• Newsletter Issue #329

    March 20th, 2006


    Some of you have asked whether we plan to take live phone calls on the show. This is something we’ve resisted for now, largely because some of our best guests are only available for taped segments, so you wouldn’t get a chance to question them anyway. But we have taken measures to increase interactivity. We have a chat room, in fact, which you can enter during the live broadcast. It’s available for you to hang out or ask a question or two, although we can’t promise that question will always get to the guest. During show time, just click on the link to enter, give yourself a user name, and you’re good to go. No, you don’t need a password.

    Now about last week’s show, we opened with Joe Kissell, author of “Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac.” Joe delivered a number of hints and tips on getting optimum performance from your Mac. He even answered the question as to whether those Mac OS X maintenance utilities really work, and, in large part, they do what they claim, although you probably don’t need all of the features they offer. We also featured Leander Kahney, author of “The Cult of Mac” and “The Cult of iPod.” Just how is the move to Intel processors affecting the cult? Well, most are taking it in stride, according to Leander. We also presented an up-close and personal report covering a week with the new Intel-based Mac mini with Macworld’s Rob Griffiths.

    We’re still working on the guest list for the March 23rd episode, so stay tuned.

    As to our other show, “The Paracast,” on March 21st, David Biedny and I will be talking UFO investigator William J. Konkolesky, a Michigan representative for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and William H. Kennedy, who has written about alleged Satanic crime and other provocative subjects.

    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.


    When I had a couple of opportunities to put a prototype MacBook Pro through its paces at the Macworld Expo last January, I felt encouraged that Apple had apparently performed some near-miracles in moving its Intel transition so far along. To be sure, I couldn’t detect any overt symptoms that would indicate it had undergone such an extensive reworking inside. In fact, if you didn’t look too closely, you might just regard it as just another 15-inch PowerBook.

    That, of course, is a tribute to superb engineering, and it also raised the larger question of what makes a Mac a Mac. If most of the parts inside were not terribly different from a comparably equipped Dell laptop, you were left with the design elements of the case and the operating system to separate the MacBook Pro from the rest of the pack.

    But I didn’t place my order right away. Mainly, I was quite content with my 1.5GHz 17-inch PowerBook, and I didn’t want to settle for a smaller screen. But I fully expect that Apple will address that shortcoming in the coming weeks as the model line expands. Issues of potential incompatibilities, though, didn’t faze me one bit. I’ve been an early adopter for years and I’ve coped with some pretty funky laptops, such as that 5300ce, about which the less said the better.

    The other day, a client telephoned me about helping him set up his spanking new MacBook Pro, the $2,499 version with the 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 1GB of RAM and a 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. I jumped at the opportunity to spend a reasonable amount of time evaluating the device. But this is not a review in the sense that Macworld or The Wall Street Journal have reviewed the product. For one thing, I made no attempt to clock performance, except for some basic subjective observations. I did, however, have my PowerBook G4 at hand, largely as a test tool to evaluate his new wireless network, so I did take the opportunity to perform a few comparisons.

    The first thing I noticed, and this has been observed by others, is that Apple continues to shrink shipping cartons. I’m sure it’s not at the expense of increasing the possibility of damage during the MacBook Pro’s long journey from its manufacturing plant in Asia. In fact, everything seemed well insulated, but the thickness of the insulation had shrunk quite a bit when compared with the container that housed my PowerBook.

    The client wanted to transfer his stuff from his 867MHZ Power Mac, so I connected a FireWire cable between the two, plugged in the MacBook Pro and turned on both computers. As the FireWire symbol appeared on the Power Mac’s display to signify FireWire Target Mode, the typically speedy boot process of a MacIntel was in evidence. The Setup Assistant’s musical introduction had begun to play, and I began to navigate towards the Migration Assistant feature. In short order, the file transfer was in progress. Although the initial time estimate was over two hours, it would actually complete in less than 45 minutes.

    I did run into one anomaly, but it had nothing to do with the new computer. The client had purchased an AirPort Extreme last fall. It was never configured properly, but left on all that time. Unfortunately, it appeared defective. There was no way to access the base station from the AirPort Setup Assistant, and the reset function didn’t take. He didn’t want to wait for repair or replacement, so, as the MacBook Pro was getting its files from the Power Mac, I took him to the neighborhood Wal-Mart, where he spent less than $60 for a Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G Broadband Router. While this router performs well enough, its Web-based setup routine isn’t designed for the meek. But it does offer all of the important features you expect from such a device, such as WPA encryption, and its transmission range seems sufficient for a standard-sized home.

    The MacBook Pro was ready to roll almost as soon as I got the router working, and the client was surprised how it mirrored the desktop layout of his Power Mac. Now it was time to give the laptop a thorough workout, but I did notice that the left side was already fairly warm, something I had observed back at Macworld Expo when I examined the prototypes.

