When Bands Over-reach

Since the release of Nightwish’s album Dark Passion Play, when their new singer debuted, I’ve been eagerly awaiting their second release with her to see how well she integrated with the band.  But if you go to their website, you’ll see almost more about the companion film than the album itself (this has changed a bit since I first wrote this post’s draft as the album has been released).  I can’t say this is good.  Another band, Within Temptation, also felt the need to have a story(ies) to go along with their latest album, and they’ve released several short films to go along with it.

Why?

For decades we’ve had the concept album, where a story is told from song to song.  But it was still an album.  And from the ones I’ve listened, some have been very good.  My personal favorite would be Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime, followed up by Fear Factory’s Obsolete.  Concept albums can be powerful; hell, they can be absolutely epic.

These albums are good because the music comes first, and provides a strong foundation for a story to go on top of.  The story is the icing on the cake that is the music.  If the music sucks, I don’t care how good the story is (or how good the band may think it is).  I can read a book (or even watch a film) for that.  That isn’t really why I want to sit down with a new album, put on my Grados, close my eyes and be taken away.  That is something neither books nor films can do, and that’s the reason music still has a very important place in today’s world, even with all the “wonderous” advances technology may have provided for films, games, etc.

I have only listended to brief samples of Within Temptation’s new album, and it’s terrible.  It’s nothing like their previous albums, and most of the “metal” has been stripped out and replaced with pop.  I began listening to a preview of Nightwish’s Imaginaerum with the same trepidation.  Unfortunately my fears were confirmed for the most part.  Disjointed would be an understatement.  This is not an album at all, and unless the film is a miraculous splendor it is barely a serviceable soundtrack either.

Each song is completely different.  One track tries to emulate jazz.  As snobby as Europeans can be about “true metal”, as a full-blooded American I must reply about “true jazz”.  This track is not a salute, and is a failed emulation of jazz.  It should have been left off entirely.

If there’s only one strength on this album, then it is Jukka’s drumming.  One of the first to get me really motivated about playing drums, Jukka has always had fantastic tone and great chops, and that shines through even on this album.  Unfortunately he’s the only one who’s shining on this album.  Emmpu’s guitar playing is boring and monotonous.  There is very little melodic work or soloing; it’s constant chugging.  On one track he does pick up the acoustic, and just like the track “The Islander” on Dark Passion Play, this track is a stand-out.  Perhaps it’s because it harkens back to Nightwish’s origins of acoustic songs.  I would love to hear an entire album of acoustic songs.  The band has gotten as “high-concept” as music can possibly get (or at least that most people can stand).  It’s time for them to come down and sit with us around the fire again.

So how has Anette progressed on her second album with the band?  It’s hard for me to say.  She certainly sings with a bit more range, but still no-where near what Tarja could belt out.  I consider that neither good or bad.  On the “jazz” track, her vocals were not too bad.  On other tracks the notes are just too far apart and strains the definition of what a melody is and should be.  It’s almost more jarring than the constant change in song styles.  On one hand I really now want to say “well let’s wait til the NEXT album to see how she and the band progress”, but you know what?  I’m busy.  There’s far too many other bands worth a listen.  Just as I had to end my aural affair with Within Temptation, I think I’ll have to say the same for Nightwish now.

Web Browsers

Back in the Good Old Days of Computers, you had the choice of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.  While I wasn’t quite a young-un back in those days, I remember I always used Netscape simply because we had Macs in the house and that seemed to be the only choice.  Schools were also quite Mac-centric, though I remember a lab at Rice University that was PC, because we all played Warcraft 3 and Doom 2 (but that’s another post…).

Eventually Internet Explorer became the dominant browser on PCs, and Macs still had Netscape.  Eventually Netscape begat Firefox, which began to slowly climb up even as Internet Explorer continued to reign supreme, depsite its horrid support for Web standards.  Firefox slowly became more popular, and other browsers turned up, including Opera.  But even their total numbers were but a mere shadow in Internet Explorer.  Even though they all had superior security, useabilitiy, etc. it didn’t matter.  All copies of Windows came with Internet Explorer, and most people didn’t care to change that.  Today that’s still the case, but more and more have turned to an alternate browser.

The most current “climax” of the browser wars happened before Internet Explorer 9’s release.  Firefox had gained a huge share of users, Google Chrome was quickly climbing the charts, and Apple’s Safari and Opera still had small but noteworthy numbers.  Most people were now aware of Internet Explorer’s lack of security, slow performance and missing features compared to others.  Microsoft finally made an effort to improve their browser, and the release of Internet Explorer 9 offered improvements.  There’s no doubt its performance far exceeds its previous releases, though it’s still behind Chrome and Firefox due to their rapid releases.

