The Computer Blog

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hands-on with a new Intel iMac

My wife and I drove up to the Apple Store last night to pick up an iSight and to get some “hands-on” time with the new Intel-powered Core Duo iMac. I was fairly impressed with the machine. I looked at the 2.0 GHz Core Duo 20” iMac.

The machine I looked at in the Apple Store was sporting 1 GB of RAM. I checked several other 20 inch machines there, and they were all similarly configured. Keep in mind that the stock configuration only has half that much RAM; so, if you don’t upgrade it, you’ll see performance a bit worse than what I experienced.

The display is bright and clear. The machine comes with an Apple Mighty Mouse I used to conduct my tests. iPhoto, iMovie, and Garage Band launched immediately when commanded, springing to life on the screen. General responsiveness did seem a bit faster than my 2.0 GHz G5. Microsoft Office 2004, running under Rosetta, ran equally as fast as it does on my G5 iMac. I opened Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents with no problems. iPhoto scrolling was easy and fast, though the catalog contained only 355 photos a far cry short of the almost 5000 I have at home. I had seen one post on a Mac-related website in which the poster claimed his Intel iMac performance with iPhoto seemed equal to that of his Quad G5. I played around with a Quad G5 PowerMac in the store and can tell you that he boast seemed to be true. However, the tasks I performed in iPhoto were simple; I did not perform any kind of rendering that would have put the true power of the machines to the test.

Photo Booth performed seamlessly with the machine’s built-in iSight. Effects were applied and rendered effortlessly.

I also ran a copy of FileMaker 8, opening a sample database. Performance seemed to be good; however, the database seemed to contain only templates, so the CPU was not hauling much data around.

The one noticeable absense on every iMac I looked at was Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Every G5 iMac I’ve ever looked at in the Apple store had one of the two programs loaded. They’re avoiding putting them on the Intel iMac for good reason. Once Adobe releases Universal Binaries for its Photoshop applications, I’m sure the Intel iMac will shine. But for now, the best description of Photoshop’s performance on an Intel iMac (as revealed by an Ars Technica review) comes from Bill Murray’s line in GHOSTBUSTERS when Dana is transformed into a monster: “Okay, she’s a dog!”

That said, the speed of the new machines is evident, making the purchase of an Intel iMac a computer-drug-induced affair. It would be easy for me to succumb. And easy for me to con my wife into letting me. It’s the specter of dealing with software and peripherals that don’t “just work” that holds me back, not to mention a bigger-than-desired balance on my credit cards. MacKiev Software hasn’t helped me with my resolve to resist; tonight, they released Universal Binaries for Print Shop 2.02. I’ve already downloaded the software and it’s ready to go. Now, if only Microsoft (Office) and Adobe (Photoshop and Illustrator) would do the same.

By the way, if you’re looking at buying one of these, be sure to put aside some bucks for extra RAM. Not only does OS X by itself need it, but Rosetta reportedly uses large amounts of RAM to run. I recommend no less than a 1GB total.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Not Sure I Want to Move

I am hearing a lot of favorable things about the Core Duo iMac from a performance standpoint but it’s also obvious a lot of folks did not think their purchase through and blindly took the word and look of various Apple marketing mechanisms. Now they’re finding out that mouse drivers, scanners, some printers, and software don’t work. In some cases, there are workarounds or Universal Binary Versions will be coming. But what do you do for those applications that you know won’t be updated?

For instance, I have a copy of Adobe’s Live Motion 2 I’d like to learn and use. That product has been dropped from the Adobe line, so there isn’t going to be any Universal Binary update. (In fact, there isn’t going to be a Universal Binary update of any of Adobe’s products; we’re going to have to buy the next versions to get them.)

Think about it. If I stay where I am (with my 2.0 GHz G5 iMac) I don’t have to upgrade any software and I can take my time learning and using the software I have. Not to mention the peripherals I have. But if I move to an Intel iMac, then every piece of software I own except for the Apple applications I routinely update will have to be run under Rosetta or replaced. Live Motion under Rosetta is no more likely to run well than Photoshop CS2 does.

