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 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.