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  • Newsletter Issue #344

    July 3rd, 2006

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    During our June 29th episode, we welcomed MacFixIt editor Ben Wilson, who talked about troubleshooting the 10.4.7 update and reports of problems with Apple's Intel-based notebook computers. Macworld's Rob Griffiths was on hand to evaluate the best available Mac virus protection software, and deliver a possible wish list for Mac OS 10.5 Leopard. In addition, Julian Miller, of Script Software, described some of his company's shareware applications, such as ChatFX, iClock and others.

    On July 6th, we'll be joined by John Rizzo of MacWindows.com, who will discuss the various ways to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac and whether the 10.4.7 update fixes the remaining cross-platform issues with Tiger. Other guests will be announced shortly.

    Things are getting quite wild on our other show, The Paracast, particularly when it comes to the ever-controversial subject of UFOs. On June 27, for example, we talked to Michael Horn, the Authorized American Media Representative for The Billy Meier Contacts. Without going into detail here, Horn has since engaged in a very spirited email debate with the show's co-host, David Biedny, and is being asked to return on July 11th to bring these ongoing matters to our listeners.

    On the evening of July 4th, in the meantime, paranormal investigator Michael Miley talks about altered states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences and remote viewing. Not sure what any of that means? Tune in to find out.

    And don't forget our weekly contests. So far we've given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, video tuner/recorders, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

    If you haven't heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

    THE FANTASY ABOUT APPLE'S RECENT UPS AND DOWNS

    One thing about Apple Computer that continues to irk industry analysts is that it keeps its product information close to the vest. Every new product release must be trumpeted as a major event, and you can't do that if everyone knows the intimate details of your roadmap in advance. At the same time, while obeying SEC regulations when it releases its quarterly financial results, some are saying there's just not enough solid information to determine whether or not the company's stock should be recommended.

    Of course, that's the analysts' problem. After all, so long as it isn't breaking the law, Apple has every right to manage its corporate communications and investor-relations programs the way it wants.

    All this naturally opens a widely varying round of rumors and speculation. Tech pundits try to read the tea leaves and come up with some ideas as to what's going on. A few more dedicated souls might even ask industry analysts whether they have consulted their crystal balls to find out how sales might be going, whether there's a surfeit or shortage of one product or another in the channel, for example. That might indicate whether there are problems moving a specific iPod or Mac model.

    But it's really not all that easy to do and it's very easy some fundamental trends to be quite wrong. One reason for this is that Apple moves a lot of its product through its own online and in-store retail network, and you can bet they won't tell anyone anything about those sales that isn't approved by corporate management first. That generally means absolutely nothing beyond what you learn in the financials.

    That doesn't mean analysts have no information whatever to offer. Wholesale channels and third party retailers are usually more forthcoming about such things, and there's always the hope that trends can be extrapolated to Apple's outlets as well. This may be true, in part, but it'll never deliver the whole picture, as an Apple store is a totally different breed. When you enter one, the sales experience is quite different, which is why the mass marketers have traditionally had so much difficulty doing right with Macs. That hasn't stopped Apple from making another attempt at working with Best Buy, but the outcome is far from certain.

    The iPod is another breed of cat, however, because it's just another box to move. You don't need a demonstration; just buy one, pay for it, and leave. Oh yes, there is that offer for an extended warranty that you usually confront at the checkout counter.

    But sales are only part of the picture. At least there is some information, even if it's somewhat limited. But when it comes to the products Apple is actually developing, the picture is far murkier. Sure, you will learn details about a new version of Mac OS X months in advance, simply because developers have to prepare their own products to be compatible or take advantage of new features. That's why the wraps will be taken off Mac OS 10.5 Leopard next month. Even then, some of the new operating system's features may be withheld and carefully doled out over subsequent months.

    When it comes to the Intel transition, Apple developers had to know in advance what was going on, because they needed to invest a lot of time and money to modify their products to be compatible. But the initial roadmap, with a projected completion by the end of 2007, was an ultra-conservative position. Forgetting the politics of Steve Jobs, it's pretty obvious the process will be complete by fall. Maybe even sooner, since the Intel chips Apple will likely use for its professional desktops and servers are arriving in the summer.

    That's the reason why I'm so confident in my predictions about the Mac Pro, and all I've done is read Intel's product roadmap.

    Back to the iPod: The other day, Apple's stock took a dive because an industry analyst said the company's next-generation iPods will be delayed. The only change in the product line since last fall was the introduction of a 1GB version of the iPod nano and lower prices for the shuffle. In the fast-moving consumer electronics world, that is regarded as a very long time, and it's already being suggested sales have stalled.

    So is this true? Well, it's a little off-season for consumer electronics toys, which traditionally reach the highest sales levels in the final three months of the year. However, Apple isn't telling anyone, officially at least, what's happening with the new models. What's more, those notorious lawsuits must have chilled the desire of any employee or supplier to speak out to a Mac rumor site or mainstream reporter.

