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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for February 5, 2007
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

February 5, 2007

We have a great deal of mail this week. There are a lot of reports on the new Macs, several questions, and comments on last week. Begin with an exchange of letters:

Subject: - Umbrage with "January 29, 2007 Mailbag"
Importance: High

Jerry,

Sean is obviously not aware of how HP (Compaq) does business and it comment is not fair. IBM's (now Lenovo) T41p is a "commercial" not a consumer notebook. All of the service manuals (Maintenance and Service Guides - MSG) for HP/Compaq commercial notebooks are on HP's website. Additionally, many consumer MSGs are also available via our website or can be found via a quick Google search. The second hit for "removal replacement procedures zd8000" (helps to know our nomenclature) will bring up the MSG for the zd8000 notebook.

I've vented now. Hope you are feeling better.

Bill

I've pretty well recovered from my light dose of flu, thanks. I fear I am pretty ignorant of consumer grade laptops; I had a series of Compaq Armadas, one of which went through my desert adventure when I rolled the Bronco (link here) then the HP TabletPC 1100, and lately the Lenovo T42p. I also have two of the latest Lenovo systems. See this week's column.

While I have no bad words about Compaq laptops, I do have to say that when people ask me for a laptop recommendation at present I prefer Lenovo, in part because of their tech support and on-line service manuals.

I have to say that I haven't seen the latest Compaq systems. I can't look at everything.

And Sean replies:

Subject: Response to Bill

Dr. Pournelle,

Your correspondent "Bill" misses the point entirely about the lack of availability of service manuals from other computer manufacturers like Compaq. Of course I am aware of the difference between IBM/Lenovo and HP/Compaq's business models, and frankly I think HP/Compaq's business policy concerning support for consumer laptops sucks dead bunnies because it leaves mere consumers out in the cold after the warranty expires. They do not make the MSG for consumer laptops available and they use hardware requiring proprietary or specialty tools to assemble and disassemble.

I have no data on the new consumer-oriented laptops Lenovo has been selling recently, but IBM made the service guides to their ENTIRE laptop line available and they were ALL made to be easily disassembled using nothing more than a small screwdriver.

The point is that ALL laptops, commercial and consumer, ought to have available service manuals so even the lowliest consumer can service their laptops after the warranty runs out. When my wife's Compaq needed a hard drive replacement 2 years after warranty expiration, it took 3 days and 3 trips to hardware stores to figure out how to do it without damaging the computer and to get the required specialty tools. Further, a trip to google turned up no service guides and only 1 person who had documented their own unguided disassembly of that particular model. That is unacceptable in my book, regardless of whether it is a commercial or consumer level laptop.

Bill's defense of a crappy consumer business model makes it even less likely I'll buy any HP or Compaq computer in the future because he's confirmed the fact that they are making a deliberate attempt to prevent consumers from servicing their own computers after the warranty expires. That is among the worst kind of anti-consumer business tricks around. Imagine if car manufacturers would freely replace your tires for 2 years after buying a car, but after that 2 years you couldn't even take off the wheels without a proprietary tool only dealers have. And their excuse is that "your car is a consumer model and how DARE you claim the right to service your own car" Would you buy that car or even do business with that company?

Sean

I do note that I had no problems installing new memory and replacing the hard drive in my HP/Compaq TabletPC.


Subject: Intel Macs

Dr Pournelle,

I've enjoyed your writing since the mid-90s and Byte magazine, then later at Byte.com, and have to confess to only just now subscribing (link) to your collection of websites (and my apologies for having taken so long about it) so I hope you'll be adding my small contribution to the 'getting Jerry a new Intel Mac soon' fund.

But one thing concerns me; when you have a new Mac and everything 'just works' what are you going to write about..?

Best,

Peter Millard.

I guess I'll just have to muddle through. Actually, that's a good question, and I'll address it in the column. What do we do with reliable computer plenty?

