The Computer Blog

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A XP vs OS X Cost Analysis- A Bit Off

This week, a Piper Jeffries analyst supposedly established that upgrading OS X was more expensive than upgrading Windows. As someone who has paid those costs, I disagree. The analyst used the cost of upgrading a single machine as his sole basis for comparison (and did not to mention the high upgrade costs for Vista which were leaked to the web today). Most of us have more than one computer to upgrade. I maintain that when you look at the issue from a “there's more than one computer in every family” perspective, the costs of upgrading OS X fall dramatically from the costs incurred upgrading an equivalent number of computer to Windows in a non-server, home environment. The reason why that's true is called the Apple “Family Pack”.

Microsoft requires that for each single computer upgrade you need, you buy a seperate copy of their new operating system. Even if I take the lowest cost option equivalent to current prices of XP Home Upgrade packages, that's $89 per machine for a total of $445 if I upgraded 5 computers. However, if I want to upgrade 5 Macs in my house to Tiger, I can (and did) buy an “OS X Family Pack” from Apple for a total cost of $199 (plus tax). For the lot, that's a savings of $246 per operating system upgrade. Or, if I look at my “per machine” cost, each OS X upgrade cost me only $39.80. It's those kind of economies of scale the author of that report grossly overlooked.

I don't think I'd want that guy doing any financial analysis for me.

Neo Office First Look - Writer

I'm writing this using Neo Office Writer from Version 2.0 Aqua Beta 3. For those of you unfamiliar with Neo Office, it's a port of Open Office designed to run natively on OS X; and this is the first version to use OS X's Aqua interface. I decided to download it and give Neo Office a workout on both my PowerBook G4 (1.5 Ghz) and my Intel-powered iMac. I'm going to try to employ all its different parts for work and private tasks over the next few weeks and report back on it here. If you're interested in checking it out for yourself, versions for both platforms (PPC and Intel OS X versions) can be found at http://neooffice.org.

My biggest gripe about Writer has been and continues to be be its two view limitation. You can only work in Page Layout and Web Layout modes. A Normal view, as can be found in both Word and in WordPerfect and that lets you concentrate on the words themselves, is non-existant. That means I have to fuss with magnifications and positioning to get the page where I need it to be. If there is one big improvement the open source community can make to this software, incorporation of a Normal view would be it.

Right-clicking on a page brings up a contextual menu containing most of the things one would expect. Font, Size, Style, Alignment, Line Spacing, and Character Case are all controlled from fly-out menus from a right-click. Character, Paragraph, Page (Styling), Numbering Bullets, and Edit Paragraph Style functions bring up other dialogs from the contextual menus when selected. I liked having access to these things from the contextual menu, but sometimes system response was slow when dealing with them. The Font menu was the worst offender; scrolling down the list of fonts was almost painful on my G4. However, it was the only place where I saw any kind of performance problem; all other dialogs popped up crisply.

Automatic spell checking was on by default; it underlines misspelled words with a wavy red line. Right-clicking on the problem word does bring up the correct spelling. I think I accidentally turned on auto correction, and I found it to be distracting but not intrusive as it often came up with the wrong guess about what word I was typing. Continuing to type took care of the problem.

Running quickly through the menus, I found most of the items I would expect to see in a word processor and a few I hadn't. Under the “Insert” menu was a “Manual Break” item which inserts a line, page, or column break at the cursor. (You choose which one want in a window that pops up when the menu item is selected.) There is also an “Insert/Cross-Reference” item which allows one to insert several types of cross-references (such as other documents or databases). There are lots of other features I haven't seen mentioned in Word I find interesting and seem like they would be especially useful to students, teachers, and researchers. I intend to show Neo Office to my wife who's an associate professor at a local university to get her reaction to it.

Overall, the word processor seemed responsive. During a Save, icons on the main toolbar faded out with a graphical ripple; and I also noticed a spinning blue beachball at times as the software performed other auto functions. Still, Writer is a pretty capable word processor and a great substitute for Microsoft's Office if you can't afford it.

