The no-compromise ultraportable?

As the day job has been taking over my life (reducing my time for blogging), I thought I’d finish up the week with some light-hearted humour. I’ve commented before that I think Apple’s MacBook Air ultraportable PC is overpriced and underspecced. And whilst it may be selling to the Apple fanboys and those execs with more money than sense it’s not really much use for people who really need a light PC to travel with for their work (in my opinion, as someone who travels a lot, and uses standard notebook PCs – although, sadly, my employer won’t give me a ThinkPad either). Not wanting to start up the Mac vs. PC rubbish (I’ve been there before), I thought I’d post Lenovo’s view on what an ultraportable PC should be like:

This video has been floating around the web for a few days now, and some of the responses I’ve seen have been along the lines of “Yeah, but the MacBook Air does everything I need without needing to plug anything in”. Right. Of course it does. Well, if the MacBook Air is good for you, then all I have to say is “good for you”. Personally, I’ll take the ThinkPad. And if Vista is too much of a compromise (I don’t think it is) then I’ll take a normal Apple MacBook (mine is running OS X and Vista).

My living room PC finally becomes a reality

Some time back, I wrote about my plans for a living room PC but before this could happen there were several hurdles to overcome:

  1. Earn enough money to replace my Mac Mini so that it could move to the living room.
  2. Negotiate the wife approval factor for IT in a common area of the house (must look good – hence Mac Mini).
  3. Find a software setup that works for me, but is also consumer-friendly for the rest of the family (i.e. no hint of a Windows, OS X or Linux interface).

Fortunately, the first two items came together for me quite easily – after I decided to raid my savings and buy a MacBook a couple of months back, my wife asked me which PC it was replacing and I said “that one” (pointing at the Mac Mini), never expecting the response that she gave – “Oh. I like that one. It’s cute.”! This was a revelation to me – my wife has never before referred to any of my IT as “cute” – so I grabbed the moment to say something like “yeah, I thought it could go in the living room for when we watch films and stuff” (and the lack of any objection was interpreted as implicit approval).

The hardest part was the software setup. I still feel that Windows Vista’s Media Center capabilities are vastly superior to Apple’s Front Row – there’s TV support in there for starters. There are other options too: EyeTV would add TV support to the Mac (the problem is that it only has a 1 year TV guide subscription in Europe); Center Stage looks promising, but is still an alpha release product (and has been for a while now); Myth TV could work too (but my research suggested that USB TV tuner support could be a bit of a ‘mare). Then I thought about it a bit harder – we have lousy terrestrial TV support in my house (digital or analogue), so the clearest TV signal I have is on satellite (Freesat from Sky). Unless I can find a way to interface the Mac with my digibox, TV on the living room PC is not going to happen (this solution looks interesting but is for Windows/Linux only). Which meant that the criteria for a living room PC were:

  • Access to my iTunes library (which lives on my MacBook) to watch podcasts, listen to music, etc.
  • Ability to play content from CD/DVD.
  • Ability to play content ripped from DVD or obtained by other means (e.g. home movies or legally obtained digital downloads).
  • Simple (no technical skills required) user interface.

So, ruling out the need for TV integration meant that Apple Front Row was suddenly a contender as the OS X 10.5 (Leopard) version of Front Row can access shared libraries from other PCs (so I don’t have to copy/convert the media) and the remote control supplied with the Mac Mini does not rely on line of sight to control the PC. Vista Media Center could do this but I’d need to have that huge IR receiver and ugly remote control. Of course, I could just buy an Apple TV, but the Mac Mini gives me so much more (and it can output to my aging, but still rather good Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen TV). I will stress though, that if I ever manage to get a decent TV signal from our aerial, Windows Vista Media Center would beat Front Row hands down.

It’s ironic that I’m writing this in a hotel room in Bolton (nowhere near my living room) but so far, the software stack on the Mini is:

I may have to add a few more codecs over time (but Perian seems to include most of what I need) and furthermore, this headless PC (sorry, Mac – for the purists out there) is suiting my requirements pretty well. I’ve watched films from the hard disk with no issues at all, and streamed video podcast (and audio) content from my MacBook across an 802.11g Wi-Fi network (with no apparent playback issues – despite the signal having to travel through several walls and to the furthest corner of my living room – although I wish iTunes would mark podcasts as played when viewed remotely). There is one caveat though (and that’s a hardware issue) – even though the Leopard version of Front Row supports DVD playback, I still watch DVD content on my home theatre setup as that gives me true 5:1 surround sound (it’s only stereo on the Mac Mini).

