The Computer Blog

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The MacBook Pro Entertainment Center

A lot folks have been buying Mac Minis to use to power an entertainment center. My wife and I have talked about that; and after I run some tests using my wife’s MacBook, we too might do the same. But with the heavy outpouring of cash that went on this Christmas, it was something I didn’t want to do right this moment. Instead, I wanted to see how our Mac notebooks would fare in its place.

We got a gracious gift of some cash from my in-laws, so Connie and I used that to buy an HDTV LCD. We picked up a 32 inch WinBook model for $699 nfore a $100 mail-in rebate. The WinBook TV has composite, coaxial, and HDMI inputs. For the first couple of days after we bought it, we suffered through with a regular digital cable box until we could get an HDTV box from Time-Warner. We got the HDTV box yesterday and have been really enjoying the super brightness and clarity of HDTV. Yet, that was only a small part of the HDTV-centric entertainment center I wanted to put together. I wanted to be able to see super-DVD movies, listen to music and videos stored on Macs about the house, and do all those “digital hubs” things Macs are supposed to do. So, I was curious to see if we could make it happen with the Macs we already owned.
A lot of people are holding their breath for Apple’s iTV that’s to be released next year. Yet, the product descriptions so far have implied that this device will allow you to stream music and videos from Macs in the house to your TV. Why couldn’t I already do that with the Macs I have using our 54g wireless home network?

After setting the HDTV to take HDMI input, I unhooked my MacBook Pro from its desktop setup in my office and set it on the entertainment center in front of our HDTV. I plugged it into the HDTV using an overpriced Inland DVI to HDMI cable, plugged in its power adapter, and plugged in the external audio port to an Altec Lansing ATP3 stereo speaker set. Cracking the MBP’s lid open, I pushed the Power button and then shut the lid, moving back to our couch where I logged into it using an Apple Wireless Keyboard. (This step is not necessary if you don’t have your Mac password protected.) The HDTV came alive with the MBP’s Desktop. I checked to make sure that the MBP was connected to our home network (which has its SSID turned off and is password protected—isn’t yours?) and then launched iTunes. Walking back to my office, I started my dual G5 PowerMac and launched iTunes on it. Since it was already set up for sharing, I went back into my living room, sat down on my couch, and using the Apple Remote that came with my MBP, launched Front Row. I then navigated to the Music category, Shared Folders, and selected a Battlestar Galactica episode. It began playing on my HDTV!
I played both a song and a music video to try those out, too, and they all streamed across the network beautifully!
Next I ran some DVD movies, not only to test how they would work with this set-up but also to compare picture quality betweenmy MacBook Pro and our Toshiba DVD player. As you might suspect, since the MBP to HDTV connection is purely digital, the MBP won that contest. Secondly, I found I could control all DVD player functions from the Apple Remote. In fact, as a general rule, once Front Row is launched, a keyboard or mouse is not needed until time to shut down to MBP or deal with some unexpected problem.
The only hassle associated with this type of set-up is its set up and breakdown. I could minimize that by buying another MBP power adapter; part of the hassle is moving the TV around to plug and unplug the MBP in a power strip behind the two of them. But I am leaning heavily toward buying a Mac mini to leave hooked in place in front of the TV to control out streaming video and music and to use as a DVD player. It’s likely I might also put it to use as a DVR at some point, though I haven’t investigated that. My next test is to use my wife’s MacBook with its lesser GMA950 video processor to see if there is any noticeable performance degradation. I hope to do that tonight; there is a rented copy of Ricky Bobby waiting to be played.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Quick Look – Using Parallels Desktop with Boot Camp

I’m not sure if Parallels Desktop was available when I set up my wife’s Core Duo iMac using Boot Camp. All I can tell you is that for the last few months, she’s wanted to launch Windows XP without having to reboot. So, one of the gifts I gave her for Christmas was a copy of Parallels Desktop for Mac. There was only one hitch. I didn’t have another copy of Win XP Pro to use with it.

A couple of weeks ago, Parallels announced that they were releasing a beta copy that would work with Boot Camp. Since that seemed to be exactly the solution I was looking for, I decided to download the beta and try it out on her machine. It took me a while to dig up the proper link to find the download; like the Adobe Photoshop CS3 beta I downloaded a week or so ago, I found a notice and the proper link in a forum. The notice stressed I also needed to download Parallels Tools and install it before installing Parallels Desktop itself, so I complied, performing the download from my wife’s iMac and its XP desktop.

Parallels Tools installed invisibly; once I was sure the installation was complete, I rebooted the iMac into OS X. I then downloaded the Parallels Desktop 2 Beta which I installed on the machine and launched Parallels which greeted me with a wizard that wanted to configure the system for Windows XP. But as I stumbled through the thing, I learned it was built to lead one through a new XP installation. I was on the wrong road for using Boot Camp; and how to get to the right one, I couldn’t see. I did a search in the Help function for “Boot Camp” causing the links and articles explaining it all popped up in Safari. I needed to use the Custom Installation function, it said. Once I did, I found a radio button allowing me to “Use Boot Camp” as the Parallels hard disk. I stepped through the rest of the installation process in a few steps.

