A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon

The Thinkpad X1 carbon

Well, as I’d been threatening for a while, I ended my decade plus using a Mac as my main computer this month and jumped to the Windows side, lured by the all-black, super-lightweight Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. I’ve had the laptop for about three weeks and here are some of my first impressions. Feel free to chime in with questions and comments in the comments, but please keep it polite and informative.

Fantastic hardware — I love the feel of the X1’s carbon fiber body, nicely grippable and an attractive matte black. It reminds me of my all-time favorite Mac laptop, the Powerbook G3 I had in the late 1990s, though it probably weighs less than half as much as that old battleship. The X1’s matte screen is also gorgeous, clear and bright at 14″ diagonally with 1600 by 900 pixels. The keyboard works great and the touchpad is also among the best — love the dedicated page up and down keys. There are other small, brilliant touches like a true security slot for your Kensington lock, a finger print reader and an SD card reader that inhales the whole card, so you don’t have anything sticking out if you want to leave a card in when you pack up (I can’t tell you how many times I closed my Macbook Pro, putting it to sleep, with an SD card sticking out so it would’t fit in my case and I had to wake it up and eject the card just to put it away).

In addition to my trusty 13″ MacBook Pro, I also used a Macbook Air as my main machine when I traveled in Europe this summer and, for comparison, I’d say the Thinkpad has a better screen and keyboard as well as superior battery life. I also much prefer the Thinkpad’s carbon body to the Air’s slippery, sharp aluminum shell. The Air’s trackpad was better and it had fewer of the Thinkpad’s software hiccups, some of which are detailed below.

Windows 8 is intriguing but with annoyances — I spend most of my time on the traditional desktop side running the same kinds of applications I used on my Mac. It’s not that different than prior versions of Windows. The desktop itself is still there as a much needed home base for short cuts and files. I definitely needed some small but critical tweaks. For example, the three click drop which unadulterated Windows 8 forces you into just to choose from among all your installed programs is annoying but easily remedied. I opted for the free Pokki Menu, which creates one button access to a highly customizable start menu with quick access also to shut down options and notifications. And I actually had to spend $15 on a file add-in just so Windows 8 could comprehend the RAW format files from my Sony camera.

Cross-platform software saves the day — I am so glad I went out of my way over the years to find software solutions that worked on multiple operating systems. By resisting Apple lock-in, I can safely say that all of my most important programs were cross-platform. Of course, cloud-based apps like Evernote, WordPress, Spotify and Dropbox work great on Windows. And Microsoft Office is at least as good in its native environs, though I wasn’t excited to buy it all over again. But most programs let me re-use my Mac license for the Windows version, like Adobe Lightroom and Postbox for email. To fill in some small gaps, I’ve been trying out new Windows stuff, like lean, mean text editor Markdown Pad. I also like Azotix Software’s Active Organizer program, a dedicated, stand alone Google contacts and calendar program that works even when you’re offline.

Lenovo! Newman! — I must admit that every time I have to deal with Lenovo, I long for Apple. The online purchasing experience was awful — clunky, buggy and with too few options available. You want an Intel i7 processor and more than 4 GB of RAM? No luck, i5 for you. SSD bigger than 256 GB? Not available. The support site is even worse. Could it at least remember which model I have so I don’t have go through the eight-step selection process all over again every time I visit? And then there’s the god awful pile of crapware, sort-of-helpware and failware that comes pre-installed. So far, every fourth upgrade attempt utterly fails. Blech. I’ll blog later about the process of upgrading the brand new machine from Windows 7 to 8, but suffice it to say that it required following a 4-page, single space typed set of instructions from Lenovo that asked me to manually uninstall a half dozen programs and failed to explain that some needed driver software had to be downloaded separately.

Still keeping up with Mac world — I’m still using Macs and iPads around the house to remain bilingual and retain my ability to complain about the many flaws creeping into Mac OS X. Mountain Lion is just awful for me, from the insane iCloud file scheme to the anorexically thin scroll bars to the finder which needs an complete overhaul that’s about 8 years overdue. But OS X has other strengths and there’s lots of interesting Mac software, so I’ll try to keep up.

(Edited to add a few more examples for clarity. Also see my responses in the comments.)

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.


