Computer Browsing in Birmingham

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, last week I ventured into Birmingham to see a fantastic concert at the Symphony Hall.  Whilst in Brum, I also engaged in a bit of computer browsing – my current laptop, whilst being fab and serving me well for the last few years, has started to overheat and freeze at random, leading to a full power-off and reboot, losing my work, which won't be great when I start university, so I'm looking to get hold of a new one.

My main question is whether to plump for a Mac or a PC.  I was attracted to the Mac for several reasons: firstly, whilst I love the HP that I currently use, its build quality was a little suspect, and has a known overheating problem (my wireless card was fried about 18 months after I first got it – fixed by HP – and now there are the freezing problems), and I have also had some difficulties with the built-in webcam driver (it basically never worked), and the DVD drive broke too (which HP fixed at the same time as the wireless card).  Looking at the PC laptops around, I wouldn't buy another HP, as I'm wary of further issues down the line, I think that Acers look incredibly tacky, and the Sony VAIOs are just wannabe Macs.  That leaves Dell, which I considered buying from four years ago, but seem to be a bit behind the money design-wise today.  Secondly, I'm going off to study Music in October, and I'm very aware that musicians do tend to use Macs for their work.  Sibelius (although being fabulous on Windows too) works especially well on a Mac, and it would make sense for me to pick one up when I have access to a student discount.  Finally, I heard from many that Macs "just work", and after many years of fiddling with Windows I would really look forward to a well-built machine, where hardware is perfectly married to software that would last for longer than a PC without many of the problems.

So, I spent a few hours in Birmingham visiting computer stores to have a play and a chat to various salesmen last week.  I first ventured into the Apple Store in the Bullring (which, incidentally, is an incredibly impressive shopping area).  This was absolutely heaving with people, but then again it was the school holidays, so I should have known what to expect.  However, because of this, and the fact that the shop was smaller than I thought it might be, it was a little unpleasant.  There were loads of assistants on duty (and I mean loads), but it was really difficult to get into a private conversation with one, as the shop was just so busy, and I found the experience quite awkward.  I didn't end up quite having the discussion I anticipated, in which we discussed my needs in conjunction with the specifications of the MacBook and MacBook Pro before coming up with a solution.  The man just said "Pro" and printed out a list of what he thought I should buy.  He was rather glib about whether my hardware would work ("Yes it will, we'll set it up for you once you've bought the computer"), and didn't really seem very, well, Apple-like.  Still, I had a little play on a MacBook Pro, and was rather taken with it, deciding in the process that a 13 inch screen would be perfectly adequate for me.

I then headed into Black.  For those who think I'm referring to a tent shop, Black is in fact a rebranded PC World/Currys, done up like an Apple Store.  This was a far better experience, as there was basically nobody in there.  I originally went in to sample the PC laptops currently on offer and have a look.  I had been toying with getting a Sony VAIO, but seeing one in the flesh put me right off it, as there's horrible glitter in the lower end of the casing, below the track pad.  I was disappointed that the Windows machines were locked down (I had read an article that said that customers would be able to play around properly), but upon talking to an assistant about my thoughts, he informed me that a Mac would be by far the better choice.  He took me over to their Mac range, and I had a very long play with a MacBook Pro, he demonstrated some of the cooler features (Expose, and various other multi-touch track pad commands), and generally sold the Mac to me.  This very much made up my mind – I'll still buy direct from Apple (although Black impressed me no end, they were still selling old models at inflated prices, and I doubt they'd offer a student discount), but it was the 13 inch MacBook Pro that I wanted.

There are a few things still concerning me:

1) Office software: I gather that Office 2011 is very similar to Windows Office 2010 (or at least 2007, which I use at the moment), and shares fine.  I'm a little unsure of letting go of Publisher and Access, as I use them every once-in-a-while at the moment, and it seems a bit of a retrograde step to get rid of them.

2) Numeric keypad, or lack of it: in Sibelius, the numeric keypad is vital for various commands, and even if I plug in my current USB numeric keypad, I'm worried that it will use the wrong commands (numbers at top of keyboard, instead of the numpad numbers themselves).  I've got an app for it on my iPhone, but it seems a bit haphazard (it uses Wi-Fi) and I haven't got it to work yet on my PC.  Plus, I probably won't have access to Wi-Fi at University (certainly not to send app data over), so it wouldn't work there.

3) The price: I'm just concerned that I'm wasting money in buying something for its looks and its reputation, rather than whether it will do the job better.  Obviously I'm about to take out a very large loan, so I want to make sure that I'm spending my money wisely.

I'd appreciate any comments or advise – I'll write more when I make any further decisions!

Rite of Spring in 3D: Review

Yesterday, I ventured to Birmingham's Symphony Hall to see Stravinsky's Rite of Spring performed with 3D visuals.  Birmingham is not a place I have visited much before, indeed my first ever visit to the Symphony Hall was in March, when I saw Joshua Bell and Stephen Isserlis perform Brahms' "Double" Concerto for Violin and Cello.  That performance itself was supremely memorable, and I was very keen to return to the venue soon for another event.  In the "future events" listing, this performance of the Rite in 3D caught my eye: it is a supreme piece of music, and I was very keen to see it with this new slant.

I attended the first of two performances, which began with Tuning Up by Varèse, an amusing short work, which explored the intriguing sound world of the orchestra tuning up.  I really enjoyed this performance, aided by the orchestra's staging, with players still walking onto the stage as the piece commenced, as if the orchestra was actually tuning up!  (I'm assuming this was deliberate!)

This was then followed by Liget's Lontanto, another fascinating 20th Century work, which all stems from a single flute Ab.  In the audience, you wonder whether additional instruments are joining on other notes, or if you are just hearing overtones from notes already playing.  This is another incredible sound world to be submersed in, and I greatly enjoyed these two works to begin the concert.

It was slightly disappointing that these two opening works did not have any 3D visuals alongside them, as I assumed they might, and moreover, due to the big screen erected above the orchestra for the 3D projections, I was unable to see (from my seat) the back half of the orchestra whilst they were playing.  However, this is only a very minor quibble, as both pieces were excellently performed, and what followed was truly breathtaking.

The dancer, Julia Mach, performed in a small area, with entirely black floor and background, whilst being tracked by cameras.  The absolutely incredible computer technology used this to track her movements and create a 3D model of her on the projection screen, interacting with virtual surroundings.

Many fantastic visual tricks were used, including Matrix-style backgrounds, the dancer's arm turning into a "tentacle", just the leg from foot to knee being shown and then mirrored, before her body finally explodes into a myriad of spheres.

The visuals complemented the music brilliantly, and it was an exceptional concert – I'm so glad I travelled all the way into Birmingham.