All about Solid State Drives (SSDs)

Solid State Drives (SSDs) offer much better performance and reliability than the traditional spinning hard disk drive, which makes them an attractive option for computer users looking to get a bit more bang for the buck from their existing hardware. Got questions about SSDs? I’ve got answers.

SSD image

SSDs work differently than hard drives – inside are memory chips instead of moving parts, which is why they work so much faster than conventional drives. Memory prices have dropped dramatically in the past few years, which has lowered the price of high-capacity SSDs, making them a more budget-friendly upgrade solution than ever.

Lots of us have questions about SSDs, however. To help answer them, I’ve written a series of posts over at Backblaze. If you’re thinking about upgrading your current hardware, having trouble with an SSD, or need to get rid of one, I’ve got you covered.

Apple axes AirPort. Now what?

Writing for Bloomberg, Mark Gurman reported last week that Apple has disbanded the engineering group responsible for its AirPort network devices. Some pundits are using this as an example of Apple turning its back on historic customers, but I don’t think it’s quite true. The fact is that the wireless router market has moved much more in Apple’s direction over the years, and these devices just aren’t as important for most of us.

Airport devices

At the time Apple introduced AirPort networking gear, Wi-Fi was still a nascent technology. Apple gradually iterated its AirPort line to the current lineup we see today – the inexpensive AirPort Express, an 802.11n-equipped mini-router with AirPlay streaming audio capability, the faster (802.11ac-equipped) and more capable AirPort Extreme, and its hard drive-equipped counterpart, the Time Capsule. That’s where the product line still is, though it’s worth noting that Apple hasn’t touched any of these products since 2013, with the AirPort Express even further behind.

AirPort products are easy to configure and manage thanks to built-in software on the Mac (AirPort Utility is in every Mac’s Utilities folder). Apple also makes a free configuration tool available for download from the iOS App Store, to help iPhone and iPad users set up and maintain their AirPort products. And in fairness, AirPort products do make life a bit easier if you’re doing things like remotely access your Mac from outside your home network – a feature called “Back To My Mac” – or back up your Mac over the network using Time Machine, the built-in backup software Apple includes in macOS. The AirPort Express is also great if you want to stream music to a stereo system using AirPlay, Apple’s network media streaming tech.

Here’s the problem: Two of those three features I just mentioned are Mac-specific. And while it’s still responsible for generating billions of annual revenue dollars for Apple, the Mac is more and more of a sideline business compared to the iPhone. What’s more, AirPort devices are really expensive compared to the competition.

As I said at the outset, another problem is that non-Apple network gear doesn’t suck nearly as much as it used to. I’ve heard the phrase “Apple-like” applied to the setup and management of a number of different network routers over the past couple of years. It took a while, but even mainstream home networking companies have caught on to the fact that most consumers buying these things are looking for easy setup and as minimal management as necessary – basically plug in and forget.

Finally, the entire home networking market is changing with devices which support “mesh” networking. I won’t get into the difference between mesh networking and how AirPort devices work here, but if you’re interested, there’s a good feature on The Mac Observer which goes into more depth. The bottom line is that mesh networking provides better bang for the buck and more reliable service for many users than what Apple’s gear does.

Ironically, all this comes at a time when J.D. Power & Associates ranked Apple highest among wireless router manufacturers. I wonder if that news gave anyone at Apple pause?

This isn’t the first time that Apple’s walked away from peripheral business that some customers couldn’t imagine the company doing without. Years ago Apple stopped making its own branded printers. In the wake of that decision, Apple also improved support for third-party printers in the Mac operating system. Though it decided to revisit the proprietary route for iOS with “AirPrint” technology, which remains a requirement for printing from iPhones and iPads. More recently Apple stopped manufacturing its own external 27-inch Thunderbolt Display and announced there would be no replacement. Instead Apple’s sending business to LG, which manufactures a larger 5K display with Thunderbolt 3 ports – though it’s in extremely limited release right now.

All this points to Apple consolidating its focus to where it thinks its business is now and will be headed for the future. That’s creating discomfort for those of us who are accustomed to the status quo, but change is inevitable.

I just hope this change is for the better.

Black Friday gift ideas from the MacJury!

If you’re having trouble figuring out what to get techie folks on your holiday list this year, can I help? I teamed up with accessibility expert Dr. Robert Carter and wearer-of-many-hats Kelly Guimont (of Smile Software and The Mac Observer) for a recent appearance on The Mac Jury podcast, hosted by Chuck Joiner.

It was the first MacJury holiday gift guide of the 2016 season, so we had our pick of stuff to choose from. If you don’t have the time or interest in firing up the video, I’ll save you the trouble. Here are my picks:

Beats Solo3 Wireless Headphones (More specifically, the purple ones – the “Ultraviolet” collection, currently an Apple Store exclusive, I believe) – $299, and they come in purple. Sooo pretty.

