The Computer Blog

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Open Office 2.0 Beta

PC World carried a story a while back about an agreement between Sun and Microsoft that opened the door for The Big Evil MS to sue individual users for downloading and installing Open Office. There's good reason for Microsoft to be worried. If you haven't seen Open Office 2.0, then you might want to go take a look. Its interface is very improved over Version 1.0; and for most people, it will fit the bill every bit as well as Microsoft Office.

Open Source software has to be the thorn in Microsoft's side; and while it's not the only threat to MS, it is certainly the one that has their attention. The adoption of several mainly overseas governments of open source, Linux especially, has been the first of many kinks to come in Microsoft's armor. Open Office is, of course, the open source office tool of choice. Allowing people to download it for free—if it catches on—could put another rather large kink in their monetary rails.

This is an interesting time to be involved with computers. I am convinced we are in the middle of an era of change, one in which Microsoft's dominance will begin to crumble. Open Source and Mac gains will slowly eat away at MS's market, replacing its monopoly with the two things that will win out every day every time—low cost and/or innovation. MS largely strikes out on both counts.

Pages

Fry's put copies of iWork on sale this week. At $59.99 a copy, I couldn't resist snagging one and spending some time looking more closely at what it had to offer. I spent most of my time in Pages, and I am more impressed with it than I thought I would be.

As I said in an earlier blog, Pages is more of a desktop publisher than a word processor, though it will certainly perform both functions. One of the features that caught my eye was its export options. The program can export its products in .rtf, .html, .pdf, and several other formats. I tried out the .pdf export, and it seems to work well. I'm thinking about taking some of my blogs and putting them out in a .pdf newsletter...or coming up with some other subject for a newsletter folks might be interested in.

One of the coolest things about Pages is its ability to change formatting on the fly. That gives you the ability to play with several layouts and see how it looks before committing to serious production. It's not seamless. It only changes the document below the insertion point. Still, I found it useful for seeing whether 1 column, two column, etc., worked the best.

The downside to the program is that its templates are limited. It does not do labels, and so a Print Shop replacement it is not, at least for now. Of course, if you're using Avery labels, the best way to print those may be on the web anyway. If you have a specific publishing need, be sure to prowl around Apple's web pages before you buy the program to see if there are templates for the project you want to pursue. If not, you might want to be cautious.

It's obvious that if I need to produce something quickly and Pages has templates for it, I'll more than likely use it vice something a lot more complicated like Adobe's InDesign. I haven't tried building anything from a blank page. It's possible that I might actually like InDesign better for such a task. But for the average home user, Apple's Pages is a winner and worth the price of iWork by itself. If you can find it being sold at a discount somewhere, it's an even better value. Just be sure it's rigged for what you want to work on.

Monday, March 28, 2005

First Impressions of a G5 PowerMac

My dual 2 GHz G5 PowerMac arrived Friday about 1:30 p.m. via FedEx truck. I spent most of Friday and Saturday reconfiguring my computer set-up to accommodate it. It’s done now and up and working the way I want it, albeit not the way I originally planned. More on that later. But, for now, I thought I’d scribble down a few thoughts about the machine.

Mine is a “Revision A” PowerMac sporting dual 2GHz G5 CPU’s running under 512MB of DDR-3200 memory. The computer came with a single 160 GB hard drive (a Seagate ST3160023AS model) an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro video card (the 64MB model) and a Pioneer DVR-106 DVD +/- R/RW drive. I’ve expanded the memory up to 1.5 GB using a pair of 512MB memory sticks bought from Crucial.com, and I swapped out the DVD burner with a Pioneer DVR-107 that was in my dual G4 PowerMac. I’ve also added a Maxtor 250 GB Serial ATA hard drive with a 16MB cache. I plan on swapping out the current video card with an ATI 9800 Pro Special Edition card in the near future and slowly expanding the memory up to 4GB. But for now, it's good enough for me to get cooking!

