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June 2006 - Vol. 6, Issue No. 81
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
But for the rest of us, I decided to do a Windows beta 2 review that tells it exactly the way it is and not hold back on my criticisms because the product isn't shipping yet. Windows Vista is far from perfect, and while a small handful of those less than perfect aspects are beta bugs, most of what I'm criticizing in "Visual Tour: 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista" on Computerworld.com are design, feature, and functionality decisions that I think Microsoft should rethink.
Beta 2 is the first development build of any new version of Windows that is truly far along enough to constructively criticize, and the last time when any suggestions might actually change the product. It's the last step along the path before Microsoft locks down design and goes into bug-squishing mode for the release candidates.
What's so bad about Vista? Taken as a whole, Windows Vista is far more good than bad. But the User Account Controls features takes what might be described as Draconian user-interface measures to help ensure that hackers and malware can't break into Windows. The networking controls and settings are cobbled together as a plethora of unconnected, disorienting dialogs, wizards, and Control Panels. There is, overall, a ton of new code in Vista. And a lot of changes to the "user experience," as Microsoft likes to call it. Want to see what I mean? Check out my in-depth review on Computerworld, which includes numerous screenshots of Beta 2:
Please note: This article was recently Slashdotted, and it may display slowly at times. If you can't get in, bookmark it and look later. As always, I'm interested in your thoughts about what I write.
Getting Vista Beta 2
If you're dying to try the next version of Windows out for yourself, it looks like you're about to get your chance. Microsoft has not formally announced this, but when I attended the Vista Beta 2 Reviewer's Workshop in Seattle last week, they were very clear that they are planning to offer a Consumer Preview of Beta 2. When the software giant has done this in the past, it has set up a Web page where you could sign up to have the code sent to you, sometimes for a small fee to cover materials and shipping. If you're interested in this, keep an eye on the Microsoft Windows Vista home page. Another place to watch for the Vista Consumer Preview Program is on this Microsoft TechNet page.
Before you get too excited, let me offer some school-of-hard-knocks advice. Do not install Vista Beta 2 as an upgrade to a pre-existing Windows machine that you care about. This is beta code; you can't count on it to either install properly or ever to uninstall fully. The easiest way to install this code is either in a virtual machine utility, such as VMware Workstation or Virtual PC 2004, or use PartitionMagic to turn 15GB or so of free drive space on your hard drive into a new NTFS disk partition and run a clean install to that drive. That second approach delivers a better feeling for the operating system right now.
Your hardware also has to support Vista. For one thing, you need a DVD drive because the software comes on a DVD, not a CD. For another thing, you're going to need quite a bit of free disk space. You need a fairly advanced 3D graphics processor with at least 128MB of video memory that supports Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware to get the full Aero "Glass" effect. Microsoft also recommends 1GB of RAM for Aero. For more information about hardware requirements and whether your machine meets them, check out the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor.
The difference between what Microsoft describes as Vista-Capable PCs and Vista Premium Ready PCs is instructive, as well. The first one can only run the Vista Basic video mode; the second can run Aero Glass. Check out Microsoft's system requirements for the two levels of Windows Vista PCs: Windows Vista Capable and Premium Ready PCs. These system requirements footnotes add some useful detail.
At some point in the near future, I'll give you more in-depth thoughts about real-world system requirements for Windows Vista. In the mean time, here's some advice: Do not buy a notebook PC with less than a premium 3D graphics accelerator and at least 128MB of dedicated video RAM. And read this part of my Computerworld Vista story.
I received hundreds of emails with advice, encouragement, debate, disagreement, most with excellent insights. Meanwhile my research continues, but I've learned quite a bit, and added some additional products into my test scope.
I have several areas to cover and update, including a second look at Nod32, another take on what I consider to be the ideal antivirus program, some of the resources I'm using to evaluate AV products, and this list of additional AV products that I've already begun to test, starting with AVG and Kaspersky (more on this in a moment).