If there’s on area all web browsers need significant work, it’s their download managers.  Previous versions of Internet Explorer didn’t really have one, but as with all their other software Microsoft were compelled to change it for 9, and it’s even worse than before.  Chrome doesn’t get much better.  You can open up a new tab that shows downloads, but the bar at the bottom of your current page remains even after the download finishes.  Why not remove the bottom bar totally and just open the Downloads tab in the background?  Firefox opens a small window, but it can get in the way as well.

For a long time I used Firefox, even though on Macs it was far slower than Safari.  I had the plug-ins I wanted, and it was nice to have the same interface across all 3 major OS’s.  Each release of Firefox would slowly improve performance, but again with Internet Explorer as its only competition there wasn’t much demand for further improvement.

I had tried out Chrome from time to time.  Its minimalistic interface was a nice change, but the program was just TOO minimalist.  Also, I couldn’t change how much hard drive space it used for cookies, etc. and I had to manually delete that stuff.  That hasn’t changed with Chrome 16.

Firefox has now adopted a faster release schedule ala Chrome, and its performance improvements have taken far greater strides.  It may still be behind Chrome, but it is catching up at a faster pace.  Unlike Chrome though, its updates still must be manually applied.  Automatic updating should be coming up in Forefox 10 or 11, and that will be a much-needed improvement, especially at my job.

These days I use both Firefox and Chrome pretty much equally.  They both have excellent security track records, and work on all 3 major OS’s.  I rarely use Safari or Opera, and Internet Explorer only when I have to at work.  Both Forefox and Chrome can sync my bookmarks and settings now.  There may be small things I’d like to see changed on both browsers, and I’m always happy to see other browsers provide innovations and competition.  When that is always happening, it benefits all of us.

Ubuntu 11.04

The biggest news I had heard about 11.04 was the debut of the Unity interface.  A refinement on the interface used on the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Unity is Canonical’s vision of what a desktop interface for the future should be.  With Ubuntu’s rapid release schedule, was enough time given to have Unity ready for a prime-time Linux distribution?

Similar to the release from 10.10, for 11.04 I was hoping for some pretty forward-facing features.  But once you can look past the new look of Unity, there isn’t very much else to get excited about.  As always Ubuntu continues to impress with its mix of stability and ease of use, but after so many releases it’s hard to not just shrug and go back to another OS.

This release does see LibreOffice replacing OpenOffice, but I can’t really tell much of a difference.  I didn’t use OpenOffice all that much, so I’m probably the last person to ask about this software.  Since I tend to stick with text editors I have paid less and less attention to these two fighting it out and against Microsoft Word.  I do hope that this forked software will see faster improvements, as it’s still evident that it is still slower than anything when trying to open, etc.

So how is Unity?  Honestly, it doesn’t bother me much, and also doesn’t really impress.  Yes, it’s quite different.  Yes, it does some things alot better than GNOME2 or other desktop environments do.  It also does alot of things that I don’t like, and in the spirit of GNOME it seems to have stripped out any and all user settings/preferences.  Now there’s some like KDE where there is user overload when trying to setup a desktop, but then there’s Windows and OS X that have a happy medium.  Of course this is Linux, so I can easily switch to GNOME classic or slap on another desktop environment.  Does it matter that I would have to?  I’m not sure.

Currently my PC is running Windows 7 so I can work on some music along with writing, and it’s working great.  I will keep an eye on future Ubuntu releases, but it’s unlikely I will be installing them for quite awhile.

OS X Lion

I had recently installed Lion on my MacBook, so I was preparing to write a review for it.  But it turns out that my battery life was horrifically short in Lion, and most of the graphics animations were just too slow.  I hope that updates to Lion will address these issues, but until then I will stick with Snow Leopard.

OS X Snow Leopard

Introduction

So far on my site I’ve just published Linux reviews.  While I have been working on this OS X review along with a Windows 7 review, it’s actually quite odd that my first if not one of my earliest reviews was NOT for an OS X release.  I’ve been using OS X  longer than I’ve used Linux, and have been using Macs since I first started using computers.  So why the long wait to write a review?

