The Mac is the Apple ][ of our times, which is to say, it's dead

Thursday October 6, 2016

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The Apple ][ was, of course, Apple’s first big success. However, it became clear even before the launch of the Macintosh in 1984 that the Apple ][ was dead, even if its death was dramatically protracted – Apple would go on to launch the Apple ][ GS, for example, which competed against the Macintosh and gave hope to hard-core fans.

But everybody knew in their hearts that the Mac was the future, even if millions did argue otherwise.

I’d like to suggest the Mac lineup as we know it today is the Apple ][ of our times. It’s already dead, and has been for several years. Apple might invest in it heavily even today but its pulsating heart has only a finite number of beats left.

Taking the place of the early Macintosh in our modern day scenario is iOS. That’s all Apple really cares about right now.

You want evidence, you say?

  • Apple partnered with IBM recently. They’re flogging iOS, not macOS. It’s about mobile and nothing else. (Edit: Somebody’s pointed out that IBM have invested heavily in Macs for their own desktops but to the best of my knowledge IBM are not promoting the Mac desktop in the same way they’re promoting iOS and iPad; that’s a world of difference.)

  • iOS is maturing into a desktop-class OS with the iPad Pro (note my choice of language there – desktop-class, not necessarily desktop-style or desktop clone). It’s nowhere near there yet but unless you’re myopic you can’t fail to spot the clear trajectory. Notably, this is where Apple’s hottest software engineers are working.

  • Most but not all key new features added to macOS/OS X in recent years have been there to prop-up iOS devices/mobile. Continuity. Copy and paste between mobile/desktop. Apple Pay in desktop Safari. Desktop/Docs in iCloud. Messages “improvements” (a poor shadow of the same app within iOS). What’s happened to introducing features like Spotlight, or Smart Search, or Folder Actions? Things that actually HELP desktop users – and that don’t require partnering to a mobile device?

  • The new features added to macOS this time around are incompetent and unfinished. Nearly everybody agrees. The new PDFKit is driving people crazy, with people saying it was seemingly created by an intern. Some of the GUI design is straight from Windows 98 (the new file management system to free-up space). Many features are undocumented and lead to unexpected outcomes (iCloud Docs/Desktop integration). Siri on Mac is just a single window with limited system integration in terms of carrying out tasks other than searching (ask it some questions and it answers with iPhone answers – say “Silence” to it and see what happens).

  • Apple is allegedly having trouble getting the best engineers because its corporate culture is considered toxic. Those employees with the best skills and talents want to work on mobile, because that’s what’s hot. Aside from a group of old hands who enjoy it, I imagine there’s a real trouble getting anybody with real talent to work on macOS, and that’s what it really really needs right now. And it shows clearly.

  • No new Macs! It’s actually humorous to look at the “buy/don’t buy” list. 3-4 years since updates! OK, so this is set to change over the coming weeks but Apple’s tardiness until this point is like having somebody scream into your ear from an inch away.

  • Apple’s working hard on new ARM chips that are smashing people’s expectations. But where’s the investment in x86? Oh, there isn’t any. Yes, x86 has many issues but there’s an arbitrary discrimination happening here. Apple could invest in x86 chip design. They always could’ve done so, since the first Intel Macs. Was using Intel’s chips ultimately a stopgap measure until ARM matured? Are there abandoned blueprints for an Apple x86 chip somewhere in Apple’s labs?
  • The future is this: macOS will still have a place, but it’ll probably be as a server release largely to prop-up iOS devices (that is, enterprise provisioning for iOS devices), or for high-end video/photo editing on the desktop, which Apple will support via occasional Mac Pro releases (or maybe some future remix of the Mac mini) as it always has. macOS will be like Windows 2000/NT – capable, and reliable, but no frills. To be honest, I’d like this better than the recent releases of macOS/OS X, which have been a little tone deaf to the needs of actual users, and have come with a feeling that new features are bolted-on.

    If there’s to be a modern day Apple ][ GS-like moment, it may already have passed with the “trashcan” Mac Pro – a promising effort that’s fallen flat and left a lot of people very bitter.

