Silverback Exposed | May 28, 2008

Since my last post people have been clamouring for more details on Silverback, so I thought I’d explain where the idea came from, then show you a few screenshots.

Clearleft are a very user-focused agency and we try to do at least one round of usability testing on every project. We keep things as simple as possible by using our own premises, recruiting our own subjects and feeding the results straight back into the design process. Instead of expensive suites we’ll set up a computer in an empty meeting room and train a video camera on the screen to capture what the subject is saying and doing.

We tried using dedicated testing software like Morae, but it took ages to set up, didn’t play well with Parallels and was, ironically, very difficult to use. The app was packed full of features making it perfect for a dedicated usability lab but was far too bloated for the type of guerrilla tests we ran. What’s more, with a price tag at around $1,500, it was just far too expensive for the majority of small agencies to use. There had to be a cheaper way, so we looked around but we couldn’t find anything.

Around the same time a friend of ours participated in a usability study run by Leisa Reichelt. Simon explained how Leisa had opened up the iSight preview pane, and then set her screen capture software running. The result was a single file showing both screen activity and the users reaction. We really liked the idea but felt that the ever-present video would be distracting to use. Realising there was a need for something more sophisticated we set about building our own.

Development on Silverback started in late December and we had a very early alpha version working by early January. However developing in a desktop environment was new to all of us and we were amazed how fickle it was. In fact, it was surprisingly similar to developing for the web, with it’s own text display issues and 3-pixel spacer bugs. Some things that looked difficult were surprisingly easy, while other things that looked easy were frustratingly tricky. Luckily we had a great Cocoa developer, Martin Redington Redington, helping us along the way.

We also called on the services of Jon Hicks to help with the logo and interface design. As the application was for Guerilla usability testing we’d been using the working title of Silverback as an in-joke since day one. When it came to thinking up a proper name we brainstormed for ages but couldn’t think of a better one. We knew we wanted an illustrated gorilla as our icon and after toying with a few ideas, including dressing Silverback Steve up as Che Guevara, we settled on the lab coat and clipboard look.

For such a deceptively simple application, it’s actually gone through a lot of iterations, and we’re currently reaching our 60th build. We’ve spent a huge amount of time tweaking the interface, optimising the output and streamlining the code. The development of Silverback has very much been a team effort and we’re getting to a point where we are almost ready to launch.

At this point I’m starting to feel a little like an expectant parent. I’m really excited about the launch but also slightly nervous. Like all the best applications, Silverback scratches an itch and it will be a welcome member of the Clearleft family. I just hope you guys love it as much as we do.

Start screen

New session screen

Editing a new session

Exporting a session

Preferences screen

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Silverback Unveiled | May 13, 2008

A few months ago Clearleft accidentally leaked the fact we were working on our own application, known as Silverback. I say accidentally because we had just bought the domain name silverbackapp.com and thought we’d better post up a holding page. However the combination of a great logo from Jon Hicks and an amazingly inventive parallax technique from Paul meant the page got far more coverage than anticipated. Before the week was out we had over 5,000 people registered for updates and had started to receive comments like “I don’t know what Silverback is, but I know that I want it!� So no pressure there then!

For the last few months we’ve been working in what some people (not me) would describe as stealth mode. That doesn’t mean we’ve been coming to work dressed as ninjas, although that could be fun. Instead we’ve been keeping schtum about the project. You see; we thought the idea was so blindingly obvious we didn’t want anybody else doing the same thing. Greedy I know!

We’ve been beavering away at the app for the last few months, hunting for glitches and tweaking the interface. We’ve put the app in front of some friends for alpha testing and have just opened it up to a semi-private beta. We’re currently working on setting up the support site and hooking in the payment system. Once that’s all done it should be chocks away!

So by now I’m sure you’re all wondering what the hell this Silverback thing is? Well it’s time to put you out of your misery. Very simply, Silverback is an OSX application to help people run their own low-cost Guerrilla usability tests. It captures screen activity, records audio and video from your built in iSight, and then composites it into a handy Quicktime movie for later use. There are a few added features that make it perfect for usability testing, but it’s basically as simple as that!

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Silverback | February 14, 2008

Ever since starting Clearleft people have been asking why we don’t build our own app? After all it’s the kind of thing people like 37 Signals or Firewheel have been doing for a while now.

In truth it’s always something we’ve wanted to do, we just never had the time. We’ve been so fixated on creating great products for our customers, we couldn’t fit it in. The other problem was coming up with a great idea. Sure we’ve thrown concepts around before, some of which were pretty good. However none of them ever quite stuck.

That is until a few months ago when we came up with an idea so obvious, we couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. As well as being stupidly simple, it was something we ourselves would use. In fact we liked it so much we wanted it to magically appear so we could start using it straight away.

So what is this mystery app? Well I’m afraid it’s a little too early to say at the moment. However if you know the kind of work we do, you can probably figure it out from the holding page. It’s kind of niche, but we hope it will be of benefit to a lot of you designers and developers out there.

The app itself is at a very early alpha stage. It’s almost feature complete but needs a lot of performance tuning. We’re hoping to have a demo ready by SXSW and will start a limited private beta when we get back. However I doubt the app will reach a releasable state for at least a couple of months.

In the meantime, If you’d like to be involved in the beta, why don’t you pop along to the holding page and sign up for notification.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. The app is called Silverback and it features a gorilla holding a clipboard. How cool is that?

Silverback holding page showing a cartoon gorilla wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard

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Small Office Backup with Rsync | January 23, 2007

When setting up our new office, I wanted to ensure everything was backed up correctly. I asked around for backup solutions, but the options were overwhelming. As we were a new company, I didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on complicated software or hardware solutions, so in the end we went with something that’s already built into the operating system–Rsync.

This small but powerful command line tool forms the basis for a lot of Mac backup solutions, which are essentially GUI front ends. Rsync is much loved by techies, but I’m no Unix wizard soit took a while to get things set up. This quick tutorial outlines how I’ve got backups working at Clearleft. This is by no means a definitive guide, and I’m sure there are much better ways of doing it. So if you’ve got any better ideas, please let me know.

The first step was to find something to back-up to. We thought about network attached storage (NAS), but in the end went for the simple option of a Mac Mini connected to a removable hard drive. We have two such drives and rotate them weekly to ensure we have an offsite back-up.

What we’re going to do is set the Mac Mini up so it connects to each machine on the network at a set time of day, and then run an Rsync back-up. To connect to each machine you first need to give them a distinct IP address on your network.

Go into your network preferences, select the TCP/IP menu option and in the “Configure IPv4” dropdown, select “Using DCHP with manual address”. I’m not sure what the best IP numbering convention is, but we have all our desktops starting from 192.168.1.10, so other devices like routers, printers or laptops can grab the first 10 slots automatically if they want.

OS X network preferences

Once each machine has an IP address, you need to make sure the Mac Mini can connect to it over SSH. To do this, go into the sharing preferences and check the “Remote Login” option.

OS X sharing preferences

Now, lets create the backup command on the Mac Mini. I’ve created a new folder on the Mini called back-up where I’m keeping all my configuration files. Create a new text file in this folder and call it the a sensible name like andybak.command.

First you need to set all the required flags for the rsync command. I’m not going to go into them all, but if you’re interested you can type man rsync for the full list.

rsync -a -v -r -S -x -z --delete -e

The next thing you need to do is connect to the machine and folder you wish to backup using ssh

ssh andy@192.168.1.10:/Users/andy

Now specify the target location of your backup. In our case it’s a mounted volume called “LaCie Disk”

/Volumes/LaCie\ Disk

Lastly we don’t want to back up everything, so I’m going to create an exclusions text file. Add a pointer to this text file next.

--exclude-from /Users/clearleft/backup/andy_excludes.txt

Save this file and create a new file for your excludes called andy_excludes.txt. In this file list all the folders you wish to exclude. I’ve got a lot of music on my machine so I’m going to exclude the music folder. If you have lots of movies or pictures, you may want to exclude those folders as well.

andy/Music/

Save the textfile.

Now we can run the command and see if it works. If you want to be extra cautious there is a flag you can add to your command file that will run a simulation instead of the real thing. As this will be the first time you’ve run this command, the initial backup may take a while. To run the command, simply double click the file and it should launch and run in the terminal window.

The first thing this command will do is try to connect to the computer you’re backing up using SSH. Because this is the first time you’ve connected, it will ask you if you’re sure of the authenticity of the host. Type “yes” to proceed. You’ll next be asked the password of the host machine. Type it in now and the backup will start running. Go make a cup of tea as it may take a few minutes.

Once the back-up is complete, check that a new folder has been added to the backup drive and that all the selected files have been backed up.

