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Desktop Clutter: How Hazel can clean things up automatically

Posted on by Mike Evans

I've been using Hazel's automated features for years but I am the first to admit that I merely scratch the surface of this deeply capable application. So I was all eyes when I saw that Harry Guinness at Tutsplus has produced a detailed guide to getting Hazel to tidy up my the desktop of my Mac. As he says:

Hazel is a great app for automating file management in OS X. You can assign certain folders for Hazel to watch and then perform specific actions if the files within meet set criteria. Hazel can automatically put videos in the Movies folder and audio tracks in the Music folder. It can also, as you’ll see, do a whole lot more. In this tutorial I’ll demonstrate how to create the ultimate workflow for keeping a Mac clutter free—or at the very least, keeping the clutter organised—using Hazel and a dedicated Inbox.

Armed with Harry's step-by-step instructions I shall be commanding Hazel over the Christmas holidays and hope to start 2015 with a pristine, uncluttered desktop. I plan to make just one tweak to Harry's sage advice. Instead of putting the Inbox in my computer's user folder I will place it in Dropbox. I keep all my current data on Dropbox so that it is available wherever I am and on either of my two Macs (MacBook Pro and MacBook Air). 

Read the full guide to uncluttering your desktop here

If you are not already familiar with Hazel, try this guide first

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Cinema Display: When can we expect a 5K external display?

Posted on by Mike Evans

My 24in Apple Cinema Display is well past its sell-by date. It soldiers on, with no Thunderbolt port and old-fashioned USB 2 connectors, but I have long wanted to upgrade. The arrival of the 5K iMac looks like a good starting point for the development of a really scintillating 5K display to go with the new Mac Pro and with the range of Apple laptops. But, for very good technical reasons, such an external display is a long way away.

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iPad Air & iMac 5K: New toys, new decisions, more cash to spend

Posted on by Mike Evans

The Apple event last week had been widely trailered and it was no surprise to find new iPads and a new iMac. I was disappointed not to find the rumoured retina-screen MacBook Air making an appearance nor, for that matter, any upgrades to the laptop range in general. This rather puts on hold my strategy of replacing my 15in MacBook Pro retina in the near future. 

Seductive display

The new 27in iMac was a pleasant surprise. I was immediately seduced by that gorgeous 5K retina display. Having previously stated that I would never again buy an iMac (a great display to last five years trapped in a body that will be out of date in two) I felt my resolve weakening. I can just imagine this beast on my desk and I am sure I would love the resolution, especially for my photographic work. The problem is, this becomes a very expensive computer when tricked out to my satisfaction. Add the 4.0 GHz quad-core i7, 32GB of memory, a 1TB SSD drive and a few other fripperies and the bill comes to an eye-watering £3,500. This is very much in MacPro territory but, of course, you do get that wonderful 27in retina display thrown in. And if you follow Marco Arment's suggested specification you could shave off a few hundred pounds without serious compromise.

There is still a big snag. After two years the computing bits will be looking ancient but the magnificent screen will easily last another three or even five years. So, again, I have to ask myself if this is the right choice. Had Apple had introduced a retina-display Cinema Display at the same time I would have snapped one up in an instant. It is what I have been waiting for for several years. I understand, however, that a new 5K display would not play well with any other current Mac, including the latest MacBook Pros, so that is probably the principal reason the Cinema Display has again been neglected. It's a pity, though, because it would be the perfect answer for many users who prefer to keep their computing power up to date and don't want to have to lose a display every time there's an upgrade. On the contrary, it would be possible to use the new 27in iMac as a monitor in conjunction with a new generation of Macs a couple of years into the future. On that basis the iMac seems more justifiable.

Faced with these choices, my decision is to sit on the fence a few more months. If in doubt, do nothing is very wise advice.

iPad choice

The new iPads don't demand as much thought. Last year I chose to go with the retina-screen mini in preference to the iPad Air. In the meantime, along came the iPhone 6 Plus which, although not an iPad, is sufficiently large to be a daily carry-around device for casual productivity work. After a few weeks with the 6 Plus I no longer want to carry the iPad mini. And if I don't need to carry it, why not get an iPad Air 2? 

That's the logical plan. My mini is up for sale at Amazon and I will be buying one of the new iPad Air 2 models, primarly as a house device for reading magazines and browsing. It is also something I can pack when I know I am going to be doing lots of writing or editing while on the move.

The thinner, lighter and much faster iPad Air 2 offers a great excuse to upgrade. In addition, I am fascinated by Apple's new built-in SIM card and can't wait to try it out. I now see ultimate freedom from these annoying bits of plastic that are so easily lost. Federico Vittici has produced a masterful overview of the new iPads on Macstories and I recommend a browse if you are in the market for one of these svelte newcomers.

