Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 - Ups and Downs of being an Apple User

In addition to spending too much time and too much money on-line I have another vice. I support West Ham United Football Club. If you're a UK reader you're probably already sympathising (or empathising) - for my readers who don't understand the reference, let me explain briefly. West Ham are an old established club who usually play in the top flight of English football but sometimes find themselves in the second rung. They have produced some of the country's best players over the years, but generally can't afford to keep them. They either play exquisite football or they hump it and hope. Their fans are amongst the most loyal in the world but regularly have to endure pain and disappointment when things go pear shaped.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, sometimes, being an Apple user, I get exactly the same feeling as I do when the football results come out and West Ham have either under performed or achieved the seemingly impossible.

Each year I get a few of those moments and this year has been no exception. The "ooooh" moments included getting the iPad mini; converting the MacBook Air into a fully fledged workstation with the Belkin Thunderbolt Dock; and being able to run dual displays under Mavericks with no additional software.

The "aarrgh" moments have been the incompatibilities thrown up with every new release of Mail; the failure of Mavericks to work with DisplayLink and USB external monitors; and the way that the Apple owned TrueSuite software bricked my upgraded Mavericks machines.

The difference between being an Apple user and a West Ham fan comes about by the fact that as a football fan, there is nothing I can do about my team's performance, but as an Apple user, I have access to an awesome support network of millions of similar minded people. I get to harness their creativity in the software they build and the solutions they architect, and I get to provide my own input, through these posts and through Twitter and other forums and networks.

Not only is that reassuring, but it is a fantastic feeling to be a part of that community.

















Happy New Year...to all the Crazy Ones!




Monday, 16 December 2013

Mavericks Woes - Tracking Down the TrueSuite Culprit

Doggone - it's happened again! I was working on the MacBook Air yesterday morning and I had to restart the computer after installing an update but the machine went straight into its infinite reboot mode. I didn't even bother messing about this time - I just went ahead and restored from the previous Time Machine backup taken about 30 minutes previously.



Actually, that's not quite true. I did unplug everything except the mains cable - a step that I had previously neglected to perform when the problem first occurred. But that didn't make any difference.

However, I do think I may have found the culprit...Only time will prove the hypothesis correct, but it seems that the TrueSuite fingerprint recognition software may be responsible for the bad behaviour. Which is really rather ironic, since Apple bought Authentec - the original developers - about a year ago. [For more info about TrueSuite and fingerprint recognition on the Mac, I wrote about it in this post in July 2013]

I had come across some horror stories on the web about Mavericks not playing well with TrueSuite - that may be a bit of an understatement - users were reporting that they couldn't actually logon after installing Mavericks without uninstalling TrueSuite first - regardless of whether a fingerprint scanner was physically present. The general consensus has been to remove TrueSuite before even attempting to install Mavericks.

Whilst I never suffered the problem of being unable to login following a power-up, I did find that I couldn't log out and log back in without a full restart. So, yesterday morning, as I was doing some general housekeeping, I decided to remove TrueSuite using the appropriate uninstall programme. And the next thing I knew was that the machine would no longer reboot.

While I was restoring the system I started doing some more investigation along these lines and lo and behold, many users were reporting that if you tried to uninstall TrueSuite on a 10.9.x Mac it would not reboot and a restore would be required. In fact the safest thing to do was to restore to a Mountain Lion version, uninstall TrueSuite and THEN upgrade to Mavericks. Now you tell me!! After I've bricked two machines, one of them twice!

In fact, Apple have now published a work around for the problem which doesn't involve removing TrueSuite from a Mavericks machine. All that's required is to disable "Fingerprint Log On" from within TrueSuite. [December 12, 2013]

In summary:

  • if you have TrueSuite installed and haven't yet upgraded to Mavericks, uninstall TrueSuite now, as this is the safest thing to do
  • if you've already installed Mavericks, do not attempt to uninstall TrueSuite but disable the "Fingerprint Log On" option in the settings
  • make sure you have a recent backup of your system whatever else you do
Other functionality within TrueSuite may or may not be working as expected under Mavericks, I've not had time to investigate properly yet. Don't take anything for granted though, and sadly don't expect your existing fingerprint scanner to work on a Mac through newer releases of OS X.

If you've suffered this or similar problems with TrueSuite under Mavericks, please let me know - there seems to be a lot of folk in the same predicament and it would be good to let Apple know that TrueSuite users are suffering and back it up with hard evidence.

Finally, as we head into the last full week before Christmas, my current Number 1 favourite game for the iPad is The Room Two. It's just as beautiful and evocative as its predecessor and great for casual gamers and puzzle solvers like me. And it's a snip at £2.99!



Happy Christmas everyone, and see you in the New Year!




Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Mavericks Woes - A Real Conundrum

Two weekends ago I had to return back to Apple Harvest HQ from my girlfriend's house to sort a few things out and to pick up some forgotten bits and pieces.

On the Sunday morning I booted up the MacBook Air for the first time since I'd arrived since I'd been using the iMac exclusively over the course of the weekend. Well, I tried to boot it up but it wasn't having any of it. The Apple logo would appear, then the start-up chime would sound and the spinning gear wheel would start, all as normal. Then the screen would flicker and the gear wheel would change appearance slightly before stopping completely. The screen would then flicker again, changing colour slightly, the wheel would spin a bit more and so on. But it wouldn't boot.



I tried rebooting in safe mode and although the safe mode progress bar would appear the result was the same. Boot failure. For the next hour, I tried every trick in the book. I cleared the PRAM, SMC, ran the internal diagnostics (no issues!), reinstalled Mavericks through booting up in recovery mode but nothing worked. The disk utility checks also indicated that the flash drive was OK. I had been thinking the worst - that this was a major hardware failure and was likely to be very expensive (although the MBA is still covered by Apple Care until next July) - but if the logic board had failed, or the video was knackered, then I wouldn't have been able to run any of the utilities or reinstall the OS.

I had a Time Machine backup from the previous Thursday so I decided to restore this as a last resort. It worked, and I've not had any problems since.

This last weekend I went back to HQ again to check on things. I've been remotely connected to the iMac via Slink but noticed that one or two updates had failed, so I decided to reboot the machine and try again. And guess what...Yes, exactly the same scenario as with the MBA. Complete boot failure under every attempt. The only difference on this occasion was that under the dual screen set-up, the extended display flickered rather than the main iMac display.

In this instance I was unable to fix the iMac - for some reason, Time Machine has not been backing up to the 3Tb Time Capsule for the last month so my most recent backup available was pre-Mavericks. However, I did clone the disk as a precaution should I lose the connection to the iMac from Mel's house. Sadly I didn't have it with me this weekend, and I also ran out of time, so I'm hoping that a clean install of Mavericks and a restore of the cloned disk will end up getting me the right result, namely a fully restored iMac.

How extraordinary that two different machines, with completely different configurations should fail in exactly the same way within a fortnight of each other. Coincidence? I doubt it, but I'm stumped as to the root cause. I can only guess that some installation or update of something has caused it - but it's now impossible to narrow it down. I've not seen the message boards or forums awash with this specific problem, although I have seen some similar instances, but no pain free solutions or root causes.

So, until I get home next week, there's nothing I can do except sit and wait, and hope that my proposed fix will work - note to self...remember to take the clone disk home and not write over it in the meantime!!!!!




Sunday, 1 December 2013

Dear Apple Santa...