Now you obviously don’t want to enter the password each time you run a backup, so you need to set up a public and private key on the backup machine, and then copy the public key over to the host machine. This is where things get a little tricky as there are numerous ways of doing this, some more secure than others. Luckily I did this ages ago, so I’m not even going to attempt to explain how this is done. If you’re interested, do a search on ssh or public key authentication on OS X.

On the Mac Mini, locate your public key. In our case the file was called id_rsa.pub and it was in a folder called .ssh. Using secure copy (scp), copy this key to the authorized_keys file in the .ssh folder on the machine you’re wanting to connect to. OIf the file or folder doesn’t exist, you will need to create it.

scp /Users/clearleft/.ssh/id_rsa.pub andy@192.168.1.10:.ssh/authorized_keys

You’ll be asked for the password of the machine you’re connecting to. Once you’ve entered it, the files will copy over, and you’ll never be asked for a password again. To check the public key is working, run the backup command again and it should run without asking for a password.

We’re almost there. Just one last step in order to make the backups really useful. We need to automate their execution. To do this, you need to decide a time for each backup to run. We run ours in the evening when everybody is out of the office, to avoid the inevitable network slowdown. First, go into the energy saver preferences for the machine you’re backing up, click the “schedule” button and wake the machine up 5 minutes before you plan to run the backup.

OS X energy saver preferences

Then go back to the Mac Mini and edit your crontab file.

sudo pico /private/etc/crontab

Set the time you want the command to run in minutes and hours, and leave the day, month ect starred out, so your backup runs every day. Under the command heading, add the path to your command along with an optional path to a log file.

/Users/clearleft/backup/andybak.command >> /Users/clearleft/backup/backup.log

Do this for every machine on your network, and every night you’ll have trouble free, automated backups.

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BlackBooks | July 23, 2006

A few months back I discussed my dilemma about buying a new laptop. While I really like my 12” iBook, I found the screen real estate limiting and wanted to get a bigger machine. I toyed with the idea of getting a MacBook Pro, but was concerned that the 15” version may be too big to be really portable. The MacBook had just launched and the 13” wide screen looked very appealing. However I had a few concerns regarding specs, and the shinny screen was particularly off-putting.

Since my original post, I took a couple of trips to the Apple store to check the MacBooks out. They looked lovely, and the screens weren’t too off-putting. However I was concerned how hot the display models were running. On top of that, I noticed the they keyboards on the black models were getting very stained. I decided to leave it until the next revision, always a good plan when buying Mac products.

Over the next few months the idea of getting a new MacBook kept bugging me. With no revisions in sight for a few months I finally capitulated and went out and bought a Black MackBook on Friday.

MacBook

The Machine looks really slick, and the shiny screen isn’t as bad as I’d feared. In most of the environments I’ve tried it in you don’t get any reflection at all, and your photos and videos really do look crisp and colourful. However this badboy runs really hot. In fact I bet you could fry an egg on the back of the machine if you tried. The heat is at its highest when you’re charging the laptop, but it’s still too warm to have comfortably on your lap without some kind of insulation–in my case my laptop cover. Also the matt finish does seem very porous and is already starting to get a grubby, which is a bit of a shame.

Apart from those two gripes, I’m pretty happy with the machine so far. Despite having just the default RAM, the machine is pretty fast, and this should only improve when I fit the 2GB of Crucial memory I have on order.

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Mac-based Studio Storage and Backup Advice | July 21, 2006

Clearleft recently moved into a new studio, and one of the first items on our todo list was sorting out a centralised storage and back-up solution. I’ve been looking into the various options and have to admit that I’m a little paralysed by choice. This is largely because I have very little technical experience in this field, and everybody I talk to suggests a different option.

We want to set up a machine as a local dev server so we can test sites centrally. We’d probably set up SVN and develop on the local machines, but commit to the central server for testing. As well as the actual site files, we would probably add other collateral into the repository like photoshop files etc.

We’d also like to use this machine to store common files like word templates, stock images, icons etc. We’d probably want to edit these files on the server,, rather than copy them over to our local machines, update them, and then copy them back. As such, any system we use needs to be reasonably fast. I also thought about using the machine as a centralised music server, but that may be overkill.

We’d like to back-up all the info on our workstations to the server at the end of each day. We’d also like to have a redundant back-up that we can take off-site each evening. The back-up solution would need to run automatically and be easy to re-instate files if necessary.

We want to get a set-up that will last us a few years and will be easy to expand when we add more workstations. However we don’t want to spend a fortune and an XServer is probably overkill for our needs.

We’ve been thinking about getting a mid-range G5 tower and it’s been suggested that we get two SATA drives and mirror them for extra redundancy. I’m not sure how the whole mirroring thing works, although I’ve been told that this is something OS X can handle. If not, I guess some kind of SoftRaid solution would work. We would then get a firewire drive to use as our off-site back-up and take it home every night.

A few people have suggested that, rather than back-up each workstation to the server each night, we actually have all our home folders on the server. This sounds like a sensible suggestion as it means we only have one disk to back-up, so it should be faster. However I’m worried that it may slow our home folders down, as well as leave us with a single point of failure. Basically if the server dies, none of us can work.

The other option would be to simply back-up our home folders to the server each night, minus our music directories, and then back that all up to the firewire drive. However I’m concerned that this type of back-up may take a really long time and slow everything down. I know that my home computer slows to a crawl when the back-up kicks in and it has to scan all the files for changes.

If we go down this route, we need to decide what type of back-up software to use. The Mac suppliers obviously want us to pay for Retrospect workgroup, but its quite expensive, and probably overkill. Also I never hear particularly good things about it. Another option would be to use something simple like Chronosync, at least for the time being. Somebody else recommended getting OS X server and using Net Boot and Net Restore, but I don’t know enough about these apps to make an informed decision.

So I’m really interested to hear what you guys recommend as the optimal, small mac-based studio, storage and back-up solution. Something that is easy to set-up, reliable, not too expensive, but has some room for expansion if we need it.

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MacBook | May 17, 2006

So this is the announcement I’ve been waiting for. Apple have just launched their iBook replacement, imaginatively dubbed the MacBook.

MacBook

My iBook is only 18 months old, but I’ve wanted to replace it for a while now. I’m happy with the speed, but I’m seriously running out of disk space. The other issue is size and screen real estate. The 12” iMac is a great size as its extremely portable. However I’m getting just frustrated with the tiny screen.

I have thought about getting a 15” MacBook Pro, but I’m concerned that it’s slightly too large. So I’ve been waiting to see if the rumors of a 13” MacBook were true, and it looks like they were. I know an extra inch may not seem like much, but as my girlfriend says, it makes all the difference (she uses the laptop as well!). I’ve not seen them in the flesh yet, but the pictures look pretty cool, and I really like the black version.

The specs of the MacBook are pretty close to that of the pro version. The main issues for me are the integrated video RAM (no good for games), shiny screen (no good for using outside) and the lack of a backlit keyboard. However apart from that, it stands up pretty well. I’m probably going to wait till the Apple store gets some stock in so I can do a side by side comparison, but I’m pretty impressed.

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Streaming Music to Multiple Speakers using iTunes | January 24, 2006

I really like Airport Express as it allows me to stream music from my iMac to the stereo in my living room. This is particularly handy when we have guests around as I can stick iTunes on party shuffle and not have to worry about music for the rest of the evening (for extra geek cred you can control iTunes with your mobile phone using salling clicker). If I had a bigger flat I’d probably consider getting a few more Airport Express units and hooking them up to stereos in the bedroom and kitchen. If the rumours are true, Tom Coates has 5 of the things. Now that’s just showing off.

Anyway, the one thing that has always bothered me is you could only ever listen to music on one device at a time. If you had iTunes streaming to the living room, you couldn’t listed to the music on your Mac in the bedroom. Luckily now you can. In fact you can stream your music to any and all the remote speakers on your network, so you can sashay through your home barely missing a beat.

For this to work you need to have iTunes 6.0.2 installed. You also need to download and install the latest Airport Express Firmware. Once your Airport Expresses reboot after the firmware update, you should see a new “multiple speakers” option in your speakers dropdown. Clicking on this will bring up a list of your connected speakers, allowing you to choose which ones you want to stream music to. Sweet.

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Powerbooks and DRM | November 21, 2005

Currently I share an iBook with my girlfriend. The laptop is essentially hers, but I use it whenever I need to. The problem is, at the moment I’m using it a lot more than she is. I’m doing a lot of travelling right now, running CSS courses for in-house development teams or visiting clients in London.

I have wanted to get my own Powerbook for some time, however the current specs are less than impressive. Pound for pound, the iBooks are just much better value for money at the moment.

I had hoped that the last round of updates would have seen a slight speed bump, but all we got was higher resolutions screens and an extra couple of hours battery life. A real sign that the current crop is “end of life”.

And so the perennial questions raises its ugly head. Buy a mac now, or wait for the next revision? The rumour mills are spinning at full tilt, and the word on the street is we’ll be seeing a new crop of Powermacs as early as the first quarter of 2006.