    I wasn’t alarmed particularly, since my PowerBook can get just about as warm after a thorough workout. After confirming that Web access was functioning normally, I took the MacBook Pro to different locations around the client’s home to test AirPort reception. I got four bars just about everywhere, and it only decreased to three bars on the patio. I did notice that the screen was, as claimed, noticeably brighter than the one on my PowerBook, but it still wasn’t quite sufficient to overcome the bright Arizona sunlight. But the display was still quite usable, so I spent some time checking each of the applications the client used before I left it in his care.

    Safari launched in an instant, and the speedy broadband connection delivered his home page in the blink of an eye. Firefox, still a Power PC application except for some beta versions, took its time to open, but seemed to navigate the Internet fast enough once it got going. Bear in mind that the Rosetta emulation environment essentially cuts an application’s speed in half, so the MacBook Pro feels like a 1GHz computer under these circumstances. But that was still somewhat faster than the client’s Power Mac, so I didn’t expect he’d be disappointed. Confirming my initial observations at Macworld, Microsoft Office was speedy enough in most respects. After running the recent Office update, Entourage opened in just a few seconds, and the client was delighted that his new messages quickly appeared. The Power Mac was sharing his three USB-based printers, and I was able to send documents to each, in turn, without missing a beat.

    The entire experience was uneventful in every respect. After retrieving the latest updates from Apple, I restarted and, after the MacBook Pro was running again, I proceeded to demonstrate the remote control and other new features. The client took over, and, after a few moments, remarked how snappy Mac OS X had become. I left soon thereafter, reasonably satisfied that the transition to Intel would probably, for most Mac users, be a non-event. And that’s a good thing.


    When I moved to a new home last fall, I began to think seriously about whether I was getting satisfactory performance on the high definition sets I planned to review for the newsletter. I was a Dish Network subscriber and while reception was quite good, the receivers tended to be somewhat buggy, and I had to use an antenna for local digital channels. Sure, that shortcoming will be remedied this year as new satellites come on line, but I didn’t want to wait if I could get a better alternative right away.

    I already used the local cable TV provider, Cox Communications, for telephone and Internet service, and when they gave me an additional discount if I added digital TV, I decided to switch. Although cable TV is supposed to be more expensive than satellite, if you buy bundled services, the financial picture changes drastically. My bill is, in fact, $8 less, and I get more stations, including all the local high definition broadcasts. Goodbye antenna!

    When it comes to digital cable and HDTV, Cox offered reception quality that appeared, to my aging eyes, on a par with Dish. Despite the digital moniker, however, some of the stations remain analog, although that’ll be remedied over the next few years as the eventual migration to all-digital is completed. When you look real close at, for example, the Sci Fi Channel, you can see a little more apparent fuzziness on the screen, but it’s not readily apparent at a normal viewing distance, so it’s not a significant factor.

    Like most major cable providers, Cox supplies set top boxes from Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta. The latter, by the way, was recently acquired by Cisco in its bid to acquire greater traction in home. The unit I rented was the Scientific-Atlanta Explorer 8300HD Digital Video Recorder, which offers just about all the features you’d crave in such a device, such as Dolby Digital 5.1, optical digital and HDMI ports, plus a Serial ATA connector for an external drive. The 8300HD comes with a 160GB drive, which is rated for 90 hours of standard definition and 20 hours of HD programming. This may seem a little light when compared with the 250GB drive supplied with Dish Network’s top-of-the-line DVRs, but it is sufficient unless you plan to store lots of programming. External drives that are rated as compatible with the 8300HD are available for less than $200. I’m not aware of a similar option for current Dish or DirecTV set top boxes, or at least they’re not easily located.

    Compared to the Dish DVR’s I’ve used, the 8300HD seems more resilient in terms of software bugs. I rarely have to reboot, which was a constant and chronic issue with the Dish-labeled alternatives. However, Dish allowed me to push a single button to skip forward through a program in 30-second increments, whereas I have to use the standard Fast Forward options on the 8300HD. When it comes to speeding through commercials, the latter is somewhat less convenient, but you soon develop the proper degree of timing.

    There is one notable bug with the 8300HD, however, that is apparently not going to be addressed. Duplicating the symptom is a little complicated, so bare with me. Set it to record two shows at, say 8:00 PM, to use an example. Now start watching a show it began to record at 7:00 PM about halfway into the episode. At 8:00 PM, the box will automatically switch to one of the new shows, and you’ll have to reenter the DVR menu to return to the previous show. Don’t ask me why that happens or why it hasn’t been addressed, but you can see where it can be an annoyance.

    On the horizon, however, is an updated Scientific-Atlanta DVR alternative that’ll come with a built-in DVD burner. Today’s 8300HD lets you archive to a VCR at the press of a single button, and a similar feature will no doubt be available with the DVD. However, I wonder how issues of copy protection will be addressed and that may be one significant reason why such a product will be heavily crippled before it sees the light of day. But one can always hope.

    In any case, I’m not about to go back to satellite unless they can provide a compelling alternative with superior features, more high definition stations, and a competitive price. Ah, the beauty of bundling!


    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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