The Computer Blog

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Rating Apple: Quality “0” Customer Service “1”

For a year now, my wife and I have been talking to my mother-in-law about getting a new computer. She was using an old iMac not even 300 Mhz fast with only 64 Mb of memory. We’ve been trying to convince her to get a new Mac; her friends, of course, all have PC’s. Though there was a dangerous period when she was considering going to WalMart and buying one of their PC’s, she decided last week to get a new Mac. An eMac was in her price range, and I could get her a little bit of a discount. So, I ordered it for her, selecting free “2 day” shipping.

The Mac shipped on June 24th from Toronto. I had expected it to get to her Missouri home on Monday, the 28th. The tracking number Apple sent me showed it in St. Louis on the 28th. And it didn’t arrive at her place on the 29th. I called Apple late that afternoon, the customer service staff called the carrier while I was on the phone, and assured me the eMac would be delivered to her the next day. It was. A very courteous driver dropped it off at her house and even helped her unpack it.

That was the end of the good news. The eMac would start (they could hear its start up chimes and the music of the OS X Welcome) but the video screen stayed black. Marty, one of Connie’s nephews, is pretty good with computers, he got Apple Support on the phone; they reset the PMU (power management unit) on the motherboard and zapped the PRAM, all to no avail. I had Marty zap the PRAM using a slightly different technique and we unplugged the machine for 15 minutes and plugged it back in but nothing changed. My feeling was that the video was D.O.A. (dead on arrival), and I told them so. Once again, Apple had validated what I have been saying in these blogs, i.e., THEY NEED TO GET A HANDLE ON THEIR NEW MACHINE QUALITY CONTROL.

NICE IMPRESSION, APPLE!

That said, Apple pulled it out the fire with their customer service. They are sending my mother-in-law labels to use to send the eMac back to them via FedEx. Once Fed Ex picks the eMac up and gives her a tracking number, she can call Apple, relay it to them, and they’ll send her a new eMac. My mother-in-law commented how nice they were, and that matches my experience as well, except for one time. Unhappy about the noice the case fan in my new Mirror Door Drive PowerMac was making, I talked to a snarly tech support guy who refused to send me a new case fan even if I would pay for it and tried to troubleshoot it by listening to the fan over the phone! (I did replace the fan on my own, and it runs much quieter now.)

It’s somewhat likely I may buy a G5 PowerMac this year, and it’s very likely I’ll buy another eMac for someone in the family close to me. If Apple’s customer service had given us one iota of trouble, that latter eMac purchase would not even be a blip on my radar screen. The G5 is because I live in a city with an Apple Store. Apple would do better to tighten up their quality control and make “save the bacon” customer service calls unnecessary or at least very rare. Otherwise, their tiny little market share will remain tiny, no matter how much innovation they do.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Goose and Gander

What’s good for the goose must be good for the gander. So, they say, and if you look at Apple’s recent behavior, you can’t help but notice that it’s a lot like Microsoft’s, just on a smaller scale. Which just goes to prove you can get away with monopolistic behavior as long as your market share is small.

One of the reasons Microsoft has become villainous (and I realize there are many) is because of their tendency to take software features developed elsewhere and ingest them into their operating systems and applications. I can’t help but notice that Apple has done the same thing with two operating system releases. Apple likes to “think different” and they usually do, and that’s why this behavior from the company is such a surprise.

When Apple released Jaguar , they also released a revamped search utility named “Sherlock” that mirrored a very popular shareware application called “Watson”. This essentially drove the small developer, Karelia, to sell Watson off. Here’s a quote from the FAQ on the Karelia website:

“…Karelia software was not involved in any aspect of Sherlock 3, other than serving as…shall we say…inspiration. While Apple recognized Watson as 2002’s “Most Innovative Mac OS X Product”—and we appreciate the recognition—the company didn’t hesitate to make use of Watson’s specific innovations for its next OS release, without any concessions to Karelia.”

Now, Apple’s pulled the same tactic again with Tiger (OS 10.4) by coming up with an operating system feature named “Dashboard” which has a striking resemblance to a very popular piece of Mac shareware named “Konfabulator”. I’m not crazy about either one of them, but I’ve already heard the grumbling about the resemblances on some of the major Mac websites.

Ethically, there is no difference between Apple’s behavior or Microsoft’s; and that’s a sad thing for us Mac users. It makes you wonder what is going to happen as Apple grows. Will we one day see Apple being pursued by governments around the world for their monopolistic practices? It’s unlikely for two reasons. One is Mac prices. The other is that if they keep this up the small developer will not support them. If the small developer doesn’t and they piss off all their large developers, too (like Adobe and Microsoft), who will be left?

