The Computer Blog

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Next Headlines for the iPhone Unlockers

Articles coming soon to a newspaper near you:

"Apple sues teenager for violating DMCA"

"Teenager wears ankle bracelet for unlocking iPhone"

"AT&T sues hackers for publishing iPhone hacks"

"iPhone hacks not worth the cost"

"European authorities hunt iPhone hackers"

"iPhone Software Update Reverses 536 Software Hacks"

"iPhone Software Update Alerts Apple to iPhone Hacks"

and, finally,:

"Bush calls iPhone Hackers Anti-American"

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Playing with the new Apple Keyboard

Ok, I admit it. I broke down and bought one of the new Apple keyboards.

I'm temporarily using it instead of my Logitech S530 keyboard and mouse combo with my MacBook Pro when I'm at home and running it as a desktop. To be clear, that means the MBP is operating with its top down and slid underneath a monitor stand that holds up a 20 inch Apple Cinema Display. The MBP gets connected to the display's Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 chords, a power adapter, a Firewire 800 Maxtor 320GB external hard disk, an external speaker system, and a keyboard and mouse.

As I had expected, I love the feel of the keys. However, the keyboard itself is smaller, and so I'm shuffling the keyboard around to find the right spot for it. I tried using it at first without the software update (V1.1) that enables the special keys. The CD Eject key worked anyway, and I could still control Dashboard and Expose using the F keys. With this keyboard, though, you have to hold down the Fn key located in the small pad between the regular keyset and the numeric pad to get the Function keys to work. (Like you were working on a MacBook or MacBook Pro keyboard.) The keys have a nice separation to them, and it's just enough with the smaller keyboard to throw me off. None of the volume or video control keys work without the update, but the brightness keys do. I booted my MBP into Windows and found the keyboard worked just fine there, including the CD Eject key. I then booted back to OS X and downloaded the software update. All keys then worked like they're supposed to, though the Expose key seemed only to move the windows to a tile layout and does not clear the windows off the desktop. To do that, you have to hit the "fn" key and the "F11" key, taking more steps than using a regular keyboard would. That almmost makes the "special" Expose key not worth it.

I had my wife sit down at the keyboard and try it, and she seemed to like it, though she wasn't sure she liked it more than her old Apple keyboard.

As for me, though I like the keyboard, I consider my jury still out. I regained one piece of the functionality lost by switching off the Logitech 530 keyboard by combining a Logitech MX500 Optical mouse with cruise buttons with Apple's. The new keyboard has volume and video control keys as does the S530, but it does not have buttons to launch iTunes, iPhoto, or Mail on its own. The S530 does. Loss of those items may not be enough to cause me to abandon the new Apple keyboard; but, then again, they might. I'll probably figure out in the next week or so whether the new Apple keyboard is going to stay or whether the S530 comes back and the Apple AL keyboard tries to find a new home with my wife.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Handbrake 0.9.0 - A True "Mac Gem"

Arriving in my e-mail inbox a day or so ago was an article from Macworld that described about Handbrake 0.9.0 as a Mac Gem. A Mac Gem is a piece of freeware, shareware, or donationware that almost all Mac owners need to have; and as someone who's been using the software for at least ten days, I have to agree! While it's not without its flaws, it's the best version, yet. If you're interested in ripping DVD movies off for your iPod or Apple TV, it's a “must-have” utility.

(Of course, I must insist on the usual legal warnings about only ripping off DVD's you own and even then warning you that this activity, when applied to commercial DVD's, might violate the Digital Millenium Copyright Act if you live in the U.S.)

The appplication now sports a toolbar; but in doing so, now requires the user to select the source for the video files. The previous version seemed to find a DVD on its own, requiring the user only to tell it to “Open”. Once the source is selected, Handbrake reads the files and pulls them into the application. The user only needs to click on the correct preset, which for the iPod consists of “HB-iPod High-Rez” and “HB-iPod Low-Rez”. The difference between the two is that the “High-Rez” optimizes for your iPod and presentation on a TV using your iPod while “Low Rez” optimizes for playback on your iPod only. I always encode using the “High Rez” setting even though it takes a little longer. (How much? On a movie running 2 hours, an "iPod Low-Rez" setting showed an encoding time of 35 minutes while an "iPod High-Rez" setting would take a bit over 50.)

