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    There’s Yet Another Rant About Apple and Mac Users

    June 11th, 2018

    Over the years, some tech pundits have decided that Apple really needs to drop the Mac. To them, it has outlived its usefulness and, besides, far more money is made from selling iPhones.

    But it’s a good source of hit bait to claim that “Mac users don’t really matter to Apple.”

    Indeed, Apple has, at times, made it seem as if that claim was accurate. The Mac mini has not been refreshed since 2014. After releasing a total redesign for the Mac Pro in late 2013, Apple appeared to drop the ball and mostly abandoned that model.

    When a new MacBook Pro was launched in late 2016, some thought the claim that it was a professional notebook was a huge exaggeration. It was thinner, in the spirit of recent Apple gear, but the highly touted Touch Bar, powered by an ARM system-on-a-chip, was thought to be fluff and not much else.

    Apple also got dinged for things it had never done, such as supplying a model with 32GB of RAM. But that would have required using a different memory controller that might have impacted performance and battery life. In comparison, most PC notebooks were also limited to 16GB. A future Intel CPU update will offer an integrated memory controller that doubles memory capacity.

    Just after Christmas, a Consumer Reports review failed to recommend the 2016 MacBook Pro supposedly due to inconsistent battery life. After Apple got involved, it turned out that CR’s peculiar testing scheme, which involves disabling the browser cache, triggered a rare bug. After Apple fixed it, a retest earned the MacBook Pro an unqualified recommendation.

    Was all this proof that Apple just didn’t care about Macs?

    Well, it’s a sure thing the Touch Bar wasn’t cheap to develop, and embedding an ARM chip in a Mac is definitely innovative. But Apple’s priorities appeared to have gone askew, as the company admitted during a small press roundtable in early 2017.

    The executive team made apologies for taking the Mac Pro in the wrong direction, and promised that a new model with modular capabilities was under development, but it wouldn’t ship right away. There would, however, be a new version of the iMac with professional capabilities. VP Philip Schiller spoke briefly about loving the Mac mini, but quickly changed the subject.

    Before the 2017 WWDC, I thought that Apple would merely offer more professional parts for customized 27-inch 5K iMacs. But such components as Intel Xeon-W CPUs and ECC memory would exceed that model’s resource threshold. So Apple extensively redesigned the cooling system to support workstation-grade parts.

    The 2017 iMac Pro costs $4,999 and up, the most expensive, and most powerful, iMac ever. You can only upgrade RAM, but it’s a dealer only installation since it requires taking the unit completely apart, unlike the regular large iMac, where memory upgrades are a snap.

    Apple promised that a new Mac Pro, which would meet the requirements of pros who want a box that’s easy to configure and upgrade, would appear in 2019, so maybe it’ll be demonstrated at a fall event where new Macs are expected.

    But Apple surely wouldn’t have made the commitment to expensive Macs if it didn’t take the platform — and Mac users — seriously. The iMac Pro itself represents a significant development in all-in-one personal computers.

    Don’t forget that the Mac, while dwarfed by the iPhone, still represents a major business for Apple. Mac market share is at its highest levels in years in a declining PC market, serving tens of millions of loyal users. When you want to develop an app for iOS, tvOS or watchOS, it has to be done on a Mac. That isn’t going to change. In addition, Apple is porting several iOS apps for macOS Mojave, and developers will have the tools to do the same next year.

    According to software head Craig Federighi, iOS and macOS won’t merge and the Mac will not support touchscreens.

    Sure, the Mac may play second fiddle to the iPhone, but that doesn’t diminish the company’s commitment to the platform. But it’s still easy for fear-mongering tech pundits to say otherwise, perhaps indirectly suggesting you shouldn’t buy a Mac because it will never be upgraded, or that upgrades will be half-hearted.

    Perhaps there’s an ulterior motive behind some of those complaints; they are designed to discourage people from buying Macs and pushing them towards the latest PC boxes that, by and large, look the same as the previous PC boxes with some upgraded parts.

    But since Intel has run late with recent CPU upgrades, Apple has often been forced to wait for the right components before refreshing Macs. That doesn’t excuse the way the Mac mini and the MacBook Air have been ignored, but I’ll cut Apple some slack with the Mac Pro, since a major update has been promised for next year.

    Now this doesn’t mean the Mac isn’t going to undergo major changes in the coming years. Maybe Apple is becoming disgusted with Intel’s growing problems in upgrading its CPUs, and will move to ARM. Maybe not. But that’s then, this is now.


