This week, TidBITS has all the details on Apple’s big announcements: better iCloud storage pricing, new Apple Watch models, the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the iPad Pro with optional Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard accessories, and the upcoming fourth-generation Apple TV. But if you’re planning on buying one of the new iPhones, you may find that the experience is completely different this time around — Josh Centers and Adam Engst dig into the details so that you can figure out the best purchase method and data plan for you and your family. Finally, Josh admonishes Apple for what he calls the Mac’s Achilles heel: its fragile and flaky headphone port. Notable software releases this week include Final Cut Pro X 10.2.2, Compressor 4.2.1, Motion 5.2.2, and ChronoSync 4.6.3.

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Apple Quietly Lowers iCloud Storage Prices

  by Josh Centers: josh@tidbits.com, @jcenters

Buried in Apple’s recent jam-packed announcements was a tidbit that was easily missed: prices for 200 GB and 1 TB of storage are dropping, the first paid level of storage is increasing in capacity from 20 GB to 50 GB, and the 500 GB tier seems to be going away. All iCloud accounts get 5 GB of storage for free, but if you need more than that for features like iCloud Photo Library, iCloud backups, and iCloud Drive, here are the new pricing tiers:

The new pricing brings iCloud in line with competitors Dropbox and Google Drive, both of which also charge $9.99 for 1 TB of storage.

Our wallets will appreciate the price drops, but we’d like to see an annual payment option to simplify our bookkeeping too. It’s likely that Apple avoided an annual option previously to make it easier to change the monthly prices for existing customers. As it stands, we suspect that those with 200 GB and 1 TB plans will simply be charged the new lower rates going forward, and people who had 20 GB and 500 GB plans will receive 50 GB and 1 TB of storage for the same costs.

Apple did not announce when the new pricing will become available, but our best guess is that it will happen within the next month or so, alongside iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 El Capitan.

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Apple Watch Gains New Bands, watchOS 2 Ship Date

  by Jeff Carlson: jeff@necoffee.com, @jeffcarlson
  1 comment

At its fall media event, Apple unveiled a host of new bands to complement the Apple Watch — including a new luxury entrant — as well as a 16 September 2015 release date for the next version of the device’s software, watchOS 2.

Unveiled several months ago at WWDC (see “Apple’s watchOS 2 to Gain Native Apps, Third-Party Complications,” 8 June 2015), watchOS 2 can run native apps on the watch instead of being just a front end for apps on the iPhone, as in the current watchOS. Several native apps were mentioned, including iTranslate and GoPro, and Dr. Cameron Powell of AirStrip Technologies demonstrated an AirStrip app that lets doctors review patient information during rounds, access real-time vital statistics, and communicate with other professionals, all with HIPAA privacy measures in place. He also demonstrated Sense4Baby, an app (in coordination with a custom Sense4Baby sensor) that can record a pregnant woman’s heart rate, the baby’s heart rate, and the rate of any contractions — while allowing the pregnant woman to listen to the baby’s heart — and send that to a physician.

The Apple Watch’s internals aren’t changing yet (most likely we’ll see that next year), but Apple did add two colored aluminum finishes, gold and rose gold. Also added to the lineup are an assortment of additional bands, including lavender, antique white, stone, midnight blue, orange, and (PRODUCT)RED sport bands, and a two-toned leather Classic Buckle in black or saddle brown.

For the luxury market, Apple Watch Hermès editions not only offer a stainless steel case and three leather band styles, but also a custom Hermès watch face to match. Prices range from $1,100 to $1,500.

The new models are available now; the Hermès models will be available in October 2015, but only in select Apple retail stores.

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iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus Get Touchy Feely

  by Jeff Carlson: jeff@necoffee.com, @jeffcarlson

Even if you didn’t hear the rumors about Apple’s big media event in San Francisco, you could easily have guessed that Apple would roll out new iPhone models. Following a pattern that goes back years, Apple introduced the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, devices that share the same form factor as last year’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models but with significantly upgraded components. New to the line, however, are a few hardware and software additions, plus an upgrade deal, that make the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus especially interesting.

Pre-orders for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus began 12 September 2015, and the phones will start shipping 25 September 2015. Here’s what’s new:

3D Touch -- When Apple introduced Force Touch for the Apple Watch, we knew it would make its way to the iPhone. But just because the device recognizes when you’re pressing harder doesn’t make it a compelling feature. What’s interesting are the resulting actions, which Apple is calling 3D Touch on the new iPhones.

On the watch, Force Touch brings up additional options that aren’t visible in the interface, such as for switching watch faces or clearing all notifications. 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus goes a step further by providing two new gestures: Peek and Pop.

As the name suggests, a Peek is a quick look into an item without fully opening it, invoked with a slightly harder-than-normal press on the screen. For example, pressing the Subject line of an email message in Mail reveals the contents of the message without opening it (and then requiring you to return to the Inbox). Or, if you see an interesting photo in your Instagram timeline, pressing it displays a preview. Items in the background get blurry to enforce the idea that you’re viewing something above everything else in the interface.

A Pop involves pressing a little harder yet to go ahead and load the message or page — again, without exiting the Peek or taking your finger off the screen to switch apps.

3D Touch also enables Quick Actions, which I think will be far more useful. For example, from the home screen, press the Phone app icon to call a favorite contact immediately; press the Camera app icon to take a selfie, record a video, record a Slo-Mo movie, or snap a photo; or press the Maps app to get directions home, mark your current location, send your current location, or search for nearby places or businesses. A lot of these Quick Actions are essentially like contextual menus on the Mac.

These 3D Touch actions are often supplemented by swipes to do more. If that email you peeked at turned out to be nothing important, swipe right to mark it as read.

The technology to make 3D Touch work is interesting stuff, as described on the iPhone’s Technology page and shown in Apple’s video about the feature.

Bloomberg Business also published a behind-the-scenes look at how 3D Touch came about.

Camera Tricks -- Also following a familiar playbook, Apple is using the iPhone “s” line to punch up the photo capabilities of what has become one of the world’s most popular cameras.

