Category Archives: Macintosh

The computer for the rest of us

MacBook Air 2013 – Part I

Kaizen at work.

‘Kaizen’ refers to the Japanese concept of making a good machine then continually improving it. You can see it in Japanese cars where certain brands like Lexus command extraordinarily high repeat purchase rates. When you have owned one you keep coming back for more because you know that what was already very good is now even better.

The 2013 MacBook Air – appearance unchanged from 2012.

And so it is with Apple’s MacBook Air, the third version of which I will be receiving next week, the 2013. I reviewed the 2012 here.

That was barely 12 months ago so why upgrade? First, as a job related expense, the upgrade cost to me is pretty much zero. Used MBAs hold value well and I’ll net $700 on the old one. Second, the improvements in the 2013 model – I’ll be getting the 11″ version yet again – are far from trivial, including:

  • Battery life up from 5 to 9 hrs (meaning from 4 to 8 hrs in real world use)
  • Cooler running and lower power consumption Haswell i5 CPU
  • Greatly improved graphics from the new HD5000 Intel integrated GPU
  • Faster SSD now connected using PCIe rather than SATA – an industry first
  • $1,000 for the 128GB SSD version compared with $1,100 a year ago
  • The first computer with 802-11ac wifi

The big one is battery life and while Apple claims the credit for that it results from the use of Intel’s exciting new Haswell CPU which dramatically cuts power consumption. While the new CPU appears slower at 1.3GHz compared with 1.7GHz for the 2012 model, in practice the Turbo mode – automatically invoked when needed – doubles the speed to 2.6GHz and early Geekbench tests suggest the speed is identical to its predecessor.

As usual I’ll test the machine using Lightroom and Photoshop and will report back in Part II. I expect only improvement over the already very capable 2012 version which runs both apps fine if not super fast.

Meanwhile, a word on the new 802-11ac wifi, an industry first. You will need to buy a new router and Apple obliges with the latest Airport Extreme at the same $200 asked for the old version. Both computer and router are backwards compatible with 802-11a, b, g and n so a new router is only required if 802-11ac works in your environment. The new technology claims to seek out your computer’s location, speeding throughput.

Apple’s new router looks every bit as inept as the new MacPro as regards form factor, and I’ll wait for the likes of AnandTech to test real world speed before deciding whether to upgrade my now ancient single-band Airport Extreme.

2013 Airport Extreme, waiting to tip over.

The tippy looking shape suggests either Velcro is called for or that the device is placed horizontally. Whether the latter orientation affects antenna function remains to be seen.

Apple did not announce a Retina Display version of the MBA and nor do I expect them to. That would simply cannibalize the MacBook Pro RD and there would be little to choose on pricing. Further, current battery technology would not deliver useful life with the MBA’s thin chassis when used with the power hungry Retina Display.

Apple has shown time and again that it can do truly dumb things – the Lisa, the Cube, the Newton and now the new MacPro – but they are skillfully applying kaizen to their fine MBA product.

Part II, with performance measurements, is here.

Serial failure

The jury has left the building.

It is a good rule in life never to apologize.
The right sort of people do not want apologies,
and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.
P.G. Wodehouse, The Man Upstairs

The old saw in banking has it that when you owe your local bankster $1,000, he owns you, but when you owe him $1 billion, you own him.

The last great iMac, the G4. Conceived at a time of great crisis.

It’s a lesson that the Serial Apologizer passing as CEO at Apple has never learned. When the Chinese make an organized propaganda attack aimed at Apple for allegedly poor warranty terms and service – ridiculous however you look at it – what does Cook do? He goes cap in hand to his main provider and apologizes. He has fallen into the $1 billion debtor trap, mistakenly believing that the Chinese own him. They do not. Apple owns the Chinese. Concentrating so much production in the hands of one man – the fella in charge in Beijing – was never a wise strategy, any more than concentrating retail lending in the hands of a few US mega-banksters extending credit based on fraudulent loan docs, the while contending that they are too-big-to-fail,is wise. With such concentration comes the need for courageous and robust leadership. The banksters were far smarter than Cook. They used walk away power and totally pulled one over on Uncle Sam. We own you, they said. Let us fail and you go down with the ship.

