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    Newsletter Issue #1017: Apple and the Right to Repair Dilemma

    May 22nd, 2021

    When I recently brought in the VW for some major front-end work, I didn’t seek out the nearest dealer, which is located some 15 minutes from here. Instead I went to a Firestone shop, a six-minute drive, but no it wasn’t just the convenience of distance. It was because the price was much lower for the same level of work.

    Now I grant the possibility that the parts Firestone’s tech used were not OEM, that perhaps they were made by other companies. But so long as they met the proper specs, why not? It’s not that the dealer to whom I eventually trade the car will examine the branding of each part to be sure they have the VW logo on them.

    But most of you know this, that, except for specialty or costly luxury vehicles, independent mechanics can usually work on your vehicle quite as well as the authorized dealers. So once the warranty expires, I look for the combination of service quality and price in making my maintenance decisions.

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    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.

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    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.

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    The iPhone Report: Where’s My Backup?

    June 29th, 2017

    My initial odyssey with the first public betas of iOS 11 had a predicable ending. As I reported, the early post-installation experience was very positive. Most everything worked first launch, and performance was reasonably smooth. In some ways, it appeared to be a tad snappier than iOS 10.3.2.

    But then I had a couple of days to go beneath the surface, and things weren’t so peachy.

    So Mail would often become unresponsive, as would other apps. Or interface elements would vanish. So I tried to file a support request with a company via their app, entered the data, only to be confronted by the lack of a “Next” button to continue. Attempts to set a route in Google Maps were fruitless, because the app would constantly quit.

    Why not use Apple Maps? Good question, because in many ways I prefer it to Google’s alternative, but that was until I had to make a trip to a car salvage/auction lot to recover a few items from my totaled VW. We’re talking about a 30 minute trip that’s largely on major thoroughfares, including an Interstate. You get the picture.

    Well, Apple Maps may have had difficulty reading the data from the iPhone’s GPS, and that may be why Google Maps flaked out. I’m just guessing that this is all due to a bug in iOS 11, because I never had such a problem with release versions.

    So instead of suggesting the proper turns, it tried to force me to take a roundabout route that would result in a longer trip on city streets with traffic lights rather than a freeway. At least I got the proper directions for the final leg of the journey, consisting of exiting the Interstate, making a left turn, and driving two miles to the salvage yard, located on my left.

    Oh and by the way, I didn’t subject myself to the upsetting experience of looking at my wrecked car. The staff retrieved the few items I left there, and everything was ready for me to pick up when I arrived. I decided long ago not to use a car as a substitute for a junk yard, and I keep them lean and clean.

    In any case, I came to the obvious conclusion that iOS 11 was still a little too raw and flaky for regular use, and it was time to Restore. I’ll probably give it another whirl when a more stable release is to be had.

    A Restore is normally not terribly difficult. If you’re a Public Beta tester, Apple provides a link to the installer files for the previous release for you to download. When you Option-Click Restore in iTunes, you can locate the installer you’ve downloaded in an Open dialog.

    Now before you install a major update for a mobile device or a Mac, make sure you have a recent backup. And that’s precisely what I did with my iPhone before I set up the beta.

    After the device is restored, you can set it up as New, meaning you reenter your settings, and download all your apps from scratch. Instead, I wanted to revert to the backup I made before trying iOS 11. But it wasn’t there! What happened to my backup?

    Well, I found an older backup, made six months ago, and restored against it. Yes, it did mean downloading a few apps I had installed since then, and redoing some settings. But after 30 to 45 minutes, my iPhone was back to normal, mostly.

    Until I tried to diagnose that backup problem, and here’s where I encountered a not unfamiliar problem. Whenever I’d start a backup in iTunes, clicking Back Up Now, the process would appear to start for a minute. Then I’d see a prompt that may iPhone couldn’t be backed up because it “disconnected.” That never happened when I attempted a backup two days ago, but that backup never completed, which may have caused this problem.

    This “disconnected” error may appear in various versions depending on whether you’re restoring or backing up.

    There are several online suggestions and this page seems to have them all well summarized. I restarted everything, went through the cable swapping routines, and I also called upon the Reset Network Settings function on the iPhone. Northing I tried worked, except for a final solution.

    I quit iTunes and visited /Users/[your username]/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup to locate all of the previous backup files for my iOS gear on my Mac. Instead of deleting the backups, I created a new folder and buried them. Once iTunes launched, it no longer recognized the older backups, and I was able to make a new one without further incident.

    Problem solved.

    Now while going through this process, I decided to look into yet another issue I’ve faced from time to time, one probably too insignificant to waste much time fixing. But I can be a little obsessive about such matters. You see, I always give my iPhones a custom name, such as “Rockoids iPhone.” No big deal, right? But every so often, the name resets itself to “iPhone.”

    This is a problem that has spread through several iPhones, over several years of iOS, macOS, and iTunes releases. I decided to give Apple a phone call about it, and I was told about the final solution. Restore the iPhone, but set it up as a new device. Don’t load a backup. That means redoing all of your settings, and reinstalling all of your apps. Depending on how much stuff you store on your iPhone or iPad, this can be a fairly quick or a fairly extensive process.

    For me, it’s somewhat closer to the former than the latter, because I regularly clean out apps that I’m just not using. Some day, I might get around to performing this restore/clean install routine. But not now. I have to weigh the time it’ll take to make my iPhone clean against having to rename it every so often. You can probably guess what I’m going to do, at least for now.

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