How would an average user handle this?

I’ve been using an iMac as my primary home computer for the last five years. Nice system, both as a desktop and as a server for the rest of the apartment, with a string of FireWire drives hanging off the back. It came with 4GB RAM, and in 2012 I added an extra 8GB so that I could run VirtualBox VMs. However in recent months it’s started to misbehave; about 10% of the time the display won’t come back from screen saver or sleep, and I have to restart via Cmd-Ctrl-Power. So I decided to replace it with a new iMac. Nothing too extravagant: a 21.5″ Retina iMac with Core i5, 16GB RAM, 1TB Fusion disk. (I looked at the 27″ model with a discrete GPU, but I couldn’t justify the expense. I’m not really a graphics junky. More practically, the 27″ wouldn’t fit under my over-desk cupboards.) I also ordered a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, hoping that my existing storage setup would just work.
The new iMac arrived yesterday, and I had a decision: clean install, or transfer from the old system? With the previous iMac, I’d done a transfer from my Mac Mini, so I knew that there was quite a bit of cruft in there. On the other hand, my Mail, iTunes and backup (Time Machine and Backblaze) configurations are complicated, and I was inclined to let the Migration tool take care of them. So I booted up the new system, hooked them together with an Ethernet cable, and let it rip. Six hours later, it was done. I plugged in my FireWire chain, using the new adapter, and everything just worked.
Sort of.
I spent a couple of hours testing and tweaking stuff, amused to see which apps required re-authentication and which ones treated this as a reincarnation of an already-trusted system. And then I remembered that I’d forgotten one cardinal rule: I hadn’t checked for software updates. So I did… and the OS X 10.11.1 update wouldn’t work. It just hung. Perhaps it was a “first boot” issue; I’ve often noticed that things in OS X don’t work quite right after an update, and a reboot usually fixes them. So I chose restart.
Black screen. “Bong” sound. White Apple logo. Then "kernel panic" in the top left corner.
Tried again. Same result.
I contemplated the time required to do a full reinstall of OS X. I wondered about Genius Bar appointments. And then I decided to reboot in Safe Mode (holding down shift right after the “Bong”). That worked, though the system was glacially slow.
So I grabbed my rMBP (what would I have done with only one computer?) and started searching for kernel extensions that might be causing the problem. Eventually I found this piece about VirtualBox-related panics. I opened a terminal, deleted the offending files, and rebooted. The panic was gone – and, equally important, the 10.11.1 update installed correctly. Later today I’ll try a clean installation of VirtualBox to see if it’s OK. (I use a VirtualBox VM to cache all of my context for open source work, including keys and git scripts.)
(And the Retina 4K display on the new iMac is just gorgeous.)

Laptop chosen – thanks for all the advice

I wound up getting an Apple MacBook Pro Retina 13-inch, 2.6GHz Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD. Half a dozen of my colleagues had chosen the 13″ rMBP with various sizes of SSD, and it feels like the perfect compromise between power and weight. Normally I’d have bought an extra power supply, but since I have several perfectly serviceable spares, I saved a little money by picking up a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Converter.
My first tasks when I got home were to upgrade to OS X 10.8.3 (it shipped with 10.8.2) and install Microsoft Office. In the past, this was an expensive and niggling procedure, picking just the right version to get the features I wanted. But Office 365 has made all that a thing of the past. $99 a year lets me install pretty much everything I need on up to five of my machines – Windows or Mac. I added Microsoft Lync and a Citrix Web Client, turned on FileVault, and I’m good to go.

My next laptop: a tough choice

I few weeks ago I started work at Vyatta, which had been recently acquired by Brocade. On my first day, I was handed a Brocade corporate laptop. It’s a Dell: 13″ screen, 4GB, 128GB SSD, Windows 7. As corporate laptops go, it’s perfectly nice, but I’ve been a Mac user for many years now, and Windows Just. Feels. Wrong. The first time I tried to send a reply to a meeting invitation in Outlook and found that I couldn’t navigate back to look at another email message, I realized that (a) Outlook still had many of the bugs we first encountered 15 years ago, and (b) I was damned if I was going to use that crap to run my work.
As I wandered around Vyatta and Brocade, I noticed many MacBooks in use. Apparently many others felt the same way that I did. As an experiment, I configured my personal MacBook Air as a work machine – (guest) wireless network, Exchange, Lync for IM, Office, etc. – and apart from a few corporate functions it all seemed to work just fine. However, as a matter of policy I don’t want to mix work and personal stuff – certificates, passwords, email, browser settings – on one machine. So I’m planning to go out and get myself a MacBook for dedicated work use, and I would like some help in making the choice. (And yes, I’ll keep the Dell laptop, chained to my desk, for those occasions when I need to log in to Oracle or other corporate systems.)
Weight is important. Today I love my 11-inch MacBook Air: it’s as light as a feather. On the other hand, putting together a complicated PowerPoint or Keynote presentation is challenging on such a small screen. And power is also important: I want enough RAM and CPU to run DevStack or CloudStack under VirtualBox. And of course I don’t want to spend too much…
So the choices seem to be:

  • MacBook Air: 13-inch screen, 2.0GHz Dual Core i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 2.96 lbs. – $1,599
  • MacBook Pro: 13-inch Retina screen, 2.9GHz Dual Core i7, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 3.57 lbs. – $1,699
  • MacBook Pro: 15-inch Retina screen, 2.4GHz Quad Core i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 4.46 lbs. – $2,199

There are pros and cons for each. Reviews are all over the map. Thoughts?

