Mac Malware – Here’s An Idea

MacDefender (and now a few variants) has been making a name for itself recently. The first piece of Mac malware that’s managed to catch people who weren’t downloading some cracked application or other. By all accounts the victim merely needed to visit one of several websites that had been compromised with malicious code. A pop-up appears saying their computer is infected and they are prompted to download and install some bogus software that demands credit card details before supposedly removing the infection.



Now I’ve been using PCs and Macs for longer than I care to mention and while I like to think that I would never have fallen prey to this ‘scare & pay-up’ tactic, I actually know several friends and family members who would have. They are trusting people. They are people who are well aware of the prevalence of malware on the Windows platform, having typically been Windows users themselves previously. They have heard the mantra of protecting yourself by having good anti-malware software installed, so when they see the warning they think it’s entirely credible… even for a Mac user.

But there’s something else that many of these people do, or rather don’t do and that’s to frequently install 3rd party apps. I know at least 4 Mac users for whom I have installed iWork, Office for Mac or an iLife upgrade and that’s it. That’s all they use. They do email, they shop online, they write a few documents or spreadsheets, they work with photos or movies in iLife and they use iTunes and maybe download an iOS app or two. As for Mac OS X software, they don’t really have a need to step beyond the few apps that Apple gives them and they’re perfectly happy with that. Maybe once or twice I might get a call asking if I could recommend an app such as a family tree program or something, but that’s about it.

I’m pretty certain that I’m not unique. There must be thousands, perhaps millions of Mac users out there who really do have modest requirements or who don’t have the urge to experiment with different apps all the time, and it’s for those people for whom I had an idea…

A System Preference, perhaps under the Accounts preference pane, that says:

‘Only allow software installs from the Mac App Store: Yes/No’ (with the default being set to No).

So what does this do? Well the idea is that it prevents a 3rd party app from being installed and run if it hasn’t come from the Mac App Store. The App Store is curated by Apple, so it’s a trusted source of software that can be installed, and software from any other source gets stopped in it’s tracks. As for the mechanism for how it prevents 3rd party software being used, well that’s down to the clever guys. They could use certificates, some sort of file system checks, etc., I’m sure there are many ways this could be achieved. What’s more, you could even attach a timer to the ‘Yes’ option, with a slider that goes from 5 minutes to ‘indefinitely’ (with appropriate warnings for leaving it set).

By now there’s probably a few people who would be up in arms against this idea, saying it’s half way towards a walled garden for Mac users rather like iOS users, but then that’s exactly the point. It is only half way and it still gives people like me who like to tinker, the option to do so, in the full knowledge that I think I know what I’m doing. For what I suspect is a great many people, it would add that extra level of protection along the lines of – you only ever install software when you have actually gone out looking for software to install.

Now I’m sure that malware writers could get creative, and instead of popping up a warning saying your Mac is infected, they could easily craft a window that instead mimics the built-in Software Update window and says something like ‘iLife 2011-05-25 Security Update. Click here to install’. Indeed that might catch a lot more people after all, who doesn’t have iLife installed? This is where Apple gets creative in finding a way to block these, e.g. by preventing access to the ‘Install 3rd party apps’ option except by approved services (like Software Update) or via the GUI itself. What’s more, it would probably be a good idea to show this setting to any new Mac user to try and prevent a deluge of calls to Apple Care saying “Help, I can’t install something”. Perhaps a message that greets the user saying “Installation of 3rd party software is currently disabled (recommended). Do you wish to change this setting?”.

At the end of the day I’m talking about mindsets here. There are those who like to fiddle, who regularly install apps, who know how things work, etc., and they can switch the option off confident that they can probably use their wits to avoid getting infected. But then there are those who don’t really care for that sort of thing. They are perfectly fine using the apps they have, and installing software is a rare event where they usually ask a friend for help anyway. It’s this second group of people for whom prevention is probably better than cure.

Is this one of my more mad ideas? Have I got it completely wrong? Who knows. What I do know is that the one family member I have who still uses Windows, generates more “Help it’s broken” calls to me than all my Mac-using friends and family added together. Still love ’em to bits though!

PS – If you are worried about MacDefender and want to learn more, Apple has a page dedicated to it here:

Auo-renewal… they’re at it again!

