Tuesday, 29 December 2015

2015 And All That (or Out with the Old, In with the New)

I can't believe it's been six months since my last post on the Apple Harvest blog - I do apologise! It's not like Apple have been slumbering since last June, and it's most certainly not because nothing has been going on at Apple Harvest HQ(s)...far from it. There's a shed load of new kit to write about and a few excellent iOS and OS X apps to boot. The problem is knowing where to start...how about a list or two? Hardware first...

  • MacBook Air (early 2015)
  • OWC Thunderbolt 2 Hub
  • New Magic Mouse, Keyboard and TrackPad
  • 4th Generation Apple TV
  • 2Tb TimeCapsule
  • Apple Watch Dock
  • Wireless Charging Devices

...and some of the software:

  • Dragon Systems PowerManager
  • TunaBelly TGPro
  • The Room 3
  • El Capitan
  • iOS9
  • Watch OS2
  • TV OS
  • Cloud Magic

...that should be enough to get started with over the next few posts! Let's just hope my accountant and bank manager aren't reading this. My long suffering girlfriend is already in the know, but she does at least get most of the hand-me-downs to try and ease the pain!

The Apple Harvest HQ returned to Prague in October this year - although I'm going to be doing quite a lot of additional travelling over the next few months. My early 2011 MBA has put in a stellar performance over the years and to be fair, it still got a lot of casual use left in it. But the 4Gb memory constraint is beginning to cause me problems and I knew an upgrade was on the cards. I just wasn't sure what to replace it with, or more critically when! In the end, I decided to stay with the 13" 256Gb MBA, with 8Gb of memory, and bumped up the processor to the 2.2GHz i7.

I would have liked to have had the luxury of waiting until the new lines were unleashed sometime in the new year, but nothing was going to be able to fix the memory issue which is also causing the fans to work overtime given the loads I was putting onto the processor. I also had a time constrained discount that I wanted to make use of (about 6% so nothing to be sneezed at!), and while Apple do have a limited presence in the Czech Republic it was a lot easier to deal with the purchase while in the UK over the Christmas period.

Christmas Market in Prague Old Town Square
Of course, when you think about it, the change from a 2011 MBA to the most recent 2015 model is a major upgrade. People have been whinging about the mediocre improvements between successive models, but since 2011 the MBA has got significantly better battery life, gone from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 1 to Thunderbolt 2, has faster SSD storage, more efficient processors (1.8GHz i7-2677M - Sandy Bridge to 2.2GHz i7-5650U - Broadwell (real geeks can see here for a comparison) and HD Graphics 3000 to HD Graphics 6000) and faster memory (1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM to 1600 MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM) as well as an improvement in wireless. with 802.11ac compatibility now built in. For some reason, handoff never worked out of the box with the 2011 MBA although it could be persuaded to (see Fruity Tips #2), but that's no longer anything to worry about with the new model.

Once the decision was made I made the order on the morning I left Prague. It arrived at my home in the UK first thing the next morning, less than 24 hours later. I cloned the old machine with Carbon Copy Cloner and by lunchtime I had a new working MBA. Over the course of the next few hours I had a few tweaks to make - there are always a few little things that don't work quite the way they're expected to, but then again, some things that were broken suddenly appear to work on a different machine.

The real test will be when I get back to Prague at the end of this week and plug into my Apple Harvest HQ rig in my apartment, but all the issues that I'd had problems with have happily disappeared - the new MBA is operating at a much lower temperature and the fans are usually silent. Most importantly, the beach ball doesn't seem to be making so many appearances, especially when iTunes, Safari and Photos are running alongside each other - a common scenario which was becoming unmanageable on the old machine.

