It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times: Tough to buy a new Mac

I wandered into a local Apple store this week to check out the latest goodies. Afraid that my resolve might be even weaker than my bank account, I left my wallet in the car. But I needn’t have worried. We’ve arrived at a point in time for Apple users where the shear number of ongoing transitions and uncertainties in the entire desktop/laptop product line has overwhelmed the possibility to make a wise decision for most ordinary consumers like me.

This state of confusion first surfaced ahead of Apple’s annual developer conference this year when the rumor mill got itself into quite a lather. Apple would use its keynote to introduce new laptops, new desktops, a new iPhone, a revolutionary television operating system — pretty much every product in Apple’s line up except the iPad, which was just revised in March, was possibly about to be reborn. In the end, there were new laptops and a minor desktop upgrade but on the whole, not quite the tsunami Apple storm some wanted to see.

The rumor mill has alway had a pretty mixed track record but it’s interesting how broadly the rumors stretched ahead of the 2012 WWDC. I think it offers an important window, pardon the metaphor, into our current extremely transitional state of computing. And with a few too many transitions in full swing, it’s time for almost all consumers to step back and wait. Each member of the current line up of Macs is fatally compromised in one way or another for us ordinary users.

What’s the big transition? It’s not just one. After a decade of tablet computers going no where, the iPad has created an insanely fast growing new niche that is clearly taking usage time — and sales — away from traditional laptops. Even smart phones are getting so powerful and capable that they are displacing traditional computers to some degree. Both call into question long-established conventional wisdom about the need for portable computers. Displays are shifting to high detail more quickly than apps. The nearly three decade run of the PC’s spinning hard disk is also coming to a close, though the new generation flash memory is still very expensive (try pricing one of the new Macbook Pros with 512 GB of storage). Optical spinning drives, too, seem to have quickly passed into a state of decline with Apple at the lead pushing DVDs into early obsolesce. The standards for moving your data around seem a mess as well — a new, much faster flavor of Wifi called “Gigabit Wifi” or 802.11ac is just around the corner but not available yet while Apple’s once favored wired port, Thunderbolt, seems dead in the water and retread USB 3.0 is suddenly making a comeback.

At the same time, progress on a number of other critically important fronts has stalled, at least as far as users are concerned. Yes, yes, Intel’s new generation of CPUs dubbed the “Ivy Bridge” line is sooo much better than what came before. Well, sort of, kind of. Science fiction author and longtime tech reviewer for Byte magazine Jerry Pournelle used to say it’s not time to upgrade your computer until you’ll get twice the performance. Anything less than 100% improvement would barely be noticed after a few days by ordinary users in the real world. Maximum speeds topped out years ago below 4 GHz and chip designers seem more focused on adding little tricks and treats to squeeze out a little bit more performance or lower battery consumption than dramatically improving all-around speed. Meanwhile, graphics performance is actually slipping backwards as fewer Mac laptops include discrete, high performance video cards instead relying on so-called integrated chips built into CPUs and lacking their own high speed memory. Battery life is remaining steady only because Apple is putting more battery into its newest model at the expense of weight. That’s hardly progress.

So with all that in mind, consider the new and much hyped 15″ MacBook Pro with retina display I just checked out at the Apple store. As I first played around with the Safari browser, I was duly impressed by the super sharp display. But then I opened a common app used by almost everyone, Microsoft Word, and typed a few sentences. The text looked horrible, with jagged edges and visible color alterations around the anti-aliasing. I tried several fonts and ran through all five available resolution settings for the MBP to no avail. Maybe Word required some kind of update but surely Apple’s Pages app would look good. Nope — equally horrible. Here’s a top of the line, super professional machine and text looks like crap.

(UPDATE: A few months after this post was written, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the retina display. Then in December, Adobe updated Photoshop.)

Not to mention the lack of innovation in battery technology means the new unit weighs only a pound less, or about 20%, than the DVD-toting prior version. A heavier pack was needed to avoid shortening battery life (UPDATE: actually, battery life is considerably shorter than the previous Macbook Pro 15″, according to Macworld). For comparison, the 13″ MacBook Air weighs 34% less than its 13″ Pro counterpart (and it also gets less battery life).

What about the rest of the new line? New MacBook Airs and Pros have USB 3 and the latest Intel CPUs but no retina displays and the same old battery life and wifi chips. And who thinks the MBPs with their dual, dead weight spinning drives will remain in the line up for much longer?

