Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Amazon Echo Alexa - with home automation

When combined with the Samsung SmartThings Hub and zWave light switch controls, the Amazon Echo, i.e. "Alexa" has become a very often used home automation interface at my house. My kids love being able to turn the lights on an off in various rooms in our house using just a simple voice command. And I must say, being able to turn the lights off at night by voice command after you lay down in bed is pretty sweet :).

There are some limitations still however -- Alexa gets a bit confused if you have a thermostat labeled "upstairs" and you have created a group of lights called "upstairs" as well. So you have to name things pretty specific prior to setting them up with Alexa ... and then the limitations of the human brain become the problem, because not everybody can remember those specific names you gave the devices!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Amazon Echo Review - pretty cool

We just received our new Amazon Echo a few days ago. I signed up about 2 months ago for an invitation to Amazon's beta program, and finally received it, about 20 days earlier than Amazon's original estimated ship date. So far it has proven to be quite entertaining.

My 5 year old and 3 year old kids love playing with it, asking things like:
Alexa, tell me a joke!
Alexa, how much does the earth weigh?
Alexa, how old are you?
Alexa, play kids music!

We placed it in the kitchen, since the initial supported feature set seemed well suited for that location.

The music playback sound quality is pretty good. Not good enough for people who are crazy about bass response, but not bad. Certainly good enough for some background music in the kitchen.

It's always interesting to see what children do with technological products - in this case, I wish the Amazon engineers could watch my kids interact with it, especially on their first few days. After Alexa told a joke, they wanted to tell her "Alexa, that was funny!" - but Alexa is very input / output oriented - one input leads to one output, and the next input typically is isolated from the previous output. So most of the follow-on communications trying to continue the conversation results in "I don't understand what I have heard." Or ... in many cases, the word "that" gets interpreted as "add" - and Alexa says "Adding Funny to your shopping list".

My son tried to ask "what is 2 + 10 + 22 -4"  but that stumped Alexa. She can only do math on two numbers, not multiple numbers.

Alexa supports the ability to convert various units .Units conversion seems like it might be handy in the kitchen sometimes. Haven't used it yet other than asking how many teaspoons there are in a gallon. There are a lot of teaspoons in a gallon.

The ring on top that lights up, and controls volume when you turn it, is a pretty nice interface feature.

The voice recognition is far from perfect, and the questions or commands have to be in exact order to be understood. But the utility is undeniable - already my wife has been adding things to shopping list while doing dishes or cooking, it's very easy to play anything from our music collection that is synced to Amazon music.

The potential is incredible - if the newly released API and developers toolkit gets picked up by other establish internet of things products, this could really tie together home automation in a big way.

The companion app on your mobile device or logging into echo.amazon.com is the only way to view your todo list, or shopping list - there is no screen on the device.

With 7 microphones and a reasonably decent speaker, it could make an awesome speaker phone, especially if Amazon engineers included support for bluetooth HD voice. But for now, you can just play music from your mobile device via bluetooth on it like a bluetooth speaker.

Others have voiced privacy concerns regarding the sensitivity of the mic - but really the convenience outweighs any concerns at this point. You can always unplug it if you are really worried.

I like that it connects to 5GHz networks. But even on our 5GHz network, which gets 800Mbps+ on a Macbook Pro that supports 802.11ac - we still have glitches in the audio play back from time to time.

Our most common use case is starting up our Pandora radio stations, changing the volume, and stopping the music when we need to. As a hands-free music control device, it beats iOS 8's "Hey Siri" hands down. I'm hoping to see progress in iOS 9 - maybe Apple will have a comeback with integration with the Apple TV and a "Hey Siri" old iPhone laying around you can use like an Amazon Echo.

Right now it has no way to export audio that is playing back to an airplay device or other wifi or bluetooth based receiver, but it sure would be great if we could.

Overall, it's a fun toy - not essential, but fun. Great for spontaneously playing music, and it sure makes the kids giggle when it answers funny questions. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Why would it take to earn the coveted five star rating?

  • HD Voice Speaker phone option pairing with multiple mobile devices
  • Integration with Nest for controller thermostats in the house
  • Better voice recognition, and ongoing conversation voice recognition
  • Ability to store and play back notes for family members
  • Ability to playback specific important household information - like "what's our wifi password"
  • Integration with home audio devices - ideally airplay targets as an output selection
  • Ability to read epub books from an Echo app out loud - rather than confining book reading to Audible Amazon books only
  • Fix the glitchy audio playback that happens every once in a while

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Farewell to my traditional landline phone


At our house, I've finally made the move to VOIP. After trying several different solutions out, including Skype as a possible VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) solution, I've found a solution that seems to offer the quality of service I am looking for at the price I was willing to pay.