Flybrix – build your own quad, hex or octocopter drones using LEGO bricks. You control it with an app on your iPhone or Android phone, tho a deluxe kit includes a game-controller-style apparatus. A really cool idea for LEGO enthusiasts and DIYers.  – $189.

Seagate Backup Plus 5TB Portable Drive – Biggest single-drive portable drive on the market, using a 2.5-inch BarraCuda mechanism. $189.

NES Classic – It looks like the original Nintendo Entertainment System, only smaller, but works with modern TVs and has 30 games built in. $59. Assuming you can find one. Because it is HOT HOT HOT.

 

The History of Hard Drives

I had a huge amount of fun writing A History of Hard Drives for Backblaze. It’s a look back at the six-decade history of the spinning hard disk drive, and a peek at what’s to come.

History of hard drive 768x432

Hard to believe, but 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of the hard drive, which debuted with IBM’s RAMAC system back in 1956. The first commercial hard drive had less than 5 MB of storage capacity and was bigger than a refrigerator. Now you can cram terabytes onto a postage stamp-sized SD card.

This piece has some special meaning for me, because my first job “in the business,” as it were, was doing tech support for a storage peripheral maker called Micronet Technology, back in the late 1980s. We used Seagate and Connor hard drive mechanism, put them in SCSI-equipped external chassis, and sold them to Mac users. We were an early advocate of RAID, too, though it was entirely software-based.

Anyway, check it out. There are some fun facts along the way.

Apple to creative pros: Go f*** yourselves

For decades the Mac has been the choice of creative professionals. Graphic designers, photographers, videographers, musicians, writers, artists of all stripes have loved the Mac. They love the ease of use, the robustness of the operating system and the third-party apps, products, and services that work with it. As Apple has pivoted to become the biggest consumer electronics company in the world, it has shown an increasing indifference to the needs and desires of the creative community.

Effyou 2

This trend isn’t new. Apple upset video pros years ago when it pivoted from Final Cut Pro 7 to Final Cut Pro X, a complete rewrite of its pro video editing software that changed its workflow and broke compatibility with third-party tools on which an entire industry depended. The reaction from videographers was to hoard FCP7 licenses to the best of their ability to continue to support the systems and workflows they’d spent years and millions of dollars (collectively) to develop.

The company allowed its heaviest iron, the Mac Pro, to languish for years with only minor refreshes to keep it chugging along. Then in 2013 the company introduced a completely reinvented Mac Pro. “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” was the retort from Apple VP Phil Schiller when he introduced the new Mac at an Apple event. And it was an innovative device – a turbine-shaped parallel-processing monster designed for people who needed to crunch a lot of data quickly. As well-suited to engineers and scientists calculating huge data arrays as it was towards creative pros working with high-res photos, 4K video, multiple tracks of high bit-rate audio and more.

The Mac Pro hasn’t been touched with any sort of in-line refresh since then. Three years ago. Even the “cheese grater” Mac Pro that preceded the current “Trash Can” model saw occasional updates with new graphics cards and CPUs.

Apple just introduced an updated MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is thinner and faster than ever before and Apple vaunts the Touch Bar as a huge advance forward for creative professionals, but in other respects, it’s fallen short. It’s limited to 16 GB RAM, for example – a critical shortcoming for some creative pros working with really large files and multiple applications. It can’t connect to the huge number of USB and Thunderbolt peripherals already in use without using ugly, expensive “dongles.” Why apply the “Pro” appellation if this isn’t, in fact, aimed at pros?

Word emerged yesterday that Apple had eliminated the position of its manager of user automation, Sal Soghoian. Sal is well known in creative and developer communities. A creative pro himself, Sal came to Apple almost 20 years ago after realizing how powerful user scripting tools like AppleScript could be. Sal once shared Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference stage with Steve Jobs to introduce Automator, a key scripting tool developed by Apple.

On his own Web site, Soghoian points out that there’s no shortage of automation and scripting technology still built in to the Mac: “UNIX CLI (shell, python, ruby, perl), System Services, Apple Events (JavaScript, AppleScript, AppleScriptObj-C, Scripting Bridge), Automator, Apple Configurator (AppleScript, Automator), and Application scripting support in Photos, iWork, Finder, Mail, and other Apple applications.”

What’s going to happen to automation technology in macOS going forward, however, is anyone’s guess. Apple’s decision to eliminate the position of the one person who was shepherding the technology does not speak well of its priorities.

