Macs and Me

“It never stops raining!” ranted the lorry driver. He thumped the table, spilt his tea, and actually, for a moment, appeared to be steaming.
You can’t just walk off without responding to a remark like that.
Of course it stops raining,” said Arthur. It was hardly an elegant refutation, but it had to be said.
“It rains … all … the time,” raved the man, thumping the table again, in time to the words.
Arthur shook his head.
“Stupid to say it rains all the time …” he said.
The man’s eyebrows shot up, affronted.
“Stupid? Why’s it stupid? Why’s it stupid to say it rains all the time if it rains the whole time?”
“Didn’t rain yesterday.”
“Did in Darlington.”
Arthur paused, warily.
“You going to ask me where I was yesterday?” asked the man. “Eh?”
“No,” said Arthur.
“But I expect you can guess.”
“Do you.”
“Begins with a D.”
“Does it.”
“And it was pissing down there, I can tell you.”

– So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (Douglas Adams)

When I try to explain my experience of Apple hardware to people, I’m always aware that I end up sounding like Douglas Adams’ Rain God. My Mac hardware always breaks down in some interesting and unpredictable way. People tell me that I’m exaggerating, it can’t be true that it always breaks down. But I’m not; it does.

To be precise here, every piece of Mac kit that I have ever owned has been replaced because it has stopped working in some way. This is in contrast to the large number of non-Apple laptops and desktop PCs that I have owned over the same period of time. They have all been replaced, while in good working order, because I’ve suddenly realised that I’ve owned them for a long time and there’s probably a newer, better model out there.

I’m not exaggerating here at all. It happens every time. Every. Single. Time.

I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but here’s what I remember.

  • My first Mac was a second hand Powerbook. The battery stopped working. Because it was second hand and out of warranty, we just lived with using it plugged in. Which was fine (well, not really, but we coped) until the power lead broke because of a ridiculous design which put the most stress on the weakest point. Replacements were stupidly expensive, but we got through two of them before giving up on it.
  • Then there was the Macbook where the battery stopped working if you ever let it drain completely. We tried all of the workarounds that we found on the web, but nothing worked. Turned out this was a known fault. I took it to the Genius Bar two or  three times and each time they replaced the battery free of charge. Good service, I admit, but it shouldn’t be necessary.
  • In the end, it was a different fault that killed that Macbook. Eventually the power supply unit failed completely.
  • I can’t remember which of those first two Macs it was, but at one point we went through a fun period where every time I updated the system software the wifi connection would fail. This went on for about eighteen months. Got to the stage that I had a CD with a backup of the last known working wifi drivers that I could use to replace the buggy new ones.
  • Then there’s our current Macbook. After owning it just a year or two, the rubber covering started to come away from the base. This also turned out to be a known fault and Apple sent out a replacement base that I fitted. Good service again, but annoying that we needed to do it.
  • And finally, a few days ago, the trackpad stopped working. You can still move the mouse, but it doesn’t register clicks. It seems that this is another pretty common fault. Apparently as the battery ages, it expands, pressing against the bottom of the trackpad and preventing it from working properly. I can try loosening the screws to see if that helps but in the meantime, we’re using it with a USB mouse. I’ve got an appointment at the Genius Bar next week to see if they can help.

But I suspect that this Macbook is on its way out. Which means buying a replacement. And that’s always so depressing. Mac hardware is always so much more expensive than the equivalent non-Mac system. And it never works properly (at least in my experience).

I’ve started browsing the Apple web site. And I see that they’ve stopped making the Macbook. It’ll need to be a Macbook Air. Which means it’ll be even more expensive and, astonishingly, less functional – they don’t have a CD/DVD drive.

I know what you’re thinking? If I have such a hard time with Mac systems, then why do I still buy them. It’s not for me. My wife likes them more than Windows systems. But I think that this time we might need to have a Serious Talk about what we’re going to buy.

Google Phone – First Impressions

I’ve now had my G1 for almost a week, so it’s time to share some first impressions.

The executive summary is that I’m really rather happy with the phone. There’s one small niggle problem and one huge “what the bloody hell were they thinking” issue.

Good things first. The phone works well and does pretty much everything I wanted it to do. The standard applications that come with the phone all do what you want. The browser is of particularly high quality. Usually when I get a new phone, I replace the built-in browser with Opera Mini as soon as I can. But there’s no need at all for that here.

