Reactions from last week’s news that Apple is shifting to Intel-based Macs has dominated the Mac press (and TidBITS Talk), but Adam makes the case that this is the biggest non-news of the year; read on for his explanation. Also this week, Charles Maurer returns with a look at the Panasonic DMC-FX7 and some discussion of point-and-shoot digital cameras. We also note Apple’s Security Update 2005-006, Snapz Pro X 2.0.2, "Take Control of Customizing Tiger" 1.0.1, and a new DealBITS drawing for a Matias OS X Keyboard.
Security Update 2005-006 Released — Apple released Security Update 2005-006 last week, fixing the usual miscellany of possible security holes in services such as the AFP Server, Bluetooth, CoreGraphics, folder permissions, launchd, LaunchServices, MCX Client, NFS, PHP, and the VPN server. All of the holes apply to Mac OS 10.4 Tiger (both client and server versions), but only the Bluetooth and PHP fixes are relevant for those still running Panther, and the VPN fix was already rolled into Mac OS 10.3.9 by a previous security update. For full details, see Apple’s description; the download ranges from 3.9 MB to 6.4 MB, depending on the version you need and whether you get it via Software Update or as a stand-alone download. [ACE]
Snapz Pro X 2.0.2 Provides Tiger Compatibility — Ambrosia Software has released Snapz Pro X 2.0.2, a minor upgrade to the company’s essential screen capture software. The upgrade provides full Tiger compatibility, fixes a few bugs, is localized for Traditional Chinese, and includes an uninstaller. Every author I know relies on Snapz Pro X for screenshots, and although this is clearly not a major upgrade, it’s worth keeping up with the latest version. The upgrade is free to registered customers; Snapz Pro X normally costs $30 for still screen captures, or $70 for the version that can capture actions as movies.
(Interestingly, in Tiger Apple changed the file format for screenshots captured with Command-Shift-3/4 from PDF to PNG, perhaps because PNG files can be used in Web pages more easily than PDF files (PNG support is widespread in modern programs). Although everyone I know who’s serious about screenshots uses Snapz Pro X, in which you can choose the file format, you can also use Apple’s Grab utility to take screenshots in TIFF format, and you can even use File > Grab in Tiger’s version of Preview to capture a screenshot directly into Preview, at which point you can use Save As to save it to PDF or another supported format.) [ACE]
Adam Interviewed for CIPS Connections/NPA Careers — A while back a guy named Stephen Ibaraki interviewed me via email, and the interview has now been published by CIPS (Canadian Information Processing Society) Connections and the NPA (Network Professional Association) Careers sites. It’s an extensive interview and worth a read. The text is the same on both sites; I include them both here merely for completeness. [ACE]
A little over a year ago, I reviewed the Matias Tactile Pro keyboard, which uses Alps mechanical switches to provide a "clicky" feel that many people, myself included, really like. Now Matias has a new keyboard – the OS X Keyboard – that addresses two common complaints with the Tactile Pro. First, the Tactile Pro is relatively expensive at $99.95, whereas the OS X Keyboard costs only $29.95. Second, the Tactile Pro is rather loud thanks to those clicky keys, and some people (or their office-mates) find the noise annoying. In contrast, the OS X Keyboard, short of occasional clicks from its Spacebar, is far quieter. The OS X Keyboard also hides the seldom-used Caps Lock key down in the cluster of modifier keys to the right of the Spacebar (replacing it with a Control key above Shift), prints the appropriate symbols on the modifier keys in addition to the Option characters on all alphanumeric keys, and arranges the three volume keys (mute, up, down) in a line between the Help/Home/Pg Up row and F13/F14/F15. But (there’s always a "but," isn’t there?), the OS X Keyboard uses rubber dome switches instead of Alps mechanical switches, and as such, doesn’t have nearly as nice a feel as the Tactile Pro. It’s comparable to the Apple Pro Keyboard, other than a somewhat looser Spacebar. In terms of construction, it’s white plastic, and is quite light; it doesn’t have the tank-like feel of the Tactile Pro. Overall, the OS X Keyboard hasn’t rocked my world, but it seems to be a decent, inexpensive keyboard that might be a good choice for anyone buying a Mac mini or looking for a backup or replacement keyboard.
