A New Computer

The end of a rough month brings a nice reward.

I’d been thinking about replacing my aging 24-inch iMac computer with a newer, faster model for some time. I almost did it in April, but some Twitter friends wisely advised me to wait for the new models, which were due out in May. By that time, I was hard at work on My Mac OS X Lion book, racing against a deadline set not only by the software’s pending release but by my annual trip to Washington State for cherry drying work. I didn’t get the book done before I had to leave, so I packed up my iMac and other office equipment and headed north. I decided to wait until I was finished with the book. If I had a computer sitting there, waiting for me to set it up, I’d be too distracted to get any work done.

Death of a[nother] Hard Disk

Not buying the new computer turned out to be a bad decision. On Friday, June 17, the iMac gave me a weird error message about ejecting a disk — when I hadn’t ejected a disk. I was running out the door to take care of other business and when my computer wouldn’t shut down the usual way, I just powered it off. Later that day, it wouldn’t start from its internal hard disk.

That’s when I started to realize I might have a problem.

I knew I had a problem the next day when Disk Utility — the Mac software that can usually fix disk and directory related problems — couldn’t fix the disk.

My last full backup had been in May. I use Time Machine for effortless backup, but I’d disconnected the backup drive when I left home. Although I didn’t bring the drive with me last year, I did bring it this year. I’d been thinking about hooking it back up, but laziness got the best of me. So my most recent backup was about three weeks old.

Since then, I’d written at least a dozen chapters of my book.

I was lucky. Really lucky. I was able to mount the disk and suck important documents off it — including those all-important manuscript files. I also sucked off the applications, which had not been backed up. With my most important files on an external hard disk and the big Time Machine backup handy, I tried to format the hard disk, figuring I’d reinstall the software I needed to finish up the book.

My luck didn’t hold. The hard disk just wouldn’t consistently mount. I couldn’t successfully reinstall the operating system on it. It looked as if it needed a new hard disk. Again.

A Temporary Solution

So now I had a book project due very soon that required a working computer with a big monitor to complete. After all, I do layout for my Visual QuickStart Guide books and I shudder to think of laying out a book in InDesign on a 13-in MacBook Pro.

I stayed amazingly calm. First, I hopped into the truck and went to Wenatchee. At Costco, I bought yet another portable WD 1TB USB hard disk.

Yes, I know FireWire would be faster, but it isn’t as if Wenatchee, WA has a lot of choices when it comes to computer hardware. Besides, rain was moving in and there was a good chance I’d need to fly. I didn’t have time to look for a better option.

A new internal hard disk was out of the question. Special tools and expertise is required to disassemble an iMac and install a hard disk. I lacked both.

So I set up a USB hard disk with Snow Leopard, Photoshop, and InDesign. I had the original discs with me, since I planned to do a clean install on my new computer when I got it. I didn’t even bother updating any of them. I just got back to work.

And I was surprised. I expected the computer to be painfully slow. After all, it was booting from an external USB 2 hard disk. It was running some pretty intense software from the same disk. Although I saw a spinning beach ball a lot more often than I like to, it was tolerable.

The New Computer

Of course, while all that software was installing, I was on my laptop, configuring the computer’s replacement. I ordered a very sweet system:

    27" iMac

  • Computer Model: 27-inch iMac – the monitor size is 3 inches larger than my old computer, but it’s widescreen instead of standard so it really doesn’t seem that much bigger.
  • Processor: 3.4GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 – this is the best and fastest processor offered for this computer. The Apple sales guy told me that it was faster than current Mac Pro models. (Of course, those are due to be updated shortly.)
  • RAM: 8GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM (2x4GB) – this is twice as much RAM as I had. And the configuration will allow me to double it in the future because there are 4 RAM slots and I’m only using two.
  • Hard Drives: 1TB Serial ATA Drive + 256GB SSD – yes, that’s two hard disks to destroy.
  • Graphics: AMD Radeon HD 6970M 2GB GDDR5 – this is the best offered. I figured it would come in handy for my video editing work.
  • Mouse: Apple Mouse – call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like to depend on battery power for a mouse. Besides, already I have all kinds of Bluetooth pointing devices I had to buy to write about.
  • Keyboard: Apple Num Keyboard – I don’t like to depend on batteries for a keyboard, either. I do have a Bluetooth keyboard if I decide I want to use it.

The computer cost a small fortune. I get a minuscule discount from Apple as a Peachpit author; it was almost enough to cover sales tax. But I can justify the expense. I use my desktop computer for so many things in all of my business endeavors, from writing and laying out books to processing video to invoicing and accounting to creating marketing materials. Why settle for less than the best (if you can afford it) when the best can make you more productive?

It took nine days for the computer to arrive. It was shipped via FedEx directly from China. (I sure do wish Apple and other companies would build things here.) It was delivered to my RV in Quincy, WA, where I’m living for the summer, the day I finished writing the book. It sat in its box overnight as I finished up a bunch of editing.

There was no unboxing ceremony. I deactivated Photoshop and InDesign on my old iMac and shut it down. I moved it from desk to countertop, wiped down the desk, and set up the new computer.

I know this is going to make me sound like an Apple fan-girl, but as I took the crystal clear cellophane off the monitor, I couldn’t help but think how beautiful the computer was. And, as I thought about it, I realized how incredibly weird that was. Hell, it’s just a computer.

Setting Up

My Hard DisksBecause the computer had two internal hard disks, I decided to get a bit fancy with the setup. I left the operating system and applications on the smaller SSD drive and moved my Home folder to the larger ATA drive. I didn’t just put my home folder on that drive. I made my home folder the drive itself. Not only does the disk icon look like a Home folder icon, but when you open it, you find the contents of my Home folder. One less level of folders to dig through.

As for hard disk names, I always try to give my disks meaningful names. Now I had two disks to name. It was quite a dilemma for me. I put it to my Twitter friends and @BrianDunning came up with an interesting suggestion: Cyclic and Collective. At first, I didn’t think they were quite right. But the names grew on me and I wound up using them.

I spent most of yesterday installing software from original program disks and downloads from the Internet. My Internet connection here is via MyFi with a 3 GB monthly bandwidth cap. (I’ve already hit 6 GB this month; that’ll cost me an extra $30.) So I did most of my downloading from a coffee shop yesterday morning and from a wine bar yesterday afternoon. Microsoft Office 2011 was contained in a 1 GB file; other updaters were nearly as large. Had a hiccup with my Final Cut Pro installation and had to restart it; sure hope it works this time because it seems to take forever.

As for Time Machine, I also bought a Seagate 2TB desktop hard drive at Costco. I set that up to back up both drives. I plan on getting some mirroring software to mirror each disk on portable drives. That’ll be a total of two full backups. Lesson learned.

I have some final editing to do on my book and I expect to get to that this afternoon. I’m sure it’ll take quite a while to get the new computer set up the way I need it to. But I’m looking forward to the process and having a clean installation of software and files on a much faster computer.

Why I Bought a MacBook Air

I needed a new test mule. Really.

MacBook Air MeasurementsToday, I finally broke down and bought an 11-in MacBook Air. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it basically a full-powered Mac OS computer that measures in at 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.68 inches and weighs 2.3 pounds. It’s the laptop I wanted two years ago when I needed a new laptop and the smallest thing Apple offered was a 13-in MacBook Pro.

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow LeopardOf course, back then I did buy the MacBook Pro. I bought it as a “test mule” for the book I was working on: Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press. Test mule is my name for a computer I own primarily to run software on while I’m writing a book about the software. I bought the 13-in MacBook Pro to run Snow Leopard, which had several features that took advantage of the computer’s touchpad. My older MacBook Pro (15-inch; just handed it off to my husband for use) didn’t support all the new features. At the time, I even wrote a blog post lamenting why I couldn’t fully enjoy my new computer.

When I was finished with the book, I outfitted the computer for my own everyday use. It would replace the aged 12-in PowerBook I’d bought long before. (At this point, you must think that I’ve had a lot of Macs since my first one in 1989. You’d be right.) Since then, the old test mule has become my traveling computer and has been many miles with me.

Outlook for Mac 2011Recently, when I began working on Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, I needed a test mule to run Office 2011 on while I wrote the book. I didn’t want to sacrifice my 13″ MacBook Pro, since it had really become my main travel computer. So I dug out my 15-in MacBook Pro and installed the software on that. It worked like a charm. Problem solved.

But now I’m starting work on a new book about software that simply won’t run on that old 15-in MacBook Pro. Worse yet, if I installed the software on my 13-in MacBook Pro, it would significantly impact how I could use the computer. This was quite a dilemma.

I had two options:

  • Stop using the 13-in MacBook Pro as a travel computer and use it as a test mule. Hmmm…that sounds like fun. Either face the next two months without a laptop or spend hours on the time-consuming, nightmarish task of shifting software and data files to the older laptop still in my possession.
  • Buy a new test mule. And oh, by the way, wouldn’t that 11-in MacBook Air that you’ve been admiring be the perfect machine for the job?

Guess which option was more attractive to me (although less attractive to my bank account)?

MacBook AirI picked it up at the Apple Store today. I went all out and got the faster processor, bigger flash drive, and 4 GB of RAM. I got a tiny discount because of my relationship with one of my publishers and that saved enough money to buy a neoprene case for it. The wireless Epson printer, which I’ll use in my RV this summer, was free after rebate.

So now I can begin a new lament. As I type this in my Phoenix office on my 13-in MacBook Pro, sitting beside it on the desk is my brand new 11-in MacBook Air. So far, I’ve plugged it in, started it up, told it who I am and how to access the network, and downloaded 1.6 GB of updates to installed software. Not exactly fun stuff. But right now, it’s downloading the beta software I need to write my book. All work, no play for this new puppy.

It’s okay. when I’m done with this book and the other projects lined up after it, I might actually use it for my own computing needs. We’ll see.

