Thanks for your service, AirPort Express

AirPort Express 802.11g

Today, in the tech sphere, we’re quick to complain when something doesn’t work. That’s why I wanted to write this brief post to celebrate something that has served me well for a long time.

Last night, at 4:21 AM, the secondary AirPort Express base station (the older 802.11g model) quietly died. I had purchased this base station together with another identical one back in 2005. The other one died earlier this year. Save for 2–3 weeks every year during the summer holidays, these two little buddies have been in service for nine years, without interruption.

If you search the Web, you’ll probably find more than one discussion thread with people complaining about the poor build quality of these peripherals, their reliability and their generally short lifespan. I don’t know what to say. Perhaps it was sheer luck, but my experience has been quite the opposite, and these two base stations have proven to be long-lasting and absolutely dependable. So — cheers! Now I’ll put them on a shelf together with other Apple product boxes I still keep around.

Now the primary station is a new, second-generation AirPort Express 802.11n, and the second unit is a first-generation AirPort Express 802.11n. The latter has the same design as the older models pictured above, while the former has the same form factor of an AppleTV. I really prefer the older design, which I find more practical, but there wasn’t time to look for a used first-generation AirPort Express 802.11n.

Having two wireless base stations with similar broadcasting capabilities has increased my home network speed in a noticeable way, and now I hope this can contribute to mitigate the poor Wi-Fi performance of my MacBook Pro I mentioned previously.

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Wi-Fi degradation after Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Disclaimer, in case you’ve reached this page after a Web search: In this article, I don’t offer answers or solutions. I’m writing this as a way to think aloud, share observations, and — why not? — look for input.

Up until Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, I usually installed a new version of Mac OS X shortly after its release. A new version of Mac OS X has always been an exciting occasion for me (I remember waiting in queue to purchase the box of 10.4 Tiger when it was released). But from 10.7 Lion onward, I’ve delayed the upgrade for days, even weeks. I installed Lion when version 10.7.2 was released. I installed Mountain Lion after the release of version 10.8.1. I installed Mavericks at version 10.9.0, but I waited at least one month before installing — I upgraded in late November 2013, and on December 16, version 10.9.1 was out.

Now, at every Mac OS X update, the Web is usually buzzing with first reactions and the like, and a fair amount of horror stories start appearing. Some users complain that the new OS X has broken certain functionalities in their systems, or has broken backward compatibility for specific applications or services they’ve been relying on, or has impacted their Mac’s performance in a number of ways, and so on and so forth. In the past, despite reading these stories and tales of woe, I used to upgrade my Mac to the new version of Mac OS X anyway, because — perhaps a bit arrogantly — I was convinced that my Mac wouldn’t be affected. As a power user, I was proud of the tidiness and organisation of my Mac OS X installation. I had never installed dubious software, especially hacks to alter how Mac OS X would look or work. So I was always eager to install the new OS X version because I had nothing to fear.

In recent years, however, I’ve grown wary of new OS X versions mainly because I’ve seen first-hand how they managed to cause problems even to users who, like me, kept their Mac OS X machines clean and perfectly fine-tuned with just the best-quality apps and tools. Still, after Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard — which a lot of people still consider the last truly stable version of Mac OS X — despite my worries and my cautiousness, I’ve kept upgrading to the new version, and my experience has generally been positive, with two notable exceptions:

  1. Starting with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, the Wi-Fi performance of my Mac began an annoying downward spiral.
  2. After upgrading from 10.8 Mountain Lion to 10.9 Mavericks, my Mac’s battery life got worse by approximately 45 minutes. (On a full charge under Mac OS X 10.8.5, my 2009 MacBook Pro could last about four hours. Under Mac OS X 10.9.0, in the same conditions, I never got past three hours and fifteen minutes or so.)

Over time, I’ve accepted the loss of part of my MacBook Pro’s battery life, but the Wi-Fi degradation is, to this day, the most aggravating issue.

Now, I know that my Wi-Fi home network is far from perfect. I’ve tried to set it up in the best possible way given the environment’s conditions (I can’t move the router or the AirPort base stations closer to my main Mac), but little has changed over the years, except the Mac OS X version on my MacBook Pro, so I’m fairly certain where to put the blame. Let’s get into this in more detail, you’ll let me know what you think.

Wi-Fi devices and configuration

  • Cisco router in the living-room. The router’s Wi-Fi capabilities are similar to a 5th-gen AirPort Extreme base station (Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, ability to broadcast on 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies, etc.)
  • AirPort Express (802.11n) base station №1 connected via Ethernet to the router.
  • AirPort Express (802.11g) base station №2 used to extend the range of base №1, positioned out of my studio’s door, in the hallway that connects the living area with the bedroom.

