Apple WWDC 2011 – A feature I’d like to see

Mac OSX Lion

(Image courtesy of modmyi.com)

The air is thick with rumours and predictions. What will be in Lion, iOS5 and iCloud? Everyone is having their say and it makes for interesting reading even if most of the commentators are guessing the same things. Me? I haven’t a clue! I merely read and digest the Apple news and I’m not nearly close enough to the game to figure out what’s going on. That’s why I’m wishing for a coupe of new features for Apple’s desktop OS that I almost certainly won’t see.

The first is aimed at dealing with the new upsurge in Mac malware, and something I’ve mentioned before. A toggle switch to prevent apps from being installed from anywhere other than the Mac App Store (MAS). The idea is really simple. There’s a System Preference that says ‘Only allow app installs from the Mac App Store’ which by default is set to yes. If you try to launch an app or run an mkpg with this switch set to yes, you get a message telling you you can’t run it. The message could be more explicit and warn you about the dangers of unsolicited software but the idea is to stop apps getting installed and run when you didn’t actually go looking for the app to install in the first place. For ‘power users’ who need to frequently install software to test out, or who are perhaps less likely to succumb to a phishing attack, well they can disable this setting and just carry on as before. Everyone’s happy, job done.

And while we’re at it, Safari could have the ‘open safe files’ setting disabled and given similar warnings. Now of course there are subtle variations on how this ‘Only allow app installs from the Mac App Store’ feature would work, but you get the general idea.

On to my second … well I was going to bemoan the fact that there’s no Whole Disk Encryption (WDE) in Snow Leopard, and no news of it appearing in Lion. That’s all changed! Lion will feature FileVault 2 which will support full disk encryption. No more needing PGP for Mac! Here’s the low down on the Apple website – http://www.apple.com/macosx/whats-new/features.html#filevault2

One out of two… it’s a good start.

TodUhr

The first of many?

By the way… I have recently started dabbling in the world of iOS apps. Now it’s a long time since I was a programmer (late 80’s I think) so someone else is taking care of that aspect of things, but there’s a lot more to getting your app into the iTunes App Store, some of which can get quite confusing or just frustrating. I’m aiming to write a few articles about the experience in the hope that it’ll help someone in the future, but if you want to see the fruits of our labours and the little ‘entertaining’? app we created, then pop over to iTunes and look for TodUhr or paste this link http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/toduhr/id439571992?mt=8  in to your browser. Disclosure – the app costs a few pennies or cents depending on where you live… all of which is gratefully received (after Apple takes their 30%) to help cover the $99 developers fee that is Apple’s cost of entry to it’s playground.

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.

MacDefender

MacDefender

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: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4650

The Snow Leopard Pixelated (Fuzzy) Icon Bug – Possible Fix?

I wrote a post a while back about the problem I was getting with pixelated (fuzzy) icons under Snow Leopard. As soon as you start to use more than a few, the icons become fuzzy – almost like they’re enlarged versions of low-res icons. Sometimes a reboot will temporarily fix the problem, and sometimes using a utility to clear caches can also help, but it’s usually short-lived. If the Apple Support pages are anything to go by, it’s a common problem affecting quite a few people and there’s no fix in sight from Apple.

After a little research (thanks to ‘steepleton’ in the Apple Discussion Forums), I might have found a fix. It’s early days but I tried this about 5 hours ago and all my custom icons are still fine whereas normally they would have been fuzzy within 5-10 minutes of a reboot. Now before I go any further – a warning. The fix involves deleting a hidden system file that Apple probably didn’t envisage people messing with. On the plus side, OS X will recreate this file from scratch after you delete it, but it’s worth noting that while I haven’t experienced any undesirable side-effects on my Mac, your mileage may vary. So… don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

The fix involves removing a file called thumbnails.data which is located inside a folder called com.apple.QuickLook.thumbnailcache on your Mac. Now, the path to this file seems to vary slightly because on my Mac Pro I found it in the following location:

<bootdisk>/private/var/folders/+h/+hEv5zBBEWiHP7q4dTC3WU+++TI/-caches/com.apple.QuickLook.thumbnailcache

On my Mac Mini the path was almost the same except the +h… part (shown in red) had a different name. The best way to locate the file is to use something like Find Any File. It’s an excellent utility by Thomas Tempelmann that let’s you search for files, including ones that Spotlight doesn’t index (which will be the case with thumbnails.data. Although there’s a free version, I highly recommend you get it from the new Mac App Store as it’s a great way to track down things on your Mac that Spotlight doesn’t help you with.

