Saturday, December 29, 2007

Another Reason to Use a Mac

I think that part of being a satisfied owner of a car is how well you're treated by the dealer. If the car is terrific but the service is awful, the ownership experience will be awful as well.

Based on a recent service incident with my laptop, Apple proved why they are number one as my choice of computer vendor.

I own a few Macs, including a black MacBook. I've had it about 18 months and live on the thing. I travel extensively with it and use it daily for business. Unfortunately, from a hardware standpoint, it hasn't been the most reliable machine I've ever owned. It needed a new motherboard within the first year, a new Bluetooth antenna, and a battery replacement. The other day, it started to freeze up on me and its behavior became erratic, forcing constant reboots.

Luckily, I have Apple Care on this machine, and took it to the Apple Store in Boca Raton. The store was mobbed with post-Christmas shoppers, but they took me at the Genius bar as a standby customer and I was waited on promptly. Rob Allan, who was my Genius, diagnosed it as needing yet another new motherboard and an Airport card. When I received it back several days later, I was told that it also looked like my hard drive was going bad because the machine wouldn't boot from the internal hard drive after they had installed the new motherboard and Airport card.

I was really skeptical about the hard drive as I'd just upgraded it to a new Hitachi 200 gb 7200 rpm drive just a couple months before, and it was operating perfectly and not suspected as part of my problem when the machine was first diagnosed. When I got the machine home, I booted it from an external drive which contained a backup and noticed two things. First, the computer was showing that no Airport card was installed at all, and the internal hard drive wasn't even showing up as an installed piece of hardware. Even a bad hard drive should show up under System Profiler, and the Airport card was supposed to have been replaced.

So, back to the Apple Store, which was still mobbed with customers. I quickly found my Genius, who immediately dropped what he was doing, took my computer into the back, and ten minutes later told me that rather than trying to keep repairing my MacBook, Apple was going to give me a new one.

Here's the important part. The MacBook they replaced it with was the current shipping model, new (not refurbished), and with the same amount of RAM I had in my old MacBook, even though the original MacBook had third party memory from CDW—where the computer was purchased—and not Apple OEM RAM. After a short time to complete the paperwork, I had my new computer and old hard drive. I went home, installed the drive that they told me might be bad, and voila, the drive was just fine and all of my data was alive and well.

While I'm certainly not enthusiastic about how unreliable my original MacBook was, I'm really impressed with Apple's behavior during this problem, as well as with the professionalism of Rob Allan, the Genius I dealt with. After being given a chance to fix the computer, there wasn't any hesitation about replacing it when the repair was unsuccessful, and the computer I received from Apple was a brand new MacBook that was equal to or better than what I had. I also didn't have to wait for it to be shipped to me. It was replaced on the spot, at the Apple Store, even though my company originally purchased it through CDW. This is a work computer, and it was critical that I get back up and running asap since I was scheduled to start traveling again shortly after the holidays. I really couldn't wait for the computer to be shipped to me.

Of all the Macs, iPods and the iPhone I've owned, this is the only troublesome piece of equipment I've had. To their credit, Apple always promptly repaired it when required, and when it finally became obvious that this computer wasn't going to be easy to fix, they replaced it under the Apple Care agreement, and at their suggestion. Based on this behavior, I can guarantee two things. First, I'll remain a loyal Apple customer. Second, I'd advise everyone to invest in Apple Care for their computer. While it might not make sense for a Nano, it absolutely makes sense for an expensive computer, and from my recent experience, Apple lives up to their end of the bargain.

Thanks, Apple, for living up to your repair/replacement agreement, and thanks Rob for the professionalism and understanding you showed during this transaction. I'm now busily back at work on my MacBook, and you can count on me to be a Mac customer moving forward!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mac vs. PC--some real life experience

I own an Intel-based Mac Mini and a BlackBook. I run Boot Camp on the Mini and Parallels and Fusion on the Blackbook.

