A review of new (and old) technology

Over the years I’ve owned a motley collection of computers.  My first (other than family computers) was a little laptop I came to university with.  It was relatively cheap, being in an end-of-line sale at Novatech, so it wasn’t exactly state of the art by the time I bought it.  It had a 360MHz AMD processor, 32MB of RAM, a 5.6GB hard disk, and ran Windows 95.  Not exactly impressive, even then.  Still, it did me fine for a year, though it did spend most of its life sat on my desk and wasn’t really mobile much.  After that came a 1.2GHz tower, with 128MB RAM, 20GB hard disk, and Windows XP.  Even though it was still entry-level it was a significant step up for me, and allowed me to play games.  Not very good games, but they were games nonetheless.

However, it wasn’t long before I grew tired of the plastic look of XP, and started modding my desktop with all manner of programs, making it look very little like Microsoft designed it to be.  Eventually I found myself themeing everything I could lay my hands on to make it look more like a Mac, striving for that perfect interface.  It was no surprise then when a few years later I bought my first Mac, a second hand G3 Blue&White.  Although originally it would have been only 450MHz the previous owner had stuffed a 1GHz G4 upgrade chip from Sonnet in there, which made a big difference.  In terms of numbers it should have been slower than the PC it replaced, but in fact it was still faster and smoother and certainly more satisfying to use.  Hooray for Apple!

Mac MiniOf course, avid blog readers will know that my little G3 didn’t last forever, and eventually ceased to switch on, at which point I bought the cheapest Mac I could lay my hands on at short notice – a 1.42GHz Mac Mini.  In terms of raw processing power the Mini was a little faster than the G3, but I noticed that it was still struggling under the weight of everything I was asking it to do.  It got there in the end, but lack of memory really bogged it down.  Clearly, 512MB of RAM just isn’t enough to run the 101 programs I use on a daily basis.

Mac ProSo, after some saving up and some careful eBaying, I finally took delivery of a G5 2GHz Dual Processor PPC running Mac OS X Leopard (10.5.3), with a whopping 2.5GHz of RAM and two 180GB hard disks.  This is actually the first time I’ve owned a high-end computer, and it makes such a difference.  It may not be brand spanking new, and it may be running on a PPC chip rather than Intel, but it rocks nonetheless.  So I thought I’d share a few of the highlights with you, along with some short reviews of the software I’ve been using so far that I haven’t reviewed already.

Mac OS X Leopard

At first glance the OS looks more or less the same as Tiger.  Everything is in much the same place as before, it works in pretty much the same way, and visually it’s all still very much recognisable.  Unlike the whole XP/Vista thing.  But it would be a mistake to say that Apple haven’t done much to release Leopard.  It’s all those little things they’ve done which add up to something quite spectacular.  The interface is mor consistent, the way the Finder works is a little more polished, the Dock has a bit more sparkle and fun in it, and there are some extra built-in apps that make life just a little bit simpler than they were with Tiger.

I actually spent quite a lot of time on Tiger trying to emulate some of the new features Leopard brought in, such as the unified interface (courtesy of UNO), backups (with a little help from iBackup), even Stacks (by simply putting a folder onto the Dock).  I’m pleased to report that the Leopard versions are the original and best.  Time Machine really is a one-click setup; I plugged my firewire drive in, Time Machine recognised it and asked me if I would like to use it for backups, and that was it.  I did look for extra options, but there weren’t any.  It just works.

The Dock was something that caught my eye when Leopard was first demoed by Steve Jobs.  No longer just a flat semi-transparent panel (as cool as that was), the new Dock is more like a shelf, complete with reflections of both the icons and the windows on the screen.  Very cool.  Not exactly a boost to performance or efficiency, and no doubt the novelty will wear off after a while, but it’s one of those little extras that make the whole experience just that little bit more satisfying.  It’s like finding that the cup holders in your car also have a slot for holding a stirring spoon.

I’m not quite so entranced by Stacks, though, I have to admit.  Sure, they look pretty sweet and have cool animations, but are they really necessary?  To my mind they’re a fun feature, but one that I would prefer to be able to turn on and off.

