Category Archives: os x

Looking for the best Google Reader replacement, don’t forget the plumbing

the feedly rss reader app on androidGoogle is shutting down Google Reader, its RSS feed collector, in July. Google’s bare bones reader web site was never the greatest way to actually read your RSS feeds, automatically updated collections of all your blog post subscriptions. There were plenty of alternatives for that function — I was using Reeder on my iPad and Press on Android, for example. But Google did provide a couple of essential behind-the-scenes functions and it provided them extremely well.

While I’m not going to miss the bland web site, I will miss Google’s ability to quickly and reliably update blog feeds and, maybe most of all, synchronize my reading history across all my devices. Even though I might read a few blog posts in Press on my Galaxy Nexus or with Reeder on my iPad, it was Google that kept track of which articles I had read and where I left off. Quite a few RSS reader apop makers have promised to build their own replacement back-end but there’s still a problem for omnivorous gadghet users like me — most of the app makers stick to one platform. So if Reeder and Press each start offering their own back-end to sync RSS feedss, that won’t help me because Reeder is mac and iOS only and Press in Android only.

That has me searching for a multi-platform reader replacement, much as I switched to Postbox for my email and 1Password for, well, passwords. So far, the only one I’ve found that I like is called Feedly. It works on the web, iOS, Android and Kindle. It’s also beautifully laid out and designed. I have my RSS feeds split into topical folders. As you can see in the picture above, Feedly lets me know there are fresh posts in a folder by showing it with a bright color. Folders with no new posts are grey. I also looked at Newsblur, which covers the web, iOS and Android. But it costs $24 a year if you follow more than 64 feeds and I didn’t think the apps were as good looking. It also has some social sharing features that seem a bit too intrusive to me.

Right now, Feedly is still running using Google’s back end, so I just had to sign in to my Google account and Feedly grabbed all my feeds and kept my whole folder structure intact. Phew. I also changed one setting. By default, Feedly shows you a sort of spread out, magazine-style view of the latest posts in your feeds, much like Flipboard, but I prefer a simpler list view. So I went to the app’s settings, tapped ‘advanced settings’ and changed the default view from Magazine to List.

It remains to be seen if Feedly, Newsblur — or anyone else — will be able to replace Google Reader’s plumbing with as reliable and speedy a service. I have my fingers crossed but I’ll report back as soon as the new services start coming online.

For additional coverage and suggestions, TheVerge had a good rundown of possible replacements, as did Lifehacker.

Yikes, Microsoft’s Time Machine clone leaves out tons of important stuff

(Updated to include a way to unhide files and add them to a “library” for backup)

Basically, this post is a warning to anyone using the new File History backup program in Windows 8. The program is severely limited because it will only back up files in a few preset locations that can’t be expanded. If you have almost any third-party program that saves its own data, File History is leaving you exposed. There is a fix, but it takes a little mucking around.

In my case, for example, I have gazillions of email messages stored by the program Postbox. The mail is kept in a huge folder in my personal Windows user folder under PostBox’s own folder in the application data area. None of the stuff that your applications have saved here is backed up by File History — none. And you can’t add it, either.

Update: As several commenters have noted, there is a way to get this data added to the backup set. In the Windows File Explorer, navigate to your personal directory and under the View section of the ribbon bar, click for a check in the box called “hidden files.” Then a folder in your directory called AppData should be exposed. Right click on the folder and choose “Include in library…” and add the folder to one of the libraries which is backed up by File History. Phew!

All that File History will save by default are “files that are in your libraries, contacts, favorites, Microsoft SkyDrive and on your desktop,” according to Microsoft. That is a huge hole, especially if you don’t rely on the My Documents, My Pictures and other “library” folders set up in Windows. Even if you do, third-party programs that store their data exactly where they are supposed to will not benefit from File History unless you use the trick above to add them.

That’s a shame because File History is supposed to be Microsoft’s version of the drop-dead easy to use Apple backup program Time Machine. Both work behind the scenes to back stuff up on an automatic schedule without the user having to remember. And both give quick access to old versions of files within the File Explorer/Finder program. But you can set Time Machine to backup anything from just a few files to your entire disk.