Quick tip: if your Mac disk goes south…

Yesterday I had an unrecoverable file system error on my MacBook Air running 10.8 Preview 2. Disk Utility instructed me to back up what files I could and then reformat. Since I had an up-to-date Time Machine backup, I wasn’t worried. I reformatted, and reinstalled the OS. However, I discovered that the OS installation had left me with a copy of 10.7. Would I be able to successfully restore all of my 10.8 files onto 10.7? Probably not. (Many of the settings have changed a lot.) So I decided to complete the installation first, upgrade to 10.8, and then recover my files.
Here’s the tip – something I forgot to do which caused me to waste time. While I was reinstalling 10.7, I created my normal “Geoff Arnold” user account. That was silly, because eventually I wanted to restore that account (apps, settings, files) from Time Machine. I should have set up a disposable account called something like “Super User”, performed the upgrade to 10.8 as this user, and then restored “Geoff Arnold” from Time Machine. As it was, I had to juggle accounts before running Migration Assistant: create “Super User”, log out, log in as “Super User”, delete the “Geoff Arnold” account, etc.
I actually ran into one more problem: trying to restore across the LAN didn’t work, because Migration Assistant hung while looking for computers. So I copied the backup sparsebundle to a USB HD, and restored from that. From checking the Apple Support discussions, it appears that using Migration Assistant with Time Machine is (still) mostly broken.

Back into the walled garden, with enthusiasm (and an emptier wallet)

Yesterday I finally had enough. I headed over to the local AT&T store, indulged myself in a mild rant about the POS (Samsung Infuse) that they’d sold me last summer, and then paid through the nose to upgrade it early to an iPhone 4S. Since I don’t intend to replace this one any time soon, I went for the top-of-the-line: a 64GB white one. Did I really need that? Well, when I replaced my iPad with an iPad 2, I opted for a 32GB rather than 64GB, and I’ve been running into space constraints ever since. So 64GB seemed safer.
Anyone want to buy a Samsung Infuse 4G in good condition, complete with desktop cradle? You’ll need to root and flash it to make it usable, of course….

Feature driven competition, and the Android problem

Tim Bray just posted a nice blog piece about his new phone: a pre-production Nexus Galaxy running Android 4.0 (code-named “Ice Cream Sandwich”). There are some really nice features in this release, which is, of course, what we’ve come to expect. These days, competition in many markets is driven by features, and less attention is given to price, performance, quality, and customer service.
But will I ever get to use these features? Here’s the comment I posted on Tim’s piece:

Yes, Tim, it all looks very nice. But I’m still waiting for AT&T to get around to updating my Samsung Infuse 4G from Froyo to Gingerbread (promised in August, already shipping in Canada). I have no idea if AT&T and Samsung will ever put Ice Cream Sandwich on the Infuse, let alone when. I read your account of the new features, but I have no idea whether it’s relevant to me.
For me, this is the biggest bug in the Android business model compared with iOS: it’s completely unpredictable. All of the players – Google, handset makers and carriers – contribute to the mess. And so I’m not surprised that so many apps are so unstable: the test matrix is ridiculously big.
In contrast, when an iOS release comes out, I know exactly what it will run on, and which features will be available on my device. Moreover I can install it immediately.
This summer, I decided to try life outside the “walled garden” and replaced my iPhone 4 with the best Android device then available. I have to report that so far, life outside the wall sucks. This is a shame. I guess I could hack it, but great products shouldn’t need hacking….

