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Newsletter Issue #376

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

From time to time, some of you ask if we’ll ever take phone calls live on the air. It’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t quite work in the present setup. You see, The Tech Night Owl LIVE is a mixture of live and recorded content. Because of our deal with KLAV-AM in Las Vegas, The Paracast has to be delivered as an audio file two days ahead of the actual broadcast.

Things will change in the near future, though. Both shows will become all or mostly live, and we already have the equipment at hand to take phone calls either through a standard digital interface, or with Skype. Either way, we’ll handle phone calls in the same fashion as other talk shows and that’s going to be an awful lot of fun when it happens. So stay tuned for the latest updates.

On last week’s all-star episode, author and columnist Andy Ihnatko took the stage, as he regaled us with his reactions to the statement from Steve Jobs that he hopes and wishes the music companies would let him remove DRM from iTunes downloads. Andy also gave his unvarnished review of Windows Vista, and his fearless predictions as to who will win Oscars this year.

We also presented some fascinating comments about the future of the Mac from author Ted Landau. What’s more, Ted delivered his early reactions to Apple’s new high-speed AirPort Extreme.

In addition, with Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit celebrating its 10th anniversary, marketing manager Amanda Lefebvre talked about the history of her division and revealed some of the plans for the next Mac version of Office, known as Office 2008. No, she didn’t provide any new details on the decision to remove support for Visual Basic in the new version, but you have to expect that.

On Sunday night’s episode of The Paracast, David and I interviewed Mark Allin, one of the three owners of AboveTopSecret.com, the number one “Alternative Topic” discussion site on the World Wide Web. Mark has been interested in and studying conspiracy theory for over 20 years, with a focus on the UFO Phenomena and the apparent “Disinformation Campaigns” carried out by unseen but ever-present entities with questionable motives.

We also presented our favorite conspiracy theory expert Kenn Thomas, publisher of Steamshovel Press, who talked about the latest issues from the fascinating world of parapolitics. Kenn included an update on the latest 9/11 conspiracy talk.

THE LEOPARD REPORT: SHOULD YOU PUT OFF BUYING A NEW MAC?

One thing is certain: Practically nobody outside Apple really knows when Leopard will be released. Even there, I suspect the shipping dates are still fluid, depending on how quickly everything comes together. Sure, you’ll hear lots and lots of speculation, but that doesn’t count for much when it comes to predicting what Apple is up to.

Certainly, Apple would probably like to get Leopard out as quickly as possible, and still get in all the planned features and deliver a secure, robust, reliable product. Their developers surely have all sorts of internal timetables as to when things need to be completed to make their deadlines. It’s very likely that some features — ones you don’t know about yet — may even have to be discarded to make it to the finish line without undue delays. You see, unlike certain other software companies you and I know about, Apple takes its schedules and promises seriously.

Now that ought to be it, except that some folks out there are suggesting that you should put off buying a new Mac until Leopard is out. Why? Well, you won’t have to pay for the upgrade, since it’ll come free with Macs that ship shortly after Leopard is released — or should, because a new product may sit in a box for a few weeks or months before it’s actually sold.

In that case, though, it’s likely Apple will have some sort of cheap upgrade program for such people, so you won’t be caught short because your new Mac shipped too soon to make the cut.

I suppose it makes sense to a point. After all, why pay $129 extra — or whatever Apple is going to charge for the upgrade kit — if you can get it free, preloaded on your new Mac? Surely everyone wants to save money, although I gather a few of our readers consider anyone who makes this argument to be cheap. My recent article complaining about the wisdom of the $29.99 fee for QuickTime Pro brought such reactions out of the woodwork. Well, maybe I am cheap, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. What’s wrong with wanting the best value for one’s hard-earned dollars?

In any case, I am not going to argue in favor of waiting for Leopard before you buy a new Mac. No, it’s not because I want Apple to earn that profit now. It really has nothing to do with it. Actually, it’s a personal decision, which is what you require now in the way of personal computing.

If you have a fairly old Mac, it’s quite possible that it won’t even run Leopard. Apple hasn’t released any official system requirements, but there are credible rumors that the G3 will be out of the picture. Since some of those G3s are less than five years old at this point, that may seem a bit much, but try to run Windows Vista with any reasonable amount of performance — forget about the new Aero 3D interface — on any PC box older than a year, and you’ll see what I mean.

So it may come down to having to buy a new Mac anyway. But it’s not just a matter of having faster processors and more powerful graphics. If you use applications at your job that tax the your hardware with lengthy rendering processes, you just become more productive, which means you can make more money for your business and hopefully for yourself.

That is a terrific argument in favor of buying a new Mac now and retiring the old computer, or passing it on to a child or parent.

