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.)

Microsoft has great news for retina display Mac users

One of the biggest problems for Mac users wanting to upgrade to a retina display has just been resolved. Microsoft issued version 14.2.4 of its super popular Office suite today expressly to include support for the higher resolution display. That means millions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint users on the Mac can now safely upgrade to a retina display without all of their writing suddenly looking like total crap. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer the “worst of times” to buy a new Mac. It will be even less worse, maybe even a great time, if Adobe quickly follows suit with retina-ready upgrades and/or Apple issues that rumored 13″ retina MacBook Air.

Now if only we could upgrade to iOS 6 without fear of driving into a ditch.

Mac users should stick with online backup Mozy

header-mozy-logo.pngFor more than two years, I’ve been quite happily using the Mozy online backup service. Now owned by storage giant EMC, Mozy offers unlimited backup space for under $5 a month per computer and a slick Mac program that automatically uploads new files in the background (there’s also a Windows version but I don’t use it). You pick which folders or files for Mozy to watch and after an initial upload (one that can take literally days!), only changed files get sent to Mozy’s servers. The service has excellent security features, encrypting all data on the way to Mozy’s servers and storing it in an even more deeply encrypted format once it arrives. The truly paranoid can provide their own encryption “key” meaning no one without it — not even anyone at Mozy — can decode the files. I currently have over 150 GB stored and backed up with Mozy.

Of course, there are terrific debates and comment wars over which is the best of the various Mac-compatible online backup services. There’s also BackJack, Carbonite and BackBlaze to name just a few. Some people even prefer opening an account with Amazon’s cheap S3 online storage service and using a front-end program like Jungle Disk to backup. I have not tried most of the other options, though I did use Jungle Disk for a bit and found it too slow and unwieldly for me (plus given how much data I have, Mozy with a multi-year discount is much cheaper than S3).

I’ve positively reviewed Mozy on previous occasions but I wanted to revisit the issue because of a recent bug it caused with Apple’s Time Machine backup program and the subsequent reaction (or over-reaction in some cases) from Mozy users. It seems that after Mozy issued an upgrade (to version 1.4) on August 6, the client program began to interfere with Time Machine’s ability to backup to Apple’s Time Capsule wireless hard disk. In fact, I was among those affected but I was on vacation away from my Time Capsule so I didn’t know anything was wrong.

For about a week, the problem was driving some Time Capsule/Mozy users crazy trying to figure out what was wrong. I think it’s fair to say that the Time Machine-Time Capsule scheme has been far from problem-free. Since there have been so many problems with the two Apple bits, a lot of people didn’t realize Mozy was part of the problem at first. And some were advised (by Apple folks, I think) to reformat their Time Capsule disks, losing vast gigabytes of old backups. That’s never good.

Mozy responded quickly once the problem was revealed, posting on Apple forums, on its own blog and via Twitter.

A sample of the Twitter responses from Mozy:


To me, that’s pretty darn good customer service. The outrage from some continues however, and that’s where I’ll have to part company with the critics. The problem was the kind of thing that happens sometimes. It only affected a small minority of Mozy’s Mac users (myself included). The bug itself didn’t corrupt any data or wreck previous backups. The company got right on it and issued a revised version (1.4.3) within seven days.

Sure, you can decide that if a software company lets you down once you should move on. But I think if that’s your policy, you’ll be moving on quite frequently. There have been serious, serious bugs in at one time or another in many programs I rely on including numerous problems that corrupted data with Time capsule and Time machine. But it’s worth stepping back from the outrage and thoughtfully considering whether you should dump Mozy just because of this incident.

Despite the temporary glitch, Mozy still retains its powerful strengths, including the backing of a formidable parent company, full-featured Mac client software, excellent pricing for people with lots of data and — in my experience — responsive customer service.

If you disagree with my analysis or your experience was different than I described, please feel encouraged to post a comment below.

p.s. No matter which online backup service you use, remember that it should be only one piece of your backup strategy. Online providers can disappear, data could become corrupted or whatnot. Always have multiple, redundant, independent backups.

Previous coverage:

An update on online backup: Mozy’s still good (12/8/2008)

PCMag review misses Mozy’s greatness (4/17/2008)

Review: iTunes 8 is nifty but in need of a few tweaks

Downloaded the latest, greatest version of Apple’s iTunes software this morning and I’m finding a lot of love from the new “genius” recommendations. There are a few annoyances that can easily be fixed in an 8.1 — or even 8.01 — version but on the whole it’s a worthy upgrade.

