Sunday, 16 December 2012

Christmas Greetings from the Apple Harvest

Hmm - Christmas is just over a week away, and I can't believe how long it is since I last posted anything! My only defence can possibly be that I've been too busy playing (I mean working!) with all the new gadgets acquired over the last few months. I started a new contract in July which has taken a huge amount of my time. I'll be continuing in the New Year for another six months but only on a part time basis which should allow me to focus on my other interests. At the end of the day, the real benefit of working is that it pays for the technology which we share an interest in. I think that's a reasonable assumption, otherwise you probably wouldn't be reading this. In truth this is the third time I've started this post and time keeps moving on so I keep having to rewrite it! Anyhow here goes…

So what's new?

Well, first of all before I got to finish the first two drafts of this piece, Apple had just announced its new product range at the Octoberfest. Clearly they've not been sitting on their laurels for the last year, and the news about the iPad mini came as no surprise - unlike a few other things.

I finally changed my broadband supplier at the start of the summer so the Apple Harvest now runs on a super fast 60Mbs system. And boy, does it fly!  Average speeds while connected across the ethernet are close to the max, and wifi has a significant boost also. In real terms I can download an iTunes LP in about 20s, an HD film in about 4mins and downloading Zinio magazines or the morning newspaper takes just a few seconds.

There's bucket load of new hardware as well. I was in Switzerland in July so treated myself to the new (3rd generation and now already obsolete!) iPad to take advantage of the cheaper prices in Europe. I pre-ordered in iPhone 5 which arrived on the 21st September as promised. I also upgraded to the new Apple TV and Airport express to take advantage of the improved bandwidth. The iMac is still hors d'combat which means the old MacBook Pro is the computer of choice in the office, and I finally had to upgrade the Express Card SSD as I keep running out of space on the old one. Most exciting of all is the imminent arrival of a brand spanking new iMac 27in 2.9GHz with a 3Tb Fusion drive which is due to be delivered on Monday!

I had expected to be commuting between my base in the East Midlands and London because of my new contract but luckily I only have to make the journey once a fortnight which has left me with some extra cash. So I confess to acquiring a couple of things I perhaps wouldn't have normally bought. I finally caved in a got a iPod Classic 160Gb version. It's my first real iPod (I don't count the 1st gen iPod Touch) and I just love having my entire 20,000 song library on one portable gadget. I added a bluetooth adapter so I could use my Sennheiser MM240 bluetooth headphones and I'm delighted.

I also bought an Adaptive Clamshell iPad keyboard case for use when I'm on the road. It's a bit of a luxury because my 13in MacBook Air still goes everywhere with me and I do prefer that for doing real work. But it does protect the iPad really well; it doubles up as a stand and can be used in some places when even the tiny Air can't fit.  And finally, as I simply couldn't resist it I bought an iPad Mini. More on all the hardware and how it fits into the Apple Harvest environment over the next few weeks.

There's a bit of new software in use at the Apple Harvest as well. The Apps Store and Mac Apps Store continue to bring out the worst in me and I end up buying apps that I rarely use, but at the same time there are some real gems around. All the computers at HQ are now running Mountain Lion or iOS 6. Personally, I rather like the fact that features co-exist between the two systems, but what I still love is the fact that the development community continues to provide software which makes my life easier and more fun.

The downside of doing real work for a large financial institution is that I'm forced to use their closed system. And when I say closed I really mean that. None of the creative and productivity tools I use on the Mac (or to be more accurate, their Windows counterparts) can be installed on the clunky old Lenovo machine I've been issued with, because of the security protocols in place. That clunkiness is made worse by having to operate through a VPN tunnel and corporate logging software monitoring my every move. Activities that might take an hour on the Apple Harvest system with it's workflows and seamless integration can take most of the day in the corporate environment. It's ironic that so many businesses are complaining about employee productivity whilst at the same time doing everything in their power to inhibit it. The dichotomies of progress!

I'll be writing a bit more about all the new goodies over the next fews week as I try and kick start the Apple Harvest and my own butt into action. In the meantime - Happy Christmas to all supporters of this blog. Hope you find your Christmas stockings stuffed with loads of gadgets, and I look forward to being back with a vengeance in the New Year.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Jailbreaking iPad 1 - Useful Apps and Tweaks

This is my third and final post (for now) about my experience in jailbreaking my 1st generation iPad. If you've not caught on yet, I decided to jailbreak so that I could get some of the features I really wanted that will be part of iOS6 but are being denied to the original iPad owners as part of Apple's 'strategy'.

