Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Dead products walking?

If you had asked me the future of the Mac mini one year ago, I would have been worried that the smallest Mac in Apple’s lineup may have been on its way out. Thankfully, 2018 proved this fear misplaced, and we have a new Mac mini that is a noticeably better and more flexible computer than it was.

Looking at Apple’s lineup, there are some products that feel like they are on death’s doorstep. Will 2019 breathe new life into these devices? My crystal ball runs Windows 95, so I have no idea.

iPad mini

The smallest iPad costs $399 for 128 GB of storage. It’s the only size available; the only options you have when ordering are the color and whether you want LTE or not.

For your $400, you get a 7.9-inch laminated Retina display, but just behind the glass is Apple’s A8 system on a chip, which first showed up on the iPhone 6 back in 2014. It isn’t even the A8X found in the iPad Air 2.

The A8 is coupled to 2GB of RAM, the same as the 6th-generation iPad introduced in the spring of this year. (The RAM in the iPad is faster than that in the mini, which is a bummer.)

Like that iPad, it has Touch ID, a headphone jack, and a Lightning port. However, it also has the camera from the iPad mini 2, and no Pencil support.

The iPad mini may be the smallest and slowest tablet Apple makes, but at $70 more than the standard iPad, it’s not the cheapest. It has a mix of older and newer parts. If it were $299, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about it as a tablet for kids or for reading, but I don’t think Apple can justify ignoring it for another year.

iPod touch

If the iPad mini 4 is frustrating, the iPod touch is just plain heartbreaking. The last product to wear the iPod name runs on the same A8 processor as found in the iPad mini, but it drives a 4-inch screen.

Remember that screen size? It felt big when the iPhone 5 was new in 2012, but today it is hilariously small. I have one of these 6th-generation iPod touches for playing music at Relay FM live shows and every time I get it out, I think I grabbed an even older device, just due to its size.

The iPod touch does have price going for it. The 32GB model is just $199, and the 128GB model is $299. It’s such an old device, its store page doesn’t match Apple’s updated web design.

Some people say the iPod touch is still around for kids, but I don’t think I buy that. I can’t remember the last time I saw an iPod touch out in the world, especially in the hands of a kid. It’s iPads all the way down, and it is time for the iPod brand to head to that great product bin in the sky.

1080p Apple TV

The 4K Apple TV starts at $179 for 32GB of storage, and for some reason, Apple sells a second, 64GB model for $199. Both of these prices are too expensive compared to the sea of Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast devices out in the world.

Apple’s answer to these sorts of complaints is to keep old devices around for sale, sometimes way too long. That’s where our old friend, the 4th-generation Apple TV comes in. Announced in 2015 under the ridiculous banner saying “The future of TV is apps,” this Apple TV is only capable of driving a 1080p panel.

This is where I’d love to tell you this model of Apple TV can be purchased for a mere $99, a full $80 less than its 4K offspring.

But I can’t, because it’s $149. A mere $30 separates the 1080p and 4K Apple TV models. That’s a gap Apple should cross. A 4K model can drive a 1080p TV just fine, and lets users future-proof their setups.

Trashcan Mac Pro

If this machine survives 2019, someone will need to check on John Siracusa. Apple, don’t let him down!

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: What’s a pro?

In that love-it-or-hate-it iPad commercial, it was asked “What’s a computer?”. The answer to that may still be unclear to some, but with the new Mac mini, Apple has another head-scratcher for us:

“What’s a pro?”

When Tom Boger, Apple’s head of Mac product marketing, introduced the new machine, he joked that it came in space gray because “pro customers are going to love that,” before praising it for being “an absolute beast on the inside.”

Boger then laid out his case. The new Mac mini comes with four or six processor cores in every model, can support up to 64 GB of user accessible RAM, and up to 2 TB of SSD storage, leaving all spinning media in the past. This is accessed via four Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as a couple of USB A ports and an optional 10Gb ethernet upgrade. Apple’s custom T2 chip is onboard, keeping things safe, secure and speedy, and the Mac mini has an all-new cooling system designed to keep all of this hardware cool, quietly.

The new Mac mini is up to five times faster than the machine it replaces, but that dual-core system is four years old, so just about anything should be noticeably faster.

The Mac mini is a home run in the GPU department. All SKUs come with integrated graphics in the form of the Intel UHD Graphics 630 chipset. Needless to say, this wasn’t mentioned on stage when Boger was going through all of other much-improved hardware.

I am not saying this chipset is the end of the world. While it does benchmark slightly lower than something like the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 in the $1,7999 13-inch TouchBar MacBook Pro, it is up to the tasks that home user will put it through.

But there’s my sticking point — the Mac mini is supposed to be for pros now. While it’s roughly in the same performance class as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, that means it’s not the machine for everyone.

It depends on your answer to the question: “What’s a pro?”

If you’re looking to do complex video editing, 3D rendering or other high-end tasks, you’re not the sort of pro the Mac mini can serve without the addition of an eGPU, which will easily add $1200 or more to the cost of the system.

You could easily spend entry-level iMac Pro money on a loaded Mac mini with an eGPU and 5K display.

However, if you aren’t the most demanding user, this Mac mini looks like a great option. You don’t have to be making the next Pixar film in your basement to be a pro these days.

Record or edit a podcast? You’re a pro.

Work in Photoshop, Illustrator or Sketch? You’re a pro.

Are you building an app in your spare time? Here, take this hat. It says “I’m a pro” on it.

Buying a pro Mac is complicated. The iMac is a great machine, but with high core counts on the horizon, it makes it a hard recommendation at the moment. The Mac Pro is … coming … soon … probably.

However, the MacBook Pro is more powerful than ever, and only getting better next month with the optional Vega GPU. The iMac Pro is the ultimate combination of power and elegance, and now, the Mac mini is on the table, too, as long as your work isn’t super bound to the GPU and can pay to skip over the entry-level Core i3 CPU.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: iOS Needs to Grow to Meet the Needs of Big iPhones

This year, all of Apple’s flagship phones are over 5.8 inches in size. They make the iPhone 8 and even the 8 Plus the smaller phones of yesteryear, like the iPhone 5S before them.

When I first upgraded to an iPhone 6 Plus, iOS 8 was the latest and greatest, but it felt like iOS wasn’t really designed for screens as large as that found on the Plus. Even though Control Center was, at the time, revealed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, just about every app had its controls pinned at the top of the screen, as they always had.

At the time, I figured that by iOS 9 or 10, Apple would start migrating things to the bottom of the screen, and that Reachability was just a short-term hack until iOS could evolve to meet the needs of users with larger phones.

Sadly, I was wrong. Today, in iOS 12, most critical controls and buttons are still at the top of the display. Control Center is now hidden behind a swipe from the top of the screen, making it basically useless on my new 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max. I love this big phone, but between its size and iOS’s design, it is most definitely a two-handed phone.

