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Macs

2018 MacBook Air versus some of its aged predecessors

I recently purchased a new 2018 13″ MacBook Air—my first new Mac laptop in over five years. My hope is that this machine can replace two aging laptops: A 2013 13″ Retina MacBook Pro (I use this when I want more “power” or screen resolution) and a 2012 11″ MacBook Air (I use this when I want portability).

Reviews of this machine are all over the net, so I’m not even going to attempt a full review. If you want an in-depth review of the machine, go read Six Colors’ review, or The Verge’s review or Wired’s review…or just start with Macrumors’ round-up of reviews and go from there.

Instead of a full review, I’ll provide some brief thoughts on the machine, then move on to my main focus: The performance changes in Apple’s smallest laptops from 2012 to today, based on comparisons between my three machines. I was interested in how this would turn out, as the two older Macs are both Core i7 CPUs, versus the Core i5 in the new Air. There’s lots out there to read about how the 2018 Air compares to other current machines, or semi-new machines…but I thought it might be interesting to see how performance has changed in five-plus years.

But first, my thoughts on the new Air…

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6,399 reasons why I haven’t yet replaced my iMac

My main machine is a late 2014 27″ iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 CPU, 24GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD (plus a big external RAID for most of my files). While it runs fine, I would like something with Thunderbolt 3 support, with faster graphics for X-Plane, and with more computing power for ripping Blu-Ray discs. It’s also beyond AppleCare age, and if something fails, it will be expensive and time consuming to repair.

When the iMac Pro came out, I was intrigued, but the price point is scary high and there was the “new new” Mac Pro on the horizon—potentially a cheaper alternative, given the display wouldn’t have to be bundled (and upgradeability is a good thing). I was hoping for an update on that machine at WWDC this June. Instead, we got the update much earlier, though it’s not was I was hoping to hear: The new new Mac Pro won’t be released in 2018.

As a result, if I want to replace my iMac this year, I have only two choices: A new iMac non-pro, or a new iMac Pro. (In theory, I could look at a MacBook Pro with an eGPU for graphics, but I despise the Touch Bar, and that’s the only way to get the highest-spec MacBook Pro. But I really want a desktop Mac, not a laptop-as-desktop Mac.)

So just what would I be getting for my money with either machine? And how do those machines compare with the Frankenmac homebuilt I put together last year? And perhaps more intriguingly, how do they compare with the 2013 “new” Mac Pro that Apple still sells today?

To answer those questions, I turned to the Geekbench 4 benchmark app, which includes both CPU and graphics (they call it Compute) benchmark tools.

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Quicken 2018’s subscription isn’t really a subscription

When Mac Quicken 2018 was announced as subscription only, I vented on Twitter

“Quicken is now sold on a membership basis.”

Screw that—it’d cost me $50/year just for quote downloads, basically. #Quicken2007Forever

However, as part of my work on finding a replacement for Quicken 2007, I discovered that Quicken has done themselves something of a disservice with their marketing: Quicken 2018 is not a typical software subscription, it’s more of a traditional model.

Note: For those who aren’t aware, Quicken is no longer owned by Intuit; they were bought by an investment bank. That’s both good and bad. It’s good that they’re out from under Intuit’s lack of interest in the Mac app, but it’s possibly bad in that an investment group only buys a company for one reason: To later sell it at a big profit. However, to profit, you need to provide things people want, so New Quicken should be focused on providing excellent apps.

In a modern software subscription plan, as with Microsoft’s Office 365 or Adobe’s Creative Cloud, you only have rights to use the software while your subscription is active. Stop subscribing, and you can’t use the apps any more. (Though I believe Office will run in view-only mode.)

But that’s not how Quicken’s subscription works. Quicken’s subscription is backed by something they call the Data Access Guarantee, which insures you’ll always be able to access your financial data. From that page, with my emphasis added:

…whether you renew your subscription or not, you’ll always have full access to and ownership of your data. You can view, edit, export, and manually enter transactions and accounts, even after your subscription ends.

Access to online services, such as transaction download, quotes, and mobile sync, along with access to Quicken Support, will end if your subscription does.

Even if I stop subscribing, I’ll be able to continue using Quicken 2018 (or 2019 or whatever) much the same way I use Quicken 2007 today: As a standalone app without access to online services or Quicken’s support services. (Note that this doesn’t apply to the Starter edition, just Deluxe and Premier. But Starter is very limited; I imagine most users will have at least Deluxe.)

This policy allays my fears about the subscription: If I decide I don’t need the online services, I can stop subscribing and still use the app manually. If they had communicated this more clearly up front, I wouldn’t have had any qualms with supporting their new approach, nor would I have vented on Twitter.

The ability to continue using the app after my subscription ends allays my main fear with subscriptions: Once you start, you’re locked in because you lose the software if you ever stop paying. Thanks, Quicken, for taking this approach.

