The 13″ Retina MacBook Pro

2012-11-27 by . 6 comments

Some background

If you asked me six months ago what I wanted in my next MacBook, I would have said that it should have a super high-resolution screen, a fast SSD, and lots of high-speed external connectors. Yet it should be considerably thinner and lighter than the (then-)existing 13″ MacBook Pro, and be absolutely silent when running, even under load.

Of course, if you asked me how long I’d have to wait to get such a Mac, I would have said it was probably a year or two away, possibly more. Even when the retina 15″ model dropped this summer, I kept my optimism in check for a 13″ model because, historically, the 13″ MacBook Pro is usually about a cycle behind the 15″ when it comes to getting the latest tech. My [2010 13″ MacBook Pro is living proof – back when the 15″ and 17″ models switched to the much, much faster Core i5 and i7 chips, Apple still sold the 13″ MacBook Pro with a creaky Core 2 Duo processor.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight last month when the rumors about the retina 13″ MacBook Pro turned out to not only be true, but to hit every single item on my checklist for what I wanted in a new MacBook! Naturally, I went out and bought one as soon as I could manage it, and it has been everything I hoped for. The price is a bit steep – this is the most expensive computer I’ve ever owned – but I have no doubt that it’s worth it.

Why it’s awesome

First, the screen. The screen! The screen is amazing. The difference is just as profound and revolutionary as the leap from non-retina to retina on the iPhone and iPad. Little things, like reading and writing text, is just fun now. I must admit that part of the motivation for writing this post is because I really like composing text on my new MacBook Pro. I don’t even mind the fact that the “best for Retina” setting provides me with the same sized working space (i.e. 1280×800 logical pixels) as on my last two MacBooks – 90% of the time it’s just fine for what I need to do, and the remaining 10% of the time I can crank it up to get more space and still have a mostly sharp picture.

Second, this thing is light. Now, it’s not quite as light as the MacBook Air, but it’s a lot closer to the size and weight of the 13″ MacBook Air than it is to the size and weight of the old 13″ MacBook Pro. It’s actually smaller than the Air in terms of width and depth, and it stays a uniform thickness throughout instead of having that dreadful wedge shape of the Air. So, all around top marks there from me.

Third, the SSD in this thing is very fast – about 410MB/s write and 450MB/s read. This considerable speed boost manifests itself everywhere in the user interface – apps just launch faster, and the 8GB RAM ceiling doesn’t feel so limiting with the swap speed being so fast (though it’s still an order of magnitude slower than actual RAM). I’ve done some audio editing on this machine with Adobe Audition that involved converting source files to AIFF and exporting the finished product to AIFF. For those that don’t know, AIFF is like the BMP of the audio world – huge and uncompressed. The SSD was impressively fast at doing these conversions, which made the entire task considerably easier and more enjoyable.

Fourth, and I only mention it because I mentioned it in my first paragraph, but the retina MacBook Pro has two 10Gb/s Thunderbolt ports, each of which is capable of driving a 27-30″ class display as well as daisy chaining to fast external storage or pretty much anything that can be attached to a PCIe bus. Then there’s the two 5Gb/s USB 3.0 ports; not quite as fast, but much more widely available on more affordable products. This beats the pants off the FW800/USB 2.0 combination that my previous MacBook had.

Finally, there’s the little things. For one, I really like the keyboard. It looks the same as every other Apple chicklet keyboard they’ve made for the last 5-6 years, but there’s something about it that’s just really nice to type on. I might be crazy, but I suspect that there’s actually a bit more travel to the keys even though the chassis is thinner than the older version – the removal of the optical drive probably had something to do with that. There’s also stereo speakers, which is a nice touch – a first for a 13″ MacBook. It’s also really, really quiet. So quiet, in fact, that at first it makes you worried that there was an error during the assembly process that resulted in the fan not being installed correctly, and that your computer might overheat at any moment. However, after several hours of running processor-, memory-, and disk-intensive operations I can confirm that it runs just fine under heavy load. It gets warm, sure, but the fan still stays eerily quiet.

