Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue
This coming Thursday is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, so we're taking the week off to spend time with family and friends (and, of course, to Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner with the help of Joe Kissell's ebook). Look for our next issue on 04-Dec-06, and we'll post any breaking news on our home page in the meantime.
For those of us who publish holiday gift coverage, the approach of Thanksgiving is a warning sign - get started! So, for our traditional holiday gift issue of reader suggestions, scheduled for publication toward the end of the first week in December, please tell us what gifts you're planning to put on your holiday wish list or to present to your loved ones this year. As always, we're collecting ideas in TidBITS Talk, so send your suggestions to email@example.com or submit them in the TidBITS Talk Web forum, and please use plain text format, not HTML. We've already started threads for specific categories. Please suggest only one product or idea per message, give the reason why you're recommending it, make sure to include a URL or other necessary contact information, and recommend only others' products. If possible, try to suggest products that haven't appeared in previous gift issues; we may drop repetitive suggestions from the issue itself. To refresh your memory on what readers have suggested previously, check out the last three gift issues from 2005, 2004, and 2003 before writing in. Thanks in advance!
Apple released firmware updates for its line of Intel-based Macs last week, addressing Boot Camp, start up, and wake-from-sleep issues. Be sure to follow the directions (worth printing out) when applying the updates; instructions for creating a Firmware Restoration CD are also available. The updates affect all Intel-based Mac models, and are available via Software Update or by direct download: MacBook Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.2 (2.7 MB), iMac EFI Firmware Update 1.1 (6.1 MB), MacBook EFI Firmware Update 1.0 (1.6 MB), Mac mini EFI Firmware Update 1.1 (1.6 MB), and Mac Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.1 (1.6 MB).
Apple last week released Apple Remote Desktop 3.1, making the company's remote control and management application into a universal binary and fixing numerous bugs and limitations that you can read more about on Apple's Web site. The main new capability in Remote Desktop 3.1 is support for "lights-out management," which enables a system administrator to monitor and manage a remote server whether or not the machine is powered on. Lights-out management is a new feature of the Intel-based Xserves, so if you're managing one of those machines with Remote Desktop 3.1, you can turn it on if it's off, even via AppleScript; all that's necessary is an Ethernet connection. (According to a post on the Ars Technica Infinite Loop journal, the Intel-based Xserve uses nearly all of the IPMI 2.0 specification, meaning that third party solutions will also be able to manage the Xserve remotely.) Apple Remote Desktop 3.1 is a free update for owners of version 3.0, and although the admin comes with a matching 3.1 client that's presumably necessary for the new lights-out management features, Remote Desktop 3.1 Admin can still control older versions of the client. The admin is a 28 MB download; the client is a 2.5 download, available from Apple Downloads and from Software Update.
As I predicted in "PTHPasteboard Returns, Better Late than Never" (2005-03-21), Paul Haddad's PTHPasteboard 4.0 is here, it's free, and it's better than ever. PTHPasteboard is a simple but powerful automatic multiple pasteboard: basically, every time you choose Copy or Cut in any application, PTHPasteboard remembers the clipboard contents, so that you can later paste that item even though you have subsequently tromped on the system clipboard with another Copy or Cut. With PTHPasteboard, it becomes trivially easy to collect multiple items from one place or many places and paste them separately elsewhere; unless you've experienced it, you may not realize how much easier your entire workflow becomes when suddenly there is no need to plan or hesitate before copying, because all your recently copied items are available to you, everywhere, all the time.
PTHPasteboard 4.0 is a significant rewrite. Options are now managed through a System Preferences pane. The saved clipboard items (referred to as "buffers") are accessed through a window. This window can be constantly present, or it can be manually summoned and hidden, or - this is what I use - it can appear temporarily, sliding into the screen from the side or bottom when you hover the mouse over that region (like the Dock's hiding behavior). Frequently used material can be stored in additional windows (rather like the old Scrapbook). Windows are searchable. You can learn what application a buffer was copied from, and when. Hot keys can be defined to show or hide particular windows or paste particular buffers; I find the simplest approach is to summon the window through a hot key and then type a buffer's number to paste it. (So, for example, to paste buffer 2 from the main PTHPasteboard window, I first press Shift-Option-Command-V, which shows the window; I then type "2", which pastes that buffer and hides the window.)