These won’t be ordinary Macs however. A small sticker with those two little words, “Intel inside” will see to that. And this raises a couple of fairly big concerns.

Firstly it is always a good idea to wait for the second revision of any new Apple product. In this case even more so as the whole Intel thing is a bit of an unknown. Will I have to buy all new optimised software? Will there even be the software available when the new laptops debut.

However that’s not my main concern. My main concern is DRM. It looks like the new Apple Intel chips will contain something laughingly known as “Trusted Computing”, which roughly translates as “Untrustworthy Customers”.

Now despite being relatively uninformed about the whole DRM issue, as a customer this isn’t exactly a feature I’ve been pestering Apple to add to my computer. Tinfoil hat or no, I have to admit that Cory Doctrow’s recent d.Construct presentation got me thinking.

With DRM built into the chipset, who knows what can of worms we could be letting ourselves in for. That innocuous “security update” you agree to without reading the terms and conditions could suddenly tie all the media you’ve purchased online to one individual processor. Want to watch lost on your laptop as well, then you need to buy a second licence. Computer on the fritz and need a new one, time to re-purchase all your old music.

A little OTT maybe, but I don’t like the idea of something with the ability to limit what I do built right into the system.

So the question is, buy an underpowered but DRM free laptop now, or wait till the new Powerbooks come out and potentially risk signing up to a new world order.

Somehow in writing this post, I may have answered my own question.

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Top Ten Mac OS X Freeware/Shareware Applications | October 15, 2005

Here are my current top ten OS X freeware and shareware applications. What are yours and why?

Growl and GrowlTunes

Growl is billed as a “global notification system for OS X”. What that means is that when an application performs or finishes performing a function, it will inform Growl. Growl then passes that info onto the user by displaying the info in an unobtrusive floating box. Growl works with lots of apps so you can set it up to do things like notify you when new mail comes in, or downloads are completed.

I mostly use Growl in combination with GrowlTunes to display song details whenever the song changes in iTunes. I found that I was listening to iTunes music collection in rotation, never knowing the name of the artist or song that was currently playing. With Growl, whenever a new song comes on, a little floating transparent box shows me the name of the song, the artist, cover artwork and star rating.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver is a fantastic application that all OS X users should have. Quicksilver does a whole bunch of advanced things, most of which I don’t know about. However I use it as a way of quickly launching applications, finding contact details and occasionally finding files or websites. When Spotlight came out I though it would be a Quicksilver killer, however in comparison, Spotlight feels like swimming through treacle.

When I hit control space and start typing, Quicksilver pretty much always finds what I’m looking for, in an instant. When I hit command space and start typing in Spotlight, it takes a couple of seconds to think about things before results start to slowly appear. The results jump around loads so I’ll go to click the top result only for it to change and take me somewhere else! Spotlight is great because it searches inside docs, and would be particularly handy if I started tagging my docs. However I just don’t like the sluggish responsiveness and find Quicksilver a much more pleasant and predictable experience.

X-Tunes

X-Tunes is a really nice, simple iTunes controller. Hitting alt space brings up a floating panel that displays basic song details and lets me stop, jump forward or back in the playlist, or change volume. IF a song comes on that I don’t like, I simply hit alt space and then the forward arrow. If the phone rings I just hit alt space and enter, pausing the track. Once I’ve finished on the phone, the same combination starts the track up again. Simple but very effective.

Transmit

I’m not sure why I like this application so much, as its just an FTP client. In all honestly its probably got a lot to do with the big, chunky dump truck icon. However it is simple to use and does everything an FTP client should. There is also a rather nice widget for Transmit that allows you to FTP files to s pre-specified location without having to launch the app and log-in. Its not hugely useful, but I like using it anyway, if only to see the truck logo animated, bumping along the road as its delivering your files to the server.

Net Newswire

It seems that a lot of people have jumped ship from this app of late, and are using one of many new RSS readers around. I’ve had a quick look at some of these other apps, but none of them seem to offer anything compelling enough to make me want to switch. Net Newswire has a simple and intuitive user interface, and pretty much does everything I want in a feed reader.

Not that I actually have enough time to read my RSS feeds at the moment. Every time I open Net Newswire I have 800+ unread feeds. I’ll spend an hour going through my feeds, reading the quick reads, marking uninteresting posts as read and saving the interesting ones for later. However there never is a later, so the number of interesting unread feeds just keeps building. At some stage I really think I’m going to have to take a week off work, just to read my feeds.

FontExplorer X

Lets face it, Apple font book sucks. Its OK for previewing fonts, but is totally impractical for managing large font collections. So I was fantastically pleased when I found this app. Doubly so because its free. The app basically works like iTunes for your font collection. You can drag fonts around, group them, preview them, enable them and disable them, all in a familiar and intuitive interface. Very nice.

TextWrangler

A great free text editor from Bare Bones Software. I don’t need the full power of BBEdit so this little app is perfect. It does everything I need in a lightweight text editor.

xScope

I have to admit that I don’t use xScope that much; but when I do, I love it. xScope provides a series of Photoshop like tools for your desktop. You can set up guides, measure things with the ruler, zoom in to layouts and check colours with the eye-dropper. I most use it when I’m debugging my CSS, using the zoom and ruler tools to measure gaps in layouts to see what is going on.

VNCThing

VNCThing isn’t sexy, but I find it really useful, particularly in combination with Browsercam. Being a Mac user, I don’t have a Windows box to test on. I used to use Virtual PC, but it tends to be really slow, and anyway, the version that I had broke when I moved to a G5 iMac. Version 7 apparently works on a G5, but I’m a bit annoyed that the copy I bought just stopped working when I moved processors and I have to upgrade for it to work again. So instead I use Browsercam.

Most people use Browsercam simply to take screenshots. However the killer feature for me is remote access. Using VNCThing I can VNC into any of their boxes and test not only my layout, but also the interaction. And amazingly, its faster using a remote computer over the Internet with VNC than it was using Virtual PC on my desktop. Go figure.

Omni Graffle

Lastly I really like Omni Graffle. Again, its one of those apps that I feel I don’t use enough, but that is probably because I’m not doing much IA at the moment. This is the perfect app for doing all your site mapping, wireframing and any other IA work. Its basically Visio done well. I’ve not tried the latest version, but from all the reports I’ve read, its even better. Check it out.

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Using the Sony Ericsson D750/K750/W800 on OS X | August 30, 2005

The Sony Ericsson D750 (also the K750 and W800) has a few small problems when using OS X. I’m sure these will be fixed pretty soon, but until then, here are the ways round them.

Firstly, my D750 came with a USB lead for connecting to my computer. Previously I had a USB charger lead, but this one allows you to browse the device as an external drive as well. The problem is, disconnecting causes a kernal panic which crashes your Mac. Not a good thing.

To get around this problem RazzFazz created a driver that shuts down unneeded services and prevents your Mac from crashing. So if you plan to use your USB lead, I’d recommend downloading and installing it now.

The next problem is Address Book integration. I used to connect to my K700 in Address Book via Bluetooth and send text messages all the time. Unfortunately this no longer works with my D750. Luckily there is an easy way around this.

You should now be able to send text messages, dial numbers etc. using bluetooth.

I got this tip from mobile.feisar.com but unfortunately you can’t direct link to the page.

Lastly, for the full Mac experience, you’ll want to use an OS X Tiger theme. There are plenty around, but I settled on the one from www.esato.com.

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iTunes Smart Playlists | August 20, 2005

I listen to my iTunes music library almost constantly when I’m working. I currently have 3476 songs in iTunes which works out at around 12.4 days worth of music. This may seem a lot, but considering how much time I spend on the computer, I burn through tracks with surprising ease.

One of the problems with this is keeping your music collection interesting. You’ll want to hear newer songs more often than older ones, yet at the same time you’ll want to make sure that the old music doesn’t get lost. You want to hear your favourite songs slightly more often than everything else, but you don’t want to keep listening to the same old tracks over and over again. As such you need to make sure your playlists have a good degree of variety as well as and a high churn rate.

The way to achieve this is by utilising smart playlists, however it can be quite difficult getting the right balance.

The first thing I’ve done is organise my music into genre related playlists such as Indie, Dance, Chill etc. You could do this using a smart playlist and matching the genre to a specified keyword. However I find that the predefined genres tend to be pretty poorly defined. For instance I’ve got several Thievery Corporation CD’s as well as lots of random tracks from compilation albums. As such, their music is variously categorised as Electronica/Dance, Rock, Soundtrack, Reggae and Blues. Of course the other option would be to update the genre info, but there honestly aren’t enough hours in the day.

Next I’ve created a series of “base” smart playlists that will form the foundations of my proper playlists. Because I won’t actually listen to any of these base playlists I’ve given them a prefix of XXX so they appear out of the way at the bottom of my smart playlist list.