A Nod to Nod32
Several long-time readers of this newsletter, and also an Eset exec, reached out to me about my comments in the last issue of the newsletter about Eset's Nod32 antivirus program. I'd like to thank Eset's international support manager, Mark Zeman, and readers Tim Downey and Greg Martyn, both of whom use and recommend Nod32, one as an IT manager and the other as computer consultant. All three of these people took the time to walk me through various aspects of Nod32. As a result, I've been retesting it the last few weeks, and I'm a lot happier with it. It's still probably not my final pick. But it's better than I gave it credit for in the last issue.
So, to set the record straight, it is possible to make Nod32 2.5 operate completely silently. A piece of spectacularly bad UI in a configuration dialog kept me from finding the settings that I was looking for. Those settings are on the setup dialog for IMON (Internet Monitor), on the Miscellaneous tab, behind the Scanner Setup tab, on the Actions tab where there are default actions you can select via radio buttons for what to do when a threat is found, including "Prompt for an action," "Delete," and "Clean." My mistake was in not noticing that there were multiple file-types that you had to set with these radio button actions: Files, Archives, Self-extracting archives, Run-time packers, and Email. In order to select each file type, you have to select the drop-down then, click the radio button action, then select the next drop down, and so on. Sound confusing? I bet you didn't follow that. Heck, I didn't follow that. Like I said, very bad UI.
Once I figured out what needed to be done (thanks to Greg Martyn's configuration notes), the program stopped nagging me with prompts and began deleting detected threats automatically. Yay!
Drop-downs should be used sparingly, if at all. But when they are used, they should never present navigation or contain items that need to be acted upon. They should only present a common set of actions. The reason for this is simple. Drop-downs by their nature conceal. You can label such a construct with the word Actions, and the user will understand they must make a choice. But if you hide the items to be acted on, chances are they'll be missed by a good portion of the people who use it. I don't know about you, but life is short. I don't have time for programs whose developers didn't care enough to make settings dialogs understandable. There's no Red Badge of Courage given to geeks who can figure out stuff like this. Bad UI is bad UI.
I would also quibble with the fact that Eset separates all its configuration dialogs by its various types of "monitors," which in and of themselves aren't easily understandable for what they do. The program also presents a "silent mode" option during the installation process, but that doesn't actually make the program operate completely silently. All in all, Nod32's user interface is pretty bad. Eset's Zeman tells me Nod32 is due for a large user-interface overhaul in the 3.0 release. That would be a welcome change. I urge Eset to hire a user-interface consultant and get it right.
As to my other chief complaint, about inbound and outbound email scanning, Eset insists that its IMON does scan inbound email for viruses and malware, and the company admits that it does not scan outbound email (other than Outlook email) for the bad stuff. I have a problem with the lack of universal outbound scanning. It's not the most important feature most of the time, but I believe that all antivirus packages should employ, at least optionally, active outbound scanning designed to detect fast-moving viruses. When an outbreak occurs, and your machine gets infected during the couple of hours before a signature is delivered, an outbound scan should be able to heuristically detect possible malware and temporarily halt your outbound email to prevent further spread of something nasty. Do I think most antivirus companies with outbound scans have achieved that? No, but I think it's their responsibility to try.
One thing I would have to say is that Nod32 doesn't appear to be detecting many POP3 inbound email-borne viruses. Other products have detected more in my busy email environment. The thing about most email-borne malware is that unless you open the attachment or click the link, nothing bad happens. The bad stuff can exist in your mail store for years without it affecting you in any way. Usually, though, a deep system scan should pick it up. Balancing my concern about this is the fact that Nod32 has received excellent test certifications from a variety of independent AV testing labs.
Note: After this issue of the newsletter was published, I discovered that not only doesn't Nod32 perform outbound scanning, it also does not scan Eudora mailbox (.MBX) files. Part of what makes Nod32's scan so fast is that it smartly skips some things. Eudora's mailbox files are pure text. It stores all attachments, embedded items, and HTML graphics in separate folders. So by and large, there's very little possible threat in a Eudora mailbox file. These files do, however, contain HTML messsages, if you've allowed them, and they could call malware from the Internet. Eudora files are not completely threat free, but they represent only a low-level risk and Nod32 should scan them. In complete fairness, Eset has a point when it says to me: "Nod32's Imon checks all emails you receive through POP3 before they reach Eudora's mailbox." This does appear to be the case, but again, in my tests, Nod32 does not do as well as some others (such as Kasperksy) in catching email-borne threats. So, because of the lack of Eudora-specific support, it's difficult for me to get onboard with Nod32.
