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more third-party mini-DisplayPort adapters

Posted by bitguru on June 6, 2009

miniDP-to-DP cable from Circuit Assembly Corp.Monoprice started selling mini-DisplayPort adapters a few months ago, but now another vendor has joined the game. Circuit Assembly Corp. sells not only the three types of adapters that Monoprice does (albeit at slightly higher prices) but also two it doesn’t.

  • The miniDP(female)-to-DP cable allows owners of laptops/desktops with full-size DisplayPort ports to connect to those crazy miniDP-only displays Apple (and others) sell.

Kudos to Circuit Assembly Corp. for finally providing interoperability between DisplayPort and mini-DisplayPort that had long been expected.

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Apple finally updates Mac Mini

Posted by bitguru on March 3, 2009

back of 2009 MacMiniFor those who have been waiting for a less antiquated MacMini (as I have been for well over a year now) the wait is now over. Apple released new Mini models this morning. The processors are about the same as before—no complaints there—but other components have moved from four-year-old technology to parity with the modern MacBook.

  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics (from Intel GMA 950)
  • mini-DVI and mini-DisplayPort with dual-display support (from one full-size DVI port)
  • 4GB RAM ceiling, or perhaps higher when larger-capacity DDR3 DIMMs appear
  • draft 802.11n wireless networking (from 802.11g)
  • FireWire 800 (from FireWire 400) — adapters are available
  • five USB 2.0 ports (from four)
  • the US$600 model can write DVDs (from the US$800 model only) — now SATA
  • Bluetooth 2.1 (from 2.0) — a very minor change
  • 1066 MHz front-side bus (from 667 MHz)
  • the Apple Remote is still supported but no longer included

A miniDVI-to-DVI adapter is included in the box. To connect to an older VGA monitor will require either a miniDVI-to-VGA adapter or a miniDP-to-VGA adapter. (Theoretically Apple could have supported chaining a DVI-to-VGA adapter on the end of the included miniDVI-to-DVI adapter on the Mini, but I presume not. It doesn’t work on other miniDVI-equipped macs.)

All in all it looks pretty good. If you’re in the market for a nice, simple, silent, desktop Mac I recommend you buy one.

As before, the Mini comes with neither keyboard nor mouse. If you plan to buy a keyboard, Apple introduced a smaller wired keyboard today. It’s sort of a combination of the existing slimline wired keyboard (which has a numeric keypad) and the existing Bluetooth wireless one (which doesn’t). All three are new since I last discussed keyboards for Mac Mini two years ago.

In addition to the Mini, Apple updated the iMac, the MacPro, Airport Extreme, and Time Capsule today as well. I am surprised there aren’t new external displays also.

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Whither Mac Mini?

Posted by bitguru on February 14, 2009

Apple has been manufacturing the Intel-powered MacMini for three years now. All this time it has been using the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics processor. The GMA 950 was considered underpowered even in 2006*, but by today’s standards it is seriously lacking. Compare to the MacBook’s graphic chip, which has been upgraded twice:

  • May 2006 MacBook: Intel GMA 950
  • November 2007 MacBook: Intel GMA X3100
  • October 2008 MacBook: Nvidia GeForce 9400M

In many ways the MacMini is an ideal machine. It’s inexpensive (for a mac) and blissfully quiet. I used to enthusiastically recommend them to fiends and family. I can’t recommend them now. Why pay $800 (or $600 without a DVD writer) for a MacMini with four-year-old integrated graphics when $1000 buys a white MacBook and $1200 buys a 20″ iMac?

The MacBook has much more capable graphics than the Mini. Also a keyboard, pointing device, integrated display, and battery are included. Even for those that plan to use their own keyboard, mouse, and display it probably makes sense to buy a white MacBook (and just leave the lid closed) than to buy a MacMini for $200 less.

The next version of OSX (Mac OS X.6 “Snow Leopard”) is due this spring. There are indications that Apple considers GeForce 9400M graphics to be essentially the minimum requirement to run Snow Leopard properly. These are unsubstantiated, but Snow Leopard includes OpenCL technology which is designed to make the power trapped in the machine’s graphics cores available for non-graphical tasks. It remains to be seen how heavily OpenCL will be utilized in Snow Leoard, but the Mini is now the only Mac sold with anything less than GeForce 9400M graphics.

Because the Mini has such antiquated graphics, there have been many upgrade rumors. None of them have panned out so far. The most recent one is from December: an OSX kernal extension file refers to a new MacMini with an Nvidia MCP79 chipset, which would indicate GeForce 9400M graphics. So some Apple watchers are predicting new MacMinis any week now, but they don’t know for sure. I guess we’ll see.

