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We're wrapping up the suggestions for holiday gift ideas, so if you've been holding off so far, drop us a note with your ideas by 06-Dec-06. As always, we're collecting ideas in TidBITS Talk, so send your picks to <email@example.com> or submit them in the TidBITS Talk Web forum, and please use plain text format rather than HTML. We've already started threads for specific categories, and in particular, we're a bit thin for general software and game ideas. 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 please recommend only others' products. Thanks!
Microsoft's Zune music player has barely seen store shelves, but it's already taken so much flak that I'm starting to feel a little sorry for it. But only starting, and in my most recent MacNotables podcast with Andy Ihnatko and Chuck Joiner, we expressed our incredulity that Microsoft could have released such a collection of compromises, confusions, and crashes, all bundled into a plain brown package. I can't pretend you'll learn anything useful from this podcast (unless you need ammunition for your own Zune target practice), but we had a heck of a good time recording it, and I think you'll enjoy the result.
Ergonis Software has released PopChar X 3.1, adding automatic font detection for Apple's Pages 2.0 or later (see "PopChar X 3.0 Improves Usability," 2006-07-03). Also new in Ergonis's utility for finding and inserting special characters and HTML symbols are a more sophisticated technique for choosing the best size for displaying fonts, detection of corrupted fonts, and faster reaction when the keyboard layout changes. PopChar X 3.1 also fixes a number of bugs; it's definitely worthwhile. The free update is a 1.5 MB download; new copies cost $30.
Apple patched a security flaw in the drivers for the company's original AirPort card last week. Among other fixes, Security Update 2006-007 for Mac OS X 10.3.9 and 10.4.8 corrects a flaw that could enable a nearby attacker to cause a kernel panic and crash a Mac in the right set of circumstances. Apple warned that this attack could potentially deliver a software payload that would run without interference on the attacked computer - a state known as arbitrary code execution. We wrote about this exploit last month ("Another Minor AirPort Vulnerability Exposed," 2006-11-06), at which point the exploit's discoverer only suggested that a payload was possible. A host of other flaws were also patched.
Six unique updaters are available: one each for 10.3.9 client and server, 10.4.8 PowerPC client and server, and 10.4.8 Intel client and server. Software Update identifies the correct one for your Mac.
The AirPort flaw was triggered if an AirPort card, signaling it was interested in knowing what networks were available in the vicinity, received a carefully crafted response that mimicked how access points announce their name and other details. The patch validates those responses to avoid triggering an error. Keep in mind that the vulnerability affects only the original AirPort card, which was included with Macs released from 1999 to 2002, and was sold as late as 2004 for those Macs. AirPort Extreme cards, which work with models introduced starting in January 2003, have drivers that aren't affected by this particular flaw. (The few users of Mac OS X 10.2 and earlier have been ignored for AirPort card updates for at least a couple of years now.)
Security Update 2006-007 mostly patches flaws that are triggered by local users with physical access to the computer, although a few weaknesses could be exploited by remote users. For instance, a flaw in the FTP server built into Mac OS X could enable a remote user to figure out which users have valid accounts on the attacked computer. And an error in how Samba (Windows file sharing) handles incoming requests could have enabled an attacker to break access to the service.
One significant flaw, now patched, could have crashed or exploited Mac OS X when Safari visited a Web site that had a maliciously crafted Web page. The flaw was in WebKit, the underlying system-wide software used for HTML rendering and handling that's used in Safari and many third-party applications. The fix now parses documents correctly. Oddly, the description of this problem is identical to that used in Security Update 2006-004 released on 01-Aug-06.
Last week, Parallels announced a new beta version of their Parallels Desktop virtualization software, which lets owners of Intel Macs run almost any version of Windows within Mac OS X. At the time of the announcement, I was already working on a revision of my book "Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac." Now, I have to add quite a few more pages: this update is a doozy.
The most significant of many new features in Build 3036 is that Parallels can now directly run a copy of Windows XP you've installed using Boot Camp, rather than requiring you to create a new virtual machine with its own Windows installation. This beta also adds a resizable main window with automatic adjustment of screen resolution; support for migrating an existing Windows installation (including one made using Virtual PC) into Parallels; drag-and-drop between Windows and Mac OS X; a feature called Coherence, which effectively lets Windows applications "escape" the Parallels window and coexist alongside Mac OS X windows; and numerous other improvements.
