Archive for the Category TECH:stüffe


Rose Tinted Iconography

There’s been lots to read about stuff that has been, shouldn’t have been, and won’t be released by Apple recently. There’s a lot of bashing going on, some of which is fair, most of which probably isn’t, but almost all of it is from the jaded in some way. As a reformed nerd it’s been tricky to resist the pull as the black hole sucks you in pretty quickly.  One of the things I’m genuinely interested in is the new MacBook Pro Touchbar, but this post isn’t about that, it’s about this screenshot and throwaway line from Stephen Hacket (unreformed nerd and good read) which I came across whilst splashing around the macosphere:

The full article is here but linked only for proprietarys sake, this isn’t about that article either (although you should read it, and Stephens other posts too if you find this stuff interesting), it’s about that sentence in the middle, or rather the common view that the new stuff isn’t better, it’s just newer (and often the worse for it)…

Nostalgia is a great thing in moderation, and it’s always fun to pull back to when you were properly amazed by something for the first time ever, especially when there’s something ‘new’ to pull apart with the years of cynicism you’ve since accumulated. I came across the above post and initially had a quick grin of amusement and agreement; I had previously spent some time kicking about on eBay hunting Amiga 500s, those were the best, right?  My nostalgia engine was already primed.

And then I actually looked at the said masterpiece, and I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t, indeed can’t, see what’s so good about it, particularly in comparison to the current incarnation.

You see, as mentioned my days of being amazed were centered on my Amigas, I never had a Mac until Mac OS X 10.4, so I’d never seen much less used the OS in question in anything other than screenshots like these.

As a total newcomer, let’s take a look at it in detail and see if I can work out what it all means, and why it’s so worthy of posthumous praise. This is just a bit of fun, I’m not really critiquing it, or it’s author or anything in between…

Firstly, it’s a simple window, with a title and some control in the top left, so far so good, nothing unexpected.  There’s a date and time underneath, and apart from the odd format (American m/d/y aside, why no trailing ‘0’ on the date) it’s remarkable only for having marginally excessive white space.

Let’s pop round the other sections In  clockwise manner from here. First up is this:

I’m not sure if this is 2 controls, or 1, and I have no idea what it refers to. I would guess that it’s the amount of time it takes to select a submenu when hovering over it without resorting to a click? Utter guesswork I’m afraid

Next up is what’s looks like the flash repeat delay for a cursor, if so it’s fairly straight forwards and self explanatory:

Then we have the double click delay, easy although that’s a creepy long finger:

I have no clue for this bit, I’m sure it will seem about right when someone tells me, if not even obvious, but right now I’m not even prepared to guess:

Normality returns for the next two, although I question a few things.  Why is the mouse acceleration button not in the order off then on, seems odd. And why does the volume go to 7, not 10 (or 9…). Additionally, the lower volume icon could easily be the higher one, there’s not a lot of differentiation there.

  And last but not least some keyboard controls:

Other than an outsize icon, I’d probably just swap the order around, you have to press the key before it can repeat after all.

So mainly, I give it a C. I can understand most, but certainly not all, of what it’s doing, and I have minor changes I’d make for clarity. It’s no masterpiece to me.

So what have we learned? Well, let’s be fair, not a lot, but mainly that on the whole nostalgia isn’t about how things were, but what we experienced. Whether it’s music, old GUI interfaces, or old workplaces, on the whole it’s great to reminisce, but it’s probably fun rather than useful. It’s no masterpiece to me, but it is to Stephen, and that’s cool, his glasses are tuned to a different rose hue than mine is all.

The original post is clearly fun reminiscing too, ands it’s unfortunate that the use of a single word triggered my thinking on it in this way, but I guess we all need to know when our fondness for our formative experiences drives us to batter the present with unreliable recollections and unfair comparisons.

iOS Irritations

iOS 6 has been out a while now, and the changes it brought with it have been by and large known about since back as far as February when the initial previews and developer Betas were made available. It’s not really had much discussion, perhaps because we’ve known so long that there were not going to be any major changes, much as some people would love to replace the simple Homescreen that has remained largely untouched for 5 years with something a bit more flashy, and dare I say it, more ‘Androidy’ – is that a word? It is now…

I actually like the fact that nothing major has changed, the ridiculously simple nature of the Homescreen isn’t a problem for me, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that need attention. I maintained a (very small) list of niggles that I intended to write about before I installed iOS 6 in the hope that some of them might get some love. In the end, it’s no great loss that I didn’t get around to it, because with 1 exception they all remain. So without further ado, here is my hit list of tiny things to change to make the Homescreen that bit more polished:

  • Modal notifications, such as the “20% of battery remaining” message, must be dismissed though a tap on the screen. Nearly every time I get this, I try to tap the Home button to clear it, but no beans. In fact, when such a display is shown, the Home button ceases to function entirely, and as such I think it’s reasonable to co-opt it to be a hardware “OK” button when you are presented with such a notification

  • If you are viewing a Homescreen folder, and don’t want to start an app from within, your only choice is a tap outside of the folder to exit it. Since almost every time I am in this scenario it’s because I went into the wrong folder, then I think that a tap outside that happens to be on another folder, should simply switch folders, instead of requiring a 2-tap process. As a side note, my list complained about the fact that a Home button tap did not collapse an open folder, but that is the thing that did get fixed in iOS 6.

