• Newsletter Issue #576

    December 13th, 2010


    As you might expect, there will loads of “ten best” lists being touted over the next few weeks. Such compilations are usually arbitrary, although a publication’s editors, for example, might debate the winners and losers to find the best contenders in both. And I won’t begin to consider next year and all the award ceremonies that are givens in the show business world.

    In any case, on Saturday night’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director from Laptop magazine, who talked about some of his hits and misses for the holiday season, along with the “broadband conundrum,” whether current high-speed Internet is fast enough for seamless content streaming.

    Even though Avram is decidedly not an Apple fan, he was nonetheless excited about the MacBook Air. Unlike some other tech writers who cover the industry, I can use the term “fair and balanced” about Avram with total confidence.

    Macworld Senior Editor Dan Frakes was on hand to discuss the magazine’s annual Eddy Awards, their best of lists. These are bestowed annually upon the best hardware and software products in the Apple universe.

    I did want to get a “worst of” list from Dan, but that’s a place he wouldn’t touch, as he displayed his expected diplomatic demeanor about the question.

    Writer Rob Griffiths wore two hats this week. First he outlined his recent review of Microsoft Excel 2011 for the Mac in Macworld, and then talked about some of the innovative shareware products from the company he represents, ManyTricks.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast, co-host Christopher O’Brien joins Gene to introduce independent researcher and author Gary A. David, author of “The Kivas of Heaven: Ancient Hopi Starlore,” who speaks on Indian legends, prophecies and the influence of the “star people” in Earthly life.

    Coming December 19: Co-hosts Christopher O’Brien and Nicholas Redfern join Gene to discuss Nick’s provocative new book, “The NASA Conspiracies: The Truth Behind the Moon Landings, Censored Photos , and The Face on Mars.” Explore all the strange theories that surround our attempts to explore outer space.

    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.


    In the endless search for sound and fury, some so-called journalists are intent on seizing upon something, anything, in search of a story. Now I want get into the political wars here. That’s far too polarizing and way beyond the scope of these columns. Instead, I’m going to take another article that represents an all-too-typical attempt to find a signal in a tiny but of noise, but ends up with mostly smoke and mirrors.

    The article in question comes from one of the usual offenders, the ZDNet Mobile division of CNET. That CNET is part of CBS has evidently not impacted its longstanding reputation for shoddy reporting and questionable speculation.

    The article in question, which, as usual in such cases, doesn’t deserve a link, says it all in the headline: “Apple risking performance (and reputation) by switching to Intel for budget note-book graphics?”

    So what’s the story all about? Why would Apple, on a roll with powerful hardware, soaring sales, and millions of loyal customers, sacrifice it all for the “privilege” of using new and supposedly inferior parts from Intel?

    The story in question cites “CNet’s sources” in claiming that Apple is expected to switch to the forthcoming Sandy Bridge integrated graphics from Intel, rather than use NVIDIA graphics as they do now, for the MacBook and MacBook Air. These same models, as most of you know, are using processors taken from an older generation parts bin, the Core 2 Duo family.

    The reason Apple stuck with the older parts is the result of Intel and NVIDIA being embroiled in a dispute over licensing with the current processors, such as the Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7, which are used in Apple’s more powerful note-book, the MacBook Pro, and the iMac. What this meant is that the latest generation of NVIDIA integrated graphics, such as the NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor that’s installed in the MacBook Air, isn’t available.

    Apple’s solution involved a bit of sleight of hand for the MacBook Pro. Basic graphics chores are handled by Intel integrated graphics, but whenever functions are called that are apt to require more graphics power, a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M chip is used instead. Clumsy, but effective, and I doubt anyone can detect when the switchover occurs. It’s not the same as a hybrid auto that switches between gas and electric power depending on the state of the battery, and the position of the accelerator pedal. While those schemes do usually work, some cars exhibit a shudder during the transition.

    In any case, the problem has historically been that Intel doesn’t get graphics. Their best integrated chips are adequate for regular 2D display functions. They’ll even handle HD movies with reasonable performance, but once 3D graphics enter the picture, for games or rendering apps, all bets are off.

    Supposedly Intel’s Sandy Bridge integrated graphics will be sufficiently powerful to deliver acceptable gaming performance, meaning Apple can use the latest and greatest chipsets from one supplier, and not have to engage in any sort of switching legerdemain. At least that’s the theory, and we’ll probably not know for sure until Intel’s new processor family is ready to be tested and, ultimately, installed on new personal computers.

    More to the point, the existence of a new Intel chipset doesn’t guarantee that Apple will buy them. That’s assuming facts without evidence. The unexpected gaming success on the iOS, the presence of Valve on the Mac, and the fine tuning of Mac graphics in recent months, shows to me that Apple finally gets gaming. That’s been a revelation slow to arrive, but it also means that PC users who have bemoaned Apple’s poor gaming performance can now be assured that, with recent Mac game ports, any performance penalty will be, for most of you, little to none.

