MyRailLite is dead. Long live MyRailLite.

picture-28Here in the UK we are not blessed with a rail service that is reliable. Oh the rail operators will probably trot out statistics that say 90%+ this and 95%+ that, but the reality is that out of the last twelve rail journeys I have undertaken, no less than six have been late – the most recent example being a train I expected to catch at 09:58 and which actually turned up at 10:11.

For this reason, an iPhone application that helps me with knowing live arrival and departure times for my chosen station is an absolute godsend, as it is for many tens of thousands of iPhone owning rail commuters. It’s the ideal application on the ideal platform (excuse the pun!). So, I was really chuffed when I downloaded MyRailLite from the iTune App Store last summer. It was exactly what I needed and what’s more – it was FREE! The developer used the live rail data feed that is available here in the UK to create a really useful application that he did not profit from.

Now let’s wind the clock forward to March 2009 and to the release of National Rail’s own iPhone application that does pretty much exactly the same thing. There is one major difference however. Where MyRailLite was FREE, the National Rail app costs a whopping £4.99! So, who’s going to pay £4.99 for something they can get for free? Well, no-one in their right mind of course.

Now what may not be immediately apparent is that in order to use the live data feed you need a ‘license’, and I guess MyRailLite was duly licensed. However, what I’m hearing is that the license was due for renewal at the end of March 2009 and National Rail said “No”. After all, with a free application offering most of the same functionality, how would they sell their own for £4.99 a go? So in one fell swoop they rendered the competition useless. There is another live rail arrivals/departures application on the iPhone and it has already been withdrawn from the App Store even though unlike MyRailLite it still works as of March 31st 2009. Presumably their license will also expire at some point and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if National Rail don’t allow them to renew either.

It’s a sad day when a large company seems to block a free service in an attempt to force me to use their own paid for service instead.

Note, I am not linking to the National Rail website, nor am I using any of their logos on this blog entry and that is intentional.

Logitech Control Centre 2.7, Windows diNovo Edge & Leopard

Logitech Control Centre 2.7 (one step forwards, two steps backwards) and a trio of diNovos.

When I saw the new version of the Logitech Control Centre (LCC) v2.7, and then spotted that it at least recognized my Windows diNovo Edge keyboard, I thought it was a step forward. It now seems that my excitement was a bit premature and I’ve now reverted back to the earlier 2.6 version. So why is that?

You are feeling sleepy!

You are feeling sleepy!

Well with v2.6 of the LCC, pressing the ‘Sleep‘ key (top left of the keyboard) would pop up a prompt under Leopard giving me some choices – Restart, Sleep, Cancel or Shutdown. Under v2.7 of the software that option has been disappeared and pressing the Sleep key simply puts the Mac straight to sleep.

The second difference is the F12 key. With v2.6 of the LCC software, pressing F12 would eject the CD/DVD tray. Under v2.7 pressing F12 caused Spotlight to open a search results window. I couldn’t find a single key (or combination of keys) that would eject the CD/DVD tray and so had to resort to plugging in the aluminium Apple keyboard to a spare USB port in order to be able to open the tray. Sure I could try and load something that would assign the Eject function back to F12 but that would be defeating the object.

Seeing as Logitech Control Centre v2.7 only gave me access to the battery gague and allowed me to adjust the sensitivity of the TouchDisk (which I rarely use), going back to v2.6 seemed to make sense. Maybe v2.8 of the LCC software will be better, who knows. I’m not holding my breath.

On the subject of Logitech and Mac keyboards, not everything is as straightforward as it seems and if you’re thinking of buying a ‘diNovo’ for your Mac then it’s worth doing some research. Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve found.

diNovo Edge Keyboard (Windows)Logitech diNovo Edge (the original Windows version) – Features the TouchDisk and the touch slider volume control. Also features a Fn key for activating extended function key options which illuminate soft orange symbols above the keys when activated. This keyboard will work with a Mac running Leopard OS X 10.5.x with the following limitations – Not recognized by the Logitech Control Centre 2.6 software, the extended function keys will not work, the Windows key (top right) does nothing, the zoom keys (left hand side) do nothing, the ‘Sleep’ key works, the TouchDisk works and the volume slider works. Recognized by the v2.7 LCC software but only to a degree and lacks programmability. F12 is mapped to ‘Eject Disk’ with the v2.6 software but to Spotlight with the v2.7 software. Uses bluetooth and includes a USB bluetooth dongle in the box. Uses built-in rechargeable batteries. Has height adjustment. Uses Logitech’s PerfectStroke™ key system.

