In this far-reaching issue of TidBITS, we cover a pair of announcements: Amazon’s long-rumored Fire Phone, with a 3D interface and streamlined shopping, and Apple’s new entry-level iMac, which trades significant power for its lower price. The second- and third-generation Apple TVs don’t support iTunes Extras, but Agen Schmitz shows you how to watch them on Apple’s streaming set-top boxes. Yahoo and AOL have taken drastic new measures to enhance security, but at the cost of breaking mailing lists and email forwarding — Adam Engst explains the highly technical details. In Take Control news this week, Charles Edge looks at enabling file sharing in “Take Control of OS X Server,” and we’re particularly pleased to publish Glenn Fleishman’s new “Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network” to answer all your wireless networking questions. Don’t miss the 70% discount on Live Interior 3D in this week’s DealBITS drawing, and if you’re fluent in Dutch or Japanese, we could use some translation help! Finally, in FunBITS, Josh Centers strolls down memory lane with SimCity 4: Deluxe Edition for Mac, an updated edition of the classic city simulator for modern Macs. Notable software releases this week include LaunchBar 6.0.1, Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.5, OmniFocus 2.0.1, and Typinator 6.0.
Apple Introduces Entry-Level iMac for $1,099
Apple has announced a new entry-level iMac starting at $1,099, which is $200 cheaper than the existing 21.5-inch iMac model. This new iMac features a 21.5-inch screen, a 1.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (up to 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost) with 3 MB shared L3 cache, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, and Intel HD Graphics 5000. It also sports two Thunderbolt ports, four USB 3.0 ports, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The RAM is not expandable, and the only build-to-order options are a 1 TB hard drive ($50), a 1 TB Fusion Drive ($250), and 256 GB of flash storage ($250).
In terms of tech specs, the new iMac is a big step down from the $1,299 21.5-inch iMac, which instead offers a significantly faster 2.7 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor (up to 3.2 GHz with Turbo Boost) with 4 MB L3 cache, 8 GB of RAM (expandable to 16 GB), a 1 TB hard drive, and Intel Iris Pro graphics. The $1,299 model also offers a 1 TB Fusion Drive ($200), 256 GB of flash storage ($200), and 512 GB of flash storage ($500) as build-to-order options.
If you can spare the extra $200, the $1,299 model is a distinctly better machine, though it’s nice to see Apple making Macs more affordable for situations where performance may not important, such as kiosks and public access computers.
Amazon Announces Fire Phone to Heat Up Mobile
The long-rumored Amazon phone is closing in on reality. Dubbed the Amazon Fire Phone, it will be available on 25 July 2014, but is available for pre-order now. It is exclusive to AT&T, and the 32 GB model costs $199 with a two-year contract, or $649 without a contract. There is also a 64 GB version available for $100 more.
As always, Amazon is offering powerful incentives. In this case, the Fire Phone comes with a free year of Amazon Prime, which grants free two-day shipping on thousands of items, plus free streaming of select TV shows and movies, free book borrowing, and ad-free streaming of over a million songs (a $99 value). In addition, the Fire Phone offers unlimited cloud storage for every photo you take with the device (Amazon’s standard Cloud Drive pricing is $0.50 per gigabyte per year).
The technical specs are impressive: a 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2 GB of RAM, an Adreno 330 graphics processor, a 4.7-inch LCD with 1280-by-720 resolution, a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera with a f/2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization, a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera, stereo speakers, and a battery that offers up to 22 hours of talk time or 11 hours of video playback. As with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, it runs Fire OS, a customized version of the Android operating system.
Both the front- and rear-facing cameras capture 1080p video at 30 frames per second. The cameras also feature intelligent HDR, which suggests when to turn the feature on. There are also settings to take panoramic shots, burst shots, and even a lenticular mode to take 3D pictures.
The Fire Phone’s flashiest feature is Dynamic Perspective, which takes advantage of four front-facing sensors to track your face, making it possible to display everything in 3D. You’ll be able to tilt and swivel the phone to access menus, peek around maps, and access other features. Amazon claims that you will be able to scroll through Web pages and other content without touching the screen.
Another impressive (or depressing, if you worry about local retailers) feature is Firefly, which uses the camera to identify bar codes, movies, TV shows, and music, and lets you purchase associated items instantly from Amazon. Firefly is activated by a dedicated physical button on the Fire Phone, making shopping with Amazon even easier than it was with separate Amazon apps before — publishing veteran Joe Wikert believes Firefly will become increasingly important to the content industry. In addition to shopping, Firefly also recognizes email addresses, Web URLs, and phone numbers, and lets you take a variety of actions based on the
Novices, or anyone who has trouble with technology, will appreciate Mayday, which was originally seen in the Kindle Fire HDX tablet. Press the Mayday button and in less than 15 seconds, you’ll be in a video chat with an Amazon expert who can show you how to use the phone via remote control. Anecdotal reviews have given high marks to Mayday on the Kindle Fire HDX.
