The Computer Blog

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Best Windows Flight Simulator Computer: Apple’s Intel iMac!

If you’ve been looking for an ideal PC to run Flight Simulator 2004 or XPlane , look no further. As unlikely as it might seem, Apple’s 20 inch Intel-powered Core Duo iMac is the best all-around personal computer I’ve found for running computer based flight simulations. I say that after spending a few hours during the past weekend flying a Grumman Tiger in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2004 using a yoke and pedal set by CH Pro and my Logitech S530 wireless keyboard and mouse.

What makes the iMac so ideal is its overall design. The screen sits at just the right height and has enough resolution to present a very realistic perspective of an aircraft instrument panel to the pilot. I set Flight Sim to use the iMac’s native 1680 x 1050 resolution, 32 bit color, at 30 frames per second. The ATI X1600 video set with 128MB of video memory had no problems producing a vivid, colorful, and artifact-free scene including very realistic looking clouds and some aircraft traffic. Overall machine response was excellent. Not once did I find myself concentrating more on the machine than the simulation. Controls were easily manipulated using my Logitech mouse and keyboard, though the latter was only required to release the parking brake. The only problem I had from a control standpoint was a mechanical one, i.e., trying to keep the yoke from slipping around on the keyboard shelf where it was mounted. I solved that by using a hand towel as filler between the bottom of the yoke and the shelf.

As you might guess, since I actually own a Grumman Cheetah, I was interested in setting the simulator up to fly one. While I couldn’t find a Cheetah model, I did find online a third-party model for a Grumman Tiger and, luckily, its colors are very close to those of my airplane. The model was actually built for Flight Simulator 2002 but seems to work well with FS2004 once I overrode warning messages about possible incompatibilities. The model’s major flaw is that its engine revs up to close to 3000 RPM and produces much too much power; after playing with the power levels a bit, I decided that a 2500 rpm setting was a relatively close approximation to what the Cheetah’s power really looks like. (Note: 2500 RPM is high for a real Cheetah; 2200-2300 during takeoff is more like it.)

The biggest artificiality of the simulator has nothing to do with FS 2004 itself. In an aircraft, especially when flying in the traffic pattern, you’ve got lots of visual clues out all the windows to help you establish, maintain, and manage your position. With only a single screen sitting in front of you, even if you can pick one of several views, flying a traffic pattern is a real bitch. Depth perception suffers in the sim, and lineup is always much harder in the simulator than in the real aircraft. But this is a problem with the sim, not a problem associated with flying the sim using the iMac.

Let me finish with a few words about the mechanics of my set-up. The CH Pro flight controllers were all USB .0 types and were hooked into the iMac via a Belkin 7 port USB 2.0 powered hub and a Belkin USB 2.0 switch (the latter lets me select which computer I want my USB peripherals to hook up to a computer). I wasn’t sure whether Windows XP Pro running on the iMac would have trouble seeing the peripherals, but it didn’t. That said, I did have to reload drivers the first two times I booted into XP Pro with the items attached.

The trim wheel on the CH Pro also is not marked or notched so you know where the center is, so I’m still trying to figure out how to rig it so that there’s adequate trim. It is possible to calibrate the yoke so you run out of trim in one direction.

But back to the iMac…

When I first considered setting up an iMac as both my primary Mac and Windows machine, how it would perform as a flight simulator was one of my primary concerns. Even considering I was using a 20 inch ADC Apple monitor with an AMD 2800XP powered PC, I believe the 20 inch Intel iMac is absolutely the best “PC” I’ve owned for running flight sims. It’s ironic that’s true, but it’s adding up with the other pluses of the machine to make the Intel iMac one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. I’m tickled pink!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

So, this is a MacBook?

Connie and I traveled up to the local Apple Store to get some “hands on” time with the new MacBooks. While I’ll give you a more specific breakdown in a moment, let’s just say that our overall impression was that we were not thrilled. Does that mean we won’t upgrade? No, but it may or may not mean we’re going to wait for a while. Here’s the details.

