Thoughts and opinions of a technology enthusiast.

The Problem to Be Solved

Before working on any new project it’s important to have a good grasp on just what ends you are trying to achieve. Accomplished podcaster and all-around good egg Allison Sherridan of the Nosillacast has a policy for product reviewers on her show: first, start with the problem to be solved. Since I believe this is a wise and logical course of action, the second post in the home technology series will do just that.

Let me just start with the caveat that I’m going to throw the word need around rather loosely for this post. I realize these are toys, for the most part. I could certainly survive without them, but these are toys and tools that I use in my day-to-day life pretty extensively, and a number of my personal hobbies and interests revolve around my ability to have these toys close at hand. So with that out of the way, here we go…

I’m setting up brand new infrastructure for the home. The client machines, for the most part, will remain unchanged (iPhone, iPad, Macbook Pro etc.) but the underlying infrastructure is going to be unavailable (for reasons which are immaterial to this post).

The needs I’ve identified so far are:

  • a router / wi-fi access point
  • a file server / NAS device
  • a set-top box for the living room
  • a location to run VMs
  • an SSH endpoint

Along with that are a couple of nice-to-haves:

  • a set-top box for the bedroom
  • a DNS server
  • a BitTorrent client daemon
  • a VPN server

Some other considerations I’ve come up with for the new equipment coming into the home:

  • low power usage
  • quiet
  • low-maintenance
  • open
  • free software (the Stallman kind, and the everyone else kind)

Under my previous network setup, I had a giant server box in my basement (ok not giant, but large) which handled the NAS, SSH, BitTorrent, DNS and VM duties. It did a lot, but was a standard Ubuntu installation which required the usual care and feeding. Everything also had to be set up and configured by hand so it took a while to get everything working the way I want, and moving that configuration to a new server in the future would be challenging.

I also don’t currently have a set-top box for streaming media on any of the TVs (unless you count getting a laptop to do the job temporarily). I also don’t have a VPN endpoint. The current VM management strategy is also challenging because it doesn’t have the polish or finish of a purpose-built VM solution.

Given the past challenges I’m thinking that the configuration I was using, though certainly workable at the time I set it up, doesn’t meet the needs I have going forward. I’ll explore some of the options in more detail in my next post.

Taking Stock

Quite some time ago I started a series of posts on setting up your own home server from scratch using a desktop PC running Ubuntu. The series was fairly popular and provided a good detailed look at just what it takes to get a home server going.

Well the server I built is going away and I find myself planning, once again, how best to address the computing needs of my household. It seems obvious to me that I **need** a server. I’ve had one for the past few years and it’s been very beneficial for a number of reasons. But times change, people change and computing needs do, in fact, change.

This series of posts is going to be as much for me as anything else. I figure if I write down my thought processes I might have a better chance of actually arriving at a decision because I’ve had a chance to externalize and review my own opinions about this project.

The first question I started to consider was one of hardware. It seemed a logical step — I have hardware going out, I’m going to need to bring some hardware back in. The real question is: what to buy? The answer, as any technology consultant will tell you, is: “it depends.”

The real first question, as I covered off in my first post about the last home server, is “what do you want the machine to do?” Until you can answer that, everything else is nothing more than a guessing game. So that’s where things sit for the moment. I need to ponder long and hard just what I need out of this replacement machine. There are a number of possible computing functions in my household. It’s undoubtedly time to take stock of the technology that I’ve already acquired and see where it all fits in relation to the needs and wants that I have.

Bad Decisions

As someone who considers himself a technology enthusiast I take pride in my ability to know how best to apply technological solutions to everyday problems. Part of knowing howa to do this is the ability to know what the options are and when to choose which option. Few decisions in technology demonstrate this abundance of options better than the selection process for a new computer.

I have had a MacBook as my primary computer for the past 6 years. In that time, my first Mac has helped me to accomplish a number of goals. It has been my main machine for all of my technological pursuits. Pretty much Avery blog post and podcast episode I’ve produced was conceived of, written recorded and released on that machine. I has travelled with me own dozens of trips and has supported my rather amateurish attempts at being an amateur photographer.

A trend that has persisted for the past decade or so is that the advances in personal computing technology have continued at a faster rate than the increased computing demands of most of the population. 15 years ago it made a lot of sense to spend ore money to get a higher-end computer in hopes that the system woould last you more than a couple of years. Fast-forward to today where most computer users need little more from their system than a means of getting to the Internet, and we see that most mid-to-low range computers could easily serve their users for 4-5 years.

With that philosophy in mind earlier this year I decided to make the leap from a mid-range laptop to a tablet as my main mobile computing platform. Many wolf the tasks at I like to undertake on a mobile device we well within the capabilities of most tablets, and I figured that the light weight and small form factor would make the device much easier to carry around with me. I’ve had the iPad for about three months now. I have tried to incorporate it as a working device, rather than just a content consumption device. I have successfully written a number of blog posts on the device and sent a few emails. But thre are limitations as to how the iPad can be used as a content-creation platform, and the majority of those limitations are a result of the device’s form factor.