With the introduction of the Air 2 and the iPhone 6 Plus, the poor mini is squeezed. As far as I am concerned, it has almost lost its raison d'être.

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Apple's Cinderella Cinema Display: Will it ever be updated?

Posted on by Mike Evans

Lots of rumours about tomorrow's Apple event, mainly concerning the new iPad Air and the possibility of a retina-display 27in iMac. But there is one product that never seems to get the glass slipper treatment: Apple's ageing Thunderbolt Cinema Display. My 24in Cinema Display has done sterling work for over six years. I wanted to upgrade to the Thunderbolt version but have not done so because, for some unfathomable reason, it still supports only USB 2. 

 

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Water damage: Apple comforts closeted readers

Posted on by Mike Evans

I used to have a colleague who repeatedly dropped his electronic devices (mostly pagers in those days) into the toilet. Rumour has it that many iPhones have disappeared down the pan in the same way and, I suppose, there's a certain risk to being in a state of undress with one's pockets vulnerable to slippage. Now, if Apple Insider is to be believed, water babies are to receive some belated comfort from Apple. Following a change to its Reuse and Recycling Program small print, Apple could be tempted to allow water-sodden devices to be traded in at a suitable discount. This applies not just to portable devices that fit in the drain but also to Macs, always vulerable to the odd drop of coffee. I hope I don't need the service but it is encouraging that Apple is at least showing some concern for the clumsy clogs among us.

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iPad Air: Powerful computing simplified

Posted on by Mike Evans

Ben Bajarin writing about the iPad Air: "The iPad is not computing dumbed down; it is powerful computing simplified."

The iPad, iOS and the entire ecosystem of over 470,000 iPad apps all built with a touch interface are simply easier to use, less intimidating, and often more empowering than many apps that exist only on notebooks and desktops. My kids use the iPad to play games, read, create movies, make music, paint and draw, and a host of other things they would never be able to do on a PC with its mouse and keyboard input. The iPad is not computing dumbed down; it is powerful computing simplified. And simple solutions require sophisticated technology. That is exactly what the iPad and the new iPad Air is–powerful computing. For many consumers the iPad Air will be the most empowering personal computer they have ever owned.

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Feed Wrangler: Day 1 trial

Posted on by Mike Evans

 The iPad app's "wrangle" view which makes it easy to skim through headlines and send to Instapaper. The lack of folders for feed categorisation is my only complaint

The iPad app's "wrangle" view which makes it easy to skim through headlines and send to Instapaper. The lack of folders for feed categorisation is my only complaint

In seven days Google pulls the plug on its popular Google Reader service, the feed aggregator that acts as the backend for most of our popular reading apps such as Reeder and Mr.Reader. Several new aggregators have been announced, including a new offering from AOL, but there isn't one that gives us everything we are used to.

Not wishing to be caught with my pants down on July 1, I have just signed up for a one-year subscription to Feed Wrangler which has been highly recommended by Federico Viticci of Macstories. Based on this respected opinion, I thought I would take a flier. I have fourteen days in which to reclaim my $19 from Feed Wrangler if I don't like it.

Before turning to Feed Wrangler I opened accounts with Feedly and AOL, just to see how they worked. Both had quite impressive UIs but, for some reason, all I could achieve was a link to my existing Google Reader account. AOL, as usual, was intrusive, asking all sorts of personal details and forcing me to sign up for a "screen name." I thought I had heard the last of that over ten years ago, so I was not impressed. Maybe I missed something, but I was unable to run either system independently of GR.

Signing up

Meanwhile, I signed up to Feed Wrangler yesterday and have had only 24 hours to play. I was impressed by the ease of set up and I quite like the minimalist approach to both the web view (a Mac app is due soon) and the free iPhone/iPad apps. There is one disappointment for me. Unlike other systems I tried (such as Feedly, AOL and existing apps such as Reeder), Feed Wrangler does not import Google Reader groups and there appears to be no way of sorting the long, muddled list of feeds that appears as soon as you input your Google credentials. Again, I imagine this is something that will be added later.

Up to now I have been obsessing about finding an aggregator that would sync with Reeder. I use Reeder apps on Mac and both my iOS devices. They have an excellent interface and an impressive list of features. As a result, in common with most users, I never accessed GR direct and relied entirely on supplementary reader apps for browsing articles and sending read-later stuff to Instapaper

I am now rethinking that. All I do in Reeder, for instance, is scan headlines, occasionally viewing the web version of a story that grabs my immediate attention, but mostly I just send interesting items direct to Instapaper. If you want only these functions, Feed Wranger excels. There is a big "I" for Instapaper button in the web view and both iOS versions have a "wrangle" view which presents headlines alongisde the Instapaper button. It couldn't be simpler and I begin to wonder why I need an intermediary between the feed aggregator and Instapaper.