Color- We both liked the black notebook. Frankly, I used to own a white G3 800Hz iBook and liked it but can’t stand the sandpaper beige finish of the newer models. I mean, can’t stand it to the point where I almost get sick looking at them. So, if I’m going to get a MacBook, I’m “forced” into paying the $150 black premium, which also is enough to make me sick. Unfortunately, I’m more than likely going to do that since I don’t currently consider the $500 price increase to get to a MacBook Pro worth what you get for it. Really, it’s ridiculous that Apple is charging that much for black; but if they can get it and they seem to be able to, it’s just as ridiculous to hope they’ll offer it as a “same price option”.

Screen – I have mixed feelings about the glossy screen. Viewed straight on, it is very bright and colorful. But even in the Apple Store, glare was very apparent, and it will be a constant problem with this machine. My wife was unhappy to hear that the display will be all but useless outdoors because of it. I’m also not sure whether the gloss coat will actually prove to be a detriment over time because of scratches on its surface. I do like the 13.3 widescreen format a bit better than that of my 12 inch PowerBook.

Keyboard – I didn’t feel the keyboard was significantly different than that of my PowerBook’s. I had no problems with it.

Trackpad – I only played with it a little bit, but its action seemed comparable to that of my PowerBook. Two-finger scrolling worked great. I did not use the button.

Overall Design – Not as elegant as my 12 inch PowerBook. Good bang for the buck if you can live with the design changes, some of which seemed to be change for the sake of change. Bad idea.

Connie and I are still discussing what we’re going to do. Frankly, after seeing the MacBooks in person, we discussed not moving our portables to Intel power right now but rather waiting to see if Apple might off a matte screen options and reduce the price on the black model. I’m also not willing to commit to the MacBook Pro unless Apple increases the base size of the hard disks in those models to 100GB.

We had hoped that the decision to buy a MacBook would be a “slam dunk”. But it’s just not. We’ve never felt as conflicted about purchasing an Apple notebook as we do now.

Frankly, I tend to use a notebook as a portable desktop. So, I’m thinking that maybe instead of buying a MacBook, I need to buy my wife a 17 inch Intel Core Duo iMac and then use her G5 iMac in an iLugger case as my portable desktop. Or buy myself another 20 inch Core Duo iMac. If I bought another refurbished model, it would cost me $100 less than the black MacBook.

No Class at All: Black MacBook, White Chords and Adapters

Apple is usually known for its sense of style. So, how then, can they miss the boat so cleanly when it comes to the black Macbook? It’s bad enough that Apple’s charging $150 for the black color but not to equip it with matching black power adapters and cables truly makes that highway robbery!

The Quark Trump: Free Intel Update This Summer

Back when Apple transitioned to OS X, Quark lost a portion of the desktop publishing market to Adobe because Adobe released an OS X native version of In Design. Many production houses, already unhappy with what they perceived to be poor customer service from Quark and seeing positive reviews of In Design in the computer press, took the opportunity to switch.

Now, the worm has turned. Adobe has made a well-documented decision not update its CS2 product lines and to release a Universal version only with CS3. That would not be until spring 2007. Quark has now used the Adobe dead-time to release an Intel version of Quark. Now, I doubt if there will be a mass exodus from those who have switched to In Design back to Quark; not only would they have to retrain their workforces and convert current projects but they would have to buy some Intel Macs. That’s not impossible but not very likely. Still, I’m hoping the Quark move will put a little fire under Adobe. It’s not likely that Adobe will reverse itself and release Intel updates for CS2, but the move will certainly put a little more pressure on Adobe to get CS3 out as soon as they can.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The iMac iSight Bluish Man Show

One of the things I always dread about engaging a new technology is the unforeseen adverse consequence. In other words, what sounds like a great idea instead turns out to be a good one with a bug or a mediocre one with a hassle. The iMac’s internal iSight camera is along the lines of the former.

