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  • Newsletter Issue #440

    May 4th, 2008

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Apple loves to pull a surprise on the unsuspecting public. Last week, for example, they delivered the unexpected news about the acquisition of PA Semiconductor. Since that firm had designed chips based on the Power PC platform, some began to wonder whether or not Apple was going to switch back from Intel, which seems, on the surface, absurd, since the migration has been so successful.

    Well, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we brought onboard cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger of Roughly Drafted Magazine to explore the meaning behind this transaction, which appears to have been done largely for PA Semi's stellar engineering talent. Daniel also talked about a recent article he wrote making strong suggestions that today's Microsoft isn't very different from the Apple of the mid-1990s, when they were in a heap of trouble.

    In another segment, we brought back Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus who talked about the latest and greatest Mac gear, including the brand new iMac that he was unpacking as he recorded the interview.

    And if you're looking for great technology at an affordable price, look no further than "Mr. Gadget" himself, Steve Kruschen, who brought us news of some great gear that is worth further consideration, including a new, ultra low-cost Internet phone service.

    Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, we'll feature a return visit by Richard M. Dolan, author of "UFOs and the National Security State." This interview focuses on UFO secrecy, the ongoing changes in the kinds of objects observed, UFO abductions and other intriguing subjects.

    THE MAC VERSUS PC HARDWARE WARS CONTINUE

    So I was hanging out chatting with David, a fellow New Yorker who owns the nearby UPS Store, about personal computers. He knows I use Macs, and I'm aware that he's a Windows advocate. He started claiming, all over again, that his home PC cost a lot less than any comparable Mac.  So, with few customers arriving to disturb our conversation, I took ahold of one of his transaction computers and ran the inevitable price comparison all over again.

    He knows I recently acquired a spanking new Mac Pro, whereas he has a home-built PC filled to the gills to provide stellar gaming performance. Once again, I suggested the Mac Pro was a lot more affordable than the comparable PC box. He strongly disagreed, as expected, so I suggested we compare apples to apples (actually Apples and Dells) to see what facts we could unearth.

    To begin with, he suggested I select Windows XP Professional from the PC order sheet -- he dismissed Vista as readily as I did.

    Now understand I have a soft spot in my heart for Dell's displays. The 30-inch HC model I have on my desktop is simply marvelous, with a clear, bright and accurate color picture. Even better, it's cheaper than Apple's to the tune of several hundred dollars. So whenever I do price comparisons, I strategically ignore displays.

    At the same time, I do hope Apple will one day realize we don't all want all-in-ones and will refresh its display line with better performance and more affordable pricing.

    Now to do this comparison properly, it's necessary to match features as closely as possible, so I selected a Dell Precision Workstation as their closest match to the Mac Pro.

    For the Mac, I chose the standard version with a pair of Intel Quad-Core 2.8GHz Xeons, adding a pair of 500GB hard drives and the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT upgrade, which totaled $3,199 with the standard 2GB of RAM.

    Both Apple and Dell overcharge severely for memory, so I left that off the shopping list.

    Now the Dell didn't list the same "Harpertown" version of the Xeon, so I selected a pair of 2.83GHz quad-core versions of the previous chips. Hard drive specs were matched, and I also selected an NVIDIA graphic card that David pronounced suitable. By the way, this configuration uses Windows XP Professional in its standard configuration. Vista is an option, and you have to wonder how Microsoft deals with that affront.

    Understand that Dell's pricing can vary from hour to hour, and it also depends on which branch of their online store you select. I chose the Small Business section, and, before considering any further options, got to nearly $4,200 before I decided no further comparisons were necessary.

    David wanted to show me a few other variations, from Dell's standard desktop line. But as soon as we selected similar processor, hard drive and graphic card choices, the price tag soared way above Apple's.

    When it comes to other Macs, the price differences are considerably less. In some cases, the name-brand PC is a tad cheaper, and in some cases Apple has the advantage. Both are using industry-standard components these days, sourced from the same OEM manufacturers. Apple benefits by having fewer models, meaning they can buy higher quantities of each part.

    In every single case where you can show me a PC that's cheaper, you end up with something that eschews some features, is home-built, or produced by a no-name manufacturer, such as a certain company in Florida that's building unauthorized Mac OS X clones and has no reputation whatever as a hardware builder.

    As I left the store, David smiled, but hinted that I must have engaged in some subtle trickery in my little price bake-off. I assured him that this discussion could resume when I visited the store again, and he smiled skeptically, still under the mistaken belief that he would be proven correct in the end.

    Now, obviously, you can't compare a Mac versus the PC when Apple has no equivalent product. That takes us to my long, so far fruitless campaign for a mid-priced expandable minitower, situated between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro.