Despite being burned before, I am hopeful that things may be changing, albeit slowly. Just take a look at these two apps:

Side by Side
Side by Side

All of Maps’ interactive UI elements are confined to a sheet that expands when needed, up from the bottom. It makes searching for a location while walking a lot easier than it would be if all of those controls were pinned to the top of the screen. Shortcuts uses a similar design, as does Music, even though it also uses the top of the screen for some controls.

Contrast this with something like Messages or Mail, where everything is far, far away from the bottom of the screen. These apps use the same basic structure they shipped with on the original 3.5-inch iPhone back in 2007. While functionally these apps are clean and fast, they haven’t scaled to a world of larger phones. I’d love to see iOS 13 usher in a new design paradigm designed with phones like the XS, XR, and XS Max in mind.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Thinking about AirPods 2

I really like my AirPods. I got them in the early days, when you still had to tackle people in the Apple Store line each morning for a chance to pick them up.

Since then, I’ve used them consistently. They are great at the gym, while pacing around my office on conference calls and doing the dishes. I’ve worn them on airplanes, in subways and even on the roof of my house while clearing out gutters. (Gotta get those podcasts listening hours in!)

I honestly think AirPods are my favorite new Apple product over the last several years, edging out the iPhone X and even my iMac Pro in terms of how much they have improved my daily life.

I don’t think we’re going to see AirPods 2 this fall, but there are a few features I wouldn’t mind seeing Apple add to the wireless earbuds.

Gesture Support. By far the thing I wish for the most is gesture support. I really dislike tapping on my AirPods to invoke Siri. First, I find the tapping itself fairly uncomfortable. Secondly, Siri. Sigh.

If Apple could add the ability to swipe up and down on the AirPods’ stem for things like volume control of even skipping tracks, making these adjustments while working out or just walking around would be quite a bit nicer.

I think tapping should still be tied to Siri; in the future, I think we will all want a voice assistant that close to us at all times. Until Siri is ready for that future, falling back to more manual controls would be a welcome change.

Better Battery Life. My AirPods definitely live up to Apple’s “5 hours of listening time” claim, but more is always better. This is an evergreen wish of mine across all my technology, but worth making here.

More Reliable Pairing. My AirPods can be slow to wake up and re-pair with my iPhone. Often times, I have to flip open the lid and wait several seconds for them catch up.

Moving between my iPhone and iPad, my AirPods follow seamlessly, as advertised. When it comes to the Mac, however, they sometimes really struggle to connect. It’s as if the connection will timeout, with the AirPods then deciding to repair with my iPhone instead.

The ToothFairy app by Michael Tsai can overcome this, forcing the AirPods to connect. No offense to Tsai, but Apple should Sherlock this feature and make the Mac a first-class AirPod citizen.

Don’t get me wrong; even on their worst day, AirPods are much nicer to deal with than old-school Bluetooth headphones, but I don’t quite think they live up the number of times Apple has referred to its wireless tech as magical. AirPods should be frustration-free, and right now, they are frustratingly close to that goal.

Colors. I understand why AirPods are white. It’s the color of Apple’s music hardware for the last 17 years. I think Apple is trying to revive some of the white headphone magic of the iPod days with the AirPods. There’s a sense of sibling-hood we feel when we see someone else with them in at the gym or on the train.

But it’s 2018 now. Beats come in a wide range of colors, and AirPods should, too. I’ll take mine Henry Ford style, in any color as long as its black.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

Spending time on the Apple Online Store

Everlast

I recently had to help a family member replace the charger for their MacBook Air, and it gave me an idea: what are some of the weirdest things for sale on apple.com, besides the 2013 Mac Pro?

Pegasus3 80 TB RAID. At $7,999, one of the most expensive items in the “Mac Accessories” section of the store is the PROMISE Pegasus3 R8 80TB RAID Storage. For that pile of cash, you get a Thunderbolt 3 enclosure equipped with eight 10 TB hard drives, with up to 40 Gbps connectivity and the ability to connect up to six daisy-chained devices on a single Thunderbolt 3 port.

RED RAVEN Camera Kit. While we’re here on the expensive list, we have to talk about the $14,999.95 RED RAVEN Camera Kit, which comes with Final Cut Pro X in addition to the 4.5K camera and a bunch of other RED parts and accessories. The kit is complete with a Sigma 18-35mm lens, 4.7-inch monitor, batteries, 120 GB media drive and reader, and carrying case. This is an Apple Store exclusive bundle from RED, which is cool, but the inclusion of Final Cut Pro X makes me chuckle. I assume anyone in the market to buy a RED camera already has a pro video editing solution installed on their Mac.

Boxing & Gold Sensor Systems. While it is currently sold out, the $179.95 Everlast and PIQ Boxing Sensor System uses sensors embedded into hand wraps to track boxing workouts, syncing the data back to your iPhone. Data can be tracked over time to review progress, including punch speed, force and retraction time. I think I’ve thrown a total of one punch in my lifetime, but apparently those are things people want to see.

If boxing isn’t your thing, perhaps the Arcos 360 Golf Sensor System is more your speed. The $249.95 kit uses GPS, accelerometers and more to track your swings and location. Simply screw the sensors into the top of your clubs and pair them with the free iPhone app, and you’ll be ready for a slam dunk or whatever happens in golf.

Living That 30-pin Life. Lightning may have been around since the iPhone 5, but some of us still have devices with 30-pin Dock Connectors. Thankfully, Apple still sells new 30-pin to USB cables and its Lightning to 30-pin Adapter

Less than $10. If RED cameras and RAIDs are out of budget, Apple offers three adaptors for a less than $10: its own Lightning to 3.5 mm Adaptor, a Belkin 3.5 mm jack extension cable, and the Magsafe to Magsafe 2 converter.

If you need a Lightning to Micro USB adapter, you’re going to be out $19. Sorry about that.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Summer of Betas

It’s the summer (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) and that means it is time for Apple software betas!

For many years, Apple has run a Public Beta program, giving non-developer nerds access to the new versions of macOS, iOS and tvOS.

Installing these betas is easy. After logging into Apple’s site, you’ll download a certificate that allows your device to download the latest and greatest.

Preparing for the betas is a little more work. While going back to the non-public version of iOS or macOS isn’t always easy — or even possible — it’s still important to have a backup of your data, and to have as much of it synced to services like iCloud as possible.

For an iOS device, I will run iCloud backup on the beta OS, but I’ll make a backup using iTunes to have in cold storage if I need it later.

On the Mac, I generally run the betas on an external SSD, leaving the stable OS and all of my data safe and sound on my laptop’s internal drive. When I decide to boot into it full-time, I’ll make a clone of my drive with Carbon Copy Cloner to have as a safety net.

An interesting point to consider is why Apple allows members of the public to test upcoming software. Surely some testers have less-than-great experiences with the betas, with some even possibly losing data and time if a restore is needed.