Until now, people wanting to run Windows on a Mac had to make a potentially difficult decision. They could install Windows under Boot Camp, but this requires rebooting to switch operating systems. Or they could install Windows under virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop, which runs within Mac OS X but not quite as fast as under Boot Camp; it also lacks support for 3D graphics and some peripherals. There was no way to use a single installation of Windows under both Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop, so anyone needing both environments had to install Windows twice. Doing so not only required considerable disk space but also raised potentially thorny issues of licensing and activation. The standard Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA) for the retail versions of Windows XP doesn't officially allow a single copy to be installed in both ways on the same computer. Even if someone chose to ignore that, though, the Windows activation mechanism would cause problems. After activating a copy of Windows with a given Product Key in one environment, you'd be unable to activate it again in the other environment, even though they both existed on the same physical computer. Some people said they were able to resolve the problem with a phone call to Microsoft, but if you go by the letter of the law, Microsoft expects you to purchase two separate copies of Windows to use them in this fashion.
This new beta promises to change the equation. After installing Windows XP in Boot Camp as usual, you can now install a package called Parallels Tools for Boot Camp (linked in the initial forum post about the beta). Then, when you reboot in Mac OS X and run Parallels, you can set up a new virtual machine that uses your Boot Camp partition, rather than a disk image, as its storage space. And in theory at least, that's that: you have one copy of Windows you can use in either of two ways. If this scheme is successful, it effectively means you can have your cake and eat it too. (You will, however, have to trade the dynamic resizability of Parallels Desktop's disk image files for the static Boot Camp partition sizes.)
Unfortunately, this beta version hasn't licked the activation problem yet; in fact, it seems to have made it worse for the time being. At issue is the fact that when you activate Windows, you activate it only for the hardware on which it's currently running. Try to use a copy of Windows with the same Product Key on different hardware, and Windows assumes you're installing it on a different computer (in violation of the EULA); this prompts the reactivation message. Because Parallels Desktop emulates some of the virtual computer's hardware, from the perspective of Windows, the computer it's running on when used with Boot Camp is much different from the computer it's running on under Parallels Desktop.
As a result, the Parallels discussion forums have been overflowing with complaints that tend to run like this: After installing Parallels Tools for Boot Camp and setting up the new virtual machine, a user is asked to reactivate Windows - usually requiring nothing more than clicking a link, though sometimes a phone call to Microsoft is apparently needed. (This much is documented in the beta's release notes, and should come as no surprise.) However, when the user then reboots directly into Windows using Boot Camp, Windows again asks to be reactivated. For some users, at least, this process continues every time they switch between Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop. Although many people would willingly endure a single reactivation request, having to reactivate each time is highly problematic, especially when it takes a phone call to do so.
Similarly, Parallels provides no way as yet to move an existing copy of Windows installed as a virtual machine to a Boot Camp partition, with or without the need for reactivation. So if you've already installed Windows in Parallels Desktop and hope to move to the new system, it may require considerable effort.
Of course, this is a beta version, so some problems are to be expected. A Parallels representative indicated that they're working on the reactivation issue. It's unclear when or how they'll solve it, but participants on the Parallels discussion forums have frequently referred to this difficulty as a "show stopper," so I expect it will be a top priority. This beta version also appears to have significant problems when used with Windows partitions formatted as FAT32 volumes rather than as NTFS; Parallels says that's a bug they're also looking into.
Although Parallels has not predicted when this new version will leave the beta stage, they have said that it will be a free update for existing users, and that an even bigger upgrade - version 3.0 - is due in early 2007.
As those of you who have read my previous reviews of car navigation GPS devices know, I'm a fan of the technology in general. I would happily recommend one to anyone who plans to do a lot of driving in an unfamiliar area. They're probably also of significant utility to those who are directionally challenged and often find themselves taking wrong turns even in relatively familiar territory. (There are, of course, people who take this too far, and I love the fact that this story of an "overly obedient" driver who drove into a portable toilet while following his GPS's directions was on a British Web site relating an article from an Australian newspaper about a German driver.)
