• Newsletter Issue #283

    May 2nd, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Our conversion to The Tech Night Owl LIVE went seamlessly, online logos and all. Even those little musical inserts, the bumpers between show segments, were updated thanks to the hard work of Jerry Griffin and none other than Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus.

    For April 28th, we featured a special, last minute guest, Jeffrey S. Young, co-author of the controversial unauthorized biography, iCon Steve Jobs : The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business. In case you haven’t heard, a furore has erupted over this book, which won’t actually be published until later this month. It’s the result of Apple apparently pulling all titles from the publisher, Wiley, from its retail stores. Wiley, as you probably know, publishes lots of technical books, including the famous Dummies series.

    Well, during a comprehensive 45-minute interview in our studios, Young said he was absolutely bewildered over Apple’s preemptive strike. Yes, he writes about many of the nasty things Jobs has done over the years, but he says, in the end, it’s a very positive, even uplifting book about a man who overcome many of his personality shortcomings to become the most famous CEO on the planet.

    And about that book, Wiley has doubled the print run, following the law of unintended consequences no doubt.

    The show also featured an interview with TidBITS publisher Adam Engst reminiscing about 15 years of regular publication. Andrew Stone, of Stone Design, came onboard to talk about iMaginator, the company’s new Tiger-only photo editing application.

    Coming on our May 5th show will be noted Mac authors Andy Ihnatko and John Rizzo, and digital music expert Eliot Van Buskirk.

    If you haven’t heard the show, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.

    DEFINITELY NOT THE FIRST OR LAST TIGER REVIEW

    Beyond the controversy over whether Steve Jobs ordered removal of books from all Apple stores because of of the pending publication of an unauthorized biography, or that lawsuit over the Tiger trademark, Mac OS X 10.4 was rolled out without incident on Friday evening. Sure, there were parties aplenty to celebrate the arrival of a brand new operating system, but it was all in the spirit of good, clean fun.

    But the real story is Tiger itself. Even if you’ve grown weary over the regular release of Mac OS X upgrades, and you’re wondering whether you should take that $129 and keep it in reserve against future hikes in the price of gas, there’s lots to crow about in the new release. Even better, the early online scuttlebutt has not revealed any significant bugs, although a fair amount of third party software will have to be updated to support Tiger’s significant under-the-hood changes.

    Apple boasts 220 new features, although it’s clear the boundaries of what constitutes “new” have been stretched here and there. For example, each Apple application that comes with Spotlight support is counted as an extra feature. Some features are best left for programmers to consider, and some, while not as sexy as Spotlight or Dashboard, are, in and of themselves, still quite compelling.

    I will avoid rehashing the obvious. We know that Spotlight is desktop searching on steroids, and that Dashboard places mini applications, called widgets, on the screen to handle such tasks as looking up a word in the dictionary or checking the local weather. We also know that Dashboard may or may not have been heavily influenced by a third party utility, Konfabulator, and that, as a result, the authors of said utility have set up shop with a Dark Side version.

    But what I regard as perhaps the most important feature of all isn’t getting equal press, and that’s unfortunate. I’m talking about Parental Controls. You and I know the Internet is a jungle, filled with predators who would love nothing better than to steal your credit cards, your passwords, and empty your bank accounts. You want to protect your kids from the predators they might encounter while sending instant messages, email or browsing the Web. With Tiger’s Parental Controls, you can set up a customized account for your kids that not only restricts the applications they can run, but the people they contact via email or instant messaging, and the sites they can visit. This sort of thing may seem somewhat intrusive on a child’s freedoms, but safety is paramount, and you’ll want to seriously consider setting up the feature on your Macs.

    And one more thing: Pick a difficult password. Your kids will quickly guess all the simple ones, and that means they can log into your account and escape the restrictions.

    INSTALLATION: The process is little different from Panther. There are three fundamental installation choices. The first is simply to upgrade your existing Mac OS X software. The second is the clean or “Archive and Install” option, with the added choice to preserve users and network settings. Finally, you can erase the drive and start over. I chose door number two, the one I recommend for everyone, and had no hiccups of any sort. But the installation process can drag, but the Installer gives you a clear message of what it’s doing. First it verifies the installer disc, a truly important measure that will avoid faulty installations as a result of defective media. Then the destination hard drive is checked. Only after these two scanning steps result in a thumbs up does the rest of the installation proceed. An upgrade or erase installation will also deliver the “Migration Assistant.” This is the technique, introduced in later revisions of Panther, that lets you copy files from an older Mac via FireWire. It does not, however, support a second drive (unless that drive has a startup system you can use), and if you have a Mac that predates FireWire, you’re out of luck.

    SPOTLIGHT: What can I say? Spotlight will search not only the files, but their content, assuming there’s a plugin available. By default, Tiger ships with support for Apple’s own apps plus Microsoft Office, with the exception of Entourage. Over time, more and more software publishers will provide plugin support, so just hang in there. At its heart, Spotlight is a standard indexing and search system, but it’s definitely on powerful steroids. That is, after the initial indexing process is complete. Indexing is done behind the scenes after installation. It doesn’t really intrude much on performance, but you might see an occasional spinning beachball on a slower Mac. This symptom should vanish in an hour or two for most of you, though it would be nice if Apple would make some effort to document what’s going on. Newly created and modified files are indexed on the fly. Performance is pretty snappy regardless of the search request, but you can get still better performance by opening the Spotlight preference panel and unchecking the file types you don’t want to search.