*Way back in May 2005 ExtremeTech wrote:

We can state flatly that if you buy a system using Intel’s GMA950 integrated graphics and want to play 3D games, invest at least $60 in an add-on card. If what you want is simply a system that can run standard office software, plus maybe play some DVD movies, then Intel’s new graphics core is probably suitable.

You might wonder what the point is of putting all the engineering effort into the 3D core, if it sucks so badly at games?

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third-party mini-DisplayPort adapters available next week

Posted by bitguru on January 11, 2009

miniDP-to-DVI and miniDP-to-VGA adapters from MonopriceRespected discount cable house Monoprice has added miniDisplayPort-to-DVI and miniDisplayPort-to-VGA adapters to its catalog with an ETA of January 16, 2009.

Third-party adapters were expected after Apple licensed the mini-DisplayPort spec, but it’s nice to see them actually arrive. Monoprice’s prices are about half of Apple’s, which is also welcome.

I was also expecting to see miniDisplayPort-to-DisplayPort and miniDisplayPort-to-HDMI adapters, and also actual miniDP cables (as opposed to short adapters), but none have appeared yet. Perhaps they are on their way.

[update: The catalog now also lists a miniDisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.]

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Mini-DisplayPort, a month later

Posted by bitguru on November 26, 2008

Molex Mini-DisplayPortIt’s been more than a month since Apple introduced the Mini-DisplayPort connector on its new line of laptops. Here are some thoughts.

  1. I had presumed that Mini-DisplayPort was signal compatible with standard DisplayPort, with the same 20 pins (but in a different order), but there was no corroboration. Well, my unnamed source (how mysterious!) confirms that this is the case.

    [update: Shortly after I published this entry, further validation came in the form of a mini-DisplayPort licensing page on Apple’s web site. It supplies a PDF download for mini-DisplayPort connector dimensions and pinouts.]

  2. I mentioned that Apple was continuing to sell its 23″ Cinema Display (with DVI) an addition to its new mini-DisplayPort-only 24″ Cinema Display. However Apple has since discontinued the 23″ model, leaving it without a mid-range display that can be connected to any existing Apple desktop machine. This indicates to me that Apple soon plans to release new versions of the MacPro, iMac, and MacMini that will have Mini-DisplayPort ports. (It still sells 20″ and 30″ displays that support DVI, but for how much longer?)

  3. I thought we’d see third-party miniDisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapters by now, but I have yet to find one. My unamed source says that Apple has contributed the mini-DisplayPort connector specification to VESA for possible inclusion in version 1.2 of the DisplayPort standard. If so, cheap third-party mini-DP adapters should be around the corner. (Component manufacturing giant Molex has apparently been working on making the connectors available.) This would allow Macs with mini-DisplayPort to drive standard DisplayPort monitors, and laptops and video cards with standard DisplayPort to drive Apple’s LED-backlit Cinema Displays.

  4. It may be possible to create an unwieldy miniDP-to-DP adapter today:

    The idea is to convey the native DisplayPort signals (not DVI signals) through the conductors of the DVI cable. This presumes that the two adapters have compatible pinouts and that they have enough conductors. (The pinout of that DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter shows 17 conductors, omitting only pins 13/14/16. DisplayPort cables are supposed to leave out 13 and 14, but not 16. It might be ok to leave out 16, though, since it would only be used by the auxiliary channel.) A bigger presumption is that the F/F DisplayPort coupler doesn’t cross conductors 1-12, which unfortunately it would have to do if it’s intended to allow two coupled standard DisplayPort cables to behave like a longer standard cable. My guess is that this crazy adapter wouldn’t work, but if anyone actually tries it please let me know the result.

  5. Apple’s $100 Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter has been delayed until late December. I guess they are having trouble with it.

  6. Many have run into DRM problems viewing media through the mini-DisplayPort connector—even standard-definition stuff that shouldn’t be affected by HDCP. This is yet another case of Digital Rights Management causing problems for legitimate users. It’s getting old. Supposedly, a QuickTime 7.5.7 update addresses the issue.

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More on Apple’s new laptops, LED Cinema Dispay, mini-DisplayPort

Posted by bitguru on October 20, 2008

mini-DispayPort (unplugged) and USB (plugged)I saw Apple’s new laptops in person today. I was able to take some pictures of the new mini-DisplayPort connector with my cell phone’s lousy camera. They are blurry, but I think you can get a sense for the size of the connector.

