Streaming with iPad and Apple TV: Is it worth it?

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iPad, iTunes
December 5th, 2013 • 4:56 pm

I’ve resisted the (moderate) lure of the Apple TV device for quite a while. First, I had the excuse that my Internet connection was not good enough. In the imaginary world of unlimited bandwidth in which Apple products appear to have been designed, 1.5 Mbps (local wireless service) did not quite cut it. For the past 18 months, however, I have had DSL peaking at 7 Mbps. Not great, but passable.

To be exact, the service was advertised as “up to 7 Mbps”, but the realities of our local community meant that, far too often for my taste, actual bandwidth would drop down to abysmally low levels, especially in the evenings. I couldn’t imagine trying to use the Apple TV’s streaming services (or any streaming service for that matter) in such a situation.

Because of this lack of bandwidth, I have never even tried to rely on any kind of streaming service. I hate having to wait for buffering, having to deal with streaming glitches, and not having the convenience that a conventional TV system with PVR gives you, i.e. the ability to record in high definition and play back at one’s leisure.

Then late last year, our phone company upgraded its infrastructure and we finally got a service that does offer 7 Mbps downloads at a sustained level throughout the day. (There are still occasional hiccups, of course, but on the whole it’s way better.) So my main excuse for not getting an Apple TV was gone.

Another reason not to get an Apple TV was my increasing frustration with iTunes, which reached such a level earlier this year that I finally gave up on the software and switched to Swinsian as my main tool for managing my large music collection. I still have to use iTunes for a variety of things, of course, but I cannot stand its sluggishness and I avoid it as much as possible.

Since the Apple TV restricts you to accessing the music and video stuff stored in your iTunes library, that’s a bit of a problem.

I also tend to download a number of videos in MP4 format from YouTube and other sources and then use PS 3 Media Server to stream them locally to my PlayStation 3. It’s not an ideal solution, but it works reasonably well, and enables me to avoid iTunes altogether for movie trailers, music video clips, and so on.

But then, a few weeks ago, I got myself a new iPad Air (replacing my first-generation iPad stuck at iOS 5) and finally got the ability to use AirPlay, which is, as far as I am concerned, a bit of a game changer. This is the first time I own a computing device that supports it. (I don’t have a recent MacBook or iMac in the house.)

At the same time, in spite of my on-going reluctance, I started to feel increasing pressure to give streaming services a try. For one thing, I am a big soccer fan and like to watch a lot of English and Spanish games. Because of exclusive rights belonging to various outlets and changing hands on a regular basis, the situation tends to be in constant flux here in Canada. A couple of years ago, many English games were available in high definition on TV via a pay channel then called Setanta Sports and now called Sportsnet World. Many of the games were delayed and broadcast during the evening and night. But I was OK with recording them on my PVR and watching them later. (I just had to be careful about on-line spoilers.)

Now, things have changed again, and even though Sportsnet World still has some exclusive games (and the same exclusive price!), many EPL games are not even broadcast on TV channels anymore. The only way to get them is to stream them on-line at tsn.ca. I find this utterly annoying, not just because I still have to pay the full price for Sportsnet World even though it offers far fewer games than it used to, but also because, with on-line streaming, there is no option to record in order to watch later. And the picture quality is definitely not on par with conventional HD television.

The other problem with streaming games is of course that you have to watch them in a web browser. I have a big HD plasma TV and I want to be able to watch the games on that TV in my living room.

Another streaming service that I might be interested in is the recently launched Canal Plus Canada. Canal Plus is a major TV channel in France and has quite a bit of exclusive French-language content that is hard to obtain (if it is at all possible) here in Canada. Canal Plus Canada is not a TV channel. It is only available as a streaming service on-line (via the Dailymotion platform).

And then there is also the BBC iPlayer that I might be interested in…

Could the Apple TV be a solution for this? I decided that now was the time for me to try and find out, and ordered one a week ago. It arrived yesterday, and it just so happened that yesterday my favorite EPL team (Arsenal) was playing a game that was only available via tsn.ca. So of course I had to install the Apple TV right away and see if I could somehow make it work.