dinovo-edge-macLogitech diNovo Edge Mac Edition – Looks almost identical to the Windows version, but unlike the Windows version it does NOT have the illuminated function keys feature (there is no ‘Fn’ key). Fully supported by Mac OS X Leopard. Has the correct key labels (e.g. Command, Option, etc.). You can map funtions to the F keys via the LCC software. Have read reports that this version of the keybaord does not use Plexiglass like the Windows version, but uses piano black plastic instead. (I cannot confirm this as I haven’t seen the keyboard in the flesh). This keyboard is NOT available in the UK or Europe, contrary to comments on the Logitech US website. By the looks of it, it’s also disappeared off the US website now. Uses bluetooth but reportedly does NOT include a bluetooth dongle. Uses built-in rechargeable batteries. Has height adjustment. Uses Logitech’s PerfectStroke™ key system.

diNovo Keyboard Mac EditionLogitech diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition – This is essentially a revamped version of the Logitech diNovo Keyboard for Notebooks. Fully supported by Mac OS X Leopard. Does NOT have the illuminated function keys feature (there is no ‘Fn’ key). Has the correct key labels (e.g. Command, Option, etc.). You can map funtions to the F keys via the LCC software. This keyboard definitely uses black plastic rather than plexiglass, but does have the aluminium wrist rest. It is available in the US and Europe. Does not use bluetooth, uses 2.4GHz RF instead and includes the relevant USB dongle.  Uses 3 x (non-rechargeable) AA batteries. Does not have height adjustment. Uses Logitech’s PerfectStroke™ key system.

There you have it. The names are a little confusing as they’re so similar, but yer pays yer money and takes yer choice. Logitech do make other keyboards that are oficially supported on the Mac, but for my money I really like the PerfectStroke key system and the build quality of the diNovo keyboards is superb. The downside is they are horribly expensive, but it’s like choosing a bed – you spend so much time using one that the extra cost is justified. I did try out the Logitech Wave keyboard but it was vile, it felt really plasticky and the key action was more like playing Whack-a-mole than typing. All down to personal preference though.

Icy Box 2 Disk ‘JBOD’ SATA Enclosure – Uncooth but useful

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

A by-product of having built and upgraded my own Windows PCs in the past is that I now have an assorted collection of 3.5″ IDE and SATA hard disks. However, the one place I was short of storage space was on my entry-level Mac Mini which sports a mere 80Gb internal drive. To solve this, I had attached two Freecom 500Gb USB drives as well as a Freecom 400Gb USB drive, taking up three of the Mini’s four USB slots, and more importantly three power outlets as each Freecom drive needs it’s own power supply. There has to be a better way, one that takes up fewer ports and gobbles less power.

Enter the Icy Box 3.5″ x 2 Black JBOD SATA Enclosure USB (to give it its mouthful of a full title). In essence it’s a two-bay enclosure that lets you add two of your own SATA drives and then connect it to your Mac (or PC) via a single USB cable. With two ‘spare’ SATA hard disks (a 300Gb and a 400Gb) floating around, this had the potential to give me nearly 700Gb of storage which should be fine for the Mini. First impressions are that the Icy Box is a neat, pleasant looking device that wouldn’t really be out of place anywhere, even tucked away with your other media centre gadgetry in the living room. In fact I only have two real criticisms of it as a gadget and that’s build quality and noise.

To take build quality first, the whole thing is reasonably well designed and screwed together, however on my unit the on/off switch doesn’t sit flush with Icy Box JBOD #2the backplate, rather it’s crooked, as is the 4cm fan that protrudes 1.5cm from the case and is also not aligned. It’s more nit-picking though because both things work and once you’ve put the thing together you’re unlikely to see them when the unit is in use. While we’re on the subject of the back panel, it also sports a USB socket and a DIN-style power socket for the supplied mains adapter. There is also a rather flimsy plastic ‘stalk’ labelled backup (aimed at providing one-touch backup for Windows users).

Now fitting the drives is a little frustrating and is done as follows:

  1. You remove the two screws from the bottom of the case and slide out the internal chassis.
  2. Before completely removing the internal chassis, you remove a small ribbon cable that connects the front LEDs to the circuit board on the backplane.
  3. Screw your two drives into the bays on the internal chassis.
  4. Slide the internal chassis back in to the case and re-attach the ribbon cable before pushing it fully home.
  5. Turn the unit upside down and attempt to screw in the two bottom screws.

It’s the last step that’s the frustrating bit. The two SATA drives are quite heavy and there’s enough play inside the case to allow the internal chassis to move a few mm when you turn it upside down, so even when you line up the holes on the enclosure with the holes in the internal chassis, the screws to secure the two together don’t reach. In the end I had to balance one of the screws on a magnetic screwdriver, align everything with the unit the right way up, then holding the unit above my head I approached it from the bottom in a sort of juggling act. It worked and the whole assembly is now secure, but I wouldn’t relish undoing it all to replace a drive!