The Fire Phone also includes a set of earbuds, which look similar to Apple’s EarPods, including an inline remote. But Amazon’s earbuds are unique in that they feature a flat, tangle-resistant cable, and the buds themselves are magnetic, so they stick together while stashed away, also preventing tangles.
Amazon’s Fire Phone boasts some notable technology and will likely benefit from Amazon’s promotion, but it doesn’t break significant new ground. Like the Kindle and the Fire TV, one of the Fire Phone’s primary design objectives is to make it ever easier to buy content and products from Amazon (for our review of the Fire TV, see “Fire Watch with Me: Amazon Fire TV vs. Apple TV,” 13 May 2014).
This shouldn’t be surprising: Amazon’s goal is to enmesh you in their purchasing ecosystem, just as Apple’s is to entice you to spend all your time and money on Apple products and associated content, and Google’s is to encourage usage of services that will increase views of highly targeted ads.
“Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network” Answers Wi-Fi Questions
Some things improve with age, and while old Wi-Fi networks don’t fall into that category, Glenn Fleishman’s documentation of everything related to Apple’s AirPort base stations and Wi-Fi networking continues to get better. Over the past decade, Glenn’s “Take Control of Your AirPort Network” books have consistently ranked among our most popular titles for a good reason — they’re the essential resources that the Apple community relies on for help with Wi-Fi networks.
To keep up with Apple’s changes, we’ve just published “Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network,” a new title that focuses on the latest tools and technologies for wireless networking, such as AirPort Utility 6 for Mac and AirPort Utility for iOS, plus Apple’s 802.11ac base stations. In this 196-page book, Glenn helps you swap in new gear for better performance, extend your network’s range with multiple base stations, add USB drives and shared printers, enable security options and guest networking, maximize throughput, and solve pesky problems. It costs $20 and is available for immediate download.
“Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network” will show you how to do the following, among much else:
- Efficiently swap a new base station in place of an old one.
- Extend your network’s range by connecting base stations with Ethernet and/or Wi-Fi.
- Easily put visitors on the Internet with a guest network.
- Print wirelessly to a Wi-Fi- or USB-connected printer.
- Attach a USB drive to a Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme, and set up user access.
- Back up to a Time Capsule, and work with its internal drive.
- Pipe music through an AirPort Express-connected stereo.
- Discover what the icon on your Wi-Fi menu means.
- Find out what the colored light on your base station is trying to tell you.
- Avoid annoying interference problems.
- Deal with a base station that can’t be found on the network.
Why the new title? Now that Apple is making 802.11ac base stations, we needed a new title that didn’t explicitly reference 802.11n, hence “Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network” replacing the previous “Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network.” We didn’t call it “Take Control of Your AirPort Network” because Glenn’s first Wi-Fi networking ebook used that title back in 2004, and because Apple seems to be deprecating the AirPort name within OS X and iOS.
DealBITS Discount: Save 70% on Live Interior 3D
Congratulations to Paul Brown at gmail.com, Bruce Morris at telusplanet.net, Eric Smith at verizon.net, Greg Searle at optusnet.com.au, Edwin Bantilan at aol.com, John Ingham at wildblue.net, jscramton at Excite, Marc Rhodes at mac.com, Terry McCain at tds.net, and Egil Stenseth at gmail.com, whose entries were chosen randomly in the last DealBITS drawing and who each received a copy of BeLight Software’s interior design app Live Interior 3D, worth $49.99. We presume they will all be reorganizing their living rooms this week.
Don’t fret if you want to test virtual furniture placements (or contemplate what it would be like to take out that wall between the kitchen and the dining room), since BeLight Software is offering all TidBITS readers a whopping 70 percent discount off Live Interior 3D through 26 June 2014. To take advantage of this offer, which drops the $49.99 list price to $14.99, use this link to purchase from the Mac App Store. Thanks to the 331 people who entered this DealBITS drawing, and good luck in future drawings!