It's only three and a bit weeks until Christmas, and I have been very good this year. I've written lots of Apple Harvest posts and increased the number of people viewing the blog. I've supported lots of independent developers by buying their software, and lots of hardware manufacturers by buying their shiny kit.


So here's what I'd like you to do for Christmas:

  • Fix the Displaylink problems that have caused so many people with USB monitors so much trouble when they upgraded to Mavericks. This won't help me, because I've given up and bought a new 24" monitor and donated the USB monitor to my girlfriend to use at home with her Wintel work laptop
  • Fix iTunes match so that play counts work. I know this is an old one, but for goodness sake, it's been going on for far too long
  • Find a way to turn off the worthless warnings on iOS devices when using non-Apple Lightning connectors. So far, all the non-Apple cables and adaptors I've bought work just fine - as do all the non-supported devices
  • Stop fiddling about with Mail, especially when you make Mail add-ins stop working
  • Update the Apple Thunderbolt display and bring it into the 21st century with some USB 3.0 ports (oh, and drop the price to something resembling a monitor rather than an iMac!)
  • Let me change the volume of the start-up tone on my MacBook Air or even mute it completely
You see, I'm not greedy. Most of these things won't take much effort but they'd bring pleasure to thousands of Mac users, including me.

So thank you and Merry Christmas in advance, Apple Santa! Ho, ho, ho!




Friday, 15 November 2013

My Top 6 OS X Pre Mavericks Bug Fixes - Revisited

Back in July this year I published a set of bugs/features that I wanted to have sorted out before or with the release of OS X 10.9 a.k.a Mavericks. For your delectation and delight I thought I'd revisit that list and give an update on how I perceive things to have improved. Of course, what works or doesn't work for me may be different to other people's environments, but most of the issues I wrote about in July were common to a lot of folk - if the discussion forums are anything to go by! Keeping with the same random order as before, I started with three gripes about iTunes.


iTunes and iMatch

At the time of writing we're now onto iTunes 11.1.3. So we've been through a major version increase and several minor revisions since July. And nothing much has changed regarding my specific issues.
  • Playcounts are still a mess and iMatch still screws things up by returning corrupted meta data whereby play counts or the last played date are wiped out
  • In Home Sharing mode playlists can only be viewed as lists of songs and not shown in artist or album view
  • It still takes a long time for the Check Library function to complete if iTunes has been forced to quit, especially on very big (approaching 1Tb or bigger) libraries

MacAppStore

The specific problem I referred to in July of installed apps not appearing in the update or purchased lists hasn't manifested itself for some time, so, touch wood, it may have been resolved in the Mavericks update.

Time Machine

Similarly the Time Machine "sparse.bundle already in use", or "Time Machine Disk cannot be found" messages have not reared their ugly heads for a long while. This could be down to improved firmware in the Time Capsule or a bug fix in Time Machine, but for now at least this is no longer a problem for me.

Networking

My jury of one is still out on this network issue of wireless networks being dropped on sleep. I'm not running Sleepless any more, but since moving to my girlfriend's house the network environment is so different from Apple Harvest HQ I'm not sure quite what is going on. Certainly, after a quick sleep, the wireless network is still there, but I haven't really logged the behaviour over a longer period. Certainly things are moving in the right direction.

Air Play

I no longer have access to an Air Play speaker like I do at Apple Harvest HQ, so again haven't really been able to monitor the state of play with Mavericks, but on the occasions when I have been at home I've not noticed Air Play problems to the extent I was getting them.

Safari

Aside from some of the teething problems I had with early installs of Mavericks, I happy to report that Safari, by and large is now behaving itself again. There are occasional glitches, but having finally ditched Glims once and for all, I'm not sure whether the quirks may have been Glims induced.

Not a bad result really. Everyone at Apple with the exception of the iTunes team clearly reads the Apple Harvest and prioritises their bug fixing accordingly. OK, so that's a bit of wishful thinking, but in five categories a whole bunch of niggles have disappeared completely or to an extent that they are no longer causing me grief.

All I need now is an update to fix the DisplayLink issues on USB monitors and a rewrite of iTunes - preferably one that splits out Music and Video like they've done with iBooks.  Anyone got any 'genuine' insights into OS X 10.10?

Let me know if you've had the same or similar experiences, or tell me about your own pet bugs that are driving you mad!






 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

I Want a True Alpha Mail for my Macs (♂)

As I've indicated in these posts previously, I was a fully paid up member of 'The Establishment' for many years before going freelance and switching from corporation mandated Wintel boxes to Macs and the Apple infrastructure. I used to receive and process hundreds of emails every day when I was in a senior management position and I have to admit that Microsoft's Outlook was actually pretty good at the job. On the odd occasion that there were problems it was usually a server issue rather than a software problem.



Most importantly, Outlook hasn't really changed much over all the years I've used it. Sure, the appearance of Outlook 2013 is different to its counterpart from 10 years ago, but most of the features and workflows are similar. The guys at Microsoft don't make a habit of tinkering with the programme every release and breaking things that didn't need fixing in the first place.

In fact, when I first switched to the Mac, I eschewed Apple Mail in favour of Entourage, and only ditched it when the volumes of incoming email started to get back up to silly levels and the single database structure became too fragile. I reluctantly moved to Apple Mail and have stuck with it ever since. I have a very complex system of mailboxes and rules which makes sure that all incoming and outgoing mail is stored where I can easily find it. I then use MailTags to highlight specific types of mail like Invoices, Receipts and Licences.

But with every release of OS X I get really mad when I load up Mail for the first time and I find that things no longer work they way they used to, or fail to work at all :-

  • Inevitably, Mail add-ons will be broken (my perennial favourite, DockStar, is not even being supported by its original owners because they're fed up of having to keep updating it). I know that Mail APIs are largely unpublished so this is to be expected until Apple decides to make them public
  • Sharing Mail across a network of machines of different ages is no longer possible once a Mac loses it's ability to run the latest OS because internal Mail structures are not backwards compatible
  • Rules seem to break with every new version of Mail for no apparent reason

Apple Mail 7.0 that arrived with Mavericks has had a lot of press because of its inability to play nicely with Gmail (largely because Google decided to implement a non-standard version of the IMAP protocol). I don't use Gmail directly - but my Virgin UK ISP uses a version of Gmail as its mail manager. Despite having read most of the details of the issues, and now having the latest update installed, I've yet to resolve my specific problem, which is that almost all my mail bypasses the Inbox and goes straight into an Archive mailbox (also bypassing the rules processing). This archive mailbox never existed prior to release 7 so I have no idea who owns it, or how to get rid of it. Or how to stop it taking over my mail!

My only option at present is to regularly process the Archive mailbox using Alt+Cmd+L which forces the rules to run on all messages in the mailbox - that way at least I know there's a copy in the right place. Once I'm happy that things are in their proper mailboxes I then have to delete everything from the Virgin mail servers through webmail. This is not a satisfactory state of play!!

I don't particularly want to ditch Apple Mail. I've got used to it, it mostly does what it's supposed to do, mostly does it pretty well, and third party support is generally very good. But more critically, I can't find a decent alternative - with the possible exception of Outlook, but I'm not buying another full copy of Office for Mac just to get the Outlook programme. (Why oh why, Microsoft, can't you sell it as an add-on or even an in-app purchase?) I have bought of copy of Unibox but haven't got round to setting it up yet, and I know it's a significant departure from the way I'm used to working.

As far as I can remember the best implementation of Apple Mail was probably the one that shipped with Snow Leopard. Every version since has increased the number of niggles.