Thank you, Apple, for not releasing the iPhone 5

Wall Street and even some Apple fanbois were disappointed that Apple chose to release a minor upgrade to the iPhone 4 rather than a kick-ass, “this changes everything” iPhone 5. But I was delighted. Let me explain.
A few months ago, I decided to see what life was like on the other side of the “garden wall“, and I replaced my iPhone 4 with a Samsung Infuse 4G. Thin, big gorgeous screen, powerful CPU, bags of memory, the latest Android OS, and “4G networking” (whatever AT&T meant by that – certainly not LTE): I was determined to test “the best of the rest”.
Unfortunately, it has not been a great experience. The startup logo from AT&T exhorts me to “Rethink Possible”, and I have done so: I realize that it is possible that someone could create a crap product and try to compete with Apple.
What came I say about this puppy? (This is not a compliment: I’m not a dog person.) The battery life sucks. I’m lucky to get through 8 hours before the warning messages start appearing. OK, I’m syncing both IMAP and Exchange email in the background, but I’m usually in range of a WiFi AP. Often, I’ll take the phone out of my belt holster and it will be hot, as though it’s been running some CPU-intensive app, but Task Manager shows nothing running. Even so, the power just melts away. I’ve tried many of the apps that have been created to deal with this weakness of Android (and that should tell you something right there!), but nothing helps.
So of course I charge it whenever I get the chance, and at night I put it in a cradle next to my bed, with an alarm set. Unfortunately the phone insists on waking up, beeping, and turning on the screen when recharging is complete – usually at 3AM. This does not endear it to me or my loved ones.
There are lots of other annoying glitches, some of which are still mysterious. There is some package – not an app: no apps are running – which will occasionally vibrate the phone. If I power cycle the phone, it goes away. Because I receive corporate email on the phone, I’ve configured it to require a passcode to unlock it. However whether I have to unlock or simply swipe seems totally random.
But the most infuriating problem is the random hangs. I get one or two a week, and I usually have to power-cycle the phone by holding down the power button. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I have to resort to sliding off the back case and popping out the battery. This evening, I encountered a new problem. I was riding on the Green Line under Boston streets; I fired up the Amazon Kindle app, and everything froze. I power-cycled the phone, and when it came back most of my apps were unavailable. Touching the generic icon produced the bizarre message that the app was not installed. Eventually I left the subway system, powered the phone off and on, and everything came up OK. From browsing similar accounts on the web, it looks as if Android needs to sync with MarketPlace on powerup. This is, obviously, absurd.
Yesterday I was just about ready to give up on this piece of crap, buy a new iPhone 5, and swallow my pride (and the penalty for early upgrade). But Apple came to my rescue by releasing the iPhone 4S, which is not quite compelling enough to make me switch back. Yet. So I’ll wait until I’m eligible for a penalty-free upgrade in January, 2013 (sigh!), or whenever the iPhone 5 actually appears. Thank you, Apple!

Getting the instant-on performance I expected out of Lion on my MBA

When Apple started working on 10.7 (Lion), I signed up for a developer account and installed every new developer build on my MacBook Air. (And then used it for production work, in flagrant disregard of Apple’s warnings.) When 10.7 was launched on the world, I was already running the release bits. And since then bunch of stuff I’m not supposed to talk about.
But there was a problem. Over the last few months, wake-from-sleep time was getting slower and slower. Reviewers were waxing lyrical about how an SSD MBA with Lion was “instant-on” when you opened the lid; for me it was 30-90 seconds. I wondered whether it was related to the fact that I run in 32-bit mode (I still have to use some brain-dead Cisco VPN drivers – and yes, I know about the workarounds, and no, they don’t apply to my situation.) But colleagues weren’t seeing those problems.
So yesterday I did a clean install. I backed up my stuff onto a USB drive; erased the SSD and reinstalled 10.6 (Snow Leopard) from the cute USB key that came with my MBA; brought 10.6 up to date with Software Update; installed the release version of 10.7 from the App Store; reinstalled Office 2011, iWork, OmniGraffle and all my other apps, and restored my home directory. Then I synced bookmarks, etc. via MobileMe, and applied the latest stuff I’m not allowed to talk about. Finally I flipped the system to boot in 32-bit mode and added in the accursed VPN crap.
And it all just worked. My MBA really is “instant-on” from sleep; when I open the lid, I see the password prompt before the lid is 45 degrees open. And the system feels much, much snappier. (And it was pretty snappy to start with.)

Since everyone seems to be blogging about Steve Jobs…

Here’s an extract from a piece I wrote in January, 2009 on how Steve affected my career:

Why am I a Mac user? During 1996 there were rumours that Sun was trying to buy Apple. While any talk of acquisition soon fizzled, contact continued. For most of that year, I was part of a secret team working to integrate the Sun and Apple technology portfolios. Sun was to give up making desktop computers, Apple would abandon its minuscule server business, Solaris would be used as the basis for OS X, and sales and channel strategies would be coordinated. I spent much of my time that year at Apple, working on the networking aspects of the deal. It all unravelled when Steve Jobs returned to Apple at the beginning of 1997; with the NeXT OS technology he had no need for Solaris. Shortly afterwards, Eric Schmidt left Sun to join Novell, before moving to Google a few years later. All I got was a T-shirt, and a PowerBook – but that was enough.

The Apple side of the proposed deal was initiated by Ellen Hancock (CTO) and Gil Amelio (CEO), both of whom were dumped by the Apple board as part of Steve’s return. Neither seemed the kind of person who understood the importance of design, and could have led Apple down the path towards the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. So in retrospect the Apple board got it exactly right. But the joint venture was fun while it lasted, and I got to work with some amazing Apple engineers: figuring out how to add AFP and Apple printing support into Solaris, and working on eliminating the last non-TCP based networking dependencies in Mac OS.