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Archive for the ‘Hardware Tips’ Category

by Tom Nelson

Disk First Aid, currently part of Disk Utility, has long been the go-to utility for verifying and repairing a Mac’s storage system. Included as a standalone app with the original Mac OS, it was later folded into Disk Utility when OS X was released.

Disk Utility, and its First Aid system remains the first line of defense for drives that are experiencing a number of issues, including:

  • System crashes
  • Files disappearing
  • File sizes changing on their own
  • Inability to copy files
  • Inability to open or save files
  • Startup issues
  • Drives unmounting or ejecting on their own
  • And a host of other errors and issues

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at using Disk Utility’s First Aid tool in macOS High Sierra to repair APFS and HFS+ file systems. First Aid can actually be used on any file system that macOS supports, but APFS and HFS+ are the most popular, and the ones you’re most likely to encounter.

We’ll start by going through the actual process of using First Aid, and then take a more in-depth look at the process; we’ll also provide a few troubleshooting tips.

Before you use First Aid, make sure you have a current backup of the drive or volume you’re having issues with. If you’re using First Aid as part of a routine maintenance program, you should still have a working backup of any volume that you’ll be checking.

The Disk Utility app underwent a few updates with the release of macOS High Sierra to support the APFS file system. If you’re working with OS X El Capitan through macOS Sierra, you may find the instructions in How to Use macOS Sierra Disk Utility to Verify or Repair Disks a better fit.

Disk Utility’s Sidebar in macOS High Sierra and Later
Launch Disk Utility, located at /Applications/Utilities.

Disk Utility’s default settings use a sidebar that only displays storage volumes. Since you may need to use the First Aid tool on volumes as well as partitions, catalogs, and physical devices, it’s a good idea to change the sidebar settings to display all devices.

The View button in Disk Utility’s toolbar will expand the sidebar to show all devices. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Click the View button in the Disk Utility toolbar and select Show All Devices from the popup menu, or select Show All Devices from the View menu.

The sidebar will now display all devices, including the physical drive and any APFS containers it may have, as well as any APFS or HFS volumes associated with the physical drive.

The organization of the devices is hierarchical, with the physical drive listed first, using the manufacturer’s name, or the model name or number, or both. At the next level under the physical drive is the Container (APFS file system), followed by the volumes. If this is an HFS-formatted drive, there won’t be any containers under the drive level, just volumes.

Each item can be selected and repaired using the First Aid tool.

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by Tom Nelson

Disk Utility has long been the workhorse of choice for dealing with hard drives, SSDs, and disk images. With the advent of APFS (Apple File System) with macOS High Sierra, Disk Utility acquired some additional capabilities that allow it to work with APFS and its support for containers.

DiskUtilityIcon

We’re going to look at how to use Disk Utility to partition drives into multiple containers, and how to add volumes to containers. If you need to partition and manage standard HFS+ volumes, you’ll find detailed instructions in the Rocket Yard guide: How to Use macOS Sierra Disk Utility to Partition, Erase Drives.

What Are Containers?
Containers are a new abstract used in the APFS system to define a storage system that can share available free space among one or more volumes. Apple calls this Space Sharing. It allows volumes that are within a common container to grow or shrink as needed, without any type of repartitioning.

Containers, then, define a block of space on a physical drive that will be assigned to and used by volumes you create in the container. Volumes you create in a container can have a minimum size and a maximum size, but the actual amount of space they use is dynamically assigned from the container’s free space, as each volume within the container needs the space.

The selected drive shows that it contains two containers of different sizes. The smaller container houses a single volume, and the larger container holds two volumes. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Use Disk Utility to Create an APFS Container
Containers are only supported on drives formatted with APFS. You can format a drive or convert an HFS+ drive to APFS using the version of Disk Utility found in macOS High Sierra or later.

APFS was designed primarily for use with SSDs, though it should also work with standard hard drives. But before you decide to format a hard drive to use APFS, you may want to read: Using APFS On HDDs …And Why You Might Not Want To. At the moment, Apple doesn’t support APFS being used on Fusion drives.