One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store

Boston Apple store I was an hour early for dinner with fabulous wife Whitney Connaughton and friends last Friday so I thought I’d tool around the local Apple store for a bit. The Back Bay Apple store in Boston is a thing of beauty — and it only took two years to get Boston’s historical commission to approve the design.

It’s a typical big format Apple store. I took some cool pictures and got to meet Ron Johnson back in 2008 when it opened. Spinning off the central spiral staircase, the store is spread over three floors with computers mostly the focus on one, iPhones, iPods and accessories on two and training space and more accessories on three. I needed to get Whitney a keyboard for her iPad and selected this lovely one from Logitech. I was surprised to discover that there were no wandering, wireless cashiers in the store. I actually had to go back down to the second floor and wait in line — the horror — to get to a regular register to pay.

One aspect was completely consistent with every other Apple store visit I’ve ever made. Not only were there tons of people in the store, there were tons of people buying stuff — all kinds of stuff — in the store. It’s one of those amazing retail chains like Target, Costco and Whole Foods where there just seems to be something in the air that makes people want to empty their wallets and purses at high speed.

Mission completed, I crossed the street to the Prudential Center mall where I was surprised to see, right at the very center of it all and in the highest foot traffic spot, a brand new Microsoft store. On first glance, it looked just as busy as the Apple store.

Boston Microsoft store

I cruised around the store and noticed a few things right away. Although well staffed and attractive, it was a lot more cramped and harder to move through than any Apple store. Also, the tables featured a wide mix of brands. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I noticed laptops from Acer, Vizio, Samsung and all-in-one type PCs from Lenovo and HP, I think. Most were running Windows 7 although there were a few computers and tablets running Windows 8 to try — not to buy. They definitely did not have the Lenovo X1 Carbon I have my eye on, however. Phones from Nokia and others were all running older versions of Windows Phone, not the new 8 system.

There were also XBox stations set up at each end of the store and lots of people were playing or watching others play. All of the accessories, like laptop cases and boxed software, were set on shelves at the two ends of the store. Yep, right below the XBox television screens thus requiring a potential customer to get in way of all those people focused on the XBox playing. So the physical layout left a lot to be desired.

But the punchline, of course, was that in the 20 minutes I spent perusing the store I did not see a single person buy anything. Not one thing. Why would that be? I’m open to anyone’s theories. A couple of things occured to me:

  • Lack of consistency: At Apple, distinct areas of each store are dedicated to one thing, such as iPods or laptops. In each area, there’s just a whole bunch of the same machines to play with. The message is pretty clear and there’s not much comparing to be done. At Microsoft, too much was jumbled together and yet everything was split apart. I am in the market for a laptop. Should I go to the table called “laptops,” “ultrabooks” or “entertainment laptops”? And each table had a half dozen compeletly different models each with its own tiny sign filled with tiny print showing the specs.
  • Poor layout: As I mentioned above, everything felt cramped, packed together and in the way of everything else. I went to look at the laptop cases but quickly realized I was blocking the view of some people watching an XBox player on a big screen TV on the wall above where the cases were. Embarrassing. And where would I pay? No idea. It made me feel confused. So cramped, embarrased and confused. Not emotions I associate with a positive buying experience.
  • Mixed branding: People see Apple ads on TV or otherwise decide they want to buy an Apple product. So they head to an Apple store. Makes sense. I see a Samsung ad on TV. Where do I go? Is there a Samsung store? What do they have to do with Microsoft? Is Samsung’s Android phone there? I want a Lenovo laptop running Microsoft Windows. It’s actually not here.

Other thoughts?

p.s. Dinner was at Bin 26 Enoteca, an upscale Italian place on Charles Street near the Boston Common with good food and a ridiculous wine list. Recommended.

A Casual Vacancy, a serious rip off?

There’s a bit of a surprise in store for you if you go to buy the electronic book version of the new J.K. Rowling novel, “A Casual Vacancy.” Despite it’s best-seller status, the ebook’s price is not $9.99 or $12.99 or even the high-end of best-sellers brought to you by the price fixing cabal of $14.99. Nope. At Amazon’s Kindle store it’s $17.99. And it’s the same price at the Google Play store, at Barnes & Noble and at iTunes.