The screen is big (ok, not as big as an iPhone, but bigger than the screen on any other phone I’ve owned) and really sharp. I haven’t had any problems at all reading the display. And the touch screen is really responsive. The phone is a nice size and weight and fits nicely in my pocket. I don’t know how resistant it will be to scratches, but it comes with a protective sleeve which will counter that.

Once I was bored of the built-in applications I started looking for others to download from the Android Marketplace. There are many applications to choose from in many different areas. Two that I particularly like make good use of the location and direction sensing built in to the phone. One is a compass and the other is a star map which shows you a map of the sky in the direction that the phone is facing. I’ve also enjoyed using the GPS application which uploads your data to the InstaMapper web site allowing you to review (and mash-up) your data without the hassle of transfering it off the GPS device.

Two applications seem to be a rich seam for developers to mine and there are plenty of overlapping applications available. The first is weather forecasting. These applications use your location to give you local weather forecasts. The other is barcode scanning. These applications use the phone’s camera to scan a barcode and then search the internet to find alternative suppliers for the product in question. I can see this being ver useful of shopping trips. With both of these applications there are a number of different (but very similar) programs to choose from. And I can’t really see a good way to differentiate between them.

I mentioned a couple of problems with the phone. Let’s mention the smaller one first. The only input/output port on the phone is a USB port. Except it’s not a standard USB port – it is asymmetrical. Standard mini-USB plugs do fit in it, but I’m not sure that they’re supposed to. This port is used to charge the phone, but the problem is that it doubles as the output for the headphones. This means that you can’t use any headphones that you want. You have to use the ones that came with the phone. I haven’r tried them yet, but they aren’t the small ear-buds that I’ve become used to in the last couple of years. I hope that someone will soon produce some kind of adapter that allows me to use any headphones that I want.

Then there’s the big issue. This has been mentioned in every review of the phone that I’ve read. It’s a big enough problem that I seriously thought about sending the phone back. I’m still not sure that I’ve done the right thing by keeping it.

It’s the battery life. It’s appalling. I estimate that if I’m using the phone’s features to any great extent then I’ll get three or four hours of use out of it. Currently I’m carrying round the USB charging cable so I can plug it into my computer at work if it starts flagging in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, I can get more life out of it if I turn things off. Turning off the GPS, Bluetooth and wireless all help considerably – but what’s the point of a smartphone if you have to turn off all of the smart features? For an average day at work in London this won’t be a problem as I’m never going to be more than a couple of hours away from somewhere to charge it. But things like the GPS tracking will be most useful when I’m out of London walking on the South Downs or something like that. It’ll be a bit of problem if I have to turn the GPS off to conserve battery life in that situation.

I don’t understand how the product came to market with such a major flaw. I honestly think that at some point in the next six months, T-Mobile will contact all of the owners of G1s and offer them an improved battery. Without that I think that the G1 has no chance of becoming a mass market success.

It’s a shame because it’s a great product. It’s only (massively) let down by one fundamentally flawed design decision.

Linux on Dell

Dell are looking at increasing their support for Linux running on their hardware. As part of this initiative they have set up a survey where you can tell them what areas you would like them to concentrate on and which distribution of Linux you would rather see preinstalled on your next Dell.

So if you have any interest in Linux support from major hardware suppliers, please take a few minutes to fill in the survey.

N91 Review

There’s a brief review of the N91 in today’s Guardian, which reminds me to mention two small annoyances that I’ve found with it.

Firstly, although it supports video calls there is no camera on the front of the phone. This means that if you’re making a video call then the other person can’t see you. Unless you turn the phone over. At which point you can’t see them. Not that I make many (any!) video calls, but it seems a bit of a stupid design decision.

Secondly, the battery life is a bit rubbish. I can still remember my old Nokia 6310i which would go for over a week without needing to be charged. I need to charge the N91 every 48 hours. I’m always forgetting this and end up spending an afternoon (like this afternoon) listening to the phone plaintively beeping at me every hour or so to remind me to recharge it.

New Toys – Phone

My new Nokia N91 arrived on the same day as my new laptop so I’ve been playing with it for a few days. Here are some first impressions.

It’s a large phone. Far heavier than the k600i that it’s replacing. But then, it does more so that’s probably to be expected.

As a phone, it does all that you want it to. It supports all of the flashy ringtones that young people seem so enamoured of these days. Me, I like a phone that just rings.

