I’m Marco Arment, creator of Overcast, technology podcaster and writer, and coffee enthusiast.

Last updated Nov. 9, 2018, 3:18 p.m.

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The 2018 iPad Pro

Watch my video review of the new iPad Pro in both sizes.

Rather than try to be comprehensive, I focused on what matters most to me: size choice between the 11” and 12.9”, the Smart Keyboard Folio from my perspective as a frequent 10.5” Smart Keyboard user, the new Pencil, and why “getting work done” isn’t important to me.

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The 2018 Mac Mini

Watch the video review

I hardly ever think about my Mac Mini, but it serves a vital role for my family as our home-theater mixer, Plex server, ScanSnap server, Apple Photos backup, and Backblaze host for our NAS.1 Almost every port on the back is in use, and it runs 24/7, reliably, in total silence.

Until last week, I thought it would be the last Mac Mini that Apple ever made.

And when rumors started swirling about an imminent Mac Mini update, I assumed the worst: if it came at all, it would be a tiny box with a slow, ultra-low-power processor and almost zero ports, optimizing for small size instead of versatility.

I don’t think this was an unreasonable fear after the 2014 Mac Mini update, which made many key aspects much worse without making anything much better. It seemed clear then, and for the following four years that it went without an update, that Apple held the Mac Mini and its customers in very low regard.

Not anymore.

The 2018 Mac Mini is real, and it’s spectacular.

It makes almost nothing worse and almost everything better, finally bringing the Mac Mini into the modern age.

Ports! Glorious ports!

Number one — and this is a big one these days, especially for this product — is that it’s not any less useful or versatile than the outgoing Mac Mini, including the generous assortment of ports. If the previous one served a role for you, the new one can probably do it just as well, and probably better and faster, with minimal donglage.2

It’s the same size as the old one, which is the right tradeoff. I know zero Mac Mini owners who really need it to get smaller, and many who don’t want it to get fewer ports or worse performance.

The point of the Mac Mini is to be as versatile as possible, addressing lots of diverse and edge-case needs that the other Macs can’t with their vastly different form factors and more opinionated designs. The Mac Mini needs to be a utility product, not a design statement. (Although, even as someone tired of space-gray everything, I have to admit that the Mini looks fantastic in its new color.)

The base price has increased to $800, and that’s not great. It’s partly justifiable because it’s much higher-end than before — the processors are much better, the architecture is higher-end and includes big advances like the T2, and all-SSD is standard — but it’s still an expensive product in absolute terms.

Apple lent me a high-end configuration for review — 6-core i7, 32 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD — which would cost $2499 (much of which is the SSD). This would’ve sounded crazy to spend on a Mac Mini a few years ago, but when it’s specced up like this, it’s targeting a much higher-end market than the previous model could. Compared to similarly specced iMacs and MacBook Pros, the pricing is generally reasonable.

And this can truly be a pro desktop, with just one exception.


The big story to me is how incredibly fast this thing is. Granted, I’m testing the fastest CPU offered, but damn.

Geekbench results are very strong. The i7 Mac Mini scored better on single-core performance than every other Mac today (!) at 5912, and its multi-core score of nearly 24,740 beats every Mac to date except the iMac Pro and the old 12-core 2013 Mac Pro.

“Performance-competitive with pro Macs” was not high on my prediction list for a Mac Mini update, but here we are.

As the rate of CPU advancement has slowed dramatically over the last few years, Apple has found other ways to improve performance. The T2 is great for lots of security reasons — I wouldn’t buy a new Mac these days without it — but what you’re seeing here is its strength as a ridiculously fast SSD controller.

This Mac Mini builds my app, Overcast, much faster than my maxed-out 13-inch MacBook Pro, and about as quickly as my 10-core iMac Pro! Obviously, to achieve this result with only 6 cores, it’s not maxing out the CPU 100% of the time — it hits it in bursts while juggling a lot between the SSD and memory — but the result is that it’s incredibly fast as a development machine.

The Blackmagick Disk Speed Test shows that the raw SSD performance is effectively identical to the other T2 Macs shipped to date, and a huge improvement over the four-year-old Mac Mini.

A lot of people use Mac Minis as media or Plex servers, so I ran an H.265 transcoding test with ffmpeg. This maxes out all CPU cores, so the results predictably scale with the core count: the 6-core Mac Mini was much faster than the 4-core MacBook Pro, but the 10-core iMac Pro beat them both.

