Tag Archives: computer

BOOK REVIEW: Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley

Revolutions cover

Not long before Steve Jobs died in October, O’Reilly published a second printing of Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How The Mac Was Made. This book was first published back in 2004, and before that most of the material was (and still is) available at folklore.org, which Andy still maintains. I’ve always loved the stories at folklore.org and this book continues to be an engrossing and very vivid retelling of the events that made many of us computer users.

For those who don’t know, Andy Hertzfeld was a member of the original Macintosh team and designed the Mac’s system software. Users like me who really got to know the Mac in the early 1990s with System 7 will remember the Control Panel, Scrapbook and other built-in applications. Hertzfeld wrote many of those. In Revolution, Andy’s writing style seems effortless: descriptions are vivid, dialogue and the “storyline” seems intense all of the time, and there’s a real plot throughout the book as the initial Mac team is brought together, hangs together as they build this “insanely great” new personal computer, and eventually moves on one by one. It’s a moving story and Andy tells it very well. (I should also note several other Mac team members like Steve Capps and Bruce Horn contribute some great stories.)

I couldn’t put Revolution down for a couple weeks: the stories and characters are so engrossing that I was reading through the book even though I’ve read many of the stories already on folklore.org. I think the story of the Macintosh’s development is so rare—when a great group of characters and geniuses come together to build such an important device for our generation, the stories that come out are bound to be phenomenal. Of course, one of the greatest characters in the book is Steve Jobs himself, who comes across as a driven, egocentric genius but without the business acumen he gained after being booted out of Apple.

Unfortunately, there’s not much new material in the book that isn’t already on folklore.org. The best new takeaways are Andy’s written notes, which really illustrate the day-to-day work behind the Mac, but I wanted even more images. I’m also not a big fan of the book’s cover, which looked dated even in 2004 and even more so now in 2011.

Fans of the Macintosh, Apple, or the PC industry in general should have a copy of this book, even if they have folklore.org bookmarked on their browser. The stories have an inescapable, timeless quality that both geeks and regular people can enjoy. If you ever used a Mac from the mid-1990s or earlier, Revolution might mean even more to you.

Revolution in the Valley
Andy Hertzfeld
Published by O’Reilly
US $24.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy at Amazon

Comparing the HP EliteBook 8540w and the MacBook Pro

elitebook

I’m a designer so a lot of friends assume I use a Macintosh, which is true. Some also assume I’m a Mac fanatic, which I disagree with: I have used Macs in my work for several years but I started with a Dell PC and have used PCs in various workplaces. I happen to think the Mac operating system is better and Macs provide a subtly better experience for creative pros in particular.

This article is about the 15-inch Hewlett-Packard EliteBook 8540w and how it compares to my 17-inch MacBook Pro, an older model from late 2006. This won’t be a full review—there are reviews out there better than I could write, such as this one—and I won’t be making a purchase recommendation. Consider this article a look at an elite PC laptop by someone who’s only used a Mac laptop in the workplace.

Construction

The HP EliteBook 8540w is built like a truck and takes the term “hardware” seriously. The EliteBook line is the top of HP’s business laptops and I expected solid craftsmanship, but while many PC laptops I come across are slick and plastic the EliteBook is built with brushed aluminum and is very tough. HP calls it their “DuraCase.” The MacBook Pro weighs a little more (3.1kg vs. 2.9kg) but it has a larger monitor. The 15-inch MacBook Pro from the same year weighs 2.5kg. Their sizes are pretty much the same except the MacBook Pro is significantly thinner and a little wider and longer.

elitebook_case

The EliteBook’s DuraCase looks and feels tough. The MacBook Pro is durable too but not to the EliteBook’s level.

The EliteBook looks like a hunk of iron compared to the MacBook Pro, but the EliteBook also accommodates more jacks and connectors in its body. This is an example where HP focuses on function while Apple focuses on form, which should surprise no one. The EliteBook also complies with the MIL-STD 810G military standard, which sets requirements for resistance to vibration, water, dust and temperatures for products used by the U.S. Department of Defense. The well-known Panasonic Toughbook line of laptops meets the same requirements.

Keyboard and Touchpad

One feature I really appreciate on the EliteBook is the extended keyboard with numeric keypad. Numeric entry is so much easier with a keypad, and it also has a specific creative purpose: the page layout application Adobe InDesign requires numbers from the keypad for its character/paragraph styles’ keyboard shortcuts. I have never understood why InDesign does this, but it has been this way for years. Apple won’t produce a wireless version of the extended keyboard, and it’s not on any MacBook Pro.

elitebook_ui

The EliteBook has an impressive user interface, with multiple touch and mouse inputs and a full keyboard and numeric pad. See the blue lights above and to the left of the keyboard? Those are the buttons for the quick apps (see below).

