The Robservatory

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Things related to Apple

The useful yet useless Services menu

One of the most-useful tools in macOS is also one of the most useless: The Services menu. In theory (and occasionally actually true), the Services menu lets you quickly take action on something—a selected file or folder, or a chunk of text. In reality, the Services menu is a vaste wasteland of unused functionality, and a place where pre-assigned keyboard shortcuts go to hide from your attempts to use them elsewhere.

If you install a fair number of apps on your Mac, you may be surprised by the amount of stuff in your Services menu. Here’s a look at my iMac, after I reset the Services panel (System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → Services) to its defaults:

If you’re good at counting, you spotted 123 separate services flowing past. Not all are active, of course—”only” 58 are. Of those 58, you’ll see some subset based on whatever you’ve selected…but even that subset can present itself as a huge list:

That’s really not very helpful when you want to quickly apply some action to your selection. To make the Services menu useful again—and to potentially free up some keyboard shortcuts—you’ll need to actively manage your Services.


Limited ports limit my interest in new Mac laptops

As I sit here working on my late 2013 13″ Retina MacBook Pro (rMPB from here on), I wonder if it will be the last Mac laptop I ever own.

That’s a strong statement, I know, but Apple’s pursuit of an insanely stupid “as thin as a knife edge at all costs” design goal has led to a new generation of machines that make them much less portable than they were before…despite being thinner and lighter.

Here’t the thing, Apple: Beyond a certain point, thinness is irrelevant. And honesty, you’ve more than reached that point with every laptop you make. You reached that point, in fact, a few years ago.


A tale of two remotes

Update: Thanks to John for pointing out the obvious: The old remote works with the new Apple TV. So I guess I can go ahead and replace the one in the bedroom.

We recently changed how we use some of our rooms (eliminated a kids’ play room), and as a result, decommissioned a television set. With that TV was a new Apple TV; at first I thought “Great, I can replace the old Apple TV in our bedroom.”

Then I remembered the remote. For a device that I often use either while running on the treadmill (yea, it’s in our bedroom) or in the dark while going to sleep, the new Apple TV remote is unusable: The touch pad is a nightmare to try to use while running, and it’s tricky to use in the dark. It’s also nearly impossible to tell which side’s up in the dark.

So no, new Apple TV, you’re not going to replace the old one in our bedroom. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the new one; we have another TV it could go on, but there’s no open HDMI port (it’s an old TV with just two HDMI ports, and it’s got an Xbox and a Blu-ray player). Time for an HDMI switch box?

I’d love a non-touchpad remote for the new Apple TV, but I don’t see Apple going that direction at all.

On the subject of Apple devices and battery life

In one of his recent “Hey Apple Fix This” columns for Macworld, Kirk McElhearn wrote about Apple’s seemingly never-ending pursuit of thinness and its affect on the battery life of its products.

When I got this laptop, replacing a 13-inch MacBook Pro, I was very happy that it was thinner and lighter, but my goal was not to own a computer that could give me paper cuts; I wanted a computer that was practical.

While I completely agree with Kirk about the stupidity of pursuing thinness at the cost of better battery life, as a work-at-home person, the battery life of my Apple devices isn’t usually an issue…until I have to take a trip, that is. Recently, I headed to San Francisco for a special “Thanks Sal!” dinner, thanking Sal Soghoian for all he’s done for Mac automation over the last 20+ years. This was a very short trip—a 75 minute flight, one night away from home, then 75 minute flight back home. (Plus approximately 2,500 hours in the two airports.)

Because we’re a small two-person company that writes Mac software, and it’s my job to support our customers, I always have to bring my Mac (a late 2013 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). And my iPhone, to contact my family/friends and check email. And my watch, because I’ve gotten used to having it around for notifications and weather and such. And to pass a bit of time in the hotel room, I’ll usually bring my iPad.

Because of Apple’s thinness decisions, only one of these devices (the iPad) can make this very short journey without needing a recharge. That meant I’d need to bring a Lightning cable (iPhone/iPad charge from computer), my Apple Watch charging cable (charge from computer), and my MacBook’s power brick with wall adapter (I did leave the extension section at home, though).

All of that to support a simple overnight trip. Two-day battery life out of my devices would be so worth some extra thickness. (If I owned a newer laptop, it would have been even worse, as I would have needed some USB adapters, too, I’m sure.)

As an aside, what I didn’t bring was an in-car charger, and that turned out to be a mistake. I drove a roughly 60 mile round-trip (2.5 hours in the car, with traffic) on Friday to see a friend, using my iPhone for navigation both directions. The rental car didn’t have any USB jacks, so I was using my iPhone on battery power.

By the time I got back to the hotel, my phone had entered power saving mode. Thankfully, I was back early enough to charge it before the evening’s festivities started. This seems like unusually high battery drain, but I don’t do a lot of in-car navigating with my iPhone, so I don’t know. (I used Apple Maps on the way there, and Waze on the way back.)

