Back to school means that young people are going to be taken on shopping tours to buy not just the materials they need for their education, but lots of cool new gear. So you can expect that lots of iPods and Macs are being sold, plus lots of other cool electronic gadgetry.
So on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we called upon the expert to talk about the subject, none other than Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen. The products he described covered a wide range and included a small set top box from Roku that streams Netflix movies and the best backup solutions for your brand new Mac.
No, we didn’t discuss that unexpected system failure at Netflix. The problem appears to have been fixed, at least as of the end of the week. All of the DVDs I had in my queue for this week, in fact, arrived on Saturday, just in time for weekend watching.
We also presented a detailed look at the top iPhone games, plus some insights into Apple’s MobileMe troubles, from Macworld Game Room columnist, Peter Cohen. Of course, I was a little out of my element here, since I’m not really a gamer, but I’m tempted to try a few — well, maybe one of these days.
In addition, Macworld’s Jim Dalrymple joined us to deliver a progress report on his efforts to record an album with his band, Full Throttle, which will be available on iTunes later this year.
Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, Pioneer abduction researcher Budd Hopkins, who heads up the Intruders Foundation, joins The Paracast to talk about his research and present his highly outspoken viewpoints on the UFO mystery.
When Adobe released a new version of Premiere for the Mac platform after an absence of several years, it arrived with support strictly for Intel-based Macs. The same held true for two new applications, Encore and Soundbooth, and Adobe’s excuse had it that removing support for older Macs would allow for much speedier development and testing. That meant we’d buy able to buy their new apps much sooner, which surely would help Adobe’s bottom line.
All right, so maybe that made sense at the time, since a large number of content creators were no doubt moving to the speediest Macs on the planet with which to create their audio and visual masterpieces. However, you can see the handwriting was definitely on the wall, although I, for one, didn’t expect to see a wholesale removal of Power PC support for at least another few years.
How wrong I was!
In June, Apple announced 10.5’s successor, Snow Leopard, intended to be largely a bug fix and performance enhancement release, without a lot of snappy features to entice you to upgrade. Although the official word on which Macs would be supported has yet to come from Apple, some developers were quick to violate their confidentiality agreements and report that the preview edition they got at the WWDC were slated for Intel only. While it’s possible that might change, the prospects don’t appear very promising.
I suppose there’s a reasonable argument in favor of that position. Most of Snow Leopard’s improvements were really designed to impact the Intel platform, such as superior multicore support. After all, only a single line of Power PC G5 Macs, sold in fairly limited quantities, had dual-core processors. While multiprocessing Macs were sold in both G4 and G5 variants, the total number isn’t terribly high compared to the Power PC user base.
As a result, I suppose many of you were inclined to cut Apple some slack there. After all, if Snow Leopard isn’t going to do much on your Mac, you needn’t worry about not being able to install it.
However, that would also seem to indicate that 10.6’s successor will also likely be Intel only. That means that Leopard and its various and sundry maintenance updates definitely represent the end of the line for the Power PC.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that there will be a wholesale defection of applications as far as Power PC support is concerned. The newly-released QuarkXPress 8, for example, retains support for not just Tiger but any Mac with a G4 or better. What’s more, there’s no indication that Adobe is going to abandon such support in its forthcoming CS4 upgrade. If they tried that stunt, I’m sure that millions of Illustrator and Photoshop users would complain vociferously, and sales would be sharply impacted.
Further into the future, it’s an open question just how long you’ll be able to buy new apps for PowerPC Macs. Apple is leading the way here, and Snow Leopard will provide some neat hooks for developers to enhance performance of their products. If anything, that will only greatly expand the performance disparity between these processor platforms and no doubt encourage many of you to retire your older Macs and join the Intel generation.
In retrospect, though, it seems to have come far more quickly than I think most of you might have imagined. Normally, Macs have been fully supported with new operating system reference releases for four or five years at the minimum. However, it’s also true that Mac sales are much faster than they used to be, and as Apple moves upwards of two-and-a-half-million Macs every quarter, the number of Intel models are quickly supplanting the Power PC.
Sure, when he announced the conversion to Intel during his WWDC keynote in 2005, Steve Jobs explained how simple it would be build Universal applications for Intel and Power PC. Just click a checkbox and compile your software. Well, that was partly true. You still had to optimize the application separately for the two platforms, and that could take some time to accomplish.
The optimization process wasn’t always successful. Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac, for example, doesn’t perform so well in Power PC trim, but it’s not so swift on Intel Macs either for that matter.
