• Newsletter Issue #801

    April 6th, 2015


    When I wrote a blog about Apple and Tim Cook taking a less politically correct posture when it comes to making public statements about hot-button issues, I expected some of our readers to want to treat it as a full-blown political argument, as you might gather from some of the comments. But I also cut it off after a while since such discussions are apt to take it way beyond what we do here.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, Mac Managing Editor for iMore, who talked about a number of subjects, including Apple CEO Tim Cook’s efforts to wade into the political arena with his comments about a controversial religious freedom law in Indiana. Peter also discussed net neutrality, the lack of good Internet service in many parts of the U.S. and, of course, Apple Watch.

    I also continue to receive occasional letters from people claiming that, in effect, the world will end because of the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. Sometimes it appears that these criticisms are more about making people afraid of something than actually presenting alternate points of view. And that’s before you even consider the accuracy of the comments, or lack thereof.

    You also heard from Larry O’Connor, CEO of Other World Computing. He gave you advice on choosing the proper RAM upgrade for Macs, the lifecycle of hard drives, and about the benefits of upgrading to an SSD. He also gave you a preview of the new 3D NAND flash technology that will greatly expand solid state drive capacity over the next few years at much lower prices.

    So I can’t wait to buy a 10TB SSD for $250. It may be a few years, but we are no doubt on the way to getting extremely high capacity at, at last, an affordable price. Meantime, I’ll have a lot to say about Apple’s decision to discourage user upgrades of recent Macs in the main article for this issue.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: With guest co-host Curt Collins, we feature the irrepressible George Wingfield. In his working life, he had a brief stint as an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory studying stellar spectra and the earth’s magnetic field. Subsequently, he joined IBM UK and engaged in a variety of jobs in Systems Engineering, Marketing, and in Computer Education. George’s experience and knowledge covers a wide spectrum of the UFO filed from the Skinwalker Ranch, military intelligence operations, the Cash-Landrum Incident, Rendlesham Forest Abductions and much more.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our 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.


    Believe it or not, but most people who buy Macs don’t consider the ability to upgrade or lack thereof. The latest Geekbench scores are not high on the list of priorities. Apple publishes specs, but they aren’t quite as detailed as on some PC boxes. Reason is that Mac customers are seeking a soliton, not a built-it-yourself kit. That has always separated the Macs from the PCs since 1984.

    Some of you may not realize that the very first Mac couldn’t be upgraded. It was a closed box, same as the toaster oven or refrigerator. You wouldn’t think of tearing apart a refrigerator unless something needs to be fixed, and then it’s usually done by the repair service. So it’s easy to see the reason for some of the choices Apple has made through the years since they claim to be selling computing appliances.

    To me, however, the very first Mac that I brought into my home (after using one at work for several years) was a IIcx from 1989, which was quite easy to upgrade; in fact, easier than most modern Macs. Just pop the cover, and everything was out in the open for you. Of course, you had to remove the floppy drive on occasion to clean it out, since it was prone to gather dust, so being too open had its downsides. But Apple has more and more moved to preventing users from being able to replace or upgrade anything.

    When I read a recent article on upgrading Macs in Mac|Life, I could see how things have changed over the years. Now first and foremost, the article is flawed in some respects. So the reader is told that it is easy to upgrade the first generation Mac mini, but most of you know that is just not true. You need a putty knife, or an implement providing a similar function, to open the case, real carefully, to get at the parts you want to replace.

    But at least they could be replaced.

    Unfortunately, Apple has made some curious design decisions about more recent gear. After delaying an update for Mac mini for two years, the 2014 model was delivered for $100 less, $499 for the base version. That’s the same price as the original 2005 model, so it’s a plus. This decision has brought some tradeoffs, the worst of which is that you can no longer upgrade RAM. Sure, it’s not likely people who buy this computer will consider swapping out the internal drive except for repairs, but RAM? How much does Apple actually save by eliminating the ability to do that upgrade?

    It’s not that people stop buying Macs that are hostile to upgrades. It appears that the MacBook Air continues to do quite well. Most Macs sold these days are note-books, and the only model on which you can upgrade RAM is a legacy $1,099 MacBook with a traditional 500GB hard drive. Even the MacBook Air with Retina display can’t get a RAM transplant, and that’s a model that reaches a business audience.

    But what about desktops other than the Mac mini?

    It’s a mixed bag with the iMac. Recent 21½-inch models suffer from the same limitation as the Mac mini and most Mac note-books. But RAM is easily upgraded on the 27-inch version. I’ve done the upgrade on my late 2009 iMac and a far more recent one for a client. In both cases, the upgrade took less than five minutes to perform, including popping/removing the cover at the bottom rear of the unit. Apple has made it real easy to perform that upgrade, and it’s also extremely easy to upgrade a Mac Pro of any era.

