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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.


    Some Troubling Information About Consumer Reports’ Product Testing

    May 23rd, 2018

    AppleInsider got the motherlode. After several years of back and forth debates about its testing procedures, Consumer Reports magazine invited the online publication to tour their facilities in New York. On the surface, you’d think the editorial stuff would be putting on their best face to get favorable coverage.

    And maybe they will. AppleInsider has only published the first part of the story, and there are apt to be far more revelations about CR’s test facilities and the potential shortcomings in the next part.

    Now we all know about the concerns: CR finds problems, or potential problems, with Apple gear. Sometimes the story never changes, sometimes it does. But the entire test process may be a matter of concern.

    Let’s take the recent review that pits Apple’s HomePod against a high-end Google Home Max, which sells for $400 and the Sonos One. In this comparison, “Overall the sound of the HomePod was a bit muddy compared with what the Sonos One and Google Home Max delivered.”

    All right, CR is entitled to its preferences and its test procedures, but lets take a brief look at what AppleInsider reveals about them.

    So we all know CR claims to have a test panel that listens to speakers set up in a special room that, from the front at least, comes across as a crowded audio dealer with loads of gear stacked up one against another. Is that the ideal setup for a speaker system that’s designed to adapt itself to a listening room?

    Well, it appears that the vaunted CR tests are little better than what an ordinary subjective high-end audio magazine does, despite the pretensions. The listening room, for example, is small with a couch, and no indication of any special setup in terms of carpeting or wall treatment. Or is it meant to represent a typical listening room? Unfortunately, the article isn’t specific enough about such matters.

    What is clear is that the speakers, the ones being tested and those used for reference, are placed in the open adjacent to one another. There’s no attempt to isolate the speakers to prevent unwanted reflections or vibrations.

    Worse, no attempt is made to perform a blind test, so that a speaker’s brand name, appearance or other factors doesn’t influence a listener’s subjective opinion. For example, a large speaker may seem to sound better than a small one, but not necessarily because of its sonic character. The possibility of prejudice, even unconscious, against one speaker or another, is not considered.

    But what about the listening panel? Are there dozens of people taking turns to give the speakers thorough tests? Not quite. The setup involves a chief speaker tester, one Elias Arias, and one other tester. In other words, the panel consists of just two people, a testing duo, supposedly specially trained as skilled listeners in an unspecified manner, with a third brought in in the event of a tie. But no amount of training can compensate for the lack of blind testing.

    Wouldn’t it be illuminating if the winning speaker still won if you couldn’t identify it? More likely, the results might be very different.  But CR often appears to live in a bubble.

    Speakers are measured in a soundproof room (anechoic chamber). The results reveal a speaker’s raw potential, but it doesn’t provide data as to how it behaves in a normal listening room, where reflections will impact the sound that you hear. Experienced audio testers may also perform the same measurements in the actual listening location, so you can see how a real world set of numbers compares to what the listener actually hears.

    That comparison with the ones from the anechoic chamber might also provide an indication how the listening area impacts those measurements.

    Now none of this means that the HomePod would have seemed less “muddy” if the tests were done blind, or if the systems were isolated from one another to avoid sympathetic vibrations and other side effects. It might have sounded worse, the same, or the results might have been reversed. I also wonder if CR ever bothered to consult with actual loudspeaker designers, such as my old friend Bob Carver, to determine the most accurate testing methods.

    It sure seems that CR comes up with peculiar ways to evaluate products. Consider tests of notebook computers, where they run web sites from a server in the default browser with cache off to test battery life. How does that approach possibly represent how people will use these notebooks in the real world?

    At least CR claims to stay in touch with manufacturers during the test process, so they can be consulted in the event of a problem. That approach succeeded when a preliminary review of the 2016 MacBook Pro revealed inconsistent battery results. It was strictly the result of that outrageous test process.

    So turning off caching in Safari’s usually hidden Develop menu revealed a subtle bug that Apple fixed with a software update. Suddenly a bad review become a very positive review.

    Now I am not going to turn this article into a blanket condemnation of Consumer Reports. I hope there will be more details about testing schemes in the next part, so the flaws —  and the potential benefits — will be revealed.

    In passing, I do hope CR’s lapses are mostly in the tech arena. But I also know that their review of my low-end VW claimed the front bucket seats had poor side bolstering. That turned out to be totally untrue.

