Why I’ve Gone Back to Snow Leopard

After much consideration, I’ve taken two of three of my personal Macs back to Snow Leopard from Mountain Lion.  I moved the machines originally to Lion and then Mountain Lion to take advantage of iCloud integration between them and my IOS devices (i.e., an iPhone 4 and iPad2).  Over time, though, I have decided that the small gain in iCloud services was not worth what I was giving up.

My three Macs consist of a 2008 Mac Pro running 2.8Ghz processors, a 2010 MacBook Air running a 2.13Ghz Core 2 Duo, and an early 2011 MacBook Pro running a Core i7 2.2 Ghz CPU.  Only the MacBook Pro is now on Mountain Lion; both the Mac Pro and the MacBook Air are now running Mac OS 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard).  Only the MacBook Air is a candidate to go back to Mountain Lion; the Mac Pro may never leave SL as its primary operating system.  Here’s why:

(1) Loss of Rosetta – I see a lot of apologists defending Apple’s decision to drop Rosetta support, and I do understand that Rosetta was always intended to be a stopgap solution for those transitioning to Intel from Power PC CPU’s.  Regardless, I had quite a few applications I still occasionally use that were not updated to allow them to run in Rosetta-less operating systems. They are often like having a special tool for that odd job that nothing else will satisfy; on my Mac Pro, I had initially approached this problem by keeping my user data and those applications on a Snow Leopard loaded hard disk and my primary operating system (newer) on a SSD.  This allowed me to boot into Snow Leopard when needed but otherwise run a newer OS.  However, as time went on, other changes Apple made forced me to reconsider, driving me me to eventually drop the newer operating system from my Mac Pro.

(2) The Dulling Down of OS X- There has been a drive since Lion to “grey up’ many of the operating system and application interfaces we’ve all come to know and love.  Apple has given various reasons for this, i.e., “a dated look”, “more emphasis on the data and less on the application”, etc.  I have hated almost every one of the changes.  I have read that it was to make OS X look more like iOS.  Whatever.  Some of Tim Cooks’ statements concerning the convergence of tablet and desktop operating systems made me think Apple understood that better than Microsoft (I hate the Metro interface for desktop use), but the changes to the basic user interfaces Apple has recently made to OS X to make it more like iOS would say otherwise.  There is a lot of discussion online about how many of these changes violate Apple’s own Human Interface Guidelines.  All of this points to inexperienced designers who have been given too free a hand.  (And may be the kind of thing that Jobs would have prevented.)  I certainly do not like the lack of color and “flatness” introduced by Lion and now Mountain Lion and I have told Apple so.  (In fact, I suggested that instead of shoving such changes down a user’s throat, they consider making them optional.)  Additionally, someone removed the little visual indicators from Mail that tell you the application is out checking a mailbox when you command it to do so; now you can only tell when it HAS fetched mail and not whether it’s actually doing what you asked it to or is having trouble doing so.  All these things still existed in Snow Leopard.  I was tired of doing without them.

(3) Silent Upgrades and Incompatible Formats – I was able to use the “dual OS” operating philosophy on my Mac Pro as long as application data formats for the new OS and Snow Leopard remained the same.  When Apple updated Aperture from version 3.2.4 to 3.3, it not only failed to tell users that 3.3 required Lion (3.2.4 could be run on Snow Leopard) but it changed the data format so that 3.3 and 3.2.4 could not run the same Libraries. (Additionally, the designers removed the colored icons from Aperture with 3.3, giving me another reason to drop back.  Apple also did the same with iPhoto.)  This made me load SL versions of those applications on my SL partition and recover earlier copies of the libraries, which took a lot of additional hard disk space.  While the later versions of both Aperture and iPhoto do allow use of a single photo library for both applications, it also meant that corruption of a single library would put you out of business.  I have backups to protect for both file corruption and hardware failure, but that removed one more safeguard I had in place.  It also greatly complicated library maintenance, as I would have to add photos to both a Mountain Lion library and Snow Leopard libraries to keep them in synch. In the long run, things were just getting too complicated…

(4)   Loss of Battery Life – When using my MacBook Air just on battery power, I noticed I could watch the battery percentage almost click down.  This was after updating to OS 10.8.1 that supposedly had battery life fixes in it.  I didn’t see the point in running an OS that drained my battery prematurely on a MacBook Air, so I decided to take the time to drop the system back to Snow Leopard and do a comparison.  Sure enough, once back on Snow Leopard, I picked up 30 minutes to 1 hour of extra time, depending on what I was doing.

(5) Small iCloud Losses –  Since my iCloud account was set up and I have one system on Mountain Lion, my losses from ditching Mountain Lion on two machines have been small.  I already had paid for Facetime back when I was on Snow Leopard exclusively, so I simply re-downloaded Facetime from the App Store and loaded it on the SL machines.  I used my Mountain Lion machine to give me the iCloud server settings for iCal and programmed the SL machines with them, so I have iCal iCloud integration enabled on all my machines.  Information I put in Reminders is showing up in Mail 4.5’s Notes.  I have lost iMessage on the SL machines but I still have iChat and Facetime and I always keep my iPhone near or on me anyway.  As for losing iCloud integration with my iWork applications, I can still access iCloud using Safari and manually upload or download documents.  That’s no big deal.

