Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Issue #1046

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Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter
December 5, 2023


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I’ve been following the goings on at Apple Inc. since the 1980s. In those days, I was the eccentric among owners of personal computers (and perhaps I still am). So when I went to a software store (remember them?) and asked about software for my Mac, I was presented with a dismissive look, though an occasional store clerk would absently point me to a barely visible shelf at the rear. It came as no surprise to find just a few titles, some obsolete, and most covered in dust.

I’m serious. But in those days, I would order software at a discount via a mail order catalog, such as the one from MacWarehouse. It was later acquired by another online retailer, CDW.

It got worse by the mid-1990s, when Apple’s poor leadership almost killed the company. With the release of Windows ’95, announced with The Rolling Stones singing “Start Me Up,” the end of the Mac loomed large. But most people probably didn’t notice some of the telltale lyrics in the song, such as “You make a grown man cry.” And when it came to Windows, I totally agreed.

Maybe Microsoft’s ad agency didn’t notice. After all, Mick Jagger’s distinctive singing style often obscures the lyrics. Or perhaps it was meant as an inside joke. Regardless, I stuck with the Mac through buggy software and hardware that was difficult to upgrade. With today’s Apple Silicon Macs, upgrades are basically impossible.

Apple’s efforts to modernize its operating system resulted in lots of effort and cash but not much in the way of useful results. So they want OS shopping, and ended up with NeXTStep and Steve Jobs NeXT company. Its history was itself complicated. At first, owner Steve Jobs — the guy who co-founded Apple — tried to build advanced high-end hardware.

It had positive results in one way, since they were adopted by high-end developers and high-end educational institutions. Indeed, a NeXT computer was used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to help invent the World Wide Web. It also became the hardware that ran the original web server.

But from a sales standpoint, it didn’t do so well, so eventually Jobs cancelled the hardware to focus on its operating system. Based on Unix, NeXTStep was portable and could be configured to run on a Mac or a PC. That, in fact, was one big factor in influencing Apple to buy the company. It also filled the needs for an advanced operating system with high reliability, greater freedom from malware and preemptive multitasking.

The $427 million sale was competed in December, 1996. But it took until March, 2001 for a salable version of Mac OS X to go on sale (a Public Beta shipped the previous September). In those days, Apple sold Macs with PowerPC CPUs, which, for a while at least, outdid Intel’s Pentiums by a huge margin.

Eventually, with development of the PowerPC stalled, Apple relented and moved to Intel. Mac OS X’s portable structure eased the transition. And with the first Intel-based Macs, the greater compatibility with PC hardware, and the arrival of relatively speedy and efficient Windows emulation apps, helped drive sales.

Year by year, Intel released new chips with more performance and lower power requirements. But by the late 2010’s, development had stalled, and the new silicon was only slightly more powerful than its predecessors.

At the same time, the iPhone improbably (at least at first) became a worldwide phenomenon and Apple’s best-selling product. Indeed, for a number of years, the Mac almost seemed an afterthought even though sales were decent.

For the iPhone, Apple used its own chip designs, based on an ARM core. Year after year, they became more powerful, and in not too many years, the iPhone began to match a typical PC (or Mac) in terms of performance. So by moving CPU design for Macs in-house, Apple could focus on silicon customized strictly for its own needs. Contrast that to an Intel chip which is designed to work reasonably well on a variety of hardware configurations.

By leveraging the advanced power efficiency of its A-series chips, Apple’s M variants for Macs resulted in MacBook models getting up to 20 hours of battery life and more. Performance was equal to and sometimes superior to Intel counterparts that usually required far more electric power.

Three years down, Apple’s most recent Macs contain M3 CPUs, with greater performance and power efficiency and onboard extras to boost real world performance. So hardware-accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading will help games to run better, which will bring new titles to the Mac platform over time. And this is a huge development, because the Mac has long played second fiddle with it comes to PC gaming.

So far, the Mac’s growth, after languishing for a number of years, has been positive when it comes to performance. At the same time, new features for Macs, iPhones, iPads and the Apple Watch are incremental. Each year or so, they add just enough new stuff to attract new sales and tempt people with older hardware to buy upgrades.

Could Apple deliver these improvements faster? Apple will convey the impression that the hardware undergoes steady development, and new models will contain the features that have been perfected. But I can’t help but view the process as a series of Keynote bulleted lists, taking one from Column A and one from Column B to enhance the feature set just enough to generate sales. It’s not just about new technology, but on persuading people to upgrade. Period.

By the same token, just how much performance do you need nowadays? Years ago, you had to sit back and wait to get things done. The arrival of SSDs cured a lot of that, since most apps and now documents open and save in the blink of an eye. Even when it takes time to process a file, the drive-based part moves a lot faster.

Indeed, it’s probably true that, if you don’t have to wait long for a task to be performed, you have all the performance you need. Whenever you have to wait long seconds — or minutes — to get things done, well maybe it’s time to consider upgrading to something faster.

So I have a Late 2014 27-inch iMac outfitted with a 2TB SSD. Writing emails, word processing, online access, all are accomplished speedily. When I have to convert or save a multimedia file, I have to wait a little while. Gaming doesn’t matter, because I never got into computer games even though I tried from time to time.

Compare that to Apple’s Late 2013 24-inch iMac. Fully outfitted, its M3 is 2.5 to 3 times faster than my iMac, though I’d have to sacrifice a small amount of screen real estate to gain that advantage. For reasons best known to Apple’s marketers, the only solution to a 27-inch display — at least for now — is to go separates. A standard Mac Studio with a 2TB SSD, plus an Apple’s Studio Display, can run you over $4,000 plus sales tax in the U.S. That’s way more than one thousand dollars higher than the top-of-the-line iMac from the current lineup.

For the time being, I’m sticking with what I have as I work to assemble the cash for something newer and better. My iMac is mostly fast enough for me, but the clock is ticking and my nearly nine-year-old computer is living on borrowed time.

But if your Mac is more recent, consider whether the potential performance advantage will improve your workflow. If it won’t, you can probably ignore Apple’s sales pitches for a while longer.


Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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