I can make no other objective complaints about Nod32. If Eset fixes the UI and adds SMTP scanning for all email packages, I'd not only reassess this product, there's a solid chance I might pick it. But the word is that outbound scanning of non-Outlook email packages hasn't been scheduled yet.
A Bit More About BitDefender
Last time I reported that BitDefender had serious issues with Eudora 7 and wasn't able to scan mail at all. The problem seemed to be related to the use of SMTP authentication by one of my mail hosts. One Scot's Newsletter reader wrote to confirm that he had the same problem with BitDefender and Eudora. Another reader said BitDefender worked fine for him with Eudora. I don't know the precise cause of the problem; what I know was that it was a serious problem. I was also not impressed with Softwin's handling of the problem. It was as if it was my fault for using Eudora. In my book, it's up to Softwin to figure this out, not its customers. If they didn't find a way to help me, I know they're unlikely to help you. So, I repeat, I cannot recommend BitDefender at this time especially not for anyone who uses Eudora. The company recently announced the first beta of BitDefender version 10, although I have no idea if it fixes the Eudora issues. I'm not even sure if beta 10 is available since, though I signed up for it, I haven't received any information and have not been given access to download it.
Still Under Consideration
Since the last issue of the newsletter, I've received hundreds of your recommendations about what products I should test or try. The most popular recommendation by a landslide is Grisoft's AVG. It was the name offered by more than 60% of those making recommendations to me. The next runner up was ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite (with uses antivirus software from Computer Associates). Although I got recommendations for something like 25 products in all, the ones that were recommended next most frequently were CA's eTrust Antivirus and EZAntivirus, Kaspersky, F-Secure, Avast, F-Prot, Nod32, and AntiVir. The Norton and McAfee products were the only ones that received negative testimonials. Less frequent recommendations included Clam-Win, Sophos, Command, Norman, and Symantec's AntiVirus enterprise client software. I've left out the names of several others that were recommended by only one person.
In addition to your recommendations, I've been consulting research reported by independent test labs, such as AV-Comparatives, AV-Test.org, Checkmark/West Coast Labs, ICSALabs, and Virus Bulletin. Most of these sites don't place their results online because they sell them. AV-Comparatives is an independent test site that publishes its results for all to see right on the Web. (Thanks to Tim Downey for pointing this out to me.)
On the AV-Comparatives site, click the "Comparatives" button to see actual test results. (AVG users may be surprised by what they see there.) The AV-Comparatives site also has an excellent links page offering access to a good list of other antivirus resources from both vendors and independent organizations.
There are also several comparative reviews, including the one published recently by PC World, which offer details of from their independent lab tests. PC World's The New Virus Fighters comparo offers some data from the tests conducted for them by AV-Test.org.
I'm using data from these and other sources to winnow the list of contenders. By definition, too, I'm looking for single-purpose products, not Internet security suites. I'm choosing low cost "Home" editions in most cases, but not free versions.
After a lot of consideration, I've decided to focus on these three antivirus products for the remainder of my tests: AVG, F-Secure, and Kaspersky. I'm also picking a fourth contender from Computer Associates. Despite the fact that I admire Zone Labs ZoneAlarm firewall, the single-purpose criterion lets out any of the ZoneAlarm product offerings. (Zone Labs does have the lighter-weight $30 ZoneAlarm Antivirus with just firewall and antivirus.) Instead of ZA, I'm deciding between Computer Associates' EZAntivirus (for home) or eTrust Antivirus (for small and medium businesses). I'm leaning toward the latter.
If you have input on any of the selected products especially concerning their versions or specific packages please feel free to email me.
So, here are the probable contenders:
Just a reminder to all, I have already crossed these AV products of my list: Norton, Panda, McAfee, PC-Cillin, Avast, and Nod32.
My Ideal Antivirus
Here's a quick list of some things I expect the best antivirus packages to provide:
1. Solid protection, including excellent detection of known malware and a demonstrated ability to detect new "in the wild" malware and polymorphic viruses, as judged by independent test labs.
