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Wednesday, March 22, 2006


So after harping on some of the problems I'm having integrating a couple of new PowerMacs into our business environment (here and here), I thought I'd take a second to mention something that Apple does better than any other computer manufacturer out there.

In truth, I hesitate to mention this at all because I don't want them to sell out too quickly, but Apple's little secret in the Apple Store Online is the Apple Certified Refurbished products link.

I've been using this quite a lot and I am very impressed with the quality of the packaged product and Apple's attention to detail when boxing up the computers.

Some of the things I've noticed when buying a refurbished Mac:

1) If Apple's standard equipment or software packages change, you'll often get a machine that meets the new spec even if it says otherwise on their site. Of course this means you may very well NOT get the new spec, but a couple examples of where this worked in my favor include: the purchase of an iMac G5 that was supposed to come with 256MB of RAM but came with 512MB instead -- the new Apple standard; a PowerMac that was supposed to ship with iLife '05 came with iLife '06; and another Mac that was supposed to ship with OS X Panther came with OS X Tiger in the box. Thanks Apple!

2) Despite warnings the refurbished Mac may arrive with scratches or other blemishes (they ARE returned/used after all), I have yet to see one come that way. The iMac, PowerMac and a monitor I ordered all arrived in perfect condition. In fact, the PowerMac arrived wrapped up much nicer than the "new" one I purchased. Go figure.

3) By purchasing a refurbished Mac, you know that someone has had their "hands on it" making sure it's up to spec before boxing it back up to be sold. It's not like Best Buy where they slap an "Open Box" sticker on a box that is, in many cases, still open. No, these are fully checked out, certified and then put up for sale.

4) Unlike other manufacturers who sell refurb but offer virtually no warranty, Apple offers their full standard warranty on each machine they sell. That in itself makes it a no brainer in my book.

5) The discounts are substantial! They don't want this stuff sitting around too long, so to move these products out the door, you'll see some deep cuts off the sticker price. As a great example, as I write this there is a 15" MacBook Pro listed on the site for $300 off list ... plus free shipping! Sweet.

So what's the catch?

There are a couple of "gotchas" to be on the look out for:

1) The machine may not be free of surface defects. If that matters at all to you, then don't take a chance.

2) The quantities are very limited. If you really are in the market for a new computer and you see something you like on their sale page, you better not drag your heels for too long.

3) The savings come off the original list price of the computer in question. In other words, if Apple releases a new model with a lower price, the refurb model with the old feature set and higher price might not be all that great a deal in comparison. I've noticed that primarily with the iPod line.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Power Mac Woes, part II

If you'll recall my last post, we're experiencing some issues when trying to replace Windows XP computers with Apple Power Mac G5 computers in our Creative Services department here at work.

So far I've related the issues of:
  1. Slow access to network file folders containing thousands of files.
  2. InDesign's import filter problems
  3. Poor font management
  4. Font tearing in the Mozilla products
Each of those is high on my list of "Stoppers". That is, problems which would prevent the roll out of these very expensive machines.

Before I move on to the other, lesser, problems encountered, let me point out that I understand many of these issues I have related or will relate are not Apple's problem. Many of these are with 3rd party software running on the Mac. However, these same programs are available on BOTH the Windows and Mac platforms and I have not had these same bugs creep up on Windows computers within these programs.

Also, I'd like to point out that I'm a huge fan of the Apple platform and I would recommend one of their Macintosh computers to anyone looking for an easy to use and safe platform for their home or office. Ultimately, I decided to blog about this not to bitch about Apple, but rather because I'm hoping someone out there will have answers to these questions ... Especially the slow network browsing issue which really is holding everything up.

So with that all said, let's continue shall we?

5) When using Terminal Services utilizing Microsoft's client, the number pad on the Mac's keyboard does not work. I've found no workaround for this.

6) Adobe's Acrobat 7 Professional refuses to acknowledge that Mozilla Thunderbird is the default mail client. Or, rather, it acknowledges Thunderbird, it just doesn't want to play nice with it. If I try to send (e-mail) a PDF file from within Acrobat Professional, I get the following error message: "The SendMail doesn't know how to talk to your preferred mail client. Please select a different mail application to use."

Okay, Sendmail is a mail transfer agent in the UNIX/Linux world. The Mac is using BSD Unix as its base. Is this the same "Sendmail" being referenced in Adobe's grammatically suspect error message? If so, is this problem with OS X? Or perhaps Adobe Acrobat calling its own implementation? Or is it the fault of Mozilla Thunderbird?

To my knowledge, Thunderbird is recognized as the default mail client by all other apps, so the finger seems to point to Acrobat or Thunderbird. I've read somewhere online that the issue is that Thunderbird is not "Apple Scriptable." However, Acrobat gives you no way to choose a default client if you wanted to so... any thoughts?

7) Mozilla Thunderbird on the Mac doesn't recognize e-mail templates properly ... or something. When everyone was using Windows, we could pass e-mail templates around the office like candy and they would work fine at each workstation. Now on the Mac, I can load the templates into the user's "Templates" folder and we can preview it in the handy-dandy Preview Window, but if we open the template to create a new e-mail, all of the images are blank. The only workaround we found is to select "Display Attachments Inline", but this is kind of a pain because then ALL attachments in ALL messages are displayed inline.

This setting is not needed when using Thunderbird on Windows.

8) "Phantom" folders in Thunderbird at the account rep's station. I believe this has something to do with my bringing her Thunderbird Local Mail from a Windows computer to her iMac. However, mail files are just text and, from what I can tell, there's no issue with what we brought over.

For some reason her Thunderbird likes to take one of her existing folders -- usually the inbox, duplicate it and move that duplicate elsewhere within her local folders.

Strange huh? And since it's a duplicate of her original folder, she can remove it with no consequence.

I keep hoping with each release of Thunderbird that the problem will be fixed, but so far, no dice.

Update 04.04.06: When the latest and greatest pre-release build of Thunderbird came out on April 2nd, we loaded that up at her workstation to see if the problem got any better. No dice. *ACK! Thbbbt!*

So there ya have it! My top 8 woes encountered when upgrading our creative department from Windows XP computers to Apple Macs.

Some will no doubt point out that by not utilizing the software bundled with the Mac -- that is, Apple's Mail client and the Safari browser as well as its built in PDF creator and Preview -- I'm asking for it. That I'm inviting these problems into my workplace and I've no business complaining about it.

To that I simply say, the Mac is a superior operating platform to Windows, but their bundled applications, while great for a home user, don't have the power and flexibility that other programs have. Yes, I've evaluated Apple's Mail client and I've deemed it inferior to Thunderbird for our purposes.

In addition, by using different applications on OS X and Windows I make my job that much harder because now I'm supporting not only two platforms, but two mail clients, browsers, PDF creators ... whatever.

But that's what makes the Mac such a great platform ... right? That I can choose to use OS X over Windows and, in doing so, give my organization better flexibility and security while still using the programs that I want to use. If I'm going to be locked in to a platform and its applications, then I might as well sigh, throw up my hands and use Windows ... just like everyone else.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Power Mac Woes, part I

Working for a creative advertising agency, I felt the time was ripe to finally move the creative department into the 21st Century and upgrade everyone from crappy Windows technology to the much more modern and secure Apple OS X.

We already use Adobe's Creative Suite and Macromedia's (nee Adobe's) Studio 8, so software was not an issue. Surprisingly, what became issues were -- as is typical in the computer world -- completely unexpected! Read on....

To prepare for any surprises, I decided to upgrade a willing and able account representative to an iMac first. She is always ready to jump on the latest thing and understands that there may be bugs or compatibility issues which may make her day-to-day work more difficult.

As a corporation, we standardize on Mozilla Firefox for the browser and Mozilla Thunderbird for the e-mail client. Additionally we use Microsoft Office 97 on the PC side and run a proprietary application built on an Access engine which connects to a Microsoft SQL Server.

Office was easy. I simply purchased Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac. Likewise, there is a version of Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird for the Mac. The only other issue then was this proprietary Windows application, and I worked around that by setting up the account rep to use a Terminal Services client with a connection to our Terminal Server -- a method our remote offices use.

To my great pleasure, there were no major "stoppers" in this trial run that would make me feel as if I couldn't move forward in procuring Power Mac G5s for the Creative Dept. In all of our testing, the only issue that consistently came up is the appearance of "mystery" folders in her Thunderbird client. That is, phantom duplicate folders of mail folders she already had. Deleting these folders had no affect on the originals, nor did they appear to actually take up room in her profile. They just ... appear. And sporadically at that. More later.