  • Another folder improvement would be to automatically collapse the folder after the execution of an app from within it. As things stand if you open a folder, start an app, then quit the app, you return to the open folder, more often than not requiring a further tap (or at least Home button tap now) to get back to the standard Homescreen

  • Gesture based navigation on the iPad, including the 4 finger swipe to switch between recent apps only works if you are currently viewing an open app. Switch back to the Homescreen and swipe, and you get nothing. I makes sense to me to continue to allow a swipe to move you back to the previous app just like it works if you are already in one, because the alternative is a lengthy (well, by comparison) double tap on the Home button, followed by a screen tap to pick the first app in the list.

So, not really much to complain about from my point of view, and almost all concerned with Folders and the Home button. Will these things ever get fixed? Do they need fixing? Have you got some more? Get in touch.

The iPad Mini is dead. Long Live the iPod Maxi!

There’s been a whole load of rumour and speculation about a forthcoming “iPad Mini” to fight against the might of the Nexus 7 (That thing that’s, you know, only available in 1 country, and isn’t available in any stores anywhere, even in that one country). I tried to wrap my head around it, and failed.

The problem to me is with the word iPad. Now, there may be a mid-level device that sits somewhere between an iPhone and an iPad, but I’m willing to bet that it is not another iPad. You’ve got it all wrong. It’s the new iPod. Here’s why:

The original iPhone and iPod touch rolled out with a 3.5″ 3:2 ratio display pushing out 480×320. Future upgrades brought the first Retina displays, that doubled this to 960×640, maintaining the screen dimensions and aspect ratio nicely. This screen looks as great today over 2 years later as it did at launch.

Next up, we have the original iPad. We have a change in that the screen is much larger, and has a different shape, so we welcome that old vanguard of trusty resolutions SVGA, pumping a solid 1024×768 in a 4:3 ratio 10″ (I’m rounding for clarity of thought) rectangle. After that we duly get a Retina version in time, and once more the resolution is doubled to a mighty 2048×1536, maintaining all other details.

So, at this point we have a clear range of products when it comes to screen size. We have small; 3.5″ 3:2 displays for iPhones and iPods. And and we have large; 10″ 4:3 displays for iPads. Both sizes come in low (or shall we euphemistically call it “original”?), and high resolutions.

The key is that all along Apple have tried their best to ensure clarity of options for potential developers. Fragmentation is a real issue for Android developers, there’s no point pretending otherwise, and any future or further changes to the iOS hardware ecosystem can only make things more difficult for developers who up to now have had a relatively smooth ride with only having to develop for 2 sizes and remembering to include those good old 2x images for instant Retina compatibility…

Now, an iPad is an iPad, that’s why it’s called an iPad, and an iPad mini has to be an iPad too, seems straightforward enough, so therefore it stands to reason that it will have iPad properties, and those will extend to the 2 key properties of screen resolution and ratio. It’s just so obvious, right? We’ll go back to using our trusty SVGA screens at 4:3, and merely stamp them out in a 7.85″ rectangle!

That’s the theory anyway, but I have 2 problems with it. I’ll tackle the first one first, naturally.

So, firstly, let’s round up the imaginary product options from this point onwards, and see where the iPad Mini Fits:

  • iPhone 3GS 480×320 3:2 @ 3.5″ = 165 PPI (I’m rounding the PPI figures here by the way, and using an online calculator so apologies if they do not exactly match the Apple spec sheets)
  • iPhone 4/4S 960×640 3:2 @ 3.5″ = 330 PPI
  • iPad Mini 1024×768 4:3 @ 7.85″ = 163 PPI (Note 7.85″ seems to be the rumour mills – choice, even though I’d call this 8 not 7, but that’s another point…)
  • iPad 2 1024×768 4:3 @ 9.7″ = 132 PPI (or 10″, from here on in)
  • New iPad 2048×1536 4:3 @ 9.7″ = 263 PPI

Now to me, the obvious problem seems clear. Discounting the fact that you can still get an older non-Retina iPhone and iPad, the fact is that these are not considered current hardware, it’s simply a nice way to push the old tech down the line at a cheaper price point to more budget conscious buyers and in emerging markets, this new iPad Mini will be current generation, and will have to look the part. As such, take a look at those PPI figures. Yes, your new iPad Mini has a resolution clarity that is worse than the original iPhone, and barely better than the original iPad. Which, when you consider there is only 1.85″ difference in size, seems logical.

Let’s take away the numbers and the maths and the comparisons. This screen will be laughably woeful. There is no way that Apple would sell anything with such a screen today as a new product.

So, how would you go about fixing this? Well, the answer seems to be sitting there waiting to slap you in the face. Make it Retina. Pixel double that bad boy, and you’re set:

  • iPad Mini 2048×1536 4:3 @ 7.85″ = 326 PPI

That’s more like it! But, hang on while I just put my sanity hat back on, this iPad Mini is the budget iPad, right? And you’re telling me that it’s going to have a screen that matches the resolution and ratio of the full priced New iPad, and further bump the PPI by a whopping 24%? This is the budget iPad, not the class leading one! Not going to happen. Will cost too much, and there is no way that they will usurp the top of the range real iPad models, let’s face it the only difference is going to be this screen, not the other internals.