Once you’ve made that decision, however, it’s all a matter of timing. If you wait for Leopard to be preloaded on your new Mac, you don’t have to endure an operating system upgrade. I suppose if you’re new to the Mac, and your experience is largely Windows-based, you’d look with dread upon such a process. For Vista, despite all the time Microsoft has had to work on development, it’s still unpredictable. Sometimes you succeed in upgrading from an older version of Windows and sometimes you have to wipe everything clean and start again from scratch.

However, I’ve done system installations on Macs for years. I won’t say the process is perfect every single time, but no Mac OS X installation has ever failed for me. Not a one, and that includes some of the earlier versions, where the “Archive & Install” option hadn’t been developed yet.

Yes, there are a a few precautions you should take about making sure your software is up to date, that peripheral drivers are compatible and and the removal of system-enhancement “toys” first just to be sure everything is on the up and up.

But I would expect the Leopard upgrade to run almost painlessly for most of you on any supported Mac. This means that it really isn’t essential for you to wait for Leopard ‘s release if the Mac you want and need is available right now.

Of course there’s another consideration, which is what new Macs Apple might have in the pipeline over the next few months. Surely there will be a version of the Mac Pro with quad-core processors, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that in the next few weeks. Beyond that, the second half of the year is when those new super-fast Intel processors, the ones known as Penryn, are due. They promise to boost performance to previously unheard of levels, while at the same time being super efficient at power managment.

Then again, there will always be speedier processors on the horizon, and there will no doubt be a Mac OS 10.6, with an appropriately feline code-name two years hence. So you could always wait and hope to catch the rainbow someday.

But that’s not the way I prefer to live. I’d rather look at my present needs and what I expect to require in the near-term and react accordingly, assuming the bank account allows it. I suggest you consider the same approach, and don’t worry about the Leopard upgrade. When it’s here, you’ll be able to get it running on your new Mac without a lot of aggravation. Microsoft will be jealous, no doubt, but that’s too bad.

SO WHO NEEDS TIVO ANYWAY?

When it comes to digital video recorders, a TiVO is supposed to be the Apple Macintosh compared to the Microsoft Windows of every other DVR on the market. Sure, they get the job done, which is to record your favorite TV shows onto a hard drive in a fashion similar to the videotape deck of old.

What TiVO brings to the equation is an easy-to-use interface with lots and lots of flexibility, such as being able to schedule an entire season’s worth of new shows with a couple of clicks. You can also easily skip through commercials and get to the meat of the show, or what there is of the latter after all those ads are bypassed. Figure about 42 or 43 minutes for an hour of, say, “24.”

However, TiVO, as a company, has never been profitable. Its highly-touted deal with DirecTV, for example, has been reduced to maintenance mode, more or less. If you want a full-fledged TiVO, you have to buy it retail, and pay a monthly fee to keep the service running. A standard one-year contract, for example, is $19.95.

Take the new, high-definition variant, the $799.99 Series3. It has garnered excellent reviews, but how many of you want to pay that much for a device similar to one that you can rent for roughly $10 per month from your local cable TV company. Sure, the Motorola or Scientific-Atlanta set top box may not have the features, flexibility, or reliability of a genuine TiVO, but are you really getting so much more for that extra investment?

I suppose if you’re a true TV addict, with an elaborately expensive home theater system and flat-panel HDTV, you might be willing to spend the extra cash. But most of us are willing to settle for second-best or third-best, depending on your point of view.

That said, the Scientific-Atlanta 8300HD (or the near-identical all-digital version, the 8240HD), are perfectly capable of doing must of the things TiVO does, with great picture quality and decent performance. You can, for example, select the first-run episodes of your favorite series in a single operation. There are various and sundry search alternatives, and the interface is clean and usable.

I have used a Scientific-Atlanta for nearly 18 months now, although I’ve had a couple of units go bad. I suppose that’s one of the sacrifices one makes for price. But since it’s rented, Cox is happy to come over and replace it at no cost. Another problem is that it doesn’t clearly separate the new shows from the repeats. I don’t know if that’s Cox’s fault or the manufacturer, although it would be nice to see it addressed.

However, this doesn’t mean there will be no TiVO in my home, be it the real box or just the interface. You see, Cox is among those cable companies making a deal for TiVO software. I suppose that might be a defensive reaction to the successful lawsuit TiVO waged against Echostar, owner of Dish Network, over patent infringement.

Regardless, Cox is supposed to phase in the TiVO option some time this year, and I look forward to paying a few dollars more to try it out. I might come to prefer it, and it might be TiVO’s only means of salvation. If it can’t sustain these contracts, and protect its patent, it may not survive. And, even though I use an imitation TiVO now, I would be sad to see TiVO go.

THE FINAL WORD

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