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The Northern Spy
October 2010

In With The New

Rick Sutcliffe

The Ancient Power Mac G5 quad

in the Spy's work office has been growing flakier by the month, and finally became a candidate for replacement (though he would normally keep a Mac much longer). Apple never got these machines right before abandoning the chip family on which they were based. To review: many of them had heat problems, which manifest at least by the airplane wind tunnel fan syndrome, and at worst by system death from heat stroke. In addition, the FireWire 800 port, while technically within specs, used a voltage at the high end of the allowable range, one that fried some devices with less tolerance. Affected drives still worked on FireWire 400, but once knocked out by a too-robust G5, their 800 port was gone for good. What was more, the internal drive connector cables had a tendency to work loose, and needed re-seating every few months. Finally, being non-Intel, there have grown to be numerous apps (and OS versions) that would not run (well or at all).

On the other side, the MS Excel 2004 reportedly would not work in Snow Leopard, but it was the last version to run the Spy's kajillion macros, and he refused to abandon them.

With a macro-friendly Office 2011 in the offing next month the latter objection to a change became inoperative, for the Spy would ordinarily use the macros on the (still ordinary) Leopard machine at home anyway. Besides, the G5 Pro was simply acting up too much.

So, he bit the bullet and put in a purchase order for a new Power Mac Pro, the one that comes in 4,6,8, and 12-core versions. After some thought, he went for a dual four core model with 6G of memory installed, a 1T drive, the stock video card, and a 24-inch monitor. One always orders the minimum memory and drives from Apple and bulks up from a third party dealer. The Spy usually buys from MacConnection these days, and in this case, ordered two 4G slugs plus a couple of extra 2T drives.

The MacConnection peripherals arrived first of course, followed a week later (from Toronto) by the Apple monitor, a magic trackpad, and a new copy of FileMaker then, ten days later, by the CPU.

One slot for each processor was empty in this configuration so the 4G slugs went in those (New total: 14G; remember when 16K was a lot?), and the drives in two of the three empty bays. Just attach to the sled with the thumbscrews and shove them in, no cables needed. Internal organization by the way is nifty--the whole CPU drawer slides out for easy memory slug installation, and of course, this makes factory CPU customization easy as well.

On the first boot and initial setup the machine delivered a warning that the larger memory slugs should be switched to slots two and six for optimum utilization, which he did (who reads user manuals?). This done, set up and partitioning the extra drives took a few seconds. Moving apps and files to those partitions required longer, as the Spy has over 30K individual files and perhaps several hundred apps and utilities, some of which store their preferences in placed known only to the programmer. Yes, there are ways to move a user over, but that is a procedure best followed for small and uncomplicated accounts, not by power users, especially when an OS change is being made simultaneously. And, yes, Apple assumes a user will employ the Applications and Documents folders. The Spy prefers his own organization.

The Good

The Spy's rule of thumb is never to upgrade until he can get four times the performance. This Pro easily delivers. After the first time an application is opened (when it may have to do a lot of installs) one or two seconds will normally suffice (three and a half for Excel 2004). Booting, file opening and saving, screen rendering, backing up, indeed almost everything the user initiates is noticeably faster, like driving a car when you're used to a bicycle. For instance, a 200K word Scrivener file opens in two seconds. The extra cores don't affect some programs much, but for those optimized for same, the speed difference is astounding. It is important to note, however, that each added core increases switching overhead, so an application that does not gain from extra cores actually loses relative to having a single core with the same specifications. For this reason there is probably an effective maximum number of cores for general purpose desktop computers given current chip technology, and the Spy suspects it is well under thirty.

So far (it is early days) most apps seem to run reasonably well, though several had to be reinstalled or have their preferences nuked at least once before they would settle down (open and quit without doing anything was the common symptom). Despite advance billing, Excel 2004 ran and did do a few simple things, but the Spy hasn't had time to pound on it yet. The Magic Trackpad is a nice addition, but takes some acclimatization. Finder is, well, Finder--reputedly rewritten to be faster and more reliable, but not much different as a user experience.

The Bad

At first, the Spy's trusty (if long in tooth) Kensington trackball would not work, except as a brain dead and slow mouse. Check the software, reinstall, but it keeps saying that the settings window has to be closed and reopened, and refuses to take control. Same for the Kensington software controlling the keyboard. Turns out that neither is compatible with Snow Leopard, and the company has no plans to make them so. But, there is also a fix, in the form of a vastly customizable shareware device called USB Overdrive by Alessandro Levi Montalcini and distributed by Selnick Ltd. It takes a few minutes to create a custom driver for the trackball, but then you're back up to speed, and with all the buttons recognized and useful. Ditto the keyboard. Pay the $22. It's worth it. Meanwhile, a slap with a wet fish for Kensington for abandoning their products. The Spy has now deleted their drivers, and at the first reasonable excuse will delete their products as well.

Wait. What about the Apple keyboard that came with this machine? Still in the package. The Spy likes real keys. Perhaps he'll try it eventually. After all, the keyboard is a Kensington. And the magic mouse? He already had one of those on another machine. Not bad if you like rodents, but limited compared to other options, seeming so dated somehow, and he's been using trackballs for two decades, trackpads as well the last few years, so he rarely reaches for a mouse. Besides they take up too much room. Did he say that he has inputs for three computers to an IOGear USB/DVI switch, thence to his keyboard, trackball and monitor? The setup will need some adapters before hooking up the new monitor. More on that later.

