January 24th, 2017 • 2:53 pm
As you know if you’ve read my recent blog posts, I’ve had a bit of a torrid time with my 2014 Mac Pro in the past few months, because of a recurring problem with random video freezes.
It turns out that, contrary to what I had believed earlier on, the problem was not hardware-related, but software-related (and possibly related to a recent security update, more specifically).
While my Mac Pro is working more or less normally again now, this whole ordeal had two very concrete consequences for me.
First of all, it (indirectly) led me to purchase a new iMac 5K for my wife as a replacement for her aging 2009 Mac Pro, which gave me the opportunity to discover first hand the joys of desktop computing with a Retina display. This prompted me to experiment with my own existing hardware setup (the 2014 Mac Pro driving a 4K screen and an older 30″ Apple Cinema Display), by switching the 4K monitor from its native 3840 x 2160 resolution to the scaled 1920 x 1080 resolution that effectively gives me a Retina display for my main screen.
It took me a little while to adjust to the reduced screen real estate and to fine-tune my virtual work environment accordingly, but I am quite happy with the results. That said, I am still planning on purchasing a 5K monitor to replace my current 4K + 30″ setup with a 5K + 4K setup that is entirely Retina. I was considering the Dell UP2715K, but it looks like it’s being discontinued and replaced by something else, although what that “something else” is going to be is not clear at all. (The site says, “Please see our recommended replacement product”, but then it does not show what that replacement product is, as far as I can tell.)
I feel that the switch to Retina will give my 2014 Mac Pro a bit of a new lease on life. It looks like the most egregious bugs related to Retina have been addressed, and the computer has enough power to handle the new setup. I’ll be able to say more when I have made the full switch.
The second major consequence of this mishap with the Mac Pro is that it forced me to upgrade to Sierra sooner than I was planning to (by a few weeks at least, since the 10.12.3 update has actually just come out).
After my very traumatic experience with early versions of Yosemite and my much smoother transition to El Capitan, which I only upgraded to when it had reached 10.11.3, I was planning on waiting for 10.12.3. But the video freeze issue in El Capitan forced me to upgrade sooner.
I am happy (and relieved!) to report that the upgrade from El Capitan to Sierra 10.12.2 was quite smooth, and that I am positively surprised by the overall solidity of the new system. After the upgrade, I was able to run my machine for more than a week without having to restart it a single time for any reason, and most things run as well, if not better, than they did in El Capitan.
I was a bit worried about the PDF-related issues reported with Sierra, because I use all kinds of PDFs on a daily basis in my work, and Preview is my preferred PDF viewer. I must admit, however, that I personally haven’t noticed any significant differences or encountered any bugs. On the contrary, it looks like a bug introduced in Yosemite’s Preview in 2015 when resizing a window that contains a PDF document too fast has finally been fixed. This does not mean that the PDF bugs affecting other people are not important, of course. It just means that, for the types of tasks that I have to complete with PDF documents, Sierra seems to be working fine.
I am also happy to report that Sierra fixes other problems that had plagued my computing environment for a long time. It fixes several sleep-related issues that I had. For example, even with Power Nap enabled, I was unable to get El Capitan’s Mail to keep checking for new mail all through the night. Typically, I would wake my computer in the morning and find that it still had to download a bunch of messages that had arrived through the night. This is important, because SpamSieve needs to have Mail checking for new mail regularly on my desktop computer in order to filter out spam on my iOS devices.
I also had, for years, an issue where Typinator would be unable to reliably play some specific sound effects after my computer had been put to sleep. This meant that, for years, I had to quit and relaunch Typinator each and every morning. (I had a Keyboard Maestro macro for this, of course, but it was still annoying.) This audio problem appears to finally be gone in Sierra.
I didn’t encounter any new incompatibilities in Sierra, even with old software that I am still using and that will never be updated again, such as NetNewsWire 3, from 2012, and the CD-ROM-based French dictionaries Le Grand Robert and The Collins-Robert French Dictionary, also from 2012. (Time will tell how far into the future these continue to work, but I really do not feel like giving the Le Robert company any more of my money for a subscription to its online versions, based on the very poor customer service that they offer and the poor quality of their software in the first place. I only use these dictionaries because they are valuable as dictionaries. As for NetNewsWire, I suspect that one day I’ll have to find another RSS reader, but I am OK with delaying that process for as long as possible.)
