How To

A (final?) upgrade to my 2013 iMac

Yes, my main computer is still my late-2013 iMac. It’s still great as my photo editing and video editing (including 4K) machine. How is that possible? It’s simple: it was top of the line when it came out, with a maxed out processor and video processor. The rest was upgraded along the way. My latest upgrade, as I suggested in my previous post on the subject, is the replacement of my Fusion Drive setup (HDD + NVME) with an SSD. I wanted a big SSD, so I could fit all my regular work on the computer, only resorting to external hard drives for the big photo and video files. I also wanted to bypass the whole argument of whether to split or not to split my Mac’s Fusion Drive.

I waited for the SSD prices to come down, so I could get a 4TB SSD at a decent price, which happened in late 2020. I got a SanDisk Ultra 3D NAND SSD at 314 Euro (at the time). Now it’s at $470.

Back in January, I set to work on the upgrade. Those of you who’ve opened up iMacs released from 2012 onward know how much “fun” it is to pry open the adhesive strips that hold the display affixed to the aluminum body. I’ve bypassed all that crap, given how many times I’ve had to open up my iMac, and I use four strips of black electrical tape to hold the display to the case at each of its four corners. It works. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly, particularly if you cut the four strips equally and neatly, and you affix them at fairly exact points. You can’t even see them from the front of the computer. The display is black, the tape is black, it blends right in. You only spot them from the back. Anyway, it’s a lot easier for me to open up my iMac than it is for those who stubbornly cling to using the adhesive strips every time (there’s a joke in there somewhere).

After I opened it, it looked a bit grungy (the fan pulls in a lot of air and dust), and it had been almost a couple of years since I’d last cleaned it thoroughly, so I decided to take the heatsink assembly off the motherboard and replace the thermal paste — give it one last proper once-over, so to speak.

Off came the NVME card and its adapter. Now you can have a proper look at that supposed metal mount for the Apple SSD, which on this iMac is simply set with adhesive on the motherboard. As I said previously, it’s a design flaw, more like an afterthought. There are circuits on the other side of the motherboard going right under the mount, so there’s no way they could have put a proper mount with a flange there. The application of the adhesive was cleaner from the factory, but when I worked on it things got messier.

So now, I have no more NVMe SSD, no more Apple SSD, no more Fusion Drive, just one big SSD, plus my external drives. I figured it’d be a simpler setup, and it is.

Little did I know when I decided to be thorough with my cleaning, that it was going to be more of an adventure than I bargained for… First, I should set up the double-whammy scenario by saying that the way the heatsink assembly attaches to the motherboard is one of the most awkward and accident-prone setups in hardware design history. If I had put a cuss-count device on my desk as I worked on this stage of the process, and more so, every time I worked on this stage of the process, I’d have surely racked up some serious numbers. Now for the second part of the double-whammy: the way the CPU connects to the socket, which I guess is still part of the heatsink clusterfuck, since the CPU doesn’t sit in its socket without the heatsink, and when you attach the heatsink, the CPU can slide around in its socket, possibly sitting crooked and bending the feck out of the little socket connectors, each of which have specific connections to make and cannot short with each other and cannot be bent in weird ways… aaaaargh, aaaaaargh, well, you get the picture.

So I go through my whole spiel, clean everything up, put everything back together, including the heatsink assembly, tighten up all the screws, put the display back on, confident as ever, and instead of the Apple startup chime, I hear three nasty beeps. The iMac doesn’t boot up. Nothing. I go online and everyone’s posted about the RAM modules not sitting right, about various connectors on the motherboard not being connected properly, not sitting right in their sockets, etc., but EVERYONE forgets about the biggest damned connector on the motherboard not sitting properly in its socket, namely, the CPU! It turned out the reason my iMac wasn’t booting up was the reason no one was talking about: during the heatsink re-assembly, which requires you to do acrobatic work with the motherboard while holding the heatsink in place, flipping and turning the damned thing more than a burned pancake, the CPU somehow shifted about (which it shouldn’t do, because it’s got a very specific spot in there, but it still does, because you have to hold the heatsink over it with your fingers as you flip the motherboard to gain access to the screws from the backside and tighten those as you hold more screws on the other side with your fingers as you tighten them from the other side… anyway, this is so badly designed it’s bound to go wrong, and it definitely went wrong for me.

Because I couldn’t find any help for this online, I had to take the whole computer apart while carefully examining every connector and every piece that slid into another piece. Sure enough, after I took apart the heatsink assembly, I found the problem.

I present to you before and after photos of the CPU socket. The after photo (on the right) may not be perfect, but it works, and it’s after sitting there for about an hour with needle-nose tweezers and a magnifying lens, trying to bend the damned things back into shape and making sure they don’t touch each other.

After straightening those bent nose hairs with the tweezers, I began the re-assembly process. Keep in mind I had to clean off the thermal paste and re-apply it (always a fun task). When I tightened up the heatsink screws, that’s when I noticed that one of them was sliding in and out of its threaded socket, which is a big no-no. It means the threads have worn off, which is bound to happen given how much tension the Apple designers designed into the back bracket that holds the heatsink to the motherboard. It’s likely designed to work 2-3 times, and after that it’s anyone’s guess when the threads will strip off.

So what did this mean? I had to find a heatsink assembly on eBay, one that came with all the screws. If you’re also looking for one, be careful, some people only sell the heatsinks, and the set of screws is separate. I wanted the whole thing just in case something else might break on it. I ordered it on the 20th of January from someone in Italy, and because of the COVIDiocy rules in place in Europe it only arrived earlier this month, not quite but almost TWO MONTHS after placing the order.

