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.

10 years on

Jony Ive’s design for the first iMac with its ghastly translucent colored plastic covers may have been a low point, but he has yet to improve on the successor, which came to market 10 years ago.

The second iMac.

While the original came with a 4:3 screen, by the time I bought mine it was stretched to my favorite aspect ratio, 16:10 in 15″ and 17″ sizes. Extra memory was strictly a factory installation thing and the hard drive but 60GB.

And, as you can see, the machine was anything but cheap:

It remains happy in occasional use, where it controls profiling of my HP DesignJet 90 wide carriage dye printer; just as well, as good luck getting HP to update their online apps to work with anything later than OS Snow Leopard.

The genius of Ive’s design was not just the unique packaging, but a screen cantilever which has yet to be improved. You could raise the display to a proper working height even if you were over 4′ 10″ tall, the optimum height for anyone buying any subsequent iMac. It runs cool as the ventilation design is not compromised, the way it is today. The current iMacs with their awful support foot benefit from a ream or two of paper underneath, which isn’t quite consonant with Cupertino’s design aesthetic.

To see the roll out with the master circus barker himself at the helm, click below. Refresh the page if it’s not visible.

Jobs rolls out the iMac G4.

My subsequent odyssey:

Along with the Powerbook G3, this was the last consumer grade Mac designed with both form and function in mind. Thereafter, form would rule and reliability went to pot, as my experiences disclose. A while back, Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO, speaking of design, joked about the inadvisability of combining a toaster with a refrigerator. Obviously he had never used an iMac G5 which was a unique combination of toaster and computer. The fans also managed a passable rendition of an F15 at take-off. Anyway, after a long run of failed Apple hardware I approached my computer builder friend, the pseudonymous FU Steve, and had him build me a Hackintosh. So successful was the result that he would later build me two more while simultaneously upgrading the original to current specs at very modest cost. Plus you could get a decent, wide gamut, matte display to go with the box. I have never looked back. The perfect combination of reliable, easily available and inexpensive PC parts with a robust OS, Mac’s OS X. Wild horses would not induce me to buy a new iMac. I have dismantled these in many repairs of mine and can assure you there is simply no way so poorly designed a machine can withstand the long-term stresses of hard use. It’s a toy inside with proper heat management an afterthought.

To be fair, Apple has somewhat redeemed itself with the latest 2012 MacBook Air which runs so-so cool (mostly thanks to Intel’s progress with its low power consumption CPUs and integrated GPUs), is fast and if its 2010 predecessor is any guide – an outstanding machine – should prove reliable. It harkens back to Ive’s classic iMac in its design; the MacBook Air design is elegant, robust and well executed.

Photoshop on the 2012 MacBook Air

A few hurdles first!

Adobe allows installation of Photoshop on two computers, and requires that if it is to be used on a third that one of the other two be deactivated. Fair enough. It’s premium priced software and shareholders of ADBE should rejoice at any and all attempts to control theft.

I’m on CS5, having started with CS2 ages ago and progressed through CS3 and CS4. CS5 is a fine product, it’s fast and I have never had it lock up on the Hackintosh it calls home. It is blisteringly fast on that machine, with its overclocked Sandy Bridge i7 CPU.

Given the very speedy technology in the latest 2012 MacBook Air, I determined to add CS5 to that laptop which already runs Lightroom 4.1 very capably. But how to get it on the MBA’s SSD?

Good luck finding CS5 for Mac at Adobe.com. There’s a Windows version but for the life of me I could not locate the Mac option, and all current Mac downloads point you to CS6, which I have not yet purchased. I found my original CS5 disc and cloned it to a flash drive using CarbonCopyCloner on the Hackintosh, some 1.2Gb. Inserting the USB flash drive in the MBA and starting the installation process failed. I was asked to insert the installation disk. So I copied over the installation files to the MBA and launched the installer from the MBA’s SSD. After inputting my bazillion digit serial number all ran smoothly.

But, firing up CS5 I got the ‘Activation limit exceeded – you have already installed this application on two computers. Deactivate one’ message. Well, the snag is that the other installation was on the predecessor MBA 2010 which I had wiped before sale, so there’s no way I could ‘deactivate it’. I called Adobe (866 772 3623, hit ’3′) fearing the worst and got an exceptionally competent person to whom I explained that they needed to wipe one activation count off their registration database. After ten minutes on hold I was informed that one activation was erased and that I could proceed. I did so and all was sweetness and light! Thank you, Adobe.

