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Congratulations to Gordon Brown of att.net, Greg Bohlken of gmail.com, and Drexel Sprecher of digitalrainforest.com, whose entries were chosen randomly in last week's DealBITS drawing and who received a copy of BeLight Software's Business Card Composer, worth $34.95. Also receiving a copy was Gil Friend of natlogic.com, who referred Drexel to this DealBITS drawing. But don't fret if you didn't win, since BeLight Software is offering everyone who entered the DealBITS drawing a discount off a copy of Business Card Composer 4.0, dropping the price to $24.50 for the download version (30 percent off) and $36.95 for the boxed version (8 percent off), which has more clip-art and designs. To take advantage of this offer, which is good through 13-Sep-06, use the URLs below for the download version or the boxed version. Thanks again for entering this DealBITS drawing, and we hope you'll continue to participate in the future. Thanks to the 746 people who entered, and keep an eye out for future DealBITS drawings!
Apple has announced that Google CEO Eric Schmidt has joined the Apple Board of Directors. He also sits on Google's board of directors and Princeton University's board of trustees. The other members of Apple's board are currently Fred Anderson, Apple's former chief financial officer; Intuit chairman and former CEO Bill Campbell; J. Crew chairman and CEO Millard Drexler; documentarian and former Vice President Al Gore (for those who haven't seen his global warming movie "An Inconvenient Truth," it's also one heck of a plug for Apple laptops and Keynote); Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs; Genentech chairman and CEO Arthur D. Levinson; and Jerry York, chairman, president, and CEO of Harwinton Capital.
Although Eric Schmidt's experience with Google (and Novell and Sun Microsystems before that) will no doubt be an asset to Apple's board, it's hard to avoid speculating if this means there will be closer ties between Apple and Google in the future. Google has done perhaps the best job of any primarily Web-based company at supporting Macintosh browsers and putting out Macintosh versions of software, including tools like the graphical mapping application Google Earth and the 3-D modeling program Google SketchUp. Then again, Intuit chairman Bill Campbell was an Apple board member when his company decided to kill Quicken for Mac before Steve Jobs intervened (see "Quicken Speeds Back to Mac", 11-May-98), and the Mac version still lags behind its Windows cousin.
I'm excited to announce that the entire first chapter of my latest book is now available as a free downloadable PDF file. "iMovie HD 6 & iDVD 6 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide," in addition to having an absurdly long title, is the latest edition of my guide for getting up and running with the latest versions of Apple's digital video tools. The book now features full-color illustrations and screenshots, which make the examples pop and enable me to demonstrate color-specific aspects such as a camcorder's color temperature settings.
Chapter 1, "The Digital Camcorder," contains valuable information on buying a camcorder, including which features to look for (and avoid). You'll learn about different video recording formats such as standard-definition (SD) and high-definition video (HDV), image interlacing, and more. The PDF is, naturally, full color and weighs in at about 700K.
In the classic science-fiction movie "Forbidden Planet," an invisible, rampaging beast has killed all but two members of a colony and attacks a visiting spaceship and its personnel as well. In the end - spoiler alert! - it turns out that the monster was created from the id of the remaining scientist. He had used an ancient, extinct people's technology that freed their minds of physical instrumentality, giving them untapped power managed directly by their minds. The scientist dies, nobly, and sets the destruction of the planet in motion.
This movie was brought to mind by Amazon.com's latest non-retail product launch: the beta test version of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (dubbed Amazon EC2), an on-demand service that runs virtual machines you configure, charging by the hour they're in use. This approach eliminates the need to own the physical equipment on which to run a virtual machine - such as a disk image launched inside Parallels Desktop to run Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac - or an actual operating system.
Existing products already enable high-end server computers to run multiple simultaneous virtual machines, and to group server computers together to scale virtual machines to a massive level. VMware and XenSource make such tools, which are frequently used in large corporate information technology operations. In fact, Amazon.com is using XenSource's software to run EC2.
As we've written about in TidBITS in recent months (such as "WinOnMac Smackdown: Dual-Boot versus Virtualization", 10-Apr-06) virtual machines let you take advantage of all the benefits of a given operating system while using as much CPU power as that operating system can exploit. Plus, if one virtual machine is idle, others on the same server computer can take advantage of free cycles for their own tasks. From the providers' standpoint, virtual machines eliminate the need to manage individual computers for individual customers, and providers can treat a large grid of computers as a set of processor resources instead of as individually managed operating systems with their own quirks.
Having virtual machines available at your beck and call means you could cope with a sudden spike in activity by distributing the load onto dozens or hundreds of virtual machines for a short period of time. If we were to create a set of Web pages backed by a database that suddenly was hit by tens of millions of queries a day, our systems would bog down and our service provider might have to ratchet up their fiber-optic-based bandwidth. And we'd wind up paying a small fortune for excess bandwidth.