In the meantime I wanted my computer up and running, so that same night, I took the risk and re-assembled the heatsink with only three working screws. I knew I was running the risk of overheating due to an uneven heat transfer between the chip and the heatsink, but I also suspected the chip had some sort of heat management logic built in, and would probably run at a slower clock speed if it saw a heat spike. Indeed, that’s what happened: my iMac was a little bit slower in the interim.

So, I finished re-assembling all the parts and my iMac was back in business, but that wasn’t all of the story, because it would have been too easy… The heatsink assembly arrived, but the back bracket for the graphics chip was too small for my machine (see below). Everything else fitted, but not that. Thankfully, the bracket from my own heatsink worked just fine, but this was yet another kink in the process.

In the course of re-assembly, after once again having to clean off and re-apply the thermal paste, I managed to somehow allow the CPU to re-seat itself in its socket, but this time it was more serious: after re-assembling everything, my computer wouldn’t boot at all and there was a strange humming noise coming from somewhere behind the motherboard. No beeps were given either. This time I didn’t bother to look it up on the internet, I went straight for the carotid, so to speak — right back to the CPU.

I take everything apart and now, not only are those damned little connectors in the socket once again bent in weird ways, but the corners of the CPU are bent, because it was pushed down into the socket by the heatsink after it came loose from its precise slot during re-assembly. If you’re delicate, you may want to skip over the rest of this paragraph. What the hell was I to do? I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know if the CPU would work again, so I took some needle-nose pliers and carefully straightened the corners. Thankfully, there’s a literal safety margin built into the edges of the chip, with no visible circuitry there, just the fiberglass backing (I think). Then I set about re-straightening the little connectors. You would not have wanted to be near me when I did that. So much cussing… I was too busy cussing to take any photos of this step of the process.

I put it all together again and wonder of wonders, it was booting up just fine. But wait, there’s more… For quite some years now, I’ve been pissed off by some fine dust that’s somehow gotten inside the display assembly and has been showing up in the both lower corners of my display. Now the display assembly itself is sealed with adhesive and with special tape, all around its back. It’s not made to be disassembled by the end-user. It’s made to be replaced. It can only be opened up in a special static-free and dust-free environment. Did I let that stop me? Heck no! I was pissed off by all the dust and I figured now that I tempted fate so many times with my iMac, it was time to tempt it once more by opening up the display. Now if you think, given what I’ve said above, that I surely couldn’t have cussed any more as I was working on the display, you’re wrong. I think it was one long, continuous cuss that just flowed out of me for about the half hour it took to clean the inside of the damned thing.

First, there’s adhesive tape that must be removed, all around the perimeter of the display, while being very careful not to mess with the display wiring harnesses. Also, there are a great many tiny screws, all around the perimeter of the display, that must also be removed. Once that’s done, the metal backing of the display comes off, revealing a stack of plastic sheets of differing transparencies and textures that make up the actual display assembly. Don’t ask me how it works that way. I don’t know. But I do know dust had somehow gotten in there, in-between those plastic sheets, and I needed to clean it off.

Here’s where the static-free and dust-free environment comes in. For as I wiped each of those plastic sheets clean on both sides, with a special dust cloth, they began to attract more dust. Hey, they’re plastic and they get charged with electricity as you wipe them, particularly in the dry late winter/early spring atmosphere. I had a static-free mat, but I couldn’t find the special wire that connects it to the house ground to discharge the static electricity. So I worked as best I could, cleaning each of those plastic sheets from the display sandwich while constantly cussing because I’d bothered with this and because who the feck knew a display was made of semi-transparent plastic sheets that attracted dust like a magnet!

I got it done and put it back together, half-expecting to have screwed it all up, but surprise, surprise, it worked! So now I don’t have those annoying dust spots in the lower corners, but I have a couple of textile fibers, one about 1 cm long and the other about 4 mm long, each about 1/20th of a mm thick, clearly visible in the lower part of the display, plus 5-6 minute specks of dust sprinkled around for good measure.

I hope I never have to open the damned display again, but might have to at some point, given yet another design flaw is clearly apparent here: a factory-sealed display assembly somehow sucked in dust, and now that I’ve had to break the seal to clean it, it’s likely that more dust will get in there.

My computer is working great again and it is back to its normal self. I tested it with Geekbench, and while it was slower in the interim when the CPU couldn’t cool properly, it’s back to its usual perky performance now. I’ve upgraded pretty much everything I could have upgraded on it, so I think the performance I’m getting now is just about all I’ll get from it, and it feels good to know that I’ve squeezed all the practical use out of it. If NVMe storage ever drops in price and increases in capacity to the point where I can get a 4-5 TB module for the price that I got my SSD now, given the huge increase in speed between a regular SSD and an NVMe, I might spring for one, but I don’t know if the iMac can truly handle those speeds. There might be a bottleneck somewhere, perhaps in the SATA connection itself, in the bus, who knows… I also don’t know how much longer it’ll last and if it breaks, what will break and whether it’ll make sense to replace that part, at that time. I am happy though, knowing I’ve made very good use of it while it worked.

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How To

To split or not to split your Mac’s Fusion Drive

In a recent post, I wrote about upgrading the original (and failing) blade SSD in my iMac to a bigger and faster NVMe module. During that upgrade process, I wondered whether splitting my Mac’s Fusion Drive would result in better performance, but decided against it for simplicity’s sake.

Even though I decided against splitting my Fusion Drive at that time, I read articles that advocated for it and suggested even better performance was to be had by allowing the SSD and HDD to run as separate volumes. The idea is to install the OS and select files and folders on the SSD, with the bulk of the files on the HDD. For the sake of experimentation and learning something new, I decided to tinker with my iMac and see if I could squeeze out some extra speed.

