Apple’s media event last week didn’t deliver the iJetpack we’ve been waiting for, but it did bring an improved, Intel-based Mac mini, as well as the iPod Hi-Fi, the company’s first large-scale entry into the iPod accessory market. Joe Kissell has those details. Apple also released a couple of minor updates along with Security Update 2006-001, which deals with many of the security issues we’ve been grappling with in recent weeks. Later in this issue, Adam reviews Docktopus from Startly Technologies and announces the pre-sale and draft availability of "Take Control of iWeb," and Glenn Fleishman tells you why you’re going to hear a lot about ultrawideband (UWB) wireless communications in the future.
iTunes, iPhoto, and Front Row Updated — Apple last week released iTunes 6.0.4 and iPhoto 6.0.2 to address minor problems with Front Row, Apple’s media-center interface software for playing music, photos, and videos on the iMac, MacBook Pro, and just-released Intel-based Mac mini. Unsurprisingly, they were accompanied by an update to Front Row 1.2.1, which claims to improve compatibility with iTunes and iPhoto sharing. The new version of iTunes reportedly fixes stability- and performance-related problems to Front Row, and the iPhoto update resolves problems related to playing shared slideshows in Front Row. iTunes 6.0.4 is an 18.7 MB download via Software Update, iPhoto Update 6.0.2 is a 13.7 MB download, and Front Row 1.2.1 is a 5.5 MB download. Given the specific nature of these changes, I’d suggest that anyone not using Front Row could skip these updates or at least put them off until convenient. [ACE]
GarageBand 3.0.1 Released — Apple posted GarageBand 3.0.1 last week, which fixes a specific podcast problem in the French or Finnish localized versions of the audio-creation software. The update is available via Software Update or as a 1.5 MB download. [JLC]
Blackberry Stays Juiced — Writing a few weeks ago, Patrick Dennis reviewed the Blackberry 7100i handheld (see "Putting Blackberries in Your PocketMac" in TidBITS-815) and noted that the device’s slick email service was in danger of being shuttered due to a patent dispute between parent company Research In Motion (RIM) and NTP, Inc. Last week, the two companies announced a settlement: RIM will pay NTP $612.5 million, which puts to rest any further litigation and keeps the service active. Millions of "crackberry" addicts can be satisfied knowing that they can continue to check their email obsessively. [JLC]
Responding with reasonable alacrity to the recent Leap-A and shell script exploits, Apple released Security Update 2006-001 last week, fixing a slew of problems. Most notably, an update to Safari and LaunchServices performs additional download validation when the "Open ‘safe’ files after downloading" option is on to warn the user (in Mac OS X 10.4.5) or to avoid opening the download entirely (in 10.3.9). A similar update to Mail makes sure Download Validation can better detect unsafe or unknown file types in attachments. Also, an update to iChat in Mac OS X 10.4.5 now uses Download Validation to warn users of unknown or unsafe file types during file transfers.
In general, increased warnings are a good thing unless they become so commonplace that users automatically agree to actions without considering the specifics. Plus, despite these changes, Apple still encourages all users to be careful about handling email attachments and opening downloaded files; see Apple’s safety tips if you’re not sure how to evaluate a given attachment or file. Even still, we’d like to see Apple going further to prevent the kind of deceptions that allow a malicious application to masquerade as a harmless document. Matt Neuburg’s suggestion last week (see "Of Files, Forks, and FUD" in TidBITS-818) of badging all executables in some obvious way would be a step in the right direction, although deception (such as a malicious application mimicking a well-known legitimate one) remains possible.
Also important in Security Update 2006-001 is an update to apache_mod_php that includes PHP 4.4.1, a security update to the PHP scripting language. Holes in PHP – specifically in Web forms that are being exploited by spammers – are the largest security issue in the Web server world right now, and PHP 4.4.1 does not fix all of these problems. PHP is disabled by default in Mac OS X, so only people who have explicitly turned it on need worry about these concerns; see the link below for more information.