    Where, then, are the stories about product delays coming from? Well, I suppose you could consider the timeframe since the last product update, right? But I'm sure these analysts don't know all that much more about what Apple is doing than I do, which is next to nothing. You could, I suppose, make a few assumptions, but is that a reason to recommend whether you should buy or sell a company's stock?

    Remember, Apple adores surprises, and it doesn't necessarily time its announcements and product planning to the price of its stock. And stock prices are as much a product of fantasy as reality; the former, if you really don't know what is actually happening.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: SEEKING HARMONY IN REMOTE CONTROLS
    Night Owl Rating: ★★★★☆

    Ups: Attractive design; activity-based feature simplifies use of multiple devices; convenient Web-based setup routine
    Downs: Tiny and rubbery numerical buttons; some configuration issues difficult and time-consuming

    Nearly every remote control you get with your consumer electronics gear, except, of course, for the one that comes with new Macs, is touted as "Universal." This means that, say, the one with your cable or satellite provider's set top box can allegedly be trained to mimic the commands of your TV, home theater system, DVD player and so on.

    For the most part, that emulation process involves punching in some numbers from the manual, hoping you'll find one that works, or going through the preprogrammed algorithms, and waiting for a device in question to suddenly shut down. That way, you know you found the right one. However, these solutions are far from perfect. Rarely does one remote learn all the commands you need.

    In contrast to most of these schemes, Logitech uses a task- or activity-based approach for some of its Harmony products. Say, for example, you click "Watch TV." Once programmed, a Logitech will turn on not just the TV, but the stereo and the set top box, if needed. Choose "Watch DVD" instead, and inputs will be changed, and the DVD player will be turned on.

    Sounds nifty, right?

    So I contacted Harmony about a device that would properly control a home theater system, and they sent along their recently released $149.95 Harmony® 550 Advanced Universal Remote.

    Clad in black and dark gray plastics, the 550 fits comfortably in your hand, and has enough heft to feel well built. Basic programming requires a personal computer, Mac or PC, with USB and an active Internet connection. At its core, you'll need to hook up to Logitech's huge online equipment database, which, it is claimed "includes over 3,000 manufacturers and over 100,000 IR devices -- everything from HDTV's to PVR/DVR's, from laserdiscs to VCRs -- even lighting controls and more!" From here, you set up a user account and call up a fairly simple setup wizard to enter model numbers and specify the functions you need to access. In a few minutes, you'll be able to program the remote to do it all.

    But that's just the beginning of setup process. You may have to do a some tinkering to get everything to work properly. For my test, I set up a fairly simple system. I employed the Vizio P50 HDM plasma TV monitor, a Bose 3•2•1 GSII home theater system, a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD high definition DVR and set top box, and a vintage JVC HR9500U Super VHS deck. All of these components were readily located in Logitech's database, and configuring my particular activities was a piece of cake, until I tried them out of course.

    After the setup was done, I downloaded the configuration to the remote, using an application named, appropriately, Harmony Remote. The update process took about two minutes.

    Here's where things got a little complicated. My first attempt to activate the "Watch a DVR" task resulted in only two of the three components being turned on. A click of the Help button and responding to a couple of Yes or No questions cured that, but still a few functions, such as invoking a menu of the recorded shows, failed to operate. Worse, the volume controls were reversed so, for example, the level decreased when I wanted to make it the system play louder.

    Here I decided to give Logitech's phone support a try, and actually got an English-speaking person within less than a minute. The support rep accessed my account, and offered to make the proper changes in the setup to fix the various problems. I also examined the setup information at Logitech's site and located the same customization options, which include remapping functions to various remote keys.

    After reprogramming the remote, most of the features worked, except for one, the Pause button when playing a DVD on the Bose system. I checked the online configuration and, yes, the proper function was selected. A second attempt to update the remote failed to fix the problem. Finally, I had to resort to a more old-fashioned learning scheme, which Logitech keeps in readiness when all else fails. Using the online wizard, I had to place the Bose remote within a few inches of the Harmony, and press the offending key. That worked and the next download succeeded!

    Beyond the complications of the initial setup, the remote works quite well. A backlight control will allow you to see everything at night, but labels are rather small. Worse, the numerical keys feel awkward and mushy or rubbery. The Harmony 550 is otherwise reasonably well suited to normal-sized fingers, but if yours are thick, you might find it a tad uncomfortable. You might get used to it over time, I suppose.

    In the end, I'm reasonably satisfied with this Universal remote. The fact is that learning the functions of thousands of different devices is no mean task. That it succeeds as well as it does, even if it requires some fiddling to set things right, is a tribute to Logitech's extensive constantly growing database for such products.

    Logitech's task-based approach is the best part of the process. On a normal remote, you usually have to press a separate button for each component before you can call up their functions. As universal remotes go, the Harmony 550 is, despite its occasionally convoluted setup process, the best I've used.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    One Response to “Newsletter Issue #344”

    1. [...] a recent issue of the Tech Night Owl Newsletter, I gave fairly high marks to the $149.99 Logitech Harmony 550 Advanced Universal Remote. The best part of the product is its method of integrating multiple functions from multiple [...]

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