The Computer Blog

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Still Struggling After All These Years

I was fortunate enough to visit with my sister and her family last weekend, and she mentioned she needed a notebook because she was on the go a lot. She was waiting for WalMart’s $300 or $400 notebook computer running Windows. For the last few years, her main computer has been a “sunflower” iMac running OS X (first, Jaguar and now Panther); and she’s really grown to like it. I have to assume she hasn’t been considering a MacBook because of cost. They still have a kid in college, and they are a single-income family.

I shot her an e-mail note a few days ago to ask if she would be interested in my wife’s current PowerBook. It’s a 12 inch, 1 GHz G4 with 1 GB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a Combo drive, USB 2.0 and FW 400 ports, a 10/100 Ethernet Port, an internal modem, and an Airport Extreme card. She replied she was, so now I’m figuring out our notebook upgrade plan all over again. I hadn’t planned on doing any notebook upgrades for a few more months, so moving the timetable up means I’m going to have to use a credit card. I’m doing an inventory now of our accounts to figure out which one to use.

Moreover, the question is: whose PowerBook do I upgrade first? Well, the most practical answer says I upgrade my wife’s machine and put her into a MacBook. We were at MicroCenter a day or so ago, and she told me she preferred the black MacBook over the white. I can make the $150 “black” cost differential more reasonable by either ordering from Amazon where there is a $100 rebate or ordering a refurbished model and save $100 more. I can also buy "new" from PowerMax and trade-in my wife’s 17 inch 1.8 GHz G5 iMac as part of the deal. I suspect I can get $500 in trade for the thing, which would bring my “new” cost down to about $999. But I have yet to ask about it, so I really don’t know what I'd get. Selling the iMac on eBay would probably net between $500 and $600.

The other and very-much-more-expensive option would be for me to buy a new MacBook Pro, give my wife my 12 inch 1.5 GHz G4 PowerBook, and hand hers off to my sister. I’m leaning heavily now toward spending the extra money for a 15 inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo model and have decided to go the “build-to-order” route by paying an extra $100 for a 160GB hard drive and $175 to equip it with 2 GB of RAM from the start. That puts the cost at $2274. That’s almost as much as it will cost to buy a Mac Pro, something I want to do next year after Adobe releases its Universal Binary versions of its Pro applications. That said, I’d still be on the hook to get my wife a new MacBook.

This switch to Intel is getting very expensive.

I could just buy my sister a G4 PowerBook, but the prices on them are still so high that it makes no sense to me to pour any money in that direction.

I’m also wasting a lot of time trying to sort all this stuff out. From that standpoint, I sometimes feel like just buying what I need to get “the Intel transition” over with and eating the cost. I’m very comfortable with where Apple’s models are, something that wasn’t true until the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro updates.

I didn’t want to retire anyway…(not true, but it is what I tell myself).

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tech Tool Pro Hoses My PowerMac

I’m fairly disciplined about keeping backups. My preferred method has been to use Disk Utility’s Restore function to back up my entire boot hard disk on every machine. I handle incremental backups by copying specific folders to my network hard drive in between major backups using Disk Utility. When Apple’s Time Machine gets here, I’ll more than likely use it to perform even better backups.

Yesterday, I bought a Maxtor 300 GB External Hard Disk so I could back up the boot drive on my G5 PowerMac which I had just reconfigured as my “prime” machine and is also some 300GB big. When the I hooked the external drive up and tried to use Disk Utility’s Restore function to clone the PowerMac’s drive to it, the copying terminated with an error message telling me a file was missing. After getting the message twice, I ran First Aid’s “Repair Disk” function, which also terminated with an error message that pointed to a B-Tree error. A second try resulted in the same result, so I turned to MicroMat’s Tech Tool Pro. Booting up on its CD, I ran its Volume and File Repair functions.

That was a Big Mistake!

Once it completed, I rebooted the PowerMac on its own hard disk. The Apple logo appeared, followed quickly thereafter with a message telling me I needed to hold the power button down to restart my machine. Another reboot got me the same result. Kernel panic!

