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April 22, 2014

My 4-year-old, Perfectly Adequate MacBook Pro

I call this: computers,tech — Posted by KP @ 7:00 am

MBPat4I’ve been a computer geek basically my whole life. I started taking computer programming classes at gifted camp when I was 8 years old, and as a result of that managed to get my first computer when I was 9. Although my career isn’t in the technology field, and my knowledge of programming languages is pretty pathetic, I’ve always wanted to stay on or close to the bleeding edge of computing power and new technologies. For as long as I can remember, four years has been generally accepted as the amount of time a computer remains useful if used for anything more complicated than browsing the web, emailing and word processing. I certainly have never been satisfied with a computer any longer than that.

Another driving force in my life is my desire not to have to have a “survival job” while making a living as a professional stage manager. In the course of my career, I’ve had good jobs and bad, long-term jobs that barely pay the bills, and great-paying flops that ran a month. When I used to work more regularly at Phantom I could very suddenly end up with a lot of disposable income. Getting offered somebody’s vacation week meant I could go out and buy a computer just for fun. Last month I got offered a rehearsal and performance in the same week and thought, “Oh thank God, I can turn my cable back on!”

What I’m getting at is that sometimes the unpredictability of my career has forced me to put my dreams of computing on hold. Maybe I’m just getting older and more mellow. The money that buys the shiny new computer thing will probably be needed for rent, so I look more carefully at what I have, and what it can and can’t do, and really ask myself if I need the new features, extra speed, etc. that comes from the latest models.

Which leads me to my MacBook Pro. I purchased it when I was on the road in Philly, in April of 2010 (4 years ago today). You can read my post from the day I got it, if you like. It was something of an expected emergency. My 2007 MacBook Pro had been having problems with the screen for a long time. I waited for a refresh to come out for the 15″ MBPs, and from that point on, every time we got to a new city I’d call the local Apple Store to find out if they had 15″ high-res matte screen MBPs in stock, just in case it died. Finally in Philly, it was too far gone, and I brought home (to the hotel) my current model, officially known as the “Mid-2010” model. I liked it better when the names were a combination of construction material and processor speed, like “1.25gHz AlBook.” It’s rude to say how old a lady is. You’d never know it by looking at her.

File transfer in progress (note the show's lighting monitor that I brought home to use the old computer)

File transfer in progress (note the show’s lighting monitor that I brought to the hotel so I could use the old computer)

Its first performance. Philadelphia, April 2010.

Its first performance. Philadelphia, April 2010.

Anyway, to give you a brief montage of the life and times of this living legend (for this isn’t an “in memoriam” post for a computer being retired, as I’ve done in the past — this baby is still going strong as my primary machine), here are the highlights I can remember of its life so far:

  • Two tours with The Acting Company (the end of the 2009-2010 tour, and the entire 2010-2011 tour)
  • Morning on the bus.

    Morning on the bus.

  • Has been a stage management computer for at least 25 productions and other events (I keep terrible records of all my jobs)
    Who needs paper groundplans?

    Who needs paper groundplans?

  • Until recently had a relatively modest career running projections, having done only four benefits, until this month when it was pressed into service overnight before a matinee, when the PC running my current show died. It not only took over the multiple-projector show, but did it running Windows.
  • Occasionally runs QLab, serving as a rehearsal sound computer (including my current production)
  • Has edited two short films (one in progress), a music video, two other short videos, and countless personal projects just for fun
  • Suffered a video card failure in the middle of tech for Triassic Parq, and took several sick days to go to Texas for a new logic board
  • Tragedy strikes at the dinosaur park.

    Tragedy strikes at the dinosaur park.

  • I don’t think it’s ever needed a battery replacement, which is really quite remarkable. If it did, it must have been a really easy repair process, cause I don’t remember it. Battery life is maybe not quite what it used to be, but I go lots of places without my charger.
  • Now runs Windows 7 and has taken over some of the gaming responsibilities from my “gaming rig,” which hasn’t been updated since 2008.
  • A little hotel gaming.

    A little hotel gaming.

  • Began life with the 320GB 7200rpm hard drive from my old computer, and about a year ago was upgraded to 750GB/7200rpm. Presumably the last laptop I’ll own with a mechanical hard drive.
  • Getting naked for a hard drive swap.

    Getting naked for a hard drive swap.

    Saving Up

    When my last computer died its tragic death, I didn’t have the money to replace it, so I had a lot of debt on my credit card, which I was hoping to pay off during the following year’s Acting Company tour, but basically defeating the purpose of returning from tour with a lot of money. While we were in rehearsal for said tour, I got a check from Phantom, which was forwarded to Minneapolis. I said, “Oh, they’re probably paying out vacation pay. I haven’t worked there in forever, it’s probably like five dollars.” Around the same time I got an email from the company manager letting me know he had sent my vacation pay because it was “a significant amount of money.” At this point I’m thinking it’s like $50. So the check arrives in the rehearsal room one morning and I open it to see how much free money I’ve gotten. It was nine hundred dollars. Which was pretty much the remaining debt on the computer. Once again, Phantom provides the deus ex machina to all my financial problems. It’s like my employment with them is some kind of parable meant to teach me about the difference between wanting money and needing money.

    Anyway, the need to replace the computer without having any money saved up made me vow to be more prepared next time. Figuring I could get at least 3 years out of my new purchase, I began very slowly putting money away. Any time I found myself with actual cash (like birthday money, friend pays me for theatre tickets, etc.) I put it in a drawer. Sometimes I used that drawer money to pay the Dominos delivery guy, but over time I noticed the pile was getting bigger and bigger, too big to keep all of it in a drawer. It was actually becoming enough to significantly offset the cost of a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, and that made me even more eager to put money aside. About six months ago, with my computer three-and-a-half years old, i.e. too old to be repaired if it breaks, I stopped putting money into the fund, because I had enough to pay for the computer, the taxes, and a couple hundred bucks of miscellaneous expenses I expect to need, like new adapters and cases. I was really proud of myself, especially given that I had had some long periods of unemployment and under-employment during those years, and despite my checking account coming very close to zero many times, had never had to give up my computer fund.

    So now I’m just sitting on the money, waiting to be unsatisfied with my 4-year-old computer. And it hasn’t happened.

    Looking Ahead

    Recently my iPhone needed a new battery, and I was left to wander the Apple Store for a half hour while the repair was performed. Having not had much disposable income in several years, I don’t think I own a single thing that was on display in the store, so it was an opportunity to get a little more acquainted with the current hardware options. First on my list was the newer, thinner 15″ MBP, as being the owner of 4-year-old, out-of-warranty MBP means that every time I open the lid there’s a chance some tiny component has fried, and whether I like it or not, the current top-of-the-line 15″ is going to be my new computer.

    I love the thinness, I love the lack of an optical drive, I love the resolution, I love the SSD. I hate glossy screens. The actual gloss has been much improved over the years. They seem much less reflective. But the other problem is that the glass is heavier than the matte screen, which means that the “thinner, lighter” form factor is not really that much lighter than my current model, because the screen is a pound heavier.

    I’ve been lucky to have purchased my last two Macs at a time when they were offering matte screens as an option. It seems they’re currently in another phase of forcing gloss on everyone, which makes me want to wait as long as possible in the hopes they change their minds and decide to be nice to their visual-artist type customers again. So that’s reason #1 that I’m underwhelmed with the current upgrade options.

    Thunderbolt seems cool in theory. I’d love to have a Thunderbolt display which I can connect all my other stuff to, streamlining the number of cables I need to hook up when I get home. Then I looked at a Thunderbolt display in the store. I couldn’t even tell how the picture was because it was so glossy all I could see was the reflection of all the lights in the store. I turned away in disgust without even using the machine. I believe it’s relatively late in its product life and probably due for a refresh, so I won’t judge too harshly, but it’s obscenely expensive (currently $999), 27″ isn’t unusually big for a high-end monitor these days, and it looks like crap! So consider me underwhelmed about the Thunderbolt connector, which is the biggest “you-don’t-have-this” item on the new models. Also, I expect any refreshed monitor will be like $1,500 and still be some degree of glossy. If I’m going to buy a monitor that costs more than a couple hundred bucks, it might as well be matte.

    One thing I am looking forward to, whenever the day shall come, is that the current MBPs can drive two external monitors. Mine can do it with a USB adapter, but it’s not native support and slows everything down. Now that I’m making a little money editing, it’s more than just something that looks cool to post on /r/battlestations on Reddit. But it will require a significant investment of money to do it right, between getting another mounting arm, and possibly needing to buy two monitors that match and fit together nicely, rather than just adding one. I’m crossing my fingers that I have a good job when the time comes, and have the flexibility to make quality purchases that will give the most benefit in the long term.

    In the years since I made my last purchase, I’ve stopped touring (although I’d certainly do it for the right job), and I’ve stopped gaming as much. I have little need for portable gaming power. But I’ve also started a side business as an editor. So raw computing power isn’t as essential as it was before, but I still need enough to work with HD video comfortably. I definitely wish my computer was faster, but it’s not so slow that I want to throw it out the window. It’s teetering on the windowsill, if you will. But I’m trying to be patient to see what’s coming down the road.

    I’m really amazed that after four years, and with the money in place, I don’t have any particular desire for a replacement. I’m not sure if this says something about the quality of the Mid-2010 model, my mellowing as a geek, or the lack of innovation in the last 4 years. I guess it must be all three. I don’t know how much longer we have together, but for now I wish a happy birthday to my strong and loyal friend, who I hope will be some part of my computing arrangement to its 10th birthday and beyond!


July 2, 2011

Let Me Tell Ye: That’s Not a Broken Caps Lock Key, That’s a Feature!

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 1:29 pm

I learned something today. I don’t know when it happened, but I feel like I don’t take the time to have my finger on the pulse of the computing world anymore. This one slipped by me at least a year ago, probably much longer.

If you own a Mac, you may be familiar with how the eject key requires a longer keypress than a normal key to eject your media. When this feature was introduced, it was disturbing at first, but I quickly grew to be OK with it, since ejecting media isn’t that common compared to pressing other keys, and is kind of a big commitment that will take at least several seconds to rectify if you do it without meaning to. A slightly more purposeful press of the key isn’t that hard.

When I upgraded from a 2007 to 2010 MacBook Pro, I thought there was something wrong with my caps lock key. Sometimes it just wouldn’t activate until after several presses. It happened often enough that I knew it wasn’t just my imagination, so I got this nagging feeling that there’s something wrong with my computer. Not something big enough to be worth fixing, but I started thinking, “What if my keyboard is defective? What if the problem starts to affect other keys? I can deal with having to hit caps lock more than once and make sure the green light comes on, but what if it happens to the ‘A’ key? Is it serious enough that I should get it repaired rather than suffer with a defective keyboard for years?”

Well today, as I said, I learned something.

Let me tell ye: this is a feature.

Yes, your caps lock key is designed not to activate when you press it. I don’t know exactly how many milliseconds you’re supposed to press it for. Based on my non-scientific method of pressing it for different periods of time, I’d say that if you tap it the way you would tap a normal key in the process of typing, it won’t activate, but if you give it a determined press (less than a second, for sure), it will work.

I’m not so much angry about this design choice (which might actually be a good one) as I am annoyed that I’ve spent over a year with this machine thinking it’s broken. I don’t know how I was supposed to know about this unusual feature, but if I knew about it, I might have saved myself a lot of time by learning to press the caps lock key more firmly rather than failing to activate it, having to delete what I’ve typed, then spending a good 30 seconds testing the key to make sure it works, and wondering whether the computer needs to be repaired.

I don’t know when this feature was introduced, obviously sometime between my last two laptops, and I don’t know if the current desktop keyboards support it, but I’ll bet they do. Anyway, I’m mostly blogging this not to rant, but as a public service announcement, if anybody else is as perplexed by their caps lock key as I was. Had I not read a blog comment that mentioned it in passing, I’d have never known.


August 16, 2010

Stop Using Your New Macbook Pro Adapter

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 8:37 pm

In my travels across the internet, I had a brief virtual conversation with an unfortunate person:

This person had a newfangled Macbook power adapter, like the one that came with my laptop, as this illustration from this post indicates:

Now think about this: what is the purpose of the Magsafe adapter? It’s so that when somebody trips over your power cord, the connector pops off harmlessly, rather than your laptop being dragged off the table, or the connector being bent or damaged.

But look at how the new one works: if someone trips over your cord to the left, the cord pops off. If they trip over the cord to the right, the wire bends around the side of the laptop and drags it. You can try this yourself by gently pulling in either direction, and you will see that you can make the laptop move and spin by pulling to the right.

This might just be a theoretical problem, but the poster also provided a gruesome photo of a huge dent in the corner of their MacBook Pro created by what would have been a complete non-issue with the old style adapter. That’s it. The moment I get home, I am swapping this adapter with the one that stays attached to my desk, and my laptop is never going out in the world with one of these new adapters again.

This is worse than antennagate when it comes to fixing something that wasn’t broke in the attempt to make it look cutting edge, while removing its sole function. If you have an old one, you might want to go back to using it in situations where somebody might trip on your cord. And if you don’t and you really love your Macbook, you might want to find an old one someplace, because Apple’s stopped making them.


July 20, 2010

Huge Hardware Problem Solved (I Think)

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 2:00 am

My Macbook Pro needed an exorcism. There was something just not right with it. It’s not like my first Mac, which was a 2002 PowerMac that to this day just spontaneously freezes and kernel panics with no provocation, despite passing every hardware test known to man. It was thankfully more subtle and less disruptive than that.

Let me tell you about how it began. This machine came with 4GB of RAM. My previous machine also had 4GB of (third-party) RAM, of an inferior kind (DDR2 as opposed to DDR3). Knowing how advanced the i7 chip is compared to my 2007 Core2Duo, I expected that with an equal amount of RAM, and literally the same hard drive, this machine would be the same, only faster. Well in real-world use, it wasn’t noticeably faster. In fact sometimes it almost seemed slower. Things that are heavily RAM-dependent (such as boot-up time) were slower. I’ve never sat there with a stopwatch, and I couldn’t actually do a side-by-side comparison, because the hard drive had moved and now I can’t test the original speed of the old computer, but when I originally got the 4GB of RAM in the old machine, I was amazed how fast it booted. This machine was not as impressive.

Parallels

Parallels is a virtualization software that allows you to run Windows (or whatever you want) while booted in Mac OS. It ran terribly on this machine. I mean so bad — so embarrassingly bad — that if there were some incompatibility with i7 MBPs there would be a huge outcry and people would be demanding an immediate patch or their money back. Even when I reduced the RAM and video RAM assigned to the virtual machine to pathetic levels, it was still slow as hell. At a reasonable level (say half the actual hardware capacity) it completely consumed all resources and the computer was totally useless in both OSes. And yet the Parallels user help forums don’t say anything about the current version running particularly badly, or having a problem with the new Macs. So I’d started to become convinced maybe it’s just me.

