Snow Leopard: Collada Support

While Snow Leopard isn’t being sold on its new features, it probably could be. Here’s an interesting snippet of Apple’s Snow Leopard pages that a post on Cheetah 3d’s forums put me onto:

Collada Digital Asset Exchange (.dae) files are a popular way to share 3D models and scenes between applications. Preview now displays these files with OpenGL-powered 3D graphics, so you can zoom and rotate around a 3D scene and play viewpoint animations. You can also print the scene or save it as an image or movie file. And you can use Quick Look to display them as well.

A quick Googling of “Snow Leopard Collada” reveals that this little announcement is creating quite a buzz, and not without reason.

What’s Collada? It’s a rich 3d file format that — like FBX and unlike 3DMF — doesn’t suck and — unlike FBX — isn’t proprietary and subject to bizarre incompatibility issues every time Autodesk squeezes out a new version of the SDK.

By “rich” I mean that it enables 3d programs to store almost any information they would store in their own proprietary formats. By “doesn’t suck” I mean that other programs are generally able to get that information out again.

If Apple’s support for Collada goes deeper than simply being able to render .dae files in Preview and QuickLook, e.g. allowing programmers to relatively easily load, retrieve data in usable form from, save, and render Collada files, it could lead to a renaissance of 3d on the Mac, and deliver the benefits that Quickdraw 3D promised and so spectacularly failed to deliver.

The second bit: “retrieve data in usable form from” is the tricky part, since Collada is a very hairy format, which means that an ideal implementation would support all the hairiness, but allow you to access raw data in a lowest-common denominator way — e.g. load in complex NURBS objects and then acquire them as meshes at a specified detail level. One thing Apple might do is pick which bits of Collada to support thoroughly and — if they pick well — effectively create a compatible subset of Collada which different software developers can depend on and treat as the defacto standard (kind of the way Photoshop 4.0’s file format is a defacto standard for interoperable Photoshop documents).

Apple’s support for Collada could also help give Collada the momentum it needs to gain stronger support in the 3d world. Right now, a lot of programs have so-so Collada support and superb FBX support (in large part because Autodesk makes supporting FBX pretty easy). But Collada is richer and less proprietary than FBX. In a sense, Collada is analogous to QuickTime in that it can serve as both a format for storing raw and working content as well as delivering optimized end-user content.

Supporting Collada at OS level could be a great “judo” move on Apple’s part. It would allow the Photoshop wannabes to easily offer Photoshop-like 3D support (easily embed 3d objects in layered documents, and provide texture-painting capabilities), and encourage everyone on the Mac — or interoperating with people using Macs — to support a single rich 3d file format. It creates an ecology where indie developers can create “do one thing and one thing well” 3d tools on the Mac that doesn’t really exist on any platform right now.

We’ll see.

iPhone 3GS

Hardware encryption, voice synthesis, macro (10cm) photography, extensive voice control — and all the stuff everyone predicted. The macro photography is actually a very nice feature, since it makes the iPhone a pretty dandy scanner in a pinch. Voice control for the iPod is, for me, a bigger win than voice dialing — but then I don’t talk on the phone much. Voice synthesis I like because of one of my pet back-burner projects.

As for the stuff everyone predicted. The old iPhone 3G is now $99. The new 3GS has a compass, 3MP camera, autofocus lens, tap-to-focus, supports video, in-iPod video trimming, supports turn-by-turn navigation, 2-3x speed improvement, push support, 16/32 GB for $199/299 (and of course you need to commit to AT&T for two years).

If you’ve got an iPhone 3G, the new model will cost you $400 more ($599/$699). Ouch.

Stuff that didn’t seem to be there: more actual RAM on the iPhone, (Edit: correction, a German website accidentally revealed that the new iPhone does indeed have 256MB of RAM) background apps (does anyone really care?), 802.11n.

Available June 19th.

Apple’s Stealth Macbook Upgrade

The bottom end plastic MacBook has just gotten a stealth upgrade — its CPU is now 2.13GHz (i.e. faster than the entry-level unibody Macbook) and it sports a 9400M, so basically if you don’t crave aluminum enclosures it’s simply better than its considerably more expensive sibling.

The obvious conclusion is that Apple will be making fairly major announcements concerning the unibody Macbooks at WWDC. (Apple has been known to launch consumer — or at least non-developer — products at WWDC.)

In any event, the plastic 13″ Macbook is now pretty much the best deal in the Apple universe (if you add a display and keyboard to a Mac Mini you’ll probably end up paying just as much and not have a portable device).

Typing on the iPhone

Daringfireball posted this link today. It’s a challenge to type “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” while riding shotgun in a rally car going full tilt, using either an iPhone or an ASUS netbook. Rather than expect you to go watch the video (which is fairly long), let me just tell you the outcome — the iPhone won so easily it flabbergasted me. Basically, because the guy was typing correctly spelled words, the iPhone autocorrected everything to perfection, and the only mistake was the guy typed the words in the wrong order. On the netbook he couldn’t type a single recognisable word.

