Mac vs. PC cost analysis: How does it all add up?
It seemed to me that people who criticized this story missed the key points I was trying to get across:
1. This was a pure, hardware-based, speeds-and-feeds kind of comparison. I was comparing the hardware goods only, including CPU, chipset, RAM, video, display, hard-drive capacity and specs, ports and upgradeability, dimensions and weight, and so on. In other words, I was attempting to make an objective comparison that did not inject any evaluation about the hardware, anything at all about the software, or my personal experience with the operating systems and hardware involved. It was an on-paper comparison.
I did that purposely to lay the groundwork for further analysis about the value of Macs vs. Windows PCs. I started with the objective measures.
2. The main point I was trying to make is that when you compare Macs with comparably equipped Windows PCs, it may surprise you that, overall, Macs sometimes beat Windows PCs in the price/performance comparison. Sometimes Windows PCs do. Overall, there's relative parity.
There is a time component to this kind of analysis. The Windows PC makers lagged behind Apple for a while on the CPU front, but with the release of the Santa Rosa platform (Intel's marketing name is Centrino Pro), many are catching up again. The value meter may be tipping a bit toward Windows PCs now as a result. But this ebb and flow is a natural part of computer valuations. It never rests. Pricing is always in flux.
It's definitely true that Apple Mac pricing has not always approached parity. I've made this comparison before. Macs have clearly been more expensive than Windows PCs in the distant past. But if you're talking about name-brand Windows PCs from reputable manufacturers like Dell, HP, Toshiba, Acer, Gateway, Lenovo, and others, the out-the-door pricing is more or less on par.
There's an important point of comparison you need to recognize to fully understand the logic of my position. For a direct comparison to be made, there has to be a Mac SKU that directly equates to the exact set of features *you* want. And that's where we enter into the completely subjective realm and get away from intrinsic value. Just because you don't want this or that small feature that the Mac has, doesn't mean that everyone else doesn't want it. And vice versa. So if your desire is a specific set of features that fits in between a specific Mac SKU and the way it can be configured, then some Windows PC somewhere may, in fact, be a better value for you.
This point isn't unique to computer sales. Buy a Honda automobile, for example, and you'll find there are three or four models for any car type, and the only options are dealer installable. Like Honda, Apple has smartly positioned its specific models.
There's also a corresponding point to be made: The Macintosh lineup consists of five model lines and 12 basic SKUs (or specific models), each of which offers additional configuration. There are three desktop model lines and two notebook model lines. When you look closely at these model lines, there are economy, middle-of-the-road, and high-end models. Macs are no longer just premium computers. Apple changed its stance on that markedly over the past 10 years. If you're not that familiar with Macs, you have to open your mind, take a look at the different Mac models, and closely compare the specs to understand.
Dean Abanila, technology specialist at the Rhode Island School of Design, said it well: "I work with more than a few students and faculty looking for computer buying advice. Many are making PC-to-Mac transitions. Your analysis is dead on. At least twice per week I spec out both Macs and PCs for folks. More often than not, the Mac is cheaper, and this has been the case for some time now. Before I start to sound like a Mac fan boy, let me say that I often recommend PCs, and will continue to do so. I support both platforms here at RISD. As I am sure you are aware, recommendations depend on the user's goals."
One last hardware point: I agree with those of you who wrote to say you're with me on the comparison, but as purchasers of corporate microcomputing hardware they feel Apple doesn't have a product that meets their needs. I've written about this in the past and am contemplating a Computerworld column on the point again. Apple has a huge opportunity right now with the pushback on Vista and the upswing in Mac sales to release a Mac designed for business.
At my company, where there are many new Mac users, the MacBook Pro 15 has become the standard. But that's a pretty expensive computer for some companies to justify. I think the MacBook might be a solid alternative for some companies, and its pricing is more in line, or even advantageously priced, when compared with small-screen Windows notebooks from Lenovo and others. But there's room for a MacBook business machine that has a better keyboard, a better-looking case, and probably some other minor tweaks. I also don't think the iMac is a great desktop computer for business. I don't like the integrated monitor from a support perspective.
There's room for Apple do something here, but the real problem for Apple is that it doesn't have a corporate sales channel to speak of. It's a retail-oriented B2C company, not a B2B company. Some enterprises are ignoring those downsides, though. Computerworld's cover story this week is about Tacoma, Wash.-based Auto Warehousing Co.'s decision to dump a major part of its IT infrastructure and PCs in favor of Apple servers and Macs. It does happen.
So much for the recap from last month. A lot of people have asked me to dive into the software comparison between Macs and PCs. Software needs, however, are far more variable than hardware needs. For example, some people are required to use Microsoft Word, Excel, and/or PowerPoint. They would be forced to either buy or get their companies to buy Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac, which sells for $399 list.
I know that some of you believe that alternative office products negate the need for anyone to use Microsoft Office for the Mac. That simply isn't true. There are interoperability issues with even the best alternative office apps. Trust me on this, some of us are required by our companies to use the Microsoft product.
On the other hand, some people don't have those constraints. They might be very happy, indeed, with a product such as NeoOffice, the free, open-source Mac office suite based on the OpenOffice.org office suite.
So how do we figure this out? Do we tote up $400 or no? It's much harder to generalize about software. It's not easy to draw fair comparisons about software on a level playing field. I believe each person has to make his or her own assessment on the software front. Here's are some factors I think you should weigh in considering the software side of analyzing Mac vs. PC costs:
1. There is plenty of software available from the Mac, both from established software houses and from individuals. Surprisingly, there are more products in some product categories than there are for Windows. For example, every time I turn around, I stumble across another project management tool for the Mac. There are more browsers for the Mac than there are for Windows. I don't think Windows users realize just how many software product categories Microsoft has come to own. It's true, though, that in some categories, there are only two or three Mac offerings. All in all, though, there is a very solid, rich spread of software makers creating Mac applications. As a long-time software reviewer, I've been surprised by the quality of these applications, too.
