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My critical applications 5 months after switching

It's now been 5 months since I switched to Mac, time to update the list of Mac applications I use regularly and have found invaluable for me. My list has changed over time as applications have fallen in and out of favor and the tasks I have done with my Macs have changed. I've done this a couple times before so you can see how the list has changed.

Quicksilver
When I sat down to write this article I outlined the applications I use frequently and Quicksilver was not even on the list, yet here it is at the very top. Why is that? One of the phrases that is referenced by Quicksilver is "Wei Wu Wei—Act Without Doing". Quicksilver has become an intrinsic part of my workflow, so much so that I don't even notice it is there.

Though I use it primarily as an application launcher much like I used to use Spotlight I have become quite addicted to Quicksilver's snappy user interface. The potential for automating tasks and accessing files with Quicksilver is quite extensive and I feel like I'm just scratching the surface with it. The plug-ins are also interesting—especially the Clipboard plug-in—which allows you to see that last 10 (user definable) items copied to the clipboard.

One bit of caution with Quicksilver: it can be overwhelming if you are new to Macs. If you've just switched you are better off working with Spotlight for at least a month or two before branching out with Quicksilver. I tried using it when I first got my Mac and was unimpressed—it seemed so complicated. I didn't appreciate the value of it until my second attempt at using it, once I had become comfortable with my Mac.

Firefox
I'm still playing with Firefox and given that I spend so much time in a web browser it's not surprising that this ranks so highly. I still like Safari as a web browser, though Firefox 3 has proven to be a worthy competitor. I haven't played with the Firefox Add-ins since Firefox was my default browser on the Windows platform so I'm looking forward to rediscovering the Firefox add-in market in the near future.

As I mentioned before, Firefox 3.0 is a really nice release and if you tried it in the past but bailed out on it like I have you may want to try it out again.

1Password
I would be lost without 1Password. It makes it so much easier to keep track of the web sites I have accounts on, remembering my passwords for me. I also use the wallet feature to keep important information locked up on my machine like credit card information (so that I don't have to run off and grab my wallet) and standard contact information, making completing address forms very easy.

Terminal
Though not really application in the traditional sense I have really begun to appreciate the power of the command line interface with the OS X terminal. The seamless copying and pasting between OS X applications and the command line interface make it easy to work with. The multi-tab support means I can have several BASH shells running at the same time in one compact window so that I can move between them very easily.

Having recently moved to Ruby on Rails as my web development platform I've found myself spending a lot of time in a terminal window. It is so much more powerful than the DOS command line I used to use it's not even in the same league.

Textmate
When I left Windows for Mac I knew one of my highest priorities was going to be finding a replacement for my beloved UltraEdit text editor. Textmate was highly recommended by a number of people and since I planned on writing code with it there was no question that this was the editor to choose. What makes Textmate special is it's ability to add functionality with "bundles", a series of commands and macros that can be tied to a file type, effectively turning Textmate into a specialized editor. The Rails bundle that I am using has been a huge help in writing code and the Git bundle makes version control painfully simple.

Mail
I've gone back and forth on using Mail to connect to my Gmail accounts and lately I'm back to using it again. Gmail's IMAP interface seems to have improved, though every once in a while it acts up and loses it's connection, requiring that I restart Mail.app. Other than that little challenge I've found Mail to be a nice, light application for sending and receiving e-mail.

iStat menu
If I'm using a Mac without iStat menu I feel that I'm driving a car without a dashboard cluster. On my MacBook iStat helped me understand which applications were pegging the CPU. On my Mac Pro I used iStat to see what kind of network activity was going on in the background. On my MacBook Pro I used iStat to help me keep an eye on the temperature of my CPU and the speed of my CPU fan. There are other applications that can handle this but nothing is as simple, clean and easy as iStat menu.

iPhoto
Though I do still struggle with it at times I've come to appreciate iPhoto and have moved all of my digital photos over to it. iPhoto is fine for doing the kind of minor edits I generally need with my photos: cropping, straightening, large scale adjustments and red-eye removal. I've used it to create a great slide show for my wife, tracking each of our kids as they grew up over the years.

The Ken Burns effect is excellent, adding a real sense of motion and drama to photos. About the only problem I had with it was that if used automatically it would occasionally use the effect to hone in on an inappropriate portion of the photo. Occasionally the focal point of the photo would be a part of the anatomy you don't necessarily want zoomed in on, especially when it's photos of your children as they mature. Needless to say I often had to take over manually and that can be rather time consuming.

Other than this little nit I've found iPhoto to be very serviceable for my needs.

Pages
When I bought my MacBook Pro I decided to purchase a copy of iWork as well since I was able to leverage the educational discount. I used the trial for Microsoft Office for a pretty long time and had started to get used to it but the application seemed too sluggish to me. Not that MS Office is all that bad but after using each for a period of time iWork seemed much cleaner to me. The UI is uncomplicated and I haven't had a problem finding anything that I need.

Since I'm no longer using trial versions and have made the plunge on iWork—spending actual $ to get it—I expect that I will find ways to make it work in every situation. In the event that someone sends me a file that I cannot view in iPages I expect that I will simply berate them for using a non-standard file format, much as I had been berated for doing the same thing in the past. I rarely push word processors, spreadsheets or presentation software very hard at all so I don't anticipate this being a problem.

OmniGraffle
When I was looking for a Mac replacement for Visio I had a number of people recommend Omnigraffle. Not only did it meet my needs, effectively doing everything I did in Visio, it did several tasks much better. The library of templates available for Omnigraffle are extensive and I am now able to mock up some great UIs very quickly and generate Rails style database schema.

NetNewsWire
I haven't found a better RSS reader than NetNewsWire and that's in part because I haven't bothered to look. NNW does exactly what I need and does it well. The fact that I can synchronize what I've read between my two Macs and my iPod Touch makes me very, very happy. I love it when applications leverage the web in unique ways.

iTunes
My use of iTunes predates my use of Macs by several years since I've been an iPod user for a pretty long time. The integration of the iTunes store into it is nice and seamless, making the purchase experience about as easy as it gets.

Adium
I still switch back to iChat occasionally but for the most part I use Adium as my chat client. I love the way Adium allows me to quickly review chat logs from prior conversations. I like the way the it can be customized and create an incredibly compact chat window. The price is also excellent (free). The only downside is that I cannot do video chats, which is why I switch back to iChat every once in a while.

So there you have it, my list of critical applications that I use nearly every day on my Macs. I'm not talking about the built in functionality (other than Terminal) because that's enough for an entire blog post on it's own. Spaces, Quicklook, etc. are also critical to my needs. I also have quite a few other applications loaded and available like Cyberduck and VMware Fusion, though lately I haven't been using them nearly as much. This is more a function of my recent application needs though.

Living with the MacBook Pro

It's now been a couple of weeks since I bought a MacBook Pro and handed my MacBook down to my youngest daughter. In that time I've used the MBP quite a bit and overall I'm quite happy with the upgrade. The only issue that I've had with it has been the heat it generates, though to a large degree I haven't really noticed it any longer. Either my left wrist has adjusted to being slightly warmer than my right wrist or the Fan Control I installed has helped keep the machine running a little cooler. I actually believe it's a bit of both.

I've now used the MBP sitting on my lap and worked with it comfortably for about 2 hours and I didn't even need to use the Belkin Cooling Pad I bought, though I do still use that every once in a while.

The overall performance of the machine has been excellent and—as I mentioned earlier—I love the display. The battery life from the machine has been very good for me and after a couple of hours on battery with moderate use I'm down to about 45% of my battery charge remaining.