And you will be pleased to know that the Intel Mac fund is growing as the subscriptions come in...

Continuing a theme:

Hi Jerry:

Thanks as always for your "day job" writing and for Chaos Manor et al. I subscribed, but I can't recall when. How would I know when I need to re-up?

On Intel Macs:

I have been building Intel and AMD PCs for myself and friends since the 8088 processor days, but I don't call myself an expert.

In the last year, I became interested in Macs and decided to give that world a try. When the Intel versions came out, I bought a 20" iMac with a gig of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. I immediately installed Windows XP Pro with Boot Camp.

Later, I bought a MacBook and upgraded its RAM to 1.25 gigs. On this, I installed XP Pro with Parallels.

Both machines are beautiful, bullet-proof, and rock-solid.

Here is my dilemma: They run Windows so well, I have not been much motivated to explore OS X! This is mainly due to the cost of Mac applications that essentially duplicate functionality that I get in Windows such as Office, and a few photo apps.

It could be worse. I have two really nice machines! I wish I could convince the IT guys at my employer to look at this. My company issued Dell laptop, though very competent, now seems boring.

Later,

Al Romig

You needn't worry, I'll let you know when it's time to renew.

That is an interesting dilemma, but I don't expect to have that problem when I get my new Intel based Mac. I'm rather anxious to experiment with Mac OS X. I never believed that UNIX could be made usable by normal humans, but clearly Mac OS X has managed that.


We also have another set of reports on the new Macs.

Jerry,

You said last week,

"Meanwhile, I have more reports on the new Macs. Given that the new Macs are generally in the hands of Mac enthusiasts, it's probably not flabbergasting that I have yet to receive a single negative report; but expected or not, it's significant data. Everyone I've heard from is happy with every variety of Mac, and that includes people running Windows XP and Vista under Parallels. You'd think that by now I'd have a few gripes, but so far, none. "

Here are some:

1. Sleep/wake can get problematic on Mac laptops. Sometimes the portables won't sleep when you close the lid, and later you find a screaming hot laptop in your case. The padding of a laptop case is also a great thermal insulator, so this is a serious issue. It appears to be maddeningly difficult to pin down the cause, but this is widely reported.

2. Wake/sleep display issues. This is just an annoyance, but the symptom is to have the screen go to blank pale blue before the machine wakes up. This appears to be related to using an external monitor, so when the machine wakes up it is performing some kind of check. However, this was not an issue before the 10.4.8 upgrade. No fix from Apple yet.

3. Various glitches in corporate Windows environments. Apple has come a long, long way in this regard, but some issues remain. The Mac OS puts "invisible" files on SMB shared network drives, but these files are often visible to Windows users, causing them much confusion. Workarounds and fixes exist, but the system should be less clunky.

4. Browser issues. I keep Safari, Firefox and Omniweb on my Mac so that, for any given web page, at least ONE of them will work correctly with said page. This isn't a "Mac" issue, but one of sloppy web coding that ignores standards, but from a users point of view it is an annoyance.

5. Speciality software is missing. I have WinXP and Parallels installed so I can use Arcview, Dragon Naturally Speaking and Polar Heart rate monitor software. These all work, but it is an annoying extra layer to contend with.

6. Battery life is not great. In fact, I couldn't even call it good. About 2.5 hours on my Mac book pro. The mania for thin computers also means thin batteries, and they are really thin on lifetime.

7. The spinning beachball of death still appears at odd times for no apparent reason.

8. Lots of applications have memory leaks. I run Activity Monitor set up so the dock icon shows a pie chart of memory usage. When it gets looking full of "in use" memory I go see which apps have the problem and quit then and relaunch. Safari is very bad about memory leaks. This does not require a restart or much interruption in a work flow, but it is a very annoying glitch on a MBP with 2 gigs of RAM!

9. MS Office is a sloth. Of course, that because it is running under Rosetta. Relief from this is still at least a year distant.

