Proposed EU measures to extend product lifetime

I am happy to let you know that things are underway within the EU to ensure that products will last longer and will be easier to repair in the future. These are proposed measures at the moment, they’re not law, but they soon could be. The idea, according to the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) is to:

  1. Extend the lifetime of products
  2. Extend the availability of repair services
  3. Improve consumer information and rights
  4. Make these measures binding, not voluntary

If you live within the EU, I encourage you to contact your representatives to the EU Parliament and to ask them to support these proposed measures.

Even if this isn’t law yet, I am happy to see my own feelings on the matter mirrored by those in a position to do something about it. You may recall that I wrote an article called “Truly sustainable computing” back in August of 2015, where I proposed that desktop computers have a projected lifespan of 20 years and laptops and mobiles phones have a projected lifespan of 10 years.

The proposed EU measures would apply to every category of products, not just to computing devices, so things like cars, electronics, appliances would all be covered by the new regulations, ensuring we would once again have quality products that last a long time.

I say “once again” because those of you who are younger than me may not recall we had this sort of thing before the 1970s. The idea of “planned obsolescence” was introduced in the 1960s by manufacturers and that’s when things started to go downhill for products in terms of durability, repairability and build quality. You could still get kitchen appliances made in the late 1960s that looked and worked perfectly even in the late 2000s. You can no longer do that with today’s appliances.

It’s irresponsible in so many ways for us to generate mountains of e-waste every year and it’s doubly irresponsible for manufacturers to make them, one because they’re using the Earth’s resources without any regard for the future and two, because they make them easily breakable and disposable, contributing to the enormous amounts of waste that we generate as a race. It’s time we did something quantifiable and legally binding about this!

Permanent data storage

We need to focus our efforts on finding more permanent ways to store data. What we have now is inadequate. Hard drives are susceptible to failure, data corruption and data erasure (see effects of EM pulses for example). CDs and DVDs become unreadable after several years and archival-quality optical media also stops working after 10-15 years, not to mention that the hardware itself that reads and writes to media changes so fast that media written in the past may become unreadable in the future simply because there’s nothing to read it anymore. I don’t think digital bits and codecs are a future-proof solution, but I do think imagery (stills or sequences of stills) and text are the way to go. It’s the way past cultures and civilizations have passed on their knowledge. However, we need to move past pictographs on cave walls and cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Our data storage needs are quite large and we need systems that can accommodate these requirements.

We need to be able to read/write data to permanent media that stores it for hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years, so that we don’t lose our collective knowledge, so that future generations can benefit from all our discoveries, study us, find out what worked and what didn’t.

We need to find ways to store our knowledge permanently in ways that can be easily accessed and read in the future. We need to start thinking long-term when it comes to inventing and marketing data storage devices. I hope this post spurs you on to do some thinking of your own about this topic. Who knows what you might invent?

Mobile phones as desktop and laptop replacements

It’s high time we were able to come home and place our mobile phones in a dock that’s connected to a display, keyboard and mouse, and have it turn into a full-fledged desktop and laptop replacement. Mobile phones have sufficient computing power for most of our needs, they have the apps most of us use on desktops as well, and there are incredible energy savings to be had. Hardware manufacturers need to start making sincere, concerted efforts toward this end.

You may also want to read through this post of mine, where I tried my best to use a tablet (an iPad) as my main computer, only to be frustrated to no end by the lack of common ammenities and functionalities we’ve come to expect on desktops and laptops, simple things such as the use of a mouse, drag-and-drop functionality between folders, a finder/file explorer and the ability to easily access drives and files on the network.

I realize that people who engage in heavy computing on a daily basis, such as 4K video editing, 3D graphics and 3D video rendering, large-scale CAD projects, serious coding that requires powerful compilers and other such tasks, will still need very powerful desktop computers and even small server farms in order to do their jobs and I am in no way suggesting that they start using mobile phones to do their work.