For those who are wondering what I’m talking about, Fusion Drive is an Apple technology built into macOS that creates what is essentially a hybrid drive, by combining an SSD module (NAND flash) with a traditional HDD (platter drive) and presenting the two as a single volume to the user. The protocols that govern the data I/O are called Core Storage. Apple writes: “Presented as a single volume on your Mac, Fusion Drive automatically and dynamically moves frequently used files to flash storage for quicker access, while infrequently used items move to the high-capacity hard disk. As a result, you enjoy shorter startup times and — as the system learns how you work — faster application launches and quicker file access.”

I’ve been using Fusion Drive since it came out, retrofitting my iMac at the time with a new SSD and thus making it run faster than its original specs. I love this technology, because it offers significant performance improvements for a fraction of the cost of buying a large SSD, which used to be be quite expensive a few years ago.

The long and the short of it is that it’s not worth it to split your Mac’s Fusion Drive. If you’re currently running Fusion Drive on your Mac, keep doing that, you won’t see any significant performance improvements if you split it. Actually, some things may run slower than before, and you’ll also have to deal with a few inconveniences, as detailed below.

I’ll present both scenarios here and you can decide what to do for yourself. There are multiple methods to it. These are the methods I’ve chosen. The number of Terminal commands that you have to run for either scenario is minimal, and the time involved has to do mostly with backing up your computer, waiting for the OS to reinstall and for your data to be restored from backup. For example, if you’ve got a 3TB drive and you’re at about 50-60% usage (and you should be at that threshold or lower on any hard drive), then you should figure on 4-5 hours for either of the two scenarios.

How to split your Fusion Drive

First and foremost, did you backup your computer? If you did, go ahead and create a bootable drive using Apple’s instructions, then boot into it by pressing the Option key as soon as your Mac restarts and holding it down until you see the Apple logo. You need to boot into a separate drive because you’ll be deleting your internal drives entirely, including the boot and recovery partitions.

Once you’re in, open Terminal and get a listing of your disks and volumes.

diskutil list

Your Fusion Drive presents itself as a logical volume group that appears as a separate disk with an HFS+ or APFS partition. Say your SSD is disk0 and your HDD is disk1, your Fusion Drive would be disk2 or disk3. In my case, it was disk3 (disk2 being the bootable recovery drive). Now unmount your internal disks.

diskutil unmountDisk disk0

diskutil unmountDisk disk1

You’ll want to delete that entire disk containing Fusion Drive. Be forewarned, this deletes all you data. Did you backup your computer?

diskutil apfs deleteContainer disk3

Now that Fusion Drive has been nuked, you’ll still have your separate drives that you’ll want to make sure are erased. The eraseDisk command requires that you offer a new name for each disk, so I chose to name them SSD and HDD, to keep things simple.

diskutil eraseDisk JHFS+ SSD disk0

diskutil eraseDisk JHFS+ HDD disk1

Now you’ll want to do a fresh install of macOS onto the SSD, and after that’s complete, you’ll boot up into your fresh install and go to Utilities/Migration Assistant, in order to do a selective data restore. Here you’ll have to decide for yourself, based on the total size of your SSD and your data set, how much of it you’ll want to restore onto the SSD. The rest you’ll need to copy manually from the backup drive onto the HDD. In my case, I restored my user settings and the system and libraries folders onto the SSD, and I copied the following folders onto the HDD: Documents, Downloads, Movies, Music, Parallels (in case you’re running some kind of VM software) and Pictures. Each of those folders was too big to keep on the SSD, even though I have a 512GB module (remember the rule about keeping your drive at or below 50-60% usage).

Once you complete all that work, you’ll need to create links to these folders on the HDD in place of your folders on the SSD. Mojave won’t let you do this when you’re logged into your account, so you’ll need to boot up into recovery mode and open Terminal once more.

Go to your homefolder on the SSD.

cd /Users/yourusername

Delete the folders that are now present on the HDD. You’ll need to do this for each folder that you’ve moved there. Hopefully you’ve written down their names ahead of time.

sudo rm -rf foldername

In your homefolder on the SSD (same location as above), make links to the folders on the HDD. I chose to put mine at the drive’s root level. You may choose to put them in a folder. Just don’t give it the same name as your username, I hear that may cause problems. You’ll need to do this for each folder.

ln -s /Volumes/HDD/foldername

That’s it, restart and use your computer. However, you may find a few inconveniences — these are the ones I experienced:

  • I noticed no performance improvements. There wasn’t even an improvement in the bootup time. Nothing, nada, zilch.
  • While Apps may open up faster, if they’re still accessing files on the HDD, editing will still be sluggish. In order for you to see that performance boost talked about with SSDs, both apps and their files need to be on the SSD.
  • In my case, I had to keep the Photos library on the HDD, because it was too big to keep on the SSD, and while Photos may have opened up fast, loading up the library took forever, until enough of the recent photos were cached on the SSD to allow me to work with my library. So things were a LOT slower with this app.
  • I kept my mailboxes on the SSD so I was hoping for better performance from Mail, but I didn’t get it. I have a lot of mail stored locally, so in theory, things should have worked faster because everything was on the SSD, but they didn’t. I also experienced odd issues, like when moving messages between mailboxes, it took a lot longer and sometimes didn’t register. I’d drag and drop them, then come back to the app a little while later and find them in the same place, just as if I hadn’t moved them.
  • iCloud would display an odd notification icon, but when I’d go into it, there was no message. This icon was displayed continually for as long as my Fusion Drive was split. See the screenshot below.
  • While Time Machine will backup both internal drives, data restores will only restore the files from the SSD. I don’t know why and I don’t know how to fix that, so keep this limitation in mind. You can go into the Time Machine drive manually and copy the files over afterward, but if you run a restore operation on your computer and you wonder where most of your stuff is after it’s completed, don’t freak out, just know you’ll need to get it manually from the drive.
See that “1” over iCloud? It was there all the time.
This is the kind of performance the SSD provided when my Fusion Drive was split. It looks impressive, but hold on until you see the same test with Fusion Drive enabled, later down in this post.