Once I was done, I was looking at a white window telling me about a Windows XP virtual machine. When I punched its Start button (a green arrowhead), the white window flipped around using a Cube transition to present me a window containing black and white text, just like a PC BIOS screen. It presented me with two choices, i.e., Windows XP Professional and Parallels Configuration. It took me a couple of starts to understand that the “Windows XP Professional” choice was the same as offering me a boot into XP using Boot Camp, something that wasn’t going to work from where I was. Choosing Parallels Configuration led me to another window that asked me to pick from “Profile 1” and “Parallels Configuration”. After playing with it awhile, I felt that “Profile 1” was the machine/XP configuration as set in Boot Camp, and the Parallels Configuration was XP configured to run with Parallel’s virtualized components. The latter worked with fewer annoyances.

Windows XP speed under Parallels appeared to be very good. For the most part, I was able to control window size (including giving the virtual machine the full screen) and keyboard and mouse functions fairly easily. After running XP in Parallels, I shut it down and booted the machine into XP using Boot Camp. When I did, XP sent me a message telling me the machine’s configuration had changed noticeably, and I needed to Activate XP again. I did that. It took. I discovered though, that this would happen each and every time I booted from Boot Camp into Parallels or vice versa.

Yes, this was using beta software and might get changed; but since the activation is being controlled by XP, I have some doubt this will be fixed. If it doesn’t, that’s a major problem. No one’s going to want to hold their breath every time they’ve got to walk XP through activation. That said, if you activate Windows either in Boot Camp or Parallels and then return to that medium the next time you work in Windows, reactivation is not required.

The other thing I noticed was that it now took more work and time to get into XP via Boot Camp. The two text menus I mentioned earlier during the Parallels based boot up now also show during the Boot Camp boot.

Maybe all this will get fixed when the final release hits the streets. If not, though the situation is workable, my recommendation would be that one either set up their Intel Mac to work via Boot Camp or install XP through Parallels. The dual set-up sounds like it would be the best of both worlds; but, in this case, it doesn’t turn out to be true. Triggering multiple activations of Windows XP is like playing Russian Roulette; one never know when they’re going to get hit with the bullet and die.

The PowerMax Experiment – A Success!

When I decided to press ahead with upgrading our Apple notebooks, I decided to try trading in a couple of our "not needed" systems to PowerMax. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re one of the major online Mac retailers, and they're located in Oregon. The two systems we could trade-in to PowerMax were a 17 inch 1.8 GHz G5 iMac and a 12 inch 1GHz G4 PowerBook. The trades would be coiunted toward the purchase of a black Core Duo MacBook.

After looking at what systems like ours were bringing on eBay, I contacted PowerMax and asked for quotes on trade-in value for them. Gary Mead was our sale person and he sent back quotes of $625 for the iMac and $550 for the PowerBook. Frankly, I thought those were pretty damn good values; so, I agreed to buy a black MacBook from PowerMax and trade the systems against it.

While I might have been able to get more money for the systems on eBay, the market values were so close to what I could get that I was willing to give up some bucks to trade against the uncertainties of dealing with the fraud possibilities of an online sale.

Well, all that was about five weeks ago. A few days back, I got an e-mail telling me that I had been credited for the systems we shipped. The credit showed up on my credit card yesterday, about four days after I had received the e-mail notification. PowerMax had credited me for the full amount they had quoted! It was a deal I couldn’t beat!

Sometime late next year (after I get the MacBook and the MacBook Pro I bought later paid off), I am probably going to move to a Mac Pro. When I am, you can bet I’ll contact PowerMax and see what kind of trade-in value I can get on my dual G5 PowerMac. I'll have to trade its quote against a $200 deduction I know I'll get using either a government or academic deal; but my bet is that the differential would still be big enough to make it worth doing again.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The New Word - Previewing Word 2007

I am writing this using the Microsoft Office 2007 trial version of Word. The first thing I noticed was the new layout which is tab rather than menu oriented. On first glance, I like it! It seems to put most of the highly used functions up front where you can find them.

Microsoft is now allowing a 60 day trial of all the various versions of the new Office, so I chose to take a look at the Standard version. It comes with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and plethora of Office Tools, including Microsoft Picture Editor, Clip Organizer, Snapshot Viewer, and others. It also installed a set of Small Business Tools which include a Business Planner, Direct Mail Manager, and Customer and Financial Managers. I’m going to limit my comments during this trial period to Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

Since many of you know I’m primarily a Mac person, you may be wondering if there’s a new version of Office available for the Mac. The answer is “no”. I am running this on my Mac but under Windows XP using Boot Camp. Later, I may get my wife to let me try this software out on her iMac using Windows XP and Parallels. I would not expect the behavior of the software to be any different using virtualization, but you never know.

One of the things I noticed about the new Word interface right away was the automatic word count along the right hand lower border of the application window. As a writer, I find that very handy. Right-clicking on it produced a dialog entitled “Customize Status Bar”. This dialog let me add or subtract features to the status bar at the bottom of the application window. Left clicking on the Word Count item brought up a dialog containing more information about the word count, i.e., page counts, word count, character count, lines, etc.