We simply have to acknowledge that the majority of the population that uses computers can do just fine with the computing power of a mobile phone. I’m talking about the people who mostly check their email, use social networking sites and apps for social networking sites, plus some online banking and take casual photos and videos. What if all those people were able to use their mobiles phones as replacement desktops or replacement laptops? Wouldn’t that be a significant cost savings to them?

Looking at the greater picture, if all those people, or at least a significant portion of them did this, wouldn’t that translate into significant energy savings for cities, counties, states and countries? Aren’t we always talking about reducing our carbon footprint? Well, instead of using a laptop that consumes about 60W when plugged in, or a desktop that eats up about 200W, give or take, why not use a mobile phone that consumes 3-5W when plugged in?

Tablets not quite ready for mainstream computing

The new tablet from Apple, the iPad Pro, which comes in two sizes as of this year, is quite impressive. I’m sure they’re fast, and the addition of a stylus for more precise control is an interesting and fitting choice (which also hearkens back to the first tablets Microsoft made, years and years ago).

Apple’s push to market them as mainstream computing devices, as replacements for laptops and desktops is also interesting and worthwhile (and it also mirrors Microsoft’s past efforts in this area).

Yet I have to say that the time hasn’t yet come for it. Oh, we’re close — we’re very close — but trying to do all of one’s computing on a tablet is still an exercise in frustration, and it will continue to be so until tablets are robust enough to handle serious computing and more importantly, mobile apps evolve to the point where they offer all of the options of desktop apps. That will involve a concerted effort from both hardware and software makers of all shapes and sizes.

apple-ipad-pro

I’m glad that Apple’s picked up the ball on this and is running with it, but in my book, they haven’t won the game yet. Tablets are still a niche market when it comes to laptop and desktop replacement and let’s face it, most people use them to go on Facebook, YouTube or Netflix (hardly something that qualifies as work).

I’ve tried repeatedly to use an iPad as a desktop replacement, and while it works quite well for dawdling on the websites mentioned in the previous paragraph, even there the options offered by the mobile apps are limited.

For example, the Facebook Pages app doesn’t let me manage my pages the way the desktop version of Facebook lets me do it, because it doesn’t give me all of the options available to me there. So I still have to remember what I can’t do on my tablet and go back to my desktop to do those things. The YouTube app won’t let me access all of my comments and block offensive commenters. So when I’m traveling without access to my desktop, that’s a frustration. But some of you will say, “Why don’t you access those websites through the mobile browser and take care of things that way?” Because I’m automatically directed to mobile versions of those sites and I still don’t have access to the options I need.

I tried editing short videos on my iPad, and while the performance of iMovie app was pretty good, my tablet got pretty warm and ran through the battery as I edited simple clips, making me wonder what would happen if I tried to edit multiple camera angles and longer videos on it. Oh, wait, I can’t do that, because in the mobile iMovie app, there are no such options and of course there isn’t a mobile Final Cut Pro app. There’s no sound to video synchronization, the options for cutting soundtracks in and out are very limited, and the list goes on and on.

But surely you can work on a book on an iPad, right? Well, my wife tried to do that on one of her new books and she couldn’t. It’s just a text file at this point, somewhere between 100-200 pages. The iPad should have been able to work on it just fine but nope, it kept choking on it. The cursor would barely chug along as she typed, forcing her to take frequent breaks and allow it to catch up. The diacritics were all screwed up. After about half an hour of this nonsense, she gave up and went back to her laptop, which is an aged, mostly toothless beast, an 8-year old MacBook Pro with all the speed of a constipated sloth, but it still fares better than a tablet when it comes to editing books.

Well, what about the Photos app? Surely you can at least edit photos on it? Well, I downloaded photos from one of my DSLRs on my iPad (with the aid of this little gadget), and it got hot and ran through half the battery just importing them and generating previews. As I started to browse through them, it would take 5-7 seconds just to let me see a crisp version of each photo. Granted, these were raw files and I have an iPad Air, not an iPad Pro, but I can’t imagine things being too different on the newest, shiniest Pro tablet. I’ll give credit to the Photos app when it comes to editing photos taken with the iPad or the iPhone. It’s plenty fast on those. But the idea of replacing the notebook or a desktop means you’ll be editing photos taken with other cameras as well. And it’s just not there yet.

