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In this issue: Apple introduces M1-based Macs; macOS Big Sur reminder; Apple Watch 6, SE: Great, but tough to gift; New Tapback feature in iOS 14; Couple local notes; Software recommendations; Hardware recommendations; Security Recommendations.
November 2020 Newsletter
Apple introduces M1-based Macs
Continuing its pandemic-driven approach of short, focused announcements, Apple once again took to the Internet to stream its “One More Thing” event on November 10. On center stage this time was the Mac, or specifically, three Macs, all of which replace the longstanding Intel chip with Apple’s new M1 chip. All three Macs can be ordered now and will be available within a week or so.

What Is the M1 and Why Should You Care?
Before we talk about the Macs that are now based on Apple’s custom-designed M1 chip, let’s explain what it is and why it’s important.

First, the M1 is what’s called a “System on a Chip” or “SoC.” Instead of having a separate CPU (main processor), GPU (graphics processor), and RAM (memory, which both the CPU and GPU need), the M1 combines those components onto a single chip. The M1 also has a special 16-core processor, called the Neural Engine, that helps with machine-learning tasks, along with a custom storage controller, image signal processor, and Secure Enclave.

Within the 8-core CPU, Apple has four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. When you need maximum processing power to edit a video, for instance, macOS dynamically brings the high-performance cores into play. However, if you’re just reading email, macOS switches to the high-efficiency cores to avoid wasting power and draining laptop batteries. Another way the M1 achieves its performance gains is through “unified memory.” By putting the RAM on the chip and sharing it among the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine, those processors can access it more quickly than when it’s elsewhere on the motherboard. The downside is that the M1 chip comes with only 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM; there’s no option for more.

Second, since 2006, Macs have been powered by CPUs from Intel. Switching to its own M1 chip benefits Apple in three ways:

  • Performance: When Apple moved the Mac to Intel chips, it did so because IBM’s PowerPC chips couldn’t compete in performance per watt. That measurement is key for battery-powered laptops and has come home to roost again. With the M1, Apple has customized the design in many ways to provide up to three times the performance per watt.
  • Control: By designing its own chip, Apple can optimize performance in all sorts of small ways that integrate perfectly with macOS. Previously, Apple had to work with whatever Intel shipped, forcing Apple to make trade-offs in macOS. Plus, Intel’s roadmap and production schedule often conflicted with Apple’s.
  • Profit: Apple won’t say this, but Intel processors have high profit margins, and Apple would far prefer to keep that money rather than giving it to Intel.

In essence, the M1 will enable Apple to make Macs that are faster and cheaper, and that have better battery life. It will also allow Macs to run all iPhone and iPad apps, since the M1 is similar to the A-series chips that power those devices.

The first three Macs to take advantage of the M1 are the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. Apart from a few small exceptions, the main thing that has changed about these Macs is the M1 chip. They look the same, feel the same, and work the same, although they do all come with—and require—macOS 11 Big Sur.

MacBook Air

The new M1-based MacBook Air confidently replaces the previous Intel-based model that Apple released in March 2020. It does so thanks to massive M1-powered performance improvements: up to 3.5x faster processing, up to 5x faster graphics, and up to 9x faster machine-learning workloads. The M1’s integrated storage controller and the latest solid-state storage technology also combine for up to 2x speedier SSD performance.

Because the M1 is so much more efficient than Intel chips, the MacBook Air no longer needs a fan to keep its cool. It’s now silent. Apple significantly improved battery life as well, promising up to 15 hours of “wireless web” and up to 18 hours of video playback, up from 11 and 12 hours for the previous model. More relevant is that videoconferencing should last twice as long on a single charge.

There are a few other small improvements:

  • Support for P3 wide color on the 13-inch Retina display
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support the new USB 4
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 networking, up from 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5
  • Better image quality on the (unchanged) 720p FaceTime HD camera, thanks to the M1’s dedicated image signal processor
  • Instant wake from sleep

Note that the MacBook Air lacks the Touch Bar of the MacBook Pro—which may be a pro or a con—but its Magic Keyboard does include traditional F-keys and a Touch ID sensor for login and authentication.

The MacBook Air comes in two configurations: a low-end model whose M1 chip has an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU, plus 8 GB of unified memory and 256 GB of storage for $999. The high-end model switches to an 8-core GPU and 512 GB of storage for $1249—that’s $50 cheaper than the previous high-end model. You can bump the RAM to 16 GB for $200, and the storage levels include 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB.

