Batteries make the world go round…

Our modern lives are ruled by batteries. Your cell phone. Your camera. Your camcorder. Your wireless keyboard & mouse. Your wireless Playstation controller. Your laptop. Hell… even your desktop computer has a tiny battery in it to power the CMOS (look it up).

But the arena the batter probably means the most to me is where it comes into play with my cameras. Sure… I love my cell phone and have a hard time imagining life without it, but to be frank: I could relearn to live without it. My cameras area different matter. Photography is what helps keep me sane. It’s my hobby. It’s my thing. Angry Birds and calling for a tow truck are nice, but those things don’t keep me sane. Level. Balanced.

But like all other consumer electronics they require power to work and power is supplied via the lovely, lovely battery. I was just talking about the rise of the dSLR camera (digital Single Lens Reflex) and how it’s ascension is undoubtedly related to the rise of the rechargeable Lithium battery. Modern cameras, both dSLRs as well as the smaller point-n-shoots, require what are really enormous amounts of power to operate.

The battery in those cameras must power the motions of the zoom feature of the lens (or lenses). Charge the sensor. Transfer data from the sensor to the CPU and then to the media card. Light the LCD screen. Provide data into the viewfinder (if the camera has one). There is, to be frank, an awful lot of electrical stuff going on. Fortunately the rechargeable Lithium battery has made it possible for me to shoot my Canon 40D or Rebel XTi well over 1,000 times before needing to recharge. It’s really amazing. But there is a weak link in this chain of power: the AA battery.

Check this out…

Sanyo Eneloop Batteries & Charger

If you’re like me you moved to rechargeable AA batteries years ago. By and large the better quality ones last far longer than standard, non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. And when they’re spent… recharge and reuse. Brilliant. But truth be told I discovered these better rechargeables don’t last as long or recharge as often as I would like considering their cost.

Now I’m not saying they won’t last 6-months in your television’s remote control, but stuffed into a modern dSLR flash/strobe, such as I do, and it’s a different story. Simply leaving a fully charged set in the flash for a month or longer almost guaranteed they would be less than half charged when the day came I needed them to work. I discovered this on more than one occasion. Sure… I could recharge them in advance of use, but I don’t always know when the whim will strike to go out and photograph stuff and when I’ll need that flash unit.

As it was I took to keep a spare set of regular alkaline AA’s in my camera bag just in case the rechargeable ones didn’t make the cut for the day. This policy, while effective, seemed… well… rather silly. But one day, while visiting one of the many photography-related blogs I read, the author spoke of the above pictured batteries and how awesome they were at both holding a charge while not doing anything and for holding up to usage very well.

I confess I had never heard of them before and my personal experiences with Sanyo (all from childhood mind you) were of cheap & crappy consumer electronics. Hardly a ringing endorsement. But I tucked away this bit of information and when, a few weeks later, I stumbled upon them at Costco I elected to pick them up.

I’m so very glad I did.

They are awesome. They work exactly as the author described. Once charged they hold a charge for what seems like forever. I have a set of four currently sitting in my flash unit which were charged about a month ago. They’ve been used twice in that time period and one photo shoot lasted over an hour and included more than 150-shots; all with flash.

I can assure you the rechargeable Energizers I was using previously would have been half-depleted by the end of this first month and would never have lasted for 150+ shots. No way. No how.

And to add insult to injury the Eneloops were no more expensive than the Energizers.

So while I hate for this to sound like a commercial I cannot help it. It’s rare when I come across a product which really blows me away. Consistently. And keep in mind I’ve had these Eneloop batteries for over a year now so this isn’t a glowing review based upon a month’s usage. They have been, as I said, awesome.

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Tablet take-over…

Let’s be clear: I do not own a tablet.

This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to own one, but at this time I do not feel compelled because none of the available models really quite fire on all cylinders as my needs, wants and desires would dictate. But they are getting closer.

I often find myself asking the question “What would I do with a tablet?” I mean… I have multiple computers in my house. There’s the iMac; a home-built, Windows XP Pro driven desktop; an Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro; a Vista-driven laptop and my iPhone. One could be forgiven for assuming I already have plenty of computing power at my fingertips and that a tablet would be a colossal waste of both time and money.

And yet….

