In the long run, is it more cost-effective to buy a brand new, current generation Mac, or a less expensive Mac that’s a generation behind? I’m currently grappling with this issue, as it’s time for me to upgrade my home Final Cut Studio workstation (an older 24-inch aluminum iMac maxed out at 4GB of RAM). I’d love to invest in one of the speedy new 27-inch iMacs, but right now Small Dog has quantity of previous generation 24-inch iMacs with comparable, impressive specs—for hundreds of dollars less than the 27-inch models.

The debate—to buy the latest and greatest current generation Mac, or save money and get an older, but still nicely equipped model—is one many of us deal with when it’s time to upgrade our personal, business, or family computers. It can be perplexing, especially now that Apple has moved to the Intel platform. The difference in speed between different generations of Intel processors is often (but not always) incremental, rather than exponential.

Most of us also realize that we don’t really need the ultimate, fastest computer on the market. The bleeding edge of technology can be a painful place to exist. Most users don’t begin to truly maximize our computer’s ability. On the other hand, no one wants to buy a machine that’s soon to be obsolete.

I recommend thinking three years ahead. For Macs, this is an ideal timeframe. Unless someone is truly only reading email and surfing simple websites, or writing with simple word-processing software, I don’t recommend buying a G3, G4, or G5, or even a first-generation Intel Duo Mac. For most people who want to run modern software, or use modern peripherals (including iPods, iPhones, etc.), those are fast becoming dead-end systems. It’s fine if you own one now—but I wouldn’t buy a used model. You can buy a newer, used Intel Core Duo Mac for almost the same price.

While a particular Mac might technically rate faster in a benchmarking contest compared to another Mac, in practice the difference might be imperceptible. Computer speed is the result of several different factors, and often differs from application to application.

If you’re comparing Macs—old to new, or simply old to older, here are parts of the machine to pay attention to.

Processor – Processor speed seems easy enough to understand—the higher the GHz, the faster the processor, right? Usually, but clock speed (GHz) does not tell the whole story of a processor’s abilities and limits. For example, which do you think is faster: a 27-inch iMac with the 2.8 GHz i7 processor, or a 27-inch iMac with 3.06 Core 2 Duo processor? It’s actually the i7 processor with the lower GHz rating—depending on the application, it’s 2x – 3x faster than the 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo.

That’s because when Intel names a processor (Core 2, Xeon, Core i7, Core i5) the name is actually referring to a whole family of different processors. The different families have different capabilities. Some are dual core, some quad core, some support hyper-threading, some support Turbo Boost, and some support both (i7).

To get a great overview of how Intel names and rates its processors, read this helpful article from Gizmodo.

In the Mac universe at present, it’s enough to say that Xeon/Nehalem processors are the fastest (found in the Mac Pro), followed by the i7, i5 and Core 2 Duo processors.

RAM (also called memory, but not to be confused with the hard drive. The hard drive is where all files are stored.) It used to be rather pointless for most people to install more than 4GB of RAM, as processors and software couldn’t recognize or use it. That is rapidly changing with the introduction of 64-bit operating systems (such as Snow Leopard) and new 64-bit software that can see up to 16GB and even 32GB of RAM.

Adobe says users can experience 50% to 200% faster high-definition (HD) workflows in CS4 Production Premium by moving from a 32-bit system with 4GB of RAM to a 64-bit system with 16GB of RAM. However, most home users, including those who use Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro, iMovie, iPhoto, Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and most games are will be content with 4GB of RAM. At Small Dog, we recommend that every Mac have at least 4GB or RAM; Apple now includes 4GB of RAM as standard equipment in most Macs.

It’s a good idea to plan for future RAM upgrades, as applications are always growing greedier for RAM. In the long run, the price of RAM goes down, but can actually go up in the short term. It’s fairly easy to upgrade RAM in most iMacs. Try to get a Mac that can take 4GB of RAM, rather than the standard 2GB of RAM
Macrumors.com has a chart detailing these machines (note that the latest iMacs are not listed here.) You can also use the Mactracker app for this purpose.