    You might say to me that sales of Apple’s Mac range have increased in recent years, and that Apple’s bucking the downward trend of the entire PC industry. Much the same kind of arguments could’ve been made about the Apple ][ back in the day. They mean nothing, because the here-and-now means little in the world of computing.

    So long Mac. You were beautiful. Now it’s time to see how Apple overcomes some monstrous usability and user-interface design issues with iOS and, particularly, the iPad Pro. If anybody can, Apple can.

    Image of Apple ][ by Marcin Wichary (cropped slightly from original), cc-by-2.0


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Thoroughly testing your Mac's RAM – an up-to-date how to (2016; macOS Sierra-tested)

Monday October 3, 2016

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Testing a Mac’s RAM is a difficult task because several apps people used to rely upon are old, and no longer guaranteed to work. Apple has also removed the more thorough boot-time diagnostic app on newer Macs.

Here’s a way to test a Mac’s RAM that’s been tested on an up-to-date model MacBook Pro running macOS Sierra. The steps might seem complicated but are actually pretty simple to follow. Print them off if needed.

1. To get the piece of software we want to use for testing we first need to install the Homebrew subsystem of command line tools. Don’t worry – this is invisible during everyday use and takes up hardly any space on your disk. To install it open a Terminal window – which you’ll find in the Utilities folder of the Applications list of Finder – and paste in the following:

/usr/bin/ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL"

Note that although this might appear as several lines on this website, it’s actually a single line command – triple-click to select it, then copy it, and paste it into the Terminal window via Ctrl+V.

2. Once that command has finished working its way through, we next need to install the app we’re going to use for this test – memtester. Paste the following into the Terminal window:

brew install memtester

3. Now we need to boot the Mac into single-user mode, which is a stripped down version of macOS/OS X. To do so, reboot as usual and when the Apple logo appears hold down Cmd+S until a command prompt appears (note: If you have a firmware password set you’ll need to disable it temporarily and if you have FileVault activated then you’ll need to hold Cmd+S before and after typing your boot time login password).

Lots of text will flow past on the screen as you boot into single-user mode, a bit like when Linux boots, but you can ignore it.

4. Type the following at the command-line prompt when it appears:

top -l 1 -s 0|grep PhysMem

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This will report a figure something like the following:

807M used (795M wired), 7G unused

We’re interested in the figure at the start of the line, which in the example above is 807.

5. Grab a calculator because it’s time for some basic math! Start by multiplying the number of gigabytes of RAM in your computer by 1024. For example, if your Mac has 8GB of RAM then this would be 8 × 1024 = 8192. Now subtract the figure you discovered above. In my case this would be 8192 – 807 = 7485. Finally, replace the right-hand two digits of the outcome with zeros. Continuing our example, that leaves us with 7400.

7. Back at the command line, type


… followed by a space, and then the figure you worked out above, followed by M. Then type a space again, and then simply 1 (that is, one, not the letter L). To continue our example above, we would type the following:

memtester 7400M 1

8. Hit Enter to start the test.

Now you must wait. The memory test will take an hour or two to complete and it’s likely your Mac’s fans will spin-up while it does. You’ll see a progress display as it works through the tests.

If the memory is OK the app will return you to the command prompt with “Done”, with an “OK” after each of its tests. That means the tests were carried out without errors. If you see x02 or x04 then sadly your RAM has issues. Similarly, if your Mac crashes, reboots or freezes then it’s likely the RAM is at fault, although this might also be caused by an overheating issue or poor fan cooling.

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(Note that messages about “SmartBattery” can be ignored. This is merely the MacBook’s battery recharging or the charger being attached/detached.)

To reboot your system to the standard desktop just type exit. If you need to quit the test while it’s running tap Ctrl+C, wait a few seconds and then type exit.

Using memtester isn’t 100% perfect because it only tests free memory, and not all memory, because a fraction of that – likely to be around 700MB on most systems – is used by macOS itself. However, if that patch of memory was faulty then it’s likely macOS wouldn’t be able to boot in any event.


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The one thing to do to make your MacBook Pro live longer

Saturday October 1, 2016

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It’s been known since the introduction of Intel Macs that the folks who put together Apple’s laptops apply too much thermal grease.

