TidBITS#1065/28-Feb-2011

In advance of this week’s media event, Apple has unveiled new MacBook Pro models and a developer preview of Mac OS X Lion. Adam first looks at the new features Apple revealed for Lion, and then turns his attention to the new MacBook Pro models, focusing on the Thunderbolt I/O technology, the new quad-core Intel CPUs, and the high-resolution FaceTime camera. Glenn Fleishman follows up with additional details about Thunderbolt and Lion. In other news, Amazon added free video streaming to the Amazon Prime membership program, we released updates to our iPad and iPhone Basics ebooks, and Adam suggests that it doesn’t make sense for Steve Jobs to return to Apple (while still doing whatever he wants behind the scenes). Notable software releases this week include FaceTime 1.0 and, well, not much else.
 
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Apple Reveals More about Mac OS X Lion

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  1 comment

Apple has announced the first developer preview of Mac OS X Lion, still eschewing the expected 10.7 version number but revealing a few more features and sticking to the summer ship date promise. For details on what Apple previously announced about Lion, see “Apple Offers a Glimpse of Mac OS X Lion” (20 October 2010).

In the press release, Apple makes much of the previously announced features, such as Launchpad, Mission Control, full-screen mode, gestures, Auto Save, and the capability for applications to resume where they left off. But at the end of the press release, Apple reveals some previously unknown improvements slated to appear in Lion. They include the following:

Additional features will no doubt start to come to light as developers get their hands on the Lion preview. Interestingly, the preview is available to Mac Developer Program members through the Mac App Store, raising the possibility that perhaps we’ll all end up getting the release version of Lion through the Mac App Store as well.

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Apple Updates MacBook Pro Line with Thunderbolt

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

Leaving presumably bigger news—iPad 2 and iOS 5?—for the March 2nd media event, Apple has freshened up its MacBook Pro family of laptops, utilizing next-generation CPUs and graphics processing, the extraordinarily high-speed Thunderbolt peripheral networking technology, and a new FaceTime HD video camera. The aluminum unibody construction of the 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch MacBook Pros remains the same.

From a Light (Peak) Blue Sky -- The marquee item in the new MacBook Pros is Thunderbolt, the first appearance in shipping hardware of an Intel I/O technology code-named Light Peak. Thunderbolt connects both to high-resolution displays and high-performance data devices using the same interface. (Light Peak was originally supposed to use fiber-optic cable; this first release relies on copper wire, but has the same planned speed.)

Performance-wise, Thunderbolt zooms at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) in both directions, a huge improvement over the 480 megabits per second (Mbps) of USB 2.0 and 800 Mbps of FireWire 800, and a significant jump past USB 3.0’s 4.8 Gbps. (USB 3.0 is just hitting the market in real quantities now.) Real-world performance will certainly be slower, as it is with USB 2.0; testing will be necessary to see how close to the theoretical 10 Gbps devices can get.

Apple says that Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express, the technology that links the high-performance components in a Mac, and DisplayPort, the display technology Apple has been using in the form of Mini DisplayPort jacks in recent Macs. In fact, the new Thunderbolt port appears identical to Mini DisplayPort. You can connect existing Mini DisplayPort-capable monitors directly to the Thunderbolt port; monitors using DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, and VGA can be connected using existing Mini DisplayPort adapters, too.


A single Thunderbolt jack can accept a daisy-chain of up to six high-speed data devices or five data devices and a display, all without the need for a hub. Apple’s wording is quite specific, though: you cannot daisy-chain multiple displays. As a proponent of multiple-display Macs, I think that’s too bad, but perhaps a future version of Thunderbolt will support multiple displays, or Apple will provide multiple Thunderbolt ports to allow this option. (The Thunderbolt spec does support connecting up to two displays, though the MacBook Pro configuration handles the laptop’s internal display and one external monitor; see “Secrets of Thunderbolt and Lion,” 27 February 2011.)

Apple’s press release says, “Freely available for implementation on systems, cables and devices, Thunderbolt technology is expected to be widely adopted as a new standard for high performance I/O.” That says you can expect to see Thunderbolt becoming standard across all new Mac models, and peripheral manufacturers will undoubtedly start releasing Thunderbolt-compatible versions of their devices shortly. Because Intel developed this technology, the firm will push heavily for its inclusion in PCs as well.

