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Welcome to 1994! Craig O’Donnell demystifies (or at least provides more details on) the Macintosh microphone situation, Matt Neuburg peers over your shoulder to talk about the new technologies treadmill used in the Macintosh developer rat race, and we review an unusual keyboard that could help folks in pain from repetitive stress injuries. Finally, we note a couple of Macworld events that you might want to attend with us.

Adam Engst No comments


We’re off to Macworld on Wednesday (so use my ZiffNet/Mac account <[email protected]> for urgent email), and it promises to be an exciting show.

Steve Maller of General Magic wrote to tell us that Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, two of the major deities in the Mac developer pantheon will give the first public demonstrations of Magic Cap and Telescript technologies at the tenth anniversary keynote address, which looks like it will be on Thursday morning at 10:00.

I’ve finalized the details of the book signing, so if you’re around on Friday afternoon at 1:30, come to the Hayden booth (#718) and I’ll be more than happy to sign copies of the Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. I assume someone sells them on the floor if you don’t already have one. In addition, Hayden somehow managed to rook me into demoing on Thursday morning at 10:30 the MacTCP software that I wrote about in the book. Why do I have a bad feeling about trying to make a solid connection on an unknown Mac, with a new modem, and via a long distance phone call over a phone line that might have people standing on it? If you come to watch, please be gentle.

Adam Engst No comments

The annual Netter’s Dinner

The annual Netter’s Dinner, as ably organized by Jon Pugh <[email protected]>, is scheduled for 6:00 PM Friday the 7th this year. You must RSVP to Jon by Wednesday night to attend the buffet-style dinner at the Hunan on Sansome at Broadway, but only RSVP if you’re sure you can make it since the overall bill is based on the reservation count.

Adam Engst No comments

First Annual ZMac 5K Fun Run at Macworld Expo.

First Annual ZMac 5K Fun Run at Macworld Expo. For those whose idea of exercise is more strenuous than channel surfing, ZiffNet/Mac is holding a 5K (right, 5,120 bytes) fun run at Macworld. I’ll definitely be there, along with a number of the sysops, staff, and members of ZiffNet/Mac (and maybe even a MacWEEK reporter or MacUser editor). The run starts at 8:30 AM on Saturday morning, 08-Jan-94. Meet in the parking lot of the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street where it meets the Embarcadero next to the Bay. As you look out over the Bay at the end of Market Street, the Ferry Building is just to the left. Bagels and coffee will be provided after the run. To sign up and insure your share of the bagels, send email to Ben Templin at <[email protected]>.

Adam Engst No comments

Beth Gaynor

Beth Gaynor <[email protected]> writes:

Your recent Mac-awareness comments reminded me of something that happened when I was buying a skirt for my trip to Macworld (yay!). When the cashier asked what kind of trade show I was going to, I told her it was a computer trade show – for Macintoshes. Her reply was, "Oh, Macintoshes. Those are a good buy." Not exactly profound, but I thought it spoke volumes for Apple’s reputation these days that the woman both recognized the name Macintosh and thought it was a good buy instead of an over-priced toy. What a pleasant switch! Keep up the advertising, Apple!

Craig O'Donnell No comments

Microphone Details

[Craig O’Donnell is the author of Cool Mac Sounds (ISBN 1-56830-067-0), the second edition of which was recently published by Hayden Books. We reviewed the first edition in TidBITS #155, and if the second edition improves on the first as I suspect it does from the information Craig provides below, it’s worth checking out for those who work with sound on the Macintosh. -Adam]

Mark Anbinder wrote in TidBITS #204:

Purchasers of Apple’s new low-end Macintosh systems will be surprised if they try to use a borrowed Apple microphone in the computers’ microphone jacks. The Performa 475 and 476, LC 475, and Quadra 605 computers require the new PlainTalk microphone in order to record sounds using the microphone port, but don’t include it. Microphones bundled with previous Macintosh models won’t work, because the PlainTalk microphone has a longer plug (.75" rather than .5") and the old plug doesn’t properly seat inside the new jack.

Mark’s on the right track but unfortunately microphones are now a little more complicated than that. Maybe this time next year things will be simpler; or perhaps, with the PowerPCs coming out, things won’t be simpler. You never know.

First of all, the new PlainTalk mic ($29 – part #M9060Z/A or service #922-0867) has a longer connector unique to Apple. Why? Because the input is stereo, but at the same time the mono PlainTalk mic requires power, and the Mac requires something to let it know a PlainTalk mic is plugged in.

