• Newsletter Issue #317

    December 26th, 2005


    It has been a busy year. We have been working weeks without taking time off, and we’re raring to go with great shows for 2006. There will, of course, be more changes along the way. Our goal has been to get the word out, tell more and more fans of personal technology that we’re here and that we’re different.

    Take our December 22nd, for example. We had guests you probably haven’t heard elsewhere. We rediscovered terrestrial radio with Bob Crane, head of C. Crane Company. You’ve probably heard the company’s ads, and we really enjoyed Bob’s stories and insights about enjoying the best that radio has to offer. We’ll were also joined by Jason E. Barkeloo, of Somatic Digital, a firm that has developed a fascinating hybrid solution, the Touch User Interface, that links the printed page with online content. Rounding out the guest list was one of our favorite tech commentators, Andy Ihnatko. Any is also a film expert, and we spent the final portion of the interview talking about the best flicks for 2005.

    On December 29th, our final show of the year, we’ll hear from Kirk McElhearn, author of the newly released “How to Do Everything with Mac OS X Tiger,” Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen and Nicholas Raba of SecureMac.com, who says Mac spyware is already out there and that he has software to protect you. Another guest will be announced shortly.

    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, video tuner/recorders, 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 or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.


    The other day, I heard some brief remarks from a TV commentator that he used to consider himself pretty flexible when it came to technology. Today’s gadgets, including the iPod (strangely enough) apparently confounded him, however. So what’s up with that? Is Apple Computer supposed to be at the forefront of making complicated techno gadgetry easy to use? What has happened in the past few years to make such things more difficult to grasp?

    Certainly not much has changed on the Windows platform. Microsoft is still laboring to get out its next release, which doesn’t seem to offer much, if any, promise of improved ease of use. But it’s probably no worse than Windows XP. While fans of Linux may not agree, there haven’t been that many notable developments to tame it for the masses.

    That brings us to the Mac OS, and when you look at the Classic and Mac OS X incarnations, which is easier to master? Which is easier to troubleshoot? How often do you hear the words “open the Terminal and type this command…” when something fails to behave properly with Mac OS X? How often do you see a spinning beach ball for no earthly reason?

    Of course the troubles don’t stop there. The Finder is supposed to be multithreaded, so it’s able to do more than a single task efficiently. But just start a copying operation, then another, and try to look through a folder containing a few dozen files. Go ahead and launch an application, or just go to a different Web site in your browser of choice. You can understand why things might slow down substantially on a Mac without a lot of RAM, and a slower processor. But do the same thing on a dual-processor G5 with a couple of gigabytes of RAM and it ought to be fast and slick, right? Don’t be so sure.

    At the same time, more and more Windows users are moving to the Mac. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because things are worse on Microsoft’s platform, or it’s the result of the alleged iPod “halo” effect. Whatever the reason, you want to think that Macs indeed just work, just as claimed. They do for the most part, but, as you know, there are things that can slow things to a crawl, and occasional aggravating bugs that sometimes confound the experts.

    When Apple gets around to spilling the beans about Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X, there will be plenty of eye candy, cool features to die for. A lot of what needs to be done isn’t very sexy, but it’s just as important, if not more so, in the day in and day out use of a personal computer operating system. You want it to be dependable, and when things go wrong, you don’t want to have to take a crash course in Unix to figure out why, or depend on some third party utility that zaps caches and engages in various arcane rebuilding operations to set things right.

    It is true that Mac OS X has gotten faster with each major release. Clearly Apple has worked hard to fine tune performance and eliminate the sources of slow-downs. But there’s a lot more to be done. The Finder, for example, is the centerpiece of the Mac user experience. Forget for the moment any concerns about the interface. Some like it, some don’t, and some have feelings that lie somewhere between these two extremes. At this point, I’m pretty well used to it, but I’m never going to be used to anything that makes it behave badly.

    Now maybe it’s also true that the transition to Intel will eliminate some of those performance bottlenecks. At the same time, millions of Macs with PowerPC chips are out there now, and millions more will be sold before the switchover is complete. For Leopard, Apple needs to work harder to make the Finder run more efficiently, and reduce those persistent multitasking hangups.