Apple’s announcement last week that Macs would be switching away from the PowerPC chip to Intel-based CPUs sure was exciting, wasn’t it? After all, Intel is part of the massive Wintel conspiracy that all right-thinking members of the Macintosh rebellion have been fighting against for so many years, correct? (Psst… That’s Star Wars you’re thinking of. What we have here is just a bunch of technology companies jostling for position.)
Honestly, as soon as my brain stopped spinning from the unexpectedness of it all, I’ve come to think that this announcement is the biggest non-news event of the year for the vast majority of Macintosh users. Our friend Jason Snell of Macworld has done a bang-up job of answering the most common questions surrounding the announcement, so I encourage you to read his piece; I won’t attempt to replicate it here. Instead, here are the three reasons why I’m unperturbed, along with some counterpoint from that little voice in the back of my head.
Nothing even begins to change for us users for a year, when Apple plans to release the first Macs that will use some chip from Intel. Apple isn’t specifying a chip, because it will depend on which one makes the most sense at that point for the Macs that will be first in line to get it (likely the lower end of the Mac line). And since it will take two years for the majority of the Mac line to switch, and until the end of 2007 before Apple plans to stop making PowerPC-based Macs, I just can’t see this announcement affecting my life in the near term. So what all the fuss boils down to is that Apple will be releasing new Macs (and a new version of Mac OS X) in a year. I could have guessed that, and knowing that the Macs might have a different CPU doesn’t change the fact that they’re still vaporware.
For counterpoint, it’s worth noting that many organizations have purchase plans that extend years in advance. Obviously, those organizations now know that if they wait 12 to 30 months, they’ll be able to purchase Macs that will likely be able to run Windows software at full performance. For such organizations, or anyone who doesn’t mind delaying an upgrade until 2006 or 2007, waiting may make sense, and that in turn may hurt Apple’s sales in the meantime. Remember, though, that Apple has over $6 billion in cash and no long-term debt, which will help ease any pain from transition. So even though Apple would prefer to not lose any sales, the company can weather a downturn.
When push comes to shove, I don’t care what CPU is inside my Mac, just as I don’t care what chip runs my iPod, my cell phone, or my washing machine. To be fair, that’s not entirely true. I care what CPU is in my Mac only to the extent that it enables Mac OS X to operate with acceptable performance and to run the software I need. When I next need to buy a new Mac, I’ll have to evaluate whether or not the CPUs currently in use – from whatever company – meet those basic requirements. For instance, our plans to buy a new Power Mac G5 for Tonya remain unaffected. She needs a faster Mac to replace her aging 733 MHz PowerPC G4-based QuickSilver, and in keeping with our basic approach, we’ll buy the Mac that provides the most performance for the money at the point in time when it’s necessary. It would be nonsensical for Tonya to wait a year or two to buy an Intel-based Mac; if she needs the power now, as she does, she should buy a Mac now. (And she will, once she gets the opportunity.)
On the other hand, Tonya and I use mainstream applications that don’t take advantage of the Velocity Engine (also known as AltiVec) unit in the PowerPC chips. The impression I’ve gotten from talking with developers is that software that relies on the Velocity Engine will require significantly more effort to port to the Intel architecture; as such, users who rely on audio or video software may find themselves waiting for versions that will run on new Intel-based Macs, or they may find their software improving at a slower rate in situations where developers choose to concentrate on porting to Intel chips instead of adding new features. So, some users will likely suffer in the transition, or find themselves limited in the Macs they can buy and use in the 2 to 4 year time-frame.
I don’t see any significant philosophical difference between Intel and IBM as Apple’s primary chip supplier. There’s no underdog here, just a bunch of 600-pound gorillas, and I certainly hope that Intel can meet Apple’s need for chips better than IBM and Motorola/Freescale have over the years. Even if I was horribly offended by Apple’s move for some reason, what’s the alternative? Switching away from a Mac would entail using an x86-based chip (though a system could be purchased from AMD rather than Intel), so that doesn’t seem like much of a statement. And switching would also require using Windows or some flavor of Unix; to my mind that would be a matter of cutting off my nose to spite my face.