One of the things I didn't appreciate until the last couple of days is the way the display adjusts to the ambient light. When you combine that with the backlighting on the keyboard the MBP is a completely useable machine in very low light conditions. 

The quality of sound from the MBP is also a big improvement over my MacBook or any of the HP or Dell laptops I've had recently. If I have a video or piece of music that I want to share with the family then everyone can hear it quite easily.

ExpressCard 34
About the only thing I didn't quite understand on my MBP was the purpose of the ExpressCard slot on the side of my machine. It's a slick looking little slot with a door that pushes in and smoothly rounded edges. I figured it must be a Mac thing so I did a little research on it.

Turns out the ExpressCard slot is the 34mm version of the PCMCIA card that PCs have had forever. The more traditional format—54mm—is what you tend to see in larger PC based laptops. If you're interested in reading about what this stuff is all about Extreme Tech covered the announcement of this new standard. Five years ago. Still, it's a worthwhile read if you want to understand what this is about.

So what exactly can you plug into this? With USB 2.0 and Firewire 800 there's not a lot you really need out of ExpressCard that isn't more easily handled with a simple external connector. The most popular devices that I found from NewEgg appear to be external SATAII interfaces that provide full 3.0Gps rates.

I can see that a memory card reader—something I wish Apple had just included on the machine—is an option, the Compact Flash format my Canon DSLRs use are too large to fit in the slot. There is a CF reader from Verbatim that fits into the ExpressCard/34 slot but it sticks out a bit. On the bright side it claims to be up to 5x faster than a USB based device. When I transfer photos from a nearly full 4GB CF card that may come in handy.

If you know of a killer ExpressCard use or have experience with it compared to comparable USB based devices (like CF card readers) please comment about it! I would be really interested in finding out if people are getting considerable performance gains using this technology.

Fixing a Windows virus makes me appreciate my Mac

A good friend of mine called me on my cell this morning.

"Yo! Hey brother, I have a problem with my laptop. Can you help me out?"

Walt's a really bright guy but isn't into computers at all. Computers are just another tool for Walter, giving him access to e-mail and the web while he is out on job sites. He works from his truck so it has become his mobile office, with a little Sprint broadband device allowing him to get electronic access from nearly everywhere.

The company he works for is small and since he works hundreds of miles from the headquarters it's up to him to maintain his own computer. He was not a happy camper because Windows was telling him that he had some virus infections and that he needed to clear them out. At this point his machine had become unusable and he wasn't sure what to do next.

Since he was in the area I asked him to swing by so I could take a look at it. The machine itself was a newer Dell laptop running Windows XP. Sure enough, there were a bunch of dialogs popped up complaining of virus infections. But something seemed really wrong.

Though the dialogs looked like they came out of the Microsoft Security Center they looked... I don't know... odd. I had never seen those particular dialogs before and had never had Windows prompt me to click a button to scan for viruses.

Apparently the latest trend in Windows viruses and spyware is to create windows that tell you that you are infected and to follow their steps to remove the crap from the machine. They masquerade as very official looking Windows dialogs. The giveaway for me was that I haven't seen Microsoft use an Always on Top window for a warning before. They may make it system modal but never something that simply covers other windows.

When I asked Walt what he used the machine for he said e-mail through Outlook and looking up manufacturers web sites for information. That was it. Nothing else I asked? "Not even porn" was the smiling response. Obviously in one of his web searches he clicked on a link that he thought contained a legitimate site for his job but was wrong. Who knows, maybe he just clicked the wrong link in a search result.

I went to the PC Tools web site, downloaded and installed PC Tools Spyware Doctor with Anti-Virus. Sure enough his machine was infected with something that was generating all of these little error dialogs. After a couple of successive scans and repair cycles we were able to get the machine clean and I made sure the system was set up to keep the machine relatively safe, at least for the year that the subscription lasts.

While this was going on I mentioned that I had switched to Mac and that problems like this were not something I even worried about anymore. Walt looked at me with the "that's nice" stare. This was a company supplied machine and he sure as hell wasn't going to be getting them to buy him a Mac. He just needed this machine to be able to work so he could get his day back on track.

Walt of course really appreciated the help. It only took me about 45 minutes to get everything resolved for him before he was able to pull out of the driveway and head off to the next job site. While his truck drove down the street and I walked back inside I thought to myself, I'm so glad I'm not dealing with THAT any longer.

What, me worry?
Sure, there are viruses trojans that have been created for Macs though they are few and far between. Macs can be hacked and compromised and pretending they cannot be is just plain unhealthy. The reason Macs have been left relatively unscathed while Windows machines are easy pickings is because there are literally tens of millions of unpatched and unmanaged Windows machines just sitting on a live internet connection.

It is really hard to run a Windows XP based system without commercial virus protection. I don't run any on my Macs because I'm very cautious about what I download and install. I do believe that the Mac will continue to grow in popularity and with that growth a bigger target will be placed on them. Until that happens though I'm going to continue to enjoy not going through what my buddy Walt just went through.

Screen sharing with Leopard

It was a beautiful day outside so I decided to grab the MacBook Pro and enjoy the delightful weather out on our screened in porch. I had some online reading to do as I am trying to get a handle on Git, the version control system I am going to be using.

While sitting here enjoying the breeze and working through the Git documentation I remembered that I had left Adium running on the Mac Pro downstairs. Many of my friends contact me through AIM and I usually put up an away message if I'm gone for a while. But I just sat down and got comfortable - getting up seemed like a lot of work to me. I decided that now was the perfect time to try out Leopard's Screen Sharing capability.

For some reason Apple decided to bury Screen Sharing down in the following location:

/System/Library/Core Services

I navigated to that in Finder and then dragged it into my Dock to get easier access to it. Once I had that fired up I simply entered the name of my Mac Pro into the Host window and pressed Connect. I was immediately rewarded with my entire Mac Pro's screen, miniaturized and scaled to fit on my MacBook Pro:

Even my dual monitors were represented. I tried playing around a bit and found it to be quite responsive. I had the option of either viewing the screen in scaled mode or by scrolling it. I found the scaling worked better for what I needed to do. Granted, the menu bar was extremely tiny but I could make out the little Adium icon and quickly set my status to away.

One machine to rule them all
Having accomplished this little mission I thought to myself: I wonder if I can gain access to my Ubuntu machine from the comfort of my screened in porch too? It physically sits right next to the Mac Pro and resides on the same network. I use SSH all the time to remotely connect and run tasks but I had never tried accessing my Ubuntu machine using a remote screen sharing application.

Apple's Screen Sharing program is based on VNC, which I knew was available for Ubuntu. With this little hacking challenge on the table I decided to dig in. First I ran SSH and connected to my Ubuntu machine. Next I followed LifeHacker's nice little four step instructions for getting VNC up and running on Ubuntu—something that could be handled through my SSH connection.

Within a couple of minutes I had my Ubuntu machine ready to be accessed. I fired up Screen Sharing again and entered in the name of my Ubuntu workstation. I got a couple of warning dialogs but within a few seconds I was rewarded with my Ubuntu screen up and running on my MacBook Pro:


The performance of the connection was terrible compared to the performance I got from the Mac Pro, though it was functional. I didn't tweak it at all; I just did it because I could, so I'm sure there is room for optimization.

I don't know why but there is something tremendously satisfying about remotely controlling a machine, especially one you didn't have the ability to control when you sat down. With my little remote adventure out of the way and this blog entry written up I better get back to that Git documentation.

It's not reading itself.

