The Computer Blog

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Quicktime 7.5.7 for MacBook Family Only; HDCP Squashes a Sale

If you’re an iTunes Store customer and you own one of the latest MacBook family machines, then make sure you either run Software Update or go to and download the QuickTime 7.5.7 update. It corrects the iTunes Store bug that flags non-HD content as HD, preventing you from playing it back with a non-HDCP compliant display. It does seem to work; I can now play “Terminator 2” on my new MacBook Pro using my 20 inch Apple Cinema Display.

Make sure you understand, though, that it only fixes one “bug”. It does not impact true HDCP restrictions, which means you’ll still have to use a HDCP compliant player (and this includes the MacBook family of machines) and an HDCP-compliant display (currently the internal display of the MacBook or MacBook Pro or the new 24 inch LED Cinema Display).

During Black Friday, the Fry’s Electronics Store here put the LG GGW-H20L Blue Ray/HD ROM –DVD burner on sale for an amazing $89! I seriously thought about buying one, despite Apple’s lack of support for Blue Ray, and placing it in my Mac Pro. On the OS X side, I could at least use it for data storage and, using Boot Camp, I might be able to use it to watch high-definition movies (which I would have to buy) using Windows XP. But the burner’s box noted that the player must be part of an HDCP complaint set-up, which left me with a fair degree of certainty I’d get the dreaded “display not authorized” message with my system. Not only did that scotch $150 worth of sales, but it also made me realize there probably is no HD future for my Mac Pro. While I have no doubt that Apple will make Blue Ray a feature of future Macs, I also believe the cost for me to make my current (and up-to-date) Mac Pro HD capable is going to be more than I can stomach. From a consumer standpoint, HD content restrictions mean I have to commit not only our Macs but our entertainment systems to HD or avoid it entirely.

Somewhere in the next one to three years, prices to perform such a switch will fall to an acceptable level, and I’ll entertain it. But for now, the HD picture for us Mac owners is a fractured and expensive one; and the sour taste it’s leaving those of us who invested in Apple video editing and DVD manufacturing software is getting more bitter all the time.

Friday, November 28, 2008

You're a WHAT?

Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” advertising campaign is meant to counter the effectiveness of Apple’s “Mac and PC” ads; but, unfortunately, all they really do is show that Microsoft is out of touch and just “doesn’t get it”. Microsoft’s ads try to offset the PC stereotype in Apple’s by displaying a wide range of PC users who are anything but stereotypes. They fail, not because the idea wasn’t a good one (it was), but because the execution of it was, quite frankly, inept.

Everyone knows as soon as an Apple ad starts that it is an analogy, a flight into fantasy, in which people play the parts of talking, thinking machines involved in the everyday life of a computer user. The ads create humorous but memorable stereotypes, make the advertising point, and vanish in a cloud of humor. They are smart, creative, and funny, which is why people enjoy and remember them.

In the Microsoft ads, however, people become de-personalized. They state flatly that they are a “PC”. Subconsciously, they tell the viewer that if they use Windows, they will become a machine; and it is exactly the machine-centric experience that Microsoft needs to help users forget. Frankly, I never could get past the “I’m a PC” utterances that made me wonder how such varied and smart people could ever get on TV and say such a thing. The phrase “I use a PC” would have largely salvaged the whole thing, though the seriousness of the ad campaign ensured it would never steal as many synapses in anyone’s brain as the Apple ads are guaranteed to do.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More on iTunes HD Restrictions and the New Apple Notebooks

This morning I ran a few tests using my new 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro (late 2008) and my new Mac Pro (late 2008), purchased iTunes HD content, and my current Apple Displays to see which would trigger the dreaded “Display not authorized” messages. Here’s what I got:

MBP with 20 inch aluminum DVI Apple Cinema Display – no play (Display not authorized message);

MBP with 23 inch DVI Apple Cinema “HD” Display – no play (Display not authorized message);

Mac Pro with 23 inch DVI Apple Cinema “HD” Display – played

These results have some rather far-reaching implications.