I’m much happier now.   I suspect the Mac Pro will never come off Snow Leopard or, at best, the next great Apple OS (and that’s not Lion or Mountain Lion right now) will be loaded up on the machine’s SSD, assuming I decide I like it more than Snow Leopard.  (That’s not likely.) I may take the MacBook Air up back to Mountain Lion once I see reports that the current battery life expenditure problems have been fixed. But, to be honest, Apple’s current course makes me wonder whether I’ll be staying with the company for my desktop computing or whether there might be some other OS in my future.  It all depends on what Apple does from here on out; ignoring its heritage might not be wise.

First Impressions: The MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Not for Me!

When Apple released the new iPad, I took a look at it but decided the extra money for the Retina display wasn’t worth it.  Frankly, I’m not doing much real photography or video work, so while the extra resolution of the display was nice, I thought that the newness of the technology introduced as many problems as it solved.

Yesterday, I went down to the Apple Store and examined the new MacBook Pro with a Retina display.   Because the machine is a bit thinner and lighter than a normal 15 incher, I wanted to see if I was interested in trading in my current Core 2 Duo MacBook Air and my 15 inch MacBook Pro with an Intel 2.2 GHz quad-core i7 to get the new machine.  After lifting it and playing with it, I have decided that the answer for me is “no”.  Let me tell you why.

First, the Retina display is very nice and I can see a difference. That said, to buy one is to accept a display which will produce a mixed user experience.  While it will produce a great view for applications optimized for the Apple display, those are currently few and far between and all exist within the Apple exosphere.  I’m already pushing the envelope by using Lion (not my favorite Apple OS) to run Adobe’s CS5 Design Premium and don’t have to money to move to CS6 which (we are told) will be optimized for the Retina display at some point no one can pin down.  The rest of the world will look pixelated on this display, and I know myself well enough to know this will make me unhappy.  It will be sometime…and probably a very long one…before most applications and web interfaces in the world become Retina friendly, and I do not want to adopt one of these displays until that is the rule instead of the exception. I already spend too much time with the technology for the technology’s sake versus getting actual creative work done.  I don’t need to belabor it with this new toy.

The bigger turn-off for me was the very slight gain in both thinness and weight the MacBook Pro with retina represents.  There simply isn’t enough difference between its bulk and that of a “normal” MacBook Pro to make the move to the new machine worth it to me.  The MacBook Air is still the king of portable laptops as far as I am concerned.  While I don ‘t like managing two laptops, I do like the Air for traveling and I like having my MacBook Pro as a backup to the Mac Pro I own and a machine I can travel with when I really need the extra power.  While the 13 inch MacBook Pro is an even better go-between, its continued use of only dual core CPU’s and single-integrated Intel GPU’s make it a “no go” for me; I need something more powerful than that.

In the end, if I do anything this year, I may spend money upgrading to the new MacBook Airs. Certainly, a 1.8 GHz i5 is powerful enough for anything I need to do on the road.  In time, I hope the MBP will move more toward a true hybrid of the current Airs and MBP’s so I can have the power of a desktop in a truly portable machine, but Apple ain’t there yet.  There is still a gap in power and portability between the MBA and MBP even though I don’t suspect that gap will exist for much longer.  That means I’m going to keep my current MBP even if I decide to put it in the closet and pull it out for only those trips when content creation is key or my Mac Pro goes down.

The Failing of Thunderbolt: Pricing Only for Professionals

When Apple first unveiled its use of Thunderbolt, like many users, I was so hopeful that us Mac users finally high a truly high-speed interface that would allow us to turn out machines into a computer-version of the Swiss Army Knife.  But time has dashed that hope as Thunderbolt peripherals have very…very…very slowly rolled out.  It’s been almost three years since the technology was first demonstrated and over a year since Apple rolled it into their notebooks, but there are still only a few peripherals that truly allow one to tap the interface.  More are starting to show up in the market but there seems to be one constant trend that is guaranteed to keep the adoption rate down and eventually make the interface irrelevant.  Every Thunderbolt peripheral I’ve seen costs hundreds of dollars.   With Apple’s likely incorporation of USB 3.0 in its next line of computers, I believe that Thunderbolt will not be the average user’s storage transfer protocol of choice but will loose ground to USB 3.0.  Only professionals and some power-users will fork out the money to use Thunderbolt peripherals, and that’s too bad.  Worse, I see it as a harbinger of a bigger problem.

See, this is simply bad for Mac users, professionals, power-users, and pro-sumers especially.  There is every indication that Apple is going to abandon the Mac Pro, and that will leave everyone looking at only the iMac and MacBook Pro lines, neither of which is expandable except through their port-driven interfaces. That will mean USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.  The high cost of Thunderbolt peripherals then means that users will either be forced to deal with a lack of expandability or pay a pretty penny to keep some in a market that will be limited to few choices.   In this type of an environment, I predict that many users will flock to USB 3.0.  Even though the data rates may be lower than they could get, the extra costs to get to higher Thunderbolt capable rates will not be worth it, except in professional markets where the extra investment costs can be recovered.  Even so, some professional users will still go to USB 3 since any investment they make to do so will be covered if Apple abandons the Mac Pro and they switch to Windows.  (How likely this is when Windows 8 arrives is debatable.)