I think the answer is at least three-fold. Most importantly, the public beta allows Apple to capture a lot of data about how its new software operates in the real world. As large as the developer community is, spreading the betas even wider lets Apple gather automatic statistics and feedback from a wide range of users with an untold number of configurations.

Secondly, the public betas give enthusiasts a way to feel “in the loop” with Apple, and more connected to the platforms they feel so strongly about. Getting to use features before they are ready — and possibly helping shame them via feedback — is a cool thing if you are into this stuff.

Almost every summer, I have the opportunity to answer questions about upcoming iPhone features from friends and family members. This grassroots education program can help people get excited about updates in a world where many people still think that Apple releases new software to make their devices slower and outdated. This year, Apple is doing the exact opposite, and if the enthusiast community can help spread the word, then everyone wins.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Hopes for Mac Hardware at WWDC

A dumb X-Files joke
A dumb X-Files joke

WWDC 2017 was a real winner when it came to Mac hardware. The notebooks got refreshed, as did the Retina iMac. Then, of course, was the unveiling of the iMac Pro, in all of its Space Gray, Xeon processing, Vega-powered glory. While it didn’t ship until the end of the year, the announcement put a smile on the faces of Mac enthusiasts everywhere.

With the next-generation Mac Pro a “2019 product,” according to Apple, this year’s keynote probably won’t be as flashy when it comes to new Mac hardware. However, there are still plenty of things Apple could announce in San Jose.

The obvious choice is a redesigned, more robust keyboard for the MacBook and MacBook Pro. The problems of debris and broken keycaps is well covered, so I won’t re-tread them here, but I really think Apple needs to address the issues with these machines.

I don’t expect Apple to break from the “Thunderbolt 3 or Bust” design of these notebooks, but I’d love to see an SD card slot return to the MacBook Pro. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Besides the ports, the biggest change the 2016 MacBook Pros brought to the table was the Touch Bar. I don’t think it’s been a successful feature, and I would like to see Apple make it optional, especially if that means prices could come back down to 2015-era prices.

I don’t know if Apple is going to do anything with the MacBook Pro’s ports, keyboard or Touch Bar, but the big news with new Macs should be Intel Coffee Lake. This new generation of CPUs could lead to quad core 13-inch MacBook Pros and six cores showing up in 15-inch MacBook Pro.

These machines would not only be better for multi-threaded tasks, but their integrated Iris Plus GPUs should be much faster as well, meaning things like video editing and gaming should be smoother.

If Apple wanted to get real wild, we could see a 15-inch MacBook Pro with discrete Radeon RX Vega M graphics, courtesy of a new-ish package from Intel. These chipsets offer up to 4GB of video memory. If this were to materialize, I’m sure it’d be as a top-of-the-line option. It’d probably be expensive, but I’m sure there are users who would snap them up.

Of course, whatever comes to the MacBook Pro could come to the iMacs as well, as the two systems have shared a good number of components over the years. More cores would be welcome here as well.

Moreover, I hope 2018 is finally the year Apple says goodbye to the spinning hard drive in its default configurations. The entry-level, non-Retina iMac comes with a 1 TB hard drive, as does the starter 4K Retina machine. All other SKUs on Apple.com come with Fusion Drives. I know that Apple wouldn’t be able to put in 1 TB of solid-state storage in these cheaper machines, but 512 GB may be enough to hold consumers over, with an option to “downgrade” to a larger, spinning disk if needed.

I know the logistics and economics of such a move are complicated, but selling an iMac with a spinning boot drive just looks bad, and leads to a poor user experience.

Lastly, there’s the Mac mini. If Apple doesn’t update it in June, and there’s not something new coming, maybe Apple should put the poor thing out of its misery.

But I’d dig an updated Mac mini with Thunderbolt 3 and more modern Intel components. I want to believe!

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: It’s All Puzzle Pieces but no Box Top

WWDC is just a few short weeks away, and while no one is quite ready to draft their predictions just yet, there is a lot to consider when thinking about what Apple could announce concerning the Mac.

Dating back to December of 2017, rumors have been swirling that Apple is planning to give iOS developers a way to get their apps up and running on macOS. Mark Gurman and others have reported that this project, dubbed Marzipan, will take the form of new tools for the Mac, which will supersede the Mac’s aging AppKit frameworks.

There are a million questions about this. Depending on your overall feeling about the state of the Mac, these questions can be hopeful or filled with dread.

Will these apps “feel” like the Mac apps we are used to today? Will developers be able to charge separately for iOS and macOS versions of their software? Is this going to usher in a new era of Mac productivity, or is the Mac doomed to being “just a big iPad?”

Earlier this month, Apple started warning users of 32-bit apps that they will require updating to run “without compromises” in the next version of macOS, presumably due this fall.

I expect we will hear more about what those compromises will entail for those of us whose 32-bit apps still take on essential roles in our workflows. Will these apps just need special permissions to run, like unsigned applications do today, or will macOS 10.14 bring something new and amazing to the table that they won’t be able to access?

Perhaps the biggest question about the future of the Mac is the report that Apple will begin a transition from Intel to ARM as early as 2020.

When Apple moved to Intel in 2006, it did so with grace. Developers could release “Universal” applications that ran natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs, and several versions of Mac OS X included Rosetta to run PowerPC-only programs on Intel machines. The only real loss was that of the Classic environment, but my hunch is that very few people were still dependent on that by the time the first Intel Macs rolled off the assembly line.

I have no doubt that Apple can do the same for a transition to ARM, but there are a different set of tradeoffs on the table this time. In 2006, Apple was unable to build the products it wanted to with the PowerPC line of chips. We all wanted a PowerBook G5, but it just wasn’t possible.

While machines like the 12-inch MacBook could see incredible power and battery life gains by moving to an ARM chipset, we haven’t seen evidence that Apple’s in-house chip team has designed processors able to take on the Intel i7 and Xeon CPUs found in the company’s more powerful products.

Apple won’t release an ARM-based MacBook Pro that’s slower than the Intel ones they have now, so we can assume that either the company does have some amazingly-powerful ARM chips in the wings, or that this transition is going to take a lot longer than the ARM one did, with the product line split across two processor platforms for some time.

Like everything else in the Mac zeitgeist right now, that leaves on-lookers full of questions, but I think it’s safe to say that the move to 64-bit apps across the board, coupled with the cross-platform frameworks that could be coming with Marzipan, may be the first steps toward this transition, even if Apple doesn’t announce it for another couple of years. If Apple takes 2018 and 2019 to tell developers to modernize their apps or be left behind, it could be easier to move those apps to ARM Macs in the future.

Until WWDC is here, we just don’t know what’s coming for the Mac. It may be that 10.14 is another incremental release, and the only real news is the death of 32-bit apps, leaving several other shoes to drop later. Until then, we can just sort through the fragments of what we know and wonder about the future.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Apple and Education and the Future

With Apple’s event this month centering on the education market and tools for the classroom, I was suddenly propelled back to early memories of using a Mac at school.