Apple iPad

Truth is I know what I’d do with it: I’d do the same things I already do on my other computing devices. I know that sounds really stupid and profound at the same time (mostly stupid though), but it’s the truth. The way I look at these various computing devices is each brings something to the computing experience the others do not. Could I make use of any one of them in a full-time capacity, eschewing the rest? Of course (with the exception of the iPhone as it isn’t quite a powerful enough device). But each excels in different ways, thus making my computing options more robust. More beautiful. More interesting and useful.

For example… I’m an avid amateur photographer. Working on large RAW files from my camera is best done by a computer with some more serious computing power. It is even more handy to have a large screen as the software I use for editing, Adobe Lightroom, takes up plenty of screen real estate all on its own. More screen means more picture showing during the editing process. Win-win.

The laptops are great for more everyday activities like e-mail, web browsing, my RSS feeds, etc. I can use the iMac, but why tie myself to the computer desk in the bedroom when I can sit anywhere in the house and get things done? Breakfast with the laptop or iPhone is a great experience. Catching up first thing with news, e-mail, etc. is a breeze over breakfast using either the laptop or iPhone. To be frank… I actually use the iPhone more at breakfast.

But I would gladly replace the iPhone with an iPad at breakfast as the larger screen would undoubtedly make reading so much more pleasant as I already know based upon the laptop versus iPhone dynamic.

And I don’t mean to pick on only the Apple iPad. Certainly it has garnered the greatest amount of press. And sales (by a long shot). And maybe the alternatives are better… I don’t know. Certainly Motorola’s Zoom gets plenty of attention along with it’s Google Android operating system.

Motorola Zoom Tablet

But what I find really funny about the entire tablet phenomenon is what it is possibly doing to PC/laptop sales. Consider this information:

Interestingly, 28% now use their tablets as their primary computers, while 43% sped more time with their tablets than their PCs or laptops.“* Really? That’s incredible. At least I think so. For years desktop PC purchasers were herded and steered towards buying the most powerful desktops they could (or couldn’t) afford so that they could do what? E-mail? Web browse? Type a letter in Microsoft Word? Yeah. As consumers we bought into this bigger/faster is better motif (including myself) just so we could do very mundane, everyday computing things. Little did we know all we really needed was a tablet.

Granted, a tablet is and will continue to be rubbish for long-term typing. While I don’t mind rattling off a quick e-mail reply on my iPhone with its virtual keyboard, I would not even consider anything longer than a short paragraph or two. When an e-mail requires a more lengthy reply I always wait until I’m next on a laptop or desktop. Period.

But consider how much stuff you do every day while sitting in front of your desktop or laptop that doesn’t really require a whole lot of typing and then consider how nice it would be to accomplish those tasks on a device that is both lighter, smaller, more portable and with better battery life than those other devices you currently utilize. It’s enough to make me want a tablet all the more even though it really only duplicates abilities I already have.

It’s a brave and strange new world out there in computing.

* Page 8 of June 2011 issue of Computer Power User magazine

Some sites just piss me off…

In the past few months I have come to hate a pair of sites I used to enjoy. See… I like to laugh. I enjoy being amused. And if you cannot find something to make you laugh on the Internet then there is likely something wrong with you.

For some time I had enjoyed two particular sites: People of Walmart and I Can Has Cheezburger. Notice I’m not including links to those pages. There’s a reason for that. The pleasure I used to find upon their pages has diminished to a point where I no longer wish to visit either location.

The reason for my markedly changed feelings regarding both of these sites is the same: they don’t load for shit.

These sites used to be fun and would upload pretty quickly. But now? No such luck. Each has become loaded with so much bloated crap going on (Flash videos, polls, advertisements, etc.) that the Cheezburger site never really seems to finish uploading as you can see the loading icon in my browser’s tab constantly flickers.

And the People of Walmart site hangs so much of the time, and likely for the same reasons, I can’t be bothered to visit any longer.

I don’t begrudge either site for trying to make a buck for what they offer. I don’t hold that against any site. But when the amount of extraneous shit prevents a web page from actually loading… completely… and staying that way, I think it’s time to say goodbye and look for someplace new to tickle my funny bone.

Drat and damn…

Boy. They say timing is everything and you know… they were right.

Take for instance the purchase of my new 13.3-inch MacBook Pro discussed in my previous post. It was a very exciting zenith to a few days of technological nirvana. The first weekend of use was euphoric at worst.