Before you begin this process, take a moment to make sure you have a current backup of the information on your Mac, and that the drive used for backups isn’t one of the drives that will be involved in any of the processes we will be performing. The best way to do that is to eject the backup drive and, if possible, disconnect it from your Mac.

With your backups current, you’re ready to explore the APFS file system, including working with containers and volumes.

Launch Disk Utility, located at /Applications/Utilities.

In the Disk Utility toolbar, click on the View button and select Show All Devices. You can also use the View menu to perform the same task.

To convert an HFS+ volume to an APFS volume, select the HFS+ volume on the Disk Utility sidebar. (HFS+ volumes appear just below the physical drives in the sidebar.) Once selected, choose Convert to APFS from Disk Utility’s Edit menu. A sheet will drop down asking if you would like to convert the drive to APFS. Converting to APFS shouldn’t cause data loss on the selected drive, but it’s a good idea to make sure the data on the drive has been backed up first. When you’re ready, click the Convert button.

Disk Utility being used to convert the existing Video volume to APFS. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To format a drive in APFS, select the drive in Disk Utility’s sidebar. Select Erase from the toolbar or from the Edit menu. Provide a name, and then select one of the APFS formats from the Format dropdown menu. Formatting a drive will erase all of the data it contains, so make sure you have a backup of the data, if needed, before proceeding. When you’re ready, click the Erase button.

Disk Utility will create an APFS container, along with a single volume within the container.

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by Tom Nelson

I’ve heard it said that an SSD or hard drive that isn’t used for extended periods of time will likely have performance issues, or worse, actually lose data in the span of a few years. I’ve even heard it said that SSDs could lose their information in less than a year, and in the worst case, within a few days.

Of course, I’ve heard a lot of things, and not all of them bear up well when looked at closely. So, let’s find out if we need to keep exercising our storage devices to maintain information and performance.

Data Retention
The ability of a storage device to keep the data it contains intact is known as the data retention rate. The actual rate cited for various devices is predicated on the storage device being non-powered, undergoing no refresh of the data it contains, and being kept in an ideal storage environment, usually mentioned as around 25 C / 77 F.

Under those ideal conditions, hard drives are predicted to be able to retain their data for 9 to 20 years. The long range is due to the different architectures used in the manufacturing of modern hard drives.

SSDs (Solid State Drives) have a reputation for having a very low data retention rate. Numbers commonly cited suggest one year for consumer grade SSDs, and as low as one week for enterprise class SSDs.

If you believe the reputation is true, then SSDs would need to be exercised at defined intervals to ensure they keep the data stored intact. However, is that reputation valid? We’ll find out in a bit, but first, let’s look at hard drives.

Hard Drive Failure Mechanisms
The length of time your data will be retained on a hard drive in storage, one that isn’t powered and kept in a controlled environment, is based on four primary factors:

Magnetic Field Deterioration: Permanent magnets generally lose their field strength at the rate of 1% per year. After 69 years, the field strength would have dropped by 50 percent. That much field strength loss will likely lead not only to general data corruption of the stored data, but also to the loss of the index tracking marks which tell a drive where a sector starts and stops. So, not only is the stored data lost, but the ability to read the drive may be gone as well.

Magnetic Field Corruption: Magnetic fields external to a stored hard drive can adversely affect the stored data by altering the charge at one or more locations on the drive’s platters. Magnetic disruption can be caused by nearby high power magnets, motors, or even by unusually strong geomagnetic storms caused by solar mass ejections on the sun.

Environmental Conditions: Humidity and temperature ranges for stored hard drives differ by drive manufacturer. Western Digital recommends storing their hard drives between 55 F and 90 F. Extreme high temperatures increase the risk of damaging mechanical components, such as warping heads or platters, while extreme cold temperatures can cause bearing failure, or allow the spindle and motor to become misaligned. (Related: Keep Your Electronics Warm and Safe This Winter)

Mechanical Failure: Even with the proper storage conditions, mechanical failure, such as the platters failing to spin up due to motor failure, or spindle bearing failure, can happen. These types of failures tend to occur when drives are stored for exceptionally long periods of time without ever being powered on.