This morning was my first serious session dealing with the overnight news in one spot. Despite all my feeds, technology, news and photography being thrown into one list, I got through the task with no problems and found it quicker than I have been used to when using Reeder. In fact, I suspected I was missing some feeds so went back to Reeder, checked to see if there was anything I had missed, then back to Feed Wrangler to go through feeds one by one. Nothing was missing and all the feeds were working. It just appears to do the job in a quicker and more productive way.

Feed Wranger is very minimalist. There are no alternative views such as you are offered in Reeder, Feedly or AOL. Other apps offer tiling, headlines with summaries and other ways of viewing the feeds. FW offers a list of headlines and, when an item is selected, an excellent text view with options to email the article or share on social sites. This is enough for me, although I could imagine some power users feeling limited.

Feed Wrangler does offer filters and "smart streams" to permit a level of customisation but so far I have not explored further.

Off the bandwagon

At the very least, I am now off the Google Reader bandwagon and I do not have to panic at the last minute. Whether or not I have found my true home with Feed Wrangler remains to be seen; but it is certainly promising and does almost everything I want. The lack of a rigid folder¹ structure for categorising my feeds is the only thing I miss.

Before I commit, though, I am keen to try the new Digg Reader which is currently in beta. Since it issues from Betaworks, the new owners of Instapaper, there could be opportunity for more advanced integration between the two.

In the past Google has given little attention to Google Reader and has been content to offer a basic web interface and leave independent apps such as Reader to cream off the market for processing. Now we have more pro-active aggregators such as Feed Wranger and Digg in play, it is quite possible that there will be no room for intermediary apps. It makes sense, particularly for me when I analyse my daily workflow.


¹ Having explored the Smart Stream facility I now realise this can be used in place of a folder structure and, in some ways, is more powerful and satisfactory. I will report further on my experiences later.

Shortly after publishing this article I read that Oliver Fürniß's popular Mr Reader app for iPad is supporting Feed Wrangler. Mr Reader was always my choice the the iPad but because there is no iPhone companion or desktop version I tended towards Reader in recent months. 

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Cutting the clutter on iPhones and iPads

Posted on by Mike Evans

Confined to barracks because of an unusually heavy snow fall, I started working through some of the hint and tips I have stored for a rainy (or snowy) day. One such gem was PhoneClean which I found on the insanelyi blog. It is a simple but effective Mac or Windows application that will ferret out redundant files on any iOS device. It looks at temporary and junk files, caches and off-line stuff, cookie and script files and any orphaned sync-failed media.

Simply install the free application to your Mac or PC from imobile.com and then plug in your iDevice using the sync cable. PhoneClean analyses the storage, recommends files for deletion and then cleans up the disk. As you see, I saved just under 500MB on my iPhone and I reckon it's worth running this utility monthly to keep things nice and tidy.

PhoneClean.jpg

Results on the iPad mini were even better. I found that the applications for The Times and The Sunday Times had between them squirrelled away around 1GB of cache files. Now they are all gone and, in total, I cleared 1.58GB from the iPad. If you are using a basic 16GB phone or tablet, this app is essential.

by Mike Evans, 20 January 2013

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Apple products in 2013 crystal ball

Posted on by Mike Evans

I'm not one for rumours and prefer to wait until something actually happens. But all of us turn our minds occasionally to the next update to a favourite device, whether Mac, iPad or iPhone. This week respected forecaster, Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities as given us his view of what we might expect in 2013.

Source: KGI Securities

It makes interesting reading. In particular, he discounts the many rumours of a second-generation iPad mini coming in March. This didn't make a lot of sense to me and it is much more logical that the iPad updates, along with a revised iPhone will come instead in the third quarter.

At some stage in the next year I am in the market for a 15in Retina MacBook Pro, primarily as a deskbound machine but also for travel on longer trips. I was tempted to buy one last week but I think it is sensible to wait for the upgrade, even if it is going to be over six months away.

by Mike Evans, 16 January 2013

Via Apple Insider

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Smaller iPad must be its own tablet

Posted on by Mike Evans

Tomorrow's Apple event is shaping up to be a blockbuster. In addition to the smaller iPad we are promised new iMacs, a 13in retina MacBook Pro and a revised iPad with Lightning dock connector. The latter makes sense as Apple moves away, as soon as it decently can, from the cumbersome 30-pin plug. It's best to migrate everthing and get any quibbling over and done with. The Lightning is simply a better connector.