Thermal grease is the gooey stuff that’s applied to the CPU and GPU (if one is present) to ensure the best possible bond with the heatsink.

A heatsink is a metal device that uses copper to rapidly radiate heat away from chip(s). It’s connected to one or two fans that blow across it. Therefore, proper bonding of the heatsink to the chip(s) via thermal grease provides the best possible cooling of the chip(s).

Many accuse Apple’s heavy handed approach of actually working to insulate rather than efficiently cool the chip(s). This means the fans have to work harder to keep the chip(s) cool, and therefore the battery life gets used up more quickly.

Even worse, some say the excess heat can lead to premature death of the chip(s), and therefore the MacBook Pro itself.

The evidence
Take a look at the state of my 15in mid-2015 MacBook Pro after I’d removed the heatsink to undertake the steps outlined below:

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In other words, this is the grease applied at Apple’s manufacturing plant. Yuk! The chip at the left is the CPU, while the chip at the right is the GPU (note: not all MacBook Pros feature a GPU). Above the MacBook Pro case you can see the heatsink itself, which in the case of most MacBook Pros is a wide metal bar.

Ideally the grease would be just on the chip die surfaces, rather than spread across the entire top of the chip surface.

I’ve rebonded/regreased the heatsink of every MacBook Pro I’ve owned (and a white Intel MacBook before that). All had extremely long lives. If you can’t wait to see the results of my latest effort, scroll to the bottom of this web page.

I advise you rebond/regrease YOUR MacBook Pro too, although only after reading the following really, really important conditions:

1. Only do it if the MacBook Pro is out of its warranty period;

2. Only do it if you know what you’re doing – it’s a moderately easy task if you’ve ever been inside a PC to replace a component, for example, but likely impossibly tricky if you’re new to all this; you may have to remove the logic board depending on the model of your MacBook Pro;

3. You do all of this at your own risk. You take responsibility for it. You make the choice to do it. I tried hard not to make any mistakes below but I cannot be held liable for any omissions or bloopers.

What you’ll need
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The following items are required:

  • Thermal grease, a.k.a. heatsink compound. That’s the syringe in the photo above. You only need a tiny, tiny amount – literally maybe a gram or two – and will be forced to buy way more than you’re ever going need. People online argue about which brand is best. Just google if you really want to.
  • Isopropyl alcohol, to clean off the old thermal grease. Again you won’t need a huge amount. I got a 250ml bottle and used almost none of it.
  • Paper towels and Q-tips for cleaning off the old grease (also known as kitchen roll and cotton buds for UK readers).
  • Anti-static protection ideally including an antistatic mat, earthing plug and wristband. I really cannot emphasize this enough. Some professionals laugh at precautions like this but the risk of zapping a component with static is serious. It’s a mistake to assume that a zap will outright destroy a component, or that the zap will be seen. The electrical discharge might be invisible and might just damage something so that it becomes faulty 1 in 1000 times it’s used. Why take the risk? Main feature illustration
  • Screwdrivers, including the right size and shape for your MacBook Pro, including its bottom case and the screws used to fix the heatsink in place. I used a bag of screwdrivers bought to repair iPhones. They cost almost nothing on eBay.
  • Metal polish to polish the heatsinks, of which more later. I used an old bottle of silver polish I had hanging around. You need one of those marginally abrasive old-fashioned polishes, rather than one of the newer magical liquid cleaners.

The steps you need to follow
Broadly speaking you need to do the following:

1. Remove the bottom case of your MacBook Pro.
2. Possibly remove the logic board.
3. Detach the heatsink.
4. Clean everything.
5. Polish the heatsink copper pads.
6. Reapply thermal grease.
7. Put everything back together again.

All of this typically involves unscrewing a handful of screws, disconnecting some logic board connectors, and perhaps rerouting a cable or two. However, I’m NOT going to go into how to do this because:

(a) The steps vary quite a lot depending on the model, and;
(b) The steps are detailed far better than I could ever write them over at iFixIt. Often there will be a specific guide to removing the heatsink for your model, or you might just have the follow the general teardown steps and stop when you’ve removed your heatsink.

