Tuesday, November 06, 2007


You guys are going to love my latest stroke of genius. It truly merits a "brainiac of the year" nomination.

I've had the same Dell Inspiron 1100 laptop computer for the last four years. It goes with me on almost every trip, and sees a fair amount of use at home as well. It was a budget laptop when I got it (Celeron 2GHz, 256mb ram) and has long since been left behind by technological progress, but it's still pretty adequate for web surfing, blogging, chatting, and word processing usage. For more processor-intensive computing I use our home desktop machine.

Four years of heavy usage have taken a toll on my laptop. The case has a chip out of a corner, the screen has a crack on its edge, and there are scratches aplenty. It never had internal wifi capability, so when the PCMIA slot stopped working two years ago I had to swap out my PCMIA wifi adapter for a USB version. About the same time the power supply module went bad so that the computer would revert to battery power and refuse to accept the AC power adapter if I let the battery fully charge. I adapted by taking the battery out of the computer once it reached a 99% charge and then not using it until I really needed battery power. A year ago the power supply cord also went on the fritz, so I got a replacement.

A few days ago, that power supply cord started going bad exactly like its predecessor did: intermittent power that could be made continuous by holding the cord just so in a certain spot, apparently due to broken wires within. I ended up getting a universal power supply at Radio Shack, figuring I could still use it after the Dell passed the point of usefulness. Before hooking it up, I made sure that the input power specs matched and that output DC voltage and amperage (20V @ 4.5A) was correct. Great. I found the correct Dell adapter plug and attached it, and then plugged it into my computer.

Immediately I caught a whiff of the acrid smell of burning electrical wires. I unplugged the adapter right away and plugged in my old adapter. The computer didn't respond when I pressed the "on" button. I put in the battery: the yellow "fault" light illuminated and the computer refused to turn on. Worse yet, the burning smell came back. I double-checked the output voltage, amperage, and wattage of the new adapter. Everything matched the old one. I plugged it in again, and got the nasty smell again. I wasn't sure what was happening, but it was obvious that I'd just fried my computer.

Suddenly I realized why: the power supply output is DC, meaning it's critical that the polarity be correct, but the design of the adapters allowed them to very easily be attached backwards so that the positive wire went to negative and vise-versa. I inspected the power supply side of the plug: sure enough, there was a small imprinted word, "tip," that was apparently supposed to be matched up with the equally small imprinted "tip" on the adapter side of the plug in order to keep the polarity correct. I'd had the polarity reversed.

So here's what I've concluded from this little episode: I'm just tech-savvy enough to be dangerous. To a smarter, geekier techie, this would've been a painfully obvious mistake. The computer-illiterate would've read the manual and alligned the "tip" imprints without ever knowing why they had to do so. I'm the computer version of the 600 hour CFI who's been instructing for six months and thinks they have this flying thing figured out.

Anyways, the end result is that there is a MacBook in my near future. I've toyed with the idea of making the jump to a Mac for years, but the price difference versus PCs of similar performance plus the compatibility issues always held me back. With the newest generation of Intel-based MacBooks, though, Apple has brought the price within spitting distance of comparable PC laptops. I also considered the Dell Inspiron 1520. Built to the same specifications as the base model MacBook (2GHz Core 2 Duo w/4mb cache, 800Mhz fsb, 1Gb ram, 80Gb hdd, 802.11n wifi), the Dell is only $150 cheaper and the Mac comes with better default software. Actually, I know someone who works at an Apple store; with their employee discount it's the same price. The coup de grĂ¢ce is that Apple has reportedly worked the bugs out of their BootCamp software and bundled it with the newest version of mac os x, Leopard, making it fairly painless to run Windows when you need it to run your "PC-only" software. I'm pretty sold.

By the way, my Systems & Procedures Validation ("the oral") was on Saturday and it went well. There was a pretty strong emphasis on FMS usage, apparently because some previous trainees had made it into the simulator without a good grasp on the FMS. It's a rather easy box to use once you get used to it, though. I start sim training on Thursday.


Ross said...

Sam, I also recently made the PC --> Mac jump and am very happy I did. Traded my old Dell desktop for a 24' iMac. Best pc decision I've made. I'm now also thinking of getting a macbook for the road. My flight planning software is running fine under paralells

Anonymous said...

I would strongly urge you to reconsider purchasing a MacBook. I was issued one last year, have already replaced the battery twice and the case once. (And this is with "light use" as I use my PC 3 times as much.) I should consider myself lucky though, my classmate's Magsafe connector caught on fire last weekend. The screen flickers non-stop on battery or AC, a known problem with the inverter in the model, and Apple can't seem to figure out what to do about it. There are software issues as well; don't plan on running any Microsoft applications in the Mac OS without plenty of memory and frequent crashes.

Again, all I can do is encourage you to continue to shop around. Personally, I've resigned myself to finding the cheapest "business notebook" from Lenovo or HP. While they are a bit more expensive, they seem to last a bit longer and hold up a bit better.

Just my two cents.

Sam said...

Heh, ok.

-My first Dell laptop was a piece. You had to put it on ice packs to keep it from overheating and shutting down spontaneously.
-My most recent Dell performed and wore pretty well for the abuse I gave it.
-My brother had a Compaq that ate three hard drives in a year. Their tech support was horrible.
-My college roomie had a Toshiba burst into flames.
-I've had several friends complain about HPs.
-My brother loves his MacBook and swears by it.
-I've heard recurring stories about MacBook batteries and the flickering screen problem.
-Everybody I've ever known who had a Gateway absolutely hated it and said they'd never ever buy one again.

