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?

 

Weekly output: cybersecurity disclosure, Facebook bots, White House Science Fair, Apple’s aging computers, Mac Bluetooth

HONG KONG–I am in this fair city for the first time since 1998 for the IFA Global Press Conference, a gathering put on by the organizers of the IFA trade show at which I’m going to speak on a panel (with my old Yahoo boss Dan Tynan) about virtual reality. I accept that it’s rather shameful to have waited 18 years to return to this part of the world.

4/13/2016: After hospital ransomware attack, time for some blunt talk about cybersecurity, Yahoo Tech

MedStar Health’s vague and dismissive responses to press queries got this story rolling, but this is about more than condescending PR. Compare this “we don’t have to tell you” attitude to the complete and mandatory disclosure you see in commercial aviation, and you will not be amused.

4/14/2016: Facebook bots, Al Jazeera

As I was already wearing a suit to cover the White House Science Fair that afternoon, I was better dressed than usual for this appearance on the Arabic news channel. My take on Facebook’s Messenger bots: Customer service is hard enough to do with actual people answering chat queries, and I’m not fond of having such an interrupt-driven medium take over more of my online interactions.

Yahoo Tech White House Science Fair post4/15/2016: Beyond the robot: White House Science Fair celebrates a nation of nerds, Yahoo Tech

As I wrote on my Facebook page after chatting up many of the intimidatingly smart and poised middle-school and high-school exhibitors here: “I can only hope they will prove to be benevolent bosses when we all wind up working for them.” Tip: Don’t read to the end of the comments if you’re not in the mood to see some mean, ignorant white-guy resentment of brown kids and white girls doing well.

4/15/2016: Hey Apple, how about shipping a new computer sometime?, Yahoo Tech

This column began life as a cranky tweet that spawned a little group therapy with Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunningham. I then turned it into a post with the help of some useful context from NPD’s Stephen Baker, a longtime source of mine.

4/17/2016: Stop your Mac from singing the Bluetooth blues, USA Today

An unadvertised benefit of owning an older Mac: Its random malfunctions provide a steady stream of topics for my USAT column. Fortunately, this crop had a happy ending–so maybe I don’t need to buy a new Mac just yet.

The other thing that happened this week: Friday marked five years since my last day at the Post. I didn’t expect at the time that half a decade later, my taxes would not have featured a new W-2 from anybody. I’ll have more to say about that later this week.

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.

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

 

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

 

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

Mac settings changes you might miss going from Snow Leopard to Yosemite

One of the major Christmas presents at my in-laws was a shiny new 13-inch MacBook Air that replaced a 2010-vintage MacBook–which meant that one of my major presents was getting apps, data and settings transferred from the old Mac to the new one, then completing the rest of the setup.

Old MacBook and new MacBookThe first hiccups came in OS X’s Migration Assistant: It estimated the data transfusion would take five-plus hours over the home WiFi. But neither machine saw the other over a faster Ethernet link (using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter on the Air), and an ad hoc, computer-to-computer WiFi network didn’t work until I resorted to the un-Mac-like workaround of turning on Internet sharing on the source laptop.

Then I realized the work Migration Assistant had left for me: configuring parts of OS X Mavericks (preloaded on the new MacBook) and Yosemite (promptly installed as a free update) that had no equivalent in the old MacBook’s Snow Leopard, then changing OS X settings that would confuse anybody used to that five-year-old operating system.

Atop the first category: the social-media integration Apple began adding to OS X in 2012’s Mountain Lion release. My in-laws aren’t on Twitter and don’t spend much time in Facebook–but that integration’s ability to share a photo to Facebook from the Finder does address a pain point I’d heard from them.

An Apple ID is far more important in Yosemite than in Snow Leopard, courtesy of so many updates running through the Mac App Store. So I had to verify that hitherto-dusty account worked and had current billing info, without which we couldn’t download the free Yosemite update.

Migration Assistant had siphoned over a few long-ignored PowerPC applications that OS X hasn’t been able to run since 2011’s disappointing Lion, so I had to delete those myself.

OS X Yosemite General system prefsI thought I was done at that point, and then I heard my father-in-law complaining about not being able to scroll. He had bumped into Apple’s foolish decision to make scroll bars invisible until you mouse over them or use a two-finger gesture to move up or down the page. I hadn’t thought to fix that setting (open System Preferences and click “General”) because I’d fixed it on my own Mac after maybe two hours with Lion. Oops.

The last round of settings to change were in the minds of Yosemite users who had been used to Snow Leopard. From that perspective, the Notifications icon at the top-right corner of the screen means nothing (and requires tweaking to avoid info pollution), while Launchpad’s rocketship Dock icon doesn’t exactly shout that you no longer need click around the Finder to run apps that aren’t already in the Dock.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time walking my wife’s folks through those angles, but I suspect I’ll be getting questions about the new computer for months to come. See also: “the gift that keeps on giving.”

CES 2014 journalism-tech report

For once, I made it through a CES without my phone dying. But it was close: Wednesday night, I arrived at a party with my phone showing 2 percent of a charge left. One of the hosts asked if I wanted a drink, and I replied that I could use an outlet first.

Phone battery charging

America’s annual gadget gathering is an unfriendly environment for gadgets. Too many people using too many phones, tablets and laptops result in jammed airwaves and a severe power shortage.

And this year, I gambled a little by not bringing any a spare review phone or two for backup. Plugging in my Nexus 4 every time I was sitting down helped the phone survive the show. But I also think I tweeted less than last year and didn’t take as many pictures as I expected (including only one panorama and no “photo spheres”).

I should have packed an external phone charger–my MacBook Air, unlike the ThinkPad I brought to CES in 2012, can’t charge a phone when closed and asleep in my bag, and it’s not that fast at replenishing my phone when awake. (On the other hand, the ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, making it far inferior to the MacBook for keynote note-taking.) I also should have remembered to pack my travel power strip, which I sorely missed on press-conference day but survived without the rest of the trip.

WiFi was not quite as reliable as last year, but it did suffice in the only places Ethernet was a viable option–meaning I never used the MacBook’s USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

The Canon 330 HS camera I’d picked up at a low, low sale price on the Wirecutter’s advice worked out better than I’d expected (see my Flickr set from CES to judge for yourself). I never even had to recharge the battery, and it was compact enough to leave in a jacket pocket full-time.

But after I couldn’t get the Canon’s WiFi linked to my phone–the upcoming 340 HS that I saw at CES should ease that by automating the pairing process with NFC wireless–I was stuck geotagging and uploading photos on a computer, same as ever.

That communication breakdown also cost me the chance to have the phone fix the incorrect date I’d set on the camera. Yes, I was the guy still writing “2013” on his photos, something I only noticed when I couldn’t find them at the end of my iPhoto library. Everybody point and laugh now… because I’m totally sure this mistake will have been engineered out of possibility by the time I pack for CES 2015.