With EC2, we could just fire up a bunch of identical servers and pay 20 cents per gigabyte of bandwidth, about a fifth of the going rate at many colocation facilities. That's right - a terabyte of bandwidth usage would cost $200, seemingly cheap if that data would also be generating some revenue. More importantly, though, instead of bringing in a pile of servers or dealing with highly non-responsive machines, you'd pay just during those peak hours or days and then shut off virtual machines as they were no longer needed.
Amazon EC2 has a fairly rigid starting point in their beta test phase, which is currently closed to new users. Each virtual machine you launch as an instance - up to 20 instances simultaneously unless you ask for more - acts as the equivalent of a 1.7 GHz Xeon CPU with 1.75 GB of RAM, 160 GB of hard disk storage, and 250 megabits per second of network bandwidth. For each hour (or partial fraction thereof) on each instance, you pay $0.10, which comes out to $72.00 per 30-day month.
To use EC2, you start with a set of prefabricated disk images that rely on the Fedora Core operating system, a successor to earlier Linux operating systems created by Red Hat. You can also install other Linux systems using instructions Amazon.com provides.
You can probably imagine why this makes me curious. The recently introduced Intel-based Mac Pro towers are based on Intel's latest Xeon processors. Of course, Apple doesn't allow its operating system to be virtualized or run on generic Intel hardware. Still, with a company like Amazon.com offering this sort of service, could Apple license Mac OS X for this sort of purpose? It seems unlikely, given Apple's history, but it's not unreasonable or impossible that they would make such a deal. The advantage of this would be for an Xserve owner, say, who could replicate his or her setup to run identical instances on demand without having to manage Mac OS X on a core, "real" computer and Linux on virtual machines.
Once you set up a system you want to employ with a prefab image or by creating your own, you can boot up the system using command-line tools or an application programmer's interface (API) that allows the automation of many steps. The resulting system can be accessed via a standard Secure Shell (SSH) connection - ssh is built into Mac OS X and accessible via Terminal - and the Amazon.com system assigns it a unique, routable Internet protocol address and associated host name.
Data is not persistent, however. The disk image contains everything that the virtual machine has available at startup; any data written to the virtual disk is lost when the instance is shut down, force terminated, or crashes. Amazon.com suggests loading information from a shared resource for that reason, and writing data that needs to be persistent out to external Internet storage for safety's sake.
It just so happens that Amazon.com runs a giant Internet storage system as well. EC2 is complementary with Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), launched in April 2006, which enables you to store static objects from 1 byte to 5 GB in size. The disk images you create for EC2 must be stored in S3.
S3 and EC2 both cost $0.20 per gigabyte for bandwidth transferred, although moving data between S3 and EC2 is free. S3 also charges $0.15 per gigabyte stored each month. For perspective, if you were to store 1 TB of data at S3, use 1 TB of bandwidth, and use 5,000 hours of virtual machine time a month (the equivalent of seven full-time servers), you would pay $200 plus $150 plus $500 or a grand total of $850. Not bad. For comparison, I pay about $800 per month to house four servers with about 200 GB of monthly bandwidth included. The upside? My data is persistent.
The big missing piece for EC2 is clearly database storage and service. I currently run a dedicated database server that cost several thousand dollars and that handles my isbn.nu book-price comparison service, TidBITS's newest searchable article database, and my various blogs' posting databases. I would gladly consider moving those databases to a super-fast, pay-per-transaction or per-CPU-cycle system that was pure information from my perspective, if the price was right.
Tie in EC2 and S3 with a database service, and Amazon.com would have eliminated the vast majority of many smaller companies' hardware needs - and sparked the development of firms that require almost no hardware or bandwidth for computation and storage. This is nothing like a new model, but it's getting close to the most wide-scale commoditization that I've ever seen. It's affordable, too.
Sure, if this plays out and I go all virtual, I'll miss my server hardware, just like I'll miss my body when we ultimately evolve into beings of pure energy. Let's just hope we don't let our processes or our ids run wild.
As a student headed for college, my mind is preoccupied with gearing up for the upcoming year. I need to think ahead about what I'll need at school, because I'm on a student's budget where every dollar counts. What Mac gear would be best?
When I proposed writing this article to TidBITS, Adam Engst gave me a challenge: with a theoretical $2,000 to spend, how would I balance value and quality to equip myself adequately for school? That includes buying hardware, software, and peripherals for class, for the dorm, and for traveling. Here's my ultimate college computer setup (and note that many of the prices here assume an educational discount; check Apple's Store for Education for details on Apple educational pricing.
Mac or PC: Because People Still Don't Know -- It seems almost foolish even to mention the prospect of purchasing a Windows-based PC - this is, after all, a Mac publication - but there are schools out there that require students to have Windows-based PCs. Luckily, thanks to Apple's Boot Camp (for booting into Windows) and Parallels Desktop (for running Windows inside Mac OS X), nearly anything a PC can do in Windows, a Mac can do equally well, also in Windows.