Sure. There was one issue: screen size. I knew going into this purchase (versus a 15.6-inch laptop) that some websites fonts would look rather tiny, but there are at least two work-arounds with the MacBook Pro. First, stretch to zoom with two-fingers on the trackpad. Second, Command+Plus to increase the font size within the web browser. Problem solved. Then again, the small screen really does take some getting used to after using a 15.6-inch laptop or two over the past 6-years.

Then again, and to be fair, it always took some getting used to when going from my former desktop’s 20-inch monitor the the laptop and it certainly requires an adjustment when getting off the 24-inch iMac and moving to any other computing device in the house. So the 13.3-inch screen, while not ideal, will suffice, especially when one considers all the other benefits that come from the acquisition of the MacBook Pro.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and bunnies and this was, in some small part, my own fault for not having done just a hint more research. See, the MacBook Pro was never really in the running as a replacement for my dying HP. I simply though them too expensive. And they are expensive, let’s not kid ourselves. But as the first HP replacement sucked and what with my “wife” (we’re separating and such – joy) suggesting I spend the extra bucks to get what I wanted instead of simply purchasing what would do, I elected to increase my budget as discussed in my prior post.

In the end I elected to purchase the MacBook, but because I hadn’t been seriously considering it I hadn’t done some very particular research: I hadn’t checked on the last date of update to the line. I was already well aware of the specs of the units in the 13-, 15- & 17-inch lines, but I didn’t think about or remember when they had been last updated. But I found out quickly enough.

Purchased the new MacBook Pro on 4 February. On 8 February I’m reading an article on either CNET or Gizmodo (probably CNET) announcing the possible launch of updated MacBook Pros. In early to mid-March. Seems a dummy SKU had been added to the BestBuy inventory system for 13.3-inch MacBook Pros, still priced at $1,199 and slated for release on 11 March. Further the article discussed how the last update had been in April 2010 for the complete MacBook line so an early March release date was well within reason.

Well shit…..

Had I purchased a 15- or 17-inch MacBook I might not have felt ‘cheated’ (who really wants to buy at the end of a product’s life cycle, right?) as these units were already making use of the new Core iX line of chips from Intel, but the 13-inch MacBook was not updated to such in April 2010 and remained with the older Core Duo chips at 2.4GHz (entry level). So as most of the laptop world moved to Core i3 chips last year the 13-inch MacBook did not.

You can see the problem here.

It’s not unreasonable to assume the new 13.3-inch MacBook Pro will include a Core i3 chip operating at 2.4GHz as a minimum, which should offer better battery life and graphics. In addition, and in line with Apple’s update history, it’s likely the 250GB hard drive will be upped to the next usual size of 320GB. This increase isn’t such a big deal to me as my usage for the laptop doesn’t include a lot of large saved files. But hey, more hard drive for the same price is pretty much expected and anticipated each year.

And so it was I was left with the dilemma: keep the new laptop and be happy or return it and wait to see what comes. I felt strongly that returning the device was the right route for me even though I don’t like doing such things. Then again I have been an most excellent customer of Best Buy for a long time and as such my feelings of ick at returning the laptop were pretty much over in a few minutes. I even put the question to my wife who did not yet know I had already acquired the MacBook and she too thought it better to return and wait for newer.

(sigh)

And so now I sit with my still irritating and dying HP while waiting for Apple to show us the new goods. But this lull in activity has brought about a new question: should I spend the money and buy the 15-inch MacBook Pro or purchase the 13-inch as I planned and pick-up a roughly $500 Windows 7 driven laptop as well?

Now you may be asking why on earth I’d want to do that. It’s a fair question, but the answer isn’t so simple and easy. Primarily it’s an issue of comfort and of tech support. I already provide a fair amount of tech support to family and friends and all own Windows-driven products. Keeping my feet wet in the world of Windows is simply a smart idea (never mind that none of these people are paying me for my help or for the purchase of new laptop). And it’s comfortable as there are a few software titles that remain unduplicated in the world of Mac or, as is sometimes the case, the Mac version simply isn’t anywhere near as good as the Windows one.

“But Mark, why don’t you just run Windows via Boot Camp or some emulation software and save the money from a second laptop and buy the more expensive 15-inch MacBook?” And my answer would be “I’m not certain.” It’s certainly a very valid thing to do. Boot Camp comes with Mac OS X and I can pick up a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on sale at newegg for $90. Problem solved. But I had misgivings about dumping Windows onto my soon to be purchased MacBook. It almost feels like a sin to load Windows 7 onto it (never mind that 7 is a fine OS and all that – I’m not being a mindless Apple fanboy here – if I were I wouldn’t even be discussing getting any Windows laptop or anything else).

