Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011 - the Late Post

It's December 28th and the world has just about recovered from the excesses of Christmas and is preparing for the New Year festivities.  In some respects I'm looking forward to seeing the back of 2011, although all in all, it has been quite a good year for the Apple Harvest.

In March I got the call to return to Zurich, initially for about four and half months, but I ended up staying for eight months. That's a long time to be away from friends and family, but it has enabled me to get the Apple Harvest infrastructure to the state where I'm now really happy with it. An Airport Extreme, 3Tb Time Capsule and an additional Airport Express now work together to provide decent WiFi coverage throughout the house. The 2008 24inch 3.06GHz iMac has been upgraded with a new 1Tb hard disk and still acts as the main workhorse, running OS X Lion and Lion Server. The shiny new 13inch i7 MacBook Air is my run around of choice, but my first Mac, the 2007 15inch MacBook Pro still has a place in the office. The original iPad and iPhone 4 complete the hardware line up. Not intending to upgrade either of these yet - they work perfectly well as they are and they compliment the MacBook Air.

There are lots of new toys supporting the network now. I replaced the wired Apple keyboard on the iMac with Logitech K750 Wireless Solar Keyboard (for Mac), and Mobee Magic Chargers for the Magic Mouse and Apple Keyboard also help make the Apple Harvest a bit greener. I also got the Mobee Magic Numpad kit which lets me use the trackpad as a dedicated numeric keyboard - great from when I'm doing all my expenses, and after eight months there's a lot of number crunching that needs doing!

Finally on the infrastructure side there's the Moshi hub - a self powered Firewire and USB hub that lives under the iMac. Sadly it doesn't work with the MacBook Air because of the lack of a Firewire port on that machine, but I'm regularly scanning the internet for news of a Thunderbolt hub, and it looks like Belkin may be first to market with one which was first seen in September but there have been no official updates since then.

As usual, I seem to have acquired a bit of software over the year. The Mac App Store makes it so easy, and now that the initial problems have been resolved I use it in favour of direct purchase from the developers wherever possible. There is one notable exception and that is Alfred which just gets better and better. If you haven't heard of it go and checkout the website. I'll post more info about Alfred next time but no Mac user should be without it.

The worst thing about 2011 was that I did find it really difficult to post anywhere near as much as I wanted to. My output was half of what it was the previous year. I'm going to have a lot more time next year but in 2012 I'm going to try a new approach and write smaller posts more often. This isn't a New Year resolution and I'm not setting targets or goals. But I think it'll improve the overall quality of the blog and hopefully attract more people and more interaction. The overall aim of the blog won't change one iota. It's still going to be a blog for users and enthusiasts like myself, and it'll steer clear of rumours and bickering.

So, on that note - let me wish you all a very Happy and Prosperous New Year. Thanks for all your support over the past 12 months (and more!) and I hope I can repay you in 2012!!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

2011 MacBook Air - 1 Month On

I can't believe It's been over a month since my new MacBook Air was delivered. In some ways it seems like it only arrived last week, and in other's I feel like I've being using it for years. I think both perspectives are easy to explain. The latter is a testament to Apple's design and engineering consistency. Despite a new laptop (and a new OS) all the peripherals like input devices and airport devices and the great majority of software packages work just like they did on the MacBook Pro. When I'm writing something like this, it's actually quite hard to tell that I'm using a different machine other than the fact that the screen is a bit smaller.

As for the other perspective, that of still feeling like a kid at Christmas, well that's down to the fact that the upside (or downside) of a new laptop is that it's a great excuse to try new things like new accessories and new software. So a chuck of this post is going to be about those things.

But first, a few thoughts on the MacBookAir itself.

The good stuff

  • The size and weight or rather the lack of them. This baby was designed to go everywhere, and it does. And when I'm carrying it around I hardly notice it's there alongside the iPad, two iPhones, the stack of papers that usually accompany me everywhere and my lunch. I even find that the MBA is light enough to use in bed on occasions; something I never did with the MBP.
  • Battery life is awesome. I've never owned a fully functional laptop that could last more than a couple of hours without a recharge. I've not had a chance to really put the MBA to the test, but it has happily gone three or four hours without any problems. I don't take the MagSafe charger with me when I go into the office (which also helps keep the weight down) because I'm confident enough that the battery will last the day - admittedly it's on stand-by most of the time - but it's still an important issue for me.
  • Heat and therefore fan noise haven't been an issue. The fans do kick in sometimes when I'm watching video and Time Machine kicks in, but the noise is not obtrusive, certainly not in my current environment where the temperature in the PentFlat is quite often 25-30C and the floor fan is on most of the time
  • Video and screen resolution are fantastic and I've finally managed to get the laptop linked directly to the HD TV in the flat via the Thunderbolt port using a Mini Display Port to HDMI cable. Watching EyeTv and BBC iPlayer is now a great experience - sound and video sync are perfect and it means the MBA screen is available for other things like internet and mail browsing. Last week I had three screens running - BBC iPlayer on the TV, Twitter on the iPad (via AirDisplay) and Facebook on the main MBA screen. Sadly, being a bloke, I'm unable to multitask, but it still looked really cool!

The Not So Good Stuff

  • There is a problem with the microphone, at least on my 13" MBA. My girlfriend has problems hearing me when we are on FaceTime, iChat or Skype, and I know there are other folk out there having similar problems. Using my Sony earbuds with their built in microphone fixes the problem but it's not a satisfactory solution. I bought a Blue Eyeball 2.0 USB microphone/webcam and this also provides a bit of a work around, but even with this I have to be quite close to the mic to get the right input levels. It's really not clear whether this is a software or hardware issue, or even whether it's a Lion issue, but I hope the Apple guys are taking notice of the increasing number of entries and complaints on the Apple support forums
  • That's it - that's the only real problem I've got to date

Cool New Stuff

I did say that some of this blog would be about some of the new bits and pieces I've acquired for the MBA.