2. Regular antivirus-signature updates, with advantage given to companies that can detect, create, and deliver AV signatures rapidly. All antivirus programs should be able to update themselves as well as their virus databases.
3. Full silent automatic, with quarantine and/or delete as available options for all detected threats in email, files, etc. False positives are just not a frequent issue with the better antivirus products. User intervention is not frequently needed.
4. A deep set of configuration options and a single, unified program interface that's easy to set up, configure, and use.
5. Universal email package support
6. Optional inbound and outbound email scanning
7. Built-in scheduling of full-system scans
8. A fully-functional try-before-you-buy version. While many of you may disagree, I prefer to see a product that times out after 60 days than one that doesn't do everything forever. I think 30 days is too short a time to evaluate a product like this, but that does seem to be the most common time-out period.
9. Helpful tech support, online documentation, knowledgebase, FAQs, installation instructions, and so on.
10. The ability to coexist gracefully with other security products, especially anti-spyware software and firewalls. (Note: This criterion was added after publication of this newsletter.)
Picking a Winner
I'm currently working my way through the four products on my under consideration list. Sometime before the end of this year I will come back and report my final choice. At this point, I'm attempting to close the door on new entrants to the contenders list, but if something amazing comes along, I will, of course, consider it. Note to Nod32 fans: It's very likely your product will receive honorable mention in the end, and I will install and assess the 3.0 version of the product when it arrives.
I like my new camera very much. I found the controls very easy to use, but then we've had a Canon EOS Rebel 35mm film SLR for 12 years. The 20D controls are almost identical. The Canon works well for us. It's automatic enough that when the kids are doing something particularly photographable, I can get it out and snap a picture before they stop doing what they're doing. It also has the high-end features that appeal to Scot's essential geekiness.
The one downside of this camera is that I find it heavy. (We have it outfitted with the 17-85mm zoom lens.) So far I've taken it when we've traveled, but all of those trips have been by car and mostly indoors, so the camera could sit on a table until we needed it. A couple weeks ago I wanted a camera to bring to a local open house and went looking for the Nikon Coolpix 995. It's much lighter and smaller, so it's more subtle. Unfortunately the batteries weren't charged, so I took the 20D. It wound up being fine. The house was only a block or two down the road and I got all the pictures I needed. Hanging off my shoulder, it was no heavier than a loaded purse. On a trip where I was doing more walking, I'd have to weigh (pun intended) the luggables. Kids require a lot of paraphernalia. I'd still bring a camera, but with the sippy cups, sunscreen, snacks, busy toys, and diaper bag, I might opt for our diminutive Panasonic PV-GS35 DVcam instead. It's small and light, and has the ability to take still images. [Editor's note: OK, so how does this add up? When I suggested getting you the superb, light-weight Canon A620 point-and-shoot last Christmas you looked at me like I was nuts? Now you're complaining about the size and heft of the 20D? You can't have it both ways! --Scot]
As a camera, the Canon 20D is great. It takes pictures nine ways 'til Sunday, not to mention Monday, Tuesday, etc. With the addition of the 20D we have migrated from being a sometimes digital to a mainly digital family. Before the 20D, I'd take pictures to film and order an image CD when I printed them. It's the best of both worlds. Quality prints I can ship to the family, with digital images I can load onto my computer.
We were particularly interested in this camera because it's capable of storing images as both full-quality JPG and RAW files. Scot has written plenty about RAW, but basically, the theory is that RAW are like a digital negatives, with complete image data that you can store indefinitely. Years from now when editing tools are more sophisticated (not to mention hardware being more powerful) you'd be able to go back and start from the RAW file and re-edit the image. And all that's true. [Editor's note: There's no "theory" about RAW images being the closest thing to a digital negative. While I haven't spent as much time as I'd have liked either taking pics or editing RAW files, I have done both things with the 20D and products like Adobe Photohop CS2. --Scot]
But in the 10 months we've had the camera, not once have I used the RAW files. (Yes, I've done the bulk of the image editing in that time.) They are there, ready for whatever use we want to put to them, but in the meantime I work with the JPG files.