Frankly, it’s a great machine, and our favorite of all the M1 Macs Apple introduced. If an MacBook Air is the right laptop for you, you should have little hesitation in making this Mac your next one.

13-inch MacBook Pro

Things get a little more confusing with the M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro. Previously, there were four configurations, priced at $1299, $1499, $1799, and $1999. Apple replaced the bottom two with M1 configurations but left the top two with Intel chips. Why? Probably because the higher-end Intel models can take up to 32 GB of RAM. They also have four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 4 TB storage option.

Apple doesn’t say if or by how much the new M1 MacBook Pro is faster than the Intel models, but it does say that it’s up to 2.8x faster overall than what it replaces, has up to 5x faster graphics, and is up to 11x quicker for machine-learning tasks. It should outperform the M1 MacBook Air, even though they share the same chip, because the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fan that lets the M1 chip run faster and thus hotter than in the MacBook Air. Nonetheless, battery life is excellent, with up to 17 hours of “wireless web” and up to 20 hours of video playback—the longest battery life ever for a Mac.

The M1 MacBook Pro shares most of the small improvements in the MacBook Air, including the two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports, 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6, better image quality from the 720p FaceTime HD camera, and instant wake. New is a “studio-quality three-mic array” that promises better audio for videoconferencing. It already supported P3 wide color, and the Retina display remains gorgeous.

The M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1299 with an M1 chip that has an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 8 GB of memory, and 256 GB of storage. Going to 16 GB of RAM costs $200, and you can upgrade the storage to 512 GB ($200), 1 TB ($400), or 2 TB ($800).

It can be hard to choose between the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Our take? Pick the MacBook Air for its lower price, fanless design, and F-keys, or go with the MacBook Pro if you’re willing to pay for more performance and a Touch Bar. 

Mac mini

The third Mac model to switch to the M1 chip is the Mac mini. Like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, not all models make the jump, however. Previously, there were two Mac mini models, one starting at $799 and the other at $1099. The M1 Mac mini replaces the low-end model and drops the price to $699.

As with the other two M1-based Macs, the M1 Mac mini boasts impressive performance improvements. Apple says its CPU performance is 3x faster than the model it replaces, it has up to 6x faster graphics, and machine-learning tasks complete up to 15x faster.

Although Apple made no comparisons with the remaining Intel-based Mac mini, we suspect the M1 model will be faster, and it has the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6. So why is that Intel Mac mini sticking around?

  • The M1 Mac mini offers only 8 GB or 16 GB ($200) of RAM, whereas the Intel Mac mini is configurable to 32 GB ($600) or 64 GB ($1000) as well.
  • The Intel Mac mini can drive up to three displays, whereas the M1 Mac mini supports only two. On the plus side, the M1 Mac mini can drive Apple’s 6K Pro Display XDR at full resolution, which the Intel Mac mini can’t.
  • The M1 Mac mini has only two Thunderbolt ports, whereas the Intel Mac mini has four.
  • The Intel Mac mini has a $100 option for 10 Gigabit Ethernet, whereas the M1 Mac mini is limited to Gigabit Ethernet.

Our feeling is that, at $200 cheaper, a comparable M1 Mac mini is a better deal unless you need any of the hardware options that exist solely on the Intel Mac mini.

With both the M1 MacBook Pro and the M1 Mac mini we wish the new Macs were in all ways better than the Intel-based Macs they replace. We don't think that's the case, however great their new features are. We think that is the case with the MacBook Air, and for us it's consequently the easiest to recommend. 
 

macOS Big Sur reminder
We strongly recommend that you do not upgrade your Macs to Big Sur yet. Along with a complete user interface overhaul, it has significant under-the-hood changes that could pose compatibility problems for many workflows in the near term. We’ll be evaluating Big Sur with common productivity apps shortly and will update our advice about when it’s safe to upgrade as we learn more.


Apple Watch 6, SE: Great, but tough to gift
We love the Apple Watch, and it would seem to make a great gift. However, we urge caution when considering it as a present. The problem is Apple provides a dizzying number of options, and everyone has their own preferences, so it’s difficult to know what to get. You can choose from the new Apple Watch Series 6 (starting at $399), the equally new but less expensive Apple Watch SE (starting at $279), or the older Apple Watch Series 3 (starting at $199).