Secondly, there’s this whole thing about running Windows on a Mac that is somewhat surprisingly now problematic. Virtual PC does not currently run on an Intel Mac, and I do have a need to run some Windows applications on my PowerBook when traveling. I’m one of those who was hoping to dual-boot Windows and OS X on the new machines; and at least for the moment, that’s not something easily done. If I stay with PowerPC, then I can at least run Windows under Virtual PC. It’s not fast, but it does get the job done.

I’d love to order a MacBook Pro. But I have a moral objection to paying $2000 for any notebook, and there’s no way the machine can do what I need it to anyway if I can’t dual boot it. I’ve thought a lot about buying a refurbished 15 inch PowerBook G4 and giving my 12 inch to my wife, but I don’t want to go there either because of the presence of the new Intel powered machines. So, the Intel thing has created a form of buyer’s paralysis; and I doubt if I’m the only person suffering from that disease. A long desired purchase of Filemaker Pro is also being delayed because of the whole G5/Intel dilemma. The disease is spreading.

I’ve followed Apple through too many transitions in the short time I’ve been an Apple user (since 2001). Combine that with similar transitions I performed in the PC world when moving from Windows 95 to 98 to XP, and you can hopefully understand why I’m tired of it all. The move to Intel for Apple will more than likely be a good thing overall. But it’s a move I find myself too tired both emotionally and financially to be willing to make. The Apple motto for some time has been “It just works”; and I’m at a point where that’s exactly what I want my computer systems to do.

Use Caution when Benchmarking the Intel Mac

Because so many people on the Mac platform use Photoshop, some folks in various Mac related forums have been using Photoshop CS or CS2 to benchmark the machines’ performance under Rosetta. That’s entirely appropriate. It demonstrates what user performance today will be like and establishes a foundation from which to later measure gains in native application performance. What’s not appropriate, however, is to pick just one test of Photoshop prowess and then bandy that about as a measure of your Intel Mac’s performance. This is exactly what’s happened in one forum I won’t call by name but uses Photoshop’s Radial Blur to perform a test that turns out to be favorable to the Intel iMac. But along came a reviewer at ARS Technica who performed a bevy of Photoshop tests, and his results painted an entirely different picture. He showed that using Photoshop under Rosetta the Intel iMac was generally much slower than its G5 counterpart with several exceptions, and one of those was radial blur performance.

If you’re thinking about buying an Intel iMac, do. But if you’re basing that decision on benchmarks, then make sure you’re finding everyone you can before you make that decision. The performance picture actually looks pretty good for the most part, but there are pitfalls in moving to the Intel iMac, and software performance under Rosetta is one of them. Be sure you know how the packages you most need to use work to your satisfaction (as opposed to “just working”), and that the information you’re using to tell you that comes from more than one source.

Friday, January 20, 2006

End of an Era? No More Pro-Sumer?

When I look at Apple’s forced bundling of its professional video applications and Adobe’s plans to put out separately equipped versions of Photoshop, I have to think that the current era of professionally equipped amateurs in both the video and graphics arts fields may be coming to an end.

This week, Apple let it be known that its professional video editing applications, i.e., Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Motion, and DVD Studio Pro, would no longer be separately available. Instead, if you want those packages, you’ll have to buy them as Final Cut Studio, a package currently retailing for $1299.

Adobe also pushes its products out the door as a Creative Suite. The cheapest version of the suite costs $899 (the Standard Version), and the Premium version costs $1199. Today, these versions are not differentiated by features within any particular program but by the different programs included with each bundle. Think Secret reported last year that the next version of Creative Suite (CS3) may not only be differentiated by the programs included in each bundle but that some end Photoshop functions may only be included in the Premium package.

All this points to one thing. Both companies are moving in a direction that discourages the pro-sumer, the hobbyist or business hopeful that today can afford to buy into these packages. One of the great things about computers has been how it has opened the doors of creative fields to more people. But these movements, especially when individual software packages are arbitrarily made not available, are pushing the market in the other direction. Soon, only businesses will be able to afford this exorbitant pricing. The pro-sumer will go the way of the do-do bird. What those of us who fit that category may find is that even though computer technology itself is advancing, our capabilities may begin shrinking in the name of ever-increasing profits.

