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Fix MacBook Pro sound distortion

I have had a MacBook Pro 15" i5 (2010) for a number of months.

Since it was new, it's had a horrible distortion of sound at low volumes. Very noticeable on headphones and with quiet music. I had resigned myself to having a faulty computer and just putting up with it.

Well, it's not faulty. It's a software setting. I suspect there are millions of frustrated MacBook Pro owners in the world who are putting up with this for no reason.

The fix is to open Audio MIDI Setup (Applications/Utilities) and flip the format to "2ch-32bit" while playing something that causes the distortion. "2ch-16bit" mode is broken.

The improvement should be instantaneous.

I am somewhat upset at the number of months I've put up with poor quality for no reason.

iMac 27" i7 Pre-Review

I am typing this on a working Core i7 iMac. It took in excess of a month to get the machine: was it worth the wait?

First, some background. I order the i7 after four days of planned dithering following the announcement of the new iMac range on the 20th. A review of my blog will find that until recently I have had, as my primary Macs, a MacBook and iMac 20" (among countless other computers; I am rather hardware obsessive).

As part of house move I decided to consolidate and upgrade my Macs. The first thing I did was to sell my MacBook as the opportunity arose to do so. The iMac has primarily been my mother's for many months now so instead of buying a her a new machine when I move out, she can keep that.

This planning started back in September; I sold the MacBook around the start of October.

So what was I going to buy? My initial thoughts were to get a new MacBook Pro. For nearly a year that had been my plan; the unibody Macs are magnificent machines. My other thoughts were to get the best possible. Apple's pricing certainly does encourage upselling - I found the top-end 15" to be ideal, but once you look at that then the basic (and only) model of 17" starts look affordable. And what a screen the 17" has... true HD resolution.

So that became the plan for few weeks. I was going to get myself a top-end, ultra expensive MacBook.

Then I started looking at MacPros. Do I really need a laptop? No. I am rarely in a situation where one makes sense. The best use I made of the MacBook was to watch TV in bed. Once you start to look at MacBook 17" prices, you start to realise that you can get a hell of a lot of power for that money. Now, I'm not in the market for a PC so granted that a built PC is cheaper again. But the low-end Pro has a quad core Xeon which is something like twice as fast as the high-end MacBook.

So that became the plan for a week or two. A MacPro running with my existing 20" HP monitor followed by a 30" monitor upgrade sometime in the future. But I held off; the rumours were circulating about an iMac refresh and while I try not to consciously make purchasing decisions based on rumour, my subconscious was all too aware of the two grand expense at stake.

And so that brings us to the 20th of October 2009 and the relatively quiet announcement of the new iMac range. It was perfect; everything I wanted from fast CPUs to big screens and at a price point lower that the Mac or MacBook Pro with the extra of the huge 27" display. So that was that; I waited for 4 days just to check whether I would change my mind, but I didn't and got out the card for the financial pain.

The quad iMacs shipped quite a while after the Core2Duo models. I received mine on the 14th of November. Unfortunately, after the excitement of the unboxing and setup the machine was dead. No matter how I pressed the power button, nothing happened. So we entered the RMA process for a new machine.

Forward to the 3rd of December when the replacement gets here and is thankfully working. I did see the screen flicker issue on the night of the 4th (this has also was widely reported on forums along with DOA and smashed screens), but that disappeared and has not come back so far (the machine has been on for 8 hours a day on the 5th and 6th); I don't really want to go through the pain of the RMA wait again.

So that is the background and experience of the buying process. What is the machine like to use?

First impressions: the screen. Wow. Moving up from a 20" to this is really something. The colour is even as you'd expect of an IPS screen; the TN screen of the 2007 20" and MacBook has terrible colour distortion if you move your head. The 16:9 ratio fits broadcast TV and screen is big enough for a good film experience in the living room.

Next: speed. Hmm, well. Somethings are indeed lightning fast. I'm loving Eclipse on this. However, the reality is that much of what I do, such as browsing the web, is perfectly happy on the old 2.0GHz C2D of the iMac and MacBook. That is to say, I generally can't tell the difference. That's not to say anything about multi-core or i7 speed but simply that current software is really well designed and suited to current hardware.
As for the graphics speed with the ATI 4850, I've only tried 2D so far and that is perfectly smooth. This was my main problem with the MacBook and the main driver of wanting to upgrade it - the 20" iMac's ATI 2400 was smooth in 2D in nearly all situations but could drop frames with Exposé with many open windows. The MacBook bogs down with any intense use (at least the improved Intel GMA X3100 does, which both my personal and work MacBooks have; the Nvidia 9400M should be much better).

