Help me Mac mini; you’re my only hope

I’ve owned a desktop Mac since Apple’s initial creation back in 1984. During this 30 year stretch, I’ve replaced each Mac with a newer model about every three years, occasionally more frequently. Until now! My current desktop Mac is a 2009 Mac Pro. It’s five years old and, at the rate things are going, it may be another couple of years before I replace it. Each day I keep it, I break my personal record for holding on to a Mac.

On the one hand, this is a testament either to what a great job Apple did with this version of the Mac Pro or how little computer technology has changed over the previous five years. Or a bit of of both. In the past, a major force behind my decision to replace each Mac was how out-of-date and under-powered my existing machine had become. For example, if my Mac did not have a USB port or a DVD drive or a processor fast enough to stream video or sufficient RAM to run Photoshop, I knew an upgrade was in my near future. Something like this has eventually happened to every Mac I’ve owned. Until now.

My current Mac Pro shows almost no significant sign of aging. I did upgrade to an SSD drive a couple of years ago. Aside from that, it’s pretty much the same computer it was when I first bought it. And, except for a few minor things such as a lack of a Thunderbolt port, there is nothing that newer Macs have that I especially crave. As long as my Mac Pro can run the latest version of OS X at a decent speed, it should be good to go for a long time.

Still…at some point, unless I give up on desktops altogether and go with just a MacBook, I’ll want (or need) to get a new desktop Mac. In fact, I’d probably get one tomorrow if there was a new Mac that fit my wants and needs. And here’s where I have a dilemma. Which Mac, if any, would I get?

As a Mac geek (I can show you my membership card), I’ve always gravitated towards the highest end models. I preferred the flexibility (such as for adding or replacing monitors), expandability (for adding additional drives and cards) and superior internal specs of the Pro. That’s why, when Apple announced its completely redesigned Mac Pro last year, I initially assumed this is what I would be getting. I was ready. However, for reasons I wrote about previously, the new Mac Pro is not for me (nor is it for most other people who place similar demands on their computer). As Dan Frakes explained:

“…even if you’re shopping for performance, unless you regularly use software that either takes advantage of multiple cores or subjects your Mac’s processor to sustained heavy loads (or both), you’re probably better off with an iMac or a MacBook Pro.”

As another Macworld article reported, the new Mac Pro is actually slower than an iMac for many common tasks in apps such as iMovie and iTunes. It concluded that: “The Mac Pro is…probably overkill for everyday tasks.”

When you throw in the fact that the Mac Pro’s internal expansion options are almost non-existent and that its cost, especially if you go beyond the entry level model, quickly soars into the stratosphere, it becomes hard for all but the most high-end professionals to justify getting the Pro.

So where does that leave me?

With an iMac? That remains a possibility. For now, I’m waiting to see what the next generation of iMacs will bring. Retina displays are rumored. That would be enticing.

Even so, I’d still prefer the flexibility of a Mac without a built-in display. In this regard, an entirely new mid-range Mac model, such as Dan Frakes’ mythical mini-tower, would be welcome. But I don’t believe Apple will ever come out with such a model. Apple isn’t going in that marketing direction anymore.

The Mac mini to the rescue?

That leaves one other desktop option: the Mac mini.

Given the limitations of the other alternatives, the Mac mini is looking quite attractive to me right now. True, it doesn’t have the internal expansion capabilities I would like, but then neither does the iMac or the Mac Pro. On the plus side, the mini allows me to choose my own monitor (or monitors), is very compact (even compared to the much downsized Mac Pro), and starts out very inexpensive (the base model is $599).

There’s just one problem. Unfortunately, it’s a big one. The machine is so underpowered that even its top of the line model is not acceptable to me. To see what I mean, let’s compare a top-end iMac to a top-end mini.

I could get a 27” iMac with a 3.5GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz). To this, I’d go with 32GB of SDRAM and a 3TB Fusion Drive. I might be content with the standard NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics card, but I’d probably upgrade to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB GDDR5 upgrade. Add it all up and its $3299.

The best I can do with the mini is a 2.6GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of SDRAM and a 1 TB Fusion drive. The only graphics card option is a barely adequate Intel HD Graphics 4000. Configured with an Apple Thunderbolt display, a Magic Trackpad and wireless keyboard, it costs only $2536.

In every aspect except price, the Mac mini is distinctly inferior to the iMac. But the mini is only cheaper because of its lesser specs. An iMac with specs matched to the Mac mini costs around the same: $2549. For me, I’d gladly pay $760 extra for an upgraded Mac mini that matched or exceeded the specs of the iMac. [There is also a server version of the Mac mini, but I’m leaving that speciality model out of the discussion here.]

So the question becomes: Why does Apple maintain this Mac mini vs. iMac disparity? Why not beef up the mini? As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a good explanation. Apple ought to be at least a little embarrassed by the Mac mini.

In Apple’s defense, some point out that the Mac mini hasn’t been updated for a long while. That’s why there is such a disparity. It’s true. The last mini update was almost two years ago: October 2012. The expectation here is that, when Apple finally gets around to releasing a new mini, the machine will achieve feature parity with the iMac. Of course, this doesn’t explain why Apple has dragged its feet on a mini update. Perhaps, given low sales, Apple hasn’t made the mini a priority. I don’t know. In any case, if and when Apple finally updates the mini, it could also update the iMac, maintaining the feature disparity. In other words, an updated mini might not resolve the matter.

Another explanation for the disparity is that the Mac mini is designed to appeal to the most cost-conscious segment of the market. Given their low-demand use of a computer, these users are content with minimal specs in exchange for saving some money. Apple is simply giving them what they want. The mini may especially appeal to PC switchers who already own a viable display, keyboard and input device. With an iMac, these users would be forced to get (and pay for) a new set of these peripherals. The mini saves them this expense.

The cost-saving logic makes some sense but I don’t see it as the total explanation. Apple could still keep entry level prices at their current low level while simultaneously offering a  top end model superior to the one now available. But who, you may ask, would want and pay for this souped-up Mac mini?

Me.

And I suspect there are many others like me who, having decided that a Mac Pro is no longer a realistic option, are looking for an alternative that is not an iMac. My guess is that, if Apple came out with a next generation Mac mini that had specs equalling or outpacing the next generation iMac, it would sell more than enough units to be classified a success. There is an opportunity here for Apple to expand the Mac mini market to people, such as myself, who are sitting on the sidelines with aging, but still usable, Mac Pros and iMacs, waiting to see what comes next.

A final “explanation,” given by many pundits, for why the Mac mini remains underpowered, is that Apple doesn’t want the mini to cannibalize sales of its presumably more profitable iMac lineup. I’m not convinced this argument holds water. Regardless, while I may be an outlier, I’m currently buying nothing instead of the souped-up Mac mini I would likely have purchased by now. This certainly isn’t helping Apple’s bottom line.

In the end, I remain cautiously optimistic that, among the slew of products Apple has promised to release before the end of this year, we’ll see a new and much improved Mac mini. My hope remains that, hidden beneath the mini’s current garb, a Jedi knight is waiting to be revealed—and that it will rescue me from my desktop Mac dilemma.

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac, Technology | Leave a comment

NYT on “pay up or wait” freemium games

In my prior post, I detailed how (from my perspective) Rovio has managed to just about ruin what had been one of the best game franchises in history: Angry Birds. The crux of the problem was the introduction of in-app purchases that are now required to get the best scores — combined with incessant nagging during game play to get you to spend money on these purchases. This strategy may be working well for Rovio’s short-term profits, but it comes at a cost that may well have a long-term negative effect.

As gamers no doubt know, this is not just restricted to Angry Birds. As it turns out, the front page of yesterday’s New York Times ran an article about increasing complaints regarding the spread of “freemium” games — where you download the game for free but then have to shell out significant money to actually play it:

…the freemium model is encountering some resistance. Regulators here and overseas are taking a closer look at whether some free games mislead consumers about the true costs of playing them and whether vulnerable players, like children, might be duped into spending money.

I don’t entirely oppose the idea of freemium apps. They can even be a good way to allow a “try before you buy” method for distributing a game. For example, after downloading a free game, you could play the first 5 levels, but then have to pay a reasonable fee to unlock the remaining levels.

What I object to is, as described in the New York Times article, more like the situation for the recently released Dungeon Keeper app:

The free mobile version of the game began its solicitations for in-app purchases early and with gusto. Players faced waits of 24 hours to dig out sections of earth to create their dungeons unless they spent real money to accelerate the process. A demon character taunted them to pay up.

Let’s hope that game developers, such as Rovio and Electronic Arts, begin to see their miscalculations here and that the pendulum begins to swing back in the other direction. I doubt freemium games will vanish from the landscape, but they can be made much less annoying, misleading, demanding and intrusive.

Posted in Games, General, iOS, Technology | Leave a comment

Ruining Angry Birds: In-app purchases and top scores

The following is a slightly modified version of something I originally posted as a comment at the Angry Birds Nest website. Angry Birds Nest (which is not affiliated with Rovio) is a site devoted to all things Angry Birds. One section of the site includes Leaderboards, where members can post their top scores. As Rovio has added features to their games, especially ones that require in-app purchases to obtain items that may improve your scores, there has been an ongoing debate on ABN as to whether such “enhanced” scores should be allowed in the Leaderboards. Purists (including myself and apparently most of the site’s members) want them kept out. But it’s been increasingly hard to enforce such restrictions. As a result, the site has gradually loosened it rules.

My posting was a response to this loosening. If you’ve never played Angry Birds, this may be of little interest (and some of it may be a bit hard to follow). Even if you have played the games, this may not be relevant if you don’t care about high scores. However, many people do play Angry Birds and do care about high scores. Also, I believe the basic arguments have relevance to many other competitive iOS games. So I thought I would repost the comment here, where it may get a wider audience.

“I wanted to offer my two cents regarding ABN’s policy of allowing scores achieved via character swaps (an option that ultimately requires in-app purchases and allows for higher scores than could be otherwise obtained) on the Leaderboards for Angry Birds Star Wars II.

In brief, I support the decision. But not because I think it’s a good idea. Rather because, given how Rovio has structured the game, ABN really had no other choice.

Here’s the dilemma from my perspective:

Completing any Angry Birds level is about achieving two related goals. The first is to get the highest score you can. The second (which doesn’t get mentioned at ABN as much) is to solve the puzzle.

To explain what I mean by “solve the puzzle,” I go back to the original Angry Birds and Angry Birds Seasons games. Here, all players were restricted to the same level playing field: the set of birds assigned to each level. There was an unstated assumption (which turned out to be true) that Rovio had designed each level so that it was possible to get a top score that was significantly higher than the minimum needed for three stars. To achieve these top scores, you needed to figure out how Rovio had designed the level to be best played. That was the puzzle to be solved.

Often there were non-obvious semi-hidden paths to success. Figuring out what best to do was similar to solving a maze game or a crossword puzzle. This aspect of Angry Birds was always the most fun and challenging for me. There was the joy of that “aha” moment when you suddenly realized there was a totally different way to play the level than you had been doing, one that achieved a much higher score.

That’s why, when I checked the Leaderboards and saw some top scores (or worse still, average scores) that were significantly higher than my best effort, I knew it was time to head back to the drawing board — and figure out what I was doing wrong. Eventually, occasionally only after hours of experimenting, I almost always solved the puzzle and joined the group of top scores. As a last resort, I checked the walk-throughs to discover what I had missed. For me, going to the walk-throughs was an admission of defeat. It was tantamount to going to the solutions page for a crossword puzzle to find out the answers to the clues that had stumped me.

Taken together, this all made Angry Birds and especially Angry Birds Seasons two of my all-time favorite games.

But now, with things like the character swaps (and even worse, the horrible “Last Chance” option) in Angry Birds Star Wars II, all of that is gone. Solving the puzzles have been largely supplanted by an assortment of gimmicks that allow you to get “enhanced” higher scores. All of these gimmicks encourage you to spend money on in-app purchases, something that the game continuously and annoyingly prompts you to do. The Last Chance option is especially irksome, as it entirely abandons a critical aspect of the game: the limit on how many turns you get before a level is over.

To be fair, solving puzzles is not necessarily gone. You can still play the game as if all those gimmicks do not exist (which is what I do). But it’s gone if you want to compare your scores with the Leaderboards at ABN or in Apple’s Game Center — because those boards contain the “artificially enhanced” scores.

This became especially apparent in the Rise of the Clones levels. There were levels that had top scores between 20,000 and 45,000 more points than I had been able to achieve. I was almost certain there was no way to get those scores with the default set of birds. Mystified as to how these scores had been obtained, I went to the walk-throughs. Sure enough, I discovered that these scores were made possible only via character swaps. The purist in me rejected this as a solution.

Now, I suppose one could argue that figuring out which characters to use and how best to use them is just another type of puzzle to be solved. I might be persuaded to agree with that, but only if the swaps were truly part of the game — meaning that players had an unlimited permanent pool of all the characters to draw from. That way you could experiment and try different strategies — just as you can do with the default set of characters.

