The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…

 

macOS

macOS quality as measured by update release rate

There’s a lot of chatter out there that High Sierra is potentially the worst macOS release ever, in terms of bugs and broken or missing functionality. From the recent Month 13 is out of bounds log spewage problem to the root no password required issue (whoops!) to a variety of other glitches, High Sierra has presented many users, myself included, with a near-constant stream of issues.

But is it actually any worse than prior macOS/OS X1I’ll just call it macOS from here on. releases? There’s really not a lot of information to go on, given Apple’s very-private development process and non-public bug tracker.

However, the one data source I do have is a list of every macOS release date. With 10.13.2 having just been released, I thought it might be interesting to see how quickly the third update arrived on each version of macOS. If High Sierra is worse than usual, I’d expect that the time required to reach its third update would be notably less than that of other releases.

After some fiddling in Excel, the data proved—with some caveats and observations—my hypothesis…

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Month 13 is out of bounds

And obviously, it would be, because there is no month 13. But if you’re unlucky enough to be a Mac user in the month of December, 2017, then you’ll probably be seeing a lot of “Month 13 is out of bounds” messages in your Console. And by ‘a lot,’ I mean an exceedingly excessive never-ending stream of spewage…

Thousands and thousands and thousands of them—I’m getting anywhere from two to 20 per second, continuously. Ugh.

This just started happening this morning, and it’s happening on all my Macs. I found one Apple developer forum thread that talks about the problem, and user Helge seems to point to a bug in mdworker

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The fundamental problem with the Touch Bar

Today, via a link posted on Six Colors, I read Steven Acquino’s The Touch Bar Makes the Mac More Accessible to Me, in which Steven shares his positive experiences with the Touch Bar:

Where it shines considerably is as an alternative to keyboard shortcuts and the system emoji picker. Tapping a button on the Touch Bar is far more accessible than trying to contort my hands to execute a keyboard shortcut or straining my eyes searching for an emoji.

Usability is definitely an individual thing, and Steven makes a good case for why he likes the Touch Bar. However, Steven doesn’t mention a fundamental issue with the Touch Bar. Nor does Marco Arment in his Fixing the MacBook Pro article. To me, this unstated issue is the main problem with the Touch Bar, and it’s one that Apple can’t fix with new features or tweaks:

You cannot use the Touch Bar without looking at it

The Touch Bar, despite its name, is actually an Eye Bar: It forces your eyes off the screen, down to the Touch Bar, back up to the screen, repeat ad infinitum. There’s nothing physical about interacting with the Touch Bar, aside from using your finger: There are no defined button areas, and there’s no haptic feedback when you tap something. So you absolutely must look at the Touch Bar to interact with it.

When the new MacBooks were released, I spent about 30 minutes testing a Touch Bar-equipped version in an Apple Store, and this constant moving of my eyes’ focus from keyboard to screen to keyboard to screen to…well, you get the idea…was incredibly disruptive. To use the Touch Bar, I’d have to change my focus to the keyboard, then refocus on the screen, taking time to find my active window and locate the mouse cursor. This did not make for a pleasant user experience.

As but one example, Steven mentions using the Touch Bar for zooming:

In addition, the Zoom feature—one of the Touch Bar’s many accessibility features—makes seeing controls much easier.

Granted, there are some extra capabilities in the Touch Bar zoom, but using the Touch Bar for zoom seems infinitely harder—and more disruptive—than my preferred approach:

You can really customize zoom in that panel, including making it usable via the keyboard, setting zoom limits, and more. I keep it simple, though, with a mouse-assisted full screen zoom.

To zoom my screen, I hold down the Control key, then scroll my Magic Mouse with one finger, and I get infinite and easily-controllable zoom, all without ever taking my eyes off the screen. To zoom with the Touch Bar, I’d need to look at the Touch Bar while I tapped on it to get into zoom mode, then look back to the screen as I zoomed. That seems much tougher, and again, my eyes have to go from screen to keyboard and back—and do so again when I’m done zooming to exit zoom.

Using a Mac should be about doing things efficiently, and to me, the Touch Bar is an incredibly inefficient solution to a non-existent problem. I’m with Marco, and hope that future laptops either remove the Touch Bar completely or make it optional.

Movies Anywhere (mostly) opens the closed iTunes ecosystem

With the recent unveiling of Movies Anywhere, Apple has—willingly or not, I do not know—opened up the world of iTunes to movies from other places. Stated another way, you can now have movies in the Tunes ecosystem that weren’t purchased there, or that weren’t digital versions acquired by using an iTunes redemption code with a physical disc purchase.

To put it bluntly, this is huge; I’ve long wanted a way to get all of my movies into iTunes (and iOS) so that they could sync to devices, easily stream (without the computer on) to the TV, etc. The service goes well beyond iTunes/iOS, of course—the full list of supported players is quite extensive.

