The Low End Mac Mailbag

Edu-iMac No Longer Sold to Invididuals, Gray Box Problem Solved, French Interoperability Law, and More

Dan Knight - 2006.07.15

Today's mailbag begins with several letters about the education-only iMac, which Apple no longer offers to individuals. Following are letters about a problem I had with a translucent gray box on two of my OS X 10.4.x Macs - and the solution.

We also continue the discussion it iTunes for OS X being unable to convert AIFF to MP3, discuss issues dealing with downloading movies, and have another go at the French interoperability law. - Tip Jar

Edu-iMac Compromises No Longer Relevant

Ed Hurtley says:

In your recent Mailbag, you have a couple letters discussing the compromises of the new education iMac, and how it's not appropriate for students. Well, it appears it doesn't matter, anyway. Apple has restricted this new model to institutions. So only schools can buy them, not individuals. I get the feeling that it never really was meant for individuals, like the iMacs they used to sell that didn't even have optical drives.


Ed Hurtley


Thanks for writing, Ed. Yeah, I noticed on Wednesday that I could no longer find it on the Apple Store for education, and I've updated my Mac Musings column to indicate the change by Apple.

Disappointing, as I thought it was a pretty decent value.


Education iMac on Order

The Original MacintoshPhillip Porter writes:

Good Morning Dan,

Thanks for a great website. I almost feel like I'm leaving it behind. For the first time since my parents bought a 128k Mac back in 1984, I will be sitting down in front of a new Macintosh sometime next week (I hope). As soon as I heard about the education iMac, I told my wife that we were going to get a new computer. We've been putting it off for about three years now, but with Intel and Boot Camp this lets us upgrade both of our computers in a big way (G3/266 and a Pentium 300-something).

We spent the weekend looking at what people had to say and then ordered our new machine (with a memory upgrade) on Monday. It was interesting to see the widely varying responses to this machine. The thing that struck me the most is that the people who responded most negatively all were looking at this machine in terms of home use and comparing it to other Macs higher up the food chain. The most positive reviews were people who seemed to be looking at it form the perspective of institutional (school and business) use - or comparing it to other $899 Macs. It is true that it isn't as snappy as more expensive Macs, but for what it was meant to be they did a great job. Schools don't need to try to keep track of a drawer full of Apple Remotes, they don't need DVD burners on every computer, and they certainly don't need computers capable of playing Quake, Doom, or WoW. Schools already get high-end machines for areas that need them, but the standard classroom computer doesn't really need to be able to do that much.

I wasn't surprised at all to hear that they have pulled it from the education store and are no longer selling it to individuals. I just hope that they don't apply that to individuals who already placed orders (me).

Have fun,


Thanks for writing, Phillip. You'll have to let me know what you think of it when you've used it for a few days!


Did Apple Design the Edu-iMac with Educators?


It's safe to say that Apple didn't design the E-iMac with educators. I think they forgot to keep things simple and forgot what kind of school they're targeting for. Is it private or public? Unless their curriculums are very similar, then this is ok. If I base it on the curriculum on the international school I did internship for (not as a teacher but fixing PCs and Macs), it would still be for the most part: Office (Excel, Word, PowerPoint mostly), Visual Studio with their current Windows 98 machine sufficient enough to do the work.

But then it's good promotion for private schools to have the latest and greatest especially for ivy league schools (my college surprisingly of all colleges had a Mac class, not that it wasn't ivy league) and international schools. But then I guess in the US, most public schools equal international schools in other countries, which makes these names irrelevant.

In the end, Apple is seeing through the eyes of the school from a marketing perspective. They, from their inside source, know the psychology in the US schools (other schools in other countries just follow the US system anyway - like the Philippines) that need is now secondary, it's really more on promotion. If you have the iMac, then you can say you have it all: native Windows for teaching Office and Visual Studio and native OS X for teaching . . . no applications actually, just OS X, which is enough. Boot Camp is good for education, because you can run it natively and people shut down their computers after each class, anyway or it stays on in Windows or OS X if the next class is the same.