What could be better

So, I think it’s a given that I like this new MacBook. Sure, some of that might be the honeymoon phase I’m still in with the product, but I’d like to think that a lot of it has to do with the merits of the product. However, as good as it is, there are of course some small things that could be better:

First, the price, The base model is $1699, but that has a paltry 128GB SSD, which absolutely won’t cut it anymore if you want to use it as your main computer, as I do. The $1999 256GB option is what I got, but mainly because I found the price jump of $500 to the 512GB size extremely hard to swallow/justify. I know SSD is expensive, and I know that I just extolled the virtues of the particular SSD Apple is putting into these machines, but I still can’t help but suspect that Apple could probably get that price down if they really tried, especially since entire 512GB SSDs can be had for less than $400 on Newegg.

Second, the 8GB RAM ceiling is annoying, especially since it’s soldered onto the motherboard and can’t be upgraded at all. The SSD, even being a nonstandard size, can theoretically be swapped out for a larger one, but the 8GB RAM limit is permanent. It’s a decent amount of memory in 2012, but in two to three years I think it’s going to seem pretty small. Planned obsolescence?

Third, the GPU could be better. As noted by Patrick Gibson, scrolling some media-rich pages like The Verge can cause some choppiness. I don’t think it’s particularly bad, but it is noticeable. The retina display is most certainly the culprit – the GPU can scroll pages like The Verge just fine on external displays, it’s just on the built-in screen that there are some minor issues. Of course, most pages aren’t as complex as The Verge, and consequently scroll very smoothly.

And finally, the battery life could always be better (though this can be said for every single battery-powered device ever made), and the fact that they’re still using dual-core processors instead of quad-core is disappointing. All in all, however, I think these are minor complaints that pale in comparison to the numerous strengths of the product. I am a completely satisfied customer, and I hope to be enjoying this machine for many years to come!

Filed under Hardware Reviews, OS X

Podcast #28: These Are a Few of Our Favorite Games

2012-11-05 by . 0 comments

This is the twenty-eighth episode of the Ask Different Podcast. Your hosts this week are Kyle Cronin, Jason Salaz, Nathan Greenstein.

We’re back after a long summer! Today’s episode is all about games.

This episode was recorded on October 27th, 2012. You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or iTunes. We would appreciate it if you could take a second to give us a rating on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you! Please feel free to leave a comment on this post. Thanks for listening.

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Maps’ problems hardly presage Apple’s imminent doom

2012-09-23 by . 1 comments

If Daring Fireball were still handing out Jackass of the Week awards, this piece by Joe Nocera in the New York Times might qualify. Which is a shame, because it’s by someone I usually respect as an insightful commentator, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions.

Nocera contends the quality of the new Maps app is indicative of Apple’s focus on protecting market position at the expense of innovation:

you can see it in the decision to replace Google’s map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new, instead of milking the old.

Yes, the quality of the maps program that ships with iPhone 5 and that you get when you upgrade anything to iOS 6 is not as good as the maps program that shipped previously. But that’s a single data point, and honestly, that’s a sign that they are innovating, which seems to be Nocera’s biggest concern that they’ll stop doing.

And if one thinks this is the first time in Apple history they’ve killed off something good (or even great) and replaced with something not as usable at the time it rolled out but that had the potential to become greater, one clearly missed the rollout of Mac OS X, the killing of the amazing Apple ][ line in favor of the non-expandable non-color Macintosh, replacing a mature AppleWorks with an iWork “suite” consisting of two programs, replacing ADB with the then-relatively-unknown-and-unsupported USB, and the list goes on. Even the Retina display was a liability not an asset for users of many third party programs at the time it launched.

The fact that Apple’s maps program isn’t as good as the program it replaced isn’t a sign that Apple has stagnated. It’s a sign that they’re continuing their innovative tendencies.

So a 915 word op-ed piece hinges on a grand total of two observations: Apple filed a patent lawsuit and the new Maps aren’t as good as the old ones. Oh, and Steve is dead, and he was obviously the source of all Apple innovation.

Filed under Apple, Op-Ed

Mountain Lion: First Impressions from a habitual late adopter

2012-08-02 by . 4 comments

Mountain Lion: First Impressions from a habitual late adopter

I’m not an early adopter. I’m not a big fan of change. I still have a computer running Panther, if that says anything about my rate of technological uptake. I’m still using a cell phone that just has 12 keys on the front plus a power button and a send button.