Apple certainly is not helping things by only providing a “one size fits all” monitor that costs a dollar short of one thousand dollars as its only Thunderbolt peripheral. We own a 27 inch Cinema Display, but I do not have one on every Mac we own nor am I ever likely to equip them all with one.  Likewise, I especially won’t buy a 27 inch Thunderbolt monitor just to use Thunderbolt.  I’m starting to look more at third-party monitor makers for any replacements we might need, and that is a change for us.  We have enjoyed using Apple’s monitors in the past but the too severely restricted selection and high costs are forcing me out of that mode, just like I am also considering abandoning use of Apple professional software (Final Cut Pro Studio and Aperture) before it’s too late. If the Mac Pro goes, so will that software.

I don’t need to buy a new Mac to get USB 3.0.  I’ve already got it on my Mac Pro, though I would like to have it in my MacBook Pro.  In my mind, Thunderbolt is becoming less and less relevant.  The whole trend can be reversed if the market starts responding with lower cost Thunderbolt peripherals, but it is ironic that instead we’ll probably see high prices, right until USB 3 overtakes it and no one cares about Thunderbolt anymore, leaving all those 27 inch Apple Thunderbolt monitors sitting on the shelf, which might be exactly where they belong.

The Logitech Ultra-Thin Keyboard: My Favorite iPad Cover

When rummaging through Best Buy about a week ago, I discovered that Logitech had released both the Ultra-Thin Keyboard Cover and the Solar-Powered Folio.  I had initially thought I would buy just the Solar Powered Folio, as that seemed to be the better of the two for business travel.   While I still believe that to be the case, I quickly discovered that the Folio, when outfitted with my iPad 2, was too large to fit in the smart compartment of my flight bag made for computers.  So, I purchased the Ultra-Thin Keyboard and am typing this review using it.  The Ultra-Thin Keyboard Cover is only slightly larger than the Apple Smart Cover it replaced, and I am now using it as my “everyday” cover.  Using it this way means I always have access to a hardware keyboard, and I find that very handy.

Of the two devices, the Solar-Powered Folio has a better keyboard.  Its keys are slightly larger and have a slightly better feel.  This makes the Solar-Powered Folio a better choice for long projects.  The keyboard of the Ultra-Thin Keyboard, while perfectly functional, is a bit cramped and the keys are made of a harder material, so typing takes more concentration and effort.  Additionally, since the iPad sits in a slot on the Ultra-Thin Keyboard, it is most stable when using the iPad in Landscape rather than Portrait mode.    Secondly, the slot in which the iPad rides has magnets in it that help hold the iPad in place when it placed with the Home button on the right.  When using the iPad in Portrait mode, the weight of the iPad causes the entire assembly to lean back, though it is usable on a flat, stable surface.

The Ultra-Thin Keyboard comes with a very short (about 6 inches long) USB cable that attaches to the unit using a mini-USB port and is used to charge it.  Documentation accompanying the unit discusses charging the unit with a computer, which is doable but not always convenient.  Thankfully, the unit does have an “on-off” switch which helps manage the power.  As for power on the iPad, when the keyboard is attached, it does not cover the iPad’s bottom port so charging the iPad with the Ultra-Thin Keyboard attached is possible.

The keyboard is recessed enough so that when the unit is attached as a cover, the keyboard does not impact the screen in any way and, when closed, puts the attached iPad asleep just like a Smart Cover does.   This is one of my favorite things about it and why I feel a Smart Cover is no longer necessary.  The additional bulk of the Ultra-Thin Keyboard is slight though noticeable but still does not hinder storing or carrying it in any way. That said, the bulk of the overall unit is on par with that of a MacBook Air, making the Air a better choice when any serious content creation is needed.  That said, when just basic work tasking is all you need to do and the tablet’s other features are more desirable, the addition of the Ultra-Think Keyboard cover adds some welcome utility to the iPad at the expense of only a little weight and bulk.

When Apple’s App Store Becomes Stupid

I haven’t had a lot of interface with Apple’s App Store.  While I do have a good, high-speed Internet connection and have downloaded a few apps with ease, I still find the whole idea of only supplying software via an Internet connection kind of suspicious.  I had one of those suspicions…“when is this going to cause me some kind of problem?”…validated recently when I updated my Macs with iPhoto 9.2.3. Once the update became available from the Apple Downloads site, I did what I often do when I become aware an update is being distributed, i.e., I downloaded the file to my Mac Pro’s desktop so I could copy it to a network drive where I could then use the single download to update all our machines.  I have three Macs and my wife has one.  This way I can save some Internet bandwidth that both me and other people can use for something else.

The newest of my machines is a 15 inch MacBook Pro I bought from MicroCenter just after Christmas and then updated to Lion.  You may know that Apple is moving much of its Software Update distribution duties to the App Store (to ensure you get hooked into it).  What you may not know is that if you buy an app from the App Store, the only way you can update it is if the update file comes from the App Store…even if a copy of the update file is sitting on your desktop.  Stupid!

It’s one thing to inflict a lack of choice on your consumer; it’s another to force the consumer to use extra and unnecessary Internet bandwidth.

You’re making me walk a mile too far, Apple.