Confused I turned to one of the guys at my local Best Buy’s Geek Squad who is very much the Apple guy and asked his thoughts. He agreed that running Windows via Boot Camp is a great thing. And emulation software does a very good job as well, but on the whole Boot Camp will give a better experience (which I already knew). But he did bring up something which hadn’t occurred to me: putting all my eggs in one basket.

His thinking was by purchasing both a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a Windows 7 machine I was spreading my laptop failure risk around. If one died or had some sort of malfunction which required service I would still have the other to get me through the days in the interim. It’s an interesting suggestion. The only reason to not think of this reason as being particularly helpful is that I still have my iMac and my old Windows XP Pro desktop around. Sure, neither are laptops, but I could live without portable computing for a period of time if I needed to do such.

So the question is: do I stick to my guns and go with the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro and purchase a Windows 7 machine or do I sink all my dough into the larger MacBook Pro and run Windows off it as well?

To be frank the 15-inch MacBook is more laptop than I need. But it’s price is comparable to the 13-inch plus a $500 or so Windows machine. And I even found one! Best Buy has a great price on a Toshiba (special purchase item, no rain checks – once sold out it’s gone) that comes with a Core i3 2.53GHz processor, 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive for $479. And it has a 15.6-inch screen! And even though my father killed off his Toshiba within 2-years or so, Toshiba does rank number one in reliability according to Consumer Reports surveys with users/owners.

I really wish I knew what to do here. If I wait too long to pull the trigger on the two laptop world the Toshiba could disappear and it’s head and shoulders above the competition’s specs at that price. But do I really want and need to have two separate laptops to lug around? One laptop seems far more reasonable even if it is a bit riskier in some manner of thought.

Damn I hate making these sorts of decisions.

A Feast of Technology

It has been an interesting couple of days around the house as far as technology is concerned and I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to let my incredible readership know what’s going on!

(ahem)

First was the purchase of yet another Sony BluRay disc player; the BDP-BX57, which is actually a Costco-specific device. The only difference between it and the standard unit sold in retailers elsewhere is the inclusion of a HDMI cable and a better price. We purchased one for the main household television around the middle of last year, but seeing how my wife and I will be separating and divorcing sometime during 2011 or 2012 I thought it reasonable to purchase one for myself while I could!

What I like about this particular model is how it comes pre-loaded with a number of widgets for accessing (via wired or wireless networks – I’m using the wireless one) Internet-based streaming services. Sony does make another player which doesn’t come with a built-in wireless transceiver, but the cost of adding the additional accessories makes it more expensive than buying it built-in.

Thanks to the widgets and wireless connectivity we joined Netflix and receive our one-disc at a time as well as all the streaming we can handle. Oddly one must setup the streaming que online at the Netflix site and cannot search and add content via the widget, yet one can delete a selected movie from the que via the widget. Still, I guess it’s easier to use one’s computer to type and search than a remote control.

I also have and use when online Pandora and Slacker streaming music accounts. The services are alright (great when you consider they’re free), but there is a weirdness involved when you move away from streaming via a web browser on your computer. When you stream via another type of device (a smartphone, like my iPhone, or, in my instance, a BluRay player with appropriate widget) the bit rate for streaming drops to 64kbps, which is pretty low. I’m not certain why streaming to devices is different than to a web browser, but it is. Still, the sound quality is actually better than I would have thought, especially for when just listening to music in the background.

In further technology news we have replaced our Netgear wireless router and returned the warm embrace of Cicso Linksys. The Netgear began to misbehave about four months ago and would require being reset (unplugged and plugged back in) maybe every other or third day. Then, for about a month, it was fine. And then it started all over again. I was rather disappointed based upon both Netgears general reputation as well as the fact we purchased it only 13 months before it started to act up: just outside the warranty.