Photoshop CS5.1 running happily on the 2012 MBA.

Some usage notes on the 2012 MBA – mine has 4Gb RAM, twice that of the 2010 predecessor.

Start up takes a mere 3 seconds. Opening a RAW file (Panny G3) from Lightroom 4.1 in CS5.1 takes 9 seconds. Selective Lens Blur preview takes 2 seconds, applying the blur another 10. This is a processor intensive activity. It’s faster on the MBA than on my Core i7 Hackintosh. Applying routine distortions to correct verticals and the like is near instantaneous. The 8Gb RAM MBA would probably be even faster.

Bottom line? No excuses need be made for the 2012 MacBook Air as a Photoshop machine. It is perfectly capable of keeping up with the best.

Disclosure: Long AAPL January 2013 call options.

MacBook Air 2012 – Part II

A meaningful improvement over 2010.

My 2012 MBA arrived yesterday and here are test results. It’s the i5/4Gb/128Gb version, for $1,100. Last year’s model ran $1,200 with the 128Gb SSD and only 2Gb of RAM. The battery was 86% charged on receipt. From unboxing to ‘ready to import’ status took 5 minutes. Migration Assistant allowed recovery of all my user settings and applications from the backup for the predecessor 2010 MBA in 12 minutes more while I got on with something else. iCloud now makes setup of mail, calendars and contacts trivial and it’s this robust ecosystem which makes the premium paid, if any, for an OS X or iOS machine worth every penny and more. ‘Ecosystem’ remains a word none in Windows land know to spell and it’s what drives OS X sales to constant quarterly increases, small as they are.

Migration Assistant at work.

The focus of this piece is on performance with Lightroom 4.1.

Here’s Geekbench, 64-bit:

MBA 2012.

The 2010 model was 2205, making the 2012 almost three times as fast. If you get the 8gB model then you can expect a score of 7,000, meaning 16% faster for another $100.

And here’s Cinebench 64-bit:

MBA 2012 and 2010.

The performance is where it’s needed for a Lightroom or Photoshop user, as those applications are far more demanding on CPU (Geekbench) than GPU (Cinebench) performance. And while the Cinebench frame rate is nothing to write home about, the integrated HD4000 GPU in the IvyBridge i5 CPU does not disgrace itself, pausing just once briefly at the start of the movie stress test.

It bears pausing a moment to reflect on that Geekbench score. When my builder FU Steve built the original HP1 Hackintosh three years ago it used a Core2Quad CPU in a large case and delivered a Geekbench score of 6,200, barely faster than the 2.3lb. 2012 MBA. Startling. Add the fact that this is the first MBA with USB3 and Thunderbolt connectors and you are looking at a very capable machine indeed.

Unlike with the 2010 model, no USB thumb drive is included with the 2012. That drive included OS Snow Leopard and allowed recovery if the internal SSD became corrupted. Now you can simply download a new version of the OS (now OS Lion) over wifi. You start the MBA with the corrupted SSD, are asked for your wifi and Apple Store credentials, and can download the OS over the air. I tried it when prepping my 2010 for sale and it took 100 minutes, and worked perfectly. Elegant.

On importing to Lightroom 4.1, this is how the MBA 2012 compares to my nuclear powered HP100 Hackintosh desktop, both using a USB2 SDHC card reader in a USB socket; timings are in seconds for import of 20 Nikon D700 files to the MBA and HP100, respectively:

  • Import 20 files: 20/22 (yes, the MBA is a bit faster!)
  • Generate 20 1:1 previews and apply lens correction profiles: 135/48

In the 1:1 preview generation – very useful for effective fast processing – the superior RAM of the HP100, all 16gB, blows away the 4gB in the MBA. But still these are, overall, very impressive statistics, with the CPU speed increase a standout.

