• Newsletter Issue #337

    May 15th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    They say that one out of three ain’t bad, but it got a little hairy when scheduling our May 11th episode. We had booked Washington Post columnist Rob Pegoraro, but then he had to cancel at the last minute because of an unexpected deadline. Newspaper people face that from time to time. No problem, I thought, so I called upon author Kirk McElhearn to give us an update about Mac security, and promptly changed our posted schedule.

    However, two times were certainly not a charm this time out, because Kirk had to cancel because of a family crisis. At this point, pondering how I would fill a 30-minute hole on the program, I caught up with TidBITs publisher Adam Engst online. He hadn’t been on the show in a while, and was delighted to catch up with me. So, we were all set.

    Also joining us that night: Adam Greenfield, author of the provocative new book, “Everywhere: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing.” Will such things as RFID allow the authorities to know a little too much about your personal lives? That’s an ongoing question that we only started to answer on the show. We also paid a visit to “The David Biedny Zone,” where our favorite commentator delivered his views on the latest goings on at Apple, those “greedy” music companies and the recent bankruptcy of SGI.

    For May 18th, we have The Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro on tap; definitely, this time, plus some surprises, so stay tuned.

    As to our other show, “The Paracast,” on May 16th, we’re featuring a special online conference with nuclear physicist and UFO researcher Stanton T. Friedman and UFO Magazine publisher William Birnes. This is one show you won’t want to miss.

    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.

    FIRST LOOK: 17-INCH MACBOOK PRO

    To be perfectly honest, I was very impressed with the first iteration of the MacBook Pro, but something was missing. No, not dual-layer DVD burning or FireWire 800, though I use the latter on my desktop Mac. What I wanted was a bigger screen, a 17-inch version. Well, it took nearly four months for Apple to deliver the goods, which is when I decided I needed to spend an extended amount of face time with the new product.

    Although having a note-book computer around is a necessity around here, it took me years to become accustomed to working on a laptop keyboard and trackpad. You cannot imagine how often I’d travel with a standard keyboard and mouse, because I found it extremely uncomfortable without these lifelines. But one day, I awoke and realized that something had changed. I had begun to type on my PowerBook’s keyboard without feeling that I would suffer from the experience. In fact, my desktop keyboard, a Logitech S530, has a short-travel and light touch akin to the best note-book keyboards, so I’ve been assimilated, I suppose.

    So I decided to at first ignore the performance aspects of the largest MacBook Pro and see just how closely it resembled my two-year-old 17-inch PowerBook G4. Talk about blinking twice!

    Dimensions are quite similar, as is the weight, and you wouldn’t notice the difference unless you took a tape measure and a scale to get the exact specifications. What surprised me, after removing the 17-inch MacBook Pro from its ultra slim shipping box is how closely it resembles the previous model. You really have to look closely to see the differences, such as the IR sensor at the front of the unit and the iSight camera above the display. And, of course, the remote control.

    While I realize some thought Apple was going to overhaul its form factors when moving to Intel, from a psychological standpoint, keeping things nearly the same makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it denotes a smooth transition. It’s just a different processor and a few other changed components, folks. The essentials are the same.

    Before setting up the new MacBook Pro, I grabbed a tiny Philips screwdriver and prepared for a quick memory upgrade, to the maximum of 2GB. This model ships with a single module, with 1GB, and having two of the same capacity supposedly speeds up performance because of dual-channeling. The rest of the specs include a 2.16 Intel Core Duo processor, an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics chip with 256MB of memory, a 120GB Serial ATA hard drive, an 8x dual-layer SuperDrive and, yes, even FireWire 800; the latter two were missing from the original MacBook Pro. But I’ll leave it to other product testers to deliver precise benchmarks to see how the 17-inch model benefits from all this gear.

    Memory installation is no different from the previous PowerBook. As I said, a relatively seamless transition. You pop out the battery at the bottom of the unit, and remove several small screws sealing the memory slot cover. The new memory chip is easily put into position, and after closing everything up, I attached the MacBook Pro to the power cord, connected my external speakers and the Ethernet cable, and powered it up. I then started my old PowerBook in FireWire Target mode, and attached a FireWire cable between the two note-books, so I could transfer all my old stuff.

    After hearing about the ultra-fast boot times, you will probably be disappointed at the progress of the initial startup, which seems to proceed quite slowly. This is nothing to be concerned about; I’ve seen it on other MacIntels. It takes a few minutes to get to the Setup Assistant, and the startup process is very, very smart. For example, the other day a client hooked up an old keyboard and mouse to a spanking new Mac mini with Core Duo processor, and he saw an icon indicating some problem with the mouse. Replacing both input devices resulted in the successful conclusion of the startup process.

    In case you’re wondering, boot speed will improve with each successive startup and now it is, for me, a little over 30 seconds, including sufficient time to launch a startup application or two.

    For me, things proceeded without a hitch. In fact, I opted not to baby-sit the migration process. As nearly 28GB of stuff was being transferred to the MacBook Pro, Mrs. Steinberg and I went out for a long lunch. I trusted Apple to do the right thing, and when I returned, the unit was in sleep mode, but the files had evidently been transferred, since there was a screen prompt saying I could safely remove the FireWire cable, which I did after shutting down the PowerBook.

