Apple's messy mistake in releasing OS betas

Wednesday June 15, 2016

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If you’re a fan of Apple hardware, like me, then you won’t fail to miss headlines recently like these, which followed the WWDC 2016 keynote speech and the release of the various OS betas:

  • 50 new iOS 10 features!
  • macOS Sierra: Siri in-depth
  • Watch OS 3.0 fixes all your Apple Watch issues

You might even see people wailing on forums or Reddit about bugs in the OS betas, and requesting help for ways of getting around them.

It’s all wasted words, filling the internet with cruft that’ll be useless in a few months. These are beta releases, not final releases. Nowhere near. Features might disappear, or end-up being radically different. This has certainly happened in the past with Apple’s OS betas.

There’s a geeky interest for people like me in plotting such changes, but for blogs and news outlets to authoritatively discuss what’s “new” is utter nonsense at best, and deceitful at worst for those users whose knowledge is shaky as to what a beta release actually is. Postings like these also deflate the actual experience of using the main release when it arrives in the Fall – which is when most us will WANT articles like the above!

Apple requests in the beta EULA that people don’t publicize the software but this is massively and widely flouted, seemingly with zero consequence. Copies of the betas were being passed around on sites like Reddit literally within minutes of the keynote announcement ending. Indeed, I suspect there are more people using pirated versions of the beta OS releases than there are actual developers – and many of them are expecting an authentic Apple experience, rather than a sub-par beta. Surely this can’t be good for Apple’s overall image?

Apple was once legendarily secretive with its beta releases, of course. I recall asking people on anonymous forums about what they knew, and even then they were too scared to reveal anything (eventually I bought my own developer membership to gain access for the books I was writing at the time).

Now it feels the pendulum has swung massively the other way. I doubt Apple’s unaware of this kind of publicity and it may well be part of Apple’s grand marketing plan to build anticipation for their hardware, which is where the money is. However, it’s having the effect of turning all Apple’s major software releases into damp squibs, and outright confusing millions of ordinary users who don’t follow these things so closely (“So is the update actually available, or what?”) Rather than building excitement, all these unpoliced beta releases are doing is dissipating enjoyment.

Apple needs to be a little more in control of the publicity machine – and who’d‘ve thought anybody would ever say that?! Personally, I’d like to see a controlled number of articles from authoritative sources, such as Ars Technica or The Loop, where Apple affords permission to break the licensing agreement. Outside of that, I don’t want to see anything – especially on cheap and sketchy blogs or YouTube channels. In any case the news sources and blogs that are running frankly deceitful features ought to preface each in very heavy type pointing out that theirs is a look at a beta, and not a final release – more of a gaze into a crystal ball than a conclusive review of software. But do you know what? I don’t think that’s going to happen because that might drive away readers.

And whenever I see a user griping about a bug they’ve found in an iOS or macOS beta, I try to point out that it’s not on a public forum they should be complaining, but Apple’s bug reporting system. That’s the whole damned point of a beta release – it’s a deal between you, the user, and the developer of the app! But, don’t you know, I get nowhere.

You might disagree with me about all of the above but I hope if nothing else that people will start debating this issue and that maybe Apple has a think about how they’re handling the beta releases. At the moment it feels a lot like everything is out of control – and that’s leading to the user experience and fun being seriously diluted.

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The bull***t-free guide to Mac battery life

Saturday June 4, 2016

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My MacBook Pro’s reached that time in its life when the battery is diminishing slightly in capacity, so I’ve been looking into how to get the most possible usage between charges. There’s a lot of received wisdom about battery life and, as with so much computing advice, much of it is bullhonkey. Indeed, my research has found some surprising factors can dramatically affect battery life.

I used as a testbed a mid-2015 15in MacBook Pro (2.8GHz i7 CPU, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage). To measure power consumption in wattage I had two options. The first was to use a mains-power plug-in wattage meter. This would’ve involved disconnecting the battery within my MacBook Pro in order to remove it from the power-usage equation – simply not an option.

Instead, I chose to use Hardware Monitor, an app that amongst many other things monitors the Mac’s internal sensors in order to report a wattage figure. Alas, we have no real way of knowing if this is accurate or representative (I contacted Hardware Monitor’s developer and even he doesn’t know), so the test results below are decidedly unscientific. I advise you to get the app and test yourself.