After the aggravation I went through when Webroot wanted to auto-renew my Webroot SpySweeper license, I thought I had said goodbye to all of that. Well now PCTools is on my case to… yes you’ve guessed it, automatically renew my license for Registry Mechanic.

“We hope you’ve enjoyed your subscription to PC Tools Registry Mechanic and trust it has been a valuable tool in protecting your privacy and security in the past year. We’ve made some significant changes to Registry Mechanic in the last 12 months. To read about all the benefits and features available for Registry Mechanic click here. To ensure you have the latest version of Registry Mechanic, click here.

We see from our records that your subscription to Registry Mechanic is due to end on June 22, 2009. Based on your current auto-renewal status, we will renew your subscription to Registry Mechanic using the account information you provided. This is scheduled to occur approximately on June 02, 2009 and there is no further action required on your part.”

Great! However, nowhere in the email does it even mention the fact that I might not want to renew! So off to the website I go, and login to my account. After ten minutes of searching – nothing. The FAQs tell me everything except how to cancel the auto-renewal. Nowhere is there a button or a link labelled ‘Click here if you wish to cancel your auto-renewal’. I mean it would be so simple to do, but I guess they’d rather make it difficult by either leaving details of how to cancel off the website altogether or burying the information so deep you stand little hope of finding it.Closest I got was a page showing me my Registry Mechanic license details, with a promising field labelled ‘Subscription status:’ followed by the words ‘Active – auto renewal set (modify)’ and the word modify was a link… great! Oh… all it does is take me back to the page showing me the license details. Dead end.

As of today – Saturday May 23rd at 15:30 GMT I have posted a ‘general enquiry’ using the form on the PCTools website, asking them to cancel the renewal. Let’s see how this one goes.

So, if you are switching to a Mac, make sure you get on top of any automated renewals for Windows software you’ve purchased in the past because the general approach these companies take seems to be to make it difficult or at least very onerous to cancel. If you are one of said companies, then PLEASE do two things:

  1. Make ‘automated renewal’ an opt-in choice, rather than forcing people to sign up for auto renewal when they buy your software.
  2. Make it clear, easy and straightforward for people who do want to cancel.

Now why do I get the feeling that last plea will fall on deaf ears…?


Hats off to PCTools – they emailed me within 24 hours to confirm that they have cancelled the automated renewal as follows:

After reading your email, I understand that you wish to cancel your automatic renewal for Registry Mechanic.

We have now processed your request to cancel the automatic renewal for your subscription. For your records, your Registry Mechanic subscription is active until 22-Jun-2009.

Please note that you may receive a reminder notice via email towards the end of your subscription period regarding renewals.

Note:  Should you wish to renew your subscription manually, you may do so by following the link below:

If you require further assistance on this specific request, please reply to this email.

Kind Regards,

Sure it would have been nice if there was actually a ‘cancel my subscription’ button somewhere on their website, but at least they responded quickly and I would have no hesitation in recommending them to Windows users who need such software.

The elephant gun uninstaller

This morning I was served up yet another reminder as to why CleanApp can be such a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, not that I needed another reminder. However this example is pretty succinct in that it highlights one of the main issues with an uninstaller that offers any file an application touches, as a candidate for deletion.

You see a lot of applications will access your data files, whether that’s documents, spreadsheets or even mp3 files, and in the case of the latter if you go to uninstall an mp3 tagging application then CleanApp may offer to delete any mp3 files you’ve tagged with that application. Case in point The Tagger which I was trying out earlier to see if anything could ever replace my trusty Tag & Rename (which I have to run under VMware Fusion). After messing around with the tags in just two mp3 files, I decided that nice as The Tagger is, it’s not for me (mainly because I do a lot of bulk tagging and The Tagger seems more geared towards tagging a file at a time). So I go to let CleanApp do its thing and as you’ve probably guessed by now, it offered up the two mp3 files I’d edited as being files I should delete! In addition it suggested deleting something called cookies.plist which I am suspecting is a file accessed and updated by any application that accesses the web (The Tagger accesses the Discogs website). Deleting cookies.plist would I guess be the equivalent of purging all your cookies, given that the file does not appear to be application specific.