Mitigating Hard Drive Storage Failures
Of all the possible issues with hard drive storage, two of the most common ones can have their effects mitigated by exercising the drive. In the case of mechanical failure over long time frames, the simple approach is to power on the drive occasionally, ensuring the bearings, motor, and grease are all warmed up, and preventing them from becoming stuck in one location.

Refreshing the stored data can reduce magnetic field deterioration. This would require the drive to be powered on and connected to a computer system. Reading the stored data isn’t enough; to refresh the magnetic charge the data must be read and then rewritten to the drive. An easy way to accomplish this, assuming there’s enough room on the drive, would be to copy the content to a new location on the drive, or create a disk image and copy that to a new location on the drive. Another option would be to clone the drive to another storage device, and then clone the drive back again.

How often you should perform this exercising of a hard drive is difficult to say, but once a year or once every two years would be a good starting point. While a longer time frame is actually possible between exercising a hard drive, the task tends to get overlooked when the time frame becomes longer. It’s much easier to remember a yearly exercise routine than to try to remember to perform this task once every x number of years.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

SSD Failure Mechanisms
A few years back, a presentation was made at the JEDEC Standards Committee for solid state drive requirements at which a slide showing expected data retention rates for SSDs in a powered-off stored state was shown. That slide indicated the very poor ability of an SSD to retain data for any length of time when powered off. Specifically, it mentioned the following data retention rates:

Consumer grade SSD: 1 year at a 30 C storage temperature.

Enterprise grade SSD: 3 months at 40 C storage temperature.

In both cases, as the power off storage temperature increases, the data retention rate falls. In the case of consumer grade models, data retention can fall at one month at 50 C, while enterprise class SSDs can see less than one week at 50 C.

Pundits quickly picked up this information and it spread around the Internet, leading to the poor reputation SSDs can have for data retention when powered off. The problem is that it’s simply not true. The information being conveyed in the original presentation pertained to a worst-case scenario, one where the SSD under question has nearly reached its end-of-life, and has had its P/E count (Program/Erase cycle count) reach the point where data cells would start showing write failures. But when the background information was removed and only the information on the slide was presented, a legend, or at least a reputation, was born.

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by Tom Nelson

Do you have a few USB flash drives lying around? Chances are you have at least a couple, or maybe even a small drawer full of them. In my case, I have about a half dozen, with no specific use assigned to them. That means I have a source of flash drives for trying out a few unusual uses for these handy take anywhere storage devices.

Image courtesy of MacSales.com

There are lots of uses for flash drives, including using them as an easy way to copy files between computers, as intermediate storage for photos, music, and videos, and what may be a primary use this time of year, sending tax return data to and from your tax preparer.

But those are more mundane uses. In this article, we’re going to take a look at four more interesting uses for flash drives you’re currently not using.

RAID 0 Security Array
A USB flash drive can make a surprisingly versatile and reasonably fast Striped RAID array (RAID 0). All that’s needed is a powered USB hub with enough ports to accommodate the flash drives you’re going to connect. The speed you can get out of a USB flash RAID 0 array is based on three factors: the number of flash drives you use, the speed of the flash drives, and the speed of the USB interfaces.

You can use flash drives to create a small but reasonably fast striped RAID array. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Assuming you’re using USB 3.1 gen 1 ports, hubs, and flash drives, the maximum theoretical speed is 5 Gbps, which you’re not likely to ever actually see, but it does set an upper limit. In actual use, the flash-based RAID array is going to be limited chiefly by the write and read speeds of the USB flash drives. Some of the fastest flash drives available can have write speeds a bit better than 150 MB/s, and read speeds coming close to 200 MB/s. However, most USB 3.1 flash drives have much more modest write and read speeds, with sub 25 MB/s write speeds and sub 100 MB/s read speeds being a bit more typical.

Even with the slower flash drives, if you put enough of them together, you can get pretty surprising write and read performance out of them in a RAID configuration.

To build the USB flash drive RAID array, plug as many flash drives as you have on hand into a USB hub. It’s best if the flash drives are the same size, speed and manufacturer, but it’s not a requirement.

You can use the RAID Assistant built in to all versions of the Mac OS (except OS X El Capitan), or you can use SoftRAID or SoftRAID Lite to create the RAID 0 array.