How to enable your Fusion Drive

After about a week of running my Mac with a split Fusion Drive, I’d had enough and decided to re-enable it. Here’s how I did it. Before you proceed with this, I’ll ask you again, did you do a full backup of your computer? This will wipe all your data.

Using the same bootable drive, I booted into it and opened up Terminal. Since you’ll be wiping all your internal drives again, you need to be booted from an external drive.

Apple recommends this single Terminal command that is supposed to do everything in one fell swoop. It didn’t work for me, perhaps because my SSD module was a newer NVMe running off an adapter card, not the Apple-approved blade SSD manufactured specifically for this kind of thing.

diskutil resetFusion

I had to do it with a few more commands. First, find out your disk IDs.

diskutil list

Now unmount your internal disks.

diskutil unmountDisk disk0

diskutil unmountDisk disk1

Then create a merged virtual hard drive with Core Storage.

diskutil coreStorage create Macintosh\ HD disk0 disk1

Now get its logical volume group name (the very long alphanumerical name that appears in Terminal after you type this command).

diskutil coreStorage list

Now format and create the JHFS+ volume that will run Fusion Drive.

diskutil coreStorage createVolume yourlogicalvolumegroupname jhfs+ Macintosh\ HD 100%

Don’t worry about formatting the drive to APFS. That’ll happen automatically when you install Mojave. Besides, APFS is not an entirely separate file system, it’s a container running inside HFS+, so like I said, don’t worry about it. That’s it. Now quit Terminal and do a full restore from Time Machine, but prepare yourself for an incomplete data restore (see the reasons given in the previous section). Once the data restore is complete, you’ll need to manually copy the folders that are missing from the Time Machine drive. Or, as I did, you can do a full restore to a backup set that existed before I split my Fusion Drive, which means you’ll get all your old data back in all the right places, but you’ll still need to get your newer files manually from the Time Machine drive.

In my case, I needed to copy the mailboxes, which are located in ~/Library/Mail/V6 from the newest backup set (the one with the split drive) to my computer, and that gave me all my mail, including the interim stuff. I also copied the latest Photos library, and that gave me all my photos, including the interim stuff. Then I went through the Documents and Downloads folders on the Time Machine drive, sorted by date modified and copied the interim files onto my computer. I didn’t need to go through the other folders because I knew I hadn’t worked on other stuff. And once I did this, my data restore was complete. Mail and Photos still needed to rebuild their libraries though, and that took a while.

And because I use Backblaze to backup my computer offsite, I also needed to uninstall and reinstall that, then inherit a previous backup state (don’t worry about this if you’re not using Backblaze).

When that was done, Backblaze told me it had “made” my computer inherit my backup state, as if it had forced it to do this, in a non-consensual way. Kind of a funny way to word things, but their service works well.

Here’s the kicker. I ran another drive performance test after all this, and these were the results.

Actually a little bit faster than before 🧐

Everything runs fast now, and it runs as expected, without hiccups.

As I said at the start of this article, if you’re already running Fusion Drive, do yourself a favor and leave it running. You’ll avoid headaches you don’t need, unless you like complications.

The only way I can see to speed up my iMac even more, is to purchase a large 3-4TB SSD and run it as my only internal drive. That might be a little faster. But as you can see from the test screenshot shown above, my iMac is no slouch right now. And 4TB SSDs are still fairly expensive. It might actually be cheaper (and possibly faster) to get a 2TB SSD and a 512GB NVMe module, and run them together with Fusion Drive, although the overall capacity wouldn’t be the same. Food for thought.

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Apple iMac
How To

An upgrade to my 2013 iMac

I’ve worked on a few upgrades to our family computers in recent months: my 2008 MacBook Pro, my mom’s 2007 iMac and my own late-2013 iMac (A1419, EMC 2639). This is the tale I’d like to recount for you now, because it’s something that I’ve had to deal with since last autumn (october of 2018), and I’ve just recently (I hope) finalized the upgrade/repair. There’s a valuable lesson in here for the people at Apple Support, if they’re interested.

It started with my iMac slowing down to a crawl over the course of a few days, back in late 2018. At first I thought it was spyware or a virus. I checked everything: every app, every file, every process. I removed apps, one by one, to see if it would fix the problem. It didn’t. I ended up removing all of the apps but those that came with macOS, and the problem still persisted. I wiped the drive clean and reinstalled the OS, then reinstalled the apps anew, one by one. It was just as bad. I ran hardware tests using Apple’s software and everything checked out. I scoured the web for solutions. There were some suggestions online that iCloud could cause slowdowns when the syncs weren’t going properly. I checked the Apple Server Status page and indeed they’d been having some problems with iCloud, but they were marked as resolved. I checked Photos and there were major issues: my photos weren’t syncing properly across my devices, and there were image compression/corruption (?) issues going on, with diagonal blue lines appearing all over my recent photos, lines that persisted even when opening the photo at full resolution.