My first observation is that the device came without an HDMI cable. I knew that already, but I still find it rather cheap on Apple’s part. At least there is a battery included in the little remote…

Hooking things up to my A/V system and my network was straightforward and I was soon up and running — once I figured out that the Apple remote was not Bluetooth but infrared and require a clear line of sight to the Apple TV.

I won’t go through all the details of my initial experience here, but I will make the following observation: I simply cannot believe the number of times I had to enter my Apple ID password during this initial set-up phase. You’d think that once would be enough, but no… I had to enter it for registering with iCloud, for activating Home Sharing, for pairing with my iPad, and so on.

Of course, I have a password that is fairly complex in order to provide a decent level of security, and it was definitely not chosen for how easy it was to type it in, quite the contrary. In fact, I chose such a complex password that I never intended to actually have to type it. I use 1Password on my Mac and on my iPad and, when it comes to entering passwords, Copy/Paste is my game.

But with the number of times that Apple’s services (iTunes Store, Mac App Store, iCloud, etc.) require you to enter your password, you end up having to learn how to type it whether you like it or not. And so I have finally memorized it and learned the routine to type it out either on my Mac or on my iPad.

Fortunately, once the iPad is paired with the Apple TV, you can actually use the iPad as a remote and type things out with the virtual keyboard instead of having to use the on-screen facility to entering characters on the Apple TV. But of course in order to pair the iPad with the Apple TV, you have to enter your password first…

Anyway, I finally got everything set up and the time for the EPL game was fast approaching. I knew that, at worst, I would be able to watch the game in a browser window on my computer, but I definitely wanted to see if I could get it to stream on my iPad and then use AirPlay to watch it on my TV via the Apple TV.

The tsn.ca web site is clearly not the most user-friendly site. It took me a while just to figure out where I was supposed to go to watch streaming EPL games. First I saw a link to an iPad app, so I downloaded and installed it, but as far as I can tell, it’s mainly an app for sports results and news, and it does not include streaming games.

Then as the time approached, I finally noticed a little blurb in the top-left corner of the home page inviting users to “click here” to watch the streaming EPL games. It looks like the “streaming” section of the site is an ephemeral thing and not a dedicated section that stays in the same place in the site structure at all times. So basically you are just supposed to load and reload the home page before the games until this blurb appears and then follow the link. Good grief…

Then the link took me to a dedicated page for streaming and I selected the game I wanted to watch. And then… nothing. No matter how many times I clicked on the game I wanted, no streaming happened. Eventually, I got to watch an ad (!) for something, but then, again, nothing. Good grief again.

Since the game had already started, I went upstairs to my office and tried the same thing in a web browser on my Mac. And sure enough the game started streaming right away… But of course, as luck would have it, my team had already scored an early goal. Thanks, TSN!

Then I went back downstairs to turn things off and realized that the game had started streaming there too while I was gone! And somehow the tsn.ca web site had automatically detected that I had an Apple TV and the iPad was playing the game through the Apple TV on my TV, even though I had not selected AirPlay at any point for this particular site or game. (I had selected AirPlay for other things earlier on, but as far as I could tell it was no longer on when I started using the tsn.ca web site in Safari on the iPad.)

Initially, the picture quality was pretty bad and with the wrong aspect ratio, but after a few minutes it somehow righted itself and gave me the right aspect ratio and a better picture quality (although nowhere near the HD signal I am used to via my satellite TV system).

I was then able to watch the rest of the game on my TV. There were a couple of glitches, included a period of 1 or 2 minutes where the screen went dark but the audio continued to play. Then everything stopped and the streaming resumed normally after a few seconds, through no intervention on my part. There were a few other hiccups in the stream, but nothing major, and I didn’t miss the rest of the action.

And then, at the end of the game, it all stopped as mysteriously as it had started, with no warning that the streaming was about to end or anything like that.

Clearly it would be much better if TSN could incorporate the streaming functionality into their iPad app instead of requiring people to go through the general web site in Safari, and also provide a better user experience before and after broadcasts. But I guess all this is still a “work in progress” for all parties involved. My impression is that, if you are interested in streaming stuff, you might as well be prepared for this kind of thing, because the whole situation is still very much in flux.

In addition, somehow during the TSN streaming something broke between the iPad and the Apple TV and when I went back to the Remote app to try and control other things on the Apple TV, the Apple TV was no longer listed in the things that the Remote app was able to control! I tried turning the Apple TV off and back on. I tried quitting and relaunching the Remote app. I tried fiddling with some settings. Nothing helped.