Keyboard and mouse: the wireless keyboard is a MacBook laptop keyboard in a hard aluminium casing. I like it a lot. I have a full (with numeric keypad) aluminium keyboard on the 20" iMac and at work and would prefer that for work purposes. But for home use, the lack of keypad is not an issue.

The Magic Mouse is quite good. Like any new mouse, it'll take getting use to. The lack of a middle mouse button is actually the biggest issue so far (but I am aware of the patches to add to functionality). Accidental swipes are another issue. I'll let you know in a month or two. But so far, I'm not turned off it.

That sums up my first impressions. The main thing to say is that the quad core 27" iMac is genuinely good machine, but there are teething problems in Apple getting a working one shipped out to you! Once you have it and it works, it's everything they advertised.


Apple Pricing

Apple are getting expensive. Yes, Apple products always are expensive but for the last three or four years prices have been low enough for me to justify moving to Mac from Linux - almost entirely (he said, typing on a Mandriva Linux box).

But lately, between the dollar/pound and other effects, Apple prices in the UK have gone through the roof.

MacBook (plastic): was £700. Decreased to sub-700 post the 15% VAT change.
After the new MacBook introduction, it gained a new Nvidia graphics chip and went up to £719 even though in US$ it was reduced by around 10%.

Mac Mini: up 25% to £500.

iMac: up from £800 to £950.

Importantly, if they had cost this a year or two ago I would not have bought them. The iMac was competitive against even a custom PC - it is not now although its pricing is on par with Dell equivilents.

What about the hidden costs?

The remote is no longer included with the machines. I didn't get one with a MacBook back in September 2008, even, though I did back in January. For the Mac Mini this is important - it is used in the sort of situations where the remote is most likely to be used - media, set top box, etc. I got one with my £800 iMac, yet if I upgraded to the £950 basic model now I wouldn't get one.

Moving on, the display adaptors. You MUST have a display adaptor. Apple use MiniDVI and DisplayPort and you need a special adaptor to connection to VGA or DVI.
For MiniDVI, these were £15 - I have a VGA and DVI for the MacBooks and a VGA on my iMac.
For DisplayPort, they're up to £20. Incredible. I'm all for making a profit, but these is really skimming cash off consumers.

Hard Disks and Memory have always been expensive in the Apple shop, but take a look at the 8GB costs - £800! Consider that they charge £200 for the 4GB removed to install the 8GB in the configurator.

I suppose Apple know what they're doing. I love my Macs. Linux would be difficult to back to full time. Windows is almost completely out of my life. Give it five years and I'll be forced into upgrading in some way... My PowerBook lasted four years and is still in use today, although not by me.


Apple Presentation

I find it very difficult to watch a big Steve Jobs presentation. It's not Apple stuff, or indeed Steve. It's the audience. At the end of each sentence people start making howling noises, screaming, all sorts of weirdness. It's the same thing you hear whenever NASA gets a rocket to lift off - people who, in theory are quite intelligent, devolve into lower order primates or worse.

Why aren't they ejected for making a nuisance?


iPhone 3G

My six year old Nokia 7650 has become too difficult to use. A single long call and it's dead, or a day without charging and it'll show full power right up until the moment I need it, when it'll just die. It needs only a battery but my cheap replacement from eBay is no better than the original (and also I imagine it will probably explode; it looks a legitimate Nokia item but at a price of £2.99 inc postage it's either fake or stolen).

I got a freebie Motorola Razr, which has unfortunately completely given up the ghost too (crashes after booting). Plus, it is awful. A truly terrible phone, from the GUI to the hardware and everything in-between. Who put those stupid unlockable buttons on the side? I walk around beeping and taking photos of the keys in my pocket!

Nokia phones remain great - a simple 6300 is light years ahead of the 7650 while offering the same features and more in a faster, tiny and more expandable unit. But if I'm going to the Carphonewarehouse there's only one phone I'm going to walk out with: the iPhone 3G. I've put it off due to the huge costs (£30 a month doubles my bill and reduces my free talk time by around 7 times). I'm also put off by it being with O2 - which I have been with since late 2000 and have learned to despise. I might write about my O2 experiences later, but suffice it to say that if you have a choice you should go elsewhere. No matter what they promise.

Anyway, this is the end of my first week of being an iPhone user. The phone really is as good as the hype. Email and web are great. It is intuitive - you don't need to be told how to use it, it just works as nature would have it - if nature produced hand-held microwave communication devices.

