When it comes to getting online, I’m sure most of you don’t consider issues concerning your ISP, bandwidth caps, net neutrality and all the rest. You just want to have a solid connection, and, if you watch Netflix, not be confronted with constant “buffering” warnings.
The larger problem is that you don’t always have a choice. In many cities, you have just one ISP, and you buy the plan that best suits your needs or your budget. Here in the Phoenix metro area, we have two: CenturyLink, a traditional telecom that offers DSL, usually at a maximum speed of 20-40 megabits, and Cox, which is a pretty standard cable company that offers broadband at speeds up to 100-150 megabits. Both are rolling out gigabit Internet in very limited areas.
Even the slower speeds are capable of managing Netflix; well, assuming they aren’t throttling your connection, which is a contentious issue. The main potential roadblock, however, is the bandwidth cap. If you’re consuming lots of high definition video you may find that you have to slow down to avoid hitting the limits, which may range from as little as 50GB with the cheapest Cox plan to 400GB with the 150 megabit plan. Gigabit gets you 1TB at Cox, which may seem like a lot unless you want to check into those rollouts of 4K video promised by Amazon and Netflix.
If you hit the bandwidth cap, your service might be throttled or suspended until the next monthly billing cycle. Not fun.
In any case, on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who discussed Amazon’s pilot program, underway in New York City, to deliver your stuff in two hours, coping with ISPs and bandwidth caps, the possibilities for Apple TV, and the recently-ended iPod antitrust trial where a jury found in Apple’s favor in just three hours.
You also heard from cutting-edge columnist Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, as he continued to expose false and misleading tech reporting, often about Apple. So in this segment, he explained that, no, Apple didn’t exactly lose the top spot in education to the Google Chrome-book. His revealing remarks also included the iPod trial and the possibilities for the Apple Watch.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Dr. Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, who returns to the Paracast to talk about her new book, “Sky People: Untold Stories of Alien Encounters in Mesoamerica.” According to the publisher’s notes, Ardy vowed as a teenager to follow in the footsteps of two 19th-century explorers, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who were among the first to bring the ancient Maya cities to the world’s attention. She finally set out on her seven-year adventure in 2003 and traveled through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, collecting stories of encounters, sky gods, giants, little people, and aliens among the indigenous Maya. She drove more than 12,000 miles, visiting 89 archaeological sites and conducted nearly 100 individual interviews. We’ll present some of the most fascinating tales during this episode.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
As most of you know, I’ve pretty much settled on Apple Mail for my email needs since the early days of OS X. I’ve struggled with Microsoft Entourage and its successor, Outlook for Mac, but never seemed to find myself comfortable with the bloated interface and lagging performance. With the Outlook 365 beta released to Mac users a while back, they promised better performance. Maybe, but not enough to notice under most conditions.
From time to time, I’ve tried Thunderbird and other email clients, but they never seem to anticipate my simple needs better than Apple. You see I don’t want whiz-bang organizational capabilities. My organization is done with a set of rules on my email server, or via iCloud and Google. That’s more efficient then doing it directly from an app, because those settings would have to be repeated on every computer you own, and they aren’t available on an iOS device.
For me, I want email that fits into certain categories, such as payments or bills, to go into targeted folders. That way I can check them when new messages show up without having them join the clutter of regular messages. With Mail, I can also flag certain messages that I need to check from time to time, such as web server setup details or perhaps some suggestions from a support person about optimizing the server or fixing a recurrent problem. As you see, none of these needs are altogether difficult.
Mail also handles my particular organizational requirements in other respects. So I view messages with the most recent at the top of the list. When I delete a message with the Delete key, Mail will usually scroll upward to the next message. Other email clients move in the other direction, which is counterproductive for me.
As most of you know, however, Mail can have irritating bugs. The Yosemite version, at least, no longer stages random crashes when retrieving a large quantity of messages, such as catching up after a vacation or setting up a new account with lots of stored content. With OS X Mavericks, many of you were hit with curious Gmail behavior, all unnecessary. That was fixed over time, but my Gmail use is mostly limited to server messages, Google+ and a few odds and ends. I need it, and Apple’s iCloud mail (formerly MobileMe) to be able to stay in touch in the event my email server, or the entire web server, goes offline.
Setting up a new account can be easy — particularly if you use iCloud, AOL, Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo or Exchange — because the settings are mostly configured automatically. You just enter your email address and password. When you are using an account in the “Other” category, which applies to your vanity domain or ISP, Mail freaks. You end up having to enter basic settings, such as incoming and outgoing server and switching SSL on or off, manually. Unfortunately Mail also gets such arcane details as the port number wrong.
There’s an option in Mail to “Automatically detect and maintain account settings,” but it frequently makes incorrect choices. So I will consult documentation from my web server’s support page (we use cPanel) or the ISP to retrieve the correct settings.
The next failing of Mail can cause real trouble, particularly if you use IMAP, where you want your messages stored on a server so they can be synced with all your devices. That way, what you send can be consulted regardless of which gadget you’re using.
With Mail, you usually have to manually map the local email folders with the comparable ones on the server, such as Drafts, Junk, Sent and Trash. But these labels are not universal, you see. Some email systems use Spam, Sent Items and Deleted Items, or a combination of the three.
