Strictly Commercial

January 20, 2009

Apple Peripherals: What’s wrong with this picture? (And what’s right.)

Filed under: Commercial, Random Musing, Technology — castlewriter @ 9:51 am

I own three Apple peripherals, but we’ll keep things simple by talking about only two of them with only a minor note on the third, since some of their deficits (and strengths) are shared.

Apple Keyboard:

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We’ll start with the obvious weakness here: The keys. The white plastic doesn’t hold up to the natural oils of human skin. Discoloration happens quite easily and requires constant vigilance to minimize. In addition to this rather obvious deficit, the keyboard takes some getting accustomed to due to its exceptionally thin profile.

How can it be fixed? One minor modification: Change the keys’ material to black plastic.

Other modifications that would increase the appeal of Apple’s keyboards:

-Incorporate the backlighting present on the high-end MacBook keyboards.
-For the wired model, integrate a glass MacBook/MB Pro trackpad.
-For the wireless model, to compensate for the additional power requirement of the illumination system, develop a MacBook Pro style rechargeable battery.

The Apple keyboard line does have some outstanding strengths, however, and anyone who owns one knows them well already. For those who aren’t already enjoying an Apple keyboard, here they are:

-Large, comfortably spaced keys, even on the incredibly compact and thin wireless model. I’m typing this, in fact, on a wireless Apple Keyboard, and my large hands are well accomodated.
–Excellent depth of travel and tactile feedback on the keys.
-The wired model incorporates two USB 2.0 ports. The one on the right, in fact, is ideal for connecting your mouse.
-The wireless model has excellent power consumption and power management features, including what I suppose I’d describe as a “sleep” mode where, if the keys are untouched, the board goes into a low power mode. Additionally, there is a ‘Power’ button on the right side to shut the keyboard down completely in the event the user expects not to use the board for a significant length of time.

Apple Mighty Mouse:

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Again, we’ll begin with the obvious weakness, and it’s the same one. That glossy white plastic looks fantastic fresh out of the box, but it doesn’t stay that way without constant inspection and maintenance. Not ordinarily a big gripe, except that when you buy a computer because it just works (and it does, really well) one of the things that should not be included is the need to spend between 10-20% of your computer hours polishing the thing. Another significant weakness, oft-mentioned yet still unaddressed by Apple, is the unseemly behavior of the far-too-delicate scroll ball, which likewise begins to demand constant attention after between two and four months of full time use. And finally, although not as offensive as the “puck” mouse that shipped with the iMac, Apple’s Mighty Mouse still displays an astonishing lack of consideration for ergonomics.

The fixes with the Mighty Mouse are similarly, and similarly easy and low-cost to implement:

-A change to matte black plastic trimmed in aluminum, both to minimize the need for time-consuming cosmetic maintenance and for superior aesthetics when coupled with Apple’s current desktops, laptops and the proposed Apple Keyboard family refresh.
-Replace the mechanical trackball (and really, what legitimate place does a mechanical trackball have on any piece of consumer electronics in 2009, anyway?) with a solid, touch-sensitive sphere or dome in the same location.
-Sculpted shape for greater comfort and control. The rationale behind the current design, aside from form overriding function, appears to be to accommodate ambidextrous use of the mouse. This can simply be addressed by offering the device in right-handed or left-handed models.

One other feature notably lacking but now a standard feature on mice from competitors such as Microsoft and Logitech are “Back” and “Forward” controls. With a new, sculpted shape, these could easily be integrated, allowing for greater functionality and comfort.

How about it, Apple?

January 18, 2009

Why Mac Mini Must Return…

Filed under: Commercial, Technology — castlewriter @ 10:08 pm

There are a number of reasons why the Mac Mini plays a pivotal role at Apple. Price is chief among them, but even the lower price of the Mini (currently in the $500-700 range) compared to the rest of Apple’s computing lineup is actually of secondary importance to Apple, or should be.

It’s not enough for Apple to compel users to switch from Microsoft-centric home and office solutions using the enormously successful iPod portable media player family, unless Apple wants to have itself relegated to focusing on being a portable media player company. That’ll move many millions more units, but at lower price points than the company needs in order to survive, let alone thrive, as the 21st century burns on.