But Wednesday morning as soon as I saw the notification in the App Store that it was available, for some crazy reason, I took the plunge and upgraded to Mountain Lion. I’ve never been a first day user of an operating system before. Why did I do it? Well, mostly because I knew there would be questions on Ask Different and I thought it would be fun to be able to answer them.

It occurs to me that since I’ve never done this whole “day one” thing before, perhaps I should write a blog entry about it. I’m clearly no John Siracusa, but here goes.

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Filed under Op-Ed, OS X

Interesting new UNIX commands/binaries in OS X Mountain Lion

2012-07-27 by . 35 comments

In addition to those on its well-known list of 200+ new features, OS X Mountain Lion also brings along a handful of new UNIX commands and binaries. Most are probably outside the scope of Ask Different (e.g. commands concerning Radius Authentication, Kerberos or Berkeley DB maintainance) but some of them may prove valuable to (aspiring) power users out there. As always, you will find more information in the corresponding man pages.

Administrator commands (/usr/sbin)

sharing – create share points for afp, ftp and smb services

This is a great addition to the UNIX shell level: a tool to create, modify and delete share points (aka shared directories). In its most basic form it can be used like this to add a share for a specific directory on afp, ftp and smb/Samba:

sudo sharing -a /Users/bob/bobs-toolbox

To turn off guest access to the newly-created share, use

sudo sharing -e /Users/bob/bobs-toolbox -g 000

Removing the share entirely is as easy as

sudo sharing -r /Users/bob/bobs-toolbox

In addition, sharing allows for individual names and access rights for all three sharing protocols and access to protocol-specific details.

The only drawback is that the command must always be run as root, but that’s probably only a minor issue for most users and uses.

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Filed under OS X

Minimal Mountain Lion Redux

2012-07-26 by . 1 comments

In my last blog post, I described my intent to run the Developer Preview of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion until such time as it was officially released without resorting to installing any third party software. It was in part an exercise in minimal computing and attempting to restrain myself from the temptations of installing (and indeed often being required to purchase) the latest and greatest apps and utilities, and in part an attempt to see if you could really just pick up and use a computer with just the built in software and still get by.

Well, I have to say that whilst I am glad that the OS is finally released and I can thus end the experiment, I am also really glad that I did it in the first place, as I have learned a number of things both about my own computing habits and also, possibly more importantly, about the innate completeness of a modern operating system.

So, first things first, the roll of shame. In my original piece, I said the following:

“I have the Developer Preview sat on my Macbook Air as we speak. And I am going to try my level best to not install a single piece of 3rd party software on it from now until it hits retail”

Did I manage it? Well, no, but then I always knew that there were some things that I could not (yet?) replace. Here is a list of all the applications that I installed over and above the base OS:

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Filed under Apple, Op-Ed, OS X

Folder Actions Tutorial: Automation, Meet the Filesystem

What are Folder Actions?

Everyone’s workflow includes repetitive tasks that are performed in response to files being added to or removed from folders: perhaps you start a Time Machine backup when you save an important file, always open Transmission when a .torrent file is downloaded, regularly check shared folders for new files, repeatedly upload resources to a remote server, or simply add a line to a log file whenever you add or delete files. Wouldn’t it be convenient if these tasks were automatically taken care of for you?

Folder Actions, one of OS X’s powerful automation and scripting features, can tell the system to monitor a folder and automatically execute an Automator workflow, AppleScript, or shell script when items are added to or removed from the folder. The ability to automatically do virtually anything as files are added to or removed from folders can be a huge time saver in any workflow.

As an introduction to Folder Actions (and, if you’re not already familiar with it, Automator), we’ll create a simple action that automatically prompts us to give our screenshots descriptive names as we take them.

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Mobee Desktop Hardware, Part 1: The Magic Bar

2012-06-21 by . 4 comments

Back in March I visited the San Francisco Apple Store located on One Stockton Street. It was the first time in a while I’d been to an Apple Store for no specific purpose, allowing me the leisure of simply browsing as well as taking in the wonderful setup they had for their Training Workshops and store layout in general. Upstairs, in their third party accessory section, my eye locked onto peripherals I had not previously heard of, I saw two of them with their own Apple-like, but notably distinct brand. These products were mobee’s Magic Bar, Magic Charger, and Magic Numpad. These three products being accessory pieces for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, Magic Mouse, and Magic Trackpad, respectively.