I rebooted using the Tech Tool CD and tried to use its tools to repair the hard disk again. No joy. The system booted thereafter with the same message and problem as before.

I figured the only way to recover from that was to reinstall OS X using its “Archive and Install” option. But when I tried to do it, I discovered the Installer could not find the machine’s boot disk, only Hard Disk 2. What now?

All my disk utilities were seeing both drives; but since Tech Tool was not going to solve the problem, I beat feet down to the local Comp USA and bought a copy of DiskWarrior. I had always heard it was good at recovering this kind of thing. Not this time. But it did tell me that the disk was not recoverable because another disk utility had written over critical directory information. Nice!!! A hundred bucks for DiskWarrior down the drain (at least for now)…

I had backed up my PowerMac with an external FW400 hard drive, so I attached it to my PowerMac and rebooted, holding down the Option key. The PowerMac showed me three options for booting. One was the original but hosed OS X hard drive, one was the OS X Tiger DVD, and the other was the OS X installed external Hard Drive. I chose the latter, and the PowerMac booted up on it. I then used Disk Utility to first erase the PowerMac’s original boot hard drive and then used the Restore function to copy everything on the external drive to the PowerMac. That would take me back to the state of the PowerMac before I moved all my stuff onto it. It took an hour and a half or so for that to happen.

Once I had the PowerMac up and running on its own hard drive, I installed the Mac OS 10.4.8 Combo Update from a DVD copy and then ran Software Update until I had pulled down every update there was. That got the operating system, my Apple iLife and iWork applications, and my Apple Pro applications back up to speed. With that done, I began copying my user data from its storage on my network hard drive and from a FW 400 external drive that still contained the last backup of my Intel iMac, including my iTunes and iPhoto libraries. That took several more hours to complete.

With nearly all my data recovered, I inventoried my applications and discovered I needed to reinstall Photoshop and Illustrator CS2 as well as InDesign and GoLive CS. While I was expecting otherwise, I was hoping the CS2 applications would activate since I was reinstalling them on the same machine. They did, happily; and I then ran the Adobe Updater to download the patches that would take all my stuff to the latest versions.

I launched Word to test it out; and though it booted properly, I got a message telling me that an error had occurred when trying to launch Microsoft Framework. Traveling to Microsoft’s support site turned out to be a waste of time; there was nothing that gave me any insight about how to fix that. A Google search also turned up nothing substantive. The easiest thing to do was to reinstall Office, so I popped its CD into my Superdrive and dragged the Office 2004 folder to the Applications folder on my hard disk. The system dutifully copied everything over. I then launched Word and did not get the error message, and the Microsoft Updater took over and downloaded the office 11.2.5 update. With that installed, all I needed to do was to fetch some of the document templates I had built; and I copied them from my iMac’s backup to the same folder on the PowerMac.

At this point, my losses look pretty small. I discovered I was missing a few photos out of my iPhoto library, and my iTunes library had everything except for the last 4 episodes of Eureka I downloaded. They are on my iPod, so I may try to recover them from there this evening. I’m also missing a couple of movies I encoded myself, so I’ll have to spend some time making copies of them again. But the next thing I intend to do is backup the PM’s main hard drive like I had been trying to do when all this started. I’m going to look at the backup software that came with the Maxtor external drive and see if it might help me construct a better backup system than I’ve got until Time Machine arrives via Leopard. But I’ll make sure I have some kind of complete backup before I go to bed tonight. I’m not going to risk going to sleep without one, lest I wake and have to reload everything from scratch…again!

You can bet I won’t use Tech Tool Pro for any more disk repairs. I’m going to stick with DiskWarrior. Tech Tool has some other comprehensive tests that seem to work fairly well, but I’m not sure if I’m going to leave it on the machine or remove it altogether.

Despite the losses, the set up I have now is the better one. I’ve been able to reload my operating system and data and not lose much, i.e., kind of a fresh start of sorts. I’ll be spending some time tweaking things to get them back to exactly where they were and more time backing up; but when I’m done, I’ll have comprehensive backups for everything.