Even this modest three flash drive RAID set achieved write speeds of 70 MB/s and read speeds of 240 MB/s. Not bad for scrounging together some leftover parts. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

You can use your USB flash-based RAID array for just about anything you would use a normal external RAID for, but these two uses may be of interest:

As an old-fashioned secure data storage system: Data stored on the flash array is effectively divided between the flash drives that make up the array. Split those drives apart and store them separately and the data on them can’t be reconstructed. Bring all of the flash drives back together and you can access the information they contain. For even more security, you can encrypt the array using the FileVault encryption options built into your Mac.

As a fast array for scratch space for graphics, audio, or video apps: Be a bit careful here, because if you’re using low-cost flash drives, the write speed may be a bit low for this type of use. On the other hand, the read speed is probably quite good.

As with any RAID 0 storage system, there’s a danger of data loss should one of the drives fail or is lost, so be sure to use a backup system if you plan to use this RAID array beyond just trying out the idea.

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by Tom Nelson

Do you keep your Macs for longer periods of time than do most of your friends? I’ve been accused of hoarding my old Macs; for example, keeping an original 2006 Mac Pro running long after it should have been retired. The same is true of a 2011 MacBook Pro; I only need to replace the battery, which is no longer holding a charge, and it will be as good as new.

The point is, Macs routinely have longer lifetimes than most personal computers, and it only takes a few tips, a bit of maintenance, and an upgrade now and then to keep a Mac running well, and extend its usable lifetime well beyond the norm.

Keep Your Mac Clean and Help It Keep Its Cool
Keeping your Mac clean can help it run at lower internal temperatures, which can prolong its life by not putting undue strain on internal components. At one time, it was an easy task to open a Mac up and clean out the dust bunnies that had collected over time. Now, except for the Mac Pro and Mac mini, the inside of a Mac is somewhat difficult to get to. But you should still inspect your Mac to ensure none of the intake and exhaust vents are clogged by dust and debris. If you need a bit of help in cleaning the interior, check out the Rocket Yard Tech Tip: Have You Cleaned Your Mac Lately?

Once you have your Mac’s cooling system shipshape, don’t forget that when you’re actively using your Mac, its location can have an impact on its ability to keep cool. When using a MacBook, don’t place it on pillows or soft material that can block airflow. Likewise, with desktop Macs, make sure the position they’re in doesn’t block airflow.

As long as we’re on a cleaning spree, don’t overlook the keyboard, mouse, trackpad, and display. MacSales.com has a nice collection of cleaning products that will help keep these peripherals looking good and working well.

Perform Routine Maintenance
Routine maintenance can do a lot to extend the life of your Mac. It not only can keep everything operating in top shape, it can also help find possible trouble spots before they start severely impacting you or your Mac.

Disk maintenance is often overlooked even though it can find, and in many cases, repair issues before they become problems. Disk Utility has long included a Disk First Aid feature that can be used to verify and repair problems. Running the First Aid tool regularly can help keep your drives performing at their peak, as well as let you know when problems are beginning to appear.

Another maintenance task that can be run to keep your Mac in good shape is Safe Mode, a special boot environment that will run a few tests as well as delete font, system, and kernel caches that can cause some very strange behavior when any of them become corrupt. You can find out more in the Rocket Yard guide: Safe Mode & Single-User Mode: What They Are, How to Use Them.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Upgrade Hardware
Over time, your Mac’s hardware may seem to be slowing down; more likely, you’re just using a lot more of your Mac’s resources than when you first got it. One way to help alleviate the slowdown is to increase the resources available to your Mac: more RAM, larger disk storage, or perhaps faster storage. All or some of these can speed up your Mac, giving it a longer usable life.

RAM upgrades: I try to buy Macs that have user upgradeable RAM, but this isn’t always possible, especially when Apple has soldered the RAM directly to the Mac’s motherboard. However, you may be surprised to learn that even some Macs that don’t provide easy user access to their internals still have RAM that can be upgraded.

When I need to upgrade my Mac’s RAM, MacSales.com’s memory guide is where I look to see what upgrades are available, and in many cases, view the upgrade video that may be available for a specific Mac model.