2. The $80 Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualization application lets you run Windows and Linux very seamlessly on your Intel Mac and switch between Mac and Windows, for example, with a simple keyboard command. It's even possible to run Windows applications as if they're running in the Mac interface, and to associate data files on the Mac with Windows applications. This extremely powerful tool literally gives you access to all your Windows applications on your Mac. Parallels is one of the best software utilities I've tested in years. It adds a huge chunk of software value to any Macintosh purchase. Apple's free Boot Camp beta software is less convenient, but it offers the same ability to run Windows on your Mac. VMware's forthcoming Fusion virtualization tool for the Mac will compete with Parallels.
3. You don't need security software. OK, so I'm not one of those Mac users who chortles up his sleeve about security. I take it seriously. And I don't think the Mac is inherently immune from security threats. But the real-world truth right now is that most security threats are aimed at criminal financial gain, and the Mac's market share is just too small to be a cost-effective target. I mean, really, which would you pirate? The giant cargo ship with the gangplank resting on the dock, or the buttoned-up tugboat moored 100 yards offshore? Other than software to block spam, Mac users don't need any of the security products that Windows users absolutely require antivirus, anti-malware/spyware, identity-theft protection, anti-bot, and so on. (The Mac comes with built-in firewall software.) There's definitely a cost savings because of this. And I suppose we could work up some numbers based on annual subscription fees and the need to upgrade to new versions of security products every year or two. This does add up over time, but it's not really a big chunk of change.
To me, the far more important cost is the system overhead, user distraction, system instability, and the need for user troubleshooting that Windows security software entails.
Kenneth Burton, a technical director for a school system, emailed me with the same thought: "What about the issue of spyware and antivirus software? One of the reasons I switched to a Mac at home two years ago was because of the hassle of cleaning up the computer after my 16-year-old son."
Another reader, Rudy Wolf, agrees: "Having just made the switch myself (we now own four Macs), I have to take exception to your [first article in this series]. You didn't go far enough! Where is the discussion about the hours I used to spend messing with Symantec's Norton utilities and Windows utilities to keep my Windows PCs running and optimized? I have personally gained one to two hours per week because I no longer have to maintain four Windows PCs. My MacPro is now almost two years old. In that time, I have not run one utility to defragment its disk, optimize the system, or upgrade software. The worst I've had to do is press the Enter key a few times when the computer upgraded itself (flawlessly each time). I don't know about others, but getting back 50-100 hours a year is a savings that has to be factored into the equation."
4. Software is cheap. Unless you're talking AutoCAD, Photoshop, or Microsoft Office, software isn't all that expensive, folks. Just two hours of my time spent working on a Windows PC problem is worth far more than the average cost of most software programs. Even if you're retired, you have to factor in the time wasted wrestling with problems. The point I'm trying to make is that, OK, so you may have to back your Mac purchase with an investment in software, but you had to do the same thing with your Windows purchase at some point. It's a cost of doing business. But more important, you can amortize the cost of the software against the time you'll save not wrestling with stupid PC problems. There is a very real savings there that's difficult to measure or quantify. That benefit is at once supremely valuable and difficult to quantify. The problems you face with Windows are very definitely a cost to using that operating system and hardware.
Remember the Yugo, a car introduced to the U.S. in 1984 whose main claim to fame was that it was incredibly cheap, woefully underpowered, and highly trouble prone? Yugos spent a lot of time in the shop. In considering the savings on the purchase price, Yugo buyers probably didn't factor in lost personal time, aggravation, repair charges, and what they were paying for transportation when their cars were being repaired. This is the very definition of penny wise and pound foolish. I'm not saying that Windows is a Yugo, believe me. But reverse the picture: The Mac represents the most reliable vehicle you can buy (perhaps a Toyota?). There's a hidden value to having far fewer problems than average. And a big segment of the computer-using market place doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that.
No Lie: Impressive Reliability
The single most frustrating thing about being a Mac user is the disdain with which some Windows users view Macs. Apparently you're not a real man or woman unless you're suffering with everyone else.
The thing is, I don't think Windows users (I know, I was one myself for many years) give much credence to the notion that Macs are far more trouble-free. Because it's difficult to quantify it must therefore be false. It's a subjective data point. As a long-time Windows author, reviewer, and expert, I know that I felt that I could solve any Windows problem (and probably could), and as a result, the Mac's advantages held less benefit for me.
But I was wrong about that. The unexpected advantage I gained is that using my computer is more enjoyable. My concentration isn't broken periodically by problems, updates, security pop-ups, and the like. I'm not thinking that I'm using a Mac. I'm thinking about what I'm using the computer to do what I'm reading, writing, figuring, buying, watching, etc. The Mac becomes just so much chrome wrapping the data I'm interacting with. You're not conscious of your television set while you're watching it. That's the way it is with a Mac. I found that much harder to achieve on Windows PCs, which are constantly drawing attention to themselves.
Another reader put it this way: "I've been saying this for a while now. If you compare Apples to Apples (pardon the pun) then Macs are more often than not cheaper or at least price competitive. The thing your article didn't touch on was the value you can't quantify with Macs: Not having to worry about malware, not having to rebuild your machine every six months because the registry has gotten corrupted, or not having to deal with some dodgy driver that takes the system down. Your article didn't describe the [overall pleasant] Mac experience.
