Seeking Mac advice

January 7th, 2009 — Wordman

The iMac in my kitchen has flaked out and evidence suggests that parts of the logic board are fried. Though the board could be replaced, basically it’s time upgrade to something else (it is a PowerPC machine, after all). I’m struggling with what to replace it with, however, and am soliciting advice from readers.

This machine acts as the central hub for the house, so is our main media repository. It also hosts the sorts of information you might normally track using paper, magnets and a refrigerator: shopping lists, calendars, sticky notes, and so on. It’s also the recipe database and cooking timer. I should also mention that I will probably be redoing my kitchen soon, so the exact height between the counter and the bottom of my cabinets might change slightly.

Here are my main contenders for a replacement:

A 20-inch iMac: This is the obvious choice, but for for one glaring problem: it’s about a half-inch taller than the space under my cabinets, so it will not fit as is. There is, however, quite a bit a clearance between the bottom of the machine and the bottom of the stand stand, so it would definitely fit if I took the stand off. I could then mount it to the wall on an articulated arm, which would actually be quite helpful. Unfortunately, the 20-inch iMac doesn’t include standard mounting brackets on the back. Apple does make a bracket for the 24-inch model, but this wouldn’t fit even without the stand. So it looks like I need to use a custom solution, making use of this third party bracket and then, because this leaves the stand in place, cut a good bit of my stand off with a metal saw. (Further, as I understand it, getting the stand off of this model iMac is very involved, and certainly voids the warranty, so I might need to saw the thing while it’s still connected to the machine.) I was hoping that MacWorld 2009 might feature an iMac revision with a VESA mount, but no such luck.

  • Pros: powerful, one unit (i.e. not as many cables running amok), sexy.
  • Cons: setup that is complex, annoying and risky

A Mac mini and VESA mounted LCD. In this case, I would mount the mini upside down to the bottom of the cabinet, and use an articulated arm to mount the LCD. With choices of vendors, I could certainly find a VESA mountable monitor, so the labor wouldn’t be a problem. The issue here is that while I was hoping for an iMac rev, I was flat out expecting a revision of the mini during MacWorld. The current version was released in August 2007, and was only a very minor improvement to the version released in February 2006. While they are fairly cheap, buying 18-month-old tech is not a great idea, especially a product line that might be canceled soon (or mutated into something very different, like an AppleTV/Mini hybrid). This counters one of the mini’s largest advantages in such a setup: that you could keep the same monitor and just swap in new minis as the tech curve advances. Since Apple doesn’t seem that interested in the mini, that advantage instead changes to the bummer of basing the whole thing on a concept that isn’t sustained. The biggest problem with the mini, though, is that the hard drive in the current models just isn’t large enough to be a media center. While it’s possible to upgrade the drive, it’s a pain.

  • Pros: cheap, potentially upgradeable, easy setup, monitor choice allows more flexibility (such as also using it for TV, speakers, etc.)
  • Cons: old tech, uncertain future, underpowered, extra cables

A mounted Modbook Pro. These were introduced at MacWorld 2009. Since Apple is never going to make their own tablets, this is the only way to get a tablet right now. (An iPhone with a bigger screen won’t count, and Apple might never make that either.) New to this model is the addition of a touch interface, to go along with the pen input of the previous model (or a bluetooth keyboard). In some ways, the pen input is a natural fit for a kitchen, and the touch is even more so. It would also be nice to pull it from the mount to use as a tablet on occasion. A drawback, in addition to the cost, are that it would be a step down in screen size, though this might not be the end of the world. The other problem is that I can’t tell if it is VESA mountable or not. The old one was not, but Axiotron claimed to be working on a bracket for Q3 2008 that would allow VESA mounting, though they have yet to deliver it. There hasn’t been much coverage of the Modbook Pro so far, so I’m hoping for more mounting information.

  • Pros: touch interface, could be unmounted and used as portable
  • Cons: expensive, smaller screen than current iMac, uncertain mounting, not available until the summer

Other possibilities exist, but aren’t as palatable to me. A small form-factor hackintosh, for example, could be done similarly to the setup mentioned for the mini. It’s not clear how long hackintoshes will remain possible, though, and I’m not sure I want to be bothered setting one up. (Also, I’ve been counting on the purchase of a new Mac to provide an upgrade to iLife, which I would otherwise need to buy.)

