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Usually, I buy at least one Mac per year. Since my Mac Book Pro is about two years old, I was keen to upgrade to the new model. However, I will not be buying this generation (October 2008) of Mac Book Pro (or Mac Book, for that matter) for two simple reasons:

1. The glossy display is hard to see under the best of conditions. With only moderate levels of ambient light it turns into a mirror reflecting all kinds of things instead of showing what I want to see on screen. There is also the problem that glossy screens are much worse in a color calibrated environment due to color shifts with the viewing angle. Unfortunately, there is no option to select a non-glossy screen.

2. The keyboard is a piece of junk. Sorry for the blunt words, but fast touch typing is simply not possible on what feels like the cheapest and nastiest keyboard I have touched in years. A $5 keyboard bought at the supermarket is better than this.

So for my two most important applications, digital photo editing and typing text, the new Mac Book Pro is much worse than what I currently have, so I will refrain from updating and Apple looses the sale.

I hope that despite the strong words about the keyboard Apple take this as positive criticism and – perhaps – improve their product. I really would like to buy a new Mac Book Pro once I can justify the purchase. 😉

I purchased an Elgato EyeTV 310 which is a digital satellite tuner and personal video recorder for the Mac. It will decode DVB-S which is what most(*) digital TV and radio satellite feeds are. The feeds can be saved to the hard drive and time-shifted or edited and/or converted and burned to CD or DVD.

(*) Most are DVB-S. Most high-definition feeds are DVB-S2 (which uses MPEG-4 instead of MPEG-2 for compression) which the EyeTV 310 does not decode. If you want to receive HD satellite feeds, this is not the product for you.

The EyeTV 310 is a small box that has a connector for the satellite feed, power, and two Firewire 400 (IEEE-1394) ports. Plug it all in, install the software from CD, and get going … Except that when I did, nothing happened. The EyeTV did not find any channels.

I knew the satellite feed was good because it worked with a stand-alone receiver. I tried various settings, but nothing helped. So I contacted Elgato tech support using the website. Within less than a day, I had a knowledgeable, friendly reply. No boilerplate, no automated junk, a real human tech-support contact. I was pleased.

What the tech suggested did not work, so I made some screen shots and saved some log files, wrapped them up in a .zip archive and sent another email. Within a minute of sending the email, my message had been entered into the tracking system on the Elgato website. This time, I was amazed.

I though Elgato would fumble the ball on a same-day response, but I got an answer later that evening from my original support contact. No playing hot potato, the guy who knew the case kept it. The message was friendly and again very helpful. Someone clearly knows his stuff here!

The tech suggested that I try eliminating all the pieces of equipment starting at the LNB to find out what was causing the problem – he thought that despite the stand-alone receiver working the EyeTV was not getting a signal.

O.K., I will admit it: I was skeptical. After all, I had seen it work, right? But the next day, I sat down and did what I should have done from the start, I eliminated the possible causes for the error one by one.

Guess what? It turns out that I was using a bad cable. Swap the cable and the box works like a charm. At this point, I was ecstatic, and I let the tech know.

So how does the EyeTV perform? On a lowly Mac mini Core Duo with 1 GB RAM, the CPU utilization is just above idling when I watch a TV feed or listen to a radio feed. The picture quality is excellent, as you would expect from a digital feed. There is no discernible lag in frame rate, decompression artifacts, or other weirdness.

Most DVB-S feeds come with program information. In a view slightly resembling iCal, all the channels and programing are listed. A simple click on an entry brings up additional descriptions. To schedule a recording, a single button press is enough. There is nothing else to configure.

EyeTV also comes with a one year subscription to an EPG (electronic program guide) service which should list all feeds, even if they do not broadcast program information. I have not tried this because the Mac mini is offline.

Once a feed has been recorded, it becomes available for playback, editing, or archiving. If you happen to have Toast, EyeTV will pretty much automate burning a feed to DVD. That’s a nice touch.

There are some things the EyeTV software could do better: there seems to be no way to show all program entries of a certain type (say all movies or all documentaries) in the EPG view, for example. I would also have liked the level indicator to correctly show that the EyeTV was not getting a signal when I was troubleshooting. It would be nice to have more options in organizing the channel list.

But by and large, this is not just a good product, it is excellent and though much more expensive than a Windows solution well worth the money. I was (and still am) impressed by the support I got. Good support is hard and not cheap, but Elgato seems to go the extra proverbial mile to deliver it.

In order to run Microsoft Windows software on my Intel Mac, I use the fine software Parallels Desktop for Mac (referred to as “Parallels” from now on). It runs everything I have thrown at it up to now and it is getting beter and faster with each new release.

The only annoying technical limitation is that Direct X does not work, so modern games are out of the question. But who needs games on a work machine, right? 😀

There is a problem with Parallels, Inc. and the way they handle their overseas business, however: we are being treated as second rate, at best.

Let me explain: “Paralles” (the software) is not localized in a technical sense. Customers anywhere in the world get the same American English version of the software. This is no problem for me and it should not be for anyone because Parallels, Inc. makes no claim of language localization.

However, the activation key used to activate the software is different in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. I have no idea why this is so, but I assume that it is because of some business problem this approach fixes. Again, I have no issues with this.

What I object to is that beta versions of the software, which Paralles, Inc. makes available months before a new release (again, a move that I applaud) require an activation key which must be a U.S. activation key. International keys do not work. International users must request a new demo key every 30 days until the system locks them out for requesting too many keys.

Do international customers have less of a need for new features? Have international users paid less than U.S. users to justify this treatment? Are international users challenged in some way when dealing with beta software?

But wait, it gets better: you also can not upgrade to the latest final version of the software until several days after the U.S. customers get to do so. And (as opposed to the beta version) Parallels will not tell you that this is so.

I downloaded the newest version (1986) right after it was released on 27-FEB-2007 because an email message from Parallels, Inc. urged me to. The new software simply rejected my activation key. So I contacted Parallels,Inc. support using the form on their website. I made it clear that I am a paying customer (I gave them my key) and requested assistance. I am still waiting for a reply today (05-MAR-2007).

A few days later Parallels, Inc. quietly published a different version of the software that is called “Parallels-Desktop-3186-Mac-uk-AQ” and only available using the built-in update function, it seems. This version installs and activates without a hitch. Unfortunately, I was not told about it by Parallels, Inc. like I was with the U.S. version and I could not find this version on the website.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that for some unfathomable reason, international customers are only second rate customers in the way Parallels, Inc. treats us. I can only hope that this is due to a flaw in the way the company handles it’s processes and not a deliberate decision.

I’d really like to hear from a representative of Parallels, Inc. on this issue, but – alas – I have not received a reply yet.