The Computer Blog

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Moving the Computer Blog

I've been using Blogger to build and publish my blog, but rather than use their servers for hosting I have been using FTP to publish the blogs on my own site (The AndyZone). Recently, Blogger has decided that they are investing too many resources into maintaining FTP so they are ending that service as of March 31, of this year. Rather than surrender my content to their servers, I am switching to Wordpress and continuing to host the blogs on my own site. This notice will be the last entry made at this address.

To make WordPress work with my site, I had to make a small change in the blog's URL. This blog's new address will be: http://www.theandyzone.com/compublog/. Please bookmark the new address.

Thank you for your patronage.

Andy

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is the iCore iMac Really a Mac Pro Replacement?

Whenever Apple releases a new batch of machines, they always publish a set of benchmarks demonstrating how much faster the newer systems are than the ones they replaced. That’s all well and good if you’re made of money and can afford to replace just bought systems with new ones. But the question that often becomes difficult to answer is how these new systems stack up against systems two or more generations back. By inference, we are to think they are faster without a doubt; but, as I’m going to show you here, that’s not always the case.

My curiosity about this became enflamed when the website Barefeats.com released a graph comparing the new i5 and i7 powered iMacs against current generation Mac Pro’s. I own a late 2008 8-core (dual processor four core) Intel Xeon powered 5400 Mac Pro running 14 GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 3870 video card. I wanted to know how it would stack up against the new i7 iMac. To find out, I borrowed Barefeats’ data and ran Cinebench 10 under Snow Leopard and Windows 7. While running a single benchmarking program never gives you the full story, Cinebench has been a consistent way to perform single or cross-platform comparisons for some time. That’s not to say it’s perfect, as some of the test results will later raise some questions about how optimized it is for current versions of OS X.

First, you can see the Barefeats.com results at this page: http://www.barefeats.com/imi7.html. Only the multi-processor (Cinebench) results are shown, but the 8 core Mac Pro, a 2.93GHz machine with 12GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 4870 video card, comes in with a score of 25878. A four core version of the same machine comes in at 15521. The 4 core i7 iMac with a Radeon 4850 video card and 8 GB RAM comes in at a very close 15290, while the i5 iMac comes in at 12077. My 2.8 GHz 8 Core Xeon Mac Pro with 14 GB RAM an a Radeon 3870 video card came in at 18588 on the same test. The puts it below the 8 core 2.93 Ghz Mac Pro but above the i7 iMac. Based on that, from a performance perspective only, I would lose by moving to an i7 iMac, especially considering I can gain some more “oomph” by changing out my Radeon 3870 card for a 4870.

I haven’t seen or tried to look for benchmarks from a first generation four core 2.66 Mac Pro, but I suspect the current i7 iMac would give that machine a run for its money and perhaps even sneak past it.

All that said, if you’re really considering whether to go with an i7 iMac or a new Mac Pro, the picture gets a lot murkier once you step away from looking at performance alone. First, the new 27 inch iMacs have a display that’s second to none; I know of no other way to describe it than “absolutely stunning”. Secondly, with 1 TB and 2 TB options for hard disk storage (even if the 2 TB option is a bit pricey), you can order an iMac with lots of room, though admittedly a professional video shop might find even that space a bit confining. You can equip the new iMacs with up to 16GB of RAM, enough for a professional or semi-professional setting, though if you buy all that extra RAM from Apple you will probably break your piggy-bank. Moreover, you used to be able to buy a fully-equipped tower for $3000; but getting a top of the line Apple tower today will easily set you back $5000 or more. This cost escalation is further widening the line between consumer and “pro” machines to the point where Apple runs the risk of marginalizing itself too much and driving both semi-pro’s and pro’s to the Windows platform. Frankly, if something happens to my current Mac Pro and I choose not to repair it, I will be looking at an i7 iMac (or its replacement) rather than at a Mac Pro line for its replacement.

Now that we’ve discussed that, I’d like to discuss the Cinebench test results in more detail.

I’m running Mac OS X and Windows 7 64-bit, the latter under Boot Camp.