The first of these smart playlists is called XXX Highest Rated. As the name suggests, this playlist creates a list of the highest rated songs in my library; in this case songs with 4 or more stars.

XXX Highest Rated Playlist

I don’t want to keep listening to the same songs over and over again, so I have limited this playlist to songs I haven’t heard for a week.

Rating the songs in your iTunes library is a really good idea as it gives you the ability to create all kinds of preference based smart playlists. If you did want to spend a weekend or two rating your songs, you can easily set up a smart playlist to show you every song without a rating. Unfortunately I can’t be bothered going through all my songs, so I tend just to rate my favourites.

With so many songs, it’s easy for your newer music to get passed over. As such I’ve also created a XXX Latest Additions smart playlist.

Latest Additions Playlist

This playlist is comprised of music added in the last 8 weeks. Obviously you can tweak the time depending on the size of your library and how often you add new tracks. I don’t want to keep hearing the same songs over and over again, however I do want to hear newer songs more frequently than older ones. Because of this I’m limiting songs in this playlist to ones I haven’t heard in only 2 days, as opposed to a week

You’ll also notice that I’m excluding audio books and radio stations from this playlist. There is nothing more irritating than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or a learn to speak French CD appearing in the middle of a playlist.

As well as wanting to hear the latest additions, I also want to hear stuff I’ve not listened to in a while. To accomplish this I’ve created a XXX Not Often Played playlist.

Not Often Played playlist

This playlist is made up of songs that have been played less than 4 times and haven’t been listened to in 6 months or more. This is a nice way of getting to hear older music that you haven’t heard often. Obviously the longer you use iTunes, the higher the play count will need to be.

So now I’ve got three playlists, one for my favourite songs, one for the new stuff and one for the older and less played stuff. To complete my base smart playlists I need to create one that deals with everything else. In this case I’m calling it XXX Fresh, because I want to make sure this playlist is full of fresh tracks that I haven’t heard for a couple of weeks.

Fresh playlist

If this playlist just contained songs not played in the last couple of weeks, it would be pretty large and the songs within it would have too much weighting in their favour. In order to put more weighting on the other playlist, I’m limiting this one to only 1000 songs. However I don’t want these 1000 songs to include those in my other playlists, so am excluding them.

With these base playlists in place, I created a new playlist called XXX Mix. This playlist basically brings all the other playlist together in one uber smart playlist.

Mix Playlist

This playlist contains a pool of around 2000 songs. Half of the songs come from my favourites, latest additions and old songs, the other half are songs I’ve not listened to in the last couple of weeks. If you wanted to get more scientific, you could actually set limits on all of the base playlists. For instance, if you wanted to hear twice as many new songs as favourites you could limit the new songs to 600 and the favourites to 300.

I want a way to skip over songs I don’t want to listen to, and I can do this by selecting the “Match only checked songs” option. If a song is playing that I don’t want to listen to, I can simply uncheck it, and iTunes skips to the next song. However periodically you’ll need to go through and re-check these songs or you’ll end up never hearing them again. To make this easier I’ve set up a couple of utility smart playlists.

My Checked playlist is simply a playlist that contains all the checked songs.

Checked playlist

My Unchecked playlist then uses this to exclude any checked songs, creating a list of unchecked songs.

Unchecked playlist

As well as un-checking songs I don’t want to currently listen to, I’ll also un-check songs that I don’t like or are damaged in some way. I can then later go though my Unchecked playlist and delete any songs I no longer want.

Here is a quick tip that frustrated me for a while, so I thought I’d pass it on. Selecting a song in a playlist and hitting backspace simply removes that song from said playlist. If you want to remove the song from iTunes you need to do Option (Alt) Backspace. And if you want to delete the song from your computer you can do Command (Apple key), Option (Alt) and Backspace.

Anyway, back to the XXX Mix playlist. You could happily listen to this playlist as is, although I’d probably choose to limit it to 30 tracks chosen at random, just to keep the sequence shuffled and fresh. However I prefer to listen to my music based on genre, so have created several more smart playlists called @Indie Mix, @Dance Mix, @Chill Mix etc. The @ prefix keeps these main playlist at the top of your smart playlist list, although you could equally use a colon, a full stop or an underscore to achieve the same effect.

Each of these main smart playlists look the same, so I’ll only show you the @Indie Mix playlist.

Indie playlist

Here I’m simply creating a subset of my main mix playlist that only contains Indie music, and am limiting this playlist to 30 songs chosen at random from a much larger pool of songs.

And there you have it. That’s how I use smart playlists keep my music collection interesting and organised. However I know there are many ways to skin a cat, so I’d be interested to hear how you organise your music collection in iTunes.

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Apple Market Share | July 30, 2005

I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. Probably more than most. So I want to make sure that I spend as little time as possible keeping my system running. Many years ago I used to use a PC and estimate that I’d spend around 2% of my time keeping the system in good working order. That could be installing software or patches, defragging the disk, or the occasional OS reinstall. Not a huge amount of time, but it does add up. These days I use a Mac, and the amount of time I spend on maintenance has easily dropped below 0.01%.

Because I use my computer all the time, I want it to be as pleasant an experience as possible. I want my computer to help me do my work, or at least not get in my way. A few months ago I was working on site for a client and was forced to use a Windows machine for two weeks. While the OS has definitely improved in the last few years, I still get the feeling that I’m fighting against the OS rather than working with it. And while Windows XP looks a little nicer than it’s predecessor, it still feels miles behind the Mac OX. Web pages just always look at lot nicer when viewed on a Mac than a PC, which is probably why most of the screenshots you see in books are taken on a Mac.

Now before the Windows users go on the defensive, I’m not saying that OS X is perfect. Like most computer systems, it has it’s quirks, oddities and annoyances. However I truly believe that it’s the best operating system around and will stay that way for a couple of years. At least until Vista debuts.

I have quite a bit of time, money and emotional attachment invested in Apple, so would hate for anything to happen to them. There have been a few moments in recent history where there future looked uncertain, but the success of the iPod coupled with the Mac mini seem to have secured their future, at least for the next couple of years. However I want Apple to thrive and one perceived guarantee of longevity is market share.

Currently Apple has a US market share of 4.5 percent and a global market share of 2.5 percent. At first glance these figure seem pretty poor. However it’s worth putting that in perspective. 4.5 percent means that one in every 22 computers in the US is a Mac. When you think about it, that’s actually quite a lot.

Brighton seems to be the Mac capitol of the UK. Everywhere I go I see people with their iBooks or Powerbooks out. In WiFi cafes, in the park and on the beach. In fact a while ago there was a rumour circulating that outside of New York, there were more Apple computers per capita in Brighton than anywhere else in the world. Probably an urban myth, but it’s a believable one.

Most of my friends and colleagues own at least one Mac, and at conferences like SXSWi and @media, the halls are swarming with them. In fact spying a Dell or a Vaio at one of these events is a bit of an oddity.

Apple doesn’t have a huge cut of the larger computer market, but it does have a strong showing in the creative sector. Most web designers I know own a Mac or aspire to owning one. I wouldn’t say that this site is particularly Mac focused, although I do post the odd article about Apple here and there. However looking at my stats over a 6 month period shows that 26.5 percent of my site visitors are Mac users, 48 percent are Windows users and a further 23 percent are bots and news readers that don’t announce there OS.

So while Apples market share may appear small, it is actually a lot larger and more stable than you may imagine.

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You Can Now Pre-order Tiger in the UK As Well | April 19, 2005

OS X 10.4 Tiger install disk

So OS X 10.4, also known as Tiger, will be launched on the 29th of April. If you’re based in the states and want to save yourself $35, you can pre-order your copy of Tiger from Amazon.com. Unfortunately at the time of my original post, Amazon.co.uk weren’t offering the same deal.

Luckily they now are, so you can save yourself a whopping £14 if you order your copy of Tiger from Amazon.co.uk

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OS X 10.3.8 Hangs on "Login Window Starting" at Boot | April 18, 2005

So over the weekend my iBook stopped working. Every time I tried to boot it up, the computer would hang at exactly the same place – “Login Window Starting”. I tried booting into safe mode, but it still hung. None of the usual Mac troubleshooting tips like repairing permissions or resetting the PRAM worked. I checked the Apple support site but came up blank. A quick search showed me that lot’s of people were experiencing the same problems, and each one suggested doing something different to fix it. The two most fixes that looked the best involved trashing the login prefs and ditching the font cache. However neither of them seemed to do the trick. Bugger!

