• Newsletter Issue #320

    January 16th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Although the show is broadcast live every week, and we haven’t taken a night off in months, we’ve never performed before a live audience before; we spend our time in front of a mic, in a small studio. But that changed at the Macworld Expo. We had two 45-minute episodes, one at the Podcast Place, and the other at the Macworld Live pavilion. In addition to special guest host David Biedny, we featured Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen and noted authors Joe Kissell and Ted Landau. We also took questions from the huge audience, which included several rows of standees surrounding the chairs.

    Shortly after the keynote, I also interviewed author John Rizzo, and all these sessions were edited and combined for our January 12th show.

    Doing a live show presented a few potential hazards, because I no longer had full control over the equipment as I do in our own studio. I had to depend on others for basic setup, although I contributed a few ideas. So, frankly, it took a little work to assemble and mix the recordings to get reasonable sound quality while retaining the live feel. If you’re picky, you can easily detect the audible differences caused by using three different types of microphones and a huge crowd providing ambiance. Oh well, if you’re used to listening to sporting events, nothing’s lost.

    But that’s not all. We also recorded a short commentary from industry analyst Ross Rubin and Marc Horne of Quark Inc. for next week’s episode. We’ll also feature Macworld’s Jason Snell and author Kirk McElhearn, who has weighed on the possible presence of a secret spyware capability in the latest iTunes. More guests will be announced shortly.

    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 before the end of January. Our first guests will include the famous author of over 160 books, Brad Steiger and the always outspoken Jim Moseley, publisher of “Saucer Smear.”

    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 MACINTEL REPORT: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

    Maybe I was tired, but I had a good night’s sleep, so I shouldn’t have felt fidgety, nor struggle to stifle a yawn during the Steve Jobs keynote, but as he spent agonizing moments telling us about the way cool features of the latest version of iPhoto, I felt the urge to nod out. It’s not that I don’t care about iLife ’06. In fact, I’m quite anxious to get my review copy and put the new Podcasting feature in GarageBand through its paces on a future episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.

    In fact, I can even understand why Jobs wants to emphasize the things you can do with your Mac above and beyond the raw specs. Perhaps that explains why the announcement of the new MacIntels came at the end of the keynote, and got only a small amount of Steve’s time. Whether or not the new iMac is two to three times faster than the model it replaces, and whether or not the MacBook Pro is four to five times faster than a PowerBook G4 is beside the point. Those claims simply do not represent real world applications anyway. The real proof of the pudding is the fact that both new models seem noticeably faster in terms of user interface response and application launch times.

    Beyond that, however, they’re both Macs. Period. If you don’t look at the System Profiler report or open the case, you wouldn’t know that there’s an “alien” processor inside, or even one with dual cores. At the same time, this hasn’t stopped some Mac users from complaining about the things they perceive to be missing from the new hardware. I’m going to ignore the price for the most part, since the iMac was already a good value compared to traditional Wintel hardware in its previous incarnation. The MacBook Pro, though it might be a tad more expensive than a matching Acer, is still quite competitive with Dell and Gateway note-books, so there’s no reason to complain much on that score.

    When it comes to the iMac, nothing appears to be absent, other than a copy of AppleWorks. If you’re interested in using the computer for a business, you’ll appreciate the digital video port that lets you get an extended desktop or mirrored view from an external display. That was a significant omission from previous designs and it’s welcomed, even if the internal graphics can’t drive a 30-inch Apple display.

    The MacBook Pro is a different story. There are a few tradeoffs, but it’s not that Apple is cheating you. Everything makes sense. Take the new SuperDrive, which has a lower speed rating than the one on the most recent PowerBooks, and also loses the dual-layer burning feature. Apple is quoted as saying that, when they went to the thinner form factor, there was no longer room for the existing slot-load drive, so they had to use what was available from their OEMs. Remember, the optical drives Apple uses are simply off-the-shelf designs, the same ones PC box makers use. Besides, it doesn’t sound like a serious loss for me.

