Second Impressions: New Mac Pro

You may have seen that I got a new Mac Pro; I wrote some first impressions of it last week. Now that I’ve been using it for a while – well, a few days – I have some more thoughts about this computer.

First, like the Mac it replaced (a Mac mini), it’s essentially invisible. While I have it visible on my desk, between my display and a speaker, I don’t notice it.



It’s so quiet that I can easily forget that it’s there. Not only is the fan quiet, but since there are no moving parts other than the fan – no internal hard drives – it doesn’t even transfer any vibrations to my desk.

But I do need access it occasionally. All the ports it has make it easy to connect peripherals; while I don’t connect and disconnect Thunderbolt cables, I do connect a USB cable from time to time, if I’m syncing or charging something (other than with the Lightning cable, which remains connected to the Mac Pro at all times).



The icons and borders that light up on the panel with all the plugs may seem like a gadget, but it’s actually quite useful when you’re connecting a cable.

While most of my work involves words, the Mac Pro is one fast computer. I sometimes need to convert music files that I’ve downloaded in FLAC; I use XLD, and I used to run it with four concurrent conversions. On the Mac mini, I’d get about 20x for each one. On the Mac Pro, I can run eight, at about 45x. Videos convert very quickly; I’ve already started digitizing a lot of my DVDs, and the Mac Pro is so quiet that I can run Handbrake while I work. With the Mac mini, the fan went into overdrive, making that an annoyance.

This is the first Mac I’ve had on the desktop that has USB 3. While I have a retina MacBook Pro with USB 3, I don’t often connect peripherals to it. But the Mac Pro is where my iTunes library lives, so I connect my iOS devices to sync them. The USB 3 transfer speed is noticeably faster than the USB 2 speed with the Mac mini, though I doubt that iOS devices can use the full speed available. But syncing a lot of content to an iOS device is at least twice as fast as before. Activity Monitor shows read speeds from around 30-45 MB/sec when syncing my iPhone 5s. (It’s likely that older iOS devices won’t sync as fast.)

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Update: When I wrote the above, I had just assumed the iPhone 5s was a USB 3 device, but it’s not; it’s USB 2. As a commenter points out below, the difference in transfer speed highlights just how much USB depends on the CPU of a computer.

iTunes searches are fast, and, while iTunes has beachballed a few times, I’m pretty sure it’s because I have my external hard drives set to sleep when inactive, and iTunes needs to wake them up. I need to test this a bit more.

I’m having one sleep-related issue: it goes to sleep when I don’t want it to. If I’m downloading something, and I’m not in front of the computer and using it, it will go to sleep, and the download stops; depending on how I initiated the download, I may have to restart it. There are third-party apps that can prevent sleep, but the Energy Saver setting – Prevent computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off – doesn’t seem to work.

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The Mac Pro has done exactly what a good computer should: it has made itself unobtrusive. I don’t hear it, and it doesn’t slow me down. It’s a shame one has to spend the kind of money this computer costs to get those features, and I hope that, one day, all computers will be like this. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with this new Mac Pro.

First Impressions: New Mac Pro

Note: I know the Mac Pro isn’t really new, but it’s new to me, hence the title of this article…

Yesterday, I took delivery of a new Mac Pro. Replacing a Mac mini, about two and a half years old, this is only the second time that I’ve opted for Apple’s top-of-the-line computer. Back in 2006, I bought the first Mac Pro, and kept it for more than two years. I especially liked that computer because it could hold four hard drives and two optical drives. (You can read my posts from back in 2006, tagged Mac Pro.)

But, today, with Thunderbolt and USB 3, there’s only a small advantage to having internal storage. With an SSD for startup disk, and all my files that aren’t documents – my music and video files – on external disks, I don’t need the speed of internal hard drives.

The Mac pro is a small but hefty device. As always, Apple’s packaging is up to the standards of their design. The compact box contains the computer, and a rolled-up power cord, and a few bits of paper: there’s a brief quick-start document, and some guarantee papers. And, you get black Apple stickers with the Mac Pro:

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The Mac Pro is small and shiny, and it is indeed made to sit on a desk. You could certainly put it under a desk if you want it out of the way, but, for now, I’ll leave mine visible.

It’s got lots of connectors – four USB 3 ports; six Thunderbolt ports; one HDMI; and two Ethernet. It also has the standard audio input and output ports. And they’re very easy to access, as long as you keep the computer on your desk.

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When running, the Mac Pro is essentially silent. It makes about the same amount of noise as my Mac mini, which is a very quiet computer, but what impresses me is that, even when the Mac Pro is working hard with all eight cores, the fan noise is barely noticeable. Compare that to the Mac mini, which sounds like an exhaust fan when it’s working hard.

The Mac Pro is also quite cool; it gives off less heat in normal operations than my Apple 27″ Thunderbolt display. As I write this, I placed my hand on the top of the Mac Pro, and it doesn’t feel warm at all; when converting some videos with Handbrake, it’s a bit warm, but less than I expected, and still not much more than my display.

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Unfortunately, my first experiences with the Mac Pro were not very positive. When I first set it up, after running the Migration Assistant, to copy data from a bootable backup of my Mac mini, it didn’t see my Thunderbolt peripherals. Booting was very slow, and, after unplugging the Thunderbolt cables, re-plugging them, and restarting, it finally saw them. But then booting was continually slow; at one time, it took up to seven minutes. When it did boot fast, it took a tad longer than my Mac mini; about 15 seconds compared to ten. But it would boot slowly at random, so I called Apple.

The Apple support person was very nice, and very apologetic. He said that if a brand new computer – and a Mac Pro – does something like this, they don’t bother to troubleshoot it, but exchange it right away. While I was on hold, I did try a few things – booting without the Thunderbolt cables connected – and, while it did boot quickly at times, it wasn’t consistent.

I also noticed that, overnight, while it was sleeping, it rebooted. There wasn’t a power cut in my house, and I saw a number of Thunderbolt-related messages in Console. So my guess is that there’s something wrong with the Thunderbolt interface on my Mac Pro, and I’ll be getting a new one. (I’ve seen a number of web discussions about issues like this.)

Since it took twelve days from my order until delivery, Apple said they’d expedite the replacement as much as possible. I’ll continue using this as much as I can, but if it becomes unstable, I’ll revert back to my Mac mini.

Aside from the boot and Thunderbolt problem, this is a sleek, attractive, and fast computer. The main reason I want a faster Mac is to digitize my DVD and Blu-Ray collection (or much of it); the Mac mini just can’t handle that. It does more than I need, but what convinced me to go for the Mac Pro instead of the iMac is the fact that I have a Thunderbolt display already.

So, it’s not cheap, but the Mac Pro is one heck of a Mac, and one that will last me several years. I’m looking forward to getting one that works perfectly.

Why Apple Won’t Be Selling High-Resolution Music Files Any Time Soon

I’ve written about high-resolution music here several times, notably pointing out that it’s a marketing ploy to get you to spend more on music. Not everyone agrees, and I’m fine with that. One bastion of high-resolution apologetics is the Computer Audiophile website.[1] Chris Connaker, who founded the site, wrote an interesting article yesterday, explaining why he thinks High Resolution Audio Isn’t Coming Soon From Apple.

Chris makes the following points:

One. Wireless Carriers Don’t Want High Resolution Downloads (Or Lossless CD Quality Streaming)

Two. Record Labels Want Control And Revenue Again

Three. Beats

Four. Apple Has The High Resolution Content Only Because It Can

Five. Apple Isn’t A Specs Company

Six. Not Enough Apple Customers Care

Seven. iTunes Doesn’t Support Native Automatic Sample Rate Switching

I agree with much of his argument, though I think he’s mistaken about some of the points. I’m not convinced that wireless carriers have a problem with this. First, I can’t see a lot of people streaming high-resolution audio; any supposed gain in quality requires expensive equipment, and the ambient noise surrounding listeners when they’re mobile would eliminate any such quality. On the contrary, mobile carriers would love to sell users phone plans with higher data, at a price. Lower-priced plans have limited data, and to get unlimited data, you need to pay a pretty penny. (There are some exceptions, but all signs point to mobile carriers eliminating unlimited data plans.)

The iTunes issue is moot; Apple could add such a feature if they wanted to. And the point about Apple having high-resolution content is merely for their back end; they have this content to create Mastered for iTunes files, but they only have a very small amount of high-resolution content. They’ve only been requesting high-resolution files for a couple of years, and there are decades worth of music where high-resolution masters don’t even exist.

One point Chris misses is the fact that Apple announced a new audio library at the WWDC, which can use an iOS device’s Lightning connector to output music at 48 kHz; that’s not the high resolution audiophiles want; they want at least 96 kHz. If Apple’s developed the software and hardware to meet the specs of 48 kHz – that’s the sample rate for DVDs and Blu-Ray discs – they’re not going to suddenly increase that; they clearly thought about that limit.

But the biggest point is number six: Not enough Apple customers care. I’d go further: not enough music listeners care. High-resolution music looks good on paper, but any potential gains in quality are imperceptible, or require very expensive stereo systems. So it’s pretty much a non-starter to expect Apple to go this route.

On the other hand, I can see Apple selling music in lossless formats in the foreseeable future, as I recently discussed. Even though most users can’t tell the difference between 256 kbps AAC files and lossless, there’s a perception of having something inferior among enough listeners that it might make sense for Apple to sell lossless files as a premium product.

But all that is moot for now. Following Apple’s acquisition of Beats, I think the next place to look is streaming. Apple will surely be focusing their music efforts in that area as soon as the Beats deal is signed.


  1. I mean no disrespect; I think Computer Audiophile is an excellent website, and I recommend it highly.

In Praise of the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

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Hi, I’m Kirk, and I use the Dvorak keyboard layout. This has nothing to do with composer Antonín Dvořák, best known for his New World Symphony (and less well known for his string quartets, a wonderful collection of which is this one by the Emerson String Quartet). No, the Dvorak keyboard layout was created and patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, Dr. William Dealey, in order to make typing easier.

The Dvorak keyboard layout was originally designed to correct anomalies present in the QWERTY layout. For example, on a QWERTY keyboard, the E key, the one you type the most in English, requires that you stretch a finger. (This, and other differences, assume that you touch type.) Also, certain letter combinations can be hard to type on a QWERTY keyboard. Look where the letters THE are found. You type this word often, and the three letters are in very different locations. And with four vowels on the top row, you have to stretch your fingers much more often.

The Dvorak keyboard layout, as you can see in the image above, groups all the vowels and most common consonants on the middle row, where your fingers don’t need to stretch. 70% of letters you type are on this row, compared to only 32% on a QWERTY keyboard. The Dvorak layout also has all the vowels on the left, so you can often alternate typing, right-left-right-left, as you type consonant-vowel.

I started using the Dvorak layout in 1996, when I became a freelance translator. Realizing that touch-typing would be an asset, I proceeded to no longer look at my keyboard, but look at a printout of the Dvorak layout pasted on the bottom of my monitor. Since my keyboard has never had keys in the Dvorak layout, even looking at the keys wouldn’t help. It took a few months to be able to touch type, and it’s now second nature. I can type about 80 words per minute, and sometimes I can go faster than that.

While the Dvorak layout is available by default on OS X, and on Windows, this wasn’t always the case. In the early days, I had to add a keyboard layout to my Macs, and in some cases, this wasn’t easy. And now, the real difficulty I have is using an iOS device, where the Dvorak keyboard is not available. (Yes, I could jailbreak my iPhone and iPad, but I don’t want to do that.) Having fat thumbs, and using an unfamiliar keyboard layout makes it difficult to type on an iPhone, but I compensate by dictating as much as I can.


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I’d very much like to see the Dvorak keyboard layout as on option on iOS devices. (You can use it with an external keyboard; this has been possible since iOS 4.) While it may not be obvious, I think that the ability to alternate from side to side, consonant to vowel, might lead to more efficient typing. I would at least like to be able to try to find out if that’s the case.

The End of the iPod

It was just a dozen years ago, but it seems like it’s been decades. In October, 2001, Apple introduced the first iPod. No one knew, at the time, that Apple’s portable music player would revolutionize the way we listen to music, and the music industry itself. The iPod certainly wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it was the first to get it right: the combination of the iPod for portable listening and iTunes to store and sync music, made managing digital music easy. But now, the iPod is on its last legs.

Over the years, we saw many Apple presentations which highlighted new iPods. Steve Jobs would go overboard describing how cool the new features were. Apple’s zeitgeist was all about music. Bands such as U2 and Coldplay played at the ends of these Apple events, and Apple TV commercials were all about music.

Apple successively added new models to the iPod line, and, with them, new features. From being simply a music-playing device, the iPod added the ability to view photos, then videos. It got successively smaller, with the iPod mini, nano and shuffle, and inherited a touchscreen display, nine months after Apple introduced the iPhone. Today, the iPod line is dominated by the iPod touch, which can play all sorts of media, but also take pictures and videos, and run apps, but Apple still sells the iPod nano, classic and shuffle.

