Love and hate: back on the Mac

Update: June 4, 2007: I have no idea what I was thinking when I said kind things about Entourage below. I was very, very, very wrong. Entourage is beyond bad.

Two days ago, I switched back to the Mac as my primary work machine after just over a year using a PC. I was a Powerbook user for a couple years before coming to Yahoo and use a Mac at home, so the Mac is nothing new to me. I’m sure I’ll have more to write later, but here’s a very superficial rundown on the first couple of days with the MacBook Pro:

Love

  • Entourage. When I used a Mac before, I used Mail.app and Thunderbird. I’m hooked into Exchange at Yahoo! (good for calendaring and Treo synching), so I’m using Entourage now. It is so much better than Outlook on the PC. I had no idea.
  • Backlit keyboard. I like working in the dark.
  • Expose. Expose, oh how I missed you!
  • Unix. Yeah, there’s Cygwin for Windows, but it never feels right.

Hate

  • That absolutely idiotic magnetic power supply. Who thought that was a good idea?
  • Single mouse button. I’m a big right-mouse-click person. I know you can still do that if you plug a mouse into the Powerbook but there’s nothing like having it on the laptop keyboard. This is nothing new, of course, I just forgot about it until I switched back.

I could say a lot more, but after two days, I’m loving it overall.

Thunderbird on the Mac: delete key doesn't work!

I recently started using Thunderbird on the Mac (after using Mail.app for a couple of years) and it’s great and all, but why doesn’t one of the delete keys work? On the Apple keyboard I have, there are two delete keys: one under F13 and one below the “help” button. I didn’t realize it until I started using Thunderbird, but I always use the latter key (the one below “help”) when I want to delete e-mail. That delete key doesn’t work in Thunderbird on the Mac. Other people have noticed — it’s not just me.

I’m one of the odd people who uses a Mac keyboard for his PC — I like the Apple keyboard and I switch between a Mac and PC via a KVM switch, so it makes sense to stick to a single keyboard. And guess what? The delete key on my Apple keyboard that doesn’t work on Thunderbird for the Mac actually works on Thunderbird for Windows.

Go figure.

How Dell and others can fix the "crapware" problem — honorably

One of the things that can be annoying about the blogosphere (and people in general) is harping and complaining without offering reasonable suggestions for solutions to various problems. In my last post about my trials with my neighbors’ Dell machine, I complained but offered no way to reconcile the situation. Jeremy and I had a discussion a little while ago about all of this and during the discussion, I had what I think is a perfectly reasonable idea that I think could solve this problem in an honorable way for everyone involved. First, here are my base assumptions about the business of all this extra software on new PCs:

  • Computer manufacturers (of which Dell is just one) are subsidizing the sale of cheap computers through distribution deals with the companies whose software and services appear on their desktops. I assume that these computers would be more expensive without these various offers. This suggests that there is a defined per-PC dollar amount that can be attributed to the inclusion of these services. Let’s say for the sake of argument that this amount is $200. It could be any amount — but it’s something.
  • Consumers are accustomed to the trades inherent in traditional advertising models, i.e. free services in exchange for advertising messages. We view advertising on Yahoo and Google in exchange for search results. We accept commercials on television to a large degree (Tivos notwithstanding). These models are changing constantly in our cluetrain world, but in general, they are alive and well.

OK, with those assumptions in place, here’s my simple proposal: at the point-of-sale (online or in a retail environment), computer manufacturers should offer consumers the option to take advantage of the trialware subsidy or not. To be more specific, Dell should position the trialware as marketing (which is what they are) and give you a price break ($200 in my assumption) if you agree to accept a machine with all the trialware on it, or they can give you the machine clean of the marketing offers if you don’t accept the price break and decide to pay more. My neighbors’ $850 Dell would have been $1050 without all the trialware using those numbers. I bet they would have taken the price break — but at least they would have understood what they were doing and some of the implications. Yes, it’s probably a little counterintuitive at first (“pay more to get less?”), but I think people would figure it out pretty quickly. And yes, it’s not the most appealing solution for dig-in-your-heels idealists who want to rid the world of all marketing programs, but it certainly seems reasonable to me.

What’s wrong with this proposal? Tell me in the comments.