I immediately locked onto the Magic Bar and Magic Charger for one reason: Wireless peripherals are great and all, but fighting with batteries is a complete and utter pain. The best part of the iPhone is the very capable battery, and only needing to plug it into a computer or a wall outlet for a period of time in order charge it up. When it’s done? Disconnect the cable, and you’re free to roam around. No tearing off the flimsy black cover and replacing a battery, slotting it into a dock or otherwise, plug it in when you need juice, unplug and walk away when you’re done. This is pretty much the only sensible way to work with wireless devices nowadays. My Nintendo Wii-motes have third party battery packs from Niko, and a charging stand that I can simply set the ‘motes on when I’m done playing. 360 controllers? Microsoft’s Play & Charge Kit. The PS3′s Six-axis controllers? Well, those don’t even have user-serviceable battery compartments to begin with, simply a micro-USB connection suitable for plugging into the PS3 directly, or a charging station as well.

And what if you don’t use L-Ion replacements? There’s always rechargeable batteries, of course! Apple seems to agree, given their Battery Charger which appeared along side the debut of the Magic Trackpad. However, rechargeable batteries, in my own purely anecdotal experience, have a much shorter lifespan before beginning to suffer from severely diminished capacity. It’s either that, or I can’t keep charged/un-charged batteries apart (which really, is COMPLETELY possible). Using standard batteries is easier, use ‘em and toss ‘em, but it does feel like quite a waste, and against the ethos of Apple’s environmental standards.

Enter Mobee, and their line of battery replacement accessories. Today, The Magic Bar.

The Magic Bar installed in a keyboard, Charging Dock, and Box

The Magic Bar is a battery pack and inductive charger set for Apple Wireless Keyboards and Magic Trackpads. I had initially assumed due to width of the box it would only be for the keyboard, but no! Opening The Magic Bar’s box reveals three components, a charging base, a battery pack, and a micro-USB cable. Or is it mini-USB? For the life of me I’ll never remember. Installation is incredibly simple.

  • Unscrew the battery compartment from the keyboard
  • Replace the batteries with the battery pack
  • Since it is presumably your first time, plug in the charging base and slide the keyboard into it.
  • Done! There was a step 3, I guess the iMac is still easier.

Set the battery compartment screw in a safe place, it’s a bit small and probably makes for a nasty choking hazard. Throw it in the Magic Bar box! If you ever switch back, you can simply swap components. Since the Magic Bar components are inductive charging, there is no snapping in, screwing, or other obnoxious process for fitting the two pieces together, this is also why the battery pack protrudes out of the keyboard.

While charging, the base station’s status light blinks a warm green until it’s finished. The inside of the Magic Bar box has a short guide that explains the simple order of information the light conveys:

  • Blinking green, charging.
  • Solid green, charged.
  • Solid red, waiting for a device to be inserted.
  • Blinking red, failure.

Once the device is done charging, I can simply cast the charging base aside, and move the keyboard wherever it’s most comfortable.

The battery pack over the Magic Trackpad

As previously mentioned, none of this is specific to the keyboard, if you’d rather use it with a Magic Trackpad as well, the process is the same. This is actually the absolute best feature of The Magic Bar. After buying The Magic Bar once and having the charging base, simply buy a “replacement” battery pack. One for the wireless keyboard, one for the Magic Trackpad. After installing each battery pack, simply slide the device that needs to be recharged into the base. Simple, right? (The answer is yes.)

One minor note: The Magic Bar only works with 2x-AA battery Wireless Keyboards. Among the wireless keyboards in my household, I do have an older model that took three batteries. Since the battery pack is not wide enough, it fails to make a connection and will not work with those keyboards. Check the underside of your Wireless Keyboard and ensure there are only two battery icons near the battery replacement bay.