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

So, with the drives fitted it’s time to plug it in to a Mac and with that done and the unit switched on, that’s where my second minor niggle is. The fan is on all the time the unit is powered up, and it’s not quiet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not noisy either, but it’s louder than my Mac Pro and it’s noticeable in the sitting room if the TV is off, or you are near the TV watching a quiet scene. I did think about disconnecting the fan completely, but figured it was probably worse to run the disks at a higher temperature than put up with the whirring noise. To be fair, if you’re 12 feet from the TV and watching a movie, you probably won’t hear the fan.

Ok, so what did Mac OS X make of my little drive store? Well the nice things here is that this is a ‘JBOD’ device (Just a Bunch Of Drives) and because you have two drives presented to OS X via a single USB interface, you have a choice of ways you can configure the space in Disk Utility. On opening Disk Utility, you see each physical disk inside the unit separately, and the most straightforward option is then to simply partition each one separately and use them as they were two separate external hard drives. However, you can also explore the options you have using software RAID. Now as I mentioned, I’ve got a 400Gb and a 300Gb drive in my unit and certain scenarios RAID works better when using disks of the same size (e.g. space isn’t wasted), however this doesn’t stop you experimenting with what software RAID under OS X has to offer, and here are your choices:

Mirrored RAID Set – OS X mirrors the contents of one drive on to the other. That is the most secure because if you lose one drive, then all your data is safe on the other. You just replace the failed drive and rebuild the RAID array, and you can even continue using the ‘good’ disk while you’re waiting for a replacement for your failed disk. . The downside is that the space available for storing data is equivalent to that of the smallest disk, so in my case using a 300Gb + 400Gb disk, I actually only get 300Gb of usable space. What’s more, by using two disks of different sizes I also lose the extra (100Gb) space on the larger drive.

Striped RAID Set – OS X ‘stripes’ the data across the two disks. The plus point is that it’s supposed to be faster than a ‘concatenated disk set’ and you get to use all the available disk space, so in my case that’s 400Gb + 300Gb = 700Gb which I’d see as a single large volume. The downside is that if either drive fails then you lose all your data (you are backing up… aren’t you?). Note that given this is a USB device, any speed gained through striping may be lost because USB isn’t the fastest connection in the world.

Concatenated Disk Set – Like the Striped RAID Set, essentially OS X joins the two disks together and you see them as one single drive having the total picture-23space of the two drives added together. However the data isn’t striped across the two disks, rather the two disks are just joined together one after the other. Great if you’ve got data you don’t want to split over multiple volumes, but the downside is still that if you lose one disk, you stand to lose the data on both drives.

You can even combine RAID sets if you have multiple disk sets to play with but that’s a topic for another day. The point here is that the Icy Box ‘JBOD’ Enclosure gives you options via OS X for being a little more creative with how you use your disks. It’s a handy little unit and if you don’t mind the few rough edges, then it’s a good way to employ spare disk drives. Icy Box make a number of other disk enclosures, including a slightly more expensive 2-bay ‘JBOD’ USB disk enclosure that sports a variable-speed fan and screwless drive fittings. In hindsight I’d choose that one as it’s only another £10 and it addresses both my niggles with the cheaper unit. Still, it’s worth it from the perspective of being able to put my spare disks to good use.

If you want to check out the Icy Box homepage it’s HERE.

A (very) cheap and cheerful iPhone 3G case from Wenger

Wenger iPhone 3G Case

Wenger iPhone 3G Case

The iPhone 3G is a very sleek and tactile device which presents case manufacturers with a problem. While owners want to keep their phones looking good, a lot of cases simply don’t do the phone justice and end up looking… well just a bit naff, so you have to choose carefully.

Now Wenger make pretty good rucksacks, briefcases, laptop bags and the like, so by all accounts the Wenger iPhone 3G case has all the right credentials to be a pretty good phone case too. However, what becomes obvious when you receive your Wenger case is that the people who produce the advertising photos are very skillful and that they probably try and awful lot of cases out before they find the one that looks just right. Now to be fair to Wenger, it’s more a feature of the case design that results in something that looks cheap and cheerful and I guess for just £12 you can’t expect too much.

The case is stitched together reasonably well and by the looks of it will be pretty durable. However the ‘do everything without removing the case’ design means that dirt and debris can easily get in between the case and the phone, and as a result the phone will probably end losing its shine unless you’re very careful. You can also see from the photos that the case is nowhere near as straight, true and well-fitting as the one the advertisers use. There is noticeable over-stitching, and the aperture at the bottom that allows the dock cable to be attached just looks ugly and awkward. The case does feature a (non-removeable) belt-clip which looks secure enough for belts up to about 4cm wide, although I’d always be wary about just how risky it is to sport an expensive device like an iPhone on your belt. Lastly, while the width of the case means the phone can’t slip from side to side when inserted, the fastening strap at the top of the case on my example is much too loose and (again) looks nothing like the nice snug clip you see in the advertising shots.