Trying to write anythingr fo any length on the iPad is challenging with the on-screen keyboard. The touch screen is very responsive and I can write on it far better than I can write on the iPhone, but there are still 4-5x the number of typos in my work which take time to correct. Autocorrect is both a help and a hindrance when writing on the iOS devices. If you allow it to do its job you can have a number of your mistakes fixed, but if you hit the spacebar instead of the intended letter key you will most likely create a typo that will need to be fixed manually. Writing with a physical keyboard hooked up either via Bluetooth or the Dock. On rector provides better a curry when typing, but requires the user to place the iPad and the keyboard on a flat surface like a desk or a table, greatly reducing the mobility of the device.

After the first month, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to replace the laptop n my life with an iPad. It simply didn’t fit my way of working. I was a bit annoyed with myself for not having thought things through and for not hanging figured it out ahead of time, but I soon realized that the iPad had other virtues and it hadnt been a waste. It has been a fantastic content consumption device and has allowed our whole family an alternate avenue to enjoy. Intent that we love when we may not be particularly interested in what someone else has put on the big TV.

So I stepped back and took a look at the options for laptops. The machine that I’ve been using is getting to be a bit slow, and for some of what I want to use it for the two GB memory limit is a bit, well, limiting. my first instinct was to pick p the new MacBook Pro. That’s the model which most closely replaces the old MacBook I won’t get into the reasons behind why I’m sticking to a Mac since they aren’t really material to my point. Based on a number of factors I outlined in a previous post my ad choice of replacement laptop was the MacBook Air. It was plenty powerful for the types of things I typically use the computer for and it was small and light which was a nice change from the rather weighty MacBook White.

It’s Great But…

I was thrilled when the unit arrived and wanted to get it set up as soon as possible. That’s when I discovered my first error. I hadn’t realized that the mini DisplayPort connector on the new machine was something different than the connector on the existing Mac (which I realized later was mini-DVI). I would need an adapter to attach the New computer to my monitor. Looking at the two side-by-side it’s pretty clear that they’re nothing alike.

So I began migrating data over to it the first night. That’s when I realized that I had made my second error. I knew that the new machine’s 128GB solid-state drive would be significantly more cramped than the current 320 GB drive I was using. But I failed to actually check how much data I would want to store on the machine. As it turned out, my Aperture library was larger than the entire SSD drive in the new machine. I bought an external hard drive and was willing to live with the compromise because I did 99% of my photo work at my desk anyway, so I woldn’t need to transport the drive anywhere.

A week or so later I was to have a Skype chat with Dave and Knightwise. I had planned to use the new machine and that’s when I realized that I wouldn’t be ble to record on the new machine — it had no line-in jack. To use my existing podcasting gear I would need to buy a new USB sound device, or a USB mixer. This proved a rather frustrating discovery for me. It was the third time in a week that I had realized that the MacBook Air purchase was not sufficiently thought out. And it was maddening as this is specifically the kind of thing that I talk with people about when they are asking for advice on new systems: what will you use it for?

The Solution

The obvious answer to this is simple: do your homework. I could have realized two of these problems if I would have put a bit more time into looking at the options and precisely how I intended to use the machine. Looking into things more closely the MacBook Pro was clearly a better choice for how I use my computers.

  1. I have a machine that does most of what I need it to do on a day to day basis. Some expiring hardware and lack of ability to run the last two versions of OS X have precipitated the move to a new machine.
  2. I’m a podcaster. I need a line-in port to be able to do that without investing in more podcasting gear. While the lack of that port in and of itself likely wouldn’t push me to one machine or the other, it’s certainly a contributing factor.
  3. External drives are great — and they’re a pain in the ass. Needing to attach an external drive to your computer with any kind of frequency is a good indicator that you don’t have enough on-board storage. I needed an external drive on day 1 with the new MacBook Air.
  4. Expandability breeds longer life. Almost every computer I’ve owned has lasted me longer than 5 years. In many cases hardware upgrades have helped prolong the useful life of these devices. Having the ability to have the memory and hard drive upgraded is something I typically need.

I’m still doing some additional reading and research to make sure I don’t make another bad decision when I bring in a replacement model, but it certainly seems as though I should have ordered the 13″ MacBook Pro to begin with as it fits far more closely with how I do my day-to-day computing.

Maintenance Nerd

There are things that are common to the human experience, things that everyone enjoys. The warmth of friends and family, the simplicity of a home-cooked meal and the smell of a warm and fragrant tropical breeze. Then there are those things that make us different. The one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure principle applies not only to worldly goods, but to endeavours as well.