First up is the new InCase Perforated Snap-on cover for the MBA. This is a slinky blue plastic fishnet 2 piece cover which snaps onto the lid and base of the MBA providing some protection from scratches and dirt. It's not going to protect it from a fall from any great height, but it's a sexy, lightweight and does what it is supposed to do. Even with the case on, the laptop still fits nicely into the LaRobe sleeve to provide even more protection whilst travelling.

I've already mentioned the Blue Eyeball 2.0, but the webcam, which pops out of the microphone ball, is an HD alternative to the standard resolution iSight camera on the MBA. Shame that the MBA didn't come with the HD iSight as standard but I'm guessing that there wasn't enough room in the lid for it. Actually, I'm still not sure whether it's an iSight or FaceTime camera, or whether there is any difference. What's in a name?

I love retro Flip Clocks, and after 5 years of using Macs finally found a Flip Clock screen saver only to discover it doesn't work under Lion. This morning however, I found an alternative that does work, so I'm now using a screen saver because I want to rather than because I think I ought to!

One of the downsides of reducing the screen real estate on the MBA compared to the MBP is that my top menu bar is now even more cluttered than ever. I've used NoMenuBar up until now which helps to a certain extent, but AccessMenuBarApps goes even further and is now my preferred solution.

Having spent 11 of the past 14 months in Switzerland, and with another 11 weeks still to go, I've found I have pretty much seen everything (in English) on Swiss Freeview TV at least once, and new stuff is increasingly rare. So I'm always on the look out for alternatives. iTunes is great and when I'm at home I do download a couple of TV series to bring back with me. But these take up lots of disk space, and even with external drives I find myself juggling shows around and configuration management becomes a nightmare (especially when disaster strikes). I've started to rent films rather than buy them which saves the storage problem, but it access to BBC iPlayer would solve a whole bunch of problems by streaming from that source. And I finally found a way to do get around the overseas access problem by subscribing to a VPN service called Expat Telly For 19.99 Euros for 3 months I can now watch anything on iPlayer from the UK (including ITV, Channel 4, 5 , etc.) as well as a number of other shows from NBC in the US. This works by making the UK servers think that you're logging in from a UK address and thus allows you to watch. Sadly Catchup TV has got wise to these shenanigans and blocks them, but Expat Telly works with BBC iPlayer for the time being. And since I pay for a UK and Swiss TV license I feel I should be allowed to watch what I've already paid for!

Well, that's it for this post. Hope you find something of interest or something useful. But even if you don't, come back another time. I'm sure I'll have something that will get you excited!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Out with the Hackintosh - Long Live the MacBook Air

It amazes me how many people still read my Hackintosh posts on the Apple Harvest. I first built my Hackintosh almost exactly two years ago. My last post on the subject was in June last year. So why have I stopped writing about something that people want to read about? The most important reason is purely selfish. I write about the things that I find interesting, and the things that I get excited about. If some of those things are of interest to other people then so much the better, but the Apple Harvest wasn't set up to pander to market or popular trends. There are plenty of other blogs and other media sites which are geared to that audience.

There is a secondary reason for the lack of recent material on the Hackintosh. The simple fact is that I don't use it anymore. Actually, it's unusable. Some time last year, on a trip back to the UK from Zurich, I was updating the Hackintosh with the latest software upgrades, when it occurred to me that my girlfriend might be able to use it when she took her boys away for their half term break. That way we could keep up our nightly iChat conferences (the one thing that keeps me going on these long trips away from home). It was then that I noticed for the first time that, while iChat ran OK, the microphone wasn't working. I found a potential fix somewhere on the internet and attempted to implement it. Something went wrong and the Hackintosh died on the spot, but on this occasion I didn't have the time or patience to go through the whole recovery process. As a result the computer hasn't seen the light of day since (literally as it has been sitting in a drawer).

The Hackintosh for me was a largely academic exercise. I wanted to see if I could "build" one (which I could) and I wanted to see how OS X would perform on non-Apple kit (it was OK). I also wanted to try out a netbook to see whether it was really possible to use one for any length of time as a proper computer. The Hackintosh worked. It was great on the train, and fine to use around the house for the odd bit of surfing, but I seemed to spend a lot of time "fixing" it, especially as new OS X upgrades came along.

After I bought my iPad in September last year the days of the Hackintosh really did seem numbered. All the things I was doing on the Hackintosh, I could now do on the iPad, but without any of the hassle. I could surf, check mail, watch films and video, listen to music and even do basic office tasks with iWork. Anything else that I wanted to do was either going to get done on the iMac at home or on the MBP while on the road. The Hackintosh was simply not good enough to be a replacement for the MBP on a trip lasting more than one or two nights. It was certainly not going to be of any use for trips lasting five to eight weeks, overseas.

And now, it seems unlikely that the Hackintosh will ever get restored. On my last visit home earlier this month I treated myself to a new top spec MacBook Air.