And so I opted to return to Cisco, whose Linksys products had always graced our house in the past. However, this time I did something unusual: I purchased an expensive product. There are plenty of less expensive wireless routers ranging from about $50 to $90, but this time I had something specific in mind and I opted to go for the brand-spanking-new Linksys E4200. Simultaneous dual-band, A/B/G & N, and with a USB connection for a NAS or printer. I like this additional capability because I’m anticipating the purchase of a new dedicated photo printer in March and I’d like to set it up to print wirelessly even though it doesn’t come that way. I can plug the printer into the Linksys router and print to it via the router, which will be great seeing how I don’t have space near the computer for the printer. Problem solved.

I concede the idea of spending $150 (on sale at Best Buy – better price than anywhere else I found) had me choking a bit, but as we’ve long had some issues with our wireless router reach in our two-story home, I figured my desire for the USB port, greater coverage and the N-standard (which my iMac has) made it worth the extra price.

As an aside, I had read a few reviews stating the included installation/set-up software was pretty horrible, but I beg to differ. I found it to be quick and easy to work with. Perhaps those reviewers had very specific plans for their set-up, but if you’re just looking to do the basics and aren’t worried about a lot of extra security issues, the basic install covers everything very well.

In addition to these things I purchased a new laptop. Well.. two actually, but let’s handle this one at a time.

My just over three-year old HP laptop has, in a manner of speaking, come to an end. It’s a shame as for what I need and want to do with it on a daily basis it’s still a fine laptop. And until very recently the only problem with the laptop was that the AC adapter had begun to act up in that the cord coming out of it (the attached cord) had to be in a certain position to continue supplying juice to my battery. The battery, of course, only held about a 5-minute charge, but this wasn’t a big deal as I really didn’t mind dragging the cord around the house. But when the cord began to be problematic I looked for solutions.

HP’s website showed me $200 to replace both the battery and AC adapter or $80 for the adapter alone. Pretty steep for a 3-year old $550 laptop. So I tried the cheaper Amazon.com route and purchased third party items only to have each delivered and each be defective/non-functioning. Joy. And so began the hunt for a replacement laptop.

After about two months of reading, researching and re-reading I settled upon yet another HP laptop: the dv6t. I’ve always owned HP laptops (my dying one being my third) and while I would never say they were the greatest I’ve been generally pleased. But this was the first time I purchased one from Costco and I’m glad I did, which we’ll get to in a minute. The dv6t is pretty basic with an i3 Core chip clocked at 2.4GHz for $550. It’s 15.6-inch screen is nice enough. And because it came from Costco it was loaded with 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive instead of the typical retailer’s 4GB and 320GB respectively. Plus Costco offers a 90-day return policy, plus a second year of warranty coverage at no charge. Aces for Costco. However, this laptop is going back.

While it is a very competent computer for my everyday laptop needs it has two issues, one of which is a deal breaker. First, the keyboard, while not so bad in terms of how the keys respond to being struck, includes a column of keys on both the left and right side of the main keys. This causes a bit of confusion when trying to drop one’s hands onto the keyboard to start typing. I’m certain it is something to which I would grow accustomed in short order, but the other issue kills any reason to keep this device.

The trackpad is a disaster. It’s a new design from HP and is spread across all their lines save their entry level one. It’s a single pad, not unlike the one found on Apple Macbooks, but there the similarity ends. The left and right clicks require an extraordinary amount of pressure. Perhaps this would loosen with time, but I’m not interested in waiting to find out, especially if I find it doesn’t get easier to push. In addition, the right-click requires I press the very far right-hand edge otherwise it registers as a left-click, which is useless. The trackpads sensitivity is all over the place as well. Sometimes a single touch (for tap-to-click) is sufficient. Sometimes I must press repeatedly. Other times the slightest brush of my finger will act as a click. Infuriating.

But the single worst offence of this trackpad is how the left- and right-click buttons are actually part of the trackpad. What I mean is that when you place your finger on either the designated left or right click areas you’re still on the trackpad and therefore can move the pointer on the screen of the computer. Sometimes your finger will move just enough as it’s pressing down on the pad that it moves the pointer off whatever it is your trying to click. It’s simply infuriating beyond all believe. Granted, the Apple Magic Trackpad and trackpad on their MacBook line behave the same way, but the difference there is that the Apple products push down with a reasonable amount of pressure as opposed to the all-to unreasonable amount needed for the HP. Combined with the unreliable nature of the pads sensitivity when it comes to tap-to-click I just felt I couldn’t work with this HP product. Or, for that matter, any HP laptop with this sort of trackpad, which is pretty much all of them.

