16” MacBook Pro

On Black Friday, I ordered a Christmas present for myself, the new 16 inch MacBook Pro.

Writing this post on my new 16” MacBook Pro.

Its predecessor was five years old, and showing its age. Even though I’d replaced its built in 500 gigabyte (GB) solid state drive with a 1 terabyte (TB) SSD, its onboard drive was nearly full. Worse, it was restarting randomly and was having trouble waking from sleep. I worried that one day I would go to start it up, and it wouldn’t.

I generally try to get four years out of a computer, so the old one didn’t owe me anything. Unfortunately it was the Era of the Butterfly Keyboard. In the interests of thinness, Apple had gone with a hyper-thin keyboard that was uncomfortable to type on. As time went on, it also became clear that the keyboard was unreliable. So I held onto the old one, hoping that Apple would reverse course.

I’d hoped that they would release a butterfly-less laptop during the June World Wide Developer conference, but no. Then I hoped it would appear during an event during the fall. Nope. Then finally, in mid-November, this computer was announced.

I did a little hemming and hawing on it – the timing is not great for work, and I initially thought I would need to get a 4 TB model, which would have cost $4000. My old computer was nearly full, and so was the external drive I keep my media library on. But then I took a second look at what was on the external drive. Half was an old Aperture vault, which I don’t need anymore, another quarter was video, which I was happy to leave on the external disk, and another large chunk was scans, which I was also content to leave on the external disk. That only left about 100 GB for my iTunes library which I wanted to move back onto this computer. I decided to go with a 2TB build-to-order (BTO) model, with extra memory as well, but with the base CPU and stock GPU.

I ordered the computer on Black Friday, with my new Apple Card, figuring I’d get the 3% back for the card, and assuming Apple’s Black Friday discounts would apply. It turned out they didn’t, at least not initially, but I did get a $200 refund from Apple a few weeks later. I also traded in my old Early 2011 MacBook Pro; it’s been mostly gathering dust since i took advantage of the repair extension program. They offered me $170 for it, which I thought was reasonable for an eight year old computer.

Because this is a BTO computer, I had to order online, and wait for the computer to be built and shipped. It was fascinating tracking the shipment from Shanghai China to the West Coast to here, and it arrived earlier than Apple had estimated.

This computer is actually a little bigger and heavier than its 2019 15” MacBook Pro predecessor, but about the same width and slightly thinner than the 2014 15” model I had. The bezel on the sides of the screen are narrower, so it can fit more active area on the screen.

Like all of Apple’s more recent laptops, this is a USB-C machine only, so I’ve had to pick up a number of adapters. I got a small dock with USB-A and HDMI ports, a Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adaptor, for connecting to my external monitors, and an external SD card reader for reading camera memory cards. I also picked up a new wireless Mighty Mouse since I would need to use the adapter with my existing mouse. In actual practice, the SD card reader is the one I will probably use the most, and I do feel that it would have been a better machine if it had been built in.

So far, I like it a lot. I took a lot of pictures the week before Christmas, and processing photos is a lot faster on this machine. Importing pictures on the 2014 machine would slow it to a crawl as it would try to index all the new photos; not so with this machine.

The keyboard is nice. I never had to deal with the butterfly keyboard, but this uses a traditional scissor switch mechanism which has a decent amount of throw, and should be more reliable.

Battery life is noticeably better than the old machine. I’m not sure how much of this is improvements to the new machine’s batteries — it now comes with as big a set of batteries as the FAA will permit for carry-on luggage — and how much is the aging of the batteries in the old computer, but it’s been a pleasant surprise. I can be reading on this computer unplugged for hours before having to charge.

Heat management is supposed to be better on this computer. I haven’t really taxed it the way I tax my work computer, but I haven’t heard the fans spin up.

Apple has been bragging about the sound quality of this computer, and it’s real. All my previous laptops sounded kind of tinny, and I never played music through their speakers — they didn’t sound good, and it was better to listen to music through headphones. With this computer, it’s rather pleasant to have it play music while you’re using it.

The color gamut of the screen is improved compared to the old one. I notice this most in vivid greens and reds — they seem more saturated.