Get the Series 6 if you want an Always-On Display, blood oxygen sensor, and ECG capabilities. If health biometrics are the main reason for getting an Apple Watch, Series 6 is the one you want. The Apple Watch SE lacks those three options but has the same screen size as the Series 6, along with its compass, altimeter, and fall detection feature. And the Series 3 has a slightly smaller screen and just the core Apple Watch features. Apple has a helpful comparison tool.

Within each model, you have to choose between larger and smaller case sizes, pick a case material (aluminum for all, or stainless steel or titanium for the Series 6), a case color, a band type, and a band color. And then there’s the question of whether Wi-Fi–only is sufficient or if a cellular-capable model makes more sense.

So unless you think you know exactly what the recipient would like, we’d encourage giving a certificate that’s good for a conversation about what would be most appreciated. Then sit down with the Apple Watch Studio to run through all the aesthetic decisions.
 

New Tapback feature in iOS 14
We all have things we do regularly on our iPhones, whether it’s checking the weather, searching Google, or invoking the magnifier. Apple has long provided ways of making your most common actions easier to access. You might put an app on your Dock, open Control Center, or take advantage of the triple-press Accessibility shortcut. With iOS 14, Apple has opened up a new and customizable way of triggering actions: Back Tap.

With a double or triple tap on the back of any iPhone 8 or newer running iOS 14, you can invoke any one of a variety of actions, including custom Shortcuts. Sorry, Back Tap isn’t available in iPadOS 14.

Enabling Back Tap is easy, although you might not stumble upon it on your own. That’s because it’s technically an accessibility feature for those who have trouble interacting with the iPhone physically. But just as curb cuts help both those in wheelchairs and stroller-pushing parents, the Back Tap feature is a boon for everyone.

Go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Back Tap (it’s way down at the bottom), where you can attach actions to both double tap and a triple tap.

Apple provides a broad set of actions, but most of them are focused on helping people who can’t use other iPhone gestures. So yes, you could make a double tap open Spotlight for searching, but unless that’s somehow a lot easier than swiping down on the Home screen, it’s not worth one of your two triggers. Actions fall into four categories:

  • System: Most of the System choices mimic easy Home screen gestures or button presses. Most interesting are Mute, which toggles the ringer volume without forcing you to press the Volume Down button repeatedly, and Screenshot, which takes a picture of your screen without making you press two buttons at once.
  • Accessibility: For those who need these Accessibility options, having them easily accessible via Back Tap will be welcome. The most compelling actions for the general public are Magnifier, Speak Screen, and Voice Control. (Voice Control provides much more capable dictation than Siri.)
  • Scroll Gestures: These options scroll a vertically oriented page or screen. Sadly, they don’t work for horizontally driven page flipping in book reading apps like Libby.
  • Shortcuts: Here’s where Back Tap becomes ultimately useful, at least if you can find or build the necessary shortcuts. Anything Shortcuts can do, you can invoke with a double or triple tap.

Wait, what’s Shortcuts? It’s an automation app that Apple includes with every iPhone. With it, you can chain together multiple actions derived from iOS capabilities or provided by your apps to create custom shortcuts. Other systems call similar collections of commands macros or automations or workflows.

Explaining how to build your own shortcuts is a topic for another day, but you can also download sample shortcuts from Apple’s gallery, both to see how it’s done and to use them. For instance, if you tap the Gallery button in Shortcuts ➊, tap Starter Shortcuts ➋, tap Take a Break ➌, and tap Add Shortcut ➍, you’ll copy the Take a Break shortcut to My Shortcuts. Then you can assign a double tap in Back Tap to invoke Take a Break, which sets an alarm for a specified number of minutes and turns on Do Not Disturb until the alarm goes off.

If you want to learn more about Shortcuts right away, check out Take Control of Shortcuts, a 122-page ebook by Rosemary Orchard.

Give it a try! Back Tap might turn out to be the iOS 14 feature you use more frequently than any other.
 

Couple local notes
As some of you know, my wife Erin was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Thanks to annual mammograms the cancer was detected early. Erin's surgery this week was a success, and she's recuperating at home. She has chemo and radiation treatments upcoming, but her long-term prognosis is excellent.