There's focus with Boot Camp. If it had Parallels built-in Leopard, students will just get confused. If there are school who'd like to promote their schools, they should expose more their curriculum which says it has Mac related subjects. It should always be for the high school curriculum, the point of transition to choosing which career they'll take. If in high school you chose to be in digital arts then it's better to learn OS X early on. But then the school cannot promote their school's curriculum if they don't have iMacs or Mac minis if Apple doesn't convince them to have that subject in their curriculum. It would also be a good promotion for schools if they become a little more daring and offer Mac subjects (OS X) at grade school level even.

Apple should have campaigns and advertisement showing why OS X only subjects (Photoshop and Maya for high school, GarageBand for music class and iWorks Drawing for art class for grade school or high school maybe?) should be in their curriculum and that it should emphasize that having it would be a great promotion for their schools. Marketing is really more important than product value (if you really need it) nowadays.

It should also show through some research why it's better to buy a complete set, like the iMac, as opposed to retaining old parts. One of the reasons is down time, which disrupts classes when an old part refuses to work (the new ones, of course, becomes useless [without the old ones]) in class where focus and attention is harder (teens and preteens). I think Apple saw through this.

I think 20 GB, no iSight with such curriculum is a better E-iMac unless Apple has a subject it could add to that curriculum that will use more than 20 GB or the iSight. For the iSight, I think they included it as an offering as a nanny technology to see what the student's doing, through a main monitor, tiled into small squares or if he's present or absent (then have that recorded for that time and day as a snapshot or something). Or, I suppose, it's best as an ID thing to embed in new age of electronic tests and papers for which I suppose, should this E-iMac take off, Apple's got a ready device that is better than a pen tablet that has fingerprint/iris recognition technology for logging in (I actually did a guessed 3D model this input device - I could look for it and send it with explanation on how it works) that is not easily stolen for writing and choosing the letter of the correct answer.

Then, of course, a classroom is like an office - What's in a name. These iMacs with iSight with the Apple software with the ability to be Windows natively should it be successful in organizations like schools, will be used in offices, see what they're doing, if they're absent or not then snapshot this at 9 a.m. another at 5 p.m. with Apple software. And they don't even need to buy expensive equipment for this. It can be had with Apple, off the shelf, mass produced and more accurate (a security cam will have blind spots and its from a distance). Fantastic ideas but possible, :)

God bless,


You make some good points, Alvin. Virtualization would just confuse students by running Mac and Windows apps at the same time.

As for designing the edu-iMac, I think Apple just looked at the 17" iMac, asked how it could reduce the price while still keeping it useful and without eliminating the best features. A lot of us were surprised to see that iSight stayed, but you've suggested some good uses for it in schools.

I don't know how Apple markets to schools, but between the US$499 (?) education price of the base Mac mini and the US$899 price of the education-only iMac, they have some serious contenders these days. And let's not forget the MacBook at US$999.


Translucent Gray Box Suggestion

Jim Champlin writes:


Do any of your apps use the Growl notification system? The box looks nearly identical to the ones used by the new Yahoo 3 Beta, which uses Growl. You might try disabling, uninstalling, or updating Growl if you have it installed.



Thanks for the suggestion, Jim, but I've never put Growl on either of these Macs.

Translucent Grey Box Solved!

Mr. Knight -

I recently saw that same exact issue (happened right after I moved a hard drive from one Sawtooth to a different Sawtooth machine), and it was driving me crazy as well. Going through processes, I found that when I killed the WinSwitch process, the box disappeared. But when I restarted and WinSwitch reloaded, the box came back.

If you haven't already done so, you could try throwing out the WinSwitch preferences and then rebooting to see if that helps. In my case, the problem resolved itself because I had a different issue which forced me to reformat my drive and install OS X (and subsequently WinSwitch) again. Doing so cleared up the box for me, so maybe it is preference file related after all. (It was the same version of WinSwitch, just a clean install after I reformatted.)

Don't know if any of this will fix your issue, but at least it may help give you a little insight from my experience, and to know you're not alone. :) If the problem does go away after you mess with it a little more, you may want to write a note to Wincent since something funky in WinSwitch is making this happen to some people for some reason.

- Matthew Ryan


Thanks for the suggestion, Matthew. I'd pretty much forgotten I had WinSwitch installed!

I opened Activity Monitor (in the Utilities folder) and quit WinSwitchHelper. The gray box vanished immediately.