    Another noticeable change from my 1.5GHz PowerBook is the screen real estate. Last fall, in an apparent desperate bid to get a quick PowerBook update out, the 17-inch model’s native resolution increased from 1440×900 to 1680×1050. That way more pixels are packed into the same area, which means you get the illusion of more space with which to work. As a practical matter, if you didn’t need reading glasses before, get set to acquire a set.

    At the same time, the MacBook Pro’s screen is razor sharp and is said to be about a third brighter than the model it replaced. While I didn’t take the time to measure this claim, the image didn’t wash out near as much in bright sunlight.

    My surface impressions, after a full day with the 17-inch MacBook Pro is that it smokes the PowerBook with native applications. Performance with Microsoft Office is somewhat languid, but not terribly different perceptually. Safari, however, soars to unexpected heights. I also installed the latest beta of Parallels Workstation and then a copy of Windows XP Pro. Everything ran reasonably well, except for a few minor sound glitches. But I’ll pursue that once Parallels is closer to its final release, but right now it is shaping up as the best way to run Windows on a MacIntel, unless playing 3D games is on your agenda.

    I did, however, run into a couple of Rosetta glitches, which I was able to duplicate on that Mac mini, but you won’t care if you’re not an AOL member. Whenever I tried to run the installer for the latest AOL software for the Mac, it would crash. I finally resorted to copying the application direct from an older Mac. Initial launch took many minutes before it rebuilt its database files and hit the sign-in screen. After that, performance was acceptably quick. Again, this is nothing to be alarmed about, but it will try your patience.

    In any case, my initial encounter with the largest MacBook Pro is that it doesn’t seem to have any of the defects reported in the previous model. There was no perceptible processor noise or any other untoward sounds. It got warm, but not too warm for laptop use, and I did notice that the audio system is far superior to the previous model. It plays much louder, and there’s even the semblance of bass now.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the nooks and crannies of the latest member of the MacBook Pro family, and I’ll be ever optimistic that my initial positive experiences won’t change.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: FIRST LOOK: A CHEAP WIDESCREEN PLASMA TV

    Do you remember when a DVD player cost upwards of $500? The first one I owned, in fact, was $799, and today’s $50 version exceeds it in most respects, except perhaps for expected longevity. When the first plasma TVs hit the stores, I thought I had entered my dream science fiction world. This was the sort of TV that graced the living rooms of future homes, and now I could buy one; that is, if I could afford $15,000 for the privilege.

    That wasn’t so many years ago, and, despite wonderful pictures, with rich colors and deep blacks, those first plasma sets weren’t perfect. They were power hungry, prone to screen burn-in and longevity was one big question mark. Well, it didn’t take the consumer electronics companies long to figure out how to build them better and cheaper, and today you an almost afford one of these wonderful devices.

    Which leads me to my quest to examine a plasma TV that isn’t so far out of the range of affordability that many of you can actually buy one; assuming you have a reasonable amount of spare cash in the bank or a sufficiently high limit on your credit card. Imagine my surprise to find just such a beast at a local Sam’s Club. The product in question, a VIZIO P50HDM, their top-of-the-line 50-inch model, was selling for $2,299.99. VIZIO? You probably never heard of them, but the products from this new, California-based company have been getting high marks in magazines catering to devoted videophiles. Although it’s often hard to tell in a warehouse type of store, the picture on display looked real good, so I contacted VIZIO and asked them to send me one to review. VIZIO, by the way, sells its products strictly to the warehouse outlets and online, so you won’t find one at your neighborhood Best Buy or Circuit City.

    Not one week later, it showed up at my doorstep, literally, because the truck driver would only consent to leaving it in the garage. He was not prepared to bring it into our living room. Regardless, with a little extra muscle provided by a neighbor, we had it set up on a floor stand in just a few minutes and ready for hookup. It is a heavy beast, weighing 137 pounds complete with its tabletop stand, but it seems solidly built and is as visually attractive as far more expensive units, with a shiny black case, and a silver enclosure at the base for the built-in speakers.

    It has all the proper accouterments of a quality plasma TV, including a claimed lifetime of 60,000 hours for the panel, a universal remote, a pair of HDMI inputs, a pair of component inputs, and a wide range of video processing features, including Faroudja, which is cherished by perfectionists. So what’s missing? On the surface, just the tuner. Yes, this is an HD monitor, and it does not include a standard or high definition tuner, nor a slot for CableCard. VIZIO does sell an optional tuner if you need one, but if you use a set top box from your cable or satellite provider, it’s not necessary.

    After spending a few minutes hooking up the cables, I turned on the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD set top box provided by Cox, and then the TV and just spent a few minutes roaming through the channels to get an idea how the VIZIO handled standard and high definition fare. Out of the box, the picture is set in the Vivid mode, which, while looking spectacular in a store environment, is much too bright and sharp for your home. The onscreen menu gave me a Movie option that was much more subdued, but still visually stunning.

    As I write this, the VIZIO is undergoing its initial break-in period, and I can already see where the texture of flesh tones has shown gradual improvement. I am running my standard TV diet, which includes cable news, high definition network shows and DVDs. Once 100 hours have passed, I’ll consider my options for calibrating the set, but right now, it seems to work well enough left in the Movie setting, and that is just amazing.

    Can you get the perfect 50-inch HDTV for less than $2,300? Well, right now, the apparent defects are minor and few and far between, and it appears you give up very little to save all that money. I’m extremely impressed, and I’ll be updating this review once I have a chance to give the unit an extended workout, and make an attempt at calibration to see if a stellar picture can be made any better.

    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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