Included with the case is a small lint-free cleaning cloth plus a screen protector. Again the screen protector looks to have been manufactured as cheaply as possible and has cut-out ends (see photo) that go in and around the phone speaker and on/off switch, rather than just having apertures for them. The protector is also a couple of millimetres smaller than the screen giving it a very `stuck-on’ appearance, rather than sitting almost flush with the bezel as others do.

In the end it’s difficult to be nice about this case when you see the quality, fit and finish of cases from companies such as Sena Cases or Beyzacases, but what this case does have going for it is price. If you really must have a black leather case with bright pink stitching that offers a small degree of protection, then for relatively little outlay this case will do the job. Personally, given how much the iPhone costs in the UK I’d suggest saving up a bit more and getting a case of the quality that your iPhone deserves.

(This is a copy of a review I posted on Amazon UK under the Amazon Vine program).

Webroot SpySweeper – The curse of the automated renewal

PLEASE NOTE – This is a personal blog and the article below is just a summary of my experiences when I tried to cancel my subscription. I have seen more and more comments coming through for approval, posted by people requesting cancellation of a Webroot subscription is cancelled. Unfortunately I can’t help with that as I have no connection with the Webroot company and/or their products. If you want to cancel your Webroot subscription, you should contact Webroot direct either by phone or by email. Good Luck.
Great software. Not so great service.

Great software. Not quite so great service.

For many years as a Windows PC user, I used various bits of security software. One such product was Webroot SpySweeper and I have to say that it worked very well and generally got good reviews for its performance. However, on switching to the Mac I naturally no longer had a need for it and you’d think that would be the end of the story, but unfortunately it wasn’t.

The problem is that when you buy Webroot SpySweeper and give them your credit card details, they put you on an automatic renewal system. This was not a choice, it was something that was done automatically and while companies will argue that this is convenient for their customers, it’s an approach that I happen to dislike for reasons that will become obvious. So, in early February I received an automated email from Webroot informing me that my subscription to SpySweeper will be automatically renewed

“This email is to remind you that your subscription with   will automatically renew soon.  If you would like to cancel your subscription, please visit the link below:

Please note: This email message was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming email. Please do not reply to this message.

Webroot Software, Inc. Customer Service”

As to be expected I followed the link to, logged in and started searching for the ‘Cancel my subscription’ link. Nothing. Nowhere was there a link, button or anything else to take you to somewhere you could easily cancel an automated renewal. There seemed to be nothing else to do but to use their online email form to contact Sales and request that my renewal be cancelled. That’s where I hit the next problem – I filled in the form on their website, gave them all my details, email address etc., and clicked on the submit button. A few minutes later I got an email telling me that couldn’t deliver the message. For some reason they’d coded their online email form to generate an email and send it to an undeliverable address!

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification.

Delivery to the following recipients failed.

Reporting-MTA: dns;
Received-From-MTA: dns;
Arrival-Date: Tue, 12 Feb 2009 05:52:17 -0700

Final-Recipient: rfc822;
Action: failed
Status: 5.7.1
X-Display-Name: Sales Help

Hang on a minute. I’m sending them an email using their own online form on their own website… and it doesn’t work? Thinking it might be a glitch in the system I waited a while and tried again. Same result. Ok, so you can’t use that option to cancel your renewal. Next step – try raising a helpdesk ticket using their online support feature. That way I’d get a helpdesk ticket reference and I could track it. So off I went and filled in a helpdesk request, got everything logged and got my helpdesk ticket number. Great, I even got an automated response saying:

Your question has been received. You should expect a response from us within 24 hours.

24 hours later? Nothing. 48 hours later? Nothing. 72 hours later I got fed up and added a comment to the ticket asking them to reply. I waited another 48 hours. Still nothing. Finally, with the renewal date looming I figured there was no alternative but to call them. I found a UK telephone number for the company and then spent more of my time and money telephoning them to cancel this automated renewal. The phone call was short and sweet but the message got through and the person at the other end of the phone assured me that my subscription would be cancelled, and indeed a while later I received an email confirming it.

But then yesterday I received another email from Webroot…

Automatic Renewal Cancellation

We recently notified you that your Webroot security software would be automatically renewed. However, we are having a temporary error with our automatic renewal system.

Your Webroot software will NOT be renewed automatically.

Renew your subscription today.

Please visit or call Customer Support at +44 (0) 845 0822 498. We have extended your subscription for 30 days to ensure you have plenty of time to complete your renewal.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Thank you for being a valued Webroot customer!

Webroot Customer Support

Maybe the temporary error was that I didn’t actually want to renew! I am now nervously watching my credit card statements in the hopes that a charge to Webroot doesn’t magically appear.

My advice to anyone who is a Webroot customer and who wants to cancel this automated renewal scheme they operate, is to telephone them, get the person’s name and get them to confirm in writing that they’ve cancelled the renewal. Then watch your credit card statement just to make sure.