But if an app supports the T2’s hardware HEVC encoder,3 it can go much faster. And since every T2 so far performs identically, all T2 machines — from the 2018 MacBook Air to the iMac Pro — encode HEVC this way at the same speed, and all in complete silence because they’re barely touching the CPU.

I wasn’t able to notice any quality differences between the videos encoded with x265 and the T2’s hardware acceleration.

The only spec that lets it down is the Intel GPU. It’s fast enough for common tasks, but if your workload benefits from a strong GPU, you’re better off going for an iMac or a 15-inch MacBook Pro, or considering an eGPU setup.

Many Mac lines rely on Intel’s integrated GPUs to fit their physical and thermal needs, and Intel has been incredibly inconsistent over the last few years in delivering updated CPU-GPU combinations that would be suitable for many Macs.

We often blame Intel’s CPU roadmap (or Apple’s seeming indifference) for the lack of updates to certain Mac lines, but Intel’s GPU offerings are often the bigger issue. This is Intel’s fault, but it’s Apple’s problem — and Apple passes that problem right along to its customers.

But that’s it — aside from price, that’s the only downside. The GPU sucks. Everything else is awesome.

If you don’t need a strong GPU — and honestly, most Mac Mini use-cases don’t — this is a solid pick for a general-purpose Mac, even at the base-level configuration. Spec it up, and it’s more like a mini-Mac Pro.

A few assorted notes, with apologies for stealing Gruber’s format:

  • It’s silent at idle. The i7’s fan noise does become clearly audible when it’s under heavy load: it’s in the ballpark of a modern MacBook Pro, but quieter.

    Interestingly, I disabled Turbo Boost to simulate the base i3 model’s thermals, and couldn’t get the fan to spin up audibly, no matter what I did. Those who prioritize silence under heavy loads should probably stick with the i3.

  • This is the first non-iMac desktop Mac that lets you plug in a 5K display, at full quality, without dual cables or other unreliable hacks. We finally have 5K Retina Mac options beyond the iMac! Unfortunately, we still don’t have any great standalone 5K displays. (The LG UltraFine isn’t.)
  • You can upgrade the RAM again! I never would’ve guessed this was coming, and I believe it’s the first time in a long time that an Apple product’s direct successor became more upgradeable and serviceable.

    I still recommend getting it with the right amount of RAM from Apple if possible, since third-party RAM has historically been a mess of unreliability and finger-pointing, but if you need that, it’s back. (The security screws inside — TR6? — still need some iFixit tools to get past.)

I Can’t Believe The Mac Mini Is This Awesome, I Can’t Even Say “Again” Because It Never Was

A new Mac Mini could’ve been so much worse. At many times in its past, it has seemed unloved, neglected, and downright punitive — a similar pattern to Apple’s other headless desktop, the Mac Pro. It seemed for a while that Apple lacked any interest in making Macs anymore, especially desktops.

Last year, with the introduction of the absolutely stellar iMac Pro, Apple showed us a glimpse of a potential new direction. It was downright perfect — a love letter to the Mac and its pro desktop users, and a clear turnaround in the way the company views the Mac for the better.

We didn’t know until now whether the iMac Pro’s greatness was a fluke. But now we have another data point: the last two desktops out of Apple have been incredible. After this, I have faith that they’re going to do the new Mac Pro justice when it finally ships next year.

The new Mac Mini is a great update, out of nowhere, to a product we thought would never be updated again.

Of course, with Apple’s track record on the Mac Mini, it may never be updated after this. This is either the first in a series of regular updates with which Apple proves that they care about the Mac Mini again, or it’s the last Mac Mini that will ever exist and we’ll all be hoarding them in a few years. We can’t know yet.

But today, this is a great update, a wonderful all-arounder for lots of potential needs, and just a fantastic little computer.

  1. I do this via iSCSI, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It breaks and requires a new $200+ iSCSI initiator with almost every macOS update — which is why my Mac Mini still runs Sierra. In the near future, I’ll just directly attach some giant external hard drives to the Mac Mini and stop using the NAS. ↩︎

  2. Unless you used optical audio, audio input, or the SD-card reader. (Shit, I use optical in and out.) ↩︎

  3. ffmpeg can do it by specifying -c:v hevc_videotoolbox instead of -c:v x265. I also needed -vtag hvc1 for the output MP4s with either codec to be playable on macOS.