    About Daring to Fix or Upgrade Your Mac

    April 22nd, 2018

    Once upon a time, there was a huge question mark about whether you could or should attempt to upgrade your Mac. Whether adding RAM or replacing a drive, would the act void Apple’s warranty? But in the early days, except for some of those original all-in-one models, changing RAM was a snap. The top cover of such models as the Macintosh II and the IIcx could be popped open in a flash, giving you easy access to the internal workings.

    Later on, as Apple began to produce minitowers, it wasn’t always so easy. By the mid-90s, when Apple’s leadership appeared to be more interested in selling the company than building compelling new products, I recall having to disassemble the thin wiring harnesses around the logic board to get to the RAM slots. Indeed, when some Apple executives held a briefing to testers who had signed up for their “Customer Quality Feedback” program, a new Mac with a rejiggered and simplified upgrade scheme was displayed.

    There was a big round of applause from the audience.

    In all this, Apple would never penalize you for upgrading your computer by yourself, so long as you didn’t damage something in the process. It was only logical.

    Nowadays, adding RAM on a MacBook of any sort is not even possible, since Apple opted to solder memory to the logic board. So you had to buy the product with the RAM you wanted, because the only upgrade possible was an expensive logic board replacement. But the options are straightforward. On the 13-inch models, you get 8GB RAM standard, enough for most users. The upgrade to 16GB, the maximum, is $200. For the 15-inch MacBook Pro, it comes with 16GB already, so there’s nothing to upgrade.

    The iMac is a mixed bag. It’s super-easy on the 27-inch model. I manage it in just a few minutes. The 21.5 model requires disassembly of the entire unit, and Apple seals the display assembly to the chassis with adhesive. You’d expect the iMac Pro, a costly workstation version of the larger iMac that caters to pros, to be just as easy as its counterpart. It’s not. Since it requires full disassembly, it’s usually a dealer installation. Again, if you want more RAM, you may want to have it configured that way when you place your order.

    Apple offers 32GB standard, which is a decent amount. Then pricing goes awry. For $800, you double the DDR4 ECC memory to 64GB. Going to the maximum of 128GB costs $2,400. Understand that you can save hundreds of dollars if you choose a third-party option and follow the online instructions to take your computer apart. Is it worth it? If I had the money to buy one of these machines, I would certainly put such an upgrade in the hands of a dealer.

    But if you do it yourself and seriously damage your expensive workstation, is it reasonable to expect Apple to fix it without cost?

    That takes us to a particularly dumb online complaint about Apple refusing to repair an iMac Pro that was evidently wrecked beyond simple repair during the making of a YouTube video. Now maybe the poster believed that ad revenue for this misbegotten project would be sufficient to cover the costs of a replacement.

    That didn’t stop him from contacting Apple and being forewarned that it might refuse to repair the unit. But if you can believe the story, Apple Store employees offered to try, but allegedly had difficulty getting the parts, with the claim that “HQ wouldn’t send the parts they ordered.”

    If they knew about its condition, I wouldn’t be surprised at any excuse to avoid facing the inevitable. But I find it strange that Apple opted to agree to perform such a repair in the first place, or maybe their support people chose to go the extra mile to satisfy a customer who spent a bundle on a new computer.

    But according to an AppleInsider report, the claims made in the video were misleading. Apple’s official policy is that they can refuse to repair gear that exhibits signs of being modified or tempered with. Visible damage would certainly fit into that category. Obviously if you bring in a broken machine, Apple can probably show you the door, or offer to fix it if you’re willing to pay for the replacement parts. But when it comes to a broken logic board and display, the bill may end up being higher than just buying one brand new.

    Consider this counterpart: Imagine replacing all the parts of a car seriously damaged in an accident. Depending on the severity of the mishap, once the costs of that repair exceed the value of the vehicle, insurance adjustors will total the car. That’s what happened to me last June when my VW had a disagreement with an old pickup truck that ventured out of its lane. It was enough to trigger the air bags, and enough to seriously damage the engine compartment. The insurance adjuster concluded it was toast. I used the insurance settlement to get a cheaper car and keep the change.

    Either way, reassembling a car from the raw components is far more expensive than just buying one assembled. I wonder why it works that way, but that’s how it is.

    In any case, this YouTube video featuring someone destroying an iMac Pro and attempting to get warranty service clearly demonstrates that some people have no problem underestimating the intelligence of their audience — or themselves.