Attention is focused on the smaller, 7.85in iPad. There has been talk of it being a slightly dumbed-down and cheaper alternative to the existing 9.7in model, the implication being that it is for people who cannot afford a proper tablet. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian suggested there would be no 3G version to avoid too much cannibalisation of iPad Maxi sales.

Any such dumbing down would be a big mistake. The iPad Mini (or whatever it is called) must be its own tablet. Quite simply, there is an enormous latent demand for a smaller tablet, and a tablet without compromise.

I am looking forward to a smaller, lighter version of the iPad but one without cost-cutting subterfuges. One that will be good for productivity tasks and ideal for reading. I am sick of propping up the big iPad and tired of the strain on my hands when holding it up to read. The current iPad has its place in the affections of millions; many, I am sure, maintain there is no demand for a smaller device. But millions will buy a smaller device simply because it is more convenient.

Much will depend on just how much smaller and heftable the Mini turns out to be. It is hard to visualise the size, despite seeing many mockups. We know that just under two inches has been cut from the diagonal screen measurement. We are also told that the frame surround has been narrowed to reduce the overall size even further. But until I get one in my hands it will be difficult to decide whether or not it is what we have been looking for and needing for the past two years.

I am optimistic and, if the smaller iPad turns out to be as good as I expect, I shall be placing my order without delay. An iPhone, a small iPad and an 11in MacBook Air is beginning to look like the ideal travel collection.

by Mike Evans, 22 October 2012

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Missing recovery partition on mid-2011 Macs

Posted on by Mike Evans

After setting up my new one-size-fits-all MacBook Air/Cinema Display desktop, I turned my mind to clearing out the iMac for sale.

This machine has been running very successfully from an external Thunderbolt SSD for the past six months. The speed increase over the standard internal 7,200rpm hard disk drive was dramatic and well worth the upgrade.

First step was to disconnect the LaCie drive, but only after setting the iMac to boot in future from its internal disk. Do this from System Preferences/Startup Disk.

Boot not

The trouble was, the iMac just wouldn’t boot. Repeated attempts resulted in worrying system code appearing in the top left of the screen. I suspect that the update to Mountain Lion had left the system on the iMac in an unstable condition. It had not been booted from the internal disk since the update.

No problem, I thought. Boot from the recovery partition (which has taken over from boxed disks) and I can wipe the main drive and reinstall a clean copy of Mountain Lion. There was a problem, though. I could not find the recovery partition, despite holing down ⌘R during the boot process.

Fortunately I had a cloned backup in the form of the LaCie SSD which had been used for months as the main drive. I rebooted to the LaCie (holding down to Alt (⌥) key when switching on; this allows a choice of boot drive). I was then able to clone the disk back to the iMac, using Carbon Copy Cloner. Once this had completed I could boot the iMac independently.

Recovery Partition

My ultimate objective in all this was to use the iMac’s recovery partition (introduced with Lion in mid–2011) to wipe the main volume and install a clean version of Mountain Lion.

Because the Mountain Lion installation file is deleted after use, I re-downloaded Mountain Lion to the iMac from the App Store in the hope that a fresh installation would re-create the recovery partition. It didn’t, but for the very good reason read on.

Next thought was to use the new Internet Recovery system to download the original OS and perform a clean install. But while researching this I came across an interesting paper on mid–2011 computers without a recovery partition. It seems that some machines, capable of hosting the recovery partition but lacking one, were produced in the period leading up to the introduction of Lion. Among them was my iMac.

Secret: Firmware update

This was worth a try, so I found the specific firmware update for the mid–2011 iMac. As soon as this was installed the recovery partition miraculously appeared. It was then a simple task to wipe the main volume and install a clean copy of Mountain Lion.

Then it struck me, while thinking about the time last year when I bought the computer. I suddenly remembered that the new iMacs had been introduced just before the launch of Lion and mine had in fact been supplied with Snow Leopard. I remembered I had purchased and installed Lion a week or so after the buying the machine. Pity I hadn’t remembered this a few hours before.

This explains the absence of the recovery partition, although the ability to install the enabling firmware update retrospectively was a welcome lifesaver.

I still have not dragged the big box out of the loft. If I am true to habit I should find the Snow Leopard disk in that box. That would have avoided hours of work and research. I could have reinstalled Snow Leopard and handed over the iMac in its original state.

Back to basics

It turns out that this is what Apple expects, indeed mandates. If you have updated the OS you must (legally speaking) downgrade it to the original before sale. In the old days this was simple: Just use the original disks to reinstall the old OS. Now it isn’t so easy and, I suspect most people do not bother. They just sell the machine with the currently installed OS. No doubt some sell with all their data still on board, including difficult-to-guess passwords such as 12345. As you gather, I am made of sterner stuff.

