• Newsletter Issue #271

    February 7th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    The excitement keeps on growing. You listeners are telling us that the shows are just getting better and better, and we like that. We’ve tried hard to locate guests with both expertise and the willingness to answer the tough questions. Unlike other technology-oriented radio shows, the guest is always the star and we strive to give them enough time to speak without constant interruptions and clock watching.

    On February 3rd, we introduced Dan Frakes from Macworld and PlayList magazines. Also on hand was John Rizzo, author of Mac Annoyances. As you might imagine, the two guests talked about similar subjects from different points of view. Maybe we’ll put them together in a single interview in the near future. We also featured a detailed discussion about QuicKeys X3, the newest version of the venerable desktop automation tool.

    Our February 10th show will feature Preston Gralla, author of Internet Annoyances. We’ll be talking about spam and other irritants of the Internet.

    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.

    HERE IS THE REAL MEGAHERTZ GAP!

    Didn’t you think the megahertz myth was dead and buried? I did, so I was surprised and disappointed when I read the other day that one of the reasons Apple has held problems selling Power Macs to the professional market is the perception that they were slower than their PC counterparts. Imagine that?

    Now it’s perfectly true that Apple’s famous (or infamous) bake-offs between the latest Power Macs and PC hardware have been controversial. While some believe the results, others think the books are cooked, as it were, and that the PCs being tested were crippled in some fashion. Or the Power Macs were special souped up versions that delivered performance way above that of the regular production models.

    Whenever I’ve put Apple’s benchmarks to the test, however, I’ve always found them to be accurate. Clearly the message isn’t getting through. A 3.8GHz Pentium 4 must be faster than a 2.5GHz G5. It’s all about horsepower, right? I mean, isn’t a car with 300 horsepower always faster than one with 200 horsepower? How could it be otherwise?

    The truth, of course, lies elsewhere. First of all, a higher clock speed doesn’t necessarily translate into a faster processor. And there are other components in a personal computer that affect performance. Consider the bus speed, the capabilities of the graphics chip and, of course, the throughput of the hard drive. Add it all together and a faster processor may seem slower if the rest of the system can’t keep up.

    But let’s assume, for a moment, that the fastest Windows PC and the fastest Power Mac G5 are roughly comparable in performance. That shouldn’t take a great leap of logic, right? Now maybe Apple isn’t going to like that conclusion, but I am just trying to set a baseline here. Take a Mac and a Windows PC delivering similar benchmarks, you would assume they would be equally productive in the real world, right? Or do you see what I’m getting at ?

    To come to the conclusion that productivity is the same, you’d have to assume reliability is the same, and that’s not the case. Any time a computer is tied up with maintenance, it becomes unproductive, even if it’s only used to handle business letters. The letters, during that time, remain unwritten, unless another computer is available, or, shudder, shudder, there’s an old typewriter around that can serve as a substitute. Or maybe just a ball point pen. In fact, I have a close relative who can’t type, can barely click a mouse, and relies strictly on his voice and handwriting to get things done. That hasn’t made him less successful, so maybe the age of the PC and mobile phones hasn’t really helped as much as most of you think. All right, he does use a mobile phone, his sole concession to 21st century technology.

    In our corner of the world, though, it’s fair to conclude that the PC that’s most reliable in day-to-day use must be faster. But how do you determine which computer is most reliable? Well, one widely recognized authority for such information is Consumer Reports. Let’s forget, for the moment, that its editors remain essentially clueless about Macs, and I will not waste time talking about the shortcomings of the laptop review in the March 2005 issue.

    Instead, I’ll focus on the reliability ratings, simply because they are based solely on reader surveys. I’ll assume CR’s editors can add and deliver accurate statistics. That may be a stretch, but it’s all we have. When it comes to repair history, Apple remains number one. In desktops, it’s way ahead of Sony, the second place finisher. In laptops, Apple narrowly leads Toshiba. Note that the reliability of a Dell has been sinking steadily over the past few years. The world’s largest PC maker used to be right up there with Apple, but it ranks among the worse when it comes to laptops, just ahead of Compaq and Gateway.

    A similar picture emerges when it comes to technical support. Apple rates high, and PC box makers are mediocre at best. Now it may just be that the problems affecting the Windows platform are simply more difficult to solve, so customers remain unsatisfied after and close and personal encounter with a support person. Worse, many of these companies have moved support offshore, and the staff is often barely conversant with the English language.

    Moving along, I read a recent survey that 91% of PCs have been infected by spyware at one time or another. That’s up from the 80% figure I saw just a few months ago. Spyware is not only intrusive, but it can slow up a system big time. So even if the Windows user tries to struggle along, the computer acts as if it were stuck in quicksand, and it’s hard to get a lot of work done. Add a virus infection or two and things can come to a halt.