The only other thing you need to do is check the filename and path for the end file and then click on the Start button. You'll find a progress bar forms below it along with the estimated time it will take to complete the encoding.

That's where the real beauty of this version is seen. Using my 2.66 Ghz dual processor, dual-core Mac Pro, it would typically take between an hour and 45 minutes to two hours to encode the average two hour movie. With this version, the process is taking between 30 – 45 minutes. This version uses multithreading to speed things up, i.e., it takes advantage of the Mac Pro's multiple cores.

I've encoded about five or six movies using this version. All the files have looked great and sounded great both on the Mac Pro (played through iTunes) and on my iPod. But I have not inserted chapter markers into any of these movies, and a note at the Handbrake website says doing so may cause the encode to hang. The site claims the fix will appear in the next version, 0.9.1.

Still, this version is a definite improvement over the last, and significantly so. Especially if you own any kind of a dual processor or dual core powered Mac, download it. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Life on External Hard Disks

When I was a PC user, I rarely used an external hard disk for anything. Most Windows backup programs allowed one to use CD's, DVD's, or tape; only a few allowed you to hook up to an external hard disk and, even so, there was no way to boot up on it. Just the opposite is true in the world of Macs. I'm much happier, now.

At the moment, I have eight external hard disks in the house. Four are used to backup our Macs. I made each of them by hooking up an external hard disk using a Firewire 400 interface and then using OS X's Disk Utility to first “erase” and then “restore” them. For those of you not familiar with that, the Restore function allows you to clone any hard disk Disk Utility can see to any other hard disk it can see. It makes backing up a hard disk ridiculously easy. Additionally, if your external hard disk has a Firewire 400 interface, you can boot your Mac from it by hooking it up (turned on, of course) and pressing the “Option” key as the Mac boots. You'll be presented with a grey screen containing icons for every bootable hard disk in the machine (and Macs can have several). You simply use your mouse to click on the one you want and then click on the arrow underneath and pointing to it. That disk becomes your StartUp Disk until the next reboot when whatever is selected in System Preferences will takeover unless the machine is told otherwise (with the Option key, again).

It's true that using this technique means that all the backups I do are full backups. If you want to do incremental backups, then you'll need third party software. Most external hard disks come with that. And I have tried the Maxtor software that came with a couple of the external disks I'm using, but it's never performed well enough to make me change my stripes. It's just so easy to use OS X's Disk Utility; start it up and walk away or go to bed. In a couple of hours, it will be done. I routinely back up 300 GB hard disks using this technique.

Since I haven't used any kind of software compression, individual files on the backup hard disk can be retrieved by simply accessing them. Folders can simply be copied back from hard disk to hard disk.

Additionally, I use the same basic technique to back up the boot disk in my Mac Pro. The machine can hold four hard disks, so I use hard disk #4 as the backup by cloning the boot drive to it. In the event the boot drive fails, I install a replacement in the boot drive's bay, boot up on the clone, use Disk Utility to copy the clone to the replacement, and then boot back up on the replacement.

I go a step beyond all this while running my MacBook Pro (MBP). It serves as both my on-road computer and my everyday desktop. There's no way its 120GB hard drive can hold all of the data I've compiled and need access to. Secondly, it's only a 5400 rpm drive. So, when I get home, I hook up the MacBook Pro to a 20 inch Apple Display, a Logitech keyboard, a power brick, a sound system, and a Maxtor Touch III 320GB Firewire 800 hard disk. I turn the MBP on, hold down the Option key on the keyboard, and select the Maxtor's icon on the display. (Most of the time, the display powers on by itself, though I do sometimes have to turn it on as part of the overall “power-up”.) From then on, using the machine is almost indistinguishable from using a desktop; and it has the advantage of being expandable from both storage and display standpoints. It also gives me the most bang for my buck since it is essentially doing the work of two systems.