No... not the mp3 files!

No... not the mp3 files!

In the end I kept the two mp3 files and the cookies file and let CleanApp do the rest. But just imagine the damage you could do if you edited a lot of data files with an application and then let CleanApp do its thing without a second look!

I still like CleanApp but think it really needs more features to help people protect themselves against accidentally deleting stuff they want. It already knows about protecting certain system files, but I think there are a number of ways this could be extended. For example, automatically protecting known Apple applications, protecting data files shared between applications, monitoring an app and protecting all the files it uses, or even protecting files of a certain type such as mp3 files.

While we’re on the subject of VMware (were we?!) I thought I’d install the latest Windows 7 beta build under VMware to have a look. The install went fine and after a quick Windows Update I even had sound working. Then I thought I’d install ESET Smart Security 4 rather than rely on Microsoft’s built-in anti-malware tools like Windows Defender. Result? Well see for yourself…

Windows does its thing

Windows does its thing

Well it is beta and no-one ever said ESET Smart Security 4 would work with it, but the effects are pretty dramatic. I’ll see if I can unpick the mess in Safe Mode, failing that I’ll just do a re-install. After all, it’s nice to keep an eye on what the other side is doing.  As it happens, I also installed Ubuntu 9.04 in another VM, but I’ve yet to make it fall over…

Webroot SpySweeper – down but not out?

Webroot SpySweeperI wrote an article a little while back (here) about problems I’d had in cancelling an automated annual renewal that Webroot had set up for my SpySweeper software. The story ended with me having managed to finally cancel the renewal by telephoning the local Webroot office and speaking to someone. Despite having done that, I then received another email informing me that some sort of system error had prevented my automated renewal from happening and that they’d extend my subscription for a while to give me the opportunity to renew. Of course having ditched Windows XP in favour of a new Mac I didn’t take them up on their offer.

Today I received another email from Webroot stating:

Your Webroot Spy Sweeper subscription expires in one week
Right now, we’ve got you covered. But in one week, your subscription to Webroot Spy Sweeper runs out and you’ll lose all the valuable protection Webroot Spy Sweeper provides.

Without safeguarding your computer with constant spyware protection, you could be at risk for viruses, identity theft, slow computer performance and more.

Renew Webroot Spy Sweeper for $19.95 to ensure protection against spyware threats that emerge every week.

I was curious. I didn’t want to renew but I did want to see if this automated renewal feature was obvious so I followed the link. Sure enough, on the second page of the order form I was greeted with the following message:

Uninterrupted Protection Webroot Software will conveniently protect your PC from ongoing security threats by automatically renewing your subscription at the standard subscription renewal price plus applicable tax. You’re always in control as you will be notified by e-mail before the expiration of your subscription to confirm your renewal and provide you with cancellation options. When you purchase your subscription, you authorize Webroot to use the contact and billing information you provide to automatically renew your subscription. If you do not want to be automatically renewed, you may discontinue this service at any time. For additional information on auto renewal and cancellation options click here. Please note that you will not be able to remove auto renewal until you have completed your order.

Now, credit to Webroot for making it more obvious as to what’s happening, however this is still an ‘opt out’ rather than an ‘opt in’ system. You don’t get a choice at the time of placing your order, so if you buy Webroot SpySweeper you are automatically enrolled in their automated renewal system and then you have to opt out. A simple tick box on the order form asking whether you want to enable the automated renewal feature might be preferable.

So, how easy is it to opt out of your automated renewal? Well that question is a bit more tricky. If you follow the link on their order form it takes you to a page (here) that explains a bit more about the automated renewal process, but which still appears to be very vague on exactly how you go about cancelling it. Sure there’s a link on that page about how to request a refund, but that’s not the same as “How do I cancel my automated renewal”.

One thing I don’t intend to do is to try and find out the hard way by buying their software again. As I said before, I had no problems with the software itself while I was a Windows user, and SpySweeper has received many favourable reviews in the press. What I can’t vouch for is how easy it will be for you to cancel your automated renewal if you do buy it, and there are no signs that they’ve clarified this or made it any easier since my experiences and having to telephone Webroot in order to cancel it after repeated attempts to do it via the web and their online helpdesk system had failed.

Good luck!

