Thursday, October 25, 2007

MacBook Pro: second impressions

I've now had a 17" MacBook Pro for two weeks. In a post about my first impressions, I noted some preliminary issues. Here are some updates on those.
I purchased the MacBook Pro at a somewhat unfortunate time: Leopard has now just been announced as shipping on October 26. Daring Fireball seems to be claiming that Apple (in the US, at least) will provide free upgrades for machines purchased on or after October 1. It will be interesting to see if this applies in Australia.
It certainly does apply in Australia. I've pre-ordered my copy of Leopard for $A 12.95, the shipping fee.
The display completely froze, and the machine became unresponsive (at least to the keyboard and mouse—it would be interesting to try to contact it over the LAN) on two occasions now. I was doing nothing in particular at the time. I need to do some Google work on this, but if it happens too many more times (for some value of "too many"), it's going back.
This has happened on at least two more occasions. The following entry seems to be logged in /var/log/system.log at the time of the lock-ups:
Oct 24 14:37:53 ralph kernel[0]: NVChannel(GL): Graphics channel timeout!
Google tells me that it's a widely reported problem with GeForce 8600M GT cards. There also seem to be some very vague suggestions that it's driver related, and that it will be "fixed in Leopard". Given that the alternative is to return a two-week-old machine to the store, I'm prepared to wait and see what happens with Leopard.
There have been two or three episodes of what one might call "sleep-wake confusion". For example, I've closed the lid, and I can see the display is still on. Or, I'll open the lid, and the display stays blank and the front indicator light keeps flashing as if it's still asleep. It will usually recover, but once it required a power-cycle. Again, I'm going to have a low threshold for return if this continues.
This hasn't happened again. Evidently I have to win sometimes.
The keyboard seems subtly different in ways I can't quite describe, but I keep missing keys, and some seem a little sticky. To be honest, I pretty much hated the PowerBook's keyboard when I first got it. Hopefully I'll break this one in.
Steve pointed out in comments that this might not be down to my poor typing, and that it, too, was a widely-reported problem. I am consistently getting random dropping of keypresses. Adjusting the key repeat speed and delay had little effect, though checking "Ignore accidental trackpad input", as suggested somewhere on the web, has improved the phenomenon slightly, but has the side-effect of making the trackpad less responsive. Again, I'll wait and see whether Leopard improves this at all.

To be honest, if this was my first Mac, I'd be horribly disappointed. The two outstanding hardware problems described above are not just minor glitches, they're significant problems that are impacting on the usability of the machine. There are at least two major difficulties with returning it to the store:
  1. The display freezes are very intermittent. While a few minutes worth of typing should be sufficient to demonstrate the problem with dropped keypresses, the display problem might not be replicated for days, if at all. Convincing the technician there's a problem might not even be possible.
  2. I've become such a laptop junkie that even a couple of days without it would be an enormous productivity hit for me. I just don't use a desktop for anything anymore.
Of course, it's not my first Mac, and now that I'm a fully-fledged fanboy, I think solutions like "wait and see if it's fixed in Leopard" sound reasonable in comparison to "return the faulty hardware". What a sucker I've become.

PowerBook follow-up

As mentioned over a week ago, and then promptly ignored by me, there's a post script to the story about my PowerBook G4. It's not dead. The disk isn't even dead. It's back in my office, admittedly not doing much, kind of sulking at being shunned for the faster, slicker MacBook Pro, but it's working. Apparently, although the problem was originally replicated (the machine would not boot for the technician), it spontaneously started working again. The technician "walked off to get a cable" (presumably to try booting it from an external disk), and on his return the PowerBook was showing its login screen. It booted five more times for him, and it booted again when I got it home. I have no doubt it still contains a fairly sick disk, but it's alive for now.

There's even more good news. Next Byte Glenunga refunded the entire $75 diagnostic fee. Frankly, I was not expecting this. Clearly, neither were the staff in their retail section on a Saturday morning, as actually getting the $75 took upwards of 15 minutes. The whole place seemed to be staffed by work experience kids during what must be one of the week's busiest time slots. The rate-limiting step for my transaction seemed to be finding someone who knew how to operate the EFTPOS machine.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

MacBook Pro: first impressions

As predicted last week, I bought a 17" MacBook Pro when I dropped my PowerBook G4 in for repairs. I've had it for almost a week, so I am ready to make some observations about my first impressions.