As you might expect, I'm on a short-term leave from work during this time. That obviously leaves MacAtoZ a little short-handed, and I appreciate your understanding while the team juggles everything to cover for me. 

On a less serious note, I wanted to issue our annual reminder that if you're an Amazon shopper (and it's okay if you're not), you can use our referral link of www.macatoz.com/amazon to purchase from Amazon and kick us a small commission at the same time. There's no requirement or, I'm sorry to say, even much incentive to do so, but we appreciate it, and your support of us helps enable our ability to support you. 

 


Software Recommendations

macOS 10.14.6 Mojave. We don't recommend macOS 10.15.7 Catalina for reliability reasons, but it is also acceptable from a security perspective. macOS 10.13.6 High Sierra (and earlier) is no longer secure. It and earlier versions should be upgraded ASAP. You can see your Mac's operating system version by going to the Apple menu in the top left corner of the screen and choosing "About This Mac." We DO NOT recommend macOS 11 Big Sur yet. 

iOS 14.2. Seems good in limited testing. 14.2 contains numerous important security updates, so you should do this update sooner rather than later. If you're not sure what iOS version you have, you can see your iPhone or iPad's operating system version by going to Settings > General > About > Version. 

iPadOS 14.2. Same commentary applies for iPadOS 14.2 as above with iOS 14.2. 

watchOS 7.1. Older versions of WatchOS acceptable if necessary; upgrade if your devices (iPhone and Apple Watch) support it. You can see your Apple Watch's operating system version by going to Settings > General > About > Version. 

tvOS 14.2. tvOS 13.4.8 and tvOS 12 also acceptable. Note that earlier models of Apple TV do not run tvOS and are fine for what they do; not all channels, features, or apps will be available. You can see if there's a software update available for your Apple TV by going to Settings > System > Software Updates > Update Software.
 

Hardware Recommendations

Macintosh
  • MacBook (Early 2015 or later)
  • MacBook Air (Mid-2012 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid-2012 or later)
    • Note that 2016-2019 MacBook Pro models have a higher than usual keyboard failure rate. Used 2015 models, which use a different style keyboard, may be a more reliable option. The new 2019 MacBook Pro 16" model uses a new keyboard mechanism and should be fine.
  • Mac mini (Late 2012 or later)
  • iMac (Late 2012 or later)
  • iMac Pro (all models)
  • Mac Pro (Late 2013 or newer)
These are minimum hardware recommendations based on what is necessary to run a secure operating system (macOS 10.14.6 Mojave or macOS 10.15.7 Catalina). If your Mac does not meet these specifications—that is, it will not run Mojave or Catalina—it needs to be replaced soon. macOS 10.13 High Sierra is no longer secure.

macOS 11 Big Sur was released in November 2020 and has its own set of system requirements. 

iPhone and iPad
  • iPhone 6S or newer. Older iPhones cannot run iOS 14. 
    • iPhone 7 models have a higher than normal failure rate over time. Given the choice, we would recommend iPhone SE (2020) model as a strong alternative to iPhone 7 models. 
  • iPad Air 2 or newer
  • iPad mini 4 or newer
  • iPad Pro (all models)
  • iPad 5th generation or newer
The iPad line is made confusing by the multitude of model names and types (Air, mini, Pro, and just plain iPad). Generally speaking, devices introduced in October 2014 and later will run iPadOS. iPads that will not run iPadOS and should be replaced unless they will not be used on the internet. 

Apple Watch
  • Apple Watch Series 4, 5, or 6 or SE highly recommended.
  • All versions (Series 0 through Series 6 and SE) are secure and acceptable though Apple Watch Series 0, 1, and 2 will not run the latest version of WatchOS and therefore lack both the speed and features of later Apple Watches.  
Apple TV
  • Apple TV 4K is recommended. Apple TV HD (4th generation) is fine as well.
  • Older models of Apple TV do not support tvOS and cannot run Apple TV Store apps, though we are unaware of any major security issues. 
 

Security Recommendations

A secure operating system
See Software Recommendations for details. If you're not running a secure operating system, it will be difficult to impossible to protect your data. 

Encryption
We recommend using Apple's built-in whole disk encryption, FileVault. It can be turned on in System Preferences > Security & Privacy. 