I’ve written about my high school newspaper experience before, but the memories that recently sprang to mind were of elementary school and a rather uninteresting line of beige all-in-one Macs, like the LC 520 and its offspring.

I don’t remember using the computers for much, as I think my access was only in 4th and 5th grade, with only two Macs in each classroom for student use.

(There was a third Mac that our teacher would use for work and to display content on a large CRT television strapped to the top of a cart.)

My most vivid memory from these early computing days are that of a game. Specifically, Odell Down Under, whose PC version is playable online thanks to the Internet Archive. In the game, students would start out as a tiny fish on a coral reef, and would have to grow by finding food and avoiding sharks. I don’t know how much educational value there was in it, but it sure felt more like schoolwork than everyone’s favorite, Oregon Trail.

People a little older than me have early memories of educational games too, but usually on the venerable Apple II. I missed that machine by just a few years.

I was in middle school when the iMac G3 started popping up. Our school had plenty of beige Macs in classrooms, but the computer lab had three rows of the egg-shaped machines. In high school, I was given access to a Mac for over an hour a day, and that’s when I really clicked with the platform — both OS 9 and early OS X — for the first time.

If I had been in Windows-based schools, I would have eventually met the Mac in college, but I wouldn’t have been so adept that the skills that landed me a job at my college newspaper.

I owe a ton to those early exposures to the Mac. My entire professional life has been tied to the platform. Out of that, I’ve grown two companies and a number of deep friendships. It may be silly to use your laptop’s brand as a way to self-identify and to meet others, but it is a very real phenomenon.

The world is different today than it was in the early and mid 1990s. Back then, a child might have only seen a Mac at school, as education was one of Apple’s only strongholds. Today, it’s likely their family owns at least one Apple product. Its market share may not be huge, but the Mac is a lot more mainstream than it was.

Today, Apple is still in education with the Mac and iPad, and remains committed to the market. However, Chromebooks have changed the landscape in a meaningful way. Between Google and Microsoft options, there are many kids in schools who may never come across during their school years.

Yes, Apple needs to be more competitive with Chromebooks for the good of its platforms and business, but thinking about future generations of computer buyers should be part of that equation.

That worries me a little, knowing how instrumental my early computing days ended up becoming later in life. I’m not saying that if Apple totally exited the education market tomorrow, Mac market share would tumble a few years down the road. However, I can’t help but think that introducing students to the Mac in school is only good for the platform long-term.

That is, of course, if today’s kids will just be working on iPads in the future and see my beloved platform as some sort of weird antique.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The Future of Mail and Calendar

There’s a lot of talk that Apple is altering course when it comes to software development, being more willing to push features back a year if they need more time to ship as complete, polished parts of the operating system.

I’m in favor of this approach. I think a more thoughtful, well-paced Apple development organization will only stand to benefit the company and its users.

There is one part of this that makes me a little sad, though: the Mac’s built-in apps.

Whether it is comparing Calendar to Fantastical or BusyCal, or looking at Mail next to something like Airmail or Spark, an obvious pattern appears.

Apple’s first-party apps, especially on the Mac, are kept rather basic to meet the needs of many. Apple knows power users can go find something more powerful and flexible to better meet their specific needs. That’s why I’m typing this in Byword and not TextEdit, and will paste it into Google Docs running in Chrome when I’m done with it, as opposed to saving a Pages document in iCloud Drive.

There is one big exception to this, and it’s Notes. Apple took its basic, stripped-down note-taking application and has turned it into a cross-platform powerhouse. People who just need a few notes can still use it, while others of us are storing PDFs, creating tables and sharing checklists all in the same application.

I hope that, one day, Apple does the same thing to Mail and Calendar.

Features like snoozing, integration with third-party apps and more robust rules are commonplace in third-party mail applications, and I think Apple’s willingness to let Mail stagnate has created an environment where third-party developers are making good money writing email clients.

While I’m trying very hard not to encourage outright Sherlocking, I think it’s time for Apple to look at some of these features and work them into the Mac’s official email client. It’s sad that Mail in something like Mac OS X Leopard is still pretty much what we have today. The world has moved on, and has embraced new technology and practices when it comes to email.

The same goes for Calendar. While it is true that Apple’s application does have support for natural language entry, it’s rather basic when compared to what other apps offer. Many users love the ability to see Reminders data alongside their events, or to quickly toggle between sets of calendars. Apple’s app does neither of these things, leaving Mac users clicking and unclicking calendars as they go, and using the Reminders app for tasks, which is a whole other tale of woe.

There are examples beyond Mail and Calendar, but they are two apps that I have running all day, every day, and I’d like to see a sign that Apple cares about them as much as I do.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Living with Multiple Macs

For a long time, I used a notebook as my only computer. Through a string of MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros, I would carry my entire digital life around in my backpack, then dock it at my desk to an external display, keyboard, mouse, hard drives and more.

That changed when I bought my 5K iMac about a year and a half ago, when I built out my studio and office space. I wanted an iMac to have more screen real estate and power for editing, but the biggest upside was that work suddenly had a place. Sitting down at this door I chopped into a desk, in front of a 27-inch Retina display tells my brain It’s time to work.

For the times I need to record podcasts on the road or elect to work from the couch or my favorite coffee shop, I have an Early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s a middle of the road model, but it more than meets my portable needs. It even has a keyboard that works and ports and stuff.

(AHEM.)

Using more than one Mac is a lot easier than it used to be. Even in the iDisk days, file syncing between computers was hit or miss, and often very slow. Files were often duplicated and mis-synced.

Then the miracle of Dropbox happened, blessing us all with reliable file syncing that worked cross-platform. I remember first setting it up in college on my 15-inch PowerBook and being blown away at how quickly files showed up on the Blue and White PowerMac G3 I kept running under the desk in my dorm room.

Dropbox is still critically important to how I work. Outside of my iTunes and Photos.app libraries, almost everything in my home directory is in Dropbox.

I’m in a whole bunch of shared folders for the various podcasts and projects I am a part of, and with the iOS app, it means I have access to much of what’s on my computer anywhere my iPhone can connect to the Internet.

Apple’s services have come a long way from the iDisk days of .Mac and MobileMe. iCloud can sync your Desktop and Documents, but I’ve avoided those features after hearing horror stories from some users.

Much of what iCloud excels at is behind the scenes, shuttling data back and forth between Apple’s various apps like Calendar, Notes, Reminders, Safari, Keychain Items and more.

This ever-present, all-knowing nature of iCloud means it’s powerful, but we often don’t notice its features until they break down. I don’t ever think about my Contacts database until I need a phone number I entered on my Mac that hasn’t found its way to my iPhone yet.

Thankfully, those hiccups have become less and less frequent over time as Apple has continued to improve iCloud and its various tentacles into the company’s operating systems.

