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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The case for (and against) the MacBook Air

Last week I wrote about the best Mac laptop to buy for a student, based on the fact that I’m often asked by friends to recommend a laptop for their kids who are off to college or high school or just need something of their own instead of completely taking over the family computer (or one of their parents’ laptops).

I got a lot of feedback asking me why I hadn’t recommended the MacBook Air, which remains Apple’s most affordable laptop at $999. And they make a good point. The MacBook Air has long been a huge seller and is a light, capable laptop at a great price.

So I searched my feelings about why I didn’t recommend the MacBook Air, and what I found is a nagging, unpleasant feeling about the fact that the MacBook Air isn’t Apple’s latest and greatest, but a holdover from a past era that’s only hanging around because it’s cheap. While I was quick to recommend searching Apple’s refurbished Mac page, I was really pointing toward refurbished versions of the current MacBook and MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) models, not the Air.

So here are the facts about the MacBook Air: It was basically last updated two years ago—a “refresh” this June brought an imperceptibly faster processor, but it’s still part of Intel’s fifth-generation “Broadwell” series, two full generations behind the processors in the MacBook and MacBook Pro. That’s not great in terms of envisioning how the Air will fare in three or four years—even a “new” Air bought today is really two years out of date, and in four years it’ll be six years out of date. The Air will age more rapidly, in the sense of becoming more incompatible with software and accessories, than the MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Then again: That processor is perfectly capable of doing all but the most challenging work. I have used my 2015-vintage 11-inch MacBook Air to write countless articles, edit graphics in Photoshop, and edit podcasts with a half-dozen tracks of uncompressed audio. I might not want to edit video on a MacBook Air, but beyond that, I feel like I could do about anything.

Then there’s the screen. When it comes to sharp-eyed teenagers who are used to streaming videos on Netflix and YouTube, I think the Air’s screen is actually its biggest liability. Its 13-inch screen is only 1440 by 900 pixels, so forget watching video at HD resolution. If the student in question is going to use their laptop to watch video—and I can’t speak for every teenager, but my daughter uses her laptop as her personal television all the time—they will absolutely be disappointed with the screen on the Air.

One of the Air’s assets is that it doesn’t mess around with these newfangled USB-C ports. It’s standard USB-A all the way, plus a Thunderbolt port, SD card reader, and a MagSafe power connector to avoid power-cord accidents. Today the MacBook Air requires fewer adapters and dongles than Apple’s other laptops. That’s an asset, but in three or four years it will probably be a liability, assuming that we are in the middle of a transition to USB-C. Still, for a student laptop, maybe it won’t matter.

Finally, there’s the keyboard: I’m a fan. Your student’s mileage may vary. Some people seem to really love the keyboards on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, which offer more stable keycaps but much less key travel than on the Air. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on the MacBook Air keyboard and I still love it. It’s my favorite laptop keyboard, bar none. I’m a bit dubious that a teenager is going to care that much about keyboard design, but if yours does, it’s worth finding out if the MacBook Air’s keyboard might end up being an advantage. It’s probably the last computer Apple will ever make with that keyboard.

So is the MacBook Air the right computer to buy a student? I’m going to stand by my previous suggestions, but of course, budget is a huge factor. If you can find a deal on a used or refurbished modern MacBook or MacBook Pro, it might be a better long-term deal than buying an Air, because they’re built with the latest and greatest tech, not stuff that’s already a couple of years out of date. But the fact is, unless your student really cares about watching HD video (and doesn’t have a different device to use to watch that) or editing video, even the $999 MacBook Air will provide enough power to do almost anything they throw at it.

Or to put it a little more succinctly: The MacBook Air is a classic, in every sense of the word. It’s old—but it’s also great.


Dan Moren for Macworld

Waiting on Apple’s podcast recording app—or for better GarageBand features ↦

Hey, Apple, where’s the podcast creation app?

That’s what I found myself wondering recently after the company’s GarageBand audio-editing software got a significant revamp. There’s a new coat of paint that brings it into line with the company’s pro-level Logic suite, as well as a few new tricks—not all of which are positive—but what I found more surprising is what’s still missing.

Apple clearly still intends GarageBand to be primarily aimed at musicians; that’s understandable, given the company’s deep roots in the music business. But I wish it would spend a little more time considering those of us who edit non-music audio, because there are some changes that would definitely improve our lives.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

Download #13: Garbage In, Refined Garbage Out

Download

This week on Download: Google asks for our input to help filter what it shows us, but are we tainting machine learning with our own biases? Also: Why the future of video games is, surprisingly, in the past. Jason is joined by guests Jason Cross and Jessica Dennis.