First, the content restriction problems with external displays appear to be largely restricted to the new MacBook and MacBook Pro notebook lines because of their implementation of HDCP or DPCP via the mini-Display Port. If you buy a current Mac Pro and run it with any of the Apple Cinema Displays (the 20 incher, the 30 incher, or a “discontinued” 23 incher), have an older MacBook or MacBook Pro and do the same, I believe you’ll be able to play HD content without any display restrictions. That’s based on my being able to play HD content on my MacPro using such a set-up. However, if you’re thinking about committing to such a set-up, unless you can do it at zero cost, you need to aim some serious questions at the Apple representatives in your local Apple Store before you buy. I only have a few machines to use as test rigs, and that’s certainly not enough to draw conclusions with a very high degree of certainty.

Secondly, it does appear that if you buy a new MacBook or MacBook Pro with a mini-Display Port, the ONLY external monitor you can currently use to watch iTunes Store HD content will be the 24 inch LED Cinema Display about a week away from release. I’ll let you know for sure if that’s the case as soon as we get ours.

Thirdly, Apple’s “discontinuance” of its 23 inch “HD” Cinema Display” at the same time as the release of the 24 inch LED Cinema Display implies that Apple intends for it to be the former’s replacement. Considering how many comments from professional users in various online forums have argued against the inclusion of both an iSight and glossy screens, the 24 incher is aimed squarely and only at the owners of the new Apple notebooks. Whether this signals a profound shift out of the professional computer market for the company, a market Apple has courted for years with its Final Cut products and its relationship (however rocky) with Adobe, remains to be seen; but it does appear that Apple is focusing in on its notebook market, almost to the exclusion of its other family members as well as its older equipment owners. If so, this could prove to be a fundamental mistake that will not only significantly impact its computer sales but its iTunes Store sales. At worst, it could put Apple in the position of having to buck some of the movie industry’s DRM constraints to improve both.

Consumers and the limited number of professionals who buy the new 24 inch LED displays, especially if the mini-port Display technology moves to the Mac Pro line, will be happy with their results; but if you want to use some other display and play iTunes Store HD content, I’d steer clear of any new Apple machine that includes the mini-Display Port as its only video interface. Your other and perhaps better option is to steer clear of any Apple iTunes Store HD content.

For me or any Apple fan, those are bitter pills to swallow, but sometimes the truth hurts; and this is one of those times.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

“This movie cannot be played because a display that is not authorized to play protected movies is connected."

As someone who tries to play by the rules, imagine my shock when, after buying and downloading “Terminator 2- Judgment Day” from the iTunes Store, I got this message when trying to play it back:

“This movie cannot be played because a display that is not authorized to play protected movies is connected.

Try disconnecting any displays that are not HDCP authorized.”

I was using my brand new MacBook Pro hooked up to an aluminum 20 inch Apple Cinema Display via a “mini-Display Port to DVI” connector. I remembered reading a year or two ago how the movie studios were insisting, as we moved into the HD era, of getting into restricting HD playback at the hardware level. So, I went out to Wikipedia and looked up HDCP to get a look at the standard. As I read, I realized the standard is implemented so that the playback device checks the receiver to ensure it is HDCP capable, i.e., it protects content; if not, then it refuses to play and issues an error message like the one I received. As I was seeing, it meant I might not be able to play HD content bought from the iTunes Store, or anywhere else, if I didn’t have hardware that was HDCP compliant. In other words, the only way any of us can guarantee we can play the stuff we buy that is HD is to ensure we have the newest in hardware.

On the streets that means if you’re going in to buy a new LCD for your computer, you need to find the specs and make sure it’s HDCP compliant, or you could have a problem.

Luckily, the same movie plays just fine on my 23 inch Apple Cinema Display being run by my Mac Pro. I suspect it will work just fine on our Apple TV, though I haven’t tried it, yet. It better work on the two new 24 inch LED Cinema Displays my wife just ordered for the two of us, or me and Apple are going to have some words! I couldn’t find a specific mention that they are HDCP compliant, but I can’t believe Apple would be dumb enough to release them at this stage of the game if they are not.