"A recent switcher to the 'Cult of the Mac,' I've often wondered why I waited so long. I am a professional software developer, using Windows and Visual Studio, so I have a lot of Windows pain most days. I wish I could do all my dev work on the Mac. I see that being a major barrier to switching for most of my peers, even though there are great apps like Parallels and Boot Camp that could help. There's a lot of ignorance about Apple for some reason among us technical types. A programmer at work said yesterday that he hated Apple. I asked whether he'd ever used a Mac. Nope." --James Sugrue
He'd probably hate chocolate if he hadn't tried it, too.
Apple's Mac mini is a Trojan horse (not the malware kind) whose entire purpose is to be low-cost enough to entice Mac-curious Windows users to give the Mac a try. The Mac mini is neither powerful nor portable. But it works just fine and will definitely give you the Mac experience. Or consider this: You can rent Macs. They're not cheap, but it's a lot less than buying even a new Mac mini.
You're not going to believe it until you try it yourself. I didn't.
In a upcoming issue of the newsletter, I expect to write another installment on this subject. I hope to address Macintosh total cost of ownership (TCO), the average length of time people keep their Macs, and Mac resale values, among other things.
I welcome your input on this subject. What I value especially are fact-based arguments on either side of the question.
Scot's Newsletter's Unexpected Change of Address
Doesn't it figure? I haven't put out a call for monetary contributions to Scot's Newsletter in roughly a year. In the last issue, I finally did. And, of course, that request ran into a snag.
There are two ways to send your donations to Scot's Newsletter. All PayPal contributions reached me fine. But I can't say the same about checks or cash sent via conventional postal mail. At some point in May or June, the UPS Store terminated my account for failure to pay the next year's annual fee. I didn't know about it because the company contacted me by sending the bill to my UPS Store box, not my address on file. Before the UPS Store bought out Mail Boxes Etc., I received notification if I didn't pick up my bill before the due date. Not only had the UPS Store terminated my box, it had already re-rented it. When I walked in a week or two back to pick up my mail, the clerk handed me some other guy's package.
In the end, the clerk found a small stack of letters to me in the back room that they gave me, all of which had June or very early July postmarks. If you've sent me something recently to the old address, I'm not going to get it.
I have a new box from the USPS, which came with some advantages like it costs 50% less. Buh-bye, UPS Store. The new address is listed on the Scot's Newsletter Donations page.
What If You Sent a Donation by Letter Mail?
On July 9, I deposited all the checks sent to the old address that I'm ever going to see. It wasn't that many. If you sent your check since July 7, you sent it to the correct address, and I'll get it shortly.
If you sent a check in May, June, or early July and have online banking, please login to see whether your check has cleared. If you're not sure, feel free to contact me to ask whether I received your donation. If we come to the conclusion that your check was lost in the mail, canceling the check is an option although, some banks charge more than you probably sent to cancel your check. My guess is that anything I didn't get will be tossed out.
Once you've checked on your end whether your check has already cleared, please feel free to contact me to ask whether I received your donation. If we come to the conclusion that your check was lost in the mail, cancelling the check might be an option although, some banks charge more than you sent me to cancel your check. My guess is that whatever you sent was tossed out.
My apologies. And thanks to everyone who donated. It helps.
Buying a Plasma, But Asks for Contributions?
It occurred to me that I might get this. A couple of people emailed me to question how I could be planning a plasma TV purchase and asking for donations in the same month.
While one of the messages was well meaning and kindly, I have to say that it's frustrating to devote an entire weekend every month, as well as several evenings throughout the month, to the research and production of this newsletter and then have people wonder about my motives.
First of all, I never claimed or promised to be poor. This is a moonlighting endeavor. I have a real job like everybody else. Nobody but me really pays for the newsletter. Check that ad rates: I'm not making much money there, and I'm no salesman. The time I put into this effort comes out of time with my family. My time isn't compensated at all. I'm not making a profit on the newsletter. My request for contributions is purely about financing the technology products and services I test. Even then, the fees for advertising and your welcome donations don't cover my costs.
Twists and Turns on the Road to the Best Software Firewall
I have several bits of info for the hoppers of those following along in my quest to find the best software firewall for Windows.
For those of you new to the saga, you'll need to catch up with the rest of us by reading (or at least scanning) these previous articles:
More on Software Firewalls for Windows (June 2007)
Update: Software Firewalls for Windows XP (April 2007)
Kicking off a Software Firewall Comparo (Sept. 2006)
Or, to get an up-to-date story that covers the bases of the three links above, including updated information, see this Computerworld story: Review Roundup: Slim Is in for Windows Desktop Firewalls (June 2007).
With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, on to the twists and turns.
Eset Smart Security Not So Stellar
Admittedly, I'm testing Beta 1b of Eset Smart Security, and rumor has it that Beta 2 is due out shortly. But I recently conducted a FirewallLeakTester.com-style leak test of Eset Smart Security, and the results weren't good. For more information on the set of leak tests I used, please see my review of the free version of ZoneAlarm 7.0.337 in the last issue of this newsletter.
Eset Smart Security Beta 1b passed only two of the 17 off-the-shelf leak tests I ran on it a very poor score. ZoneAlarm free, for example, scored five of 16 tests. Comodo 2.4, the best firewall according to the Matousec leak tests, passed 24 of 26 tests with its default settings; it passed them all after reconfiguration of the firewall.
I suspect that Eset is relying on its suite's Nod32 anti-malware module to protect its customers from personal/financial information harvesting and Trojan malware. Indeed, in order to test the Eset firewall, I was forced to disable Nod32. There was no way to even copy the small leak test programs on the Windows desktop (or anywhere) on my test PC without Nod32 interrupting and automatically deleting those files. Eset is attacking the problem in another way. And it may, in fact, be the right way.