    Compressor uses the T2’s HEVC acceleration when encoding 8-bit HEVC, but not 10-bit. ↩︎

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Why it’s hard to read the time on Infograph

Quick, what time is it?

If that took you a bit longer than usual to tell the time on the Apple Watch’s new default Infograph face, you’re not alone:

I’ve configured mine acceptably, but Utility is still far more legible for telling the time at a quick glance:

Infograph, Utility

Infograph suffers from two major issues:

  • The center complications reduce the contrast between the dial and hands, often making the hands hard to locate. This is avoidable with customization, although the defaults should be much more conservative.
  • It takes too much cognitive effort (and therefore time) to distinguish the current hour. This is simply a flawed design.

It’s faster and easier to read analog time with the 1–12 numerals displayed on a watch, but many people prefer the cleaner look of a watch that uses lines, dots, or other shapes as hour markers instead. (Watch people call these “indices”.)

And it’s absolutely possible to design a highly legible dial with hour indices in many different styles. Here are some classics and modern takes:1

Across a wide variety of brands, styles, and price points, a few key design principles are clear:

  • The hour markers for 12 (and often 3/6/9) are more prominent.
  • The hour indices are much larger than the minute markings.
  • The hour hands nearly touch the hour indices.

These all improve legibility by making it as fast and easy as possible to know which hour is being indicated (and minimize the chance of an off-by-one error), first by orienting your eyes to the current rotation with the 12 marker, then by minimizing the distance between the hour hand and the indices it’s between.

Apple Watch’s analog faces all fail to achieve these principles:2

Color, Simple, Explorer

Color, Simple, and Explorer have easily distinguished hour markers, but Explorer’s are a bit too far from its hour hand.

None of them have distinguished 12 markers to aid in orientation.

While Explorer omits minute markings altogether, Simple bafflingly uses 30-second markings in place of its minute track, making time-telling even harder. I’ve never seen another watch with sub-minute markings identical to its minute markings.

Activity Analog, Utility, and Infograph without most complications

Activity Analog’s hour markers are faint and far from its hour hand, and the central activity rings quickly eliminate the hands’ contrast against the dial as they progress.

Utility (when configured without numbers) improves legibility slightly with its bold hour indices, but they’re still too small and too far from its hour hand, and there’s no differentiation for the 12 index.

Infograph is similar, but even worse: its hour indices are more faint, it uses 30-second markings instead of minute markings, and its default Calendar display wipes out the top three indices. (At least you can tell which way is up.)

Even with almost no complications, the basic essence of the Infograph dial has poor time legibility.

When it’s being used as Apple seems to intend, time-telling at a glance is so difficult that many people have actually suggested setting the digital time as the center complication, at which point the hands are just a nuisance and we should stop pretending it’s an analog face.

Infograph with digital time

It’s great for Apple to offer a wide variety of Apple Watch faces, but most of them are short-lived novelties at best. We’re three years and four generations into the Apple Watch, and almost every Watch owner I know still uses the same handful of “good” faces.

If you want digital time with a good deal of complications, Modular is your only good choice (or Infograph Modular on the Series 4).3 If you want analog time with numerals, Utility is the only good option. If you want indices instead of numerals — probably the most popular analog watch style in the world — I don’t think there is a good option.

By now, we’ve seen Apple’s design range that they’re willing to ship as Watch faces, and while it seems broad at first glance, it’s actually pretty narrow.

And we’re restricted to the handful of good watch faces that Apple makes, because other developers aren’t allowed to make custom Watch faces.

The Apple Watch is an amazing feat of technology. It’s a computer. It can display anything. With no mechanical or physical limitations to hold us back, any watch-face design from anyone could plausibly be built, enabling a range of creativity, style, and usefulness that no single company could ever design on its own.

But they won’t let us. In a time when personal expression and innovation in watch fashion should be booming, they’re instead being eroded, as everyone in the room is increasingly wearing the same watch with the same two faces.

Open this door, Apple.

  1. You can even see which model the Apple Watch’s hand shape comes from, which is not a coincidence↩︎

  2. For Apple Watch faces offering multiple hour/minute styles, I selected the best one that didn’t have hour numerals, and most complications were disabled. ↩︎

  3. Special shout-out to my favorite digital face, Solar↩︎

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Overcast 5: Watch, Siri, search, and redesign!

I apologize for the low battery level. Busy day.

It all started with the watchOS volume widget.