I then found and ran the WinSwitch installer (yes, I had the latest version, which is 3.2.1), chose the Uninstall option, and took it off my Mac. I then eliminated the two .plist (preference) files associated with WinSwitch and WinSwitchHelper. I then logged out, logged in again, and reinstalled WinSwitch. Everything is fine at present.

On my other Mac, I deleted the .plist files and then uninstalled WinSwitch without first killing WinSwitchHelper, and the gray box disappeared instantly. After I rebooted the Mac (I had been downloading the 10.4.7 update in the background), no sign of the gray box. Reinstalled WinSwitch and no problem at all.

I'll be sure to share my experiences with Wincent Colaiuta, the author of WinSwitch. Perhaps it's something that can be addressed in the next version.


Another Translucent Gray Box Suggestion

Michael Watson of Freeverse writes:


Unfortunately, people jumped the horse and shotgunned the problem. The thread yields no usable data, but it's worth noting that you aren't alone.

Are you running Growl, by any chance?

- Michael Watson


Thanks for writing, Michael. No, Growl isn't installed. It turns out the problem was WinSwitch, a nice little shareware app that apparently had corrupted prefs. By deleting the two preference (.plist) files and uninstalling the program, the box vanished. When I reinstalled, the box didn't come back.

iTunes Won't Convert AIFF to MP3

Following up on MP3 Decoder for OS 8, Jim Brunswick writes:


I have OS X on the Mac mini, and though iTunes claims to convert AIFF or WAV to MP3, it does not work. The clerks at our big Apple store report that many customers find that OS X iTunes cannot convert, even though it says it can. So I've been fantasizing about making the conversions on my old PPC 7100, 180 MHz , desktop.

I can't determine how so many Mac users are building archives of MP3 files with an iTunes that doesn't convert. Here in Canada, Apple wants $200 before they'll provide support. What a rip. Pardon the pun. I certainly can't afford $200 to learn how to make iTunes do what it is supposed to do. Today, the manager of the Apple store confided that he also has been unable to convert AIF-WAV to MP3 using iTunes. That made me feel sorta okay. Hmm....

Jim Brunswick


Jim, I can't comprehend how iTunes would be unable to convert AIFF files to MP3 since that's the standard format of tracks on music CDs. I know it rips just fine from CD.

Perhaps you need to add an appropriate extension to the filename....



Hello Dan:

I have been told that AIFF is not the standard format for CDs. WAV is the format standard for factory manufactured molded CDs. Apparently AIFF is actually an artificial format that is actually a revised WAV format, when we have an AIFF file, and burn an audio CD with that file, the software rewrite a 'wav- front end coding, so the finished product, your burned disc that will play in your home CD player, is actually a form of WAV file.

I was given this explanation, online, by an Apple tech support specialist. If it is accurate, it is quite intriguing to learn that all us Apple people think we are playing AIF files when we actually are not. Anyway, I'm technically ignorant, and all this format algebra boggles my little mind.

I'm sure you are tired of this unsolicited discussion, so I won't pester you any further.

Thanks for your attention.

Jim Brunswick


Jim, I've done a little more research, and I stand corrected. The Wikipedia articles on AIFF and WAV are quite enlightening. Both formats use pulse code modulation (PCM), which is also used to create tracks on CDs. The difference is that AIFF and WAV are standard computer formats for sound files, and both must be converted to the Red Book audio format when burning CDs.

WAV is the standard audio file format used by Microsoft and IBM, while AIFF is the standard audio file format used by Macs and Silicon Graphics. The only significant difference between WAV and AIFF is that AIFF is big-endian, while WAV is little-endian - an issue no computer should have a problem dealing with. Wikipedia notes, "Both WAVs and AIFFs are compatible with Windows and Macintosh operating systems."

Searching for AIFF and MP3 OS X apps at MacUpdate, I've found two programs that might work for you: Music Man ($20 shareware) and Sound Grinder ($39 commercial app).




I really appreciate your helpful assistance. The description you provide of the AIFF=WAV file thing is very clear and highlights my blundering attempt to interpret the stuff a PC technician laid on me. I'm going to pursue the 2 applications you located for MP3.

