The Computer Blog

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Where Mossberg Got It Right and Wrong

Walt Mossberg, writing in the “Personal Technology” website this week, stated that switching to the Mac isn’t for everybody. On that, I agree. Yet, I found his arguments a bit off. In fact, I had to wonder if Mossberg had ever performed the Windows to Mac transition. If so, his experiences are apparently different from mine.

Mossberg essentially came to the conclusion that only people who use Macs for common, everyday tasks could switch to Macs. Of course, that’s probably about eighty to ninety percent of the computer users out there; so maybe my quibble is only what he said about the remaining ten to twenty percent. As you know if you’ve been reading much on this website, I use my computers for a lot more than that; and I’ve happily switched the majority of my computing—including work I do on my job—to the Mac and will not go back to Windows. That said, I also happily admit that I do keep a Windows PC around; and I’ll summarize the reasons for that in a moment.

One place where Mossberg and I agree is that hard core gamers need to remain on the Windows platform. While the newest G5’s are competitive with the fastest PC’s in many areas, the Windows platform still holds a slight edge in speed and a bigger edge in game availability. One of the major reasons I keep my PC is to run flight simulators. While there are some excellent ones for the Mac, I still have a better selection of sims on the PC.

From there on out, Mossberg and I largely depart company.

He stated that if you needed to access your network at work—most of which are still run by Windows servers—you need to stay on Windows. That’s half-true. I use VPN over a cable modem and router to connect to my workplace, and for simple e-mail and calendar access my Macs often will hook up with the network when my Windows XP Home machine will not. I use Outlook 2001 running in Classic mode to check e-mail and manipulate my calendar and it works just like my Outlook at my workplace except for access to Personal Folders. I haven’t been able to get to the shared folder where they are kept; and that is where my Macs don’t do as well, i.e., accessing some shared servers. Whether this is a true failing of OS X or my own limited knowledge of networking is not clear. (In this case, too, some of the problem is the way Outlook for the Mac is set up.) I can connect to those servers using my XP machine, so I simply have no reason to spend the time to get the Macs to work. I do have full access to all my folders when I use my XP machine. As Mossberg mentioned, you can run a Windows operating system using Virtual PC (and perhaps a new application called Guest, though I haven’t tried that, yet) and use it to access networked shares or resources if needed. On the other side of the coin, I can testify that if not for my Macs, there are times I would have been dead in the water when trying to work from home if I had been totally reliant on my PC.

As Mossberg said, I’ve heard that some financial services associated with Quicken don’t work with the Mac. However, I consider his statement that converting your Windows Quicken files to the Mac Version is “a bear” as puzzling. I did exactly that when I first switched over; and while it did take several steps, I did not consider it “a bear”. I understand that Quicken has moved away from the .qif file format and maybe that’s harder to convert than the file I did was. I don’t know. What is “a bear” is converting from the Mac file format back to Windows. In any case, I run on Quicken for the Mac today and have been happy as a lark with it. Admittedly, though, I access credit card and bank accounts via the web and don’t use Quicken’s special features to do any of that.

One group Mossberg left out who not only could switch to the Mac but need to consider it if they haven’t already is video professionals or serious video hobbyists. There are no packages on the Windows platform that have the capabilities and play together as well as those in the iLife suite, Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro. The latter, too, are beautiful packages to edit and produce on.

Creative professionals have already been long associated with the Mac. Frankly, with most creative packages (like Adobe’s) available for both platforms, the distinction between the two is not that great anymore. But there are still compelling reasons for creative professionals to stay with or move to the Mac platform. Frankly, OS X is not only more secure than XP, but it simply easier and more joyful to use. That enhances the creative process and is not a small thing. Additionally, the fact that OS X is not susceptible to viruses, etc., does mean you’ll spend more time doing your creative work than troubleshooting your computer. That’s not to say that Mac’s are trouble-free; they’re not. But they are a lot less troublesome than a Windows PC. Most of the time, it is true that I turn my Macs on and they “just work”.

I agree with Mossberg that professionals or companies running specialized software probably need to stick with Windows…or DOS. (Like many point of sale systems.) But that is only true if there is no OS X or open-source version of the software available. If your company runs Unix, Linux, or has been contemplating either, then a move to OS X makes sense since it is essentially a Unix operating system with a great GUI (graphical user interface). Products produced with Microsoft Office for the Mac are very compatible with Windows versions of Office. Most of the time, folks cannot tell whether the Word or PowerPoint document I just shipped to them was made on a Mac or on my work PC. And if you don’t want to use Microsoft Office, there’s Open Office that can be downloaded for free.

