Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 30 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals
Show excerpts

#1540: Apple’s first M1 Macs, delay Big Sur upgrades, Apple snafu temporarily broke Macs, new TidBITS translators needed

Last week was huge for the Mac, with the release of macOS 11 Big Sur and the first wave of Macs based on Apple silicon: the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini, all powered by Apple’s new M1 chip. But not all the Mac news was good—a network failure on Apple’s end on the day of Big Sur’s release rendered millions of Macs nigh-unusable, with odd behavior and app launch failures. Adam Engst explores how it happened, what it means for Mac privacy and security, and how Apple responded. Finally, TidBITS is looking for new volunteer translators for our Dutch and Japanese editions—help us bring TidBITS to a worldwide audience! We have so many notable Mac app releases this week that our email template couldn’t hold them all. They’re all on our site, and this issue includes Timing 2020.10, ChronoSync 4.9.12, Audio Hijack 3.7.7, Piezo 1.6.10, and Airfoil 5.9.5, SoundSource 5.1.2, GraphicConverter 11.3.1, BBEdit 13.5.2, GarageBand 10.4.1, Pages 10.3.5, Numbers 10.3.5, and Keynote 10.3.5, Logic Pro X 10.6, Final Cut Pro X 10.5, Compressor 4.5, and Motion 5.5, OmniFocus 3.10, OmniOutliner Essentials and Pro 5.8, Fantastical 3.3, Merlin Project 7.0, and Microsoft Office for Mac 16.43.

Josh Centers 63 comments

Big Sur Is Here, but We Suggest You Say “No Sir” for Now

As Apple promised, macOS 11 Big Sur launched on 12 November 2020. The actual release was version 11.0.1, skipping 11.0 entirely. We’re curious to see if Apple’s new M1-equipped Macs ship with 11.0 or 11.0.1.

The download weighs in at an eye-watering 12.18 GB. You can update directly from macOS 10.14 Mojave or macOS 10.15 Catalina from System Preferences > Software Update. You can also install Big Sur from the Mac App Store, which is the route you need to take if you want to put the installer on a USB thumb drive for a clean install or installation on multiple Macs without additional downloads.

Big Sur update

Delay Upgrades to Production Macs

We advise everyone to delay upgrading production Macs for now. We always recommend delaying major macOS upgrades until Apple has had a chance to address early problems, and Big Sur has several big behind-the-scenes changes that are causing more headaches than usual.

Plus, there were numerous first-day reports of problems installing Big Sur, including failed installations and extremely slow downloads. Such issues aren’t unusual with a new version of macOS, when Apple’s servers are being hammered. With luck, Apple has already resolved the network problems that were likely at the heart of many of these issues.

The most concerning issue reported so far is that the Big Sur update is bricking many late-2013 and mid-2014 13-inch MacBook Pro models. Users are reporting black screens after the update, and none of the typical remedies—resetting SMC and NVRAM or booting in Safe mode or Recovery mode—are helping. Apple has escalated the issue to its engineering team, and the company is currently telling users to bring their MacBook Pros in for repair.

Also concerning, though not something that most people need to worry about, is a warning from Native Instruments, a manufacturer of professional audio devices, has warned that Big Sur could damage hardware.

Big Sur, Big Backup Problems

With 10.15 Catalina, Apple split the macOS boot drive into separate System and Data volumes, the former of which holds the operating system files and is typically read-only. Big Sur further secures the System volume by applying a cryptographic hash to every file on it, as Howard Oakley explains. That makes it incredibly difficult for an attacker to hijack your Big Sur install, but it has caused headaches for many apps, especially those that make (and restore) bootable backups.

The good news is that Mike Bombich, developer of Carbon Copy Cloner, has worked with Apple to resolve the issues. Carbon Copy Cloner 5.1.23-b1 includes full support for making bootable backups in Big Sur. However, we can’t recommend upgrading to an operating system that requires a beta release to make bootable duplicates.

Similarly, Dave Nanian, the developer of the SuperDuper cloning utility, has said, “it’s going to be a while” before SuperDuper works with Big Sur. He recommends waiting to upgrade or using Time Machine, although Time Machine backups serve a different purpose than a bootable backup.

Econ Technologies has developed a technique for creating bootable backups with ChronoSync, but it’s complicated. In short, you install Big Sur on the backup drive and then copy over the contents of the Data volume (see “ChronoSync 4.9.12,” 13 November 2020).

What’s New in Big Sur

We don’t want to be all doom and gloom. Big Sur is the most significant change to macOS in years, most notably because it runs natively on (and is required for) Apple’s new M1 chips. More obviously, Apple overhauled the entire user interface to more closely resemble the iPhone and iPad.

Here are some of the features that are new to Big Sur:

  • Control Center: Big Sur features an iOS-style Control Center that lets you quickly control things like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AirDrop. Control Center in Big Sur
  • Notification Center: No longer split into separate columns for notifications and widgets, Notification Center now puts everything into a single column, with notifications at the top and widgets at the bottom. Widgets also now resemble those in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14. Notification Center in Big Sur
  • Messages and Maps overhaul: Apple rewrote the Messages app in Mac Catalyst, which gives it feature parity with the iOS and iPadOS versions. Messages now supports thread pinning, Memojis, animated GIF inserts, and message effects. Apple similarly re-implemented the Maps app in Mac Catalyst.
  • Automatic AirPods switching: As with iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, your AirPods should connect to your Mac automatically when Big Sur detects that you’ve moved to your Mac from another device.