The iSight camera on the back of the phone now captures 12 megapixels of information per image, up from 8 megapixels in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Megapixels can be useless if the increase in sensitivity doesn’t actually improve photo quality — having more low-quality image sensor points just makes a larger low-quality image — so Apple Vice President of Marketing Phil Schiller made a point to describe how the new sensor is better. In addition to including 50 percent more pixels (and therefore 50 percent more focus pixels; to learn more about the technology, see “Apple Announces iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus with Larger Screens,” 9 September 2014), the filters that clarify color have been moved from above the sensor array to the array’s top. Apple also uses deep trench isolation, a technique that separates the photo diodes and limits the amount of light that bleeds between adjacent photo sensors.

The front-facing FaceTime camera now captures 5 megapixels of image data, and using the camera for selfies is improved by what Apple is calling Retina Flash: the entire screen lights up to illuminate your face (it sounds simple, but Apple developed a special chip just to control this function), and the feature uses Apple’s True Tone flash technology (also found on the back-facing flash) to determine the best color temperature.

Those are all interesting improvements, but a feature that is truly unique to the iPhone 6s is Live Photos. When you take a photo, the iPhone actually records 1.5 seconds of stills before and after the moment when you trigger the shutter. Put together as a Live Photo, the effect is like watching a mini video of that moment (sort of like the magic photos in the Harry Potter series). Live Photos is enabled by default, and a yellow “Live” indicator appears when you’re capturing a shot. Press the photo while reviewing it to view the live version. (Check out Apple’s demos — you have to see it to believe it.)

Video is dramatically enhanced in the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, with the capability to record clips in 4K resolution — that’s 3840 by 2160 pixels, compared to the previous 1080p HD video captured by the iPhone 6 at 1920 by 1080 pixels. Apple offers a sample download of 4K footage at the bottom of its iPhone 6s Cameras page so you can see it for yourself. iMovie supports playing and editing that 4K video.

Internal Affairs -- The new iPhones feature improved internal components, which are great to highlight during a product introduction but aren’t as important on their own to consumers considering the devices. For most people, things are just better and faster. But the changes are important to note.

The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are powered by a new 64-bit A9 processor, which is supplemented by an M9 motion coprocessor, now embedded into the A9 instead of operating as a separate chip so it can run all the time. According to Apple, the CPU is 70 percent faster than the A8 chip and graphics processing is 90 percent faster.

The Touch ID sensor is now twice as responsive as those found on the previous iPhone 6 and iPhone 5s models so there should be less of a pause before it recognizes your fingerprint.

Apple says the iPhone 6s is up to twice as fast when connected via Wi-Fi. Also improved is the cellular networking, which Apple calls LTE Advanced, offering up to twice the throughput over 23 bands for better worldwide roaming.

All of this comes in the same shell as the iPhone 6, although with the additional option of a rose gold-tinted aluminum case. Although no one from TidBITS was on hand for the event, I suspect the case is still as slick as last year’s model — as in, it’s hard to hold onto. I’m enamored with the look of the design, but it’s the first iPhone that I keep in a case because it’s not grippy enough on its own.

Oh, and taking a cue from the Apple Watch, Siri on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus can be invoked by saying “Hey Siri” at any time, instead of just when the iPhone is plugged into power.

iPhone Upgrade Program -- Prices for the iPhone 6s models are a little more complicated this year due to the way cellular providers have recently adjusted their business models. Let’s start with configurations and full prices. Amazingly, both phones still start in 16 GB capacities (see “Why Apple Kept the 16 GB iPhone in Favor of 32 GB,” 24 September 2014), with a 64 GB middle ground and 128 GB high-end option. The prices to own the models outright, with no contract, are as follows:

Providers generally offer their own installment programs, such as AT&T Next, or they subsidize payments with a low up-front cost and 2-year contract. For more details on how these plans work now, see “Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World” (11 September 2015).

Apple, however, is introducing the iPhone Upgrade Program, available directly from Apple only, that lets you upgrade to a new iPhone every 12 months, with monthly costs ranging from about $32–$40 (iPhone 6s) or $37–$45 (iPhone 6s Plus). AppleCare+, which costs $129 for the new iPhones if purchased separately, is included in the price, presumably because turning in an undamaged iPhone will be necessary to upgrade. iPhones acquired through the program are unlocked, and can be set up with any carrier.

The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus were a sure bet at this year’s announcement. As Apple’s top source of income, the iPhone is without a doubt the company’s most important product. And although these updates are in line with what we would expect — faster, better, some differentiation with the addition of the rose gold aluminum case — Apple knows it can’t sit still or just offer speed bumps. 3D Touch, dramatically improved cameras, and software features like Live Photos that take advantage of the hardware, not to mention the iPhone Upgrade Program, all make an argument for moving to these new devices. That’s not necessary for everyone, particularly those with an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus now, of course, but it is compelling to millions of people who have an older phone and want to stay on top of Apple’s latest technologies.

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iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil Announced

  by Michael E. Cohen: mcohen@tidbits.com, @lymond

Apple CEO Tim Cook opened the iPad portion of Apple’s media event in San Francisco by saying that the iPad is the “clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.” As an example of that vision, iPad Pro, with its ancillary but desirable peripherals, is coming in November 2015. Here’s what’s new in iPad land.

We’ll start with an appetizer: the iPad mini 4. Compared to the iPad mini 3, which it replaces, this revision of the smallest iPad is thinner and faster, and boasts a better camera, for the same price. (Cases made for the iPad mini 3 may not fit; check with the manufacturer before buying.) It’s available now, as are select previous models, some at lower prices. But that’s not what you came here for, right? Well, here you go…

The so-often-rumored-it-became-a-running-joke iPad Pro is indeed coming, and in three colors (silver, gold, and space gray), sometime in November. The device looks like almost every other iPad you’ve ever seen, except this one has a 12.9-inch screen containing 5.6 million pixels in a housing that is 12 inches (305.7 mm) high by 8.68 inches (220.6 mm) wide by 0.27 inch (6.9 mm) deep, just a smidgen thicker than an iPad Air 2. It weighs 1.57 pounds (713 cm), just a smidgen heavier than the original iPad.

Internally, the iPad Pro features Apple’s latest A9X processor with an M9 motion coprocessor that exceeds the performance of earlier models, as Apple’s comparison chart makes abundantly clear. What it all boils down to, though, according to Apple, is that this device is faster than 80 percent of the portable computers that shipped in the last year — possibly including some developed by a company in Cupertino.

