Thursday, July 28, 2005

iPod: not suitable for use underwater

Two days ago, I killed my iPod. I am in mourning, since it was only just over six months old. Here's the low-down. I had been listening to an Audible audiobook at the gym (Noam Chomsky's ‘Hegemony or survival: America's quest for global dominance’, if you're interested). I returned from the gym with my iPod stuffed casually in the bottom of my gym bag. (Gone are the days when the novelty factor was sufficient for me to, say, wrap it in something or put it in a separate pocket in the bag—the plastic screen is pretty much all scratched up now, so who cares?) I removed the iPod hours later from the puddle of water it had been sitting in most of the afternoon. My water bottle leaked. My iPod is dead.

I tried some resuscitation manouevres in vain. I let it drain. (Yes, drain—water ran out from the bottom socket. It was pretty wet.) No response. I tried a hard reset. I tried sticking it on the charger. Nothing worked. I could hear a waterlogged disk trying hard to spin up, but the display showed nothing.

There is some upside to this. Firstly, my home contents insurance policy should cover it. Secondly, the Apple Centre on Gouger Street has checked it out, and it's completely beyond repair. As a "service part", a new 40G iPod costs over $A 800. Now, if you've been tracking iPod prices, you'll know that this is about $A 200 more than the RRP of a new, colour, 60G iPod. So, I'm figuring that for the $A 100 excess on the insurance policy, I'm getting 20G of storage, and a colour display. Not bad. (Of course, the insurance company may decide to pay $A 800 for a replacement just to spite me, in which case I'll have paid $A 100 to be without an iPod for a couple of weeks. I hope that doesn't happen.)

I'll post news as it breaks.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Viewing PostScript

Here's an observation that combines mid-level geekery with "Ooh, isn't this neat!" (are you listening, Stephen?): Mac OS X's Preview application will display PostScript by rendering it to PDF on the fly. This alleviates a bit of hoop-jumping (such as installing Ghostscript) for the occasional viewer of PostScript files.

Monday, July 11, 2005

I can't believe it's not Unix!

(Of course, that's because it is Unix. But I couldn't resist the title.)

I'm surprised how little I use the command line on the PowerBook. And I'm surprised for several reasons.
  • Foremost, I'm an enormous fan of the command line. I've always considered the graphical user interface to be the bumbling Chester the Terrier to the command line's Spike the Bulldog. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, and you've got a bit of spare time and some patience, read Neal Stephenson's† ‘In the beginning was the command line’. Not because it explains my (possibly lame) Warner Brothers cartoon reference, but because I think it does explain at least why people like me think the command line is better.)
  • I would never have predicted that the Mac OS X GUI is as good as it is. That is, I haven't felt the need to resort to the command line. It's generally easier to use the GUI, and that's unusual, for me at least. I can only conclude that Windows is comparatively harder, since I'm often found longing for a decent command line under Windows XP. And you have to do something like install Cygwin to get one, and that's way more effort than it should be. (By which I don't mean that Cygwin isn't great, but that after two decades or more of development, you'd think Microsoft could ship a decent shell with the OS.)
  • I suppose, lastly, that I'm still not confident enough about how Mac OS X (in terms of its Unix base) is all laid out. Sure, everyone wants to claim it's based partly on FreeBSD, but let me tell you that the filesystem ain't no vanilla BSD filesystem. I just don't trust myself not to screw anything up yet. Which is possibly a good thing, since it means I've yet to find a reason to put in the effort to discover how it all works. It just works.
But it sure is Unix:
kermit:~ paulh$ uname -a
Darwin kermit.local 8.1.0 Darwin Kernel Version 8.1.0:
Tue May 10 18:16:08 PDT 2005; root:xnu-792.1.5.obj~4/RELEASE_PPC
Power Macintosh powerpc
Nice.

† Sorry, Neil, I'd love to link to your home page, but Firefox tells me it's got a pop-up window. I checked it out, and it's quite cool, but pop-ups are lame—full stop.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

iPod geekery

I've been reading John Gruber's Daring Fireball weblog since I became a Mac user, mostly so I could collect factoids and opinions I could repeat in conversations with real Mac users. In a post made at the end of last month, Gruber writes about Apple pseudo-abandoning its ‘iPod Photo’ line. At first I felt vindicated, since I never saw the point in viewing photographs on a screen no larger than the view-screen on a decent digital camera. By the second sentence, though, I felt like the same guy who predicted graphics on the web would never take off—it's really just a name change, since now all iPods will have colour screens and the ability to display photographs. (I still say, "So what?")