    So even if that Windows PC’s raw performance is comparable to the Mac, it ends up being a lot less productive. After malware is dealt with, higher repair rates still mean that systems are taken out of service for longer periods of time. Even if a company paid less for those PC boxes, they always end up costing more, but too many businesses lack the long range vision to understand the consequences.

    But consider a company whose profit margins are slim, a company that must struggle through every quarter to stay in business. Here a big network of malfunctioning PCs can make the difference. Is it possible that the ills affecting Windows have caused some companies to actually go out of business? When you consider that billions of dollars have been lost because of the problems I’ve described, I’d have to say the answer is yes.

    When it comes down to it, the real megahertz gap is measured by productivity, and here the Mac wins hands down. Maybe the Mac mini is the magic bullet that will get the message out once and for all, but I’m only cautiously hopeful.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: ON FINDING THE RIGHT COMPUTER SPEAKER SYSTEM

    To many, buying a speaker system for a computer comes as an afterthought. The iMac and eMac have stereo speakers, after a fashion, and professional users rarely concern themselves with such things unless they are involved in some sort of multimedia work. PC boxes usually come with stereo speakers of one sort or another. Where speakers are purchased, price and appearance are the major factors, and I dare say most of the systems I’ve heard sound perfectly awful. All right, when it comes to games, perhaps you’ll pick the speakers with the biggest subwoofer, just to be sure the gunshots and rumbles come through with maximum intensity.

    However, the personal computer has largely supplanted traditional audio systems as the main source for music listening. That, and the iPod of course. If you love music, you’ll appreciate good sound, but how do you find the right product? You could, I suppose, pick the model with the highest price, or the one that garners the best review in a computer magazine. But these two factors don’t guarantee you’ll like the sound, not at all.

    Unlike regular stereo and home theater systems, though, electronics stores don’t generally display computer speakers in proper listening environments. Usually they are placed next to each other, and you have to struggle through the hustle and bustle and the higher ambient noise to get a sense of the system’s sound quality. And that assumes they’re actually plugged in and ready to play.

    Of course, if you buy from an online store, as many of us do, you just have to rely on the luck of the draw, and a money-back guarantee in case you’re not satisfied.

    Is there no better way? Well, if your circle of friends enjoys superior sound, you might give a listen to the speakers they’re using. Maybe you’ll find something that is just right, or you’ll at least be able to dismiss a few models from further consideration.

    Specs don’t help as different companies use different methods to determine how well their products perform. Price isn’t always a factor, nor is the size of the subwoofer. So where do you go from here?

    If you can’t listen to the actual system, choose a product from one of the well-known speaker makers, such as Bose, Cambridge SoundWorks, Harman Kardon, JBL, etc. You may also want to listen to some traditional stereo and home theater systems from these companies in a good listening room to get a feel for the sound quality of some of these products.

    In order to build a brand identity and meet specific quality standards, many speaker companies will “voice” their products in a way that is identifiable across the product line. That will help you get at least a fair indication of how their computer speakers will perform in your home. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s the best you can expect until or unless consumer electronics stores decide to give computer speakers a fair presentation.

    When you finally get the system home, spend a little time listening to your favorite tunes, or playing your favorite games. Be sure you turn the volume up to a level that represents your personal needs. If the system sounds distorted, it means the tiny amplifiers aren’t up to the task of delivering good sound at room filling levels. Also be careful about adjusting the subwoofers. If you turn them all the way up, you’ll end up with an artificial (and sometimes fatiguing) thump that may be good for games and rap music but nothing else. The best setting is usually when the subwoofer just becomes audible, so it properly supports the low end of the sound spectrum.

    You’ll also want to listen to material that contains unprocessed vocal sounds or perhaps an online radio station. If the male voice sounds as if it’s coming from a barrel and the female voice sounds harsh, strident, it means there’s a problem with the critical mid-range. Maybe you can adjust this with the tone controls, but many systems only allow you to turn them on or off and adjust the volume. Perhaps the equalizer in iTunes may help somewhat, but isn’t it better to have a system that sounds good without all that extra assistance?

    If you’re patient, and willing to exchange systems a few times till you’re comfortable with what you have, you’ll be assured of getting the best quality sound in your home or office. But whatever you select, try to do it in the spirit of good fun. If you make it a chore, you’ll end up disappointed or reconciled, and that’s not a good thing.

    In future issues, I’ll review some of the newest computer speaker systems, so stay tuned.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac 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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