Backups
We recommend and use Apple's built-in Time Machine backup system. You'll need an external hard drive so that the data is automatically saved to a second location. Off-site backup remains important in mitigating the risk of fire or theft. We use and recommend Backblaze. At a cost of $6 a month per Mac, Backblaze will encrypt then backup an unlimited amount of data from your Mac. Data has a 30-day retention window, though longer time periods are possible for an additional couple bucks. 

Sentinel, Sentinel+, Sentinel Ultra, Sentinel AM [warning: we are tooting our own horn here]
Sentinel provides professional 24/7 oversight of the health of your Mac. We're monitoring all kinds of things (RAM, hard drive, Time Machine backups, battery, etc.)—150 different data points every hour.  

Sentinel+ adds maintenance and security to Sentinel's 24/7 monitoring. Sentinel+ will handle most software updates so you don't have to as well as run maintenance routines to keep things running tip-top. This is includes basic scanning and quarantine of malware. 

Sentinel Ultra is our top-of-the-line, four-in-one service that includes everything in Sentinel and Sentinel+. Ultra blocks malicious web sites, filters objectionable content, protects against email phishing threats, and even increases the speed of your web surfing. It's proactive security. Ultra represents our best effort and the best tool in our arsenal to keep clients safe on the web. 

Sentinel AM is our anti-malware offering. It's a $5/mo add-on for Sentinel+ or Sentinel Ultra services.. 

A secure web browser with ad blocking
Firefox with the free open source content blocker uBlock Origin is our first choice. Safari with AdGuard (and blocking cross-site tracking turned on) is another fine option. AdGuard is no longer free, but Safari extensions are getting enhanced in macOS 11 Big Sur, so we're hopeful that getting uBlock Origin (our favorite) back on Safari is just a matter of time. 

DuckDuckGo
There's really no good reason to use Google, Bing, or any of the other search engines. Not only does DuckDuckGo return excellent search results, you can use commands in the search bar (like "!g"—that's exclamation point plus the letter g) to search Google anonymously. You can search other search engines anonymously too via DuckDuckGo, and DuckDuckGo won't track you. In the search engine preferences for either Safari or Firefox, you can set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine. 

A Virtual Private Network
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is an encrypted tunnel between your Mac (or iPhone or iPad) and another computer run by the VPN company. It protects your internet traffic so that anyone who might want to spy on your traffic locally can't. We use PIA VPN which covers multiple devices (Mac, iPad, iPhone) for about $75 a year. 

A Password Manager
We consider password managers like 1Password indispensible. Instead of having to remember lengthy passwords or reusing the handful that we can remember, we remember one password to unlock 1Password, and the program takes care of the rest. 1Password can be a little complex to set up, so we typically will help clients with that. Actual use isn't too bad though and is typically within the reach of even basic users.  

A Spam Filter
Apple's built in Junk Mail filter works for most spam assuming your email address isn't widely dispersed on the internet. If you're swamped with spam email, though, SpamSieve can rescue you.

Avoid Social Media
If you're posting to social media like Facebook, you're not just telling your friends something. You're telling Facebook, and Facebook is hardly keeping your information top secret. Want to say something privately to a friend? Use Apple Messages or Apple's FaceTime. Both are end-to-end encrypted, and not even Apple has the keys. 

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Apple Consultants Network
MacAtoZ LLC provides technical support, upgrade, installation, networking, training and tutoring, and remote support services for Apple products like Macintosh computers, iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

Ty Davison and Dyneé Medlock, our Apple technicians, are the only Apple-certified, Apple Consultants Network members serving both residential and small business clients in Oregon's mid-Willamette Valley.

MacAtoZ has been providing computer services for clients in the Salem area since 2006 (and since 1999 as SiteRev.com). Our technicians are certified by Apple and carry $1 million in business liability insurance. We frequently present and are well-known at the Salem Macintosh Users Group (SMUG). You can count on us.

Our Sentinel, Sentinel+, and Sentinel Ultra services offer home users 24/7 Macintosh monitoring, maintenance, security, and web browsing protection. Join today!

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Offsite Backup: You should have one, and we recommend Backblaze. Only $5 a month for unlimited data. Get your 15-day free trial here. 

Salem Mac Users Group: Salem, Oregon-area Macintosh and Apple gear enthusiasts. Now holding Zoom meetings monthly. Visitors welcome! Visit the web site for details.

Apple Consultants Network: If you need help, entrust your computer and your data to professionals. 
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