Other applications that will probably find their way onto the mini over time include:

Those are for the future though – at this point in time, I’m ripping my content (and performing iPod conversion as required) on other machines and transferring it to the Mini across the network (see below). I also tried running a Windows XP virtual machine for downloading from BBC iPlayer and Channel 4 On Demand but didn’t manage to set up the tools that are necessary to remove the Windows Media DRM in order to play the content on the Mac (I do at least have a PC running older software releases that I can use for that).

As for getting media onto the living room PC (the stuff that I don’t want to stream across the network), I can always plug in a USB drive and control it remotely using the screen sharing capabilities in OS X.

Screen sharing in OS X to access the living room TV remotely

OS X screen sharing is only VNC but it works well across my network (and scales the display accordingly – it even gave a decent representation of my 1680×1050 resolution display downscaled to fit on a 1280×800 MacBook display, although the picture here is with the Mac Mini hooked up to a standard definition TV). One point to note – it’s necessary to disconnect the shared screen session before trying to control the living room PC with the remote control or else it won’t work.

Further reading

Wikipedia article on Apple Front Row.
MacInTouch Intel Mini Home Theater.
ARS Technica review of various Mac Mini media solutions.

And finally…

This guy has some great details of how he set up his Mac Mini in his living room – he uses MythTV but gives some good details about mounting the hardware to only take up 97mm (3.8″) of room space.

So much for Apple’s legendary build quality

Readers of this blog may recall that I bitched about the time it took for Apple to deliver my new MacBook recently. It was ordered on 5 February, finally arrived on 14 February – and broken on 31 March. What did I do to break it? I rested my hands on the palm rest. Is that a user error?

Seriously, I was in the pub last night with Alex and Simon (from ascomi, who are helping me work on a new version of this site) and there was a fair degree of Mac vs. PC banter going on when all of a sudden there was a crack under my right palm and I saw that part of the top cover/keyboard assembly was split at the edge. I had only had the computer in my possession for 6 weeks and have really looked after it – to say that I was not happy is a bit of an understatement. So much for Apple’s legendary build quality.

Split top cover on nearly-new MacBook after 6 weeks of light (and careful) use

As it happens, some people regard the MacBook as the ugly step child of the Apple family – I disagree (hence the reason I bought one) but I do think that it is a little pricey and for that premium pricing I do expect premium build quality. It may not be as bad as the last Dell notebook I used but it is nowhere near as good as my IBM ThinkPad T40 and I have never had a case crack through normal use (drops and inadequate protection in transit maybe).

It seems that the MacBook case crack is a common defect and, whilst Apple refuses to acknowledge it as a design fault (it seems to occur next to the small bevel that keeps the screen and keyboard apart when the MacBook is closed, suggesting that may be causing undue pressure on that part of the top case) but Brian Ford wrote about the same problem four days ago and although getting picked up by John Gruber (Daring Fireball) will have helped, last night had 144 comments on his post. On that basis, this does not appear to be an isolated issue.

Furthermore, the problem has been around for a while now and whilst some reports suggest that Apple has changed the affected component and it does not occur on new models, I see no evidence of that as my computer is less than two months old – I call that pretty new.

I phoned AppleCare as soon as they were open this morning and spoke to a really helpful guy. He asked me if I had taken out AppleCare protection (no, but I have a warranty) and then proceeded to make an appointment with an Apple “Genius” at the Apple Store (I don’t know what’s worse – Apple’s idea that their tech support guys are all geniuses or Microsoft’s idea that there are IT departments full of heroes all across the world) . When there were no slots available, I asked which store he had tried and he said “Oh, most people ask for Regent Street in London”. I said “I’d like an appointment at my local store please” and suddenly there were lots of slots free and I just needed to pick my time!

So, I set off to the Milton Keynes Apple Store, arrived a couple of minutes early, booked in, and saw my name top of the Mac queue at the Genius Bar. Then I waited, and waited, and pestered the sales staff until a (very helpful) genius called Simon came over to help. It seems that the iPod queue and the Mac queue are actually one, and that there was only one genius, who was very very busy with a lot of people to see this morning, meanwhile the shop was littered with trainers and sales staff apparently doing very little.

