Saturday, 20 November 2010

Thumbs up for Apple iTunes Customer Support!

Apple’s customer service sometimes seems like a two-headed monster. When it’s bad, it’s very bad but when it’s good, it’s about as good as it can get. I have only had the need to contact them on one occasion, which was about a week ago. I had downloaded some TV programmes from the iTunes store as my limited access to Swiss TV was becoming overloaded by Champions League football and a marked drop in the number of programmes being shown with an English soundtrack option.

In particular I’d earmarked The Red Riding trilogy shown earlier this year in the UK, which had good reviews and had captured my imagination. When I was back at home a couple of weekends ago I took the opportunity to download the 3Gb of programming, along with some other goodies, and was looking forward to watching the trilogy over a few nights the following week.

On my return to Zurich, I noticed that iTunes was showing duplicates of each of the episodes and given my lack of hard disk spaces I did a clean up. When I then came to watch the shows I got an error telling me that the originals were no longer available. And because my iTunes library already weighs in at 70Gb, I had excluded it from my Time Machine backups.

So no Red Riding…

I contacted Apple Support and detailed the problem in an email. Within a couple of days I received a reply from Arran asking confirming his understanding of the problem and asking me for the order details. I was a little busy at the time, and didn’t get round to replying immediately, but 24 hours later I got a second mail repeating the request. This time I managed to send a reply, and within a few hours the shows were made available to me again at no charge.

With limited bandwidth, there was no way that I could download the material while still in Zurich, so I wrote back asking if there was any time limit for downloading the replacements, and indicating that I would be able to perform the download within a fortnight. Again I received a reply within an hour or so, confirming that this was not a problem, and that the shows would be available for download for as long as required.

Last weekend I finally got the material back onto the laptop and I’m looking forward to finally getting round to watching the series. I hope it’s going to be worth all the effort!


Between writing this entry and actually publishing it, I’ve had a second opportunity to put the iTunes support guys to the test, and once again they’ve come up trumps. I downloaded the Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album by The Beatles on my iPad to mark the occasion of The Beatles music finally being available for download. Everything seemed to work OK but when I later linked the iPad to the MBP only the video was there – all the songs were missing. This time I contacted support via the Report a Problem in iTunes, but the outcome was very similar. Some mails acknowledging the problem and confirming the issue and a day later a mail explaining that the missing material was available for me to re-download at no extra cost.  Thanks to Daniel on this occasion.

I’ve also managed to lose Red Riding again, but this time I know there’s a backup at home!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

iPad - it's Getting Better; even stronger

Not everything that you read in a blog is always quite what it seems. My last post was completely written on the iPad, and most of it was actually written whilst in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but unfortunately I didn't quite finish it before I left, so it only got completed and published after I had returned to the UK and then back to Switzerland. By which time my iPad had just about become a new appendage, and it was already quite hard to remember life pre-iPad.

This entry is 100% bought to you from Zurich, now three weeks after my original adventure to the CambridgeSide Apple Store in Cambridge, MA, where I made the purchase. As I had hoped, I did return to Boston, this time to the Boylston St. Apple Store (awesome shop) and I duly purchased the Apple case, the camera connection kit and the Compass iPad stand.

Since returning from the US, I've also acquired a few more apps. Like the iPhone, the full power of the iPad cannot be realized by just the built-in apps, no matter how good they are. There are a few more games (I'm very much a casual gamer, and enjoy Sudoku, Mahjong and other puzzle and patience type games). In addition there are some business type apps (expenses, brainstorming, mind mapping and project management) some calculators and converters, some music apps, and some utilities, including Camera, Voice Recorder, and apps that link back to the MBP and iMac. Then there are a few Social Networking clients and some Business document managers. Finally there are some travel related apps.

It would be very easy to start to behave like a child in a sweet shop and download a vast number of apparently useful apps (at huge expense), but previous experience with the iPhone has taught me that less can sometimes mean more. The fact that iOS 3.2 doesn't support folders makes it less desirable to clutter up the device with a load of rarely used apps.

I have occasionally hinted that the the Apple Harvest abroad has a number of technical issues to overcome, most specifically, a lack of consistent and permanently connected broadband or wireless network. I'm delighted to report that the accumulation of gadgets and widgets over the last couple of months has really paid off.

The picture below shows the Apple Harvest road warrior set-up. Most of the components in the photo have been reviewed in the blog. Whilst still not ideal, this is a fully functional mobile office, which in theory could be operational anywhere where you can get a 3G signal, and mains electricity. The latter is only required for periods longer than about 3 hours! From the left we have my portable sound dock and iPhone charger, whilst a standard dock serves to charge my iPhone 4. Centre stage is the 15inch MacBook Pro (2007) on an X-stand with wireless keyboard and magic trackpad for input. On the right is the iPad on the Compass stand, and hiding behind is the Zoom 3G Wireless travel router. There's also a permanent connection to my Eye-TV device which is rigged up to a small aerial which lives on the balcony, which at least gives me some live TV in the mornings and evenings.

Apple Harvest Road Office
The Apple Harvest - Mobile Office

During the day, I'm on site at the bank where I'm contracting and until the iPad came along I used to drag the MBP into the office each day. These days the laptop stays in the "Pent-room" where I'm based and I just carry the iPad, stand and Zoom router into the office. Although I take in the USB charger, it's superfluous, and is more likely to be used to charge one of the iPhones.  The new arrangement is more convenient all round, taking up less room on my desk at work, saving me the hassle of unplugging the MBP and attachments each morning and setting it back up again each night, and I've noticed that the aches in my shoulder have eased up considerably now I take a messenger bag with me each morning rather than a thumping great rucksack.

I really only want access to mail, occasional access to the internet (surfing the internet in a corporate banking environment is somewhat restricted as you may guess) and the ability to jot down thoughts and ideas and do occasional sums. The iPad is perfect for this, and the addition of iWork allows me to work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations which I mange through I don't even bother taking the wireless keyboard with me, as the on-screen keyboard is perfectly adequate for my meagre needs.

If anyone reading this had any doubts about whether an iPad could serve as an occasional laptop replacement, be reassured that it is perfectly up to the job. Despite the loving care and attention I have paid to my Hackintosh I'm not sure how much of a future it really has. Compared to the iPad it is clumsy and hard to use. It does have a webcam built in and allows me to use video with iChat or Skype, and it does run Eye-TV but everything else has a counterpart on the iPad. I have managed to link my iPhone camera to the iPad via Bluetooth using the Camera for iPad app, and there are reports of people using webcams with the camera connection kit, so even video may not be beyond the bounds of possibility. Sadly streaming TV is only realistically possible if you have a sensible download allowance on your mobile broadband - my 7Gb (split across two providers) is barely adequate without for my use as it is.

So there you have it. Three weeks on and I'm more in love with the iPad than ever. I remember the thrill of getting my first Mac - the MBP mentioned in these columns, and subsequently getting the 27inch iMac. The iPad experience is right up there, and I can't see it fading any time soon! Buy one!! Today !!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, 19 September 2010

iPad at The Apple Harvest - Well Worth the Wait

This posting of the Apple Harvest is brought to you as autumn hits the forests of New England, where I'm currently on vacation, and the maple trees lap up their final intake of water before winter sets in. The colours aren't quite like they are in the picture books and postcards, but the reds and yellows are beginning to take over from the greenery of the summer foliage.

Last week I finally succumbed to the little voices in my head which have been nagging at me since April and the official launch of the iPad. The 64Gb WiFi model that I'm writing this piece on was nearly £150 cheaper in Boston than in the UK. In fact, it would have been cheaper to buy one in Zurich than in the UK. With the prospect of 20% VAT in the new year, the decision to buy one was pretty much made for me.

No doubt Apple will be announcing the 2nd generation iPads before too long, but I really couldn't wait any longer, and even though the idea of the Retinal display and addition of camera are enticing, they weren't enough to dissuade me from this purchase. You see, the iPad is everything I hoped it would be, and more. In my posting early this year I outlined my ideas of what the iPad could realistically be used for. That view has already been confirmed in just a few days. And so much more.