Unlike full-size DisplayPort connectors, they do not latch. In this regard, it seems that mini-DisplayPort is no better than mini-DVI and micro-DVI, which is too bad.

I also got to see the new 24″ LED Cinema Display. (In this case LED refers to the backlighting. It’s still an LCD panel, not something exotic like OLED.) It connects to the laptop via a cable with three connectors: mini-DisplayPort for graphics, USB for the iSight camera and the integrated three-port USB hub, and  MagSafe power connector. The power connector is to provide power to the laptop, not to provide power to the display. Power to the display comes from a separate cable that plugs into a standard outlet, though it is confusingly omitted from almost all of Apple’s product imagespower, ethernet, USB, mini-DisplayPort.

I wonder what it would take to connect the 24″ LED Cinema Display to a PC laptop or video card with DisplayPort. A DisplayPort-to-miniDisplayPort adapter would be needed, of course, though none exist yet. Except for that, I would hope that it would work fine with the MagSafe and USB connectors left unconnected. (I have an Apple DVI 15″ LCD Studio Display connected to a standard PC and it actually requires the USB connection, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if the LED Cinema Display did also. The 1999-era Studio Display doesn’t send any data over USB, but it seems to use USB to detect computer power-on and power-off.)

Many have asked how to connect a new LED Cinema Display to an older Mac. The answer, at least for now, is that it can’t be done. There are adapters to connect newer Mac laptops to older displays, but not the other way around. Apple says all their laptops and desktops will eventually support mini-DisplayPort but, until then, the only machines that can drive LED Cinema Displays are the new Mac laptops announced last week. That’s why Apple continues to sell the existing 23″ Cinema Display with DVI. Some day someone like Gefen may sell a DVI-to-DisplayPort converter, but it will be a niche product and it will not be cheap. (On the other hand, I expect both DisplayPort-to-miniDisplayPort and miniDisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapters will soon become commonplace.)

As for the laptops themselves, I gave the new buttonless trackpads a test-drive and I think I could get used to them. Depressing the entire trackpad to click felt a bit unnatural, but just a bit. Three-finger swipes left and right across the trackpad in Safari for page-back and page-forward did feel natural.

Much has been made about dropping FireWire (IEEE 1394) from the MacBook. The MacBookAir never had FireWire, presumably for size reasons. The new MacBookPro no longer has a FireWire400 port but does have FireWire800, so FireWire400 devices can still be used after buying a new cable or a small adapter.  The new MacBook, though, has neither FireWire400 nor FireWire800 and I wonder why. Is it because the new NVIDIA chipset doesn’t support FireWire as competently as the previous version’s Intel chipset? Could it be to further differentiate the MacBookPro from the MacBook now that the MacBook has more of the Pro’s features (for example, the backlit keyboard on the high-end model)?

I’m not in the market for a new laptop but if I were I would have to weigh the lack of FireWire before buying a MacBook, which is otherwise a very nice machine. I have only a couple of FireWire peripherals (the only one that gets much use is an ancient 3rd-generation iPod) but no FireWire also means no Target Disk Mode and one way fewer to recover data when things go wrong.

What I’m really hoping for is a MacMini updated with most of the new MacBook’s internals. I’d buy one even if it lacked FireWire. The current MacMini is appealing and whisper-quiet, but it’s a generation behind even the older MacBook. It could really use the increased graphics power and higher RAM ceiling (and presumably also mini-DisplayPort) that would come with an update.

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Apple’s new laptops employ Mini-DisplayPort

Posted by bitguru on October 14, 2008

standard USB port next to Mini-DisplayPort

Until today, Apple’s three laptop lines used different display connectors. The MacBook used mini-DVI, the MacBook Air used micro-DVI, and the MacBook Pro used vanilla DVI. I thought Apple might standardize on a single display connector, perhaps micro-DVI.

I was partially correct. Today’s updated versions of the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro do all use the same display connector, but it’s mini-DisplayPort, not micro-DVI.

Apple needed another laptop display connector like a moose needs a hat rack, but mini-DisplayPort does have some advantages. For one, the connector is small—about 60% the size of a standard USB-A connector. (See comparison image, above.) It has a 1 Mbps bi-directional (half-duplex) auxiliary channel that could be used to handle webcam or other peripheral data. It can also drive resolutions above 1920×1200, which dual-link DVI can handle but single-link DVI variants can not. Perhaps the connector will mate with the socket more securely than mini-DVI does, but this is yet to be determined. (Latching is a feature of standard DisplayPort connectors, but so far as I can tell Apple created mini-DisplayPort on its own. It is unclear if mini-DisplayPort connectors latch. [update: They don’t.])