There are many more small features, and Apple provides a full list of what’s new in Big Sur. As you prepare for an eventual upgrade, we recommend that you read Joe Kissell’s Take Control of Big Sur.

Adam Engst No comments

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 dedicated groups of volunteer translators, some of whom have been working together for years. As with any volunteer effort, new blood is occasionally necessary, and the coordinators of both translations have asked me to put out a call for new members.

If you’re bilingual in English and either Dutch or Japanese (all three are not required, as impressive as that would be!), we could use your help. Both 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 team members to help translate TidBITS from English into either Dutch or Japanese for the nearly 2000 people who read TidBITS in those languages.

You can read more about what’s involved with both the Dutch translation and the Japanese translation on their respective pages. Thanks for any help you can provide, and note that as a token of our appreciation that Joe Kissell has been kind enough to continue, translators receive all Take Control ebooks for free.

Dutch and Japanese flags with TidBITS

Adam Engst 33 comments

Apple Network Failure Destroys an Afternoon of Worldwide Mac Productivity

Somewhere around 3:25 PM Eastern Standard Time on 12 November 2020, my 27-inch iMac running macOS 10.15.7 Catalina started to behave oddly, displaying the dreaded “spinning pizza of death” wait cursor when trying to perform operations that are typically lightning fast. I decided to reboot, as one does. Interestingly, Josh Centers had just told me that he was rebooting his iMac as well because, as he said in the TidBITS Slack, “Mojave has gotten a little wonky.”

Rebooting didn’t fix anything and, in fact, made things worse because then we couldn’t launch any non-Apple apps on our Macs. Mail and Safari launched fine, but other apps did not. Clicking an app icon in the Dock did nothing other than cause our Macs to make an unfriendly “ding” noise.

We hadn’t yet discussed our mutual Mac headaches, and Josh had become convinced that something had gone wrong with his iMac’s SSD, so he booted into Recovery Mode and began running diagnostics. Then he switched to his MacBook Pro and found that it wouldn’t launch apps either.

Josh’s next message in Slack (from his iPhone) was:

This is extremely weird. I can’t launch Slack or Firefox on either of my Macs. Is anyone else seeing something like this?

To which I replied (from my iPhone):

I just rebooted due to my iMac being a little weird, and none of my login items launched. I was able to launch the App Store app, and some updates are downloading. Preview launches, but neither Firefox nor Slack do.

Josh checked Twitter and found a post from developer Jeff Johnson, the guy behind StopTheMadness (which improves the Web browser experience), Link Unshortener (which reveals the destination of shortened links), and Underpass (for peer-to-peer file transfer and chat with end-to-end encryption). Johnson’s tweet, which went viral, explained what was happening: the macOS trustd process was trying and failing to connect to a server called ocsp.apple.com.

Jeff Johnson's tweet about the ocsp.apple.com problem

Non-Apple apps actually were launching, but only after their attempts to connect to ocsp.apple.com timed out. A successful connection to ocsp.apple.com is not required for apps to launch, which is why you can launch apps while entirely offline. That’s why Johnson suggested blocking ocsp.apple.com using Little Snitch or another firewall, or just disconnecting from the Internet whenever you wanted to launch an app.

Shortly after that, others offered the more straightforward solution of adding a line to the /etc/hosts file that maps hostnames to IP addresses in a way that overrides DNS. If you pointed ocsp.apple.com to 127.0.0.1 or 0.0.0.0 in /etc/hosts, connections to ocsp.apple.com failed instantly, returning the Mac to normal operating status. I’m not providing those instructions here because they’re no longer necessary and in general, messing with /etc/hosts isn’t something you should do unless you already understand how it works. If you did edit /etc/hosts in this way, you should remove that line; Brian Matthews provided a command-line recipe for that in TidBITS Talk.

After an hour or so, Apple fixed the problem, and everything returned to normal.

How Did This Happen?

So what was going on? As I understand it, at app launch, Apple’s GateKeeper technology checks the certificates that Apple assigns to developers to sign their code. The name of the Apple server in question—ocsp.apple.com—points to Apple using OCSP (Online Certificate Status Protocol) to determine if an app’s certificate has been revoked. If that’s the case, macOS prevents the app from launching—it’s Apple’s way of ensuring that it can prevent an app discovered to be malicious from causing more damage. (You may remember that HP just suffered from self-inflicted problems after it unintentionally revoked a certificate—see “Code-Signing Snafu Breaks Many HP Printers,” 26 October 2020.)

What prevented ocsp.apple.com from responding? I doubt Apple will ever share details, and heads may already have rolled, but my understanding is that the massive load from releasing macOS 11 Big Sur resulted in the failure of a CDN—a content delivery network—that Apple uses to handle such situations (this particular one appears to be run by Akamai Technologies, which is not unusual). Since Big Sur weighs in at 12 GB, compared to 8 GB for Catalina, it’s not entirely surprising that the load would be much higher. Plus, of course, Apple has sold millions more Macs in the last year.

Support for this theory comes from the fact that other Apple services were down that day as well. Apple’s System Status page showed problems with Apple Card, Apple Pay, iMessage, macOS Software Update (those Big Sur downloads), and Maps.

