Tag Archives: macbook

Throwing Storage At The Problem

Someday, you’re going to spot on online deal for an external drive at a time when you happen to be flush with cash and with no financial perils on the horizon. You should buy that drive. When it arrives, stick it in a closet. Don’t even open the box.

Why? Because having a fresh, empty drive empowers so many solutions to PC problems.

As I write this, I’m helping a friend recover from a dramatic interlude between her MacBook Pro and a mug of hot water with lemon. The laptop is, well…donezo. But! She has a Time Machine backup. I erased a 500 gig external SSD, installed a fresh OS onto it, and am performing a restore. It’ll be a few days before she can get her lemon-soaked MacBook diagnosed but she’ll be back to work long before then. Her old MacBook Air’s internal drive is way too small so she’ll use my SSD as a boot disk.

This is the same SSD that saved my bacon when my own MacBook Pro’s SSD died a month or two ago. If I hadn’t had an uninitialized drive standing by, getting it back up and running would have been a nonlinear process involving a nonzero amount of angst.

My goals were to get my main productivity machine back up and running ASAP in the short term, and to fix the hardware in the longterm. Normally, I would have had two options:

  • Option 1: Order a new external drive. I’d have been without a working Mac for a couple of days. And spending a couple of hundred bucks to build a bootable external drive from my backup wouldn’t have been attractive, given that I was already going to be on the hook for X dollars to replace my Mac’s faulty component.
  • Option 2: Skip the stopgap solution and replace the internal SSD straight away. This would have been the obvious answer if this were any other $2000 laptop. Alas, I am blessed with an Apple product. This blessing is accompanied by the unavailability of standard upgrade and replacement components. I’m lucky that my 2015 MacBook Pro was the last model in the line where the SSD is even swappable. Still, I needed some time to do a little research and figure out the right solution.

But I had a fresh, empty 500 gigabyte Samsung SSD standing by. I did a restore and was back up and running after only an hour or two of downtime. I took my sweet time investigating the fix for my MacBook and not only found exactly the right answer, but also a replacement SSD that was 30% off during a one-day sale.

This advice isn’t complicated, is it?

If you have a huge drive with nothing on it just standing by like a fire extinguisher or a manila envelope with $5000 in cash and three different sets of identity cards, you’ve got a solution to any number of problems. I was about to list a few but trust me: you’ll know them when you see them.

Oh, and BACK UP YOUR DAMN DRIVE. Both my friend and I went through our trials with our respective elan relatively intact because in the worst-case scenario, we were only losing a little time and money. If we didn’t have backups, our most productive avenue would have been to try to get Superman to fly circles around the Earth so fast that it spins in the opposite direction and we can go back to the day when our MacBooks were still healthy.

He would have done it — because he’s Superman — but he would have scolded you with the same admonition about backups that I just gave you. Better to learn it now and not owe Superman a favor.

Retina MacBook Pro – Five First Impressions

I had to get up way before 10 AM to make sure I was available to sign for the package, but boy, was it worth it! My review unit of the new retina MacBook arrived today.

A full review will appear in the Sun-Times shortly. But here are an arbitrary five first impressions:

  • The first thing I noticed was how much lighter it felt than the 15″ MacBook Pro I bought last year. I have plenty of experience toting that thing around the house and it truly feels like what my MacBook would weigh if it had no screen.
  • It doesn’t feel as slim or tiny as you might think. It’s still a full-sized 15″ notebook, after all. If the new MacBook were just as thick as the old one, I could have handled that without losing my **** over it, is that I’m saying.
  • No hardware battery indicator. Bummer. As I always do when I unbox loaner hardware, I parsed the question “Do I need to hook this up to AC for a few hours, or can I start rock-and-rolling with it right away?” Instinctively I looked for a little button on the side and a line of dots.
  • It’s been a while since I set up a brand-new Mac. I was surprised that I needed to enter my AppleID credentials so many times in the first ten minutes. It feels like this should be a keynote demo that starts with Craig Federighi entering in an ID and a password, waiting for three beats, and then saying “…Boom. Done.”
  • The Retina display has a subtle initial impact. It looks exactly like my 15″ display…just, better. The first thing I really noticed was that the familiar tuxedo icon representing the setup wizard had a tabbed collar and onyx shirt studs. Subtle but impressive. For a dramatic example of the improvement, start browsing the web. Bitmapped images (rendered at traditional pixel density) look like utter trash alongside the Retina-quality text that flows around it. Naturally, the images on Apple.com are juiced for Retina.

More later.

