It’s been a few weeks since I took up Microsoft’s employee offer of a free Windows Phone 7 (when you renew a 2 year contract) and combined it with AT&T’s offer of buy-one-get-one-free for my wife.
So how have things been going?
Compared to the iPhone 3G the Focus is much more comfortable.
The larger screen size means a wider and taller phone but with less surround it’s not unwieldy – far from it. In fact the phone sits far more comfortably in my hand than the iPhone did. This is partly because it’s a better match for the size of my hand, partly because it’s a little lighter but mostly I think because the bevel is a lot more subtle and less steep and awkward than the iPhone’s shiny-pebble inspired design.
On the flip side it does look and feel a little cheaper and less solid but a small part of that is because the back of the phone flips off like many other allowing you access to the battery, sim and memory expansion slot. The dedicated back and home buttons below the screen help keep the display clear of chrome and give the apps the space they need.
The major disappointment for me here is the screen. While it is very bright and has great contrast if, like me, you hold it rather close to your face you can see a dithering pattern caused by the unusual LED subpixel arrangement called PenTile on every colour except green. I’ve learnt to hold it a little father away as the text rendering is very nice otherwise but compared to a friends iPhone 4 the screen is a letdown.
Until you’ve used the Zune-inspired interface (part of an overall design strategy called Metro) it’s a little hard to put it into words. Static screenshots certainly don’t do it justice as it’s all about movement and flow in a way other devices aren’t.
Starting from a tiled home page that gives you a peek into your mail, messages, people and games through a gorgeous combination of animation, text and imagery that keeps the page feeling fresh and alive – a spirit that is carried through the rest of the device – not just with the built-in screens and features but also into many third-party apps (more on that soon).
In a way it feels like a window onto a bigger world behind it instead of a subset of that world crammed onto a small screen. It’s like the difference between a mobile web browser that scales in and out on a whole page versus a mobile-optimized page that lacks detail and finesse.
As many will know my wife and I are primarily based on Apple technology but even after a week with the Focus my wife announced (with a slightly sad face) that her iPhone 3GS felt old – even with iOS 4.1 on it. I have to admit the same feeling. Sure the iPhone is cure but the icon-and-list approach with the odd red circle to indicate some activity now lacks engagement.
Part of Microsoft’s advertising campaign has been the get-in-get-out approach and the home page and email works really well here. So much so that it’s broken my 3 year ritual almost instantly in that I now check my email on my phone each morning when I get up instead of using the laptop to do the same. If I can find a good Google Reader app then the laptop might not open until I get to work.
I had an initial worry when I first turned it on as there were a bunch of AT&T applications and tiles installed however it let me remove all the ones I don’t want or use (e.g. U-Verse) Score +1 for consumers over providers :)
I’m in a minority among friends as I actually like iTunes. It sorts, it plays, it lets me get audiobooks, podcasts and legal music quick and fast. I’ve also used it to rip a fair number of my own tracks from CD and bolstered my collection with tracks from Amazon MP3 sometimes (like their $3.99 Tron: Legacy deal). Sure I wish it allowed plug-ins for different music formats – I have a soft spot for chipmusic – but apart from that it’s been quite pain free.
iTunes however only likes to play with iPods, iPads and iPhones. Other companies have hooked their devices in unofficially in the past and Apple have been sure to quickly break it.
Thankfully Microsoft haven’t let the Mac fans out in the cold and provide the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac.
The software does an okay job at sending music and videos from your iTunes library over to your USB connected phone although obviously DRM-protected content isn’t going to work.
What was disappointing however is even “Purchased music” from iTunes won’t actually play on the Windows Phone even though it syncs. I’m assuming this is a bug as there isn’t any DRM here (that is marked “Protected music”) and the file format is Dolby’s own AAC not Apple’s so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.
It also won’t sync your Mac’s Address Book and Calendar’s directly however there is a way to do this quite easily indirectly – see below.
Enter your Facebook name and password and it will fill your contacts from Facebook with each getting their own ‘what’s new’ etc. Like most people this isn’t exactly what I want but I took the opportunity to prune 100 people I never speak to – an option also exists to only supplement existing contacts on the phone with their Facebook pictures and feeds.