How could this be? After all, the Justice Department smashed the price fixers and three of the big publishers, including Hachette, which sells the new J.K. tome, agreed to settle all charges and allow discounting to resume. The answer, it seems, is that “A Casual Vacancy” hit at just the wrong time.

Under the settlement, Hachette almost immediately had to cancel its contract with Apple’s iBooks store, the one that would have automatically priced the ebook lower while banning any discounting. But it didn’t have to renegotiate its contracts with others ebook sellers at the same pace. Laura Hazard Owens at PaidContent says it could be 60 days or so before new deals must be in place with other retailers. Once the deals are done, Amazon will be allowed to discount again. The giant online book seller already has a new deal with HarperCollins, for example, so ebook versions of Mitch Albom’s “The Time Keeper” are only $9.99 on the Kindle. But until all the deals are done, only Apple has price flexibility and it has little interest in discounting when all its competitors must sell at the high, Hachette-dictated price.

Some have gone so far as to argue that the high price shows consumers will be hurt by the DOJ price fixing settlement (see some of the comments on the PaidContent piece linked above). But when the only ebook retailer given price flexibility is the one that was among the accused price fixers and the one that hates to discount, it doesn’t prove much of anything.

Still, JK’s ebook is selling. It’s number 2 among paid ebook best sellers at the Kindle store as of right now. For a book with such high expectations, it’s hard to say if that’s actually a success or a disappointment. But assuming discounting resumes shortly, many folks may be holding off until the $9.99 version arrives. And while they wait, they’ve got plenty of time on their hands to ding the book with one-star reviews, it looks like.

UPDATE: On October 13, I checked again and the publisher on its own has cut the ebook price to $14.99. That may be because the book was slipping down the ebook best seller list at the original price. Then, at the end of December, with discounting back in Amazon’s control, the ebook price was down to $12.74.

History will show journalists missed the big Amazon story today: ebook discounting is back

There were a gazillion Amazon headlines today across virtually every news site, tech blog and twitter feed I follow but almost none had the truly important news development about Amazon today. While everyone was gorging on the announcement of upgraded “Kindle Fire” tablet computers, U.S. federal judge Denise Cote in New York approved a controversial settlement to the massive ebook price fixing scandal.

The settlement requires three of the biggest book publishers in the world to soon terminate their so-called agency pricing arrangements over ebooks and allow Amazon and others to resume discounting ebooks. Two other major publisher and Apple were bitterly opposing the settlement. But the judge went with the Justice Department and major consumer groups. The law seemed pretty clearly on the side of the government and the settling publishers, as I wrote last month.

This will very soon benefit tens of millions of ebook buyers. And the long-term benefits of a slightly cheaper, slightly fancier tablet? Less so.

Update: Making my point further, the New York Times buried the story inside the business section and it’s not given prominent play on their web site, either. But their blog post about the ruling is the number one most emailed story right now. And, wow, the second-day coverage in the paper is embarrassingly bad, too. The Times story in print, link unseen, aside from various spokespersons, quotes a long-time publishing industry consultant, the head of the Author’s Guild and a publishing industry lawyer. The Wall Street Journal is no better, quoting the same lawyer and the AUthor’s Guild. Come on, people. You can do better.


A Mac user’s travels in Ultrabook land

I spent the long weekend with my family tooling around Cape Cod, which ended up offering two unexpected opportunities to sample the latest and greatest light weight laptops, or ultrabooks as they’re known, in Windows land. My 13″ MacBook Pro is getting near replacement age and I’m keeping an open mind so far about which way to go with my next machine.

Saving the best for first, the most impressive potential piece of kit was a pre-release Lenovo X1 Carbon Thinkpad running Windows 8. This was a fascinating and attractive piece of gear, extremely light in the hand yet with a solid feel from the carbon fiber shell. Lenovo specs say it weighs 3 pounds, just a hair over the weight of a 13″ MacBook Air. But it felt a lot lighter than the Mac perhaps because the weight was spread out over a larger area. The 14″ screen was gorgeous and bright at 1600 by 900 pixels.


I am bored and out of love with Apple’s aluminum unibody styling, an unergonomic and occasionally knife-like pain in the wrists. It’s a turn-off from the legions of Windows laptop makers who have aped it, too. So I also especially liked the Lenovo’s more grippable and stylish black outer jacket. The keyboard was as good as any laptop I’ve tried lately, too. The trackpad was very nice although a bit smaller than I’d like. I’m not a big fan of the Lenovo stick mouse, or whatever that little red nib is officially called, but if you are, this is the laptop for you.