The new dual-purpose input jack accommodates:

  • mono 1/8-inch plugs
  • stereo, or "TRS" 1/8-inch plugs
  • the PlainTalk mic plug. When this longer plug is in, it feeds power to the mic and signals the Mac that a PlainTalk mic is plugged in, rather than an External Line input.

As far as the Macintosh hardware itself? There are several sets of variables which I’ll discuss briefly below:

  • mic-level input vs. line-level input
  • one-channel input vs. two-channel input
  • stereo output vs. mono output
  • internal mics vs. external mics
  • old Performas vs. new Performas
  • internal CD-ROM

Apple has three kinds of audio inputs on recent Macs. Let’s say you need to use a mic sometimes, or a stereo Hi Fi VCR.

  1. Line-level and stereo/16-bit INPUT (AV Macs only). You can plug a Hi Fi VCR directly into this input. You need the PlainTalk Mic, or a line-level input from a mic preamp or mixer.
  2. Line-level and mono/8-bit INPUT (the sound architecture in the Performa 475/LC 475, Performa 550/LC 520, or Quadra 605). Although these Macs can play back stereo sound files, they cannot record stereo sound files. Any two-channel input is mixed into mono upon recording. L and R = (L+R). You can plug a Hi Fi VCR directly into this input, but the resulting soundtrack will be mono.
  3. Mic-level and mono/8-bit INPUT (all Macs with the sound input port beginning with the IIsi, including the Quadras, LC, LC II, and LC III, Performa 400-450 series, Duos, and "Fat PowerBooks"). This is the one we’re all most familiar with. You can plug a Hi Fi VCR into this input if you have a Radio Shack attenuating adaptor.
  4. Stereo OUTPUT? Stereo, of course, is two-channel sound on both input and output; L=L and R=R; Apple spec sheets constantly fudge this. Most Macs have been able to play back stereo since the Mac II debuted. (The exceptions are any SE-based or LC-based machine).

    Only the AVs actually record stereo. The new Performa 550/LC 520/MacTV records in mono by mixing the input channels; they are the only Macs so far to have stereo speakers built in.

  5. Internal CD-ROM. The internal CD ROM drives have nothing to do with the Apple Sound Input or Output hardware. They play stereo out the rear panel jack just like an audio CD player would: this mixing process of CD-ROM sound and beeps is analog.

    On all Macs with an internal CD-ROM, except the 550/520 machines, the two channels of CD ROM audio are mixed into mono when played through the internal speaker. The hydrocephalic Macs have two small stereo speakers built in.

    When the "Internal CD-ROM" has been selected as the audio source in the Sound CDEV, you can record the output of any audio CD. The levels are corrected internally. For example, the Performa 550 will record a 22k, L+R-to-mono sound file. The 660AV will record a 44.1k, stereo sound file. (Actually, the AVs’ input sample rate settings are a shade more complicated than that but it’s not worth going into here).

  6. Sound Manager 3.0. One nice thing about Sound Manager 3.0 is the fact that it causes any stereo sound files played on the "mono" LC-based machines to come out the speaker mixed to mono. Without Sound Manager 3.0, you get only the left channel at the output.

    This is nice for the day (whenever it comes) when LC owners are faced with QuickTime movies with two, three, or four tracks of audio.

Model by Model — Here’s how it breaks down. It’s probably easiest to group the information by product line. PTM is my code for "PlainTalk Mic required" and "SDM" is my code for "the older Silver Dollar Mic only."

Old Performas: Performas prior to October 1993: SDM. The line of recently discontinued Performas based on the LC II and LC III included the old "silver dollar" Apple mic, and were the last Macs to include an external mic (sigh… except the two AV Macs).

New Performas: PTM. The newer Performas (460s, 470s, 550) do not include a mic, except that the 550 has a built-in front panel mic.

LCs: All SDM, with a few exceptions. The LC 475 is PTM. The LC 520 and the Color Classic (which is LC-based) have a built-in, front panel mic.

Quadra/Centris line: All SDM, except for the AV Macs, and the Centris 605 (which does not record stereo).

PowerBooks: All SDM, including the Duo Docks. Duos have a built-in mic.

Substitutes? — There is no substitute for the PlainTalk mic, although you can use any mic through a mic preamplifier or mixer as a "line-level" input to the PTM Macs.

Of course, this costs you at least $200, right on up to $5,000, for a mic preamp and microphone of any quality at all. A typical low-cost AV-compatible setup would include the Mackie 1202 mixer ($325; a great bargain) and an Audio-Technica, Shure or EV mic ($75 to $200). You can try to use a Radio Shack mixer and cheap mic but I don’t recommend it.

