My Apple problem

I spent a little time checking out Apple’s new MacBook Pro today, and from my cursory inspection in an Apple Store I can confirm that it’s a very nice computer. It’s also an $1,800-and-up computer, and I am not an $1,800-and-up shopper in this category of hardware.

macbook-air-touchbar-closeupI’m more of a $1,000-ish guy, and Apple doesn’t seem to want such a small sum of money. At that price, the company has nothing new to offer–the MacBook Air saw its last update 621 days ago. But Apple continues to price that model as if it were new.

(I’m not counting the single-port MacBook, because a computer that makes me choose between recharging itself and recharging my phone will never work for CES.)

While Apple neglects the more-affordable end of its laptop lineup, Windows vendors have been doing some interesting work. Many Windows laptops include not just touchscreens but the ability to fold up the laptop into a tablet for easy economy-class use.

And some Windows laptops also include Windows Hello biometric login–like the TouchID authentication on the MacBook Pro, except you don’t have to pay $1,800 for it.

All this means that my next laptop is far more likely to be something like a Lenovo Yoga 910 or an HP Spectre x360 than a Mac. That feels weird–I’ve been buying Macs as a primary computer for over two decades--but to ignore what’s happening on the other side of the fence would make me less a shopper than a supplicant.

The other weird thing is, what I think I’d miss most from the Mac is a feature that’s seen little attention from Apple over the past few years: Services. That little menu you see in each app and when you right-click items in the Finder saves me an enormous amount of time each occasion it provides a two-click word count or image resizing. If only Apple would know this exists…

Meanwhile, Windows 10 suffers the embarrassing defect of not allowing separate time zones in its calendar app. Microsoft, too, shows no signs of being aware that this problem exists.

So if I get a Windows machine, how much will I regret it? If I get another MacBook Air, how much of a chump will I feel like for throwing even more money in Apple’s direction?

 

Notes on macOS Sierra

I’m now just over a fortnight into using Apple’s macOS Sierra, and I can report that it’s not enough time to get used to that name’s oddball capitalization. The past two weeks have, however, allowed me to come to some conclusions and form some questions about this operating-system update.

macos-sierra-logoThe pleasant disk-space mystery: Both times I’ve installed Sierra–an uneventful 50 minutes on my 2012 MacBook Air, an absurd three hours and change on my 2009 iMac–the OS has rewarded me with multiple gigabytes of free space. The MacBook, which was getting so close to full that I had to delete several gigs’ worth of data to install Sierra at all, gained 17 GB, while the iMac got an extra 18 GB back.

I do have the MacBook set to back up its Documents and Desktop folders to iCloud (neither contain enough data to threaten iCloud’s meager 5 GB quota of free space), but that comes nowhere near explaining the newly-liberated volume. And although Sierra doesn’t count “purgeable” files–synced files and media, rarely-used fonts and dictionaries, and other items that the system can always re-download after deletion–the totals of purgeable data listed in the info boxes for each startup disk don’t come close to explaining the discrepancy either.

macbook-storage-about-boxUniversal Clipboard is kind of magical: When I copy something from my iPad, I can paste it into my MacBook and vice versa. This wireless copy-and-paste feature neatly solves an everyday problem of switching between a mobile device and a “real” computer, and the fact that it’s happened with zero fuss amazes me. (I hope I haven’t just jinxed it.)

My iMac, however, is cut off from Universal Clipboard, as it’s a good three years too old. Once again, Apple: I’ll think about buying a new model when you don’t charge me 2016 prices for designs barely changed from 2014.

Search snafus: On both computers, a search in the Calendar app for events that I know exist–like conferences I’ve attended every year since 2010–now fails to show results older than late 2014 in my Google-hosted calendars. Sierra knows these older events exist, because Spotlight searches still find them. A post in Apple’s tech-support forums cites an unnamed Apple rep as saying this is a bug that should be fixed, which I hope is true. I also hope somebody in Apple PR replies to the e-mail I sent Wednesday asking about this.