New Mac Pros have, well, nothing (technically they have slightly faster CPUs but barely noticeable). Even Apple seems to be a little ashamed and removed the “new” badge that had initially adorned the Mac Pro icon in the Apple online store. New iMacs and Mac minis? There weren’t any, so they have no USB 3, no retina display and not even the “Ivy Bridge” processor upgrade.

All of this confusion and transition has also undone some of the conventional wisdom for buying computers in recent years. Laptops had become capable enough that many Mac consumers were forgoing buying a desktop at all. Apple’s combo docking station/monitors made that a great choice. But now there’s no retina display monitor so docking means giving up the fancy new graphics if you buy the top of the line model.

So what you really should do is wait for the next iteration of Mac updates — MacBook Airs with retina displays and broad third-party retina app support. Better batteries and wifi would help justify upgrading, too. Desktop Macs should be arriving with USB 3.0 and multiple Thunderbolt ports soon, too. Hey, at least our budgets will be happier.

(Comments are moderated so please keep it clean and relevant)

Two small hardware updates are game changers for Macbook Air and Mac mini

New macbook air and mac mini

Apple massively upgraded two of its best hardware products today, the Macbook Air and the Mac mini. There are loads of changes and improvements. But only two are real game changers to me:

1. The addition of a Thunderbolt port on MacBook Airs means you finally will be able¹ to connect external hard drives and get good performance. Until now, the Airs’ combo of small on-board hard drives and only super-slow USB 2.0 ports for external drives was a killer. Consider me in the market.

2. Offering a Mac mini with a real video card option, the AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics processor with 256MB of GDDR5 memory. Until now, you could only get the minis with horrific integrated graphics chips that shared the system’s RAM, meaning what might otherwise be the perfect gaming computer (especially with the HDMI port for connecting to your giant screen TV) was useless for high-end games.

¹That is, when some Thunderbolt-capable external drives hit the market, which is expected real soon now.

Rock, paper scissors: Should I get a Kindle, iPad or MacBook?

Well, we’ve been Amazon Kindle owners for almost four years now at our house, we’ve had Apple’s iPad for almost a year and we’ve had Mac laptops since too long ago to remember. So we’re getting asked a lot now: Should I buy an iPad or a Kindle? Can I use an iPad instead of a laptop? Do I need a computer to use my Kindle? With all three products hot right now, the answer is sort of like the old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each has different strengths and weaknesses not to mention very different prices. Let’s review some of the basic strengths of each, starting with the cheapest.

Amazon Kindle  (3rd generation)

$139 with wifi or $189 with free mobile wireless for life

You are a reader. You always have at least one book on hand, sometimes several. When you finish a book, you simply move on to the next. The Kindle has been carefully honed to meet your needs.

You use it to read in any place you would read a book in the way you would read a book: hold it in one hand, read outside, read inside. There is no backlighting, so if you are in bed at night, you need a lamp. The black and white screen is incredibly easy to read and easy on your eyes — you will never feel the eye fatigue you get from staring at a computer screen all day. And when your eyes are already tired after that long work day, you can adjust the size of the Kindle’s type on the fly.

You want a bring it and forget it device. The Kindle fits in a purse or jacket pocket, weighs practically nothing, the battery lasts for weeks on end. You never need to sync it to a computer ever. Because the wireless connection is built-in and free (it runs on Sprint’s network but you don’t need to know that) you can access the bookstore anywhere, anytime. You can also grab any ebook you’ve ever bought any time from your personal online library maintained by Amazon. Any ebook you buy can also be read on other Kindles you own or on special apps available for most smart phones and computers — or the iPad.

The Kindle has a primitive web browser that works on the free wireless connection. It may be perfect for catching up on news, blogs or other text content but no video or complex stuff at all. There is also a mini-sized built-in keyboard. It’s handy for searching for ebooks in the store, taking a few notes but not much more. Your fingers would cramp and die trying to write the great American ebook novel on this thing.

New versions of the Kindle have historically come out around the holidays so you’re safe buying one now.

Apple iPad 2

$499-$699 with wifi, $629-$829 with mobile wireless (plus monthly contract)

You want to enjoy digital entertainment like music, movies and web sites when you’re not sitting at your desk. The iPad loves to be in the family room, the living room, on the train, at the coffee shop. Its crisp full-color screen, much larger than the Kindles’s and fully back lit,  is great if you like watching a lot of video. It also works as an ebook reader with apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks (though there is some danger Apple is going to banish its competitors later this year). The back lighting lets you read in bed with no lamp, a feature much appreciated by sleepy spouses.