A couple of weeks back, I had a long talk with Symantec's Tom Powledge, the product marketing manager in charge of Norton Internet Security, Norton 360, Norton AntiBot, Norton SystemWorks, and Norton AntiVirus. While he wasn't directly referring to Eset's product, he described functionality in the latest version of Norton Personal Firewall, Norton 360, and Norton Internet Security that also goes about protecting your computer from data-harvesting malware that requires very little input from users and is not dependent on the firewall. Both companies are heavily employing heuristics-based techniques for identifying and rapidly stopping the execution of malware products on your computer.
Powledge believes, in fact, that outbound leak testing is fairly useless. He believes that many firewall software makers game the system by adding code for the specific tests. The thinking goes and I don't disagree with it that the firewall is not the right tool for blocking this type of threat. This is why Norton is now offering Norton AntiBot, and its suite products have several ID theft measures. I have pledged to myself to test both Norton Personal Firewall 2008 (when it comes out this fall) and Norton 360 (again). Norton 360 doesn't meet the requirements I've set for either Best Antivirus or Best Firewall products. But it's Symantec's attempt to reduce the system footprint of its security suite. I looked at it in beta only, so now I'll look at the shipping product.
There can be no doubt that antivirus and anti-malware technologies have merged. There's becoming less and less need to run separate signature-based file-scanning engines for viruses and spyware. That's especially the case if the security products are actively employing behavioral-based techniques for finding and eradicating all types of malware.
Bottom line: I'm testing firewalls at a time when it appears that the need for outbound protection has never been stronger, but also, when the thinking about how to add that layer of protection is changing, perhaps profoundly.
On the other hand, if you're going to have a software firewall running on your system, wouldn't you rather have one that stopped as many illicit outbound connections as possible? Matousec's test methodology is hyperaware of firewalls that may be attempting to game the system. The security agency runs a test called FPR (Fake Protection Revealer) that attempts to ferret out custom coding to specific leak tests. They have publicly named names of companies whose products appear to be doing that based on their test data.
Check out this info Matousec provides about issues with specific firewall products.
In the end, security is about layers of protection. I'll admit that my money has long been on heuristic (behavioral) based techniques employed in combination with signature-based identification of malware as the guts of the best security products of the future. But heuristics technology still has a way to go before it can cover all bases. And the threat keeps morphing. In the meantime, and possibly for the long run, I want the best firewall I can get.
The Plot Thickens Around Comodo
Apparently, not everyone is having as great an experience with Comodo 2.4 as I am. I'm running it on three test machines, including on the Parallels-based Windows XP that runs on my everyday Mac. I'm having no problems at all. It's working like I want it to, and I see pop-ups very infrequently. And when they do appear, they make sense.
Since the 2.4 release, though, I have received a handful of messages from Scot's Newsletter readers describing problems with Comodo that caused them to remove it from their computers. Bruce Marien was one of the readers who wrote in. Here's how Bruce described the problem on his PC:
"My problems arose after only a few days of use. I noticed that Comodo didn't seem to remember responses I clicked in the pop-up windows (something you mentioned having been problematic in an earlier version of Comodo). Then I started losing Internet connectivity. My cable modem company's diagnostic tool flagged my system as having changed from dynamic to static access. Running the diagnostic tool's repair function did correct the issue temporarily, but it always came back. Other times the diagnosis was corruption in my TCP stack and it was unable to effect a repair. At that point, the only fix was to reboot the cable modem and my computer. This got old fast and I uninstalled Comodo."
Bruce is not alone in having difficulty with Comodo. Lockergnome's Ron Schenone blogged about similar problems with Comodo last December.
Other people are reporting issues with pop-ups. I had the same problems with an earlier version of Comodo, but since the release of Comodo version 2.4, those woes have been purely a thing of the past for me. SFNL reader Ernie Marshburn is having this problem, and this is how he describes it:
"Comodo's protection level is fine but I am constantly pinged with pop-up messages about authorizing applications, mostly Outlook. More annoyingly, many of the messages have multiple screens, which I guess must be checked individually. If this were only the first instance when I was being asked, it wouldn't bother me. But the exact same messages reappear frequently and, it seems, at random without any apparent relationship to what's actually happening on the computer."
In a later message, Ernie specifically mentions multiple repeat Comodo pop-ups related to Outlook, IE, Acrobat, ccApp (a Norton AntiVirus subroutine), and Microsoft Word.
I have to agree with Ernie that the way Comodo gangs up multiple pop-ups in a single window that you step through like a wizard is less convenient than it might be and also might be missed by some people. While it does cut down on the apparent number of pop-ups, you still have to step through each separate message and click the checkbox so that the program will "remember" your answer. Is it possible some people don't realize that they have to do that? I suppose so; on the other hand, Ernie got that.
More likely, however, is another explanation. There's a setting in Comodo's Security > Advanced > Miscellaneous > Configure area that controls the level of pop-ups Comodo displays. By default, that setting is "low" in Comodo 2.4. It's at least possible that some people are seeing a blizzard of pop-ups because they either changed this setting to "high" or upgraded a pre-existing installation of Comodo that had a higher setting.
Just as this issue was getting ready to mail, Ernie found that the pop-ups level setting in his Comodo installation was set to "high." Setting it to low helped considerably, although he's still seeing more pop-ups than I am.
While writing this article, I installed Comodo on a fourth machine. And, again, by default the pop-ups are minimal. Some people are having issues, but many others are not. I'm interested in your firsthand experiences with the 2.4 version of Comodo. Please send me your thoughts in an email message.