For most tasks, a new Mac running Mac OS X is the best bet for students. Macs include a slew of great applications (free and otherwise), are virtually immune (as of this writing) to viruses and malware, require less maintenance than PCs, and tend to last longer. And while it might be hard to imagine living on a constrained student budget, being able to put off buying your next new computer for a bit longer leaves more money for other necessities.
Desktop or Laptop -- No contest. I believe this can be adequately analyzed with nothing but questions: Can you bring an iMac with you to class to take notes? Or to the library to work on a project with classmates? Or to Starbucks for a coffee-fueled study session?
If you're in a dorm, the decision becomes even more obvious: Why would you want a huge hunk of metal and plastic (plus separate display if necessary) occupying the ten-by-twelve two-person closet space the college calls a residence?
What if you're on break and headed home - wouldn't it be nice to have the option of bringing your computer with? And why would you choose stationary over portable when the laptops almost directly compete with desktops when it comes to specs?
See where I'm going with this? Don't even think about buying a desktop Mac.
MacBook vs. MacBook Pro -- Since we're on a student budget, and are looking for a machine suitable for student tasks, the cheaper MacBook is a perfect choice: it's fast, well-equipped with AirPort Extreme and a Combo drive, comes with great software, and is undeniably hot. Looking. Hot looking. Or "cute." Some people prefer "cute." Either way, it merits envy.
The 13.3-inch screen provides enough real estate for most any school/fun-related tasks, and the 60 GB hard drive is usually more than enough for a music-listening, paper-writing student. (More media-inclined individuals may want to opt for an upgrade, but for most, 60 GB should be plenty.)
The MacBook also offers Front Row - a piece of software that provides an easy-to-navigate iPod-like interface for your media content - and the Apple Remote, another perfect-for-dorm-video-watching feature.
The MacBook Pro, most noted for its larger displays (15-inch or 17-inch) and fast video card, is a great machine too, but only the video-editing/graphics folks should consider it, along with those who need to play games to survive. However, it prices itself out of my budget.
Also, even though you're on a budget, I strongly recommend that you opt for purchasing the AppleCare Protection Plan ($183 extra), which extends the warranty to three years. It's really a personal preference, but if you intend on keeping your machine for more than a year (which, if you're taking it to college, is probably the case) then AppleCare can prove invaluable with a computer guaranteed to take a beating in daily use around campus. (Note, though, that if your budget is tight right now, you can put off adding AppleCare for up to one year after purchasing the computer.)
13-inch 1.83 GHz MacBook, plus AppleCare: $1,232
In addition to the computer itself, several hardware extras end up on my list.
RAM -- Yes, RAM. There are times when I cry myself to sleep at night thinking about the paltry 512 MB of RAM preloaded with the MacBook. Then the sadness turns to anger when I see how much Apple charges for upgrades. I'm going to go out and say you need to buy an extra 1 GB of RAM for the machine, just to keep your sanity. Sure, 512 MB is bearable, but just barely. I've purchased a 1 GB card from Outpost.com for about $80, so shop for a price similar to that (dealram.com is a good place to start).
1 GB DDR2 PC5300 SO-DIMM: $80
Notebook Bag -- I know what you're thinking: "Is a notebook bag really hardware?" My response: Can you download it? No. Then yes, it's hardware.
It's important to choose a bag that suits you - its style, its size, its price. Since the MacBook is still pretty new, the bag selection isn't exactly overflowing, but there are plenty of good options. Timbuk2 makes some nice bags catered to the 13-inch size, as does a creative company called Crumpler. I'd suggest checking out Apple's Notebook Cases section of their online store, where you can find bags designed specifically for the MacBook. $100 is a decent price point, but you may need to go up a level to get that Perfect Bag. Keep in mind that you'll also be carrying notebooks and textbooks, so you need either a notebook bag with enough room or a sleeve that will protect your laptop from everything else rattling around in your backpack. Jeff Carlson offered more advice on choosing a bag in "Buying a Laptop Bag", 05-Apr-04.
Notebook bag: $100
iPod -- Every student needs an iPod. It's just The Way Things Are. Whether you're a music fan, someone who enjoys podcasts, or you just want to sport the white earbuds to relay your hip stature, an iPod has you covered. There's also the listening-to-lectures-on-your-iPod thing, if you're into that whole education business. And, thankfully, to satisfy the masses and meet the requirements of the federal government's new An iPod For Every Student Act, Apple is offering a free iPod nano ($179 value after rebate) to any student who purchases a Mac notebook by 16-Sep-06.
