30 November 2006

Microsoft's Vista will be a humongous success

You may not have expected the title to come from me, but really I wanted to state the obvious.

According to the FT, there are 8 times the number of PC's in use compared to when Windows95 was released (800 million vs 100 million). Furthermore, it has been a full 5 years since the release of Windows XP. That has to provide a pent-up demand itself. Previously, Microsoft had updates every few years, so many Windows 2000 users didn't upgrade to XP for instance, even if Windows 98 users did.

So, there is little doubt that Vista will break all records that Microsoft chooses to use to publicise its success, and we will see plenty of such mentions over the next year. And anyone fighting such statistics is basically delusional. (The only question will be whether it is "phenomenally, fantastically successful", or just "successful"; and that will depend on personal interpretation).

But Vista's release is important in many, many ways beyond just number of installations, including:
- It lets Microsoft plant a stake in the ground saying we DO understand security and we've SOLVED it - calm down. You can trust us, after all.
- In the past, you had to have strong reasons NOT to go Microsoft - you were shutting yourself from all sorts of compatibility and functionality. Nowadays, the proliferation of devices including mobiles, laptops, media extenders, and general consumer electronics, blurs the boundaries of the past. The internet and the general "connectedness" of everything means that the average user no longer HAS to go Microsoft. They increasingly have a choice again. Whether Vista is on 80%, 90% or 98% of PC's may not matter when there are many more devices than just PC's.
- It is the basis for Microsoft's one shot at dominating the living room. More than any other company, Microsoft's home strategy needs people to welcome Vista AND to actually use it the way it was intended.

Vista is MS's best shot (and a compromised, late one at that) at keeping and extending it's virtual monopoly on devices that are primarily computers. But Vista enters the market at a different time than XP. A time when a new set of competitors and new technologies have emerged. A time when we use many devices that each have a processor inside running an OS of sorts and providing various bits of functionality. A time when the OS itself no longer provides the true differentiation or, particularly of concern for Microsoft, the lock-in.

In time, Vista will be considered as the last great hurrah of the proprietary OS. There will never be a software release as significant to so many people and businesses. Even Microsoft, by all accounts, never wants something so big again. Reading some recent blog posts about how it took a team of 24 people plus managers (for a total of 43) to decide and code the Shutdown/Sleep functionality, is evidence enough that such an approach is unsustainable.

From here onwards, Microsoft's financial success will be based around how it milks it's huge (and still-growing) installed base, how it maintains the massive intertia and slows the switch away from it's dominant software, and whether it can truly make profitable it's newer initiatives. (My own views are that on 1 and 2 it will do well, and on the 3rd will continue to disappoint).

The next key battleground is in the Office software space. With Office 2007 released simultaneously with Vista, this is symbolic. Until now, anyone who wanted to co-exist in the business space would have been forced to use Microsoft Office. I know that without Office for Mac, I would not have been able to hold out on the Mac platform. The key to this was not unparalleled functionality but closed file formats. If you could not receive a Word document, edit it and send it back to be read without issue by the sender, you would be considered IT-defective. While OpenOffice has made some inroads here, and allowed Linux users some ability to co-exist, it has not been a good enough substitute for many business users for many reasons. With the Office file formats now becoming open, this barrier will now be significantly reduced - a key reason why Microsoft resisted it for so long. Between Google, OpenOffice and other similar initiatives, if the monopoly that is MS Office is broken, then that is the last key blockage towards true interoperability and collaboration across hardware and software platforms (Microsoft came close to establishing both IE and also Media Player as similar monopolies, but has probably failed to do so).

Microsoft has proven itself ruthless and astute at building monopolies and virtual monopolies, and maintaining those in the face of new competition. It has done this on the back of two dominant franchises - DOS/Windows and Office. Both were more than just compelling products - they caused problems to users who did not assimilate. That is not a way to win long-term friends and supporters. But there has been no major new technology from Microsoft that is truly outstanding and field-leading since at least XP, and possibly before that. The parallels are greatest perhaps with IBM - that indisputable champion of the late 70's and early 80's, but that remains a strong, profitable and influential company today. That is Microsoft's fate. It's timing will depend as much on it's competitors failings (e.g Sony's failure with PS3 giving XBox360 a window), as it's own management of that decline. It will no doubt have many successes in the future, but hopefully nothing that is so dominant and that results in such mediocrity from itself and the rest of the IT world hangers-on or leads to grudging acceptance from the worldwide PC userbase at large because they have no alternative.