After nearly a year of taking digital photos I've looked a wide variety of image-editing programs ranging from free to $99. In that time I've discovered something interesting. I don't use just one program for managing photos. What I've found is that I use a handful of programs, each for different chores. As I find new image-editing programs, I try them out, hoping I'll find one to keep and throw the others away. That hasn't happened yet, so I thought I'd tell you about the digital-photo-related software in my toolbox.
My Photoshop Bias
The photos I've been manipulating for the last year are the usual family-type photos. They include indoor and outdoor shots of husband, dog, and kids, in motion and semi-still (our 4 year old seldom does more than pause before she's off again). There are also some landscape shots of home and gardens in various weather types.
I don't use Photoshop. At all. In fact, I don't even think about using it. The reason goes back a long time. Many years ago, when I was young and eager editor, dealing with my first assignment, I loaded up Photoshop to do some simple edits on some screen captures. It was, after all, the tool of choice in the Macintosh world, and since it was finally available on Windows, I thought it a good choice. Boy was I wrong. More than a dozen years later and I still remember opening up the program and trying to figure out what to do next. It was the software equivalent of "if you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it." Since I had to ask what to do next, clearly I wasn't the target user of the program.
So I closed Photoshop and installed Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, then a shareware program. It did exactly what I needed it to, and didn't require a college degree to do a little cropping and maybe some resizing. Over all the years since, my mockups, crops, screen-grabs, photo-editing for newsletters, I've muddled through with Paint Shop Pro. In 2004, Corel bought Jasc, and it has continued to update Paint Shop Pro.
Adobe has learned a lot about Windows and Windows users since I first tried its premier photo-editing tool. And arguably, my original avoidance of Photoshop could well be the disdain of the intimidated. But don't bother trying to defend it to me. I have no tolerance for software that browbeats the user with all she doesn't know. And given a stubborn streak a mile wide, there's just no going back. I've gotten by without Photoshop for many years and will continue to do so. Until I can't anymore. [Editor's note: Only a mile wide? Heh-heh. I'm going to pay for that. But it's worth it. --Scot]
So as I said, Paint Shop Pro was my main photo-editing tool for many years. And Paint Shop Pro 7 is still in my toolbox as my all-around, quick-and-dirty image editor. I use it for screen capture (a must for professional software reviewers), and used to use the Browser utility to view images within a folder back before Windows had a thumbnail viewer. I also use it for quick edits cropping and resizing, color replacements, and enlarging a picture's canvas size. PSP7 opens quickly and lets me do quick edits without slowing me down.
Being such a long-time fan of Paint Shop Pro, I was excited by Corel's release of PSP X last summer. I was also disappointed that it wasn't quite as light as PSP7, but have found lots to like about the new version anyway.
Aside from basic edits like red-eye correction and image rotation, it provides for the three main types of corrections: lighting, color, and sharpening. It has a one-click photo fix, which gave some good results. But it also includes sliders for each correction, so you can make adjustments yourself.
I usually start with the auto fix because my main PC is a notebook. Trying to do color correction on an LCD screen is an exercise in futility. I love the portability of my notebook, but it does soften or even muddy colors no matter how high you adjust the brightness and contrast. So even if I were a design expert (which believe me, I'm not) I could adjust sliders all I wanted and come out with something that looked fine on my notebook but would look bad in print or on CRTs.
And as far as sliders go, well, it's one thing if you're trying to match the color of a scanned image. Then you have an original that you can go by. But with digital photos, I find it difficult to know what color and lighting adjustments to make. Flesh tones are especially tricky. And since the bulk of my pictures have loved ones' faces in them, it's important they look their best. While PSPX's one-touch fix does a good job punching up color and lighting, it sometimes makes people's faces too red, which can be tough to correct.
The main reason I keep PSPX, however, is because I love its retouching tools. The blemish fixer is definitely key. It works equally well on zits, moles, and leftover PB&J that didn't quite get wiped off by the napkin. I also love the tooth whitener. Just by selecting this tool and clicking a person's teeth makes their pearly whites look like they just left the dentist's office. There's also a suntan tool, which is a little harder to use but does generate some nice effects, like toning down an overly red face.