Faced with the thought of an energy sapping hour long phone call to Apple technical support, there was only one thing left to try. Reinstalling the OS. Now when I was a Windows person, It seemed that reinstalling the OS was a regular event. I’ve never had to do this on a MAC, and to be honest I’d hoped I never would. I grabbed all the important info off the iBook by starting it in Target Disk (Firewire) mode, reminding myself that I really need to sort out a back-up solution and then set about reinstalling the OS. For minimum hassle I did an “Archive and Install” and then immediately upgraded to OS X 10.3.9. This seems to have done the trick, so if you find yourself experiencing the same problem, it looks like a reinstall may be your only option :-(

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Pre-order Tiger Now | April 7, 2005

OS X 10.4 Tiger install disk

The Apple rumour sites are in overdrive at the moment, trying to guess when the new version of OS X – also known as Tiger – will be announced. The original guess was the 1st of April, but that came and went without incident. The current thinking is it will be announced mid April, possibly on the 18th.

If you’re planning to buy a copy of Tiger and would like to save a few bucks – $35 to be precise – you can pre-order your copy of Tiger from Amazon.com.

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The no hassle guide to installing PHP and MySQL on OS X 10.3 | February 23, 2005

In preparation for last weekends PHP workshop I decided to set up a development environment on my iMac. It was pretty easy to do and only took about an hour. Since then I’ve had a couple of people ask about developing on OS X so I thought it would be worth going through my process.

Install PHP

Panther (OS X 10.3) comes bundled with PHP 4.3.2 and enabling it is as simple as uncommenting a couple of lines in the Apache configuration file (httpd.conf). However I chose instead to install the PHP5 package supplied by Marc Liyanage which comes with a number of additional libraries. Being a regular OS X installer package, all you need to do is double click the package and follow the on screen instructions.

Once installed, turn web sharing on in the sharing control panel and drop a file containing the following code in your shared folder.

<?php phpinfo(); ?>

Then you can then test your php installation by accessing that file through your browser at http://127.0.0.1/~username/filename

Install mySQL

To install mySQL, grab the latest OS X package and follow the installation instruction. In older versions of OS X you needed to create a mysql user for the program to run under. Luckily 10.3 comes with a mysql user already set up, making installation a bit easier.

The package contains the mySQL installer and also a startup item installer which makes sure mySQL is running when you reboot your computer. With both items installed you need to do a couple of things in the command line to finish off.

First you’ll want to add the path to mysql as an environmental variable, so you won’t have to type the full path out each time. The install instructions explain how to do this in the tsch shell (Jaguars default shell) but to do the same thing in Panthers bash shell, run the following commands.

shell> echo 'export PATH=/usr/local/mysql/bin:$PATH' >> ~/.bash_profile

Then you’ll want to run mySQL to remove the anonymous user and to set the root password.

shell> mysql -u root
mysql> DELETE FROM mysql.user WHERE User = '';
mysql> FLUSH PRIVILEGES;
mysql> SET PASSWORD FOR 'root'@'localhost' = PASSWORD('newpwd');
mysql> SET PASSWORD FOR 'root'@'host_name' = PASSWORD('newpwd');

For more info see the post installation documentation.

mySQL frontend

If you’re not a hard core command line user you’ll probably want a nice front end to manage mySQL. Most hosts use phpMyAdmin, an easy to install php front end. Simply download the files, move the folder to your shared directory and then edit the config files (phpmyadmin.conf) with your mySQL username, password and path to phpMyAdmin. You can then simply navigate to that folder in your browser to manage mySQL.

Keeping your password as clear text in the config file isn’t very secure, so you’ll probably want to use HTTP authentication instead.

Alternatively if that’s too much messing around for you, try CocoaMySQL instead. It’s a really nice freeware mysql administration application which allows you to manage all your mySQL databases, both local and remote.

Apparently there is a problem connecting to MySQL 4.1 with CocoaMySQL because of a change in encryption mechanisms. However there is a simple fix for this.

Apache configuration

Lastly it’s really handy to set up Virtual Hosts in Apache. This allows you to access your sites directly via a virtual hostname or port number e.g.

http://mysite
http://127.0.0.1:8080

instead of via your home directory

http://127.0.0.1/~username/sitename.

This makes developing a little easier as you can use absolute rather than relative urls in your html, css etc so you won’t have to change paths when you move your files to the live server. There are a number of ways to do this, so have a look at theses articles and the resulting comments for more info.

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Life Just Got a Little More Random | February 17, 2005

ipod shuffle

So while I was up in London over the weekend, I decided to treat myself to an iPod Shuffle. I’ve wanted a proper iPod for some time now, but could never justify the expense. The power of the iPod lies in the ability to carry your whole music collection around, allowing you to listen to what you want, when you want. They’d be a great gadget to take travelling, and my girlfriend used hers everyday when commuting to London. However with a 5 minute walk to work, an iPod would be wasted on me.

I’ve always thought it would be handy to have a little portable music player for those moments when you want to kill a bit of time, say on the odd trip up to London or down at the gym. The iPod shuffle is great for this as it’s random nature fits perfectly with my random usage patterns. If I was using it every day for long periods I’d want more control. But for occasional use, shuffle works perfectly.

However my main reason for getting an iPod Shuffle wasn’t to get an mp3 player, It was to get a new USB drive. I’ve previously owned two USB keyring drives and found them a realy handy way of moving files around. Unfortunately neither lasted very long so it was time to buy a new one. The iPod Shuffle turns about to be one of the most affordable USB drives around, with the extra bonus of doubling up as a great little mp3 player.

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Backup Solutions for OS X | January 19, 2005

At Message we’ve always been very diligent with our backups. We run Retrospect Backup on our server every night. Originally backing up to CD, we now backup to one of two external hard drives which we alternate daily. This means that if one drive fails we only ever lose a days work.

Unfortunately my home backup up routine is far more sporadic, involving burning key files to disk every few months when I remember. This is really bad and I definitely need to implement some kind of cheap and easy home backup solution. Any solution would need to be automatic as I’d forget otherwise. As well as restoring individual files, it would also need to provide me with an easy way of restoring all my files, prefs etc. in the event of a complete system failure.

So I’d be interested to know what backup systems you use for your home or small business, and what backup solutions you’d recommend.

Comments (31)

Using a Sony Ericsson K700i Mobile Phone to Remote Control Your Mac (OS X 10.3.5) | January 17, 2005

I’m doing a SkillSwap presentation on Thursday and wanted to use my mobile phone as a bluetooth remote control. I was planning on grabbing a copy of Salling Clicker but it turns out that OS 10.3.5 already has a simple remote control facility built in.

When paring your K700i mobile phone using the Bluetooth Setup Assistant in OX 10.3.5 or higher, you’ll notice an option entitled “Use phone as a remote control for this computer”. If you select this option your phone should pop up a message asking if you want to “Start Remote Control Now”. You can either click yes now and it will take you to the remote control display on your phone, or you can navigate there via the Bluetooth option in your connectivity menu.

Initially there are 3 controllers, Desktop, MediaPlayer and Presenter. As I’m using S5 for my presentation the Desktop controller is perfect. However you can also download Salling Remote Basic for free and this allows you to install controllers for iTunes, EyeTV, DVD Player, VLC, PowerPoint, and Keynote. The remotes are quite nice as they show a visual representation of the keyboard on screen and highlight what each key does. Apparently the GUI is called a HID or “Human Interface Device” and is made up of an image and an XML like file. They give you access to all the basic features and are great if you just want a simple remote control.

However I thought I’d give Salling Clicker a go by way of comparison. The current version of Clicker doesn’t support the K700i, however there is a beta version that does. Installing clicker is a two part process, first installing the preference pane on your Mac and then installing the app on your phone. The preference pane was a little counterintuitive at first but made sense once I’d read this article at MacDevCenter. It probably would have made more sense if I’d RTFM but I’m notoriously lazy when it comes to manual reading.

I had expected Clickers remote option to also use HID concept. Unfortunatly the GUI (if you can even call it that) was a lot more basic. Entering the iTunes remote a quick note flashes up saying “use # for more info” before the song details start to display. Pressing # brings up a very hard to read “menu” outlining what the various keys do. Unlike the graphical HID, I guess you’re expected just to remember the what each key does. The Clicker iTunes controller has lots more features than the free controller, allowing you to browse by artist and playlist, add a rating etc. Also–unlike the free remote–it allows you to operate iTunes even if it’s not the active application. However for these benefits you’ve got to suffer a fairly clunky navigation system.

The real selling point for me are Clickers proximity events which let you set an AppleScript to execute when you leave or return from the computer, get a phone call etc. This is a really nice feature that allows you to do things like pause iTunes and set your iChat status when you leave the room, automatically sync your phone and keep your address book connected.

Because Clicker works by essentially allowing you to define various AppleScripts to execute it’s much more flexible than the free remotes. Unfortunatly the lack of a HID makes using the free remotes a lot more pleasant. If you want to be able to execute specific AppleScripts or take advantage of the proximity events then Clicker is great. If however you just want to operate iTunes from the living room or remotely operate a presentation using your phone, the free scripts are more than up to the job.