So, busted, there is no way that the screen on an iPad Mini is going to be either worse than an iPhone 3GS, or better than a New iPad. It has to sit somewhere in the middle.

This brings me to my next point, and that is…the New iPhone (iPhone 5, iPhone 6, whatever…). Now, I didn’t want to talk about it much, but I am sure that most people are aware that the dominant rumour seems to be that the screen technology will not fundamentally change for the next iPhone, merely the dimensions will, meaning keeping the same PPI roughly, and same fabbing, and simply punching out the screen to be longer on the X axis to achieve a phone with something approximating the following specs:

  • New iPhone 1136×640 16:9 @ 4″ = 325PPI

So, this is where Apple really start to mess around, because this is introducing not only a new resolution, but also a new aspect ratio to the previous clear narrative of having a pair of sizes. I won’t repeat (or link to) the various reason why this options seems both likely and actually sensible, but let’s take it as read that it is accurate, after all we’re are specifically talking rumours here! Now we have a new option to run the iPad Mini at:

  • iPad Mini 1136×640 16:9 @ 7.85″ = 166 PPI

Hooray, we’ve finally bested the PPI of the 3GS! By one! But the problems remain, worse than the iPhone, worse than the iPad, not Retina, not going to happen. Also, and this is the real no-no for this particular resolution, you can’t call it an iPad, if you can’t run iPad apps on it, native. Make it Retina? No way, that would make it both higher resolution and better PPI than the New iPad, so same reason, no chance.

Anyway, that’s enough torture, here’s where I’ve been headed. It’s not the new iPad. It’s the new iPod. Here’s your new line-up of Apple Products:

  • New iPhone 1136×640 16:9 @ 4″ = 325 PPI Retina Class Display
  • New iPod 1920×1280 3:2 @ 7″ = 329 PPI Retina Class Display
  • New iPad 2048×1536 4:3 @ 9.7″ = 263 PPI Retina Class Display

But, wait, where did I get 7″ from? I thought it was 7.85″? Well, it is if you want it to be an iPad, and if you want to keep iPad ratios and resolutions. I don’t, so it seems clear to me that the only way to get a Retina display at something in the region of 7 inches without introducing a 4th resolution or aspect ratio for developers to contend with is to simple get the existing iPhone 4/4s Retina screen, and double it again, retaining the same ratio, and doubling the dimensions exactly in order to be able to use the existing fabbing process to create them.

Here are some other thoughts which help this to make more sense to my mind than having an iPad that is only 1.85″ smaller than what we have now.

Firstly, look at the product range in terms of size. Doing some slight rounding for clarity, we are talking 4″, 7″ and 10″. That’s 3″ between each and every model, not gaps of 4″ and then 2″ which skews the iPad Mini to be far too close to a real iPad, and nowhere near the iPhones. A clear distinction for each line, and each model has slightly different characteristics too, starting with the aspect ratios:

  • iPhone – 16:9 mainly used in portrait mode for single handed operation and ease of vertical scrolling.
  • iPod – 3:2 mainly used in landscape mode, for media consumption, and 2 handed gaming
  • iPad – 4:3 being a great compromise between the 2 above, and sensible for use in either orientation

Also, simply renaming is as the New iPod allows them to breathe some new life into the iPod name, and completes the distinction between it and the iPhone.

Secondly, take a look at some of the mockups of the iPad Mini at the suggested size and dimensions. It’s still got the big bevel. And at nearly 8″ without having a dominant orientation, it’s still going to need it. So instead, let’s think about how it would appear if it has a bevel that was, say, iPhone sized. It doesn’t look like an iPad, it doesn’t spec match an iPad, it’s a better ratio for media consumption (on the understanding that it possibly does not need to have a decent portrait mode like an iPad does, because if you need that, well, buy an iPad…).

It’s just a big iPod!

Well, that’s my idea anyway. What do you think?

Minimal Mountain Lion

The recent announcements regarding the forthcoming addition to the menagerie of clawed operating systems from Cupertino was very interesting to me for a number of reasons.

Chief amongst them is “Wooo! New toys!”, closely followed by “Yay, more consistency!” and finally the slow dawning of realisation that an idea which has been floating around in my head for some time can now be put into action: Project Minimal Macbook! But first, some background…

When I first got my Macbook Air I was delighted with it, but had to rigidly enforce some new ideas about how I used it compared to my previous Macbook which had considerably larger storage capacity. I couldn’t even get close to restoring my data onto it, I had too much stuff, and so I had to work from a fresh install and keep in mind that I needed to be at least mindful, if not downright picky, about what software (and importantly “data”) I could afford to allow into it’s hallowed SSD halls.