Other updated components of Mac OS X include automount, BOM (Mac OS X’s archive unpacking code), Directory Services, FileVault, IPsec, LibSystem, perl, rsync, Safari (in more ways than just increased download validation), and Syndication (Safari RSS). While some of Apple’s security updates feel like fixes to issues that few people would ever encounter, a number of the problems addressed by Security Update 2006-001 are quite concerning, and we encourage everyone to install it right away. Security Update 2006-001 comes in versions for Mac OS X 10.4.5 for PowerPC (12.5 MB download) and Intel (22.5 MB), and Mac OS X 10.3.9 Client (25.3 MB) and Server (38.6 MB); all sizes are for the stand-alone version and may be somewhat different for Software Update, which provides the right version for your Mac.
At a special press event in Cupertino last week, Apple announced the next member of the Intel-based processor lineup: the Mac mini, available in two configurations.
One model features an Intel Core Solo (single-core processor) chip, which, according to Apple’s tests, runs between 2.5 and 3.2 times faster than the PowerPC G4-based Mac mini, which is no longer available. The other model contains a Core Duo processor, with claimed speeds between 4.8 and 5.5 times that of the G4.
Both versions of the Intel-based Mac mini feature significant improvements to their connectivity. Ports on the back include gigabit Ethernet, DVI+VGA video out, one FireWire 400, four USB 2.0, and both analog and SPDIF (5.1) audio in and out ports. Steve Jobs also said the new minis are exceptionally quiet. As widely expected, the Mac mini now includes Front Row, along with the infrared remote control included with Intel-based iMacs and MacBook Pros.
Not highlighted at the event – but picked up by several outlets – is the fact that the new Mac mini does not include a dedicated graphics card, relying on the graphics core component of the Intel processor. Instead of using a separate store of memory, graphics processing is handled by the main processor(s) and eating up to 80 MB of system memory. (Macworld’s Jonathan Seff has more information based on talking with Apple at the link below.)
The 1.5 GHz Core Single model includes 512 MB of RAM, a 60 GB SATA hard drive, and a combo drive and sells for $600. The 1.67 GHz Core Duo model includes 512 MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, and a SuperDrive (with double-layer support) and costs $800. Both models are now available.
In addition to the new Mac mini announced at Apple’s special press event last week, the company added two new iPod accessories to its product lineup. The least interesting is a $100 leather case, in sizes for the full-sized iPod and iPod nano. The other is more ambitious: an amplified speaker enclosure called the iPod Hi-Fi. Apple claims that unlike some other iPod boom boxes on the market, the new system produces "home stereo quality" sound.
The iPod Hi-Fi has a three-driver system, with two 80mm mid-range drivers and a 130mm dual voice coil woofer with a ported bass reflex design. On the top is a universal iPod dock, which includes plug-ins for every iPod model that uses a dock connector; an audio port on the back lets you plug in an iPod Shuffle or an older iPod without a dock connector.
For portable use, the iPod Hi-Fi has built-in handles and runs on six D-cell batteries (though at 16.7 pounds (7.6 kg), you may not be quick to blast your tunes from your shoulder around the neighborhood). It also has an integrated power supply and an industrial design meant to look good on a living room bookshelf.
Thanks to a new iPod software update, iPods plugged into the iPod Hi-Fi will have a new Speakers item in the main menu to adjust speaker settings. The iPod Hi-Fi also includes the same Apple Remote included with Front Row-capable Macs.
The iPod Hi-Fi is available now for $350.
Startly Technologies, the folks behind the venerable QuicKeys automation utility and the utterly inexplicable TransLucy (it lets you play movies in a translucent layer over your work, so you can click and type as though the movie wasn’t really there), have a new utility out, called Docktopus and alliteratively subtitled "Delightful Dock Denizen." I saw a quick demo of Docktopus at Macworld Expo, which intrigued me enough to look at it more closely at home.
In short, Docktopus enables you to add up to four badges to each icon on your Dock; each badge provides some sort of information display or control. At the moment, Docktopus comes with nine badges, most of which can be customized in some fashion:
- CPU Meter: Shows the CPU usage of the application on which the badge is placed.
- Drive Space: Shows a pie chart of the disk usage for the disk on which it’s placed.
- Folder Count: Shows the number of items inside the folder or disk on which it’s placed.
- iCal Event Peek: Displays the iCal events for the current day.
- Item Size: Shows the amount of disk space used by the item on which it’s placed.
- iTunes Control: Lets you play/pause iTunes; Option- and Control-clicking moves between tracks.
- Launch Menu: Displays a customizable menu of documents (and recent items) you can open in the application on which it’s placed.
- Mail Peek: Shows the number of unread messages in specified Mail accounts and information about the five most recent messages.
