Jeremy's almost but not quite entirely moribund blog

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Another Mac Mini article

I'm a longtime PC user, and every last one of my computers (with the exception of my laptop) have been custom-built machines--right back to the 286 my grandfather who worked for IBM helped me build when I was 12. Or rather, told me exactly what to do. Things have changed a bit since then--I recall plugging in 16 or so individual DIP packages to install the 1MB of 8MHz memory. A far cry from the pair of 512MB 400MHz DIMMs my current computer uses.

A week or so ago, my wife told me she thought it might be fun to get a Mac Mini. I think her main motivation is that they're supposed to be better at video editing. But I'm open to the idea of having a different computer in the house. And the $500 price looks mighty tempting... until you try and upgrade it.

We'd definitely need a DVD burner (+$100) and at least 512MB of RAM (+$75). And we might as well get the 80GB hard drive as well (+$50). That brings the total to $724. As I don my asbestos-lined jumpsuit (Hi all you Apple fans out there!), let's look at what a similarly-configured custom built PC might cost. (All these prices came from as of this morning.)

PricePartPart NameComments
48.00CaseCHENBRO Black/White MicroATX Case with 270W Power SupplyIncludes front audio, USB, and Firewire ports. Small, but not nearly as small as the Mini.
86.00MotherboardECS "RS480-M V1.0" ATI Radeon XPRESS 200 Chipset Motherboard For AMD Socket 939 CPU -RETAILIncludes integrated X300-level video; a step up from the 9200 in the Mini, but it uses shared memory, which may not be a disadvantage since the Mini only has 32MB anyway
146.00CPUAMD Athlon 64 3000+, 512KB L2 Cache, Socket 939 64-bit Processor - RetailI'm not all that familiar with the Power line of processors, but I'll bet this is more than a match for a 1.25GHz G4
48.67RAMCorsair Value Select Dual Kits 184 Pin 512MB(256MBx2) DDR PC-3200 - RetailYou could go to a full gigabyte for $50 more, compared with the $250 Apple would charge you to double 512MB
56.00Hard DriveWestern Digital 80GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive, Model WD800JD, OEM Drive OnlyFaster than the laptop drive in the Mini
53.00DVD BurnerBenQ Black 16X DVD+/-R DVD Burner support Dual Layer with Software, Model DW1620 PRO BLK, OEMIt's nominally four times faster than the 4x drive that comes with the Mini, but NeroVision Express isn't nearly as cool as iLife '05
91.95Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows XP HOME Edition With Service Pack 2 -OEMAgain, not as cool as OS X, but it does the job

That comes to a total of $529.62. Granted, it doesn't have the "cool factor" of the Mac Mini, and it would certainly take up more space on your desk. But it's almost $200 cheaper than a comparably equipped Mini. I suppose when you factor in the software (MacOS X and iLife '05 instead of Windows XP Home and Nero Express), the Mac's increased usability could be worth the difference.

As for me, I think the Mini is a great concept, but a little underpowered even with the upgrades. If there were a model with 128MB video RAM, an 8x DVD burner, and possibly gigabit Ethernet, I'd be sorely tempted to get one... but the only way to get those features from Apple right now is to spend over $1600 on a PowerMac G5.

But to tell you the truth, what I'd really like to see is a Mac barebone system along the same lines as a Shuttle XPC, to which you could add the standard desktop form factor optical drive, hard drive, DDR memory, and optional AGP and/or PCI card of your choice to form a complete system. They could be sold as complete systems too, of course; these would still have the advantage of much-improved upgradeability over Apple's existing low-to-medium-range computers. But this kind of machine would take away from Apple's 100% control over the hardware and software, which could arguably detract from the "it just works" Mac experience. At least, that's what I'd expect Apple to say about it. I'm sure the fat margins on build-to-order upgrades have nothing to do with it at all. ;)

Monday, April 18, 2005

The case of the disappearing music

If you purchase music today, do you expect to be able to listen to it five years from now?

If it's on a CD, certainly. (Assuming you take care of it, it doesn't get lost or stolen, and it isn't a Mission: Impossible self-destructing CD.)