The iPad is perfect when you need to pull it out quickly and use it for 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there — waiting at the doctor’s office or to board a plane, say. There is no boot-up time, it’s instantly on and, with the mobile wireless models, connected immediately almost anywhere. Great for taking the train to work, waiting at the doctor’s office, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

There is a full strength web browser built in. It’s absolutely great at almost everything but won’t play Flash content (more on that below). You will pay extra, considerably extra, over a Kindle for the iPad models with a mobile wireless connection. You can choose AT&T or Verizon but monthly plans are going to add several hundred dollars a year at least to your total cost of ownership. AT&T’s plans start at $15/month and Verizon’s at $20/month. One way to avoid the bill is to buy the wifi-only model and use your smart phone’s tethering capability or a mobile hotspot like the Verizon mifi.

The iPad can be used like a computer with its on-screen keyboard but it’s best for writing short notes or emails. There is no feeling of physical feedback from pressing each key on screen as there is with a normal keyboard, of course.

The iPad is great with web-based email services like Google’s gMail or Apple’s MobileMe. The built-in iPad email app for old-fashioned email accounts where you download all your mail, however, remains rather limited. Compared to Apple’s desktop email, the iPad version lacks basic features like spam filtering and folders.

The iPad is a great device to review or present large documents, spreadsheets or PDFs. It’s not bad for typing documents but has only limited formatting options, which can cause huge problems if you are planning to move files back and forth with a PC. And it is pretty darn horrible for spreadsheets, which cry out for a mouse and full keyboard.

The iPad is at its best showing off personal photos and home movies to friends, offering amazing slide shows anywhere you happen to be. I mean really great. The feeling of pulling up photos, zooming in and out and flicking around your albums all with your fingers in comtrol is constant fun. The iPad is less great for organizing or editing photos but you can do that on your computer and sync them over.

The iPad is part of Apple’s vast and growing iOS app ecosystem. There are thousands of great games and zillions more apps to do all sorts of things, guide you through the Louvre, track your eBay bidding, download digital comic books and on and on.

We have found that the iPad is the perfect second computer if you already have a computer for work. Get your personal life off your company’s computer (really, you should!). The iPad is light enough that you can travel with both. It now has a built in camera so you can do video chatting on the go, too.

The iPad is also kid-proof and there are lots of kid friendly games. It’s like letting the kids play in a sandbox — they can’t mess it up the way they inevitably seem to mess up full-powered computers.

There are a few weaknesses versus the Kindle or the MacBook Air. The iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand so it doesn’t work if you’re standing up on the subway or trying to use it in a cramped space where the Kindle is great. Also unlike the Kindle, the iPad does want to be synced to a computer. That’s the only way to back up your stuff and the only sane way to re-arrange your app icons if you have more than a few. And storage space can easily get tight, requiring that you sync big files like movies or TV shows back and forth with your computer.

The battery lasts for a day, maybe even for two, but then needs to be recharged. And, without getting too deep in a matter of some controversy, the iPad is not compatible with Adobe Flash so there are web sites that you cannot see (like those for some high-end restaurants and hotels) and you cannot view flash videos or play flash games (hello Club Penguin). And Apple does not let you add your own favorite web browser to your iPad.

The updated iPad 2 came out almost a year after the first iPad and while there are some vague rumors of an update in the fall, again I think it’s a pretty safe time to buy now.

The 11″ MacBook Air


Another contender in the mobile and useful computing category is Apple’s new MacBook Air with an 11″ screen. It is about the same size as an iPad though almost twice as heavy (2.3 lb versus 1.3 lb).

The MacBook Air is one of the most powerful and capable laptops in the history of the category we used to call ultraportable. It has a full-size keyboard and is ready for serious writing, document creation, photo editing, pretty much any task you want to throw at a regular computer, all in a super-portable package. Load up a full copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Garageband and get to work. Spreadsheet jockeys will be happy with the trackpad. You can easily do serious emailing using Apple’s email or whatever software you like.

The web browser on the MacBook Air is a full-powered browser capable of displaying, with the correct plug-in, all flash-based web sites. You can also choose to add any browser you prefer like Firefox of Chrome.

But it’s also small enough to make for a fine movie player on the couch or in bed. You can run the Kindle ereader app for Mac and use it as an ereader, too.

Battery life is reported at 5 hours. There are no built in mobile wireless options but it’s easy enough to get a mobile wifi hotspot like Sprint’s Overdrive or Verizon’s Mifi for on-the-go connectivity.