So where are we? Simply put, tablets are great for fiddling around on the internet but they just aren’t up to par when it comes to replacing notebooks and desktops, at least in my own experience.

That’s not to say I don’t yearn for the day when that happens! I’d love to only have to carry a tablet and a portable keyboard with me as I travel. Even at home there’d be huge benefits in terms of energy use (we’re talking tens of times less than notebooks or desktops), carbon footprint and other aspects. I do hope Apple (and others) continue to push the envelope on this. I particularly want to see mobile apps become full-fledged working apps for power users. Once that happens, hardware is bound to catch up with the needs of the software and we’ll be in business.

Electricity in Romania

Here’s what I keep saying to every friend and acquaintance who visits my house: you definitely need a voltage stabilizer if you live in Romania.

voltage-stabilizer

Around midnight last night the current started fluctuating wildly. Our UPS units were going crazy, clicking and kicking on and off, trying to contain the power fluctuations and cutoffs. After quickly shutting off all important equipment in the office, I went to see the voltage stabilizer down in the basement. It was going nuts as well trying to keep the current to our house stable, its arms moving quickly back and forth across the copper coils, barely containing the madness. I shut off all current to the house, fearing the stabilizer would burn out.

As I write this, it’s past noon (the following day) and the current still isn’t back on. Oh, it’s been back on and off sporadically, but nothing reliable to speak of. And I found out from one of our neighbors that the scrambling and bungling Electrica (that’s the power company) employees reversed the polarity on one of the phases in the neighborhood, which means they potentially burned out some people’s electrical appliances. As a matter of fact, another neighbor said his heating furnace shorted out and almost caught fire from all the electricity problems during the night.

This is part of the price one pays for living in Romania. It’s a beautiful country, but as they say, caveat emptor.

You may recall unreliable electrical power was partly to blame for a massive data loss that occurred to me a few years ago, before I replaced all wiring and fuses in the house and added the voltage stabilizer. The Drobo units I was using then simply didn’t have the capability to keep the data uncorrupted when experiencing multiple power failures within a short amount of time. They’d simply lose track of some bits, and then the corruption would spread across the drives, eating more and more data, to the point where the Drobo would cease to mount. Nowadays, Drobos come with built-in batteries that allow them to safely complete data operations and shut off in case of a power failure, and they also have some algorithms in place to ensure that data corruption is kept at bay, but it’s hard to trust a device meant to keep your data safe once it’s lost about 20% of your most treasured data, isn’t it?

Accountability for Syria

I want to point out a few more things related to my previous post about the Syrian refugees. Things such as the lack of accountability within foreign governments for the actions and strikes they authorized and which have contributed to the severity of the situation in Syria.

Here’s a video put together by Hans Robling that talks about the numbers:

And here’s an article on the need for accountability and responsibility in the actions of those who hold positions of power, with a short quote from it:

In short, the Romans honored the man who held absolutely nothing back — who put all he was as stake in everything he did and said.

Conversely, the man with nothing to lose, who risked nothing in his speech and behavior, was considered to be literally shameless (that is, unable or unwilling to be shamed). A shameless man acted without the check of honor and was thus regarded as contemptible, dangerous, and unworthy of trust. His whole being was considered a vanity; as Roman writer Petronius put it, a man who would not submit himself to test and challenge became nothing more than a “balloon on legs, a walking bladder.”

Finally, here’s a brief timeline that shows the escalation of the conflict. Allied forces condemned Assad, then negotiated with him, then armed and helped the militants, then started bombing them. This horrible flip-flopping and side-switching only made the situation worse and ultimately led to the situation we now see in Syria, with over 12 million people who have been forced to leave their homes by the fighting.