It's the custom built 13inch, i7,  256Gb disk and 4Gb RAM version and it's the most beautiful laptop I've ever owned. I loved the idea of the MacBook Air from the first day they were unveiled, but I knew that it was going to be a while before they were suitable for mainstream use. In fact the Hackintosh would probably have been a better performer (for a fraction of the price), but without the usability factor. But the 2011 versions have given us a fantastic piece of hardware, with great performance, and all the ease of use of a traditional Apple laptop. My MacBook Pro has stayed at home on this current, two month long outing, and I've really not missed it at all. OK, maybe I miss the extra two inches of screen space when I'm watching Eye TV and there's a wide screen film on, but that's about it. The thing I was most concerned about was my iTunes library - just the music alone would more than fill the 256Gb MBA flash drive - but this happily sits on a 1Tb external passport disk with a small selection of songs sitting in a library on the MBA itself for when I'm out and about. I have an additional 1Tb disk which serves as a Time Machine disk, and a secondary partition where I make a scheduled, weekly Carbon Copy clone of the MBA disk.

Both these disks are usually connected through a powered USB 7 port hub, which either plugs directly into one of the MBA USB ports or into the USB port on the Airport Extreme in my flat. An Airport Express provides the link to the stereo for music and an Apple TV connects into the HD TV for viewing my movies and TV shows. And I can sit at the table on the far side of the room and be able to have full control of my media empire while still writing my blog. Like I am doing right now!

And when I go into the office in the morning I use a utility called UnDock to eject all the connected disks, close the lid and pop the MBA into my rucksack, along with the iPad and my lunch! This laptop really was designed to be carried around with you so it seems criminal not to do so. Compared to lugging the 15inch MBP around this is luxury. OK, it's luxury at a premium price, but if I can't have a bit of luxury while I'm away from the creature comforts of home but earning decent money then something has gone very wrong.

What does the future hold for the Hackintosh? I will fix it when I get back home for good at the end of November, but the Apple Harvest HQ is now Lion based, and I have my doubts about whether the Hackintosh will be able to support Lion. Maybe I'll even convert it back to a Windows box which is how it started, although I think this is highly unlikely. If it's a pain to use as an OS X box it'll be far more painful as a Windows machine! We'll see, but in the meantime please don't write to me asking if it's for sale, or on offer to a good home. It isn't! It will always be a reminder to me of what we can achieve with a bit of research, a bit of patience, a bit of confidence, and a page full of instructions that someone has painstakingly put together after months of hard work, frustration, and no financial reward. My enduring thanks and regards to the pioneering Hackintoshers!

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Protect Your Assets - 3 Cases for the original iPad

There's no question that the iPad is a beautiful piece of kit and it is surprisingly robust. But if you're like me and carry the iPad around with you, out and about, on a daily basis you really need something to protect it from the rigours of travel and general knocks and bumps. I've tried a selection of cases and stands over the past year, but I think I've finally got the right solution. In this post, I'll put the original Apple case, Joby Ori and inCase Origami Stand Sleeve head to head.

I bought the original iPad Apple case when I first picked up my iPad. I've always tried to protect my gadgets and I wasn't prepared to risk my new investment on the flight back from Boston to the UK, and the subsequent return trip to Switzerland. The Apple case also doubles up as a stand but it falls a bit short in both case and stand departments. It doesn't provide much in the way of protection other than keeping the front and back of the device safe from picking up scratches, but that's probably true of most cases. As a stand it works well as a prop to support the iPad in landscape mode, but you need a fairly flat surface to guarantee its stability in its portrait orientation. It is fairly thin, which is a plus point for a number of docking devices and stands (I bought the Compass stand at the same time). It doesn't add a huge amount of weight to the device which is also a good thing when holding the device for any length of time, and I like the idea of the book metaphor. Having a case that opens like a book cover does help me think I'm reading a book rather than looking at a tablet. The biggest negative for me is the battle getting the iPad out of the case once it's in place. Getting it in is OK, but it's really tough getting it back out again.

The Joby Ori is a much bigger and sturdier beast altogether. Again it acts as both stand and case but is much more flexible than the Apple case. The name derives from origami (Japanese art of paper folding) and the Ori's primary selling point is the variety of stand configurations it can assume. The Ori adds a certain amount of bulk and weight to the iPad, but the super-strong composite material used certainly gives one the confidence that it can take quite a beating before the reaching the precious contents. I managed to use the Ori with my iHome iA100 docking station but I expect the extra depth that comes from the case will prevent a suitable marriage with other devices. The Ori suffers from the same problem as the Apple case in that it's the devil's own job to get the iPad out once it's in place. And quite frankly, the Ori is not well suited to holding the iPad for extended periods - it's just too heavy and thick. Flexibility and strength also come at cost however, and the Ori is not a solution for those on a tight budget. I paid £80 for mine and then got a hefty C&E import bill to boot. I notice now however that the price on the website is down to £60.

My most recent purchase is the inCase Origami Stand Sleeve, another dual purpose case. Everything you need to know is in the name - it's primarily a sleeve with good all round padding and a faux fur interior to protect the iPad in transit. The tablet is fairly easily removed and replaced, and is then available to be used as is - showing off the beautiful design and fitting into all the gadgets designed around it. I say fairly easy to remove and replace because the sleeve top is quite tight, especially when you first use it, but it does loosen up after a while and becomes much easier to use. The clever part of the design is that the sleeve folds back on itself when empty, and an elastic loop and plastic hook mechanism allows the sleeve to be used as a stand in either portrait or landscape. Whilst not as robust as the Joby it provides a firm enough support to type on in landscape mode and a comfortable enough angle to watch in portrait mode.

inCase Origami Stand Sleeve
iPad 1 in the inCase Origami Stand Sleeve

Of the three designs, I suspect only the inCase sleeve will support both the original iPad and the iPad 2, although clearly the iPad 2 was designed with additional smart case capability. I tend to use the inCase sleeve as my primary case as it is the most versatile and comfortable, and I really prefer using the iPad without any casing when I'm at base. The Joby Ori is my case of choice when travelling on longer journeys, and it really comes into its own when your iPad is your only source of entertainment, especially when watching movies or TV. I passed on the Apple case to a friend who has recently acquired an iPad as it had become surplus to requirements, but it served me well for the first six months, and I think some of the harsh criticism I have read is unjustified.