Jason Snell for Macworld

Hoping for a small Mac mini revival ↦

A funny thing happened to the Mac mini last week. The single Mac model that’s the most long in the tooth surpassed 1,000 days without an update. But this shouldn’t be too surprising to Mac mini fans: that update, in October 2014, was 723 days after the previous Mac mini update, in October 2012. The quad-core Mac mini released in 2012 (and discontinued in 2014) still stands as the fastest Mac mini ever made, since the 2014 models maxed out at two processor cores.

What I’m saying is, the Mac mini hasn’t been loved by Apple for a long time. And yet it lingers as an active Apple product, with no promise of a future update like the one Apple gave the Mac pro in April. (“The Mac mini remains a product in our lineup,” said Apple SVP Phil Schiller that day, thereby confirming its existence.)

So why does the Mac mini remain a product in Apple’s lineup?

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

The Rebound 146: Everybody Wants the Sandwich

The Rebound

This week on everybody’s favorite ridiculous technology show, Dan and John talk about new emoji, speculation about the iPhone 8, video games, augmented reality, facial recognition, and all the other cool topics that you can’t discuss when Lex is around.


Podcast

Clockwise #198: Fire Bad, Trees Good

Clockwise

On this week’s installment of the tech show that’ll give your average sitcom a run for its money, Dan and Mikah are joined by Glenn Fleishman and Georgia Dow to discuss whether we use 3D Touch and Force Touch, the return of Google Glass to factories, iMessage apps and stickers, and how social media has changed our news consumption.


Linked by Dan Moren

Apple’s new Machine Learning blog

Apple’s launched a “journal”1 about its machine learning research:

Welcome to the Apple Machine Learning Journal. Here, you can read posts written by Apple engineers about their work using machine learning technologies to help build innovative products for millions of people around the world. If you’re a machine learning researcher or student, an engineer or developer, we’d love to hear your questions and feedback.

This illustrates two things to me: first, as we’ve realized from this year’s WWDC keynote and before, machine learning is a major topic of interest for Apple. Not just in outwardly obvious places like Siri, but across all its products in a variety of ways that are often totally transparent to users. The first post here is Improving the Realism of Synthetic Images, and it’s interesting, though it’s definitely aimed at a technical audience.

Secondly, launching a blog—even one that is unattributed—is a big deal for Apple, and kind of reinforces point one. The company’s communication strategy has definitely become more open in the past few years, even engaging on Twitter.


  1. It’s a blog, people.  ↩


By Jason Snell

Panic’s truck drops off Transmit 5

Transmit 5, the new version of Panic’s venerable file-transfer client for Mac, has arrived at last. It’s $35 this week, up to $45 after that. There are no upgrade prices (it’s been seven years since the last version) and it’s not available in the Mac App Store, just direct from Panic.

I’ve been testing this one a while (Transmit is my primary tool for moving files back and forth to my remote web servers) and I really like the integration with Panic’s cloud-sync service, because I also use Transmit on iOS and now the two apps can keep their favorites in sync. What else is new? Cabel Sasser has the quick overview:

With one massive update we’ve brought everyone’s favorite file-transferring truck into the future with more speed, more servers, more features, more fixes, a better UI, and even Panic Sync. Everything from the core file transfer engine to the “Get Info” experience was rethought, overhauled, and improved.

For more detail, check out the new Transmit 5 website.


By Jason Snell

The right Mac laptop to buy for a student

As a parent of children aged 15 and 12 who writes and talks about technology all day, all of a sudden I find myself being asked all the time by fellow parents for advice about buying laptops for their kids. Some of them have kids going off to college this fall, and others are buying a laptop for a new high-school student.

They are often apologetic about asking me, which is sweet. “This is what I do for a living,” I say. I’m happy to help friends out.1 So here’s what I tell them:

As with every single technology buying decision you’ll make, there is no one right answer. It’s all about the person is who is going to use the computer, and what they need. That said, what I’ve told my friends is that right now there are two MacBook models I recommend.

The MacBook is not necessarily powerful enough for computer nerds, but for most uses it’s just fine. That 12-inch Retina display is beautiful, and at two pounds, it’s incredibly light for stuffing in a backpack. If you’re worried about power, a boost to an i5 or i7 processor is available, as is expansion to 16GB of RAM.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar weighs an extra pound (though I’ll remind you that it’s basically the same weight as the 13-inch MacBook Air—this is not a heavy computer), but the larger screen and more powerful processor options are serious compensations.