In my family, I’m the cook. Partly because it helps to divide some of the domestic labour, but mainly because I’m the one who actually enjoys cooking. I’ll invest time in breaking down a chicken carcass at 10pm on a Tuesday to make stock for the next day’s soup. I’ll go to the trouble of de-seeding all of the canned whole tomatoes in my pasta sauce just to make it a bit less bitter. In short, cooking is a job I find fun. Where is this going, you may ask? System maintenance. That’s where.

One of the things I’ve discovered about myself over the past decade or so is that I really like the feel of a newly minted OS installation. It doesn’t matter what platform, or whether there’s a GUI or not. There’s just something satisfying about knowing that the computer is in pristine condition. If I count all of the machines at home and at work that I’ve done OS installs on in the past 10 years the number of times I’ve installed an operating system is well into the triple digits. Hell for Windows alone I’m sure the number is over 100.

And it’s not just OS installs. All kinds of maintenance, setup, configuration and manipulation tasks are things I find interesting. To me a good backup script is like a great scotch — in the hands of a true enthusiast it’s well made and can continue to improve with age if it’s properly cared for. I like to look after my file systems like some people look after their lawns — meticulous care and attention that everything is in its place and that there aren’t any bad seeds around to foul things up.

This can, of course, pose challenges as well. I like the feel of a clean system so much that it can take me days to “dirty-up” a new system enough to make it usable. I’ve had my new MacBook air for three days, and this the first non-setup task I’ve undertaken — and there are still more things to be done before everything will be “just-so”. Having the deisre to keep a really clean system can cause me to feel the need to practise everything and refuse to make changes which may not be reversible — even if the changes are unlikely to be detrimental. In retrospect perhaps that’s why I have had so much experience performing system installs, it’s a great way to clean a system.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to wipe my old MacBook… it’s about to have a new life as a HTPC.

iPhone 4S – The Next Logical Step

Now that we’ve had a month to digest Apple’s 5th generation of the second-coming of mobile telephony: The iPhone 4S I thought it was fitting to take a look at what this product really means in terms of Apple’s product cycles.

As one might speculate based on the name alone this is a fairly minor revision of the current-generation iPhone 4. The new device carries only a few minor hardware adjustments, but some very significant changes for the software itself (most of which the iPhone 4 will receive as well).

The most significant hardware changes are the upgrade to a dual core ‘A5’ ARM CPU, a completely redesigned 8MP camera and the integration of the voice-interface called ‘Siri’.

The first two pieces of this puzzle are fairly easy to understand. The new A5 processor will give the handset much more power, particularly for gaming or video intensive applications. The second new piece of hardware, the redesigned camera has a higher resolution sensor, larger aperture and an additional lens element, all of which are said to contribute to brighter, crisper, “better” photos than any of the previous iPhones.

The odd-ball of the bunch is Siri. This is something which might be described as an assistive technology, something designed for users who would have trouble interacting with the phone in a traditional manner. But if science-fiction has taught us anything it’s that we’ll all be talking to our computers in the future and the keyboard and mouse will be “quaint” figures of our collective social memory.

Siri was rolled out in Beta to the iPhone 4S and is the only iOS 5 device receiving the enhanced voice interface despite similar processing power in this past year’s iPad 2. The “beta” monicker is something that Apple has used only sparingly in years gone by and it tends to be in a fairly traditional sense of the word, being applied to products which are truly unfinished when they are made available to the public. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what this means for the future of Siri. Many feel that the technology will eventually make its way on to every Apple product from voice-enabled phones, to computers through to the Apple TV. The digital living room device is, in my opinion, the killer target for the new technology as it would allow a remote-control free experience (assuming it knew when to listen to you and when to ignore the sound coming out of your TV).

But all that aside I really wanted to focus on this one point: the iPhone 4S is the next logical step for Apple. After the initial release of the iPhone in 2007 it was followed up with the iPhone 3G which was arguably the first “complete” version of the handset in 2008. June of 2009 saw the introduction of the iPhone 3GS which was for all intents and purposes a revised version of the previous year’s model. 2010 introduced the iPhone 4 with an all new design and the first instance of an Apple device with an Apple CPU (the A4). After such a major upgrade nobody knew what would happen next. Speculation early in 2011 led many to believe (correctly as it turns out) that Apple would abandon it’s traditional June timeslot for iPhone launches eventually delivering the new phone in October.

The delay also led to a great deal of speculation that Apple must be using all this extra time to produce an absolutely killer new iPhone 5 which would revolutionize the phone market as much as the iPhone 4 had the year previous. The iPhone 4 is still one of the best selling single handset models ever, particularly if you focus on smartphone sales. As time dragged on so did the predictors, pundits and pranksters. We saw mock ups of super-sized, super-small, super-thin, dual screened, cloud-based, fat, thin, black, white, pink, polka-dotted, tutu-wearing, pipe-smoking, tap-dancing iPhones (OK, I made some of those up, but you get my point). When the new handset finally arrived, it was not the much touted iPhone 5, but a revision to the iPhone 4 complete with evolutionary hardware upgrades and a new piece of software that may someday change the way you interact with most of your technology.