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.

iPhone app – Take A Note

Whenever I buy myself a bit of tech’ I always feel slightly guilty. After all, I obviously managed to survive before the gadget happened on the scene so why the indulgence? What’s more, if you’re going to indulge then there’s few more hedonistic gadgets around that Apple’s iPhone 3G, so anything that pushes it further into the ‘really useful’ side of my life rather than the ‘shiny shiny’ side is always welcome!

Now I know there’s people out there that hate Apple, there’s those that hate the iPhone, and there’s those that hate both, but whatever the criticisms are that people level at the iPhone (and I’d be the first to admit it’s not perfect), you have to admit that this little device is a wonderful enabler. The list of truly useful things I can do with it like:

  • Read and send email from pretty much wherever I am.
  • Find a route without asking if I happen to be lost (it’s a bloke thing!)
  • Check train timetables and even see if the train I want is running late
  • Look up viewing times at the local cinema

…goes on and on, and half the fun is discovering something new that pushes those little feelings of guilt a bit further away because you know it’ll make life just that bit easier.

Take A Note

Take A Note

Enter Readdle’s Take A Note application. Often when I’m out shopping I’ll see something and think what a nice gift it would be for someone. Or I might see an idea for the house, or perhaps something in a magazine in a waiting room, there’s no end of situations where a scatterbrain like myself wants to record a note for later use, and that’s where Take A Note gets my award for just plain useful!

In essence it lets you quickly create a note by typing on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, drawing with your finger, speaking or using the iPhone camera. Each note can then be given a tittle and other comments, and can also be given a category for sorting. The resulting collection of notes can be viewed by type, category or searched, and even viewed on your Mac or PC via the iPhone’s WiFi connection. The interface is elegant and simple, showing you exactly what’s needed to get the job done, whether you want to create, view, edit or delete your notes and I’d challenge anyone to be unable to intuitively find their way around (well almost). The screenshots tell a much better story and you can guess what’s going on for the most part, in fact the only thing that caught me out was one aspect of the Mac/PC WiFi connectivity, which thinking back about it is actually quite logical.

In a wee bit more detail… Text notes are just that – stuff you save in a note using the iPhone keyboard. Audio notes are created by selecting New – Audio Note then pressing the record button, then the pause or stop button as necessary. For drawings you select pen or erase, choose your brush size and use your finger! Unfortunately you can only draw in one colour, but perhaps a later release will enhance that. Finally photo notes are just that, notes with photos in them that you either take with the camera or choose from your photo roll. The icing on the cake is that by touching the envelope icon at the bottom of any note, you can quickly email it as an attachment.

To view your notes on your Mac or PC you simply press the WiFi button in Take A Note and make a note of the number and port it shows you. In fact the port number will always be the same so it’s just the iPhone’s IP address you need. Then in the case of OS X, open Finder, select Connect To Server from the Go menu and type in http://nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn:8080 (where the n’s are the IP address the application tells you). Hey presto, you’re now browsing your iPhone notes which you can open in your favourite application. You can also add new notes by simply dragging them into the relevant Finder window. The gotcha? The Take A Note application must be open on your iPhone as you’re doing it. If it’s not running you’ll just get a message telling you the ‘server’ can’t be accessed. If your iPhone automatically locks, then the connection will be cut. Logical really seeing as the Take A Note software is acting as a server.

My only other minor complaint is over the voice notes recording feature. It’s simplicity itself to use, but there seems to be a lot of gain on the microphone, certainly in my case and when playing back recordings – while the voice or whatever else is recorded is clear, any silent bits (such as pauses when someone is speaking) are replaced by a loud hissing noise. Perhaps it’s my phone, who knows, however the voice notes facility is still perfectly usable.

So there you have it – £2.99 and you’ve got a really useful addition to your iPhone apps. Now that I can capture all those snippets of the world going on around me, I’ll become a master of keeping on top of my information overload. Then again, I’ll lose one more excuse for forgetting the things I need to forget.

CanoScan LiDE 25 – Mac friendly?

CanoScan LiDE 25

CanoScan LiDE 25

Before my heady days as a Mac user, I bought a Canon CanoScan LiDE 25 scanner for my Windows XP setup. It’s a good little scanner too, not particularly quick so you wouldn’t use it to digitize a huge collection of documents for example, but for the odd letter or photo it was fine.