Is it just me, or have the United States been meddling long enough in the Middle East? I’d love to find out at least one instance during the last 60-70 years when their meddling in that region of the world led to something good.

Some may say, but we needed to go in, they were using chemical weapons. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. False flag events have been used before to trigger wars. The main point here is that a stable regime was in place in the country, a regime where most people could live their lives in relative safety. Now, after foreigners meddled there, the country is in shambles and we have seen the uprising of yet another radical terrorist group who’s literally having a blast, killing people and blowing things up left and right.

So I say those countries who’ve meddled directly in Syria should be the ones now responsible for fixing the situation. Instead of the EU having to shoulder the burden of integrating Syrian refugees, the United States and the other countries who triggered this horrible situation in one way or another should do it. It’s high time we instituted a certain level of responsibility in international affairs. If you break it, you fix it.

I don’t want to hear a peep about the chance of putting a “democratic” regime in place in that country. Look how effed up the situation is in Iraq and Afghanistan, where allied coalitions brought “democracy” a few years ago. I mistrust the Arab Spring movement, I’m not so sure it’s genuine. I think it’s orchestrated. It’s time we all realized democracy can’t work everywhere. Some regions of the world are best led autocratically, and as long as most of the people are doing okay, we shouldn’t stick our noses in their business, even if that autocrat doesn’t want to play nice with us.

Right now, what the US and its allies in the strikes on Syria need to realize is that they’ve got a terrorist group on the loose there that they’ve helped arm and strengthen and more to the point, this terrorist group is recruiting new members right from Western Europe, so it’s using Westerners to fight Eastern conflicts. That’s very screwed up and the West is directly or indirectly (depending on how you want to look at it) responsible for it.

Finally, this stupid meddling has displaced over 12 million Syrians from their homes, has exposed them to countless dangers, both in their own countries and abroad, as they try to get to safe places, and has created yet more bad blood between the East and the West. This stuff will haunt us for generations to come, and it’s all thanks to irresponsible politicians who aren’t being held accountable for their actions. 

Truly sustainable computing

Plenty could be written about this subject. I just want to call for change in two areas, because I believe they’d have the greatest impact here and now:

  1. Desktop computers should have a projected life span of 20 years.
  2. Laptops and mobile phones should have a projected life span of 10 years.

Why 10 years for laptops and mobile phones? Because they’re portable, they get banged up more and chances are they’re not going to look that good after 8-10 years, but they should be made to last that long nonetheless. Even if you won’t want to use them after a few years, you can sell them and someone else with a smaller budget will be happy to use them for as long as they last.

This means internal circuitry, which is most often the culprit in computing, should be made to last a looooong time. This is doable. There are cars and planes in use today with circuits made 15-20 years ago, which are still functioning properly. I think hardware meant for personal computing is purposely made to stop working after a few years, because computers are always upgraded and hardware manufacturers plan for obsolescence from the get-go.

There is a better way. Enclosures for all computing devices should be solidly made and finished. They should be stunningly beautiful and their design should stand the test of time. They should be easy to open and the innards serviced. And internal components should be made in such a way that they stand the rigors of heavy use through two decades, even if they become obsolete, market-wise. I think we’ve gotten to the point in computing where even if a computer is no longer desirable by someone who wants a fast machine, it’s still good enough for daily use by someone who does basic computing tasks.

I may live to eat the words in this paragraph, but surely USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, PCIe, 4K resolution and other goodies that are currently available should suffice for a while. I can’t imagine word processing applications or web applications requiring more than this, even 10 years from now. And if they do, a solid, serviceable enclosure and upgradeable hardware with backward compatibility for widely accepted standards and protocols should be enough to keep a computer going… and going… and going…

And once we pass that 20-year mark, why not make our next goal even bigger? Let’s plan for 100-year computers and let’s start doing it right now. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have machines made in 2015-2016 still in daily use in 2115-2116?