Anyway, back to the matter in hand… Once you’ve located the file you’ll need to navigate to it with your preferred file manager. If you’re using Finder then you’ll need to go to the View menu and turn on the setting that says ‘Show System Files’. If (like me) you use Path Finder then you go to the View menu and select ‘Show Invisible Files’. Having done that, navigate to the thumbnails.data file and copy it to a temporary folder somewhere – a temporary folder inside your Documents folder is probably a good place. Having done that, delete the original file and then empty your Trash. Next, reboot your Mac and everything should look just how it should be – custom icons and all.

I noticed that in my case, the thumbnails.data file was almost 370Mb in size before I deleted it. The new thumbnails.data file that OS X has created for me is under 35Mb and that’s after 5 hours since a reboot and with me exploring every folder I can think of to check on my custom icons. Obviously once you’re happy that everything is working ok, you can delete the copy of the old thumbnails.data file that you made.

I’m hoping that the fix continues to work, and if it does work even for a few days or weeks then I’ll be happy. I hope it works for you too, but as I mentioned above, do proceed with caution because this is an OS X system file that your fiddling with. To be doubly sure, I’d make a full backup of your Mac before trying this. Oh and one last point – when you’ve finished, it’s a good idea to turn off the ‘Show System Files’ option in Finder (or Path Finder) so that system files are once again hidden.

Good luck!

Icons Fine Again

No more fuzzy icons! (For now)

Upgrading the disk in a LaCie d2 Quadra

Following on from my post about upgrading one of the internal drives in my 2008 Mac Pro, I moved on to upgrading the disk inside my LaCie d2 Quadra external drive this morning. Once again pretty straightforward thanks to SuperDuper, my Voyager Q and a Philips screwdriver. If you’ve got one of these LaCie drives and you’d like more space for whatever reason (and the existing drive is out of warranty), then dive in because in less than ten minutes you’ll be enjoying lots more free space.

The LaCie d2 Quadra is a solid and well constructed external unit which actually makes replacing the drive inside it very easy because all the parts are machined to fit together just so. You won’t be struggling with screw holes that don’t line up or bendy bits of plastic as the case is a nicely machined piece of aluminium (or aluminum depending on your side of the Atlantic!).

1. Ok first step is to remove the four screws at the back of the unit. You’ll discover that these screws hold on both the back and front bezels as they go right the way through the case!

(Click images to enlarge)

2. Having removed the front and rear bezels, next remove the thin masking plate that covers the ports on the rear of the device. Take care to do this gently and to not bend it.

3. Turn the unit on it’s side and remove the two screws that hold the internal assembly in place.

4. Now you can slide out the whole internal assembly which is basically a mounting plate, a circuit board and the drive itself.

5. Turn the assembly over and remove the four screws that hold the drive onto the mounting plate.

6. Next you can gently slide the drive off the SATA connector. I found the best way to do this was to just rock the drive slightly from side to side while gently pulling it.

7. From here on in it’s pretty much a case of reversing the procedure starting by gently sliding the new drive on to the SATA connector then re-attaching it to the mounting plate. The screws really don’t have to be that tight as the drive barely vibrates and isn’t going anywhere once re-fitted.

New drive fitted and ready to go back in the case.

8. Slide the whole internal assembly back into the case, making sure that the two screw holes on the side of the assembly line up with their corresponding holes in the side of the case.

9. Secure the assembly inside the case using the two screws on the side.

10. Replace the masking plate over the ports at the back, again taking care not to bend it.

11. Replace the front and back bezels and secure them in place using the four long case screws.

Everything back as it was, only with more space!