Now, I’m sure Apple will make some claim about ensuring security by allowing only downloads from the App Store to update apps from the app store; but you would think Apple would have enough confidence to allow you to reapply patches of its own OS or application software.  I routinely burn large OS and application updates to optical disk to avoid downloading them again in the event of a crash and reinstallation, but this kind of restriction from Apple will quickly defeat those good intentions.  In the end, when I have to spend tens of extra hours downloading software to recover from some kind of hardware failure (which do occur despite the quality of Apple products) and that loss of time is totally avoidable, does Apple really think making me run everything from the App Store is going to endear me to them? No, it’s not.

Come on, Apple, allow folks to run their software updates from the App Store if they wish but put those smart programmers to work so that users can also run updates from the desktop if that’s what they wish to do, too.  There may be one good reason why you don’t want to do that, but it’s just poor policy and bad Internet citizenry.

Trying Out the Onlive Desktop for iPad

I am writing this not using my desktop computer or even a notebook but my iPad2.  Now, I know you’re thinking there is nothing extraordinary about that and you are right until you understand I am writing using an online version of Microsoft Word on the iPad, fed live to me by Online Desktop.  I am using the free version for the moment, but this is so cool I could easily be talked into paying the $9.95 a month needed to get priority service. A couple of minutes did pass before I was allowed into the site “because it was full”.  That could be a problem if trying to access critical work documents on a deadline and makes paying the fee a necessity if you’re depending on this service for work.

Love it or hate it, what makes the whole thing so cool is working with the standard ribbon interface, the same one I use when using my MacBook Air or Pro and running Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 or 2007 for Windows. (The application being run is actually Word 2010.)  When you first boot into Onlive Desktop, what you see is a replica Windows desktop on your iPad, complete with a Taskbar along the bottom of the screen and several Office icons, as well as some for Paint, a new photography application named Microsoft Surface Collage, a Sticky Note app, and one for a calculator.  To launch any application, you simply tap the icon with your finger and it goes.  The desktop automatically orients itself into landscape mode, which gives you the most working room.  That said, if you use the software keyboard, it clobbers the bottom half of the screen; so working with Onlive Desktop is really only practical with some kind of hardware keyboard.  I’m using a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard with my iPad but any keyboard that will work with the iPad will suffice.

While typing this review, I launched PowerPoint, entered some text into a slide, saved the presentation, and then switched back to Word by touching the Word icon on the Taskbar visible below the application window.  PowerPoint remained responsive even while I hunted for some photos or clip art to include, something I didn’t find.  Earlier, I had played with Excel, enlarging the view of its cells by using standard iPad swiping motions and found the application responsive enough to make that a useful approach.  It does appear that Microsoft has succeeded in tailoring Office to the iPad environment, making it a true partner in the iPad’s world.  The only problem I forsee with Onlive is that it will be unavailable and therefore useless to the lonely writer sitting in his mountain cabin cut off from the world.  But, like any cloud application, it will work fine as long as you have good Internet access and server loads do not reach a point where responsiveness dies.  Seeing that I got denied entrance for a few minutes when I logged in on a Saturday does make me wonder whether the problem will be better or worse on a day when everyone shows up for work.

For the moment, Onlive Desktop is only available for the iPad, though the website claims it’s coming for PC, Mac, and Android.  When I logged in using my Mac Pro, the browser simply directed me to the files I had worked on while in the cloud.  It let me swiftly download this review, which I easily opened in Word 2011.  All formatting was intact.  I’ll try the same with a handbuilt presentation from PowerPoint and spreadsheet in Excel in a few days.  For now, if you’ve been looking for or hoping to see Microsoft Office on the iPad, go sign up for an Onlive Desktop account at: http://www.onlive.com.  All you need to  spend is a little time waiting for the powers that be to validate and activate your account.  That won’t take long, and it will be worth it.

For the Newbie Thinking About Buying a Mac Notebook

I wrote the following to assist a friend of mine who was thinking about buying a Mac notebook for the first time.  I am publishing it here in the hopes that someone else might find it useful. Enjoy!

Hi XXXX,

Since you mentioned you were considering a switch to the Mac, I wanted to write this to assist you in understanding the Mac notebook line and the pro’s and con’s of various models.

First, there are two basic notebook lines, i.e., the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.  The MacBook Pro comes in 13, 15, and 17 inch formats and the MacBook Air comes in 11.6 and 13 inch formats.  In general, the MacBook Pro line has faster processors, more available RAM (usually 8 GB), and either large capacity (up to 750 GB) hard drives or solid state drives (SSD) up to 256GB.  The MacBook Air line distinguishes itself with more portability that is paid for by a lack of an optical drive and fewer external ports.  The maximum RAM in the Air series is 4GB.  2GB is standard.  They all use SSD for storage in 64, 128, or 256 GB capacities.  These drives are significantly faster than hard drives and make up (to a degree) for the slower CPU by significantly decreased boot and application launch times.