It would help greatly if you could list for me the applications that the pop-ups are related to, as Ernie did.
Comodo 3.0 Is Close
I got an email from a Comodo marketing VP letting me know that Comodo 3 is about six weeks away from release. I don't have much detail on the product, but some of the product features are listed on this Comodo Forums post.
The most notable changes are Windows Vista support (both 32 bit and 64 bit) and a host-intrusion-prevention system (HIPS) module both of which should be welcome additions.
Reminder: This evaluation focuses on software firewalls for Windows XP SP2. More and more software firewalls are being updated to support Vista, but at the time that I started this work, not enough of them supported Vista to make that a useful endeavor.
Status of this Test
I continue to favor Comodo 2.4 as the likely winner of this evaluation. I have ruled out all of the other contenders. No other product has a similar compromise of excellent protection and decent ease of use. But I'd like to give it another few weeks to hear from people who may be having problems. Given that a new version of the product is coming out, I may also wait to at least test a beta or the final version.
During this interim period, if you're making a firewall selection, my recommendation would be to select Comodo 2.4. It's free, so if you don't like it, you can back out of it.
- iPhone Lust? Get Over It
- Good News About FiOS TV
- Those Relentless Browser Wars
- The New 'Santa Rosa' MacBook Pro 17
- My Panasonic Plasma Purchase
- MyRealBox and Modomail Follow-Up
iPhone Lust? Get Over It
Hey, if I were you, I'd buy it. But I'm me, and I have to get over it. I've bought one too many things of late. Worse, I was a total iPhone Luddite. What, no 3G? Gawd, who wants that! Besides, it looks huge on in the TV ads. Plus, $60 to $100 a month, for AT&T's network? I ... don't ... think ... so.
And then my buddy Ken Mingis placed the one he bought after pledging with me that he would not buy one, I might add in my hand. The universe tilted. I entered an altered state of being. And my mouth dropped open. I had to have one. Had to!
So 3G or not, I'd probably be buying one. If I could. But my wife, Cyndy, would probably make me sleep out back in the shed (along with the mystery mammal that's living beneath it). And she'd have cause. Apple's iPhone is darn expensive when you consider the two-year contract. And as you'll see, I haven't exactly been frugal lately.
But that the iPhone is expensive is about all I can say bad about it. It's much smaller than it looks on TV, offers a lot of cool functionality, and it would fit better in my jeans pocket than either of my current cell phones. The screen is gorgeous, the operation intuitive, and while the keyboard might be an issue, the many applications have some ingenious innovations, in the style we've come to expect from Apple.
So here I sit dreaming up a reason to buy an iPhone next year. Maybe. In the meantime, if you're waiting on 3G, maybe you should reconsider and go out and gitcha one now. This article from AnandTech, which, naturally, Ken (my wife calls him a bad influence) passed to me, offers realistic reasons why 3G may not be coming to an iPhone near you any time soon: No 3G on the iPhone, but Why? A Battery Life Analysis (AnandTech).
It's not just the battery life either. According to AnandTech, quoting a Steve Jobs interview in the Wall Street Journal, the 3G circuitry might have made the iPhone bigger. That would not have been good. Not at all.
Since you can connect your iPhone wirelessly to any Wi-Fi network, surfing speed isn't as much of a big deal. Even AT&T's EDGE network isn't terrible at 100kbps. For Web surfing and email, it's OK. It's definitely not up to snuff for YouTube though.
I know you're probably growing a little indifferent to all the iPhone coverage, but this is truly good content. Check out Computerworld's iPhone reviews and video. The seven-minute video, in particular, gives the best view on what it's like to use the iPhone.
iPhone Demo: The Video
First look at the iPhone: Tomorrow's technology today
Hands on: Five things I love, and three I don't, about the iPhone
Macworld Review: Apple's iPhone lives up to prelaunch buzz
Good News About FiOS TV
I've already made my decision. For now, I'm sticking with Comcast for HDTV and cable. But I'm willing to admit that, very likely, some of my concerns about the potential to impinge on FiOS Internet bandwidth may have been unfounded.
Martin Heller, a past colleague of mine who reads the newsletter, wrote me to tell me that he tested FiOS TV related to my concern about erosion of broadband Internet performance while data-intensive, on-demand programming was being downloaded and played, and the results are very encouraging. Martin wrote:
"I did a controlled FiOS speed test using the Speakeasy.net speed test, with and without an on-demand movie playing. Internet bandwidth was not affected by the TV in my tests: I measured 20Mbps down and 4Mbps up whether or not on-demand programming was playing.
"I did notice some latency that seemed to correlate with the TV activity. Without any TV activity, the speed test dial jumped immediately to 10+, moving up more gradually from there. With the on-demand movie going, it took a second for the speed reading to go up, but by the end of the test it was at essentially the same value as the tests run without TV activity."
Thank you, Martin, for performing this test.
This doesn't address all my problems with FiOS TV; I don't like the Actiontec router they want me to use, nor the way the connections are configured. Most of all, though, as a typical customer, I had trouble getting Verizon to give me a straight answer about how this works. I suspected that Verizon had protected the Internet bandwidth, but wanted to understand how that was accomplished.
But because of the newsletter, I was able to get a back channel directly to the some Verizon FiOS engineers who explained to me why Martin's tests worked.
One of SFNL's readers, Peter Gray, a recently retired Verizon engineer, contacted Verizon's engineers on my behalf. I was emailed this statement from Jimmy Ho, one of Verizon's FiOS engineers:
"The Verizon network is capable of speeds higher than what a customer signs up for. Even though a customer opts for, in [your case], the 15Mbps service, the rate limiting is only performed on the data service while the video service, which is carried in the same 1490 downstream, utilizes a much higher limit."
