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Newsletter Issue #784

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

4K TV, officially known as Ultra HD, is supposed to present a huge promise to boost sales in the stagnant TV industry. 3D didn’t take off for reasons that ought to be crystal clear for most of you. It’s not as if people are just aching to put on some ugly specs — and I’ll assume the glasses some of you wear are appropriately fashionable — or to be forced to sit within a narrow radius in front of the set for a good quality picture.

Well, the TV makers are hoping that 4K will be the hot ticket this year. With four times as many pixels as regular 1080p HP, you’d expect picture quality to be far better. But that goes back to the original Retina display argument, which is how sharp must a picture before the pixels seem to vanish, and the image just pops out at you in pristine clarity.

To experience the best in 4K, you need to be fairly close to the set or buy a set with a 60-inch display or even larger. You’ll notice that many demonstrations of 4K in such retailers as Best Buy use still photos to emphasize the resolution advantage, but that difference is nowhere near as distinct with movies and regular TV shows. Of course, color quality is also supposed to be superior, so that’s another area where the improvements may jell.

But we’ll have to see if the new generation or lower-cost 4K sets, some available for less than $1,000, will turn the tide in TV sales. I suppose those who want to future proof their sets might be inclined to upgrade, but I also wonder whether revised 4K standards might render some current hardware obsolete. And don’t forget the severe lack of genuine 4K content.

Now on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented the irrepressible John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer and a columnist for The Street, who discussed why Apple may be letting a few things fall through the cracks, such as the recent late and decidedly mediocre update to the Mac mini. You also heard about his personal experiences with Apple Pay, his views about 4K or Ultra HD TV, and why analyst estimates of potential Apple Watch sales are just plain wrong.

We were also joined by commentator Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Tech and other outlets, who detailed what we might expect from a future Apple TV, the possibilities of 4K TV, and the ins and outs of net neutrality. You also heard Rob’s views about Windows 10, due in 2015, and an update on the iPod antitrust trial, still in progress when this episode was broadcast.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time UFO researcher and author Peter Robbins, author of a free seven-part e-book, “Deliberate Deception: A Case of Disinformation in the UFO Research Community,” published by Phenomena Magazine. The book reportedly “has huge implications, not only for the Rendlesham Forest incident, but for Ufology in general.” In short, Robbins is accusing Nick Pope, lead author of “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest,”  of engaging in disinformation in his book. You can download a free copy of Robbins’ book here: “Deliberate Deception.” In addition to his ongoing research into the 1980 Rendlesham Forest episode, Robbins has extensive experience exploring UFO abductions and the work of Wilhelm Reich.

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.

THE iMAC 5K: FOUR HOURS TO INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Let me put my cards on the table. With the first release of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, I was convinced it would be a terrific addition to Apple’s product portfolio if done right. The reviews and some hands-on exposure convinced me that Apple found a way to make me feel less sad about the decision to discontinue the 17-inch model. Surely the sharper display would compensate for having to examine content in a smaller space.

After all, I was already convinced that a Retina display worked on an iPhone, so mirroring that concept on a note-book computer didn’t surprise me. However, it wasn’t easy to scale up the display, pack a graphics chip powerful enough to move all those pixels, and make it at least somewhat affordable. But prices have come down over time. Today’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display starts at $1,299. The low-end 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display — low being relative — starts at $1,999. The latter is outfitted with 16GB of RAM, though the SSD drive is only 256GB. You really need twice that.

As high definition note-books go, those prices are actually quite competitive with PC hardware of similar specs, although Apple continues to possess the unfortunate reputation of charging an alleged “Apple Tax.” But when rumors arose of a Retina iMac in the works, I was skeptical. As a long-time user of a 27-inch iMac, I felt the display was quite sharp enough. But why did I always gravitate to my iPhone to read long passages of text?

Confirming the rumors, in October Apple launched a 27-inch iMac with a 5K display. That’s one step above 4K, which is the sharper definition format that’s now available on a TV. What this means in practice is 14.7 million pixels that have to be generated by graphics hardware with a reasonable degree of snappiness and fluidity, and that’s a tall order.

5K means that you can edit a 4K video in Final Cut Pro at its native resolution and leave space enough for the menu bars and palettes that surround the picture. But as a practical matter, pixels are essentially halved for regular use, so onscreen content is essentially the same size as on a regular 27-inch iMac, only a lot sharper.

How sharp? I’ll get there in a moment.

Now a 5K display is not cheap. Dell is selling the UltraSharp Ultra HD 5K Monitor — and that’s typical of the dumb names Dell attaches to gear — for a “mere” $2,499. I wouldn’t presume to suggest picture quality is comparable to what Apple offers in the 5K iMac, but let’s assume they are roughly similar.

So the iMac 5K also starts at $2,499, only it comes with the computer already installed. That’s $700 more than the cheapest 27-inch iMac with the regular display. The hardware configuration is somewhat heftier, and graphics are provided by an AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory in the entry-level model. A 1TB Fusion Drive, which is actually 1.12TB since it adds a 128GB SSD, is included in the package, along with 8GB RAM.

It’s easy to option an iMac 5K to death. Upgrade to 1TB of all SSD storage, 32GB RAM, a beefier processor and graphics chip, and the price jumps to well into Mac Pro territory, at $4,399.