It makes sense. The next iPhone will (probably) have a more significant redesign. The next iPhone will (probably) not be called the iPhone 5. The next iPhone will have Siri. The next iPhone — well, we’ll see it when it gets here, won’t we (or when it inevitably gets left in a bar somewhere in San Francisco).

Steve Jobs’ Impact on the World of Technology

This afternoon Apple released the sad news that co-founder and chairman Steve Jobs had finally succumbed to his fight with cancer. With that the world lost a man whose vision led Apple from the depths of irrelevancy to the forefront of day-to-day mind-share.

Revived Apple

Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer in the late 1970’s. The company has had its ups and downs over the years and Jobs was ousted from his leadership position only to be hired back on in the 1990’s when Apple was bordering on irrelevancy. Starting with the iPod and iMac in the early 2000’s Jobs and his leadership team helped make Apple one of the most recognized and relevant brands in the world.

Reinvented home computing

The early Apple II computers were some of the first to be placed in the home as the “family computer”. While they weren’t the only ones, they were certainly among the first and also among the most widely deployed. The number of people who can tell you today that their first computer was an Apple IIc, or Apple IIgs is lengthy; myself included.

Revolutionized portable music

While not the first company to produce MP3 players, or even hard-disk based MP3 players, Apple created a beautifully designed device in 2001 called iPod. Jobs took the position that existing media players were not particularly good, or usable. He assembled a team to create a new device as a part of Apple’s “digital hub” strategy. This was, at it’s core, a basic MP3 player with an internal hard disk which could store 5-10 GB of music, which at the time was all, or most, of most peoples’ digital music collections. iPod became the foundation of later forays into the personal electronics space which has become central to Apple’s position in the market.

Reimagined telecommunications

It has been called “the second coming of mobile telephony”, it is Apple’s iPhone. Jobs and members of his leadership team like Jonathan Ive released it’s first iPhone in 2007 and has revised it every year selling millions upon millions of devices every year. Apple has become a (the?) leader in mobile phone sales and development worldwide leading a device category that they helped create less than 5 years ago.

Redefined portable computing

With the launch of the iPad tablet in 2010 Apple helped to define a third product category which had, until then, been somewhat vaguely defined. Steve Jobs himself referred to the iPad and it’s successor the iPad 2 as devices that would usher in the “post-PC era”. While not everyone feels that iPads will replace their computers, they have certainly helped to define a product category where people will use devices to complement their “real lives” with their digital ones.

So there you go, a brief summary of the impact Steve Jobs has had on the worlds of computing and technology in the past 35 years. We can only hope that he’s inspired his teams at Apple so that the innovation of Apple, particularly over the past decade, will continue in years to come.

32 Great Podcasts from my Podroll

Inspired by this post from Bill Wagner’s blog, here’s a quick look at what’s on my Podroll these days.  I’ve listed each show below with its affiliated network or originating broadcaster in parentheses.  Please have a look through the list and post any other great shows in the comments.  I’d also love to know what you think about the recommendations!

Science & Technology Shows

Aussie Geek Podcast – Bloody Awesome Tech. Two Aussies (Dave and Cait) and a Canadian (that’s me!) put their unique slants on the technology news, applications sites and services each week (or so).

CommandN – Amber Macarthur and friends bring you a weekly dose of tech news.

Digital Planet (BBC) – The BBC’s weekly technology show looking at trends in tech and how they affect your daily life, hosted by Gareth Mitchell.

Discovery (BBC) – A weekly science documentary examining hot trends and profound topics in the world of science.

Knightcast – Tuning tech into your way of life, Knightwise offers a look at ways to make technology work for you, instead of the other way around.

Mac OS Ken – A daily dose of Mac (and iPhone) news delivered by the sarcastic, funny and insightful Ken Ray.

One Minute Tip (TP) – Byte-sized pieces of knowledge to help you be just a bit more productive with your everyday tech.

Podcasters’ Emporium (LPN) – James Williams and Dave Gray cover all the topics you need to know to become a better podcaster.

Quirks and Quarks (CBC) – Bob MacDonald’s weekly look at science and technology from the CBC mothership.  The show looks at new and emerging sciences and technologies, often with an eye towards how they affect our environment.

Run As Radio (PWOP) – Richard Campbell and Greg Hughes provide a weekly batch of insightful trends and topics for the IT pro.

Security Now (TWiT) – Steve Gibson’s weekly dose of security news and security-related topics is very insigtful  (even better if you skip over Leo Laporte’s TWiT ads).

Search Engine (TVO) – Jesse Brown’s brutally honest opinions and reviews of life in the Internet age.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe – Members of the New England Skeptical Society debunk the myths and frauds of the scientific age.

The Skeptic’s Guide 5×5 – A shorter companion podcast for the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

Spark (CBC) – Focusing on the softer side of tech, trends and how these things work their way into our day-to-day lives.