That said, apart from replacing the Mini DisplayPort jack on the MacBook Pros, Thunderbolt is purely an add-on at the moment, given that there are just a handful of storage devices that support it.

For compatibility with shipping peripherals, all three MacBook Pro models retain their FireWire 800 ports and USB 2.0 ports (two in the 13-inch and 15-inch models, three in the 17-inch). The 13-inch and 15-inch models also feature SDXC memory card slots (Secure Digital Extended Capacity, an update to the previous SD card slots), and the 17-inch model retains its ExpressCard/34 slot.

Dan Frakes and Dan Moren at Macworld have published additional information about Thunderbolt; check out their article for more useful information.

CPU and GPU -- With the new MacBook Pro models, Apple increases the performance gap from the MacBook and MacBook Air. The 13-inch MacBook Pro offers a choice of either a dual-core 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 or a dual-core 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7. And where the change really happens is with the 15-inch and 17-inch models, which feature quad-core Intel Core i7 processors running at 2.0 GHz (15-inch only), 2.2 GHz, or 2.3 GHz.

Also notable from a performance standpoint is the fact that the 2.0 and 2.2 GHz CPUs come with 6 MB of shared L3 cache, and the top-of-the-line 2.3 GHz processor has 8 MB of shared L3 cache.

All the processors support the Turbo Boost 2.0 technology that automatically increases the speed of the active cores to as much as 3.4 GHz when processor-intensive applications demand the power. Plus, Hyper-Threading is now standard on all the MacBook Pro models, enabling two threads to run simultaneously on each core, making Mac OS X think that there are eight cores on a quad-core processor and four on a dual-core processor and enabling tasks to be spread out more evenly.

In terms of graphics, the 13-inch MacBook Pro relies on integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 384 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory. As with previous models, the 15-inch and 17-inch units also support the same integrated graphics for reducing power consumption in normal conditions.

But the two larger MacBook Pros also feature discrete graphics processors for high-performance graphics needs. The 15-inch model comes with either the AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor with 256 MB of GDDR5 memory in the 2.0 GHz CPU configuration, or the AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor with 1 GB of GDDR5 memory in the 2.2 GHz CPU configuration. The 17-inch model always relies on the latter. (The automatic switching scheme between integrated and discrete graphics of the most recent MacBook Pros remains the same; for a free utility that manages switching for you, see “Improve MacBook Pro Battery Life with gfxCardStatus,” 21 February 2011.)

FaceTime HD Camera -- With these new MacBook Pros, Apple is further emphasizing FaceTime, the video-calling technology that debuted with the iPhone 4 in June 2010 and came to the Mac in the form of a beta FaceTime application four months later (see “At Apple Event, Mac OS X Gets FaceTime,” 20 October 2010).

To encourage additional use of FaceTime, Apple has significantly improved the video camera in the new MacBook Pros, changing its name from iSight to FaceTime HD. (Apple started this terminology change with other Macs released in late 2010.) The FaceTime HD camera offers three times the resolution of the iSight, supporting high-definition (720p) calls between MacBook Pros and standard resolution calls with older Macs, the iPhone 4, and the fourth-generation iPod touch. (If the next revision to the iPad includes a video camera, as expected by many, it will be interesting to see if it’s a FaceTime HD camera or an older iSight camera.)

By the way, FaceTime HD requires the advanced graphics processing in a new MacBook Pro along with the higher-resolution camera. The new laptops have built-in hardware decoding for FaceTime HD, DVD playback, and iTunes playback.

The new MacBook Pros come bundled with a free copy of FaceTime 1.0. Apple simultaneously released the $0.99 application in the Mac App Store for other Macs. (For details about what has changed from the beta, see our TidBITS Watchlist item, “FaceTime 1.0,” 24 February 2011.)

Although we still haven’t seen FaceTime get much more than “Hey, look at this!” demonstration use among our family, friends, and colleagues, it’s possible that by making it ubiquitous across all Apple devices, FaceTime will eventually take off as did still image cameras in mobile phones. Initially, they were laughably bad and nearly universally ignored, but once their quality improved sufficiently and they become commonplace, people started using them heavily.

