MacBook branding is messy

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Apple’s branding of the MacBook is a hot mess, and I hope they clean it up. Let me explain.

For the last several years, Apple has bifurcated its laptop sales into two brands: The MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. It differentiated them by offering the MacBook Air as being less expensive, having lighter weight, and sporting all-day battery life. The MacBook Pro offered a superior screen, faster performance and more expansion options.

That changed in March of 2015, when the company resurrected the MacBook brand, dormant since the discontinuation of the polycarbonate-clad MacBook in 2010. In its previous incarnation, the MacBook was positioned as Apple’s entry-level model, a step down from the MacBook Air, but a system better suited for students and others looking for a value-priced, reasonably durable Mac laptop.

The 2015 MacBook flips that on its head. The new MacBook is positioned as the laptop of tomorrow. It sports twice the memory and twice the storage capacity of the Air, with a (smaller) Retina display like the MacBook Pro. It’s also a showcase for new technology like a different keyboard mechanism and Force Touch trackpad.

By making it even lighter and thinner than other Mac laptops, Apple also eliminated every external interface except a USB-C connector (shared by data and power) and a headphone jack. Otherwise, the assumption is that whatever you need to do can be done wirelessly either using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

The MacBook is also the first Mac laptop to follow Apple’s aesthetic direction for iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches: It’s available in different finishes like Space Gray, Silver and Gold.

All of this adds up to a very enigmatic product in Apple’s Mac line. The MacBook stands alone from the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. When looking at them side-by-side, buyers unfamiliar with the Mac line are often confused — why is the thinnest, lightest MacBook not a MacBook Air. After all, doesn’t “Air” mean it should be light?

So what’s the right answer? I don’t know. My expectation is that over time the lines between the products will blur as Apple incorporates more of the MacBook’s design and aesthetic into its other products. Maybe there won’t be a meaningful difference. Or maybe the MacBook Air will go away entirely. But right now, the MacBook sticks out like a sore thumb.

2015: The Apple year in review

Apple certainly wasn’t sitting still this year. Here’s a look back at the major accomplishments of Apple in 2015.

MacBook

Apple retired the “MacBook” mark in 2010 when the white polycarbonate-clad laptop was discontinued, offering only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro instead. The MacBook roared back to life in 2015, reimagined as a next-generation laptop designed to work entirely wirelessly.

The MacBook is Apple’s slimmest, lightest laptop, clocking in a hair over 2 pounds, equipped with a Retina display, Force Touch trackpad and a new keyboard that’s love it or hate it depending on your preference. It’s also a bit slower than the MacBook Air, thanks to the Core M processor inside — a lower-power, lower-speed variant of the processor used in other Macs.

Tim Cook has said that the MacBook is a look at the future of the laptop. Some design decisions, like using USB-C as the sole interface for power and external connectivity, haven’t been well-received, so we’ll see how much of this tech makes it into other Mac laptops over time.

MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

Apple’s other laptops got some attention in March, too. Apple updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display with a new generation of Intel processor and some other features too, and also bumped the MacBook Air with a gentle refresh. The 15-inch MacBook Pro followed later in May.

The Apple Watch

After much fanfare following its unveiling in late 2014, Apple released the Apple Watch. The device’s long-term impact to Apple’s product line and designs remains to be seen, but eight months after its initial release, Apple has increased the device’s distribution from just Apple retail stores to major retailers including Best Buy and Target too.

Apple isn’t sitting still with the Apple Watch — they’ve already revised the design to offer the popular Sport model in different finishes including Rose Gold, introduced with the iPhone 6S this fall, and has revised the operating system, watchOS, to version 2, loaded with new features.

Third-party developers are still trying to figure out how to incorporate Apple Watch app designs and functionality into their products. This is going to be a very interesting market to watch in 2016, when Apple will presumably introduce a new Apple Watch with new features, better performance and more functionality.

iOS 9 and El Capitan

Apple’s annual operating system upgrade cycle — a fixture for the last half-decade — continued unabated this year with iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 El Capitan. Both of them were introduced at WWDC in June, and saw public releases in the fall. iOS 9 and El Cap adoption have been good — it’s helped that this year was a real iterative change for both operating systems, not a major upheaval like iOS 8 and Yosemite.

iOS 9’s hallmark is “more intelligence:” Better contextual reminders, new ways to search and more effective Siri integration. A new News app gives you access to up-to-date info from your favorite sites, and a redesigned Notes app incorporates new features like drawing tools and the ability to include photos and images in notes.