Software Development Shows

Hanselminutes (PWOP) – Scott Hanselman’s weekly look at software and technology topics with his inside the MS machine take on things.

Herding Code – A group of “real-world” developers discussing topics and technology that affect code-slingers everywhere.

.NET Rocks! (PWOP) – .NET Rocks brings together the incomparable Carl Franklin and Richard Campbell who interview cool and interesting people in the Microsoft developer space.

Polymorphic Podcast – Craig Shoemaker’s periodic exploration of software and best practices for .NET developers was one of the first software podcasts I started listening to.

Stack Overflow – Jeff atwood and Joel Spolsky’s companion podcast to the Stack Overflow Q&A site project.  A weekly chat about the project, interesting Stack Overflow questions and other software topics.

Humour & Entertainment Shows

Mondays (PWOP) – Mondays is a comedy show from the crew at PWOP that’s released on a somewhat sporadic basis.  This one’s definitely NSFW — unless you have headphones. =)

Star Trek: Defiant – A fan-fiction podcast set a number of years after the events in Star Trek: Nemesis. Produced by the crew at Pendant Audio with a fairly talented voice crew.  It’s a good listen.

Two Schooners (LPN) – Dave Gray and James Williams get together again for a somewhat less serious show covering the weird and hilarious stories of the week over a schooner of their favourite brew.

Business / News Shows

Campbell’s Comment (CKNW) – Michael Campbell’s daily business comment.

Get It Done Guy (QD Tips) – Sever Robins provides great productivity tips, business tips and general “how-to-cope-with-life-after-college” tips.

Modern Manners Guy (QD Tips) – The Modern Manners Guy’s advice on how not to inconvenience those around you.

Nutrition Diva (QD Tips) – Eat better, and learn about food myths that’ll keep you on the healthy track.

Reality Check (CKNW) – Bruce Allen’s pull-no-punches daily comment about social issues and pop culture.

Sports Comment (CKNW) – Neil McRae and others provide a comment on the sports world from a Vancouver perspective.

Grammar / Language Shows

Grammar Girl (QD Tips) – Mignon Fogarty’s weekly language show will help you tackle the tricky issues of trying to write successfully in the English language.

Kalye Speak – Learn tagalog as filipino’s actually speak it.  By far the most successful podcast of its kind.

Podictionary – Charles Hodgeson gives great background on the etymology of words that we use every day. The show is insightful, fun and concise.

It’s been fun putting this list together.  I’d love to hear your comments on these shows, or others that you listen to regularly.

Windows 7 RTM in July??

Tonight the tubes of the Interwebs are all atwitter with rumours that Microsoft may reach the release-to-manufacturer (RTM) milestone for Windows 7 in July. The date being bandied about is July 13th which coincides with a Microsoft event in New Orleans.

This is stunning news particularly when thinking back to the release of Windows Vista 18 months ago. Vista was pushed back a number of times and the delays caused the operating system no end of grief when the OS failed to meet the expectations of consumers when it hit the street in 2007.

A Windows 7 RTM in July would mean that desktops and laptops enabled with Windows 7 may be ready for consumers in time for the key back-to-school buying season.  Add to this that PC vendors like Alienware are already selling Windows Vista licenses with a Windows 7 upgrade offer; and that Microsoft is taking pre-orders for the OS, and it really smells like Windows 7 is not far off.

Sources: Ars Technica, Geeksmack, @Codinghorror

Mac vs. PC :: Will my next computer be a Mac?

macwinIt’s been about two and a half years since I made the switch from being a dedicated Windows user to buying my first Mac. I have really enjoyed my MacBook and wanted to take a few moments to discuss some of the differences and similarities I’ve found with the Mac ownership experience, compared to my earlier (and ongoing) experiences with the Windows platform.

Marketing and Markets
Both Windows and Mac enthusiasts love to evangelize about their platform of choice.  It’s human nature, we all want people to know how smart we are for choosing the best of what’s available.

socialpiechartAs is often the case with most of these “holy wars” the smaller market tends to be more vocal, and more likely to point out all the flaws in its larger competitor.  This is certainly the case with the Apple community.  From the endless stream of “Get a Mac” ads and their YouTube parody counterparts to news releases and security firms touting the reduced target area of not running Windows, those who have and love Macs are always there to tell you that the solution to every problem with MS Windows is to simply get a mac.