- Memory: Shows the RAM usage of the application on which the badge is placed.
Nothing Docktopus is doing is unique, but its badges provide contextual access to an area of the screen that’s both always in use and normally off-limits to developers: the Dock. This attachment to the Dock turns out to be both Docktopus’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s very cool, for instance, to have Launch Menu badges attached to commonly used applications as a way of providing quick access to those applications’ frequently and recently used documents. And there’s no denying the utility of being able to monitor the CPU or RAM usage of a particular application with a mere glance at its Dock icon. And as you launch and quit applications, Docktopus makes sure its badges remain attached to the appropriate icons.
Where Docktopus falls down for me is that I keep a lot of applications running all the time. At the moment, I have 28 icons in my right-mounted Dock, of which only System Preferences and the Trash are not active applications. Even on my 17-inch Apple Cinema Display running at 1280 by 1024, the result is that the Dock icons are pretty small, making Docktopus’s badges a quarter the size of "pretty small." I can barely see the various graphical meters, and I can’t read the textual ones without leaning up close to the screen and squinting. Plus, the small size means that precision mousing is necessary for interactive badges like Launch Menu. Enabling the Dock’s magnification feature makes the badges more visible, of course, but I don’t like Dock magnification, and Docktopus’s badges don’t animate smoothly with magnified Dock icons. Startly acknowledges this: "Docktopus’s badge display speed may be slowed if Dock magnification is enabled. Try reducing or turning off magnification if you experience problems with badge display."
Although Docktopus’s nine badges are useful, one could imagine additional badges. Startly provides a badge development kit for free, and anyone who creates a badge can submit it for the Docktopus user community to find and download. At the moment, however, there are no new badges listed on the More Badges page, and no one has left any comments or questions in the Docktopus SDK and Badge Creation forum. But Docktopus is yet young, having been released only late in 2005, so perhaps more time is needed before third-party badges will start to appear.
Overall, I appreciate the approach that Startly has taken to providing contextual information and utilities via items that are already guaranteed to be in the Dock, but being joined at the hip to the Dock also means that Docktopus will be useful primarily to people who are geeky enough to want instant access to the kind of information and capabilities that Docktopus provides without being the kind of people who run many applications simultaneously or who store many items in their Docks. I fear that group may be quite small, but if you’re in it, be sure to check out Docktopus’s 30-day demo. Docktopus 1.0.2 costs $20, requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and is a 2.9 MB download.
Just when you’ve mastered the complexities of Wi-Fi standards like IEEE 802.11b and 802.11g, and after you’ve figured out that Bluetooth can work if you perform the steps just right, a new wireless player ambles into town. Make room for ultrawideband (UWB), which will probably be the death knell for cable USB connections in 2007.
Yes, yes, you’ve heard it before: Bluetooth has been on the verge of killing USB for a few years now – but that was always hype. Bluetooth typically runs at just 1 Mbps (the latest Bluetooth 2.0+EDR version, which ships on new Macs, is 3 Mbps). In comparison, the original USB 1.1 operates at 12 Mbps, while the current USB 2.0 flavor carries 480 Mbps. Bluetooth’s reach may number in the tens of millions of devices, but it didn’t kill USB.
So why should you pay attention to another wireless contender? UWB is a radically different approach to wireless data exchange that boasts the raw speed and flexibility necessary to become a peripheral replacement with less of the irritation that accompanies Bluetooth pairing.
UWB: Short, Fast, Low — UWB is a relatively recent wireless networking approach that turns Wi-Fi, cellular, and other wireless networks on their heads. Existing standards typically use very narrow slices of radio spectrum and pump as much signal power as possible through that band to get the greatest range and highest throughput. UWB uses a literal ultra-wide band – a swath of spectrum that’s several gigahertz wide, hundreds of times wider than almost any existing wireless technology.
Since UWB devices use extremely low-power signals, their chatter is more or less undetectable by other equipment using the same range of spectrum. UWB pulses are very brief as well. Because of the low power and desire by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other international regulators to avoid trampling on existing uses, current UWB standards can send usable signals only about 100 feet (30 meters). (The one technology that can faintly hear UWB? Wi-Fi operating in the unlicensed 5 GHz band; UWB has to "notch" or avoid transmitting across part of that range by FCC rules.)
