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!