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Bill Bennett

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Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Apple Music: What New Zealanders will pay

Apple announced its subscription Music service at the World Wide Developer Conference overnight.

From the announcement Apple Music seems an interesting mix of Spotify-like music streaming with DJs and human, not algorithmic, curation.

An interesting aspect of the Apple Music is that you’ll be able to store all your music, including iTunes purchases and personally ripped albums in the cloud. There’s an overlap there with Apple Match which, no doubt, will clear up over time.

Apple Music is to streaming what iPod was to MP3

While most of the features in Apple Music echo those found on other streaming services, Apple seems to have wrapped the package neatly. On the surface it looks as if Music could do for streaming what the iPod did for downloaded music: move it further into the mainstream and make it safe for consumers.

The service is due to start streaming music to most of the world, including New Zealand on June 30.

Apple has fixed the US price of Apple Music at US$10 a month for a single user. A family subscription, allowing up to six people to share an account is just US$15. There’s no free, advertising supported service, but customers get a three-month trial period.

The US price is competitive with Spotify. Both have a $10 basic subscription. Apple’s family deal will put pressure on its rivals.

What will Apple Music cost in New Zealand?

Apple has yet to announce the local price.

At today’s exchange rate, US$10 buys NZ$14. Add 15 percent GST and on a straightforward conversion it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get an Apple Music subscription for less than NZ$16.

That’s a fair price for unlimited music, but not compelling. Spotify offers a free tier and broadcast radio plays tons of tunes for free. The paid service is NZ$13 a month, which may act as a benchmark for Apple.

Apple’s streaming

It isn’t hard to understand why Apple launched a streaming service. Digital music download sales are plummeting. Streaming is growing and newcomers have disrupted Apple’s iTunes business. Music fixes that.

Apple should do well. Spotify can count its customers in tens of millions worldwide. Apple’s active customer database runs to hundreds of millions. If it can convince one tenth of them to sign-up, it will top the music streaming market and keep the digital music crown.

It’s no accident that Apple Music will also be available on Android devices. Until now Apple has avoided Google’s operating system, delivering an Android version shows the company’s determination not to drop the ball with digital music sales.

Verdict

We’ll have a clearer idea of the worth and potential when we get to hear it later this month. There’s an opportunity for Apple to work off its existing strength with iPhones, iPods and iTunes.

If the service is better than Spotify and the price on a par, then it will disrupt the music business.

MacBook: One USB-C port is enough

Critics point to a lack of ports in the 2015 Apple MacBook as a mistake.

It’s no mistake. Apple configured the MacBook with a specific target market in mind. For those people a single port is not an issue.

Sure, the lack of ports is a reason not to buy for many people. If you need lots of external storage, an Ethernet connection or a big screen, Apple’s 2015 MacBook is not for you.

We’ve been here before. Most notably, Apple critics said the iPhone should have had a replaceable battery. They also said not having a removable SD card was a mistake.

Samsung went on making these points right up until this year, when it followed Apple and dropped both features in its Galaxy S6 phones.

It was the same with the iPad: “too few ports” or “no expansion sockets”. How successful were the rival tablet makers when they built devices with both included?

As I mentioned in my long 2015 MacBook review the only port problem I face is that there are times when an iPhone or an iPad can benefit from a physical connection for iTunes synching.

There were times when I might have benefitted from having an Ethernet port on my MacBook Air. But Apple’s designers rightly decided I’d get even greater benefits from a slim laptop. Good call.

Apple has never been frightened to push forward into the future. Enough customers are happy to go along for the ride.

This contrasts with Microsoft’s world. Windows PCs kept ports and components long after their use-by date.

We’ve a Windows PC here with a dozen USB ports, serial ports, Ethernet ports, even old school mouse and keyboard ports along with various types of audio and video ports. Almost all of them have been unused for years. There’s also a DVD drive that gets touched once in a blue moon.

Microsoft’s position is understandable. It makes a big deal out of backward compatibility because it earns most of its revenue from enterprise customers. They may not need all that old stuff, but they are conservative. They think they may need old ports and they include them as ‘must haves’ when buying computers.