And my advice to Webroot? Well thanks for a great product, but I think you need to fix a few problems with your website and to make the option to cancel more obvious and more straightforward. There was a time when I would have recommended Webroot SpySweeper to Windows users without any hesitation. Maybe now I’m not so sure.

Windows diNovo Edge keyboard & Leopard – A step forward?

It's there - my Windows diNovo Edge keyboard!

It's there - my Windows diNovo Edge keyboard!

In addition tp my Logitech MX Revolution mouse, I use a Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard with my Mac Pro. It’s not the Mac version of the diNovo Edge, rather it’s the original Windows version with the soft orange lights. It works fine as a basic keyboard with OS X Leopard, and the volume slider, mute button, the ‘Touch Disk’ and the sleep button also work, but that’s about it. None of the extended function keys do anything because the Logitech Control Centre software for OS X doesn’t recognize the diNovo Edge… until now that is. I saw via MacUpdate that version 2.7 of the Logitech Control Centre software has just been released, and seeing as I was using v2.6 I figured I ought to upgrade, so off I went and installed it.

Previously when I launched the Logitech Control Centre (v2.6) in System Preferences, I would be shown my Logitech mouse and asked which device I wanted to configure. There was no sign of the keyboard, so configuring it in Mac OS X was impossible. Now however, it’s started to change. Now when I launch v2.7 of the Logitech Control Centre software, up pops my diNovo Edge keyboard! Surely they haven’t…? Have they…?

I can check the battery level!

I can check the battery level!

Well it’s good news and it’s bad news. First the good news – yes you can select your (Windows) diNovo Edge keyboard and click the Configure button. Click on the General tab and you’ll be able to set the tracking speed multiplier for the Touch Disk and you’ll also be able to see what the remaining battery life is for your keyboard. Both useful additions over the zero-configurability you had before.

But now for the bad news. You still don’t seem to be able to configure any of the other keys on the keyboard, although the option to do so seems tantalizingly close. If you choose the ‘Keys’ tab you get what looks like a screen where you can assign applications to certain keys, but even though it seems you can build a list of apps and their corresponding keystrokes, nothing actually seems to work. I assigned Firefox to the Option-3 key combo but pressing Option-3 did nothing, and I can’t get anything to appear in the Name/Assigned Action list.

So near... and yet so far!

So near... and yet so far!

My guess is that the Windows version of the diNovo Edge is still not oficially supported under OS X and that the fact that now appears in the Logitech Control Centre v2.7 release is just a happy coincidence because some aspect of its operation overlaps with the Mac version of the keyboard. Still, maybe v2.8 of the software will address that and I’ll finally have a fully functional version of the keyboard? Ok, I’m not holding my breath on that one.

OpenDNS, a free and useful layer of defence for your Mac

Many people switch to Macs simply because they’re fed up with the constant fight against viruses, trojans, spyware and the like on their Windows PC, and it’s fair to say that as a general rule Macs aren’t yet the victims of such attacks (notwithstanding recent reports of trojan infected pirate copies of Adobe CS4 and iWork ’09). However, more and more computer criminals are switching to different ways to try and part hapless users from their money, or at least their data and ‘phishing’ scams are proliferating everywhere.

Add to this the increasing amount of stuff on the internet you’d like to avoid, or perhaps protect your kids from, and you start to feel that a little help in this department might not go amiss. Ok, now here’s a quick techie lesson – the whole ‘internet access’ thing revolves around something called DNS (Domain Naming System) and it’s basically some behind the scenes trickery that translates web addresses that you and I can understand (and even remember) into the strings of numbers that computers use to find each other. So, you type in and DNS translates that into something like 123.456.789.012. Doesn’t matter what web address you enter, DNS will translate it (if it exists) and you’ll get your web page. Now the important thing here is – DNS isn’t fussy. It doesn’t care if you have young children in the house, it doesn’t care if some crook sets up a spoof website to trick you out of your ATM card PIN number, it just lets you see the web – warts and all!



So it stands to reason that if this DNS service is helping you get these web pages, then it could also help you by filtering out web pages that you don’t really want to see. Now there are various ways to do this, but by far the easiest way is to use a DNS service that already knows about all sorts of web pages that people might want to avoid. Enter OpenDNS. It’s a free service that already knows about tens of thousands of web sites and has categorized them into ones that are ‘safe’ or are associated with the not so nice side of the web, like… phishing sites, sites loaded with trojans and other malware, pornography sites, the list goes on. The principle is that you use OpenDNS and you tell it what categories of things you want to avoid. It then makes sure that if you deliberately or even unintentionally enter a web address that falls into one of your chosen categories, it politely blocks the request and lets you know. Result – you don’t stumble upon something you’d rather not see.

