New MacBook Pro

Finally, after nearly four years, I have a new laptop, a 15″ MacBook Pro, with all the trimmings. It’s not brand new, I bought it from a friend who, perversely, wanted a smaller laptop after owning this one for six months. I wasn’t going to complain though, as it’s two grand’s worth of kit with two and a half years’ worth of AppleCare left for just over half its original cost.

It’s the 15″ 2.8 Ghz Intel Core Duo model (the fastest processor currently available in a MacBook Pro) with 4Gb of RAM, a 500 Gb hard drive and the second separate NVIDIA graphics controller with the separate 512Mb VRAM, although I don’t see myself using that too much since it absolutely hobbles the battery life and I’m not a big games player. It’s nice to know that it’s there should I need to though.

I’m very pleased with it, it’s a nice bit of kit that’ll last me a fair few years. If a base model original Macbook can last me three and a half years then I should get a fair amount of mileage out of this one before needing to replace it.


New Computer

For the first time in a number of years now I have purchased a new computer. The last computer I purchased for myself (i.e. wasn’t a work computer) was my Macbook in 2006, itself now on its last legs and due for a replacement. My new computer is a new (face-lifted) Mac Mini, which replaces my old Mac Mini, which is also of 2006 vintage. The new computer has a dual-core 2.53 Ghz processor, 4Gb of RAM and a 320Gb hard disk. This is in stark contrast to my old one, which has a single core 1.5Ghz processor, 1.25Gb of RAM and a 60Gb hard disk, and as a result had become remarkably difficult to use over the past year ever since it became my main desktop machine. It’s now been turned back into a media centre, which it seems to be much happier doing. The new one is unbelievably fast. Its only bottleneck is the graphics controller which shares the main memory, but it’s not as if I’m going to use it for any hard-core gaming anyway (the most hard-core it’s going to get is Homeworld 2 and Spore).

One of the main advances of the face-lifted Mac Mini over the old design is the fact that it supports dual-monitors. Up until the release of this model last year if you wanted dual-monitors on a desktop machine you either had to get a Mac Pro or connect a second monitor to an iMac, both expensive options if you’ve already got your own monitors from a previous machine, so it was a dream come true when they added two monitor ports to the Mac Mini because it’s such a cost-effective option.

So yes, I’m very happy with it. Next is my Macbook as mentioned before, which gets replaced with a 13″ Macbook Pro later in the year, or whenever my Macbook gives up, whichever comes sooner.


Retro lift

Lift like TARDIS that only goes to the 70s

Lift like TARDIS that only goes to the 70s

We’re moving offices at the moment as we’ve completely outgrown our small serviced offices and have signed a lease on an entire floor in the building literally across the road (so no wacky races with vans and things will be required). The building across the road is perfectly fine, but the landlord hasn’t quite finished refurbishing it yet and has a few things still to do, including the refurbishment of one of the two lifts. One lift is all modern with digital controls and voice floor announcements and all that jazz, but the other, although functional, is still as it was installed when the building was built in the 70s.

It’s totally retro, with big clunky buttons, wood paneling, an old fashioned floor indicator panel above the door (which doesn’t work) and inside the emergency phone cabinet is this fully functional dial telephone (pictured). It actually works too! It’s like going back in time 20 years.

I’ve also added a third monitor to my Mac Pro at work, because I’m greedy and I can. It was a spare monitor I had at my Dad’s house, liberated from the Rhydio office in 2006, and so I thought I’d put it to good use. Very soon I’ll wonder how I worked without it and be wanting a fourth one, which will be entirely possible since my Mac Pro has 4 monitor ports.


Because I am greedy


Mac Mini Memory Mayhem

I’ve just spent the last hour and a half attempting to upgrade the memory in my Mac Mini from 1280Mb to 2Gb by replacing the remaining 256Mb module with a second 1Gb module. The new 1Gb module works fine, but in the process of upgrading I’ve somehow managed the fry the first 1Gb module; it no longer functions. If you didn’t know, taking the Mac Mini apart to upgrade the RAM is not for the faint hearted, requiring an odd assortment of tools including a putty knife, a 1p coin and some post-it notes, so having a net end result of zero is not really what I wanted!

The bust DIMM is still in warranty, in that I bought it less than 12 months ago, so I shall see if they’ll replace it. It would be easier in this situation if it was the new one that had broken, but they might find it a little suspect that the old one stopped working during the upgrade procedure that put the new one in. At the end of the day it would only be another £15 to replace, but still, it’d be a waste.

