Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

The old Apple is back

Apple at its best, and what drew me into the company back in high school, is when they announce products in the pro tier of their Mac lineup. Lust-worthy items with exorbitant prices that I desperately want, but cannot hope to afford. I remember when the 30-inch Cinema Display was first introduced: a display so unimaginably large that costs more than entire computer systems! I wanted one immediately, though sadly had to wait for that display technology to trickle down to the hundreds of dollars range many, many years later.

I also remember the first ever Mac Pro, a monster of a computing machine for three times the costs of my poverty-spec Macbook laptop. I couldn’t possibly utilize all that number-crunching power (much less pay the price), but the 'cheese grater’ tower just looks so damn awesome. Apple is clever like that, aren’t they? Their superb ability to make people pine for their products is one of the biggest reason I upgrade to the latest iPhone every year, even though for my purposes I’d still be okay currently with an iPhone 8.

So today it was a throwback of sorts for Apple at their annual developer conference, where they announced a brand new Mac Pro tower, and a 6K display to do along with it. The unit starts at $5999, and the monitor is $4999 for the panel only; the aluminum ‘Pro’ stand with the fancy hinge mechanism is another $999 on top! I could hear the collective groan from the audience over the keynote livestream when the guy on stage announced the stand was separate and costs the same as an iPhone. This is Apple pricing madness at its best, and it brings me back to youth.

Of course, the specs of the new machine and the display is out of this world, and just like a decade before with the old Mac Pro and pro display, it’s way more computing power than I can ever use in my current capacity as a photography hobbyist and a writer. The difference now is that I don’t want the new Mac Pro at all, even though I can somewhat afford it (just have to put a few things up on eBay). Perhaps its my adult sensibilities coming into effect: I no longer buy things for the heck of it; the item has got to serve a purpose. My two years old 27-inch iMac is still up to the tasks superbly, so there’s no reason to replace it with a far nicer box for marginal gains in speed.

Indeed, the new Mac Pro and Pro Display is strictly for the professionals, the type who can expense such extravagant acquisition on their respective company accounts. I’m definitely not one of those people, the type to work with three simultaneous streams of 8K footage, or mix 1000 tracks of sound at the same time.

Who am I kidding, though; I still want it.

Just some late night filings…

Making of the calendars

It’s getting to be that time of the year when people agonize over what presents to buy to gift to friends and family. It’s also that time of the year when people procrastinate until the very final Friday before Christmas. It’s why I never visit malls - or even go outside - on that particular weekend: too much frantic, too much mayhem. The danger of an unsuspecting driver too worried about finishing his errands crashing into my car in a parking structure is immensely high.

Best to avoid all that.

In fact I avoid holiday shopping entirely by getting (making) the same present for everyone: a bespoke calendar for the following year, using the photographs I’ve taken in the current year. My friends receive something uniquely special and useful, and I save lots of money because each calendar only costs 20 bucks.

In the past fews years I’ve done this through Apple’s Photos app, utilizing their official printing service. The results are typically Apple, which is to say amazing and proper quality. Unfortunately, this year there’s a bit of hiccup: Apple for some reason have decided to end its photo printing products operation. What a shame; I guess the scale wasn’t enough for a company that sells iPhones in the billions of dollars.

So for those dozens (?) of users, we are relegated to using third-party companies. Two of those - Mimeo and Motif - provide an extension that integrates with the Photos app and offers a convincing facsimile of the discontinued official product. To produce my calendars this year I chose Mimeo, primarily because for first time users there’s a 20% discount. I’m actively saving up for an 911 so every single cent counts massively.

Having since received the calendars, I have to say the quality is surprisingly good. It’s not to the levels of Apple where the font design and layout of the dates is more clean and carries a simplicity, but where it counts the most - the pictures, Mimeo does the job well.

I do still miss the Apple version, but I’m glad there’s viable replacements readily available.

A study in uniformity and scale.

A study in uniformity and scale.

iPad won't replace my laptop

The most prized team in all of computing technology have got to be the silicon group within Apple. The A12X Bionic chip in the latest iPad Pros have shown in benchmarks to be faster than any Mac computer currently on sale that isn’t an iMac Pro or a BTO Macbook Pro, all for the entry price of just $799. Intel is absolutely getting their ass handed to them by Apple. iPhone users have been enjoying the fruits of the A Series chip for many years now, and it surely won’t be long until Apple puts one of those into a Mac.

But that’s in the future; for the present those wonderful and powerful chips reside in the aforementioned iPad Pros. Apple would like consumers to think of them as laptop replacements, and for a considerable amount of people that can indeed be the case, but for me, a person who’ve owned two previous iterations of the iPad (the very first one and the third generation), it remains but a quality content viewing device. For my particular workflow, the iPad simply cannot replace the laptop.

Apple can cram all the performance it wants into the iPad, and it’ll be utterly wasted in my favor because I can’t do serious photo-editing work on the device. No doubt iPads have got some of the most brilliant and accurate displays in any product, making for a brilliant canvas to work on, but it’s still size-limited at 12.9 inch at the maximum. In handling 40+ megapixel RAW files I want the biggest display possible (I miss the old 17-inch Macbook Pro). The new iPad Pros feature USB-C so it can connect up to a 5K display, though the user is still expected to manipulate the UI using the iPad itself, rather than the more convenient mouse.

That’s because iOS still doesn’t feature a pointer: you’re forced to use your fingers at all times, even when connected to a giant display. Great as it may be on the iPhone, iOS simply haven’t evolved quite enough on the iPad to provide a suitable workflow for me. It does bring up a chicken or the egg question: should a device acquiesce to my idiosyncrasies, or should I adapt to the peculiarities of the device instead?

I don’t mind altering habits, but there are some barriers that simply aren’t acceptable. For instance one cannot import photos on an SD card directly into Lightroom mobile; it must go through the iOS Photos app and then import into Adobe; it doesn’t make any sense. External USB storage are not supported at all on the new iPad Pro even with the USB-C port; how and where exactly do Apple want us photographers to perform backups? Please don’t say iCloud.

One last deal-beaker of the iPad that keeps me clutching to a laptop: the typing experience. I write regularly on this website and a proper keyboard is crucial, and the fabric facsimile Apple trots out in their Smart Keyboard Folio isn’t it. I’m not about to carry an extra wireless keyboard with me just for typing. A mac laptop is still the better in that regard, and more importantly it actually fits on the lap, no table necessary.

All of this is to say I hope Apple really get a move on putting the A series chips into the Mac; I have a hunch when the Macbook receives its next refresh, it won’t be running Intel.

What we mean when we tell users we need to perform diagnostics.

What we mean when we tell users we need to perform diagnostics.

Mac Mini and Macbook Air is still alive

And just like that, the longest neglected two products in Apple’s portfolio - sans Mac Pro - finally received updates.

I woke yesterday to the Apple event in Brooklyn still ongoing: it started at 7am, and I tend to wake at 8am. An avid purveyor of Apple products I may be, I was not about to forgo precious sleep time just to watch a keynote. Nevertheless, I hopped on immediately onto MacRumors, ignored the presentation of the new iPad that was ongoing, and went hunting for details on the new Macs earlier in the event.

After four inexplicably long years, the much beloved Mac Mini finally gets refreshed. No longer are people suckered into paying the same price for hilariously outdated internals. I’ve fond memories of the Mac Mini because I bought one back in 2014, the last time it got an update until today. It was a relative powerhouse in a tiny package, and the unit served me well in my creative endeavors until it was replaced by a 5K iMac last year. Had today’s refresh been available then, I probably would’ve bought it.

The new Mac Mini receives innards that rival the iMac, as long as you don’t care about graphics performance. It’s got the latest 8th-generation Intel chips, alongside a completely flash storage architecture, featuring up to 64GB of memory and 1.5TB of SSD storage. With an army of IO ports at the back similar to the iMac, the new Mac Mini should make plenty of BYOP (bring your own peripherals) customers happy; even those wanting more graphics can attach an eGPU unit via Thunderbolt 3.

Here’s to hoping Apple doesn’t let this Mac Mini languish unchanged for another four years.

The other Mac product to receive a refresh, a genuine surprise for me, is the Macbook Air. Thought to be in purgatory since the introduction of the Macbook back in 2016, it seems Apple have decided to reharness the immense brand value of what is easily their most popular laptop ever. Essentially an entry-level 13-inch Macbook Pro by a different name, the new Macbook Air changes it up slightly by retaining the iconic tapered design, and adding Touch ID to the keyboard (previously only available on Pro models with the Touch Bar). The new laptop looks fantastic.

Macbook Air with a retina display: we’ve been clamoring for it endlessly, and after many long years Apple finally delivered. As a previous owner of an 11-inch Macbook Air which was unceremoniously forsaken at a TSA checkpoint, I’m dangerously close to plopping down the $1200 necessary for the base new one. If only I wasn’t saving up for a 911…

All of the lines.

All of the lines.

Initial iPhone XS Max impressions

I was surprised how easy the preordering process was this year. The Apple Store app opened up right at 12:01am Friday, and within minutes I was ready with a launch-day delivery unit. A stark contrast to the previous few years where the app was unresponsive for a quarter hour, and mere seconds delay in decision bumped me off of first day delivery (last year).

Either Apple’s supply chain have improved immensely, or they’ve got plenty of iPhone XS on hand for everyone. Probably the latter because the line frenzies we are used to seeing in previous iPhone launches were few and far in between. I can walk into an Apple Store right now and buy a unit in any of the three colors.

Of course I’d rather not leave the house if possible, so I optioned for home delivery. Trouble is I didn’t get home last Friday until way late into the night, though I figured the setup process wouldn’t be too much of a hassle: backup iPhone X into iTunes, plug the new phone in, and step 3 profit. The plan was going great until I turned on the new iPhone XS Max for the first time and it ceremoniously failed at the Verizon authentication process.

Turns out Apple screwed up royally with their batch of Verizon phones. Their authentication system still has my old and out-of-date PIN and not the current one from Verizon. I was adamant my info was correct, not knowing it wanted the old PIN. Verizon couldn’t do anything about it, and the Apple tech support I talk to did not yet know the extent of the situation. After two hours of futility, I finally remembered my old PIN and I was home free.

The screen is massive and glorious.

The iPhone XS Max is about the size of the old ‘Plus’ phones, but the display dominates the entire frame. At 6.5 inches, it is desperately close to mini tablet territory, and I simply love the amount of real-estate. After nearly a year of using iPhone X I’ve gotten used to its screen size, but mere minutes of using the XS Max, the previous generation phone already feels uncomfortably small and cramped. I’m very glad I chose to go with the larger model: more text, more information; watching Youtube videos in landscape is a pleasure.

Unfortunately not many apps have been updated to utilize the newfound space. Native Apple apps obviously look great and sharp, but other apps are merely zoomed to acquiesce the new size. Just as we had to wait for apps to update and take full advantage of the iPhone X screen, I fear we may need to do the same for the XS Max. Tick tock, app developers.

Other than the extra screen size, operationally the XS Max is nearly identical to the X. It’s probably speedier and smoother, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Even after a year in production, the X is not lacking in speed, especially after the update to iOS 12. The reason for upgrading to the XS Max was the bigger display, and the improved camera.

And what a sweet camera it is. I’ve only had a few days of shooting under my belt, but I can’t stop being impressed with the results. Smart HDR is simply magic, producing images in real-time that an equivalent DSLR camera would require multiple exposures and then combining them in software on a laptop. It’s awe-inspiring to see Apple continually attempt to overcome the limitations of sensor and lens physics with sheer computational might.

More to come on the iPhone XS Max as I get more familiar with its intricacies.

Straight off iPhone XS Max camera, unedited.

Straight off iPhone XS Max camera, unedited.

I'm getting the iPhone XS Max

So of course I am getting the new iPhone XS Max. Announced at the Apple event yesterday morning, the latest iPhone is an iterative improvement to the ground-breaking iPhone X: the screen got brighter and has more colors, the cameras got larger pixels and aperture, the glass and steel body is stronger, and the processor is incrementally faster. All is what’s expected from an “s” release, and as I’ve said previously, the iPhone X is still plenty competitive with the smartphones of 2018. Nobody has yet to even match its chipset speed.

Then why am I upgrading? First, because I can, and second, for the bigger screen. iPhone X have always felt a bit small after two years of using the ‘Plus’ versions of iPhone 6 and 7. The missing screen real estate isn’t too much of a bother because the edge-to-edge OLED panel is that good, but a size increase would make it perfect. As expected, Apple announced an iPhone XS model with a larger screen, though it’s not a ‘Plus’ anymore, it’s now a ‘Max’.