Start combining that with the activation technologies that are becoming the rage, and these folks make Scrooge look like a kid on a playground.

Admittedly, the sting for us Final Cut Pro users isn’t that terribly bad if Apple’s web pages are telling the truth. They are promising a Universal Binary version of Final Cut Studio for $199 for those of us who own Final Cut Pro HD, Soundtrack Pro, Motion, or DVD Studio. (I own all of them.) But I’ve also read that there is a lot of confusion even within Apple’s ranks, and some Apple Store personnel are saying that the upgrade price will only be for Final Cut Pro 5. Better not be. If it is, Apple can take their Intel powered PowerMacs and shove them up every dark crevice they’ve got. (I just paid $299 for Motion and $99 for the Soundtrack Pro upgrade. I’ll be dammed if I’m going to finance that again!) If they hold to their word and send me a Universal Binary version of FCP Studio at that price, then they’ve opened the door to me buying an Intel powered PowerMac later on.

For the little guy, having access to this level of programming has opened new worlds. Part of that was that I could buy the programs one at a time, spreading out the cash investment and making it more manageable. It’s obvious that I’m not going to have that option anymore. Neither will my college age nephew, a budding filmmaker. I guess he’ll have to make do with iMovie longer than he had hoped.

Of course, the good news is that many of these applications have matured to the point that they are close to “pro” applications. An Indy film has already been made using iMovie, and Photoshop Elements can process RAW files and has the Photoshop features most people use. But I still think we’re looking at the end of an era, and that one that’s coming is going to force a differentiation between the professionals, the consumer, and their in-betweens, i.e., the pro-sumer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Switching to a MacIntel? Consider…

Like a lot folks, I’ve been scouring the Net for benchmark results and general comments concerning the new Intel-based iMacs shipping from Apple. At some point, I know I’ll buy one. But the big question is when. That’s what I’m trying to answer.

Today, ARS Technica hosted a review. They have the best set of benchmarks anyone has yet produced, and the author used Photoshop CS for many of his benchmarking tests. He also used Cinebench. His reasoning ran along the same lines as mine when I wanted to perform the same tests, i.e., they would give one an idea of how well the big applications would run under Rosetta. It will be some time before Adobe releases universal binaries for the applications in its Creative Suites. (As I mentioned in a previous blog, I believe the market will not see Adobe applications sporting Universal Binaries until they release the next version of Creative Suite.) The test results showed that the Intel iMac sometimes performed as well as the G5 iMac but sometimes did much worse. Cinebench was also much slower on the Intel Mac than the G5 iMac. These results are what I expected and will remain this way until native code for the Intel based applications are released.

What makes this subject a bit difficult is that some Photoshop tests show that the Intel iMac is faster. That’s why it’s important to look at a series of different tests even when using one application to sort out the entire story. Once applications are ported over for them, the Intel iMacs can’t help but be faster than the current G5 iMacs just because they have two processors (in a single dye, yes, but two processors). But that is as much as a year away. In the interim, current Intel iMac users have to be content running what they have under Rosetta. So, it’s fair to measure how current applications perform under that technology.

Moreover, I’ve only seen one mention of the fact that current mouse and scanner drivers can be expected to break under Mac OS X for Intel. Worse, manufacturers have little incentive to write new drivers for older peripherals, meaning that your current mouse or scanner might have to be replaced to work with the new operating system. Most mice with right, left, and center (or scroll) buttons have native support in OS X as do many printers. Scanners are another story. I’d be very surprised to find my Epson Perfection 1660 would work at all with an Intel-based Mac. That’s a very strong reason to wait and see what the peripheral makers do before committing to this platform (at least with a desktop or a notebook one uses as a primary machine). While GIMP-PRINT can provide open source printer drivers for OS X, I haven’t found an equivalent for scanners and don’t think one would have been ported to Mac OS X Intel this early even if it did exist.

One buyer lamented that the new machines used SO-DIMM memory modules and noted they are more expensive than standard desktop modules. The Dual Core CPU being used in the iMac is a notebook CPU shoehorned into a desktop case; hence, the need for notebook (SO-DIMM) memory. And, as you may know, it’s the only thing you can replace. Even cracking the case on this new iMac is harder than the previous versions. So, if anything goes wrong with it, taking it to a certified Apple repair station or technician is what you must do.