At least for a hard disk failure, I can pop in a new one and go from there. If I still had an Intel iMac when that happened, I’d have to turn it into my Apple Care provider to do the same thing.

Apple Battery Dilemma Solved

Despite Apple’s Customer Service telling me the replacement battery (for the replacement battery) wouldn’t ship for 10 days, I got the new one the next day. It fits, and I am running it in my PowerBook.

Oddly, the return batteries ship back to Apple in different ways. The original battery (supposedly defective) is returning via the United States Postal Service (USPS) while the known defective (it won’t fit) replacement battery is going back via DHL.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bad Apple Battery...Again

The battery on my G4 PowerBook was one of those Sony-made deals Apple has recalled. I put the appropriate info into the Battery Exchange section of the Apple Support site some four weeks or more ago, and I got the exchange battery today. The only problem is that the thing wouldn’t fit! The metal casing the battery resides on and that forms part of the PowerBook’s shell seemed slightly warped, producing a hard and poor fit.

I knew from several Internet forums that other Apple users had seen the same thing, and that’s partly what keyed me to look for this problem.

I called Apple Care; and after getting routed through Support to a Product Care Specialist in Austin, I explained to her the problem. She’s sending me a new battery using DHL Overnight; so, it will get here fast once shipped but won’t ship for another 10 days. To ensure I send both batteries back to them, they made me give them a credit card number, which I did without complaint. If they charge the card and I’ve followed their instructions, I’ll complain then!

This gets back again to the problems Apple continues to have with their quality control. Some things will always get through, but the fact I knew the problem existed from the comments of others suggests this is not an isolated problem. Seems like Apple would have been looking at these batteries very closely. One glance at the malformed batteries by anyone who knows PowerBook batteries would have told them in an instant that something was wrong.

Mystery App Answers the Phone

I was in my office using my dual G5 PowerMac when my wife called on the home phone. I picked up the phone just after the fourth ring and the answering machine picked up. It let go; but then, as we started to speak, our voices were shredded by a high-pitched tone. Somewhere, a PC fax modem had answered the call, looking for incoming faxes.

The only computer on was the G5, so I disconnected the phone chord to it. Sure enough, the screeching went away.

After we talked, I went back to find out why the G5 had answered the phone. While I had copies of Faxstf (and Faxstf X) loaded on the machine, neither of them had been running at the time. I launched each one and set preferences that would tell the modem not to pick up and then used my cell phone to call the home phone to see if the modem would still answer. It did. Since I wasn’t really using that software, I dragged both copies to the Trash, searched for and deleted the preference files, and then tried the modem again. It still answered. Something else had to be driving the modem.

Pulling up System Preferences, I found the problem. Under “Printers and Fax”, the OS X setting told the modem to receive faxes and pick up after four rings. I disabled the “Receive Fax” function and tried the modem again. This time it didn’t answer.

What’s puzzling about that was I thought I’d had the G5 PM hooked up to the phoneline for some time. Guess not.

Conflict! – Mac OS 10.4.8 (Intel) and Logitech Control Center 2.11

This weekend I reloaded our Intel powered iMac with OS X and then transferred my wife’s user data from her G5 1.8 GHz iMac to it. As part of the software reloading process, I ran Software Update and one of the packages it pulled down was the new Mac OS 10.4.8 Combo Updater. That all seemed to go fine. I didn’t see any problems with the machine.

Yesterday was the first day my wife interfaced with her university’s Windows-centric network, and her mouse started locking up. She is using a USB-connected, blue Logitech MX510. The mouse has always operated without problems until now. The mouse cursor hung, and I had her try to use the keyboard to call up the “Force-Quit” dialog, something she was able to do. When that worked, I knew the problem centered around the mouse and not everything USB. While I thought I had downloaded the latest Logitech control center, a Universal Binary, last night, I talked her through a download of the software again. It is Logitech Control Center 2.11. I had her run the Uninstaller, reboot the iMac, and then run the Installer. The problem came back. I asked her to Uninstall the software. The problem disappeared when Logitech Control Center software was removed.