There is no question that the iPad is a beautiful piece of kit. It looks good, it feels good, and it is great to use. The worst thing about it is that my iPhone 4 now feels so small in comparison, although I really wouldn't want to have to lug the iPad around for use as a phone. (Actually it's really not fair to use the word lug in the same sentence as iPad. I have to lug my 15 inch MBP around, whereas I can slip the iPad into my bag and not really notice it.)

I would never have realistically considered writing a blog entry of any substance on my iPhone (despite having the BlogPress software installed), but on the iPad, even just with the on-screen keyboard, and with no case or stand, it seems perfectly natural.

Having free WiFi in the hotel (Woodward's Resort in Lincoln) is a real bonus as I'm not constantly checking on my usage - something I'll need to consider carefully when I get back to Zurich in a few days time. But being connected permanently is not a necessity as the extra screen space simply allows you to be able to do more than on an iPhone.

I've taken over 500 photos over the last few days and getting them transferred from camera to MBP to iPad has been a doodle. The iPad is a much better vehicle for showing them off than the MBP, and I love the Origami slideshow theme.

Initial syncing of the iPad to the MBP did take a while, but I think trying to install my entire iTunes library was not the most sensible approach. Just because I could physically fit the whole 47Gb on the iPad was not the best justification for actually doing so!

I was also pleased that a number of my favourite iPhone apps also scaled up immediately to the iPad. There are still a few that I'm hoping will get the necessary makeover, but plenty of alternatives are available in the meantime. It's good that in the main, prices have been kept down or upgraded versions are available at no extra cost. I particularly like the implementation of the PressReader app which I have used on the Mac and iPhone to read my offline copies of UK papers for some years. Finally the iPad provides the perfect vehicle for this activity, and the app performs faultlessly - which has not always been the case with its counterparts on the other devices.

Specific purchases (including free apps) in the first 24 hours of ownership included all three elements of the iWork suite, Battery HD Pro, Accu Weather, Clock Pro HD, Friendly - Facebook Browser, Things for iPad, and Plants vs. Zombies. That should be enough to keep me occupied at Boston Logan for three hours followed by a six hour flight back to the UK!

I'll be back in Boston in a few days and intend to buy the Apple Case and Camera connection kit (also considerably cheaper than in the UK!). In the next entry, I'll provide an update on using the iPad back in my Swiss base - a slightly more hostile environment than the one I'm in currently - at least for gadgets!!

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Get Your Own Space - Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router

I've been using PDAs and Smartphones for longer than I care to remember. Since trading in my Filofax in the early 1990s my life has existed in Cyberspace on a Psion 3, Psion Series 5, HP Journada, various Orange Smartphones and over the last two years on my iPhone 3G and now my iPhone 4. All these gadgets have had connections to laptops and desktops, initially Windows, but now everything exists in Apple Space.

The better these toys get, the more I find I'm reliant on them - from keeping track of expenses, looking up passwords, linking back to my Pogoplug and its disks back at home, to route finding, on-line timetables, and of course social networking and mail - I can do nearly everything I need to do on my iPhone and link it back to my iMac or MBP when back at base, wherever that may be.

Which means that there are times when I'm completely and utterly screwed - especially when I'm abroad. The old O2 unlimited data plan may have been replaced by a more restrictive 500Mb allowance, but this is simply luxurious when you are abroad, with prohibitive roaming charges and exorbitant wireless fees for anything more than very casual access. And without liberal access to data, the iPhone (or any other Smartphone for that matter) becomes little more than any other phone on the market, except it's much more painful having all those apps at your fingertips that you can't or daren't use.

What you need is a personal WiFi space around you which provides you with a mobile lifeline to Cyberspace. In the UK 3 have led the way with their MiFi device which is a 3G device that generates a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. But this is locked to 3, and as soon as you step out of the UK you get hit by those evil roaming charges once again. launch2net (see the review from earlier this year) allows you to generate a WiFi hotspot but it means dragging a laptop around with you which is not a particularly mobile solution - it's a bit of a throwback to the days when mobile phones came with batteries the size and weight of a car battery.

There is an alternative to the 3 MiFi solution which costs a similar amount but does the same job without tying you to a specific network. Enter - stage right - the Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router.

Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router

The Zoom device allows you to plug in (almost) any 3G USB stick and will then generate a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. I've had mine for about a fortnight and it's had a huge impact on my life here in Zurich. I can use the translation programme while I'm in the supermarket (my German is non-existent). I can do currency conversions using the latest Forex data rather than week old rates. I can get train and tram times before I leave the office so that I don't have to hang around the tram stops in the rain. I can see Twitter at work (a social networking free environment) and get my mail without having to fire up the laptop.

The Zoom 3G Wireless Router is not as elegant (pretty) as the 3 MiFi, but it is downright functional. The box is about 4 x 3in and an inch thick. It weighs just under 5 oz with the battery. The photo below shows a size comparison to the 3G iPhone. The unit is supplied with a rechargeable battery which lasts about 3 hours in a single go, and takes a couple of hours to recharge from the power adaptor (also supplied). The router can run from the mains if required. LEDs on the top panel show power/charge status, USB connection, Wireless on, and Ethernet connection. An on/off switch is located at the rear of the unit, alongside an Ethernet port. As shown above the 3G dongle fits into the USB socket on one side of the box. While this looks a bit ungainly, the connection is good, and I've never had the dongle fall out, despite having the unit sitting in a rucksack pocket and in my trouser pocket.


Router configuration is very simple. It's easiest to connect the unit to your computer via the ethernet cable, plug in the dongle, power up and then set your browser to point to which will load up the configuration page for the device. A Wizard is available to quickly get you up and running, and allows you to modify the configuration manager password, choose a security method for protecting your WiFi hotspot and assigning a password if necessary, and finally for setting up the dongle/ISP settings - APN, username and password, and PIN. Some of these will be provided with your dongle, others are easily available from the internet. You will have to go through this configuration every time you change the dongle. If you use the same dongle all the time the device retains the settings.

There a numerous other configuration options available through the configuration page advanced settings but I've not really investigated these. Everything I need can be achieved through the wizard. I regularly change 3G dongles and configuration literally takes 30 seconds between changes. For those of you concerned about security (which should be all of you!), the router can handle WEP, WPA and WPA2 protocols. And while on the subject of protocols, the router supports 802.11n/g and b wireless capabilities.

The Zoom travel router has proved to be one of my best buys of the last few years. Inevitably there are going to be places where it won't work because no 3G signal is available. I very much doubt I'll be able to use it on most of the train journey between the East Midlands and London on which none of my connections seem to work for very long, but when you are out of range of a wireless hotspot in town there shouldn't be any problems. It really comes into its own as soon as you go abroad, especially for iPhones, iPads and other smart gadgets which need live data to truly make them smart. Zoom also produce a 3G dongle which is not locked - so with the pair of gadgets, all you need to do when you go to a new country is buy a PAYG SIM card and you should be up and running in no time.

Highly recommended!!!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Apple Magic Trackpad - Simply the Best

Despite having subscriptions to all the UK Mac magazines, access to all the gossip and rumour mongers on Twitter and other internet sites, and tuning in to the live coverage of the most recent WWDC, the first I heard of the Apple Magic Trackpad was when it appeared in the Apple Store website a couple of weeks ago. I honestly wasn't sure quite what to make of it initially. I think my first reaction was "what the ... is this, and why does it cost £59.00?".

So I went round to my local Apple Store (one benefit of living in one of the most expensive capital cities in the world is that I have an Apple Store on the doorstep) and bought one. It was a bit of a "comfort" buy to be honest. Women buy shoes, nerds buy gadgets and everyone buys chocolate when they feel a bit sorry for themselves (I actually bought shoes and chocolate as well, but for different reasons).

After two weeks of use I have now dispensed with the Magic Mouse completely and even carry the Magic Trackpad around with me. But more about that later...

The Magic Trackpad is a near 5 inch square of Mac standard metallic finish which connects to your Mac via Bluetooth. The catch is that you must be using Snow Leopard 10.6.4 and you need to download an additional supporting piece of software from Apple to make it work. In fact, it seemed to work in a limited capacity right out of the box, but there was very limited functionality. Once the software update had downloaded and installed, a whole new rafter of functionality was available. There have been some reports of problems with the installation, but I found everything worked smoothly without any issues.