I think just about any computer you get - and laptops in particular - you're kinda rolling the dice. They all have their own issues and even with the best ones you can still get a dud. Maybe Apple just does a good job of controlling their press or their fans are zealots who overlook their machines' faults, but I've generally heard good things about the MacBooks from the people who own and use them. I didn't hear the same positive tone about the G4.

The best computer I ever had started life as a 386-25 with 4 mb memory/20mb hdd/DOS and ended life as a Pentium I with 64mb ram/500 mb hdd/Windows 95 :). It never broke because I kept upgrading parts before they had a chance to wear out :). Can't quite do that with a laptop...

Anonymous said...

Fair enough! Seems like you've done your research about the shortcomings of the MacBook. It does look good and sleek, and the Mac OS can be pretty slick. (I've never heard a good thing about Gateway notebooks either!)

I bought myself one of those Tucano neoprene sleeves and that has done an amazing job keeping it in good shape (and scratch free) in my bag. I wouldn't recommend the ones that your laptop can unfold in as the exhaust vent will be blocked and they do run hot at times.

With all of the known problems, I don't know much about the value of purchasing the AppleCare extended warranty. I get the MacBook serviced directly by my institution, so I never see any bills of what the repairs and replacements have added up to.

I hear you about desktops. I've been building my own for a while now; have one system still running Windows 98SE that blew a power supply after 12 years. Replaced that and still running strong!

IWishIWasFlying said...

Sam, If you're not comfortable with the Boot Camp thing, there's another solution. Mac has software out there called Parallels, it can run simultaneous operating systems with no apparent lag on the the system. My good friend has his MacBook pro running the Mac OS as a host, and was then running XP, CentOS, Ubuntu and another version of linux i can't remember. They all worked flawlessly. I would suggest that you investigate this and it might help resolve the decision you're currently facing. Of course the Pro was so hot it could fry eggs, but that's a different discussion.

moe said...

Wait, you mean 600 hour CFI's don't know everything about flying!? :)

amulbunny said...

Once you get a Mac you'll never go back. (of course everyone else in this house has a PC). I love my mac. Next on my big purchase list is a powerbook with my name on it.

Glad you're doing so well.

( shovel any snow yet?)

Anonymous said...

I have both MAC and PCs. I LOVE MY POWERBOOK G4 ... the shortcomings on a MAC are that are very inflexible (the good side about that is that you can't really mess up the OS by randomly deleting files command.com, config.sys autoexec.bat and so on)

When it comes to PCs ... the only brand I would recommend is Sony, they tend to last a little longer ... the downside of that is that you are paying for the fact that you are buying a Sony ... so you are paying for the brand.

However ... I did see a 2000$ Sony have a hardrive crash in 3 days after I open it up!

What I would buy right now:

1) Core 2 Duo processor

2) Two gigs of RAM

3) Windows XP NOT Vista if you decide to go with a PC ... good luck finding computers with XP though ... you can only get them with XP right now if you order them directly from the manufacturer.

- MAC has a MUCH better graphics card!!!

However ... keep in mind that if you instal windows on a MAC you make the MAC susceptible to all the PC problems ... so I hope you are a huge fan of the Blue Screen cause you will see a lot of that.

Btw ... my next LAPTOP is going to be another MAC!

Best Buy Computer Specialist

Anonymous said...

If you look at Windows vs. Macintosh like you would a car purchase, Macintosh is the way to go.

Macintoshes hold their value extremely well whereas Windows machines are worth much less on the resale market. Just compare prices on eBay for used Macs vs. Windows laptops.

I liken it to owning an Acura vs. a Cadillac. They are both nice luxury vehicles when new, but the Cadillac depreciates MUCH faster and just doesn't bring as much when you want to sell it.

Go with Macintosh.

Joaquin said...

I just had a similar computer crisis. My 2004 G4 Powerbook has had a half-useable cracked screen for the last year (dropped some bongos on it... don't ask), and I recently decided to get it fixed. Rather than pay the $800 Apple wants for a brand new LCD, I bought a LCD third-party off ebay and had a local non-Apple-certified shop install it. It wouldn't work after they put it in, and a certified shop that I had inspect it afterwards said that there were many possibilities of what could have gone wrong. So I'm out $400, with a screen that doesn't work at all (no backlight) instead of a cracked screen that was semi-useable.

Anyway, the punchline is that I'm now looking for a new computer, and I am pretty much decided on a MacBook with boot camp. Other than not withstanding drums dropped on it, my mac never gave me any problems, and its resistance to infection and tampering is addictive. I mainly want to use the windows side for logbook pro, which many of my coworkers use. Which brings me to my question: Sam, do you use any logbook software? What do you recommend, especially with regard to what interviewers like to see?



Anonymous said...

You might want to have 2 gigs of RAM with the MacBook. Cheap upgrade but quite nice performance increase. OSX really knows how to take advantage large quantities of RAM.

Anonymous said...

I switched to mac a few years ago when I got tired of all the updates I had to do on a new xp installation for a family member - one hour to install xp, the rest of the day installing updates. For what its worth I'm a regional pilot that does web design and I take my macbook on every trip. Its held up just fine.