• Newsletter Issue #335

    May 1st, 2006


    There are tens of thousands of Podcasts out there now, and like any technology that’s easy to use, the quality ranges from the strictly amateur to professional. In fact, some Podcasts are produced by the same companies who deliver programming for terrestrial radio. But you don’t need a big budget to sound like a pro. But remember, having quality equipment isn’t going to change the quality of your performance, but you do want to deliver the best sound you can.

    One of those $25 USB headsets and the latest version of GarageBand may seem quite enough to get great voice quality. Sure, this equipment layout may be just fine for voice chats on iChat or Skype, but your broadcast will ring amateur, particularly if you want add a cheap phone patch to record interviews. At the same time, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to build a professional studio. A little shopping around will do wonders.

    The main factor is that microphone. If you don’t want to go the whole hog and add a mixer and other accoutrements of the trade, consider a high quality USB mic. You can plug it directly into any Mac, and the right models will deliver pro results. Samson Audio has several models that won’t cost you a fortune, but the Snowball from Blue Microphones has a unique look that more than justifies its somewhat higher price tag.

    Things get more complicated if you need more than one mic or want to record interviews on the phone. The cost of admission can quickly add up. Your choices for a mic are wide-ranging, but the Shure SM58, widely used by pros, is especially designed for speech and voices, and carries a street price of less than $100. Now we’re talking! A mixing console with the proper level of connections can be had for around $50, and I’ve heard good things about the Behringer Eurorack UB802 Mixer. All right, cables are optional, but I still haven’t broken your budget.

    GarageBand can handle iChat recording, and Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack and Ambrosia’s Wiretap Pro will also allow you to record from Skype. But what about the plain old telephone? The cheap phone patch will work, but the quality will be perfectly awful. Sure, you don’t expect high fidelity audio from a telephone call, but such gadgets also record the host’s voice, which will make you sound both loud and distorted. That’s not how the radio and TV stations do it. Instead they use gear that will digitally separate the host’s voice from the callers, so your speech comes direct from that high quality mic you just bought. These “digital hybrids” don’t come cheap, however. One good choice is the JK Audio Broadcast Host, which is discounted for around $450. All right, I suppose you could stick with iChat and Skype until the budget allows.

    Now about our recent programs: On April 27th, we featured noted industry analyst Ross Rubin, of NPD Group, who had plenty of insightful comments about the state of Apple Computer and the impact of the latest delay in the release of Microsoft’s Windows Vista. PowerPage.org’s outspoken Jason O’Grady made his first appearance, and told us about his well-known legal skirmish with Apple and his reactions to the new 17-inch MacBook Pro. We also heard from MacFixIt’s Ben Wilson, who provided a choice number of important troubleshooting tips.

    Our May 4th episode will have some surprise guests, and we’ll let you know about them as soon as scheduling is nailed down.

    As to our other show, “The Paracast,” on May 2nd we’re featuring a real ghostbuster, in the person of paranormal investigator Joel Martin. In addition to being a best-selling author, he has hosted both radio and TV shows and is a winner of the Cable Ace Award.

    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.


    In the days when I was reviewing products for CNET, I was always asked to list both the positives and negatives about a product. When it came to Apple Computer, I admit I had to look harder to find suitable offenders, but there was always something worth a mention. The number one culprit was always the new product warranty.

    Consider that Apple earns the best marks in the industry for customer service, and its computers are at the top or close to the top in terms of reliability. So one would think that its warranty policies were number one with a bullet, but that’s not so. Sure, a one year period is pretty standard for the industry and you have to buy an extended warranty policy for anything better. But even if you don’t read the fine print, and few of us do, you’ll learn pretty quickly the shortcomings of the warranty which, like most others, carries the condition that it is “limited.”

    Here’s what it takes to confront the most glaring omission in Apple’s warranty: Just place a telephone call to Apple’s support number 91 days after purchase, and see what they tell you. Long, long ago, free telephone support was a lifetime affair, even when the new product warranty for a Mac was just 90 days. Now, expect to pay a hefty fee to talk to someone, unless you opt for the AppleCare plan. Now if you can convince the support person at the other end of the phone that your problem is related to a product defect, covered by the warranty, you won’t be charged. But that can sometimes take a some extra effort on your part, and you still have to give a credit card number to cover the cost of the call, which was $49 last I checked.

    Now I do understand that Apple is in the business of making money and showing its stockholders a great balance sheet. It has, in fact, succeeded admirably. But if Dell can give you a year’s free phone support with a product that is definitely more trouble prone, maybe Apple should rethink these limitations.

    This is not to say that delivering support via phone is necessarily cheap. The salary of the person taking your call is only a small portion of the expense, and, on a low-cost product, such as Mac OS X Tiger, which retails for $129, one or two “support incidents” are sufficient to wipe out Apple’s profit margin.