I use a Maxtor Easy Touch III 300 GB Firewire 400 hard drive to back up the Maxtor/ Firewire 800 drive. I back up the hard disk at least once a month and sometimes twice.

The two other hard disks in my home are on my network. A 160GB Seagate hard drive is mounted in a D-Link DSM-G600 Gigabit Ethernet Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive case; and I use it primarily to temporarily stow files and folders I want to transfer to machines not currently turned on. I also use it as a short term backup solution. The initial setup had a 160GB Maxtor drive in it, and it worked great for about eight months until the Maxtor started acting flaky a few weeks ago. Now, the case still transfers okay but the fan has become a bit more noisy. I'm thinking about replacing the case soon. The other hard disk is another Maxtor Easy Touch III drive which is connected to our Apple Airport Extreme N Base Station. It has only a USB 2.0 interface and is very slow compared to either the Firewire or Gigabit Ethernet disks on the network. (For the life of me, I don't much care for Apple's acquiescence to USB 2.0. I don't care what the theoretical transfer rates of it are, it has always been slower than Firewire 400 and much slower than Firewire 800 in everyday use. Firewire is the superior interface. But the market is driving toward the cheaper, more ubiquitous thing; and, eventually, that's what we'll all be saddled with!) I keep it because I can format it using the Mac's HFS+ file system, and that makes copying folders of materials more likely to succeed. The Gigabit hard disk uses an EXT-X file format (currently, EXT3) which often chokes on some Apple naming conventions. Besides, that Easy Touch only cost me $50!

This type of set-up has another inherent advantage for those of us living in Hurricane Country. If a storm threatens and I can't take everything, all I need do is grab my MacBook Pro and its one external hard disk, and run. I can replace machines and software; but some of the data (like photos and videos and my written works) is priceless. It's nice to be able to hold it in my hand and move on.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Apple Missteps: the New iMac and a Few Others

I’ve waited a while to write this article because I wanted to be sure I gave Apple a fair shake before I did. But having looked over the new iMacs ever since they arrived and having read lots of comments about them on the ‘Net, I say that Apple has made a couple of missteps with this new design.

Most of them center around the display.

I’ve taken some time to evaluate the glossy screens, both by working with my wife’s MacBook and several examinations of the machines on the showroom floor. The most interesting of those comparisons occurred at my local Fry’s where they had a new silver iMac and an older 20-inch sitting side by side. The older machine’s matte screen definitely fared better when viewed at any kind of an angle or from any kind of a distance. Glossy screens are fine for notebooks where the viewing area is smaller and the screens can be more readily tilted to reduce glare, but they are a disaster for anyone serious about doing photo or video work or for me personally. After only a few minutes of working on a new iMac in my local Apple Store, I could literally feel the eye strain. There’s no way I’m going to buy any machine that makes me work harder, physically or otherwise.

Secondly, I have my suspicions that the glossiness entered into Apple’s decision to use cheaper TN film LCD screens in the 20 inch model. There’s lots of comments out in Internetland about how brightness and color varies from top to bottom of these screens. While I didn’t personally test the evenness, I did feel that fonts on these machines were softer and grainier than on the two machines I routinely use, both of which use Apple Cinema Displays as monitors (20 and 23 inches). (I have the same complaint about the fonts in Pages 3 in iLife08 versus font appearance in Office 2004 or Neo Office.) Also, comparison of viewing angles for iMac displays show they shrink with each new evolution, a trend Apple needs to reverse. I think Apple’s been going downhill in this area for some time; I don’t think the current 20 inch Apple Cinema Display is as bright or crisp as that in the ACD model that preceded it.

