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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 18, 2008

The User's Column, March, 2008
Column 332, Part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I continue my adventures with the Mac. I am finishing this on Imogene, the iMac 20", which remains gorgeous. I have installed Microsoft Office 2008, and removed Office 2004. Office 2008 doesn't use Rosetta to translate from the Power PC Chip code; it's compiled to run Intel Core 2 Duo. The difference is noticeable. If you use a Mac and Microsoft Office, run, do not walk, to obtain Office 2008. Install it, let it delete Office 2004, and don't look back. You'll be glad you did.

Office 2008: Second Thoughts

Gak! I spoke too soon! Office 2008 comes with a huge slew of macros, but apparently has removed your ability to record new ones! This is ghastly! I don't use many macros, but I have written a couple of them I like a lot, and it looks as if Office 2008 will make me abandon them. I can't think why. Is this a bug or a feature?

Indeed, Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey says:

Office 2008 doesn't have VBA at all. Talk about some [wildly angry] Excel users.

Look at the first paragraph of this story on MacWindows.

Brian

Apparently I will have to reinstall Office 2004, or else use a Windows XP machine with Windows Office to do some of my data massaging. Is this another instance of the continued bureaucratization of Microsoft? Whatever were they thinking? This is bizarre.

Word 2008 is nifty, and fast, but crippled without the macro recording capability. If you get it, do NOT uninstall Office 2004. Keep it to use when you need macros. Pray that someone in Microsoft management regains sanity and does a Service Pack that restores VBA to Office 2008.

Keyboards

Imogene with MS bling and iPhone
Imogene the iMac with the Microsoft Laser 6000 Wireless keyboard and mouse. The iPhone is in the cradle just beyond the mouse pad.

I continue to use the Microsoft Wireless Laser Keyboard and Mouse, and I continue to recommend them. I did briefly try the Mac "Curved" keyboard with plastic keys that was standard with Macs until about a year ago. I suspect that if it had come with the iMac I might have just adopted it and had done with it, but perhaps not; in any event I wasn't tempted to adopt it in preference to the Microsoft Wireless Laser, and the Microsoft "Comfort Curve" keyboard has become the standard keyboard at Chaos Manor. I have one up in the Monk's Cell, where I take a laptop when I am going to isolate myself to do fiction, there is a wired version of that keyboard on Roxanne the Vista system, and of course that's what I am writing this on.

Switching to the Mac

I have found the O'Reilly book, Switching to the Mac Leopard Edition, The Missing Manual, by David Pogue to be invaluable in my quest for Mac competence. Highly recommended.

iPhone Joys and Sorrows

The iPhone is a joy when it works properly. Alas, that's not always. In particular, the antenna and amplifier are nowhere near as good as my old AT&T Cingular Nokia was: I can no longer use my cell phone in the back of the house or at the breakfast table, and the signal is very dicey even here at my desk. Sometimes I have 3 bars, and sometimes there is only one; while downstairs it's pretty well No Service.

I am going to try to remedy this with a cell phone booster system. I'd hoped to get that done in time for this column, but it doesn't look as if I will. I hope that will help.

I use the iPhone without a headset. It handles nicely and I have no problems hearing through the little built in speaker. Voice quality is very good.

I like the iPhone features. I am getting better at "typing" on the on-screen keyboard, and I find I can make notes in the notebook while walking. The address book works quite well. I do miss not having a to do list, and I still think they ought to allow me to use it as a voice recorder, but I am sure that will come now that the SDK has been released.

I don't use earbuds, and I don't use the iPhone as an iPod. I note that many in the local coffee shops do use it that way and they seem happy enough, so I expect that iPod addicts will love the iPhone. I also note teenage girls crowding around to look at videos on their iPhones. My eyes aren't really good enough for that; if I want to see videos while I am out, I take my latest darling, Khaos, the MacBook Air.

MacBook Air: The Computer You Have With You

It is a truism that the camera you have with you is the one that takes the pictures. It's even more true of computers: the computer you have with you is the one you will use.

A recent note from Richard Doherty at Envisioneering says that some phone companies are now offering free small laptops rather than cell phones for those signing up for two year contracts. Apparently there's a desire for a small easily carried laptop. I note when I go past the local Starbuck's on my midnight walk there are a lot of people with laptops, about half Apple PowerBooks and MacBooks.

And, as a further example, I am writing this in the waiting room of the Kaiser Permanente treatment center on Sunset. It's a pleasant place, comfortable chairs, and an indeterminate waiting time; so I have opened up the MacBook Air to get a head start on next week's column. It's the computer I have with me; and indeed if I didn't have it, I probably wouldn't have any computer at all.

