Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Sugarsync and Apple Mail

I've just spent a couple of days attempting to set up SugarSync to work with Apple Mail. Sadly all my efforts have been in vain and I've been forced to resort to manual methods to keep my iMac and MBP mail synchronised.

I think that my requirement is fairly common but I'm struggling to find an elegant solution whereby I can keep my mail systems up to date across two different Apple machines; an iMac and a MacBook Pro (strictly speaking it's three machines, but as the Hackintosh is still running under Leopard and the others under Snow Leopard, I'll not include that in this problem discussion). Currently my iMac acts as the primary Mail machine, and all mail is delivered there from my ISP and immediately and automatically deleted from the server. If I'm on the road for more than a day, I'll close Mail down and copy the entire "username"/Library/Mail folder onto the MBP. The laptop then becomes the primary Mail machine until I return home. I then reverse the procedure to revert back to normal. The key to this approach is to make sure that only one machine is the active Mail computer at any one time, and on occasion I forget that I'm not supposed to start Mail up on the "wrong" machine until all necessary transfers have been completed. There are mechanisms to avoid this, like keeping the server copies in place during the trip, but even this requires changes to preferences which are easy to forget.

I recently started using SugarSync to keep my work folders in sync across desktop and mobile devices. I've configured it to work with Things and SketchBox most recently I've solved the problem of managing local drafts in MarsEdit across a network. SugarSync is a relatively inexpensive way to keep files and folders synchronised. I have subscribed to the cheapest plan which gives me 30Gb of storage and allows me to sync across any number of machines. This basic plan costs $49.95 per year. A free plan also exists for users with more modest requirements and gives you 2Gb of storage and sync capability for two computers. A SugarSync app is also available on the iPhone for increased flexibility.

Given the success of using SugarSync with other systems, I decided to see if anyone had set it up to work with Apple Mail. My searches proved fruitless, and I summoned up the courage to act as a pioneer. I backed up my primary Mail system on a USB stick, and did an extra Time Machine backup on both desktop and laptop computers. I then configured SugarSync to manage the "username"/Library/Mail folders on both machines. This folder weighed in at about 600Mb, including all subfolders, and contained about 10,000 items.

For my first attempt I worked on the iMac first and SugarSync duly went off and started uploading all the data from my mail system. This took several hours at an average upload speed of about 0.35Mb/s. I then attempted to sync the laptop and was surprised to see that almost everything from the laptop mail system was also being uploaded and marked as such in the filename. I figured that this must be because the desktop and laptop were completely out of sync and was concerned that the duplication of critical files would cause Mail to have a nervous breakdown. I halted the process, reset both machines, performed a manual copy of the iMac mail folder to the laptop and started again. I left things running over night and in the morning was amazed to find that the same thing had happened. I attempted to start Mail on the iMac but it just spluttered and died requiring a Force Quit, and another reset of both Mail systems, after removing SugarSync from the equation.

I've not got enough technical knowledge about the internals of the Apple Mail system to understand what's going on, and why SugarSync was unable to create a single set of files which Mail could then read. And I'm not sure that I really want to find out. I'm definitely of the opinion that, in certain subject areas, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is certainly one of those subject areas!

So, SugarSync is not the silver bullet to solve this particular problem and I'm still on the lookout for that elegant solution to synchronise Mail across two Macs. If anyone knows how to do this (without setting up Mail servers) please let me know. I guess the easiest way is to keep all my messages on the ISP servers and once a week ensure that both machines are fully aligned before deleting everything off the server.

But that still requires manual intervention and may still not be foolproof. Or Ally-proof. And it certainly isn't elegant!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Some Joby Jollies

A few weeks ago I bought myself a new compact digital camera, a Canon Powershot A480. Don't worry, this isn't turning into a photo blog. To go with my new camera I also picked up a Joby Gorillapod. You must have seen them - the funny little tripods made out of interlocking plastic balls that hook around tree branches, lampposts and the like. The original Gorillapod is as light as a feather and takes up hardly any space so it's ideal for slipping into your pocket.

When I first received my Gorillapod one of my first thoughts was - "hey that would work really well with the iPhone!". Of course, the iPhone doesn't have a hole for a tripod fitting so that one needed a rethink.

A few days later I was on Amazon's UK web site and, lo and behold, one of my recommendations was a Gorillapod for the iPhone 3G/3GS. Strictly speaking it was an original Gorillapod with a special iPhone 3G/3GS case that fitted into the Gorillapod's head. It was also rather on the pricey side; in the UK it is retailing at about £35.00. Bearing in mind that I had a perfectly good Gorillapod and a perfectly good iPhone case (Griffin Nu Form with EasyDock) I kept my hand in my pocket and my fingers well away from the 1-Click button.

I was intrigued and decided to check out Joby's web site to see what other goodies might be available. Buried away was an offering of three additional Gorillapod heads; a suction cup and two adhesive pads. These were still a bit pricey (£10.00), but I was too far hooked on the idea by now and I went ahead and bought them. [UPDATE 14-Dec-2009: Bill has just come through and the actual price was £7.84 direct from Joby]


I have Apple docks for syncing with my iMac and my MBP, but the Gorillapod and iPhone combination is spot on as a stand-alone stand. The suction pad is top notch, with a lever action to ensure a tight seal, although I've seen various posts complaining about the iPhone falling off. It's certainly worth spending a moment or two to clean the case surface before applying the cup. My only criticism (more of a wish I could have), is the lack of a 'quick release' function. It is a bit of a faff to get the whole head off the Gorillapod, and though one can tug on the iPhone and simply pull off the suction cup, I'd prefer something a bit more elegant. I seem to end up holding the entire contraption whenever the phone rings which really doesn't look very cool!


To go with the Gorillapod, Joby have also released a free camera app for the iPhone called...wait for it...Gorillacam. Gorillacam adds a few extra features to the camera on the iPhone; a self-timer, a time-lapse facility and a 3 shot-burst function. There are some other features including a bubble level indicator, a grid display and a press anywhere feature. I guess all of these are available on the plethora of camera apps available on iTunes, but they were all new for me, and as a freebie I'm more than grateful for the self timer ability alone. The only drawback I've noticed is that it takes an inordinate amount of time to save photos once they've been taken, but hopefully that will get ironed out in the next version.

These Joby tools are a great addition to the casual photographers kit bag, and allow a bit of extra flexibility for the iPhone as a bonus. According to the Joby web site they are planning to bring out the iPhone case with Gorillapod attachment as an item in its own right for those who have already got a Gorillapod. That's certainly something worth considering for the future.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Useful Mail Add-Ins and a Small Surprise

I promised to take a closer look at some of the add-ins that make Apple Mail my mail client of choice. But before I do that I wanted to share something I discovered this morning by chance.

Mail Recovery with Time Machine

Like many people who were early adopters of Snow Leopard I had a few teething troubles in the first few weeks with my existing Mail accounts. I've made reference to this in previous posts so won't dwell on it here other than to say that the problem no longer appears to exist. However, there does appear to have been some debris left over from this episode, and I found that I had multiple references to the same account stored in various locations. In an attempt to clear up the unwanted references I had an accident with some of my sent messages (I'm a hoarder and keep copies of everything for years). The message header details appeared in the Sent mailbox but the messages themselves were missing.

By chance I happened to start up Time Machine whilst still in Mail, and discovered that in this instance Time Machine will focus all its attention on your mailboxes. A few clicks later and all my sent mail was restored to its expected state but in a safe mailbox called "Time Machine/Recovered". I referred back to David Pogue's excellent "Mac OS X The Missing Manual (Leopard Edition)" and indeed this feature was available in Leopard and works in a similar way with iPhoto and Address Book.

This is a great feature for recovering from minor glitches with mail without having to resort to a full mail system restore. I wish I'd known about it before!

Letterbox Add-In

Letterbox is one of those "oh-so-simple" things that it really begs the question as to why it wasn't part of the original requirements in the Mail programme. Aaron Harnly's add-in allows a three column view within the main Mail window with the message content in the third column. The current 0.24b5 beta release works with Snow Leopard 10.6.2 and allows a few other goodies like changing alternate line colours in the mail header list, and allowing a two line view also in that window. Letterbox is free, and new updates to support Apple updates are usually very quick off the board.


DockStar from ecamm network ($15.00) provides you with a configuration utility for the Mail icon in the dock, allowing the mail count of up to five mailboxes to be displayed on the icon. It does this by adding 'badges' to the icon. Each badge allows different options to be selected, e.g. which mailbox, style and colour of display, and type of count (unread, total, etc.). Badges can also be displayed in the menu bar. Again, a very simple concept but really useful for monitoring incoming mail without constantly having to check the Mail application itself.