I’ve also Leopardized the five Macs that Chris and I use between us using the stonking “family pack” that Apple offer, whereby if you want to install Leopard on five computers then you only pay £130 instead of £80 x 5 = £400, which is what Microsoft would make you do, except the £80 would be £240 in their case. I don’t mind paying for software if it’s reasonably priced, but £240 for Microsoft Windows is just fucking ridiculous and I’m glad that I’m no longer subjected to the Microsoft upgrade path.


5th incarnation of iMac

New iMac

New iMac

Apple have released the latest version of the iMac, the “all in one” computer where you get what looks like just a monitor with a keyboard and a mouse. It’s not a new concept, either in terms of Apple themselves (since the original iMac came out nearly ten years ago) nor in terms of computing in general, making reference to the days when many computers and terminals were manufactured in this format.

The new iMac has clear evolution with its predecessor, which is a departure from the predecessor’s own evolution; until now, with the exception of the third and fourth generation iMacs (which were outwardly identical with different guts), each iMac has been significantly different from its predecessor. I think it looks quite nice apart from the black surround on the screen. I prefer the glossy white Mac style, as does Chris, but I do like the aluminum design; that’s working well with a number of models in the Apple range at the moment.

The new iMac brings with it the latest designs of Apple keyboard, which are shipped with the new iMac and Mac Pro and are also sold separately. As far as I can tell and ignoring eBay, you can now no longer buy the old style keyboards. This I have mixed feelings about, for two reasons.

Firstly, here is the new wired keyboard. It’s nice looking and very slim, but is basically a laptop keyboard. Indeed its keys are identical to those on my Macbook. This is not to say that I dislike my Macbook keyboard, I don’t, but using a laptop keyboard with a desktop computer doesn’t feel right and I think I’d prefer a “proper” keyboard.

But then we move on to my second concern. The wireless version of this keyboard really is just a Macbook keyboard in an aluminum case, with the same number of keys and the same keyboard layout. Previously the wired and wireless keyboards were identical in their appearance, size and layout, so why Apple have chosen to force a differently sized keyboard on those who want a wireless model is beyond me. I could just about cope with the “full size” wired keyboard, laptop keys or not, but this would just piss me off.

But this happens every time. Apple are very good at trumping themselves with the design of their products and they’re not afraid to be radical. Every time they bring something out that looks unusual people are either totally in love with it straight away or say that they’ll never get used to it, but always do.

Returning to the subject of the iMac, I think that Apple could improve the scope of this product very easily. iMacs come with a built-in monitor, as you can see, but they also come with an extra monitor port on the back to which you can connect a second screen. The trouble with this is that no second screen, even Apple’s standalone displays, will match the iMac and you’ll always have this odd juxtaposition of mismatched equipment if you do choose to connect a second display.

The solution to this is simple. Apple should sell a range of monitors that look just like iMacs. They’d be easy to produce, since they would actually use iMac shells and iMac screens; they’d just not put the guts of a computer inside. They already have all the tooling and components available to do this, and I think it would be a great way of allowing people who use their iMac as their primary work computer to use a matching second display without having to plump for a Mac Pro which, although nice and fast, are expensive when compared to the iMac.

I’ve done a mockup of what such a setup might look like. Tell me that this isn’t a good idea? If it happens, you read it here first ;)

Mockup of dual-screen iMac

Mockup of dual-screen iMac


Mac Format dumbs down UNIX for no reason

I bought Mac Format magazine at the weekend, which was the first and will be the last of such occasions. Aside from the fact that it was six quid for what is actually a very thin magazine, and ignoring the fact that the “full version” software supplied on the accompanying DVD was, in fact, a restricted demonstration version (presenting a clear violation of the Trade Descriptions Act), I was particularly appalled at one of the features in the magazine which concerned itself with Mac OS X’s UNIX underpinnings.

One of the things I like most about Mac OS X is that it can be as simple or as advanced as you wish to make it. If you are a UNIX-head like I am then your familiar environment and tools are there if you want to use them. But if you are quite the opposite and you’re a floral trouser wearing designer hippy then you most certainly do not ever need to go anywhere near the operating system’s UNIX like features and interface. This is in stark contrast to modern Linux desktops, which are trying their hardest to become like this but still rely on the shell (command prompt) to a degree and thus force its users into its UNIX world on a reasonably regular basis.

So this article in Mac World attempted to introduce the “normal” Mac OS X user to the operating system’s UNIX base by describing the Terminal program and presenting a basic command, which was:

/sbin/fsck -fy

This command was “translated” into English by the author of the article and the translation read “run a filesystem check on the system binaries directory“.