    Revisiting Mac on ARM

    April 6th, 2018

    I have lived through all the major Mac processor transitions. Makes me feel old. First it was the Motorola 680×0 series, followed by the PowerPC and, by 2006, Intel.

    Overall, the last one went pretty well. There was a way to run PowerPC software for a few years, courtesy of something called Rosetta. It was pretty decent from a performance standpoint, unlike the 680×0 emulator, which suddenly put you a couple of generations behind in terms of how well the apps ran until they went PowerPC. But until the new apps arrived, the all-new RISC architecture didn’t seem so impressive.

    So is Apple planning yet another processor switchover? Well, consider how Apple has managed to deliver its A-series processors with huge performance boosts every year, very noticeable with most apps.

    Compare that to new Intel processor families that might be measurably more powerful than the previous generation, but the performance advantages are often barely noticeable without a scorecard. Apple’s advantage was to create an ARM-based processor family that took direct advantage of iOS. It wasn’t bogged down with legacy support for things that never existed on an Apple platform, making for more efficiency.

    So does Apple have a Mac on ARM in its future? Microsoft tried Windows RT (on ARM) without a whole lot of success, but perhaps its second try will fare better.

    Using Apple’s Xcode, it shouldn’t be such a big deal for developers to go with the transition to ARM, and allow developers to build flat binaries for that and Intel. Recent rumors have it that you’ll be able to run iOS apps on Macs, and vice versa, more or less. The Touch Bar on the latest MacBook Pros runs with a second processor on that computer, an A-series system-on-a-chip. A similar scheme is used for low-level functions on the iMac Pro,

    So Apple is clearly taking you partway already. How long will it require for a full shift, and should you such a possibility seriously?

    It’s a romantic ideal, that Apple has full control of more and more of the parts that make up its hardware. It would also allow the Mac to offer far more differences than just a higher-priced PC in a fancy box.

    According to recent reports from reporter Mark Gurman of Bloomberg, the prospective shift may happen beginning in 2020. Take it with a grain of salt for now.

    But can an iPhone or iPad chip really power a Mac with equal or better performance than current models? Consider the benchmarks that show Apple’s mobile hardware exceeding the performance of most notebook PCs and coming up real close to the MacBook Pro. No doubt those CPUs are not running full tilt to lower the drain on resources and battery life. What will those benchmarks be if Apple allowed them to run full bore?

    What about the chips shipping two years from now? Remember, too, Apple already has control of graphics hardware, so what happens to its existing partners, AMD and NVIDIA? Apple probably wouldn’t care if its taking these steps.

    It wasn’t so easy for Apple to persuade developers to adopt PowerPC, but far easier to go to Intel, since there was so much legacy software on the Windows platform. That meant that many developers knew how to optimize their Mac apps for Intel. As I recall, it wasn’t such a difficult move.

    But there was one key advantage of Apple going Intel, other than being assured of regular improvements, more or less, in the chips. It was the ability to run Windows natively with Boot Camp, and at pretty good speed with virtual machines courtesy of such apps as Parallels Desktop.

    If Boot Camp and virtual machines have to run in emulation on one of these new fangled Macs, how much would performance deteriorate? Or would Apple devise ways to work around this, such as licensing some Intel chip functions using the graphics hardware to reduce the performance bottleneck? I would be loathe to predict how it could be done, but if the ARM chips end up significantly faster than Intel counterparts, maybe most people won’t notice much of a difference.

    It wouldn’t take the infamous performance hit of running Windows under emulation the PowerPC. That was just dreadful. I remember opening a document would often take a full minute or two.

    Some suggest that Apple, which has often ditched older technologies without apology, might just give up on the concept of running Windows on a Mac. But I suspect lots of users still need that feature. I also suspect that Apple is quite capable of devising a solution that wouldn’t hurt performance in any particularly noticeable way.

    But this all needs a reality check. That Apple could make this change doesn’t mean it will. It might very well be that Intel’s existing hardware roadmap is a viable solution, without saddling Apple with the development costs of a new processor transition. But there are good reasons for consistent hardware across its major platforms. If the annual improvements in Apple’s A-series CPUs continue to provide healthy two-digit performance boosts, maybe it will happen after all.

    I’m skeptical, but with Apple, never say never, particularly if Intel confronts any serious headwinds in improving its chips going forward.


