Casey’s Dell Mini 9 Hackintosh Netbook

Casey got her 12 inch PowerBook G4 shortly after it was announced back in January 2003 and up until a couple of months ago, it had been her reliable companion. Eventually, however, it simply wasn’t able to keep up with new programs and technologies. JavaScript intensive web applications slowed the browser to a crawl and streaming video ended up looking more like a slideshow.

So recently we looked at how Casey uses her laptop and realized that except for streaming music through iTunes, she does everything in a web browser. This meant that while a Macbook would be very nice, it’d also be a little overkill for daily use. Instead, it turned out that a netbook was a near perfect fit for her.

A photo of a pink Dell Mini 9 netbook computer

A photo of a pink Dell Mini 9 netbook computer

After reading reviews and searching for deals, we ended up buying a Inspiron Mini 9 notebook from Dell. Except for upgrading the color to Promise Pink, we opted for the base configuration (1 GB RAM, 4 GB solid state hard drive, Ubuntu Linux operating system). I immediately doubled the memory to 2 GB for just $20 and then, after being backorderd for a couple of months, installed a 16 GB RunCore SSD to replace the stock Dell hard drive.

The Ubuntu operating system that came installed on the Mini is completely usable for most tasks, but my plan all along was to install Mac OS Leopard (10.5) to turn it into a very portable Mac laptop. There are a small number of netbooks that run Mac OS with few issues, and the Mini 9 currently tops the compatibility list.

Armed with a very complete set of how-to instructions and a few free pieces of software, I had Leopard running on Casey’s Mini in a single evening. I did run into a couple of problems during the installation, but they were addressed in the instructions as known issues with workarounds and fixes.

The end result? This is one fast laptop. Because there are no traditional hard disks spinning, it boots off the solid-state drive in just seconds and programs open almost instantly. There are tradeoffs, however. Because the Mini is so small, the screen and keyboard take some getting used to. Casey tells me that typing wasn’t a problem after a couple of days of practice, and I’ll take her word for it since I’ve only handled it sporadically.

So, for about $350 and a few hours of work, Casey now has a netbook that is dramatically faster than her six year old PowerBook it replaced. Most importantly, it does just what she needs it to.

An Automated Macintosh Workflow for Getting New TV Episodes From the Internet to Your iPod

I’m a big fan of good TV1, but I’m not a fan of being stuck watching it on the TV. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy we have a TiVo to entertain our boys with their favorite episodes of Little Einsteins and Thomas the Tank Engine on-demand, but there’s something to be said about being in control of when and where I can catch up on Fringe and Dollhouse.

This post lists the automated workflow I’m using on our iMac to get new episodes of my favorite shows off the internet and onto my iPod Nano so I can watch them whenever and wherever I want.

[Read more…]

The Apple Difference? Polish.

If you’re an Apple fan, you probably know that today is the big release date for the latest version of the Mac OS, 10.5, a.k.a Leopard. The two and a half year span since the release of Tiger is short by Microsoft standards, but is the longest Mac users have had to wait for a major release in the six year existence of Mac OS X. From early reviews however, it appears to be well worth the extra time.

I’m not going to attempt to write a review (haven’t had my hands on it yet) or rehash features here – both have already been done more times than I care to count. Apple is advertising over 300 new big and small features in Leopard, but I want to talk about a couple that have similar implementations on other operating systems but are transformed by the polish, execution, and attention to detail that Apple is famous for. Those two features are Time Machine and Spaces.

Time Machine vs. Volume Shadow Copy

Time Machine Logo

The most talked about new feature in Leopard has got to be Time Machine, the built-in automated backup and restore application. I’ll be the first to admit that disaster recovery is unsexy and complicated for most, which is why hardly anyone actually does it. People shouldn’t have to learn the difference between incremental and differential backups, or go through the trouble of scheduling jobs and deciding what files to include. I’ve sporadically burned CD-ROMs of documents and copied important files to my USB thumb drive, but a full system crash would be big trouble for our family. Time Machine ends the need for these ad hoc backup methods by automatically copying files to an external hard drive whenever they’re changed and keeping a version history of them. It removes every excuse for not backing up your Mac, except for spending the cash to get an external hard drive.