It appears, though the Spy did not disassemble the machine sufficiently to expose the entire motherboard, that there are no eSATA ports on this one that can be drawn out to the rear as in previous Pros. Too bad. This mod will be more expensive than it could have been.

The Ugly

When the Pro first came out as a G5 machine, the Spy panned its looks for using the same pierced metal material that forms the bathroom dividers in San Francisco's Moscone Convention Centre (where Apple holds WWDC). The latest box has an identical exterior to those except for having one more slot for optical drives and additional ports. Seems long since past time for a new design, though the Spy suspects the days of desktop towers in Apple's product list are numbered anyway, so it may never happen.

The OS

Snow Leopard doesn't look much different that Leopard. It is reportedly faster, but so is the machine, and the Spy isn't prepared to tease the two apart as yet. Suffice it to say the even the relatively power user does not have to change work habits to go with the faster and sleeker cat. Most obviously improved is the dock, which has scrollable windows attached to folder items. Ask in a year if the Spy thinks it lives up to the hype of being more reliable. He had so few problems with Tiger or Leopard that a long baseline will be necessary to discern any difference.

iPod iCroaked

The reader will recall that the Spy bought one of the then new iPod 64G jobs a year ago when they were first out. The other reader might remember him complaining that the application button had become intermittent. Well, on September 10 after charging the machine at night and using it briefly, he pocketed it (in case) with the battery at over 95%. Two hours later when he went to use it, the machine was dead dead (unresponsive, won't answer to a charging cradle).

Call Apple, confirm eleven days left in the warrantee, get a return number and wait over the weekend for a box. Monday morning when the return box arrives on a whim try the same charging cradle again, leave it for a few hours, and it works! (Why only two times dead above, not three.) Attempt a new backup, decide to send it in anyway, then try the old two-button-salute hard reset. Nothing happens. It won't reset. Box it up, send it in, giving son Nathan (more below) the excuse of loaning me his old old iPod Touch to buy himself a latest generation one.

Wait a week, go to the CIRA meeting (more below) and limp with the old machine and old OS, some apps not working because they're too new. Get a message from Apple that the problem has been identified and a new machine has been shipped. Good communications, because the old one went to Ontario, the new one was shipped from the US of A. Back here on Wednesday September 22 to find it waiting, restore from a backup (not the last one made, it hadn't worked!) and back in business with a shiny new (but still 2009 model) iPad. Took out AppleCare to extend a year just in case. After all, this one timed out just before the one year mark; if the next does also....

Two morals: First, though this is only the second Apple product he's had (of dozens) since 1978 that failed (the other had a hard drive die; it had an IBM logo on it) this happens to the best of manufacturers. Second, the Spy doubts many others could turn this around so quickly. Kudos to Apple service. You did it 100% right. (A 2010 model would have been even nicer, but....)

While on the iPod Touch, last month the Spy commented rather blah-ly on Apples iBook reader, which he was attempting to use for judging a literary contest that supplied the novels in PDF format. He finally gave up on the inconvenience and put them into GoodReader instead. At least for that purpose, it beats the socks of the Apple product. As noted last month--a work in progress, something it needs plenty of.

And, that's not all that croaked in the last few days. The server the Spy maintains for WebNameHost.net has been acting strangely ever since the data centre had two power failures lately that the backup systems failed to take over from. On Sunday, the /backup partition showed empty in a directory listing, even though the system stats had it 86% full. Put in a trouble ticket, tech looks at it and says it's dead. So, the machine had to come down for an hour while he replaced the drive. Let's give the Atjeu people credit, though. They had it back up and running with a new backup finished by the time he skipped out of the rest of the sermon to take the first leg of his flight to Toronto.

The moral of these two RIPs: all hardware fails. Have a plan, and follow it. You do have a backup of your files, of your website, of your passwords? Or, do you?

Que CIRA, CIRA--perhaps out with the old guy?

September 20 was the CIRA board meeting, and the 21st the AGM, both in Toronto. CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority) runs the registry for the .ca domain for all Canadians and is a leader among country code top level domains (ccTLDs). This could be the Spy's last go around, as his first three year term has now expired. There are some interesting things going on, and he wouldn't mind being around to see them completed and some good new ones started--registry rewrite, adoption of new accounting standards, streamlining membership processes, getting more people involved, continuing the modernization and professionalization of the organization (including the board), fulfilling the social mandate, taking more industry leadership, among other items. He received the necessary shows of support from members (thanks all) to make the ballot, so final voting was underway as September limped to a close, but there were some heavyweights running, and voting was to close September 29, so by the time most readers see this, the results should be known. For reference, some of his thoughts on governance are at http://www.iconsultarjay.com/governance.html.

And, most certainly, in with the new.

On September 18, nine pound six ounce Mirabelle Lillian Sutcliffe was born to Nathan and Charlene (they do good work), a sister to almost two-year-old Elianna and cousin to one-year-old Stephen--a third grandchild, for those who aren't counting. (Sprains his shoulder patting himself on the back.) It's so much easier to have grandchildren. Why not do that first? Thanks, little Miracle, for showing up the day before the trip to the centre of the universe. That was very considerate. We love you already.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

URLs for items mentioned in this column

CIRA (Elections): https://elections.cira.ca/2010

USB Overdrive: http://www.usboverdrive.com/USBOverdrive/

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2010.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2010 09 25