THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE
Macworld Expo was on our minds during our January 6th episode. First up was a new friend, musician/composer/producer Roger Adler, who recorded an album entirely in GarageBand, which will be introduced at the Expo. We also had an update on Internet phone service from Vonage, the largest independent provider in that field. During our second hour, we entered the “David Biedny Zone” for his particularly pointed views on a host of subjects, including his hopes and expectations for the Expo.
This week, we’ll be in San Francisco, recording local color and interviews direct from the Expo floor. You’ll learn more about the guest list as the week progresses.
Meantime, if you haven’t heard the show, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to one of our archives. Enjoy.
IS THIS THE MOST IMPORTANT MACWORLD EXPO EVER?
There’s always excitement in the air in the days prior to the San Francisco edition of the Macworld Expo. You never know what Steve Jobs might pull out of his hat, but the rumor mills are usually busy. But this year Apple is probably under more pressure than at any time in its history. Rumors are no longer the province of a handful of sites run by Mac fandom. No sir! Now even the mainstream press has gotten into the act, wondering if the expectations will be fulfilled.
Speculation reached a fever pitch when Apple filed three lawsuits over alleged breeches of its nondisclosure agreements. These contracts are signed by Apple employees, developers and suppliers, who are prohibited from revealing information on new products under development. Apple guards its trade secrets with greater intensity than just about any private company. You’d almost rank it against the CIA, except for the fact that secrets discovered by the latter usually leak like a sieve.
As I’ve said before, Apple has the perfect right to go after people who violate those agreements, but there’s a new wrinkle this time, and that is the action filed against one of the better known Mac rumor sites for supposedly encouraging people to break their agreements and spill the beans about the new products. That’s what reportedly takes it beyond normal First Amendment considerations. But that’s something the courts will ultimately decide.
The timing of these legal actions is peculiar, since the legal filings must summarize the sort of information that was leaked. So the Mac press and mainstream technology pundits have seized upon the original stories published about the products in question, which describe a hardware audio interface for GarageBand, a Flash-based iPod and, of course, a low-cost Mac.
Now an audio breakout box is nothing terribly special, although, if it appears, I expect Apple will give it the requisite elegant design and ease of use. But the other two products raise serious questions, because they contradict previous statements from the company.
Take an iPod with Flash memory. When Jobs pulled the wraps off the iPod mini last year, he pooh-poohed the idea of using Flash memory, saying it didn’t store enough songs, and that most of those players went largely unused. But things have changed. 1GB memory modules are affordably priced, with prices falling below $70. Putting one into an iPod retailing for $149 would make sense, since a capacity of roughly 250 songs is probably more than enough for many of you. Right now, 2GB and larger memory modules are prohibitively expensive, but the situation will no doubt change quite a lot in the next year or two.
During his appearance on The Tech Night Owl LIVE last week, our favorite Mac critic, David Biedny, suggested that an iPod with removable Flash memory would be the hot ticket. That way you can buy extra memory or even larger chips as they become available. Slide them in and slide them out. That would provide the most flexibility. But before you get the wrong idea, I have no secret information to report. I agree with David, but Steve Jobs will no doubt follow a different drummer.
As to that cheap or headless iMac, eMac or whatever, call it wishful thinking, but I hope it truly appears. Even though one Mac blogger calls people like me “deluded,” the timing is perfect for this sort of product. The iPod has opened the door for Windows users to accept Apple technology. Microsoft’s security problems make the Mac all the more tempting, but the price of admission has, till now, been too high.
The eMac, at $799 for the base model, may not seem so expensive, but when you compare it to a $399 eMachines, it seems out of reach. Comparing features doesn’t matter when only the price tag is important. Unfortunately this isn’t an easy arena to enter, because it’s a cutthroat market. Profits are slim, and the big players, Dell and HP, have to sell millions of boxes to stay successful.
Smaller players have already thrown in the towel, and even IBM gave up and sold its PC division to a Chinese computer maker. So can Apple really build a $500 or $600 computer with the proper degree of Mac panache, the requisite features and bundled software, and still make a decent profit? That is a key reason why the company hasn’t jumped into the fray so far.
But there’s a willing audience now, millions of iPod fans from the Windows world who’d buy Macs by the ton if they were more affordable.
Of course we may all be whistling in the dark. Maybe this cheap computer is basically a home media center that just happens to have basic Mac capabilities, but that would probably be a matter of product positioning than anything else.