Quitting Programs

Lately I’ve had a few programs that have been spontaneously quitting upon launch. DVD Player and the text editor WriteRoom seemed to be the most common. Eventually I got WriteRoom running after what I think was a corrupted text file that it kept trying to re-open on launch. But DVD Player still quit on launch sometimes, and then 5 seconds later worked fine. Because of these problems I’ve been looking at Activity Monitor to see if anything looks odd. What I’ve noticed (sometimes connected to the quitting, sometimes not) is an obvious memory leak.

Memory Leak

There was a huge memory leak somewhere. Because of it (and rebooting into Windows for gaming) I have been rebooting my computer usually once a day, so I knew it wasn’t taking very long for the leak to grow to be a GB or more. Of course there are any number of things that could be causing it. Safari and associated plugins can cause problems, or some 3rd-party app could be buggy, but as it’s gotten worse I’ve been using less and less of my apps to try to eliminate possible suspects. I’ve been on Apple’s support forums looking for a large number of complaints of a memory leak, but I didn’t see much that points to a flaw affecting all users of 10.6.4 or anything like that. In one case, a user mentioned that it could be caused by faulty memory, and in light of the history listed above, that’s the first time I started seriously considering a hardware problem.

If I’m having software problems, and not anything really disturbing like kernel panics, I will always blame it on software, but the fact is, I’ve been very disappointed with the performance of this machine since I got it. It’s not worse than my old one, but it’s not better, and lately I’ve been on the verge of looking into getting 8GB of RAM. I almost blogged something about it last week — “since when is 8GB of RAM necessary for a computer to feel fast? ” — but I stopped when I couldn’t find the exact quote from Bill Gates about “640k is enough memory for any computer forever,” and moreover discovered that he probably never even said it, which crushed my ideas for an opening line for the post. The point is, I stopped just shy of going to Crucial and finding out just how much 8GB costs these days, since obviously 4GB is yesterday’s news.

I ran Apple’s extended hardware test and it came out fine. My experience and understanding about the way the universe works is that Apple’s hardware test has never identified a hardware failure on anybody’s computer ever, and is generally considered only a first step to save you time in the case that your hardware is extremely messed up (in which case you probably didn’t need a test to tell you something was wrong), otherwise you need to use more advanced third-party solutions. Which are complicated and if you do it properly, involve booting into single user mode and using the console.

I went back to the Apple forums looking for anything else, and somebody’s post said something like “sounds like bad RAM, make sure it’s properly seated.” Now that sounds really obvious, and in all my experience of bad-RAM-like symptoms in 20 years of using computers, that has never been the problem, but of course it’s one thing to check, sort of like if your toaster won’t work and the first step is “is it plugged in?” And I suddenly realized that I have never reseated the RAM since getting this computer. I opened it up to change the hard drive when I got it, but I never had any reason to touch the RAM. So I figured it couldn’t hurt to pop them out and put them back.

On Mac laptops the two sticks of RAM are one on top of the other. The first one looked pretty normal, but I held out hope that maybe there was some tiny gap not perceptible to the human eye, but that on reseating would make a better connection. I popped it up, and as I pulled it out I couldn’t believe what I saw below it: the second stick was not just maybe-kinda-sorta-not-all-the-way-in. It was sticking up! Generally you put the stick in at about a 30-degree angle and then push it down until it clicks into place on both sides. The stick was at that 30-degree angle, or as far up as it could go with the other stick properly seated on top of it. It was amazing, and explained everything. I have always felt like the computer was performing like it had half the RAM it should, and within a day or two of owning it, I had gone into System Profiler to check, because I suspected that one stick might not be detected. Obviously the connection was made enough that the system reported the 4GB, but in practical use only one stick was doing most of the work.

It’s rather early to say, but the first boot-up was at least as snappy as my old MBP. I assigned 2GB of RAM to Parallels and started it up, and it’s happily and quickly booting Windows XP in the background as I type. I mean easily 20 times faster than it did before — in a few seconds, compared to minutes of freezing the whole computer before I could even get it to abort the whole pathetic attempt at computing. I feel like Parallels is responding faster than Boot Camp does. Which is actually possible, considering that Boot Camp must have been running off roughly 2GB this whole time anyway.

I’m really shocked that the system ran as well as it did for so many months with a problem like that. I have been satisfied with it, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t a noticeable performance improvement compared to a 3-year-old machine, and the particular difficulty it seemed to have with RAM-intensive tasks confused the hell out of me. Now I’m excited to find out just how good of a machine I really have had all along. I’m sure I will need to revisit my review, which was kind of lackluster and unfinished, because I kept waiting for something to be able to point to to say, “Look, this is faster!”

Take for example this summary:

I’ve now had the machine for almost three months, and my assessment is that it’s good but not incredibly noticeable during normal use. Maybe the bottleneck is still the hard drive, and that’s why it feels exactly the same as before. My hope when I bought it was that maybe a year or so later, an SSD drive of respectable size would be available for a reasonable price. And I’m sure sometime around then, 8GB of ram would be really cheap. I haven’t quite mentally grasped the situation of 8GB being a “normal” amount of RAM yet, but when it’s cheap enough, I’ll buy it just because, and maybe I’ll see why. When I bought my last MBP I bought 4GB of RAM (which was relatively expensive at the time) because I was using the machine to run full-motion-video-with-audio projections for Singin’ in the Rain, and it made an enormous difference overnight — just before we opened we increased the resolution of all the videos, and they looked much better, and played much more smoothly. So I’m sure with the quad core and everything else, this thing has more power under the hood that I would find if I was doing more video and other demanding activities.

It’s pretty much all right there: the fact that it’s not faster, the fact that the 4GB of RAM and 7,200rpm hard drive inexplicably doesn’t seem to be enough. It didn’t make sense. And if the solution is that simple, I look forward to changing that review very soon!

And one final thought: I mentioned in my review how I don’t read about benchmarks, don’t perform benchmarks on my own machines, and in general don’t care about more details than “slow,” “fast,” or “OMG really fast!” Well the funny thing is, if I had run some benchmarks on the machine for my review, I probably would have realized right away that it was scoring far worse than published reviews. That’ll teach me.


May 26, 2010

Review: Speck SeeThru Satin MacBook Pro Shell

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:48 pm

I’ve admired these shells for years. I like color, I like customizing things, and I like protecting my valuable devices — as long as the protection is attractive, stays out of my way, and doesn’t add too much bulk. Our wardrobe supervisor on tour this year had almost the same shell, only in a different color. I had many opportunities to study it, as it was hard to find someplace to sit in the front lounge while dodging the six Macbooks and one (gasp) PC that lived on the bus. I would question him about it regularly over the course of the tour. It really didn’t get scratched under the case? How often do you look? How often do you take it off? How long have you had it? You’re really sure it’s not causing abrasions on the aluminum? Do you find you use it differently because you have the case on? Is it too heavy? After six months of this I was reasonably sure it wouldn’t hurt my laptop.

A life lesson, learned the hard way: There’s a button on the case covering the battery button (which illuminates a series of LEDs showing the battery charge). Part of the case is sort of cut out around the button so it’s loose and can be pushed in. As it happens, this color of case is so dark that you really can’t see the LEDs light up. For the longest time I struggled putting the case on and off, checking the alignment, testing the battery button naked, and trying to figure out why it didn’t work with the case on. Eventually I manipulated the plastic button so much that it broke off. I didn’t really care, by that point I was so disappointed that it didn’t work that I was OK with poking something in the resulting hole to get to the real button (I can just barely press it with my pinky, but I have tiny hands). Only then did I figure out that the button was probably working the whole time, and I just couldn’t see the lights. Disappointing on several levels.

