After living with the new 4th generation Apple TV for a month, Norm and Patrick Norton evaluate how this set-top box performs against its competition. There's a lot to like about its interface and implementation of video streaming apps, but a few things bug us about its remote design and consistency of voice-control. Here's why it's not the cord-cutting device for everyone.
I've been testing the iPad Pro for the past week and a half now, using it not only as a go-to tablet, but also as an alternative to a notebook for as many day-to-day tasks as possible. I strapped it inside a Logitech Create keyboard and brought it as my sole computer for a weekend work trip to LA. There's a lot more testing to do--my Apple Pencil hasn't even shipped yet--but I wanted to share with you my thoughts on how the device performs, and where it fits and doesn't fit into my work and home use. Specifically, I want to discuss how it, along with other devices, are changing the conversation and role of what are typically classified as mobile and desktop-class computers.
The release of Microsoft's new Surface devices (Surface Book and Surface Pro 4), along with the release of the iPad Pro has renewed the idea of mobile vs. desktop. You can find many reviews that boil their evaluation down to whether the iPad Pro can replace a laptop, or whether Microsoft's Surface laptops can replace the need for a tablet. I'm not interested in that head-to-head comparison--the products are set at different price points, and in my mind serve different purposes. Their hardware and software design illustrate different priorities for Microsoft and Apple for their respective families of computing devices. It's those priorities and design approaches that are really interesting; I want to compare what the iPad and Surface lines stand for: a future that's mobile first vs. one that's desktop first.
To do that, we should first define our terms. So much of this discussion can get muddled in pointless semantic disagreements. When talking about the iPad and Surface, what categorizes one as mobile, and what categorizes the other as a desktop device? Is it the physical formfactor and size? Having a built-in keyboard? Long battery life? Processor architecture? Touchscreen? App selection? All of the above are important to varying degrees, but I think the difference currently boils down to windowed applications and input models, and how those implementations affect how you can use those machines.
Windows and a Desktop: Multitasking for Productivity
For me, the biggest difference in the way you currently use a desktop-class device (eg. a notebook) and a mobile device (eg. smartphone and tablet) depends on whether the operating system employs a desktop model of running programs and file management. As opposed to runnings apps full-screen, Desktop OSes allow for windowed applications to run alongside each other, on top of a virtual and visualized desktop surface. It's a really simple concept to understand, and yet there are grey areas. For example, the home screen on iOS doesn't count as a desktop--it's just an application list, like the Start Menu in Windows. Simple. But on Android OS, being able to arrange files and shortcuts around a launcher screen and run apps in windows makes those devices more akin to desktop OSes, even though Android is typically classified as a mobile OS.
Apple annual developer conference, WWDC, started today, and the company just finished its keynote address announcing updates for Mac OS, iOS, and WatchOS for the rest of the year. We followed along with liveblogs and the livestream, and will be discussing the news in this week's podcast. Until then, here are the major product and service announcements that came from Tim Cook and his team at Apple.
Mac OS X updates came first. The next version of Mac is called OS X El Capitan. Notable changes include Safari pinned bookmarks and tab management, Spotlight accepting natural language searches, and new mission control windows management--a la window snapping in Windows. Performance is supposed to be 1.4X that of Yosemite. Metal--Apple's low-level rendering engine--moves to OS X and secures Adobe adoption for much faster rendering. El Capitan is available to devs today and will be released for free in the fall.
On the iOS front, the big iOS 9 update lies with Siri, which gets a feature called Proactive Assistant. This is Apple's version of Google Now, and will take information from Mail, Calendar, and other apps to give you notifications about context-relevant events. It'll also be more context-aware for tasks, like playing audiobooks vs. music when you get in a car. Siri and iOS Spotlight look better integrated, with a new API for deep linked search within iOS apps. This will all be data kept on your phone, and not sent to Apple's data centers or linked to Apple ID. Maps gets transit directions in select cities to start. A new News app is like Apple's version of Flipboard, but apparently with no ads. Photos and Notes apps get updated too, along with the default keyboard.