And it’s not like Microsoft hasn’t provided a great deal of ammo for the pundits to use in their PR-muskets.  From the troubled launch of Windows Vista to the sad state of what is the Zune to the rather pathetic I’m a PC ad campaign Apple has certainly made up ground on the Redmond-based software giant.  Since 2001, Apple has nearly tripled their market share.  That’s a very significant jump for any company.  But let’s be realistic about what that really means.  The Mac maker has raised its market share from about 3.5% to somewhere around the 10% mark.  Even with Apple’s huge growth over the past 8 years, nine out of every 10 computers sold is running a version of Microsoft Windows.

telus-blackberry-8330-smAs a result, Microsoft for their part shrugs off the attacks of the all things “i” maker, often ignoring the marketing onslaught and focusing on its target market: the Enterprise.  Does anyone remember when Apple launched the 3G iPhone, App Store and support for Enterprise features on the iPhone?  Apple certainly hasn’t made great strides into the corporate handheld market, which is something the Microsoft does better, but that Research In Motion’s BlackBerry does extremely well — but that’s a topic for another post.  Microsoft and Apple both make products which can be used in the business markets.  But time after time, companies are continuing to choose the Microsoft platform over that of Apple, a huge percentage of the 90% that Microsoft controls in the operating systems space is thanks to the purchases of large companies.  If one were to examine only consumer purchases of computers, Apple would fare much better, probably somewhere around the 20% mark in parts of the world.

The consumer market is without question Apple’s strongest.  By developing a series of technologies and services that all work well together, it’s quite possible to change over your entire home to run on Apple technology.  From beautifully designed iMacs that can sit proudly in your living room, to powerful Mac Pros that can serve content for the entire household, to AppleTV which can sit atop your HD digital cable box and serve as an all-in-one media centre, to the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule backup consoles to manage your network and keep everything interconnected.  appletaxAdd to that Apple’s iTunes and Mobile Me services and you’ve got an entire suite of hardware and software that talks to each other almost flawlessly, and really does make your day-to-day computing experience much smoother.  There’s only one catch, the Apple Tax.

The Apple Tax is what those outside the Apple community call the difference between the price of a Mac, and the price of the most closely aligned (in hardware specs at least) PC.  Often times the difference between a Mac and a PC comes in between 20% and 40%, with the Macs invariably being the more expensive machines.  PC enthusiasts will shame people for wasting their money on “pretty hardware” while the Mac community talks about security, ease of use and bundled software.  Over the past three years or so I’ve come to realize that the reason this debate won’t die is that they’re all right.

My Mac Experience

mac_leoWhen I first picked up my Macbook one of the things that excited me about the experience was the new-ness of it.  This was a computing platform that I wasn’t particularly familiar with, and since I considered myself to be something of a technology afficionado I figured I should jump in and see what all the fuss was really about.

Within hours I had posted my first blog post and was happily exploring the features of OS X Tiger.  There were a few quirks of the Mac OS that drove (drive) me nuts but overall it was a pretty good experience.  Much more polished than other Windows alternatives (RedHat, Ubuntu, Fedora) that I’d looked at in the past.  One of the strongest points in the Mac’s favour early on was the Unix-style BSD-based terminal.  This is where, for me at least, some of the magic of OS X came into play.

I’ve always been a command-line geek.  There’s no question in my mind that computers function at their best when they don’t need to worry about drawing a “pretty picture” for us lazy humans.  Command-line applications (and for that matter services/daemons) run better, and more often than not, more reliably than applications with elegant user-interfaces.  Being able to explore the world of the UNIX/Linux command line on my shiny new Mac was indeed a revelation for me.  It even led to me porting the wget application to run on Mac OS X.  This wasn’t something that I’d ever consider trying to do for Windows, though it probably isn’t much more difficult.

mpkgAs time moved forward I really enjoyed my MacBook. Adding new applications to the computer was as simple as downloading them from the Internet and in most cases dragging the application to the Applications folder.  In other cases I would need to double-click an .mpkg file to run the installer.

But I noticed after a while that all the software I’d been downloading for my Mac Lab Rat segments for the old version of the podcast had really cluttered up my system.  Thankfully OS X allows you to clean up all of that mess from the installations with just the drag of a mouse.  Yep, that’s right. To uninstall an application from OS X, you just need to drag it to the trash can.  That’s much simpler than un-installing programs on Windows, right?  Well, that’s not really the whole truth.

First off, you need to understand how a Mac stores applications.  Each application is stored in a package ending with a .app extension.  This is, in reality, just a folder that contains the majority of the files that the application uses.  Dragging “the application” to the trash is really just a way of deleting the application folder.  But with many applications this doesn’t delete the entire application footprint.

There are two folders where applications store the majority of their extra files and these are the /Library and the /Users/<username>/Library folders.  Apple’s own recording application GarageBand stores over 1.5GB of files in these library folders, removing the application using the Drag-and-Drop method will leave those files on your computer.

Malware & Baddies
toxic-wasteThere’s no question that anyone who buys a Mac today, or has bought one in the past 10 years has experienced but a fraction of a percentage of the malware, spyware, viruses and badness that Windows owners have to deal with on a regular basis.  Apple touts this fact when they promote their Macs as one would expect, and as they should. The lack of these problems on a Mac is a great reason to use the system.  Mac fanboys would have you believe that the Mac Operating System is fundamentally designed to be more secure. They talk about the fact that because you’re less likely to be infected by problems on a Mac, the Mac OS is orders of magnitude more secure than Windows.  But notice nowhere does it say that there are fewer vulnerabilities in OS X than in Windows.