I've not been using MailTags from indev software ($29.95) for very long so I'm probably not doing justice to its full feature set, but nonetheless I do find it useful. In its simplest form MailTags allows you to tag individual mail messages using categories of your own choice, and to filter messages using those tags. It also allows you to add other metadata to a message such a priority, project, colour, and notes. It also allows you to use your notes to change the visible title of the mail. MailTags are integrated into rules giving you further abilities, and tags are supported by other applications such as Mail Steward, giving you the same filtering abilities in these apps. I find it really useful for marking messages containing invoices and license information using a specific format which allows me much quicker access to the info when I need it, without having to wade through message bodies. Some discipline is required to make full use of such a facility, but it's well worth the effort, especially when it's time to start annual accounts...

I'll cover some of the other add-ins I find useful in a future post, but hopefully there's plenty here to get you salivating. And none of these will make your tongue taste nasty!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Hackintosh - Three Months On

We had our first proper frost at the Apple Harvest last night. That, along with the rapidly diminishing hours of daylight, reminded me that it has now been three months since my last post dedicated to my Hackintosh. I've mentioned it in passing, but it is about time for a proper update, since my Google web tools tell me that it's still the most popular subject that I've written about.

The truth is that there really hasn't been much to report. For new readers, my Hackintosh is a Dell Mini 9 with a 32Gb RunCore SSD, currently running OS X 10.5.8. I wanted a netbook to sit alongside my iMac, MacBook Pro and iPhone and complement my existing Apple environment. Specifically, I wanted something small and light to take on short journeys without having to drag the MBP around so that I could get on-line, jot down notes and blog posts and check mail. Admittedly, I haven't made that many short journeys, so perhaps the Hackintosh hasn't been subjected to quite what it was intended for, but it did get a fair bit of use when the MBP was 'hors de combat' earlier in the autumn.

As expected it isn't a permanent replacement for the MBP. The single biggest issue is that screen real estate is so restricted that some internet applications can be a little difficult to use. I don't have the same problems with the keyboard that some people have reported, and my bluetooth mouse works like a treat. The machine can be a bit temperamental when I start it up, sometimes requiring a restart after a minute or so, but generally that doesn't cause too much inconvenience. I've had the same problem with Windows laptops costing three or four times what the Hackintosh cost.

The only thing that keeps nagging at me is the fact that I'm still running Leopard on the Hackintosh, whilst the rest of the Apple Harvest is now on Snow Leopard 10.6.2. Now I know that 10.6.2 will not work on the Dell's Atom processor, but I wouldn't mind being a bit more consistent in terms of running some of the native OS X apps like Mail.

Last night I finally found some instructions on how to upgrade the Dell Mini 9 using the RunCore. I've printed out all 20 pages (18 pages are comments) and have begun to peruse the contents. It doesn't seem too complicated, especially having made the original modifications, but I have to confess to being a bit nervous. I have a complete Time Machine backup and a Carbon Copy clone, so it'll be easy enough to restore the current system. But do I really want to screw up a perfectly good setup, just to satisfy a technical urge and a bit of curiosity ?

I think I need to sleep on this over several nights before taking the plunge. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Cloud Computing - Pie in the Sky ?

I was looking through my iPhone the other day with a view to clearing out some unused or redundant apps. You know how it is - you download something because it seems useful, and some months later you download something similar because it seems more useful, but you don't get rid of the first one...

Some of the decisions were simple. I'm only a casual gamer so any unplayed free games were the first to go. I really don't need three battery checkers, or two WiFi hotspot finders, and some of those "really useful" apps were no longer needed because they were all available within AppBox Pro. I decided that one Twitter client was also sufficient, so as much as I like TweetDeck I now use Tweetie2 most of the time. TweetDeck was duly consigned to the discard pile.

But then I came to my "business" apps. Some of these like PDF Reader, Merlin, Bento, Awesome Note, iXpensIt, Shrook and Things had to stay, either because they provide me with portable versions of my desktop apps, or because they are excellent apps which serve me well. That left a whole bunch of apps which serve a similar purpose, namely, to provide us with a way of viewing, storing and possibly editing "office" type files - documents, presentations and spreadsheets.

The trouble is that these apps have been designed to plug a perceived gap in the iPhones native apps. Apps like Files, QuickOffice, Dropbox, SugarSync, and Fliq were created so that we could copy files from our desktops, work on them whilst on the move, and download them again when we reached our destination. Or so that we could send them to our colleagues or clients in an emergency. Or so that we could be bound even tighter by the chains of the workplace which becomes ever more pervasive in our personal lives. The other problem is that none of these apps does everything that you actually need! They all do a little bit which is why you end up with a fistful of the darn things.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of cloud computing, the necessity of mobile access to our documents, and a bit about how we actually use our iPhones (or Blackberries, etc.) and perhaps how we should be using them.

I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to cloud computing. I believe it's based on an unsound principle which is that high speed, cheap and efficient internet connections are available to all people at all times and in all places. This is clearly not the case unless you live in South Korea. It is certainly not the case in rural Britain or if you are on public transport in the UK where I often have trouble getting a 2G signal. I'm not even going to begin to go into the security aspects. Companies have enough trouble looking after physical data sources like CDs, DVDs and Laptops, so what hope do they have securing data in the Ether?

In the year that I've had my iPhone I've accessed "work" documents a couple of times, generally to test out these new apps and see how my masterpieces look. I've used Smartphones and PDAs for over ten years altogether but I've yet to use an app to resolve a business crisis involving lost files and document editing on any of them. That's why I have a laptop with a Broadband dongle.

What I am interested in at the Apple Harvest is a smart way of synchronising data across laptop, netbook, desktop and occasionally the iPhone. I have no desire to create documents on the iPhone, other than short notes, baby spreadsheets and similar "aides de memoirs". If I know that my computers are in sync and my to-do lists, calendars and contacts , etc., on the iPhone are all up-to-date then I'm sorted. Because I work for myself security is my problem so I want to keep things simple, and generally I'm unfettered from corporate binds because I'm in touch with myself 24*7 anyway. So I've decided that I don't need all these apps to connect with my work.

Unfortunately there still isn't one app that can do everything I want. But I've whittled it down to two, SugarSync and Evernote, and some supporting technologies, MobileMe, SyncDocs, and GoogleDocs. The reason that there are still five things I need to consider is that it's not just documents that I'm dealing with. Often it is application related data which isn't stored as a convenient standalone file. Applications like Things and SketchBox, as well as all my work related folders are dealt with by SugarSync. I use Evernote to handle my web notes (web pages that I want access to at a later date, and across multiple machines). MobileMe takes care of all my personal data, iCal, Contacts, and data from a few applications like Yojimbo and TextExpander. SyncDocs and GoogleDocs are required to export data from specific iPhone apps, Notebooks and Awesome Notes respectively.

So you see, it's still quite complicated and there is still an unhealthy dependency on the cloud. But I can get around the cloud for most important things should the need arise. Which really brings me back to the original problem. I only need the cloud because I've elected to run my life across a laptop, a netbook, a desktop and an iPhone. Life would be a whole lot easier if I'd stuck to a laptop and a mobile phone that made calls and nothing else. My devotion to technology has brought about a new set of requirements (which could be considered unnecessary) and to meet those requirements I've had to build a complex solution. Why? Because I can...

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Word or Two about Apple Mail

It's strange to think, but when I started full time work after graduating back in 1984 we didn't have email. In fact my first encounter with email was when I opened a Compuserve account sometime in the late 1980s. It wasn't until the early nineties that I had access to email at work, again through a corporate Compuserve account, but with limited availability. Many of my colleagues had another two or three years to wait before the full roll-out of Novell's Groupwise across the company. By the time I joined a very large Global Outsourcing company in the late nineties, email was more prevalent, and Outlook had become the de facto standard for most businesses. It wasn't long before I was receiving several hundred email messages each day, and by the time I left that corporation I was regularly getting more than a thousand messages a week. I became something of an expert on Outlook simply to be able to manage incoming mail.

When I moved across to the Mac platform I duly purchased Office:Mac 2008 which had just hit the streets. I fully expected Entourage to look and work like Outlook. Boy was I mistaken ! Even getting Entourage to read Outlook data files was a major hassle, although I eventually managed to import my old Outlook messages using third party software. But there was enough of a likeness between the Microsoft's Mac and PC mail offerings to keep me hooked in preference to Mail. I particularly liked Entourage's integration of mail, to-do lists and calendar.

