Saturday, 24 September 2016

Oops - I(Tunes) Did It Again...

Another new operating system for the Mac and another half baked version of iTunes...

The Apple Harvest has never shied away from commenting on the mess that iTunes has become. It's hardly a lone voice either. But it would appear that none of the professional or personal voices are being heard by Apple. Or if they are, they are not being listened to.

In my day job I'm a business improvement consultant. I help companies understand their problems and give them ideas on how to solve them. I help them look for opportunities where they may be blinkered. I also help them manage change, and one of my golden rules is "Continuous Tinkering is not Continuous Improvement". I even wrote a post about it on one of my other blogs.

Apple have well and truly got into the rut of continuous tinkering when it comes to iTunes. Each step forward (and I genuinely do like some of the things they do each time a new release comes out) results in a number of steps backwards.

It really is time for one giant step change for the product team who need to throw away the legacy  and start again from scratch.

So what exactly has upset me with this latest version of iTunes?

  • Technology now allows us to see over a billion colours on a screen but Apple insist on using white backgrounds for everything. Now I know that not everyone liked the colour option of iTunes 11, but it was a preference and they could turn it off. Now we have no choice - we have to have our eyes blown out by blindingly white backgrounds (same goes for the Notification Centre - brilliant white only)
  • For You used to be really quite an attractive option - the only thing I like about this new incarnation is the inclusion of new music
  • It used to be really easy to flick between an artist's music in your library and that on Apple Music that isn't in your library - now it's virtually impossible without having to make notes. OK, not a problem with a small library, but I have over 4000 albums, and I don't have an eidetic knowledge of which albums by which artists I have in my library
  • When I click on the first track of an album I expect to be able to play the album and then finish. I don't want the next 'n' tracks in my library to appear in the current play list
  • It would be quite useful to have better visibility of the current playlist in general - for example I would love to be able to delete a selection of songs without having to delete each one individually (and have it replaced by the next song in the library)
  • Play Later seems to only be available under certain conditions - I'm not yet entirely sure what they are
  • Who on earth decided that the Shuffle option should be turned on by default? 
  • Pre-ordered albums with a few songs available seem to exist in an alternative universe to all other albums - pulling in tracks from other albums/singles and EPs 
  • The Recently Added library list shares none of the characteristics of other items like Albums or Artists
Then, of  course, there are the bugs that still cause problems especially the iCloud Music Library option unchecking itself at random.

I could probably, just about, live with any one of these, and try and establish workarounds for them, but as a whole, they make using iTunes a proverbial pain in the butt! The Music app in iOS 10 has another set of quirks, but at least the overall experience is more consistent than iTunes.

Apple seems to have forgotten that not all users listen to music the same way - those of us with large downloaded libraries, particularly those of us who are album oriented, listen to our music in a different way to those who stream singles and odd songs. In different circumstances, our listening methods change, but Apple is seemingly forcing us into a specific way of listening to our music and is removing the flexibility for us to take back any control. 

But above all - it would be great not to have to constantly have to relearn how to use an application that is so fundamental to so many users every time a new release comes out. We actually want consistency and continuity - we don't want constantly changing ways of doing the basic things we've been doing for years. Some things don't need innovation - they just need to do what they're supposed to do. And with a minimum of fuss and effort on our part!

So, please Apple, either redesign iTunes from scratch, or give us the flexibility to tweak it to suit ourselves. But please, above all....stop tinkering and pretending that its an improvement! 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Fruity Picks #9 - Smatree Travel Case for Apple Watch

While the official Apple Watch Dock, reviewed in Fruity Picks #8  is a bit of a one-trick pony (which it does very well), the same cannot be said for the Smatree SmaShell A100 which combines a travel case, dock and power bank for the Apple Watch.

To be honest, I'm not convinced as to why I would want to put my Apple Watch in a case for travelling purposes as it's far more useful on my wrist...but that aside, this is a really useful little gadget. Although it doesn't come supplied with the a watch charger, I happened to have a spare short charger (0.3m) lying around which is ideal for the SmaShell. It's easy to install the charger and once it's in place, an Apple Watch can be charged in the night-stand mode as shown in the picture above. Although, you have to remember to push the charge button to actually turn on the juice from the in-built battery.