For the past few days, I've been testing an iOS tool called Duet Display. Eric Cheng of DJI clued me in on the $15 app, and it's one of the more interesting and useful iPad utilities I've used so far. Simply, it allows you to use any iPad--whether it's an old 30-pin or current Lightning cable model--as a second screen for your Mac or PC. Yep, it's platform agnostic, and the desktop client is free. Using a 9.7-inch or 7.9-inch tablet as your secondary monitor may not sound like a great idea, and it's not something I would use on a regular basis. But since I keep both a laptop and my iPad in my backpack for most places I go, this is something that may have a lot of utility for frequent work travel.
The ability to use an iPad as a second display isn't new--iOS apps like Air Display have granted that ability for years. But those apps rely on a tethered or shared Wi-Fi connection, which limits the quality and responsiveness of the extended display image. The host computer is essentially sending compressed video over to the iPad, and that requires a lot of bandwidth. Duet Display uses a wired connection, so the only limiting factor is the host computer's ability to render and compress a desktop to send over the cable (Duet Display is admittedly a bit of a CPU and power hog, if you're running on laptop power). I was impressed by how good the desktop on my iPad Mini looked, and how responsive the cursor was as I moved windows between screens. It's not exactly zero lag, but darn close.
We've been living with Apple's new MacBook for a few weeks, and sit down to discuss in-depth its technical merits and interesting design choices. Even if you're not interested in Macs, the use of Intel's Core-M chip and USB Type-C give insights into the future of mobile computing. Here's how the retina MacBook fits into Apple's laptop lineup, and how this pricey device compares to other Core M-based computers.
We'll be shooting and publishing our MacBook (2015) review later this week, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts from my testing and experience living with it for the past week and a half. Consider these testing notes a preview of my impressions on the laptop, and an opportunity for you to ask specific questions about it.
For context, prior to the MacBook, I've been using Macs as my primary work computers since 2008, starting with a 15-inch MacBook Pro. In 2011, I switched to the 11-inch Air, which was a maxed-out Core-i7 model. I really loved that formfactor and a balance between portability and performance--it was lightweight and yet had near performance parity with the 13-inch Air and even the entry-level MacBook Pros. At the office, I would plug it into a 24-inch 1080p display and peripherals, while also able to use it while traveling as a full-fledged work computer for writing and photography.
In 2013, I upgraded to the first Haswell model of the 11-inch Air, which had longer battery life and a zippy PCI-E SSD. Performance on that machine has been very satisfactory over the past two years, and I've even edited a few short videos on it in Adobe Premiere. The speed and usability of that stalwart machine is what I'm primarily basing the new MacBook on today. Just in terms of portability, the new MacBook and the refreshed 11-inch Air are the nearest competitors. Whether or not the differentiating factors warrant the significant price delta is what we'll be discussing in-depth in our review video. We'll talk about price last.
So in terms of that differentiating factors, the features I'm most interested in are as follows: screen, performance, battery life, keyboard, and the single-port form factor. We'll start off with the display, since that's the one area where I think the new MacBook has a clear-cut advantage over its Air counterpart.
For this week's Show and Tell, Will shares his pick for essential USB 3.0 multi-card readers. We show one hub that's good for your desk computer, and a smaller stick that's perfect for your day pack. Both are made by Transcend, and move large files extremely quickly.
Hey, did you hear? Apple is releasing a watch next month. And unlike past product category launches like the iPad and iPhone, Apple seems to be a bit more open in allowing the press and public to glimpse into its product development process. There was that massive Jony Ive profile in the New Yorker, where writer Ian Parker spent days in Apple's design lab chatting with Ive's collaborators. There are the three craftsmanship videos about Apple watch manufacturing, which Greg Koenig has delightfully dissected. And even Good Morning America recently visited Apple's health testing lab, where dozens of employees are strapped to complex health monitoring systems for study. Just a little bit like the gym in Gattaca. This new approach to transparency as marketing is smart--it doesn't feel like Apple's giving away state secrets, at least, not that any it thinks competitors can reproduce. It's more posturing than anything, more of a "look what we can do with over $150 billion in cash reserves." And like Koenig's analysis of Apple's materials process, I'd love to see context from health companies like Fitbit and Withings to see what kind of rigor they're putting their health tracking technologies through. Or is all of this extra research unnecessary, given academia and the medical industry's current understanding of fitness?2
Apple recently updated its MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops with a new trackpad system it's calling Force Touch. We've always maintained that Apple makes the best trackpads, but we were concerned about losing the ability to "click". So here's our test of the new Force Touch system, comparing it to the previous trackpad.