I prevailed with Entourage until earlier this year before deciding to try out Mail in earnest. The Entourage database had started a habit of corrupting itself, and of course Time Machine backups were incorporating the entire database every time it was updated. Archiving in Entourage also left me cursing its designers.

I now use Mail all the time and generally wonder why I ever bothered with Entourage. But it isn't Mail out of the box. I have a set of Add-Ins and tools which give the programme its genuine usefulness. These are Letterbox, DockStar, Growl Mail, Mail Tags and Mail Attachments Iconizer. I also have Mail Act-On installed but I'm still trying to get to grips with that. I use MailSteward for archiving, and this also allows me to get around the problems of incompatibility between the Leopard and Snow Leopard versions of Mail.

Luckily the volume of email that I currently have to deal with is greatly reduced from the madness of a few years ago. But even if it were too suddenly escalate, Apple Mail in the Apple Harvest environment would be more than capable of rising to the situation. It would be even better if:
  • Apple would provide a mechanism for properly integrating Mail and iCal without me having to use another third party application like DayLite

  • Apple engineers would stop messing about with Mail internals that then break the 3rd party add-ins until the poor developers have a chance to figure out what they've done and are able to catch up (which they generally do very quickly), and leaving the poor user with a broken environment in the meantime
Another time, we'll look at some of the Add-Ins in more detail. Happy emailing...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Blogging tools for the Mac

I'm relatively new to the art of blogging (although I've been writing for a number of years), and as a result I'm not all that familiar with different blogging set-ups and tools. When I decided to set up my first blog, ALLYGILL.CO.UK which is aligned to my business, some of the choices were really made for me. I had built the web site for my Process Management consultancy business using RapidWeaver. RapidWeaver is great because it allows me some considerable flexibility without getting me dragged into the gory details of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, etc. on a daily basis. The pages are static, and I probably update them once or twice a month. Dreamweaver was too expensive and overkill for my fairly conservative requirements.

RapidWeaver also supports third party add-ons, and has a thriving developer community. One such add-on was RapidBlog which I purchased with a view to incorporating a blog in the future. RapidBlog is designed to work closely with Blogger, so the choice of a blog host was made automatically.

Blogger itself is a perfectly adequate tool for creating and managing blog entries, as is RapidBlog, but I wanted something with a bit more flexibility and more importantly, that didn't rely on an on-line connection as I quite often write on trains, planes and automobiles (I'm not a driver so don't panic). Some automatic content and configuration management was also important, which, for me, ruled out using RapidBlog as it would overcomplicate the way I manage my web site content.

I don't really remember how I came across MarsEdit. I imagine I read a review in one of the many Mac comics that I subscribe to and it struck me as being a fairly simple tool to use but one that ticked all the right boxes. It's also inexpensive which always goes down well at the Apple Harvest. I would have pointed out an excellent review I read the other day, but I can't quite put my hands on it at the moment. It was written by a staff writer for one of the UK specialist Mac magazines and is much better than anything I can throw together. I'll post a link if I can find it at a later date. Although MarsEdit provides some HTML formatting support, it is a bit basic and I recently added BlogAssist to the arsenal. This is another simple tool allowing that little bit of extra control over blog entry appearance.

Let me know if there's other stuff I'm not aware of. I have looked at WordPress and I'm aware that there's a wide range of associated development tools, but I'm committed to Blogger at the moment. This combination of tools serves me perfectly well and as a wise man said:

"If it ain't bust, don't fix it!"

Eliminate the possibilities - then get lucky

So I think I've finally found the cause of the internet connection drop that I've been suffering from and hopefully eliminated it, but it has been a very unproductive few days. Luckily I work from home, I'm answerable only to myself and I had the time to go through the process of establishing the root cause; if the same thing had happened to the majority of people, it would possibly take days or even weeks before they could determine the problem.

The past few days took me back to the time when I used to cut code for a living, and occasionally I'd get those faults which would only surface every so often, but would cause a total system crash. I'd spend hours trying to step through the code, looking at memory dumps, and using any other debugging tool at hand. More often than not (and without trying to sound too cocky), the problem lay in the interaction of someone else's code not my own - and very often, it would be something as simple as a buffer overflow trashing my space. It would appear that something similar was going on with the iMac, and all those old problem solving skills were required to find the source of the error.

First of all I needed to think what changes I'd made to the system - and there were quite a few. The trouble was that many of them were interrelated. I'd been having some teething problems with Firefox bookmarks (Xmarks) which I was determined to fix. New bookmarks would disappear shortly after being created, or they would have incorrect URLs associated with them. After reinstalling Xmarks to no avail, I decided to trash my Firefox profile and rebuild it to see if that worked. Rather stupidly, on reflection, I added in some new add-ons while doing this. It's much more sensible to focus on solving one problem properly before changing the environment or conditions in which the problem dwells. Although I fixed the bookmark problem with the new profile, the side effect appeared to be the random dropped internet connection. This also teaches us a bit of a lesson, that the perceived problem is not always the right one to focus on. I've been preaching that in my business life for years, but I don't always follow my own (sensible) advice when fixing my computer!

My next step then was clearly to disable the additional Firefox goodies that I'd installed in the new profile, because one of them must be causing the problem. No such luck, the random drop-outs continued. Because the problem wasn't occurring with my laptop, I then decided to copy the Firefox profile from the laptop to the iMac. The random drop-outs continued.

Time to focus on the other differences between iMac and MBP. I run Apple Mail by default on the iMac, only swapping to the MPB when on the road. So maybe this was a Mail problem. I stopped using Mail, and checked mail directly through the internet. The random drop-outs continued. I was relieved by this, as I didn't really want to be messing about with Mail innards. Next I stopped running the Twitter clients, Tweetie and TweetDeck. And still the random drop-outs continued.

Back to Firefox, which by now was the most likely cause of the problem. I toyed with the idea of reverting to Safari, but on this occasion, decided that this really would change the environment completely, so I belayed that idea. I checked the Firefox error console for the umpteenth time, and this time I found something new. There were some 1Password errors visible. 1Password is the saviour of the internet, as it enables you to store passwords, identities, credit card data and just about everything else required to live on-line. However, despite being a brilliantly useful tool, it seems to get an almost daily update. It seems that every time I open the programme, I get the New Version dialog box displayed. I remembered I had skipped an update a few days previously as I was in a hurry to get something done, so I ran the 1Password programme and performed the latest update (I'd missed two versions by now).

And that dear reader appears to have resolved the problem. The iMac has now run for over 48 hours without dropping the connection, I've been able to gently reintroduce some of the new Firefox goodies I wanted to try and I actually managed to get some work done.

The moral of the story ? There are several.

  1. Focus on fixing one problem at a time, without changing the environment in which the problem occurs

  2. Take the time to perform updates when they are offered. There's probably a good reason for doing so

  3. Use a scientific approach to problem resolution and don't assume you know where the problem lies without proving it

To be fair to 1Password, I think there may have been some corruption along the way which caused the issue, and that even reinstalling the original version may have fixed the problem straight away - but I wasn't to know that at the time.

Now about these other problems I mentioned...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Networking is still a chore

I'm old enough to remember the days when we used to have to connect to networks using acoustic couplers, bits of string, rubber bands and elastic and software without a user interface. The key ingredient was faith. It's fair to say that we have come a long way since then - broadband, mobile broadband, wireless and gigabit ethernet connections do make life easier. Software packages like Network Magic were a breakthrough on the Windows platform, but it wasn't until I started using Apple equipment a couple of years ago that I felt that much of the pain was being borne by the operating system rather than the user. Until things go wrong that is.

Since the MacBook Pro came back from the repair shop I've had a number of niggling problems with the network at the Apple Harvest. It isn't a complicated set-up: a BTHomeHub 2 sits at the heart of the network providing a mix of wired and wireless connections. My iMac is permanently connected via ethernet alongside a WD NAS drive. Both plug into the router via a NetGear gigabit switch, and a Powerlink connection takes the ethernet downstairs from my office and allows me to connect to BT Vision. The MBP generally connects wirelessly, but a spare ethernet connection is available upstairs if necessary. iPhone, iPod Touch and the Hackintosh all connect wirelessly.

The niggles started with iTunes. Having upgraded to OS X 10.6.2 and iTunes 9.0.2, the home-sharing facility stopped working over the wireless network. Plugging the MPB into the spare ethernet port resolved the situation initially but now this has also packed up. No changes have been made to firewalls or other security systems.

The second niggle came with ShareTool which I mentioned in my last blog entry. Whist ShareTool works without issue most of the time, occasionally it can't initialise itself, and a router reboot is required.