All Apple notebooks have the ability to operate in “clamshell” mode, which means turned on with the tops closed so they can be operated as desktops when hooked into monitors, keyboards, and mice.  (This is how we operate at our house.). They also come with Bluetooth (the Pro’s with Bluetooth 2.1 and the Air’s with Bluetooth 4) and Wireless N, which in the Apple world is known as “Airport” or “Airport Extreme”.  The Pro line has one Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2 ports, one Firewire 800 port, an audio port, and one Thunderbolt or mini-Display port, depending on whether the model is one from 2010 (mini-display port) or 2011 (Thunderbolt), a Facetime HD camera (on the bezel), and a SD card slot.  (the 17 inch Pro model also has an Express Card 34 slot.) The Air line has two USB ports, one mini-display or Thunderbolt port, one audio port, a SD card slot on the 13 inch models only, and a lower resolution Facetime camera on its bezel.

The first thing to decide is whether you want an Air for its easier portability or a Pro for its greater horsepower, ports, or optical drive capability.  (NOTE: Apple makes a Superdrive….DVD burner…that can plug into a USB port in the Air if you need it.  The Air can also access an optical drive on Mac or Windows PC (after installing a software plug-in free from Apple) over a network.  The next thing is to decide whether you want a machine in an 11.6, 13, 15, or 17 inch format.  To see the various price ranges, go to http://www.apple.com and click on the “Store” tab and then select the various models you are interested in.  Once done with that, look down the left sidebar and find the “Refurbished” section near the bottom of the page and check out the “refurbished Macs”.  You can generally save $50-$250 off new by buying refurbished and they have the standard one year warranty that new Apple computers carry.

The most recent Apple computers use the Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 CPU line.  These CPU’s are twice as fast as the previous Core 2 Duo CPU’s used in Apple systems from about 2006-2010.  That said, the Core 2 Duo is a dual core and very capable CPU. All these CPU’s have the ability to run 64 bit operating systems.  All Mac operating systems have been 64 bit since 10.5 (Leopard), though all before Lion have defaulted to 32 bit mode during installation.  Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 have both 32 bit and 64 bit versions that are bought and sold separately.  Sixty-four bit operation gives you faster results and allows your system to use more than 3GB of RAM but also requires drivers written for 64 bit operation.  This will be largely invisible to you in the Mac world as drivers tend to be written for operating system versions.

If you want to see performance differences for various CPU’s and graphics chips, go to: http://www.barefeats.com.

As for virus protection, it’s up to you whether you want to run it or not.  Most Mac users do not because of the very limited number of viruses in the wild.  Apple has supplied its own malware hunter as part of the operating system.  You are more likely to pass a virus through to a Windows user than suffer one yourself, though “smart computing” is always in vogue no matter what OS you run.

If you need a copy of Microsoft Office for the Mac, buy Microsoft Office 2011 Home and Student.  Three installation versions run $150.  Single installation versions can be had for $90-$119, if you can find them.

If you still need to be able to run Windows, you can run it natively using Boot Camp (part of OS X) or inside a virtual machine by using VM Ware’s Fusion or Parallel’s Desktop.  You can also run Windows virtually by using Virtual Box which is free, open-source software that will take more configuring than the two commercial packages.

Locally, the best place to look for deals on Apple computers is at MicroCenter.  Apple doesn’t vary its prices much, so one Apple Store is as good as another.  Fry’s has some good deals occasionally, but I’d be careful of any demo models. Microcenter not only has good deals on new Macs (some are one generation back) but also sells some “pre-owned” models, as does PowerMax.  Older model Macs are a good way to get into OS X computing without spending as much money, though these machines will usually have only a 90 day warranty and you will need to understand the CPU type, GPU type, and RAM limitations to understand what you are giving up.  (Apple Care is extended warranty service and one of the few I recommend, especially on laptops which are very expensive to repair.  However, Apple Care can only be applied to new machines while they are in the year of warranty coverage.  Secondly, there are two things not to buy from Apple.  One of them is RAM, and the other is Apple Care.  There are much better prices out there in the market for both.)

Online, Amazon, PowerMax, and MacMall are good places to look for deals.  One advantage of the Mac is how it holds its value over time and you can usually trade in one at PowerMax and get a good deal (plus they do not charge tax).  If you are looking at used, be careful how much you decide to spend; PowerMax prices especially can be as much as for new machines.

Technical Stuff

The current generation of CPU’s being used in Apple’s notebook (and desktop) line are Intel Core i5 and i7 CPU’s.  There are two classes of CPU, i.e. dual core and quad core.  The dual core CPU’s are in the 11.6 and 13 inch models and the quad core are in the 15 and 17 inch models. Each of these CPU’s has two features that increase performance.  One is hyperthreading; this is where each core can run two “threads” (or lines of processing) which essentially allows the CPU to perform as a multiple CPU device.  This means that the dual core chips actually perform like a quad-core CPU (without hyperthreading) and the quad core like an 8 core machine.  These CPU’s also feature Turbo Boost 2.0, a feature that throttles up the clock speed of the CPU’s if only single core functions are being processed.  (Software has to be written to be multi-core.)  Both of these features account for the 2x performance increase over similarly clocked Core 2 Duo CPU’s that have been the mainstay for the last few years.