That said, if you feel betrayed by Apple, it’s not entirely surprising. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Steve Jobs featured demonstrations of how the PowerPC beat the pants off the Pentium in head-to-head Photoshop tests. In other words, Apple has played up the us-versus-them mentality at the chip level, and is now paying the price with a certain set of customers.
Final Thoughts — In the end, I see no reason we shouldn’t take Steve Jobs at his word with regard to why Apple announced this switch. It’s not so much about which chips are available today as what Apple sees as being available in several years. Despite the fact that Apple has been compiling Mac OS X for Intel chips all along, there’s no question that the transition will require a lot of effort for Apple and for Macintosh developers. It’s not a decision Apple would have made lightly, and for the most part, neither Apple nor developers gain anything by it in the short term. But in the long term, if Apple has made the right decision, the Mac will benefit with increased performance across the line. Users will like the increased performance and design possibilities opened up for Apple, as well as the increased performance for Windows applications. And if all that is true, Apple will sell more Macs and increase the size of the market for developers.
But that’s all in the future. For now, the announcement means great PR for Intel, a lot of work for Apple and Mac developers, and business as usual for the rest of us.
My wife Daphne likes to look at snapshots and I don’t like to take them, so 25 years ago I bought her a camera. She could never get decent pictures out of the thing, so I bought her another – and another and another and another. She could have stocked a small photo shop with the cameras she never used, film and digital both. Finally, early this year, we came across something she likes.
The camera is a Panasonic DMC-FX7, one of a line of point-and-shoots with different lenses and features but similar innards. This particular model is the size of a cigarette packet with a modest 3x zoom lens, an LCD screen that fills nearly the entire back, and no viewfinder at all.
The LCD is what attracted Daphne. It is 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) diagonally, bright enough (just) to use in bright sunlight, and fast enough to keep up with slowly moving objects. I find it frustrating because it loses detail in bright sun and cannot handle rapid motion, but Daphne is not skilled enough to notice fine detail as she is shooting, or to follow rapid motion, or frame a picture rapidly. For her the LCD is miraculous. She has never been able to see clearly through any viewfinder but she can see this screen well enough to take good pictures.
A Helping Hand — Several manufacturers offer miniature cameras with equally large LCDs, but at the time we bought it, Panasonic trumped the competition with one important feature: optical image stabilization. (Since then Kodak has announced a model that sounds comparable, the EasyShare V550.) With optical image stabilization, the camera automatically senses the slightest movement and shifts part of the lens to compensate.
It is astonishing to see the difference that optical stabilization has made to Daphne’s photographs. Without stabilization she would have one blurred picture in five but with stabilization I don’t think we have seen one blurred picture in 100, except when she shot from a motorboat without thinking to choose the "Scene" mode and then the "Sports" sub-mode to increase the shutter speed. (More about this later.) I suspect that even somebody with a tremor might be able to use it.
Image Quality — The computer inside the camera is Panasonic’s Venus II image processor, which works very quickly and remarkably well. It rarely turns out an unacceptable picture and seems even to remove colour fringing.
The weak point of the camera is the size of its sensor, which is true of every model in this line and also for every point-and-shoot camera that I know of. They all use tiny sensors stuffed with more pixels than is sensible.
The more pixels that are squeezed onto a sensor, the smaller each light-sensitive cell on the sensor needs to be. In any given amount of time, a smaller cell will be struck by fewer photons of light and will require fewer photons to saturate. Since a smaller cell is struck by fewer photons, it records less dark detail; since a smaller cell saturates sooner, it records less bright detail. Thus, the smaller the cell, the smaller its "dynamic range."
To see how this plays out in pictures, look at the pair on the page linked below. I manipulated both of those photos to make them as effective photographically as I could. Daphne took the top one with her Panasonic, I took the bottom one with my Sigma SD-10. The cells on the Sigma’s sensor have about 20 times the area.
Along with a reduced dynamic range, smaller sensors show more of a certain kind of noise. The number of photons striking a single cell will fluctuate randomly, even when the source of light appears to our eyes to be constant. Larger cells average out more of those fluctuations than smaller cells. The fluctuations show up in photos as random noise like the grain of film, and smaller cells show more it. This is most obvious in dark areas. With a small sensor, noise limits severely how much you can manipulate an image. With the Panasonic, if I brighten a dark tone more than a very little, it turns ugly.