Over the past twenty four hours a new niggle has started. The iMac keeps dropping its internet connection. Sometimes this happens after 5 minutes, sometimes it takes 5 hours. The router shows no sign of any problems, and a check against the MPB shows that the Broadband signal is fine and internet access is OK on the laptop. The only solution is to switch the machine off and reboot as certain software packages trying to access the net won't quit to allow a restart.

The trouble with all these problems is that they are intermittent and therefore difficult to repeat and to diagnose. It's also true that network diagnostic tools are not for the faint hearted, and will generally lead to more questions than answers. The whole language of networking seems to be designed to baffle and obfuscate, even more than other IT disciplines. I understand quite a lot of what is going on, but I feel for the average home user who won't have a clue. (I recently sorted out a friends PC networking problems but to this day I haven't got a clue what was going on - only that I fixed it, and it hasn't happened again...yet).

In an attempt to sort out some of these problems I've stopped trying to run ShareTool, and have just discovered that the developer has posted an awareness of an incompatibility between the current version of ShareTool and OS X 10.6.2, which shouldn't really have come as a surprise. Credit to the developer for his rapid response and acknowledgement, as it means there's no point in me continuing to try to establish what's going on and ripping even more hair out. [Update 12.Nov.2009 17.15GMT - ShareTool is not to blame for the internet connection failure, so still need to find the culprit. Drat !!]

I guess the real point is that the industry as a whole needs to step back and bring networking support into the 21st century, to make the whole experience less painful and allow us to be more productive. I don't see why it should still be rocket science in this day and age!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Despair and Joy

A couple of weeks ago we had yet more kit failure at the Apple Harvest. I'd been staying at my girlfriend's house for a couple of days, and had taken my MBP with me as I had some work to do while I was there. It was also a chance to check out some new software I'd purchased - ShareTool - allowing me to access my home office iMac from anywhere in the world via the internet. More on that later...

On the second morning, disaster struck. The MBP had been asleep during the night; an oversight on my part as I wouldn't normally leave a laptop plugged in and turned on. When I went to wake it up there was a blank screen and no light in the Apple logo on the lid. However, a quick check using the iStat app on my iPhone showed that the machine was actually booted and working normally, apart from the rather significant lack of video. More bizarrely, when I tried to screen share from my girlfriend's iMac (yup I've made a convert of her too!), everything was fine and dandy. So the good news was that it wasn't a complete system failure. iStat, by the way, is an essential and cheap diagnostic tool for anyone with an iPhone and Mac hardware.

Some research on the internet into the problem suggested that there were other folk suffering similar problems, some of which were traced back to a faulty graphics chip, and that Apple were offering free fixes, but it was difficult to tell if this was the same problem I was experiencing. Whilst the internet is a great place for getting ideas on how to resolve certain problems, more esoteric issues are much more difficult to track down. I guess it's similar to using witness descriptions of police suspects where no two individuals will provide an identical description of the baddy (unless it's a stitch up!).

Having had a new display fitted earlier in the year, I decided to check with the supplier to see if they could throw any light on the matter and more importantly whether the display was still under warranty. All credit to the guys at the Square Group in Derby who answered my email very promptly. They suggested bringing in the machine for inspection (£56.00) but gave me some hope that it may be a simple fix. The bad news was that the display was now out of warranty, but if it was a display issue there may be some grounds to pursue Apple.

Last week, I finally managed to get into Derby and dropped the machine off. I hadn't realised how much of an extension to my life the MBP had become as I seemed quite bereft without it. I duly paid my £56.00 inspection fee, and anxiously waited for a phone call, which came three days later.

In short, yes, it was bad news: complete logic board failure. My mind started racing, replace the board at horrendous cost, or ditch the MBP and buy a new one - neither really affordable options at the current time. The service manager went on..."but Apple have recognised a problem with that particular model and have provided a replacement free of charge which we have now fitted, and we have decided to refund your inspection fee". Good job it was a phone call otherwise I'd have probably tried to kiss the guy. (I've not had much in the way of good news recently!). Faith is also restored in Apple, as it was beginning to fade quite dramatically.

So I should be able to pick up the machine tomorrow morning, and that not so little void in my life will be filled again. It doesn't quite end there though, as while I was in the shop I asked for a quote for putting a replacement hard drive in the iMac (see blog entry from 28-10-09). I was quoted £56.00 for the inspection fee and the cost of the new drive, which was considerably less than I had anticipated. My only issue is how to get a whopping great 24inch iMac into Derby from where I live using public transport, and not damaging it even further.

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I value good service, so this month's service award goes to the Square Group in both Derby and the service centre in Alfreton. No actual prizes I'm afraid but a bit of free advertising won't go amiss I hope, and I might use the refund to buy a Magic Mouse. Just for the record, I used to use "the other" Apple supplier in Derby, but gave up with them because of their dire customer service.

By the way, ShareTool worked like a dream, and allowed me access not only my iMac but also the NAS device attached to the network, and the USB drives attached. Simple to set up and use, although I had some firewall issues with Integro's NetBarrier X5 which I managed to resolve reasonably quickly through trial and error and probably more luck than judgment. Recommended.

Friday, 23 October 2009

iHome Reson8 iPod/iPhone Alarm Clock and Dock

I've been on the lookout for a clock/dock and speaker system for my iPhone 3G and first generation iPod Touch for some time and finally my search is over with the purchase of iHome's Reson8 system.

Part of the problem has been that amongst the hundreds of docks available on the market, I was struggling to find one that met my specific criteria of:
  1. Size - portability was a must-have as I'm on the road a lot

  2. iPhone - fully compatible without having to shift into Airplane mode

  3. Charger - a given, as I don't want to carry extra docks and cable around

  4. Sound - good quality sound in a bedroom or hotel room

  5. Good looks - I don't want to wake up with something ugly

  6. Clock and Alarm - basic functions with sleep and snooze facilities

  7. Price - under £100.00; it's an alarm clock for goodness sake

To be honest I would have liked a dock that could also sync with my MacBook Pro, but that wasn't going to be a show stopper.

iHome's Reson8 or Model iP27 gets a tick mark in all the boxes. It has a relatively small footprint (W26xH4.5xD17 cm) when flat and when unfolded in normal operation (W26xH12xD13 cm). That gives a clue to it's canny design. When travelling the Reson8 lies flat (in it's own included carry case) and when you get to your destination you simply lift up the hinged speaker, plug the iPhone or iPod into one of the provided dock adapters and away you go.


All iPhone functions are available while the iPhone is plugged in, but there is no sync facility as I mentioned. The phone will automatically charge as long as the system is plugged into the mains.

For such a small piece of kit, the Reson8 gives out a belting sound, easily enough to fill a reasonable size bedroom or hotel room without distorting. Pushing up the volume will certainly attract unwanted attention from other paying guests or family members depending on your location. A side mounted switch turns on the EXB or UPRO Wide Stereo function giving extra sound enhancement in the same way that the loudness button works on some stereo systems.

There is a simple LCD clock with a single alarm. Both snooze and sleep functions are provided allowing auto shut down at 90, 60, 30 or 15 minute intervals. The volume in sleep mode is independently adjustable from the normal volume. A four way dimmer switch is available for the display. The alarm works perfectly well in combination with the sleep function. A DST switch is incorporated into the unit for good measure.

The glossy black finish attracts a bit of dust and some grubby fingerprints, but the overall look and feel of the unit is very pleasing. A remote control is provided for many of the functions which has a very firm and durable feel to it.

I paid less than £90.00 including P&P for my Reson8 and I'm delighted with it. It's been well worth the wait. looks good, sounds good, and does everything demanded of it. You can't ask for much more than that...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Duplex Printing on HP DeskJet 970Cxi - Update and Solution

Even before the proverbial ink had dried on my last entry, I seem to have found a potential solution to the problem of printing in full duplex mode on an HP DeskJet 970Cxi under Snow Leopard.

I stumbled across a piece of software called PrintFab 2 which is, according to the maker's blurb, a

"printer driver suite with RIP functionality. PrintFab's innovative “dynamic” color profiles ensure full control over color mixture and ink consumption combined with perfect print quality."

Installing PrintFab 2 sets up a "new" printer according to the configuration info you supply and loads the PrintFab driver as it's default. It's a simple enough process, and it restores duplex functionality to my DeskJet 970Cxi. It does an awful lot of other stuff by the looks of things but I'll investigate that during the next 30 days of my free trial.

PrintFab 2 may be an overkill solution, and it isn't cheap, running in at about £45.00 for a single user license for the simplest home version. But for peace of mind, saving trees, and saving the time I waste looking for alternative solutions, I think I may have finally found my Holy Grail, and I don't mind paying a small price for that.