Straight away out went iPhoto and iTunes. I could fill my puny 128Gb of space with my music and photos alone. Co-incidentally around about the same time that I got the Air I picked up my first non portable Mac, and my iPhone 4. That’s another story, but still, off you go dear data, there’s a nice fat spinning platter just waiting over there inside the iMac… But I couldn’t banish it forever, I may as well not have it if I can’t access it. So thank goodness for iTunes Home Sharing, and iPhoto Sharing. They might not be ideal solutions, but they allow me enough functionality to be get by with only the occasional massive tantrum.

At which point, I suddenly suffer the timeless fate of those who are lucky(?) enough to have multiple machines, made more tedious by the addition of multiple platforms. What about the stuff that hasn’t got a Homeshare equivalent? What about my PDFs, my family tree data, diary entries, password files and so on ad infinitum? What about not just having access to stuff just from my Macs, but from my iPhone also? What about having anything I can use on my iPhone, also available on my iPad? And so the hunt for the ultimate synchronisation mechamism begins.

Suffice to say, I found ways to handle most of my data, either through carefully choosing to use software that had the ability to use Dropbox or iCloud or other mechanisms to sync for me, or through the use of a third party synchronsation tool that monitored half of my home folder, or by just admitting that I won’t do X on machine Y.

At the point in which these steps were largely dealt with and stable (it will never actually be complete) I had amassed quite a collection of methods and software that did the job, but the inconsistencies and sheer number of solutions and amount of times the workflow was only 90% there put a bug in my ear that’s never quite been removed.

Do I really need all this software? Do I really need an App for keeping track of my books and DVDs, or can I just do it in a Spreadsheet? Do I need a recipes App, or just a bunch of tagged Textedit files? Twitter client, or visit the website? Will I only ever play podcasts on my iPhone, or do I want to have more choice?

You can see where this is going. And now I have the chance to put the thought to the test: Can I manage without nothing but the pre-installed default apps on my Macbook Air running Mountain Lion.

Whenever I have previously thought about this, 2 simple words would stop me in my tracks: “Notes” and “Todos”. Ever used these features in Mail and iCal? Then you will feel my pain. Ever tried to sync them from OSX to iOS? Then you will share the nightmares. Many, many, hours and a not inconsiderable amount of pounds sterling have gone into messing around with replacement software that a) doesn’t suck so hard and b) syncs nicely, not just with my other Macs, but with my iOS devices too. Even when I thought I had nailed it, something would come up to bite me on the butt. A new App would appear on the radar promsing to do stuff better. An iOS app that I liked but discounted because it previously didn’t have a Mac client, suddenly would. An iOS app that was previously only for iPhone would get a Universal binary update to allow use on the iPad…

Each of these things would see me striving to compare the new possibilities against my existing setup. Do I need feature Z? Is switching to App X going to be worth the hassle of migrating and converting my data? Do I actually want to be able sync my podcast playback position back to iTunes…

The freedom to have so many options available to me, so many choices to make on how to do just everyday simple things has started to become time consuming and hard work. I don’t want to have to put so much effort into syncing my tasks. I want to tick those suckers off and get some work done! Right now I have 5 task manager apps on my iPhone that I am in the process of either using, evaluating or trying to export the data out of them so I can bin them…

It’s too much, I want another freedom, freedom from choice. And Mountain Lion gives me that. It covers the basics for almost any generalised computing activity, and makes it available across every device I own. There are no obvious holes in the integration. “Notes” and “Todos” (or should I now say “Reminders”) are finally something to look forward to just using rather than researching. Throw in to the mix that any temptation to download additional software has to run the gauntlet of compatibility with an as-yet unreleased operating system, and it’s a pretty powerful reason to try to keep things as stock as possible. Running on a Beta OS probably isn’t to be recommended, but given my data should be safe (and I have a fully operational other computer with all the 3rd party software anyone could wish for) it’s worth an experiment.

So with that in mind, I have the Developer Preview sat on my Macbook Air as we speak. And I am going to try my level best to not install a single piece of 3rd party software on it from now until it hits retail. Straight away I know this is an impossible task (1Password anyone?) so I may make exceptions with strict critera (namely it must be fully available on iOS and OSX via the App Store, as universal binaries, using iCloud or Bonjour sync only).

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck!

In defence of inefficiency

In years gone by the definition of a “power user” has subtly altered as more and more people not only own more and more computers, but become more familiar with how they operate, and more competent at actually doing the things that we have been told for years they will help us to do.

It’s a phrase I have never particularly liked, and one that is increasingly unhelpful when it comes down to assessing the relative skills of a user. It’s also largely only ever used by people who already consider themselves to be “power users”, which immediately skews the meaning somewhat and somehow makes it self serving. My brother understands cars more than I ever will, can fix them up, describe their inner workings and drive them faster and likely more safely than me. He’s not a power driver though, that would be ridiculous.

When I first started messing with computers properly, and certainly when I started to do it professionally (and that is another term that I have beef with) I considered myself a power user, and if asked for a definition of that phrase I would probably have suggested that it would describe someone who knows how a computer and it’s operating system combine with application software (there were no Apps back then!) to allow you to achieve some end result, and that the power user would understand the whole end to end process sufficiently to be able to not just know what to do, but understand why you are doing it. And in extension of this, should said power user need to do something for the first time, they should be able to work it out from first principles without having to be taught the new actions required or refer to any manual etc. That’s very wordy, but there is no simple soundbite phrase that covers all the elements in a nicer way that I can think of.