What would you do? Are there other choices? And what kind of VESA arm should I get?

An iMac in every kitchen

August 24th, 2005 — Wordman

Corners of kitchen counters have always bugged me. Not many things fit into them in a useful way. About the same time I was getting obsessed with the uselessness of my own kitchen corner, I realized that I had a spare iMac lounging around. Since I have a wife who a) is even more of a gadget freak than I am and b) said the magic word (“whatever”), I put the machine to work in the kitchen. After having done a bit of work on this machine, it’s always-twitchy power supply finally gave up for good and the experiment ended.

Then something strange happened: we really began to miss the little dude. We kept reflexively going over to where it used to be to use it. The kitchen was suddenly sadder. We hadn’t realized it, but we’d actually been using the machine quite a bit. Clearly, we had no choice but to buy a brand new 17″ iMac G5 (now the fastest machine in the house). We considered a 20″, but nixed the idea as being…excessive (and, it turns out the 20″ wouldn’t have fit under the cabinets anyway). The machine came quickly and was easily set up (note that the machine hides the big black UPS that is behind it pretty well):

Kitchen iMac

But what can you possibly use such a thing for anyway? Ours pulls the following duties:


We have five other Macs in the house and three digital cameras. We were going a bit nuts trying to keep our photo albums in sync. With the kitchen machine, we now just put everything on it, using it as a master photo archive. Since iPhoto can publish to the local network, we can view our shots from any machine in the house. In doing this, it became necessary to merge several iPhoto libraries together, a daunting task due to iPhoto’s criminally inane handling of dates when importing and exporting. Spending the $20 on the iPhoto Library Manager is money well spent, trust me.

With all our photos on it, the machine also acts as a picture frame, using the screen saver that comes with Tiger to display pictures from iPhoto. We are pretty good about rating our pictures, so have a smart folder in iPhoto that automatically includes any 4- or 5-star shots, and set the screen saver to show those. Believe it or not, when the original iMac died, this was one of the things we missed the most.


Though I would never run a personal machine like this, having the iMac in the kitchen lends itself to showing things like stock tickers, weather updates, news and so on as its primary display mode. Originally, this was done with Konfabulator, but the new machine uses Dashboard. I have to admit that, for personal machine, I don’t get what the big deal with Dashboard is. Most of the widgets seem to just reproduce things you can more easily do with an application. For a kitchen kiosk, though, Dashboard works great. Most of the time, the machine’s screen looks like this:


Key to this is a piece of software that provides functionality that should have been included with Dashboard itself, but wasn’t: the ability to make dashboard appear after a certain amount of idle time. As always, third parties come plug glaring holes in Apple’s products, in this case Dasher. With it installed, the kiosk comes up without having to think about it.

The widgets currently running are:

  • Stocks: Included with Tiger. Tracks stock prices.
  • Calendar: Included with Tiger. Shows the current date and month.
  • iCal Events: Displays upcoming events from iCal
  • TV Tracker: Shows what’s on TV in your area. Not resizable, unfortunately.
  • Marquee: Ugly and a screen real estate hog, but useful, displaying movies playing in your area.
  • Unit Converter: Converts currencies, volumes, you name it.
  • IMDb: A quick movie lookup.
  • News Grab-R: Displays news from various sources.
  • Dictionary: Included with Tiger. A quick word lookup.
  • Phone Book: Included with Tiger. Search the yellow pages.
  • Stickies: Included with Tiger. Jot down things, like shopping lists. This turns out to be a major use of the machine.
  • RPN Calculator: I can never go back to non-RPN calculators now.
  • Weather: Included with Tiger. A five-day forecast for your area, with current condition and temp.
  • iTunes: Included with Tiger. Controls iTunes.
  • VelaClock: A multi-time zone clock. The only widget I’ve paid for.
  • TemorSkimmer: Shows earthquake spots in real time.
  • Radar In Motion: A nearly real-time animation of weather.
  • Sunlit Earth: A realtime map of the sun’s position on the planet.
  • Album Art: Shows the cover art of the album currently playing in iTunes.