Click here to read a very long and detailed article on this subject on AppleInsider.com

Graphics Cards: If you play video games, are a serious or dedicated photo/image editor, motion graphics expert, or video editor, or you need to crunch intense visual data in medicine or science, then you probably already know how important it is to get a powerful graphics card (also often called video card or GPU). OS X has always relied on the power of modern graphics cards to provide a responsive, good-looking user experience. Snow Leopard taps your Mac’s graphics card more than ever. Snow Leopard supports the OpenCL language, making it easier for programmers to use power of your Mac’s graphics card for tasks that have little or nothing to do with graphics.

There is a difference between integrated graphics cards and dedicated graphics cards. Simply put, while integrated graphics are great for everyday computer tasks including some games, editing photos, and watching movies, graphics pros or gamers are going to prefer the more powerful dedicated graphics cards. Examples of integrated graphics cards on a Mac include the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, Intel X3100, Intel GMA X3100, and Intel GMA 950.

If you have a newer Mac with an Nvidia GeForce 9400M chipset, Snow Leopard will uses your graphics card for HD video encoding and playback.

Bottom line, the more RAM on a graphics card, the better, and dedicated graphics are generally more powerful than integrated graphics cards.

Bus speed – Bus speed has traditionally been very important to a Mac’s overall speed. The bus is a subsystem that transfers data between computer components, such as from processor to the memory. The faster your Mac’s frontside bus, the more potential for speed your machine ultimately has. Common bus speeds in recent Macs are 667 MHz, 800 MHz and 1066 MHz. Faster is better. Apple has begun introducing a new “Direct Media Interface” (DMI) that connects between the processor and chipset in lieu of a traditional system bus. This is potentially much faster than a traditional frontside bus. DMI is only in the Mac Pro and some of the most recent Macs.

Hard Drive (sometimes called “storage”). Depending on your use, bigger is often better in this case. However, speed is important too. Most desktop Macs have 7200 RPM drives, while notebooks have 5400 RPM drives. The faster your drive, the faster your Mac’s processor can access and save data to it. The cost of hard drives is quite low, and installing a new drive is a popular post-purchase upgrade. However, it’s not as easy to install a new drive in newer Macs. Most people prefer to pay a tech do this upgrade. It’s best to get the biggest drive in place the first time around.

Other considerations:

OS and Applications Snow Leopard is the fastest version of Mac OS X. It’s a 64-bit system that can take advantage of the 64-bit Intel processors released in the past few years. If you’re using a 64-bit software on a 64-bit system powered by a 64-bit operating system, the potential for taking advantage of RAM and full processor power would be incredible. Unfortunately, there aren’t yet many full 64-bit apps. By this time next year, this will be completely different. 64-bit support and the ability to run Snow Leopard is another reason not to buy a G3, G4 or G5.

Monitor size, Coating, and Technology – If you’re buying an iMac or Apple notebook, you also have to compare monitors. The current iMacs have brilliant backlit LED monitors, which are brighter, crisper, and more energy efficient than previous models. On the other hand, some people find the HD displays to be too crisp, and prefer the softer LCD’s we’re all accustomed to. Finally, there are people who prefer to buy an older iMac or notebook with a matte display, rather than the glossy display.

Keyboard, mouse, or trackpad. – If you’re comparing a new iMac to a previous generation model, don’t forget that the newest iMacs come with the Magic Mouse, which people seem to prefer to the Mighty Mouse. On the other hand, all iMacs now come with the short, non-numeric Apple keyboard, which many people do prefer. Likewise, all new Apple notebooks have the large, buttonless multitouch trackpad. Previous machines had a trackpad with one button, which might be preferable to some people. Of course you can always use an external mouse with a notebook, and you can always buy a different brand keyboard and mouse to accompany your iMac.

