Entries in apple (8)

Wednesday
Jan272010

What is the iPad for?

iPad.png

So Apple's fabled Tablet, the iPad, has finally been unveiled. While many of the rumours turned out to be spot on, at least as many more missed the mark. Inevitably there will be a section of the community who feel disappointed with the reality. After all no single device could live up to every expectation. I mean it doesn't even have sharks with frickin' lasers!

However, while Apple have made clear what they think this device is initially going to be used for I think ultimately it's going to be the developer community that proves whether this really is a new device category. Can you imagine the iPhone now still being just a phone that does email, music and internet? Certainly they are still very much core to the iPhone experience, but what really sets the iPhone apart are the apps that have taken it in directions that Apple would never even have thought of. Of course Apple know that too and have already released a new SDK for developers.

This is what makes this time especially exciting to me, as I am part of that developer community. I have one iPhone app out there at the moment, vConqr, a turns-based strategy game somewhat based on the board game, Risk. vConqr should work quite nicely on the new device as is, and of course I have plans to tweak it to take advantage of the new form factor and features. But I have other apps in the pipeline, including one idea that I have been brewing for about five years now. In fact, back in 2005 I was shopping around for tablet computers, looking for a platform to do my app idea justice, but I never found anything compelling. I had initially planned to write a desktop version, which I did start work on, and when the iPhone came out I put it on my queue for an iPhone version. But when I started hearing that rumours of an Apple tablet device where gaining momentum I realised this could be the ideal home platform. Today's unveiling has turned that hope into reality and I can confirm that I am now fully committed to bringing this product to market.

I hope you'll forgive me for not describing exactly what my idea entails just yet, although I have mentioned it to some people in the past. I'll go as far as saying that it is a productivity app that is largely a synergy of two existing app concepts - both of which I fully expect to see numerous implementations of becoming available, individually, for the tablet (as, indeed, they already are for the iPhone). My offering would not simply be a tool that provided both functions - or even a way of seamlessly switching between the two. I believe the integration of the two concepts leads to a sum that is greater than its parts, and throwing in some extra factors (think "cloud") leads to something that, for the last five years, I've wished I already had almost daily and I'm very excited about finally following through on.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that my app will be the saviour of the iPad! In context my point is that, as a developer, I have ideas for this device that would not work so well on any other platform yet. I'm sure I'm not the only one. What the iPad ultimately becomes associated with is something that will not fully emerge until time has allowed the developer community to provide that answer.

As I start to work on Two Blue [Dacted] I'll post a little more information - just to keep you in suspense. You can also follow me on Twitter as phil_nash where I may say more from time to time.

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Wednesday
Nov042009

Apple's "Magic Mouse" - just sleight of hand?

Magic Mouse

Apple recently released their latest mouse. It's a smooth, minimal design, connected via bluetooth, but of particular significance it claims to be "the world's first Multi-Touch mouse". But how good is it in practice. Do the multi-touch features enhance usability? Does it break Apple's curse when it comes to mouse designs (historically they tend to suck)?

There are many reviews of the Magic Mouse springing up over the internet already - on both professional and personal sites, as you would expect. However using a mouse is such a subjective experience that I feel there is still some value in presenting my own experience so far with it. Not least becausea fair amount of controversy surrounds it

One button to rule them all

Apple are often criticised, if not ridiculed, for only supporting a single mouse button. In fact that is not true and Macs have supported multi-button mice by default since at least the mid-90s, and through third-party drivers since long before then. What they have continued to do until only relatively recently is to ship with only a single button mouse, and advocate that all features should be accessible with only the single button.

In 2005 Apple released the Mighty Mouse, first in wired form, then a year later with a Bluetooth variant. This added not just one extra button - but three (for a total of four)! Unfortunately this mouse had problems - most notably in the very area that it appeared to have finally caught up in! To perform a right click you had to lift your left finger, or else the click was interpreted as a left click! There were also other criticisms, such as the ball clogging with dirt frequently.

Since it was Apple who first popularised the use of a mouse for personal computing, it seems odd that for many years now most discerning Mac users eschew Apple's own mice for third-party devices - usually Logitech. Originally the main reason was the lack of extra buttons, but more recently the implementation of multiple buttons has been badly executed. So the release of the Magic Mouse has been met with much hope that Apple have finally got it right - but have they?