There's enough juice in the internal battery to charge an original Apple Watch up to six times (I have to admit I've not needed this - I've only needed three but that was no problem), and because it has a USB port you can also charge an additional device from it, but again, not a function I've used in anger. Clearly this wold reduce the number of Watch charges you could get from the battery.

There's room in the carrier for a couple of spare Watch bands which can be useful if you need to glam up for an evening do after a hard day in the office.

Best price in the UK is around £30 on the UK Amazon store. Recommended for weekend travellers.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Old Ones Are Often Still the Best

I forget exactly when, but I'm guessing it was about four years ago, that I bought a Logitech K750 Solar keyboard (Mac version). Without question, it is the best keyboard I've ever used. I have an office full of Apple keyboards, both wired and wireless, including the latest Lightning Magic Keyboard. I even bought the Mobi magic wand, to convert the earlier model into a rechargeable device. I also bought the smaller Logitech K760 Solar keyboard. Whilst I do like the alternatives, none of them can hold a candle compared to the K750.

The Pros

  • Solar powered, obviating the need for continuous replacement or recharging of batteries
  • Full length, with numeric keypad/arrow keys
  • Light, thin and wireless
  • Beautiful action
  • Solar App to help manage charging levels

The Cons

  • Uses a Logitech wireless dongle rather than Bluetooth
  • Logitech Unifying Software doesn't work well on the Mac
  • Internal battery is the devil's own job to replace
  • Attempted built-in obsolescence 
So when it died a couple of days ago I was really upset, especially as a new replacement is now twice the price of what it was when I bought it. Logitech no longer make the Mac version so it is becoming something of a rarity, and therefore commands high prices.

A quick search on the Internet gave me a little bit of hope when I found that the cause of the problem could have been an internal battery failure, and an iFixit site which had instructions on how to replace it. I duly ordered a replacement battery, an ML2032 (it's really important to get this one which is rechargeable, not a standard CR2032) - which had to be shipped from France for more cost than the battery itself and although the delivery time was indicated as being sometime in September, it arrived this morning.

Removing the old battery involved prising the battery holder out of the case (inflicting a small amount of damage to the underside) using pliers, screwdrivers, and brute force. The battery itself had a sticker on it from Logitech explaining that the battery was not user replaceable (they would rather you purchase a new keyboard!) but I popped the new one in and crossed my fingers.

I ran the Unifying Software package to pair the keyboard (which had previously gone dark) and it appeared immediately. Although I couldn't get past the next stage of the set-up, I'd done enough for the iMac to see the keyboard and accept keystrokes. 

We're back up and running!

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

That Moment When...You Think Your SSD is Dead

I use Power Manager to automatically start (and power down) my new MacBook Air at various times on weekdays and with a different schedule at the weekend. Recently, however, the system has got stuck during the boot process and the first thing I see on the screen is the Apple logo with the half completed status bar underneath. I expect to see a fully operational Mac. Usually, it's enough to restart the machine, but today was different.

Today nothing happened on the restart. Nothing, nada, nil, The speakers attached to the device lit up briefly and then the laptop powered right back down again. And again.

I tried various power up options, safe boot - nothing, clear PRAM - nothing, Diagnostics - nothing. Eventually I tried the Recovery mode and that worked, so my first port of call was Disk Utility. Running First Aid on the flash drive indicated that it was OK, but subsequently running the tool on the start-up partition repeatedly failed. I was starting to get a bit nervous, especially given this was a four month old MBA.

Since I run a reasonably effective back-up routine, with a weekly clone in addition to a default Time Machine backup I decided that I could afford to be a bit aggressive in trying to resolve the problem so I opted to reformat the flash drive partition. This also repeatedly failed. I was beginning to think that a visit to the repair shop was on the cards, especially as I was running out of time before having to leave for work.

I closed down the MBA and shoved it in my bag and headed off to the office for the day. There isn't an Apple Store in Prague yet, and although there are Apple certified resellers and repair outfits, my MBA is my most valuable possession here, and I really did not like the idea of parting with it for even a couple of days. So I was determined to fix the problem myself.