Along with my appreciation for the utility of GPS navigation technology has come the assumption that technology - and this technology in particular - continually improves with time. We've seen features such as spoken street names, automatic routing around slow traffic, and more appear as these devices have matured.
All of these facts make it almost painful to say that in short, I didn't like the $600 Magellan RoadMate 3000T or its big brother, the $700 RoadMate 6000T, nearly as much as any of the previous GPS devices I've tested, including Magellan's earlier (and now less expensive) RoadMate 700 or 760 (see "On the Road with the Magellan RoadMate 700," 2005-08-08 and "Magellan RoadMate 760 GPS Speaks Out," 2005-11-21). For the money, I recommend that you look for a discounted 700 or 760 instead of a new 3000T or 6000T.
Legitimate Advances -- I shouldn't imply that there's nothing good about these units, because that would be unfair, particularly to the 6000T. Their most notable claim to fame is encapsulated in that T in the model names; it stands for "TrafficKit" and enables the devices to consider traffic conditions when calculating routes. The 6000T requires only an additional antenna that snakes around the car dashboard; the 3000T needs an additional $150 dongle into which the antenna plugs. Both also require that you subscribe to the TrafficKit service, which is free for 3 months for the 6000T and 15 months for the 3000T (once you've bought the dongle), after which it costs $60 per year. Although the TrafficKit works only in certain major metropolitan areas in the United States, they're likely the ones that have the worst traffic.
(The reason I'm reviewing both the 3000T and the 6000T is that the review unit of the 3000T I was sent lacked sufficiently current software to use the TrafficKit, and rather than send me new software that would have required installation on a Windows PC, Magellan sent me a new 6000T instead. And no, like other GPS devices from Magellan and Garmin, these units don't communicate at all with the Mac, though this would have been the first time Mac-compatibility would have been handy in my testing.)
Both units feature an integrated rechargeable battery, which I approve of heartily because it means you can easily use them inside (for entering addresses) or when the car is turned off, two usage patterns that are common in my experience. Alas, an AC adapter is only an optional accessory, though an included car charger is good enough for most situations.
Although my 3000T came with a prosaic suction cup mount on a bendable arm, the 6000T's articulated windshield suction cup mount worked even better, and both the power plug and and the TrafficKit's antenna plugged into the mount, making it easy to remove and stow the GPS itself when leaving the car in a parking lot.
In a welcome bit of catch-up with Garmin, both units now feature a 3D perspective view of the area around you, which I find far more intuitive and easier to scan than Magellan's traditional flat map view (which remains available as well).
In non-GPS features, both units could accept a Secure Digital card (unfortunately, all I have for my cameras is Compact Flash cards) containing MP3s and photos. Being unable to test these features didn't particularly bother me though, since I consider them nearly irrelevant to the primary function of the GPS. If I want to listen to MP3s or view photos on a little screen, I'll use my iPod.
Despite the attractive-sounding nature of all these features, my favorite one is Magellan's new SmartDetour interface, at least in the 6000T. When we found ourselves in slow traffic, the 6000T flashed an icon onscreen that, when pressed, brought up a screen in which we could choose the distance of the detour. Nothing new there, but when told to find an alternative route, the 6000T not only did so, but presented us with a screen that told us how much longer (in time and distance) the new route would be and asked for confirmation. That's a near-ideal interface, since otherwise you're left guessing how much extra driving you're committing to with a new route. No other GPS I've tested so far has provided such information.
Litany of Limitations -- As much as Magellan got a few things right, more so with the 6000T than the 3000T, they missed on far too many details for me to recommend these devices. Magellan clearly recognized some of these even in the time or model gap between the 3000T and the 6000T. So the 3000T lacks the SayWhere technology that speaks street names along with directions rather than just telling you when and in which direction to turn. Why would any GPS go backwards in this fashion? (I suspect the already overtaxed CPU couldn't handle the speech synthesis, but that's mere speculation.)