For me personally, I expect I will buy a copy of Vista eventually to run on a Mac under Bootcamp or Parallels for the same reasons that I had an on-off relationship with VirtualPC at times. I also expect to buy Office 2008 for the Mac. But I truly expect and hope that these will be the last pieces of Microsoft software that I ever HAVE to buy.

History may well look back and see IBM as THE hardware monopoly and Microsoft as THE software monopoly. Let's hope that history doesn't write about a services monopoly, as there's only one name in the frame for that at this time.

Welcome, Vista, may the best man win (but not win big enough to be another monopoly).

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26 November 2006

Mac anti-theft Software

My friend Tom mentioned in a comment to the post on the theft of one of our Macs about LoJack software that he'd installed on his machines.

I've been meaning to write about something similar I found called Undercover from Orbicule. Should I be paranoid and not write to the world at large that my Macs have anti-theft software installed? Well, dammit. I'm sure the 3 of you that read this blog are honest people! And, is it not a good test of such software that it can't easily be disabled?

Undercover looked interesting to me as it is specifically Mac software. Among other features, Orbicule make the claim that, once activated, their software will make use of installed iSight cameras to take photos of the machine user! Cool (if our police force can be bothered to do anything with the information of course!). Such features are on top of the ones we would expect such as IP address reporting, etc.

I was also intrigued how Undercover would work if the thief just erased the disk. Using firmware passwords in most recent PowerPC and Intel Macs makes this quite difficult to do (though the user must set these up).

An attraction of Undercover was the family pack license for up to 5 Macs for just $10 more ($49 instead of $39).

However, the proof with both LoJack and Undercover is when they're needed. I hope neither Tom nor I have to experience that! I'd welcome comments from users of either of these pieces of software - especially about experiences good or bad when they really needed it. Both products are welcome entrants to the MacOS software marketplace.

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23 November 2006

Stolen Powerbook QT2010P3M2N & Reward!

I mentioned a few weeks ago about my partner's stolen Powerbook model. I've now been able to retrieve the serial number.

We would be very grateful if someone locates and returns this model and will make it worth their while. It contains some important scientific data on it which unfortunately has not successfully been retrieved from backups.

The model is as follows:
Apple Powerbook Titanium G4 667Mhz DVI/higher res screen.

There is the standard 30GB hard disk, but with 512MB RAM and an airport card. I can provide the airport MAC id for this machine.

The serial number of the machine is QT2010P3M2N

There is also a higher capacity battery present by Newertech, giving excellent battery life. The power supply was also stolen and is a later model Powerbook charger (white end rather than silver).

The machine is in generally good and working condition. However, the casing is very worn above and around the CD insertion, and there is a noticeable scratch on the right side by the airport. The screen is fine but with markings from the keyboard as per normal with such models.

User accounts are password protected and login is required. A smart thief will just have re-installed the OS. It was probably running 10.4.8 but might have been on 10.4.6 or 7.

If you do spot this machine on eBay or somewhere else - perhaps being sold by someone who clearly doesn't know a Powerbook from a Dell Crapitude, please contact me via this site.

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14 November 2006

MacBook Pro C2D Video Performance

In my recent quick first impressions of the MacBook Pro C2D I mentioned about doing some video tests. Here are some results.

Test Machine 1: MacBook Pro C2D 2.33Ghz, 2GB, 160GB 5400 rpm drive.
Test Machine 2: Powerbook G4 1.67Ghz hires, 1.5GB, 120GB 5400 rpm drive.

The Powerbook had been running for some time, and dashboard apps had been loaded. But all other apps had been quit. Free disk space is down to about 11GB though. On the MBP, no other apps were running in my space, but I was in Fast user switching mode with mail and safari running in the other user's space.