    On the other hand, content creators are already screaming about Apple’s decision to shed the FireWire 800 port. The claim is that there isn’t a lot of hardware out there supporting the faster FireWire protocol, and perhaps that’s true. However, the new ExpressCard slot has enough throughput to support a third party solution, so perhaps one will be forthcoming. I am more upset about the loss of the internal modem, and until there are more hotels with broadband, I think Apple made a mistake here. Well, you can bet that Apple is going to sell an awful lot of those $49 USB modems.

    Oh, some are also moaning the loss of S-video output capability, but I understand that’s available courtesy of the DVI port with an optional connector. So much for that.

    The real loss is the lack of support for the Classic environment in the MacIntels. Apple’s Rosetta technology can’t run Mac OS 9 and older apps. It has, however, been updated to provide support for the G4’s AltiVec, so the speed hit from software that uses this processor enhancement won’t be quite as much. As a matter of fact, it seemed that Photoshop ran pretty well during the keynote, although Jobs admitted that graphic artists probably wouldn’t be pleased. But that depends, of course, on the age of your existing Mac hardware. If you are in that business, and your Mac is more than a couple of years old, even Photoshop in emulation will seem much faster. There’s also nothing to be concerned about when it comes to less processor-intensive stuff, such as Microsoft Word. In a brief test, it seemed to run about as fast on a MacBook Pro as on my 2003-vintage dual processor G5.

    As to the basic Intel-based hardware, the standard Mac startup shortcuts you’re used to, such as holding down the “T” key to activate FireWire startup mode, still function. Again, Apple has to be commended for making the transition so seamless, although it’s a bit early to know if there are any early production glitches worth noting. In passing, I did notice that the preproduction MacBook Pro I checked out at Apple’s booth at the Expo seemed to run a bit hot, but the source appeared to be primarily the hard drive.

    In addition, don’t expect the system DVD that comes with your new MacIntel to work on an older Mac. The PowerPC and Intel versions of Tiger are separate distributions, with separate build numbers. Unlike the new generation of applications that are being rolled out with increasing frequency nowadays, there is no Universal system installer. Now I rather expect there will be come Leopard, so Apple won’t have to package two different update kits, and have to field questions from people who bought the wrong one because they didn’t see the fine print.

    But Leopard is still in the future, and I’d be surprised if Apple said much about it before this summer’s WWDC. The real issue is whether there will be a special hardware introduction or two to honor Apple’s 30th anniversary, on April 1st. But I would hope that the Mac mini and iBook get their due before then. Existing models may become real hard to move because of growing expectations that they’ll be obsolete real soon now.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE HIGH TECH FEATURES YOU DON’T NEED ON YOUR NEXT CAR

    You should not need a degree in computer science to operate a motor vehicle. Whether car, truck or crossover, the basic controls should be an easy reach to normal-sized arms, and labels should be clear and large enough to be understandable without having to consult the manual to translate arcane symbols and procedures. As you move upscale, however, you do hope for larger, more comfortable quarters and luxury amenities that help justify the higher price tag.

    But it seems more and more as if the world’s auto makers are concentrating more on glitz than on practicality, and as long as you’re willing to pay for this outrage, they’re not going to stop. Take the infamous iDrive on the BMW line. Many routine buttons are distilled to a single knob, which activates a menu-driven screen. Now maybe the engineers thought it was elegant, but real people were clearly not considered in this design, although it’s gotten better with time.

    Now before you think of iDrive as just a toy for the rich, don’t forget that you can get a basic BMW 3-Series auto for only a few thousand dollars more than a well-equipped mainstream car from Honda or Toyota. If you measure car prices in monthly payments, the difference is even less drastic. To be fair, not all luxury makers aim to provide confusing interfaces for their customers to fret over. The new Infiniti “M” series uses a menu-driven system too, but it is simpler, and there are separate, dedicated buttons for such things as climate control and radio settings. You know the old saw about not fixing what isn’t broken.