The Overloaded Checklist — Another problem common to point-and-shoots is endemic to consumer electronics: featuritis. The Panasonic cameras suffer from this in spades. Daphne’s camera offers five shooting modes and nine sub-modes, makes sound movies and does simple animations. Depending on the shooting mode, three buttons offer different sets of choices. Although none of this is too complex to figure out in an armchair, it is too confusing to want to deal with when taking snapshots. I rarely use any mode other than "Simple" and Daphne never does. That is why her pictures from the motorboat were blurred.
Although Simple mode usually works fine outdoors, it is not optimal when shooting a portrait by flash. That’s because it has the flash fire an extra time in advance of the shutter, to induce the subject’s pupils to contract and thereby reduce red-eye. This guarantees that you cannot capture a fleeting expression yet it still does not eliminate red-eye. I would prefer to have the flash fire only once – with the shutter – and to fix the red-eye in a computer, which is a trivial task. However, choosing an ordinary flash requires "Advanced" mode. Advanced mode, in turn, requires a dictionary of hieroglyphics, it requires the photographer to remember whether he wants the optical stabilization to be in mode 1 or mode 2, and it permits his forefinger accidentally to change that setting or to defeat it.
(My ideal point-and-shoot camera would have a dispense with a flash button and have a simple mode dial with four positions: automatic flash, no flash, action, and playback.)
One feature that’s available when reviewing photos I expected to be useful – it’s invaluable on my Sigma – but it turns out to be useless on the Panasonic. This is a histogram of the exposure, a graph showing the number of pixels at each level of brightness. On my Sigma the histogram lets me place the exposure exactly. I set the exposure so that the brightest whites are exposed at the maximum level that the sensor can handle, and then I don’t worry about the dark tones. The dark tones are usually too dark to make out on the LCD but I can nearly always bring them out in the computer because the sensor has such a broad dynamic range. In contrast, the Panasonic truncates the range of any picture to match the range of the histogram. When the scene’s contrast exceeds that range, as is commonly the case, I have to decide whether the highlights or shadows ought to be cut off. I can tell that only by looking at the picture; the histogram cannot help at all.
Picking a Point-and-Shoot — As I said at the start of this article, Panasonic makes a number of other point-and-shoots that use the same image processor and use comparable zoom lenses with optical stabilization (all made by Leica). They differ in overall size, size of the LCD, range of the zoom lens, viewfinder, and battery. (Daphne’s DMC-FX7 has a rechargeable lithium battery that ran down after a morning’s sight-seeing. She carries a spare and often needs it.) Some of the lenses zoom from a modest wide angle to a long or very long telephoto. Long telephoto lenses are awkward without a tripod, because they magnify camera movement, but image stabilization ought to make them usable.
Daphne’s camera is so handy that it made me hanker for something smaller and lighter than my Sigma, a camera to throw into a rucksack just in case something should come up. However, I could not abide the Panasonic’s limited dynamic range. I’ve tried to find something in between her camera and mine but I have not been able to. Every model smaller than the Sigma packs so many pixels onto such a small sensor that the cell size works out to be roughly as small as the Panasonic’s. Cameras might be six times the size of the Panasonic but their dynamic range promises to be the same. In short, as the market stands today, I can see buying a $500 camera, and I can see buying a $1,500 camera, but I cannot see buying anything in between.
It seems to me that when buying a digital camera today, the most important question to ask is whether or not you will be satisfied with the quality of good snapshots. When photos from a point-and-shoot are sharp, properly exposed and well composed, they still tend to look like snapshots, not because they have too few pixels but because they have washed-out whites and blocked-in blacks. If that quality is acceptable to you, then buy yourself a point-and-shoot (if possible, one with image stabilization). However, if you want better photographs, you will need to record more detail in highlights and shadows. For that you will need significantly larger cells on the sensor. In today’s market, that seems to mean buying an SLR (and shooting RAW files, not JPEGs: see the last link in this article).
Digital SLR Update — Among digital SLRs, all of those priced below the stratosphere have sensors approximately two-thirds the size of 35mm film. Most of these use similar sensors and hence are capable of similar results, but two stand out as capable of something better. One of these is the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D, which sells for around $1,400 including a lens, and has a 2.5" LCD. It is the only SLR available with image stabilization in the camera body, not just in the odd expensive lens. This means that it can cope with more camera shake than any other SLR and thus take sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds.