Chapter 6 of “Take Control of OS X Server” Now Available
I’ll be honest — one of the reasons we approached Charles Edge about writing “Take Control of OS X Server” was that I wanted to improve our internal file sharing system. We’d been using Mac OS X’s built-in personal file sharing for years, and while it worked, we occasionally ran into irritating permissions problems (where I couldn’t work with a folder Tonya created, for instance, without twiddling permissions on the server drive). In Chapter 6, “File Sharing,” Charles explains how to turn on file sharing, which protocols to enable, and how to customize permissions. It’s not hard, but you want to do it right to avoid exposing sensitive information to the wrong people.
Happily, now that we’ve created a group for our respective network users, shared the external hard drive that contains the necessary files, and assigned appropriate permissions, file sharing just works, with no annoying permissions lockouts.
Well, there is one thing that still doesn’t work well, but it’s unrelated to OS X Server for the moment — what we really want is a coherent method of sharing music ripped from our CD collection so we can each play it from the server without having to waste 54 GB of space on our relatively small SSDs. Michael Cohen and I wrote about this almost four years ago in “In Search of the iTunes Media Server” (14 October 2010) and the situation hasn’t improved at all since then. If Apple could build media serving into a future version of OS X Server, its $19.99 price would become a no-brainer for many of us.
As in the past, we encourage everyone to read Chapter 1, “Introducing OS X Server” and Chapter 2, “Choosing Server Hardware,” to see where the book will be going, but Chapter 3, “Preparation and Installation,” Chapter 4, “Directory Services,” and Chapter 5, “DNS Service,” are available only to TidBITS members. If you have already joined the TidBITS membership program, log in to the TidBITS
site using the email address from which you joined. The full ebook of “Take Control of OS X Server” will be available for purchase by everyone in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats once it’s complete.
Publishing this book in its entirety for TidBITS members as it’s being written is just one of the ways we thank TidBITS members for their support. We hope it encourages those of you who have been reading TidBITS for free for years to help us continue to bring you more of the professionally written and edited articles you’ve become accustomed to each week. For more details on what the membership program means to us, see “Support TidBITS in 2014 via the TidBITS Membership Program” (9 December 2013).
New Dutch and Japanese Translators Wanted!
Many people don’t realize this, but TidBITS is translated each week into both Dutch and Japanese, thanks to the efforts of close-knit groups of volunteer translators who have been working together for years. But as with any volunteer effort, new blood is occasionally necessary, and the coordinators of both translations have asked me to put the word out for new members.
So, if you’re bilingual in English and either Dutch or Japanese (all three are not required, as impressive as that would be!), we can use your help. Both our Dutch and Japanese translation teams are running slightly short-handed and could use a few more volunteers to spread out the effort. In essence, you’d work with the other members of the teams to help translate TidBITS from English into either Dutch or Japanese for the thousands of people who read TidBITS in those languages.
You can read more about what’s involved with both the Dutch translation and the Japanese translation at their respective pages. Thanks for any help you can provide, and note that as a token of our appreciation, translators receive all Take Control ebooks for free.
Solving the iTunes Extras Streaming Conundrum
My family and I love our Apple TV. We cut the cable cord long ago, making the Apple TV is our entertainment hub, with access to Netflix streaming plus the occasional movie rental from the iTunes Store. However, I’ve been loath to buy movies from the iTunes Store due to my biggest frustration with the Apple TV — the inability to stream iTunes Extras from purchased movies.
For those not versed in iTunes Extras (or who may have forgotten about them), these added goodies can include behind-the-scenes documentaries, deleted scenes, movie stills, and more. Many of these bonus features are replicated from a movie’s DVD/Blu-ray release, and the iTunes Extras interface even resembles a disc’s menu scheme.
Despite selling over 20 million Apple TV units and generating over $1 billion in revenue from content (see “Apple Posts Record Q2 2014 Revenues Despite Slipping iPad Sales,” 23 April 2014), Apple hasn’t seen fit to add support for a prominent feature advertised in the iTunes Store to the Apple TV. Instead, the only way to watch iTunes Extras is via iTunes on a Mac (or PC).
I had put iTunes Extras out of my mind, instead purchasing disc versions of movies with intriguing bonus features. But then “The Lego Movie” — the seminal film of my seven-year-old’s young life — showed up in the iTunes Store this week, almost a month ahead of its DVD and Blu-ray distribution, with some delectable iTunes Extras (the “Michelangelo and Lincoln: History Cops” bonus short was just one to pique my curiosity). I was tempted, but was there a solution to the iTunes Extras streaming
A Brief History of iTunes Extras — iTunes Extras debuted in 2009 along with iTunes LP albums, and they were playable on the original silver Apple TV (as noted by Jeff Carlson in “Apple TV 3.0 Adds Focus on Your Content,” 30 October 2009). However, the subsequent releases of the second and third generations of the Apple TV dropped support for iTunes Extras. This was most likely due to the switch away from the hard drive-based first-generation (up to 160 GB) to the streaming-focused second- and third-generation Apple TV models with only 8 GB of flash memory (according to this iFixit teardown).