Apple System Status page during the debacle

Apple Caused a Massive Waste of Time

It’s hard to overstate the effect this problem had on the Mac world. Although Josh and I were able to get our iMacs working properly again reasonably quickly, the rest of our afternoon disappeared into trying to figure out what was happening. In the MacAdmins Slack, IT admins and consultants were doing the same, not just because of their personal Macs but also because they were being deluged with calls, email messages, and trouble tickets from their users and clients. Developers received bug reports demanding fixes, and the problem disrupted many online presentations, meetings, and conferences taking place during that time. A Hacker News thread about the problem garnered over 1150 comments, including some from Mac users who, like Josh, wasted significant time with troubleshooting, worried that their Macs had suffered a hardware failure.

Apple may not have actually taken every Mac in the world offline, but this network failure wasted several hours of time for what must have been millions of Mac users. (I suspect that people who weren’t attempting to launch apps during this time might not have noticed.) Nothing will give us that time back, but an acknowledgment and apology would be welcome.

This debacle also threw a spotlight on what seems like a weak point in macOS. It’s clear that Apple designed trustd to fail silently and gracefully when a Mac is offline, but why is there such a long timeout in the event of a network failure? Are there other components of macOS that make similar checks in everyday usage that could hurt the user experience in error conditions?

As always, the question of security comes up as well. We’ve just learned that ocsp.apple.com is a weak link in the normal functioning of macOS. It’s obviously not a single overworked server under someone’s desk—the entire point of using the Akamai CDN is to make it possible to handle massive amounts of traffic—but I assume that malicious actors are investigating how to launch a denial-of-service attack against ocsp.apple.com.

There may also be some privacy implications, since the checks to ocsp.apple.com whenever you launch a non-Apple app could reveal information about you to someone who could access your network. That seems a little overblown to me—someone who can access your network has a lot more than OCSP traffic to work with. It doesn’t appear that Apple’s OCSP traffic is using OCSP stapling, which addresses those privacy concerns.

Some people have suggested using something like a Pi-hole to block ocsp.apple.com entirely. (You could use Little Snitch for that in versions of macOS prior to Big Sur, but as security researcher Patrick Wardle pointed out, trustd is one of the Apple apps whose traffic Little Snitch can no longer block—see “Apple Hides Traffic of Some of Its Own Apps in Big Sur,” 22 October 2020.) Blocking ocsp.apple.com seems like a bad idea because you would be vulnerable to any malware that Apple discovered and addressed by revoking its developer certificate. Apple runs many hosts that modern Macs must be able to contact at particular times for certain operations.

In the end, it’s hard to avoid feeling a little less confident in the Mac. I honestly believe this was a rare error on the part of Apple’s network operations staff, such that we’re extremely unlikely to ever suffer from it again. I also anticipate that Apple will be taking steps within macOS to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future and to address the concerns that this situation raised.

In fact, since I initially published this article, Apple updated its “Safely open apps on your Mac” support page with this text:

Privacy protections

macOS has been designed to keep users and their data safe while respecting their privacy.

Gatekeeper performs online checks to verify if an app contains known malware and whether the developer’s signing certificate is revoked. We have never combined data from these checks with information about Apple users or their devices. We do not use data from these checks to learn what individual users are launching or running on their devices.

Notarization checks if the app contains known malware using an encrypted connection that is resilient to server failures.

These security checks have never included the user’s Apple ID or the identity of their device. To further protect privacy, we have stopped logging IP addresses associated with Developer ID certificate checks, and we will ensure that any collected IP addresses are removed from logs.

In addition, over the next year we will introduce several changes to our security checks:

  • A new encrypted protocol for Developer ID certificate revocation checks
  • Strong protections against server failure
  • A new preference for users to opt out of these security protections

Those changes are all positive, and while it’s too bad that Apple failed to institute them proactively before this situation, I think this is mostly an indication of how hard security is. There’s certainly no conspiracy on Apple’s part—the company is only hurt when its actions detract from its pro-privacy stance.

Regardless, the fact that an Apple mistake could render Macs in general nearly useless shows just how interwoven our modern lives are with corporations like Apple. Not that it’s going to happen, or that there’s any realistic alternative, but if Apple were to disappear, our devices almost certainly wouldn’t continue to operate at their full capability.

Adam Engst 86 comments

Apple M1 Chip Powers New MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini

The wait is over. At its live-streamed “One More Thing” event, Apple introduced M1, the first Apple silicon chip to power a production Mac. (You’re excused if you thought Apple had already used that letter, because it did, for the M-series motion coprocessors.) Without missing a beat in the tight 45-minute presentation, Tim Cook and company then unveiled the first three models in the Mac lineup to take advantage of that chip: the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini.

M1 chip details

Notably, the M1 and its significant performance and power usage benefits are the only changes in these Macs. Although the company could have used the transition to Apple silicon to unveil new industrial designs or other hardware changes, Apple seems to have settled on a simple message about the M1 chip: “It’s just better.” By keeping the same cases for these three Macs, nothing distracts from that message.

Details about all three M1-powered Macs

For the most part, I’m not going to get into chip-level details about the M1. What users care about is how it works in Macs, not that it’s the first personal computer system-on-a-chip (SoC) built using the 5-nanometer process or that it has 16 billion transistors. If you’re interested in Apple’s story about it, check out the M1 page for all the details about its industry-leading performance per watt and other benefits.

It’s also worth noting that although the Intel-based MacBook Air has disappeared from the product lineup, the Intel-chip versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac mini remain available for sale in different configurations and at higher price points. That’s an interesting fact in and of itself since it shows that Apple wants to give customers a choice for some time yet. Memory limitations may be related—the M1 Macs are all restricted to no more than 16 GB of RAM. macOS compatibility undoubtedly plays a role—these new Macs require macOS 11 Big Sur and cannot run 10.15 Catalina. Another likely reason is that some tasks, like running Windows in a virtual machine, may not be possible for some time. More generally, despite the Rosetta 2 translation environment, it’s possible that Apple anticipates some compatibility issues in the first year or so. Or, perhaps, Apple recognizes that some customers simply won’t feel comfortable trusting an Apple silicon Mac for a while.

