• Newsletter Issue #318

    January 2nd, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    When Grayson and I first started the show in 2002, we didn’t have a long-range plan. It was just an experiment. I had been out of the radio business for a number of years, but I did have that longing, and it didn’t take long to get back into that rhythm. Grayson and I had developed our own little repartee routine from making public appearances in connection with our science fiction novel, so teaming up again seemed logical.

    Of course, it took a while to get production values in line. The equipment we used then was relatively primitive to my way of thinking, although it did meet professional standards after a fashion. Even such things as taping phone calls required a clumsy process to deliver decent audio quality and keep background noise to a minimum. Today, our broadcasting toolkit delivers a level of quality and flexibility similar to a small terrestrial radio station, but there will be more improvements as we add that second weekly show and spread the programs to additional broadcasting outlets.

    As to the weekly show, on December 29th, our final episode of the year, we heard from Kirk McElhearn, author of the newly released “How to Do Everything with Mac OS X Tiger,” Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen joined us to talk about the best gear of 2005 and we had an enjoyable session with Brian Rothschild, executive director of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. We also heard from Nicholas Raba of SecureMac.com, who says Mac spyware is already out there and that he has software to protect you. To be blunt, I wasn’t convinced that we have to worry about spyware and similar threats just yet, but we’ll see.

    In case you’re wondering about that other show, “The Paracast,” we have a couple of shows almost ready to roll, and we are now planning a debut in the second part of January. As you might expect, the Macworld Expo will occupy our attention next week, and we want to give the new show our full attention and a proper send off.

    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 APPLE HARDWARE REPORT: DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ!

    When Apple delivered the bombshell about the move to Intel processors last June, I had to wonder whether the people who wrote some of the commentaries on the subject were living in the same universe. No story about Macs in recent years has created such confusion and misinformation, even though the facts are really quite simple. While you may not regard a simple processor switchover as particularly important, one recent survey, from BeLight Software, suggests otherwise. Among 747 respondents, 66.8%, or 499, regarded it as the most important Mac event of 2005. Notice the survey was limited to Macs, and the iPod wasn’t included.

    Shorn of the conspiracy theories, and I’ll get to those soon enough, there should be nothing especially complicated about what Apple is doing, but I think, in the days prior to Macworld Expo 2006, the fundamentals are worth repeating. This way, you’ll have a fair idea just what the new computers are expected to do. It’s not that you can predict exactly what products will be introduced at any given point in time, and don’t depend on those rumor sites for all your information, please! However, you can get a fair idea based on what Apple has said publicly.

    So what’s it all about? Well, go out and try to purchase a Power Mac with a 3GHz G5 processor, for example. Sure, that sounds like a silly request, but Steve Jobs actually promised such a model for 2004, and we’re still waiting. Forget about a PowerBook G5. The possibilities of the IBM’s G5 processor never came to be. Fortunately, Apple kept its options open, confirming those occasional rumors that it was also developing a version of Mac OS X for Intel in a secret parallel project “just in case.”

    The next element is compatibility with the new processor architecture. So Apple released a new version of its Xcode developer’s tools to ease the process of converting applications to Universal Binaries. That way, they can run native on both a PowerPC and Intel-based Mac. But that’s part of the equation. As they did in 1994, the last time Apple switched processors, there’s an emulation mode to run older software on the new generation of Macs. This time, however, the marketing people got involved and named the technology Rosetta.

    Rosetta is supposedly capable of running PowerPC software on the so-called MacIntel at 70% or 80% of the native processor speed. That may not seem a lot, unless you consider that Intel processors are supposed to provide a healthy speed boost. If this is true, the end result may be that such applications will actually seem faster than on Macs with even a G5. Maybe. But the AltiVec or Velocity Engine G4 and G5 processor enhancements used by such applications as Adobe Photoshop reportedly won’t be supported. Yes, you may have heard otherwise at some of the rumor sites, but Apple is still sticking to that limitation.

    In addition, Rosetta won’t be able to run the Mac OS Classic mode, which means applications that predate Mac OS X will no longer work. That may not mean much to many of you, but if you still break out an older program from time to time, you may want to postpone purchase of a MacIntel or look for different solution. Of course, this limitation may also change. Maybe there will even be a third party solution, but don’t bet on it.

    So far, everything I’ve said can be basically confirmed by Apple’s own statements and available information on the subject. I am not speculating. But from here on, things are less certain, but still quite possible. Take performance of the new hardware, for example. Apple developers are leasing specially converted Power Macs with standard Intel logic boards. They are operating under strict confidentiality agreements with Apple, but that hasn’t stopped from saying, unofficially, that performance of the Intel version of Mac OS X is simply stunning. The user interface is snapper, and applications launch much more quickly. If this holds true, then you will be extremely pleased with how the new Macs will perform, even with older applications.