Gutted I am.

And now I’m basically out my two months of reading and research, except that I did have something of a backup plan and I sort of implemented it yesterday.

While I much prefer the 15.6-inch sized laptop my first laptop was only 13-inches and I had no real complaints about it. Certainly the extra screen real estate is nice, but it’s not technically necessary for the sort of things I do on a daily basis with my laptop. And so it was I began to think about looking back over the 13- and 14-inch laptops I had decided against when I opted for this HP which is going back.

One problem with the smaller laptops is there is always a premium price associated with them. Spec for spec they tend to be about 50% more expensive and I know the reasons why, but that doesn’t make it easier on the wallet. But so it was I began to look at my options and I found both a Sony and Toshiba which seemed to meet my needs, while being smaller in size. The Toshiba, the M645 series, was $750 and offered plenty of what I wanted and needed, but, I confess, came in a rather unappealing package as far as I was concerned. It looks cheap in my opinion. Too cheap for $750, but I was ok with this as I’m not wrapped up in how gorgeous is my laptop. If I were I never would have bought HPs in the first place!

The Sony, who’s model line escapes me right now, hit the $850 mark and for the extra $100 had some things which appealed to me, including a better and backlit keyboard, as well as a much nicer overall design and appearance. But the problem was that I had also looked over the more entry-level Apple products and I was having a hard time walking away.

I really like my iMac purchased two years back. I’m not as smitten with it as I thought I might be, but that may have been because my Windows-running desktop was a home built affair. It was made with rock solid components and didn’t have any software installed that I didn’t put there. It’s not fair to compare it to a store-bought HP, Compaq, etc. because it was simply better. I think if I had been coming from a manufactured desktop the leap to the iMac would have been much greater.

And so it was I looked over the Toshiba, the Sony and a 13-inch Macbook Pro (entry level version). Certainly the Toshiba and Sony were less expensive (the Apple being $1,200), but damn if I didn’t like the idea of working on an iMac in my lap. My experience with Windows 7 on this HP which is going back suggests 7 is pretty decent, but I’m still really enjoying Snow Leopard so much more. And the trackpad on the Apple is out of this world. I have very much enjoyed the purchase of my Apple Magic Trackpad for the iMac and the notion of having it on a laptop was impossible to ignore.

And so it was that even at a higher price and with lower specs I went for the MacBook Pro.

A lot of my reading and research suggested something to me: Apple products, by and large, last longer both physically and in terms of keeping up with advances in software, than do Windows-based computers. And my personal experience with HP laptops suggest three years is about the maximum amount of time I can expect them to work before they have to be replaced. (since the AC adapter going bad the optical drive has stopped working too, which is what killed my first HP laptop). So I sold myself on the idea of spending $350-$450 more for the Apple on the assumption I should, if my reading and research hold true, be able to get four to five or more years of service from the MacBook.

Or think of it this way: if I can get two more years of service that would be a a 66% increase in typical lifespan for a laptop in my service. This means I would recoup 66% of the additional cost of the Apple over the Toshiba or Sony at which point I’m much closer to breaking even (as I would have to replace either the Sony or Toshiba in 3-years and spend yet another $750 to $850). So actually I could come out ahead over five four or five years and I can live with that.

The only downside to this purchase was that I couldn’t make it from the same store I purchased my iMac, a local Apple reseller. The iMac was purchased for cash via a income tax refund, but that’s not happening this year. As such I need time to pay for it and Best Buy has the 18-months same as cash option. I won’t need that long to pay it off, but I needed some time and the Apple reseller could only offer 3-months. I have no problem buying from Best Buy as I’ve had a long-running and very happy relationship with them, but I feel guilty I couldn’t give some of my business, especially my Apple business, to the reseller. Sorry guys.

And so there we are. New stuff. Old stuff. Interesting stuff.

Update: I’ve had my new MacBook Pro on and being used without the power cord attached for the past 2-hours. I’ve only used approximately 22% of my battery. Wow. Even brand new my old HP would be within 30-45 minutes of death by now. And this MacBook Pro has a backlit keyboard! Damn impressive.

Never look at the price….

(apologies for being gone so long – personal stuff)

This morning I came across an e-mail from one of my favourite online vendors: Newegg.com. It was their daily or every other day e-mail notice about sweet deals on all sorts of consumer electronics, but with an emphasis upon computer-related parts and such.