Other Features -- The standard features you’d expect to see in a MacBook Pro remain, well, standard, including Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR on the communications side. The new models feature stereo speakers plus subwoofers, an omnidirectional microphone, digital/analog audio in and out ports (combined in the 13-inch model), and support for the Apple iPhone headset with microphone and volume controls.

Although the batteries and MagSafe chargers haven’t changed at all, it’s hard to tell how battery life will compare with the previous models, since Apple has changed how they estimate battery life from the previous generation of MacBook Pros, switching from a “wireless productivity” usage pattern to a “wireless web” pattern that results in lower battery estimates. For instance, the 13-inch model drops from “up to 10 hours of wireless productivity” to “up to 7 hours of wireless web.”

The 13-inch model offers 320 GB, 500 GB, and 750 GB hard disk options, while the other two give you the choice of either 500 GB or 750 GB. With any model you can instead opt for a solid-state drive in 128 GB, 256 GB, or 512 GB sizes, and all three include an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive.

All models come with 4 GB of RAM, with the option to increase that to 8 GB for $200. Get the extra RAM; you won’t regret it.

The 13-inch model offers only a 1280-by-800-pixel LED-backlit glossy display. However, with the 15-inch model, you can choose between a 1440-by-900 LED-backlit glossy display, or pay $100 more for a 1680-by-1050 glossy display. The higher-resolution display also comes in an anti-glare option for $150 more than the standard display. The 17-inch model’s 1920-by-1200 LED-backlit display is also available in an antiglare version for $50 more.

Prices of the low-end 13-inch model start at $1,199; the 15-inch model starts at $1,799; and the 17-inch model starts at $2,499. Trick a 17-inch MacBook Pro out fully, though, and you’ll hit $4,099. All models are available immediately.

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Secrets of Thunderbolt and Lion

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>
  54 comments

You can read a thousand articles about the new Thunderbolt input/output technology in Apple’s latest revision to MacBook Pro laptops, and the new revelations from Apple about Mac OS X Lion. But via Twitter, I discovered that many people are unaware of or concerned about certain features close to their hearts. From online sources and a briefing with Apple last week, I can provide some reassurance and additional details.


These seem to be among the least well understood and documented items about Thunderbolt and Lion.

Thunderbolt’s Blasts -- Thunderbolt is a fascinating mix of old and new:

Lion’s Roars -- We have to keep mum on many Lion details, as many of us at TidBITS are enrolled in the developer program that gives us access to non-public preview details. However, on the public side:

Keep the questions coming.

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Updated Ebooks for New Users: iPhone and iPad Basics

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  2 comments

My father just bought a Verizon iPhone 4; AT&T reception at my parents’ house was weak at best, so an iPhone wasn’t an option until now. While I was helping him with his first few calls, and with a FaceTime video call, he complained, “And of course there’s no manual.”

It’s a little depressing that even my own father wasn’t aware that we have exactly the book he needs: “Take Control of iPhone Basics, iOS 4 Edition.” I sent him a copy in email right away; he said it has answered a bunch of his early questions.

Clearly we need to do a better job with getting the word out about this book, and about Tonya’s “Take Control of iPad Basics,” since we hear fairly frequently from people with a friend or family member who has just bought an iPhone or iPad; they’re writing to suggest that we publish a Take Control book specifically for seniors, or at least for people who have little computer or iOS experience.

We’ve recently updated both books, so if you know someone who’s new to the iPhone or iPad and is asking you questions, it would be great if you could tell them about the books.

Karen Anderson’s “Take Control of iPhone Basics, iOS 4 Edition” helps people decide which iPhone to buy, discusses common accessories, and explains basic setup tasks. It teaches readers about power management, connecting to the Internet, setting up a Bluetooth headset, transferring songs and other media from a computer, buying apps, syncing calendar events and contacts, and more. The just-released 1.1 update incorporates mention of the Verizon iPhone 4; touches on AirPrint and AirPlay; updates the discussion of the iBooks app; and explains how to buy, make, and use ringtones.

Tonya Engst’s “Take Control of iPad Basics” is similar, not surprisingly, helping readers pick an iPad and accessories, understand the iPad’s buttons and ports, learn multi-touch gestures, download apps, sync data and media, find their stuff, organize apps into folders, and more. It carefully describes the iPad’s interface for complete novices and also has a neat section that teaches how to demo the iPad to friends. The latest 1.2 version was updated for iOS 4, and it generally incorporates the changes in the iPad world since the book’s initial release in June 2010.