Within 100 feet, the near-term versions of UWB that will hit the market can exchange data typically at the full rate of 480 Mbps – the same as USB 2.0. Beyond 100 feet or if obstacles are in the way, UWB rapidly drops in throughput. Signals can be detected at hundreds of feet, but reports indicate that only a few Mbps would be possible at that range, which is one reason why UWB won’t replace Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Some newer flavors in testing can top 1 Gbps. There’s more room in the technology in the future, too, as regulators may allow higher signal levels or even wider swaths of spectrum to be used, while companies become more clever about encoding data.
As in so many areas of computing, the standards process has reared its ugly head. An IEEE committee – named 802.15.3a for reasons you likely don’t want to know – deadlocked about two years ago about what form of UWB to use as a short-range network standard. The only thing the group proved capable of agreeing upon was to disband last month.
Two opposing alliances that formed within that standards group remain: One comprises a few companies, foremost among them Freescale. Freescale is the semiconductor spin-off of Motorola and incorporates the Motorola acquisition of UWB pioneer XtremeNetworks. Their form of UWB is now seen as classical, using the entire stretch of FCC-allotted spectrum.
The other organization, the WiMedia Alliance, has Intel and a host of other chip and electronics firms as members. The group’s approach encompasses both radio technology and higher-level applications, such as hard-disk mounting over UWB and TCP/IP networking over UWB. The WiMedia Alliance merged with the Multi-Band OFDM Alliance, which divides the FCC-allotted spectrum into a few pieces and then uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), in each piece. OFDM, also used in Wi-Fi flavors 802.11a and 802.11g, divides up spectrum into smaller subchannels, each of which sends data quite slowly compared to the overall bandwidth to make it easier to reconcile signal reflection and cope with interference that may exist in only a small part of the band in question.
The two UWB versions are incompatible and both claim performance, spectrum utilization, and manufacturing-cost benefits.
UWB’s Place in the Ecosystem — UWB by itself is just radio technology that sends data among compatible devices. Networking devices succeed or fail by the layers on top of the raw physical part. Ethernet’s success came in part from an ecumenicalism that allowed many different protocols like TCP/IP, AppleTalk, and NetBEUI to run seamlessly on the same medium.
On top of those protocols sit applications that make use of packet delivery and routing over a network medium. For instance, AppleShare Filing Protocol works over AppleTalk and TCP/IP using any network medium on which AppleTalk and TCP/IP operate (Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and so on). Safari uses HTTP, which runs over TCP/IP, which operates over Ethernet, DSL, and other physical media.
The WiMedia Alliance expects to release its own TCP/IP stack that works over its UWB flavor, and has partnered with the Bluetooth SIG, the USB Implementers Forum, and the 1394 Trade Association (the folks behind the specification underlying FireWire).
The Bluetooth SIG is trying to avoid being stuck with its single radio technology and will work with Freescale as well to make its applications available: object exchange (file transfer), dial-up modem (remote connection), fax, business card interchange, audio, and other features. Because programmers already know how to work with Bluetooth applications, it’s a simple matter to make those same features work over UWB.
The USB Implementers Forum has a Wireless USB specification that the WiMedia members’ adapter will work with. Likewise, the 1394 Trade Association has a set of digital video transfer protocols that will work as well over UWB as over a FireWire cable.
The ultimate goal of the WiMedia Alliance is that new computers will contain a single radio that will be able to handle Internet or local networking over TCP/IP, applications over Bluetooth, hardware over USB, and video over 1394 simultaneously. That’s a serious number of cables that could disappear.
But reaching this goal requires drivers and hardware integration, a point that’s seen as still many months away, and may require Microsoft, Apple, and Linux backers (via IBM, HP, and other companies and individuals) to integrate UWB support at the operating system level. The first phase, therefore, will be driverless.
Without drivers, UWB devices must emulate existing cable standards. The first wave to hit the market from several different companies will almost certainly be USB 2.0 via UWB. In this scenario, a dongle will plug into your computer’s USB 2.0 port while another dongle or a hub will be at the other end of the connection. They’ll package USB 2.0 traffic within the UWB connection, looking just like a USB cable to the computer.
This first wave will probably include sets of equipment that are locked to each other: only a dongle and its paired hub or dongle will be able to communicate. Later hardware will add generalized pairing between compatible devices. Freescale and WiMedia have talked about pairing devices by pressing buttons on the side of desired devices, using near-field communications (bringing the devices very close and pressing a button or using software), or software configuration.