[Later: based on some reactions on Twitter from web developers who read my “utter trash” observation and then yanked that length of flexible ducting out of the laundry room and headed out to the garage with it, along with their car keys and a hastily-scrawled not, I should probably clarify what I meant. I was just speaking casually. It’s more accurate to say that whereas the improvement in display resolution isn’t immediately obvious in a Finder window, it’s pretty glaring in a webpage. It’s a bit like how you thought your vision was perfectly fine until you got an eye exam and realized just how many more lines of the eye chart there were.

I do wonder how the arrival of this new MacBook is going to effect web design. Designers want things to look great. Are they going to build Retina-optimized and non-Retina-optimized versions of everything they publish? I dunno. But I hope that any designer clever enough to mprove their site with higher-density graphics will also be clever enough not to push those high-bandwidth images to hardware that can’t do anything productive with them.]

Ports Matter

I love my Mac and I’m 95% sure that in 2013 or 2014 my next notebook will run MacOS and not the another OS that’s currently about nine times more popular. You can call it “lock in” if you want, but as a tech writer who gets to try out everything on the market, I’m still 100% sure that I couldn’t do what I do nearly as well if I weren’t working with a Mac laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone.

Let’s not shy away from the most obvious and annoying downside, though. When you choose MacOS, you know that you aren’t going to get the hardware you want. You’re going to settle for the hardware that comes closest, selected from a very narrow range.

Buying Apple hardware is often like shopping at a mall.

Good Lord, what a project it was to buy a new pair of eyeglass frames a couple of years ago. It started off as a casual errand and turned into a multi-city investigation. Every store I entered stocked one and only one basic style: the kind where the frames are slightly squashed. There was some variation. You could get the slightly squashed frames in metal, or colored plastic. But if you’re convinced that tiny skinny frames make your big stupid head look bigger and stupider, no mall optical store wants to take your money.

And what a late-life revelation it was to learn that I’d been buying the wrong-sized sneakers all my life! I’d always shopped in big stores — usually mall sporting goods stores — and I was always forced to choose between shoes that were Too Snug But They’ll Stretch With Wear or Too Big But I’ll Add A Thick Insole So They’ll Fit Better. One year, I happened to shop at a New Balance outlet store, which stocked every width in between those two sizes. Whoosh! Perfect fit, and now my $100 shoes wear out through the soles after two or three years instead of bursting from the sides after one..

The eyeglass shop doesn’t care if I walk in and point excitedly at a pair of frames and shout “Those are perfect! Exactly what I came in for!” Just as the shoe store knows that if I need sneaks, I need sneaks, and if I don’t find a pair that fit perfectly I’ll probably still buy something that’s almost right. Every square foot of a mall store is expensive and it has to earn, earn, earn. They can’t afford to stock every version or variation of a product if they think they can get a customer to settle. Good business involves figuring out what 80% of all customers nationwide are willing to settle for. It’s not good customer service, but whatever.

I didn’t feel like the other shoe stores had ripped me off, mind you. I just wasn’t even aware that there were other options. And when I did, that was the last time I ever shopped at a big chain store. My eyeglasses, too, are special-orders via Amazon or eBay. What makes the 80% happy is a perfectly fine product; it just isn’t for me.

It isn’t often that I strongly disagree with Mr. Gruber. It’s rarer still when I disagree and I feel like I can say something more interesting than “What he said, only not.” Yeah, I don’t really understand his negative reaction to the concept of a modern Windows notebook with a standard VGA port on it.

From a followup post:

If PC makers wait until there are no VGA projectors in use before they stop putting VGA ports on laptops, they’ve waited too long. Just copy Apple: get rid of the antiquated port, make thinner computers, and sell $20 adaptors for those who need them.

My stumbling points:

1) Everybody loves a standard. That’s why they’re called “standards” (cf Mickey Bergman, “Heist”).

I give lots and lots of talks all over the world every year. With only one exception, when I’ve arrived in the room to test my equipment I’ve found a VGA cable gaffer-taped to the podium. That sure doesn’t sound like an “antiquated” standard to me.

VGA isn’t modern by any stretch. It does, however, have the one feature that makes a standard valuable: it’s everywhere and it works. If a conference or a university tells me that the hall is set up for VGA, my problems are solved. If they say “It’s HDMI” then I have to ask what kind of a connector it is, and then I might have to go out and buy it, and then I have to make sure I don’t forget to bring this extra cable with me.

And God help me if they say “We’re using a wireless video device. You just have to install a piece of software to make it work. You’re running Windows 7 on your MacBook, right?” Wireless projection is very much of the 21st-century but that’s cold comfort when I’m walking through an hourlong presentation with makeshift shadow puppets.