In short, a power user was a someone who knew how their computer worked, and was able to use it to achieve tasks that they might not have been taught to do by anyone else because, like maths, once you understand the concepts you have no need of learning times tables to infinity by rote any more.

These days most people with a computer could probably fit that description at least up to a point. A combination of improved usability and capabilities of the whole computing eco system, along with the prevalence of computers in everyday environments (these days you are a minority case if you do not have at least one computer of some description with some form of internet connectivity in your household or workplace) means that today my retired mother can probably do more on her first Macbook that I could have done with my first PC, even with limited tuition or training.

But of course, those of us who live and breathe computers, whether for fun or for money, have the need to set ourselves apart from the regular Joes, and the way in which we do this has changed over the years. Previously, we could just do more. Now thanks to technological progress we can all do the same, so we need to find a new differentiator. So we’re going to have to do the same, but faster.

Santa’s little helper

Say hello to a whole host of tools to help me, the power user, stand out from the regular crowd by using a suite of applications and services that allow me to do things differently to my dear Mum. I’m looking at you TextExpander, and you Launchbar, Keyboard Maestro, FastScripts and so on. If you’ve even heard of these programs, much less used them, you are probably entering power user land.

Using everyday actions like starting a program from it’s dock icon, using the built in keyboard shortcuts where available etc are all out of the window. It’s not enough to be able to do what we need, we need to do it faster, with less key presses, and we certainly do not want to take our hands off the keyboard to go near the mouse unless it is strictly necessary.

I have to say, I don’t use any of these tools. It’s not that I am dismissive of them, but I could never fit them into my way or working. And I think I just worked out why. It’s not that I am incapable of first of all knowing that such tools exist, and then learning a) how to use them, and b) how to adapt my workflow to include them into it, in order to make myself a faster and leaner computer user. It’s more that I don’t feel the need to increase my productivity in such a way that requires me to change the way I use my computer in a way other than it might have been designed.

I think a part of this is that I don’t use my Mac for professional purposes, it’s very much my home and hobby machine. I spent 12/13 years supporting Unix servers in commercial enterprises. I learned all the arcane keyboard tricks for multiple shells, and could navigate a text file in vi like a man possessed. At work knowing how to shave 10 seconds off the performing of a task yielded tangible benefits, either I got rid of the annoying user faster, or I got more time to talk toot with the rest of the cubicle monkeys, or I got to slope of for longer lunch breaks and so on.

I’ve tried to use Quicksilver and Launchbar and Alfred, and any number of similar tools, and never been happy with the results. I’ve always assumed that it was because the particular app didn’t quite suit how I like to perform a certain action, or perhaps because I wanted it to do even more things beyond what it wanted to allow me, as if even the power tool wasn’t powerful enough for me. For a while I even nurtured a few thoughts that since moving away from a technical role to a managerial one at work I had some how “lost it”, and was in a downward spiral into regular user land.

Then it struck home. When I am at home, what is the motivation for doing things faster? I’m using my computer in a completely different mode to at work. I don’t want to save 10 seconds filing away a dozen emails by calling my customised applescript via a customised keystroke. It gains me nothing, but forces me to turn my brain into work mode. It’s not a chore that must be paired down to the minimum actions that produce the maximum efficiency that I can extract from the process. If I start a photo editing application, it’s not a task to get it out of the way as fast as possible, I’m there to enjoy my photos while I am cropping them and tagging them.

The innate power user need for increasing my productivity and doing things ever faster in a more streamlined workflow is directly irreconcilable with my requirement to enjoy what I am doing. Efficiency such as what these tools lead us towards, is a step away from the creative mode of using my computer to do something for myself. Those few seconds longer it takes me to do something, or the extra few steps required provide me with breathing space to appreciate what I am doing, have just done, or am about to do. I don’t exactly use my computer to create earth shatteringly amazing works of art, but to take the efficiency drive to it’s logical conclusion would have me slaving over ways to edit my photos faster for example, which would surely result in failing to enjoy the process, and as such failing to appreciate my photos etc. I could save time changing my slideshow settings to show each picture for 4 seconds rather than 5, but where is the requirement to reduce the time it takes to do something I have chosen to do, rather than need to do? This blog post has taken roughly an hour to write since I thought up the topic. When I click publish in a few more minutes, I’ll be using my mouse and clicking buttons rather than using shortcuts, and won’t be using any time saving mechanisms to publish it faster. Would saving even 5 minutes of the time taken to load up a text editor normally, write it, copy it into WordPress and so on have yielded anything useful? Would this blog post be any better had I had a few minutes more time through using MarsEdit?

I’m not saying these tools don’t have a place, many people who have different usage requirements will and do find them essential. But I would questions the motives of anyone who is using them because of some internal need to be a “power user”, like it was some sort of entry requirement in the hall of fame for geeks and nerds.

I’d be interested to hear from people who use these tools in a non professional environment and have other views.