So how do you get your Mac to use OpenDNS rather than your ISP’s own DNS? Well there are two ways – you either tell your Mac to use OpenDNS (in which case it’s only the Mac you configure that’s protected), or better still, you tell your router to use OpenDNS. If you choose the router option, then every Mac (or PC or even Linux machine) can be protected in one go. Here’s how to set up the two options in a little more detail:

Configuring your Airport Extreme Base Station to use OpenDNS

  1. Go to your Utilities folder and launch the Airport utility.
  2. You’ll be greeted with an initial screen showing you your Airport Base Station (or a list if you’ve got more than one).
  3. Select your Airort device and click on the Manual Setup button.
  4. Click on the Internet tab.
  5. In the two boxes to the right of where it says DNS server(s) make a note of any values currently shown (just in case it doesn’t work).
  6. Now enter the following values in those two boxes. Enter in the first box, and in the second box.
  7. Finally click on the Update button and once the Airport has restarted itself you’re done.

Note, take no notice of the other settings you see on my Airport Extreme configuration screen, I’m currently using mine in ‘Bridge’ mode so my other settings may well be very different to yours.

Configuring an individual Mac to use OpenDNS

  1. Go to System Preferences and click on Network.
  2. Now choose the network interface that you use to connect to the web. This might be either a wired ethernet connection called something like ‘Ethernet 1’ or a wireless connection called ‘Airport’.
  3. If there’s already a value in the box next to where it says DNS Server, make a note of it, then delete it.
  4. Now click on the Advanced button and then choose the DNS tab.
  5. Under the large white box below the label DNS servers, click on the ‘+‘ sign and enter then hit Enter.
  6. Click the ‘+’ sign again and enter the second DNS server address as and hit Enter again.
  7. Finally click on the Apply button and close your System Preferences.

Don’t worry if all this sounds a bit daunting or if you’ve got a different router. The principles are the same and the OpenDNS web site has examples of how to change the DNS settings for a wide variety of routers.

Airport OpenDNS settings

Airport OpenDNS settings

Now you’ve configured your router or your Mac to use OpenDNS, the only task that remains is to tell OpenDNS what sort of websites you’d like filtered out. For this you go to the OpenDNS website and you’ll need to create a free account. Having done that, you log in to the OpenDNS website and choose Dashboard and then Settings. On the settings screen it is all pretty intuitive. You can chose from various pre-configured settings (High, Moderate, Low, etc.) or you can create your own custom settings and choose to block certain categories of website, or even individual websites. Once done, just save your settings.

Individual Mac OpenDNS settings

Individual Mac OpenDNS settings

Now you’ve set up your Mac or router to use OpenDNS, and you’ve told OpenDNS what you don’t want to see, but there’s

one final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. If you don’t have a static IP address, then how does OpenDNS know where you are and how to apply your settings to you? Well you could just log in to the OpenDNS website when you start your Mac but that would be a bit of a pain. Why not run a little utility that does it all for you? I use a free utility called OpenDNS Updater and I put it in my Login Items so that it launches every time I switch on my Mac. Just give it your login details for OpenDNS and it does the rest.

At this point you’re probably thinking his sounds too good to be true and that there’s got to be a catch. Well no, there isn’t. Does it slow down access to the web? No, not as far as I can see. What about cost – is OpenDNS really free? Well the free home service is paid for by sponsored links, but you’ll only ever see them if you enter a non-existent web address and then all you see is an OpenDNS page telling you the website doesn’t exist rather than a default page telling you the same thing.

The only time you'll ever see sponsored links is if you enter a non-existent web address

The only time you'll ever see sponsored links is if you enter a non-existent web address

So there you have it. It’s safe, it’s free, it’s unobtrusive and it works with Macs, Windows PCs and even Linux PCs, so here’s to safer surfing!

A secure document library for your Mac (part 1)

I spend plenty of time futzing* around on the Mac listening to music, watching movies and surfing the web so it’s quite rewarding when I really put it to good use. Shrinking the mountain of old paperwork that filled dozens of A4 ring binders in my study bookcase was one such project, and I now have an online, searchable and secure archive of all my old documents.

My list of ingredients for this little project were:

  • An Apple Mac (running Leopard OS X)
  • A Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M (or a flatbed scanner if you’re patient)
  • TrueCrypt (optional – I ended up using the Disk Utility built in to Leopard)
  • DevonThink Pro (optional – you can just as easily use folders and Finder if you want to)
  • Fellowes P-58Cs shredder (any good cross-cut shredder will do)

The first thing I did was to scan all my old documents using the ScanSnap scanner. While other scanners will do, flatbed scanners are notoriously slow and cumbersome given that the ScanSnap S300M can scan both sides of a sheet of paper in around five or six seconds, and can take 10 sheets of paper at a time. I wrote a little article about the ScanSnap S300M which you can find here, and if you’ve got the budget it’s bigger brother, the S510M can take up to 50 sheets at a time. The time consuming bit when you’re scanning is to give the scanned documents a sensible name. I opted for keeping it simple, sticking to a name and date wherever possible, so for example a copy of the order sheet that Amazon sent out with an item I ordered on December 3rd 2008 got named “Amazon Slip – 2008.12.03”. Generally if I’m looking for something then I’ll at least know the company or person involved and roughly the date it happened, well to within a year or so!