The main functionality of Time Machine has been around for decades: In the end, it’s just a backup program. Microsoft has similar technology in the last couple of editions of Windows called Volume Shadow Copy that basically does the same thing. But, because it’s hidden so well in the operating system, I’m guessing that 9 out of 10 people have never even heard of it. Unfortunately, the feature is largely inaccessible to home users since it requires either a Ultimate, Business, or Enterprise edition of Vista, or a combination of Windows XP and a server running Windows 2003. Also, shadow copies in Vista appear to be stored on the same disk as the operating system by default – an absolutely horrible idea if your goal is keeping a safe backup.

So, the idea is the same, but Apple’s execution and attention to detail are way, way better than Microsoft’s. Just look at these two screens: Which one would you rather interact with?

Volume Shadow Copy
Time Machine Screenshot

Spaces vs. Virtual Desktops

Spaces Icon

The other new feature I want to hit on is what Apple calls Spaces, an easy way to create separate workspaces to organize your applications and windows. This functionality too, is nothing new. Users of UNIX and Linux based OSes using the X Window System have been able to take advantage of virtual desktops for decades. Historically, these features have been poorly implemented and directed toward advanced computer users.

Apple appears to have put a lot of thought and work into Spaces, making it what is probably the most polished implementation of the virtual desktop idea we’ve seen so far. Take a look at this video to see how it works in action.

Getting to the Point

Under the hood, modern operating systems all provide the same types of services and functionality. What makes OS X different is that it’s polished. Apple has paid attention to the small details and taken much effort to make things easy and intuitive for users. So, it’s true that Apple has copied ideas from Windows, and from Linux too. They didn’t just do quick ripoffs though – they dramatically improved the experience. And, when Windows and the Mac OS seem to be looking more and more alike, that polish, those small details, can make a big difference.

Apple Announces iPhone – Cingular Only

I didn’t think it would actually happen, but Apple announced the iPhone at today’s Macworld Expo keynote in San Francisco. Apple’s website has all of the juicy details (QuickTime required), but here’s a preview:

Apple iPhone

Apple calls this a combination mobile phone, widescreen iPod with touch controls, and an Internet communications device. It’s a testament to great design, especially if you see any of the demo videos on Apple’s site. It runs a version of Mac OS X and uses gestures to navigate the interface. For example, to zoom into a Google map, you squeeze your fingers together like you’re pinching something. It’s even got Dashboard widgets. Very cool.

This is my and lots of other people’s dream phone, but there are a couple of problems. First is the price – $499 for the cheaper of the two models. That’s expensive for a phone, but not too bad for a smartphone. The second problem is a killer though. The iPhone is Cingular only, and will be for two years.

Cingular has practically no presence in North Dakota. I’m guessing their closest store is somewhere in the Twin Cities. We’re pretty much stuck with Verizon, Sprint, and Alltel. Verizon gives us the best coverage, but I’d put them as the last carrier waiting in line for the iPhone. They’re all about lock-in and nickel and diming customers by forcing them to pay for ringtones, wallpaper, songs, etc. instead of just syncing with a computer. I hate that they do it, but I don’t feel like we’ve got a better option for mobile phones in Grand Forks.

So, I’m excited to see the iPhone, but I’m not holding out any hope that I’ll ever be able to actually get one. Sucks, but that’s one of the realities of living in North Dakota…

Apple WWDC 2006

No, I’m not actually at the Apple World Wide Developers Conference, but that won’t keep me from commenting on the Steve Jobs keynote address.