The second thing I noticed about the new version of Word was that automatic spell checking seemed to be turned off. That made me want to look for a spell checker, which I finally found in the Review tab. In this case, I had to perform an extra step (go to the Review tab and call it up) to find, use, and change settings on the Spell Checker than I would have had to do in a menu driven version of Word. I suspect that the new interface will prove to hold a lot of those kinds of trade-offs when it comes to users getting used to it. Still, I think the new interface is much better. This is the only Windows version of Word I like as much as I do Office 2004 on the Mac. There’s no doubt that it’s because this version of Windows Word is more Mac-like. What else at this point would one expect?

One funky thing I discovered when saving the document is that the old “Save As” command was nowhere to be found. I saved the initial version of this write-up in Microsoft’s new XML format to see how much trouble it would give my Mac and older versions of Windows’ Office. Then, I wanted to save it out as a standard Microsoft Word Document (.doc) format. I finally found it by going into the “Customize Quick Access Toolbar Options” (hidden behind a little tab arrow pointing downward while sitting in the top left corner of the window), selecting “All Commands” in the “Customize” section of its dialog, and then adding the “Save As” command to the Toolbar, a tiny one in the upper left hand corner of the screen.

I’ll be playing with this new copy of Office 2007 as various tasks I need to do in
Office pop up. Come on back to stay in touch with my impressions of it.

Author’s Note: After completing this article, I took a look at whether I could find an easy way to open a .docx file on a Mac. I found a utility on the Net called “Docx Converter”. The utility is web based, i.e., meaning you select the file you want converted from a web page and it displays the converted document in your browser. It works great, but I don’t know I want to open a .docx file so badly I want to allow a website I know nothing about access to it. There is also a .docx converter widget that lets you do the conversion on your own system, but I couldn’t get it to work and have uninstalled it.

I also tried opening the file in Open Office 2.0 Beta using the Microsoft Word 2003 XML filter, but it hung the application.

I did find a way to open the file and retrieve the text using tools almost every Mac owner owns. Start by changing the .docx extension on the file to .zip and double-click on it. Stuff It Expander will expand the file into a folder with the same name as the document. Inside the folder you will find another folder entitled "word". Open that and drag the "document.xml" file onto your desktop. Open Text Edit and open the file. You can now strip out all the code and get the text, albeit unformatted, and copy and paste it into the word processor you're using.

To test Office 2007's straihgt .doc format, I also took a version of this article saved out of Office 2007 in .doc format and opened it using Office 2004 for Mac. It did open without problems though it took the application noticeably longer to convert it than other .doc documents I have saved, including those made by Open Office.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

First Use of Photoshop CS3 (or Why I'm Going to Keep Photoshop CS2 Around a Bit Longer)

On Sunday my wife hauled our Yellow Labrador named Rocky down to PetSmart to get his picture taken with Santa Claus. They took two shots using a Polaroid camera which my wife brought home and promptly requested I try to fix. He had the worst case of Dog Red Eye I had seen, there were some pixels missing in certain parts of the picture, and they had left his leash on. She wanted me to remove it.

So, I called up Photoshop CS3 Beta on my trusty MacBook Pro, happy to put it to its first real job. I hooked it up to my Epson Perfection 1660 scanner. However, I discovered fairly quickly that Photoshop did not see my scanner. To see if I could remedy that, I downloaded and re-installed TWAIN drivers for Intel Macs from the Epson website. That did not fix the problem. I promptly called up CS2 which did have my scanner and used CS2 to scan the image into the machine, saving it on my desktop in Photoshop format (.psd). Later, I checked the Photoshop CS3 installation on my G5 PowerMac and found that it did have the scanner and I successfully scanned the image directly into the software using the PPC based machine. This is a problem apparently only suffered on Intel Macs.

I tried to use the Red Eye Tool to take out the whites of Rocky's eyes, but the tool only darkened his nose. I removed that effect and switched over to Clone Tool and tried using some dark color around his eye sockets to color in his eyes, but it was too dark. Removing that effect, I created a new layer and then chose the Ellipse tool and held down the Shift key to draw circles that covered his white eyeballs. I picked the darkest brown I could find in the Swatches Pallet and used that to create a fill for the circles. That looked pretty good, except I still had a telltale white ring at the edges of the pupils. Zooming in heavily, I used the Clone toll and some black to take out the white rings. Back at 100% magnification, I thought the effect looked good; so I moved on to the biggest task, somehow removing the sky blue leash and silver chain left dangling around the dog's neck during the shot. I used the Clone Tool exclusively for that, zooming in often to 1000% or more to meticulously replace the leash's pixels with those from Rocky's stomach and fur. It was painstaking work that took over an hour. I also used the Blur Tool in order to smooth out some fur on Santa's gloves that had been impacted by removal of the leash.

In Photoshop CS2, selecting either of those tools presents you with a closed (nearly circular) cursor that reflects the size of the selected brush. In CS3 on my MacBook Pro, only the center of the cursor was visible. I saw some instances where the cursor disappeared. CS2 acts normally on my MBP, and CS3 acts normally on my G5 PowerMac. Again, the disappearing cursor problem seems limited to the Intel Macs.

Once I had finished the picture work, I selected the Crop Tool only to find that the cropping mask lagged behind the position of my cursor. I also could not get it to move as far to the right as I needed it, even though the cursor was beyond the picture frame. I closed CS3 and opened CS2 and cropped the picture normally.