Will and I are both out of office today, but wanted to give you guys a place to discuss the Apple product announcements from this morning. At the "Spring Forward" event, Apple first announced a price cut for the Apple TV--same hardware now $70, down from $100. That's price competitive with Roku and Amazon's boxes, and far cheaper than something like Nvidia's upcoming $200 Shield console. HBO Now, a $15/month subscription service, will launch in April on AppleTV, though will make it to other platforms in the indeterminate future.
Apple upgraded its existing Macbook Air and Pro lines. The Air lineup (11" and 13") get Broadwell-U processors, as well as Thunderbolt 2 connectors. The 13" MacBook Pro also gets Broadwell-U and Thunderbolt 2, as well as a new Force Touch trackpad with pressure sensitivity--no more clicks. The 15-inch MacBook Pro won't get an update until mid-2015 when quad-core Broadwell-U chips are available.
In addition to those MacBooks, Apple also announced a new MacBook series and design--one that's actually more suitable for the MacBook Air moniker. The new MacBook line is built off of a 13.1mm thick fanless chassis, running Intel's Core M processors (like the ones we saw in Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro late last year). It also has a 12-inch 2304x1440 display (non-touch) and the new Force Touch trackpad. A new battery arrangement allows these laptops to be significantly thinner than the MacBook Air (at their thickest point), and weigh 2 pounds. Apple claims nine hours of battery life. These MacBooks come in three colors, start at $1300, and go on sale April 10. We'll be testing this for sure.
On the Apple Watch front, Apple demoed new apps for their upcoming watch, which will go on sale April 24th (pre-orders on April 10th). Pricing was also announced, with $50 differences between the 38mm and 42mm models, and the aluminum Sport edition starting at $350. The steel watches will start at $550, and the limited edition solid gold Edition starts at $10,000.
Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed Steve Wozniak about the early days of Apple for this delightful video. The ever-charming Woz talks about how he and Steve Jobs decided to make the Apple 1 computer as a consumer product, the myth of the Palo Alto garage, and why he takes so much pride in the Apple computer's design.
Mac OS X Yosemite is out today! We've been running and testing the various betas leading up to the final release, and sit down to discuss what's new and noteworthy in the latest version of Apple's desktop and laptop operating system. There's more than just a few cosmetic changes!
Despite the product leaks via its own store yesterday, Apple managed to surprise us with the announcements at this morning's press briefing. We'll start off with the annual iPad updates, which fall into two categories. On the full-size iPad, Apple didn't announce any "pro" model, sticking with improvements to the iPad Air. It's now 6.1mm thick, uses an optically bonded LCD, supports 802.11AC MIMO Wi-Fi, and runs off of the expected A8X. Weight finally drops below one pound at 435 grams. TouchID also comes to the iPad Air 2, but no NFC for mobile payments (though Apple Pay will be supported). Apple made a big deal about the new 8MP f/2.4 camera in the iPad Air 2, which shoots better 1080p video and has a burst mode. It'll also come in gold. The iPad Air 2 is available for pre-order this Friday and will ship by the end of next week. Pricing is familiar--$500 for 16GB--but $100 more gets your 64GB, like with the iPhone 6. Last year's iPad Air stays in the lineup, getting a $100 price cut.
The iPad Mini 3 only got a brief mention at the presentation--it has now a TouchID home button. It's otherwise exactly the same as last year's popular Mini with Retina, down to the A7 processor. We were impressed that Apple put the same internal hardware in the iPad Air and Mini lines, but it looks like they're segmenting their lines again this year. That's a little disappointing. Last year's iPad Mini gets a price cut to $300 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, while the Mini 3 starts at $400. $100 is a LOT to pay for TouchID, especially since there's no NFC chip in the Mini 3, either. If you're in the market for a new iPad (eg. still using the first iPad Mini or an iPad 3 or older), my recommendation would be to get the iPad Mini 2.