Most of these things are annoyances, not horrible problems, but you wondered about issues from mac users, so...

Chuck

Well. It's pretty clear my life will not be so tranquil that I will have nothing to write about. Thanks...

Dr. Pournelle,

I noticed your post that you hadn't heard any grumbles about the new Macs. I've had two for a couple weeks now. Both are set with 1G RAM (big mistake), have the 1.8Ghz Intel Dual Core, and run Windows XP Pro SP2 via Parallels. Please allow me to be the first to gripe about them.

The Windows environment is decent, but behaves a little sluggishly at times. It seems that the setup only allocates 256MB of RAM to run Windows, and I haven't figured out how to adjust this yet. Setting up Parallels was pretty straightforward, although getting the printer to run on the Windows side was slightly Byzantine.

I'm also having some real difficulty with video codecs when I try to play various media files in WMPlayer 11 (which itself could be the main culprit, I admit). Playing DVDs from the Windows side is also a major hassle to get going. I shouldn't have to download anything when I'm paying for two systems plus the shell app. In addition, while the whole Quicktime "3D Cube" slide transition between the two environments is very cute, there shouldn't be any need for the screen resolution to have to reset completely every time I switch from Mac to Windows. Not surprisingly, there are also major screen freezes every once in a while during these transitions, including at least three occasions where all I get is screen noise for a half-second. Not a good sign.

The Mac side runs great, of course, but I have some last comments about the hardware. I understand the logistical reasons why they put the keyboard so far back, but it still feels awkward. And naturally it's a real drag trying to work in Windows without a "right click". I'm getting an external mouse before I hit the road with them. I'm also thinking about one of those roll-up keyboards.

Thanks for the opportunity to complain. I'm not a hardcore Mac enthusiast, if that matters. I prefer to spend most of my time on a Windows machine. I use the Macs for video and graphic stuff, solely because that version of the software I use works better for me. So maybe that's why I'm not a completely satisfied customer. Perhaps things will improve as I continue to work with it and tweak the system. I'll obviously have to double the RAM on the primary unit. Bottom line, I would simply offer your own advice about Vista back to you: wait for the equivalent of the first Service Pack to come out.

Sincerely,

David Preiser

These elicited comments from my advisors, who already have their Intel Mac systems. Begin with Peter Glaskowsky, formerly Editor in Chief, Microprocessor Report:

Regarding Chuck's comments:

I haven't experienced any sleep/wake problems with my Mac. I've never heard of a Mac laptop failing to sleep when the lid is closed, but I only follow a couple of sources of Mac user reports.

I only bother with two browsers, Safari and Firefox. I could probably get by with only Firefox. I can't imagine how there could be a website that works better with Omniweb than Firefox-- Omniweb isn't popular enough for any website to target it specifically-- but I suppose it's possible.

Yes, there's Windows software that isn't available for the Mac. I don't seem to need any of it. There's also software for the Mac that isn't available for Windows. Like Mac OS X. :-)

Mac laptops have essentially the same battery life as Windows laptops with similar configurations, which is no surprise considering the motherboards are almost the same. The MacBook Pro comes with a 60 watt-hour battery, which is typical for Windows laptops. Yes, you can get extra-large batteries for some Windows laptops that stick out the back and add another half-pound of weight. You can also get a spare battery for a Mac laptop, and swap it in about twenty seconds including the time to put the machine into standby and wake it up again.

Yes, the beachball is annoying. I think Apple should solve this problem once and for all.

What he calls "memory leaks" probably aren't, but it's still a fair comment. Apple's software development tools would find true memory leaks. I think the memory-use growth he's seeing is caused by apps grabbing memory to cache things then deliberately not releasing it. Apple and some Mac developers need to be more careful about this.

MS Office doesn't seem especially slow to me.

Some of David Prieser's issues could be helped by changing preferences settings. Also he needs to learn the key combinations to bring up context menus in Mac OS (control-click) and Windows (annoyingly, different in Boot Camp and Parallels). It'll become second nature very quickly.

