Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Apple Harvest - Fruity Tips

Back in April this year I kicked off a new series of posts that went under the Fruity Picks label and could be found in their own special area of the Apple Harvest blog.  I'm pleased to report that these mini-reviews seem to have proved quite popular - although I've not come across anything that's really rattled my cage enough to add a new pick recently.

Not only do I collect all sorts of Apple related software and hardware, I also pick up lots of useful hints and tips from all sorts of sources. Some of these are well known, others are a bit more obscure, but they all have their value to someone, so I've decided to spin off another new series called Apple Harvest Fruity Tips*. Each Fruity Tip will feature a single item that has special appeal to me and that readers may also appreciate. Like the Fruity Picks, Fruity Tips will be mini posts and just like Fruity Picks, Fruity Tips will get published as and when something worth writing about comes along.

The first Fruity Tips will be appearing shortly, so come back from time to time to check on progress!

* This time I can't find any alternative meaning for the phrase "Fruity Tips"!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Want a Big Shiny Knob for Your Mac ? Try the Griffin PowerMate...

I’ve had my eyes on the Griffin PowerMate for several years now. It’s one of those gadgets that just exudes elegance and complements any Mac so perfectly. The main reason for not actually buying one was simply because I didn’t know how I would use a big shiny aluminium knob, no matter how beautiful and well engineered.

But a few days ago whilst skimming through Joe Kissel’s book “Take Control of Automating Your Mac” I came across a reference to the PowerMate and I decided to take another look. I found some screen shots of the latest PowerMate software and suitably impressed I decided to go for it. I figured a worst case scenario would be that I’d end up with a slightly expensive (about £35 from Amazon at the time of writing) volume control.

Actually, the worst case scenario, wouldn’t have been bad thing. Whilst I love the sound quality of my Harman/Kardon Soundstick III speakers, I’m not keen on the volume control, especially as I’m so used to the big volume knob  that controls my old Logitech Z3 2.1 speaker set.

The PowerMate is a superbly engineered piece of kit. The finish, feel and balance of the wheel are perfect, the blue LED light is a lovely hue, and there is just enough weight to prevent the device from slipping around the desktop in normal use.

Of course, a big shiny aluminium knob is no use without some software, and the PowerMate 3.1.0 app is compact and easy to use. When first installed it has a default set of settings for a number of standard Apple programmes like iTunes, GarageBand, Safari and Mail, and an overarching Global set.

There are six basic operations for the PowerMate button - rotate right and left,  short and long press, and rotate and press right and left. Using a key modifier like Option, Command, Shift and Control extends this set to an additional 24 operations. Using the software you can assign a ‘library’ function such as ‘Key Press’ or ‘Mouse Action’ or more complex functions like run an Apple Script. The best way to understand how this all works is to look at the default set of commands and use these to generate your own customised set. For example, using the default iTunes command set, I created an equivalent set for Spotify in about 5 minutes. Your only restriction really is going to be your imagination.

There are a few resources on the Internet to help you harness that imagination. A great place is Casey Fleser’s SGnTN site. You will almost certainly need to understand how to set up keyboard shortcuts - plenty of references on the web but try this as a good introduction. I’m also thinking about how to harness the PowerMate with Keyboard Maestro - maybe a subject for a future posting.

It’s also worth spending a minute or two about how to best position your PowerMate on the desk. I’m a southpaw and initially put the PowerMate on the left side of the desk. However, with a trackpad and mouse already resident over there things were getting a bit crowded so I tried repositioning the PowerMate over on the right. This actually proved a much more effective place as I could work the knob without taking my hand off the mouse. But each to their own!

The PowerMate is light enough and small enough to pop into a laptop bag if you’re on the move, and the more I use it, the more I'm left wondering why I didn’t get one earlier. I’m now thinking about buying another one for my iMac at Apple Harvest HQ, although a Bluetooth version is now available (not in the UK yet it seems) and I might have a look at how that stacks up.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Urge to Tinker and The Domino Effect of IT Problems

Ever had one of those weekends when just about everything related to your home office that could go wrong does, and as a result of trying to fix the issues you end up causing more harm than good?

If your response was "no", then either you are very lucky, exceptionally skilled and methodical, or just plain fibbing!

I recently had the IT weekend from hell. It started on Friday when I realised that Mail wasn’t saving a new Smart Mailbox that I’d created. It got worse on Saturday when I couldn’t get internet access, and on Sunday evening when I lost my entire network I was ready to give it all up and start knitting for a living. In each of these three cases it turned out that the initial problem was not of my doing, but my actions compounded the problems, leading to a domino effect of perceived problems, which I then tried to address causing a vicious circle of IT cock-ups.

Let’s time shift back to Friday. I use Smart Mailboxes a lot. Despite some of my past whinges about Apple Mail, Smart Mailboxes are a simply brilliant and how I’ve missed them in having had to use Outlook for Windows for the last couple of months. On Friday I set up a new Smart Mailbox to manage all the email for my current contract. It only had three conditions so nothing too complex - but I noticed that when I quit mail the new mailbox was missing. This was repeatable behaviour so needed investigating.