I saved the picture as a .JPG using CS3, and that seemed to work well. But I guess I just found out why they call it “beta software”. Certainly, if you're any kind of a professional thinking about moving to CS3, don't, at least not without a copy of CS2 there to bail you out when you find something that doesn't work. Wait. CS3 is a great piece of software and will be really great when the final version is released; but, until then, it just ain't ready for prime time. You'll need to keep CS2 around for a bit longer.

Using iTunes or iPhoto with a Different Library

My main iTunes and iPhoto libraries are on my dual G5 PowerMac (PM). There’s just not enough room on my MacBook Pro’s (MBP) hard disk to copy them over, so I’ve been looking for some way to use the MBP with the PowerMac’s libraries other than having to turn the PM on, connect it to the network, and use the network to Share the library.

Trying to open a library by switching the Library location in iTunes Preferences hadn’t worked well. The application kept trying to copy the data in the main library to the MBP, and that would have run me out of room in no time. I found a setting that turned the propensity to copy off, but still didn’t find myself booting into the PM’s iTunes library hosted on a backup Firewire hard drive.

I managed to find an article on Apple’s Support site that told me how to get the whole thing to work exactly the way I wanted. The trick is to use the Option key.

Holding down the Option key before starting iTunes will boot it into a window that asks if you want to copy or choose another library. In my case, I turn on the FW400 Maxtor hard disk that holds the back up to my G5 (including my iTunes master library), hold down the Option key, click on the iTunes icon in the Dock, and wait for the dialog. Once it appears, I click on the “Choose Another Library” button and navigate to the iTunes folder on the backup hard disk, and click on the iTunes Library file. iTunes then opens the library on my G5, and I can access and play everything there with abandon. However, if you do the same, do it using a machine already authorized by iTunes to play purchased music on that account or you’ll have to connect to the Internet to get the iTunes Music Store to authorize the machine (Each account allows five machines to play purchased music. See the iTunes Help file if you need more info about authorizing or deauthorizing computers to play iTunes DRM protected files.)

Running the MacBook Pro as a Desktop

My extra MagSafe Power Adapter for my MacBook Pro arrived yesterday, so I now have the last ingredient needed to turn my MacBook Pro into a desktop. The extra adapter enables me to run its wires behind my desk to the machine once it’s in its desktop stand, alleviating the need for the regular outlet chord and for me to need to crawl under the desk and disconnect it every time I take the notebook on the road. I now have my desktop set up so I simply plug and unplug the MBP to its various chords, turn it on, and close it up and slide it into place.

I’m running an Apple Wireless Keyboard (Bluetooth) and a Macally BT Mouse (Bluetooth) with the machine, and the combo seems to work well together. I usually do have to cycle power to the mouse to kick the MBP’s Bluetooth functions into gear, but the MBP picks up both peripherals when I do.

For networking, I plug the notebook into my Gigabit Ethernet router, turn off Airport, and make Apple Talk active on the Ethernet port when I do.

I’m using the whole set-up with a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display sitting up on an Allsoft monitor stand.

My data disks are a Maxtor Easy Touch III 300 GB Firewire 400/USB 2.0 hard disk for OS X and a Maxtor 160 GB hard disk inside a SIIG Firewire 800 hard disk case for Windows XP. The Easy Touch is also a clone of the boot hard drive on my dual G5. The SIIG contains Windows applications and data that I either don’t need to haul on the road or that are simply too large to fit on the Windows XP partition of my MBP.

If you’re wondering how I use the Easy Touch with my Intel Mac, the Intel Mac reads and writes to it without a problem since they’re both formatted using Mac OS X Extended. I simply can’t boot or run the Intel Mac from the drive. But it does allow me full access to all the data I have. I had thought I’d keep both it and the G5 PowerMac in synch by using the MaxTouch Utility, but I tried it this morning and it cannot write some files on the hard drive, at least when I try to clone the whole thing. That said, the mistake was probably mine in that what I believe I need to synch are just the user accounts rather than the whole drive. If that doesn’t work, I’ll probably try one of the file and folder synchronizing utilities available for the Mac.

I plug in and turn on the SIIG FW800 drive before booting the MacBook Pro into Windows XP, and I am finding that Windows treats the drive like an internal drive rather than a removable one. That’s fine with me; it makes my use of the external practically invisible. Microsoft Flight Simulator X and the Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator and CFS2 run better on my MBP than my old AMD 2800+ powered homebuilt PC which has, because of that, been designated to go home with another family member.

To hook the machine into my USB peripherals, I am running a USB 2.0 extension chord from the USB 2.0 hub on the rear of the 20 inch Apple Cinema Display to a spot near the USB hub that plugs into the 23 inch Apple Cinema Display near my dual G5 PowerMac. To use the peripherals with my MBP, I simply unplug the hub from the 23 inch ACD and into the USB extension chord.

I still have a few issues to work out, but this set-up allows me to maximize my use of all my computer assets while minimizing the amount of upkeep and expense. I can work on the dual G5 PowerMac or the MacBook Pro as I choose using the same data sets and the same peripherals. I can and often do run both machines at the same time, allowing me to tie up one or the other (and usually it is the dual G5) with video editing or encoding duties or just plain maintenance tasks, without interrupting what I am doing. I also have been able to eliminate the need for a separate Windows PC. The MBP is even Vista capable if I want to go there, something I have no intention of doing at the moment.
My money will be going to Leopard next year; I won’t be upgrading to Leopard unless something drives me into it. I doubt that will happen anytime soon, if ever at all.

