Charles Moore's Mailbag

18 Bits Can't Display Millions of Colors, Today's Magic Is Different from Yesterday's, and More

Charles Moore - 2008.04.16 - Tip Jar

18 Bits Can't Display Millions of Colors

From Scott:

Charles,

I have to respectfully disagree with you regarding your response to Alan Williams' email about Apple's latest LCD lawsuit woes. Mr. Williams does a respectable job attempting to detail the technology behind how LCDs work but doesn't quite "hit the nail on the head".

His description begins to fall apart when he talks about using adjacent pixels "to determine their perceived color". While a more technical explanation of how LCDs work would require a much longer article and more background on color science and how humans perceive color, I can assure you that work has been done - and is known - by folks at Apple and others. 6-bit panels are unable to produce the 256 gradations per colored sub-pixel necessary to sufficiently "fool" the "typical" human eye into not perceiving color banding. In short, what Mr. Williams is attempting to describe is "dithering" and has been used as a shortcutting technology used to overcome less capable (usually older and less costly) technologies for a long time. However, 8-bit and higher panels capable of really displaying millions of distinct colors have been on the market for a long time! Apple even used those technologies in the previous generation of 20" iMacs!!!

With the advent of LCD-based hi-def TVs and the increased use of LCD technology in computing, methods of intelligently communicating display technologies and capabilities have been instituted. Again, I'm certain that Apple is well aware of these terms and capable of understanding them; after all, those markets to which that information is most important are some of Apple's core markets. The better companies in the hi-def market (Sony, Samsung, etc.) clearly advertise the bit-depth of their panels, and even the bit-depth of their signal-processing engines. Apple would do very well rise to that level; many (including myself) believe that Apple's corporate message dictates being at that level.

So this lawsuit, and the one before it (MacBook Pros), comes down to an advertising message; Apple chose to advertise that these units were capable of displaying "millions of colors at all resolutions". Apple went so far as to advertise that the most recent iMacs included display technology that was better than the previous generation, using referential terms like "richer, more vivid" (and continue to do so) that, by grammatical design, infer an enhanced capability. Customers familiar with the previous design could certainly not then be faulted for expecting a similar experience in the new product.

Unfortunately for customers, that claim turned out to be false. 6-bit TN LCD panels are not capable of displaying millions of colors. And customers who are cognizant of the difference were misled. IMHO, even customers who are not cognizant of the facts were misled. The previous generation of 20" iMacs could truly produce "millions of colors" without dithering. The TN panels used in the latest generation of 20" iMacs are inferior to their S-IPS predecessors in about all ways (except perhaps brightness . . . but bright and inaccurate isn't really a benefit, as experts would be quick to point out).

I am a fan of Apple's products. I have purchased them for many years. I have worked for Apple, and I have worked for an Apple reseller. I use Apple computers personally, exclusively. I am an Apple shareholder. Apple's message has always been one of corporate responsibility and engineering excellence. I simply have no sympathy for them on this one: This wasn't a miscommunication, it was intentional, and it was irresponsible. Apple simply can't continue to pursue dishonest marketing campaigns and think the lawsuits won't continue. Apple could have reworked the copy in any number of ways to more adequately communicate the capabilities of the system and the panel; Apple did not decide to be so fair.

Lying to enhance profits is not looked upon positively by true capitalists. Product lawsuits like this one, especially in this case where Apple obviously tried to cover up a cost-saving component substitution with marketing "Kool-Aid", is one way for customers to level the playing field.

Scott

Hi Scott,

I defer to your having much greater knowledge and erudition in the esoterica of LCD technology than I possess.

It may be a matter of definition and interpretation. One operative question, I guess, is whether the difference is discernible to the user. I expect it might be to graphics professionals, but the iMac isn't really targeted at that market. I'll be interested in hearing what Apple comes up with as a defense.

I'm certainly not an "Apple is always right" cheerleader, but I do have a distaste for litigation over (relatively) trivial matters.

Charles

Today's Magic

From Ryan:

Hi Charles:

I would respectfully disagree. Mainstream does not mean an absence of magic. I agree though, I love the older PowerBooks, and there is something special about them that you won't find with Apple's newer products.

Having said that, Apple is quite diverse, and they are pulling out the magic still. We have to realize now that products have changed and the world has changed. Part of the "magic" for us, the magic from yesteryear, is likely a function of the memories we have of being alive in the 80s and 90s. The smells, the people, the growing pains, etc. It is not just Apple that we are talking about; it was all the other pieces of our lives that went along with the Apple experience.

We now live in a world bigger, badder, where change happens a breakneck speeds. People are more informed and cynical; it is easy to feel detached from it all.

The iPhone and Apple TV are amazing products. Similar to Demolition Man with Stallone, I can now sit in front of my flat panel TV, watch movies on demand, surf the "iTunes Store", and, if I want, Skype my contacts. It is the future, now. For me this is still magic. It is the ease of use, the beauty of the products and the software.