Instapaper isn’t Instaworth it anymore – switching to Pocket

I think I was one of the earliest fans of Marco Arment’s ingenious Instapaper service. I even wrote up a rave review back in March, 2009. This is the original thing that let you save long web articles to read later in your browser or on your phone or ereader. The amazing feature that first hooked me was Instapaper’s ability to compile a bunch of saved articles into a personalized newsletter and email it once a day to my Kindle. Genius. Just think how many trees have been spared by the reduced volume of printing out long web pages.

But times change, competition grows and it’s now time to move on from Instapaper and its $12/year subscription fee (not to mention the bucks spent on separate iPad and iPhone apps as well as unofficial and finally official Android apps).

The main reason to leave is that competing products are more than good enough and cost less. Pocket, for example, has entirely free apps and a free service. It does almost everything Instapaper does that I need and it looks good, too. Adding the oddly named crofflr service to do the Kindle emailing trick costs a one-time fee of $5.

I’ve switched over to Pocket for the past two weeks and have had no problems at all on my iPad, iPod Touch, Galaxy Nexus Phone and Nexus tablet. Everything syncs nicely. The apps look really good and have enough font sizes to let me read in all conditions. Instapaper has a greater range of font choices but that’s not a critical issue. Pocket’s single serif and sans serif fonts are “good enough.”

To ensure that my reading material is downloaded to each app for offline use, I did need to tweak a setting. Under the “Offline Downloading” section of each Pocket app’s options, turn OFF “Download Best View” and then turn ON “Always Fetch Article.” Otherwise, Pocket sometimes wants to download an article from the web when you go to read it instead of keeping a cached copy available all the time.

Pocket also has those little snippets of code known as bookmarklets that you can slap on your browser’s bookmarks bar to instantly send the current web page over to your Pocket queue. And it has an array of other helper bits, like an extension for Chrome, to do the same. I’ll insert the usual Android brag here: just by installing the Pocket app on an Android device, you can send web pages from any other app directly to Pocket via the sharing menu.

The site’s extensive FAQs and discussion forums offer tips for connecting to other services. I wanted to have Pocket show up on the “send to” menu of Google’s online Reader, for example. A quick Google search found the instructions here.

There are, of course, times when we all pay more than we absolutely must for a product or service because of other benefits we receive or maybe just because we want to support a place we like. I often shop at local stores like Wellesley Books and Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, even though there are places to buy books and liquor cheaper, because I value their selection and service and I want to support local businesses and local jobs.

With Instapaper, though, it’s just the opposite. Marco Arment, who I once dubbed “the Mouth of Brooklyn” back in the day, is a one man mis-truth squad when it comes to too many of Apple’s competitors. His wacky theories and misstatements about Android are legion and he’s over-the-top on Amazon’s Kindle products, too. Personal favorite? When he whined about the build quality of a Kindle USB cable because, you know, Apple never has build quality issues or ships new hardware with imperfections or whatnot.

So — much credit to Marco for his beautiful and innovative reading service but time to move on. Sayonara and happy trails.

How to delete the horrid sparsebundle from your Time Capsule

Short version: Here’s how to actually delete a sparsebundle Time Machine backup file from a Time Capsule — use Windows.

Long version: We have an Apple Time Capsule here at home and it’s almost always been an incredibly great wifi router with built in storage. The kids, especially, benefit from having all of their laptop files auto-magically backed up via the Time Machine app without me needing to do much of anything. Sweet.

But even a big, fat Time Capsule hard drive eventually gets full. I was looking at the drive on our capsule tonight via the Apple Airport Utility. Each computer backup shows up as a single file that starts with the computer’s name, adds a bunch of junk and ends with the special file format, .sparsebundle. Under the drive tab, there’s just one option to delete and it deletes everything on the disk. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep the kids’ laptop backups, stored in the wacky sparsebundle format, but delete some extra folders and an old backup of a computer we don’t use anymore.

So I flipped over to the Finder and down in the “Shared” section I could click through to see the full contents of my Time Capsule’s hard drive. The old sparsebundle was right there so I right clicked on it and choose “delete.” Super. A dialog box asks if I want to permanently delete. I click ok. Then nothing — scrolling bar of nothing that will literally stay up for hours with nothing happening. Yuck.

I tried two solutions I found online but neither worked. One was to right-click on the sparsebundle, choose show package contents, go inside the folder called “bands” and delete bunches of the files in there. Nope — same freeze up.

