Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why a Mac May be the Best Windows Computer

Now that users can run Windows on Macintosh computers using solutions such as Apple's Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion, it obviously provides flexibility to users wishing to benefit from multiple operating systems. (It's possible to have a single Mac configured to triple-boot into the Mac OS, Windows and Linux - plus users can directly access the Unix OS which is the underlying system for OS X for a fourth operating system.)

But I think there's a good argument that a Macintosh makes the ideal Windows computer. Why? Because in the vast world of Windows "clones," there is immense diversity in the combinations of hardware that comprise any given "PC." And though these components are theoretically built to common "standards" for the Windows OS, there are potentially frustrating and expensive consequences of incompatibilities between Microsoft Windows, various hardware components, and the software "drivers" written by their manufacturers or third parties to control and communicate with those hardware components.

I spent an enormous amount of time diagnosing a problem with installing a higher-performance 3D graphics display in a Windows XP machine which was ultimately an incompatibility between a four-model series of 3D graphics card and a tiny chip on the computer's motherboard (the "southbridge," or I/O controller hub). The video card worked fine on other motherboards, and the motherboard worked with other video cards. Ultimately, changing the motherboard was the solution (the video card was more valuable, and had been purchased as a performance upgrade), but I'd spent over 100 hours in diagnostics and research before recognizing a clue in an online post about a similar, but different problem. This would have been an impossible problem to actually resolve professionally (any service department would have determined that one or the other component was faulty and informed the customer to buy a replacement graphics card, which would have also failed, after which they would have replaced the motherboard, which would have failed, etc.) at any reasonable cost. This was my own PC, and I am a determined diagnostician, so I was willing to put in a huge amount of time over a period of many months to find the actual solution - but this would be a horrific and probably unresolvable problem for most of the population.

That this kind of incompatibility problem might only affect a tiny part of the PC buying public (those who happen to have the particular combination of southbridge chip-equipped motherboard and graphics card) doesn't provide encouragement because of its rarity - on the contrary, it means that fewer diagnosticians will have ever encountered it, much less shared a solution in the online community.

Compared with the vast market of PC clones, there are a very limited number of Macintosh hardware models, which have tightly-controlled component sources known to Apple, Inc., who also provides nearly all the Windows drivers for this hardware. The Macintosh user community is a vigorous, active culture of sharing information. These factors create a "Windows on Mac" microcosm in which there are far fewer mysteries than in the "other" 96 per cent of the computer-using world.

So there you have it. A Mac may just be the ultimate Windows computer. Whouda thunk?

Apple Boot Camp Beta Expiration

On November 28, 2007, Boot Camp users received email notices that Boot Camp Beta will expire on December 31, 2007.

Apple's (unsupported) Boot Camp Beta, which provides software tools to install Microsoft Windows XP or Vista operating systems on Macintosh computers with Intel microprocessors. Apple's original end-user license agreement (EULA) for Boot Camp Beta cited that it would expire either on December 31, 2007 or when Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard shipped, whichever came first, but Leopard debuted on October 26, so Apple appears to have given users a brief extension. Apple had been issuing notice of this impending event for some time, citing that Boot Camp functionality would be included in Mac OS 10.5 "Leopard." (Here is the Boot Camp 2.0 page for Leopard.)

Following the expiration of Boot Camp Beta, a Mac running Windows installed using Boot Camp will continue to boot into Windows. However, the Boot Camp Assistant Beta (used to install and configure the Boot Camp partition) will no longer function, so Boot Camp installations are no longer possible without Mac OS 10.5. The license from Apple to run Boot Camp Beta expired as well, and Apple advises to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard to continue using Boot Camp 2.0. The Boot Camp Beta downloads were removed from the Apple website at the end of September.

Interestingly, Apple's Support site hosts a technical note from October 22, 2007, "Removing a Windows partition after Boot Camp Beta has expired in Mac OS X 10.4." This is apparently to address the needs of users wishing to perform this action, but finding that the Boot Camp Assistant Beta no longer functions. Apple's solution is for users to set manually their Mac's clock to a date before September 30, 2007 and then launch Boot Camp Assistant Beta. I find no examples of whether it's possible to use this trick to install Boot Camp Beta - which would be interesting.