1 GB iPod nano: $0.
Printer -- Aside from offering a free iPod to students, those who buy a Mac before 16-Oct-06 get $100 off (via rebate) a new printer, too. I'd recommend the HP Photosmart C3180 All-in-One - a printer Apple sells for $100. It'll print and scan and copy, so you'll have all the tools you need when it comes to finishing your papers.
HP Photosmart C3180 All-in-One: $0
USB 2 Flash Drive -- This is a definite must. Since the demise of the floppy disk, mankind has been searching for an easy method of storing and transferring files - and USB flash drives have pretty much assumed that role. They're perfect for quick transfers, for storing and backing up essential files, and are portable and durable - just put them in your bag or slip them into your pocket. I'd recommend no less than a 1 GB stick, which should be enough to carry archives of reports, presentations, and various media files. The trick to buying a flash drive, though, is finding the best deal. For example, I recently spotted a deal at TigerDirect.com selling a 1 GB flash drive for only $5 after rebate. Searching around is your best bet; you should be able to get a decent 1 GB drive for no more than $30. Again, dealram is a good place to start looking.
1 GB USB 2 Flash Drive: $30
External Hard Drive -- Backup, backup, backup. Get that? Backup, backup, backup. The worst thing that could possibly happen to you is losing all your data to a hard drive failure (or worse: user failure). Backing up seems like a waste of time, because of the utter lack of instant gratification for your effort. But it's unquestionably important, as any student who has suffered a catastrophic hard disk failure the night before an important paper is due will tell you. A good 160 GB external FireWire drive from a company like LaCie - check out the LaCie d2 Hard Drive Extreme with Triple Interface - will provide you plenty of space to produce backups, and there'll be lots of room left over for any extraneous media files hogging up your MacBook's internal drive.
160 GB LaCie d2 FireWire/USB2.0 Hard Drive: $170
Speakers -- The only thing that makes me cry as much as the MacBook's included RAM is the frightening condition of its speakers. System alerts? Sound great. Music? Not so much. So a good speaker system is something to consider, especially if you're into media. Students tend to resonate to two particular systems: JBL's Creature II Speakers ($100) and the Harman Kardon SoundSticks ($170). Points to the Creature Speakers though for coming in multiple colors (and for being about $70 cheaper).
JBL Creature II Speakers: $100
All that snazzy hardware is nice, but you're also going to need software to actually get your work done.
Included Software -- The MacBook comes with several education-worthy applications, including OmniOutliner, which is great for organizing papers or projects and taking notes. It also includes iLife '06 (which includes iWeb) and, of course, Freeverse's Big Bang Board Games, for those moments in class where the teacher is, you know, not teaching.
Included Software: $0
Microsoft Office -- Behold, the only piece of software that actually matters. Sure, there are other, less-expensive office suites, like the free NeoOffice. But in the end, compatibility and reliability trumps all. Everyone will be using Microsoft Office, so using it yourself assures compatibility. Word has a great notebook mode which makes it easy to take (and record) notes on the fly, and PowerPoint is... well, PowerPoint. Plus, buying Office:Mac Student edition before 12-Sep-06 saves you $50 through a rebate, bringing the price down to $100. (Also, check with your school store: they may sell it for less.)
Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition for the Mac: $100
Schoolhouse -- Recently I came across a program called Schoolhouse, a freeware application designed to help you organize and manage classes and assignments. It's fairly simple, but offers a lot of school-specific features, including a basic but handy grade calculator and graphing tool. Plus, it's free.
SuperDuper! Undoubtedly my favorite backup application. The first time you run a backup, SuperDuper creates a full, exact, bootable copy of your disk. Every time the program runs after that, it uses a feature called Smart Update to copy only files that have since been changed. It's also scriptable, has numerous scheduling options, is very customizable, and has a great interface.
That brings the total to $1,842. Taxes and shipping, where applicable, will probably eat the rest of our $2,000 budget.
And remember: the items listed here are suggestions - your mileage may vary, depending on your priorities (and budget). It's also important to check your university's bookstore - they typically offer numerous deals on hardware and software that could save you hundreds.
[Dan Pourhadi is a freshman college student and wannabe writer from Chicago. He has contributed to MacAddict Magazine, Macteens, the Daily Herald newspaper, and is a blogger at The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW).]
Amazon.com Offers On-Demand Computing -- Glenn's article about Amazon.com's EC2 service brings up questions of Xserve interoperability. 2 messages
Geoff Duncan moving on -- Readers comment about last week's article by Geoff Duncan, who now assumes the mantle of TidBITS Editor at Large, and dig into questions of computer advancement. 3 messages
Postscript question -- Can an older HP laser printer's PostScript Level 2 emulation handle PDFs and other documents created by Mac OS X? 12 messages
Designing and printing Coffee Table Books in iPhoto -- A photographer wants to print books from iPhoto, but has concerns about the final print quality. What can he do to get the best results? 2 messages
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