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  • Newsletter Issue #519

    November 8th, 2009

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    My main commentary this week focuses on the performance ratings of the latest generation of Macs. It was a good time to return to the subject, in light of the announcement of Macworld’s new Speedmark testing methodology.

    So on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld Lab Director Jim Galbraith joined us to discuss the magazine’s test results on the latest and greatest Macs, including the Mac mini, MacBook and iMac. One surprising tidbit of information: The newest iMacs are actually no faster than their predecessors, but you still get far better configurations for much less money, so it remains a great buy whichever model you choose. This is particularly true of the 21.5-inch version, which sports a display that is much better than the one on the 20-inch model it replaced.

    As some of you recall, the critics dinged Apple for the smaller iMac’s poor viewing angle and the fact that it used 6-bit rather than 8-bit color, which made it a poor choice for graphic artists and other content creators.

    We also featured an extended visit with none other than Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen. He gave you his unvarnished impressions of Windows 7 compared to Snow Leopard, and then reviewed many of his favorite gadgets for the coming holiday season. In fact, he even included a vacuum cleaner in this special product roundup.

    In case you’re wondering, Steve agrees with most of the reviewers that Windows 7 is a pretty decent operating system, far better than Vista. However, it is by no means comparable to a Mac or Snow Leopard.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, we make an effort to get straight talk on claims of life-after-death communication with Dr. Stephen Rorke. You’ll also hear some actual audio clips so you can decide whether it’s real or fake.

    Coming November 15: We feature veteran UFO researcher Jim Moseley, editor of Saucer Smear, and contactee/abductee David Huggins, who is featured in the new book “Love in an Alien Purgatory: The Life and Fantastic Art of David Huggins.”

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    ARE SPEED BUMPS HITTING THE WALL?

    In introducing the original Power Mac G5 at the WWDC in 2003, Steve Jobs said the brilliant engineers at IBM would have a 3GHz version within a year’s time. As you know, that never happened, and, a mere two years later, Apple signed with Intel and dumped the PowerPC for good.

    Yet it’s now six years after being presented with the promise of a 3GHz Mac, and we’ve barely exceeded that figure. The highest speed rating available for the recently introduced 27-inch iMac is a build-to-order configuration sporting a 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo. But that’s actually NOT the most powerful chip Apple is offering. That honor goes to a custom configuration of the Mac Pro that provides a pair of 2.93GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon, an upgrade that nearly doubles the price of the computer.

    So just what’s going on here with all these processor clock speeds?

    You see, Intel realized some years back that you could no longer simply increase a chip’s clock speed to get better performance. The late and not lamented Pentium 4 came in versions with even higher ratings, but delivered little more than heat and excessive power consumption. They really didn’t perform all that much better in the real world, and forget about squeezing them into a note-book, where they’d seem almost hot enough to boil an egg.

    Well, not to be deterred from the quest for ever-faster personal computers, and higher and higher chip sales, Intel decided to emphasize multicores, meaning they put more than a single processor on a chip. These days, the dual-core CPUs are common, with quad-cores reserved for real heavy-duty number crunching. In 2010, you’ll see six cores and even more, and twin cores will gradually migrate to the bottom of the barrel.

    But having extra cores, extra chips, or a combination of both, doesn’t necessarily translate into faster performance. Indeed, the latest benchmarks show incremental improvements, but not something you’d generally notice without a stopwatch at hand.

    Well, Macworld’s Lab Director Jim Galbraith and his hard working test crew are experts at managing stop watches. Working with the magazine’s readers, they’ve devised a set of tests called Speedmark that can separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls, or however you prefer to express the idea. These are not synthetic benchmarks, but actual tests performed with real applications to see just how Macs fare.

    The new Speedmark 6 suite has been updated for Snow Leopard and the latest versions of the test applications. According to Galbraith, “We compare the results to a 2.13GHz MacBook with 2GB RAM (Mid 2009), which is assigned a score of 100. We then take the geometric mean of the normalized scores.” The entry-level $599 Mac mini, the version just introduced, scores 104.