The MacBook Pro’s magsafe power lead was disconnected during testing so that the battery was discharging. The wattage figure fluctuated massively at all times because of OS X’s seemingly infinite number of background tasks, all of which drew power as they did things like access the storage or network, so I simply stared at the wattage readout for 20-30 seconds for each measurement and made a note of the lowest figure reported. Nearly always the reading would stabilize for several seconds at this figure, or within 0.1 watt.

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What we’re looking for
The amount of electrical power used by a device is measured in watts. More watts used = battery life used-up. Everything your Mac does involves the use of power, of course. My MacBook Pro tended to have a “resting” figure of between 6-10 watts when nothing was happening on the system. In attempting to eke out the most battery life, I was looking to reduce this figure as much as possible. Even one or two watts more energy usage can burn through battery life more quickly.

Screen brightness
Apple reduced the energy demands of portable displays by switching to LED backlighting a few years ago. However, the screen is still believed the biggest consumer of power while you’re out and about. My tests supported this statement, but it isn’t necessarily as straightforward as “less brightness = more battery life”.

See the graph below. To create the measurements I started with a completely dark screen, then tapped the screen brightness button to increase the on-screen display (OSD) by one notch for each measurement I made.

As you can see on the graph, the lower brightness levels according to the OSD don’t vary much in terms of energy usage. Up to about four notches, which is perhaps the acceptable lowest setting for a moderately-lit room, and there’s little difference. After that, however, the wattage figure ramps up quickly. Beyond the mid-way point of eight notches on the OSD and you’re essentially increasing power usage by around one watt for each notch.

The moral of the story: Keep brightness beneath 50% but don’t punish yourself by setting it to a single notch so that you can barely see anything. Four notches seems the best choice.

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Keyboard backlighting
This was a surprise: Setting keyboard backlighting brightness to full increased power consumption by a mere 0.4-0.5 of a watt. Increasing keyboard brightness to 50% reduced this figure only by 0.1-0.2 watts.

In other words, keyboard brightness has much less impact on battery life than you might think, although if you’re in for a long spell between charges then keep it off. Turning it down makes little difference – you might as well have it on full, or off.

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Turning off Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi
The first big surprise of my tests was that turning off the MacBook Pro’s Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi function made no difference to power usage (0.1 watt, which is negligible). This is perhaps because Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chipsets are insanely efficient nowadays. It’s important to note that I’m referring here to merely having these features turned on or off. If they’re actually in use sending or receiving data then there will likely be significant power usage, but I had no way of discovering exactly what this was because I’m unable to measure the power consumption of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth traffic discretely. UPDATE: I found a way of measuring Wi-Fi power usage when receiving data. See bottom of this piece.

However, you should still turn off both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth if you don’t need them because it’ll prevent the myriad of Mac background processes from using them, thus saving power not only by avoiding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth traffic but perhaps sending the background processes temporarily to sleep (and don’t forget that all tasks and apps on your Mac eat power). Your Mac is virtually always syncing iCloud data, for example, or seeking nearby devices for handoff tasks.

However, having Wi-Fi or Bluetooth switched on, per se, isn’t an issue. Myth busted.

Discrete graphics
You can skip this bit if your Mac doesn’t have a discrete GPU. If it does, keep reading…

Some MacBooks have both integrated Intel graphics plus a discrete AMD or Nvidia GPU. There’s no questioning the received wisdom that discrete (GPU) graphics eat battery life far more than integrated graphics – they do – but you can use an app like gfxCardStatus to force the use of integrated graphics only. This is free of charge. Just click its menu bar icon once installed and make your choice.

You might have read that some apps can’t manage without a discrete GPU. Once again, this is a classic example of computing wisdom bullhonkey. For example, Photoshop will run just fine with integrated graphics. It’s just that a tiny minority of specialist tasks like applying complex filters will complete much more quickly if the discrete GPU is used. On the other hand, you simply won’t see any performance difference for everyday tasks. Let’s rephrase that just in case it didn’t go in – it’s extremely unlikely you “need” a discrete GPU.

gfxCardStatus also reports when OS X decides to switch to the discrete GPU, and thereby shows just how seemingly random OS X can be in switching. Some web pages appear to cause OS X to switch, for example, even though forcing a switch back to integrated graphics via gfxCardStatus makes absolutely no difference to the browser performance. Using the Photos app always switches to the discrete GPU, although I can’t think of a single reason why this is necessary. (Ergo, here’s a tip: Don’t use Photos if your MacBook Pro has a discrete GPU and you’re using battery power.)