One note, though. The description on the Apple website when I bought the machine said it came loaded with OS 10.2.7. It didn’t. It came with 10.3.5. Why do I care? Well, I had gone after a Rev A machine not only because it was $100 less refurbished than a Rev B but because I wanted it to be able to boot into Jaguar. It won’t. Apparently, when Apple refurbished the machine, they upgraded the bios so it won’t boot into anything less than its new OS. I decided not to send the machine back because of that, but Apple does need to be careful about what they’re advertising when it comes to a refurbished machine.

Overall, I am pleased with the G5. The fans knock a bit (a quiet knock!knock!knock!) just like my G4 PowerMac’s fan did before I replaced it. I also had a problem with the G5 recognizing the Ethernet after first working like a champ, and I eventually solved the problem by wiggling on the cable a bit vigorously. (I had already tried seating and unseating the cable, resetting the PRAM, and reloading OS 10.3.8 using the combo updater before I did that, not to mention checking out the cable by hooking up my other PowerMac to it. Thank God a good shake worked! The only option I had left was to call Apple Support!)

Now, I’m really ready to edit video. In the next few months, I’ll step up to the new video card and get a copy of Motion, though I’m waiting on both Tiger and the release of Motion 2.0 (at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in April, rumor has it.) And there will be no more Apple desktops bought by us for some time to come. I do have a PowerBook replacement scheduled for this year, but anything else would have to be driven by need or it won’t happen. I need money to spend on lights and cameras.

Why the G5 Kludge Didn’t Happen…

My initial plan with this machine had been to hook it up using a KVM switch with my G4 PowerMac, run them off the same keyboard and mouse, and to use the G4’s old hard disks to expand storage capacity in the G5. Well, I do have the computers hooked together using a KVM switch, but the G4 still has all its hard disks. The G5 has a total of 410GB of storage space, less than half of what I had hoped to load in it. Still, its current configuration is simpler, more elegant, and works for me. Now, if I can only get my money back on all the knick-knacks my original expansion plan had called for…

The G5’s internal expansion hinged around a hard disk expansion kit called “Swift Data 200” by transintl.com. I had planned on taking at least three if not all four of the 160 GB hard disks, mounting Parallel to Serial ATA converters on them, and then using them along with a Firmtek 4 port SATA PCI-X card and the Swift Data kit to mount them internally in the G5. Without getting into all the gory detail (something I will do when I review the Swift Data kit shortly), I will share that I realized I was going to have to do more jury rigging than I had planned on doing. That introduced too much complexity and even the specter of damage to my G5. I opted out of that set-up to maintain the machine’s simplicity and elegance, something you can’t appreciate until you see it.

If I can get my money back on the Swift Data kit, the Firmtek SATA PCI card, and the Parallel to Serial converters (the last two bought from other companies), I will not only have maintained the G5’s elegance but have saved myself some money. I will be looking at other external disk expansion options as time goes on and the need arises. For now, the 250GB Maxtor SATA hard drive I added will be enough. It’s still got plenty of room left even after loading the media from three video projects.

Saving the Day---Final Cut Pro’s “Reconnect Media” feature

Two of my video projects are videos of weddings (mine and a relative on my wife’s side) and the other is what will become a training film. They are all loaded into Final Cut Pro HD. With some trepidation, I decided to move the projects from the 4 hard disk dual G4 PowerMac to the two hard disk G5 I had just bought. I knew if I was unsuccessful, I would either have to finish the projects on the G4 or reload all the footage onto the G5. The latter would take a week of evenings.

Before making the attempt, I pulled out my Final Cut Pro User Guide and looked up the “Reconnect Media” feature. According to the manual, when you dump video in Final Cut Pro, it establishes a link between the browser window containing the list of your clips and the actual files. The “Reconnect Media” feature was supposed to allow you to re-link to your media if you moved the files to another location. If that worked as advertised, I could move the files from my G4 to the data hard disk (the second one) on my G5 and get full functionality back by simply telling FCP where the files were. To test that without destroying my ability to edit if it didn’t work, I copied the files from three G4 hard drives on to the G5 using external Firewire hard disks as “go betweens”. Copying to Firewire disks not only provided faster movement than going across my network but gave me backups so I only had to disturb the original files once.