I also still like the Logitech S530 over the Apple keyboard and Macally mouse I’m using, but I’d have to give up a USB port to run that, and they’re scarce right now. If Logitech ever comes out with a Bluetooth version of that set, I’ll buy it and use it with my MBP. But for now, the Apple and Macally keyboard and mouse combo work fine.

I do still need to add an external iSight to this set-up, and I’ll probably do that sometime after Christmas.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Quick Look: Photoshop CS3 Beta Performance Test

It wasn’t obvious how to do it from the web pages of Adobe Labs, but I did get a copy of Photoshop CS3 Beta downloaded and running on both my MacBook Pro and my dual G5 PowerMac. I also downloaded the Photoshop speed test from Retouch Artists. I ran the Retouch Artists’ speed test on both machines using Photoshop CS2 and CS3 Beta. I thought the results were pretty interesting. Here they are:

MacBook Pro, 2.33 GHz, 2GB RAM, Radeon X1600 (128MB)
Photoshop CS3 Beta, 56 secs
Photoshop CS2, 2 min 22 secs

PowerMac Dual 2.0 GHz G5, 4GB RAM, Radeon 9800 OEM (128 MB)
Photoshop CS3 Beta, 1 min 26 secs
Photoshop CS2, 1 min 16 secs (12% faster on G5 platform)

Comparing the CS3 results on the two machines, the Intel Core 2 Duo appears to be faster than the G5 clock-for-clock.

Comparing the CS3 and CS2 results on the G5 shows that CS2 is still better optimized for the G5 than the CS3 beta. That might change over time, but I suspect Adobe will spend more time optimizing CS3 for the Intel Macs than for the G5 just due to market considerations.

The MacBook Pro results show the impact of Rosetta, though all the speed difference cannot be explained away that way. The G5 results show that CS3 might be natively slower than CS2 and I have no way to quantify how much, if any, that might be.

Way to Go, Adobe! - No Reason to Hold Back Now!

Today, Adobe released a Universal Binary beta version of Photoshop CS3, to some degree ending the long wait Mac aficionados have been suffering through until an Intel-native version of Photoshop was released. The beta version will operate until sometime in the Spring of next year when the final versions of the software are released. (For your copy of the PS Cs3 beta, which requires a PS CS2 or Creative Suite 2 serial number, click here.)

This is a smart move. With the release of this software, many users who have been delaying MacPro purchases can now move forward. Once they have, Adobe has all but guaranteed a built-in market for the new software the moment it hits the streets.

I'm one of those people who have been holding back from a MacPro purchase because no native versions of Photoshop existed. I can move ahead now, though that doesn't mean I will. I need to get rid of some of the debt I've encumbered myself with, first, though it was both fun and aggravating to see my wife's reaction when I told her as of today I had no reason to hold off from buying a Mac Pro.

I'd like to be able to get something for my dual G5. I'd love to approach PowerMax about trading it in, but I still don't have any credit from my last trade-in's, and there were two. I'm beginning to wonder what's going on there. I need to check the exact dates of their arrival at the store. We're in the window for getting credit for them. If I get the credit I was promised, I'll probably see how much my G5 will bring in trade toward a Mac Pro. I’m looking forward to finally completing our move to Intel processors.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Picky, picky, picky!

I have been working with the Acer monitor for a week now, running it through OS X’s Color Calibration routine several times to try to get the colors and brightness and contrast adjusted to my liking, but I haven't been able to. While the display’s presentation was good, its fonts looked ragged and there seemed to be a slight overriding white cast to everything. I believe the font raggedness was a function of the display’s resolution, i.e., the 22 inch screen packed a resolution of 1650 x 1080,more appropriate to a 20 inch widescreen format. The whitish cast is something I’ve seen before when using PC LCD’s on a Mac, and I’ve never been able to adjust it out (and yes, I have tweaked the gamma).

In other words, the longer I used the display, the more I became unhappy with it. So, yesterday, I packed it back up and returned it to MicroCenter. I had intended to swap it for a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display despite the 100% increase in cost, but they were sold out! A gentleman had bought four of them, I was told, and had obliterated the store’s stock. So, my wife took the refund; and the two of us drove over to the Galleria where we ate lunch, talked about what we wanted to do now, and then went to the Apple Store. Financially, it really made as much sense to buy a 23 inch display as it did a 20 inch, but I didn't feel the bigger display would work out ergonomically with my set up. I also needed to save every bit of money I could. So, my wife bought me a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display I hooked up late yesterday afternoon and have been running with ever since. I’ve gotten spoiled running Apple displays. Yes, I do feel they are overpriced by a couple of hundred dollars but their quality makes them worth paying a few dollars more. I’m very happy with my set-up now.

I’ve got my MacBook Pro set up standalone on a second desk. It sits underneath a small stand the monitor rests on and is beside an external Firewire 800 hard disk that contains my Windows based applications. The monitor is the Apple 20 inch Cinema Display mentioned previously, and it plugs into the right side of the MBP, leaving the left side and the monitor’s USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 ports relatively free.A Maxtor EasyTouch III Firewire 400 hard disk I use to backup to my PowerMac G5 is sitting next to it. I make it do double duty and serve as the primary data drive for the MacBook Pro.