By default, the genius is turned off because it only works if you agree to let Apple know all about your music library (anonymously, the company says). So to try it out, go to the “store” menu and click to turn it on. A new window pane opens at the right-hand side of your music list. Then there’s a slight delay before you get any recommendations as iTunes uploads your library data. Once that’s done, click on any song in your library and genius tells you top songs by that artist not already in your library and songs by other artists you might also like. I found the recommendations interesting and relevant. It doesn’t work for stuff that’s too obscure or non-commercial, however. DJ Dangermouse’s illegal Grey Album, for example, produces missing songs from a different artist (DJ Dangerous) and no related artist recommendations.

There’s also a small flaw in the recommendations engine which seems to happen when an identical song appears on a couple of albums, say, its original release plus on a greatest hits album. If you have a copy of a song from a greatest hits album, the genius may still recommend the exact same song from the original album. So you have to be a little careful about what songs you actually may be missing before clicking to buy.

There’s one big problem with the way genius recommendations are displayed, however. As you can see, there’s no indication whether a song is protected by the Fairplay DRM (yuck) or comes unprotected from the iTunes store “plus” section. Since the record labels are trying to put the squeeze on Apple, most of the music in the iTunes store still carries the justly hated DRM. The labels are trying to bolster iTunes competitors like Amazon and Rhapsody by giving them a huge selection of unlocked music that’s not made available on iTunes. That’s stinky and absurd but it’s the current reality for consumers. I recommend only buying unlocked music — which is also ripped at a higher quality setting — whenever you can. In my case, that means I always check Amazon’s MP3 store for tracks that iTunes offers only with DRM.

No doubt that the unfair treatment infuriates Steve Jobs and company but it’s no excuse for this consumer-unfriendly feature of iTunes genius recommendations. The program ought to show if a recommended song is available in the non-DRM “plus” format or not. They could easily show the small “plus” icon that iTunes uses throughout the rest of the store to indicate DRM-free music.

I do really like iTunes’ newly enhanced grid view that shows a mini picture of each album cover. At the top of the grid view, you can press a button to sort by album, artist, genre or composer. Double click on an album cover in the “album” view and you go to a listing of all the songs. Double click on an album cover in “artist” view and you get all that artist’s songs sorted by album. Same with the “genre” and “composer” views. Double click to get a list of all songs in the category sorted by album. And the new grid view works similarly for other stuff in your library like Tv shows and podcasts.

Finally, there’s been a slight hue and cry over features Apple supposedly removed from iTunes. A lot of this controversy is misplaced. Import and CD burning choices that used to be in one place have simply been moved. The two sections used to be under separate tabs in the “advanced” pane of iTunes preferences. Now the import choices have been moved to an “Import settings…” button on the general pane of preferences. And a pop-up options box appears when you press the “Burn Disc” button with all the same old options that used to be in preferences. There’s been no loss of MP3 settings, most importantly.

The choice to display different columns of data about each track has also moved to a new “View options…” box available off the main “View” menu. It seems like this new option box, with almost 40 check boxes including everything from album and artist to sample rate and release date, is actually a cool enhancement.

The only real loss I’ve discovered so far is that you can’t easily remove the little arrow links to the iTunes store from every track listing. I’m not sure that’s a huge loss but enterprising folks are already devising ways to hack iTunes settings back the way you want them.

Overall, while there’s nothing insanely amazing in iTunes 8, it’s a solid and substantial upgrade. Hopefully, a slightly tweaked version will be following soon.

Sprint’s old U720 gets GPS functionality on Macs with upgrade

The other day, for no apparent reason, something went kablooey with my trusty Sprint wireless modem. Maybe it was the OS X 10.5.4 update, but who knows? For the past year plus, when I plugged the modem (it’s a Novatel Ovation U720) into a USB port on my MacBook pro, a little signal strength meter popped onto my menu bar. The meter had a drop down menu letting me connect and disconnect to the Internet.

But starting a few days ago, the menu bar meter stopped appearing when the modem was plugged in. I tried all the usual fixes — apply the 10.5.4 combo updater, zap my PRAM, fix permissions — but nothing helped. Eventually, I discovered that I could still connect to the Internet by using the networking control preference. That was kind of a pain and it lacked the signal strength measure to boot. I posted on a few forums but got no answers.

Then today, I was checking out the usual blogs and I came across a Dave Winer post about getting a wireless modem. One of the models he was considering was the U720. Someone posted a comment about its GPS capabilities. So I responded with a comment about how I love mine but that it had no discernible GPS functions, at least under the Mac. A few Google searches even turned up an official looking Sprint page saying “there is currently no support” for GPS on the U720. But on some forums it seemed like people were getting location information out of the modem.

So I dug a little deeper and discovered that at some point since I purchased the U720 from Sprint, the company has posted additional drivers and support software. I downloaded the most current driver (dated November 2007) and the latest connection manager software (dated March 2008). I followed the brightly-colored, three-page list of directions and installed the upgraded driver and then the software (called “Sprint SmartView” for some reason).