Once I got all the media files moved to the G5, I launched Final Cut Pro and opened the associated projects one at a time. In each case, FCP gave me a window listing the clips with broken links and a chance to reconnect the media to them. When I told it wanted to, the program presented a dialog similar to an “Open File” dialog; and I simply directed it to the folder where the files were. Only the name for the file I was looking for was highlighted in the folder; the others were “greyed out”. While I had to step through the process for each clip with a broken link, locating all the files in one folder on the G5 made it relatively fast and painless. In a few minutes, I was ready to edit---now on the G5!

Friday, March 25, 2005

What Apple Doesn't See Can Hurt Them

In various postings around the ‘Net, one of the widely discussed problems has been discoloration showing up on many of the new Apple Cinema Displays. Often, this manifests itself as a pink tint. I was in the Apple Store in the Galleria this weekend and looking at various Macs while contemplating buying a new 12 inch PowerBook. One of their G5 PowerMacs was hooked up to one of the new 20 inch Cinema Displays, and it was exhibiting the pink tint! I almost started laughing. Obviously, no one on the staff in the store has noticed it. What a piece of advertising for Apple’s lack of quality control!

I’ve said multiple times in this blog that Apple’s low quality control was going to bite them. It sure seems to be doing just that when it comes to these new displays. Apple has certainly sent waves through the professional graphics community with this blunder. Frankly, I’m retiring one of my older 20 inch Apple Cinema Displays so I can keep it as a backup. I not only don’t want to spend the money on a new display if I can avoid it; I like the older 20 inch Cinema Displays better; and who wants to deal with the quite good odds of display issues?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Avid, Pinnacle, and the Race to Video

Until recently, I considered Pinnacle Studio as the top consumer video editing application in the Windows world. Based on the reviews I’ve read, I now believe that Adobe’s Premiere Elements may have stolen that title. But that may be short-lived. Avid, probably the premiere name in broadcast video editing, is moving to acquire Pinnacle.

To be honest, Adobe may not have much to worry about. Consolidating Pinnacle and Avid may indeed pose a threat to those companies engaged in preparing broadcast video products, at least on the Windows side of the house. From my reading, I never get the feeling that many TV studios are into Adobe Premiere, i.e, that it remains the realm of professionals who prepare videos for other venues, like the local wedding videographer. With the advent of non-linear editing on computers, Premiere has also made its way into the hands of serious hobbyists and prosumers. Pinnacle Studio, on the other hand, was primarily the tool of hobbyists and your everyday “I want to make a home movie” enthusiast. For years, I’ve thought it was the best of the bunch of consumer-level home video editing packages out there; but the last couple of versions have looked a bit long in the tooth. With the entrance into the consumer market of Adobe’s Premiere Elements, Pinnacle Studio’s place as PC World magazine’s and my personal favorite is gone.

Avid’s takeover of Pinnacle Studio is unlikely to change that. Unless Avid does some serious work to understand consumer interfaces and rework its products, the takeover may even help Premiere Elements take the same place in home computing that Photoshop Elements already has.

In the Mac world, Pinnacle has never been a player and neither has Avid. Avid tried to make a move in that direction a year or two back by releasing Avid Express, a “lite” version of or commercial video editor. But Avid products have always carried a reputation for having steep learning curves, and their late entry into a market Apple had already saturated with iMovie and Final Cut left them with no toehold to grab onto. iMovie 2 (and beyond) from the start was always as good as Pinnacle Studio, and iMovie’s integration with iDVD made it a Pinnacle Studio killer. I find Final Cut Pro’s interfaces great fun to work with, and it’s hard for me to imagine that Avid could beat Apple in that regard, even if they wanted to. Additionally, my impression of Avid has been that it was a lot like Quark, i.e., it didn’t seem very interested in responding to its customers’ complaints about its products. Taking over Pinnacle won’t help them there. Pinnacle was never known for its great customer service either.

