• Newsletter Issue #479

    February 1st, 2009


    In recent months, Apple has taken great strides in improving gaming performance on even low-cost Mac note-books, with the introduction of new NVIDIA chipsets to replace Intel integrated graphics. In fact, this past week, the $999 white MacBook got a similar upgrade, a silent change, which will make huge differences if you are involved at least in casual gaming.

    So on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we checked out some of the latest Mac news and views, including a gaming update, with Macworld’s Peter Cohen, who inhabits the magazine’s Game Room. During this discussion, Peter mentioned the near-avalanche of game software releases on the iPhone, and the less-active situation on the Mac. But he also remains eternally optimistic about that state of affairs.

    On the security front, you heard from David Setzer, CEO of Mailprotector, on the boom in Cybercrime. David delivered a compelling historical background about the growth of malware on the Internet and suggested steps you can take — and that goes for Mac users too — to protect yourself from online criminals. In addition, Mac columnist Kirk McElhearn reported on the discovery of two Mac Trojan Horse outbreaks in recent weeks. Is this just the beginning of the arrival of malware on our favorite computing platform, or just one of those occasional occurrences that doesn’t spread beyond a small number of infected users that were fooled into installing something they should have avoided?

    And can a third-party solution to convert a MacBook Pro with a glossy screen to matte satisfy Macworld’s Rob Griffiths? You’ll find out the answers and lots more on this week’s show.

    On The Paracast this week, explore the prospects for life on Mars in the past, present and future. Accompany us on our fascinating journey with Robert Zubrin, author of such books as “How to Live on Mars,”and scientific investigator Mac Tonnies.

    Now available! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders on The Paracast home page, where you’ll find a convenient pop-up menu so you can begin the ordering process. They come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” You can get them for $14.95, each, plus shipping and are available in most popular sizes.


    You have to wonder just what Bill Gates is thinking, upon learning that the company he co-founded is laying off 5,000 workers. This is the very first time Microsoft has had to resort to this unfortunate practice in its 34 years, and the situation may actually get worse before it gets better.

    As you might expect, CEO Steve Ballmer and his minions will engaged in whatever sort of spin control they can muster. It’s the fault of the economy. The PC market has suffered seriously as a result, but things will eventually get better.

    Well, I’d never credit Ballmer with a healthy dose of reality. Indeed, he poo-poohed the possibility that the iPhone would succeed, and he’d rather not admit that Macs are gaining in market share while PC sales have flattened and begun a decline.

    A new development out of left field that might also hurt Microsoft big time is the arrival of those ultra-cheap note-books known as netbooks, and that’s true before we know whether Apple is going to enter that product segment.

    While I realize many of you haven’t been paying attention, the netbook comes close in concept to Apple’s late and sometimes lamented e-book 300. It’s basically a tiny note-book, with a small screen, crowded keyboard, and low-power chips. In fact, they are so low-powered that they are totally inadequate for running Windows Vista in any acceptable fashion. Of course, that’s also true for most PCs more than a couple of years old, and even recent entry-level models can only run the basic version of Vista with anything close to decent performance.

    But a netbook is not crafted to provide a cutting-edge computing experience. For many, it’s a cheap second computer that can be used to check email, spend a little time online and perhaps perform some other basic tasks, such as word processing. The latter would largely be confined to applications other than Word, which is a notorious resource hog.

    Indeed, some netbooks actually ship with Linux preloaded. Using one of the popular graphical user interfaces, Linux can provide a user environment that sort of resembles Windows. There are certainly readily available applications for email and browsing, such as Mozilla’s Thunderbird and Firefox. In fact, these apps look and feel much the same as the versions designed for the Mac OS and Windows, so you can work within a fairly familiar setting.

    When it comes to an office-style suite, you have alternatives, such as OpenOffice, so you don’t have to feel somehow neglected. Indeed, these programs can usually read Microsoft Office documents with fairly decent fidelity.

    What more can you ask?

    As far as Microsoft is concerned, it’s a disaster, because all this software is free. Even if performance wasn’t a factor, the cost of the Microsoft OEM license would mean that these netbooks would be more expensive — perhaps a lot more depending on the software that’s bundled with the product.

    Where any Microsoft products are offered, they’d tend to be older versions of Windows, though I wonder how they’d be licensed, since, other than XP, Microsoft isn’t selling them anymore.

    Regardless, most sales of netbooks these days are not apt to take away market share from Apple, but to a large extent from Microsoft. That assumes, of course, that the manufacturer doesn’t have a blanket contract with them that requires a Windows license for every unit sold. Are they still getting away with that scheme?

    Even if they derived some income from the sale of these products, you can bet that Windows 7 won’t run on a netbook either. In fact, whenever I see that version number, I begin to recall the arrival early in the last decade of System 7 on the Mac. At the time, it was regarded as bloated, buggy and slow. Where a lower cost Mac would run its predecessor, System 6, pretty well, System 7 was akin to trudging in quicksand.

    In a sense, it’s similar, at least on a low-cost PC, to comparing Windows Vista with Windows XP. The former is usually a slug, and that contrast extends itself to faster hardware too.

    To get back on point, though, the growth of free, open source software continues to be Microsoft’s worse nightmare. You can’t argue with free, and it’s hard to market against the concept except with features, performance and, of course, security; the latter, of course, has traditionally been a serious failing with Microsoft, though they are doing better these days.