If you are thinking of buying a case you need to consider a number of things.
  • Do you want to use the iPad with or without a case when not on the move ? - Get a case that's easily removable
  • Do you want to dock the iPad on a regular basis ? - Make sure the iPad and case will fit
  • Do you want a stand facility ? - there are plenty of cheap sleeves out there if this is not a requirement

As an afterthought to this post, I recently bought the inCaseOrigami Workstation for the Apple Wireless keyboard. This is a tasty little case for the keyboard but also allows you to prop up an iPad and use them together as shown below. This combo, with the inCase sleeve for the iPad is the ideal combination for the road warrior.

inCase Origami
iPad 1 in the inCase Origami Workstation

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Mac App Store – The Good, The Bad and the Inexcusable

The Good

I really liked the concept of the Mac App Store (MAS) from the day that Steve Jobs announced it. A first port of call to go to when you’re looking for that special bit of software without having to wade through endless Google searches which don’t quite get you to where you want to be.

I liked the idea that everything in the MAS would be available (it's really frustrating to find out about a cool piece of software only to find out that you can't get it anymore) and reasonably current (e.g. still supported), that upgrades would be fairly automatic, and that I’d be able to see what other people thought before I committed to buying.

I don’t think I ever saw it as the only solution. I still keep my subscriptions to MacZot and MacUpdate Promos and look forward to what they have to offer in my inbox every morning. And I still value the reports and reviews in the commercial press and on social networks like Twitter.

The first time I used the store (I think it was to get the free MAS version of TextWrangler) I was really pleased with the automated installation, and I still like the way that the process works for new installations.

The Bad

Having purchased dozens of Apps from the iTunes App Store, I knew that I would have to be a lot more careful in the MAS, with its higher prices. So far, so good – my prudence has paid off, and I’ve not spent a fortune. But it’s still a potential heffalump trap. One button purchases are just that bit too easy.

I was disappointed that it isn’t possible for the MAS to recognize all existing registered software and have it managed like purchased software. Maybe that is on the cards in the future, but I’m not going to hold my breath. And I’m certainly not going to repurchase software just to have it available through the store.

I’m also disappointed that upgrades force you to close the application in all cases I’ve seen so far. In App purchase often do this automatically but all my MAS software refuses to load until I exit the application. Not a big deal, but it does detract from the process and is a small step backwards.

My other major gripe is the pricing policy on certain Apple applications – specifically Aperture. Having just purchased the version 3.0 upgrade from Apple I was horrified to find the full retail version on the MAS at a fraction of the total price I had paid, having been a user from version 1.0. “C’est la guerre”, I guess.

The Inexcusable

Regulars will know that I run a 2008 iMac back at Apple Harvest base camp, and a 2007 MBP while I’m out on the road. Both systems are always up to date in terms of OS versions, and much of the software is common across both machines.

So it came as a big surprise that MAS behaves differently on each system. Everything is fine on the MBP – existing software is recognized, and updates work exactly as expected.

On the iMac nothing is quite as it should be. Whilst the installed software base appears to be correct and when appropriate indicates updates are available, the update pane says that all apps are up to date. Attempting to install an update from the purchased list generates the now infamous message :-

"You have updates available for other accounts
Sign in to (null) to update applications for that account"

After months of using the App Store I have finally resolved the problem more by luck than anything else. It appears that the issue is Spotlight related. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the case, and this was reaffirmed with a problem I had with the Alfred utility which failed to locate any applications after I had performed a cache reset. Rebuilding the spotlight index failed to help matters, but a search through the Apple technical forums held the key.
Simply entering the terminal command :-

arch -i386 mdimport /Applications

appeared to resolve the problem and MAS now works as expected on the iMac. Other folks have indicated that this fix works for them also. This also fixed my problem with Alfred, and unless I'm mistaken, my Spotlight searches also appear to be more accurate.

Given that this appears to be a very common occurrence according to various blogs and forums, I find it inexcusable that Apple have not posted a fix themselves. Most of the work arounds I have seen involve deleting the apps that need updating and then reinstalling them from scratch. Hardly an efficient mechanism, and one that can also cause additional problems given the fact that deleting software on the Mac doesn't necessarily get rid of everything, and files left knocking around may cause unexpected side effects of their own.


I still think the Mac App Store is a "good thing", but it's going to take some more work from Apple in terms of implementation. There are too many rough edges and bugs to make it 100% reliable, and the facility to update apps already in process is a must. I also really want to see a standardised mechanism for converting existing paid for software into MAS managed apps. Given the number of people already using the MAS it is clearly filling a consumer need, but you should be aware of its limitations and remember that it is very easy to get carried away and end up buying a load of stuff you don't really need, simply because it is so easy to do so!

PS - There will be more info about Alfred in a future post!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Apple Harvest - Normal Service Resumed

Apologies from a Delinquent Blogger

I've only just realised that it's about 9 weeks since I last updated the Apple Harvest. That's the longest period I've ever gone without posting anything, so I apologize for my deliquency, but I hope that a more regular posting pattern will soon resume. Thanks to regular readers for still coming back and looking for stuff - a check on Google Analytics revealed that folks are still using the site. Hopefully the experience will become more rewarding over the next few weeks.