Please Apple, get Mail sorted once and for all and either publish or stop tinkering with the APIs. Let me get back to focusing on reading and writing mail rather than having to perform all the housekeeping as well!











Thursday, 7 November 2013

Setting Up a New Home Office away from Home

After 7 years together, with almost as many false starts as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, I've moved into my girlfriend's house. No don't worry, the Apple Harvest isn't turning into a relationship diary or a place to air all our dirty washing. But as a freelancer, who may need to up shop at a moment's notice, this sort of move is a bit of a challenge, particularly when it coincides with a major new OS X release. It's also different from the type of move I've encountered in the past when I've been working abroad for months at a time.

Clearly, when I'm at home, everything I need to get me through the day is on tap. A dedicated office with superfast (120Mbps) broadband, 155 TV channels, supercharged WiFi coverage, a 1.5Tb iTunes library on my 3Tb iMac hybrid drive, an apparently unlimited quality of storage, via a plethora of external drives, and a wonderful local pub which is only 5 minutes walk away.

My partner, Mel, only lives about 10 miles away but I don't want to be to-ing and fro-ing all the time (especially as a non-driver) so I had to make some careful choices about what to take and what to leave, and indeed what extra kit I might need. I also needed to take into account a much slower broadband connection, shared between two teenage boys who appear to be permanently on-line at home, their mum and myself.

Because I need to be flexible regarding work opportunities, I opted for the MacBook Air over the iMac, and decided to bring the Belkin Thunderbolt hub along for the ride. I put all my music, TV shows and most of my films on a Seagate 1Tb Thunderbolt drive, mainly because I wasn't sure how well iMatch would work over a much slower network, and because that way it can come with me if I need to work away. (In fact it isn't a problem, and using Slink networking software I can access the iMac remotely.)

Although I find the 13inch MBA display fine for short periods of time, I have really got used to the 27inch iMac screen and the second 24inch extension monitor that sits on my desk at home. To  recreate this in a scaled down way I decided to buy an AOC USB powered 21inch LCD unit which was less than £100, and plugs into  two of the Belkin's USB 3 ports. My Mobee Magic Feet device plugs into the final USB port, so I can keep the Magic Keyboard, Magic Trackpad and a pair of Magic Mice charged, without constantly messing around with batteries. It also provides an additional 4 USB 2.0 ports just in case, one of which is used to charge my iPhone.

My TwelveSouth PlugBug World Charger snaps onto the MBA MagSafe and its USB port provides enough power to charge both an iPad (3rd gen.) and iPad Mini (1st gen.).

Having gone to all the trouble of sorting out my music library which is a little short of 30,000 tracks, I needed something a bit better than the MBA speakers. Initially I was going to use my Samsung SBR51 SoundBar, but whilst this is fine as a bluetooth speaker for iOS devices, I have never got it working properly with OS X as it cuts out every few minutes. No way was I unplugging my old trusty Logitech Z3 2.1 system from the iMac - so I looked around for something at a decent price (I was thinking no more than £80 or thereabouts). The JBL Creature III and Edifier Lifestyle E1100 were at the top of the list until I finally saw the Harman/Kardon SoundSticks III in the flesh. I'd heard so many positives about these speakers and as I could pick up a new pair for under £100 I decided to splash out. No regrets - they sound as awesome as they look.

Finally, I have an Airport Express box (2012 version with the power cable) which I've used to set up a wired connection to the ethernet port on the Belkin hub. Ultimately this will get replaced with a pair of PowerLine adapters connecting directly to the router.

Currently I'm aware of a few glitches. The USB monitor is connected via DisplayLink which currently doesn't play properly with Mavericks. It works, but there are a few glitches - most significantly some of Apple's own apps don't play nicely at all. Maps and iPhoto in particular only work properly when on the laptop display; on the AOC the main window won't generally render. DisplayLink insist it is an Apple issue so we'll have to wait to see how that unfolds.



This is what it all looks like now it's all set up and running (on my lovely new Piranha desk). Not bad for a home office away from home. And big thanks to Mel for letting me have the spare room!

I'm especially pleased that my previous purchasing choices have proved to be effective and that the extra outlay has been relatively small. But I guess ultimately the real test is going to be how much work I get done...!




Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Bulk Out Your MacBook Air Storage Without Adding Bulk

The biggest problem with the MacBook Air is the fact that you have to make a commitment to your selected configuration the moment that you order it. Once you've chosen your memory and storage allocations at the time of purchase you are lumbered with them. Especially memory - so the best advice is to max out the memory up front. Although you can't increase the on-board SSD storage you do at least have some other options.

The easiest and most flexible way to add storage to a MacBook Air is plug in an external hard drive. USB 2, USB 3 and Thunderbolt drives are now available in all sorts of sizes and colours, not to mention weights, depending on whether you want portable or desktop models.

There is also an increasing number of wireless drives now hitting the market - generally in much smaller capacities than wired drives, but at least there's one less cable to have to think about.

USB flashdrives and SD cards provide yet another option, again generally in relatively low capacities, but these have the downside of sticking out of the laptop and taking up valuable ports.

Over the years I've tried just about everything. Different options for different scenarios, but I've long wanted a simple, cost effective and permanent solution to increase the maximum 256GB SSD drive space on my 13" 2011 MBA. And now I've found one!

The PNY 128GB StorEDGE Expansion Module (a 64GB version also exists) is specially designed for any MacBook that sports an SD slot. It is a bit smaller than a normal SD card and has a black plastic thumbnail grip to help push and pull it in and out of the machine. Once it is in the slot all that you can see is this 2-3mm edge, so the card is, to all intent and purpose, flush with the laptop. So it can stay there - pretty much permanently - without getting in the way of anything.

StorEDGE 128GB MacBook Expansion Card

Performance is not going to be as fast as other storage media, but I copied a 30Gb iTunes library from the MBA onto the StorEDGE in under 20 minutes. But if it's performance you're after you're missing the point - this is designed as a write rarely, read frequently device. It's ideal for iTunes, iPhotos, and other media files, work archives, and the like.

I couldn't find a UK supplier sadly. It's available from the US Amazon store but they won't ship to the UK. I got mine through eBay - where it cost $149 with $22 P&P. There was an additional $40 to cover import duty, so the total cost was about £130. Having placed the order on Sunday, it arrived 9 days later, much earlier than anticipated.

[UPDATE: I've since found a UK supplier, SCAN, who have the StorEDGE 128GB in stock. They charge £95.50 including next day delivery]

It is quite a lot of money to splash out - if you or someone you know is going to the US it would be worth getting one out there. However, this is a great solution for extending a MacBook without extra wires or another box to put in your laptop bag. And bear in mind that the price difference between a 13" MBA with 128GB of storage and one with 256GB of storage is £180.

Finally, please note that this is a dedicated expansion card, designed for MacBooks and it won't fit in your camera. Do not confuse this with cheaper and lower capacity SD cards which are also available from PNY and many other manufacturers.



Monday, 14 October 2013

Testing Times With Mavericks (OS X 10.9)


This is the first year that I've been officially part of the Apple Development Community, and as such the first time I've ever used a pre-release version of an Apple OS.