I might as well mention that the other LED on the case, the sleep light, shines through just fine, and actually looks pretty cool in red. As anyone who has ever slept in the same room as a Mac knows, the sleep lights on all of them can pretty much be seen from space, and you’ve probably devised some method of covering them up so they don’t scorch through your eyelids while you sleep. So dulling the light with the case is not a bad side effect.

PROS:

  • Attractive design, rich color
  • Protects from scratches and dents
  • Adds very little thickness, lid closes smoothly
  • All cutouts fit around ports and other features well, and seem to have plenty of room for bulky peripherals.
  • If the sharp front edge of the MBP bothers you, the plastic provides some relief from directly resting your arms on the metal
  • Puts a layer of protection between your lap and the metal case, making it possible to use the computer on your lap without burning yourself.
  • Soft-touch surface creates better friction for holding the computer on your lap without it sliding off.
  • Sturdy rubber feet, similar to the ones that come on the new Macbooks.

CONS:

  • Can barely see battery lights through case.
  • Very tight to put on the screen half, to the point that I’m concerned about damaging the laptop with frequent attaching and detatching. I’ve actually cancelled my planned weekly case cleaning because of this. I’m also very sensitive to it because the whole reason I had to buy the new MBP was because the old one’s screen had been damaged. The last thing I intend to do with the new one is severely bend and press the screen once a week. I’d rather it get dirty and perhaps permanently scarred than encourage its early demise.
  • Adds about a pound-and-a-half to the 15″ model (bringing it to roughly 7 lbs)

The weight is significant. You wouldn’t think a thin layer of plastic would weigh so much, but it is the size of the entire computer itself. I had done my research about that beforehand, and I know what a pound-and-a-half is (perhaps you’re familiar with how anal I am about weight when packing for the road), and I know what a difference it is in laptop terms. I think the difference isn’t so great to outweigh (literally) the benefits of protecting the device. This is, after all, the most important thing I own, as well as the most expensive. It needs to last in excellent condition for three, or ideally four years. Making it heavier is a small price to pay for the ability to use it without constantly worrying about damaging it. Of course the case will not protect it from serious damage, but for everyday hazards (like the contents of the kitchen counter falling on the lid on a moving bus), it places an extra layer of protection between the computer and light bumps and bruises. In a situation where I know the MBP won’t be traveling much for a while, I might keep the case off, but definitely on the road or in a rehearsal situation utilizing many rooms and locations, it will be a huge help.

After much debate, mostly about the weight and price, I decided to go ahead and buy this because I bought a new computer bag (review to come eventually, I’m sure), and it has a zipper for a storage pouch that lives in basically the same spot as the top of the laptop. In other words the laptop slot doesn’t come all the way up over the top of the laptop, so the zipper would probably be rubbing against the bare laptop most of the time. Rather than hermetically sealing my neoprene sleeve every time the laptop goes in the bag, I decided that was the final straw to justify the Speck shell.

Magsafe? Magpainintheass.

I worry a little about the newfangled Magsafe connector style, shown here:

The natural way to position it is with the cord headed “upstage,” away from the user, and out of the way of the other ports. The only problem is that the little tab holding that corner of the shell on is right there with the connector laying over it. While it does make an electrical connection and seems to charge fine, it doesn’t look like it’s laying perfectly flat, and I just worry about my AC connection not being a perfect seal. If you don’t mind covering the Ethernet and FW800 ports, you can just turn the Magsafe connector the other way with the cord coming towards you, but that’s a pretty big compromise for something that should just work. It’s a pretty tricky part to try to mod yourself, as the piece that’s in the way is the part that clips that corner in, and if it were to break or be weakened, you’d probably have problems with the shell falling off. It might be easier to shave off a millimeter of the barrel of the Magsafe connector, but that seems like the wrong set of priorities, to damage an $80 electrical device that’s essential for the operation of the computer, for the sake of a $40 piece of plastic. In the future it would be nice if Speck could move the clippy part away from the corner and more toward the hinge, so that section right next to the AC port wouldn’t be so thick. Although it’s possible it would interfere with the operation of the hinge if moved any closer, I don’t know.

If you have the old-style charger, it’s no problem at all. I have an old-skool one at home, and use the new one for travel. I also have a second old-skool one for my old MBP, and should it become a real problem, I could swap them. So, buyer beware, but if you have the old one, you have nothing to worry about.

UPDATE: Before heading back out of town, I had to decide which AC adaptor to bring, and decided not to compromise. I brought the new adapter and filed down the case, after reading of a couple success stories. I used the edge of my Leatherman’s file, and a nail file for smoothing the edges. I decided to quit once it fit, rather than risk breaking or weakening the case by trying to make it look perfectly machined. So it’s not beautiful, but the plastic is fairly soft, and if you wanted to make it look prettier, it should be very possible.

A Few More Photos

Detail shot of the front-right corner:

Outer shell. Sorry this is so blurry. I spent time on three separate days (with a real camera, even!) trying to get a shot that wasn’t blurry but didn’t wash out the true appearance with the flash.

The Details

Once again, the shell is made by Speck, who are purveyors of, well, stuff like this. They also make some iPhone and coming-soon iPad cases. In addition to the satin shells, they make a line of more fully-transparent shells that also come in other colors (including clear), which is the SeeThru line, as opposed to the SeeThru Satin. They make them to fit all shapes and sizes of Macbooks, so look carefully to make sure you’ve got the right one for your model. They are carried in Apple Stores, but I always find the selection to be rather limited as far as which sizes and colors are in stock. I had to order mine online, which I got from Small Dog Electronics, my favorite 3rd-party Apple retailer.

The shells retail from Speck for $49.95, but Small Dog sells them for $39.99, so shop around. You can also get them on Amazon, where the prices are generally a little higher, but you might find a good deal on a specific color.


April 22, 2010

Macbook Pro i7 Review

I call this: computers,mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 11:53 pm

Today between shows I purchased the new 2010 unibody Macbook Pro with Intel’s new i7 processor. My faithful 2007 Macbook Pro finally gave up the ghost from the screen problem it’s been having for the last six months or so.

First Impressions

It’s so pretty. Throughout all of this you have to remember that while I have a lot of friends with unibody Macbooks, most of my experience is with the older style body, so there are things here that are new or unusual to me that will not be shocking if you own a more recent model.

I love the rounded curves. It feels so much thinner. The unboxing experience was very simple, but even expecting Apple’s typical style, I had to stop and admire it, despite the fact that I was in a huge rush to get it up and running before the evening show. I failed miserably at that, by the way. I didn’t even get as far as finishing the clone of my old drive.

I just can’t get into the black keyboard. I’m still firmly in the phase of adjusting to a new tactile experience, and I think like most people I will soon prefer typing on it, but black plastic in the midst of an otherwise characteristic Apple design of sleek aluminum is weird. It’s like something you’d find on a PC, slapped in the middle of the most Apple-like hardware you could imagine. I mean it’s a single slab of aluminum, with a trackpad. It doesn’t even have a mouse button. The speaker holes are so tiny you can barely see them. Even the power button is trying to hide in the corner hoping no one will notice it. And in the midst of all this cutting-edge design, the keyboard is black plastic. I’m going to assume Jonathan Ive is smarter than me, but I don’t get it. I can only imagine he wanted something else and it was impractical, and for some reason white plastic looked worse — maybe because it would be harder to make it light up, or look good when lit up. I also recognize that the glossy screen (which is the way Apple obviously intended this model to be seen) has a black border, which would make the black keys look a little bit less like they wandered in off a Vaio.