I think it’s fair to consider both of these laptops as successors to the MacBook Air—they’re literally the two paths the MacBook Air could have taken had it gone Retina. The 13-inch Pro keeps the size and power of the MacBook Air, while the 12-inch MacBook gives back some power in exchange for losing half its weight.

Some of my friends have kids who shoot and edit a lot of video for class projects (and sometimes for fun), as does my daughter. This sort of more intense use is probably enough to push me to recommend the MacBook Pro. One of my daughter’s classes is going to be making documentaries next year, so if I end up buying her a MacBook to replace her falling-apart Chromebook, it will probably be the Pro. (And not the base $1299 model, because 128GB storage is not going to go very far if you’re trying to edit HD video.)

For friends who are excited about buying their kids a MacBook but who are put off by the price tags, I will often point them to the Apple Refurbished Mac page, which features deals on refurbished Mac models. You can save $200 or more with a refurbished machine, and they all come with a one-year warranty.

(An aside about dongles: Your kids might need them, though it’s not a sure thing. We grown-ups are more likely to be obsessed with connecting all of our old peripherals via an assortment of adapters, but your kids may not care. I know you might feel better sending your kid off to school with a bag full of white Apple USB-C adapters, but they might be better off buying them as they need them.)

Finally, does any kid need a new laptop for school? Certainly not. I tend to roll my technology down through the family, which extends the life of our laptops and iPads for several years. If you’ve got a family laptop, that might do the trick. Used laptops can also be had for bargains and can serve students quite well—I installed new RAM and an SSD in my mother’s old MacBook Pro and sold it for a few hundred dollars to a local community college student, who should be able to use it for several years.

And as always, it depends on a student’s needs. If typing in Google Docs is all that’s necessary, the system requirements are awfully low. (And yes, you could buy them a Chromebook in that case—though my daughter is finally showing signs of frustration that she can’t run real apps on her Chromebook. I’m so proud.) There are plenty of options out there depending on a student’s needs and your budget.

But if you do want to buy a student in your family a new MacBook, I think the two options are clear: The MacBook or the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. And unless you have serious expectations that they’ll use the laptop for heavy-duty stuff like writing and compiling iOS apps or editing video projects, the MacBook will probably do just fine.


  1. And, apparently, to use their questions as fodder for Six Colors posts. ↩


Dan Moren for Macworld

Home is where the Pod is ↦

A month out, it’s pretty clear that the HomePod was one of the star attractions of this year’s WWDC. For a product that had little in the way of actual stage time (and even less in terms of what was demonstrated to journalists) and won’t ship for several months yet, it certainly grabbed a lot of the airtime directly following the event. And in that, it follows in the merry tradition of products like the original iPhone and the iPad.

But it’s hard to tell from the meager time devoted to it just how important Apple thinks the HomePod is. Its “kicker” placement at the end of the keynote would suggest that the company thinks the device is positioned to make a big splash, but the intense focus on music also seems to point to more of a niche utility for many.

So, which is it? Is the HomePod a product on the same level of importance as the iPad or Apple TV, or is it simply a souped up version of the iPod Hi-Fi?

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Jason Snell for Macworld

Apple’s risky balancing act with the next iPhone ↦

As there always are at this time of year, there are lots of rumors out there about what the next iPhone will be. This year we’re hearing that Apple is going to release a high-priced, next-generation phone in addition to the expected iPhone 7S and iPhone 7s Plus models.

The idea that Apple might make an ultra-high-end phone with a huge price tag has rubbed many people the wrong way. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber did the math, and while this potential move makes a lot of sense, it’s also a gamble on Apple’s part. But if Apple didn’t release a next-generation phone this fall, it would also be risking the fortunes of both its brand and its most important product.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

Clockwise #197: So Much of Your Life is a Lie

Clockwise

This week on the 30-minute tech podcast that’s longer than your average sitcom, Dan and Mikah are joined by special guests Florence Ion and John Siracusa to discuss the day of action on net neutrality, whether brain-training games actually help you, possibilities of wireless charging on the iPhone, and our camera-filled future.


By Dan Moren

Quick Tip: Back up multiple Macs with Time Machine Server

When I set up my new iMac the other week, I ran into a complication: my old iMac had contained a separate 1TB internal hard drive that I’d used as, among other things, a network Time Machine backup location for my MacBook Air. But the new iMac only has a 512GB internal SSD, which I didn’t want to use for that purpose. So, how best to back up my MacBook Air and my new iMac?