Just another device after all

Today I rebooted my phone for the first time in many many months. Other than for software upgrades I can’t recall a time when I have chosen to fully power cycle the device for reasons other than a dead battery, and even that is a relatively rare occurrence these days.

The reason? Well, it just didn’t feel right. Pressing the home button was encountering odd delays as if it had not registered the key press, and overall the whole thing just felt, well slow. This might not seem an unusual thing for many people, but it had immediately drawn my attention. It’s a testament to the general speed of the device as a whole that you start to wonder what is wrong when a few seconds delay is introduced to tasks, rather than appreciate the fact that you are normally saved from such mundane irritations. Of course, the iPhone hasn’t always been super responsive at all times, the first release of iOS 3 on the iPhone 3G did indeed reduce it to a crawl on text entry until it was patched but these day, well if it was a proper “Mac” I would say it certainly has “teh snappy” these days.

So, that was the reason for rebooting the phone, but not the reason for it feeling slow. Did it fix it? Sadly the answer was a resounding no.

No space at the inn

Running out of space on iOS

So after a morning of confusion I am finally alerted to the culprit. I’m out of space. Thinking back the last thing I did was take video of my daughter playing, and it’s tipped the scales of the device. However, this doesn’t really explain the general slowness of the device satisfactorily to me. I could understand apps not wanting to start, or crashing, or otherwise producing errors of some sort, but just being slow? Odd. It’s not as though it is using any virtual memory to try to shuffle apps around like other mobile OS attempt, so its storage situation should just remain static when performing simple phone operations like setting an alarm or viewing the calendar etc. A bit more digging showed me that I has precisely 0 bytes available:

Zero Bytes Free

Naturally suspicious, I then took a screenshot which as you can see worked, so I suspect that there is a certain amount of leeway in what it considers to be free space or not!

Anyway, the problem identified I went ahead and removed a couple of videos as suggested and we are back to cooking on gas. So, was there anything useful to take away from a simple problem? I think so.

It’s not magical after all

Firstly, it just goes to show how much we take for granted the capabilities of the iPhone and devices like it. It never occurred to me, or rather it has never manifested that there was some finite limit on it’s capabilities that was as mundane as storage. OK, you come across this when trying to stuff it full of films to take on holiday etc, but this is during a time of (for want of a better word) “maintenance”, not necessarily normal use. Day to day, I’ve spent since launch doing whatever I wanted without ever hitting a limit that curtailed my usage, whether than be running out of space, connectivity, speed, or anything else for that matter. Days like today make you realise it’s just a computer after all. Damn fine and all that, but just an operating system, running on a selection of components that have their limits.

Also, always get the biggest device you can afford with regards to storage! With talk of the upcoming 8MP camera in the next iPhone, we can only expect to use up the available space faster than ever before. In a similar vein, I suspect I must have gotten close to whatever invisible threshold iOS deems “full” in the past, but have likely synced in sufficient time to empty out the pictures and videos before hitting the storage wall. I have occasionally synced at the same time as charging, just because that was the nearest USB socket, but with the upcoming Wireless sync and iCloud photo stream that may change my sync strategy, i.e. I may stop doing it at all and thus be more susceptible to running out of space.

There’s an old adage in computing that you will always use the space available to you, whether you have a 20Mb drive, or a 2Tb one. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it eventually happened on the phone too, just perhaps surprised at how long it took.

Fresh Installs, or How to Find New Stuff and Stuff You Just Never Knew

Upgrades being what they are, namely quick and easy on a Mac, many people have never needed to reinstall their OS from scratch, and indeed most people should never need to. I have read of people who have been using the same OS image, that has been upgraded 4 times over as many machines and half as many hardware platforms.

I, however, like to install from scratch each time there is a new OS, mainly because it’s a neat way to remove the crud that I accumulate (I install a lot more stuff than the average user I imagine, for example I have attempted to install at least a half dozen driver/application packages for a Mobile Broadband dongle that would’t work under Snow Leopard, none of which a) worked, or b) got uninstalled), but also because it’s a great way to discover the neat new stuff that appears. When was the last time you trawled every option in system preferences? Probably when your machine was first purchased. This is where I start with any fresh install.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. This time, I had been using Lion for several months as part of the developer program, and as such decided to try something new. I scalped the Dock. Every icon, every app, gone. Launchpad, AppStore, FaceTime, Photobooth the works. Get rid of them. I long ago switched to using Spotlight for application launching, and many people use third party tools such as Launchpad and Alfred etc. A combination of this and the new gestures for switching between programs and such like means the only thing I ever use the Dock for is emptying the trash. I predict that there will be no Dock if not in 10.8, then the one after.

Next, I hit up System Preferences, and make the following changes:


Set a highlight colour, completely unimportant, but I like to change the colour every so often, and try to pick one that matches the wallpaper I have. No idea why really, just feels good to mix it up a little.

Desktop & Screen Saver

Desktop – pick one of the new backgrounds. It was Mt Fuji on Snow Leopard, I’m on the Eagle Waterfall in Lion. Screen Saver – unlike what I just said, I always keep this as Paper Shadow – go figure.