The screen dimensions, 2732 by 2048 pixels (at the iPad standard Retina display pixel density of 264 pixels per inch), are deliberate: the shorter dimension is exactly the same as the height of an iPad Air/Air 2 screen, allowing for the full vertical display of an iPad app when the iPad Pro is in landscape mode. This leaves ample room on the side for a second app’s display by way of iOS 9’s new Split View feature. Added to all that are four speakers — two on the top and two on the bottom — designed to provide high-quality stereo playback no matter how the device is oriented. It also offers the same 10-hour battery life that has been standard for nearly every iPad since the very first model.

A faster iPad with better sound and a bigger screen (big enough, in fact, that the onscreen keyboard is full-size) is not all that makes this device a professional model. It’s the accessories that make it a possible substitute for the typical notebook computer hauled around by a traveling professional. The first is the Smart Keyboard that serves the same function as the Smart Cover available for other iPads — except that this cover has an integrated physical keyboard with cloth-covered 4mm-high keys that are “laser ablated to form the shape of each key.” According to Apple, the cloth covering provides tactile feedback without requiring a thicker mechanism. The Smart Keyboard makes use of three small magnetic Smart Connectors on the side of the iPad Pro to both power the keyboard and communicate with the iPad Pro. The direct connection means that no squirrelly Bluetooth pairing is required, nor is there any risk of some nearby Bluetooth hacker surreptitiously purloining your keystrokes.

The second accessory is the type of device that Steve Jobs summarily dismissed (but that our own Josh Centers predicted in “How Likely Is an Apple Pen?,” 6 February 2015): a stylus, called the Apple Pencil. As is typical of many Apple takes on existing devices, this is no ordinary stylus. The Apple Pencil includes sensors that communicate, 240 times per second, with other circuitry built into the iPad Pro screen to provide precise motion, location, tilt, and force data. Check out the impressive Jony Ive video explaining how the Apple Pencil works. Of course, such a stylus requires power, which is why Apple built a Lightning connector into the top of the Apple Pencil: plug it into the iPad Pro for 15 seconds to give it enough charge for 30 minutes of use. A full charge can power the Apple Pencil for 12 hours.

Apple showed how the iPad Pro could support both office and creative tasks. Kirk Konigsbauer from Microsoft demoed Office apps working side-by-side on the screen, with a user scribbling notes right on a document using the Apple Pencil and efficiently copying and pasting data between windows. Next up was Eric Snowden from Adobe, who showed off a non-destructive layout workflow with text, a photo, and a drawing in a three-app suite of Adobe apps: Comp CC, Photoshop Sketch, and the new Photoshop Fix.

But, as the folk in infomercials inevitably ask: how much will all of this cost you? For the iPad Pro it depends on the model: the low-end model with Wi-Fi and 32 GB of storage will cost $799; the high-end Wi-Fi model with 128 GB of storage will cost $949; and a high-end model with 128 GB of storage and both Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities will sell for $1,079. The Smart Keyboard will run you $169, and the Apple Pencil scribbles another $99 onto your bill. In other words, about $1,347 for a top-of-the-line portable setup weighing less than 2 pounds.

Compare the price of the iPad Pro to $1,449 for a fast MacBook Air, a 13-inch model with a 2.2 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of flash storage — which, by the way, lacks both a Retina display and cellular connectivity, and weighs a full pound more than a fully tricked-out iPad Pro. While many professionals need an actual Mac, with all the software and attendant services it can exploit, many others do not. It seems likely that the iPad Pro will eat up some of the sales that would otherwise be destined for the MacBook Air (and the new 12-inch MacBook). Apple is no stranger to cannibalizing one product line for the benefit of another (the iPhone pretty much killed the iPod), and the iPad Pro may continue that tradition.

Apple has long labored at developing advanced technology that makes itself and the device containing it almost disappear in order to provide a richly immersive user experience — that’s Apple’s vision of personal computing. The iPad Pro with its Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are an impressive-looking, if not inexpensive, next step in that vision.

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The Fourth-Generation Apple TV Is Coming at Last

  by Josh Centers: josh@tidbits.com, @jcenters

It’s coming, for real. The long-rumored, much-speculated Apple TV is officially on its way (for my past predictions, and to taste my claim chowder, see “Finding Clues to the Next Apple TV in iOS 9,” 6 July 2015 and “The Future of Apple TV,” 21 February 2014). Arriving in late October 2015 for $149 (for the 32 GB version) and $199 (for the 64 GB version), the fourth-generation Apple TV has improved hardware, a new touch- and Siri-enabled remote, a new iOS-based tvOS that runs apps, and its own App Store.

Check out the demo video.

“Our vision is simple, and perhaps a little provocative: the future of television is apps,” Apple CEO Tim Cook proclaimed. (Though maybe not that provocative: Amazon, Microsoft, Roku, and Sony have been doing TV apps for years.)

Let’s start with the new Apple TV hardware. At 1.3 inches (33 mm) tall, the new box (yes, it’s still a black box) is a bit thicker than the second- and third-generation models, and omits the optical audio port found in those models. The new Apple TV has four ports in the back: power, HDMI, and 10/100 Ethernet, plus a USB-C port for diagnostics and support. Inside is the A8 processor found in the iPhone 6, 2 GB of RAM, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, and Bluetooth 4.0. The new Apple TV does not support 4K resolutions, but it does do 1080p at 60 frames per second.

More impressive is the new Siri Remote, which is a reimagining of the previous Apple Remote. It features dual Siri microphones, a glass touch surface, Menu and Home buttons, a new Siri button to activate Siri voice control, and even volume buttons to control your TV or receiver’s volume. Also built in are Bluetooth 4.0, an IR transmitter, an accelerometer and gyroscope, and a rechargeable battery. The Siri Remote uses a Lightning connector for recharging, but you shouldn’t have to do that often: Apple claims that the Siri Remote can last for 3 months on a single charge!

tvOS -- Based on iOS 9, but, as Apple’s Eddy Cue put it, “designed for the living room,” the new tvOS doesn’t look all that different from what Apple TV users are already accustomed to, though there are now neat parallax animations for icons. Behind the main menu facade are redesigned versions of all of the existing Apple TV apps.

The Apple TV’s interface has been retooled for the new touch surface on the remote and for Siri, enabling you to rewind and fast-forward with swipes on the touch surface instead of with presses on the previous remote’s directional ring.

Siri on the Apple TV looks as though it will be even more impressive than I had imagined. Of course you’ll be able to open apps with Siri, but you can also search for movies and shows by name, director, actor, or even age rating. And that search is supposed to work not only with iTunes content, but also with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime, with support for more services on the way.

With Siri, you will be able to narrow down a search like this: First say, “Show me some movies,” then “Show me some James Bond movies,” and finally, “Just the Sean Connery ones.” You can even ask Siri stuff like, “What are some good movies to watch with kids?”

What may be the killer feature of the new Apple TV is, “What did she say?” Ever watch a show, and miss a line of dialog? On the new Apple TV, you’ll be able to ask Siri, “What did she say?” (or “What did he say?”) and Siri will rewind the video 15 seconds and temporarily turn captioning on. I know that will get a lot of use at my house.

You can ask Siri for information about a video as you watch it, and you can even ask for a weather forecast, which will be displayed on the screen underneath the video. You can then swipe up to pause playback and see the full weather forecast.

The new Apple TV interface also includes high-definition slow-motion video screensavers, shot exclusively for the new device. These screensavers have day and night scenes, and display based on the time of day. Of course, Apple Music and iCloud Photo Library will (finally) be supported by the new Apple TV.

OK, you’ve been patient. It’s time to talk about what you’ve been champing at the bit for: the apps.

Please, Tell Me about the Apps! -- As I said, the new Apple TV will have an App Store, and developers can sign up for the software development kit now. tvOS won’t run iOS apps directly, but developers can offer a universal purchase, so if you buy an app on your iPhone, you may also receive the equivalent Apple TV app.

Gaming is the obvious play here, and Apple had a number of games to show off, including a version of Hipster Whale’s Crossy Road with a new multiplayer mode, a racing game, Rock Band, a new Harmonix musical baseball game called Beat Sports, Rayman Adventures, Disney Infinity, and Zola — a new fitness game that works with your Apple Watch.

Developer documents indicate that the new Apple TV will support third-party game controllers, but if you’re looking at the Apple TV as a replacement for an Xbox or Playstation, you’ll likely be disappointed. Most games will likely be built with the Siri Remote in mind, and will thus be designed around motion and touch input. Multiplayer games, like Crossy Road, can use an iOS device as an additional controller.

There has been some confusion over how large Apple TV apps can be. The initial install size is capped at 200 MB, which isn’t much, but as iMore’s Serenity Caldwell explained, apps can later download an additional 2 GB of data, with up to an extra 20 GB of resources stored in iCloud. Apps can flush unneeded content as you use the app, like the early levels of a game, so Apple TV app storage should be efficient. By comparison, Playstation 4 games are sized anywhere between 1 GB and 50 GB.

But Apple TV apps won’t just be games. As always, Major League Baseball offers an impressive app that shows current game stats and highlights. Furthermore the new MLB app can notify you of upcoming games and plays, and even lets you watch two games live side by side.

Perhaps most surprising, the Apple TV will have more traditional apps as well. Accommodation sharing site Airbnb, real-estate service Zillow, designer shopping site Gilt, and even the Madefire comic reader will be coming to Apple TV. Not only will you be able to watch video and play games in your living room, but you’ll be able to shop and read comic books too.

Unanswered Questions -- For all the cool things Apple showed off, there are still many unanswered questions about the Apple TV.

First, no new content service was mentioned. Rumor has it that Apple has been working on deals to start its own live TV service, or even a Netflix competitor. If that’s the case, Apple apparently decided to launch the hardware now, with the new service to arrive later. That also may explain why the new hardware took so long to appear: Apple may have been hoping for content deals that have yet to materialize.

Next is the question about cable authentications. An annoying aspect of using an Apple TV, and one that has become even worse since we published “Take Control of Apple TV,” is the deluge of new apps that require a TV package from a participating satellite or cable provider, with each app requiring an individual authorization. I hope tvOS has a solution for this, even if it’s just a unified authorization panel.

There is also the question of which Apple TV model to buy: 32 GB or 64 GB? With apps able to use only 2.2 GB of storage at once (at most), that means you could hold up to 14 of those apps at the 32 GB level, though we doubt most apps will occupy even a fraction of that. The 64 GB model could hold 28 of those mega apps, so that may be a better choice if you plan on doing a lot of gaming with the Apple TV. However, most users will probably be fine with 32 GB. But since many app resources are streamed from iCloud, we wonder what will happen if you experience an Internet or iCloud service slowdown or interruption?

Apple also said that the third-generation Apple TV will stick around at $69. But in what capacity? Will it receive an update to tvOS or will it maintain its existing software? And if it does see the tvOS update, what features will it support? The third-generation Apple TV features an A5 processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 8 GB of flash storage; that’s a far cry from the fourth-generation model’s A8, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 or 64 GB of storage. (In the iPhone world, the A5 was last used in the iPhone 4S, which is the oldest device to support iOS 9.)

It remains to be seen how exactly the new Apple TV will measure up to the third-generation model and to competitors like the Amazon Fire TV and Roku. I think it will be an easy upgrade for third-generation Apple TV owners, except for the most budget conscious. The value is more questionable for Fire TV and Roku owners. If you’re tied to the Amazon ecosystem, I still think the Fire TV makes the most sense, but if you lean toward Fire TV or Roku for their numerous content options, you’ll have to wait to see if the apps you want arrive on the new Apple TV. But if you like the Fire TV for its speed, interface, and voice search, it looks like the new Apple TV will be leaps and bounds ahead on all those fronts.

In any case, it’s impossible to complain. This fourth-generation Apple TV was long overdue, but what Apple has shown is impressive. Its Siri capabilities alone look as though they’ll blow the competition out of the water. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new Apple TV and start updating “Take Control of Apple TV.”

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Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World

  by Adam C. Engst: ace@tidbits.com, @adamengst, Josh Centers: josh@tidbits.com, @jcenters

With Apple’s launch of the iPhone 6s (see “iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus Get Touchy Feely,” 9 September 2015), many people are considering an upgrade. But if you’re on one of the four major U.S. cellular carriers, things are likely to be quite different this time around. Depending on your situation, this may also be an excellent opportunity to switch to a different carrier.

Most Americans have become accustomed to the contract model of cellular service. Instead of paying the full $649 for a low-end iPhone, for instance, you paid $199, with a two-year service agreement. The carriers essentially subsidized the $450 difference, making up for it (and usually generating more profit) by increasing your monthly service charge and ensuring that you’d stay a customer for the duration of the contract.

That contract model is going the way of the DVD, with T-Mobile leading the way and Verizon dropping the contract entirely. Going forward, most people will shell out full price for an iPhone, either all at once or spread out through monthly payment plans. All the carriers offer some type of payment plan, and Apple, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile also have plans that make upgrading easy. In exchange, you’ll pay less for service and won’t be stuck in a contract. This is how most of the rest of the world has long purchased mobile phones and service.

Here’s a rundown on how getting your next iPhone will work, but note that prices (and even the availability of an installment plan) may vary depending on your credit score.

Buying the iPhone -- First, let’s look at what’s familiar: contract pricing. The two-year contract price for an iPhone 6s will start the same as previous iPhones: $199. But where can you still get a contract?

From AT&T, for one, but only directly from AT&T. If you buy an iPhone through the Apple Store, you have to sign up for the AT&T Next installment plan or the iPhone Upgrade Program, which we’ll explain shortly. On the flip side, Verizon no longer offers contracts directly, but if you purchase an iPhone from the Apple Store, you can still get it with a two-year contract. Finally, Sprint still offers old-fashioned two-year contracts by itself and through the Apple Store, but it has new options as well. In general, though, contracts aren’t good deals, since the monthly embedded subsidy cost is often more than subsidized price of the iPhone.

So, let’s look next at what is arguably the simplest option: all four carriers will let you pay the full price for the iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus. Here’s what each model costs from Apple:

Depending on your carrier and plan, paying full price may save you money in the long run. Because no-contract plans don’t include the cost of the device in your monthly bill, you’re incentivized to keep the phone as long as possible. If you don’t mind dropping big money up front and you can keep your phone working for more than two years, you’ll enjoy lower monthly payments and thus less money over time.

Not everyone will be able to swing $649–$949 up front for a phone. That’s OK, Apple and the carriers have you covered there, too, letting you split up the cost of the phone into 24 payments — making your bill similar to what it was under the contract system. Happily, we saw no finance charges for spreading out the cost in this fashion.

Verizon and T-Mobile make this payment plan simple. For either, the monthly payment for a 16 GB iPhone 6s is $27.08, for a total price of $649.92. Sprint offers an Easy Pay option that costs $27.09 per month. All three are fair deals.

The AT&T Next plan offers more choices, but is wildly confusing (note that the upgrade requires trading in your old phone in working order):

If you purchase an iPhone 6s via AT&T Next 18 (confusingly split into 24 payments), you would pay $27.09 per month for your iPhone 6s, the same as Sprint.

To add further chaos to the mix, T-Mobile and Sprint offer different payment plans that let the tech-savvy upgrade more often. Let’s look at each in turn.

T-Mobile offers JUMP! On Demand, which lets you trade in your phone for another one up to three times per year. Of course, you still have to make the monthly payment, but as a launch promotion, T-Mobile offered the 16 GB iPhone 6 for only $15 per month. Folks who got in on that promotion will be able to upgrade to a newer iPhone for no additional cost, and they’ll get priority on available stock. Pretty good deal, if you got it.

T-Mobile is also offering a new JUMP deal for the iPhone 6s. You can get an iPhone 6s for $20 per month or an iPhone 6s Plus for $24 per month. Presumably these are 16 GB models, and there’s no word on how much larger storage sizes will cost.

Sprint is offering an iPhone Forever deal, where if you trade in a working smartphone, you can get an iPhone 6s for $15 per month, with a 22-month plan, but you can trade it in at any time. The $15-per-month price is a limited-time promotion — the usual price is $22 per month, which is what you’ll pay once you upgrade the $15-per-month iPhone 6s to the next model.

Be aware that with the early upgrade plans from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, you will have to trade in your old phone to upgrade, though you may be able to pay a fee to keep it. These plans are largely for those for whom the latest tech is important. Be sure to read the fine print carefully; the details can be tricky.

And now Apple has entered the iPhone installment game as well, making the carriers almost irrelevant.

iPhone Upgrade Program -- With the iPhone 6s, Apple is launching the iPhone Upgrade Program, which lets you upgrade every year and includes AppleCare+ protection.

Here are the monthly prices for the iPhone Upgrade Program:

Note that the iPhone Upgrade Program is more expensive than the carriers’ installment plans, thanks to the addition of the $129 AppleCare+ (it was $99 for iPhones prior to the iPhone 6s).

There are other catches as well. To sign up, you must go to a physical Apple Store, though you can schedule an appointment online. Also, the AppleCare+ accidental damage fee is rising from $79 to $99 for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. Like the other early upgrade plans, you’ll have to trade in your iPhone 6s if you upgrade to the iPhone 7. Lastly, the program requires iPhone activation with a national carrier — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon, so you can’t take advantage of it and then go to an off-brand cellular reseller.

The cool thing about the iPhone Upgrade Program is that the iPhone comes unlocked, so in theory, you could switch between national carriers at any time.

Let’s see what those plans look like now. Note that I’m not including taxes, fees, and miscellaneous discounts, so if you want to compare to a current contract plan, look carefully at a recent bill and take those numbers into account.

T-Mobile -- To call T-Mobile CEO John Legere a “character” would be an understatement. With his pink shirts, leather jackets, long hair, and profane tirades, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for a rock star. Well, he is a rock star of sorts, and he is single-handedly changing the American cellular market.

Since 2013, T-Mobile has branded itself the “Un-carrier,” dropping contracts and subsidies in an attempt to become more profitable. The moves weren’t always popular, such as when T-Mobile abandoned employer discounts, but T-Mobile’s business has been booming since it became the Un-carrier.

If you’ve been with T-Mobile for a while, none of this comes as a surprise. As for plans, the Simple Choice plans are well named: they include unlimited voice minutes and SMS text messaging, and a given amount of data for a fixed monthly price.

Plan prices get more complex but cheaper with a family plan. Two lines cost $80 per month: $50 for the first line, $30 for the second. Both lines feature unlimited talk and text and 1 GB of data. Three lines will run you a total of $90 per month, including the third line at $10 per month, again with unlimited talk and text, plus 1 GB of data for each line. Each additional line, up to six total, costs another $10 per month.

If you need more than 1 GB of data per month, things get tricky, but stick to the same pattern. For the first line, each higher tier of data is an extra $10 per month: $60 for 3 GB, $70 for 5 GB, and $80 for unlimited. The same is true for the second line, but prices are $20 lower: $40 for 3 GB, $50 for 5 GB, and unlimited for $60. Additional lines follow the same pattern, but are $20 cheaper than the second line, so unlimited would be $40.

For an individual, T-Mobile is cheap and easy: $50 per month for 1 GB. But let’s say that you and your spouse each want 1 GB of data every month. That family plan would cost $80 per month total. Add a child with 1 GB of data to the plan and the total increases only by $10, to $90.

There is good news about T-Mobile’s data usage caps. For one thing, you will not be charged overages. The plan covers only 4G data; once you run out, you’re merely dropped back to 3G speed, but you can buy more 4G data if you choose. Second, T-Mobile includes a Music Freedom feature that excludes many popular music services, including Apple Music, from the data limits.

T-Mobile also has a compelling international story for those who frequently travel to other countries. The Simple Choice plan includes unlimited calling and texting in Canada and Mexico, and unlimited 4G LTE data. For another 120 countries, the Simple Choice plan includes unlimited data and texting; calling will be billed different rates depending on the country.

The main problem with T-Mobile is that the company’s coverage isn’t as good as Verizon Wireless’s or AT&T’s, though it’s steadily improving.

Verizon Wireless -- Following in T-Mobile’s lead, Verizon also recently dropped contracts. If you’re currently in one, you can keep it until it expires, switch to one of the new, simpler, contract-free plans (but with a higher device fee until your contract is paid off).

The Verizon Plan now comes in four main tiers:

Like T-Mobile, all of Verizon’s options come with unlimited talk and text. Unlike T-Mobile, Verizon charges overages of $15 for each additional gigabyte of data, though you can upgrade your plan at any time. Verizon no longer has family plans as such, but data is shared among all devices on the plan.

These plans may sound cheaper than T-Mobile’s, but you also have to pay a monthly access fee per device: $20 for a smartphone, $10 for a tablet, or $5 for a connected device, like a Wi-Fi hotspot or an LTE-enabled smartwatch (not the Apple Watch). If you’re still on a contract and switch to one of the new Verizon plans, the access fee will be doubled for the device on contract, so it would be $40 for a smartphone instead of $20.

For an individual with 1 GB of data and an iPhone, the total cost would come to $50 per month — identical to T-Mobile. For a couple sharing 3 GB of data, each with an iPhone, the total would come to $85 per month, $5 more per month than T-Mobile but for an additional 1 GB of data. For a three-person family, it would be $105 — $15 more than T-Mobile.

When Josh does the math to compare this to his family’s current contract plan, it’s not a terrible deal. He and his wife share 3 GB of data, and pay a total of $133.76 per month for service (not counting taxes, fees, and discounts). With the new Verizon Plan, they would be paying only $85 (after their existing contracts end), but of course the cost of their iPhones wouldn’t be included in that.

On the international side of things, Verizon has a variety of plans that aren’t bad for Canada and Mexico, but which seem ludicrously expensive (particularly for data) for other countries.

AT&T -- The new AT&T Next program may be complicated, but what hasn’t changed are the AT&T Mobile Share Value plans. Like plans from other carriers, they feature unlimited talk and text and let you share data with other lines. As with Verizon, there are numerous tiers of data, but the most comparable to the other carriers are:

As with Verizon, there’s a monthly access charge that varies by device: smartphones on AT&T Next or No Annual Contract cost either $25 (for 5 GB or lower data plans) or $15 (for 15 GB or higher data plans), tablets and LTE wearables are $10, and Wi-Fi hotspots are $20.

So an individual with 2 GB of data would pay a total of $55 per month, or a bit more than T-Mobile or Verizon, but with 1 GB more data. A couple sharing 2 GB of data would pay $80 per month, the same as T-Mobile. A family of three sharing 2 GB of data would pay $105, or $125 if 5 GB of data was necessary.

Each additional gigabyte of data costs $15 extra ($20 on the 300 MB plan), though unused data from one month rolls over into the next month (but only month-to-month, not cumulatively).

Adam, Tonya, and Tristan share a 2 GB family plan now, and pay about $130 per month for it. Only one of their iPhones is ever under contract, but it looks as though switching to a contract-free plan would save about $25, or roughly the per-month cost of a new iPhone. So it’s essentially a wash, though occasional overage and international charges increase their bill (see “More Problems with iCloud Photo Library Uploads,” 19 June 2015, and “How to Avoid Data Overage Charges When Traveling to Canada,” 31 July 2015).

As noted in our previous coverage, AT&T’s international story isn’t great, with the 30-day AT&T Passport packages offering unlimited texting, but expensive data and voice minutes:

Sprint -- Sprint has an easy $60 unlimited plan ($85 if you stick with a contract). That’s unlimited talk, text, and data.

However, the Sprint Family Share Pack gets more complex, since there’s no unlimited option. Sprint offers a number of data plans, including:

The confusion comes with the access fees, which cost $40 per device for smartphones under contract, but which are discounted by $15–$25 for non-contract customers, based on the selected data plan. (AT&T works like this too, though it’s not as obvious since the company is deprecating contracts.)

So, for 2 GB shared between a couple not on a contract, the monthly fee is $25 for the data, plus $25 per device, for a total of $75 that’s cheaper than all the others. For three people sharing 2 GB, the bill would be $25 for the data plus $75 for the access fees, for a total of $100; bump up to 4 GB and that increases to $115.

If you go over your data limit, each additional megabyte costs 1.5 cents, which equals out to $15.36 per gigabyte, which is comparable to the competition.

For international travellers, the free Sprint Global Roaming includes unlimited texting, free 2G data, and $0.20/minute calling. 100 MB of 3G data for 1 day can be added for $15, 200 MB of 3G data for 7 days costs $25, and 500 MB of 3G data for 14 days is $50. The “included countries” are quite restrictive, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, for instance, but only a handful of other countries in Europe and Asia. Confusingly, the Sprint Open World program, which is also free, provides unlimited calling and texting, plus 1 GB of high-speed data in Canada, Mexico, and most other countries in Latin America. If you’re sticking to the Americas, you’re probably fine; otherwise, read Sprint’s fine print carefully.

As with T-Mobile, Sprint’s challenge is coverage, which isn’t as complete as Verizon’s or AT&T’s.

The Bottom Line -- Many of you are stuck with whatever cellular carrier has the best service where you live. But for those with a choice, here’s a quick breakdown for an individual looking for a non-contract plan with 1–2 GB of monthly data:

Here’s a breakdown based on a two-person family plan with 2–3 GB of monthly data:

For the couple with a child, again trying to aim for 1–2 GB per person, here’s how it works out:

It took us hours to sift through the carrier sites to put together these lists, and frustratingly, it’s difficult to make exact comparisons, due to the carriers offering differently sized data plans. Nonetheless, here are our conclusions.

We were surprised to find that Verizon, which generally has the best coverage in the United States, was competitive in pricing and reasonable for travel within Canada and Mexico. But avoid Verizon if you do a lot of other international travel.

T-Mobile does generally well, and has the most compelling set of bonuses, including free international roaming, free music streaming, data rollover for 3 GB and larger plans, and reduced speeds instead of overage fees if you exceed your data cap. Its weak network coverage is bolstered by Wi-Fi calling.

AT&T was a solid middle performer, and when it was notably more expensive, that was generally due to having a larger data plan than the others. Rollover data is welcome, but AT&T’s international plans are weak.

Sprint is just weird. It had the most expensive individual plan, but with unlimited data. Then it was the cheapest for a two-person family plan, but expensive again for the three-person family. The company’s international story is complicated and restrictive, but largely free in supported countries. Even data overages are unusual, being billed per megabyte, rather than per gigabyte, even though the raw cost is the same. Like T-Mobile, Sprint’s coverage is weak, but is bolstered by Wi-Fi calling.

What Does It All Mean? -- We’ve been pondering the move to contract-free plans coupled with installment-based iPhone purchases all week, and Apple’s introduction of the iPhone Upgrade Program threw in yet another variable. It seems safe to make the following conclusions:

In the end, not much is really that different, and the move away from contract plans seems to be generally positive for both consumers and Apple, but dangerous for carriers, who may end up becoming generic utility providers before long.

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The Headphone Port: The Mac’s Achilles Heel

  by Josh Centers: josh@tidbits.com, @jcenters

Apple has the most beautiful, well-designed lineup of desktop and laptop computers ever made. But they all have one common part that has given me more trouble than any other: the blasted 3.5 mm headphone port. I’ve owned dozens, maybe even hundreds, of devices with such a port, dating back to the 1980s, and have never had a problem with one, except for my two Macs: a 2011 MacBook Pro and a brand-new iMac with Retina 5K display.

The source of the problem, as Chris Breen once explained in Macworld, is that inside every Mac’s headphone port is a small sensor switch that detects when you insert a plug. Plug in your headphones and the switch triggers, shuts off the Mac’s internal speakers, and outputs sound to your headphones. Remove the plug and the switch flips the internal speakers back on.

That seems like a sensible design decision, but at least on a computer, it’s flawed, as my examples demonstrate.

The Sound of Silence -- A few months ago, my MacBook Pro’s internal speakers stopped working. When I tried to turn the volume up, the onscreen icon indicated that they were broken, but when I plugged in headphones, everything worked fine.


After a bit of research, I learned about the headphone port switch, and deduced that it had become stuck. This problem is not rare, as shown by the above Macworld article, as well as Apple support discussion threads here, here, here, and here.

How do you know for sure that the switch is stuck? You’ll see these symptoms:

There are a few commonly suggested remedies for a stuck switch:

Unfortunately, none of these worked for me. But my MacBook Pro was still covered under AppleCare, so I brought it in for service. A few days later, I had a new logic board, and I was mostly good again.

The problem bit me a few more times, even with the new logic board. Thankfully, plugging in and removing headphones reset the switch each time thereafter on the MacBook Pro.

The problem with my iMac isn’t a broken part, but it’s a design flaw that’s even more annoying.

An Inconvenient Port -- The iMac with 5K Retina display is a work of art, with its huge, crisp screen and clean design. It may be a bit too clean.

As you probably know, all the iMac’s ports are in the back of the machine, including the headphone port. This puzzling decision can only be chalked up to Apple’s Ive mind, which often prioritizes form over function.

The problem with this design is that you have to reach behind the iMac every time you want to connect or disconnect headphones. Since the iMac is so thin and light, you’re guaranteed to shift the screen every time you do this, and I always feel like I’m going to knock it over. It’s also difficult to plug the headphones in without getting fingerprint smudges on the screen. It gets old fast.

No problem, I thought. I have a pair of Beats Solo2 headphones, and while this isn’t the place to review them, one nice feature is that they have a detachable cable. I was hoping that I could keep the cable plugged in and merely unplug the headphones to play audio out of the speakers, which works with some devices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with the iMac. Nor would running an extension cable to a more convenient location.

Ah, but what if I manually switched the output to the internal speakers in OS X? Here’s a tip: Option-click the volume icon in the menu bar, and you get a drop-down menu that lets you choose audio outputs and inputs. But unfortunately, that doesn’t work here either.


Neither of these solutions work because the headphone port switch is hardwired: if the sensor detects the physical presence of a plug, it disables the internal speakers, and there is no way to re-enable them other than toggling the sensor again.

This is an Achilles heel for every Mac, because if that little tiny sensor gets stuck, as it seems to for a non-trivial number of users, your internal speakers will no longer work. Conceivably, it could also get stuck in a way where the speakers would work, but not the headphones.

