Archives For technology

I appeared on Clockwise again this week, a great 30-minute podcast where four people offer their opinions on four technology topics. I love Clockwise because it’s so easily digestible, and the topics are always interesting.

For this episode, 172: Serial iPhone Killer, we discussed the upcoming Nintendo Switch gaming platform, Twitter security challenges for the White House, the death of the Vine video service, and the changing face of Apple support. I was joined by hosts Jason Snell and Dan Moren, as well as the multi-talented Alex Cox. Go have a listen!

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While Apple was introducing the new 2016 MacBook Pro during its recent media event, I was ready to place my order. My workhorse 2010 MacBook Pro, which I’ve Frankenstein’d in various ways to eke out more life, is now enough behind the curve that it’s time for an upgrade. (It’ll make a great Mac for my daughter to use.)

Apple’s events build in a predictable manner: introduce the new product, play a video about it, go over the technical details and new features, play another video about it (often with plenty of design and engineering photography to make one salivate), and then, finally, reveal the specifications, price, and availability. The floating breakdowns in the MacBook Pro design video are stunning:

But like a lot of people, I didn’t order one right away. The 16 GB RAM limit was the first thing to make me pause; my current machine is maxed out at 8 GB and I often hit that ceiling when I’m editing photos and running many applications in the background. We’ve since learned that the limit is due to a Intel’s memory chips to maintain acceptable battery life using the available processors.

Also, these new models are expensive. Macs have often cost more (although just as often they shake out pretty even or better when you configure competitors’ low-priced computers evenly), but these are definitely a few hundred dollars more than previous models. I realized that I could buy an existing 27-inch 5K iMac (announced last year) and a new base 13-inch MacBook for roughly the same price. That initiated a lot of internal analysis.

And I still bought one. As I was deliberating, I wrote up the following list of reasons this MacBook Pro, at this time, is the new computer for me. Let me reinforce that this is my situation; I’m not trying to be universal or tell you what to buy. But I thought that posting my thought process might help other people who are also weighing many of the same questions.

If I’d gone through these mental exercises in the hours after the machines were announced, I’d be getting one two weeks earlier. Ah well. Now I’m looking at the first week of December.

Why I’m Buying One

Here we go (generally in no particular order):

