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by Tom Nelson

It’s that time of year, when visions of sugar plum fairies bringing us new Macs dance through our heads. Or more likely, you’re considering buying a new Mac to replace an older model, or to give as a gift to a family member. Times being a little tight, you have your eye on one of the base models but you may be able to swing at least one upgrade to the Mac: a faster processor, more RAM, larger or faster (or both) storage, or a better GPU, but which upgrade should you choose?

The answer depends on which Mac model you’re considering, and how you intend to use it.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I want to point out that although we’re talking about buying a new Mac, the same considerations can be in play for purchasing a used Mac, or for upgrading an existing Mac. So, if you fall into any of these categories, read on. And please add a comment or two at the bottom; it’s always nice to hear what upgrades would be your most likely choices.

Are Faster CPUs a Good Idea?
Depends. You’re going to hear that a lot, but really, it depends not only on which Mac model you’re considering, but how you will use it. If you’re using one of the MacBook models, remember that increasing processor performance is likely to negatively affect overall battery runtime, while with desktop Macs, power usage isn’t as much of a concern. 

Normally, I’m personally not inclined to spend upgrade money on processor speed. When the processor upgrade only involves a faster clocked processor of the same CPU family, I’m not impressed. As an example, consider a 15-inch MacBook Pro offered with a 2.9 GHz quad-core i7 processor. For $200.00 extra, a 3.1 GHz quad-core i7 processor is available as an upgrade.

Because they’re of the same processor family with the same number of cores, I wouldn’t expect much improvement in performance. This assumption is born out when comparing performance benchmarks with Geekbench scores that show only a bit more than a 3% increase in single-core results, and even less of an improvement in multi-core results.

On the other hand, CPU upgrades that cross processor model families or add additional cores may be worthwhile, depending on how you use your Mac.

Once again, an example: a 27-inch Retina 5K iMac with a 3.5 GHz quad-core i5 processor vs. the same iMac with a 4.2 GHz quad-core i7 processor. This $300 upgrade not only changes the processor family from an i5 to an i7, it adds the ability to run two threads concurrently on each core, giving it an 11.9 percent single-core performance advantage, and a 30% multi-core performance increase. That’s a pretty good performance improvement for a $300 investment, provided you have a use for the extra horsepower and run apps that take advantage of multi-core processing.

For the most part, processor upgrades are limited to time of purchase. The current exception is 2012 and earlier Mac Pro models, where it’s possible to replace the processor with a faster model. Replacement isn’t simple, but it can be done. If you’re considering this route, look for processors with additional cores and not just a faster clock rate.

Upgrading CPUs can be worthwhile if you’re routinely using your Mac for number crunching, media editing, or other processor-intensive tasks. If your primary uses are email, Internet browsing, and common workplace and educational tasks, maybe not so much.

RAM Upgrades
It used to be that RAM upgrades were one of the first upgrades users performed after receiving their new Macs. In many cases, it was a lot less expensive to buy RAM from MacSales.com and install the upgrade yourself, than to buy directly from Apple at the time of purchase.

While you can still upgrade the RAM in some iMac models and the current (2013) Mac Pro, the rest of the Mac lineup uses RAM that is soldered to the computer motherboard, thus preventing user upgrades. This means you have to decide at the time of purchase how much RAM you wish to have both now and in the future.

Except for the base model Mac mini, which has only 4 GB of RAM, all other Mac models come equipped with at least 8 GB. Depending on the model, upgrades to 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB, or 128 GB are offered at time of purchase.

If the Mac model you’re considering doesn’t offer user upgradable RAM then it may be a very good idea to consider using some of your upgrade budget on RAM at the time of purchase.

The Mac OS does a pretty great job of managing RAM. Using techniques like compression, the Mac can squeeze quite a bit of performance out of available RAM. Adding more RAM will allow you to run more apps concurrently, allow RAM-intensive apps to perform better, or both, letting you run apps that need a lot of RAM space without having to close all of your other apps.