Between Dropbox for my files and iCloud for just about everything else, I can move between my iMac Pro and MacBook Pro with relative ease, knowing my important data is present on both machines. Thanks to Dropbox selective sync and Photos’ ability to just download thumbnails, I can fine-tune what I need on my notebook, keeping in mind its smaller SSD.

I think Apple could take iCloud farther, equipping it to keep Macs running in sync in even more ways. The possibilities that come to mind are nearly endless.

tvOS 11 can keep home screens in sync across multiple Apple TVs, so why can’t I enable that for something like my Mac’s Dock or login items? Mail syncs smart mailboxes across Macs via iCloud, so why do I have to set up Finder favorites separately on each computer I use?

I can imagine a world where Handoff is broader than whatever app happens to be in the foreground. What if, when I logged into my MacBook Pro, iCloud had all the open apps, browser tabs and Finder windows from my iMac Pro ready for me? True session syncing could make picking up my notebook and walking out the door far more appealing than it is now.

These are things Dropbox will never be able to do, as iCloud is baked-in at the operating system level. However, Apple’s service lacks all but the most basic controls and settings. For the most part, a user can only turn something off then back on again to troubleshoot it.

Dropbox, on the other hand, offers numerous settings and a far more robust file recovery system on their website. If iCloud eats a bunch of your calendar data, you’re more or less stuck unless you can dumpster dive with Time Machine.

Apple has been unwilling to put a lot of user options into its iCloud preferences, and I understand why. How can it just work if a user has a bunch of toggles they can flip around? Apple wants iCloud to be seamless and invisible, quietly delivering data to your apps and devices in the background.

I firmly believe is that if Apple continues to expand what iCloud can do, especially on the Mac, it will need to cede some ground on this point. Right now, the “Optimize Mac Storage” option under iCloud Drive is about as complex as it gets:

For iCloud to grow in scope, it will need to grow in complexity. That’s not a bad thing, and I hope it doesn’t hold Apple back when thinking about how our devices can be made smarter and better by Internet services.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Holding off on the iMac Pro

New iMac

When Apple announced the iMac Pro back at WWDC, I thought it’d be my next desktop. I love my Late 2015 iMac with 5K display, and the iMac Pro promised to take everything about it and make it better.

Like Jason, much of my work would benefit from being able to max out more cores. I do a ton of audio processing and editing, in addition to a fair amount of 4K video editing in Final Cut Pro X.

Before I saw the iMac Pro’s pricing, I had thought I’d opt for the 10-core machine, which seems to be the sweet spot between clock speed and core count. When I saw that the final pricing, I knew the only machine I could afford (and justify) would be the base model that Jason ordered.

I settled into that but had a problem. Instead of tapping the purchase button as quickly as I could, I found myself unsure about my decision. Even the 8-core machine would be a huge update to the 4-core i5 in my iMac, not to mention the superior RAM, SSD and GPU, but the $5,000 was still a huge chunk of change.

I set out to compare the regular iMac to its new Space Gray cousin. I think it’s easy to overlook the 27-inch iMac in the shadow of the iMac Pro, but it’s still noticeably faster than what I am sitting in front of now. Apple gave this iMac a much better GPU that what mine shipped with, and I could order one with i7, which I skipped last time when buying refurbished. Geekbench scores showed I could expect a nice speed bump, and by going to the i7 model, I’d have a hyper-threading CPU, giving me 4 additional virtual cores.

Then there was the budget. A 27-inch iMac with a 4.2 GHz Core i7, 1 TB SSD and 8 GB of RAM is just $3,099.00. A 32 GB RAM kit from MacSales runs $334, and bumps the machine to 40 GB of memory. Even at $648, their 64 GB RAM kit is less than half the price of Apple’s upgrade.

In short, a 2017 iMac wouldn’t be as big of an update for me as an iMac Pro would be, but I could do it spending considerably less money.

So that’s what I did.

My new non-Pro iMac got here right after Christmas, and I couldn’t be more excited to have a faster and more capable workstation. It should greatly decrease the frustration I feel when editing video.

Some Mac users warn against buying the first generation of any Apple product. I’m usually not in that camp (but do suggest AppleCare!) but with the iMac Pro, I couldn’t shake that thought. There’s a lot of new stuff in that chassis, with an all-new cooling system. I am extremely curious to read reviews by people I know and trust, but I’m even more interested in seeing how these machines hold up over the next couple of years.

It also lets me buy time. If this machine doesn’t meet my needs, I can still move to the iMac Pro once the dust settles, while it still retains most of its value on the second-hand market. It gives me enough breathing room to even see what the next-generation Mac Pro will be like, or even upcoming iMac models that could feature the 6-core/12-thread Coffee Lake chips from Intel.

If the 2017 iMac ends up being a bridge to the future, that’s fine. It’ll be better than my 2015, and in the worst case scenario, lets me save some cash for an upgrade down the road.

I am bummed I won’t be getting any cool Space Gray input devices, though.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: It’s… Complicated

I feel like there are fewer clear answers with Apple advice these days.

For several years after Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, the company made just four products, arranged in a grid:

If you were a professional, you just had to decide if you wanted a portable or not. If you were into desktops, you just had to choose how much money you wanted to spend and how much power you needed.

Things have changed a little. Last year, Tim Cook made this comment to The Washington Post:

We’re a bit larger today, so we can do a bit more than we could do 10 years ago or even five years ago. But we still have, for our size, an extremely focused product line. You can literally put every product we make on this table. That really is an indication of how focused it is. I think that’s a good thing.

To be fair, he’s not wrong. Apple’s product lines are still far less complex than those of their PC-making competitors. Their products have names that make sense, and there are clear lines between them, but picking the right computer is harder than its ever been.

On the notebook side, there’s the $999 MacBook Air at the bottom of the price sheet. It’s the cheapest Apple notebook on the market, and it shows. It doesn’t have a Retina display, and sports generations-old CPU and GPU options. It’s a budget purchase, and a far cry from the laptop’s glory days of yesteryear.

Slightly up-sheet is the MacBook. Despite the non-Air name, it’s both smaller and lighter than its cheaper cousin. It starts at $1299 for twice the storage of the base Air, but a m3 processor that can be downright pokey at time. It has just one port, but it packs a Retina display into its ultra-thin chassis.

For people picking a consumer notebook, they need to consider the ports they need, and if Retina is important to them.

The MacBook Pro is a little simpler in and of itself. You can skip the Touch Bar and save some money on an entry-level 13-inch model. The 15-inch models all come with it, and with more powerful GPU options, conforming to the “bigger is better” product strategy.

But then there’s the $1999 last-generation MacBook Pro that’s still for sale. The one so many Mac nerds still love. At $400 less than the cheapest 15-inch Touch Bar model, I assume it’s still for sale to hit a price point.

The new-style MacBook Pros come with a lot of baggage. In addition to a one-way ticket to Dongletown, they come with keyboard that are proving unreliable for many users, and are generally more expensive than their predecessors.