As an iPod, it's as good as the hype in this aspect too. Even the built-in speakers are 'good enough' to be truly usable in the real world. Video? Also good. YouTube works well but the interface lacks a lot of the site - but you can use the real site in Safari, only jumping to the YouTube player when clicking on a video. It's also possible to import your own videos into iTunes to sync down to the iPhone - you just need to get the format right, e.g. using ffmpeg on a unix box:

ffmpeg -i SourceVideo.avi -f mp4 -vcodec mpeg4 -maxrate 1000 -b 700 -qmin 3 -qmax 5 -bufsize 4096 -g 300 -acodec aac -ab 192 DestVideo.m4v

Is the iPhone a general purpose computer? Almost. There are lots of apps to download and at very cheap prices. You're not going to compile your own software or write your own scripts though.
Most apps are not free, but with the majority of those at 59p and almost all under £10 it is unreasonable to complain. If you do think 59p is too much to pay for weeks of someone's time to develop the software then I suggest you consider living in the Sahara as a nomad, which would perhaps fit better with your life views than western civilisation.

SSH and VNC apps make the iPhone a reasonable tool for a sysadmin.

There are even car performance apps that use the iPhone's accelerometer to replace hundreds of pounds of specialised in-car equipment to give 0-60 times and such like.

GPS is partly useful: I used a GPS monitoring app to report my speed at all points along my commute. Very cool, except for when I lost GPS in a tunnel and it told me I was doing 130MPH. I was actually doing 40 though roadworks. The navigation works as it does on Google maps, but it misses the one thing to make it usable: voice prompts. I suppose it isn't to be used as an in car sat-nav, as if you lose Internet (GPRS) then you lose your directions.

There are problems with the iPhone:

Safari stability:
When playing tunes in the iPod and browsing, Safari will bomb out regularly.
After a week or so heavy browsing, it starts to bomb out all the time.
This applies to all apps that use Safari - e.g. YouTube and Maps.
A reboot (power off, power on) fixes this. I rebooted this morning and it has remained stable for today.

The ringer button:
1. You only have two options: no sounds, or sounds. The Nokia flexibility for car mode, pager, loud, etc. is lost.
2. The button falls off. It's a metal button glued to a plastic switch. Mine did so after exactly a week. A quick look at Google reveals that it's very, very common, so I decided not to bother getting a replacement phone (which Apple will provide in 15 minutes, but who know what Carphonewarehouse would do...).
I decided to superglue it back into place. This is not without risks on a 7 day old iPhone: you might get glue on the screen, you might glue the switch into place so it is immovable. Etc., etc. Unlikely to covered by warranty.

I have yet to see a 3G signal. A problem partly due to having changed jobs and now working in a very rural location. Hopefully I'll get into a bigger town sometime soon so that I can at least test it. My new employer doesn't even have wifi at the moment (and I should mention that phone reception is available only in the car park - for a major software company, I'm very disappointed by the infrastructure - regrets for another post..) so the phone is used almost exclusively at home right now.

Call notification:
Later Nokias have lights that flash every minute to alert you of calls or SMS that have been received while you have been away from the phone. For the iPhone, you need to switch the screen on. There is no other notification.

Anyway, beyond all that, I have to say it's the best toy I've bought in ages. In fact, thinking back over the last two years the full list of interesting new toys have been in the majority from Apple:
MacBook, iMac, PowerMac 12", iPod Nano, iPhone. Only perhaps my Linksys IP phone could be added to that list. This excludes non-tangibles such as Python and Django, two things I will praise in a future post.



A few weeks ago I bought myself an iMac.

My primary server developed faults which became too much for me to fix (it would lock up regularly). A second server also developed faults which led to the loss of a 220GB RAID5. The first machine was a proper server, with IPMI, watchdogs, multi-SCSI ports and a huge, well built chassis. But it was only a dual P3, capable but very slow for a primary machine.

So the decision was made to repurpose an existing desktop machine into a server and virtualise as much as possible onto it with VMWare Server. It's a consumer grade 939 motherboard in a 7 year old ATX case, with an Athlon X2 3800. It maxes out at 4GB of RAM, but that'll do for now. It's not bad in terms of speed, but I'm getting spoilt by some new dual Xeon Dell 1950s in work which are stunningly quick in all respects (we're talking 12GB/s disk buffer compared with 1GB/s on my machine, and Gentoo emerge --syncs which complete within seconds rather than minutes).