I took a 1.32 minute DV file from a camcorder and converted it to H.264 at 640 by 480 resolution with "Go Nuts" quality (ie ultimate) using the wonderful utility iSquint (v 1.5). I also specified De-interlace (otherwise a PAL DV looks real bad), and set size to 1500kbps (max possible for iPod ready movies). I checked both movies for quality and compatibility with a first gen iPod video. Both movies were superb, similar in end size and were sharper than the DV file though lacking in a bit of detail (eg trees were sharper, but tyre treads were less detailed).


The MBP completed the conversion in 2 minutes and 24 seconds. The Powerbook G4 took 10 minutes and 53 seconds. A factor of 4.5 times slower. In addition the MBP had around 20% idle time for most of the test. The Powerbook had zero idle time throughout running on max. Presumably (though I did not try) I could have done a few less demanding tasks on the MBP.

When performing the same task at 320x240 resolution (native iPod) the file was converted in faster than realtime on the MBP - 64 seconds (for a 92 second file) versus around 5 minutes on the Powerbook G4. An interesting aside is that the end result files whether 640x480 or 320x240 are the same total size - the key being the data rate I guess which is the same 1500kbps. So, no disk space penalty for having iPod-compatible files at 640x480 resolution (though a time penalty for conversion).

While limited to one application (iSquint) this confirms my original view that the new MBP's are massively improved over the last generation Powerbook G4s. This factor of 4.5x plus headroom is very impressive indeed.

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Congestion Charge Rant

Those who don't know me may think the following rant is from a car-loving, card-carrying-Conservative. But while I do confess to having a rather nice car, I would like to point out that my travelling around London is done almost exclusively by bicycle with a bit of public transport thrown in (therefore 5.5 years = 26,000 miles). I have never once needed to pay a congestion charge fee (and nor have I ever needed to pay a parking fine in the UK). Furthermore, I think driving into and around Central London needs to be curtailed and I am in favour in principle of schemes which try to ration that space especially for purposes of aiding efficient commerce. Finally, I am of course in favour of finding ways to reduce environmental damage.

Last year, I spent many (angry) hours over my keyboard writing to my MP and local councillors about the scheme to extend the zone westwards to include Kensington and Chelsea. Not that I am averse to this in principle, but it's implementation is in my opinion, brain-damaged. You may criticise my views as nimbyist, but I reassert my GENERAL support for such a scheme. My particular beef concerns the ability of vehicles to use the Embankment on the river to travel the East-West direction outside of the zone. Apart from obvious bottlenecks that will be made worse, I have observed that for a resident of Battersea, they can make a journey out to, say, Heathrow, without entering the congestion charge zone, as indeed can most residents of South London and out to Kent. But the Battersea resident returning home will be signposted through about 200 metres of congestion charge zone in order to access either of the bridges into the area. A right turn is not permitted. I have been told that such a driver should make a detour of approximately 3 miles to enter the area turning right over Chelsea Bridge (which will be even more congested). So much for congestion charging being an environmental measure when a detour of 3 miles is required (or payment of £8 and see next paragraph). The driver going further to more eastward parts of South London however, would not have to make such a turn and therefore pay no penalty. Therefore the scheme is unreasonably discriminatory towards Battersea residents. The obvious solution was to allow a right turn on Battersea Bridge. An alternative would have been to eliminate the final southwestern block of about 200m by 100m from the charging scheme. Neither were done despite "extensive consultation". White van man will find a way of course to turn right, and over time even law-abiding citizens will do the obvious thing and make a u-turn on the main embankment past the first bridge so they can legally turn left over the bridge. Not a particularly safe thing to do, but better than 3 miles+20 minutes, or £8.