The trackpad performs all the functions currently available on the most recently multi-gesture trackpads across the MacBook range. My own MBP is a 2007 model and doesn't have this capability so this is a way of accessing it. Clearly the iMac and MacPro ranges have no trackpad at all, and while these are probably the target machines for the trackpad, it works brilliantly with the laptop as well.

The "glass" surface is very similar to the Magic Mouse surface - very smooth and cool to the touch, and forgiving of even the sweatiest fingers. It is possible to track very accurately with the pad as it has very fine precision. The big difference between this and the Magic Mouse is that the trackpad doesn't run out of room! While I think the Magic Mouse is the best mouse I've ever used, I do get frustrated with it occasionally when it fails to respond properly to my instructions. So far the only similar problem I've had with the Trackpad is that it can be too responsive, but I think I may still need to tweak some of the sensitivity settings.

The Apple software installs into the System Preferences and is fine as it stands, but to really take advantage of the Magic Trackpad you really need to install one of the third party applications available for the Magic Mouse. I use BetterTouchTool which is much more configurable and allows me to set up gesture recognition for many more things. I have set up Tap to Click for everyday use as it seems more natural than to use the slightly stiff physical click of the Trackpad, although this works fine on a hard surface like a desk. Two finger scrolling through web pages is also very natural, and I find that I'm able to use different fingers for the same gestures which is less onerous on the index digit in particular. With BetterTouchTool I have gestures set up to access the Dashboard, Spaces, Expose, System Preferences and I can even put the laptop to Sleep with a five finger click.

Because it is so light, even with the two AA batteries installed the Magic Trackpad is easy to slip into my work bag and the design allows me to keep it upright next to the laptop. It's actually easier to carry around than a mouse. Since installing the Magic Trackpad my Magic Mouse has been consigned to the cupboard. To be honest, there are one or two things that are probably easier with a mouse - multiple item selection being the most notable - but I think that may be because I've been doing them for such a long time with a mouse. I'm not sure that I'm ready to lose the mouse completely, but the trackpad has really become an integral part of my computing activity.

Battery life is pretty good too. After two weeks of constant use the battery level is down to 86% - far better than the Magic Mouse.

The worst thing is that I occasionally find myself reaching out for the MacBook Pro trackpad by mistake, and since it's an older model (late 2007) far from being a smooth tracking experience, it feels like I'm running my fingers over a cat's tongue.

Check out the Trackpad. You won't regret it, and you may well reconsider the way you work with your current input device.

The biggest surprise of all for me was that the Magic Trackpad was about £10 cheaper in Zurich than in the UK. In fact all Apple prices are lower than in the UK. So I can stock up on some extra chocolate!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

launch2net premium - Mobile Internet made Easier

I've been using Mobile internet devices ever since they first became available but since moving onto the OS X and Apple platform I've have always found that the software provided leaves a lot to be desired. Windows users have always been fairly well catered for, but Mac users seem to have considered as second class citizens. I've always been able to get USB Modems and Dongles to work, but it's always been a fiddle, rather than a simple one click and it's done operation.

Most recently in the UK, I was using an offering from Vodafone, which made me get an initial connection using their rather substandard software, and then physically connect through the Network preferences or modem icon in the menu. If I wanted to monitor my usage (3Gb/month) I also had to run some 3rd party software. In my case I elected to use SurplusMeter by SkoobySoft.

However about a year ago, I chanced upon a piece of software that looked like it could make Mobile Internet on the Mac a much simpler experience. I think it may have been a promotion on MacPromo but I can't really remember anymore. I downloaded the trial and within a few minutes paid for a licence. The software in question was launch2net and it was a one stop click to connect and I think it included monitoring, but I can't honestly remember as I now use its grown up big brother launch2net Premium.

launch2net (I'll drop the premium suffix for the rest of this piece) is a stand-alone application that supports numerous mobile modem devices. It pretty much configures itself when a new device is plugged in, works out the appropriate settings, locates a suitable internet signal 3G, 2G, GPRS or EDGE, and waits for you to confirm the connection. Once you connect it then monitors your usage and signal strength, and when you are finished you simply disconnect by clicking on the appropriate button. Simple, huh?


It doesn't end there, however. The premium version also allows you to generate a wifi signal from your connection (with security) by setting up an internet sharing capability. This is a killer feature and is worth the cost of the licence for me. I'm currently living and working in Switzerland. Because I'm only here for a short contract, I can't get fixed line broadband so I need PAYG mobile internet. My flat is also out of reach of a commercial wireless network which makes my iPhones look a bit miserable.

With my Orange CH 3G dongle and launch2net I'm able to pick up a pretty good 3G signal and generate a 40-bit WEP encrypted WiFi signal which gets my both my iPhone 4 and 3G connected to the network. (I have two phones because one has a local Swiss SIM card in, and the other is my normal UK phone). To be fair to Orange, they have actually provided a pretty good connection application for the Mac, and it's a little bit quicker to use than launch2net, but then again it is dedicated to the Orange network and configured accordingly. It can't however generate the WiFi signal that keeps my phones on-line. launch2net can alternatively use 128-bit WEP encryption, but I'm not too bothered about that - I'm not on-line for long periods and there's not much confidential stuff going across the network anyhow.

launch2net isn't without its problems. I did have to configure the settings for the Swiss Orange network but the information was easily located by running a Google search. The 3G dongle modem supplied isn't listed as being supported by launch2net but it worked without any problems. For the technically curious it's a Huawei E1552 - 900/2100 HSDPA/UMTS, 4-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM with upto 3.6Mbps download speed.

The other functionality built into launch2net is an SMS messaging centre, which pretty much does what it says, and allows you to send, receive and manage SMS messages across the internet. There are also quite a number of configuration settings allowing you to choose between monitoring home or roaming sessions, and other interesting things. Of course, it's also possible to set up custom settings for networks as I had to for Orange CH.

Before leaving the UK I tried the software (I have a second licence) in my Hackintosh but I wasn't able to get it to work. Although the software runs in demo/trial mode, I cannot get it to activate with the licence information. The Novamedia technical support folk were very helpful but could not resolve the issue. This is a real shame, but it's one of the risks you take when using a Hackintosh - it's even more frustrating given that's thing that fails is not actually part of the real function of the software. I wish there was a file that they could send me to bypass the physical activation process and allow me to register my license but at the moment they've not provided me with that option. It's also disappointing because there were no problems at all with the previous version.

All in all, I'm really impressed with launch2net. I love its simplicity - it does all the technical stuff behind the scenes and simply allows me to do what I want to do - namely connect and go. The WiFi bonus is awesome - I can't over emphasise that - and it's great not having to remember to switch on a secondary monitoring programme. Novamedia strongly recommend that you try out the software before purchase to ensure it works with your hardware, which seems like pretty good advice.

Oh, and before you ask - yes it does work with Snow Leopard 10.6.4!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

iPhone 4 One Week On...

I finally got confirmation for the contract in Zurich and things were pretty hectic for a period of 10 days trying to get everything sorted out, and spending some quality time with my girlfriend and other pals before departure. Which makes the fact that I went and queued for just over 5 hours outside not just one, but two, O2 shops for an iPhone 4 even more ludicrous than it would normally have been. But I did, and I'm happy to say it was worth every second of waiting.
I've never queued up for an Apple product in the past. I'm generally an early adopter for new technology, but finances have been a bit tight recently and I've had to balance my desire for leading edge tech with the realities of post recessional Britain. So I got an 3G iPhone about 16 months ago and missed out on the 3GS. But with Switzerland calling, I decided to "go for it", so I'd have something to play with for the next six months.

Because of circumstances I ended up with a 16Gb Black iPhone 4 - it seemed that in O2 land you could have any model as long as it was a 16Gb Black one. On reflection, this was a good thing - I saved about £100 on the cost of the handset over the 32Gb model I had set out to buy. I figured that the extra space would be great for putting a larger number of songs on, but we'll come back to that shortly.

I suffered the same fate as a number of users in the UK on launch day - activation seemed to take an eternity. In my case it was about four hours from putting in the micro SIM card to having an operational phone. Luckily the old phone remained functional until just a few minutes before the new one clicked in. My initial sync with iTunes was fairly painless, but because I manage my music manually, the restore function from the 3G to the 4 ignored my old selection. This was disappointing as I've honed that list carefully over the past year and a half. All the apps seemed to transfer over without issue, but on closer look later, it turned out that I had to modify settings, userid and passwords on many of my apps.