The side bezels of the screen have been narrowed, but the top bezel is roughly the same width as older machines, which looks a little weird. I think it would have been better to have a tighter corner radius on the case, and have narrowed the top bezel too.

Narrower side bezels give more image width, but the top bezel remains the same size, probably because of the radius of the case’s corners

This computer did come with the latest version of macOS, Catalina, and this has meant getting rid of my old 32 bit apps. I think the one I miss the most is Sweet 16, my Apple IIGS emulator. Catalina is supposed to permit the use of an iPad as an external monitor, but I haven’t been able to make it work yet.

One minor thing I’ve noticed is that there are vent grooves on the underside of the machine, along the sides. The edges of the grooves are sharpish. Not sharp enough to cut, but sharp enough to feel a little rough. Hopefully, Apple will correct this in a future revision.

Speaking of revisions, this machine comes with a revised version of the TouchBar, which replaces the physical Function keys on older machines with a small touch sensitive strip that displays a changeable user interface, which the application can tailor to its own needs. The TouchBar debuted with the first butterfly keyboard MacBook Pros; this version is slightly narrower; there is a physical Escape keyboard once again, with the TouchBar placed next to it. I know I’m in the minority, but I rather like it. I don’t use it a whole lot, but it’s handy sometimes, especially with dialog boxes that present a pair of buttons to accept or cancel an action.

On the other side of the TouchBar is a Touch Id sensor; you can train the computer to recognize your fingerprint, and this will authenticate you anywhere you need to enter your password. It’s awesome. I can log in by touching, Safari can enter a site password by touching, I can confirm a purchase on the App store with a touch.

Overall, I’m very happy with this machine. The nitpicks are minor, and I’m getting five years of improvements in battery life, display, and performance with a keyboard that I can like.

Upgrading my Laptop

When I first bought this laptop three years ago, I really wanted to buy it with a one terabyte Solid State Drive (SSD). It was replacing a laptop with a nearly full 500 GB hard drive. I was buying it in a hurry, because the old laptop died, and I thought long and hard about ordering one with a larger SSD. I finally decided I couldn’t wait to order one custom-built, and I couldn’t afford the nearly $3000 price tag at that time. I’d been out of work for a couple of months in the summer, and it was nearly Christmas. I decided I’d go with a 500GB SSD.

As it turned out, when I migrated my data, I picked up about 50 GB of space, probably from deleting unneeded logs. Still, my photo collection continued to grow, and I offloaded my iTunes library to an external hard drive. This helped for a while, but once again space was getting tight. I’d already removed everything I easily could.

I did a little looking, and found that I could swap out my factory 500 GB SSD for a one terabyte model. I ordered the OWC Aura Pro X Complete SSD from MacSales. There was a video showing the upgrade procedure and it looked straightforward and something I could handle. The kit came with the special pentalobe and  Torx screwdrivers needed to open the laptop case and remove the old SSD, and an enclosure to put the factory SSD into, to make it easy to transfer over my data.

The physical upgrade was the easy part. You have to use the five-pointed pentalobe screwdriver to remove the 10 tiny little screws holding the bottom of the computer in place. Then the battery has to be disconnected, the old SSD removed, and the new one slid into place and screwed down. While I had the computer open, I noticed a thick layer of dust clinging to the fans, and blew them out with some canned air.

The next step was to put the original SSD in the enclosure that came with the kit, so that it could be used as an external drive. Easy-peasy.

Getting the computer back up and running was the hard part. I plugged in the now-external hard drive and started it up, and nothing happened. Fortunately, I had the iPad, and was able to do a re-read the data transfer instructions. The next step was to try to start the computer in Recovery Mode, by starting up while holding down Command (⌘)-R. It connected to the internet, downloaded what it needed, and then showed the OS X Utilities. Unfortunately, neither the new internal SSD or the old external SSD showed up in the disk list. Fortunately, I tried reinstalling the OS, and when it did, it became clear: Recovery Mode was set up for Yosemite, and both SSDs were formatted in the new APFS (Apple File System) format, which Yosemite doesn’t recognize.

