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#762: Discrete Graphics and RAM, Playing Blu-Ray on Mac, Thanks for the Memory!, 2 iPad 2 Books, eWaste '11


Happy Tuesday,

I swung by our Waitsfield, VT headquarters this morning to walk Owen and finish up this newsletter before heading to Burlington. Yesterday’s flood helped clear the field behind our warehouse that had been strewn with river ice since the last flood a few months ago. This flood followed two warm days and a morning of severe thunderstorms and heavy rain, and it took a good bit of debris downriver. Temperatures in the seventies yesterday certainly helped melt a lot of ice, and the landscape was transformed in a day. Signs of spring are everywhere.

iPad 2 supply is improving, but the product remains constrained. We received some samples of our new iPad 2 cases, and you can expect them to debut on our website in the coming weeks. There are new colors of Chill Pill mobile speakers, including models in pink. One dollar from the sale of each pink Chill Pill goes toward breast cancer research. We’ll have new stylus products for iOS devices available soon as well. Keep an eye on our blog and website for details in the coming days and weeks!

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Tip of the Week: Discrete Graphics and RAM  

A customer strolled into our South Burlington store the other day with a 17-inch unibody MacBook Pro, fully decked out with 8GB of RAM. Somehow, after a few hours of layout work in Quark XPress, the machine would begin to bog down and “beachball” as if it were a Bondi blue iMac G3 with dial-up Internet access.

He’d just spent the day working on a high-resolution project. By 4:00, he said, the system was so slow that he had to restart, and that restarting fixed things every time. I theorized that logging out and then logging back in would do the same thing. But rebooting is very frustrating and doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

The customer came in with the laptop sleeping and the problem in full force. I fired up Activity Monitor and immediately saw that there was no memory available. Mac OS X was deep into virtual memory reserves, which was undoubtedly causing the memory issues.

I’ve seen programs with memory leaks before—it’s actually rather common. Usually, though, it’s apparent from Activity Monitor which application is to blame. Unfortunately, this was not the case here.

Taking a step back, I remembered that the 15- and 17-inch laptops now have discrete graphics cards as well as integrated graphics cards. The more powerful discrete cards do not share RAM with the main system and should free up memory as compared to the integrated option. I checked the Energy Saver preference pane to view the graphics performance settings. Sure enough, the machine was set to “better battery life” instead of “better performance.”

Selecting the higher performance option enabled the discrete graphics processor, stopping the computer’s use of main RAM as video RAM. It also had the wonderful effect of speeding up graphics-intensive operations such as Quark.

  Playing Blu-Ray Movies on a Mac  

Steve Jobs has said for some time that Apple will not support Blu-Ray, calling the licensing “a bag of hurt.” Despite how popular Blu-Ray has become since it trounced HD-DVD in the battle of the standards, Jobs claims that downloadable Internet content will eventually win out over physical media. Each format has its pros and cons: having an actual disc means you don’t need an Internet connection to watch video, there’s no waiting time to watch and there is no buffering (i.e. the entire movie grinds to a halt whenever network traffic is bottlenecked). However, having a disc in your hand doesn’t do a lot of good if your chosen device doesn’t have a drive to read it.

Whether you have an iMac, MacBook or an iOS device, if you have an Internet connection, you have access to the iTunes Store, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or any of a growing list of other online movie sources. You can download and stream video content (even 720p in some cases), eliminating the need for physical media and allowing the content to be easily shared between devices. If you find yourself stuck at an airport because your flight was delayed, it can be quite easy to grab a movie to watch while waiting if the airport has a robust network.

That said, what if you do want to enjoy your library of Blu-Ray disc-based movies on your Mac? Well, it IS possible, but it takes some doing. Warning for the squeamish: this is kinda technical, however you can’t break anything by attempting it.

One of the first things people say in response to “no support” is “but there are Blu-Ray drives available for Mac.” True, but these only support the reading and writing of data. Out of the box, you can use a Blu-Ray burner for data backup, and you can even create a Blu-Ray movie disc to play elsewhere, however there is no software support built directly into OS X to play a Blu-Ray movie disc. Due to licensing issues, there are also no hooks in place for a third-party developer to make a player.