A Gigabit Ethernet cable runs into the MBP from behind the desk, and I am using an Apple Wireless Keyboard (Bluetooth) and a MacAlly BTMouse (Bluetooth) to keep down the number of wires. A small cable from my Altec Lansing sound system also snakes up from behind the desk, and a USB 2.0 extension cable drags along the desk’s right side. The extension cable snakes into the rear of my PowerMac’s desk, where it can be hooked into the 7 port Belkin USB 2.0 hub that connects all my equipment (scanner, ZIP drive, and Epson inkjet printer).

It’s a sweet set-up. I’ve only got one more tweak I’m going to do to it, and that is to add an extra MacBook Pro Power Adapter. I’ve ordered a new one I intend to leave hooked up so to allevaite crawling under the desk every day, and it also gives me a spare in case something happens to the one I carry with me.

It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m happy I’ve got the best set up I could have. I have gotten myself down to two machines; yet, I still have all the best features of the Mac line. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tweaking my MacBook Pro Set-Up

While I wrote about figuring out how to use my MacBook Pro as a desktop using my present equipment, I never could get 100% comfortable with that setup. I felt like it was a bit more hassle than I could sustain, so I began looking at how I could change it up to make it work better for me. I also began realizing that I did want to set up my Macs so I had one to use while the other was involved in video editing or encoding.

I could accept working on the MBP’s 15 inch screen, but it wasn’t optimum, especially when I wanted to run one of my flight simulators. My wife solved that problem by giving me an Acer 22 inch widescreen LCD and a small monitor stand as “early” Christmas presents. These let me build a “workstation” for my MBP that sits at a desk immediately adjacent and perpendicular to the desk holding my dual G5 PowerMac. The MBP location has its own keyboard, mouse, Ethernet cable, and sound system hook-up. Sitting next to it now is a SIIG Firewire 800 case holding a 160GB Maxtor hard drive that contains my “extended Windows XP partition” and a Maxtor One Touch III 300GB hard drive that serves as a backup to the boot disk on the PowerMac and as a data drive for the MBP. All my large and not routinely used Windows applications (like Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator and Combat Flight Simulator 2) are loaded on the SIIG drive. To use them, I simply plug in the SIIG drive to my MBP’s FW800 port, turn it on, and then boot the MBP into Windows. Likewise, if I’m using OS X, I plug in the Maxtor to the MBP’s FW400 port and access the data on the drive, later using the Maxtor One Touch software to synch it up with what’s on the PowerMac. (This way I only have to maintain one data set, and the Maxtor drive serves as a data drive for the MBP and still backs up the PowerMac. I keep a 40GB IOMEGA FW400 2.5” hard drive to use as a data drive on the road, just manually copying data to or from the PM or the Maxtor as needed.

The Acer monitor is pretty sweet, though it took three tries with the Apple Display Color Calibration to get it to look the best under OS X. After using it a little, I do not think it’s color calibration is as good as the 20 or 23 inch Apple Cinema Display; but then they are both significantly more expensive than the Acer. For me, right now, the 22 inch Acer is the right choice.

The other thing I’ve done to tweak the set-up is to replace my Logitech wired mouse with a MacAlly BT Mouse. This Bluetooth mouse only cost me $50, and it includes a charger that the mouse sits in when not in use, as well as an “ON/OFF” button that helps with battery conservation. It’s been working well with both OS X and Windows XP, though the mouse functions are simplistic (i.e., left mouse button, right mouse button, and basic scroll wheel) which also explains why no drivers are provided for either OS. The Bluetooth connection is fairly solid, though I sometimes have to cycle the mouse “off” and “on” after the MBP goes to sleep to get it to re-recognize the mouse. Battery life seems to be fairly good, and I can’t tell any difference in response between this mouse and my old wired one.

I’m still using a wired Apple keyboard, but I’m going to replace it with a wireless (Bluetooth) Apple keyboard. Using it with the MacAlly BT mouse frees up both USB 2.0 ports on the MBP, and I need them both when running flight simulators.

Once I buy the Apple keyboard, I will have made all the big computer purchases I’m going to make for a while.

I’m pretty happy with this set-up. In fact, I’m so happy with it that it opens a question about whether I may eventually decide it will eventually become my main desktop also. If that’s what I do, then I won’t be buying a Mac Pro next year; I’ll simply keep my G5 PowerMac and use it for video editing and encoding and the MBP for everything else and video editing on the road, if I ever do any.

The MacBook Pro Experiment - Final Part

After much thought and playing with different configurations at my desk, I finally came up with one that works well enough to settle down with it.

I was working against several constraints and with several facts.

(1) I was having a hard time finding a good KVM DVI switch that supported my Apple Cinema Display’s 1920 x 1200 resolution. Secondly, the ones that did exist were very expensive, ranging from about $250-$350. Quite a bit of change to risk for something I couldn’t be sure worked until I tried it. That was making me hesitant to go there, though a KVM did seem to represent the best solution to maximizing my investment in the new equipment.

(2) That said, Windows was also initially showing me that it couldn’t get to the 23 inch Apple Cinema Display’s native resolution. This turned out to be a problem with the video driver set-up, and I solved that last night.