El Cap’s performance is better thanks to some under-the-hood reworks. Core graphics technology is up to 40 percent better, Safari has been reworked and more. Apple’s also made apps like Notes, Maps, Mail, and Safari better than ever.

Apple Music

Apple had long bucked the trend toward music subscription services, but finally shook off that limitation in 2015 with the introduction of Apple Music. For $9.99 a month you get unlimited music streaming from Apple, and while the selection isn’t nearly as complete as the iTunes Store, there are millions of songs to listen to.

Apple sweetened the pot by offering new subscribers a 90 day trial version, and all indications are that it’s been hugely successful.

iPhone 6S

After introducing Force Touch with the MacBook and refreshed MacBook Air and MacBook Pro earlier in the year, Apple introduced the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus in September, revealing “3D Touch” as a new way to navigate the iOS interface. 3D Touch employs haptic feedback — force feedback — so you can “peek” and “pop,” dipping in and out of content without losing your place.

Live Photos record moments in time before and after the shot is taken, and the new 12 megapixel sensor on the new iPhones makes it possible to record 4K video.

Apple TV

Apple TV finally turned the corner in 2015 from a streaming video appliance to something more. The fourth-generation Apple TV debuted with a new remote — the Siri Remote, complete with Siri integration and a touchpad surface — and a lot of new functionality, including the ability to download apps from an Apple TV app store.

The new Apple TV costs more than its predecessor, but packs a much bigger punch. And if initial indications are any gauge, it looks like it’s off to a rousing start, although the rollout of apps to take advantage of the Apple TV has hit a few speedbumps along the way. 

iPad Pro

For the first time since the iPad mini was introduced, Apple’s changed the form factor of the iPad. The $799 iPad Pro features a 12.9-inch Retina display, the biggest iPad screen ever. What’s more, the iPad Pro showcases unique technology like support for the Apple Pencil, a pressure-sensitive stylus that enables you to draw and illustrate on the iPad Pro’s screen effortlessly; and the Smart Keyboard, a combination keyboard/iPad cover that uses a three-conductor interface on the iPad instead of Bluetooth for reliable communications and power.

iMac

The iMac got some much-needed attention in October with refreshed 21.5 and 27-inch models. 5K display is now standard across the 27-inch line, with a 4K model serving as the high end of the 21.5 inch line. 

Executive reshuffling

It wasn’t all product news at Apple this year. Some important behind-the-scenes stuff happened as well. In October the company elected former Boeing corporate president and CFO James Bell to the board of directors. Apple promoted Jeff Williams to the COO’s position, which had been vacant ever since Tim Cook took over at CEO following Steve Jobs’ retirement. Williams has been in control of Apple’s operations for some time, so this titular change doesn’t represent a new direction.

Apple also announced the appointment of Tor Myrhen, a creative from Grey New York, to the position of VP of Marketing Communications, replacing 18 year Apple veteran Hiroki Asai. Johny Srouji has been promoted to VP of hardware technologies after leading development of the A series processors used in Apple’s mobile devices.

And perhaps most tellingly, Apple senior VP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller’s role has been expanded to include management of the various App Stores Apple has has developed to support iOS and OS X. Some Mac app developers are hoping Schiller’s appointment will help to move some long-standing issues regarding Mac App Store policies and procedures, but we’ll see.

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.

IMac G4

 

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.

iPad and Mac Convergence isn’t the Answer, it’s about Seamless Workflow

I recently wrote an editorial for The Mac Observer after Tim Cook reacted to the suggestion that Apple would be heading iOS and OS X towards a singular user experience.

I argue that making workflow seamless is Apple’s end game here, not duplicating the iOS experience on the Mac.

iPad and Mac Convergence isn’t the Answer, it’s about Seamless Workflow

 

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