Both books are available in three formats for reading on different devices. Our native PDF format—which is what you get when you purchase—is ideal for reading on a computer, and it’s also great on the iPad. The EPUB format—available after purchase from the ebook’s Check for Updates page and your account—is best for reading on the iPhone, iPod touch, and other small-screen e-readers. And the Mobipocket version, also available after purchase, can be loaded onto Amazon’s Kindle devices.

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Amazon Offers Free Video Streaming for Prime Members

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  4 comments

The competitive landscape for watching movies and TV shows via the Internet has just shifted again, with Amazon announcing the addition of free video streaming of some 5,000 movies and TV shows to the Amazon Prime membership program. Videos from Amazon Instant Video are playable on Macs and PCs, along with some set-top boxes. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the service is limited to the United States.

Amazon says that there are nearly 200 models of “Internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes” that are compatible with Amazon Instant Video, many of which you won’t have heard of, though the list also includes the popular Roku. Amazon Instant Video offers more than 90,000 commercial-free movies and TV shows to rent or buy, so the 5,000 videos available to Amazon Prime members are a relatively small proportion of the whole.

Previously, Amazon Prime focused on shipping, offering members free two-day shipping for eligible Amazon orders and $3.99 one-day shipping, in exchange for a $79 annual fee. Tonya and I have been Amazon Prime members for several years now, after we tried it for a free month offer before Christmas and forgot to cancel in time. But we found the convenience of faster shipping compelling, especially during those years when Tristan was often being invited to birthday parties on short notice: being able to order from Amazon Prime saved us from what could turn into an afternoon of shopping.

Although Netflix has many more videos available for streaming than Amazon (perhaps as many as 11,542, according to instantwatcher.com; thanks to Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post for the link), a streaming-only Netflix account costs $7.99 per month, or $95.88 per year. And adding one physical DVD at a time increases the Netflix bill to $9.99 per month, or $119.88 per year. Given that millions of people have found Amazon Prime’s $79 annual fee worthwhile without the streaming, it seems safe to say that plenty of people won’t feel the need to pay Netflix as well. We have no plans to drop our Netflix membership, but we’ll be checking to see how Amazon’s free selection improves.

Even more in question is Apple’s iTunes Store model, which relies on à la carte rentals and purchases. There have been numerous rumors about Apple coming out with some sort of subscription service for streaming music and video; now might be a good time for Apple to announce such a service as more people move toward streaming in favor of rentals or purchases.

Of course, the real question is if Amazon Prime members will be able to find videos they want to watch. Those who watch a lot of TV and see most movies will likely be disappointed in the selection (not that Netflix is hugely better), but those of us who spend relatively little time watching TV and movies probably will have no trouble finding worthwhile content when we do wish to get in touch with our inner couch potatoes. That’s where iTunes and Hulu and other video services that provide new TV shows and movies will continue to attract customers; freshness can be important.

In our quick testing, the video played fine in a familiar Flash-based player (sorry, iOS device users, though it’s conceivable Amazon could come up with an app, along the lines of the Netflix app). Some videos are available in HD.

So, if you’re already an Amazon Prime member, check out the Prime-eligible movies and TV shows in Amazon Instant Video. And if you’re not already a Prime member, it might be worth adding up your shipping fees over the last year to see if it would be worth joining.

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Why Steve Jobs Shouldn’t Return to Apple

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  8 comments

Since Steve Jobs announced that he was taking a medical leave of absence from Apple (see “Steve Jobs to Take Medical Leave of Absence,” 17 January 2011), while still remaining CEO, he has been seen at dinner with President Obama and other tech industry luminaries, and there’s been a fuss with shareholder groups demanding a public succession plan (unsurprisingly for a company run by adults, Apple says it has already implemented succession planning).

That reminded me of a conversation I had with former Apple evangelist Tim Holmes at Macworld 2011. Ever the one to make brash predictions, Tim said, “Steve will never come back to Apple.” I hadn’t thought about it that far into the future, but as Tim explained himself, I had to agree with his reasoning.

