• Newsletter Issue #305

    October 3rd, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    One of the hardest jobs on a radio show is to get adequate sound out of a telephone call without distorting the host’s portion of the conversation. You can separate the pros from the amateurs this way. Those cheap phone recording devices from, say, Radio Shack, may be all right for experimentation, but the real thing requires more sophisticated gear if you want to deliver the best possible sound from the limited range provided by traditional phone service. Broadcasters generally use a device called a “digital hybrid,” which connects the mixing console direct to the phone lines. The caller hears the audio direct your show while on the air, while the audience hears the caller with reasonably clear and crisp audio with a minimum amount of background noise. This device uses digital signal processing circuitry to separate the caller’s audio from the host’s, so the latter still comes through the mic.

    For The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we also conduct our phone interviews this way. But more and more of our interviews are done via Skype or iChat, and if the guest has a decent mic, it sounds just about as good as a genuine in-studio interview. That’s one area where I think we have the edge over most broadcasters, most of whom stick with phones. While you might think that iChat is the obvious choice because of Apple’s professional audio experience, that’s not necessarily so. On most of the interviews we’ve done using Skype, we find the audio quality is far superior. Neither technique is perfect, however, and, on occasion, the connection fails. Fortunately, these failures have occurred only on recorded interviews, at least so far. I’m not sure where the blame might lie. We have more than sufficient bandwidth on our end, and the guest usually does also, but the technology involved remains a work in progress.

    In case you’re wondering, we use Audio Hijack Pro to record interviews, along with some Audio Unit plugins for signal processing. Editing is done in Lucius Kwok’s Sound Studio, a shareware application with quite a bit of flexibility. I don’t spend a lot of time making everyone sound perfect, but it’s easy to excise a cough or a stutter and even, frankly, to reduce the duration of an interview if it runs a bit long. You’d be surprised how easily you can shorten a recording simply by reducing the span of lengthy pauses. And now you know a few of our secrets.

    For our September 29th episode,TidBITS publisher Adam Engst came on board to talk about Wi-Fi (AirPort) security. Noted author Owen Linzmayer, who wrote “Apple Confidential 2.0” and other titles, addressed a variety of topics. In addition, Jerzy Lewak, CEO of Nisus Software, discussed the history of his company and detailed the new features in the company’s popular word processor, Nisus Writer Express.

    For October 6th, we’ll be joined by Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus and we’ll take another visit to the “David Biedny Zone.” By the way, we’re working on a second radio show, one having nothing to do with technology. Stay tuned for more details.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

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

    THE MAC HARDWARE REPORT: WELCOME TO THE SILENT UPGRADE

    There’s been so much publicity lately about the screen-related problems with the iPod nano, that few of you have probably noticed that there hasn’t been a meaningful update of Mac hardware in a while. Sure, the mini and the iBook got tiny upgrades a couple of months back, but nothing significant in the scheme of things. In fact, the only change worth mentioning in the mini was doubling standard memory, something most people would have done anyway.

    At the same time, when Apple publishes specs for its equipment, there’s a disclaimer that explains an awful lot about what’s going on right now: “Product specifications are subject to change without notice.” Take that seriously. Normally, though, the changes are usually to the vendors supplying parts, such as optical drives. This means that you could actually get something superior to what you expect, more or less, but Apple isn’t telling. Maybe you give System Profiler a thorough exercise before you take the computer home.

    That takes us to a certain “silent” upgrade for the Mac mini. In recent weeks, there have been reports of a very minor speed bump. How minor? Well, consider the difference between a 1.42GHz G4 and a 1.5GHz version. Doesn’t sound like an awful lot does it, and I assure you that any fair speed test would show, at best, extremely modest gains that would largely go unnoticed. Oh well, maybe Freescale Semiconductor, the former Motorola processor chip division, ran out of the slower parts and needed to fill Apple’s orders, so they shipped what they had.

    But there’s more and the situation gets stranger by the minute.

    The reports on that Mac mini upgrade spoke of faster hard drives, with speeds upped from 4200-rpm to 5400-rpm. Assuming the other drive specs are similar, read and write speeds are definitely going to be snappier, and it can impact perceived system performance noticeably. Other alleged improvements included more video memory, but the graphics processor is the same, so there’s no native support for some of the core image enhancements in Tiger, such as the visual eye candy in Dashboard. The SuperDrive version supposedly has a speedier DVD burner.

    I use words like “supposedly,” because it appears that only the faster processor has been confirmed so far.

    No I don’t know about you, but I’d regard these improvements, assuming they are genuine, as sufficient to give the mini a new model number and a press release. Now it may well be that Apple is taking advantage of the availability of superior parts for the same price, or the fact that some of the original components it used are no longer available. That may be a reasonable excuse, but to be perfectly fair, I think buyers have a right to know what’s inside the box without having to power up the computer and check the profile.