Screen

I got the 15″ high-end model (2.66GHz) with the hi-res anti-glare screen. The first thing you should know: this is not a build-to-order option — you don’t need to order it online. Which is important because I’m reading that people ordering them online are being told there are shipping delays on the anti-glare screen. I called Apple Stores in the last three cities we’ve been in, while my MBP was gasping its last, and every single one of them had this model in stock. In many cases they only had the 2.66GHz one, not the lower-end 15″. But if you want the one I have, you can just walk into a store and get it.

I’m not ashamed to say I’m one of those snobs who won’t use a glossy screen, because it’s so important for my “design work.” And it’s just annoying. Apple discontinued the matte screen in most models for a while, and I’m not sure how many iterations of the feature they’ve gone through since then, but to dispel any rumors, it is indeed a matte screen, despite the fact that they’ve changed the nomenclature to “anti-glare.” I don’t want to poke it too hard, but it looks to me to be the same type of screen the older matte models have. It’s not a glossy screen with a coating or anything horrible like that. As far as my eyes can tell, it’s the same kind of screen that used to be default on all their laptops.

One fact Apple doesn’t much advertise is that the matte screen still has the silver border around it like the older Macbook Pros and Powerbooks, not the black border that many people think looks very slick on the glossy screens. This has to do with the fact that the sheet of glass on the glossy screen can hold everything in in one unbroken expanse of screen, but the matte screen needs some support to hold it in. I’m not bothered by it in terms of design, but I must say that given how sexy the body design of the unibody is, I was disappointed to find that the silver bezel is actually wider than on my old one. The screen is the same size, but in some ways it looks smaller or more low-tech because it doesn’t have a fancy thin edge around it. The glossy screen’s edge isn’t that thin either, but black is slimming, and the glass extends all the way across the surface, so people don’t tend to notice. My new screen also has a black piece of rubber all around the outer edge, which probably does awesome things in regards to making it close nicely, but the black against the silver also accentuates how fat the border is.

Size

I’m sure the above situation was necessary not because of how the screen is made, but because of the width of the base, which must need to be that wide to hold all the internal components in such a thin package. Obviously the lid needs to be as big as the base, but a 15.4″ screen is a 15.4″ screen, and if the lid gets bigger, there will be more blank space around the edges.

I was surprised, when I tried to pack up my old MBP for travel in the new one’s box: the box has a form-fitting cutout for the computer, and I was sure it wouldn’t fit. Actually the old one fits inside with room to spare. It’s much taller, but the box doesn’t care about that. In two dimensions, at least, the unibody is bigger. My first reaction was how hard it can be to cram it onto a calling desk already, now I’ve got additional millimeters to worry about. It also explained for me why I often see the models in the Apple Store and think I’m looking at the 17″ (because it’s bigger than mine), but it’s really the 15″. This is why I decided the 17″ was a bad idea, despite considering it last year.

Little Details I Am Just Getting

These are old features, but they are new for me and make me happy:

  • Multi-touch trackpad! Basically the one feature I wished my old MBP had. The best part of this is the four-finger up-or-down swipe, which does two different kinds of Exposé. Now I can stop using my F-keys as F-keys and let them perform the special tasks they’re intended for like playing music and adjusting brightness, since I don’t have to devote any of them to Exposé. Other features I will use a lot include forward and back browsing, and zoom in and out.
  • iPhone headphones control music playback. This is just a nice detail. I actually forgot my 3GS headphones (with the volume buttons) on this leg of the tour, so I have been using my backup pair (with just the play/pause button) for the last month or however-the-hell-long we’ve been out here. So I haven’t been able to test the volume control, but I’m very excited to.

The old Switcheroo

Just getting to the point of playing with it was a big ordeal because of the way I wanted to set it up. I bought a new hard drive for my old MBP right before going on tour, about six months ago. It’s 320GB, 7200rpm. I felt that the slow HD speed was the bottleneck on the computer’s performance, so I was very happy to upgrade it. I’m still totally satisfied with it, both speed and capacity-wise, so I wanted to install it in the new machine, and take the stock 500GB 5400rpm drive and put it in the old machine. Because of the differences in hardware and related system files, you can’t just swap them and turn the things on, so it involved a lot of booting in firewire mode to shift all the bits and bytes around (see the comments for another perspective).

When I opened up the back to change the hard drive, I was struck by how orderly and tightly packed everything is. We heard all about this in some Steve Jobs keynote years ago, but seeing it in person (after just opening my old MBP, which is not quite as tidy and densely packed inside) really emphasizes how much care Apple put into creating as small a package as possible with as many features as possible.

In case you’ve arrived here interested in the hard drive swap, here’s the order of operations.

Swapping the hard drive in your new Mac for your old one

  • Do an additional external backup of your old drive (Time Machine or whatever)
  • Put the new computer in target disk mode by holding “T” while it boots
  • Connect the two computers by firewire
  • Using Disk Utility, format the new disk for Mac OS Journaled
  • Using a utility like SuperDuper (free), make a bootable clone of your old drive onto the new drive
  • Shut down both computers, and physically swap the drives (find instructions online for how to do that with the model you have — on older ones this will void the warranty)
  • Boot the old computer (containing the new drive, which is now a clone of the old one). It should boot perfectly, as if nothing has happened.
  • Turn on the new computer in target disk mode, and connect the computers using firewire.
  • Using Disk Utility from the old computer, format the old drive (which is in the new computer) as Mac OS Journaled.
  • Eject the firewire connection from the old computer, and disconnect the cables. Shut down the new computer.
  • Insert your Mac OS install DVD into the new computer (if it’s shut down it won’t go all the way in, but it will be sucked in upon booting).
  • Power on the new computer, holding down the “C” button to boot from the CD.
  • Follow the regular Mac OS install proceedures.

Speed?

Rule #1: I hate benchmarks. They bore me. My assessment of hardware generally falls into three results:
1. OMG holy shit that’s fast!
2. Fast enough
3. Slow and it pisses me off!

I have been really busy this week, and haven’t actually done anything more than what I need my computer for to do my job and some casual web browsing. I haven’t touched my Windows partition yet. I’m kind of scared, because it’s the one from my old MBP.

When I have opinions about more demanding processes I will update — certainly when I get around to gaming I will have opinions — but if you want benchmarks, there are many sites that specialize in that better than I ever could with my limited number of models to test — so that, combined with the fact that I don’t even care enough to read their analysis in depth, much less write my own, is why you will not find it here.

Update:
I’ve now had the machine for almost three months, and my assessment is that it’s good but not incredibly noticeable during normal use. Maybe the bottleneck is still the hard drive, and that’s why it feels exactly the same as before. My hope when I bought it was that maybe a year or so later, an SSD drive of respectable size would be available for a reasonable price. And I’m sure sometime around then, 8GB of ram would be really cheap. I haven’t quite mentally grasped the situation of 8GB being a “normal” amount of RAM yet, but when it’s cheap enough, I’ll buy it just because, and maybe I’ll see why. When I bought my last MBP I bought 4GB of RAM (which was relatively expensive at the time) because I was using the machine to run full-motion-video-with-audio projections for Singin’ in the Rain, and it made an enormous difference overnight — just before we opened we increased the resolution of all the videos, and they looked much better, and played much more smoothly. So I’m sure with the quad core and everything else, this thing has more power under the hood that I would find if I was doing more video and other demanding activities.

Gaming on this machine definitely feels smoother. Compared to my last MBP, its performance reminds me more of my home PC. That’s not to say it’s as good as a full PC, but it’s more similar. My PC also was last upgraded in 2008, so it’s not cutting-edge.

