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".