In my household, there are various devices connecting to the Wi-Fi network. The wireless clients that remain the most connected on a daily basis are:

  • My main machine, a mid-2009 MacBook Pro (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • A 12-inch PowerBook G4 and a 17-inch PowerBook G4 (802.11b/g)
  • A Power Mac G4 Cube (802.11b)
  • My wife’s 2008 Toshiba Satellite (802.11a/b/g)
  • Two iPhones and two iPads (802.11a/b/g/n)

I know what you’re thinking: with this wireless setup and clients, especially the mix of the two AirPort Express base stations, the network is already compromised with regard to speed. The router is set to broadcast using the “802.11n (compatible with b/g)” option, and when using a 802.11n-capable device in the router’s proximity, things are really great.

Sure, the network’s speed could be better, and I hope it will be as soon as I replace the older base station with a newer one supporting the 802.11n protocol. But I’m not complaining about the network’s speed. Considering the varied setup and the fact that I live in a very busy neighbourhood, Wi-Fi-wise (when I pull down the Wi-Fi menu on my Mac, I can see no fewer than 30 other networks), things could be worse.

What I mean by ‘Performance degradation’

The performance degradation affects only the MacBook Pro, and it got worse from OS X 10.7 Lion onward. I’m referring to the ability of connecting to the home Wi-Fi network in a continuous, reliable way. When my MacBook Pro ran Mac OS X 10.6.8 four years ago, it was in the same place as it is now. Nothing has changed in the position of the router or the base stations or the Macs that connect to the network. But under Snow Leopard the MacBook Pro never dropped a connection unless there was something going on with the ISP and the router needed to be restarted. Not only that, but under Snow Leopard the connection speed was less ‘jumpy’ and more homogeneous. Under 10.7 Lion, the degradation wasn’t dramatic: just the occasional dropped connection.

Things have got noticeably worse under Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.9 Mavericks: the MacBook Pro starts dropping connections frequently and in unpredictable ways. Sometimes it is enough to leave the Mac idle for a while, and when the display sleeps as per Energy Saving settings, the Mac also disconnects from the Wi-Fi network automatically. (It’s not just me, by the way). The most infuriating thing is that even when I leave the Mac downloading something, the connection drops as soon as the display turns off. The same thing happens with a torrent client in full activity. Every now and then, the MacBook Pro seems to struggle to reconnect to the Wi-Fi network it was connected seconds before. More frequently, the MacBook Pro appears to be connected to the home network — the Wi-Fi icon in the menubar displays maximum signal and all that — but there’s no actual flow of network traffic. I try to load a website, and the connection times out. Sometimes turning Wi-Fi off and on fixes this. Other times, out of curiosity, I just let the Mac sit idle for a while, and the connection just resumed by itself without intervention. Oh, and connection speeds are volatile, whether I’m downloading a file or simply browsing the Web and checking email.

As far as I know, there’s nothing wrong in the MacBook Pro’s hardware. It’s as if the Mac — Mac OS X update after update — has become less capable of handling stable Wi-Fi connections when it’s far from the transmitter, or when it doesn’t receive a ‘pure’ 802.11n wireless connection.

You may say: “Maybe the MacBook Pro is in a particularly bad spot of the apartment, where Wi-Fi reception is compromised.” Maybe, but:

  • It’s in the same spot as it was four years ago, when it was running Snow Leopard, and everything was fine then;
  • The Power Mac G4 Cube that’s on the same desk as the MacBook Pro has no problem whatsoever in maintaining a Wi-Fi connection (it runs Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger);
  • One day I placed the 17-inch PowerBook G4 in the very same spot of the MacBook Pro and it connected — and stayed connected — to the Wi-Fi network flawlessly.

So I don’t think it’s a problem related to the position of the computer or to any possible increase in Wi-Fi interference, because if these were the cases, all the Macs in my studio or not in the vicinity of the router would have developed Wi-Fi connection issues. If anything, after getting rid of the microwave oven, there should be less wireless interference.

Now what?

I’ve researched the Web extensively over time in search of any kind of solution to mitigate the issue, and I’ve tried all the tricks I could find on forums and discussions and blog posts, but nothing has changed. At the moment I’ve resorted to connecting the MacBook Pro via Ethernet cable to the AirPort Express base station in the hallway outside my studio, but it’s not the most elegant solution and the cable is constantly in the way.

Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the technical skills to investigate the problem inside Mac OS X. In other words, I can’t offer hard proof that recent versions of OS X are at fault here. All I have are these empirical observations, which can be summed up as follows: in an environment that has remained the same over the years (same placement of Wi-Fi devices and wireless clients), the Wi-Fi performance has got worse on the only ‘modern’ Mac receiving Mac OS X upgrades. Other PowerPC Macs that can’t be upgraded past Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard are not affected, and display a strong, consistent Wi-Fi performance, never dropping a connection no matter where I place them around the apartment.