I used the camera for the first time to connect up with my son Tim who was using a regular external iSight. Before this, I was connecting up using an external iSight camera on an iFlex mount on either my G5 iMac or my dual G5 PowerMac. With the new camera in my Intel-powered iMac, I noticed almost immediately a blue shading on the right side of my face. Tim could see it, too. At first, I thought it was entirely due to reflected light off the iMac’s blue desktop so I tried several other desktop backgrounds. They had little effect. The only thing that made the blue tint fade was sitting back about three feet. I’m fairly convinced that the blue tint is an artifact of the iMac’s backlight.

This is one case where you pay for the convenience of having the camera bezel mounted changing or adding lighting. I will probably do the latter.

Of course, Tim illustrated another limitation of bezel-mounted cameras when he used his external iSight to show me an iMovie 4 track he was having problems with. I could actually see how his iMovie was set up. The only way I could do that with a bezel-mounted camera would be to try to snapshot the desktop and send that. There may be a way to do that, but it’s not intuitive.

I like the elegance of an internal camera; but if you think it’s the “be-all, end-all”, think again.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Switched Again…Running on a MacIntel iMac

I’m writing this piece on my “new” refurbished 20 inch Intel-powered iMac. I have to say up front that getting it up and running—and that includes Windows XP in a dual boot configuration using Boot Camp—has been less hassle than expected. On Intel based Mac OS X using Rosetta, my Adobe applications all run without crashing and are usable to the point where I’m not unhappy with them, though I will replace them with Universal Binary versions once they’re released. I’ve only noticed one application that doesn’t perform well enough under Rosetta to make it worth keeping, and that was MT-Newswatcher, my Usenet newsgroup reader. While I’ve taken a look at replacing it with a tool named “Unison” which is a Universal app, I’m just using Entourage’s less-than-optimum newsreading capability to avoid paying Unison’s $25 fee for now. I’ve had to fork out bucks for a copy of XP Pro and Norton Antivirus 2006 to run Windows on the iMac, so I’m trying to put off any more software expenditures until I get over the financial hump of buying this machine.

I did have to reload my Logitech Control Center software, even though the version transferred over from my G5 iMac was supposed to be Universal. That said, my Logitech S530 wireless keyboard and mouse are working great with the iMac under both OS X and Windows XP Pro, though I don’t have all features under the latter due to lack of drivers. I’ve thought about loading up a set of Logitech drivers for a different keyboard under XP just to see if I might get some of the extra functionality back, but it’s not something worth the risk of tackling. I’ve also had to reload my printer and scanner drivers with Universal versions, and they’re all working like they’re supposed to. Thanks be to Epson for updating most of their stuff.

Transferring activation and deauthorizing iTunes on the G5 before using Apple’s Migration Assistant to transfer applications and data to the Intel iMac did avoid problems. I did discover one bug during that process. I walked out of the room during the transfer and the Intel iMac went to sleep, hanging the process and causing me to start over. Sleep functions are controlled through System Preferences/Energy Saver functions you cannot access during this part of the evolution, so I wound up sitting at the machine and moving the mouse every minute or so (and especially when I would see the screen dim which would occur before the hard disk was put to sleep) to keep the transfer going. That worked but kept me tied to the machines the whole time.

Other than that, the only other problem I experienced occurred right after the transfer had stopped. Once I got through the rest of the set-up process and was back at my desktop, I could not mount any compressed files and several applications seemed unresponsive. A reboot cleared up all that, and I then used updates stored on CD or DVD and Apple’s Software Update to bring all my software up to the latest specs.

That done, I unplugged the system, laid it face-down on a towel, located the small plate that hides the system’s memory on the bottom, and removed it. There were two slots for the SODIMM modules visible; the system came loaded with one 512MB SODIMM. Two plastic, white levers help leverage memory out of their slots, but putting new memory in consists of just aligning the slot in the SODIMM with the slot in the iMac. I loaded in a 1GB PC-5300 DDR2 SODIMM bought from Crucial (for around $150) to give the machine a 1.5 GB total. Later, I plan on kicking the total memory up to 2GB; and I’ll keep the 512 to use in my wife’s Intel iMac. She isn’t saying she wants one right now, but I would not be surprised if she wants or gets one by the end of the year.