The replacement for this machine on the desktop was to be a Mac.
I wasted weeks deciding which to choose: a highly specced Mac Mini or an iMac. Both had stuff going for them:
* A highly specced Mini would cost as much as the entry level iMac, yet be less well specced and have a slower, smaller hard disk, and of course not include a 20" TFT.
* I have more than one machine on the desk in question, but really only want one monitor. You can't plug other machines into an iMac's screen.

Anyway, I obviously went for the iMac.
I should have pondered for another week. Exactly 8 days after I placed my order, Apple refreshed the iMac range. I could have had a 2.4GHz processor on a faster bus instead of the 2.0GHz 667Mhz machine I have. But never mind.

The iMac is fast. Although the basic spec seems very much similar to my MacBook, it is much faster in every respect. I suspect this is mainly the hard disk (the display is quicker on the ATI chip, but I'm talking launching programs and the like). Naturally the 3.5" SATA2 disk in the iMac is going to be quicker than the 2.5" laptop SATA2 in the MacBook. But it really does pervade everything you do.

The build quality is excellent. Everything about the iMac says high quality; the metals and glass used in the external construction are solid and really give the impression that you've got yourself value for money. The aluminium keyboard looks initially as if it would be flimsy, but it's not - it feels like a slab of aluminium with good weight to hold it on the desk and good key feedback. Although essentially the same as the MacBook's keyboard, it's more solid. The MacBook keyboard suffers from being mounted in plastic, which can flex while typing.

On the Mighty Mouse:
* It's smooth, no problems with movement of the pointer on screen. The tracking is high quality.
* It feels very plasticky, because it is.
* The ball - the replacement for the wheel - is excellent! 2D scrolling is well implemented.
* Touch sensitive buttons: left clicks work fine. Middle clicks (on the ball) work fine. Right clicks can be very awkward - you must remove your fingers from the left side of the mouse completely. As a one button mouse, it's good, but the touch sensitive top needs work.
* Side squeeze buttons: do not work as advertised. Apparently, you should press both together to activate. Not on mine. If either are pressed a click is registered. They are very sensitive and right under my fingers, so I found myself sending spurious clicks constantly. If you really did have to squeeze both, it'd be fine. Maybe my mouse is broken? Anyway, the buttons are disabled in System Preferences.
* You can't hold both left and right buttons down together. This is a problem if you want to run (e.g.) an Amiga in emulation.

I virtualised the old desktop PC into a VMWare machine using the Converter software (as it was my mother's machine, it primarily ran WindowsXP). It was painless to do this. I bought VMWare Fusion with the iMac and WindowsXP runs really well in it - faster than on the AMD processor in the old machine! Unity mode, where Windows applications are brought onto the iMac desktop, is good but you can tell the windows don't belong as they slice and stutter when moved about. My mother mostly uses Windows - still :( - and tends to stick to the full screen mode.

I got 1GB RAM in the machine, Apple's costs for upgrades were very high at the time. I bought 4GB from work, using the free Apple SODIMM to bring my MacBook up to 2GB. I obviously don't push my Macs much as the only place I see a difference is in VMWare, where obviously two operating systems fighting over the same 1GB of RAM will cause swapping and slowdown.

So, my opinion of the iMac? Given that I've always built my own PCs and work at a company which has a strict "no Macs" policy (I've even inadvertently had companies switch from Mac or Linux servers to Windows 2003 - I hate that I am now part of the problem)?

Buy one. They are flippin' great.

But a caveat: my servers still run Gentoo, or FreeBSD, CentOS, Mandriva, ... :-)



I have a 12" G4 PowerBook, and I love it! It's the most usable machine I've owned (after my Amigas).

Stuff on the Mac is so easy that I find myself doing stuff I've either not done for years or never done - like making videos.

iMovie is really easy to use. But, it's also slow - if you use the wrong video formats. I learned this the hard way - I put up with 20 minute imports of a few minutes of video for ages, but by accident found that if you import a video in the same format as what you asked iMovie to create the video in, it's instant. Obvious, when you know about it... This means that I convert on my Linux box first (literally seconds for 300MB of film) then import that into iMovie.

On my Mac, it is however buggy. I can't add transitions. The transition doesn't render. And if I'm really lucky, iMovie crashes. I suspect this is my install. Sadly iMovie 08 doesn't support the G4 so there's no upgrade path, which means it'll have to wait until I get my new Mac laptop (which I've been promising myself for a long time now).

Strangely iMovie is the only app I get along with in the iLife pack. iPhoto is useless to me for example.
iWork I'm quite impressed with, but then Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac is just excellent, in terms of speed, user interface and usability - suprising since I consider Office 2003 and 2007 on Windows the complete opposite!

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