The new MacBook Air

It looks gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. The 11.6 inch model is a worthy successor to the great Apple subnotebooks which culminated in the classic 12 inch Powerbook.
And yet, it comes with a CPU that’s slower than my first-generation MacBook Air. OK, the flash drive will make it feel faster (ANYTHING would beat out the original MBA’s disk), but even so…..

Clue: The Vicar, in the Living Room, with a Time Capsule!

With help from The Vicar, here and here, I was able to get the Time Capsule up and running. I elected to create a brand new WPA2 network, using the TC as the router; my old (non-“n”) Airport Express is now sitting next to the HP printer/scanner, acting as a print server. I used the Vicar’s trick of doing the initial TC configuration via an Ethernet link between my PowerBook and the TC, but I still had plenty of other hoops to jump through. In several places, it wasn’t sufficient to click “Renew DHCP”; I had to actually power cycle the cable modem to get things straightened out.
Never mind; it’s all working now. But no thanks to Apple; their supposedly “plug and play” configuration software was a disaster. I know that the number of permutations that they have to deal with is mind-boggling, including a gazillion non-Apple devices, but even so they botched this one. I was trying one of the simplest use-cases – adding a Time Capsule to an existing all-Apple network – and they couldn’t even get this right. Apple has demonstrated in the past that it was willing to hold up a product until the quality (hardware, software and documentation) was good enough; in this case, they failed to exhibit the necessary courage. (Time to re-read the “Evil/Genius” article in Wired.)
And now I have to update the configuration of all of my WiFi client devices. I just did my iPhone; next up is the Nintendo Wii….. Thanks, Vicar!

New Mac update (in brief)

  1. The MBA continues to delight. The keyboard is the best I’ve used in years.
  2. My PowerBook suddenly came back to life. Sigh….
  3. The Time Capsule is a great disappointment. I set it up, and before I could actually use it, the Airport Utility suggested that I should upgrade the firmware from 7.3 to 7.3.1. ((Why such high numbers for a new product? Apparently it shares firmware builds with other Airport base stations.))I did, and the box hasn’t worked since then; the status light just blinks. From the support discussions on the Apple website, it seems that this is a common problem, and quite a few people have simply returned them. I’m going to try one more configuration (making it the only access point on the network, rather than adding it to an existing network); if that doesn’t work, I’ll be demanding a refund.

Got the MacBook Air

I received lots of advice from blog readers, friends, and colleagues at Amazon about the choice of a new laptop, and the general consensus was:

  1. The MacBook Air is the way to go, unless you’re doing serious video work or game-playing.
  2. Getting iTunes set up on a network drive is a royal pain, but it’s doable.

So last night I went over to the Apple store in Bellevue, and bought a MacBook Air, plus a 1TB Time Capsule and a few accessories (like a spare power adapter). I didn’t get an external DVD/CD, figuring that I could use my PowerBook as a remote drive. After all, the PowerBook seemed to have given up its bad habits, and hadn’t failed in weeks…
When I got home, I unpacked the MBA and went online. When I was sure that it was working well, I went to set up the PowerBook as a remote drive. During this process, I had to reboot the PowerBook… and it never came back. I went through all the variations, resetting the PMU and powering up with battery but no power, power but no battery, and both power and battery. Nothing worked. I left it overnight, tried again this morning, and it still won’t start. So it looks as if I can finally take it in to be fixed under AppleCare.
Recovering my files from the PowerBook shouldn’t be an issue: I have a full Time Machine backup on a USB drive. One minor annoyance is that the MBA installation CD is still in the PowerBook, so I can’t use it to set up another computer as a remote drive! (Remember when CD drives used to have eject buttons?) It’s not urgent, but I want to install the copy of iWork that I bought.
I haven’t set up the Time Capsule yet; that’s a weekend project. Do I set up a new 802.11n network, or simply extend my existing 802.11g one? Would I actually get “n” speeds, anyway: what do my other devices (Nintendo Wii, iPhone, OLPC XO, PSP) use? Does the Time Capsule go in the living room, next to the cable modem? If so, I can’t use it to provide network access to my printer. Details, details.
Meanwhile, the MBA is gorgeous. This is the first LED-lit screen I’ve used, and the clarity and uniformity are outstanding. One thing that I didn’t expect is that the keyboard feels much crisper than my work-supplied “Black Beauty” MacBook.

Tough choices

While I was in California last week, I found myself deep in the reality distortion field induced by the presence of MacBook Airs. Alec bought himself one, and several of the speakers at Stanford were using them. The weight, screen, and keyboard are pretty damn near perfect…
I’m looking at two basic options for my next laptop. The first – the conservative approach – is to get a loaded MacBook Pro with a 250GB disk (or perhaps the 200GB 7200 rpm unit, for speed). Physically it’s a drop-in replacement for my PowerBook, but much, much faster. If I use it the same way, it will spend 90% of its time as a desktop system.
The alternative is to admit that I would rarely use all of the features of a MacBook Pro, and with a lighter machine I’d actually treat it as a portable. Of course I need plenty of disk space for my iTunes library and photos, but a 1TB Time Capsule (combination 802.11n base station and network disk) could solve that. I assume that iTunes will be able to work with its library stored on a network disk; I just need to be able to rip the occasional CD using the external SuperDrive, and then sync between my iPhone and the iTunes library.
In terms of price, the two options are roughly comparable. But can I really use a MacBook Air without a second computer? I guess I could pick up a second hand Mac Mini for a couple of hundred dollars…
One of the things that’s causing me to lean towards the MBA is this MacWorld review by Dan Frakes, who actually lived with one for a while. The comments on his piece are fascinating, including this wonderful bit of truth-telling by “OlsonBW”:

Most of my friends scoff at the MacBook Air. But you know what? The only time they pull out CDs, DVDs, or their video camera is rare.
“But I use it to edit our vacation video.” They claim.
BS, I tell them. Show me the videos from your last three vacations.
Uh … they blush and then admit they only imported it into their computer and never touched it after that.
When it comes down to it, “most” of the time they never need anything that the MacBook Air doesn’t have. Once I prove that to them they are surprised at what they actually do.
People lie too much about what they actually need. They lie a lot because they’ve got to have the biggest and fastest even when they don’t use it.