I called Apple Support and began a series of interactions that did not end with any sort of solution. From the start, they agreed that iCloud was causing the slowdowns and had me go through a series of steps such as logging in and out of iCloud, disabling and enabling the various iCloud syncing options, etc. to no avail. Mail started acting up as well, so they suggested I disable Mail syncing, because I had “too many messages in my mailbox”. Documents started acting up, with iCloud Drive showing up empty on my computer, so they suggested disabling that. In spite of the fact that I’d already done it, they tried to convince me to reformat my computer and start fresh. I kept getting a hunch that something else was amiss and asked them if they were sure this wasn’t a hardware issue. They said no. They told me to wait for the photos to finish syncing, then enable the other iCloud features one by one, and things would get back to normal. They didn’t. We kept going back and forth, with Apple Support posting one update per day (or less) to the case, asking me to do this and that, and even though I’d complete their requests and post more updates during the day, they wouldn’t respond till the next. I offered to pay a case fee to expedite issues. I explained to them that this was my main computer and I couldn’t do my work. This went on for weeks, with me getting more desperate and the techs telling me they’d stop helping me because I couldn’t stay calm.

With things going nowhere and Apple Support techs who couldn’t care less, I decided to exercise the “nuclear” option. I found Tim Cook’s email address and wrote him an email. I didn’t expect a response, but I wanted to vent. To my surprise, a short while later I got a response, not from him but from his office, promising me my issue would be forwarded onto someone who would get back to me. I waited a couple of days and… nothing. No one contacted me. I figured I’d try my luck again. I got the same response, but someone finally contacted me and connected me directly with an advanced support technician. There’s apparently a “third tier” of tech support that is only available on a case by case basis; I guess after almost a month of my computer being down for the count, I qualified.

It took a while longer to get to the bottom of the problem: daily communications, screen sharing sessions, uploading log files to Apple servers, trying various steps, etc. It took over a week. iCloud was at first to blame, then Adobe software, then finally, after my case was put in front of a senior technician directly responsible for iCloud connectivity, my issue turned out not be software related at all, but caused by hardware. Hold on to your hat, because as it turns out my HDD was going bad. That was it. It was as prosaic as that! In total, I’d lost over one month of my time and I had to appeal to Tim Cook’s office, all because Apple Technicians couldn’t pinpoint a failing hard drive from the get-go.

Once the problem was found out, it was an easy enough fix. I opened up my iMac and replaced the HDD with a fresh one. I also found and installed a piece of software called DriveDx, which gives detailed stats about hard drives and can let you know of a bad drive before it actually fails. Most drive diagnostic apps rely on the S.M.A.R.T. status flags, but that’s not enough. DriveDx does a whole lot more. The app quickly let me know that the blade SSD (the second half of the Fusion Drive on my iMac) was also close to its lifespan. Since it was still working okay, I decided to hold off on replacing it last year, choosing to monitor it with the app and only replace it when it was close to failing. Here is a gallery of photographs from the time I replaced the HDD. I also chose to take apart the chips and heat sinks and to replace the thermal paste, which had become dry and cracked. Before I put my computer back together, I cleaned the case and the parts thoroughly with a brush and soft cloth, because a lot of dust had accumulated inside and on them. After I put my iMac back together, it worked beautifully once again. I know I could have replaced the HDD with an SSD, and I plan to do it in the future. It’s just that I want to get a 3-4 TB SSD and their prices are still a bit high.

A few weeks ago (about seven months after replacing the HDD), DriveDx told me the blade SSD was fairly close to failing, so I chose to replace it with a Samsung 960 Pro M.2 512 GB NVMe SSD module that I already had, so this upgrade only cost me about $16 for a Sintech NGFF M.2 NVMe SSD Adapter Card, which seems to be the card everyone recommends for MacBooks and iMacs.

I’ve enclosed a separate gallery of photographs of this upgrade below. You’ll laugh when you see one of the photos, so I’ll explain: in what seems to be an iMac design flaw, the cylindrical bracket that secures the screw for the blade SSD is only glued to the motherboard. Unlike every other screw bracket which is secured directly to the motherboard with metal, this one is not designed into the motherboard. Underneath it, on the other side of the motherboard, there are circuits running right across that spot. It seems to me like at the time (2013), the blade SSD and its screw bracket were afterthoughts of sorts for the hardware design team. My bracket came right off the motherboard. I had no glue in the house, only some silicone-based adhesive that takes up to 24 hours to harden, so I put a dab of that under it, tightened the screw and stuck a wood shim in-between the case and the top of the screw, to hold it in place while the adhesive hardened. I know it looks terribly unrefined, but it’s been working fine.

There are two things I should tell you about this upgrade: (1) this particular SSD tends to run hot, so DriveDx will warn you about its temperature, and (2) after booting up my iMac for the first time, it didn’t see the new NVMe SSD, so I powered it down, opened up it up again (thank goodness I hadn’t yet closed it completely) and re-seated the SSD and its adapter in the blade SSD slot. After I did that, it saw it, recognized it, and I was able to boot into recovery, go into Terminal and recreate the Fusion Drive, then reinstall the OS and restore my data.

In spite of the temperature warnings, my iMac has been working great so far. I noticed a bit of a speed boost, but since I’m still using Fusion Drive and I’m tied to a spinning hard drive, a lot of the oomph of the SSD can’t be seen. I suppose I could have chosen to install the OS on the SSD and keep my files on the HDD, but I prefer to work without complications. A single 3.5TB volume works for me. If I could have a single 24TB drive that holds my OS and all my files (that are currently sitting on three external hard drives), I’d be happy with that.

I would like to thank Tim Cook’s office for responding to my messages and getting me out of a real bind. I was at the end of my wits at the time, so the tone of my emails to them was gruff and biting; they could have chosen to ignore me. I don’t know what I’d have done if they hadn’t stepped in. But I do wish I didn’t have to exercise that option. Apple Support should have found out the issue from the start. It wasn’t something arcane, it was a simple drive failure.

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How To

On keeping one’s computer tidy…

I recently had to take my iMac apart in order to look at the hardware closely, and after 5 years of intense use in my home office, I got a chance to re-convince myself of the importance of keeping one’s computer tidy inside, not just outside.