I’ve also been wondering more about buying Windows 7. Of all the things to drop a couple hundred bucks on, Windows doesn’t sound like the best investment, but I’m starting to feel like it might be approaching the point where the advantages of an OS that can support more than 3GB of RAM, and other advanced features of the hardware, is more helpful than the possibility of incompatibility with games and gaming hardware. I still think XP is solid, for what I need it for at least, but I’m starting to feel how old it is, especially because a lot of the newer games require at least Vista. I think trying Windows 7 on this machine might be a good way to start out with it, before screwing up my gaming rig.

Battery Life

In addition to my lack of patience with benchmarks, I also don’t feel the need to sit around with a stopwatch calculating battery life, especially when there are many kinds of activities that can have an impact on how quickly the battery is drained. What I will say is that after a full day of using the computer off the battery during two shows, the little picture of the battery in my menu bar was showing it getting very close to running out (maybe a quarter of the bar full). When you click on said icon, it estimates the actual time remaining. What, percentage-wise, was “almost run out” was estimated at over two more hours of run time! Now bear in mind that I haven’t been using the machine that long, and the system may or may not be smart enough to have properly calibrated the battery without a full charge cycle. But it’s funny that with a 9-hour battery life (basically double that of my last computer), what used to mean “time to plug it in” now means something entirely different.

Update:
The battery got amazing life on the first day at work, as I said. After that it went through some period where it was more like 5 hours for a few charge cycles, which had me worried. But that first day the wifi was off because the theatre’s wifi sucked, and there were few apps running in the background, so who knows how many factors may have been different. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect to get 9 hours during normal use. With your wifi and bluetooth off, brightness down, and not running any apps that engage the Nvidia video card (some of which are completely nonsensical — my RSS reader triggers it!), then it’s a possibility. With more heavy usage, I think 5 hours is probably about right. I very often get through a whole work day without plugging it in, because I’m a little careful with pacing my usage throughout the day. For a performance, you can run it the whole time, no problem.

External Display Disappointment

One thing that has been a complaint about recent Macbook Pros is that Apple did away with the full-size DVI video-out port, and has switched to Mini Displayport (MDP). What this means (theoretically) is that you now need a new adapter (which inexplicably doesn’t come with the computer, where before you always got one or two most common ones for free). But if you’re thinking “OK fine, I’ll get the MDP to DVI adapter, and then use my old DVI adapters, and I can connect to anything,” you’re in for some disappointment.

While not indicated on the packaging anywhere (although the baggie is clear and you could just look at the connector), the MDP-DVI adapter does not support DVI-I. In practical terms, what that means is that the four little pins that surround the big horizontal pin are not supported. The female end of the connector only has a slot for the horizontal pin, so if you have a DVI-I connector you’d like to plug in, you can’t, because there aren’t any holes for those four pins. In more technical terms, DVI-I supports analog as well as digital connections (so in order to connect to VGA or RCA equipment, you need that analog signal). So although the packaging just says “DVI” all over it, it is very specifically DVI-D.

So OK, now you’re thinking, “Alright, so Apple gets me to buy a bunch more $30 adapters so I can connect to all this different stuff.” Well, no. Apparently not. See, as far as I can tell, some of those adapters don’t exist. First of all, there is no adapter that supports DVI-I, so there’s no hope of chaining it to your old adapters (which would probably be bad for video quality at some point, but if you’re stuck between “works” and “doesn’t work” it wouldn’t be a bad fix). Also, I see no MDP-RCA adapter listed on the Apple site. There is an MDP-VGA, which I have recently purchased, which works fine for using my Samsung TV as a second monitor. I think Apple then expects you to get an adapter somewhere else that goes from VGA to RCA or S-video.

All I can say about these cables is be very careful. Apple has been bouncing around with various types of mini connectors on their laptops and desktops in recent years, so there’s a lot of Mini Displayport, Mini DVI, Mini VGA, etc.

Most of all, and I’m not sure if this is a defective product or by design, the MDP-DVI adapter I first bought does not work with my Apple Cinema Display. This is an old monitor from 2002, with an ADC connector on it, which is plugged into a KVM switch which can switch between two DVI inputs (from my PC and Mac) so I can share the screen and keyboard/mouse with two machines. It’s an unconventional setup, but the point is it receives its signal from DVI-D, it works with the other three computers in the house, and it should work. I get nothing. No indication from computer or monitor that anything is happening or plugged in. Now I have read on the reviews page for this item on the Apple site, that a number of people have purchased defective connectors of this type, and upon buying one (or sometimes more!) replacements, it suddenly worked fine. But I don’t have another DVI monitor to test with at the moment, so I have no way of knowing if it’s just a bad connector. But I intend to find out.


January 18, 2010

Another Amazing Genius Bar Experience

I call this: mac — Posted by KP @ 2:58 pm

As someone of a geeky persuasion, I have an inherent dislike of seeking technical support. Under no circumstances will I do so except in a case of obvious hardware failure where I have no choice. And then I fear the series of questions from the technician, who expects (or his employer expects him to ask) that what ails my hardware can be solved by rebooting it, and that I haven’t tried that, and every other possible solution already before seeking help.

I have had a rather unfortunate number of opportunities to visit Apple’s Genius Bar in Apple Stores all over the country, and at this point have had so many pleasant experiences that rather than thinking of it as a dreaded last resort, when I reach the moment of acceptance that my hardware is broken, I’m comforted knowing that as soon as I’m somewhere with access to an Apple Store they’ll make it all better.

So my battery in my Macbook Pro (the one I got as a replacement when we were in Pennsylvania on tour last year) has been showing defective performance for at least 3 months. But when I gathered my paperwork to take it in, I realized it only came with a 90 day warranty. Which is pretty lame for a battery, even if it was free. So I held off doing anything about it, but took the receipt with me on tour, in case I wanted it when the battery inevitably decided to become completely useless.

That day came last week when I was in an informal meeting in the cafe at the Guthrie, and right in the middle of editing our Google calendar, my computer spontaneously shut down after about a half hour off the charger, while still showing a 50% charge. With the meeting at a temporary stand-still, I closed the lid and said, “well, I know what I’m doing on the day off.”

I thought about just buying another battery, since I knew I was out of warranty, but $130 for something that is obviously defective, and my non-fear of the Genius Bar, was enough that I was willing to take my chances and make an appointment. Maybe they could give me a discount at least.

So today I went, and the genius’ eyes popped out of his head when he saw how bad the battery’s stats were. Then he ran the diagnostic, which I blogged about last time, and if possible, it showed even more red commentary on just how bad it thought my battery was.

So the genius went to the back to discuss the situation, and came back and said they would replace it for free because of how many bad batteries I’ve had, and because I paid for one of them (plus the one the computer came with). I was very pleased that they were able to be flexible in their policy based on the circumstances.

So then I brought up my secondary question, which is that a couple days ago (after making my Genius Bar appointment) my iPhone cable broke — the cable split, exposing the wires right where the cable meets the plug that goes into the phone. I have a general awareness that that’s usually something they consider wear-and-tear (though those cables wear out way too easily), but I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that my iPhone is pretty much the only piece of hardware I own that’s under warranty, and bring the cable along in the hopes they would cover it. They did.

So I spent nothing and got about $150 in new accessories that technically they weren’t required to give me. It was a very worthwhile day.

And now yet again my trusty Macbook Pro gets a new lease on life, and between that and the new hard drive, should be running like a spring chicken until I can afford to replace it. We just won’t talk about the video problem it had on the night of the first preview. It must have been a solar flare or something…

Tech Details

For those who track things like battery failure stats… I did some research before taking my computer in, since I know (from personal experience!) that these batteries fail at a higher-than-normal rate (this is the original MBP 15″ battery). What I found from perusing the Apple support forums is that the batteries made by Sony seem most prone to failure, and those by SMP are apparently better. My old one was a Sony, and I’m glad to find that the new one is SMP.