You see, Overcast’s previous Apple Watch app really sucked. I did my best with the capabilities of watchOS 1–4, but I couldn’t give people what they really wanted:

  1. Standalone podcast playback on the Apple Watch without an iPhone. I briefly offered it through some bad hacks, but had to remove it.
  2. Volume control on the Watch, which is increasingly important with the popularity of AirPods.

That’s why I nearly jumped for joy during the watchOS 5 announcement in June, when Apple unveiled most of my list of watchOS changes needed to make good podcast apps.

After a very busy summer, standalone Apple Watch playback is back in Overcast, and it’s actually good this time!

It’s not perfect:

  • No cellular. Apple hasn’t released a good way to do cellular audio streaming in watchOS, and the bad ways wouldn’t be very useful.
  • Sending podcasts to the Watch is slow. Overcast shrinks them to reduce the transfer time, but when (and how quickly) podcasts transfer is tightly controlled by watchOS to preserve battery life. Transfers still sometimes wait forever or silently fail.

Programmers like me can’t accept that something is just slow, so I’ve decided to make transfer speed irrelevant. Nobody cares how slowly podcasts transfer if it happens while they’re asleep!

Auto-Sync to Watch automatically tries to send your most recent podcasts to your Apple Watch whenever it gets a chance.1 You can still send episodes manually from the queue button on an episode (≡+), but in my testing, I never needed to. Just pick up your Watch and go, and it’ll already have plenty of podcasts for your outing, all without having to manually sync anything or wait for slow transfers.

The Overcast 5.0.1 update, due out in a few days, makes Watch transfers even more reliable. (Sorry. Found a better way after 5.0 was approved.)

And Watch-crown volume control! Finally, the best way to use Overcast from your Apple Watch isn’t to delete it, letting the Now Playing app show up instead.

That’s where the other half of my summer workload began.

The watchOS volume widget offers minimal customization: just the color of the circle. I couldn’t make the line width a little narrower to match the rest of Overcast’s thin-line aesthetic. But that iOS 7-era thin-line aesthetic looked dated, and I’d wanted a design refresh for a while.

I decided to start modernizing the app’s design, screen by screen. I couldn’t do it all in one summer, so I started with the screen that needed the most help: Now Playing.

The previous Now Playing screen in Overcast 4.

The biggest problem of the previous design was the center artwork area, a scrollable set of “pages” that had speed and effects controls offscreen to the left, and the episode notes offscreen to the right.

Nobody ever found them. I’ve been getting emails almost every day from people asking where the speed controls were because they set them once and couldn’t find them again, or saying how they’d really like my app more if it offered speed controls. The only indication in the interface was three “page dots” below the scrollable area, but that wasn’t enough.

The new design maintains the same scrollable pages, but now as obvious, tactile cards. In my testing, everyone figured these out immediately.

Put differently, it’s like you’re navigating this through a phone-shaped window in the middle:

This design is not only more discoverable, but it allows me to fit more controls on screen, and in more reachable areas. Unlike the previous design, I can also fit the same controls on all devices, from the iPhone SE to the iPad Pro.

Designing a good Now Playing screen for a music or podcast app that’s nice, clean, and highly discoverable is incredibly difficult. I think I’ve finally found a good balance.

I’ve given chapters (when present) their own card with durations and inline progress bars. I’ve also finally revamped the sleep timer to ditch the ugly alert sheet, give it a proper UI for fast input, and show the remaining time in more useful ways:

There are lots of other improvements throughout the app as well. Some of the highlights:

  • Search your podcasts and current episodes from the main screen, or go into a podcast’s screen to search its entire archive.
  • Refreshed the podcast screen a little. (More to come.)
  • Siri Shortcuts support, of course.

Plus smaller fixes and improvements:

  • CarPlay performance is much better, especially for people with large collections.
  • Podcasts now display their estimated release frequency (daily, weekly, etc.) if it can be inferred.
  • Tap-to-load on images now loads all images from the same domain at once.
  • Tons of bug fixes and performance improvements.

Overcast 5 requires iOS 12 and watchOS 5, and as always, it’s free.

Update your devices, then go get Overcast!

  1. Up to 20 episodes are auto-synced today. This number will change as I refine the balance of resource usage. Auto-Sync to Watch is on by default and can be turned off in Nitpicky Details. ↩︎

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Low Power Mode on the Mac

Laptop battery life is decreasingly relevant to me as more airplanes offer power outlets. But sometimes you lose that lottery, as I did on my latest 8-hour daytime flight.