Reduce the size, and set auto hide to on. Turn off the indicator lights for running applications – I don’t have anything in my Dock, so if it’s in there, I know it’s running, don’t need the light to show me.

Mission Control

Depending on if I am on a portable or a desktop, I may remap the keys for showing the desktop etc, largely depending on if I also have a magic trackpad in which case I never use the keys.

Security & Privacy

General – Set the time to requiring a password after sleep to 1 minute. Show a message when the screen is locked, currently it’s set to “This computer belongs to Dan Wilkinson. Please contact for a reward if found.”, but as this is a new option, I may tweak the text over time to get that nice balance between pleading and bribing… Filevault – Turn this on for portables, I don’t bother with the desktops, possibly because they don’t have SSD drives so the performance hits may be more noticeable – it barely is on the Macbook Air. Firewall – Turn this on. Seriously, why does this default to off? Privacy – Turn on sending of diagnostics to Apple – I figure if everyone did this, it probably does help identify problems fast than would happen otherwise.

Universal Access

Click to enable access for assistive devices. I have no idea what these are, but you come across the odd program like Steam that requires it.

CDs & DVDs

Turn off any and all automatic actions on disc insertion. So irritating trying to second guess me.

Energy Saver

The new name for power management. I fiddle with the settings variously depending on which machine I am doing it on. on the iMac I turn off the automatically reduce brightness before the display goes to sleep setting, as the screen makes an awful buzz when dimmed in this way. I leave it on elsewhere as it’s a handy reminder to whack a key should you actually still be doing something like reading etc.


Change full keyboard access to all controls. Embarrassed to say I only discovered this a few months ago, even though it’s always been there! It allows you to tab between OK and Cancel buttons for example, rather than having to use the mouse, and then use space or enter to select either the minor or major highlighted option. A great timesaver.


Turn on tap to click. To be honest, this is probably the very first thing I do, after logging in with any new install! Also, turn on App Expose in the more gestures tab.


Add my printer, this sits hung off the back of my Airport Extreme router, so it’s just a case of tick the box and download the drivers automatically.


Turn off the volume icon in the task bar, turn off feedback for volume changes – you can see onscreen the levels etc, no need for a beep, and if you are muting to prevent unnecessary noises when recording audio, for example, you don’t want it adding a beep in there when you realise you are half way through and forgot to do it already.


Log in, set to fully replace all data on the computer at the next sync, and set everything to sync except Dashboard, Dock and Prefs – turn on Back to my Mac.


Turn this off for anything that doesn’t need it for peripherals (i.e off on the Air, on on the iMac), and get rid of the icon in the task bar.


Change the computers name to something more descriptive, and turn on file/screen sharing. Set a VNC password.

Users & Groups

Create a new Admin user, remove admin rights from my normal user, remove fast user switching menu bar icon. This does add extra steps when upgrading/installing software, but that’s not necessarily an every day task, so the added security is probably worth it. Set the Apple ID – it asks for this during install, but then fails to make the connection, which I am not sure is a bug or just odd.

Date & Time

Show the date in the clock, check the location data is finding a sensible city.

Time Machine

Point the thing at my backup drive, which these days is attached to another machine and shared out. Set encryption to yes in the options. Prepare to come back here later to add areas like Steam data files to the exclude list as and when they get installed.

That’s pretty much it for the preferences. I always recommend trawling through these after every major upgrade. Things change, get renamed and moved etc, and there is always something new that you may want to alter.

After this little marathon is over, I then start to configure some of the included apps with some changes. These include changing the battery icon to show percentage left, changing finder preferences so new windows start with my home folder not the “all my files” one, changing Safari to always show tabs and configure iTunes to use Home Sharing.

I may follow up this article with the next steps, which are to install and license all the software that I find essential. Over time this will get easier as I migrate more software to the App Store editions, but at a bare minimum I fire up DropBox, then the 1Password installer, because if nothing else, it holds all my license keys for non App Store software in a datafile on DropBox!

I hope you found at least one setting that you had never considered changing before, and if you have any “must change” configurations that you insist upon, or think I have missed something you consider mandatory, then let me know.



Tools for taming the web: prologue

In a previous post, I talked about how I felt that the web had become an unruly mess, and promised a further article outlining a few of the ways we could help to disentangle ourselves from it’s clutches with tools that helped to remove the years of tarnish, grime, and occasional extra licks of paint from the websites we visit and allow us to if not increase our enjoyment, at least reduce our frustrations.

Well, sadly it took as long as I feared it might and hoped it wouldn’t, and it’s still in progress, but in truth it is a good thing that I was so laggardly in completing it, as since the time of writing the original article a number of changes have taken place in the areas I was intending to cover that would have made it instantly out of date, and the scope for what was already becoming a veritable leviathan of a post increased considerably.

So, sorry about that, and this time I will merely say it will be ready when it is ready.

That’s how I scroll

Muscle memory is an odd term. Unlike our real muscles which need to be exercised regularly if we are to build them up, muscle memory is gained through the repetitive motion of minimal effort.