There was some indication on the Internet oracle that it was a permissions issue. And since the Smart Mailbox plists in the Mail folder didn’t appear to be getting updated this seemed plausible. However, my Mail is stored on my SD Card (see Bulk Out Your MBA Storage) and the repair permissions button on DiskUtility is greyed out. So, I stopped worrying about my Smart Mailboxes problem and focus on trying to fix the permissions on my SD card. This involved all sorts of shenanigans (including buying a USB card reader) which I won’t go into now, but I couldn’t resolve the problem, and I was beginning to think this wasn’t the cause of my Smart Mailbox problem. But that was now going to have to wait until Saturday as it was time to travel back home for the weekend.

We were up bright and early on Saturday morning and I was all psyched for a couple of hours of troubleshooting with the full benefits of fast home broadband (as opposed to the mobile kind). I fired up Safari and most of my default tabs failed to load - my uStart home page was fine, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were all down, Amazon was OK, others were hit and miss. Results weren’t consistent on my iPad - I could see Facebook for example. The network connection looked OK, the wireless seemed to be OK, and one of the boys was playing on the Xbox without any apparent problems. So I rebooted the router which had no effect on anything. I checked the BT Broadband status pages - but couldn’t access them!

For a brief moment I managed to get onto Twitter on my iPad, and it turned out to be a BT Broadband issue with their DNS servers and it was nationwide - although BT weren’t owning up to it. Changing to Google DNS servers helped fix some of the problems; not all of them, but enough to start getting on with resolving my Smart Mailboxes. And at least I now knew that this was a problem beyond my control that I couldn't fix.

In one search I found a reference to the Mail Tags plug-in which had been causing some problems with Smart Mailboxes. I duly removed Mail Tags and the problem was resolved. Re-installing Mail Tags didn’t appear to have any negative effects, so at least that mystery was solved.

By late Saturday afternoon the problems at BT appeared to have been resolved and normal internet service was resumed. Even though the Smart Mailbox problem was fixed, I’d got it into my head that there was a major problem with the SD Card and it needed fixing. I copied my Mail folder back to the MBA flash drive, cloned the card onto an external hard disk and reformatted it. I then returned the system back to it’s previous state. After various iterations of this and still without any idea of what the problem (or even if there was a real problem) I gave up and went to bed.

Everything seemed to be working normally on Sunday morning so I decided to leave it well alone and enjoy the day. With this new contract, my weekends had become like gold dust, and I didn’t want to waste them on chasing rainbow problems.

But on Sunday evening as I started to get ready for the following week I started having major network problems.  Both the Belkin Thunderbolt hub ethernet connection and my private wireless connection were self-assigning IP addresses and not connecting to the internet. The main household wireless connection was OK, as were all the iDevices in the house, so it wasn’t another BT cock-up. I started wondering about the changes I'd made while investigating yesterday's outage. Bit by bit, I rebuilt the network but nothing made any difference. …Until I unplugged and reconnected the power line connection next to the BT HomeHub and like magic everything started working normally in an instant. I should have known better - I’d restarted the power line connection upstairs but not at the source, where it’s most likely to have a problem.

Once you get into a problem solving mindset you see problems everywhere - even (especially?) where there are none. And sometimes, especially when you are tired and frustrated, you just end up making things worse. A few things can help to stop this mindset clicking in:

  • If the system has been working fine and something goes wrong, look outside the system before you start ‘fixing’ it internally.
  • Keep a checklist of common external problems to look for before you start digging in places that you needn’t be digging
  • Stop digging when you find yourself starting to fix problems that weren’t there previously

Sometimes our urge to tinker is overwhelming and it needs to be controlled. Life’s too short and there are enough problems to deal with, without creating new and imaginary ones!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Fruity Picks #5 - Multi-device Docking Station

I seem to write a lot of posts about device docks - and here’s another. Individual docks for iPhones and iPads are all well and good, but each one needs a cable and power source, and often docks are device specific. Sometimes you need something a bit more flexible and I believe I’ve now found my preferred solution (at least for now!), even though it doesn’t have a name or a manufacturer! So I’ll call it the MdDS (Multi-device Docking Station), from an unknown Chinese maker.

The MdDS is not designed as a portable device dock, but it is light enough to  put in a bag and not break your clavicle. It does take up a bit of room, but then it is designed to charge two devices simultaneously - and it has a speaker built in. Not bad for £33 (including P&P). But it gets better.

The MdDS uses a modular connection system allowing you to plug in different connectors for different devices. It comes with a straight lightning connector, an iPhone 5 connector with 3.5mm audio jack, a pair of older 30pin dock connectors and a micro USB connector for good measure. The unit feels sturdy and of decent quality, although the plug-in connectors are little bit lightweight. There are a couple of detachable tabs which lend a modicum of support to larger devices.