When castles were dark and pixels were black and white

Recently, while browsing Michael Tsai’s blog, I came across a link to a chapter from The Secret History of Mac Gaming, a book by Richard Moss.

This particular chapter dealt with the making of Dark Castle, one of the earliest Mac video games. It’s a pretty amazing tale of life in the early days of home computing. For example, on the founding of the company that released Dark Castle:

Not one to be discouraged, Jackson withdrew most of his life savings, bought a Lisa, signed up for the Apple developer program, and founded the company Silicon Beach Software in mid-1984. He then met with seventeen-year-old Jonathan Gay and made a deal. Gay wouldn’t get any money up front, but he’d get royalties on sales of a Macintosh game that he’d program on weekends.

Reading the chapter brought back memories of playing both Dark Castle and its more-aggravating successor, Beyond Dark Castle. These side-scrolling platformers were fun, frustrating, and rewarding—a great mix for video games of any era. I wondered if it was possible to play them today, 30-plus years later…and of course, it was.

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The iMac Pro—and upcoming Mac Pro—are Apple’s ‘halo cars’

Writing on his blog, Kirk McElhearn talks about profit and the iMac Pro/new Mac Pro (emphasis added):

I’m speculating, but I think Apple won’t be making much of a profit from the iMac Pro, or the coming Mac Pro, but rather needs to have these computers as flagship devices to show that the company can innovate. If they take a loss, because of R&D costs, it’s not a big deal, because for every iMac Pro or Mac Pro they’ll sell, they probably book 10,000 iPhones.

I think Kirk’s spot on here (though this being Apple, I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a small profit on the Pro models). And there’s a perfect corollary in the automotive world: halo cars

A halo vehicle (or halo model) in automobile marketing is one designed and marketed to showcase the talents and resources of the manufacturers and to promote sales of other vehicles within a marque.

Consider Ford and the new Ford GT, which is a stunning $495,000 sports car…

Ford won’t sell may of these—I believe they’ve capped production at 1,000 units or so, and they’re probably taking a loss on each car. But it’s a car that shows what Ford can do given unlimited budget and working outside the constraints of a typical production line—it takes one full day to assemble each car. Compare that to the roughly 300,000 Ford Fusions sold each year, which means they’re producing over 820 cars per day.

It also gives the owner of a Fusion or Fiesta or Mustang the ability to say “Yea, it’s a Ford—the same company that makes that amazing GT.” It may even draw them into a showroom to see the car, where they may leave with some lesser vehicle. (Though with so few GTs being built, Chevrolet’s Corvette is a better real-world example of a halo car, as you can find those at any Chevy dealer.)

Thinking about the iMac Pro/new Mac Pro as Apple’s halo cars makes perfect sense. These are expensive machines that will sell to relatively few people, but every Mac (and iPhone) owner can say “Yea, the same company that makes those amazing high-end desktop machines.” It may also draw users to an Apple Store to see this amazing metal, and they may end up leaving with a “normal” iMac or MacBook Pro.

And it lets Phil keep saying “Can’t innovate any more, my ass!” for a few more years.

The fundamental problem with the Touch Bar

Today, via a link posted on Six Colors, I read Steven Acquino’s The Touch Bar Makes the Mac More Accessible to Me, in which Steven shares his positive experiences with the Touch Bar:

Where it shines considerably is as an alternative to keyboard shortcuts and the system emoji picker. Tapping a button on the Touch Bar is far more accessible than trying to contort my hands to execute a keyboard shortcut or straining my eyes searching for an emoji.

Usability is definitely an individual thing, and Steven makes a good case for why he likes the Touch Bar. However, Steven doesn’t mention a fundamental issue with the Touch Bar. Nor does Marco Arment in his Fixing the MacBook Pro article. To me, this unstated issue is the main problem with the Touch Bar, and it’s one that Apple can’t fix with new features or tweaks:

You cannot use the Touch Bar without looking at it

The Touch Bar, despite its name, is actually an Eye Bar: It forces your eyes off the screen, down to the Touch Bar, back up to the screen, repeat ad infinitum. There’s nothing physical about interacting with the Touch Bar, aside from using your finger: There are no defined button areas, and there’s no haptic feedback when you tap something. So you absolutely must look at the Touch Bar to interact with it.

When the new MacBooks were released, I spent about 30 minutes testing a Touch Bar-equipped version in an Apple Store, and this constant moving of my eyes’ focus from keyboard to screen to keyboard to screen to…well, you get the idea…was incredibly disruptive. To use the Touch Bar, I’d have to change my focus to the keyboard, then refocus on the screen, taking time to find my active window and locate the mouse cursor. This did not make for a pleasant user experience.

As but one example, Steven mentions using the Touch Bar for zooming:

In addition, the Zoom feature—one of the Touch Bar’s many accessibility features—makes seeing controls much easier.

