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The Great Mac-PC Debate

It’s funny how far the protagonists championing either PCs or Macs will go to push their cause. I moseyed into my local CompUSA on Jan. 19, 2003, where I found two ViewSonic representatives showing off Microsoft Windows Powered Smart Displays in the store’s Mac section. As I approached, one of the salesmen lithely snatched two shoppers eyeing an Apple iBook and pitched them on a Smart Display.

I returned later when the salesmen was alone and piped, “Say, you’re going to scare all the Mac customers away.” “That’s the idea,” he shot back. I must have made some kind of brilliant observation, because he gave my daughter a set of promo street style headphones for my troubles. So, now she can wear a Windows logo while plugged into an Apple iPod. 

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HP No Restore-Disc Blues

Nothing irritates a busy reporter more than blowing off a whole day because of a computer catastrophe. (Can you guess where this is going?) Worse, this situation rekindled a longstanding gripe with Hewlett-Packard.

First, the crisis. The hard drive on the HP Windows Media Center 883n I had been testing suffered some kind of partial failure on Oct. 19, 2002, forcing a mad scramble to recover what data I could from the crippled disk. I first fired up the 883n on Oct. 10—so that’s only nine days of use—with the intention of writing a review as early as Oct. 20. But given the drive failure, I had to start from scratch, since some peculiarities I noticed with the system apparently derived from the lame disk. 

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Jaguar: One Cool Cat

Mac enthusiasts say Apple is the mother of all invention. Maybe they’re right. Microsoft took six years to deliver the kind of operating system the company promised in 1995. Windows 95 didn’t live up to the hype until Windows XP. Apple managed the same feat in less than two years. Mac OS X 10.0, released in March 2001, lacked fundamental features such as CD burning and DVD playback. Successor 10.1, which debuted in September 2001, delivered better performance but couldn’t match some of XP’s best features. But Mac OS X 10.2, also known as Jaguar, beats Apple’s original promise of a robust, modern operating system and outclasses Windows XP’s handling of multiple programs running simultaneously. Still, many important changes are mere catch up to XP or even Apple’s older Mac OS 9.

Apple delivered my official Jaguar copy on Aug. 16, 2002, about a week before OS X 10.2’s official Aug. 24, 2002 release. Talk about efforts to woo the reviewer: Apple preloaded Jaguar on a PowerBook G4 800. But I already had been working with betas and final code obtained though “special sources”. Before Apple’s woo-the-reviewer package arrived, I had the “unofficial” official release running on three Macs: Dual 1GHz Power Mac G4, 700MHz flat-panel iMac and another PowerBook 800. 

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Microsoft’s Identity Crisis

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Most big companies must really believe this, because the majority have a corporate logo. Hell, logos have a long legacy, going back to families’ coats of arms. That picture has been a way of identifying an entity—whether a family or business—for a long time. But one major U.S. company doesn’t have a corporate logo, which might explain some rather strange behavior about branding.

I’m talking about Microsoft. This fact might explain some mighty strange behavior up there in Redmond. 

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Deals at the PC Thrift Store

I have never paid full price for a PC, and I’m not talking about bidding for junk on eBay. The best deals, both in price and reliability, come in refurbished, also known as “reconditioned”, PCs. These are models returned for some reason, occasionally for defect but mostly because the buyer changed his or her mind. Once returned, the seller can no longer sell the PC as new.

Most major PC makers sell refurbished computers online, including Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sony. Vermont-based Small Dog Electronics specializes in Apple refurbs, and PC Connection serves up a wide selection of reconditioned computers. 

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Apple’s Switch Hit

Apple has been itching to get PC users switching.

In fact the company has big plans, starting with bringing PCs into the 30-plus Apple retail stores for byte-to-byte showdowns with Macs. Hell, reliable sources tell me Apple is seriously considering bringing Dell Computer models into the stores. I got to chuckle. On the way to my local Apple Store on June 16, 2002, some guy with Maryland vanity plates spelling out “Dell” pulled in front of me on Connecticut Ave.

My shopping experience at the Apple Store ended with a bang fit for anyone considering dumping a PC for a Mac. I got flagged for an exit poll about store satisfaction that clearly had potential PC switchers in mind. I practically gave the sweet old lady conducting the survey heart failure when I refused the 10 bucks, because it was a check instead of cash. “But the checks are perfectly good”, she defended. Bless her heart for starting to chase me down the corridor outside the store waving the check in her hand. No thanks, dear. 