The business world may be “dog eat dog”, but the last thing you want to do is be at the center of a snarling pack. It’s difficult to do business if nobody trusts you.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

“Scanner Did Not Send File”

Friday night, I decided to mount an extra Hitachi hard disk in my PC. Once that was done and while I had the case open, I decided to replace the PC's network and USB 2.0 cards with a USB 2.0/Firewire 400/Ethernet combo card sitting in my closet. The combo card went in without a problem; and, to my delight and surprise, Windows XP did not demand I re-activate it. Installing the card's drivers was a two step process that took a little extra time but otherwise went without a hitch.

The real test of the new card would be whether it would work with my little USB 2.0 network. For those who have not read previous blogs, the network consists of a Belkin USB 2.0 switch connected to a Belkin USB 2.0 four port hub. The switch allows me to connect my Mirror Door Dual 1.25 G4 PowerMac, my Dual 1 Ghz Quicksilver PowerMac, my 1 Ghz 12” PowerBook, and my AMD XP 2800+ powered Windows XP PC to my Epson 166o Photo Scanner, an HP Business Inkjet 1100D printer, a HP PhotoSmart 7150 photo printer, and a Zip Drive.

The Macs have always worked almost flawlessly with this setup, even though the Belkin stuff never said it supported Macs. The Windows XP machine has been the cranky one of my computer pack, and I was anxious it might start throwing me “scanner did not send file” error messages seen when setting the network up.

Sure enough, it did!

If you do a search on Google for this problem, you’ll find it’s fairly common with some Epson scanners. You might see this message anytime you hooked one up via a USB hub. Obviously, that wasn’t my problem since the scanner had been working through the hub just fine.

I was NOT going to put the old USB 2.0 card back in! (I will not be defeated by this PC!) I was suspicious that the problem might lie elsewhere in my network since the new combo card was from the same manufacturer and used the same USB 2.0 chipset as the old one. So, I played with the USB related BIOS settings in the PC. During that process, I shut down my Quicksilver PowerMac which had been playing music using iTunes.

When I then tried scanning an image with the XP machine, it worked perfectly.

The tumblers in the old brain crashed together and I realized that the problem wasn’t where I had thought it was. I had thought there were conflicts between the PC motherboard’s USB implementation and the USB 2.0 card’s. Now, I was suspicious the USB switch was not isolating the machines from each other, and an “on-network” Mac was causing some kind of signal or timing error that prevented the XP machine from getting a clean signal from the scanner (or sending one to it). I performed several tests with the QuickSilver powered up and down; and during every one in which it was powered on, the scan would fail.

I doubt if very many people are running a USB network like I am, so knowing that probably won’t help anyone else but me. But, at least, I now understand what the true cause of the problem is. The workaround is very simple. If I need to scan using the Windows PC, I need to make sure the Macs are turned off or, if not, disconnected from the network.

As I was writing this, I powered up the PC (I was already using the QuickSilver) and tested whether scanning using the Mac was similarly affected with the PC online. It is not, and it’s using the same USB 2.0 card as the PC.

That’s why there’s 3 Macs in this office, and one PC.

Friday, June 25, 2004

The Ridiculousness of Government: The Florida Wi-Fi Tax

For years there’s been a funny little e-mail hoax circulating around the Internet about a tax on e-mail. The state of Florida, where senior citizens and bad elections go, has decided to go one step further and place a tax on computer networking within people’s homes and businesses. You gotta hope this is a hoax as well, because the e-mail and the proposed tax both are truly ridiculous.

This is not a tax on equipment sales. This is a tax based on whether or not you are using a router or networking switches to connect up computers in your home.

What are they going to tax next? Air?

Don’t underestimate the insidiousness of this proposal.

How are they going to enforce it? Well, other than counting on everyone’s honesty, something governments generally do not do, they would have to come into your home to determine what networking equipment you have. Even if they did it by affidavit, the law establishing the tax, sooner or later, will lead to court cases deciding that it gives the government has “just cause” to enter your home or small business. Our only hope to stop it would be if we could get a court to decide that it amounted to an “unreasonable search” and violated the US Constitution. I doubt if that’s likely.

This feels to me like the worse kind of intrusion and terribly bad policy for any free country or state. The fact that state and federal governments already get too much tax money aside, the bigger questions concerning this proposal lie around the possible intrusion into people’s homes or home businesses and personal application of technology. It needs to be fought at almost any cost.

