The iMac: A history of Apple’s whimsical design

Apple’s product design is elegant and sophisticated, but austere. Whether you’re holding a MacBook or an iPhone or an iMac, the best word to describe all of them is “thin.” And Apple seems intent on making them thinner each year.

The iMac, especially, has become a thing of hardened, severe beauty. I love the design, respect it a great deal, but I’m not as emotionally connected to it as I have been to past iMacs.

Apple’s VP of design has talked about making the interface invisible to the work, so it’s understandable that Apple would try to make the actual hardware interface itself as invisible as possible, too, reducing it to its core components.

But in the process, Apple’s lost some of the whimsy and joy that’s marked earlier product designs.

Take a look at early Macs. The beige boxes were designed to look like kitchen appliances — something unassuming, something inviting to use.

 

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In the late 1990s, Apple sought to reinvent itself. And it did it with a computer that was just fun to use – the iMac. An updated reinterpretation of the original Mac concept, the iMac included a color screen, CD/DVD reader and Internet connectivity, all built right in to a translucent shell that enabled you to see inside, to demystify how the computer worked.

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A few years later Apple would reinvent the iMac in flat screen trim, and this was the most imaginative, expressive, and creative case design yet. The iMac G4. Some people called it the “Luxo Jr,” in reference to a computer-animated desk lamp imagined in a short subject produced at Pixar, while others called it the “flower pot iMac.”

Any way you slice it, the iMac G4 was cute. With its optional speakers, it looked like a bug-eyed alien, especially when you opened up the tray-loading CD/DVD drive.

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The long march towards austerity turned the corner with the next generation, the iMac G5. It introduced the boxy flat shape we have today. Apple’s made it progressively leaner and bigger since then, until we ended up with 21.5-inch and 27-inch models with 4K and 5K displays.

No one questions that todays iMacs are light-years better than their predecessors. I just wish they still had some of the cheeky, humanistic fun of earlier models. Maybe some day. Not today.

 

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Should I upgrade my MacBook to El Capitan?

RR writes:

I have a 2009 Mac Book.  Will I get left behind if I don’t upgrade to El Capitan before the next upgrade comes out? All works well now.

Yeah, you’re going to be left behind. But you’re working with a six year old Mac – you should probably expect to be left behind. 

A lot of it depends on how your Mac is configured. Let me speak frankly: Your Mac isn’t getting any faster, and Apple’s moving the goalposts. Things like Metal in El Capitan won’t work on your older Mac. It uses Bluetooth 2.1, which makes it incompatible with some of the Handoff technology introduced in Yosemite that requires Bluetooth 4.0. 

Those are things that you’re not going to be able to patch around; those are just hard limits to what your Mac can do and where Apple’s moved OS X in the years since your Mac was released.

Bluetooth and graphics aren’t the only thing that’s changed. Today’s Macs (except for some iMacs and Mac minis) are almost all using solid state (PCIe-based SSD) storage, which makes a huge difference in overall performance.  What’s more, even the base-model MacBook Air comes with more RAM than your Mac did back in the day – your Mac probably equipped with 2GB RAM unless you ordered it with more or have upgraded it since then.
 
I have an 09 MacBook – a white polycarbonate model – that runs Mavericks great. I’ve upgraded it to 8GB RAM and replaced the internal hard drive with a 240 GB SSD from OWC (macsales.com). I have no intention of upgrading it to Yosemite or to El Capitan, because it works fine with its current configuration. I’ll probably run it into the ground this way and retire it when it stops working or when it’s no longer usable.
 
Your Mac was about $1000 new. You can spend a few hundred dollars, open it up and upgrade the RAM and replace the HD with an SSD — something you can’t do with today’s Macs — and kick the can down the road a bit. But you’re still not going to end up with a Mac that’s as fast or as well-equipped to manage the future as today’s models. A $999 MacBook Air is going to run circles around that thing in many ways, thanks to much faster storage and better integration with modern OS X technology. Plus you’ll get a full factory warranty and eligibility for AppleCare too.
 
El Capitan offers a host of improvements that make it a worthwhile upgrade, but only if your hardware is able to keep up. Reliability, interface adjustments and improvements to Handoff alone make it worth considering, but Apple’s plowed a lot of effort into making El Cap more productive than ever by streamlining how apps work and improving end-to-end connectivity.
 
It’s a good reason to replace your Mac with a newer model as the budgets allow. I fully understand that not all of us are in the position to buy a new Mac whenever the need suits, so as in all things your mileage may vary.
 

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Ten things to do with a new Mac

If you’ve never owned a Mac before, you’ve probably heard a lot about how much easier they are to use than PCs. But that doesn’t mean that everything is going to come naturally.

In my latest piece for Macworld, I break down ten of the things new Mac owners should start to do as soon as they can — everything from backing up your Mac using OS X’s built in Time Machine software to learning keyboard shortcuts to help make yourself more productive.

Ten things to do with your new Mac

 

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Why Apple hasn’t refreshed the Thunderbolt Display

Apple’s 27-inch Thunderbolt Display is its only external monitor. It’s compatible with all Macs, but it’s increasingly long in the tooth, and it’s due for a refresh. It’s been due for a while, and it’s creating frustration for some Mac owners.

The Thunderbolt Display offers up a finely-calibrated 27-inch IPS screen mated to a single cable that connects it to your Mac’s Thunderbolt port. It also sports four built-in powered USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, Gigabit Ethernet and a Thunderbolt port for you to daisy-chain another Thunderbolt device, like an external hard disk drive (or even another display).

