• Newsletter Issue #340

    June 5th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    On June 1st, we had another all-star lineup on the show. Here’s what I mean: One of the most perplexing issues facing serious Mac OS X users is handling fonts. If you thought they were complicated in the Classic Mac OS, multiply the number of Fonts folders by three, four or five, and you’ll get an idea how confusing things might be. Well, we wanted some expert views on the subject, and so we called upon veteran author Sharon Aker, who helped put the entire Mac OS X font mess into perspective.

    Also featured was a return visit from Robert Pritchett, publisher of the online journal, MacCompanion, who delivered the latest information on today’s top issues in the Apple universe. In addition, Texas-based Mac user group executive and Mac Help Desk owner Dru Richman joined us to talk about what user groups are doing to remain relevant, and about the major support issues faced by his company.

    For June 8th, noted desktop publishing guru and author Galen Gruman will be on hand to tell you why his recent review of QuarkXPress 7 wasn’t terribly favorable. The rest of the guest list will be announced shortly.

    Now about our other show, The Paracast, on June 6th, David Biedny and I will talk to Dr. Travis S. Taylor, a coauthor of the provocative new book, Planetary Defense A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion. Are we ready to deal with the threat of a new kind of war in the 21st century? Whether you believe we are being visited by aliens piloting UFOs or not, this is one subject we cannot ignore! We’ll also have a return visit from world-famous UFO and paranormal author Brad Steiger, who will reveal legends of “The Philadelphia Experiment.”

    And donâ’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 COMING WINDOWS VISTA TRAIN WRECK

    It is easy for Mac users to declare anything that emerges from the software mines at Microsoft to be junk, a poor imitation of the Mac OS. This is a knee-jerk reaction, to be sure, although a lot of it seems to be based on fact. At the same time, the largest software developer has thousands and thousands of talented, dedicated people, and many are working overtime to make Windows Vista as good as possible.

    So what has gone wrong? It isn’t the fact that Vista is woefully late or that some highly-touted features, such as the new file system, have been shed along the way. If you recall the history of Mac OS X, in fact, you’ll see that it debuted at least a couple of years after it was promised, although Apple has made up for that with timely upgrades, at least so far.

    Whether it’s bad management, or the consequences of committee-based design, doesn’t matter. If you look over many of the reports emerging so far about the widely-released Beta 2 version of Vista, you can see where there may indeed be a train wreck in the making, a complex, bloated operating system with huge resource requirements and evidence of some severely wrong-headed design decisions. Just imagine a movie where the screenplay falls apart and the budget careens out of control, and you’ll have an inkling where things may be headed.

    The best way to get a handle on this tragedy of Biblical proportions is to first examine all the promotional material Microsoft has posted on the subject. Then start looking over the comments from tech pundits who have sacrificed the stability of their computers to put Beta 2 through its paces and you’ll understand my concerns. Now before you simply applaud this development as simply good news for Mac users, hear me out.

    You see, more than 90% of the computer desktops around the world use Windows. If Vista is seriously flawed, any company that adopts it may be forced to spend a lot of extra money for IT support, and they are probably already over-extended due to the serious security lapses of earlier Windows versions. And who pays these added expenses? Why their customers: You and I. Of course, I suspect a lot of these companies won’t be upgrading right away, until a few service packs are out, but those who buy new PCs in 2007 are going to get some version of Vista preloaded.

    Then the fun begins!

    Rather than depend on a Mac user’s opinions of Vista, I suggest you read “Visual Tour: 20 Things You Won’t Like About Windows Vista” from Scott Finnie, Computerworld’s online editor. These aren’t the rantings of an anti-Microsoft zealot, but a careful, studied analysis of some of Vista’s most serious shortcomings.

    While I’m sure Microsoft went into the project with the best of intentions, things have clearly gotten out of hand. Mac OS X Tiger can, for example, reveal just about all of its graphic goodies on last year’s Mac mini with 32MB of graphics memory. Vista requires 128MB to display its advanced Aero Glass interface. Millions upon millions of today’s Windows computers, even models in the middle of a manufacturer’s lineup, won’t deliver the goods. And don’t get me started on its RAM and disk space needs.

    The interface appears to be a disaster in the making. The User Account feature, designed to shut out many features that might threaten Windows security, unless you enter an administrator’s password, forces you to undergo multiple steps to approve the appropriate permissions.

    With Mac OS X’s ease of networking tried and proven, Vista buries you with multiple control panels, wizards and other ill-begotten intrusions. At the end of the day, the file sharing process itself, according to Finnie, remains bug-ridden.

    Let me deliver just one more show-stopper before I close. Quoting Finnie, “OK, this is smart. Take a primary interface structure in use for more than 20 years and already known to hundreds of millions of computer users worldwide, and hide it from them. This appears to be a Microsoft-wide strategy, since Office 2007 doesn’t just hide the File, Edit, View and other menus — it removes them entirely from its three biggest applications. What, are they nuts?”

    I haven’t begun to analyze other reports that the Aero Glass interface may suck juice from note-book batteries, and so may make it unacceptable for road warriors.

    I pity the people who will have to train new Vista users, with all this junk to deal with. While I realize many of you wouldn’t mind if Microsoft fails, since it would appear to leave Apple with a clear path to gain lots of switchers. This may be especially true if Mac OS 10.5 Leopard is another compelling upgrade.