Duplex Printing on HP Deskjet 970Cxi - Hopes Raised and Dashed

Ever since installing Snow Leopard I've been moaning about the downgraded printing service I now receive, specifically the lack of full duplex support for my trusty old HP DeskJet 970Cxi. Being the external optimist that I am, I regularly do a search for news of any potential fixes.

Earlier today I performed my weekly Google for my personal Holy Grail (what lofty ambitions I have!), and got quite excited when I found Gutenprint 5.2.4. The Gutenprint drivers installed with Snow Leopard are from the 5.2.3 version. I was a little surprised that the release date for the latest version was July 29th 2009 because it predated Snow Leopard's release but decided to go ahead anyway.

There were no specific details in the release notes pertaining to either Snow Leopard or my DeskJet, but I downloaded and installed the package. As I was in Firefox I decided to run a test print of the Gutenprint download page to see if I could detect any difference. I ran a check on the printer installation a sure enough, the driver for the HP DeskJet 970Cxi was now "HP DeskJet 970C - CUPS+Gutenprint v5.2.4", a definite improvement.

I went into the Print option in Firefox and my pulse started racing as the dialog box came up and had a tick against the "Two-Sided" print CheckBox, and the "Two-Sided" printing Listbox gave me a default option of "Long-Edge binding". The Gutenprint 5.2.3 driver had all references to double sided printed greyed out, and rendered useless.

The excitement was short lived as the printer started churning out separate sheets for each page in the same way as its predecessor. I guess there is still some hope. The possibility of double sided printing has been restored and single sided printing does still work with the new driver.

So near and yet so far...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Cool Tools - Time and Sanity Saving Utilities

Despite being part of the Mac world for only a couple of years, I seem to have accumulated an awful lot of software, both on my laptops and desktop machines. Some of this software is standard order - MS-Office, iWork 09 and iLife 09, but it speaks volumes for the Mac community that much of what I have acquired, both freeware, shareware and fully commercial software is used on an almost daily basis.

I guess the same was true during my PC days, but somehow the Mac provides a much more integrated environment in which software packages, tools and utilities work to enhance the overall computing experience, both for business and pleasure.

In this blog entry I want to share a few of my favourite utilities. These are the little things that make such a difference and stop me from pulling out my hair during the course of the working day. They're not in any order as that would be fairly meaningless. However all the tools described here are currently compatible with both Leopard and Snow Leopard.

First up is TigerLaunch, a utility that allows me to launch applications from an icon on the menu bar. TigerLaunch is configurable - so you can select which applications live in the list. That means that you don't need to add applications that are already accessible from the dock, avoiding redundancy and making the TigerLaunch list a bit more manageable.

My favourite two dock utilities are DockSpaces and Docker. Docker lets me change the appearance of the dock without being over complicated, so I'll not dwell on it here other than to say that I prefer a number of tools each performing a dedicated task well rather than a single tool that does a few tasks but without so much aplomb. Docker falls into this category in preference to an all rounder like TinkerTool. DockSpaces finds a home on both my iMac and MBP for slightly different reasons. This real handy little tool allows you to have multiple dock configurations which are switchable without restarting the machine. On a mobile device this allows me to switch between a desktop type configuration and a mobile one, whilst on the iMac I have different docks depending on whether I'm writing, doing project work or working in a web development environment.

Being able to switch environments is very important to me, and I use Spaces a lot, with 4 to 6 virtual screens set up depending on which device I'm using. I do get lost however which is why my next utility, Hyperspaces is so useful. Hyperspaces extends the standard Spaces metaphor, allowing you to name spaces and set different desktop backgrounds for each space thereby giving you a visual clue as to which space you are currently operating in.

As a longtime PC user, one of the visual clues that I miss the most is the disk activity light which is standard hardware on most machines. Of course, Macs don't hang in quite the same way as PC's, but there is something reassuring about a light flashing when there is no other indication of what's going on. DiskSpy provides a software solution for Mac users, by displaying a small animated icon in the menu bar showing hard disk read and write activity. The author provides a number of alternative icons to suit your specific requirements. It's possible to change the sensitivity of the display - more sensitivity will increase the CPU usage though. Clearly, a software solution will never be as good as a wired LED, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Still on the visual theme, ScreenSharingMenulet is my last tool for this blog entry. This is another menu bar utility which provides easy access to screen shares across your local network (or beyond possibly). Although it's easy enough to start screen sharing through Finder this tool overcame some of the problems I've been having with my screen sharing antics between my iMac and MBP.

That rounds up this batch of utilities and tools that I use on a day to day basis. For just a few pounds (most of these are free) my work and play time on the computer is made much easier. Not for the the first time in this blog, I salute the developers for their innovation and enthusiasm in making the Mac experience that little bit richer than it already is.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Snow Leopard - One Week On

Snow Leopard has been running on two of the three machines at the Apple Harvest for a week now, and all is well. Almost.

Certainly there is a general feeling of robustness which is reassuring for critical software such as an operating system. Most of the issues that have surfaced to date are with third party software rather than direct problems brought about through the upgrade.

I documented the issue with Mail and Keychains in my last blog. I'm aware that a number of other people have had similar problems, in particular with MobileMe accounts. My solution of deleting the default keychain and creating a new one appears to have done the trick, but the problem appears to be more insidious on some installations.

I'm more worried about the incompatibility between versions of Mail and its internal databases across Leopard and Snow Leopard, particularly as a mobile user. It used to be a simple matter of copying the \username\Library\Mail folders between machines before and after journeys, but this option will no longer work across machines with different OS. I keep my primary mail store on my iMac at home and copy the mail folders onto my MBP or Hackintosh before going on a trip. This will no longer work with the Hackintosh (until I'm brave enough to try and upgrade it). This will affect anyone who cannot update their mobile machine with Snow Leopard. There are process work arounds to reduce the impact but it is enough to make me consider going back to using Entourage whilst away from home.

My other real gripe is with my printing ability since the upgrade. I use an HP DeskJet 970CXI printer as a workhorse. I have occasion to have to print quite large documents and the 970 has a full duplex facility for double sided printing. HP do not provide drivers for Leopard or Snow Leopard, and users have to rely on the Gutenprint drivers which have proved excellent. Sadly under Snow Leopard, the double sided printing facility is no longer operational, and is likely to remain that way unless the Gutenprint drivers are modified.

This seems to be a very irresponsible attitude from HP, as their response to concerns from users is "buy a new printer". This applies to any printer over 5 years old. So in my case I either have to purchase a new unnecessary printer or double my paper output. Neither option is environmentally friendly, and neither option is likely to appeal to my bank manager.

Of course I could print out everything through the Hackintosh, but if I upgrade that to Snow Leopard I'll fix my mail issue, but lose my printer fix. Nothing is ever simple is it! I wonder if Windows 7 users will have these problems. Well probably not, they'll have a whole different bunch...

The vast majority of my applications seem to function pretty much as normal under 10.6. Notable exceptions are Bento V1 which won't work at all and the majority of system utilities such as Cocktail, Onyx, TechTools Pro. A lot of suppliers beat the gun and released 10.6 compatible versions of their apps prior to the formal Apple release. Most others have messages on their web sites explaining that upgrades are in preparation and will shortly be available.

For a comprehensive and dynamic list of compatible applications check out the Snow Leopard compatibility wiki.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Snow Leopard - Installation and First Impressions

Well, UPS finally turned up yesterday morning with my Snow Leopard family pack. It turned out it had only come from Hinkley which is just down the road but still managed to take 5 days to get to my house! Snail mail would have been faster than the courier...

For those of you who like the whole out of the box experience, don't get too excited. The package is very unassuming, consisting of a little leaflet, a support card, a single DVD, and the ubiquitous Apple stickers. It actually felt a bit flimsy by Apple's standards, but it's not the packaging that's on trial with this upgrade.

Installation was a breeze. I started on the MacBook Pro laptop on which I intended to do an in-place installation. The installation app ran straight from the DVD with no need to reboot to the optical drive. I customised the installation and removed all the unwanted language, printer and X windows software, as the laptop only had about 33Gb space available (but more on that later). Installation took about 35 minutes before user input was required. After about 12 minutes the system rebooted itself, which caused momentary heart failure, but I guess I should have expected it. After all, a Windows installation often causes three or four reboots before it's done.

That was pretty much it for the installation - no wizardry, no fireworks, just a workmanlike approach to getting the job done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Some statistics for those interested. Bootup time was reduced by about a minute (just under 2 minutes to have a fully functional system with all login items up and running). Shut-down time was halved to about 5 seconds.