It is very difficult to understand why Apple's iTunes OS X claims to convert AIF to MP3, but in fact, seems to be unable to do so. The manager of my neighbourhood Apple store claims that many customers bring this complaint to Apple, and Apple has not provided a clear response. These kind of mysteries make average users CRAZY!

I still love OS 8.6. I could do everything I need to do with that OS. It isn't clear to me what is so great about OS X.

Jim Brunswick

iTMS Movie Downloads

After reading Higher Resolution Content, Video iPod Speculation, and Apple's Big File Size Problem, Ed Hurtley writes:

They have already offered "movies" for sale. The Disney made-for-TV-movie (whose name escapes me) was offered.

And they even offered the one hour, twenty-eight minute pilot of the new Spike Network series Blade: The Series for free. It weighs in at a whopping 444.9 MB. It's now the normal $1.99.

If they were willing to offer 444.9 MB for free (although I actually assume that the various networks foot the bill for the '"free" shows in an attempt to draw in viewers to pay for the rest of the series from then on) then what's wrong with an iPod-sized movie?

But I wouldn't buy iPod-sized movies. They just don't look quite right, even on a "standard definition" set, much less an HD set or a computer screen. It's okay for TV shows or even older Disney shorts, but I won't even buy a second Pixar short simply because the detail just isn't good enough for anything that I originally watched in a theater.

Yes, the big problem does arise when you get to higher-quality video. Moving to the "minimum" HD resolution of 640 x 480 (or 848 x 480 for 16:9 video) increases the size at least 25%, and that's moving from high-quality H.264 at the lower resolution to only medium-quality at the higher resolution. If you want to keep it reasonably high quality, you have to double the file size. (For example, the 16:9 Blade pilot is encoded at 320 x 184 (680 kbits/sec), Apple's 'HD' "Get a Mac" ads are 848 x 480 (830 kbits/sec), and their 1440 x 1064 (basically a 4:3 1080 HD) "1000 Songs" iPod ad is a whopping 21 Mbits/sec.

Ed Hurtley


Thanks for the info on the Blade download. At roughly 450 MB for a 90 minute program, it shows my numbers were in the ballpark.

The big question is whether Apple was talking about 1.5 GB for a 90 minute feature or a 3 hour one. That's the factor that's going to determine resolution and quality.

I look forward to seeing where Apple goes with this.


Apple's Big File Distribution Problem

Robert Boylin writes:

Dear Dan Knight;

I enjoyed your take on this video distribution problem. While I was looking towards BitTorrent as a present day solution, recent articles and Telco lobbying has brought up a problem. The Telcos stated that about 30% of their IP network was currently attributed to BitTorrent content. The current Fair Play bill in Congress has been shaped to allow a two-tier delivery system for such content - with pricing to follow no doubt.

In my mind these issues will continue to put large video file distribution in the dedicated network delivery systems. One could ask if Apple should pursue such a distribution method with alliances or spectrum purchases of their own with the associated infrastructure cost. Perhaps a partnership which would combine various communication services delivered on some of the spectrum to be auctioned soon is likely.

It's the competition between Microsoft and Apple for dominance of their the audio and video file formats that is driving this. How far Apple will go and what role could TV distribution play are worth considering.

Robert Boylin


It's frustrating to see legislators and big business try to change the nature of the Internet. I lean toward the "Net Neutrality" side of things - ISPs shouldn't be allowed to determine whether to throttle back your connection based on what kind of data is streaming over it.

I have a feeling that there's enough inertia in the online community - especially groups like Slashdot users - to keep a tiered Internet at bay.


re: iTunes and the French Interoperability Law

In response to iTunes and the French Interoperability Law, Martin Howard writes:

Hallo Dan,

I read with interest your recent musing "iTunes and the French Interoperability Law", and while I found it interesting and provocative, I also found it a little naive and somewhat missing the mark.

In the section entitled "Let the Market Decide", you make the implicit comparison between a number of well known competing "standards" and Apple's FairPlay and Microsoft's PlaysForSure. As readers, we are expected to draw the conclusion that since the marketplace successfully managed to choose between other competing products without government intervention, this should be no different.

Let's first look at the comparisons made in the article. LPs and 45s were fundamentally compatible, using the same storage technology, but different sized disks and different playback speeds and where never, to my knowledge, competing formats, but rather complementary ones. Both Betamax (Sony) and VHS (JVC) recorders and players were manufactured by several manufacturers. In both cases, I could buy an LP manufactured by one company and play it on another company's turntable. Or buy a VHS film produced by Sony Pictures and play it on a JVC VHS machine.