But today, what has got me more incensed is this news from the department of Red Ken. By 2009 the congestion charge for Category G vehicles will be increased by a factor of 3x such that it costs £25 to enter the zone no matter how far you drive or drive in it. A Category G vehicle includes many of the SUV, 4x4 type of vehicle as well as many people carriers. Of course, many sports cars and higher performance vehicles also come into this category. Strangely it would not affect me because (even if I did use my car) my vehicle is older than the cutoff date (another weakness with the scheme in principle). Now, I believe London would be better for less 4x4's and people carriers. But I believe London would be better off with less cars in general (at least moving ones). Sure polluters need to pay, but to have a scheme which is so black and white as to penalise a car emitting a theoretical 224g/km £8 when penalising a car emitting a theoretical 225g/km £25 is plain ridiculous. It is no longer a tax on congestion or an environmental tax, but the worst sort of tax - a tax borne out of chip-on-the-shoulder left-leaning cheap politics. You're better off having an £8 car and driving it like mad than you are having a £25 car and driving it carefully. Other bad behaviours are encouraged - drive as much in the congestion charge zone as you like for instance. (Aside: Why should taxis and users of taxis make no contribution towards congestion charge for instance? Answer = taxi drivers lobby pressurising Ken)

It is quite obvious what the right thing to do. For the environment it is to tax consumption - therefore the price of fuel. This penalises bad drivers, those who maintain their car badly as well as bigger/heavier/less fuel-efficient vehicles. It also encourages good behaviour. For congestion, the logical response is to penalise movement - especially movement at bad times of the day. By all means make that cost higher the larger/heavier the vehicle (we all know people carriers and large 4x4s are less efficient at navigating narrow roads and junctions and therefore make congestion worse) and by all means have an environmental factor applied. But to make it so ludicrously out of proportion does not fix the problem. A 224g/km driving 5 miles in the zone is far more polluting and congestion-generating than a 225g/km car driving just 300m. Attack the problem head-on if you want to change the behaviour!

It will neither make London a cleaner or less congested City to live in, and nor will it help the environment (note significant increase in new cars bought to squeeze under congestion charge limit will benefit the German economy and damage the German environment where they are primarily built!).

It is Ken at his worst and most vindictive.

[/End rant]

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Cheeky Little Apple Announcement

On Zune launch day, Apple announced that six major world airlines would be providing direct iPod support into their entertainment systems over the next few years.

Once again, Apple moves out ahead, and makes it harder for other entrants. Openness in the consumer electronics world is something different than in the PC world. If I can play my music wherever I need it - in the home, on my computer(s), on my phone, in my car, on an aeroplane, is this worse than having a multitude of choice but needing a different device for each activity? If the price for having music everywhere is a £179/$249 iPod is that so bad? The resounding answer is "No". And such an announcement just makes the investment more compelling.

In the good old days you bought a multitude of playback devices for each purpose (each room you wanted music in, a portable for on-the-go; and a car player as well as one or more recording devices to convert to a different format). You also needed to carry your media around too. Now all you need is your computer and one (or more) iPods and you've got it all covered. Your music, your photos, your videos, your life, wherever and whenever you need it - at home, on the train, in the car, and even in the air.

This is a bigger announcement than it looks right now.

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Just one more...

Okay, you've twisted my arm, so I shall twist the knife one more time...

An hilarious CNN TV review of the Zune hijacked by the with-it anchorwoman.

It's so sad we'll be waiting until 2008 to get Zune in the UK and Europe. It appears to be so bad that even Jack Schofield of Guardian fame would have had to write a negative article on it.

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Microsoft, what were you thinking (3)?

Hilarious (though long) account of the Zune installation process over at Engadget.

Did they really think it would be so easy (to topple the iPod)? What's with these awful images on the install process? After all the fuss about WMP11, they don't even use it - preferring yet another flavour of jukebox software. I can see transitive versions of the verb Zune becoming quite a derogatory term, as in "My PC got zuned". Not a very good start.

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10 November 2006

Microsoft, what were you thinking (2)?

Ars Technica covers this one well. As usual, the comments give a good idea of the views of the geek community. If it's 90% in one direction, that's usually a good pointer.

This is a ridiculous move. If I buy my music legally (as I do) why should I support this? And what happens to the small independents, or the average independents? Why should I pay twice?

I think this shows how things really would go if Microsoft owned this market.

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Microsoft, what were you thinking (1)?

Jack Schofield at the Guardian just reported the facts a few weeks ago (see my critique then). And since, we understand, Zune won't come to Europe for another year plus (!), he won't (shouldn't) be reviewing it anytime soon. But here's a few mainstream US reporters on the Zune:

Walt Mossberg at Wall Street Journal.