Now I realize that suggesting that a lot of my loyal readers buy new Macs may not be a terribly popular thing to do. So I won’t! After all, the arrival of Snow Leopard is a year away, and then some. Nothing will suddenly render your existing applications inoperative. If you are pleased with the way your Mac performs now, don’t for a moment fret about the things that’ll happen a year or two down the road.
You can cross that bridge when the time is appropriate, and when it may be appropriate for you is not something I would even try to guess.
They say it’s hard to get good help these days, but in an economic climate where people are crying for decent employment, I’d think that qualified support people would be far easier to locate. That, however, isn’t always the case.
Now I should explain that I am a pretty satisfied user of the local cable service, Cox Communications, and I have a bundle that includes landline phone service, high speed Internet (20 megabits down/2 megabits up) and digital TV. For the most part, these packages are quite good. Cox digital telephone, for example, is as good as the service offered by the traditional telecoms, if not better, and don’t get me started about our local company, Qwest, which is notorious for treacherous tech support. I can tell you some stories, but not now.
In any case, Cox is going to get some well-deserved lumps this time, in the wake of a questionable software upgrade recently released for the Scientific-Atlanta high defintion Explorer 8300HD set top box they provide.
I first noticed a weird effect when my wife turned off the box to use the VCR. Its tiny LED screen displayed what appeared to be random hex codes, a symptom it was receiving some sort of downloadable update. After a short time, the telltale time display returned, and Barbara switched on the box shortly thereafter.
The first symptom to appear on the TV was definitely odd. A 4:3 standard definition TV channel had a picture stretched to fill the entire width of our widescreen TV. The resolution displayed in the LED was 480i, so I performed a little two-step with the 8300HD and verified that the only resolution configured for the box was the widescreen 1080i setting. That’s the default setting for high definition.
So where was it getting that 480i standard screen setting? The tech support person I reached when I contacted Cox hadn’t gotten the memo yet about the upgrade, and besides, when he checked it, found it to be no more descriptive than the pithy comments Apple provides for its updates.
After playing with the settings, I configured the box to default to a single resolution, 1080i, and let my Panasonic plasma TV perform resolution scaling chores. However, this unannounced alteration disturbed me, so I asked to have a service person come over and examine the situation just in case something really went wrong down the road.
His conclusion: Everything was perfect and, besides, standard definition TV should be stretched to the full width of a widescreen TV, even if it throws the proportions off and makes the pictures unnaturally wide. In fact, he claimed he set things up that way for all his customers. I pity them.
I made an effort to explain how wrongheaded this conclusion was, but he maintained that an incorrect setting was right and proper. In the end, I left the 8300HD at its single resolution setting and sent him on his way. I was tempted to call in a supervisor and suggest the technician needed some retraining, but I had better things to do.
Now the actual picture quality remains unaltered, which shows that the Panasonic is doing a great job handling the various resolutions sent down by Cox. I also noticed that on screen menus generated by the set top box seemed snappier, so there was at least one tangible benefit from that firmware exercise.
Speaking of Panasonic, I’m currently testing one of their DMP-BD30 Blu-ray DVD players. Blu-ray is the victorious high definition standard, by the way, and I have to tell you that the first DVD I tried, an HD version of the original 1994 movie, “Stargate,” an extended edition, had a brilliant, glorious picture that was far and away superior to the HD fare that originates from a TV station. That’s the difference between 1080p and 1080i, and you can see it, even if the distinction is somewhat subtle. There’s definitely less graininess in rapid-moving images, and no jaggies in titles or multicolored clothing and objects.
All right, that’s the positive aspect of the DMP-BD30. The sole negative so far is the way Panasonic packages its periodic downloadable firmware updates to the device. You see, they provide it in the Windows-specific .exe format, which is then supposed to be extracted to reveal the actual flash file. Rather than look for any translation software, I fired up Parallels Desktop on my Mac Pro, launched Windows Vista, and performed the download in Safari.
Parallels is well integrated with the Mac environment, and I just had to drag and drop the extracted flash file to my Mac’s desktop to complete the process. As per Panasonic’s instructions, you just copy the file to a blank CD-R. Once the disc is burned, insert the CD into the DMP-BD30, turn it on and observe the process. The instructions available from Panasonic’s support site explain the messages you’ll see on the player’s screen to indicate whether or not the upgrade is actually needed.
In my case, it was required, and after 10 minutes or so, the CD was ejected as the screen flashed a FINISH status message. Now, other than enhancing “playability and stability,” I have no idea what, if anything, was actually changed. I noticed no particular difference before or after the update was performed, but I’m happy to be running the latest and greatest.
Memo to Panasonic: Is it so hard to package these updates in a form that works with all computing platforms? I think not.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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