Where can the iPod go next? iPod market share has been sliding slowly as the iPhone came to dominate the pocket-sized device market. For most people, the iPhone holds all their music; there’s no reason to need anything else. The iPad is also cannibalizing some iPod sales: if you don’t want to device put in your pocket, a tablet can play music and videos, but also give you a large enough screen to surf the web comfortably.

Apple still sells a direct descendent of the very first iPod: the iPod classic. This model is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic once by dropping it; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than current flash memory based devices. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten.

I like the classic because I have a huge music library; much more than the device can hold. But if Apple could sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity – 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price – I’d be tempted to buy one. While the iPod touch is more versatile, it’s much more expensive. The iPod classic costs just $249, compared to $399 for the 64 GB iPod touch. If you look at the price Apple charges for additional flash memory for iPads, it would cost $100 more to get to 128 GB; and how much more than that to get to 256 GB?

Perhaps Apple needs to take a different tack for the future of the iPod. Most iPhone users have enough capacity for their music libraries. But the hard-core music fans with 50,000, 100,000 or more tracks in their iTunes libraries find it too restrictive. In addition, there is a growing market of audiophiles who are interested in better sounding portable music players.

With this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a flash memory based device with 512 GB of storage, and the ability to play high-resolution files. It would have a digital optical output, allowing users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, so they can have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate the improved sound quality when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to go for high-capacity storage: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), 512 GB would hold about 500 albums, or 5,000 songs. If you stick with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 1,000 albums, which would be fine for most users. The flash storage would be costly, but the people this device would appeal to might be willing to pay for it.

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an audiophile-quality DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200. Apple could use a similar audiophile-quality DAC, and, with the flash storage, probably make a device that would sell for less than $500.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that would stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface. It could be a touch screen, or voice control; perhaps even an iPod touch-like display with a virtual scroll wheel, to remind users of the original iPod.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

As the iPod continues its decline, it might be time to try and differentiate it from other portable music players. There’s nowhere to go with the iPod line, other than improving sound quality and increasing storage, and Apple could make a wonderful device that combines these two improvements.

Most likely, in another dozen years, we’ll access our music through blazingly fast 8G connections in lossless or high-resolution formats, streamed through the ether to slim key fob sized devices. We’ll listen to them on audiophile-quality wireless headphones, and we’ll be able to access all our music everywhere. But for now, at the end of the iPod era, Apple could make a bold statement with an iPod pro as a milestone to mark the end of an era.

This article was originally publish in Issue 21 of The Loop Magazine.

Why Does Apple Only Offer 5 GB Storage with iCloud?

Apple’s iCloud is used for several purposes. You may use it for email; you can use it to sync your contacts and calendars; you can store files there, notably for Apple’s iWork apps; and you can use it to back up your iOS devices.

But what if you have several iOS devices, and also use iCloud for email and documents? If you back up your iOS devices to the cloud, you’ll quickly hit the 5 GB limit. I explain how to trim iOS device iCloud backups, but, still, some people will hit that limit quickly.

Apple’s free 5 GB is a good thing; it entices people to use iCloud. But it’s not enough. If they want people to use iCloud, they should make it easier to use. Apple’s prices for storage are quite expensive:

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Yes, you can get an extra 10 GB for only $20 a year; that’s enough to back up a couple more devices, but it’s pretty stingy. For $100 a year, you only get 55 GB (the free 5 GB plus another 50). Cloud storage prices are plummeting, and Dropbox, for example, gives you 100 GB for $100 a year, and Dropbox’s storage is much more flexible, since you can access it directly from a Mac.

Apple needs to move to a model where they give you more storage, perhaps 5 GB per device. It’s not that hard to manage; they could give you the storage when you buy the device, and have you register it, and then, say, once a year, have you connect to iCloud with the device to verify that you still own it. Or, if they were smart, they’d just give you a lot more storage free. After all, OS X is free, iOS is free, and the iWork apps are now free as well. Why make it so hard to manage file storage and backups?

(Note: when I bought my Android phone, it came with an extra 50 GB storage on Google Drive for two years; that’s in addition to the default 15 GB.)

By the way, I’ve paid for Apple’s online services since the beginning: iTools, MobileMe and .Mac. I very much regretted the loss of the iDisk – even though it didn’t work very well – but Dropbox has stepped in to to that type of receptacle, useful for sharing large files, the right way. I wouldn’t mind paying Apple for iCloud, if the service were good enough, and if there were enough storage. But let’s wait and see: with their big data centers, I have a feeling they may be planning something for the next big versions of OS X and iOS.