    However, competition spurs creativity. If Microsoft can clean out Vista’s worst interface offenses, and deliver a reasonably stable upgrade in 2007, the entire personal computing industry will benefit. If it does things better than Mac OS X, Apple will have a much stronger incentive to do improve its own operating system’s shortcomings. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: VIZIO P50 HDM WIDESCREEN 50-INCH PLASMA MONITOR
    Night Owl Rating: One OwlOne OwlOne OwlOne OwlOne Owl

    In my initial evaluation of this amazing product, I wondered how if it was possible to sell a high-quality plasma TV with a 50-inch widescreen for less than $2300. Since then, the price has gone down to less than $2,000, which is a major development in the consumer electronics industry. It means, for example, that such products have become almost affordable for many of you who once eschewed such gear as expensive toys for the rich, the famous and the debt-ridden.

    One way that VIZIO keeps the price down is to offer a monitor; there is no tuner of any kind. Other than prerecorded matter from your DVD or videotape deck, you need a cable or satellite box, or an optional tuner. Since most of you receive your signals from the first of second of these signal sources, there’s no sense paying extra for electronics you won’t need.

    When I interviewed a VIZIO executive for a recent episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I was assured they used the finest parts in assembling their products. This may be a bit of corporate spin, but it’s also true the specs are first-rate, comparable to plasma sets that cost one to two thousand dollars more.

    Here are some of the essentials: 1366 x 768 native resolution, 10,000:1 max contrast ratio, capable of displaying 6,144 shades of gray in 231 billion colors, Faroudja Motion Adaptive de-interlacer, plus lots of digital processing doodads designed to enhance picture quality. The panel is rated at 60,000 hours, which means you can play it for years before picture quality suffers. If you want any additional information, click here to go to VIZIO’s site.

    Now I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so I did not attempt to verify these claims, which are typical for the industry. Instead, I carefully combed reviews that actually measured performance of the P50 HDM, just to see what I needed to do in order to get the best possible picture. I flirted with the possibility of having professional calibration, a step that requires going into the service menu and performing any number of adjustments to make the picture as perfect as possible. This step can cost you an extra $250 to $500. At the same time, only a few percent of you will ever take this route, and the figures will vanish into near-insignificance for anyone buying a budget-priced TV.

    More to the point, however, the measurements I’ve seen so far show that these units are adjusted pretty close to the mark at the factory, and any improvements may well be extremely minor. They may even be lost among the technical variations among analog, digital and digital high definition broadcasts. For now, I’m evaluating the set precisely as you would, based on the out-of-the-box picture, after the typical 100 hours break-in period. I might, however, set up one of those home theater calibration DVDs, and see if I can improve the picture, and if I do, I’ll post a follow-up.

    As with most sets these days, the VIZIO comes with a Universal remote capable of learning the codes of DVD players, home theater systems, set top boxes and VCRs. The controls are simple, lacking such frills as backlighting and pull-out covers that hide additional buttons.

    Visually, the set is attractive and doesn’t look cheap. The panel is surrounded with polished black, and the stereo speakers beneath are immersed within a silver gray segment of the case. Other than a light to indicate the set is on, there are no indicators or controls on the front. The clever designers at VIZIO placed the set’s controls at the right side. There’s an extensive range of input choices, including two HDMI and two component video. Unlike other sets of this sort, they are at the bottom rear, and, like a typical Windows PC, there’s a color-coded label to tell you what is what. You don’t even need to break out the manual, as a simple set-up guide shows you how to connect things properly.

    Picture adjustments are menu-driven and relatively basic. There are four presets, labeled Vivid, Movie, Sport and Game, each optimized in the fashion indicated by the title. A fifth adjustment, labeled User, can include stored settings for each input source. After looking over the standard configurations, I opted for Movie, which reduces picture brightness and contrast beyond their usual extreme levels. It proved a worthy compromise for cable news, network dramas, movies and DVD.

    I connected the set to a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR, which has an HDMI port for real high definition. The local Cox Communications outlet offers at least 16 HD stations, and promises more as cable networks expand their offerings. To match the P50 HDM’s native resolution, I configured the output setting at 720p.

    Unlike projection TV, a good plasma has a wide field of vision, very much in the range of a direct-view CRT TV. So you don’t have to look straight on for a good picture. It looks great even from the corners of the room, and I mean bright, sharp, with brilliant colors and an exceptional depth. Even standard definition fare from legacy analog channels on the local cable service looked pretty good. But with HD programming, the picture is extraordinary. Yes, you’ll even see the wrinkles and even the tiny blemishes on the faces of your favorite performers, which only goes to show that they are not as perfect as they want us to believe.

    I rather suspect that networks are going to probably work on lighting and makeup to address such matters.

    If there are any picture defects with the VIZIO, they aren’t significant and difficult to see unless you look real close and are very, very picky. A few reports claim that noise from the cooling fans is excessive, but they were virtually silent on my test unit, even when I listed real carefully. The manufacturer offers a one-year warranty with in-home service, so they are prepared to address any issues you might have. You can also order the typical extended warranty policies and accessories from VIZIO’s site.

    At two grand, the VIZIO P50 HDM is an absolute bargain. Even better, it is fully competitive with any plasma TV I know about. If you’re in the market to enter the world of high definition, take a trip to your nearest Costco or Sam’s Club discount store or check the company’s Web site. Prepare to be as amazed as I am about this superb product!

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech 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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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #340”

    1. Ramayya says:

      Vista Train Wreck

      Bill Gates and Steve Balmer at Microsoft have either not heard or read “The Mythical Man Month� by Fred Brooks, or forgotten the lessons that IBM had learned a while back while developing OS/360.

      Here is the link to Wikipedia’s article on the book: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month.

    2. Poopmaster says:

      Microsoft is beholden to backwards compatibility, which is nothing more than being at the mercy of a tech lynch mob. That is why virtualization is the golden ticket for Apple. Virtualization allows people to run all their old stuff on new hardware and a new OS without the need for previous versions of either and run it just uncomfortably enough to cajole people into upgrading that old software.

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