June 27, 2007

The Life of a Retired Powerbook

I call this: mac — Posted by KP @ 8:39 pm

My new Macbook Pro has received lots of interest and attention from blog readers and real-life friends alike. But what of the faithful old Powerbook that was so unceremoniously upstaged on the morning of the MBP’s release?

When I was planning my summer, I was aware that in all likelihood I would be returning home with two laptops, which is kind of inconvenient for someone who likes to travel as lightly as I do. My solution was that I would have to ship some stuff home on the day I left, mostly soft, durable, low-priority items like clothes and scripts, so that I could carry all the delicate computer stuff by hand on the train. You may recall that I had to make a quick trip back to New York on my day off during the run of Singin’ in the Rain. This would have been the perfect opportunity to solve my problem by bringing the Powerbook and its accessories home.

But I just couldn’t do it. One reason was professional: the Macbook Pro, little more than a week old, was running projections for Singin’, which I considered a risk in itself, only tempered by the fact that my trusted Powerbook was kept loaded with the current show file, and was standing by. Well it seemed like a risk, until I had 4GB of RAM overnighted to the theatre and we saw the MBP run a massive video file with no stutters or digital artifacts. The next day I was given a DVD full of new versions of every video in the show, using a higher-quality codec, eliminating all artistic concerns about the movies looking too digital in a show set in 1927. The Powerbook could never have run the final show file, but still I was not about to take it back to New York when there was a slim chance of it being needed to rescue us if the MBP completely flaked. I could have thrown together a lower-quality version that would have run well enough to at least allow the show to go on. Thankfully the MBP did fine, although it sometimes required an especially firm press on the space bar to advance to the next cue, which would have been a huge problem in a show with more precise video cues, and I’d like to investigate that further.

The other reasons I had for keeping the Powerbook around were more personal. First of all, I wanted a pretty clean start with the MBP and was selective about the files I transferred over from the PB. But having had the MBP only a week or two, I had the nagging feeling there were still files on the PB I would need, but I might not realize it right away.

The one thing I was looking forward to about getting “stuck” with both computers all summer was that I could leave the PB at the apartment to record TV programs using my EyeTV. The EyeTV is useful for watching TV when I’m home, since I don’t bring a physical TV with me to Reagle, but the recording features don’t help me much, since if I’m at rehearsal, my computer is with me and unable to stay home and play VCR for the night. With the Powerbook in retirement, it has nothing better to do while I’m out of the house. The other thing I’ve discovered is that my EyeTV seems a little buggy with the MBP. I still use version 1.x of the software, because they wanted some ridiculous amount to upgrade, like $50, when I was perfectly happy with the present features. As it turns out, it looks like the version I have predates the Intel Macs, which might explain why it’s flaky. I’ve been thinking of getting some newer EyeTV hardware, like the little tiny USB thingy, so I don’t intend to pay for a software upgrade when I could get a better value by having it included in the cost of improved hardware. So the PB has continued to be my TV, which is nice because it frees me up to do other things with the MBP without using up screen real estate or system resources, and I can restart or boot into Windows without losing my TV.

Other things the Powerbook continues to do:

  • It’s writing this post right now. I was backing up my MBP when I got the idea for this post, so I started writing it on the PB. The files are not yet too out-of-date from the MBP, so most tasks feel exactly the same on either machine.
  • I have a perhaps unhealthy ability (or need) to multi-task, and I like to have two computers on at once if one is doing something where I can’t keep a browser window open. This allows me to use the idle computer to browse the web while waiting for the primary computer to complete a task, or to search for solutions to issues I’m having with the other machine.

I said on the day I got the MBP that once I loaded it up with my files I hardly felt like I was using a different computer. For the most part it continues to be that way. These are the occasions that I notice it:

