The Computer Blog

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The PowerMac G5 and MacBook Pro Comparison

At MacWorld, you can find a review posted today that benchmarks a dual core 2.0 G5 PowerMac against the 2.16 GHz dual-core MacBook Pro. The Cinebench scores for both systems were identical. Guess megahertz really does matter. And it shows that the G5 CPU is equal to the task. Too bad nobody’s got a dual-core G5 upgrade for my 2.0 GHz G5 iMac or my dual processor 2.0 GHz PowerMac. I’d invest in both of those ahead of buying a new Intel iMac from Apple.

First Look – Okidata C3200n Color LED Printer

Because of problems with my HP Business Inkjet 1100D, I’ve been looking at low-end color laser printers. This week, Office Depot put the Okidata C3200n on sale, pricing it at $299 after a $100 rebate. That put the printer at the same price point as the HP 2600n, the other printer I had been looking at. Though there weren’t very many reviews of the 3200n, after comparing specifications and print samples and talking over the purchase with my wife, I bought the 3200n last evening and set it up last night.

I’ll post a full-fledged review of the printer soon, but I have been impressed with the printer so far. Set-up was relatively easy and network setup was a snap; the printer talked to the Macs using Bonjour across both the wired and wireless parts of our home network. Color prints are saturated with sharp black text and good graphics quality. The printer is a bit big but not as heavy as it looks, and it takes it about fifteen seconds to warm up. It’s not really noisy nor is it quiet; there’s an audible whirring or buzz when it’s on I might find annoying if encountered for hours. Printer drivers for Windows 98,NT, 2000, and XP as well as for Mac OS 10.2 and above are included on the CD, and it installs a web-based printer management utility that allows for some printer control and presents a printer status, including the amount of toner in each drum.

I’m looking forward to using this printer and posting a review. If I’m lucky, it’ll keep trucking like my HP LaserJet 2100 has; it’s on at least it’s fifth year and has never given me a lick of trouble.

The Apple Premium - Is It Too Much?

The old axiom that “you get what you pay for” is often true. But we all know that a careful buyer can often pay for more than what he gets, so the wise thing to do is always to gather all the information you can about an item before you commit to purchasing it. That said, I’ve always been willing to pay a bit more for the “Apple Premium”, i.e., the style, integration, and feature sets that Apple systems present to a buyer. But I have to tell you that I’ve been struggling for some time with the price of the MacBook Pro. As much as I like the machine, I am not totally convinced it’s worth the money Apple is asking for it.

When PC World first published some reviews of dual-core powered notebooks, the prices for those notebooks fell into the same range that Apple was using for its MacBook Pro models, so I felt it was inline with the market. I told my stepson Tim that in a recent conversation, and that became the impetus for me to look at the issue again. I was surprised to find a Dell dual-core Intel powered notebook for under $1000; and while it did not have quite the feature set the MacBook Pro does, for what I need a notebook for, it was close enough. That has me questioning once again the price premium Apple is demanding for the MacBook Pro, especially when there are no major applications to run on it.

Frankly, the only way I can justify paying $2000 or more for a notebook is if it replaces both my current PowerBook and my current iMac. Once native applications are released, the MacBook Pro could do just that as long as it had at least a 100GB hard drive and 1 GB of RAM. I’m still thinking about whether that’s the course I want to take or whether I want to use my notebook as “portable use only”. I’m also waiting to see if any new PowerBook models surface (like a 12 inch model) and what iBook models show up. I suspect the latter will house single-core CPU’s; if so, I would only buy one if performance benchmarks were showing they were faster than single-core G4’s. Moreover, I’m still really struggling with the idea of outlaying the money it will take to transition our Macs to Intel, both from a hardware and software standpoint, so soon after spending a fortune getting us onto Mac OS X and the G5. It’s really kind of a bitter pill to swallow, even if it means that Macs and us will be better off in the long run.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Catching Up

I haven’t written anything in here for a week because I was gone most of it. I flew my wife and myself to Missouri and back; and now I’ve got some catching up to do in the computer world.

Two of the biggest things that have happened in the past week was the successful launch of Windows XP on Intel Macs and the delay of Windows Vista. Both of these things are good for Apple. I know there are more than a few folks who don’t understand why someone would need to run Windows on a Mac, but it really does boil down to getting the best of both worlds. Of course, the main problem with such a feat, i.e., there are no Windows XP drivers for the ATI chipsets the Macs are using, remains. Even with the loading and booting problems solved, lack of drivers is a major obstacle to being able to run XP freely on the Mac platform. It would be worthwhile for ATI and other vendors responsible for Mac hardware components to release Windows drivers for them. They only help themselves with such a move, not only because it would help sell more Macs containing their products but because it would indirectly grow their own market share while gaining a favorable response from Apple, even if it was “under-the-table”.