The now daily Time Machine Error

Rarely a day goes by now that Time Machine doesn't produce the dreaded Time Machine Error warning: "Unable to complete backup. An error occurred while copying files to the backup volume." Ironically I get this more on my Mac Pro with dual internal hard drives that check out fine rather than my little MacBook with the slow USB based drive for backup.

Since Time Machine runs hourly I'll get 23 to 47 backups that work fine, then the error. It's always a single file that seems to blow out the backup and generate the message: 

Time Machine Error. Unable to complete backup. An error occurred while copying files to the backup volume.
I haven't encountered this on my MacBook Pro yet, only on my Mac Pro. The time machine icon in the menu bar shows this:

I first encountered this problem at the beginning of June and it is definitely a byproduct of the 10.5.3 update. Jeff McCord has documented similar problems on his blog. There seems to be two solutions that work for me:

1) Try again. About half the time just telling Time Machine to try again seems to work.

2) Look at the backup volume. If there is a file on your backup volume that ends in "inProgress" then drag it to the trash can. You'll be prompted to enter your password. Once done try Time Machine again.

I'm getting a lot of hits on this blog from people searching for Time Machine Error so hopefully this abbreviated solution set will help them clear the error until Apple fixes it.

I have read reports of people saying this may be related to using Growl—which I use with several of my applications—though I only seem to be seeing this error consistently on my Mac Pro. Though a relatively minor error that is easily recovered from, often by doing nothing but letting Time Machine try again, I would really like to see it eliminated.

My free iPod Touch

Each member of my family—my wife, three children and I—are heavy iPod Nano users. We never got into the iPods with hard drives because they were just too large. When the first Nano model came out I immediately went out and got one for each of us. We do a lot of travel as a family and figured the iPod would be a great way to help reduce the quantity and volume of "Are we there yet?".

At that point we were all still Windows users, each of us running some flavor of Windows XP and using iTunes on it. The Nanos were perfect for us and regardless of where we fell on the technical proficiency scale they were mastered very quickly.  We imported our CD collections and began buying our music through iTunes. 

Over the years we cycled through at least one iPod each. For my wife, son and I it was because we upgraded to a newer model with more memory, video capabilities, etc.

My daughters were a different story. Either both of them are fond of carrying bricks in their oversized purses or they have a secret pet rock fetish but both have managed to crush the display on their Nanos. My oldest daughter is very pragmatic about it and was quite happy to just take the ones that my wife or son had upgraded from. My youngest however is a gadget fiend and simply has to have the latest and greatest device.

"Daddy, I would love to get an iPod Touch. Have you seen the screens on them? They are SOOOO cool! Can I please have one?"

Ugh. I don't know where she gets this obsession with technology. 

Needless to say she did get an iPod Touch for Christmas last year and happily showed it off to everyone. While I was quite happy with my last generation iPod Nano (no video) because of the tiny size and 8GB capacity, there was a part of me that coveted that iPod Touch.

A free iPod Touch?
When we bought the MacBook Pro a little over a week ago we were able to take advantage of the promotional program Apple is running for people that qualify for an educational discount. There are benefits that my wife gets from teaching at a public high school and this is one that I enjoy the most. Not only were we able to get a discount on the MacBook Pro itself and Applecare, we were also able to get a free iPod with up to a $299 rebate. Since the 8GB iPod Touch was $299 I figured this would be a great time to get one.

The Touch is an interesting device and a marvel of engineering. The large display on it is simply stunning. After the display the biggest difference between it and the standard iPod line is that there are only two external buttons: The Sleep/Wake—On/Off button at the top edge and the Home button on the face. This is a bit of a challenge because I normally operate my Nano by feel. My thumb feels the click wheel on the Nano and I can pause, change the volume or skip to the next or previous song without ever looking, even when I'm out jogging.

The Touch requires my full attention when operating it however. The position of the controls is handled directly on the touch display, a display that can reorient itself based on the attitude of the device. Hold it straight up (Portrait) and you get slightly different control surfaces than if the Touch is on it's side (Landscape).

For this reason alone the Nano will continue to be my primary music device, at least for exercising. The Touch has many capabilities though, some changing the way I access my primary computers.

E-Mail and Web Browsing
Perhaps the coolest feature of the iPod Touch is the ability to surf the web using Wifi and the internal Safari browser. If you have not seen an iPhone or iPod Touch browsing the web you will be stunned that something so small could actually be so functional. Though it does require a Wifi host to tap into I can generally find them in most of the places I frequent. 

I'm a big Gmail fan and the mail program in the Touch can hook right up to it and provide a highly readable interface to my e-mail. Though I wouldn't want to compose anything of length on the Touch's display based keyboard, it is pretty easy to type on. If you have large fingers it would likely be a bit of a challenge though.

I've found that now when I am upstairs watching TV with my wife I'll keep the Touch handy because it's so quick and easy to check e-mail or pull up a web site that is referenced on the program we're watching. It isn't something I would spend an extended amount of time on but is perfect for that quick reference.

It may be pretty but it gets dirty fast
About the only thing negative I could think of with the iPod Touch is that its polished surface—both the display glass and the chrome back—show every finger print and smudge. Within a day of getting the Touch I went over to my local Best Buy and purchased a DLO Jam Jacket for $21. It provides a rubberized case that ads a little to the bulk of the Touch but in return makes it feel highly ruggedized. 

The small clip on the back of the Jam Jacket doubles as a headphone holder so you don't have to wrap the headphones around the business end of the display. This makes it even easier to just grab it quickly and check e-mail or the web.

Apple comes through again
When we bought the MacBook Pro and the iPod Touch we had to pay for the Touch up front. The $299 was supposed to come as a rebate. I've always hated rebates. The companies that provide them often squirrel out of them by telling you that you didn't include the correct UPC code or you wait for 6-8 weeks and just forget about the darn thing.

Apple is different. When we bought it they gave me a little card and the Apple Store employee told me to go online when I got home and fill out the form. He even offered the use of the Macs on display if I wanted to do it immediately. I ended up going home and filling out the form, a very brief one that basically had me plugging in my receipt ID and confirming my mailing address. It was really simple.

Four days later I got an e-mail from Apple indicating that my rebate was on the way. Today I received the rebate check from Apple. Elapsed time to receive the rebate check: 9 calendar days or 5 business days.

Apple continues to impress me. Not only are they producing cutting edge products that I thoroughly enjoy using, they are running their business exceptionally well.

Safari or Firefox?

When I was a Windows user I went through several generations of browsers. Starting off with Mosaic, then on to Netscape Navigator and finally, since I was a hard core MS guy, Internet Explorer. Of course back then we called the early versions Internet Exploder because the thing would frequently crash in spectacular ways. Over time Internet Explorer improved and became fairly stable, though it had a huge number of security holes that Microsoft could never seem to get on top of.

Once Internet Explorer became the defacto standard on the Windows platform Microsoft stopped innovating on it and focused on fixing security issues. It was about this time that Mozilla put out the first versions of Firefox and suddenly I had a reason to consider something other than IE. Firefox was quick, had a tabbed interface that IE didn't, didn't have the security holes that IE had and was, for the most part, able to present most web pages just as well as IE.

I quickly adopted Firefox as my default browser and for the next couple of years watched as Microsoft slowly realized that they needed to put a lot of effort into their new browser. Firefox always seemed to be one step ahead of IE, adding great new capabilities like skinning, plugins and extensions that were really handy.

Enough Windows History - What About Mac?
When I switched to Mac I figured I would also use Firefox instead of Safari. It was actually the very first application I installed on my new Mac. After playing with both I was surprised to find myself using Safari as my default browser. My use of Firefox was limited to my development work where some of the extensions for Firefox come in handy and the XML viewer that's built in makes life much easier.