I loaded Mavericks onto my old MacBook Pro (mid 2007) when it was released as version 6, a couple of months ago. I was genuinely pleased that it loaded and ran on a relatively old machine. To be honest, I really don't use the MBP much these days, so it was a fairly safe bet, but because I don't use it that much, I wasn't really getting a good handle on of the Mavericks experience. But two things were for certain - the machine wasn't crashing and performance wasn't being stifled.
So I decided to repeat the exercise with my 2011 MacBook Air. By this time we were on version 8. Once again I had no problems with the installation or general performance. In fact, in many ways I couldn't really distinguish much difference over 10.8 Mountain Lion. With one major exception. Safari turned into a disaster zone and became virtually unusable. I'm not sure what caused the problems, and I wasn't going to hang around to find out. I restored Mountain Lion (luckily without any incident) and reconsidered the warnings about not using beta versions of an OS on a workhorse machine.
With the release of the GM version of Mavericks, I decided it was worth another go. The experience has been much less painful - but I do still have some quibbles with Safari, almost all of which are around the problem of not being able to click on links. Some of this is down to badly designed websites which are clearly only designed for IE, and maybe Firefox, but it still causes me some pain.
Some of my newly discovered toys don't work anymore but I'm not too surprised at that, as they almost all do some shenanigans with the core UI code. But some of them, such as Flavours, already have beta versions that will, and do, work under Mavericks. 1Password 4 is causing me some teething troubles - it installed OK but is prone to tantrums (it's having different tantrums under 10.8.5 so maybe Mavericks isn't the problem here). I find that occasionally some applications don't seem to want to load, no matter how many times I try. Terminal and Contacts are specific examples. But a reboot does seem to fix that - I'm thinking this issue maybe due to other beta software
I'm guessing that between now and some time in the next few weeks, before the offical public release, we'll be seeing a flurry of activity from developers and new releases of software will be a regular occurrence. And then the auto update feature in the Mac App Store will be a real blessing as it already has proved to be under iOS7.
Batttery life does seem to have improved considerably, so there is clearly a lot of stuff going on under the hood. My third party battery status software is showing that I've got 85% left on this charge and it's estimating that it's good for 5 more hours. Admittedly that's with most background apps switched off, but it's still much more than I'm used to.
For now, I'm happy to keep the GM release running on the MBA (although I think I'll keep the iMac on Moutain Lion). Which means I can start using some of the other features I've been reluctant to try, especially File Tagging. And if 1Password continues to misbehave I may even resort to KeyChain in the Cloud. We'll see. For me at least, there is every reason to take advantage of the full update when it is made available, especially at the price point widely expected to be around £20. Even if it is a whopping 5+ Gb of download!



Thursday, 3 October 2013

Yes! You Can Change the Appearance of Mountain Lion's Dock


In my recent post about customising the appearance of Mountain Lion on the Mac (How Mountain Lion Changed Its Spots) I rued the demise of the ability to change the appearance of the Dock.

Ever since Mountain Lion was launched I've had the odd moment searching for a solution but all I've ever found were lots of people sharing my disappointment or references to Mirage. Mirage  is a one-trick pony which just makes the dock background vanish - which for me is preferable to the drab grey monstrosity that Apple's UI guys forced on us - but I still yearn for the days of rainbow docks or grassy verges or at least vibrant colours.

Last night I found the docking grail in the form of DockMod. It was written especially to provide all those things I just mentioned and does the job brilliantly and simply.

DockMod - the grail of dock tools!
DockMod comes from SpyreSoft and you can download a free trial (in fact you have to download it to be able to purchase it!). When you decide to purchase (there's no doubt you will) it comes in at $8.00 (about £5.00). The license is only valid on a single machine but you get three coupons to purchase additional copies with a $2.00 discount bringing the cost down to about £3.00 for other machines.

Currently the software doesn't work on the Mavericks developer edition but I hope that an upgrade will be forthcoming.

I love it and I'm sure you will too!

UPDATE - 2013-11-14 A beta version of DockMod is now available from the developer which does work under Mavericks, although as a beta there are some limitations. I have installed it and my dock looks beautiful again!




Friday, 13 September 2013

Kernel Panics Can Seriously Damage Your Health


They say that getting married, moving house, starting a new job and bereavement are the most stressful things that happen to us in our lives. Well, they need to add installing a new or upgraded operating system to the list.

Having successfully installed OS X 10.8.5 on the MacBook Air while having breakfast this morning, I retired to the Apple Harvest office to repeat the process on the new iMac. I should add that both installations were being done through the Mac App Store - no magic tricks required for a routine software update. The OS asked for a restart as usual and when it had rebooted it went straight back into 10.8.4; on the MBA it went to a modeless dialogue box and showed the download progress.

I tried again, and this time I got the expected behaviour. The download proceeded without any problems but when it rebooted I got a multi language message saying something like "the computer had previously closed down because of an error. Wait a few seconds or press any key to continue". I pressed any key and the system went into kernel panic and rebooted into a continuous cycle.


I powered down, waited and restarted. Same thing. I tried to reboot from a different disk (holding down the Alt key) and was surprised to only see the main disk (no recovery disk nor any of the three external drives. Same problem on selecting the drive. I tried safe mode (holding down the Shift key) but it never even made it through the boot sequence. I tried diagnostic mode (holding down the D key) and that appeared to crash after 30 seconds. I was beginning to have my own kernel panic by now.

Not my actual system but you get the idea!


I tried resetting the PRAM (Cmd+Alt+P+R which requires considerable manual dexterity when you've only got little fingers like mine!). A glimmer of light. A new screen came up that I'd never seen before saying "attempting internal recovery" and then a little globe appeared with a progress bar underneath. This ran to completion, rebooted and the same error message appeared briefly before going into the Utilities app. Phew, I thought, at least the machine itself doesn't appear to be kaput.  My worst thought that the 3Tb Fusion drive was corrupt proved to be over-reaction.

I elected to reinstall the OS and after the longest hour of this year, finally everything is back to normal. My heart rate slowly went back to normal and then I noticed the date…Friday 13th September!


Thursday, 5 September 2013

How Mountain Lion Changed Its Spots


I'm not someone who tends to conform. I play nicely with the other kids, but I'm different. Well, I must be. I use a Mac! And while I like vanilla Macs, I prefer mine to be different. Things get customised a lot. Hardware and software alike. Cases, decals, docks, menu bars, desktops; if I can tweak it I do. It's almost obsessive.

But trying to tweak some bits of the user interface prove a bit more difficult than others, especially UI element colours. So you can change the background colour of Finder windows, and you can swap between Blue and Graphite appearances. And there are tools that let you change the backgrounds of Notification centre and the Login screen. And it's easy enough to change icons. And you used to be able to change the colour of the dock (although it seems that now your only option is to hide the background completely using Mirage). But to change the colour of the menu bar or the overall theme of OS X has always proved a bit more of a challenge.

I've looked at various tools in the past but they were too difficult to use to get the adjustments I'm looking for. I tried CrystalClear but ultimately there was too much choice, and without having a lot of time, it was all to easy to make a pig's ear of the whole interface.

But now I've found Flavours (thank you for spelling it the UK way!) and my screens now stand out from the crowd the way I like them to! Flavours is quick and easy and you can create your own themes from scratch or borrow other people's and use them as-is or modify them. You can still make a pig's ear of your screen if you want to, but it's more difficult using Flavours!

Mountain Lion Has Changed Its Spots


Flavours can be downloaded on a trial basis or costs $19.90 ($16.18 for a limited time). It runs on Lion, Mountain Lion and is being beta tested for Mavericks. Check it out, and then you can be different - like me!!!

Next time, some feedback on my not-too-happy experience with Mavericks on the MacBook Air.



Friday, 23 August 2013

Once A Developer…Always A Developer

In the middle of July I finally made the decision to join the Apple Developer Programme. The following day it came to light that the system had been hacked and all access to the programme via the web was removed, and the enrolment page stayed out of commission until the second week in August.