Now, what to do when Apple announce the next generation MBA in the spring? Well, the moral of the story is that maybe there's no need to wait to get the newest and shiniest box on the shelf. I'm expecting this baby to last at least another four years!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Wireless Charging - More a Convenience than a Game Changer

For a while now, Samsung have been using wireless charging as a key differentiator between its newer Galaxy phones and the iPhone. Personally, the idea of wireless charging is not really much of a game changer to me. Let's face it, you still need a charging pad attached to a power source to pair up to the charging unit in the phone, so it's not really wireless at all. - it's just shifting the position of the wire away from the phone. 

But I'm a sucker for new tech so I decided to see what the fuss was about and I have to admit to being rather surprised. It is actually quite cool and it's not that expensive to get started.

Initially I bought a GMYLE Qi receiver unit which slips between the iPhone body and any (reasonably thin) case. The receiver has a lightning connector which simply plugs in and out of the lightning socket on the phone. I paired this up with a GMYLE Mini Qi charging pad. To start charging it's simply a matter of placing the phone onto the pad until a contact is made. 

I was surprised how quickly the phone charged,

On the downside, it was getting the phone in the right position to start the induction process - not a real problem and one which becomes easier after a few days - but it can be a bit hit and miss. Also, the process does appear to generate more heat than using a normal charging cable plugged into a USB port.

Once I was happy with the proof of concept I decided to splash out a little bit extra and buy a proper charging stand and charging case. I went for the portable (collapsible) T-310 Foldable stand from DLAND and the KD iPhone 6 Wireless Charging case. This combination works so well that I bought a second stand to keep in the office. And a few days ago, I purchased a Moxia Energizer QI Enabled Induction case for my old iPhone 4. This works equally well with the existing kit.

All the charging pads connect via Micro USB and the charging cases themselves act as reasonable protectors as well as providing the necessary juice to the phones. So, when you're on the move you still need to take cables with you. Just for the record, the cost of the stand and case for the iPhone 6 was about £45, but you can do it on the cheap for under £20.

There are rumours going around already that the iPhone 7 will have true wireless charging capability,  but I'm afraid I have my doubts right now. But there is no doubt that not plugging cables in and out of the phone is preferable to the alternative - but it really is no more than a convenience at present. True wireless charging - now that will be a game changer!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Fruity Picks #6 - Kanex Thunderbolt Adapter (USB 3/Ethernet)

When I'm at Apple Harvest HQ my 2011 MacBook Air is usually connected to a Thunderbolt hub. For a long time it's been the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock (original model) which I reviewed in July 2013. I've now moved this to my partner's house for when I'm taking refuge with her and I've set up the new OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock at HQ.

When I'm on the road, especially abroad, it isn't convenient to transport a full blown hub around especially with the power bricks they generally require, but I still want to harness USB 3.0 and Ethernet capabilities normally provided by the hub.

The Kanex KTU20 Thunderbolt adapter is an ideal compromise to solve the problem. This little black box plugs into the Thunderbolt slot on the MacBook Air and adds a USB 3.0 port and a Gigabit Ethernet port to enhance the MBA capabilities. The adapter is about 5x8x2 cm and weighs just 91g.

It's not a particularly cheap solution - it'll set you back about £75 - but it is compact and it doesn't require any additional power cables. I used it most recently on my 7 month stay in Prague where I used it to connect to the apartment's router and the HGST Touro Desk Pro 4Tb USB 3 hard drive I took with me. By combining this with a 7 port USB hub I had access to all my USB requirements (albeit running at USB 2 speeds but none of these devices were performance critical).

The Kanex KTU20 will stay packed my travel bag - it's ideal for short trips involving hotel stopovers. It's just a shame it doesn't have Thunderbolt pass-through capability...but now I'm just being greedy!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Fruity Tips #2 - Enable Handoff and Continuity on older Macs

One of the things I got really excited about when Yosemite (OS X 10.10) was announced was the ability to start a task on a Mac and then seamlessly pick it up on an iDevice. In Apple terminology this is called Handoff which is a sub-function of the over Continuity function.  Continuity is dependent primarily on Bluetooth 4 LE hardware.

I was under the impression that my mid-2011 MacBook Air would support the technology but it wasn't until I tried to get it to work that the penny dropped, and although the hardware supports Handoff and Continuity, my MBA was telling me a different story - until now.

When I did a comparison of the Bluetooth configuration on the MBA and my late 2012 iMac (which categorically does support Handoff out of the box) it seemed that the specs were actually better on the older machine. Which seemed a bit perverse. So I did some more investigation and discovered that the ability of any particular model of Mac to handle Handoff depends on hardware, software and a configuration (.kext) file which contains the model names of supported machines. If the appropriate .kext files are modified, it is possible to persuade the OS that the machine will support Continuity and Handoff. 

After a bit more research I found this web site from which you can download a tool which will patch the appropriate files and enable you to turn on Handoff. The whole process took less than 10 minutes and my first test proved successful. I loaded my web mail page in Safari and switched on my iPhone and in the bottom left corner of the lock screen was the Safari icon. I swiped up on the icon and my web mail page appeared on my iPhone.

As with any system modification you do this at your own risk, and you absolutely must read the instructions before you attempt to make the modification, and it would be prudent to take a back-up or better clone your start-up disk before running the tool.

If this works for you, don't forget to make a donation to the guys who did all the work. There's a place for you to do so on the site!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Apple Watch - Tissot Slayer

A few years ago, after spending nearly two years living in Switzerland, I treated myself to a Tissot Touch watch. It was one of the earlier models - a beautiful looking watch, and not cheap - but it has been something of a disappointment in terms of functionality. I have to adjust it manually when I travel across time zones or when the clocks change and many of the functions are a bit too cryptic or complex to be able to use easily. I can't even light up the digital display in the dark!

I watched the Apple keynote back in March where the Apple Watch made its first public appearance and I loved the design and apparent simplicity in function. But I made up my mind to wait until the second generation. I've got to the stage in my life where I don't feel I need to be an early adopter for every new device that comes out - Apple or otherwise. And because I feel naked without a watch, I didn't want to take a risk with a first generation Apple Watch that wasn't quite up to scratch.

However, that changed with the June 2015 WWDC keynote when watchOS 2 was announced, and early availability issues seemed to have died down. After talking to my long suffering girlfriend I ordered a black 38mm sports edition a week ago and four days later it arrived!

If you've watched any unboxing videos of the Apple Watch you might understand how exciting it was to strip away the various bits of packaging (which I personally believe surpass anything Apple have done before) and get to the tech inside. Before I even started looking at the watch I started playing with the new folding USB mains charger - the first time Apple have shipped a folding UK 3 pin plug adapter which is a magnificent piece of gadgetry that oozes class! Seriously!

Even with a Spigen Slim Armour case the Apple Watch weighs in at just 46 grammes - half the weight of the Tissot (a big titanium beastie with a big titanium strap) and I hardly notice it on my wrist. (The bare watch without straps weighs in at 25g). A few folk have commented on how big the Apple Watch is - but I have tiny wrists for a man so my photos are probably not good for comparative purposes. The armour case was always going to be an essential for me, and the gold-ish coloured Spigen was a reasonable price, not too garish and I think it enhanced the black watch perfectly. I'm sure people are going to start collecting cases and straps as they become more widely available as they are a reasonably cost effective way to great a 'new' look watch.

It took me about 20 minutes to get the Apple Watch up and running using my iPhone 6. It was a fairly intuitive process but it worth reading some of the articles available on-line or in the Mac magazines beforehand so you know what to expect. As usual there is no user guide included but you can download the free official user guide from Apple and it's extremely comprehensive (it's also available free on iBooks).

By now you should be aware that the Watch works for left and right handers - I usually wear my watch on my right arm, under my wrist, and this orientation is catered for without any problem. Both the digital crown and the side button are easily accessible to a southpaw like myself. The downside to this configuration is that when I raise my wrist to activate the screen it rarely works. This action works much better when the watch sits on top of the wrist - but even then it isn't 100% reliable. Not the end of the world as a tap on the digital crown or the face itself will activate it, but it is a little frustrating and disappointing.