It's not clear at this time whether any solution for installing Boot Camp on a Mac running OS 10.4 will ever be provided - I'm guessing that there will not. For those who find Boot Camp useful, it's a compelling reason to pay Apple to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5. Having said that, alternatives for running Windows on an Intel Mac exist. Virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion allow Intel Mac users to run Windows XP or Vista applications transparently from within the Mac OS environment, and allows users to easily pass data between Windows and Mac applications, where Boot Camp functionality requires that the Mac be started in either the Mac OS or Windows. However, a Boot Camp-prepared Mac running Windows is a full-fledged Windows computer, where there may be some compatibility issues with some applications in virtualization software, particularly regarding hardware/software interaction.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Apple Releases Final Cut Express 4

On November 15, 2007 Apple released their latest version of Final Cut Express, their "prosumer" video editing application based on Apple's Final Cut Pro software.

Notably, Final Cut Express 4 now supports the nascent AVCHD standard, which is used by an increasing number of "tapeless" high-definition camcorders. With this update, all three of Apple's video-editing programs (iMovie, Final Cut Express, Final Cut Pro) now provide (limited) AVCHD support.

NOTE: Apple's AVCHD support is limited to Intel-based Macintoshes. The Voltaic software utility allows both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs to download AVCHD files (except DVD-based - see below) and transcode them to files used by iMovie (HD or '08), Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro.

At this point, Apple still does not support transfer of AVCHD files from HD camcorders which record directly to DVD, because Mac OS X does not support the UDF 2.5/2.6 file system used by DVD-recording camcorders. I have read reports that users have successfully transferred files from AVCHD DVDs using the ReadDVD!™ utility from Software Architects.

Gmail Now Has IMAP Support!

Google began supporting IMAP access to Gmail accounts the end of October 2007. The Gmail IMAP help page details how to configure your Gmail account and your email client application(s) to access Gmail IMAP servers.Link

Friday, November 16, 2007

AOL Now Supports POP Mail!

I don't recall exactly how I noticed this, but today (November 16, 2007) I realized that America Online email now supports the POP email protocol. After 15 years, AOL finally supports the most common email standard!

(AOL started offering IMAP support in 2004, and we've been accessing our AOL accounts using Apple Mail, after using AOL Communicator and Claris Emailer - we haven't actually used an AOL application in a decade.)

There seems to be surprisingly little about this the Web, perhaps because the geeky masses long ago forsook AOL as a provider. I did find this interesting forum posting from June 2007 where the poster includes a transcript of an online chat with an AOL tech in which the tech denies AOL has POP support, but instructions for setting up an email client for an AOL POP server are on AOL Help Pages. So I guess this rolled out quietly since June 2007.

My wife and I (as well as many friends) have had our AOL email addresses for over 15 years - and now that it's free to maintain an AOL email account, we have no intention of getting rid of them.

What's important to me about AOL's finally supporting POP:
  • I can now maintain all my email accounts from many different providers (including AOL) from within Gmail - my email "application" of choice for two years now.
  • I no longer have to use an IMAP client on my Palm (or any other mobile device) to check my AOL account when mobile. I'd had to use an IMAP client for this single task.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Car Talk" Now Available as a Podcast!

For many years, my thoughtful wife wake up on Saturday mornings to record Tom and Ray Magliozzi's fantastic automotive radio show on our local National Public Radio (NPR) station to an audio cassette. Whenever we'd take a long driving trip, we'd have tens of hours of Car Talk episodes with us - the perfect thing to keep me alert at the end of a long driving day.

Some years ago, we purchased a Griffin RadioShark, and used the USB-connected radio tuner to automatically record radio programs as MP3 files. Over the years, the RadioShark recorded hundreds of shows which we'd sync to an iPod for travel. It still records NPR shows every week - but it will soon be retired from this function, because...