Fellowes P-58Cs Shredder

Fellowes P-58Cs Shredder

So the upshot of this is that after a few days casual scanning and labelling, I had a folder structure on one of my hard disks consisting of folders labelled according to subject, e.g. Amazon, Apple, etc. So far so good, all my old paperwork is now safely on disk, and indexed by Spotlight. Next job – security!

It’s all very well scanning old credit card and bank statements, but what if someone were to break in and steal your Mac while you’re out?! Not only have they pinched your pride and joy, they’ve got a load of your financial details to start making mayhem with your credit rating. Originally I tackled this problem by encrypting individual files using GoSecure. Great drag & drop utility – virtually unbreakable AES-256 bit encryption, but with hundreds of files needing to be secured it quickly became very laborious to encrypt each one by hand. More to the point, every time I wanted to look at one of these documents I had to decrypt it manually then re-encrypt it afterwards. The solution? Store all your scanned files using an encrypted disk image – basically a secure encrypted area that looks like a regular disk while you’re using it. Think of it like a little CD or DVD disk or even a miniature hard disk hidden away inside your Mac. Now I could have used OS X’s FileVault feature to secure an entire hard disk, and if you are happy doing that then it’s the way to go. However, some people think it’s overkill, and it still leaves the issue of how to secure your backups as well. More flexible options include things like the excellent (and free) TrueCrypt utility or Leopard’s very own Disk Utility, which is what I ended up using.

So, I have a bunch of scanned documents that amount to around 1.5Gb of data, and it’s likely that I’ll add to this over the coming years. What’s needed is an encrypted area big enough to allow growth, so let’s say capable of holding up to 2.6Gb? Now while TrueCrypt has lots of bells and whistles, I opted to use Disk Utility as it’s already part of Leopard OS X and it’s really easy to use, and this is what you do:

  1. Go to your Utilities folder and launch Disk Image.
  2. From the File menu, choose New then Blank Disk Image.
  3. Choose a location where you want to store your disk image. I put mine in a separate little disk partition I’ve got, but your Documents folder is as good a place as any.
  4. Give your disk image a name in the ‘Save As‘ box, and give it the same name in the ‘Volume Name‘ box too.
  5. Choose a size for your disk image, remembering that you should allow space to add more files to it in the future. I chose 2.6Gb for my 1.5Gb of files, but you can choose any custom size you like.
  6. Choose a disk format – Mac OS Extended is good for performance and Time Machine compatibility if you’re backing up the whole disk image as just one file.
  7. Encryption – now here’s where Mac OS X does the clever stuff. The default will be ‘none’ but seeing as the idea is to make it secure, choose 128-bit AES or if you’ve got a reasonably fast Mac, go the whole hog and use 256-bit AES. All the encryption will be handled on the fly by OS X when you’re using the disk – you won’t feel a thing!
  8. For the Partitions option you can choose ‘no partition map‘ and for the Image format choose ‘sparse bundle disk image‘. Sparse bundle is good as it allows your disk image to grow and shrink as required.
  9. Click the OK button and Disk Utility will get to work creating your disk image.
  10. After a few seconds you’ll see a prompt asking you for a password for your encrypted disk image. Helpfully the window will show you how good your password is – I’d recommend choosing something with a rating of ‘Good‘ or better.
  11. You’ll also need to decide if you want to store your password in your Keychain. Now while it might sound like a good idea to tick the box, you need to think about what that means. I chose not to store the password in the keychain, and I think that’s a safer setting especially for laptop users. If you do store the password in your keychain then basically if someone manages to log into your Mac, they won’t get prompted for your password when they open your disk image – now is that something you want? Depends on how strong your login password is perhaps. So my recommendation is – make the password ‘Good’ or better, do not store it in your keychain, and choose a different password to your login password.

Now that you’ve created your secure disk image, it’s very easy to mount it and start using it like a real disk. Just open Finder and go to where you created the disk image. You’ll see a ‘.dmg‘ file with the name you chose in Disk Utility, just double-click on it and you’ll be prompted for your password. That done, you have a new ‘disk’ that you can use like any other hard disk, CD, DVD etc. under OS X. At this point you’d move your scanned documents to your new secure disk area. What’s more, when you’re done you can eject the disk image if you like and your documents are safe from prying eyes until you mount the disk image again. Reboot you Mac and your scanned documents are still safely locked away until you decide to open the disk image using your password.