A lot has happened since the February posting, some of which explains my absence. I'm back in Zurich after spending a wonderfully idle few months at home. I've been here for nearly two weeks, and settled in much quicker than before. I'm in a different part of town, different office (same company) and much better digs - nearly four times the size of the last place - and hopefully I'll have a proper broadband connection sometime after Easter. That will make everything a lot easier.

What a Difference A Word Makes

I just did a couple of Google searches - the great news is that a search for the "Apple Harvest blog" returns with this blog at the top of the list. Interestingly, if I omit the word "blog", I couldn't find a reference until page 74. Still, at least it's in the top 100 pages! Sometimes you have to wonder about Google's search algorithms. A reference to the date of the 2006 apple harvest appeared on page 40 something. Perhaps some more regular posts will bump us up the list a bit?

Some Forthcoming Posts

I've got a list of some things you can look forward to over the next few weeks. Here's a preview...
  • Some thoughts on the Mac App Store
  • How my Magic Trackpad is losing out to the Magic Mouse
  • A look at the Joby Ori case and stand for the iPad
  • Why I'm not upgrading to the iPad 2
  • Using a stylus with the iPad and iPhone
  • Proper review of the iHome iA100 iPad dock mentioned in the last post
Hopefully there'll be something in the list to draw you back or to mention to your friends and colleagues, and bring them into the fold.

See you soon!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Two New Toys - a sneak preview

I've been a bit under the weather for the past week or so - it's virus season in the UK (that's the kind that attacks people, not Apples) and it was just a matter of time before it caught up with me. But two new toys arrived at Apple Harvest HQ this morning which cheered me up no end. The first was a blooming great big box which turned out to be my long awaited iPad dock. The second was the new wireless charger for the Magic Mouse.

This is just going to be a sneak preview as they are so new and still need to be put through their paces. Watch out for more in-depth reviews in future posts.

Mobee Magic Charger

I'll start with the charger because it is so simple to get up and running. The Magic Charger consists of an inductive charging pad, a replacement battery pack and a mini USB cable. Installation is simply a matter of taking the back off the Magic Mouse, removing the batteries and replacing them with the battery pack. With the USB cable plugged into the charging pad and an appropriate USB power source (USB port on a Mac or an external charging unit both work fine) all that is left to do is to put the mouse on the pad and watch the little green light start to flash.

That's all folks!

Mobee Magic Charger
Mobee Magic Charger

This is a really neat piece of gadgetry, which Mobee claim will pay for itself within six months of office use or a year in the home. I can't be bothered to do the sums but that sounds fine to me. What I really like is the fact that I don't have to worry about running out of mouse batteries again - well at least not Magic Mouse batteries. Of course, you are potentially losing a precious USB port while charging is taking place, but ideally you can charge overnight and during breaks when the USB port is less valuable. I have a Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation which I can use as an external charger if necessary.

It took about an hour to get the Magic Mouse charged to a state where it claimed to be at 50%. I've seen claims that the % charge never rises above 78% but as I was writing this I checked and it was now at 82%, but I'm not convinced about the accuracy of Apple's battery life algorithms any more. I'll be watching these numbers over the next few days and report back in a later post. Similarly the manufacturer claims 6 days autonomy after a full charge, but the Macworld review suggests a day is more realistic. Again, I'll monitor and give you my findings in a week or so.

iHome iA100 Bluetooth Audio System

I've used an iHome audio dock for a while (see my review of the iHome Reson8 from October 2009), and have been really pleased with. But of course, it doesn't work with the iPad, and companies appear to have been very slow to fill this apparent gap in the market. iHome announced their iPad offering back in July 2010, and it started appearing in October. I ordered mine back in October and it finally arrived this morning. And it's been well worth the wait.
The unit is much smaller than I expected, but is beautifully engineered and looks fantastic. It sounds really good too. And critically for me - you don't have to take the iPad out of its case. The iA100 is an app-enhanced device and can be set up to work in conjunction with the iHome+Sleep app which is free from the App Store.

That's all I'm going to say for now - the alarms are set up for the next few days and if they work as I expect, I'll start writing the proper review tomorrow!

iHome iA100 Bluetooth Audio System
iHome iA100 Bluetooth Audio System (in the box)

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Scary Disk Upgrade for MacBook Pro

Six months away from home puts a lot of strain on a laptop, especially on it's disk capacity. Towards the end of my stay in Switzerland I was down to my last 15Gb of disk space of my original 160Gb drive in the MacBook Pro, and was regularly deleting and restoring content, especially movies and other large items. I decided that when I got home I'd look at getting a new bigger (and maybe faster) drive, and maybe even consider installing it myself.
So, about a week ago, I started my first upgrade project of 2011, and began my customary background research. There were three elements to be considered:
  • Price of components
  • Compatibility of drive
  • Difficulty of performing the upgrade
Price - although I'd been working in the financial capital of Switzerland I didn't come home having made my fortune, and I still needed to watch the pennies. I had to weigh up the cost of the drive and any tools I might need and the cost of either doing the job myself or getting a specialist to do the job for me. I did have plenty of time on my hands, so that wasn't going to be a problem. I figured that it would cost somewhere between £100 and £150 to get a professional installation, but I could be without the laptop for up to a week. I'd also be restricted in the range of drives available. A quick search on Amazon suggested that I could probably get a decent replacement drive for about £50 plus a few extra pounds for the tools I would need.