Ports, such as FireWire and Mini DisplayPort, etc. – Don’t forget, the first generation of aluminum MacBooks lacked FireWire ports, as does the current white unibody MacBook.

Useful websites for researching Mac benchmarks:

BareFeats is the king of all Mac benchmarking sites. Not only are they often the first to post detailed benchmarking results, they’re not afraid of making recommendations on which model offers the best-bang-for-the-buck.

Mactracker is a great little app that will show you the maximum RAM for every Mac.

Macrumors.com Mac Guides

Macworld.com also offers fast, easy to understand benchmarking results. I often check reviews there before I buy.

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You might know that there are multiple ways to access the Dictionary application in OS 10.5 and 10.6. You can launch the application from your Mac’s Application folder, or you can Command-Click on a word in a document, and choose “Look Up in Dictionary” in the contextual menu that pops up. If you’re in a native Mac application (Safari, Mail, etc), you can launch a mini-Dictionary when you position your cursor over a word (or highlight a word) and hold down Control-Command-D. Clicking “More” at the bottom of this tiny window launches the full Dictionary application.

From here it’s evident that you can look up words, correct spelling mistakes, and research synonyms. You can also research Wikipedia entries related to words in the Dictionary app. OK, great, that’s all well and good. But did you know that there’s another whole level to the Dictionary app? When you click on “Go” in menu at the top of the menu bar, you’ll see a link that says “Front/Back Matter.” Open this and you’ll discover a hidden new universe in your Mac’s dictionary. These are many classic Oxford reference materials here, such as “Rules of English: Understanding Grammar,” “Constitution of the United States of America,” and, perhaps most interestingly, “Clich├ęs.”

I let the cat out of the bag, and the ball is now in your court. I know you’re busy as a bee but it’s time to bury the hatchet, pay the piper, and check out Dictionary’s hidden reference materials. It’s a no-brainer. Practice makes perfect. This might be a quick and dirty Mac Treat, but I’m not pulling any punches; I’m putting my money where my mouth is. And last but not least, wonders never cease.

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_Happy New Year, All!_
Well, we’re about a week into 2010 and I am in the midst of some serious new year organization. There’s a lot to do here now that the holidays have wound down, and we have an eye to the future–2010 is certainly going to keep us busy.
First up: “CES.”:http://www.cesweb.org/ Don is out in Las Vegas right now with some of our crew for the Consumer Electronics Show representing for Chill Pill Audio. This is the first time we’ve been to CES, which is __the__ largest consumer technology tradeshow (or as it’s been described, “geek heaven on Earth”:http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/08/ces.explainer/).
“Check out some photos of our booth and the event so far here.”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/chillpillaudio/
The end of January will bring some exciting events as well. Chill Pill Audio will again be showcasing at a trade show, this time at the “New York International Gift Fair”:http://www.nyigf.com/ from January 30 – February 4.
Plus, the rumor mills have started churning with the announcement of an Apple product event scheduled to take place on Wednesday, January 27. Will there be a tablet? iPhone updates? Who knows–as we all know, Apple will keep as much under wraps as they can until the 27th.
Details are sketchy, but “read more about Apple’s upcoming event here.”:http://digitaldaily.allthingsd.com/20100104/major-apple-product-announcement/
In this issue, we’ve got some tips for your Mac’s Dictionary, things to look for when you’re comparing Macs, a review of the Quiver, an iPod shoulder strap for people on the go, another contest for our newsletter readers, Twitter followers and Facebook fans and more!
__This issue of Kibbles and Bytes is dedicated to our friend and talented artist Stephen Huneck.__

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Two weeks ago, one of our long-term customers returned a late 2008 Xserve to us stating it was not recognizing PCI cards in either slot. I jumped at the chance to take a look at it since we don’t see many broken Xserves coming back in. Xserves are traditionally easy machines to work on. Many […]