I'm a landline snob. I enjoy the portability and convenience of cell phones, but frankly, I can't stand the spotty coverage and lower voice quality of cell phones, especially on long phone calls. And with the band my wife and I play in, we have radio interviews from time to time over the phone -- we always do those with a land line phone. I can't image how annoying that would be to conduct a radio interview with someone on a cell phone .... "can you hear me now?"

We migrated from AT&T's traditional POTS (plain old telephone service) line to a Comcast converged internet and voice service about 4 years ago. Comcast's voice service was just as advertised - super high quality (equivalent of AT&T), and very dependable. Comcast is running VOIP for their telephony service, but they are careful to manage the quality of service so there aren't strange dropouts or warbles in the voice calls.

When we switched to Comcast, we started with one of those 12 month deals that makes the service look very appealing -- and of course, at the end of the 12 months, the price doubled and I had to call Comcast and beg for them to reduce the cost again. For 2 years running they gave me a $27 discount each month (after I called and begged each time), then reduced that discount to $15 this last year for two 6 month terms ... and increased the cable modem rental from $2 or $3 per month to $7. In our area, the only way you have have phone with Comcast is to rent the cable modem -- there is no simple way to purchase a cable modem that includes a telephone jack on it. I could see the writing on the wall -- I probably wasn't going to be getting any discounts once this last one ran out, and my unlimited domestic long distance was going to cost $45 per month plus $7 for cable modem rental.

During this time, I installed and maintained 8x8 VOIP virtual PBXs for several of my IT customers -- and although the service is not quite as good as a traditional land line, it's about 95% as good ... and when the cost is less than half, people are willing to live with the occasional hiccup in phone quality. I have also made sure to isolate the voice traffic from the data traffic in the LAN - using various QoS (quality of service) methods like isolated VLANs, CoS bits, port based priority, and dedicated DSL lines just for voice ... this means that the voice traffic receives highest priority within the network that I can control. But sometimes the occasional hiccup comes from the parts you can't control -- like the IP to PSTN gateway, where the traffic leaves the internet and joins the circuit switched traditional voice network. Or if that gateway is far away from the office, the packets have to traverse many routers and experience delay and congestion as they travel. Packet delay, jitter (variation in delay), and packet loss all contribute to those annoying dropouts or echoes in conversations that we have all probably experienced.

So after testing a bit, and hearing from a somewhat tech savvy friend about his experience, I switched to Phone Power. The somewhat cheesy name turned me off a little bit at first, but the technology works, and their PSTN gateway is in California, so it's a short path over the public internet from my house to their gateway.

They claim their service is $8.33 per month, and like many marketing things, it's not quite true, but very close. I pre-paid 2 years, and the equivalent per month cost came out to more like $10.40 per month. If you order the service straight from their website, they will ship you a phone adapter that you plug into your router, and then plug a phone line into that adapter and connect it either directly to a phone, or into a wall jack and it lights up all of the phones in your house with dial tone (make sure to disconnect AT&T's outside line at the side of the house before you do that).

After running with Phone Power for 6 months, I'm pretty happy with the service. I've had to reboot the little adapter twice. I haven't had a call drop -- just twice I went to make a call and the call wouldn't go through (fast busy sound) - after rebooting the device, it went through. Unlimited high quality voice calls in the US for $10 a month is a pretty good deal. You do want to make sure you have a router that can insure the QoS of the phone power adapter, or you will hear strange artifacts in the audio when you make calls and web surf at the same time. I'm currently using an Asus RT-N66U router with QoS turned on, but no tweaks made, and it works like a champ.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Revisiting the iPhone, versus Windows Mobile and Android on the Motorola Droid

About 6 months ago one of my clients gave me an iPhone 2G (the original, first generation iPhone) when he upgraded to a 3GS. Prior to that time, I didn't really toy around with the iPhone much, but this gave me a great chance to experience the iPhone and understand how it works. I had been using Windows Mobile as my primary phone, but definitely leaning towards a switch to either an Android or iPhone platform. My wife has had the Motorola Droid on Verizon's network for 6 months, and I've gotten to play with that as well ... it certainly has it's advantages.