At least for the iTunes Store’s TV shows, when you buy a show shot in HD, you get both the HD and SD versions when you download. iTunes seems to automatically select the right version when you launch the show using Cover Flow; so, you’d never know this restriction is there without someone pointing it out. Perhaps, Apple and the movie studios need to take the same approach with their movies as well. Forcing a user to buy new hardware to view your content will backfire, and no one will be able to predict at any point whether the explosion will be big or small.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Apple Backs off 24 inch LCD Shipping Date

I noticed this morning that Apple had mysteriously backed off its temporarily published shipping date for the new 24 inch LED LCD's. Apple's online store is back to carrying the date as a generic "November" instead of the "7 -10 business days" it ran for about the last two days. Obviously, Apple is having some kind of problem getting the units ready for consumption. That doesn't bode well for the the folks (like us) who bought MacBooks and MacBook Pros to use with the new displays as a system.

Is Apple Abandoning Its "Pro's"?

For the last few years, it’s been apparent that Apple has been making several shifts. The most obvious one was to expand both its marketing and technological base by shifting to Intel processors. There has also been a shift away from the “prosumer” and toward a very differentiated “consumer” and “professional” class of customer (as evidenced in the ever widening capabilities and costs of the iLife and Final Cut Pro software suites). As I look at Apple’s latest offerings of machines and the features that the company is choosing to keep in and leave out, I have to wonder if Apple has already made a decision to abandon the professional market and target its great expertise more and more on becoming a consumer one.

Take a look at the design changes Apple has made to its notebook lines. The matte display screen and Firewire are two essential features most professionals insist on in their machines, yet they are both missing from Apple’s current MacBook line and one of them is missing on the MacBook Pro. The 23 inch Apple Cinema Display, squarely aimed at professionals using the Mac Pro, has now been discontinued and its replacement, if we read anything into the timing of the 23 incher’s discontinuance and the 24 incher’s emergence, houses a glossy screen and an integrated iSight, the latter a convenience consumers will love and corporations may eagerly ban. There is only one basic design for the Mac Pro, though it may be outfitted with several options that still allow one to expand its capabilities beyond the basic machine; but the iMac has taken the place of the single processor Mac Pro, making the high-end iMac, originally designed as a consumer’s machine, as the low end “pro” set up.

Some folks will say there really isn’t any differentiation between Apple’s consumer and professional products. They might be right. I’ll just sit back and watch where Apple goes over the next several years. I think I’m seeing the company slide into Consumerland.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Fusion Confusion

My buddy Eric, who bought into being a Mac convert this past year, brought me a copy of the User Guide for VMWare’s Fusion 2.0. He had found a very interesting paragraph that seemed to imply that Fusion 2.0’s VMware Tools had solved the problem that drove me into always choosing one way to operate Windows on a Mac, i.e., via virtualization or Boot Camp. The best of both worlds would be to be able to use virtualization or Boot Camp at will. Yes, both VMWare’s Fusion and Parallels software let you set up a virtual machine using a Boot Camp partition, but switching back and forth between the two has been made impractical by Microsoft’s activation scheme. My experience was that every time I switched from one to the other and back, I would have to re-activate both operating system instances. Sooner or later (and usually sooner) this would cause me to hit MS’ activation limit, making my copy of Windows XP Pro a useless piece of crap. ..unless I bought another license for it. I have no intention of doing anything that remotely smacks of paying Microsoft for a subscription, no matter how much they’d like that.

I don’t have the paragraph in the user’s guide to quote from, but it seemed to imply that Version 2’ VMware Tools would keep XP from taking its knee-jerk activation action when you switched back and forth between the two environments. I tried to test that last night using the copy of XP Pro I had allocated for my MacBook Pro, but I ran into the activation limit before I could complete my tests. That said, what I saw made it look like nothing had changed, that XP would activate each time I switched environments. Eric also tried playing with his copy of XP Pro on his MacBook Pro and saw the same type of thing. Still, neither of us got results that were conclusive since we both ran into an activation limit before being able to do the “run Boot Camp, activate, run virtual, activate, switch back to Boot Camp and check for activation” methodology we needed.