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Top 5 OS X Applications of 2004 | December 23, 2004

2004 has also been a great year for new OS X applications, from a glut of new RSS readers to innovative ideas like xScope and Delicious Library

Here are my favourite OS X applications from 2004. What treats did 2004 hold for your OS?

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The One Where my G5 iMac Finally Arrives | December 7, 2004

So after what seemed like an eternity, I finally took delivery of my G5 iMac. Sliding it out of the box my first thoughts were very positive. It looked really nice sitting there all shiny and new. Still a bit ungainly but I could see myself warming to it. My second thoughts were “bloody hell, this thing weighs a tonne”. I don’t have a kg to kg comparison but it felt about twice as heavy as my G4 iMac. I guess a lot of the weight comes from the metal stand, which I imagine needs to be heavy to counterbalance the weight of the machine and stop it from toppling over.

Getting the machine home the very first thing I did was take the back off. No, this wasn’t some geek desire to see the guts of my new G5 before I’d even booted it up, although I have to admit it was pretty interesting. Like most new Mac owners my first job, nay duty, was to add more RAM. Rather than pay through the nose for Apple branded RAM, at the suggestions of a few of my visitors I bought a 1GB DIMM from Crucial for about half the price. Apparently there is an issue with the RAM configuration in the G5 iMacs which mean you only get a 128-bit memory bus if you use two DIMMs of the same composition. I did consider buying 2×512MB DIMMs but that would have stopped me from upgrading my RAM as easily, as well as leaving me with an unused 256MB DIMM. This ways I’ve now got a machine with 1.25GB RAM, albeit with a 64-bit memory bus.

Making a space for the new G5 on my desktop, I plugged the machine in, turned it on and started the set-up process. The first task was to pair my bluetooth mouse and keyboard with the machine which went pretty smoothly. One of the great things with the current set-up assistant is it’s ability to use your old mac as a firewire drive and copy over all your users, files, applications and preferences. I’ve never done this before, but the whole process was a doodle. Just link the two Macs via a firewire cable, restart the old Mac in “Target Disk” by holding down the T key while it’s booting, and then use a simple dialogue to decide what users and files to copy over. About an hour and a half later My G5 was basically a mirror of my G4, but with a shed load more power.

My first impressions of the machine was pretty good. The boot-up process was about 10 times faster than my old machine, helped in no small part I’m sure by all that extra RAM. The extra screen real-estate was great and I’m now able to properly work on an 800×600 Photoshop comp without all the pallets getting in the way. To really test out the speed though my first port of call was Halo. On my old Mac I played Halo on the lowest settings possible and the performance was still pretty ropey. On my G5 I was able to turn all the settings up to their max, allowing me to play Halo for the first time in all it’s graphic glory. I’d convinced myself that one of the reasons I was rubbish at playing Halo online was due to the performance of my machine. Sadly 2 hours of game playing later I can attest that I’m actually just shockingly bad at the game and my gamesplay has absolutely nothing to do with my hardware.

I quite like the bluetooth mouse and keyboard, however there is a noticeable lag between the computer waking up from sleep and the mouse working. Also on a couple of occasions the mouse has just not been recognised at all and I’ve had to re-boot manually, which isn’t a great advert. As I’ve never had a wireless mouse and keyboard before, how much do they chew through batteries. Should I be turning them off over night and when I’m out of the house, or do they use very little power when not in use?

My other main gripe is that the speakers really do suck. When I got my old iMac I thought the Apple pro speakers were amazing. I’d honestly never heard computer speakers sound that good and they are one of the reasons why most of my music listening is now done on my Mac. The speakers on the new G5 iMac are fine for everyday computer use but absolutely no good for listening to music. As such I think one of the first thing I’m going to have to do is buy new speakers.

So despite the new iMac not looking half as good as the old one, it wins hands down in terms of performance, and I’m looking forward to getting a lot more use out of it in the weeks to come. Now all I need to do it think of a way to convince my boss to buy me one for work.

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G5 iMac on the Way | November 14, 2004

G5 iMac

So despite my initial reservation about the form factor of the new G5 iMac, the specs won me over. At the end of Oct I put in my order for a 17” 1.8GHz G5 iMac with Airport, Bluetooth and a 160GB hard drive. Checking out the status page it looks like delivery is set for sometime this week and I have to say I’m quite excited.

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The G5 iMac | October 4, 2004

G5 iMac

When the G5 iMac was launched I have to admit that I was less than impessed. While the specs were great, I just wasn't taken by the design. To me the G4 iMac was revolutionary. It's a beautiful piece of equipment that looks great in any home. In fact It's probably the nicest looking thing I own and still gets people talking when they come round to visit. By comparison then G5 iMac looked fairly plain and awkwardly proportioned.

One thing I love about the G4 iMac is it's ergonomic design and the fact that you can move the screen into pretty much any position you want. Apparently Apple did some research and found that people never really adjusted the height of the screen, so I guess that I must be one of the odd ones out. I share my iMac with my girlfriend and while I like to have the screen up at eye level, she usually has it lower and tilted up (I find this gives me neck ache). Also we'd occasionally watch a DVD on the iMac in which case we'd lower the screen completely so it was closer to our sitting height. This was one of the coolest features of the G4 iMac and one reason why the G5 felt like a step back.

However I thought it was best to reserve final judgement till I saw one in person. When the iPod mini was launched I also wasn't impressed by the design. The images on the apple store made them look a little cheap and garish, yet in real life they were actually pretty cool. So despite moving flats over the weekend (remind me not to buy any more stuff), I took half an hour out to check out the new iMac at my local Mac dealer.

My first impressions were a lot more positive than I'd expected. While the images on the Apple site make the G5 look a little dull and lacklustre, in reality they have quite a nice finish. The large space at the bottom of the screen looks much more prominent on the images than in real life, so the G5 iMac doesn't look as out of proportions as I was expecting. So while not as attractive as the G4 iMac, the G5 isn't as ugly as I thought it was going to be and could possibly even grow on me.

The machine was easy to swivel on it's base and the tilt range was pretty good, just no where near as nice as the G4 iMac. The pics made the stand look a little unstable which was confirmed by "bump testing" the table at the shop. I could quite easily see the whole thing coming crashing to the ground if you accidentally knock the table it's on a little too hard. I had a play with Photoshop, running through some actions. I have to admit that I'd expected blisteringly fast results, so as a little disappointed as the speed. However this could have been a memory thing (256MB is far to little memory for even a consumer computer these days). They didn't have Halo installed but Nanosaur 2 ran pretty smoothly. Just a shame you can't change the graphics card yourself or even get a better one as a built-to-order option. As such while the G5 iMac will be fine for the current slew of Mac games, It probably won't do so well with the next generation of games.

So on the whole I was pleasantly surprised. While I love my ageing G4 iMac, it just doesn't have the power or storage I need, so I think upgrading to a new G5 may be on the cards. You do get quite a bit of bang for your buck, but it's still gonna set me back over £1,500 for the 20-inch model with a bit of extra RAM, WiFi, Bluetooth and a wireless keyboard. That's quite a lot to spend on a home computer, especially as my G4 is only a few years old. I guess I better start saving.

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Tabbed Finder Window | June 3, 2004

tabbed finder window

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Apple iPhone | April 16, 2004

iphone.jpg

For a long time people have been talking about the possibility of Apple bringing out a PDA. However this is something Apple have always strongly denied. While an Apple PDA would be good, I think a smart phone would be amazing.

With Apples legendary design aesthetic, you know an iPhone would look great. Running a cut down version of OS X you'd have the power of UNIX and the looks of Aqua in a form factor to die for. Using a mini iPod's flash drive you could have a device that works as a phone, camera, mp3 player and cut down PDA all in one. How great would that be? Surfing the web using Safari on your mobile. Being able to telnet using your phone. If Apple ever did decide to go down that route (they own the iPhone domain name btw), I'd be at the front of the que.

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Bring in the Gimp | April 1, 2004

It sure ain’t pretty, but if your looking for a free image manipulation package for OS X, the Gimp may be worth a try. The Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) has been around on Linux for an age, and has recently been ported to OS X

The version I’ve installed comes from OpenOSX and can be downloaded for free from their FTP Server. To run this you’ll need a windowing system like Apple’s X11 which you can freely download from the Apple site.

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Idiots Guide to Backing-up MySQL on OS X | March 3, 2004

At work we use an old G4 to act as our file and development server. At the end of last week, while synchronising one of our local MySQL databases with the live database, I accidentally overwrote a local table with old data. Luckily we backup so this wasn't a problem. However I thought some of you may find it useful to know how we do this, just incase you ever end up in a similar predicament.

Backing up a local MySQL database on OS X is pretty simple. To do a backup, you make use of the mysqldump command. This simply dumps the contents of the specified databases into a text file as INSERT statements. The below example simply dumps the contents of my clowns database to the current directory.

