How I’d Spend $1000 in an Hour

I'd head to the Palo Alto Apple Store to buy a shiny new MacBook Pro.

Apple Mini Retail Store – Stanford Shopping Center

What's that you say? Don't I already have a shiny new MacBook Pro? Sort of. It's still a little bit shiny and it's almost three years old, which in laptop terms is pretty far from new. That $1000 would pay for a little less than half of the new model I have specced out.

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Updated: I need a USB external WiFi antenna. Help me decide which one.

Sure, it sounds silly, but a few of my favorite weekday lunch places on University Ave don’t offer WiFi (free or otherwise) and aren’t near enough to anywhere that does to pick up the signal. They’re almost close enough; my MacBook Pro and my Palm Pre can “see” the networks and try to connect, but not achieve or maintain a connection. It seems that this situation is the perfect one for one of these devices. I’ve found a few that look promising but I’m having some trouble choosing one. Feel like helping?

Hawking HWUN3 Hi-Gain USB Wireless-N Adapter with Upgradeable Antennas for Mac & PC (White) – $42.24

1000mW 1W 802.11g/n High Gain USB Wireless G / N Long-Rang WiFi Network Adapter – Dongle – $23.95

1000mW 1W 802.11g/n High Gain USB Wireless G / N Long-Rang WiFi Network Adapter – Dongle With Original Alfa 5dBi and 9dBi Rubber Antenna – $24.99

MacWizards Antenna & Booster for MacBook/PowerBook – $79.99

There’s quite a price difference between the least and most expensive, but the MacWizards item looks to be much smaller and sleeker. They all seem to have fairly similar specifications.

There’s also the rather different BearExtender n3 – $44.97

The BearExtender is an external device connected by a USB cable, not a plug-in antenna as are the others. It seems a bit too clunky, but the performance might be better since it can be moved around more freely.

What do you think?

Update 2010-08-18:

Someone from the company that makes BearExtender found this blog post and contacted me, offering free shipping and a 30-day review period to try out their product. Not a freebie for review, just an invitation to buy one. I figured with free shipping and the 30-day return privilege I couldn’t really go wrong, so I jumped at it.

The BearExtender is not nearly as large as it appears in the promotional pictures. It’s actually a flat (maybe 1/2″ thick) square (around 2″/side) and very light, with a clip on the back to stick on to the Mac’s open lid. Comes with one short and one long USB cable, an antenna, and a USB drive which includes a getting started guide and the driver software. The software is really the only disappointment; it’s ugly and the usability is rotten. However, it does work.

My baseline use case is sitting at a cafe in downtown Palo Alto across the street from a Starbucks. With the Mac’s built-in WiFi, I can intermittently see the “attwifi” network and get a very weak connection that drops after a minute or two; essentially useless. With the BearExtender, I get a strong signal from the “attwifi” network, can immediately connect, and the connection stays up without dropping.

It connects without issue to my AirPort Extreme N at home, and also displays quite a few more networks around my home than the built-in WiFi. I’d say it’s well worth the money, which after all is only as much as dinner for two at a reasonably nice place.

Again, to be clear, I’m reviewing this on my own accord; I paid full price (less free shipping) for the unit and they didn’t ask me to write or do anything.

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Weird Mac thing of the day: Disappearing Bluetooth

So there I was, typing happily on my Apple Wireless Keyboard and listening to iTunes through my Plantronics 260 headset when, suddenly, the Bluetooth icon in the system menu bar disappeared and was replaced by an error icon. Clicking that icon gave a message, “Bluetooth: not available“.

After a bit of Googling I found that this was an uncommon but reported problem, where apparently the System Management Controller forgets it has a Bluetooth module installed if the CPU temperature rises too high. Odd, and points to a couple of design issues, but fairly easily fixed.

  1. Delete Bluetooth preferences (may not be necessary but recommended in a few places)
  2. Reset the SMC
  3. Install smcFanControl

After resetting the SMC (which involves powering off), Bluetooth came back on like it was never gone.

Hopefully this will help someone else with the same problem!

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Confessions of a Switcher (part 3)

This is part three of a theoretically infinite series.