The downside? Mini-DisplayPort is presumably signal-compatible with standard DisplayPort, which “is the future” but hasn’t really caught on yet. This will likely be a win in the long term, but it’s not signal-compatible with DVI or HMDI (nor VGA, for that matter). DisplayPort implementations are permitted to pass DVI-compatible signals through the connector, and presumably this is what Apple has done, at least for single-link DVI.

Apple’s $29 Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter supports single-link DVI. To exceed 1920×1200 requires the Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter, priced at a whopping $99. Presumably the dual-link adapter has circuitry that actually converts the DisplayPort signals, which is why it requires USB power. (There is also a $29 Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter.)

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ANSI vs. ISO keyboards

Posted by bitguru on May 23, 2008

ISO (top) and ANSI (bottom) keyboardsNorth America mostly uses ANSI keyboards. Europe mostly uses ISO keyboards. The layouts are similar, but ISO has a few extra keys. An ANSI keyboard usually has two keys between L and Return, while ISO usually has three. Also, ANSI places Z adjacent to the left Shift key, but ISO has an intervening key. To allow for this, ANSI has a wider left Shift key than ISO.

I own a couple of ISO keyboards. I bought them on eBay in early 2006 because they were the cheapest USB keyboards I could find at the time. I can’t really type on them, though, because my left pinky consistently hits the intervening key when it is hunting for the Shift key. (My right pinky also has some trouble with Return, but not to the same extent.)

The image to the right shows an ISO keyboard on top and an ANSI keyboard on the bottom. The ISO model is a Silicon Graphics SK-2502U. The ANSI model is an Inland “Windows 107-Key USB Keyboard” (which, at $4.99, just may be the cheapest keyboard for Mac Mini). Note the width of the left Shift keys and the relative location of the Z keys.

Now take a look at the European Dell Vostro 1310 keyboard shown below. Dell has inadvertently created a hybrid ANSI/ISO layout. This is no good because they have shifted all the letters on the bottom row one slot rightward from where a touch-typist would expect them to be!

Dell Vostro 1310 keyboardThe Z should be below A and S (in both ANSI and ISO) but on this laptop the Z is below S and D. Oops.

Dell admits its blunder and will provide replacement keyboards.

The Vostro keyboard error has received a lot of press on the web, but to my knowledge noone has mentioned the ANSI vs. ISO issue. It would seem to explain how this astounding error could have been made when the North American Vostro keyboard was adapted for European release.

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New iMac is world’s first Montevina machine?

Posted by bitguru on April 28, 2008

Apple released new versions of their iMac all-in-one computer today. What’s interesting is that they appear to use the Intel’s Montevina (“Centrino 2”) platform chipset, which hadn’t been expected to appear until June of this year. Intel has given Apple a jump on one of its products (a quad-core Xeon processor) before but, presuming it is confirmed, Montevina in the new iMacs would qualify as a surprise.

Alas, Apple did not update the Mac Mini, which is now looking quite long in the tooth. In the past Apple has updated the iMac and the Mini simultaneously.

[update: Two articles by TG Daily and Electronista focus on the processor (which does seem to be an Apple exclusive), not the chipset, but do make it clear that the new iMacs are still Santa Rosa machines.]

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Apple’s MacBook Air intoduces Micro-DVI

Posted by bitguru on January 15, 2008

microDVI.jpgApple introduced a new thin notebook today. They call it the MacBook Air. They had to do some interesting things to make it so thin. It lacks an optical drive, but that’s no big deal in the subnotebook segment. A slightly bigger deal is the new Remote Disc software utility that allows a MacBook Air (or any Mac?) to borrow an optical drive from a willing Mac or PC donor.

An ethernet port would have been too large to fit, so it lacks one of those also. Apple figures most will use 802.11 wireless networking, but for the rest they sell a $29 USB-to-ethernet adapter. (The adapter’s system requirements suggest it works only with the MacBook Air. Do you suppose that’s actually true?)

Most surprising to me is that Apple plutoed the mini-DVI connector in favor of micro-DVI. Even the mini-DVI connector must have been too big for the MacBook Air.

I searched the web for information on micro-DVI but didn’t find much. Apple sells micro-DVI to DVI, micro-DVI to VGA, and micro-DVI to Video adapters. (The first two of those are included in the box with the MacBook Air.)

Mini-DVI was pretty much an Apple-only connector. Perhaps micro-DVI will gain wider industry support.

Posted in Hardware | 4 Comments »