Three of my friends got the iPhone 4 on the very first day it was available. I got to play with it quite a bit (including discovering the "death grip" problem with the external antenna without 5 minutes of using the phone).

I remember seeing a news item about a prototype of the iPhone 4 being discovered in a bar, and it was in a case that made it look like an iPhone 3G. I wonder if all of the prototypes were field tested in those disguise cases -- maybe that's why they didn't catch the death grip issue before launch? Or maybe some executive just said "ship it" and the underlings had to obey ... we'll probably never know.


I previously posted a blog about the top 20 reasons why I wouldn't switch to an iPhone -- I thought I would re-visit those reasons relative to the new iPhone 4 and the Motorola Droid.


1) The iPhone has no physical keyboard. Once you type a text message with a real keyboard, you can't go back.

1-Now) After using the iPhone screen keyboard, I've found that you can get pretty fast with that keyboard. It's still a little slower than a mechanical keyboard, but definitely usable. Add a little application called "Dragon Dictation" and you can talk to your iPhone pretty easily ... it works great in the car. The mechanical design of the keyboard on my Fuze is the best physical keyboard I've found so far. For speech input on Windows Mobile, we have Vlingo or Tellme - but neither are really available, just hack versions, and they don't work well in WM6.5 yet on the Fuze. Droid's speech recognition works amazingly well, and is built into the onscreen keyboard no matter where you are in the OS. Winner: Motorola Droid.

2) Can't cut and paste on the iPhone with built in software - and I like cutting and pasting.

2-Now) Cut and paste works great on the iPhone now. The selection method works better than Android. Winner: iPhone

3) No GPS software that can give voice guidance. I use GPS software that gives me voice prompts on my phone, and it works great (Currently using iNAV 4.02).

3-Now) Droid has built in Google based voice guidance, for free, works very well. iPhone has plenty of solutions available (TomTom, CoPilot, Navigon). Winner: Droid if you're in cell network range. Navigon on the iPhone or Windows Mobile iNav iGuidance if you're outside of cell range.

4) No Voice Command. Nothing beats being able to just say what you want when you're driving, and not worry about voice tags to record, etc. Microsoft Voice Command actually works.

4-Now) With Froyo 2.2 on Android, and with the 3G and 3GS, voice command is now built into these more advanced smart phones. Winner: Android (with the latest enhancements), although iPhone is a close 2nd.

5) Most of the useful apps that aren't toys require money with the iPhone. There is an incredible library of free, useful applications for Windows Mobile (mainly found at XDA Developers website).

5-Now) Android and iPhone have incredible free apps! The world of mobile apps has come a long ways in 2 years! For the general consumer, the iPhone has the best apps, hands down. For the IT professional, it's a hard one to call - both platforms have a lot of great tools now (especially if you jailbreak the iPhone).

6) No Video built-in. My camera can take videos as well as still pictures, without paying for an add-on piece of software.

6-Now) The iPhone 4 camera is hands-down the best video and still picture camera I have personally tested.

7) Poor Outlook Sync. I use Outlook on my desktop/laptop - activesync works for Notes, Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, and Email, and I use all of these things ... iPhone and Outlook sync with Tasks? Notes? Not yet anyway. And with the iPhone, you have to install iTunes, and it has to be running to sync things up.

7-Now) Seeing the writing on the wall, about a year and a half ago I migrated to Gmail for calendar, email and contacts. I created contacts that I have just used the notes field for in order to have notes that sync. By doing this, I don't rely on any local software on my computer for those basic functions, and can sync with Google on an iPhone or Android phone with no problem.

8) No built-in voice recorder.

8-Now) Lots of voice recorder applications on both Android and iPhone platforms, and some really great ones, if you're willing to pay for them.

9) No File System I can access and understand -- anyone know where their music, files, etc are actually stored on the iPhone?

9-Now) This is still an issue with the iPhone. Winner: Android. You can jailbreak your iPhone and access all of the files, but that is definitely not for the ordinary user.

10) No USB tethering. I can tether my phone to my laptop, and get high speed internet with my phone's unlimited data plan on my laptop. No Wifi Tethering. I can share my phone's internet connection via WiFi with WMWifiRouter ($) or ICSControl (free).