. png

I still use Internet Explorer for downloading from Microsoft, particularly when I am visiting the indispensable Microsoft Developer Network.

Chaos Manor Reviews Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey observes

I disagree with some of the comments on applications under OS X. OpenOffice is indeed actively maintained, and at the same revision level as its Windows counterpart. Yeah, it's an X Windows application, and it runs fine under the Apple X server (which is greatly improved in fonts handling with the latest revision). The big downside is different keystroke combos for cut and paste (though apps use the same buffer). ^C & ^V are cut and paste under X apps, where Option-C and Option-V are the equivalents in Aqua apps. The Aqua version is in active development, too, and I can't seem to trivially find a release schedule.

However, in the effort to make use of native features of the OS as much as possible, I chose to go with NeoOffice (link here) instead - it's an Aqua-native version of OpenOffice that is based on the OOo codebase, but it lags a revision beheind OpenOffice and is likely (IMO) to go away when OpenOffice finally releases their own native version. But in the meantime, it works for me.

Saying that something doesn't work without qualifying the "what" and "why" isn't very useful. For Aunt Minnie, it's entirely probable that ANY of the free Office suites will work fine. Clearly, NeoOffice, which doesn't require installing (then updating) the X server, is easier to deal with under OS X. And I can open and work with what you send me, just fine.

A final point - if people *want* the free products to work for them, but because X, Y and especially Z can't do what they want, they walk away ... Well, that's fine, but did they (a) report the bugs to the developers and (b) try a new version when notified to see if the bugs are resolved? Decent bug reports are right up there with donations on the most-needed list for most volunteer software efforts.

best,

.brian

And Captain Ron Morse says

Couple of thoughts on the new Macs. Ours is a 1GB model and Microsoft Office works acceptably quickly, compatibility layer or not. I will upgrade the RAM at some point, but I'm in no hurry to do so.

I never did get the OpenOfficeOrg Office Suite working very well on my MacBook Pro. In terms of user experience it is simply miles behind the Linux version. Our biggest complaints were screen rendering that got "weird" at times and the fact that the OOo suite is the only application that, for us, successfully locks up the OS/X desktop. Regularly. The interface differences didn't bother so much, but in the end the primary user decided that she wanted to return to Microsoft Office. I hope Bill and Melinda do something useful with their share.

For the correspondent who raised the issue of keyboard placement on the MacBook Pro...I completely agree, but there is hope. I note the Apple bluetooth wireless keyboard and the wireless mouse are available and work well. I rather like the keyboard. It (and the mouse) have "off" switches so I can throw them into a travel bag and not have a bunch of dead batteries on arrival.

Peter probably knows better than do I, but I wonder if the "memory leakage" reported was just the operating system making efficient use of installed RAM through caching?

Ron Morse

All of which goes in the log book for future experimentation. I am still torn between the MacBook Pro and the iMac, but I'll probably go with the laptop and a good external keyboard and monitor.

Finally, on the new Macs and software:

Subject: OneNote replacement for Mac -

Hi Jerry,

The Mac migration goes well, with a few surprises. I found iDefrag improves performance (no matter how good the Apple filesystem is). I ended up installing Parallels to run MS Money, which works great, but am trying to limit the amount of Windows software so that I use only applications without native options.

I did determine that there's really only two options for an office suite: MS Mac Office 2004, and iWork. OpenOffice for the Mac isn't actively maintained - it's still an X-Windows solution at the moment. NeoOffice isn't there yet. iWork'06 doesn't have a spreadsheet, so it's not an option at the moment, but that changes with '07. Mac Office is much nicer than the Windows version (the advantage of a clean code-base), and I'm looking forward to the iWork/Office 2008 battle later this year.