Storage upgrades: One of the best upgrades that I’ve performed for many of my older Macs is to replace the rotational disk drive with an SSD. This type of upgrade can really put the spring back into your Mac, and remind you of how impressed you were with your Mac’s performance that first day you brought it home.

Even if you have a more recent Mac with an SSD already installed, increasing the SSD size can be helpful, and the old SSD can be put into an external enclosure for additional storage.

You can use the MacSales.com SSD Flash Storage Upgrade guide for information about the SSD you need for your specific Mac.

Another storage upgrade option is to use a fast port, such as Thunderbolt 2 or Thunderbolt 3, to connect a high performance external storage solution to your Mac. This lets you enjoy the benefits of faster storage without having to take your Mac apart to replace disks. It also provides the possibility of building high performance RAID storage systems to meet your particular needs.

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by Tom Nelson

In an earlier article, we looked at 10 Mac Features You Probably Don’t Use But Should. While researching that article we came across a bit more than 10 notable Mac features, so a follow-up article was born.

This time, we have seven more Mac features that are worth checking out. On the premise that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we’d like to know in return what favorite feature you think doesn’t get enough respect from the typical Mac user. You can add it to the Leave a Comment section, below.

Mine is Stacks, I use them all the time to quickly access the content of folders and smart folders without having to dig through the Finder to locate them, and to have them available no matter how many apps and windows are cluttering up my desktop.

Stacks
Stacks are one of my favorite features of the Mac’s Dock. At its basic level, a stack is just a folder containing items that you’ve dragged to the right-hand side of the Dock. But a stack has a few more capabilities than just a plain folder; you can view the content of a stack by clicking on its Dock icon. You can specify how the content is to be displayed, and you can specify the sorting order of the content when viewed from the Dock, independent of how you have the sorting order set when manually opening the same folder in the Finder.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To give you an idea of the power of Stacks, we’re going to create a Stack to house all the items we’ve marked using Finder Tags, as mentioned in last week’s article: 10 Mac Features You Probably Don’t Use But Should.

Open a Finder window, and scroll down in the sidebar ’til you see the Tags section.

Drag one of the tag colors from the Finder sidebar to the right-hand side of the Dock.

A new stack will be created in your Dock, which you can use to quickly view all of the items on your Mac that you’ve tagged with that specific Finder Tag color.

Stacks have a number of options you can set that control how they look and behave. To find out more about Stacks and the options available, stop by Spacers, Stacks & Swapping: Mastering the Iconic macOS Dock, Part 2.

There are other Stacks you can create in your Mac’s Dock; another favorite is the Recent Items stack. You can find instructions for creating this stack in the article: Terminal Tricks: Mastering the Iconic macOS Dock, Part 3.

Add Glyphs Directly From the Keyboard
If you use your Mac for just about any type of correspondence, sooner or later you’re likely to need to produce diacritical marks that are placed above a letter to indicate a special pronunciation. In the past, these special marks were hidden away in the in the Mac’s Character Viewer, Emoji & Symbol Viewer, or Keyboard Viewer app (the names of these special character viewer apps change depending on the version of the OS you’re using).

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

The viewers can be added to the Apple menu bar:

Launch System Preferences, and select the Keyboard preference pane.

Select the Keyboard tab, and then place a checkmark in the Show Keyboard and Emoji Viewers in Menu Bar box.

You can now access the character viewers directly from the right-hand side of the Apple menu bar.

Of course, there’s an easier way if all you need to do is add the accent glyph for a single character. Ever since OS X Lion, it’s been possible to add an accent glyph by holding down the letter’s key for a second or two, at which point a popover menu will appear directly above the character, listing all of the correct diacritical marks associated with that letter. Simply click on the mark you wish to use, or type the number that appears below the mark.

If none of the glyphs are the correct one, you can hit the Escape key to dismiss the popover menu.

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by Tom Nelson

With each release of the Mac OS, new features are added, older features may be updated, and in some cases, removed or replaced. Over the course of a few OS updates, it’s easy for some very useful system features to be forgotten. That’s why we’re going to take a look at 10 features that don’t get as much use as we think they should.