That’s it, pretty straight forward eh? The procedure for cloning my existing 1.5Tb drive in the LaCie on to the new 2Tb disk was much the same as for the internal drive upgrade I just did. I popped the 2Tb drive into my Voyager Q, created a single Mac OS Extended (journalled) partition with a unique name then used SuperDuper to copy everything from the existing LaCie drive to the new one. Finally I ejected both drives, did the hardware swap, powered up the LaCie with the new drive inside and renamed the volume back to the original name (so that I don’;t have to change any backup routines, etc).

Choice of Hard Disk Drive

It’s worth noting that the LaCie d2 Quadra is a passively cooled drive enclosure, i.e. there is no fan to pull air through it. For this reason I have stuck with a Western Digital ‘Green’ SATA hard disk – the WD20EARS SATA 3Gb/s 3.5inch IntelliPower 2Tb 64Mb to be exact. I have used WD Green drives before and found them to be both very quiet and not too hot, plus they are plenty fast enough for data and backup drives like the LaCie.

Update 05/December/2012

I have been using Western Digital ‘GREEN’ drives in both my Lacie Quadra (Firewire) drive and in a number of Synology NAS devices. While they have performed well, I have had two failures out of eight drives in the past year – that’s a 25% failure rate. These have not been catastrophic failures resulting in data loss, rather drive errors found by software like Drive Genius or S.M.A.R.T. utilities. Western Digital make it very easy to return drives, they have a long warranty period and seem to be very quick at replacing drives without any argument, so I am happy to continue using WD drives. However, I am now looking at moving from their ‘GREEN’ drives to their ‘RED’ drives for storage that is external to my Mac Pro. The ‘RED’ drives are around 25% more expensive than the ‘GREEN’ drives, e.g. current price of a 2Tb RED drive on Amazon UK is £90 compared with £74 for a 2Tb GREEN drive, but the RED drives are optimised for NAS and external storage as opposed to power saving.

Upgrading drives on a Mac Pro – childs play

Voyager QWhat with all the American TV shows that I’m obliged to store (for the ladies that like that kind of stuff), the 1Tb data drive on my 2008 Mac Pro was starting to look a little squeezed. So, I dropped the cash for a new 2Tb SATA drive and set about the upgrade, and I have to say it was easy as pie (largely thanks to my Voyager Q). The whole process went something like this:

  1. Pop the new 2Tb drive into my Voyager Q and use Disk Utility to format it as a single 2Tb partition (Mac OS Extended Journalled) with a volume name of DataDrive2.
  2. Using SuperDuper, copy my existing DataDrive in it’s entirety to DataDrive2. The Voyager Q is connected via Firewire 800 to the Mac Pro but the copy still took over 5 hours.
  3. Once the copy is completed, remove the new drive from the Voyager Q and attach it to a spare Mac Pro ‘sledge’ (drive carrier) that I have.
  4. Take the side off the Mac Pro and slide out the existing DataDrive and slide in the new DataDrive2.
  5. Boot up the Mac and relabel DataDrive2 to DataDrive.

Actually, while I had the side off the Mac Pro I decided to take it outside on to the patio and give the inside a good clean with a can of compressed air and a soft brush. As for the Voyager Q, it’s a really handy device if you ever mess around with 2.2.5″ or 3.5″ drives, and it just gives you such great flexibility when upgrading drives. It connects via USB 2.0, Firewire 800 or eSATA and I usually have a 1Tb scratch disk in it. In fact you can ‘warm’ swap the drive in it just by ejecting the drive in Finder or Disk Utility then physically ejecting the disk from the Voyager Q and dropping in a different one. OS X will then happily see the new drive and mount it, or tell you it needs to be initialized (if it’s a brand new drive).

As for SuperDuper, I use it every day for doing backups of my system partition, and the partition with my VMware virtual machine images, and it’s been a godsend. I’d highly recommend it.

