Second hand thoughts on the Macbook Air

As the whole world knows by now, Apple released a new version of the Macbook Air about a week ago. The new Air is a really interesting device: extremely thin, packed with a fast SSD, decent processor and RAM and a high resolution screen. I’m at the point where I’m starting to consider my next round of computer upgrades and I’m seriously considering all Mac. When the new Air was released my initial response was that it would be a great machine to get if I was traveling a lot. But since I need a personal machine through at least some of my grad school years, I would be sticking to a 13 inch Macbook Pro. However, given what I’ve been hearing, I’m starting to reconsider that.

First off, there’s yesterday’s Techcrunch article about the new Air. The headline says it all: Goodbye, MacBook Pro. The New MacBook Air Is That Good. The author comes to the conclusion that the Air is a faster, better machine than his 6-month old Macbook Pro. The only downside is the size of the hard drive. From a personal perspective, I don’t really care about the storage size. I have very little media compared to most off, living off Netflix and Pandora instead.

From my experience of using a 10 inch netbook, I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 or 11 is simply too small for me to use on regular basis. If I were to get an Air, it would be the lower 13 inch model that currently sells for $1299. However, the equivalent 13 inch Macbook Pro has twice the RAM and storage space (non-SSD though), longer battery life (by Apple’s claims at least) and an optical drive. But it is thicker and 1.5 pounds heavier. It is also $100 cheaper. Even though the Macbook Pro might seem like a better deal, it’s not quite so straight cut.

For starters, the SSD is a game changer. I haven’t had the chance to use one on a daily basis myself, but from what I’ve heard (from everyone from Linus Torvalds to fellow students) it’s much more than an incremental upgrade over a traditional drive. As the benchmarks show, the SSD makes a great difference. SSDs are still an early-adopter technology, but they’re at the point where it makes sense to invest in one if you plan on keeping a machine around for a while. To bring the Macbook Pro up to the same spec would cost an additional $350.

The next question is mobility. For a machine to carry around a fair amount, the Air does a damn good job. It’s barely 3 pounds heavy, and about two-thirds of an inch at the thickest point. And according to Techcrunch, it also doesn’t bleed very much heat. This may be a bit of a personal peeve, but I can’t stand laptops that bleed excessive amounts of heat. My netbook starts fanning out warm air really quickly and that annoys me no end. Even the current Pros can get a bit warm after an hour or two of work. If the Air is really as cool as Techcrunch says it is, then its certainly a very big plus, almost as much as weighing less than most of my textbooks. The 7 hour battery life is much more than any other laptop I’ve ever used and should be good enough for a full day of work. Considering the fact that I don’t plan on doing long trips very much that seems sufficient.

The high-resolution screen is definitely a boon. It’s hard to tell how important a high-res screen matters until you’re forced to work with one that’s lower resolution. The screen is also matte, not glossy, which isn’t a major factor until it is (ie it’s a sunny day and you decide to go out into the sun). Glossy vs matte isn’t that big of a factor if you’re working in a good set up with no bright lights behind you. But I’m planning on being able to take my machine out in a  random cafe or park bench and get some work done outdoors. Not having to see the sun’s glare or my own reflection all the time would be nice.

The final thing to note is ports and optical drive. The Air has no optical drive and the only time I use an optical drive is to watch DVDs. I would really not miss the optical drive if all of Netflix were streamed online, but until then I’ll be buying a separate optical drive. And it will probably be one of the Apple drives since I can’t seem to find anyone making a cheaper slot-loading drive (after using slot-loading drives, tray-loaders seem downright clunky and primitive). What that means is that when I have an external drive plugged in, I’ll be down to a single USB port. I would not be able to plug in an optical drive, external storage drive and USB keyboard all that the same which is something I can see myself wanting to do at some point. Again, I’m not entirely certain how much of a problem that would be. Even if that is something I need to do USB hubs are cheap and abundant and it’s not an issue when I’m on the move. The DisplayPort means that I’ll be able to plug in a larger monitor (which is something I’m likely to do when I’m at my desk). The lack of a wired Ethernet port is somewhat concerning. Though being at a grad school means that I’ll probably have all the wireless Internet I need, it means that I’d have to get a wireless router for wherever I end up living.