Although I appreciate the inclusion of a rechargeable battery for the freedom it provides, turning these units on the first time takes 10 seconds and waking them from sleep with the power button takes at least 3 seconds, a rather long time to sit with a button held down as you're trying to head out in the car. Turning them off is even worse. I'd press the power button and wait until the sleep screen appeared, warning me not to touch any other button for five seconds. Sounds easy, but it was nearly impossible to avoid pressing another button, considering the myriad buttons surrounding the edges of these units. Does that seem farfetched? Along with the power button on the top face, there are two buttons on the top edge for zooming, one or two on the left face for muting and Bluetooth cell phone connectivity (6000T only), Enter and Cancel buttons and a navigation control on the bottom face, and three buttons on the right face for location, searching, and setup. (It is possible to set both units to sleep automatically after 10 minutes, though I didn't usually want to waste 10 minutes of battery life that I might need later, given that it lasted only up to four hours.)
The buttons are another place where the 3000T is even worse than the 6000T, since the 3000T's buttons have only inscrutable icons, or in the case of the Enter and Cancel buttons, little green and red LEDs. As you can imagine, it's nearly impossible to learn an interface where the controls are identified only with icons that have no relationship to much of anything. For the 6000T, Magellan thankfully added text below the icons of the buttons on the face, which makes them somewhat more explicable. However, if you were faced with buttons labeled Enter, Cancel, Locate, View, and Menu, which would you use to select a new address, change a route, or find nearby points of interest? Since I don't have the 6000T in front of me as I'm writing, I couldn't begin to tell you the answer, and when I was using it, I was only slightly more clued in. The fact of the matter is that the physical buttons do little but confuse the interface and make using the power button tricky. Although previous Magellan RoadMate devices had physical buttons that were ancillary to basic usage, they were at least situated on a right-side control area where they were easily used or avoided.
On top of the lousy physical interface, I found the performance and accuracy of the 6000T lacking. I tested the 3000T in Boston, and although I wasn't wildly impressed with its performance or accuracy, I didn't make many wrong turns or feel that it was letting me down. The 6000T, tested in New York City and Long Island, however, was truly disappointing. I became all too familiar with the flipping hourglass that's equivalent to Mac OS X's spinning beach ball, and although it was hard to quantify, I felt as though I wasn't being given instructions at quite the right time. Whether or not it was related to performance, I made many more mistakes while driving under the direction of the 6000T than I did when using the 3000T or any other GPS device so far.
Accuracy was a problem as well. I've quibbled with directions given to me by other devices in the past, but the 6000T took the prize for most clueless. It gave me completely wrong directions for re-entering I-80 after stopping at a rest stop in the Delaware Water Gap; it failed to give me any directions at all at a major Y on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a nerve-wracking road if ever there was one); on quite a few occasions it gave me the useless "Proceed to route" command when I needed specific directions to find what it considered to be the route; and most amazingly, when asked to take us home to Ithaca from New York City using the shortest time routing, chose a route that would have taken us 11 miles and 13 minutes longer than the way we always go (as soon as we exited and it recalculated, both time and distance dropped significantly).
I also found the TrafficKit troublesome, for two reasons. First, because I do not know the roads in New York City well, the information it gave was for the most part useless, since I couldn't tell whether we had any realistic alternative route if traffic ahead of us was terrible. I could see the TrafficKit being useful to someone who already knew the roads, but I've also found that as familiarity with roads goes up, so does irritation with the GPS direction-giving. Perhaps I'd learn to interact with it in a different way, listening to its directions (there is a handy Mute button) only when I needed them, such as when a traffic problem forced me to take a detour.
Second, New York City is a rat's nest of traffic problems. As such, the 6000T was constantly being alerted to them by the TrafficKit, and thus constantly recalculating its route to see if there was a better option. That was a problem because I was always worried that perhaps it was recalculating because I had made a mistake, particularly if I was making a lot of turns. It was also disconcerting because the 6000T switches to a separate screen when recalculating, which sometimes had me screaming at it to give me the map back so I could see what to do next. Magellan could resolve some of these problems by recalculating route changes due to traffic problems in the background, alerting the user only if they result in a new route, and clarifying that the route change is due to traffic, not because the user drove off course.