Operating System: Mac OS X 10.6.2, 32 bit
Single CPU Rendering: 3241
Multi-CPU Rendering: 18588
Speed Up Factor: 5.74
Open GL: 6446

Operating System: Mac OS 10.6.2, 64 bit
Single CPU Rendering: 3245
Multi-CPU Rendering: 18564
Speed Up Factor: 5.72

Operating System: Windows 7 Ultimate, 64 bit
Single CPU Rendering: 3435
Multi- CPU Rendering: 20277
Speed-Up Factor: 5.90
OpenGL: 6597

The numbers seem to indicate that Cinebench performs better under Windows 7 than under Snow Leopard, but I honestly can’t say that’s a justified conclusion. The Cinebench download included a separate 64 bit optimized Cinebench test for Windows but only one for OS X. Additionally, Cinenbench reported it was running in 32 bit OS X even though Apple’s System Information confirmed that the 64 bit kernel and extensions for Snow Leopard were loaded. Therefore, I don’t have enough information to say for sure that Windows 7 is faster, but it does appear that Apple STILL isn’t doing everything it can to optimize performance under OpenGL, and it’s been that way for some time.

For curiosity and completeness’s sake, I also ran Cinebench on my 15 inch Unibody MacBook Pro powered by a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU running under 3 GB of RAM and with a Nvidia GeForce 9600M GPU. I ran Snow Leopard in both 32 bit and 64 bit modes.

Operating System: Mac OS 10.6.2, 32 bit
Single CPU Rendering: 2719
Multi-CPU Rendering: 4927
Speed-Up: 1.81
OpenGL: 4907
Operating System, Mac OS 10.6.2, 64 bit
Single CPU Rendering: 2725
Multi-CPU Rendering: 4908
Speed-Up: 1.80
Open GL: 4882

Once again, notice that 64 bit performance of multi-CPU rendering within Cinebench in Snow Leopard lags its 32 bit counterpart on two different machines with two different GPU’s. Again, that makes me question whether Cinebench really can take advantage of 64 bit functions in OS X, though the results are not so far apart from the Windows 7 results that a conclusion can be drawn either way.

The one thing that is clear, however, is that there is a huge performance difference between the i7 or i5 iMac and Apple’s current line of MacBook Pro laptops. If you’re performing tasks that require as much horsepower as you can afford, then you might want to consider moving to one of these iMacs rather than using your MacBook Pro as a desktop. If you need both a laptop and a desktop but can only afford one, then buying a MacBook Pro with an Apple 24 inch LED Cinema Display is certainly the way to go. (That’s how I’m operating though I use my Mac Pro to cover the performance gap as needed.) It all depends on how much Apple you can afford and how much sitting you’re willing to do.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Anyone Else Buy a Defective Windows 7 DVD?

I went to Microcenter today and picked up a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate OEM. After returning home, I opened the package and found that the silver film on the bottom of the DVD had pulled off and a piece of it was sitting in the box. I've closed up the box pending an opportunity for me to return it to Microcenter in the next few days to get another copy.

This has been the first time in 23 years when I've bought software to find the media defective. I'm sure it happens from time to time to every manufacturer, but I'm, dismayed that this has happened with Windows 7 and concerned that some kind of generic defect may exist. When I go back to get another copy, you can bet I'll open that one in the store to guard against that possibility and to prevent another wasted 40 mile trip.

It's already enough hassle and expense to perform any move to Windows 7. Media defects are the last thing Microsoft needs. Hopefully, their quality assurance is good enough where the type of problem I encountered will be an isolated occurrence. If not, Microsoft may find it won the battle but lost the war.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Apple’s New Offerings- First Impressions and What’s Next!

I haven’t run out to the local Apple Store yet to actually see if they have any of the new hardware, so what I’m going to say to you about it is based on what I’ve seen on the Net and on the news. The first thing I’m going to comment on is how irked Apple has to be that most of the media attention is focused on Apple’s smallest and cheapest product, i.e., the Magic Mouse! Sure, no one’s ever seen a 27 inch iMac before nor one with a quad-core CPU; but there’s a recession on and the media’s going to cover what everyone can afford….the new mouse!

In a true and basic irony, I’m going to say that the thing I most likely will buy is a Magic Mouse or two, depending on how my actual tryouts at the Apple Store go. I still think it will be a tough sell; after all, through the years Logitech has usually been my mouse supplier, with an exception for a few Microsoft mice and the McAlly Bluetooth Mouse I use with my MacBook Pro when on the road. But I’m always open to something new and if the Magic Mouse in any way makes my computing life easier, I’ll buy one for each Mac I own, which is currently two.