Windows 8 is a strange creature on a laptop. You must start in what used to be called the “Metro” view, where icons to activate programs are mixed on a grid of widgets and other kinds of active panels, showing you the weather, incoming emails, and so on. I love that kind of mixed display on my phone but at least at first blush it wasn’t doing much for me on a laptop. One click takes you to a traditional Windows style desktop, just as good as the one you see in Windows 7. I felt like I’d need a few weeks of use, really trying to get the most out of the Metro interface, to render a proper verdict. To be clear, the X1 does not have a touch sensitive screen so you have to operate Metro, which seems more apt for tablets, with the mouse pointer, track pad etc.

A day later, due to a cousin’s need to return an ill fitting pair of shorts at Macy’s, my son and I had an hour to wander the aisles of a local Best Buy. While he shopped for new Xbox games to put on his wish list, I perused the laptop offerings. At one end of a row, getting prominent play, were three recent Ultrabooks, all running the current issue Windows 7 operating system. If memory serves, they were the Samsung Series 9 15″ model, Toshiba’s Satellite U845W with a very wide 14″ screen and a 13″ MacBook Air clone from Acer, I think the Aspire S3.

These were all slightly to much less appealing than the X1 in my brief examination. The Samsung was just too darn big and heavy. Close to 4 pounds in weight and just massive when folded shut and held in one arm, it’s not what I need for my next flagship, I don’t think. And the screen’s resolution is the same as the X1 just spread over slightly more screen space so the actual gain in productivity from the larger screen would be small.


The Toshiba had some very appealing features. I really liked the grippy, rubberized outer skin that covered a portion of the outside and the bits where you rest your hands inside. One of my biggest gripes about the MacBook Airs is their hard metal and sharp edges. But I couldn’t quite get my head around the screen dimensions. Already many laptops and monitors have gone from the traditional 4 by 3 scale to a more HD-movie friendly 16 by 9. The Toshiba takes the screen another step into Hollywood dream land with a scaling of 21 by 9. The actual pixel count is 1792 by 768, so you are only getting the height of an 11″ MacBook Air screen, for example, with the width more commonly seen on a 17″ notebook. Playing around with a few programs, I could probably get used to using two short, wide windows next to each other instead of the narrower, taller dimensions I typically use now.


Unfortunately, other aspects of the Toshiba seemed less than cutting edge. It had an old-fashioned, spinning disk drive instead of a solid state drive. And battery life of four hours is among the weakest for this niche. The giant screen also left you with an awkward and heavy bundle of tech to tote around when you closed the screen and picked it up.

The Acer was seemingly a 13″ MacBook Air for people who really don’t like Apple. You can run Windows on any current Apple laptop these days thus reducing the decision-making dilemma to one of hardware. Price wise, the Acer running a prior generation of Intel CPU and graphics chips was about $900 versus $1,200 for the entry-level Air.


And that gets to one of the big changes in purchasing decisions from years gone by, the cheapie Acer not withstanding. It used be that Apple offered premium products at a premium price. Today, thanks in part to the company’s amazing efficiencies and massive buying power, Apple offers premium products at the best price. Comparably equipped competing laptops cost more, especially when you start to add to base configurations. A 13″ MacBook Air with a 256 GB SSD and 8 GB of RAM is $1,600 versus $1,960 for the Thinkpad X1 Carbon, similarly specced. Apple also lets you go up to 512 GB on the SSD, not even an option on the X1.

The were some key questions for my needs which I could not answer in these brief peeks, such as how well the laptops worked in “clamshell” mode, sitting closed on a desk hooked up to a full size monitor and keyboard. That’s a real strength of my current MacBook Pro. Some of the tech web sites that get advance releases of these laptops have already posted their reviews, so for a more detailed and less impressionistic run down, check them out:

Wired: Paint it, Black: Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon

Engadget: Samsung Series 9 review (15-inch, mid-2012)

Theverge: Toshiba Satellite U845W and U845 review

Pocket-lint: Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review – External elegance, functional design averageness

Note: I usually like to post pictures I’ve taken myself on the blog but stores frown on photogs and the pre-release X1 seemed a little out of bounds to be snapped.

