My iPhone 8

After just a few months short of four years, I’ve retired my iPhone 5s. After such a long time of daily use, it had surprisingly few issues. The only real big one was that sometimes after I’d press the power button to wake the phone, I’d be forced to hold the power down because it didn’t go to sleep, rather it shut down entirely. The odd time, even that wouldn’t bring it back to life and I’d have to hold the home and power buttons until it started the boot sequence. A small and self-inflicted problem was the flash stopped working after I changed the battery. I suspect I didn’t seat the connector properly. I didn’t open it up again to find out.

So I upgraded to the iPhone 8. I stayed up late on September 14 to get my order in as soon as possible and I received it on September 22.

It’s more expensive that I would have liked, but I’m pretty easy on my electronics so I want to get the maximum life out of it before it will no longer take operating system upgrades. The iPhone X was never in contention because although I love the OLED screen, I don’t want to pay for it, and I much prefer fingerprint authentication over authentication via facial recognition.

The most obvious difference is the size. The iPhone 8 is 11 mm longer, 8.7 mm wider, and 0.3 mm thinner, than the 5s. It’s also 36 g heavier. To my great surprise, it fits my hand far more nicely than the 5s did. That may also have to do with the completely rounded edges. The power button was also moved from the top left to the left top, if you follow. Hold the phone in your right hand and the power button falls nicely under your thumb, and in your left hand it sits nicely under your index finger. This change is a good one, but takes some getting used to. Overall, it feels great in my hand, has enough mass to feel solid, and the rounded edges are just right.

I was wary of the increase in size. My phone lives in my front pocket, and the space available in there is not unlimited! Happily it’s not an issue. In exchange, the screen is 20% larger, which has me reaching for my iPad noticeably less often. It’s not an OLED screen, but it’s certainly the nicest LCD I’ve ever seen.

I must make special mention of the fingerprint reader. I can’t say whether it’s vastly improved or merely takes advantage of the more powerful processor at the heart of the iPhone 8, but it’s ridiculously fast. With the 5s, I would press the home button, and let my thumb linger on it for a second, waiting for my fingerprint to be recognized. With this new model, my fingerprint is usually recognized before I remove my thumb even if I don’t pause at all. Most of the time, fingerprint authentication is entirely invisible.

Misc impressions:

  • I haven’t tried wireless charging but I certainly will be getting a charging pad for my night table.
  • The camera is much improved as far as I see in the little use I’ve made of it. I look forward to trying the 240 FPS slow-motion video.
  • The True Tone feature is great. White is always pleasantly white. The display does not tend toward coolness, even in very warm light.
  • Raise to Wake was the first thing I searched on how to disable.
  • I love the barometer. Not only can I see the number of steps I’ve taken, but the number of floors I’ve climbed.
  • The processor is much faster of course. The whole UI is so responsive.
  • The sound is louder at full volume. That will give my wake-up alarm a boost of effectiveness.
  • I triggered the SOS feature without my glasses on. I didn’t notice the three-second countdown and called 911 by accident. So embarrassing! A great feature though, especially if you stop it before calling 911, as it disables fingerprint authentication the next time you attempt to access the phone.
  • I’m eager to try Apple Pay. Support for it seems sparse on the ground around here, though. Still, the NFC works with any system that allows you to ‘tap to pay’ with your bank or credit card.

So far, I love the damn thing!


Image courtesy of Apple.ca

Welcome to Yosemite

Despite knowing better, I went ahead and installed OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Others are glad to rush in and report the problems if I wait a day or two, but I seem to be one of those who rushed in.

During the upgrade I received an ominous error:

There is not enough free space in the Core Storage Logical Volume Group for this operation. Reboot and try again.

Yea, whaaaat? It offered a reboot button, and no other option. So I rebooted. After a moment, the Mac’s log in screen presented itself … but it was the Yosemite log in screen. I had a very bad feeling about this unexpected turn of events, but I logged in and the installation continued onward, seemingly without incident.

I have my main volume encrypted with FileVault2, and perhaps after a reboot, the installer couldn’t access the drive. Still, I would think that they would have tested installation with FileVault2 enabled! Still, I don’t know that was the issue so I’m doing nothing more than guessing.

Regardless, I seem to be okay. The installation finished without obvious problems and I’m running Yosemite.

I have a some random thoughts after just a few hours:

  • I’ve read that the user interface is much flatter with fewer elements to simulate depth. I read correctly. This interface is flat. It’s hardly objectionable, though.
  • The flat dock is a return to old times for many, but I joined the Mac bandwagon with 10.5 Leopard, just as interface elements really started gaining depth.
  • I hate the Finder icon. It looks demented.
  • I love the desktop drive icons.
  • My mid-2011 iMac is a year too old to support Handoff and the other Continuity features. Bluetooth 4.0 with its Bluetooth Low Energy support is required, and any iMac older than mid-2012 doesn’t have it. I will not be taking any phone calls from my Mac.
  • The iCloud Drive and its integration with the iWork apps looks cool so far. Happily, despite Apple’s wanting to differentiate iCloud Drive from Dropbox and other similar services, the files you’ve put into iCloud Drive are on your local disk at /Users/username/Library/Mobile Documents, and therefore backed up with Time Machine.
  • The sidebar in iTunes 12 is largely gone. You can bring up a sidebar by choosing the Playlists option at the top, but the sidebar that appears shows only your music, music videos, and playlists. The one-stop sidebar seems to be history. It wasn’t pretty, but it was entirely functional.
  • If something just looks different and you can’t quite nail it down, it’s probably the typeface. Lucida Grande it out and Helvetica Neue is here to replace it. The change isn’t huge, but it’s noticeable.
  • Safari still doesn’t offer inferior (lowercase) numbers despite being directed to do so with the font-feature-settings option of the @fontface CSS command. Every other browser I’ve tried, both webkit and non-webkit, handle it correctly. If even Internet Explorer can do it, what’s your excuse, Safari?
  • My first Time Machine back up after upgrading to Yosemite and allowing the Mac App Store to update my apps was just over 13GB.

Overall, I like it so far.

Moving my music

I went to see my finance guy a few months ago. I’ve got a nest egg started and we have plans for more financal manoeuvres early next year. In addition, each month I save the money I previously used to pay down my debt. When I asked him what I should do with what I’ve saved so far, he suggested I take a vacation.

Rather than a vacation, I’ve been updating my hi-fi.

When I was younger, the term hi-fi had long since fallen out of use. One called their home music system their stereo. That term still lingers, but my stereo isn’t really stereo any more. My receiver is capable of many more than just two channels! That said, I have only two speakers so I guess it is a stereo. I’m looking at a pair of speakers to serve as surround channels so it will only be a stereo for a short while.

The Apple TV, v2
The Apple TV, v2

My main task lately has been to find a way to play my iTunes library through my stereo. It hasn’t been nearly as simple as I expected. I have an Apple TV, which I bought partly for this task. The Mac can push the music in my iTunes library to the Apple TV by using it as an AirPlay client, or the Apple TV can pull music from the Mac using HomeShare.

The problem, and I didn’t see this coming, is that the Apple TV resamples all music to 48 kHz sampling rate with a 16 bit word depth. Yes, that is upsampling of CD quality music, but it’s not good upsampling. Upsampling works best when the result is an exact multiple of the original. If you want to upsample the CD standard of 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, you take it to 88.2 kHz or 176.4 kHz. Go ahead and pad eight extra empty bits to get 24, if you like. Sure, there are ways to convert 44.1 kHz to 48 kHz with good results, but the Apple TV costs $119 and I don’t expect much.

So CD quality reproduction isn’t ideal. Things get worse with higher sampling rates. I’ve just discovered a number of sites on-line that sell music recorded at higher sampling rates and bit depths. They offer a mix of 48 kHz, 88.1 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, and 192 kHz sampling rates, all at 24 bit depths. I can add them to iTunes with no problem, but the Apple TV insists on offering my receiver a 48 kHz, 16 bit data stream, regardless of the sampling rate and bit depth of the incoming data stream. Clearly, this isn’t good enough.

My DVD player will happily reproduce these sampling frequencies from files, but it can only read the files from a USB flash drive, a USB hard drive, or an e-SATA hard drive. I don’t want to maintain two music libraries.