Almost but not quite

Sadly the right-click problem is still there. If your left finger is touching the mouse during a right click then a left click event is fired. If, having read this you are ready to give up in disgust, please read on. Personally I have found this to be not as much of an issue as I thought it would be, and by getting past this sticking point I have been able to enjoy the nicer features this new device has to offer.

First, the USP for the new mouse is its multi-touch ability. Now this is not as fully featured as an iPhone screen, or the newest Macbook Pro/Air trackpads, but since this is in addition to traditional mouse features it's a good first step. At it's most basic it replaces the scroll-ball of the Mighty Mouse, offering full 360 degree scrolling by dragging or flicking (just like on an iPhone screen). Scroll-ball diehards fail to see what the fuss is about, but if you've never liked scroll-balls much, and if you're already used to the iPhone way of doing things, this new surface is very nice indeed. In addition to basic scrolling a two finger swipe left or right invokes the back and forward buttons of a browser, respectively. These gestures are a little more awkward at first, but are still useable. It would have been nice if pinch-to-zoom had been available too, but I suspect that would require a more advanced touch surface to work reliably.

Size matters

What about the form factor. This is another highly individual area. If you're used to the ergonomic styles of many of the Logitech mice, which fill the cup of your hand, you may find the Magic Mouse to be small and cramped. Moving from such a Logitech device myself I did notice the difference, but don't find it a problem. I think the differentiating factor is how long you tend to be tied to the mouse. I can imagine that if you are a graphics designer, or someone who spends the majority of their time with their hand on the mouse, the advantage of an ergonomic design become significant. As a developer I'm generally more keyboard oriented. Switching from mouse to keyboard frequently, if anything, is easier with the smaller design as I only tend to touch the mouse with my finger-tips.

Despite being much smaller than my Logitech, the Magic Mouse is roughly the same weight. This is not unusual since the Logitech I have is a wired mouse. As a wireless device, the Magic is probably at the lighter end of the spectrum - but not so light that it feels flimsy. The weight seems just about right - any lighter and the multi-touch gestures would likely knock the mouse around.

Batteries included

Another criticism of the Magic Mouse is that it takes AA batteries, with no integral charging facility. Obviously rechargeable batteries can be used but then it is up to you to take them out and charge them separately. For a mouse with this form factor I think it would be tricky to get the charging circuitry in too - but I could be wrong. It remains to be seen whether this is a real issue or not. I've had battery powered mice before they've been a minor inconvenience, but then so have those with their own chargers - remembering to dock them all the time. Again this is a very subjective experience

Magic or curse?

So is this the Apple mouse that's finally worth getting? Well it seems this question is tougher to answer than before. It still has the right-click problem, and it has a number of other possible downsides too. However the extent and merits of each are highly subjective, and you may be surprised yourself at the experience. Therefore the only conclusion is to try it for yourself. Fortunately they are readily available for testing out in Apple stores around the world.

Personally I'm really enjoying the experience. The scrolling works well and it feels good for my usage patterns. The right-click problem is less of an issue than I thought it would be. Your Magic May Vary.

Saturday
Oct102009

Using a networked drive for Time Machine backups (on a Mac)

You'll find similar information to this around the web, but I find it fiddly enough to piece together reliably, and I need it often enough, that I thought I'd blog about it. That way it at least gives me a single place to look. Maybe it will help others too. Much of the specifcs, especially the hdiutil command line and the ifconfig trick, I sourced from this thread in the ReadyNAS forums. Note that the advice is by no means specific to ReadyNAS drives (I have a Thecus NAS myself). Many thanks to btaroli in that thread for the insight.

Time Machine

Time Machine is Apple's easy-to-use backup system, baked into OS X (as of Leopard). Unfortunately it doesn't allow you to back-up to a networked drive out of the box. Enabling this ability is pretty easy. Early on there were some reliability issues - which were largely due to the fact that Time Machine created a disk image (more specifically, a sparse bundle) on the network drive, and this was prone to corruption if the network connection was disrupted during a backup. I don't know if all the issues here have been entirely resolved now, but it does seem more reliable. Apple's own Time Capsule, which has been specifically designed to work with Time Machine, uses this same method, so it is no longer an entirely unsupported technique.