In any case, since I know I now can run Windows XP on an Intel Mac, I am more likely to purchase one of the new machines in the near future. At some point, I’m hoping to eliminate a Windows-specific PC. However, I’m still thinking about whether I’d rather have a dual-boot or a setup where I run Windows (or a Windows application) in a virtual set-up. I believe I’d prefer the latter but don’t expect virtualization would ever perform well enough to run my flight simulators on it.

That said, an alternative I’m considering to running Windows on a Mac is to upgrade my PC from XP Home to XP Professional and then run Remote Desktop Connection on my Macs. If I set that up right, I would operate the Windows XP machine as a “headless server” from the Macs while still keeping a monitor, mouse, keyboard, and other peripherals attached to it so I could run flight sims on it natively when I wanted to. I haven’t decided to go there yet, and that type of setup would work only for me when I’m in the house. As I’ve stated in previous blogs, one of may major needs is to be able to run Windows on the road to access flight planning applications I use. I currently do that using Virtual PC, and but such a solution is not yet available for the Intel Macs. But with dual boot available, that is no longer the “show-stopper” it has been, opening the door for me to buy an Intel based Mac whenever I am ready.

As I browsed around the web this morning, it became apparent that the ability of Intel Macs to run Windows is leading to a couple of interesting developments. For years, Mac users have struggled to compare the performance of their machines to X86 powered PC’s. Now that both Macs and PC’s are on the X86 platform and Windows runs on both, direct Windows vs OS X operating system performance benchmarking will be possible. This will put both Microsoft and Apple in true direct competition, resulting in improvements to both operating systems…if we’re lucky. Likewise, since the MacBook Pro can run both Windows and OS X, it is and will become possible to compare Apple hardware directly with that of the competition. The premium a user pays for an Apple system will be even more justifiable if there’s hard data that shows Apple just performs better. It’s ironic that being able to run Windows on an Apple computer might greatly benefit Apple, but I believe that will prove to be the case.

I’m actually happy I’m largely sitting the Intel transition out. It’s true I’d have more interesting things to post if I had some actual test data; but since I bankroll everything about this site myself, it’s not worth what I’d have to spend to get there. I almost sprang for an Intel-powered Mac Mini, but the machine’s higher price points and the problems folks are having hooking them up to HD TV’s have kept me out. The same holds true for the MacBook Pro; it’s too much money for me at the moment and the machines are exhibitibg a bunch of problems I’m content to let Apple work out first, even though the dual-boot solution has cleared the way from a functional standpoint. It’s also true I’m still thinking through how I want my ultimate set-up to look, i.e., whether it will incorporate an iMac or not and whether I’ll keep a G5 machine in the mix. All this stuff will fall into place in time, but for the moment right solution is still escaping me.

On the repair front, both my dual G5 PowerMac and my iSight camera have been repaired or replaced. My dual 2.0 GHz G5 PowerMac blew a Firewire 400 port just weeks before it went out of warranty, so I turned it in for repair while I could still get it for free. As I had thought they would, they changed out the motherboard, making it the third one for this machine. Because of that and because I don’t see myself buying a new PowerMac for several years, I purchased an Apple Care contract for the thing, giving me two more years of “worry-free” operation. While I had a little trouble with fan cycling right after I got the machine out of the shop, it has settled down and now is operating as expected. I’m enjoying using it with my 20 inch Apple Cinema ADC display.

The iSight was replaced and returned to me late last week after a two week hit because Apple couldn’t find a box for me to ship the unit to them in. Once they did shipped the box, I only had to seal the unit up in the box and drop it off at a DHL location. Apple’s support website showed they identified the problem and scheduled a replacement unit to ship out right away, but it took them a couple more weeks before they sent a replacement unit. It’s here now and operating nominally, hooked into the G5 PowerMac not via the motherboard’s Firewire 400 port but to a FW400 port on a PCI based Firewire card. I’d rather risk frying the Firewire ports on the card than on the motherboard, so I’m hooking all my FW400 stuff into it rather than the ‘board.

I think I mentioned I’m using Logitech’s S530 wireless keyboard and mouse with my iMac and still love it. I prefer the feel of my wired MX510 mouse to the MX610 equivalent supplied as part of this set, but I’m getting used to it. Overall, this is the first set I liked enough to displace my Apple keyboard and an MX510. It would be perfect for use with a Mac Mini as part of an entertainment center and it will probably wind up there; but, for now, it’s part of my desktop setup. If I decided to move my personal stuff off the iMac to my PowerMac G5, I would hook this keyboard and mouse up with it and my PowerBook via a KVM ADC switch and go fetch a spare keyboard for use with my PC or use the PC, as I said earlier, as a headless server controlled from the Macs.