When OS X Yosemite was introduced, I was tempted to upgrade right away to see whether it could reverse this terrible trend related to Wi-Fi performance. But reading articles such as this one at Macworld, and hearing from a few friends who have experienced severe battery life losses right after upgrading to Yosemite, has made me reconsider, and I’ll probably wait for version 10.10.1 before making the jump.

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Alex Roddie is the first to review my serialised novel


Last week, the excellent Alex Roddie wrote an article about my ongoing serialised novel Low Fidelity. You should read it, for a number of reasons. First, Alex proves to be a very good reader, the best reader any writer would want. The kind of perceptive reader who notices a lot of the things you, as a writer, want readers to notice. Secondly, after Alex’s review you’ll find a mini-interview with yours truly, which hopefully adds more details and information about the novel.

Here’s the link: Book review and interview: Low Fidelity by Riccardo Mori

Low Fidelity is currently available only on Vantage Point, my compact digital magazine in Apple’s Newsstand. I publish two issue per month. A monthly subscription costs $2.99. You can subscribe here (The first demo issue is free.)

In a nutshell, consider Vantage Point my idea of a ‘ membership’. It’s a way for you to support me, and what you get in return isn’t just a Thank You or an email newsletter, but a sort of tech and literary supplement, where you’ll find more articles and a new episode of my novel in every issue.

By the way, at the time of writing I’ve published eight issues of the magazine, which means eight episodes of Low Fidelity, plus a Prologue. The sooner you subscribe to the magazine, the better, so that you won’t have to binge-read the novel later. You’re free to do that, of course — I’m only suggesting what I think is the best way of approaching a serialised novel such as mine.

Some useful links:

My heartfelt thanks to Alex Roddie for writing the article and for his support. By the way, Alex is an experienced, published writer: explore his site to know more about him, his books and the services he offers. Like me, he’s also a vintage Mac enthusiast, and his tech blog is Macintosh HD (another place I strongly recommend you add to your bookmarks).

I also want to thank all the people who have subscribed so far and who have done their best to spread the word. It means a lot.

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Two tactics that will ensure I won’t buy your app

The more I’ve been accumulating apps on my iPhone and iPad over the years, and the more I had to perform periodical cleaning up to avoid filling up my devices, the less I’ve been prone to impulse purchases. It’s really not a matter of price: I have insta-bought relatively ‘expensive’ apps, such as Paper by Fifty-Three (with all its in-app purchases), without a problem. It’s simply a matter of clutter and value: looking back on past impulse purchases, I noticed that in many cases, after the initial novelty rush, I stopped using or caring about an app altogether, and in some cases the app’s ‘screen life’ in my iPad or iPhone’s springboard has been quite short.

Yet I monitor the App Store constantly, and I’ve been doing it for a long time using AppShopper (the older, non-social version). Again, it’s not (entirely) a matter of price. Sure, AppShopper is great to keep tabs on an app wishlist and to be alerted when apps of interest drop in price. The truth is that I find AppShopper’s interface a better option than using the built-in Wishlist feature in Apple’s App Store app.

Over time, I’ve noticed certain marketing tactics on iOS developers’ part, and there are two cases in particular that I, as a customer, just can’t tolerate.

  1. Apps requiring their In-app purchases because they’re plain useless in their basic version — There are apps that, on paper, come with an impressive set of features. Too bad that you have to buy every — single — little — one of them, even very basic ones, otherwise you won’t do much with the app. I won’t make specific examples, but imagine a photography app that features single editing tools, like Crop or the Saturation slider, as In-app purchases. Dear developer, you may have tricked me into downloading your ‘free’ app, but rest assured that once I discover your questionable In-app purchase tactics, I will delete your app right away.
  2. Maddening, bewilderingly frequent app price fluctuations — This is the most baffling and infuriating practice I’ve ever seen in the iOS App Store, something I noticed thanks again to AppShopper’s App Activity section. It works like this:

    • App is released — Launch price! $0.99
    • Two days later — Price increase: $2.99
    • One day later — Price drop: back to $0.99.

    It doesn’t matter how beautiful or useful your app can be. You change your prices like this and I guarantee you that — on principle — I’ll never buy your app or apps. Ever.

Jonathon Duerig on said it best:

The biggest aggravation to customers is the feeling of being a sucker. And lower launch prices both discourage later purchase because it will seem overpriced, and loses revenue from your biggest sales spike.