And what’s with the choice of the video chip? Apple had to know that gamers would try to use these machines, and that putting in a chip that was slower than its predecessor would simply make the company look cheap. But they did it anyway. I think it’s because they optimized the video for playing HD video and not for gaming. That’s fine, but more than one customer will return a machine that gives them worse performance than they one they just had, at that includes gaming performance.

As for the styling of the new machines, there are some things I like about them and some I don’t. I think the black band around the screen will look out of place if Apple ever offers a matte screen option on the machine, something that would allow me to reconsider a purchase of one.

I love the look and feel of the new aluminum keyboard and would have bought one to use with my MacBook Pro when it’s running lid-closed as a desktop but decided against it because of the non-standard special keys. Yes, I like having a single key to punch to invoke Expose or Dashboard, but why locate then at the F key’s front ends, if they’re needed at all? If Apple could have used special keys to launch iPhoto or iTunes or Mail and left Expose and Dashboard to work as they normally do. These are all things I can do with my current Logitech S530 keyboard, which was part of the reason why I backed off from buying the new Apple keyboard.

Also, why we’re talking keyboards, why did Apple drop the number pad from its new wireless keyboard. I never used to use the num pad when I was a PC user; but since I’ve switched to Macs, I use it all the time and love NOT having to select it to do so. And there are plenty of other people who feel the same way…

At least Apple did correct one misstep I had criticized them about earlier, and that was the omission of Gigabit Ethernet in their Airport Extreme N base Station. The new models have it. I thought about taking the old one I just purchased back, but it mades no sense to do that because of how my network is set up. The N base station is hooked into a D-Link DGL-4300 wireless router that’s acting as a bridge and is handling the 802.11 G wireless devices, and the 4300 only has a 10/100 Ethernet port for its WAN port. The 4300 does have Gigabit Ethernet ports and I also have a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch plugged into it, so my wired machines are enjoying Gigabit file transfer speeds anyway. I may later buy another Airport Extreme N station to get my wife’s iMac onto the “N” wireless network, and the new Gigabit Ethernet ports will be appreciated then.

The last two missteps I’ll address have to do with the new Pages and the new iMovie application.

I admit I have yet to try any projects with iMovie08, but it does seem to be a dumbed down version compared to iMovie HD. Apple says their video engineer couldn’t put together a short video in iMovie HD within 30 minutes; well, I sure can. In any case, Apple sidestepped their misstep by making iMovie HD a free download, and kudos to them for doing so. That said, the iLife08 installer does not delete iMovie HD or replace it and courteously moves it to a separate folder. You’ll only need the free download if your machine crashes and you have to reinstall from scratch or you otherwise removed iMovieHD yourself, on purpose or otherwise.

I used Pages 3 and its word processor mode to write the first part of this blog. When I decided to switch out of it, I discovered that “Save” and “Save As” both work only to preserve the document I a version of Pages. To put it in Word, or any other format, you must use the Export command. Now, I don’t have a huge grip with that; but there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between “Save” and “Save As” as they are currently implemented. I think Apple could do away with the Export command and put the current Export functions under Save As.

And while I’m talking about this app, someone please tell me what’s wrong with having a “Save” or “Save As” icon available in the toolbar?

I like the new word processor mode in Pages, but don’t find it compelling enough to switch off Office 2004 or Neo Office. The page layout mode is a different story; I’ve used Pages to make a very professional looking newsletter in a short period of time.
But let’s get back to Apple’s latest missteps by talking about a misstep the company could make.

The iPod line needs a refresh, and something more than just a little brighter screen or bigger harddisks. While there is room in the iPod line for a shuffle or a mini, the next revamp of “regular” iPods need to incorporate the widescreen capability if not the touch-screen controls exhibited in the iPhone. Anything else will probably cause Apple to lose enough inertia for some of its competitors to steal market share. I certainly won’t spend any money on a new iPod unless it is along those lines or my current one fails, and the latter is not likely. Hopefully, Apple won’t mistake the Microsoftish mistake of trying too hard to control the market by limiting the iPhone’s wonderful technologies only to that device. I want a widesreen iPod with at least an 80GB hard drive if not more...