 

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A single, thin, Thunderbolt cable connects the display to your Mac, and if you use a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro, a MagSafe cable lets you power your laptop up directly from the display.

So there’s a lot to recommend the Thunderbolt Display to Mac users, outside of the premium $999 price tag.

Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt Display is also showing its age. Apple’s design language for the device is antiquated – it looks a lot like an iMac of the same vintage — 2011 — but iMacs were revamped in 2012 to be dramatically skinnier and lighter. 

In the four years since the Thunderbolt Display was introduced, Apple’s incorporated Thunderbolt 2 across the product line. It’s also upgraded USB 2.0 to USB 3.0 (and, most recently, to USB 3.1), and it’s replaced MagSafe with MagSafe 2. (A MagSafe 2 adapter is included with the Thunderbolt Display).

Thunderbolt 2 allows for 4K resolution (3840 x 2160 or 4096 x 2160), but the Thunderbolt Display is still stuck with WQHD resolution – 2560 x 1440 pixels.

Making the Thunderbolt Display higher-resolution would sacrifice compatibility with older devices, but my experience is that most people who are buying these things are getting them for the newest Macs — Macs where legacy connectivity isn’t an issue.

Of course, the new hotness in Apple’s product line is 5K resolution, now a standard feature of the 27-inch iMac. 5K resolution over Thunderbolt will have to wait until Thunderbolt 3 makes its debut, but that will narrow the list of compatible Macs even further.

I’m hoping that Apple will release a 4K Thunderbolt 2 display without waiting for the world to get to Thunderbolt 3 — that’d be a nice refresh, and would surely provide a bit more peace of mind to Mac users dropping a thousand bucks on a new display.

Upgrading iMac RAM

Reader BW is planning to upgrade the RAM in his 2013 27-inch iMac and asks:

Can I use an uneven number of RAM slots or should I just buy 2 4GB RAM boards?”

Outside of a few early Mac Pro models, no Mac requires you to upgrade RAM in pairs. Each of the four SO-DIMM sockets on your 27-inch iMac’s motherboard can support either a 4 GB or 8 GB SO-DIMM, for maximum of 32 GB.

Matched pairs of memory can work faster than uneven SO-DIMMs, but you will gain more performance from a larger memory configuration than you will from a smaller, paired configuration.

So if you’d like to keep that other slot open for future upgrades, my recommendation is to go with an 8 GB SO-DIMM to boost your iMac to 16 GB total, leaving the four slot open for a possible upgrade to 24 GB at some point in the future, if necessary.


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Further down the road, the best bang for your buck for future upgrades may not be adding more memory. Unless you ordered this model with a Fusion drive, I’d recommend replacing internal hard drive with an SSD. SSDs cost a lot more per gigabyte but a ton of perfor

How to keep Facebook from wasting your iPhone battery

The Facebook app is a notorious battery hog, but that doesn’t stop millions of us from using it constantly to stay in touch with our social network.

I’ve given up on it for the most part. Instead, I use Facebook through Safari on the iPhone. Facebook looks and acts differently in a web browser than it does in the app, but Safari is much better behaved than the Facebook app.

Having said that, I understand why you might want to use the app instead. If you are using the app, I’d recommend turning off Background App Refresh to keep it from wasting too much juice.

To turn off Background App Refresh:

  1. Tap the Home button to return to the home screen.
  2. Tap Settings.
  3. Find Facebook’s settings. It’s grouped with other social media networks whose apps you may have installed, like Twitter, Flickr and Vimeo.
  4. Tap Settings.
  5. Set Background App Refresh to off.
  6. Tap the Home button to exit settings.

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Microsoft is not the enemy. They never have been

There’s this common fallacy that if you’re a Mac user — at least if you’re one of those Mac users — then it follows that you must hate Microsoft.

I remember a time when that was more accurate — in the 1990s, when Microsoft had plainly beaten Apple for dominance in enterprise, and Apple was on the ropes. Boy, it was fun to hate Microsoft then.

But even then, Microsoft wasn’t the enemy.

People forget that Microsoft was one of Apple’s first third-party Mac developers. Excel originated on the Mac, after all. Microsoft has been developing for the Mac for the last 30 years, and while their interest and support for the platform has waxed, waned, and waxed again over the years, they’ve never left it.

Many folks who buy a Mac now do so because they want to get away from Windows. They’ve had a hard transition from Windows 7 or 8 to 10, or have reliability or usage problems that they blame on Windows but which often have to do with the actual devices they’re using, and how they’re configured.

Even when they get away from Windows, though, these same customers are entirely dependent on workflows they’ve developed or their employers use which require Microsoft products, like Office, in order to use.

These days Microsoft supports the Mac with its Office 2016 product, which the company thoroughly publicly tested before launching it officially. And you can get office apps for your iPhone and iPad, making it possible to create an end-to-end workflow for home and business that makes it possible for you to do your work anywhere you have a device, whatever that device is.

In that respect, Microsoft is very much like Apple: They’re trying to put your work and your productivity ahead of the user experience. Make device and app use invisible, as it were, focusing solely on getting you what you need to get your work done.

At Apple’s iPad Pro introduction this September, one of the development partners that shared the stage with Apple was Microsoft. They showed off Office on the iPad taking advantage of iPad Pro-specific features. That Microsoft was there and figured as prominently as it did speaks loads about how important Apple still thinks that relationship is.