Stand by for other commentary on Writer and Neo Office in particular as I use them over the next few weeks.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The OKI 3200cn – Too Expensive to Run?

A few months ago, I bought an OKIDATA 3200cn color laser printer when Office Depot put it on sale for $399 with a $100 rebate. I posted a few comments about it under a “First Look” blog and got a comment from another 3200 owner who had been using his printer a lot more than I use mine. He was very unhappy with the per page cost of using color with this printer. He’s been running out of toner after only 300 pages, a number far short of the 1500 pages per cartridge OKI claims.

He talked to OKI about it, and they revealed that their 1500 page number was based on a page full of double-spaced text with a small color logo in the upper left corner of the page. Believe me, if I had known this is what they do, I never would have bought this printer.

No one buys a color printer to print primarily double-spaced black text on a page.

I almost never buy anything worth more than $200 without finding some reviews. In this case, no reviews of the printer were available when I found this deal. I also considered buying an HP color laser, but I have always liked the color print quality of the OKI series printers a little more, so I went with the OKI. Now, there are reviews. PC Magazine did one and they noted the high cost per page of this printer.

On a bigger scale, this situation shows one of the problems with buying color printers, i.e., the lack of standards among printer manufacturers when quoting how many pages their consumables will support. There needs to be an industry standard not only to protect the consumer but to enhance competition. I would hope the printer industry would adopt and enforce some because, lacking that, I’m going to suggest that either Congress or the Federal Trade Commission get involved.

I don’t use color a lot. But one of the major reasons I keep a color printer around is to print off batches of mountain lion preservation and safety brochures. If after one run of those, I have to replace $200 worth of color toner, that printer will be gone!

Boot Camp 1.1 and iSight Under Windows

With its latest release of the Boot Camp 1.1 “Beta”, Apple did what I didn’t think they would. Internal iSight cameras on the current Mac line are now supported under Windows. It’s nice—though of limited utility—to have the camera available under Windows, but then there’s one less thing to distinguish the Mac from its Windows counterparts.

I stayed up late last night downloading the beta and loading it onto my Intel powered iMac. It’s a rather large file at 202.4 MB, and the Apple site was apparently fairly loaded, so the download took about 8 minutes to do. Once I had the file on my desktop, I double-clicked on it to launch the installer and, after giving it permission to run, let it do its thing. Once it completed, it did not ask for a reboot, meaning it was ready to go.

It took me a minute to remember that it installs the Boot Camp Assistant into my Applications/Utilities folder. Once I did and launched it, I selected the “Burn Macintosh Drivers CD” item. I inserted a new CD-R disk into my iMac’s Superdrive and then clicked on a “Burn” button on a dialog the utility had presented. The software burned my Macintosh related Windows XP drivers to the CD as well as an installer and an autorun program. I then rebooted the iMac and took it into Windows XP, inserted the CD, and sat back and watched the installer automatically begin. The only thing required of me was to click on several “Continue Anyway” buttons that popped up when Windows XP protested I was loading drivers which had not received full Microsoft certification. Who needs that? Once the installation completed, I rebooted the machine and brought it back into Windows XP.

Of course, the main reason I was staying up was to see if my iMac’s internal iSight camera really would work. Once the machine was settled back into Windows, I brought up MSN Messenger and selected “Start a Video Conversation” to see if I could use it to contact a friend of mine who was online. Messenger brought up a fairly slick wizard that let me select the appropriate camera, check video quality, and then set my microphone input levels automatically as I read a passage. Once that was done, I received an error message that MSN would not let me connect because my buddy didn’t have a video camera, too. Kind of shortsighted of Microsoft not to design MSN Messenger to host one way video chats like iChat does.

I also cranked up Yahoo Messenger and looked at the video it provided in its Preview window. It was grainy and choppy, nothing like the seamless video I see on the Mac side of the house. If that’s how the video appears to Yahoo users (and I’m using a cable modem for Internet access), then I’m surprised it’s very usable.