10-Now) Android and iPhone both support tethering - using PDANet on Android is very simple. If you jailbreak the iPhone, you can use MyWi - it supports USB and Wifi tethering. And the operators are finally getting around to creating billable options for this. WiFi tethering is available on both platforms. MyWi works incredibly well on the iPhone - I haven't tested Android options with Froyo 2.2 yet, but all reports seem positive.

11) No removeable memory. I have a memory card I can take out, put in a USB reader and back up at high speed.

11-Now) Android has this. iPhone doesn't but gives you plenty of internal memory. This one isn't as big of a deal any more, now that the USB connection options to the phones are faster than they used to be.

12) Non-standard power plug. My phone uses standard mini-USB for sync and charge - no custom cables, and I can buy an extra charger for $6 on ebay.

12-Now) Still stuck with that with the iPhone, although the widespread adoption of the iPhone dock interface actually makes it pretty cool when you can plug it into a speaker system and have a mini-stereo. Android phones have stuck with mini and micro USB standard chargers.

13) Can't search large lists of contacts easily. I can search my contacts by dialing part of their name on the keypad, or search by typing their name on my keyboard.

13-Now) iPhone added contact search, Android works great. This is a tie between the two platforms.

14) Slow calendar launch, and time consuming calendar entry interface. The calendar program in windows mobile launches quickly, and with Pocket Informant I can get a month view that actually works for dragging and dropping events between days. Even with the built in calendar I can cut and paste between days, and drag across a time section in the day view and just start typing to quick-enter a calendar event. Beat that iPhone!

14-Now) Windows mobile still has the best calendar, even with the latest operating systems on the iPhone and Android -- but you can learn to put up with the bad calendar for the sake of the other benefits.

15) No scroll wheel or navigation pad on the sleek iPhone. I read a lot of ebooks on my phone, and it's very nice to have hardware buttons to advance the pages.

15-Now) Although I miss it, I have gotten used to just touching the screen to advance a page.

16) VERY limited multitasking on the iPhone (basically music + one other program at any one time). With Windows Mobile, I can simultaneously can run multiple programs: read a book, browse the web, share the network connection with my laptop, switch to navigation program and see how long until we get there, switch to contacts, talk on the phone, and leave them all running at the same time.

16-Now) Android and iPhone with IOS4 both support multi-tasking, and do it quite nicely. Android is further along on this road, but suffers battery issues because of it.

17) No native support for Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. I've actually calculated a mortgage payment in Excel before on my phone to help someone out. I guess I'm that geeky.

17-Now) Apps are available (for $) that can do this on both Android and iPhone now.

18) Hardware buttons! For answering, hanging up, hitting ok, taking a picture -- I like having a few hardware buttons.

18-Now) The hardware buttons on my Fuze really ended up annoying me. The on-screen touch buttons on Android and iPhone work great.

19) iPhone centralized application police! Bill Gates can't suddenly decide one of the apps I installed doesn't meeet his approval and remotely yank it off my phone -- but Steve Jobs can do that with the iPhone!

19-Now) Android is way more open than the iPhone. Jailbreak the iPhone does give you lots of options though.

There used to be 20, but I lumped USB and Wifi tethering into one category now.

After all of that -- currently I am using an iPhone 3GS as my primary phone. I bought on ebay for a great price when everybody was dumping their 3GS phones for the iPhone 4. As a phone, it works far better than the Windows Mobile phone did -- it's more responsive to touch input, the call quality is the same or better, and it doesn't keep disconnecting from my bluetooth headset like all of my Windows Mobile phones have.

As a "swiss army knife" of applications - the iPhone and Android phones are really closely tied. If AT&T had a good GSM based Android phone, I definitely would consider it at this point. There is a new Samsung phone just coming out, but it may have GPS issues, so I'm waiting to see how that pans out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

HP Laserjet 2605DN Issues and Thoughts


A few years ago we picked up an HP Laserjet 2605DN printer at Costco for a great price. Our previous color laser was having color image quality problems, so we decided to pass that on to a friend who 0nly needed black and white printing, and we started using our brand new HP. At first, all was well, and the print quality was great.

2 years later, 3,769 pages later, we have replaced the black toner cartridge once, and we just finally ran out of toner on the original color toner that came with the printer (per the official toner readings ... although there appears to be plenty of toner left once we turned on the over-ride - more below on that).

Several observations over the years.