For all kinds of reasons, this legacy mentality spills over into Windows consumer devices. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, consumers expect to get a few years use out of their technology. Being able to run a 20 year printer is important to lots of people.

These are not the same people Apple is targeting with the 2015 MacBook. If you value portability, ease of use and radical simplicity over being able to use old stuff, then you love the new MacBook.

Apple 2015 MacBook: Between laptop and tablet

Apple MacBook 2015Apple’s newest laptop isn’t a MacBook Air. It just goes by the name MacBook — a pared-down name for a pared-down computer.

It uses technologies and techniques Apple learnt from making the iPhone and the iPad. The result is a mobile computer that is as elegant, small and polished as a 2015 portable can be.

The new MacBook is thinner, smaller and lighter than any other laptop.

Not laptop, nor tablet, nor hybrid

Yet in some ways it isn’t a laptop. At least, it is not a traditional laptop. And despite appearances the MacBook isn’t a replacement or an alternative to the MacBook Air.

The MacBook sits between the MacBook Air and an upscale iPad tricked out with a Bluetooth keyboard and running OS X.

Although it is both laptop-like and tablet-like, it most definitely is not hybrid-like. It’s a new class of device for people who need more than an iPad and less than a full-blown laptop.

An Apple laptop built for mobile journalists

Given that positioning, this is not a computer for everyone. It isn’t even the right computer for most people — the MacBook comes with compromises many are unwilling to make.

That said, the MacBook is ideal for someone wanting reasonable power while on the move.

Perhaps someone like a journalist working away from home? That was me when I took it to Wellington to cover a conference earlier this month.

Journalists were among the first professionals to use laptops[1].

If we need a computer on the go, we prize three things above all else: portability — in the broadest sense, a good keyboard and enough processing power to run key apps.

The MacBook ticks all three boxes.

Portable

Apple designed the new MacBook with portability in mind. Some reviewers worry about the MacBook keyboard. I’m fussy about keyboards, yet I didn’t find it a problem.

If the MacBook has a weak spot, it’s the processor. It’s more than enough for my work as a print journalist, but it may not suit your needs.

Let’s look closer at these:

Ten out of ten for small and light

It never occurred to me I might want a laptop smaller or lighter than a MacBook Air. Then I met the MacBook.

For the last two years my 2013 13-inch MacBook Air has racked up air miles and road trip kilometres.

It’s been everywhere I have. It never felt heavy. It was never a burden. After a few weeks it still doesn’t feel heavy or burdensome. And yet…

MacBook weight

The MacBook is one-third lighter than my 13-inch 2013 MacBook Air. It weighs 900 g compared to the Air’s 1.35 kg.

While that’s a big numeric difference, a few hundred grams not something you notice when packing a bag before heading out-of-town to a conference.

The weight jump from earlier laptops to the Air was bigger[2].

Light luggage

Laptop weight becomes noticeable when you move around all day with a backpack. That 450 g makes a 10 percent difference to my load. It’s a small improvement, but one worth having.

While the lower MacBook weight changes things a little when carrying a backpack, it makes a big difference when I take my leather briefcase to town. There I get a 20 percent weight reduction. It means less strain on the handle and on the carry strap is noticeable.

One thing I have to report is that in both cases I have found myself checking the bags to see if the MacBook was still there [3].

Hand holding

You notice the difference immediately when holding the MacBook. Although you can hold both the MacBook and the MacBook Air in one hand, that hand soon tires with the 13-inch Air. I can go a lot longer holding the MacBook one-handed.

It’s hard coming to terms with how small the MacBook is. My 13-inch MacBook, which is hardly oversized, dwarfs the new MacBook. It has a 12-inch screen, but comes with a smaller footprint than the 11-inch MacBook Air.

The MacBook is only marginally larger than my iPad 2. It’s just 13 mm thick. And that’s the key to understanding the wee beastie. Apple has built a full function laptop in something roughly the size of a tablet. Indeed, it occupies roughly the same volume and weighs about the same as an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard.

