The low tech fix

Today I began what I was convinced would be the maddening task of further troubleshooting my PC. I pulled out the ram and video card, but nothing changed.

Then I noticed a bunch of the tiny little headers on the motherboard weren’t fully plugged in. How they came unplugged, I don’t know. Even more mysteriously, the honking big header for the front USB ports was completely disconnected and sitting well away from where it would normally be plugged in. All of this was strange, but easily fixed by just making sure everything was nice and secure.

I pressed the power button…and the PC powered up without issue. Windows didn’t even report a bad shutdown or anything. Everything is working again without any parts having to be replaced, and with minimal downtime.

To this I say: Yay!

Bringing work home with you through bad karma

Or maybe not bad karma, but something. And bad.

I recently celebrated the arrival of my new PC, which was a tad more difficult to assemble than expected, but in the end booted up without issue and has hummed along nicely since.

Until last night, at around 3:30 a.m. At that time it disconnected from IRC while I slept, unaware of what was to come.

In the morning I immediately spied something wrong. I normally set the keyboard to its bizarre, useless backlight configuration of “strobing rainbow” because it makes for a groovy night light. Instead of seeing this, the keyboard backlight was off. The power light on the monitor was also amber. Amber is never good.

But the sinister red LED on the HSF was still on, so the unit apparently had power. My first bit of troubleshooting was to hit the reset button to reboot the PC. This had the unexpected effect of cranking the fans up to super turbo mode. Alarmed, I held down the power button to shut the machine off. This had no effect.

I used the switch on the PSU itself and this worked better, turning the whole thing off. I flicked this switch back on and this time nothing at all happened. The sinister red LED on the HSF remained dark, as did the keyboard and display. I was sad. I was also out of time, as I had to head off to work.

Upon getting home I opened up the case and inspected everything, looking for things that might be loose or unplugged. Everything checked out fine, except for one of the cables plugged into the modular PSU. It seemed to be ever-so-slightly loose, so I reseated it. I put the case back together, plugged everything back in and hit the power button.

Nothing happened. My troubleshooting is now over.

I’m thinking it may be the motherboard for the following reasons:

  • there is evidence power is still getting through, as things like the network light still work
  • bad ram or CPU would produce an error message
  • a bad video card would not affect the keyboard (to my knowledge)
  • the video and keyboard not working both point to the motherboard as the source of the problem

It’s possible the PSU may be at fault, and it would be easier to swap it out to test first, but I still lean toward the motherboard based on all other evidence. I’ve asked for other opinions and am willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I suspect part of tomorrow will be spent buying and then installing a different motherboard and seeing what happens when I press the power switch. I am hoping my reaction will not be this:

The new computer: Installation of everything

First, the bad news: I somehow missed the USB headers and so the two front-mounted USB ports aren’t working. I actually rarely use these, anyway, as I have six USB ports available between the Asus monitor and Seagate back-up drive. I may eventually open the case up to fix this, but in terms of priority, it’s low. Maybe low++.

The good news: On turning on the PC for the first time, it worked. Yay! I got prompted to go into the BIOS because a new CPU had been detected. Once there, I confirmed all hardware was recognized (storage, chassis fans, memory, etc.) and rebooted with the USB drive containing the Windows 10 Pro installation.

The Windows installation went by quickly (really, I think I’ve had games take longer to install) and after answering the five hundred prompts about settings from Microsoft, I logged into my Microsoft account and was good to go. It still feels weird to have my preferred wallpaper already set up.

I installed drivers for the mouse, video card and, well, that’s it. That’s all I needed. I then installed programs I knew I’d be using right away:

  • Firefox (the one time I use Edge is to download Firefox. Well, and view PDFs)
  • Irfanview. Free image viewer/editor I’ve used for a thousand years.
  • Greenshot. Handy screen capture utility. Maybe I’ll try the new snipping tool Windows has built-in at some point, but I’m comfy with Greenshot.
  • Affinity Photo. For when Irfanview is not enough. It’s like Photoshop, but without the rental fee.
  • mIRC. IRC chat client I’ve used for 10,000 years.
  • Because I know I’ll eventually play Diablo 3 again.
  • GOG Galaxy. For the games on I might play.
  • Steam. For the gamews on Steam I might play.
  • iTunes. As much as I dislike the mess of trying to restore my music library, it’s what I need to listen to my music on PC.
  • iCloud. More janky “We gotta have this on the PC I guess” software from Apple I need to access photos and other iCloud junk.
  • Microsoft Office. Mostly for Word and OneNote.