Do you know what? I’m inclined to think the whole GPU thing is bullhonkey too and little more than a sales pitch. Sure, if you use graphics intensively for things like gaming or rendering HD video effects then you might feel the pinch but for all day to day tasks it’s a waste of silicon.

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The next huge surprise in my tests was that scrolling webpages using the trackpad causes a massive jump in power usage. In fact, all graphically-heavy tasks do so, such as opening Mission Control or Launchpad.

The difference is that you might open Mission Control once or twice every five minutes, if that, although you’ll be scrolling virtually constantly.

The solution if you really want to maximize that battery life is to scroll web pages using the Up/Down cursor keys. This is jerky, of course, but simply doesn’t cause the huge wattage spike. Even keeping your finger on the Up/Down cursor key does NOT cause a wattage spike.

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Other interesting things and advice
Attaching a USB stick appeared to increase power consumption by one watt, which I thought kinda interesting, but that was the end of my tests. If there’s anything you’d like me to look into then please let me know in the comments below.

One other thing: The Safari browser uses a lot less energy than browsers based on the Blink rendering engine, which includes Google Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, and others. Therefore, the use of Safari is advised when you’re out and about, at least. (For what it’s worth Firefox is roughly between Safari and Blink-based browsers in terms of power usage, so isn’t advised either.)

In a browser review test I did for Macworld, I also noticed that the Safari Technology Preview used even less energy than Safari – although at the present time this is perhaps too buggy to use.

Notably, most if not all of the built-in OS X apps are more energy efficient than third-party options, although it’s only with an app like a browser that’s used near-constantly that you’re likely to feel any effect on battery life. However, learn to quit any app that you’re not currently using when on battery power, and quit all unused browser tabs. Switching to the old days of having just one web page open in your browser is a battery-friendly choice.

UPDATE: I managed to test the power used in Wi-Fi data transfer using the curl command in the Terminal to download a large file, while closing all other apps. A “resting” figure of around 6.5 watts jumped up to a fairly consistent 15.2 watts when the download began, maxing out my 70Mbps DSL connection. I suspect the curl command’s own energy usage is negligible, so that’s around 8-9 watts required to download data (Wi-Fi connection data for the curious: 5GHz, WPA2, Noise: -93dBm, RSSI: -47 dBm, Tx Rate: 975 Mbps, so probably 802.11ac in use). So, yes, turning off Wi-Fi if you can is a good idea.


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Speeding-up Microsoft Office 2016 startup times

Wednesday May 18, 2016

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Word, Excel versions 2016 et al taking a long time to start? Some people report startup times of 60 seconds, even on Macs with solid-state storage!

Try the following, which rebuilds the dyld cache. Please don’t contact me saying this doesn’t do anything. It’s true that it shouldn’t help on a technical level but somehow it does appear to help those using Microsoft Office 2016 and who have long startup times for those apps. Go figure.

  1. Open a Terminal window, which you’ll find in the Utilities folder of the Applications list in Finder.
  2. Type the following two commands, one after the other, giving each time to finish. Note that you’ll be prompted for your login password. This is fine.
    sudo update_dyld_shared_cache -debug
    sudo update_dyld_shared_cache -force
  3. Reboot your Mac.


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Giving the iPad two fingers when using an external keyboard

Thursday May 12, 2016

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As is fashionable in blogging circles I’ve been investigating the reality of using my iPad Air 2 as a full-time workstation (although I still use my MacBook Pro in the office). It’s going well but key to the operation is an external Bluetooth keyboard – and also this following tip.

It’s been known for a while that if you bunch two fingers together while using the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, and slide them around, then you’ll turn the text cursor into a semi-mouse cursor, allowing you to move it around freely. The keyboard lettering will disappear to create a trackpad area.

Well, when an external keyboard is connected (or attached), you can use the two-finger trick anywhere on-screen to move the cursor around. Give it a try. You don’t have to limit your fingering scope to where the keyboard usually is.

Update: As reader Mayson points out below in the comments, this trick works even if you’re using the on-screen keyboard. I erred in thinking that the two-finger trick only worked if you started the movement within the on-screen keyboard area (and I’m sure this was indeed the case in earlier iOS releases). Arguably, however, this trick is less useful when the on-screen keyboard is visible because there simply isn’t enough space. The cursor seemingly randomly scrolls the text, and switches into highlight/word definition mode.

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