This is ultra-portable

There’s more to portability than size and weight. Like everything else from Apple, the MacBook is beautifully made.

It speaks quality engineering. Other brands get close, but not as consistently as Apple.

The MacBook is robust with an anodised aluminium unibody shell, much like the MacBook Air. This gives it plenty of protection, laptops can take a beating when constantly on the move. This solid feel gives me confidence that the computer won’t let me down when I need to type.

Portability is also about battery life

When I first got my 2013 MacBook Air, the computer could go all day on a single charge. It’s not unusual to work 12 or 13 hours at a stretch, the computer can handle it.

My Air’s battery life is not that good these days, partly because I keep Bluetooth and Wi-Fi switched on all the time thanks to the OS X Continuity feature. Also because I crank up the screen brightness. I suspect the battery life degrades over time too.

The new MacBook doesn’t make it to 13 hours of work time like my MacBook Air did in its early days.

Mind you, it gets close. On my trip I charged the battery to 100 percent before leaving Auckland. I worked for about 40 minutes at the airport.

The next day started at around 7 am and went on until 7 pm. There were a couple of breaks. The battery coped with at least 10 hours solid work and there was still something in the tank.

While I was in Wellington the venue Wi-Fi would time out after eight hours use. I went on for an hour or so using cellular data. That’s a battery punishing test the MacBook passed.

The MacBook keyboard

MacBook keyboard

 

Typing is my stock-in-trade. I get through thousands of words every day. Some years I hit half-a-million words. And I’ve been a touch-typist since manual typewriter days.

So I know about keyboards. I also know about repetitive strain injuries and keyboard productivity.

Which is why I’m curious about comments criticising the MacBook keyboard. After two weeks and maybe 10,000 words I can’t see anything wrong here. I like the keyboard and had no problems with it.

Keyboard sits at the heart of the MacBook

Apple says the company’s designers made the keyboard first, then built everything else around it. That rings true with me.

The keyboard is thinner and flatter than most laptop keyboards. You can see that when you open the computer’s lid.

The keys glow, each one backlit by its own LED. Each key is larger than on the MacBook Air and there is less space between keys.

There’s a new key mechanism. Keys travel less than on other keyboards. I’ve read reports of people struggling with this, but I haven’t noticed anything odd. Perhaps I’m an insensitive brute and lack refinement.

The other reported negative is that some keys have changed shape.

I have a minor problem finding the right keys when I touch type. That’s normal when using an unfamiliar keyboard. There are times when my muscle memory is still hunting for the MacBook Air key positions. That will change with practice. Or maybe not, the review MacBook will go back to Apple soon.

If my typing speed has slowed, it’s not noticeable. There doesn’t seem to be a productivity slow-down, in fact, there may even be an improvement.

Force Touch Trackpad

Force TouchUntil now I thought the MacBook Air had the best trackpad in the business. The MacBook’s Force Touch Trackpad is better.

Force Touch detects how much pressure you put on the trackpad. It comes with a Taptic Engine which feels like you are clicking a button, although that’s not what’s happening.

Being pressure sensitive means the trackpad can do new things. Press a little to select something, press a lot on, say, a word to get a dictionary definition or a Wikipedia entry.

This is tricky at first, knowing how hard to press to get the result you want. After a day it’s second nature. Now I’m doing the deep-press thing on my MacBook Air and wondering why I’m not getting the Force Touch functions.

Retina display

MacBook Screen

Apple’s Retina display is not new. I’ve used it on iPhones and iPads, seen it on MacBook Pros, but had never used it in action for real work on a computer before.

What surprised me, is the higher resolution changed the way I use a laptop. On my MacBook Air I keep most apps and documents in full-screen mode and alt-key between screens.

The MacBook’s higher resolution makes it makes easier to have many windows open on the small screen at the same time. That’s not something I’d expect from having more pixels to play with, I’ve no idea why it works this way, but it does.

A single USB-C port

If one thing has people agitated about the MacBook it is Apple’s decision to drop traditional connectors. Instead there’s a single USB-C port which is also used to charge the computer [4].