What is Cook thinking? That Foxconn will lay-off two million Chinese workers if he tells Mr. Xi where to stick it? Please. Maybe Cook needs to bone up on The Man with No Name. Go ahead, make my day. How about a spot of civilian insurrection, pal, should we walk?

Cook, having set three miserable precedents in his dreary catalog of apologia, is now a pushover for any number of bullies who smell fear and weakness. The right response here was “Go ahead, Mr. Xi. Make my day.” You do not bend over to a despot. Now Cook is stuck with that old military acronym. BOHICA. Bend Over, Here It Comes Again. He probably knows more about that than I want to think about.

Now I’m beginning to pine for that old SOB who was Apple, Steve Jobs. When did Jobs ever apologize for anything? When Dot Mac failed miserably he did not go around cap in hand beating his chest and chanting ‘woe is me’. No. Rather, he excoriated the development team for ‘…. letting down everyone at Apple ….’ then fired the guy in charge. Then he fixed it and we got iCloud.

Great businesses do not run on niceness policies, respect for your fellow-man and gentility. They become great by fostering internal and external competition – remember Jobs’s early hatred of IBM? – and inculcating a ‘cream rises to the top culture’. Successful businesses do not crave love or respect. All expect excellence and have at the core of their genetic makeup a protocol which demands winning. Being nice in competition is for losers. ‘Show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser’ as Vince Lombardi bluntly put it.

As a photographer, I very much want to see the likes of Scott Forstall driving Apple to greatness, even if it means his face appears on many dart boards in adjoining offices. People who threaten a CEO accomplish one of two things. The CEO either rises to greater heights, as did Jobs, or the threat is fired as was Forstall’s fate when Cook decided the usurpation risk was too much to bear. Churchill’s struggles to return to power in the 1930s are an apt precursor, weak leaders in Downing Street forever threatened by the firebrand who was finally only appointed at the moment of greatest crisis. An irritant is a requisite for success, not an obstacle to it.

And that’s what Apple needs today. A leader, an irritant, who is prepared to see that the company is already in crisis and a leader who places scant value on popularity. And one who will fire the losers, not the winners. Starting at the top. What Apple needs is …. Steve.

The last great piston engined fighter. Conceived at a time of great crisis.

The seed of Apple’s problems lies in the design office and it’s named Jony Ive, the much applauded designer of all that is thin, thinner and thinnest on Cupertino’s drawing boards. Hence the overheating iMac G5. The overheating iMac Core2Duo. The overheating iMac notebooks. The overheating MacMini. The hard and costly to make iPhone 5. The long time to market and to volume production. The high production costs. And Apple’s problem with China is also Apple’s problem with Ive. They have made him so famous, so indispensable, so adulated that instead of owning him, he now owns them. How do you get rid of an icon and Steve’s best buddy? Meanwhile Apple’s innovation is a day late and a dollar over, damned by ridiculous designs when what most buyers want is function, not form. Like the PowerMac and the MacPro. In other words, machines using reliable, cheap PC parts and the best desktop OS in the business. For more, check out ‘Hackintosh’ in the Sitemap.

Excellence in business is not tea and crumpets. It is war. America and Apple used to be good at that. And wars are won by the strong not by milque toasts who make a habit of bending over.

Ten questions for Mr. Cook

These need to be asked.

I just watched the snow job that was the purported interview of Tim Cook by one Brian Williams on NBC. It confirmed why I never watch US commercial TV. Williams, new to me and hopefully never to be seen again, is one of those saccharine presenters who gets $10m annually for reading a Teleprompter while looking good. As for Cook, he rivals the hammers in my garage for charisma. These are the questions the sycophantic Williams should have asked:

  • Your stock just crashed 28% from $705 to $505, recovered some, then crashed again. There was no news to cause these events and zero communication from you to stockholders. Do you think such lack of communication is appropriate for the CEO of the world’s largest public company?
  • You have $120bn cash in the bank of which $80bn is abroad. It earns negligible sums. You have set aside $20bn in tax liabilities on your balance sheet to pay taxes in the event the $80bn is ever repatriated. By leaving the money abroad you are denying the US government and taxpayer $20bn in revenues which is rightly theirs. You can bring the money back, pay the taxes with no effect on earnings and distribute most of the remainder to shareholders. As you have stated, you have no earthly need for that sum of money when your quarterly free cash flow is $4bn. Why do you not do the right thing for America, its taxpayers and Apple’s shareholders and bring the money back onshore, while simultaneously sending a loud message about what constitutes good US corporate citizenship to your fellow CEOs who are denying the US taxpayer over $0.3 trillion in tax revenues?
  • You fired Scott Forstall, the father of the NeXT, OS X and iOS operating systems. Do you believe that a stress-free, ‘nice’ culture is more conducive to innovation than one where strong internal competitors drive for excellence?
  • Rumors have it that you are going to roll out an Apple TV set. Why would you enter a commoditized low margin business with a decade long replacement cycle and limited sales opportunities for your premium-priced product when none of the content majors wants to play distribution ball?
  • All modern smartphones are now ‘good enough’ and many have better screens than yours for less money, making for a harder than ever sale for Apple’s premium priced, telco-financed iPhone. What are you doing about this to compete for the minds and wallets of young, affluent consumers in huge markets like China where you have failed to execute a contract with China Mobile which accounts for over half of Chinese cell phone users, owing to your insistence on a ‘subsidized’ price model?
  • Do you think your annual product refresh cycle is optimal in a world where your competitors are on a quarterly upgrade frequency?
  • You claim to be innovative and that 80% of current sales are of products which did not exist three months ago. Realistically these ‘new’ products are simply modest refreshes of their predecessors. A smaller iPad, a thinner iMac, a slimmer iPhone, new cases for iPods. When are we going to see some real innovation again from Apple? Apple’s path to future growth is paved with innovative products in new markets commanding high profit margins with high frequency replacement cycles. Do you think you have peaked like Sony, Microsoft, Dell, HP and RIM?
  • Products like the iPad and Apple TV will have very long replacement cycles for most users, and at current prices you are going to be increasingly uncompetitive with solid alternatives being significantly cheaper. Price does matter, regardless of what you believe. Why are you not aggressively pursuing alternative product markets with high demand and replacement frequencies to show off your design chops and allow you to maintain 40+% gross margins? Markets like car controls, home appliances, cameras (a market made for Apple’s business model if ever there was one), ‘green’ products, etc.
  • Apple seems obsessed with making everything thinner and lighter. Few users care that the new iMac is thinner than its predecessor when repair ease is seriously compromised, the machine is never moved, the user cannot easily reach the camera card slot and needs a separate DVD reader for his discs. Few want an even lighter iPhone. Are you not answering questions which no one has asked while complicating the mass production process and compromising your time-to-market?
  • You have placed great prominence on the skills of Jony Ive, your chief designer, as a key man at Apple, rewarding him with a recent promotion. How many people with similar skills are waiting in the wings in the event of the proverbial bus or if Ive concludes that his $125 million fortune is enough and he would rather put his feet up in his new English castle?

Not one of these questions was remotely hinted at in the TV piece. Now do you see why I do not watch US commercial television?

Apple’s idea of innovation. A screen tilted at a ridiculous angle on a near
totally worthless stand at a premium price. Did I mention that it’s thin?

Disclosure: Long AAPL bull LEAP spreads.

MacMini 2012

Barely acceptable.

A year ago I warned against the MacMini 2011 for photographic use. Modestly powered and horribly overpriced, you could build a far more robust and expandable Hackintosh for less. Much less.

The main changes in the 2012 model are that it’s $200 less for the i5 base model, the cooler Ivy Bridge CPU has replaced the Sandy Bridge and the competent HD4000 integrated GPU drives the graphics. You still need to add a keyboard, mouse and Display Port-to-DVI cable. Buying Apple’s Dual Link (30″ displays) at $99/Single Link $29 is insanity, when you can buy one from Amazon for $12/$10 – I use one with my MacBook Air and confirm it works perfectly. You also need to max out the RAM, the Mini coming with a paltry 4GB of 1600GHz, up from 1333GHz from last year. The removable base plate in the Mini makes RAM swapping easy and Crucial will charge you $85 for 16GB whereas Apple will get $300 from fools. Looks like RAM gouging, an old habit of Apple’s which had gone away for a while, is back.