That’s about it so far. I am taking a “do not install until I need it” approach on everything else.

In terms of speed, the new system has some perhaps surprising results. Here’s a look at how the Geekbench 4 results compare between it, the old PC (2013), MacBook Pro (2016) and the Mac mini (2018):

As you can see, the single core score beats the MBP, as expected, but it only edges the 4th general Haswell CPU in my old PC, and actually comes in a bit behind the Mac mini.

On the other hand, the multi-core performance demolishes the old PC and is ahead of the Mac mini, as well. The thought of replacing the CPU with a more powerful one gives me the cold sweats.

So far everything feels snappy and fast and in some ways it’s nice to have a stripped-down set of applications. I’ll resist adding stuff just because, but–you know, as I type this, I remembered another one I need: Calibre. But apart from Calibre, I’m holding off until I actually have a need. No more impulsive installs, ever! I swear.

For now.

Also, the AMD Ryzen 7 CPU has a bright red LED that circles the HSF. It’s weird and somehow I missed that it features this (it is mentioned on the retail box). So my new PC is partially blinged out, despite my best efforts to prevent it.

Also also I’m resisting the urge to get a second SSD already, because only having a single drive for now irrationally makes me feel like I’m going to run out of space any minute.

My new PC is built

Built but not actually connected to anything. For the moment it is perfect. And perfectly quiet.

I assembled the parts this evening and went about the task of putting the guts into the mini-tower case I had picked. As with my current PC, I picked every component on this one, then assembled it myself.

The total time of assembly was bout three and a half hours, which was longer than anticipated. I expected this to be quicker and easier than the mini-ITX system I built five years ago. Wrong again!

The points where I had issues:

  • Installing the heatsink/fan combo. This should be easy, as it’s just screwing in four screws to a plate mounted under the motherboard. But first I had to remove brackets for an alternate design. That was easy. Getting the four spring-loaded screws to screw in was not. I had to carefully balance each screw, lest the other side of the HSF suddenly pop up. This happened a lot. I finally got all four screws in when I realized I had to exert a certain amount of force on the HSF to keep it level, so it wouldn’t pop up. This took maybe 20-25 minutes alone. I can say with full confidence this is something I never want to do again.
  • Installing the cables to the power supply. Easy in theory, but threading them from the motherboard and down to the PSU “shroud” proved difficult, as there is a drive cage mounted next to the PSU. I had to unscrew the PSU assembly and pull it partly out to get the cables connected.
  • Plugging in the headers for Power LED, etc. These are labeled on the motherboard, but are virtually impossible to read because they are tiny and/or partly hidden by other components. I had to take several pictures and examine them closely to get everything connected. I think I got it right. Maybe.

These three things were, at times, maddening. And I haven’t even mentioned the IO shield, that infernal piece of aluminum that goes into a spot on the back of the case, and is designed to pop out 20 times before you can actually get it to stay in place. Despite these issues—which have convinced me to never build my own PC again—some aspects of the build were easy:

  • RAM was a simple case of snapping in the modules, same as it’s ever been.
  • The SSD is an M.2 drive, about the size of a stick of gum. It plugs directly into the motherboard and uses one tiny screw and support to keep it fastened in place. No power cables, no SATA cables, that’s it!
  • The video card went in place quite easily. This is often the trickiest thing to get in, but the case had plenty of room for it.

As I write this it is 11:48 p.m. and I have powered off my current PC. I am not keen on hooking up the new PC yet. I’m not ready to go through the ritual of installing Windows. I’m even less ready to deal with inevitable BIOS errors, the video card not working and whatever else may go wrong.

I do not have a good feeling about this.

But for now, the PC is built and it is ready.

I am not.

But maybe tomorrow.

Lousy keyboards of yore

The Wall Street Journal published a column today by Joanna Stern in which she reports that Apple’s butterfly keyboard used on its MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops is still having issues three generations in. This prompted Apple–currently facing a pair of class action lawsuits over the design–to offer an apology of sorts:

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

Apple didn’t say they were sorry for first or second generation butterfly keyboard owners, likely because every one of those keyboards is guaranteed a free keyboard replacement up to four years after purchase.