    During my latest appearance on Craig Crossman's Computer America radio show this week, I renewed my pitch all over again. I don't think I'm necessarily tilting at windmills either, because there are others who have independently come up with the same suggestions, including Dan Frakes of Macworld.

    This week, Daniel Knight, of LowEndMac, came up with his own variation on this theme. Even better, Daniel actually presented a fairly detailed list of suggested prices and configurations. There's even a "bare bones" model, sans hard drive and other options, which very much harkens back to some of the early Mac configurations from the 1980s.

    Well done, Daniel!

    Unfortunately, none of this will come to much in the end if Apple doesn't see a viable marketing opportunity. With the MacBook Air, they've shown they are willing to enter what was formerly thought to be a niche market with a cutting-edge design.

    I think they can do it again with the modern-day equivalent of the Mac IIci. Maybe it'll take sales away from the iMac and Mac Pro. It might even put the under-appreciated Mac mini to rest for good. But a sale is a sale, and I still believe Apple can move a lot more product if they build this model.

    TECH SUPPORT FOLLIES: SPRING EDITION

    When I last wrote about AT&T's service quality, I was pretty positive in most respects. Except for a rare disconnect, connection quality and audio were both first rate, and my close encounters with their customer service people always produced favorable results.

    The other day, I confronted a spate of disconnects in a specific area of Scottsdale, Arizona and promptly called AT&T about the problem. One of their phone menu choices mentioned the iPhone, which I selected, and therein lies a tale.

    You see, when you select that option, your call goes direct to Apple support, rather than AT&T. That's all right as far as it goes, but if your problem is caused by AT&T's network, they shuffle you right back. Well, in this case, the Apple support person served as the intermediary. After being connected to the appropriate department, I was informed that one cell tower was three miles away from the troubled neighborhood, another one mile distant, and signal quality ought to be "moderate to good."

    In the end, I was informed that an over-the-air software update was being sent, and all I had to do was turn off my iPhone, wait 30 seconds and turn it on again. After that, reception ought to be normal. All I can say is that I did notice somewhat of an improvement in call quality, but it will take a while to see if connections are more reliable.

    Well, at least they're trying.

    A couple of weeks back, I was suddenly unable to receive calls via my Vonage VoIP phone line. I could call out normally, but those who tried to contact me received a rapid busy signal. Now it wasn't the Vonage router, since calls would be automatically referred to the alternate number I selected in the event the router failed or wasn't connected to the Internet.

    So what went wrong? Well, in trying to find out, I reached a Vonage call center based in India. It wasn't just the telltale accent, but I got a support person who was a fellow tech geek and considered me a kindred spirit. So he confessed the truth of his location, and proceed to spend nearly half an hour testing and probing until he determined that it was a routing issue with an outside carrier.

    Although I wasn't too happy with the result, he told me that the repair had to be performed by a higher-tier tech who worked with the external providers. Indeed, he was right. The second tech called me the next day to confirm my service had been restored, which, in fact, was true. He said several dozen other customers were similarly affected, and that, too, seemed logical.

    So far so good.

    My third support encounter was with Mike, the manager of the local Sam's Club. I had run into a problem replacing the broken arm of my office chair which, when bought from that warehouse outlet, came with a ten-year warranty. Unfortunately, the company's alleged successor informed me that the original maker of that chair went bankrupt, they had no parts and couldn't honor the warranty.

    Mike said Sam's Club would take the responsibility, and I didn't need to worry about it. I just had to bring the chair back and he'd make sure it was replaced with a comparably-priced product, even though I bought it over a year ago.

    Now warehouse membership stores aren't generally known for good customer service. Indeed, you wouldn't get much in the way of useful information if you wanted to buy a new flat panel TV from Sam's Club. You go there to buy boxes of the stuff you need at lower prices.

    However, their pharmacy, managed by Chad and Kathy, two pharmacists who are also devoted Mac users, is excellent. The staff is attentive to their customers, and run it very much in the fashion of the old-fashioned local pharmacy, which is why they get my family's business. The same goes for their optical center, rented to a local optometrist who knows her stuff and sells contact lenses and glasses for less than anyone else in the area.

    Indeed, getting excellent support should be the norm. It's not, and that's why I'm happy to report on situations where things seemed to work out all right or mostly all right in the end.

    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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    10 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #440”

    1. Paul Graham says:

      See my post over at Macdailynews, http://macdailynews.com/index.php/weblog/comments/17159/

      I think you are absolutely correct when you say "under-appreciated Mac mini". I know it won't do high end stuff, but most people will not need that.