Another online suggestion recommended doing the show package contents trick and then right clicking on the file called “token,” going to the “get info” screen and unchecking the “locked” check mark. But my token lock box was already unchecked. No dice.

Eventually I found the solution to deleting the unwanted sparsebundle by reading an Apple support board post. The trick is to use Windows. Or, in my case, use VMWare running Windows 8. Open the Windows Explorer and navigate to your Time capsule via the IP address — in the address bar you just type \\ and then the address which for most folks starts with 192.168 and then has two more bits, like 192.168.1.15. A dialog box asks you to log in. I have a password on my Time Capsule but no log in name. I just put anything into the log in name field and typed in my password. Once I was in, all the sparsebundles were displayed and a right click and delete worked in under a minute. So awesome:

using windows to delete a sparsebundle

UPDATE: In the comments, there’s also a way to force the Finder to connect to the Time Capsule the same way Windows connects via Microsoft’s SMB (Server Message Block) protocol. No Windows required. I haven’t tried it myself, however.

 

Microsoft has great news for retina display Mac users

One of the biggest problems for Mac users wanting to upgrade to a retina display has just been resolved. Microsoft issued version 14.2.4 of its super popular Office suite today expressly to include support for the higher resolution display. That means millions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint users on the Mac can now safely upgrade to a retina display without all of their writing suddenly looking like total crap. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer the “worst of times” to buy a new Mac. It will be even less worse, maybe even a great time, if Adobe quickly follows suit with retina-ready upgrades and/or Apple issues that rumored 13″ retina MacBook Air.

Now if only we could upgrade to iOS 6 without fear of driving into a ditch.

Why critical reviews matter

I’m grateful to John Gruber, a great tech writer and proprietor of the popular blog DaringFireball, for linking here the other day and sending lots of traffic to my post criticizing him. I’m also super grateful to the Quick Cache plug-in for WordPress which helped my blog handle all the added traffic without being, as they say, “Fireballed” (I wanted to make a donation to the developer, but couldn’t find the correct link on his current home page, sadly).

The added traffic brought a lot of new commenters, as well, which, as anyone with a blog can tell you, is sort of a mixed blessing. The reason you want comments is to get new perspectives and new information into the mix of whatever you’ve just written about. Blogs with really great commenters, like Fred Wilson’s AVC, create a whole new community that adds even more value. But comments can also bring trolls and idiots and worse.

After reading through the dozens of comments from Daring Fireball readers on my retina Mac post, I guess I can see why Gruber doesn’t allow comments on his own blog. Bada-bing! Just kidding…sort of.

Some I let go. The most egregious I simply didn’t approve. I won’t go through all the stupidity, expletives or b.s. but there was one point worth addressing. More than one commenter questioned why I was even writing a post about someone else’s review. This was typical:

Your article completely went overboard and misses on a major point. Gruber’s MBP Retina review is no different than you would be giving glowing review to the latest version of Android OS or Windows even when most of the third party apps haven’t up updated their software yet. The Retina is pretty much closely tied to Apple OSes. So yeah, it’s the developers’ responsibility to upgrade their software to Retina.

Setting aside the fact that I frequently write here about the various Macs, iPads and other Apple gear we own, there’s the underlying notion that it’s fine to leave out critical parts of a review for some reason or other, or no reason at all (it’s not Apple’s fault? Who cares whose fault it is).

But out in the real world, where I’m looking for which laptop to buy next, which phone will best meet my needs or how to avoid an overpriced, underperforming dud gadget, I want reviewers to be more critical, more discerning and more helpful.

And that need is visible in some of the other comments and later links back to my piece. People who bought the rMBP were surprised to discover an important current failing which very few reviewers felt worthy of mentioning: if you use non-Apple software, the text could look really bad, horrible even and super-distracting.

Here’s one of the comments I saw linking back, for example:

None of the pieces of Software I use day-in-day-out stand any chance of being updated to “retina” display quality anytime soon – so my Retina Experience was terrible – and led me to procrastinate more in Safari, just ’cause it looked “pretty” unlike the utterly ugly pixely-garbage look of Final draft and MS Word. This isn’t Apple’s fault – it’s the app makers taking too long to catch up. And yes, it’s like PPC to Intel where Office took forever – but Rosetta made the transition bearable at worst – the pixely-grossness of the Retina screen in Word/etc… is like using a blown up iPhone app on the iPad 24/7. No one wants to spend $2200 to do that. So my Retina MacBook Pro went back to Apple.