The MdDS comes with a proprietary USB cable with a connection to a DC 5V 2.5A socket on the device. Unfortunately I mislaid mine on the first week of my travels and could not find a replacement on-line. However, we took a trip to Maplin, taking the device with us, and the guys there let me try out a switchable mains adaptor with a variety of connections, and we found one that worked* (although it cost £20.00!). I've since relocated the USB lead, but they are clearly difficult to come by. So be warned! I'm using a standard Apple 10W iPad charger to power the unit - you need to provide this or something similar yourself.

MdDS with iPad Mini and iPhone 5 Charging

I use the Logitech Mini Boombox as my portable bluetooth speaker of choice so I’m not too fussed over the MdDS speaker which has a pair of 3W units inside. These produce a reasonably clean sound, weak on bass, but good enough if you have nothing else handy. You can toggle the input source using a switch on the top of the unit, or you can turn the speaker off completely.

Regardless of whether I’m at home or away, I want to be able to charge my iPad mini and iPhone overnight. This allows me to do exactly that - and only use a single power socket. I’ve bought two of them so I have a home and away solution.

* Switched Mode AC DC Adaptor for General Use (L06BR)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fruity Picks #4 - Expower Battery Case for iPhone 5/5s

I'm back on the road a the moment and I've noticed that my iPhone 5 battery is getting a lot more hammer than it's used to. It hasn't yet given up the ghost during the course of the day, but it isn't far off (perhaps I should cut back on the 12 hour days!).

I've not used a battery extender since my first iPhone, the iPhone 3G (I used a Mophie Juice Pack Air), but it did the trick and I decided to pursue a similar course with the iPhone 5. I didn't want to spend a huge amount of money but obviously wanted something reasonably reliable. In the end, I went for the Expower 2200Mah Rechargeable Extended Backup Battery Case for iPhone 5s/5 from Amazon.

This is a two piece case with an in-built battery and little pull-out stand. The case is a black rubberised material and weights in at just under 80g and adds about 1cm to the length of the phone and just a couple of millimetres to the width and depth. It does make the phone feel chunkier but adds a reassuring feeling of protection from the rubberised covering.

All the iPhone features remain accessible once the battery pack is in place although the lightning connector is shifted over to the bottom right of the case rather than its normal central position. This is only a problem if you have a dock set up to match the phone and don't want to remove the case before docking.

The Expower case charges with a normal lightening connector and charges the battery and phone simultaneously. Pressing the small silver button on the front of the case starts the battery, and a series of little blue LEDs gives you a visual indicator of what's going on.  I haven't done any timings yet but it doesn't appear to take an unreasonable amount of time to fully recharge the system.

During the week, I'm up at 5:45am and on the way to work by 6:15am. I find that by 13:00 the phone has been down to about 65%. This is when I kick the extra battery in and in about 30 minutes I'm back to a full charge, which then lasts for most of the rest of the day, by which time I can get back to a mains charger.

I'm very impressed with the Expower. It's sturdy, reliable, and mine cost £9.99 (with an extra £4.41 P&P - it's not available through Amazon Prime). I even bought a second Smart Wallet to stick on the back!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Battery Monitors - Forewarned is Forearmed!

My trip to the Apple Store in Leicester to sort out my MacBook Air battery proved to be well timed as I started a new contract this week and I’m back on the road quite a bit. So far, so good. I’m getting really good battery life while the laptop is unplugged. The machine isn’t on all the time but I’m not compromising when it is working and not letting battery life get in the way of what I need to do.

I use three tools to monitor my Apple laptop batteries; Watts, Battery Diag and coconutBattery. Watts (£4.99) and Battery Diag (free) are both available from the Mac App Store; coconutBattery is also free.

Battery Diag lives in the menubar, although there is an option to have a dock icon. The app is fairly minimal as shown in the screen shots below. If you want a no-nonsense and no-frills method for seeing the state of your battery, Battery Diag is great.

coconutBattery, now on version 3.0 goes a bit further by allowing you to maintain a historical record of your battery capacity, actual and potential. There is additional information about the battery itself, including manufacturing data such as manufacturer, date of manufacture, model and serial numbers. The history is only recorded when you elect to save it - data is not automatically saved at the end of a recharge for example - but you can export the history into .csv folder for analysis in in spreadsheet. The main screen is shown in my previous post.

Watts goes the extra mile as an all round battery management tool. Although it shows less detailed information about the battery than either Battery Diag or coconutBattery, it does enable you to set notifications to warn you about specific battery events such as low battery alerts, and reminders to unplug your laptop from the mains after a certain amount of time. In addition, Watts helps you manage your calibration cycle by providing details of what you actions you need to perform to keep your battery in tip-top condition. Watts also keeps a user driven record of the battery's capacity, but you can't do anything with it, except look at it! Watts is a bit pricey but given the cost of fitting a new battery, an extra couple of quid may prove a sound investment.

