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!