Finally, all three of these Macs are available for ordering immediately. Let’s take a look so you can decide if one of them might be in your near future. (One tip—even if you’re not interested in the MacBook Air, don’t skip reading about it since my descriptions of the MacBook Pro and Mac mini build on the MacBook Air’s.)

M1 MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular Mac, and the company claims it’s the best-selling 13-inch notebook. That’s not surprising—the MacBook Air has long provided a brilliant combination of decent performance, elegant industrial design, and affordable price. For several years, it suffered from the butterfly-switch keyboard, but Apple addressed that problem earlier this year (see “New MacBook Air Features Magic Keyboard and Lower Price,” 18 March 2020). I almost replaced my 2012 MacBook Air then, but with the pandemic eliminating all my travel, there was no need. Now I’m happy I was encouraged to wait, since the M1 MacBook Air blows that last Intel-based model out of the water, and to torture the analogy, it does so without a fan.

Details about the M1 MacBook Air

The 8-core M1 chip gives the MacBook Air up to 3.5x faster performance than the previous model, and the model with the 8-core GPU boasts graphics performance up to 5x faster. The 16-core Neural Engine on the M1 chip provides machine-learning workloads with up to 9x faster speeds. Finally, the combination of the M1’s integrated storage controller and the latest solid-state storage technology means that the MacBook Air delivers up to 2x faster SSD performance. (Storage levels include 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB.)

Typically, such performance increases would be accompanied by increases in processor temperatures, requiring an advanced cooling design and, almost universally, a fan. I don’t know about you, but I hate fans. My 2012 MacBook Air is on its last legs, and one of its problems is that it will often wake up when the screen is closed, overheat, and then start blasting the fan. So the fact that the M1 chip enabled Apple to provide much greater performance without needing a fan at all is alluring.

Another performance win comes from Apple’s use of on-chip “unified memory,” which makes the memory more quickly accessible to the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine cores. For the MacBook Air (and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, as we’ll see), the memory configurations remain the same—8 GB standard, configurable to 16 GB for $200. However, there’s a downside too. Apple has produced the M1 chip in only 8 GB and 16 GB configurations, so there’s no way M1 Macs can be configured with more memory than that, something that may be problematic for some people deciding between the M1 and Intel models of the MacBook Pro and the Mac mini.

Chart showing the M1's unified memory architecture

It’s easy to focus on the maximal performance envelope of the M1 MacBook Air, but part of the reason that Apple could eliminate the fan is that the M1’s 8-core design has four performance cores and four efficiency cores. With Apple controlling both the hardware (the M1) and the software (macOS 11 Big Sur), the MacBook Air can adjust which cores it’s using at any given time, either to feed a processor-hungry app or to reduce power drain when the user won’t notice an impact on performance.

Chart showing the different CPU cores in the M1

That all combines to give the M1 MacBook Air the longest battery life ever on a MacBook Air. Apple rates it at up to 15 hours of “wireless web” and up to 18 hours of “Apple TV app movie playback.” Those numbers remain as meaningless as ever, but they’re significantly better than the previous model’s 11 and 12 hours, respectively, despite having the same 49.9-watt-hour battery. Back in the real world, Apple also said the new MacBook Air would offer up to twice the battery life during videoconferencing, which is a big deal for many people.

Further down the spec sheet, the M1 MacBook Air has quite a few small improvements.

  • The screen is still a 13-inch Retina display with 2560-by-1600 native resolution and support for True Tone technology, but it now supports P3 wide color, which might make it a little better for photos.
  • There are still only two Thunderbolt ports, but Apple now calls them “Thunderbolt/USB 4” ports while specifying support for Thunderbolt 3 (40 Gbps) and USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10 Gbps). Tom’s Hardware says that USB 4 will offer 40 Gbps, DisplayPort 2.0, and better resource allocation for video.
  • For wireless communications, the MacBook Air now supports 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 networking—a step up from the previous model’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5—and continues to offer Bluetooth 5.0 (see “Wi-Fi Switches from Obscure Protocol Names to Simple Generation Numbers,” 5 October 2018).
  • Although videoconferencing users (which, let’s face it, is everyone) are still saddled with a 720p FaceTime HD camera, Apple made a big fuss about how the M1’s image signal processor significantly improves video quality. We’ll see.
  • It retains the previous model’s Magic Keyboard and Touch ID sensor, along with the Force Touch trackpad. Given how bad the butterfly keyboard was, this is still worth mentioning.
  • Apple says that the M1 chip enables nearly instant wake from sleep.

The M1 MacBook Air is available in two configurations, and, frankly, the split is a little weird. The low-end model provides an M1 chip with an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU, plus 8 GB of unified memory and 256 GB of storage for $999. The high-end model provides an 8-core GPU and 512 GB of storage for $1249 (which is $50 cheaper than the previous high-end model).