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During the colder months it’s important keep in mind that cold objects entering a warm, moist environment (like your home or workplace) will become damp with condensation. As liquid exposure of any type can void your warranty and result in costly repair, and as Apple now installs liquid exposure indicators inside each of its products, […]

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During the colder months it’s important keep in mind that cold objects entering a warm, moist environment (like your home or workplace) will become damp with condensation. As liquid exposure of any type can void your warranty and result in costly repair, and as Apple now installs liquid exposure indicators inside each of its products, it’s vital that you keep your electronic gear safe.
If at all possible, do not keep your laptop, iPod, iPhone or other electronic gear in the car overnight in the cold. We’re beginning to see a few victims of condensation come through the shop, and it’s easy to avoid. If you find yourself with a moisture-covered device, the first thing to do is turn it off and remove the battery. iPod and iPhone users can only shut down and wait as their batteries are not removable.
Legendary data recovery firm (and Small Dog data recovery partner) “Drive Savers”:www.drivesavers.com notes that this exposure to hard drives is particularly serious: “Cold weather can wreak havoc on temperature-sensitive hard drives used in computers, game consoles, MP3 players and video recorders. Condensation buildup on the drive platters and frozen components can lead to drive failure and data loss.

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A friend recently sent me an email, questioning why his MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM was “getting slower and slower, with an increasing frequency of the appearance of the SRWOD (spinny rainbow wheel of death).” This is something I occasionally hear about, but haven’t experienced (except for Safari randomly bogging down for several seconds).
Unfortunately, mysterious computer slowdowns can be difficult to diagnose. Overstuffed system cache, old temp files, corrupted preferences, a hard drive in the early stages of failure, and faulty RAM are always candidates for causing this problem. Here are some suggestions to resolve system slowdowns.
Also, please make sure you have a solid backup of your Macs important data before proceeding. *I’ll say it again: make sure your Mac is backed up properly before proceeding.*
1. Any Mac will slow down when its hard drive is almost full, regardless of processor speed. Simply moving some of your data (especially media files like movies, video podcasts, etc) to an external drive can greatly improve a Mac’s responsiveness.
Read how to reclaim hard drive space in an old Kibbles article “by clicking here.”:http://www.smalldog.com/kibbles/kibbles_display.php?id=557
2. Clear your Mac’s desktop. The OS has to draw each of those icons as separate windows, so when you have dozens of files littered on the desktop the system is taxed. Clearing the Macs desktop is proven to improve system performance.
3. Make sure your computer is up to date with all the latest software and firmware updates from Apple. This can go a long way to improving system performance. To check this, click the Apple in the top left corner of the screen and select “Software Update…”
4. Simply running a free maintenance program can often help bring a sluggish and flakey machine back to speed. These programs force the Mac’s regular Unix maintenance scripts; normally these run daily, weekly, and monthly early in the morning. “Click here for further reading on this.”:http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2319?viewlocale=en_US