Compatibility - I knew there would be some physical restrictions on the drive I could use bearing in mind the age of the MBP - late 2007, so I was going to rely on review comments from people who had successfully performed the task themselves. Again, Amazon is great as a research tool for this type of activity. I was hoping to upgrade to a 500Gb disk, preferably running at 7200 RPM, but would consider a slower drive if this was likely to be an issue

Difficulty of upgrading - I'd never opened up the MBP before, other than to install the extra memory I purchased when I first bought the machine, lifting it up to 4Gb. But this was child's play compared to delving around inside the case as required by this upgrade. There are plenty of videos and instructions on the internet, and I watched as many as possible and downloaded some instructions onto the GoodReader app on the iPad.

With these options considered and evaluated, I decided I could do the job myself and started the process in earnest. I selected a Seagate Momentus 7200.4 Laptop 2.5 inch Hard Disk Drive 500GB SATA 7200rpm 16MB (Internal) with G-Force Protection (ST9500420ASG) drive which had good reviews and had been proven to work fine in my model. This cost about £55 from Amazon. I knew from the videos that I'd need a specialist screwdriver that I didn't possess - a Torx 6, and I ended up buying a great little tool that included 9 bits which live in the lid of the screwdriver and fits in a pocket, or can be slipped into a small space in a suitcase (Silverline 633922 9 Piece Precision Screwdriver Set). I also needed a plastic/nylon spludger to ease things out of their natural surroundings inside the Mac, and I also invested in an anti-static wrist device, just in case. The whole lot came to under a tenner.

Eventually, all the bits and pieces arrived, with the disk being the last thing to show, and I was ready to go. I cleared the work surface, strapped on the anti-static doodah, arranged all my papers and watched the You Tube videos once again.

Things went fine to start off with. All the screws were easy to remove, and it was time to remove the keyboard. I knew this would be hard - primarily because it's the step in the process when you can cause the most damage. However, it was easy to pry the back part off and get to the cable connector on the motherboard which was also easy to unclip. But I really struggled to pry the front off (as I expected). Eventually I realised that there were still two screws holding the assembly in place, and once these were removed everything came off smoothly. I had bent the very front of the keyboard assembly slightly but not enough to cause any real damage. It would have been more prudent to have a check list of screws to remove and to have ticked these off as I took them out (and replaced them later) and I wouldn't have then made this mistake.

The next steps were really plain sailing, although there was a ribbon cable firmly glued to the existing hard drive which took some coaxing to remove, and before long I had the new drive in place, all the connectors plugged in and the whole box put back together again.

I had cloned the original disk before starting the operation, using Carbon Copy Cloner, and my intention was to boot up using the ExpressCard SSD as usual, format the new drive and then simply restore the contents of the cloned disk onto the new disk. I now understand why this was not such as good idea, and if I'd thought about it, I should never have expected it to work, and it would have saved me a lot of sweaty palms and palpitations. Worse still, it had me looking in the wrong direction in an attempt to resolve the problem.

When the MBP went into boot mode everything seemed OK, but I couldn't log onto my user account. I tried zapping the PRAM, and other diagnostic tricks on start-up but nothing worked. Eventually I booted up from the cloned USB disk which at least got me into the system and allowed me to get the new drive set-up. I figured with the new drive restored to the same state as the original everything would be OK - but I still couldn't log onto the system from the SSD. I could at least boot up from the new drive.

I decided to ditch the SSD for the time being and get the system fully functional on its own, which meant doing a software update as I was now booting into OS X 10.6.3. With the OS now running version 10.6.6 I nearly had a normal working system, but there were still a few software configuration issues which needed resolving.

This was the moment when I saw the light - the new disk had a slightly different name to the original! Once I had corrected this, most of those software configuration issues vanished. At nearly midnight I decided to call it a day and go back to it in the morning. I had now occurred to me that this may have been the reason that the SSD wasn't working properly, but I'd already reinstalled Snow Leopard on the SSD (at version 10.6.0).

First thing yesterday morning, I updated the SSD with OS X 10.6.6 and tried to boot from it. It worked perfectly.

If you have any technical ability at all and are considering this modification to an older MacBook Pro I seriously recommend that you do it. My specific configuration complicated the installation, but for a straight swap, things should be much simpler. I would, however, suggest that you invest in a disk caddy and format and set up the new drive before fitting it. It should take away some of the worry when you reboot after installation. You can pick one up for under a tenner, and you can always use it to store your old drive and use it as a media drive or backup device when you've successfully upgraded.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

NewKinetix Rē: Universal Remote - Review

At the last count I had 8 remote controls cluttering up the coffee table in my sitting room, and another 3 upstairs in my bedroom on the bedside table. Of course, they are really sitting on the tables. They end up all over the place; usually somewhere where they can't be retrieved in a hurry. That's also a lot of batteries to have to manage. Like many other people in a similar s situation, I've looked at universal remotes, and even bought a Logitech Harmony 555 some years ago, but gave up struggling to programme it using flakey Windows software, and it now lives in a drawer somewhere in the gadget graveyard.

Recently I read an article in Australian MacWorld (it's quite surprising what you'll end up reading when needs must - and you have Zinio installed on the iPad!) ) comparing 5 universal remotes designed to work under iOS. Whilst they all seemed to be an improvement on previous technologies, one in particular caught my eye; the NewKinetix Rē. After a bit more research, I decided to give it a try, and as I've now been using it for two weeks since my return home, I thought I'd share my experiences with you.