It makes me wonder if things are so bad in the State of Florida that their legislators are drinking seawater.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Accessorize Your iPod; Buy a BMW

I own an iPod. My wide owns an iPod. My birthday is coming up, and I’m all bummed out. I take pride in staying on the cutting edge of computer technology (After all, I can’t stay on the cutting edge of space technology because, after all, I am involved with NASA in flying the shuttle.). And that’s why I’m all bummed out. I simply can’t afford to accessorize my iPod with a BMW.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Apple’s made a deal with BMW to sell an adapter that lets you manipulate your iPod using audio controls on the BMW’s steering wheel.

“Connect with music like never before behind the wheel of your BMW 3 Series, and X3 and X5 SAV or Z4 Roadster. With the installation of an integrated adapter developed by Apple and BMW, you can now control your iPod or iPod mini through the existing audio system and multi-function steering wheel. Which means no loss of power. No loss of sound quality. No loss of control.

The BMW iPod adapter can be installed in 2002 or later 3 Series, X3 and X5 SAVs, and Z4 Roadsters.”

So says Apple’s webpage.

So which is it the ad campaign designed to pump up? iPod sales or BMW’s?

What I want to know is this:

When do I get an adapter I can use with a Toyota Tacoma 4x4?

Monday, June 07, 2004

Apple 20 inch Cinema Display LCD on my PC!

Last night, using the Apple ADC to DVI Adapter I bought to run my 17 inch Apple Studio LCD with my PowerBook, I hooked up one of my 20 inch Apple Cinema Displays (LCD) to my Windows XP PC. The machine currently has in it an ATI Radeon 9000 video card.

As I expected, none of the machine’s BIOS screens displayed. During the computer’s boot up, the display’s power button light blinked in cycles of three. The first screen that appeared on an otherwise black display was the Windows XP Welcome Screen and the pictures looked stretched. Once I selected my user account and the machine booted into the XP desktop, I found that XP had loaded it as a “Plug and Play Monitor” and that it was still running at the last set resolution, i.e., 1024 x 1280. I reset the resolution to the Cinema Display’s native 1680 x 1050 which the Radeon 9000 seemed ready for. I have only one word for the picture quality:

Amazing!

For grins, I ran Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. When I reset the display resolution to match the monitor (1680 x 1050x32), the Cessna 182’s instrument panel filled the screen, making the flight instruments close to real size! I then flew flights out of my real airfield (Clover Field, TX) in both a Cessna 182 and a Learjet 45. Graphics display was outstanding with no noticeable motion effects, and the clouds looked exactly like the real things.

You can bet when I fly any of my XP powered flight simulators, I’ll be using my Apple Cinema Display from now on!

Running it as my sole display, however, would not be a good idea. I’d have to keep another display around to do any kind of troubleshooting or BIOS setting adjustment. Also, since the BIOS screens don’t show, neither does the Windows XP/Windows 98SE boot menu that allows me to select which operating system I want. I’d have to learn to select Win98 using a timer. That’s more hassle than I’d want to go to. But if you have only XP loaded on your computer, it would work rather well. I’d keep an el cheapo 14 inch LCD in the closet for those times when I needed into the BIOS. Another solution I might pursue if I wanted a 20 inch display would be to look at the Formac 20 inch LCD. The reviews I’ve seen say it’s almost as good as the Apple Cinema, is slightly cheaper, and comes with DVI and ADC interfaces and is PC and Mac compatible. It has a slightly different resolution, though, at 1600 x 1200. For running flight sims, the Apple Cinema Display is therefore slightly better.

That said, the crispness of the Apple Cinema Display is amazing. Brightness can not be adjusted on the PC, but frankly it was unnecessary on mine. Colors were bright and text was sharp. It was all I could ever ask for out of an LCD monitor.

I really loved running it on my PC, and you can bet from time to time, I’ll do it again!

Sunday, June 06, 2004

PC World—Mac OS X is Better

What makes this month’s issue of PC World magazine so interesting is the “Up Front” editorial by Harry McCracken. The piece is entitled “The More Operating Systems, the Merrier” and tells of his experiences with a brand new PowerBook. While he makes sure you know he hasn’t completely switched to OS X (after all, how could he be the editor of PC World if he did?), he does state it’s a better OS.

What makes the editorial so relevant to me is that his experiences mirror mine. The first Mac I got “up close and personal” with was my new wife’s iMac running OS 9. I wasn’t impressed. The machine’s screen was small, the single button mouse was too limited in functionality, and OS 9 didn’t seem to have anything Windows XP didn’t have. Mac OS X was a whole different story. It was an operating system to fall in love with, if there is such a thing.