I use a program called Onyx (free) to run these scripts. You can get it for Tiger (10.4) and Leopard (10.5) as well as Snow Leopard. It’s effective and easy to use. It starts by checking the S.M.A.R.T. status of your hard drive, so you can determine if the drive is failing. This step takes several minutes. After that Onyx can flush system cache, etc.
One catch about Onyx is that it has several options that most people shouldn’t use, such as the option for erasing bookmarks and internet browsing history. I do like and recommend Onyx, though–get it from Apple’s site “by clicking here (version for 10.6).”:http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/system_disk_utilities/onyx.html For 10.5 and older, “click here to find your version on VersionTracker.”:http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/20070
You can also download a simpler program called MacJanitor that will only run the maintenance scripts “by clicking here.”:http://personalpages.tds.net/%7Ebrian_hill/macjanitor.html When a tech diagnoses your Mac, he or she runs a battery of programs that are similar to Onyx. This takes several hours. However, Onyx does a great job for occasional repairs and maintenance.
5. Check the health of your hard drive. I depend on Onyx to verify the S.M.A.R.T. status of my Mac’s hard drive. Immediately back up your computer if you think there’s a real issue with the drive. Then consider using a dedicated drive diagnostic/repair tool such as “Disk Warrior.”:http://www.smalldog.com/product/41941 If the drive is having issues and you’re going to replace it, consider using a 7200RPM model. A faster hard drive will result in a (slightly) faster Mac.
6. Check the health of your Mac’s RAM. There are several ways to test the health of your Mac’s RAM. I use “Rember,”:http://www.kelleycomputing.net/rember/ which is a free program that is a front-end GUI to a basic Unix ‘memtest’ command. You can read more about testing RAM “by clicking here.”:http://www.macfixit.com/article.php?story=20050524014158525
7. Deal with mutant applications. Ok, so maybe the word “mutant” is unfair. However, it’s always a good idea to delete applications that you don’t use. I use “AppCleaner”:http://www.freemacsoft.net/AppCleaner/index.php to do this.
Also, many apps install helper programs that run by default whenever you startup your Mac. This typically happens in the background, without the user having to confirm anything. Often these aren’t needed and can hog system resources without having anything to show for it. To disable startup items you don’t use, navigate to System Preferences > Accounts > Login items and uncheck the list.
Finally, any active, running application uses system resources including CPU cycles, RAM and disk activity, even when it is in the background and you’re not using it. Some programs leak memory when they are running, which makes them gobble RAM over time.
8. Use Activity Monitor and iStat Pro to analyze which system processes and applications are hogging system resources. You can download the “iStat Pro widget by clicking here.”:http://www.islayer.com/apps/istatpro/ Activity Monitor is found in the Utilities Folder which is nested in the Applications folder in OS X.
9. If you have an Intel Mac, use Xslimmer to trim away the legacy PowerPC code from Universal binary applications. Read more “by clicking here.”:http://www.xslimmer.com/
10. Programs that automatically perform syncing, indexing, and backup operations on your Mac can occasionally slow it down. They can sometimes cause minor drags that slow the system for a couple of seconds at a time.
If none of these helps, the problem will likely be more time-consuming to resolve. At Small Dog, our techs run a battery of tests with several software and hardware tools to seek out and fix strange system slowdowns. Hopefully the above suggestions will keep you from having to send in your machine!
__Editor’s note: Check out “this cheeky website”:http://marbleofdoom.com/about.html to log your time spent waiting for the “Spinning Beach Ball of Death!”__