Twenty years ago, when Soghoian started at Apple, Apple was in a very different place than it is now. It was before the iPhone, before the iPod, even before the iMac. Apple was on the rocks, having been beaten pretty badly in the personal computer market by Microsoft. The company was months away from running out of money and possibly shutting down or selling off to the highest bidder. Creative pros were one of the very few market segments that were even interested in Apple anymore. Apple knew that and counted on them to help keep the home fires burning.

Those same customers seemingly aren’t enough of a market for Apple to bother with anymore. Which brings to mind an old aphorism: “If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will.”

Screw Apple’s $300 coffee table book! Buy this one instead

Apple has announced a new coffee table book focusing on its past two decades of design. It’s coming in two editions for $200 and $300 respectively. If you have more money than sense, knock yourself out. Otherwise, if you want such a book but don’t want to pay a ridiculous, insulting price for it, pick up Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation. You can find it on Amazon for less than $50.

Iconic

Jonathan Zufi’s labor of love is gorgeously shot, and doesn’t just cover the last 20 years – you’ll find Apple II products, eMates and other goodies in here from decades past (the classic Mac from the mid-80s on the cover should give you some indication). It was first published in 2013, so you won’t find the very latest Apple products, but it’s still great. I have a copy, it’s beautiful.

The reason I bring this up is because, quite frankly, I find Apple’s new release to be insufferably insulting. A linen-bound coffee table book for $200 or $300 (if you pick up the Plus/Pro-sized version) is out of reach for most people. It’s baffling to me that Apple thinks this is a good idea, but this is the same company that (briefly) came out with a $10,000 version of its $300 watch.

Apple makes gorgeous products and regularly disrupts the markets it’s in by offering devices and software that are cleverly designed, intuitive and easy to use. They also have a long-standing reputation for being elitist and expensive toys, catering to people who value style over substance. That’s been disproven time and again: The iPhone is no more expensive than other premium smartphones. The Mac is a better value dollar for dollar than equivalent PCs.

But selling a book with pictures of your own products for $300 fits into that elitist narrative. It’s tone-deaf and more than a little dumb.

MacJury: Ultimate Music Streaming

I recently had the pleasure to talk with Chuck Joiner and John Voorhees for an episode of the popular MacJury podcast. We talked about the state of streaming music services, and what the future might hold, so please listen in. Or if you like the bald(ing) white guy look, you can watch the video (embedded below). I call it “Attack of the Lobots.”

How to add Bluetooth to a car with a cassette player

If you have an older car without a Bluetooth connection or without an auxiliary input, it’s easy to spend a lot of money getting it up to snuff. You can easily blow a grand having a CarPlay-equipped third-party stereo installed professionally. But you don’t have to do that. Bluetooth can be added for pennies these days. Here’s how.

For a 12-year-old sedan, things looked grim. It had an AM/FM receiver, a tape deck, and a CD player, but no way to receive input from an iPhone – no Bluetooth support, certainly, and no auxiliary input either. The days of having an FM transmitter module plugged into the iPhone are long behind us. What to do?

That’s when I learned of Ion’s Bluetooth Cassette Adapter, a $20.99 device that does the job just fine. It’s a Bluetooth receiver that pairs with your iPhone, but it fits in the tape deck and the stereo thinks it’s a tape: audio is piped through the tape input.

Ion Bluetooth Cassette Adapter

The device has a built-in battery that lasts for 4-5 hours at a stretch and can be recharged using a micro USB cable (included). It also has a nifty built-in microphone if you need it.

Sound quality is fine – it’s Bluetooth, and all that goes with that, but you’re in the car, so you’re dealing with wind, road noise, engine noise and all other manner of distraction, so I don’t think you can really get into a meaningful discussion of audiophile quality for a $20 adapter.

Syncing is painless. As near as I can tell, though, there’s no multi-device syncing, so in order to pair it with a second iPhone (say, switching from driver to passenger) you need to disconnect the first iPhone using its Bluetooth setting, if it’s still in range.

It works as advertised and does exactly what I needed it to do. So if you’re still driving a car or truck with a tape deck, you may be in luck with a cheap Bluetooth fix.

Bonus tip: If Bluetooth doesn’t work for you, or if the idea of having to charge yet another device leaves you cold, there’s another solution that also works with cassette decks, and it’s even cheaper: The $7.99 Besdata cassette adapter sports a wired 3.5 mm connection which plugs into your headphone jack. Assuming your phone still has one of them. 😉

Background Mode with John Martellaro

I recently had the great pleasure to talk with John Martellaro of The Mac Observer for a new episode of the Background Mode podcast. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s how TMO describes the show: “Join John Martellaro every week for fascinating interviews with tech industry pros and luminaries. It’s more than a show about what they do; it’s about who they are.”

My own personal background is as a first-gen home computer geek, so that’s where we started. We talked about Apple’s current events, too. And we kept it to a very reasonable 33 minutes, so there’s a minimum of bloviation, I promise.