In this post I'll give you some information about the Cydia apps that I've aquired since successfully performing the jailbreak, as well as my first thoughts after using the modified iPad for a couple of days.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the jailbreaking process leaves you in limbo a little bit. All you have to show for your efforts is the new Cydia icon. I'd suggest that if you want to do this yourself, you do a bit of reading on the sorts of apps that you can download from Cydia to make the jailbroken iPad experience what you hoped for, although of course reading this will help! I'm not providing links to the apps mentioned in the post. They are all available from within Cydia and can be found through its search function.

For me the top downloads so far have been - Intelliscreen X, NCColors, BannerDisable, Infinifolders, SBSettings, Activator, Fusion, and PkgBackup.

Notification Centre (NC) Tweaks

Intelliscreen X, NCColors and BannerDisable all change the behaviour of the Notification Centre (for the better!). Intelliscreen X allows you to view separate pages for normal notifications, Twitter feed, Facebook, Mail and RSS feeds without having to go into the applications themselves (even from the lock screen). Simply swipe to view the different pages. It's also possible to take certain actions directly within NC - so you can Like or Comment on a Facebook post, mark mail as unread or delete it, or RT/Repy or open a Tweet link. Being able to access mail, Facebook and Twitter on demand without having to load each app is a killer feature for me, and has been on my wish list for months. If you use NCColors alongside Intelliscreen you can change the background colour of NC and optionally blur the iPad background making the text much easier to read. Finally, BannerDisable enables you to temporarily turn off all notifications; ideal for bed time or during meetings.

UI Tweaks 

SBSettings, Activator and Infinfolder modify the way you interact with the iPad. SBSettings allows you to open up a window with Toggle buttons for things like Bluetooth, Wireless, and Airplane mode without having to go into the Settings app. It also acts as a jailbreak Settings app for developers should they wish to interface to it. Activator enables you to assign specific activites to different gestures - for example you can double tap the Clock to kill the current (or all) running app(s). A whole range of options are included with both these tools. Finally, in this group, Infinifolders blows the 12 apps/folder constraint enabling you to reduce the number of folders and the need to set up multiple folders for similar groups of apps. I can now put all my instruments in a single folder whereas before I needed to split them across 3 folders.


Last, but not least are the PkgBackup and Fusion apps. Since iTunes backups and Syncs will not recognise the jailbreak apps and their settings it falls on you to take care of it yourself. PkgBackup is a simple backup and restore app that can save your jailbreak data to a Dropbox account. Given that jailbreaking may destabilize the iPad, this is a must have app unless you want to lose your precious new settings and tweaks. Fusion is a small app that allows you to post to different networks. I've set mine up for Facebook and Twitter but other options are available. Posts can be made from a small window to any or all of the enabled accounts - again without having to go into the underlying apps themselves.

I'm really pleased that I made the decision to go ahead and jailbreak. For me, it was worth it for the Intelliscreen X features alone. I'm not aware that the system is any less stable - if anything it may be better now! It is worth noting that during the first 24 hours, as I was loading new "widgets", I did have to reboot numerous times. Many of the tweaks need to be interlaced into the OS so this is to be expected. Apps themselves don't require reboots, just like their App Store counterparts. Many of the packages on the Cydia store are free - some of those mentioned in this post do attract a fee of between 60p to £7.00 depending on the FX rate, but I consider them serious value for money.

As I aquire more jailbreak specific software I'll write about it in these pages as I would for any other apps for iOS or Mac OS X. I've already made the decision not to jailbreak my iPhone 4 as most of the iOS6 features I'm likely to use will be available to it. As for you dear reader - only you can decide whether jailbreaking is for you. Hopefully this and the previous posts will help you make an informed decision!

Good luck!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Jailbreaking - The Only Way Forward for a 1st Generation iPad

In my post yesterday, I wrote about my dismay that the original iPad would not be able to run iOS6 when it is released later in the year. I also decided to look into the possibility of jailbreaking the device to see if it was an option to get around this bad decision on Apple's part.