Now, I don’t particularly enjoy typing text on my iPhone (if you get a four word email from me, you know where I typed it), but I will say that in landscape mode I find the keyboard actually very good (it pretty much sucks in portrait mode, and I struggle constantly with the autocorrect to type in names, etc.). What this really points to is the advantage, in this particular situation, of (a) having autocorrect, and (b) being able to use a device single-handed. If the finger you’re typing with is on the same hand you’re holding the device inwhen in a rally car, I suspect that’s a huge proportion of the advantage.

But this is post-hoc rationalization. I fully expected the netbook to win easily.

Mac and PC Power Consumption

I’m thinking of buying a new computer for home and thought I’d actually check power consumption (for a change) after noticing that (1) my work PC never goes to sleep despite my settings (I think it’s because it has a web server running on it as a “service”), and (2) a rather nice Gateway (Acer) tower I was looking at had a 750W power supply… I mean, 750W is enough to run a fan heater on low, or the same heat output as ten people.

Here’s what I’ve learned so that you don’t have to bother.

Computer Idle (Watts) Max (Watts)
Mac Pro (original) 4×2.66 (1) 171 250
Mac Pro (2008) 8×2.8 (1) 155 318
Mac Pro (2009) 8×2.3 (1) 146 309
Mac Mini (2009) 2×2.0, 9400M (1) 13 110
Mac Mini (Late 2006) 2×1.83, GMA950 (1) 23 110
24″ Intel iMac (2, 3) 80-100 135 (or 240?!)
PC Intel Core 2 Duo E6400, 8600 GTS (4) 87 163.5
PC AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000, 8600 GTS (4) 102 210
MacBook 2.4, 9400M (5, 7) 9W (8) 90W
MacBook Pro, 9400M+9600M (6, 7) 10W (8) 100W
Here's a graph in case you find digesting tables of numbers as unpleasant as I do.
Here's a graph in case you find digesting tables of numbers as unpleasant as I do.

Addendum

My Kill-a-watt showed up (I got mine from thinkgeek.com). So far my very rough results are that my Macbook Pro (late 2007) uses about 30-35W on “idle” (but with the screen full brightness) and the most I’ve gotten it up to is 68W, but I suspect it could get to around 90W if I could max out the GPU and the CPUs simultaneously.

It will be interesting to measure the power usage of some flat screens to see how well a Mac Mini compares to the iMac (and, at the same time, how well the iMac compares to modular options).

Incidentally, the Macbook Pro’s power brick consumes 1W when it’s not attached to the notebook, and around 24W when it’s charging the notebook but the notebook is asleep. The figures above were for a notebook whose battery needed recharging — it’s probable that power usage goes down if the battery is fully charged.

Notes and Sources

  1. Apple Computer’s tech support pages
  2. From this thread; varying peak power consumption figures probably reflect different GPUs/tasks and bad methodology
  3. Power consumption includes built-in 24″ monitor (varying idle power figures based on brightness)
  4. The Truth About PC Power Consumption on Tom’s Hardware
  5. MacBooks have a 45 Watt-hour battery and have a quoted maximum battery life of 5h when using wireless, so we can safely assume idle power consumption will be around 9W.
  6. MacBook Pros have a 50 Watt-hour battery and a quoted maximum battery life of 5h, so 10W.
  7. Guesstimate based on assumption that peak power consumption will be about 10x idle — which seems like it’s roughly right based on the Mac Mini’s peak power consumption.
  8. Edit: rereading this post I realize there’s a major boneheaded mistake in it. Since notebooks never draw power directly they will always draw (significantly) more power at the wall than they actually consume, and batteries of course take more power to charge than they later provide. I’ll update my figures and graph when my “Kill-a-watt” arrives.

Conclusions

I just changed the energy saver settings on the Mac Pro I’m using. Good grief!

The average cost of residential power in the US is 11.03 cents per kWh (Department of Energy statistics), so that means a Mac Pro on idle costs about $0.39 cents per day, or $141.07 per year, versus $0.04 and $12.56 for a Mac Mini (and probably a similar value for an iMac which puts its display to sleep). And note that the “typical” PC consumes over half the power of a Mac Pro while offering dramatically lower peak performance (as the Tom’s Hardware article might put it — if you were working on a video project that required 8h of manual work and then a bunch of rendering, the 8h would be slightly reduced on the Mac Pro vs. the PC (which would be running close to idle) and then the Mac Pro would finish rendering in one-quarter the time and go to sleep.

Oh, and by the way, if you buy a cheap PC and keep it for two years leaving it switched on most of the time, you’ll have paid an extra $200 for electricity compared to a Mac Mini. As I said at the outset, my work development PC is running a web server as a “service” and thus will never go to sleep.

If you want to save power (and money), get a Mac Mini or a notebook (assuming Windows notebooks are similarly frugal) — unless you need serious horsepower, in which case Mac Pros start to look good (as long as you put them to sleep when you’re not using them). If you bought a Mac Pro because you think Apple is “green”, but you only use it for fairly minor stuff and you don’t put it to sleep when you’re not using it (heck, even if you do) then you’ve made a grave error — your Mac Pro is using as much power on idle as a typical PC under heavy load. Mac Pros are great in terms of computational power per watt, but only if you’re actually using them.