The Macbook Air is certainly a very respectable machine. However, it’s another question as to whether or not I would actually  buy one. The 13 inch Pro is a strong competitor and for a primary machine, the Pro seems to win. Though the Air lets you do most things you’d want to with a computer, the peripheral limitations mean that you can’t do everything you’d want to. The lack of a cheaper SSD option on the Pro is a bit disappointing, but it’s something that I could add in later if I really want to. If I were getting a secondary travel machine to accompany an existing home machine, the Air would win hands down. But since I want a machine that I can hope to use full time, I still need a “complete” machine. The Pro is the best bargain for that.

The current state of operating systems

I’ve been having some conversations lately about the current state of operating systems and computer technology in general. With the recent announcement of OS X Lion and Steve Ballmer’s claims that they are betting big on Windows 8, it’s an interesting time for operating systems.

In some ways the last decade or so has not been so interesting for desktop operating systems. Only three operating systems are still in popular use and all of them are more or less the same in terms of how they work. The differences between them from a user point of view are mostly superficial. However, each of these operating systems has a different story to tell. Windows has been pretty much stagnant from Windows XP through Vista up to Windows 7. The bold plans that were supposed to be part of Longhorn never came through. On the other hand OS X has been slowly but steadily marching ahead. OS X along with the iLife suite and the iOS devices has been gently pushing personal computing into the future. However, it’s becoming clearer that the controls that Apple places on it’s technology is here to stay and will probably only get more stringent in the years to come. Whether or not the desktop Mac gets completely locked down remains to be seen. Finally Linux on the desktop never really took off (despite some good attempts) and even with Canonical and Ubuntu doing some great work, it doesn’t seem Linux will see strong market penetration any time soon.

So where does all this leave us? I think it’s high time for a Microsoft resurgence. They have an army of really intelligent capable engineers spread throughout the world. They have some amazing projects being incubating in their Labs (and more smart people). Equally importantly, they have immense financial assets and deep, deep inroads to the corporate sector. Though they’re not in danger of losing their immense market lead anytime soon, they  haven’t done anything innovative or exciting in a long long time. And they’re also far far behind in both cloud and mobile computing. But at a time when there are doubts starting to fly about Apple’s intentions (and how they’ll play with companies like Flash and Adobe), it could be just the opportunity that MS needs to make a strong comeback. They’ll need something bold and unique, but there doesn’t seem to be much confidence in their ability to pull off what they need to do.

Being a Linux user for a good few years I think it’s represent some really technology, unfortunately it fails when it comes to getting the little things working properly. Ubuntu does a good job of making the user experience smooth, and I think it’s the best user-facing Linux distribution currently available. But there’s no Netflix for Linux, Flash still has problems and if you’re stepping out of the Ubuntu zone there’s a considerable amount of potential tinkering that you might have to get things working. I personally use Arch Linux and prefer it over Ubuntu mainly because of the bleeding edge packages, but it kinda sucks when you don’t have suspend/resume working for months on end. Once upon a time when I was just diving into the world of Linux and the mysteries of the command line, spending a few hours trying to get graphics working after an upgrade was something of an adventure. But now it gets old really quickly. I’m getting into the phase of “grown-up computing” and I want to use my computer to get stuff done as opposed to figuring out why stuff isn’t working. Should I just sue for peace and stick with Ubuntu on the desktop? Maybe, but at that point I might as well just get a Mac.

Right now, it seems to me that OS X is hands down the best desktop operating system on the market. Unless you’re tied to some particular piece of software on Windows, OS X practically runs everything you would want it to. Of course, with Apple divorcing itself from Adobe and Oracle, it’s interesting to see how long that will last. If Microsoft can’t get its act together and make a comeback, the time might be right for another player to come up. One possible answer is Google with Android or Chrome OS, but I have my doubts if it will work. For one thing, the current state of Android phones seems to suggest that just providing part of the software layer won’t be enough.

A strong entrant to the desktop computing market will need to offer a combined hardware and software combo (even if the software is leased to other players). I’m thinking Apple-level hardware with Ubuntu on top of it. The hardware control would mean fine-tuned and well-tested drivers so that things actually work. However the free software would mean that it would be an open and hackable machine. It works great when you need it to, but you can hack it if you want it to. Canonical might decide to open a hardware wing, especially since Dell seems to have stopped offering Ubuntu as an option.