The four Watts screens

As is the case with many utility type programmes you sometimes need a couple of tools to get the best mix, and these three apps have served me well enough over the past few years. As I was writing this, I came across another battery management offering called FruitJuice which I'm running as a trial. FruitJuice seems to be very similar to Watts, but is even pricier at £6.99 on the App Store. The main difference appears to be a rather natty graphical display of battery history but I've not used it long enough to generate a graph yet! I think I'll be sticking with Watts after the trial is over.

I genuinely believe that it is worth paying attention to your battery and how it performs over time. Good battery management pays off in the long term - and let's face it - any laptop with a dodgy battery is of little use to man nor beast! Especially when you're on the road without a power supply to hand!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Power to the People! Battery Highs and Woes...

Amongst all the amazing technology advances that have taken place during my lifetime, it’s easy to forget that the majority of gadgets need electrical power and that portable gadgets need portable power supplies - batteries. Battery technology has improved over the years, but not at the same sort of rate as, say, CPU chip technology.

Devices last much longer than they used these days, but it is questionable about how much of that improvement is because of the battery and how much is down to the more efficient components.

I’ve been a bit concerned about the battery in the MacBook Air for a few months now. I tend to keep a close eye on my laptop batteries, recalibrating them once a month and never going more than 12 hours without removing them from a mains outlet. But the internal battery of the 2011 MBA has been steadily going downhill for the past 12 months. According to my coconutBattery records the battery had gone through 96 full recharge cycles and was down to 68% of its original capacity - meaning I was struggling to get more than a couple of hours out of it when on the road, even running with just about everything turned off - no wireless, bluetooth, single applications, low brightness, etc. Apple’s published battery life for the 13” i7 model was 7 hours. To add to my concern, the battery health status always read “Check Battery”.

Since my AppleCare agreement for the MBA was coming to an end in the summer, I decided to take it in to the Leicester Highcross AppleStore for a health check. It’s a four hour round trip for me so I booked a genius bar appointment for 11:15 a few days previously with a comment about the problem and the likely outcome - a new battery. AppleCare doesn’t support replacement batteries unless they are deemed to have “manufacturing defects” so I wasn’t expecting a free battery - but figured the labour costs might be covered.

On arrival at Highcross I managed to get myself registered fairly quickly despite the place being in chaos. Almost all their support systems had crashed so they were relying on bits of paper and good memories. Luckily the extended diagnostics suite that the Apple techs use was available and within a few minutes confirmed that my battery was indeed “pooped”. My 68% was well over-optimistic - the diagnostic indicated a figure below 60% of capacity.

Because of the systems problem they couldn’t check the part numbers required and therefore couldn’t tell if they had one in stock, but they did say that they’d replace it free! I left the laptop with them and went for a walk for a couple of hours as they suggested.

By the time I got back all the systems were back on line and no batteries for that model were in stock, but one had been ordered for me and they’d mail me when it was available. I got an email the next evening, went back to the store the following day and 90 minutes later had a new fully functioning battery. Which, by the way, should have cost £114.83, including fitting and VAT!!

I was travelling yesterday so got the chance to put the MBA through its paces. In a normal operational mode - that is, with wireless, bluetooth and multiple apps running, I got two and half hours of use and there were still nearly three and a half hours left on the clock - a threefold improvement. In fact the time remaining indicator was increasing, so I may well have been approaching the 7 hour mark if I’d still been checking it.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the battery monitors that I use - coconutBattery, Watts, and BatteryDiag. Until then, thank you Apple - you have completely vindicated my decision to take out AppleCare!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

5 Years and 100 Posts...Happy Anniversary to the Apple Harvest blog!

I published first Apple Harvest blog post in July 2009, and, today, just under five years later I’m posting the 100th entry. I might not be the most prolific blogger in history, and I’ve never made a cent out of it, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing the posts, and I hope a few people have enjoyed reading them. Maybe some of you have even been able to resolve a problem or decide on a purchase as a result of what you’ve read here. That would be a real bonus. I’m looking forward to writing the next 100 posts - though I hope it might not take so long this time.

Since that first post the Apple Harvest has been through quite a lot of change. It has had temporary HQs in Derby, Zurich and New England. Posts have been written on 4 different Macs - the original 2007 MacBook Pro, the 2008 iMac, the 2011 MacBook Air, and the 2012 iMac. All of which are still going strong.

I’ve also read the final published blog on my original iPad, my iPad 3, original iPad mini, iPhone 3s, iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. Along the way I’ve also listened to music on my original iPod touch and an iPod Classic. Network support has come from various Airport Express devices, an Airport Extreme and a Time Capsule.

There are probably enough cables to stretch the length of the UK and enough external hard disks to store every episode of Coronation Street (approaching 8500 at the time of writing), Eastenders (nearly 5000 episodes) Neighbours (nearly 7000 episodes) and a bit of room left over for Dr Who (900 episodes).