If you’re a pilot, you probably also want to stick with Windows, especially if you’re an AOPA member. But this is not an absolute. I am the living exception to what I just said. I run my AOPA flight planning software on the road via my PowerBook and Virtual PC 7.1 running Win XP Pro. It runs fairly well, too, even though the PB only has a 1 GHz processor. So, I am making my way around the problem; but I honestly did consider buying a Windows XP laptop just to use when flying. (And if we buy an airplane and start flying a lot more than we are now, I may reconsider.) But, for now, the PowerBook works well enough; and it’s kind of funky running XP full screen on my PowerBook. Really throws other folks off…

Yes, I have spent a lot of money switching to the Mac. I was one of those people Mossberg’s advice would have been to not switch, but I felt the expense was worth it. All my Adobe applications and Microsoft Office have been “re-bought” for the Mac platform; in fact, I run newer versions of the same on my Macs and have largely stopped upgrading Windows software. My costs of maintaining two platforms really are minimal over the cost of maintaining the Mac alone. I simply focus my time and money on the one I like the best and use the other as I wish.

It has all been worth it.

So, if you’re thinking about switching to the Mac, here are the reasons pro and con for or against doing so, as I see them:

Pro’s

* Beautiful design of both the computers and the operating system
* Stable, secure, operating system that is easy to use (though there is some learning curve as Mossberg said) that plays well with Windows networks
o Unix base (all versions support multiple processors)
o Macs more reliable with VPN than XP Home
* Less time spent troubleshooting or dealing with threats
o Run antivirus only to keep from infecting Windows running friends
o Relatively impervious to spyware
* Performance equivalent to the Windows world
* Expanding capabilities (Apple’s working hard…)
* Unparalleled video production integration
* Good software availability
o Most everyday programs available
o Runs OS 9 (old Mac OS), OS X, and open source applications on one operating system.
* Sense of community rarely found in other Computer Worlds
* More reliable than typical Windows PC’s
* Apple’s customer service is always excellent.

Con’s

* Cost of switching
* Some learning curve
* Software availability not as good as Windows
* Windows network access not always clean
o Outlook 2001 the only real client that works like Outlook for Windows and it’s a Classic application not being updated
o Some Windows shared severs not able to be accessed without tweaking or third party software
* PC’s can generally be more easily upgraded.
* Apple’s quality control not always the best

Ultimately, there are no absolutes. You must decide what’s best for you, no matter what any of us computer writers thinks.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Windows kind of night—on a Mac

It’s been unusual for me to have to spend a night troubleshooting problems since I’ve primarily switched to the Mac, but last night was an exception. I did wind up getting the completing original project I was after when the whole thing started, but I spent four to five hours working it out.

I’m using a 120GB LaCie external hard disk to backup two of my Macs and to support booting from Jaguar and running “Click N' Design 3 D”, my favorite CD/DVD labeling application. Mac development and support of that program stopped with the release of Jaguar (OS 10.2), and I have been unable to get the program to run under Panther or get the OS9 version to run under Classic. I had built a movie and burned two copies of it to DVD and wanted to use Click 3 D to build and print their labels. I booted into Jaguar last night with my dual 1.25Ghz G4 PowerMac without a hitch but then noticed that the machine was not finding my Epson R200 printer on my little USB 2.0 network. A ZIP disk drive is also attached to the network; and when I inserted a disk into it, it did not pop up on the PowerMac’s desktop as expected.

The connection to the USB network is via a SIIG USB 2.0 PCI card. To see if the problem was with the SIIG card or the USB network itself, I unplugged the USB cable from the card and inserted it into one of the PowerMac’s native USB 1.1 port. The ZIP disk popped onto the desktop. The SIIG card or something associated with it was the problem.

To determine if the problem was due to hardware or software, I replaced the card in the PowerMac with an identical one. The problem remained. To see if the problem was associated with the PCI slot, I moved the card to another. The problem remained. That pointed toward a software problem.

Traveling to the SIIG website, I downloaded the newest driver for the card and ran its installation routine. When I tried to reboot, however, the reboot hung right after the Apple appeared and gave me a “prohibited” sign. Boot files on the hard drive had somehow gotten messed up. Investigation at the Apple website pointed toward a reinstallation of Jaguar. Before I did that, though, I ran Tech Tools Pro 4.0 and used disk and file utilities to search for errors. I found a few and tried to reboot after correcting them but had no luck. So, I booted the PowerMac using its internal boot drive and ran Disk Utility on the Lacie partition containing Jaguar. It corrected a large number of permissions but still would not boot afterwards. Reloading Jaguar became my only alternative. I inserted my retail Jaguar CD into the PowerMac’s primary DVD drive, rebooted, and held down the “C” key expecting it to boot from the CD. Instead, the screen flickered and the PowerMac booted from its own internal drive. Clearly, it was not recognizing the CD as something it wanted to boot from.