Just search for your model at iFixIt, which will be identified by its year of manufacture and size of screen – both of which you can discover by clicking the Apple menu, then About This Mac.

Before even lifting a screwdriver read and reread the steps for your model so you’re absolutely sure what you’re doing, and what to expect. Print them off if it helps.

Don’t forget the most important early step, which is to disconnect the battery from the logic board as soon as you open the case.

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Cleaning and polishing
Once you’ve got the heatsink off, use the dry paper towel to remove as much of the old thermal grease as possible from both the chip(s) and the heatsink surface. Don’t scape! Using even a plastic tool to scrape can cause scratches in the soft copper used for the heatsink surface. That means the heatsink won’t be as efficient because less surface area will be able to touch the chip.

Next, use the alcohol to remove the remaining heatsink compound by applying it to a piece of paper towel or a Q-tip. Use the alcohol sparingly, and definitely DO NOT saturate either, but try to get the chip(s) and the chip die(s) as clean as possible.

Use small amounts of metal polish to shine the heatsink copper pads that make contact with the chip(s). Polish repeatedly but carefully until you can start to see your reflection in them. Take a look at the photo below.

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It’s not the best shot but the left-hand heatsink shows the reflection of my fingers taking the photograph, while the right-hand heatsink is still dull and fuzzy because it hasn’t yet been polished. While polishing be careful not to apply too much force so that you bend or distort the heatsink component.

I didn’t believe polishing the heatsink was worthwhile until I tried it and saw a massive improvement in cooling. In fact, I rebonded the heatsink on two separate occasions, polishing only on the second attempt. Temperatures dropped substantially between each attempt.

Once you’ve got the heatsink copper pads polished nicely, use the alcohol to thoroughly clean them. Ensure there’s no fluff or dust on either the chip(s) or heatsink coppers.

At this point it’s not a bad idea to clean dust and fluff out of the fans, and the air intake areas. Canned compressed air is good for this.

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Apply a tiny, tiny pea-size amount of heatsink compound in the centre of each of the CPU, and then the GPU if you have one. Don’t spread it yourself! It will be squashed out and spread evenly when the heatsink is reapplied, which you should do next, and then follow your initial steps in reverse to reassemble your MacBook Pro. Don’t forget to reattach the battery before screwing the case back on!

Test your MacBook Pro once it’s booted by running lots of apps and really stressing the machine until the fans are spinning. If you get any kind of crash or freeze then you might not have applied the heatsink properly, and should repeat the steps above.

What results to expect
Below are before and after figures for temperatures, as provided by the excellent Hardware Monitor app.

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To get these figures I closed all apps and then let my MacBook Pro idle for around five minutes, only moving the mouse cursor occasionally to stop the MacBook Pro entering sleep mode.

The difference is quite incredible. Look at the CPU and GRAPH figures, which represent the CPU and GPU respectively. Note that the fans, identified here as LEFT and RIGHT, were spinning at their minimum rotational velocities, so don’t reflect any temperature difference in this instance.

Also note that the “before” figures above are from my SECOND attempt at rebonding/regreasing the heatsink, at which point I polished the heatsink coppers. Here’s what the figures looked like prior to my first attempt, when the MacBook Pro was still using the grease applied in the factory:

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When this measurement was taken the MacBook Pro was doing nothing in particular, with a handful of basic apps open.

In other words, comparing the factory-applied thermal grease to my own attempts, I might’ve managed to drop the CPU and GPU idle temperatures by 8 degrees.

That’s just incredible. Now do you see why this is worth doing for a long and healthy life for your MacBook Pro?


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macOS Sierra's hidden window expansion trick

Wednesday September 28, 2016

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We’ve already described macOS Sierra’s new window-snapping feature but we didn’t realize Sierra also introduces a new feature that lets you ultra-quickly expand windows to the edge of the screen.

Using the feature is simple. Just hover the mouse cursor over the edge of a window until it turns into some kind of arrow cursor, and then double-click. The window will expand in the direction the arrow was pointing.

See the animated GIF below for an example.

UPDATE: Matthias Gansrigler points out that holding down the Option (Alt) key while performing the double-click causes the window to expand in both directions. Give it a try to see what he means!

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