-“fyrefly,” Aug. 22, 2012

Personally, I was intrigued by the retina screen after reading so many glowing reviews and then I was surprised and disappointed when I saw it later at the Apple Store. Too many reviews missed the boat. It’s not yet time to make the retina switch if you are one of the millions of people who rely on non-Apple software. That’s not saying anything mean about Apple or blaming Apple or making some sort of massive attack against the whole laptop now and forever. It’s just telling a lot of potential buyers about a critical shortcoming.

The one mainstream review of the retina MacBook Pro I saw that actually got under the hood and highlighted several key problems was over at Anadtech, perhaps not coincidentally a site with no allegiance to any particular company or operating system or niche in Gadget World. Here’s the page describing the text display problems in various programs. No axe to grind, no blinders, no conflicts of interest. The funny thing is that it’s still a very favorable review overall. And I would have had no problem with Gruber’s review  exactly as is if he had just added a few sentences of warning. Not too much to ask, I’d say.

Lion upgrade today? No way

Over on my commentary blog, The Orange View, I’m laying out the case to wait on installing the Mac OS X 10.7 Lion upgrade for a couple of days to let the bugs out: Lions eat guinea pigs for breakfast. Don’t be one.

It’s the same solid advice I gave in one of my very first posts here, back on April 29, 2005:

In the history of personal computers, there is one iron-clad rule: never, ever, no matter what, do not, www.noway.com, no-how, nada, NEVER install an operating system upgrade the day it comes out. Brand new operating system upgrades are for loons, people who use computers mostly to watch the cute screen savers and reviewers who get paid to, in the words of author Jerry Pournelle, do these silly things so you don’t have to.

And it’s still true today.

Chrome browser, Pinboard site lead the list of recent changes

Spent some time housekeeping on the blog tonight, including updating the software and services in use page.

Google’s Chrome browser, version 10, has replaced an increasingly buggy Firefox. I am really digging the way extensions have their own little button row.

I’ve also noted that I had to dump Mozy for Crashplan last month after Mozy’s mega-price hike. Public bookmark keeper Delicious got dumped for not-free replacement Pinboard. Also 1Password is on my Android phone, iPad and Macs instead of old reliable Wallet, which seemed to be pretending Android didn’t exist. And 1Password needs Dropbox to sync so I’ve added a free account there.

Finally, I cut the section on instant messaging clients, which I never use much anymore. Good bye, Adium.

Getting iTunes to sync standard def videos to your iPad

We’re big fans of the recent PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey and bought the high-definition version from iTunes to watch on the big TV that is connected to our Mac mini media server. But when my wife asked me to load the series onto her iPad recently, I ran into an annoying syncing problem based on iTunes’s default treatment of the iPad.

iTunes wants to sync the space-wasting high-definition version of any movie or TV show you own in HD onto the iPad despite the device’s less than high-def 1024 X 768 pixel screen. This was happening even though we also have the standard-def version. iTunes just ignored it. So I couldn’t manage to fit all 7 Downton Abbey episodes (iTunes only sold the British-aired 7 episode version even in the US) with the other music and apps and so on that live on the wife’s iPad.

Messing around with iTunes, I couldn’t find any option or setting until I re-plugged in her iPad. Low and behold, in iTunes, on the “Summary” tab for the iPad, scroll down to the list of setting and there’s a check box for “Prefer standard definition videos.”so if you want iTunes to sync standard definition video to your iPad by default, click it and go.

The future of Apple computing isn’t all led by Apple

There’s a great video up on Macworld’s site of a conversation between four highly knowledgeable Mac pundits about the “future of the Mac.” The participants were Daringfireball’s John Gruber and Tidbits’ Adam Engst along with Jason Snell and Dan Moren from Macworld. The discussion was interesting and worth the 48 minutes or so of my time, but I was struck by one kind of shocking oversight or blind spot demonstrated by all four panelists. In looking to the future of the Mac, there was hardly any mention of any products, services or software besides Apple’s. I think Dropbox may have been the only non-Apple company mentioned in a forward-looking way.

That’s a real shame because while Apple has led the personal computing revolution for pretty much the last decade, whether it be via Mac OS X, the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad etc, there have been plenty of important developments from others and plenty of misfires from Apple. And Apple is far too smart to ignore what others are doing well. The future of the Mac will most likely involve a fruitful and innovative mash-up of the best ideas both from within and without Apple.