Since jumping from 256 GB of storage to 512 GB costs $200, that means that the 8-core GPU model is only $49 more than the 7-core GPU model. And that’s strange. A 7-core GPU? Is it really cheaper for Apple to produce such a version of the M1, or is this the only way Apple can see to provide different price/performance combinations? It’s also possible that the 7-core GPU models are merely units of the 8-core GPU that failed testing—this is apparently common practice in chip manufacturing (see these three Quora discussions). I’d prefer to see a single model with the price difference being related purely to memory and storage choices. Unless price is paramount in your decision, I recommend avoiding the 7-core model until we learn more about it.

The real question is how the high-end M1 MacBook Air compares against the M1 13-inch MacBook Pro.

M1 13-inch MacBook Pro

While the M1 MacBook Air replaced the previous Intel-based MacBook Air entirely, it’s a different story with the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Previously, there were four configurations of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, priced at $1299, $1499, $1799, and $1999. Apple has retained those four configurations but has replaced the bottom two with the M1 version of the MacBook Pro, retaining the top two with their Intel processors (“Updated 13-inch MacBook Pro Dumps Butterfly Keyboard, Doubles Storage,” 4 May 2020).

Details about the M1 13-inch MacBook Pro

As far as I can tell, the two higher-end Intel models of the 13-inch MacBook Pro remain entirely unchanged, so I won’t discuss them further. And the two less-expensive models that now rely on the M1 chip—just as I suggested for the MacBook Air—differ only in storage options: the cheaper one has 256 GB of storage and is $200 less. So let’s assume there’s only one model in play here.

Once again, the M1 chip primarily gives the new MacBook Pro better performance and battery life. Apple says that the M1’s 8-core CPU, when coupled with the MacBook Pro’s active cooling system (read “it has a fan”), is up to 2.8x faster than the previous generation. Similarly, the 8-core GPU is up to 5x faster (there is no weird 7-core GPU model) for graphics. And the 16-core Neural Engine is up to 11x faster for machine-learning tasks.

Ignoring the weird 7-core GPU model of the M1, let’s assume the 8-core CPU/GPU model of the M1 is the same in the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. If the MacBook Pro is to outperform the MacBook Air, how will it achieve that better performance? The answer is thermal throttling. The MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan, which is great for the user, but Apple’s comment about the MacBook Pro’s “active cooling system” suggests that adding cooling enables the M1 chip to run faster yet without fear of overheating.

When not tasking its performance cores, Apple rates the M1 MacBook Pro at up to 17 hours of “wireless web” and up to 20 hours of “Apple TV app movie playback,” which Apple describes as “staggering.” (We think anyone who would consider watching 20 hours of video straight, especially while on battery, should have their head examined.) It is, reportedly, the longest battery life ever on a Mac. That comes courtesy of the same 58.2-watt-hour battery that was in the previous models.

The screen, keyboard, Touch Bar, and Bluetooth 5.0 haven’t changed, but once again, there are a few additional improvements further down the spec sheet.

  • Apple says the M1 MacBook Pro has a “studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming,” whereas the previous model has only a “three-mic array with directional beamforming.” So, better.
  • As with the MacBook Air, the M1 MacBook Pro offers unified memory, with 8 GB standard and 16 GB available for $200. That’s the same as the previous lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pros, but it’s worth noting that the higher-end Intel models come with 16 GB standard and let you go up to 32 GB for $400.
  • There are still only two Thunderbolt ports, but they’re again “Thunderbolt/USB 4” ports. The higher-end Intel models have four Thunderbolt ports.
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 networking is now standard, an improvement over the 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5 in the Intel models.
  • Like the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro still has only a 720p FaceTime HD camera, but its image quality should benefit from the M1’s image signal processor.
  • Wake from sleep should be nearly instant, as it is on the MacBook Air.

The question that gnaws at us is how the M1 model of the 13-inch MacBook Pro compares against the cheaper M1 MacBook Air and the more expensive Intel models of the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro costs $250 more than an equivalently configured MacBook Air thanks to the Touch Bar and likely some additional performance; to my mind, that’s a tough sell—I’d choose the MacBook Air.

Simultaneously, the choice between the M1 and Intel models is difficult. I’d bet that the M1 MacBook Pro will perform similarly to—or better than—the Intel models. Still, the Intel models have four Thunderbolt ports instead of two, can take up to 32 GB of RAM instead of being limited to 16 GB, and have a 4 TB storage option instead of topping out at 2 TB. Are any of those necessities? For some people, probably.

Oh, and one more thing. If Apple’s promo video is to be believed, the Mac startup chime is back!

M1 Mac mini

Lastly, Apple released a new, cheaper version of the Mac mini powered by the M1 chip while retaining the high-end Intel-based model. Previously, the low-end Mac mini started at $799, with the higher-end model starting at $1099.

Details about the M1 Mac mini

Now, the M1 Mac mini starts at only $699 and very well may outperform the remaining Intel model. I say that because Apple says the M1’s 8-core CPU provides up to 3x faster performance than the Mac mini model it replaces, the 8-core GPU offers a 6x increase in graphics performance, and the 16-core Neural Engine boosts machine-learning tasks by up to 15x. Those multipliers sound like they’d beat the performance of even the remaining high-end Intel Mac mini.

So what else is different? Not much, but the M1 Mac mini doesn’t always win, which may account in part for the $100 drop in price.