Apple doesn’t make it easy for us to service our computers, do they? Gone are the days of the big Power PC or Mac Pro enclosures that could be easily opened for a bit of vacuuming and dusting or the upgrade/replacement of a piece of hardware. Or how about those unique and colorful 1st gen iMac enclosures that were transparent, so you could see at a glance if they needed a bit of inside cleaning? The enclosure of my iMac G5, though impressively thin for its time, with components tightly packed inside, was still fairly easy to open. Even the predecessor of my current iMac, a 2011 model, was easy enough to open, because the display was affixed to the enclosure with magnets. These days, the enclosures of our Macs are sealed with adhesives that make it difficult to get inside…

The IT part of me gets it somewhat: if they’re too easy to open, most people will only get inside and mess something up. Plus, an accidental spill of liquid on the screen, or an overly judicious application of cleaning solution, might get inside and affect the circuits.

It’s easy and natural to assume that if a computer is sealed shut, it’s clean inside, but the truth of the matter is that computers need to be cleaned and serviced regularly. As long as a computer has active cooling (a fan that pulls air in), dust will get inside and settle everywhere. Even passive cooling involves some sort of air current that moves through the machine and dust will follow that current and accumulate inside over time.

Here’s what the inside of my iMac looked like when I opened it up for the first time.

It may not look too dirty at first glance, but let’s have a closer look, shall we?

I took every single piece apart, and every piece was full of thick dust like this, dust that would have clogged up the air vents completely and caused an overheat or even a shortcircuit. It was very fine dust that kept getting into my nose and making me sneeze. I couldn’t believe how much of it had gathered inside. This iMac’s always been on my desk, in my office, a room which I vacuumed regularly, but as you can see, five years of moderate to intensive use for 8 or more hours per day, will definitely show up on the inside, even though the outside is shiny and clean. This is why I believe every Mac owner ought to either learn how to clean their computer or take it into a repair shop every few years to have it properly and thoroughly cleaned. We have plenty of resources these days. I used the thorough guide for taking apart my iMac posted on iFixit.com, a resource I definitely recommend.

If and when you take your iMac apart, you should definitely check the air intake vents (located on the bottom bezel of the enclosure) and the air output vents (located behind the flex mount of the iMac’s foot, above the RAM bay). That’s where dust will accumulate the most.

Here’s how my computer looked after being properly cleaned.

Please be careful as you handle the various parts, will you? One wrong move with the screwdriver and you could damage a circuit or worse, if you’re handling the power supply, you could cause a short that could give you a real shock and damage it for good. Unless you work in IT and have handled computer innards before, your best bet is to find a reputable repair shop, hopefully an Apple-authorized one, and have them clean it thoroughly. Just so you don’t have any issues with your Apple warranty and perhaps void it by mistake, do this operation after the warranty runs out (that’s 3 years for Apple Care).

Hope this helps!

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2018 iPhone Line-up
Thoughts

Tim Cook says iPhones are justifiably expensive

In an interview on “Good Morning America”, Tim Cook said the following when asked about the prices of the new iPhones, which have grown well above the $1,000 mark: “it’s the most advanced device we’ve ever done… [and]… replaces every other gadget consumers might need“.

Dear Tim, I would like to propose a challenge to you.

If the new iPhones are indeed a replacement for most other devices we might need, then please make it a substitute for the laptop and desktop computer. Please justify their cost with one more worthwhile argument. Notice I did not say a “replacement“, because I also have a desktop and laptop and tablet and I don’t foresee giving them up, especially not my desktop. A substitute is sorely needed though. 

As I’m sure you’re well aware, the smartphone has become the only computing device for a lot of people throughout the world. And those people have to squint at a small screen and type on a non-existent virtual keyboard and poke around the (small, albeit now bigger) screen with their fingers whenever they need to do something important. It would be so much easier to plug it into a small device and be able to use it properly, as most of us have done, growing up using regular computers.

The iPhone is, as you say, a powerful and advanced device. Why not open up that power to the traditional users of a computer? I’m talking about a keyboard, a mouse and a monitor, of course, so we can use and work with email, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations on a bigger screen (these apps may be boring but they’re still the ones that run the world of business). It feels like you have deliberately held this option back from the consumers so it wouldn’t eat into your other lines (tablets, laptops, etc.). I can’t see another reason for it. I can’t imagine that you did not know that Samsung has been working on the Dex for years. It’s even been on the market for a couple of years now. It’s good. It’s so good it’s got me thinking I should buy a Samsung phone.

My request isn’t new. I’ve talked about it before. And no, the iPad isn’t the answer to my needs and those of many other people. 

Will you please do this? 

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Reviews

My Olympus PEN E-P1

Several days ago, I purchased a PEN E-P1. I’ve been thinking about a number of years of collecting all the digital PEN cameras that Olympus has made. I’m not referring to the PL (Pen Lite) or PM (Pen Mini) camera lines, which were launched alongside the regular PEN cameras in an effort to provide lower-cost alternatives for consumers with lower budgets. I’ve wanted to own all of the regular, full-featured PEN cameras, of which there are five models: E-P1, E-P2, E-P3, E-P5 and PEN-F. So when did my love of PEN cameras start? It was when I reviewed the PEN E-P2 back in 2010. I loved that camera and I wanted to have it right there and then, but I was heavily invested in Canon gear at the time. Fast forward to 2018. When I bought the E-P1, I already had the E-P2 and the E-P5 (I also have the first PL model, the E-PL1). Since then, I’ve also purchased the E-P3, so now the only camera left to get for my collection is the PEN-F.