Anybody else think Apple have gone off the deep-end lately with their naming conventions (iPhone SE comes to mind)? The word ‘Plus’ is stamped in the consumer consciousness denoting the bigger iPhone model for years now, and Apple just tossed that brand value away in a flash. Curious, to say the least.

Alongside the new flagship, Apple also introduced the iPhone XR, the base model of the iPhone X(?) range if you will. It’s got the same computational innards as the XS, but it forsakes the intricate OLED panel for LCD, and the body is made of aluminium instead of stainless-steel. There’s only one camera module instead of two, though at least it’s the same wide lens as the XS. It comes in five vibrant colors, harkening back to the iPhone 5C, sparking the question why Apple didn’t call it the iPhone XC instead of XR.

Price at $750 to start, the cheapest new for 2018 iPhone is not exactly cheap at all. I’m old enough to remember flagship smartphones started in the $600 range; today that wouldn’t even get you the compromised version. It can’t be helped: suckers like me are gladly paying the $1K entry cost going on the second year like clockwork. Apple has zero incentive to change, especially with the U.S. government barring the the likes of Huawei from selling their lower cost flagship phones here.

Preorders for the iPhone XS starts at midnight Friday so let the annual ‘can you get your order in for launch day’ games begin. I’ll be there, man.

I reckon this is secured enough.

I reckon this is secured enough.

On 10 months with the iPhone X

Today is Apple’s annual new iPhone announcement event, and mere hours from me typing these words right now, I will find out how spectacular of a phone I shall be getting really soon. Before all that happiness however I’d like to talk about the iPhone X, a phone I’ve thoroughly enjoyed for almost a year.

It’s an interesting reflection of human nature that we’ve grown accustomed to iPhone X’s eye-watering price. Starting at a hair under a thousand dollars - which itself is shocking enough, I of course simply had to get the SKU with additional storage (Apple, as ever, was clever to provide the “base” model with only 64 gigabytes), so the final suggested purchase price of my 256GB unit is $1,149.

It’s been said that smartphones are essentially computers that fit in our pockets; well, now they cost the same as one too. The price shock quickly wore off, though: nowadays when I see smartphones costing in $700 dollars range, I think of them as inexpensive. Hashtag crazy rich Asians.

I have to say the iPhone X is absolutely worth its significant purchase price. It’s easily the most transformative iPhone since iPhone 4. A return to glass on the back, along with the stainless-steel band, makes iPhone X feel tremendous to the hand. It’s solid and exquisite to the touch, so much so that I decided from the outset to not put a case on it. 10 months later and aside from a few nicks on the band from the two times I dropped it on solid ground, my iPhone X have held up excellently.

Operationally, the iPhone X, to quote the late Steve Jobs, is a screamer. Everything is incredibly fast and fluid, and it makes using lesser phones and tablets (my Microsoft Surface Pro 4) a frustrating experience. Why can’t all touch devices be this responsive? Lag is nonexistent, and apps closes and switches with nary a hiccup; I don’t think I’ve ever had to perform a hard-reset. The fact that I can edit 42 megapixel photos from my Sony A7R2 camera right on my iPhone X and it’s all super smooth is a testament to Apple’s ingenuity with its A series silicon.

Suffice it to say the camera on the iPhone X is sublime. I’ve said it before: we are ever close to having photos from smartphones be indistinguishable from those out of traditional DSLRs.

What about the new features? The transition from nine years of having a home button to Face ID feels incredibly natural. It’s amazing what Apple has done with the feature in its first generation (Touch ID was a logistical mess when it first debuted): Face ID simply works, and its miss-rate is no worse than the fingerprint sensor of previous phones. As for the edge-to-edge OLED screen and the much maligned “notch”, let’s just say there is a reason all the other Android phone manufacturers are copying it, and not doing a very good job either. What’s the point of the notch if you’ve still got a chin bezel at the bottom?

While I am excited about the next iteration of iPhone, I’d be completely okay if I were to keep my iPhone X for another year (I won’t be, just saying). It’s still superbly quick and chews through everything I throw at it, and the camera module is still amongst the class leaders. Apple have engineered the iPhone X so magnificently that aside from the obvious screen size increase I’m honestly stumped as to how they will improve the other parts.

We shall see in a few hours.

That time when I was the only passenger on the train and it wasn’t late at night.

That time when I was the only passenger on the train and it wasn’t late at night.