Disk Utility

Disk Utility

I went a step further and decided to try out DevonThink Pro for managing my library of scanned documents. There are benefits and disadvantages to using a tool like DevonThink rather than natively storing the documents and using Finder so it’s a matter of choice and I’ll cover DevonThink Pro in a separate article.

Well that’s about it – the only thing left to do is to decide on a sensible backup strategy for your encrypted disk image. As the disk image itself is a single .dmg file, it’s relatively easy to back it up and if it’s small enough you can back it up to online services like Mozy or even iDisk, after all it’s already encrypted so it’ll be pretty safe wherever you put it.

Oh and last but not least, you can now have fun shredding all your old scanned documents and putting the space you’ve gained to good use!

*In case you wondered what futzing is, the dictionary definition is: To waste time or effort on frivolities; fool. See, told you Macs are fun.

Macbitz Musings – Netbooks

I have read lots of posts from people who seem to have a genuine requirement for something larger than an iPhone/iPod Touch and yet smaller than the 13″ MacBook to use for basic web and PDA duties. There are also lots of rumours that Apple is preparing to enter this market, but that they have said they’ll only consider it when they can “do it properly”.

I wondered what “do it properly” meant and it wasn’t until I started using an MSI Wind 100 netbook that I started to realize. As devices go it really is not something I’d want to buy or use on a regular basis. The screen seemed relatively clear but that’s about where the usability experience ended. The touchpad is miniscule, and the two buttons below it that act as mouse buttons – talk about needing a firm press… if they don’t give you RSI then nothing will! As for build quality, well the whole thing has a plasticy cheap feel to it and I can’t imagine it’s that robust.

While I don’t personally have a need for a netbook, it will be interesting to see what Apple do in this space.

Oh and a final word about the new ‘2009’ Mac Pro. The Quad-Core 2.66GHz version can ‘only’ take a maximum of 8Gb of RAM, compared to the 32Gb max on the 8-Core model. Shame… (I run multiple concurrent VMs on my 2008 model that require 2Gb of RAM each).

Little bundles of… Well, it’s not joy

Having recently added a new hard drive to the Mac, I thought I’d check its ‘SMART’ status just to make sure everything was OK. There’s a neat little app called SMARTReporter that sits on the menu bar and alerts you if any of your drives start to feel a sick – probably long before you experience any data loss. It sends output to the Console at specified intervals, so when I asked for the status of all my drives, SMARTReporter kindly opened the console for me. Having checked everything was normal, I went on to launch to check for mail. As luck would have it, the Console was still open and up popped this message:

08/03/2009 21:29:05 Mail[1322]  DEVONMailConduit 1.2.1 loaded

What? DEVONMailConduit is loading when I launch But I don’t have any DEVON products installed. Ahh, but I did try out DEVONThink Pro a few months back and it seems that even though I thought I’d uninstalled it OK, there were still (quite a few) traces of it left behind. So let’s start with the message above – it’s obviously a mail plug-in so where better to look than in the <username>/Library/Mail/Bundles folder and sure enough there it was… DEVONMailConduit.mailbundle nestling inside. It’s then just a simple task to delete it and then relaunch to check the console and make sure it’s gone.

Next up, there’s cached data that DEVONThink Pro left behind. So, it’s off to my <username>/Library/Caches/Metadata folder and what do we find? Yes it’s a DEVONThink Pro folder – not huge, but something I don’t need, so to the trash it goes.

DEVONThink Pro scripts

DEVONThink Pro scripts

Now part of how DEVONThink Pro works is by integrating itself with various aspects of your system. This means that there will be scripts allowing you to ‘clip’ things to DEVONThink amongst other things. Sure enough, I found no less than 2 more folders and 34 DEVONThink scripts on my system, as you can see from the picture. Same treatment, ‘move to trash’!

Having done a few more checks, I think that’s all traces of DEVONThink Pro removed from my Mac. Now when I search on ‘devon’ all I see is a dictionary entry for a small county in southwestern England.

This isn’t a criticism of DEVONThink Pro, many other apps are the same – it just goes to show that when you install an app there is often a lot more to it than what gets put in your Applications folder. Software like AppZapper does help, but be prepared to get your hands dirty if you want to remove all traces of some programs. Also it’s a good idea to move the files and folders in question to a safe place and then to check your Mac is still running smoothly before finally consigning them to the trash bin… just in case!

Why don’t I use DEVONThink Pro? Well it’s a great program, it’s just that at the time it was overkill for what I needed, although I’m now re-visiting it as it happens to use as a document management platform. I’m currently using Evernote for storing all my web clippings, notes and odd bits of information. It’s free, cross-platform plus you can sync it to your iPhone after a fashion. Horses for courses though, so check ’em both out.