Happy 10th birthday, iMac

A decade ago today, I set up the computer on which I’m typing this post. That is an absurdly long lifespan for any computer, much less one that’s seen near-daily use over that many years.

But here we–meaning me and the late 2009 iMac that’s now graced the same desk for 10 years–are. Three things made this longevity possible.

One is my working mainly in text and non-moving images. If I had to do any serious video editing, this model’s processor would have forced its retirement long ago. As is, there’s not that much computational labor involved in polishing prose–and while working with high-resolution photos can require a few CPU cycles, I do most of that editing online anyway.

Another is the relative repairability of this model. In the previous decade, Apple still designed desktops that allowed memory upgrades, so I took advantage of that option to double this iMac’s RAM early on. Apple didn’t intend for owners of this model to replace the hard drive, but its design left that possible with fairly simple tools–as in, no need to cut through adhesive holding the screen in place. I didn’t exploit that opportunity until a couple of years later than I should have, but the SSD upgrade I performed last spring now looks like some of the best $200 I’ve spent.

I could have replaced the optical drive that stopped reading CDs and DVDs in the same manner, but instead I bought a cheap Samsung DVD burner and plugged that into a free USB port–so much for the all-in-one concept!

(My second-longest-tenured daily-use computer, the Mac clone I kept from 1996 to 2002, was far more tolerant of tinkering, since Power Computing designed it along the lines of any PC desktop. That box ended its service to me after two processor upgrades, one hard drive replacement, an internal power-supply transplant, a memory upgrade and the addition of two USB ports.)

Last comes Apple’s baffling inability to keep its desktops current over any sustained stretch of time. The company formerly known as “Apple Computer, Inc.” spent several years not updating the iMac or Mac mini at all. By the time it finally refreshed the iMac, buying a new all-in-one desktop would have meant buying a 4K monitor inseparable from a computer would grow obsolete well before the display. But when Apple finally updated the moribund Mac mini last year, it shipped it with a joke of a 128 GB SSD and then listed insultingly high prices for adequate storage.

It’s since slightly moderated the storage rip-off, but the Mac mini has now gone over a year without an update, so I’d feel like a chump paying new-Mac pricing for that old design now. Even though my legacy Mac is now living two editions of macOS in the past–Apple dropped support for this model with macOS Mojave, leaving macOS Catalina completely out of the question. If Apple weren’t still shipping security updates for macOS High Sierra, I’d be in a real pickle.

Okay, I guess there’s a fourth factor behind this iMac’s longevity: I can be really cheap, stubborn or both sometimes.

Updated 12/3/2019 to note my OS-support issues and better crop a photo.

Weekly output: credit-card fraud, SaaS developers, Amazon and Crystal City, digital marketing, CTO life, Roborace, For The Web, DMCA exemptions

I fell seriously behind on tweeting out new stories this week, as Web Summit occupied most of my mental processor cycles during my stay in Lisbon. I also didn’t keep up with headlines in my RSS feed or even setting aside a minute or two a day to plod along in Spanish tutorials in the Duolingo app.

The Summit organizers usually post video of every session not long after the conference, but that hasn’t happened yet; when it does, I’ll embed those clips below. They now have.

11/5/2018: Why those chips in your credit cards don’t stop fraud online, Yahoo Finance

The story assignment came from inside the house, in the form of my having to call up a bank to have our cards reissued after somebody spent close to a thousand dollars on that account at Lenovo’s online store.

11/6/2018: Disrupting the traditional SaaS business model: The rise of the developer, Web Summit

My first panel at Web Summit featured two people running software-as-a-service shops: Nicolas Dessaigne of Algolia, and Adam FitzGerald of Amazon Web Services. This topic was well outside of my usual consumer-tech coverage, but a 20-minute panel isn’t too much airtime to fill if you do some basic research.

 

11/6/2018: Why Crystal City would be the right call for Amazon’s HQ2, Yahoo Finance

When I saw the Post’s scoop about Amazon getting exceedingly close to anointing Crystal City, I e-mailed my Yahoo editors volunteering to write any sort of “10 things to know about Arlington” post they might need. They didn’t require that, but they did ask me to write a summary of my county’s advantages–and some of its disadvantages, as noted in a few grafs that reveal the nerdiest bit of verbiage you’ll hear around Arlington.