    CR’s review of the VIZIO M55-E0 “home theater display” mislabeled the names of the setup menu’s features in its recommendations for optimal picture settings. It also claimed that no printed manual was supplied with the set; this is half true. You do receive two Quick Start Guides in multiple languages. In its favor, most of the picture settings actually deliver decent results.


    Random Observations About Apple and Biometrics

    February 23rd, 2018

    When the rumors first arose about alleged problems embedding Touch ID in what became the iPhone X, it was painted as a technology problem. Apple couldn’t find a workable scheme to embed a fingerprint sensor beneath an OLED display, so they rushed and scrambled for a solution.

    Apple, of course, ignores such claims. They have been developing facial recognition, Face ID, for several years. Then again, it’s very likely the original concept of an iPhone X didn’t exactly happen last year.

    But when it comes to Apple’s original Touch ID, which debuted on the iPhone 5s in 2012, it’s existence hasn’t quite been a seamless experience. The original version wasn’t always so accurate, although iOS software updates improved things. For some, the accuracy rate would decrease over extended use, and you’d have to redo the setup every so often. With five profiles, I’d often use two for each thumb to give the system as many possibilities for accurate recognition as possible.

    Nowadays, I can get maybe 90% accuracy. It gets worse when I’m just careless of where I place my thumb. Sometimes I have to revert to the passcode for my iPhone to unlock. Certainly it’s not perfect for other companies either, so perhaps Apple came to the inevitable conclusion that something better was needed, and that’s where Face ID came into the picture.

    Apple claims it’s more accurate. According to its support document on the to; ic: “The probability that a random person in the population could look at your iPhone X and unlock it using Face ID is approximately 1 in 1,000,000 (versus 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID).”

    In my travels, I have talked to some iPhone X owners. None of them reported any problems in configuring Face ID, or its accuracy level. Even adapting to the lack of a Home button doesn’t faze them particularly. Indeed, the manager of a local Indian restaurant who shares my interest in Macs and iPhones, was happy to instruct me on using the new gestures.

    Remember that the critics were first claiming that Apple invented Face ID as an afterthought, a last-minute attempt to replace Touch ID because it wouldn’t work with the OLED display. If that were true, that all this sophisticated technology was simply tossed together in a rush act of desperation in the space of a few months, Apple’s designers must be far more brilliant that we could have anticipated. If the press of a deadline can inspire this level of creativity, what could they do if actually given enough time to do it right?

    [Waiting for the sound of laughter.]

    The critics also complained about all those alleged privacy problems with Face ID, morally basing such unproven claims on the quality of facial and iris recognition on the Samsung Galaxy S8, both of which can be defeated with digital photos. Face ID may not be perfect, but getting past it is no easy accomplishment.

    Then again, we’re being told the iPhone X was a total fail, that demand collapsed quickly it went on sale. Even after Apple reported high demand for all its iPhones, the stories poor sales for the flagship have persisted, it’s almost as if the company’s financials don’t exist. Or maybe time has stood still and they were actually never released, or the words in them don’t exist.

    It’s one of the wildest disconnects between what Apple reports and what the critics want you to believe.

    Indeed some of the claims I’ve seen about iPhone sales are still inconsistent, some demonstrating good numbers, some not so good.

    Industry analysts feel that Apple’s guidance for the March quarter is not as good as it should be despite the fact that it estimates double-digit growth for the iPhone compared to the year-ago quarter. At a time when smartphone sales have flattened worldwide, that Apple expects growing sales on its most popular gadget ought to be a good thing.

    Then there’s an editorial from AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger that, despite its alleged success, Google is forced to spend billions of dollars for the default position on Safari for iOS and macOS, because it delivers lots of potential ad income. Remember that Google doesn’t earn much money from Android. Most of it comes from targeted ads, although some results from Google Play sales. Attempts to sell its own premium-priced smartphones under the Nexus and Pixel monikers haven’t fared so well. Apple sells more iPhones in a week than Alphabet sells Pixel phones in a full year.

    And can anyone list the most important features of the last released version of Android, version 8 Oreo? I had to look it up even to find the name. What is certain is that the adoption curve is minimal, as usual, and that most Android handsets feature OS versions a year or two old, security leaks intact.

    Anyway, time for me to return to the real world such as it is.


    HomePod Audio Quality: Let the Disconnect Begin!