Meanwhile, Mail has developed its own annoying habit of bouncing back to the oldest messages in my inbox after I cancel out of a search. I trust that’s a bug too, because I cannot think of many search use cases that conclude with the user thinking “now I would like to see my correspondence from 2011.”

siri-in-sierraStuff I haven’t tried much yet: I know that Siri leads off Apple’s pitch for Sierra, but I only really need one personal-assistant app–and that app serves me best on the device I carry most often, my Android phone. I also have yet to try out Apple Pay on the Web, although that’s mainly a factor of me not buying anything online in the past two weeks aside from one quick Amazon purchase. The new auto-categorization features in Photos sound neat but can’t help the overwhelming majority of my photos taken on my Android phone, which never even show up there. The same goes for the souped-up conversation options in Messages (did I mention I use an Android phone?).

Things unfixed or newly broken: Sierra seems as powerless as its predecessor OS X El Capitan when Safari or Chrome decide they want to gobble up every last morsel of memory on the machine. I sure do wish this operating system would remember that
pre-emptive multitasking” was one of its foundational features. It also annoys me that Photos persists in the user-hostile practice of discarding the title, description and location I added earlier to a photo when I try to export it to Flickr.

Meanwhile, Sierra has broken the GPGMail plug-in I use to encrypt and decrypt the occasional e-mail–something I only realized after I’d installed this OS on both Macs. I e-mailed the developers and got a reply explaining that Apple made non-trivial changes to the Mail app’s internal code (I wouldn’t have guessed, since Mail seems as glitch-prone as ever) that they realized late in the game would require rewriting the plug-in. So if you were going to send me an encrypted e-mail critiquing this post, please hold off until they can ship a Sierra-compatible beta.

Side effect of an aging iMac: Bluetooth mouse rage

Overall, the 2009-vintage iMac that I’m typing this on has aged not just well, but better than any other computer I’ve owned. But every few months, I can expect it to send me into a few hours of powerless rage, all because its Bluetooth mouse keeps making a change of batteries a drama-filled exercise.

imac-mouseIt happens something like this: After a few days of the menu bar flashing a low-battery icon for this “Magic Mouse,” that peripheral will finally go offline–most likely when I’m trying to wrap up an e-mail or a story. I’ll pop open the hatch on its bottom, remove the spent batteries, and pop in a fresh pair of AAs.

And that’s when the green LED on this rodent will either fail to illuminate or blink on and then off. I’ll go through the same troubleshooting steps each time: try different batteries, try cleaning the terminals in the mouse with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol, then try cleaning the ends of each battery with the same.

Eventually, this rodent will decide to accept its new power source, and that’s when the Bluetooth battle begins. I don’t know if it’s the age of my iMac or of the mouse, but it seems to take anywhere from a few hours to day of having the Bluetooth link repeatedly drop for no apparent reason before the device pairing sets in–as if it were glue that needed time to cure.

I thought I’d knocked the worst of this wonkiness out of the system this spring when I trashed a batch of preferences files and booting the iMac into “Safe Mode.” But then I had to go through another round of iffy Bluetooth pairing after a battery change a few days ago.

A less stubborn person would buy a new mouse already, but I can’t get too excited about paying $49 for a Magic Mouse 2 that can only be recharged with a Lightning cable that blocks any use of the mouse as a pointing device. And would become instantly redundant when I buy a new desktop computer… should Apple ever get tired of selling models that saw their last update a year or two ago. But that’s a separate gripe.

Whenever Apple does deign to ship a revived iMac or Mac mini, one thing’s for sure: I will order it with a wired keyboard.

 

A different sort of spring cleaning: keyboards

A pocket knife, Q-tips, a toothbrush, paper towels, rubbing alcohol and dishwashing soap aren’t normal computing accessories, but I needed all six the other week when I gave the keyboards on my iMac, my MacBook Air and my mom’s old 2006-vintage iMac a desperately-overdue cleaning.

2006 iMac keyboard strippedWith the old iMac that Mom had retired in favor of an iPad Air, I had to get the keyboard looking decent before I could think of donating it anywhere. (If I’m overlooking potential buyers for a 10-year-old Mac, please tell me who they are in the comments.) With the other two, I was simply tired of seeing what a slob I am every time I stared down at the keyboard–the iMac’s keys had gotten especially begrimed over the last few years.

On the vintage iMac, the process was no different from the one I outlined in a 2006 column for the Post: Unplug the keyboard, pry the keys off and hand-wash them in the sink, and carefully scrub out the recessed area below. That last task required some painstaking work with a toothbrush to get out all the dirt that had piled up in that recessed area.