As it stands now, I have these options:

I did hack together another free solution, though it’s not an option for everyone. My secondary Dell monitor has its own headphone port, and since its Mini DisplayPort connection from the Mac can carry audio, I can select the monitor as an audio output from the volume menu. But there’s a catch: OS X, expecting the monitor to have its own volume controls, doesn’t let me change the headphone volume.

The workaround is again free. The free demo of the $39 audio utility Sound Siphon 2 provides just the volume control I need. As explained in the Sound Siphon FAQ, launch Sound Siphon, go to Sound Siphon > Preferences, and select your actual output device from the drop-down menu (in this case, DisplayPort). Close Sound Siphon preferences, and click On in the upper left. Now, when you choose Sound Siphon Out from the volume menu, that selects your headphones, while Internal Speakers routes audio to the speakers.

The problem with this solution is that the headphone output never gets particularly loud, and volume-boosting app Boom (see “FunBITS: Boom for Mac Pumps up the Volume,” 18 April 2014) doesn’t work with this setup. It’s too quiet for my podcasting work, so I’m re-evaluating the other approaches.

The fact that I have this problem with a $2,200 computer is nothing short of ridiculous. Both my iMac annoyance and the aforementioned MacBook Pro silence have the same root cause: Apple does not provide a software override for that infernal headphone port switch.

Here’s the thing: I know the speakers can still work with the switch triggered. When I reboot my iMac with the headphones plugged in, it fills my office with the Mac startup sound. So if it can play that sound through the speakers, I know it’s capable of playing other audio as well.

So please Apple, I’m begging you: give us a way to switch between internal speakers and headphones in OS X. Pretty please? It’s a simple option that could be added to the Sound preference pane; it can’t be that difficult. Slip it into the beta for OS X 10.11 El Capitan, put it in a point release, or at least expose the API to developers so they can fix it.

Alternatively, let’s say for argument’s sake that there is no way OS X could override the headphone port sensor switch. In that case, Apple, I beg you again: get rid of that stupid switch in future Macs. Make it a software function. On my last non-Mac computer, a home-built Windows PC, I could swap between headphones and speakers in the sound card settings. Come on, Apple, Microsoft Windows and a guy who built a cheap computer on a kitchen table has you beat here! That should be sufficiently embarrassing.

Think about it this way, Apple: ditching that switch would provide a consistent audio source management interface in OS X, and would result in fewer support calls, fewer trips to the Genius Bar, and less waste, because a dumb little switch getting stuck wouldn’t require an entire logic board replacement. It truly is the Mac’s Achilles heel.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 14 September 2015

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

Final Cut Pro X 10.2.2, Compressor 4.2.1, Motion 5.2.2 -- Apple has updated its lineup of professional video editing apps, releasing Final Cut Pro X 10.2.2, Compressor 4.2.1, and Motion 5.2.2. Both Final Cut Pro X and Motion fix render errors that could occur when using reflective materials with 3D text, improve performance when loading text styles, and correctly export Motion Title templates with published text layout parameters. Final Cut Pro X also adds native support for Sony XAVC-L and Panasonic AVC-Intra 4:4:4 encoding up to 4K resolution, adds the capability to export interlaced H.264 video, and enables asset management systems to include a library backup file when sharing from Final Cut Pro.

Compressor 4.2.1 fixes a bug that could cause a crash after migrating a user account to another system, restores the capability to use markers for i-frame placement in H.264 exports, and improves audio and video sync of closed captions and subtitles. (Final Cut Pro, $299.99 new, 2.83 GB, release notes, 10.10.4+; Compressor, $49.99 new, 431 MB, release notes, 10.10.4+; Motion, $49.99 new, 2.21 GB, release notes, 10.10.4+; all three titles available from the Mac App Store with free updates for previous purchases)

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ChronoSync 4.6.3 -- Econ Technologies has released ChronoSync 4.6.3 with fixes for multiple issues specific to OS X 10.11 El Capitan, plus new controls for limiting bandwidth usage when communicating with ChronoAgent. For El Capitan, the synchronization and backup app fixes a crash that occurred when closing document windows if the corresponding log window was open, resolves an issue that prevented SMB targets that were El Capitan systems from being properly detected, and ensures that automatic login for file sharing targets works properly if the username includes spaces. The update also adds SmartScan support for removable media (including disk images), works around a bug caused by NAS devices that generated Parameter Errors when creating files and folders, and fixes a crash that occurred when multiple synchronizer documents were starting up at exactly the same time. (Free update, $49.99 new for ChronoSync with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, 28.5 MB, release notes, 10.8+)

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ExtraBITS for 14 September 2015

  by TidBITS Staff: editors@tidbits.com

In our latest ExtraBITS collection, Josh Centers discusses Apple’s announcements on the Tech Night Owl podcast, the New York Times examines the rise and fall of Mac user groups, and Apple battles the U.S. government over encryption.

Josh Centers Evaluates Apple’s New Offerings with The Tech Night Owl -- Josh Centers once again joined The Tech Night Owl podcast to discuss Apple’s latest round of announcements. Josh explains why the fall event wasn’t a bore, why Apple is not a church, and why the debate over whether the iPad is a consumption or creation device was stupid. He also offers some advice for those considering an iPad Pro, and of course, delves into the new Apple TV.

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The Rise and Fall of Mac User Groups -- We love and have long supported Mac user groups, but this New York Times article does a good job of describing the fading state of many MUGs. Despite (or perhaps in part due to) the vastly larger size of the Apple user base, most groups are suffering falling attendance, though they still succeed at meeting the needs of their aging members. In a statement, Apple told the Times that the company was “honored to have the support of loyal customers like the members of Mac user groups, many of whom have been part of the Apple community for decades.”

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Feds Battle Tech Companies Over Encryption -- Paranoid iMessage users, take heart: Apple refused a court order to hand over real-time iMessage conversations to the Justice Department. The reason? Because not even Apple could decrypt them, so the company could not comply. However, Apple did hand over some messages stored in iCloud. Meanwhile, Microsoft is battling the Justice Department in court in a case that could determine just how much data tech companies are required to provide to law enforcement.

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