Speaking of that, my wife asked me if I would like one of the new 27 inch iMacs. That’s kind of like asking an alcoholic if he’d like another beer, and I acknowledge the parallel. Frankly, though, I’d have to give up my 8 core Mac Pro to justify that; and as sweet machine as the new, big iMac is, that’s not something I want to do. The Mac Pro’s power and expandability still holds an edge even over the top of the line iMac, though the distinction might not hold much margin in it. Still, I’ve always professed my love for iMacs and I can’t wait to at least see the new machines in the Apple Store. There’s just no way our budget could handle a $2000 hit, which is what it would pan out to be since I’d want the Core i5 powered beauty with an ATI Radeon 4850 GPU.

Amazingly enough, the new Mac we probably will buy is the new MacBook. We’ve been looking for a portable machine we can throw into the back of our small airplane and haul around with us when we travel in it, and I wanted it to not be my current MacBook Pro because of all the personal information it contains. My wife bought me a Lenovo netbook to fill the airplane companion role; and while it works for that, its screen is too small to work comfortably with the graphical, web-based flight planner I use. And having experienced the funkiness of even old reliable Windows XP on my last trip, I want to go back to using a Mac because…and here it comes….it just works! The new MacBook will work with the 24 inch LED Cinema Displays we both own and the only info on it would be from stuff we either loaded up just before our trips or made during. Yes, a MacBook Air would be a better fit and save us about two more pounds of weight; but I’m not sure I want to spend even $100 more for a machine we can’t hook up to our displays without an adapter. It’s just too appealing a thought that we could finish up any on-the-road projects by simply plugging the MacBook into our set-ups and using it like a desktop.

And now that I’ve covered Apple’s current offerings, I’m going to make a prediction. The next new product we will see….other than the Apple tablet…will be the emergence of a 27 inch LED Cinema Display with a Mini-Display Port. I believe that Apple will eventually offer this as a replacement for the 30 inch Cinema Display just as they discontinued the 20 inch Cinema and replaced it with the 24 inch LED. It will cost less than the current 30 incher to make it more competitive but will, as Apple always seems to do, be priced higher than a competing 27 inch display. It will include the standard USB-based iChat camera and extra USB ports but that is all.

Stay tuned. I talked to a salesman at our local Apple Store last night and he told me they already had the new MacBooks and were putting the new iMacs on the floor today. That would mean I could play with a Magic Mouse even if they don’t have any retail versions for sale. I’ll post some kind of review on the mouse whether I buy one or not. My wife is already hot for one, sight unseen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Nvidia 9400 GPU: The MacBook/Pro’s Achille’s Heel

Last year, I bought a new MacBook Pro. It was my second MacBook Pro and probably my fourth Mac laptop and is a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo powered machine that originally came with a 250GB 5400 rpm hard drive and 2 GB of DDR-3 RAM (1067). My other laptops had been powered by ATI GPU’s and had dedicated video memory, so I didn’t realize when I bought this one what having a GPU running on shared memory could mean. I did what I always did when I wanted to expand it beyond the inadequate amounts of RAM Apple generally supplied its machines with, i.e., I bought extra RAM from third-party vendors who knew the make. I had never had a problem with any of the RAM being compatible with my machine until I bought this one. Now, I know that current models of the MacBook and MacBook Pro are handicapped and you must either buy RAM from Apple or know which memory modules are compatible with the Nvidia 9400M GPU’s Apple is sadly using in its machines.

Shortly after buying mine, I bought 4GB of DDR-3 RAM from Other World Computing. Because the size of my iTunes library would quickly overwhelm the hard disk in the MacBook Pro, I set the library up on a 500GB Bufflao Live Station NAS and then configured iTunes to run off that drive. (I used my 160GB Classic iPod as my iTunes depository when on the road.) It ran well except for one thing, and that was that I never knew when a playing video was going to hang. When it did, it would lock up my whole machine. Only a complete restart would clear the problem.

For a long time, I thought the problem was with my NAS. Then, I tried putting my iTunes library on a Firewire 800 drive. The problem remained. When lots of the Apple new laptop world was experiencing hangs because of their 7200RPM 500GB 2.5” Seagate hard drives, I thought that might be my problem, too, because I had upgraded my MBP using one. But it wasn’t. I had bought the version that did not have Seagate’s G sensor technology in it, so there was no conflict with Apple’s in my MBP. I then moved parts of my iTunes library onto the MacBook Pro’s internal hard drive and cleared the hangs for a short while by resetting the PRAM. That lasted until I upgraded to Snow Leopard. Then, hanging video began occurring in record time, forcing me to find and fix the problem once and for all. I suspected the problem was with my machine’s main memory or with its Nvidia GPU’s.