When I get tempted to move onto an Intel Mac, I think about trading my wife’s 1 GHz PowerBook and her 1.8 GHz G5 iMac in on a MacBook Pro, paying the difference, and giving her my 1.5 GHz G4 PowerBook and my 2.0 GHz G5 iMac in trade. I’d hook the MacBook Pro and the G5 PM to the 20 inch ADC monitor and make the MBP my main machine, with the G5 PM held back for video work or serious Photoshop or Illustrator work.

I have been considering buying a color laserjet printer. I own a black and white Postscript-capable HP Laserjet 2100se, a HP Business Inkjet 1100D, and an Epson RX200 inkjet printer. The HP printers are my main workhorses and the Epson is a CD/DVD printer. I haven’t used the HP 1100D in a long while and discovered late last week that the print output is streaked and multiple and even manual cleaning of the printheads has not solved the problem. I can get a HP 2600 color laser for $299, a little less than twice the cost of replacing all four printheads in the 1100D. I’m trying to avoid that for the moment by using the 1100D a lot and repeating the printhead cleanings; and it seems to be paying off. But the print output is still not as good as that from my Epson RX200. I’m going to keep using the 1100D to see if I can pull it back up by its bootstraps or simply trash the machine. I’ve replaced printheads before for non-use, and I’m spending more money in the long run doing that than I would by investing in a color laser. The 2600N is also networkable and my 1100D is standalone, another reason why I’ve been thinking about buying one. For now, though, I’m just going to keep fiddling with the 1100D until I get tired of it.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

No EFI Support in Vista- The Microsoft Bomb

It’s all over the ‘Net now that Microsoft has just revealed that Vista would not have EFI support in it, dashing the hopes of both present day and future Mac lovers that they would be able to dual-boot their new Mac between Windows and OS X. That’s a fairly significant blow to Apple’s hopes to expand market share. Many people (and I’m one of them) need to be able to run a Windows operating system or at least Windows’ applications on their Macs. This is a show-stopper for many folks. The reality of the moment is that if you need to run Windows and Mac OS X, then you’re only present option is to buy a PPC version of the machine and use Virtual PC, a Microsoft product.

I’m willing to put money down that says part of the reason Apple switched to EFI was to lock down OS X to only Apple hardware running X86 CPU’s. But you have to wonder if Apple hasn’t inadvertently shot itself in its proverbial foot with that move, as it stands now. With no EFI support in Vista, Mac Intel users cannot currently run Windows or Classic and are locked into only Intel-compiled version applications of OS X. Despite Apple’s rhetoric about how many of those there are, there are few major applications that have made the port. Mac Intel users are stranded on their own platform, at least for now.

One of the big questions that remain unanswered is whether Microsoft’s abandonment of EFI on 32 bit versions of Vista had been planned all along or if it was a recent development. If recent, then it could be the move was another anti-competitive tactic from the monopolist, in this case, an attempt to squash an OS X threat before it can fully take form. Widespread adoption of Macs, even if accompanied by copies of Windows, could greatly expand OS X market share, giving Microsoft its first real competitor in decades. If Microsoft is the least bit savvy about the talk roaring though various Mac forums, then they know that more people than ever before are considering switching to the Mac platform. Large scale moves (and by that I mean even a move on Apple’s part that awards it with 10% or more market share) in such a direction would lead to serious and ongoing comparisons between OS X and Windows, no matter what versions. This would put real competition and real pressure on Microsoft. That’s not something they want or something they’re used to dealing with in this arena.

Microsoft has said that 64 bit versions of Vista would have EFI support. Ironically, the first Macs that might be able to dual boot Windows with little or no modification could be PowerMacs, the most likely Mac to first see a 64 bit Intel CPU. That could happen within a year, but that will be little solace to those who bought MacBook Pro’s hoping to dual booth them with Windows when Vista showed up.

The real hope is now is that some decent virtualization scheme will come along that will either allow Windows to run inside OS X for Intel. Lots of folks are interested in it and some are even working on it, so it is probably just a matter of time before it shows up. The big question is whether Apple stock will now take a tumble and, if it does, whether it will recover or find some new plateau much lower than the one it enjoys now. I think this is going to prove to be a big deal.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Problematic PowerMac (Fries Firewire Port)

A couple of weeks ago, I was on my dual G5 PowerMac using an iSight when it quit working. It was hooked into the rear Firewire 400 port on the PowerMac; and at the time, the only thing I focused on was that the iSight had quit. Yesterday, I borrowed my wife’s iSight and plugged it into the rear port and discovered it wouldn’t work. When I connected it to the PowerMac’s front port, it worked fine.