What's Next? I'll admit, I was a bit shaken to find the RoadMate 6000T so stressful. It looks as though Magellan may have acknowledged some of these concerns already, in the new RoadMate 2000 and 2200T (although I remain boggled that the 2000 lacks the SayWhere technology, too). Both seem to have done away with all the buttons that get in the way of the 3000T/6000T design, and rely entirely on the touch screen, which is more the way Garmin does things. They're also battery powered, smaller, and the 2200T is designed to be usable for hiking and geocaching, with an optional upgrade of some sort. We'll see.
In the meantime, Garmin has released the streamlined StreetPilot c550, along with the Nuvi 360 and the larger StreetPilot 2820. From a quick glance, these units seem mostly to be competing largely on the same features - Bluetooth phone compatibility, MP3 support, FM traffic reception, and so on. And then there's the TomTom GO 910, which, despite having its own MP3 support, also provides an interface to an iPod. Plus, there are a variety of other manufacturers that may be worth a look - if you run across a GPS device that offers some innovative features, let me know and I'll see if I can add it to the review list.
Holiday Discount on Buying Guides for Cameras, Macs, and TVs -- If your holiday shopping list includes a digital camera, new Macintosh, or digital television, you may be scratching your head over which model to purchase, or gearing up for a stressful trip to a consumer electronics superstore. To help you pick just the right gift, we have a special offer for you - purchase any one of our "buying guide" ebooks below and take 30% off your entire order through the end of the year:
The second edition is thoroughly updated to cover iTunes 7's new features, such as multiple music library support, new library views, album art, gapless playback, the downloads interface, and Backup to Disc, with special attention paid to the new iPod settings pane. The ebook now also discusses using the free Audacity to record and edit audio from cassette tapes and offers tips for removing scratches from the iPod, restoring the iPod in iTunes 7, finding music videos, playing protected AAC songs on third-party streaming devices, and gauging battery life on a second-generation iPod shuffle.
We're offering a free update to anyone who purchased the ebook after 12-Sep-06, and a $9 discount to anyone who purchased a copy before that. We've sent email with the necessary links to those people; drop us a note if you missed yours.
Psst... Want to Learn How to Podcast? If you've been wanting to get started with podcasting, or if you're already podcasting but want to improve your workflow or take your show to the next level, "Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac" version 1.2 is here to help. This just-released version offers up-to-date coverage of how to plan, record, edit, publish, and promote a podcast. In particular, it now covers Audio Hijack Pro 2.7 and how to work with it to record from Voice-Over-IP software like Skype and iChat (a great option for interviews!), and it now discusses Rogue Amoeba's new and well-received Fission for quick editing without sound degradation. For those who own an earlier version of the ebook, the update is free; 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.
Xbox 360 vs. PS3 vs. Wii -- The next generation of gaming consoles are now finally available, and readers weigh in. Game play isn't primarily the topic of discussion, though, but rather how each system is performing, the amount of money the parent companies are losing, and parallels with the computer and music player markets. (7 messages)
Retrospect vs. Sparse Disk Image Files -- Jeff Carlson's article about a bug in Retrospect brings up the question of how Apple's Backup handles disk image files. (2 messages)
MindManager Comes to the Mac -- Following Matt Neuburg's review of MindManager, a reader points out the lack of parity with the Windows version. (1 message)
TV Recording on the Mac -- A reader's company needs to record and store on his Mac multiple television shows that air at the same time. What solutions are available? (10 messages)
TaxCut - "Mac is Back" -- H&R Block's TaxCut software returns to the Mac, but is the company's Mac-unfriendly Web site any indication of what the program will be like? (2 messages)
Syncing cell phone with the Mac -- Readers recommend phones that synchronize with the Mac, and also discuss software that does the syncing beyond iSync. (11 messages)
Sitemaps -- Will building a sitemap for your Web site improve search engine rankings? And what's the best approach? (3 messages)
Fon -- Will Fon's intriguing notion of building a Wi-Fi based, point-to-point phone system work, or will it be hampered by broadband service providers? (3 messages)
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