Mac Mini

Oh yes.

My new Mac Mini

Update (late, late in the evening): Oh no.

What’s good:

  • It works.
  • It’s beautiful.
  • Q: whereis ruby? A: /usr/bin/ruby. Yum.

What’s bad:

  • My shiny new 21″ flat panel monitor has died on me. Well, partly died. It’s not accepting any signals over DVI any more, only VGA. Crap. Fortunately, it’s still well within its warranty period.
  • The Mini isn’t automatically detecting the monitor’s native resolution of 1680 x 1050, and I don’t know enough about OS X to change the resolution to something non-standard. So I’m running in crappy 1400 x 1050 fuzz-o-vision right now.
  • Actually, I don’t know enough about OS X, period. (How does this dock thing really work? What’s the right way to install applications?) Anyone with Mac experience care to recommend a decent book?
  • I got myself a new Apple Pro keyboard aaaaand….mmmm…not convinced yet. I like the keyboard action, but I don’t like not having anythere to rest my right hand’s fingers nearby the arrow keys without them getting caught in the grooves.
  • And what the hell’s up with putting the @ sign over the number 2 key? Yuck. (Again, anyone with Mac experience…please point me in the direction of a keyboard remapping utility.)
  • And the mental gymnastics of getting used to a different set of command keys… Yurkle.

3G network pricing: welcome to 1993!

It was in the spring of 1993 that I first got online with my own modem. Until then, I’d relied on the terminals and workstations at uni for my email fix. But my last year was over, I was moving to Edinburgh, and there were several weeks to go before our wedding and the subsequent end to two years of a trans-atlantic romance. Phone calls to the US were still expensive in those days, so Compuserve it was.

At the time, Compuserve used a differential pricing structure based on the speed at which you connected to their servers. The faster your modem, the more you paid per hour of connection time. Effectively, they were charging you for the data you transferred, much like the 3G networks are doing right now. Let’s compare them, shall we?

In 1993, I was using a 2400bps modem, and I think that Compuserve charged me somewhere in the region of £3 per hour in addition to my monthly subscription charge. 2400bps is 0.4Kb/s. Assuming a maxed-out, steady connection, you could download a megabyte in an hour. £3 per MB, then.

I called in to my local Vodafone shop this afternoon, and got them to clear up some questions I had about my new Nokia 6680. One of these was, now that I’ve got this fancy new internet-capable phone, how much do I pay for data transfers? The answer: £2.35 per megabyte, including VAT.

Technology moves on; the cost of being an early adopter doesn’t.

Because of inflation, a pound is worth less now than it was back then, but the amount of relevant data you can get with that pound is also less. In 1993, the data you got over the internet was text, and a megabyte is a hell of a lot of text. In 2005, we have photo-filled web pages, streaming radio, podcasts, and movie trailers to download. A megabyte does not go a long way. Consider a single visit to the BBC News home page. At about 100KB, that’s 23p straight into Vodafone’s coffers. Ka-ching!

Sure, there are sites that will serve you up content specially downsized for mobile use, but the networks are pushing all of the bells and whistles pretty heavily. And with the 3G networks being almost as fast as broadband, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can use the mobile internet in the same way as you can at your desktop. All I can say is: you’d better have deep pockets. (How the hell do they expect anyone to actually watch a whole movie on their phone at those prices?)

Here’s one final comparison: our web hosting package costs about £10 a month, and with that we get 20GB of bandwidth. That’s about 0.05p per megabyte. The cost of downloading data over the 3G network is thus almost 5000 times as expensive as serving it up.

New phone time: Nokia 6680

Nokia 6680My new phone arrived on Friday, and I’ve been playing about with it some over the weekend. It’s a replacement for the Motorola v525 I got at the beginning of last year, and I’m really struggling to think why it has taken me this long to change it. Although my initial impression of the v525 was favourable, long term use was proving dangerous to my sanity and temper. “Possessed by the Devil” and “loathesome piece of shit” are some of the nicer things I’ve had to say about it over the last year and a half.

My main criteria for this new phone were:

  • It had to be a Nokia. After that experience with a Motorola phone, I was in desperate need of some Finnish lovin’.
  • It had to have a decent camera on it.
  • It had to do email nicely. Sending a photo in an email should be utterly painless. Reading email likewise.
  • A decent mobile web browser: i.e. Opera pre-installed, or the ability to run it.
  • Did I mention it had to be a Nokia?

After a bit of research, I narrowed the choice down to a few models. And after a bit more research, I decided it would be fun to get something top-of-the range, instead of the more basic models I usually pick. The Nokia 6680 is a 3G phone with video capabilities, a 1.3 Megapixel camera and a lower-res front-facing camera, a gorgeous high-colour screen, and it runs Symbian OS, so there are a large number of third-party applications I can install on it.

My initial impression of the phone after using some of the basic features (making and receiving calls, adding contacts, taking and storing pictures, and browsing through them afterwards) was blessed relief. The user interface for doing all of these things was simple, comfortable, and intuitive.