  • Given that the M1 chip has unified memory and comes in only 8 GB and 16 GB versions, the Intel Mac mini has an advantage in being configurable to 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB.
  • Although the Intel Mac mini does not support Apple’s 6K Pro Display XDR at full resolution, the M1 Mac mini does. However, the Intel Mac mini can drive up to three displays (two 4K displays via Thunderbolt 3 plus a 4K display via HDMI 2.0), whereas the M1 Mac mini supports only two (one up-to-6K display via Thunderbolt 3, plus a 4K display via HDMI 2.0).
  • The Intel Mac mini has four Thunderbolt 3 ports and two USB-A ports, whereas the M1 Mac mini has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and two USB-A ports. However, the M1 Mac mini’s ports are the new Thunderbolt/USB 4.
  • The Intel Mac mini ships with a Gigabit Ethernet port by default, but for $100, you can kit it out with 10 Gigabit Ethernet. The M1 Mac mini offers no such option and is limited to Gigabit Ethernet.
  • As with the other M1 Macs, the Mac mini offers 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 instead of the Intel model’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5.

What We Didn’t See

As noted, the M1 Macs are extremely similar to the Intel Macs that they replace, with all the changes revolving around the M1 itself. That helps Apple focus on the chip’s benefits, but it also means that the company hasn’t pushed any other aspects of the Mac experience forward.

Why don’t we have Face ID on the Mac yet, or at least a camera that’s close to as good as what’s on the low-end iPad? How about a touch screen to replace the Touch Bar, or support for an Apple Pencil? Could Apple add cellular connectivity as an option, just like on the iPad? Heck, where’s a tiny Mac notebook along the lines of the 11-inch MacBook Air or the 12-inch MacBook?

Apple said that it would be bringing Apple silicon to the rest of the Mac line over the next two years, so it’s likely that we’ll see a new M chip in 2021, probably powering the iMac and the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The iMac Pro and the Mac Pro may be further out, since the maximum performance per watt isn’t as important as raw performance for machines of their class. Regardless, Apple will need to figure out if unified memory makes sense across the line, and if so, how to shoehorn a lot more memory into future versions of the M family.

Watchlist

Timing 2020.10 No comments

Timing 2020.10

Daniel Alm has released Timing 2020.10, adding full compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur and updating the user interface for Apple’s new operating system. The time and productivity tracking app also introduces a new app icon, which displays the current time in the Dock when the app is running. The update also now remembers your most recently used tab at launch, expands the title field to multiple lines when entering long titles, adds an option to stop tasks when going idle, enables you to resume tasks from the Task Stopped notification, improves detection of YouTube videos for the Paths card on the Review screen, updates support for tracking WhatsApp conversations, and addresses an issue that would cause the Timing window to not appear at launch.

Timing is available in three annual subscription tiers: Productivity ($42 annually, $4.50 monthly), Professional ($66 annually, $7 monthly), and Expert ($96 annually, $10 monthly). It’s also included in the $9.99-per-month Setapp Mac app subscription service. ($42/$66/$96 annual subscriptions, free update, 22.3 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13+)

ChronoSync 4.9.12 No comments

ChronoSync 4.9.12

Econ Technologies has released ChronoSync 4.9.12 with numerous tweaks and additions to ensure support for macOS 11 Big Sur. To work around changes to how bootable backups are performed in Big Sur, the synchronization and backup tool introduces the Data Volume-Only backup feature to keep all user Home folders safely backed up. Econ Technologies published a new Tech Note that explains the procedure for creating and maintaining a new Big Sur bootable backup.

The update also modifies various target selection dialogs so that the file selector dialog is able to fully dismiss before the selection is processed, fixes a bug that could result in forcing the synchronization of all multiply-hard-linked files on the initial run of a synchronizer, addresses several problems identifying System volumes in Big Sur, rectifies numerous cosmetic glitches in Big Sur, and resolves an issue whereby push notifications could not be configured if the Mac system name contained an ampersand character. ($49.99 new for ChronoSync with a 20% discount for TidBITS members, free update, 67.3 MB, release notes, macOS 10.11+)

Audio Hijack 3.7.7, Piezo 1.6.10, and Airfoil 5.9.5 No comments

Audio Hijack 3.7.7, Piezo 1.6.10, and Airfoil 5.9.5

Rogue Amoeba has added initial compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur to Audio Hijack 3.7.6, Piezo 1.6.9, and Airfoil 5.9.4. The Audio Hijack and Piezo audio recording apps and Airfoil wireless audio broadcasting app also include the updated Audio Capture Engine 11.5 (featuring Big Sur compatibility). All three apps ensure that updates to the names of Loopback virtual audio devices are now immediately reflected.

Shortly after these releases, Rogue Amoeba issued Audio Hijack 3.7.7, Piezo 1.6.10, and Airfoil 5.9.5, each with backend updates to improve compatibility with the new M1 chip-based Macs. If you’re a TidBITS member, you can purchase Audio Hijack, Piezo, and Airfoil (as well as other Rogue Amoeba apps like Fission and Airfoil) at a 20% discount. (Audio Hijack, $49, 21.1 MB, release notes; Piezo, $19, 10.2 MB, release notes; Airfoil, $29, 20.2 MB, release notes; all three are free updates and require 10.13+)

SoundSource 5.1.2 No comments

SoundSource 5.1.2

Rogue Amoeba has issued SoundSource 5.1.1, a maintenance update that brings initial compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur, along with improvements and bug fixes to the audio control utility. The release also updates the Audio Capture Engine to version 11.5 (with initial Big Sur compatibility), returns Text to Speech audio capture support (fixing a regression in version 5.1), fixes an issue with incorrectly calculated bandwidth settings to improve the Headphone EQ sound, returns the capability to add multiple Special Sources to Favorites, and ensures that the last-open item is correctly remembered between launches in all cases now.