The USB-C port is better and more versatile than any port that has gone before, but there’s just one. You can buy port adaptors to connect your old devices, but Apple expects you to spend most of your time connecting by wireless.

This sort of works for me. I have a backup NAS drive on my network that connects by Wi-Fi. I also have a Wi-Fi Wireless drive from Seagate. My third drive uses USB 3. That’s either going to be redundant or I need an adaptor. For now I’ll choose the former approach.

Where this gets tricky is with my iPhone and iPad. Both can use wireless to connect to the MacBook, but there are times when a physical connection is better. It’s a bridge I’ll need to cross when I get there.

My only disappointment with USB-C is that it isn’t a Magsafe plug. I like the idea of my computer not crashing to the floor if someone trips on the power cable[5].

Reasons NOT to buy

As I’ve already said, this isn’t the laptop for everyone. Not by a long way.

Jack Schofield sums up the arguments against buying a MacBook in a single tweet:

His points make sense when we’re talking about a general user.

Slow is a killer for many. If you need computer power this is not the laptop for you. It will struggle with Photoshop, with video editing, with any media production. It won’t cope with a lot of games. You can’t keep umpteen apps or browser tabs open.

Poor keyboard overstates the case in my experience, although you may feel otherwise. I typed this post on the MacBook. Sure one of those big, full-travel mechanical IBM keyboards would be better, but this is a laptop tuned for mobility. If you need more keyboard, go elsewhere.

Lack of ports (so you need adapters) could be a worry. I’ve had the computer two weeks and so far haven’t felt the need to connect anything. Over time I suspect this problem will be like a lack of floppy drive or lack of optical drive, which people struggled with for a while.

Look elsewhere

Apple is ahead of the pack. Presumably other PC makers will soon make computers with fewer ports. If that doesn’t suit the way you work, look elsewhere, the MacBook isn’t for you.

Twice the price of PCs with better specs in New Zealand that would be more like 40 percent more than PCs with better specs.

Even so, there’s no question with prices starting at NZ$2000, the MacBook is expensive. Whether it is good value depends on what you want from a computer.

Better specs is in the eye of the beholder. If small and light top your list then the MacBook has better specs and the premium is worth paying.

Is this the Apple Laptop to buy?

Maybe. It depends on your needs. If you travel a lot, don’t need to plug stuff into the device and don’t need a powerful processor, it will suit you. Laptops don’t come more mobile than this.

If a high-resolution display is important, it makes sense.

If you were considering dropping the laptop altogether and moving to a tablet plus keyboard combination, this would be a sensible alternative.

Otherwise, stick with the MacBook Air or Pro.

I’d choose the MacBook if my work involved spending less time sitting at my home desk. It would be a great choice for a journalist who moves around a lot.

For now, the MacBook Air is a better choice for my work.


  1. If you’ve ever taken a portable typewriter on a plane, you’ll understand why.  ↩
  2. On the other hand saving 450 g gives a handy margin when dealing with Air New Zealand’s seven-kilogram carry-on baggage allowance.  ↩
  3. It is that light.  ↩
  4. There’s also a headphone jack, that often gets overlooked in the excitement.  ↩
  5. Not that this has ever happened.  ↩

Microsoft Word 2016 for Mac after a month

Microsoft took five years to update Mac: Office 2011.

Mac Office:2011 was almost a generation behind the Windows version of Office at launch. It didn’t just look out-of-date, it was missing functionality.

At best Microsoft was paying lip-service to Mac users. It left a vacuum for others to fill. This includes Apple with its iWorks suite.

Office for Mac 2016 beta

Judging by the Office for Mac 2016 beta, that’s changed. I’ve used it for a month and I’m impressed.

Although I’ve looked briefly at the new versions of Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, from this point on I’m going to stop writing about Office and focus on Word 2016.

The changes in the new version are obvious from the software loads. Mac Word:2011 had a messy, confusing user interface. It left the Mac user making weird cognitive jumps between the familiar OS X world and a faux Windows interface.