Even if there’s not, it is an operating system I enjoy working with, and that’s not how I’ve ever felt about working with Windows, even with XP. XP is the most stable and attractive Windows operating system I’ve used. But OS X beats it in attractiveness and usability and is an equal in stability. Yes, I did have to invest in Mac versions of Windows programs I was already running. But, like the editor, I swap data between my Macs and my single Windows computer without effort, just like I do with Windows computers at my job. And if you’d ever seen or used Microsoft Office v.X for the Mac, you’d find it’s a no-brainer to prefer it over its Windows’ brethren. I also don’t struggle anymore to find a really good video editor; I have several on the Mac. iMovie is on par with Pinnacle Studio and Final Cut in any form beats the hell out of Premiere. There is nothing in the Windows world equivalent to DVD Studio Pro (and, yes, I’ve tried Ulead’s DVD Workshop)?or GarageBand for that matter.

I find it heartening that this is the second editorial to spring up during the last two months in print and on the web about influential people in the computer industry switching to Macs in some form. It will be fun to see if the trend continues.

But don’t take my word for it or theirs. See for yourself. Find an Apple Store or Apple retailer near you and go give the Mac a try. Keep a Windows PC around for flight sims and games; but for anything else, you might want to ask yourself what it is you really of with a PC and examine whether you might do it better and with more fun on a Mac.

Project PC

Whenever I do any kind of PC upgrade, I always look hard at what I can do to get the most bang for my buck. I hate to throw away any PC components, not only because I feel like there must be a use for them somewhere but also because of the environmental impact discarded PC’s and PC components have. So, last year, when I upgraded my system from a PIII 1 Ghz machine to an AMD powered AMD 2000+, I took the P3 system components and built a machine from them and gave it to Connie’s nephew, Alex. He wound up with a P3 1Ghz machine with 512MB RAM, a 30GB hard drive, ATI All in Wonder Radeon (AGP) video card, a Creative Lab sound card, a Firewire PCI card, Ethernet, a 56K modem, a Pioneer slot-drive DVD ROM, and a TDK 24X CDRW. Alex got it for Christmas.

Earlier this year, I stepped my system up to an AMD 2800+ and took my old AMD 2000+ CPU and used it to upgrade my son Tim’s PC, which was the one UPS destroyed in shipping. (You can read about that on this page.) To recover, I ordered Tim an AMD 2500+ CPU, a new motherboard, memory, and case; and he built himself a system using those components and what was salvaged from the UPS destroyed PC. This weekend, I put my system components in a new snazzy case (a black and silver “Dragon” case from Soyo bought from Microcenter for $29 after a rebate) and put together another “Christmas PC”. The “new” PC consists of:

* an AMD 2700+ CPU (it and its motherboard were bought on sale at Fry’s for $99);

* a Samsung 352B 52X CDRW/DVD Drive (already had this in my old case; bought a new black one for my new case at Multiwave for $50);

* 512MB PC2700 DDR Ram stick pulled out of my MDD PowerMac and originally salvaged out of the UPS destroyed PC;

* a spare 40GB Maxtor hard disk (originally in an Apple flat-panel iMac and a spare after I upgraded hard disks last week);

* and a 56K modem my wife bought at Fry’s for this project ($30 with a $15 rebate).

I added to that an ATI Radeon 9000 video card, loaded up a copy of Windows XP Home OEM (bought at Fry’s for $109) on the machine, configured it, added a few applications (like Open Office, iTunes for Windows, Nero 5.5 Light, and ATI Multimedia Center 7.8) and a Microsoft Intellimouse Optical, updated the OS using Windows update, and then put it up, awaiting word from Connie’s sister about whether to send the machine now or wait until Christmas. Someone there has to buy a monitor for it. It will stay here until they’re ready.

More than likely, this is the last one I’m going to build for a while. Alex’s machine could use an upgrade, but I’m not going to volunteer for that unless I take my own PC to 64 bit and it generates the spare parts. That’s not likely anytime soon, if at all. My own sons seem to be taken care of, so I don’t see a reason to undertake another project soon. That’s a good thing. I’ve hit my limit on PC related expenses.

