What the Mac Pro Announcement Means for Apple

An admission of fault is not a sign of weakness

The 2013 Mac Pro (which, sadly, is the current model) is a curious product. What could be mistaken for Darth Vader’s waste basket was born out of an aging design and pressure from tech reviewers that Apple “can't innovate anymore.” Cupertino’s SVP of worldwide marketing, during the Pro’s unveiling at their 2013 developers conference, defiantly retorted “Can't innovate anymore, my ass!”

Fast forward to the present day, four years later, and in an unprecedented sit-down with computing journalists, Apple SVP of engineering Craig Federighi admits “We designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.” In other words, the black trash can was an engineering dead end. The purpose of the discussion was to hype a revamped and modular Macintosh Pro that will be released next year. 

Mac Pro design 2006-2012. Credit: Apple Support

If this sounds familiar, it ought to; this was the approach used in Mac Pros of 2012 and as far back as 2006. The 2006 design was inspired by the Power Mac line, which came in a modular, full ATX form factor as early as 1999. This idea of a properly user-upgradable desktop Macintosh is tried and true, with roots literally in last millennium. 

Apple is backtracking with their roadmap for the Mac Pro, and that’s not a bad thing. The internal design of the current (that is to say four-year-old) Mac Pro is essentially a triangle that sits inside of its cylindrical housing. On one side you have the processor, ram, and logic, and on the other two lay dual AMD graphics cards.

“Apple is backtracking with their roadmap for the Mac Pro, and that’s not a bad thing.”

The two AMD FirePro D300 (build to order configs include the D500) GPUs were among the most powerful of their time, but Moore’s Law applies to graphics too and sure enough, the steady march  of throughput and efficiency led to a poorly aging, so-called top-of-the-line product. Not only can the current design of the Pro not accommodate more powerful, higher temperature graphics cards, but it has an inherent flaw of software optimization. 

If the only programs a Pro user works in are first party, then they will have a lovely time using Apple’s aesthetic and quiet custom-built mini-rig. The problem lies in the prevalence of the Adobe suite of creative apps. Adobe software is optimized for NVIDIA’s proprietary CUDA Cores. Since the Mac Pro uses dual AMD GPUs, the graphics cards are underutilized and the processor bears a greater portion of the load.

Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller [left] and SVP of engineering Craig Federighi [right]

Not only are the GPUs under utilized, but in some cases only a single graphics card is used at all. Federighi said “There’s certain scientific loads that are very GPU intensive and they want to throw the largest GPU at it that they can…. Certain kinds of high-end cinema production tasks where most of the software out there that’s been written to target those doesn’t know how to balance itself well across multiple GPUs but can scale across a single large GPU.” NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossFire, methods of using dual graphics cards, are used by a tiny sliver, an irrelevant minority of users and so developers rarely optimize their software for these niche configurations. 

Apple has been going down a long road of user hostile product decisions, including soldered on components. User-upgradability matters far more to desktop users, which is why there has been less outcry against this trend in Apple notebooks. The MacBook Air, the first non-upgradable Apple laptop, arguably couldn’t have been made if the battery, RAM, hard drive, and processor were end user-serviceable. All Mac customers are now locked into their computer's specifications at the time of purchase.

When these types of decisions leaked over into Apple's iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro desktops, the design choices became unjustifiable. Apple’s rare show of humility will ultimately make the company stronger as it looks to engender goodwill from the desktop computer community, some of whom use their high-end Macs to develop Apple-exclusive software. Let’s hope you can upgrade the RAM on next year’s model. 


Nintendo to Cease Production of NES Classic

North American Shipments End in April

Well folks, this is it. Despite unyielding demand worldwide, Nintendo is ceasing production of the NES classic in North America. In a statement released to the Verge, Nintendo has said that the final shipments will be delivered throughout April to retailers. Anyone who doesn’t have one already will probably never get their hands on one.

The NES Classic was released last November, becoming last holiday season’s hot buy. With the release of the Switch still months away, the NES Classic would became a substitute for those who wanted to adventure with their favorite mustachioed plumber. Being built with nostalgia in mind for the aging gaming population, Nintendo severely underestimated demand for a “new” Nintendo console. Sound familiar?

"Nintendo severely underestimated demand for a “new” Nintendo console."

Featuring 30 classic games with favorites like Super Mario Bros., the console saw critical success. Extra features like save states and screen filters appealed to new and old gamers alike. Just about the only criticism Nintendo received on the console was the extremely short supply, which never improved despite additional shipments and a low MSRP of $60.

Immediately after release, scalpers began reselling the NES Classic at markups of up to 200%, (except for one which sold for $5000) eventually settling to around $150 before this news went live. Some saw consoles appearing on Nintendo’s ebay account as evidence of intentional scarcity, much like the Nintendo Wii more than a decade ago.

"This is sad, but not totally unexpected."

This is sad, but not totally unexpected. The NES Classic was a great throwback to a bygone era of gaming. For some, it was their first (and maybe only) introduction to classics such as The Legend of Zelda. Still, with NES Classic production stopped for good, those few consoles still in the wild will fly off shelves quickly enough.

Davis's Tech News April 11 - April 17

"Davis's Tech News" is a weekly digest of #technews
curated by D&theJM's Senior Technology Correspondent, Davis.


GameStop Investigating Data Breach

Pre-Owned Credit Cards For Sale

Used video game retailer GameStop is investigating a data breach compromising credit cards used on gamestop.com from September 2016 to February 2017. On Friday, GameStop confirmed the breach to security expert Brian Krebs, whose financial sources stated that card numbers, expiration dates, cardholder addresses, and even CVV2 numbers have been stolen. 

CVV2 numbers are the three digits on the back of a credit card and are not supposed to be stored by online retailers. This is because they are used to prevent a card number and expiration date from being used or duplicated if stolen. Since the CVV2s are difficult to get without the physical card, it is likely that malware infected the website.

GameStop hired a security firm to investigate on the same day it was notified. Right now, no further information has been disclosed, but they did acknowledge that the information may already be for sale online. So far, it seems that their retail stores are not affected.

“Those affected should keep an eye on their credit card statements, remove the card from their GameStop account, change their password, and consider having their card reissued.”

For now, important information such as the number of people or how the breach happened are still under investigation. GameStop has had some trouble staying profitable recently. Their controversial circle of life program, poor holiday sales and pending close of more than 100 stores are worrying investors. Those affected should keep an eye on their credit card statements, remove the card from their GameStop account, change their password, and consider having their card reissued.


Kobo Aura ONE Review: a truly single-purpose device

The eight-inch form factor lives again

There’s one big name in eReaders, maybe two in America if you count Barnes and Noble’s struggling NOOK brand. That name is Amazon Kindle. The de facto standard, the the Fitbit or iPhone of eReaders, Amazon Kindle and its tiered offering of slates ranging from $79 to $289 offers something for everyone. That is, everyone looking to read digital media. That market is shrinking; eReader ownership has declined from less than one in four to less that one in five among US residents. 

It is in this less-than-rosy landscape that Kobo, a Canadian brand acquired by Tokyo-based electronics company Rakuten, finds itself. Third place in a decaying market is no enviable position and while Kobo’s latest eReader, the Aura ONE, is unlikely to the change the Toronto-based firm’s standing, it is a premium device that offers something distinct from Amazon’s high-end Voyage and Oasis products.

"While the Aura ONE is nearly identical in size to the iPad mini, it's the Amazon Kindle that Kobo is competing with."

What sets the Kobo Aura ONE apart from other top tier eReaders is its screen size. The ONE bucks the long-standing trend of eReaders to measure six inches diagonally and opts for an iPad mini-esque 7.8 inch screen size. While the Aura ONE is nearly identical in size to Apple’s smallest slate, the Amazon Kindle is what it’s competing with. To be exact, the aforementioned Kindle Voyage and Oasis are the biggest competition for Kobo’s eReader.

The Voyage and Oasis are both supposed to be top-of-the-line “super-Paperwhites” (the Paperwhite being Amazon’s best-selling and midrange E Ink device). They fail to add much value beyond physical buttons and a display flush with the bezel. The Kindle Paperwhite, Voyage, and Oasis all have six-inch, frontlit, high-resolution screens and so it’s hard to convince prospective buyers to spend the extra money when the Paperwhite offers so much value at $119 (with frequent sale prices of $99).

"The Kobo Aura ONE is water resistant and supports the open file format EPUB."

It’s at this crossroads that Kobo has an in. It may not have the page turn buttons of the premium Kindles, but it has a larger screen size. It is also IPX8 water resistant (meaning it can survive in water at six feet for up to an hour) and supports the open file format EPUB, whereas Kindle eReaders can only display PDF and text documents and Amazon’s proprietary AZW and KFX file types. 

So the Kobo Aura ONE’s role in the eReader market is for those who say “the Kindle Paperwhite isn’t good enough for me.” Granted, that’s a dwindling number of people but the ONE fits the niche better than either premium Kindle. The Voyage costs $199, the Aura ONE is priced at $229, and the Kindle Oasis is listed for $289. For $30 more than the Voyage and $60 less than the Kindle Oasis, you get a larger screen and waterproofing.

"For $30 more than the Kindle Voyage, you get a larger screen and waterproofing."

The ONE is better on paper, but how “premium” is this eReader in practice? In a word, delightful. The Kobo Aura ONE is the lovechild of the iPad mini and Kindle Paperwhite, borrowing what’s best from each device. Its screen is flush with the bezel and is roughly eight inches like the iPad, and it’s made of a lightweight yet durable polycarbonate like the Kindle. Naturally, it shares its E Ink heritage with the Kindle rather than the iPad’s LCD.

Apple iBooks allows you to sideload your own eBooks and the feature is present on Kobo devices too. Perhaps its standout feature, the Kobo Aura ONE also has built-in support for the read-it-later service Pocket. The eReader has a dedicated menu for Pocket articles separate from Kobo titles and sideloaded purchases. 
The software itself is simple, yet elegant. It’s essentially a stripped down and simplified version of Android and the single-purpose nature of this slate shines on the 300 PPI display, rivaling the 326 “Retina Display” of the iPad mini. And while that technically makes the Apple tablet screen more pixel dense, real world use gives the edge to the Kobo thanks to its matte, frontlit, E Ink display. The color temperature of the LEDs can even be adjusted in a manner akin to f.lux or Apple Night Shift.

Overall, the Kobo Aura ONE is an excellent device for people looking for better options than the Kindle Paperwhite. It is the clear winner in terms of value and features in its segment of the market.


Congress Allows ISPs to Sell Customers' Browsing History

The latest blow to internet privacy

On March 27, the U.S House of Representatives voted on a resolution to remove internet service provider (ISP) privacy rules passed last year. One week earlier, the U.S Senate voted to do the same. Soon, the legislation will reach President Donald Trump, where he will either sign or veto it. A veto is unlikely, as the White House has issued a statement that their advisors will recommend Trump sign it.

The President will likely remove the rules which require ISPs to get a customer's explicit consent before selling or sharing their web browsing data and private information with advertisers or other companies. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the rules, which will go into effect December 4, 2017. Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argues that removing these rules will make privacy easier for customers, as each ISP and online company has its own set of privacy rules.

House votes to remove the privacy rules were 215 to 205, with most Republicans for and all Democrats against. Furthermore, the Senate has ensured that the FCC’s rulemaking will have no effect using the Congressional Review Act. This also prevents the FCC from issuing similar regulations in the future.

Under the rules, ISPs would have to take reasonable steps in protecting their customers’ information from theft and data breaches. This section should have taken effect on March 2, but the FCC’s new Republican majority stopped it. A set of requirements for notifications for data breaches is still scheduled to start on June 2, should the rules survive.

“News of the resolution is headline worthy, but there will be no change from the privacy we have now.”

Republicans believe that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not the FCC, should have authority over ISP privacy practices. The FCC recently classified ISPs and phone companies as common carriers which cannot be regulated by the FTC. Congress or the FCC can still change that. News of the resolution is headline worthy, but there will be no change from the privacy we have now. After all, the rules never went into effect.