Martin Russ looks at the musical suitability of Apple's latest portable computers, and the possibilities that may be opened up by their rumoured 'Consumer Portable'.
Apple's new PowerBook G3 series is marketed using the usual comparatives — lighter, thinner, faster, and so on — and there's been a lot of talk in the Mac press about how their virtual equivalence of processing power and speed with desktop G3s make them even more of a viable alternative to a desktop machine. As always with portable computers, the story isn't quite so straightforward for hi‑tech musicians, so let's look at the new PowerBooks from a biased musical viewpoint.
Portability and long battery life are plus points. The weight of 2.68kg (just under six pounds) isn't bad, and the lithium ion batteries (combined with power‑management routines in MacOS 8.6) give five hours of life, which is very impressive against PC competitors. In the past, PowerBooks have had a chequered history, with 'features' like single serial sockets and sometimes problems with copy‑protection schemes. The new PowerBooks follow the iMac‑initiated trend of floppyless design, and although the serial ports have gone, SCSI has survived. However, the word is that these are the very last Macs to have SCSI built‑in as standard. USB replaces the serial port(s) of old, and so it should be possible to attach a suitable MIDI interface. My extrapolating mind also wonders if a Stealth‑type modem‑port‑to‑serial‑socket adaptor might be possible, and so I'll be scanning the Internet to see if anything comes of this.
The cynics have always had plenty of scope for knocking down PowerBooks, the screen being an easy target. Unfortunately for them, active matrix LCDs are getting remarkably good nowadays, and the only real aspect of them that they can whinge about is the 1024‑by‑768 maximum resolution. Even so, a monitor output port and S‑video socket offer extra output options, if not bigger resolutions. Cramped keyboards, even brown translucent ones like these, don't matter much when the keyboard is only used for track‑naming and shortcut keystrokes, and a mouse can be attached to that ubiquitous USB port for those who dislike tracker pads as much as I do. The PowerBooks' internal 66MHz buss speeds aren't as good as the 100MHz seen on its desktop cousins, which, combined with the power management, may be bad news for leading‑edge real‑time digital audio usage.
The real killer for serious MIDI and audio, however, is the lack of any PCI expandability, which means no serial‑port cards, and no digital I/O (until Digigram's VX Pocket PCMCIA audio I/O card comes along, that is). If you don't need these, then the new PowerBooks could be an interesting option for portable sequencing. As always, make sure that you see your favourite sequencer running on it, and have a play yourself, before you part with your money.
The iMac hit the 'under £1000' mark, and the rumours are that by the time you read this, the long‑awaited 'consumer portable' should have been announced. The internally codenamed P1 has been the subject of much speculation recently — there are whole sets of pages on the Internet devoted to the concept from various Apple fans. After the eMate ushered in the translucent curvy look which was then so successful in the iMac, the world is now waitng to see if Apple can do it again.
So, we can expect a translucent case, a 300MHz G3 processor, USB, and a rotating/removable screen. Apple can make it work technically too. But making it work in the marketplace is more of a challenge. The eMate was restricted to education users, although the Sunday Times did manage to get some for non‑academics just before Apple decided that it was to go to the same silicon graveyard as the Newton. The 'around a grand' market is also full of cheap portable PCs, and for a few hundred pounds there are the Windows CE palmtops and the Palm Pilot shirt‑pocket organisers. Competition is fierce, and cuteness isn't very high on the importance list for many people. It's going to be interesting.
Music‑wise, whatever the P1 calls itself is likely to be rather iMac‑like in its MIDI‑ and audio‑friendliness: not ideal, but workarounds will be available soon after launch. Search the Internet with keywords like iMac notebook, eBook, iBook, eMac, HiMac to get fan‑driven 'consumer portable' predictions.
OS X Please
Little snippets of information about OS X, the next generation MacOS, continue to filter out of Apple. The latest element to be confirmed is Quartz, the graphics architecture based on Adobe's PDF (Acrobat‑style) format. Music cynics might think that this is another example of the Mac becoming more of a specialist graphics and publishing engine, but I prefer to think of it as ensuring that the Mac will still be available for musicians to use in the future.
QuickTime 4 and MacOS 8.6 share a bias towards online delivery. This is fine if you have a corporate LAN connection, and rather slower if you have a modem. It's tricky, however, if you have a Mac that isn't connected to a network or a modem because you don't want any networking software to affect your timing, or you don't want to expose your hard work to potential virus infection and damage. As I write, my main 'music‑only' PowerMac hasn't got QuickTime 4, because my 'dirty' network Mac is a 68K‑based Centris 610 which is fine for browsing, but it downloads the wrong files for a PowerMac! It is possible to go too far with an Internet‑oriented world view, I reckon.