1) Tabbing Between Fields and Control Elements
The tab key can get quite a workout on the Mac. Besides its obvious use in text editors and word processors to move the cursor a predefined distance, it’s used on the Mac to move between fields in various apps. This makes the tab key extremely helpful when filling in an online form, letting you move quickly to the next field to enter information, or to the next list item to make a selection.

Further Reading: OWC Announces Cutting-edge Thunderbolt 3 Products at CES 2018

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

You may have noticed when filling in forms that the tab key will jump past dropdown menus and other types of controls used in forms and dialog boxes. You can make the tab key stop at just about any type of user interface element with this small change:

Launch System Preferences and select the Keyboard preference pane.

Select the Shortcuts button at the top of the Keyboard window.

Near the bottom you’ll find options for Full Keyboard Access. The default is to have the tab key only move between text boxes and lists. You can change the setting to have the tab key move between all controls.

You can also change the tab key behavior on the fly, without returning to the System Preferences, by using the keyboard shortcut Control + F7 to toggle between the two options.

2) New Folder With Selection
This useful Finder feature has been around since OS X Lion, but is still often overlooked when it comes to file management and organization. As long as you select two or more files, you can have the Finder automatically create a new folder and move the selected items into the folder for you.

Open a Finder window and navigate to the files you would like to have placed in a new folder. Select the files; remember you must select at least two files (or folders) for this trick to work.

Right-click or control-click on one of the selected items, and then choose New Folder with Selection (X Items) from the popup menu. The X in the menu name will be replaced with the number of items you actually selected.

You can also select multiple items in the Finder and from the File menu select New Folder with Selection (X Items).

3) Use a Document’s Icon to Move a File or Duplicate a File (Proxy Icon)
The proxy icon is the thumbnail of a document icon that appears in the title bar of the document window of most Mac apps, usually at the top center of the window. It’s called a proxy icon because it’s a stand-in for the actual icon of the document you’re working on.

The proxy icon is more than just a bit of eye candy. It can be used just like the document’s real icon, which means you can:

Drag the proxy icon anywhere on your Mac to create an alias to the original file at the new location.

Option + drag to create a copy of the document at the location you drag the proxy icon to.

Press command or control for a pop-down menu that shows the path to the document.

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by Tom Nelson

Macs have been at the center of many creative endeavors since the first Mac took the stage at De Anza College in 1984, at its official unveiling. Since then, the Mac community has been finding new and amazing uses for their Macs. It’s no wonder, then, that you’re likely to find a Mac taking center stage in many professional and home-based film and video studios.

There are a number of Mac models used in home and pro studio work, but we’re going to take a look at two popular desktop models: 2011 and later iMacs, and 2010 and later Mac Pros. We chose these two model families because of their popularity, cost, and ability to be upgraded with RAM, storage, peripherals, and software that can turn them into film and video editing machines.

If you’re ready to hit the road to Sundance, let’s get started outfitting your Mac for its new editing role.

Upgrading RAM in an iMac
For the most part, 2011 and later iMacs have memory that can be upgraded by the end user. There are some exceptions, such as the 2014 through 2016 21.5-inch iMacs, which made use of RAM soldered directly to the motherboard, thus preventing a viable upgrade path. But the rest of the iMac family all has some method that allows you to increase the amount of RAM installed.

Increasing the RAM is going to allow your Mac to better function as an editing platform. Most editing applications are able to make use of all of the RAM you make available to them, increasing their performance, reducing rendering times, or just making the editing process a simpler one.

If you’re wondering how much RAM you need, my answer is all that you can afford. If you can max out your RAM, you’ll likely see a nice improvement; at a minimum for small HD-based projects, 16 GB is a good start. If your editing work involves multiple layers, multiple cameras, or 4K and larger projects, then I suggest 32 GB as a minimum, which is more likely to help with performance.

That leaves the 2017 21.5-inch iMac and 2017 27-inch iMac, which don’t have memory modules that are accessible from the outside, but do have internal memory slots that can be upgraded, though with a degree of difficulty best left to advanced DIYers.

If you’re considering the new 2017 iMac Pro as an editing machine, take a look at the OWC tear down of the 2017 iMac Pro, which reveals that the RAM can be upgraded, though again, not easily.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

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by Tom Nelson

Editor’s Note: OWC will be attending the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Ahead of the festival, the Rocket Yard will share a series of articles related to all things filmmaking.