    Apple and the Right to Repair

    March 9th, 2018

    It should seem simple enough. You have a mobile tech gadget that needs a new battery or a repair. You take it to a shop and, when it’s ready, you pick it up and hand over your credit card. Or cash if you’re so inclined. Indeed when my son visited us from his home in Madrid during early 2017, he brought with him an well-worn iPhone 5c with a failing battery. I suggested he replace it, and the cell phone concession at a nearby Walmart offered to do the deed for $39, then $40 less than Apple’s price.

    He was tempted  but opted to save his money and get a new phone when the battery stopped sustaining a charge for more than a few hours.

    Now that repair shop handles all sorts of smartphone and notebook PC repairs. I’m not at all certain how well they do, other than the fact that most of these repairs shouldn’t be rocket science. A repair person from a nearby battery/bulb shop, while one of my Uber passengers, described the process of repacking an iPhone battery. It usually takes 10-15 minutes from power down, replacement to power on. “Piece of cake,” he smiled.

    Except that if you want a genuine Apple part, with a factory warranty. You can’t visit one of those repair shops. They are not authorized to fix Apple gear, they do not possess Apple’s repair tools, product manuals or access to the correct parts.

    It does’t mean they can’t do the job acceptably, but if the right front door of your new car was smashed to smithereens in an accident, would you want the body shop to replace it with a genuine part from the factory, or something fabricated in a third world sweat shop to reduce costs to the insurance company? Not that I have many accidents, but when I do, it’s OEM all the way.

    I’m not so worried about the battery or the tires, but I’d also be concerned about such critical components as the engine, transmission and emission control system. All right, some enthusiasts prefer custom parts to soup up their vehicles, but still.

    But what about your iPhone? Why can’t you have anybody replace the battery with a factory-approved part? Well, if it’s an Apple Store or an authorized dealer, you can. They have the training and equipment to to do the job in accordance with Apple’s standards.

    However, an independent repair shop can’t get the same training and access unless they sign up to become an authorized Apple dealer, assuming any slots are available. If you’re not authorized, Apple doesn’t have to deal with you and, in fact, they don’t have to honor the repair warranty, which means they have the authority to void it if they want.

    That takes us to a series of laws being proposed in different U.S. states called “right to repair,” which would require Apple and other tech companies to provide customers and third-party shops with full access to repair documentation, diagnostic/repair tools and parts. You got the money, they have to make them available.

    California state legislators are preparing to introduce what is called, naturally, the California Right to Repair Act, thus joining 17 other states considering similar bills.

    According to one of the legislators, “The Right to Repair Act will provide consumers with the freedom to have their electronic products and appliances fixed by a repair shop or service provider of their choice, a practice that was taken for granted a generation ago but is now becoming increasingly rare in a world of planned obsolescence.”

    Now Apple has always had a mixed relationship with repair facilities. No problem if you deal with Apple’s factory or authorized stores. But many products are difficult and often impossible to repair, according to iFixit.com. This is especially troublesome with Macs. You expect difficulty dealing with the tiny components of a smartphone or a tablet. If it’s not a place sanctioned by Apple, you’re on your own.

    But what about a personal computer, once presumed to be mostly upgradeable without much difficulty? Nowadays, the only Macs easily upgraded are the legacy 2013 Mac Pro and the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display — and then only for RAM. If you want a new drive on the iMac, you have to pry off the adhesive that holds the glass to the chassis. Surprisingly enough, you have to undergo essentially the same ordeal if you want to upgrade the ECC RAM on an iMac Pro. The 21.5-inch iMac is similarly hostile to RAM upgrades.

    Don’t worry about replacing RAM on a Mac notebook. It’s soldiered to the logic board. What this means is that, with the few desktop exceptions above, you have to buy a Mac with the expectation that no component will ever be changed unless it needs to be repaired. To Apple, it’s just a bigger iPhone when it comes to upgradeability.

    Now Right to Repair doesn’t mean that more Macs will become upgradeable. That’s a design decision. What it does mean is that anyone who cares to take on the task will be able to do such repairs using genuine Apple parts, tools and instructions. Obviously if you fix it yourself, you’ll be responsible if you break something, and independent repair shops will have to guarantee their own work; Apple will only be responsible for its parts.

    But it may equalize the playing field and allow you to get more useful life out of your tech gear, not to mention reduce your repair bills. However, it won’t encourage Apple to design Macs to be more amenable to upgrades. Clearly enough customers aren’t complaining for that shortcoming to be dealt with.