Since not many applications live on this machine, it has a bunch of free space. We’ve been filling this by ripping our CD collection onto it. Like iPhoto, iTunes can publish songs to any machine in the house. It can also play to either of our two AirPort Express stations. We sometimes bring one outside and hook speakers to it.

In setting this collection up, I became momentarily obsessed with attaching cover art to my song files. For some reason, this is much more difficult than it needs to be. Ultimately, I found MPFreaker, a tool that should probably be free, but can charge $20 since this is cheaper than my having to code the equivalent myself. It does a decent job filling in fields missing from your songs, including cover art.


While iCal is not the best calendaring system in the world, it is good enough, particularly since it syncs with Palm devices (usually). We run four calendars on the kitchen machine. One contains our work schedules, another contains personal events (parties, appointments, etc.). The other two are frivolous, hosted externally, showing the Denver Broncos schedule and movie release dates.

The best feature of iCal is that you can publish calendars to a WebDAV server, allowing you to subscribe to the calendars from other machines. The trick is finding a WebDAV server. Fortunately, Tiger comes with Apache already installed, and it can be configured to be a WebDAV server. This is a little tricky, and how to do it is best explained elsewhere. It takes a little brain power, but once done, any changes you make on the kitchen machine get published and picked up by the other machines subscribing to the calendar.


Given that the main point of a kitchen is to cook, it makes sense to use the iMac there as well. There are a few options here, but we’ve taken to using a recipe and wine manager called MacGourmet. A lot of people swear by Connoisseur as well, but I don’t like its interface as much and it doesn’t handle wine as well.


The last task for this machine takes advantage of the fact that it runs all the time (and has a large hard drive). It runs various backup and synchronization tasks to various machines in the house. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but Duover seems to be the least painful.


Naturally, we use the machine’s web browser nearly every day for one thing or another. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but generally, anything you’ve ever stuck to your refrigerator with a magnet can be done better with a kitchen iMac. Now we just need to manage the clutter of gadgets alongside it.

A quiet iMac DV

November 28th, 2004 — Wordman

A couple of years ago, as fallout from a layoff, I found myself with a pair of 400 MHz iMac DV machines (“grape” and “blueberry”, for those keeping score). One of these sits under my desk, running software that will likely be illegal soon. The other has been deployed in the kitchen (more on that in a later entry).

As this model was discontinued in mid 2000, these machines were starting to show their age. They had a number of problems that I vowed to handle when I got around to it. I happened to get around to it late in 2004, but only after spending a great deal of time tracking some information down. This post intends to distill this information into one place for those looking to do similar things. (I found many such people asking for help, and not getting answers). The problems to solve were these:

  1. Intermittent video problems
  2. Intermittent boot problems
  3. Inability to turn off the internal monitor and use only the external VGA connection.
  4. Limited disk space
  5. Noise

It turns out that the first two problems are related. Earlier iMacs had a number of problems with their firmware and analog video boards conspiring in ways that manifest in random naughtiness. I’d seen several variations of the behavior on these two machines. Sometimes the internal monitor would not work at all. Sometimes it would display only very faintly or all in green. Sometimes a reboot would get past the boot chime and then die. The blueberry machine provided the drive to fix these machines when it started exhibiting the latter behavior all of the time. The grape machine could boot, but seemed locked in “dim display” mode.

After far too long searching for fixes to this problem, I happened across a link to an incredible troubleshooting page for this exact problem. Why this didn’t show up first (or even in the first few pages) in a Google search, I don’t know. Hopefully it does by now. In any case, this explained the problem and provided some great things to try.

According to this page, these problems result from old firmware, and the trick is to get the machine to boot long enough to upgrade it. This presented me with a problem. Supposedly, you cannot run OS X on this model unless the firmware has been upgraded to the latest version, the same version that fixes the problems. Having run OS X on these machines since the 10.0 beta, I assumed I had the correct version, but still had the problem. The machine I could still boot showed the latest 4.1.9 firmware version, but still had the dim display.

Thinking I was probably in for disappointment, I tried the troubleshooting tips with the blueberry machine anyway. I had what the page called “symptom S4”. I found that the older version of the page was a little easier to follow, but neither it nor the current version actually solved my problem. I ran through the firmware page up to and including the “intermediate” section, without improvement (though it turned out I had to replace the battery, so that probably helped some). Not thrilled about exposing myself to high voltage, I tried a few other things before moving into the “advanced” section.