It also helpfully pulled in my Gmail contacts and in the cases where I have a contact card in GMail for somebody on Facebook did a good job of joining them up. Some it seems were automatic possibly based on email addresses and full names. Others had recommendation when I went to join that were always correct and in a handful of cases I just had to tell it which ones to join up manually because they had changed their name on Facebook.
In some cases I merged three cards for a single person – their semi-public Facebook profile and photo, their private telephone numbers from GMail and their semi-public Windows Live details for messenger and Xbox.
Finally I added my Outlook/Exchange account – all worked flawlessly and for each account you get to choose whether to bring in contacts and calendars and in most cases mail (but not for Facebook).
The result of all this is that my phone is now the best contact list I have on any device. It combines them beautifully in a way no other device I’ve owned has and not once in the three weeks since I set it up has it got confused, lost details or had sync problems.
Very sweet… unless of course your primary contact information is your Mac’s Address Book as any Mac-owning iPhone owners will be.
Getting Address Book contacts onto Windows Phone
Please forgive the SEO-tuned heading but I didn’t find any useful information online and want to share this simple technique with others :)
You’ll need a GMail account to make this work (it also works with Google Apps for Domains too), simply:
- Copy any important details from your GMail contacts manually into Address Book if you need to
- Wipe out your GMail contacts (you could always backup with Export first if you want but don’t re-import)
- Open the Address Book application and head into Preferences
- Choose the option to sync “On My Mac” with Google and hit configure to enter your GMail details
- Delete the GMail profile from your Windows Phone 7 and then re-add it (otherwise it won’t sync phone numbers)
This means you’ll have your Mac contacts at your fingertip in GMail so make sure your GMail account has a secure password and follow their steps to ensure your account is well protected.
Reception & call quality
I was nervous about getting back into bed with AT&T for another two years. I need coverage at work and home as I don’t have a dedicated phone at either location and many times AT&T had left me with only a single bar to get by.
I am somewhat confused that I get 3-4 bars on the Samsung Focus in both locations and I’ve yet to have the chopping up or disconnecting of calls that I attributed to AT&T when using my iPhone 3G. Stranger still is that when I have had 1 bar (one place in my apartment) I am actually still able to make calls without it cutting out or dropping. My iPhone taught me never to try with 1 bar…
Visual voicemail is gone as I guess that was an Apple exclusive but I’ve only had a handful of voicemail messages over the last 2 years so I doubt i’ll miss it.
The camera seems pretty good and has some HDR and anti-shake options as standard as well as limited bunch of image effects. It also does video but I haven’t tried that yet.
You sign into this with your Xbox LIVE credentials and once you’re there it’s not a far off experience from the iTunes store except that it has a lot less apps. While it’s good you don’t have to wade through so much junk to find good stuff there are some omissions too like Hulu and for many people they’ll be missing Angry Birds and their favorite games and apps. I also haven’t found a good Windows Phone-like navigation app although the built-in Bing app is no worse than the Google Maps app on the iPhone that occasionally gave me nonsensical (drive into the ocean) or wrong directions (Seattle hotel being off by 2 blocks).
On the plus side some favourite sites have their own apps and they have fully embraced the metro user interface to provide a great experience – these include IMDB, eBay, Facebook, Twitter.
The bad side here is that the marketplace you’ll be presented with is the one your Xbox LIVE account is associated with and once you’ve set-up your phone YOU CAN’T CHANGE IT!
For me this means I can’t get Netflix on my device as my Xbox account is set to USA. Previously Xbox didn’t let you change your country but recently introduced a facility to let you migrate your account to one of several new countries they now support. I’m hopeful they’ll let more general country changes next year as I’m not giving up my 8800 gamer score and cool gamertag (damieng) without a fight.
There are a whole bunch of extra things I haven’t covered here including the Bing maps, Office docs, Xbox LIVE, Zune and the various apps. I’ll either update this article or post another :)
I haven’t switched my iPhone on in three weeks. There are a few apps I do miss but they’re also on my iPad.