Shortly after this release, Rogue Amoeba issued version 5.1.2 with backend updates to improve compatibility with the new M1 chip-based Macs. SoundSource 5.1.2 also ensures that the blue System “accent” color is no longer improperly ignored in 10.14 Mojave and 10.15 Catalina. ($39 new with a 20% discount for TidBITS members, free update, 16 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13+)

GraphicConverter 11.3.1 No comments

GraphicConverter 11.3.1

Lemkesoft has released GraphicConverter 11.3.1, a maintenance release that sees the Swiss Army knife of graphics programs become a macOS Universal app so it can run natively on both Macs with Apple’s M1 chip and Intel-based Macs. The update also adds lighting effects, introduces auto enhancement without red-eye correction, improves color selected for background and frame in text palette, provides an auto numbering option for text tool, and upgrades the FaceSDK. ($39.95 new from Lemkesoft or the Mac App Store, free update, 234 MB, release notes, macOS 10.9+)

BBEdit 13.5.2 No comments

BBEdit 13.5.2

Bare Bones Software has published BBEdit 13.5.2, a maintenance update with a smattering of bug fixes for the long-standing text editor. The release works around a macOS bug that would cause the Save panel to malfunction and render the app unusable, fixes a bug in which pseudo-definitions in built-in tags files were inappropriately included in the results of Find Definition, resolves an issue where a fold range was not generated for foldable constructs at the end of Python files in some circumstances, corrects the appearance of the Setup window toolbar when running in macOS 11 Big Sur, addresses a crash that occurred when clicks were sent to a text view which was in the process of going away, and adjusts behavior that made it possible for BBEdit to load an ancient Sleep State file if a current one was unavailable. Additionally, the Mac App Store edition now runs natively on both Macs with Apple’s M1 chip and Intel-based Macs. ($49.99 new, free update, 18.7 MB, release notes, macOS 10.14.2+)

GarageBand 10.4.1 10 comments

GarageBand 10.4.1

Apple has released GarageBand 10.4.1 with interface changes for macOS 11 Big Sur and improved performance and efficiency on Macs with Apple’s M1 chip. The music creation and audio editing app now allows customization of region colors in your tracks, no longer sometimes becomes unresponsive when dragging the top edge of the Smart Controls display, ensures the app is immediately visible when exiting from full-screen mode when GarageBand is on a secondary display, properly opens CAF files created by Voice Memos that have been shared to the Finder or Mail, and brings numerous VoiceOver improvements. It also adds 1800 Apple Loops in a variety of genres (including Hip-Hop, Chill Rap, Future Bass, New Disco, Bass House, and more), over 190 instrument patches, and 50 vintage and modern drum kits.

Although the App Store app presents GarageBand 10.4.1 to users running 10.15 Catalina and claims that Big Sur is required, Apple support says that’s the result of a bad update package that will be fixed soon. (Free from the Mac App Store, free update, 797.5 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13.6+)

Evidence of a bad update package for GarageBand

Pages 10.3.5, Numbers 10.3.5, and Keynote 10.3.5 2 comments

Pages 10.3.5, Numbers 10.3.5, and Keynote 10.3.5

Apple has updated all three of its iWork apps to version 10.3.5, bringing compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur and a refreshed design to match the new operating system’s look and feel. Aside from shiny new icons, the only other changes mentioned in Apple’s release notes are the standard “stability and performance improvements.” (Free; Pages, 289.3 MB, release notes; Numbers, 255.8 MB, release notes; Keynote, 342.8 MB, release notes; macOS 10.15+)

iWork 10.3.5 icons

Logic Pro 10.6 2 comments

Logic Pro 10.6

Apple has released Logic Pro 10.6, adding the capability to control the Step Sequencer using Logic Remote on an iPad or iPhone to create beats, bass lines, and melodic parts. Among the voluminous list of improvements and bug fixes, the professional audio app quickens the pace of creating a Drum Machine Designer instance from an audio file containing multiple slices, enables the Root Key in Quick Sampler to be edited using the keyboard, ensures that dragging a scene in the Live Loops grid no longer causes the view to scroll to the bottom, brings several VoiceOver improvements, addresses several crashes (such as when stepping through ChromaVerb presets or beaming a large number of notes in the Score), and now requires a minimum of macOS 10.15 Catalina. ($199.99 new in the Mac App Store, free update, 1.1 GB, release notes, macOS 10.15+)

Final Cut Pro 10.5, Compressor 4.5, and Motion 5.5 2 comments

Final Cut Pro 10.5, Compressor 4.5, and Motion 5.5

Apple has released Final Cut Pro 10.5, Compressor 4.5, and Motion 5.5 to improve performance and efficiency on Macs with Apple’s M1 chip and enable export of HLG high-dynamic-range projects with Dolby Vision 8.4 metadata. All three apps now include built-in support for Avid DNxHR and Avid DNxHD decoding and playback.

Final Cut Pro also fixes an issue in which LUTs were not available in optimized or proxy clips, improves the appearance of HDR thumbnails in the browser and timeline, fixes a bug that caused chapter markers not to be available when sharing, improves stability when applying stabilization and color balance during import, and resolves an issue in which copying stills between libraries would result in duplicate files.