2) It’s cheesy to keep soaking a customer for added accessories.

It’s just bad. Particularly on a laptop that the consumer’s already spending $1500-$2000 on. A MacBook is hardly a budget-priced item. If a basic feature isn’t onboard, just give the customer the damned dongle instead of making them race back to the store 30 minutes before closing and then charging them $30.

3) Dongles stink.

Sometimes they’re necessary evils, as when a device is too slim to accommodate the right plug and when slimness is important to the product you’re making.

But they’re never, ever, ever a good idea. They exist to trip people up. In an ideal world, I’d always remember to pack a video dongle in that Little Bag Of Cables And Chargers when I leave the house to go and give a talk. I would never walk out of the hotel and head to the speaking venue without making sure the dongle was in my laptop bag.

This is a world in which $200,000,000 was spent to make a movie based on the board game “Battleship.” Does this look like a perfect world?

A case in point: during my trip to Ireland, my iPad was my sole computer. I packed my Airport Express, just in case the only Internet access in my room was Ethernet. I sure didn’t consider that a hassle: I wouldn’t have expected a device like the iPad to have Ethernet.

Fortunately, the WiFi in my hotel room was great. I didn’t need the Airport. This was also fortunate for another speaker, whose MacBook Air couldn’t find the hotel WiFi for love or whiskey. I lent him the Airport and saved him the loss of a whole work night and the hassle of scouring the streets of Dublin for a USB Ethernet dongle the next day.

Dongles. STINK.

4) “Ideologically Sound” is not a feature.

“We decided not to include that in the product.”


“Because in our vision of the future, that feature will one day be unnecessary.”

No, no, no.

When you’re trying to sell me something and I ask you why your expensive product can’t do something that I (and most people, I think) would expect it to do, don’t sigh and tent your fingers and start spouting design philosophy. That’s just arrogance. Tell me why this decision makes your product better. Tell me how it adds value. Tell me how this decision makes my life better.

If you can’t do any of those things, then you admit that you have no answer.

The MacBook Air is a special case, of course. It’s too thin to accept a standard VGA or Ethernet connector. Fine. Tell me “We wanted to make the Air as easy to carry around as possible. It’s too thin for a standard connector.” That’s a perfectly acceptable response. Just don’t even try to convince me that I’m silly for seeing “onboard VGA and Ethernet” as desirable features. Hundreds of podiums and Ethernet-only hotel rooms beg to differ with you.

5) The advantage of the PC marketplace is its diversity.

Here we finally get back to the “Mall store” frustration. Apple’s lack of options isn’t arrogance. Mostly, it’s simple, sensible business math. They’re one company and they have to manufacture every computer that runs MacOS. They sure can’t afford to build dozens of different models that cater to every need, and keep them all in inventory.

But the PC marketplace is different. Write up a list of every feature you’d like your new notebook to have. Chances are excellent that you’ll be able to find a computer that fits almost that entire description…and maybe even at the price you can afford to pay.

Is the wide variety of options and prices confusing to consumers? Maybe, sure. It’s their money, though. Isn’t it better that they can spend it on the notebook that best matches their needs? Larger screen, smaller screen. Dirt-cheap with a weak AMD CPU, mid-priced with Ivy Bridge. I’m checking out Samsung’s latest Series 5 notebooks and these are all options just within that one model. The one I have here is built quite solidly, and while it’s not as thin as an 11″ MacBook Air, it does feature a larger screen plus twice as much SSD storage at the same price. As well as onboard HDMI out and Gigabit Ethernet. Yes, it’s a dongle-free zone.

PCs offer choices. Want to pay extra for an ultra-slim, metal-clad notebook? You’re covered. Want to spend less money on something that’s slightly less sexy but is still thin and well-made? Covered. Don’t want to travel with a bag full of accessory connectors? Covered. Want something more akin to “a transportable desktop PC” than a sleek notebook? Take your pick.

PC makers are following the lead of consumers — not Apple — by making thinner notebooks. It’s actually not that easy to find a popular Windows notebook with onboard VGA. But for those customers who like that, the hardware is out there. They can get the laptop they want, not the laptop that they have to settle for.

That’s a good thing. I don’t think I’d take that as a sign that any Windows manufacturer is stubbornly holding on to the past.

Last year, my 2008-design MacBook Pro reached end-of-life and I bought myself a new 15″ MacBook Pro. Lord, how I was tempted by the Air. I had an Apple loaner for a month or two and that’s all the convincing that you need if you spend only part of your work time at a desk. After lots of deep breaths — and conversations in my head in which the “con” side of the argument was voiced by my father — I felt that the 13″ screen, the limited SSD storage, and the lack of onboard Ethernet would drive me nuts in day-to-day use. I get way more bang for my buck with the more conventional Pro.