But that's about where the frustration and disappointment end. The Apple Watch is probably the best timepiece I've ever used. I love being able to customise the watch faces and more specifically their 'complications' (the different additional functions like date, battery power, sunrise, etc.) for different purposes. Although I'm currently back in the UK and intending to stay for a while I love the idea that my watch will self-adjust the time to wherever my location is. The display is magnificent as I would expect from an Apple retina display, even of this small size.

Siri appears to work much more effectively than on any of the other iDevices I've used; I guess I'll just have to get used to feeling a bit of an idiot talking to my watch when I'm in public. But given the volume of sales already, there will be a lot of us doing it!

Battery life is pretty much as expected and as Apple suggests. My worse case scenario was on the third day when I put the watch on at 04:30 in the morning and wore it until after midnight - nearly 18 hours - by which time I was down to 4% remaining. That said, the novelty was far from over, and I was messing about with it all day. On a normal day, I tend to use about 75% of a full charge. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it doesn't take long on the charger to put a considerable amount of boost back in the battery - in a random test 15 minutes charged the watch from 69% to 86%.  I would recommend getting a charging stand. I bought a Mudder squat stand which is spot on, and I've got a second charger cable on order from Apple for when I'm on the road.

I've still only been wearing the watch for four days so haven't even begun to realise its full potential. I have a few apps installed which make life a bit easier - QuickSwitch (for controlling my WeMo devices) and MacID (for unlocking my MBA) are my two favourites as it means I don't have to fumble around for my iPhone. I've added MapMyRun as I have started running again after 7 months in Prague, but I'm still reliant on the iPhone at the moment. I was using Maps on my iPhone last coming back from a concert in Birmingham and discovered that the turn by turn directions were coming up on the watch as well, which I decided was actually really cool!

First impressions are that Apple have bucked the trend of releasing a first generation gadget that isn't quite up to scratch. This is a fully functioning piece of tech which is only going to get better with the next generation OS which will add utility and smooth out some of the slightly rougher edges. And that is just as well, because I don't want to be upgrading my watch every two years like I do with my phone!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

I Love It, I Love It Not....The New MacBook

I really can't make up my mind about the new MacBook. As I watched the keynote when Apple first introduced it I was amazed, dazzled, and I decided I really, really wanted one. And then I went off the idea as I thought about the implications for a road warrior user like me of only having a single port. And now I'm back in love with it, even though I don't think it's the right machine for me.

I get the MacBook - I understand what the design team was trying to do here. I've read lots of reviews and comments, and I don't think many people do get it. This is the immediate future of mobile computing - the power of a laptop wrapped up as a slightly oversized iPad. Dare I say, this is a Chromebook for the real world - where the majority of people don't have wireless access on a 24/7 basis and as such must have some local storage mechanisms for both their apps and their data. This is the iPad for proper content creation as well as consumption. This is the laptop for a normal person, who doesn't really need much in the way of processor power (regardless of what they think or are led to believe), who isn't going to be wired up to a surfeit of accessories, who wants a beautiful retina display, and who isn't going to have easy access to the electricity grid during the course of the day.

Even in my world, where I class myself as a power user, I spend most of my time doing the things that a normal person does. I read and write emails, I surf the web, I listen to music and watch film and TV, play a few games, edit my photos, and do office type work including writing and balancing the books. I do these things for most of the day. I rarely need to do more than two of these things simultaneously. I'm virtually incapable of even attempting to do three or more of these things simultaneously without passing out.

But there are lots of people out there trying to tell me that the new MacBook is woefully underpowered, that not having at least two ports (in addition to a power socket) make it useless, and basically that no-one should buy it because it can't do any of the things I never actually do anyway like editing video. These people are little more than computer snobs - self proclaimed technical 'experts' who quote specifications without understanding them, who have never used a computer to do anything beyond the list of activities that everyone else does, and who have never worked in anything remotely resembling the real IT world.