1) The default RAM included with the printer proved to not be enough when we were printing images from Photoshop - so I upgraded the RAM to 320MB by adding a 256MB memory card. That seemed to solve the out of memory issues we had. Cost: $50.

2) The printer sometimes fails to respond when printing, even with the latest ROM upgrade. You have to power cycle the printer to get it working again.

3) Interestingly enough, even though the printer is reporting that it is all out of color toner, I found a work-around that lets you continue to use the "empty" cartridges and continue to print. If you want to force the Laserjet 2605 to continue to use empty toner, just follow these instructions:

The "cartridge out override" feature is documented on page 134 of the printed User Guide, and is accessed from the control panel and buttons on the printer.

(a) From the main menu, press the "right arrow" button to get to "System Setup". Then push the green check "select" button.

(b) Press the "right arrow" button to get to "Print Quality". Then push the green check "select" button.

(c) Press the "right arrow" button to get to "Replace Supplies". Then push the green check "select" button.

(d) Press the "right arrow" button to get to "override out". Then push the green check "select" button.

(e) Press the green check "select" button.

If "stop at out" is selected, the printer will stop printing when a cartridge reaches the recommended replacement point.

If "override out" is selected, the printer will continue printing when a cartridge reaches the recommended replacement point.

The factory default setting is "stop at out". Once you set this, you can get many more pages out of your toner ... although I expect that the colors will begin to fade as supplies eventually run dry.

4) I replaced the Black HP OEM Toner with a "re-manufactured" toner cartridge. I had attempted to purchase brand new toner from a supplier online, and they shipped me recycled stuff instead (I was not happy about that, but that is another story ... and the vendor did give me a partial refund when I called and complained, so I have to give them credit for that at least). Since putting in that recycled toner, I have three little black dots that show up on every print job. No big deal, but kind of annoying when printing something official.

5) After several months on the recycled cartridge, I now have a strange light gray background on every print ... which many people have experienced with this printer (see this series of posts) and I sometimes get big black streaks down the side of a page, but only once in a while. I did some cleaning, shaking the toner around in the black cartridge, following tips I found on that forum, and things got somewhat better, but I'm still seeing this issue.

I have a new set of toner cartridges that I can put in -- once the current set runs out I will put them in and see if it improves the print quality.

7) I did a quick cost per page analysis of this printer versus a Canon Pixma MX870 -- and it was interesting to see that I calculated approx $0.06 per page on both printers. An inkjet is typically more expensive, and a Laserjet is typically cheaper ... but HP is charging a lot for toner (making profit on the toner instead of the printer) -- and Canon is doing a great job of getting the ink costs down.

8) I have a little meter than measures power usage that I like to put on various gadgets in my house to see how much power the little hungry power vampires are sucking out of the power grid. We are trying to go as green as possible, to reduce our impact on the planet, so I'm doing what I can reduce our consumption. A happy side benefit is a lower power bill of course! So I discovered that the HP Laserjet 2605 uses 13 Watts when it's just sitting there in a low power standby state. That's $32 a year at our current power cost. So I have now put the printer on a $10 timer that turns it off at night and back on in the morning, cutting one third of that annual cost out just by turning it off when no one will be using it (and paying for the timer in the first year).

9) Our HP Scanner uses 7 Watts - which is $16 per year. Even with the timer power switch we have, it makes me see some merit on one of those all-in-one printer / scanner combo units. The MX870 literature states that it uses 4 Watts on standby -- which makes it look somewhat appealing. $50 a year for our current printer and scanner, versus $9 per year for a combo.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Macbook Unibody 15.4" - Part 2

Well now I have lived with the Macbook Pro for 9 months or so, I've come to admire the good parts of the design, and to reluctantly live with the bad parts.

The good:
  • Speakers are great
  • Screen Brightness and Clarity
  • Hotkeys to easily change volume, tracks, brightness
  • Glowing keyboard at night
  • Quiet when using the 9400M video card
  • I love the Expose feature for switching between Apps.
  • The Dashboard widgets are great - very useful and fun
  • Smooth scrolling, multi-touch trackpad rocks!
  • The screen zoom in any application works very smoothly, and I've used it a lot - Windows 7 has a zoom (windows Key +) but it doesn't work nearly as nicely
  • The built-in screen shot utility is great, although Windows 7 has the snipping tool which works fine as well