Naturally the time came to move it into my Mac-world and once again to experience a large company’s attempts to support the Mac market. Fair play to Canon – unlike some peripheral makers I could mention, they do at least have a go at providing Mac software, even if the results are not that exciting. So what it boils down to is – is the CanoScan LiDE 25 a good choice for the Mac user with occasional scanning needs?

Well I started off (perhaps naively) assuming that if I downloaded the latest CS driver and Toolbox software for the LiDE 25 from the Canon website then I’d be in business. Wrong! Having done this and having then installed first the driver, then the software, both of which told me they had installed successfully, the Toolbox software was unable to ‘open the driver’. With no errors appearing in the console to give me a clue I uninstalled and repeated the process but it didn’t help, even though the System Profile clearly showed that the scanner was connected.

So instead I resorted to using the installation CD that came with the scanner. The software versions were

Configuring the scanner

Configuring the scanner

older but hopefully they’d work… and they did. After a rather clumsily constructed install process in which you have to click the ‘Quit’ button four times to continue, after a reboot I was presented with a Canon Toolbox that could actually detect the scanner. So far so good. Time to see if it can do the basics.

First up – configuring the scanner. Ok, the very first time you start using the Canon software you’ll realize that the developers have their own view of what OS X software looks like and it sticks out from the aqua interface like a sore thumb. Despite that you can still do what’s necessary which is to set the default actions for the three scanner buttons and a default location for temporary scanner files.

Next – scanning a document into a pdf. This is where features of the software become an annoyance rather than just a nuisance. While you can set the scan mode, quality and paper size easily enough, you are limited to using file names with 20 characters or less for the output! Also you can’t use file name templates, e.g. if you were scanning some utility bills, you can’t use something like ‘Utility bill – &scandate, &scantime’ with the software filling in the variables, so you’ll probably end up renaming each file after you’ve created it. However, annoyances aside the scan results were pretty good for a scanner costing just £50 ($90).

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) – the install disk includes a copy of OmniPage SE, and the process works well enough in so far as you scan the document and OmniPage SE then loads automatically. Again the software is not very intuitive and someone who isn’t used to using scanner and OCR software will probably struggle a bit. However, that wasn’t my main complaint – it was the fact that the accuracy of the OmniPage software wasn’t particularly good. A simple typed letter scanned in black & white at 400dpi threw up countless errors when OmniPage tried to process it. Experimenting with scanner settings didn’t produce any better results so I’d consign the OCR feature to the ’emergencies only’ bucket and move on.

Mail options

Mail options

Mail – A nice feature would be being able to scan something directly into a mail attachment and that’s what the ‘Mail’ button is for in the Canon Toolbox, and on the scanner itself. You can choose to use or another mail program such as Entourage by using the ‘+’ button. You can also choose to just scan the item to a file and attach it manually in your mail program. Choosing scanned the image and triggered Mail to load, but sometimes the image appeared in-line in the body of the message and sometimes it simply appeared as an attachment. Entourage on the other hand always seems to treat it as an attachment and not put it ‘in-line’. Interestingly, you can specify the name to be used for the attachment immediately before you scan it, however the software then adds a numeric suffix of it’s own to the filename. Note that the 20 character file name limit still applies! Other than that it gets the job done, even if it isn’t very slick and behaves a little inconsistently.

Copy/print – these two functions let you send a scanned document or image to the printer. There seems to be a fair bit of overlap between these two functions, the main difference being that the Print function lets you change the area to be output before printing, wheras Copy just sends it straight to your chosen printer. Again it got the job done and the quality of the output made up for the clumsy software.

That just leaves the Scan-1 and Scan-2 Toolbox buttons which by default let you scan something into an image file (pict, jpeg or tiff) and then save it or pass it to another program for processing. In that respect, if you’re going to be doing a lot of that then you would probably configure the target program to manage the capture stage and use your scanner as the capture device, rather than doing it the other way around.