To rule out a problem with the DVD burner, I inserted the CD into The PowerMac’s secondary optical drive and tried to boot from the CD again. No luck. Then, to see if the machine was having a generic problem with booting from an optical drive, I inserted the machine’s original Restore DVD into the primary optical drive (a Pioneer DVR-107 DVD burner), and it worked. When I checked the version of the operating system on the disk, I found it was 10.2.3. The version I originally tried to boot from was 10.2.

I then pulled out my 1 GHz G4 PowerBook and tried to boot it using the retail Jaguar CD. It would not. When I checked the software version of the software that had been delivered with the PowerBook, I found it was 10.3.

With those two results, I suspected that the Macs were built to boot only on the operating system version they had been shipped with or newer. To verify that, I borrowed my wife’s 700 G3 iBook, slipped the retail Jaguar CD into its combo drive, and tried to reboot on it. That worked! Using the iBook, then, I hooked into the LaCie drive and reloaded Jaguar using the Archive and Install option, and rebooted. Finally, the drive worked like it was supposed to! Retrieving a copy of the OS 10.2.8 Combo Updater from a DVD, I updated the hard disk to take it to 10.2.8 and then ran Software Update to get the rest of the fixes. I rebooted again and it worked, so I unhooked it from the iBook and hooked it up to the PowerMac. The PowerMac booted from the drive like it was supposed to.

I was, at least, back to square one.

I surfed back to the SIIG website and looked again for updated drivers for the USB card, unfortunately confirming that the driver that had hosed my system up was the only one posted for Jaguar (and Panther). The USB still wasn’t working and had to be or all was for naught, so I downloaded the driver and applied it again. It hosed up my system again.

This time, though, I took a different approach. I booted into Panther on the PowerMac’s internal hard drive, repaired permissions (and there were many of them that needed fixing) on the Jaguar hard disk, and then reinstalled the 10.2.8 combo updater. I rebooted. It worked! Not only that, but the ZIP drive popped up on the desktop. When I checked for my Epson inkjet printer, I realized its drivers were not installed, so I took care of that. During that, though, I discovered that my Microsoft Mouse drivers had gotten hosed, so I reinstalled Microsoft’s Intellipoint 5.2 to get them back. It also hosed my system! The next reboot would not work.

Back to Panther I went, repairing permissions on the Jaguar disk, reapplying the 10.2.8 combo updater, and rebooting. Finally, I had it all working; and I had a fast an reliable means of recovering the drive if some installation fowled it up.

Finally, I printed my DVD labels.

I truly believe all things work out for the best. While not really what I wanted to happen, I had learned something that was going to prevent me from making a costly mistake. I had been thinking about buying a Mac mini to use to boot into Jaguar. I am fairly convinced now that will not work. Instead, I’m going to keep my wife’s 700 G3 iBook for running Jaguar so I can move my other machines onward and upward and still have the ability run "Click N' Design 3 D" when I want to. I’ll let go of that when I find Mac software that does its job as easily and efficiently as it does. So far, I’ve been looking for over a year and haven’t found it yet!

Spend the Twenty-Nine Bucks!

If you’re a Windows user thinking about buying a Mac mini, consider spending another $29 for an Apple keyboard. If you have a favorite keyboard you want to keep using, fine. I have to tell you, though, I have yet to find a Windows keyboard as nice as Apple’s, not to mention that it has two USB ports for your mouse and one other peripheral. And once you get used to ejecting CD’s or DVD’s from the keyboard, you’ll be spoiled.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Printing Return Address Labels

Not long ago, I fell for one of those ads selling return address labels, 500 for four bucks. Of course, after I sent out my order, my wife printed up a sheet of return address labels for herself, reminding me that I already had the Avery labels here to do that. She had printed hers in Microsoft Word 2004, which, like most versions of Word, has label printing capability within it. But she was unhappy about the actual spacing of the print on the label. The first line of the address was too close to the top so it was slightly clipped. This is one of the things I don’t like about using word processors for that kind of thing, which raised the question about what software is out there for desktop publishing these things. And what did I already have?

On Windows…

My first thought on my Windows XP computer was Microsoft Publisher. I have Publisher 2000 which is too old to have the Avery 8167 return address label template I needed. However, it did have the Avery 5267 template, essentially the same thing. I did have to move the address block downward as far as it could go on the screen’s template to actually get the spacing on the actual printed sheet more centered on the labels themselves.