As a customer who doesn’t mind paying higher prices for well-designed, useful and thoughtful apps, my suggestions are simple:

  • First, if you offer in-app purchases, find a reasonable balance between the basic functionality of your app, and what the various in-app purchases will provide. I find ‘packs’ to be a very nice in-app purchase format: additions that come in sets (like filters, themes, instruments, sound effects, etc.). In this case, the app should work with a ‘base set’ well enough, and additional sets soon become great ‘really nice to have’ building blocks. But if your app is just an empty container for in-app purchases, then I’m sorry but I’ll look elsewhere.
  • By all means, do promotional launch price discounts, then increase the price and have the courage to stick to what you think your app is worth. From then on, the occasional price drop is welcome, but make it meaningful (it’s a special anniversary, or you’re about to launch the all-new and improved separate Version 2 of your app, or you don’t plan to support the app anymore, that sort of thing). Avoid giving customers the impression that it’s something completely arbitrary. That’s disrespectful.
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Why I deleted an article I had prepared about the iPhone 6

A week ago or so, I was finally able to enter my local Apple Store and spend 10–15 minutes in peace with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. I had already handled an iPhone 6 Plus because my brother-in-law purchased one for himself and let me play with it a while. After trying out the iPhone 6 at the store, I left with a bunch of impressions and feelings I wanted to write down. And the evening of the day after, a 1,000-word piece titled After handling the iPhone 6 was ready to be published here.

After the usual proofreading and final editing, I decided to read the piece one more time. Then I deleted it.

This is the second time I’ve done that in thirteen years of online writing. Mind you, it doesn’t mean that this is the second time I’ve decided not to publish an article — I actually have accumulated dozens of drafts in MarsEdit over the years. I’m a packrat even with the things I write. I tend to keep all my notes and observations and unfinished or unpolished articles because who knows, maybe there’s some brilliant insight I can recover later and put in a new context, and things like that. But to obliterate something that took me almost two hours to elaborate the way I wanted — that’s kind of unexpected and unusual for me.

The first time I did that was back in 2006, if I remember well; it was something about Apple’s migration to Intel architecture. I deleted that piece simply because soon after the article was ready to be published, I read something online that drove me to dig deeper with the fact-checking. I discovered that my initial assumption was plainly wrong, and that made all the following observations and insights fall down like a house of cards.

What happened this time? What was wrong with the never-published After handling the iPhone 6 piece?

I realised, upon reading it one more time, that I was about to break a promise I made to my readers in Why you should read me. I was about to serve you a plate of hot steaming bullshit.

The article was a collection of ‘first impressions’ after handling the 4.7-inch iPhone 6, and mentioned — among other things — the very different feeling the iPhone 6 gives me as opposed to handsets like the iPhone 5 and 5s, the iPhone 5c, and even the iPhone 4. I wrote about how the combination of the increased thinness of the iPhone 6 and the materials chosen made the phone feel somehow less precious, less sumptuous than the iPhone 5 and 5s. Not that it feels poorly built, because it’s definitely not the case. But its particular lightness makes it feel almost as if you were handling a demo unit and not the ‘real deal.’ I went on, elaborating on things like this, quoting articles of other people reflecting on the iPhone 6’s design, and so on and so forth.

Still, when I was reading my piece before deciding to delete it, I couldn’t help but ask myself How is this useful? What’s the point? And in addition to this, I realised that I had forgotten one very important fact — that my very first reaction when holding the iPhone 6, after carefully disconnecting the Lightning cable from the stand where it was placed, was: This thing is beautiful, well-built, and I want it — bad. And this kind of first reaction is the typical gravitational pull of the best Apple products. I felt it with the colourful iMacs back in 1998. I felt it with the Power Mac G4 Cube, with the iMac G4, with the first MacBook Air, with the first MacBook Pro Retina, with the iPad…

I realised that my piece was becoming a waterfall of rationalisations that was literally submerging the device. I realised it was starting to ring untrue somehow. Not because I was portraying the iPhone 6 in an unfavourable light and I decided to remove the article to avoid speaking ill of Apple — this would have been even more untrue and dishonest on my part. No, I simply challenged my own observations and asked myself: How are these ramblings useful to my readers? They’re just personal impressions and rationalisations based on 15 minutes of interaction with the device I’m talking about. This is not the same as my criticism regarding the decision of switching to Helvetica as a system font in OS X Yosemite, for example, because in that case it’s rather easy to demonstrate how Helvetica is worse than Lucida Grande on the legibility front. With the iPhone 6 my impressions and potential criticism all stemmed from a very subjective point of view, and again, from too short a session with the device itself. The result couldn’t have been of much value — in fact I realised the article just wasn’t serious and thorough enough. I’ve criticised other tech writers in the past because I thought their reviews were too superficial. I was making the very same mistake.

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