CanoScan Toolbox X

CanoScan Toolbox X

One final note – I thought that having installed the Canon Toolbox X software from the CD, I would be able to upgrade to the software that’s downloadable from Canon. Nice theory but as soon as I did this it stopped working because the software could no longer see the scanner. I tried upgrading the scanner driver as well but that didn’t help. The only way to get the scanner working was to go back to the software and driver from the installation CD.

So where does that leave me? Well my original use for the scanner which was to scan old photos so I could upload them to Flickr still holds true. For the money it’s an excellent little USB-powered scanner that’s nicely designed and produces very good results for the ad hoc user. The let down is the software. It could be a lot better but it feels clumsy to use and has various limitations. I have to say that the Windows software bundle that comes with the scanner is a lot better. I have seen good reviews of the Fujitsu SnapScan S300M (a Mac-specific version of the cheaper S300) which comment on the excellent software bundle. At £250 ($440) it’s a big jump from the modest CanoScan, but the ability to scan quickly in volume (via a document feeder) and intuitive software, does make it a tempting proposition if you want to de-clutter your house of thousands of old letters and bills.

How much more expensive is a Mac?

2008 Mac Pro

2008 Mac Pro

When I tell people that I spent £1,700 ($3,000) on a shiny new Mac Pro, there’s usually a sharp intake of breath followed quickly by a “How much?!” and “You must be loaded!”. The trouble is it’s very hard to explain to these people where the true savings lie.

My Mac replaced a Windows PC that cost me in the region of £800 ($1,400) to build, excluding software. Add to that the Windows XP license, a copy of NOD32 Antivirus, ZoneAlarm Pro and Webroot SpySweeper which runs to another £200 ($355) remembering that with the exception of XP the other software carries a year on year renewal cost. Now we’re looking at a more reasonable £1,700 vs. £1,000 in the first year, although that figure still seems heavily biased in favour of the Windows machine. So where does the Mac make up the difference?

Time. More to the point… My time.

You see I value my time. Like everyone I like doing the things I want to do, and not so much the things I have to do, and that’s where Windows lets you down. Over the past seven months all my Mac has ever done is exactly what I’ve asked it to. On the other hand, my Windows PC has managed to consume countless hours of my time with various puzzles:

  • One Windows PC won’t connect to a share on another with a ‘not enough memory’ error, even though both machines have 2Gb. After much searching I find a registry hack is needed.
  • ZoneAlarm dies after one particular Microsoft update, wasting hours before I have to finally back out the change and wait for a fix. (I’ve now switched to Eset Smart Security).
  • SpySweeper flags some registry keys suggesting evidence of some really nasty trojan, prompting me to run full scans on everything only to find out it was a false positive.
  • Every 2nd or 3rd reboot of the XP machines results in a blank desktop, prompting further reboots until it mysteriously returns.
  • Outlook becomes unresponsive for no apparent reason and then refuses to load properly until the machine is rebooted. Ultimately I backup my mail, then uninstall and reinstall to try and fix the problem.

I could go on, but it’s a list that is very familiar to tens of thousands of Windows users worldwide. Net result is that I spend needless hours nursing my XP machine along, not to mention the stress levels and over the course of seven months that more than makes up for the higher initial cost of the Mac. Don’t get me wrong, Windows XP is the most stable version of Windows there is for a lot of people, and I dare say there are lots of you who could quote me stories of ‘reliable’ Windows machines. Truth is, I own one myself – it’s a PC running Windows 2003 Server that sits in the loft and backs up my data. Yes I do have the intermittent connection problem where the shared drive on the server disappears from the OS X desktop, but aside from that it sits there and does what it does – helped a lot I’m sure, by the fact that I leave it alone. (I’m currently assessing MountWatcher as a solution to this random ‘disconnect’ problem).

My Windows XP PCs (yes there are others lurking in my loft!) are now switched off most of the time, and when I need to run a Windows program I use VMware Fusion to do the honours. In fact I could argue that my Mac Pro takes the place of several PCs – my XP ‘leisure’ PC, my XP work laptop, my experimental OpenSUSE PC and the dedicated PC I use for remotely supporting clients, as all those bits of hardware are now virtual machines on my Mac.

Now that’s good value!

Windows 2003 Server and my Mac

Windows 2003 Server

Windows 2003 Server

In my loft lurks a PC running Windows 2003 Server which I use for taking backups to. The license cost me enough so I’m determined to make use of it, and to be fair this has been one of my more reliable Windows machines (famous last words).