If you work in hardware, I’m sure you can think of plenty of reasons why this isn’t doable. It’s pretty easy to find reasons not to do something, and this applies to just about anything. But I want to challenge you to find ways to make this work, because it’s what we need to do in order to survive in the future. We can’t go on trashing the planet and taking from it indefinitely. We need to start conserving and giving back to it. We should focus on making it clean and beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of phones I have to throw away after 2-3 years because they turn into unusable crap. I’m sick and tired of computers and external hardware that start to break down after 3 years, some of them right after their warranty expires. And if would see what a mess we’ve made of this world, with destructive mining for rare earth minerals used in our electronics and with mountains of electronic trash polluting the ground and water tables in many places around the world, you’d be sick and tired of this as well.

There are much better ways of doing things. FairPhone is pointing the way for mobile phones. iFixit is helping too, with online service manuals and parts. But the bulk of the work still hasn’t been done. I still don’t see 20-year computers and 10-year laptops in stores. Where are they? Who’s making them? I’d like to buy one.

White keyboards and cleanliness

Apple Wireless Keyboard

Back when Apple came out with white keyboards, I was annoyed. I appreciated the white aesthetic, the clean design, but they got dirty so quickly. Within a few weeks of normal use with clean hands, there was a visible layer of grime on the keys used most. It was like a heat map drawn with dirt. Yuck. I wash my hands every time I go to the bathroom, so that’s 7-8 times a day or more, and my keyboards still get dirty.

I found myself cleaning my keyboards often, and every time I did it, I asked myself two questions. I kept repeating them like a mantra, annoyed with the amount of time I was spending doing menial stuff:

  1. How could so much grime collect on my keyboards?
  2. Why didn’t they make black keyboards?

A black computer keyboard.

Of course, the answer was staring me in the face, every time I used my keyboard. See this and this. Keyboards and mice are breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty bacteria. And because most of them are black, we don’t see how dirty they are and we don’t clean them often, although we should. I bet that’s exactly why they went with white (beside the fact that their design kick at the time involved a lot of white and silver). They wanted to give us a simple visual reminder of the state of our keyboards and make us clean them, lest we look filthy to our families, friends and co-workers. It was a bit of a pill to swallow, but it was (and is) for our own good.

Apple Wireless Keyboard

In recent times, Apple has gone to black keyboards on their laptops. Rumor has it they’re also going to make black keyboards for their desktops. While I get the practicality of it, I can’t help thinking people are going to just let the filth accumulate on their keys now that the stark visual reminder is gone. Let’s face it, we’re all so damned busy these days (mostly with drivel) that we’re going to forget to clean our keyboards. We won’t do it until they’re sticky, and by that point… yuck.

New MacBooks

Just in case you’re wondering how I clean my keyboards, I typically use Q-tips dipped in rubbing alcohol, they work great. In the past, I also came up with more inventive ways to clean them, such as putting the keys in the dishwasher. That method doesn’t work so well with the newer Bluetooth keyboards, it’ll cook the circuitry, because there’s no way to remove the keys unless you pry the case open.

Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

How to create a Fusion Drive on a mid-2011 iMac

Yes, you can enable Fusion Drive on older Macs. I’m not sure how this method will work with Macs older than 2011, but I know for sure that it works on mid-2011 iMacs, and quite possibly on other Macs made since then. I have just completed this process for my iMac and I thought it would help you if I detailed it here.

I like Fusion Drive because it’s simple and automated, like Time Machine. Some geekier Mac users will likely prefer to install an SSD and manually separate the system and app files from the user files which take up the most space, which is something that gives them more control over what works faster and what doesn’t, but that’s a more involved process. Fusion Drive works automatically once you set it up, moving the files that are used more often onto the SSD and keeping the ones that are accessed less often on the hard drive. This results in a big performance increase without having to fiddle with bash commands too much.

