Apple articles

MacBook Pro two year check-in  

It’s been an interesting couple of years with nothing but a maxed-out MacBook Pro 17″ as my only home machine.

Failures

The hard drive died but time machine held my hand. At ALT.NET Seattle 2009 my backpack took a dive that left a dent in one corner. The battery was replaced and I roped GrinGod into obtaining a replacement UK-style \ key from the UK after some frantic typing.

A friend cracked the display when his key-fob sprang from his Batbelt culminating in a visit of the Apple Store in Bellevue. Ten days and $700 later got that fixed and included a bonus disconnected thermal sensor, a couple of new scratches, an extra screw to rattle around inside and a line of grease around the Apple logo.

Sticking with it

When I find myself eying the unibody I wince at the glossy ‘matt finish’ screen, the multi-touch trackpad clicks that sound like Robocop is nearby and a US keyboard that requires my pinky to hit a single-height enter key. That little pink dog won’t learn any new tricks. I’ve tried.

Still the OpenCL benchmark show the 8600M outperforming the newer 9400M and it does everything I need and at least one thing I don’t (gets hot enough to bake bread on). Short of switching the hard disk out for an SSD – I’ve ordered twice and then recalled after a Twitter volley of “no, you don’t want THAT one” – it’s here to stay for at least another year.

Applications

One thing that is always changing is the bunch of installed applications as I search for a combination that deliver a nirvana between productivity and enjoyment. Apps that perform a set of focused useful tasks with a shiny, eminently lick-able user interface, score highly.

I’ve rounded up my favourite apps before but here’s the latest specials on the menu.

CleanMyMac

This great-looking app helps reclaim wasted space making it a pre-requisite for SSD switchers.

Combining the PowerPC and foreign language code-purging of XSlimmer & TrimTheFat is also adds cache & log purging in with application uninstalls ala AppZapper etc.

Despite using XSlimmer already on my machine it was able to reclaim another 1.8GB and V2 is out soon which I hope will remove & alias duplicates given we’re not getting ZFS which had this feature (how many copies of Sparkle.framework do I have on my machine….)

Coda

This year I rewrote my blog’s WordPress theme from scratch and given the PHP requirement I found myself looking for an alternate IDE to Visual Studio. I already own TextMate but the feel of a raw text editor with bundles of extra bits feel didn’t have the gloss and usability I wanted such as fast preview, remote FTP sync etc. with a minimal of setup fuss.

I briefly toyed with Espresso during the early development cycle but Coda won me over in the end with it’s sheer simplicity and elegance plus the addition of built-in documentation for PHP was very helpful when working offline.

BetterTouchTool

Yes, when the Magic Mouse hit the street I picked one up. The idea of a mouse with trackpad multi-touch technology was appealing but a few minutes of use and no amount of twiddling would make it track  or let me configure it to take full advantage of what it should be able to do.

Until Apple sort this out BetterTouchTool is your friend letting you speed up the tracking of the Magic Mouse, or indeed your trackpad, and assign all sorts of interesting shortcuts and abilities to combinations of finger gestures.

Secrets

Mac apps tend to expose only the common options in their user interfaces but sometimes developers add some additional tweaks and settings behind the scenes that live in the Mac’s equivalent of the registry (known as “defaults“). While you can set these manually using the defaults command-line tool you still need to know the setting exists, it’s name and what options are available and so secrets exposes this.

Secrets is similar to Deeper and TinkerTool but the difference is that the secrets web site lets people add new options which then are automatically available within the installed preferences pane making them easily discoverable, searchable, applied… and occasionally undone.

Machinarium

Screenshot of the game MachinariumThis point-and-click adventure game will appeal to people who enjoyed Monkey Island although it feels more like the gorgeously submerging Beneath a Steel Sky.

The scenery is brilliantly imagined, stylistic and shows that very real lived-in cities can be beautiful especially when populated by cute robots capable of assembling themselves from their own body-parts (just like a triple 8 but infinitely cuter).