This, as anyone with even a basic knowledge of command prompts let alone UNIX specific command prompts will know, is an absolute load of bollocks. Yes, fsck is the program that checks file systems, similar to “chkdsk” or whatever on Windows, this is true. But it is certainly not true to say that “/sbin/” is somehow an argument passed to fsck to tell it just to check the contents of the sbin directory. sbin is merely the path on the disk to fsck. The arguments to fsck are “-fy”, which in this case are quite irrelevant and in no way tell fsck to just pay attention to a particular directory.

This might sound pernickety, but this is simply misleading and represents unnecessary and frankly dangerous dumbing down, something which the BBC News website is guilty of on an almost daily basis in articles in their technology section. If you’re going to introduce Mac users to the wonderful and historical world of their computers’ operating system’s origins then either do it properly or not at all. UNIX is complicated and difficult to use; this is a commonly known fact and it makes no apologies for it. As discussed previously Mac OS is pretty unique in that you don’t even need to know that UNIX exists in order to use it, so there’s no reason to try to dumb it down for its users. You’d be better off pretending it doesn’t exist.

Of course, it’s entirely plausible that the author of the article actually believes what he’s writing and that, from his point of view, he isn’t dumbing anything down at all. If this is the case then I ask how he got the fucking job in the first place and to whom I should apply to write the column in his place.

It totally winds me up when “technical journalists” dumb things down to the point where they actually don’t tell the truth, whether they are aware that they are doing so or not. Whatever good intentions they have about making technology news understandable and accessible to “normal” people, it should be acknowledged that computers aren’t always point-and-click and not everybody is or can be a computer expert. How some of these people are paid for their drivel staggers me.


Transition to the Mac side complete

macmini-handsFor a long time I never thought I would ever get to this point, but it’s now official: I don’t use Microsoft Windows any more. I have decided to stop using my PC at home in favour of using my Mac Mini instead. This now means that my home computer, work computer and laptop are now all Macs. All the servers I am responsible for run Linux, save for just one virtual server which runs a couple of customer ASP sites under Windows 2003 Server. This means that, to all intents and purposes, Microsoft Windows is no longer part of my life after twelve years of use.

I thought long and hard about using the Mac Mini in preference to my PC. Its specification isn’t as good in that it only has a 1.5Ghz Intel Core Solo processor, versus the PC’s 3Ghz Pentium 4 processor, and until yesterday it only had 512Mb of RAM, which made it difficult to use. However, it now has 1.25Gb and the upgrade has made it perfectly usable. I do lose my multiple monitors though since the Mac Mini only has one DVI port and its limited upgrade path means that there is no way to add another. This I had to consider very carefully, so I gave it a go with just one 20″ 1600×1200 display for a couple of days and, you know what, it’s worth the sacrifice.

So the PC’s going in the loft along with one of my screens. Yeah, it’s nowhere near as fast as my fantastic computer in the office, but for the odd day in the week working from home it’s absolutely fine. I’ll be replacing it with a Mac Pro of my own in due course anyway, at which point I’ll be back to two monitors.

The memory upgrade in the Mac Mini, incidentally, was a right pain in the arse. If you’ve ever attempted to get inside a Mac Mini you’ll know exactly what I’m taking about what with the fucking putty knives and brute force required. Still, it’s done now, and for £30 for a 1Gb memory module from Crucial it was well worth it.

So yeah, now I’m a full time Mac Snob. Added to that, Chris got a Macbook Pro this weekend (from his parents, officially for work), so between us we now have an example of each model in the current Apple range (Mac Mini, iMac, Mac Pro, Macbook and Macbook Pro). How sad!


The Cult of Mac

Apple Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro

What’s going on then? Why have I suddenly turned into a Mac weirdo recently? How do I justify this after spending so many years slagging off Macs and their users?

It’s probably exactly what you think; a combination of being utterly tired and pissed off with Windows (with XP now being over 5 years old and not due to be replaced for another 9 months at the very least) and much improved offerings from Apple over recent years. I don’t think that one of these things on its own would have been enough to convince me, and I expect Apple probably knew that too.