What didn't I like about Firefox? It was considerably slower than Safari when loading and rendering web pages. The UI did not feel Mac like, with a toolbar that looked like something from an older Windows application. I love the clean, crisp UIs that Apple produces and while some think that Safari is spartan, I think it's just clean and uncluttered.

Firefox also rendered form components on a web page very differently than Safari. While Safari's pulldown lists and buttons inside a web form looked just like any other Mac UI, the Firefox versions of those buttons looked like something from an old Windows 98 machine; square, gray, flat buttons.

Out Comes Firefox 3.0
The recent release of Firefox 3.0 meant that I wanted to check this out again and see if Firefox deserved a spot as my default browser. I installed it over my previous version and started playing around.

Note: If you are a 1Password fan like I am you will need to open the preferences in it and reset it in the Browsers section.

The first thing I noticed is that it is considerably faster than the previous version. I didn't do hard core testing—just some subjective stuff—but found it to be nearly as fast as Safari. The UI has also been updated, making it look much more like a traditional Mac application. I particularly like the tab and toolbar rendering:


I also found that the web forms that Firefox used to generate are now being presented with traditional OS X looking components. This was a big deal for me so I was quite happy to see that in 3.0.

The Firefox team also added a cool searching feature. Click on the down arrow just on the right side of the address box and up pops your standard list of recent addresses. If you begin to type any matches found—both from your history and your bookmarks—appear in the list. It's kind of like a browser specific Spotlight search. Very cool.

There are three key Safari features that I don't have in Firefox though:

1) Dictionary Lookup
2) Drag and drop in web file upload forms
3) Snapback

Of these only Dictionary Lookup is tough to live without for me. Given the advances that Firefox has made I am going to spend the next week playing with this browser to see if it can indeed become my default. Using it for the bulk of the day yesterday leads me to think it has a pretty good chance.

Switching to iPhoto from Picasa

When I switched to Mac from Windows one of the programs I missed the most was Picasa, Google's free photo management tool. Picasa and iPhoto are very similar and perform many of the same functions, including photo editing basics like red-eye removal, cropping, straightening, etc.

Back in March I talked about the basic differences between Picasa and iPhoto. Since then I've acquired my Mac Pro, shut down the Windows machine that used to be my primary photo archive and moved everything to iPhoto. That has presented some interesting challenges.

For many years I had established a pretty standardized model for storing and managing my photos, necessitated to a large degree because I didn't have a photo management tool other than the Windows file system and Photoshop for the first few years. My system was quite simple: I had a folder for each year and within each year I had a folder for each day. A typical folder structure looked something like this:

When I would take new photos I would grab the memory card, put it in my reader on my PC and then just move them to the appropriate folder based on the date the photos were taken. This eliminated naming issues if the auto-generated file names rolled over (an issue in the early days) and gave me a pretty easy way of finding things based on date.

Picasa was great because it supported this model. All I had to do was tell Picasa to monitor my Photos directory and everything under it and Picasa took care of the rest. Everything was indexed from there and all I had to do was copy the files off my memory cards and on to the hard drive.

Switching to iPhoto
iPhoto supports two models for storing photos: they can either be copied into a single library "file" that iPhoto manages or they can be left in their original directory and referenced from there.

Copying the files into iPhoto's library is the default behavior. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this will double the size of your photo library if you use this option and plan on keeping the photos on disk. You can of course just delete the photos from their original location once they are imported or even use iPhoto's ability to suck them right out of your camera.

The other option is to leave the files in the location you started from and have iPhoto reference them from there. You lose the ability to embed ColorSync profile information if you go this route and you really don't want to move those files around once iPhoto knows about them. This is the method I'm using for a couple of reasons.

Sharing Photos on my Network
While Mac has become the platform of choice in our household, my wife and son are still clinging to Windows machines and I still have a couple Windows boxes that are used occasionally, along with an Ubuntu system to round it all out. Sharing photos with all of those machines is pretty important.

If you copy your photos into iPhoto's library you can share them from there, though there is a catch; you have to keep your copy of iPhoto running at all times (in order to share) and the people that want to access the photos must have a Mac and run iPhoto.

Given my multi-cultural network of machines that is not an option. As a result I have a volume on my Mac Pro that contains all of my original photos. This folder is shared on my network in Read Only form so that anyone on the network, regardless of OS, can see them.

The other reason I do this is because there is a pretty good possibility that at some point I will use something other than iPhoto on my Mac to manage my photo library. It may be Aperature, Lightroom or even the rumored Mac version of Picasa. Keeping my files in a neutral storage location—all 21,000 of them—ensures I won't have any problem getting them into my next tool. Even if that next tool is the next version of iPhoto.

Apple does it right when it comes to surveys

Taking surveys is usually something I want to avoid. Often it's because the survey someone wants me to take is just too long or comes from some company I have no relationship with. Every once in a while I come across a company that knows how to collect feedback really well; Apple is one such company.

I have always felt strongly that companies should understand their customers as much as they possibly can and that quick, concise electronic surveys are a great way to do just that. I was involved in the business of collecting survey data for the last 10 years, first at the company I founded (WebSurveyor) and subsequently with the company that resulted from the sale of it (Vovici). I know that space pretty well. [Full Disclosure: Though I am no longer employed by them I remain an investor and sideline supporter of Vovici, which helps companies build online communities for collecting feedback.]

With that background it's been interesting to watch how Apple has gone about collecting feedback from me. I have now received a survey request four times, each closely following a specific event. Two calls into Apple Care, one in-store purchase and one in-store repair.

You can tell a lot about the values of a company by the questions they ask in their surveys and Apple appears to be genuinely concerned about how satisfied customers are with the service they provide. The questions themselves are short, simple and unambiguous and focus on rating the quality of the event itself, the people that I encountered and my satisfaction with the experience overall. The survey instruments themselves—the web pages—are classic Apple design; simple, uncluttered and visually attractive.

There are a couple of reasons people don't like to take surveys but by far the biggest one is that they are just too long. Apple scores big points with me by understanding that and asking me to take really brief surveys (about 10 multiple choice questions in each). They also do one of the most important things you can do in a survey and provide a little gauge at the top of each page so you have an idea of how long it will take to complete.

The other thing Apple is doing right is collecting this feedback within days of an event. So many companies make the mistake of asking for feedback on a quarterly basis or worse, annually. I have always felt that feedback on a consumer event has the shelf life of fresh dairy products; wait too long after an event and you get smelly cheese instead of milk.

The main reason I switched to Mac from Windows was technical: ease of use, limited virus threat, great performance, the stability of OS X, etc. In doing so I've clearly become a big fan of the products Apple builds. Though not perfect, Apple is doing a lot of things really, really well. What's been interesting for me is when I look at the way Apple works with their customers and the way they have gone about collecting my feedback I'm even more impressed. 

Second Impressions - adjusting to a MacBook Pro

Having the MacBook Pro for a couple of days now has led to me liking the machine quite a bit more than my initial negative impression, caused primarily by the heat it generated. The biggest change was the result of downloading and installing Fan Control based on Charles' recommendation.

With Fan Control installed I've settled in on putting the minimum threshold for the fans at 3,100 RPM and have noticed a considerable difference. My CPU core temp at idle is down in the 40°-43°C range most of the day and I don't get any noticeable warmth under my left palm.