Finally, I tried turning Home Sharing off and on again. Of course, it asked for my Apple ID password again, and I couldn’t use the iPad to enter it, so I had to do it with the small Apple Remote. Grrr. And then the iPad told me something really helpful, like “Home Sharing cannot be enabled at this point. Please try again later.” WTF?

Eventually, I power-cycled the iPad and the Apple TV and was able to reenable Home Sharing and get things to work again, but really… I didn’t sign up for all this glitchiness within a few hours of setting things up! (I realize that part of the glitchiness was due to the tsn.ca itself, but that’s part of the reality when you try to deal with streaming: crappy web sites and crappy streaming services that your iPad and your Apple TV try to help you control and manage.)

I suppose that this broken pairing between the iPad Remote app and the Apple TV might have fixed itself eventually without my intervention, but here’s the thing: I have no patience for this crap. Either it works, or it doesn’t. I can’t live with “it worked half an hour ago, but right now it doesn’t, and maybe it’ll work again tomorrow if you don’t do anything”. I am something of a professional troubleshooter. Either things work, or they don’t. If they don’t, I want to be able to try and fix them. I don’t want mysterious failures that remain unexplained. If I sit down at 8:30 pm at night to watch a movie or a show via streaming, I won’t put up with, “Oh, maybe it’ll actually work tonight.”

I am not saying that my current satellite TV with PVR setup is perfect. It too has glitches, and software flaws, and occasional bugs. But at least it works most of the time. If my early experience with streaming is any indication, the frequency of glitches is much, much higher. I already find technology frustrating enough as it is. Do I really want even more frustration?

Next on my list was trying out the new Canal Plus Canada service. I did that this morning, using the Dailymotion app. The service is available as a free preview for one month (as long as you are willing to give your credit card info). After that, it’ll be $7.99 a month.

I have registered for the free preview on the web using Safari. When I am logged in in Safari, it appears to be working. In Chrome or Firefox, however, it does not seem to be working. Once I log in, Dailymotion correctly lists the Canal Plus subscription in my “purchases”, but when I try to stream something, it only gives me a preview of the first 3 minutes of the show.

The situation is the same with the Dailymotion app on the iPad. However, the official press release (in French, through the French consulate in Montreal) does state that the service is not available for tablets yet. So I guess that is why it is not working properly. That said, I do get the free 3-minute previews on the iPad and I am able to use AirPlay to display them on my TV.

The picture quality is fairly good once it gets going, but I have seen phases where the app throttled back to a really poor quality stream, presumably because of some temporary bandwidth issue. (The picture quality is set to “Auto” in the app’s settings.) I will have to test it more extensively to see if it’s a viable solution for me. It also remains to be seen whether the programming offered will actually be worth the $7.99/month. (There are also French films available on demand for $3.99 or $4.99, but that’s on top of the monthly fee.)

Still, it does look like the basic technological infrastructure is there and that it works with the iPad and the Apple TV.

Built-in features on the Apple TV more or less work as expected as well. But there are still problems. Even though I switched the default picture quality from 1080p to 720p in the Apple TV settings, it looks like my available bandwidth is still not good enough for Apple’s Theatrical Trailers app on the Apple TV. Buffering takes way too long, which leads me to think that the Theatrical Trailers app is still trying to download and play the 1080p version of each trailer. In typical Apple fashion, there is no obvious way to adjust this for the Theatrical Trailers app. The 720p setting that I changed applies to the iTunes Store (at least according to the interface).

Fortunately, things work better in the YouTube app. I’ve found a channel called “MOVIECLIPS Trailers” that has HD-quality trailers and they play just fine on the Apple TV, with no buffering delay whatsoever. They definitely look like 720p quality to me, which I think confirms that something is wrong with the Theatrical Trailers app on the Apple TV. Once again, it looks like Apple assumes the availability of unlimited bandwidth at all times and provides no obvious alternative for those who do not have so much bandwidth. (There is a knowledge base article about this, but it says nothing about what to do for the Theatrical Trailers app.)