Thankfully, Simon the genius noted that my MacBook was in “mint” condition (although the Genius Bar Work Authorisation will only allow it to be recorded as “As New”) and there was no argument that it had been mistreated in any way. Apple will be replacing the top cover/keyboard assembly and say that it will take 5 to 7 days but why so long? It should be a 1 hour job (maximum), plus the time to obtain parts and schedule the work – so, 2 to 3 days would be more reasonable. Doubtless I will hear from support technicians who say “you try our job for a day – we work really hard” (to which I say “I’ve been there – and so do lots of people”). In the meantime, I’ll be without my MacBook for a week.

I’ve posted my picture of the issue to the Flickr group that has been set up to highlight this issue. In the meantime, if you are having similar problems, I urge you to do the same and to leave a comment on Brian Ford’s Newsvine article so that he can build enough evidence to (hopefully) get Apple to actually do something about this issue.

MacBook Meccano

Imagine that you are the parent of two small children and a beaker of milk gets spilt very close to (and splashes over) your shiny new MacBook.

After turning it upside down, shutting it down, removing the battery and wiping away all the obvious spillage you might want to check that there is no liquid inside the machine.

If you were to find yourself in this situation, you might find the ifixit do-it-yourself instructions for Mac and iPod repair very useful (or the Apple Service Source guide for the MacBook).

If you are lucky, it may turn out that the spillage hasn’t made it past the upper cover and into the internal workings of the machine. Phew!

Top quality service from Crucial memory – and a new Mac memory advisor tool

I’ve written before aboutand, yet again, I have been blown away by the competitive prices and speed of service.

In the early hours of yesterday morning I ordered 4GB of RAM for my new MacBook. With free shipping, it came to a bargain price of £72.83 (Mac:Upgrades are currently selling the equivalent Kingston RAM for £83.82). The free shipping is for an estimated 3-5 day delivery but it arrived this morning – just over 24 hours after placing the order! A few minutes later I had the RAM installed in the MacBook.

Mac with 4GB RAM installed

Some people will say that you need to use OEM-specific RAM because it’s the best available. Nonsense. If third party memory was unreliable then major OEMs wouldn’t be prepared to sell it and Crucial is a division of Micron – one of the largest memory manufacturers in the world.

Most of my computers now have Crucial RAM inside and I’ve had no problems. There is only one notable exception – when I upgraded my Dell Server a few weeks back, the Dell memory was horrendously priced but they would also sell me the equivalent Kingston RAM if I wanted it. Some people have reported problems with value memory (e.g. Kingston ValueRAM) but this was the full-quality item. Ironically, I only bought from Dell to keep things simple – whilst I was waiting for the memory to be shipped the price for equivalent RAM at Crucial dropped to a lower level.

There’s one more thing I wanted to mention – Crucial now have a memory advisor tool for MacOS X. You could always browse by manufacturer to find memory for a Mac but this makes the process even simpler, querying the computer to see what model it is, how much RAM is already installed, and exactly which components to buy.

Apple Memory upgrades from Crucial

Macworld 2008 – looking beyond the Steve Jobs reality distortion field

Before the Apple fanboys call me a hater, I’m not a PC bigot.  I’ve written here many times about how a PC is a PC, and that the MacOS X vs. Windows vs. Linux thing has gone too far, with advocates of each platform treating theirs as the one true approach to personal computing with the kind of fervour normally reserved for religious purposes.  I also like my Apple hardware and have a Mac, three iPods and an iPhone to prove it (as well as an assortment of Windows and Linux PCs), so I think I can be pretty objective in this area.

Having established my credentials, let me take a few minutes to dissect Steve Jobs’ keynote at the recent Apple Macworld conference and push aside the hype to get down to what Apple’s major announcements for 2008 really mean.

