The Computer Blog

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

X Plane 8 Quick Look in The Flight Blog

I've been flying an F-14 model in X-Plane 8.50 for a little over a week now and really like the sim. If you'd like to see my comments on it, take a little jog over to The Flight Blog and have a read.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Consider Switching to a Mac if...

Microsoft's Vista, their PC operating system replacement for Windows XP, will hit the stores this week. In response, articles have been hitting the web about stepping up to the new OS. As you might expect, several of them arose at PC World. One of them presented the opposing point of view and was entitled “Wait! Don’t Buy Vista!”. Interestingly enough, one of the reasons listed by the writer (Mike Elgan of Computerworld) was because a user might want to switch to a Mac. If he or she had to learn a new operating system, it would be no harder to learn OS X than Vista.

How true!

But then Mr. Elgan made some rather obvious strategic errors, ones that shout out he is not a Mac user and doesn’t understand where Macs are these days. I am referring to the following statements from the article:

“Consider switching to a Mac if: You're not into PC gaming. You don't have any Windows-only applications you'd still like to run without emulation. You don't have a major PC hardware investment--such as expensive flat-screen LCD displays--to take advantage of. You don't have non-Mac applications that are required by your employer for working at home.”

These statements would have been good advice before Apple switched the Mac line to Intel CPU’s; but now that it has, none of these make any sense. Let me take these on one at a time.

"Consider switching to a Mac if: You’re not into PC gaming." If you stay at the forefront of PC gaming and upgrade your machine to the hottest CPU as soon as it is released, then that probably still holds true. If you’re not, then you can buy a Mac that will run Windows at almost any level you like. If a seventeen, twenty, or twenty-four inch iMac isn’t powerful enough, then plunge into the world of the Mac Pro. More than likely, its 3.0 GHz or 2.66 GHz Xenon dual core CPU’s will do; and you will be able to obtain a video card to match up with what you need, whether through Apple or a third party. Quad-core CPU’s have already hit the market and several folks have successfully run some of these in current Mac Pros’, though upgrading a machine in such a way will destroy the warranty.

"Consider switching to a Mac if: You don't have any Windows-only applications you'd still like to run without emulation." Using Boot Camp, you can boot into Windows XP (and maybe Vista) and run any Windows application you need natively. You can also use Parallels to run Windows within OS X and you are still NOT running in emulation, but running the application under Windows XP with only a slight hit in speed. A single or even a couple of Windows-only applications is not reason to suspend a move to a Mac anymore. Admittedly, though, you will have to supply a copy of Windows XP SP2 to load onto the Mac if you don’t have one you can use.

“Consider switching to a Mac if: You don't have a major PC hardware investment--such as expensive flat-screen LCD displays--to take advantage of.” Most PC hardware will work with a Mac and OS X. If you really have a large, expensive flat-screen LCD, matching it up with a new Mac will probably be no more difficult than with a new PC. Mac mini’s and Mac Pro’s need an external display to run, and the others can run an external display in addition to their internal display. My MacBook Pro can run up to a 30 inch Apple Cinema Display (which requires dual-link DVI), and we have used my wife’s MacBook and my MacBook Pro to run a 32 inch HDTV using a DVI to HDMI cable. Even if it won’t run under OS X, since the Macs can now run Windows, there’s a very good chance your peripheral would still work on a Mac.

“Consider switching to a Mac if: You don't have non-Mac applications that are required by your employer for working at home.” I run Windows XP using my MacBook and access my workplace network using Windows (as well as OS X). If your “non-Mac application” runs on Windows XP, you’ll be able to run it on a new Mac using XP (or maybe even without XP using CrossOver for Mac, but that's a whole different blog).

Of course, I am making one big assumption in all my arguments, and that is the term “Mac” means an Intel-powered Mac, which all the new Macs are. If you buy a refurbished or used PPC Mac, then the arguments above made by Mr. Elgan will hold true. I’m going to assume, though, that if you’re going to spend the money on a Mac, you’re going to buy a new one, one Apple is manufacturing today.

You deserve the best. Go get it! (HINT: It won’t involve buying a PC!)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bring Back the external iSight, Apple!

A month or so ago, Apple quietly removed any mention of its external iSight camera from the Apple store. Speculation around the Internet was that it was because of environmental regulations in Europe that forced Apple to halt the sale of the device, but that doesn’t explain why they would give up US or Asian markets as well. Many of us are hoping the device reappears, perhaps in a form that meets European regulator approval; but in any case, the current quiet extermination of the device has left many of us Mac users who are dependent on it in the lurch. Apple has maintained its usual and unfortunately characteristic silence about the disappearance of the thing, leaving its customers with a lot of uncertainty about how to maintain the functionality it has established.