Backing up from PCs is a doddle, create a share on the server then simply ‘net use’ or map a drive to it and off you go with your chosen software. It would be just as easy on the Mac but for one annoying problem – the connection randomly drops for no apparent reason. I can mount the share quite happily and use it for days, then all of a sudden it’s disappeared and my backup software complains that it can’t access the relevant location. Reconnecting isn’t a problem, I just point the Mac at the server again and off it goes, so authentication isn’t the issue.

I wondered if installing AppleTalk on the server and connecting to shares using AFP rather than SMB might be better, but AFP is ‘crippled’ in Windows 2003 Server and so is of limited use. Sure it presents a nice little picklist of shares to the Mac user, but it doesn’t support long filenames nor does it support automatic reconnection which is what I really need. In fact if your a Mac user with a Windows 2000 or 2003 Server then you’re better off sticking with SMB from what I can see.

So I have three choices really.

  1. I splash out on something like a Mac Mini to replace the server and just hand the drives off it in external USB enclosures. Trouble I’m looking at spending at least £399 ($720) to get one and with the present credit crunch, that will have to wait. Besides, my first Mac Mini was destined to be a media player to replace my ageing PVR.
  2. I explore some way of detecting the disconnect on the Mac and then automatically reconnect. I’m sure I’ve seen a Mac utility that does this, it’s just a case of tracking it down. Or…
  3. I pursue finding a fix on the Windows side, although I don’t hold out much hope.

Incidentally, I got as far as Kalyway installing successfully on my spare PC, but it failed at the first reboot – something about failing to find some plist dependency on the drive I’d just installed to. I may revisit this when I get the chance as it was temptingly close.

Duplicates on your Mac? Check Outlook!

They have been the bane of my life. Duplicate calendar entries and duplicated fields in my Contacts, all because I wanted to sync my important data between Outlook and my Mac. Things have certainly improved since I embarked on this quest, but a few stubborn calendar and contact items just kept coming back over and over again. No matter how much I ‘went back to square one’ or manually removed duplicate items in Google, iCal or Address Book, sure enough after the next sync they’d be back!

I just couldn’t figure it out. Everything in Outlook was exactly as it should be, yet Google and the Mac were seeing double. So, I went exploring again and to my surprise I finally found the culprit… Outlook!!

Outlook - All Appointments

Outlook - All Appointments

Now I’m using Outlook 2007 but I’m guessing that the same thing can happen in earlier versions. Let’s start with the calendar. When I’m in Outlook I always use one of three views – Day, Week or Month, and there’s not a duplicate in sight. However, when setting up a ‘work’ calendar in Outlook yesterday I started looking around for a way to change the default colour Outlook had chosen for the calendar. I went to the View menu, chose Current View then looked at my options. All Appointments caught my eye for some reason so I had a look. Great, a long list of everything that’s in my calendar and I mean everything! But – I could see duplicates. I flipped back to Month view and the duplicates disappeared, returned to All Appointments and there they were again, large as life.

In some cases I could see minor differences between entries, like ‘all day’ events that had different start/end times, other entries were identical as far as I could tell.  Even so, I didn’t figure out why my Outlook Month view was hiding these duplicates from me. Anyway, I deleted every duplicate I could find, sync’ed across to gCal and hey presto – the few duplicates that had persisted all along were finally gone!

I did the same for my Contacts. I found a view that showed ‘all fields’ for a contact and sure enough, the person had the same address stored in FOUR different places, all of which had been faithfully replicated across to Address Book on the Mac. Once I cleaned up this hidden data in Outlook, everything was fine.

What I haven’t managed to figure out is how calendar items and address book items got duplicated in the first place. Perhaps it was a result of my early attempts to sync my data with Google? Perhaps there’s something about how Outlook handles certain changes. In any case I’m just relieved that I’m finally seeing light at the end of my sync tunnel.

So my message is – don’t take it for granted that what you see using the standard views in Outlook is actually a true picture of what is there. If you’re suffering from duplicate entries in Google, on your Mac or even MobileMe after sync’ing with your PC, there’s a good chance that Outlook is hiding the truth!