Next on my list of things to do is to upgrade my Lacie d2 Quadra by putting a new 2Tb drive in that. Once this is done, I’ll have two spare 1Tb drives and two spare 1.5Tb drives and I was planning on getting a Drobo to slot these all into as a dumping ground for my video collection when I start ripping all my DVDs. However, I’m starting to lean towards a four bay Synology instead. While it lacks the hot swap capability of the Drobo, it’s so much more than just a plain NAS device plus it supports hybrid RAID using different sized disks, rather like the Drobo. I already have a Synology DS210j and it’s brilliant for both backing up to as well as making photos, music and video accessible to the Mac Mini and the PS3 in the lounge. Just need to save up first!

Tech Specs

In case you’re wondering, I use a Mac Pro (early 2008), 2.8GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon, 12Gb RAM, 1 x WD Caviar Black 1Tb drive (system partition & VM partition), 1 x WD Caviar Green 1Tb drive (system drive clone & VM drive clone), 1 x WD Green 2Tb (data drive), 1 x WD Green 2Tb drive (Time Machine). In hindsight I would have gone for the 2 x Quad-Core but I was trying to keep costs down when I made the initial purchase. Shame Apple doesn’t really support upgrading this machine to dual Quad-Cores after purchase.

So why 12Gb RAM? Well I run VMware Fusion 3.x and can run up four Windows virtual machines simultaneously, each with 2Gb of RAM and still have 4Gb left for Snow Leopard. I do remote support and having 4 VMs open at once allows me to switch between different client VMs very quickly. I would struggle to set up and run 4 Windows clients like this on any other platform so easily.

Pogoplug Problem

I was hoping to be writing a review praising my recently acquired Pogoplug, but I’m sad to report that the device was faulty on arrival and so after a brief encounter with Pogoplug Support, it’s on it’s way back.

There have been occasions recently when I’ve been at a friend’s house and wished I had access to a certain file back home. Setting up a Pogoplug and hooking it up to an external USB drive containing all the stuff I’m ever likely to need access to sounded like a good idea, and this is squarely what the Pogoplug is aimed at. In essence it’s a little Linux server that connects to your home network via ethernet and shares whatever USB drives are attached to it. It’s all done via the Pogoplug website and it’s up to you to choose what you share and who can access it, so you can share those embarrassing pictures with your mates while hiding them from your folks, you know the drill.

Pogoplug

I hope pink is your thing!

First impressions are that the device is a lot larger than the pictures on Amazon lead you to believe and that in the looks department it’s a bit of a marmite device – you’ll either love it or hate it! Set up is pretty straightforward – plug in a USB drive with some data on it , plug in the ethernet cable and plug in the power.  Then you create an account on the Pogoplug website and work through a few easy installation steps, well that was the theory. The device has three USB ports on the back and I found that plugging a 500Gb Freecom USB (2.0) FAT32 formatted external drive into the lowest of the 3 ports gave me … absolutely nothing. The device refused to recognise the drive at all, so I went through the usual troubleshooting steps. I checked the drive on my Mac using both Disk Utility and Drive Genius and it was fine, but nothing would persuade the Pogoplug to recognise it. I reformatted as FAT32, reformatted it as HFS, tried a FAT32 16Gb USB stick in the port, powered everything off, disconnected everything, powered everything on again, all to no avail.

Plugging the Freecom drive into to top USB port similarly produced nothing, it was only when I plugged TWO devices into the Pogoplug at the same time using the top two USB sockets that it started to play ball. After a long afternoon experimenting I found that port 3 was dead and that ports 1 and 2 would only seem to work when each had something plugged into it simultaneously.

My next problem was accessing the data. I had copied 50 photos onto each USB drive and figured that would be an easy test for the Pogoplug software. Ok the Pogoplug website is a bit clunky but I could live with that… if only it would show me some thumbnails! After an hour it had still not managed to index my handful of photos. Sure I could click on the placeholder icon and see the photo, but all I had to go on were the names of the photos themselves – not very helpful. I also tried adding a PDF file and found that when viewing it on the Pogoplug website it gets reformatted, and not for the better. In this situation I found it was a better bet to download the PDF and view it locally. I also briefly experimented with streaming a video file which you’re also supposed to be able to do via the Pogoplug website. I got about the first 3 seconds of the video before it stopped and would go no further.