All models use an integrated Intel 3000 HD graphics processor unit, though the 15 and 17 inch models also have much more powerful and discrete ATI GPU’s that the computer will switch to automatically.  The Intel 3000 GPU is not particularly strong; it is slightly weaker than the Nvidia 320 GPUs used in last year (2010) models.  Most applications (Including Photoshop) still pull mostly on the CPU, so this isn’t much of an impact.  It does show up running games, flight simulators, or 3d applications.  For instance, running X-Plane, my 2010 Air with its Nvidia GPU will run it about 4 frames a second faster than the newer models will.  Whether you can actually see 4fps difference is arguable.  Generally, the advice runs that if you are a graphics professional or a gamer, you are better off buying a 15 or 17 inch MacBook Pro with its discrete ATI GPU.  That said, Photoshop performance is faster on all the newer machines (which simply translates into how long you have to wait before an action is completed).

You can find various performance comparisons at http://www.barefeats.com and at http://www.geekgench.com and http://www.cinebench.com.

The 2011 models also incorporate Thunderbolt, which is a high-speed data transfer conduit capable of 10GB/sec transfer.  It is incorporated in what was the mini-display port last year; indeed, these models work with Apple displays using the mini-display port or the 27 incher that has Thunderbolt incorporated.  One of the beauties of Thunderbolt (eventually) is that adapters should allow the Thunderbolt port to allow multiple types of functionality (i.e., Giagbit Ethernet, high-speed storage data transfer, etc.).  However, Thunderbolt peripherals are just really hitting the market this year.

Macs are stuck with USB 2 until the new “Ivy Bridge” Intel processors and chips are released in the April-May timeframe.  It is expected that Apple will adopt USB 3 at that time, though it is not a sure thing.

Buying Back

You can often save money by buying Macs one or two generations old, but it is essential you understand the technology they have and what your needs are to avoid paying too much.  I’m going to talk about buying systems running the Core 2 DUO CPU versus the newer “Sandy Bridge” i5 and i7 models.  You can go even further back (I would not hesitate to buy a system with a G4 or G5 CPU since I have run them and know their limitations) but I would stay with at least Core 2 Duo CPu’s to give you the option of running Snow Lepoard or Lion, the latest Mac operating systems.  Most of the “whiz bang” features in Lion mean something to you only if you are using a notebook or Apple trackpad or Apple’s Magic Mouse.  Come see me if you want to try either of those out.

MicroCenter has some Core 2 Duo MacBooks in the $500 range.  I would recommend these only if you are intent on saving some bucks and are comfortable risking repairs on the machines.  While my Air is also a Core 2 Duo notebook, its graphic processor and solid state drive give it definitive advantages over these machines a as well as its Apple care coverage.  Another option for you is Microcenter’s 13 inch 1.86 Core 2 Duo 2GB RAM 256GB SSD MacBook Air for $899 or one with 128 GB SSD for $849.  These are new machines and besides the processor being slightly slower (1.86 vs 2.13) than mine they only have 2 GB RAM vs 4GB in my machine.  For most processes and everyday work, either machine will work fine for you.  Either will run all the iLife applications and even Photoshop Elements, though I would opt for a 4GB RAM machine if you want to do moderate Photoshop work.  You can buy Apple Care from L.A. Computer for $180 anytime during your first year of ownership that will extend coverage out two years to give you three total.  (Mine has already gone through its first year, so it has two years left on it.)  In any case, be sure to look at all of MicroCenter’s offerings as you decide what you’re going to do.

UltraBooks

While I hope you’ll come over to the Mac platform, Intel is pushing “Ultrabooks” from several manufactures.  There are essentially MacBook Air competitors running Windows.  They’ll be hitting the market later this year.  From what I’ve seen, the prices for them are very close to those of Apple’s MacBook Airs; but you can judge that as they come out.  A “Google” will get you info on them.

Hope this helps.

Andy

What No One Told Me About eSata

I own a 2008 eight-core Mac Pro that’s becoming long in the tooth.  It came equipped with SATAII internal buses and USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 and 800 connections for use with external peripherals.  That was fine for the days when hard disks were no larger than a couple of hundred gigabytes, but now my main user disk is a terabyte in size. If I want to move its data to a larger hard disk or to have one whole backup, I have to be willing to dedicate not hours but days to the process.  With some spare PCIe 2.0 slots lounging in the Mac pro’s rear, I decided it was time to see what newer technologies I might be able to use to make data transfers a lot less time consuming.

The two newer technologies that came to mind were USB 3.0 and 6G eSata.  A little hunting established that I could get both technologies in one PCIe card, so I ordered Caldigit’s FASTA-6GU3 card and a Vantec USB 3.0 and eSata disk enclosure case from Amazon.com.  The Caldigit card hosted two USB 3 and two 6G eSATA slots and supposedly worked under both OS X and Windows 7 and would boot into OS X.  I am running Mac OS 10.7.2 (Lion) as my Mac’s primary operating system but also run Windows 7 on its hard disk via boot camp, so I wanted my set up to work under either operating system.

Installing the Caldigit card was easy.  I just popped off the bracket that holds the PCIe slot cards in place, popped the card carefully into a slot, and then reinstalled the bracket.  Unfortunately, the fit of the Caldigit card in the slot was very loose; and I was unable to fasten down the card enough to keep it from moving.  That said, the fault is really with Apple’s design of the bracket and not a fault of the card.

