The Computer Blog

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Mac and Aircraft GPS’s—Why Apple's Move to Intel Will Help

One of the downsides to owning mostly Macs running OS X is that most aircraft GPS support is for Windows only. I have a Bendix/King KLN-89 panel mounted GPS in my airplane and a handheld Lowrance AirMap 100 GPS, both of which can be updated by a PC with a RS232 serial port. That means I must bring both units home if I want to update them using downloaded files from the manufacturer’s websites. That’s not a problem with the Lowrance handheld but means I have to jerk the KLN-89 out of the panel. That’s a hassle.

Many pilots like to update their panel-mounted GPS at the airplane by using a notebook to perform the file transfers. Since I own a PowerBook, I’d have to attempt this using a USB to Serial port adapter running under Virtual PC and Windows XP. While I haven’t tried it, it is not a combination I consider likely to succeed. Serial port connections under Windows are finicky enough without adding the extra headroom. So, I have been considering buying a Windows powered notebook to allow me to use downloads to update my GPS and to run an flight planning application from Aircraft Owner’s and Pilot’s Association when I’m on the fly. However, it makes more sense to just sit and wait for Apple to switch to Intel CPU’s and then buy a new PowerBook, one I can dual boot into Windows XP and run all that stuff.

Admittedly, updating the GPS at home is more practical and likely than using a notebook to do it on the road; so, that alone is not a huge argument for buying a Windows based notebook. But there are also other things I could do with a Windows powered notebook, like run Anywhere Map’s GPS driven software or even hook in an XM satellite receiver to get real-time weather information. For the cost of all that, I could also buy a Garmin 396 handheld GPS that does it all; but Garmin also only supports Windows based updates. One or way or another, this world leans, rightly or wrongly, toward a Windows based PC.

Now, my KLN-89 is currently being updated via a data card that needs only to be inserted to update my GPS’s database. The reason I’m still looking at using downloads to do the same thing is cost; the data card costs twice as much as an Internet download and update I install myself.

Acer AL1732b 17 inch LCD Monitor

A few weeks back, I was helping a non-profit group upgrade their office computers. Both myself and another volunteer recommended that the office upgrade their monitors from the old, out of focus, 17 inch glass CRT monitors to new 17 inch LCD monitors. Our challenge was to find an LCD that didn’t break the budget, had good specs, and were easy on the eyes.

We did our shopping at MicroCenter here in Houston and wound up buying a couple of AMD 64 powered Compaq systems (Okay, I know what you’re going to say about buying a Compaq system. I’ll address that later). As I prowled through the LCD’s the store had on display, I was rather impressed by one of the 17 inch LCD’s they had on sale. It was an Acer AL1732b. Its colors were very bright, the picture looked razor sharp, and it was on sale for $239. The monitor had provisions for both VGA and DVI inputs and also came with integrated speakers that were not great but adequate. The black color of the monitor’s case and its styling gave off an aura of class and fit with the black cases of the Compaq systems we were buying. So, we bought two of them.

Set up was easy, and the monitor’s controls are on its side. The power and function buttons are hidden behind the monitor’s black and silver-lined edges and are within easy reach. I was so impressed with the monitor I decided to buy one of them on my way home. Its brightness, crispness, and esthetics would match my black XP PC better than the beige Samsung 760v analog LCD I had.

I’ve been using the Acer for several weeks now and am very happy with it. It is definitely brighter than the Samsung it replaced and a bit sharper, though overall picture quality is not significantly better. I’m using the DVI input with a Radeon 9550 AGP video card and have noticed no motion artifacts when running games or movies. My only gripe with the monitor is that black text on a white background appears green. Admittedly, I have not spent anytime trying to adjust that out, instead accepting the monitor’s automatic settings. I’m running the monitor under XP and Win 98SE using drivers downloaded from the Acer website.

I’m definitely happy with monitor. If you’re in the market for a new 17 inch LCD, give the Acer a look. But be sure to shop around. I’ve seen prices scattered all over the scale. I wouldn’t pay any more for this monitor than I did.

What's Going On

I know I don’t help myself keep any kind of a readership when I don’t update this thing in a while, but the reality is I update this on my own time, at my own expense, and wish I could retire and do something in here every day. But, I keep buying things, and that necessitates I keep working.

My wife and I recently bought an airplane, and it has taken about all my money and time. I’m also working the shuttle mission that’s “in the air”, and my schedule is both full and shifting. So, finding time to write is a hard thing, even though it is psychologically and emotionally a necessity for me.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Too Little Too Late

We live on the south side of Houston; and Comp USA was the only dedicated computer store close to us. When I needed to go somewhere else, I drove up to the Apple store or MicroCenter both located on the west side of town in the Galleria area) or traveled to the north side of town to the Fry’s Electronics store located just off I-45. Just before Christmas of last year, Fry’s opened one of their big megastores just south of us and along I-45. It’s only a couple of miles south of the CompUSA store. Getting to either takes about the same amount of time and effort.

Now, I’ve never really thought much of CompUSA. Their return policies, like everything else about the store, have not been customer friendly. Help is never around when you need it, and crawls all over you when you don’t. And while you can get a good deal every now and then if you watch their ads, prices are generally average. The Mac section has always sucked, with prices lagging seriously behind Apple’s price cuts and old demo machines that always seem to be missing pieces or just not working on the shelves. But back to the return policies, for that’s where this story lies.