My downloaded media library has grown from 0 bytes to 1Tb (previously everything was on CD or DVD), and I’ve read just about every book about Apple and Steve Jobs that has ever been published (before 2007 I’d read just about every book about MicroSoft and Bill Gates!). In order to get those downloads, the internet speed into Apple Harvest HQ has gone from about 3Mbps to 130Mbps, and a lot of those downloads have been watched through the 2nd and 3rd generation Apple TVs.

Who knows what changes we will experience over the next 5 years or 100 posts, but I’m sure it’ll be exciting, and the Apple Harvest will be here to witness and document it - hopefully by thought control!!!

A huge and heartfelt “Thank You” to all the Apple Harvest blog readers for taking your time to read my ramblings - and for making the effort so worthwhile!

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Fruity Picks #3 - PopClip

PopClip (Pilotmoon Software) was first released in July 2011 and proved to be an incredibly useful little piece of software. Since then it has become an indispensable piece of software, currently supporting over 100 extensions. The developer (quite rightly in my opinion) describes it as the Swiss Army Knife of Mac software.

PopClip basically takes a piece of text that you've highlighted with your mouse, pops up its little menu bar and lets you do something useful with it. Initially it was a mechanism for copying and pasting text, but extensions allow you to translate text, tweet it, convert it to a Bitly address (for URLs), create an email, send it to Facebook. Upto 22 extensions are permitted at any one time.

PopClip is available from the MacAppStore for £2.99 ($4.99 in the US) or you can download a free trial from the developers web site. I wouldn't bother with the trial - just buy it. You won't regret it if you do anything constructive with your Mac which is why PopClip has earned its place as the Apple Harvest's third Fruity Pick.

PopClip is supported on machines running OS X 10.6 and higher. The current version is 1.4.10 and works fine on 10.9.2. Extensions can be found on this page.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Fruity Picks #2 - Smart Wallet

I travel everywhere by public transport and have several pre-paid cards which not only bloat out my wallet,  but cause an inconvenience when I keep having to take them out and put them back, getting on and off buses and trains. I have a flip case for my iPhone 5 which allows me to store a couple of cards and a few bank notes, but I don't really like flip cases. I wanted something that I could attach to the iPhone without changing the normal case.

There are a number of sticky sleeves which can be attached to an iPhone case and I picked the black neoprene Smart Wallet from Amazon (UK) which set me back £4.99. It comes in other colours and even a Union Jack design (for an extra £1.00).

The wallet sticks very securely onto the back of the iPhone and is stretchy enough to provide enough space to hold three plastic cards, a pair of railway tickets and a couple of banknotes. Just the job for when I'm travelling, and it means I can stick my wallet in my bag rather than leaving it to the mercy of pickpockets in busy London stations!

After two months of constant use, the Smart Wallet shows no sign of peeling off the phone and no obvious signs of wear and tear. A simple low cost solution that works well.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Fruity Picks #1 - UBClock

In a world that is obsessed by time, even the Apple Harvest can't escape knowing what time it is and over the years I've amassed quite a few clock based apps. For me, the ideal clock app is one that :-
  • sits relatively unobtrusively on the desktop (and stays there!)
  • has a degree of configurability in terms of clock face, date, second hand etc.
  • doesn't use too much in the way of system resources
I use iStats Menus to show the time and date in the menu bar, and I have configured a GeekTool Geeklet to show text based date, time and weather on my desktop. For quite a few months I've been using QuartzClocks to display a real clock on the screen, but I've recently replaced it with UBClock.

UBClock on my desktop
UBClock ticks all the boxes and I think it looks stunning. Although it only has one style of clock, just about every aspect of that clock can be modified, from the action of the second hand (e.g. Linear sweep or Railway judder) to the colours of the borders, backgrounds and dial. The date and day can be shown (in different formats naturally) and the hands can be replaced with a digital display if selected.

The clock can be moved around, locked in a specific position, or locked to always appear on top, and its background opacity changed to blend in with your desktop pictures.

UBClock showing all configuration options (from MacAppStore)
UBClock is available from the MacAppStore for 69p. Kudos to developer Ulf Bierkämper for the care and attention to detail that make this app such a pleasure to use.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Apple Harvest - Fruity Picks

Regular readers of the Apple Harvest blog will know that I acquire all sorts of interesting software and hardware in my quest to find my perfect work and leisure environment. A lot of these items get their own reviews in my blog posts, but given my other activities there are simply too few hours in the day to cover too many goodies.

So I'm kicking off a new series called Apple Harvest Fruity Picks*. Each Fruity Pick will feature a single item that has special appeal to me and that readers may also appreciate. Fruity Picks will be mini posts - don't expect in-depth reviews - with a bit of narrative about the product, some images, costs and where to get it, along with links to other sources where possible.