Back to the web. I had to figure out how to get the High Sierra version of Recovery Mode. Fortunately I found this support document on Apple’s site. With a computer like mine, that’s been upgraded, macOS Recovery will recover different versions of macOS depending on which keys you hold down when starting up. When you hold down Command (⌘)-R, as I’d done before, you get the version that originally came with the computer. This is why I’d gotten the Yosemite installer. What I wanted was Option-Command-R, which upgrades the computer to the most recent version of the OS available for the computer.

Once I did that, I got the High Sierra version of the macOS Utilities, which recognized both SSDs. I reformatted the new SSD, installed High Sierra on it, and checked permissions. Then I rebooted the computer and ran Migration Assistant on it to transfer the data from the old SSD to the new one. It was interesting to see how much faster Migration Assistant ran this time, copying data between two SSDs rather the Time Capsule and an SSD. When it first started up, it said it would take about an hour and a half to transfer the data, but the estimates quickly dropped. I’m not sure exactly how long it took because I had to go out and get the ice off the driveway.

So far, so good. The process was bumpier than I anticipated, but once I got to the High Sierra installer, I was pretty much able to run through the steps MacSales outlined on their website. It seems to have copied everything successfully, including my Keychain with my stored passwords, and now I don’t need to worry about filling up the computer when I import pictures.

For now.

External Data

About a year ago, I finally overflowed the confines of this laptop. When I bought it, I looked hard at the model with a terabyte of storage, but couldn’t quite justify the extra $500 for it. When I transferred my data to it, I gained back about 50 GBs of space, probably due to logs that didn’t get transferred over, but gradually filled it up, due in large part to my slide scanning project. I’d bought a couple of external drives for my old Mac, and when I finished the slides, I moved them all off the internal SSD onto one of the external drives, reclaiming about 20 GB or so. Finally, though, I had to bite the bullet and move my iTunes library off the laptop and onto the hard drive, and finally got the computer to a point where it had a safe amount of free space. Now that I’m starting to shoot video, there is no question but that I need the extra space.

So what’s it like having to tether the laptop to an external drive? For my day-to-day use, it’s not an issue. I don’t need it to read Twitter or my news feeds, and I’ve kept my photo library – still in Aperture, though for how much longer I don’t know – on the laptop. When I need to use iTunes, I do need to connect the drive, but I only do that when I feel like browsing the store or backing up my devices (I moved the device backups to the external drive too).

I’m finding it’s a little more irritating where the video is concerned. I have to plug it in to transfer video from the drone’s SD card, or to edit or look at it. And this video really wants to be looked at.

The biggest pain point when dealing with the external drive is unmounting it. You have to be careful to close any open apps, and any open files before dismounting it. And since my personal Mac shares my desk with my work Mac, I’m moving it to one side on a daily basis. It’s very easy to just pull the plug on it without checking first, especially since it plugs in via Thunderbolt… just like the monitor.

It definitely makes the computer less portable. I still haven’t figured out how I’ll handle things on a trip.

iPad Pro, 9.7 inch

I picked up a new iPad Pro 9.7 inch a couple of weeks ago. I got the gold cellular model with 128 GB of storage, along with the Apple Pencil. Last night, I picked up the Smart Keyboard and silicone case to go with it. This post is literally the first thing I’ve used the keyboard for.

To be honest, I got it more because I wanted to upgrade my existing third generation iPad than because of the “pro” features. The old iPad had gotten very slow, and I’d been disappointed when Apple introduced the big iPad Pro rather than an iPad Air 3. I like the original iPad screen size. Continue reading

Beta Testing

I was reading a couple of articles this morning on C|Net about beta testing iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan. Both articles recommended being wary of beta testing because of the chance of running into bugs. There’s more to it than that though.

I used to beta test software, but stopped doing it quite a while back, mainly because I felt it was too much work for too little reward. I beta tested a couple of games and paint programs for the Apple IIGS, and AOL 3.0 and 4.0 for the Mac. It was nice getting early access to software, but to my mind, if you’re going to be a beta tester, you owe it to the developer to really put the software through its paces, note where something is going wrong, and report what you found. This can take quite a bit of time.