Interestingly, I am running this same software (Logitech Control Center 2.11) on my G4 and G5 powered Macs and am not seeing any problems there, even with the 10.4.8 update. Whatever is causing the problem seems to only affect Intel-powered iMacs.

I’ve tried uninstalling and reinstalling the software; but, days after, we’re still seeing the mouse hang up occasionally. I’m not seeing comments on the ‘Net about this being a widespread problem, so I’m unsure what’s causing it. I’m going to try reinstalling the 10.4.8 Combo Upgrade and see if that helps. If not, I’ll have to give my wife the options of uninstalling the Logitech software until it or OS X is updated or cycling her mouse by unplugging it and plugging it back into her keyboard every time it happens, which fortunately is not that often.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Different Direction

I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about how to get me and my wife where I wanted to go, and I finally figured it out Saturday afternoon.

For some weeks, I’ve been looking at what the next step in our shift to Intel powered Macs would be. I also have been becoming more and more aware of the limitations of the Intel iMac. I’ve had few problems running Adobe Photoshop CS2, Illustrator CS2, In Design CS, or Go Live CS; but I still notice the speed hit I take on it when I return to run the same on my dual G5 PowerMac. Live Paint crashes on my Intel iMac anytime I try to run it, but runs on my G5 flawlessly. I also have been feeling that Connie needed an Intel powered Mac more than I did. She has a Compaq iPaq her university gave her that synchs up with a Windows computer; and she has been wanting an iMac with an internal iSight. That made getting her an iMac the obvious solution, but I wasn’t sure that was the best one. I have been working pretty hard to get us out of credit card debt, so I wanted to limit spending on anything I did to around $1000. I’d go higher if I had to; and the problem with buying any kind of iMac was that I was going to have to.

I’m much more of a power user than my wife; so, I felt that if I was going to buy a Core 2 Duo powered iMac, I’d take it and give her my Core Duo. We both think the 24 inch iMac is pretty sweet; and we both also had doubts that the big screen alone was worth an extra $500. I ultimately decided not to buy one because of the machine’s 3 GB limit on RAM and the inability to upgrade the hard disk without voiding the warranty. By the time I equipped a 24 inch iMac with all the memory it could hold, it would cost more than a basic Mac Pro.

In a blog a few weeks ago, I mentioned I was thinking of giving up my iMac altogether and just working from a tower. I’ve always liked having a distinct computer for video editing because once I start rendering or encoding, the machine is lost for all practical purposes until it finishes. Frankly, I’m not doing that much video editing, and most of the time, my dual PowerMac has been sitting unused.

That said, Friday night I almost bit into buying an Intel iMac. The Apple Store had a “refreshed” 20 inch Core Duo iMac for $999. In reality, the “refreshed” machine was a demo, and Connie and I both had misgivings about buying a demo, even though the price was right. So, that put me back in a quandry about how to solve this problem. All I knew was that the best solution would optimize the assets I already had.

I spent some time at a local MicroCenter and the Apple Store both Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and my solution finally came to me. I could buy a new 23 inch Apple Cinema Display for $999,run my Dual PowerMac G5 on it, resurrect my PC and put it on my 20 inch Apple Cinema Display currently on the G5 PM, and then turn over my Intel iMac to my wife. We could sell her old iMac for five or six hundred dollars to recover most of the cost of the display, and I'd answer my own questions about running on a tower alone. If I liked that well enough, in the middle of or late next year, I could step up to a Mac Pro and sell my G5 PowerMac or give it away. This would also allow me to stage my software purchases without taking a performance penalty by delaying. Since I would be running native software I already own, I could buy the new Universal versions of Office and Adobe when I was "ready" in every sense of the word.