Having once been a successful commercial developer, albeit on non-Apple platforms, I've always had a slight hankering to write my own Mac software and maybe even an iOS app. XCode sits on my iMac, idly standing by, I've enrolled in a couple of on-line courses and I have a couple of books on Objective-C and Cocoa development and iOS development. Whether or not I'll get any further is an unknown, but at least I'm prepared.

No, the main reason for joining the developer programme was to get my grubby little mitts on the beta versions of iOS7 and Mavericks (a.k.a OS X 10.9).

Post hack, the enrollment process was not plain sailing. I only signed up for the individual plan, but when I finally received my activation codes (long after the 24 hours indicated by the initial enrollment menu) and tried to use them, I got an error message saying that Apple were trying to contact my references to ensure that I had authority to join the programme on behalf of my company. This could have taken a long time since I hadn't provided any references, having never been asked for them, but a mail back to the support guys soon got the problem resolved and I finally got access to the treasure chests.

iOS7


Installing iOS7 on my old iPhone 4 proved a challenge - I needed a SIM card in the phone, but all my SIM cards were the wrong size. I managed to get an adaptor and installed beta 5. Even as the installation was taking place beta 6 was released, so the first task was to do the update.

I really like the initial look of iOS7. The black text on a white background looks clean and fresh, and while I share many folks dislike of some of the new icons, they aren't as bad as I first imagined - the wallpaper used in many of the earliest screen shots really didn't help.

The new control panel, allowing quick and easy access to bluetooth, wireless, airplane mode, camera, brightness, etc. is just what the doctor ordered. I like the approach of a pull up panel, in the same way that I like the pull down notification centre panel. Better than having widgets taking up screen real estate when you don't really need them very often.

The new task switching mechanism is a definite improvement. It's great being able to see a proper screen dump of the apps currently running. I think this will be a major feature when apps are updated to take full advantage of the new APIs.

I've had a few problems getting iMatch to load, but this doesn't appear to be an issue with iOS7 specifically; I've had similar problems with the iPad and iPad mini in the past with iOS6.

Until I put in a proper working SIM I'm not going to be able to properly evaluate the beta. For now I'm satisfied that iOS7 is going to be a worthwhile update - even though it appears a little sluggish at the moment. However I'll put that down to being beta and running on a slower iPhone than I'm now used to. Watch this space for more information.

OS X 10.9 - Mavericks



I installed Mavericks on my old 2007 MacBook Pro. So the good news is that many of these older machines are certainly supported. I've not yet had a chance to do much with Mavericks. Off the shelf there doesn't appear to be too much to write about in terms of visible change. It looks like OS X 10.8 - but then many of the features previewed at WWDC were under the hood. Maps and iBook are now apps in their own right. Two of my favourite tools under OS X 10.8, Total Spaces and TotalFinder were flagged as being incompatible but I had already predicted this as Finder now has many of the TotalFinder features built in, e.g. Tabbed windows. File tagging looks useful too. I'll play around more over the next few days and have more to say next time.

September 10th is the generally accepted next big thing in the Apple calendar so it'll be interesting to see what happens between now and then.

In the meantime, enjoy the last throes of summer!


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

It's not all about the future! But...Caveat Emptor!

Regular readers to the Apple Harvest will know that I'm a relative newbie to the Apple brotherhood. I first started using computers at university in 1980, first on ICL 1900/2900 machines, then on a VAX 11/780 and various micros - Superbrains, PETs, and BBC Model Bs. In my first job in the real world I started to use the original IBM PC running DOS alongside IBM 360s. Up until 1998 I was still designing and writing programmes for Windows. I'd never even seen a Mac close up until about 2004, and certainly never used one.

I bought my first Mac in 2008 and have never looked back. Until just recently...one of the downsides of being so late to the party was that I missed out on enjoying some of the classic Macs of yesteryear. But such is the engineering and design quality of the Mac that a machine that now sits on Apple's official obsolete list can still find a place in a modern Mac based network. And you can pick them up at silly prices!

The last PC I bought before my first Mac was an Asus R1F tablet. In 2007 that laptop was pretty much state of the art, and well suited my needs. While it does still work, it has no place in a contemporary office. It takes over forty-five minutes from power up to being in a position to do anything vaguely functional.

ASUS R1F tablet
Why would I mention that? Well, some three or four years earlier, Apple launched the 17inch iMac G4, the 'iLamp', which in my mind is probably the most beautiful computer ever designed. I recently bought a 2003 G4 for about £100. It sits in my bedroom, linked in to the main Apple Harvest network. Within a minute of pushing the power button, the machine is ready and waiting.

Good as new - G4 17inch iMac
I bought my G4 through a Mac specialist on eBay with a good reputation but even when you go through these channel you need to be diligent. The machine arrived a couple of days after putting the order through but on getting it out of the box and starting to set it up, I realised there was something wrong. Although specified as having both Airport and Bluetooth adaptors fitted, a quick check of  About This Mac showed neither were in place.

I contacted the seller, and very soon received a reply, excuse and apology, with instructions on how to return the machine. The next day a courier arrived an took the box away, and about a week later (this all happened over a bank holiday weekend) the replacement came. Everything appeared to be OK regarding connectivity but there was now a problem with the CD/DVD burner - it looked like there was one fitted but I couldn't get it to accept a DVD.

I didn't want the hassle of sending the whole kit and caboodle back to the dealer for a second time so I ordered a replacement DVD drive and downloaded the replacement instructions from iFixit. On receipt of the new drive I began the task of installing it. In fact there was a DVD burner installed - but the cable hadn't been connected (or it had come loose). I attached the connector and put the machine back together, booted up and nothing happened. Nada, zilch - cold sweat and that feeling of panic began to set in, until I realised I hadn't flicked the mains switch. Yes, it happens to even experienced computer users from time to time!!!!

I confess, the G4 is an extravagance. It isn't permanently switched on, unlike most of the other Macs at Apple Harvest HQ, and it's really only getting used to surf the internet and run iTunes. But heck, you'd struggle to get a tablet for that sort of price, never mind a fully functional piece of engineering history and a magnificent art deco item to boot!





Friday, 19 July 2013

Get a Finger on your Passwords


If you're anything like me, you probably have passwords set up for several hundred accounts, web pages, payment cards and suchlike. All have different rules regarding password composition, some use emails as usernames, others need non-email usernames, and some make you change passwords on a regular basis. All of which makes managing accounts a complete nightmare unless you break the cardnial rule of security management and write everything down! Or use some software to help you.



I've used 1Password on my Macs to manage all my 'secrets' since it was first released, and have all those secrets synced onto my iOS devices (although I find 1Password on iOS a pain in the backside to use because of Apple's rules on how apps are allowed to play with each other).

It'll be interesting to see the fate of 1Password with the release of Mavericks later in the year when Keychain for iCloud takes centre stage. Of course, 1Password will continue to have a place for folk using earlier versions of OS X, but I can see a slew of software tools disappearing as Mavericks incorporates their ideas and functionality (TotalFinder, Tags, Punkanea are others that spring instantly to mind). Such is progress but resilient developers will find other opportunities to tout their talents and skills.

In fact 1Password may well continue to exist and flourish under Mavericks, simply because not everyone will want to trust all their most confidential information and data to Apple. Even I have reservations about moving to Keychain for iCloud until the technology is more established and initial bugs ironed out. I simply can't afford to have a situation where OS X has generated passwords (which I can't remember) and which I might not be able to access because of an iCloud glitch. I could indeed see a situation where I will use 1Password as a failsafe backup system, but we shall see. Experiences with iMatch for iTunes make me a little wary about failsafe syncronisation...