Thanks to Peter Gray for facilitating this communication, and to the Verizon engineers and product managers who were part of the discussion. Between Martin's tests and this explanation, I now understand how it works and believe it.
It's a shame the two support people and the field tech I talked to before I terminated my installation couldn't have given me this information. In the field tech's defense, he at least wanted to explain but hadn't been given the information.
Just as I was getting ready to mail this issue of the newsletter, I was contacted by Frank Boersma, Director, STB & In-Home Network Engineering, Verizon Video Network Services. I hope to talk to him later this week about the Actiontec router.
Those Relentless Browser Wars
- Apple's Safari for Windows and Mac
- Firefox 3's Progress
- Camino 1.5 for the Mac
In the wake of Microsoft's IE7 update, other key browsers are revving in the near future. Both Apple and Mozilla are planning browser upgrades, and as you by now know, Apple's Safari will be released for Windows too.
It's great to see Apple planning new things for its browser, but it needs to make its product more mainstream on the Internet. If nothing else, Web development teams will be able to test to the Windows version of Safari before they release their code to their Web sites. Although in these betas, the Mac and Windows versions of Safari don't always render Web pages the same way. Perhaps even more important, Apple's stance that the iPhone display the exact same Web as other computers, and the fact that its browser is, of course, Safari-based, means that the offering of Safari for Windows will help Web development teams the world over inadvertently make Web pages work better on iPhone. Score one for Apple.
That said, the current beta of Safari for Windows isn't a great Windows product. Hopefully Apple will attempt to pay more attention to Windows conventions before it ships the product. My guess is that it won't, though. I don't think Apple is out to dominate the end-user browser market. It has set it sights on winning the mobile market with iPhone. Lower-priced phones are needed to make that a reality, but Cupertino has a chance to do just that. It has definitely leapfrogged the competition with the iPhone. So look at Windows Safari as a building block for that goal, not something that's truly aimed at browser market share.
One question I still have for Apple (I keep meaning to ask them): Will Safari 3 be released separately for OS X 10.4 Tiger when or around the time that OS X 10.5 Leopard ships (currently expected in October)? Or will you have to upgrade to Leopard to get the new version of Safari? Given the huge public beta running on Tiger, one hopes that Apple doesn't stiff its user base on that. The same question applies to Boot Camp, by the way.
In case you haven't noticed, Mozilla has offered its Alpha 6 release of Firefox 3. You'll find information and download links for Windows, Mac, and Linux on the Release Notes page. Please read this entire document before installing the Firefox 3 alpha to avoid issues with your current Firefox installation. This Mozilla Firefox 3 Milestone Schedule appears to be the most up-to-date roadmap for Firefox 3. It was last updated on July 9th, as I write this.
It projects one more alpha release at the end of July. Unlike some previous major Firefox efforts, Mozilla appears to be doing more work in the alpha phase. So the notes project that alpha 7 will represent a feature freeze (feature complete) build. So, while they might still tweak features, they're not expecting to add any features in the beta phase. With the first beta they're projecting to freeze the user interface of the browser. The wording allows a little wiggle room to add some smaller features at the last minute into the first beta.
Mozilla's project planners expect the two betas to be released on September 18 and October 16. From past experience, Mozilla's roadmap is just an estimate. It's what its engineers hope to do. They make no promises about dates, and that's as it should be. It does appear that the open-source development team expects to release the shipping version of Firefox 3 some time in November of this year.
I'm not going to try to fathom the features in Firefox 3 for this little story, but if you want to wade through the Mozilla documents yourself, I'd start here, and I'd also look at this page.
For some Mac users, Safari seems a little lackluster and Firefox lacks Mac-specific fit and finish. Those people may adopt the Camino browser, a Mac-only program based on the same Gecko browser engine the powers Firefox. There's a lot to like about Camino, but the big problem for me is that it doesn't support extensions. Until recently, it was also using the Firefox 1.5 browsing engine instead of the newer Gecko 1.8.1 Firefox 2 engine. Camino was recently updated to version 1.5, though, and that problem is solved. Camino 1.5 also picks up many of the Firefox 2 features, such Web-based spelling, feed detection, session restore, and upgraded tabbed browsing. (See Camino 1.5 Release Notes for more details.)
The New 'Santa Rosa' MacBook Pro 17
Just as I was sending last month's newsletter, Apple released a significant update to its MacBook Pro line. Among other things, the 15-inch model got an LED screen, which I've examined closely. It's very bright, and consistently so across the entire screen. The MacBook Pro LCDs are almost as bright, but like all LCDs, they have minor anomalies, and they tend to fade a bit with age. The expectation is that the LEDs will be more consistent and won't fade so much. I couldn't find any downsides to 15-inch LED screen, but I'm interested to hear from readers who have it. If you do, please send me a note and let me know what you think of it.
The new 17-inch MacBook Pro also came with a surprising set of upgrades. Finally, the 17-inch model offers 1,920-by-1,200-pixel resolution. That had been a glaring omission in the previous MBP line. The new higher-resolution display is a $100 option. I vastly prefer this resolution for this size screen. It gives you a lot more screen real estate. Some people may find that some things are too tiny for comfort, but Apple does a much better job than Microsoft at creating UI structures that work well in multiple resolutions. So, for example, the tiny colored dots that let you close, minimize, and expand Finder and program windows appear to be the same size no matter what resolution you're in. The only issue you may have is with the text of some Web pages. Safari has an optional toolbar button pair that lets you increase the font size of the current Web page up or down one notch. (The Command+ and Command- keyboard combos also handle this.) That was only the only adjustment I needed to make for my aging eyes.