I may not be giving Avid enough credit. Seems to me that when I first started working video (on the Windows platform), I might have been using an Avid product. And liked it. But whether Avid can jump in now and improve Pinnacle Studio to make it the top consumer-level video editing package for Windows remains to be seen. Of course, they may not care. It’s just as likely that Pinnacle Studio will disappear and that Pinnacle’s assets will all be geared toward the broadcast market.

G5…..Arriving (almost)!

My G5 PowerMac is still in transit from California. I’m making plans to get off work early on the planned delivery day so I can be home when it arrives and not spend days trying to pry it loose from my carrier. In the meantime, all the other little goodies I ordered to help me with this transition have been arriving. The IOGEAR ADC KVM switch (ordered from Provantage) I’m going to use to run the G5 and my G4 PowerMac with the same 20 inch Apple Cinema Display is here, as are the Parallel to Serial ATA converters from Other World Computing, and a Firmtek Seritek 1V4 Serial ATA PCI-X card from Firewire Depot. I’m awaiting the arrival of the Tranintl Swift Data 200 kit as I write this.

Once the G5 gets here, I intend to check it out right away. Not only will I check its condition and operation, but I intend to run Apple System Profiler to see what kind of DVD burner is in it. Then, I’ll run Software Update and play with various applications to look for any problems. If I see none, then I’ll load up the extra twin 512MB memory sticks I’ve bought and see how it does. At that point, if everything is honkey-dorey; I’ll shut the machine down, hook up the KVM switch, and test operation of both PowerMacs using it.

Assuming that works okay, I plan to boot the G5 using Firewire Target Disk Mode and then boot the G4. Using a Firewire cable, I’ll clone the G4’s boot drive onto the G5 and shut down both machines when I’m done. Then, I’ll boot up the G5 and check it out. If it did the job, I won’t have to reconfigure the G5 at all.

The next step is to disconnect the G4, pull out its hard disks, and mount the Parallel to Serial ATA converters on them. Once that’s done, I’ll mount one hard disk in the G5’s internal bay and then rig up the Swift Data kit and load the remaining 3 hard disks into it. Hopefully, I won’t blow the G5’s power supply with that load!

If that all goes well, I’ll put the G5 up, pull two 120GB hard drives I’ve got in a closet out, and mount the drives in my G4. I then will boot the G4 using an external LaCie 120GB Firewire hard drive and clone that drive onto the boot disk for the G4. The second hard drive in the G4 will be for data archiving and backup; and I’ll be able to add more hard disks to the G4 later if I need to. (I wouldn’t buy any more parallel ATA drives. Instead, I’d replace the converted parallel drives in the G5 with real SATA drives.)

Voila! My Creative Corner will be made! I’ll have a desk where I’ll sit down only to do creative work…either writing or video. And have a great time doing it!

It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Coming Soon – The G5 Kludge

In my last blog, I mentioned I had ordered a PowerMac G5. Finally. It’s not the newest; in fact, so I could run Jaguar if needed, it’s a Rev. A machine. Refurbished, so hopefully most of the Rev A bugs will be mitigated. The Rev A fit me better. Not only would it run Jaguar but it had an ATI video card, which I wanted more than the Nvidia Geforce card in current machines.