I installed a USB 3 driver downloaded from the Caldigit website into both my OS X and Windows set-ups and plugged in the Vantec case first using an eSATA cable alone. The hard disk inside the case was seen by Windows 7 disk management tools but was not seen by OS X’s Disk Utility.  The Vantec case was seen by both operating systems when plugged in using its USB 3 cables.  I initially thought I had a fault with the eSATA portion of the Caldigit card but later discovered that the eSATA bus does not power a drive inside an eSATA case like a Firewire or USB case does.  eSATA enclosures must be powered by an external power source or pull power from another internal bus like USB.  Indeed, for both the Vantec case and a small case by Acomdata that used both USB 2.0 and eSATA, their drives were being powered by their USB connections.

Since I thought the Caldigit card was bad, I replaced it with two separate USB 3 and 6G eSATA PCIe cards from OWC.  Both cards provided very high speed data transfers.  Copying a 22GB file went from taking many hours to only a little over 20 minutes.   Unfortunately, the 6G eSATA card will not boot OSX, so I’m going to have to move back to a Caldigit card at some point if I want to use 6G eSATA to boot my Mac Pro from a future 6G SSD. In the interim, I plan on moving my Time Machine disk from its Firewire 400/USB 2 case to a USB 3 case to greatly aid in data recovery.  After all, it’s simply a matter of time before some disk inside my Mac Pro fails.  This time, though, when it does, I’ll have USB 3 or eSATA available to help me recover it, reducing the time I have to watch the colored beach ball spin and spin and spin.

 

First Look: Logitech K750 Keyboard for Mac

(Updated on May 15, 2012 to correct some functionality comments.)

I’ve had a long if not necessarily constant love affair with computer accessories from Logitech. So when the company came out with a wireless keyboard similar to Apple’s aluminum keyboard, I had to try it.  In addition to copying the Apple layout, the keyboard is solar-powered but, even better, has a number pad unlike Apple’s current wireless keyboard, making it more useful than the Apple’s.

I first saw mention of the keyboard on some website review; when I looked into purchasing it, no stores in the local area had one so I went to the Logitech website itself.  That was several weeks ago, and the keyboard was listed “out of stock” everywhere I could find that sold it.  About a week ago, I noticed that the online store at Logitech had the keyboard, which comes in several “colored” versions, in the color I wanted (silver) and in stock.  So, I ordered it.  While it took Logitech a couple of days to ship it, it arrived a couple of a days ago.  Even so, I wanted to capture my first impressions.

The differences between the Logitech keyboard and the Apple aluminum wired keyboard are not huge.  The Logitech is set-off by the row of solar cells that cover its top and a small strip above the number pad and parallel to the Function keys.  The strip contains lights that show you whether the keyboard is getting adequate light and contains an ON/OFF switch.  Other than that, the keyboard is almost identical to the Apple wired keyboard.  The keys are the “Chiclet” type but are slightly smaller and more rounded on the tops and their feel is a little more “bouncy”.  I happen to like that at the moment and don’t think that anyone used to typing on the Apple keyboard will find it much different, though it may prove to be more tiring and therefore noticeable when typing a long document.

The function keys are a bit lower on the keyboard due to the solar cell row but are still at the top of the keyset and are marked identically to the ones on Apple’s aluminum keyboard.  This means the icons are really more appropriate to Snow Leopard or earlier rather than Lion, though I’ve always considered that a very minor inconvenience.  I have used the keys as they are marked and not as “straight” function keys, and there are gripes in Logitech forums about them not functioning properly as such.  I have not tested that area.  But if you use the keyboard in the same way you would an Apple wired keyboard, you will see no differences.

The most problematic thing about the keyboard is it has consistently refused to be paired with its own Unifying Receiver.  If you have the latest version of Logitech Control Center loaded, when you insert the Unifying Receiver into a USB port on your system, the LCC will recognize it and add a tab in its window (called up by going to System Preferences/Logitech Control Center) for the Unifying Receiver software.  (In case you don’t know what that’s about, the latest Logitech peripherals –marked with an orange Unifying Receiver logo–can share a single wireless receiver plug with up to five peripherals.  That said, the range of devices that can use this feature is not very large; my Logitech MX620 mice must still have their own radio receivers plugged in to work.)  The software will lead you through a procedure to pair up these devices with the receiver; and it has consistently failed on my Mac Pro and my MacBook Air, both running Lion.  Luckily, it has not affected the operation of the keyboard, i.e., the keyboard does not have to be paired with the receiver to work.  That’s a good thing if you want to use your K750 for Mac keyboard with more than one Mac; the software will only let you pair the keyboard with one machine.

One big question you should have if you are considering this keyboard is how much light it takes to keep it happy.  The keyboard has two small lights on its upper right quadrant that will give you immediate feedback as to whether you are feeding it enough light when you press a “test” button near them.  In my office, I do have a two windows with shades usually drawn, one 60 watt light overhead in a ceiling fan just slightly behind my seat, and another 150 watt lamp in the nearest corner to my workstations.  With only the overhead light on, the keyboard does not get enough light to keep it happy.  With both lights on or the 60-watt on and the shades opened during the day, the keyboard reports it is “happy” (green light).  In general, a well lit room will keep the keyboard happy but it’s all going to be a function of where the shadows are and how much light you’re talking about.  In addition to running the corner light more, I open at least one window shade and set the keyboard in its direct lighting during the day when I am not using it.  I have had no episodes of the keyboard shutting down because it was out of juice, but my use so far has not been extensive. There is a “Solar App” software application that you can download to help you manage the keyboard’s energy state, but how useful it really is I can’t say.

