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#669: Snow Leopard Is Coming, What is VRAM?, Repair of the Week, Parallels Desktop 4.0


Happy Tuesday,

We have reached the end of June and Independence Day is upon us. I started the celebration this past weekend by taking my two boys to the Waterbury 4th celebration, always held on the Saturday prior to the actual date. We spent a good four hours in the Rusty Parker Park watching the parade and letting the boys be boys. After frolicking, we went home only to return to Waterbury in the evening for fireworks. For the third time this week, they got to stay out well past their bed times.

Saturday was such a hit that we decided that Sunday would best be spent on the road and out of the house. As it was a wet and dreary day, my wife and I decided that that shopping that we had been ignoring should be done, and we found ourselves in and out of department and home goods stores preparing for our upcoming camping vacation. We came across a bicycle in one of the stores. My oldest, soon to be six, had tricycles and scooters but not a bike to this point in his life. We decided it was time and the look of joy, ecstasy even, that crossed his face when we said we’d buy him a new bike, was one of those moments parents live for. Happy with his new toy, he rode the bike in the store to the check out counter and after we paid for it and a new helmet, to the car.

Sunday evening, while it was still raining out, he spent all the time he could riding circles around our small one bay garage. We all wish at times that life could be that simple and we should all find that activity we enjoy that can bring us the joy of a five year old with a new bike.

Thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Snow Leopard Is Coming  

In October of 2007 Apple released their fifth revision of Mac OS X; tilted Leopard, it became Apple’s biggest update to OS X since its initial release in 2001. Leopard boasted over 300 new features for both developers and consumers. Time Machine’s automated backups, Spaces’ virtual desktops, and the ability to run Windows operating systems were only some of the new features introduced in Leopard and have since become staples of the Macintosh platform. In keeping with their biannual system upgrade, Apple is poised to release their next revision of OS X this September.

Snow Leopard marks a bit of a departure from previous upgrades in both features and price. After five revisions of OS X, Apple seems fairly satisfied with the operating system they have built; instead of completely revamping the OS for Snow Leopard, they’ve decided to “finely tune” what they already have. This may make Snow Leopard seem a bit more like a service pack than a new operating system, but however small some of the graphical changes may be, the core of the OS will be greatly improved.

The first thing Snow Leopard will give you is speed. If you’ve purchased a Mac within the last three to four years, Snow Leopard should increase your machine’s performance and decrease its overall footprint. Apple boasts saving up to six gigabytes off the current Leopard installation. Snow Leopard will also introduce full 64-bit support for all Intel Core 2 Duo and newer processors, making professional applications run faster and providing room for future enhancements. Along with these speed improvements, Apple is also introducing two new technologies to the core of the OS to make even older Macs run smoother. Grand Central and OpenCL are both huge improvements to the way your Mac processes lots of data. Grand Central is essentially traffic control for your processor, monitoring and pushing processing tasks to the multiple cores on newer Intel processors. OpenCL will take better advantage of the graphics processing unit (GPU) when computing scientific or mathematical operations, or when the CPU becomes overloaded.

Besides all the refinements in the underpinnings of OS X, Apple has also made slight changes to the user interface to make using your Mac a little easier. Stacks can now be navigated, instead of opening a finder window, QuickTime has been significantly overhauled, and Microsoft Exchange support has been implemented. This means using a Mac on a corporate Windows network will be much easier. Mail, Address Book and iCal will all be able to talk to Microsoft Exchange servers for meeting requests, email and contact lists. This should give Mac users even greater integration with the Windows world.

Snow Leopard is shaping up to be one of the best upgrades Apple has ever produced. It will be faster, smaller, and even easier to use than before. In addition, it’s also cheaper than ever before; forgoing their traditional $129 OS upgrade cost, Snow Leopard will only cost $29. If you purchase a new Mac any time before September, the upgrade cost will only be $10. The biggest requirement for Snow Leopard is that it only runs on Intel-based Macs, which have been standard since 2006. If you’re running a Leopard-based Intel Mac the upgrade is really a no-brainer. If you’re still using Apple’s G4 or G5 machines, it may be time to look at upgrade options because with all these improvements just on the horizon, I can assure you, you’ll be glad you did.

  What is VRAM?  

One of the hardest differences in computers to explain is the video cards. A lot of companies will expound the virtues of “xyz” video card as a selling point for higher end computers. In reality, this part is not really ever going to be a concern to most average users. I often see the graphics card under-discussed in the realm of portable gaming and sometimes see customers saddled with a laptop that fails to deliver the needed performance after more than a few months in spite of otherwise powerful specifications.

As a gamer myself, this is a significant concern. As an Apple Specialist, the need to be able to explain these systems is doubly important. So I’ve had to develop an explanation that cuts through the technical jargon (the frames per second, the clipping, the refresh rates) and effectively presents how things work for the average user.

The two main things most computer users need to be aware of when shopping for graphics cards are integrated vs dedicated, and the amount of Video Memory (VRAM) the card provides. We’ll start with the VRAM.

