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  • Newsletter Issue #522

    November 29th, 2009

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    One of our most commented and controversial articles in recent weeks covers the so-called Apple Tax and whether one exists or not. As usual with such matters, the best possible verdict is that it depends. But another issue arose, which is whether it makes sense to pay a bundle for a Mac Pro now that the latest iMac, the models configured with quad-core processors, is a better choice for most people who simply want the best possible performance for the money.

    That sort of matchup is not about the fact that the iMac equipped with the optional Intel quad-core i7 processor actually smokes the fastest 2009 Mac Pro in some benchmarks. You see, there will be a 2010 Mac Pro, no doubt sporting the next generation of Intel Xeons featuring six cores and even more. It’s really about expandability, and the Mac Pro provides the ultimate of choices for an Apple customer. On the iMac, you can replace memory easily, but there’s room for but a single hard drive, and replacing that drive and other components requires a far more involved effort, and you’ll probably want a lot of guidance if you dare.

    That takes us to last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths discussed the fate of the Mac Pro now that the quad-core iMac is as fast or faster in the magazine’s Speedmark 6 benchmark suite. He also discussed the latest virtual machine software for the Mac, and that is also the topic of one of the articles in this newsletter.

    VMWare’s Pat Lee returned to the show to introduce version 3.0 of VMWare Fusion, their latest Mac product. We’ll be featuring their main competitor, Parallels, in the near future, so you get both sides of the story.

    You’ll also heard from Opera’s personable Thomas Ford on the newest features for version 10 of their world-class browser, including Opera Unite!

    And Kyle Wiens from iFixit was on handle to discuss the results of his teardown of the latest Mac hardware, including the new iMac and MacBook. So if you do want to go beyond simple RAM upgrades, this is a segment you’ll want to hear.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, we explore the incredible mysteries of Shapeshifters, Skinwalkers, Dark Adepts and 2012 with Christopher O’Brien, author of “Stalking the Tricksters.”

    Coming in Future Episodes: The Paracast probes conspiracy theories, both paranormal and political. Stay tuned for the list of upcoming guests.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    THE MAC OS AND WINDOWS ARE NOT THE SAME!

    There is an unfortunate impression, no doubt one that Microsoft strives hard to convey, that the Mac OS and Windows are just two fairly comparable ways of doing the same thing, only the Mac OS is prettier. That may be why the arrival of the Aero eye candy on Windows Vista and 7 were both greeted with such enthusiasm by Windows fandom. After all, now they could claim to possess the same fancy visual effects offered on a Mac.

    Unfortunately imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it doesn’t mean that the knock off is anywhere near as good as the original, or even close. But this isn’t a Windows bashing session. It’s a reality session. You see, I’d very much like to see Windows compete in terms of quality with the Mac OS. Healthy competition is good for the soul, and especially for the customers. Unfortunately, here’s where Microsoft falls down on the job big time.

    You see, holding a vast majority of the operating system market doesn’t mean Microsoft builds the best product. If you used that logic, such as it is, McDonalds would have the finest food on the planet since it’s the most popular restaurant.

    Microsoft’s usual excuse when they deliver junk is to promise something akin to “don’t worry, we’ll get it right next year.” If that’s true, why did they release an inferior product in the first place? Why not wait until they were able to deliver the real thing? Do they truly expect customers to simply accept more mediocrity when there are better alternatives available?

    Certainly, that strategy has worked successfully up till now. Indeed, it’s been a resounding success and has helped keep Microsoft ahead of the pack when it comes to PC operating systems and software, although it’s been a partial or complete failure for them in other markets.

    But I’ll focus primarily on operating systems now, since I’ve had a decent amount of time to use both Snow Leopard and Windows 7. Indeed, when it comes to the latter, I’m surprised many of the tech pundits can’t seem to focus on the serious shortcomings. You wonder if they’re not paying attention or just sold out to the Redmond Gorilla.

    But I won’t attempt to evaluate their motives. I’ll leave that to the reader.

    Instead, let’s look at what is right and wrong about Windows 7. When it comes to the first, Microsoft was right on in attempting to come up with its faux Dock. However, the implementation, placing application icons in square boxes, is the cheap way out. It’s no better than all those launching docks available over the years for the Mac.

    However, the updated taskbar is part and parcel of what ails Microsoft when it comes to operating systems. They add features but don’t take the time to get the fit and finish right. So the taskbar upgrade seems tacked on rather than something that’s embedded into the system as a whole. Contrast that to the Mac OS X Dock, whatever you think about it, seems perfectly integrated into your desktop background.

    Returning to Windows it’s clear Microsoft has deep problems with how things are supposed to function, as if the steps involved to get from there to there are decided upon as an afterthought, not something carefully considered. Since Microsoft supposedly uses focus groups in developing user interfaces, you wonder why it has to take ten stops to accomplish a task, for example, when there ought to be a way to do it in five or less.

    Indeed, all they have to do is follow the directions on various setup routiness from software installations to networking on a Mac and see if they can’t do Apple one better. Or just match the basics since Microsoft seems so hell bent on imitating rather than innovating. It almost seems as if Microsoft can easily glom the surface details but lacks the ability to make new and even existing features work more efficiently.