We computer slaves lazily build up our muscle memory, getting our minds ripped without even noticing, building up muscles on top of muscles, muscles in places where most users don’t even have places… Keyboard shortcuts, gestures on trackpads and even physically opening the lid of your laptop. We have no need of steroids and maxi-muscle whey supplements, mere time is the catalyst to getting our minds buffed.

I realised today that I could open the lid of my Macbook Air, enter my username and password, then quickly jump into Mission Control in almost a single motion, and without any conscious effort. I don’t need to think about how much pressure to use with the lid in order to open it without lifting the base off the desk at the same time, or look at the keys to see what I am typing, or think about how many fingers I am using to make the appropriate gesture etc. It just happens. I’ve spent enough time with my computer to build up the muscle memory to impressive proportions.

This sounds like a good thing, experience and time alone help to speed up the everyday things we do, meaning we expend less effort, both physically and mentally, which presumably frees you up to expend that elsewhere, on the new stuff, on the things that you actually need to concentrate on in order to do them. But, like all good things there is a downside, one that allows the 6 stone weakling users who still have to methodically and consciously direct their thoughts at normal thinking speed to kick sand in the faces of us, we the Charles Atlases of computing, and that is this: Unlike real muscle, failing to use muscle memory does not make it less effective over time.

But surely this is a good thing? It can be, if your usage for those muscles never changes, but when it does, when you need to learn something different, rather than something new, it causes mayhem with our suddenly puny minds.

I first noticed this when switching to use Firefox on my work laptop. Having shunned I.E. for anything that wasn’t work related I had used Opera for many years. It did the job, and I never had an issue with it. At home, I would use Safari on my Mac, and likewise be happy enough. Then, for whatever reason, I had to swap Opera out for Firefox, and a battle has begun with my own mind that I am in no way close to ever winning.

You see, in both Opera and Safari, when right clicking on a link within a webpage the first option would be ‘Open in new Window’, followed by ‘Open in New Tab’. I couldn’t tell you which order they were in until I checked a few seconds ago, but get me surfing around and throwing a few links into background tabs and I just do it, I know what to press, I never read the words on the context sensitive menu that pops up immediately after right clicking, I just do what I have learned to do after years of repetitive motion. Enter Firefox. The menu items are the other way around.

Now, I know they are the other way around, I know approximately a tenth of a second after I finish clicking that I have just done it wrong, but in no way can I stop myself from opening those links in windows instead of tabs. I cannot do it. The actions takes place, the realisation that I have just done it wrong AGAIN occurs, and I immediately close the new window that has arrived to mock me and do it again, this time reading the menu. It drives me mad. I have been using Firefox for almost 3 months now, and I am not sure I will ever manage to train myself out of this ridiculous dance. I think it’s because it’s not so much a change, but a deviance from the norm. If Safari changed to match, I would probably get it in the end.

Which brings me to Mac OS X 10.7. The roar of the mighty lion is insignificant to that heard when I scroll backwards in a document by accident. However, this time I have a fix. Like the relative order of the menu items across my browser software, the problem isn’t so much one of change, but one of deviance from the memory. Whilst my work PC scrolls one way, and my Mac now scrolls the other I seem doomed to frustration. The simple fix is to switch off the so called ‘natural’ scrolling on the Mac. A more complex fix might be to do the opposite, and hack Windows to swap the direction.

But I had a better idea. One that would leave me free to leave them both different, but still retain that muscle memory in such a way that would allow me to use both systems frustration free.

I binned my mouse.

That is to say, I took my mouse to work, replaced the slightly erratic and elderly work supplied one with it, and refuse to use one any more at home. on Windows, I scroll with a mouse. On my Mac I have graduated solely to a trackpad, both on the Macbook and with an external Magic Trackpad for the iMac. It’s genius. My iPhone has trained me to touch scroll that way without ever even realising it was different to using the scroll wheel on a mouse. I never get it wrong, on either machine.

And that, is how I scroll.

iBooks Irritations, Notations on Rotation

Just a quick one with regards to the iBooks app on iOS devices. Many people have previously noted the moving “store” icon which trades position depending on if you are using a large or small screen device, but today I found something else which is inconsistent between versions, and that is rotating.

I can understand it when an app is locked to a particular orientation, that’s perfectly fine most of the time (unless there is no reason why it simply can’t work in both) but I have found with iBooks that when used on an iPhone turning the phone upside down doesn’t flip the screen. It does on the iPad version, and it is after all a universal binary, so what gives?

You might be wondering how I found out, or more pertinently why I care – well, I only ever charge my iPad at night using a cable that lives behind the bedstead on a little shelf. It needs charging so irregularly that I just leave the phone charger there to charge whatever needs it at the time. It might be twice as slow as the iPad charger, but they can both share the same cable and I don’t care how long it takes when I know I am going to leave it on all night. This does result in occasionally having a flat iPad before going to bed, so when I fire it up for my nightly dose of Epic Fantasy I need to read with the cable plugged in.

Anyone who reads reclined will know the trick to turning the thing upside down so you can rest the iPad down without it balancing on your charging cable. Just seems a little odd that the iPhone doesn’t support it, because it can be just as irritating.

Anyone else got any daft rotation behaviour, particularly in first party apps?