Simply put, the more VRAM the better the performance. Typical amounts you find on cards today are 256MB and 512MB. Some extremely high end cards are hitting the gigabytes, but most are too expensive to worry about for the average user. Basically this number determines how much video data your computer can process at one time. Think of it as short term memory, but for graphics information only. When you run through a lush video game jungle, or load a large raw video file for editing, all of that data is being held in your computers VRAM. The more VRAM, the larger the video you can edit, with more special effects, or the more of a video game world can be rendered in sharp detail. Incidentally, as I write this, 256MB is plenty for most games and video processing. More than that is only necessary if you are doing pro studio level work, or running the absolute newest games with all of the graphics settings turned all the way up.

Now, comparing the amount of VRAM on two cards is easy. Look at the numbers and pick the higher one. But how do you compare an integrated graphics card such as the Nvidia 9400M found in current MacBooks and entry level iMacs, to a dedicated graphics card like the ATI 2600 Pro found in last years high end imacs. Both of these graphics cards claim 256MB of VRAM, so what sort of difference does integrated vs dedicated make? Here’s the analogy I’ve come up with to explain the way these two systems work. It is in the context of running a store because, well, that’s where I came up with it.

Imagine that you have a group of five people running a retail store. All of them are first and foremost out there on the floor helping customers. At some point during the day you receive a shipment of new product. Now someone has to be pulled off of the floor to unpack the new stuff. If you almost always have more people than you need to help all the customers, this is not a problem. But, if there are enough customers to keep all five employees busy, now your unpacking has ground to a halt. At best, you will be able to trickle new product onto the floor in small chunks, but you will most likely fall behind.

Now imagine the same store, but now you have a sixth employee whose only job is to unpack and receive new product. Most of the time, he’s probably sitting around not doing much. But, no matter how busy it gets on the floor, he’s still there, ready to unpack the new shipments. This employee is like dedicated VRAM.

Basically, an integrated card has to borrow resources from the computer up to a maximum of the specified VRAM. If the system can’t spare those resources, then your video work is going to be slow. Super slow. But with dedicated graphics cards, you can tax your system that little bit more, and still get some passable gaming/video performance.

Really what all this means is that if you are the kind of person who doesn’t play 3D games (or doesn’t play them much) and doesn’t do lots of pro level video editing, then when you buy a computer with a dedicated graphics card, you are paying extra for a resource you are just not going to be using 99% of the time. Integrated cards like the Nvidia 9400M have come so far that they are more than up to the tasks of the average user, and do a phenomenal job even with most games. You just don’t want to be running a thousand and one apps in the background or you will be pulling more of that system memory away from the game (like creating a rush of customers after sending someone to unpack).

  Repair of the Week: Power Mac G5  

Power Mac G5s are becoming increasingly scarce, and other than the occasional liquid cooling system (LCS) failure, we don’t see many in for repair. The other day, though, I received a June 2004 Power Mac G5 with some interesting freezing issues. This machine and its apple desktop connection (ADC)-based display were both checked in and I basked in their former glory.

I booted up the machine and was greeted with a spinning beach ball just after login began (auto-login was enabled). I forced a shut down by holding the power button and rebooted into safe mode by holding down the shift key on the connected keyboard. The machine went straight to the desktop after a longer-than-usual boot process—part of the safe mode boot process is the “repair disk” function found in Disk Utility, which can add up to five minutes or so to the process. I tested the unit with an Apple-supplied diagnostic suite, but that didn’t yield anything useful (it rarely does).

I then booted the computer from a known-good installation of Mac OS X on an external FireWire drive, and was able to replicate the issue there. Is this hardware or software? The graphics card in the Power Mac was an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro, so I pointed Safari to the new AMD/ATI website and found updates to the Macintosh drivers. I downloaded and copied these updated drivers to a USB drive, rebooted the Power Mac into safe mode, installed the drivers, and restarted. The same problem was present. Even with the “updated” drivers, the Mac still refused to log in fully to the Finder.

In the end, I replaced the ATI card with an NVIDIA card that also had the ADC connector, and our customer is back in business. It seems something was wrong with the ATI card, but the experience taught me that portions of the video drivers do not load until completion of the login process.

  FEATURED SPECIAL | 06/30/09 - 07/07/09  

Small Dog is donating $10 to the VT Food Bank for every copy of Parallels Desktop for Mac 4.0 sold!

There’s never been a better time to get Parallels for your Mac. At just $69.99, Parallels 4.0 is one of the leading applications available for the Mac. “It’s an intuitive, easy-to-use vitalization platform for switchers who need to run Windows applications alongside OS X.”
—InfoWorld 2008 Technology of the Year.

If you’re thinking about making the move to a Mac or already have and need Windows, Parallels is what you need. You’ll get the programs you need and the computer you want. The best of both worlds!

  SPECIALS | 06/30/09 - 07/07/09  
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   Parallels Desktop for Mac 4.0 - Small Dog is donating $10 to the VT Food Bank for every copy sold!