Enabling Time Machine for network drives

So how do you enable backing up to network drives? Open a terminal window and paste the following in (then hit return, of course):
defaults write com.apple.systempreferences TMShowUnsupportedNetworkVolumes 1
Mounted network drives will then show up in the list of destinations available for storing backups.

Getting a working disk image

Unfortunately this is not always enough. Often, after doing this, Time Machine will appear to start preparing a backup then fail with a cryptic error code. The error I have seen is:
Time Machine could not complete the backup.
The backup disk image "/Volumes/backups-1/Wall-E.sparsebundle" could not be created (error 45).
"Error 45"? What's that. If I try to create a sparse image myself in the same location I'm told, "the operation could not be completed". This is not much more helpful. If you google there are many references around to these errors - mostly in forums. Many of them are not terrible helpful, or require a lot of knowledge and/ or patience. I still don't really know what the problem is, although I suspect it's something to do with permissions and/ or attributes. Either way the solution generally seems to be to create the sparse image manually using a command called hdiutil. If you get this right then Time Machine will think it created it and just start using it. Simple eh? Well, it's not rocket science - but it does involve piecing a few things together. The name of the sparse bundle has to be something very specific which is made up from a few pieces of information unique to your set-up. I'll now take you through how to find those pieces of information.

Finding the Computer Name

We'll start with the easy one. The computer name. Specifically this is whatever the computer is named in the Sharing preferences. So open System Preferences, select "Sharing", and copy the name from the "Computer Name" section at the top.

Finding the MAC Address

This is the physical address of your network card (not your IP address, which is a logical address. Also the term "MAC" here is nothing to do with your Mac as a computer - it stands for Media Access Control address). Now you have to be careful here. Most macs these days have at least two network cards! You will probably have an ethernet port (for a network cable connection) as well as wifi. You may also have a USB based device, such as a mobile broadband device. Regardless of which one you use to connect to the network drive you'll be backing up to, the address we need is of the first network card (usually the ethernet port). If this seems a bit odd at first, consider the case where you usually connect over wifi, but to do an initial backup you connect by cable. If the backup name was dependant on the network connection used this wouldn't work. The address is only used to identify your computer. Anyway, it turns out there is an easy way to obtain this. Back in the terminal window, type the following:
ifconfig en0 | grep ether | awk '{print $2}' | sed 's/://g'
What's that doing? The short answer is "don't worry, it works". The slightly longer answer is that ifconfig dumps all the information it has about all it's ethernet ports. The first port is called en0, so the command ifconfig en0 dumps information about just that one. The pipe character, |, is the unix instruction for sending the output of one command to the input of the next. So we send the information from en0 to "grep ether", which filters out just the lines that have the word "ether" in them - which in this case happen to be where the MAC addresses are shown. To get that line into the form we need for our filename we pipe it to another command, awk, which just picks out the second part of the string, then finally to sed, which removes the colons. Phew. Like I said, it just works. Trust me.

Creating the sparsebundle

Now we have the information we need to create the name of the sparsebundle. Following is the instruction you need to issue to create it. Replace the <mac address> and <computer name> placeholders with the information we obtained above. You may need to change the size parameter (320g here) if you have a large drive to back up. The disk image doesn't take up that space to start with, but will grow up to the size you specify here, so use it to set an upper limit. Also you will be prompted to enter your admin password (sudo runs the command as SuperUser):
sudo hdiutil create -size 320g -type SPARSEBUNDLE -nospotlight -volname "Backup of <computer_name>" -fs "Case-sensitive Journaled HFS+" -verbose ~/Desktop/<computer_name>_<mac address>.sparsebundle
Note that this will create the sparsebundle on your desktop. Once there you can copy it to the desired location on your network drive (then delete from your desktop). This seems to be more reliable than creating it in place. Once you've done that you can start Time Machine and point it at the drive where the sparsebundle resides and it will find it and start using it. If this still fails, check that the name is exactly right and that you followed all the steps above carefully. Now sit back and relax, knowing that all your hard work is being backed up.
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