    I’ll get to replacing the drives shortly.

    So why would Apple prevent RAM upgrades on the vast majority of new models? One possible reason is to avoid even the slightest possibility that some customers will screw up the upgrade and damage their computers. The process isn’t actually all that delicate, so this is highly unlikely, but I’ll grant it does happen from time to time. However Apple isn’t obligated to fix a Mac that you damage while performing a RAM upgrade when it is possible, although it’s not prohibited.

    Past the failed upgrade, it is slightly cheaper to build a computer in which the memory is soldered to the logic board, without slots for removable RAM along with some sort of cover mechanism. But I can’t imagine that being more than a few dollars. It’s not the reason the Mac mini is $100 cheaper.

    Would soldering the RAM to the logic board provide for slightly speedier performance? I’ll let the hardware gurus explain the benefits of the direct connection to me. A more reliable product? I suppose. But if memory goes bad, you have to replace the entire logic board, not just the affected RAM module. Sure, it’s not likely to happen very often, but still.

    Now when it comes to storage, it’s a mixed bag. It appears you can swap the SSDs on MacBook Airs through 2012, and on all MacBook Pros with Retina displays. You’ll probably want to consult a company that specializes in these products, such as Other World Computing, rather than just visit Amazon and hope for the best. You’ll want to consult the vendor’s list of the available upgrades for each model, and check out instructions, including videos, on how to do the upgrade yourself.

    While a RAM upgrade can help performance some, particularly for running lots of apps or resource hungry apps, switching to solid state storage can always do wonders. Prepare to pay several times the price of a traditional hard drive, but for the money you get several times the performance. Since so many of the functions on a personal computer are storage dependent, particularly startup and app launches, even a lowly MacBook or MacBook Pro that’s several years old may suddenly run a whole lot faster when you swap a mechanical hard drive for an SSD.

    With the guidance of Larry O’Connor, CEO of Other Word Computing, and a guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, I did RAM and SSD upgrades on a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro. Yes, it’s a heavy beast compared to current Mac note-books, or any note-books. But it isn’t that much slower than current models, and the upgrades made it seem far more powerful. The slowdowns I had long encountered disappeared, and a startup process that took several minutes with several apps launching was reduced to 30 seconds or so.

    But even where such upgrades are possible, Apple sometimes makes the process as user hostile as can be.

    Upgrading that 2010 MacBook Pro was fairly easy. I did have to pay close attention to those real tiny screws that are used to seal the bottom cover. I lost a few during the original SSD upgrade, but got OWC to sent me replacements in exchange for being humble about my misadventure. I used a small cereal bowl to hold the screws during the RAM upgrade process.

    While the 27-inch iMac would appear to be a terrific candidate for drive replacements, Apple has made some questionable design decisions that make it difficult and prone to mishap. So the late 2009 through 2011 models use magnets to hold the screen onto the aluminum chassis. You need suction cups to pull off the glass. It’s not hard, but you have to treat that big lump of thin glass with plenty of respect. Put the glass and LCD on a soft surface, such as a towel, to keep the glass and the LCD panel from getting scratched. The rest of the installation process is fairly straightforward, but you have to watch out for the tiny cable assemblies. You also need to replace the sensor wire so the hardware will recognize the new device and keep the cooling fan running at the proper temperature. iMacs in recent years only natively recognize Apple drives.

    As you might imagine, I’ve already endured this process. It took less than an hour from start to finish, and I survived. If you have any qualms about doing it yourself, a local authorized Apple dealer — but not an Apple Store — would probably do the job for you for a normal installation fee. Figure $100 or so, and if you’re invested nearly $500 for a 1TB SSD, it might be worth it if you have any qualms about the installation procedure. OWC and iFixit both sell the toolkits, complete with the suction cups.

    But if you have the 2012 or later 27-inch iMac, you may want to think twice about the storage upgrade. I know Apple loves thin, though the rear seems only bulbous at the center. But the newer iMacs don’t look all that different from the older models unless you look at them from the sides and rear. It seems a waste.

    The real problem, however, is that Apple uses a sealing tape to adhere the glass to the chassis. There are tools that allow for its removal, and assembly kits include replacement adhesive material. This is a somewhat difficult process, however, that is far more fraught with potential hazards than any Mac upgrade I’ve ever performed, or considered. Again, you may want to let an authorized repair shop handle this chore. At least someone else will be responsible if your expensive Mac is damaged during the as a result of the upgrade.