I didn’t bother recording the exact stats of the battery, because they were so awful there was no question it wasn’t normal degradation of a rechargeable battery, but it was at 8% health after 80-something charge cycles, which is FRIGGIN TERRIBLE if you’re looking for comparisons.

And while I am fully aware that this particular model of Macbook Pro suffers from battery issues, most models of computers have one common flaw where they are most likely to fail, and the battery isn’t such a bad one. That being said, the whole issue is moot as this model is obsolete, and Apple has been employing new battery technology for a while now, so it doesn’t make me nervous about future purchases. I’m actually really looking forward to getting an upgrade in six months or so, mostly because of the more reliable, higher-capacity battery. There’s not much else in the unibody MBPs that excites me, although there are rumors that there may be a quad-core model coming soonish, which would be worth waiting for (although I expect it will be out before I was ready to purchase).


December 24, 2009

The Deadliest Catch

I call this: computers,mac,On the Road Again — Posted by KP @ 8:53 pm

or
“What Happened to Your Laptop?”

deadliestcatch
Entertain conjecture of a time in which I’m on the road with Henry V. We have just concluded our very successful run in New York, and have set out on the next leg of the tour. When our story begins, we’re in Nashville. We have arrived there the day before, after a layover in DC, to board our buses to go the rest of the way to our first performance at Mississippi State. No one understands how it could possibly have been cheaper or more efficient to do it this way, but nevertheless that’s why we were in Nashville.

After we spent the night for (as far as we can tell) no particular reason in a Nashville hotel, the cast departed in the afternoon and the crew was given the entire day to hang out in Nashville while our driver slept, as we would be leaving around midnight and sleeping on the ride down.

It wasn’t all that exciting, as the crew had actually been to Nashville earlier in the tour, because our bus’ water pump was broken and we had an extra day between shows, so we took a detour. While the bus was being repaired we ate ribs, listened to the live bands on Broadway, bought cowboy boots, ate way too much, and did all the things one does in Nashville. So for our second visit, we had lunch at a nice outdoor place we had visited the first time, researched potential sushi restaurants for dinner, and otherwise just kind of hung out on the bus watching TV.

Somewhere in the course of watching TV is where things get interesting.

Now I must introduce Daphne. Daphne was our props supervisor. We must have been watching the Discovery Channel, and it was at this point that Daphne realized that the season premiere of Deadliest Catch was coming up, and that we would be in the middle of our first performance in Mississippi while it was airing. My assistant Nick, who you have already met, was also disturbed when this was brought to his attention. Apparently Nick and Daphne really like Deadliest Catch.

It was something of an urban legend that the bus had a DVR. The satellite remote had buttons that referred to it, but when we tried to program the show to record, it became obvious that we were missing something that would allow that to happen, as it could be programmed, but nothing would happen. This was also one of our first experiences with our new bus, which we would later come to realize sucked in every imaginable way. Maybe the original bus had a working DVR, but this one didn’t appear to be fully equipped.

This minor setback was not going to dissuade us, however. We would just have to go a little low-tech. The bus had a VCR, we reasoned. All we have to do is find a place that sells VHS tapes and we can record it the old-fashioned way.

On our way to our sushi dinner, we passed a drug store. Daphne went in, and a few minutes later happily emerged with a set of three VHS tapes.

When we got back to the bus, we naturally set about doing a test run and trying to record a show. What we found was that the VCR apparently could play tapes, but the satellite connection didn’t pass through it, so it couldn’t record anything. This was very annoying! But given that all these electronics are mounted behind panels and on opposite sides of the lounge from each other, we didn’t feel comfortable tearing the whole bus apart to get at the wiring. We accepted defeat, and the VHS tapes were stacked on the kitchen counter.

Fast-forward a few days. My laptop was having battery issues, so after using it in the front lounge after the show, I set it down on the couch where I had been sitting, and left it to charge overnight.

It’s now the middle of the night. All of the crew are asleep in their beds. We encounter some bumpy and/or hilly roads. At some point in the night, a clattering is heard from the kitchen. This isn’t really unusual. Somebody’s coffee container or soda bottle is usually falling off the counter in the night. I, having the bunk on the other side of the kitchen wall, remember hearing this and thinking that it didn’t sound like anything breakable or containing liquid, so I didn’t even really wake up.

In the morning I was alarmed to find my laptop had 3 black smudges on it. I wasn’t concerned about smudges but at first I couldn’t tell if they were smudges or dents. I frantically rubbed on them, and thankfully the black marks came off. Two of them left no sign, but the largest of them revealed a dent in the aluminum cover of the laptop! I was totally confused about how this had happened, until we started to look at the forensic evidence. On the couch, laying casually, were the three VHS tapes. They looked like they had just been tossed there from when we were trying to get the VCR to work, until someone remembered that they had been stacked on the kitchen counter, and most of us had heard the crash from the kitchen during the night. So I went back to the tapes, and sure enough, each of them had a corner bashed in, where their black plastic had been worn off.

And that solved the mystery of how Daphne and Nick’s love for The Deadliest Catch dented my laptop.

The afterword to this story is that whenever I open my laptop I am reminded of Daphne and Nick, and how badly they wanted to see The Deadliest Catch. They never did get to see that episode. I’m not sure if they’ve seen it in reruns yet. I still have never seen an episode, but I am very curious to see what’s so special to have created such a fervor on our bus. And that’s the story of what happened to my laptop.


August 11, 2009

15″ Macbook Pro Now Available with Matte Screen Again!

I call this: computers,gaming,mac — Posted by KP @ 12:43 pm

A followup to this post, in which I debate whether I can handle buying a 17″ Macbook Pro, partially as a result of the fact that it was (until today) the only Mac laptop still offered with a matte screen.

Well today I read on TUAW that the 15″ is now being sold with a matte option again.

This is good, since if I decide the 17″ is just too big, I have options. On the other hand, if you look at the other post you will see that although the screen was the dealbreaker, there were other reasons I was still considering the 17″, mostly related to the idea of having a more desktop-like experience while living on the road.

That being said, I have lived my entire professional life with a 15″ Mac laptop, and have rarely used a larger computer or external monitor for work purposes, even when living at home. Of course a larger screen would be nice, but it has never been necessary, and the balance of the 15’s size being large enough to work on for long periods, but small enough to walk around with makes it possibly the ideal form factor.

I could use a larger screen and higher resolution for seeing more of a spreadsheet on one page, coding my website with code on one side and a larger preview on the other, those are legitimate purposes, but the main reason I felt I needed a larger screen was for gaming on the road. I was starting to get a bit of cabin fever gaming in 15 inches for a year on end, and getting ready to go back for at least six months more of that.

Gaming isn’t necessary, but it also is part of my life that I enjoy and I think it is a professional concern, as there have been times when circumstances have prevented me from enjoying certain activities that are normally part of my lifestyle, such as listening to music on my commute, having alone time in the car at Reagle, and when these things are taken away they start to affect the delicate balance that keeps me sane and calm. Somehow I have found a way to enjoy doing a job that most people refuse to do because it’s too stressful, and my continued ability to do my job well requires that I take care of my mental health and give myself opportunities to unwind so that I can go to work happy and with a positive attitude that will filter down to the rest of the people on the production.

I don’t know if an inch-and-a-half of additional screen real estate will make the difference, but if so, the ultimate benefit is that I would not resent my job for taking me away from things that I enjoy, and on a day-to-day basis, I think that’s a huge deal.

On the other hand, I have to consider how much the size of the laptop will negatively affect my work and free time. On the road I find myself actually using it on my lap — or balanced precariously on something else — a lot more often, since I’m often in improvised situations where I have to make a desk out of what’s available, and I will probably be writing the show report from a couch, either at the venue or on the bus.