The AirPlay Workaround — There is one Apple-approved method of streaming video from a Mac to an Apple TV that works decently — AirPlay. Start playing a video in iTunes, then click the AirPlay icon near the top of the iTunes window and select Apple TV from the popover. (You can also make this selection from the AirPlay icon in the play bar.) iTunes acknowledges that it is now sending video to your Apple TV by turning the icon blue and darkening the window with the name of your Apple TV. (This is a strategy I’ve known about for some time, and Josh Centers explains this method and several other AirPlay tricks in his indispensable book, “Take Control of Apple TV.”)
The only problem with this scenario is that our Mac is nowhere near our television, so I would have to make the trek upstairs to my office to start the movie (then pause it and return to the living room), or use a VNC app on an iOS device (such as Screens) to control my Mac remotely.
I wanted to find a solution that would be easy enough for the entire family to handle (remember, this is all in the service of making my Lego-loving seven-year-old happy… really!), one that could be accessed using the Apple TV remote.
Unpacking iTunes Extras — To get to the heart of the matter, I needed to see how the iTunes Extras files manifested themselves on my hard drive. After Control-clicking a movie in iTunes and choosing Show in Finder from the contextual menu, I found that a video with iTunes Extras has two files — its main movie file (.m4v) and an iTunes Extras file (.ite). After some investigation of the .ite file type, I concluded the solution would be easy.
Control-clicking the .ite file offers you the Show Package Contents option in the contextual menu. After choosing that, the iTunes Extras file displays as a folder, where the various and sundry media, CSS, and data files that make up the iTunes Extras experience are bundled together. Open the Videos sub-folder and copy the enclosed .m4v video files (using Option-drag) to your desktop. Then, drag those .m4v files into iTunes and they’re ready to either watch on your Mac or stream to your Apple TV.
Instead of performing this copying-to-desktop-then-dragging-to-iTunes dance, you would think you could drag the files directly from the Videos sub-folder into iTunes. However, I don’t recommend this, as it removes them completely from the .ite package. If you were to later access the iTunes Extras interface on your Mac and clicked a link to one of these videos, no video would play because the source file had been removed. Frustratingly, this anomaly occurs even if you’ve selected
“Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library” in iTunes > Preferences > Advanced, and even if you Option-drag the files from the .ite package.
After dragging your files into iTunes, they appear in iTunes under the Home Videos view in Movies as plain video files with alphanumeric titles that are less than helpful (such as
LM_883316986851_02MichelangeloAndLincoln.m4v), so you might want to change their titles in the Get Info window (choose File > Get Info or press Command-I). Also, in the Get Info window’s Options view, click the Media Kind pop-up menu to switch the video’s designation from Home Video to Movie (to ensure they’ll show up in Movies on your Apple TV rather than Home Videos, if that’s important to you). That’s it!
Streaming iTunes Extras to your Apple TV isn’t painful, but it still requires a process, one that takes a few moments to complete and doesn’t have to exist at all. (A clever person with Automator or AppleScript skills might be able to write a workflow to make this process less onerous. If you come up with one, let us know!)
If Tim Cook is true to his word that the Apple TV is no longer a hobby, then Apple should provide this now-mature business with all the features the company promises when you make a purchase in the iTunes Store.
Yahoo and AOL Damage Mailing Lists and Email Forwarding
I recently received an email message from Cornell Alumni Affairs, warning of deliverability problems related to alumni email forwarding and participation in Cornell mailing lists. Since I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time learning about SPF, DKIM, DMARC, and other email deliverability technologies for TidBITS and Take Control, this piqued my interest. Some additional investigation showed that the problem extends far beyond Cornell, and is currently affecting any organization that relies on email forwarding, plus any mailing list with Yahoo or AOL subscribers.
Unfortunately, apart from users switching away from Yahoo and AOL, there’s not much that can be done about it.
First, to explain all this, we need to untangle the alphabet soup of technologies I blithely splashed into the above paragraph, all of which are designed to reduce the ability of spammers to spoof email to make it look like it comes from a legitimate sender.
- SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework and enables the owner of an Internet domain, like tidbits.com, to specify which computers are allowed to send email containing sender addresses in that domain. A mail server receiving email from a sender claiming to be [email protected] does a DNS lookup on tidbits.com, checking a special TXT record to see if the sender’s mail server is allowed to send email on behalf of tidbits.com. You can think of SPF working at the envelope level, and it’s an Internet Engineering Task Force standard (RFC 7208).
- DKIM stands for DomainKeys Identified Mail, and is also an IETF standard (RFC 6376). Whereas SPF looks at the envelope to verify that a message is being sent from an approved source, DKIM goes one step deeper, associating a domain name with an actual email message, via public key cryptography. First, the sending mail server uses a private key to sign the contents of each outgoing message using a DKIM-Signature header. Second, the receiving mail server does a DNS lookup on the domain name specified in the DKIM-Signature header to find another special TXT record that contains the associated public key; the receiving
mail server can then use the public key to verify that the message hasn’t changed since it was signed.
DMARC, or Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance, is an email authentication method that builds on SPF and DKIM. Again implemented in DNS, a DMARC policy lets a sending organization specify that its messages use SPF and/or DKIM, and what should happen to messages for which the domain in the header’s From line fails to match (is not in “alignment” with) the domains specified by SPF and DKIM. There are three options: do nothing (“none”), flag the message as suspicious (“quarantine”), or bounce the message (“reject”). Although DMARC is used by numerous major email providers in various ways, it is not an IETF
A key reason DMARC exists is that the ways SPF and DKIM enable the sender to specify what should be done with failed messages are generally unused. In SPF, each receiving mail server has to determine what to do with results such as “none,” “neutral,” “pass,” “fail,” and “softfail.” Although “fail” was intended to equate to rejection, few senders set that, due to the high number of false positives. The DKIM specification is even more explicit about how its results should (not) be used:
In general, modules that consume DKIM verification output SHOULD NOT determine message acceptability based solely on a lack of any signature or on an unverifiable signature; such rejection would cause severe interoperability problems.
(There is a little-used extension to DKIM called ADSP (Author Domain Signing Practices, RFC 5617), which was the predecessor to DMARC and offers advice from the sender when the From header doesn’t match the domain in the DKIM signature. It was quickly identified as having the same problems that now afflict DMARC; hence its minimal usage.)
So DMARC enables a sender to tell receiving mail servers what to do with messages whose SPF- and DKIM-advertised domains don’t match the domain in the From line. That’s ideal for companies like PayPal, which send vast quantities of transactional email, are constantly spoofed as part of phishing attacks, and don’t have (many) individual users. PayPal has published a DMARC policy of “reject” for over a year with no one noticing. However, until recently, large email providers have stuck with a DMARC policy of “none,” which lets messages be delivered normally. You can check the DMARC policy for any domain at the DMARC Inspector — look at the “p=” tag.
In April 2014, Yahoo dropped a bomb on the email world by quietly changing its DMARC policy to “reject,” and AOL followed suit shortly after, though at least with a press release acknowledging the change. This had the effect of causing receiving mail servers to bounce messages that failed SPF and DKIM, generating two classes of problems:
- Email Forwarding: Let’s say you have a cornell.edu alumni address, which forwards to a Gmail address. Someone from Yahoo or AOL sends you a message, which uses both SPF and DKIM. Receiving it at cornell.edu works fine, because SPF, DKIM, and DMARC alignment all pass at that point, but when Cornell’s mail server forwards the message, it rewrites headers such that, when Gmail examines the new incoming message, it fails SPF, DKIM, and DMARC alignment. Because Yahoo and AOL both have DMARC policies saying that failed messages should be rejected, Gmail bounces the message.
Mailing Lists: Now let’s say you use Yahoo or AOL and are a member of a discussion-based mailing list. When you post to the list, the list server receives the message and packages it for distribution to the list, changing a variety of headers and possibly adding a signature to the body in the process. Those changes cause the repackaged message to fail SPF, DKIM, and, most important, DMARC alignment, so it won’t be received by any list recipients at Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, Outlook.com, or other any other email provider that honors DMARC policies, again because of how Yahoo and AOL set their DMARC policies to require that failed messages be rejected.
There’s even more fallout on mailing lists. Depending on how things are configured, if Gmail bounces a received mailing list message sent by a Yahoo user, that bounce will likely go back to the mailing list server and be recorded against the Gmail user, potentially causing that user to be removed from the list. So Yahoo and AOL users can get other list members bounced, purely by posting.
Needless to say, as email and mailing list administrators have figured out what is going on, this change has caused significant consternation. The IETF discussion list has been dominated by DMARC-related discussions for months.