The bad:
  • Boot camp on Windows 7 64 Bit -- it runs nice and fast, but the battery lasts 1.5 hours - come on! I upgraded my Thinkpad from XP to Windows 7 and got an additional hour of battery life - now I get 4 hours on a 3 year old battery! Apple needs to fix the drivers so the CPU and GPU can clock at a lower speed. Right now the machine just runs full tilt, and gets very warm in the process.
  • Noisy under boot camp. I enjoy the quietness of the Mac -- but Boot Camp ruins that. The fans slowly kick up and down in speed, as the machine can only utilize the hotter 9600M GPU, and the CPU never clocks down.
  • I really miss Forward Delete, Page Up, Page Down, Home, and End Keys. There is a FN right arrow, left arrow combo that is supposed to map to those things, but for some reason that doesn't work consistently in half of the programs on the Mac. It works fine in Boot Camp, strangely enough.
  • SMB (Samba) networking in Snow Leopard just doesn't work with Standby. After putting the Mac to sleep for the night, half the time I can't ever reconnect to my Vista file server unless I reboot.
  • The bundled apps like iMovie and iPhoto are really nice, but they store the data in such odd folders, tucked away and hidden from the user. I guess it's all well and good for those who just use a Mac and nothing else. But if you like to store your info on a server, the Mac really doesn't work as well in that setup.
  • The line-in jack on the side of the Mac doesn't include a pr-amp -- which all PC laptops have. So if you take any ordinary headset / mic combo that worked fine on the PC, the headphones will work great, but the Microphone won't work. You need to get a USB headset to work with the Mac.
Interestingly enough, I've found that the Office applications, file management, shortcut keys, and ability to sync files with my server make the PC the winner when it comes to getting work done and creating things.

But when it comes to browsing the web, reading things online, watching YouTube videos -- i.e. consuming information rather than creating it, the Mac is actually my preferred platform.

So I'm currently running my Windows 7 64-Bit boot camp partition in a Parallels instance, booting from the Mac side, and dealing with the networking problem by not turning the machine off. I still haven't fully decided which way I will go long term....

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trying out the Macbook Pro Unibody 15.4"


I recently purchased (on Craiglist) a Macbook Pro (late 2008) Unibody 15.4". I've been using Windows PCs for the last 15 years, but I started with Mac for several years before that, so I thought I would give the Mac a try again, especially considering the Mac can now run PC applications with Boot Camp and in virtual machines using Parallels and VMware Fusion.

So I am going to do a series of blogs on my experiences attempting to switch to the Mac, and in the end, whether I decide to keep it or sell it.

The first thing I did after getting the laptop was upgrading the Ram to 4GB, and upgrading the 250GB hard disk to 500GB. It was relatively painless, and there are plenty of YouTube videos available to guide you through the upgrade.

Screen


My previous laptop (which I'm going to hold on to for a while still) was a Thinkpad, 15.4" non-glare high resolution screen (1680 x 1050 - aka WSXGA+). That has been the perfect resolution for me for about 5 years now -- it has a very high pixels per inch count, and when looking at spreadsheets you can see a lot of information on one page.

Unfortunately, this resolution isn't available on the 15.4" Macbook Pros, so I had to go with the lower resolution 1440 x 900 screen. Some might say it's a just a few pixels different, but I must say I noticed the difference right away, particularly in the way fonts are rendered, and how much I can see of particular web sites. Fonts on the Mac look a lot more choppy, and less like paper than the higher resolution screen. On the other hand, everything is larger, which means I strain my neck a little less looking closely at the screen, so there is an upside.

I was concerned about the glossy screen - I'm a fan of anti-glare (matte) finished laptop screens. But it really hasn't been a problem. The LED backlight on the Macbook Pro is amazingly bright, and as long as you keep it bright, it pretty much washes out reflections.

Keyboard

The chicklet-like keyboard on the Macbook Pro is quieter, and a little easier to press (less mechanical force required) than the Thinkpad keys, but I must say the flat tops to each key make it a little strange to type on for me still, compared to the curved contours of the Thinkpad, and the overall tactile experience of the Thinkpad keyboard is superior to the Macbook Pros.

Update: After months of using the Macbook keys, I'm finding that I don't mind typing on it that much at all. But I do definitely miss several keys that I used all of the time in the PC world: forward delete, home, end, page up, and page down.

