Friday, November 14, 2008

Debunking some Mac is Better Myths

Fanboys Calm Down

Sorry, I always feel when I'm going to attack one of the sacred cows of the computing industry that I had better take -- at least -- that precaution.

So for the fanbois: The Playstation 3 will be the end of Sony electronics, the Wii is for Children and the fact that geriatrics like it isn't "a good thing". And the Xbox 360 is owned by the most evil corporation in the world. In addition, Google is Evil. Apple is too. And Microsoft writes fantastic software. There, now you're sufficiently distracted (or your head has exploded), you can happily ignore the rest of my post and be angry about one of the former statements (none of which are actually my opinion) :)

First, Why I care

I love tinkering with operating systems. I've messed with Mac OS X in the past (even on non-Apple hardware), and have been impressed.
At home, my wife runs Ubuntu, but due to her desire to use some media services that require either Windows or a Mac (read:DRM requirement), she was stuck. So I upgraded her (is it upgraded? Lateral move maybe?).

I am neither a Steve Jobs worshiper nor a Steve Ballmer hater. In fact, I don't generally look at technology as anything more than utilitarian. I like Open Source and Free Software, but ultimately, I'm going to pick the best solution. Frankly, I've seen very few articles or posts that do little more than drool all over Apple products, so I thought I'd provide some of the less than great parts.

Reboot, again, again, again...

A two-year old is less repetitive. Once considered the defining characteristic of Windows (and, though better, could still be improved a lot). Apple's Mac OS X 10.5.5 takes the cake here. Am I crazy or does almost everything you attempt to install require a reboot? Why does upgrading QuickTime, when it's not in use anywhere, require a reboot? Contrast this with Ubuntu, which despite having eighty or so components requiring updates every few weeks, rarely required a reboot to actually apply an update. Application or service restarts might have been required, but rarely did I have to reboot the whole box.

One thing that I have to mention, though, is rebooting a Mac is nothing like rebooting Windows or Ubuntu. It is by far the fastest OS from Power On to USABLE. By Usable, I mean, after logging in, the point at which the hard drive has stopped churning and you can actually click on something and have an application launch.

Hardware Support

Awful. By design. You run the version of Mac OS on the hardware provided by Apple, or you hack it up using the OSX86 Project, but run the risk of violating the Terms of Use.
Lets assume you've taken the high road and purchased a Mac. Peripheral support isn't great. For instance, I have a wonderful USB Wireless adapter that gets spectacular range (much better than anything built into any laptop I've ever owned). I was able to find a driver for it, but only from the chipset maker. It barely works, so I muddle by with the built in Wireless.

OS Bugs

You may be surprised to learn that despite the press reports to the contrary, Mac OS has bugs! Real bugs! And some of them are nasty.
I was spoiled by Ubuntu. On my hardware it worked out of the box. The applications rarely crashed and I had not once encountered a Kernel Panic.
Day one on the Mac involved copying data from a thumb drive. Insert the drive: Kernel Panic. Get the right file system driver for the drive, insert the drive, it doesn't mount. Insert any other USB device, it doesn't mount. Pull hair out, reboot, swear a little, try again, and it works.
Over several days of getting this thing up and ready for my wife, I've had file systems that have their permissions get corrupted for what seems like no reason at all, Bouncing icons that do nothing, random wireless and wired network disconnections and all sorts of silliness. It's pretty stable now, though the wireless performance could be much better.

The Dock

The dock is a great tool. But to me it feels like the Frequently Used Applications, or Quick Launch tool more than it feels like the Start Button. Perhaps it's my ignorance of the OS (which I'll certainly take blame for), but having to launch a Finder window aimed at Applications to see everything installed and run it isn't exactly ideal.

Apple Update

It works. It's slow. I'd equate it with Windows Update. The worst part is that it seems some applications include incremental updates (meaning, install the update, reboot, launch Apple Update, install the patch to the update, reboot, rinse, repeat). Ubuntu's update tool much nicer simply because managing and installing 80 updates at a time in a matter of seconds is pretty impressive.\

Software Installation

Perhaps its more intuitive and I just haven't caught on, but I don't "get" the process of mounting an image file to install software. Again, Ubuntu reigns supreme with apt-get and the GUI equivalent.

Eject, Eject

I don't think twice about removing a pen drive from Windows or Linux as long as the write light isn't on. In OS X, I'm given a nasty alert that I must "put away" the device. There's no Put Away option, but there is an eject option which brings me to point #2: Since when did having a hardware eject button on a dvd drive become 'evil'? I remember day's past of having to find the right sized paper clip in order to free a 3.5" floppy from an older mac. Stop it! I want my eject button back.

That said, it's a small list compared to annoyances I had when I first sat in front of a Linux box. And it's an even smaller list than the one that contains my many gripes about Vista.