Beyond ugly

It was ugly to look at. This isn’t simply about aesthetics. Ugly can be productive. Mac Word:2011 was ugly in a distracting way. I found I needed to jump through hoops to get as much of the user interface out of my face before I could think about putting words on the screen.

Microsoft Word 2016 for Mac is clean. It isn’t minimal, but the screen furniture left behind stays out of your way.

There are still two menus. The OS X menu you get with almost every Mac app shows at the top of the screen, while a second menu sits just about the Windows-style ribbon interface.

The key is that you no longer find yourself jumping between two disconnected worlds. Microsoft Word for Mac actually feels like a Mac app, not a Windows app recompiled and shoe-horned into a different OS.

OneDrive integration

Microsoft has made huge strides with its cloud services in recent years. OneDrive is now central to Office.

The new OS X version of Word integrates nicely with OneDrive.

Most Mac apps run into a problem when saving documents. The save dialogue provides a list of folders, but it only includes favourites and recent. That’s difficult if you need to store a document somewhere that’s neither a favorite nor a recent folder.

The new Word save dialogue has the usual OS X elements, but adds an online button and allows you to navigate through your OneDrive folders to find the best resting place for your document.

Microsoft has also made it easier to share documents and to collaborate with others. Microsoft collaboration isn’t real-time like Google Docs where you can watch others edit. Instead you get notifications of changes after saving a document.

This may work for some users, but I find the Google approach works best when, say, a handful of editors are racing to get a story online.

A big step forward

Microsoft Word 2016 for Mac is still a beta. That can mean risky. So far I haven’t seen any instability or serious bugs. Nor have I seen any obvious performance problems. The code runs fine on my MacBook Air.

Word 2016 this feature will be available soon

There are missing features. I often see a “this feature will be available soon” message.

Microsoft has made huge strides in the last year or so to focus on building great apps. The iOS Office apps are first rate. Microsoft’s web Office apps are a great way to get out of a hole when you only have a browser to hand.

Lenmar ChugPlug MacBook power back-up

Lenmar ChugPlug MacBook AirWhen Apple updated the MacBook Air in 2013 it went for extended battery life in a big way. At a pinch you can get 12 hours from a single charge.

While that’s enough power to get through a long working day, there are always times when you need more. That’s the thinking behind Lenmar’s ChugPlug.

The NZ$180 ChugPlug is an integrated backup battery that gives you up to four hours more battery life.

Integrated back-up power

By integrated I mean when charging it slips smoothly into the power chain between a wall plug and the MacBook’s Magsafe power socket. Each end slots directly into the pull-apart power unit. Lights tell you when there is a full charge.

Later, when you’re out with your MacBook Air away from power outlets, it connects to the computer to boost the battery.

In round numbers it delivers about one-third of a full charge to the computer — that’s about four hours in normal use.

There are lights to tell you if it is fully charged and a button turns it off to save power when the back-up battery isn’t in use.

ChugPlug not plug-ugly

ChugPlug is nicely designed. It doesn’t look out-of-place with the official Apple hardware. I’ve seen back-up batteries that look like they belong in a steampunk laboratory.

It’s a handy and elegant way of solving a problem facing mobile MacBook Air owners.

I didn’t see any problems with the ChugPlug, in testing it worked exactly as promised.

I took the ChugPlug on a recent overnight trip to Sydney. On the way the airport security staff gave it a double take — clearly they hadn’t seen one before — another passenger asked me where I got it, so chalk that up as an indication there’s a real demand for this kind of hardware.

Carry that load

The only real drawback is the ChugPlug is big and heavy compared to the Air. It weighs 500g, my 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 1.35kg, so it adds about 40 percent to the weight.

It measures 225 x 72 x 27 mm. I often carry my laptop in a lightweight leather case. The ChugPlug is too big for this bag and its a challenge for my leather satchel. I ended up needing to use the backpack when taking it out for the day.

ChugPlug is simple idea, well-executed. If your work or lifestyle means you spend long stretches of time away from power sockets, the size and weight is a small price to pay for the convenience of more power.