I might carry LisaBetta, my HP TabletPC. She's a bit heavy, but not excessively so, and I used to carry her everywhere; but somehow I got out of the habit. I can use her without a table but only with the pen; there's no way to type with LisaBetta on my lap. Alas there are too many places with chairs but no convenient table. Now I have the MacBook Air, and I am never without it. I suppose that's partly the coolness factor, but I really like it.

The MacBook Air will slip into nearly any case you would carry. It weighs almost nothing. It starts up instantly and sits in my lap, ready to go. I am still looking for the ideal case for the MacBook Air. It's a 13" computer, so she doesn't need a large case. Two options come to mind: a classic leather messenger bag, and something more modern and funky. I've got a bunch of them coming, and we'll have a report in an upcoming column.

Khaos

Khaos at the movies, on battery
Khaos with her external SuperDrive shows a movie. You get about 3 hours of movies on battery alone.

I have had the MacBook Air for a week now, and I have become very fond of her. Her name is Khaos; I had originally thought she would be named Arielle, but when I realized that the Greek goddess of Air was named Khaos, and I actually had a picture of the goddess Khaos displayed on a shelf of commemorative plates in the Great Hall, it was quite clear what her name would be.

Using the MacBook Air in my lap is very comfortable. She doesn't get hot as the PowerBook did. I can see the screen. It's bright and sunny here in the Atrium waiting room, so there is no need for backlit keys, but Khaos senses the light levels, and she will backlight the keys if that becomes necessary. The light sensor is in the stage right (my left as I face it) dot of a pair of dots on either side of the camera on the top of the screen; if I cover that tiny dot with my thumb my screen dims to a lower light level and the keys become backlit. The other dot is the microphone.

The Air is silent, so you could easily work on this in a dark room while a companion or spouse sleeps.

It's truly the computer you will have with you. As to whether it is the only computer to take on a trip, that would depend on what you want to do. The MacBook Air is a real Mac, and has all the power of a MacBook; but it is not a MacBook Pro. For mail and text editing it's wonderful, but you would not want to use it as the base station for a lot of video recordings, or to do lengthy compilations, or editing big video files. That's not what this machine is for.

There are limits. You will not upgrade the MacBook Air. Memory is 2 GB, and there is no provision for adding more — indeed, the memory chips are soldered in place. The hard drive is 80 GB (74 formatted), and once again, you won't add to it. The MacBook Air is a sealed unit, not designed for upgrading or improvement, and while I make no doubt there will be reports of successful "upgrades" in various forums (with or without reports of how many units were spoiled in the attempt), I would think anyone wanting to do that stark raving mad. I certainly will not. I note that there are manuals available here http://www.powerbookmedic.com. I do NOT recommend trying to do hardware hacks on the MacBook Air.

There are only 3 ports on Khaos: a single USB 2.0 port; a headset jack; and a small port that resembles a USB port. That accepts an adapter to lead to an external monitor: in Apple parlance, a micro-DVI port. That's it. All these are hidden under a tiny cover on the bottom of the computer. It's easy enough to find and use.

There is a magnetic power connector on the (your) left side. This works quite well. I have had no problems with it accidentally coming loose, but when I tripped over the cord once it worked precisely as intended, with no damage to anything.

Captain Ron Morse notes:

A note on the Mac's MagSafe power connector. We're on our fourth power brick for our 15 inch MacBook Pro. Two of them were replaced after the wires either in or at the plug developed a short. If there is a fuse, circuit breaker, or overcurrent limiter in the brick it doesn't work very well, and on both occasions the short developed enough heat to melt the cable insulation and plug with enthusiasm.

Both units were replaced under warranty and without hassle, but it's something I recommend keeping under close watch.

The third unit failed when a Border Collie puppy for which we were providing foster care decided the brick would make a good chew toy. Fooled her, but again the resulting short melted a good bit of the sheathing and insulation from the cable.

Ron

Of course it also means that the two power bricks I bought for Ariadne, the PowerBook, aren't any use for Khaos, but there's nothing to be done about that. I suppose I will have to buy another power kit as a spare. I am getting a MacBook Pro next week, but that may not be a spare for the MacBook Air.

Peter Glaskowsky notes

The face of the power connector is the same [on the Air and the Pro], but the Air requires the slimline right-angle connector if you're going to put the machine on a desk. If you prop it up on something maybe you can use a MacBook Pro power supply, though.

Also note that while the MacBook Air power supply will connect to a MacBook Pro, it doesn't deliver enough power (only 45W vs. 85W for a MacBook Pro adapter).

The one place where all MacBooks (regular, Pro, and Air) come together is with the Airline adapter; the newest Airline adapter works with all three models. But it really is just an airline adapter; it won't work in automobile cigar lighter receptacles. For that, you need this:

http://www.mikegyver.com/IdeasnProducts/Kensington-Magsafe/index.html

Be sure to order it with the MacBook Air tip.