On the other two Macs, there was no removing the keys, so I had to use paper towels dipped in rubbing alcohol–it dries almost instantly–to swab the tops of the keys, then run a Q-tip dipped in the same to clean the gaps between them and get some of the dirt off their sides. Of course, now that I look at the iMac keyboard I’m typing this on, I see I missed a few spots.

(The How-To Geek has a guide to cleaning keyboards that should come with a trigger warning for its disgusting photos of Superfund-site keyboards. It does not, however, mention one recourse that I once tried with eventual success: sticking the keyboard in a dishwasher.)

After less than an hour of effort, I had all three keyboards in a state that no longer had me appalled at my own greasy, grimy slovenliness. And I had a renewed appreciation for what should now be a basic rule of multitasking: If you must eat while doing something on a computer, please make that a device a tablet or a smartphone, where you only need to wipe the screen clean.

Possible upside of Safari’s memory-hogging ways? Teaching me to appreciate inner peace.

Sometime in the last year or two, my least favorite three-word phrase in all of computing became “Safari Web Content.” That’s the component of Apple’s browser that appears red in OS X’s Activity Monitor app–normally, you see the address of the Web page being displayed by this process–when it stops responding and starts locking up the rest of the Mac.

OS X Activity Monitor Safari run amokWhich it does all the time, even in the El Capitan release that was supposed to be all about bug fixes. Having spent more than decade in the “classic” Mac OS, in which we just accepted that any errant application could take out the computer, I find it intensely annoying to meet the same problem over 15 years after the advent of OS X and its move to “preemptive multitasking.”

My usual routine when I see OS X once again seize up is to flip over to Activity Monitor–which sometimes requires a wait for Safari to loosen its death grip on the system–and start force-quitting the stuck Safari Web Content processes, if I’m not looking at a screenful of them. If I do see a screenful, I’ll force-quit the whole damn browser.

(Before you say “switch to Chrome,” I find that Safari integrates with OS X better in some ways–and Google’s browser can be a memory hog too.)

This usually leads to lengthy bouts of swearing, about which I’m getting increasingly embarrassed. Yes, I work from home and nobody is around to object to a stream of curses (which was not the case in the Post’s newsroom; sorry, Posties), but I also realize I’m being an idiot. The computer has no feelings; it doesn’t care how many f-bombs I direct at it. And all this nerd rage can’t be good for my health anyway.

So while I wait and wait for Apple’s developers to bring their browser to heel, I am trying to learn to chill. To slowly inhale and exhale and to listen to the sound of my breathing, to look up from the screen so I can gaze at the trees and the sky outside, to stand up and stretch, to in general not give in to the Dark Side. Do you have any advice about how I might better do that? Please share it in the comments.

 

CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.

 

El Capitan errata

Ten days ago I upgraded my MacBook Air to Apple’s new OS X El Capitan, and a day later I did the same on this iMac. The experience has been a little rocky so far:

El Capitan beachball cursor• I’m still seeing the spinning-beachball cursor way too often, and for steps that shouldn’t particularly tax either computer’s processor or flood its memory. Having it look different does not help.

• While Mail no longer randomly bounces me months back in a particular folder when I select it, it’s exhibiting a more annoying malfunction: When I move or delete messages in either of my Google Apps accounts, they pop back into their original inbox for a moment before being swept away a second or too later.

• Time Machine still can’t do math. On this iMac, it’s complaining that the backup volume is full–even after I’ve removed more than 150 gigabytes of data from its backup set. Dear Apple: I am not interested in buying a new hard drive because your backup utility doesn’t know how to subtract.

OS X El Capitan about box• Some random malfunction has caused every item in Address Book–both individual contacts and contacts groups–to get duplicated. I’m going to assume this is iCloud’s fault.

• Safari continues to randomly pop tabs into their own separate window. This bug has now persisted through different OS X releases, and I know I’m not the only one to complain about it. Alas, its cause and how to end it remain mysteries to me.

• Safari remains vulnerable to locking up the entire machine when Safari Web Content processes start to gobble memory; short of force-quitting Safari, my only remedy is to bring up Activity Monitor and force-quit the offenders, one at a time. But hey, at least I can finally silence the audio that started randomly playing in some other tab.

I had hoped that this deliberately incremental release of OS X would bring a renewed and overdue focus on software quality in OS X, but so far I’m not seeing it. Are you?