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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Clever, Powerful, Useful: Time to upgrade the Mac’s energy settings

Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.

Back in the olden days of the early 1990s, the Mac’s built-in power-management software was not great. Third-party apps filled the gap, the most impressive of which was Connectix PowerBook Utilities (CPU). As Adam Engst wrote 28 years ago(!):

CPU’s most important features are its power saving features, and these abound. First, you can easily configure the times to spin down the hard drive, rest the processor, dim the backlighting, and put the PowerBook to sleep. Second, you can activate any of these power-saving measures with a hot-key, so I often shut down the hard drive when it wasn’t doing anything because I enjoy working on a silent PowerBook… Finally, Connectix recognized that you use the PowerBook in different places, so you can create sets of settings.

(Centre for Computing History)

A lot of these features ended up in Mac OS, as they rightly should have, and CPU faded into oblivion. But I’ve been thinking about CPU a lot this week, after the 9to5Mac report that a “Pro Mode” may be coming to a future version of macOS. It seems to be a new setting that would decrease laptop battery life and increase fan noise in order to perform processor-intensive operations.

Fair enough. But as Marco Arment and Chance Miller pointed out last week, this feature seems to have missed the bigger opportunity on the other side of the coin: an iOS-style “Low-Power Mode” that would let MacBook users eke out longer battery life by tweaking settings, including disabling Turbo Boost on processors. A utility, Turbo Boost Switcher by Rugar Ciap (free; the pro version is $9), does this job—but throws up a warning suggesting that it might not be allowed to work with the next major version of macOS.

I’m all for the idea of a low-power mode for Macs1, and it’s a bit perplexing to see Apple prioritize turning off all battery-saving features and cranking the fans over letting users maximize battery life.

I do have a wacky idea, though. (You knew I would.) What if Apple used the introduction of Pro Mode to adjust the default performance settings of macOS laptops? Yes, raw benchmark scores would drop, but in exchange Apple could make more expansive battery-life claims. Users who demand the best performance from their pro laptops could enable Pro Mode, which would drain that battery quickly, but in general use the laptops would run cooler and quieter and last longer. What if the way Marco uses his MacBook Pro—with Turbo Bost Switcher turned on—were the default for everyone?

Of course, a better idea would be to provide users with more granular power-management controls, perhaps even with location-aware presets like Connectix PowerBook Utilities offered in the early 90s. I know that Apple’s tendency is to prevent users from fiddling with their computers’ settings in detail, but let’s be honest—the Energy Saver system preference pane is already an enormous collection of sliders and checkboxes. Adding a few more wouldn’t hurt anyone.

It’s not like this isn’t already a complex spot.

While we’re at it, can we finally add a Low Data Mode to macOS as well? For years I’ve extolled the virtues of TripMode, an $8 utility that lets you control what Mac apps have access to the Internet if you’re using a slow or metered connection. That’s a feature that should just be built into macOS, though perhaps not with the level of granularity that TripMode offers. (It’s a classic Mac approach to build a new feature with a very simple set of user options, and then allow third parties to offer more complex interfaces on top of that same feature for the users who really care—so the introduction of a Low Data Mode need not be the end of powerful apps like TripMode.)

Offering macOS apps better control over data usage would also perhaps open the door for cellular-equipped Mac laptops a bit wider. I’ve been using a cellular iPad Pro for the last few years, and I would never go back. The convenience of not having to tether to a phone or worry about the quality of the local Wi-Fi is worth the extra cost, and it’s a shame that MacBook users don’t have the chance to make that choice.

  1. I’d like one for iPads, too. 

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