In short, I don't see how anyone other than a casual user can only live with one OS. The simple truth is there are good and bad things about both systems. As an example, if you work on a corporate network, XP or Vista is a far better network client than OS X. On the other hand, if you're handling media, the Mac excels with iLife. If you're in an Exchange shop, Entourage just doesn't measure up to Outlook as an e-mail client. And so on and so on.

One surprise I've found is that running Windows XP or Vista on a Mac is a far better experience under Boot Camp than it is on a Dell, HP, etc. I'm not an engineer, so I can't give you the reasons for it, but my guess is that the drivers are created by the same people who create them on the Mac side, so they just know how to make them work without a hitch. Combined with good Apple engineering, the Windows experience using Boot Camp on a Mini or an iMac is really something to write home about! Someone asked Walt Mossberg the other day whether they should buy a Mac to run Windows even if they never really intended to run OS X. My answer to that question would be an enthusiastic yes, it is a superior experience. I'm not a gamer, so I can't speak to that specialized segment of Windows users who require special display cards and huge amounts of horsepower, but for just about everyone else, you won't find a better computer. Just add a PC-mapped keyboard and mouse and you're ready to go. There is, of course, the added bonus that if you should ever decide to see what a Mac can offer, you won't need to do anything other than reboot!

As for Fusion and Parallels, I think they are both top-notch products. I have settled on Parallels as my engine for running virtual machines, but either one will give you an outstanding experience. If you're thinking of going this direction to run a Windows machine, make sure you install the maximum amount of RAM (memory) and the largest hard drive you can afford to optimize your experience.

Two notes in closing. There is no need to purchase RAM from Apple who charges an outrageous (an unjustified) premium for memory modules that are generic. Buy your memory for an iMac, MacBook or MacBook Pro from a third party provider like Crucial. You'll save a bundle and memory is easy to install in any of the above machines. (You should avoid doing this with the Mini as it is difficult to service unless you're really experienced with this particular computer. It takes a special knack to remove the case and inside everything is packed very, very close. It's not an easy computer to work on.)

You should also purchase hard drive upgrades from a third party vendor, as once again, Apple charges full list price for all of their drives. These drives are not Apple manufactured products. As an example, my BlackBook had a Toshiba 80 gb drive. I recently upgraded my BlackBook with an Hitachi 200 gb 7200 RPM drive. Using a program like SuperDuper (which is free) to create a clone of the existing drive it was amazingly simple and the new generation of 7200 RPM drives won't drain your battery any more than their slower 5400 RPM cousins. This was an inexpensive upgrade to my BlackBook and has more than doubled my hard drive space, plus made it perceptibly faster. Instructions for this can be found by Googling on "Mac hard drive upgrade" or similar words.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The New iPod Touch

I think the Touch is a revolutionary device, and I frankly get in line with the those who think the negativity in today's press and blogs is ridiculous and misses the point of this amazing piece of hardware.

This is the first device that has the ability to actually have movies and music streamed to it rather than be required to be tethered to a computer to receive content. Add a fully functional browser and you have an amazing new device whose functionality will set new standards for what can and can't be delivered over the air. How about taking your high school or college class over your iPod via Wi-Fi? On-line education is red hot and this plays right into that delivery mechanism. What about Vonage and Skype video conferencing? Streaming movies on airplanes rather than being forced to watch what the airline has supplied? To build off of the Starbucks idea, how about a store offering to let you shop at a brick and mortar store and then have the item ordered on-line, in your size and/or color, then shipped directly to your home. Ditto for gift buying.

I think the bigger story here is the surprising lack of leadership, engineering and vision from Microsoft and Palm. It was no coincidence to me that Microsoft lowered the price of the Zune by $50 yesterday to get them off the shelves. Who do you think will sell more product this holiday season: Apple or Microsoft? Hmmm, let me get back to you on that!

As for the price cuts on the iPhone, I was a bit shocked to see the iPhone reduced $200 and the 4 gb version discontinued. I know that I didn't buy an iPhone because I'm a current Verizon customer and know how valuable EVDO is for web access. Without it, the browser in the phone is badly crippled when it's away from a Wi-Fi connection. In addition, by the time the monthly fees were factored in, the total cost of the phone exceeded $2,300. That's a hefty price to pay and I decided to wait for gen2 of the iPhone before I reconsider it. Now that the Touch is available, I'm glad I did.