First, I’m pretty impressed that Apple completed its transition to Intel processors so quickly. The PowerMac has now become a much faster Mac Pro, and while the Xserve name remains the same, the updated rack servers are much faster than the G5 powered ones they replace. Well done Apple.

But because I admitted to myself long ago that I just don’t need the power (or cost) of Apple’s Pro machines and instead got our family an iMac a couple of months ago, I was more interested in the preview of the upcoming Mac OS 10.5, AKA Leopard. Although expectations were pretty high due to the extensive coverage by various Apple sites, Leopard still appears to have plenty of new features worth the upgrade (available sometime next spring).

Here are a few of the things I’m looking forward to:

  1. Time Machine seems like a great idea, bringing version control and backups to the masses in a very easy to use interface
  2. Virtual desktop support through Spaces to make managing and organizing windows a little easier
  3. An improved Dashboard and widget creator – Dashcode
  4. Improved iChat, including screen sharing and video special effects

To be honest, I’m hoping there’s more cool stuff in Leopard than the 10 features Steve covered today. He claimed that Apple is keeping some of it under wraps for now, so there might be some other improvements worth noting later. I can only guess as to what they might include, but I’m at least hoping for an improved Front Row and an updated Safari.

Making Windows Act a Little More Like Mac OS X

After having some major problems with my Thinkpad last Thursday, I bit the bullet and did a complete format and restore of the hard drive to its factory condition. This not only fixed my issues, but also seemed to speed things up considerably. There’s really nothing quite like a fresh Windows install – at least when you’re working on a PC.

So, I took this opportunity to make my Windows laptop just a little more like a Mac. First, I installed the really nice X1 Search client, sort of like a Spotlight for Windows XP. It indexes all of my files and all of my work email, letting me find exactly what I’m looking for in 1/10th of the time it normally takes to browse through my documents and emails. It’s a great time saver, and it’s free.

I also installed a trial version of ActiveWords, a piece of software that does some of what Quicksilver does in Mac OS. You can watch some of the demos for a good overview, but it basically lets you type words into a little pop-up window to perform a task. For example, I can press the control key plus the spacebar to bring up the “Actionpad”, where I type the word “gmail”. This will launch an instance of Firefox and bring me to my Gmail inbox automatically. There’s even a complete scripting language to let you create automate more complex tasks. Pretty cool and also a big time saver, especially since I can take many of my common tasks down to a couple of keystrokes.

While I haven’t exactly done much here, it sure beats using the default Windows install. The main thing is that I’ll be able to get a little more work done…

Quicksilver

Today I downloaded and installed Quicksilver on my PowerMac at work after about a week of curiousity. I first read about it on 43 Folders (one of my favorite new sites), which offers a bunch of “life hacks” with the aim of becoming more productive in work and life.

I have to admit that I really didn’t understand what Quicksilver did when I downloaded it. I had a vague idea that it is a productivity tool and is considered a “launcher”, but that was about it. After a few minutes of using it though, the light bulb finally flickered on. I haven’t used it very much yet but can see what all the fuss is about. From looking at some of the posts on 43 folders about Quicksilver, I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

It’s definately worth a download if you’re a Mac user! Quicksilver is free, and if you like it you can send the auther a donation to show your appreciation.

Christmas Day for Mac Addicts

Every year in early January, members of the Mac cult (like myself) wet our collective pants and lose sleep in anticipation of what new Apple hardware and/or software our leader, Steve Jobs will unveil at the annual Macworld Expo, at which point we are left wondering how we ever managed to survive life before these shiny new products. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.

The latest Macworld keynote by Steve Jobs wrapped up in the last 20 minutes or so, leaving in its wake a bunch of new stuff for Mac fans and bloggers to digest and discuss to no end. This year was a unusual in one bad way – no live audio/video streams or satellite feeds, leaving the majority of the curious out in the dark. Rumor has it that the live streaming events consumed a lot of time, energy, and money which never added to Apple’s bottom line. So, while I was disappointed in not being able to see and hear every detail seconds after the attendees in San Francisco, I don’t blame them from a business prospective. An on-demand stream should be made available on the Apple Events page later today for anyone wanting to see Steve’s mesmerizing demos.