    Some applications have already been updated, and many more will come this year. The sprawling productivity suites from the likes of Adobe and Microsoft will take longer to convert, and you’ll probably have to pay a full upgrade fee to get your copy when they arrive. While it’s possible you’ll hear early announcements about those upgrades, they may not actually arrive until the second half of the year, if then.

    The next element is the release date for the new hardware. Apple publicly sticks to its promise of the first half of this year for the initial round of MacIntels, but expectations are extremely high that some of those products will be announced next week. They may not be for sale immediately, but preorders will probably be accepted. Really, Apple has little choice. Even though it has promised nothing of the sort, failure to deliver these products right away could harm sales of Macs until the new models are available. And I haven’t begun to mention the potential impact to the company’s stock price.

    Of course, some were spooked into saying as early as last June that Mac sales would be hurt, but that hasn’t happened, at least so far. But now that we know that the new generation of Intel chips are becoming available, it would seem odd if Apple doesn’t deliver the goods. Speculation, yes. But it makes a lot of sense.

    So what about your PowerPC Mac? How long will it be supported? If you look at the history of Mac OS X compatibility, you’ll see a pretty good indication of how things will fare. Unless building a Universal Binary entails a major performance compromise, it’s no big deal to keep releasing applications that way. So expect that a brand new Mac with PowerPC will be compatible with new versions of Mac OS X and your favorite applications for another five or six years. By then, you’d probably be ready to retire those computers anyway, so I wouldn’t be terribly concerned.

    Yes, some might say the switch to Intel is no more involved than changing any other component inside your Mac. But that’s not quite true. At the same time, Apple has clearly taken its time to prepare for the transition, and I don’t expect to see too many bumps along the road. The most important Mac event of 2005? Maybe as an starting point, but to me, at least, the really significant developments have yet to occur.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: HDTV IS DEFINITELY NOT PLUG AND PLAY!

    The complexity of today’s electronic gadgets is well known, and it goes way beyond the common image of a VCR with the blinking 12:00 time display. Take HDTV. You spend a bundle for a television that’s supposed to deliver high definition pictures. Whether you lug it home, or in comes in a delivery truck, it seems simple enough. You put the batteries (which are usually supplied) in the remote, plug the set in and turn it on. Is that all there is? No, you haven’t even begun, and the end may not be in sight unless you spend at least a few moments reading the hookup instructions.

    So if you’re not one who is inclined to read directions, consider this a powerful suggestion to change your ways, at least for that HDTV set. You see, a survey reported by Scientific Atlanta, a major builder of set top boxes, concludes that less than half the people who own these magnificent new TV sets are actually watching real high definition. The rest of you? Well, you’re seeing standard definition TV, which may or may not look as good as a regular set. All right, maybe the screen is larger, and you do have widescreen, a superior sound system and similar bells and whistles. But why aren’t you getting the programming your set is designed to deliver?

    Most of you probably get your TV programming via cable or satellite, and you’ll need to contact the service you’re using about availability of HD equipment and programming. Even here, things get complicated. The two major U.S. satellite services, Dish Network and DirecTV, are only in the beginning phases of adding HD stations. To get local HD reception, they expect you to attach an “off air” antenna, and even when they begin to provide these stations themselves, you’ll probably have to swap out existing HD equipment for newer versions. The reason is that they are converting to MPEG-4 compression technology (they use MPEG-2 now) so they can accommodate more stations.

    Yes, complicated. My particular solution was to drop Dish and move to Cox in my locale, because the latter provides most of the local HD programming through its set top boxes and digital recording devices. No antennas necessary. However, cable TV offerings differ from city to city, so you are best advised to check the programming and equipment to see what’s available. If more HD programming is imminent, no need to switch. Otherwise, you might want consider the switch to satellite, where additional HD offerings are promised this year.

    Of course, if there are local HD stations nearby, you can get by with an ordinary antenna. Well, maybe. Some HD sets don’t include HD tuners, since they expect you to get such stations from the cable or satellite people. Or you have to go to the electronics store and purchase an HD set top box. How do you know? Well, the specs for your new TV should mention something about whether an HD tuner is included. Again you have to read the setup information.

    One more thing: Don’t always depend on installers from your dealer, or the cable or satellite providers to connect things properly. For the best quality reception on an HD set, they need to attach their set top boxes to the DVI or HDMI jacks. Both deliver digital pictures, but the latter includes audio in the same connection. HD receivers may also contain an optical audio jack for your home theater audio system.

    Once you get the proper equipment and connections, however, the effort is worth it. HD pictures are truly stunning, providing film-like detail. That, coupled with a full surround sound setup, may make you wonder whether you ever need to visit the local multiplex again. No wonder Hollywood is fretting over the decline in ticket sales.

    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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