I’d considered buying a NAS and using that to back up both of those Macs as well as my Mac mini, but Jason pointed me to another solution: macOS Server’s built-in Time Machine Server. I already use macOS Server for a handful of other tasks, like hosting a VPN, which meant I’d already shelled out for the $20 price tag. So, instead of spending a few hundred bucks on a NAS and the requisite drives, I instead bought The Wirecutter’s well-rated 4TB Seagate backup drive for just $100.1

Time Machine Server

And, as it turns out, setting up Time Machine Server really couldn’t be easier: essentially you flip the On switch in macOS Server and pick where the backups are going to live. Then, on each computer you want to backup, select the new Time Machine backup location. That’s it. You’re done. (If you want more detailed instructions, Jeff Battersby has a walkthrough at Macworld.)

Time Machine Prefs

There’s just one caveat: by turning that drive into a backup location for Time Machine Server, you can’t also use it as a Time Machine drive for the server itself without partitioning it into two separate drives. So, for the moment, I’m relying on the SuperDuper! clone for my Mac mini and its CrashPlan integration. Though, given all the free space on that 4TB drive, I’ll probably partition it up at some point. Update: Reader Chris relates that this may not be the case. I can’t test presently as my Time Machine drive and Mac mini drive have different file formats, but your mileage may vary.

Update: As reader David points out, one option Time Machine Server does offer is the ability to limit each machine’s backup to a maximum size. This is a good idea, as otherwise, one of your Time Machine backups could just eat up all the available disk space. To do so, just select the backup location in Time Machine Server and hit the Edit button. Then enter a number of gigabytes for the limit. (As the dialog notes, you’ll have to be running Mavericks or later for the Macs to respect the limit.)

Time Machine Server limits


  1. Among the virtues of this drive is that it’s bus-powered, which means no external power cable. It may not be quite as fast as a Thunderbolt drive, but it’s also cheaper.  ↩

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]


By Jason Snell

1Password wants you to sync via the cloud, but won’t force you

Over the weekend it seems that there was an uproar about the future of 1Password, despite a seeming lack of new news on the subject. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai summarizes at Motherboard:

In the last few years, 1Password has become a favorite for hackers and security researchers who often recommend it above all other alternatives… Last weekend, though, several security researchers tweeted that 1Password was moving away from allowing people to pay for a one-time license and have local password vaults, in favor of its cloud-based alternative that requires a monthly subscription.

It seems to me that there’s some conflation going on here. As with so many software products that mix mobile and desktop and cloud, 1Password’s publisher decided that the way forward for the product was to create a subscription package1. When you subscribe to 1Password, you also get access to 1Password’s new cloud syncing service.

1Password believes—correctly, in my opinion—that for most users, a built-in cloud sync service designed specifically for 1Password is going to be a better option than using another cloud service like iCloud or Dropbox, which 1Password has supported for quite a while. 1Password is quite open about how its security is designed, including the fact that the decryption key for your passwords is never synced with the cloud, so even if a hacker were to penetrate 1Password’s security and get your online vaults, all they’d get access to is doubly-encrypted garbage.

Judging some of the Twitter threads I read today, what’s really happening is that some people simply hate the idea of software subscriptions and are sowing fear over 1Password’s security and local file syncing as a way of lashing out.

While Kate Sebald of AgileBits told me today that 1Password’s sync service is actually more secure that syncing a local vault via Dropbox or iCloud, it would have been a whole lot harder for AgileBits to convert users to a subscription model without a cloud-syncing service. Countless software companies have realized that offering ongoing subscription fees, integrated cloud services, and mobile-device syncing in a package is the best way to generate a sustainable revenue stream. I pay an annual fee for Office 365 and Adobe Photoshop and, quite frankly, they’re worth it. (And yes, both of those subscriptions include desktop, mobile, and cloud features.) Is 1Password worth $36/year (or $59/year for a family)? I think so, but your mileage may vary.

Still, AgileBits knows that a (loud, angry) portion of its customer base hates software subscriptions. A senior AgileBits person told me via email today that while it would have been much easier for the company to make 1Password a subscription-only product years ago, it has instead done extra work to allow both models to coexist.

As for using local storage for 1Password vaults: Sebald emphasized that the company will “go to great lengths to preserve [the] choice to use local vaults, even if we are encouraging new users to make a different choice.”

In other words: AgileBits is building a cloud service that it feels is safe, secure, and convenient for the vast majority of its users. But 1Password still supports local storage, too—and it seems like it will do so for the foreseeable future2. The app isn’t going to force you to sync your passwords via its cloud service if you don’t want to. However, in terms of what the company communicates to its user base and recommends to new users, that’s going to be focused on using the 1Password.com sync service rather than local vaults, and the company is building new features like Travel Mode around the sync service.