I was little worried about what Apple was going to announce at WWDC. Would they make the MacBook Pro slightly thinner? Would it be just thin enough that they’ll say “Oh, well, we dropped Ethernet. It’s a wireless world out there. If you really need it, just buy a dongle”?

This is another thing that kind of gets me going. “Thin” is definitely a feature in notebooks, and not least because it usually means “light.” The difference between traveling with a 13″ MacBook Pro and a 13″ Air is like night and day, whether you’re popping out to Panera for a few hours or off to a conference on another continent for a whole week.

While “thin” is a feature, “thinner” isn’t. Not always. When you’re comparing a conventional notebook to an Air, yes, that’s absolutely a great feature. But I’ve been examining my MacBook Pro since the announcement of the next-gen MacBook and (while my review unit makes its way here) I’m wondering just how much more convenient this marginally-thinner new model would be. I’ve never once been in a position where I’m about to leave for the airport and I still need to slide a copy of People Magazine in my laptop bag but…rgh…mmph…this darn old-fashioned MacBook Pro is just too darn thick…

So I was pretty relieved to learn that Apple’s new thinner design would expand the MacBook Pro line instead of replacing it. It’s just not worth it to drop an Ethernet port solely on the ideological principle that notebooks should always, always, always be made thinner.

[Added, based on early comments: I’m not saying that all notebooks should have VGA and Ethernet. My point is that the presence of those features shouldn’t be taken as a sign that a company isn’t thinking. There are people out there willing to pay money for a notebook with onboard VGA. Sony is willing to take their money. Simple. “We included this feature because it’s useful and people want it” isn’t something that any company should be ashamed of, or criticized for.

What I admire most about the Windows ecosystem is that if feature (x) is important to you, you can usually find hardware that supports it. You don’t need to settle quite as often as you do as a Mac user.]

MacBook Air: Steady on…

MacBook Air on top of a MacBook Pro on a table outdoors, next to comic books. The Air is the same rough size as the comics.

My review of the MacBook Air went out on Monday, in case you missed it. Here’s a link to the review. As usual, I cross-posted the photos to my Flickr account, so folks could see them in higher resolution.

The basic takeaways:

  • I had two major complaints about the original Air: it was too expensive, and came with enough shortcomings that it couldn’t really be considered a “real” Mac. Both of those problems were definitely addressed with the two updated models.
  • These are real computers that can handle just about any regular Mac app. Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, iMovie…they’re all on the table. And the full-sized keyboards and trackpads make them as comfortable to work with as any other Mac.
  • The 11″ is the clear standout. I love the smaller form factor; you’ll definitely be taking it more places than a regular MacBook and even the 13″ Air, I think.

More reviews of the new Airs have been circulating…

[Yes, “Circulating Air.” Unintentional joke. When the thing you’re writing about is called the Air, you find yourself noticing what’s just landed in a preceding sentence, and then you sigh, and then you move forward.]

…since mine was published. Many of them promote a surprising idea: that the new Airs are so powerful and useful that they can take the place of a conventional MacBook.

Some even go so far as to say that the Air is clearly Apple’s vision of the future and that the standard MacBook design is now marked for death.

Steady on, people!

Let’s not lose our heads. There are two different kinds of notebook users out there. Some people need a notebook that’s just as capable as a desktop. Others are more consumer-oriented; they have simpler needs that don’t go far beyond the Web, Email, Office, and basic photo and video editing and sharing.

Neither Air is a great answer for either user.

There will always be big tradeoffs to owning an Air instead of a regular MacBook. The people who will truly feel the pain will be the ones (like me) who use a notebook as their main computer. The cheapest conventional MacBook (the $999 MacBook Nothing) comes with a 250 gig hard drive and if you want a bigger one, you can upgrade it to 500 or even a full terabyte. The most storage you can get on an Air is 256 gigs, and that’s on the most expensive model.

As with the Air’s system RAM, you can’t upgrade anything later on, either. A standard MacBook uses standard SATA components and you can swap in whatever you want whenever you want.

The Air’s of a built-in optical drive isn’t a handicap until that one day out of a hundred when you need one. The lack of high-speed FireWire will affect any operation that relies on moving lots of files in and out of the machine…like drive backups, and media editing, if you keep your photos and videos on an external drive. Note: when your notebook’s storage is lifetime-limited to 128 or 256 gigabytes, you will definitely be keeping that stuff on an external drive.