Yes, there’s Linux, and that’s good for many things, but Ubuntu (which is the closest thing I’ve seen to a useable Linux desktop) simply didn’t make me happy enough for me to be able to commit to it, and I never felt 100% at home with it (a reminder that I ran it on my old laptop for a number of months) and despite its advances it still required a large amount of tweaking to get it working with all my laptop’s hardware. This isn’t the case with my Mac. It really does “just work”.
Problems I had with Macs previously included:

  • Expensive hardware with poor performance: You used to typically pay around twice the amount you would have for a modern PC, with a specification around half that of said PC. Even when taking into account the assertion that Macs needed less resources to perform the same functions, it still didn’t add up and I saw little reason to spend so much on so little.
  • Rubbish operating system: Mac OS 9, in my admittedly limited experience, was a proprietary, buggy piece of shit and it was long overdue to be replaced (rather than just another release). It did things in its own way that made sense only to itself and to “native” Mac users, but that were completely baffling and counter-intuitive to anyone else. This put up a huge barrier to use and wider adoption.
  • Requirement for commitment to migration: While Mac OS has always enjoyed reasonable software support, it was still relatively limited when compared to Windows, for better or for worse (meaning that a huge range of software availability for a platform isn’t always necessarily a good thing).

Since then, Apple appears to have sat up, listened, and implemented a successful strategy for getting people to defect, including (but not limited to):

  • Cheaper hardware: I expect that this has largely been brought about by the introduction of Intel CPUs into all Macs over the past 18 months or so, but Apple made efforts previously to introduce more low-end models to entice people who simply couldn’t justify large expenditure on someone that, for them, was untried and untested. Things like the Mac Mini bridged this gap, allowing people to dip their toes in the water with relatively low risk. I am one of those people, and as a result here I am typing this on a brand new MacBook, a very capable laptop computer that, at £632 including NY state sales tax, cheaper than the vast majority of Windows-based laptops from other manufacturers. £600 will buy you a Windows laptop, but it won’t be a very good one.
  • Much improved operating system: The BSD based Mac OS X was a gigantic leap forward for Apple. It immediately attracted people from a UNIX background at a time when UNIX desktops left a lot to be desired. Its UNIX roots also obviously made Mac OS X extremely stable compared to Windows and Mac OS 9. While it still requires a little bit of getting used to by non-native Mac users, it can be picked up very quickly; certainly this was true for me.
  • Introduction of Intel CPUs: This has brought all sorts of advantages, from cheaper components (leading to cheaper products), through generally faster machines, through to the ability to actually run Microsoft Windows on a Mac alongside Mac OS X. Apple are quite correct in stating that many people will now have no excuse not to switch to a Mac. Mac OS X enjoys splendid software support, but even if that doesn’t prove to be enough and you’ve got some obscure Windows software package that doesn’t have an equivalent, you can still run it.

Other things that I really like about Mac OS versus Windows in particular:

  • Fairer licensing: Microsoft want money for each and every installation of Windows without exception, no matter who uses it, what it’s used for, or how often it is used. At around £300 for each installation, this is unfair and expensive, and now they’ve got their blasted product activation system to ensure that they get their readies. You have to be a large company in order to enjoy any sort of significant discount. Mac OS is not only siginificantly cheaper at £89, but spend £40 on top of that and you get to install it on up to five computers in your household, legally. Microsoft would want over 10 times that amount for the same privilege (assuming Windows XP Pro).
  • I didn’t have to spend hours uninstalling legions of useless crap when I bought my computer. My last two laptops and my desktop PC at work all came laden down with so much rubbish that it took me hours to remove it. Only after I had done so did the computer start to perform as expected. They do this because they want to push the fact that you’ve not just bought a PC, you’ve bought a Vaio, or a Thinkpad, or a Portege or whatever, and so obviously they need to make Windows XP less generic by filling it up with all sorts of manufacturer-specific rubbish that wants to manage your photos and play your MP3s and present you with special trial software with preferential purchase options. All bullshit.

So yeah, I’m hooked. Chris and I have an iMac as our “home computer” and now I have a Mac laptop. At work I currently have a Windows PC that I do all my work on, and sitting on my desk next to it is a Mac Mini that I use to test stuff with Safari. Next year when my PC comes up for replacement, I’ll be getting a Mac Pro, and instead of having the Mac Mini just to test stuff in Safari, I’ll install Windows on it and use it just to test stuff in Internet Explorer.

The real irony there is that the Mac Mini cost £400 and is smaller than my external DVD writer. I doubt that the same money would buy a Windows box of the same specification and size. So even for the things I need that a Mac can’t run natively, I’ll still be using a Mac. I hereby take back everything bad I ever said about Apple Macs and I willingly pledge myself to the Cult of Mac.

And yes, I’ll fix this site so it doesn’t look wonky in Safari, Howie, I promise :)

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