Granted, there are some extra capabilities in the Touch Bar zoom, but using the Touch Bar for zoom seems infinitely harder—and more disruptive—than my preferred approach:

You can really customize zoom in that panel, including making it usable via the keyboard, setting zoom limits, and more. I keep it simple, though, with a mouse-assisted full screen zoom.

To zoom my screen, I hold down the Control key, then scroll my Magic Mouse with one finger, and I get infinite and easily-controllable zoom, all without ever taking my eyes off the screen. To zoom with the Touch Bar, I’d need to look at the Touch Bar while I tapped on it to get into zoom mode, then look back to the screen as I zoomed. That seems much tougher, and again, my eyes have to go from screen to keyboard and back—and do so again when I’m done zooming to exit zoom.

Using a Mac should be about doing things efficiently, and to me, the Touch Bar is an incredibly inefficient solution to a non-existent problem. I’m with Marco, and hope that future laptops either remove the Touch Bar completely or make it optional.

An in-depth look at moving from iPhoto to Photos

As noted in prior posts, I’ve recently moved to Photos from iPhoto. So far, it’s been a mixed experience. There are some elements of Photos I like, but as of today, those things are outweighed by the things I don’t like.

I’ve vented on a number of the things I dislike on Twitter, but wanted to expand on both the positives and the negatives in more detail. Hence, this “one week in” review (of sorts) of Photos, from the perspective of an experienced iPhoto user.

I’ve also included some tips for working with and migrating to Photos for those who haven’t yet made the move from iPhoto. Finally, if you’re still reading, I’ve listed the key features I’d really like to see come to Photos in a future update.

Note that I am not a great photographer, but I do take a lot of photos—I have over 40,000 photos and a couple thousand video clips in my database. To keep things organized, I use lots of keywords and Smart Albums, so much of my feedback on Photos is concerned with those areas of the program.

First off, my time with Photos hasn’t all been bad; there are some things that I really like in Photos…

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Making some marks on some iPhone 8 benches

With the arrival of my iPhone 8 Plus and its A11 Bionic CPU, I thought it’d be interesting to compare its benchmark performance (for the CPU and GPU) with some of the other gear in our home—iOS devices, Macs, and even a PC and a Linux box. In total, I tested 15 devices.

How did I test? I turned to Geekbench, which you can run on MacOS, Windows, and Linux (anywhere from free to $99), as well as on iOS ($.99). It has tests for both the CPU (using single and multiple cores) as well as the GPU (OpenCL and Metal on iOS/macOS; OpenCL and CUDA on Windows; CUDA on Linux).

What follows is far from a scientific study; I was just curious how the CPU and GPU in the iPhone compared to other tech gear in our home. As such, I didn’t run the tests under “ideal lab conditions,” I just ran them—one time per machine, with no special setup other than some basic stuff…

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Frankenmac 2017: Fix distorted images at power on

When I originally set up Frankenmac 2017, I did so using an old 1920×1200 monitor, and everything looked fine from power on through booting to macOS.

But then, when it came time to get Frankenmac ready for production use (much more on that in a future post!), I connected it to my widescreen Dell 4K display, and was greeted with the ugliness that is a stretched Apple, as seen at right. This problem would fix itself relatively quickly during the boot process, but it was annoying.

Even more annoying was that the same distortion was present in the Clover boot loader that you see every time you power on the machine. In light of all my other issues, solving this problem was near the bottom of the priority list. But once I’d done everything I could on that front (again, more about that soon), it was time to tackle the distortion issue.

The solution turned out to be relatively simple, though not even vaguely describable as obvious. After much web searching, I wound up in this forum thread, where I found many possible solutions. Some seemed incredibly complex, but finally, on page four, I found a simple fix that worked—no more distortion, in either the Apple logo or the Clover screen:

If you’re experiencing distorted images on your hackintosh, here’s the fix that worked for me:

  1. Power up and enter BIOS (usually by hitting the Delete key)
  2. Find the Windows 8/10 Features setting—on my Gigabyte motherboard, it’s in the BIOS Features section. Set it to Windows 8/10
  3. Once you do step one, a new option, CSM Support, will show up. Set it to Disabled.
  4. Confirm that Secure Boot is set to Disabled.

And that’s that—with those changes (for me at least), the distortion was gone. As a side benefit, the boot screen is at the full resolution of the display, so there’s no more jaggies and everything looks properly scaled. Ah, correct aspect ratio bliss!

See sensor stats in Terminal

Someone—perhaps it was Kirk—pointed me at this nifty Ruby gem to read and display your Mac’s sensors in Terminal: iStats — not to be confused with iStat Menus, a GUI tool that does similar things.

Installation is sinmple, via sudo gem install iStats. After a few minutes, iStats will be ready to use. In its simplest form, call istats by itself with no parameters. Normally I’d list the Terminal output here, but istats (by default, can be disabled) presents informatiomn with neat little inline bar graphs, so here’s a screenshot:

This tool is especially useful on a laptop, as it provides an easy-to-read battery summary.

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