If you want even more power, or simply want to assuage your guilt over getting so much for free, you can pay $20 to upgrade to PTHPasteboard Pro. This adds syncing, whereby the contents of clipboard windows can be shared between machines across the local network. It also adds filtering, letting text pass through various pre-defined transformations as it is pasted. (Personally, I'd prefer a feature that lets me write my own transformations in some well-known scripting language.)
I've used various multiple-pasteboard utilities for years (see "Multiple Clipboards on Mac OS X", 2003-02-17), and my advice remains the same: you owe it to yourself to try one, and PTHPasteboard, for its clarity, its power, and its wonderful "set it and forget it" ease of use, not to mention its (lack of) price, is the one to try. PTHPasteboard 4.0 is a universal binary, and requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. It's a 1.3 MB download. It's free; the Pro version costs $20 with a free 30-day trial period.
Up to six airlines will soon make it easier to use your iPod in flight by providing power connections at each seat along with an adapter to enable viewing video content on a seat-back screen. Continental, Delta, Emirates, and United will start rolling out these upgrades in 2007. Air France and KLM are in talks with Apple, but have not entered into agreement for the services. (Apple's press release said the latter two airlines are committed, but in a Reuters story, Air France and KLM said it was too early to state that.)
Of course, not all the planes in these airlines' fleets have seat-back screens. And it costs a fortune to run wiring through existing planes; this sort of wiring is also a prime suspect in some other unexplained plane crashes, so airlines are wary of new systems. Thus I imagine it will be particular long-haul planes that already have some manner of per-seat wiring in place that will receive these upgrades first. For a 6- or 10- or 14-hour flight, not having to bring extra charging devices to use your iPod will be a blessed relief for many travelers. But they'll have to be sure, first, that the planes on their itinerary are all powered up.
What's more interesting to me is how this iPod announcement intersects with future in-flight broadband services that will be offered over Wi-Fi. While Connexion by Boeing's pioneering satellite-based broadband service - which provided service only on long-haul international routes - will be shut down by year's end after $1 billion or more in losses, other parties are just about to launch theirs.
With an onboard Wi-Fi network, the airlines could conceivably work with Apple to place media servers stocked with the iTunes Store's library (or the most popular parts of it) online for purchase. True, iTunes currently uses a centralized purchase and digital-rights management (DRM) wrapping system. But with a low-bandwidth backchannel to Apple for the media server to check your account - well, you could grab the current episode of Lost while over the Atlantic and get it in five minutes, not fifty, using local area network speeds.
The iPod lacks Wi-Fi right now, of course, so this is a non-starter, unless you were using your laptop to purchase music onboard and then transfer that music to your iPod. Too much friction, I'm sure. But airlines might be able to sell pay-per-seat rights to movies and TV shows that would be stored on such a media server, too. (You could watch movies and listen to music on your laptop, but laptop batteries can support video playback for shorter periods than the latest iPods.)
An airline electronics integrator mentioned in Apple's press release, Panasonic Avionics Corporation, is nearing a self-imposed deadline on launching a high-speed in-flight network that will resemble Boeing's but use much cheaper components and have more bandwidth. Apple partnering with Panasonic would put them at the forefront of these new efforts. I spoke to Panasonic a few weeks ago, and they (like all airlines and train operators I've spoken to) put on-board media servers for streaming content at the top of their list of features for the local network. The step to providing content you can purchase and download is just a small one.
Two other satellite-based firms are launching their offerings with mobile phones in 2007 - OnAir and AeroMobile - and Air France and Emirates are two of the five early customers of the two companies. Internet access will follow, although it might be expensive via these two firms, which will use a different satellite network than Boeing did and Panasonic will. In the United States, AirCell recently closed on a license for relatively inexpensive air-to-ground broadband communications, and Continental, Delta, and United - along with American and Northwest - will be among the early customers for their service.
A mind map is a diagram of connected ideas. In the past, I've written about various mind-mappers, including the minimalist Pyramid ("Pyramid Therapy," 2004-09-13) and the full-featured NovaMind ("Draw What's On Your Mind With NovaMind," 2006-04-17). Recently, a new heavy hitter has appeared on the scene: Mindjet MindManager 6. The "6," a surprisingly high version number for an initial release, is because MindManager has actually been around for a long time over on That Other Platform. The Mac version is in no discernible sense a port, however; it's a true Cocoa application from the ground up (indeed, the story of its cross-platform migration was recently featured in a puff piece on Apple's own developer site).