OneNote is a different story. MacWord 2004 has a notebook feature that is similar, but only partially functional. There's rumors/wishful thinking about a Mac OneNote, but the company has been at best silent, and at worst negative (pointing to the Word feature). I've looked at a bunch of alternatives, from Notebook, Notetaker, and DevonThink, and none really capture what OneNote can do. DevonThink is the most powerful asset manager and database, but it's not very good at taking notes and outlining. There's also purpose-built software out there for outlines (OmniOutliner - comes with the new MacBook pro for free), mind mapping, and even fiction and screenplay authoring, but I'm looking for more of an integrated solution.

After a lot of searching, I think I've found something close - Curio, from Zengobi.

While not perfect, it seems to be the best of the bunch. It's a little cumbersome (I recommend reading the feature overview and introduction), and requires some changes in paradigm, yet it's pretty powerful. The big gotcha is that outlines are objects, not formatting, and each outline level can hold objects (pictures, audio files, or even other outlines). Once I figured out that I can create a text block object and drop it into an outline item, it all fell into place and I'm off and running.

And as a bonus it comes with stationary that matches my beloved green e-paper!

I highly recommend that you give it a look when you're ready to migrate.

Cheers,

Doug

Thanks. I'll look into that. I find that OneNote with a TabletPC can change your life. Actually, OneNote without a TabletPC is enormously powerful for doing research and building articles and stories.

I haven't heard when a new Mac Office will be out. We can be sure there will be one. Gates used to boast that he made more money every time a new Macintosh was sold than Apple did, and I am sure his people haven't forgotten that.


Subject: DRM Redux

Jerry,

I sent my earlier Email prior to reading this week's Chaos Manor Mail. I believe that you have started to unravel a potentially troubling situation. However, until we see how protected HD content, Blu-ray and HDDVD, behave with the range of video drivers available for Vista, we really won't know if there is a problem or how severe it might be.

Change of subject:

I have a client who is starting a professional photography business. He has been using Photoshop and various plugins on a Windows XP system. The system has become woefully inadequate for his needs, so we investigated alternatives. One was building a custom Windows system, the other was going to a MAC Pro. While the MAC Pro solution was somewhat more expensive, around $6,000 versus $4,500, the advantage of dual Xeon dual core processors versus a single core 2 duo processor and up to 16 GB of memory versus a maximum of 8 GB sealed the deal. The stability of OS X and the lack of slow down over time evidenced by Windows systems was icing on the cake.

Now that we are into the migration, my client continues to be amazed by the speed of the MAC as well as by the consistency and elegant simplicity of the OS X user interface.

On to the speculation the OS X may be able to run under VMWare. There appear to be two problems that prevent OS X from running on a generic PC; device drivers and the MAC BIOS. The device driver problem should be easily overcome by VMWare since it can provide a virtual device that looks like a device that is supported by OS X. The BIOS problem is somewhat stickier since it may involve reverse engineering of the MAC BIOS and could run into legal problems.

There are arguments pro and con for Apple allowing something like this as well as allowing OS X to be used on generic PC Hardware. The biggest con is by opening up OS X to everything and anything the stability that OS X achieves while running on MAC hardware would most likely be lost through flaky device drivers.

Until the middle of last year I was essentially only a Windows PC user and only supported Windows for my clients. With the advent of the Intel MAC's and the desire of a client new to PCs to use a MAC I took a serious look and like what I saw. The availability of Parallels Desktop so that required Windows Applications could be run without a reboot sealed the deal. There clearly is a premium to be paid when the hardware is purchased, but my experience leads me to believe that the premium will be paid back several times over during the lifetime of the hardware through time saved chasing problems, irritations avoided and enhanced productivity.

I haven't yet tried Vista and don't yet have a burning desire to try it. I won't be recommending that my clients upgrade at this time, but I won't be recommending that they take Vista off a newly purchased system and install XP. I want to let others take the arrows in the back while I wait for at least SP 1 before making a decision.