    Yes, I know Apple is within its legal rights here, and technically doesn’t have to tell you about such silent upgrades, and perhaps it makes sense from a marketing standpoint because a lot of inventory with the older specs is still in the channel and the company doesn’t want to hurt sales. On the other hand, the customer has a right to know. Now if the changes were limited to just a processor with a clock speed that’s a tad higher, maybe it’s not so big a deal, but when you pile on the storage devices and perhaps the graphics hardware, things get somewhat more complicated, and I think Apple’s admission that these models might “slightly exceed” published specifications is a bit of an understatement, but that’s just me.

    At least, the products aren’t being sold with slightly inferior hardware. But, in the end, if you buy a new Mac mini and find it doesn’t contain the components that have performance levels that “slightly exceed” the ones that were advertised, what do you do? Do you attempt to return a computer that meets its published specifications? Can you? The answer is most likely no, and I doubt many dealers are going to open up a bunch of boxes and power up the computers so you can check them out.

    This isn’t necessarily a public relations nightmare, but I can see where some of you might feel a bit cheated here. On the other hand, until I see actual speed comparisons between the two versions of the Mac mini, I’ll withhold any more serious criticisms. But if you do have a Mac mini in your sights, maybe you should wait a month or two for things to settle down, and perhaps see if the dealer will disclose to you the actual date the hardware was delivered before you take one home.

    The later, of course, the better. In addition, I hope that any other updates to Mac hardware in the coming months will be a little less silent.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD

    It has reached a point in our crazy world where folks will gladly give up the movie theater experience, shared with a crowd, along with those $5.00 containers of popcorn, to watch a movie on DVD. It used to take six months or more for the video version to appear, but as the movie companies realized they’d make more money a DVD, the window of opportunity has shrunk.

    In fact, some industry executives, such as Disney’s new CEO, Robert Iger, are suggesting that maybe it’s time to rethink the amount of time that transpires between the theater showing and the release of the home video version of a new movie. When it comes to marketing, I suppose you can argue that the video benefits from the original marketing campaign if it comes out around the same time, but I can see where theater owners are going to be up in arms.

    Would you, for example, go to the local multiplex to see a movie if you could buy the DVD the very same day, or perhaps a week or two later? Now let’s be realistic for a moment. Unless you have an expensive home theater system, the sound and picture quality on a movie theater is far superior. Even if sound and picture quality were comparable, the experience of watching that movie surrounded by an audience can never be duplicated at home unless you have a large circle of friends and family present. And don’t forget to break out the popcorn.

    On the other hand, I saw one of my favorite films of the year, Batman Begins, at an IMAX, the cinema with the multistory screen, and unparalleled sound. You will never be able to duplicate that experience in your home, and maybe Hollywood ought to think how it can build more screens of this sort to attract larger audiences. That assumes more commercial releases will be developed and distributed for the “IMAX experience.”

    But you have to look at the negatives, and increasing ticket prices and overpriced refreshments are only part of the picture. Even if the teenage projector operator doesn’t have the unit out of focus, you may still have to brave traffic jams and struggle to find parking spots to get to the nearest theater that’s showing the film of your choice. To some, I can see where it may not be worth the effort, particularly now that fuel prices have reached record levels.

    It’s also true that there’s a pretty good market for DVD-only releases. Many studios will release sequels to popular movies in direct-to-video form, because they can reduce the budget and not have to depend on $30 million opening weekends to make a profit. Some films, in fact, never even achieve exhibition in a real movie theater. Many are TV shows, some are TV movies, and both get an extended lifecycle for fans who want to collect their favorites.

    Now I don’t know whether Iger, as he takes the reigns of the “Magic Kingdom,” will actually do something to change the way a film is distributed. I gather he is also going to take a hard look at online availability as well, and I bet the rest of the industry is freaking over his suggestions about possible new distribution models.

    Right now, except for a few exceptions, movie theater attendance is down. Now it may just be that there haven’t been enough good films to attract larger audiences. Or maybe theater owners have become too greedy and have increased prices of both tickets and refreshments to levels that make a family outing an expensive proposition. Maybe a few weekends of $4.00 matinees and $2.00 soft drink containers will demonstrate whether you and I will reconsider that visit to the local cinema.

    Speaking of movies worth seeing, if you like science fiction, may I recommend Serenity, the big screen sequel to Firefly, a failed TV show that has garnered a cult following. You could, I suppose, just describe it as a traditional Western set 500 years in the future, and the dialog and some of the background music bears this out. But writer/director Joss Whedon’s vision deserves a fair shake. Its first weekend had decent box office receipts, and if it can continue to find an audience in subsequent weeks and not vanish from the theaters, maybe there will be a sequel. Or even, better, the resurrection of the original TV show.

    By the way, did you know that Whedon, best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was also one of the writers of the screenplay for Toy Story?

    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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