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Tougher Titanium

Many computer manufacturers are hawking thin-and-light notebooks as the next big thing. Dell Computer, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sony, and Toshiba are some of the big name companies delivering small portables, some weighing under 3 pounds. But none of these companies has achieved notebook nirvana, a slim-and-light model with a beefy display and enough power to replace a desktop computer. Consumers that want desktop power must buy heavy-set portables, many weighing as much as 8 pounds or more. Those people looking for true portability have had to accept less computing power and smaller displays.

Until now.

Apple’s 800MHz PowerBook G4 meets the demands of the consumer looking for a svelte design that’s light on weight but not light on features. You think one size can’t fit all? That’s because you haven’t seen the Titanium PowerBook in action. 

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Bundling Bungle

Later in June, lawyers rallying for and against Microsoft will present closing arguments in a proceeding that has the potential to radically change how the technology giant sells software. A federal judge would then deliberate about what sanctions she should impose against Microsoft in an attempt to prevent future anticompetitive business and technological practices that violate U.S. antitrust law.

No matter what she does, nothing will likely undo the stupidity that got Microsoft into trouble in the first place. The company insists it has the right to integrate whatever technology it wants into Windows. That practice led to two trials, one still ongoing after—count `em—four years. But the practice Microsoft fiercely defends—almost as a God granted, religious right—is stupid. Microsoft has been busy integrating technologies into Windows that make no sense being there from a business perspective—and they actually make new PCs harder to sell and use. The right Microsoft defends and the way it has been used is just plan dumb—unless of course the objective is to protect the monopoly and not benefit consumers. That latter point is one reason why this case never seems to end. 

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iMac, I Like

Anyone who has used PCs for a long time knows the joy has gone out of computing. The “wow” experience from setting up that first computer or exploring the vast informational riches of the Internet are memories. It is like the first time having sex, only sex is still great other times. Getting another new computer just doesn’t reach the same level of excitement or joy.

Until now.

I cracked open the box on a new iMac in mid-March 2002, the midrange model with 700MHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive, and CD-RW/DVD combo drive. (Ironically, later the same day Apple raised prices on all iMacs by 100 bucks; by October the price had dipped another $200. ) For the first time in as long as I can remember, working on a computer is fun. And that’s doing work. Other activities just get better from there. 

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Hey, Apple: Think Smart!

Apple Computer is well known for its “Think Different” slogan, but that doesn’t mean the company thinks smart. If anything, Apple’s recent launch of the revamped iMac demonstrates there’s not much thinking going on at all in Cupertino—that is unless the company is trying to write the textbook on how to totally screw up an extremely important new product launch. If that’s Apple’s idea of thinking different, well, congratulations on a job well done because it’s looking like the new iMac’s launch debacle will be more talked about than the fate of the ill-fated Cube.

Apple’s problem: The iMac product shortage. Financial analysts and some media outlets have taken note of the crisis—and I must state firmly that it is a very serious crisis. This is no typical product shortage brought on by high demand for a hot, new computer. Worse, the timing of the shortage coupled with the importance of the new iMac to Apple are major disasters that could have been avoided. Strongest sales usually take place right after a product’s introduction, a phenomenon that typically cannot be recovered at a later time. In characteristic fashion, Apple is silent about the shortages, instead touting 150,000 early orders. (For the record, an Apple retail store representative on March 3, 2002, said the number had increased to 200,000.) 

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Microsoft’s Lap Dogs

I recently nearly canceled my subscription to all my Ziff-Davis publications—and I still may. My disgust with the outrageous favoritism toward Microsoft had been brewing for months. I read news reports and reviews no one short of Microsoft’s flagship PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, could be spinning. Editors, rather than doing their jobs, were printing the gospel according to marketers holed up in a Redmond, Wash. closet.

The final straw was a July PC Computing article titled, “Office 97 vs. The World”. There contributors Leslie Ayers, Peter Deegan, Lee Hudspeth, T.J. Lee, Woody Leonhard, and Eileen Wharmby explained why Microsoft’s newest rendition of its productivity suite replaced virtually all other business programs. 

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Portable Power

Until recently, I had never owned a name-brand computer. Really. All my systems were custom-built jobs made for easy upgrade ability and packed with solid-performing hardware. My last system, built around Intel’s 430 chip set with 150 MHz Cyrix 6×86 processor, 64 MB of RAM, 4 MB Diamond graphics card, 3.1 GB Western Digital hard drive and NEC 17 inch monitor, is a UNIX Web server in Presque Isle, Maine. I sold it before abandoning the far northern reaches for a more-southern city.

I decided a notebook would better suit my new job and our small apartment. My 2½-year old daughter would get the room that in other times would have been an office. I chose, with great anxiety, a Micron Millennia Transport. The Millennia Transport was a favorite when testing portables for review and Micron offered a 15 percent reporter’s discount.