So Mail requires you to select the appropriate local folder and call up the Use This Mailbox As… command in the Mailbox menu to connect them to the comparable IMAP mailboxes or folders on the server. In contrast, the otherwise irritating Microsoft Outlook may make the right guess most of the time, but there are failures, meaning you still have to make a manual selection. It’s an Advanced setting in the Folders category.
But I can’t see why Apple forces you into manual labor. After all, it’s easy to poll the folders on an email server to check for the various iterations of the basic four folders listed above. If Mail can’t make the right decision, a simple dialog during the account setup process would set things right. But this all-important need has never been met. Apple is busy adding the ability to use iCloud to send huge attachments, or annotate photos and PDF files in the body of Mail. They are useful, but Apple also needs to get the basics right, and I wonder about their priorities.
Now it just may be that another email client out there can meet my needs more efficiently, with fewer quirks and workarounds. The ones I’ve tried, such as Airmail, may be nicely designed, but are just a little alien to my requirements. Maybe some day Apple will listen, or an independent developer will ask me what I want and see if my needs can be filled.
But not today.
When you buy a new Mac, you can add an AppleCare extended warranty and get coverage for a total of three years. But most of you aren’t ready to retire your Mac that quickly. Except for the rare machines that have early failures — and usually it’s the hard drive that isn’t terribly expensive to replace — you can be assured of seeing your Mac run at peak efficiency for more than five years.
I have a late 2009 27-inch iMac bought weeks after it was released. The only change I’ve made over the years was to upgrade from 8GB of RAM to 16GB, a move made with the guidance of Larry O’Connor, CEO of OWC (Other World Computing). I was surprised to see that upgrade, which lists for $197, gave the iMac essentially a new lease on life. Some functions that brought it to a crawl, such as running a Windows virtual machine in Parallels Desktop, were relatively swift after the upgrade.
Apple, however, hasn’t made it easy to upgrade RAM on most existing gear, and has opted to use soldiered RAM. This move may be done in service of making the units slimmer. I suppose there’s always the potential support issues for customers who mess up a RAM upgrade, but I don’t think that ought to be a serious factor. Still, a 27-inch iMac is always upgradeable as is the Mac Pro. The 21.5-inch iMac has soldered memory, and that applies to most MacBooks and the newest Mac mini. I can hear the collective boos about the latter, since there seems to be no sensible reason for that unfortunate design decision. After all, you could easily upgrade the previous model.
So for the most part, you want to get all the memory you can afford when you buy a Mac. Where it’s upgradeable, you’ll want to avoid Apple’s RAM — which is sourced from the same suppliers that third parties use — and buy your memory elsewhere. You can expect to pay half or less in many cases.
But for the most part, a RAM upgrade will afford just a very modest performance improvement, mostly when running lots of apps, or apps that consume high system resources.
Now the iMac 5K I’m reviewing benchmarks more than 50% faster than my work iMac. That’s a roughly 10% improvement for each year. But in practice, CPU intensive processes, such as converting an MP3 file, maybe complete 25-30% faster in my limited tests. That’s not so bad. Still, I’m using the entry-level model with 8GB of RAM. Imagine if I had more.
The real bugaboo on the older iMac is the traditional hard drive. Whether it’s the hybrid Fusion Drive or an SSD, disk-intensive operations move much, much faster on newer gear. So the 2009 iMac completes a full restart, which includes launching four or five apps, in several minutes. The same startup process on the iMac 5K completes in seconds. Apps mostly launch much faster, and documents open far more quickly. This creates the impression that I’m using a much faster computer than can be accounted for by the CPU alone.
So the ideal upgrade is an SSD, if you can replace the drive on your Mac, which isn’t always so easy. Apple uses soldered SSDs on a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina display, so you buy what you need and that’s it. You can easily replace the SSD on a Mac Pro if you don’t buy the largest capacity model, but you can also rely on an external drive. With loads of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 ports, expansion opportunities are plentiful.
SSDs aren’t exactly cheap, but they are certainly not as costly as they used to be, and they can make a huge performance improvement. OWC offers a 480GB SSD, U.S.A. built with a three-to-five-year warranty, for as little as $279; 1TB is $479 and a 2TB SSD upgrade for the Mac Pro is forthcoming. Compared to how high prices used to run, however, that’s reasonably affordable, particularly if you want to prolong the life of your Mac. Advertised speeds are over 500MB/s read/write.
You can certainly price the components online and see if another supplier can do better. OWC’s advantage is that they don’t need a TRIM hack to provide long life.
Pulling apart a Mac mini to install an SSD is not easy, but it usually can be done. The iMac is a bear to open. Older models used magnets, newer ones require removing and replacing delicate adhesive strips as part of the process. If you want the full teardown instructions — and a kit with adhesive strips and the appropriate tool — you can visit iFixit. They test every new Mac and iOS device to judge how difficult they are to take apart and reassemble. If you have the patience and somewhat flexible fingers, I suppose you could try, but remember that any damage you cause is yours to fix. Apple will not provide warranty repairs if an unsupported upgrade goes badly. It’s not the same thing as opening a cover and replacing or upgrading RAM.
When I consider such choices, however, I continue to feel that Apple has abandoned its customers by making RAM upgrades so difficult or impossible. That’s not fair for products that occupy the mid-to-premium segments of the PC market. Apple may want you to believe a PC is just an appliance, but you shouldn’t have to buy a new one when you want to eke out some extra performance, and you have a machine that still has plenty of useful life left.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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