Why critical reviews matter

I’m grateful to John Gruber, a great tech writer and proprietor of the popular blog DaringFireball, for linking here the other day and sending lots of traffic to my post criticizing him. I’m also super grateful to the Quick Cache plug-in for WordPress which helped my blog handle all the added traffic without being, as they say, “Fireballed” (I wanted to make a donation to the developer, but couldn’t find the correct link on his current home page, sadly).

The added traffic brought a lot of new commenters, as well, which, as anyone with a blog can tell you, is sort of a mixed blessing. The reason you want comments is to get new perspectives and new information into the mix of whatever you’ve just written about. Blogs with really great commenters, like Fred Wilson’s AVC, create a whole new community that adds even more value. But comments can also bring trolls and idiots and worse.

After reading through the dozens of comments from Daring Fireball readers on my retina Mac post, I guess I can see why Gruber doesn’t allow comments on his own blog. Bada-bing! Just kidding…sort of.

Some I let go. The most egregious I simply didn’t approve. I won’t go through all the stupidity, expletives or b.s. but there was one point worth addressing. More than one commenter questioned why I was even writing a post about someone else’s review. This was typical:

Your article completely went overboard and misses on a major point. Gruber’s MBP Retina review is no different than you would be giving glowing review to the latest version of Android OS or Windows even when most of the third party apps haven’t up updated their software yet. The Retina is pretty much closely tied to Apple OSes. So yeah, it’s the developers’ responsibility to upgrade their software to Retina.

Setting aside the fact that I frequently write here about the various Macs, iPads and other Apple gear we own, there’s the underlying notion that it’s fine to leave out critical parts of a review for some reason or other, or no reason at all (it’s not Apple’s fault? Who cares whose fault it is).

But out in the real world, where I’m looking for which laptop to buy next, which phone will best meet my needs or how to avoid an overpriced, underperforming dud gadget, I want reviewers to be more critical, more discerning and more helpful.

And that need is visible in some of the other comments and later links back to my piece. People who bought the rMBP were surprised to discover an important current failing which very few reviewers felt worthy of mentioning: if you use non-Apple software, the text could look really bad, horrible even and super-distracting.

Here’s one of the comments I saw linking back, for example:

None of the pieces of Software I use day-in-day-out stand any chance of being updated to “retina” display quality anytime soon – so my Retina Experience was terrible – and led me to procrastinate more in Safari, just ’cause it looked “pretty” unlike the utterly ugly pixely-garbage look of Final draft and MS Word. This isn’t Apple’s fault – it’s the app makers taking too long to catch up. And yes, it’s like PPC to Intel where Office took forever – but Rosetta made the transition bearable at worst – the pixely-grossness of the Retina screen in Word/etc… is like using a blown up iPhone app on the iPad 24/7. No one wants to spend $2200 to do that. So my Retina MacBook Pro went back to Apple.

“fyrefly,” Aug. 22, 2012

Personally, I was intrigued by the retina screen after reading so many glowing reviews and then I was surprised and disappointed when I saw it later at the Apple Store. Too many reviews missed the boat. It’s not yet time to make the retina switch if you are one of the millions of people who rely on non-Apple software. That’s not saying anything mean about Apple or blaming Apple or making some sort of massive attack against the whole laptop now and forever. It’s just telling a lot of potential buyers about a critical shortcoming.

The one mainstream review of the retina MacBook Pro I saw that actually got under the hood and highlighted several key problems was over at Anadtech, perhaps not coincidentally a site with no allegiance to any particular company or operating system or niche in Gadget World. Here’s the page describing the text display problems in various programs. No axe to grind, no blinders, no conflicts of interest. The funny thing is that it’s still a very favorable review overall. And I would have had no problem with Gruber’s review  exactly as is if he had just added a few sentences of warning. Not too much to ask, I’d say.

John Gruber spills 2000 words on the importance of pixels and typography and the awesomeness of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display without ever mentioning that most apps look like ass and relegating to a footnote that the fifteen inch laptop size is a jack of all trades master of none that fits few people’s needs

(Update: On September 19, a couple of months after the retina MacBook Pro came out, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the higher-resolution display. And then in December, Adobe finally updated Photoshop. Most other Adobe apps remained non-retina ready.)