I ran Apple’s Hardware Test multiple times, engaging the extended hardware test, and the results were always the same. It said there was nothing wrong with my machine at all. I then booted the machine up on a copy of MEMTEST86.exe and ran multiple tests of the system RAM. It, too, reported no problems. That made me suspect the Nvidia GPU’s, even though they were the 9400/9600 pair and not the more problematic 8400/8600 pair Apple had extended warranties on. But how could all this testing hardware report everything was okay when I still had a problem?

The answer came to me a few days ago as I probed the Apple Support communities for any discussion of video hangs with the newer machines. I stumbled on a thread that began by discussing how all the MacBooks being upgraded by an IT department were showing signs of video hanging when they had been upgraded to 4GB of main RAM. Further down the thread, an Apple user suspected that the problem laid with the Nvidia 9400 GPU. Nvidia had published a list of compatible RAM part numbers. If you were using something else and had more than 3GB of RAM in your machine, then you would see the kind of symptoms I was experiencing. He listed the part numbers for the various DDR3 SODIMM’s that were compatible. Someone else provided a link to the Nvidia document that list had come from. I downloaded it, pulled my machine apart, and checked the part numbers on the RAM from OWC against the Nvidia supplied part numbers. They DID NOT match!

To test the 3GB practical limit theory, I pulled out one of the 2GB SODIMM’s from my MacBook Pro and left the other in. I played several videos that had hung the machine earlier in the day and they played with no problems. Checking my wife’s MacBook, I found she was running two 1GB Samsung SODIMM’s and pulled one out. Its part number DID match one on the Nvidia list, and both Samsung SODIMM’s in her machine had come from Apple. I then swapped one of her compatible 1 GB SODIMM’s for a 2GB SODIMM from OWC so that both our machines were running the same memory configuration and below the 3GB limit. I have run videos for hours on both machines with no hang-up’s.

Before Apple switched to Intel CPU’s and had a much smaller audience, it was famous for insisting its users run only its RAM, something they charged two to three times the market value for. Apple old-timers know to buy their RAM somewhere else, and it hasn’t been a problem for me until now. But with the touchy Nvidia GPU’s, you must either buy your RAM with your machine (from Apple) or you must know the specific part numbers for RAM that are compatible with the 9400 GPU if your Mac sports one. You can download the document that details that from Nvidia for free. Good luck, though, trying to figure out which third party vendors are using the right part numbers since they don’t usually tell you which manufacturer’s part number they’re sending you.

Just remember, if you buy third party RAM and put it in your Nvidia 9400 GPU toting Mac and start seeing video hangs, drop the total RAM down to 3GB or less or re-equip it with RAM that Nvidia says is compatible; and don’t wonder any more why all your testing shows not one problem. There isn’t anything broken; there is something that’s incompatible.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Running Windows 7 RC 64 and Liking It!

I’m now running the 64 bit version of Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) on my 2008 Mac Pro. While I’ve only been using it for a few days, I have to say it is a marked improvement over Windows XP. It is smooth, crash free, and delicious, full of enough eye-candy to satisfy even the most gluttonous of computer wizards.

So far, what’s surprised me the most is the number of my old programs it is running without complaint. All but one of my primary flight simulators, including Jane’s F/A-18, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, and X-Plane 9, work. The one that doesn’t is the original Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator nor will it load Star Wars Racer or other programs/installers closer to the Windows 98 era. I am running many of those programs, though, in a Windows XP virtual machine hosted by the free Virtual PC download from Microsoft. That said, running XP under Virtual PC isn’t hassle fre. It takes longer to load it up under Virtual PC than it does under VMWare’s Fusion on my MacBook Pro under OS X, though once it comes up it runs fairly effortlessly. It does exhibit one bug, and it does not see my CH Pro Combatstick when it’s plugged in, preventing me from testing any of my other sims or games, even though W7 does detect it. So, I’m only loading business programs on the XP VM for the time being. When I have more time, I’ll try to find a fix or some download associated with the RC that will fix it for me.

Office 2007 installed and ran without a hitch in both the W7 64 bit and XP VM environments, as did Symantec Anti-Virus 2009. I did have to buy an extra copy of the Symantec NAV to cover myself in the XP VM and also need to spring for a new CD burning utility since the last one I bought for Windows was Nero 6, and it’s incompatible with W7, according to the little window that popped up when I tried to load it. But I really don’t mind that. It’s a small price to pay to harness all the power in my Apple hardware.