I’ve seen a few reports that have hypothetically linked the disappearance of the device with the appearance of new Apple Cinema Displays incorporating an internal version of the thing. If this is true, and the removal of the device is connected with that, then Apple will be demonstrating that its stripes may be of a slightly different color than Microsoft’s but really are the same. Personally, I can tell you I will not, just to get iSight capability back, be buying new Apple Cinema Displays to replace the 23 inch and the 20 inch my wife and I have bought in the last few months. Additionally, many corporate users have openly stated they oppose Apple incorporating an iSight into its displays because their company policies would prohibit future ACD purchases due to the security breaches the devices might expose them to. Apple could solve that dilemma by offering the internal iSight as an option. So, it’s not inconceivable that Apple could go there anyway. My complaint is not that Apple might do it, but that they would try to force sales of the new monitors by allowing the external iSight to disappear from the market.

I’ve seen some speculation that this is exactly what Apple’s motivation is. I would hope not. If an Apple rep said to me “we’ve discontinued the external iSight because all the new Macs have internal versions”, I would tell them they are displaying the same arrogance that has alienated much of Microsoft’s customer base over the years, and I will personally have to start reconsidering future Mac purchases. If I can’t trust that Apple isn’t going to abandon its users after they have introduced a technology, then I simply am going to have to make the decision that living the Apple way is too expensive. (And believe me, this was what we already had to deal with when Apple switched CPU’s to Intel.) It is simply too soon to withdraw the external iSight from the market.

If you’ve never used iSight to video conference with anyone else, then you’re probably wondering why I’m not simply looking to third party solutions. There are two reasons. The first is I have been exploring third party options, and there just aren’t that many for the Mac. The ones that exist simply aren’t as good. (From reactions of my Windows’ only friends and family, there isn’t anything in the Windows community that can touch it, either.) The second one has to do with Apple’s responsibilities to its customers. It set up this situation, so I expect it also to provide the solution and not one that costs several thousand dollars and lines its pockets in the process. Yes, Apple’s purpose is to make money; but if it puts that before its duty to its customers, it will eventually sabotage its own bottom line. I can tell you for a fact that I will make purchasing decisions based on the outcome of this; and that while Apple might get some extra bucks from me in the short term, they will immediately lose at least $1000 from the loss of the Mac Pro I won’t buy.

So, Apple, it’s time to step up to the bar. It’s time to bring back the external iSight (which has more utility than the internal version anyway). At the very least, you owe your customer base an explanation about what’s really going on here. Continued silence will only make us more suspicious that you’re trying to run a con; and none of us will take kindly to that.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beyond the iPhone

The most interesting thing about the iPhone isn’t necessarily the phone itself but the technologies it represents. Let’s take a brief look at what might be beyond.

When she saw the iPhone, my wife wondered why Apple didn’t include an internal iSight on the phone. That was a brilliant idea of what iPhone 2 might look like. If Apple managed to shoehorn an iSight into the iPhone, even if it made it a little bigger, then routine and mobile video conferencing, imagined in the 50’s as the way of the future, might finally become a reality. Of course, including the iSight is not all that must happen. I believe that when equivalent of today’s high-speed wireless broadband services becomes the standard wireless bandwidth, then the inclusion of an iSight and anywhere video conferencing can become real. There’s no reason to believe that couldn’t happen within the next decade.

I also believe that the iPod will reap the benefits of iPhone technology. The iPhone shows that a new video iPod using a touchscreen interface can easily become a reality. Since the iPod is also used to view photos, the accelerometer in iPhone would also have a home.

Moreover, the iPod might play back into the iPhone. As Apple gained engineering experience with the widescreen, touchscreen, hard disk combinations, it could apply that to the iPhone to make it a true mobile “convergence” device. Of course, flash memory advances might make the use of a hard disk obsolete, but you get the idea. What I’m really saying is that Apple is in a unique position to make the iPod and iPhone play off each other.

Everyone, including the company, would benefit if they made that happen.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The New Airport Express Base Station – Not For Me

Without nary a mention during Macworld Expo’s Keynote yesterday, Apple released a revised version of its Airport Extreme Base Station. This new device, which is still overpriced at the reduced cost of $179, sports draft N networking, a USB port for a printer or hard disk, a WAN port, three 10/100 Ethernet ports for other computer hook-ups. I’ve been hoping for a while Apple would revamp the router to make it worthwhile to buy one.

They didn’t…for two reasons.

The first is I have no Macs in the house that use Draft N networking. Actually, if I bought the router, I would have one. Apple is including software that will enable draft N networking on Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro’s, and I own one. But that’s not enough reason to go out and buy the router. Why isn’t Apple needs supplying that software to those new computer owners regardless of whether they buy an Airport Extreme router or not? Twenty-five hundred bucks for a laptop is nothing to sneeze at! All that aside, the only reason I might need “draft n” speeds is to stream music and video to more than one computer simultaneously, and I’m not likely to do that. Besides, the mere presence of any 802.11 g Mac’s in the house, and I won’t get the speed anyway.

Secondly, why in the hell didn’t Apple include Gigabit Ethernet ports in the thing vice only 10/100? This is incomprehensible since every Mac they now sell has Gigabit Ethernet ports! Don’t they know their own product line?

My current 108G D-link router has Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Wake up, Apple! You’re dropping the ball!

The Macworld Expo 2007 Keynote - Underwhelming or Not?