I was under the impression that the extra power draw from the hard-drive spinning up was overwhelming the power supply. To test this, I pulled the power of the hard drive (the white plug with red, black and yellow wires coming out of it) and tried booting from an OS 9.1 CD. This worked fine (though, of course, no hard drive mounted).

I shut the machine down and, just for fun, reconnected the hard-drive power. And what do you know, the thing rebooted just fine. It may be that having booting it in 9.1 or, perhaps, just the change in hardware configuration managed to reset the PMU or something. Not sure. In any case, if you have nimble fingers, you can actually do this through the RAM access slot without taking the machine apart.

Once I got the machine to boot, lo and behold, it’s firmware version shows as 4.1.7. How I got OS X on this box in the first place, I do not know. Such a thing is supposedly “impossible”. Upgrading it to 4.1.9, however, turned out to be easier said than done. This is because the 4.1.9 updater only runs when booted into OS 9 from a writable volume. Since I didn’t run classic on this box (didn’t want to spend the disk space) and booting from a CD wouldn’t work (not a writable volume), I didn’t have a writable OS 9 boot disk. Further, something in the OS 9 install CD just refused to recognize the machine’s disk as one that could handle OS 9. After trying a whole bunch of weird Firewire setups, my problem suddenly resolved itself when the OS 9 installer started working for no evident reason. I have no idea why this happened but, once done, the firmware upgrade worked fine, and did solve the boot problem.

This left the dim display on the grape machine. It had the correct firmware, but still had the problem. Changing the contrast and brightness didn’t help. On a forum, I spotted a solution so obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to try it. All I had to do was go into the Display preference panel, go to the Color section and hit the Calibrate button. This process ended up resetting the display just fine.

So, two problems (including the biggest one) down, three to go. I still have found no solution for turning off the internal monitor while leaving the external port active. I suspect that I might be able just to cut the power to it, but haven’t found the schematics for it. If you know how, let me know. I’m fairly certain that there is no purely software way to do this.

The last two problems also turned out to be related. The iMac DV has no internal fan, so nearly all of the noise it generates comes from its hard drive. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the sound isn’t a typical computer hum, but more of a whine. It’s the type of sound that still thrums in your ears once it stops. So, finding a high(er) capacity, quiet hard drive seemed the obvious solution.

It turns out, this was less than obvious. In the first place, finding what kind of drives the iMac DV could support was a bit of an exercise in futility. Unlike most Macs before it, the iMac used IDE drives, not SCSI. All the information I could find was found in crumbs in forums, mostly unconfirmed rumors:

  • Rumor 1: Drives faster than 5,400RPM overheat the iMac DV. I’m not sure if this is true, but I believe it. The 4,200RPM drive that shipped with it ran the machine hot enough, with no internal fan. So, this set a spindle limit, which turned out to limit the drive selection significantly, as most higher capacity drives are faster than this.
  • Rumor 2: Drives larger than 128GB cannot be read iMac DV. I suspect this is just plain wrong, but saw it mentioned more than once. This seems like it would be more of an OS limitation, so might have been true once. I seriously doubt it is true now. I turned out to be moot in my case, because drives larger than 128GB went over my price target.
  • Rumor 3: The OS must reside on the first 4GB of a disk for the iMac DV. This is almost certainly false, considering that a) even the old, loud drive was a 10GB in a single partition and b) it doesn’t make any sense. I ignored this rumor, so far with no ill effects.

So, I was looking for a 5,400RPM IDE drive of 128MB or less. And it had to be quiet, which led to the next problem: what’s quiet for a drive and how do you find out? After some looking, I found Hardware Central, which not only lists the sound output of hard-drives in decibels, but has excellent search filtering as well. Sifting through the various choices was more annoying than it needed to be, but I settled on the 120 GB Maxtor DiamondMax 16. At the time, Tiger Direct sold these for the lowest price, around $70.

I bought one for each machine. They installed easily (well, as easily as a drive can be installed into an iMac), work great and are nearly inaudible. They do run a bit hotter than the old drives, but so far, so good.