The first thing I saw as the message resolved on my smartphone screen was this:

A terabyte of storage on a 7,200RPM Western Digital hard drive for the price of $80.

80-bucks.

Got me to thinking and so it was I ran out to the recycling bin where just this past weekend I tossed the old receipts and paperwork I had kept since January 2004 when I purchased the components from Newegg to build my own PC. In 2004 I paid $108 for a 120GB 7,200RPM Western Digital hard drive.

So I can now get a very similar hard drive, but with 8.3-times the storage capability for 75% of the price of the old drive. But that’s not a completely fair comparison, because the newer WD hard drive has better specs all round and if we were to add a standard 3% inflation rate to the original $108 price of the 120GB drive, it would shift the January 2011 price to approximately $133.

This means the new drive wouldn’t just offer 8.3-times more storage, but could be purchased for 60% of the cost of the original drive.

It really is incredible.

Input

My first exposure to the personal computer was via the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II way back in 1981, when I was a junior in high school. We had only the one and it was something of a beast. It had its own very special desk, two built-in 8-inch floppy drives and a bank of maybe six or eight more 8-inch floppy drives in a special housing. It was an awesome sight to a then 16-year old kid. Here’s a picture of one…

It’s sibling, the Model III followed shortly thereafter and was an improvement in so many ways. But one thing they both had in common was input to these early computers was all done via the keyboard. For that matter, this was pretty much the case for all computers used by the average Joe off the street, whether at home or work. And as these were the days before Windows and Windows-like Operating Systems one didn’t have menu after endless menu from which to select. Nope. One had to use what amounted to keyboard shortcuts to execute tasks. You’re likely already familiar with keyboard shortcuts that you might use to open a document in a word processing application (Control + O) or to print a document (Control + P). But in those halcyon days your only option were keyboard shortcuts. The use of certain keys or combinations of keys allowed for the user to control the application.

And fun days they were.

And I’m not being facetious.

I liked using keyboard shortcuts to work through an application. They were quick and easy to use as your fingers never need leave the keyboard. Not that there were other options, mind you. And I found that I typically used only a handful of shortcut commands on a regular basis, so I needn’t learn dozens of them to be able to do what I needed to do on a daily basis.

However, it eventually came to be that a secondary device would come to rule the roost, so to speak, of computing input. While the keyboard is great it was the mouse that moved us forward in a dramatic fashion. Or so I think.

Coming into being with the rise of windows-based user interfaces (also called the Graphical User Interface, or GUI) the mouse made it possible to work deeply into an application’s menu system without having to remember a myriad of keyboard shortcuts. And while the mouse was a wonderful and simple invention it was in one way fatally flawed in my opinion: you had to slide it everywhere to use it.

I’m certain you have encountered this very situation on more than one occasion throughout your life: You’re working at your computer and the mouse pointer on-screen is near one of the corners, but you need to move it to a location clear on the other side of the screen. In conjunction with this need is the fact the mouse is physically already near the location to which you need to move the on-screen pointer.

So what are you forced to do to make this scenario work? Why you have to pickup the mouse and relocate it on your desk/work area such that you then have enough room to move it around and place the mouse pointer in the desired location.

I know it’s not a horrible thing and doesn’t happen all the time, but it is a simple flaw that can be quite annoying, especially if you use the mouse a lot in your given occupation. But what solutions presented themselves to this dilemma? Why the trackball of course!

Behold a miracle of engineering…

In a way the trackball is simply a mouse turned upside down. If you looked at mice made more than five or six years ago you would likely have noticed that a small rubber ball was embedded into the bottom of your mouse. It was this ball and its motion that made your mouse actually work. The rubber ball’s motion was transferred via electronics and software to your computer and instructed the on-screen pointer where to move.

Move the mouse up and towards the left and your pointer followed suit. Really quite simple and ingenious. Other than all that moving around of the physical device crap. And so it came to be that at some point some clever person decided that it might make more sense for the ‘mouse’ to remain stationary and just have the user move the ball around with their finger or thumb (as there are two types of trackball devices: those where the ball is set to be moved by the thumb and those moved by the forefinger)

Personally, I was sold on the trackball the very first time I used one. So sold was I it is all I have used on desktop computers since 2002, when I first came across one. I purchased one for my home desktop and one for my computer at work. And I never looked back. No more pushing the mouse around the desk. No more having to adjust or move the cable (Bluetooth options are really a very recent option). No more hoping that the given mouse included some sort of scrolling wheel and/or forward/back buttons for web browsers and the like. Nope.