The Majik DS by Linn
The Majik DS by Linn

I then cast my gaze upon an entirely new type of product: the network music player. These devices read music files on a server or computer, and play them through your stereo. The Sonos and Squeezebox players are standalone units that have their own amplification and speakers, but they stand at the lower end of the quality scale. Linn makes a line of DS players that designed as a component of your stereo system. That’s just what I want, and Linn is distinctly high-end. Their Majik DS is very highly regarded despite being the most inexpensive model in the DS line. One of my issues with Linn’s DS models is they support DLNA and not AirPlay, which would again require that I manage multiple music libraries. There’s also the problem in that a component priced at over $3000 is far out of my price range!

The NA7004 by Marantz
The NA7004 by Marantz

Next came the Marantz NA7004. It’s far more reasonably priced at $900, though that’s still steep. It turns out not to matter, though. While it supports AirPlay, it does so only at 48 kHz, 24 bits. DLNA and USB supports decoding files up to 96 kHz, 24 bits. Only a digital data stream being delivered to the unit’s inputs are supported up to 192 kHz, 24 bits. Further, the person I talked to at Marantz told me that while the AirPlay architecture and hardware has no problems with 96 kHz, 24 bit data, it’s the current implementation of the standard that’s limited to 48 kHz, 24 bits.

So there’s no device I can buy that will make this happen the way I want it to, but there are other ways.

The hiFace Evo by M2Tech
The hiFace Evo by M2Tech

It’s not nearly as tidy and pretty, but there are digital USB interfaces available. Plug one and into the USB port, install and configure the drivers, connect the other end to your receiver, and presto, a digital data feed of up to 192 kHz, 24 bit audio. This is good, but it seems that the product category is not nearly mature yet. There’s talk of quality issues and driver problems. It seems a good option except the best option I can find is $500. That’s an expensive ‘try and see!’

My short-term plan is far more modest. I was surprised to learn that my iMac’s headphone output is actually a multi-purpose output. In addition to an analogue headphone output, it’s also a S/PDIF coaxial digital output, and a mini-TOSLINK digital output. It is limited to no greater than 96 kHz, 24 bit audio output in the two latter modes, but my current receiver has the same limitation so it’ll be fine. The other downside is that if I use the output to drive my receiver, I can no longer use it to power my external speakers. Also, the system sounds will also go out over the digital output.

A six foot TOSLINK to mini-TOSLINK optical cable, $2.29 from Monoprice.com
A six foot TOSLINK to mini-TOSLINK optical cable, $2.29 from Monoprice.com

Regardless, with an inexpensive cable, I can connect my iMac to my receiver and feed 96 kHz, 24 bit music. It’s certainly worth it as a ‘proof of concept’ experiment. I suspect that if it works, I’ll use it until I replace the receiver with a pre-pro.

I suspect this will all get a lot easier in the not-so-distant future. There are rumours that Apple will offer higher resolution audio via the iTunes store. Personally, I think it’s a bit crazy to pay more for higher resolution audio that’s compressed, but that’s just me. Even if I’m not interested in what they will sell, the fact that they’re selling it may get them to allow the Apple TV hardware and other AirPlay devices to pass higher sampling frequencies and bit depths.

In the perfect world, the Apple TV would accept the data stream from the Mac and pass it to my receiver, unchanged. In that scenario, the quality of the DAC in the Apple TV would be immaterial because it’s not being used. The Apple TV would merely be an AirPlay client passing the data stream unchanged.

We’ll see. Next week Apple is announcing what is expected to be the next iteration to their MobileMe service. Speculation is that there will be some sort of cloud-based music storage. While that’s not of huge interest to me, news about high-res music from iTunes would be most welcome because of the effects that would follow.


All images courtesy of the equipment manufacturers.

My aging Mac

Apple released the new MacBook Pro laptops this morning and I’m again thinking about how my iMac is still trucking along. It hasn’t had any problems and I’ve had no complaints. Sure I want the 27″ LED display and an SSD boot drive, but in reality, it’s working as well as the day I bought it, and I feel no lack of performance despite it being in its fourth year of use.

When it’s time to buy, I’ll certainly be getting another Mac. I’m leery of the iMacs, however. The all-in-one design is very convenient, but it also means that you’re buying a monitor every time you upgrade your computer. Another disadvantage is that the heat produced by the display is radiated into the enclosure containing the heat-sensitive electronics.

If I were to buy today, I’d seriously consider a Mac Mini with a monitor. The Mini has all the horsepower that my iMac has. Granted the Mini is not available with the same processors as the current iMacs, but what it has is enough for me. The only thing holding me back (besides not needing an upgrade at this time) is the interface for external storage.

I’ve changed the hard drive in my iMac and I’d rather not buy a computer knowing I’ll have to do it again. The drives in the Minis are small and slow. They’re laptop drives, and the default drives are 5400 RPM models. What I want is a speedy connection to external storage so I can upgrade or swap drives with ease.

The Thunderbolt logo.
The Thunderbolt logo.

These new MacBook Pro models have a new interface called Thunderbolt that seems able to fulfill this need quite nicely. First shown in 2009 under the working name ‘Light Peak,’ Intel designed Thunderbolt as a combination of DisplayPort and PCI Express that will allow you to connect all sorts of peripheral devices, including hard drives and your monitor. The compelling fact is that it’s fast. It supports 10 Gbps transfers in both directions simultaneously. This is twenty times faster than USB2 and twice as fast as USB3, which is itself faster than most rotating platter hard drives. The current Thunderbolt implementation uses copper wire, but it will later switch to fibre optic cable and scale to 100 Gbps.

So I could, for example, someday buy a Mac Mini with Thunderbolt support, connect an SSD boot drive and another rotating platter hard drive to hold my data files, and it would move files significantly faster than a stock Mac Mini. I could also change drives at will by simply disconnecting the current drive and connecting a new one.

Computers are largely modular. The computer itself typically contains only the CPU, GPU, memory, and hard drive. The display is usually separate and you buy and connect everything else according to your needs. For example, if you need to print, you buy a printer and if you need to scan, you buy a scanner. Yes, you may have external storage right now, but because it is significantly slower than an internal drive, external drives are typically limited to portable or near-line storage. With Thunderbolt, I can see this changing. We’ll boot from external drives more and more often. Eventually, we’ll buy computers with no internal data storage because there will be no reason to have the drive inside the case. This won’t happen for laptops of course, but I can’t wait for a small, silent, cool, inexpensive, and hard-drive-free computer that’ll fit easily on my desk.

It may just be the next generation Mac Mini. I look forward to finding out!

Operation

Look, I broke my Mac:

20101028_imac_operation

Okay, okay … I didn’t really break it. Instead, it was time for an upgrade.

I bought it with a 320GB hard drive, which you can see to the right, just above the pliers. In the guts of the computer, at the top centre, you can see the brand-new 1TB hard drive I just installed. The LCD is still attached because removing the third connection was a little more trouble than it was worth. I had full access to the drive after removing the other two connections and swinging it away as you can see. I really wanted to blow out the fans with some canned air, but I wasn’t going to risk getting the LCD so dusty that I couldn’t clean it.

Dust was a major concern because there’s a piece of glass that covers the LCD, so any dust on the LCD or the inner surface of the glass would be difficult to remove once I reassembled the system. I dosed them both with compressed air and it seems to have worked out just fine. I was nervous when first booting the system because the canned air I bought managed to spray a quantity of propellant on the glass. Yes, I was holding the can upright. It would either evaporate entirely or leave some trace behind. Happily I can see no trace of residue.

I didn’t just tear into the computer, blindly. Goodness, I wouldn’t do that with a device so plainly not designed for user-servicing. I might be a little too eager to open things that I shouldn’t open, but not to this extent! I did it because I had the good fortune to discover an article called Upgrade your iMac 20″ or iMac 24″ aluminum 2007, 2008 & 2009 to 1.5 or 2TB Hard Drive – DIY Guide that described the procedure with lots of photos. It didn’t seem that hard so I decided to give it a try, planning to back out before I got myself into trouble. I know those sound a lot like famous last words, but it turned out that it was less complicated than I expected and it took between 20 and 30 minutes to complete.

The only required prep was to assemble the tools, including some small Torx drivers and a couple of suction cups, and to clone the old drive to the new one. I wasn’t about to reinstall everything so a block-level drive clone was the way to go. I cloned the drive before I did the swap so that after the operation, I could turn it on and everything would work as it should.

Everything is working so I feel that I can call the operation a success!