The second anomaly is the Sigma SD-10, also at about $1,400, but including a second lens. The Sigma is marketed to compete with the cheapest SLRs but it actually compares to the most expensive. (For a detailed explanation and review, see the first three links below.) It uses a different kind of sensor than any other camera, a sensor that is sharper than any other and, I suspect, provides somewhat greater dynamic range than any camera except possibly the Fuji FinePix S3 Pro, which uses another unusual sensor and sells for about $2,400 without a lens. None of these cameras includes a memory card, which costs around $100.
If all you want is a better point-and-shoot, then I would go for the Minolta. It has a built-in flash and will be more forgiving of camera shake, which is the snap-shooter’s bete noir. If you are interested in learning photography and think that you might want to take it seriously, then the Sigma is ideal. The cheap lenses that Sigma supply with the camera are fine to start with and you can buy better ones if you begin to find them limiting. With the f/2.8 18-50mm lens ($500), the Sigma becomes a professional’s tool at a bargain-basement price. The Sigma also has simpler controls than any other digital SLR, because it leaves all image-processing to your desktop computer.
Whatever digital camera you buy, to extract the best quality from it, you will need to work on the photos that it produces. What comes out of the camera is not a finished product, it is merely a first approximation by a computer built into the camera. In the link below, I described the complex approach I take with my own photographs. Next week I shall describe a simple one that I worked out for Daphne.
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"Take Control of Customizing Tiger" Updated to Version 1.0.1 — When Apple shipped Tiger, there were a few small things that turned out to have changed from the seeds we used when writing the Take Control ebooks. Matt Neuburg has now updated his "Take Control of Customizing Tiger" to reflect information that has become available since Tiger’s release, with the primary changes coming in the sections about Spotlight and Dashboard. It’s a minor update but one that’s essential to keep the book accurate and helpful as it walks readers through customizing Tiger features such as Spotlight, Smart Folders, Dashboard, and Automator. Those who purchased the 1.0 version may access the free update by clicking the Check for Updates button on the cover of the ebook, and if you wish to re-print the new version, we suggest first consulting the "What’s New in Version 1.0.1" list in the "Read Me First" section to determine if the changes warrant using additional paper.
The second URL below each thread description points to the discussion on our Web Crossing server, which will be faster.
Annoyance with support for Apple software — One person’s bad experience with Apple tech support opens up a discussion on what one should expect when calling for support, in addition to first-hand reports of being on the other side of such calls. (9 messages)
Changing the FTP Server on Tiger — Suggestions for switching FTP servers at the Unix level. (3 messages)
Pay to Play with QuickTime 7.0 Pro — Adam’s recent article about the QuickTime Pro upgrade fee elicits comments about whether the upgrade is worth the cost, as well as suggestions of utilities that provide similar functionality. (3 messages)
Emotional responses to the Intel transition — Apple’s impending switch to using Intel processors in the Macintosh line prompt lots of opinions. (48 messages)
Keeping Macs running Mac OS X — Apple has said that Mac OS X will run only on Intel-based Macs that Apple sells, and not on any generic PC. The question is, how will they ensure this? (32 messages)
Intel transition: winners & losers — Who stands to gain from the move to Intel-based Macs, and who will suffer? The gamut ranges from game developers to small Mac resellers. (7 messages)
Wither Darwin x86 — Darwin, the open-source Unix core of Mac OS X, can already run on Intel’s x86 processors. How does Apple’s shift to Intel affect Darwin when Mac OS X will be able to run only on Apple hardware? (7 messages)
Apple’s choice of chips — We know that Apple is moving to Intel processors, but which ones? Speculation flourishes in the absence of any specifics from Apple. (11 messages)
Intel chips and DRM — Some of Intel’s new offerings may include processor-level digital rights management (DRM). Could this be an important factor in Apple’s decision to move to Intel? (1 message)
Film scanners and software for a large scanning project — Moving away from the Apple-Intel news, a reader asks for guidance on hardware and software for digitizing a large collection of negatives. (6 messages)