Upgrading RAM to 16 GB at the time of purchase for those Macs that don’t allow users to upgrade RAM would be a smart move. It would help to maximize performance now as well as extend the usable lifetime of the Mac.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

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by Tom Nelson

Installing a new version of the macOS can cause a bit of trepidation. Will all my older apps work? Are there any serious bugs in the new OS? Will my peripherals continue to work, including that wide-format LaserJet from the 90s that hasn’t had any driver updates since the millennium, but continues to be my go-to workhorse for tabloid printing?

You get the idea; upgrading to a new OS can have unexpected consequences that may end up with you wishing you never updated to begin with. And when those consequences are severe enough, you may decide to try to downgrade to one of the earlier versions of the Mac OS.

With the right preliminary preparations in place before you perform an upgrade, downgrading can be fairly easy, though a bit time consuming. Without the proper preparations, downgrading can be difficult, to say the least.

Before you attempt any downgrade, you should ensure you have a backup of your Mac as it currently exists, so you can return to the current state should anything cause the downgrade to fail, or needed files not to work with the older version of the OS.

Downgrade to a Previous Version of macOS When You Prepared Properly
Preparing properly is a two-step process. In general, you need to have a backup of your Mac as it existed before you started the upgrade process; you may also need to have a bootable copy of the version of the macOS installer you wish to downgrade to.

You’ll need the bootable OS installer if you’re downgrading from a macOS version that has an incompatible file system installed. An example would be downgrading from macOS High Sierrathat was installed on an APFS formatted drive to a version of the OS that doesn’t support APFS.

If you’re downgrading and both the currently installed OS and the one you’re moving back to both use the same file system, then you may only need to make use of your backup files.

Downgrade Using Just Time Machine
In this example, you’re going to make use of your Time Machine backup to downgrade from macOS High Sierra to macOS Sierra. In this example, macOS High Sierra was installed on a hard drive that was not converted to APFS, allowing you to use this simple method to downgrade.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To use this method, you’ll need to restart your Mac from the Recovery HD and restore your Mac from a selected Time Machine backup. What you should end up with is a Mac that’s in the exact state it was in before the upgrade.

Warning: Files you created after the upgrade point will not be restored. You may want to make copies of any important files you may need on an external device, such as a flash drive or an external drive.

From the Apple menu, select Restart.

After your Mac’s display goes blank, hold down the command + R keys. Continue to hold the two keys down until you see the Apple logo appear.

The macOS Utilities window will open. Select Restore From Time Machine Backup, and then click the Continue button.

The Restore From Time Machine window will display a few tidbits about what is about to occur. Click the Continue button.

A list of drives containing Time Machine backups will be displayed. Select your Time Machine backup drive from the list, and then click Continue.

A list of backups will be displayed, organized by date and the version of the Mac OS contained within the backup. Select the last backup for the version of the macOS you wish to downgrade to, and then click Continue.

The Restore From Time Machine Backup will begin. This process can take some time; once it’s completed, your Mac will restart.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

“I’m not dead yet” may be the refrain you hear from spinning hard drives when you’re browsing online stores for your storage needs. While that flashy SSD (solid state drive) may be faster, the mature technology used in the production of spinning platter drives helps hard disks maintain a cost advantage, as well as a storage size advantage, over most other contenders.

HDDs have a low cost per TB that makes them ideal candidates for many of the basic storage needs an average user will encounter. And with a bit of planning, hard drives can compete even where performance is a critical criterion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five places where hard drives shine.

The OWC Drive Dock allows you to quickly swap drives for archival storage or backup use.

Backups and Archives
The low cost and generally high reliability of hard drives makes them very good candidates for use as backup destinations, as well as for archiving information for long-term storage.

Hard drives took over these roles from older forms of long-term storage, such as tape, once drive costs plummeted years ago. With 1 TB hard drives routinely available for around $50.00, they can be very cost effective for building a basic backup system. At these prices, a multi-drive backup and archival system is within reach of just about any computer user who is concerned about the thousands of photos, reels of video, or tons of music they have stored on their computer. And that’s not even mentioning personal data, such as homework, reports, plans, or that novel you’ve been working on.

No matter how you slice it, hard drives are at the top of the list for use in backup and archival storage systems.

Media Libraries
Many people have large media libraries they use to store music, videos, and images on their computers. For many of us, the use for these libraries is a bit on the basic side; we view images, perform basic editing, share them with friends and family, perhaps even print a photo book or two. Likewise, we mostly use our music libraries for listening to our favorite artists, and our video library for watching movies and videos.

What we’re not doing, at least not that often, is performing complex editing that demands high performance storage systems. If that sounds like your primary use for your media libraries, then spinning hard drives may be an ideal storage system.

Media libraries can become quite large; in many cases, they take up the majority of space on our storage system and can quickly become the most likely culprit for using up precious drive space.

Screen shot and photos © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Moving your media files to a separate hard drive has many advantages, not the least of which is the very large storage capacity available from hard disks. It’s pretty easy to find 12 TB drives, and the more common and less expensive 6 TB and 4 TB drives are ideal sizes for most media files.

If you have a need for professional editing, moving your media libraries to a large capacity storage system can free up your high performance, solid-state storage for your current editing projects.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

macOS High Sierra brings with it a new filing system known as APFS (Apple File System). APFS replaces HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus), and offers a new, modern file system that is optimized for use with SSDs (Solid State Drives), while still being usable on hard drives and, in the near future, even on tiered storage systems such as Apple’s Fusion drive.

Image courtesy of Apple

As part of the upgrade process, the macOS High Sierra installer will automatically convert an SSD to the new APFS. The conversion process leaves the drive’s data intact, or at least it’s supposed to; be sure you have a recent backup before upgrading, just in case. At the time of this writing, the automatic conversion process is limited to internal SSDs. External SSDs being used as startup drives seem to be left with their original file system, with no conversion to APFS occurring. However, this could change with the next update to macOS High Sierra, as it seems Apple is committed to growing APFS usage across all Apple devices.

Although the conversion to APFS will happen automatically if your Mac startup drive meets the criteria, specifically, an SSD occupying a connection internally to your Mac, you can choose not to use APFS and force the installation to bypass the conversion process, leaving your startup drive in the older HFS+ format.

How to Prevent Automatic Conversion to APFS
There are a couple of strategies you can use to prevent the upgrade to APFS and retain the older HFS+ formatting:

Use an external drive: You can choose an external drive as the target for the macOS High Sierra upgrade. This will allow you to retain the current formatting on the external. Once the upgrade is complete, you can clone the external drive back to your normal internal startup drive. Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper are two popular apps for creating clones. You could use Disk Utility’s Restore feature to create your clone as well.

Use startosinstall: macOS High Sierra includes a command line tool hidden away within the installer that can be used to control the conversion to APFS. By using this tool, you can tell the installer not to convert to APFS during the installation process.

While either method will work, using the startosinstall utility is the easiest and quickest process. It allows you to perform the macOS High Sierra upgrade without any conversion to APFS. It also allows you to skip the additional step and save the additional time needed to make a clone, as required in the external drive method.

Using Startosinstall to Prevent Conversion to APFS
Startosinstall is included as part of the macOS High Sierra installer. If you downloaded the installer from the Mac App Store, you’re all set. If you happen to have the installer open, waiting for you to start the macOS High Sierra install process, simply quit the installer (Command + Q). You need to invoke the installer from the Terminal command line for the option to not install APFS to be available.

Before you begin, make sure you have a recent backup of all the data on your current startup drive and the target drive for the installation (if they’re different). Better to be safe than sorry.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Startosinstall has a number of options for automating the installation process. This includes the APFS option, which can be used to prevent the conversion to APFS, or for that matter, to force the conversion, making it a bit easier to upgrade an external SSD to macOS High Sierra should you decide you want to use APFS.

When you’re ready, launch Terminal, located at /Applications/Utilities/.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

macOS High Sierra contains many new features and capabilities, but APFS (Apple File System) is certainly one of the biggest changes. Changing the primary file system used by the Mac, or for that matter, any computer system is a big deal. Apple has only changed the default Mac file system twice in its 33-year history.

Macintosh File System (MFS) was the original file system introduced along with the Macintosh in January 1984. It was designed to meet the demanding needs of a 400 MB floppy disk. The Hierarchical File System (HFS) followed in September 1985, and the last file system upgrade was Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+), which was released with Mac OS 8.1 in January 1998.

APFS and Time Machine, Boot Camp, and File Vault
While there have been some minor upgrades to HFS+ over the years, the Mac’s file system has stayed pretty much the same since 1998. That makes the new APFS file system a big deal. And like any big deal, there’s a lot to understand about how APFS will work with existing Mac apps and services, including Time Machine, Boot Camp, and File Vault.

We’re going to primarily look at these three Apple-provided apps and services, but third-party apps may also be affected by the change to APFS. It’s a good idea to check any file system utility you may be using for APFS compatibility.

Time Machine
In its current incarnation, the Time Machine app is mostly compatible with APFS; that is, you can back up an APFS formatted drive using Time Machine, as well as restore files from a Time Machine backup to an APFS formatted drive. However, there are some very important caveats that Time Machine users should be aware of.

Time Machine drives must be formatted in HFS+. Time Machine uses the magic of hard links, a feature that HFS+ file systems have to catalog and keep track of which files in a backup make up the current version of an app, document, or directory. Hard links are just one of three types of file linking that HFS+ supports, the others being symbolic links and aliases.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

APFS, on the other hand, does not support hard links. When you convert an HFS+ formatted volume to APFS, any hard links found during the conversion process are automatically changed to symbolic links, thus breaking your Time Machine backup into a collection of almost useless files. Luckily, installing macOS High Sierra won’t automatically convert Time Machine drives to APFS, but it’s possible to change the drive’s format to APFS from within Disk Utility or via the Terminal app. Resist the temptation to go all APFS; Time Machine will not cooperate with you.

If you do accidentally convert a Time Machine drive to APFS, the Time Machine app will no longer recognize the drive as a backup drive. If you select the old Time Machine drive within the Time Machine app as a backup destination, you’ll be confronted with an option to erase all of the content on the selected drive and reformat it as HFS+. (Actually, Time Machine will just warn you that it must first erase the destination drive, but the reason is because the drive has an incompatible format.)

Until Apple releases a new version of Time Machine that makes use of the APFS feature set, such as snapshots to replace file linking, your Time Machine backup must remain formatted as HFS+.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

One of the niceties in the Mac OS is the ability of the system to display how your storage space is being used. Originally introduced in OS X Lion as part of a feature upgrade to the System Information app, the Storage tab displays how much free space is available on each disk attached to your Mac, as well as how a disk’s storage is being used, by category.

If you’re not sure how to find the categories, click the Apple logo in the menu bar in the Finder, select About This Mac from the dropdown menu, and then click the Storage tab. Mouse over a color bar, and a text balloon will pop up, telling you what the category is and how much disk space it’s using.

The categories change as new versions of the OS are released, but the current categories include System files, Documents, Apps, iTunes, Backups, Other, Audio, Music Creation, Photos, Movies, and Purgeable space.

The Other category, shown here in gray, shows my startup drive (Casey) with a small percentage of Other files, while my data drive (Casey Cat) contains nothing but Other file types. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Purgeable space is more or less unique to the Mac; you can find out more about it in the Rocket Yard Guide: What is Purgeable Space in macOS? The next category that seems to get a lot of attention is Other. So, just what is included in Other?

That’s a common question, one you may often ask yourself, especially when you need to free up space when your drive starts to fill up. When that happens, I think most of us tend to look at the Other category and think, there’s a lot of space being used by Other. If I don’t know what it is, and the system doesn’t seem to know either, then why can’t I just delete those files?

What’s in the Other Category
The type of files the operating system assigns to the Other category in the Storage display changes a bit from OS version to OS version, but there was a big shakeup in storage management when Apple introduced macOS Sierra, which caused the Other category to become better defined.

Because of the changes, we’re going to provide two lists for the type of files that are assigned to the Other category: pre macOS (OS X) and post macOS.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

You just turned on your Mac and all you see is a dark display. That’s OK; you know it can sometimes take a little while for your Mac to boot up. But after a minute or two, you start to think something is dreadfully wrong with your Mac. Let’s take a look at the possible causes of a moribund Mac, and what we can do to fix them.

Check the Basics
We’ll start our troubleshooting by checking a few basics. I suppose this step is a bit out of order from a logically flowing troubleshooting process, but hey, it’s the simple stuff that most often causes these types of problems, so let’s start there.

If you’re using an external display, check to make sure it’s turned on: While you’re at it, make sure the video cable is seated properly at both the display and the Mac ends of the cable. Check the power cable as well. If either cable is loose or unplugged, the dog did it; at least that’s what the cat always says. Regardless of who was responsible, if it’s loose, you need to reconnect the cable firmly at both ends.

Check that the display’s brightness is turned up to a reasonable level: This applies to both external displays, which will usually have one or more buttons on the monitor to adjust the display (check the monitor’s manual for instructions), and those built in to your Mac. On an Apple-supplied keyboard, including those built in to a MacBook, the F1 (decrease) and F2 (increase) keys are used to adjust the brightness. On non-Apple keyboards, the F14 (decrease) and F15 (increase) keys will adjust the brightness.

Is the power turned on?: You already verified that the display is turned on, but you should also make sure that both your Mac and its display actually have power. Check to see if the power cables are plugged in, and make sure that any power strip or UPS that the display or your Mac is plugged into is also turned on. If you’re not sure if the power is on, try plugging a known good device, such as a lamp, into the same plug that your Mac or display uses.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Once you’re sure your Mac and its display are connected properly to a power source, the appropriate cables are connected, and the display’s brightness is at a reasonable level, it’s time to move on to more detailed troubleshooting.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

One of the shortcomings of the Finder is the lack of options when it comes to managing folders and their content. While there are a few issues that are often mentioned, the one we’re going to address here is how to merge folders that have the same name.

It seems to happen quite often when you have a project you’re working on in two different locations, say at home and at work. Or perhaps you’re working on a project on just one Mac, but you have a folder for the currently active project, and one for the updates you’re planning to perform.

In either case, the goal is to unite the two folders so they contain all of the files found in each one. When there are two files with the same name, you want the most recent version to be used, and the older one to be replaced.

Seems simple enough, but for a long time this type of basic file/folder manipulation was beyond the capabilities of the Mac’s Finder. Of course, there are quite a few third-party utilities that can perform the merge function for you; there are even some Apple utilities that can assist in this undertaking. But we’re going to start with just the Finder we use every day, and try out some of its merging options.

Options When Moving Files
When moving or copying files (we’re primarily going to refer to moving files, though you could also be copying files) from a source folder to a destination folder, there are a number of options for how file merging is performed.

The first option is none at all. If the files you’re moving are unique, that is, the names don’t match any of the files currently in the destination folder, then no merge option is presented, and files are simply moved to their new home in the destination folder.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

When one or more file names in the source folder match one or more file names in the destination folder, then the Finder will present four options in a dialog box for how to merge the files into the destination folder.

Actually, you’ll only see three of the four merge options; the last one is hidden, but we’ll show you how to access it.

Keep Both: When a file name matches, both versions are kept in the destination folder, with the file that came from the source folder having a version number appended to its name. As an example, if both the source and destination folder had a file named ExampleFile, then after the move, the destination folder would contain files named ExampleFile and ExampleFile 1.

Stop: Selecting this merge option halts the merge function entirely; no files will be moved from the source and no files in the destination will be replaced.

Replace: Selecting the Replace option will cause any file in the destination folder that has the same name to be replaced by the file from the source folder.

Skip: This is the hidden option that can be revealed by holding down the option key when the dialog box is present. Skip replaces the Keep Both option and allows you to skip over the currently listed file. This is the same as the Stop function, but only applies to the currently listed file in the dialog box. You can use Skip when you spot a file during the merge process that you didn’t mean to move.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

You just upgraded to macOS High Sierra and you’re amazed at the overall performance improvement you’re experiencing on your Mac.

OK, I just made that up. Most of the time, upgrading to a new version of the Mac operating system doesn’t bring performance increases. In most cases, performance remains about the same, with any efficiencies in the new OS offset by new features that take more than their fair share of your Mac’s resources.

But sometimes after installing a new OS, your Mac may seem to have had its performance rug pulled out from under it. Luckily, such problems are usually temporary or easy to fix. If you’re experiencing speed issues after installing macOS High Sierra, give these tips a try.

Spotlight Slowing Things Down
One of the perennial performance hits that occurs after a Mac operating system upgrade is Spotlight indexing the startup drive, or for that matter, any new drive(s) you may have added recently. The indexing process can really slow things down after an upgrade since the startup drive had a lot of information changed on it.

Adding a drive to Spotlight’s Privacy tab prevents it from indexing the volume. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Spotlight needs to build an accurate index of the files on your Mac so that search results are fast and correct. Thankfully, this is only a temporary problem. Once the indexing is finished, your Mac’s performance should return to normal.

If you can’t wait for the indexing to be done, you can disable indexing using these instructions:

Launch System Preferences, and select the Spotlight Preference Pane.

In the Spotlight window, select the Privacy tab.

Click the plus (+) button in the bottom left corner of the window.

In the list that opens, use the sidebar to select your Mac (it will be listed under Devices), and then select the startup drive, usually named Macintosh HD. Click the Choose button.

You’ll be asked if you really want to prevent Spotlight from searching in Macintosh HD. Click the OK button.

The startup drive will be added to the Spotlight privacy list and indexing for the drive will stop.

You should only add the startup drive to the privacy list as a temporary measure. I highly recommend that you remove the startup drive from the privacy list as soon as possible to ensure that all of the Mac’s search functions will work correctly.

To remove the startup drive and allow indexing to continue, select it from the Privacy tab and click the minus (-) button.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

by Tom Nelson

Programmable robot kits for kids are a great way to introduce your children to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Programmable robot kits can be a fun and educational experience for just about anyone, regardless of age.

Working with these robotic kits can foster a sense of accomplishment, and inspire the mind as kids work out new ways to program the robots to perform a desired task. Programmable robot kits teach many skills besides the obvious ones, such as learning basic programming. They also help hone skills used to assemble the robot from a collection of parts into a working device waiting for the builder’s command. Assembling a robot helps show that patience and fortitude outweigh the instant gratification of a pre-assembled gadget. The skills learned in assembly come in very handy when it’s time to customize the robot to meet a new challenge.

Nervous Bird, one of the many robots that can be built with the mBot Ranger robot kit. Image courtesy of Makeblock Co., Ltd.

5 Programmable Robots You Should Consider

Our list of programmable robots concentrates on kits, so some assembly is going to be required. Robotic kits are a great way to learn about multiple aspects of robotics, including design, assembly, and programming, and modifying a robot to meet new goals.

The kits are appropriate for just about any age, though there are some considerations for the very young. Some robot kits require soldering a few electronic components, and while soldering is a good skill to learn, all but one of the robots in our list can be assembled without pulling out a soldering iron.

Other considerations are the type of programming language that is used. Graphics-based languages can be easier for those just starting out, while text-based languages can provide more opportunity to expand on the robot’s capabilities.

Read more on Lifewire: Macs.