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!