The reality is that with Windows’ huge market share (remember the 90% number we talked about earlier?) they are the 10,000lb gorilla.  When your next biggest competitor makes up less than 10% of the market, it’s clear who will be the target. (For those in the business of building gorilla killin’ helicopters (malware), the real target is King Kong not Nim Chimpsky.)

If you’re writing malware of any kind, you’re typically doing it in one of two ways:

  1. Target companies
  2. Target the highest number of people possible

The majority of malware authors choose to go with option #2: cast a wide net and see how many fish you can catch.  If your net is set to catch Windows machines, the sheer math of it will get you more infected machines than if you were to target the much smaller Mac market.  That said, with success comes difficulty.  Mac users are starting to see pockets of activity targeting OS X.  Consider the Pwn to Own competitions that security companies have run for the past few years. Invariably, OS X has been compromised at each of them, and in most cases extremely quickly. Modern operating systems are all susceptible to exploits and security holes. Even linux systems are vulnerable to attacks, they simply have the benefit of a large number of people to quickly patch holes and a user community generally less susceptible to getting themselves infected.  OS X is not an invulnerable operating system.

Software – Included and Excluded

macappsIt’s often touted that the software included on Mac Systems helps to justify the increased price tag of purchasing these machines. It does help, to be sure. The quality of the included software is quite high, and allows you to manage photos, music & email, make videos, burn movies, and record audio.  What Apple doesn’t want you to know is that there are lots of applications out there for Windows too, some of which may even be bundled with your system when you buy it.  Consistency is Apple’s strongest point. They can use phrases like “iLife comes with every new Mac”.

I’ve used every application that comes with iLife at least once.  The most frequently used applications being iPhoto and GarageBand; unfortunately I’ve not been overly satisfied with either and the only reason I stuck with them is that they were for all intents and purposes free applications.  iPhoto in particular lacked a number of features, the most obvious of which is the ability to organize images into folder hierarchies.  This has been fixed in the latest version, but I don’t feel like paying $69 for something that free apps like Picasa can do for free.

GarageBand has worked out quite well for the most part, but does leave a few things to be desired.  The interface is excellent, making creating podcasts and other recorded audio quick and fairly intuitive.  It becomes obvious fairly quickly though that this product too is targeted at a consumer audience as there are a number of audio manipulation features missing including fine grain control over cutting and pasting audio, and the application crashes with my podcast files once it gets over an hour in length.

While the iLife suite is touted as being partial justification of the increased cost of the Macs, in many cases I’ve abandoned these applications in favour of free applications that I was able to download from the Internet.  I’m in the midst of replacing iPhoto with Picasa and GarageBand with Audacity (which admittedly is missing a bunch of features too, so I’ll probably have to use both).

Coming from a Windows world, I was accustomed to being able to find software online that did what I needed my computer to do, and the vast majority of the time not having to pay for it — and let me be clear, I’m talking SourceForge, not PirateBay.  What I found in coming to the Mac world is that commercial ISVs (independent software vendors) were far more common for home-use applications on the Mac than for Windows.  Translation: If you want it, be prepared to pay for it.  Third-party developers have done a great job of writing software that has a Mac look & feel.  Apple and Microsoft both publish guidelines on best practices for developing software for their respective platforms.  The ISVs that publish software for the Mac do a great job of creating a quality product the only catch of course being that you need to buy the apps.  There is open-source software available on the Mac, but as with the malware developers. the open-source community prefers to stick to platforms where they can get the most eyeballs on their product.

Getting Things Done
checkmarkThis is far and away the most subjective category in my review.  There is no question that I’ve been extremely productive with my MacBook over the past three years.  I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, contributed to my online forums, remotely managed software on my websites, handled email, instant messaging, twitter, virtualization and managed my online life.  The thing is, most of the time I’m not using a Mac specific application to do those tasks.  All of my Internet activity is done using FireFox rather than Apple’s own Safari browser.  The main reason for that is that I find Safari to be a bit clumsy to use, and above all else, I miss the ability to download tons of free plugins and extensions for the browser that make my online life better.

One task where the Mac has a leg up on Windows, conceptually at least, is the fact that it’s built-in command-line interface is based on BSD.  This means that all of the default tools for handling command-line operations in a Unix environment are already present, and the most important of those for me is SSH.  Native command-line support of SSH makes administering my web servers a more seamless task, and despite the fact that it’s command-line in nature, that may be the most Mac-like feature of my Macbook.  I can get this done on windows without much effort as well, but with the Mac, this truly was built-in from the get-go.