For the first time I selected the option on the iTunes sync page to compress higher bit rate songs while copying them onto mobile devices. This had the effect of allowing me to load over eight hundred more songs than I'd previously had - thereby reducing the need for the extra 16Gb I had initially planned for. I personally can't tell the difference in quality - especially whilst out in the real world with all it's surrounding white noise.

What about the phone itself? It's definitely smaller and slightly more comfortable to hold, even with a "bumper" on. I couldn't tell any difference in weight. The screen is simply stunning, but you really notice the effect when looking at 3G and 4 models displaying the same picture at the same time. The 3G looks decidedly blurred in comparison to the "retina" screen. The responsiveness of the new model to touch also seems greatly improved, and I don't find myself trying to clean the screen of sticky finger prints anywhere near as much as I did with the 3G.
I've been fortunate enough not to have suffered from any of the (now) well documented issues. Despite being left handed I've had no problems with reception while holding the phone - but I'm not sure if having the Apple bumper may make a difference. I've also not noticed any of the yellow screen effects mentioned by some users. The whole phone blanked out on me a couple of days ago but normal service returned after plugging it into the MBP - scary, for a while, but no lasting damage other than to my nerves.

I'm quite comfortable with Apple's implementation of "multi-tasking" in iOS 4, although with the exception of the in-built apps, I'm not sure how many of my apps take full advantage of it. The test will come with updates to programmes like Text Expander or 1Password which are so frustrating to use on the current platforms. It is kind of cool however to play Bejewelled Blitz and be able to answer the phone without killing the game! I know, what an abuse of technology!
I've had a little play with the new video camera, one of the key features for me and I like what I see. Now I'm in Zurich I'll be able to put it through it's paces a bit more thoroughly. I also like the new standard camera and it's front and rear facing availability. However I've not tried FaceCall yet. I don't know anyone I can test it out on!

So there it is, iPhone 4 one week on. I'm really pleased with the new device - for me it has certainly lived up to expectations, and I've still got more stuff to check out. Maybe you should wait until Apple get the antennae issues resolved, or maybe you'll just have to wait because they're all sold out, but when you finally get your hands on one, you won't be sorry!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Hackintosh - the latest update with added patience

Last time I wrote about my experiences upgrading my Dell Mini 9 "Hackintosh" to Snow Leopard OS X 10.6.0. I decided to stop relating the story after I'd successfully achieved that because I wanted you all to share the warm feeling (smug,even?) that I had at the time. In reality that was a bit of a fib because the following 24 hours were a bit of a nightmare as I tried to go one better and update the OS to 10.6.3.

Suffice it to say, I've now become rather adept of installing the original retail version of Snow Leopard and I'm really pleased that I decided to keep my Snow Leopard installation USB drive as it has certainly had a lot of use. But the thing I've learnt most from the exercise is that when you're messing about with any Hackintosh project, the most important thing to remember is to be patient. Very, very patient! I now believe that if I had that in mind when I first started the upgrade I would have saved myself hours and hours of extra work and would have not have lost quite so much sleep.

As I mentioned last time, the instructions I had only went as far as upgrading to 10.6.2, which suited me fine, despite knowing that 10.6.3 was already out there, and clever people had successfully installed it onto their Dell Mini 9 netbooks. To be honest, I was happy enough with 10.6.0, but like many people reading this, I'm a bit of a serial upgrader and I can't help myself from tinkering.

After completing the basic Snow Leopard installation I tried installing the stand-alone combo update for 10.6.2, rather than using Software Update to go straight to 10.6.3. This didn't work as the combo update reported a problem with the disk I was trying to install to. There wasn't anything wrong with it (it was the Runcore SSD) but I couldn't argue with the installer.

So I decided to brave the storm and run Software Update and go the whole hog. Everything seemed to download and install without any problems. But this is when patience was required. Instead of waiting a reasonable amount of time after restarting the machine and getting the spinning spoke wheel I had a kind of panic attack and after only a few seconds decided that the machine was knackered. I now know that I should probably have waited at least 10 minutes before allowing pessimism to take hold.

The result of the impatience was a completely useless netbook. Subsequent re-booting simply resulted in kernel panics. So began the first of many reinstallations of the vanilla 10.6.0. After a few long days I finally had the machine working properly again and decided to call it a day and be satisfied with what I'd got (another good lesson!).

Yesterday however, I had a small network crisis and I managed to lose Ethernet functionality on the netbook. I reran the NetbookInstaller programme (0.8.4 RC1) but this had no effect. In a moment of madness I ran the DellEFI programme left over from the initial conversion to Leopard which had a devastating effect. [Reminder to all Dell Mini 9 users - delete the DellEFI app before attempting to use the NetbookInstaller/NetbookBootMaker combination now recommended]

It was time to reinstall for the umpteenth time. This time I decided to have another go at the full 10.6.3 installation but with added patience. The whole process took about four hours, and I left well alone as much as possible. There were one or two moments when I thought everything had stopped, but I managed to refrain from interfering and let things happen at their own pace.

I'm happy to say that the Hackintosh is once again fully functional in its latest incarnation with 10.6.3 and Safari 5.0 no less fully installed. Everything seems to work fine - wireless, ethernet, Bluetooth, sound, video, and even sleep.

So it is possible, it isn't that difficult, but it does require nerves of steel and a whole load of... altogether now... PATIENCE!


Thursday, 27 May 2010

Upgrading the Hackintosh to Snow Leopard

I have spent a number of months deliberating, cogitating, and mulling over the pros and cons of upgrading my Dell Mini 9 netbook, more commonly known as a Hackintosh, from OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard) to OS X 10.6.x (Snow Leopard). Yesterday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, so I decided that enough was enough and action was required. After all, plenty of other people have already been brave enough to take the plunge, and by now the pros were beginning to outweigh the cons.

The Pros:
  • All my other (genuine) Apple computers, namely the iMac and MacBook Pro are happily running OS X 10.6.3, and have been for some time
  • One of the key uses for the Hackintosh is to use Apple Mail when I'm travelling, and the Leopard and Snow Leopard versions use different file formats so upgrading would solve that problem
  • I would only have to worry about one set of software updates which can all be stored in one central location saving loads of disk space
  • Snow Leopard is leaner and faster than its predecessor and thus ideally suited to the netbook
The Cons:
  • If the Hackintosh isn't physically broken, why try and fix it ?
  • Newer releases of Snow Leopard are no longer Atom (the Hackintosh chip) compatible so work arounds are required
  • Things could go horribly wrong and I could break the netbook
  • It might take hours, or days, or weeks or even months to get a working machine again!
So with considerable trepidation, I started to prepare for the task ahead of me. Using the check list I established for the initial Hackintosh build (see my Apple Harvest posting for July 29, 2009) I gathered up all the things I would need including some instructions, spare USB disks, backup tools, copies of the latest versions of NetBookMaker and NetbookInstaller, the Snow Leopard retail disc (10.6.0 Family Pack) and a working MacBook Pro and set to work. For this upgrade I decided to go with the instructions posted on the site (the link will take you to exactly the right place). This only goes as far as OS X 10.6.2, but I felt that was OK. I'd be pretty pleased if I could simply get as far as OS X 10.6.0!

Trusting in my own wisdom, I took a final backup of the 10.5.8 system using Time Machine, and then also created a .dmg image of the RunCore SSD using Carbon Copy Cloner to be on the safe side. I created a bootable copy of the Snow Leopard install DVD on a spare USB external drive as per the instructions, and then simply worked through the instructions step by step. The backup and disk image creation took about an hour and the installation itself took a further hour.

Once the installation was completed I removed all the extraneous paraphernalia and restarted the netbook. I couldn't believe it - everything appeared to work perfectly. It found the wireless network without any prompting, let me connect my Kingston mouse via Bluetooth, it made sounds, and the video was fine. It also recognised my Time Machine disc and let me make a backup immediately. Hyperspaces worked fine. Even MobileMe synchronised after a minor tweak. The only thing that seemed slightly amiss, was that after waking from sleep, although the screen restored itself, I couldn't use the mouse or the trackpad which is a potential cause for concern.