(One note: the reason I put “crapware” in quotes in the title is that not all of the software that comes with a new computer is actually “crap.” Before I arrived, my neighbors — who had no Internet access — had used the Earthlink offer to sign up with them and had successfully connected to the Internet. You can do a lot worse than Earthlink, and when I thought about it, how would an average person bootstrap themselves onto the net without such an offer anyway? So it’s not all bad from a functional standpoint — it’s just the delivery method that sucks.)

Why is setting up a new PC still so painful?

(Follow-up to this post: “How Dell and others can fix the ‘crapware’ problem — honorably“).

This weekend was one of those weekends where good friends with computer problems came a-callin’ in full force. Despite acting as support for many friends for many years now, I still approach the requests with a high level of sympathy for the requestors because setting up and maintaining a PC is still so hard. (Up front: I won’t go to deep into the whole Mac vs. PC thing. . . let’s just accept for a moment that people who are not passionate about computers simply don’t understand why it makes a lot of sense to spend more than $850 for a new Dell with a free printer and a bunch of other accesories.)

This past week and over the weekend, I’ve been helping my friends across the street from me set up their new Dell PC and though it booted up out-of-the-box, it has been ridiculously tedious and frustrating to clean all the trialware and marketing crud off the thing. (Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has bought a PC recently, but I haven’t bought a new PC in years since I’ve either been using a Mac or a work PC). After tangling with the PC for a few hours, it felt less like a useful tool and more like a child screaming for unneeded candy in the grocery store, except this time the PC was screaming for various online services, anti-virus software suites, printer supplies (hey, the printer is NEW, why do I need toner?!), and online banking services. Click here to sign-up for AOL! Click here to sign up for Earthlink! When I setup their printer, I got the same marketing message in three different contexts at the same time: an icon was placed on the desktop that said “click here for Dell printer supplies,” the small LCD screen on the printer itself displayed the URL for Dell printer supplies (which I won’t dignify with a link here, nofollow or otherwise), and the first test page printed had the same URL for printer supplies. At that point, I expected a Dell representative to kick their front door down and scream the URL in my ear for good measure.

When my kind friends initially called me with questions about all the junk they were seeing, my immediate plan was to go over there and wipe their system clean and only install what they needed. That’s what I’ve always done in the past and it’s a really easy thing to do when a computer is brand new. When I arrived at their house I discovered that Dell didn’t send along a base Windows XP install CD with the machine, though there was a slip of paper in the box with instructions on how to request a restore CD from Dell. Ugh! Why not include this CD in the first place? It’s licensed software that a customer has already bought! (Of course, Dell is not known for good support, so perhaps my expectations are too high in the first place.)

So, Dell is making it literally impossible to do a clean install of Windows XP, then all the junk on the machine makes it more likely that you will have support problems — problems that you will have immense trouble getting solved due to well-documented crappy support (idea: someone should teach the lonely old Maytag repairman how to fix Dell PCs and then he wouldn’t be so lonely).

Of course, I could have told my Quicken-using neighbors to buy a Mac instead, but then they would have had to downgrade to a half-assed version of Quicken, the app they use the most. Sometimes you just can’t win with computers.

I think this explains why a few years ago I saw a discarded computer sitting on the sidewalk near my house with this message scrawled on it in angry black magic marker:

Fuck computers!

We gotta do something about this state of affairs.

Update: Scott Rosenberg just wrote to note that I mis-linked to “half-assed version of Quicken” (accidentally used the previous link to the Maytag repairman. Oops!) I was indeed intending to link to Scott’s recent post on that subject. Thanks, Scott!

Another update: I said in my initial post that Dell did not distribute the system disk, but I just ran through a Dell config for a low-end Dimension B110, and you can choose a Windows XP system disk for $10 extra. I think they should take the confusion out of it, add $10 to the price, and ship that disk with the machine. It’s not just Dell that plays games with the system disks, as David Berlind notes in his response to my post:

This is apparently the new MO of system makers. For example, an Acer Ferrari that I recently purchased for Vista testing didn’t come with a system disk either. Instead, it has a backup recovery disk which restores the system to the exact same state the system was in when I unboxed it.