In the end, I came away feeling that having the iSight support on the Windows side is nice but still nothing like the experience I get on the Mac side of the house using iChat and AOL servers. I tend to think that most Windows’ users don’t know how good video chatting can be, something validated by comments of a computer savvy nephew when he saw an iChat hosted video chat on a couple of Macs. It may well be that Apple knows this and that’s part of the reason they allowed iSight support on the Windows side. Could it be that one of their ulterior motives was to provide another example of just how good Macs are?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Mac Pro Get’s ‘Em (Hail to the New Macs!)

My wife showed me this morning’s Houston Chronicle whose computer columnist is Dwight Silverman. If I’ve ever seen anyone who appears to be addicted to Windows, it’s Dwight. That said, his article this morning spotlighted the Mac Pro. He was admitting he was thinking about buying one even if it was to only run Windows, of course. He routinely uses and mentioned again his daughter, an artist, to fight the sterotype that artists and writers prefer Macs. She tried OS X and didn’t like it. Maybe so. But as a writer and someone who has spent too much time building, troubleshooting, and using PC’s, I definitely prefer Macs and OS X. To each his own; but I can’t help but wonder if her difficulty with OS X has more to do with daddy’s influence or her ability to accept change than the real merits of either OS.

The fact the Mac Pro is making such a splash only bodes well for Apple. It’s not just the Mac Pro doing it. I’ve commented in this blog what a great flight simulator my Intel iMac running Windows XP is. The bottom line is that all the Macs are presenting Windows in an extremely good light, considering.

The article caused me to reexamine, as I often do, where I am with Macs and OS X. Though I initially bitched about Apple’s switch to Intel processors, mainly because I had spent so much money following them onto OS X and the G5, I have to say I now feel the move was a great one. Apple is seeing performance levels and economies they could not have achieved if they had stayed with the PPC platform. So, once again, we’ll bite off the money it will take us to switch over. In the long run, I am convinced we will be happy we did.

Another way I reexamined where I am in ComputerLand was to look at how often I now get calls from family members to help fix their machines. Over the last few years, Connie and I have gradually transitioned many of our family members over to Macs, mainly by giving away and sometimes selling at a very reduced price our old machines. I only get occasional calls to pitch in to fix a Mac but get routine calls from the family members who are still running Windows to help them out. The ratio of trouble calls is on the order of 1 to 5, OS X vs Windows, respectively. And even though neither system is airtight from a security standpoint, I can state without contradiction that 90% of the time when a Windows PC in the family goes down, it’s due to spyware or mailware or viruses. In short, being on OS X has made it so I just don’t wind up fixing a machine all the time whether it’s due to security problems or just bad drivers. Macs aren’t up all the time, but the motto “It just works!” largely holds true.

Frankly, as I stated a day or so ago, I’m so impressed with the Mac Pro I’m tempted to get one now. I’m holding off mainly because Adobe software isn’t available for it and because I need some time to work on getting the money together to equip it like I need. I may still buy my wife an Intel iMac this year and get it ahead of the Mac Pro, but I’m feeling right now that any new notebooks will have to wait until after I have a Mac Pro in the house. We’re getting along just fine with our G4 PowerBooks. For now.

The only sad part about waiting to get a Mac Pro is that Dwight Silverman will probably wind up with one before me, and somehow that don’t seem right…

The Mac Pro – A Great Value Until….

I’m sure most of you know by now that Apple has released its Intel-powered PowerMac replacement, and it is called the Mac Pro. Aimed at professional users, each Mac Pro is powered by twin Core Duo 2 processors, so that every new Mac Pro is essentially a quad CPU machine. The standard configuration comes with 2.66 GHz CPU’s, 1 GB RAM, and a 250 GB SATA II hard drive. It lists for $2499. This is a great value, not only because the cost is lower than Apple’s $2999 (or higher) baseline for a decent performing professional machine but also because it is very price competitive with an equivalent offering from Dell. If you’ve ever thought about running OS X but still want to run Windows either because you routinely use applications not available on the Mac OS or just because you’re unsure about switching to the Mac, you can buy the Mac Pro and not risk anything at all.