There was an additional 9.3Gb of disk space available (using proper old fashioned Gb measures, not the new 'decimal' standard that Apple have now adopted). In the main user folder, there were about 2500 fewer items, saving about 0.2Gb of space. On my MBP this was a significant increase in available space, which I'm very grateful for. My system had already been stripped of extra language and unwanted code by running Monolingual, so other users may see even greater savings. On my Hackintosh, the extra space may prove to be even more significant. Obviously, there are knock on effects, especially with TimeMachine, as backups should get smaller and faster.

I then did the installation on the iMac with the dodgy internal disk. The disk is clearly beyond repair - although the installation programme could see it, it refused to try and do anything with it as SMART errors prevented this. Nothing really to add regarding the installation on to the external Firewire 400 drive. It took a little bit longer - about 45m, but that was only to be expected.

With the initial installation over, I had a brief opportunity to look around. First place to look was the installation created folder called Incompatible Software. To my relief this was almost empty, with only two .kext files on show, neither of which I recognised. This folder is used to remove and store software that is known to cause problems with Snow Leopard. It does not make any attempt to remove software that doesn't work under OS X 10.6 - you need to do this by trial and error and checking out web sites for your most critical applications. On the MBP, the only issues (so far) were with Surplus Meter which I use to monitor my mobile Broadband access which required Rosetta installation (I had deselected Rosetta during the installation) and PlugSuit, an application enhancer, which forced the system to request an admin password every time an application was launched. Disabling PlugSuit in it's PreferencesPane solved the problem without doing any damage.

iStat menus no longer work under Snow Leopard (already documented), which meant that the time and date no longer appeared in the menu bar. It took some searching to find where the preferences information to fix this was located, but that now works OK (look for the Clock tab under Date and Time in System Preferences). To my relief Hyperspaces, Dock Spaces and Docker all worked fine (although the Dock colour had been reset).

The main issue has been with Mail which has undergone an internal (but not external) re-write. None of my mail add-ins worked following installation (these include DockStar, Mail Iconizer, Mail Tags, LetterBox, Mail Appetiser and Mail Act-on). Some upgrades are already available, others are work in progress. Mail rebuilds it's databases the first time that it is run following installation of OS X 10.6. This in itself caused no problems, but it seems that somewhere along the line my KeyChain has been corrupted. After spending over three hours late last night I finally dumped the KeyChain and created a new default. This seems to have done the trick. Fingers crossed.

Overall I'm pleased that everything was relatively painless, that a few extra gigabytes of space have emerged, and that most of the day to day applications are functioning as normal (or slightly sprightlier). Now I've got a chance to get back to doing some real work, and I'll get a better feel for the changes and find out any other issues. I'll get you updated on my findings.

As the saying goes :

"Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won't have time to make them all yourself".

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Why I'm Excited about Snow Leopard

I'd really like to think that Snow Leopard is going to change the world. Well, at least a small portion of it. Think about it...an operating system that is pretty much a feature free update (a nightmare for the marketing guys), but which is leaner and faster than ever before, while maintaining and enhancing its current feature set.

When I started programming back in the early 80s, we had 32Kb-64Kb of memory space, 20Mb hard disks were prohibitively expensive and compilations of even the simplest programmes on mainframes ran overnight. All these factors meant that programmers had to choose their functionality and their design carefully, code effectively, efficiently and with due diligence and think about doing things right one time only.

The advent of the PC, cheaper memory and disks, along with compilers like Turbo Pascal began to change the programming world. Programmers could be more complacent - their code didn't have to be so tight, they could write and compile code in increasingly shorter cycles and let the programming tools take on the brunt of the thinking.

As software became a commodity, marketing took over and rich (often useless) features became the key differentiators between products. Products that used to ship on a floppy disk, started to ship on stacks of floppies, then onto CDs and now onto DVDs. And many programmers (especially commercial programmers) became sloppier and produced buggier code which they were forced to ship by increasingly desperate product managers.

Many programmes would still love to produce good quality, elegant, efficient and effective code but are not allowed the time to do so. Refactoring and redesign are rare occurrences in the commercial world (usually only happening when disaster strikes).

So hats off to Apple engineers and product managers who appear to have got back to the golden age of software development with Snow Leopard. I can't wait to get my hands on it...

It s'now Show for Snow Leopard @ The Apple Harvest

Despite putting in a pre-order for the Snow Leopard family pack and spending all day yesterday preparing the Apple Harvest machines for installation, I've been let down by courier firms yet again.

I ordered through Amazon who duly shipped on the evening of the 23rd August and provided me with a UPS tracking number. UPS recorded the package as Out For Delivery from their Derby depot before 5.00am on 24th August. Despite the depot only being 10 miles or so from where I live, I never received the package , and just before 8:00pm it was reported by UPS as being returned to their Derby depot. I'd been in all day and there had been no sign of a UPS van.

In the meantime I had prepared boot-able Carbon Copy Cloner copies of both my iMac and MacBook Pro which will now be out of date by the time I (hopefully) get the package on Tuesday, since it's a holiday weekend in the UK. And on Tuesday I'll have to go through the process all over again.

I find it astonishing that UPS, FedEx and DHL manage to screw up so regularly. I have a lot of things delivered, and often a local courier is used who is regularly at my front door before 8.00 in the morning and rarely later than 10.00am. He also delivers on Saturdays. Despite having massive computing systems and networks at their disposal, the big couriers can only provide delivery windows of between 9.00am and 7.00pm, Monday to Friday, and although I live on the doorstep of the hubs I almost always seem to get my deliveries at the end of the day. Good job I work from home.

I guess the good news is that everyone else who spent last night and will be spending the weekend doing their installations will uncover any issues, and I'll benefit from their experiences. But for an early adopter, it's really frustrating and very disappointing...

Friday, 28 August 2009

Rotting Fruit at the Apple Harvest

The second disaster of the year occurred last week at the Apple Harvest farm. At the beginning of the summer (for those of you in the UK who have forgotten, summer is the season when the weather is supposed to improve) I had to replace the display on my MacBook Pro which cost me about £500. I had hoped that it may have been a loose connection due to wear and tear from being hauled around the world, but it was not to be.

Then, last week, the internal hard drive on my iMac failed. Initially the machine just hung so I was forced to switch off and restart. Unfortunately the machine never rebooted. I linked up the MacBook Pro using a Firewire connection and ran Disk Warrior which appeared to do the trick. About three hours later exactly the same thing happened, only this time even Disk Warrior gave up.

While it was still possible to access the hard drive, and there appeared to be no loss of data, trying to use the disk as a start-up drive was no longer possible. Being a forth generation iMac (April 2008) it is of course not only out of warranty, but not trivial to upgrade.

I've looked into the cost of repairs and it looks like it's going to cost between £150 to £200, and probably means a week without the machine. Neither of these is a particularly attractive option at present.

However, given the cost of external hard drives at present I decided to purchase a 750Gb Seagate FreeAgent Pro desktop drive with the Firewire 400 interface. I already use a 500Gb Seagate FreeAgent drive as my Time Machine disk, so I'm familiar with the make. I made the purchase through Amazon and the cost was under £60 including next day delivery using Amazon Prime.

Setting up the new drive was a breeze, restoring the Time Machine backup from the old disk (about 250Gb) was fairly quick, and despite a couple of glitches I have a fully functional system again. I don't really notice any difference in the restart time as it isn't something I do very often - I tend to put the iMac to sleep at night.

The glitches are that the Hyperspaces programme that I use to help manage Spaces crashes out when I try to set the preferences, and when I attempt to share the iMac screen from my laptop it goes into an infinite loop, which is an interesting effect but not much use to man nor beast. Finally, the iMac wouldn't play with my Belkin Wireless USB hub anymore, but that was easily solved by removing the hub from the network as it now surplus to requirements. I'll live with these problems until Snow Leopard arrives later today and see what effect that has.

Next time I'll post my experiences with Snow Leopard installation and my first impressions of using it, both on the iMac and MacBook Pro. I'll hang on before trying it on the Hackintosh ! Two hardware failures in a year are quite enough thank you!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Great Service Deserves a Mention

Service is an interesting concept to many people in Britain. Whether it be staff in shops, waiters and waitresses in bars and restaurants through to individuals in call centres or receptionists on service desks we almost expect curt responses and bad manners. There always seems to be something else more important to do or some excuse to treat customers with contempt.

When we go abroad, especially to the United States, we often sneer at the service culture we find there. It's as if it is a reflex action to hide our embarrassment at seeing ordinary men and women offer genuine service as a matter of course.