Of course, as soon as I bought the thing, I started looking at how I was going to transfer the video projects sitting on my dual 1.25 GHz G4 PowerMac over to the dual G5. Using Carbon Copy Cloner, cloning my current PowerMac’s Panther-carrying boot drive onto the G5 doesn't appear to be much of a problem. (Though my plan is to boot the machine using its native Jaguar hard disk, register the G5 with Apple, and check it out before doing that.) Originally, I had thought I might buy a 300GB Serial ATA (SATA) hard disk, mount it in the G5's second bay (to replace ths second of four hard disks I'm currently using), and hook the other two in via a Firewire 800/400 case that would not only mount the two hard drives but later put them together in a RAID 0 setup. But when I looked at the money I would have to spend, I started wondering if there was some other way I could move and use the hard disks. I also had two 120GB ATA 100 hard disks sitting in my closet. Was there some way I could use them all?

One of the PowerMac G5’s design shortcomings is its lack of room for extra internal hard disks. Two companies offer “third-party” solutions to this problem. Transintl has its “Swift Data 200” and Wiebe TECH has its “G5 Jam”. I decided to purchase the “Swift Data 200” from Transintl because of its lower cost. It starts at $259, though that price is deceptive because it doesn’t account for everything you need if you’re starting from scratch. It assumes you’ve got a controller for the extra 3 hard disks you can mount, a fact I realized after I had placed my order. Transintl’s website is not customer friendly; once you place an order, there is no way to electronically cancel it; you must call them on the phone. If it’s late at night when you realize you’ve made a mistake, then you just screwed the pooch. The real “in the door” cost is $339, and that price includes a Firmtek PCI controller card. Rather than spending the next day correcting the order, I bought off on a little extra expense and ordered the Firmtek card from somewhere else.

Since the Swift Data add-on would let me mount 3 hard disks in it, I now had enough room to mount all the hard disks that are currently in my PowerMac G4. Of course, the big problem is that the hard disks in the G4 use an ATA interface and the G5 uses SATA. But I realized I could solve that problem by using ATA to SATA converters, which I ordered from Other World Computing for $25 each. I could have gotten them cheaper elsewhere, but these were guaranteed to be Mac compatible.

My plan now is to clone the G4 PowerMac’s boot drive onto the G5’s and use the Serial to ATA converters to move the ATA hard disks over to the G5. If this works, my G5 will sport 900GB of hard disk space, including the boot drive. There are a lot of questions, though, about how well such a kludged setup will work. Introducing the Serial to ATA converters adds five extra components that can cause incompatibilies or produce errors. I’ll clone the boot dive, check the machine out, and then add one of the converted ATA drives to the G5’s internal bay. If it won’t fit, I’ll buy a 160GB SATA drive for that bay and then try using the others in the Swift Data bay. The worse case scenario would be that I’d have to replace all the Ultra ATA drives with Serial ATA drives, which would cost a pretty penny but at least be a “one time” expense.

The other two 120GB hard dives that have been sitting around are going into my dual 1.25 G4 PowerMac. I’ll clone a Jaguar drive I’m already running onto one of them ans use it as the boot drive and probably use the second 120GB drive as a data backup drive. I may use the machine as a back-up video editor, though I would need to get a copy of Final Cut Express to do that. But my major and overriding use of this machine will be to use it exclusively for my creative writing. In time, I may decide that it’s overkill and that I’m not using my G5 PowerMac enough to make a separate machine for writing necessary. In that case, I’ll boot it from an external Firewire hard disk loaded with Jaguar and use it exclusively for writing. For now, I’m going to keep the two PowerMacs largely separate. “Largely” means I’m going to use an IOGEAR ADC KVM switch to run them both with the same 20 inch Apple Cinema Display, the same Apple keyboard, and the same Logitech MX510 mouse.

Obviously, how all this works and evolves will be the subject of this blog, as well as the other things I learn while running this G5. This will be the last desktop purchase on the Mac side of the house I will be making for the next few years and may be the last PowerMac upgrade I do for many, depending upon how much video work I get into. Honestly, I’d like to use my purchasing power for another video camera and some good lights rather than any more computers, though I will upgrade one notebook this year also.

