Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1037

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
December 11, 2022


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It happened during what seemed like many years ago. I was knee deep in the original Mac OS platform, and not only upgraded the OS as soon as it came available, but I would buy new gear every year or two. For a time, before my son left home to seek his fortune, I had two desktop Macs, plus a notebook, known then as the PowerBook.

While not the cheapest approach by a long shot, it seemed the reasoned approach for my work situation. Each model upgrade was fairly substantial in the scheme of things, and I got paid to write articles and books about technology. So having the newest Mac was an important part of my work.

At least then.

When Apple switched to Intel CPUs in 2006, there were vast improvements in performance for the first few years. Then, as Intel confronted more and more difficulties boosting number crunching, not so much. It’s one reason among many for ditching Intel and adopting Apple Silicon.

In 2009, I was using a Mac Pro, modestly equipped, with a 30-inch Dell display. But when Apple released its Late 2009 iMac, I had what I regarded as the best of both worlds. Performance was no longer at consumer level. It was a genuine work machine that was in the Mac Pro’s league except for the most demanding rendering tasks. But since I wasn’t editing movies and producing CGI, and could save a bundle compared to my previous choices, I opted for one.

Compared to the Mac Pro, that iMac was quite fast enough. With an integrated 27-inch display of decent quality it was not a serious comedown from 30 inches. With Mac upgrades not quite as significant, I kept it for nearly seven years. During its last year, I replaced its tepid hard drive with a 1TB SSD from OWC. Since so much of what you do on a personal computer is drive dependent, it was a revelation. The startup process sped up from minutes to seconds, and apps launched more quickly than I ever expected.

By the latter part of 2014, I was almost ready to upgrade. Apple introduced a 5K iMac, meaning a much sharper 27-inch display. Needing more storage space, I opted to compromise on a Fusion Drive, which, in its high-end configuration, provided a traditional 3TB hard drive and a 128G SSD. It took negotiation and time to save the price of admission, but I bought the new iMac in early 2015.

The theory goes that, with intelligent file management on the Fusion Drive, the operating system, all or most apps, and frequently used documents go on the SSD, thus benefiting from its superior performance. The rest hangs out on the hard drive. Sure, if you were editing movies and other humongous files, the speed advantage wouldn’t quite be there, but for me it didn’t seem much slower than a pure SSD.

I realized the folly of the Fusion Drive a few years later, in 2019.

All of a sudden, it seemed, everything began to run dead slow. It would take five minutes or more for startup and, opening even simple documents meant a spinning wheel. A quick trip to the “Apple Genius” revealed the bad news. The hard drive portion of the Fusion setup was dying, confirmed by the expanded version of Apple’s hardware test, so I had it replaced.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the test results, centering on the hard drive, evidently failed to indicate that the SSD also needed to be replaced. Or maybe they goofed, and it was always the SSD. Regardless, I was forced to succumb to yet another repair bill.

Now in making that decision, I made a serious error. Although expensive, buying a pure SSD and having it installed in my iMac would have actually helped me avoid the return of the failing Fusion Drive just a couple of weeks ago.

This time, however, I had to decide whether it was worth keeping the iMac, or finding something new, at a time where I hadn’t budgeted for one. My first attempted repair left me with a bill any little to show for it. Don’t get me started on the details. I learned my lesson and bought a 2TB SSD from OWC’s Aura Pro X2 lineup. That was Step One.

Now Apple, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that no normally skilled person should be upgrading their gear, at least when it can be upgraded, which is less and less often these days. Upgrading the 2009 iMac was a breeze by comparison, because the critical part, using suction cups to pry the display from the chassis, was not quite user friendly but doable.

By the way, I opted not to do it then either. While I happily assembled electronics in my teens — including tube radio kits and, for a friend, an FM tuner — I wasn’t going to take any chances with an expensive iMac. Drop the display, and the computer was essentially toast considering the cost of replacement.

So I chose Mac Masters Mac & iPhone Repair in Scottsdale, AZ to perform that installation.

For the Late 2014 iMac style, which was kept in place mostly until 2020, the installation process was hostile. Apple uses a custom adhesive tape to attach the display to the chassis, and removal involves not just using a special tool to separate the glass from the adhesive, but probably three hands to let it and, at the same time, remove the wiring harness that connects it to the chassis, so the display can be moved to a safe and soft location.

Apple also uses pentalobe screws as always for reasons that don’t make sense, but I don’t design personal computers.

Again I rang up Mac Masters, who informed me they could do the SSD install on my current iMac for their basic service fee, a reasonable $125.

As with the older iMac, performance with a real SSD is a revelation. Even at its best, the Fusion Drive couldn’t keep up. Apps and documents launch in an instant, the the initial startup process shaves minutes from launching my usual collection of apps.

Then there’s the restore process.

Now I have been a pack rat in keeping data on my Macs. After learning the platform at work, I brought a Mac IIcx into my home in 1989. Every time I upgraded, I would simply copy — or migrate — all my data to the new computer. I never got around to pruning the contents for efficiency, and to avoid the possibility of extra system hiccups.

Not this time.

After 33 years, it was time for a spring — well late fall — cleaning. This time my iMac was returned to me with just the macOS — the latest version it can run is version 11 Big Sur, which leaves me two systems behind.

For the rest, I relied on a second backup drive, created via Carbon Copy Cloner. This meant that the files were stored on a data duplicate of the original drive. So I manually copied all of my documents, photos, sound and video files from their various folders first. This meant 17 years of recordings for The Tech Night Owl LIVE and 16 years for The Paracast.

Once the process began, I slowly began to add apps to the mix.

I left it to run overnight, and checked the progress in the morning, so I didn’t time it exactly. But I was pleased to see that it was ready to roll.

While the iMac was being serviced, I connected the drives to my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro, which served as a temporary replacement despite its age and I spent some time pruning apps and unneeded documents from the clone drive. I also pulled up the serial numbers of the apps that required them, which came in emails, and flagged them so I could easily retrieve them. Sure I could have printed them out, but some of those serial numbers aren’t so easy to remember.

In any case, I managed to trash roughly 20-30 GB of stuff along the way. Not a lot, and it that didn’t prepare me for the end result of my clean installation.

So the Fusion Drive, with 3TB capacity, was filled with about 1TB of files when it broke down. But when I restored everything I could locate (aside from system-related stuff) to the Aura Pro X2 drive, all my stuff only occupied a tad over 700GB.

What gives?

Well, I went back and forth, comparing the source with the target drives and, sure enough, everything I could see was properly transferred, even those 30-year-old files. I did find some fonts along the way that I overlooked during the first pass, but that was the extent of it.

I contacted OWC’s CEO, Larry O’Connor, an occasional guest on my tech show over the years. He has a great tech knowledge about storage devices and stuff, so I asked him about this curious phenomenon. His response: “You did a clean install. There’s lots of other crap that didn’t carry in from the past I’d expect. Old apps and OS load that stays along for the ride when migrations are done.”

So I checked again to see if I had missed anything. Along the way I played some of my old radio shows from the early 2000s, and it was interesting to see how I managed conversations then and now. My voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much, except that my delivery is now slower, more deliberate. That may be a good thing I suppose.

In any case, I am reasonably certain now that Larry was right about all the old and no doubt obsolete stuff that didn’t make the migration, for which I’m grateful.

It’s also great to have a working iMac again, one that’s extra snappy courtesy of a small (3.5 inches by less than 1 inch) printed circuit board with a capacity of 2TB. If you want to eke some more life out of your old iMac, or any Mac that can be upgraded, something of this sort is certainly worth the effort in my opinion.

Meantime I’ll contemplate just what Apple might deliver for Mac users in 2023. Perhaps a second generation 24-inch iMac with the M2 CPU? What about a true replacement for the 27-inch iMac? I’ve got to start saving my dimes.


Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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