In addition to the new high-res screen, the new MBP 17 has Intel's faster Intel Santa Rosa chipset running a Core 2 Duo at 2.4GHz and an 800MHz frontside bus. The new MBP 17 comes with 2GB RAM standard (supporting up to 4GB of RAM), and there's a $150 7,200-rpm 160GB hard drive option. Standard equipment delivers a 5,400-rpm 160GB drive, and there's also an optional 4,200-rpm 250GB drive.
Graphics moved up a little to Nvidia's GeForce 8600m GT graphics processing unit with 256MB of GDDR3 SDRAM. It offers dual display and video mirroring and external display at resolutions up to 2,560 by 1,600 pixels.
The new MBP 17 is identical in appearance, size, and weight to the previous generation. In fact, in all other details that I could find (see Apple's spec page), it's identical to the previous generation.
Computerworld's Ken Mingis and I each bought this new machine, and we wound up configuring our purchases identically (with the glossy high-res screen and the 7,200-rpm 160GB hard drive). You can buy the new MBP 17 for $2,799 (same price as the previous generation). With these two upgrades, the list price increases to $3,049 (see Apple's options configuration page). I paid a lot less because of one of the benefits of signing up to Apple's ADC developer program, which costs over $500, is a decent discount on one Apple hardware purchase during the one-year membership period. My price was just over $2,400.
I followed Ken's lead and tried a new RAM vendor to upgrade to 4GB of RAM. Large RAM upgrades under Windows often leave you wondering why you bothered, since there's rarely more than a minor noticeable performance improvement. But this 2GB upgrade on the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro had a noticeably positive effect. It runs much faster after you double the RAM size.
Apple charges way too much for RAM upgrades. It's cheaper to take Apple's default 2GB of RAM on this computer and then purchase two 2GB RAM sticks, replacing the Apple RAM, than it is to buy the 4GB upgrade from Apple at the time of purchase.
Ken and I each bought two 2GB DIMMs for the new MacBook Pros for $215 from OtherWorldComputing.com. Unfortunately, the price has gone up to $228.50 since then. But it's still a pretty good deal. Other World Computing also offers a $50 rebate on your original 2GB of Apple RAM if you fill out a form and ship your RAM to them.
Another low-cost RAM vendor with which Mr. Mingis and I have had good luck is Data Memory Systems. DMS's version of this 4GB kit is $238, but without a rebate option.
The OWC DIMMs have run perfectly on both new Macs.
After several weeks using the new MacBook Pro 17 as my main computer, it's hard to imagine a better notebook computer. It is the best notebook of any operating system that I have ever used. There are no tiny miscues or fit and finish issues. Other than the keyboard, which isn't on par with that of a Lenovo notebook, I have no wish list at all. The only nit I can find with this computer is that it runs hotter than the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro 17 it replaces. In particular, whenever I launch Parallels running Windows XP, this Mac forces me to find some sort of large magazine or pillow to place on my lap as a heat buffer. Otherwise, my legs start baking. My guess is that the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro 15 gets even hotter because the case is smaller and can't dissipate the heat as well.
For excellent additional information of the new MacBook Pro 17, check out the Computerworld review by Ken Mingis: First look: The new MacBook Pro 17, now with hi-res screen.
My Panasonic Plasma Purchase
In the June newsletter I wrote that I was "picking plasma now," and I asked for input on Panasonic's 50-inch 1080p HDTV model TH-50PZ700U.
I didn't get any comments on the specific model, but I was already sold on it. I took a quick look at it running a Blu-ray DVD in the store, and that was it. I got a pretty good deal on this model from Circuit City that included 0% interest and no payments until January of 2009. That gives me 18 months to pay it off, interest-free. I paid $3,050 about a month ago, and Circuit City now lists it at $2,999.
I couldn't be happier with this purchase. I'm watching my favorite sports team as I write this in perfect, full-screen HDTV. It's gorgeous. It displays conventional TV better than I expected, and the bright, saturated HDTV colors and crisp shapes continue to wow me. Comcast offers about 30 to 40 HDTV channels, including about 80% of the ones I watch the most. So I'm watching HD programming much of the time.
A lot of SFNL readers have written about brands and large-screen TV types. I made the correct decision for me and for my family. There were no surprises in the downsides to plasma, since the picture quality is far and away the overriding factor for me. The negatives are:
1. Plasma TVs draw a lot of power. My particular unit draws 695 watts. That's a lot of juice for a TV.
2. It's heavy. With its pedestal stand, it weighs 123.5 pounds.
3. Long-term plasma reliability isn't as well established as that of CRT or LCD technology.
4. Installation is not for the faint of heart. You need two pairs of strong arms, and most people should probably leave it to the pros to mount their TVs on the wall. Every year, large-screen TVs kill children and even adults when someone accidentally pulls them over.
The wiring connections, though, are easy. There's nothing all that special about it. HDMI cabling makes it easier, in fact.
So, while there are some negatives to plasma, the two most important things to me HD and conventional TV picture quality are where plasma really shines. That factor gets a 70% weighting in my analysis. If power consumption is your big deal, then by all means, go with LCD. I recommend Sony's Bravia line.
Many plasma aficionados prefer the Pioneer models. Pioneer staked out the plasma territory early. And while there may be some minor advantages to Pioneer models, I honestly don't think you'll see them with your eyes. But you'll pay more dearly for them at the cash register. For me, the Panasonic models offer the best bang for the buck.