The trackball sits in one place. Quietly. Minding its own business. And let me tell you…. moving the on-screen pointer around, especially upon a larger computer monitor, is so much quicker with a trackball. Much quicker.

But that isn’t the complete story, is it? You may have noticed I specifically used the term desktop to describe the type of input device I prefer: the trackball. I mention this because laptops have been a completely different story during the course of their development. If you own a laptop you are already quite familiar with the ubiquitous trackpad. In a way, if you stretch your mind a bit, you can see how the trackpad is really more like a trackball than a mouse. It, the trackpad, remains stationary, while your finger does the moving part. Except that instead of pushing/pulling a ball about within a socket you slide your finger to signify the motion you want of the on-screen pointer. (you may argue that moving one’s finger about is not unlike pushing and pulling a mouse across the desk, but I would wager your hand barely moves at all when you use the trackpad on your laptop)

It really is another brilliant invention for the purpose of controlling the on-screen pointer. And I confess to being wholeheartedly smitten with them. Positioned as they are on a laptop it is a very short distance from the keyboard to the pad so quick use may be made of the trackpad when necessary. But Apple (the folks who make iMac computers, MacBook laptops, iPods, iPads and iPhones) took the trackpad and made it even better for their line of laptops. They both enlarged the area of the trackpad and added unique touch-based features.

If you’ve never used one (and I don’t own one, but have played with such) it really is amazing. Using multiple fingers and special movements one can scroll an open document or web page both up/down and left-right. One can zoom in or out of what is being shown on the monitor. One can page forward and backward within an application or web page. And there is the ability to open and close what Apple calls Expose, which is a way to see everything you have open on your computer all at once, allowing you to select the desired window.

But….. the problem was that the trackpad was only available for their laptops. So for many years now I have lamented the fact no one made a trackpad as an input device for the personal computer; whether Apple or Windows-based. How nice it would be, I often thought, if someone would develop a keyboard which incorporated a trackpad at the six-o’clock position, just like one would find on a laptop. And how much nicer would it be if Apple did such because of the inclusion of all the fancy options their laptop trackpads exhibited. And not too long ago Apple must have heard my lamentations….

Now, while this device isn’t incorporated into a total keyboard/trackpad package, I can forgive them this minor oversight.

When I first heard the news I was very, very excited to read such. Not just because it was something of a dream of mine for this sort of device to come into existence, but because my then current Logitech trackball was beginning to die and needed to be replaced. And so it was a bided my time waiting for this new device to be available at my local Apple reseller (who I like to support by purchasing from them).

Unfortunately, Apple Magic Trackpads (not fond of the name by the way) did not trickle into the store until just this past week and so it was I finally got my hands on one. And so what do I think? I’m impressed. More impressed than I had originally anticipated.

It has taken a little getting used to as the special swipes and taps necessary to navigate aren’t part of my everyday experience, but I’m learning quickly. I’m particularly fond of using it within a web browser because with two fingers I can swipe to scroll and with three fingers I can page back and forward with ease. It really is amazing how quickly one adopts to the options and begins using them without even thinking about such.

Odder still, when using a trackpad on a laptop I never use the tap-to-click feature (whereby if you tap the screen it acts like clicking the left mouse button) because I always found myself accidentally ‘selecting’ items on a screen when I did not mean to do such. As such, I always turned off the tap-to-click feature. However, with the Apple Magic Trackpad I am leaving on this feature and finding I work better with it here, but I don’t know why. I can say why I don’t like the physical left-click option on the this trackpad: if you have already moved your hand to the left side of the device and slap down your thumb to ‘click’ the left button (which is actually underneath the trackpad) you end up missing the trackpad and hitting the desk.

Epic fail.

So I’ve elected to try the tap-to-click method instead and thus far I’m mostly satisfied with the results. I have only accidentally selected items a few times and I’m hoping that as time goes by I will do it less and less. But at least I know I have a choice and can return to the other method if I find this way unsatisfactory.

So there you go…. the Apple Magic Trackpad. A silly name; I agree. But a brilliant idea whose time really should have come a few years back, but I’m pleased as punch nevertheless to have it here, today.