Those of you who read my posts regarding my experiment with the Hackintosh will know that I'm generally a little cautious when performing tasks like this - I do my homework first, weight up the pros and cons before deciding to proceed, and then spend plenty of time making sure that I know what I'm doing before I get started, and make sure that all the instructions are in front of me.

I fully intended to take the same approach with the iPad jailbreak, but I guess my disappointment that had been brewing over the previous 24 hours got the better of me as I started the research.

All it took was one video and a quick read of the instructions and I was sold. I think that in the back of my mind there was the thought that if there are not going to be any future significant updates for iOS5.1 then I had little to lose. Once the iPad was jailbroken it was going to stay in that state. I used Absinthe 2.0.4 to achieve an untethered jailbreak for the iPad 1 running iOS5.1.1. Untethered means that once the modification has been completed it is semi-permanent - it doesn't have to be re-jailbroken unless there is a problem. This compares to a tethered jailbreak where the modification needs to be done each time the device is unpowered. Clearly the untethered option is preferrable, especially on the iPad 1.

Compared to the Hackintosh project jailbreaking the iPad was a piece of cake. Yes, there were a couple of anxious moments, but these were on a par with a normal iOS update. The whole process took a little over an hour on a 64Gb iPad with about 15Gb of free space.

Once the process was complete, the only difference you'll notice is the addition of a new App icon - Cydia - which is a jailbreak management app for jailbroken iOS devices.

At this point a bit of additional research would not have gone amiss. Jailbreaking appears to have a language of its own, and it's actually difficult to know where to start when confronted with what is effectively a blank canvas. So most of what I've been doing has been trial and error, but I'm beginning to get the picture now. Luckily there are a wealth of videos on YouTube, not to mention oodles of websites.

A significant number of the "goodies" available for a jailbroken device serve to tweak the appearance of the device and improve on the accessibility of UI elements, particularly with reference to the notification centre.

As for the two things I mentioned in yesterday's post that I thought of as oversights on Apple's part, namely, the Do Not Disturb modification to Notification Centre and better Facebook integration - well, I've now got them addressed on my iPad. More about these "fixes" and some other great improvements next time.

The good news (for those around me at least) is that I'm back to being a happy bunny, and for now my 1st gen iPad has got a new lease of life. I will still be writing to the Apple Execs however. They don't get off the hook that easily!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dismayed By Lack of iOS6 Support for the Original iPad

Well, so much for the good intentions of writing more regular but maybe shorter posts for the Apple Harvest. I've been spending most of my time focusing on my mainstream business writing about Business and Software Process Management and actually using Macs and iOS devices rather than writing about them!

After yesterday's WWDC keynote I felt compelled to jot down some thoughts. Like many other users I was looking forward to seeing what Apple were going to offer us, as well as seeing the egg on other commentators' faces when their predictions fell widely short of the mark. Having been passively following the rumour mill for the past few weeks I was pretty much expecting what was announced - and generally I was quite excited.

The new range of MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros look really cool, and by the time I upgrade my MBA (not for a few years I hope!) I think I can be assured that I'm going to get an even better machine. I'm really excited about Mountain Lion and I've already ordered my Thunderbolt to Ethernet connector for my MBA which I'm hoping will have a significant effect on the network spped at the Apple Harvest.

But I'm livid at the discovery that iOS6 will not be available on the original iPad, and only partially effective on the iPhone 4. Apple Harvest readers may remember that I only purchased my iPad 20 months ago so it isn't even two years old yet. But by the iOS6 release date in the autumn, it'll already be obsolete. It's less of an issue for me with the iPhone 4 because I'm already at the end of my contract, and I'll just hang on until the iPhone 5 is available - I would guess to coincide with the iOS6 release later this year.

What I'm most annoyed about is that some of the features should be easily integrated into the 1st generation iPad - specifically the improvements to the Notification System and the Facebook integration. The Do Not Disturb element of iOS6 notifications should be considered an critical omission from the initial implementation and should therefore be available across the board as an iOS5 update release. I am sick and tired of being woken up in the middle of the night by messages flashing up. OK, I could just switch into Airport mode overnight, but I need to remember to do it, and Apple don't exactly make it a one switch operation.