    Using a now-discontinued $999 Mac note-book as baseline, just how does the Mac Pro workstation rate with eight cores crunching the data? Not nearly as fast as you expect. The real world Speedmark for a Mac Pro 2.26GHz 8-core 6GB RAM (Early 2009) is just 203. Just barely twice as fast as the slowest Macs in the current lineup. To be fair, the hideously expensive 2.93GHz version would fare better, but hardly enough to justify the purchase price.

    Yes, a hard drive on the Mac Pro is much faster than the one in a MacBook, and that will yield a big advantage in disk-related tasks. The higher performing graphics processors on a Mac Pro will definitely produce far superior results for 3D games and rendering. But as commentator Kirk McElhearn discovered a few months ago when he downgraded from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, most of the functions of his Mac ran without little perceived slowdown.

    Indeed, the benchmarks of the latest generation iMacs exhibit a performance disadvantage of just 20% compared to a Mac Pro. And that’s strictly with the dual-core versions. This month, two new variations of the iMac will appear, both sporting quad-core processors from Intel’s Nehalem family. One expects they will actually score very much in the ballpark of the Mac Pro.

    So does that mean that Apple’s state-of-the-art workstation is now a waste of money? That is a serious question, and one I’ve been thinking about carefully in recent weeks as I ponder whether to keep mine, or sell it and order a quad-core 27-inch iMac. Indeed, my Mac Pro, an Early 2008 edition, sporting two internal drives and loaded to the gills with RAM, is still worth more than an iMac would cost should I decide to sell it. So I’d actually earn a profit from this transaction.

    This doesn’t mean the Mac Pro doesn’t deliver an advantage over lesser Macs. Consider the expansion possibilities. You can add memory on any other Mac, and swapping a hard drive on an Apple note-book isn’t too daunting. But the Mac Pro lets you quickly add up to four internal drives, twice as much RAM as the iMac, and extra peripheral cards. While most of you seldom modify your Mac except for installing extra RAM, there is a core base of customers who require easy expansion capabilities.

    It’s also true that a small number of professional rendering apps, such as 3D animation software, will definitely exploit the power of all those processor cores. As more and more developers support Apple’s Grand Central Dispatch feature, more and more apps will follow suit.

    Unfortunately, very few of the audio editing apps that are part of my workflow manage to task more than a single processor on my Mac Pro. So for the most part, my investment has not been realized. If I can get all or most of that performance potential, plus a brand spanking new display, in a 27-inch iMac, so be it. I may, after all these years lusting after the most powerful Mac, find a more practical solution.

    To echo an earlier commentary, this doesn’t mean the Mac Pro is destined to fade from Apple’s product line in the near future. But as more powerful processors move down the line, the market for an expensive, expandable workstation is destined to get smaller and smaller.

    THE VOIP REPORT: GIVING VOIPO A SECOND LOOK

    The other day, our Special Correspondent, David Biedny, told me that he switched from a traditional landline phone hookup to an Internet phone after moving to a new apartment. Since Vonage is the pioneer in VoIP service, and the largest independent provider, David chose them as his new phone company.

    I suspect he’s starting to regret that decision. On a number of occasions, he reported hearing beeps and other annoying sounds during calls. I’m not sure if he’s reached out to Vonage’s technical support, but my experience with them has been decidedly bad.

    Well, since I’m never satisfied with what I have, I suppose, I recently decided to switch phone providers yet again. The main reason is that the company I was using, ITP, has been suffering from hit or miss technical support lately, and I also wanted to see if another provider would offer a better deal. That returns me to VOIPo.

    Now VOIPo is the brainchild of Brent Oxley, owner of HostGator, a large Web host, and Timothy Dick. Both have been guests on the tech show, by the way.

    In a world with lots of VoIP companies, you wonder why there’s a need for another. Well, VOIPo’s stock in trade is, or will be, a reseller program. That service will allow you to be able to sell your own phone service under your private label, using VOIPo’s network. I don’t have all the details, except that it will involve a monthly fee on your part to become a dealer.

    Now I don’t know if VOIPo is doing anything different in terms of technology, but their voice quality has always been superior. Compared to ITP, the audio is far more robust, as if they’re opening up the frequency range. Connections are clean and solid, even during calls to my son, Grayson, at his home in Madrid.