As far as I know, Mikegyver is the only commercial source for a power adapter with this capability.

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More on that when I know more. I do intend to have a spare power supply for each machine.

If you carry the MacBook Air as your only computer on a trip, you will be well advised to carry a powered USB Port expander. Belkin makes a neat one. So do many others, of course. I would not trust the Air to put out enough USB power to power more than one external drive.

I have the matching external SuperDrive for the Air, and I did run it without a powered expander. There was no problem, but the SuperDrive was the only thing attached. If you have more than one device you will be well advised to have a powered expander. Of course the Air isn't intended to run with lots of auxiliary stuff. It's pretty well intended to be stand-alone.

You can get programs into the Air by wireless, or you can connect the optional external SuperDrive and use that. Both work just fine, although wireless isn't the speediest data transfer system we have. And, of course, you can connect a USB to Ethernet adaptor and use 10/100 Ethernet. I was supposed to get one of those with the Air, but it never arrived. I thought I had one around here, but I can't find it, so I now have an excuse to get out to Fry's. I don't doubt it will work automatically.

Note there is no FireWire. I consider that a design flaw; while you will not routinely use the Air as a video recorder, you might want to sometimes; and FireWire would be a good way to attach an external backup drive.

Another defect seems common to all Macs: the sound volume is very low. The Air will talk for you with good text to speech pronunciations, but the maximum volume is very low. If you want anyone to hear this, you will need an external speaker. I have found one, battery operated, that works well; more on that next week.

Note that these are minor defects. I haven't actually missed a FireWire port, and the only reason I have had to have my MacBook Air talk to a room full of people was when I was showing her off to the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. That was hardly a critical mission. Even so, I do wish there were a little more volume, but then I wish that for the iMac too; both really need powered speakers (or headphones) for watching movies or even playing action games. I have a new battery-operated power speaker, but I haven't tried it yet. On that score, the only way to play a movie on the MacBook Air would be to transfer the movie to the hard drive before you leave, or to carry the SuperDrive. In my experiments with battery life, the MacBook Air will play one DVD movie before running out of power. It's about three hours. That's if you start fully charged and don't do much else. If you can get power from your airplane seat that won't be a problem, of course. Finding power on your airplane is getting more common now.

So: you could carry the MacBook Air on a cross country flight, watch a movie on it, and get a little work done.

Skype

I was able to install Skype and use the Plantronics DSP headset to make phone calls whenever the MacBook Air had a good Wi-Fi connection. Next time I am on TWIT I will use Khaos for my Skype connection. It ought to be more reliable than Vista was. It will certainly be quieter. And of course whenever I am at a hot spot I can use Khaos for a telephone.

Bluetooth

I've got a number of handset Bluetooth devices. One is an old-fashioned black telephone handset. Plantronics is sending me a couple of devices. MacBook Air and OS X play nice with Bluetooth, and I don't anticipate any problems at all. We'll get back to in later columns.

Networking

Khaos connects to my internal network by wireless, and she does do automatically. Once that connection is made, she's just part of the net, and I can move files to and from her at Wi-Fi speeds. It Just Works. I have not yet set up Time Machine for Khaos because the Time Capsule I ordered from Apple hasn't come; I suspect they are selling them faster than they can make them. Time Machine works splendidly for Imogene the iMac, so I anticipate no problems whatever in setting it up for Khaos.

Wi-Fi and T-Mobile

Apple OS X is not as friendly with T-Mobile Hot Spots as Windows XP. On my midnight walk I carried both LisaBetta, the HP Tablet PC, and Khaos. Both connected automatically to the Wi-Fi, but with LisaBetta I was automatically sent on to the Internet. When I last connected to the Hot Spot with Khaos, I had to log in; having done that I was able to get through to the Internet. That was the case the first time I did that with LisaBetta as well. Alas, I had to log in again tonight with Khaos. It wasn't onerous, but I did have to do it. When I got home and opened Khaos, she instantly connected to my local Wi-Fi without my having to do anything, so I know she can do automatic log in.

I understand that Starbucks is planning to change over to AT&T Wi-Fi in the near future. I have no idea whether the MacBook Air will handle those better than it does the T-Mobile. And of course having to log in is not a terrible burden.

Bottom Line

This is the computer you will have with you. It will slip into any brief case you are likely to carry. It's quiet. The keyboard works. It doesn't heat your lap, and the battery life is splendid. The specs say five hours, but I had battery life left after six hours. Of course I did turn off the Wireless unless it was in use; otherwise I didn't do anything special.

She's easy to carry, easy to use, and stunningly cool. I can easily see this becoming ubiquitous among cool executives. I find I carry mine nearly everywhere now.

Highly recommended, provided that you understand there are some limits to what you will do with it; it is not a Tablet with OneNote. It is the computer you will have with you.