Why did Yahoo and AOL make such a sweeping change? Speculation is that both had suffered significant security breaches that allowed bad guys to steal user information, including address books. They then used that information to create spam to these users’ contacts, forging the users’ return addresses. Since that spam was being sent by botnets, nothing short of this DMARC change could stop it. In short, Yahoo and AOL are cleaning up their mistakes by damaging every mail forwarding service and mailing list on the Internet.
What can be done about this situation? Although email boffin John Levine has compiled a list of things mailing list developers and administrators can do, none are trivial and all have side effects. At the user level, there’s simply nothing that can be done, other than those who use Yahoo and AOL voting with their feet and switching to less-draconian free email providers like iCloud, Gmail, and Outlook.com. Or, if you want to pay an email provider to ensure that they’re working for you, TidBITS staffers have used FastMail and easyDNS’s easyMail service (which comes with domain hosting) without experiencing these problems.
As an aside, although iCloud doesn’t appear to be involved with these DMARC-related problems, beware of iCloud’s spam filtering. In the most recent case, Doug Adams, who has contributed hugely to the Apple community through his Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site, found that for three weeks his messages weren’t being received by iCloud users because Apple was silently deleting all messages that contained the string “dougscripts”. Since his domain is dougscripts.com, that pretty much put the
kibosh on all his iCloud-related email. After complaining to AppleCare and having the problem escalated to a Mac Advisor, and then to Engineering, and then to the Spam Team, the problem finally disappeared, without further explanation. It’s astonishing that, in 2014, Apple is still doing simple string-based filtering and silent deletion of offending messages.
What I’d like you to take away from this article, apart from just understanding the Internet a bit better, is that there’s a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes to make sure even the most basic of Internet technologies work in the face of competing forces. Email may seem simple, but it’s also far more subtle than most people realize.
FunBITS: SimCity 4 Returns to the Mac
Who doesn’t love SimCity? Since the launch of the original game in 1989, it has become a mainstay in places where games often are unwelcome, like schools. Even Adam and Tonya Engst, who are emphatically not gamers, loved SimCity back in college. The game kept evolving over the years, with SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000 adding ever more complexity, culminating with SimCity 4, released in 2003. Electronic Arts (EA) tried to reboot the series in 2013, but with dumbed-down gameplay, and the requirement of an online connection, which overwhelmed EA’s servers, making the game
unplayable for many.
Thankfully, Aspyr Media, champions of Mac gaming, have retooled and updated SimCity 4: Deluxe Edition, bringing it to the Mac in all its glory. It’s available from the Mac App Store for $19.99 (on sale for $9.99), is a 1.14 GB download, and requires OS X 10.8.5 Mountain Lion or later.
This isn’t Aspyr’s first crack at porting SimCity 4 to the Mac. The company brought it over in 2003, but coded for PowerPC-based Macs. Even after several updates, the game never worked well on the subsequent Intel-based Macs, and Aspyr gave up in 2007.
Fortunately, Aspyr rebuilt this version from the ground up for modern Intel-based Macs, including support for native screen resolutions. The original game was designed for common resolutions of a decade ago, and thus looked terrible on most of today’s displays. However, the new version runs perfectly at 2560-by-1440 on my 27-inch Dell monitor, and is gorgeous. One thing I hope to see in the future is better support for trackpad gestures, like pinch-to-zoom, because otherwise the game treats trackpads like an old-fashioned mouse.
Why would you want to play an 11-year-old game in the first place? SimCity 4 was too far ahead of its time when Maxis released it in 2003. It required resources that just didn’t exist then, and even my 2008-era powerhouse gaming PC had trouble running it. Now, in 2014, we finally have the hardware necessary to run the game smoothly.
If you’ve never played SimCity, much less its fourth incarnation, you may wonder what you do in the game or why it’s so demanding. Simply put, you build cities. You shouldn’t really think of SimCity as a game, because it’s not. It’s a city simulator that attempts to simulate nearly every variable involved in running a major metropolis.
There are no win or loss conditions, no achievements, no final boss battles. SimCity is the modern equivalent of crafting a ship in a glass bottle: you build it merely for the satisfaction of building it and to answer your own questions about why certain aspects of cities do or do not work well.
You can start with a number of pre-built tutorial cities (and if you’re new, you should, as they offer some guidance in the basics of running a city), or you can start with a bare chunk of land that you can shape to your heart’s content. You can plant trees, raise and lower the land to create mountains and valleys, add bodies of water, and even spawn wildlife. The game also includes empty regions based on real cities, like New York, San Francisco, and London.