Apple has effectively admitted there are issues with all three generations of the butterfly keyboard. I have gone from hating the feel of the keyboard (mine is the dreaded first generation) to tolerating it. I’d prefer to have more travel on the keys and have them be quieter/less clicky, but could otherwise adapt to them. The third generation, with its silicone membrane is apparently a little less noisy, but I’ve yet to test it out in a quiet-enough environment to notice a difference. Also, the membrane apparently contributes to heat build-up, creating a new avenue for issues to arise.

All said, what John Gruber calls “the worst products in Apple history” are perhaps hopelessly flawed. I mean, if issues are still coming up after multiple fixes, maybe it’s time to move on to another design entirely?

The MacBook is overdue for a refresh. If Apple doesn’t kill it, the next version of it may show if Apple is staying all-in on what appears to be a fundamentally broken design, or gives up and goes for something else, like adapting the low-profile scissor switch design used in their external keyboards for their next generation of laptops.

I’m leaning toward the latter at this point, mainly because of today’s apology. It feels like the beginning of the groundwork to kill the butterfly design and bring in something butterfly-like, but with none of the fragility.

And while reading about this today, I came across PCWorld’s The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time. The butterfly keyboard isn’t on the list, as it dates all the way back to 2007. Still, it’s a fun–and horrifying–read. It’s kind of amazing how many computer keyboards didn’t have a backspace key.

Collected technology opinions from the internet, Volume 1

Yes, this is shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes you have a barrel of fish and a loaded gun and you just can’t resist.

There is a larger meta-commentary here about literacy or something, but I’m just amused by glaring typos and people making wildly wrong guesses about how something is spelled, and more generally what people are willing to commit to virtual paper.

On Apple being boring:
“Not boring, rediculuslly gready!”

A browser less likely to be charged with sexual assault:
“it’s like Chrome, but doesn’t rape your privacy”

Sony’s upcoming console, with rows of cartridges in golden fields:
“If Sony goes cartridge for the plantation 5 than those Blu-ray’s will be obsolete.”

On WoW wooing back players and the need for departments:
“You need to fix the class system for those people who quit to come back. Classes need more dept and more abilities that define the class.”

Good advice for your next system build:
“For the graphics card to work, you need to plug it into the mobo.”

On wearing costumes?
“i keep hearing this, it seems that many people only cares about share holders, that’s very nice but what about costumers, i am a costumer that’s why i care about the costumer side”

Fixing MacBook keyboards with insects:
“In real life users are very happy with this keyboard, without even saying that 2016-2017 keyboard “issue” is just fixable blowing air with your moth lol”

Windows 10:
“Windows 10 is nice if you don’t actually have to use it for anything in my experience.”

Samsung vs. Google or The Goggles Do Nothing:
“The Samsung UI is better then Goggles and has a USD storage”

The “cash cow” model for apps

Drew McCormack has an article on Medium from January 15, 2018 in which he explains the rationale behind the somewhat unorthodox purchase options for the Mac/iOS note-taking app he helped create, called Agenda.

It’s a hybrid model that is related to, but not the same as the dreaded subscription model. Even more now than before, we are seeing signs of subscription fatigue from users–something that must be weighing on the minds of Apple’s executives as they get ready to unveil multiple new subscription services at their event tomorrow. McCormack cites the example of Ulysses, pointing out how people have gleefully torpedoed the average rating for the app by one-starring it solely for switching to a subscription model.

And I think that’s valid. It is and should be a dealbreaker. Ulysses’s devs may go on about how it only costs the equivalent of a Starbucks coffee per month, but their subscription doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s one of many apps to now demand a subscription simply to use it. The subscriptions add up and eventually the user will say, “No more” and may even start cutting back. In the case of Ulysses, there are plenty of other writing apps out there that do not charge a subscription fee for use. (Note: As I’ve also reported, I finally gave in and reluctantly subscribed to Ulysses, but only after holding out for 18 months. And my loyalty will only last until I find a better non-subscription writing app.)

This leads into what Agenda is doing differently, and it’s an approach I really like, and hope that other developers will adopt it (maybe some have–it’s been over a year since the blog post was written).

Agenda is free to use–there are no ads, no up-front costs, no subscription. There are, however, a set of premium features that require in-app purchase. This purchase gives you permanent access to the premium features, along with any added over the next 12 months. You can keep using this version of Agenda forever and never pay again. If a new premium feature or set of features comes out after the 12 months has lapsed, you make the same in-app purchase and get those features and any others added for another 12 months, again keeping them permanently.

My only quibble is the actual price–$35 is not a ton of money, but it does seem expensive for a note-taking app. Also, the Mac and iOS versions must be purchased separately.

Still, I think this is an excellent way to avoid subscriptions, while still allowing for an ongoing stream of revenue for the developers, and I’d like to see it adopted more widely.

Maybe if Ulysses switched over to this model they would finally rid themselves of the plague of the 1-star reviews.

New PC 2018: Parts chosen (until I change my mind)

Ironic note: This post was written on a Mac mini.

My current PC is about five years old and truthfully, it still does most things I need it to do without any major issues. I can browse the web, check email, write, read, play games, chat and so on, all without gnashing my teeth about the system being infernally slow, laggy or otherwise annoying to use.

It has an SSD as the main drive, so Windows 10 boots and restarts quickly (even if I notice that the Thinkpad X1 Carbon boots Windows 10 and programs even faster). It has 8 GB of ram, which still allows multitasking of as many programs as I’m likely to run. Its 4th generation Core i5 CPU is officially five generations behind, but it’s clocked at 3.3 GHz and still capable.

In the time I’ve had the PC, I’ve only upgraded three components:

  • The monitor, which isn’t even directly part of the PC. I went from a 24″ Samsung TN panel to a 24″ Asus IPS monitor, and the change was totally worth it. The color, clarity, viewing angles and brightness of an IPS monitor are so much better than a TN display. I still have the Samsung as an emergency backup.
  • The video card, from a GeForce GTX 570 to a GTX 770. This was also worth it, though I bungled things by not doing enough research, as the even-better GTX 970 came out just weeks after I got the 770.
  • The OS, from Windows 8 to Windows 10. And technically this isn’t a component of the PC, anyway.

Apart from that, the system is exactly the same as the day I put it together. I’m even using the same 2 TB hard disk from the previous PC as the secondary drive in the current one.

So with everything working, why build a new system?

The best answer might be that while everything works, I am starting to see the upper limits of what the current PC can manage. As programs–and especially browsers–become more bloated demanding, the 8 GB of ram is becoming an issue. Having a small primary drive (256 GB) is slowing down overall performance when loading and saving, because I simply don’t have room for everything on it. Older and less demanding games can still run fine on the GTX 770, but more often I have to turn down settings, accept lower framerates, or just play stuff released 10 years ago. Which Diablo 3 halfway to, luckily.

Also, we are at a point where technologies and pricing have both stabilized with some really good offerings.

If I stick to what I’ve picked out, here’s how the new system will compare to the current PC:

  • 4x the storage on the primary drive (1 TB vs. 256 GB). I would add additional storage on an as-needed basis.
  • 2x the memory (16 vs. 8 GB)
  • Faster video card with 4x the memory (RTX 2070 with 8 GB vs. GTX 770 with 2 GB)
  • A CPU with 2x the number of cores (8 core AMD Ryzen 2700 vs. 4 core Intel Core i5)
  • A larger case (microATX vs. mini-ITX)

The new case is an improvement because I’ve moved the PC back under the desk, so I don’t need a super-small case anymore. A taller one will make the front-facing ports and jacks easier to access, and the case itself should theoretically be easier to work with.

I’ve already gotten the video card, the next step is to figure out where to get everything else. Having ship everything to a locker is appealing (and simple) but amazon’s pricing and selection is surprisingly inconsistent, so I may be going to local dealers, like I did before NCIX self-immolated.

I am both excited (that new toy feeling) and filled with dread (piecing everything together, turning it on, nothing happening). And of course, it doesn’t address one critical aspect–I’m back to using Ulysses, a Mac-only writing app. I’m hoping the developers will eventually use their alleged subscription-fed largesse to port the program to Windows. I don’t think they will because they seem beholden to Apple’s ecosystem, but it would be nice. I like the app a lot more than I like macOS. Maybe I’m just too used to Windows after a hundred years of using it.

But maybe WriteMonkey 3.0 will eventually come out of beta, actually support indents and fulfill all my writing needs. It could happen!

Perhaps most importantly, my giant backlog of games can’t be played on a Mac mini. It’s new PC time.

Apple’s kooky new iPad vision starts to take shape

Today Apple quietly announced two sort-of new iPads: the iPad air and the iPad mini. Both of these have already existed, the Air reaching version 2, the mini reaching version 4.

The mini was badly in need of an update, having last seen hardware improvements in 2015–par for the course with the current Apple, neglecting its products for years on end (the Mac Pro is still the reigning champ, now sitting at 5+ years without a single update, though Apple has promised a new version this year).

The reason I call Apple’s vision for the iPad kooky is because I don’t think it was planned, it’s still a bit of a mess, but it is, finally, a kind of actual plan and presents a clearer vision of the iPad line-up.

In 2010 the iPad line-up was simple. There was the iPad, selling for $499. That was it.

In 2011 Apple brought out the iPad 2 for $499 and that was it. The same philosophy continued through successive models:

  • The New iPad (2012). This was an improved version 2, with the dumbest iPad name ever.
  • iPad (4th generation, also 2012). Basically The New iPad, but with a lightning port.
  • iPad Air (2013). This featured a lot of improvements–a better display, thinner, lighter (hence the name), but still kept the $499 price.
  • iPad Air 2 (2014). Like the Air, but with refinements.

In 2012, when the fourth gen iPad appeared, Apple introduced the iPad mini. This was the first time buyers had a distinct choice of what iPad to get, but it was still pretty clear: get a big iPad, or get a small one. In terms of specs, they were very similar.

In 2015 Apple mixed things up again by bringing out the first iPad Pro. It had a whopping 12.9 inch display and similarly whopping price. Again, the difference between the three models was clear–size (and price, with the Pro model).

In early 2016 Apple added the 9.7 inch iPad Pro and here things got confusing. The smaller Pro sold for $599, only $100 more than the Air 2. It had Apple Pencil support, a faster processor, generally enough improvements that people might be tempted to spend that extra $100. Apple was now in a position where it would cannibalize its own sales–but not in a good way.

Apple “fixed” the issue in 2017 by coming out with both a new iPad (again just called iPad, this being the sixth generation), killing off the Air 2 and bumping the specs of the 9.7 inch Pro to a 10.5 inch model. They sealed the deal by increasing the price of the Pro to $649 and decreasing (!) the iPad price to $329. Apple also made a lot of compromises with the iPad and its tech, essentially reverting it back to something more akin to the original iPad Air.

Now the gap between regular and Pro was clear: price! The smaller Pro cost almost twice as much.

This continued into 2018 when Apple introduced the third generation of Pros, with the now 11 inch model selling for $799 vs. the still $329 iPad. The 12.9 inch model started at $999.

But now Apple had a problem of their own making. The iPad and iPad Pros could both do all the same things, run all the same software. In 2018 Apple even added Pencil support to the cheaper model. The current Pros are great tablets–provided you don’t need a headphone jack–but the price difference was now so stark that most people wouldn’t even consider the Pro models, unless they had an extremely compelling use case or simply didn’t care about the cost.

Thus, today’s additions.

The revived iPad Air (not called iPad Air 3, just iPad Air, but at least it’s not New iPad Air) does three things: it cements the return of Air branding (started when the MacBook Air was refreshed–finally–in October 2018), further underlines Apple moving away from version numbers (only the phones and watches persist) and most importantly, provides a product in-between the cheap iPad and the ludicrously expensive iPad Pro. And the price?

Yep, $499.

In reality, the new iPad Air is essentially the just-discontinued iPad Pro 10.5 inch. It was selling for $649, so the Air is significantly cheaper. There are some features cut, like the 120 Mhz refresh rate Apple calls Promotion, but all of the important stuff from the 10.5 inch Pro has been kept, just at a lower price.

The mini is in a weirder place. I thought Apple was going to go the cheap iPad route, and revert the min back to the iPad mini 3 era of design–thicker, heavier, non-laminated display and so on, to keep the price down. Instead, they went the opposite, actually improving the specs. The display is even better than before, it adds Pencil support and so on, without changing the price, which remains $399. There is one downgrade–the mini 4 was reduced to one configuration with 128 GB of storage. The new one starts at 64 GB, so the cost is the same, but storage is now halved, though one might argue the improvements make up for it. I bought my mini 4 in late 2016 and back then I paid $499 Canadian for a 32 B model. I can now get the new 64 GB version for $529, a modest (for Apple) price increase that reflects the drubbing the Canadian dollar has taken over the last two years.

The iPad mini, then, is sort of a semi-pro, so Apple must be counting on people wanting the smaller size being willing to pay for it.

And now, for the moment, the iPad line and its vision are complete. There is a low end model, a smaller model, a mid-range model, and a pair of high end models. Prices start reasonable (for apple) and progress up to through-the-roof. And for the first time in a long time, all of the models are current. None are year-old models sold for less (or the same price, as the 10.5 inch Pro was).

This may help Apple keep iPad sales from stagnating, by tempting more people into spending what used to be the old iPad price of $499 to get the nicer specs. I wonder how it will affect the Pro models, though. Face ID and slimmer bezels are nice, but not hundreds of dollars more nice. For me, at least.

And for me, I’m content to stick with my iPad Pro 10.5 inch. It still works great as it nears its two year birthday and the new Air would only be an upgrade in terms of the processor boost–but the 10.5 inch has never felt slow.

(Also, congratulate me for not making a single penis joke after typing out 10.5 inch so many times.)

My iPad mini, now over two years old, is suffering worsening battery life. It will run itself all the way down in just two days of idling, so I have to charge it every other day instead of just once a week. I’m not keen on having to replace it, but at least when I do I won’t be paying much more (or maybe not more at all if I wait for a sale), and I’ll be getting some nice improvements, as well.

Probably the dumbest move Apple has made recently in regards to the iPad is calling the second generation Apple Pencil…Apple Pencil. See this Verge article for more.

Those wacky internet speeds

Since getting the internet connection upgrade, I occasionally check to see how the connection is running.

Just now, I did two tests on the Mac mini. Here are the results:

  • using a BCNET server (this is the service used by many post-secondary schools): 74.97 Mbps download, 21.01 Mbps upload, 12 ms ping
  • (provided by Netflix): 53 Mbps download, 20 Mbps upload, 4 ms ping

Now, I’m no internet scientist, but it seems to me even allowing for some variation between different sites, I shouldn’t be seeing a difference of nearly 22 Mbps when conducting tests literally within a minute of each other. And tests earlier in the evening were even lower from, peaking around 43 Mbps.

Even though this is kind of terrible, I’m not overly concerned right now, because for most of my purposes, the speed is still fast enough that I’m not left squirming in my seat saying, “Faster, faster!” And the result is actually very close to my expected speed.

But eventually I may start squirming, and if I do I’ll run a bunch of tests over multiple days and times and take the results to my ISP and say to them, “What’s going on, you big lovable corporate entity?” And they may just LOL or whatever, concluding the saga on a lighthearted note.

Here is the result in graphic form:

MacBook Pro 2016 revisited

Since I started writing with Ulysses again, I’ve been forced to reacquaint myself with my 2016 MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar. This is the one that an Apple executive (maybe Phil Schiller?) claimed would make a nice alternative to the MacBook Air when it debured, neatly ignoring that it cost $700 Canadian more than the Air (ironically, the updated 2018 MacBook Air, combined with a 128GB version of the MBP, has resulted in the price difference now being only $230).

There were no great revelations in going back to the MBP. I still liked the things I liked before, and still disliked the rest. So let’s recap:

The Great:

  • The haptic trackpad is still the best I’ve ever used. It’s a tad bigger than it needs to be, but that isn’t a real issue, and being able to click anywhere on it is great. And the clicks are smooth, not, uh, clicky.
  • The display is terrific. High resolution, bright, and without using the “skinny” 16:9 ratio. It’s not as tall as a 3:2 display, but it gives more headroom than 16:9, something I find important in a laptop.

The Good:

  • Speedy SSD.
  • Versatile Thunderbolt 3 ports.
  • macOS is still pretty solid.
  • Backlighting is spiffy.
  • Save about $670 over the next tier of MacBook Pro, and get bonus real function keys in the process.

The Meh:

  • Only two Thunderbolt ports. One for charging, the other for…everything else. And both on the same side.
  • Actual performance varies. It’s never bad, but sometimes it doesn’t feel as tight as what you’d expect for a “pro” machine.
  • Headphone jack (ya) is on thee right side, which, given the design of nearly every wired set of headphones in existence, makes no sense.
  • macOS is still pretty solid, but the Finder still kind of sucks.
  • Styling is getting dated.
  • All-aluminum design is slippery as all get-out. Every time I pull it out of my knapsack it feels like it’s going to squip out of my hand. And it doesn’t even feel that nice. It’s metal and cold. Meh!
  • Even though it only weighs about three pounds, it somehow feels heavier.
  • Battery life is only average vs. other Ultrabooks.
  • Display bezels are pretty big in 2019.