I get things wrong sometimes; occasionally very wrong. One of the reasons that I keep reminding people to make backups is to avoid disasters. Well, recently, I had my worst nightmare come true. Just before last month's Apple Notes was due to be sent to SOS, I found that the hard disk that it was stored on would not mount.I'd been having a few problems with disks previously, and I thought it was just more of the same. So I did what I had done many times before: run up the Anubis Mounter SCSI utility and mount the drive, and then proceed as normal again. Business as usual.
But this time the Anubis utility didn't mount the drive. Curious as to what was happening, I loaded up Norton Utilities and pointed that at the disk. After a lot of waiting, Norton reported back that it couldn't read the disk. A nagging doubt began to form at the back of my mind at this point, but the drive had been fine the previous day, and nothing untoward was apparent. No weird noises, no warning signs at all, in fact. So I fell back onto my trusty low‑level drive maintenance tool, SuperSpot — which didn't get anywhere either. That doubt was now a distinct sinking feeling in my stomach. So I turned to the 'Safety Backup', the drive where I copy working files to so that there's always a backup available online. At this point things went from bad to awful
Strangely, the 'Safety Backup' drive didn't seem to be mounted either. It seems that at some stage, I had partitioned my 540Mb hard drive into several partitions, and one of them was called 'Safety Backup'.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the drive was the one which I could no longer mount. Storing your backups on a different partition on the same hard disk is the sort of mistake that the Mac's Operating System unfortunately makes all too easy, and yours truly had fallen in head‑first. The moral at this point is that you partition your drives at your own peril, because it is then very easy to think you are copying to another disk, when in reality, you are doing no such thing.
I turned to my backups for solace, and discovered that the drive in question had missed out on a few backups. In fact, I had to go back to December 1997 to find one where it was saved. This is a good time to make a complete set of current backups before anything else happens, I thought. Which is when my main 10Gb disk/CD‑writer combination blew its power supply, and I hadn't even started the backups!
There's a lot of folklore about hard disks. Banging away in my head were two clear messages: don't do anything once you detect data loss, and don't worry — there are data recovery specialists who can get your data back. So I didn't do anything clever (or even stupid) with the disk, and I found a suitable specialist recovery place. Finding them was ridiculously easy — I did a search on the Internet for 'data recovery UK', and visited a few web sites. I didn't go for the flashy, seriously professional pages that I found; instead I went for the pages which had down‑to‑earth information like clear pricing, contact details, wide credit‑card acceptance, a 'no recovery, no fee' policy, and one where I got straight, confident answers to my questions on the phone (follow up web‑searching with a phone call — you can often spot time‑wasters more or less immediately).
I encased the offending drive in bubble‑wrap, posted it off and waited for a response. The news was grim. "Lots of surface damage," the man confided. "Couldn't even clone it... sorry!" And they then repackaged it up and sent it back to me at their expense! (the drive case will come in useful, of course). Fast, forthright and fair — but I now had a lump of worthless metal, and no data.
The weird thing about losing data from a hard disk is that you can't quite believe it has gone. All those files! 18 months of original text consigned to Never‑Never Land, for instance. Drafts for several articles gone forever, and even my accounts. Boy, did I feel like a complete plonker. So here's my traditional warning again: Back up! Now! And check where you are backing up to, as well!
It's always the way. Barely had I mentioned Audio Ease's Thonk freeware sound‑generation/processing program, when they released a new version. Well, I've been playing with thOnk_0+2, as the new version is called, and the extra new settings options are very useful (the original had just two settings). The new graphics and styling (see screenshot) are as different from the mainstream as thOnk_0+2 is itself.
The new 'Shepard' setting produces those famous 'rising/falling'‑forever tones using timbres taken loosely from your source file, and the combination of granular synthesis with a psychoacoustic 'illusion' can be quite stunning. 'Pentathon' is supposed to produce two‑voice pentatonic counterpoints, but as with much in Thonk, you need to get the right source material at the right level to get the best effects; more experimentation is needed on my part here. 'Flash', on the other hand, is great, and turns almost any material into useful output files with lots of scope for alien laser guns, radio stings and the like. Nice!
As before, thOnk_0+2 still needs to be supplied with loud, compressed material for the best results, and I still had to normalise the output in many cases. You still need to search through the output files to find the gems, but when you do find one, it's usually one of those sounds that inspires. For something that's free, this new version delivers, and I'm falling in love with it. Thoroughly recommended.