I quickly upgraded some of the key tools I use, in particular ShareTool which connects to the rest of the network here at the Apple Harvest. Still no problems. I shutdown the machine and turned it back on. Still no problems. Finally I created another Time Machine backup and another disk image of the SSD, this time labelled as a Snow Leopard 10.6.0 image. This latter activity took a considerable amount of time - much longer than the 10.5.8 image took to create, which makes me wonder if the USB performance may be compromised, but eventually all the disks were created and safe.

Next step was to perform the software update to bring the Hackintosh fully up to spec and attempt to install OS X 10.6.3. But I'll save that until next time, because I'd like to leave you with the same warm feeling that I had after successfully upgrading my Dell Mini 9 to Snow Leopard!


Thursday, 13 May 2010

Pogoplug - two weeks on...

I'm pleased to report that my Pogoplug is still going strong (unlike some of the disks I've attached to it - they really don't like being thrown around do they?). It had it's stiffest test last weekend when I stayed over at my girlfriend's house and I turned off my iMac at home, relying solely on the Pogoplug and a cloned copy of the iMac hard drive, with access through my MacBook Pro laptop.

Now that the OS X Pogoplug application is working properly on the MBP I was fairly confident that everything would work fine and dandily, and sure enough I booted up the MBP and with the Pogoplug application set up to open automatically I was reassured to see the shared disks appear on the desktop, clearly identified by their shocking pink icons. I clicked on the WD Passport drive I had earlier cloned from the iMac boot drive, and there in Finder was exactly what I expected to see, namely a full working copy of my iMac startup disk. I started to click down through to my User folder - it took ages...In fact it took so long that I figured that something was very wrong so I quit the application and fired up Safari.

I've bookmarked my My Pogoplug:View web site which is the page where your personal Pogoplug configuration can be accessed so I went straight to it. Everything looked fine - the disk was mounted and visible. I started clicking down through the folders as I had with the OS X application, and everything worked fine. There was a slight time lapse, but I was on a wireless connection and my girlfriend's broadband is not the zippiest in the world so I wasn't unduly worried.

Knowing that the connections at both ends were sound, I retried the Pogoplug application. This time I was much more successful - the disks mounted, and I was able to navigate around my remote disk without any problems. Again the slight time delay was present, but it wasn't abnormal, and certainly didn't prevent me from working.

I'm not sure what caused the initial glitch on the application side, but I haven't been able to repeat it.

So, at last I have a working solution to my remote access problem. I'd still be happier to have the iMac fully functional and without the ever present network problems that more and more people seem to be reporting. But I'm pleased that this solution is also a bit cheaper and greener by not having the iMac powered up for long periods in my absence.

Pogoplug - you're a star - in fact you get five stars !

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Review in Brief: Pogoplug

There's a very good chance that I'm going to spending some time working in continental Europe before too long. Somehow I always manage to get postings to the more expensive and remote parts of Europe. I spent six months in Oslo a few years ago, and now it looks like Zurich in Switzerland is on my itinerary. I only mention this because one of the problems with being away is that I often find that I need to access files on my desktop. Of course there are alternatives:

  • I could clone my desktop drive and carry that around with me, but that requires carting another piece of kit around, and demands the discipline of maintaining the contents
  • I could use ShareTool and connect remotely with the iMac from my laptop via the internet. This is my preferred option, but while my network problems persist this would fail on the first occasion that I lose my connection. It also means that the iMac is powered up24x7 for as long as I'm away. Not very green...

But now I believe I have found a better option in the form of the Pogoplug. This clever little bunch of tricks sits independently of your computer (PC or Mac) by plugging it into your router and then allows you to access up to four USB drives/memory sticks via an internet browser or a native application.


Pogoplug in profile


The rather lurid pink Pogoplug is small enough to sit tucked away on the corner of a desk or a shelf, and once set up you can pretty much forget about it. Set-up itself is a breeze. After plugging in at the mains, simply plug the Pogoplug into a spare ethernet port on your route, connect up to four USB drives, switch it on, and register it on the Pogoplug web site. You can also download a free Finder compatible OS X application and free iPhone app from the App Store giving you full access to your drives wherever you are. It really is that easy.


After following the above steps on my iMac, everything looked hunky dory, so I turned my attention to my MacBook Pro where the real test would take place. Sure enough, the USB drive attached to the Pogoplug appeared in it's proper place on the MyPogoplug web site in Safari without any problems. However after downloading the OS X application I was getting an error message as the app tried to connect to the drive - Failed Starting Drive: Exit Code 0. This wasn't what I wanted to see, and after several attempts and a restart, the message kept appearing.



Pogoplug - rear view


I posted a message on the support forum and was advised to check with Pogoplug tech support. I duly contacted them via email and within a few hours received a response suggesting that my version of MacFuse may be corrupted. I reinstalled MacFuse, ran the application, and everything was fine. I was very impressed with the quality and speed of response, and especially with the result. So (some of you may guess what's coming next...) Pogoplug Technical Support (notably AdamC), get the latest (virtual) Apple Harvest Service Excellence Award.


Pogoplug - head on


I've yet to perform any real tests regarding speed of access over the internet - wirelessly connecting across my LAN doesn't really constitute much of a challenge, but I'll provide an update at some time in the future when I've got something useful to report. I the meantime, I can report that the iPhone App works very well, and even allows me to view certain files (PDFs for example) in their natural format on the iPhone. Extremely useful.


As I was writing this review I did find one additional problem... I was repositioning the Pogoplug after taking the photos, and the attached WD Passport drive fell on the floor and required reformatting and re-cloning. So, if you do move the Pogoplug for whatever reason, it's worth un-mounting any attached drives first! But I don't think that problem is unique to the Pogoplug... just to dumb users!!!



Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Review: Filemate SolidGo ExpressCard Ultra SSD (48Gb)

My 2007 MacBook Pro is starting to show its age a little bit. Now, don't get me wrong, it's still performing perfectly adequately, even though it's on its second battery, and its second logic board. No, the real problem is disk space, or rather lack of it. The 160Gb hard disk has been getting seriously overcrowded, thanks partly to a iTunes music library that is approaching 50Gb in size.

It's probably within my technical ability to replace the internal hard drive with a larger capacity one, and I've been pondering the pros and cons of using a Solid State Drive, but I am still put off by the price of anything approaching a sensible size. Recently I found a reference to the Filemate SolidGo ExpressCard SSD which got me thinking that a hybrid solution might be an interesting alternative.

As regular readers of the Apple Harvest will know, I won't generally embark on a project like this without doing some research, so I trawled the internet for any viable information. I came across one particular article by Rob Griffiths on the MacWorld website which pretty much sealed the deal for me. (There's an accompanying five minute video which is also quite interesting). I did a check with the manufacturer to make sure that the card would fit my specific MacBook Pro, and then purchased the 48Gb model from MemoryC in the UK for around £126 inc. VAT. Being a Bank Holiday weekend, I opted for the DHL next day delivery service, which meant I should have the whole weekend to play with the device, and sure enough the courier arrived first thing on the Friday morning.

The SSD fits perfectly into the ExpressCard slot and sits completely flush with the edge of the machine. It has a mini-USB 2.0 port and a small green LED on the exposed edge. It only weighs a few grammes so has no impact at all on the overall weight of the laptop.

I decided that I had two options when it came to configuring the SSD. One was to store the existing iTunes music library on it; the alternative was to convert it into a bootable drive, and use it to store the operating system and my application files. Given that the iTunes music library continues to expand rather rapidly it was a no-brainer filling up the SSD with music, so I went for the latter option. This is also the approach that Rob Griffiths talks about in his article.

Installing Snow Leopard onto the SSD was a breeze - I used my original retail copy of 10.6.0 (family edition!) and then used Migration Assistant to copy over my Applications. User files, including the iTunes library remained on the original hard disk. I then ran the Software Update programme to upgrade to 10.6.3. The SSD had about 7Gb of space remaining, which allows plenty of room for additional applications and space for OS upgrades. Finally, I changed the Start-up drive in System Configuration to point at the SSD and rebooted...

The speed improvement in rebooting was amazing. The system glides silently through the process and within just a few seconds all my login items appeared to have been loaded and the machine was ready for action. Launching applications also seems far less painful without the sound of the internal hard disk whirring away. Unfortunately I didn't do any timings before making the modifications, but it takes less than a minute from pressing the power button to having a fully functional laptop - including mounting remote drives connected through my Pogoplug, iDisk, and Time Machine disk, and a substantial number of start-up applications.