  1. An AgileBits engineer insists that the need to add features via a cloud service motivated the decision. Could be. But selling upgrades can be difficult, especially once cloud services and mobile apps get thrown into the mix. ↩

  2. Windows version 6 does not support local vaults, but version 4 still works. Still, this does show that AgileBits is not prioritizing local vault features. ↩


Jason Snell for TechRepublic

Yes, iPad Pro is ready to be your work machine ↦

With the iPad Pro, Apple is unabashedly making the case that the iPad is a platform that can be used for serious work. While the iPad isn’t going to work for every person’s specific needs, its successes in the enterprise and among grassroots iPad-only professionals suggests that the iPad is already being used to do a whole lot of serious work. The new iPad Pro models and this fall’s release of iOS 11 (now in public beta) are great news for anyone who wants to use an iPad to get work done.

In June, Apple updated both of its iPad Pro models. The larger one, with a 12.9-inch screen, has always been great at text input because of its expanded dimensions: Apple’s Smart Keyboard accessory offers full-sized keys, and even the on-screen keyboard is big enough to be considered full-sized. But the smaller iPad Pro model, which gained a 10.5-inch screen (up from 9.7 inches) and a few millimeters of extra width in landscape mode, is a much better device for typing than its predecessor, with the Smart Keyboard gaining full-size QWERTY keys and its software keyboard stretching to take advantage of the wider screen. With iOS 11, the typing story gets even better: Apple’s new software keyboard features a second set of symbols that can be triggers with a flicking gesture while typing; once you get used to it, text entry on the iPad speeds up a lot because toggling to the secondary keyboard for numbers and symbols becomes a rarity.

Continue reading on TechRepublic ↦


Podcast

The Rebound 145: Prime Day is Like a Box of Chocolates

The Rebound

It’s that most magical time of the year, during which we remind you of the deals that you can get when you truly believe in the real meaning of PRIME DAY. Escape The Pit™ with John, Dan, and our special seasonal guest.


Linked by Dan Moren

Two-factor authentication isn’t the be all, end all of cybersecurity

The Verge’s Russell Brandom has a story about how two-factor authentication, good as it is, isn’t the security panacea that we might have hoped:

Five years later, the advice is starting to wear thin. Nearly all major web services now provide some form of two-factor authentication, but they vary greatly in how well they protect accounts. Dedicated hackers have little problem bypassing through the weaker implementations, either by intercepting codes or exploiting account-recovery systems. We talk about two-factor like aspirin — a uniform, all-purpose fix that’s straightforward to apply — but the reality is far more complex. The general framework still offers meaningful protection, but it’s time to be honest about its limits. In 2017, just having two-factor is no longer enough.

Here’s the thing: cybersecurity is an ever-evolving arms race. As our security measures get better, hackers also up their game at circumventing them. Two-factor authentication really is the bare minimum any remotely vulnerable site should offer these days and, as the article points out, ones that rely on SMS codes should really be moving away from that. As Justin Williams’s story from last week demonstrates, that’s just not secure enough.



Linked by Dan Moren

Why two-factor authentication isn’t totally secure

Developer Justin Williams has a frightening story about how someone got into his PayPal account and withdrew a couple hundred bucks, even though he had two-factor authentication enabled:

I instantly called AT&T’s customer service line to explain what is happening. I give them my name, my phone number, and my security passcode (this is key). The man on the phone reads through the notes and explains that yes, someone has been dialing the AT&T call center all day trying to get into my phone but was repeatedly rejected because they didn’t know my passcode, until someone broke protocol and didn’t require the passcode.

Once the intruder found someone who didn’t require my AT&T security passcode the intruder had the AT&T call center rep switch my number from my iPhone’s SIM card / IMEI to his/her burner phone.

Security systems are only as strong as the people enforcing them. Two-factor authentication adds a lot more security, but if someone can compromise your phone and receive texts, then the game’s over. Authentication apps like Authy, Google Authenticator, and 1Password offer more security, but I’m sure even they could be hacked. Training customer service reps on social engineering is critical.


Dan Moren for Macworld

With an impressive new lineup of Macs, it’s time to return to the desktop ↦

The desktop is back.

Okay, sure, technically the desktop never left. But over the last decade, we’ve increasingly focused on mobile devices: tablets, smartphones, even laptop computers, which make up the bulk of Apple’s—and probably other PC makers—sales.

But this year, one message you could have easily taken away from Apple’s WWDC keynote is that there’s still plenty of love for not just the Mac platform, but the desktop computer specifically. Having just purchased a new iMac of my own, I can personally vouch for it: sometimes, there’s no replacement for a desktop.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