Another common thread among emails about picking plasma was, why did I have to have 1080p? It's quite true that HDTV is unlikely to be 1080p quality any time soon (if ever). But you can get pure 1080p from Netflix (and its competitors) anytime you want to by buying an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player. My recommendation is for a Blu-ray player, by the way. In fact, I recommend Sony's new BDP-S300, which has a list price of $499.
I should hasten to add, I haven't purchased BDP-S300 yet. It's just that it's about the lowest priced Blu-ray DVD player ever and from the leading proponent of the Blu-ray standard.
MyRealBox and Modomail Follow-Up
Let me get Modomail out of the way first: Shortly after I wrote that I was giving up on Modomail, an inexpensive paid mail host, the service apparently gave up the ghost. The domain no longer responds, and hasn't for over a month. It's just dead. Several SFNL readers wrote me to tell me that they got burned, too.
Meanwhile, the company that bought MyRealBox, Messaging Architects, apparently did send out messages warning its customers that it was requiring them to respond or lose their accounts. Several SFNL readers sent me copies of the messages. I don't know why I didn't get mine. Apparently, though, the company used the BCC (blind carbon copy) approach to sending out what must have been hundreds of thousands of messages. It doesn't surprise me, really, that they didn't reach me. I was getting tired of MyRealBox's frequent outages anyway.
In case you missed last month's newsletter, here are the stories I'm talking about.
DiskWarrior Makes the A-List of Mac Software
I continue to test and either reject or approve Mac software for the A-List of Mac Software. The biggest change since the last issue of the newsletter is the advancement of a very hot disk utility to the A-List. DiskWarrior from Alsoft came highly recommended to me by several IT pro readers who manage Macs. They were dead right.
It takes a problem to be won over by a utility product. And that's exactly what happened. The problem was a disk error that Apple's Disk Utility was able to identify but unable to repair. There was no apparent problem with my hard drive. No symptoms. SMART checked out fine. It didn't appear to be a physical problem with the hard drive, but rather a corruption of the data on the disk. I tote my primary machine back and forth from work everyday, and even though I'm extremely conscious of how important that piece of hardware is, and I back it up, well there are few guarantees in life. And none of them is related to computers.
So, that was the problem. It took me a while to warm up to the $100 DiskWarrior because you have to boot it from the CD, and it takes forever to load. But it's worth it. Because once up and running, DiskWarrior's Directory tool made short work of it. Afterward, Disk Utility happily reported no problems.
The next disk problem will be a job for TechTool Pro by Micromat, which is also on the scheduled-for-evaluation list.
Some other notes: I guess I'm becoming more and more of a Mac guy. I removed Intego's VirusBarrier X4 from my two most-used Macs. I think it's a great product, and I'm leaving it on the A-List. But like most Mac users, I just don't feel the need for this utility right now. I'm not making a formal recommendation with that announcement just owning up to a reality. There are no viruses on the Mac. It's possible there will be someday. But I'll worry about that then.
I'm also adding a program to the evaluation list. It's called Yank, and it's another Mac uninstaller tool. I really love AppZapper, but it occasionally misses things that get tucked into out of the way places. When I uninstalled VirusBarrier, AppZapper left behind a context-menu item. Yank doesn't rely on search to find files left behind when you delete the main program file. It creates a log when you install. What about programs installed before you installed Yank? Matterform offers a file-sharing service for sharing Yank uninstall scripts for specific programs that you can download and run. Not sure that's going to be a big help, though. The first three programs I searched for weren't there. Still, I like the idea of a more complete uninstall. Could be I'll use both AppZapper and Yank. We'll see.
I'm having some second thoughts about skEdit as a text editor. It's still my preferred HTML editor on the Mac. But I may go back and check out TextMate again. It's been very heavily recommended by readers who have written to me with A-List suggestions. Even more so than BBEdit, whose UI I'm not fond of.
10 Things Good Newsletter Subscribers Shouldn't Do
It may help you to keep something uppermost in mind while reading this list: There are almost 50,000 subscribers to Scot's Newsletter:
10. Don't send an email to 400 people, including me, telling me that you've changed your email address. Please use the appropriate Change Your Email Address Wizard.
Never send email to more than 20 people, unless it's in a corporate setting. I'd prefer not to have my email address among a long list of others.
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Look, sometimes people have trouble and want help. I'm always willing to help in that case. But most people who send me this request never even look for or try the subscription center. It's easy to use. Please try it.
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Keep in mind that because I can't read every message, sending me an email and asking me to unsubscribe you or change your address isn't the surest way to get that done. If you don't carefully indicate your desire in the subject line, I might never read it.
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If you have, in fact, missed an issue of the newsletter, I know why. At least 99.44% of the time, a missed newsletter is caused by either your receiving mail server or you anti-spam utility rejecting the newsletter as spam. False positives are a fact of life in the world of anti-spam measures. See if you can whitelist Scot's Newsletter in whatever is protecting you from the spam scourge. Instructions for doing that are on the newsletter subscription page.
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Link of the Month: Screenvader.com
It's just sorta cool. I can't really describe Screenvader.com other than to say that the flash-based UI is very intriguing, as are the flash downloads, artwork, videos, and music you find there. Try it for yourself. Expect strangeness, and a sort of random beauty. Behind all this, there's at least one interesting, inventive mind someone probably named Stephane.
Have you discovered a relatively unknown, technology-related website that's a little fun or useful? Please send me the
URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.
Please Note: Scot's Newsletter is on vacation for the month of August. We'll return in September. A special edition could mail in August if events, issues, new products, or new technologies warrant.
Scot's Newsletter is a monthly e-zine delivered by email. My aim is to send each issue near the second Tuesday of each month.
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