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!