In my case, I am selling the iMac to a friend who has an Apple ID and also owns a copy of Mountain Lion. So, to keep Apple happy and avoid future ID problems, I used his credentials to download and install my friend’s legal copy of Mountain Lion.

All’s well that ends well, but this hitch in proceedings took several hours and much research. The moral of the story is to check the status of your computer and sort out that recovery partition, if possible, well before sale time. If you bought around the middle of 2011 and have no recovery partition you can install the enabling firmware update.

Installation drives and backups

It is also wise to create an external bootable OS X installation disk. Use a spare external hard drive or, even a USB flash drive. But go for at least 6GB to be on the safe side. If your internal hard disk fails catastrophically you may not have access even to the recovery partition. In such a case an external boot drive is a lifesaver.

In the event of a complete failure of the internal disk, though, the best recovery option is a regularly updated bootable clone of the entire contents of your disk. I would recommend this in addition to Time Machine, which can be also be used for restore purposes but is less satisfactory. As ever, belt and braces is a good plan. You can never have enough backups.

For the ultimate in diagnostic boot disks, read this article by Jordan Merrick in Mactuts+. Creating one of these essential tools takes up around 90 minutes of your time. It is definitely time worth spending and creating one is top of my task list.

by Mike Evans, 3 October 2012

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Setting up a new Mac: Tips and tricks

Posted on by Mike Evans

How to set up a new Mac and deal with Migration Assistant is something I am asked several times a year. Often, I get friends to bring their new Mac and I set it up for them. Today I came across this really wonderful step-by-step guide written last month by Josh Johnson of mac.tutsplus.

It is so good I thought I would share it with you. Josh covers all aspects of setup, including disk cloning with Carbon Copy Cloner; using Apple's Migration Assistant; cloud solutions; syncing application data; dealing with the Applications Support folder and the hidden user Library; Mail accounts and calendars and multimedia applications. I've learned a few things from Josh and I would recommend putting this article somewhere safe for when you buy your next Mac.

  Image Josh Johnson

Image Josh Johnson

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The Jobs burlgar caught by Find My Mac

Posted on by Mike Evans

The hapless burglar who cleaned out Steve Jobs' Californian home while it was under renovation has got his come-uppance from an unlikely source. According to this report in 9to5Mac, the burglar was caught when he tried to plug in the Apple equipment and the devices 'called home' for software updates. Steve Jobs, when he signed off Find My Mac, could never have imagined such a bizarre coincidence.

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Week from hell: Season ticket to Apple Store and no broadband

Posted on by Mike Evans

This is no exaggeration. This week starts on a high note after a weekend of extreme vaccilation over whether to buy a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro and ends with a duff computer and a proloned outage of broadband with no relief in sight.

On Monday I acted on my weekend’s ponderings and bought a new 11in MacBook Pro to replace my 2010 model. Then came minor problems. I tried migrating the information from the old machine but got stalled every time with 29 minutes to do. This figure turned out to be significant.

Migration Unassistant

At the fourth attempt, overnight, I was sick of the sight of “29 minutes to go” and aborted all attempts to migrate. I could have done a clean installation or, even, migrated from the iMac, but I had the bit between my teeth by this stage.

Annoyed, I started to wonder if I ought to have gone for the retina Pro, not that a botched migration was a serious problem. It was just a symptom of indecision. I looked at the two idential Airs sitting side by side and convinced myself I should buy and Pro instead and make do with the 2010 Air for some months. Even, I reasoned, I could keep it until the retina-display Air arrives.

By Tuesday I had acted on this and ordered a retina-display MacBook Pro. I returned the Air to the Apple Store. I had decided to use the MBP as a primary machine and pension off the 27in iMac I am currently using as a desktop computer.

29 Minutes to go

All well and good, but this problem with Migration Assistant was bugging me. Why did it stop at 29 minutes, exactly, every time it ran? I consulted Apple Discussions and even talked it over with a Genius in the store. Everyone agrees that Migration Assistant can stall, particularly if it is dealing with a large file, but the general view was that it usually gets there in the end, even after two attempts. No one had ever heard of it stopping exactly at the same point repeatedly.

I decided to do some testing. I hooked up the Air to a spare Mac and ran Migration Assistant again. Stupifyingly, it stopped again at 29 minutes. Bear in mind this was a completely different donee computer.

It was clear by this time that the fault lay with my 2010 Air. But what? I had repaired permissions but not verified the disk. Sure enough, there was a corrupted sector and I was advised by the system to boot into the recovery partition and repair the disk from there. I did this, with two specific errors corrected, and then tried Migration Assistant again. Still 29 minutes. Finish.