The one kink in the plan was the Apple 23 inch display’s notoriety for the “pink problem” and the generic risk one takes buying any new display (dead or stuck on pixels). I knew that Apple had revised the displays just a few months ago and the pink problem had been addressed in the new batch, the serial number of which was listed on Barefeats.com. Using the information from the site as a reference, I copied down the serial number on a piece of paper and took it with me.

Once in the Apple Store, I took time to evaluate my options one last time. I looked again at the 24 inch iMac, a 20 inch iMac, but spent most of my time looking at a 23 inch Cinema Display. Once I was sure I knew what I wanted, I flagged down a young salesman and asked him to get me a 23 inch display with the serial number in a range at or above the number on the paper. He looked at me funny but did just that, and I bought it.

Once I got it home, I reconfigured systems. The first steps involved making sure I had moved all my data from my Intel powered iMac onto my G5 PowerMac. Once done, I repartitioned the drive in my Intel iMac and reloaded OS X from its original DVD's. During the first boot up afterwards, I used the Migration Assistant to move my wife’s data off her old 17 inch G5 iMac onto the “new” Intel via Firewire, a process that took well over an hour. Once that was complete, I ran Software Update on the Intel until it had everything, including the just releaased Mac OS 10.4.8 update. Once complete, I hauled the Intel iMac out to my wife’s desk and completed the setup by hooking up her keyboard and mouse, and going through her applications to update the ones I could to Universal Binaries.

I then moved the G5 PowerMac over to my desk, unpacked the new 23 inch display, and hooked it up. Its connectors included a DVI cable, a Firewire cable, a USB 2.0 cable, and a small cable with an oval connector that hooked into a small power block. These connectors merged into a single cable that flowed into the back of the Cinema Display. Unlike the ADC Apple Cinema Displays that have a button on the display that turns on your system, these displays turn on when you turn on your system using its power button.

Much to my relief, there were no dead pixels on the display. At first I thought that backlighting was uneven and that the display was more brightly lit on the top, but a little experimentation showed that my desktop backgrounds were making it appear that way and the lighting was even. (Some of Apple’s Aqua desktop backgrounds use varying shades of blue and while they’re appealing, they’ll also throw you off if you’re trying to evaluate monitors.)

Like all new Apple monitors, this one’s screen appears slightly dirty against a bright white background and compared to the screen of my ADC 20 incher. I’m told that’s due to an anti-glare coating. When you look at the 23 incher in near proximity with the 20 incher, the latter appears brighter. It's also hard to tell that the 23 incher is really bigger, though a few minutes with a ruler proved that to be an optical illusion created by the ADC's large plastic frame.

At one thousand dollars, the monitor is priced a couple of hundred dollars higher than it needs to be. I paid the premium because of the display’s aesthetics and because it is supposed to be matched up with my G5, which it does appear to be. I thought about buying a Dell 24 inch display but didn’t because of those things and because the Apple has Firewire 400 ports on it, something the Dell doesn't. Also, even though it cost an extra $99, Apple now sells Apple Care for solo displays, extending your warranty out to a full three years; and something they also didn't use to do. Hooray for them; that took away any hesitancy I had about committing that much money.

So, how do I like this set-up? I do. It doesn’t have the elegance of my iMac’s; but from a practical and performance perspective, it is much better. It’s a nice, clear, expansive desktop. My only real complaints don’t center on the display but around my G5, whose fans seem to cycle up at the slightest increase in CPU workload. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put up with that and not get so disgusted I buy a Mac Pro before the software and my finances are ready. The only other thing I’ve noticed is that the display is so big I can feel some heat coming off it; though to the touch, the display is only very slightly warmer than room temperature. Compared to the heat the G5 PM puts in the room, it is nothing.

So, what my computer plans for us? My next purchase will be a Mac Pro (hopefully) no earlier than the middle of next year and definitely after Adobe releases Universal Binary versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, In Design, and Go Live; and I have acquired each of them. I will move on one or more notebook purchases if one of our current PowerBooks crap out; but for the moment, they’re still going strong and replacements will come after the Mac Pro gets a home here.

Stay tuned.

Neither of us really knows what I’m going to do.