News from Six Colors

The latest in the world of Apple

Six Colors Writing about Apple and other stuff by Jason Snell, Dan Moren, and others.

  • Fun With Charts: The laptop gets ever smaller
    by Jason Snell on May 29, 2020 at 9:01 pm

    I showed my kids a PowerBook 180 today. They’d never seen one before. In my memory it is a mind-blowingly small and light computer that, for the first time, allowed me to take my Mac with me anywhere I went. It changed my life, and that’s not an exaggeration.

    My kids laughed. Both of them used the word “brick” to describe it.

    So goes the march of time. The trend in laptop design, since the very beginning, has been toward lighter and thinner laptops. In 2001 Steve Jobs boasted about the mind-blowing one-inch thickness of the Titanium PowerBook G4; 19 years later the average Mac laptop is half that thickness.

    But it’s one thing to know that laptops trend toward thinness and lightness. It’s another to see a chart that lets you visualize it. So I dug through the specs of past Mac systems at and averaged the weight and thickness of the Mac laptop product line for every year since the first Mac laptop, the hilariously heavy Mac Portable, hit the scene.

    Keep in mind that these are averages based on the entire product line, so while the appearance of a MacBook Air or MacBook will lower the average, the real story is the trend across all models.

    People with knowledge of the Mac’s history will appreciate the ebb and flow of the stats on these charts, as Apple tried to balance increasing the power of a laptop while not making it too big and heavy. Sometimes there were steps back (in terms of weight and thickness) that were steps forward in terms of speed.

    But the long-term trend, as always, is downward.

  • Untangling the executive order on social media ↦
    by Dan Moren on May 29, 2020 at 3:41 pm

    Really good line-by-line breakdown by The Verge’s Adi Robertson of President Trump’s executive order targeting social media sites and other online platforms:

    It’s hard to capture just how badly this order mangles free speech and the entire legislative process. But one of its worst flaws is a common one: making rules that assume every website is Facebook. We’ve said over and over that Section 230 is not “a gift to big tech companies.” It’s a gift to the internet. Trump’s order makes that clearer than ever — because unlike even a fairly similar proposal from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), its “online platform” definition explicitly targets all websites, not just the biggest by users or revenue.

    This is a piece worth reading: if even a portion of this executive order ends up being enforced, it potentially puts the fundamental nature of the Internet in danger.

    [Read on Six Colors.]

  • The technical challenge of getting 'The Simpsons' right on Disney+ ↦
    by Jason Snell on May 29, 2020 at 12:00 am

    Todd Spangler of Variety reports on what the Disney+ engineering team needed to do in order to allow users to stream episodes of “The Simpsons” in their proper 4:3 aspect ratio 1:

    So the DSS team revamped its content model to introduce the concept of multiple media “facets,” or multiple combinations of audio, video, and subtitle components. Now, components delivered under the same Entertainment Identifier Registry ID can be grouped in multiple combinations, laying the groundwork to support user-selected aspect ratio preference while maintaining existing content interaction features.

    By creating the facets-based content model, DSS also was able to reuse thousands of audio and subtitle components that already existed for the 428 episodes on Disney Plus, along with episode-specific artwork and other metadata.

    To turn this on, you need to tap on the Details tab in “The Simpsons” and then turn off “Remastered Aspect Ratio.” And if you’re watching on an iPad, you’ll need to use two fingers to pinch outward in order to watch it without a big black border around the whole thing.

    I really appreciated Spangler’s deep dive into how a “simple” problem is actually much more complex than you might think. By altering their data model, Disney+ is now able to associate two separate video versions of an episode while keeping the subtitles and audio tracks consistent.

    It also paves the way for other alternate views of content. for example, TV shows with remastered special effects could be viewed with the new effects or the originals intact 2. Or you could offer an alternate version of a show with no VFX at all. More flexibility is good.

    That all said, there’s no reason for the cropped 16:9 versions of “The Simpsons” to exist at all. They were made in 4:3 aspect ratio and they should only be seen in that format. At least now Disney+ subscribers have the option. (I am not a crackpot.)

    1. Congratulations to Todd Vaziri, who has been banging this particular drum for a while. ↩

    2. No, I don’t think this approach would work for the Star Wars Special Editions, because those encompass larger changes that alter audio, dialogue, and runtime. ↩


  • Automating my iPod Hi-Fi's volume control... because I can
    by Jason Snell on May 28, 2020 at 11:43 pm

    “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” warned Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park.” I can relate. Sometimes I work to solve a problem using technology not because it’s necessary, but because it’s fun.