Obviously, that told me that the problem was the Firewire port on the PowerMac itself . I plugged in an external hard disk to the port to see if the disk would mount. Big Mistake! As soon as I turned the drive on, I heard a pop and smelled something burning. The port was obviously bad and would burn up anything attached to it!

This is not the first time I’ve had a problem with that port. The PowerMac is a refurbished model that had audio problems as soon as I opened the box. An Apple Service Provider (Mac America) across town replaced the motherboard but I found the Firewire ports weren’t working when I fired the machine up. Resetting the PRAM and NVRAM solved the problem.

Moreover, the Firewire 400 ports on my previous Mirror Drive Door dual processor 1.25 GHz G4 PowerMac also went out, though I don’t remember them frying any equipment. They simply stopped working. I put in a Firewire 400 PCI card to work around the problem since the warranty on that machine had expired.

Luckily, I’ve got about 12 days left on the warranty on my current PowerMac. I’m not only going to get it into an Apple Service provider for service within the next few days, but I may look into getting Apple Care on the machine since I plan on keeping it for a while.

I have always liked Firewire over USB 2.0, but the tendency of Firewire ports to short out easily makes me always a bit nervous about any Firewire driven equipment. I don’t know if the Firewire 800 interface is any less likely than the 400’s, but I might look into getting some 400 to 800 adapters if they are. You can bet even if I am successful at getting my PowerMac fixed under the warranty, I intend to put an add-on Firewire 400/800 card in it and use it for any rear port activities. I’ve found some info on the web suggesting that G5 PowerMacs tend to fry the equipment attached to them when things go bad, and I’d rather risk replacing a PCI-X card rather than the motherboard if it happens again.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Why the Intel Mac Mini Disappoints

I had been thinking I might spring for one of the Intel Mac Mini’s; but after looking at it for a few days, I have to say I’m disappointed with this offering.

I have been looking forward to the Mac Mini as the home theater hub we would incorporate; but in its figuring of the home entertainment equation, Apple has missed the boat in a rather important area. In the Apple mind, “home entertainment” is being viewed as the ability to view photos, videos, and music all over the house. I agree. But what about GAMES? In my mind, while I don’t play a lot of games very often, when you talk to me about doing things with home entertainment systems, you must include games. After all, the idea is to build an entertainment hub; and anyone who thinks computer games (or flight simulations and games in my case) aren’t part of that picture hasn’t been paying close attention.

The choice of the Intel GMA950 video graphics chipset and its use of shared memory can be expected to yield poor gaming performance and drag down the overall performance of the OS. Apple’s own notes say that the chip will use up to 80MB of your RAM for video processing, meaning that OSX only has 432MB of RAM available for itself and its remaining applications. The ExtremeTech website characterized the GMA950 as a slouch. In effect, even if you buy the Dual Core model of the Mini, you’re not going to see the performance you would hope for since the dual core set will be sometimes choked by GMA950 performance. If Apple truly wants to gain entry into my living room, it’s going to have to address graphics performance in future versions of the Mini. That means a stronger GPU chip and additional and separate video memory.

The second bad choice for the Mini is the inclusion of only 5400 rpm hard drives, even if they are now Serial ATA versus Parallel. Unlike the options for the MacBook Pro, a 7200 rpm drive is not even available for the Mini. You’re not going to get consistent and decent DV playback with a 5400 rpm drive, much less anything in the High Definition category, a card Apple has been playing for a while. Apple has to incorporate 7200 rpm drives in the Mini as well as its notebook lines if they want to be taken seriously about doing more and more with video, in any of its forms, on these machines.

Lastly, I have to say that the higher price point for this Mini only made sense when I could use it as a computer and an entertainment center. I had thought I would buy one of these and use it as my Intel-powered “test and transition” computer and move it over to being an entertainment center once I moved on either to a MacBook Pro or an Intel-powered iMac or PowerMac as my main computer. Equipping it the way I wanted, a dual core Mini with 1GB of RAM and a 100GB hard drive (albeit a 5400 rpm drive) would cost $949. That’s too high. For $250 more, I can buy a 17 inch dual-core iMac with only 512MB if Ram but a 160 GB hard drive and an internal iSight camera. The price differential would kick up another $100 or so to take the iMac to 1GB of RAM; but for my additional $350 I would get a 17 inch LCD, a bigger hard drive, and an iSight camera. In my mind, that makes the 17 inch iMac a better value and blew what thoughts I had of buying a Mini right out the window.