MacBook Airs have gone a long time between updgrades so even though the current model came out almost six months ago, I’d also put this in the safe to buy now category.

Rock, paper, scissors:

As you may have gleaned from the above discussion, there is plenty of overlap in the uses and capabilities of these three great gadgets but also some major gaps for each. The Kindle may be the “paper” covering the iPad “rock” if you want to read on the subway, but that same iPad “rock” may break the Macbook “scissors” if you want to watch YouTube videos instead. Hence, if you have the budget, you might be well-served with more than one or even all three. And remember, a family with kids that owns an iPad is a family shopping for a second iPad. And a family with kids and two iPads is a family shopping for…well, you get the point.

Additional links of interest:

CNet’s Brooke Crothers has a good piece looking at an iPad2 versus the Macbook Air for all his mobile computing needs.

New Mac laptops: one step forward, two steps back

Brand new aluminium skinned macbook(Updated 10/21/08) Steve Jobs and Co. rolled out their new line of laptops today, making big changes to the existing Macbook, Macbook Air and Macbook Pro models. But with one exception, the new models are more of a step backwards, a lost opportunity, than an improvement.

The one indisputable improvement is with the graphics chips. Nvidia’s new GeForce 9400M chip and the even faster GeForce 9600M GT version are a gigantic improvement over the integrated graphics controllers in the previous Macbooks and Macbook Airs and a solid improvement even over the Macbook Pro. If you’re into playing computer games, this is a must-buy, must-upgrade justification. For everyone else? Not so much.

Look at what else changed. Again, we have Jobs’ useless emphasis of the thinness of the new models. Does anyone actually care about this? It’s like laptop anorexia. Despite the prettier dressings, the new Macbook Pro models are the same weight as the old ones, a feature people do care about. I really am not very interested in how many chips are inside my laptop or whatever other invisible, irrelevant improvements Apple made.

In addition to the lack of weight savings, the new models have about the same battery life (BUT SEE UPDATE2 BELOW) and got only mild speed bumps for their main processors. I do like the fact that hard drives on the new Macbook Pros are accessible/upgradable by users.

A couple of the other changes, however, are actually worse options than what was on previous models. There’s no longer a matte-finish screen option. All the laptops come with hyper-reflective glossy displays. Ugh. And they all come with the chicklet-like keyboards that aren’t as good for quick typing as the flatter keyboards on earlier Macbook Pros. More minor annoying changes include the loss of Firewire 400 and DVI ports on the Macbook Pro, which still has a Firewire 800 port. The Macbook loses Firewire connectivity completely. There’s a new port for connecting to displays (dubbed, logically enough, the “Mini Displayport”) but no cables or adapters in the box to connect it to any of your existing hardware. For $29, you can get a dinky cable to plug your DVI cable into the new Mini Displayport.

And of course, there’s the prices. An old model of the Macbook was cut to $999 from $1,099 but new models are at or above the old prices. These are tough economic times and a price cut could have a game-changer (as some Wall Street analysts were expecting).

Bottom line, from a laptop user’s perspective? Crappy displays and less useful keyboards are a hard pill to swallow when the only real benefit of the new lines is better graphics performance.

Now, about that hackintosh


A few worthy links:

Mac OS X Hints is running a poll on the new glosssy screens. So far, a plurality are with me and hate the super-reflective display.

Jason Snell has his usual comprehensive run down on changes and new features over at Macworld. He’s pretty stoked about the new Macbook and correctly notes that it’s half a pound lighter than the previous model (my bad).

John Gruber rounds up and roasts all the off-the-mark rumor mongers.

BetaNews reports on Jobs’ post-presentation remarks, including his view that the low-cost netbook segment (cough – hackintosh – cough) is “a nascent market that’s just getting started” and “we’ll see how it goes.”

And mobile specialist JKontheRun wants to see something in the lower-end portable category from Apple.


There are reports that Apple actually reduced battery capacity and battery life is suffering, according to Ars Technica’s review of the new Macbook Pro.

Three friggin millimeters, Steve Jobs, is all I ask

Toshiba’s one point eight inch drive(Updated 1/25) The more I think about the new uber-thin Macbook Air, the more confused I am about one design decision in particular. I can get over the lack of ports, the add-on optical drive, the wimpy graphics. But I keep coming back to the dreadfully small hard drive which maxes out at 80 gigabytes. Yipes! My Macbook Pro’s home directory is over 72 GB alone and I don’t even keep digital photos on it. So why can’t you get a decent size hard drive? Because of Jobs’ obsession with thinness. Slightly thicker hard drives — three millimeters thicker, in fact — go all the way up to 160 GB. It sure feels like Jobs has written off a large portion of the potential Macbook Air market in return for a measly three millimeters of thinness.