None of these are absolute reasons not to buy one of the new machines. However, a careful assessment of one’s computing needs and the realities of where software development is for this new class of machines is necessary to prevent an immediate case of buyer’s remorse. And don’t take my word for any of this. Go surf the ‘Net yourself and find out what people with hands-on time with the computers are saying. Just don’t blindly accept Apple’s hype. That most certainly will need to trouble.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Universal Adobe CS3

While Adobe was on stage with Steve Jobs and Apple last year, this year they were notably absent. Speculation is that it has to do with Apple’s release of Aperture, something Adobe has moved to counter by posting the Lighthouse beta online and asking for feedback.

More important to me is the fact that Adobe is saying nothing about when they’re going to be releasing Universal Binaries for their current line of professional applications. I believe we will not see Universal Binaries until Adobe releases its next version of its Creative Suite. I am naming that CS3, and I don’t have a clue whether that’s what Adobe is really doing.

I’d be happy if they would release CS2 packages with Universal Binaries. Indeed, even though I just coughed up approximately $150 each for upgrades to two of my CS applications to CS2, I’d do it again to get CS2 with Universal Binaries. I have a narrow reason for saying that. I’m trying to learn CS2 versions fully and don’t want to have to start over with CS3 or buy CS3 books. I’d really like to lock my Adobe software at CS2 versions and use them until they won’t do what I need and a newer version will. But, for Adobe, releasing CS2 versions makes little business sense. Developers that could be working on CS3 would be pulled off to work on a CS2 version that has already been released and marketed and probably bought. Better to put those resources to work on CS3. That moves customers to the newer package and helps standardize development for a while.

My bet is that we’re a year away from seeing Adobe applications released with Universal Binaries. I hope I’m wrong. While my finances would like the time to recover, that also means I’m at least a year away from buying a MacIntel, and perhaps even two.

Dual-Boot Win XP on a MacIntel? – Not So Fast!

I was hoping to get a blog up about this before it broke as major news, but having a normal day job let several web-based news sources beat me to the punch. The best I can do is hope you haven’t heard that we will not be able to dual boot Mac OS X and Windows XP on a MacIntel. The new MacIntels use an Intel-based and new hardware code to interface with the operating system called Extensible Firmware Interface or EFI. EFI takes the place of the BIOS (Built-In Operating System) in a PC and Open Firmware in earlier Macs. Windows XP is built to run on a BIOS, not EFI.

That’s not to say that someone won’t build a translator of some sort, but I suspect that what’s needed is something along the same lines as putting a Apple ROM chip on a card in your PC like some folks did to run software emulators that ran the Mac OS under Windows. I don’t know one could ever say that some kind of software hack isn’t possible to achieve the same thing, but I feel it’s unlikely.

Indeed, when Apple talked about not letting folks run Mac OS X on a PC, this was probably part of the overall strategy for locking them out. While it is certain that future PC’s will use EFI as the MacIntels now do, all the current and older PC’s out there are stuck with BIOS. So, in addition to looking for some telltale Apple hardware, the operating system wouldn’t run because it couldn’t interface with the hardware at all. The execs could claim they didn’t do anything to prevent it while knowing that until new hardware hits the streets, it’s not really a concern anyway.

I’ll sit back and see if anyone figures out some way around this problem and generates some means of easily booting Windows XP on a MacIntel machine. For the moment, though, I have lost any desire to move to a MacIntel at all.

It’s kind of funny, actually, that if I want to dual boot Windows and Mac OS X on a new MacIntel notebook I’ll need to buy Windows Vista, something I had no plans to do. Worse, I’d have to buy two copies if I wanted to also get rid of my PC but still run Windows on a desktop when I needed it. It’s a bit hilarious that with Apple’s move to Intel, both Microsoft and Apple win and the PC manufacturers lose.