Fan Control is added directly to your System Preferences so it integrates nicely. I didn't play with the thresholds, leaving them at their standard defaults. All I did was push the base speed to 3,100 RPM. I don't hear any real difference in the noise the fan generates though the environments I use the machine are not exactly whisper quiet.

I don't know how much of this heat reduction is due to Fan Control and how much is just the result of the machine burning in a bit. I do have a slight concern wearing out the fans on my MBP however. I know that normally machines like the MBP, with tightly engineered components, are designed with certain tolerances in mind and I don't know if running the fan 33% faster than it normally does would dramatically impact the life of the machine.

Heat is the enemy of all electronic components so I'm rationalizing—as several comments to my last blog post have—that I'd rather have a fan that is inexpensive to replace fail than other more expensive parts. 

External Monitors
I tried hooking up a Samsung wide screen display to my MBP and found that the external monitor adaptor is quite tight with hardly any gap for the adaptor housing. My first attempts to even plug it in failed. On inspecting the end of the adaptor I saw that it was very slightly out of shape, the result of cramming it through one of those holes in a desk for routing cables. Once I "adjusted" it back it went in but required a little convincing.

When plugged in I had full access to an external desktop that would make the MBP a worthy competitor to my Mac Pro with it's dual 1600x1200 displays. Performance with the external display was very good and if I only had this one machine I would likely keep the external display on; there is no such thing as too much screen real estate. If you have a MacBook Pro as your primary machine and it spends the majority of the time parked on your desk you should seriously consider getting a nice external LCD monitor as a complimentary display.

Just make sure the adaptor from the monitor is straight and true so that it fits into the MBP clean.

Our Free iPod
An anonymous commenter here mentioned that Apple was having an educational promotion in the US. From June 3, 2008 through September 15, 2008. People that qualify for the educational discount—not just college students as the ad implies—can also get a rebate of up to $299 on an iPod. Since my wife is a public high school teacher we qualified and I (Okay, We) were able to pick up an 8GB iPod Touch basically for free when we purchased the MBP.

We had to pay for it up front but the rebate process is really simple and handled online. While I would love to get an iPhone, especially the 3G version due in July, I'm going to wait out my Sprint contract before I go there. In the meantime I now have a device that can help me see what my web products look and feel like in the iPhone form factor. It won't replace my previous generation iPod Nano as my exercise music device since it's too large for that but it's a great way to check my e-mail while I'm lounging out on the deck and within range of my Wifi hub.

If you qualify for it you should seriously consider taking advantage of this offer. Since I had just bought my wife a new pink iPod Nano for valentines day I didn't feel too guilty about becoming the primary user of it. She thinks it's too big anyway.

Replacing a MacBook with a MacBook Pro

On Saturday I pulled the trigger on my MacBook Pro purchase, going with the base model 15" MacBook Pro directly from my local Apple store. Here are the specs:

2.4GHz
2GB RAM
200GB 5,400 RPM hard drive
Glossy display

My youngest daughter is quite pleased because this frees up my little MacBook for her. I've been steadily working through getting things transferred and installed on the MacBook Pro and every hour or so my daughter pops in and asks if she can take the MacBook yet.

Soon, honey. Soon.

I'm actually a little reluctant to part with the MacBook now. It is after all a wonderful little machine and to a large degree I appreciate it a bit more with the new MacBook Pro getting all of my attention. I even set about comparing them side by side, taking a few pictures along the way.



From a size standpoint the 15" MacBook Pro is still a pretty small machine. Actually a tiny bit thinner than a MacBook it feels quite sleek and the aluminum case feels very solid and durable compared to the shiny plastic case on the MacBook. Though the MacBook Pro weighs in at 5.4 pounds compared to the MacBook's 5.0 pounds that nearly half pound difference feels like a lot more. Finally the width and depth are about an inch larger on each edge for the Pro.

The display on the MacBook Pro is excellent and for me the main reason for the upgrade. At 1440 x 900 I get 26% more screen real estate than on the MacBook, which is actually pretty substantial for such a nominal increase in the size of the machine. The display is a bit brighter on the MacBook Pro too.

Before doing too much I ended up swapping the after-market memory I had placed in the MacBook (4GB) with what was in the MacBook Pro (2GB). That swap was very simple; 3 tiny philips #0 screws on each machine and about 3 minutes of work and each machine was being powered back up without any issues.

My initial impression of the MacBook Pro was not too good though. After firing it up and letting it charge up I started the process of installing my applications on it. At first I tried the Migration Assistant but decided that I really didn't want everything transfered over from my MacBook to the new MB Pro. Since the MacBook was my first Mac I had a lot of "software experiments" on it and I figured I'd just be selective.

One of the first things I installed was iStat menu so that I could monitor the machine as I put it through it's paces. It was a good thing I did because the temperature gauge came in handy.

The MacBook is One Hot Computer
While busily copying files over to the MB Pro I noticed that the case was getting pretty warm, especially under my left palm. After a little while it became more than just warm and was flat out hot, with heated air blasting out of the left speaker grill like a mini-furnace.

I went online and did some research and found hundreds of complaints about the heat that is generated by a MB Pro. I read many cases of people going to Apple to complain about the heat generated by the machines and being told that it was within specification. My little MacBook would get warm when I pushed it hard for an extended period of time but that wasn't too often. In addition the heat was always routed out the rear edge of the case, right at the base of the display. The front area where I rested my palms was never an issue on the MacBook.

I also found more than one instance of Apple personnel telling people that the MacBook Pro is not considered a laptop computer; it's a notebook. What's the difference? A laptop can rest on your lap and be used, a notebook apparently requires a desk under it. Given the heat that the MB Pro was generating for me the only way this thing was going to get parked on my legs was if I was suffering from hypothermia.

Though I don't do it often, I do occasionally like to take my MacBook off the desk and plant it on my lap while watching TV with my wife. The heat that it generated was just not acceptable for the way I wanted to use the machine.

I ended up doing a little father's day shopping and found the Belkin Laptop Cooling Pad at my local Costco for $20. It not only allows you to comfortably rest the MacBook Pro on your legs without sautéing your skin it also has a little USB powered fan the pushes cool air up at the bottom of the machine, helping it stay considerably cooler according to iStat menu. At least now I had a decent solution to my little heating problem.

I used the Belkin cooling pad for several hours yesterday and it does work quite well. The only challenge is that a lot of the spontaneity of simply grabbing the machine off the desk is lost when I also have to reach for the cooling pad at the same time. For people that work for many hours with their notebook computer on their lap this is a great little device though.

Now that I've been running the machine for a little over 24 hours I've noticed that the heat has dissipated to a large degree. The machine still gets warm mind you, especially on the left side, but nowhere near the mini kiln that it felt like initially.

If the machine is running quietly for a while with minimum CPU usage I am seeing the core CPU temperature hover at about 51° Celsius. If I let it run at about 15% CPU utilization for a couple of minutes the CPU temperature pops up into the 63° Celsius range and the keyboard gets a little warm but not uncomfortably so. I'll be monitoring this very closely over the next couple of days.

Keyboard / Trackpad Differences
The two machines have the same basic keyboard layout, the only difference being that the MacBook Pro has two additional dedicated function keys for Dimming and Brightening the backlit keyboard (F5 & F6). Since I had been using F5 as my Spaces key I had to find another shortcut for that. The backlit keyboard function is pretty handy, illuminating the entire keyboard when the lighting conditions warrant it. I imagine this would be very handy while trying to use the machine at night on an aircraft, assuming you have the seat room to really use the machine effectively.