  1. As is now traditional with Macworld conferences, it started off with a PC vs. Mac advert complete with all the usual bias, lies, and claims that PC (i.e. Windows) copies the Mac in everything… hmm.  I’ve not upgraded to MacOS X 10.5 Leopard as for me it doesn’t represent a huge leap forward but I am glad though to hear that it is selling well – Apple claims 4 million copies in first 90 days making it the most successful version of OS X ever.  That’s only half the story though.  It may only have affected a minority but, from the reports I’ve heard (in the Mac-focused press), Leopard upgrades have not been without their problems (how dare users run non-Apple applications!).  And as more and more consumers switch to a Mac (I see no evidence of major businesses switching – except perhaps the odd director here and there who is senior enough to tell the IT department what he wants to use) problems with upgrades between OS releases will appear more significant.
  2. The next major announcement was Time Capsule – a companion product to Time Machine consisting of an Airport Extreme and hard drive in a single device to backup Macs wirelessly.  It sounds great, but suffers from the same problem as Windows Home Server does for PCs – support for heterogeneous networks is just not as good as it could be (and, as for Time Machine, Windows PCs have had snapshot-based backups for years).  What’s particularly worrying is that Apple claim the device has a "server grade" hard disk yet according to the technical specifications the Time Capsule uses a SATA disk. Those of us who frequently specify servers know that major vendors such as HP do not recommend SATA disks for intensive workloads due to the higher MTBF (hence the 1 year warranty that HP offers on a SATA disk compared with three years on a SCSI disk) and consequently I consider that to call the Time Capsule disk "server grade" is taking things a little far.
  3. Looking at consumer media devices:
    • There’s little doubt that the iPhone has been a huge success with 4 million devices sold in 200 days (although that is still quite a way off the original target of 10 million in the first year).  Apple is claiming 19.5% of the United States smartphone market but what also has to be considered is that the iPhone is not a business phone.  The new iPhone software is great too, although I’ve upgraded mine and am a little underwhelmed with the location awareness, which often seems to think I’m a few streets away (or even the next village).  As for the software update being free – I should hope so given how much we are paying for our iPhones!
    • Continuing the theme, Apple has made some of the iPhone applications available for the iPod touch, for a small charge, with the purchase via the iTunes store (could this be a demonstration of the model for future iPod and iPhone software purchases once the SDK is launched?).
    • The iTunes store has now sold over 4 billion songs with 20 million in one day (Christmas Day 2007).  It’s hard to deny that it’s been a huge success although the decision of some record companies to distribute DRM-free music on competing platforms should certainly be viewed as a threat (as long as it’s DRM-free then that’s no problem for consumers!). Apple is claiming that they are doing well with TV show downloads too (precious little content over here) but have revised the model for selling films, launching iTunes Movie Rentals – and it seems the studios are all on board!  The bad news is that international rollout is not planned until later this year and I for one am sick of Apple treating everyone outside the US as second class citizens.  It does look good though – the DRM is not too onerous with 30 days to start watching a film after rental, and 24 hours to finish (just like physical store) – and one nice touch is the ability to start watching on one device (e.g. a PC) and then finish on another (e.g. an iPod).  US pricing will be $2.99 for "library" films or $3.99 for new releases (so less than my local DVD rental store – that is good).
    • The Apple TV was originally an accessory for iTunes running on a computer and has sold reasonable well but even so there is little doubt that it has not been as popular as Apple had hoped.  Now Apple is trying again with new software for Apple TV (a free upgrade for existing users and a reduced price for new hardware purchases – at least in the US) and it will still synchronise with a computer but is no longer required to do so.  Support for iTunes Movie Rentals is extended with the ability to access DVD or HD quality (HD will cost an extra dollar) with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound as well as direct access to podcasts, photos (from Flickr or .Mac) and YouTube.  For me though, the Apple TV is still missing what it really needs – television!  Add a tuner and PVR capabilities and I’ll buy one.
  4. Finally, Jobs claims that Apple makes "the best notebooks in the industry" (I think they are among the best – Lenovo’s ThinkPads are also great) and at MacWorld he announced the MacBook Air – "the world’s thinnest notebook".  That it may be, but I think it’s expensive (relative to the MacBook and MacBook Pro), underpowered (an Intel Core 2 Duo may not be slow, but 1.6GHz is slow for a Core 2 Duo), lacks the ability to be upgraded and, whilst the main device may be thin, it does require me to carry a load of peripherals with me (power, optical drive, USB hub – it only has a single port) and doesn’t even have built in wired Ethernet.  It does have some nice touches though, like the additional gestures on the trackpad.  Remote Disc sounds good as an alternative to providing a build in optical device but why is an application required to simply share a CD/DVD drive?

Last year wrote about how didn’t want an iPhone but by the time it launched over here I’d changed my mind (and shunned the touchscreen widescreen iPod that I had originally craved!).  This year I wanted either an aluminium MacBook with a PC Express Card slot and upgraded graphics, or a MacBook Pro with a MacBook-style keyboard.  The MacBook Air is neither – it’s just a thin, aluminium, MacBook, with reduced functionality and increased price – but I guess the lesson for me is to never say never…

A plea for Apple to update the MacBook Pro

I really would like to buy a 17″ Apple MacBook Pro but if I’m going to spend all that cash then I need to know that it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been waiting for OS X Leopard (not that I can see much advantage in upgrading to Leopard but it seemed daft to buy a new computer with Tiger on it) and now I hear rumours that there will be a new MacBook Pro announced in the New Year. So, if anyone from Apple is reading this, please, please, please, consider the following for the next update:

Apple MacBook Pro (17

  • Why is there all that wasted space to the side of the keyboard (which is the same size on both the 15″ and 17″ models)? With a 17″ unit, surely you can fit a larger (even full-size) keyboard on there instead of larger speaker covers?
  • Why is the wrist rest so huge, with the keyboard set so far back? (it’s fine on the 15″ model but with the larger chassis of the 17″ I’m really not sure that it will be comfortable…)
  • Please, can I have a two button trackpad?
  • Oh yes, and if you really want to justify all the extra cash (after all, it’s really not an inexpensive purchase), how about a docking station too?

The MacBook Pro has plenty of features that make it better for me than a standard MacBook but if I have to keep on plugging in an external mouse and keyboard, then that really defeats the object of buying a desktop replacement notebook PC.

Microsoft’s MacBU is moving in the right direction, just not fast enough

Office for Mac product iconsA few weeks back, I wrote about the frustration of working (or rather not be able to work) with Open XML documents on a Mac. Some wag even pointed out on a recent podcast that Apple beat Microsoft to provide support for its own document formats in the new iWork 08 application suite. I hear good things about iWork and it’s very reasonably priced (especially when compared to Microsoft Office) but I work with Microsoft Office 2007 on Windows and need something functionally equivalent for the Mac so I’m sure I’ll be getting a copy of Office 2008 for Mac in due course (attempts to get a beta invitation have failed dismally). There is light at the end of the tunnel though – since my original post, the MacBU has released a (time-limited) beta of the Microsoft Office Open XML File Format Converter for Mac, so that at least gives me something to work with for now (the previous version was only for Word documents).

Mac RDC logoAnother new product from the MacBU is (at last) a universal binary version of the Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac. I’ve been beta testing this and whilst it’s far more stable on an Intel Mac than the old version, it still doesn’t seem to offer something that I need – support for multiple client connections. I’ve provided feedback on this (others were less charitable in their contributions). In the meantime, I’ll be sticking with CoRD.

It seems that the MacBU is releasing new products but at an almost glacial pace. I don’t care that it’s been 4 years between Office releases – there was a similar gap for the Windows product – but surely the file format converters could have been ready when Office 2007 shipped on Windows. Similarly, based on what I’ve seen with the Microsoft’s RDC client for the Mac, it’s not exactly worth waiting for.

Open XML documents driving me insane on the Mac

A few weeks back, I wrote about how smart Office 2003 had been in detecting my need for an Office 2007 document converter and opening it for me. If only I could say the same for Office 2004 on the Mac. I’m all too familiar with Microsoft product groups working independently but the MacBU has excelled (excuse the pun) in its inability to ship a working document converter for the Open XML document formats more than seven months after the release of Office 2007 on Windows.

To make matters worse, Office 2008 for Mac (which uses the new file formats) is a closed beta so I can’t use that to convert/open the files.

Ironically, there are various reports of using an alternative office suite like OpenOffice or NeoOffice to open the files! Hmm… not such a smart business move for Microsoft then…

My Digital Life has information on the various options for working with Open XML in Office 2004 for Mac. Mac Mojo (the Mac Office team blog) has information about a beta converter for Word documents (only).

File name limitations when accessing Windows file shares from a Mac

Earlier this afternoon, one of my friends got in touch with “a quick tech question” (it had to be quick as his method of communication was SMS text message):

“…We have a brand new, state of the art pre-press system which, for some reason, is running Windows 2000. It seems that this OS cannot handle file names longer than 27 chars…”

I was sure that this would be an integration issue rather than an operating system restriction as I’ve never come across any such limitation with a Windows NT-based Windows system (leaving aside the question as to why would a state of the art device use an old and unsupported operating system?) – besides which, I was in no mood to give an office full of professional Mac users an excuse to bash Microsoft!

After a very short time spent googling, I found a newsgroup post which explains the issue. It seems that Apple filing protocol (AFP) 2.2, used by Windows Services for Macintosh, has a 31-character limit (presumably 4 of those characters are used by the driveletter:\ portion of the filename and another one somewhere else leaving 27 visible characters). AFP 3.x has no such limitation but, as all modern Macs can use SMB to communicate natively with Windows servers, there seems little point in using Services for Macintosh these days. Looking at the Wikipedia article on AFP, there may also be restrictions on file sizes with AFP and certain client-server combinations.