The Ford vs. GM comparison is completely off, since you are there talking about spare parts for their respective vehicles and your point is not that Apple memory cards don't fit in Windows computers. But what if I could only put Shell petrol in Ford cars and not GM cars?

The comparison that comes closest to the mark is the Nikon vs. Canon, but even that misses the fundamental point. Imagine a world in which pictures taken with Nikon cameras and lenses could only be stored on Nikon memory cards, viewed on Nikon computers and screens, only printed with Nikon printers, on Nikon paper. That would be an analogous situation to the kind of control that digital media companies are attempting to leverage over the consumer.

But the fundamental point is that the consumers, even though they are many, simply don't have the power to go against these large companies and in order for the market to be able to make a choice, interoperability is a key requirement. The key lies in the realization that, yes, the markets consists of many individuals who together wield a lot of economic power, but we wield that power as individuals. When push comes to shove, it's an individual consumer against a multi-national company.

A case in point. The article states, "The personal computer market has by-and-large chosen Microsoft Windows over the Mac OS and Linux". In fact, the market has done no such thing. Windows was initially an add-on to MS-DOS in response to growing interest in the Macintosh graphical user interface. The market actually wanted the Mac GUI, but they couldn't afford the switch. Windows caught on because, unlike the Mac, it already had an enormous installed hardware base to run on and while not particularly good in comparison to the Mac, it was better than nothing at all. And how did it get that base? Not by competing with the Mac, because when the Mac was launched in 1984, MS-DOS had been around for three years. MS-DOS (initially PC-DOS) was a competitor to CP/M, CP/M-80, and CP/M-86.

The real reason MS-DOS was so widely spread and ultimately won against those competitors was because, at that time, manufacturers who wanted to ship MS-DOS on any of their hardware had to pay Microsoft a license fee for all of the machines they built, regardless of whether MS-DOS shipped on it or not. With contracts like that, the market was given no chance to make any kind of choice at all. With the limited budgets most of us are required to work within, economics took care of the rest.

This, of course, was in those glorious Reagan-era 1980s. Twenty years on, Apple clearly remembers the lesson and is trying to do the same thing to Microsoft (and everyone else) in the digital media arena. By locking iTunes Music Store customers into proprietary formats, they are limiting the consumers' possibility to wield the only power they possess in the market, by effectively removing the ability to transfer your music collection to any future, better product from competitors. Or to play it at all on anything, better or not, that Apple has not designed, built, and sold to you.

The irony of your article is that the effect of the French interoperability law is to protect and ensure the market's ability to make that decision.

Martin Howard


All analogies fail at some point. We're dealing with two overlapping systems competing for the same market. The market is music listeners, whether they ever buy a track online or not.

iTunes Music Store and the iPod support both Windows and Mac OS X. Microsoft's system requires the use of Windows and a PlaysForSure certified player. With Apple, you have one place to buy tunes; with Windows DRM you have a lot more.

In both cases, you have pretty much the same broad selection of music available at pretty much the same price per track. In the end, it's just music to listen to.

As with choosing VHS vs. Beta or Nikon vs. Canon, your choice has consequences. Want that nice 10.5mm Nikon fisheye for your Canon? Want that 85mm f/1.2 Canon lens for your Nikon? It ain't gonna happen. Have a favorite movie on Beta? Sorry, but you won't be able to watch it on VHS.

Nikon and Canon, Beta and VHS, Apple and Microsoft are not closed ecosystems. With the cameras, you can choose your brand of film or memory card and add third-party lenses. With videos, you hook them up to the same television set. And with digital music, you can rip your own CDs and burn CDs that you can play anywhere.'s the very nature of DRM to restrict the use of the material.

The only problem the French law addresses is interoperability of digitally protected content despite the fact that it's the very nature of DRM to restrict the use of the material.

Since every iTMS customer has the ability (and, in most nations, the right) to burn unprotected CDs from their protected purchases - CDs which could be ripped to MP3 or some other format - the irony is that the French government sees any reason at all to interfere with the market.


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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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