    I used VOIPo briefly earlier this year, but left because some of the calling features weren’t available, or still buggy. Caller ID display times were always wrong, and they didn’t have a Fine Me function implemented yet. That’s the feature that allows your phone to ring one number for a specified number of seconds or rings, before switching to a second and maybe even a third number. This is the elegant answer to call forwarding, because you don’t have to worry about forgetting to turn it on when you leave your home or office.

    Well, Caller ID is now fully functional, Find Me has been activated, although it’s still listed as beta, along with a few other features, such being able to automatically record all of your calls. Of course, there are laws that require you to notify the people you talk to about recording the conversations in most locales, but it’s nice to have it available, particularly if you run a small business and field lots of sales and support calls.

    In addition to first-rate connections and audio, VOIPo has great customer support. They even have a customer forum at the site, where Tim and his crew actively help customers who have questions or problems.

    Notice that I’m not mentioning the price yet, as their latest offer was due to expire just when this newsletter is due to be emailed, so I suggest you check the site for the current rate package. Unlike other companies that deliver free international calls for a higher monthly rate, you get 60 minutes of landline connections to several dozen countries. International minute rates are strictly average; other VoIP carriers are cheaper. As usual when you look for a new phone company, you should estimate just how often you’ll make overseas calls before you decide on a package that suits your needs best. In our case, Grayson can always call us from his MacBook via Skype, and we won’t have to concern ourselves about using up our free minutes.

    So I’m back with VOIPo and, so far at least, quite pleased to rejoin their service.

    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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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #519”

    1. dfs says:

      In a sense, high processor speed is a copout. By which I mean that even the cheapest computers on the market are incredibly fast and and powerful in comparison with those of, say, a decade ago, and this has allowed software developers to slide by putting out badly written products. Take my own personal workhorse, Dreamweaver. It was such a piece of bloatware that it could barely run on a G-3 Mac. So I begged, wheedled, and ranted until I browbeat my boss into giving me a G-4. On that, it sorta ran and I could get some serious work done. It ran well enough on a G-5 and runs very well indeed on my current Intel Mac Pro. But all the improvement came from processor speed and increased RAM, at no time has Macromedia or Adobe bothered to clean up Dreamweaver’s copde. The brute force of modern computers has provided them with the perfect excuse to stick with what they’ve got. Probably the same is true for a lot of other programs as well, such as the Office suite. Now imagine the speed improvement we’d get if software developers could be induced to clean up their act. If we want a faster and better computing experience than we have now, maybe we should demand leaner and meaner software rather than always throwing our money at hardware.

    2. Jeff says:

      Last week I picked up a 2.13Ghz SSD MacBook Air to use at work or while traveling because I was finding a 15″ 2.86Ghz MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM too bulky to carry around regularly. One my my biggest worries would be that the Air would be unusable because of the slower processor speed and limit to 2GB of RAM however I picked up the Pro mainly because it was the most powerful laptop Apple offered last fall, without considering what I would be using it for.

      I’m happy to say I’m quite happy with the performance so far. Snow Leopard runs like a champ, and I haven’t noticed any difference with any of the standard Office applications. The few movies from iTunes that I loaded on it play fine and there have been no issues with a small iTunes music library. I haven’t tried loading Call of Duty 4 or playing a 780p movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I see some performance hit with graphic intensive applications. XP would probably run fine under VMWare, but I’m hesitating loading Windows 7 due to the lack of drive space and internal DVD player.

      I firmly believe that the advances of the next ten years are going to be in energy efficiency, battery life, and SSD storage. Processor speed has pretty much reached the point of diminshing returns, and any advances are going to have to come from low-power, low-heat, high performing processors. There certainly is going to continue to be a market for high-performance workstations, but the benefits that the average user gets from them are going to slowly dwindle as the portable market matures and becomes the primary focus of Apple’s pile of development cash.

    3. gopher says:

      Have to agree about Vonage. Half the time I tried to place a call, it disconnected as frequently as my cell phone in the apartment my wife used to be in. I’m actually back to POTS for one plain reason. It works when there is no power, and no battery is needed for the power.

    4. maclifer says:

      We’ve had Vonage for almost 5 years now and have never been disappointed… far better than Verizon’s POTS lines ever were in the Washington DC metro suburbs. I cannot say enough how thrilled we are with it.

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