There are plenty of examples where people pay a premium at the release date of a product only to find it greatly reduced shortly thereafter. The Pontiac Soltice was selling for $6,000 over sticker when it was first released, now dealers hardly want to stock them since the demand is so low. Welcome to marketing in America!

To the gloom-and-doom folks, get over it. This is a new device for a new age and I've already put my order in for a Touch at the online store!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Give Vista Credit When It's Due

I decided to test out a Kensington Bluetooth mouse today on a Vista machine that was not equipped with Bluetooth. I took an old CompUSA USB Bluetooth adapter, plugged it into my Vista Business AMD Dell and it was quickly recognized, installed and ready for use in about a minute. The Kensington mouse installed with the adapter as easy as pie.

I remember doing the installation of the same USB adapter on an XP sp2 installation and what a long, hard install it was to get it working. It required a whole CD worth of drivers to get it working correctly, and then the whole thing had to be upgraded since Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) had updated the driver since the manufacture of the USB adapter.

Kudos to everyone at Microsoft for getting this piece right. This installation couldn't have been easier!

The Internet Everywhere is Almost There

Last night, during a typical Florida summer thunderstorm, I lost Internet access for about 20 minutes. It brought home the fact that a computer user still can't rely on all applications being web-based. It's one reason I use Mars Edit to create entries for this blog since I can compose an entry whether or not the Internet is available.

Tomorrow, Apple is scheduled to make a product announcement that is widely believed to be the introduction of a new generation of iPods that will include wireless access to the Internet: wi-fi. This will take me one step closer to "all Internet all the time", but as long as a bad thunderstorm can takes down my home Internet, or as long as airplanes don't have Internet access, I'm toast if I try and access the web.

Pervasive over-the-air Internet access is still a ways off, although EVDO is a step in the right direction if you live in or travel to the right areas. During the active hurricane season a few years back, and with Wilma two years ago, I actually had Verizon EVDO access to the Internet as long as my laptop's battery held out. Not bad! I currently use a Sprint EVDO USB modem with my MacBook, which doesn't have it built-in, and while I think it is a great service, it has let me down in a few areas where reception was so poor that it just couldn't support a connection.

The lesson is that there are plenty of times that I can't get to the web, so I'm still keeping those apps that I count on local to my computer. My benchmark for knowing that I can live in an on-line world will be when my wi-fi Blackberry, iPhone or iPod can get to the Internet on a plane, in a subway, or just driving in my car.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Moving to a Mac

Over the last several months, I've migrated most of my day-to-day computer usage to a Mac. I am weary of the maintenance of a PC, and particularly dislike the amount of time it takes to start-up a new Windows session (ugh), or heaven forbid, restart because of an update or software install.

I won't tell you a Mac is perfect. To start with, I miss certain programs like ACDSee, which I now run in Parallels. Entourage is a poor replacement for Outlook, but it is much better behaved. (Maybe Mac Office 2008 will finally be able to read Notes and Tasks from an Exchange server.) As a crossword puzzle fan, I miss the computer version of WordWeb. Another issue with a Mac is that it is not as good a client on a Windows-based network as a PC. I understand that there would be some incompatibilities, but the inability to map a drive to a share within a series of shares (\\servername\users\username where "username" is what you'd like to map) is awkward at best. I'm not fond of the abbreviated keyboard found on the MacBook and the new wireless keyboard for the iMac leave out the secondary delete key, which makes the equivalent of CTL-Delete and CTL-Backspace difficult.

The stability of Tiger, however, outweighs everything. It boots up fast, shuts down fast, closes a hung program on the first request, and is amazingly intuitive. iPhoto is a great way to handle your photos, and iDVD and iMovie are the same in their respective genres. It does away with Windows-based DRM, an awful part of XP and Vista that is easy to corrupt and almost impossible to restore. Above all, it adds a level of beauty to the daily use of my computer that I appreciate. With Parallels or Fusion, I can run those occasional programs that are unique to a PC without having to give up the functionality of my Mac.