It runs the Symbian OS and the Nokia S60 platform on top of that (I think that’s a bit like running Gnome on Linux). Apparently it’s the first phone that runs the S60 version 3.0 and that’s causing me a few problems as this is incompatible with older versions and many applications are not yet available for this version. I’ve already discovered that the BBC Doctor Who Tardisodes won’t work on it (a minor irritation) and that there’s not a compatible version of Shozu yet (a major irritation). I suppose that’s just a problem that early adopters need to get used to :-)

One thing I really like is the wireless network support. I now don’t need to waste my monthly GPRS bytes when reading email or checking the BBC news. I can just look for a convenient open wireless network. As an aside, this makes the phone a useful device for finding wireless networks. At one point last week I was standing in the middle of the Barbican Estate and could see about a dozen wireless networks.

The screen is a lot bigger than the k600. This makes reading email a lot easier. I’ve successfully set up my email account for reading, but I seem to have made some error when configuring it to send mail. I need to investigate that further over the next few days.

The camera is also better quality than on the k600. You can see a sample photo here. There would be more but until I can get either Shozu installed or email working, it’s a bit of a trial getting the photos uploaded.

Of course, the main selling point of the N91 is its support for playing music. And that’s why I probably wouldn’t have chosen this phone for myself. I already have a 40Gb iRiver. I don’t really need another device that only has 4Gb of storage that doesn’t play Ogg Vorbis files. Of course there’s probably an Ogg player for Symbian, but it probably hasn’t been ported to S60 version 3 yet. Once I find that, I’ll probably be happy to use the N91 for those times when I only need a limited selection of music. Having said that, the sample music and video (there’s apparently over an hour of Live 8 video included on the phone) demonstrates that playback quality is very high.

The big “nice to have” for me would be to have the phone interfacing nicely with my Linux computers. Of course the PC integration software that comes with the phone is all for Windows – so I’m largely on my own here. I’ve managed to transfer files from the phone to the computer over Bluetooth, but I failed when trying to mount the phone as an external USB mass storage device as Linux couldn’t detect the type of filesystem.

My ultimate goal would be to have the phone and PC automatically synchronise my calendar, contacts, to do list and notes whenever they are in Bluetooth range. They both support SyncML so that sounds like an achievable task.

But all in all, it’s a nice phone and I’m enjoying experimenting with it.

New Toys – Laptop

I’ve now had the Philips X51 for a few days now, so it’s time for an update.

It’s a nice little laptop. About the same size as my previous one. Perhaps a bit larger and certainly a bit heavier, but that’s because it doesn’t come with a basestation so the CD/DVD drive is included in the main body.

The keyboard seems a bit strange. That’s probably just because the keys are in slightly different places to what I’m used to. In particular, the right-hand shift key is taking some getting used to.

It came with Windows XP installed. There’s a built-in Centrino so when I booted it up, it found my wireless network and I was on the net within seconds. Of course the first job was to download all of the Windows patches that had been released since the operating system had been installed. That took some time.

I didn’t spend very long in XP though as a computer only becomes truely useful when it has Linux installed on it. So that became the most important task. And the first job their was to reduce the size of the Windows partition so that there was space to install Linux. I was slightly disappointed to find that the installer for my prefered Linux distribution (Fedora) didn’t include a partition editor, but I found a magazine disk that contained a live distro which included qparted and that made it simple to reduce the XP partition from 50Gb to 10Gb. A quick reboot to ensure that XP still worked and I went back to installing Fedora.

One nice measure of how much quicker this laptop is than my previous one is the time it took to install Fedora. On my old laptop it look over four hours. This one did it in less than an hour.

The first major problem was discovering that although the Centrino was recognised, it didn’t work. Putting my old wireless card into the PCMCIA slot soon got me connected to the internet though. A quick bit of Googling revealed that the firmware for the chip isn’t included with Fedora as it is proprietary. It didn’t take long to find RPMs of the firmware (I used the versions from ATrpms but I see that Livna has them too).

At this point it looked like it was going to be too easy. But then I started to look at the power management features. My old laptop was old enough to support APM (which is a bit limited in functionality) but this one has ACPI. This has far better functionality. In particular, it supports suspending the computer when the laptop is closed. I was using this for a couple of days before I realised that the fan was still working in this mode. It turned out that the default action for closing the laptop is to just blank the screen rather than to suspend the computer. I was able to change it so that the computer suspended itself when it was closed, but then I discovered that it won’t come out of that state. I always seem to end up rebooting it – which isn’t very useful.

So that’s where I am at the moment. The laptop is great and it runs all the software I want far more quickly than my previous one, but I need to work out how to get it to suspend and unsuspend successfully.

More updates as I work it all out.