Culprit exposed

As you can imagine, by this time I was feeling pretty desperate and even more determined to get to the bottom of it. Then I noticed that the disk was again showing errors. I remembered that I had had a similar experience with an internal SSD on a 2010 13in MacBook Pro and, eventually, the disk was replaced under warranty.

Back to the drawing board. I go abroad on Tuesday and need a computer. What if the Air packs up and I am left without my tools? So this precipitated yet another visit to the Apple Store where bought second 2012 MacBook Air. I still have the MacBook Pro retina on order (delivery July 23–27) but I have already decided to use it as a desktop and for occasional longer trips when I need the bigger screen.

I had always intended to replace the 2010 Air eventually and it has come sooner rather than later. At least I no longer have the task of deciding which laptop to get. I will have both, which has the added attraction of allowing me to do a proper comparison review, David v Goliath, in the future.

The old 2010 Air, fortunately still under Apple Care, will have to go back to the Genius Bar for some TLC, then I will put it up for sale, along with my iMac.

Installation, no broadband

I carried the new Air back home and thought I would just give Migration Assistant a go. But no go, it again stalled at 29 minutes. Instead, I migrated from the iMac and all is well.

This, you would hope, would be the end of the saga. But no, I am still without broadband and if you have ever tried to install a new Mac using an iPhone Hotspot connected by USB cable, you will understand my continued frustration.

Clearly I had to turn off Dropbox sync because that would have blown a year’s 3G data in half a day. This explains why I am now standing up in the Apple Store writing this post while the free wifi gets on with finishing the installation of the Air, including software updates and updating Dropbox (where I keep all my current data).

The broadband outage is serious. Virgin’s helpful engineer called and discovered that the entire street has lost TV and broadband. Good that I don’t have a Virgin telephone as well. The signal to the nearest street junction box is abysmal and an emergency team is to be called out to see if they can detect the fault. Failing that, I’m told, I will have to wait until July 5. By that time I will be abroad, past caring about such domestic problems.

It’s now 2 pm on Friday. Can it get worse? At least I have a new MacBook Air to play with. And I get the Nobel Prize in vaccilation.

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Don't buy a new Mac without an SSD

Posted on by Mike Evans

Don’t buy a new Mac without an SSD or you’ll regret it, says Robin Harris, writing for ZDNet. It is a trap I fell into last May when I bought a 27in iMac and wouldn’t wait the six weeks it would have taken to get the internal SSD. Instead, I opted for the standard 7,200 rpm hard drive and have regretted it ever since. Two weeks ago I described one solution, the addition of an external Thunderbolt SSD as a boot drive. It works and has totally transformed the performance of my i7 3.4GHz iMac, which previously was seen off by my lowly 1.6GHz 11in MacBook Air. Harris had a similar experience:

Let’s just say that my 1.86GHz Core Duo 2, 4GB MacBook Air with a 128GB SSD outperforms my 3.4GHz quad-core i7, 16GB iMac on ≈90% of the work I do. And it is more stable.

So I totally agree with Robin Harris. If you are buying a new Mac and it doesn’t already come with a standard SSD, pay the extra for the faster disk or you will certainly regret it.

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One Week On: SSD Thunderbolt boot drive

Posted on by Mike Evans

It is just a week since I got my new 240GB LaCie Thunderbolt SSD hooked up to my 2011 iMac and set it as the boot drive. I continue to be blown away by the amazingly fast access speeds in comparison with the 1TB 7,200 rpm mechanical drive in the Mac. While the drive is often overlooked and more emphasis is placed on processor speed and RAM, there is no doubt in my mind that the LaCie has transformed the user experience. Previously I had been very disappointed with the iMac, despite its 3.4GHz i7 processor and 8GB of RAM; now it surpasses my expectations.

The SSD drive has performed perfectly in the past week and there have been absolutely no issues, except the noise of the fans. This is one noisy little beast, even though I’ve placed it as far away from the computer as the Thunderbolt cable will allow.

Several friends have been in touch to warn me that using an external disk as the primary boot drive is not a good idea. Before trying this Thunderbolt SSD I would have agreed with them. But the Thunderbolt connection allows the iMac to make the very best of the solid-state speed.

And to those who ask what happens if the drive fails, there is a simple answer. What happens if any drive fails? Provided I have a backup, I can argue that I am in a better position if the LaCie fails than if the internal disk fails. All I need do is boot from the internal disk, restore my backup and I’m away again.

So far, despite the doom mongers, I can think of no valid argument against this set up. Of course, it is better to have the SSD inside the iMac if you have the foresight to order it from new. I didn’t.

