• Newsletter Issue #851

    March 21st, 2016


    By the time you read this article, it’s very possible Apple’s media event will have come and gone, and some of what I say may be rendered obsolete. But I don’t think so.

    I’ve been reading about the pros and cons about the 2015 MacBook, offered by Apple as a harbinger of our mobile future. Well, at least as it relates to traditional notebooks. So when Apple introduced it, it was clear that it assumed that all or most of your connections on the road would be wireless. So there is only one USB-C port, which doubles as a charging port. But since you get essentially all-day life on a MacBook, you could just focus on adding a single device there. If you must have more, get a multipart dongle.

    So I considered my recent workflow. Back in the 1990s, I’d try, as much as possible, to replicate my home office environment and I even took a small inkjet printer with me. I even used it from time to time, but soon realized it wasn’t necessary. Sometimes I could find a printer to which to connect at a hotel’s business center. Do they even have those things anymore?

    After weaning myself from printers, all that was left was a USB mic. But I didn’t need that for more than a few hours on an entire trip, assuming I was recording complete episodes of both radio shows. Otherwise, I could get all of my work done with a wireless connection. If I needed to use a separate mouse or keyboard, there was always Bluetooth.

    My situation is not unusual, and I suspect most road warriors do not need more than a single connection port either, which makes the MacBook possibly a perfect notebook. Under heavy load, it might bog down, because performance isn’t so great compared to current hardware, the result of Apple’s decision to use a low-power Intel chip that makes it possible to ditch a cooling fan, but there is a new generation Intel Core M processor available that ought to remedy some of that limitation when the model is refreshed.

    If Apple were to come out with a 15-inch MacBook, assuming I had the free cash at the time, I’d be tempted. I think that many of the people who are criticizing it so much are being unrealistic about their actual needs. They assume they will always be forced to compute with several devices connected, but that doesn’t happen very often except for a small number of users who, obviously, would be better off with, say, a MacBook Pro with Retina display.

    In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. He discussed the ever-complicated Apple/FBI conflict, where Apple is being asked to create what’s called a “GovOS,” to allow the authorities to break into an iPhone 5c used by a terrorist. He also made some sage predictions of what might come from the Apple media event set for March 21, 2016. Speculation has it that the offerings will include a new 4-inch iPhone, and an iPad refresh, a new version of the 9.7 version. Bryan also discussed his efforts to live without his Apple Watch for a full week, offering his impressions after five days. And, yes, he still wears a watch, a mechanical one.

    You also heard from freelance writer and podcaster Peter Cohen, who also discussed the possibilities at the Apple media event, and whether the expected new products appeal to him. The discussion included Peter’s impressions of the Apple/FBI conflict, and his feelings about the government’s contradictory claims about whether or not it’s limited to a single iPhone. Gene moved the discussion to the reliability of recent laser printers, citing his problems with a Brother black and white laser, where the costly fuser assembly failed after roughly 28,000 copies were printed; it’s rated for 100,000 copies.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris explore a crowd-sourced plan to launch a UFO detection satellite into low Earth orbit with Dave Cote, a project manager and software engineer for CubeSat for Disclosure. Plans call for launching the tiny satellite in 2017. It’ll be run with open-source software, and will contain instrumentation to measure possible spaceborne UFO activity. The instruments include radiation detection, imaging equipment, including a scintillation counter and two high resolution cameras with parabolic lenses. If the project succeeds, Dave and his crew hope to launch more satellites. Other methods for detecting possible UFO activity will be discussed during this interview.


    Note: I’m writing this column with the assumption that Apple does not plan to significantly alter the Mac lineup during its March 21st media event. Or at least there are no indications of such plans from the rumor sites, from the supply chains, or from the usual offenders when it comes to possible new products and services. So I feel reasonably confident that I’m right.

    If you want to buy a new Mac, you’ll find a decent number of options. Not all the possible options compared to the Windows platform, but enough for most people to find their ideal personal computer. Despite the fact that Microsoft is making a big deal of it, a Mac with a touchscreen doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

    In my case, I took a calculated risk back in 2009, and went from a Mac Pro to a 27-inch iMac, and found the perfect companion. A close friend bought a Mac mini and a cheap 19-inch display. That, to him, was computing bliss. He didn’t need anything more powerful to write email and hang out on his favorite sites.

    Some 80% of Mac users buy notebooks nowadays. So out of roughly five million Macs sold every quarter — more or less — only one million are traditional desktops, which also include the Mac Pro workstation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Mac Pro sales were little more than 50,000 per quarter or even less. It is a very specialized and potentially expensive product, and most of you who need something that’s fast enough for most tasks could settle on the iMac and be perfectly happy.