It’ll take me a while to further experiment with the device and see how well things work in the real world. With my 7 Mbps connection, I will probably not be able to “cut the cord” just yet — especially since some of the stuff I want to watch is still only available via conventional TV channels. But my hope is that at least I will able to reduce my satellite TV bill substantially by getting rid of a bunch of channel packages. We shall see.


Troubleshooting an old Apple Cinema Display

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 30th, 2013 • 3:48 pm

I had a pretty interesting troubleshooting experience yesterday. My wife has been using my old 2006 Mac Pro in her store, with my old 23” Apple Cinema Display.

Now this is a display that I bought a long time ago, back in 2002 to be exact. Back then it was quite expensive (over $5,000 CDN before tax), but it was one of the best displays around, and certainly a great deal better than the monstrous Trinitron CRT monitor that I was using before then. There were significant worries about “dead pixels” in LCD displays back then, but my display was perfect in that regard. I used it for several years as my main monitor, until I replaced it with a 30” display. Then further down the road I got a second 30” display and the original 23” display was used as a backup monitor for a second computer I was using from time to time.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the display ended up being used in my wife’s store. It’s over 10 years old now, but it still has a very good picture. It might not match more recent models in terms of brightness, but for its current use it is excellent, and provides a decent amount of screen real estate (1920×1200). It still requires an ADC-to-DVI adapter, of course, but that adapter also seems to be working fine.

The one thing about this display, however, is that for a long time it has been having problems with its USB ports in the back. I can’t remember exactly when the problems started, but even if it was still when the display was under warranty, I never bothered to get it fixed, because it could be fairly easily worked around (simply by using different USB ports and a hub). The USB ports didn’t fail entirely, but they were definitely flaky.

In my wife’s store office, the USB ports in the back of the display are the most convenient connections for her keyboard and mouse, so that’s what she’s been using. It had been working OK for a year. At least there were no obvious problems with the keyboard or mouse. She did, however, have some weird problems when getting back to the machine in the morning, with the Mac Pro not waking up from sleep properly. I told her to use the Mac Pro’s power button and that worked OK as a workaround, so I didn’t investigate things any further.

Then yesterday, when she reopened the store for the Christmas after having been closed for a couple of months, and she tried to turn the Mac Pro on, all she got was a grey screen. She got the startup chime, but after the screen turned grey, nothing would happen. Several attempted restarts failed to make a difference. Unplugging the computer and plugging it back in didn’t help either. I tried swapping the two internal hard drives. I tried plugging the keyboard and mouse directly into the computer. I tried holding the Option key down during restart. Nothing worked. I even tried command-option-P-R to reset the PRAM, in case it was a weird power-related issue. I never got the multiple chimes. Just the initial chime and the grey screen, with no disk activity.

I then proceeded to take the machine home, plugged it in, and it started properly right away. Even without having it connected to a display, I could hear the hard drive churning. This suggested to me that it might be a problem with the power supply at the store. So I went back to the store with a different power bar and a different power cable. I tried starting the computer at the store before connecting it to the display, and again it started properly right away, with the hard drive churning. I plugged the display in after the Mac Pro had already started, and everything was in order. Then I tried to restart and I got the grey screen again.

Finally, I put 2 and 2 together and figured that it might be a problem with my good old 23” Apple Cinema Display. And sure enough, after a few more restarts for testing purposes, I was able to narrow it down to the USB connection from the display to the Mac Pro. If I just plugged in the DVI cable (from the ADC-to-DVI adapter) and nothing else, everything worked fine. If I also plugged the USB cable coming from the ADC-to-DVI adapter into one of the Mac Pro’s USB ports, then upon restarting the machine I would get the grey screen.

It also finally dawned on me that this same USB connection might have been the cause of the problems (with the Mac Pro not waking up from sleep properly) that my wife had been having for the past year. The grey screen problem was new, but might be part of the same cluster of USB-related issues.

Since the USB connection still worked properly (for a mouse and keyboard anyway) if the USB cable from the display was connected to the Mac Pro after restart, I just told her that, whenever she needed to restart the machine, she should unplug the USB connection temporarily, and then plug it back in. I also changed the power-saving settings so that only the display would go to sleep, leaving the Mac Pro itself running (but with the hard drives going to sleep when unused).