Part of it may be that OS X, along with other Apple products, have for the most part been in their own little world.  In the great Mac vs. PC debate, I’ve happily sat on the sidelines as I used all three OS’s at work and at home.  Like Windows and Linux, there are many things about OS X that I really like, and a few things that I wish could be refined or completely changed.  On my MacBook I’ve started with 10.4 and it’s now on 10.6, and it’s been easy to see that each new release has been changing things, mostly for the better.  While this review will primarily focus on OS X itself and its core, I will also discuss the other Apple-developed software that goes along with OS X, as well as some apps that are OS X-exclusive.  I will also compare some apps that can be run on Windows and/or Linux as well, such as Firefox and Microsoft Office.

The “Buy-in”

Unlike Windows and Linux, OS X cannot be (easily) installed on just any hardware.  It is intended to be used solely on Apple hardware.  Many have criticized this, as they feel Apple can charge a higher price for their hardware and offer the user fewer choices.

As someone who happily builds their own system for Linux/Windows, I can agree with both sides of this issue.  I do think Apple makes the best laptops in the business, hands down.  Their unibody aluminum construction is un-matched, and their magnetic power connector is genius.  However, I have had to deal with numerous failings in their laptops as well as iMacs.  Both of these systems place a premium on space, which results in poor cooling and such.  I’ve also have had more than usual bad luck with the hard drives used in Apple systems, but I would hope the slow move to SSD will alleviate this problem for all PC manufacturers.

Apple also continues to not offer a true middle-ground PC.  While the iMac is a great value, it is basically a laptop in that all of its components are integrated including the screen.  What about the user who would like a separate tower case to allow upgrades and the choice of their own screen, but doesn’t have the budget to pay for the ridiculously over-specced and over-priced Mac Pro?  For that user, I would have to say they may have look at a Linux/Windows build.  Going that route, a user has nearly infinite choices, both for their hardware and software.

For some users, that many choices can be too daunting or just unreasonable.  They may want something that Just Works.  Do I think having to use an Apple system is worth it simply to have access to OS X?  Depending on a user’s needs and budget, I can say yes.

Installation

When booting from the OS X disc, it will come up to the welcome screen and you can begin installing it.  Unlike the installers for Windows and Linux, it won’t give any prompt for erasing or managing partitions on the drive.  By default, OS X will ask what kind of install to do, with the selection set to “Upgrade”.  In order to perform a clean install, you have to go to the menu at the top and select “Disk Utility”.  In this program you can erase a drive, set-up a partition scheme, etc.  Like other OS’s, I always perform a clean install to prevent any problems.  Once the disc has been prepared, you can quit Disk Utility to return to the OS X installer.  It won’t show any options on the screen for what you’d want to install; you have to click “Customize”.  The default choices are fine, but you can save a bit of space by not installing fonts and such for other languages if you know you won’t be using them.  After those changes are made OS X will begin installing.  The install doesn’t take too long, and once it’s finished it will restart and prompt to set-up a user account.

Default Set-up

When OS X loads up the desktop, the first thing to notice is the 3D dock at the bottom of the screen.  It looks nice and has most of the default applications in it.  One change that Snow Leopard has made is that the hard drive isn’t shown by default on the desktop, so once you eject the OS X disc the desktop is blank.  I’m not sure why this change was made, but it’s one that I don’t like at all.  Most users won’t know to either hit “Command-N” or go through the menu to open a new Finder window.  In the Finder preferences you can enable hard disks and connected servers to appear on the desktop.

The overall appearance and layout of Finder hasn’t changed much from previous OS X versions.  In the Finder window there’s now a slider at the bottom right when in Icon view to easily change the size of the icons, which is a nice shortcut for computers that don’t have a trackpad with the advanced gestures available.  I recently discovered this when setting up a new MacBook Pro, and you can use two fingers to pinch and change the icon size.  Another great feature is Quicklook; when a file is highlighted, you can press the Space bar to get a preview of that file, regardless if it’s a picture, document, PDF, etc.  It’s a great way to quickly check a file without having to open any programs.

Like previous OS X versions there are alot of applications to get started.  Safari has become an excellent browser, though I still prefer Chrome and Firefox over it.  TextEdit is a good text editor and can now open and edit .doc files.  Mail has also had alot of work done and is a great program to use for Gmail and Exchange accounts.  It’s not a complete Outlook replacement for those coming from a PC, but it compares much more favorably than Thunderbird or such.  iTunes  has alot of changes as it’s added support for the iPad and such.  Although like previous OS X versions it won’t have the latest version of iTunes, and it’s highly recommended to update it along with everything else through Apple Software Update.

OS X Exclusives

There are quite a few applications that exclusively run on OS X, just as there are plenty that are exclusives to other OS’s.  Whether a user wants or needs that software can determine using that OS along with or instead of another one.  The list is certainly shorter for OS X exclusives, but the ones that are available are as good if not better than anything else.