    So when you order your new car, or buy one off the lot, just what features do you need and which can you safely avoid with no impact on your safety or driving experience? Well, I would take an Apple Macintosh approach here, and suggest that the easier the better. You don’t want to think what button to push, when menu to navigate, when you have to make a decision while fighting city or freeway traffic. That, in itself, may end up causing the very accidents auto makers want to protect you from.

    From a safety standpoint, the more air bags the better, and make sure you choose such motoring enhancements as anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control. To keep prices low, some auto companies make these essential components extra, and stability control still isn’t available on all models. I understand the highly competitive atmosphere, but I do not think any critical safety feature should be consigned to the option list. Regardless, if you find the car of your dreams, try to remember to look through the equipment lineup before you sign that order. Canceling or modifying may be next to impossible, particularly if it’s on the lot, waiting for you to take delivery.

    If you can afford it, I’d also spring for the jazzy radio. You’re probably going to be spending hours in that vehicle, particularly if you commute locally or travel from city to city for your job. Superior audio is worth the extra dollars, and take satellite radio seriously. A factory installation for satellite service (even if the dealer does it for you) is best in terms of setup and system integration. Of course, you’ll probably want to add an iPod interface.

    It’s common for features from luxury cars to move down the line, and today electric windows, keyless ignitions, air conditioning and power seats are common even on relatively inexpensive compact models. If you are a cell phone addict, like me, see if Bluetooth is offered. If it isn’t standard, you want to look for an after-market alternative, and choose a phone to match. Believe me, hands-free is important, and, in fact, is required in some states. Yes, the audio may not be quite as good with a car system, but it is definitely safer.

    On the other hand, there are features that are really not essential, and if they are optional extras, you can safely omit them; that is, unless they are required as part of a package that contains the features you do want. Let’s be serious: Do you really need four-zone air conditioning? If you and your companion have different requirements for climate control, two zones may be fine, but don’t get carried away. For an economy car, you can, in fact, live without power windows, although power seats may be a lot more convenient to adjust. But try them out first before you check the appropriate setting on the option list. If you set the seats once, and seldom change it, except for reclining the seat back, power seats only mean a potential repair bill when the warranty expires.

    You may want to tailor the car to your personality, but consider that appearance-related options can become costly. One of the worst offenders is the Mini Cooper. A car that costs less than $20,000 can end up at well above $30,000 if you get too enthusiastic as to how to configure the vehicle with special colors for the dashboard and all the rest. But matters of automatic versus manual transmissions are not longer as significant as they used to be. The best automatic designs are thoroughly reliable and offer little disadvantage when it comes to acceleration and fuel economy.

    Now we come to navigation systems. You don’t need the one the auto maker provides, and you may not need one at all. Do you often travel to places that require pouring over maps to locate? A good navigation system may do wonders. But if such situations are a rarity, and you don’t require special aids to figure out how to get where you want to go, save your money. Call me old fashioned, but I have driven cars both with and without such systems, and I can survive just fine without some obnoxious mechanical voice telling me when I’m supposed to turn left or right.

    Finally there’s the extended warranty. This is a huge profit center for an auto dealer, and it’s basically an insurance policy against potential future problems. If you plan to keep your car well after the warranty period expires, the manufacturer’s own policy may be worth it. This is particularly true if that vehicle has a history of requiring major repairs the day after the standard warranty ends. But if you’re not hard on the car, or you trade early, don’t fall for the dealer’s pitch. And even if you do decide it’s worth the money, be careful about third party providers, because they may go out of business or give you aggravation when the time comes to file a claim. In the end, negotiate, negotiate! The dealer has a lot of elbow room on the cost of such plans, don’t accept the first price as final, and don’t be afraid to walk out and go elsewhere if you don’t get the deal you want. You’d be surprised how quickly some will bend to your point of view as you begin to leave the chair and prepare to split. But understand that, in the end, the dealer deserves a fair profit for his business. I have a close relative who sells cars, and I have come to understand his point if view, at least to some degree.

    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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