So, if I think this is such a wonderful machine, why isn't it for me? Simply because I do need something more. As regular readers will know, I spend much of my time on the road, but once I get to my destination I'm usually there for some time. I need a laptop that is light, extensible, with a reasonable amount of screen real estate. The 13" MacBook Air fits this requirement perfectly. When I'm at my base I use the Kanex Thunderbolt adapter which provides USB 3.0 and Ethenet ports along with a powered 10 way USB hub. I also use the Logitech 780 solar powered keyboard. If I'm out and about, I simply unplug the adapter and power and I'm good to go. I have a 4Tb disk that is connected to the USB port on the Kanex (this is partitioned as an iTunes disk, a Time Machine disk and a clone of the MBA drive). The USB hub connects a Mobee charger for my mouse, the keyboard dongle, my fitbit sync dongle and my Griffin PowerMate, and a spare slot takes a card reader when necessary - and leaves me 3 ports for charging my iDevices. It's basically a desktop system for when I'm home from home. And it works. But I do think that asking the new MacBook to cope with all that load maybe a step to far!

So for now, I'll lust over the 12" Retina MacBook from a safe distance and just wait for the day when the MBA gets a retina update and goes fanless!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

"DobrĂ½ den" from the Apple Harvest in Prague

If you think this blog has been a bit quiet recently, it's because Apple Harvest HQ has temporarily relocated to Prague in the Czech Republic. Regular readers will be used to me moving to foreign climes by now. This is the third time in four years. I've been here since October and will be staying until the middle of this year.

Although the blog hasn't seen much action, it's been a busy time for the Apple Harvest. The iPhone 6 came out just before my departure and Prague is an amazing place to be testing out the fantastic camera on the latest model. We've also had the releases of Yosemite and iOS 8 which have more than lived up to expectations, and even more recently the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 hit the streets. Although I haven't upgraded my iPad 3 I did get hold of an iPad Mini 2 at the airport last month for an absolute steal. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

iPhone 6

Like many people, it took a bit of deciding which iPhone 6 model to get - the standard 6 or the 6 Plus, but in the end I plumped for the smaller version which better suits my dainty paws. If you're wondering, I went for the 64Gb Gold version - a departure from my normal preference of a dark phone. A few days after I received my new phone I got the chance to play with the 6 Plus and it was immediately clear to me that I'd made the right decision. The form factor of the 6 is, in my opinion, almost perfect. The screen seems just that little bit squarer, and I like having the extra row of icons.

I've kept my iPhone 5 to use as my local phone in Prague and I find it horribly clunky compared to the 6. Having said that, there have been a couple of occasions when I've been hanging out of a tall tower snapping away that I've missed having something more substantial to grip - it sometimes feels that a slight gust of wind will blow the phone out of my hand. I generally have the phone in a wallet case and in this situation the lightness and daintiness are of no consequence. When I know I'm going to be taking a lot of photos I swap to a bumper type case, but even this feels a bit lightweight.

For me, the iPhone 6 is the best model Apple have produced by a long long way! The camera is outstanding and although I love my Nikon DSLR I've found the iPhone 6 is a lot easier to handle when I'm in tourist mode. The quality of everyday snaps are just as good as the Nikon and although it isn't new to the iPhone 6 I think the panorama feature alone justifies leaving the DSLR behind.

iPad Mini Retina

I watched the launch of the iPad Air 2 with relish and was really looking forward to seeing what was in store for the iPad Mini. And like many folk, I was very disappointed. I've got used to the FingerTouch access to the iPhone 6 but this alone was not going to tempt me into buying an iPad Mini 3. However, I had been thinking about upgrading to a Mini Retina, and when I was at East Midlands Airport after a weekend at home I saw a 128Gb Mini 2 at a considerably lower price than anywhere else so I bought one on the spot.