(3) I wanted to keep my overall computer setup as simple as I could and use all my resources to the max. Spending money for another display to run the MBP as a second system (or my G5 PowerMac as a second system) was not what I wanted to do. I also didn’t want to spend more than a few minutes reconfiguring things to run the MBP as my “main” machine, if that was what I needed, which would be the case anytime I wanted to run a flight simulator.

(4) I was already out of room on the MBP’s internal hard drive. To get the room I needed to install Final Cut Pro Studio 5.1, I was going to have to relocate all my data to an external drive. I had to accept that running with external drives was going to be a fact of life for me with this system. The MBP needed to run my flight simulators well, which meant I needed to use a fast external drive to both load and run them.

(5) I also needed easy access to the MBP’s DVD drive, because most of the flight sims call for inserting a CD ROM out of the package to validate ownership. Switching between flight sims often means switching CD’s in the drive.

(6) The 23 inch Apple Cinema Display’s power brick and chord design insist that they are located close to the computer using the display. Moving the chord to the monitor also means relocating the power brick as well.

I initially started out with a configuration that sat the MBP on a box on top of my G5 PowerMac under my desk. This set-up required a bare minimum of rewiring (DVI, USB, FW400, Ethernet, and sound system chords) but put the MBP DVD drive where I had to lean under the desk to see or use it. Additionally, if I wound up with a power or display glitch, I had to crawl under the desk, open the MBP up as much as I could (usually a little over an inch and a half) and work in a very confined space. Obviously, the hassles of this set-up, despite the fact that it worked well otherwise, made this something to work around, if possible.

I also tried running the MBP on top of my desk right next to the ACD monitor. This gave me the easy access I was after, though it clobbered the desktop with cables and required me to have to feed the power brick up through the back of the desk and take it back down when I was done. That worked well enough, but I was doing more crawling and wire and accessory feeding than I wanted to do.

I do have a workstation desk sitting perpendicular to my main desk. I used it in the past for my video workstation. It’s where the G5 used to sit, so I could easily hook up the MBP and use it on that desk. I knew, though, I’d want a larger monitor than the MBP’s 15 inch screen if I were to routinely use it for my flight sims; so, that would require buying another monitor. To keep my Apple style would mean at least a $600 investment for a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display and a $1000 investment for a 23. I didn’t want to put that much more money into this if I could help it.

Yesterday, I hit on another and the final configuration. By placing the MBP to the left of my keyboard but on the keyboard drawer, the cables ran under the desk and all reached; and I had easy access to both the machine and the DVD drive. I did have to move the ACD’s power brick so it sat on top of the G5, but that was a minor hassle compared to having to push it up through the rear of my desktop and slide it forward on the desk.

On the keyboard tray, the MBP is also within easy distance of the FW800 external disk drive on my desk that contains the Windows XP extended drive. I still had room, too, to daisy chain another small hard disk to it and use the latter to hold my data. This configuration also let me delete a USB switch out of my system, one that had given me intermittent problems over the years, since I could plug my USB hub into one of the USB 2.0 ports on the back of the ACD. Whatever the ACD is plugged into now had access to the hub. I have tested the scanner using this setup, and it worked flawlessly on the MBP under both Windows and OS X.

Admittedly, this is an interim setup. I intend to use the MBP as my prime PC until I replace my G5 PowerMac with a Mac Pro, at which time I’ll only need the MBP to run Windows (or anything else) if the Mac Pro is tied up. In the meantime, I’m going to be working to pay off my Intel Mac upgrade expenses; and that will be no small chore. But at least, I know how to work things now; and I can use the time I’ve spent exploring computer rigs to getting real stuff done. I’ve achieved the goal I was after in the first place, i.e., knocking myself down to only two systems while still maintaining the ability to run what I needed to on Windows.

I have moved my data off the MBP’s internal drive. Most of it fit on a 40GB IOMEGA 2.5 external hard drive, though I intend to replace that drive with a much bigger (in storage capacity) drive soon. I may even spend the bucks to get a 7200 RPM drive so I can use the MBP to edit video if I want or need to, or maybe even a Mac flight simulator!

The PC is out the door, and the MBP is in. I ran Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2 the other night using the MBP’s 15 inch screen, and any “screen size” concerns disappeared once I rolled in on a Japanese Zero. It’s good enough as a standalone machine; larger external screens just make it better.

By the way, I did figure out how to get Windows on the MBP to give me all the 23 incher’s native resolution. In the video driver’s Displays box (right-click on the Desktop to Properties/Settings/Advanced/Displays), I found a button that turned off the MBP’s display (The MBP was being operated top closed, and Windows wasn’t turning it off. This was causing the GPU to have to generate scenes for both the laptop display and the ACD.) There is a little button on the tab that turns the MBP display off, and I used it. Additionally, the Resolution marker (selection graph) on the Settings window was not showing me anything higher than 1440 x 900, the MBP’s native resolution; but a right click on the ATI icon in the Windows system tray revealed all the resolutions available. I right-clicked on 1920 x 1200 entry, and the ACD flashed over to its native resolution. That said, it does not appear Windows remembers that setting; I’ve had to reselect it after each reboot.

I really love the MacBook Pro, and my only reservation about it is its price. That said, I obviously thought it was worth it.