And it’s true. Most of the time I don’t use all of the features on my machine. But 3 lbs. (versus 5.5 lbs.) is a “feature” that I can really use.


Last night my PowerBook suffered the same Power Management Unit-related failure that I’ve described before, and so today I booked a session at the “Genius Bar” in the Bellevue Apple store. Inevitably, the “Genius” was unable to reproduce the problem: we restarted and power-cycled the machine several times, but it always restarted successfully. We agreed that it was probably something to do with the power load: I normally have my PowerBook plugged in to a FireWire hard disk, another USB disk (for Time Machine), an external display, a couple of camera docks, and an iPhone dock. I use a powered USB hub, but even so I’m sure that the load affects the PowerBook’s power subsystem. “Oh well: at least it’s working,” said the genius, as he sent me on my way.
I got home, and fired up the machine. Everything looked OK… except that I couldn’t connect to the Internet. According to Network Preferences, I was connected to my AirPort Express hub, but I had a self-assigned IP address. I re-entered the WEP password ((Yes, I know WEP is broken, but I have a couple of legacy devices that don’t do WPA.)), but I still couldn’t get out. Re-acquire DHCP… nothing. Reboot PowerBook… nothing. Power-cycle AirPort Express… nothing. Run AirPort Assistant… it couldn’t see the AirPort Express. Finally (guess what) I reset the PMU on my PowerBook, re-entered the WEP address (and the date, etcetera), and mirabile dictu I was back in business.
My diagnosis: the PMU is dying, slowly, and inducing a variety of failure modes. The trick is going to be inducing a hard failure,, or at least a failure that the Genius will take seriously. Time to start systematically unplugging stuff and testing for failure, I think…


While scanning the evening’s RSS feeds, I noticed a story in El Reg about a security update for Quicktime. Naturally I ran Software Update… to see if the patch was ready to instal. ((“Install” in the US, “Instal” in the UK.)) It was, so I downloaded it, answered the relevant questions, and was surprised when it told me that a reboot was necessary. “But it’s an application; why would… oh, never mind.” So I rebooted. A message appeared, saying that something was being installed, and then the screen went black.
Odd. Press Enter. Check screen brightness. Listen to fan. Nothing. Press the power button. Nothing. Hold down the power button. Nothing. Press the power button. The fan comes on, and I can hear the disk spinning up, but otherwise nothing. Hold down power button again, fan stops. Nothing. Change batteries. Nothing. Insert bootable DVD, try to boot off it. Nothing. Try to eject DVD. Nothing.
Hmm. I’m now starting to speculate on the price and availability of a new MacBook Pro. Down, boy! Try zapping PRAM (booting with cmd-opt-P-R). Nothing. Unplug power, try booting on battery. Nothing.
Log in on second ((Of many…)) computer. Go to Resist temptation to check online store, head over to Support. Double-check procedure for zapping PRAM. See link to page for Resetting PowerBook and iBook Power Management Unit (PMU). The description suggests that this is the Last Chance Saloon. So I try it:

  1. If the computer is on, turn it off.
  2. Disconnect the AC Adapter and remove the computer’s battery.
  3. Press and hold down the power button for 5 seconds and then release the button.
  4. Reconnect the battery and AC Adapter.
  5. Press the Power button to restart the computer.

Follow the instructions. No sounds, no lights, no feedback of any kind. ((Computers need blinking lights!!)) Finally press Power, and the system starts up. Whew! Log in. The poor beast has forgotten many things: the clock is set to January 1, 1969; I have to re-enter the WiFi key… no matter. It’s back.
Just for the record, the optimum MacBook configuration would be $2,067 and the MacBook Pro would be $3,048. ((Amazon has cheaper but slower configurations; I think Apple is holding back the 7200 rpm disk units for itself.)) Both available by 12/24.
And yes, Quicktime works OK.

"You Picked Me"

I’ve got this song stuck in my head: “You Picked Me” by A Fine Frenzy (a.k.a. Alison Sudol).

I heard it playing in Starbucks yesterday, and used the new iTunes/Starbucks service to buy the album and download it to my iPhone. The service works just fine, although the download is a little slower than on my PowerBook. (The iPhone does a track at a time, rather than keeping three connections going in parallel.)

More DotMatrix

Back in February I mentioned a cool Mac application called DotMatrix by B-L-A-C-K-O-P, ((They also have this neat free screensaver, BlackenedPixels, which turns the screen black and then tries to power down the displays. I have a PB15″ with a Samsung SyncMaster 940MW on the DVI port. BlackenedPixels was able to power down the internal display, but not the Samsung. Still saves a lot of heat and power.)) which allows you to mix images from your iSight camera (or any other source) with a bewildering array of effects: distortions, colors, cut-outs, masks, half-tones, and so forth. If the sheer number of possibilities is too daunting, don’t worry: the program includes hundreds of templates, many contributed by enthusiastic users. I’ve just upgraded to version 1.006, and I’m having way too much fun for a Monday evening. Here are a couple of quick tests that illustrate the ability to mix a sequence of shots into a single image:
Stereo image
Film strip
And here’s a touch of wanderlust….
Dreaming of flying home to England
OK, I’ve got to work on that one just a bit, but that’s what makes it fun.