When I asked Apple if they had a loaded iMac 5K for me to review, they said that the custom or CTO versions weren’t available — the demand has been incredible — but they could let me have the bottom-line model for a few weeks. I accepted.

Understand I’m briefly upgrading from a late 2009 27-inch iMac, so I expected vast performance differences, in large part due to the Fusion Drive, which delivers very close to full SSD performance unless you deal with lots of positively huge files. There’s also the promise that Apple’s hybrid drive scheme will speed up over time as the system becomes accustomed to your workflow, and the files you use most often.

Having set up recent generation iMacs for clients, I wasn’t surprised at the slimmer and lighter form factor. Although  I’ve been keeping the chiropractor busy treating my current back ailments, I had little difficulty moving my existing iMac to a second computer desk, and setting up the 5K in its original spot.

Apple also sent along a Thunderbolt to FireWire 800 adapter, so I could attach my backup drives and get up and running in short order.

Well, not that short. After a swift startup routine, I had to wait over four hours for nearly 500GB of files to be moved over from the backup drive via Apple’s Migration Assistant. I also had to reactivate a few of my hardware dependent apps, such as QuarkXPress 10.5. Otherwise, the jump from old Mac to new was pretty seamless overall. Everything was setup the way I liked, so I decided to get down to business and try things out.

Fusion Drive meant that the full startup process, which included launching four or five apps, was completed several times faster than on my own iMac. Most everything seemed fast and fluid, even the Finder, and the 5K display was just awesome. I was even able to read text with only slight difficulty without my reading glasses, and that’s one huge achievement.

With reading glasses in place, the text seemed to pop. Well, at least with apps optimized for a Retina display. The menu bar and dialogs of other apps were not altogether different than on a standard display, but here they seemed a tad fuzzy. That’s just by comparison, although some claim that such apps actually look worse.

For once, I actually could read long text passages with far more comfort, and that, itself means that my workflow will become more efficient. Well, until I have to turn this machine back.

Now pushing 14.7 million pixels around even stretches Apple’s advanced graphics hardware and software optimizations. On occasion rapid scrolling and moving windows around brought a brief stutter. I wonder how it would do with the beefier graphics chip. Maybe Apple will have a loaded model available to me for a hands-on after the first of the year.

I also encountered a curious glitch with the latest Parallels Desktop for Mac when trying to launch the Windows 10 Preview. Whenever I attempted to open the settings control panel via the Start Menu, the OS virtual machine would crash and restart. The process was repeated a couple of times till things settled down for a while. Then the screen began to flicker rapidly, so I ended up quitting Parallels.

I also encountered an “Unknown Error” prompt when I attempted to activate the Outlook for Mac beta now available to Office 365 subscribers. I’m not at all certain if either problem is the result of an incompatibility with the iMac 5K, or a Microsoft issue, but I’ll continue to investigate.

Overall, number crunching didn’t seem that much faster than on my late 2009 iMac, although the 5K’s 3.5GHz Intel Core i5 is obviously quite a bit faster than a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7. But anything disk-intensive was especially fast, typical of most any SSD.

So I use Join Together from Doug’s AppleScripts to combine the 12 segments of my radio show into a single file for Tech Night Owl+, our ad-free premium subscription service. The join process is nearly all disk. It takes several minutes to complete on the late 2009 iMac, and seconds on the 5K. Again, that’s more due to the Fusion Drive than the new iMac’s more powerful hardware.

I haven’t run a full slate of benchmarks, but the ones I’ve examined so far reveal results that match or exceed a Mac Pro when you use up to four cores. If your app can leverage more than four cores, the Mac Pro’s advantage grows, but at what cost?

So I expect that the iMac 5K will appeal to many content creators who might have selected a Mac Pro. But remember that 5K displays are hugely expensive, and the Dell is one of the cheapest around.

Unfortunately, the iMac 5K’s display cannot serve as a standalone monitor for another computer that can handle the pixels, such as a Mac Pro. I suppose there’s always the hope that Apple will consider replacing the aging Thunderbolt display with a 5K alternative. With the computer removed, I can see it selling for $1,699 or thereabouts, a huge bargain for such amazing hardware.

In any case, I’ll have more to say about the iMac 5K in the coming days. But I’m quite impressed so far. Just the ability to read more comfortably means the potential for fewer errors in my writings. The speedier app launch and startup times is a plus, but less significant, since I tend to be a creature of habit, someone who works with a specific range of apps that are all or mostly open all the time.

On the other hand, the iMac 5K is mighty tempting. It’s not cheap, but neither was my late 2009 iMac once it was optioned with a faster processor and beefier graphics. If I can swing a decent tax refund next year, maybe. But it would have to be quite decent.

That, too, is the question content creators will want to consider when it comes time to buy a new Mac. Even if you have a standard 27-inch iMac in your sights, the extra $700 that you pay above the entry model to go 5K is not so costly when you consider the marvelous display all by itself.

If the current backlogs at Apple indicates demand more than the difficulty building these beasts, it would seem that Apple has yet another hit on its hands.

Now I’m going to live with it for a while and see if the first impressions last.

THE FINAL WORD

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