Frankly, I’m so impressed with the machine I’m going to get one as soon as it’s practical for me to do so. With this machine, Apple has addressed many of the shortcomings of the last generation G5’s such as too-limited hard drive bay space (two without third party intervention) and space for only one optical drive. The new Mac pro can handle four hard drives natively and has an extra drive bay for a second optical drive. (I recently replaced my Dual G5 PowerMac’s optical drive (a Pioneer DVR-109) with a Pioneer DVR-710, and I intend to keep the 710 around to put in the Mac Pro when I get it.) But I’m not going to order it until next spring for two reasons. One is that I’m not going to get rid of my G5 until I have in my grubby little hands Intel-native versions of my major Adobe applications (Photoshop, Illustrator). The second is because buying memory for the Mac Pro will cost me almost 50% of the machine’s price.

My current dual G5 contains 4GB of DDR RAM. The Mac Pro only comes with 1GB of RAM. To expand it to 4GB from Apple would currently cost $1100. Now, everyone knows Apple always charges an arm and a leg for extra RAM. As I write this, only Other World Computing has DDR2 memory modules that contain the larger heat sinks matching Apple’s thermal specifications; OWC is only selling matched sets of memory in 2, 4, 6, and 8 GB quantities. So, if I ordered the 4 GB set (giving me a total of 5 GB including the factory memory), I’d have to pay $1099. That’s better than the Apple deal since I get 5 GB for that money instead of 4, but it still amounts to an additional 44% of the machine’s total price. My $2499 Mac pro now becomes a $3598 machine.

True, if I sell or trade in my G5, the cost difference falls to somewhere between $2098 to $2498. But, essentially, that means that my dual G5 PowerMac is worth just a tad more than the memory I’m sticking in the new machine. Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite right. As much as I’d like to have a Mac Pro now, I’m going to hold off until I save up more money and the Adobe applications fall in.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

If the iTunes Music store stops…

As an author, I support most of the DRM efforts on the part of Apple and others to protect copyrighted material. I’ll caveat that by also stating I feel that some parties are using copyright protection as a ploy to control in a way that far exceeds the intent of copyright protection. That’s a discussion for another day. Because I feel the way I do about copyright protection in general, I have no problems with buying and downloading material from iTunes and living with its restrictions.

There is one exception, however, and it is when I consider the idea of what happens if the iTunes Music Store shuts down. Apple’s recent legal filings with the Norwegian consortium trying to address that issue have not left me comfortable that Apple even has a plan, and there is a good chance that iTunes customers could, at some point, be left out in the cold. That’s unacceptable.

When faced with obsolescing some of its operating systems that use activation, Microsoft planned to essentially deactivate the affected OS’s activation schemes so customers could continue to use them. This is the correct approach. Hopefully, if Apple ever felt it wanted to let go of iTunes, it would take the same approach; and sometime just before the store was activated, it would send some kind of command or issue a software update that would allow previously purchased material to be played without restriction. Otherwise, Apple and DRM laws are cheating consumers of their rights. Consumers need to understand this is a risk they’re taking, and that depending on iTunes content alone for their favorite material could be problematic at some point.

I am in that camp. I love the Battlestar Gallactica TV series and have been purchasing every one published via iTunes. I’ve also recently started collecting Babylon 5 shows. I love watching them when I’m working out on my exercise bike, and it’s cheaper buying them from iTunes than buying them on DVD. However, if I consider the possibility that I could wind up holding the bag if the iTunes Music Store goes away, then buying the DVD’s looks more attractive. I can still watch them while working out by using a portable DVD player or by taking the other less legal route of ripping the DVD’s off and putting them on my iPod. For now, I’ll continue buying my stuff from iTunes.

Be warned, Apple. If I think for an instant that decision is backing me into a corner, it will be the last iTunes purchase I ever make.