Start, at the top, with Google. Clearly the future of the Mac is going to be more cloud-based. Apple has built a huge and mysterious server farm in North Carolina, principal purpose TBA. The newest MacBook Airs are also clearly intended to be more cloud-connected. But Apple is not a pioneer in cloud services — the opposite in fact. There’s no Apple cloud video or music services yet and its MobileMe offering is so overpriced and lacking as to be a joke to even many of the Mac faithful like me.

I’ve been a paying MobileMe subscriber for many, many years. In the beginning, I used web hosting, web-based email, web bookmarks list, syncing of data across multiple Macs and even paid for extra space to use for cloud backup and file sharing. In the past few years, though, competitors have surpassed MobileMe in nearly every area and I find the only thing I really need it for anymore is automatic syncing of my Mac address book. Gmail is the best web mail, Firefox syncs my bookmarks, Dropbox and Mozy do cloud-based file storage and backup and Bluehost and WordPress do my web sites. If Google improved its Contacts service, which needs a HUGE amount of improvement, I might not rely on MobileMe for anything anymore at all.

A second area of focus for future computing developments will come from cloud-based entertainment. For a while, Apple seemed to be almost purposely ignoring the potential. The second-gen Apple TV finally seems to be a recognition that streaming video is the best option for many scenarios but Netflix, Amazon, Xbox, Tivo and others have been here for a while. Streaming music from Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster and others also beats iTunes in some ways. I love the model popularized by services like Amazon’s Kindle and its online video store, where the company maintains all your content in the cloud for download to your various devices whenever and where ever you want. And it’s galactically simpler than maintaining an iTunes server in your home. Don’t even get me started on the mess Apple made of our various iTunes libraries with the iTunes Plus upgrade program. Blech!

In the Amazon model, if I want to read a new book on my Kindle on the train to work, I buy it and download it there. Later in bed, I have my iPad and I download it there. A few weeks later, I need to quote a passage at work so I fire up the Kindle for Mac program and access it there. I wish iTunes worked the same way for all the zillions of dollars I have spent on movies, TV shows, music and, now, apps.

Finally, not all hardware innovation arises out of Cupertino’s labs. As I blogged about yesterday, I think the new Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is the first step towards a promising converged computing future. The Atrix has a speedy dual core processor, up to 48 GB of storage and fourth-generation mobile connectivity (I know, I know, AT&T’s 4th gen network is kind of bogus, but roll with me). Its HDMI port is capable of outputting high-definition video. A notebook shell dock turns the Atrix into a laptop and a media dock and wireless remote connect it to a TV.

(Update 2/3/11 – oops, Motorola seems to be way overpricing the laptop dock)

Once upon a time, laptops were so underpowered and expensive relative to desktop computers, few people could really function with just a laptop. But Moore’s law and all that has brought us such ultra-powerful laptops that it’s now the norm. Personally, I rely on my 13″ MacBook Pro Mac PowerBook as my sole machine (with external storage and the fantabulous Apple LED Cinema Display as my dock at home). In a few more years, with super-powered smart phones, proliferating docking options and cloud-based storage and services, the Atrix model will predominate. Peter Rojas’s great proposal to standardize docking interfaces also makes a lot of sense in this future.

And just as a final aside on the Macworld panel, I think the future of desktop computing will not be the iOS “every app in full screen” model, which the panel seemed to think was a real possibility. Lots of research has been done showing people are more productive using larger screens and multiple screens to keep more of their work in front of their eyes. Right now, I have MarsEdit open to write this post, two browser windows for finding links and background material and a Skitch window for grabbing screenshots. If I had to hit control-tab or something every time I wanted to remember what i had just read or to see the web page I needed to reference in this blog post, I think I’d go batty.

I found it a little condescending the way the panel seemed to assume the most important or most common user of the future would be the your-65-year-old-mom type. In fact, if anything, I think younger generations are more comfortable with all things computer-y, even the wild and crazy practices of having multiple windows open on-screen and having files stored in a “documents” folder.

NB This essay was inspired in part by that kitschy, trashy 1990s television show Time Trax. You remember, the one with the future cop who traveled back to 1993 with a super-computer-powered credit card.

Your thoughts, arguments and corrections, as always, welcomed in the comments.