    Little that Apple can tell me would make me feel warm and fuzzy about their design decisions for these iMacs or recent note-books. In the past, I was highly critical of the upgrade process on some of the tower Macs from the 1990s. I remember several models where I had to separate delicate wiring harnesses and pull the logic board. At the time, people like me sharply criticized Apple, and later models were designed for fast and easy upgrades.

    These days, Apple is on the top of the world when it comes to sales and profits. But when it comes to making gear easy to repair or upgrade, they don’t score terribly high. Apple has a lot of explaining to do.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
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    7 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #801”

    1. Kaleberg says:

      Are you old enough to remember taking all of the tubes out of your television, bringing them into the tube store and testing them, buying new tubes to replace the bad ones and then putting all the tubes back in before firing up the set again? Do you remember the Quasar television, a solid state transistor model, which was sold with the tag line “works in a drawer” because it made it easy to remove the solid state boards when they failed?

      When was the last time you opened up your television set?

      When was the last time you tweaked your carburetor’s idle setting or popped it open and sprayed in a blast of ether?

      Apple is being completely sensible. Designing a product to be serviced means you have to start the design with access and replacement in mind. The first thing you have to do is figure out where to put the hatch and how to make the modification process simple. Only then can you worry about the more important things like reliability, battery life, heat management and so on.

      The ideal computer has no openings whatever, has no moving parts inside, has a unitary convex hull for strength, is made of a solid heat conductor and has a battery oozed in to fill all the remaining space. Obviously, there have to be some compromises. The display on a laptop is expected to flip up and down, unlike the display on an iPad. The keys on the keyboard have to provide some tactile feedback. There usually needs to be some air path for cooling which means openings and limits on battery placement. Apple is incrementally moving towards an ideal machine.

      It isn’t the cost of RAM sockets. It is the design cost of making those RAM sockets accessible. If you solder the RAM you get more battery space or a better air path. If you get rid of the hatch in whatever form, you can now place the CPU optimally for heat removal. Most people would really rather have a small, light, reliable computer with long battery life than one they can open up and tinker with. They’ll even pay ridiculous RAM prices and depreciate them over three to five years. If they really need to upgrade, they’ll sell their old machine and buy a new one. Apple gear has good resale value because it is built for reliability and endurance.

      • @Kaleberg, Yes, I remember tubes. One of my friends, Bob Carver, designs tube amps and holds a dozen patents on audio technology.

        I understand the value of simplifying the design so you don’t consider a RAM or drive upgrade or replacement. But is it right to force someone to pay Apple double for higher memory because they can’t just buy their own memory upgrade later? This may not be a problem with an $899 MacBook Air. But a $2,499 MacBook Pro with Retina display?


    2. Peter says:

      Some of you may not realize that the very first Mac couldn’t be upgraded. It was a closed box, same as the toaster oven or refrigerator.

      Yup! And do you remember that original Mac didn’t sell very well? That Macs didn’t really take off until you had the Macintosh Plus, SE, and II which were upgradeable?

    3. dfs says:

      It just may be possible that Apple has done a little quiet market research and managed to convince itself that such a small percentage of purchasers upgrade their Macs that they don’t amount to a constitutency worth catering to.

    4. Jon Schoen says:

      Gene, I can appreciate both sides of this. 1. My side. Meaning, someone who buys a new Apple computer every 5 to 6 years, and who expects to be able to upgrade ram, hard drive, etc, as technology advances (every 1 to 2 years). My current Mid 2010 MacBook Pro 15″ 2.66Ghz came with either a 320GB or 500GB hard drive, can’t remember which. Years ago I upped the ram to the max 8GB and then over the years I removed the optical drive (never miss it), added a second 500GB hard drive, then as prices decreased, went with two 1TB drives. Neither are SSD. SSD is still too expensive for my storage needs. I have 36GB of photos, and nearly 1.5TB of videos and music. I would like to replace both drives with 2TB drives, and I may still do that, depending on cost. The real answer is, does Apple have a viable alternative?, a newer laptop with 4TB storage? NOPE. So I’m keeping the Macbook Pro that’s going on 5 years old, and still working great (on 10.9 mind you, I despise Yosemite).
      2. Apple’s side. This is… that “most” people never ever even think about upgrading their current hardware, and they are right, I would venture to say 90% of people never upgrade, they simply replace and do the hand me down shuffle. I would prefer to ‘hand me down” my old parts. I.E. My wife’s 13″ Macbook got my old 500GB drives and both 2GB ram modules. Cost vs benefit? Who knows. I know I just miss the days where I could actually “Do something” with my hardware.

      I LOVE the look and functionality of the new 12″ Macbook, as I’ve been wanting a 12″ again ever since they discontinued the Powerbook 12″. Will I buy one? Maybe, because it’s more portable, and reasonably priced, and beautiful. But I will still keep the MB Pro 15″.

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