    Now I’m not about to suggest that Linux stands a whole lot of a chance to become a major player in the desktop operating system market except in carefully-restricted settings. Sure, Linux is a standard in the server marketplace. Indeed, our Web server runs on CentOS, a derivation that’s the free alternative to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

    However, I wouldn’t recommend it to most of you. Even though we use a graphical application, Parallels Plesk Control Panel, to handle site management, I have to make fairly regular visits to the command line to perform critical functions. That particular universe harkens back to the early 1980s, and it’s not something the regular Mac user wants to confront.

    When carefully configured, however, with basic applications preloaded, a netbook with Linux will operate quite efficiently. Most of the people who buy these devices are not going to wander beyond the prebuilt structure, though I would hope the manufacturers would put up a few barriers to make it difficult to get into trouble.

    Within those constraints, the netbook can be a compelling and cheap alternative to a regular note-book. Apple’s current answer to the netbook — or at least that’s what they tell us — is the iPhone and the iPod touch. In both cases, customization is limited and there are also constraints when it comes to adding software and straying beyond the preset boundaries. In fact, you have to jailbreak an iPhone or iPod touch to open the fences.

    But whether it’s the growth of netbooks or mobile devices from Apple, Microsoft is finding itself more and more on the losing side of the battle. Turning the tide will be difficult, and it will, first of all, require Steve Ballmer and his crew to recognize that there is a problem. That indeed may be the hardest job of all.


    Just days ahead of the Super Bowl, the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports arrived with a cover story entitled “Best TVs,” in which they essentially updated previous articles on the subject of flat panel television.

    While I’m definitely not a fan of CR’s personal computer reviews, there’s lots of meat in their high definition TV ratings, and in some surprising ways.

    You see, for one thing, it’s nearly impossible to buy a bad product from any of the major manufacturers, including such low-cost vendors as VIZIO. Sure, there are differences, but when properly adjusted — and that’s often a question mark because most owners turn them on and never invoke the setup menus — the differences in picture quality tend to be subtle.

    Indeed, you’d probably have to put the sets side-by-side, making sure settings are similar, to detect differences. Most of the time, the variations will be in the reproduction of such things as flesh tones, green grass and blue skies. Even there, the variations from what is considered normal may be more appealing to you, such as deeper shades that may be artificial but pleasing.

    Key differences might come with such lesser fare as standard definition TV and DVD. Some makers apparently invest less in engineering and parts selection to deliver the goods in those areas. But if most of your video entertainment is confined to high definition or Blu-ray DVD, I suppose there’s little to be concerned about.

    In my not-so-humble opinion, I still believe that plasma TV is superior. Even though LCD is coming closer, plasma gives you a wider viewing angle, which is useful if you’re watching your set from a short distance, at an angle. In addition, plasma excels at reproducing deep blacks and shades of gray. If you’re a fan of sporting events or action movies, plasma also has the edge in presenting speedy action scenes, although power consumption can be noticeably higher.

    Of course, the big question, above all other considerations, is product reliability. When the majority of large screen sets were projection, there were frequent issues with the imaging engines, which might involve costly repairs if you didn’t have an extended warranty.

    According to CR, however, they have received reader surveys of 168,000 sets purchased since 2005. Of these, “the overall repair rate for those brands was 3 percent, with little difference between LCDs and plasmas.”

    They don’t say, however, whether most of the problems tend to occur during the initial new product limited warranty. This is an issue I often have with CR’s evaluations. Quite often significant information of this sort is lacking, although it may be a fairly critical factor if you want to make a decision whether you should buy an extended warranty. But with such a low percentage of problems, I’d be inclined to take my chances and live without.

    It will be interesting to see, though, whether these flat panel sets can withstand daily use after 10 or 15 years, typical of those old fashioned CRT sets. That will truly demonstrate if they can stand the test of time, though you probably will be ready for something new by then, assuming you can afford it, since technologies change so quickly.


    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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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #479”

    1. William Timberman says:

      What about DLP sets? I remember a couple of years back, you reviewed the one I own — the 50 inch Samsung that sat atop a silver column mounted on a triangular glass pedestal — and you liked it. I bought mine in January 2005, and have been very happy with it ever since. At the time, I thought it was superior to either plasma or LCD sets, and it was far cheaper than either. (I didn’t need, and still don’t, an absolutely flat TV.) My only reservation at the time was the conventional lightbulb used to provide the illumination. I wondered if I’d have to replace it every couple of years, but four years later, it’s still cranking out the candlepower. (Knock wood.)

      I’ve heard that the newer versions, in addition to being 1080p instead of 720p, are using LEDs as the light source, which should give them greater longevity.

      I’d be interested to hear what you think about the current models.

    2. Alfiejr says:

      10 or 15 years of use typical? huh? gradma’s TV, yeah ok. the rest of us? no … we had to get a new TV every 5 years at least because the picture quality kept improving noticeably.

      maybe until now. once you get a 1080p 120 hz HDTV, which will be pretty standard by next year of two, there really isn’t any room left for picture improvement that consumers will notice. all that will change is that the price will drop some each year – so you might upgrade to a larger screen size once. after that, why buy a new TV? then eventually you turn into grandpa too with a 10-20 year old HDTV. if the last that long …

      the TV makers are trying to sell new features – “smart” TV’s with built in computers and web services basically – to entice you to keep upgrading every few years. but you can buy a multi-function set top box – like TiVo, XBox, or AppleTV – much cheaper and get more features too. so i don’t see that strategy working. Sony has hit the wall already. their newest high-end TV’s have those bells and whistles. but no one is going to pay an extra $thousand for it.

    3. The rest of us? I have a Sony Trinitron that is over 20 years old and still sports an impressive picture. 🙂

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