In the past, if someone needed a Mac notebook, I would tell them to get a MacBook Air unless they needed more power. Then, it was just down to picking a screen size and choosing storage and RAM options.

Today, I’m hesitant to suggest the new MacBook Pro to most power users. They are pricey, require lots of accessories and are expensive when they break, and they break easily. That $1999 model is a good option, but it comes with slower internals than the Late 2017 and Mid 2017 models do.

On the consumer end, it’s just as confusing. The MacBook Air used to be great, but the current offering is super old, and I think that $999 price tag is starting to look steep for what you get. The MacBook is an engineering marvel, but its speed can be an issue for some users. It uses the same Butterfly keyboard found on the Pros, but with just one dongle-attracting port.

(If you’re looking for a desktop, for now, the answer is easier. Buy an iMac, and get an SSD in it. The other two desktop Macs don’t ever get updated. Not that I’m bitter.)

Jobs’ Grid of Four is no doubt dead. I don’t mind that, but I wish there were more clear options for customers looking for a new Mac notebook these days.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Revisiting App Subscription Fatigue

When Apple introduced iOS App Store subscriptions last year, there was a lot of talk about subscription fatigue. It was unknown how many people would be willing to pay monthly or annually for apps, and many people had a dim outlook on developers’ prospects of making regular income from everyday users.

It’s been a little over a year since subscriptions were turned on in the App Store, and a bunch of popular apps have made the move. I was curious to see how many apps I’ve signed up to pay for on an on-going devices, so I opened the App Store on my iPhone, navigated to my account settings and opened the Subscriptions page to see.

(A quick side note on this screen of the App Store. It feels and acts like a web view, as opposed to a native screen within the App Store app. It’s really odd, and I can’t quite put my finger on why Apple would build it this way…)

There were a few more apps in this list than I had anticipated. After scanning the list, I realized that not all of my subscriptions are for apps that I’m actively using, so I was able to set several of them to no longer renew.

The detail screen has a setting to change between monthly and annual subscriptions, if the developer supports those options. I’ve been using Nomorobo to block robocalls for several months and really like it, so I opted to “upgrade” that subscription to an annual one to save a few bucks over the next 12 months.

After some review and pruning, these are the app subscriptions I’m paying for now. The list is now much more in line with the apps I’m actually using on a regular basis:

  • Apple Music – $14.99/mo: My wife and I both recently moved to Apple Music after using a mashup of local iTunes libraries and Spotify, and we’re both really happy with it. I find it a little weird that this shows up in the Subscriptions list as we use an iCloud Family Sharing Account, but oh well.
  • Carrot Weather – $1.49/month: I pay for the “Ultrapremium” level to have access to Weather Underground data, which is more accurate in my neck of the woods than the default Dark Sky.
  • Day One – $2.99/mo – I’ve used this app as my journal for many, many years, racking up almost 1,300 entries since 2011. I store all sorts of memories here, and just love how the app looks and works, especially on the iPad.
  • Nomorobo – $1.99/mo: The aforementioned robocall blocker. It makes having a phone number way more tolerable.
  • Overcast – $0.83/mo: Overcast is the only app in my list that only bills annually, so that monthly amount is a little weird. This lets me disable ads and have access to upload files directly to Overcast, which is extremely handy in my line of work.

All in all, I’m paying $22.29 a month for access to some of the most commonly-used apps on my iPhone and iPad. Of that, the bulk of the money is going to Apple Music, which I use on all of my devices — including my iMac every day at work.

One on hand, that’s more money that I was spending on apps and services before this came along, but after doing some maintenance on my list, I’m comfortable with the expenditure.

These apps and services are all things I use nearly every day, and they make my nerd life better. I could cut back if I needed to, and thankfully Apple makes that really easy to do, but for now, I don’t feel the fatigue we were all worried about last year.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The Great Red Dot

Perhaps the most decisive thing about the new Apple Watch with LTE isn’t the lack of roaming or cross-country support, the $10/month the service will set you back or even the big battery life hit that takes place when using the LTE radio.

It’s the red cap at the end of the Digital Crown. I’ve come to calling it the Great Red Dot.

The reaction to the Great Red Dot has been all over the map. Some people don’t mind it at all, while others think its a travesty beyond redemption.

Personally, I don’t mind it on my stainless steel watch, but I think it looks better on this model and the white ceramic Apple Watch edition than the other cases offered with LTE.

Even if the case finish isn’t an issue, I do think the red cap can limit what bands I will use with this watch. The bright orange sport band I bought a few years ago is probably destined for retirement now.

The red Digital Crown was first spotted way back in 2015, when Tim Cook was photographed wearing a stainless steel watch with a white sport band. The watch was rocking a red digital crown.

(This is the exact setup I have, so I guess I’m in good company.)

Red highlights have been used by other product makers over the years, as pointed out by Matthew Achariam. Lecia camera bodies have distinct red highlights. Marc Newson, friend and collaborator of Jony Ive, has designed several watches with red caps.

The Great Red Dot, when viewed through the lens of other high-end products, makes more sense. It’s not so much a fashion statement as it is a status symbol. It shows the world that you were willing to spend the extra cash for the LTE model.

This function makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m already a little self-conscious about having spent the money to pick up the stainless steel model; the red cap doesn’t do anything to help that feeling. It’s not as strong as the weirdness I felt carrying the original iPhone in the summer of 2007, but its similar.

The red cap on the LTE Apple Watch is not a deal breaker. It may limit your band choices if you care about such things, and it does broadcast to those around you which model you bought, but neither of those things are a big deal at the end of the day. Having LTE in a device on my wrist is a little mind-boggling, and in my limited use so far, it works well for me. I can put up with a little red to be able to leave my phone behind on a run or a bike ride.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Tapping the reset button

Assuming nothing bonkers happens between now and then, next month will mark the release of iOS 11, macOS High Sierra, watchOS 4 and tvOS 11.

The Apple TV and Apple Watch updates seem like they’ll be nice, but I don’t think they will change the way I work day to day. High Sierra is a bigger deal than tvOS 11 or watchOS 4, but as nice as it is to have a “Snow Leopard” year, I think the biggest changes to my workflow will come with iOS 11.

That’s no surprise, of course. The new multitasking scheme, complete with the Dock and Spaces, coupled with drag and drop, promises to make the iPad a much more serious machine for work for those like me who have generally chosen the Mac as their tool of choice when it comes to work.

I think any OS update, regardless of impact and scope, offers an opportunity to start afresh.

Let’s talk about the 5K iMac I’m sitting in front of at the moment. I’ve had it almost a year, and am very happy with it, but the user I log in to when I sit down at it is much older than the computer itself.

By looking through my user library and other folders, the best I can tell, the user is one I set up around 2010. It has made the jump through a string of MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs before being migrated to this iMac a year ago.

There are preference files for applications that have been deleted for years, and support folders for programs that aren’t for sale anymore. It’s all a bit crufty, thanks to macOS’ unwillingness to delete support files when an .app bundle is removed from the system.

None of these files are causing any problems, and besides a 2 GB Evernote folder I found that I no longer need, none of it is taking up much space on my iMac’s SSD.

That’s not to say that cruft doesn’t accumulate in the corners of iOS, either. I have some long-forgotten games and apps stashed into folders on both my iPhone and iPad, just longing to see the light of day one more time. Thankfully, removing them is just a long-press and tap away.

I came across this in a big way on my iPad after installing the Public Beta of iOS 11. The Dock made me rethink my iPad home screen in a big way, and before I knew it, I was slinging apps and folders around, totally dismantling a setup that I had enjoyed for years.

Like my iMac, my iPad and iPhone setups has survived many upgrades and restores as I’ve hopped from device to device over the years. When I unbox a new iPhone next month, I’m really considering taking the time and starting anew, foregoing restoring an iTunes or iCloud backup.

Some will say that doing so will make an iOS device run faster and smoother. I’m not sure that’s true unless something has gone wrong, but the idea of starting with a nice, clean device, set up and arranged to take advantage of all iOS 11 has to offer in a tempting idea. It’d be a bit of work to sign back into a ton of apps and services, but doing so lends itself to making decisions about what I actually need on my device, as opposed to what I’ve been shuttling along over the years.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The case for the Mac mini

When it was introduced at Macworld 2005, Steve Jobs pitched the Mac mini as the easiest way to switch to Mac OS X. It was the BYODKM Mac — bring your display, keyboard and mouse. A PC user could unhook their Dell or HP or whatever, drop in a Mac mini and be off to the races. The incredibly low price of $499 just sweetened the deal for would-be switchers.

Over the years, the Mac mini became more than just the budget Mac for new users. Higher-end models became more powerful and more expensive, creating a real fanbase for the little computer.

Mac mini enthusiasts were soon hooking the machines up to televisions, using them as in-car entertainment systems and even running them as servers, something that Apple recognized and blessed with separate “Server” SKUs that often came with more storage and a copy of OS X sever. Heck, there are companies that colocate Mac minis in data centers now.

I’m sure it has never sold as well as the iMac, but I think the mini holds an important place in Apple’s desktop line. Before its current crisis, the Mac mini was enjoyed by a wide range of users. People looking for a simple, small desktop buy them, as do the super nerdy. Very few products enjoy such range.

I have to admit, it’s weird to write about the Mac mini in the present tense. I often think about it in the past tense, and I fear Apple does as well.

As Andrew Orr recently pointed out, it has been over 1,000 days since Apple updated the Mac mini. Considering that the 2014 update removed the ability to upgrade the machine’s RAM and got rid of the quad-core models, that last update wasn’t all that great. Many people — including me — have 2011 and 2012 Mac minis still running strong here in 2017.

Is the Mac mini dead? When asked about it earlier this year, Phil Schiller said, “On that I’ll say the Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use. The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.”

WWDC came and went, and the Mac mini is still for sale. It’s not dead yet, and I think there are several good reasons the Mac mini should receive updates again.

Lure switchers: The original sales pitch for the Mac mini is still a good one. The entry-level models may not be the best Macs on the market, but they can hit a price point nothing else can. Consumers looking to switch to the Mac may be hesitant to buy an $1,099 iMac. $499 for a Mac mini looks a lot more appeasing.

Appease enthusiasts: For those of us who use the Mac mini in our entertainment centers or in our server closets, nothing else can meet the requirements this little computer can. I can’t stuff an iMac under my TV, and a Mac Pro is way too much computer for what I need to host at MacStadium. With the arrival of Thunderbolt 3 and eGPU support in macOS High Sierra, a well-specced Mac mini — complete with a quad-core processor and an SSD — could be a pretty good little development or gaming computer.

Love the Mac: Apple executives keep repeating their dedication and love for the Mac. The iMac Pro and future Mac Pro have certainly helped calm fears held by the Mac faithful. The Mac mini is the last low-hanging fruit when it comes to Mac hardware. It will never sell as well as the iMac or enjoy the power and expandability of the Mac Pro, but having any computer this old for sale is just … demoralizing.

I still believe in the Mac mini; I just want Apple to find its faith again.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Revising my iPad Productivity

Outside of recording and editing podcasts, my next-biggest chunk of time at work is spent on administration. Generally, this involves a lot of email, PDFs and spreadsheets. These tasks can be done on an iPad, but I’ve always found myself more comfortable completing them on a Mac.

Perhaps I’ve never taken the time to adjust my workflows to better fit the limitations present on iOS, but I find myself feeling constrained in ways that I don’t on macOS.

Take the task of creating a PDF from an email and uploading it to Freshbooks, the web-based accounting tool we use at Relay FM. On the Mac, I can select Export as PDF… from the file menu, save the PDF to my Desktop, tab over to Safari and upload it.

(As macOS supports creating your own custom keyboard shortcuts, I don’t even have to manually pull down the File menu to start the task, which is an added bonus.)

On iOS, this task is more clumsy. While some clients like Airmail make it easier to create PDFs from emails, the built-in app takes several steps:

  1. Tap the Reply button, because Mail.app hates the Share Sheet.
  2. Select Print.
  3. On the Printer Options screen pinch and expand the Preview or press on it with 3D touch. A PDF preview window is then spawned.
  4. Tap the Share button at the bottom of that window. to save the PDF someplace like Dropbox or iCloud.

After all of that, I can switch to Safari and upload the file from the Document Picker to the web. Most document providers require Internet access, which is another thing to consider.

This example is simple, but it’s something I do numerous times a week. I’d love to be able to use Mail.app and have an easier way to create PDFs from messages, but so far, iOS 11 doesn’t make turning an email message into a PDF any easier.

However, once a PDF has been made, iOS 11 promises to make this sort of task faster and easier with Files.app. It allows for local file storage, so my files don’t have to make a round trip to a Dropbox server and back.

This particular workflow should be a little better in iOS 11, but not remarkably different. However, the new multitasking, drag and drop and the aforementioned Files app should make this sort of cross-app work faster and easier.

Currently, so much work is reliant on Document Providers, a corner of iOS 10 that demotes non-iCloud services in what is already a pretty painful bit of UI. With Files, dragging documents to an email draft or a Note will be complete in mere seconds. Uploading a bunch of photos to a CMS will be much faster, as will importing resources into something like iWork. The new iPad Pros will allow three apps at once, allowing me to have a spreadsheet, Safari and a checklist all just within reach.

The days of hunting through Split View for the app I need are coming to a close, but I’m not sure that will be enough.

I don’t know if iOS 11 will change enough about the iPad to let me move a lot of my non-audio work to it, but I’m excited about trying it again. I’m ready to be impressed.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Thoughts on macOS 10.13

WWDC is just around the corner, and that means it’s about to get real busy for those of covering Apple.