Finally, Car Talk is available as a podcast. By clicking on this link, you'll be taken to their subscription page in iTunes - where it will then automatically download each episode as they become available. (Don't have iTunes? Get it free here for Mac or PC.)

National Public Radio now offers much of its programming as podcasts. You can view the NPR Podcast Directory at their website, or within iTunes on the NPR store.
Podcasts are subscriptions to audio and video content on the Internet. Nearly all are free, and many are simply "re-purposing" of radio broadcasts. You don't need an iPod or any kind of portable audio player to listen to a podcast, you can listen on your computer using iTunes or any other MP3-playing program. Learn more about podcasts here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Talking Moose Lives!

All of us who were running Macs twenty years ago fondly remember the Talking Moose, who randomly spoke to you from your Compact Mac while you worked, and read your dialog boxes to you (a friend and I often recount that your Mac could "hard crash" - requiring a reset of the computer - and often the Moose would *still* read you the "bomb" error message, twisting the knife, as it were).

The Talking Moose lives on, thanks to the efforts of Uli Kusterer. It's even available as Universal Binary (for PowerPC and Intel Macs).

The original author of the Talking Moose, Steven B. Halls, is Chief Radiologist at St. Mary's Hospital, Camrose, Alberta, Canada.

Monday, November 05, 2007

$400 Sub-notebook Laptop

The Asus Eee PC Linux-powered sub-notebook laptop sells for about $400US, and has an impressive list of features, including:
  • 900MHz Intel Celeron CPU
  • 512MB RAM (1GB optional)
  • 100BT Ethernet
  • 802.11 B/G WiFi
  • 4GB of solid-state storage (8GB optional)
  • MMC/SD/MS/SDHC media reader
  • 300K pixel camera (on 4G and 8G models)
  • Microphone
  • USB 2.0
  • VGA output (1600x1280 max)
  • 2.25 pounds, 9" x 6.5" x 1" closed
  • Xandros Linux variant operating system, plus many preinstalled applciations
  • 3.5 hour battery duration (manufacturer's estimate)
The display is a bit dinky, of course - a 7" diagonal 800x480 LCD, but this is a "sub-notebook" - and what you lose in screen real estate you get back in terms of portability. For the purposes most people need a laptop while mobile (email, Web browsing, digital photo management), it seems fantastic. For many users with minimal computing needs, it may be all the computer they require.

While the Eee PC doesn't have a hard drive or optical drive, it does have USB 2.0 ports, so users can add these when necessary.

The Eee PC comes with Firefox for Web browsing and OpenOffice 2.0 (the free open-source office application suite, which is cross-compatible with Microsoft Office files), as well as instant messaging, media playing and game apps. Apparently the Eee PC can run Windows, and Asus may eventually offer is pre-installed.

This kind of thing isn't usually on my radar, but I watched this review on the recently-launched ChannelFlip site (I know of U.K. presenter/ChannelFlip founder Wil Harris as a frequent guest of Leo Laporte's This Week In Tech podcast) and was impressed enough to post here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Search & Replace iTunes Song Names and More!

Ever have trouble reading the titles of your Podcasts in a list because they scroll off the right side of your iPod's screen? When every episode is titled something like "This Week's Exciting Edition of the World's Best Fish Noodling Podcast Episode #124," all you see in your list is:
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
Pretty irritating, no? The truth is, podcasters should name their episodes with the number or date first. But assuming that isn't going to happen, I use this simple free AppleScript, Search/Replace Tag Script.

By using this Applescript and searching for "This Week's Exciting Edition of the World's Best Fish Noodling Podcast Episode" and replacing with "Noodling," my list now looks like:
  • Noodling #126
  • Noodling #127
  • Noodling #128
  • Noodling #129
  • Noodling #130
  • Noodling #131
Doug Adams hosts Doug's AppleScripts for iTunes, where over 400 (so far) free AppleScripts (most authored by Doug) add functionality to the ubiquitous iTunes on Mac OS X, using this built-in scripting language. Take a look, there's bound to be something there you've always wished iTunes did!