While looking around for CD labeling software a few nights before, I had downloaded the free Avery Design Pro Limited software. It had even better controls for making up a label, easily including pictures or clip art. But to get a full sheet of labels, appeared to require performing a merger with a database file, presumably one listing my name and address 80 times. While it has some limited database file management tools in it, I moved on after not being able to easily get it to work. Maybe later I’ll open Access and output an 80 item database file and see if I can get it to work.

I checked Adobe’s PageMaker 7.0 to see if it might have some kind of plug in, but it didn’t. (I’ll talk later about how I can build a template without too much sweat in one of these high-powered page layout programs when I address it via In Design in the Mac discussion next).

As I mentioned earlier, I could also use Microsoft Word. I’m running the 2002 version of the program on my PC.

Open Office 1.1 also is set up to allow you to build labels as well. To get there, select File/New/Labels. Near the bottom right hand side of the window, select “Avery Letter Size” under brand and the Type slot will fill with all the current Avery label types and select the one you want. Type your address in the “Label Text” window and then click on the “New Document” button. Voila! You will have a full page full of return address labels using the Times New Roman 12 point font (default). That makes the address lines too large for the labels. The only way I could see to change the font or adjust its size was to do it one address label at a time. It would take a while to do all 80 of them.

On The Mac…..

…you can print Avery labels directly from Address Book. It’s all hidden under the Print function. Select File/Print and the select “Mailing Labels” in the “Style” drop down menu that appears in the Print window. However, the hard part is getting it to repeat your address 80 times. It only wants to do it once. Some folks have used a FileMaker database file, with the address fields filled in 80 times with their own address, to get this to work using Address Book. (You could use the same technique with Avery Design Label Pro on the Windows platform.)

Surprisingly, if you are running a Palm PDA (on Windows or a Mac), you can use Palm’s Desktop. Launch the Palm Desktop and select File/Print. From the “Print As” drop down menu, select “Return Address Labels”. On the “Return Address” drop down, click on “Add a New Return Address”. Type a name for the sheet you’re about to print in the “Return Address” dropdown and type the information in the “Return Address Text” window. Click on the “Save” button and then go back to the Print dialog and select the return address you just made in the “Return Address” dropdown. Select the Avery label format in the “Label Layout” window. (Palm Desktop 4.0 doesn’t have the Avery 8167 format but does have the 5267 format. Select that.) Insert your return label sheet and click on “Print”, and you’re done.

PrintShop for OS X has nice label printing formatting tools, but I can’t tell you how well they work since the application would choke on my HP Laserjet 2100. I’d get a printer error every time, and the MacKiev website had no information to help me troubleshoot it. Unfortunately, my HP 1100D Business Inkjet printer had picked that afternoon to spit up the black printhead (which hasn’t been used all that much, HP!), so I couldn’t switch out to my inkjet and trying it there. (I’ll have to give that a go the next time I need some address labels. I’m stocked up for now.)

On either platform…

If you own Adobe Illustrator or In Design or some other program that will import .pdf files and you want to use one of those programs to build your labels, then go to Worldlabels.com. They have .pdf file templates for just about every Avery label you’d want to use. In Illustrator or the like that will actually open a .pdf file, you can open the file and make changes directly and save them out. For other packages like In Design that will import the templates but not open them, simply open a new page (8.5 x 11 inches), import the template, place it on top of the page, and then use the template as a guide to drag guides and create a page layout. Once done, remove the .pdf file from the page and save the work as a template.

But that’s a lot of work, more than most of us bill paying folks want to go to. The easiest and slickest way to print out the return labels you need (or any other Avery label you need) is to go to the Avery website (http://www.avery.com). Click on the “Avery Print” tab and then follow the web-based wizards through the label creating process. Print when you’re done.

Isn’t that cool?

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to get labels printed, but these are the ones I’ve found so far. As you can see, if you’ve got a PC or a Mac and a printer, there’s not a lot of reason to order address labels in the mail. You can make your own a lot faster and cheaper.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Adjusting my iTunes

When inserting my relatively new 4G iPod into iTunes on my PowerBook, I turned down its offer to synch up the songs on the two devices. Even so, I still could not play my iPod through my computer like I used to. I thought at first that there might be some “feature” in the newer iPod that was causing it. Still, I decided to prowl through iTunes 4.7’s Preferences to see if changing some setting might restore that functionality.

iTunes defaults to automatic synchronization of songs on the host computer with any inserted iPod. Because of that, it deselects the iPod even though it mounts it. Changing the iPod Preference from automatic synchronization to “Manually manage songs and playlists” in iTunes/Preferences/iPod/Music made the iPod a 3d icon again and gave me computer access to its songs. If that hadn’t worked, I might have been convinced that Apple had gone too far…

The Apple Cinema Display and Windows--Half Ass Support?