Up until version 4 Cyberduck was an OS X-exclusive application for connecting to websites/servers via (S)FTP, SSH, etc.  While it’s now available on Windows, its history is deeply rooted to OS X, and likely has far fewer problems on it.  Another great program similar to Cyberduck is Transmit, developed by Panic Software.  Panic develops software only for OS X, and their programs are of top-quality and reasonable prices.  They also develop Coda, an outstanding application for web development that combines text editor, connection manager and more.

Another program which has recently spawned a Windows version is Scrivener.  Unlike Cyberduck, the Windows version of Scrivener is not developed by the same person, and is even listed on a completely different website.  The OS X version is a robust tool for writers, strongly supported by a sole(!) developer who is a writer himself and clearly understands what some writers will need in a program in order to complete their work.  Whether used along with Word, Final Draft, etc. or as a complete replacement, this program is wonderful.

TextWrangler is a great free text editor developed by Bare Bones Software.  They have a fully-featured text editor, BBEdit, and TextWrangler is a great way to see if a user would want to commit to the full program.

Things is a task management program.  Along with OS X, there are versions available for the iPhone and iPad.  There has been criticism of the lack of syncing between the various versions, but it’s not something I’ve been able to verify/test as I just use the OS X version.  I do know there are updates fairly often, and so far I haven’t had a single problem.  It’s a program that’s very easy to use and really does succeed at what it claims to do.

Carbon Copy Cloner is essentially a GUI front-end to the terminal commands available to image a drive.  This program makes it extremely easy to create back-ups of a user’s folder or the entire system.

OS X Equivalents

There are alot of programs that are available on multiple OSs, primarily OS X and Windows.  Some of these receive equal attention on all OSs, while other programs it’s clear to see that the Windows version has the priority.

Adobe Reader is not required as OS X has Preview, but I have encountered PDFs that don’t render correctly in Preview.  The OS X version of Reader receives updates around the same time as the Windows version, and the newest X version shows the same performance improvements on OS X as it does on Windows.

Celtx is the screenwriting program that I’ve been using for quite awhile.  Using the Mozilla Firefox interface framework, it was very easy for the developers to make this program available across the 3 major OSs.  The Mac version is basically the same as the ones for Windows and Linux, and just like Firefox its performance is not that great, but for a free screenwriting program there aren’t many complaints that can be made.

Dropbox has an application available for OS X to allow those users sync their Dropbox folder on that OS along with Windows and Linux.  Its features are exactly the same on all OSs, and each version has received updates around the same time.

Firefox has always been platform-agnostic.  All  major OSs are supported, and they all receive the updates around the same time.  Unfortunately even with an increased release schedule and years of supposed improvement have not helped Firefox a whole lot, as its performance is pretty bad on all OSs, but it seems to be the worst on OS X.  Compared to both Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome, Firefox seems to be slipping further and further behind, and it’s not helped by Internet Explorer’s massive improvements and Opera’s continued progress.  Google Chrome is also available on all 3 OSs, and with a very rapid release schedule, background updating and constantly evolving feature set, it will take alot for Firefox to come back to its top position.

While available on Windows, iTunes is still clearly meant to be used on OS X.  Its performance on Windows has never been good, and with its own interface framework the memory and CPU consumption doesn’t help.  The only odd exception is that iTunes is available in a 64-bit version on Windows, while in OS X 10.6 it’s still at 32-bit.  Many have suggested that iTunes 10.5 will finally fix that, but whether that was a complete code re-write or not remains to be seen.

Microsoft has made Office available on OS X for as long as it’s been around, and it’s clear to see that they don’t give this version of Office the short end of the stick.  Each release has improved performance and features, and the 2011 version upholds that tradition.  Whether a user is a fan of Windows or not, there’s no denying Microsoft knows how to make a good office suite, and even though Apple provides alternate programs they can’t really compete except on price.

Propellerheads has always developed their music applications to run as well on OS X as on Windows.  The newest versions of Record and Reason still prove this, and using OS X’s wonderful audio framework as a foundation, these two programs can offer a composer almost everything needed.

Conclusion

OS X has evolved and expanded for a long time, and sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s actually been around for as long as it has.  Within the next month or so we’ll see the release of 10.7, which shows continued refinement along with influences from iOS.  Starting with a Unix-based foundation and adding on the knowledge gained from Next, OS X has come a long way to stand alongside Linux and Windows as a great OS.  As always the choice of an OS will always come down to what a user needs to accomplish with a computer, and with OS X they can be assured they made a great choice.