David Pogue NY Times (hope this link works, but I'm sure you can find it)

David Ewalt, Forbes

Of course, if you read Daring Fireball, you'd have known most of this back in July with the wonderful Magic-8-ball interview! Amazingly, it seems that it is even worse than predicted!

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09 November 2006

MacBook Pro C2D First Impressions

As I mentioned last week, my partner's tired old Titanium Powerbook G4 was stolen on about the same day the new Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros (MBP) were announced - perhaps the only silver lining to that event.

We eventually placed her order on the Apple Education store last Wednesday, and received the machine yesterday - under a week, and all the way from Shanghai. The machine is a 2.33Ghz, 2GB RAM model with 160GB hard drive.

I was interested to do a quick comparison with my last-generation Powerbook G4 Hi-res that I got about a year ago to see how much things have changed. My, what a difference!

To look at, there's very little that's obvious, though the new model is noticeably thinner (and a tad wider). Due to the addition of a Firewire800 port on the new MBP model, it actually looks closer to the Powerbook than the first MBP model. Because of the thinness, the DVD slot is quite low - which looks a little odd. With the PB, the slot and screen-release button are aligned neatly, something which I'm sure makes Jonathan Ive happy. But only a true geek would be able to instantly identify a MBP over a last-gen PBG4 from a glance.

Inside, of course is a different story. I was interested in the hard drive model used. There has been a bit of criticism of Apple's failure to provide a 7200rpm option in the new model. But I had guessed that the 160GB option at 5400rpm would use perpendicular technology. By closer packing of the bits, this actually means the 25% slower rotation is essentially negated by the being able to read more bits. While I don't have the data to prove it, I would imagine a 5400rpm 160GB drive would perform not far off a 100GB 7200rpm drive for most situations.

Well, I'm pleased to report that the drive in this model is a Hitachi perpendicular device, and it's XBench disk scores were considerably better than my 1 year old Seagate 120GB 5400 rpm disk (which itself was well-reviewed). While some of the difference is undoubtedly down to my disk being much fuller than the MBP, I'm sure the Hitachi performs admirably indeed. Sure, if someone made a 7200rpm 160GB disk, that would be great. But right now, I don't think they do. So, with the 160GB I think most people will be happy, and it would make sense for Apple not to offer a lower capacity 7200rpm drive. (Not sure about the 200GB 4200rpm drive though).

The new MBP screen (we went for the matte one), is just wonderful, and seems quite a bit brighter than my hi-res Powerbook (which itself was supposedly much brighter than the previous PB). It does lack 60 pixels in height (due to inclusion of the iSight I guess), but that gives it a slightly better fit to wide-screen movies.

Airport reception seems much improved. I've never been able to see other networks from our home with our powerbooks or mac mini. But I saw 3 others with the MBP. It's a pity the Apple Airport Monitor application does not seem to work on Intel macs (well it works, but it doesn't graph). So I can't see it's real throughput.

But of course, the key differences are not about the hard drive, screen or airport, it's about performance and there is no question this machine is massively faster. Xbench scores were nearly all around 2x better, with many between 3x and 4x improved. The user interface test gave a 10x improvement. While my Powerbook has slightly less RAM (1.5GB) and had a couple of apps running, with an 80% full hard disk, I don't think this would have accounted for too much of the difference (and I'm not about to do a clean install to find out).

But I'm not interested in benchmarks like this per se. Real world use is what's important, and the new MBP flies. Web pages are rendered incredibly quickly. Perhaps that will slow down as caches etc fill up (at least that's my past experience), but it is really near-instantaneous now. I converted an MP3 file at 168kbps VBR to a 160kbps AAC to see how quickly it would do it. All done in 8 seconds. The exact same operation took 25 seconds on the PB. The whole user interface felt very responsive indeed including using Dashboard.

I'm quite critical of a lot of the performance tests run on by many publications. For instance, I've seen a lot of stuff written that multi-core computers don't help much if the application isn't properly multi-threaded. But that completely ignores the fact that most people these days are doing several things on their computer at once. My ideal Mac would be something that converts video/music quickly while letting me surf and work as fast as usual. I'd like a Mac that can record off EyeTV while letting me do my usual work without penalty. Mixing usage like that slows my current PB down significantly, and I have avoided doing much video work. Right now I have 10 applications open and some of those are doing simultaneous work. So, a note to testers out there - create some real-life performance tests with mixed usage, please!