    Fact one: I work at my desk, listening to music. I generally don’t like to use headphones because they can make my ears sore after a while, and they cut me off from the sounds of my house and neighborhood. So when I was setting up my home office, I wanted a nice set of speakers, and I realized that I still had my old iPod Hi-Fi sitting around.

    The iPod Hi-Fi, a compact iPod speaker system Apple built to try and outclass the popular Bose SoundDock has ended up as the butt of many jokes. It was a flop. But you know what? For all its faults, it was a pretty good speaker. I took it with me to family camp up in the mountains for many years. And while I don’t listen to music on an iPod anymore, the iPod Hi-Fi has something that the HomePod lacks: an auxiliary audio-in jack. So my music plays, every day, through an iPod Hi-Fi attached to my iMac Pro via a headphone cable.

    Fact two: The problem I discovered upon hooking my iPod Hi-Fi up to my iMac via the auxiliary input was that when I shut the iMac down at the end of the day, the iPod Hi-Fi emitted an annoying buzzing sound. I also didn’t like the idea of leaving the thing powered in overnight when I wasn’t using it, so I plugged the iPod Hi-Fi into my switching power strip that senses the power draw on a single, master outlet and uses that to switch off a few other outlets. Now when my iMac shut down, my iPod Hi-Fi powered down too. Buzz gone, power draw solved.

    Fact three: For some reason, Apple designed the iPod Hi-Fi’s volume to reset after a power cycle. I can have the iPod Hi-Fi set to the perfect volume for my use during the day, but the next morning it will always be several volume steps too low. This requires me to keep an Apple Remote on my desk and, when I start listening to music, I have to click it four or five times to get it to be an acceptable volume.

    Fact four: Having to click a stupid Apple Remote every day when I want to listen to music is not much of an imposition in the grand scheme of things. And yet… surely, surely there was some way for me to eliminate this need. I was so preoccupied with whether or not I could, I didn’t stop to think if I should.

    Automating the infrared

    Here was the plan: Find a device that could be controlled by my Mac and press the volume-up button on my iPod Hi-Fi every morning when I started up the computer. A search for USB-based infrared blasters turned up empty, so I looked for networked ones instead. I […]

  • Plex and Hulu add group watching features
    by Dan Moren on May 28, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    A few weeks back on Clockwise, our guest (and good friend) Jean MacDonald lamented that, in this age of social distancing, there’s no really great way to watch a TV show or movie with someone online.

    Speaking as someone who’s been recording a two-person movie commentary podcast for almost seven years, I concurred with this assessment. But streaming services have apparently realized it too, as today, both Hulu and Plex have announced such features.

    Hulu’s Watch Party will allow a subscriber to Hulu’s ad-free plan to send a link to others who can watch along with them. There’s also a shared group chat, the ability to individually control your playback, and a “catch up” button that brings you to where the party is if you have to step away for a moment.

    However, it comes with a few restrictions. For one thing, not only do you have to be an ad-free subscriber, but so does anybody who wants to watch along with you. (I suppose that’s because syncing with dynamically served ads is a technical challenge, but also probably doesn’t hurt that it’s a more expensive plan.) Secondly, it’s only available on the web, so if you’re using a mobile device or set-top box, you’re out of luck for now.

    Plex, on the other hand, is taking almost an inverse approach. All you need to use the new Watch Together feature is a free Plex account; then you can invite someone to watch a movie or show—from Plex’s on-demand library or your own personal collection. While the feature is in beta, it remains free and Plex is actively soliciting feedback for what features should be added. 1 It’s currently only supported on mobile and set-top devices, including iOS/tvOS, Android, FireTV, Nvidia SHIELD, and Roku, but is supposedly coming to web and other platforms soon.

    I’m fascinated to see how tech companies are adapting to the world we live in, and heartened to see some of them take quick action to roll out features that help people connect. This is tech at its best, and here’s hoping that other streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV+, and the newly launched HBO Max quickly follow suit.

    1. Personally, I like the suggestion that you could have people doing a commentary to a larger audience—Not Playing with Lex and Dan Live, everybody! ↩