  1. At the top of my list, and certainly one of the most important factors, is that I spend all of my professional time on my Mac. It’s not like the machine won’t get used.
  2. My 2010 MacBook Pro has served me well, but it’s old. It doesn’t have modern technologies like Handoff, a Retina display, USB 3, or Thunderbolt of any variety. In fact, even though I’ve written about all of these things, none of the machines I own include them. (For things like Handoff I’ve had to borrow machines or have used review units that go back to Apple.) For the record, in addition to my workhorse MacBook Pro, I also own an Early 2009 Mac mini and a Mid 2011 Mac mini, both of which are used as internal servers and test machines.
  3. I often do client work that requires me to use applications such as Photoshop, InDesign, Lightroom, etc., where more horsepower and a better screen will be assets. Making the jump from my existing MacBook Pro to one with modern internal hardware will hopefully be quite a shift.
  4. The new MacBook Pro runs macOS. I know, obvious, but I have no desire to switch to Windows. I’m not knocking people who use Windows (and I do, too, in emulation), but it’s not the everyday OS for me. Too often critics fail to take this into account when they’re obsessing over specs. Sure, go get a laptop with better specs and a lower price point, and have fun when ads start popping up everywhere.
  5. While it’s true that I spend much of my time in my home office, I’m a mobile worker. I sometimes work in coffee shops or on my couch. Although a 27-inch iMac 5K is sorely tempting, it means I can’t do much of my work if I’m not sitting in front of it. If I was solely writing about general topics, I could envision using an iPad Pro as my carry-around computer. (Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six months pondering this.) However, I already carry a 9.7-inch iPad, and although the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a great device, it’s too big for me on an everyday basis.
  6. I upgraded to the 1 TB storage option (an extra $400) because I currently have two 512 GB SSDs in my Frankenstein’d MacBook Pro, and use most of it. (I wrote about replacing the optical drive with an SSD at TidBITS.) I believe I could get down to 512 GB with a lot of work, but I’m concerned about having enough overhead to handle scratch files and such for media that I work on. The storage in modern MacBook Pros isn’t upgradeable in the future. Also, the storage is fast—speedier than most standalone SSDs.
  7. Similarly, I paid $100 more to double the memory in the graphics card, from 2 GB to 4 GB. That’s because many apps now take advantage of graphics processing to speed up operations (like image and media apps), but also because I want this machine to last longer. It’s not lost on me that I continue to use my MacBook Pro after 6 years of daily work.
  8. I look forward to Thunderbolt 3 and getting an external RAID that can store my photos and media library. Right now I have about 2.1 TB of data stored on an old Drobo that is just glacial over FireWire 800. It’s painful. That said, I’m holding off on that until Thunderbolt 3 is more widespread. In the meantime, I ordered a USB 3.0-only G-Technology drive to replace the Drobo in the short term. (More on external purchases below.)
  9. Space Gray. Space. Gray.
  10. I could save some money by buying a 13-inch model, but it feels cramped to me. I’ve used a 13-inch MacBook Pro provided by a client this year, and it’s fine, but especially when I’m working on photos, the 15-inch model is better. Also, the 15-inch model uses full Thunderbolt 3 connections on each of its four ports; the 13-inch offers limited connection on two of the four ports.
  11. The Touch Bar is definitely interesting, but it’s not a deciding factor. It will probably get limited use on my desk at home, because I connect to an external monitor and use the MacBook Pro’s display as a second screen. I am, however, eager to see how non-power-users will react to the Touch Bar. I’ve spent my career encouraging people to use keyboard shortcuts, and yet I think that most people don’t bother with them. Having logical options appear as a button on the keyboard—without having to junk up the interface on the screen—could be great for discoverability.
  12. Related to above: I’d love to get a new 5K monitor that would work with the MacBook Pro, but I’m not made of money. The LG announced at the event seems good—and Apple even reduced the price to $974 through the end of the year!—but we’ll have to see more specifics. I may get The Wirecutter’s pick for a 4K 27-inch display, but for now I’ll stick with what I have. It’s not great, but it’s paid for.
  13. Battery life! Right now my 2010 MacBook Pro is lucky to get about an hour’s worth of battery time before it needs to be plugged in. I could have had the battery replaced at some point, but I knew that a new machine was coming up soon and it didn’t seem worth the expense. FruitJuice tells me that it’s at 56% of capacity, having clocked 1198 out of 1000 recharge cycles (Apple’s estimate for battery life). Apple is advertising the new MacBook Pro as getting 10 hours of battery life on a charge, which sounds luxurious! In fact, lost in the moans about Apple abandoning the MagSafe connector is the idea behind that, having so much battery life, you won’t be plugged into power if you’re out and about. I won’t need to. I’ll still keep the included power adapter in my bag, but hopefully I won’t need to take it out often.
  14. The wide color gamut screen.
  15. Thin and light. I agree with the arguments that Apple’s obsession with making every product thinner and lighter is getting to be overkill. Why not make it the same size and add a bigger battery? But I can also say that I do like thin and light. My MacBook Pro, itself thinner and lighter than some laptops I’ve carried in the past, is still kinda bulky and heavy in my bag. And even though this machine is old, I swear to you that every day when I pick it up, I enjoy—real tactile enjoyment—that its unibody construction is so solid. When I buy a new piece of technology, I want to feel like I’m embracing the future. And whether that’s an iPhone 7 or MacBook Pro, Apple design delivers.

Pricing

I ordered the top-end MacBook Pro configuration, which includes a 2.7 GHz quad-core i7 processor and 16 GB of memory. I opted to not increase the processor to 2.9 GHz for $200.

I upgraded the storage from 512 GB to 1 TB for $400. Although 2 TB sounds lovely, and perhaps in six years I’ll regret it, another $1,200 felt too steep for me.

I spent $100 to increase the graphics card to the Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB memory.

I did spend the $349 for AppleCare+. In my decades of owning Apple laptops, it’s been helpful every time. Even if it hurts to pay that upfront (and double injury when you see that first “Your order has shipped!” notice, and realize it’s just for the box with the AppleCare information).

Grand total, with estimated tax (and free shipping! Damn right they should include free shipping) was $3,998.20.

Yeah. Ouch. I know.

So, before I pulled the trigger on the order, I went back and calculated how much I’ve spent on my 2010 MacBook Pro over the years. Including AppleCare, tax, a RAM upgrade (to 8 GB), and SSDs, I spent $3,785.