Sorry, I’m really dragging this out. Anyway, while the big announcements at this keynote were all predicted by the various Apple rumor sites, they were still very good. An updated version of iLife will be available shortly, as will be a replacement for AppleWorks called iWork.

One of the biggest pieces of news was the announcement of a cheap ($500) monitorless/keyboardless/mouseless Macintosh called the Mac mini. If you check out Apple’s gallery of Mac mini photos, you’ll quickly get an idea for how small this thing is. It’s 6 1/2 inches wide by 6 1/2 inches deep by 2 inches height, and weights in at 2.9 pounds. Very nice! Rumor sites claim the mini is targeted towards iPod users currently using a Windows PC. This is only a couple of hundred bucks more than an iPod, so I think it’s definitely possible this will win some converts who have come to appreciate Apple’s sense of design.

The other big announcement was a new iPod called the iPod shuffle. This is small (smaller than a pack of gum) and cheap ($99 for 512 MB and $150 for 1 GB) flash memory based iPod, and is the model of simplicity. This thing has very few buttons and has no display screen of any kind. The part I really like is that when you go to sync it, you can have iTunes randomly select enough songs from your music library to fill the iPod shuffle up. You unplug it and go, but you have no idea of what you’ll be listening to (no display). Their slogan for this new iPod is “Enjoy uncertainty”. I think it’s a great idea, and don’t think it will take very long for the shuffle to become the best selling flash-based music player on the market.

Work From Home for the Russian Mafia!

A recent article on SecurityFocus details the experience of having an FBI computer intrusion expert speak to a technology class at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s a very interesting read. The agent explains how many of the new virus/trojan horse hybrids are being propagated by professionals, namely the Russian mafia. One detail that I found interesting is how organized crime side-steps one of the most common fraud prevention methods available to businesses: refusing to ship products to Eastern Europe, Russia, and other areas known for rampant crime. The mob simply hires middlemen in the U.S. to accept the initial shipments at home and then reship them to countries such as Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine. Apparently, many of the ads that say “Make money! Work at home!” actually involve laundering products for the Russian mafia. Who would have thought?

Another interesting fact from the article is that many of the security people at the FBI headquarters actually use Macs. They say the use OS X because of its flexibility (it can run software made for Mac, Unix, and Windows operating systems), the option of using the GUI or the command line (Terminal), and because they are secure out of the box. You can’t really say that about Windows PCs!

Mac OS X Migration

Friday was my first full day of working on my Apple PowerMac G4 at the office, and I have to say that I didn’t miss Windows XP much at all. I installed Mac OS 10.3 (Panther) last week, and I’m very happy with it. Expose is addicting, especially with the way I work (with 10+ windows open at any given time), Mail is now more polished and easier to use, and Terminal now uses the [bash][/bash]4 shell. Life is good!

Most of my frequently used programs are available for the Mac OS and are up and running on my system, including Macromedia Studio MX 2004 (which actually works a lot better than the Windows version) and Microsoft Office v.X. TopStyle Pro (my favorite CSS editor) and Microsoft Visio are only available for Windows, but I think I can switch back into XP on occasional.

FeedDemon (created by the same developer as TopStyle Pro) is another Windows program I grew to love in the last several months. FeedDemon is a what is known as a RSS news feed reader, letting you browse information from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of web sites without even visiting them. I think of it as TiVo for the Web, pulling in news and information that is tailored to your individual tastes. Well, yesterday I finally discovered an equally capable news reader for Mac OS X. It’s been around for awhile, but I’ll plead ignorance due to me being largely “out” of the Mac scene for some time. It’s called NetNewsWire and is made by a company called Ranchero. If you’re using OS 10.2 or 10.3, I highly suggest downloading the trial version and giving it a try!