(Of course, if I win the lotto, all bets are off!) I need to move more into the creative work these machines were bought to support, instead of them being an end unto themselves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Sometimes Apple and Microsoft aren’t that far apart…

…when it comes to behavior, that is. Specifically, I’m referring to the behaviors that both companies exhibit to force customers to upgrade.

Whenever Microsoft comes out with a new operating system (hereafter called the OS), it forces retailers to stop selling its older products. That means that when your old operating system craters—and it’s Windows so it will—you have no choice but to buy the newer OS. In many cases, that also means you wind up buying hardware to upgrade your machine. Forced obsolescence is the name of the game.

Apple doesn’t follow that lead when it comes to software but does do the same thing when it comes to firmware. Firmware controls the booting and operating of your Mac, and Apple routinely changes the firmware in the Macs being built at any moment to match them up with the current Apple OS. That’s fine, but this is the reason why Macs often will not boot up on Apple operating systems older than they are.

Booting into an older OS is generally not a problem in the PC world. If I want to run DOS 6.2 on my Athlon XP 2800+, I can do it. I do run Windows 98SE in a dual boot configuration with Windows XP on my PC.

With a Mac, I can run OS 9.2 and OS X on the same machine (and I really like the way that works), but I cannot run an earlier version of OS 10 than the Mac was born with because the machine’s firmware will not permit it. I could see this if the feature sets of any particular Mac were so different that an older OS needed to be prevented from running, but this does not appear to be the case. For instance, the technologies in my 1 GHz G4 PowerBook are not radically different than those in my wife’s G3 700 iBook; yet, my PowerBook will not boot up on a Jaguar (OS 10.2) retail CD while my wife’s iBook will.

In a case like the iMac G5 where software is controlling the fan or some other feature of the model, I can understand changing the firmware to restrict booting to OS 10.3 or later. Of course, the Rev A PowerMac G5’s, which also use software to control the fans, boot into OS 10.2.7. That makes me wonder if an iMac G5 could run Jaguar as well.

Why would I want to? Because I have some software that wasn’t updated for Panther and because I simply like Jaguar’s look and feel more. The former is important from a functionality standpoint, the latter from a creative standpoint. Creativity is very important to me; and I’m going to do everything I can to nurture it. Panther and Tiger, for all their feature sets, have a darker tone I don’t find as inspiring. Even after I upgrade most of my machines to Tiger, I will have a copy of Jaguar sitting around, just to do creative writing on.

I finally ordered a 2 GHz dual processor G5 PowerMac, but I ordered a refurbished Revision A model, not only to save money but to ensure I got one that could boot into Jaguar. I also will be keeping my dual 1.25 GHz G4 PowerMac and loading up a hard disk with Jaguar and another either with Panther or Tiger, more than likely the latter. I’ll be doing my creative writing on my PowerMac using Jaguar while using my iMac G5 running Tiger to do my other writing and chores, including the work associated with maintaining this website.

It’s ridiculous I have to go to this much trouble just to be able to run 10.2.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Firefox for the G5-The Need for Speed

While surfing over at Accelerate Your Mac.com, I noticed a link to a version of the new Firefox 1.0.1 the writer claimed was optimized for the G5. I downloaded the browser and have tried it, and I’m here to tell ya that it is the fastest browser I have used on my G5 iMac. Pages load damn near instantaneously using my cable Internet connection. Of course, the speed of my Internet connection is a factor; it tested out (using the Road Runner Speed test this morning (5:28 a.m.) at an unbelievable 4683 kbps! But before you claim that it’s the cable speed that is the sole arbiter, I conducted subjective page loading tests using the optimized version of Firefox and the latest version of Safari; and the G5 version of Firefox is the clear winner. I’ve never seen pages load so fast!

Some readers have reported some crashes with this browser, but mine has been extremely stable. For the moment, I’ve changed my Preferences to make it the default browser and have moved it higher on the Dock, my personal way of ensuring it gets the most attention.

To read more about this or get your own copy, go here: http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/feedback/firefox_G5_builds.html#updates