Lack of high-speed Ethernet is another feature that hurts you a few days a month. I do a lot of Skyping and most of it is actually work-related. We can’t record MacBreak Weekly via WiFi; only copper is truly reliable. And because I spent all of $40 to run high-speed copper throughout my house, I’m getting the full speed of my Verizon FiOS home broadband, not a fraction thereof. It’s fast enough that I can happily keep all of my files on a central server.

When you buy an Air, you are willingly and thoughtfully choosing to trade away flexibility for mobility. That’s perfectly fine if you know you’ll have another machine to pick up the slack. The Air just can’t fill the same “good as almost any desktop” role, like a regular MacBook can.

Okay, but what about that second category of buyers? The “Webbin’, Emailin’, and Office-in'” gang?

Easy: The MacBook Nothing costs $999. It’s a much better value for this consumer. It’s bigger and heavier than a $999 MacBook Air, but would this buyer consider that a problem? I think they’d be more attracted to the MacBook Nothing’s other features:

  • Full-sized screen, not a dinky 11″ ultramobile display.
  • Full-sized battery with twice the life of the 11″ Air’s five-hour battery.
  • Four times the storage of the $999 11″ air’s Fun-Size 64 gig solid-state drive.
  • A DVD drive. That’s actually a big deal to many consumers. They’re not concerned about making a third-backup of critical data while in the field. They want to be able to play DVDs. And they’re going to buy a lot of software on disc.

We can argue about the limited needs of consumer-type users and how 64 gigabytes of storage is plenty. But it isn’t. 64 gigs is Survivorman storage rations. 128 gigs is…well, it’s credible, if you’re a little disciplined. 256 gigs is the minimum amount of storage for the place where you’re going to spend most of your computing life. iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie libraries are gaseous entities that expand to completely fill the dimensions of the container you’ve put them in.

Realistically, if someone is dead-set on buying an Air as their main machine I’d have to direct them towards the $1299 13″ model, with 128 gigs of storage. So: for the “just the basics” consumer, it’s $300 extra for not as much Mac. The more ambitious user can buy a MacBook Nothing with lots of options for the same price…or he can move up to the 13″ MacBook Pro and still save a hundred bucks.

You’ll notice, though, that I have no complaints about the MacBook Airs’ processing power. On paper, their CPUs aren’t nearly as beefy as the standard MacBooks but in practice, I felt just fine using Photoshop and iMovie on the Air. And keep in mind that I was using the lower-powered 11″. Their CPUs might be weaker but the extra speed of the solid-state drives closes the gap considerably…particularly with an app like Photoshop, which relies so heavily on swap files.

My 11″ Air is an Apple loaner, of course. It goes back to Cupertino at the end of November. I’d love to keep it, but I’ve already got its roles covered with existing equipment. Lilith is my 15″ MacBook Pro. It’s my main computer, day-month-and-year. I also own an iMac and a couple of Windows desktop, but I rarely even need to fire them up. My iPad (64 gig 3G) — Lil — fills the role of “ultraportable computer.” It’s so small that I take it with me whenever I’m going to be out of the office for more than an hour or two. And it’s so good at the things I need it to do that when I leave the house for two or three days, I take Lil and a wireless keyboard instead of the full-scale MacBook Pro. And on those occasions when I really do need to run real Mac software on the road, I still have the option of taking Lilith.

Things would be different in a world in which an iMac was my main computer, or in a world in which there was no iPad or that the iPad couldn’t really handle my needs when I travel. Then, a tiny $999 MacBook would be pretty damned tempting. I said in the review that it’s the clear star of the MacBook Air line.

[Sigh. Move on.]

It’s the best expression of the Air concept, which is: bring notebooks back to their original roles.

When notebooks originally hit the scene, their designers weren’t motivated to replicate a desktop computer as faithfully as possible. That was by necessity, of course. The reduced physical and power footprint forced them to ask “Let’s assume that our consumer will own this AND a desktop. What would he or she be willing to sacrifice in the name of mobility? Does this person really need two floppy drives, or will just one drive tide them over until they get back home or to the office?”

Twenty years later, that same kind of thinking can produce something as small and smart and useful as the 11″ Air. Do we need a big, 13″ screen? Do we need the whole array of ports? Is the optical drive negotiable? It won’t be the right answer for everybody — which is why these “an Air is a replacement for a standard MacBook” arguments puzzle me — but there’s a definite role for it. For many people, it’s the answer to a lot of prayers. At last, we Mac folks have a true high-performance ultralight, too.