Of course, with this configuration, the original hard disk is still bootable in case of emergencies should the SSD fail. I've have tried this and some of the start-up applications got their knickers in a twist, but nothing that couldn't be dealt with quickly and painlessly. In addition, Time Machine automatically backs up both the SSD and the internal disk in a single seamless action, so restoring the system should also be fairly painless.

Looking at the original internal drive I appear to have rescued between 25-30Gb of free space. There is some duplication of folders across the two drives, but I can't see any duplication of individual files. Some more research and investigation is required to see if I can free up any more space. I could free up an additional 4Gb of space on the SSD by disabling the 'sleepimage' hibernation file (which would also allow a faster sleep process) but there's no point at present.

I'm really pleased with the improvements this modification has made. It was simple and quick to set up and configure, and the speed increases are very welcome, along with the extra space on my hard drive. I've not seen much in the way of comments about reliability of this sort of SSD in the long term, but I'm optimistic, and in any case I have secure back-up procedures in place. I'm hoping also that the battery life will improve with less of a requirement on the internal hard disk.

All in all, a highly recommended addition and modification to my MBP, but if you want to go the same way do your homework first, and, at the very least, check for compatibility with your model of laptop.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Repairing Login Parameters

I was really excited to see the announcement and release of Snow Leopard 10.6.3 in the hope that the update would resolve my (and others) long outstanding problems where I lose my Internet/Server connection on my iMac on an intermittent and recurring basis. I've written about this at length in previous posts so I won't repeat the details here, but sadly, 10.6.3 doesn't appear to have made any material difference. Time between failures is generally longer, but the problem is still there, and the only solution is a restart or a total power down and on cycle.

It was during one of these outages over the weekend that I ran into a different problem. On starting the machine back up, over half the start-up programmes had failed to load. I checked the Login Items preferences in the Account option under System Preferences, and true enough there were only six items out of the twenty or so programmes I expected.

I had encountered this problem once or twice before, and had always resorted to fixing it the hard way; by adding each of the missing entries manually and hoping that I hadn't forgotten anything important. Thinking that there must be a better and easier fix, I typed in a tentative Google search for "login items in OS X". I couldn't immediately find anything that seemed to match my particular problem, but I did find some references to a file called loginwindow.plist that I thought might be worth looking at.

I fired up the Finder and located the loginwindow.plist file in the /Users/< username >/Library/Preferences folder. Opening this up with the extremely useful PrefEdit application from Marcel Bresink showed that this file indeed was the place where the login items information was stored. Next, I opened up Time Machine and found a pre-crash version of the file and a few seconds later had all my login items restored in their rightful place. Another restart, and everything was back to normal.

I'd like to know what causes the login items to disappear, but at least this is a relatively painless way to get them back when they do go awol!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A Bit of MacSpeech Therapy

Well, it's taken about a month, but, I'm pleased to report that this posting on the Apple Harvest blog is being brought to you through the power of speech. In my last post, I wrote about the problems I had been having trying to get my copy of MacSpeech Dictate registered and licensed after purchasing it second-hand through eBay. Last night just as I was contemplating returning the software to its original owner and asking for a refund, I decided to have one final attempt at re-registering the software. As usual, the registration process itself failed. However, I had another look at my account on the MacSpeech website and lo and behold, there was an entry under my license details with a license key zip file to download.

I quickly downloaded the file, before anyone had a chance to change their mind, and booted up the MacSpeech Dictate program on my iMac. The program asked me to select a license key file, and that was that. A quick check in the About box showed that the software was now finally registered to me.

Of course, nothing can be that straightforward, and my first attempt to actually dictate something proved futile. Although I had set up a profile during the first four days of being able to use the software without a license, and although the program appeared to be accepting input through the headset, nothing was actually appearing on the screen. It was getting late in the day, and I did not fancy messing about trying to find the cause. Instead I decided to try to install the software on my MacBook Pro. Luckily the license agreement, which has caused me so much grief previously, allows me to install the software on multiple computers as long as it was only being used on one at a time. Given that I only have one headset, this was not a problem!

Installation only took a few minutes and I also had to create a new profile for the laptop, taking another few minutes. This time, when I tried to use the program there were no problems at all. However, in my rush to get the software operational, I had not thought carefully enough about the location of either the license key file or the profile. I decided to create a new folder under my existing documents folder, where I could store all the related MacSpeech Dictate files in one place. I proceeded to copy the relevant files into the new folder and restarted the program. I had the same problem as I'd had on the iMac; the headset appeared to be receiving correctly but nothing was appearing on the screen. Despite the fact that it was now dark (not to mention time for dinner), my curiosity was now aroused, and I had to investigate further.

I decided to reinstall the software having first deleted the original installation using AppZapper. Although MacSpeech Dictate needs 2 discs for installation, on this occasion I was not asked to load the second disc, so this installation was even quicker than before. When I launched the program following installation everything worked perfectly. It would appear that the program had merely lost sight of its configuration and reinstallation fixed the problem. I did the same thing on the iMac with similar success.

In this post I'm not going to write a full review of the software. I'll save that for a later date, when I have had more experience of using the package. But my first thoughts are very positive. I'm not sure that a novice will be able to achieve the creators estimates of 99% accuracy especially in a normal home environment. However, I would suggest that in the creation of this small entry I achieved a good 85% accuracy and this was boosted by having automatic spelling correction switched on in the target software, in this case MarsEdit. Because MacSpeech Dictate is more than just a dictation package - it also allows voice control of the computer - there are a lot of commands to learn and become familiar with. All the built-in commands are described in the comprehensive user manual which runs to over 150 pages. I did find a useful website which has a PDF file describing all the MacSpeech Dictate global commands. This runs to just 16 pages and is more accessible and easier to use, especially for the beginner. There are a lot more resources available here also.

I guess at the end of the day I'm just relieved to have the software successfully installed, registered, and working properly. My investment has not proved to be the white elephant it was looking like a few weeks ago. It would have useful if MacSpeech could have let me know that the problem with the license had finally been resolved - a Tweet or email doesn't take too much effort. Perhaps they consider that I'm not really a genuine customer as they have had no direct revenue from me, but there does seem to be a common theme about their less than stellar support on the user forums. And they are getting free publicity from me even if it's not all good. But the tide is changing in their favour...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A License to Frustrate

Regular readers of the Apple Harvest will have become aware that I try to be positive and maintain a glass half full attitude. Many of the previous posts have been about finding workarounds to frustrating problems that I've been unable to fix. You'll also be aware of how much I value good service. But I have to admit I'm currently being crushed by the lack of customer service by the makers of MacSpeech Dictate.

I've been toying around with the idea of purchasing MacSpeech Dictate for some time, but the asking price of £150-170 has been too much for my currently beleaguered bank account and budget. Years ago I played around with IBMs VoiceType Simply Speaking software for Windows 95. The novelty wore off very quickly as I felt like an idiot talking to my computer in my home office, and I seemed to spend an awful lot of time correcting the mistakes that the software was making.

A good few years later I'm old enough not to care about feeling like an idiot at home (or anywhere else for that matter), and I've been reading some amazing reviews of MacSpeech Dictate 1.5.x. I've also had some problems with bursitis in my elbows recently and the doctor has put this down to RSI. It doesn't stop me typing or using the mouse, but it can be a bit painful and uncomfortable at times. I'm also doing a considerable amount of writing at present, and I really like this way of getting my ideas onto paper.

So when I saw an advert on eBay for a genuine copy of the software, including the headset, in original packaging, with the original disks for a bargain price of £102 including delivery I jumped at the chance.

Two days later on February 23rd, the package arrived and I had the software loaded onto the iMac within minutes. I went through the voice training process, which only took a few additional minutes, and I was ready to "rock and roll" so to speak.

The reviews were spot on. In those early hours I was genuinely impressed. Everything I threw at the software was faithfully transcribed, regardless of the package I tried, Pages, Word, MarsEdit - I was gobsmacked (even that came out correctly). I started playing around with the command mode. It's very empowering having your computer obey your every spoken command, including going to sleep at night.

And then the problem started.