How about real use? It’s an absolute pleasure using Lightroom 4.1. With the exception of the Noise Reduction Luminance slider, all other sliders respond in real-time. The NR one has a 1-2 second lag. The selective editing brush is immediate. No excuses are needed for the integrated GPU and while the machine can run up the CPU to 160F with stock settings, as always I use the SMC Fan Control utility and set the fan (the one, pathetic, poncy, pusillanimous, microscopic, homunculus of a fan) to a minimum of 4,000rpm, as it’s more than this engineer’s mind can stand to see CPU temperatures that high. Set at 4,000rpm, where it is just audible, the machine gets slightly warm on the lap, nothing more. Left at stock it gets noticeably warm.

Here are the temperatures. Why so many sensors? Because Apple is rightfully terrified that if something fails then a meltdown will result if the problem is not sensed immediately.

Fan minimum set to 4,000rpm.

I turn down SMC Fan Control to 3,500 when not photo-processing, at which speed the 2012 MBA CPU core idles at 120F in a 75F room.

On the MBA, LR4.1 loads in 5 seconds compared to 3 seconds on the HP100. The red brace denotes the area where LR 4.1 was being imported from Adobe. The green brace indicates the import of the 20 RAW files tested above, and their subsequent processing. As you can see, processing causes little heat rise. The mauve uppermost temperature trace is for the i5 CPU core, whose service limit is 192F according to Intel.

What’s not to like? Well, Apple has made a silly retrograde step in reverting to an inline MagSafe power adapter plug, the original design which was the subject of a recall. The 2010 and 2011 MBAs used the superior, sleek right-angled plug which, when oriented with the cable to the rear, allowed easy insertion of any SDHC card in the left USB socket. The new (old) version does not allow that, so you either have to pull the plug or use the right hand USB socket. Doubtless they have reinforced the cable junction which used to fray, but it’s not an improvement.

The other caution would be for users of DSLRs which create very large files, like the Nikon D800. If you are using LR4, generating 1:1 previews is not a good idea. It takes 7 seconds per 12Mb D700 RAW file. The D800 generates 75Mb RAW files. You can do the math. Smaller previews are no big problem on the 11.6″ display but if you are driving a large, external display you will need 1:1 previews, and will have to wait as each is prepared. That will make for a slower workflow.

Tests with Photoshop CS5 appear here.

So the 2012 MBA is a credible and fully usable Lightroom/Photoshop machine where the 2010 was sluggish. If you try the 2012 and are using the 2010, you will want to upgrade. The improvement over the 2011 will be less noticeable. For those just seeking a speedy web and email laptop, the 2010 MBA at $650 used is a great deal.

For other comments, refer to my five-part review of the 2010 MBA which starts here. The ergonomics of the 2010/2011/2012 machines are identical, with one strange exception. The lid/display on the 2010 swivels back some 5 degrees more. The 2012 is not an improvement in that regard. However, by way of atonement, here’s a bit of magic the 2010 does not offer:

Backlit keyboard.

A friend writes: “Dimly lit venues are now fair game for inspiration.” Indeed. Thank you, Gregg.

Finally, disk speed. Here’s Xbench:

That compares to a score of 522 for the SATA3 SSD in the HP100, both representing a 60% speed increase over SATA2 drives like those used in the 2010 and 2011 MBAs. My 2012 MBA uses a Toshiba SSD (denoted by the ‘TS’ in the Xbench screen above), which some have said is slower than the Samsung used in others of the same model.

In conclusion the 2012 MacBook Air is an outstanding laptop, reasonably priced, and one which increasingly asks the question as to why you should pay more for a MacBook Pro. A free upgrade to Mountain Lion will be available in a few days when the latest version of OS X is released.

MBA as your only computer?

For those on a budget, the 2012 MBA can be used as your only computer for photography and all other general tasks. As all MBAs now come with at least 4Gb of memory, the cheapest point of entry is the base 11″ model with a 64Gb SSD ($1,000), a SATA3 500gB external notebook drive ($65), a USB3 enclosure for the drive ($25) and a cheap external 21″ monitor for home processing of snaps ($140) with the required cable ($14). The total of $1,244 gets you a capable Lightroom and Photoshop powerhouse with a large external display for home use. The OS and apps will start very fast owing to the MBA’s SSD. Not at all bad, and with lots of storage not affordable in SSDs at present.

* * * * *

Now I have to go for a hamburger and apple pie, seeing as it’s the anniversary of the greatest day in modern history!

Photoshop CS5 use is addressed here.

Disclosure: Long AAPL January 2013 call options.