Important: As of now, Movies Anywhere is a US-only service. If you’re not in the US, hopefully something similar will be coming to your country at some point in the future.

What’s really amazing, though, is that you can not only combine purchases from multiple sources into iTunes, but convert and/or upgrade them in the process. Thanks to Movies Anywhere, I’ve been able to do two seemingly amazing things…

  1. Put an UltraViolet-only (i.e. no iTunes version) digital redemption movie into the iTunes ecosystem.
  2. Paid a modest fee—not to Apple—and converted an old physical DVD into a high-def —digital version.

Note: The original version of this post stated that you could convert a DVD into a 4K iTunes video. That is not the case, based on this article and my own testing. Thanks to @netnothing for the pointer.

How does this magic work? Honestly, I don’t really know.

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Stop Photos from showing the “What’s New” screen on every launch

A while back on Twitter, I complained about always seeing the “What’s New?” screen in Photos when I launched the app…

This finally irked me enough that I went looking for an answer…and found one, on only the second entry in my search results.

As the linked answer explains, you can fix the problem by specifying that your Photos library is the System Photo Library, as seen here:

I hadn’t specified that my Photos library was the actual System Photo Library, so that button was still active. Once I clicked it, the button grayed out, and on next launch, no more welcome screen!

I think you’ll only run into this problem if you (1) migrated an iPhoto library, and (2) kept that iPhoto library on an external drive. In those cases, Photos doesn’t set the library as the System Photo Library.

One minor annoyance down, many more to go.

Use less-than-full-day periods in Photos’ Smart Albums

Update: With the passage of time—one calendar day, in this case—I can now say that this hint is wrong. Photos does not respect partial day values. Instead, any value less than one is rounded to zero, so all you can really do is create a Smart Album that finds imports you made during the current calendar day. That is, Date Added – is in the last – 0 – days. This is what I’m using now, as it’s better than one day, which actually shows two days (today and yesterday), but it’s not as nice as iPhoto’s Last Import album.

I’ve left the hint up, because it’s been linked to and tweeted a few times, but it’s wrong. Sorry for the lack of testing before I posted it.

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Assign a photo’s Title field based on its filename in Photos

My migration from iPhoto to Photos continues, and today’s snafu was my discovery that I couldn’t rename files in Photos. This is something I’ve long done in iPhoto—not for every file, but for ones I’d like to group together using something other than Keywords.

For example, I have a collection of iOS wallpapers, for both the home and lock screens. I name each with either “H_” or “L_” as the start of the filename, which let me create this Smart Album to see them all together:

The inability to rename files isn’t critical, in particular because the Title field can be used for the same functionality. But I had a problem: When I migrated, Photos created Titles for some, but not all, of my custom-named images. In particular, it missed all of the iOS wallpapers. I’m not sure if this is because these aren’t photos in the traditional sense—they’re edited photos I export as PNGs. But whatever the reason, I had hundreds of images that needed a Title that was equal to their Filename.

AppleScript to the rescue…this simple bit of code acts on the selection in Photos, and sets the Title equal to each image’s filename.

To use this bit of code, just select the photos you’d like to modify in Photos, then run the script. You can make it a bit easier by saving the script into your user’s Library > Scripts > Applications > Photos folder (create as many of those as don’t exist). It will then be available in the AppleScript menu in the menu bar, assuming you’ve enabled that in the AppleScript Editor’s preferences.

This saved me literally hours of work, copying and pasting filenames to the Title field. (I was surprised this worked, but it did—you can’t change the filename, but you can select and copy it.)

Create ‘and/or’ Smart Playlists in Photos

I’ve recently—begrudgingly, forcibly—migrated from iPhoto to Photos. My iPhone 8 Plus was the main impetus, as Photos supports its new movie and image formats, as well as providing some additional editing features that I can’t get in iPhoto. But in my limited time with the new app, my general conclusion is that Photos is not designed for someone who likes to actively manage their photo collection.

I may have more to say about this in a future post, but for now, consider this style of Smart Playlist that I used a lot in iPhoto…

This structure effectively creates an “and and or” logic, where you can have all conditions must be true at the top, yet have an “or” on the keyword: This playlist finds media that have the keyword Midnight or Moonlight (our cats), and are videos.

You simply cannot build this structure in Photos, because the Keyword field is a tokenized pop-up; you can only select one value. If I list the keywords as separate criteria, I wind up with a Smart Playlist that only finds videos with both Moonlight and Midnight. That’s not what I want.

This structure is useful whenever you have multiple individual things—kids, lets say—and you want a smart playlist that will find any of your children and any other criteria, like year or camera or whatever.