(I'm using the ¬ symbol to indicate where a line wraps)

mysqldump --user=andy --password=secret¬
clowns > clowns.sql

If you want, you can add a number of parameters to change the way mysqldump behaves. In this example, I'm locking the database before running the dump, adding a drop table and then naming the file based on the day of the week. If I run this command each day, I'll end up storing 7 days of backups locally.

mysqldump --user=andy --password=secret clowns¬
--lock-tables --add-drop-table > clowns`date +%u`.sql

If I wanted, I could name the file based on the actual date and store one file for each day. This would probably make more sense, but storage space is pretty tight, so I'm happy with just the last 7 days.

The next thing to do is make a shell script file. Open up a blank document, name it mysqlbackup.sh and then add the following lines.

#!/bin/sh
mysqldump --user=andy --password=secret clowns¬
--lock-tables --add-drop-table > clowns`date +%u`.sql;

In my backup script, I've added a bit of logic and error reporting so I know what's going on. If you wanted, you could also turn things like the username and password into variables to make editing the script easier.

Here is an example of the script I'm using.

#!/bin/sh

# echo start message
echo "Backup Script Processing"

# navigate to backup dir
if
	cd /Users/andy/clownbackups/
then
	echo "...successfully navigated to backup dir"
else
	echo "could not locate backup directory"
	exit 0
fi

# echo message
echo "exporting SQL dump"

if
	#dump the db into a .sql file
	mysqldump --user=andy --password=secret clowns¬
--lock-tables --add-drop-table > clowns`date +%u`.sql;
then
	#echo success message
	echo "SQL dump successful"
else
	#echo error message
	echo "mysqldump error"
	exit 0
fi

You can test your script out by running it from the terminal using the sh command. You'll see the output echo'd to the screen and if it's been successful, your mysql dump will appear in the directory you specified.

Now this is pretty cool, but nobody wants to open up the terminal and run this script every day before you back-up to disk (you do back-up every day, don't you?).

To get round this, you need to set up a cron job. When I first heard about cron jobs, they filled me with fear (as you can tell, I'm not hugely server savvy). However cron jobs are actually very simple. A cron job is simply a job that you want to automate, so that it runs at a set time. OS X does a number of cron jobs by default, mostly involving cleaning up logs and temporary files. The file that manages the system cron jobs is called crontab (short for cron table) and on OS X, is located at /private/etc.

This file is probably owned by root, so you'll need to sudo pico into it to make any changes. Once open, you'll see that it's a simple simple table of jobs (hence the name). Along the top is the frequency, and down the right hand side is the job to perform. Here is an example of my default crontab file.

# /etc/crontab
SHELL=/bin/sh
PATH=/etc:/bin:/sbin:/usr/bin:/usr/sbin
HOME=/var/log
#
#minute hour    mday    month   wday    who     command
#
15      3       *       *       *       root    daily
30      4       *       *       6       root    weekly
30      5       1       *       *       root    monthly

What we need to do is add a new line to this file that tells OS X to run your back-up script at a set period of time. We usually back-up at 5:30pm so I'm going to run my mysql backup script at 5:15pm and then save the file. If you're not comfortable doing this manually, cronnix is a useful OS X GUI for editing your cron jobs.

 15     17      *       *       *       root    ¬
sh /private/etc/mysqldump.sh¬
>> /private/etc/cron_error.log 2>&1

In the above example I'm also sending the output to an error log so I can make sure the script is executing correctly. When I run the script, the mysqlbackup file appears in my backup folder. However if I open it, it's empty. Looking at the error log tells me that the mysqldump command couldn't be found. Now this may seem strange as you can run the same shell script from the command line and it works fine. The reason lies in environmental variables.

When you log in to the terminal, one of the first things that happens is OS X goes off and looks for a file called .tcshrc (if you're using tsch) which contains customisation information about the user. One of these bits of information is a path which tells OS X where certain programs are stored. If you run a cron job, you need to add this path information to your crontab. If you look at the above example of my crontab file, you'll see the following text.

PATH=/etc:/bin:/sbin:/usr/bin:/usr/sbin

What you need to do is add to this the path to mysql. When I do this, my path becomes.

PATH=/etc:/bin:/sbin:/usr/bin:/usr/sbin¬
:/usr/local/mysql/bin

Depending on how you installed MySQL, your path information may be different. If you're not exactly sure where myslq is stored, you could either do a quick locate or have a look in your .tcshrc file (it's quite interesting to see what's in there anyway). With this set, your specified databases should get backed up every day and you'll no longer have to worry about overwriting or loosing data. For more fun, you can change your shell script to backup and download from a remote server.

Word of warning though. I'm no *NIX expert so all the usual disclaimers apply. Don't talk to strangers, always wear clean underwear if your going out, and make sure that you create copies of any system files you're editing. There are probably better ways of accomplishing this, but the above method is pretty simple and quite a good example of what can be done with a little command line tinkering on OS X.

Comments (12)

A Mini Disappointment | January 6, 2004

iPod miniI was quite excited about today's Apple keynote speech. There have been lots of rumours flying around about new Apple hardware. Amongst them have been speculation about a new iMac design, the possibility of a G5 powerbook and a tivoesque digital hub called an iBox. There has also been talk of an iPod like device that can playback video and the ever present speculation about tablets and PDA's.

Sadly none of the above appeared at this Macworld, although we were promised that 2004 would herald some great new products. What was announced was the iPod mini. On the face of it, this is a really good idea. iPods were *the* cool present this Christmas and have dominated the top end mp3 player market. However they are pretty expensive so it makes sense for apple to create an affordable version to increase their market share even more. This they are trying to do with the iPod mini.

However from what I can see the pricing just doesn't stand up. While the iPod mini looks pretty cool (although personally I think the candy colours look tacky) it's only $50 less than the 15GB iPod, yet has about a 10th of the capacity. If the difference was $100 I could see people being tempted, but for $50 difference I'd guess most people would go for the 15GB iPod instead. As such I'm guessing that apple will probably have to drop the price of their iPod mini's pretty soon after they come out in order to make them competitive. So if you want one, it would probably be worth while waiting around for a few months to see what Apple do.

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Mail.app Crashes in OS X 10.3 Panther | December 4, 2003

I installed Panther a week or so ago and apart from a few teething problems everything was fine. However a couple of days ago I rebooted my iMac for the first time since my install and ever since then Mail.app has been playing up.

First off, after my reboot, junk mail filtering had stopped. This meant about 20+ spam emails started turning up in my in box every morning, something I wasn't really used to. Then I started to notice the app itself kept crashing when I tried to flag messages as junk.

After a bit of testing I trashed ~/Library/Mail/LSMMap and so far (fingers crossed) Mail seems to have stopped crashing. Now all I've got to do is spend the next couple of weeks retraining the junk filter.

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Mac OS X 10.3 Panther Review | November 29, 2003

Well I've been using Panther at home for a few weeks now, so thought I should give a quick review. For something a bit more indepth, here is a great, unbiased review of Panther.

Overall Panther feels much more responsive than Jaguar. Window handling seems snappier, launching applications feels quicker and I spend much less time looking at the rainbow spinning wheel of death than I used to. Considering OS X was supposed to be pretty much "crash proof" Jaguar used to lock up on me all the time. This was mostly caused by Macromedia apps crashing and taking down the whole system with them. Macromedia's apps still seem to crash on a fairly regular basis but on Panther they're yet (touch wood) to take down my OS.

After installing Panther I was pleased that there were few troubles with any of my applications. I did have problems with Photoshop, but fixing it was as simple as trashing a particular set of prefs. However there is one weird thing with iTunes. I've almost stopped listening to music on my stereo these days so have iTunes open all the time. However every now and then iTunes decides to start playing for no apparent reason – something which can be really annoying in the middle of the night! I've had a bit of a search around but can't find any info on the problem.

The main feature I got Panther for was fast user switching. I share my home computer with my girlfriend and when I first got OS X I set her up a user account. However after the first few weeks of using it, it became a real pain in the arse. If I was in the middle of something and Mel wanted to use the computer for half an hour, I'd have to shut all my applications down, log out and then she'd have to log in and launch all her applications. It was such a pain that very quickly her user account got abandoned. Now with fast user switching, all your apps stay open making switching a much more viable option. I was also looking forward to showing off Panthers cool user switching transition. However despite being on a fairly modern flat panel iMac with more than the average amount of RAM, the whole cube thing just doesn't happen, which is sad.

The other cool thing is expose, Panthers new application switching/window handling mechanism. I'm yet to get the best out of expose as I'm still used to my old way of working which involved layering up windows in use so they overlapped – allowing me to click from one to the other – while hiding the windows that weren't in use. As expose doesn't work with hidden applications or docked windows I'm going to have to start keeping more things visible and undocked to get the best out it it, which means changing the way I'm currently used to working. Still I can definitely see the benefits us using expose, especially as it's much faster than Panthers regular window handling.