I’ve only done a little bit of testing of my Adobe applications, but they seemed to work better than I expected, even though benchmarks around the web are showing me I’m going to take about a 50% speed hit when I start tasking them. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about how they really work as time goes on. To hedge against bigger performance hits than I’ve seen so far, I do have older versions of Illustrator and Go Live and a trial version of Photoshop CS2 loaded up on the XP side of the machine not to mention CS and CS2 versions loaded up on my dual processor G5 PowerMac.

Speaking of running XP Pro, I have to say that the Intel powered iMac is one of the best XP machines I’ve ever seen. Set-up running Boot Camp was easy and flawless. I especially liked being able to set the XP partition size up graphically in true Apple fashion. It formatted a 50GB partition in NTFS, which implied I would not be able to see it from my OS X partition. That is not true. Ironically, I can see everything on the XP partition but can see nothing on the OS X partition from the XP side even though I am running MacDrive 5 on XP.

So far, I’ve loaded up all the applications I currently want to run and three flight simulators on the XP side, though I haven’t tried hooking up any game controllers yet. I’ve got a CH Pro USB yoke and pedal set to try and will be also getting a CH Pro Flightstick. I’m looking forward to trying them all out, though it will probably be at least a week or so before I can get there.

One thing that is a downer is I have no way of modifying the XP partition. Boot Camp is not set up to modify a partition once it’s set. That clears the room for either a Mac or PC based company to invent a software tool to do it, and it would be really cool if I could move my OS X and XP partitions around as needed, though I understand that the process will never be risk-free. Still, my only current option is to find some way to back up my XP partition and start from scratch if I need to expand or contract it. Stay tuned.

To say a bit more about the iMac itself, I’m happy to report that this machine has no defects I have found. The screen has no scratches, nicks, or dead or latched-on pixels and is bright. It is very quiet compared to the G5 iMac I just gave up. I can barely hear any noise at all from the fans, and I’ve only heard them rev up once. The experience is almost identical to that of being on a G5 iMac except there’s less noise. Apple final seems to have gotten the “quiet factor” right with these machines. This one has also re-established my faith in buying refurbished machines from Apple. I saved $300 by buying it refurbished, and used that money to cover a memory upgrade and the cost of XP Pro.

The other thing, too, about the design of these machines is the slimmer profile really makes these things not quite the monsters the original G5 iMac’s were. When I had a 20 inch model in my office before, I’d walk in feeling like the thing was somehow out of place. Not so with these new machines. I’m really enjoying being on the larger 20 inch screen again.

That’s not to say I’m not taking small hits because of the change, and mainly due to lack of Universal Binary software in some areas. I’m running Safari under Rosetta so that it works with FlipforMac and I maintain the same seamless access to video I had on the G5. This works so well that in some cases, I’m using Safari to open Windows Media (.wmv) files that I would normally open in Windows Media Player or QuickTime (equipped with FlipforMac). I’m awaiting a Universal Binary update to Pocket Mac for Phone and figure if I really need to update the data in my Samsung i600, I’ll do it using Windows based tools and catch up the Mac side later (or manually).

Guess that’s all for now. We’re planning on dropping by the Apple Store today and taking a look at the MacBooks.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Not So Sure About This…

It may seem strange that I have misgivings about moving to an Intel iMac right now, but I do. I’m doing it to help out my daughter-in-law and to appease my wife. I’m just hoping that the move will prove less of a hassle than I think. It is proving to be as expensive as I expected, and this is only the beginning.

What will I get out of this? Well, once all my software is native, I have little doubt I will get greater speed than I have today. Almost immediately, I will get a piece of integration that will be welcome, and that is the ability to run Windows and OS X on one machine. That will allow me to simplify my office set-up, and simplification is nearly always good. But will I really gain any capability? That remains to be seen. And that's what makes me wonder why I’m committing to spending all the money I will be on this.