The EliteBook also provides two touch input devices, the Touchpad and also the “TouchStyck” button in the middle of the keyboard. Combined these provide seven buttons—if you count the TouchStyck—and a trackpad. Apple is notorious for limiting the number of input buttons on their hardware. My MacBook Pro has one button and a trackpad, and the newest models don’t have a button at all. They register taps on the trackpad as a button click. The EliteBook keyboard and touchpad can look a little cluttered with all the buttons and input devices, but it does make the computer more versatile and adapt to users’ preferences. However, it’s likely a user will gravitate toward the one input element they like the most.

Power Adapter and Cord

The EliteBook’s power supply/adapter and cord is not very portable or easy to use, which makes traveling with it difficult. The power supply is like a brick compared to the smaller and lightweight Apple equivalent. I’m not sure it would even fit in my laptop bag! The other thing I noticed is Apple’s power supply has its own plug so I can plug it into the wall and not use the other cord. HP’s power supply has no plug so the other cord must be used.

DreamColor display

This EliteBook 8540w sports a new DreamColor display, which is designed to provide more accurate color reproduction. The DreamColor whitepaper (PDF, 3.2MB) explains all the display’s technical details but my personal impression with this DreamColor display is positive. The thing I really notice is the EliteBook puts out much more brightness than the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is four years old though, so these can’t really be compared, but I don’t think the MacBook Pro was as bright as the EliteBook even when it was new. In terms of color, the EliteBook looks like it does a better job of capturing very strong colors including fluorescents and those on the fringes of the RGB and Lab colorspaces.

QuickLook and QuickWeb

One more thing the EliteBook can do that the MacBook Pro cannot is boot specialized applications without booting up the entire unit. This really surprised when I first learned about it, but HP has put this in its laptops before. The two apps are designed to provide timely information quickly without booting up:

  • QuickLook is an Outlook-like interface for calendar, email, contacts and task lists. It caches Outlook data while the computer is running so when it’s launched it can access some data without booting up. QuickLook cannot send mail, but the goal is to give the user information immediately and it can save changes to events, contacts and tasks and sync them with Outlook later.
  • QuickWeb launches a Linux environment and web browser for fast Internet access. This for me was the more useful of the two applications, and the user experience was good.

I should point out these apps don’t boot up instantaneously, but they do avoid the load times associated with Windows. These apps are useful but today many mobile devices and phones have instant connectivity, the same data and push/send capabilities. I wonder if the EliteBook’s apps will lose usefulness as mobile devices continue to develop.

Conclusion

Apple is known for its product design and also for following form over function, but Mac fans wouldn’t have it any other way. However, the EliteBook shows that Macs aren’t the only PCs that are well-designed and I would say the EliteBook was designed with its purpose in mind. It does make for a big and clunky product in some ways but I understand the benefits of this. I found the EliteBook to be a useful laptop and professionals who want an excellent machine for work should look into it.

BOOK REVIEW: Hackers Illustrates Our Early Years

The computer and Internet industries are old enough now that one can feel nostalgic about their early days. Many of us remember the first computer we used (mine was an Apple II Plus) or the year we first used the Internet (1994) and the web browser we used (NCSA Mosaic).

Those who might reminisce about their “computer youth” would enjoy the 25th anniversary edition of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. I have enjoyed learning about computing history since the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds, and Hackers is more thorough and dives deeper into the very early days of computers in the 1960s and 1970s. Computing used to be a cutting-edge activity isolated to nerds and hackers, but it has been mainstream for years now and the computer industry has enough history behind it now to be studied and enjoyed like any other venture.

Hackers is very well-written—there’s a reason it’s being republished 25 years after its initial release—and what I really appreciate is the fact that the anecdotes and stories are colorful and vibrant. Moreover, the book is thick with interviews from the hackers being portrayed in the book and what they say makes the stories even more memorable. One would think hackers and techies would be bad interview subjects and would focus on mundane technical material, but it’s not true at all. These are people who are passionate about their craft and proud of what they accomplished, and that passion energizes what they say in Hackers. That is what makes this book a joy to read.

There is one significant drawback to the book: it’s quite dated. The original edition was published in 1985, when computer memory was one-hundredth of one percent of what it is now. This anniversary edition does have the 1995 afterword and a new afterword for 2010 but they are small and a quick read. The Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are covered in the original’s pages—Woz has a full chapter devoted to him—but in 1985 their eventual impact with the Macintosh and Apple’s future consumer products had not yet hit the industry. Jobs in particular is only mentioned a few times in the book.

I think the question is whether Hackers is an artifact of its time or should be a history book for the future. There’s no right answer to this question, and today Levy and the publisher O’Reilly have decided to keep Hackers as an artifact of its time, and in that regard it is a beautiful artifact of those early years in hacker history. Those who want to learn about hackers and hacker culture beyond 1985 will want to read other books for the full picture.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Steven Levy
Published by O’Reilly
US $21.99
Rating: 9/10