What Apple has, right now, is a relatively low-cost computer which tempts those who pick up an iPod to try “a little more Apple.” For only $600, users can pick up a small but powerful Mac desktop that lets Apple show off where it really shines — its end-to-end hardware and software integration via its absolutely brilliant OS X operating system, lifestyle application suite iLife and professional suite iWork.

The problem is… that small but powerful desktop isn’t exactly powerful anymore. The upstart “netbook” class of ultraportable computers now pack nearly the same performance profile the Mac Mini does, for equal or less cash.

The Mini’s Achilles’ Heel is its aging — and to be frank, not precisely spectacular even at inception — Intel GMA 950 graphics system, coupled with what is now a comparatively scant 1-2Gb of system memory and 80-120Gb hard drive.

Taken together, these now relatively paltry specs mean that the Mini is no longer a compelling or even mildly interesting offering for customers who see the potential in switching to a Mac, or even for those who see the value in establishing a dual-platform computing solution for home or small business.

What can be done? Plenty.

The internal arsenal of the Mini — like all of Apple’s computers with the exception of the Mac Pro — is essentially that of a laptop, specifically the MacBook. So here’s the idea:

A new “Unibody” Mac Mini following the exterior design cues of the MacBook line and incorporating the higher-end model’s internals:
2.4Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo
2Gb of memory, standard, upgradeable to 4Gb
Graphics: nVidia GeForce 9400m (256Mb memory)
250Gb 7200rpm hard drive or 128Gb SSD
Mini DisplayPort (VGA and DVI adapters sold separately)

That would be the Mac Mini. Price: $600. But for those who need even more guts in an only moderately larger footprint:

Mac Mini Pro:
2.53Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo
4Gb of memory, standard, upgradeable to 8Gb
Graphics: nVidia 9600m GT (512Mb memory)
320Gb 7200rpm hard drive or 128Gb SSD (256Gb SSD may be an option soon)

In addition to the Apple 24“ LED display, two more peripherals would be announced to coincide with the launch of the new Mini and Mini Pro:

Apple Studio Keyboard: The new Studio Keyboard, in wired and wireless incarnations, features illuminated black keys to maximize productivity in the low-light conditions of studios as well as maintain a clean, professional appearance.

Apple Phantom Mouse: The mouse is redesigned for greater ergonomic comfort, featuring an indentation for the thumb. The scroll ball of the Mighty Mouse is replaced with a small touch sensitive dome which is identical in function but far more durable and reliable. Left-handed and right-handed models are available as well as wired and wireless models.

Are you listening, Apple?

August 16, 2008

Of Mice And Menus

Filed under: Commercial, Technology — castlewriter @ 10:26 pm

Today, children, I?m going to tell you a story about two very, very good mice and two very, very bad mice.

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I bought the Logitech VX Nano back in March of 2008 for use under Windows XP. It?s a fantastic mouse, with crisp, precise tracking, solid build, excellent tactile response from every button and comfortable handling despite its small size.

Bonuses:

*The notchless scroll feature makes whizzing through pages and documents a breeze. It works exactly as advertised, and that?s all too rare with any product.
*The One Touch Search button, like all the buttons on this mouse, is programmable. Don?t have much use for one touch searching? Set it to activate Flip3D in Windows Vista, Alt+Tab in Windows XP or Spaces in OS X Leopard.

The down side? A few things — switching the scroll wheel from notched to notchless scrolling is accomplished by ?clicking? the wheel into or out of the notched (traditional) scrolling mechanism. What that means is that you have no ?middle mouse button.? True — as just mentioned, you can assign that function to the One Touch Search — but that would eliminate a feature that would otherwise raise this mouse above the pack.

Then we get to the major downside of this mouse, and the reason I switched: Not a problem with the hardware, but with Logitech?s ?LCC? or Logitech Control Center, the Macintosh counterpart to the excellent SetPoint control platform on Windows. To keep it short: LCC sucks. It sucks balls. For me, the shameless ball-sucking took the form of a glitch in which a single left click was interpreted — when it was interpreted at all — as multiple clicks. With toggled menu items, this was infuriating. I had to reassign the left click function to a different button, the closest being the ?Navigate Forward? button several degrees to the left and far forward of my right index finger?s normal position, which made the VX Nano literally painful to use.

After awhile, it was simply time to switch.

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But where are the buttons?!

Obviously, anyone who?s seen the advertising knows this — but a lot of people haven?t seen the advertising. The entire shell of the Mighty Mouse is the button(s), with the exception of two buttons on the sides which, when squeezed together, form a third/fourth button. ?But Mr. Commercial!? you exclaim, ?What do you mean by ?third/fourth??! Golly!? Watch your fucking language.

What I mean by ?third/fourth button? is very simple — Apple?s been mucking about with touch-sensitive technology for quite awhile; the iPhone, iPod Touch and multi-touch trackpads of the MacBooks Air and Pro have received quite a bit of limelight, but the Mighty Mouse benefits from touch-sensing (though not multi-touch sensing) technology as well. There are actually two ?buttons? — touch sensitive areas — on the Mighty Mouse, with the ?right mouse button? area configurable to duplicate the left. Thus, Windows-to-Mac converts like myself can have our familiar right-clicks while Mac purists can stick with their single-button mousing habits.

The bonusus: Beyond the elegant and easy-to-customize touch-sensing mouse surface, this baby just feels good in the hand. It?s got the right size for the large hands of us manly men, but is smooooooooooooth like a 19 year old cheerleader?s bottom (What?! ?like a baby?s bottom? is somehow LESS disturbing?!) for the ladies. (And then it got even more disturbing, dinnit?!)

It also features, rather than a scroll wheel, a scroll ball, enabling not merely vertical, not merely vertical and horizontal, but 360 degree scrolling — nifty for things such as the PicLens extension for Firefox 3 (and we?ll talk more about those in upcoming entries, ladies and kids) and the Second Life metaverse.

The Downside: A few here, too. Whereas the Mighty Mouse?s smooth shape sans physical buttons is friendly, it isn?t nearly as ergonomic as the Logitech?s textured and sculpted form, with a comfy resting places for thumb as well as palm and fingers. And that scroll ball — as amazing as it is — is also amazingly easy to gunk up with the natural oils produced by human skin, eventually resulting in a scroll wheel that, well, just don?t wanna scroll. For an inexperienced user unaccustomed to scroll wheels, that means Panic Time(tm). But not to worry, because friendly Mr. Commercial has:

The Fix: Anyone who?s owned one of the later models of BlackBerry has experienced this headache — your teeny-weenie, itsy-cutesy little scroll wheel has surrendered to the vagaries of the human thumb and its daily outpouring of sweaty, oily lurve. Now it don?t wanna play no mo?. Aw… Well, here?s the solution we all figured out, and it?ll work just as sweetly with your Mighty Mouse, too: Rather than go out and buy yourself a new mouse and then go home and sit in the dark and cry like a teenaged girl, go out and buy yourself a spray bottle of non-alcohol-based LCD cleaner instead. This handy solution usually comes packaged with a soft cleaning cloth, but that won?t do for your problem, you need traction. Get a fresh, never-been-used sponge and spray it down with the LCD cleaner. Then turn your Mighty Mouse upside-down and scrollllllll that stubborn little scroll ball all over that sucker for a good 5 minutes — 2 1/2 minutes just going balls to the wall crazy in all directions to dislodge the gunk, then another 2 1/2 minutes scrolling just in the direction it stopped working in before you finally got your lazy butt up from the computer and went out to the store to fix it.

There ya go, good as new! And for my next trick, I?ll tell you what women are really thinking!

Um… okay, that one?s gonna take awhile. Howzabout we talk about Firefox 3 next. ?kay, then.

August 13, 2008

Second Life: Pixels and Panties

Filed under: Random Musing, Technology — castlewriter @ 12:18 am

Metaverse (n): The Metaverse is a virtual world, described in Neal Stephenson‘s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. The word metaverse is a compound of the words “meta” and “universe“.

Sounds pretty noble, doesn?t it? Kind of enlightened and progressive, as if you?d peek into a metaverse and expect to see people expanding their minds, pushing the boundaries of the human experience and… ooh! Titties! Strip clubs! Back alleys full of half-formed dilettantes with papier mache hair and randy fellas with oversized plastic-looking… utensils waiting to jump on little colored balls that will simulate savagery. Not exactly what Neal Stephenson had in mind, is it?
But there?s more to the metaverse known as Second Life than the moistened jungle — although that is a part of it. Walk any street — or, for that matter, swim any ocean floor, fly through any asteroid field or visit any World War 2 battlefield, all to be found within Second Life?s wide and expanding boundaries — and you?ll run into people from all over the world, in all manner of guises. Tour a recreated French monastery with nuns who in the real world may be strippers, or explore the surface of the moon with lady firefighters, or wander through a medieval world of slave girls and alien warlords with really… um… interesting corporate CEOs…
It?s all in Second Life.
And although (just like in the real world) it takes money to make it look good, you can get your meta on in this particular ?verse for free. If you haven?t tried it yet, and if you?ve got at least 1Gb of RAM and a not-too-shabby video card, take yourself on over to http://www.secondlife.com and get your download on. Look me up — the name?s Wash Rau, and although I?m not particularly corporate or CEO-ish, I do make the ?alien warlord? bit look good.

August 11, 2008

MobileMe: What’s The Big Idea?

Filed under: Commercial, Technology — castlewriter @ 10:10 pm

As a new Mac user back in April, I was delighted by the .mac web service. I had Mail, Contacts, Photos, iDisk online storage, iWeb for web site hosting, Groups where i could connect to my friends in an intimately secured way, and iCards I could use to send loved ones a beautifully composed reminder that I?m thinking of them whenever the mood rolled over me. All was well with my online services.

Then, in late June, an announcement rolled out of Cupertino that .mac would receive a substantial upgrade — no, make that a complete overhaul for the end user — and become MobileMe. The booming voice out of Silicon Valley (which some say sounds like Charleton Heston?s Moses and others insist sounds a great deal more like James Earl Jones as Darth Vader) promised things like push email, push contacts, push calendaring, a la RiM?s Blackberry functionality. Push, push, push. Then we discovered that, oh, yeah, that push thing? Mmmm, not so much.

As a matter of fact, for many users, not only did email not push — it kinda got pushed, for awhile there. Pushed clean into the ether, to be specific. But let?s not get off on a tangent about the how?s of the transition. The big question here is the why:

What?s the big idea, Apple? Why drag long-time (and newly) loyal customers through the muck of Development Hell in a services transition that was very clearly not ready for prime time? MobileMe?s implementation was still so deep in growing pains it was practically sweating and whimpering in its first week of life. What was the rush? Well, here?s the short answer:

iPhone 3G.

The long list:

iPhone 3G
iPod Touch
A threadbare WWDC
Reaching out to multi-platform users who have a hybrid office of Macs and PCs, or have one at home and the other at work

First, iPhone 3G was touted as a revolutionary step in the company?s already-legendary handset, and from the available reviews, it seems that, premature as the fanfare is, it won?t be off the mark once the firmware catches up to the hype.

Next, iPod Touch on the 2.0.x iPhone firmware narrows the gap between iPod and iPhone even further, making a unified system of information exchange between devices even more powerful. That system needed to be there.

Skipping to hybrid households and offices, the Intel-powered, Unix-fueled (OS X 10.5 ?Leopard? is a Unix distribution now, after all) modern Mac lineup leaps and bounds more appealing to traditionally PC-exclusive market segments such as small businesses and even major corporations. After all, if Macs are good enough for IBM?s Research and Development suits, they?re good enough for John Q. Macs aren?t just for the 21st century Neo-Beatnik anymore. That system of information exchange suddenly needs to work beyond Apple?s hardware and reach into the Windows world.

Finally… this past World Wide Developer?s Conference. Not much was really happening there. The iPhone 3G was, in fact, almost flying solo. You could see it in Steve Jobs?s posture as he walked the stage this year: A little less peppy. A little less strut in his stride. There just wasn?t a lot to pony up and boast on. Besides the iPhone?s newest incarnation, we had… what? OS X 10.6 ?Snow Leopard?: One very small step for the OS, one giant yawn for Mac User-kind. This year?s WWDC was really just a very long event embracing one very significant but comparably small product announcement.