Some commentary suggests that running Windows on Mac OS X (Intel) under a translator (vice an emulator since the hardware is capable of running Windows) will run Windows under OS X at almost native speeds. I agree that would be a better deal; and, further, I bet that’s the direction Microsoft will be moving with Virtual PC. Certainly, the Open Source community and perhaps several software companies will come up with such tools. I’m looking at that now as a better and more desirable strategy for the day when I do move to a MacIntel. (Of course, with some Windows notebooks down in the $500 range, I’m thinking more and more about buying a notebook I only use to fly with. I’ve got copies of Office I can run on it, not to mention most Adobe applications. I really love OS X, though, and if I could run Windows under it faster than it does now using Virtual PC, I’d be happy.)

For now, though, I’m holding tight. I’m not going to buy anything; and it’s looking more and more like it may be a year or more before I really move. That’s also based on what I know now. A blog connected to Wired magazine with ties to an Apple insider hinted that there are even cooler MacIntel products in the wings, products that were supposed to have been ready for MacWorld 2006 but didn’t make it. That does explain Jobs’ dwelling on iLife06, something he could have easily covered in half the time. I think I’ll just wait and see.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Big Switch – First Reactions to the Jobs Keynote and MacIntels

As everyone knows by now, Apple released the first of its Intel-bearing Macs. But much of the Mac community was caught by surprise by Apple’s choice of the iMac as the first machine to use those processors. Apple also opened up the option to purchase their first Intel powered notebook named the MacBook Pro.

The new iMac is almost the same as its predecessor except it does have a slightly faster video card. The coolest thing about the machine is it houses a dual core Intel processor, making it the fastest iMac ever (when running native applications ported to it). Apple is claiming the machine is two to three times faster than the current iMac. However, you have to read the fine print to understand that the Spec benchmarks Apple published are not real but estimated benchmarks, something that makes Apple’s speed claims highly suspect. I’ve been dealing with the Apple benchmark issue ever since I became an Apple user about four and a half years ago; and if there’s been one consistent thing throughout that experience, it’s been that Apple always overstates their case, sometimes rather famously. My personal belief is that the new iMac will prove to be twice as fast as the current iMac when it runs Intel OS X native applications. (I think that, also despite earlier Apple claims, megahertz does matter and that a single Intel 2.0 GHz CPU will prove to be on equal footing with a 2.0 GHz G5 CPU.) But for those applications that have not been ported and are highly dependent on Altivec, they will at best run as well as they do on a G5 though some will be slower. I watched Jobs’ demo of Photoshop with Rosetta pretty closely last night (via the Apple web feed), and it appeared to me he was simply bringing into the frame layers which were already built. That’s not something that takes a lot of CPU power, despite Jobs’ commentary that he was doing a lot of heavy compositing. I’m waiting until Barefeats.com, MacWorld magazine, or me myself and I get to test one of these machines before deciding how much faster it is, if it is faster at all.

I’m also taking the same “wait and see” approach toward the MacBook Pro. Frankly, I don’t believe it’s four times faster than the PowerBook. Somewhere between 2 -2.5 is more probable, with three times the best that it can do. Again, I’ll wait for the benchmarks to prove me wrong. I’m not crazy about its 15 inch form factor. I was happy about its inclusion of iSight, its retention of a Firewire 400 port, and its inclusion of a backlit keyboard. I am seeing some grumbling about the deletion of Firewire 800, but I don’t have that on my current 12 inch PowerBook nor am I using it with my dual G5 PowerMac. So, it’s not a big player for me, though I know it will be with some videographers and digital photographers. The Express Card slot is less impressive to me than a PC card slot would have been; there’s nothing out there to stick in the former, almost.

Will you be able to boot either of these machines into Windows? That’s the 64 dollar question I’m waiting for someone to answer. Some kind of boot manager will surface soon if it’s not already out there; and once it does, I might be more inclined to start looking at these new Apple offerings harder. If I could dual boot an iMac, I would spring for the 20 inch 2.0 GHz MacIntel machine, load up XP and everything I need and get rid of my separate PC or turn it into a gamer running an older OS (like DOS and Win98 or 95). Likewise, I have more incentive to buy a MacBook Pro if I can dual boot since I use my notebook for flight planning when flying cross-country and the major application I use runs only on Windows; I make it work using Virtual PC and Win XP, but it’s slow.