This isn’t a completely new idea. Farhad Manjoo wrote over at Slate about why Jobs won’t return to Apple. But while I think Farhad’s conclusion is correct, I disagree with his reasoning, which is that Jobs won’t return because “What more is there left for Jobs to do?” Jobs isn’t driven by money or concrete goals; he wants to change the world, and people who want to change the world don’t stop wanting that just because they’ve achieved certain benchmarks. The man is not going to sit around for the rest of his life because Apple created the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and iTunes Store under his leadership. I’m sure he’s proud of those achievements, but if I’ve learned anything from watching Steve Jobs all these years, it’s that he always has more that he’d like to accomplish.

No, the reason Jobs won’t, and more to my point, shouldn’t officially return to Apple is that it’s in Apple’s interest to downplay his eventual departure as much as possible, given the widespread perception that he is essential to the company’s performance.

Apple’s stock price was hurt by the announcement of his medical leave of absence, but within a few weeks had recovered. Viewed over a longer period of time, that dip is barely even visible. The recovery was bolstered by another record-breaking financial report (see “Apple Reports Stellar Q1 2011 Financial Results,” 18 January 2011). The timing of these announcements was carefully orchestrated, I’m sure, and it shows that Apple handled the situation well, reassuring a skittish market that the company would continue to operate without missing a beat.



So why should Apple risk going through such an announcement again when this one was handled so well? Barring a major corporate crisis that would require his talent for public communication on an ongoing basis, Apple has little to gain from Jobs officially returning from his leave of absence. In one possible future, Jobs would participate less and less in Apple’s public events, to the point where Apple could uneventfully announce a CEO transition, with Jobs remaining chairman of the board, and some time later announce that he would be stepping down as chairman while remaining a special consultant.

It’s important to realize that none of this has to affect Jobs’s actual engagement with product development and overall direction. That Jobs “will never come back to Apple,” as Tim suggested, doesn’t mean that he won’t appear on the Apple campus or even, health permitting, work 10-hour days. All it means is that the open-ended medical leave of absence can remain in place as long as it needs to, with Jobs acting as CEO in press releases and behind the scenes as necessary.

The goal is for Wall Street to see that Jobs is not the linchpin to Apple’s success. That, of course, assumes that Apple will continue to succeed without him involved in day-to-day operations, but his previous absences have shown that the experienced Apple executive team can run the company effectively.

In the end, it’s impossible to say for sure that Steve Jobs won’t officially return to Apple, even if I don’t see that happening. But I can say that Apple’s solid handling of the medical leave of absence indicates that he should continue to minimize his official duties so Apple can gracefully transition to a new CEO and Chairman when that becomes necessary.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 28 February 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

FaceTime 1.0 -- Apple’s FaceTime beta is dead. Long live FaceTime 1.0! Apple’s video chat software for communicating between Macs and video-capable iOS devices has hit version 1.0 and entered the Mac App Store. FaceTime for Mac now supports HD video calls. Supported Intel-based Macs can receive HD video from HD-sending devices, and the newest MacBook Pros can send HD video from their new FaceTime cameras. Also new is the much-appreciated capability to edit and add FaceTime contacts without needing to launch Address Book. FaceTime is available for free with the new MacBook Pros, but costs everyone else 99¢. ($0.99 new, 16.8 MB)

Read/post comments about FaceTime 1.0.

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ExtraBITS for 28 February 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Steve Jobs turned 56 last week, Adam was interviewed about the iPad and publishing, and a number of developers have banded together to raise money to help the Christchurch earthquake relief efforts. Read on!

New Zealand App Developers Donate to Quake Relief -- Kudos to the Mac and iOS developers who are donating a week’s worth of proceeds to aid in the Christchurch earthquake relief efforts. Through 5 March 2011, 100 percent of proceeds from all listed apps will go directly to the New Zealand Red Cross. And if you’re a developer, scroll to the bottom of the page to see how to join the effort.

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Adam Engst Interviewed about iPad and Publishing -- TidBITS contributor Eolake Stobblehouse interviewed Adam to talk about publishing the Take Control ebooks, and specifically how the iPad has changed reading and buying habits in less than a year of being on the market.

Read/post comments

Wish Steve Jobs a Happy Birthday -- Steve Jobs turned 56 last week, on 24 February 2011, and a wonderfully sweet Happy Birthday Steve Jobs site popped up to give everyone a chance to express their good wishes. It isn’t accepting new entries now, but over 20,000 people contributed thoughts.

Read/post comments

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