A good example was a problem that turned up with AOL 3, which was a major rewrite designed to bring the Mac software to parity with the Windows software. There was some sort of crashing bug, which I mentioned in passing on the beta message board. The project manager (rightly) took me to task for both being non-descriptive, and not posting a formal bug report. I ended up spending the entire afternoon figuring out what steps I was crashing on, then writing up a description of those steps, and posting it in both the feedback form and the message board. The project manager was nice enough to reply that the report was exactly the kind of detail they were looking for, and that they had found the cause of the bug.

This is all well and good, but eventually I tired of putting in that kind of work testing, and it’s not fair to the developer to beta test if you’re not willing to let them know what you found wrong. I’m perfectly content to wait until the software actually comes out, especially in the case of an operating system.

Resurrected Mac

Last December, I wrote about how my Early 2011 MacBook Pro died, and how I’d replaced it with a new machine. The video fritzed out while working in Photoshop, and things deteriorated until by the end of the week, it either froze at the grey screen, or progressed to a blue screen. Apparently a lot of that generation of MacBook Pros had problems with the video generation chip, and in the original post, I linked to three separate pages detailing the problems, and how, at that point, Apple hadn’t addressed the problem.

On February 20, Apple announced the MacBook Pro Repair Extension Program for Video Issues saying,

Apple has determined that a small percentage of MacBook Pro systems may exhibit distorted video, no video, or unexpected system restarts. These MacBook Pro systems were sold between February 2011 and December 2013.

Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider will repair affected MacBook Pro systems, free of charge.

I took the computer in to the Chestnut Hill Apple store, where a very helpful Apple Tech by the name of Dan verified the issue, and ordered the necessary replacement main logic board. When the part came in, I brought the laptop back in, and it went off for service for a few days. It came back last Wednesday, and I picked it up Friday night. It appears to be running properly, and they even replaced the battery in it, along with the main logic board, all for the price of $0.00.

I would have preferred this program had been in place last December, but I’m glad that they finally recognized the problem, and I wanted to let people know about the solution.

So what am I going to do with it?  At this point, I’m not sure. Its hard drive is still overly full, which means it’s still slow. I do like having the ability to use Mavericks again (and the Snow Leopard installation I have squirrelled away on a hard drive), but the new machine is faster, and I love its sharper screen. At the very least, I’ve gone from having a doorstop with valuable data on it that I couldn’t remove, to having a working machine that I can erase my data from, and resell.

One thing that I immediately noticed was the full title bar in Safari on Mavericks. It’s the one thing that really irritates me the most about Yosemite — you have to think and aim to find a place to drag the window around by. I don’t find the extra 50 px or so of content area to be so helpful as to outweigh the irritation of not having a proper title bar to drag the window around by.

New Mac

I picked up a new MacBook Pro last night. The old one, an Early 2011 Macbook Pro started crashing on me earlier this week, and by the end of the week, wouldn’t start at all. Apparently, there’s a lot of that going around. In my case, it started pretty suddenly – I was editing a scan in Photoshop, when suddenly the screen scrambled, and then the system crashed. I rebooted, verified the disk with Disk Utility and went to bed. I was just drifting off  when the computer restarted itself, by itself. Not good. Over the next few days, I saw the start up screen shifted over by a third, and another time, I saw vertical bars. By the time Thursday night rolled around, I couldn’t get past the gray startup screen, and had seen a Blue Screen of Death a couple of times. In hindsight, the fact that I couldn’t preview my TIFF scans could have been a clue too, though I put it down to an incompatibility with Mavericks.

Anyrate, after reading up about the situation, it seems like the cure would have been a motherboard replacement; this for a computer which was nearly four years old, and had been running slowly anyway. I would not have chosen right now to replace the computer– Christmas is coming up and I just spent about $1000 replacing my front brakes, but I didn’t see much choice, so I started looking at the Apple Online store, trying to choose between my options. Continue reading

Concentration

I’ve always loved game shows. One of the cool things about a vacation day or snow day in the winter was that I got to see my favorites. The ones that stick out in my memory were the original Match Game late in the afternoon (I remember being disappointed with the changes made for Match Game ’73, though in hindsight, the changes were for the best), Jeopardy, with Art Fleming around noon time, and my all time favorite, Concentration, in the mid morning.