But the best news about the Mini is that it comes without Apple’s ghastly glossy screen known to every iMac user since 2007. You can have your pick of displays from decent 1920×1280 21.5″ versions from the likes of Assus and Acer at $140 to megabuck 27″ displays where the Dell Ultrasharp U2711 2560×1440 remains the best value at $800. All cheaper than Apple’s glossy 27″ abomination at $1,000.

The other significant enhancement is to replace the chintzy 500GB internal HDD with a $100 128GB SSD to store the OS and applications, which will return a significant increase in operating speed. Forget cockamamie dual internal drive cradles. That will simply make your machine hotter. Use an USB3 external enclosure for the 500GB drive you just removed. Drive replacement in the Mini is a tad tougher than RAM replacement, but reference to the excellent iFixit guide will get you there. Geekbench64 for the 2012 MacMini comes in at 7,500. For comparison my HackPro HP100 comes in at 12,000 with the i5 and 16,000 with the i7, both scores with the older Sandy Bridge CPU modestly overclocked and a five year old Nvidia GTX9800+ discrete GPU. That machine runs cool as a cucumber compared to any Mac. The poor scores of the 2012 Mac Mini are accounted for by the fact that Apple is using the compromised mobile version of the i5 CPU rather than the full desktop version used in my Hack Pro. The same i5 CPU in my 2012 MacBook Air (4GB RAM) comes in at 6,300 or so, for comparison. Bottom line? the performance of the 2012 Mac Mini is on a par with that of a four year old using the three generations old Core2Quad CPU.

AppleCare? Sure, go ahead and pay $149 more to insure the Mini for two more years. Probably a wise move given the egregious out-of-warranty repair costs. The parts in the Hackintosh mostly come with 3-5 warranties, the exception being the Intel CPU which is covered for one year. Then again, I have yet to have anything in my three Hackintoshes fail. Oh! wait, the clips on the Antec Sonata III case’s dust filter fractured and Antec sent me a new one free after some 30 months of service. Toyota reliability.

So $600 + $85 for proper RAM gets you a 2.5GHz Ivy Bridge machine which will work fine with Photoshop and Lightroom but is likely marginal with video processing. For the latter, I would remove the base plate, mount the Mini vertically, and point an external fan at the innards. A 5″ $10 external fan should fit the space nicely and is easily powered off a 12 volt power adapter of which you likely have three dozen in the cardboard box under the stairs. The sub-optimal cooling of the enclosure will be greatly enhanced. For that matter there are even USB-powered fans available for some $12. Forget about trying to upgrade the i5 CPU for an i7. It’s soldered in, and Apple’s $200 premium for the i7 makes no sense.

Typical USB powered 5″ add-on fan.

However, last year’s advice remains sound – for this sort of money and a little effort (and it’s easier every year) a Hackintosh will make for a superior machine in every way except maybe looks. And when you decide to upgrade to an i7 CPU for heavy video processing, lots of internal drives, and so on, the Hack rules. Click on Sitemap->Photography->Hackintosh, above, to learn more.

Alternatives? Nothing could be worse than the new iMac for seriously hard photographic use, and Apple has abandoned the dated and overpriced MacPro. They have made noises about refreshing the MacPro in 2013 but I’ll believe that when I see it.

The new iMac – 2012

Another dog in fancy dress.

Long time readers will know of my raft of iMac, MacBook and iBook failures which drove me to having a friend build for me not one, not two, but three Hackintoshes, machines which have proved themselves to be robust workhorses over a long time now. These use standard, inexpensive, PC parts but run OS X.

On Tuesday Apple announced its latest iMac with the usual attendant hype and my advice to all photographers, having studied the design and specs, is that you avoid it like the plague.

The fall 2012 iMac.

Why do I say this?