There is plenty to love about OS X, but you can find plenty of good resources on that topic, I won't waste your time with another gushing piece about the OS. I also don't want to give the impression that I hate the OS. It's fantastic in many ways and a pleasure to use. It's also helped by the fact that the hardware is fantastic.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Inexpensive Laptop Nightmare

I'm actually a big fan of buying the "mail-in rebate" black friday junk PCs, retail. Anymore, the "average" desktop is a commodity item made up of a bunch of other (name brand) commodity components. If you're going to buy retail, brand doesn't make a difference if you know how to replace parts in a computer. I've been doing it since I was 13, so it can't be that tough.

Friends gasp when I say I just purchased an E-Machines PC. Nevermind that I got an AMD Athlon X2, reasonable Seagate hard drive, reasonable LG dvd burner and a total lack of discreet graphics. Oh wait, mind that. Because that's what every one of them on the shelf had too. Even the big brands have their "retail only" models that are a combination of the most inexpensive components available. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't consider buying a desktop at retail without the obligatory $200 instant savings and a $100-$300 rebate bringing the total package down to $300 including a monitor and printer that I'll sell on eBay.

That same logic applied when I needed to replace my wife's notebook PC. I like to have reasonable specs, but brand is unimportant. I've learned a new lesson: on a notebook, brand appears to matter. I purchased an Acer laptop for her at a cost of around $600. It's a centrino duo (a good processor at the time), had bluetooth, 802.11g, 80G hard drive -- essentially good specs. It's worked very well for the last few years until a month ago.
You see, you can depend on the built in parts most of the time. The commodity PC supplier isn't making those parts. Unlike a desktop, however, there are some very important parts that are provided by the vendor and without them functioning properly ... well, you're stuck.
It started with the "Z" key. I've been around long enough to know how to fix a keyboard that's gone bad. On a desktop, it's easy, you buy a new one. On a laptop, you take the whole thing apart, and take some 91% alcohol solution to the contacts. Not terrible, but certainly not something an average shopper at CompUSA is going to figure out.
Unfortunately, the problem has started spreading. It's on to the "X" key and sometimes the "C" key. Perhaps my beautiful bride dripped some liquid onto the keyboard and the result has been corrosion, or maybe it was just something simple like oils from the tip of her fingers? It's tough to say. Nobody remembers using a keyboard with wet hands.
Having fixed a myriad of old Xbox gaming systems with nothing but a soldering iron, steady hands and a nice magnifying glass, I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of repairing the keyboard, but it's going to kill a Saturday and again, what about the average end-user ... it's going in the trash most likely. A perfectly good laptop will be thrown away because a manufacturer skimped on providing a good keyboard.

So, my personal plug. My other laptops are Lenovo and short of a couple of models (the T30 and T43) that didn't live up to the Thinkpad name, the T60, 61 and now 5xx series are well built devices. Even Dell has stepped up and started producing more durable laptops. You see, in my ignorance by applying the same selection methodologies to Desktops as I did my wife's laptop I neglected two huge differences. The laptop will encounter more hazardous conditions. The desktop's "throw away" parts are not "throw away" on a laptop and might mean throwing away the whole laptop if they fail.

Just as a note, I've already found a replacement keyboard for this acer laptop. It's going to set me back $100. The manufacturer won't support it and why should they ...? $100 for a laptop that only cost $600 isn't going to happen. I'll post an update when I've fixed this one and (hopefully) include some instructions on how to do the repair yourself.

Another note: I don't own Apple products. I've seen their laptops, but I also don't trust the objectivity of an average apple user. Their stuff looks nice, OS X also looks great, but having not used them, I left them out. Sorry!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Pretend Tweet! Stuff I worked on is in Information Week!

You can imagine why I'm not on Twitter. If I kept up with that like I keep up with this blog, you'd have a message from 6 months ago saying "Going to work..."

Actually, I have nothing of substance to say as is the case with most Tweets and blog posts (especially on Blogger), but I do have one thing I wanted to keep someplace so I don't lose the link (Bookmarks are no good when you have a few thousand of them).
I've been working for a few months on a project centered around OCS 2007, and a little while ago we went production. Today I received an e-mail about an article centered around my company's implementation of Unified Communications. The Kiosk on Page #2 is the software I've been focused on.
Speaking personally and not on behalf of my company (hey, I'm a little biased, so figure that into what you're reading) ... I've seen the benefits of Unified Communication first hand ... I think Information Week did a great job of covering the technology and I believe it is the logical next step in the way the world interacts.
It's not just about slapping IM, Voice, Video and presence together in some silly client. It's about taking your line of business applications and adding conversation to them. I won't waste your time with my ideas, just read the article.

Maybe in a year I'll read this and wonder what I was thinking, but maybe I'll be chatting with myself via voice and video while writing or supporting software.'d be strange.