Over the next week I'll research how to jailbreak the iPad and weight up the pros and cons of doing so. I know that some of the annoyances I have generally with the original iPad can be alleviated by jailbreaking so it may be an option. I'll keep you posted on how this progresses in future blog entries.

But for now I'm bitterly disappointed with Apple's decision not to support the iPad 1. I can't see any technical reasons (in the same way that I don't understand why iPhoto for iOS can't run on the 1st generation iPad - actually it can and it does on mine!) because if the 3GS iPhone is supported, the technically superior iPad 1 should certainly be capable.

Maybe, if enough people complain, Apple will have a change of heart, but don't hold your breath. I do intend to write to Tim Cook and Scott Forstall about this, even if it's only to feel as though I've done something positive rather than just whinge - but I think it's a very justifiable whinge!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Is iTunes Suffering from Senility?

I lost a great deal of last week repeatedly messing about with iTunes. When I say messing about with iTunes, what I really mean is fixing the mess that iTunes caused with absolutely no intervention from me.

This is just the latest episode of a long running series of mishaps with iTunes, which I can only see continuing ad nauseam like Coronation Street or Eastenders for as long as I continue to  add content (purchased via iTunes or otherwise).

Don't get me wrong. As a piece of functional software I quite like iTunes. Most of the time it does what it is supposed to do. It does it without much prompting from me, and I've not resorted to using Doug's Scripts to add functionality - only to fix cock-ups (more on that later). I use the excellent Cover Sutra app to display my current selection on the screen, and I use Cover Scout 3 to fix artwork when it's missing or I think it can be improved on. Sometimes I run TuneUp and I used to use TuneRanger a lot when trying to sync between computers but even this has been superseded by iMatch (after a fashion).

So iTunes as a daily operational programme is fine...until something goes wrong and when it does it's generally catastrophic.

Let's step back in time for a moment. When PCs were first readily available either as business or home user devices they were pretty limited. A 20Mb hard disk was considered quite large and 256Kb of RAM was a fairly standard configuration. These limits were enforced by processor and operating system constraints. Software workarounds were available but were messy. These days of course we walk around with tiny 1Tb hard disks in our laptop bags in addition to 500Gb internal drives and RAM is also measured in Gb. Which is just as well, because my music collection alone currently weighs in at 140Gb and my video library is approaching 400Gb. Experience has taught me to keep the two seperate as a damage limitation exercise. The problem is that we just assume that programmes can cater for ever increasing file sizes, and I am not convinced that this is a safe assumption.

Some more history: whilst on my first tour of duty in Switzerland my iTunes music library on my laptop had a semi fatal hiccup and a whole bunch of purchased music went AWOL. My Time Machine backup also failed catastrophically. In all I lost about 12 albums worth of music - not whole albums mind - just a few songs off each one. I contacted Apple support, who to their credit, have always been remarkably helpful and made stuff available within a few hours with no questions asked. This time they made everything available - all 5000 songs and 100 TV shows/films. It was actually too helpful, because of course, in those days you had no control over what should or shouldn't be downloaded. It was all or nothing.

As I only had mobile internet access in Zurich there wasn't much I could do until I got home. It then took in the region of a week download everything. And another week to sort the mess out - weeding out duplicates and trying to merge previous backups to try and restore the old metadata - like original date added and  playcounts. (A similar thing happened last year in Zurich but just a few songs went missing, and it was possible to redownload them without going through Apple support thanks to the Purchases option in iTunes store.)

In fact, to this day, I still don't really know whether I got everything right, but it doesn't matter anymore because last week something similar happened. This time it appeared to be down to a glitch in iMatch. I subscribed to iMatch the day it was first unavailable in the UK (shortly after it appeared in the UK and us early birds signed up, it disappeared for 24 hours!).

By now my music library had grown to 16000 songs, but it was a similar random access attack on the library - only a few whole albums vanished, mainly it was a handful of songs from a large selection of my purchased. Running Doug's List MIAs script showed that nearly 600 items were missing. This time I had access to a working backup which I duly restored overnight. When I checked in the morning everything was back as expected. Until I loaded iTunes later in the day and the same thing had happened - with exactly the same selection of songs.