Rē with standard Apple dock connector
I have to say that I was a bit unsure of how I'd get on with the Rē. I had high hopes, but memories of the Logitech device still lingered uncomfortably in the back of my mind. But what exactly is the Rē. The initial press announcement describes it as  a "Plug-in Universal Remote Control accessory for IR control of AV Devices using the iPhone and iPod touch". It goes on to add that "the plug-in requires no batteries, cables, charging or network connections", and that it "includes an extensive database of IR codes that will control most popular AV entertainment devices". All this is achieved by means of a little black oblong of plastic that plugs into the bottom of your iOS device, and a 'free' app downloadable from the App Store. The app is now in its version 2 status and supports the iPhone 4 and the iPad in native full screen mode.

You configure the device through the App by setting up your 'Rooms' first. Then in each Room you can add your devices. This is done by selecting a device from the very extensive database of devices included as described in the blurb. Even if your specific device isn't available, it's quite likely that one very similar is in the list and you can at least get the basic functions working such as power, menu, volume, etc. You can then tweak the settings to your specific requirements by switching to learning mode, whereby the Rē can learn from the device specific remote control.

It took me about 10 minutes to get my Samsung TV and BT Vision boxes working with the Rē. I was particularly pleased that the BT Vision box was supported because I was having trouble with the supplied remote (a not uncommon problem it appears, as my girlfriend is already on her second, and I've seen a number of similar complaints). My Sharp Sound Bar took a little bit more effort to set-up as it wasn't directly supported, but by using an unlisted docking station device it found a close enough match, and that now works fine. The Apple Remote Control and Apple TV devices are supported straight off.

Adding buttons, modifying button behaviour and changing layouts is very simple, but it is worth printing out the 21 page manual (or at least save it locally as a PDF file) to have a reference guide handy. The great thing about the Rē is that you can get up and running very quickly and then spend as much time as you wish tweaking and adjusting things to your own specifications.

The Rē also supports Activities and Macros to enable you to perform various related functions. An example Activity would be "Watch A DVD" whereby you can set up the app to power on all the appropriate devices and select the DVD input on the TV. I have set up the "Watch TV" activity, which was very easy as it is largely a wizard driven operation. The system prompts you to select which devices are responsible for specific operations, and the result is an Activity screen with a selection of buttons from each device. The wizard builds the appropriate macros to control the critical operations. These Activity screens can be modified in the same way as any other device screen. My Watch TV activity screen allows me to power all the necessary devices on (or off), and then use a selection of BT Vision and Sound Bar buttons to control the system. It's a lot easier to get it working than it is to describe it here!

Rē showing the Watch TV screen on an iPhone 3G
Settings can be transferred across multiple iOS devices either by "bumping" them or via email. This is great if you need to charge a device and want to swap the Rē to a different device. I'm using my old iPhone 3G as the standard remote, but swap over to the iPad when it needs charging. This frees up the iPhone 4 for... well... being a phone!

The Rē cost me about £50 from Amazon (UK) including P&P (I use Amazon Prime), which is a bit pricey compared with some of the more common universal remotes but significantly cheaper than a similar Logitech remote. However, it performs much better than any of the universal remotes I've used, better than some of the supplied remotes for my devices, and cuts out all the clutter and battery management issues. Next on the list of things to programme are the Sony Amplifier, CD Player and DVD Recorder, and then I'll have a further play with the Activities options.

I'm really pleased with the Rē. It does what it says, and with a bit of style. My high hopes were completely realised and I'm happy to recommend it. However, one word of advice. Don't waste your time trying to replace the remotes for any energy saving power sockets you may have. These generally use RF rather than IR signals to control them, something it took me about 30 minutes to work out!! Doh !! Oh, and one more thing. It would be very easy to take control of the TV in the pub without anyone realising but do so at your own risk!!!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A New Year Wish List for the iPad

Well, the title might have caught your attention if you're new to this site, but regular readers may be recoiling in horror at my apparent admission that there's anything wrong with the iPad, a potential sign of hypocrisy, or simply my inability to abide by my own rules.

I've long since stated that the Apple Harvest is not a place for rumours or speculating what rabbits Apple may or may not be pulling out of the hat in the coming months. That statement still holds true - there are plenty of people out there who are quite happy to look completely stupid when their comments and scare-mongering are proved to be completely unfounded. I'm not joining their ranks, at least not when it comes to Apple.

Some of my previous posts have focused on how brilliant the iPad is, and how useful I find it. The comments in those posts also still hold true. I still get the same buzz when I turn on the iPad as I did when I first bought it, and occasionally I find an app which surpasses that experience.
I also have no regrets about buying a version 1 model. I don't know anyone I regularly communicate with who has FaceTime access, so I still use iChat or Skype on my laptop, which means I don't really need a camera - front or backwards facing - and so far I've heard little mention of anything else outstandingly new in the speculation about iPad 2.

So now you've got an idea of what this post is not about, what exactly is on my New Year Wish List for the iPad?

There are 5 key things that I'd like to see, and they are all iOS related rather than hardware deficiencies. In no particular order of preference or priority they are:-

Quick email delete - I tend to use the iPad to check email during the day because it's much more convenient than carrying a laptop around and getting it set up six or seven times a day. When I'm out on the road, my MBP remains my main email host, and the iMac serves the same function when I'm at home. My mail stays on my ISP POP account until I physically delete it - usually at the end of each day. The trouble is, that mail accumulates on the iPad over the course of a few days and it is a royal pain to have to select 150+ emails one by one in order to delete them all. So I would really like to see a Delete All Mail option in Mail.