The other difference is that the keys themselves are more like a traditional laptop or desktop keyboard; both my MacBook and aluminum keyboard on my Mac Pro have the same "chicklet" style layout with smaller flat buttons that have a slight separation between each key. Since the physical arrangement is identical there is no real adjustment, though using the countered keys on the MacBook Pro is actually quite nice.

Finally the trackpad on the MacBook Pro has a few more options than my MacBook did. While the MacBook's trackpad supported two finger scrolling and right click emulation, the MacBook Pro adds pinch and expand, rotate, swipe and additional tapping support.

Looking Ahead
When I asked the Apple store folks whether I could replace the hard drive myself and still keep the warranty valid the answer was no. If I wanted to swap out the hard drive I would need to use an Apple authorized service center; the store in Tysons Corner, VA does not offer that service. They told me that if I did have the hard drive replaced properly then everything would be covered under warranty except the new hard drive.

I'm going to see how well the 200GB drive I have holds up for now. I've still got a lot of free space left right now and as long as I keep my video footage over on the Mac Pro and limit myself to a subset of my music and digital photo collections I should be perfectly fine.

When the 320GB / 7200RPM drives become available I'll see what it would cost to get an authorized dealer to install one. If it's not too bad then I may go that route. I'm also adopting a wait and see attitude on the heat issue. I'm not sure if this is just something you live with on MacBook Pros or if my machine has an issue that I'll need a Genius to take a look at.

Intimidating people with a Macintosh

Perspective is a funny thing. Here I have happily become a heavy Mac user, thoroughly enjoying my transition from Windows and encouraging friends and family members to consider a Mac when the computer conversations come up, often saying that Macs are so easy to use. As is evidenced by the volume of blog posts I've made on the subject of Macintosh, I clearly feel that everyone is entitled to my opinion, elation and angst.

Earlier this week a good friend of mine—one that is highly technical—told me that his old Windows laptop was dying and that he needed to get a new machine soon. His wife has an iMac and he's played around on it a bit but he never gave me the impression that he was really interested in trying out a Mac as his primary machine. I of course brought up the idea that maybe he should look at a MacBook or MacBook Pro. His response was quite amusing:

"Frankly Dave I'm a bit intimidated by the Mac. I read your blog and it seems like there is so much to learn."

This from one of the smarter people I know too! But Macs are so easy, how could anyone be intimidated? I then realized that for people that are considering a switch to Mac and encounter me or my blog at this point in my adoption it can be a bit overwhelming. Having all of this transition information in one place may indeed seem like there is a lot to learn.

In the event you are considering a switch to Mac from Windows and come across my blog, don't be intimidated by what you see. I talk about everything I learn because I'm a techie geek and I enjoy sharing anything of value that I find, whether it's a feature, tip or piece of software. There are some challenges to be sure but they tend to be relatively minor for most people. 

The reason I like using Macs is that I get a nice, clean and highly useable system right out of the box. For the average person a home computer is used for e-mail, web browsing, digital picture management and home video tasks. Those chores are straightforward and simple on a Mac and can be handled right after powering it up the first time. The only additional software a non-power user has to consider is a word processing, spreadsheet and presentation package and there you can choose between Microsoft Office for Mac, iWork from Apple or go the free route with something like NeoOffice for Mac. The vast majority of users can get by on that and be perfectly happy and unintimidated.

The reason I love using Macs is that when I decided to dig a little deeper I found a tremendous amount of depth to the platform. I could extend and customize my machine in ways that made me highly productive and satiated that techie fire I have for learning and exploring.

The bottom line is that Macs are not intimidating once you get past the basics of UI navigation and controls; it takes a couple of weeks of adjustment, a little longer if you are still using Windows at the same time because they are slightly different.

As for me I'm still seeing how deep this rabbit hole goes. I'm leaving a well marked trail though so you can always catch up later if you want to. No need to feel intimidated!

The monster is back and wants my MacBook

Not long ago I wrote about how I had created a monster with my youngest child, the soon to be 13 year old and very computer savvy little girl that would like me to get her a Mac. With my primary Windows machine on the way out she began to pounce. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, she knew that some funds were being freed up and that this was a good time to push for her getting a MacBook for her birthday next month.

"Daddy, you keep telling me how great your Macs are but I have to use this old Dell. Are you trying to torture me?"

"So Daddy, can I get your MacBook if you get a new MacBook Pro?"

"You know Daddy, if I get a MacBook I'll stop bothering you"

She can reel these off, one after the other, barely pausing to take a breath. Forget water-boarding as a means to extract information from people, just point a pre-teen girl at them and ask her to start with the questions. Still, other than the nagging she is a really great kid. She gets excellent grades and is a very responsible young lady—I couldn't be more proud of her. I also love that fact that she is into computers so I think it's time I came through for her and gave her my MacBook and picked up a MacBook Pro for myself.

I'm even going to pretend it was my idea and not hers.

Looking at the MacBook Pro
If I had to pick one thing that I would change on my MacBook it would be the size of the display. While it's fine for most things I really would like to be able to do my development work on it more easily and a higher resolution would help tremendously. For now I use Spaces and Exposé though ideally I want three windows open and visible at the same time: TextMate, Terminal and Firefox. Viewing the source code in a reasonably sized text editor, running my web application in Firefox and watching the results from the console at the same time are often important.

When I was at the Apple store earlier in the week I tried out both the 15" and 17" MacBook Pros. The 17" MacBook Pro is gorgeous, though it's a bit large for what I need. Since I already have a Mac Pro as my primary desktop the MacBook is really a travel machine. The 15" version seemed like the right compromise between size and screen resolution.

Of the two available I will be going with the 2.4GHz version - I can't justify the money for the 2.5GHz version. With the details out of the way I'm going to pull the trigger as soon as the funds come in from the sale of the Windows XP machine, maybe as soon as this weekend. I don't know who's more excited, me or my daughter.

On to the Questions
Since many of the folks that read this blog are much more knowledgeable than I on Macs I could use a little help. First off I would like to move the 320GB hard drive from the MacBook to the MacBook Pro. Can I literally just swap them out or does it require a full reinstall of OS X on each machine for it to work properly? My gut feel is to just reformat / reinstall OS X and my applications, then restore my data from backups.

Replacing the hard drive on a MacBook is incredibly simple. Is the same true on a 15" MacBook Pro?

I bumped the memory in the MacBook up to 4GB. Can I swap the memory between the MacBook and MacBook Pro? Do they use the same RAM?

Anything else I should know or be concerned with before getting the MacBook Pro? I really appreciate any advice offered here folks. Thanks in advance!

PS - My daughter thanks you too.

Going back to Windows is really tough

In the brief time that's passed since I completely switched to Mac from Windows I have barely powered up my primary Windows machine. My Mac Pro gets the majority of my attention and since I'm doing my development work in Ruby on Rails now I haven't even had to fire up Windows in a VM very often. The MacBook fills in the rest of my time—usually travel or meetings—with the Ubuntu machine performing some server related tasks (Subversion server and MySQL mostly).

Rather than have an extremely expensive piece of hardware sitting around and depreciating every day I decided to sell it while it still has some value. A buddy of mine on one of the gaming networks I belong to offered to buy it and yesterday I went about the process of cleaning out the machine. Since you can't really sanitize an existing Windows install the best thing to do is just reinstall/reformat Windows XP.

I spent 17 years on Windows so I know my way around, especially when dealing with arcane driver and registry issues and the inevitable errors. Why was it then that I felt like a stranger in a strange land on the machine? I was only a month and a half removed from daily Windows use. My precious Mac keyboard shortcuts didn't work and the navigation controls I struggled with initially on Mac were now ingrained into my muscle memory.