You can, though, use video conversion software to take a movie off a disc and turn it into something that a Mac CAN play. One method uses a program like Handbrake to convert the Blu-Ray movie to a format your Mac can use. Handbrake has many automatic conversions built in, so you can select which one works best for you without needing to know what all the terms mean. The software will even convert directly to iTunes, XBOX 360 or PS3 streaming formats. You’ll need quite a bit of hard disk space to do this, as each movie can take anywhere from 6-12 GB, but it frees you from carrying a disc around and doesn’t require an Internet connection to watch a movie.

The other option is to set up a “streaming server,” though this requires a powerful system. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point you to an article that accurately explains it and includes pictures. Check it out here. To summarize, you’re using a program called MakeMKV to read the data from the disc and “send” the movie to VLC, which plays the movie on your screen. You actually can use this method to play the movie on a system that doesn’t have a Blu-Ray disc, in which case you would do the “streaming server” part on the system that has the disc and the “watching” part on another system on the same network.

I have to post the following disclaimer: in using any program to “rip” or transcode a commercial media product such as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, you do so with the understanding that it is for your own personal use, and you agree that you will not sell or hand out copies of said media to all your friends, nor will you upload it to the Internet, etc. That should make the legal team happy…

Of course, you could always install Boot Camp and a full copy of Windows to play your Blu-Ray movies, but that’s an additional cost (on top of the cost of the Blu-Ray drive itself) and requires rebooting your computer to watch the movie. Because the limitation is based on the operating system (not the hardware), using a copy of Windows via Parallels or VMWare is not sufficient to play from a Blu-Ray disc.

  Thanks for the Memory!  

One of the ways you can increase the performance of your computer is to upgrade the RAM. How much and what type, however, are dependent on the system. You need to make sure that the RAM you buy is compatible with your system, but sometimes the terminology can be confusing. How can you be certain that you’re buying the correct memory?

First, you need to look up what kind of RAM your computer uses and check for any special requirements your system may have. An excellent tool is a program called Mactracker, which lists every Mac since the Macintosh 128k. Using Mactracker, you can easily find out what kind of memory you need, as well as other useful information such as the graphics processor, types of ports and the maximum version of OS you can install.

As an example, let’s say you have a Mac mini. Mactracker lists 10 different versions of the Mini, so you’ll need to narrow down what model you have. The easiest way is to look on your machine under “About this Mac” and click “More Info…” to open System Profiler. The Model Identifier will tell you which one you have (for our example, I’ll assume it’s a Macmini3,1). Searching that model in Mactracker shows it to be a Mac mini from Late 2009; double-clicking that model brings up information about its system. The tab for Memory/Graphics tells you what kind of RAM it needs and how many slots there are.

Note that it may list two numbers: “Actual” and “Apple.” At the time the system was released, Apple had tested this system with 2GB modules and determined that the maximum RAM possible was 4GB (using 2×2GB modules). However, people have since tested the system with 2×4GB modules and reported that it is possible to use 8GB of RAM.

Here’s an important tip – when looking to upgrade the RAM, bear in mind that some systems require RAM to be installed in pairs. If your computer has two RAM slots and says it has 1GB of RAM installed, it’s a good bet that each RAM slot has a 512M RAM module in it. This is important because if you want to upgrade your system to a total of 2GB, you can’t just buy a single 1GB module and add it to the existing memory; you have to buy two 1GB modules and remove both of the 512M modules. If you are in doubt as to what is installed, check the “Memory” section in System Profiler to see what is installed in each bank.

Continuing with our example, a Mac mini from Late 2009 supports a total of 8GB, and System Profiler says it has 2GB installed (each slot has 1GB installed). 4GB modules have come down in price recently, so why not max it out? Now check the next line in Mactracker, “Type of RAM slots:,” and you’ll see… a bunch of weird numbers and letters. What do those all mean?