First, the slimness thing is a head fake. Apple has simply deleted the optical DVD drive – you can still use an external one – and gone to a 2.5″ hard disk drive from a 3.5″ one. Look at the rear panel and you will see it bulges out substantially in the center to accommodate the pieces. Only the edges have been slimmed down. But yes, there is an overall slimming nonetheless and this raises crucial questions about heat management, the iMac’s bugbear. Changing to a 2.5″ drive will reduce heat output but the design does not use the rear alloy plate as a heat sink for the CPU or, more importantly, the GPU. It’s the GPUs which literally melted in my many failed Macs. Mac laptops do use the base as a heatsink which is why they tend to get so warm on your lap, whereas the iMac uses one fan (one fan – think about that) to cool the whole interior. For comparison my Hackintoshes have seven fans each – box intake, box exhaust, power supply (two fans), disk drive fan, CPU and GPU. And we are talking fans, not toys. 5 inch diameter quiet fans.

Second, ergonomics. The iMac sticks with the hopeless stand which has no height adjustment, so if you do buy one, add the cost of a couple of reams of paper on which to support the machine, because it will almost certainly sit too low on your desk. There goes your 21st century-looking work desk.

Third, pricing remains way too high. While Apple has yet to disclose pricing on the 27″ Intel Core i7 model (the i5 is $1799 with 8GB of RAM which is user upgradable – RAM in the 21.5″ model is not user upgradable) I would guess that the i7 with 16GB will run $2,400 and you are still stuck with that ghastly, glossy screen. Apple claims that reflections have been cut “…70%…” whatever that means and you can count me skeptical on that.

Fourth, be prepared to upgrade to a proper keyboard. The stock Apple chiclet keys one is a perfect example of form over function.

Fifth, base spec 21.5″ buyers beware. The HDD has been downgraded from 7200 to 5400. What a gip!

And last, but not least, unless you really want carpal tunnel, add another $50-100 for a good mouse because the Magic Mouse which comes with the machine is magic for the medical profession only.

I simply cannot recommend the iMac for photographers. The stress to which you will subject the innards when doing thermally challenging tasks like advanced Photoshop processing (Content Aware Fill, selective blur, etc.) will crank up the heat in your new toy, with repeated cycling threatening its very survival. And if you propose to rip movies, you would be insane to use this machine. It’s simply not capable of handling the repeated load. Even my superbly cooled Hackintoshes will crank up the CPU to 158F (service limit is 190F) when using Handbrake to rip/compress a DVD. With an iMac with its cooling compromised by Apple’s obsession with slimness, you will hit the service limit every time. That’s like running your car flat out daily. As for the whole slimness thing, it strikes me as odd that the world’s most obese nation would seek slimness in its hardware rather than in itself.

What I have written in the past, for photographers with heavy duty processing requirements who have no time to worry about machine failure and who want to be able to replace any failed part at a moment’s notice, rather than losing their machine to Apple for days, there has never been a better time to build a Hackintosh. The newest tools for making OS X run on a home built PC are better than ever and the cost of the whole thing, with a couple of decent matte IPS displays will be very competitive with what Apple is asking for its latest piece of sub-functional jewelry. It bears adding that part failures in my three Hacks are exactly zero to date and these machines all run 7/24.

A note on Apple’s ‘new’ Fusion hard drive: Rarely have I heard such BS as Apple is spewing about its revolutionary Fusion hard drive. This is simply a hybrid HDD like Seagate has been selling for years. 128GB of RAM is added to the HDD’s circuitry to cache frequent events – opening a browser, checking email, etc. – the hope being that this will speed the machine’s performance. Rarer events – opening or saving a photo file – are dealt with in the traditional way (direct save to spinning disk) with the addition of a cached RAM version of the saved file. Of course, when you are saving 60mp files from your D800 that cached version will quickly be removed by the next file, as you only have a limited RAM cache. Operational speed gains for photographers? Zilch. The only difference between Apple’s Fusion drive and Seagate’s hybrid one is that Apple places the RAM on the mother board rather than inside the drive. The RAM module is the same one used for memory in the Mac Book Air. This is about as far from innovation as it gets. Your best bet for storage is an internal solid state drive (and Apple will hose you down for that) to store the OS and applications, with an external USB3 drive (Thunderbolt is ridiculously overpriced, still) for data storage, with a backup, of course. Don’t even think of upgrading the internal drive – these machines are not built to be dismantled.

Disclosure: Long AAPL bull option spreads 2013 and 2014.