The State of Macworld Expo

The end of an era? Looks that way to me.

When Apple announced, two years ago, that it would no longer attend Macworld Expo, lots of people said the announcement was Macworld Expo’s death knell. Like some other people, I thought that opinion was a both harsh and premature.

I don’t think that anymore.

On Friday, I did a presentation as a member of the Macworld Expo Conference faculty for the first time in at least eight years. I used to speak at Macworld Expo all the time, having at least one session in San Francisco and Boston (and later, New York) and even Toronto from about 1993 through 2002 or so. Back in the early 2000s, IDG took over the show and the conference management changed. They also went off in a new direction that stressed the creative aspects of working with the Mac. I was always more of a productivity person, so I didn’t fit in.

I still went to the show once in a while, but not very often. I came a few years ago, mostly to meet with one of my publishers. But that was it.

Looking back at it, I realize that I was deep in the Mac world at Apple’s first peak in popularity. The shows — especially in San Francisco — were huge. The very biggest shows took up both exhibit halls of Moscone Conference Center. All the big vendors were there — Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, Claris (later FileMaker), Quark — the list goes on and on. The show floor was buzzing all day long. The noise was deafening and there was a pure adrenaline rush on first entering the exhibit hall. And the products introduced! Even my husband talks about innovations like the Video Toaster (which, ironically, I believe ran on an Amiga). I remember all of Apple’s big hardware and software releases and the software demos that were both educational and entertaining. And how could I forget the Boston show where Mac OS 8 went on sale and my first Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide sold out?

Afterwards, the parties would start. They were amazing affairs — the Exploratorium is a good example; the party sponsors rented the entire facility, leaving us to wander around and play with the exhibits. There was headliner entertainment, too: one year was Chris Isaac at one party and Jefferson Airplane at another. There were cruises and bungee jumps at Boston Harbor. There were full food, open bar parties at the top of the Fairmont in San Francisco. As one of the B+ list speakers/authors (in those days, anyway), I’d party hop with my peers. I remember one year bouncing from one party to the next with Bob Levitus, who always managed to get into all the parties, whether he had tickets or not.

Things change. Apple took a serious downturn. Things looked bad. Then Steve Jobs came back. The original iMac breathed new life into the company. More products followed. I remember seeing hundreds of buses all over San Francisco skinned with images of five colors of iMacs. But despite Apple’s subsequent successes, Macworld Expo was never quite the same. The show began to shrink.

What I saw on the show floor this year was a shock. The show was tiny — by old standards — occupying about half of one floor at the relatively new Moscone West building. At least 80% of the items on display could be classified as accessories — mostly protective or decorative covers — for the iPad and iPhone. There were very few Macintosh items.

Macworld Expo had become iAccessoryworld Expo.

Although most of the folks I spoke to about their thoughts on this matter seemed to agree with me — some more strongly than others — the members of the Macintosh press that I met there were surprisingly upbeat about it. One of them even commented that Microsoft’s support for the show is a good sign. Support for the show? They didn’t even have a booth! Having a party for a chosen few and being one of the sponsors on another party isn’t the kind of support I’d be upbeat about.

If I had travelled to San Francisco for the sole purpose of seeing the show floor — as I know many people did in the past — I would have been sorely disappointed. Disappointed enough to demand my money back. What I wouldn’t be able to get back was the travel time and expense and the three hours of my life spent trying to understand how so many accessory developers could think there was a market for yet another version of an iPad case. Or skin. Or screen protector.

The real value in Macworld Expo was the conference sessions — now more than ever. The conference management assembled a collection of experts — some old timers like me, some younger and newer to Mac OS (and iOS, of course) — and offered a variety of interesting tracks and sessions for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users.

My session about building your iPad for business was relatively well attended — the room was about half full. I received a handful of follow-up questions and a polite round of applause at the conclusion of my talk. Several of the attendees came up to the front of the room to thank me or offer complements. It was like the old days, but on a much smaller scale.

After all, Friday’s room could have held only about 100 people when, in the past, I did sessions that packed a room that seated more than 300.

And the meeting room area at Macworld Expo used to be busier than a high school hallway between classes each time a session let out. Now only a few dozen people meandered about, shuffling from room to room.

At least these people got something worthwhile for their money.

I know these are harsh words and, as a member of the Mac community with a long Macworld Expo history, it’s hard for me to type them. The conference faculty was treated quite well, with generously filled swag bags, a comfortable place to rest between sessions, and both breakfast and lunch every day. The session rooms were relatively well equipped. It’s hard to share negative opinions about Macworld Expo when IDG staff responsible for the conference part of the show treated me well. But if this blog post precludes me from ever speaking again at a Macworld Expo, so be it. I don’t sugar coat anything and I’m certainly not going to sugar coat this.

While I realize that the old days are long gone, I think that if IDG can’t do better than what I experienced this past week in San Francisco, they should throw in the towel on Macworld Expo and concentrate on better ways to share valuable information with Mac OS and iOS users.