When I finally turned off my wifi connection, plugged in the U720 and started up the SmartView program I got a jolt of electricity. Sure enough, there was a whole shelf of GPS functionality. Click a button and get your current location shown on Google Maps, Yahoo Maps or Mapquest. Other buttons summoned the locations of nearby coffee shops, banks, Sprint stores, restaurants, hotels and gas stations. The software is also NMEA compatible. I can barely tell you what that means but it seems to be a standard which allows the modem to feed location information to third-party hardware and software. The SmartView program window also shows signal strength, current location and upload and download speeds:

Sprint\'s smartview program for wireless modems on the mac

It’s all wicked cool and I feel like I got a brand new, upgraded modem for free. And it all came from the typical mixed-up, wacky cross-pollination of blogs, bulletin board posts and generally goofing around web surfing.

Firefox 3.0 for Mac improves on an already fine browser

Last month, I first noticed that version 3 of the Firefox browser was nearing completion and downloaded the “release candidate” for some early trial runs. Yesterday, Mozilla released the finished 3.0 Firefox and I’ve updated all my Macs. I’m hardly alone. The download counter at Mozilla is getting close to 9 million on just the second day.

Over 8 million downloads on day two

Several of the new features are truly great little additions. The smarter auto-complete list is probably my favorite. In the prior version, when you started typing a web address, Firefox would try to guess what you wanted but usually ended up offering a whole bunch of deep links within sites when you really just wanted the main site. The new auto-complete uses a combination of the total frequency of past visits along with recent visits and comes up with smarter choices. A couple of minors changes, like triple-clicking to select a paragraph of text and improvements to opening a bunch of tabs at once, round out a very nice upgrade.

I’m also glad that most of my favorite add-ins, including Google Notebooks and Delicious bookmarks, have made the jump to 3.0 compatibility. As I noted the other day, however, Google has ended development of its excellent browser sync product. I’m now using Foxmarks to keep bookmarks in sync but I’m suffering from a huge loss of capabilities since Google’s product also synced history, cookies and other stuff. Hopefully, some more capable alternatives will crop up and/or Foxmarks will add features. Meanwhile, any other add-ins that people recommend?

p.s. there are some great tips and tricks for using the new Firefox over at Lifehacker. I especially needed the one showing how to delete mistyped web addresses that then get onto your auto-complete list. Blech.

OS X Leopard — we have arrived

How long will a leopard upgrade take

(Updated 3/26) The addition of a spiffy new Apple Time Capsule prompted the final move in our household to OS X 10.5 aka Leopard. After holding off for five months on my most important, work critical system, a 15″ Macbook Pro, I swallowed hard, threw a pinch of salt over my shoulder and inserted the Leopard install disk. At first, the installer claimed it would be over 2 hours to upgrade. But as the installation progressed, the time estimate shrunk faster than a pile of chocolate chip cookies at a Pressman family reunion. Less than an hour later, the Macbook Pro rebooted into the familiar starry, purple nebula desktop of Leopard.

This is the only system that I use for mail so it was my first experience with the upgrade of Apple’s simply named Mail program. It seems much, much speedier. As a guy in need of lots of reminding, I love the new to-do list of reminders. And there’s a handy RSS reader that lets you drag and drop any blog post to a folder for future reference and searching. That is way cool and may convince me to switch some feeds from Bloglines to Mail.

a dock folder display annoyanceI’m still struggling with a folder display annoyance, however. In Leopard, if you add a folder to the dock, the dock displays the icon of the first file on that folder instead of the folder’s own icon. I find that wicked confusing. If I have a folder of specific documents related to airplanes, for example, I usually customize the folder icon with something that reminds me of that (say a folder sprouting wings). But with Leopard, the dock now ignores my carefully chosen, customized icons for folders and displays a generic document icon or something (see photo). Likewise, a folder of application shortcuts now displays the icon for the first application instead of the application folder icon.

One way to get around the issue is to put an alias to a folder instead of the actual folder in the dock. Then you get the correct icon but you can’t click on the folder and have a cool and useful display of its contents (you get a Finder window of the folder). Argh. Maybe I’m missing a new preference setting somewhere?

UPDATE: Oh yeah, missed an entire new set of preferences for Dock items. Ooops. As the current issue of MacWorld points out, you can now right click on a folder in the dock and chose which icon it displays — first file in the folder or the folder’s own (potentially customized) icon. Excellent.

The Leopard upgrade, combined with an upgrade to VMWare’s Fusion 1.1.1, also now lets me successfully open my Windows Vista Boot Camp partition while I’m running under the Mac OS. That capability to open Boot Camp partitions under the Fusion has been included in the program for a while but didn’t work until I upgraded everything this week.