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LaCie Thunderbolt SSD boot drive for blistering performance

Posted on by Mike Evans

if you like this article please see my follow-up in August 2012: The cheaper option

Last May I bought a new 27in iMac as soon as it was announced. Because of my positive experience with solid-state drives (on two MacBook Airs and a MacBook Pro) I ticked the box for the expensive dual-disk option, including a 256GB SSD boot drive. When I discovered there would be a six-week delay, I decided to delete the SSD and, instead, go for the 7,200 rpm 1TB hard disk. To ensure speed I chose the fastest i7, the 3.4GHz, processor and 8 GB of RAM.

Big mistake

It was a big mistake to delete the SSD. I should have waited. For the past ten months the iMac has been nothing but frustration when compared with my lowly late-2010 11in MacBook Air. Disk access speeds are abysmal (in comparison) and starting or restarting from sleep takes far too long. 

I investigated the options for retro-fitting an SSD alongside the standard 1TB. As we all know, Apple will not do this, but I found a couple of companies that said they could. There is also the iFixit kit which was highlighted a couple of weeks ago, but a DIY jobs is well outside my modest capabilities. Having watched two Asian enthusiasts wresting with an iMac in the above YouTube clip, I was more than ever convinced this is not for me. 

Partly out of inertia and largely because I didn’t want to lose the iMac for even a week, I did nothing.

Alternative strategy

I started to look for an alternative solution and eventually hit on LaCie’s pricey but well-received Little Big Disk external Thunderbolt SSD. I reasoned that the speed of the Thunderbolt connection could make the LaCie into a viable boot drive.

It is received wisdom that an external drive should never be used as a boot drive except in emergency. In the days of mechanical drives and USB connections, this was undoubtedly prudent advice. But Thunderbolt and SSDs have changed all that. It is now a viable option.

After rummaging around other users’ experiences I became convinced it would be a feasible option. It isn’t a cheap one, though, because the 240GB LaCie (which actually consists of two striped 120GB drives in a neat casing) sells in the Apple Store for £699. I did check around but couldn’t find it anywhere else, let alone cheaper. We’re at the (cash) bleeding edge of technology here, I am afraid. Next year it will be a different story.

Phenomenal improvements

Yesterday I bit the bullet and bought the drive (plus one of Apple’s expensive £39 Thunderbolt cables). Installing the Little Big Disk and making it into the default boot drive took a couple of hours and was super easy. I will cover the details later.

The results are absolutely phenomenal. My once lethargic iMac has been totally transformed. It boots quicker than the MacBook Air, wakes from sleep within a couple of seconds. Programs launch with only one icon bounce, when ten was the previous norm. In short, it is fast.

Read at 490 Mbps

The statistics are nothing short of astounding. Before adding the LaCie, the iMac’s 7,200 rpm drive was recording slothful read/write speeds of 48 and 49 Mbps. After installing the Lacie these speeds have increased to 490/253 Mbps. Actually, the 490 is right off the scale at the end of the red zone on the BlackMagic disk speed test. The real speed could be even higher than 490 Mbps for all I know.

The iMac is now flying along and the LaCie is performing perfectly, although the internal fan is very noisy. I have positioned the drive as far away from the computer as the Thunderbolt cable will allow, but the fan noise is still intrusive. That said, it’s a small price to pay for the blistering improvement in performance.

Internal option

I have no doubt that installing a 256GB SSD into the iMac, in addition to the 1TB hard-disk, would be a cheaper option, even taking labour into account. Replacing the HDD with a 256GB SSD would be even cheaper because it doesn’t involve adding the necessary bracket to accommodate a second drive.

The LaCie, on the other hand, offers a hassle-free alternative, particularly since getting inside the iMac is not for the faint hearted.  It does have the advantage that you can keep the drive for alternative use after the iMac is sold.

Incidentally, if I you are in the market for a new iMac try to rustle up the extra cash for the SSD, either alone or in tandem with the mechanical HDD. You will not regret it. But, if you don’t order it you certainly will suffer regret.

This has been a hugely successful operation which has transformed my user experience on the iMac. Read speeds have rocketed by a factor of ten while write speeds have increased fivefold. This is a result by any standards.

Faster than the Air

What is even more surprising is the improvement over the MacBook Air’s 128GB SSD which was my previous benchmark for “fast”. The Lacie reads 3.5 times faster and writes over twice as fast. Bear in mind the Air is a late-2010 model and the current machines, with faster processors and newer SSDs, will probably equal or even surpass the performance of the LaCie.

Doing the deed

Setting up an external disk such as the LaCie as a main boot drive is very simple, expecially if you use a backup utility such as SuperDuper!

The first thing I did when I returned from the Apple Store with the new drive was to check out the storage on the iMac. I was plotting and planning while sitting on the westward-bound Underground, so I had a strategy already worked out.

