Mac Musings

Macs Are Great but Still Have Room to Improve

Dan Knight - 2004.08.25 - Tip Jar

Macs may be better than Windows PCs, and OS X may be better than Windows XP - even with Service Pack 2 - but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

My first eMac, a 700 MHz model, completely lost track of its FireWire port three different times over the year that I owned it. Once it was fixed by powering down for several hours, another time by hitting the reset button hidden inside the computer. The third time none of that worked - but the eMac spontaneously fixed itself by the time the local repair shop looked at it.

eMacs have been noted for deflection board problems from the start, and I figured that I'd avoid that issue by buying an Apple refurbished unit. That worked for my 700 MHz eMac, but the 1.25 GHz one I bought this summer is now in for video problems. The screen changes height, and the higher the resolution, the faster it changes.

It's a good thing I still have my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, a faithful companion for all but a couple weeks since January 2001. Even it had to go to Apple for a dark section on the screen - and it came back from Apple with a whole new lid. (And at no cost, thanks to AppleCare. Always a good idea with a laptop.)

The 20 GB drive in my PowerBook is a nice fast 5400 rpm IBM Travelstar, which I partitioned into 18 GB and 2 GB sections. Good thing, because about a year later it developed a defect in the second partition, so today I treat it as an 18 GB hard drive. Still, it's faster and larger than the 10 GB drive that came with the TiBook.

The Same, Only Different

Both of my eMacs have run from the same external 80 GB FireWire hard drive (a fast 7200 rpm one with an 8 MB buffer) originally cloned (three cheers for Carbon Copy Cloner!) from my TiBook just over a year ago. (I bought the eMac 700 so I'd have something to work with while Apple had my laptop.) I'm running the same version of OS X on both machines, as well as almost all of the same applications, but they don't run the same.

Yes, the TiBook is slower. 512 MB seemed like a lot of memory, but the old eMac had 640 MB and the new one has 1 GB of RAM, which helped both run much more efficiently. Then add in the faster CPU speed, and the TiBook is starting to feel kinda slow.

On the other hand, it's adequately fast, and at this point I can't really justify investing in more memory. Someday I'd like to replace old Quicksilver (named before Apple's Quicksilver series of Power Mac G4s) with an aluminum PowerBook G4 so I can get that wonderful new keyboard, the 1280 x 854 display (early PB G4s were 1152 x 768), better AirPort range (I used a PC Card, which has a much better range than AirPort in a titanium 'Book, but the card also has to come out of the PC Card slot before I slip the TiBook into a case), and a burner instead of a plain old DVD-ROM drive.

Someday. For now, Quicksilver may be pretty low end, but it's also pretty adequate.

But there are inexplicable differences between Quicksilver and the eMacs. On the 'Book, I can double-click a Home Page, BBEdit, or Photoshop file (all Classic apps), and it will always open. On the eMac, it's a hit-and-miss proposition. If the app isn't open, double-clicking a file will always launch the program and almost always open the file. The longer I work, the more times I double-click to open a file, the less likely it will open. Sure, I can drag the icon to the app in the Dock - and that always works - but I shouldn't have to.

I've rebuilt the Classic desktop and repaired permissions several times, but the problem doesn't go away.

It's also challenging to have the same application run on both machines with the same user files and preferences. There's got to be a better way to sync two Macs, but I haven't found it yet. iSync is wonderful for synching iCal and some other iApps.

If there's something like that for synching work files, applications, preferences, user files, and the like, I haven't found it. I use File Synchronization from Nemesys Software to sync some folders between my eMac and TiBook (my working copy of LEM, my iTunes, my PowerMail 3.1.2 files, and a few other folders), but it's slow and has to be manually configured for every folder I want to sync on both Macs.

What I'd really love is a synchronization program that can work over the Internet. I have my home network on Comcast and my apartment connected with WMIS.net, so there's a decent amount of bandwidth available. A program that could run intelligently on both Macs, communicated differences, and handle synchronizing would be brilliant.

Mac Reliability

When they work, Macs are great. When they don't, they're usually a quick and easy fix.

The only hardware problem my Mac Plus ever had was a cold solder joint, which became a problem after 3-4 years. My Centris 610 never gave me any problems at all, nor did my SuperMac J700 or S900.

My biggest problem with old Macs is dead PRAM batteries. Pull an old Quadra 630 or Radius System 81/100 out of storage, and odds are pretty good that it thinks the year is 1904. These old Macs will also default to the smallest possible drive cache, but everything still works after all these years. (I'm hoping to begin a series of "retro reviews" soon. It's still fun pulling out ancient Macs to see how capable they are in the Internet era.)

Yeah, I've had some minor problems with four of the five new Macs I've owned, but that seems to be well past the Apple average - and that is over a working life of up to five years per machiune. Best of all, most of the problems have been covered under warranty or AppleCare, so I've paid for very few repairs.

Just Use It

Apple should borrow a page from Nike - and another one from Verizon - and push their ease of use and reliability. "I can use it now."

But before that, they need to get a few more bugs out of the System. Bugs like Classic not working right some of the time. Bugs like not having a simple Apple utility to synchronize work files and user files between multiple computers.

I still think Macs are the best information appliance on the market, but until they are as reliable and easy to use as my toaster or refrigerator, there's room for improvement.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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