RAM comes in many capacities, speeds and sizes. In order to tell which one is which, there are specifications to tell them apart. The first number, in this case PC3-8500, refers to the access time of the memory chips (how fast the chip is able to read or write data). The higher the number, the faster the speed. Note that this number refers to the maximum speed the chip CAN transfer data, not how fast it WILL, so if your system requires 4200 memory, then use 4200 memory; installing 8500 will not make it go faster. However, installing 4200 in a system that requires 8500 will cause the system to crash or not function at all, especially if the speeds of the RAM don’t match. Since many systems support interleaving* (a way of increasing performance by sharing RAM addresses between the two modules), it’s beneficial, but not required, that the modules be identical.

The next thing listed under “Type of RAM slots:” for the Mac mini from Late 2009 is DDR3. DDR stands for “double data rate,” meaning the data can be transferred twice as fast as a standard memory module. The most current revision is DDR3 (double data rate type 3), which is not backwards compatible with DDR or DDR2, so make sure you get the right type for your system.

The final term will say either SDRAM or SO-DIMM. SDRAM is larger and primarily used in desktop “tower” machines such as the Mac Pro or older iMacs. SO-DIMM is a smaller form factor and used in portable devices and new iMacs, including the Mac mini from Late 2009.

*“Interleaving support” means that you will get a slight performance gain by matching the RAM modules. This is more important in systems like the MacBook that do not have dedicated video RAM. If you check the next section under Graphics Memory in Mactracker, it states that the RAM in the Mac mini from Late 2009 is shared with main memory. Since the RAM is being used for both the processor and the video chip, it is definitely to your benefit to take advantage of the performance gain offered by interleaving. This does not have to be enabled; it happens automatically as long as the RAM modules are identical. Apple (and Small Dog) will always try to install RAM in pairs for this reason.

Once you know the type and size you need, check out our RAM Finder page!

  Product Spotlight: Two iPad 2 Books  

There’s no denying iPad 2’s rampant success and widespread appeal. While Apple’s revolutionary post-PC device was designed to accommodate a wide range users, not everyone has been using the company’s iOS platform since its debut alongside the release of the original iPhone. Though many elements of iOS are intuitive, the platform has many features which may not be apparent at first glance. To assist users in making the most of their iPad 2 experience, Peachpit Press has introduced two great books: “The iPad 2 Pocket Guide” and “My iPad 2.”

The iPad 2 Pocket Guide

This handy, low-priced book is packed with quick results for people who want to jump in and master Apple’s revolutionary new iPad 2.

  • Snappy writing, eye-catching graphics, and a clean design walks readers through the most common iPad 2 tasks.
  • Teaches the major apps and functions including FaceTime, HD Video, Calendar, Contacts, Maps, Notes, iPod, and more.
  • Complete coverage of iTunes, App Store, and iBooks along with tips and tricks for each store.


My iPad 2

My iPad provides expert advice and easy to follow, full-color tasks with ample illustrations to get your iPad rockin’ in no time.

  • Everything users need to know to use iTunes and the new iPad device
  • Full-color, step by step format with plenty of visuals to help with even the trickiest of tasks
  • Covers the new app called iBooks, which comes with its own iBook Store


  Announcing eWaste 2011  

We’re incredibly pleased to announce our 5th annual eWaste Events! This year we’re holding free eWaste events in both Vermont and New Hampshire. The Vermont event is scheduled for Saturday, May 14th at National Life Insurance Headquarters in Montpelier, VT. Our 2nd annual New Hampshire event will be held on Saturday, May 21st at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, NH. Both events are completely free, and will take place between 9:00AM and 2:00PM. We’ll have more information on these exciting events in the very near future!

  TT SPECIALS | 4/12/11 - 4/19/11  
   Save $20! iPod classic 160GB (Silver), AppleCare, + Pink Chill Pill Speakers
   Save $10: Apple TV, AppleCare Protection Plan, + 4ft. HDMI Cable
   MacBook Air 13in 1.86GHz 2GB/256GB, SuperDrive, AppleCare + Free Case!
   Save $15 on Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard
   iMac 27in 3.20GHz i3 8GB RAM/1TB/5670, 2TB Time Capsule, AppleCare Plan!
   Mac mini 2.4GHz 8GB/320GB, AppleCare, 4ft HDMI Cable, + Apple Remote