But if it's purchased online? Not likely.

At the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America, any music you purchase online from an affiliated label will be encumbered with DRM (digital rights management) technology, which is basically intended to tether your music to the computer that downloaded it. There's nothing stopping you from copying the files you download, but they won't be playable anywhere else.

Most forms of DRM allow you to do a limited set of copying; for example, you can make one-way transfers to a compatible portable music player (not just any player; even one that supports the audio format won't work if it doesn't support the DRM), or you can burn the track to CD a limited number of times.

What if you get a new computer? You can back up and restore your licenses so that the DRM will let you play your music on the new machine.

Fair enough? It would be, except that you need permission from Big Brother every time you restore your license backups. According to Microsoft,
You can restore backup licenses a limited number of times for legitimate purposes. When you restore your licenses, your computer must be connected to the Internet. The Player sends a unique hardware ID to Microsoft that enables the company to track how many times you restore your licenses.


If you exceed the maximum number of restore attempts that are permitted, the Microsoft service will not process any further restore attempts. Microsoft does this to discourage unauthorized replication of protected media files.

It's nice that Microsoft gets to decide whether or not your continued listening to music you paid for is legitimate.

Well, they're just trying to prevent you from using license restoration as a loophole to allow you to share your music illegally, right? Maybe. But guess what the "maximum number of restore attempts" is. (Hint: it's less than three.)

You can restore your licenses on a maximum of two unique computers. If you replace hardware components in your computer or reinstall the operating system, Microsoft considers the changed computer to be a new unique computer.

Have you purchased music online? Do you anticipating upgrading your computer or reinstalling the operating system more than twice? You have spent real money on a disappearing product. Congratulations!

I own dozens of CDs, but the majority of them I've never listened to in a CD player. When I get a CD, the first thing I do is rip it to MP3 files and then put the original CD away in a closet for safekeeping. MP3 files are much more convenient for me--I can listen to whatever I'd like without looking for the disc, my CDs don't get scratched and worn, and I can take my whole collection on the road with me on only a couple of data CDs--significantly reducing clutter and eliminating the chance that my originals get lost, damaged, or stolen.

The RIAA's website
says "If you choose to take your own CDs and make copies for yourself on your computer or portable music player, that's great. It's your music and we want you to enjoy it at home, at work, in the car and on the jogging trail." But it's also the RIAA who is making sure you can't do most of those things with music purchased online.

I don't buy CDs anymore, in part because I now have two small children and no longer have the disposable income I once had, but also because I'm afraid that I won't be able to use them how I'd like. Many newer CDs are encumbered by copy protection technologies that prevent them from being read properly by computers, and that these discs are not always clearly labeled. I am not interested in purchasing such a disc, since the CDs I buy are read exclusively by my computer.

Buying individual tracks for under a dollar each at online music stores would be very attractive--if it weren't for DRM. I like to take my music with me to work or on the road, but DRM shackles me to a very limited number of PCs. I know I could back up and then restore my licenses to my laptop and work machine, but at that point I've used up my licenses. As soon as any of those machines are reinstalled or upgraded, poof--there goes my music on that computer. I am not interested in spending real money on disappearing music.

I don't practice or condone online piracy, but pirated music has one enormous advantage over purchased music--free of DRM, it can be listened to on practically any device. It won't disappear when you upgrade your computer.

The RIAA often whines about how hard it is to compete with free. They've got a point, but they're going about it all wrong. If they offered the ability to legitimately purchase something comparable in quality to what's being shared online, I think customers would gladly pay for it. I know I would. But instead, they offer music that is chained to an extremely limited number of computers, is artificially incompatible with your MP3 player, and that you likely won't be able to listen to at all in five years.

Note to RIAA: You are losing business specifically because of DRM. Allow your customers to purchase non-DRM-encrusted music online--That's how to keep honest people honest.


Here are some links to discussions on other harmful effects of DRM. FAQ
DRM is Not Protection From Piracy: Is Protection From Competition
License Revocation - It's kind of like piracy, only they're stealing from you
Fair Use and DRM from the Electronic Frontier Foundation