The MacSpeech registration process requires that you submit your registration code and it then generates a license key file as part of the process. I had my registration code but no license key file. I couldn't actually complete the registration process because the software was already registered to the previous owner. I got in touch with the seller via eBay and asked if they could send me the license key file or at least unregister the software. At this point, I'd like to mention that the seller has been very helpful throughout the process, but in order to protect ourselves we have only been able to communicate via eBay.

The software worked for four days without a license key. It no longer works. Every day I try to register it and every day it fails. The seller has been doing his best at his end. I have been in touch with the support staff at MacSpeech via email and Twitter DM. Initially it looked like they may be able to help, but they no longer respond to my direct messages, and my last email, which included copies of all communication with the eBay seller, simply invoked an automated response saying:

Thank you for contacting MacSpeech. You are a valued customer and we appreciate you taking the time to contact us. We are currently experiencing higher than normal volume. Your questions are important to us, and we do apologize for any delays you may experience. Thank you for being a MacSpeech customer.

I understand the company wanting to protect its revenue stream, but it must be one of the last businesses on the planet to use archaic DRM for a software product. Apparently the convoluted de-registration and re-registration process is to protect both me and the seller - from what? From either of us being able to use the software or so it would seem.

I genuinely hope that I can get this resolved, without having to return the software to the eBay seller, as it's something I want to use (and he clearly doesn't). I would love to be able to post an entry on the Apple Harvest in a few days written using MacSpeech Dictate and extolling its virtues. In the meantime I've spent a hundred quid on a box, a headset and some disks.

I am really disappointed in MacSpeech - so it's Customer Service Turkey of the Month Award for them.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Niggles and Annoyances

I thought about starting this entry with an apology, or at least a warning, to the Apple faithful who blissfully believe that the company can do no wrong. But then I thought about the people that I hope read these posts, and decided that most of them are simple users like myself who realise that no software or hardware from any manufacturer is every completely without fault. It's just that some folk try harder than others to make the user experience better.

As a user from a technical background I may be more unforgiving in my expectations, or it may be that my expectations are higher. It may simply be that my demands are more excessive, as I spend a very significant part of my day (my life) on the machines I use.

There is no doubt in my mind, however, that my experiences with the Mac are considerably more positive than with all the other operating systems and hardware that I've used and abused over the years. I've not yet tried Windows 7, but something inside tells me suggests that it wouldn't really change anything.

All these factors make the little problems I occasionally suffer from all the more irritating and irksome (of course, having just turned 48, grumpy old man syndrome is also now kicking in).

Spotlight Failure

My current bugbear is Spotlight (OS X 10.6.2). Since the failure of the internal drive on my iMac I've rigged up a 750Mb Seagate FreeAgent Pro Firewire drive as the bootable partition. It works well enough, and although there is a speed lag on some things compared to a proper internal drive, I can live with it until I have enough spare cash and time to get a new internal drive installed. That, of course, is the downside of the iMac; if something internal dies, you have to take the whole machine into the repair shop. I wish that Apple would let us access the internal drive in the same way that we can get to the memory banks. But that's not the point of this whinge.

I don't really use Spotlight very often so I don't know when my current problem started but I'm guessing that it is related to the drive configuration. I've installed a number of new utility and productivity applications recently and I sometimes forget to refresh my application launcher, TigerLaunch. So when I want to launch one of these new tools, for example MacUpdate Desktop, I'd sometimes use Spotlight as the launcher. Only it doesn't seem to be able to find many of my applications. If I type in "MacUpdate", it locates and displays various versions of the MacUpdate-Desktop .dmg install files, but there's no sign of the application. Similar things happen for other applications. "Launch" locates the Applet Launcher but fails to find LaunchBar. Selecting the Show All also fails to reveal the LaunchBar or the MacUpdate Desktop application in the previous instance.

Because I use TigerLaunch or QuickSilver as my normal application launchers this isn't the end of the world. But the problem is that I now have less confidence in Spotlight and that bothers me a lot.

I have tried just about everything to resolve the issue - I've re-indexed, deleted plist files, and even run Spotless (which I couldn't find in Spotlight either!) - but it never makes a difference. I'd love to hear from anyone experiencing a similar problem, especially if you have a solution!

MacUpdate Desktop Failure

Ironically, one of the applications mentioned above was the catalyst for finding the Spotlight problem. MacUpdate Desktop 5 is a piece of software available from MacUpdate Promo which enables users to track and install software updates automatically. I have it installed on both the MacBook Pro and the iMac, and it is great for checking on those seldom used applications, or on lesser used machines. I have no problems on the MBP with the software, but on the iMac it only finds 34 applications despite there being over 300 individual applications installed.

I can't help thinking there is a correlation between this problem and the Spotlight problem. Perhaps the only course of action is to get that internal drive installed once and for all. Who knows, my on-going networking problem may even vanish as well, although I think that's pure wishful thinking.

These two problems are not show stopping issues, but it is frustrating to have a system that doesn't do some of the simple things in life properly. Especially for a perfekshonist like me!

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A Kind of Magic

With my birthday coming up in a couple of weeks I decided to hedge my birthday funds and finally splash out on a Magic Mouse. The decision was mainly brought about because I found a supplier whose price couldn't be matched and they had some in stock. Over the years I've spent a small fortune on computer rodents; I've found some that I love, and others which have disappeared behind the electronic skirting board in a few weeks for one reason or another. I'm a difficult person when it comes to mice because I'm both left handed and have quite small hands. So my criteria for a good mouse are:

  • Small and lightweight

  • Uncontoured - in other words they fit into both hands the same way

  • Featured - scroll device, multiple buttons, etc.

  • Configurable

  • Truly Wireless - no dongle/receiver
Since I bought my first Apple computer I've used the Mighty Mouse (oops, that's the Apple Mouse isn't it!!), both wired and wireless versions and I must be one of the few people on the planet who have never experienced the well documented problems with the scroll ball. My only real hang-up with the Apple Mouse is the side buttons, which are just too stiff to be comfortable. I like the feel of the Apple Mouse in my hand, but the wireless version may be just a tad too heavy with the batteries in. In fact the only other mouse I use these days is the Kensington SlimBlade Trackball Mouse which I tend to use with my Hackintosh or when I'm on the train with my MBP. I love its ability to swap between mouse and trackball functions especially in cramped conditions.

I'm now hooked on the Magic Mouse. I like the low profile, although I fail to understand how people with long finger nails can use it without the desktop acting like a nail file, and it feels lighter than the wireless Apple Mouse. I love the silky touch of the mouse top and even slightly sweaty fingers seem to glide over its surface. But what really swings it for me is the 3rd party software available for it to make it truly configurable.

So far I've tried MagicPrefs, MouseWizard and jiTouch, but I keep coming back to BetterTouchTool. All four programmes offer similar features, but BTT just has the edge for me, primarily because it provides so much configurability, including fine control over speeds, touch pressures, surface boundaries, in addition to a wide range of gestures, taps, clicks and swipes. Regardless of which programme you finally opt for just take care not to overwhelm yourself by setting up loads of defined gestures; start off with a couple and build on these as you get more familiar with the mouse.

It does take some time to get to grips with the Magic Mouse. Fingers need to be in quite precise positions for a specific gesture to initiate the appropriate response and sometimes it can take to or three attempts. Scrolling is much smoother than with the Apple Mouse but clicks and taps can be a bit frustrating until you've been using the mouse for a while. I do find that my hand gets a little bit tired after prolonged usage and I think this is partly because of the low profile, but it may simply be bad habits on my part from not taking proper breaks. Time will tell.

Other caveats - the instructions indicate that to use a Magic Mouse on different machines requires you to unpair from one before pairing with another. In reality two machines can share a single Magic Mouse, but you clearly need to disconnect from one before connecting to the second. I've not noticed any issues regarding battery life as yet, with 84% charge remaining after 7 days. I certainly haven't seen the draining effect on my wireless keyboard that some users have reported, although that may be because I have one of the old plastic wireless keyboards.

Can I recommend the Magic Mouse? I really think you need to try one out before you decide to buy one. It's not going to suit everyone, and if you don't like it, it's an expensive mistake. If you decide to go ahead, be patient, and try out the different software options to get the best balance to suit you. Personally, I'm going to get a second one at some stage so I don't have to carry the current one around with me when switching between machines.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

What's not to like about the iPad?