I'll be doing a few H.264 conversions over the next few days and seeing how those stack up. I think there will be a huge improvement there.

But right now, I'd say this machine is an incredible leap forward - by both Intel and Apple. For a quite a bit less than I paid just 12 months ago (helped by a great education price admittedly), there's a machine with 2-3x real-world performance improvements, 40GB extra storage, 0.5GB extra RAM, built-in iSight and Magsafe. I don't think it's just about the PowerPC G4 being long-in-the-tooth - I suspect similar performance gains would be seen against last year's single-core Pentium M models.

I made my own decision last year (failing to anticipate that the MBP's would come along so quickly!), and so will stick with my existing PB until next year. Then we should have the Intel "Santa Rosa" platform inside bumping bus speeds to 800Mhz, adding flash storage for performance/battery life gains, as well as 802.11n, WiMax and other wireless technology support. Perhaps with Leopard supporting resolution independence, we'll also see some full HD models too? I'm looking at around Easter for all of this excitement, assuming I can wait!

If there's anything you'd like to know, do post a comment here and I'll see if I can "borrow" the machine again for a bit of "investigative" blogging!

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07 November 2006

Nice Photo (2)

On Monday evening I was cycling back over Battersea Bridge, and observed the moon rising over Albert. I rushed back to get my camera (and tripod) and snapped another load of shots of my favourite Thames Bridge. If you look carefully below the moon in the second shot, there's a glimpse of the London Eye.

I'm a bit disappointed about not being able to capture the moon's detail - I think that's a dynamic range issue that I can only overcome with a much better camera of som clever multiple shot/combination image. I have managed to get a good moon shot - when in India, but in daylight. You can see this on my webpage linked to here if you're interested. Any good photographers who are willing to share the secrets of how to do a good moon photo on a landscape are welcome to comment here!

Nice Photo (1)

Out in Herefordshire on Sunday was an amazing sunset across much of the sky. I took lots of snaps, none of which can capture the true beauty, but here's a couple to give you an idea.

03 November 2006

MacII heads to landfill

It was a sad day today when, while visiting my mum, I took my old MacII down to the recycling centre (c'mon, I just wrote the headline to attract the Greenpeace brigade).

It had sat in a cupboard since being replaced by the iBook G4 last year, and hadn't been used for a few years previously by my mum. Nevertheless, as a machine that was manufactured in February 1987 - so almost 20 years old - it has had a long life. I know the manufacture date because I took the lid off to remove the hard drive - an 80MB superfast model that I bought separately at the time. Inside the top was written the date of manufacture with a marker pen! It struck me how well-engineered this box was - particulary the way the top came off and how the Nu-bus cards could be added/removed - neither actions requiring a screwdriver. The monitor, keyboard and box itself where all of very solid construction indeed.

I think this was my second (or maybe my third) home Mac, but my first colour one (was it the first colour Mac?) and cost upwards of $5,000 at the time when I was in the US. At then exchange rates, that was around £4,000!

In an ideal world of course, I'd have kept this, but really it wasn't in good enough condition to be a museum piece. For my mum, I think the last straw came when she opened the cupboard and had the monitor fall on her head! So, out it went. In disposing of it, I was amazed at the lack of options available to us for recycling such devices in this country, and I hope that will soon change.

I had a great time with my MacII and it was a revolution at the time. Next week we should be welcoming a MacBook Pro CD2 into the household (though not for me unfortunately - it is to replace a Titanium G4 PowerBook stolen from my partner's workplace). It makes me realise how much things have changed. 2,000times the disk storage, 500 times the memory (I think I had 4MB), and a processor that is clockwise 300 times more powerful than the 16Mhz Motorola 68020 (but not allowing for other chip improvements), all in a portable device a fraction of the size and weight, and for a price about 1/4 of what I paid for the Mac system!

I apologise for the quiet posting lately. Got a few articles in the works, so stay subscribed...

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