There has been quite a lot of noise recently about Apple using fingerprint security on new versions of the iPhone and iPad. The noises started to get louder when Apple bought Authentec (reportedly for $356M in 2012), who make fingerprint scanners and the accompanying TrueSuite software package.

I bought a pair of Upek scanners last year and use them alongside TrueSuite for OS X. Previously, prior to becoming a fully fledged Mac user, I used the Microsoft fingerprint scanner for Windows and was really pleased with the way it worked. That experience is now shared on the Mac - there is something reassuring about using a physical method to access my passwords which doesn't involve me having to remember anything. Of course this type of security is illusory since as soon as the fingerprint scanner is removed anyone who can type (as knows what the passwords are) can access the system.

UPEK Fingerprint Scanner
I'm sure much will be written about KeyChain for iCloud in the next few months and especially after its universal release, and I look forward to playing with it myself. In the meantime I have one request to website designers and businesses - if you don't need to put password access to your websites please don't. Having to remember a gazillion passwords is bad enough - having to remember them when there's nothing to protect is just mean!






Monday, 15 July 2013

Nails in the Coffin for RSI


I have over 750 applications stored on my iMac. Of these probably only about 40 or 50 are used on a regular basis and these are probably the same ones that 90% of the Mac community use. There are my Office apps (MS Office, iWork, Mail), my Web apps (MarsEdit, RapidWeaver. Cyberduck), Project Management apps (Merlin, Curio), Writing apps (Ulysses, Scrivener), Communications (Safari, Tweetbot, MenuTab for Facebook, Facetime), Photo apps (iPhoto, Aperture, Photoshop), and Music apps (iTunes, CoverSutra). Then there are the utilities and 'productivity' enhancers and I'm guessing these probably account for half the items in the Applications folder. I have written about Alfred and Bartender specially in the past, but there are dozens more.

I like playing with new toys, which is what many of these apps are. And like lots of toys, after the initial excitement wears off, they get put in the cupboard and rarely see the light of day again. Once of the first things I'm going to do once I've installed Mavericks is to go through all my apps and work out whether they should have a 'cupboard' tag attached and then archive those that do. Or zap them (AppZap is a great utility that I don't use enough!).

But I'm always on the look out for new toys and yesterday I found two, from the same independent developer, Marc Moini. The first is called AppStore QuickView which is so simple but makes browsing the Mac App Store so much easier. Once it's running AppStore QuickView launches a window in which you can see all the information about any app in the Mac App Store that your mouse is hovering over. So it saves you having to click in and out of items in the store - a great time saver.

App Store with AppStore QuickView window (greyed)

Better still, using AppStore QuickView overcomes one of my real niggles about the Mac App Store. Currently if you are looking at any selection or category which runs over multiple pages, clicking on an app on, say page 3, and then returning will take you back to page 1. This is irritating and time consuming and poor interface design behaviour (and really should have made it into my top 6 bugs from my previous post). But because AppStore QuickView dispenses with the need to click on the item, you never lose your place. Neat.

The second of Marc's offerings is called Smart Scroll. I was a little sceptical when I first saw this but after trying it I've become hooked. Smart Scroll, as the name suggests enhances the scroll function in a variety of ways. Hover Scroll and Auto Scroll are my favourites, but I've still got some investigation to do regarding the other modes.

The Hover Scroll allows you to position the cursor towards the bottom of a scrollable window and then automatically scrolls the contents of the window at a speed you preset. The clever thing is that you can change the scroll speed by moving the cursor closer or further from the bottom of the window. I find this ideal for things like Tweetbot (or any other Twitter client) but brilliant in any application where you are dealing with long documents or web pages.

Auto Scroll only works (currently) with Safari Reader, Preview, QuickLook and Skim). Auto Scroll is initiated by pressing the Option (⌥) key and you change the speed with the right and left cursor keys.

There is a huge amount of control offered within the program. Just about any setting can be pre-set and finely tuned through the Preference Pane, even allowing specific settings for individual apps.

A word of warning - there is a version of Smart Scroll in the Mac App Store called Scroll+ but this doesn't include the Auto Scroll mode or allow as much flexibility. Go to the developer's site directly for the full uncompromised version.

Both apps are available on an evaluation basis so you can try them out first. It didn't take me long to get the licenses for both. On a one user/many computers basis the cost was a little over £20 including tax.

Both these utilities are nails in the coffin for RSI. Thanks Marc!


Saturday, 13 July 2013

My Top 6 OS X Pre Mavericks Bug Fixes


I can't wait until the autumn when OS X Mavericks arrives (hopefully!). From what I've seen and read so far, the highlights for me are :

  • Proper multi-display handling (why so long?)
  • Searchable tags in Finder (again why so long?)
  • Improved notification support (especially across devices)
  • iCloud Keychain (with reservations)

But before we get too excited about these 'innovations' (let's face it these aren't genuine innovations, they are integrated improvements which in many cases are already available through 3rd party software (e.g. Tags, 1Password), I hope Apple have gone through the support logs, bug reports and forums, although the latter may be a misguided hope) to find out what still needs fixing after multiple incarnations of OS X.

I have six areas I've singled out for attention. They aren't real show stoppers but they are annoying because of their longevity, and the fact that they do appear to affect thousands of users. So here are my top six bugbears (in no significant order)

iTunes / iMatch

I love iMatch. My music library alone has over 27,000 songs in it, which is clearly impossible to keep on anything other than a Mac with a 250Gb drive, and certainly not on any iOS devices. Even my 160Gb iPod classic has already gone overdrawn (unless you listen to nothing but 3 minute pop songs the estimate of 40,000 songs in your pocket is a clear overestimate). But my  number one bug with iMatch is the way that play counts get screwed up everytime iMatch weaves its magic. Last played dates remain intact but play counts are re-zeroed. This seems to happen pretty much at random - I can't see any patterns. Sometimes 100 songs are affected, sometimes it's as many as 17,000. But many of my smartlists use play counts and I have to rely on Doug's Apple Scripts for iTunes to fix the problem to make these smart lists work properly. OK, it's not mission critical, but as a former programmer I can't believe this is anything more than a five minute fix.

Another issue I have with iTunes is that I'd like to see the same viewing options in the Home Sharing that I have in the dedicated library support, specifically regarding playlists. I think this is an omission rather than a bug, but I'd like to see my home share playlists as something more than a plain list.

Final iTunes gripe is the amount of time it takes to check the integrity of the iTunes library after a crash or improper exit. Please find a way to speed this up - it can take 10 minutes or so on a really large library, and I want to listen to my music now!

Mac App Store

I've documented the problem with the Mac App Store in a previous post, but this bug is still lurking and it would appear to be due to Apple linking the internal store data to the user's spotlight index. So, when the spotlight index gets corrupted, for whatever reason, the Mac App Store can't work out which apps are installed, which need updating or which new apps should be installed. If Apple used a separate index for the Mac App Store app rather than relying on spotlight I would expect this bug to disappear. Again, this situation can usually be resolved by rebuilding the spotlight index, but this can take hours, and the user shouldn't have to understand how this works in order to be able to update their apps.