While I still use my PowerBook 5300ce for its cuteness and simplicity, for real production work in today's world I have to pull out the MacBook Pro. While more intimidating, we have to face reality and change with the times.

The way I deal with it is to have the best of both worlds. I use my older gear, including my Newton, whenever and wherever I can. When I speak of "magic" today, here is an illustration. I have been an iPhone user since last summer. I bought it from the US, unlocked it, and have been using it in Canada ever since. At almost 9 months of use, every day I love it. I never get tired of using it. It is the single greatest technological device I have ever seen/owned. It continues to surprise me. It does so much, and it does it well. It took me about 5 months to really learn how to use it to its fullest.

So don't fret! Just give the "new" stuff a chance.

Ryan

Hi Ryan,

I suppose that "magic" is to a considerable degree in the eye of the beholder, and in that sense, whatever floats your boat, although I would still contend that "magic" and "mainstream" are somewhat contradictory in terms, since magic denotes specialness, and if it's mainstream it's hard to be special.

It's also a generational thing I guess. You mention the 80s and 90s. Heck, I remember being alive in the 50s and 60s, before there were personal computers or an Internet. I was 11 when we got our first TV in 1962 (talk about "magic" ;-) ), and color TV didn't arrive here until 1968. I grew up with rural crank telephones, and for long distance (very expensive and rarely utilized) you rang the operator to place the call for you. We had local operators too, until the late 60s or early 70s, which was quaint but could be convenient. I remember asking for a number and being informed by the operator that she would ring it for me but the party wasn't home right now and I could probably get hold of them them at so-and-so's house. We had party lines here until well into the 80s. Sort of primitive "social networking." As you say, it's a different world.

I don't dispute that a new MacBook Pro is a far superior machine functionally (and in just about every other way) to a PowerBook 5300ce, and although I still have two Pismos in active service doing a superb job at what I require of them, I'm planning to get a Macintel soon. I was just about ready to take the plunge when the rumors manifested last week of an all-new aluminum MacBook with Intel's Montevina processor projected for later this year. Sounds like I would at least want to see what that's about.

Glad you're enjoying the iPhone.

Charles

Shiira a Fast and Excellent Browser

From Andy:

Hi Charles,

Very much enjoyed your browser roundup but was wondering why you did not mention Shiira; I learnt of this little browser in a previous article by you and have been using it regularly ever since. For me it seems much faster than Safari or Firefox.

I work as a photographer so am regularly viewing photo sites, and for some reason Shiira always zips through them while Safari crawls. I'm no browser expert, so I don't understand about the full feature sets of the various applications, but when I feel the need for speed, I go to Shiira.

All the best,
Andy

Hi Andy,

I didn't mention OmniWeb or Camino or SeaMonkey or Flock either, and the columns weren't intended to be a comprehensive roundup, but rather a look at four browsers that had been recently updated - three of them in the week previous.

Glad to hear that you're getting great service from Shiira. It's a nice browser. As I noted in the article title, it's a veritable garden of delights in OS X browsers these days. They're all fast and stable, at least on my setup, and choosing boils down to which interface nuances you prefer.

Charles

Tabs in Opera and Firefox

From Dan:

Charles,

In the Opera section of your recent browser review you mentioned "when I have a dozen or fifteen tabs loaded in a single window, they all stay visible (albeit very tiny) rather than confusingly scrolling out of sight as with Firefox and the other Mozilla browsers" as a feature you liked in Opera.

You can get the same behavior in Firefox (in fact, earlier versions of Firefox were like that default, sometime before 2.0). If you type about:config into Firefox's address bar, you bring up a ton of different configuration options. Type browser.tabs.tabMinWidth into the filter, and you'll see the default value is 100. I've set mine to 0. Then the tabs just get smaller and smaller but all stay visible. There are lots of other things in about:config you can change, too. Another fave of mine is to remove the close button on each tab.

I'm really looking forward to Firefox 3, as in the year I've been on the Mac I've been a bit frustrated with Firefox's performance and the general feeling that no great Mac browser exists. I'm currently sticking with FF 2, since some of my must-have add-ons haven't been made compatible yet, but hopefully that will change soon.

Dan

Hi Dan,

Hey, thanks for the tip. It's not exactly intuitive or something I would have stumbled across myself in a million years, but it works fine in Firefox 3, making me a happier camper.

I like the individual close buttons on the tabs, though. Miss 'em on browsers that don't have 'em.

