Microsoft Office 2008 vs NeoOffice vs iWorks’08

2009/04/28

I was happy user of the iWork Suite 08 since I moved to OS-X. It somehow better matches the way I am thinking and does much better job than Office to get me from idea to acceptable looking rendering of that idea in the form of document, spreadsheet or presentation.

In past two month I was involved much more interaction with the requirements, business analysis and project management part of the process. Which inevitably means much higher exposure to documents creation, collaboration and exchange. iWork gives you reasonably good compatibility with Office document formats, which means that you can easily import almost every Office document modify it and export it back so that Windows user will see almost all of your changes. Almost everything will be just fine. Unfortunately, almost is not the same as everything: it often breaks fine details of formatting, reviewer comments and does not really work for more complicated Excel spreadsheets. Especially those spreadsheets which project manager-ish people so love to create.

I tried to use OpenOffice/NeoOffice which suffers from the same malady. It spoils different set of features than iWorks, quite often works well, but it cannot be trusted. On top of that, it just does not feel right and is kinda ugly.

So I had to take a deep breath and installed Office 2008. After few weeks, here is my impression and very brief comparison of all three mentioned suites.

With Office 2008, I was not having very high expectations regarding user experience on Mac and I have to report that Microsoft did not disappoint. I indeed was not too great experience, starting with installation.

Office 2008 contains 4 products. I absolutely wanted Word and Excel, was not quite sure about Powerpoint (because Keynote is sooo much better),  and certainly had zero interest in Entourage and Microsoft Messenger.
Guess what: Microsoft installer, as many times before, knew better what I want and did not give me a chance.  All questions asked were related to what Microsoft needs to know (serial number), with little regard for users interest.  It also installed whole bunch of fonts, which I did not really want – but I guess to provide 100 % compatibility with Windows, it may be a good idea to include same set of fonts as Windows office has.

After installation, Office 2008 works reasonably well. Minor annoyance is start taking forever – I guess it is because (unlike under XP/Vista) OS-X does not preload shared components (and does not eat up memory just to make Office appear start snappier).  As soon as any Office application is running, I have occasionally seen weird behaviour when switching between windows (note lowercase ‘w’) and does not play nice with Spaces. Sometimes scrolling forgets to redraw screen in word and you have to minimize/restore to get back to readable text. And it is generally quite slow even on very fast and powerful machine.

With respect to the main motivation for getting Office – seamless document compatibility – that problem appears to be solved. So far I have not seen anything that would be distorted or deleted just because I touched the file on the Mac.  Only exception is Excel – Office 2008 does not support VBA macros, so your mileage with more advanced spreadsheets may vary.

Should I mark my experience with Office 2008 using school grades, it would be:
– installation: C
– user experience: B-
– compatibility with Windows Office: B+
– price/performance ratio: D
– overall: B-

For iWorks’08 it would be:
– installation: B (if I recall correctly, it was OK, but required installer).
– user experience: B+
– compatibility with Windows Office: C
– price/performance ratio: A-
– overall: B

For NeoOffice:
– installation: C-
– user experience: C-
– compatibility with Windows Office: C+
– price/performance ratio: A
– overall: C+

Recommendation:

If you are working on Mac as part of a team that collaborates using Office documents, you most likely need Office 2008. Unfortunately the only office package that comes very close to be compatible with Office 2003 and Office 2007 is Office 2008.

If you value user experience, aesthetics and are OK with mostly one-way conversions between Windows Office, you will find iWork provides excellent value and will make you feel at home. If you never have to exchange documents with Windows world, enjoy it – we all who have to do it daily are green with envy.

If you for economic or ideological reasons refuse to pay for software (or only for software made by certain companies ;-)) – or if you require compatibility with Linux based office, you have no other choice than NeoOffice or OpenOffice. The first one looks considerably better on OS-X – although still not quite right.


Almost perfect backup backup solution

2009/03/24

The double backup word in the title is not an oversight. If I would be talking about “almost perfect backup solution”, it would be Time Machine – which has proven, despite it’s minor annoyances (see this) to be very unobtrusive and functional. As long as you have Mac and Leopard, of course.

What I am talking about here is second level – an offsite backup, that you may need in case you house burns down, gets flooded or your computer with time machine disk gets stolen. I do not live in tornado valley, earthquake zone and crime rate around Westboro is fairly low even compared to low Canadian levels, but anyway.