Here’s the back story. As Macworld and others have explained, the new Macbook Air is so thin that only a 1.8″ hard drive containing a single spinning platter can fit. Most drives these days have multiple platters. 80 GB is the highest capacity available for single platter 1.8″ drives. It’s the same hard drive in the current 80 GB iPod Classic. Careful observers will note that the iPod Classic 160 GB model is thicker than his little brother, three millimeters thicker. And in fact, the difference between Toshiba’s single-platter 80 GB drive and its dual-platter 160 GB drive is exactly three millimeters.

Hoping you can wait a few months for Toshiba or someone to intro a higher-capacity single-platter drive? It’s gonna be a real long wait. In September, Toshiba announced a prototype 120 GB 1.8″ single platter drive using something called “Discrete Track Recording” but it’s not going to be available until 2009. And, seriously, a year from now minimum acceptable storage requirements are going to be even bigger. How about the super-expensive solid state flash drives? Currently available as a $999 option and maxing out at 64 GB, there’s not much better news here either. Samsung said a few days ago it had doubled the capacity of that drive. The new version, to be available by July, didn’t come with an estimated price tag but it’s sure to be off the charts.

Had Jobs simply allowed the Macbook Air another few millimeters, there would be adequate space for an adequate drive and an adequate price. Unfortunately, thin is a little too in.

UPDATE: The inestimable Jason Snell writes a great post, which as an aside demonstrates so many of blogging’s best attributes, explaining how almost impossible it is for him to fit the contents of his digital life onto the Macbook Air’s slender drive.

Thin is in but I’m not sure why

Macbook Air
Steve Jobs had a couple of widely leaked “surprises” to unveil at yesterday’s Macworld show. As we’d all read everywhere for the past few weeks, Apple added rental movies to its iTunes download store. The selection is a bit small and the 30-day delay from DVD release to rental seems ridiculous but, hey, these are the Hollywood studios making the rules. Putting applications like Mail and Weather on the wifi-enabled iPod Touch seems like the correction of an obvious mistake. And I’m all into the wireless router with hard drive baked in at a price that’s actually pretty competitive. The big announcement Stevie saved for last was the new sub-notebook computer, the Macbook Air. What’s the big draw? Why, it’s the world’s thinnest computer. Am I the only one wondering who cares? Are these super-thin computers from Sony and Toshiba actually selling that well? Not really. Does thin somehow make the computer work better or the battery last longer or something? Not really. What’s the real draw then? Macbook Air is also very light weight — three pounds, Jobs said. That makes it more portable and easier to carry around, a legitimate and desirable feature.

NEC ultralight laptop
I’m all into light laptops, or least I used to be. Back in the early 1990s, I had one of the first thin, subnotebook computers called the NEC Ultralite. It didn’t even have a hard drive. Then I had a couple of the early models in Sony’s lil purple Vaio line, starting I think with the 505. They had hard drives but no CD drives. The screens were tiny, as were the keyboards. I was so into the ultraportables I started haunting the web sites of those crazy firms that bought the very smallest laptops sold only in Japan, reprogrammed them with English software and resold them to Americans at a tidy markup. I even did a little story for Wired magazine. Times has been cruel to this weird niche so most of these techno-lust fulfilling sites are long gone, but one, Dynamism.

Inevitably, super lightweight computing has meant trade-offs. In today’s world, it’s hard to envision the Macbook Air, with its maximum hard drive size of 80 GB, poor graphics card and lack of built-in DVD drive, as the right answer for too many people’s needs. I was also expecting a docking station that might have made it more desirable as a hybrid system with some nifty syncing software. I have already read some folks comparing the MB Air to the ill-fated Mac Cube that emphasized cool design over desirable features and good value for the money. Still, watching Jobs explain in his keynote how many of the activities you used to need wires and drives for can now be accomplished wirelessly, I couldn’t help but get a chill and the strong sense that he’s absolutely on to something big if perhaps a little too early. Better to be ahead of the curve than skidding off the road…

Sony Vaio 505 laptop
p.s. Whatever you think about the Macbook Air, they’ve cooked up a great commercial for the thing. Fits in an interoffice mail envelope? Wow. What’s the song playing in the background? Yael Naim‘s “New Soul” off her eponymous debut album from last year.