The Good -- MindManager is very easy to start using. As you brainstorm, press Return to add a topic at the current level, or Command-Return to add a child of the current topic; that's basically all there is to it. Yet at the same time, MindManager is extremely full-featured. A topic can also have callout topics (ancillary attached information), and you can make floating topics (unattached to anything). An image can be added to a topic, from a file or from MindManager's own library. A topic can have markers, which are little decorative icons, such as smileys or colored flags, or text boxes indicating things such as whom a task is assigned to. A topic can have a note, which is styled text. It can have a date, and can be assigned a priority.
A topic can be hyperlinked to another topic, to an http or mailto URL, or to a file or folder on disk. A topic can also be given file attachments; these are files of any kind, which actually live inside the MindManager document and open on command. A boundary, optionally labelled, can be drawn around a topic and its subtopics. A relationship, which is basically a line or curve (also optionally labelled) can be drawn between topics, and you can jump from one end of the relationship to the other. The entire visual presentation of the document is very competent; topic selection and navigation works just as you'd expect.
The Bad -- Considering its maturity, I found much of MindManager's implementation to be surprisingly rough, flawed, or downright lacking. For example, the physical positioning of topics drove me crazy: the program insists on auto-positioning everything for you, with the result that sometimes I would drag a topic to the left and it would jump further right than before. Topic markers come in groups, and when you click one it changes to a different marker in the same group without asking or warning you. There are two ways of hiding topics temporarily: you can collapse a topic's subtopics, or you can choose from the Filter menu to hide selected topics; that's great, but in the latter case there's no visual indication whatever that hidden topics exist. A topic can be "bookmarked," but bookmarks have no names so this feature is sort of useless (all you can do is jump from one bookmarked topic to the next). A document can be exported as a graphic or as text, but not in any complete and universal format such as XML. Contextual menus often lack important commands applicable to the selection.
Most frustrating of all, I found MindManager to be barely competent as a drawing program. The thickness and style of a topic's geometrical shape can't be changed, and I had great difficulty setting the shape's fill color: sometimes I could get it to work, sometimes not, and I never figured out why. Maintaining stylistic consistency among topics is possible, though perhaps a bit challenging. (The documentation says, "If you are an experienced MindManager user you can create your own styles," which sounds more threatening than helpful.) Named styles don't exist. You can copy and paste styling, but you get no choice of what stylistic aspects to copy and paste: it's all or nothing. You can select a topic or other entity and dictate that its styling should be used as the default. And MindManager uses a complicated system of templating where a document or part of a document can be saved into a library and used as a stylistic basis for future documents. It's all rather confusing, really.
Finally, the documentation is a lot of disconnected Help Viewer pages, many consisting of vapid chatter such as how to close a document by clicking on the red button in the title bar; thus, working your way through the help is a difficult, time-consuming, frustrating, and mind-numbingly dull task.
The Ugly -- Overall, MindManager is slick and generally easy to use, but I'm forced to conclude that, considering the state it's in and the nature of the competition, at $230 it may be overpriced. Still, it costs nothing except the submission of your email address to download it (50 MB) and give it a try. MindManager requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or greater.
After patiently waiting for Apple to give the MacBook Pro line a boost, I finally ordered a new Intel Core 2 Duo-based MacBook Pro to replace my three-year-old PowerBook G4. To my astonishment, buying a new MacBook Pro cost less than what I paid for my current PowerBook. In fact, after looking over some numbers, I realized that the MacBook Pro cost less than all recent models I've ordered before it.
The configuration I chose is the high-end 15-inch model for $2,500. It includes a 2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2 GB of memory, a 120 GB hard drive, 6x double-layer SuperDrive, and the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card with 256 MB of RAM. Given that my PowerBook G4's 80 GB drive was almost full, I decided to spring for the build-to-order 160 GB hard drive in the MacBook Pro for an extra $100.
That was actually my first surprise. Conventional wisdom is that Apple charges a premium for such build-to-order items (like adding more memory), but the $100 fee for the 160 GB drive is less than what I could find online. If I were to buy one from a third-party vendor, I'd probably get a 160 GB Seagate Momentus 5400.3 notebook drive from NewEgg.com for about $175 with shipping. (That's not the cheapest offering out there, but I've relied on Seagate drives for years. Expect to spend as little as $156 for an inexpensive 160 GB drive right now, with prices no doubt dropping over time.)