I was quite disappointed to see that Sierra does not fix a number of long-standing issues in the Finder. The text-label highlighting in background windows is still broken in column view when dragging and dropping files. I don’t know how much more obvious this bug needs to be for Apple to finally do something about it. Similarly, another bug that is much harder to reproduce and that sometimes causes the Finder to completely fail to highlight the destination of a drag-and-drop operation altogether is still there. Since that one is intermittent, I suspect that Apple is still in complete denial about its very existence.
I am still occasionally experiencing significant problems in Sierra with the mouse pointer failing to change when it is supposed to. This can affect all applications systemwide. But it’s also an intermittent problem, and so, until I can find a 100%-reliable scenario to reproduce it, I am afraid I am going to have to continue to live with it.
In fact, after I posted about my disappointment with the persistence of these issues in Sierra on Twitter, I got a reply from @AppleSupport asking me to contact them by direct message to further explore the issues. (I didn’t direct the original tweet at @AppleSupport. I only used the handle @apple to refer to Apple in the tweet. I guess that’s enough to prompt a canned response.) I did respond to the invitation, and ended up having to explain things to a “senior advisor” on the phone. He did agree that he could reproduce the highlighting issue in the Finder and said that he would forward an “FYI” (his word) to engineering about it. He wasn’t able to reproduce the mouse pointer issue, so he asked me to try and reproduce it in a clean user environment and phone him with the results. Of course, I cannot reproduce the problem reliably, so that’s a dead end.
The process was rather time-consuming and yielded dubious results. I won’t go through it again. @AppleSupport needs to do a better job of distinguishing between calls for help and reports on bugs. Since they don’t seem to be able to do so, I guess I shall refrain from referring to Apple by its Twitter handle in the future. I’ll stick to Bug Reporter, even though that’s time consuming too (those huge uploads of system data!) and also has dubious results.
I am also disappointed to report that the hiccups that have been affecting text input on the Mac since Lion still haven’t been eliminated. I regularly encounter them in applications such as Mail and TextEdit, and they are particularly bad in Microsoft Word 2016, which is such an atrocious piece of software to begin with.
Microsoft seems to be simply unable to produce an application for the Mac that is both powerful and lean. Word 2016 might be powerful, but it’s a clunky monster and it’s slower than any other Mac application for the most basic stuff, including text input. Things are so bad in Word that the hiccups that are clearly a flaw in the operating system itself can significantly interfere with your typing and can even cause the application to completely lose track of what you’ve been typing altogether, effectively letting clusters of letters vanish into the ether. (They are not even buffered properly!) The combination of text input flaws in the operating system and Word’s own clunkiness is simply disastrous.
While things are not worse, in that respect, in Sierra than they were in El Capitan (where they were marginally better than in Yosemite), they are not significantly better either, and whenever I have no choice but to work in Word, I fear the worst, most of the time with good reason.
It continues to boggle my mind that, with all the power that we have under the hood in a machine such as a 2014 Mac Pro, we still have to deal with responsiveness issues of the most basic sort. How on earth is a 2014 Mac Pro not fast enough to process my typing in real time, no matter how fast I type — I’m only human, after all — and no matter what other processes are happening in the background at the same time?
This remains, to me, one of the most shocking developments in recent years in Macintosh computing. Clearly, Apple’s own priorities lie elsewhere, and they don’t care enough about the needs of Mac users whose primary use of their computer is to compose text by typing it.
Siri on the desktop? I couldn’t care less. I don’t even a microphone for audio input! (It’s also worth noting that even disabling Siri doesn’t stop Sierra from wasting resources on things such as background “speech recognition” processes…)
Basically, what I would like is a system that always processes text input in real time, with no exceptions, and lets me view text in full Retina glory on large, bright monitors. Once I get my 5K monitor, I might be closer than ever to that ideal, but until Apple finally addresses text input responsiveness issues in a real way in macOS, I will still have to endure a life of ongoing frustration with the poor use of hardware resources by my software tools.
That being said, Sierra remains, as far as I am concerned, a solid release. It’s no solid enough to make me fully trust Apple again, and I will certainly remain wary of future system updates and upgrades, but at least my system today is as good, if not slightly better, than it was a year ago. And I guess that, the way things are going, that’s a minor miracle.