What would make it better? Well, the ability to expand the RAM out to 4GB and a 250GB 5400 rpm internal drive (or a 7200 RPM drive would be better, of course). Even so, it still has decent portability, excellent power, beautiful design, and the best features of the current Mac line (including Front Row and the Apple Remote, which really come to play when I have the machine hooked into my 23 inch ACD). I wish I could regret buying it, but the fact I’m not willing to sell it says I don’t. PC Magazine selected this machine for an Editor’s Choice award. I understand why.

The MacBook Pro Experiment - Replacing my PC

Since all the new Intel Macs can run Windows, it may not seem like much of an issue to discuss replacing my PC with a Mac Book Pro (MBP). But the sticky part of doing such a thing isn’t the processor or even the graphics card but the notebook’s limited storage capacity. In particular, I’m referring to the 120GB hard disk in mine. It’s too small to support everything on OS X and Windows I’d like to run.

Obviously, once I started wanting to replace my PC with my Mac Book Pro altogether, hard disk space became the critical issue. Originally, I had planned on buying a Mac Pro and using it to replace the PC; and at some point, I might still do that. For the moment, the debt I’ve encumbered just with the Mac Book Pro is going to tie me up for a year. Add to that the fact I’m not ready to let go of my dual processor 2.0 GHz G5 PowerMac and you can understand why I’m looking at using the MBP to replace the PC instead. But I really couldn’t afford to give up more than 32GB or so of hard disk space for Windows operations, and even that would keep me from carrying everything on the Mac OS X side of the notebook I want to. That’s not to say I was fat on the Windows side; a look said I already had more than 32GB of applications and data on my PC.

The easy way to attack the problem was to use some kind of external hard disk. Since the MBP came with a Firewire 800 port, I decided to purchase a FW800 external hard disk case and then use a spare ATA hard drive in my closet to test the set-up. I bought a SIIG FW800/400/USB 2.0 case from Fry’s for $99.

I knew Boot Camp would only partition a system’s boot drive but wasn’t sure if it would partition an external drive, so I tested it by putting an 80GB Hitachi 7200 RPM 3.5 inch hard drive in the SIIG case, connecting it to the MBP, and then using Disk Utility’s Restore function to clone the MBP’s internal drive to the SIIG external. Once that was done, I booted the MBP on the SIIG by holding down the Option key and selecting the Firewire drive icon when it showed up. Boot performance was noticeably slower and not anecdotally any faster than I had seen using a FW 400 hard drive. Once I was into the Desktop, I downloaded a copy of Boot Camp (1.1.2 Beta), installed it, and then ran it to partition the drive. It refused, giving me an error message that said it could not be used to partition an external drive. I had hoped to actually have two Windows based installations I could use. One was going to be a small Windows set up on the MBP internal drive (20GB) and the other was going to be a much larger Windows set-up on an external drive (50GB). Now, I had to rethink how I was going to get there.

Obviously, I had to install Windows XP on a partition on the internal MBP hard drive. But could I achieve the same thing by partitioning the external drive as a NTFS drive and using it to hold either huge Windows programs that wouldn’t fit the MBP partition or those applications I only used sporadically?

To test that, I installed Boot Camp on the MBP (internal drive) and then had it give me a 32GB partition. Once that was done, I followed its instructions, installed XP Pro on the MBP, and booted into XP. I then hooked up the SIIG external drive and used XP’s Disk Management tools to repartition the drive (into a single, primary partition) and reformat the entire drive into a NTFS format.

I expanded my test rig by hooking the MBP to my 23 inch Apple Cinema Display, my sound system, and to a Logitech Force Feedback USB joystick. After turning the MPB on and shutting the lid, I used the keyboard and mouse to reboot the system into Windows. System video resolution maxed out at 1440 x 900 rather than the display’s 1900 x 1200 native resolution, but the screen presentation was still both usable and pleasant there, so I left it alone. I installed Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 onto the MBP’s internal hard disk, ran it, and could tell no difference between it running there or on my PC at the default 20 frames per second. I next installed Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator onto the external drive and it ripped along as it always did. (I felt CFS ran better on the external drive than FS2004 on the internal.) My next test point required I install Visioneer’s PaperPort 6, which I still use with an Epson scanner as my electronic file system. I wanted the Paperport application and data files to reside totally on the external hard drive. But I would not be connecting to the external hard disk as a matter of course, so I wanted to see if Windows would protest with either error messages or by crashing when the drive was not connected. To find out, I shut down the entire system, disconnected the external hard drive, and then brought the MBP back up into Windows again. It behaved normally, only giving me an error message if I tried to launch a program loaded on the external.

An inventory of my PC showed it uses a 120 GB hard drive as its main drive and a 60GB and 80GB as extras. I intend to remove the 120 and install that in the external hard drive case and use it as my Windows auxiliary hard disk. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the PC itself, but I’ll be putting out a note in the next few days to see if anyone in the family wants it. The 20 inch Apple Cinema Display it’s attached to will be going to my son Tim who needs it to replace a flaky 17 inch display on a PowerMac G4. I’ll get more desk space in my office and a simpler life with one less machine to physically maintain and gain a PC upgrade anytime I upgrade my Macs. I’ll run the MBP this way unless and until I upgrade my PowerMac to a Mac Pro, but the beauty of this whole thing is that it relieves me of any immediacy to do that.