The hardware

My machine is a 27″ mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4 GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. I bought it with a 1TB hard drive, which I recently considered upgrading to a 3TB hard drive but decided against, given the fan control issues with the temperature sensor and the special connector used on the factory drive.

imac-basic-specs

I purchased a 128GB Vertex4 SSD from OCZ. It’s a SATA III (6 Gbps) drive and when I look in System Info, my iMac sees it as such and is able to communicate with it at 6 Gbps, which is really nice.

ocz-vertex4-ssd-128gb

ssd-specs

The hardware installation is somewhat involved, as you will need to not only open the iMac but also remove most of the connections and also unseat the motherboard so you can get at the SATA III connector on its back. You will also need a special SATA wire, which is sold as a kit from both OWC and iFixit. The kit includes the suction cups used to remove the screen (held into place with magnets) and a screwdriver set.

2nd-drive-ssd-kit

You can choose to do the installation yourself if you are so inclined, but realize that you may void the warranty on the original hard drive if something goes wrong, and this is according to Apple Tech Support, with whom I checked prior to ordering the kit. Here are a couple of videos that show you how to do this:

In my case, it just so happened that my iMac needed to go in for service (the video card, SuperDrive and display went bad) and while I had it in there, I asked the technicians to install the SSD behind the optical drive for me. This way, my warranty stayed intact. When I got my iMac back home, all I had to do was to format both the original hard drive and the SSD and proceed with enabling the Fusion Drive (make sure to back up thoroughly first). You can opt to do the same, or you can send your computer into OWC for their Turnkey Program, where you can elect to soup it up even more.

The software

Once I had backed up everything thoroughly through Time Machine, I used the instructions in this Macworld article to proceed. There are other articles that describe the same method, and the first man to realize this was doable and blog about it was Patrick Stein, so he definitely deserves a hat tip. I’ll reproduce the steps I used here; feel free to also consult the original articles.

1. Create a Mountain Lion (10.8.2) bootup disk. Use an 8GB or 16GB stick for this, it will allow you to reformat everything on the computer, just to clean things up. Otherwise you may end up with two recovery partitions when you’re done. I used the instructions in this Cult of Mac post to do so. The process involves re-downloading 10.8.2 from the Apple Store (if you haven’t bought it yet, now is the time to do so) and an app called Lion Diskmaker.

2. Format both the original HD and the SSD, just to make sure they’re clean and ready to go. Use Disk Utility to do this, or if you’re more comfortable with the command line, you can also do that (just be aware you can blow away active partitions with it if you’re not careful).

2. List the drives so you can get their correct names. In my case, they were /dev/disk1 and /dev/disk2.

diskutil list

3. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume group. When this completes, you’ll get something called a Core Storage LGV UUID. Copy that number, you’ll need it for the following step.

diskutil coreStorage create myFusionDrive /dev/disk1 /dev/disk2

4. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume. I used the following command:

diskutil coreStorage createVolume paste-lgv-uuid-here jhfs+ "Macintosh HD" 100%

5. Quit Terminal and begin a fresh install of Mountain Lion onto the new disk called “Macintosh HD”.

6. Restore your apps, files and system settings from the Time Machine backup using the Migration Assistant once you’ve booted up. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that. When that completes, you’re done!

The result

Was it worth it? Yes. The boot-up time went from 45-60 seconds to 15 seconds, right away. And over time, the apps and files I use most often will be moved onto the SSD, thus decreasing the amount of time it’ll take to open and save them.

At some point, I expect Apple to issue a utility, like Boot Camp, that will allow us to do this more easily and automatically. Until then, that’s how I set up Fusion Drive on my iMac, and I hope it’s been helpful to you!

Hardware preview: ioSafe N2 NAS

ioSafe, the company famous for its line of rugged external drives that can withstand disasters such as floods, fires and even crushing weight, has come up with a new product: the N2 NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.

The N2 device comes at the right time. The market for NAS devices is maturing and demand is growing. Western Digital has even come out with a line of hard drives, the WD Red, specifically targeted to NAS enclosures. To my knowledge there is no such other NAS device out there, so ioSafe’s got the lead on this.

The N2 appliance is powered by Synology® DiskStation Manager (DSM) and is aimed at the SOHO, SMB and Remote Office Branch Office (ROBO) markets.