Time Machine

There are a few issues that regularly occur with Time Machine backups but I'm guessing this is not an easy problem to fix. Nevertheless, I would argue that anything to do with backing up your system can be classed as mission critical and as such I would urge Apple to look closely at some of the more common problems. My two favourites ("?"!!) are "Time Machine Disk cannot be found" and "Sparse.bundle already in use".

In both cases, for me at least, rebooting the Time Capsule (or sometimes the modem/router) will almost always fix the problem, but takes down the system at the same time since the TC device is my wireless router.

Integrity of Time Machine backups is paramount and while the backup and restore system usually works perfectly, there are enough glitches for me not to have complete confidence that my systems are 100% safe without taking additional steps like regularly cloning disks.

Networking

There's a well reported issue with network access being lost when a Mac goes to sleep. Apparently Apple are aware of some significant problems in this space and the last couple of 10.8.x betas have asked developers to look out for changes in this area. It seems a shame that Apple have included the 'power nap' feature in Mountain Lion but many people can't take advantage of it since they have no network once the machine is asleep. Maybe this will be fixed in the forthcoming 10.8.5 release - fingers and ethernet cables crossed! At present I'm getting round the problem by using a 3rd party app called Sleepless but this comes with a potential overheating health warning (especially in this hot weather!).

AirPlay

I've also documented AirPlay problems on this blog in the past. AirPlay is one of those funny things - it either works or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, it just seems a matter of starting everything again. Some improved diagnostics would be really helpful (unlike Error -1500 …) if nothing else.

Safari

This is a relatively new issue that I've noticed where sometimes Safari just partially freezes. The menu works, scrolling works, selecting tabs works but noe of the controls on a page work. Buttons can't be pressed, input fields can't be filled. This only appears to be on certain sites - I have most problems with the Amazon login page. The only fix I have to date is to restart Safari.


As I've indicated, none of these problems is without a work around, and none are that critical (exception possibly being Time Machine). But they do cause interruptions, they force me to spend time fixing them when I could be doing something more productive - and overall they detract from the whole Apple OS X experience, where stuff just works!

Any specific bugs you'd like to see fixed before Mavericks? Drop me a note via the comments or @allygill on Twitter so we can compare notes.

Enjoy the summer!


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A Gaggle of Gizmos


In this post I'll be taking a look at a few of the "life enhancing" gadgets recently installed at Apple Harvest HQ; some big, some small (in both size and price) but all valuable additions to the business.

Apple Harvest HQ - Main Office

Mobee Magic Feet


In my last post I mentioned the Mobee Magic Feet gizmo which had just been delivered. There's a plethora of Magic Mice, Magic Trackpads and Apple Keyboards at Apple Harvest HQ, which potentially could mean splashing out a lot of cash each year on batteries or having the inconvenience of constantly having spare batteries on charge, so I've long been a fan of the Mobee induction chargers for Apple input devices (see post - Two New Toys from Feb 2011).

The Magic Feet charger is the latest in the family and allows you to charge up to three devices at once. It also adds an extra 4 USB 2.0 ports to your system which, in my view, is never a bad thing. The charger comes in emaculate packaging like all Mobee products, and looks like it was developed in the Apple packaging lab in Cupertino.

At Apple Harvest HQ there was a void in the main office. A solitary Magic Mouse charger was in place but the Magic Trackpad was still battery operated as was the spare Magic Mouse. (The main office is the only place where you won't find an Apple keyboard. Instead there's a Logitech solar powered K750-Mac keyboard which has similar 'green' credentials, and is an absolute joy to use!) The Magic Feet device has filled the void perfectly and the main office is now battery free.

Mobee Magic Feet


There's not really much to say about the Magic Feet - it just works. In the earlier post I mentioned an issue about never seeing a mouse charge above 80% of capacity, and it does indeed seem that Apple's original calculations didn't take into account the battery packs used by outfits like Mobee. This is no longer the case and keyboards, trackpads and mice alike, now show batteries at full capacity after an appropriate amount of charge time. Currently the best place to go is Apple who sell it for £120. This is pricey (especially if you already have Mobee systems in place), but it was cost effective in my case since I got an extra mouse and a trackpad charging unit which would have cost over £50 on their own. Mobee still claim the unit will pay for itself within 6 months of office use or 12 months of home use. For me the blessing of no more batteries is priceless!


PNY ThinkSafe Portable Laptop Locking System


Given that the MacBook Air is a very expensive and desireable piece of kit, I find it a little bit surprising that Apple elected not to provide any way of physically protecting the laptop from theft. Software protection mechanisms have been around for a while, but systems like "Find My Mac" only take effect after a theft (or loss) and a physical cable lock like those available for use on most laptops go a long way to deter a casual thief in the first place. I have finally found a solution for the MacBook Air and while it is not perfect, it does the job.

The PNY ThinkSafe Portable Laptop Locking System (doesn't realy roll off the tongue does it?!)) consists of a slotted metal plate that you insert through the hinge of the MBA and a combination lock/steel cable which you loop around a sturdy object and attach to the plate through a small slot at the back of the laptop.

Initially it's a bit scary sliding metal objects through the MBA hinge, but once you get the knack it's easy to insert and remove and I've yet to see any damage to the MBA case (despite comments from others to the contrary).

The PNY ThinkSafe plate slips through the MBA hinge

The system comes with plates for a range of different laptops and you are provided with a 4 digit combination - you don't select your own - which you need to register on-line in case you forget it (as I realised I had when I started writing this, although luckily I remembered enough to get it open in the end!).

Make sure you remember your combination - this isn't mine!
The ThinkSafe system won't stop someone with enough time, tools and intent, but it will stop the casual opportunist thief from stealing your laptop off your table in Starbucks. And to be honest, £16 is not a huge sum to pay for peace of mind.

Go Gadgets USB Fan


It can sometimes get rather warm in the Apple Harvest HQ main office (although, thankfully, the Lenovo has now gone which has helped lower the temperature considerably). I saw this Go Gadgets USB Retro Fan on Amazon and was surprised at how positive the reviews were (4.3/5 from 73 reviewers) and decided to risk the £10 asking price. When it arrived I was even more surprised at the quality of the build, the lack of noise and the power of the fan. It even has its own on/off switch on the back and creates enough air movement to be pleasant without blowing your brains out. Highly recommended, especially now summer has finally arrived in the UK!


Go Gadgets Retro USB Fan


GMYLE Tablet Arm


Last but not least in this round up of gadets is the GMYLE Black Adjustable Swing Arm Tablet Holder Mount. As you can see from the picture space is becoming more valuable in the main office than in downtown Kowloon so anything that can alleviate the problem can and will be brought into action.

The GMYLE is a sturdy and flexible arm that clamps to the desk and allows you to put most common tablets in its adjustable grasp and swing it in or out of the way as you need. Both the iPad and iPad mini fit (in their cases) and a holder for a smartphone is also supplied should you wish to hang your phone out of the way.



To be honest, there is too much give in the arm to be able to use it to do much work on, but if you're just tapping it occasionally to access an app or run a query it's perfect.

At £32 from Amazon, it's a mid-price option, and good enough for what I needed. And the box makes for some wonderful reading!
























So that concludes this round up of glorious gadgets. For some folk, some of these may strike you as somewhat extravagant. That may well be true, but don't forget I spend a lot of time in the office so for me, each of these has its well and truly justified place at Apple Harvest HQ.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Review : Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock


I'm at Apple Harvest HQ enjoying the second day of my sabbatical in the glorious sunshine. I finished my last contract on Independence Day and I'm now taking a few months off to focus on all the things I want to do, rather than all the things I have previously had to do. One of which is to write, both on the Apple Harvest blog and my Process Management blog but also to get stuck into the two management books I started writing a while ago, but have never had the time and space to complete.