Another useful feature found in Leopard is the screen sharing option.  With another computer on the network you can log in and share the screen of the other computer, which apparently happens courtesy of the VNC protocol.  I’ve been unable to get this working seamlessly so far, unfortunately; I’ve got my Mac Mini on the network still, but I can’t directly log into it, I have to ‘ask permission’ and wait for it to be confirmed on the other computer.  That’s fine if your other computer has a screen, but my Mini doesn’t at the moment, so I have to either unplug the keyboard and monitor from the G5 and plug into the Mini just to confirm it and then plug it all back again, or use another VNC client to log in a different way.  I’m sure there must be a solution there somewhere, I just haven’t got to the bottom of it.  Incidentally, screen sharing with a PC works just fine.

Other built-in apps have also been given subtle make-overs, including Mail, iChat, Address Book and iCal.  Oh and the computer came preinstalled with iLife ’08 too, plus a few other useful packages that nicely upgrade what I had before.

The G5

Right, I ought to say a quick something about the computer itself.  To start off with, it’s heavy.  Not just compared to the Mini, but compared to any other computer I’ve known.  That’s largely thanks to its metal case, but it also stands considerably taller than my old G3 Blue&White (which I still have, gathering dust).  Still, what makes it stand out even more than that is the sheer quality of it.  I took the side off and found myself looking at the most tidy and well thought out inside of a computer I have ever seen.  Beautiful.  Gorgeous.  Stunning.  While most PCs look like the inside of a Radio Shack back room, the G5 looks like an executive jet.  There are no random wires connecting odds and ends together, no unnecessary big empty spaces, no mess of IDE cables.  Just pure, simple elegance of design.

Unfortunately I had a reason for looking inside the case, beyond the basic intrigue.  The CD drive wouldn’t open; it just clunked and did nothing.  Further inspection showed that the drive must have shifted in transit and was sitting a little too high so that the tray was hitting the casing and not coming through the gap.  Corrective surgery was needed, but thanks to the G5’s marvellous interior designers this proved to be easy as pie.  No screwdriver was necessary, just flick a couple of latches and the whole CD unit unlocked itself and became free.  I was then able to reposition it, relatch it, and it all worked fine.  Nice.

It’s also got an Airport wireless card, Bluetooth, and a selection of USB and Firewire ports.  Which are all very useful too.

Firefox 3

I know this isn’t quite on topic, but I thought it was worth a mention anyway.  While installing all my usual programs onto my fresh Leopard I found that Firefox was offering its release candidate of version 3.  I had previously been a great advocate of Camino, what many would call the Mac version of Firefox, and had an alpha release of Firefox 3 for testing purposes.  There were problems with it though, and I stayed with Camino for the sake of stability and consistency.  However, now that FF RC3 is out, Camino hasn’t been used here much at all.

FF3 is a marked improvement over FF2 on the Mac.  Although FF2 remains arguably the best browser for the PC, on the Mac it was awful.  It was slow, it forgot where it put its memory (ah, the irony), and looked hideous.  FF3 promised a lot, and seems to have delivered on most of its early promises, giving Mac users a browser that looks good, feels responsive, and gives Safari some serious competition on the performance front.  And on top of all that you get that huge repository of addons just in case the basic functionality isn’t enough.

So FF3 is set to become my primary browser for the time being, even though it is still on a Release Candidate (which basically means it’s not completely finished yet, but they’re happy for people to test it for them).

The end

Yep, that’s it for now.  Of all of that, only FF3 is actually new news, the rest has been common knowledge for a while now, it just hasn’t been on my desk until now.  Still, it’s so nice to finally have a computer that is more than capable of running everything I throw at it.  I’ve got iStat meters in my menu bar showing what my two processors are up to, and so far they have yet to break a sweat…

2 thoughts on “A review of new (and old) technology

  1. Quick update on how things are going with the new computer. I’ve downloaded a good selection of addons for Firefox 3 which should make my life a little easier on the web development front. iLife ’08 is pretty nifty too, a nice improvement over previous versions.

    I’m also loving Adobe CS3, which came pre-installed on the computer. Unfortunately it’s not the version that includes InDesign, and at the moment I can’t get my CS2 CD to load up, I think it’s scratched or something. Bit of a pain, because I use InDesign to create the MiniLife magazine for Colchester Mini Club. So it looks like I’ll have to start using Pages to create the magazine instead – nowhere near as good, but might just about do the job.

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