Another big question you probably are interested in is whether the Option key will work during an initial system boot or restart to allow you to select a boot disk.  I am happy to report that it works just fine.  Also, I booted into Windows 7 Ultimate using Boot Camp and that operating system had no trouble responding to the keyboard but the  CD/DVD eject function keys do not work nor do any of the other Apple-related special functions. You’ll have to decide if this is a show-stopper for you.  They do work with Windows XP Pro running under VMWare Fusion 3.1.3. and 4, but I think that’s because OS X is still controlling the functions.   Unfortunately, loading up the Windows versions of Logitech’s SetPoint software do not solve the problem, probably because it doesn’t properly recognize the keyboard.

I ordered my keyboard directly from Logitech; it was packaged in a brown box with black stamped letters that looked more like a refurbished item box than a retail box.  At $59.99, it’s not a cheap keyboard nor is it expensive either.  Its wireless form has decluttered my desk a bit at the price of one less USB port; but for now, I am happy with this purchase.   If you’re looking for a wireless keyboard that uses the standard Apple layout and has a number pad, then this one may be for you.  Unlike Apple’s Bluetooth keyboards, it is responsive from the moment the machine boots, as long as you remember to turn on it’s ON switch before you boot up.

At Last! A Blue Ray Player for the Mac!

During my daily rounds of Mac websites, I noticed at the “Accelerate Your Macintosh” website a mention of an “OWC Blog on Mac Blu Ray Player” software.  Since one of the things I’ve been deeply disappointed with Apple about has been their lack of Blu Ray support, I paddled on over to take a look.  In turn, that blog referred me to the Macgo website where they were hosting a Blue Ray player for the Mac.  I immediately downloaded it to give it a try.  It works, and very well so, I might add!

My test rig was a pretty powerful one, a 2008 Mac Pro with dual 2.8 quad-core GHz Xeon processors running with 16GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 5770 video card.  The machine is connected to one of Apple’s 27 inch Cinema Displays.  For the blue ray part, I had mounted an LG BH12LS35 blue ray burner connected via one of the Mac Pro’s aux SATA ports and alongside a Pioneer DVR-112D DVD burner running on PATA.  Thinking that my new Cinema Display must be fully Blue Ray compliant (since it ran iTunes HD stuff), I had set up Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit to access the blue ray drive only to find out that the display wasn’t.   This is one area where Apple consistently gets a “fail”.  There is no reason a one thousand dollar display should not match the current video standards of the day.

To test out the software, I used the Blue Ray version of “Star Trek: Generations” and played the movie at fullscreen.  It played the blue ray masterfully with no skips and with the resolution you would expect out of blue ray and did it on my 27 inch Apple display!  It was a beautiful set-up.  Finally, I feel I am getting my money’s worth out of my system.  A word to you, Apple: Handcuffing your users to try to force them to use iTunes exclusively works against you in the long run.  Just because I have this capability now does not mean I’m going to shy away from iTunes purchases.  I still like the portability that media provides.  But it is great to have this “new” capability in addition, and doing so makes me more likely to buy your computers and software, not less.

System requirements says that the software needs at least a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo to work, so I decided to see if my 2010 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo powered MacBook Air could run it.  I loaded the software on my MacBook Air and used Remote Disc to mount the blue ray disk on the MBA’s desktop.  The MBA was hooked into an “older” 24 inch Apple Cinema Display and it also ran the movie flawlessly, i.e., fullscreen on the 24 inch with no delays, stuttering, or pixilation.  Sometime soon, I plan on buying a small external blue ray burner and seeing if it will work with my MacBook Air as well.  I’ll let you know how it goes when that happens.

Until October 1, the company is selling licenses for $39.99.  After that date, the website says the price is going up to $59.99.  That’s kind of pricey for just a Blue Ray player, but considering that nothing has been available for the Mac until now it’s a bargain.  The application works with a Mac or a PC.  (I intend to try the Windows version to see if it will work with the Apple Cinema Display.  I’ll let you know when I do.)

One thing that can be showstopper for some people is that the software requires an Internet connection to work.  I have only used our home internet connection for any testing and today that is running at 25.12 Mbps download and 3.15 Mbps upload speeds. I’ll try it later using my iPhone 4’s Personal Hotspot and let you know how it works there.  But if you can get past that, then I think this is a great product…as long as they can keep the Feds or Apple from shutting them down.  The Internet connection allows Macgo’s servers to bypass the Blue Ray encryption.  Whether that’s a legal loophole (since I doubt if the servers are in the U.S.) that can be successfully exploited remains to be seen and is the only long term threat I see to the viability of the software. It’s too bad that both the US government and Apple has put us in that boat in the first place.

By the way, Macworld did a review of this software back a few months ago.  It looks like the software has improved considerably since then, so be sure to do your own downloads and trials rather than take my word for it or theirs.  Your mileage will surely vary depending on your machines and your Internet connection.

« Previous posts Next posts » Back to top