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.


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!).


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.


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.