    I can’t tell you how often you have to right-click something to get to a settings panel to perform some degree of configuration under Windows. For those who don’t use the Microsoft OS, yes there are Control Panels there too, with both a Classic and supposedly fancier Vista/7-inspired interface, but both options can prove to be either useful or infuriating depending on what you want to accomplish.

    When I tried to install drivers for my Xerox Phaser 8560DN solid ink printer, Snow Leopard recognized it out of the box. The only change came when, after configuring the printer, I soon saw a Software Update prompt listing an update to Xerox drivers. After the update, which did not require a restart or anything but clicking an OK button, nothing changed. The printer still worked, but I suppose the new drivers fixed something I haven’t discovered yet, or perhaps the changes involved support for a different Xerox product.

    Under Windows 7, you are confronted with three choices after downloading and proceeding through the installation of the recommended Xerox drivers from the company’s site. One is the Walk-Up, where you configure a setting on the printer’s internal display, which supposedly allows it to be recognized by Windows. But don’t bet on it. I had to go through door number three, which involved manually entering the printer’s network IP address, the one chosen for it by my Apple Time Capsule. I should remind myself to make that IP address static, so I don’t have to reconfigure the printer setup in Windows if the dynamic number ever changes.

    Even though I did install Apple’s Bonjour for Windows, the zero configuration network utility, it couldn’t find that printer, which is plugged into an Ethernet port. That might be a matter of the presence of a virtual machine rather than a real one, but it supposedly shouldn’t matter.

    In the end, this is the sort of aggravation Windows traditionally presents. When it works, it works great. When it doesn’t, prepare yourself for a long hair pulling session. Yes, Windows 7 seems a mite snappier than Vista, and is evidently more stable. But until Microsoft figures out remedies for basic functionality — and the ongoing hazards of the dreaded Registry — they will continue to play second best in a fast-changing industry. That could, in time, seriously impact their OS dominance too as more and more customers come to realize that they’ve simply been had.

    FREE VIRTUALIZATION DOESN’T QUITE MAKE THE GRADE!

    In recent weeks, I’ve been paying more attention to virtual machines now that Windows 7 is out. Having both 32-bit and 64-bit installer DVDs at hand, I decided to give brief workouts to Parallels Desktop 5 and VMWare Fusion 3. These are the latest and greatest versions of products from two companies that seem to read each other’s press releases, since they are constantly good at leapfrogging when it comes to features and performance.

    Since they cost the same, just shy of $80 minus the special deal of the moment, plus the price of your new Microsoft OS if that’s the virtualization option you want, it may seem doubly difficult to figure out which one is best. A clear advantage might vanish with the next upgrade.

    More to the point, they are both quite good at doing what they claim to do, which is to make running a foreign operating system a pretty simple process. More to the point, they are taking advantage of the latest hardware technologies from Intel to reduce the performance difference between the virtual machine and the real one to almost the vanishing point except for games and serious rendering software. Then all bets are off, though the latest products from Parallels and VMWare do offer playable performance if you don’t set your expectations too high. Devoted personal computer gamers will continue opt for Apple’s Boot Camp or just a dedicated PC box.

    The bullet list of features in the new virtualization apps include support for Microsoft’s Aero interface, so you get the very same obnoxious visual effects that most PC users endure. Or at least those with hardware powerful enough to render Aero, and have opted not to turn it off. There are also enhancements to the Mac OS integration features, known as Coherence in Desktop and Unity on the VMWare app.

    Indeed, I installed and configured Windows 7 under both virtual environments and I didn’t see a whole lot of difference in perceived performance and compatibility. Fusion managed to handle my installed printers — currently an Epson Artisan 810 all-in-one and a Xerox Phaser 8560DN — with aplomb. Desktop required a separate installation of print drivers, although it may recognize the printer already hooked up to your Mac out of the box in some setups.

    Then there is that third entrant into the virtual machine arena, the open source VirtualBox from Sun Microsystems. Forget for the moment if VirtualBox will survive the completion of the merger between Sun and Oracle. I suspect it’ll be around in some form regardless.

    The sole advantage of VirtualBox is that it’s free. The interface is clumsy, unfinished, typical of products ported to the Mac OS that have only a passing acquaintance with the interface niceties. There is, for example, no custom setup assistant to ease the install of the foreign operating system, so I got to witness the setup of Windows 7 in the same creaky fashion as any other Windows user.

    In the end, even after adding the VirtualBox guest drivers that provide integration with the Mac, the product clearly didn’t come up to the retail competition. I couldn’t get Aero to function, and basic window movement and scrolling seemed slower and more ragged, despite adding extra memory to the virtual machine and support for my Mac Pro’s extra processor cores. Even the mouse cursor, which is already somewhat challenged on any Windows system, seemed extra jumpy, though not as bad as might have been in the old days when Mac users had to depend on such achingly slow solutions as Virtual PC to run Windows on their computers.

    This is not to say that VirtualBox is not usable. It is, and performance is pretty decent despite the shortcomings compared to the two paid apps. Maybe it’ll get better over time, but that’s also true of Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion. As usual, which solution you buy depends on the level of compatibility and performance you require when running other operating systems on your Mac. For me, VirtualBox doesn’t quite make the grade.

    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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