      Reply To This Comment

    2. Jim says:

      Gene, yet another Mac model? I realize you're probably right that we need a more "consumer" tower with some expandability but if we keep this up, soon might we be back in the days when the "Performa's" existed and Apple's Mac offerings were a confusing, bloated mess!

      IOW, maybe the "Law of Unintended Consequences" just might intervene.

      Reply To This Comment

    3. Gene, yet another Mac model? I realize you're probably right that we need a more "consumer" tower with some expandability but if we keep this up, soon might we be back in the days when the "Performa's" existed and Apple's Mac offerings were a confusing, bloated mess!

      IOW, maybe the "Law of Unintended Consequences" just might intervene.

      This would be a prosumer/business model. I am not for the moment suggesting that Apple go back to the awful days of the Performa. They already have three lines of notebook computers, and four lines of iPods. So three desktop alternatives isn't a stretch by any means.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    4. Yacko says:

      Perhaps it would be better if Apple looked at relatively small desktop cases with two PCIe slots and two drives for the prosumer/business model. It is expandable, has some space inside and looks different than all current models. I know weenies want a cut down tower but... Take a 40% size tower and turn it on its side, about the same thing. Probably aluminum with little plastic. Aluminum (and glass) seem to be a fact of life given the recycling hounds nipping at the computer industry.

      Reply To This Comment

    5. Perhaps it would be better if Apple looked at relatively small desktop cases with two PCIe slots and two drives for the prosumer/business model. It is expandable, has some space inside and looks different than all current models. I know weenies want a cut down tower but... Take a 40% size tower and turn it on its side, about the same thing. Probably aluminum with little plastic. Aluminum (and glass) seem to be a fact of life given the recycling hounds nipping at the computer industry.

      LIke the IIci?

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    6. Richard says:

      Ah, the Performa! I remember buying two of them a month apart. They looked identical, functioned identically, but had two different nomenclatures, one separated from the other by the addition of the number 15.

      Good times!

      Richard

      Reply To This Comment

    7. David says:

      While I'm sure we all appreciate attempts to build the same machine at dell.com can cost more than at apple.com, the basis of many "Macs are more expensive" arguments are those machines that cannot be directly compared: the quad core towers that usually fall in between the iMac and Mac Pro in performance, but typically cost less than even the mid-level iMac. The low end is, of course, the other area, but we all know Apple isn't going there ever.

      I believe we'll never see the mythical mid-range Mac for 3 reasons:
      1. Steve Jobs decides what we want, not us ;)
      2. Apple is trying to get more "green" and towers with desktop components suck a lot more electricity than notebook machines like the Mac Mini and iMac.
      3. Apple believes all us holdouts will eventually accept that a notebook with an external display = desktop computer; either that or we'll give in and pay top dollar for a Mac Pro.

      I worked in Apple retail back in the Performa days. There were too many models and not enough quality, but at least there was choice. Today there are big holes in the lineup and more arbitrary feature limitations than in the past.

      Reply To This Comment

    8. Arnold Ziffel says:

      Gene,

      I realize Apple's 30" monitors are more expensive than Dell's, but I just can't stand the thought of giving Dell any of my money, so we bought a 30" one from Apple about 18 months ago. Wow, is it ever nice!!

      At work, I have to use dull Dell cheap crap, along with XP (woo hoo...NOT!), and I think I'd vomit if I had to use their crap at home, too.

      Arnold

      Reply To This Comment

    9. Gene,

      I realize Apple's 30" monitors are more expensive than Dell's, but I just can't stand the thought of giving Dell any of my money, so we bought a 30" one from Apple about 18 months ago. Wow, is it ever nice!!

      At work, I have to use dull Dell cheap crap, along with XP (woo hoo...NOT!), and I think I'd vomit if I had to use their crap at home, too.

      Arnold

      Forget their cheapest displays and computers. They make great monitors, particularly the high-end models, and a surprising number of Mac users have embraced them as a result.

      The 30-inch Dell's picture is every bit as good as Apple's, if not better.

      But you pays your money and you takes your choice, as someone once said. :D

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    10. Arnold Ziffel says:

      Gene,

      Regarding the quality of Dell's 30" monitor, I believe you. But I don't want to support Dell in any way!

      I am not criticizing your nor anyone else's decision to purchase the 30" Dell monitor. I just can't stand the thought of giving Michael Dell (the goober) one red cent of my money. Plus, we own a fair amount of Apple stock, and that figures into the picture as well.

      Enjoy reading your daily column and listening to the the Tech Night Owl Live.

      Arnold

      P.S. If Mr. Haney were a computer geek, he'd be busy hawking Dell 'puters.

      Reply To This Comment

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