I wanted an SSD for some time and finally caved in. Armed with credit card, screwdriver and trusty MacBook Pro I fitted a sweet SSD and decided to document the experience.
Choosing a drive
There are a bewildering number of options out there. Budget, as always, dictates the combination of speed and size available.
You may not need as much space as you think so even if you intend on a fresh install first clean-up your current drive to get an idea of actual requirements. Remembering to backup before you:
- Identify biggest culprits
Try DaisyDisk ($20), Disk Inventory X (free) or OmniDiskSweeper (free) and drill down to catch unexpected bloat in your folders
- Clean up unused system junk
Use CleanMyMac ($30) or MonoLingual (free) to clean up logs, caches, redundant processor and unwanted languages.
- Archive unused content
Move those podcasts, TV shows, applications and games you aren’t going to use anytime soon to cheaper external storage.
- Deal with orphaned & duplicate files
Find media in your iTunes folders missing from iTunes lists and either trash or add it back then use iTunes Display Duplicates.
If you’re prepared to give up your internal Superdrive then move your existing hard drive to the optical bay and purchase a smaller SSD for the OS and key performance-critical files. This saves cash and gives you more space at the expense of battery life and a little extra weight.
All SSDs are not created equal and the combination of flash and controller (on drive and in your machine) play their parts in defining performance. Firmware, hardware revisions, drive size and operating system can also affect the speed so do your homework.
Drives come and go quickly so keep an eye on review dates and exact model numbers as manufacturers have models with similar names with difference specifications.
I settled on the Crucial SSD 256GB C300 because it is blazingly fast and the 256GB variant fit my 150GB storage requirements.
- Samsung 830 Series
I upgraded my work Lenovo ThinkPad X220 with this drive and it’s crazy fast and also fitted it to my new desktop. Available from Amazon in 64GB ($80), 128GB ($100), 256GB ($230) and 512GB ($449) capacities
- Crucial M4
I upgraded two MacBook Pro 15″ (work+wife’s) with Crucial’s M4 last year. Available from Amazon in 64GB ($75), 128GB ($98), 256GB ($183) and 512GB ($539) capacities
Apple’s factory options for SSD are a mixed bag. They originally used slower drives by Toshiba and from July 2010 whether you get a fast Samsung or a slow Toshiba SSD was pure luck.
Given Apple charge a slight premium for the SSD option, you don’t get to choose your drive model and they are easily replaceable (except the iMac 27″ and MacBook Pro Retina) go with an after-market drive :)
Installing a new hard drive
Newer Unibody MacBook Pro hard-drives are user-replaceable and covered in the manual.
My older non-Unibody is not so simple but those nice people over at iFixit put together a hard drive replacement guide for 15” that is close enough for my 17″.
Installing Mac OS X without a DVD drive
My Superdrive died a while back so installing Mac OS X is a little trickier than usual. There are a few options you might come across.
If you are just doing a one-off Lion install then try the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant which requires a 1GB USB key and an internet connection for the install.
If you want to install Lion to multiple machines or won’t have internet where you’re installing then you can either put down $69 for the
Lion USB thumb drive (no longer available).
My favorite option however is to create my own install USB key. These steps will work for both Snow Leopard and Lion.
Create your own Lion or Snow Leopard install USB stick
The following steps work for both operating systems – the only difference is what you your drag across as a source in step 8.
- Snow Leopard – source is your retail install DVD
- Lion – source is InstallESD.dmg file which can be found in your Applications folder inside the Lion installer. If the installer is missing use App Store to re-download it. You will find the file inside the Lion installer by using Show Package Contents and heading to the Contents > Shared Support folder.
- Insert your USB stick
- Launch Disk Utility from the Utilities folder
- Select the USB stick from the list of devices and then choose the Partition tab
- Choose 1 Partition from the Volume Scheme drop-down
- Press Options… choose GUID Partition Table then OK
- Press Apply to confirm you are happy to wipe away all the data on the device and wait until complete
- Select the USB stick from the list of devices and then choose the Restore tab
- Drag the source (DVD or InstallESD.dmg) from the list of devices into the Source text box
- Drag the USB stick from the list of devices into the Destination text box
- Press the Restore and wait a while
When finished eject the USB stick and insert it into your DVD-less Mac. Turn it on and hold down alt until a boot selection screen shows then use the arrow keys to select your USB device and press return to launch the installer.