No Silver Dollar Mic? — Not to worry. Radio Shack carries three or four "electret condenser" mics in the $18-$28 range and any of these work in lieu of the old Silver Dollar on the SDM Macs. I personally like the $28 Tie Tack Condenser because it’s small, it has a long cable, and it has a nice, balanced sound. But the sound on all three of these mics is close.

Part Numbers (from pages 145-147 of Cool Mac Sounds):

     Omni Electret #33-1060       $18
     Tie Clip Omni #33-1052       $22
     Tie Tack Omni #33-1063       $29
     "Radio Shack PZM", just over $50.

     Apple's Silver Dollar Mic lists for $19.

However, on these older Macs, to record a "line input" from a tape, VCR, CD, and so on, you need an attenuator. Radio Shack makes two (an attenuating "dubbing cable" and a simple attenuating adaptor). Either works fine. Part #274-300 or 42-2461.

Scurrilous Rumors — There is a rumor going around (unfortunately reinforced in print) that you need an extra-special adaptor for a Silver Dollar Mic Mac’s sound input port, and it isn’t true. The standard mono 1/8-inch plug on Radio Shack’s adaptors and electret mics functions perfectly; there is no danger to your Mac’s input hardware.

The only time you might endanger anything is if you plug a stereo cable from your CD player or VCR into the rear-panel input without an attenuator. There’s a very small DC voltage for Silver Dollar mic power on what is normally the Right Channel of a stereo input. This could damage your hi fi (but it’s unlikely).

Adam Engst No comments

Keyboard Common Sense

We all know that the traditional QWERTY layout of the keyboards most of us use constantly is foisted upon us by the mechanical typewriters of yore. It seems that unlike bell bottoms and disco music, the QWERTY layout is here to stay. OK, so we’ll suffer – even theoretically better layouts like the Dvorak layout are too radical for the massive installed base of keyboards. But have you ever thought about where the keys are in the layout? If you do, notice that none of the alphanumeric keys line up – that is, a line drawn vertically through the center of a key never touches the line from another key. The key arrangement doesn’t even make sense, except for one thing – mechanical typewriters used levers for the striking mechanism. Press a key, and a lever jumped up and whacked the paper. The keys had to be laid out so the levers didn’t run into one another. Made sense then, and we’re stuck with it now.

Lest I be accused of not properly researching my articles, while back east in December, I checked out the manual typewriter my grandmother used in high school in 1937, and it was indeed designed as I said above. Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, was that manual typewriters had physical "tab stops," actual metal tabs that you could slide around. Pressing the Tab key then moved the carriage to that tab stop. The Tab key came over to the computer, but without those metal tabs, the name of the key makes no sense. Yet again, I guess we’re stuck with it now.

However, on the numeric keypad, a relatively late addition, the keys are laid out in straight rows, and "10-key" speed can be extremely high. Thus, it would seem to make sense to lay out the alphanumeric keys in the same way. That’s precisely what Richard Somers, of Somers Engineering, did with his EK1 Ergonomic Keyboard, which sports the alphanumeric keys in straight rows. Rather than completely reinvent a new keyboard, Richard reworked the alphanumeric module of a Datadesk Switchboard keyboard, which enables the user to move the keypad and cursor key modules around and has high-quality Alps switches with a nice IBM PC keyboard feel (lousy machine, great keyboard). The Datadesk Switchboard is compatible with the Mac and the PC, merely requiring a cable swap.

Richard sent me an EK1 to try, warning me that it is only for people already experiencing hand and wrist pain (those not in pain see no reason to do anything different). I still have some pain from carpal tunnel, and I had to go back to the mouse on my 660AV since the Curtis MVP Mouse trackball and footswitch doesn’t work well on it (some timing issues with clicking – it’s a damn shame that Curtis hasn’t addressed this since it’s a fine trackball) and using the mouse aggravated my right hand. [Update: the pain from using the mouse increased to the point where I dug out an old CoStar Stingray trackball to use instead. I don’t like it nearly as much as the Curtis MVP Mouse, but it beats the mouse for my hands.]

It took me several hours before I was completely comfortable with the new key layout, and I think someone who touch types correctly would learn even faster. I tend to hit the b key with the wrong hand, it seems, and such mistakes are exacerbated by different layouts. However, a few hours of clumsy typing isn’t bad, after which I was fully up to speed. The feel of the keys is indeed great, better for me than the feel of the keys on the Apple Extended keyboard that I use now.