Loading, unloading, and operation of applications has been both smooth and error-free. W7 provides a beautiful interface, and though not radically changed from that of XP, its small changes enhance the user experience. I liked what I was seeing enough to spend all my free time over three days to rebuild my Windows system around it; and though that has taken an excruciating amount of time, Microsoft says I can run on the RC until June 10, 2010. That’s smart marketing. You know I’ll buy a copy of it then even at a one-time, ridiculous Microsoft price. I’m hoping part of what that money will buy e is the ability to continue running then by plugging in a new “key” or, at worst, applying the final release via “upgrade”.

I’m still just playing, still on my honeymoon with this software, but I feel Microsoft has a winner in Windows 7, though not enough of one to convince me to switch off OS X. I like OS X’s simplicity and functionality and was more than ready to return to it after three days of nothing but Windows 7. For me, having and using W7RC is akin to having the best of both worlds and using whichever operating systems fits my mood or my task at hand. For those of you reading about my experiences, you need temper what I’m saying by only one thing, i.e., the knowledge that I’m running Windows 7 on a 2.8 GHz eight core machine with 16GB of ram and an ATI 3870 Radeon HD video card with 512MB video RAM on a PCI-E 2.0 bus. Your own mileage may vary, but that is always true.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Adobe Reader 9.1 for Mac Dumps Fonts when Printing

My wife, who is an assistant professor of nursing at a university here, downloaded a .PDF copy of the “DASH Eating Plan” diet from the National Institute of Health’s website. When she printed it from her MacBook over our wireless network to our Okidata C3200N color printer, the copy came out with randomly missing fonts throughout the document. Wanting to eliminate the wireless network as the culprit, I downloaded the same document and re-printed it to the same color printer using our wired network and got the same result. Missing fonts were everywhere. I then closed Adobe Reader and opened the file in Apple’s Preview and tried printing it again. It worked just fine.

I went to the Adobe site and spent a few minutes looking for a Knowledge Base article on this problem but didn’t find anything. There is a generic “printing problem” article and you’re welcome to follow it but I don’t think it’s going to help you at all. So, if you run into this problem, just pull up the PDF file in Preview and have at it.

Almost Worthless

We’ve all seen the new Microsoft ads, and there’s been plenty of press about them, so I won’t repeat any of that here. They’re not aimed at me and they’re almost worthless. The only thing they’ve done is pinpoint for me how much I love Apple’s OS X.

I’m not a Microsoft hater. Windows 7 is pretty cool, and I’ll update my XP set up on my Mac Pro to a Windows 7 sixty-four bit version if I can get all my flight simulators to work under it or get them to run somewhere else. And if it doesn’t cost too much. Otherwise, I’ll just keep my XP set-up. It’s paid for, and it works just fine.

That said, the ads made me go back and look at OS X and why I liked it. There are too many reasons to count, and one of them is that it largely “just works”. I’m not saying OS X never crashes; it does; but I never spend anywhere near the time trying to get the OS running or responding to crashes as I do and did when running Windows. That’s a fact. A lot of folks, especially those PC users who hate Macs and have never, ever used one, will discount what I’m saying about OS X because “I’m biased”. That totally overlooks the fact that unlike many people I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I started out with a DOS 3.1 IBM clone 286 PC, went from there to building my own PC’s and troubleshooting Windows systems for me and my friends and family, and—like many zealous PC users—even argued with a neighbor in New Mexico about the inferiority of his PowerPC Mac. I paid my dues with Windows and PC’s. I literally gave up decades of Windows experience when I switched to Macs. God, how I wish now I’d done it sooner! I might have ten novels out in the world instead of twenty or thirty PC’s, and most of those are in landfills now.

Believe me, there are times I wish the Apple Experience could be entered at less expense. But if you really want to see something that’s more expensive, go look at what it costs to buy a copy of Windows Vista. I can buy a family pack of five licenses for OS X for less than I’d spend on a single version copy of Vista, and every copy of OS X will have FULL functionality. That’s one reason why it’s no big deal for us to own multiple Macs, despite the cost of the hardware.

There's also a beauty and synergy when working with OS X on Apple hardware you almost can't pay enough for. That's the real reason why we continue to work with Macs. And it's something we're never going to find on a Windows PC. Been there; done that; priceless!