After a week of messing about with backups, restores, redownloading tracks and rebuilding libraries, I finally have a complete library again. Or at least as complete as I can get it. I've messed around trying to get as much of the metadata looking right thanks to Doug's scripts (particuarly New Play Count and Last Played Date). Sadly the two most useful metadata items for me, Date Added and Purchased Date are not available for me to use the way I want to. I can't change the Date Added field because it's read-only, except to iTunes internally and I can't use the Purchase Date in a SmartList. The Date Added field is a real bummer because everytime I have to rebuild a library the value that gets stored is the current date. So I have some albums with different tracks showing different Date Added values. I could live with that if I could use the Purchase Date to create a SmartList but that isn't an option. I know there's a Doug Script to copy the Purchase Date into the comments field but I haven't got around to trying it yet.

I really wonder how many more times this is going to happen to me. I think that iTunes needs a complete internal overhaul, because I don't believe it is any longer capable of handling these enormous databases and that is causing these catastrophic corruptions. If the application doesn't get a rewrite at least Apple should provide us with diagnostics and repair facilities to make life a bit easier. Manually fixing a 16000 song library is time consuming and painful (not to mention error prone).

Oh, and give me read access to the Purchase Date!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Alfred - Always There When Needed

Well, here we are in 2012 - Happy New Year to you all!

Every effective household needs a butler and the Apple Harvest is no exception. The difference is that we have one. He's called Alfred and he's resident on all the Macs on the network and he's always there when you need him. And he keeps getting better and better!

It's quite hard to describe what Alfred really is so I'm not going to try - I'll let his makers speak for me...

Alfred is a productivity application for Mac OS X, which aims to save you time in searching your local computer and the web. Whether it's maps, Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, you can feed your web addiction quicker than ever before.
  • Increase your productivity by launching apps with shortcuts
  • Instant access to web searches, bookmarks & more
  • Browse and play music from your iTunes library quickly
  • Perform actions - copy, move & email files & folders
  • Ward off RSI - skip using the mouse with easy shortcuts
As if that isn't enough the basic programme is free. For a little bit extra (£15.00) you can add the Alfred Powerpack and add a whole bunch of new features supported by a community of developers. But let's get back to basics first!

Ever since I got my first Mac in 2007 I've used Tiger Launch as my programme launcher. Tiger Launch is a simple menubar resident which displays a (configurable) list of applications when you click on it. At one stage I dallied with QuickSilver but there seemed to be a bit of a steep learning curve to get over before being able to get the best from it, and more importantly, its future was (is?) somewhat uncertain. Alfred seems to have been created by people familiar with QuickSilver but who seemed to have real end users in mind rather than technophiles. Which means that Alfred can be used on many different levels and it allows the user to grow into the programme in their own time, slowly building up their knowledge, understanding and growing in productivity.

Alfred springs into action on a hot key press: in my case Option+Spacebar. At its simplest level Alfred does what Spotlight does - it locates files, applications, documents or whatever, based on search parameters that the user types into the input bar. In this respect it's a fairly standard launcher. But you can also force Alfred to look in more specific places - start your search string with google and it will do a google search on the next text your type in. Start with imdb and it'll search the IMDB database. Specific searches can be user defined as the need arises, but there's a whole bunch of them predefined for you.

Alfred can also do calculator, dictionary and iTunes related things automatically.
As mentioned, the Powerpack add-on extends Alfred considerably. I have written a small extension to load a set of applications that I normally use during the day without having to load them at start-up. I recently downloaded an extension that performs currency conversion by typing (as an example) "convert 100 USD to GBP", and another to add an event into iCal. The possibilities are endless, and there is a serious community of developers out there who are happy to share their creations.

My guess is that anyone who starts using Alfred will soon become a convert. Certainly the testimonies on Twitter suggest that it has an increasing and enthusiastic following. My advice is download it and start playing. After a couple of weeks get yourself the Powerpack. I suggest that you use the Alfred website directly to do the download, and get Alfred to check for its own updates. You can get the basic programme from the Mac App Store but not the Powerpack and this causes a few problems when you later want to install Powerpack.

I've now been using Alfred for over a year and it's probably the most used utility across the Apple Harvest. Highly recommended - if Steve Jobs had designed a launcher from scratch it would probably have looked something like Alfred!