D-Link DSM-G600 NAS

Because of the expected performance hit using Adobe CS and CS2 products with a new Intel-powered Mac, I’ve been looking for some way to use my dual G5 PowerMac to work with my Adobe files. The obvious answer to making those files available to every machine I own was to relocate them to a network drive, so I’ve been looking for some kind of Network Attached Storage case so I could use some spare hard drives I already own. I wanted something with a Gigabit Ethernet interface, so I decided to give the D-Link DSM-G600 a shot. I bought it for $129.99 at our local Fry’s Electronics.

The DSM-G600 mounts a single ultra-ATA hard disk inside its case, and it’s capable of handling a hard disk up to 400GB in size. I mounted a 160GB Maxtor Ultra-ATA hard drive in the case. The drive snaps into a metal brace that uses a single case screw to fasten the drive into it. I jumpered the drive as a Master; according to the DSN-G600 instructions, you can jumper the drive as a Master or as Cable Select. The power connector snaps into place easily on the back of the drive but pushes up against the case fan, though I didn’t see or hear any other sign of interference. The IDE interface cable had to be twisted, folded, and pushed down slightly on top of the drive to get it to fit without interfering with the case. Those were the only two connectors to mount; once that’s done, the top of the case was snapped back on and the case was secured via two screws in its rear.

With the DSM-G600 sitting horizontally, the hard drive vibrated against the case and buzzed annoyingly. Luckily, the buzz went away when I sat the drive on its side so the ports and status lights were vertical. I am running it in that configuration, though there was nothing in the drive literature that addressed doing so, one way or the other. I did not investigate where the buzz was coming from, but I suspect it has to do with the hard drive mounts, i.e., using pins for three of its four mounting points. Screws would have worked a lot better.

The rear of the DSM sported a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports for mounting external drives, a place to plug in the small power brick that powers the device, and a stub to mount the unit’s wireless antenna on. I mounted the unit’s antenna but did not turn on the wireless portion of the unit via its software or its web interface since I planned on running via the Gigabit Ethernet port. I plugged the DSM into a 5 port Gigabit D-Link Ethernet switch and the configured the device following a procedure at D-Link’s support website. It had me configure the device as DHCP with a manual IP address.

When I brought the device up on the network, both the Macs and my Windows XP machine saw it easily. For the Macs, it shows up as a “shortcut” to the drive labeled “DSM-G600” in the Network portion of Finder. Double-clicking on the icon accesses the drive using SMB and brings up a small window asking you what partition you want to access, i..e, “web page” or “HDD_a”. The latter is the hard drive. The Windows XP machine required me to map the drive but it was easily found and mounted.

Transfer rates were initially very slow. I thought at first it might have to do with the file format system the drive was using which D-Link identified as EXT2 or EXT3. The Windows XP PC identified the file system as NTFS. In any case, there did not appear to be an easy way to format the drive with some other file system. I pressed back into the web-based configuration tool and changed the IP address set-up from DHCP to Static IP, matching the address up with the one suggested in the D-Link support materials. I also changed out the short Ethernet cable that came with the drive and put in a Cat 6 cable that I bought at Fry’s. The transfer rates improved, though they still do not seem as fast as those attained by the Macs when I transfer files between themselves. I make sure when I turn on my network I power this drive up before anything else so the router assigns the other IP addresses around the DSM. The drive’s power button, by the way, is a small black rectangle on the front of the drive.

I’m happy with this set-up so far. It’s nice being able to get to all my Adobe and Paperport files from any Mac in the house. I’m thinking about copying my major iPhoto library out to the drive so I can access it from any machine. I won’t be handicapped now by my upcoming Intel Mac’s slow Rosetta performance. If I want to move faster, I simply move over to my dual G5 PowerMac. It’s also let me set up folders for my wife and a folder we can use to store shared project files the other can access at their convenience.