Scratch removal deletes scratches from old photos, but can also be used to erase phone lines and face wrinkles from new ones. PSPX also offers a cloning brush and an object-removal tool that lets you remove larger objects from photos. Or you can use the background eraser to select an object that you'd like to silhouette.
The Funny Part
But even though I liked a lot about PSPX, I still find working with flesh tones daunting. Then I got the press release about Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0. Adobe's naming convention has been confusing for years. Elements always sounded like some kind of add-on to, uh, Photoshop. And hence, nothing I ever needed to trouble myself about. But as I read the release, it turns out that the Elements part means consumer-oriented. But as I read the release, it turns out that the Elements part means consumer-oriented. As in, image editing for real people, you know, the ones who have full-time jobs that don't involve graphic design? So I installed it. Are you laughing yet? Wait, it gets better.
PE4 is actually two separate programs an image organizer and an image editor. The image organizer is useful. You select a folder (like My Pictures) and PE4 displays thumbnails of all the images within that folder and its subfolders. This makes it much easier to manage photos, which often have names like IMG_0855.jpg. You can add tags and group images together in a collection and then sort by those criteria. So I can find all the photos from our trip to Sarasota or all the snaps of our dog. Collections come in handy for projects, like creating slideshows of vacation pics.
One of the reasons I keep Photoshop Elements 4 as my image organizer is its ability to create multiple image catalogs. Programs like Google Picasa 2 and Trevoli Photo Finale find images, but put all the thumbnails into one catalog, which becomes unwieldy especially if you like to keep family photos, business graphics, and clipart collections separate.
I Am Nomad. I Must Organize.
Another thing I like about Photoshop Elements 4's organizer is the Properties box. This is part of the default workspace and displays the filename, date, and path-name of a file. That information is useful when, for example, I'm trying to make a decision about whether a thumbnail can safely be deleted because it is a duplicate. Many image organizers let you work either with thumbnails or with directory folders, but not both. PE4 strikes a good balance, letting you use thumbnails, but also displaying their physical location, so you're never confused.
While the organizer displays thumbnails, you can also perform simple image edits with it, such as automatically fixing red eye, image rotation, and one-click image correction.
I also use PE4 as my main photo editor for several reasons. One key advantage is that the Adjust Color menu offers a handy command called Adjust Color for Skin Tone. Goodbye red faces! After I let the program make its color and lighting adjustments, I go back and adjust the color for skin tones.
It has many of the same cool editing tools as PSPX, including spot healing, cloning, and background erasing. No teeth whitener as yet, though. Photoshop Elements 4 also has what Adobe calls a magic selection brush. You draw or scribble on an object and the program smartly selects the entire object based on color and texture similarity. That makes it really easy to move objects between photos or strip out backgrounds to create silhouettes.
Another reason I've stuck with PE4 is because it does a great job of optimizing color settings for print. I can make any edits I choose knowing that PE4 will help make sure the result is still printable. And since that is still the main way I share photos, print quality is important to me. I've selected this by default, but you can also change it on the fly. (More on printing next time I write about this.)
PE4 is a great combination of complex and easy. It has great automatic fixes, with automatic fixes for the fixes. It also has multiple sliders for lighting, color, and sharpening whether you're in standard editing or quick-fix mode.
Photoshop Elements 4 isn't perfect, though. Adobe decided that masks are too complicated. Also, editing and organizing are two separate modules within PE4. As a result, it'd be nice if there were a way to create a separate desktop icon for each module, instead of just the one. The Help file, although quite useful, is yet another separate application called Adobe Help Center. This is vexing, particularly as Help Center has its own program updates, managed through the Adobe Updater yet another headache. And PE4 is slow to load. (My notebook's an IBM ThinkPad T41 with a 1.5GHz mobile Pentium CPU.) Even so, between the organizing module, the skin-tone adjustment, and the automatic color correction for printing photos, I'll be sticking with Photoshop Elements for the foreseeable future. No other photo-editing tool strikes this compromise between power and simplicity.