    FINDER: Aside from the dock, the Finder remains one of the most controversial elements of Mac OS X. It is faster and seems more reliable under Tiger, but some of the core shortcomings are left untouched. For example, try resizing a Finder window under column view and lengthen the sidebar. See what you have to do in order to make that setting stick. The usual technique is to close the window, and open it again, and repeat the process of resizing, closing and opening until you get the size. After three or four attempts, the setting will linger, at least most of the time. However, unexpected changes in view settings, such as from column to icon view, are no longer as prevalent. That’s progress. I’ll leave it to the rest of you to debate the interface versus the original “spatial” Finder. I like it as it is, but I’ll like it a lot better when the remaining irritants are exorcised, and I hope we don’t have to wait for 10.5 for a fix.

    DASHBOARD: Press a key, the screen dims, and a bunch of tiny application windows pop into view. These programs are called widgets, and are somewhat reminiscent of the original Mac OS desk accessories. Tiger ships with a small set that includes a dictionary, a calculator, a stock tracker, links to Address Book and iTunes and other stuff. Developers are eagerly diving in and I’ve already set up a package tracker and a local traffic monitor. You can expect a lot more of these widgets over the next few weeks. The initial release of Dashboard is not without its quirks. The windows on some widgets can be resized, while others can’t. As you try them out you’ll find other interface inconsistencies, but remember this is strictly version 1.0, so expect some changes sooner or later.

    INTERFACE: It’s getting mixed reviews. Some folks are upset that Mail, for example, has a unique style for buttons not duplicated in other applications. iTunes and iPhoto have still another look. The interface consistency of the original Mac OS seems to have gone out the window. One review suggested that Apple needs to get its programming teams into one room and get them in line. On the other hand, all these differences appear to be deliberate design choices. Apple wants its various programs to have their own unique look and feel. Take it or leave it.

    PERFORMANCE: Unlike Microsoft, Apple manages to make its recent operating system releases faster than the previous versions. And Tiger is no different. In nearly every respect, Tiger is faster than Panther. In some areas, such as resizing windows in applications that support live resizing, performance is much better. One important reason is that Apple’s developers have offloaded more and more of the screen display functions to the graphics card. In addition, the underlying code of the operating system has been optimized for better performance. Power Mac G5 and iMac G5 owners will experience greater performance boosts because of improved support for 64-bit computing. On the other hand, there are some reports of serious system slowdowns in specific installations, which may mean that Apple will need to deliver a 10.4.1 update soon to address such issues.

    RELIABILITY: There’s very little of significance to report here. Most of the early problems seem to be caused by third party software. But the system itself, aside from those slowdowns I mentioned, seems pretty stable. The only problem I’ve noticed so far is an inconsistency in the way the application switcher shortcut (Command-Tab) works. Sometimes it loses the icon of an active application, only to display it again the next time you invoke this command. That is weird, but easy to work around. As more and more early adopters come aboard, additional problems are apt to emerge. If you are the cautious type, you still might want to sit on the sidelines and let others do the testing for you. But the dust will settle in a week or two, so you won’t be postponing the joy for very long.

    COMPATIBILITY: This is a mixed bag. Most of your applications should run normally, assuming they’re not accessing deep down system resources. In particular, I had no difficulty using Microsoft Word, but if you’re using mission-critical software in your work environment, it’s best to check a publisher’s Web site to confirm compatibility. Now these problems aren’t going to cause permanent damage, except for backup utilities that don’t support Tiger’s file structure and won’t deliver complete backups. Other incompatible programs may simply crash, or some functions won’t work, such as the auto-protect feature of Norton Anti-Virus. Digidesign’s ProTools LE 6.9, the latest version and, a mainstay in recording studios, isn’t compatible with Tiger and you’ll have to wait eight or ten weeks for an update. A lot more software revisions are due. Ah the perils of being early adopters.

    JUST THE STARTING POINT: There’s a lot more to cover in Tiger, including all those upgraded applications, such as Mail, Safari and the rest. So consider this part one with many more to come.

    THE NIGHT OWL VERDICT: Panther was a marvelous upgrade, for the most part, but reliability wasn’t quite as good as Jaguar. Even the so-called last Panther update, 10.3.9, was not without its problems. So still another update, fixing Java-related issues, had to be rushed out. With the passage of some 18 months since 10.3 was originally released, I hope Apple gave Tiger enough time to stew in the code mines. So far I’m quite optimistic. In a word, Tiger is awesome. Mac OS X just gets better and better. In particular, Spotlight will revolutionize the way you organize the stuff on your Mac. Parental Controls is the unsung hero of this collection. The more I use Tiger, the more I like it, and it rates a 10, five stars, or whatever rating scheme you prefer.