The E-P1 is an important camera. Launched on June 16, 2009, it was the first digital PEN. Fifty years before it came the original PEN, in 1959. Both cameras were revolutionary in their design and their compact size. What Olympus managed to do with the digital PEN was amazing: they managed to give us the features and quality that only came with larger, heavier cameras, in a tiny and light camera body that could be carried in a pocket or a purse. In its time, the E-P1 was the lightest, smallest and most capable camera on the market. It may not have been the best at everything, but it offered image quality that was higher than or comparable to much larger and more expensive cameras with larger sensors. Even today, almost nine years later, when the E-P1 is coupled with a great lens, such as the M.Zuiko 25mm f1.8, it can produce truly beautiful photographs that match quite well the quality of images made with cameras that have full-frame sensors. You’ll see this in the gallery below, which contains photos I’ve taken in our garden with the E-P1 and the 25mm f1.8.

I am fortunate and happy that I was able to build my PEN collection, and that I get to work every day with such great cameras. The PEN E-P5 is my primary camera now, both in the studio and outdoors. I love it. Enjoy the photographs!

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Thoughts

Enough with the content algorithms!

I’m writing this because I’ve had enough of the mindf***ing algorithms that every single social media service employs these days, in varying flavors. What do I mean?

Well, have you indicated your preference for something on Facebook? Are you surprised by the fact that the posts you see are always geared toward those preferences? Are you surprised when the ads you see are also about the stuff you might be using or want to buy? Are you surprised that you see virtually nothing from stuff you didn’t indicate that you like or are interested in? Are your surprised when you see an ad along the very same lines laid out above, interspersed between every 3-4 posts, and it’s a video ad that repeats, over and over and over, until you have to hide it and also tell Facebook to hide all ads from that brand, but then a different ad for that same product pops up again from another account, and you have to hide that and hide all from that brand, only to go through the same s**t, day in and day out?

Have you viewed a few videos on YouTube on a particular topic, say the latest digital cameras, and now your YouTube homepage is filled with videos on that topic? How about the recommended videos in the sidebar? Did you get enough of that topic the first time around and already made your decision, but now you can’t seem to be rid of videos about digital cameras that make you doubt your decision, with reviews where “experts” are yelling at you that this other model is better, so much better than the other model you want to buy, and by the way, they have an affiliate link in the description that you should click on when you buy it? Do you struggle to find other content now, because all that YouTube recommends to you are more videos on digital cameras with more “experts” voicing their “opinion”? Are you afraid to search for some other stuff on YouTube because you know that for the next few weeks, you’ll be inundated with more videos on those very same keywords, even though you’ve already seen all you ever wanted to see?

Have you posted photos of a watch or a pen on Instagram, only to see tons of ads for watches and pens, and get recommendations to like more accounts on watches and pens? Do you find it hard to see anything else on Instagram, because that’s pretty much all they’ll shove down your throat, putting ads for watches and pens between every 2-3 actual posts (for watches and pens)?

Isn’t AI fun? Isn’t social media fun? Don’t you love how it’s catered to your very needs, even though you don’t know they’re your needs and you don’t want them to be your needs, but they’ll be your needs goddamit because that’s what the social media algorithms are force-feeding you?

Well, f**k all this s**t. I’ve had enough. Facebook, Google, you guys need to adjust your algorithms. This is absolutely ridiculous. The world is a varied place. Humans are varied, diverse individuals. Just because one day we want to see a video about [insert topic here], it doesn’t mean we want to see more videos on that same topic later in that same day, or the next day, or every damned day for the next few weeks, until your algorithms figure we’ve had enough. And we definitely don’t want to see ads for that s**t haunting us whenever we use your services and your websites and wherever else we might go (yes Adwords and Facebook Pixel, I’m talking about your omnipresent ads for whatever product we might have once seen somewhere). We want variety. We need variety. We need to see and experience opposing viewpoints on a topic. Sameness, day in, day out, is a real mindf**k. It’s not the real world, but since we tend to experience the world through social media, the responsibility falls on you to represent the real world in a real manner.

This has got to stop. These algorithms have got to be changed. They need to become more human. Do you realize you can drive someone mad with your code, haunting them with more and more and more on something they only wanted to see once, something they can’t be rid of now? Do you realize you should be held responsible for the mental health of the people who use your services? It’s high time that fact dawned on you. Change your practices! Do it now.

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Reviews

My two new Olympus lenses

I’ve recently purchased two new lenses for my Olympus cameras and I like them very much. Not only are they mignon, but they’re wonderfully sharp, they focus quickly and they offer me something I didn’t think I could get from MFT (Micro Four Thirds) lenses and cameras: bokeh and handheld photography in low light.

Yes, I’ve only just gotten the memo: you can get wonderful bokeh from MFT lenses. Having worked with MFT lenses whose maximum aperture was f/3.5 in the past and present and knowing that MFT sensors had a greater depth of field than larger sensors, I’d become accustomed to not being able to get the kind of bokeh I could get from my other cameras like my Canon 5D. I also didn’t think I could push my aging PEN cameras to take bright, handheld photos in low light. But these new lenses have changed my mind completely!

I love the kind of bokeh I can get from them. Depending on the distance between my subject and the background and the kind of background used, the bokeh is either wonderfully feathered or downright creamy, as you’ll see in the photographs I’ve posted here.

What lenses am I talking about? They’re the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm 1:1.8 and the M.Zuiko Digital 45mm 1:1.8.

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm 1:1.8 and M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.

There are also Pro versions of these lenses available from Olympus, for all the typical, 35mm equivalent focal lengths, and those lenses open up to f/1.2, so it stands to good reason that the bokeh they make is even better. If I were to take my lenses for example, the equivalent Pro versions for them are the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f1.2 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.2. Since both of my current Olympus cameras are PEN cameras and I wanted to test the waters first, I bought the f/1.8 lenses, because (1) they’re less expensive, (2) they’re lighter and (3) they’re smaller (amazingly small, actually). However, were I to have a bigger camera such as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, I would likely get the Pro lenses. They would be a much better fit for a camera that has a native resolution of 20 megapixels and can produce 50 megapixel images in high-res shot mode.