Multimedia Hardware (Camera, Speakers and Mic):

The iSight camera is nice, but honestly, when comparing Skype video call performance between my Thinkpad with its built-in camera and the Macbook Pro with the iSight ... the Thinkpad wins, by about a 20% quality improvement. I thought that it might be due to the Thinkpad running the 4.x verison of Skype, versus the 2.7.x.x version running on the Mac (the Mac version is behind in features and capabilities), so I tested Skype running in Virtual Machine, and got the same results. The video was slightly out of focus and a little more fuzzy than the Thinkpad, which was putting out nice, in focus, crisper video.

The Mac built in speakers are definitely superior to the Thinkpad - the bass and treble are richer, and watching a movie on the Mac is a far more pleasurable thing.

I was using a Shareware program called Reaper on the PC to do simple multi-track recording for song ideas that I had. GarageBand on the Mac fills that need just fine. The interface took a moment to get used to, but it works simply enough, and the microphone on the Mac is definitely a good quality Mic, and better than the Thinkpad.

The relative silence of the Mac (no whirring fans) is also a welcome change from the constant droning of the fan on my Thinkpad. The only sound the Mac makes when running is the faint vibration of the hard disk. But when I have done some more CPU intensive things, or changed the video card from the 9400M to the 9600M, then the little fans on the Mac have kicked in. There are pretty quiet, but have a more annoying high pitched whine than my Thinkpad.

Applications

I installed Microsoft Office 2008 - not quite what I was hoping for in a native Mac app. Office 2007 on the PC launches incredibly fast, is easy to use, and looks great. Office 2008 applications take a lot longer to load when you click on them, and just don't look as good, nor are the functions and menu options in places that you would expect.

The built in Mac apps - like iMovie, iPhoto, etc - these are great fun, and I am still enjoying playing with them more.

I will write a more detailed review of VMware Fusion vs. Parallels - as I have been testing both of them with Windows Vista SP1 (and just updated to Vista SP2).

Networking

I have a Windows Vista Ultimate machine running as the file server in our house, with a RAID 5 array as the main file repository. I have an 802.11G wireless network with WPA2 encryption running, and a Gigabit LAN wired up to most of the rooms in the house. I must say that I was impressed with file copy times from the Mac to the server and back (once I figured out how to connect to the Vista machine - which wasn't the easiest thing in the world). I think the file copy times are twice as fast with the Mac, versus my XP Thinkpad to the Vista machine -- with the same hard disk in both machines (so the hard disk wasn't the limitation). I am getting around 55MBytes/sec (440 Megabits per second) over the Gigabit lan with the Mac, and more like 25 to 30MBytes/sec when moving files between the Windows XP laptop and the Vista Server.

The wireless LAN proved to cause some problems - I had periodic disconnects when using the Macbook Pro Unibody with my Tomato Version 1.23 equipped Linksys WRT54G router. After doing some research, it turns out there is a strange incompability between the Macbook and this particular router running the Tomato firmware, if 802.11B/G is enabled, and the Macbook is running on battery. I disable 802.11B so it ran in only 802.11G mode, and things seem to be working fine now.

Update: With Windows 7 now on the Thinkpad, file copy times are almost identical between OSX Snow Leopard on the Macbook Pro, and my old Thinkpad z61m. After updating the Macbook to Snow Leopard, the periodic wireless disconnect problem is back. Also, with Snow Leopard, I can't put the Macbook to sleep with a file open from the server -- when the laptop wakes up, it loses the connection to the server and I have to save the file locally and then copy it back over -- very annoying. So I've started just leaving the laptop on all of the time if I'm in the middle of something -- which isn't very earth friendly.

Fit and Finish

The Macbook Pro looks great, but it's made of soft aluminum, and I could see that just tossing it into my backpack without some kind of cover would quickly result in scratches that could never be removed. The lid over the screen flexes worryingly when you push on it, and I could see that if I packed my backpack full of things, something might smash the screen in or at least dent the lid (which many people online have reported happening already to their macs). I found a simple plastic shell on ebay called the iPearl mCover that I got for around $25 with shipping -- it's working great so far, but it adds almost another pound to the weight of the laptop, which is kind of lame.

Having only two USB ports is pretty lame, and they are too close together. My Thinkpad has 3 USB ports, as does the 17" model of the Macbook -- but I couldn't bring myself to pay quite that much for a laptop. I purchased a Firewire 800 to 400 converter, and it works great with my Motu Ultralite for portable recording -- it can power the Ultralite through the firewire cable, meaning one less wall wart to carry around.