Filmmakers may have some of the most demanding needs for storage, with their requirements for balancing speed, throughput, density, portability, reliability, and, of course, cost. And that’s just for the studio. Similar concerns are present at every phase of a filmmaker’s workflow.

ALEXA SXT Plus. Courtesy of ARRI Group.

And it’s not just the pros shooting with the latest RED or ALEXA cameras at 8K, 60 fps; even those making use of their DSLR or smartphone to shoot video have to make similar tradeoffs when they choose their storage solutions. One hour of footage using RED Raw 4K at 24 fps is going to need about 127 GB of space, and that’s just for storing raw footage from a single camera. Imagine the space needs when you consider multiple camera sources, audio, stills, multiple layers, and scratch space. If you’re shooting 1080p, that may drop down to 17 GB of space for one hour of raw footage per camera. But no matter what format you’re shooting, the eventual total space you’ll need for storage can be quite large.

This is a good time to be looking for upgrades to storage needs. Drive sizes are increasing, performance and reliability are improving, and there’s bound to be a storage option that meets your needs, either solid state drives, rotational hard drives, or a combination of the two.

External Solutions
External storage systems are the most common solution to meet storage needs. They’re available in a number of interfaces; USB 3.1, USB 3.1 gen 2, Thunderbolt 2, and Thunderbolt 3 are the most common ones used for video and film production.

The ThunderBlade V4 provides high performance throughput using a Thunderbolt 3 interface.

It’s hard to beat Thunderbolt 3 for raw performance. Its raw speed makes it a great choice for high-performance data storage. A good example of high-performance storage solution is the ThunderBlade V4. This high speed (2800 MB/s Read, 2450 MB/s Write) external SSD blade is housed in a ruggedized case, making it a great choice for work on location, as well as back in your studio. Available in sizes from 1TB to 8TB, this single drive can meet the needs of your next film project.

If a bus-powered portable is what you need, the Envoy Pro EX Thunderbolt 3 comes in a rugged case designed for fieldwork. At 2600 MB/s Read and 1600 MB/s Write, this high-performance wonder can fit in your pocket and has the speed to not impede your workflow when offloading footage from your cameras, or serving as storage for field editing needs. It’s available in 1TB and 2TB configurations.

Thunderbolt has always worked well as the host interface for multi-bay RAID enclosures, and this holds true for the newest in the ThunderBay lineup, the ThunderBay 4 Thunderbolt 3. Using a Thunderbolt 3 interface, the ThunderBay 4 Thunderbolt 3 provides 4 bays that can house SSDs, hard drives, or a combination of the two.

If you’ve worked with RAID arrays before, then it’s likely you made use of RAID 0 to stripe one or more drives together for increased speed. Of course, striped arrays suffer from reliability issues; specifically, if one drive fails in any way, the data on all striped drives is lost.

The ThunderBay 4 enclosure allows you to customize how each drive within the enclosure is used. 

Using a 4-bay RAID enclosure like the ThunderBay 4, along with SoftRAID, the best RAID utility for the Mac, allows you to configure the ThunderBay 4 enclosure as a RAID 10 array, striping the data across a pair of mirrors (RAID 1). This provides the performance of a two-drive stripe with the data redundancy of a pair of mirrors. Another option supported by SoftRAID is to use all four drives in a RAID 5 configuration. The advantage of RAID 5 is that all four disks are striped together, providing high-speed data access while also distributing a parity bit across all of the disks. The results are a RAID system that can recover from any single drive failure.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Another option is to make use of external drives with USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface. This type of interface supports speeds up to 10 Gb/s, equivalent to the speeds of the original Thunderbolt interface, but at a fraction of the cost. To get the most out of this type of connection, the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual mini gives you two 2.5-inch bays each with a SATA 3 (6 Gb/s) connection.

The Mercury Elite Pro Dual mini is the perfect enclosure for a pair of SATA-based SSDs.

The Mercury Elite Pro Dual mini supports hardware-based RAID 0, 1, and SPAN, as well as independent drive modes. This versatile enclosure allows you to build a storage system that will work great for film projects that aren’t pushing the technology.

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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.

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