Podcast appearance: The Next Track

This week, I made a rare appearance on a podcast other than our own The Committed podcast. I was a guest on The Next Track, a podcast about music and related things, hosted by iTunes AppleScript guru Doug Adams and my regular The Committed podcast cohost Kirk McElhearn.

We spent 30 minutes discussing ripping Blu-rays and DVDs to the Mac. I know, a real stretch topic for me, given I’ve never written about it!

Anyway, it was a fun show, so if you’d like to hear the voice behind these words, give it a listen.

Safari and the YouTube 4K video problem

When I posted my 787 takeoffs and landings video, I ran into a weird problem: When embedded here, the video would play in Safari at 4K (2160p), but when viewed on YouTube, the max resolution available was 1440p. After failing with web searches, I asked Twitter about it…

…but didn’t hear anything back. I pretty much gave up on the issue until today, when I stumbled across this article, which describes the exact problem I’m having. The summary of the article describes both the problem and the apparent cause:

What appears to be Google’s shift to the VP9 codec for delivering 4K video on the YouTube homepage is preventing Safari users from watching videos uploaded to the service since early December in full 4K resolution, but not from viewing webpage-embedded videos in the same resolution.

Bingo! Google seems to now be using the open and royalty-free VP9 codec for 4K videos viewed on its YouTube site, but reverts to the H264 codec when those same videos are embedded on other sites.

Note that this issue only affects videos uploaded after December 6, 2016:

Videos uploaded to the service prior to Dec. 6 in 4K resolution can still play back in full 4K resolution on Safari from the YouTube homepage.

I was curious about which macOS browsers this issue affects, so I thought I’d do a little experiment…


Useful site: iTunes Artwork Finder finds more than artwork

Ever want to grab the cover art for some album? Or have you ever wanted the full-size icon from an iOS app? Or the cover image from a movie or TV show? A podcast’s icon? Ben Dodson hosts an excellent web-based tool that lets you do all that and more: The iTunes Artwork Finder.

Usage is about as simple as it gets: Pick a category, enter your search term, set the geographical region, and click Get the artwork.

Note that this only works for things available from the iTunes Store in the specified region, so you can’t use it to find cover art for that digitized copy of some obscure record you found at an underground music store in New York City back in 1973.

Also note that if you have your own web site, you can host your own artwork finder, as Ben has made the code available for all. I wouldn’t recommend making it publicly available, though, unless you have bandwidth to spare—a single search for “Friends,” for instance, returned about 25 high-resolution images.

Here’s how I set it up on our family’s web site; it’s really easy to do, and it works great:

  1. Download the zipped archive from GitHub.
  2. Create a new folder on your server. I called mine getart.
  3. Upload the two files (php, js) from the archive into the folder.
  4. Add basic HTML tags (html, head, body) to the stub of HTML shown on the GitHub page, and save it as index.html in the same folder. If you like fancy and have time to spend, go ahead and pretty it up with CSS and layout. I just left it bare.

That’s all there is to it; you can now look up artwork by loading http://yourdomain/getart (or whatever you called it) in your fave browser.

Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

At the 2017 Mac Pro launch event

Having sat through the introductory movie (great as always), the crowd hushes as Tim Cook strides to the stage…

As you know, I told everyone we had some great desktop Macs on the roadmap, and I’m here today to reveal our work to you: The 2017 Mac Pro.

First, let me say we know that this took too long for many of you. It’s been three years since we last updated the Mac Pro, but we’ve been working super hard on it. Years and years of work went into what I’m about to show you. This thing is packed with amazing technology, and we think you’re going to love it! So here it is…

Detailed instructions for installing the transcode-video tools

My method of ripping Blu-ray discs relies on Don Melton’s video_transcoding tools. While these tools work great, they are command-line only (i.e. Terminal required). In my guide, I glossed over the installation bit, referring back to Don’s basic guide. But for those new to Terminal, even Don’s instructions may be too light on the details.

Hence this detailed installation guide for Don’s video_transcoding tools. This guide walks a new user through every step of the process, hopefully getting even someone brand new to Terminal up and running with Don’s tools. This will only be of interest if you’re having trouble getting the video_transcoding tools installed. If that’s you, though, hopefully this will be helpful.

The entire installation of the video_transcoding tool set and all its dependencies will take place in Terminal, which is the direct line to the Unix core of macOS. Open Terminal, which you’ll find in /Applications > Utilities, and you’ll be greeted by a window with some text; something like this:

This lovely interface is where you’ll spend the next chunk of time, installing the video_transcoding tools, and all the programs it uses to get its work done.

Note that this guide is not a detailed introduction to Terminal or Unix. (There are many such guides on the net, and if you’re interested, they’re well worth reading.) This guide is focused solely on how to use Terminal to install the video_transcoding tools, not how to use Terminal on its own. So let’s get started…


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