I seem to use the Mini considerably more than the regular iPad and the retina screen makes an enormous difference, especially to my tired old eyes. Having the larger storage capacity has also proved a godsend. I've found that 64Gb means the devices are being pushed to the limit whereas with 128Gb I don't have to constantly manage applications and data to keep the iDevice working. I could never go back to a 64Gb limit again.

Yosemite and iOS 8

I've been lucky with Apple's operating systems and not encountered any of the significant issues that have plagued some users. WiFi connections on OS X 10.10 have been as good as under previous versions, and I missed the iOS brick "upgrade" though more by luck than judgement. I'm disappointed that Flavours hasn't made the transition yet although it is work in progress, but delighted that DockStar (for Apple Mail) has made a reappearance.

I've yet to have much of a chance to test out some of the new features of the OSes, particularly the Handoff feature. For the writing I have been doing I tend to be using either my MBA or an iDevice, but not switching between them. Plenty of time for that when I'm back in Blighty.

I've had one or two issues with Yosemite - with the initial release I had a lot of problems with Safari where web pages just would not load. Sometimes changing the default search engine from Google did the trick, sometimes switching off Bluetooth worked and sometimes a router reboot was needed. Luckily that problem has now vanished. The other issue I have is that the transparency setting is far from permanent. It appears that every time the MBA goes to sleep I have to reset the 'reduce transparency setting'.

Best of all, Clear finally works perfectly with all my devices all the time. It seems that the changes to iCloud in 10.10 have finally put and end to my sync issues, and Clear is back up there as my favourite list and to-do manager.

More to Come

These are just the highlights of the last five months while the Apple Harvest has apparently been hibernating. In the next few posts I'll cover some some of the other gadgets that have found a home either at HQ or mobile HQ. The Kanex Thunderbolt USB/Ethernet adapter has proved useful as a mobile solution to carrying around a Thunderbolt dock and a new 10 port USB 3.0 hub complements that nicely. Rounding off the mobile solution is a 4Tb Touro hard disk for the Mac and a Buffalo MiniStation Air 2 for iOS.

My Mobee Magic Juice battery is never far from me and another new but relaitvely untried toy is the Equil SmartPen - my first foray into the world of digital pens. I've acquired some more great software as well - some of it has made the must have list, some is just fun to have, especially for a stranger in a stranger land!

I'm hoping to be able to get back into the rhythm of posting more frequently now spring is in the air (?), so please come back soon to Czech out how successful I am (groan).

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Fruity Tips #1 - Automatically Detect Your Current Timezone

Here's the first of the Apple Harvest Fruity Tips. It's been a while coming but it has saved my bacon this week so I had to share it with the world as soon as possible!

I've had problems travelling overseas with some of my iDevices for the past six months because the Timezone setting won't update automatically. This never used to be an issue, but I'm guessing that in iOS7 or iOS8 a preference has changed which does now cause the problem.

And what a problem it was this week. I returned to Prague and forgot to change the time on my iPad 3 (the new iPhone 6 and new iPad Mini 2 were both OK) and as a result got up an hour later than I intended on Monday morning.

The problem appeared when I went to the Settings->General->Date & Time preference with the Set Automatically option switched on. The Time Zone setting wouldn't load properly - I just got the spinning fan icon. It turns out that the fix is very simple and it's all to do with the Location Services in the Privacy settings.

In order to get the Time Zone to update automatically, you need to turn on the Privacy->Location Services->System Services->Setting Time Zone. Once you make this tweak the Time Zone will change automatically in the future. Of course you also need to make sure that Location Services are switched on!

Make sure Setting Time Zone is Turned On!
Luckily in my case there was only an hour difference between where I was and where I'd been and there were no critical appointments in the diary. It could have been a very costly error though if I'd had a flight to catch or an interview to attend!