My wife bought my iPod Photo from there. When she did, the salesman told her that the iPod could be returned within 21 days for a full refund, even if it was opened. Not believing what she was hearing, she asked about it again; and the salesman reiterated the 21 day return policy with no holds barred. We were used to the 14 -30 day (depending upon what you bought), 15% restocking fee opened or not policy. It’s not clear to me if the store has had a forced change of heart or if the policy applied just to the iPod. Even if it did apply across the board, it really is too little too late.

I told my wife that when Fry’s opened, they would kick the stuffing out of CompUSA. The only time the local CompUSA store has any appreciable traffic in it anymore is when they hold some kind of special sale, the kind where they close the store and give really great deals away for only a few hours. Other than that, when I go inside the store anymore, there are more salesmen than customers.

As you can probably tell, I have no loyalty toward CompUSA. The store never seemed to be customer oriented and always possessed a hint of arrogance. I can contrast that with my feelings about MicroCenter whom I have sometimes gone out of my way to purchase from. Or with a local Chinese food restaurant named China Square that my wife and I patronize not only because the food is good and the prices are reasonable but because we have built an almost personal relationship with the family who runs the place. We go there despite the bigger Asian food restaurant with more parking just down the road.

CompUSA never seemed to worry about keeping its customer base, and now it may finally have caught up to them, at least in this one store.

iPod Photo - First Impressions

My birthday was this weekend, and my wife decided to give me an iPod Photo. She found a 30 GB model on sale at CompUSA for $329. It’s one of the “older” generation models; Apple’s new models only come in a 20GB and 60 GB offering. There’s no major difference in the technology.

The color screen is the thing! I love color displays in my electronic gadgets; and though functionally it adds nothing to my ability to listen to music, it’s still nice to have a color menu to pick from. The downside to the color display (when not using it for photos) is, of course, that it eats more battery. I don’t have a feel yet for how much battery life this gadget has; but I didn’t feel my same generation monochromed screen iPod did real well. So, the court is out on that aspect.

I now have all my music and all my photos loaded on the little thing. The 2 inch screen yields a good resolution picture, if a bit small. You actually can see the tiny thumbnail pictures it generates when viewing your library to tell what is what. Getting all the photos loaded on board was a snap. The whole process is managed within iTunes. (I was running version 4.9.) I think it loaded my songs first, then it “optimized” everything in my iPhoto library for loading, and then it loaded them up. It all worked seamlessly. iTunes imported all the photos in the iPhoto library and imported all my albums as well. You can’t change or start an album on the iPod itself; but if you do that on your desktop (or wherever it is you plug your iPod into), then it will synch it up and capture it the next time you plug it in.

Like all iPods, you can only perform the automatic synchronization on one Mac. The others must be set (iTunes/Preferences) for manual song management; otherwise, you not only run the risk of inadvertently wiping out the songs on your iPod and replacing them with the songs on the machine you’re currently plugged into, but you won’t even be able to access your songs while the iPod is plugged in.

Out in the wooly wilderness of the Internet, I had encountered some claims that the sound of the iPod Photo’s wasn’t as good as that from the monochrome models. To do a very subjective and informal test of that, I listened to “Love Me Do” from the Beatles, and the “Mars” selection from Holst’s “The Planets”. I could detect no real difference in sound quality between the two. Admittedly, I don’t have the best ears; I will admit to some high-frequency hearing loss and a touch of tinnitus from being around too many airplane and car engines. My wife listened to “Jupiter” from “The Planets” on my iPod Photo, and she offered up no comments about differences. I’m open to hearing other listener’s experiences, especially if they can compare between the monochrome and color screen models; but, for my buck, there’s no concern about getting a lesser quality machine by buying an iPod Photo, in general. I’ll qualify that by saying I have not experience with the new models Apple just released. It would be strange but not unheard of for Apple to release a new product with less quality than an older one. The new Cinema Displays and iMac LCD screens are an example; they are very nice but still of lesser clarity than the older ADC LCD models they replaced.
This new device got me thinking again about the contention of turning your mobile phone into a “do everything” device, and I am more convinced than ever that it is not a philosophy I buy into. I would like an iPod that put all my multimedia functionality in one place, i.e., photos, music, and video on one device. It would be really cool to pull out my iPod and watch a movie on it during an airline flight. That puts all my fun one device, and all my business on another. I’ll reserve my contact info, e-mail, web-surfing, and voicemail for my phone. I like being able to turn the business end off when I want to and not having to convince a steward or stewardess I really have the phone turned off. Eventually, with the advent of movies streaming across my wireless phone on demand, I might change my mind about that…assuming the airlines will allow me to receive them.

One of this iPod’s differences that is an obvious result of Apple’s courting more Windows’ users is that the iPod only comes with a USB 2.0 adapter for hooking it into your Mac or PC. Having worked with both Firewire and USB 2.0 for several years, I vastly prefer Firewire. Transfer rates have always seemed higher than those with USB 2.0 and the interface has always been a lot less problematic. And since Macs have for years been equipped with Firewire interfaces, it is a slap in the face to current Mac owners. If you want a Firewire connector to use with your Mac, you can still get one for $19.99; but you can’t use it to hook into the iPod’s included power adapter. It comes with a USB 2.0 plug. This is a small gripe, admittedly, and it has no direct impact on my ability to use the device; but I still found it irritating nonetheless. Older Mac owners will find it more irritating than I did. We can probably expect more of the same out of Apple in the future.

Still, I really like my iPod Photo; and I really appreciate my wife getting it for me. Now, if I could only make up my mind about that Dell Axim…