It may take a while for the installer screen to appear but be patient.
Remote Install let’s you put the a DVD into a machine with a drive, run Utilities > Remote Install and follow a few steps which include holding down the alt key on the machine that doesn’t have a drive.
Unfortunately only machines Apple shipped without a Superdrive – i.e. a Mac mini or MacBook Air from 2009 or later are happy to boot from a Remote Disc.
The following two shell commands enable Remote Disc on older machines within Finder but don’t allow a remote install:
defaults write com.apple.NetworkBrowser EnableODiskBrowsing -bool true defaults write com.apple.NetworkBrowser ODSSupported -bool true
You will also need to enable sharing on the Mac with the DVD drive. Head into System Preferences then select Sharing then check DVD or CD sharing. You may also want to uncheck Ask me before allowing others to use my DVD drive to avoid having to go to the other machine to continually grant access.
Performance over time & TRIM
A simplified primer
File systems write in blocks and before SSD when the file system wrote to ‘block 1’ it got ‘block 1’ on the drive (unless it was damaged when it would map in a replacement from a reserved section). If it rewrote ‘block 1’ it overwrote what it wrote last time. This is how tools that securely erase files by writing them over and over work.
Now SSDs are fast but the flash technology suffers some limitations the most important is they can’t overwrite data without erasing it first so when the operating system writes ‘block 1’ a second time, it actually stores it somewhere else in the flash (but tells the file system it was ‘block 1’) and makes a note where ‘block 1’ actually is. This avoids the write penalty and also means that you don’t wear out block 1 by writing it over and over again (this is called wear-leveling).
This works just fine until you run out of erased blocks. This happens sooner than you’d think because when the file-system deletes a file it does not actually erase anything but just marks it as not used in it’s own file-system tables knowing it will just get used again sooner or later. (This is how file-recovery tools are able to undelete files).
So this combination of the drive never getting told to erase blocks and only finding out it can re-use them later when its time to write data and it suddenly finds these writes all require it erase blocks too and performance can drop to traditional hard-drive speeds (or worse).
Manufacturers initially solved this problem by writing tools that examined the file-system structures to find out which blocks are unused so they can send ‘erase block’ commands down to the SSD drive so they are ready to be written again without the erase penalty – at least until you run out of blocks again. Because these tools need to know the file-systems internals you can’t throw a Windows tool designed for the NTFS file system at a disk formatted with HFS+ for the Mac and expect it to be able to understand anything.
Another solution involves the drive recording when blocks are being overwritten at the file-system it can mark the older copy of the actual block on the flash as erasable. Now, this may not happen until the disk is quite full and so to avoid stalling again on writes the manufacturers put some extra flash storage on the drive. When it gets in this state the writes gets a fresh block from the reserve and the reserve takes the previously used block to erase and put back into reserve. The problem here is that the manufacturers have to put extra flash and logic on the drive which costs $’ and it’s only able to put off stalling as long as the reserve can keep supplying fresh blocks.
A third solution tackles the problem at the source. Manufacturers agreed on a standard that extends the ATA protocol called ‘TRIM’ that lets file-systems tell the drive when blocks are no longer required and can be erased when it’s not busy. Support was built into Windows 7 and Linux 2.6.28 making a lot of SSD owners very happy.
Mac OS X & TRIM
You could also try to minimize unnecessary writes:
- Don’t use Finder’s Secure Empty Trash or the srm command line tool – these attempt to overwrite the blocks but because of wear-leveling on SSD they’ll just steal blocks up to 35x the size of the file you want to ‘erase’
- Keep large churning files on external drives (e.g. video processing)
- Don’t let your laptop run out of power as it copies the RAM to disk each time (2-8GB)
- Prevent unnecessary disk operations such as the ‘last accessed’ attribute on files (see below)
- Don’t keep running disk benchmarks that cause lots of writes!