So with the company credit card in hand, I ordered up the first of what would eventually be four new Power Macs.

Once it arrived, I took more than ample time to load and test the system before rolling it out. Once deployed, however, the problems began. Here is a quick run down of issues encountered so far:

1) The most critical issue I've encountered is one that almost scuttled the entire project. Apparently the Mac chokes on network directories that have lots of files in them. And by lots I mean in the range of 9,000 - 25,000 files.

It can take up to a minute for the file listing to begin to appear and then another 2 - 3 minutes until it's "browsable." On the surface, that may not seem bad, but when you multiply the number of times an employee has to access those folders and files per day by 2 - 3 minutes, that time really adds up.

I finally broke down and phoned Apple on the issue and was even bumped up to a second tier tech support rep, but after a week or two of back and forth trading of information, Apple dropped the issue and stopped contacting me. I'm sure they're hoping I'll forget about it or something. Instead I decided to blog about it.

Here's what I do know about the issue, however:
  • If I drag that network folder to the desktop, I don't have the slow down problem when accessing the desktop folder.
  • Changing the way I view files -- list, icon, column -- doesn't affect performance noticeably.
  • It doesn't matter if I access a file share on a Windows server or a Linux server running Samba.
  • Accessing the folder from a Windows computer pulls up the list of files in 2 - 3 seconds.
  • Accessing the folder from a Linux computer running Fedora Core 5 takes just as long as from the Mac.
Aha! Both the Mac and Linux use Samba for browsing Windows file servers. Though I did relate this information to Apple, they seemed to shrug it off. Probably because the guys I spoke to didn't know what Samba was even though it's the underpinnings of the Mac's ability to integrate with Windows. If they did know what it was, their silence at the word "Samba" sure didn't lend any confidence to that fact.

So I'm left believing the issue is with Samba and I just don't know what settings in smb.conf might take care of it -- if any. If you have any clues, please let me know.

UPDATE 03.15.06: The only workaround to this issue I've found is to physically reduce the number of files in the folders. This seems silly considering Windows and it's 10+ year old technology can run circles around the (in general) more modern and UNIX based OS X. But that's what we're doing. Again, if you have any thoughts please share them in the comments....

2) Adobe InDesign CS2's import filter is messed up on the Mac version. A few years back, the "creatives" here took it upon themselves to start adding a # in front of their design numbers in the file names. So instead of an image named "123456-bwdog.tif" it might be named "#123456-bwdog.tif."

On the whole, this doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you try to place that file from the network into InDesign CS2 on the Mac you get the error message "Cannot place this file. No filter found for requested operation."

The strange thing is that if you copy this file to your Mac desktop and try to place it, it works fine. Additionally, the error doesn't always happen -- just most of the time -- even when placing other network files.

WORKAROUND / FIX: Early on we found that simply renaming the file to remove the # while in the "Place" dialog box will eliminate the problem. This is stupid though. Why should it work from the desktop but not the network? Adobe?

3) Font management on the Mac stinks. Not really an issue when working in the account services department, but it sure became one in creative.

What bonehead decided that there should be "computer" fonts and "user" fonts and ... oh yeah, "system" fonts as well? Turns out a single font could be installed in one or all of those locations and that can cause some major problems. In Windows, there's just the Fonts folder. That's it. One place to install them. On the Mac, even if I go in to the Font Book and set it to only install fonts to the "computer" so that all users can utilize them, some programs, like Microsoft Office override this and install in the "user" area anyway! If the user area is turned off, then it should be off.

4) And on that note, we have an awful time with font "tearing" in Mozilla Thunderbird and Mozilla Firefox. In other words, when the Power Mac user types something in Thunderbird and then tries to backspace over what they typed to make a correction, for example, the old letters typed on screen "tear" and leave remnants of themselves behind making it nearly impossible to type something new. This same thing happens in Firefox when using webmail.

This problem does not appear on the account services iMac.

UPDATE / FIX 04.06.06: This is fixed! Turns out to be related to #3 above. There were duplicates of important OS X fonts in both the "System" and "Computer" file areas. Once those were eliminated the problem went away.

Okay, that's enough for today. I'll continue this next time....