My single minor gripe with the device; When placed in the charging base, the device does have a small amount of wiggle to it. When moving my hand back to the trackpad I have occasionally slid it out of the charger on accident, or just kind of wiggled back and forth when going to definitively click in the trackpad button. This comes with the territory of being a loose fit, easy enough enough to slide in and not forcing you to slide, snap, latch, or otherwise firmly connect the device in order to charge it. It’s a tradeoff I’m perfectly fine with, as it’s not a constant problem.

I can’t express enough how simple this has made things for me in the few days I’ve had it. I love convenient devices, and mobee has not disappointed me. In my eyes they are in the same league as Twelve South, being able to eloquently solve problems by manufacturing simple, and aesthetically pleasing devices. Perhaps the best part is that these devices are also incredibly cost-effective. $40 in the Apple Store or online direct from Mobee, $30 for the replacement battery packs. Note also this means they’re selling the charging base rather cheap. A mere $10 premium once.

Next: The Magic Charger.

Podcast #27: CSS Workflow and Tools

2012-06-11 by . 1 comments

This is the twenty-seventh episode of the Ask Different Podcast. Your hosts this week are Kyle Cronin, Jason Salaz, Nathan Greenstein.

  • We’re back already from our summer hiatus! Our topic this week is CSS development on the Mac.
  • The software one spends the most time in when working with CSS is, of course, a text editor. Nathan is a fan of Chocolat, which is lightweight but full featured. Kyle likes TextMate for its powerful CSS bundle features. Jason loves Vim for its many powerful shortcuts and built-in editing tools.
  • The next step up from a plain text editor is a dedicated IDE for web development, which usually includes previewing and deployment tools. We’re all big fans of Coda 2; its recent update has brought its capabilities beyond those of Espresso. The Hints and Navigator panels are especially helpful for working with CSS.
  • We also discuss Diet Coda, a pared-down version of Coda made for iPad. The app’s editing and terminal features are attractive, but being limited to working with files directly on a server reduces the app’s value.
  • Beyond a good editor, there are a few tools that can streamline the writing process even farther. Nathan has set up TextExpander to automatically expand abbreviations of properties that are hard to type. If  a design is started in Photoshop, the CSS Hat plugin can also save time by automatically generating CSS rules to match the styling of an object.
  • After writing CSS comes testing it. A tool called LiveReload streamlines this process considerably by automatically injecting new CSS into a webpage as you save, which is especially helpful when tweaking the design of a stateful web app. CodeKit is a similar tool with some compelling features, but its reloading capabilities are less robust.
  • The WebKit developer tools are hugely helpful when tweaking CSS, allowing one to quickly change and test values, and when debugging, showing the cascade so one can diagnose specificity issues. Additionally, the Firefox developer tools have been greatly improved recently and are becoming comparable to the WebKit tools, even boasting a few unique capabilities.
  • Returning to the process of writing CSS, we discuss two preprocessors, SASS and LESS. These languages are supersets of CSS that add helpful features like variables and nesting. LiveReload and CodeKit can automatically compile code written in these languages into standard CSS.
  • After testing comes deployment, starting with minification. Smaller is a great tool that allows one to easily combine and minify all the code in a deployment folder. An IDE’s tools can be used to upload files to a deployment server, as well as dedicated apps like Transmit.
  • Finally, we share one final tool that can be helpful when either working on a team or reading existing CSS. ProCSSor can prettify and un-minify CSS documents, ensuring that they adhere to the formatting rules you select.

This episode was recorded on June 9th, 2012. You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or iTunes. We would appreciate it if you could take a second to give us a rating on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you! Please feel free to leave a comment on this post or e-mail us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.

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Ask Different Podcast’s Summer Hiatus: Off the Beaten Path

2012-05-07 by . 0 comments

We bring you a short update to talk about our inconsistent schedule over the last two months, and to report that it will continue for the near future. We are calling a summer sabbatical hiatus off from the Podcast in order to have some time to straighten our schedules back out.

However, we’re not leaving the site! We simply do not have enough time to focus on projects as demanding as the podcast and this very blog. Your contributions to the blog are still welcome, and there are a handful of users reviewing and scheduling posts besides us.

We leave you with a project that has occupied some of our time in the interim. The three of us put together an automatically generated community ad that we hope will attract even more attention to questions with bounties.

Thanks for listening, we look forward to returning to the show soon.

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