Along with all the usual crop of rave reviews from Apple publications of Apple’s latest flagship notebook, the 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, John Gruber’s is probably the most disappointing. The Daring Fireball author offers lofty praise for the new notebook and its dazzling screen:

Like no Apple device since the original 2007 iPhone, the new Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro feels like a device from the near future, something slightly beyond the ken of today’s cutting edge.

But the main thing is the display. That display. This display. Oh my.
Daring Fireball, Monday 13 August 2012

Funny thing about fonts and that gee-whiz display, though, funny thing Gruber forgot to mention. And Macworld forgot to mention in its even longer review. And a lot of other people forgot to mention. If you sling your words in almost any non-Apple program, the fonts look like ass. Total ass. Total, unmitigated ass¹.

Although Gruber says you wouldn’t be able to appreciate Retina crispness on an older display², I snuck this screen shot off a Retina MacBook Pro today which was running OS X “Mountain Lion” with all the latest upgraded apps. Click on the picture below to see a much larger version of the image.
Good and bad font display on retina macbook pro

The program in the upper left corner is Microsoft Word. Look at the jaggies in that 12 point type. Ugly. Now look over to the top right. That’s Apple’s own Pages program with the same words in the same font also at 12 points. Yummy. Likewise, in mid-screen is Apple’s TextEdit program. Smooth as a baby’s bottom. And in the lower foreground, Adobe’s Dreamweaver with text that looks like, well, like ass as Gruber might say.

But, hey, the guy at the Apple store tells me everything will look a lot better as soon as other software makers update their apps to take advantage of the Retina display.

How long will that take for Adobe, which showed a pre-release version of Photoshop at Apple’s Retina display press conference? No one knows. It’s helpfully “in the future,” says Photoshop kingpin John Nack. What about other text-heavy Adobe apps like Dreamweaver? No clue. Or what about Microsoft, not exactly known for ever bringing its popular Office apps like Word and Excel up to the latest and greatest OS X features? Absolutely no idea but sounds pretty far off. So we’re talking about the most popular programs that professional Mac users use every day. Seems worth mentioning in a review, no?

So, okay, the MacBook Pro with Retina display — It’s a not-ready-for-primetime-player of a Mac, a rare misstep in Apple’s lengthy track record of getting things right.

But the lack of Retina-ready apps isn’t the only problem and probably not even the most serious one. There’s also the question of who exactly needs this 15″ portable powerhouse that’s a lot bigger and heavier than a Macbook Air but lighter than a breadbox. Even Gruber seems a bit confused on this score, although he relegates his doubts to a footnote:

When I’m at my desk I want a big standalone display; when I’m away from the desk I want the smallest, lightest MacBook possible. The 15-inch retina MacBook Pro doesn’t fit this model. It’s way heavier and clumsier than the Air when used as a portable (especially on airplanes, a frequent mobile use case for me), and it would be criminal to put this machine on my desk only to hook it up to a fat-pixeled non-retina Cinema Display.

As I wrote about recently in my “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” post, Apple’s current line up is annoyingly out of step with customer needs right now. The Retina display is ahead of its time and comes only on a tweener notebook size and weight that’s falling out of favor faster than Gotye’s last music video. But more desirable MacBook Airs don’t have a Retina display and the desktop line doesn’t even have the latest Intel processors, flash hard drives standard or even USB 3.0 yet, not to mention the lack of Retina-ready external displays. What’s a poor Mac lover to do? Hurry up and wait, I’d recommend.

UPDATE: Thanks to John for linking back here just now. He asks: “I’m not sure what Pressman’s argument is, though. It’s no different than any previous transition — PowerPC to Intel, classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, etc. Apple ships first; developers like Microsoft and Adobe catch up later.”

Easy answer: I’m not seeking “complaining” but reviews of the Retina MacBook Pro ought to clearly let people know that a lot of apps not only don’t get Retina-quality text but actually look worse than they do on older, non-Retina displays. I’m not blaming Apple or anyone, really. It’s just a highly relevent fact to a potential buyer.