    The other major factor is troubleshooting. You have to thank people like Ted Landau and Gregory Swain for their great efforts to help you and I solve problems that continue to crop up at unexpected moments. I don’t want to take away anyone’s source of income, but why should it require books with hundreds and hundreds of pages to tell you how to get out of a jam with an operating system that just works?

    In short, comprehensive system diagnostics ought to be part of the operating system, and if you need to troubleshoot, you should be able to do it without invoking Terminal or some other power user tool. And it should not require third party utilities or thick manuals to show you the way. In the Classic Mac OS, Apple had Extensions Manager, a simple way to disable system extensions to see if they were responsible for untoward behavior. Of course, the best of the breed was Conflict Catcher, but we’re talking only of the stuff supplied with the system here. In the spirit of the network diagnostics screens you see when you can’t get online, there ought to be a system diagnostics application to guide you through the steps you need to take to see what’s going wrong, why applications are crashing and why the system is slowing down.

    If your Mac won’t even start properly, perhaps there could be a system-level tool with a pretty interface that you can invoke with a special key at startup, such as “D” for diagnostics. I’m sure Apple’s brilliant developers can come up with solutions that are a whole lot smarter, but you get the idea.

    Yes, compelling new features will sell boxes of Leopard upgrades. But reducing performance bottlenecks and delivering easy-to-manage troubleshooting tools are just as important, even if they don’t necessarily move product.


    I have to say that, for the most part, it’s difficult to tell one mobile phone from another, except for the broad categories of form factor, such as candy bar, like the failed Motorola ROKR, or the clamshell variety. I mean, can you really tell the Samsung from the typical LG? There are just a few exceptions, such as one of those butt-ugly “smart” phones that do everything but the laundry, or the Motorola RAZR, which is still a pretty hot ticket as far as wireless phones go.

    Of course, last year, the RAZR was something special. This year it’s just another neat-looking gadget. Unfortunately, the best-rated cell phone provider in the U.S., Verizon Wireless, took a year to discover the RAZR. At $199.99, which is a special online price with a two-year agreement, it’s way overpriced compared to the deals you can get at Cingular and T-Mobile, but it’s still a compelling choice. So I was anxious to get ahold of the Verizon version, and Motorola’s PR agency was able to accommodate my request in short order.

    The specifics are old news, but worth mentioning nonetheless. The metal-clad RAZR is a tad over half an inch thick, and weighs just 3.5 ounces. Verizon limits the color selection to two-tone gray. If you want black or silver, call Cingular instead. Alas, Cingular’s reputation for network quality and customer service is not as good, but you can always hope Verizon will discover one of those other colors some day.

    Update: In any case, the Verizon version of the RAZR has a 1.3 megapixel camera, Bluetooth and a speakerphone among its standard feature set. Motorola advertises three hours talk time, and 200 hours standby, but you can take both with a bit of a grain of salt. For example, if you use Bluetooth for handsfree calling with a headset or a car’s wireless system, battery life will take a big tumble. However, I managed to run two or three days without need of a recharge despite leaving Bluetooth on constantly. You can eke out more battery life if you turn off the feature when not in use. But as long as you’re close to a recharger, and I recommend one for your car too, you’ll do fine. If you opt to buy the current Cingular or T-Mobile versions, you’ll have to settle for a 300,000 pixel camera, but you’ll get longer battery life as compensation.

    Based on very casual testing with my previous Verizon phone, the Motorola E815, that plain looking device was noticeably more stingy with battery use. However, in addition to its slicker looks, the RAZR has a bit better reception, particularly in areas where the E815 couldn’t raise a proper connection. In addition, the RAZR’s audio quality is also slightly superior, even with a hands free setup. The camera seems more eager to capture a good photo, but that’s a highly subjective observation.

    Although I prefer the E815’s keypad, which has a bit more button travel, the RAZR is still pretty good. You get used to it after a few days.

    The RAZR is a reasonably bright, crisp display. Unlike the E815, however, there are no adjustments for brightness and contrast, and the main screen can wash out somewhat in bright sunlight. On the positive side of the ledger, the RAZR’s metal casing seems more resilient to the minor bumps and bruises that accumulate on a phone over time.

    All in all, the RAZR is a marvelous phone and still the best one I’ve ever used. I only wonder what Motorola and Apple were thinking when they crafted iTunes onto the ROKR and not the RAZR. That is something I trust will be remedied in 2006.


    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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