc. I had to chuckle at that. What a smart move! Whoever wrote those viruses better hope that some enterprising hacker who needs the money and doesn’t agree with what he/or she did doesn’t find that surprisingly strong motivation to backtrack them. Offering bounties might be exactly what it takes to put the brakes on what appears to be a growing epidemic.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back…

I burned some video DVD’s this week. I got into making labels for them, and the software I’ve been using is a package called “Click N Design 3D”. Unfortunately, I discovered it wouldn’t run under Panther and would crash as it tried to launch.

It’s a Carbon application, and my Quicksilver Powermac will boot into OS 9. The application runs fine there, but printing on my HP Deskjet 940C was painfully slow. There were no helpful updates to Click N Design nor any likely; the program had been sold to a company named CD Stomper and they only support Windows. Too bad. I would have paid for an update,

I searched the web for another CD labeling program that ran in OS X. I tried a demo of Discus; and while it supported a broader range of label formats than Click N Design, its interface was too simplistic for my tastes. Click and Design lets you “drag and drop” photos onto its template, centering it and “cutting” it for you, something that would take a bit of time if you were doing it manually. I really liked the program and wanted to continue using it. But how?

When I explained my problems to my wife, she asked if the program ran under Jaguar (OS 10.2). My iBook was still running Jaguar, so I installed Click N Design on it and started it up. It ran like a champ! Then, I could either run the program on my iBook or “downgrade” one of my machines from Panther back to Jaguar. (There are a lot of Firewire 800 drive owners who might be doing exactly that today.) I wanted to run the program on something with a reasonably fast G4 processor, so I would either take my iMac back to Jaguar or install Jaguar on my Quicksilver PowerMac’s second hard disk. While I was thinking about that, I realized there was another solution.

One of the beauties of a Mac is its ability to boot from external hard drives. I had an external Firewire 400 hard drive I was using for data backup. I could install Jaguar to it and boot the PowerMac from it only when I needed to use Click and Design. Additionally, if I needed Jaguar on one of my other machines, that approach would allow me to the Firewire drive to any other Mac and, voila!, instant Jaguar. And all my data files would remain intact, though at a slightly higher risk of loss.

I installed Jaguar on the drive and updated it to 10.2.8 using the combo updater. The PowerMac boots off it flawlessly. I simply turn on the Firewire drive, boot the PowerMac into Panther, go to System Preferences/Startup Disk, select the 10.2 disk as the start up drive, and reboot. After that, until I select 10.3 as the start up disk in 10.2’s System Preferences, the Mac will boot straight into the 10.2 (Jaguar) disk just like it was installed in the system. All I need do is make sure it’s turned on before I boot the PowerMac, and I’m there.

Click and Design runs like a champ on Jaguar. I immediately printed out the DVD cover I’d been trying to since late yesterday.

Ahhh, there’s nothing like the sweet smell of success!