Compressor fixes a bug that caused audio sync to drift when changing the frame rate of a clip and resolves an issue where creating a Blu-ray disc from a DV-PAL source would fail. Motion improves stability when clicking in an empty canvas on a Mac Pro, when manipulating groups of keyframes selected across multiple parameters, when using the Stroke filter with a stroke type selected in the HUD, and when deleting layers after removing a marker. (Free updates. Final Cut Pro, $299.99 new, 2.9 GB, release notes, 10.15.6+; Compressor, $49.99 new, 314.7 MB, release notes, 10.15.6+; Motion, $49.99 new, 2.4 GB, release notes, macOS 10.15.6+)

OmniFocus 3.10 No comments

OmniFocus 3.10

The Omni Group has issued OmniFocus 3.10, introducing support for macOS 11 Big Sur to the task management app. The release also updates the app icon for Big Sur, fixes a bug that could cause text entered after a URL to be appended to the hyperlink instead of added as plain text, ensures updates to the Forecast tag are now immediately displayed in the Forecast outline, and improves Omni Automation for OmniFocus Pro users. OmniFocus 3.10 is a macOS Universal app, meaning it can run natively on both Macs with Apple’s M1 chip and Intel-based Macs. ($39.99 new for Standard and $79.99 for Pro from the Omni Group Web site, $39.99 for Standard from the Mac App Store with an in-app purchase option to upgrade to Pro, 69.6 MB, release notes, macOS 10.14+)

OmniOutliner Essentials and Pro 5.8 No comments

OmniOutliner Essentials and Pro 5.8

The Omni Group has issued version 5.8 of OmniOutliner Essentials and OmniOutliner Pro, bringing compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur to the outlining and information organization apps. The release also updates the app icon to make it feel more at home in Big Sur and improves Omni Automation’s security and per-script approval for external scripts for Pro users. Version 5.8 is also a macOS Universal app, meaning it can run natively on both Macs with Apple’s M1 chip and Intel-based Macs. ($9.99 new for Essentials, $59.99 for Pro, 40.1 MB, release notes, macOS 10.14+)

Fantastical 3.3 No comments

Fantastical 3.3

Flexibits has issued Fantastical 3.3 with added support for macOS 11 Big Sur and Macs with Apple’s M1 chip. The desktop calendar app also introduces several new widgets for Notification Center, similar to the widgets added to the iOS edition of Fantastical back in September. The release also now displays sunrise and sunset times in the weather forecast; adds support for adding Microsoft Teams meetings to events on Office 365 (requires a re-authentication); adds an option to add Google Meet conferences to new invitations automatically; adds support for detecting Skype, Doxy, SimplePractice, and BlueJeans event URLs; resolves an issue where creating an invitation with a Google Meet conference would send two emails to the invitees; and fixes a bug where checking availability could show events off by an hour. ($39.99 annual subscription from Flexibits and the Mac App Store, free update, 40.4 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13.2+)

Merlin Project 7.0 4 comments

Merlin Project 7.0

ProjectWizards has released Merlin Project 7.0, a major upgrade to the powerful project management app that adds support for macOS 11 Big Sur and brings new collaboration features. Users can now comment on activities, assignments, resources, and attachments, with the comments displayed in the last tab of the inspector as a conversation thread. The update also adds a new outline column for comments, displays a bubble symbol to denote whether comments are present in a row (coloring the bubble orange if there are unread comments), and renames the Warnings window to Notifications and uses it to display a list of unread comments.

Merlin Project 7 also now enables you to schedule automatic publishing with exports, updates the toolbar design in Big Sur, fixes a bug in projects created from XML files or templates that prevented list values from adjusting, and no longer displays features related to Merlin Server by default on new installations (turn them on by selecting the Show Merlin Server Features checkbox in Preferences).

The slimmed-down Merlin Project Express—optimized for home and semi-professional users—has also been updated to version 7.0 with Big Sur compatibility but does not receive the new commenting features of the full edition of Merlin Project. Both editions of Merlin Project now require 10.13 High Sierra or later.

An annual subscription to Merlin Project costs $149 via Project Wizards and the Mac App Store (the latter also offers a $14.99 monthly subscription), and a 30-day free trial is available for testing all functions. Current subscribers will receive version 7.0 free of charge as part of regular updates. Merlin Project Express costs $3.99 per month or $39.99 per year through the Mac App Store, and it’s also included in the $9.99-per-month Setapp service. Finally, the iOS edition of Merlin Project has been updated to version 7 with comment features, and it’s priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 for an annual subscription. ($149 annual subscription, 28.6 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13+)

Microsoft Office for Mac 16.43 No comments

Microsoft Office for Mac 16.43

Microsoft has issued version 16.43 of Office for Mac, improving search speed in PowerPoint and patching a security feature bypass vulnerability in Excel. Last month’s release (version 16.42, which we inadvertently missed) was meatier, adding a library of thousands of royalty-free images, icons, and stickers that can be used in Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel workbooks. Excel also added the capability to refresh Power Query queries from Microsoft SQL Server; improved performance, readability, and composability with the LET function; and added support for Visio diagrams like flowcharts or organizational charts from data in a worksheet.

Microsoft Office 16.42 also introduced a new Outlook for Mac with improved performance, simplicity, and features such as a customizable toolbar, enhanced search for better results and suggestions, improved RSVP to meetings, and the capability to reply to messages without opening a new compose window. You need to turn on the New Outlook switch at the top of the Outlook window to access the refreshed email client. Microsoft Office now requires macOS 10.14 Mojave or later, and the new Outlook supports Office 365, Outlook.com, and Google accounts. ($149.99 for a one-time purchase, $99.99/$69.99 annual subscription options, free update through Microsoft AutoUpdate, release notes, macOS 10.14+)

Microsoft Office new Outlook switch