I had a feeling with all the hype that Apple was spreading about the 2007 Macworld Expo Keynote that I would be underwhelmed. I'm still trying to figure out if I was or not.

There was absolutely nothing for the average Mac computer user. Instead, we were left to look forward to the next few months when Apple will quietly usher in most of the hardware and software advances we have been anticipating. Instead, Jobs introduced what Apple had called “iTV” earlier in the year renamed as “AppleTV”. This device is useful for streaming video from the Macs in your house (up to five, which matches the maximum number that can be permited to access an account under the iTunes Store). While the earlier version held no hard drive, the released version houses a 40GB hard drive as well as Ethernet, USB 2.0, Wi-fi, HDMI, component video, audio, and optical audio ports. It’s a good deal if all you want to do is stream iTunes content to your TV, but I’m personally not sure I want to limit myself to that. I’m still leaning toward hooking up a Mac Mini to our HDTV so we can not only stream content from any Mac we want (and any number of Macs we want) but so we can also surf the web, etc.; or, in other words, do on our HDTV anything that can be done with a computer. The AppleTV does have the advantage of being upgraded to draft N wi-fi specification, but there will probably be a way to take a Mac mini there, too, in the near future. The disadvantage of the mini is that it easily costs over twice as much. But then, I get greater utility (more on that later) as well as a DVD player.

The Wi-fi is “draft n” specification, which sounds like a good deal until you reconcile that with the fact that no current Mac is using draft n networking and that the N specification could change before release. The only way to step up to draft n now is to buy Apple’s newly released Airport Extreme Basestation and to own a Core 2 Duo Mac, in which case Apple will kindly you supply you with a software upgrade that will do the trick. (They damn well better supply that to us new Core 2 Duo owners anyway, even if it costs a few bucks, if they want any of my future notebook business.) Besides, you only get the speeds promised with 802.11N networking if you’re not using any 802.11b or g devices in the house (who's not doing that?); and you only need that speed if you’re streaming to or from more than one machine simultaneously. I’m still trying to figure out how and why one would do that.

AppleTV will auto-synch iTunes content with one computer, but why? If the purpose of the device is to stream from any of the five computers you own, the auto-synching with any one of them mainly introduces a data synch problem one must now manage. I could see where this feature would be handy as a backup to one machine if you have no other way to do it, but I backup all my systems individually anyway. And it is handy in the way Jobs demoed, i.e., to put an unwatched movie on the hard disk so it doesn’t have to be fetched later. I have to assume, though, that to get rid of the same you’ll have to go in and manually delete it. With only a 40GB hard drive in the thing, you won’t be able to store much.

The real advantage to AppleTV is its price. At $299, it is considerably cheaper than a Mac Mini. Yet, my wife and I may elect to buy the latter. I have already demonstrated our ability to stream video to our HDTV from our Macs using either a MacBook or MacBook Pro (In fact, we streamed the entire keynote address to our HDTV last night and watched it in a pixilated but acceptable full screen mode); a Mac mini would also handle that task. Additionally, a mini will have more storage room, be able to run DVD’s on its own (something AppleTV cannot currently do) and even has the versatility to be run as a computer on our HDTV. As I mentioned, I feel it is probably worth the extra money. As for the future, as mini’s are upgraded, we can step up to a new mini and hand down the old one as a computer for someone in the family that would like a small Mac.

Of course, the big thing Jobs was promoting was the iPhone. I have to say it looks really cool but, as of this moment, the jury is still out. The big turn off for me is the price, limited storage capacity, and the single sourcing with only one cell phone provider. The $499 version will have 4GB of memory and the $599 version will have 8GB, not much when you’re talking about downloading and running movies on the thing as well as storing e-mail, photos, and music. If current iTunes capacities are any guide, then a two hour movie will take about 1 GB of memory alone. You may be able to keep most of your music on the thing and may be able to store a movie or two, but looking at the device as an iPod replacement is a mistake, unless you’re talking about using it to replace a Nano.

I also don’t see Jobs’ claims this new device is a “breakthrough Internet communicator”. The iPhone doesn’t do much more than a smartphone does except run widgets, though it appears to do it a lot better. My wife is already enamored of the thing and we may consider it at the end of 2007 when our current Sprint contract is up. However, it would not be enough to cause us to move to Cingular in and of itself; and the thought of scrounging up $1200 for two phones is STAGGERING!

I mentioned earlier I found it more than a bit disturbing that Mac computer products were all but ignored. There have been hints that Apple’s future might lie in consumer devices and its computer base might be abandoned, and us users have good reason to worry about it. It would not be the first time the company had abandoned a segment of its customer base. Secondly, I believe Apple might be wandering into an area where innovation, which is its strong suit, counts less than price. In other words, while Apple’s advance into consumer devices is to be watched and maybe applauded, it may dilute its focus and ultimately sabotage its success if it abandons its computer user base. If the company is listening, they need to reassure those customers their continued investment is warranted. You can bet I’m going to be watching how Apple treats it computer users over the next year and will be factoring those impressions into decisions about whether or not to make another buy.