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Two weeks ago, one of our long-term customers returned a late 2008 Xserve to us stating it was not recognizing PCI cards in either slot. I jumped at the chance to take a look at it since we don’t see many broken Xserves coming back in. Xserves are traditionally easy machines to work on. Many of the components are user-installable and the whole thing can be stripped down in about five minutes.
Thinking that I was either going to find a failed PCI slot or Main Logic Board (more likely since both slots supposedly were non-functional), I grabbed a PCI card for testing and powered on the Xserve; it booted to a Kernel Panic while loading the kernel (the part of the boot process where the grey Apple logo is on screen). This was not what I was anticipating. Still going along the lines of a potential issue with the PCI slots, I removed both PCI cards and reboot the machine; Kernel Panic (KP). Ok, time to go back to basic troubleshooting.
First I attempted to boot to the 10.5 Server Install DVD, it KP’d to that as well as an external hard drive with a known good boot volume. Then, I swapped the RAM, which yielded no change. I then manually ran the EFI Firmware Update for that Xserve, but it wouldn’t accept it. Traditionally, with desktop Macs and Xserves if the machine is experiencing Kernel Panics while loading the kernel and both operating system and RAM have been ruled out the issue is with the processor. Luckily, we had an identical Xserve in the shop that I was able to borrow some parts from. I swapped out the processor, but still no change. I was able to then successfully run Apple’s Service Diagnostics in EFI, which told me everything passed. Logically speaking, the issue should be a Main Logic Board at this point, so I ordered one up and let it go for the day.
The next day, Jon, another great SDE tech, installed the replacement logic board and to his chagrin he was greeted with a lovely Kernel Panic on boot. Ugh. He let it sit and the next day I was back in the office and I started scouring the service manual for tips. All status lights were displaying their normal state, with the exception of the System Identifier Light which blinked to let me know that I had the top cover removed. Next step, minimal system! I disconnected everything except for MLB, processor/heat sink, power supply and distribution board, RAM, fan array and video card. I attempted to boot to my known-good external hard drive and still received a KP in return. For my next trick, I replaced all of the minimal system components with the parts from the identical Xserve that we had with the exception of the replacement logic board and processor; still nada!
Just to be thorough (read: stubborn), I then proceeded to replace every component aside from the replacement logic board with the parts from the identical Xserve. My thought was to then work backwards eliminating one component at a time until I found the piece of hardware that was causing the issue. I never got that far. Even with all of the good components in place the same issue still occurred. At this point it was just about comical, and from being in situations like this before I felt it had to be something really simple that I was missing; but what?!
I called in two other techs and talked them through my process. We all stared at the machine for a bit and scratched our heads, but no ideas were generated. Then, an even more bizarre issue occurred. The external hard drive that I was using for testing has three partitions; two 10.5 and one 10.4 boot. During one last attempt at booting the machine the power button was pressed, but none of us bothered holding down the option key to get to the EFI boot manager. I turned around and realized the machine had successfully boot to the 10.4 partition and was functioning. This should not be possible; a late 2008 Xserve should not be able to boot into Tiger! At least from here I was able to verify that the firmware was up to date, but now I was even more confused.
It was time to call in the big guns. Feeling a little defeated, I picked up the phone and dialed Apple Enterprise Support; Apple’s tech line for help with servers and enterprise software. I explained my process and issue to the tech, who also seemed stumped. I’ll admit that my first call wasn’t terribly productive. The tech seemed to have trouble following my triage process and he ended up telling me to reinstall 10.5 Server on the internal hard drive and/or to try the firmware update again. Despite knowing neither should resolve the issue, I did them and then called back when that didn’t work. The second time I called I got a tech who seemed really interested in the case. He ended up putting me on hold while he “asked the room” for advice. The one unanimous answer was that Tiger __should not boot__ on that model Xserve and they suggested that I order yet another logic board, thinking the one I had received was defective.
Ok, one day of waiting for another board. It arrived, and I did the replacement this time. I was not surprised at all when I had yet another Kernel Panic staring back at me on boot. At this point I had the broken Xserve right across from the known-good Xserve that I was using as a parts-donor and after stepping back for a moment, I saw the problem. At first, I didn’t believe it. Even while I was then “fixing” the broken Xserve I was grumbling about how __stupid__ it was. When I boot the Xserve and it happily booted to its internal hard drive without a hitch, I was relieved, annoyed and a little embarrassed all at the same time. So, what did I notice?
Well, there are two slots for the processor; since they can be configured with one or two processors. The good Xserve properly had the processor in CPU A. The defective Xserve had the processor in CPU B. Of course it was panicking on boot! I suppose the only silver lining is it is interesting to know that a late 2008 Xserve is able to boot into Tiger if its processor is in the wrong slot, but I can’t say that’s very useful information. After speaking with the customer, it was confirmed that they had a tech there who had upgraded the Xserve himself to two processors and he accidentally removed the wrong one before shipping the machine back to us. Since it’s incredibly uncommon for a customer to rearrange the processor configuration it hadn’t dawned on me (or the three other techs looking over my shoulder) that the processor was in the wrong place.
The good news is that the original issue–the two non-working PCI-slots–was resolved by replacing the logic board. The machine is once again a happy, functioning Xserve and I have been re-taught the lesson that if a problem seems that convoluted there’s probably a simple solution that’s being overlooked.

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