Apart from some intense font-geekery in the middle section, Gruber's post is an interesting read. (In fact, I'm just jealous that I'm nowhere near anal enough to make the font-related observations he makes.) On Apple's simple product range, he writes:
The most noticeable side-effect of the updated iPod lineup is that it’s been significantly simplified. There are now three main sub-brands: Shuffle, Mini, and regular, each with two sizes. [...]

It’s a lot easier to decide which iPod to buy today than it was a week ago. The hardest decision might be whether there’s any reason to get a 512 MB Shuffle now that the 1 GB model has been reduced to $129 [...]

This emphasis on a simplified product lineup has been a hallmark of the Jobs 2.0 Administration. For the most part, given a budget and a use case, it’s pretty easy to decide which Mac or which iPod to buy. (The hardest call to make, in my opinion, is between the iBooks and 12” PowerBook.) It seems so easy from the outside, but I suspect it’s very difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the muddied and complicated product lineups at most PC and consumer electronic companies.
I remember thinking pretty much exactly that when I was looking to buy a PowerBook. Gruber quotes from an interview with Creative Technology (a company that produces MP3 players that compete with the iPod) CEO Sim Wong Hoo, who seems to think the exact opposite is what people want. Of course, he also wonders why Creative can't beat Apple in the marketplace. Gruber gives the example of Creative's ‘Zen Micro’ range, which has a 4, 5 and 6 GB models. “What possible purpose does it serve,” Gruber asks, “to offer a 5 GB model, other than to make it hard to decide which one to buy?” Good question.

For a few weeks now, I've been wanting to buy a new graphics card for my Windows XP-based PC, but I just don't know what to buy. I'm actually at the point where I've offered a friend $50 to do the research and buy the card for me, because the choice is just so overwhelming. I can't even be bothered starting. Last time I checked with him, he couldn't either. It's just too hard. And poor old Sim Wong Hoo thinks that adding things like FM radio tuners and voice recording functions to differentiate Creative's lineup further is the way to go.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Hardware quality

A couple of people mentioned poor build quality of Mac hardware. Let me add some comments about the PowerBook.
  • The keyboard is certainly the worst keyboard I've ever owned, and it is one of the worst keyboards I've ever seen. (I'm not just talking about quirky Mac layout issues, which are irritating, but not unexpected.) Sadly, it looks like a great keyboard. It is silver, and shiny, and blends in with the case, and has a backlight that comes on automatically. But none of that means anything when the keys start falling off. At the moment, the ‘Enter’ key cap is falling off about fortnightly. Evidently, Apple knows the keyboards are crap, since they provide comprehensive instructions for replacing the key caps.
  • This is not Mac-specific, but the LCD screen has at least one pixel that's either dead or only partly functional. (I say it might be partly functional, because I've seen much more obviously dead pixels than this one. In fact, it was weeks before I saw it at all, so it either died post-purchase, or it's really quite hard to see. Or both.)
  • Again, this is not Mac-specific, but power switches which are not binary switches but ‘switches that send a request to toggle the state of the power supply unit’ really annoy me. Of course, I can understand the arguments for them. For example, they allow the computer to display nice dialogs like, ‘Are you sure you want to shut down your computer now?’ rather than destroying the work you forgot to save. However, they're not so good, in my opinion anyway, for troubleshooting power supply issues. A few times, the PowerBook has inexplicably locked itself off (I suspect due to overheating issues involving air vent obstruction—don't ask). In this situation, the power button tells you nothing about what the computer is doing or is trying to do. Of course, the same kind of power buttons have been on PCs since the ATX case, so I am probably alone on this issue.
There's nothing too alarming here. Even the key issue doesn't bug me enough to get it repaired. Frankly, it would not be worth the cost of being without the PowerBook for the length of time it took to replace the keyboard. I've got replacing the key down to a couple of minutes.