The next surprise? This is the first laptop in ages where I haven't needed to factor in the cost of upgrading the amount of memory. My configuration came with 2 GB of built-in RAM, which is fine for my needs right now. The MacBook Pro can support up to 3 GB of memory, but getting there is awfully expensive: you need to replace one of the 1 GB DIMMs with a 2 GB DIMM, for which Apple charges $575 through the online Apple Store. A search at dealram turns up a 2 GB DIMM for $290 through 18004memory.com, a company with an unfortunate name but from whom I've successfully bought RAM in the past. Although I'm sure I'll move up to 3 GB at some point in the future, it's not an immediate concern, and hopefully prices will have dropped a bit by then.
In terms of other build-to-order items, I chose to keep the non-glare version of the screen (which I'm glad is still an option, versus moving all of Apple's portables to the glossy screens found on the MacBook line), and opting not to buy the $50 USB modem. I don't necessarily object to the MacBook's reflective screen - I just prefer the non-glare version I'm accustomed to.
I opted not to buy extra power adapters for the MacBook Pro. With previous PowerBooks, it's always been worth the cost to have an adapter at home, one at the office, and one in my bag. (Apple changed the physical power connector between each PowerBook model, so I've had to purchase new adapters each time.) In this case, I've decided to carry the included MagSafe adapter with me, and plug it into the power cord extensions from my existing adapters; the cord plugs into the slot on the adapter's brick that normally offers flip-out prongs. I retain the ease of having a power plug available on my desks, without shelling out $160 in extra MagSafe adapters.
So, with tax and free shipping, my total cost was $2,844.
Comparing Past PowerBooks -- Going back chronologically, my PowerBook G4/1.25 GHz model ended up costing me $3,412 with tax and shipping in 2003. That included the PowerBook itself, two power adapters, and $200 worth of RAM. Last year I also spent another $250 to bring the memory up to the PowerBook G4's full 2 GB capacity, but I'm not including that in the total.
In 2001, I bought one of the first wave of PowerBook G4 Titanium models, which set me back about $3,375 for the PowerBook, two power adapters, and one 256 MB DIMM.
And in 1998, I paid a whopping $4,114 for a PowerBook G3, two power adapters, an expansion bay Zip drive, and a copy of Virtual PC 2.0 (I'm going through old email receipts, so I don't have the breakdown of each item at hand, but I'm guessing the latter two cost about $350, leaving $3,764 with shipping).
AppleCare -- I also need to factor in one more cost: the AppleCare extended protection plan, which adds two years of coverage to the one year that comes with the machine. I usually don't go for extended warranties when buying most devices, but in the case of the laptop that goes everywhere I go, and which I rely on for my livelihood, AppleCare is essential. I've purchased AppleCare for every laptop mentioned above, and without fail I've had to send the computers back to Apple for one reason or other.
Apple charges $350 for its MacBook Pro AppleCare coverage, but you can do better at Amazon.com (currently $293) or TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics ($299). You'll end up paying a little for shipping, but it's an item that you can add to a future order to spread out the mailing cost.
And Even More Savings -- I want to also point out that buying the MacBook Pro is saving me another $600 to $900 by removing the need to purchase a Windows PC laptop. A few years ago I bought a refurbished Dell Inspiron for $850 to use during those times when I need to test something under Windows. That machine is starting to feel a bit pokey, and a couple of projects on the horizon will demand that I run Windows.
Because I work in a handful of locations, it doesn't make sense to buy a cheap desktop PC that runs Windows, and if possible I'd rather not carry two notebooks with me. With the MacBook Pro, I don't have to, since it will run Windows under Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp. I get to work on whatever I need, wherever I am.
Buying a new computer is always a big investment, especially in my case where my laptop goes everywhere with me. But I didn't expect the actual cost for a significantly better machine to come in below my budget. That frees me up to buy other accessories (or toys) if necessary.
Here at TidBITS, we like to think that we face adversity so you don't have to. We use our Macs all day long, sometimes even in the evenings, looking for ways to shoulder your karmic burden of computer troubles.
In other words, when bad stuff happens, we write about it because we can, and sometimes that can help someone. Such is the case with my specific travail this week, when I lost important data due to a Retrospect problem.