Something had to be polished off and readied for the lights — but fast. That something was MobileMe. A fine idea that needed a lot more time in the gym before it hit the stage. A month on and it?s getting smoother, but it still more sow?s ear than silk on some days. Oh, it?ll get there, and we?ll bear with it, because as Mac users, that?s what we do. Come to think of it, that?s what all computer users do, and Apple?s done more to fix it, faster and with more accountability, than — Ahem! — its largest competitor.

So how?s your Vista?

The New Facebook: Land Of Confusion

Filed under: Random Musing, Technology — castlewriter @ 2:59 am

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Welcome to the New Facebook! Now to continue the question implied in the title — tell me why!

Was there a reason for the change, Facebook? The only tangible effect of the redesign is to confuse and discourage loyal users – something you really do not want to do with a social networking site.

I?ve got an idea for you, Facebook – instead of going crazy with tabs and mouseover menus, just have the entire site run from a Unix style command prompt. Why? It?d be easier to relearn than this weird mishmash of Firefox-inspired tab mania and mouse-rollover shenannigans. Or maybe – get this! – maybe you could have little animals running around the screen, and you have to get a crosshairs on them and shoot them, and they splatter into the information you want! Hm, no, that?s too grisly. Maybe little stuffed animals could chase a monkey across the screen with machetes, and…

Hm. I think you can see a theme forming here. Think of the children, Facebook – think… of the children.

July 31, 2008

iPod + iTunes: A completely unprofessional review.

Filed under: Random Musing, Technology — castlewriter @ 8:07 pm

It doesn’t have a web browser. It doesn’t check my email, or show me the weather forecast or stock quotes. Most of the time, it doesn’t even sync my calendars and To-Do list properly. And yell at it though I might, threaten it as I may, it staunchly refuses to do my dishes. These deficits aside, I’m pretty happy with my iPod Nano. I can listen to my music, watch my favorite movie or television show while away from home, listen to podcasts or audiobooks or play a quick game of Solitaire (which for some reason the fellas in Cupertino think is called ‘Klondike’) wherever I like. For a kid who remembers when the term “Portable Media Player” pretty exclusively referred to the old cassette tape Sony Walkman of the 1980s, all of that is pretty damned amazing.

There are things I’d like to see it do, as noted above, but the only thing I really have to insist on is the reliable synchronization of calendars, contacts and To-Dos — and only because that’s a feature it’s supposedly already got. One of the major benefits we’re supposed to get from Apple’s ‘end-to-end’ technology model, where the same manufacturer designs everything from one end of the experience to the other, is that it ‘just works.’ Well, this one little feature, trivial to some and critical to others, just doesn’t work — at least, not enough of the time to be relied on. Fix it, Apple.

That gripe aside, two months and counting of owning and using Apple’s hardware and software on a daily basis finds me a pretty happy camper. Sure, I’d love another gig of RAM in my Mac Mini. Sure, I’d love a discreet graphics card in there, too, or at least a better integrated graphics system than Intel’s flaccid little GMA 950. At the end of the day, though, it does what I absolutely must have it do. Most of the time, “good enough” really is good enough.

Oh — before I forget, rumor time. There’s one circulating that the 4th generation iPod Nano will resemble Microsoft’s 2nd generation Zune in size and shape. DON’T DO IT, Apple! I’ve owned two of Redmond’s little monsters — the first was a 1st generation 30Gb model in black. The thing was the flatbed truck of PMPs — reliable? Yep. Functional? Absolutely. Uglier than a baboon’s ass crack? *shudder* Ugh, God yes. The second one was a 2nd generation 4Gb flash model. It was a little prettier and a LOT more unreliable.

Steve, I beseech you! For the love of all that is powered by lithium-ion batteries, do NOT model an Apple product to resemble the laughingstock that is the Microsoft Zune. Seriously — really, really bad idea.

Oh, right, I included iTunes in the title, didn’t I? Well… um… I have it. What else is there to say? iTunes is basically unremarkable. And that’s a compliment! It does what you expect it to do (with the exception of syncing calendars, et cetera, blah blah blah already covered that) and it does it without a lot of fuss, flash or fanfare. (Pssst! Fix the damn calendar thing so people aren’t reading that and jumping around with their hands up like ravers with muscle tics!) There’s just not a lot to say about iTunes. Good program, gotta love it. No, really — you gotta, otherwise I’m coming to your house with a bag of rabid badgers — and then it’ll get weird.

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