It's a Wrap
That covers the bread-and-butter programs I use most every day for handling photos, graphics, and other images. There are also some specialty programs I've become quite fond of, which I'll take up in another issue. In the meantime, I'd be interested in your photo-editing/management thoughts and experiences. Do you have a program you swear by? Or do have your own toolbox of tried-and-true tools? Drop me a line (this is Cyndy's mailbox) and tell me about it.
My colleague at Computerworld, Ken Mingis, has written recent reviews of both the MacBook Pro 17" and the even newer MacBook (replacement for the G4 iBook).
In more traditional Scot's Newsletter style, I took the 17-inch MacBook Pro from Ken after 48 hours and have been working on a long-term review for the last three weeks or so. A couple of months back, I broke down and bought a MacBook Pro 15.4" Intel Core Duo 2.0GHz machine, so I'm very familiar with the particulars. For more on what I wrote about that machine (not a formal review), check out my review of Boot Camp from the April issue of the newsletter, Windows Expert's Review: Apple's Boot Camp.
For me, the best aspect of the 17-inch-diagonal version of Apple's new MacBook Pro line is the additional vertical screen real estate it affords over the 15.4" display. The almost 1-inch of added height of the LCD, and the larger 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution (as opposed to the 15.4" MacBook Pro's 1440-by-900-pixel resolution) cuts way back on your need to scroll documents and Web pages. With its wide aspect ratio, the 15.4" display always seemed plenty wide. But it becomes a necessity to move the Dock to one side or the other. Even though the vertical resolution increase is only 150 pixels, that small increase in size on the 17-inch model makes all the difference.
By the same token, the biggest drawback to the MacBook Pro 17 is the QE II expanse on your lap, and the 6.8-pound heft. The mitigating factor? The darn thing is still a scant 1-inch thick, and it still fits just fine in my briefcase. I've been commuting back and forth with three notebooks in my briefcase (a Microsoft WinHEC bag) for the last few weeks, so I know exactly how portable the MacBook Pro 17 is. It's actually easier to tote around than my new 15.4-inch Dell Inspiron E1505. In fact, stacking the MacBook Pro 15 atop the MacBook Pro 17 beside the Dell Inspiron, only the MacBook Pro 15 LCD assembly pokes up above the height of the Inspiron. Just the base of the Dell (not including its LCD, is higher than the MacBook Pro. For me, that's a profound difference.
Beside its lack of IBM's TrackPoint UltraNav eraser-head pointing device with its slick vertical scrolling feature, literally the only additional nit I can pick about the MacBook Pro 17 is the tendency for the lid to close too easily, especially as you're carrying it around. My guess is that Apple used the same friction-hinge assembly for the heavier 17-inch display that it uses for the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro. I examined the LCD of an older 17-inch G4 PowerBook, and it was balanced properly for the weight of the screen. It's a minor point though.
Let the Love Fest Commence
The MacBook Pro represents an excellent value, at least as compared with the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro. My test unit from Apple is configured with the 2.16GHz Core Duo, 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 video, a 7,200-RPM 100GB hard drive, and 2GB of RAM. In other words, it's loaded. The only thing it lacks is the new glossy screen, which hadn't even been announced when we received this test unit. On the MacBook Pro, Apple makes the glossy screen which emphasizes color saturation and crispness when you're playing DVDs and Web video available at the same price as the standard matte screen. I really like the look of the glossy screen. I adore my Inspiron's glossy UltraSharp display, even for business applications, so that's the only thing I would change about the test unit.
Other advantages of the 17-inch MacBook Pro model include an 8x double-layer SuperDrive (as opposed to the 15.4-inch model's 4x SuperDrive), a FireWire 800 port, and three (as opposed to two) USB 2.0 ports.
As configured by Apple, the 17-inch test unit prices out at $3,099. You can save yourself some money by buying it with a single 1GB SODIMM for $2,799 and adding 1GB from a reputable third party. The comparably equipped 15.4-inch MacBook Pro is $2,599, so there's a $200 delta in price.
To add a 1GB SODIMM to your MacBook Pro, you'll need a jeweler's screwdriver (inexpensive sets are available from most any hardware store). Simply power the unit off, remove the power cord, remove the battery, and unscrew the four very small Phillip's head screws you'll find inside. Lift off the cover plate, and insert your new SODIMM. Then reverse your steps. It's a good idea to wear an anti-static grounding wrist strap when you do this. The entire operation takes less than 10 minutes. I performed it without a hitch on my 15.4-inch MacBook Pro.