[)amien

First impressions of Snow Leopard  

I came home from work today to find my family pack upgrade version of Snow Leopard. It’s been a few hours, so here are impressions so far.

Packaging & installation

The packaging was very small and lightweight and eco-friendly compared to the big-plastic-box-monsters that come out of Redmond.

Installation went mostly smoothly apart from an abort-and-restart that seems to have been caused by my DVD drive flaking out on me. It’s been trouble since it came back from the Apple Store.

I had to run the separate Xcode installer to update that – it wasn’t automatically detected – which left me wondering if I need to manually install anything from the optional installs or not. Running Xcode before updating it not only failed to launch but left a background process I had to force quit with Actitity Monitor to let the installer upgrade it.

The less-is-more-approach followed through to disk space which freed up another 10.5 GB – impressive given that I had purged all the non-English language resources already using Monolingual and I elected to re-install the Rossetta PowerPC binary support.

Noticeable changes

Despite being an optimization release Apple squeezed a few features in to sweeten the deal the majority of which are documented at their site and in proper reviews. The ones I’ve encountered so far are:

Location services, detect time-zone

Screenshot of location aware time-zone in Snow LeopardGreat for travelling users like myself, it found my nearest city instantly.

AirPort status in menu bar

Pop-up menu now shows signal strength of all other networks. (Hold down alt when popping up this menu to see detailed connection stats)

Smoothing options

Gone are the Automatic, light, medium and strong options replaced with a single “Use LCD font smoothing when available” option that isn’t too good at detecting third-party displays but you can activate the old hidden options.

Subpixel quality

The rendering just looks plain wrong when booting. It has that awful colour-fringe that you see from time to time, the cause of which seems to be related to the default gamma (the curve on which digital colours become analogue levels) on Mac OS X changing from 1.8 to the PC compatible 2.2.

It seems however that the sub-pixel rendering algorithms haven’t been updated to correct this. There is absolutely no point in posting a screenshot as either your browser, screen or OS would make it appear different to how it did here.

Help is at hand though, you can head into the ColorSync Utility in your Applications folder and calibrate your display – just follow the instructions and set the gamma back to 1.8. It’s worth turning on “Expert” mode and spending a few minutes setting it up properly though.

Unable to open NIBs

No compiled nibs error in Snow LeopardI used to love opening up other people’s NIB files. You could in theory create your own customised versions of an applications interface. Localise it for yourself. Maybe even create a UK English version where Colour is spelt correctly.

No more.

Whether this was to save space or to prevent such hacking is anyone’s guess.

Compatibility woes

So far I’ve had a couple of things break:

  • Cyberduck quits on launch – beta replacement is out
  • Xbox 360 controller extension (I don’t use it anymore anyway)
  • iStat Menus fails to launch – I need this to replace menu time with timezones and a drop-down calendar

Features I was expecting

Given the lean-and-mean plus sensible small refinements I was expecting…

  1. Login Window keyboard shortcut – come on, seriously, with the secrecy at Apple surely you need this too?
  2. Uninstaller – AWOL since the transition from OpenStep to NextStep and sorely needed
  3. Language purging – I still don’t want French etc. on my laptop, odd omission given the reduction goals
  4. System update framework – Other apps could use this too you know guys – and put clever delta’ing support in
  5. Grab – STILL only saves in TIFF format. So I save it there, load into preview then into PNG. WTF??
  6. Safari – should have an option to force new windows to open in a new tab

I’d also love to see being able to pin documents to their dock icon and being able to push a window to an edge to tile like as these were two features I found useful in Windows 7. Talking of which when you hold the mouse button down on a dock icon it greys everything else out for a truly UAC-like moment every time you want to quit an app from the dock…

The Menlo font

Menlo and Vera Sans Mono overlaid for comparisonApple needed to replace the ageing Monaco as it has poor international unicode support, has just a single style and poor hinting (it uses embedded bitmaps to look good without anti-aliasing in Terminal).