We've had a couple of significant deliveries here recently. Just this morning we took possession of the Mobee Magic Feet accessory charger, but more on that in the next post. The really exciting upgrade to HQ is that the 2011 MacBook Air is now attached to a Belkin Thunderbolt Express dock to max out its performance potential.

It seems that the Belkin Thunderbolt dock has been around forever without being available. It was first showcased back in September 2011, and has finally started shipping in the UK. During that time it has been through several design incarnations, several different technical specifications, and at one stage looked like it had been scrapped completely.

But the hub had finally arrived and it certainly looks the part now. It also ticks all the right boxes in terms of its technical performance - at least as far as this user is concerned. The hub provides USB 3.0 (x3), Firewire 800 (x1), Gigabyte Ethernet (x1) and pass through Thunderbolt (x1) ports, as well as audio in and out sockets. All this comes wrapped up in a little metal box which is about the size of 2 stacked DVD boxes. The hub comes with the necessary external 12W power supply - a brick about the same size as a normal laptop power adaptor.

All this comes at a price - I got mine for about £250 directly from Belkin UK and Apple on-line are selling for the same price - but it's a lot cheaper than shelling out £900 on an Apple Thunderbolt display, which still doesn't support USB 3.0 and is also considerably less portable! Caveat emptor - no Thunderbolt cable is included so be prepared to spend an additional £30-35 for that essential item.

The Thunderbolt Express hub is not an essential requirement at Apple Harvest HQ. However by connecting it with the MBA I effectively get two high performance work stations, with the new iMac in the office and the MBA/Thunderbolt hub combo in the living room. I've been able to resurrect my Moshi self powered hub (see 2011 - the Late Post) which uses a combination of  Firewire and USB to power a hub with 4 USB 2.0 and 2 Firewire ports without needing external power. I also get the 2 original MBA USB ports back and I no longer need a Thunderbolt or USB Ethernet connection.

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock (bottom)


On the subject of internet connections, I'm getting a download speed of about 77Mbps with an upload speed of 11Mbps with my Virgin cable 120Mbps connection. This is a bit slower than the upstairs office speed but as I mentioned last time, the MBA connection is going through powerline network boxes. There is a slight hit on the USB 3.0 speed as the Belkin implementation of USB 3.0 puts a cap of 2.5Gbps against the (theoretical) 5.0Gbps standard. Nevertheless - it's still faster than USB 2.0 and one of the few ways to get USB 3.0 capability on a pre-2012 MBA.

The Belkin isn't the only Thunderbolt dock available - the Matrox DS1 is cheaper but offers less. The dock looks good, runs silently and doesn't generate much heat. For me the Belkin Thunderbolt Express hub was easily the most cost effective way to seriously hike up the performance of the MBA and will extend its workhorse life by several years. I'm hoping not to have to spend huge chunks of my life on the road in the future, but the hub is portable enough to be taken abroad for an extended stay if necessary.

If you're in a similar position and want to max out an MBA (or any other Thunderbolt compatible Mac for that matter) I'd seriously consider thinking about this as a viable option.











Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Improving Network Performance (while "Saving the Planet"?)


One of the downsides of running a high performance tech system, especially in a domestic/home business environment is the cost of keeping it all going. Paying for the tech, is one thing, but it's the ongoing costs that inevitably start to hurt, particularly the energy costs, which here in the UK seem to increase on an almost monthly basis.

Whilst Apple products do seem to get more and more energy efficient (I'm not too comfortable with the "green" tag) it's easy to forget about some of the peripherals that are needed to support anything other than the simplest network.

Items like network switches and powerline adaptors are often overlooked for upgrade because they usually sit out of sight and out of mind. But put your hands on an old Netgear 5-way gigabit switch or its big clunky power supply, and you'll notice how hot it is.  And that heat is an unwanted by-product that you are paying for.

I recently swapped my 10+ year old Netgear switch for a TRENDnet™ 5-port Gigabit GREENnet (Amazon - £15) switch which claims to reduce power consumption by up to 70% (compared against standard TRENDnet switches). I'm guessing even greater savings over the Netgear kit, based on the simple facts that the new switch runs completely cooly and uses a 5V adapter as opposed to a 12V unit. The GREENnet switch is also a fraction of the size, has a cool green LED display and a speed indicator. The energy savings come as a result of the switch automatically adjusting power voltage as required.

The other piece of kit I've exchanged is the powerline adaptor kit which links the modem/router combo in the office to the GREENnet switch in the lounge downstairs.

Until now, I'd been using the old Comtrend adaptors which came with the old BT Vision box. These were massive great things which also generated huge amount of heat. I'm not sure what the throughput rating was on the Comtrend but I would guess that with their age it probably wasn't much more than 75-100Mbps. With the old BT Broadband this wasn't really a limiting factor since the maximum download speed I could get was 8Mbps. Although the Virgin cable has now been upgraded to 120Mbps there was no way I was going to be able take advantage of anything like that without changing the system. Truth be told, the wired connection was about half the speed of the wireless speed because of this bottleneck.

 I've now installed, well, plugged in, a pair of 5000Mbps TP-Link Mini Powerline Adaptors (Amazon - £30). These are half the size of the Comtrend s and initial tests show that I'm getting wired and wireless download speeds of about 70-75Mbps, a 200% improvement.

The TP-Link adaptors also have an energy saving feature and will shut down if no signals are going through the wire. They claim an 85% improvement in energy consumption rates.

I could improve performance further if I could plug the adaptors into a wall socket; currently they have to go into power strips, but if I was going to rewire the house to put in extra wall sockets, I might as well put in all the network cabling at the same time and not bother with any of the tools in this post!

The only thing left to do is to wait for the next electricity bill to arrive…



Sunday, 2 June 2013

Silence Is Golden - Update

Almost immediately after posting my last article, iTunes stopped sending AirPlay signals to my Airport Express device. I felt a bit like the Apple ecosystem had become a petty minded sentient being who was taking the mickey. Once again I went through each and every one of the possible fixes I have accumulated over the past few weeks but to no avail. Nothing I tried seemed to work.

But then a bit of serendipity took place. I recently downloaded a small menu bar utility called Output (available from the Mac App Store - 69p) which simply allows you to easily select input/output devices from a drop down list of available devices. I regularly swap output devices so this is a godsend saving the hassle of having to either go into the System Preferences or remember to hit the Alt button when selecting the volume icon.

Output showed the Airport Express as one of the available output devices and when I selected it, lo and behold, iTunes played out through the stereo system downstairs. It's not true Airplay since you can only select a single output device at a time, but it demonstrated that my system was actually OK and that it was most likely an iTunes issue.

Once I'd established that the problem appeared to be an iTunes bug, it meant I could stop spending (wasting?) hours trying to fix it if it recurred. As if by magic, shortly after that, the problem resolved itself, and then later in May a new minor version of iTunes appeared (11.0.3) and I've not seen the problem since.

Has iTunes been fixed? No clues from Apple in that respect in the release notes. Which is another reason for disliking some of Apple's reluctance to be more open about its software. We never get to see whether bugs have been addressed (and potentially fixed for eternity), or whether they've just disappeared for a while but may reappear in the future. As a former developer, I've always tried to be open about known bugs which have been fixed, whilst trying to be clear that sometimes the little beggars will show up again. This helps prevent people from suing you, and it's a stance I wish more big companies would take - including Apple!