The Bad:

  • You can’t upgrade anything post-purchase.
  • Any repairs are difficult and costly.
  • The keyboard still sucks.

I can tolerate the keyboard, but I still don’t really like it. It’s just too shallow and clicky, like a scissor switch keyboard imitating a mechanical keyboard. It just doesn’t feel right. And I have less than two years before a potential repair bill of $600+ awaits, should even a single key fail. Given Apple’s flailing in trying to make the keyboard more reliable, I’m very interested in seeing what the next MacBook Pros look like. I doubt they’ll retreat to what they had before, but I think there’s a decent chance they will do something different, instead of continuing to tinker with the current design. Hopefully they won’t present something even worse still, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Overall, this is a laptop that doesn’t stand up to the best Windows laptops anymore. The only thing that really separates it from the competition is the trackpad, but the deficiencies like the keyboard, battery life and repairability, lag behind many other notebooks. Still, it’s a competent machine and I can muddle along with it for writing. Every other Mac laptop now comes with the same butterfly switch keyboard (even if current models feature a newer, quieter version of it), so it’s not like switching to another model of MacBook will make much difference.

On a scale of 1 to 10 Think Differents, the 2016 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar rates 6 Think Differents.

The grand flaw of true wireless earbuds

Last week, after about three days of non-use, I went to put on my AirPods and found that, despite being on the charger, they were only at 77% charge. I’ve had an intermittent issue with the left AirPod where it doesn’t make a solid connection in the charging case and drains instead of charging. This is a tad inconvenient.

Usually I can resolve this by removing the AirPod, checking/blowing on the bud and inside the case, then re-inserting it, at which point the power light turns orange, indicating charging. Five minutes’ worth will give me about an hour of playtime. Not bad.

But this did not happen. I put on the AirPods and confirmed the left one would not play at all, as expected. I fiddled with them for a bit, then went into the Bluetooth settings on my iPhone and chose Disconnect Device. It disconnected.

It would not reconnect.

Lacking any other options, I then chose Forget This Device. It forgot it.

And that was the last time my AirPods interacted with the phone at all. I get a blinking green power like that pulses three times when I pop the case open, then nothing. They are effectively dead.

But this is not the grand flaw I speak of, it’s a roundabout introduction to the actual flaw.

I looked up when I purchased the AirPods: October 2017. They were out of warranty. I looked up repair costs on Apple’s site:

It’s possible the left bud is fine and it’s a flaw in the case itself that is to blame, in which case I’d be looking at a $69 repair cost. This is high, but not completely outrageous–AirPods cost $219 Canadian. But it would still leave me with 16-month old batteries. If I got those replaced I’d be looking at a total bill of $207. Pretty much the cost of a new set.

And here’s where the grand flaw of true wireless earbuds comes in. The beauty of AirPods and similar earbuds is that there are no wires to tangle with. Having to switch back to wired buds in the last week reminded me what an annoyance that is. The extra cost of the AirPods was worth the convenience.

That convenience comes at a price, though. Because there are no wires, the battery must be contained entirely within the ear buds themselves–and they are tiny. And like all rechargeable batteries, they will degrade over time. When the batteries are this small, the degradation can have a major impact on battery life. Rated at a maximum of five hours, people who bought AirPods in 2016 when they debuted are now reporting that they are getting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes on a full charge now.

This is normal behavior, though you will not find anything official about this in Apple’s site. That means that when the batteries deteriorate to the point that they are no longer usable, you have two choices: pay $219 for a new set, or pay $138. Neither of these is very appealing. If you go the latter route of battery replacement and imagine they need to be replaced every two years (ie. out of warranty), you are looking at a yearly cost (not counting the original $219 investment) of $69. Is paying $69 every year to keep using your AirPods reasonable? They’re not sold as a subscription service, so I’d say no.

But if you asked someone, would you pay $5.75 per month to always get your AirPods batteries refreshed so they never die, I’d bet a surprising number would say yes. That works out to $69 per year, of course.

So I am now left wondering what to do. The repair will be expensive and will only extend the life a few years. Replacement will cost another $219. Waiting for a new model will require going without–and Apple’s trend over the last four years is to jack up the prices on any new version of anything.

For now, I’m just going to ponder, both on what to do, and about how we seem to have entered the era of ongoing costs for something (headphones, earbuds) that never had any real ongoing costs before, without even realizing it.