At this point I decided that the whole experience was not particularly good. Pogoplug Support had been pretty responsive to the USB port problem, but other than the obvious troubleshooting steps (unplug everything, check your drives, etc.), they weren’t able to help. If it was just the clumsy interface then I might have lived with it, but the suspect USB ports tipped the balance and it’s now on its way back for a refund. It’s a shame, the Pogoplug is a great idea, and would be marvelous for non-techie people who want to share a few photos etc., assuming the indexing works eventually. Unfortunately the execution seems a bit of a way behind the idea, and I subsequently found when reading the Pogoplug forums that I’m not the only one to experience these problems. Perhaps Pogoplug v2 (if there is one) will be worth investigating? Just please offer it in a choice of pink or something NOT pink!

iPad + iOS 4.2.1 = Frustration

Sorry but this is a little rant about the latest and greatest version of iOS 4.2.1 on my 32Gb WiFi iPad. You see up to the point just before I upgraded, my iPad was marvellous. Either at home on my WiFi network, or out and about with my Three UK MiFi mobile hotspot, anything requiring internet access was a breeze. Applications like Osfoora and WeatherHD would update almost instantly, web pages would load quickly, even my LogMeIn Ignition worked really well.

But then that fateful day came in November when the much anticipated iOS 4.2.1 update hit the Apple servers. Multi-tasking (of a sort), folders, AirPlay, AirPrint (ok with a helping hand from Printopia in my case), but all really useful stuff. Like many others I’ve heard about including two iPad owning friends, the iOS 4.2.1 update on the iPad wasn’t quite the usiual ‘it just works’ Apple experience. iTunes got part of the way through the update before it decided to ‘hang’. I left it like that for 2.5 hours (yes, two and a half hours!), but no joy. The iPad was in limbo and I eventually had to force quit iTunes and start again. Much later that evening, the iPad was up and running with iOS 4.2.1 and that’s when my WiFi woes started.

No WiFiAt first I thought it was my internet connection at home, but using my MiFi instead of my home broadband produced the same results. The iPad would show itself as being connected to a WiFi network with a strong signal, but web pages would start loading incredibly slowly and apps would take forever to update. Then the connection would drop completely and Mobile Safari would complain of timeouts, apps would tell me I wasn’t connected to the internet and all the while the iPad showed itself as being connected with a strong WiFi signal. Rebooting my router or MiFi made no difference, what’s more my Mac was still working perfectly through the same WiFi connection. Eventually I twigged that restarting the WiFi on the iPad would temporarily fix the problem. Initially this was switching the iPad off then on again, but then I discovered that just recycling the WiFi by turning Airplane mode on for five seconds then off again would do the trick. But the problem would always return, sometimes as soon as five minutes afterwards and sometimes I would get a full 30-45 minutes of working WiFi before it would tail off again and eventually stop.

Searching the internet has revealed that a lot of people are experiencing the exact same problem – intermittent and slow WiFi since upgrading to iOS 4.2.1. Some surveys I’ve seen suggest that it’s as many as 25% of users are having this problem, and it clearly is a problem. Whether it’s related to a particular ‘batch’ of iPads, or some curious combination of circumstances, who knows. I know three other people with iPads and two of them have the same problem, making that 75% of the people I know. I know, it’s a very small sample and for reference one of my friends who has the problem actually had a smooth upgrade without iTunes hanging.

As incredibly frustrating as this is, it wouldn’t be quite so bad if Apple wasn’t being it’s usual taciturn self when it comes to problems. What problems? Having browsed the numerous complaints on the Apple Support Forums, there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgment at all from Apple that there’s a problem. Even a simple “we’re not saying there’s a fault but we are investigating” would help. In all honesty, I’d be very surprised if Apple weren’t aware of the problem and are doing a little investigation, but engaging your customers a bit better when there’s issues like this would push their already high customer satisfaction ratings up from the low 90’s towards that magical 100%, well ok 99% ‘cos there’s always someone!

Surely that’s something that Steve Jobs and Co would love to do? I know it would make me happy… well happier knowing a fix is on the way.

Here’s a thread about the issue on the Apple Support Forums – HERE