Speculation is that Apple has ventured a little too far into image versus function territory, and the trend shown by the company’s latest missteps suggest that is correct. I have hope, though, for Apple has consistently shown the brilliance of reconsideration and bending to the will of the customer. In the end, no matter what product the company is making, it is that which will ensure the company’s success.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Apple vs Comcast

One of the drawbacks to being on a cable modem network is that its architecture can allow you and your neighbors to be on one big LAN. We’ve been running on a cable modem network for over five years, and the possible implications of that have not been apparent until Comcast took over Time Warner a few weeks ago. About a week after I received e-mails telling me that Comcast would be reconfiguring our network and some outages might be encountered, “My Network” within each Mac’s Finder suddenly started including Macs belonging to people we didn’t know. That was disturbing considering all my machines run behind a router with NAT (Network Address Translation). After almost two weeks of research, phone conversations with both Comcast and Earthlink (We are actually Earthlink subscribers for our high-speed.), multiple attempts to reconfigure the router and its firewall, I have finally gotten us back to where we were before the problems began. That’s good. Because no one else was going to help out…

I’m not an expert when it comes to networking. But from what I’ve learned since this problem began, I’m convinced it was due to either Earthlink or Comcast changing the subnet (and they both point fingers back and forth at each other) and some of the basic networking features Apple has incorporated into OS X, specifically Bonjour and Apple Filing Protocol (AFP). The D-Link DGL-4300 router I was running with (as well as a D-Link DIR-655 router I tried) does not seem to properly handle the protocols. In the end, I wound up reconfiguring my network using a new Apple Airport Extreme (802.11N) router and the DGL-4300 to isolate the LAN and create a dual 802.11G and 802.11N network.

For security reasons, I’m not going to release the names of the machines we were seeing in our Finder. When we would log in, because the “intruders” appeared to be on our “local network” (a log entry in one of the system logs confirmed that), OS X would try to automount the drives. (The machines were broadcasting their existence using AFP.) Double-clicking on the shares to manually mount them would fail with a “server not operational” and “check the I.P.” messages. However, if I connected directly to the modem and then tried to access the machines, I could if they didn’t have either password protection or the OS X firewall in place. This was a very dangerous place to be, but I had no way of notifying the machine’s owners without leaving my own machine open to direct attack, something I didn’t want to do.

Along with this, even behind the router, when we would tell iTunes to “Look for shared libraries”, iTunes would find other folks iTunes and Limewire music collections. iTunes is only supposed to look on a local subnet, so obviously something had expanded what the definition of local subnet was. Again, unless these music collections were password protected, we could play music from them. There was no way for me to know whether these people intended to leave their music collections open to the world (or some unplanned segment of it) or whether they might be surprised by additional surcharges when they got their next bill for exceeding their bandwidth allocations. From our perspective, the situation was bad since we couldn’t tell if people we didn’t know had access to our iTunes libraries, assuming we put them up for sharing (which I don’t routinely do). Password protecting the libraries did provide a “lock” on them somewhat, but I found it both disturbing and annoying that we were in this situation at all. I told my wife more than once that the only way to solve it might be to move to DSL. Every tech I talked to at both companies didn’t seem to understand a damn thing about subnetting or DHCP, and they were all convinced that these intrusions were coming in over our wireless network. What they didn’t understand was they were talking to an engineer; and in my first troubleshooting steps, I had turned our wireless, which is normally secured by not broadcasting our SSID and using password security, off. The intruders and all the other effects were still there.

Worse, when I did some printer reconfiguration as a result of trying to offset the LAN I.P.’s and subnets into something that might cure the problem, I could see three printers (one Brother MFC and a couple of HP Photosmart printers) we didn’t own appearing in my Printer Browser. I could even add them into our own network, even though trying to print to them produced an error. (That said, I didn’t try printing to them using the direct connect Mac-to-modem method. I suspect I could have printed to them had I done that.)