The product in question is Backblaze and I am happy user since December last year. It is cloud based service, running on (I assume) Amazon S3 and unlike Time Machine it works for all you stuck in Windows world as well. Not available yet for all you brave explorers of multiple universes of Linux, but I guess you would not give up rsync anyway :-).
All you need to do is setup a very low profile client that runs in the background and uploads all that was changed. The initial backup can take few weeks, depending on the size of the hard disk.

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It backups almost everything, except system areas and few excluded file types – like DMG and VMDK (virtual machine volumes). You can define your own exclusions but you cannot  un-exclude the default exclusions.

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Backblaze has quite attractive pricing scheme: you pay $5 a month per computer and can backup as much as the pipes between your house and cloud allow you to push up. The price of one venti chai latte is in my books very much worth the good feeling.

When the disaster strikes and you need your files, you do not have to go the slow route and download multi-gigabytes of data. For reasonable fee, Backblaze will send you your data on DVD’s or even on USB disk. I hope I will never need that :-). For small recovery you can always access files using Web interface.

Because I am curious creature and like to understand how thing work, I was watching its progress for few weeks. Thanks to my curiosity I had several communications with backblaze technical support. I am happy to report that:
a) it exists ! (this is always the case with cloud companies )
b) it is very fast – I got back response in few hours, one day max
c) it is very competent and friendly. The person I communicated with knew the product at the deepest technical detail level.

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Last but not least: privacy and security. Many people are concerned about having their data anywhere except on the server in locked office. I trust strong encryption. In addition to using SSL for transfer, Backblaze gives you an option for aditional encryption on client side – before the data leaves your computer it is encrypted with the key only you know. This way you cannot download the data through Web unless you enter the key and not even Backblaze can read your data.

So why almost perfect ? There are few minor issues. I would certainly like to have more control (and better UI) for both monitoring and management of the files to be backed up. Either GUI client, or simple way to put a file inside directory that would work as .gitignore. Actualy, for a developer, it would make sense not to backup anything specified in .gitignore or .svnignore or .cvsignore files, because if something is not worth putting to source control, it is not worth backup up either.

Other are duplicate files: I have on my notebook subset of pictures, podcasts and music from home iMac. Those files are backup up and tranferred twice. With volume, this becomes an annoyance. Backblaze could based on SHA1 recognize the duplicate files within same account and offer option skip those already uploaded – same way how Git stores each blob only once.

Last issue (which is completely out of Backblaze’s control) is your bandwidth. Since I started, I am maxing out my 95 GB transfer limit with Rogers in third consecutive month. Here in Canada, 95GB is max you can get unless you  pay for business connection[1] (which is several times the price of “Extreme plus”). You have some control over the backup upload speed – you can “throttle” the speed and you can also manage schedule (to a limited extend). This may or may not impact you – depending on your bandwidth allocation and size of the data to back up.

All summed – definitely recommended.

Disclaimer: I am not anyhow affiliated to Backblaze product or company. Only reason for this blog is my personal, very positive experience with their product and user support, which I believe deserves to be shared.


The myth of premium hardware or why Ottawa needs Apple Store

2009/02/23

Back in November 2007, when I was buying Macbook Pro, I did order the AppleCare option, which added several hundred dollars to already pretty expensive notebook price. For moment I was tempted to go without it – after all, Apple makes top grade, high quality hardware and considering pretty low failure rate I have seen with my Windows based notebooks between 1998-2006, why to pay more ? Little did I know how much mileage will I get from the extra cost :-(.

It is sad to admit, but during last 12 months, I had three major hardware issues with my Macbook Pro. Maybe it was just my bad luck and I got a lemon, but frequency and seriousness of hardware failures makes MBP the least reliable notebook I ever owned.

In June 2008, the 250 GB hard drive failed and had to be replaced. Fortunately, I had disk clone and Time Machine brought back  everything, so no data was lost. One month ago, one of two 2GB DIMMs died and had to be replaced (to be fair, this one was not original Apple RAM, but cheaper version purchased and installed by authorized service centre). And third issue was failure of graphic card last week – which will likely mean mainboard replacement. The notebook is still in service and I am for 8th day computationally impaired, locked to spare Mac Mini or my home iMac/Macbook, stubbornly refusing using Windows based notebook …

So how would Apple Store help the situation – other than walking in and buying replacement ? As it seems, from discussion with other Mac users, Apple Stores may be the only type of service provider that actually can (and does) keep stock of replacement parts. All other service centres have to take your computer in, detect the cause, order replacement part and wait until is shipped to them from Apple in order to finish the repair. How quickly the part arrives is completely out of their – as well as your – control.  It can add up quite a few days to your repair time.