For sure, these are generalisations - not everyone in the UK is guilty, and not everyone in the US is a shining example of service excellence. But I recently made a purchases in the UK and US where this divide was clearly highlighted. In both cases, these were on-line purchases, so there was no face to face contact. In fact in both cases all communication was done by e-mail.

I had ordered my Dell Mini 9 from an on-line store in the UK offering next day delivery. After a few days there was no sign of a delivery, and the order status on the web site had not changed from "ordered". I sent an e-mail to the store, and received a prompt reply saying that they would look into it. After a further four days I had heard nothing else, and so cancelled the order. Almost before I'd pressed the send button, I received notification that the netbook would be delivered the following day. Too little, too late. I still cancelled the order, and took my business elsewhere.

Last week I read an article in MacFormat which mentioned a piece of software to teach yourself to speed read. I placed an order on-line through the US web site, downloaded the software and installed it on my iMac desktop. I then tried to install the software onto my MacBook Pro but was unsuccessful because of an activation problem. At no time did the web site, license agreement or installation process mention any such restriction, so I wrote to the US developer asking if there was any solution.

Within a few minutes I received a reply saying that the developer was out of town (it was a Friday afternoon) but that he would send me a coupon. The following day I received a coupon enabling me to install the software on my laptop. Gratis, free, no charge and no questions asked.

So, to Vince at iVerbum, developers of iSpeedRead, my sincere thanks. I'll post a review of the software on the blog at a later date. In the meantime, let it not be said that us Brits don't recognise excellent service when we encounter it.

As for the UK company, I'm not going to name them in the hope that it was a one off communications breakdown and I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. But of course, I'll never really know because I won't be using them again.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Friday, 7 August 2009

Hackintosh and OS X 10.5.8

Typical really, you get everything sorted out on the Hackintosh and find that Apple have put out an update to OS X in the form of 10.5.8. My first reaction was "Do Nothing" ; often a safe bet (and one that is often ignored as an option in Process Improvement circles).

But I consider myself an early adopter so this wasn't really an option for me. I did a quick check on the myDellMini web site to see if others had boldly gone before and it seemed that they had and no major problems had been encountered...

I should have delved deeper but more on that later.

Having taken a backup (one with TimeMachine and one with Carbon Copy Cloner), and with one hand on my heart, and the other one behind my back with as many fingers crossed as possible I proceeded to install the update through the standard combi installation. I'd previously updated my other Macs and everything appeared to be working OK, and at least I knew what to expect - download, restart, and wait a few minutes.

Everything seemed fine. The Hackintosh booted OK, the Apple logo appeared and not long after the desktop appeared as I had left it. Except there was no wireless activity...

I ran the DellEFI 1.2a5 utility without changing any options, rebooted and WiFi access was restored. Everything was back to normal, I thought.

My new Kensington SlimBlade Trackball mouse arrived this morning and I went to look at the tutorial video on the Kensington web site. The video loaded but there was no sound. The sound function key combination key didn't work either, and the sound icon in the menu bar showed a great big gap where it should have been. ITunes also failed to play any songs. A quick panic attack and then back to the myDellMini web site.

This time I read the entries more carefully and found the solution in one of the forum pages - these guys are really switched on! I followed the sound advice (pun intended) and now everything really does seem to be back to normal. (I'm not going to repeat the info here for fear of getting something wrong - if you need help go to the source yourself!)

Hopefully this will be the last update to Leopard before Snow Leopard hits the market. Who knows whether that will work with these hybrids, but I feel sure that some brave souls will be trying it out at least, and I have no doubt that they'll publish their findings for us less technically endowed enthusiasts.

Until then, I thank them profusely for their hard work and efforts so far...

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Working with the Hackintosh - First Impressions

Well, the easy bit's over. I have a fully converted Dell Mini 9 netbook running OS X 10.5.7. What's the verdict from the jury after the first few hours?

First impressions are very positive. The machine itself is really cute, but it appears well constructed. I've customized the netbook appearance with a rather garish iSkin which makes it stand out from the crowd.

The two most obvious limitations are the size of both keyboard and the screen. I have pianists fingers so the small cramped keyboard and keys don't really cause me too many problems, and I can type almost as quickly as I can on a full size keyboard. It's not touch typing but I do manage to use three or four fingers on each hand. The keys have a slightly spongy feel as they are depressed, but nothing I can't live with. My keyboard is UK configured and some characters are still a bit elusive, most notably '#', and '@' so I've configured the input menu to keep the keyboard viewer handy during these first few days.

The lack of screen real estate is more of an issue. I've elected to keep the dock on the side of the screen and have turned on auto hiding. Both of these are significant deviations from my normal display, but the change is necessary for quite a few applications, and especially for the System Preferences dialogs. I have some Terminal commands that I can invoke to adjust screen scaling factors to mimic higher resolution, but most of the time I prefer to keep the standard screen. I'll keep a look out for alternative long term solutions.

There is one real gripe. The webcam active light flashes as soon as the machine boots. It can be turned off by running iChat, running the video options and then closing the iChat programme, but a permanent solution would be better. Good news is that the webcam works fine with iChat as does the internal audio system.

Wireless, Bluetooth and USB connectivity all work as expected, and I have successfully used Time Machine to backup the system. My Vodafone USB stick modem also worked without any problems.

The unit does get a little warm, but realistically I don't think this is any worse than other laptops I've owned. The upside of no internal fans is that the machine is beautifully quiet.

I've fitted the expanded battery as standard and the battery monitor indicates a battery life of 4-5 hours, with both Bluetooth and Wireless enabled. It's too early to tell whether this is realistic.

I'm delighted with my Hackintosh. I expected some niggles, but overall the experience has been much more positive than I dared hope for. I feel sure this is going to be a fantastic addition to my electronic toolkit.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Creating a Hackintosh - the build process

Previously I outlined my first steps in defining my requirements for a DIY Apple netbook (more commonly known as a Hackintosh), and the components I selected to start the "project".

Unfortunately it took much longer than expected to get started initially because of supplier issues and then FedEx lost the netbook. However eventually all the bits ended up where they were required and I was finally able to get started.

In this entry I'll explain the process of installing the software and hardware onto the Dell Mini 9. If you want a lot of gory technical details I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you. I chose to load OS X onto a RunCore SSD using my MacBook Pro. You can download the instructions from the myDellMini web site. The beauty of the RunCore is that you can connect it directly to a Mac via a standard micro USB cable (which is provided with the SSD). The beauty of the myDellMini web site is that it is a one stop shop for everything you need to know, and this is where you can get your fill of technical information.

Truth is that the installation guide is so comprehensive that there is little for me to add. Print out the guide and check off each item as you complete it. Steps 1 to 11 are very straightforward and shouldn't cause you any cause for concern. There are no "heart stopping" moments. However, I will endorse the comment that you need to take care with the USB connection on the RunCore. It is incredibly tight and you need to tease the cable out very gently when you've completed your installation. At this point, it's again worth taking heed of the instructions and install any other software now, while you've still got the SSD attached to a host Mac. It'll save a lot of hassle later on.

Steps 12 to 19 involve installing the RunCore into the Dell Mini 9. This is where things get a bit more tense, and you'll end up crossing fingers, toes and anything else you can find! As before however, the instructions are clear and concise, and the SSD can be inserted without any trouble. Some minor changes to the BIOS are also required.

The moment of truth comes when the card is fitted and it's time to power up. After a few nail biting seconds the Apple logo appeared on the screen and the familiar power up sequence ran through. And there it was OS X 10.5.7 in all it's glory on an 8.5 inch screen. Happy days...

If you are serious about undertaking such a project it pays to do your homework in advance.

  1. Set your expectations in advance - there's no point in trying this if you want a cheap Mac. A Hackintosh is complementary to your existing Apple set-up, and if you expect it to replace a MacBook or MacBook Pro you will be disappointed.

  2. Do some research and work out what hardware you are going to use, and find the guides to help you. I chose a hardware set-up that was appropriate for my level of technical ability. If you're more confident, you may find a more suitable configuration.

  3. Get everything in the right place and allow plenty of time to undertake the conversion. Also, take any precautions necessary in terms of backing stuff up. But you'd do that anyway wouldn't you ?!?!

  4. Have fun and enjoy yourself! I did...

First Steps to a Hackintosh - update

For those of you waiting with baited breath for the next instalment of my Hackintosh blog - well, so am I.