Installing Windows XP on this project PC was an adventure, like it always is. The setup routine would crash just before the screen where you select either the installation or the recovery console. It taught me a new Stop Error….06F…accompanied by a message that “Session 3 Init Failed”. Research indicated it was hardware related. Surprise! What isn’t? I had forgotten that the hard disk’s partition was not set active, so I used FDISK on some Windows 98SE boot floppies to repartition the drive and set it active. I then formatted it using FAT32, double-checked my memory timings, played with external cache (turning it off and on) and somehow got the installation to work. I hit another snag when it couldn’t copy a file from the Win XP CD; obsessive cleaning of the CD got me past that one. I had no further problems, but it would be nice to install XP on a “new” machine without having to troubleshoot the hell out of it. I know, I know; that’s not likely to happen.

DVR-105 Sense Errors

About a month ago, the DVR-105 in my Quicksilver PowerMac began issuing “0x72 Sense Errors" at the end of a burn of a multisession CD. Roxio’s support site and several online forums suggested this was a hardware problem, and that the drive had suddenly gone bad. Something about its failure didn’t seem right to me. So, I held onto the drive even though I removed it from service.

When rebuilding my system in the new case (see the paragraph above), I put the DVR-105 in as the “master” optical drive and a placeholder. I had tried to flash the drive’s firmware in the hopes that a firmware update might fix whatever the problem was, but every flasher I had tried, both under Windows and the Mac OS, had reported “Target drive not found”. I finally found references to an online flasher that someone had used when they also had that problem, so I downloaded it, gave it a shot; and it worked! My OEM drive became a Pioneer running version 1.33 versus version 1.0 firmware. I then burned about 300 MB of material to a CD-RW as a test, and it worked like a charm. I declared the drive “fixed” and removed it from the PC and put it back in my QuickSilver, swapping it with a black DVR-106 that went into my PC. To test it in the Mac, I burned 275Mb of material to a 16X CD-R and 3GB of material to a DVD-RW. No problems at all.

Imagine my surprise when I put in a CD-R to add a few files to a multisession CD and the sense error reappeared! Suspicious of that I might have incompatible media, I went to Wal-Mart and purchased some 52X CD’s from a different manufacturer. The drive handled them with aplomb.

The media that had malfunctioned were Philips 52X CD-R 80’s. I had picked up two 50CD stacks of them at Office Depot on a special buy. To be fair, the media works fine on my PowerBook, and the DVR-105 is the oldest drive I have here. However, I now have a bunch of CDR’s I can’t use and won’t buy Philips again. I’ve used TDK, Memorex, and Verbatim without errors on every drive in my office.

The thing to get out of this is that “sense errors” may be related to your media as well as your drive's hardware. That’s something I couldn’t find documented. Check the situation out by performing the same type of burn that produced the error message but use other brands of media before making up your mind about what the problem is. You might save yourself a fair chunk of change.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Who Will Support Dual-Layer DVD?

Within the next month, the first dual-layer DVD burners will hit the streets for both the PC and Mac platforms. If you haven’t heard, “dual layer” or “blue ray” DVD’s will hold up to 8.5 GB of material on a single disk. That’s almost twice the data you can store on one now. If you’re a little video producer like me, then you’re probably viewing the arrival with both glee and anxiousness. On the plus side, once the media, burners, and software support all become available, I’d be able to produce a DVD on par with those produced by large distributors (like Hollywood studios, for instance). On the minus side, I’ll have to invest in new burners and media and risk incompatibilities with older DVD players. I thought I read somewhere that to play these disks I’d have to buy a new DVD player as well.

My original title for this blog was to be “Will Apple Support Dual-Layer DVD?” But as I thought about it, I realized the real question was whether the average Joe Blow consumer would support dual layer DVD. After all, DVD technology is still in its infancy and people are already being asked to step up to a new format. While that tactic might work with the computer crowd, it’s not as likely to be popular with the average Joe Blow or Mom and Pop. Especially when their paychecks are being hit so hard by rising gas prices and out-of- sight medical insurance premiums.

The other problem with the technology is that the dual layer (also known as “double layer”) disks are only going to be immediately available in +R format media. I don’t care what the hype is, -R DVD’s are more compatible with a larger number of players. While my current policy is that I’ll only produce –R disks, that could change; and I’ll have to adopt some strategies to protect against incompatibilities with my customer’s equipment, a risk that will be larger due to the newness of the technology.

I believe that the market will move forward to embrace the technology. But the pendulum could swing either way. We could see both +R and –R formats move forward with it and see it gain wide acceptance despite the new set of costs; it could be the “deal clencher” that pushes the market into the +R format as “the” DVD format; or Sony, the lead player in this field right now, might find itself staring at a repeat of the VHS vs BetaMax war, with today’s DVD playing the role of “VHS” and the new dual-layer DVD’s sliding into BetaMax antiquity.

It will be interesting to watch.