Another consequence of no-stock rule is that in this economy, to optimize shipping costs, the parts are most likely to be send in batches.  Which means more delay …

Yes, I know – it could be much worse, one could have to mail the computer somewhere in USA or overseas rather than dropping them to friendly hands of local Apple certified service depot, and have it mailed back to you. Which would add even more time, more cost, and much more chance of additional damage in transport. But on the other hand, if we had Apple Store stocked with replacement parts in the city, with a bit of luck one could walk in, drop the machine and pick it up fixed next day. Would not that be cool ?

Let’s hope that Ottawa’s Apple Store is more than just a rumor …


How to un-stuck unsuccessful OS-X upgrade

2009/02/07

Here is the context: in order to upgrade iLife 08 to iLife’09 (which is very nice, btw), I had to install 10.5.6 upgrade. And according Murphy’s law, one of the 2 GB DIMM’s in my MacBook Pro went bad exactly during the OS-X upgrade process.

It had two rather unpleasant consequences:

  • some of the patch files got downloaded and saved in corrupted state
  • The machine did not boot back after restart

The second problem was fixed by replacing the bad DIMM, but the first caused that upgrade to 10.5.6 was impossible: the files were downloaded, verification failed, after restart I was back to square one. There was no obvious way how to “undownload” the files.

The Apple Support representative recommended downloading the update as DMG from Apple Downloads, and run installer. The DMG of 10.5.6 had over 300 MB, while the patch file was barely 190 MB, so I was wondering whether there is better way. As it turned out, it is very easy.

The location of the downloaded files is  /Library/Updates which is normally almost empty:

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During update process, this is the location where OS-X will keep the downloaded files, as shown here:

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All you need to do is to delete these downloads (keep the plist, of course) and try Software Updates again. The updater will re-download the files and everything will work as expected:

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iPhone firmware 2.1 – first impressions

2008/09/16

I was brave and updated right away last Friday, as soon as the update appeared, both the iTunes and the iPhone firmware. And so far, so good. Initial observations are quite positive – at least so far, from using it during last few days.

I never had any issues with the dropped calls, so I cannot report any improvement. What seems to work better is browsing: I get much less (if any) connection errors. It is hard to say whether it was the firmware, or Rogers fixed something – or the fixed firmware causes less issues to network – it looks like improvement.

What is definitely a huge improvement is sync time. Backup now does not take 5 minutes+, it is down (after initial one) to less than minute and whole sync with transfering new podcasts and application updates is done in 2-3 minutes max. The application update still takes about same amount time – at least it feels like it.

Overall, there are few nice little improvements, like this one in list of podcasts:

Note the detail info that indicates half-finished podcasts and shows how much of the audio is left:

Nice touch (pun intended) 😉


Objective C: I really miss namespaces

2008/09/02

One feature that I strongly miss from Objective C are namespaces. Inability to avoid name clash between your  classes sometimes really stands in your way.

I am reading S. Kochan’s book “Programming in Objective C” and in one of the examples he creates the class Point. Unfortunately, there already is struct Point defined in mactypes.h.

The solution is easy – rename the darn Point to something like TKPoint … at least that is what Cocoa naming guide recommends. It is probably matter of getting used to it  – but I still find the solution suggested by Kevin Hoffman much more elegant – too bad it is only theoretical. Much nicer than NSHack 😉


More on kCFErrorDomainCFNetwork Error 302

2008/08/28

A friend made me aware of this (thanks, Peter):

The Inside Deets on iPhone 2.0.2 and Dropped Calls
http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2008/08/28/the-inside-deets-on-iphone-202-and-dropped-calls/

Sounds like plausible explanation.

It is not the network that is fault but the interaction of the bad
power control algorithm in 2.0 and 2.0.1 software and the network that
is at fault. The sooner everybody is running 2.0.2 software the better
things will be. Having seen the graphs the 2.0.2 software has already
started to make difference.