Fruity Picks will get published as and when something worth writing about comes along, but should appear a bit more frequently than my normal Apple Harvest posts.

The first Fruity Pick will be about a great little piece of software called UBClock. You can expect to see it in the next 24 hours!

* I am aware that there is an alternative meaning for the phrase "Fruity Picks" but I come from an age of innocence where not every phrase had a place in the Urban Dictionary! Quite honestly, this definition is so obscure that I would guess most people would not be aware of it, as I wasn't until I did a search to make sure it wasn't a trademark!

I'd Rather Troubleshoot A Mac Than A PC!

Yesterday I lost another day of my life due to my MacBook Air crashing, just four months after the last hiccup (see Mavericks woes). Of course, the problem this time was subtly different to the previous time - the laptop 'died ' late on Monday night. I lost the mouse connection, and then everything else became unresponsive. It was too late to do anything so I switched it off and went to bed, blissfully ignorant of what was to follow the next day!

First thing yesterday morning I snuck into my office and switched on before going for a shower. Twenty minutes later and the gear wheel was still spinning. I rebooted and the same thing happened. So I started working through my check list of curative actions. Here we go....with notes about the action and outcome...
  1. Reboot in Safe Mode (Hold down the Shift key while powering up*) - nothing
  2. Reboot in Verbose Safe Mode (Hold down Shift and Command + V keys while powering up) - nothing
  3. Reboot into Recovery Mode (Hold down Command + R while powering up) - OK
    1. Run disk utility to repair disk - no problems reported
    2. Run disk utility to fix permissions - no problems reported
    3. Reinstall OS X - after 90 minutes the system failed to restart
    4. Repeat c) - after 2 hours the system reported an error
    5. Repeat c) - same result as c)
    6. Attempt to restore from Time Machine Backup - no Time Machine disk could be located
  1. PANIC
  2. Reboot in Single User Mode (Hold down Command + S while powering up) and run fcsk - no problems
  3. Reboot in Single User Mode and run Applejack - no problems
  4. Reboot and run Apple Hardware Test (Hold down D key while powering up) - standard and extended modes reported no problems
  5. PANIC more intensely
  6. Book Genius Bar Appointment (next slot in 48 hours time)
* For a full set of start-up options see this quick guide from Apple support.

Just for a moment, let's go back to step 6. Why couldn't the system find a Time Machine disk, especially given my tight backup regime? There was a Time Machine disk visible to Disk Utility but it really didn't look very happy. My shiny new 4Tb Seagate Backup Plus disk, sitting in its new Thunderbolt adapter was only showing one partition (there should be two) and that was only 500Gb (it should have been 2Tb).

Of course, whilst in panic mode, I'd forgotten that Seagate Backup Plus drives which are bigger than 2Gb need a special driver to work with the Thunderbolt adapter. In recovery mode, this driver wasn't getting loaded, and so the disk couldn't be recognised correctly. Hence the scary readings from Disk Utility.

To get round this, I had to replace the Thunderbolt adapter with the standard USB 3 adapter and try again. This time the backup drive was recognised and I could restore from the previous night's Time Machine backup.

Finally, the system rebooted although a load of settings had been screwed up. Some licences were missing, a number of configurations were screwed up - all in all, it didn't look much like the machine I crashed the night before. So the last task was to restore the CCC backup from the previous day, reboot one last time, keep fingers crossed and let out a big sigh of relief when everything booted up and looked like it was supposed to.

It just goes to show how important it is to have a rigorous backup strategy. If I'd had to go to the Genius bar it would have cost me another day, and the laptop could have been sent away for another week for a potentially expensive repair job (although luckily I still have 3 months left on my Apple Care warranty).

The only good thing that could have come out of a trip to Leicester Highcross Apple Store would have been to get an idea of the root cause - something I have not currently got, and probably won't ever have. But I think that would have been a long shot even for an Apple Genius.

One thing I do know. I'd much rather have to troubleshoot a Mac than a PC! At least Apple provide you with all the tools to help yourself - if you follow the advice from folks in the Apple community... and continue to read the Apple Harvest blog!

Happy Easter!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Hub, Hub and Away!

Things have been a bit quiet recently at the alternative Apple Harvest HQ. Which, in some ways, is a good thing because it suggests that everything is OK - which, it largely is. It doesn't make for very interesting reading though!

We replaced the old BT HomeHub 3 this week with a BT HomeHub 5. There were two immediate improvements with this upgrade. Firstly it's a single all-in-one router and modem, thus freeing up an extra power socket (and hopefully reducing power consumption) compared to its predecessor. Secondly, the new box supports four gigabit LAN ports rather than the measly single offering previously. The most significant outcome of this is that the YouView box now has a dedicated high speed wired connection which should mean a massive improvement in accessing On-Demand TV which has proved a problem in the past.

Other improvements:

  • I've finally got Slink working so that I have two-way connectivity with the Apple Harvest HQ. Previous attempts have been thwarted by the BT HomeHub
  • All the desktops and laptops in the house are now wired and the wireless devices are shared across 2.4 and 5GHz bands which is making life better for everyone
  • The BT-FON option has been disabled on the new router and we've lost the password to reinstate it. Good riddance!

However. This being 2014 - and the year of the nanny state in the UK - meant that BT is mandated to offer internet filter controls on any new device. Now, in theory I'm all in favour of parents being able to restrict what their children can and cannot access via their home internet connections. I also agree with being able to set restrictions on connection times on a device by device basis. But as I feared BT's implementation of the Internet filtering leaves a lot to be desired.

BT offers four levels of filtering ranging from low, moderate and strict or customisable. But all four apply across the local network and specific devices cannot be exempted. Restrictions can be temporarily switched off, but this again, is across the network. It is possible to set up filters for three specific devices - but in a household where we have at least 14 devices, six of which are regularly accessed by the children, this is pretty useless.

So, for the time being at least, ALL the internet filters are switched off and we rely on old fashioned policing of what content is being accessed.  I would rather see the situation where we could apply settings to a specific user (or group of users) and associate the user with a device. It's a bit more work to set up, but much more effective in a diverse household.

On the subject of the Internet, at last the interfering MEPs in the EU have finally done something right and voted to end EU roaming charges and stake a claim for net-neutrality regarding ISPs charging different rates for high bandwidth users. Of course, it'll just end up with the customer footing the bill for lost revenue, but that would happen anyway!

And finally...check out Monument Valley for iOS. If you like puzzles and the work of MC Escher (you know, the pictures of impossible staircases etc.), you'll love this!

Friday, 7 March 2014

It Just Works

The phrase "it just works" is most closely associated with Apple since Steve Jobs repeatedly used it in his WWDC 2011 keynote. He was talking specifically about iCloud but the slogan has been used to describe just about everything Apple, both in positive and negative ways.

In my experience, 99% of the time it is quite an accurate description. Right now, I'm at the alternative Apple Harvest HQ, with about 75% of my full HQ infrastructure set up. Mavericks 10.9.2 is now out of beta, and all my apps, plugins and drivers all seem to be "just working" fine.

Even some of my long term bugbears about iTunes seem to have disappeared since my last post. My "Discrepancies" playlist which is set up to catch the iTunes Match error whereby a song has a last played date but 0 play counts, and "Discrepancies 2" which catches songs with a play count but no Last Played date have been empty for a few weeks, and even the old bug where play counts didn't get updated if the Crossfade Songs preference was turned on has been fixed.

Mail 7.2 is fully operational with my favourite add-ons (with the sad exception of DockStar) and the UI modification apps, Flavours and DockMod (both previously mentioned in this blog), have both been updated to work properly with 10.9.2.

Now that all is rosy in the Apple Harvest garden I've decided that the MacBook Air will no longer be used for beta versions of OS X - a very timely decision since 10.9.3 has just been seeded to developers this very morning!

(Rant Alert) It's easy to knock Apple when bugs appear in the OS regardless of which version it is. But I do get angry when people use inappropriate language to slag off developers. OS X is an incredibly large and complex system, which ultimately has to run on an infinite set of configurations. There will be problems with some set-ups, just as there are with Windows and other operating systems. And it's not unreasonable for frustration to take over from time to time. What is unreasonable is for people who have no idea of the effort that developers put in to creating their work to make unpleasant accusations. Sadly some people are never going to be mature enough to realise that trolling on the internet serves only to highlight their own ignorance and insecurities. (End Rant)

Two great new games made it onto the iOS devices this weeks - Lyne and Threes. Both are cerebral, pattern matching games (for want of a better description), and both are highly addictive. I've had to put a limit on the number of games in succession I have on Threes because it's making me light headed! It's also a serious battery gobbler.

You've been warned!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

iTunes and iOS7 Music Apps Need Some TLC

Earlier this week Apple released iTunes 11.1.4  - a minor release which appeared to do absolutely nothing different - even the widely publicised change which decoupled the Wish List from iTunes Store was missing in action. Personally, I couldn't give two hoots about where the wish list is stored or managed. I'd much rather Apple picked on some bugs that would actually make a difference to the whole Music listening experience.

I confess to rather liking iTunes - and at the time of writing I've not found a better media player on the Mac, although Vox 2 has just been released. (For the record, I was a big fan of WinAmp back in the days when I used PCs.) I've regularly commented on the bug fixes around iMatch that I'd like to  have fixed once and for all, so I won't repeat them yet again. I've created a Keyboard Maestro macro to partially overcome the problem of corrupted play counts, but the fact is that my iTunes library metadata has now become so corrupt that it bears little resemblance to reality anyhow. So, I might as well stop thinking about it.