New Two-Finger Context Menu Feature
The 17-inch model also offers a slightly different version of Mac OS X 10.4.6 (Build No. 8I2032). It provides an updated Keyboard & Mouse Preference pane with a Trackpad setting that delivers the right-click functionality of a two-button mouse. I found the feature to be in need of some tweaking by Apple. It's a two-finger affair like Apple's excellent two-finger scrolling Trackpad feature. And it takes two forms, depending on whether you use Trackpad's tapping functionality.
Tapping to select or open is a feature also offered by many Windows trackpads. Instead of clicking the left button, you tap the Trackpad itself. Tapping works just fine on the MacBook Pro, and I use it.
When you work this way, Apple gives you the option to two-finger tap the trackpad in order to simulate a second-button (or right button) click, opening a context menu. That sounded very convenient to me, but it's not reliable; it's just got too small a range of pressure sensitivity. You have to two-finger tap very lightly for it to work. And it's also possible to tap it too lightly. I found the feature frustrating. Apple may need to fine-tune the feature or offer a slider bar for tapping sensitivity.
If you don't use the Trackpad's tapping feature, then the appropriate gesture is to rest two fingers on the Trackpad and click the button once. That works fine, it's just a little awkward. If the two-finger tap worked correctly for me, I'd use it. The way it stands, I prefer an inexpensive Mac utility called 1 Finger Snap by Old Jewel software. It lets you accomplish the same task by holding down the mouse button and tapping one finger. 1 Finger Snap also offers an adjustment for the slight delay before the context menu opens. Apple's delay is too long.
I give Apple points for working on right-mouse-button functionality. Some Macintosh power users like this too; it's not just us Windows guys. But more work is needed to make it work the way it should.
Getting Down to It
So I've picked on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and I've praised its resolution and slim form factor. And I've toted it back and forth to work. What do I really think? My colleague Ken Mingis just bought one straight out. And it's hard to argue with the gorgeous screen, rip-snorting performance, and the many extras this model offers over it's smaller MacBook Pro brethren. The only question becomes: How big is too big for you?
I have a ready answer to that question. Little though she knows, Cyndy's next computer is a 15.4-inch MacBook Pro. And mine? My next computer is 17-inch MacBook Pro with a glossy screen. Because so far as I'm concerned, you can never get too much screen real estate. And the fact that I can run 1,680-by-1,050 on a bright, easy-on-the-eyes 17-inch display like this one is, well, it's notebook perfection. You gotta grab that when it comes along. [Editor's note: I see you every day. Is it really appropriate that I get this news in the newsletter? P.S. Your daughter wants to know where her computer is. --Cyndy] [Hey, did I mention Adobe Photoshop Elements 4 is available for the Mac ...? --Scot]
While Apple pretty much fixes the prices of all its products, that doesn't mean you can't save significant money by buying elsewhere. Apple charges exorbitant prices for some extras (like RAM). Even more important, it also charges sales tax whether you buy it in an Apple store or buy from Apple's Online Store. If your state charges sales tax, you'll pay that tax to Apple. Shipping may be free, but it can also take a long time to get your order from Apple.
That's where MacPrices comes in. It charts prices from a long list of reputable Mac retailers (such as MacMall, MacConnection, B&H Photo, MacZone, J&R, and others). It checks their prices nearly every day, and calls out the best deals. Many online stores offer rebates or extras on Macs, like RAM, printers, or software. It also shows whether each store has stock on the models it offers, and whether it charges for shipping.
MacPrices.com is definitely a useful site. Its publishers, Hildreth Enterprises, also offer PBCentral.com, which explores good deals on Mac notebooks (the PB is short for PowerBook).
Have you discovered a relatively unknown, technology-prelated website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.
I'm taking some time off in early July, so the newsletter may skip a month, or it may be an abbreviated version. Whenever Windows Vista RC1 arrives, I will review it but that's probably still a couple months off. Check the Scot's Newsletter home page for more on when the next issue will arrive./p>
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