The high performance 2-bay N2 provides up to 8TB of storage capacity and is equipped with a 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB of memory. The N2 uses redundant hard drives as well as ioSafe’s patented DataCast, HydroSafe and FloSafe technologies to protect data from loss in fire up to 1550°F and submersion in fresh or salt water up to a 10 foot depth for 3 days.

Features:

  • Local and Remote File Sharing: Between virtually any device from any location online
  • Cloud Station: File syncing between multiple computers and N2 (like Dropbox)
  • iTunes Server
  • Surveillance Station: Video surveillance application
  • Media Server: Stream videos and music
  • Photo Sharing: Photo sharing with friends and family
  • Mail Server: Email server
  • VPN Server: Manage Virtual Private Network
  • Download Station: Post files for others to download
  • Audio Station: Stream audio to smartphone (iOS/Android)
  • FTP Server: Remote file transfers
  • Multi-platform compatibility with Mac/PC/MS Server/Linux

Hardware:

  • Dual Redundant Disk, RAID 0/1, Up to 8TB (4TB x 2)
  • 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB memory
  • Gigabit Ethernet Port
  • Additional ports for USB 3, SD Memory Card
  • User replaceable drives
  • Protects Data From Fire: DataCast Technology. 1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119 with no data loss.
  • Protects Data From Flood: HydroSafe Technology. Full immersion, 10 ft. 3 days with no data loss.
  • FloSafe Vent Technology: Active air cooling during normal operation. FloSafe Vents automatically block destructive heat during fire by water vaporization – no moving parts
  • Physical theft protection (optional floor mount, padlock door security – coming Q1 2013)
  • Kensington® Lock Compatible

Support and Data Recovery Service (DRS):

  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty (for N2 Diskless)
  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty + Data Recovery Service (DRS) Standard (for loaded N2)
  • DRS included $2500/TB for forensic recovery costs for any reason if required
  • DRS and Warranty are upgradeable to 5 years ($.99/TB per month)
  • DRS Pro available includes $5000/TB + coverage of attached server ($2.99/TB per month)

Operating Environment:

  • Operating: 0-35° C (95°F)
  • Non-operating: 0-1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119
  • Operating Humidity: 20% – 80% (non-condensing)
  • Non-operating Humidity: 100%, Full immersion, 10 feet, 3 days, fresh or salt water

Physical:

  • Size: 5.9″W x 9.0″H x 11.5″L
  • Weight: 28 lbs

The N2 appliance is being brought to market with funding obtained through IndieGogo. I know it’s hard to believe it when you look at their products, but ioSafe only has about 20 employees. Sometimes they have to be creative in the ways they fund their R&D.

The ioSafe N2 will begin shipping in January 2013 and will be available in capacities up to 8TB. Introductory pricing for the ioSafe N2 diskless version is available for $499 on Indiegogo ($100 off the retail price of $599.99) if you want to get your own hard drives.

I’ve also written about ioSafe Solo, the ioSafe Rugged Portable and the ioSafe SSD devices.

Good stuff coming from IBM

I had lost track of IBM after they spun off their consumer hardware arm (now known as Lenovo). I didn’t get their software offerings, still don’t, so I wrote them off. But then I found out stuff like this, which has reminded me of their great hardware achievements in the past and made me glad they didn’t spin off their hardware R&D.

IBM and 3M have just announced 3D semiconductors: layers of silicone chips sandwiched up to 100 chips high with special cooling glue, to form a “brick” chip that’s up to 1,000 times faster than any microprocessor on the market today. ETA for this is 2013, so not that far off.

Now couple this discovery with their super-fast PCM (Phase Change Memory), which they announced back in June. It writes data at speeds up to 100 times faster than any flash memory on the market today.

ETA for it is 2015, so a couple of years after the 3D semiconductors, about the same time as Intel’s Silicon Photonics, a silicon and laser link between devices that enables data transfers at up to 50 Gbps.