    February 13th, 2018

    Let me put this in perspective. Consumer Reports magazine, supposedly an incorruptible source of product reviews and advice, is often at odds with other product reviewers. CR more or less implies that they have the advantage over other publications by dint of the fact that they buy all the products they test, usually anonymously. That way they cannot get a “ringer,” a product that may be specially modified by the manufacturer and thus is not a true example of what customers will get when purchasing the product via the usual channels.

    That said, having reviewed consumer products for over 25 years, I never encountered any evidence that I received anything that was different from what a regular customer would buy.

    I will also grant that CR will, when publishing reviews that have a subjective factor, such as the sound quality of an audio system or the picture quality of a TV set, may not reach the same conclusions as others.

    Take my  VIZIO SB3621 sound bar, the 2017 version. It comes with a wireless Bluetooth subwoofer. According to CNET, it’s a game-changer, matching or exceeding gear costing twice its average $150 purchase price. CR tested similar sound bars from VIZIO, but none of them rose beyond a “good” rating, though they still ended up among the top ten. The description of the sound quality of a similar sound bar, the SB3821, revealed many flaws. But I’ll grant that the two models are different, models with a “38” designation are 38 inches wide, whereas the one I have is 36 inches wide. While they ought to be similar, they appear to come from different years, and that could also account for some of the differences beyond the subjective factors.

    CR’s review of the TV I own, a 55-inch M-Series, afforded it a lower rating than was awarded by CNET, which considered it one of the best they’ve tested at its price point and when compared to gear costing a lot more.

    Long and short, is CNET simply less critical, or are their priorities different? But slightly different models and/or different firmware versions may also account for changes in performance.

    Now when it comes to Apple’s HomePod, CR has published its preliminary review, which includes listening tests from a panel in a dedicated listening room with unspecified size and design.

    But for Apple’s smart speaker, it shouldn’t matter. Most reviews gave it high marks, with amazing sound quality for its size in different listening areas. One review compared it to a KEF studio monitor costing almost three times as much. Another reviewer, as quoted in AppleInsider, made detailed measurements, and come up with results that were about as flat as any speaker gets across the frequency range. The reviewer who conducted those tests characterized highs as “exceptionally crisp” and bass as “incredibly impressive,” meaning tight and natural. Take note of this.

    Now columnist Kirk McElhearn is very much into a variety of musical styles, from classical, to jazz to rock. He listens carefully, and he’s someone I take very seriously. His experience with a brand new HomePod was very different from the crowd. Sometimes it didn’t sound so good, muddy and bassy. He tried it with a TV set and it failed on all counts.

    CR’s first look was more measured. Pitted against the $400 Google Home Max, and a $200 Sonos One, the HomePod also received a “very good” rating. But the other two were still judged superior. To CR, the HomePod’s bass was “boomy and overemphasized,” the midrange was “somewhat hazy,” and treble was “underemphasized,” the equivalent of being distant or less clear. Doesn’t sound very good to me. But the magazine also concluded that these smart speakers were all “reasonably short” of regular wireless speakers.

    Again, we know nothing of the design of CR’s listening room, or the abilities of its listening panel, but I would hope they are skilled at such tasks. In large part, CR’s results weren’t far off from Kirk’s. But the reviewer quoted from AppleInsider, as indicated above, came up with decidedly different conclusions.

    I’d normally be skeptical of CR’s results, since it wouldn’t be the first time they differed from the consensus, but since the listening results were similar to what Kirk reported on some musical material and TV shows, I take it seriously too.

    It’s quite possible much of the disparity is just due to the fact that different people just hear things differently and they are entitled to their preferences. I suppose it’s possible that the HomePods that CR and Kirk tested were defective in some fashion, or that the software needs to be adjusted to better configure the system to deliver similar sonic qualities in a wider variety of listening environments.

    And don’t forget the problems CR had when testing the 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Battery life tests were all over the place, until Apple got involved, and an obscure bug was discovered with caching when using Safari in the Develop mode to turn off that feature. It was fixed, the MacBook Pro passed the retests and garnered high ratings from CR.

    Since Apple claims that the HomePod can adapt itself for a variety of listening areas, maybe they’ll enter the fray to see what’s up. Or maybe all this is due to the fact that no active speaker system can be the perfect solution for every listening area. It’s a reason why I suggest you listen to one before you buy it if you can. Either way, if it doesn’t work the way you want, don’t assume it’ll be fixed eventually. Nothing wrong with returning a product that doesn’t satisfy you, even if it’s from Apple.