Would I recommend it to everyone? Not really. If you like your PC and are comfortable with its foibles, stay with what you have. If you find you want to upgrade to Vista, however, and need to buy a new computer to do it the right way, I'd strongly suggest you spend an afternoon at the Apple store taking a long look at their offerings. You'll probably pay a tad more for it, but believe it or not, XP and Vista run better under Boot Camp than they do on a new Dell or HP! Hard to believe, but true. Walt Mossberg reached the same conclusion in a recent column in All Things Digital.

I, however, opt for simplicity, stability and ease of maintenance. As a simple example of that, with OS X there is only one version of the OS for everyone, no Home Basic, Business, Ultimate, et al.

Lastly, the Mac is just a lot more fun! Great built-in software and an interface that shows real thought and design. It is definitely worth an afternoon's research at the Apple store to see if this solution is right for you!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vista is unusable

Lucky me. Because I'm a senior executive in a large technology department, I get to try out new operating systems and software at will. Recently, after trying Vista at several different times during beta, I decided to order a new Dell Optiplex 740 with an AMD 64 dual core and put the release version to the test.

After only two weeks on Vista, I'm here to report that I'm very disappointed and on the verge of being just plain angry.

There is a bug in Vista that renders the OS unusable. This bug affects the basic function of copying or deleting a file, dragging it to the Recycle Bin, or even emptying the Recycle Bin.

Every time I try and do any of the above functions, it triggers a dialog box with the caption "Calculating Time Remaining." That dialog box and progress indicator stay on the screen for up to a minute for a small text file (8 kb) and up to 10 minutes for a large file (20 mb.) Vista is totally hosed during this time, so you are dead in the water. Maybe you don't copy or delete files often, but I do, and I am now completely dysfunctional at my computer since it can't do the same basic functions I used to do in DOS on an 8088-based machine. Incredible!

So maybe you think I'm the only one having this problem? Try Googleing on "Calculating Time Remaining" and you'll find that this problem is affecting a huge audience, most of who seem to be connected to a network.

Microsoft has acknowledged this problem in a knowledge base article--( wants users to contact MS Support to see if they qualify for the hotfix to repair it. That means that not only have I wasted a huge amount of time experiencing the problem, I now have the privilege of awaiting a response from them via e-mail to see if I can even get it. I could call them, but there too I have to wait on the phone and, unbelievably, give them my credit card number before they'll even see if I am eligible to get this patch for free.

Just for perspective, Vista is a brand new operating system that was tested by hundreds of thousands of users for 2 years and I'm supposed to believe that this bug was undocumented and went unnoticed! Simply not possible. The only plausible explanation is that Microsoft decided to release the operating system in spite of the problem, hoping that it wouldn't affect too many people or raise too much noise in the consumer community.

I find it incredible that there is a hotfix for this problem and Microsoft is not making it publicly available. Only after searching, was I able to find a non-Microsoft site that posted it--( Sadly, after installing it, the problem still persists. Microsoft doesn't even seem to be able to actually identify the cause of the problem and resolve it.

So for those brave soles who may trip across my blog, I urge you to think long and hard about upgrading to Vista on that new machine. As for me, I'm going back to running XP under OS X. Maybe Microsoft could take a hint from Apple about operating systems. Apple recently announced that they didn't feel that the next version of OS X--Leopard--was ready for prime time and delayed its release until October. If only Microsoft had the same respect for its user base.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chatterbug disappoints

In the never-ending effort to lower my monthly phone cost, about a year ago I switched to a long distance service called Chatterbug. My decision was based on a review that I had read in the New York Times that described the service favorably. In fact, most of the reviews of the product I've seen have described it as "...unique" and "...a great way to save money" on your long distance bill. Chatterbug is a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution that uses your regular phone line and doesn't require the use of Vonage or similar services. One of the big advantages of this is that as long as you have a phone line, you can use the service. Where I live in Florida, even after a hurricane, phone service is likely to still be available, even if cable and electricity are not.