It’s been roughly five months since I brought home the MacBook Pro and almost that long since my last update to this series. I’ve become incredibly comfortable in the OS X environment and, with a very few exceptions, can do anything I ever did in Windows. In the event I do need Windows, I can use VMWare Fusion to boot Windows XP from a Boot Camp partition with seamless desktop integration. Just today I found a solution to one of the last Windows requirements — syncing my HTC Mogul phone, a Windows Mobile device. Normally one would use ActiveSync to sync a Windows Mobile device, or pay $30 for Missing Sync. I’ve found a free product that does exactly what I need and no more: Eltima Software’s SyncMate. It syncs my contacts and calendars to the Mac’s Address Book and iCal, respectively, and can mount the WinMo file system as an external volume on the Mac for file transfer.

Here’s a current list of third-party software I’m using.

  • Angry IP Scanner — the built-in Network Utility has most of this application’s functionality; I use either or both depending on what exactly I’m trying to do.
  • Book Collector
  • ChronoSync — I haven’t actually started using this yet, but I’ve installed the trial and am checking it out.
  • CrossOver Office — supposed to allow (some) Windows applications to install and run directly in OS X, but I’ve had little success as of yet.
  • Fetch — seems to be the best ftp client for OS X.
  • Google Earth
  • Jolly’s Fast VNC — even in public Alpha, this is the best VNC client I’ve found for OS X, and (apprehensive of using an Alpha) I tried quite a few before this one. Does what it says on the tin.
  • Logitech Harmony Remote software — Web-based programming tool for my Harmony 880 and 670 universal remotes.
  • Movie Collector
  • NetNewsWire — my choice for RSS newsreader. I started with the built-in Mail application, but it couldn’t handle 200+ feeds with any stability; I tried Endo and gave it a couple of months, but eventually gave up on it after one too many crashes and system resource grabs — plus, its UI is a nightmare. NNW does what I want and does it well.
  • — the excellent free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office I’ve been using for years, now in a spiffy new OS X-native version.
  • Opera — if you’ve been reading Project Insomnia for lo, these many years, you know I’ve been an Opera fan for quite a long time. Since switching to Mac I’ve converted almost completely to Safari. I keep Opera around for alternate-browser testing and also use it when I need to have more than one Google Account session open simultaneously, but it’s pretty much fallen off my radar in general.
  • Remote Desktop Connection — the only Microsoft software on my OS X partition is a fine port of the standard RDC client.
  • SketchUp — nifty 3-D sketching tool which I have so far been completely unable to learn. I’d like to use it to model the cabinet wall we want to build in the living room.
  • SplashID — password vault, works with the Mogul to keep all my many and varied passwords safe. Syncing SplashID between the Mac and the Mogul is one of the very few remaining tasks for which I still need Windows; the Mac version doesn’t sync directly but only imports saved files.
  • SyncMate — see above.
  • TextWrangler — this is a terrific text editor that handles code of all kinds, from PHP to HTML to Java.
  • TinkerTool — essentially the OS X equivalent to TweakUI.
  • Transmission — BitTorrent client.
  • VLC Player — for the rare filetype that QuickTime + Flip4Mac can’t handle.
  • VMWare Fusion — see above.

I’m assembling a list of useful tips and tricks, things I’ve learned by trial and error or lucky Googling. That will probably be the subject of part four of this series.

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Confessions of a Switcher (part 2)

This is part 2 in a theoretically infinite series.

Two weeks in and I am finding myself really happy with the Mac, with OS X and with life in general. OS X’s Unix-y roots means it’s very hackable and its popularity means there is lots of good open-source or otherwise community-supported software out there, plus it seems most of the software I used in Windows has Mac versions. Just a short list of the third-party (i.e. not Apple) software I’m using so far:
(“w” means used on Windows, otherwise it’s new to me)

I’ve just installed and am trying out VMWare Fusion, which pulls the Boot Camp Windows XP partition into a virtual instance running inside OS X. It seems that the only way to install some software onto the Windows Mobile device is by running an installer in Windows, and I don’t want to have to reboot into XP via Boot Camp just to do that.

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