Having ordered all the components, namely the Dell Mini 9, RunCore 32Gb SSD, and a new retail copy of Leopard 10.5.6, I had expected to be up and running by now. In reality, the OS and SSD arrived within a day or so, and I have successfully (I think) married the two together. I've even written the blog entry.

Sadly, however, the Dell Mini 9 has still not shown up and it appears that no money has been withdrawn from my account. The supplier is not responding to calls so I have cancelled the order - you watch, it'll be here tomorrow morning. I've re-ordered from a different supplier, at a better price no less, and hope to be finalising the build over the weekend.

I'm tempted to name and shame the supplier but I'll give them time to respond to my emails before doing so.

Keep your fingers crossed and watch this space.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

First Steps to a Hackintosh - tuning into the concept

I've been hooked on the idea of an Apple netbook for a while. Many years ago I owned a Psion 3 and later moved up to the Psion 5. I actually dragged the latter out of a corner of my office the other day, blew off a considerable coating of dust, inserted a couple of batteries and 30 seconds later the system was up and running. The backup battery had long since died so all my data had evaporated into the ether, but everything else was working fine. I fondly remembered the days when this was my workhorse and used to go everywhere with me. My iPhone now performs most of those day to day management tasks with a bit more style, but when it comes to more "office" like work there's no way that I'm going to use my iPhone for anything more than quick and dirty emails, simple calculations, the odd to do reminder, and some low web browsing.

My 15'' MacBook Pro goes along with me for any journeys out of town but sometimes it really is a lot of hassle to get it up and running, especially on crowded trains, jolting buses, and stations and airports with limited space to work (or often even to sit). I've lost rack of the number of times that I drag my laptop across the country, stuffed into my backpack along with all the USB modems, wireless mice, portable drives etc., only to get pulled out on my return home without being switched on. The only thing to show for the effort is sore shoulders and an aching back.

So with the Psion experience fresh in my mind, aching bits from a recent trip to London and some time on my hands, I decided to investigate building a Hackintosh netbook of my own. The first task was to consider my requirements. I wanted a machine that was light, small enough to be usable in some of those situations described above, and easily convertible. Although I used to be a programmer, and I'm not phased by taking the backs of machines and replacing bits, I'm not a real hacker so I wanted a reasonably simple set of instructions to follow. The other criterion was that it needed to be relatively inexpensive. After all, it's really only an experiment, and if Apple do finally make their own netbook or tablet it'll be fairly high on my shopping list.

Over the past few days I've trawled the web for potential candidates, building instructions and success stories. The thing that finally sealed it for me was the Andy Ihnatko video , where he was showing off a Dell Mini 9 netbook running OS X 10.5. This also turned out to be the most suitable commercially available machine to convert, and with about the best set of instructions I could find. In fact the only better set of instructions were for the RunCore SSD replacement drive for the Dell Mini 9. So the hardware pretty much chose itself.

Final configuration that I selected was a refurbished Dell Mini 9 with 2Gb RAM, and a 16Gb SSD pre-configured with Windows XP and a 32Gb RunCore SSD with on-board USB connection. I also purchased a new retail copy of Leopard OS X 10.5.6 to avoid the piracy police.

Next time I'll go through the build process, before a final posting on using the machine (hopefully, written on the beast itself!).

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Apple Kit @ the Apple Harvest

This probably should have been my first blog entry as it sets the context for everything that is going to follow. But never mind, it's only a day late!

First a confession; I'm a relative newcomer into the world in which the Apple Harvest is set. Although I've secretly admired the Mac ever since it was first introduced into the orchard, I've been a PC user since they first became available in the UK back in the early 1980s. I left university (with a degree in Agricultural Science) and started life as a professional programmer - so my choice of platform was dictated by the demands of my employers and their clients.

Since then, my professional life has moved from pure software development, initially towards project management, then into software process improvement, and I now act as an independent management consultant, focusing on business and software process management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change management.

Two years ago I was working in Oslo in Norway, and dragging my relatively new Asus R1F tablet PC backwards and forwards. I was getting increasingly frustrated with the time it took to boot and to actually be able to do anything useful, not to mention the short battery life. I had a bit of disposable income at the time, so I decided to purchase a 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop, running at 2.4GHz, with a 150Gb disk and 4Gb of RAM. The time of purchase coincided with the release of Leopard. I became an instant convert.

Six months later I replaced my desktop (actually it was a permanently docked HP nx6325 laptop) with a 3.06GHz, 24-inch iMac,with 4Gb RAM and a 500Gb disk.

Earlier this year I replaced my Windows smart phone (which I've been using since the Orange SPV smart phone was first launched) with a 16Gb iPhone 3G, and somewhere along the line I ditched my Creative Zen-M 60Gb player for a 16Gb iPod Touch.

You could almost say that I'm now a fully reformed PC user, but unfortunately I still live in the real world, where my clients still demand PC compatibility, so I keep a copy of Parallels 4 with Windows XP for such situations. However, I do find I'm using it less and less, which is a blessing.

So there you have it. These are my credentials for writing about Apple kit in a public place. I may not win any awards for longevity in the Apple community, but I've certainly put my share of investment into my Apple kit and software over the past couple of years. And no doubt will continue to do so for the next few years...

In forthcoming blogs I'll tell you something about the software I use.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mophie Juice Pack Air - Review

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a Juice Pack Air additional battery for my iPhone 3G. Whilst I love my iPhone, I'm not in love with it; it isn't surgically attached to my ear and I have plenty of other distractions to help me to fill my day. I generally work from home and there are docking stations in strategic positions around the house. In other words, I'm a fairly average user and battery life generally doesn't give me a huge cause for concern...except when I'm travelling. As a consultant I do spend a fair amount of time on the road, and on those occasions I have got caught out once or twice.

So, on the basis that prevention is better than cure I decided to invest in the Juice Pack Air. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the gadget, it is effectively a case incorporating a battery extender which clips around the iPhone, providing approximately twice the battery life of the iPhone. I'm not going to repeat technical specifications here, if you need them check out the Mophie web site http://www.mophie.com/juice-pack-air-p/1059_jpa-ip3g-blk.htm.

I ordered my Juice Pack Air over the internet from solutions inc. (based in Hove in the UK) at a cost of £63.00 (including VAT) plus a couple of quid for postage and it arrived by recorded delivery a couple of days later.

The first thing you notice on picking up the box is the Apple-like attention to packaging. The box itself is sturdy and feels as if it has been packaged by Apple themselves.

The Juice Pack Air itself is a two piece affair. The iPhone slips into the larger part which forms a sleeve around the body of the phone. A standard dock connector sits at the bottom of the sleeve and the iPhone simply slots onto it. It is quite a tight fit and it's not immediately obvious that the iPhone is fully secured. The second part of the pack slips over the top of the iPhone providing all round protection to the top, bottom and sides of the phone, with cut-outs for the important iPhone controls. The face of the iPhone is not protected, and the Juice Pack Air fits flush to the fascia. This means that a screen protector cannot be fitted and held in place by the Juice Pack Air. This may bother some people, but I personally prefer direct access to the phone's touch screen.

The top and bottom sections of the Juice Pack Air don't form a completely seamless fit, which is slightly disappointing, but something that you get used to quite quickly. Removing the case and its integrated battery is simply a matter of reversing the fitting instructions. However this is more difficult than one might expect. Although the top slides off quite easily, it is quite difficult to get purchase on the lower part of the case. Clean, grease-free hands are a definite requirement, but it's almost certain that you'll get grubby paw prints over the face of the phone when you try to remove it. Have a cleaning cloth handy!

A tiny switch on the bottom of the Juice Pack Air engages the battery and allows the flow of power to the iPhone. The battery is designed to use power from the Juice Pack Air before starting to drain the iPhone's internal battery. However, the recommendation is to allow the iPhone to drain before switching to the Juice Pack to provide the maximum amount of charge available. Four LED lights on the back of the case provide a visual indication of the amount of power available in the Juice Pack Air. These are displayed by pressing a small button to the side of the array of lights.

Charging the Juice Pack Air is done through the supplied micro-USB cable and connector at the base of the case. I would have preferred a mini-USB port as this would have meant one less type of cable to carry around. The supplied cable could have done with being a bit longer as well, but that isn't a big deal.

All in all, I really pleased with the Juice Pack Air. It certainly provided me with all the power that I need on a long day out, with little access to other power sources, and still had some to spare. There is some extra weight and bulk added to the iPhone, but this all but disappears after a short while. The texture of the plastic case is similar to the back of the iPhone, and attracts smudgy fingerprints in the same way, particularly on the black version. However, this is a small price to pay for the benefit of having a phone that now helps me make it through the night as well as the day. Highly recommended.