My wife and I talked about buying one or both of these machines while still in the afterglow of the Jobs effect, but it’s worn off this morning in the light of day. We’re not going to order any of them right now unless we win the lotto win tonight, at which point every family member who wants one will be able to get a PowerPC or Intel powered Mac. I’ll look at buying a MacIntel more as applications get ported over and I recover from Hurricane Rita, Christmas, and airplane expenses. I’m pretty happy with how my 2.0 GHz G5 iMac is running everything. I see no reason right now to chance screwing that up.

I did order iLife06 (the family pack), though I did that primarily because my wife wanted it. I wasn’t that impressed. Each application has some improvement I’ll benefit from or are interested in, but the .Mac centeredness of several of the new features turned me off. If Apple keeps that trend up, iLife07 will be a ball buster for them because only .Mac customers will order it. I don’t have a problem with new features working with .Mac but they also need to work with customers’ current web servers or Internet providers as well.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

I wish all of you a Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were full of joy.

I'd also like to thank each of you for dropping by and reading what I have to say here. Most of you are friends or family, but I do apparently have a few more readers than that, and some of you are spread out across the world. Thanks to all of you. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know you're out there.

Intel will not be The Panacea for Mac

If you’re one of those who think that Mac’s switch to Intel will be a panacea for all of the Mac’s problems, you might want to head over to Barefeats.com and click on the link that leads to the Dual Core Windows PC versus Dual Core Mac shootout. The comparison links up benchmarks with dual processor but single-core G5’s and dual core G5’s (including the Quad) with Pentium dual-core and AMD dual core processor PC’s. The Intel based PC’s don’t come off too well. They are, in fact, some of the worst of the lot.

Anyone who’s been running Windows PC’s for a while knows that AMD consistently outperforms Intel anymore. This test shows that. The most telling part of the test, though, is the performance of G5 CPU’s in comparison; and the test shows that they are competitive and often outperform the higher clocked Intel except in 3d gaming. I don’t use my Mac for the latter. That’s one reason why I keep a PC.

Yes, the Intel CPU’s do give Apple the “roadmap” the company is looking for in both the notebook and digital media appliance areas. From those perspectives, the switch makes sense. But the PowerMac and iMac lines may actually suffer performance hits at first due to lackluster Intel performance combined with a lack of native x86 OS X software that will exist when the first Intel based machines hit the market. In time, as the Intel CPU’s gain clock speed and deliver dual core performance, the performance will return. The fundamental question will be, though, whether Apple can weather that interval.

I also believe switching to x86 will lead to more security problems for Apple, and the company will find itself dealing with spyware and viruses like it never has had to before. The brag that Macs don’t have to contend with these critters will become a thing of the past except for those who remain behind and run the PowerPC platform.

Fast Photoshop CS2

During my years as a (US) Naval Flight Officer flying in the F-14A, I used an Olympus OM-10 to shoot lots of air-to-air photgraphs in the form of slides. Over the years, despite being stored in archival quality photo album pages, the slides have become dirty and discolored. Wanting to incorporate those photos into my digital collection and restore them to their former glory, I scanned them into my iMac using an Epson 1660 Photo flatbed scanner and Adobe Photoshop CS. I’ve been manually stepping through each slide and using the Healing Brush to remove the dirt and crud I haven’t been able to physically remove and have been using Photoshop’s color, contrast, and level controls to offset their discoloration.

I store the files in Adobe Photoshop’s native .psd format since that allows me to preserve the original scans and all of Photoshop’s options. I previously had converted a lot of the files from .psd to .jpg formats and had posted on my website for family members or friends to view, so I’m familiar with how Photoshop CS works with them. Last night, I started converting the final versions over to .jpg for web posting using Photoshop CS2; and I was pleasantly shocked at how fast CS2 did the job compared to CS. CS2’s conversions were almost instantaneous! CS had taken from one to three seconds on each one.

One of the reasons I had moved to CS2 was because of performance tests conducted by the Barefeats.com website that showed how CS2 coupled up with Tiger (Mac OS 10.4.3, in this case) to outperform CS. I can now speak from personal experience and vouch for that. As much as I hate Adobe’s use of activation (which is really aimed at controlling “casual copying” done by customers who BOUGHT their product), I have to say that the performance increase alone is worth the $150 upgrade cost.