Based on the Times review I ordered the adapter. Several days later the device arrived, I installed it and activated it successfully. I was delighted to find that it worked exactly as advertised. Using the Chatterbug on-line reporting tool I saw that based on my usage, my long distance charges were costing me about 1¢ per minute, or about 60¢ per hour. At $9.95 fixed charge per month, this was absolutely the lowest priced service I had found and the service was excellent.

About 6 weeks ago, Chatterbug advised all of its customers that they were having technical difficulties and supplied an 800 number as an alternative. The user was instructed to call a toll-free number where they'd hear another dial tone. Then you'd be able to enter the number you were trying to dial. This was a bit inconvenient, but the problem got solved in short order and the service returned to normal.

Then, on March 16th, Chatterbug once again advised customers that they were having "technical difficulties" and provided another 800 number to use as described above. After a day or two, that toll-free number was disabled and the Chatterbug service has been unavailable since. A call to Chatterbug tech support simply gives you an announcement that they are having technical difficulties and to keep checking back for a progress report. Note that this blog is being written on March 25th, almost 10 days after the original e-mail notifying users of the problem.

While I don't know what I'm about to say as a fact, it would seem that what has happened is that Chatterbug can't pay their data and phone bills, and they've been disconnected from having access to the infrastructure they need to make their service functional. Whether that is their Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the phone companies, I can't say. However, there isn't much else that could happen technically that couldn't be fixed in this long period of time. This has all the earmarks of a financial problem, not a technical snafu.

So why take the time to write this blog? It's because Chatterbug is still selling the device on their website and accepting orders for service! In fact, if you go to their website, you'd never know that there was a problem at all. That's just devious, and a simple attempt to try and collect money from users to hopefully raise enough capital to pay their bills, or raise the number of subscribers to convince someone to offer financing to get them over their current hurdle. Others should know that they are no longer a viable service, probably not well financed, and based on the content of their website, dishonest to boot in that they are still willing to take your money even if they can't offer the service.

If the primary reason for technology reviewers in national publications is to let people know about interesting new products, then it is the users responsibility to report back on the long term performance of those products and services so that others can benefit from their experience ad, hopefully, the reviewers can follow up with additional feedback to their readers.

In the case of Chatterbug, save your money. It's a good idea that unfortunately appears to have been under financed and badly marketed.


Friday, March 23, 2007

40 Years With Allstate

I have been a loyal customer of Allstate's since I lived in New York 40 years ago. It started with a modest boat insurance policy and progressed through auto, home and liability. I've had only small claims on my auto policy over this entire time, and never a claim on my homeowners.

I moved to Boca Raton, Florida 2 1/2 years ago and naturally turned to Allstate for insurance. I was shocked to find out the cost compared to what I had been paying up North, but chose to be loyal to a company I'd done business with for such a long period of time. Imagine my wife's and my surprise when I opened the cancellation letter from them this week to find out we'd been dropped.

I am approached by Geico and others weekly to re-examine my auto insurance. I've never done so since I felt a loyalty to Allstate. Apparently that was a one-way alliance. It is obvious that in canceling my insurance that Allstate looked at the numbers and nothing else. Customer relationships didn't come into it.

You would have thought that if the insurance company and the customer formed a real partnership, long-term customers--especially those with multiple policies--would have been exempted from this cancellation. Alas, this was simply a decision made by an anonymous MBA in the actuarial department with no thought to the people who would be affected. How sad, and what a slap in the face from Allstate.

The "good hands people?" I don't think so. However, you'll excuse me if I don't have time to elaborate right now. I need to call Geico to switch my auto insurance. At least when I apply for it, someone will have to acknowledge my name and that I'm a live, breathing person by writing it down on a form. It may be the last time that will happen with them, but that will be one more time than the actuaries and executives at Allstate who focused solely on the bottom line and ignored all of the people who helped build the Company into the insurance giant it is today.