Turn off last-access-time
These access times are pretty useless and indeed the iPhone also has them switched off. Create a file named noatime.plist in your /Library/LaunchDaemons path with the following contents:
<plist version="1.0"> <dict> <key>Label</key> <string>noatime</string> <key>ProgramArguments</key> <array> <string>mount</string> <string>-vuwo</string> <string>noatime</string> <string>/</string> </array> <key>RunAtLoad</key> <true/> </dict> </plist>
Thanks go to Ricardo Gameiro for that tip although his other Mac SSD tweaks of creating a RAM disk is questionable given the way Mac OS X manages memory and disabling the RAM copy-to-disk entirely and therefore losing data is more risky to me than running out of blocks early.
- Turn off the sudden motion sensor – SSDs ignore the park head command anyway
- Turn off HFS+ journaling – some users report odd issues and corruption
If you do get into the situation where your write performance is suffering badly and you are prepared to spend a little time to get it back you can do the following:
- Ensure you have a full Time Machine backup
- Boot from a Linux Live CD (or USB image) containing a recent build of hdparm
- Use hdparm to perform an ATA Secure Erase
- Boot from your Mac OS X DVD/USB stick
- Choose the Utilities > Restore System From Backup menu option
- Point it at your Time Machine backup
You should also be able to do this with other full-system backup tools like SuperDuper but you’ll have to figure out the steps for yourself ;-)
I wish I had some better benchmarking tools but Xbench is all I have, sorry!
Xbench with Crucial C300 256GB on 2007 MacBook Pro
Here are the figures for my Crucial C300 256GB drive with 0009 firmware on my older non-unibody MacBook Pro 17″ (MacBookPro3,1) with a dual-core 2.6GHz CPU and 4GB RAM.
This MacBook Pro is limited to 1.5GB/sec on the SATA bus as it uses an Intel ICH-8M SATA controller and this is limiting the drive.
|Uncached write 4K||200.40||762.30||185.92||789.45||194.20||774.95||208.42||885.91||191.31||931.43|
|Uncached write 256K||196.34||357.61||196.05||359.23||129.89||360.79||157.84||318.87||172.08||320.78|
|Uncached read 4K||67.56||1926.31||69.27||1942.94||63.01||1911.07||60.37||1812.40||72.50||2030.81|
|Uncached read 256K||239.73||628.06||238.22||624.15||236.40||617.67||234.84||615.42||243.42||631.16|
My original performance figures with the original as-shipped 0001 firmware and subsequent 0006 firmware figures are after almost a year of continual use and the drive has not been secure erased in that time. The final set of 0007 figures are on Mac OS X Lion with the TRIM enabler support switched on for a week.
Xbench with Crucial M4 256GB on 2011 MacBook Pro
I had the opportunity to put an SSD in my new work MacBook and immediately jumped to the a href=”http://www.kqzyfj.com/click-3893583-10674245″>Crucial M4 256GB. Here are the crazy figures for that drive with 0009 firmware on a MacBook Pro 15″ (MacBookPro8,2) with a quad-core 2.2GHz CPU and 8GB RAM.
|Uncached write 4K||428.98||1890.35|
|Uncached write 256K||424.35||770.44|
|Uncached read 4K||120.56||2162.18|
|Uncached read 256K||691.20||1244.41|
SSD is fast but given the hype I was expecting everything to be instant and it wasn’t quite there. Applications usually launch within a single dock bounce and everything feels a lot snappier but there wasn’t the massive WOW! I was expecting.
There are also a few other advantages often overlooked, especially on a laptop:
- lower power consumption
- less weight, noise & heat
- greater shock, dust and magnetic resistance
Here’s a table that pulls the specs compared to the 7200RPM Travestar that was previously my main drive.
|Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB||Hitachi Travelstar 7K320|
|Power consumption (W)||0.094 – 2.1 – 4.3||0.2 – 2.2 – 5.5|
|Shock resistance (G/1.0ms)||1500||200|
|Seek time (ms)||< .1||12|
Time will tell how well the machine now deals with large Aperture libraries of RAW images and Visual Studio compilations from inside Parallels and I’ll be sure to report them here.