So, the new machine costs more, and it’s more all at once instead of parceled over several years, but it’s not terribly more expensive.

However, that’s not the end. I also need accessories to bring everything up to modern standards. Of course, nothing I own has USB-C, so that meant ordering dongles and adapters. But to my surprise, that wasn’t as bad as I feared: an extra $400. Here’s how it broke down. (These all include affiliate links; if you order them from here I get a small percentage of the sale to help me pay it all off.)

  • Kanex USB-C to DVI Adapter 8.25 Inches (21 cm)-White: $17.82. My external monitor, an NEC MultiSync P221W, only has a DVI connector, so I need this.

  • CalDigit USB-C Docking Station: $149.99. Right now I plug everything individually into their ports on my MacBook Pro. With Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, I look forward to having most everything plug into this dock: Ethernet, USB (for a ScanSnap scanner, headset, iPhone and iPad occasionally, speakers, etc.). Not known offhand is whether I can connect an external hard disk toaster to this via USB 3.0 for duplicates I make to internal drives. I think so, but we’ll have to see.

  • G-Technology G-DRIVE USB 3.0 4TB External Hard Drive: $179.95. This is the drive that will replace my FireWire 800-based Drobo (which will go to one of the Mac minis). USB 3.0 is fast enough for what I do most of the time, and this is an affordable stopgap until I switch to Thunderbolt 3 down the line.

  • Anker PowerLine USB-C to USB 3.0 Cable: $6.99. This cable will connect the G-Drive to the MacBook Pro directly via USB 3. Oops—this has the wrong connector for the G-Drive. Let this be a lesson, kids: don’t shop for USB-C accessories really late at night!

  • Cable Matters USB 3.1 Type C (USB-C) to Type B (USB-B) Cable: $8.99. Here’s the cable to use with the G-Drive, with a USB-B connector.

  • AUKEY USB C to USB 3.0 Adapter (2 Pack): $7.99. Adapters for existing USB cables. I figure it’s good to have a couple in my bag for when I’m out and about. If I need to charge my iPhone 7 via the MacBook Pro, I can do it using one of these and my existing Lightning to USB cable; I don’t need to buy a dedicated Lightning to USB-C cable.

  • SanDisk Extreme Pro SD UHS-II Card USB-C Reader, $29. One thing I will miss on the MacBook Pro is a dedicated SD card slot. There are other, less-expensive card readers that plug into USB-C, but I went with this one so I can test faster transfer speeds in the future.

To be sure, this is a lot of money, especially all in one chunk. But my alternatives were to look into an iMac plus some mobile option (maybe even a basic MacBook), in which case I’d be chained to my office desk for some tasks; or wait a year and see if the next MacBook Pro models are better or cheaper. They’ll most certainly be better in some ways, but a year longer with my current machine isn’t a good option.

I hope this breakdown has been helpful to you, or at least mildly entertaining!

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

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This week I was a guest of Gene Steinberg’s at The Tech Night Owl radio show, where we talked about my new book Photos for OS X and iOS, Apple’s Photos app and its photography ecosystem, the Apple Watch and my Apple Watch: a Take Control Crash Course book, as well as the timely topic of Google turning itself into Alphabet.

Listen to the episode here (MP3): The Tech Night Owl Live – August 15, 2015

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

Apple Watch Inception

My review of the Apple Watch appears in today’s Seattle Times: Apple Watch impresses, amuses even though it’s the 1.0 version.

My editor wanted a tight review in 700 words, which was hard to do because there’s so much to say about the Apple Watch and because writing shorter is always more difficult than writing longer.

The Apple Watch experience, more than that of any other Apple product, is defined by details. Some are amazing and genuinely delightful, while others remind you that Apple’s foray into a new category of computing is still a first-generation product.

Speaking of which, I’m hard at work on the expanded version of my book Apple Watch: A Take Control Crash Course. It’s currently 50% off at $5, and will return to its normal $10 price as soon as the update is ready; if you buy the book now, you get the full version for free when it’s released!

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

Broadcast thumbnail clockwise artworkI joined hosts Jason Snell and Dan Moren, and co-guest Christina Bonningham, on this week’s episode of the Clockwise podcast. We talked about workspaces, the Microsoft Band and other wearables, VR goggles (will VR ever break into the mainstream?), and my topic, the uncanny valley of personal digital assistants like Siri making human-like expressions.