Apple’s “Up to 10 hours” claim doesn’t apply to my work,1 which is usually a mix of Xcode, web browsing, and social time-wasting, so I knew I’d have to seriously conserve power.

Sometimes, you just need Low Power Mode: the switch added to iOS a few years ago to conserve battery life when you need it, at the expense of full performance and background tasks.

There’s no such feature on Mac laptops, but there should be. It could:

  • Disable the discrete GPU on 15-inch models unless required for hardware reasons2
  • Pause Photos syncing and analysis
  • Pause Spotlight indexing
  • Reduce the frequency of Time Machine backups
  • Don’t download or install software updates
  • Don’t download new content in iTunes
  • Auto-dim the screen after a shorter time
  • Let third-party apps detect Low Power Mode and reduce their background operations to only essential work

And the big one:

  • Reduce the processor’s maximum wattage or disable Turbo Boost

Back in 2015, I experimented with disabling Turbo Boost and discovered that it reduced performance by about a third, but also boosted battery life by almost as much. Since then, I’ve been running Turbo Boost Switcher Pro to automatically disable Turbo Boost when I’m running on battery power, and it has been wonderful: I made it through that 8-hour flight only because Turbo Boost was off.

Over the last few days, I’ve run battery tests on my 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro with the (awesome) 2.7 GHz i7 and my 2015 2.2 GHz 15-inch3 to see how far I could push the battery life using Volta, which can disable Turbo Boost and/or set wattage limits on the CPU.

My test was based on the “Heavy” script from last time, but using xcodebuild every few minutes with Overcast’s current codebase (which is larger and includes some Swift). Improvements are in green and performance reductions are in red:

15-inch 2015 MacBook Pro (2.2 GHz quad-core i7)

  Battery life Geekbench single/multi xcodebuild
Normal 3:36 3963/13864 43.9s
No Turbo 5:06+42% 2796/9917−29/28% 63.4s+44%

13-inch 2018 MacBook Pro (2.7 GHz quad-core i7)

  Battery life Geekbench single/multi xcodebuild
Normal 3:09 5412/18983 34.3s
28W 3:28+10% 5401/16326−0/14% 37.4s+9%
18W 4:05+29% 5248/14133−3/26% 43.5s+27%
12W 4:44+50% 4818/11835−11/38% 48.2s+41%
No Turbo 5:05+61% 3624/13324−33/30% 48.9s+43%
6W 6:24+103% 4065/7596−25/60% 76.1s+121%

It’s impressive how much faster this new 13-inch model is than the best laptop ever made due to significant CPU and SSD improvements.

Dropping the wattage to 6W, the thermal limit of the fanless 12-inch MacBook, interestingly (but not surprisingly) makes it perform effectively identically to the best 12-inch MacBook in Geekbench. This is an extreme option, but one I’d occasionally take if offered. It roughly doubles compilation times, but also doubles the battery life.

This ratio holds for most other configurations: the gain in battery life is about as large as the loss in heavy-workload performance. That’s a trade-off I’d gladly make when I need to maximize runtime.

The best bang-for-the-buck option is still to just disable Turbo Boost. Single-threaded performance hurts more than with wattage-limiting, but it’s able to maintain better multi-threaded performance and more consistent thermals, and gets a larger battery gain relative to its performance loss.

And Volta, which offers both wattage limits and Turbo disabling, requires disabling System Integrity Protection to install an unsigned kernel extension, which I really don’t recommend. Turbo Boost Switcher, which doesn’t offer wattage control, works with SIP using a signed extension and its Pro version has more convenient features for automatic toggling.

For now, I’m going to continue to happily run Turbo Boost Switcher Pro to selectively give myself better battery life, and I recommend it for anyone else with the same need.

But what I ultimately want is for a true Low Power Mode built into macOS that could provide this sort of CPU throttling and software changes, which would ultimately achieve even greater gains.

  1. Whose work does get 10 hours out of a MacBook Pro? None of the use-cases on the marketing page — Photography, Coding, Video Editing, 3D Graphics, and Gaming — are likely to achieve even half of that in practice. ↩︎

  2. I’ve heard that 15-inch models are wired such that the discrete GPU is required when external displays are connected. Otherwise, whether it’s used or not is a software decision, and gfxCardStatus can override it in certain conditions. ↩︎

  3. It’s not brand new, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but the battery only had 90 cycles before this test. ↩︎

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