Pimp my 24" Dell widescreen monitor

If it seems like I’m writing a lot about products these days. . . well, I am. It’s the holiday season, so it’s a good time to be thinking about such things. I have been doing a lot of experimenting with my home computer setup in the past few weeks. I’ve seen a number of people write about the 24″ widescreen Dell monitors (aka Dell UltraSharp 2405FPW 24-inch Wide Aspect Flat Panel LCD monitor) and how great they are purely as monitors, but that’s only half the story. In relative terms, this is a pretty cheap monitor (do a search for “dell coupons” and you’re likely to find a big discount somewhere — I got mine for less than $900 including tax and shipping), but the price belies that fact that you can solve more problems with it than just having a big screen for your computer. I bought one recently and I have pimped it out well beyond my original intentions of just having a big monitor.

Here’s what I have hooked into the five monitor inputs:

  • my work laptop using the VGA connector
  • a G5 using the DVI connection
  • a DirecTivo satellite TV tuner hooked into the S-Video connection
  • an XBOX (the old model, not the 360) using the composite connection
  • nothing in the composite input yet

The switch on the front of the monitor allows me to switch easily across all these devices, so I can use the monitor for the computer, a satellite TV stream via my DirecTivo, the XBOX, or my work laptop without messing around with cables or other switches. It’s really convenient.

The coolest thing, though (and something that doesn’t seem to be heavily mentioned in what I’ve read about the Dell widescreen) is the picture-in-picture capability. What this means in practical terms is that I can keep a little TV window on my computer desktop while I’m working. I’m a big college basketball fan and during college basketball season, I keep up with the games and spend a lot of time at the computer looking at stats and scores. Now that can be combined on the same screen. Yay.

(I know what some people are thinking — “I don’t watch TV.” Well, this isn’t for you then! An aside on this matter: I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t watch TV — I only watch DVDs of movies and TV shows.” To me, that’s kind of like saying, “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat chicken” — something I’ve heard more than once. Ahem. In this vein, I recommend checking out “Five things (besides a television) that you could constantly remind people you won’t use” on the excellent 5ives.com site by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders fame.)

Here’s a shot of the picture-in-picture capability with my OS X desktop and CNN running in the bottom corner:

Another really nice thing about the Dell monitor is the built-in card reader that sits unobtrusively on the side of the monitor — if you weren’t looking for the card slots, you would hardly even notice them. I use a camera with an SD card, so this feature allowed me to unhook the ugly USB SD card reader device I had hanging off my computer. It doesn’t just do SD cards, though — it can read 8 other types of cards. The monitor also has a USB hub with 4 ports hanging off of it. I threw my old USB hub in a drawer when I got the Dell and the connections on my desk are much cleaner now.

Some people give Dell grief for ripping off the form factor of the new Apple Cinema Displays, but I think this monitor innovates beyond what Apple has done (and I’m no fan of Dell). None of the innovations are rocket science (the SD card reader, the multiple independent inputs including VGA), but they are small touches that make the whole monitor much greater than the sum of its parts. (see the Dell specs vs. the Apple Cinema Display specs for a comparison). Granted, this isn’t necessarily more simple than the Apple product, but it offers more features, and features that I actually needed. (Full disclosure: I don’t have access to a current Cinema Display, so let me know if I’m missing something feature-wise.)

The only (understandable) downside to the Dell monitor is that with all those video sources pumping into the screen, you need a way to handle the audio. The computer audio is easy — just use the speakers you already have hooked up to your computer. To get audio for your TV tuner and/or XBOX, you need to put a stereo receiver in the stack and run the audio output for them through it. This is kind of a drag since your computer audio will be separate.

I tried to figure out a good way to run the audio from my DirecTivo through the Mac, but just couldn’t figure it out. I’m not a total amateur at such things, so I’m surprised it didn’t work. When I ran audio out from the DirecTivo’s optical out into the G5’s optical in, the Sound control panel showed that I was getting audio levels, but the speakers wouldn’t output the audio. If anyone has any tips on how to make this happen, let me know. For now, I have my computer speakers and some regular JBL speakers hooked into a stereo receiver for the DirecTivo and the XBOX.

Despite the minor annoyance of having two sets of speakers, my new setup totally rocks. I highly recommend the Dell if you want a nice monitor — but don’t forget to check out all the other nice benefits beyond the huge display.