During my breaks in the office I tried a few more tricks, and eventually I managed to format the flash drive completely, not just the start-up partition. Of course, this wiped the disk completely so the next time the machine restarted I was presented with an icon of a question mark in a folder. Unfortunately I couldn't get access to the guest WiFi in the office as it needs a browser to log in which meant an internet recovery was not going to happen. So, for the rest of the working day, I was stuck. I got copies of my invoices, proof of purchase and Apple Care documents printed out, just in case, and eventually headed off home. It was Friday, and I had visions of a long night ahead.

Once back at the Pent-Palace (my nickname for Apple Harvest HQ for this trip) I switched on the laptop and launched it into Recovery mode once more. To my relief it worked without any problems. I checked the flash drive again and no errors were reported. An empty partition was already set up and I chose to restore the most recent backup. Everything went according to plan (prayer?) and about three hours later the contents were restored. I rebooted and things started looking good.

But there's always a catch. Once I hooked up the OWA Thunderbolt 2 dock, which included access to a 4 Tb external drive, Ethernet network and second monitor and rebooted both screens were blank. I tried again with the same outcome. Booting into the laptop without connecting the dock was fine, and then reconnecting the dock was fine. So, theoretically, all the hardware was working, all the cables were fine, and all the software was fine.

In the end, I decided to let it be and left things to settle down overnight. First thing in the morning, I rebooted with everything connected and lo and behold - it all worked perfectly.

The bad news is that I have no idea what caused the problem in the first place. Any console logs are long since destroyed. The only clue was in disk utility which seemed to hint that there was a corrupt directory entry on the start up partition, but as to what caused it, I have no idea.

But happily I didn't need to call on the engineers and I didn't even lose any sleep over the problem.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Fruity Picks #8 - Apple Watch Dock

One of Apple's more controversial product offering over recent months was the announcement of the first official Apple Watch Dock (OK - the bump case for the iPhone generated far more derision but I'm not in a position to comment on that).

I have to confess I was a little uncertain about the Watch Dock. It seemed a bit over-sized, and certainly seemed a bit expensive for a one trick pony. I had been looking at the Nomad Pod and Pod Pro products, but these still need a charger cable and weren't really quite what I was looking for.

Just before Christmas, I was on a business trip to Basel in Switzerland and with a little time to kill I found myself in the Apple store. For some extraordinary reason, a lot of Apple kit in Switzerland has been (in my experience) considerably cheaper than in the UK - unlike pretty much everything else in Switzerland. The Watch Dock was in keeping with my previous experience and rattled in at about £20 cheaper than at home. So I bought one on the spot.

The Watch Dock is classic Apple design which just works. It is a simple and elegant solution especially given that it uses a lightning USB cable to connect the dock to a power source rather than a separate Apple Watch charger.

What more is there to say? I'm really pleased I have one even though I think it's far too overpriced. It has become my watch dock of choice and I'm pretty sure I'd have ended up buying one anyway but who doesn't like a discount!

iTunes - Time for A Major Makeover

Just over four years ago I posted an article about iTunes and how I'd spent a week trying to recover from a series of iTunes induced cock-ups. Following the latest update to 12.3.3 I've spent another week trying to recover from another set of iTunes induced cock-ups.

If iTunes was an old pet we would probably have taken it to the vet by now and put it out of its misery. Sadly Apple doesn't perceive iTunes as old pet but some kind of sacred cow which must be kept alive in its current state regardless of its pain. In fact, iTunes is turning into a kind of dangerous dog, like a Pit Bull Terrier, which should be put to sleep before it inflicts both physical and mental damage to its owner.

Years ago, when I was cutting code we had a similar problem with our commercial set of programmes. They had  originally been written for the MS-DOS platform, then hurriedly converted to Windows 3 and were constantly being expanded and modified. After about five years we took the decision to call it a day and re-architect and re-engineer the entire portfolio before it imploded and became impossible to salvage. There was a business requirement as well as a technical requirement, in that a new bunch of players had come into the market and were starting from scratch, making our offerings looking tired, slow and very sad.