    But don’t get me wrong. I’m not using Apple’s financials as an excuse here. I’m simply trying to be practical, but I think we deserve better. As much as Apple wants you to believe that Macs “just work,” the fact of the matter is that personal computers are highly sophisticated devices that can present various and sundry complications at the times when you least expect. I can tell you that I claim to know a fair amount about troubleshooting, but I’ve occasionally run into problems that not only stump me, but have stumped some other troubleshooting types.

    Sure, I’ve found solutions, eventually. But consider how many things can cause bad behavior on the part of your Mac. Sure it may be a defective software update, or even that cool system utility that is filled with bugs. Here you can understand that your grief isn’t really caused by a factory defect, but something far more involved. It may take hours for the technician to guide you towards a solution, and you may have to navigate through a couple of levels of expertise to find the person who can assist you properly.

    At the same time, constant system crashes and freezes may truly be the result of a bad logic board, defective RAM, or even a failing power supply. The true cause may not even be so obvious, and, after paying $49 and failing to gain satisfaction, you may end up sending your Mac to a repair shop or even Apple to repair the problem.

    So what happens next? Do you call up Apple and beg for a refund, or just accept it as the price of owning a personal computer? Yes, if it’s the hardware, and it’s still under warranty, you shouldn’t have to pay for the support call, unless its third party RAM, in which case the dealer or the manufacturer is responsible.

    Now I understand that a single support incident may be sufficient for an iPod, where the things that can go wrong are limited. However, if you’ve just spent $2,799 for a spanking new 17-inch MacBook Pro, is it fair to have to pay for phone support after 90 days unless you spring for an extra $349 for AppleCare?

    I mean, Apple Computer is supposed to be the better product. Why should its support policies be inferior to Dell? Sure, the Dell may be harder to maintain, but that only makes you wonder why Apple can’t offer a better warranty plan as standard issue.


    Maybe it’s too early in the season to think of such things. I mean the television season is winding down, and the baseball season is still in its early stages. But it may also be the best time to think about joining the world of high definition television, because the electronic stores will be quiet, no doubt aching for your business. You might even find some real bargains.

    Certainly the prices of the best gear have come down considerably in recent years, as manufacturers build more product and learn how to assemble it more efficiently. Not so long ago, for example, a plasma TV was a luxury few could afford. This is not to say that they are necessarily cheap nowadays, but an empty credit card is usually more than enough to accommodate the purchase. That tax refund burning a hole in your pocket may be another good choice of funding; that is, if the price of gas hasn’t eaten it all up already.

    Choices are plentiful, from big makers such as Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung or Sony, to lesser-known brands that you may never have heard of, such as Maxent or VIZIO. But even if you settle on a brand, there’s LCD, plasma, rear-projection with various technologies. They all look just great in the store, but will the excitement wear off when they are set up in your living room?

    Worse, it’s not as if you can just casually bring them back to the dealer. Even the flat-panel models, which may be a couple of inches thick, will usually weigh over 100 pounds. You want to make your first decision the right one, since you’ll probably be living with the fruits of your shopping efforts for years. What to do?

    When it comes to looks, the flat panel models seem best. Imagine how your living room or bedroom would look when you hang one of these puppies on your wall? The choice is between LCD and plasma. These days, plasma is more cost-effective for screen sizes of 42 inches and above. That may change in time, as electronics makers find ways to build bigger LCD panels for less money. In theory at least, the plasma is supposed to be better, with darker blacks and better handling of action sequences. But LCD is getting better and it may not be long before the quality differences aren’t as significant.

    Plasma has a bad rap for using lots of power and being vulnerable to screen burn in. But both shortcomings are well-controlled in the better quality products. They use less juice from your power outlet, and there are electronic protections against the after images that may be caused by displaying fixed images on the screen, such as the black borders of a standard definition broadcast. One such technique is pixel shifting, in which the image moves back and forth in a tiny, barely noticeable increment, so it’s not noticed. The longevity of today’s panels has been improved, and most advertise a usable life of 60,000 hours, which means you can watch TV for many hours each day and get years of great performance.

    I wouldn’t dismiss rear-projection, however. The best sets are known as “microdisplay,” because they use such technologies as DLP and LCD. Forget the acronyms. What you care about is the quality of the picture. Bear in mind, though, that while you can save hundreds on the initial purchase, expect to shell out from $250 to $300 for a replacement lamp each 4,000 to 8,000 hours of use. After a few years, the price difference between projection and direct view, meaning those flat panels, may be sharply reduced. Besides, plasma usually looks better in well-lit room.

    Just remember when you start your shopping trip that picture quality is usually exaggerated in the stores. Images that look simply wonderful in those surroundings may overpower you at home. There is usually a Standard or Normal mode, however, that’ll deliver a picture that you can live with on an extended basis. Just a word to the wise.


    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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