After a week of using the keyboard in the standard configuration and liking it just fine, I tried moving the numeric keypad module to the left side of the alphanumeric module. I thought it would be great, since the mouse would be closer to my right hand. In fact, moving the module became a real problem, since I’m used to hitting the modifier keys based on relative location from the edge of the keyboard, and that didn’t work any more. My hands were also confused when I entered numbers into Managing Your Money – which hand hits Tab and which hits Enter? I recommend trying such modifications carefully, especially since they limit your ability to move to another keyboard. Perhaps the worst problem was that after I moved the numeric keypad module, I kept hitting the Caps Lock key when I meant to hit Shift or Tab, and since the Switchboard lets you assign Caps Lock to be the Control key if you want, it’s not a lock-down key and is too easy to hit. That drove me nuts.

The only other minor negative is that because of rearranging the keys into a straight layout, there are a few blank spaces at the edges that collect dust. Richard said that if he can go into mass production on the keyboard he’ll use larger keycaps to eliminate some of those spaces.

Moving back and forth to a normal keyboard is a problem since your fingers learn the different layouts. Basically, if you buy one of these keyboards, you’ll want to use it and it alone. The main people who will suffer in this respect are PowerBook users, who have little choice of keyboard layouts. To complete the test, I went back to the Apple Extended keyboard after about ten days, and after about an hour was fully comfortable on that keyboard again.

So what were the results? It’s hard to say. I don’t think my hands felt better while using the EK1, but they did feel slightly worse when I went back to using my Apple Extended Keyboard. That could have been due to the mouse, though, and I couldn’t eliminate that factor. It’s possible that I simply wasn’t in sufficient pain to notice the difference. Richard said that responses from most users who were already in pain was highly positive, in contrast to healthy users, who were merely irritated to have to learn a new layout. It’s amazing how open-minded pain can make you.

The straight layout makes sense, and it feels more efficient. I type rather quickly anyway, but don’t particularly time myself. I know of no research that proves that the straight layout is better, although in this case I think Occam’s Razor might be an appropriate rule to apply (when in doubt, choose the simplest case). The original key layout was not simple for a specific design reason. That reason no longer exists, and thus the layout no longer makes sense for any reason other than installed base. But since the EK1 is only a minor change, still using the QWERTY concept, it’s far easier to use than a Dvorak keyboard or one of the more radical keyboards, such as a chording keyboard (although chording keyboards have the advantage of being a totally different skill set, so you don’t lose the ability to type on a QWERTY layout if you use a chording keyboard). I won’t say that the EK1 keyboard is for everyone, because it’s not, but if you are in noticeable pain and only use one keyboard, it very well might be worth $348 (plus $10 shipping) to attempt to alleviate that pain. Somers Engineering offers a 30-day money back guarantee and a three year warranty.

Somers Engineering
3424 Vicker Way
Palmdale, CA 93551
[email protected]
[email protected]

Matt Neuburg No comments

The User Over Your Shoulder: The New Technologies Treadmill

For a mere $250 plus shipping, you can order from APDA (Apple’s developer-support wing) a year’s subscription to the Developer Mailing. Each month you receive a newsletter and a CD.

The CDs are filled with stuff that Apple wants to put into the hands of software authors. Some of it is established system software or beta-releases of future system software (recent CDs have included international systems, LaserWriter 8.1.1, System 7.1 and its Update 2.0.1, AppleScript, and Speech Manager). Some of it is reference documentation (all the old and new Inside Macintosh, and complete tech notes). Some of it is sample code and programming aids.

You don’t have to be a real developer; anyone can subscribe (contact APDA at <[email protected]> if you’re interested). A lot of non-developers who do subscribe doubtless just crave the CDs. But just as fascinating is how the Mailing, including the newsletter, lets you look over Apple’s shoulder as it pep-talks developers towards the new system technologies looming on the horizon. It occurs to me that if I were a developer I would doubtless need such pep-talks.

Even in the good old days (whenever they were), writing even a simple Macintosh application was no mean feat. There are many "managers" built into the system to help you, but they don’t do the work for you, even when you’re trying to do something that any Mac application needs to do. It’s hard to describe, and I’m no expert, but I think it’s fair to say that the interplay between what the system software does and what you do in order to achieve even the simplest task is weird. Something as rudimentary as putting up a dialog box, requires a certain level of sheer trickery. A task as common as maintaining a floating palette is so difficult via the standard high-level Window Manager calls that an article in a recent issue of Apple’s develop magazine teaches you to hack your way completely around such calls.