Physically, and although I don't have them side-by-side at the moment, they're pretty similar. The MacBook Pro certainly slips straight into the same carry bag I was using for the PowerBook, for example. There are some nice improvements:
  • The MagSafe power connector on the MacBook Pro is brilliant. I never quite tripped over the PowerBook's cable and caused any damage, but I came close several times.
  • The built-in iSight camera is hardly a necessity, but it's nice to have. Everyone who walks by the MacBook Pro, for example, gets a picture taken for their Address Book entry. Even cooler, I finally had a reason to purchase Delicious Library, and I've started scanning in my library. (I don't expect too many people to find that prospect as cool as I do.)
  • I opted for the standard 17" display (matte, 1680 x 1050 pixels), and there's noticeably more screen real estate compared to the PowerBook's 1440 x 900 (if I recall those dimensions correctly—it's still at the shop). I've had to increase the default font size on more than one application.
As it turns out, although I had little choice given my PowerBook had died, at least temporarily, I purchased the MacBook Pro at a somewhat unfortunate time: Leopard has now just been announced as shipping on October 26. Daring Fireball seems to be claiming that Apple (in the US, at least) will provide free upgrades for machines purchased on or after October 1. It will be interesting to see if this applies in Australia.

The new machine shipped with iLife '08. I make some use of iMovie for importing and editing HDV video, so it will be interesting to see how this compares to iMovie HD '06. There have apparently been good and bad reviews. It also ships with some trial versions of various software:
  • iWork '08, including Numbers. With an application that can open Microsoft Excel documents, I should finally be able to dump Microsoft Office once and for all.
  • Microsoft Office—I suspect I'll be uninstalling this real soon now.
  • Aperture. I had a brief look at Adobe Photoshop Lightroom when it was in public beta. I liked it, but never had an opportunity to try out Aperture. I suspect that since Apple has pre-installed a fully-functional 30-day trial version, I'll be hooked by the end of the month and end up buying Aperture. Bad luck Adobe.
I'll quickly make a kind of orphaned observation which is neither positive nor negative: the fan (when it ramps up, and it's only done so doing some RAW image processing with Aperture) is louder. I presume the Intel CPU just runs hotter than the PowerPC.

I've already accumulated a few negatives, and they're potentially big ones. I sensibly opted for the extended warranty plan this time.
  • The display completely froze, and the machine became unresponsive (at least to the keyboard and mouse—it would be interesting to try to contact it over the LAN) on two occasions now. I was doing nothing in particular at the time. I need to do some Google work on this, but if it happens too many more times (for some value of "too many"), it's going back.
  • There have been two or three episodes of what one might call "sleep-wake confusion". For example, I've closed the lid, and I can see the display is still on. Or, I'll open the lid, and the display stays blank and the front indicator light keeps flashing as if it's still asleep. It will usually recover, but once it required a power-cycle. Again, I'm going to have a low threshold for return if this continues.
  • The keyboard seems subtly different in ways I can't quite describe, but I keep missing keys, and some seem a little sticky. To be honest, I pretty much hated the PowerBook's keyboard when I first got it. Hopefully I'll break this one in.
The PowerBook's demise has an interesting post-script, which I'll get to in another post.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Sure, I've got a backup. No, really."

I still can't quite believe how this turned out.

Three days ago, I was heading off to work, but wanted to load up a document in Pages before I left. I launched Pages from the Dock, but it only got as far as bouncing the icon. The PowerBook seemed to freeze up, and, out of time, I shut the lid and went to work, albeit somewhat worried. When I got home, I opened the lid, and Pages was there. Disconcerting, but I was willing to write it off to the kind of "general slowness" one observes with a two-and-a-half year old machine—the disk is slowly filling up, it stays up for two weeks at a time, and there are perpetually two users logged in, each with a handful of applications permanently open. It's been noticably non-snappy for a while.

The iCal incident later the same day, which I described in another post, apparently tipped me over the threshold for taking it seriously. The following day, I dusted off the 250G external USB hard disk which I bought almost a year ago, and followed Jamie Zawinski's advice for doing a backup with rsync.

A day and a half later, it was this morning. The PowerBook froze up again, and the disk was making some audible "I'm sorry about this, but, uh, I'm about to die"-type noises. I power-cycled the machine, and it wouldn't boot. Dead disk. Well, dead disk with a backup that's a mere 36 hours out of date.

This afternoon, I'm going to see about replacing the disk in the PowerBook, but, more interestingly, I think I'll take the opportunity to upgrade to a new 17" MacBook Pro. I'll let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

This just in: iCal still sucks

Almost a year to the day after the last episode, iCal ate my calendars again. The symptoms were exactly the same: iCal loads up completely blank, yet the calendar data is obviously still in there somewhere, because doing a database backup produced a directory containing about 2.5M of data. Running restore on that backup didn't work: iCal just stalled claiming the restore was in progress. I aborted it after about 10 minutes of spinning. As noted previously, deleting ~/Library/Application Support/iCal solves the problem. iCal opened up blank, and after a few minutes restored my data. (I still don't know why this works.)