You start the game in God Mode, during which you can shape the land for free, but once you decide to begin building your city, you enter Mayor Mode, in which any modifications to the landscape require costly construction.
In Mayor Mode, you name your city, zone areas, build roads, and lay out utilities. This is the meat of the game. The first order of business involves building something sim-people actually want to move to, which requires residential zoning (they need places to live), roads, electricity, schools, commercial zoning, and agricultural or industrial zoning (they also need places to work).
From there, it’s all about how you want to shape your city. You can add all sorts of extras, like police stations to control crime, fire stations to keep fires from spreading, and niceties that will make your sims happier, like parks and landmarks. But everything you build has costs for both creation and regular maintenance.
Managing your city’s finances is one of the harder aspects of Sim City 4. There are two factors that play into how much income you have to work with: population size and tax rates. The more sims who move to your city, the larger the tax pool, and you can keep them coming by satisfying their basic needs. To help with that, there’s a handy RCI (Residential, Commercial, Industrial) chart that show which type of zones are in demand. For instance, if demand for residential areas is down and demand for agricultural zones is high, that means your sims need jobs, and the residential demand won’t increase until you build more agricultural areas to provide those jobs.
Besides population, you have complete control over taxation, which also affects population. You can set tax rates based on each type of zone, like Low Wealth Residential, High Wealth Residential, Agricultural, and Manufacturing Industry. To maximize income, you have to find the right balance between tax rates so that you’re extracting the most revenue without driving people out.
Playing with these variables lets you experiment with social planning. For instance, later in the game, it can be tempting to lower taxes on the wealthy and raise them for the poor, in order to gentrify your city and bring in more income. Such a strategy may make sense on paper, however morally reprehensible it is, and it’s easy to see how elected leaders come to such decisions. It’s a perfect thing to try in SimCity, where the results don’t affect real people.
You also have a panel of advisors that can tell you the best course of action on finances and other problems that will plague your city, such as school overcrowding, pollution, and crime.
If you get bored with your city, you can plague it with disasters for fun and destruction. You can summon a tornado, an earthquake, lightning, fire, an alien invasion, or even a giant robot dinosaur.
The included “Rush Hour” expansion provides another distraction — U-Drive-It, which lets you take control of vehicles around the city, including police cars and fire trucks. Frankly, this mode falls flat for me. The controls are weird, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the game, and I find it boring. Luckily, it’s easily ignored, so it doesn’t detract from an otherwise great game.
SimCity 4 is one of the best games of all time, and Aspyr has done a great job of bringing it back to the Mac. Unlike most games, it’s a way to stretch your creativity and critical thinking. It offers unlimited hours of play, and gives insight into real-world politics and urban planning. If you’ve been missing SimCity, or somehow have never played, this is a great time to try it.
TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 23 June 2014
LaunchBar 6.0.1 — Objective Development has issued LaunchBar 6.0.1, the first maintenance release following its recent major upgrade to version 6.0 (see “LaunchBar 6 Adds Themes, Instant Feedback, and More,” 11 June 2014). The keyboard-based launcher and shortcut utility adds several new text transformation actions (including case conversions, line sorting, and removal of multiple spaces), new icons for many built-in actions, a shortcut to sort folder contents by Date Added, and an indexing option that enables you to index only bookmarks from Safari’s Favorites Bar.
The release also improves live results when searching plain text files, extends Clipboard History capacity, improves theme switching, fixes some bugs, and brings back missing localizations. ($29 new with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, free update, 10 MB, release notes, 10.9+)
Read/post comments about LaunchBar 6.0.1.
Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.5 — Bombich Software has released Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.5 with a couple of new proactive features related to hard drive errors. The bootable backup utility will now abort a backup task within five minutes if a defective hard drive is hanging and then collect extensive diagnostics information, as well as report physical read and write errors before starting a task to give you the opportunity to abort the backup. The update also improves progress indication in situations where the first folder encountered has many items, improves the performance of saving multiple scheduled tasks, and fixes a bug that prevented
idle sleep after displaying the “Task finished” panel for a scheduled task. ($39.95 new, free update, 10.8 MB, release notes, 10.6+)
Read/post comments about Carbon Copy Cloner 3.5.5.