The 17mm f/1.8 lens has a beautiful metal body and is simply lovely to look at. It also has something that Olympus calls “fast focus switch”; I also remember seeing the term “manual clutch focus” somewhere to describe it. The focus ring slides down to reveal a manual focusing scale and it also puts the lens in full manual focus mode. This is different from the manual focus mode you can set in camera, which is more of a focus-by-wire on Olympus cameras. I can explain this in more depth in another post if you’re interested, but for now, I just want to point out the neat feature of this jewel of a lens.

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens

In typical usage, the focus is electronic and set by the camera

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens

When you slide the focus ring down, it reveals the manual focusing scale, with markings in both meters and feet, and it puts the lens in manual mode

It’s time for me to show you some photographs, so you can see the bokeh for yourselves. First, let me show you a few images of the lenses themselves, which I took today with a two-flash setup, right on my desk.

Now let me show you images taken with the 17mm f/1.8 lens. When you see my face in these photos, please don’t think I love taking selfies. It’s just that I’m a readily available subject when I need to test something out.

Finally, here are a selection of photographs taken with the 45mm f/1.8 lens. The bokeh is more pronounced here because of the longer focal length, and it is a truly wonderful thing!

I am so glad I bought these lenses. They have opened up a whole new world for my Olympus cameras. Btw, I took the photographs of the lenses with my PEN E-P2 using the M.Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f/3.5-6.3 lens.

Olympus PEN E-P2 Mirrorless Camera

Olympus PEN E-P2 Mirrorless Camera

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens

I invite you to visit my profile on the MyOlympus website, where I have posted many more photographs taken with my Olympus cameras over the years.

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Reviews

The Sigma sd Quattro

The Sigma sd Quattro is the camera that helped me understand and come to terms with Sigma’s mission as a camera manufacturer. I’ve railed against what I perceived as the faults of Sigma’s cameras in the past (see here and here) and now I have come full circle in my stance on their cameras. It is time for me to apologize for my criticisms. Sigma, please accept my apologies. I didn’t fully understand your mission and your cameras. I now have a better understanding of the situation.

I always thought the Foveon sensor was unique and that it brought a set of features that made it stand out. Where I didn’t “get it” in the past, was in trying to compare Sigma cameras, apples to apples, with other cameras on the market. You can’t do that, because Sigma’s cameras are specialized. When you consider them, the questions you have to ask yourself as a photographer are (1) how important is image quality to you and (2) what are you willing to give up in other areas in order to get that image quality? Once you have that mindset, you can begin to consider the benefits of their cameras.

It must be acknowledged here that the path Sigma has chosen to take is quite different from market trends and consumer expectations. In a world obsessed with resolution and the do-it-all camera that takes photographs and also shoots video, Sigma has chosen to focus most of their attention on the quality of the photographs produced by their cameras, to the detriment of other characteristics that are appealing to consumers. They can afford to do that because they have a thriving lens business, and that’s a beautiful luxury. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of selling as many units of their cameras as possible and they can take their time with their sensor R&D.

It is my belief that with the sd Quattro, Sigma has reached that point where their message is getting across and more people are starting to take notice. I certainly took notice. Just because I criticized them in the past doesn’t mean I didn’t follow their developments. What they have now with the sd Quattro, particularly with the sd Quattro H, is plenty of resolution, an interesting and appealing design and an irresistible price point. Also worthy of mention is the design of the power grip, which makes the camera look even better and extends the battery life by a much-needed 300%.

I invite you to have a look at their website. Also look at their sample photographs and download them so you can appreciate them at full resolution. There are five separate sections with sample photos: for the sd Quattro you have parts one, two and three, for the sd Quattro H you have part one and then there are the general sample photos.

You should know that this camera almost requires a tripod. There will be situations when you won’t need one, but given that the sensor gives you the best quality at low ISO, it’s best to have one with you. I would reiterate what I said above about Sigma cameras being specialized. This is a camera best used in the studio or for landscape photography. You’ll also need plenty of batteries. I understand you get about 100-150 shots per battery. The AF system is fairly slow, so you’ll need to plan each shot carefully and check the focus. The camera also does not shoot video. If you’re thinking about getting it, I highly encourage you to check the specs, read and watch various reviews, and generally speaking, make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you care about accurate (I would even say amazing) color reproduction and you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of the other amenities we’ve come to expect from modern photographic equipment, then you’ll love this camera.

I’ll leave you with several images of the camera itself.

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A Guide To A Good Life, How To

How to choose a camera that’s right for you

In this video, I’m going to walk you through a process that will help you choose the right camera for your needs; it’s the same process I use myself as I choose new photo and video gear. Here are the decision-making steps I talk about in the video:

  1. Love what you already have
  2. Learn to use your equipment properly
  3. Don’t stress out about resolution (megapixels)
  4. Don’t get on a tech merry-go-round
  5. You don’t need UHD (4k video) just yet
  6. Be wary of “filler resolution”
  7. Separate the “nice to have” from the “must have”
  8. Get separate photo and video gear in order to obtain the best quality images and video

I hope this helps you!

Released 17-02-2018

It may seem like what I say in this video about camera resolution and about separating the equipment you purchase for photograph and video is contradicting what I say in this post, or in this post, but it isn’t that. I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, and I’ve simply become more nuanced in my understanding of many aspects of digital cameras; when I sat down and thought about what kind of advice I wanted to give in this video, the statements I made above rang truest.

Thanks for watching!

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