The Chipophone. The what!?

Wow, two posts in one night!  Actually, the only reason I’m posting anything is because I wanted to post something about the Chipophone, and I got distracted writing about Macs and stuff.

I came across a mention the other week about yet another insanely talented person doing some wicked retro-related work, this time shoe-horning an 8-bit synthesizer inside an old organ case.  I guess shoe-horning isn’t quite the right word as I’m sure there was a lot of empty space after removing all the discrete circuitry, but still …

This guy is seriously awesome – we are talking a full synthesizer hooked up to the keyboard (both of them) AND the pedals, complete with a sequencer, and not only that, he can actually play the damn thing, not just peck at the keys!

Once again I am in awe at the talent of some of the people out there.  Having just suffered a Federal election here with two dead-duck parties of self-serving imbeciles, it is gratifying to know that at least one person has a spark of something greater than just themselves.

Watching him play some old computer game tunes, complete with percussion from the pedals, is just too much brilliance for this poor soul … to echo the words of one poster on his website: may he live for a thousand years!

May retro computer games and music live a thousand years …

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Goddammit – it has been far too long – there is just too much other stuff going on, and the winter chills have kept me firmly ensconced in the dining room with the laptop on the dinner table rather than in the Garage of Awesomeness™ where I belong.

Our new darling daughter (3 months old in a fraction over a week!) has been a lovely distraction, and there have been a few other things going on the background too.  You know, those sorts of horrible things that seem to have to happen at various points in people’s lives to enable the good things to happen.  We are moving office, which is a fantastic opportunity to do some spring cleaning of the mind, the soul, and the desk.  There are also some staff changes which I think know  are going to leave us with a core group of really dedicated and switched-on guys (and gal).  Not sure if I have mentioned it before, but I am co-owner of a local web software company, and naturally that consumes a lot of my time.

The old BBC has been languishing in the garage while I have been playing with my two new toys – a 17″ Macbook Pro and my iPad.  For those who know me, I’ve never been an Apple fan … the old one-button mouse just made me laugh, and the translucent cases of the old iMacs made me think of half-sucked lollipops.  Not to mention the shitty old operating system without pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection and the ‘bomb icon’ error message (don’t get me started on the ‘sad mac’ icon)

However, things change.  OS X is a reasonably slick interface over a UNIX core (not really familiar with BSD, being more of a Linux user in my server admin capacity, but to be honest I haven’t needed to delve deep enough to really notice any difference), but it is the hardware that really shines.  I have a Dell XPS 1530 as my work machine (I think that is the model number – I actually have it next to me but it is not written anywhere!), and that has been (and still is) a great machine, but the Macbook really is a beautiful piece of hardware.  I’ll say straight up that despite people banging on about Windows being slow and bloated compared to OS X and its ‘UNIX engine’ and efficient core or whatever, I have noticed virtually no difference.  I use similar apps on both (Netbeans as my main development environment, and Firefox as my browser), and the speed is pretty much identical, even though my Dell is about two years old (running 64bit Windows 7 now, which is actually a very nice OS, and should be a free upgrade to anyone who was sucked in to buying Vista).

The differences are elsewhere:

  • the battery life on the Mac is about twice the Dell (which has the extra battery pack, and I used to think was quite impressive at over three hours)
  • the back-lit keyboard.  Why the hell did it take so long for someone to think of this? People joke about computer geeks sitting in dark basements with nothing but the phosphor glow of their CRTs (if you are Gen Y bugger off and look it up), so it seems like a back-lit keyboard would be an essential bit of kit.  I guess trying to do it WITHOUT white LEDs would have been as effective as digital watches WITH red LEDs, but it seems like Apple thought of it first, or more likely, did it better than anyone else
  • the aluminium case.  What can I say?  A beautiful combination of industrial design and engineering and an end result that not only looks sexy but is as solid as a bauxite rock
  • The gestures interface for the track pad.  My Dell has a track pad from some company that is not Synaptics, which is like buying baked beans from a company which is not Heinz … an utter waste of time (or taste buds).  I feel embarrassed trying to scroll using the area on the right of the Dell track pad – it works about 20% of the time and the rest of the time I feel like I have a nervous twitch, or a fetish for stroking my laptop.  The two-finger scroll action on the Mac is so slick and natural that I find myself using it everywhere, even where it doesn’t work.  Maybe that in itself means I am past the point of no return?
  • The magsafe power connector.  I had no idea what this was until I used it – a magnetised connector to keep the power plug attached to the laptop, but won’t drag it onto the ground if you accidentally trip over the cord.  Once again, why did it take so long for someone to think of this?
  • Very rapid sleep/wakeup times.  One of the first things I do on any Windows laptop is turn off the ‘sleep when the lid is closed’ option.  It just takes too long for those times when I want to close the lid to save power for the screen when on batteries, or I just don’t want to see it because I am listening to music or whatever.  On the mac, it is so quick that you’d be crazy not to use it.  I simply close the lid when done and put it away.  I don’t ever think about batteries or things not quite working when I wake it up
  • I do appreciate being able to bring up a terminal window to ‘localhost’, and having access to the power of UNIX under the hood
  • Plus a bunch of other little things – for example in the email program I can hit reply, and then realise that I wanted to reply to all (I’m not someone who automatically thinks that everyone needs to see my reply – I don’t work in government) – in that situation there is a ‘reply all’ option in the compose email window which will fill in the other addresses into the email I am already writing

Still, it is not all beer and skittles:

  • For God’s sake, why can’t I resize windows using any corner?  Why can I only do it from the bottom right?
  • The Microsoft Windows Taskbar has gone through a number of iterations of the years, and with Windows 7 it is perfect IMHO.  The ability to drag programs in the task bar to change the order was the only thing missing, and Windows 7 finally adds this (it only took 15 years – maybe in another 15 Microsoft will add an ‘always on top’ and ‘minimise to tray’ option to the standard window menu).  The OS X Dock is a masterpiece of form over function.  Why the hell do I need to permanently need to see all the programs on my machine, just in case I might want one of them?  On Windows I barely need the Start menu – I have keyboard shortcuts for most programs, or simply double-click a file to open it in the appropriate program.
    On OS X I have culled back the programs in the dock simply because I’m sick of clicking on the wrong icon and loading an application I don’t want while switching between apps, which as a developer I need to do frequently.  Before anyone shouts ‘Exposé!’, as far as I’m concerned, Exposé is a solution to a problem that should be avoided altogether.  alt+tabbing between programs is something else I do frequently on the Mac, but virtually never on my PC.
    Admittedly, I have my Dock icons pretty small, so maybe if they were bigger I wouldn’t click the wrong thing, but what a waste of screen space just to see pretty icons!  With no titles or other information either.  Windows 7 does a fantastic job of actually showing useful information (for those apps that support it in particular).  For example, I’m a massive fan of MediaMonkey (hell, I own the full version), and hovering over the taskbar entry in Windows 7 shows the album cover and full set of play/stop etc icons. While on that topic, I never use iTunes on my PC unless I want to buy something – MediaMonkey has a feature that automatically picks up new music added to my music folders and is worth it just for that.  Plus the ability to automatically re-compress tracks when transferring to various media – for example when transferring to an MP3 cd or to my iPod, it is set up to re-compress MP3s over a certain bitrate.  iTunes now seems to have something similar, but with a lot less control
  • I thought I would go for the full Apple experience and get an Apple mouse to go with the new laptop.  I avoided the wireless mouse (sorry, even the smallest lag is far too much as far as I’m concerned) and got the wired one (with the little track ball scroll wheel and the buttons on the side that you ‘squeeze’) .  For a start, being in the minority of users who consider themselves ‘right-handed’, I find the cord too short when you consider the 17″ Macbook Pro only has USB ports on the left hand side.  This is major UI FAIL from Apple when you consider how good the rest of the hardware is.  Even an extra inch of cable would have helped a lot.  Secondly, even after 2 months I have trouble consistently doing a ‘right-click’.  For anyone who has not seen this mouse, it doesn’t have buttons in the traditional sense – you simple press the outer shell and there are micro-switches underneath.  Press on the left-hand side for left-click, and press the other side for the other sort of click.  If I had a dollar for every time I tried to right-click something and ended up launching it or whatever, I’d have quite a number of dollars!  Seriously, I have tried various spots, and always try and give it a really solid press, but I always cringe in the expectation that I have just clicked the icon that does exactly what I don’t want rather than bring up the menu of extra options that I do want.  Looks like it is time to buy another Logitech M500.
    I do like the trackball scroll wheel though – much more intuitive for left and right scrolling
  • The whole concept of a single application ‘owning’ the menu bar at any one time I find very limiting, especially when that application has no windows open for whatever reason so all I see is a menu for application X and windows open for application Y in the ‘background’.  The disconnect between a window and the menu bar is very disconcerting, but I’m getting used to it putting up with it

Still, none of these things are of major consequence (except the mouse – it really is frustrating considering how expensive it was).  It will be a shame to lose it though: as much as I love the Logitech, the white mouse really does look good next to the aluminium laptop.

To be honest though, I’m really loving the experience …

That brings me to my second toy – a 64Gb 3G iPad.  This is a rather nifty piece of equipment, and it is worth the price for me just in its’ ability to handle email – the bigger screen really makes a difference when reading and composing (although the lack of cursor keys to move around the text is annoying some times).  The ability to read PDF documents in a nice ‘ebook’ format is fantastic too – no more wasted time on the bus looking out the window when I could be reading the Spring Framework manual instead.  Plus the iPod function works pretty well too.

Oh, and Google maps is nice on the bigger screen.

To be honest, that covers 90% of what I use it for.  I have a few apps (like the Argon Monophonic Synthesizer), but really can’t be bothered with most of them.  I just get over them too quickly.  Maybe I’m too serious…

The hardware is beautiful as usual, but surprisingly heavy.  Battery life is good – with virtually every person in the civilised world owning at least one Apple product these days, I’m about as likely to run out of power as I am to run out of petrol.

At the end of the day though, the power is having a device in your bag that is:

  • Instantly on
  • Wireless
  • Powerful enough to actually perform as a useful desktop substitute for things like email, reading documents and browsing the web
  • Not limited to a single function like a simple e-book reader

For example, I have subscribed to the Harvard Business IdeaCast through iTunes U, and I listen to this whenever I am walking to a meeting somewhere in town.  So rather than just walking listening to the inane chatter of those around me, I can actually learn something, and because I am using the iPad as a substitute for actual pen and paper it is no extra effort to learn from Harvard University for a few minutes each day.  That has got to be worth something!

Of course, I like to look after my possessions, especially if I’m lugging it about town, so I bought a case for the ipad – one of these: http://www.sgpstore.com/product_info.php/products_id/1458.  Highly recommended.

Not to be forgotten, my dream is one day being able to work a couple of days a week, and out of a café rather than an office, and for that to happen I need a slick case for my Macbook.  This fit the bill very nicely: http://www.moshimonde.com/products_info.asp?UPLF1=9&PDLS1=20

The idea of actually keeping the laptop in the case all the time, even when in use, would have sounded strange before, but now that I know that I can put it to sleep almost instantly by closing it and waking up is just as quick it is so natural to just close the case when finished, zip it up and put it away.  Of course I need to unplug cables (or in the case of the magsafe power cable, just give it a tug), but it is such a neat package and you would have to do this no matter what case you had.

Just to wrap up, here is picture of the beast: