Issue 2 - January 2016
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FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK / by Jason Snell

The life of a server

Jason Snell

Welcome to the second issue of the Six Colors Magazine. I'm writing this column from my iPad Pro, sitting in bed watching the rain pour down outside. One of the advantages of working at home is that I can make the commute without setting a foot on the floor--but one of the disadvantages is that the entirety of my work is always a device away.

The largest item in this month's magazine is my summary of your responses to the 2015 Apple Report Card survey I sent out late last month. It's the mirror version of the story I posted on Six Colors earlier this month, but this time it contains the ratings and voices of you subscribers, rather than the two dozen pundits in the original story. Thanks to all the subscribers who participated in the survey!

Over the New Years holiday, I spent an hour working on a project I detailed on Six Colors--upgrading the drive in my home server. At some point I'll write more details about the server for the site, but every time I mention the tech I use at home, I am surprised at the curiosity of readers, so I thought I'd share a little bit more about the story here.

My server is a 2011 Mac mini, bought to replace an older model--I've been using a Mac mini a server for a very long time now, and used older Macs (including a couple of Power Mac G3s) to do the job before that. My motivations for running a home server have changed over the years. It's like my server has had many careers (and many enclosures) over the years, always changing and growing and adapting to my needs at the time.

I started running a home server as a way to test Mac OS X Server. I used it to host for all my intertext.com web and email services. Over a slow DSL line. (It was probably a terrible idea.)

Over time, my server needs have changed. With the exception of things like my home weather station, I've moved web services off to a dedicated server. My email is entirely off-site as well. Today, the server's jobs are these:

  • Attach to a huge disk, namely a Drobo 5D array
  • Act as file server so I can use that disk from my iMac to store old podcast files and stuff
  • Run WeatherCat to talk to my weather station and generate all the data and webpages I want, and even fire off alerts to IFTTT to change the color of my light bulbs.
  • Run Plex to serve my local video files to my TiVo Roamio and fourth-generation Apple TV
  • Run Logitech Media Server for my rapidly aging collection of Squeezebox music players
  • Run Sonos Server for the new Sonos music players I'm testing to replace my Squeezeboxes
  • Act as a Time Machine server for my iMac. (Yes, I bought the OS X Server add-on.)
  • Run CrashPlan to back up all the data on the Drobo
  • Run iTunes so I can access my iTunes library from other devices, especially handy when my Internet connection is slow or down

I'm probably forgetting something. It does a lot of little jobs.

If I were starting from zero today, I'd seriously consider buying a NAS--a network-attached storage device, essentially a computer and hard drive array in one--rather than a Mac mini with a giant attached hard drive. These days, NAS devices can do most of the media serving and backup tasks that a Mac mini can do. But still, I'm much more comfortable with administering a Mac. And I'd rather not leave my 5K iMac running at all times in order to serve the rest of my household, so a second Mac it is.

I've been frustrated with how slow the Mac mini was for the last few years. The bottom line is, spinning hard drives are slow, and the drive in this Mac mini wasn't particularly fast to begin with. These days, there is no single upgrade you can do to a Mac to make it run faster than swapping out a spinning hard drive with an SSD.

In the end, I added the SSD rather than just swapping it in for the existing hard drive. My Mac mini model has room for two hard drives, and so I bought a kit from iFixit that allowed me to add the SSD as a second drive. Then I formatted the drives together as a sort of do-it-yourself Fusion Drive.

Fusion Drive is an Apple concept--it fuses a fast SSD and a slow spinning disc together into a single volume, and then the operating system puts your most commonly used files on the SSD and your less-used, larger files on the spinning disc. It's a clever idea, and it works pretty well. (You can get links to the instructions I used, and the products I bought, from the original Six Colors story.)

In the end, my Mac mini was completely transformed. I can't say it's for everyone, but it works for me and I'm glad I have it! Doing the upgrade was harrowing, but in the end, it was a lot cheaper than buying a new Mac mini equipped with an SSD or a Fusion Drive.

[Got a comment about this or something else? Drop me a line at jsnell@sixcolors.com.]

What I Use

By Dan Moren

When in Hawaii, do as the Hawaiians do.

In my case, during my ten-day vacation in the Hawaiian Islands earlier this month, that meant stepping away from technology a bit. But in this day and age, you can’t escape it entirely. While I ended up leaving my MacBook Air at home, I still had plenty of gadgets: I brought along my iPhone 6s, my Apple Watch, my iPad Air 2, and a Bluetooth keyboard, just in case the writing mood struck me.

In the end, it was the iPhone 6s that got the biggest workout, unsurprisingly. From taking many pictures and videos (which prompted me to make a return to Instagram after a long absence), to using Maps to get from place to place in our rental car, to relying heavily on Yelp for being able to find great places to eat, the iPhone was indispensable. (And of course, Dark Sky, for being to avoid oncoming tropical downpours.)

Surprisingly not so useful was the iPad, which ended up mostly serving as a watching device during the long flights to and from the islands. My go-to apps on the tablet ended up being GoodReader, in which I stored some videos I’d ripped from my DVD collection, and Transmit, which I used before our return voyage to load up some additional TV shows downloaded from my server at home. The Bluetooth keyboard I used not at all on the entire trip—but better to have it and not need it than need it not have it, I suppose.

The major technological challenge was making sure the iPhone had enough power to last for the day. My 6s really chews through its battery—my girlfriend’s iPhone 6 fared slightly better—but having a cable for charging in the car was key, as was my Belkin travel power strip and its two USB ports. A portable battery pack (the same Limefuel model I took to Portugal last year) proved likewise crucial.

But the biggest help was actually iOS 9’s Low Power Mode, which I gave a workout for the first time. Enabling it via Settings > Battery when I dropped down to single-digit battery life towards the end of the day prolonged my iPhone’s life just enough to ensure that I never actually ran the phone down to empty on the entire trip. Color me impressed.

And while my feelings about the Apple Watch haven’t changed much in the last year, I did find its activity tracking to be a great way to record exactly what we did every day. A few multi-mile hikes is a great way to not only double your activity goals, but also an easy way to rack up those 10,000 steps per day.

I suppose I wasn’t as disconnected from technology as I might have liked—you never are these days, with the Internet at your fingertips; the trick is ensuring that it enhances your experience of the world instead of distracting you from it.

[Any favorite apps when you’re traveling or on vacation? Let us know!]

Photo credit: Kathryne Benesh.

By Request: Apple Report Card

By Jason Snell

As I shared with subscribers exclusively on New Year's Eve, late last year I conducted a survey of two dozen Apple watchers to generate a "report card" on Apple in 2015. At that time, I offered all of you a chance to chime in on the survey.

The results were interesting. As I noted in my full story on the survey results, your scores were a bit higher than my celebrity panel's, but if I ranked the 11 categories from best to worst, the ranking order was identical. (I've since opened the poll up to all Six Colors readers, and the scores from the general public are somewhere in between those of subscribers and the celebrity panel, but the ranking order remains intact. Perhaps we're on to something.)

My story on Six Colors summarized some of the feedback in each category, using quotes from participants to add some color. I thought it would be fitting to do the same for the thoughts of Six Colors subscribers. Almost 100 subscribers took part in this survey, with most results coming in on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day.

The Mac

Grade: B+. (Average score: 3.8, median score: 4.)

A lot of you had comments about the new Photos app, introduced in 2015. Debby C. said it was "not nearly as user friendly as iPhoto was." John S. cited "a rough start" but liked Apple adding back missing features and stability with the El Capitan update. Barry F. said Photos was "the single most important app and development of the year."

There was general disappointment in the pace of improvement in the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro models, probably owing in part to Intel's delays in getting the new Skylake chips out. Still, what was there got praise: Bill H. said the 13" Retina MacBook Pro was "the closest thing to perfection" he'd experienced, and Jared W. called it "a dream machine."

Feelings about the new MacBook were more mixed, with some people praising Apple for pushing boundaries while others--and sometimes the same people!--complained about the keyboard and single USB-C port. Donald P. wrote: "The MacBook was another bold step in which Apple removed something we deem so important: integrated USB ports. They are probably onto something, I thought it was terrific, but I know it wasn't for everyone."

In general, though I sense a lot of anticipation for Skylake and Thunderbolt 3/USB-C hardware in 2016.

The iPhone

Grade: A. (Average score: 4.4, median score: 5.)

People love their iPhones. There's no doubt about it. There were a few complaints here and there--some comments about the camera not being good enough, and a bunch of complaints that Apple needs to do better with battery life! I won't argue that point at all. John S. wrote: "Force touch is great, but more third party developers have to add features to their apps to make it a success." Matthew L. write: "There could definitely be some improvement to iOS 9, especially in the setup process."

Valeri was disappointed that iOS dumbed down the Apple Podcast app--a complaint I've heard from quite a few people recently. Marc R. noted that "there's room for a 4-inch model," which I'll also second--and the rumor is, there might be one at some point soon.

The iPad

Grade: B+. (Average score: 3.9, median score: 4.)

Lots of love in this category to the iPad Pro update, though a lot of you don't seem to feel it's the right iPad for you. Also, people generally appreciated the iOS 9 updates that were iPad specific. "I'm glad that iOS is finally getting some iPad-centric features," wrote Ivan T. But the most mainstream iPad is the iPad Air 2, and there was no iPad Air 3 this year--which rankled a bunch of you. "I would have liked to seen a refresh of the Air this year to keep its hardware similar to the Pro," wrote Matthew L. "The main product line should have been updated," wrote Dan W., also noting that's he'd buy an iPad Air 3 if it supported the Apple Pencil.

Six Colors subscribers seem to run the gamut from people who do most of their work on iOS to those who have very little time for an iPad when a Mac will do the job. "It will never replace my Mac for work, but now it functions as my only non-work computer," wrote Magnus. "I can definitely see the iPad Pro taking over as a general workhorse," wrote Ronnie. If your comments are any indication, an iPad Air 3 with iPad Pro-like specs (and support for the Apple Pencil) might be quite a hit.

Cloud services

Grade: C. (Average score: 2.9, median score: 3.)

Everyone from subscribers to pundits pretty much agrees on this -- Apple's cloud-services story is a work in progress. "Still not trusting this," wrote Alfie S. "Convoluted and confusing," wrote David P. "Nervousness about weird quirks," wrote Joseph R.

Still, there's a silver lining. "Seems to be very app dependent--some are lightning fast and consistent, others not so much," wrote Emory P. "I think I'm the only person who has no problems with iCloud!" wrote Chris H. "iCloud Drive and Photos backup are awesome," wrote Paul N.

Then there's Apple Music, which seems to have been positively received, though iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library are still problematic. "A horror show," wrote Alex H., and several people cited Jim Dalrymple's rants about what iCloud Music Library did to his music collection as a reason for concern. (I have to admit, I've recently run into some problems similar to Jim's, where live tracks are transmuted into studio versions, or bowdlerized "clean" versions have been substituted for the uncensored versions I bought. Not cool.)

Paul M. wrote something that strikes me as being a pretty fair summary: "I like Apple's ambition here, and I think they hit more than they missed." Still, there's a lot more work to be done--ambition is nice, but then you've got to deliver, and consistently. Maybe 2016 will be the year that Apple builds more trust in its cloud service offerings.

Apple TV

Grade: B. (Average score: 3.6, median score:4.)

The fourth-generation Apple TV, long rumored to be in development, finally arrived in 2015. And generally, people who bought one said they were happy with it--with a few caveats. "Can't give it a 5 with the state of the current remote and searches," wrote John S. "I like it, but it could be more compelling," wrote Dan W. "Needs a little polish," wrote David R.

Of course, a bunch of you are happy Roku owners, and fail to see what the new Apple TV offers that the Roku doesn't. (I've got an Amazon Fire TV Stick myself, which is pretty great, especially for travel. And it does everything the Apple TV does, more or less.) A lot of people cited the Siri Remote, the lack of a Remote app for iOS at launch, and a limited supply of new apps as other reasons to feel mixed about the Apple TV.

I'm gonna let Paul M. do the summary for this category, too: "Also a lot of promise--feels like a 1.0 product." Or as Alex M. wrote, "I'm excited about the possibility of where the new Apple TV is headed... but so far it's been thoroughly underwhelming."

As with our panel of pundits, you get the sense that in a lot of these categories, the general sentiment is that you're glad Apple is striking out in new directions with new products, but that 2016 needs to be about tightening the screws and smoothing the finish on these products.

HomeKit

Grade: D. (Average score: 1.8, median score: 2.)

The low score in all our surveys! HomeKit was announced by Apple at WWDC in 2014. At WWDC in 2015, basically zero HomeKit products had shipped. A few have, now, but it's been a hard road, and that was reflected in the scores.

John S. has optimism: "HomeKit has its bugs, but once you suffer through setting it up, it's amazing." But Ben G. called it "a flaky disaster" and David M. wrote that it's "too immature to be a real product." Interoperability with existing equipment is definitely a problem, as Tedd L. wrote: "My home is fully automated, but not with anything compatible with HomeKit." Me too, Tedd.

Let's have Matt L. wrap up this category: "Go big or go Homekit."

Hardware Reliability

Grade: A. (Average score: 4.6, median score: 5.)

The top scorer across all our voters. For all the quibbles and constructive criticism of Apple, it's hard to deny how solid the company's hardware processes are.

"I would not go with any other company on hardware, because Apple's products are overall the most reliable I have ever used," wrote Paul N. "The quality of their hardware is unmatched," wrote John S. "Best in the industry," wrote Jared W. "Close to perfect," wrote Arnie S. "Still the best in the business," wrote Tedd L. And the beat goes on.

Developer Relations

Grade: C-. (Average score: 2.5, median score: 2.)

Most of you aren't developers, so generally I think the scores here come from the coverage you read on sites like this one about the issues facing Apple developers. So is it any surprise that the score echoes that of the celebrity panel? There's definitely a lot of unease in the Apple developer community. A bunch of you said you hoped Phil Schiller's takeover of the App Store would lead to better conditions for developers. And many of you pointed out--quite rightly, in my opinion--that the Mac App Store needs some love.

Environmental and social impact

Grade: A. (Average score: 4.5, median score: 5.)

This is a funny category. Tim Cook's Apple has made a big enough deal out of using Apple's prominence to promote social issues and also create products that are environmentally friendly that it seems like fair game. At the same time, it's a bit far afield from the core of what makes Apple successful.

Still, the perception is that Tim Cook's Apple "cares a lot," as Debby C. wrote. "Sets the standard," wrote Mark Y. Or as Ted C. wrote: "Hard for a multinational, publicly-traded company to do more than Apple is doing. The work to improve the lives of people who support the supply chain are admirable, and I love the focus on privacy."

Software quality

Grade: C+. (Average score: 3.2, median score: 3.)

Responses for this one were all over the place. "Suffering from a lack of polish," wrote Mike S. "A really mixed bag," wrote Joseph R. Generally, I'd have to say that people feel like Apple is turning this around, but that there's a whole lot more to do. Wrote David R.: "I'm surprised I'm saying this, but they should slow down their releases and improve the quality. It's not bad, just not 'Apple Good'."

A bunch of people also complained about inconsistent updated to first-party software, most notably the iWork apps.

Comment on Apple Watch

Grade: C. (Average score: 3.1, median score: 3.)

Your comments about the Apple Watch were very much like the comments our pundit panel provided: A whole lot of you are using the Apple Watch and still like it, but have come to terms with the fact that it doesn't as much as you'd hoped and that there's a lot of room for improvement, especially on the software side.

"I really enjoy receiving texts on it for the convenience of not taking my 6s Plus out of my purse so much," wrote Debby C. "It's the epitome of a version 1 product... then again, I wear mine every day," wrote Chris H. "Good start, but even watchOS 2 frustrates and underperforms," wrote Dan W. "Good start--so much untapped potential," wrote Mark Y. "Beautiful and does a few things well... and many other things poorly," wrote Clinton M.

Donald P. wrote: "I finally got the watch... I was incredibly skeptical for a fanboy. I loved Apple's narrative: it help keep us from the incessant checking of our devices. A technology to solve a technology problem I didn't want to admit I had. I have now had my phone on mute for nearly a month with the use of my Apple Watch. Any phone call, text or approved notification I get comes to be in the form of a silent tap. Making a cup of tea? I get to ask Siri to remind me not to over-steep. I'm loving it!"

Thanks to everyone who filled out the survey. I appreciate your participation in this first-ever Six Colors Report Card! Let's make a note to do it again next year.

[Do you have a request for an article in Six Colors Magazine? Send it to jsnell@sixcolors.com and we'll consider it for the next issue.]

The Back Page / by Dan Moren

Privacy Trade

Dan Moren

Okay, government: how about a trade? You seem to badly want the ability to access the encrypted data on the devices we all carry around these days. Frankly, I’m not sure why: maybe you’re really interested in listening to my copy of The Force Awakens soundtrack, or seeing all those Hawaii pictures I haven’t posted yet, or maybe you just want to check out where I stalled out on Alto’s Adventure. (Stupid wingsuit challenges.) Well, fine. You can have it all. But we’re going to need a little something from you in exchange.

It seems only fair that if you’re going to have access to all our phones and data that we should have access to all of your phones and data. And by you, I mean the politicians who are pushing this as an agenda item in this upcoming year of elections. After all, you are our duly-elected representatives and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

This shouldn’t be too big a deal, right? I mean, if you don’t have anything to hide, why should you be worried about us seeing it? All of your emails and correspondence is supposed to be publicly available anyway, right? So it’s not like you’d try to make an end-run around the system by switching to a more difficult-to-archive medium, like Snapchat or phone calls. You also probably wouldn’t try to obfuscate exactly what you’re talking about by using code words like “fluffy unicorns” instead of “budget cuts” or “cupcakes” instead of “healthcare.”

Heck, you probably wouldn’t even stop using your cell phone altogether once you learned that all that information was easily accessible because, you know, that’s just the kind of people you are: upstanding, honest people with nothing at all to hide. That’s why we elected you of all people.

I know you might feel a little apprehensive about this deal, but don’t worry: we’re only going to use these powers for good. I mean, we’ll have access to all that data you keep on your phone, but it’s not like we’re going to post your personal pictures to Instagram, or steal your credit card and banking information. Because we too are the upstanding, honest populace that you believe us to be. Trust us.

So, how about it, government? Do we have a deal? Or is there some reason why perhaps you might not want to compromise the security of your personal devices and information for strangers to poke through? If so, I’m sure we’d all love to hear it.

[Dan Moren's back page column won't always be ridiculous. Only sometimes. You can reach him at dan@sixcolors.com.]

Stories you may have missed

Here are links to some of the more notable Six Colors stories from the last month.

iOS gestures you may not have known

Jason details a whole bunch of iOS gestures you probably don't know--and they'll save you time.

Adventures in DVD authoring

Dan tries to figure out how to burn a video DVD on today's OS X. Harder than it looks.

Apple in 2015: The Six Colors report card

How Apple did in 2015, as judged by 24 Apple pundits.

Puzzle solved: A faster Mac mini server

Jason takes apart his Mac mini server and adds an SSD to make it much more usable.

Programming BB-8: Our best Christmas present gets better

A clever iOS app lets you program the Sphero BB-8 droid.

Our favorite things: iOS apps

18 of our favorite iOS apps of 2015.

How Android Wear fares on the iPhone

Checking in on the Apple Watch's competition... when connected to an iPhone.

Our favorites: Mac apps

A bunch of our favorite Mac apps.

Thus ends the January 2016 issue of Six Colors Magazine. Send your feedback to jsnell@sixcolors.com. Feel free to pass this issue on to a friend or two if you like. If you're not a Six Colors subscriber and you're reading this, please subscribe!
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