  • When I try to do something really simple on the PB and it beachballs, or gives no reaction at all for several seconds, then beachballs, then finally completes its task while the hard drive cranks in protest.
  • The trackpad scrolling. This one confuses the hell out of me. I’ve always had trouble getting the hang of the two-finger scroll when I’ve played with other people’s Macs, but now that I’ve been using it full time I find that I’m quite good at it, although I do sometimes scroll slightly horizontally when I don’t mean to. I’m also no longer bothered by the wider trackpad and button, or at least not enough to notice it. But now that I’m used to two-fingered scrolling without thinking about it, I inevitably hop onto the PB and can’t figure out why it won’t scroll. I’ve gotten so comfortable with the new scroll that I don’t even consciously know I’m doing it. Then when I look at my position on the desk and remember that the machine on the left is the PB (the hardware differences are subtle enough that I really don’t notice them when I’m using both machines), I see my problem and attempt to do the SideTrack-driven edge scroll, and I realize how annoying it is to need to feel for the edges, instead of just throwing two fingers down anywhere I please. Then of course if I spend too much time on the PB, I go back to the MBP and can’t figure out why I can’t get it to scroll by dragging one finger down the edge. I can’t win. I wish someone would come out with a driver to make either one behave like the other so I can have some consistency!
  • I swear something is different about the keyboard. I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it from a casual look, but when I first got the MBP I kept making typing mistakes, as if a couple keys were not exactly where my fingers expected them to be. I don’t do the real touch-typing method of keeping my fingers on the home row at all times, I just know where all the keys on a given keyboard are and somehow decide which fingers are most convenient for hitting them at that particular time. I’m a fast typer (thankfully I’ve never had the kind of job where it was necessary to give my typing skill a numerical value), but I tend to be slower on an unfamiliar keyboard because I don’t actually touch any of the keys except the ones I’m pressing, so if I misjudge my location in mid-air over the keys I don’t have any way to tell until I hit the wrong button. When I got the MBP I started making more mistakes than I would on the PB, and now using the PB again I find I’m making more mistakes than I do now that I’ve been using the MBP for a while. It’s subtle, but I swear something is different. Mostly what’s happening is that my aim is slightly off and I don’t hit the key hard enough or in the right place to make it register. Maybe it’s not the location or size of the keys. Maybe it’s the travel, or the tension, or the size of the wrist rest area in front, or the fact that the PB is thicker, and therefore elevating my wrist a little higher off the table. I don’t know, nor does it bother me very much, but I do notice it when switching back and forth.
  • The higher screen resolution of the MBP was at first more subtle than I expected it to be. It’s when going back to the PB that I notice things take up more of the screen — sometimes in a good way, like when text is bigger and easier to read, but sometimes in a bad way, like the menu bar and tool bars in apps taking up more screen real estate. I don’t mind the smaller objects on the MBP. The brighter screen makes up for any need to squint, in fact I find myself squinting and putting my face close to the PB, which you would think would be the opposite.
  • Working with the lid. I’ve got one of those original Aluminum Powerbooks with the white spots and the bad latch. I won’t count the white spots, as I consider that cheating, but since the latch is not just a defect, but a change in design from one latch to two, I will mention it. My PB has never wanted to stay closed. If left to its own devices, it would be waking itself from sleep every few seconds when in a bag or carried by hand, or in any sort of motion, which can’t be good for it, not to mention what it does to the battery. I let it do this for a couple weeks when it was young, before giving it the terminal command sudo pmset -a lidwake 0, which tells it that it can’t be trusted to know when its lid is open or closed, and it is hereby instructed to wait for me to press a key before waking from sleep. This solved the problem quite well, but when faced with the MBP and its very authoritative double latch which leaves no doubt that this notebook is now closed, I decided to leave it at its default setting with lidwake on, and see if it annoyed me for any reason (like maybe there would be times I’d want it to stay asleep after I open it). So far I like being able to open the lid and have it wake up right away. I have my machine set to ask for a password upon waking, so it requires some key-pressing either way. It really doesn’t make much of a difference to me, but it’s very nice — and to me still unexpected — to close the lid and feel it lock securely instead of bouncing back open. Part of this is the defect with my particular revision of Powerbook, and part of it is the improved design of the MBP which used two latches on the 15″ models for a much more secure feel.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep it when I finally return home from the summer. I’d like to, it would still be useful around the house, but my parents could also use a new computer. If you think this PB is obsolete, you should see their iMac. With a new battery the PB would work well for their needs. I’ve been getting more and more annoyed with it (and frightened of it suddenly having a massive hardware failure) in the last year or so, but in the end it’s really amazing that it’s held up so well and in many ways can hold its own on the same desk as the very latest model sporting more RAM than any laptop really has any business having.

Enjoy retirement, Powerbook. You’ve earned it.