More than once in prepping the machine and ensuring that everything of value was moved off I would just jab at Command-Space (Alt-Space on the Windows keyboard), expecting QuickSilver to launch so that I could get to a program quickly. Nothing happened of course and I would sigh, my shoulders would sag and I would reluctantly grab the mouse. I tried to do simple things like copying text to the clipboard and fail (Command-C on Mac, Control-C on Windows). 

I had to open a CMD window and execute several instructions to manually register some DLLs; I reluctantly remembered that I had to go through the little CMD menu in order to paste items. On my Mac when I need to paste a string into the terminal I use the standard Command-V; Windows can't use their default Control-V command in a CMD window because the Control modified keys have significance to command line applications. It's just a mess.

All of these little things were just a frustration to me. When I was going through the transition from Windows to Mac it was easier because I had a feeling that the Mac was something I wanted to spend time on. From the minute I fired up the MacBook I was excited about using the machine; it had me at hello. On the other hand with Windows I know that I'm not going to be using it any time soon so I'm far less tolerant of things not working the way I except them to. It is a mindset thing to be sure.

I am very fortunate; as an entrepreneur and business owner I have the luxury of choosing which technologies I want to use. Since my move to Mac happened to coincide with the creation of my next venture I was able to make a clean start and not be concerned with legacy issues, especially since I opted to go with platform independent development tools.  Outside of their homes few people have that choice.

I am going to box up the Windows machine in preparation for shipping. I rotated machines pretty regularly so I don't hold a particular affection for the physical machine I'm about to send off. I do however feel like I'm sealing a big part of my Windows experience into the box and shipping that off too though.

Who knows, maybe I'll rediscover Windows in 17 years or so.

We are Apple - a blast from the past

Though I have only been heavily into Mac for about 4 months now I actually have owned a Mac in the past. In late 1983 and early 1984 I worked at an authorized Apple computer store while preparing to drop out of junior college, selling PCs and Apple computers. I was as excited as anyone when the Mac came out and since I worked for an authorized reseller I was able to obtain a Mac at a heavily discounted price. As I recall I paid $2,300 for a 128K Mac and an ImageWriter dot matrix printer. That price also included a big padded carrying case for the Mac.

There was little software available though because we were resellers Apple also included MacPaint and MacWrite. With little to do I amused myself endlessly by grabbing my past coursework from school and creating reports that I could have turned in had I had the Mac when I was still in college. The game changer was just a tad late for my academic career. I ended up getting rid of the Mac a short while later when I landed my first gig writing DOS based applications, then spent the next 24 years in the world of DOS and Windows.

I tell you this little story to set up the video I found yesterday while looking for coverage of the Apple WWDC. Presented at the beginning of 1984 with the release of Mac, I watched this video and was taken back to the time of big hair, alligator shirts with turned up collars and shameless rip offs of the Flashdance song. When you watch this video you will be hard pressed to connect it with the same company that now creates the slick video presentations we see today.

Put on your Way-Back glasses and check out this gem:


Of particular note is the point at marker 2:47 when the guy walks into the office building with a Lisa slung under his arm as though it's a portable.

To quote Irene Cara: What a feeling.

The case of the repaired MacBook case

As I mentioned in yesterday's post my MacBook's palm rest had cracked in an area where this apparently happens quite often. Since the MacBook is only 4 months old (though I have AppleCare just in case) I assumed this would be covered under warranty; it was.

I went to the Apple web site and made an appointment - my local Apple store in Tysons, VA is usually quite busy all the time. I brought it in at noon EST today and, as usual, the place was packed. The Mac Genius I spoke to (Rob) was about as friendly and knowledgeable as you get. He asked a few questions about the MacBook and when I explained to him that I just did a Time Machine backup right before coming in he high-fived me for using Time Machine. Just a real upbeat guy - it was a good customer experience and it was nice to see someone that clearly loved what he does.

When I asked him why this was happening he said that the magnets they use in the lid to keep it closed were too strong and that they created too much pressure on the edge of the case, causing the cracking.  He said they would need to replace the top-cover, that they had them in stock and fortunately they would be able to get it down within an hour.

I headed off to my lunch appointment and about an hour in the Apple store called to tell me the machine was ready. I inspected the machine - there was a new top plate replacing the cracked one. It seemed to have a slightly different texture than mine.

When I asked if this could happen again the person at the counter went back to talk to the technicians and returned to tell me that the new palm rests were made of a different material that should eliminate that from happening again. If you look at the before and after pictures above you will note that the repaired version sits a little more flush than the previous one.

Not wanting to leave this to chance I went on Amazon and ordered a Macally Protection Shell for my MacBook based on the recommendation I received here. It should arrive in a couple of days.
Though my MacBook is under the care of a three year warranty the hassle of driving all the way to the Apple store (especially at $4+ per gallon) is not something I look forward to.

The nice experience I received at the Apple store has helped assuage the frustration I felt when my new machine started cracking, though I'm still a bit disappointed. I've had several friends tell me that they have the same problem on their MacBooks but they are out of warranty so they are out of luck. I personally think that since this is a design defect—not an abuse issue—that Apple should repair these even if they are out of warranty.

I do find myself holding Apple to a slightly higher standard than I would say HP or Microsoft. Part of this is because I am getting everything from one vendor; no finger pointing that it's the fault of the OS, a driver or the hardware vendor. But the main reason I take Apple to task is that I do believe that Macs are outstanding devices. 

The few problems I've had stand out in glaring contrast to what otherwise has been an outstanding experience.

The case of the cracked MacBook case

I've had my MacBook for a total of 4 months now and have generally loved the little machine, so much so that I switched to Mac completely, dropping Windows and buying a Mac Pro. There has however been one problem that has cropped up recently that is rather frustrating. The front of the MacBook palm rest area has developed a hair-line crack in it.

I treat this machine quite well and am very careful with it so the fact that it cracked after just four months of ownership is pretty disappointing. When I say I treat it well I mean "kid gloves" well. I've never dropped the machine or even handled it roughly. I gently open and close the lid, careful not to let it slam shut. If I take it anywhere it is immediately placed into a snug black neoprene Incase sleeve. Travel means the MacBook is first placed inside the Incase sleeve and then placed inside a padded laptop briefcase. Kid gloves.

My oldest daughter's MacBook on the other hand has developed no such crack, even though it is 7 months older and treated with a tiny fraction of the care mine receives. Hers has a large decal on the shell and makeup stains from residing in her cramped college dorm room. When it's not laying around on a couch or coffee table it is crammed into a large bag with enough female products to go camping for several weeks. Yet hers is fine.

I did a little research on the interwebs and sure enough a large number of people have experienced the same exact problem I have. It even got so bad that Fake Steve Jobs put up a note about it in December.

Not pleased about this I called up Apple Care. The gentleman told me that I could either take the machine to a nearby Apple store for repair or they would send out a box so that I could pack up my precious machine, ship it to them for repair, then they would send it back to me. Since I have an Apple store about 30 minutes away that was my preferred method.

The earliest I can get to the Apple Care store is Monday so this will have to wait until then; I'll add information on this as I go. When I put up a post in April about how to clean a MacBook case with Mr. Clean Magic Erasers Charles mentioned in the comments that the top of the case may be one of the "problem" ones that were not varnished properly. Hopefully when this is repaired it will address the fact that the palm rests gets dirty so easily too. 

In the meantime I will be using a machine that sharply pokes right into underside of my wrist as I type. 

Ouch.

Update: Check out this Flickr group dedicated to MacBook case cracks.