Ultimately, the radio will just be built into most computers, like Wi-Fi is now, and the application and network protocol layers will require no extra work to support.
Where We’ll See UWB First — The first generally available device in the U.S. may be a USB 2.0 hub that Freescale has licensed for production to two companies familiar to Mac users: Gefen, which specializes in video interconnection and extension, and Belkin, makers of networking equipment, cables, and a host of audio and iPod accessories. (Freescale has a Chinese partner, Haier, which will incorporate its equipment initially only in domestic Chinese consumer electronics.)
This hub uses a USB dongle powered by a computer’s USB bus and a separate four-port USB hub that requires AC power. This first flavor runs at just over 100 Mbps, or above a fifth of the speed of UWB’s early potential. Belkin expects to ship their version in July 2006 for roughly $130, according to Ben Bamdad, a Belkin product manager. (The press release linked below mentions their original planned shipping of several months earlier than July.)
While USB 2.0 is useful for a variety of peripherals, such as printers, scanners, and hard drives, it’s likely that battery-powered portable electronics such as cell phones and MP3 players will eventually receive the biggest benefit from UWB because of its extremely low power usage. Wi-Fi is great, but even the lowest-powered chips designed for handheld devices will burn much more power than UWB radios.
UWB will also certainly find its way into consumer electronics because of the speed and potential simplicity. Imagine purchasing an LCD television/monitor, a DVD player, a digital home device (a Mac mini or a Microsoft media center), a stereo receiver, self-powered speakers, and a set-top cable/satellite receiver, all of which use UWB – you’d eliminate dozens of feet of different (and often wildly confusing) wires right there.
If the WiMedia Alliance’s vision comes true, which I expect to happen with Intel behind it, a single radio would enable communication among all categories of devices using all types of standards: a Sony camcorder would play via any brand of TV, but also push standard DV or HDTV video to a computer.
If someone could just get to work on practical wireless power, we could cut all cables. But that’s still science fiction.
"Take Control of iWeb" Available for Preorder and Comments — With iLife ’06, Apple added an entirely new application: the Web authoring tool iWeb. As with most of Apple’s programs, iWeb is easy to use, but lacks significant documentation. So when Steve Sande, author of our "Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music" ebook begged to write "Take Control of iWeb," we were pleased to give him the go-ahead. The book likely won’t be entirely complete until June (we encourage our authors to work sane hours, even though we aren’t always good at practicing what we preach), but since iWeb users need help now, we’re trying something unusual. As with our ebooks about Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, we’ve released "Take Control of iWeb" as a pre-sale. If you purchase it, what you download is the first page, which contains the oh-so-important Check for Updates button. Click it to load the Take Control Updates page in your browser. That page normally tells you if your copy of an ebook is up-to-date and enables you to download the current version, but in this case, it also links to an iWeb-generated blog that Tonya is maintaining while she edits Steve’s text and to the draft of the first quarter of "Take Control of iWeb."
With this draft, we’re pulling back the curtain on one of our core publishing tools: QuickTopic Document Review, which provides a forum for a group of people to comment on a document. In this case, the document in question is an HTML version of the first chunk of "Take Control of iWeb" as exported from Microsoft Word. It lacks the bookmarks and internal navigation of our PDF ebooks, but you can read what Steve has written so far, make comments on anything there, and ask questions if some part of the text isn’t clear. You’ll even be able to see comments and questions others have left, and participate in any discussions that develop. Be sure to sign up for email notification on the Take Control Updates page, since that way we can tell you when we post new chunks of the manuscript for you to read and comment on. Needless to say, Steve plans to use any feedback in finalizing the ebook, and when that’s done, those who bought the pre-sale version will, of course, be able to download the fully edited and polished PDF ebook for free.
The first link for each thread description points to the traditional TidBITS Talk interface; the second link points to the same discussion on our Web Crossing server, which provides a different look and which may be faster.
iPhoto 6 pros and cons — Adam shares feedback about iPhoto 6 following his review in last week’s issue. (2 messages)
Intel Mac mini uses system RAM for VRAM — Unlike previous models, the new Mac mini does not feature a dedicated graphics processor card. What are the practical implications of this design decision? (10 messages)