Bob Holmes

Good advice on Vista. Vista is fun on a fast system that has the resources to do it well. I certainly wouldn't recommend installing it as an "upgrade" without a lot of thought and then only under unusual circumstances.

The DRM situation continues to be murky. It's not at all clear that Hollywood will be able to make use of the rights management technology they so painstakingly got installed. Not that they won't work, but the consumer backlash will be terrible. We'll just have to watch.


Jerry, are you aware of Carbonite for doing automatic backups across the internet?

It just works. You can recover files from the backup just by opening the Carbonite network drive from My Computer in XP. I've got over 12Gb of files backed up currently.

Regards, Larry Nolan

I'll have to look into that one. Thanks.


And finally, a discussion of Vista.

It began with a note from Chaos Manor Associate Rick Hellewell.

Good morning!

Link here: Tom's Hardware for article and charts showing various benchmark results for Vista.

...Rick..

Dan Spisak commented,

Yeah I saw this last night. My thoughts on it were:

1. I tend to take Tom's Hardware software reviews with a large grain of salt

2. For the most part Vista is looking 1-6% slower then XP except in the video encoding tests Tom's did, which I suspect greatly.

3. If you have a dual-core PC you really don't care about these performance numbers except for possibly the video encoding numbers which I find suspect.

4. Almost all of the software they tested is software that doesn't know anything about Vista. So if there are things in Vista the programs could use to their advantage, they arent. Tom's goes on about trying to train the SuperFetch algorithm on these systems but I wonder if what they did actually accomplished this or not.

They would appear to be using a recent version of the MainConcept H.264 encoder, but I can't find anything on the MainConcept site to suggest that Version 2.1.0 has had any enhancements made for working with Vista. Additionally, the Xvid test they did is using what looks like the latest unstable version of Xvid. The only people I know of who encode into Xvid are people trading pirated movies and recently aired TV shows via Bittorrent.

However frankly, MPEG-2 encoding performance is more interesting since real professionals do that for DVD authoring. As far as H.264 encoding goes I think more people use something like ProCoder 2.0 or more likely Sorensen Squeeze 4.5 for H.264/MPEG-4 video encoding.

So, is this an important article? Perhaps, but I think it just goes to show that Vista really isnt that much slower then XP is. Ditto power consumption also.

-Dan S.

And Eric Pobirs added

Well, I think it shows that Vista is where XP was at launch: in great need of optimized app updates and especially drivers. The driver issue is huge for performance needs in Vista right now.

The difference between Win2K and XP is far less than between XP and Vista, but I can recall almost identical comparisons back when XP appeared. Over time, the added functionality in XP came to matter far more than the added overhead. The value of Vista kicks in much more as the base of apps exploiting the new APIs like WPF grows. Expect to see a bit of whining from driver developers who've yet again had some of their quick and dirty methods taken away as MS upgraded recommendations to enforced rules, because that is the only way some of these folks comply.

This is why I don't consider the signed driver requirement for 64-bit a serious drawback. People with genuine need for 64-bit functionality likely value stability over minor performance gains. It's a point of separation between those who mostly play games vs. those who create the games.

-- Eric

The important point being that nothing is very different. For a long time Microsoft has sent out code in the fully justified (at least so far) expectation that utility trumps speed, and Moore's Law is going to bail them out on speed anyway. I recall versions of Windows for 80286-based systems that crawled so badly you simply could not use it to write books and articles. At the same computer show I also saw an ATI "Windows Accelerator" video card that solved the problem nicely.

There's always a short period during which things seem slow, but then comes a new generation of hardware. Windows 2000, I am told, is "faster" than Windows XP and by quite a lot. I wouldn't know; while I have some machines running Windows 2000 they are specialty systems not for general purpose use. I don't remember much about using Windows 2000, but I do remember it was often painful to get new peripherals working properly. My XP systems work quite well; of course they're running on hardware that would probably make Windows 2000 scream for joy.

And that's the situation on February 5, 2007.