I looked into how much Tekserve charges for Macbook Pro rentals, and it’s $100 per day, or $200 per week (and upwards from there). As much as I’d love to have an opportunity to run around with a 17″ for a while before dropping $2,500 on it, I don’t think it’s worth nearly 10% of the total cost to have just a week to decide if I like it.

Anyway, the decision is still far away (I hope), but I need to keep paying attention to all the ways I use my computer during the day, and how many of them would be impractical with a larger machine.


July 31, 2009

Entertaining Notions of the 17″ Macbook Pro

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 1:01 pm

First, an astronomy lesson.

Our Solar System

mbpsize

As you can see, with the new unibody design, the 17″ Macbook Pro is now slightly smaller than Jupiter.  If you count Saturn’s rings (which also do not fit on airline tray tables), you could even say it’s smaller than Saturn.  Which brings me to the point of this post.  For the first time in my life, I’m letting myself even entertain the notion of maybe for some reason in the future considering one.

I love love love my current 15″ Macbook Pro (I forget it’s official designation, I guess it’s 2nd gen, 2.4gHz Core 2 Duo).  I bought it the day they released the model with the LED backlight.  June 2007.  First of all, when it died on the road this past spring, I had to face the possibility of needing to replace it.  I was not happy about this, in that “oops! my computer’s broken, I guess I need a new one!” kind of way.  The problem is that  Apple in their infinite catering to the non-Pro users of their Pro lineup, have done away with the option of getting the 15″ with a matte screen.  Apparently, despite the fact that the Macbook Pro now comes in three sizes, only the 17″ is now Pro enough to include the features professionals need like a matte screen or Expresscard slot.  The nomenclature is all screwed up now.  It used to be if you wanted an OK laptop you got a Macbook (or an iBook).  If you were a professional, and needed more power or options (which you were willing to pay for), you got a Macbook Pro (or Powerbook).   Now the division between those two things has nothing to do with where the word “Pro” appears in the lineup, it’s inexplicably between the 15″ and 17″, as if all the professionals of the world are giants who only fly first class.  OK, rant done about that.  But it’s the first step in understanding why we’re even having this discussion.

First of all, the timeline.  I’m not shopping for a new computer.  As I said, I love the one I have.  Aside from the fact it completely up-and-died on me an hour before a performance in Phoenix, it’s been otherwise rock solid, and with its new logic board and battery, it’s in many ways only a few months old.  The only feature it’s lacking is the new touchpad that can do zoom gestures, and it still has a separate physical button, which I find just fine.   It’s just over two years old, but lately I’ve started to think long-term about its life.  It just love it so much.  I do not love the current model, so an upgrade essentially would be a downgrade.  But someday, there will be a feature much better than the glass touchpad, that will start to make an upgrade a must-have.  Maybe it will be processing or graphics power.  Maybe built-in GPS (after a year with an iPhone, I go to Google Maps on my laptop and I’m like, “‘Enter starting location.’  Oh that’s easy — here.  What do you mean, you don’t know where here is?!  Do I have to do everything for you!?”) .  Maybe Blu-Ray will become useful for something and Apple will start including it.  Anyway, although I see no reason to upgrade now, my average satisfaction with any computer I’ve ever owned is about three years.  After four years I become willing to sell my body or carry out hits for the mob in order to raise the money necessary for an upgrade.  There’s also the unfortunate possibility my current computer will have another catastrophic failure, get run over by the tour bus, or be stolen, and I will have no choice but to upgrade.

But since in all likelihood its desired retirement is about a year away, I have (quite responsibly, in my opinion) begun to make plans to ensure that whenever that time comes, I will be ready for it.  Mostly that involves having a large pile of cash saved up over a long period of time, rather than having to scrounge it together and go into debt when out of the blue I realize I need to upgrade.  This includes decisions about which jobs I take, what I buy at the supermarket (no Pom juice this week), ways to pocket more of my per diem on the road, and careful consideration of any expenses that are not rent and food.   So I am very proud of myself that hopefully I will be able to afford an upgrade before I even know I want one.

So as I said, this upgrade is still a ways away, I hope, and the current lineup of Macbook Pros is not necessarily a reflection of what my options will be when the time comes.  But instead of looking at the current lineup and praying it changes because I don’t want any of them, I have recently begun to think if I had to make the decision today, maybe the 17″ is an acceptable choice.

Some thoughts:

  • Matte screen. I covered this in my rant. If I go with anything other than the 17″, I will have to settle for the glossy screen. Not cool. I’m not always trying to fit my computer on a tray table. Percentage of the time I spend looking at the screen… hmm, maybe 100%.
  • Screen size Speaking of gaming. The biggest reason I’m thinking about this is because of a discussion I had with someone who also plays Battleground Europe, and happens to be a lighting designer who travels a lot, and also plays on a Macbook Pro, except on a 17″. The thing that makes me miss being at home the most is the screen size — it’s just not the same gaming experience playing on a laptop, largely because everything is so small and it’s hard to aim effectively when everything is compressed to just a couple pixels. A 17″ is not going to compare to a desktop monitor, but that extra 1.6″ and 1920×1200 resolution (which is the same I play at home) would help a lot in easing my frustration with being on the road so much. The larger screen and resolution would also help with the graphics work I do, and make for a more comfortable user experience in general.
  • OK, the size So the thing is big. My primary bag (see review) is designed to accommodate up to a 17″ MBP, so no problem there. The sleeve I bought to go with it would have to go (even if I replaced it, I don’t think sleeve+Macbook would fit in the slot). Some of my other bags are designed for 15″, but at least one of them was really designed for the Powerbook and never quite fit the extra millimeters of the MBP anyway. The 17″ would be more inconvenient to carry around casually (and my casual laptop-and-little-else bag is custom fit for the 15″ and would need to be replaced), but it depends on what the circumstances of my life are. There is no “casual” mode when I’m on tour or doing summer stock anyway. There’s one bag. It has all the stuff in it all the time.
  • A lot of the sacrifices I’m talking about making are adjustments to the idea of never being home. Of course as soon as I invest a lot of money in making that lifestyle more comfortable, then I’ll book a Broadway show and never need to leave New York again. But should I be so unfortunate as to have that happen, at least I could afford to buy a different Macbook Pro every month!
  • 8-hour battery life This is kind of inconceivable to me. I refuse to believe it’s even remotely possible. If the thing lasts for five hours for more than a year, I will still consider it a miracle of science. But at any rate, the 17″ reportedly gets an hour more battery than the 15″ due to the extra room.
  • Extra USB port Not a huge deal, but I could do my gaming without needing a USB hub, which is one less thing to unpack and plug in every day. I would also imagine it would provide slightly better performance than my $5 Radio Shack hub.

So these are the considerations currently floating around in my head. Of course whenever the decision needs to be made the current Apple product lineup will need to be compared, as well as what my job prospects are looking like at the time. I wish I could borrow somebody’s 17″ for like a month. If I had no dignity I should tape blocks of wood to the sides of mine and count how many times a day they piss me off.

UPDATE: I had to go to the Apple Store today, so while there, I took a look at the 17″ which was conveniently next to the 15″. It’s huuuuuge! In both the good way and the bad way. I picked it up a few inches off the table, and it’s noticeably heavier than my current machine. I actually sometimes get nervous that I’ve left my MBP behind when I’m carrying it because I can’t tell it’s in my bag. I don’t expect that would ever happen with the 17″. It’s definitely not small, but I’m not opposed to the idea of getting one.

UPDATE: New Post


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