I bought a D-Link DIR-655 N Extreme router and tried setting up the LAN by attaching the DGL-4300 to the DIR-655, but could not isolate our network using them. I set up on the DIR-655 alone but then found that, even with default settings, it was blocking access to websites critical for my wife’s work. So, I returned it and continued to perform research to find something I could do with the DGL-4300 to get us back to normal. But nothing I tried worked.

A few days ago, I downloaded .pdf manuals about Apple’s Airport Extreme 802.11N router. As I dug into the documentation, I began to feel I wanted to try it out to see if it might help us with our problem. I was impressed with the organization and utility of the Airport Utility and thought I might have better luck with it in terms of blocking Apple specific protocol ports. While I had been critical of it in an earlier blog for not having Gigabit Ethernet ports and wrongly critical of its NAT (It doesn’t have a STEALTH mode, but it does have a NAT.), I had a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch I could use to keep the Gigabit-equipped Macs at Gigabit speed. I knew, too, that the router would handle Apple protocols better than anyone else. (We have a network printer that can use IP or Apple-Talk printing, and my wife’s iMac hooks into our LAN solely by wireless.) I debated about spending the money for almost a week before I took the plunge and only did so because of a happy circumstance. My employer gives out monetary awards for “perfect attendance” over a quarter, and I had just earned a Best Buy $50 gift certificate for being in the lucky bunch. That lowered my out-of-pocket expense for the router to $130, something more in line with Apple’s competition. The clincher came when I read a MacWorld article about setting up a mixed mode (802.11 N and G) wireless network. Moving to such a set-up would solve other problems I had been thinking about, so I decided to buy the Apple router.

Once I got it home, I reviewed the article to make sure I had the set-up straight. Since it had been written assuming the user had two Apple routers, I had to do a bit of translating to set the D-Link router up as the “G”. Still, there really wasn’t much to it. Most of our network stayed right where it was. The major difference laid in putting the D-Link router into Bridge mode, figuring out the correct IP and DNS settings, and plugging its WAN port into one of the Apple Extreme N router’s LAN ports, after I had set up the Apple router using the Air Port Utility run on my Mac Pro directly connected to it.

My network is now headed by an Apple Extreme N router which handles the address assignment (DHCP) duties and runs the 802.11N wireless network. My wife’s iMac, her MacBook, and our iPhones all hook into the 802.11G wireless network. My Mac Pro, a D-Link DSM-600 Gigabit Hard Disk, my MacBook Pro (usually), and a HP Laserjet 2100 and Okidata C3200N printers use the Gigabit portion of the wired Ethernet network. When operating in a portable mode, my MacBook Pro uses the 802.11N wireless leg of the network, as will the Apple TV unit we will probably get by year’s end. (Note: I believe when running under Windows XP, my MacBook Pro will only run at “G” speeds. There is no “N” enabler for a Core 2 Duo unit like mine released before the N model wireless cards became an Apple standard.)

Much to my surprise, our local subnet is now correctly recognized by all the machines. I no longer see “the intruders” Macs in My Network, pick up their printers when using the Print Center, or see anyone’s shared music libraries but those in my house. Based on what I found out, I suspect the whole problem around being assigned a new subnet (with a bunch of Macs…if I had been the only Mac on the subnet, I wouldn’t have seen a thing), possibly a new feature in the Apple router that lets you broadcast Bonjour past the WAN port (which I have absolutely turned off), or that most non-Apple routers can’t tell the difference between machines on our local network and those outside, especially when it comes to AFP over TCP and/or Bonjour.

In any case, I’m happier than a clam that our network is back to working like it used to and I now have a wireless G and N network running at optimal speeds.
In the near future, I may set up a Wired Distributed System (WDS) network using another Apple Extreme N router to hook into my wife’s iMac’s Ethernet port to get her machine up on “N” speeds. But that’s another day and another blog. For now, I’m just happy to be using my network without the conglomerated network Comcast would have left me with.