I still see iTunes as an all round media player so I'm not necessarily in favour of splitting out different media types into separate players like some folk (and like iOS). Especially as there is no need to keep all your media types in a single library - I currently do, but I'm thinking about splitting out music from TV and Films. I would, however, be happier if OS X took the same approach as iOS and stopped using iTunes as the shop front for iOS apps and media. I can't really see the point of keeping reference copies of all my iOS apps on my Mac (except of course when they are no longer available from the App Store, although even then,  I'm not sure that I really want to keep apps that are no longer supported).

What I'd really like right now is for the Music app on iOS7 to get some serious TLC. My biggest current issue is the shared library function - I cannot get my iTunes Home Share library to load and play on any of my iDevices. On my first generation iPad Mini, the library (usually) eventually loads but tells me it's empty. On the iPhone 5, the library loads but as soon as I select an album to play, it fast forwards through the songs without playing a note. On my iPad 3 the remote library never even fully loads. Without being able to use my main music library remotely, my play counts get even more out of alignment with reality as play counts of iMatch songs don't get recorded or reflected back anywhere.

I'd also like the Music app to be able to sort items without having to refer back to the settings and I want more sort options, like sort by album or song title - and is it really too much to ask to have a search facility within the Music app itself? Lastly, it would great if the shuffle function worked on the currently selected album, or artist, not the currently playing song. For those of us with large music libraries (and fading memories!) some of these basic abilities become more and more of a necessity and less of a wish list.

And given that iDevices are more popular than iPods these days, the least that Apple can do is make the music software as usable as it is on my iPod Classic...

...and "just works".

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Backup Boogaloo

Having been a professional developer since the mid-1980's I have always been acutely aware of the need to take steps to protect my electronic data from accidental deletion, intentional deletion, intruders and all the other potential acts of God which fall under the control of Murphy's Law. I remember the CEO of the first company I worked for coming into our office one morning, squeezed my shoulder, grinned and stated "Ally, whatever you do, don't lose the source code". The warning has stayed with me ever since. [I also recall a colleague, some years later at a different organisation, who thought that photocopying source code listings was an effective backup mechanism!!]

In those days we weren't fortunate enough to have any of the amazing Configuration Management (CM) tools available to today's development teams. This was the dawn of the PC and electronic backup facilities were primitive, even in the corporate world. At home, a 10Mb hard drive cost a small fortune and was way beyond most people's wallets. So, we copied floppy disks, and made copies of the copies, and stored them at home and in the office to try and ensure some sort of data redundancy.

Despite the awesome advances in technology over the past 30 years, with highly sophisticated CM systems, amazing backup software like Time Machine, Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) and SuperDuper, and the availability of cheap on-line and cloud based storage, Murphy's Law is still dominant. Something I was reminded of only too clearly last week.

While I'm in the Apple Harvest subsidiary office at my partner's house, I've had to rethink my backup regime. At HQ, with the iMac, I run Time Machine backups onto my 3Gb Time Capsule, copy my 1Tb iTunes library onto an external hard drive using ChronoSync which is scheduled to run on a daily basis (I also subscribe to iMatch under iTunes), and all my business files are synchronised with various cloud systems, like DropBox and SugarSync as well as my MacBook Air. Once a week I clone the hard drive using CCC.

Whilst at Mel's, using the MacBook Air, I set up a Seagate external Backup Plus drive to work as a Time Machine disk as well as the normal regime of cloud backups. Although I tried to set up a Time Machine link to the Time Capsule at HQ this proved unworkable. I keep my iTunes library on a second Seagate drive so this doesn't interfere with any TM backups.

But of course, this strategy failed to take into account Murphy's Law and last week the TM backup disk failed leaving me with an apparently dead drive and no backup facility; an accident waiting to happen. I managed to get a new Seagate disk ordered and delivered the following day and a couple of days later I fetched an additional drive from HQ. This is now configured to keep a CCC clone of the MBA internal flash drive and a second partition clones the 128Gb SD drive I use to extend the MBA storage capacity. These are now automatically incrementally cloned every day.

I still find it quite extraordinary that so many people fail to think about backups until it is too late. It seems that people fall into two main categories: those who never backup and those who have sophisticated strategies that allow for as many potential situations as possible. Even using Time Machine with no real thought is better than nothing, but you can still get caught out if your backup disk dies.

My recommendation for anyone without a backup strategy in place is to take an hour or so to seriously think about it, and put it in place. You need to think about the value of the data you store on your computer. If it's easily retrievable, or of little value to you, then maybe a simple Time Machine backup without a safety net is good enough for you.

If your whole life is stored on your computer and you cannot measure its value (no insurance claim can ever restore lost photos or videos once a disk is damaged beyond repair) then consider a backup strategy with multiple options. It'll be highly unlikely for everything to fail simultaneously, unless there's a massive electro-magnetic pulse which destroys all our global systems - in which case, rather than worrying about your computer, you're probably better off looking up at the sky to try and dodge the aeroplane which is just about to fall on you!