Following the excellent advice in Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups" (which I edited), I set up a backup system using Retrospect that backs up my laptop's data each night to one of a set of rotating hard drives. Following some further excellent advice by TidBITS contributor Derek Miller (see "Unintelligible Garbage Is Your Friend," 2006-06-26), I used Apple's Disk Utility to create an encrypted disk image that stores financial records and other sensitive data. That disk image is a sparse image file, which occupies only enough space on disk as needed by the files added to it. To access my data, I double-click the file Secure Stuff.sparseimage and enter a password, after which the disk appears on my Desktop just like any other attached drive.
Each night, Retrospect copies files that were added or changed during the day to the backup, including the sparse image file. Or so I thought.
Retrospect's default backup settings include a useful option called Don't Back Up FileVault Sparseimages. FileVault, as we've discussed before (see "How FileVault Should Work," 2004-03-01), encrypts your entire home directory as a single file - an encrypted sparse image file, in fact. But that's FileVault's fatal flaw: Mac OS X typically stores music, photos, and movie files in the home directory, so the hidden disk image balloons to gigantic proportions. If even one small file in the home directory is changed, the entire disk image is marked as changed, and Retrospect backs up the whole thing. So, sensibly, Retrospect's developers added the option to ignore that huge file.
I don't use FileVault, so I didn't think that leaving the option enabled would matter. However, it turns out that Retrospect ignores all sparse image files if the option is on. And when I repartitioned my laptop's hard disk the other night, which of course involved backing up and erasing the disk, I discovered that my Secure Stuff volume was gone.
Fortunately, this story doesn't end as badly as you might have expected. I was repartitioning my new MacBook Pro, so my Secure Stuff.sparseimage file still existed on my PowerBook G4. And because the MacBook Pro had recently arrived, the data was only about a week old. All told, I lost only about four hours of work in Quicken, which isn't good, but it also isn't catastrophic.
If you also use sparse image files for storing secure data and back up using Retrospect, check your backup scripts to make sure you've turned off Don't Back Up FileVault Sparseimages (in Retrospect's Automate tab, open a script and click the Options button). Otherwise, your most important data could end up in the bit bucket.
[A tip of the hat to Jonathan 'Wolf' Rentzsch, who wrote about this problem in a bit more detail on his blog back in June. Alas, I didn't see his report until after I had posted this article on ExtraBITS.]
"Take Control of Digital TV" Updated for Holiday Season -- We've released a new version of Clark Humphrey's "Take Control of Digital TV," updating information about HDTV programming in the United States, the next-generation DVD format war, and Internet-based video download sites. Although the book has no pre-release details about Apple's promised iTV video device (sorry!), we wanted to make sure anyone considering a digital TV purchase this holiday season had the latest details available. As reader Kathy Berndt told us, "I think everyone who walks into the media section of Best Buy, Circuit City, Wal-Mart, etc. should be given a copy of this book." We haven't figured out how to make that happen while still ensuring that Clark can pay his cable bill, but there's no reason you can't walk in armed with your own copy. This is a free update; if you own the previous version, just click the Check for Updates button on the cover of your copy to download a new version. Print-on-demand setup is underway and should be available soon.
Disappearing laptop display -- The backlighting on a reader's iBook occasionally goes dark, prompting several suggestions from the TidBITS community. (10 messages)
Dreamweaver previews not opening in Internet Explorer -- A Web designer runs into trouble with Internet Explorer 5 for Mac, which leads to the question of whether it's worth it to test in an outdated and unsupported browser. (13 messages)
Special Character question -- What's an easy way to access special characters and symbols? From keyboard combinations to the Unicode Hex Input menu, several options are available. (9 messages)
Zune Doom -- If a product is made by Microsoft, does it automatically appeal to a certain segment of potential buyers? Readers discuss the new Zune music player. At length. (56 messages)
Dates in TidBITS -- Adam's article in last week's issue about our new preferred date formatting spurs discussion of the various ways to express year, month, and day in text. (9 messages)
MacTech Creates Archive CD -- Gauging interest in a CD compilation of the TidBITS archive brings up a request to include the late Easy View application. (2 messages)
Zune and Universal Music -- Geoff Duncan's article about Microsoft paying Universal Music a piece of every Zune music player sold prompts one reader to declare that such a deal with Apple would keep him from buying an iPod. (2 messages)
Digital Camera RAW Support Update -- Apple's latest updates to support digital cameras that use the RAW image format hasn't appeared in a reader's Software Update pass. How can one tell if the update has 'taken?' (2 messages)
Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue