The 'Book Review

OS X 10.8.1 Fixes Battery Life Issues?, Some Users See Retina MacBook Pro Interface Lag, and More

This Week's Mac Notebook News

Compiled by Charles Moore and edited by Dan Knight - 2012.08.24

General Apple and Mac desktop news is covered in Mac News Review. iPad, iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV news is covered in iOS News Review. All prices are in US dollars unless otherwise noted.

Purchases made through links to Amazon.com and Apple's iTunes/iBook/App/Mac App Store support Low End Mac.

News & Opinion

Reviews

Tech Trends

Software

Bargain 'Books

News & Opinion

OS X 10.8.1 Reportedly Improves MacBook Battery Life Issue

Softpedia reports that the first OS X Mountain Lion point update - version 10.8.1 (see this week's Mac News Review) - may improve battery life considerably on Apple's laptop computers, according to a registered Apple developer who has confirmed anecdotally that fixes coming in 10.8.1 not only "resolve all the reported battery drainage issues" that came with the release of 10.8, but that the improvement in battery life is "quite substantial" - by as much as four hours, which if generally repeatable, is pretty huge.

The unnamed developer happily reports that he's now able to use his MacBook throughout the day again without being obliged to carry a charger.

Publisher's note: We're following this story. Mac Observer reports that an older MacBook Pro saw a battery life improvement with 10.8.1 while a Retina MacBook Pro actually got worse. I'm sure we'll know a lot more next week. dk

Some Retina MacBook Pro Owners Complain of Interface Lag

MacFixIt's Topher Kessler reports that some Retina MacBook Pro owners are finding that their systems display relatively choppy behavior and may be slow to respond with moving windows, scrolling, and using Exposé, among other similar tasks, primarily when using Safari, Mail, and Mission Control features - but also in other programs. Kessler advises that while hardware limitations may be a factor, choppy or laggy scrolling and window movement on Retina MacBook Pros might be remedied by an OS reinstallation, among other options.

Apple's 'Sealed Unit' Mac Designs Impose Costly Tradeoffs

Computerworld's Richard Hoffman says his first self-purchased Mac was a Power Mac 8500, which despite its boring beige enclosure was a truly great machine, one of the qualities making it great being that almost every feature was upgradable, enabling a useful service life of more than 10 years during an interval when computer hardware and architecture was advancing rapidly.

By contrast, Apple's new top-of-the-line 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display is fast, powerful, and stylish, setting new standards for what is to be considered a full-featured laptop computer. But the gorgeous form factor comes at a stiff cost. Hoffman notes that iFixit, in its teardown analysis, gave the Retina MacBook Pro the lowest possible score, 1 out of 10, due to its almost complete lack of repairability and upgradeability, with no user-replaceable parts whatsoever, including the battery and even RAM, which is hard-soldered to the logic board with no upgrade slot provided.

Hoffman notes that for some time the trend with Apple has been toward making its consumer-oriented hardware - iPhones, iPods, iPads, and entry-level Macs - more and more sealed-unit devices by design, with no hardware-level upgradeability, but until now Apple's pro-level computers have continued to be both more expensive than the company's consumer lines, but also, in general, much more upgradable.

The more expensive part still obtains, but the Retina MacBook Pro indicated that the upgradability, expandability, and repairability paradigms are being shifted. Recently updated "old school" 15" and 13" models are still available with memory and storage drive upgrades supported and reasonably repairable architecture, but for how much longer? The currently available models are likely last-of-the-line lame ducks, with the rMBP indicating a future of sealed-unit, utterly non-upgradable MacBook Pros - a troubling trend for many professional and power-users.

Hoffman notes that Apple's shift in philosophy and focus will affect the calculus for deciding how to configure a new Mac at time of purchase, with RAM and storage drive upgrades at a later date no longer possible.

His advice? "Max it out, or be prepared to replace the whole thing sooner rather than later," acknowledging that compared with the old strategy of buying basic initially and upgrading later, both the short-term cost and overall cost of computer ownership will increase substantially.

Reliable Cloud Spells Grim Outlook for Hard Drive Makers

The Register's Chris Mellor contends that the Cloud is going to impact disk drive manufacturers' bottom line in a big way, the inescapable logic being that with the increasing popularity and success of Dropbox, iCloud, SkyDrive, etc., users won't need disk drives on their computers - a grim prospect for Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital.

Mellor notes that his Dropbox account synchs files among an iMac two notebooks, and a tablet, three of the four devices having flash memory and no disks, although he does back up everything on the desktop and notebook systems to external disk drives.

Mellor says that every day he uses cloud-based file synch, and his files are available and synchronized between his systems, which increases his confidence in the Cloud's reliability, reasoning "I don't keep all my cash in a hardware container in my house. Why should I keep my data in hardware containers in my house?" Compelling point, however he's not quite ready to say good-bye to hard drive storage yet, noting that he likes having the disks that hold his data in hand and doesn't, as yet, trust the Cloud to be always there when he needs it - and certainly doesn't trust his internet service provider to be always there when he needs it. Also, he likes Apple's Time Machine to restore files.

Mellor says if Time Machine worked with Apple's iCloud and iCloud/SkyDrive/Dropbox was rock-solid and the internet service was rock-solid, he probably would never buy a disk drive again, but that's an awful lot of "ifs."

The danger for hard drive vendors, however, is that arguably few computer users are as belt-and-suspenders fastidious about data backup as Mellor (and your editor), and with a bit of enhancement to network and cloud storage service reliability, millions or even tens of millions of desktop and notebook PC users will stop buying disk drives, not to mention the trend to solid state storage in laptops - and increasingly desktops as well - with a likelihood that over the next five years consumer desktop, notebook, and external disk drive sales will decline dramatically toward a full-scale collapse.

Editor's note: Your editor uses Dropbox to sync files among three notebooks and an iPad, three of the four still having disk drives, and I spread backup among three largish external hard drives. cm

Publisher's note: At Low End Mac headquarters, we use Dropbox to sync files among three desktop Macs, all of which are hard drive-based (and backed up to hard drives as well), and there have been several times when the ability to recover a previous version of a file has saved our bacon. If only backing up to the Cloud were as easy and inexpensive as Dropbox! Services like Dropbox are wonderful, but they work best in conjunction with local storage. dk

Reviews

PCMag Reviews Mid 2012 11" MacBook Air

PCMag's Joel Santo Domingo says that Apple's latest iteration of the 11" MacBook Air makes a nice system for users who want a second or third Mac around the house - a MacBook for those who already have a larger MacBook Pro, an iMac, or a Mac Pro, but he notes that Windows ultrabooks are catching up to the paradigm-setting Air in terms of portability and capabilities, and at the 11" Air's price slot, competition is becoming fierce.

Santo Domingo observes that the little Air's full keyboard makes it a better writing tool than simply carrying around an iPad or other tablet. It fits perfectly on an airplane tray table system and weighs in at a feather-light 2.36 pounds (2.79 pounds with AC adapter), but the standard 64 GB of flash storage is mighty stingy in a contemporary context, battery life is mediocre by current measure, the display is smaller than those of Ultrabook price competitors. There's no SD card reader, the nearly two-year old design is getting a bit long in the tooth, and while the smallest Air is reasonably speedy, it's really best suited for mobile writing and college student duty or as as a secondary laptop for when you need more than a tablet.

Tech Trends

iFixit Tears Down Asus UX32VD Zenbook Ultrabook

iFixit's team has torn apart a Zenbook UX32VD, Asus' flagship Ultrabook and say the Zenbook lives up to its name, giving them very little frustration during deconstruction.

Asus UX32VD ZenbookEven though falls short (or, more accurately, exceeds thickness-wise) by a couple of millimeters in the slimness race against the MacBook Air, iFixit says the Zenbook more than makes up for it with stellar repairability. With an upgradeable RAM slot, swappable 2.5" hard drive, and a battery that can be easily replaced, the Zenbook earns an 8 out of 10 iFixit repairability score, easily trumping the soldered-RAM-and-proprietary-SSD MacBook Air's meager 4 points. Even the LCD is completely replaceable, provided you're handy with a heat gun and exercising a bit of patience.

Bottom line? You can have a slim laptop that is repairable. It just can't bear a fruit logo on its display.

Teardown Notes

Despite being a formidable Ultrabook in its own right, the Zenbook UX32VD is often criticized for its thickness. All things considered, the "bulging waistline" of the Zenbook isn't all that considerable. When compared with a MacBook Air, it's only a few millimeters thicker at the spine.

The stylish aluminum lower case is held in place with twelve T5 Torx screws. The cover itself is not the same quality you'd find in an Apple product, but iFixit applauds Asus' use of nonproprietary screws.

Asus UX32VD Zenbook batteryThe first component to come out is the battery. Point for repairability! The battery is not glued in place, and a person equipped with the right tools can replace it in a matter of minutes.

The 7.4 volt, 6520 mAh battery in the UX32VD weighs 280.5 grams, accounting for approximately 20% of the Zenbook's weight. By comparison, the battery in the 13" MacBook Air is approximately 22% of the Air's total weight at 300 grams - pretty much a negligible difference.

The Zenbook comes standard with a 500 GB, 5400 RPM 2.5" hard disk drive, in addition to 24 GB of onboard SSD storage. Compared to its rivals, iFixit suggests that a 5400 RPM hard drive seems a bit out of place in a $1,300 laptop.

Because fans are responsible for circulating the air through the computer, they are often the component that collects the most dust. Having fans that are easy to access like in the UX32VD are important for making a device that is easy to maintain.

It appears as though Asus didn't put too much effort into enforcing their warranty. The "void" sticker isn't some fancy disintegrating kind just a sticker that actually retains a good amount of stickiness even after removal. iFixit hastens to add that they're not saying you should defraud companies; just stating fact.

Electronic goodies abound:

  • Asus UX32VD ZenbookIntel Core i7-3517U 1.9 GHz processor
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 620M GPU
  • Hynix H5TQ2G83CFR 2 GB DDR3 SDRAM
  • Hynix H5TQ2G63DFR 1 GB DDR3 video SDRAM
  • SanDisk iSSD SDIS5BK 024G 24 GB SSD
  • Intel BD82HM76 platform controller hub
  • ON Semiconductor NCP3218 synchronous buck controller
  • ITE IT8572G
  • Fairchild PC78T FDMC7696
  • Richtek RT8168B PWM Controller
  • Realtek ALC269 audio codec

Yes: the UX32VD has 1 GB of onboard video RAM.

Like the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, the touchpad in the Zenbook is located underneath the battery. Unlike the MacBook, though, you can remove this touchpad without destroying the battery.

Not only is there no obnoxiously glossy front glass on the Zenbook's display, but the bezel comes off pretty painlessly after applying some heat and using guitar picks to separate it from the display. But right as iFixit's team were about to go ga-ga over the accessibility of this display, they had to catch themselves: the LCD and camera cables are routed underneath a rubber gasket that was installed with a formidable adhesive, and required lots of heat and patience to peel up.

A 2 MP video camera and a Realtek 5828T camera controller keep all of your recording and video chatting in check. In case you are wondering, the camera board is really thin. Without the components on it, it measures at ~0.3 mm, which is about the thickness of three pieces of paper stacked together.

Software

smcFanControl Updated to Version 2.4

smcFanControl 2.4 is an open source utility that enables Intel Mac users to adjust the minimum speed of the computer's cooling fans.

smcFanControl 2.4 adds the following features/bugfixes:

  • Support for OS X Mountain Lion/Gatekeeper
  • Support for Retina MacBook Pro
  • smcFanControl is now a 64 Bit application
  • AutoStart works now without AppleScript
  • Support for OS X 10.4 is deprecated
  • The source code for smcFanControl is now available at Github

System requirements:

  • Mac OS X 10.4 and up (note that support for OS X 10.4 is deprecated)
  • Intel

smcFanControl 2.4 is freeware/donationware.

Publisher's note: It's installed and running on our 2007 Mac mini with OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard. Recommended! dk

Bargain 'Books

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