Unfortunately, neither the phone’s manual, nor the Nokia PC Suite software for connecting the phone to a PC were up to the same standard. Despite being able to make use of a full qwerty keyboard, using the software to add a new contact on the PC is not noticeably faster than entering one on the phone. (Really!) Also, Vodafone has customized the crap out of the default Nokia interface, so icons and applications aren’t where the manual says they should be. Yet even without this shuffling and shoogling, the manual would still fit Joel Spolsky’s guidelines for uselessness in technical writing:

When you don’t have a spec, what happens with the poor technical writers is the funniest (in a sad kind of way). Tech writers often don’t have the political clout to interrupt programmers. In many companies, if tech writers get in the habit of interrupting programmers to ask how something is supposed to work, the programmers go to their managers and cry about how they can’t get any work done because of these [expletive deleted] writers, and could they please keep them away, and the managers, trying to improve productivity, forbid the tech writers to waste any more of their precious programmers’ time. You can always tell these companies, because the help files and the manuals don’t give you any more information than you can figure out from the screen. When you see a message on a screen which says

  • Would you like to enable LRF-1914 support?

… and you click “Help”, a tragicomic help topic comes up which says something like

  • Allows you to choose between LRF-1914 support (default) or no LRF-1914 support. If you want LRF-1914 support, choose “Yes” or press “Y”. If you don’t want  LRF-1914 support, choose “No” or press “N”.

Um, thanks. It’s pretty obvious here that the technical writer was trying to cover up the fact that they didn’t know what LRF-1914 support is. They couldn’t ask the programmer, because (a) they’re embarrassed, or (b) the programmer is in Hyderabad and they’re in London, or (c) they have been prohibited by management from interrupting the programmer, or any other number of corporate pathologies too numerous to mention, but the fundamental problem is that there wasn’t a spec.

Vodafone’s web site offers no more help, with the result that after two days of mucking about, I still don’t know what the difference is between connecting to the internet with an “Internet” and a “WAP” connection. Is one faster than the other? More expensive? Who knows. I’ll probably head into the Vodafone shop on Princes St tomorrow and ask a real person.

Which brings me round to the final part of the story: actually buying the phone. I went into the Vodafone shop last week, and told the guy there that I wanted to buy a Nokia 6680. He plugged my details into his terminal, and came up with a price of £250. Pretty steep.

“But wait,” he said. “If you call up the Vodafone Business customer service number, they’ll probably be able to quote you a better price.”

And sure enough, when I called Vodafone directly, I got offered exactly the same phone for just £100. No haggling or complaining needed.

To which I say: great! But also: huh? This was a Vodafone shop I went to, not a generic mobile phone store that supplies contracts and phones for all the different networks. And their high street price was two-and-a-half times more expensive than their phone in price? Are they plugged in to the same back-end systems, or what?


Upon Julian’s urging (and after having been sniffing around the idea myself for some time, too) I’ve installed Skype. My username is martinsutherland, because the signup process told me that “sunpig” had already been taken. Being curious, I did a search for the name once I got the program up and running, and found…no such user. Harumph.

Oh, and just like Instant Messaging, don’t expect to see me online in your contacts list very often. Showing up as online only encourages people to try and contact me, and why on earth would I want that?

iPod Coping Strategies

I love my iPod. Nevertheless, there are a few things about it that have started to bug me over time.

Synchronization when full

The iPod’s autosync feature is great so long as there is enough space on the iPod for all your music. But once your pod is full, the options mostly suck. You can let iTunes automatically select a subset of your music to put on your pod, but when I tried this it tended to omit large chunks of my favourite albums. Alternatively, you can synchronize it to a set of playlists. (I’m not even going to talk about manually managing all your own files…yuck.) This has the downside that it’s not fully automagic, and requires mental effort to figure out what music you’re likely to want to listen to. Also, the UI for manually choosing a synchronization list is one of the few parts of iTunes that is genuinely bad.

However dreadful, this is the option I’ve settled on for the moment. The way I work with iTunes is that whenever I import a new album, I create a new playlist for it, tagged with the year in which I bought it, artist name, and album title (e.g. “2005 Gorillaz – Demon Days”). Tagging the album playlist with the year of purchase rather than the year of release has two benefits:

  • it makes compiling my year-end retrospective easier, because I can see what albums I acquired in a given year
  • in the iPod Synchronization Options Dialog (I like to call it “iSod”) it provides a simple way of selecting all my recent acquisitions

The iTunes synchronization options dialog (iSod)

(It also has the downside of making my list of playlists really long…and iTunes doesn’t allow grouping of playlists. Now there’s a feature I’d like.)

So for my manual synchronization list, I choose all of the albums from the current year, plus a dynamic “4 + 5 star” playlist to make sure that I get all my favourite songs, and finally a static playlist (“_Favourite Albums” to which I have manually added all my favourite albums. At the moment, this takes up about 12GB of space on my 20GB pod, and gives me a reliable selection of stuff that I want to listen to.

No per-playlist shuffle option

I like listening to albums in proper track order, but I like my 4+5 star playlist shuffled. iTunes accommodates this, but the iPod’s shuffle settings are global. So I have to come back out to the main menu, then go to Settings -> Shuffle to switch over whenever I flip between the two types of playlist. It’s a minor nuisance, but a nuisance nevertheless.

L/R Headphone confusion

Whenever I grab my iPod headphones and have to untangle or untwist the cord, I end up with the right-side bud in my left hand, and vice versa. Consistently. How? Why? I can only guess that there is something in their shape that subliminally guides my hands to the wrong buds. Some subtle psychological joke on the part of Apple’s designers?

Mac Mini

Mac Mini Okay, so beyond the ability to check web designs on Safari, what reasonable excuse do I have for buying a new Mac Mini? I mean, apart from RAW UNCHECKED LUST.

At £339, I’m already trying to figure out where it would fit on my desk, and how much a decent keyboard/mouse switch would cost. Sheez.