    NOTE: If you want to get a highly technical insight into Tiger, check out John Siracusa’s article at Ars Technica. While I don’t agree with all of Siracusa’s conclusions, you’ll definitely learn more about Tiger than you ever imagined, even if some of the technical stuff is more suited to the programmer.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: GETTING GREAT SOUND IN YOUR CAR

    In the old days, your car stereo got adequate reception of your local stations, and produced bassy sound, and that was about it. Audio quality was just perfect if urban music was your bag, but for the rest of us, not so good. If you wanted anything better, you had to go aftermarket, and see what your local car audio shop could deliver. There were, and still are, lots of choices, but getting something that works just right in your car takes a little work. A car is not the best listening environment, far from it. And after your car’s innards are torn apart to install new gear, you can’t just say “take it back” if you’re not satisfied, although you could exchange your gear for a different system.

    The car makers have, in recent years, decided to get in on the action. Why not add a fancy audio system to the option list? Why let others steal the profits? But these are generally not home-brewed components; auto makers aren’t necessarily good at building audio equipment. The industry usually goes to outside suppliers, such as Bose, Alpine, Mark Levinson, Monsoon and others to spruce up their luxury offerings. Besides, you’re willing to pay $30,000 and a lot more for a car, adding another thousand or so for great audio isn’t such a stretch.

    But where does that leave regular people like you and I? Well, don’t despair. You have choices too. Consider Toyota’s youth-oriented brand, Scion. You can outfit these cars to the gills without going broke. Just for fun, I went online and configured the coolest looking vehicle in the lineup, the tC coupe. The standard audio system comes from Pioneer. For another $449, you can order up a VSE Subwoofer by Bazooka Mobile. Talk about blowing away your friends, and, of course, anyone listening in the next car. The car with standard equipment starts at just under $17,000, but you can easily option it to over $20,000 if you can’t contain yourself. But you’ve got to go for the subwoofer. It’s also nice to know that neat audio gear isn’t just a privilege confined to the rich and famous.

    Just to say how far you can take the economy, I decided to go online and see what I could do with the Hyundai Accent, which lists for a mere $9,999 for the 2-door model. Mere? And to think my first new car cost just over two grand, but that’s a long, long time ago in a galaxy…oh forget about it. In any case, I selected the slightly more expensive 4-door version, added an automatic transmission plus “Package 4,” which delivered the 6-speaker sound system, and still kept the price below $14,000.

    The point is that nearly every car on the market, from entry-level to the most expensive luxury vehicle, can be ordered with a perfectly good sound system. What’s more, if you’re on a tight budget, you can still keep the monthly payments down to manageable levels.

    But if you’re living on the edge, in the fast lane, what can you buy? Well, I recently took a test drive in a 2005 Acura RL. Acura is the luxury division of Honda, and this vehicle, which comes strictly loaded at under $50,000, seems just a bit too reminiscent of an Accord with a slightly sleeker body. Or at least that’s what I felt at the time. But it also offers a Bose 10-speaker surround sound system, which has a 260 watt 8-channel digital amplifier, and plays DVD-audio discs. As with the 3·2·1 home theater system I reviewed last week, the Acura’s stereo delivers simulated surround sound with regular CDs as well. As you might expect, sound quality is just wonderful, quite comparable to home audio system. In fact, you may just want to remain in the car whenever you want to listen to music, but the high price of admission obviously won’t make it a casual purchase.

    I also had a close encounter with the 2006 Infinti M series. Infinti, a division of Nissan, is on a roll saleswise, and the M, which includes several vM35 and M45 models, can cost up to $60,000 if you get a little too enthusiastic in checking off the option list. One of those options includes a 14-speaker Bose surround sound system. Fourteen speakers? Yes, and that includes two in each front seat. You can’t get away from it even if you want to, except by turning the thing off of course. The result? Simply outstanding, clearly superior to the Acura and as good as anything I’ve heard in an automobile. Now what were those winning lottery numbers again?

    So what’s the best route to take? Well, if you can afford a bit more than the low-price spread, take a gander at the retro Mini Cooper. Mini, a British car built BMW, offers a simply bewildering array of options to choose from. You can start for less than $18,000 for the basic model, or choose the supercharged “S” version for just shy of $21,000. Alas, you can quickly bring that price to over $30,000 if you get a little carried away with customizing your vehicle. You can even change the color accents on the dashboard, for heaven’s sake. During a recent test drive, I found the standard stereo sounds pretty decent, but true audio fans will spring for a Harmon Kardon audio system, with upgraded speakers and amplifiers, which adds just $550 to the price. If you can contain yourself, and stick with a basic Mini and manual transmission, you can leave the showroom with a car that cost under $20,000, plus tax of course. Unfortunately, the Mini is hot! You can wait up to six months for delivery of the exact configuration you want. Dealers have difficulty keeping them in stock and they definitely won’t discount. Not a cent! A few greedy stores may even try to jack up the price, but if you find a dealer like that, run, don’t walk, to the door.

    In the end, you don’t have to visit a separate car radio shop to get great audio on your new car, regardless of your budget. But I’m not trying to put those shops out of business. For older vehicles, and those without upgraded audio, you’ll find plenty of choices to audition in the aftermarket.

    And don’t forget the iPod connector.

    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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