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...