In Praise of the Mac mini

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently wondering when the next Mac mini will be released. It’s been a while: the last update was in October, 2012, nearly a year and a half ago. Since its introduction in January, 2005, the Mac mini has seen refreshes roughly once a year, give or take a month; this is the longest time this model has gone without an update.

overview_server.png The Mac mini is small, quiet, unobtrusive, and it’s a mini-sized powerhouse. It’s the first Mac that I’ve owned that is, essentially, invisible. Mine currently sits on my desk, behind my 27″ Thunderbolt display, and I neither see it nor hear it. It’s more than fast enough for my work, and it’s flexible, in spite of its diminutive footprint.

001.pngThe model I use is a late 2011 version; I’m out of date by one generation. But there’s nothing in the more recent Mac mini that would make a difference to me, except, perhaps, USB 3. I have a number of Thunderbolt hard drives, so I get plenty of speed with them, but it would be nice to have the option to use the faster-than-USB 2 connections with lower cost drives.

When I got the Mac mini, I tricked it out as much as I could, planning on keeping it as long as possible. I didn’t care as much about the price tag as I did about longevity. So I got the fastest processor available at the time, and I got a 256 GB SSD, along with a second internal 750 GB hard drive. I initially got the base 4 GB RAM, but upgraded it to the maximum 16 GB. There’s nothing I do on my Mac mini that stresses the computer, and only rarely do I tax it to the max. The only times its processors get a workout are when I convert music or video files; ripping a DVD with Handbrake takes a while, and it would be a bit quicker if I had a faster processor, but it’s not something I do often enough that it’s a bother.

I was just thinking the other day that, while I’d probably buy a new Mac mini if it were released soon, I really don’t need one. (I’d move the existing one to a different room and use it as a server.) As we’ve reached the stage where megahertz no longer matter, it’s hard to find something that this computer can’t handle. Naturally, if I did video editing, or used other apps that require a lot of CPU exertion, it would be different, but for 99% of Mac users, the mini is more than enough.

The Mac mini is also a very popular computer. It’s widely used in its server version, and it’s the computer of choice for people who set up dedicated computers to manage their media libraries. It’s versatile, small, and inexpensive, and while it’s not going to win any design awards, like the latest Mac Pro will, it chugs away in the background, doing everything I need. The Mac mini may be one of the best Macs Apple has ever made, because it just gets out of your way and lets you get to work.

What Happens to Content Purchased from Apple When You Die?

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You use your Apple ID for a lot of different things. It’s your email account, if you use iCloud email; it’s your iMessages connection (though you can also use your phone number); and it’s especially the key to any content you’ve bought from Apple. You use it to buy from the iTunes Store, the Mac App Store, the iOS App Store, and the iBookstore.

But what happens to all that content when you die? Since your Apple ID is the key to all of this, if you haven’t given someone the password, then it becomes orphaned. In fact, according to Apple’s terms and conditions:

You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death.

This means that, not only do your next of kin not get access to purchases you’ve made from Apple, but also to your email, photos and documents, as long as they’re protected by an Apple ID.

The UK newspaper The Telegraph reports today that “Apple […] refused to unlock iPad belonging to cancer victim’s son ‘without written permission’ of his late mother”. In this particular case, the son didn’t even want to access his mother’s content, but simply be able to use her iPad. Since Apple’s Activation Lock security prevents you from resetting an iOS device without the Apple ID and password of the current owner, there was no way this person could use the iPad as his own.

Apple does say that “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted,” and, in this case, it finally deleted the account. But it seems like a very big hassle to go through, and one you might want to avoid.

For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave your Apple ID password in a safe place for your next of kin, just in case. It could be written down and stored in a safe deposit box, or it could be stored in a password manager, if you have one, as long as your spouse, partner or children know the password to access that app.

I’ve written about The Problem with Apple IDs for Macworld, and this was one of the issues I raised.

Another point to make is that Apple’s terms and conditions make it clear that you do not own any content you purchase from the company, but are only granted access until your death. That’s a much more complicated issue that may, one day, have to be dealt with by the courts.

In any case, make sure you have a spare set of keys – your Apple ID password – in a safe place. Just in case.

iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

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Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

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Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this 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 have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that 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 excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could 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.

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?

Apple Refunds Purchasers of Split Breaking Bad Season 5

breaking-bad-season-52.pngI recently wrote about how Apple had split the final season of Breaking Bad into two parts to get people who had paid for season five last year to pay again. Shortly after I posted that article, someone filed a class action lawsuit against Apple for this deceptive practice.

As I pointed out, AMC, the network which airs Breaking Bad, and the actors and creator of the show, have always referred to the second part of the fifth season as part of season 5, but Apple was selling it as Breaking Bad, The Final Season.

I today received the following email from iTunes Support:

“We apologize for any confusion the naming of “Season 5” and “The Final Season” of Breaking Bad might have caused you. While the names of the seasons and episodes associated with them were not chosen by iTunes, we’d like to offer you “The Final Season” on us by providing you with the iTunes code below in the amount of $22.99. This credit can also be used for any other content on the iTunes Store. Thank you for your purchase.”

Whether or not Apple intended to deceive purchasers, the point remains that the description of the season pass for season 5, which you can see to the left, made it clear that this season pass included all episodes of season 5. I don’t think this was Apple’s fault, but they will certainly need to rethink their wording for season passes. Breaking Bad is not the only series that has been split like this, and I’m sure others will complain about not receiving what they expected from a season pass.

In any case, I welcome Apple’s resolution of this issue.

It’s Time to Get Rid of DRM on Ebooks

If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.

My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.

It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.

Visual Skeuomorphism is Dead; What About Audio Skeuomorphism?

Apple has proudly ditched skeuomorphism in its forthcoming OS X Mavericks and iOS 7; that’s the use of interface elements that look like items in the real world. In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, this includes things like the fake leather in Calendar; the green felt in Game Center; and the faux hardcover binding in Contacts. iOS has some of these too: Game Center has the same green felt; Voice Memos shows an old-timey microphone; and Find Friends has stitched leather. Both OSs have horrid yellow, lined paper in Notes, and other elements of skeuomorphism can be seen here and there.

IMG_0645So if Apple’s ditched visual skeuomorphism, why not get rid of the audio version as well. On iOS, this includes keyboard clicks, lock sounds, and the whoosh you hear when sending emails. OS X has a number of “user interface sound effects,” which you can turn off en masse in the Sound preference pane. (On iOS, you can turn them off individually.)

But if we’re agreeing that showing a faux leather-bound book in an app’s interface is outdated, how long before we get rid of the sounds? While it’s useful to have some sort of feedback when your email gets sent, does it have to be a “whoosh,” the sound of something flying? And does the iOS camera – or any camera – need to have a shutter sound when you take a photo?

I think it’s time to go beyond these quaint, old-fashioned sounds and come up with some new forms of beeps to alert a user when something has happened. Personally, I’ve turned off most sounds on my iPhone, other than a ringtone and voice mail and text message alerts, and I only have a system beep on my Macs.