I love the format of Clockwise: Four people chime in on four topics for 30 minutes, plus a bonus question at the end. Too many podcasts are 90 minutes of rambling that I just don’t have time for, even if there’s some good content in there somewhere. Jason and Dan are great hosts, and respect their listeners’ time.

A few quick caveats up front:

  • I’ve not used an Oculus Rift VR headset, and I’m not even much of a gamer anymore.
  • I’m working on multiple projects right now and I’m sleep deprived.
  • I’m highly caffeinated.

Still, the news that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion ($1.6 billion of which is Facebook stock), I, too made jokes on Twitter about it.

I mean how could I not? A giant social media advertising company is buying a company that is designing, of all things, virtual-reality (VR) hardware and software.

But I think it could turn out to be a savvy move on the part of Zuckerberg in the long run, based on two tangential relationships I have. (Look, I warned you up front. I’m not trying to be a hard-hitting journalist here. I’m actually typing this on my iPad in a quiet kitchen while more coffee brews.)

I know a guy (who I’m leaving anonymous here) with many years of experience (those are real years, not stretched Silicon Valley years) managing servers at Internet service providers. He knows more about network hardware than I know about most things, and just looking at the impeccable ways he strings cable so it’s not a mess tells you that right away.

A few years ago, he left what seemed like a solid job to go work for Facebook in one of their new data operations centers. This was before your parents had joined Facebook, so it sounded pretty crazy. But he pointed out that even then, the amount of data pouring through Facebook’s machines was immense, especially the vast numbers of digital photos. Although he was going to work for a company best known for its trivial content and sketchy privacy attitudes, it was clearly one of the most interesting, most challenging places to be if you wanted to shape how data on such a scale operates.

I know another guy, Mike Matas, a designer and photographer I’ve met a couple of times who left a successful startup to work at Apple, designed the original iPhone battery icon (among many other things), and then left the world’s biggest fruit company to blaze a trail as an independent software developer again. He and a small band of folks made the interactive version of Al Gore’s book Our Choice, gave an impressive TED talk about it, and looked poised to usher in a new chapter (ha, it’s the caffeine) of interactive ebooks.

Facebook bought his company. Facebook wasn’t, as far as I can tell from the outside, interested in making ebooks. They wanted design talent. And since Matas has been at Facebook, he and his colleagues made big changes to the Facebook Camera app (right as the company bought Instagram for what now seems like a small amount, $1 billion) and recently released the much-lauded Paper app (well, lauded for the design and interactive elements, not so much the stealing of another company’s name).

Now, the thing that ties these two men together, and how it relates to Oculus, is this: They’re both still at Facebook. Part of the Silicon Valley culture, it seems, is that people don’t feel obligated to stick around at companies for too long, especially people who’ve sold their companies and hang out until their options vest.

I admit I don’t know the first man beyond social interactions and I don’t know Matas at all aside from an introduction and a nod hello, but my sense is that more is happening at Facebook behind the blue curtains. My purely gut-level impression is that there are actually two “Facebooks.” The ad-generating behemoth that traffics in funny pictures and quasi-inspirational quotes and an abundance of auto-playing videos and ads is the Facebook of now, and because it’s yoked to impressions and traffic and eyeballs (eww), it has to do all these obnoxious things because that pays the bills even as advertising revenue is losing its effectiveness.

The second Facebook is the one of tomorrow, which doesn’t have to be tied to the current one except in the sense that those Upworthy posts are paying for these two men and plenty of other talented people to work on innovations whose effects are still a few years out.

That’s where Oculus fits in. VR has always been a few years out. It’s the technology that appears in all the movies because no one can make it really work in the real world. But from what I’ve heard, the Oculus folks are genuinely on to something, which likely won’t make its full effect as a pair of digital ski goggles strapped to your head. And Facebook, which has a lot of cash—and more important, a lot of potential—can afford to scoop up this startup now for the future Facebook to work and play with.

It’s easy for us to look at things as they are now and wonder how disparate pieces fit together. Ten years ago, Apple started playing with touchscreen technology in its labs, invented a prototype iPad, then shelved it for a spell until the opportunity arose to create a phone. A phone, from the company that only made computers that were for artists and music players that were for kids, according to much popular opinion. Now look at us. I just wrote this piece on my iPad and it’s likely you read it on an iPhone, iPad, or other touchscreen device.

Coffee’s brewed. Time to tackle the next challenge.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume mailing list that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.