It really is time that Apple took a similar approach with iTunes. The whole platform needs re-architecting and re-engineering in order to make it a better solution for it customers. Many iTunes users, like myself, don't really have the luxury of moving to a different solution. My music library, which relies heavily on playlists, iMatch (and more recently Apple Music) now stands at about 45,000 songs. The video library of films and TV shows is just over a terabyte. The whole library consumes about 1.7Tb. And just like our old portfolio, iTunes has grown out of control and has been showing signs of imploding for at least four years. The rate of decline is now growing even faster, and it's time to take urgent action.

So, what is behind this latest call for an iTunes re-design?

After the 12.3.3 update I had a few teething problems with my music library. (As an aside, and to be fair, the video and TV libraries don't appear to have been affected, but then again, I tend not to pay so much attention to them). These teething problems then turned into a big, big, problem. A 54Gb problems to be precise. For some reason, during the update, the options to use Apple Music and iCloud Music Library were deselected. Every time I tried to re-enable them iTunes would crash. Eventually I signed out of iTunes and signed in again. I could now enable the two options, but to my horror about half my Apple Music downloads were now showing as not downloaded. They hadn't been deleted from the hard drive, but they were definitely missing in iTunes.

The only obvious way to fix this was to delete the problem albums and redownload but this meant going through every folder in my Apple Music library to find out the offending items, and then spending hours doing the downloads. There had to be a better way - I just had no idea what it was. So I got in touch with Apple iTunes Support via Twitter. We spent the next three days going nowhere as they asked me question after question about my setup - which I'd already explained right at the start. I felt completely patronised, and in the end they couldn't help anyway. I not even sure they understood the problem.

I now realise that I'm not the only one with problems - and to be honest I actually feel quite lucky. At least I have a workaround to fix my problem. It would appear that there a many folk out there who don't, short of starting from scratch (or abandoning iTunes altogether).

iTunes does not play well when it's trying to do too many things. The program should be streamlined into its components at least - Apple Music, Apple Video and the Apple Store. iTunes doesn't play well with large music libraries and the system should be more rigorously tested against very large libraries, which I think will become increasingly common with Apple Music. Apple Tunes Match is still suffering from bugs reported over four years ago - once or twice a week I have to clean up my music library to eliminate the issue of songs with a valid last played days but a zero play count. Even as I write this, over 14500 songs are showing this erroneous attribute. Additionally, most people need external storage for their media libraries because of their sheer size, and I'm sure that this is one of the major contributing factors in iTunes failures - the programme simply wasn't optimised to work with external volumes. This is a critical aspect that needs addressing.

Given that iTunes is probably one of the three most used of the stock OS X applications, along with Safari and Mail, it's about time that it worked without so many problems.

I've now fixed the issue with my library but it has been time consuming and painful. I have a relatively slow internet connection in Prague, but at least it is unlimited. If I been on a capped service, I might still be trying to resolve the problem into next year! But how I miss my 200Mbps connection at Apple Harvest HQ!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Fruity Picks #7 - Get Control of your Power Schedule

By default OS X 10.11 gives you limited control over your power settings by allowing you to set times for when you want to start (or wake up) your Mac, and when you want to shutdown or sleep the machine. Of course, for many people even this is overkill, they just switch on the machine when they need it and close it down when they're done.

While I'm based overseas, I'm loathe to have my MBA plugged in all day, potentially screwing up the battery, especially when it's not actually being used for 8-10 hours of the day. (I rarely take the laptop into the office these days since almost all my needs can be met through my iDevices). However, I like my laptop to be on when I wake up in the morning, and then again when I get home in the evening. 

If you want this kind of flexibility then you have a couple of options. The first is to use the 'pmset' command line tool (see here for a tutorial), but this requires you to be prepared to go 'under the hood' and might not be that much of an option for more casual users. The second option is to get a copy of Dragon Software Power Manager which is a more user friendly option (albeit at a price - approx £40 at the time of writing).

In addition to setting up complex power management schedules, Power Manager, also allows scheduling of other actions - the only limit is most likely to be your imagination. There's even a remote version for iOS devices (iOS8/9 are not currently supported but the website suggests that a new version is under development).

£40 might feel a bit steep, but if you value your MBA battery, and consider the cost of replacement it could work out as a sensible investment!