I think that the lull in operating system activity is coming to an end. As we get more used to the idea of storing our data in the cloud all the time and the web slowly fuses with the desktop, we need the core technologies that power our machines to change as well. However, the change is not always for the best. Furthermore since our livelihood depends on no small part on our machines, it’s in our best interests to make sure that our operating systems do what we want them to. For that reason, as much as I admire Apple’s dedication to perfection  and can understand why they want control of the platform, the lack of a free, open and high-quality alternative does make me uncomfortable. I hope someone stands up to pick up the slack.

Expanding my boundaries

As I start writing graduate school applications and figuring 0ut what I want to do with the next few years of my life, I decided to stop and take a look at just how much of computer technology I really know about. The answer is: not as much as I would like. Though I know a fair amount about programming languages and the related tools, my knowledge outside that area is fairly limited. I have some knowledge about operating systems, a significant amount about computer hardware (including new multicore CPUs and GPUs) and I have a good understanding of the core theoretical concepts behind computer science.

However, I know very little about things like databases, security or computer networks. And this makes me uncomfortable because we live in an increasingly networked world. A growing amount of user facing software is becoming networked, collaborative and social. Both computation and storage are embracing the cloud and it’s becoming more common to have our data in large or small-scale databases rather than in multiple discrete files. Since I plan on staying in the computer field for a good period of time to come, I think it would be a good idea to read up on the networked side of things.

I have a good idea of the hardware layer of networks and the basic socket system (learned all that in the operating systems class) but I have little idea of the protocols and systems built on top of them. I suppose there are enough books out there that would give me a good idea of our networked world, but I don’t just want to know about it, I want to be able to build it (at least parts of it). Luckily there’s tons of great oepn-source networking code out there.

In particular the Ruby on Rails framework and the Mongrel2 webserver are not just completely open source, they also have excellent documentation and manuals. It may not be an entirely good idea for me to start learning about networking by reading server code and documentation, but I like following a “throw myself in the deep end’ policy when I’m self-educating. My plan is to start reading up on how some good networking code works, trying to figure things out and when I can’t figure something out, go look up other resources on it. I did something similar with programming languages when I got interested in them (though not looking at implementation code) and I’ve learned a lot.

In addition to that, there are two computer networking courses being offered next semester (one from an ECE perspective and one from a CS perspective) and I plan on taking one of them. I’m hoping that I’ll have self-taught myself enough that I can use the class to clear any doubts or misconceptions I might have and gain a really solid understanding of the area.

Of course, the best way to learn is by doing and I want to write code that implements the stuff I learn about. I’ve already started this by refactoring my old operating systems project. It started out as an a simple client-server combo that sent data over a network and was a multithreaded program. I’ve slimmed it down and thrown out all the client stuff. At this point it’s a small C library that handles multithreading and establishing TCP connections that could be used for building servers. I have a simple echo server and at some point I’ll sit down and write an HTTP server for it. It’s called Litepipe and you can get it from Github.

I’m really looking forward to exploring and learning about a new area of computer technology, but with all the stuff I have on my plate, it’s probably going to be rather slow going. But that’s ok, I’m not in a rush. I’d love to hear any advice you guys might have on how to get started learning about networking.

 

Why bookmark?

Yesterday I came across a cool little web service called Pinboard which claims to be “social bookmarking for introverts”. It’s a simple, no-frills bookmarking service that combines a very clean design with a simple bookmarklet to do a good job at helping you save and share your bookmarks (if you want to). I currently use Diigo for my bookmarks, which I moved to from Delicious about a year ago. The only reason I moved was because Diigo let me store a longer excerpt as the description. I don’t use any of the fancy highlighting or social features that it has to offer. However, as I considered trying out Pinboard I realized that I don’t really use bookmarks at all.