OmniFocus 2.0.1 — Following the recent major update to its GTD-inspired task management utility, The Omni Group has released OmniFocus 2.0.1 with a number of bug fixes. (To catch up on all the changes in OmniFocus, be sure to read Josh Centers’s review: “OmniFocus 2 for Mac Brings a Fresh Look to GTD,” 22 May 2014.) The update improves interaction with the keychain when multiple Omni Sync Server account credentials have been stored; fixes an issue with the Send to Inbox service in the Standard edition that prevented clipping from Mail, Safari, OmniWeb, Chrome,
and the Finder; makes the note in the Inspector editable for sidebar selections; ensures that a relaunch isn’t required to use AppleScript after upgrading to the Pro edition; and fixes a potential crash related to using Undo/Redo with certain custom Perspectives. ($39.99 new for Standard edition and $79.99 for Pro edition from The Omni Group Web site, $39.99 for Standard edition from Mac App Store (with in-app purchase option to upgrade to Pro), free update for version 2.0 licenses, 44.2 MB, release notes, 10.9.2+)
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Typinator 6.0 — Ergonis has released Typinator 6.0, a major update to its text expansion tool with over 50 new features and improvements. The biggest addition is the capability to create expansions based on regular expressions for replacements based on flexible patterns, which includes correction of “DOuble CAps” instances, inline calculations, automatic capitalization at the beginning of sentences, and predefined “Date Steps” for generating dates that can increment or decrement by day or week. The release also adds support for HTML-formatted expansions for email clients that support HTML mail, built-in
functions for string processing in expansions (such as case conversions, extraction of fragments, etc.), new import file types for replacing the contents of existing sets, and improved relevance ranking for suggestions. Typinator 6.0 gets a redesigned user interface with a new window layout, plus it enables you to resize the expansion area, shortens the menu with a clearer structure, and displays sets and rules side by side to make it easier to move rules.
Typinator 6.0 requires Mac OS X 10.5.8 Leopard or later, but you need to be running 10.7 Lion or later in order to use regular expressions. It’s also fully compatible with 10.9 Mavericks. If you purchased a license for Typinator 5 on or after 1 October 2013, you can upgrade to version 6.0 for free. For purchases made before that date, you can upgrade to Typinator 6.0 for €12.99 (single license). (€24.99 new with a 25 percent discount for TidBITS members, 7.2 MB, release notes)
Read/post comments about Typinator 6.0.
ExtraBITS for 23 June 2014
This week in ExtraBITS, we ponder the Apple TV as the hub of your connected home, the U.S. Supreme Court deals a blow software patents, we learn that OS X Yosemite’s Handoff feature will require Bluetooth 4.0, your Synology NAS device might be mining someone else’s Dogecoin, YouTube gets tough on indie music labels, and Apple settles with states and consumers over ebook price fixing.
The Apple TV as HomeKit’s Hub — HomeKit in iOS 8 promises to unify all of your connected home devices, but how would you control them while away from home? Christopher Breen of Macworld suggests that the Apple TV might be the home gateway to HomeKit, with an upgraded model serving as a smart hub for home automation.
U.S. Supreme Court Deals a Blow to Software Patents — In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that “abstract ideas” are not patentable. While this decision doesn’t completely eliminate software patents, it does require that such patents rely on “concrete improvements or new designs, not an aggregation of existing steps.”
OS X Yosemite’s Handoff Will Require Bluetooth 4.0 — Handoff will be one of the coolest features of OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, letting you seamlessly transition between workflows on the two platforms, but unfortunately for owners of older Macs, it will require Bluetooth 4.0, which excludes Macs built before 2011, and even many built later. Peter Cohen of iMore explains how to check which version of Bluetooth your Mac has. If your Mac isn’t compatible with Handoff, a USB dongle that provides Bluetooth 4.0 may enable Handoff by Yosemite’s release.
Synology NAS Devices Hacked to Mine Dogecoin — If you own a Synology NAS device and haven’t updated recently, you should. Attackers are taking advantage of an older vulnerability (patched in February 2014) to mine the Dogecoin virtual currency (an offshoot of Bitcoin that originally began as a joke). One German attacker managed to mine over $600,000 of Dogecoin from Synology boxes. It’s yet another reason why you shouldn’t enable remote administration on your devices unless absolutely necessary.
YouTube Playing Hardball with Indie Labels — Google-owned YouTube is preparing to launch a music subscription service, and it’s threatening to yank existing music videos from labels that don’t join. YouTube argues that it cannot allow music to exist on its free tier that isn’t also available on its paid service. Affected artists would include Adele, Arctic Monkeys, and Vampire Weekend.
Apple Settles with States and Customers over Ebooks — Apple has settled with U.S. attorneys general and customers over conspiring with publishers to fix ebook prices, avoiding a trial that could have cost the company up to $840 million in claims. Meanwhile, Apple is still appealing the September 2013 ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote that placed a number of restrictions on the way Apple sells ebooks.