I think a big part of my attraction to Concentration was the marvelous game board. Thirty numbers, all on rotating trilons, with one face for the number, one face for the prize, and one face for the puzzle piece. Each puzzle was a rebus, spelling out a phrase with pictures.

(Yes, it’s cheesy by today’s standards.)

I worked my way through several versions of the home game, but they were always unsatisfactory in one way — no rotating numbers. The puzzle was on a scroll of paper, with clear slots for removable number and prize cards. The game play was the same, but the game board was different.

Introducing Concentration

I’ve long wanted to build my own Concentration game. About twenty years ago, I tried building my own trilon-based game board, but after building all the trilons, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.

About four years ago, I started building a version in HTML and JavaScript. I got as far as a game board and score board that worked—prizes were distributed randomly, it detected matches correctly, it handled “take” and “forfeit” properly, but the gameplay was clunky, it didn’t handle end of game well, there was no option to replay,  and it looked crummy. I was intent on duplicating the original look of the original game, but it was unfinished.

Last weekend, needing something I could demonstrate, I picked the project up again and polished it up. Now, with the power of CSS transforms and transitions, I finally have my rotating trilons. I’m now using jQuery in the script, which has simplified transitions between stages of the game. With downloadable fonts, specifically Open Sans, I’ve made the game look a lot nicer. And the game play between turns is a lot smoother.

Play Concentration here.

About the Game

My game uses the same game rules as the original game that ran on NBC from 1958 to 1973, not the later Classic Concentration version which some younger folks might be familiar with. There are thirty numbers, not twenty five, with some “Take One Gift” and “Forfeit One Gift” squares factored in. To guard against the “Forfeit” prizes, there are a couple of gag prizes as well.

There are currently five different puzzles; I plan to add more as I have time and can think of them—the structure of the script makes it very easy for me to add more puzzles. A while back I found “Rebus Font” which is a font made up from many of the symbols used on the original program.

Unlike the original, my puzzles are in color. The original producer, Norm Blumenthal, fought the switch to color, feeling that colored puzzles would give the solution away too fast. When NBC insisted on switching the show to color, he compromised by going to pink drawings on a maroon background.

At the moment, the game does not use responsive design; it works best on a desktop browser or iPad. This is the thing I intend to work on next. It also requires a recent browser that supports CSS transforms. I’ve discovered it doesn’t work properly in IE 11, but at the moment, I don’t have access to a machine to test it on. (UPDATE, February 2015: I’ve discovered the reason it doesn’t work in IE is because IE doesn’t currently support the “preserve-3D” transformation property. There are work-arounds, but I haven’t tried them yet.)

It currently doesn’t handle the “double wild” case, where one happens to pick a pair of matching Wild Cards; it should allow the selection of another set of prizes, but doesn’t.

I may add sound to the game; I have a recording of a trilon turning, but it needs cleanup.

One of the things that kind of surprises me (about myself) after the fact is that I’ve grown a little more willing to deviate from the look of the original. I guess that’s a sign of growth, or a willingness to make changes in service of a better result. In my original version, the scoreboard looked more like the original scoreboard, complete with serif based font, and the look of the Wild Cards. One of the things that had irritated me about the home games was that the Wild Card tiles didn’t look like the ones on television; in the original version, I created one that looked like the original. And yet… once I switched the prizes to Open Sans, the old style Wild Card stuck out like a sore thumb, so I changed them. Finally, I added a single player mode, so the user wouldn’t have to enter a pair of player names.

I hope you enjoy playing my version of Concentration.

Like a Native

I picked up a new slide scanner the other day. I was looking at some of the old family pictures a couple of weeks ago, which rekindled a desire to get at least my Dad’s slides scanned, so I can share them with the rest of the family. I’ve been dissatisfied with the scans I’ve had done by one of the local camera shops, so I’ve been wanting more control over the process. This scanner came highly reviewed, with the caveat that there was a steep learning curve, and so far, I’ve been struggling with it. I’ll have more to say about it once I’ve figured it out, but I’ve already encountered one big pet peeve: the SilverFast software is very obviously a cross-platform product which feels very much out of place on my Mac. Continue reading