My first thought at a workaround was to create a Smart Playlist called The Cats, which simply had the two Keywords as “or” criteria. I’d then create a second Smart Playlist that had one criteria set to “Playlist is The Cats” and the other set to find only videos. But Photos won’t let you use a Smart Playlist as a criteria (neither will iPhoto, for that matter).

After some fiddling, I came up with an ugly but functional solution: I have to use an extra keyword. Now, any time I add photos of either cat, I have to set two keywords: One with the cat’s name, and the other is The Cats. With two keywords on every cat photo, I can use this Smart Playlist to make my “video of either or both cats” Smart Playlist:

I’ll have to do the same for our children; each picture of Erica or Kylie will also get a The Kids keyword. It really shouldn’t be this hard; Smart Playlists should work as do Finder searches…

Perhaps in Photos 4…or 5…or 6. Sigh.

Bring the Buddy List window back to High Sierra’s Messages

With the release of High Sierra, Apple removed the last vestiges of support for AOL’s AIM protocol in Messages: You can no longer login to an AIM account. Yes, this is ancient tech. But it had one feature that a small group of my friends, family and coworkers relied on: The Buddy List window, as seen at right.

The buddy list was a great way to know if someone was available to chat or not—unlike Messages, which simply assumes that it’s OK to text someone anytime. You could also customize the away message, to let someone know you’re on the phone or you’ll be back in 10 minutes or whatever.

As someone who works all day at my desk, the buddy list was a nice way to let friends and coworkers know when it’s OK to talk and when I was busy. Also, I could keep these chats exclusive to my Mac, and not have them appear on all my devices, which was a nice benefit (no messages received when I didn’t want to receive them).

Alas, High Sierra took that all away…or did it? It did not, as it turns out—the above screenshot was actually taken in High Sierra. The solution? Jabber, another ancient (but open source, unlike AIM; history) messaging protocol.

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Apple says don’t use Time Machine if you take lots of photos

I know that’s a shocking headline, but that certainly seems to what they’re saying for a certain group of users (red emphasis added):

By default, your System Photo Library is stored in the Pictures folder on your Mac, but you can move it to another location on your Mac or store it on an external storage device.

WARNING: If a Photos library is located on an external drive, don’t back up the drive using Time Machine. The permissions for your Photos library may conflict with those for the Time Machine backup

That’s taken from the System Photo Library overview, part of Photos’ help. In a nutshell, Apple recommends that if you’ve moved the System Photo Library to an external drive—as nearly anyone who takes lots of pictures will have done, given space-limited solid-state internal drives—you do not use Time Machine on that drive. Not just “don’t back up the Photos Library folder with Time Machine,” but “don’t back up the entire drive with Time Machine.” Yikes!

Think about that for a bit…this affects anyone with limited internal storage space who has their photos stored on an external drive. And in today’s Mac world, that could be a lot of people—while you can configre some machines with up to 2TB of solid state storage (and iMacs with bigger Fusion drive), doing so is wildly expensive. So there are potentially a lot of Mac users with small internal drives who may be affected by this. Yikes again!

Apple’s writeup leaves me with a couple of critical questions…

  • What if I exclude the iPhoto Library folder from Time Machine—is that sufficient to prevent the permissions issues, such that I can use Time Machine for the rest of the drive?
  • How, exactly, am I supposed to back up my photos, if I can’t use Time Machine? (See update at end for Apple’s recommended solution.) Will SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner also run into permissions problems? I’m using a 1TB Flickr account and their upload tool as a backup method, but I have lots of upstream bandwidth, so it’s not bad…but not everyone is lucky enough to have fiber to the door.

I know Apple’s answer to the second question is “You shouldn’t be storing photos locally, they should all be in the cloud.” But if you have a huge collection of photos and videos, and/or if you’ve got slow or limited internet, this is not a realistic option.

My library is over 40,000 photos and 1,400+ videos, requiring in excess of 500GB of storage. At that level, I’d need the 2TB iCloud plan at $10 a month…versus Google and Amazon, both of which offer unlimited photo storage space for free (though Google has caps on image and video resolution). So if I have to go to the cloud for primary photo storage, I don’t think I’ll be using Apple’s solution (even though it’s obviously the best-integrated).

Seriously, Apple, tell me how to back up the 8TB external drive I’m using to hold my photos…there must be an Apple-accepted solution, right?

Update: Ed Mechem’s comment points out Apple’s Back up thew Photos library page, which recommends simply dragging your Photos library to another drive to back it up. Thanks Ed; that appears to address the second question. I don’t know if it’s OK to copy it to the Time Machine drive, just outside the Time Machine folder, or if you’d ideally need a third drive. You’d want to use an app like CarbonCopyCloner or similar to automate this process, obviously. Manual backups aren’t usually the best solution.

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