Back in the day, the Mac enjoyed all of WWDC’s stage time, but that’s not the case anymore. We are almost guaranteed to see new versions of macOS and iOS get unwrapped. watchOS and tvOS may enjoy stage time, too, if Apple has something big to show on those fronts this year. Throw in services like Apple Music, Siri and iMessage, possible hardware refreshes and maybe even something altogether new, and it will be a very busy week.

But I — as will surprise no one reading this — want to get back to the Mac.

macOS is an incredibly mature operating system at this point. The days of massive release notes for each major version are long behind us, but that isn’t to say that Apple should ship Sierra forever. There’s always more work to do, and I have four areas in which I think macOS 10.13 could improve upon its predecessor.

Ahoy, Macintosh. Siri showed up to the Mac with Sierra, and it can do some pretty interesting things. In addition to all the standard stuff like sending messages and playing music, Siri can search files and control items in System Preferences.

However, any time I go to invoke Siri, I either have to take a trip up to the menu bar or stare at my keyboard and try to remember the shortcut for it. It slows me down and I often just bail on the whole thing.

I would love to be able to speak to my iMac and it respond, just like my iPhone or the Amazon Echo.

The Mac has had the ability to receive audible command for years. This feature can be enabled in the Accessibility preference pane, and offers a wide variety of options and commands. I think its time Siri on the Mac learns from its more mobile cousins and keeps an ear open for me at all times. If the iPhone can do it, surely the Mac can, too.

HomeKit. I have a growing number of smart lights around my house, and being able to control them with Control Center or Siri on my iPhone is great, but there are times my iPhone isn’t handy and I need to do something.

Currently, if you ask Siri on the Mac to turn off a light, she replies “Sorry, I can’t help you with HomeKit here,” and offers to search the web with the phrase you said.

This is far from ideal, and frankly, a little embarrassing. It’s time for Siri on the Mac to know about my HomeKit-enabled devices. They are synced between my iPad and iPhone via iCloud already, so it’s not like adding the Mac would require users to change anything about their setups.

In addition to Siri support on the Mac, I would really like to see a Today widget for HomeKit devices come macOS 10.13. Control Center on iOS puts these devices just a swipe away, and they should be just as convenient to reach on the Mac.

Dark Mode. Yosemite brought a dark theme to parts of the Mac’s interface, including menus, the Dock, App Switcher and Spotlight, but like iOS, the system lacks a true dark mode that replaces the sea of white Finder windows with something darker and easier on the eyes.

Apple’s pro apps — including Logic, Final Cut and the long-gone Aperture — ship with a dark user interface that makes creating content in them much more comfortable. Bouncing between Logic and Finder while podcast editing drives me crazy, especially if I’m working at night on my 27-inch iMac. Having the option to tone down Finder, Mail and other system apps would be great.

Photos improvements. Last year, Photos on the Mac got a big update to match the iOS version. Facial recognition improved, searching for objects or people within photos made finding images easier, and the Memories features put together slideshows and collections based on events and dates in the past.

The problem is that too much of this stuff is handled on-device. If I sort through my 33,000 photos on my iPad and tag every face I see, those changes aren’t reflected on my iMac. It is thought that this decision was based on privacy, but that feels a little thin to me when the product the feature is for is already syncing thousands and thousands of personal photos and videos with a cloud service.

In addition to syncing more metadata, Photos on the Mac could benefit from more editing tools, faster launch times and more clear language around its iCloud settings, and a better system for indicating what is stored locally vs. in the cloud.

All in all, I expect macOS 10.13 to be a pretty sleepy release. That’s fine, but I hope it doesn’t get lost in the noise of newer, shinier operating systems.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]


By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Three months of Touch Bar

When the new MacBook Pros came out, I ordered a stock $1499 model. That’s the 13-inch model without the Touch Bar.

I left my review with a bit of a meh feeling about the whole thing. I liked the new design, but Dongle Life and poor battery performance had me down.

I spent quite a bit of time in that review explaining why I didn’t pony up for a Touch Bar model, but in January, I needed a new-in-box Mac for a YouTube video. I went to my local Apple store and picked up the $1799 machine. It’s the entry-level, 13-inch with Touch Bar. I shot my video and then figured that, since I had some time before I had to return it, I should get to know the Touch Bar a little bit.

If you haven’t caught on, that’s the laptop that I am currently typing on. (Shocking, right?) Out of the box, the increased power was a welcome addition. More importantly, this MacBook come with four ports, which I’ve found to be helpful while working out in the real world, doing things like recording and editing audio or video.

In the time since my upgrade, those two things are why I’m happy I kept the nicer laptop, not the Touch Bar itself.

That’s not to say the Touch Bar is bad. It does what it advertises on the tin, but it hasn’t revolutionized the way I work on my Mac. It may be that most of the time I use an iMac, so the Touch Bar can’t fully elbow its way into my workflows. However, I think part of it is that I just don’t see the Touch Bar as critical to the Mac experience yet.

I like Control Strip, which allows fast access to things like screen brightness, volume controls and more. I’ve swapped out Siri for the “Show Desktop” feature of Mission Control, which I use constantly.

I love the emoji picker. It’s a lot of fun to blast through a bunch of faces to find just the right one. The emoji palette in macOS Sierra is clunky at best, and the Touch Bar really highlights the need for Apple to overhaul it.

(Don’t get me started on the lack of search within iOS’s emoji keyboard. Geez.)

The whole thing with the Touch Bar is that it’s context-aware, adapting itself to what is onscreen at any given moment. This enables fun things like scrubbing video in QuickTime or Safari, but the flexibility means some developers have handled things very differently than others.

Even Apple’s own apps are uneven in their approach. iWork does its best to cram in as many useful tools as possible; Mail shows a huge “Move to…” button to help file away email, even for accounts that just have an Inbox and an Archive. Of course, some apps have no Touch Bar support, in which case it doesn’t light up unless the user is typing.

This uneven experience has made it harder for me to grow accustomed to it. I find it frustrating to reach for something that’s not there when I want it. Taking my eyes off the screen to swipe around can slow me down, especially if I already know how to complete the task at hand with a keyboard shortcut or in the GUI.

Keyboard shortcuts are the obvious parallel in all of this. I wasn’t around when they first showed up, but I’m sure some complained about an uneven experience back in the day. Time works wonders, though, and today keyboard shortcuts are second nature for many users.

These days, if an application doesn’t assign a keyboard shortcut to a menu item I often use, I can simply open System Preferences and make my own. With the Touch Bar, the user is at the mercy of the developer.

All of that said, I’m fully aware that we are still in the early days of the Touch Bar. Best practices will emerge and I think Apple and others will do a more consistent job of implementing parts of applications to better work with swipes and taps.

At this point, though, I’m pretty cool on the whole thing. It’s very clever hardware, but it’s not changing the software world for this Mac user just yet.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]



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