Close all apps - I'm quite happy with Apple's approach to app time sharing (aka multi-tasking) in general. It works, and it doesn't have a serious impact on performance or battery life. But there are times when I've managed to get myself in a position where I've got a dozen apps open and I'd like to close the lot and start again. So Apple - a Close All Apps option on the multi-tasking bar would be very useful.

An Automator - I'm a creature of habit - not all of them bad - and when I wake up in the morning and reach for the iPad to switch off the alarm, there are a few tasks that I tend to do as a matter of course. I run PressReader to download my daily newspaper, I check the weather on AccuWeather and download the latest FX rates on Currency. I'll then check Social (Facebook client) and the Twitter app. Finally I'll check the AppStore to see if there are any updates to download. Sometimes I'll do some other bits, and the order may change, but this is fairly standard behaviour. It would be really cool to be able to automate the process so that I can load all my "default" (or any other) set of apps automatically and then just browse through them until I'm really to hit the Close All Apps button that Apple will hopefully provide!

Update Info improvements - One problem with working away is the reliance on Mobile (often PAYG) broadband. One of the problems with the AppStore is the frequency of updates which come through, and I for one, like to be up-to-date with my software. However, because these are full replacements rather than patch updates, sometimes you find yourself having to download 500Mb of app several times a month. If you are on a fixed data allowance (often only 1 - 3Gb/month) this is a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately the updates page doesn't give any idea of the size of the download for each item so you are downloading blind. I'd really like to see the size of each update so that I can make an informed decision about whether to perform the update or put it on hold until a more suitable time

Wireless Syncing - Well who doesn't want wireless syncing? It's a wireless gadget for goodness sake!!!

So there's my top five iPad improvements. I'd really like some feedback on these, especially if anyone knows of existing workarounds or hidden tricks that I've not yet encountered. And do other iPad users have other or similar wish lists? Please leave a comment, send me a tweet, or drop me an email at I look forward to hearing from you!

Until next time, I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year!

Monday, 3 January 2011

iPhoto Still Has Places to go to...

The marketing machine behind Apple would have you believe that iLife is a primary consideration for anyone contemplating moving to a Mac for the first time, especially from Windows. Whilst being an attractive bonus, iLife didn't really figure in my decision to make the move back in 2007. My decision was based on a total dissatisfaction with the laptops I was using at the time, especially with respect to the time it took between switching the machine on and actually being able to do something useful. I was working in Oslo back then, and was reliant on public wireless systems (as I am again here in Zurich), and the plethora of Windows and virus updates became to much of a burden. So the automatic updates got turned off while I was away and the laptop only got updated once or twice a month when I went home. Of course, in those circumstances my laptop was even more vulnerable to attack than ever, using public networks without auto-update, but I'm digressing... back to iLife.

Ever since buying the MBP back in the late summer of 2007,  with its complimentary copy of iLife, I have religiously upgraded iLife whenever the latest version is announced. I like having iPhoto as the default photo organiser,  especially on the MacBook Pro, although I generally use Photoshop Elements for most editing activities, and I also use Aperture on the iMac at home. I dabble with GarageBand, but again, usually only when I'm at home and have access to my M-Audio keyboard. I occasionally use iWeb for quick and dirty mock-ups for web sites and pages, and I'm still not big on home video so I only use iMovie on high-days and holidays. My two biggest productions to date have both been whale watching trips; one in the Arctic in mid-Winter in the Norwegian fjords and more recently off Cape Cod in the US. I can't remember ever using iDVD - in fact I'm not even sure what it does!

This year I  bought my copy of iLife 11 from the Apple Store on Bahnhofstrasse in the centre of Zurich on the same day it was released and, as I only live around the corner, within 15 minutes it was already installed on the MBP.  Having watched the Back-to-Mac keynote i had a pretty good idea of what to expect and I was looking forward to the new and improved iPhoto in particular. The full screen mode, improved sharing and extra facilities for calendar and card making looked especially appealing.

Overall, I do like the new iPhoto. I made my mum a calendar based on the photos I took in the US earlier this year, and it was incredibly easy - the hard part is choosing which photos to leave out. Similarly I made a few Christmas cards which were equally as easy. I'm looking forward to seeing the final product. I've used Apple printing before and it was very high quality. But when I tried to sort out the locations for my photos taken when my girlfriend came over to Switzerland a few weeks ago I started to get more than a bit frustrated.

The Places concept in iPhoto is great, especially if you have geo-tagging facilities built-in to your camera. But trying to add places manually after the event is a real pain. Nothing in this implementation is intuitive - in fact I'd say it's counterintuitive. The Manage My Places won't let you add new places. You can't add places on the main map either but  only look at photos already attached to existing places. When I did finally get photos associated with a location, I found it virtually impossible to correct errors. I can only assume that the guys who wrote the software, not to mention the testing folk, all had geo-tagging on their cameras (more likely they all used the iPhone to take their test shots).

Maybe this will be easier once I get home and get round to reading the help pages properly (another problem one has with limited internet access is that reading on-line help becomes a luxury one cannot afford), but this is not the Mac way!  I know that other folk have written about their similar experiences, so let's hope that Apple take notice and provide an update to make this useful feature a bit easier to use, or at least reconsider their approach in the next release - iLife 12? Or maybe by then, with the arrival of the Mac Store in early 2010, the suite will have been broken up as with iWork for the iPad and we'll be able to download an updated version of iPhoto 11. We shall see.

This entry was actually written in November 2010, but for some reason I never got round to publishing it. Better late than never, but although I'm back in the UK now, I've still not had time to look at the Places functionality in iPhoto 11 in anger. Something else on my list of things to do. Good job I've got the iPad to manage that list!