    That takes me back to my original decision to go iMac. But Apple’s decision to make it a suitable computer for business use represented quite a change from the original intent of that model, which was a low-end all-in-one computer for consumers. Or at least that’s how it all began in 1998 with the first Bondi Blue gumdrop iMac. It was a clever design, heavily based on mobile-style hardware. In other words, aside from the CRT display, the raw components were similar to those of a PowerBook other than reliance on USB rather than, up till then, traditional Mac ports. That’s also where Apple ditched the floppy drive, while the rest of the PC industry said that was the wrong decision until they eventually got with the program.

    So is something lacking in the current Mac lineup? I suppose I could say an update to the 17-inch MacBook Pro, but I realize that the audience is probably far too small to justify such a beast, that, except for some diehards, they have since moved on to a 15-inch notebook and are perfectly fine with it.

    I suppose I would be if I traveled enough and could justify the purchase of a new notebook. But since my 2010 MacBook Pro runs just perfectly, I see no reason to trade up. Maybe if something breaks, or I get a sudden windfall.

    For the public at large, could Apple flesh out the Mac lineup in any significant way? I suppose a larger MacBook might be useful. If you can get past the lack of expansion ports, the 12-inch display might not be sufficient. As I wrote in the post above, I could see buying one if Apple produced one with a larger display. The requirement for additional ports is really overrated for many of you. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but first consider your actual workflow, and what you absolutely need to do when you’re playing the role of road warrior.

    Now some years back, I joined tech blogger Dan Frakes, once of Macworld, in pushing for what we called a “mythical midrange Mac minitower.” Well, I usually referred to it as the “headless iMac,” and while the suggested configurations varied, it would be a computer that, more or less, contained the guts of the iMac without the built-in display. It would add a second, easily accessible internal drive port. Perhaps a PCI slot or two would help. But it would still be small enough to become virtually invisible behind whatever display you chose. You wouldn’t have to hide it under your desk, as you did with the that cheesegrater Mac Pro.

    Apple, however, decided that we don’t need much internal expansion  on any Mac. That explains the logic — or whatever you call it — behind the Mac Pro. You can add memory, and swapping the single internal SSD and the processor is possible. But everything else is external, and there are plenty of ports with a rich variety of options. It also creates the climate for a real wiring mess, with loads of peripherals surrounding an elegant and compact machine.

    It has been more than two years since the cylindrical Mac Pro was introduced. Apple could have refreshed the product with newer, speedier Intel Xeon processors and more powerful graphic cards. But it may be that they were waiting for a newer DisplayPort standard, the recently ratified version 1.4, to more efficiently manage a pair of external 5K displays. Perhaps Apple has such displays under development, and we’ll see them soon. DisplayPort 1.4 can even support an 8K display.

    Assuming Apple doesn’t want to abandon a small but profitable class of Mac users, perhaps a Mac Pro upgrade will arrive in June, to coincide with the WWDC. Well, maybe it’ll be demonstrated and will ship later in the year.

    Would Apple consider modifying the Mac Pro, perhaps making it a little larger, to offer some extra internal expansion options? I’m not sure what Mac Pro users expect, but anytime I visualize those wiring nightmares, I suspect that a larger model, still compact by traditional computing workstation standards, might make sense.

    But I long ago stopped predicting what Apple should do, or what I expect them 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
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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #851”

    1. DaveD says:

      A friend asked if I am going to pay attention to today’s Apple event as it is happening. My reply was no because all the rumor sites and news sites posting rumors already told me everything. Not interested in the iPhone and Apple Watch, some interest in the iPad. For me, the iPad mini is the best size and it gets a lot of use. I will still read a summary recap of the presentations.

      Really would like to know more about the Macs. A word or two would be nice. The MacBook should get a second USB-C port, one on each side for the sake of convenience. A return of the MagSafe power connector. Because Intel stumbled badly on its Broadwell processor, Apple left its 15-inch MacBook Pro saddled with an older CPU. At least it does look well for this year that Intel’s Skylake is coming.

      I do like surprises especially the Mac ones.

    2. degrees_of_truth says:

      I also bat near zero on Apple’s producing a product that matches my ideal wants. However, the iPhone SE appears to be as close as it’s ever going to get. My credit card is awaiting the order date.

      I would like to see the iMac replaced by a Mac mini (easily repairable/upgradable), a new high resolution display, and Apple-clever docking and external expansion.

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