Given Steve Job’s apparently love of typography would they commission a gorgeous new monospaced font as Microsoft did with Consolas? No.

In 2003 Bitstream released the family Bitstream Vera under a free licence which included a great Sans Mono with bolt, italic and bold-italic variants. It even has some capable hinting so looks pretty good without anti-aliasing although could do with a few delta’s to clean that up. While it was short on the unicode support several forks filled in the gaps such as Deja Vu and Apple took Vera Sans Mono, grabbed some of these additions (adding 2900 glyphs) and tweaked some of the existing ones. Specifically they moved the vertical bar up on EBH, widened MN, shifted il, changed 0 from dotted to crossed and move/resized punctation then packed it up in a True Type Collection file that stores multiple TTF’s in a single file.

While these changes themselves look quite good – it seems they were optimizing for 14 point – in the process they destroyed the hinting for these glyphs despite the tiny amount of change made.
Menlo on Windows in NotepadMenlo on Mac OS X in TextMate
Spot which ones Apple modified on these screenshots (curiously Windows refuses to use the TTC file as it believes it is corrupt).

Screenshot of Terminal preferences showing anti-aliasing forced for MenloApple is obviously aware it’s not a good job as the option to turn off anti-aliasing in Terminal when using Menlo is curiously disabled – this seems to be something hard-coded into Terminal.app as it doesn’t affect TextMate.

Boot Camp

Installation here was a little tricky as initially the installer told me that Boot Camp 64-bit was not supported on my computer model.

Whether they don’t support 64-bit Windows on a late 2007 MacBook Pro 17″ (MacBookPro3,1) or whether it was complaining about Windows 7 isn’t clear as there are no Windows 7 specific drivers on the disk.

All is not lost however as if you navigate into Boot Camp\Drivers\Apple folder you can run the BootCamp.msi or BootCamp64.msi from there and it does not seem to perform the check. All the drivers installed without complaint and the trackpad, mouse, audio etc. is working just fine.

[)amien

Disappointing new MacBook Pros  

Like many other MacBook Pro owners I’ve been waiting for the October 14th event with some excitement. The highlights include:

  • Stronger aluminium block casing
  • NVidia dual graphics for low-power or high-performance
  • Glass multi-touch/multi-press trackpad

But the downsides are also worth noting, all of which make me think when I replace my 2.6GHz 17″ MBP in a year Apple aren’t going to have something I want to replace it with.

  • No 17″ model
  • 4GB RAM limit
  • Glossy screen only
  • 1440×900 resolution
  • Firewire gone

Keith Combs has some similar observations in more depth while AppleInsider is suggesting a January refresh for the 17″

[)amien

MobileMe up and down at me.com  

MobileMeMe.com was up, briefly, just long enough for me to grab my usual handle and get the confirmation message in fact.

I did get a brief glimpse of the UI complete with a Finder-like view of various folders once I clicked past a warning about Internet Explorer 7 not being supported. Seconds later things stopped responding and then the original placeholder was back.

It’s no secret Apple have been using the SproutCore framework in producing Me.com and that while SproutCore isn’t tied to Ruby on Rails it seems likely Apple went with Rails given the lack of interest in WebObjects and more and more Rails articles turning up on ADC.

If they’ve gone down that route I’m hoping we’re not in for a ride like the Rails powered Twitter one takes us on. Despite being relatively simple functionality it has been unable to cope with the demand and ability to scale which means downtime, slowness and features being switched off are regularly observed.

They are using WebObjects after all so expect some WebObjects and SproutCore integration love soon.

As an aside I’m in the US the week after next to meet my team and attend some training and will try and grab an iPhone 3G whilst there if not already sold out. Given that I’m only in Canada for 3 more months I don’t want to be trying to escape Roger’s expensive 3-year contract so soon.

[)amien