    That being the case, does it really make sense to expect Apple to backtrack and buy parts with inferior graphics performance? Certainly not because ZDNet says so in a lurid headline. If that were the case, Apple wouldn’t have devised that graphics chip switcheroo routine. They would have just taken the parts they were offered by Intel and be done with it. That, unfortunately, is what far too many PC box assemblers do.

    More to the point, nothing stops Apple from going to AMD and installing their processors in some Macs. Apple already buys ATI graphics chips, so expanding that partnership isn’t out of the question, assuming there’s an AMD chipset that’s suitable for Apple’s needs.

    Apropos to nothing, I would like to point out that this site’s Web server uses a 6-core AMD processor, and delivers faster performance than any server we’ve had before, even the ones with dual quad-core Intel Xeons. Of course, there are likely other performance optimizations afoot, such as speedier hard drives, higher bus speeds, faster RAM, and so on and so forth.

    As far as Apple is concerned, rest assured that they don’t pay attention to the proclamations of CNET, ZDNet, or any other tech pundits. They continue to march to their own beat, and it’s become clear they will often go to great lengths to ensure they have the components that are right for their products. Lest we forget, they even designed their own mobile processor for the iPad and the rest of their mobile product line.

    Indeed, maybe Apple would even consider building their own graphics hardware for Macs, assuming third-party alternatives weren’t available. That would really make ZDNet’s lame prognosticators freak, and they’d deserve it.


    I’m not the vagabond these days, although I couldn’t say that years ago when I first worked as a radio broadcaster and had to move to new cities and states with just a few day’s notice. I try to stay where I am, bit I’m happy to entertain better offers for broadband and TV. If there’s no service contract involved, I have no problem switching, because no one service is perfect.

    That’s why, for example, after suffering from deteriorating and inflexible tech support people at Dish Network, I recently telephoned the local cable company, Cox Communications, for the best bundle they could offer. They devised a clever package featuring the single phone line I require for faxing, broadband, and, of course, TV with a decent selection of high definition offerings.

    Fortunately, I lived in an apartment complex that partly subsidizes Cox, which meant a $40 a month savings. So Dish was out, Cox was in. True, Cox’s HD offerings aren’t as generous as Dish, but tech support is superior, picture quality now near-identical (a far cry from the past), and they offered all the stations I want. Indeed, if I could just buy those — and nothing else — I’d do it in a heartbeat. But efforts by the government to enforce ala carte cable haven’t succeeded.

    Recently, Cox even overhauled the station guides on their cable boxes, trying to deliver a more modern appearance with easier access to special settings, and such niceties as full-season scheduling for your favorite shows. The fancier guide display is even snappier, and switching channels is twice as fast as satellite. That’s because you don’t have the latency involved in talking to an orbiting dish.

    Cox’s shortcoming is that there’s no 30-second Fast Forward button, as Dish and DirecTV offer on their set top boxes, to fly past commercials. Instead you have to rely on a traditional control that speeds through the recording at rates that depend on how may times you press the button. To help in overstepping through a program’s resumption, clicking Play will rewind the playback by nine seconds. After some practice, you get the hand of it, but a 30 second jump would be better. Or maybe the content providers won’t stand for it; I don’t pretend to know.

    Unfortunately, it’s moving time again. The housing complex opted not to renew our lease and seek more prosperous tenants, or convert to condo; I’m not sure which.

    Faced with the prospect of a new home before the end of the year, my TV choices are again on the table. DirecTV has partnered with Sam’s Club to offer members a special discount. Not having the $40 cable subsidy to fall back on, that discount would be substantial compared to Cox at the full rate. Only thing is that you have to sign a two-year contract, subject to an early termination fee, although you have 30 days to back out if the service isn’t acceptable.

    More to the point, however, of the two dwellings available to us, one won’t be situated in a location where satellite reception is possible. We’d be stuck with Cox regardless. I suppose I could still use that occasion to attempt to renegotiate, since Cox is strictly month-to-month.

    The upshot is that, absent a contract, you should always see if you can get a better deal, and don’t assume one type of service is cheaper than another. Don’t even assume picture quality will necessarily be that much different. They’re all good, and the set top boxes, even if you don’t consider TiVO, are more than up to the task of scheduling your favorite shows without having to endure loads of setup menus.

    Don’t even use the advertised price as a guide. It seems the sales people always have something up their sleeves to attract new customers, and keep old ones. But if you must accept a long-term contract, be sure you have an early opt-out. Unless you have no choice in your city, you shouldn’t have to endure subpar service. And, unless you watch loads of programs from different channels, you will want to try to build a package that has just what you want, and as little fluff as possible.


    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
    Business Development: Gil James Bavel
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis

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