Eric came back in this morning convinced that the paragraph is poorly written in that it employs an assumption that, even though you’re running off the Boot Camp partition, you’re going to run in virtualization forever after. Doing that would only require you to activate the virtual machine once, and you’d be left well enough alone. I think he’s right. The bottom line is that Microsoft’s activation scheme cripples uses of Windows XP it might be put to, whether the OS is being run on a Mac or a PC and pisses off only the customers who gave MS cash in good faith in the first place. Because of that, too, no matter whether you have virtualization software or Boot Camp loaded on your machine, you’re going to have pick one way of running and stick with it.

The Not Really User Serviceable Hard Disk

Almost as soon as I bought my new MacBook Pro, I ordered 4GB of RAM and a new 500GB 2.5” hard disk from Other World Computing. They both arrived Thursday of last week. After reviewing the information in my new MacBook Pro’s User Guide, I thought that replacing the hard drive in the first MacBook Pro designed with a “user serviceable” hard disk was going to be a snap. And in some ways, it was. But I have to say there are also some significant “gotcha’s!” in the task that make me hope I never have to do it again. Likewise, while not significantly hard, swapping out memory also holds some of those same undocumented risks that can easily make you wish you’d taken the whole thing to an Apple Service Center in the first place.

First off, you must have the correct tools for this job. Getting to the hard disk itself only requires unlatching the bottom door and pulling it off. You’ll see the topside of the hard drive as soon as you do. It’s held in place by four lugs, two of which are under black plastic catches mounted in the body and two of which are held down on the other side by a black plastic bracket secured by a tiny, aluminum Phillips screw. You will need a Phillips PH00x40 size screwdriver to work with this screw. It has been torqued tight by a machine which will make you press down very hard on the screw to get it to loosen. The trick is to get it loose without stripping the head, which is moderately soft. Once the screw is loosened, the bracket lifts straight out. At that point, you can remove the connectors to the hard disk or carefully pull up on the plastic tab attached to the hard disk to swing it out of position. Once you have the hard disk loose, you’ll notice the four lugs that have been screwed into it and are used to position and secure the drive into place. These have to be removed from your “old” hard drive and placed on your new one. This will require a Torx T6 screwdriver. If you don’t have one of those (and few people I know do), go to an electronics or cell phone store and look for a tool kit that contains one or buy it as a single. Once you get the right tool, removing the lugs and replanting them on the replacement hard drive is a snap. Reassembling the hard disk is also easy as is mounting it in place. The hard part is securing the screw that holds the hard disk’s bracket in place and trying to get it torqued tightly without stripping it. As careful as I tried to be about that, the screw head was not in as good a shape as it was when I first started.

Replacing memory also became a nail-biting routine, not because of its technical difficulty but because of the tiny screws that are easily mangled and must be removed. There are eight of them, some long and some short, and the users guide does a good job of pointing that out. Again, you’ll have to apply more torque than you think to get them loose with a good fitting tool or you’ll strip the heads. Once you have all eight screws out, you lift off the rest of the computer’s bottom that wasn’t removed when you replaced the hard dive. The memory slots are at the center of the machine and nestled up against the small metal rail that separates the hard disk/battery cavity from the rest of the machine. The slots are stacked vertically, so you’ll remove the top memory stick and then the bottom one. When replacing memory, reaching the bottom slot is not too difficult though you’ll have to push past the top snaps and make sure that it’s the bottom snaps holding the bottom stick securely. Replacing the top memory stick is simply a snap in place move. Then, it’s a simple matter (if you placed your screws in some manner that lets you know which screws were where) of replacing the body screws and securing them without damaging them.
Frankly, the screws involved in all of this are so easily damaged that it would behoove Apple to make available replacement screw kits. After all, they’ve advertised these machines as having “user replaceable” RAM and hard drives while still maintaining the high engineering standards they are known for. Some users, though, are not going to be ready for that.