Yes you have to wonder about the timing of those legal actions, because they have raised expectations way beyond what anyone could possibly expect. And the pressure too, and I don’t envy Jobs when he enters that auditorium at Moscone Center in San Francisco to deliver his keynote.
THE TECH NIGHT OWL: MORE ON THE ROCKY ROAD TO HDTV
If FCC Chairman Michael Powell is right, many of you are willing to spend huge sums of money to buy into HDTV. It’s not just the promise of digital TV, which will free the pictures of snow and ghosts, but of high -resolution images, the nearest equivalent of having a movie projector in your own home.
When everything is set up correctly, I can testify that picture quality is simply marvelous, and absolutely film-like with the right source material. As I’ve said previously, though, satellite TV is still not a complete solution for digital TV. When it comes to local HDTV broadcasts, you are expected to go out and buy your own antenna and hook it up yourself, or arrange for someone else to do it.
Here’s where I’ve ran into trouble, because I really want to avoid that roof antenna. One of the reasons is that the Steinberg clan expects to move by summer, and we didn’t want to give the new residents a present, or run afoul of the homeowner’s association, which accepts satellite dishes grudgingly. Another is that I am not a roof climber, and would have to pay someone else to do the job, so I tried to find another solution.
I am no more than 22 miles from the local TV transmission facilities, without large obstructions, so I tried three indoor antennas and one outdoor model. The indoor versions bore the brand names Philips, Radio Shack and Samsung. The outdoor model, from Terk, is designed to clip onto the satellite dish. Try as I might, I could never get my Dish Network 921 receiver to successfully add local off-air stations with any of these antennas. I later learned from the technical people at Dish that they set the receivers not to allow you to add stations if the signal strength isn’t a consistent 70 or above (the maximum level is rated at 125). Picture quality for any level below that would be hit or miss.
I discussed my problem with the folks at some of the local consumer electronics emporiums, but they really had no solutions to offer, except to just try more antennas. During those visits, I saw confused customers arrive with similar troubles, and I am willing to bet that DirecTV and Dish Network are both receiving lots of complaints. One dealer offered what he says was a guaranteed solution, and that was to buy their high-end roof antenna for $250, which includes installation.
But a far more reasonable solution came to me as I was examining reader comments on various antennas at amazon.com. The only indoor antenna that had a hope of a chance is something called the “Silver Sensor.” It is marketed under the Gemini, Philips or Zenith brands, and lists for less than $39.99. The Amazon price was less than $21.94, plus shipping, so I decided to give it a whirl.
Based on a design from a British company, Antiference Ltd., the Silver Sensor, also given the model designation ZHDTV1 is listed as a “Digital HDTV UHF Indoor Antenna.” I suppose the digital part is designed to give it sex appeal, but the key is that it is supposedly designed for optimum reception of HDTV. When I got the unit, I was underwhelmed. The thin, triangular box didn’t look very impressive. When I opened the box, I found four parts, consisting of the base, a stem, the antenna itself and a coax cable. The antenna is described as a log-periodic design, consisting of a set of metal wings mounted on each side. You can set the antenna horizontally and vertically, and it’s extremely directional, so you have to aim it carefully.
I had it set up in a couple of minutes, but my first test wasn’t terribly impressive. The signal strength seemed no better than the others. Then I raised the antenna, as I had done with the others, pointing it to the approximate direction of the signal source. I was pleased to see the signal level increase to 80 and then to 90. Aha!
In the end, I installed it on the top shelf of a closet adjacent to the master bathroom. I used a compass for precise positioning, using the information from antennaweb.org as a guide. The signal still wasn’t sufficient for more than a single station or two, so I connected an old Radio Shack signal amplifier. Now I was able to get four or five stations with consistent quality. I should add that all the other antennas were amplified; the Silver Sensor doesn’t come that way.
Unfortunately this isn’t a complete solution. A few stations still don’t come in with sufficient strength for the Dish receiver to acquire the signals successfully. A few others still don’t broadcast consistently, and these are the ones for the major TV networks, unfortunately. That situation should change as the year progresses.
For now, though, I’m awaiting a final solution from the satellite providers. Dish technical support explained to me that they had to add capacity to offer more high definition stations, or wait until they switch to MPEG-4 compression later this year. That will allow them to send the same quality signals with a lot less bandwidth. Till then, this is a work in progress, but I recommend you try the Silver Sensor before looking for an outdoor solution. If you have a clear line of sight to the TV transmission towers, or you are in an urban area, you should get surprisingly good results.
THE FINAL WORD
The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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