When Apple redesigned their line of Cinema Displays, they moved the display connectors off the proprietary ADC to a more universal DVI. Speculation was that one reason Apple was doing that was to make the displays more attractive to Windows users. That speculation was correct. Apple’s own ads market the displays to Mac and PC users. But if you scour the web, you’ll find that Apple didn’t live up to the total end of their bargain. Apple does not include .inf files for Windows machines and unwary users have found out from AppleCare that they don’t support the display on Windows.

It’s great that Apple is working to attract Windows users to both the Mac platform and to their equipment (Cinema Displays, iPods) that are compatible with Windows’ machine. But just like Apple has released iTunes for Windows, it needs to release .inf files that would allow Windows users to fully use their displays.

It may be that the displays work just fine under Windows XP without the files. Certainly, my older 20 inch Apple Cinema Display does running with an ADC to DVI connector. But I know I lucked out. If I needed to even adjust brightness or contrast, I’d be out of luck. And I’m sensitive to their pain for another reason. My display works great under XP but not so great under Windows 98SE. Under XP, my ATI Radeon 9550 hits the display’s native resolution exactly. Under 98SE, I can get close but the display actually looks best at a lower 1024 x 768. Would an .inf file help that? Perhaps, though I suspect that differences in the 98SE and XP video drivers have more to do with it than the .inf file, a correct one couldn’t hurt. Hmmmm…, maybe I need to go play with monitor types and see if something other than “Plug and Play Monitor” under 98SE works better.

Thank God for my own website….

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not something I listen to very well.

I did start trying to find some way to get my Apple Cinema Display’s full native resolution under Windows 98SE. I tried loading up some .inf files for monitors that had equivalent resolutions but had no luck. Then, I tried modifying the .inf files for the video card itself. Still, no luck. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but somehow I wound up with my Radeon 9550 video card uninstalled.

I tried installing using the CD that came with the video card. The installation routine would start and even come up with Win98 drivers, but it would halt with a “can’t find needed components” error message every time. Thinking that maybe it was looking for DirectX components, I installed (or reinstalled?) the latest version. Didn’t help at all. I tried a couple of downloaded drivers (Catalyst 4.3 and 4.10) from the ATI website and got the same result. After a couple of times of trying to get the normal installation routines to work, I searched for the write-up I had done when I had installed this card before. Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t find a copy on my PC! So, I went into the Computer Blog (yes, what you’re reading now) and found the entry where I described how I had installed the card before. I followed its instructions and, voila!, instant success!

Once I had the card reinstalled, I gave up trying to get some kind of .inf file that would work. Instead, I played with the monitor’s various resolutions and got it as close to its native resolution as I could and that didn’t look stretched or squashed. It’s running at something odd now like 1280 x 960.

Windows XP 64 Bit—Why I’m Not Installing it…For Now…

PC World’s website posted an article yesterday a link to a Microsoft download site where I could get a copy of Windows XP 64 bit edition, RC1 (release candidate 1). Since I’m on broadband at home, the 450MB download would be lengthy but not intolerable. While I don’t have an Athlon 64 CPU yet, I’ve been toying with the idea for quite a while now. And I’m still thinking about it. But for now, I’ve decided not to download it.

The download file has to be burned to a CD and the installation run from the CD. I really don’t have a problem with that and have considered downloading it just to have it for when I do upgrade. ATI does have a 64 bit beta driver for Radeon cards, so I would have video support. But XP 64 will not have 16 bit application support, meaning that applications built for Win95/98/3.1 will not run, as won’t any DOS applications I still own. Additionally, I could count on the OS killing all my Norton Utilities and Anti-Virus as well as Partition Magic and any other disk utility I own. I still remember how upgrading to XP on the PC side and Panther on the Mac side killed applications I really liked. I won’t upgrade to XP64 without a lot of thought.

I can’t really afford to upgrade all my applications on both my PC and my Macs. Frankly, I’m already at 64 bit computing, if in name only, on the Mac side of the house because of my G5 iMac. I’m sure I’ll move my XP machine over to a 64 bit CPU and perhaps this year, but my move to XP’s 64 bit operating system may come a lot later. I have no compelling reason to move. All my PC applications are 32 bit. I am doing some video editing on the PC this week, but it’s a minor project to output some short movies in Windows Media format (.wma, .wmv). I just don’t want all the possible hassles such an OS upgrade might entail.