This is definitely not the case. Inevitably, to experiment with an assortment of different characters, and especially to try low probability of success maneuvers, you will have to spend money to purchase additional character quantities. This erases the level playing field of yore. Those with more money (or at least a greater willingness to spend money) will wind up with a significantly better chance of attaining high scores. And, without checking the walk-throughs (which, as I said, I like to avoid), there is no way of knowing how the listed high scores were achieved — especially if or how character swaps or last chances were used.

Let’s be frank. The reason Rovio put all these additional options into their games is not because they thought it would improve gameplay or add to a player’s enjoyment. If that was the case, they could have included the options for free or perhaps for a one-time upgrade fee. No, Rovio is looking for every way it can to squeeze more money out of its user base. And a never-ending stream of in-app purchasing is, from their perspective, the perfect way to do it. Combined with the incessant unavoidable advertising (and “Stuck?” screens and “Carbonite melting” messages) that keep appearing, my personal enjoyment of Angry Birds Star Wars II has deteriorated to the point that I almost ready to abandon it altogether.

So yes, for all these reasons, I would prefer if the Leaderboards remained free of character swaps and such. However, I recognize that enforcing this, especially for a game that had these options built in right from the start, is all but impossible to do. As I see it, the ABN site was in a rock vs. hard place position and made the best decision they could. It’s just too bad that Rovio put them in that position.”

Update [July 2014]: Rovio has somehow managed to make a bad situation worse. In the Master Your Destiny section of the latest update to the Star Wars II game, there are no provided birds at all! Instead, you have to use saved characters for each and every toss, drawing down your storage. This effectively means that getting a top score will require spending money, as there is no way to sufficiently experiment with different strategies given the limited amount of birds you can acquire for free. For example, I typically play a level several hundred times before assuming I’ve got my best score. There’s no way I could do this with spending a lot of money here.

I checked the reviews of the game on iTunes. There are now many one-star reviews expressing this same sentiment. As for me, I have dumped this game and will never play it again. I only hope that Rovio does not wind up doing something similar to Angry Birds Seasons, my favorite of the Rovio games.

Posted in Entertainment, Games | Leave a comment

The 3 biggest takeaways from WWDC keynote

Dreams really do come true.

That’s the mantra I kept repeating to myself as I watched this year’s WWDC Keynote. Make no mistake: this was a historic keynote. It’s hard to overstate what Apple did today. An incredible number of groundbreaking features were revealed for both the OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 — due out this fall.

Consider this for starters: Apple announced Health (new iOS “health and fitness apps that can communicate with each other, with your trainer, and even with your doctor”), HomeKit (software that provides control of home automation devices from your iPhone or iPad) and an entirely new programming language (Swift). These announcements alone (actually, even just one of them) would be sufficient to satisfy most companies as the entirety of a media event. And yet, for this year’s WWDC, Apple only had time to briefly mention them. If you blinked,  you missed the topics altogether. That’s how much was going on here.

But I digress (which is very easy to do with today’s announcements). Back to my dreams coming true. Of the new features Apple announced, three in particular stand out for me. That’s because they each represent Apple delivering on items that have been on my wish list for more years than I care to count.

Continuity

Over the years, I have written numerous articles about the potential “iOS-ification” of OS X. Loosely defined, the term refers to making OS X run more like iOS. As I pointed out, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Apple could have chosen to make OS X increasingly mimic iOS system attributes — such as a lack of access to system software and the removal of the Finder. To me, that would be a disaster.

The better side of iOS-ification is to have OS X work ever more seamlessly with iOS, while not changing the basic OS X structure. This is the direction Apple has been going in previous iterations of OS X. Maps is a perfect example — with its ability to send a directions map directly from OS X to your iOS device. Another example is the similarity of interface and shared content of Notes across both OS X and iOS apps.

My dream was that Apple would continue down this road and avoid the dark path altogether. Happily, this is precisely what Apple has done. With OS X Yosemite, Apple not only expanded similarities of apps across platforms, but doubled down with the introduction of an entirely new set of features called Continuity.

One aspect of this (called Handoff) allows what you do on one platform to be instantly picked up on another. This means, for example, you can start working on an email on your Mac and finish it up (and send it) from your iPhone.

Via Continuity features, you can also access capabilities from one platform to use on the other. For example, with Yosemite and iOS 8, you’ll be able to answer and make phone calls on your Mac via a connection to your iPhone. Your Mac can also make an instant Hotspot connection to your iPhone, for online access when no Wi-Fi is available.

[Update: Almost forgot to mention: AirDrop will finally work between iOS and OS X devices.]

This is potentially huge for Apple. If all of this works anywhere close to as well as it appeared in the demos, it will have the added benefit (to Apple) of selling more Macs. If you currently own an iPhone and a PC, it forces you to consider how much better your workflow would be if you instead had an iPhone and a Mac.

iCloud Drive

At least since 2010, I have been complaining about iOS file-sharing — especially sharing documents between Macs and iOS devices. I have lamented about how complicated (and sometimes impossible) it has been to make such transfers. More recently, while noting improvements to document sharing, I still lamented remaining limitations — such as that files saved to Documents-in-the-Cloud are accessible only from the app that created the document. This meant, for example, that there was no way to take a TextEdit document saved to iCloud on your Mac and open that file in any iOS app.

My dream was that Apple would someday relent and provide Dropbox-like access to files in iCloud. With iCloud Drive, Apple appears to have granted my wish. [It's sort of a mashup of the now extinct iDisk with iCloud's Documents in the Cloud.]

Although I still have questions about how exactly iCloud Drive works, it is at least a welcome step in the right direction. On the Mac, it appears that you drag documents to the iCloud Drive window/folder. Having done that, you can work on (and save changes to) these documents directly from within that location. More importantly, iOS apps can bring up an iCloud Drive panel to have access to (and thus be able to open) these same files, regardless of the app that created the file on the Mac. At last!

Extensibility

Over the years, one of the most frustrating features of iOS has been the inability to extend the reach of third-party iOS utilities system-wide. Two obvious examples: Wouldn’t it be great if you could easily access TextExander shortcuts from any iOS app? Or access 1Password’s data from within Safari?

I have maintained hope that, despite the restrictions due to sandboxing, Apple might some day allow such options. With iOS 8’s new extensibility, Apple appears to have delivered on this third dream of mine. I’m not yet certain whether it will allow TextExpander or 1Password to do what I want, but it’s definitely moving in that direction. As demo-ed at the Keynote, you’ll certainly be able to do things like add filters to the Photos app, add your own choice of third-party apps to Shared sheets, add custom widgets to Notifications, and even (trumpets blaring here) add system-wide third-party keyboards!

This is huge. Mega-huge. It will take awhile before third-party developers update their apps to take advantage of all of this. But it could well turn out to be the most significant new feature in iOS since the App Store opened.

Wait! There’s more…

So those are three items at the top of my WWDC announcements list. But they are hardly the only ones that generated excitement. Here’s a sampling of other features that are sure to generate buzz in the months ahead:

• With the new Messages app, you’ll be able to speak a message and have it delivered as audio to the recipient. No need for you to type or even dictate your text message.

• With Family Sharing, you can share data with up to six other people — allowing all to automatically share photos, calendars, reminders, music, movies and more.

• With QuickType, iOS devices will predict, based on your prior typing, what you intend to type — before you even enter the first letter of the next word.

• Among the expanded options in Siri, you’ll be able to use Shazam to analyze and recognize songs.

• With Apple’s new Metal SDK, games will be able to process information up to 10X faster, allowing for true console-level performance in iOS.

..and on and on.

Apple didn’t address every item on my wish list. Multi-tasking (as with a split-screen) and simplified copy-and-paste (especially across apps) remain as big items for the future. But I’m fine with that. When I look at all Apple delivered this year, I’m more optimistic than ever about what Apple can do in time for next year. At this rate, I may even be able to throw out my wish list altogether in a year or two.

I know there are nay-sayers out there, grumbling that Apple did not announce any new hardware at the Keynote. I admit that this surprised me as well. At least it did until I considered the full weight of what Apple did announce. Given the scope of what was covered in a fast-paced two hours, there was no room for new hardware. I’m not worried. Before the year is over, I am certain we’ll see new iPhones and new iPads, and almost certainly a new Apple TV, new iMacs, and some sort of wearable technology.

WWDC started the ball rolling with its almost overwhelming number of software announcements. The hardware will soon follow.

No other company besides Apple has such complete control over both the hardware and software ends of the market. This is what allows Apple’s devices to work so well together. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the product integration we saw on the WWDC stage today. That’s why I believe today’s announcements will allow Apple to go beyond its current lead in innovation and lap the competition altogether. They are that significant.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 5 Comments