Charles

'Safari Runs Rings Around Them All'

From Arvid:

Hi, Charles,

Thank you for your response; I guess my whole point was "YMMV." At least I figured at Low End Mac nobody would judge me when I tell them I'm using a G3 running Panther! I'm perfectly willing to believe that with high-speed the speed differences between all these browsers would be unnoticeable, but on my machine, Safari runs rings (many, many rings) around all of them, especially Firefox. Unfortunately, with Panther, Safari 3 is not an option. (Or Safari 2, for that matter.) I assume Firefox 3 is Tiger- or Leopard-only as well. Hopefully, I'll soon have enough money saved up for my new iMac, and ideally by then, Leopard will be as stable as Panther always has been for me.

Keep up the good work!

Arvid

P.S.: 26,400? You win: that is slow! I get 48,000 or 49,333 if I'm lucky, and I thought that was slow!

Hi Arvid,

I still like G3s. My wife is running my old 700 MHz iBook, but with OS X 10.4.11, which works great. I also used Tiger happily on my 500 MHz G3 Pismo before upgrading to a G4 processor, and it ran fine with both. I don't really see any downside to upgrading to Tiger. Panther is still a good, solid system, but software compatibility is getting to be a serious issue.

The somewhat radical disparity in speed performance we're getting respectively may have something to do with operating system versions. I haven't used Panther for a couple of years or more, so I can't make a direct comparison. However running OS X 10.4 on the iBook and Pismos, Firefox/Navigator/Camino/SeaMonkey and Opera feel as fast as Safari.

Firefox 3 is Tiger and up.

The fastest connection speed I've ever seen here was 28,800 on rare occasions with an old US Robotics modem. The problem here is nine miles of ancient, poorly maintained copper phone lines routed through a 25-year-old local switching station before we hit the fiber optics. Wireless broadband is supposed to be coming, but not much movement there so far.

Charles


Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia is a bit off the beaten path.

SCSI-to-USB Help

From Jeff Mork:

Hello, Charles.

You've helped me in the past, perhaps you can help me again.

My current machine is a MacBook (2 GHz Intel Core Duo, 1 GB 667DDR2 SDRAM, OS X 10.4.9). It has been a real pleasure to work with; really no problems.

However, my legacy Beige G3, recently bit the big one. The drive croaked. It won't mount (believe me, I tried many different ways), nor is it even visible as an icon. Well, I guess that is to be expected because the drive was about 12 or more years old - great while it lasted.

This next issue may have been addressed in other/earlier forums, but I haven't been able to track these answers down.

I had backed up all my files and some of my OS 9 software on an APS external SCSI drive and also on an external Syquest drive, both 50-pin female with termination. I think this is referred to as the 50 ultrawide interface.

Since I can't fire up the old G3 to access the Syquest and APS, I'm stuck with data but no way to pull it off through the machine. If I use a system startup disk, the G3 runs okay, but nothing can be downloaded. I have a USB card installed, but since the software for the USB card is on the trashed drive, I can't go that direction. It has only a standard CD-R drive, and I ain't gonna take days to do this all on floppies (what, 1.4 MB each?).

Long story short, do you or anyone have feedback on SCSI-to-USB converter cables to hook into my MacBook?

In particular the Microtech XpressSCSI USB-to-SCSI cable? If so, is it reliable, and is there a software issue to resolve, or does the 10.4.9 handle the transition?

There are some pretty important docs on the SCSI devices, and any help offered would be most welcome.

Thanks,
Jeff Mork

Hi Jeff,

I'm in practical terra incognita here, since I've never used a SCSI-to-USB adapter. The USB Xchange USB/SCSI Converter for Mac/PC appears to be for Mac OS Classic only, so it probably won't be much help with your MacBook.

The SCSI-to-USB Microtech XpressSCSI adapter you mention seems to have the same limitation, since the product page I found only listed support up to OS 8.6. I assume there are no SCSI drivers included with OS X, and of course your MacBook can't boot Classic.

My provisional thinking would be that your best bet might be to beg, borrow, or buy another older Mac that can mount your SCSI backup drives and use it to shift the files onto media that can be read by the MacBook and other OS X-only machines. Depending on the intermediary machine's specs, that might be a USB or FireWire drive or CD-Rs.

The problem with trying to improvise a SCSI-to-USB kludge is that SCSI was pretty cranky even with full hardware and software support - definitely part of the heritage Mac experience I'm not nostalgic for!

I'm not saying that a SCSI-to-USB hookup is categorically impossible. I don't know. But I'm doubtful. Perhaps someone in readerland will be able to shed more light on this topic.

Charles

Hello, again, Charles.

I guess when I saw the web page referring to the device, I was so excited that I didn't read the small print carefully.

You are right about it only referring to system 8.6. Add to that my Intel computer, and I guess I'm up the creek.

I'll try some of your suggestions, and maybe I can get out of this situation.

Thanks, again for your quick reply.

Jeff Mork

Hi Jeff,

I think I found a USB 2.0 to Ultra SCSI Converter that will work with OS X. It's expensive (US$99) but looks promising as a potential solution.

You may need a cable adapter. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for what they have available.

Charles

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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