So generally I think Panther is an improvement over Jaguar. Whether it's worth the price tag is another question.

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Photoshop 7.0 crashing at startup in Panther | November 20, 2003

Since installing Panther (Mac OS 10.3) I've been having problems with Photoshop 7.0. I'd try to launch the application but it would crash out and open a dialogue box asking if I wanted to submit a bug report to Apple.

I tried trashing my prefs but no luck. I noticed that the start-up process always crashed at the "loading fonts" bit so I tried turning off my fonts. Still no luck. Googling for the problem turned up no results and there were no details on either the Adobe or Apple sites.

I thought I'd end up having to reinstall Photoshop but this morning I noticed an article in my RSS client from macosxhints.

The article suggests trashing the Workflow folder in /Library -> Application Support -> Adobe. I gave it a go and sure enough it fixed the problem.

So I just wanted to say cheers to "Anonymous" for the post. I've scanned in all my half descent Cambodia/Vietnam pics (not many so it didn't take long) so hope to have a go at getting them up on my photo site over the weekend.

Comments (7)

New 20" iMac | November 18, 2003

Apple have just released a new 20" iMac.

Mmmm. sexy...

Comments (6)

Some Panther Links | November 13, 2003

If you're new to Panther and want to get a handle on some of it's cooler features, here are some useful links.

First up, Mark Pilgrim has written an excellent introduction to Panther on his equally excellent diveintoOSX site.

Next up is Panther by the Numbers, a macworld article outlining 40 new Panther features. Unlike most of these type of article, this one actually has some pretty good tips.

Finally there is Ken Bereskin's "Panther" weblog. Ken is the product manager for OS X so I guess he knows a thing or two about Panther. The blog is quite new but already has some interesting posts.

If anybody has any other cool Panther links, please let me know.

Comments (2)

Night of the Panther | November 13, 2003

When new software comes out I usually leave it a few weeks before installing it. Experience has shown me that most first releases are buggy and it takes a few weeks to iron out all the quirks. This was true with Panther, the new OS version from Apple. The initial release seemed to install correctly, but lot's of people were having troubles with external firewire drives and the new file vault feature, not to mention a number of apps just not working. However a couple of days ago apple released their first update (read patch) so I thought it would probably be safe to upgrade my OS.

So last night I installed Panther. I usually just slap on new software without backing up, but in this instance I decided to burn a few disks of important stuff, just in case. Luckily the install went almost without a hitch. I say almost because the install wouldn't actually work the first couple of times I tried. However I remembered that I hadn't installed the last bunch of OS10.2 updates, and once they were in it worked like a charm.

A number of people had commented about the speed of installation so I was kind of surprised that the whole thing took the best part of an evening. Still I'm all panthered up now and roaring to go.

The main reason for the upgrade was fast user switching. In OS10.2 you had to log out (closing down all your apps in the process) to switch users. Now user switching is seamless, which will hopefully make sure user accounts actually get used properly.

I really like expose, however I'm not actually sure how often I'll use it. I've got so used to hiding all my apps using alt-click that I rarely have more than a couple of apps visible at any one time. Still I'm sure it will come into use when using things like DWMx which really doesn't handle windows very well.

Supposedly there are over 100 new features in Panther so I'd be really interested to hear what people thing about this upgrade, what features you are most excited about, and what tips people have for getting the most out of Panther.

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P2P File Sharing on OS X | November 4, 2003

For a long time, P2P file sharing was confined mostly to the Windows world as there was a distinct lack of file sharing software available on OS X. Mac users wanting to dip their toes in the murky world of p2p file sharing would invariably settle a copy of Limewire.

Recently there have been a number of new OS X p2p file sharing applications released including 2get, Acquisition and Drumbeat. However the one causing the most interest is Poisoned. This little app is simple to use, works across a number of networks and has a few nice features to make file sharing easier. So if you want to see what all the file sharing fuss is about, have a look at Poisoned. Just make sure you have permission to share or download the files first.

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DVD Region Madness (or fixing the DVD player on a flat panel iMac) | October 29, 2003

I do quite a bit of traveling and when I'm away I often pick up DVD's to watch. I live in a region 2 area (Europe) but it happens that most the the DVD's I own are region 1. On my iMac, when you first play a DVD it asks you to choose a region, and once set, you can only change this region 5 times. Now to me this seems like madness. If I can legally buy DVD's overseas, I really don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to watch them on my iMac. After all I can go down to my local Sony shop and buy a region free DVD player, why can't I do the same on my computer? The whole region things just seems to pointless and arbitrary. If you can buy region free home DVD players from somebody like sony, what's the point in crippling the DVD player on a computer? Wanting to play a region 2 DVD of the Matrix Reloaded tonight, I decided to see if there was something I could do to "fix" my DVD player. I'd heard about "Firmware" patches before, but looking around on the net, it seemed that there weren't any for my flat panel iMac. However I did come across a utility called LG Reset X. It doesn't turn the DVD on my iMac into a region free DVD player. However it does allow you to reset the counter so you can have more than 5 changes, which means that I can now watch all the DVD's I own on my computer, something I feel really feel I should have been able to do anyway. So if you own a flat panel iMac and want to watch DVD's from different regions, LG Reset X may be worth checking out. **[UPDATE 26/3/06] LG Reset X is no longer availible for download, and unfortunatly I deleted my copy a while ago.**

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Slow iMac | September 21, 2003

My little iMac has been struggling of late. When I first got it, I couldn't believe how speedy it was. Aqua literally popped with responsiveness. However now it just crawls along. Want Dreamweaver and Photoshop open at once, may as well go and make a cup of tea if you want to switch between to two. It's not quite that bad, but it's getting there.

I'm not sure why things slowed down so much. I guess it's just the weight of OS updates, applications, game demos and mp3's getting too much for the machine. I'm sure there are things I can do to speed up performance but I'm not exactly sure what (answers on a postcard please!). There really is nothing quite like the speed of a new computer.

So if in doubt, throw RAM at the problem. I own one of the first 15" flat panel iMacs which came with a puny 256MB RAM. Yesterday I decided to drop into Cancom and get an extra 256MB RAM. I would have got more, but at £120 for 512MB it was pretty pricey just for my home computer. However even the addition of 256 megs seems to have improved my OS's responsiveness considerably.

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Installing PHP and MySQL (and Apache2) on OSX | September 5, 2003

A while ago I wanted to install PHP and MySQL on my Mac, so I could develop locally rather than have to use a remote web server. Now I know a bit of PHP, and MySQL but my UNIX knowledge pretty much sucks. I can do basic UNIX tasks, but anything even slightly more advanced sends me into unknown (and quite frankly scary) territory. As such I was keeping my fingers crossed that installing PHP and MySQL would involve little on no need to use the command line.

When I first wanted to install these apps, there was no info on the Apple site. However I did come across a couple of articles on the O'Reilly OS X Dev Site detailing how to install PHP and MySQL on OS X.

I gave it a stab but very quickly got lost. I was following all the UNIX commands step by step, but things just weren't working so I eventually gave up. A while later I found details on the apple developers site about installing PHP and MySQL. These Instructions were much simpler to follow, but still caused problems and again I gave up feeling rather stupid and dejected.

Then a few days ago I came across this site offering painless installs of Apache 2, PHP and MySQL. They were not wrong. The whole download and install process took less than half hour for all 3. What's more the Apache and MySQL installs came with preference panes allowing you to do a lot of tasks you'd normally have to do in the command line.

So a big thanks to Server Logistics for making these packages available for the UNIX'ly challenged.

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Displaying cover art in iChat | September 4, 2003

I recently downloaded iChatStatus, and have been playing with the various scripts that came with it. Wanting to see what other scripts were availible, I came across this iChat Script Collection which includes a cool script for displaying iTunes artwork in iChat. Unfortunately I didn't have any artwork, but luckily came across Fetch Art, a nifty little app for downloading artwork from Amazon.

On opening up Fetch Art, it scans though your iTunes tracks and then goes off to Amazon to get the cover art. It couldn't find cover art for around 20% of my collection, and got another 20% wrong. Also because it's getting the art work from Amazon.com and not Amazon.co.uk, some of the art work is different. However now around 60% of my iTunes collection has art work, so if you happen to be one of my buddies, you now not only can see what I'm listening too, but you can see the cover art as well.

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Cool OSX Accessbility Features | August 11, 2003

My boss, Jamie, pointed out some accessibility features of OSX I hadn't noticed before. If you go into the "Universal Access" control panel you can turn on zooming, which means you can zoom into anything on your computer, be it a word document or a web page. Also if you want to test the contrast of a design you can set the display to greyscale, which is really cool.

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