I've pondered about whether to publish this entry for some days now. The Apple Harvest blog is not a place for rumours or speculation; its primary focus is to inform its readers about useful tools, gadgets, apps and problems (and sometimes solutions) that I comes across as a fairly typical Apple user. That isn't to say that I'll always keep my opinions to myself, but I prefer to try not to talk out of my backside.

Which is why, apart from a few remarks on Twitter, I've deliberately steered clear of writing about the iPad. But my gosh, I have read so much rubbish in the days (well months) leading up to the iPad launch on 27th January 2010, and possibly even more rubbish in the days following its launch, that I have decided to break my silence.

I'm going to confess to a few things up front.
  • I like the concept of a tablet device

  • I own an Asus R1F Tablet

  • I would buy an iPad
There, I feel better for that. Now, let me explain my reasoning.

The idea of a device that boots up almost instantly, allows me to prod and poke it, with my fingers, to make it do things, and lets me clearly view its display without either having to take my glasses off or having it shoved so close to my face that I can't breathe is really quite appealing. If I'm sitting down in front of the tele in the evening and I suddenly want to check something on the internet (like an actor's name) I don't want to wait for a laptop or desktop to boot up. I don't want to have to fumble around trying to find a stylus or pen. And no matter how much I love my iPhone, the web browsing facility is not its strongest point. If I'm in the pub and I want to share my photographs of my mate's daughter's wedding I want him to be able to see them properly, not on a display that's smaller than the beer mat which he can't see without his glasses. I already read various newspapers and magazines on-line via subscription, but reading experience is hampered by the form factor of the laptop/desktop, especially as they use a fixed horizontally biased display. A tablet allows me to do these types of thing, simply, quickly, efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.

The Asus R1F was a well spec'd PC Tablet and was well designed given the constraints of the time. But it was quite heavy, it got really hot, the battery life was rubbish, the display was blurry compared to normal laptops and believe me, handwriting on a laptop is not a natural thing to do. The Asus had some limited "wow" factor, but that was about it.

As far as I can tell, the iPad allows me to perform all the types of activity mentioned above whilst overcoming all the problems I encountered with the Tablet PC. In that respect, it actually fills the void between the kit that I use for my day to day business activities like writing, managing projects, building websites, and serious internet surfing and the mobile kit that I use for phone calls, listening to music, making quick notes, twittering and essential surfing.

OK I've not seen or used one yet, but tell me honestly:

"What's not to like about the iPad?"

Friday, 29 January 2010

Joby Jollies - Update

Towards the end of last year I posted an entry waxing lyrically about the Joby Gorillapod and using it with the iPhone. At that time Joby had announced that their iPhone case, specially designed for use with the Gorillapod would soon be available as a separate item for those who already had a Gorillapod.

True to their word, within a few days the case appeared on their website and I put in my order just before Christmas. I didn't expect the package to arrive until the New Year, but half way through January there was still no sign of it. I contacted Joby through Twitter (@Jobyinc) and they replied to say they would look into it but could I email their service team. This I duly did, and within a few hours received an email explaining that the item had been sent on the day of order, but had apparently got lost in the post and a replacement would be dispatched forthwith.

A couple of days ago the iPhone case arrived and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an iPhone and Gorillapod (especially if you've also downloaded the Gorillacam app also described in the post).

Whilst the suction pad I had been using worked OK, it did require a very clean surface, and was not suitable for anything too rigorous. The dedicated case provides a much more robust connection to the Gorillapod, and the iPhone simply clips into it with a very snug fit - in fact so snug it can be a bit tricky to get it out in a hurry. The good news is that the case fits flush on a flat surface. The case can be purchased direct from the Joby website and costs £14.95.

Gorillapod iPhone Case.jpg

It's worth noting that I would not consider this to be a replacement case for an iPhone. It's better than nothing, as it is sturdy enough, but it doesn't provide the depth of protection that I look for in a permanent case.

I'm pleased to award the first Apple Harvest service award of 2010 to Joby (sorry guys, it's a virtual prize), for their swift and effective response.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Back to Reality

After all the excitement of last night's iPad announcement (and thankfully an end to all the speculation and rumour mongering - for now!) it's time to wake up and smell the roses. The real world is still out there and Apple still has an existing product line to support. I see an increasing number of problems being reported in the press, in blogs and on Apple-related forums, that seem to suggest that the famous Apple quality standards may be slipping ever so slightly. An example is the serious issues with the latest 27inch iMacs which have seen numerous shipping delays. It's a fact of life that a business that built its reputation on the combination of innovative, elegant and high quality products cannot afford to let any one of those attributes be compromised. Of course, it may simply be that increased market share, as well as increasing numbers of products just means that there is more exposure of problems.

Traditionally Mac users have been very product aware. They don't just use their computers and software, they explore the systems and their possibilities and they understand the subtleties and nuances that make Macs so powerful. As more people migrate to Apple from traditional PC brands and Microsoft Windows we shouldn't necessarily expect that pioneering spirit to envelope the new breed of user.

So where am I going with all this?

My networking problems, documented in other entries in this blog have re-emerged, and I cannot find a satisfactory solution. However, I now find that I'm far from alone, which in some ways gives me comfort - working on the old adage of a problem shared being a problem halved (or even solved!). None of the suggestions that I've seen and tried have provided more than slight relief, and all of them involve tinkering with esoteric advanced network settings. Since this is a new problem (new in the sense that it didn't exist in my system six months ago) and is repeatable in other people's, differently configured, systems, the logical conclusion is that it is an OS bug that is causing a network failure.

What bothers me is that I never see any Apple presence on the Apple support forums, so we never know whether any of these problems are investigated at Apple HQ. Worse still, there is no way I can see for a normal user to be able to report a bug, other than as a result of a system crash - no crash no bug!

Apple needs to improve its customer facing support service to provide us with some reassurance that our problems are being investigated and that solutions, where applicable, are being sought. I'm on about genuine problems here, not the ones that plague support forums because people are too lazy or stupid to figure things out for themselves by picking up a book or doing a search on the internet.

Reputations built on quality will disintegrate overnight if that quality is compromised. Caveat Apple.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Confessions of a Fickle Browser User

When I first started working, the internet, as we know it today, was still in its infancy. So was e-mail; GUIs were only research projects, and browsers were people who walked around shop floors without any money in their pockets or bank accounts.

A few years later when I was properly ensconced in the corporate IT world I remember briefly playing with Netscape, but from then on in it's pretty much been Internet Explorer all the way. And on company owned machines it's usually been at least two versions of IE behind the latest one. IE has moved forwards in leaps and bounds since those early days when Microsoft was still in denial about the future of the net, and the last version that I used in anger on the PC, IE7, did just about everything I needed or expected.

Of course, when I bought my first Mac back in 2007 it didn't take long to realise that IE on the Mac had not exactly progressed with the times. Because my entry into the Mac world coincided with the launch of Leopard and Safari 3 it made sense to use Safari from the outset, and I was quite happy for a few months. But something, and I genuinely forget what it was now, made me try out Firefox. Before long, Firefox became my browser of choice.

I love Firefox's extendibility, and before long I had the browser configured exactly how I wanted it. I had toolbars for LinkedIn and Facebook, Xmarks (previously FoxMarks) for bookmarks, Morning Coffee to load a set of default tabs, and all sorts of other goodies. Almost all was hunky dory in the Apple Harvest world. But I started to get annoyed when some of my extensions failed to load every time there was a point update. And then there was the problem I had when my internet connection intermittently started hanging forcing a reboot.

When Safari 4 was released I decided to have another look at it, but it seemed to take forever to load my home page (mine is set to a customised BT:Yahoo home page), so I decided to stick with Firefox, and put up with it's inconveniences.

However, in the last couple of weeks I found out that some of the features that I really like were available to me in Safari. I began to investigate and to my surprise my home page loaded almost instantly. I installed Glims, Inquisitor and PDF Browser plug-ins. With these three additions I'm able to perform all the main tasks that I used to demand of Firefox, but with fewer configuration issues. And some of the super duper add-ins for Firefox that I used to have installed proved to be padding and superfluous.

I don't really need a Facebook or LinkedIn toolbar, Xmarks works fine with Safari, pages load fast and Safari is now my default browser. Until something better comes along!