Re-Staging Systems
I’m hard on my computers.  I always have been.  Every system I’ve ever owned prior to my MacBook has been re-staged or re-imaged about once per year.  Sometimes this was for OS upgrades, sometimes because it had become slow and unusable, and sometimes because I wanted to try a major configuration change to make the computer more useful to me.  Something that really appealed to me about the Mac from those I’d spoken to prior to purchasing it was the idea that all of this would be gone once I got a mac.  Never would I need to do the dreaded “wipe and reload” operation that I’d become used to in Windows.  The reality is, I’ve re-staged my Macbook about the same number of times (if not more) than I had originally done on Windows.

  1. Bought a new Mac
  2. Over the course of the first 6-8 months, downloaded every piece of Mac software I could find. Un-installing them left me with a clutter of junk in the “Library folder” for the dozens and dozens of apps I had removed. To clear this up permanently, I re-staged the computer.
  3. About 6 months later, I wanted to try out the pre-release version of Boot-Camp that came with OS X 10.4.  Unfortunately after the previous re-installation I had chosen a “case-sensitive” file system — this doesn’t work well with Boot Camp.  I re-staged the computer.
  4. When OS X 10.5 came out, I felt somewhat duty-bound to pick up the new release on it’s first day of RTM.  To put this on, I followed my policy with all OS updates (and the advice I had found online) which is to always start clean. I re-staged the computer.
  5. I decided a few months later that I wanted to try dual-booting my computer with Windows and OS X 10.5, unfortunately I had filled up my 80 GB hard drive so much that the OS X couldn’t create a decent boot partition.  I re-staged the computer.
  6. Several months later I bought a new 320 GB hard drive and promptly proceeded to load it into my Mac.  Since the Boot-camp thing wasn’t really working out anyway I decided this would be a great time to get a fresh start.  I re-staged the computer.

Over the 32 months since I’ve owned the Macbook, I’ve re-staged the machine five times.  That’s about once every 6 months give-or-take.  That’s a bit more often than my Windows machines annual re-load, but I figure two of them were due to my unfamiliarity with the Mac OS.  So three times in three years, I call that a draw.

Conclusion – Will my next computer be a Mac?
After looking at my Mac experience objectively for a couple of months as I’ve written this article on and off, I’ve come to two undeniable truths about how the Mac fits in to my life.

  1. The Mac is an outstanding computer, that does nearly everything that I’ve ever needed it to.
  2. For me, it isn’t worth the 30-40% premium over a comparable Windows-based notebook.

I really do love my Macbook, and I’m going to find a way to keep it running and in active service until it simply becomes too expensive to maintain (read: need to replace the battery, or a system component out of warranty).  But I also know that my next machine, which will be a replacement for the desktops in my basement will most likely be an off-the-shelf PC.  The vast majority of what I do on my computer is done on the Internet.  The applications I use on my Mac every single day are Firefox, Thunderbird, MSN, TweetDeck, TextPad and the CLI SSH client.  All of those applications are available on every single computer that I’ve ever used.  So when I buy the next system, the only decision for me as far as operating systems go, will be whether I buy Windows, or install the latest LTS edition of Ubuntu.

AnkhSVN and Visual Studio 2008

ankhsvnSource control is one of those things that developers get really polarized about.  Most agree that having source control on projects is a necessity, but that’s typically were the similarities end.  Some folks are of the mind that every line of code, however insignificant, should be under source control.  This provides records of what was written, and a reference for things that were done in the past.  Others believe that source control should be reserved for “real” projects, things that are deliverables for customers, or products to be released to real-world environments.  I really don’t want to get into this debate tonight, so I’m going to stick to the technology.

I was wanting to get some source control in place for a few of my personal projects.  I chose to go with Subversion for my source control server for a few reasons, not the least of which was that my hosting company supports auto-configuration of SVN repositories, so I was able to get that set up in just a couple of minutes.  That left me some time to contemplate how I would access the repository from the client.

newproject_svnI’m running Visual Studio 2008 on my development machine and this gives me the ability to use plugins for the IDE, a feature that is sadly missing from the express editions.  There were a couple of good options available for SVN plugins, VisualSVN which is the 800lb gorilla in this space, and the open-source option CollabNet’s AnkhSVN.  Given the fact that this was for personal exploration of the toolset, the open source (free) option was the obvious choice.

The setup for AnkhSVN was quick and painless, and when the IDE opened up it put options for source control right in the menus where they were nice and easy to find.  I created a project, and selected the “add to Subversion” checkbox, entered the necessary credentials and created the project in my SVN repository.

anhksvnWhen in Visual Studio, the AnkhSVN controls are located on a tab at the bottom of the IDE, alongside other solution-wide functionality like the To-do list, output window etc.  This pane tracks all of the changes (adds, deletes and updates) that you’ve made to the solution files.  This is extra handy as a review when you’re ready to make your commits back to the repository.  By quickly scanning the list of changes you’re able to write solid commit comments to provide some decent documentation for you, or those who come after you.

I’m still relatively new to Subversion and AnkhSVN, but I’m looking forward to exploring them in more detail — maybe I’ll even do a podcast episode about it!