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.

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.

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!

A way to make Shuffle better in iTunes and on iPhones and iPods

iTunes

I don’t know about you but I’ve listened to all of the songs in my iTunes library. Repeatedly. Over and over and over. I keep buying new ones but inevitably, the play counts add up. And the ones I didn’t want to listen to, I skipped over. Repeatedly. Over and over and over. And therein lies the answer to making Shuffle better, both in iTunes and on our iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Apple, please tweak the Shuffle algorithm so that if a song is skipped over more than once, it won’t play it during Shuffle mode at all, at least not for a while. The auto-skip period can be tweaked in the settings (in iTunes and on our portable devices). And we should also be able to decide whether we want these songs to sync to our devices at all, sort of like putting them in hibernation. Maybe even create a special section in the Library where a smart list will display these pariah songs when needed.

Some of the songs I bought have started to annoy me so much that I deleted them altogether. I suppose you can’t help that with music. You like it, then you don’t. You need a break from it. But when your iPod or iPhone keeps shoving it in your face, particularly when you’re driving and you don’t want to be bothered with skipping over songs, then that song begins to annoy you enough so that you get home and delete it from your iTunes library, just so you won’t hear it again.

And Apple, please don’t do this only in iTunes. Make sure you do it for iPhones and iPods as well, and for the older models, too. I still have a 1st gen iPod Touch that I use from time to time, and its software hasn’t been updated in years. It’d be nice to get some extra life out of it once the new Shuffle is brought out.

Thanks in advance!

A couple of suggestions for Waze

Waze

I’ve been using Waze for over a month and I love it. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s surprisingly accurate, even in a country where you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of users, like Romania.

The traffic updates can get a little overwhelming in large urban areas like Bucharest and sometimes it doesn’t find an address I need, but overall, it’s a wonderful app and the idea of a user-driven (and updated) map is awesome. Live traffic alerts and automatic calculation of the best route based on current traffic conditions are awesome options (these used to cost a pretty penny with GPS devices and weren’t very good nor up-to-date).

Here’s a way to make Waze better: use the accelerometer in our iPhones to automatically determine if the road is unsafe, based on braking, swerving, stopping and yes, even driving (or falling) through potholes. I love being able to report a road incident but when I’m swerving through potholes and recently dug up roads (like the one between Medias and Sighisoara), I don’t have the time nor the multitasking brain cycles to tap on my phone and report a hole in the road. So doing this automatically and reporting it to the users would be a wonderful new addition to Waze. I’d love to get an alert on my phone as I’m driving through fog or rain, when the visibility isn’t great, telling me there’s a pothole ahead. And by the way, Waze, have you thought about hooking up weather info to the traffic reports?

One thing that always annoyed me with GPS devices is the constant repetition of stuff like “take the 2nd exit” or “turn left”. The new version of Waze seems to be doing the same thing. I’d love an option in the settings where I could specify that I’d like to be reminded about such things a maximum of two times (not 3 or 4 times…)

A big thanks to the Waze team for the awesome work!

Why are we still syncing in iTunes?

What I have to talk about has to do with these two apps, which are closely related and happen to sit right next to each other in my Apps folder: iSync and iTunes. We could call it part 2 in a series of posts where I look at things that don’t sit right with Apple computers (here’s part one). I don’t intend to become a critic of Apple, but I think it only right to point things out when they don’t make sense.

I’ve always been bothered by the fact that the syncing of our devices (iPods, iPhones, iPads) takes place in iTunes and not in an application dedicated to the syncing of external devices, designed from the start for this purpose, like iSync.

Perhaps at the get-go, when the iPod had just gotten released, and there was only music on it, it made sense to tie it into iTunes. But now, when most iPods do a lot more, like sync contacts, calendars, TV shows, movies and apps like video games and more, why are we still syncing in iTunes? It makes no sense to shoehorn all those syncing functions into an app designed for the organization and playback of our music.

While I’m on the subject, why is it still called iTunes? It also organizes and plays podcasts, TV shows, movies and books. Shouldn’t it be renamed to something like iMedia? (Disclaimer: I haven’t given a lot of thought to the new name, but I know iTunes doesn’t quite fit anymore.)

Back to iSync — doesn’t it make much more sense to sync devices in it? Shouldn’t it be the go-to-app for all our devices? Shouldn’t it sit prominently in the dock, and be the button we click when we connect a device, whether it be through USB or through WiFi?

It’d be a fairly easy task for Apple to take the whole syncing process out of iTunes and place it within iSync. Then, we’d see something like this when we opened iSync.

Instead, what Apple did with the new OS X version, Lion, was to take iSync out entirely. I had to go back through my Time Machine backups in order to resurrect it and restore it to my Apps folder. Their move makes no sense whatsoever!

I’d like to issue a challenge to Apple: bring back iSync, properly re-written as a syncing app for all Apple devices, and slim down iTunes — also, rename it to something more appropriate that reflects the many media files it can handle these days.

Why is it that Apple has three messaging apps?

  

Back when Apple brought out FaceTime, I couldn’t get why it had to make a separate video chat app when it already had iChat. Now we have a third app included with iOS 5, called iMessage. Why?

If the people at Apple are intent on making little messaging apps, each with their micro-purpose, then I’d like to suggest some new ones to them:

  • iShmooze: giving people a direct chat line to their boss or work hierarchy
  • iRx: so you can chat about your medications with your neighbors and know-it-all relatives, and get better prescription advice than from your doctor
  • iExChat: for venomous quips exchanged between ex-spouses and other ex-es…
  • iSeeAds: for people interested in seeing targeted ads; perhaps you can work in a micro-pyramid scheme where people can get something like 1-5 cents when they view an ad or invite their friends to view ads; that should be popular…
  • iSeeDeadPeople: photo sharing for zombie and vampire lovers
  • iPotty: for those who love to share those precious moments in the bathroom
  • iAte: see above and substitute food; this one could come with a photo sharing option, for those who love taking photos of said food; in hindsight, perhaps the photo sharing option could be extended to the iPotty app as well, I saw some folks online who would be interested in that.

For a company renowned for its design and the clear focus of its products, I’m surprised to see three messaging apps. Why? Didn’t anyone put their hand up to say, “Hey, don’t we already have iChat?”

Perhaps it makes sense to have the separation, from a software and procotol perspective. Perhaps iChat was designed for the computer. Perhaps the AOL messaging protocols it still uses aren’t suited for the purposes of FaceTime and iMessage. But it still makes NO sense.

If Apple was able to take OS X and turn it into iOS, then take features from iOS and put them back into OS X, then it’s quite capable of making iChat the go-to app for all its messaging needs. Rewrite it and make it work! It’s already incredibly capable on the desktop. It can do text chat, audio chat, video chat, file sharing and screen sharing. I use it all the time to do video conferencing with my parents, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, and I use it for screen sharing as well, when I help them troubleshoot issues on their computers or simply teach them how to use them better. Why in the world would you leave a capable app like that behind and write a new one called FaceTime? And then why would you further fragment that segment and make another one called iMessage? Why?

I’d like to see iChat be the one and only app that does everything this set of three apps does and more. I’d like to challenge the people at Apple to make it work the way it should work, tailored to the capabilities of each device where it will be installed.