A Retina iMac also made its debut today, in a 27-inch iMac equipped with a 5120x2880 screen. It has the same formfactor as the existing iMacs, but the high-density LED backlit display now runs off of AMD's Radeon R9 M290X GPU (a mobile GPU). The base configuration has a 3.5GHz Haswell Core i5 (upgradeable to a i7 4GHz), 1TB Fusion drive, and 8GB of RAM. It starts at a whopping $2500. It's available today. Apple didn't upgrade the 21-inch iMac, though we're expecting refreshes in the spring with Intel's Broadwell CPU release. A 5K desktop iMac indicates that Apple could release a standalone Retina Cinema Display in the future as well. Update: this Anandtech hands-on explains why this display (which is likely the same panel as what's in Dell's 27-inch 5K monitor) would not work off of a single DisplayPort connection. MaximumPC got a closer look at the Dell 5K panel in September, which retails alone for $2500 and requires two DisplayPort 1.2 connections.
Finally, the Mac Mini got a long-awaited upgrade. It now runs on a Haswell CPU (1.4GHz dual-core i5 standard), 802.11AC, and two Thunderbolt ports. PCI-e storage is an upgrade option, as is a i7 CPU. It also goes on sale today, and the base price has dropped from $600 to $500.
We'll be testing the new iPad Air 2, though the iMac Retina likely won't be sufficient for the kind of video editing we do. iPads have always had great LCD displays, so I'm curious to see how that holds up with the new optical bonding on the Air. Let us know what from the presentation interests you, and how you feel about this year's new iPads and iMac.
I love stories about icon design. And who better to tell them than the first pixel icon artist, Susan Kare. The prolific designer has created innumerable icons for companies like Facebook and Microsoft, but may be best known as the graphic designer on the original Mac team. Kare created the icons that are forever associated not only with Mac OS (think of the smiling Mac icon and the trashcan) but also icons that have become canon in application UI (the floppy disk for saving comes to mind, as well as the MacPaint tool icons in design apps). Like Jamie, Kare was also at this year's E.G. Conference in Monterey to give a talk recounting her career (video embedded below). The stories Kare shares in her talk are fascinating--from how she sketched out pixel art on notepads before there were any image-editing programs to how she designed the playing cards in Windows Solitaire. The story I liked the most was about the origin of the Apple command key.
It's a story shared before by Macintosh development team member Andy Hertzfeld on his Folklore website. According to both Hertzfeld and Kare, the Apple key had to be changed from a pixelated version of the Apple logo when Steve Jobs saw it in a MacDraw menu listing. The mandate to find a difference command key symbol lead Kare to browse through her reference books, eventually finding the now-familiar symbol in an international symbol dictionary. Its origin: Sweden.
This morning Apple announced the next versions of its operating systems--OSX Yosemite and iOS 8. The focus was on interoperability, both between between devices and apps. Finally, your Mac, iPhone, and iPad will be able to directly communicate with each other. In addition to the existing AirDrop file transfer feature working cross platform, Apple is adding something they're calling Handoffs, which allow you to start work on one device, then move in-progress work seamlessly to another. Think about starting an email on your phone, then moving to your laptop or vice versa. You'll also be able to make and take calls on your phone using your Mac or iPad and your Mac and iPad will be able to automatically share your phone's Internet connection when you're away from Wi-Fi. Apple's position as a soup-to-nuts hardware and software provider leaves them uniquely suited to deliver this kind of interoperability. I'm surprised it's taken this long.
The biggest announcement today is that Apple is finally adding much-needed app interoperability to iOS, which seems superficially similar to Android's Extents and Windows 8's Contracts. These APIs will not only let apps share files with each other (without needing an Internet connection), but they'll actually all developers to embed functionality from one app in another. The simplest example is if you buy an app that adds photo filters, those filters would be available in all applications that let you take photos and apply filters.