Having read a bunch of early reviews, similar to John’s, I went into the Apple store in June thinking I might actually buy one soon. But I was shocked at how poorly some of the apps displayed text. So the apps aren’t ready yet, hence the bottom line: hurry up and wait.


¹There is this vague bit but it doesn’t make clear that non-Apple apps are screwed and implies it’s only a problem on web sites: “Retina text looks better on the MacBook Pro than on the iPhone or iPad, even when you move in pretty close to the screen — and non-retina text and graphics (on the web, or UI elements in not-optimized-for-retina-yet apps) look far worse on the MacBook Pro than they do on the iPad or iPhone”

²There’s at least one other minor, if glaring, error in the piece. Gruber says the new Retina Macbook Pro is “noticeably and appreciably thinner and lighter than any previous MacBook Pro.” But at 4.46 according to Apple’s specs, it weighs exactly nine-tenths of one percent less than the 4.5 pound 13″ MacBook Pro (like the one I’m typing on right now), which doesn’t count as either noticeably or appreciably lighter in my book.

How to get Internet access in Rome – and how not to

Relaxing in Rome

I had an awesome vacation in Italy this summer with my awesome wife, Whitney Connaughton. Highly recommended. But ugly American that I must be, I made too many assumptions about getting online, thereby frustrating my ability to…get online.

It all started so well. Just off the high tech marvel that is Italy’s high speed train from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the city center, I smiled at the gleaming shops full of stylish clothes, delectable pastries and, obviously, mobile phones galore. Well, not quite. There was no sign of the biggest Italian carrier, Telecom Italia Mobile, also known as TIM. But no worries. Down on the lower shopping level was a store for Three, a brand I’d recently considered in London. I strolled in with my guide book knowledge of the local lingua and an aging but unlocked Samsung Nexus S cell phone in need of a SIM card. And so started my quest to find Internet access for a week in Roma.

The guys at Three had a quick answer for me: no. Seems my phone runs on globally widespread GSM and third-gen HSDPA networks and they were selling somewhat obscure GSM-ish UMTS compatible service. They told me I needed to get a card from the Wind store down the hall.

The Wind guys were happy to supply me with a free SIM card, a brand new Italian phone number and a 20 euro month-to-month data package. Sweet.

I got back to our cute rented apartment in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, put in the card and waited for activation. And waited. And waited. After about 36 hours, I made an unhappy discovery plumbing the depths of my Nexus S phone’s settings screens. The Wind network was also the obscure and incompatible UMTS. Ugh.

It turned out that only the TIM folks had real GSM cards. Grabbing a wee bit of wifi at a coffee bar, I searched for nearby TIM outlets — second floor of the central train station. Easy as pie. But not so fast. When I went back to the station, I discovered that the store was closed for renovations.

Italian mobile phone store is closed

A few days went by with me all offline and getting very mellow and gelato-filled. Eventually, on a Saturday night, I passed another TIM store that had just closed minutes earlier. And it was closed all day on Sunday. And it opened at 10 am on Monday, an hour after we had to grab a train to Naples. So I never actually got my phone online.

What about regular old free wifi, you ask? Surely, there is some easy way to get wifi in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities? Well, yes and no. Yes if you can decipher this screen you could in theory get free wifi in Rome. Actually, they do have it in English, too, but I couldn’t get to that link somehow when I was Italy. I did manage to get to the sign-on screen. Free wifi required a sign up process that I could not navigate without translation. And of course translation wasn’t available without Internet access. Catch 22? Pretty much.

Back home and researching this post, I found travel writer Jessica Marati’s incredibly helpful guide to getting on the free Roman wifi network. It only requires a cell phone number and, hey, I managed to get one of those, even if I couldn’t actually use it on my phone. Next time?

So what are the lessons for other travelers looking for cheap or free Internet access in Rome? Prepare ahead of time. After having such a ridiculously easy time in London a few months back, where a simple vending machine at the airport offered multiple brands of SIM cards for all kinds of phones and tablets, I assumed Rome would be similar. It was not.

If you’re not carrying a UMTS-compatible phone, be ready to go data only. In fact, both carriers I visited were selling cheap wifi hotspots (kind of like Verizon’s mifi in the United States) and I could have made do with just that. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

And, yes, please use the comments to tell me — and anyone else who stumbles across this page — what I should have done. But be kind.