Check-in (26 June 2011)
I installed the SSD and wrote this article back in April 2010. I’ve revised and tweaked it over the 14 months it’s been published to account for new firmware, updated benchmarks, the new Crucial M4 replacement of the C300 and the fact that Apple now ship SSD’s with very good performance as standard.
My C300 is still going strong through two firmware upgrades, several OS X installs (trying out betas, upgrading to Lion), regular application installs and work with heavyweight software such as VMware Fusion and Aperture.
The Crucial hasn’t yet missed a beat. No calls to support, no stuttering and benchmarks today are very similar to those published for the 0006 firmware update (within 10%).
Alarm Clock 2
Wake up every morning to your iTunes playlist without the danger of an app launching it and having a problem/update pending that prevents you getting to work on time.
Alarm Clock 2 also includes Timers (great for a quick 20 minute power nap) and Stopwatches alongside the normal one-off or regular scheduled alarm that will bring both you and your machine out of sleep ready for that early-morning email check.
If you need to keep an eye on what your WiFi connection is doing AP Grapher can help a little by showing you noise and signal levels over time.
Quick tip: Hold down Alt when going to the normal Apple WiFi menu to see some stats on your current connection.
Keeping your apps up to date can often be a pain and until Apple extend Software Update out to third parties we’ll have to use alternative solutions.
AppFresh is much more reliable than the previous Software Update widget which I was previously using. It still has the odd problem recognising unusal version numbering such as build numbers and beta’s but otherwise does a pretty good job.
I’ve been using FireFTP for a while under OS X but as I find myself spending more and more time in Safari and less in Firefox I wanted a standalone FTP client that’s a little better than using the command line or Connect To Server disk-mounting option.
Thankfully Cyberduck comes in to play and apart from not supporting my favourite column-mode and no option to make default connections passive it does the job quite well.
There are a number of legal and legitimate reasons for grabbing songs back off your iPod (hard drive crash, removing music from your laptop to make space, overenthusiastic parents and siblings cleaning up your machine…)
Senuti helps save the day by letting you get your tracks back off your iPod and onto your Mac.
I must confess I haven’t had time to try this yet but if you want to syncronise your Windows Mobile phone with your Mac and don’t want to pay up for MissingSync (or pay extra just to get Leopard compatibility, grrr) then SyncMate is your only option although how long it stays free beyond beta remains to be seen.
One of the things I love about Apple is the way they enhance Mac OS X with great features for other developers to leverage. Built-in spell-checking, incredibly rich edit controls, development environment and the recent Core frameworks are such additions. Core Image allows applications access to real-time hardware-accelerated graphic effects and is used within some of Apple’s own apps for various effects.
Pixelmator is the product of a two-man team that provides Photoshop like abilities for $59. Apple would not ship such a product for fear of further upsetting Adobe.
Whilst Pixelmator bears a resemblance to Photoshop and will happily open PSD files the user interface is very clean and easy to use and the Core Image filters and correction tools deliver their results in real-time. No more of the tweak-wait-look cycle Photoshop forced us into and gazing at CPU benchmarks working out which combination of processor and OS would be better.
The GPU is king.
Pixelmator also delivers the usual array of painting, manipulation and selection tools, a variety of brushes, layers, gradients, support for 100 file formats, metadata access etc. It integrates with other Mac technologies including the iSight (new layer), Spotlight (search meta), iPhoto, ColorSync, Dashboard (file conversion), Automator and leverages various open-source technologies including ImageMagick, Gradient Panel, Cairo, Sparkle (software update).
Future versions will include integration with Aperture (yes!), RAW file support, .Mac syncing (brushes, swatches etc.) and perhaps even vector support (probably utilising Cairo).
Gruber had concerns Pixelmator was just vapourware which is now obviously not the case. I’m still waiting for Delicious Library 2 and Midnight Inbox 2 although I have a pre-release of OmniFocus I am allowed to write about if people are interested…