Power off or sleep at night?

I have always simply left my computers on at night, not bothering to power them down since the power management on my machines usually kicked in and turned off the displays. Having spent so many years on the Windows platform with machines that took a tremendously long time to boot up I was simply used to leaving machines on all of the time.  As a software developer—and one that for the last 10 years has created web server applications—I have adopted an always on, server kind of mentality.

There was that accessibility factor—I wanted my machines to be there when I need them, available the second I walk up while I have someone on the phone asking me a question that can only be answered online. Not "Hold on while I pull this up..." and then sitting there for a couple of minutes while the machine fired up. Having built and maintained online service businesses in the past I always needed instant access in the event there was a problem with our servers.

My switch to Mac changed that to a large degree. Macs go to sleep nearly instantly and wake up just as fast. Other than the network connection re-synching—which takes a few seconds—the machine is ready to go.

Energy costs and conservation are dominating the news lately so I also became curious about the impact of leaving my machine on all night long. Was it drawing that much energy? How much did that cost?

With the recent acquisition of an APC UPS I now had some additional data available to me via the LCD on the front of the unit. Among other things was how much power is actually being drawn through the unit, giving a pretty good picture of my Mac Pro's overall energy footprint.

I grabbed our most recent power bill to look up my rates. The most expensive months for power in my area are June through September when people are running their air conditioners full time. The rate is $0.0747 per kWh, compared with a $0.0590 per kWh rate for the remainder of the year.

Some Interesting Data
With all of the information available on the LCD display of the APC unit I tried viewing the power draw from the Mac Pro, both at near idle and under reasonable load. Keeping in mind that my Mac Pro is the latest generation version with dual quad-core 2.8GHz processors, 3 internal hard drives and two 20" LCDs attached, here's what I found:

 Watts UsedBattery LoadTime on Battery
On and Idle 20723%22 minutes
Medium CPU Usage, HD activity 28032%16 minutes
Idle, Monitors Off15017%31 minutes
Sleep Mode00%785 minutes

In sleep mode the Mac Pro draws so little power it didn't even register on the APC. 

Since normally I was leaving my machine in Idle mode with the monitors auto-sleeping I was burning 150W for the 6-7 hours I slept at night. Yes, I know, I'm on the computer a bit too much. Realistically I am completely away from my machine and not requiring it to be active for about 12 hours a day. So what does that translate into?

12 X .150kW = 1.8kWh * $0.0747 = $0.13 per day or $4.09 per month during the summer.

For me, from a purely economic standpoint, the $4 per month in savings is not all that much. A value meal at Taco Bell? A gallon of gasoline (soon to be half a gallon)? What does bother me is the environmental impact of having the machine on and at full power all the time. It seems as wasteful as keeping a couple of 75W light bulbs burning on throughout the night in case I might need some light.

Though OS X has some great power scheduling options I've found that my erratic work hours doesn't lend itself to a schedule so now I'm just getting into the habit of letting my Macs sleep when I'm not in front of them.

Finding and setting up a UPS for a Mac

With summer weather fast approaching on the east coast I decided it was time to get a new Battery Backup device (aka UPS) for my Mac Pro. This decision was hastened by my experience a couple of days ago when the power dropped during a thunderstorm and my Mac Pro—unable to communicate with my Tripp Lite UPS—dropped from lack of power.

To my surprise I found through comments on my blog that OS X has built in UPS support, though just not with the older Tripp Lite I owned. I also got a few comments from folks on the blog and in e-mails recommending a couple of different Battery Backups and I did some more research on the topic. Though several vendors have products in this space APC seemed to consistently bubble to the top, both in end user ratings on sites like Newegg and with editorial reviews. I had owned APC units in the past and had very good luck with them.

APC even has a great tool for determining which UPS class is best based on your power needs. Armed with this knowledge I decided that I really wanted a 1500VA / 865Watts class device. According to everything I read this gave me more than enough capacity to get through 5 to 10 minute long outages and continue to work, even while running the quad core Mac Pro with dual 20" LCDs. If the power went out while I was away then the APC would be able to tell the Mac when the batteries were in a low state and perform a graceful shutdown.

The number of options from APC is staggering so once I determined the rating I wanted I looked for price points and availability. I targeted a $200 price point and found that my local Best Buy had the BX 1500 LCD in stock for $199. Newegg was a bit cheaper but when I added in shipping costs and the delay in getting it my local store was a better option.

The BX 1500 LCD is a pretty large UPS, weighing in at a healthy 30 pounds. It has a bright red LCD up front that can cycle through some basic stats on the health of the device and even the power draw from devices attached to it.

On the back are 6 battery backed outlets with surge protection and 2 that only offer surge protection.  Two of the battery backed outlets are spaced in such a way that you can fit the larger adaptors favored by peripheral devices like cable modems and external hard drives.

Lately my area has been experiencing some power fluctuations; this UPS has a technology called Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR) that reportedly will help during those times. 

My UPS came out of the box fully charged; all I needed to do was open the case, connect up the leads for the battery and it was ready to go. It also came with a little "Data Port" connector and cable so that it could talk to the Mac Pro. This is a non-standard USB cable with normal USB connector on the computer side and an RJ45 connector on the UPS side.

The downside to the BX1500LCD is that APC does not offer replacement batteries for it right now. The batteries are designed to last for about 3 years. I did a little hunting around and found an aftermarket vendor named Arizona Batteries that claims to sell replacement batteries for it. APC also has a trade-UPS program where you can turn in your existing APC UPS and get 35% off the retails price from them, though shipping on such a heavy item may be a factor.

The Software Side
Once everything was plugged in and the Mac Pro fired up I saw that a new icon had appeared in my menu bar:

The only thing that was a little odd was that the indicator on the menu didn't know how much time I had left on the battery, though it could tell me what percentage of charge I had remaining. If the power drops then the menu bar icon changes and then was able to tell me either what percentage of battery power was remaining or how much time I had left on the batteries.

When I opened preferences I could now choose between settings for the Power Adaptor or UPS.

Of the three settings the one that seemed most useful was shutting down when the time left on the UPS was X minutes; I set mine to 3 minutes, figuring that would be plenty of time to close everything up and leave a little room to spare, yet allow me to work for a bit if I wanted to keep going.

PowerChute Personal Edition 1.3.4
APC actually ships some native OS X software with the system called PowerChute Personal Edition. It is a plugin that gets added to your preferences panel. I decided to try it out and see if it would add anything that I didn't have with the native OS X features. It did not. I would not recommend installing it.

Time to Test
A Battery Backup is really easy to test; just pull the plug on it and see what happens. First off, there is an audible alarm on the UPS and another on the Mac. The two fans on the UPS suddenly started running - something they don't do when under regular power. A large warning window pops up on the Mac and tells you that you are now running on battery and to save your work.

The indicator in the menu bar changes and now is able to tell how much power is left in the batteries as a percentage as well as how many minutes it thinks you have. Though there was no load on the machine it immediately dropped to 17 minutes of predicted run time.

I didn't push it too hard, putting it back on power after a few minutes. Even though it was only off power for about 2 minutes it took a full 15 minutes to recharge to full strength.  A fully depleted battery should take about 16 hours to recharge.

Though this is a rather long article for something as simple as a UPS it really was very easy to install and I'm really pleased that OS X was able to recognize it without having to install any additional software. If you plug your computer into a cheap little power strip today you should seriously consider getting even a minimalist UPS because of the surge protection it affords.

Many thanks to the folks that commented on this blog and directly to me in e-mail about which UPS to go with.