Of course, Apple also unveiled the usual laundry lists of new features for both OSes. OSX Yosemite is getting a cosmetic refresh to bring it more in line with iOS7, an enhanced Notification Center, Dark mode (which dims the Dock and menu bar), and filesystem-level integration with iCloud (including access to files your iOS apps save in iCloud). It will be available for free this fall, with a public beta this summer. iOS 8 gets updated type-ahead prediction on the default iOS keyboard, iMessage enhancements including thread muting and unsubscribe for group iMessages, widgets in the Notification Center, notifications that allow responses from the notification banner itself, 3rd-party keyboard replacements, family sharing of iTunes-purchased content for up to six accounts, and central hubs to collect information from fitness and health monitoring devices and connected home hardware.
If this works as advertised, these updates are huge. These updates represent more than the crop of cosmetic updates we saw last year or the ill-advised merging of iOS and OSX we saw in years prior. Instead, Apple seems to be moving OSX and iOS together in a way that aligns with the way I actually use these these very different devices. Instead of building a one-size-fits-all solution, it feels like Apple is trying to remove the barriers that separate my phone, tablet, and laptop without compromising the strengths of any of the platforms.
Apple has made its annual MacBook Air refresh, upgrading its popular laptop's processors to Intel's latest Haswell Core i5 chips (starting at 1.4GHz instead of the old 1.3GHz) and lowering the price across the line so the 11-inch models start at $900 and the 13-inch models start at $1000. The base configuration is still equipped with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage, with the 256GB storage upgrade costing $200. Apple is also claiming increased battery life for both MacBook Air sizes, using iTunes video playback as the benchmark. The model I would get today would still be an 11-inch MacBook Air with RAM and storage upgraded to 8GB and 256GB, respectively ($1200 before tax).1
This morning, Intel announced it's latest line of solid state drives designed for use in normal computers and workstations. They sent over a couple for us to test, which I've been doing this week. Unlike Intel's last-generation 530 series SSD, which used a Sandforce controller, the new 730 series drives use a controller that Intel developed in house for use in their datacenter drives. By combining that knowledge with cherry picked controller and flash chips, the 730 series drives run at higher clock speeds than their datacenter equivalents and are effectively able to saturate the SATA 6Gbps bus.The big problem hasn't been performance--even cheap SSDs will blow the doors off of traditional hard drives--it's reliability. But while hard drives are well established technology at this point, some early SSDs suffered serious reliability problems. Drives using the Sandforce controller, in particular, suffered serious problems that lead to blue screens and even data loss. Intel's Sandforce-powered drives managed to avoid most of the problems that plagued other vendors using the same Sandforce controller.
Even without controller problems, the flash memory used in SSDs has a finite life cycle--the number of times you can write to an individual cell of memory is limited. While drives ship with some cells reserved to replace the cells that die, once enough cells stop working, the drive will be unusable. That's not necessarily a reason to avoid SSDs though. Even with the minimum average daily write ratings of 20GB, the flash memory in most SSDs will last more than five years. And because the price per gigabyte of SSD storage is still dropping quickly, it's unlikely that you'll be using the same SSD five years from now.
Where does the Intel 730 series of SSDs fit in? The drive comes in capacities of 240GB and 480GB, although Intel hasn't ruled out larger capacities if people want them. I was told to expect MSRP pricing around $1/GB. Both drives use 20nm MLC NAND flash. I was a little disappointed that these are standard 2.5-inch SATA 6Gbps drives. With pretty much every consumer-level SSD able to saturate the SATA 6gbps bus, there just isn't much room to improve performance. We won't see another big leap in SSD performance until you can plug drives directly into the PCI-Express bus, hopefully sometime later this year.
On paper, it seems like the biggest improvement to this drive is reliability. Both drives come with a 5 year warranty, and both are rated for a very large number of daily writes--the 480GB drive is rated for 70GB of writes a day and the 240GB drive is rated for 50GB of writes a day. That means the 480GB drive is rated for almost 130TB of writes over its lifetime.
We've all done it. Blamed the little man inside the machine for the good and bad things that happen to us every day. But during the production of the first Mac, Steve Jobs wanted to make that man real. Mr. Macintosh would show up in the Mac OS occasionally--every few thousand times you opened a menu, a little animated man would be there. I'm not sure if this was a good idea, but it's fascinating to read about. (via Boing Boing)