June 5, 2007

A Puzzlement

I call this: computers,mac,summer stock — Posted by KP @ 8:51 am

An interesting question arose as I typed my last post (about the purchase of the Macbook Pro). I said that I had been in need of a new external hard drive for some time, but have been waiting to see what the capacity of my new computer would be before deciding on one. Here I am up here in Waltham, without an external hard drive. My backup program (Intego’s Personal Backup) nags me every few days about how I haven’t done a backup since 5/22/07, and with the entire Reagle season sitting on my 4-year-old hard drive, don’t think this doesn’t worry me. It’s been on my Treo’s Todo list for a week, “Backup to DVD.” Have I done it yet? No. It takes for-freaking-ever, and I’ve been busy, and when I’m not busy I’m lazy. But I really should. But as I have to leave for rehearsal in a little over an hour, now I don’t have time. See how this happens?

Anyway, all this musing about getting that external drive ASAP led me to mention how important it is, since my computer will be running all the video for Singin’ in the Rain. This is one of those shows where the projections aren’t just pretty, they drive the plot. A crash or deletion of something important would need to be able to be fixed right away, on-site.

As I typed this, this is where the puzzlement struck me: if my Macbook Pro arrives somewhere between June 8-13, as Apple says, then it will either be right before tech, or right before the first performance. Which computer gets to run the show?

In this corner, we have the Powerbook. I’m typing a freaking blog post, and the hard drive is cranking, the fan is spinning, and it’s beachballing for a second when I switch between Firefox and Entourage. It’s old, and while it’s done fine for basic projections, sometimes I wonder if it could still handle full-motion video and audio. This machine has been running projections for professional theatre since I bought it. Its credits include the tour of Abundance, Earthquake Chica at the Summer Play Festival 2004, The Reagle Players’ production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the comedy show Laughing Liberally at Town Hall, and the Charlie Chaplin musical Behind the Limelight, where it ran the coolest cue I have ever called in my life (actor-Charlie walking into the screen and disappearing into it as the real Charlie appears in his place on screen and shuffles off into the distance). I have never, NEVER had this machine fail in performance. I once had to start an invited dress rehearsal 20 minutes late because Keynote 1.0 used to crash occasionally when you tried to save, but that’s a separate issue. I have run all three versions of Keynote on it, and it has been 100% reliable in performance — no delays, no mistakes, I have called thousands of cues on it, and it’s as accurate as calling a light cue. However, due to its age, and the fact that it sometimes has trouble, you know, rendering a web page… I worry that someday I’m going to ask it to run a full-screen video with audio output to the sound board, and it’s going to have to think about that for a second or two. In its defense, last December it did run video with audio at Laughing Liberally, and to my surprise did just fine. It was a very last-minute thing. I got to the gig about six hours before the show and said, “You’re running video by hitting pause on a DVD player? Gimme the files and half an hour!” I was a little concerned that it could handle it, but it seemed fine to me.

In the other corner, we have the newcomer. So much faster, I’m not even going to try to quantify it. Will there be enough time to make sure it doesn’t have something wrong with it? A habit of kernel-panicking just when you least expect it? The Powerbook has recently taken to kernel-panicking when I wiggle the connector for my USB hub, but at least I expect it. Of course the earlier the MBP arrives, the more time there would be to test it. But five days of tech and dress might not show all its flaws compared to almost four years with the Powerbook. But it’s my new toy!

I think I will try to use the Macbook Pro, as it has to do its first performance someday, just as the Powerbook did when it was new. You can be sure the Powerbook will be sitting in my bag right behind me in the booth, with the current show files on it, ready to be swapped in if there’s a problem. If the MBP doesn’t arrive until the middle of tech, I will need a day or two to get all the software on it and make sure everything’s good. In that case I may decide to make the switch for the second week of performances, in the meantime letting the MBP get on the projector and run through its cues before the preshow check. It would also be interesting to project both on stage and see if there’s a difference in the quality — if the MBP is rendering noticeably better, that would be an argument for using it as soon as it’s ready. We will have to see.

There are also other important uses for the machine that runs the show projections: we have plans to do a screening of the original movie for cast and crew at some point. And most of all, and I promise to take better pictures of it this time, here is Super Mario Bros. 3, arguably the greatest game of all time, being played on stage during the dinner break of a tech rehearsal for Thoroughly Modern Millie. What you can’t hear is the game audio plugged into the sound board and being blasted through the 1,100 seat theatre.

We had several problems here: there wasn’t really a projection screen to use, as in Millie the only projections are supertitles that translate the comic brilliance of the two Chinese characters. For this reason the projector was tipped up and not really centered on stage, and the screen was just a narrow strip three feet tall. Also, we did not have a light-colored drop to bring in as a projection surface except one that was way upstage. This time, we will have a real screen to play with.