What Boot Camp Means….Another Dvorak Miss

I was reading an analysis by John Dvorak and was fairly impressed with what he had to say until he ventured into speculation about what Boot Camp meant. It could mean, he said, that more Mac users are going to switch to Windows than people thought.

What is it about Windows users that makes them think anyone’s dying to switch to Windows?

I’m in the camp with those who believe that Boot Camp opens the door to the Mac world for those Windows users who have been reluctant to leave because they had a favorite or necessary piece of software that ran on Windows only. I’m not seeing anything in any forums that make me think the opposite is true; and from my own perspective, I can say that I don’t really care when Vista is released. I have no plans right now to upgrade to Vista at all, though admittedly a new Intel iMac will probably be strong enough to run it if needed, and work requirements could drive me there, though that is unlikely. I do however intend to look strongly at Leopard.

Frankly, I’m pointing out to my Windows running friends who have hinted they might like to try OS X that they can run Windows now, too, to take away any fear they might have of getting boxed in. Worse come to worse, even if they hate OS X, as long as they like the iMac, they still have a nice machine for their money.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Moving to MacIntel

I hadn’t planned on moving to a MacIntel desktop until next year, not only to save money and get ahead of my credit cards more before I put anything major on them but to wait until Adobe had their software packages out. But life has a way of taking you places on its terms instead of yours.

My daughter-in-law, Emily, has been using a 700 MHz G4 flat panel iMac for some time now and has been very happy with it…until recently. Her dissatisfaction with it started when she bought a new 5G iPod (commonly known as an iPod Video). The “sunflower” iMac only has USB 1.1 ports on it, and her download times to the iPod are painfully slow. Her husband, Tim, and I discussed some various solutions to the problem but he and Emily had apparently been talking about getting a new Mac.

Within the last few weeks, my resistance to buying an Intel iMac had been breaking down. I really want to crank up my flight simulators to work on getting both current and proficient as an Instrument Flight Rules pilot, and I had felt a 20 inch iMac was the perfect flight simulator. I also use Paperport software to electronically file lots of papers, and it would be a little nice to just dual boot the machine I work on all the time rather than booting a separate machine. Still, because of the imminent release of the MacBooks and because I wanted more time before dealing with an Intel move, I had no immediate plans of moving to Intel-powered iMac territory. Then, I talked to Tim and mentioned that I had been looking at trading my current iMac in on a new one. From there, we moved to a discussion of selling it, and Tim thought he and Emily might be interested in buying it.

He talked it with Emily and they decided they wanted to do that, so I ordered a refurbished 20 inch Core Duo iMac from the Apple Store. It will arrive about mid-week. I also ordered a 1 GIG memory upgrade from Crucial and a copy of XP Pro from NewEgg. My plan is to transfer all my stuff over to the Intel Mac using Apple’s Migration Assistant and then use it for a week or so before backing it up and loading BootCamp and XP Pro.

There are lots of minefields to navigate. Before I transfer anything, I need to remember to transfer activation on all my Adobe CS applications and to deauthorize my current machine’s iTunes account. I’m covering the expected performance hits and instabilities of my Adobe apps by loading up my dual G5 PowerMac with all my Adobe applications and by setting up a network shared drive that holds all my Adobe files so I can access them from either the iMac or the PowerMac. I’ve also moved some Word files to the shared drive for the same reason and have Office loaded on the PowerMac as well, even though I do not expect the same level of performance drop from it as the Adobe apps.

I’m fairly familiar with my applications and know that most of them will run under Rosetta. Last night, I realized I had no idea whether MT-NewsWatcher will run under Rosetta or not. Corel Draw 11 is also an unknown, though I can run it under Windows for sure, so I won’t lose it entirely if it doesn’t run. I’m going to need to update my copy of Final Draft, Toast, and Quicken when the latter two are available.

I’m expecting a bunch of hassles. On the plus side, I’ll have plenty to write about in this blog. Stay tuned.