In the last few years tl;dr has apparently become a major problem. People supposedly don’t have the time to read long articles or posts on the Internet. Services like Read It Later and Instapaper (which I sometimes use) have evolved to offer a way to save things they find online for later reading on the variety of Internet-able devices that are now available. To some extent Pinboard and bookmarks in general address that problem as well. However, I don’t have that problem myself. Though I subscribe to a fair number of RSS feeds and keep a regular eye on Twitter, I do manage to find the time to sit and read larger posts and articles online. Generally I do this in the “down-time” between classes or when I’m working at the IT helpdesk, when I know I’ll get interrupted and so don’t want to start anything that will require concentrated attention. I signed up for Instapaper a few months ago and have the app on my iPod, but I can’t say I’m a regular user. If I find something interesting in Google Reader that I can’t read right then, I’ll star it and come back to it later in the day or the next. When I bookmark something, it’s generally so that I can find it later and even then the only time I go back to my bookmarks is to find stuff to post on a Sunday Selection (or share with someone else). Truth be told, I’ve generally considered the bookmark bar in browsers to be a waste of screen space.

All that considered, the question I have is: why bookmark? Personally, I can’t really come up with an answer. Any site that I think I would visit regularly, I grab the RSS feed and pipe it to Google Reader. I only use a handful of web-services: Gmail, Facebook and Twitter on regular basis and with autocomplete in the URL bar on Firefox and Chrome it takes me about the same time as it would for me to type it in and hit enter as it would to click on a bookmark in the bar. The only real reason I can think about is bookmarklets for services like Tumblr and Readability and even then, I generally use a browser extension for that (the Chrome extensions are often just the spruced up bookmarklets).

I guess being able to save sites and articles you like would be a good idea, in theory. But in practice I rarely go back and look at what I’ve already read. I’d be interesting in knowing how many people who use bookmarks regularly actually go back to them. Back in the day, before I had 24/7 broadband I used bookmarks as a sort of long-time cache: instead of saving pages, I’d bookmark them in Internet Explorer with “read offline” (or whatever it was called) enabled. But since I have a rather more dependable Internet connection nowadays, that’s no longer a real use case. In the same way that I don’t really care about saving my Twitter feed, I don’t really care about saving bookmarks anymore — they’re both meant to be ephemeral and impermanent and I’m fine with that. Whenever I do need to recall something a combination of Google or Google Reader is generally enough to find what I want.

At this point, I’m really interested in knowing why other people use bookmarks. Do people really go back and check things they read before? Is it mostly just a “read later” buffer? Are journalists (bloggers included) the only people who really use bookmarks anymore (so that they can refer back to their sources)? Or is it just some form of social inertia from when there wasn’t RSS or Twitter and so having a fixed link to a website you visited often was a good idea? There must be some reason why sites like Delicious and Diigo are going strong and newcomers like Pinboard can actually charge users a signup fee for their service. If anyone has ideas, evidence or even just theories explaining any of this, do let me know.

Sunday Selection 2010-10-03

Reading

A new medium requires a new literacy The times they are a changing, and keeping up is not a easy business. This article from the Huffington Post talks about how the idea that younger generations are automatically better equipped to deal with technology isn’t quite true and how education is perhaps more important either. It’s centric to the United States but could easily be generalized to the world at large.

Staying healthy and sane at a startup Most of us might not be working day-in-day-out to get our awesome startup off the ground, but this post from former Twitter API lead Alex Payne is useful to anyone working at an intellectual desk job. It discusses the value of diet, exercise and meditation and offers some sane and down-to-earth advice on how to keep yourself in shape (physically and mentally). I’m starting to implement these in my own life (especially diet and exercise) and I hope to see some good effects.

Media

How web video powers global innovation YouTube often gets a bad rap for being a time and productivity sink and to a large I think that’s true. In this TED talk, TED’s CEO Chris Anderson talks about how the rise in online video is helping to boost global innovation on a multitude of levels. This doesn’t mean you’re justified in spending hours watching cats do funny things but it does mean that online video is more than just entertainment.

Software

Google Voice If you’re not using Google Voice, you should be. Voice gives you a number that acts a “proxy” between the caller and you’re actual phone. Why is it awesome? Because it gives you an unprecedented amount of control over how you receive and handle phone calls. If you have multiple physical phones you can redirect calls to your Voice number to any (or all) of them. You can set rules for who gets to call you and when or you can just turn on the “Do Not Disturb” mode which sends everything to voicemail. Voice also presents voicemail in an email-like web interface so that you can see who called you in once glance. And lest I forget, you get free SMS too.