These days, new "managers" and capabilities are cropping up at a perilous rate. Each requires the programmer to learn new skills. None can be trivially incorporated into applications; the complexity of the interaction between them all, and between them and your program, means the learning curve angles steeper as the programmer climbs. The problem is that if one wants to stay in business one must keep climbing, because a competitor is certainly going to incorporate the new features, and you’ll be left behind if you don’t as well – as Apple gleefully points out in the newsletter.

This makes me wonder whether Apple is doing the right thing. Perhaps I’m just an Old Curmudgeon, and I certainly wouldn’t want to press my views: I’m not a developer, nor even much of a programmer. But in a quiet way, and perhaps for sake of argument, I’m curious as to whether all this pulling of rugs from under existing Mac applications can be good for the industry, and particularly for the users, of whom I am one.

Just consider a tiny bit of what is around the corner. With PowerPC, the basic bottom-level fact about Macintoshes, the use of the Motorola 680×0 processor, is about to go out the window. Everything has to be rewritten and recompiled if it isn’t to be content with running in a mere emulator mode on the new, faster machines. With QuickDraw GX, the most basic act of showing text and graphics on the screen must be implemented in an entirely new way, and the printing and font models are going to change radically. In short, it isn’t just a matter of new capabilities piled upon the old; the impending upheaval involves the underpinnings, everything that is most fundamental and long-standing in the Macintosh world.

Then there is the problem of many machines and many systems. Time was when Apple prided itself upon the mutual compatibility of its then-small line of Macintoshes. The system software cleverly sheltered your program from worrying about differences between the ROM of a Mac Plus and that of Mac II. But now there are rudimentary splits between the hardware and software platforms. System 7 lets you make all sorts of Toolbox calls that System 6 can’t handle. These are much more convenient, and if I were writing a program for my personal use I would write it for System 7. But if you’re a developer, unless you want your program not to run on many of the lower-end the machines, it must be two distinct programs in one, one making System 6 calls and the other making System 7 calls. The same is true of the hardware. Remember all the programs that broke when the Quadras appeared? My copy of ON Location still doesn’t work if a StyleWriter II driver is the current Chooser printer. And how about the expansion-slot nightmare?

My point is simple. If the industry of developers is to keep up with all the changes Apple is throwing at them, which it must do to stay healthy, a lot of folks are going to have to do a lot of work. That work is going to take time, in the form of person-hours, mythical or not. Who pays for those person-hours? Why do I think it’s going to be the user?

Apple’s attitude in this regard does not encourage me. In the newsletter that came with the latest Developer Mailing, an Apple guru jokes that "God was able to create the world in seven days because he didn’t have an installed base." As far as I’m concerned this joke, apparently a current hit around the Apple campus, is on a par with Hermann Goering’s notorious quote, "When I hear the word Culture, I reach for my revolver." The very fact that anyone finds it amusing, or even clever, sends a shiver of fear up my spine. In the same newsletter, the concept of "current" Macintosh models is used to mean (as far as I can gather): Performa 410, 460, 470, 550; LC II, III, 475, 520; Quadra 605, 610, 650, 950, and the two AVs; plus some PowerBooks and Duos, and the Color Classic II. I get the idea that as far as Apple is concerned, all the machines in my department (Pluses and Classics running System 6, a Classic II, and a Quadra 800) are bad dreams they wish would go away.

Indeed, my own machine at home is starting to feel the bad vibes. It’s a poor old LC. It was one of the first lower-priced Macs, and when I bought it, a couple of years ago, I was part of the new revolution, helping Apple down the path of higher volume and smaller profit margins that helped save the company into the 90s. Since then I’ve accelerated my LC and filled it with RAM to its maximum capacity, and I’m still marginalized by the current system software. Judging from the upcoming system software, we’re all supposed to have 20 MB of RAM. Too bad if some of us can’t. What are we supposed to do, throw out our machines and start over? Does Apple think we’re made of money?

I’m not trying to be a Luddite or a nay-sayer. I drool as much the next person over the prospect of new gee-whiz technologies. And I also think – and this is important, so don’t get me wrong – that Apple probably needs to do what it’s doing in order to keep going. But I have this sneaking feeling that with a lot of old and slightly middle-aged machines getting the cold shoulder, and a lot of costly software upgrades in the works, the user’s pocketbook is going to feel the shaft. Certainly it’s going to make the $250 it costs me to be the User Over Your Shoulder look paltry.

In the mean time, if the creek don’t rise, and if the Thought Police don’t get me, and if I don’t get too much hate mail, I might be back from time to time with some more musings on where Apple thinks it’s going, and whether it’s good for us if it gets there.