11/8/2018: Marketing performance in a digital age – complexity to clarity, reaction to action, Web Summit

This was my most difficult panel at this conference, thanks to some reshuffling of questions late in the game and poor acoustics onstage that left me and my conversations partners Vincent Stuhlen (L’Oreal) and Catherine Wong (Domo) struggling to hear each other.

 

11/8/2018: CTO panel discussion: A day in life, Web Summit

Barely 30 minutes later, I had my second panel of Thursday, and this conversation with Cisco’s Susie Wee and Allianz SE’s Markus Löffler went much better.

 

11/8/2018: The human-machine race for the future, Web Summit

What’s not to like about interviewing the head of a robot-racecar company onstage? As a nice little bonus, this chat with Roborace CEO Lucas Di Grassi got introduced by my conference-nerd friend Adam Zuckerman.

 

11/8/2018: The man who created the World Wide Web needs you to help fix it, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s Monday-night keynote about his initiative to improve his creation, as informed by a conversation Thursday with the CEO of his World Wide Web Foundation.

11/9/2018: Primer: What new DMCA exemptions mean for hackers, The Parallax

It had been a few years since I’d last unpacked the government’s ability to tell companies and researchers not to worry about the thou-shalt-not-mess-with-DRM provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Spoiler alert: I remain a skeptic of this ill-drafted law.

Updated 11/16/2018 with embedded YouTube clips.

Advanced Mac tinkering: performing a drive transplant on a 9-year-old machine

Friday’s work toolkit got a little weird. It included two suction cups, multiple sizes of Torx screwdriver bits, a pair of tweezers, a can of spray air, a microfiber cloth and a lot of patience.

Were Apple a company that updated its computers on a regular and predictable pattern, I would have replaced this desktop long ago. But first it spent years neglecting its desktops, then my laptop needed replacing first, and now the “new” iMac has gone almost a year without an update.

iMac SSD in placeInstead, two other things got me to upgrade my desktop the cheap but hard way. First my backup hard drive died without warning, then I noticed that an SSD upgrade kit was down to $200 and change at the longtime aftermarket-Mac-hardware vendor Other World Computing. That would be a cheap price for a vastly faster storage system, and anyway I couldn’t resist the challenge here. So I placed my order… and then waited two weeks as the Postal Service somehow lost and then recovered the package that it only had to run from the nearest UPS to our front porch.

In the meantime, I did a complete Time Machine backup on my new external drive, then used Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper to put a bootable copy of the iMac’s entire drive on a second partition of that external volume. With those redundant backups done and my schedule somewhat clear Friday, it was time to risk breaking my desktop computer with the sort of involved tinkering I last seriously attempted around the turn of the century, when I owned a Mac clone in which almost everything inside was user-accessible.

Step one–as explained in a how-to video that would have been more effective as written instructions illustrated with animated GIFs–was to get the iMac’s LCD out of the way. I used the suction cups to lift the outer glass off the magnets holding it in place (you can imagine my relief at not having to battle with any glue), then removed eight Torx screws holding the LCD assembly, using the tweezers to ensure they wouldn’t get lost inside the iMac. I carefully tilted that out and held it away from the rest of the computer, then detached four ribbon cables from their sockets inside the computer–each time feeling a little like I was about to fail to defuse a bomb.

The next step was to extract the old hard drive. After removing another two screws and plucking out a further three cables, I just had to undo four other screws to get the hard drive out of its mounting bracket… which is when I realized that the second screwdriver included in OWC’s kit wasn’t the right size.

iMac LCD attachmentFortunately, the second neighbor I checked with had an extensive set of Torx screwdriver bits. After finding one properly sized to liberate the drive bracket, I used the spray air to knock nine years’ worth of dust out of the innards of the computer, then completed the drive transfer by securing the SSD to the bracket, connecting it to the original cables and fastening the new drive to the computer. I did the same routine with the LCD assembly, wiped it and the glass panel with the microfiber cloth, then finally clicked that outer glass back onto its magnets.

With the computer once again whole, I plugged it in, attached the backup drive, pressed the power button–and was delighted to see it boot properly off that external drive.

Installing macOS High Sierra from the backup drive to the SSD went remarkably fast; running a complete Time Machine restore of all my data and apps did not. But by the end of Friday, I had an old computer that no longer felt so old. And the pleasant sense that I haven’t completely lost my DIY-tech skills.

Updated 10/29/2018 to fix a couple of grammatical glitches.