It turned out I had used 250MB of the 1TB internal drive, so clearly that was not going to fit on the LaCie. I identified 85GB of media (mostly movies I had bought from the iTunes store) and I was able to move ths block to an old backup drive. In any case they can now be downloaded again from the store if needed.

Finally, I ended up with 165 GB which would fit on the LaCie. When I get a moment I can do more housekeeping and move less important stuff to an alternative location if necessary.

SuperDuper!

Having pruned the iMac’s internal drive to manageable proportions, I simply plugged in the LaCie to the second and last Thunderbolt port (the other is occupied by my Cinema Display) and fired up SuperDuper!.

SuperDuper! is perhaps the best backup utility for the Mac; at any rate it is the one I rely on. It costs $27.95 direct. In common with other similar cloning backup utilities it isn’t available from the App Store because it plumbs system depths that Apple doesn’t approve of. Everyone uses it, though, and there is no need to worry. An excellent alternative is Carbon Copy Cloner which is actually free (or, preferably, you should make a small donation to the developer).

Set up

I set the utility to copy the entire iMac drive to the LaCie and then to make the external drive bootable. As you can see from the screenshot, the SuperDuper! routine included repairing permissions on the iMac drive, erasing the LaCie and then copying the entire contents of the internal drive to the external SSD.

If you wish, you can leave bulky data on the internal drive, just as you would if, for instance, you had purchased a dual-disk iMac. However, if you want to see maximum benefit from the SSD you should at least have the applications folder on the faster drive. I chose to put everything there, largely because in my case it was feasible.

After the copy, SuperDuper! made the LaCie bootable and, finally, set it as the startup disk. The entire process took 87 minutes at an average (slow) 35 Mbps, obviously limited by the access speed on the mechanical hard disk in the iMac. This, I hope, is the last time I will see such a glacial pace.

After this process was complete I logged out of my user account before switching off the computer. If you do not do this, you will find yourself in the wrong user account, the one on the internal disk, after re-booting from the LaCie. This is potentially confusing and not immediately obvious.

Just log off, then switch off the computer. Reboot and the LaCie will take over. The internal 1TB disk will mount as a second disk. For the time being I have left all old the stuff on the iMac disk until I am absolutely sure there are no problems. Eventually, though, I will reformat this disk and reinstall OS X so it becomes an alternative boot disk. There will also be the best part of 1TB available for storage and management of larger media files and suchlike.

A word on FileVault and Time Machine

If you have been running FileVault encryption on the iMac, as I had been doing, you will find that it is not possible to convert the twin-disk LaCie to FileVault. I didn’t realise until I tried and got the error “Cannot convert an AppleRAID volume to core storage”. The situation with a single-volume SSD might be different, although I am not sufficiently clued up to know. It’s a pity, but it is not a deal breaker.

Time Machine will need some tweaking. I deleted the old Time Machine volume, set to back up from the internal 1TB disk and established new backup routine from the LaCie (which is now seen as the home volume) to the remote location (in my case a partition on my Drobo FS). I also excluded the internal 1TB disk from Time Machine backup since, for the moment, there is nothing there that I absolutely need. I can change this when I have sorted out what to keep on the internal disk.

Wrap up

If you are buying a new computer, an SSD drive is the most effective way of increasing performance. In the real world, in day-to-day activities, it makes more difference, subjectively of course, than the speed of the processor or the size of the RAM.

But if you already own a computer with a mechanical drive and a Thunderbolt port, an external SSD such as the LaCie is a sure-fire way to put new life into it. So far, I can thoroughly recommend it. I will report further if problems are encountered at any stage. 

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Sir Jony gets his iGong for New Year

Posted on by Mike Evans

Congratulations to Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s master designer. He got his KBE¹ in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. Ive, described by Steve Jobs as his “spiritual partner” is responsible for all Apple’s major world-beating designs from the iMac to the iPhone. This morning The Times said:

Since Jobs’s death in October, Sir Jonathan, 44, has been regarded as one of the most powerful figures within Apple. He has been described by Fortune magazine as ‘the world’s smartest designer’ with more than 400 patents to his name. Appointed a CBE in 2006, he is one of the youngest people on the list.”

We can now look forward Sir Jony’s visit to Buckingham Palace early in 2012 when he will receive his KBE and a tap on the shoulder from The Queen’s sword. As The Times says, “iDub thee…”

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¹ The Order of the British Empire is the youngest order of chivalry, created by King George V in 1917. Sir Jonathan was made a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2006 and has now climbed one step to become a Knight Commander. There is one higher level to aspire to: Knight Grand Cross or GBE. As an aside, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, established in 1818, is beloved of the civil service where it is said that CMG stands for “call me God”. The higher KCMG is “kindly call me God”. Those at the top of the tree, have their GCMG or “God calls me God”.

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