Eventually, it will make more sense to get a USB extension cord and plug the keyboard and mouse directly into the Mac Pro and forget about the display’s USB connection altogether. It still works fine as a display, and with such a fine-quality screen still working very well after 11 years, I think I can say that I got my money’s worth.

But it was definitely a weird issue that a USB connection would cause the Mac Pro to fail to start up properly altogether, even though that same USB connection still works properly (apparently anyway) if it’s only connected once the Mac Pro is already up and running. It was, as usual, quite satisfying to be able to fairly quickly pinpoint the problem with this level of accuracy and find a reliable workaround that does not require the purchase of any new equipment (for now). And, as my wife said, what would she have done if I hadn’t been around and I hadn’t been able to bring my general level of expertise and my fairly intimate knowledge of this particular 23” Apple Cinema Display? (I didn’t tell her that, if I wasn’t around, she probably wouldn’t be using such a computer with such a display in the first place.)

All that being said, there’s definitely something weird about a USB connection being able to interfere with the ability of a machine to start up. It reminds me of that problem I had a few years ago with a MacBook failing to start up because of a defective hard drive. Even though the MacBook’s CD/DVD drive was still working fine, it was impossible to get the MacBook to start from a system DVD until I physically disconnected the internal hard drive from the motherboard — just like it was impossible, here, to get the Mac Pro to start until I physically disconnected the USB connection from the display.

Is there something about Intel processors that explains those weird startup issues? That MacBook should have been able to boot from a system DVD even when its internal hard drive was failing. And similarly, that Mac Pro should have been able to boot from its internal hard drive even when it was connected via USB to a display with defective USB ports.

Of course, I suppose it’s also possible that the real problem is with the DVI-to-ADC adapter and not with the display itself. But since I cannot use the latter without the former, I guess I’ll never know. That proprietary ADC thing was a major (yet typical) mistake on Apple’s part. It is good that I am still able to use a display with such a proprietary and obsolete connection after all these years, but the problem might never have happened if Apple had fully embraced DVI from the get-go.


OS X’s Mail 7: Can’t replace saved attachment in its ‘Downloads’ folder

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
November 29th, 2013 • 4:05 pm

It used to be that one of Apple’s distinctive features when it comes to computing was its ability (and indeed its willingness) to sweat the details. Nowadays, more often than not, its distinctive features include a newly found ability to mess up the details.

In Mavericks’s Mail 7, as in previous versions of Mail, you can define a specific “Downloads” folder for saving e-mail attachments (under Preferences › General). The default folder for this is… your “Downloads” folder inside your user folder (which is also where all your Safari downloads go by default). But you can change it to any folder of your choice.

I have already discussed the changes introduced by Apple in Mail regarding the ability to save e-mail attachments in Mavericks. Sadly, these days, the fact that there are changes also means that there is a good chance that Apple has messed things up. And indeed it turns out to be the case here.

My problem today is with what happens when you try to save to Mail’s “Downloads” folder an attachment that bears the exact same file name as a file that already exists in that folder. If you choose the “Save to Downloads Folder” menu item in the contextual menu option when right-clicking on an attachment, since this menu item is for a command that does not require user interaction (there is no ellipsis at the end of it), when Mail finds an existing file with the same name as the attachment you are trying to save in the “Downloads” folder, it simply saves the new attachment with the same name in the folder with “-1” added to its name. (If there is already a “-1” at the end of the file name, it uses “-2”. And so on.)

So far, no complaints. This is the behaviour that I would expect.

The problem is with what happens if, instead of using the “Save to Downloads Folder” menu item in the contextual menu option, you use the “Save Attachment…” menu item. This command, unlike the other one, requires user interaction. You have to choose the destination for saving the file. If you choose your “Downloads” folder (which already contains a file with the same name) as the destination, when you click on the “Save” button in the dialog box, OS X correctly displays an alert warning you that there already is a file with the same name, and asking you if you want to replace it:

mail7-save-replace

The problem is with what happens if you click on “Replace” here. Instead of actually replacing the existing file with the new file, OS X… saves the new attachment with the same name in the folder with “-1” added to its name. In other words, it completely ignores your request to replace the existing file and does the same thing as the “Save to Downloads Folder” menu item does! Ironically, if you opt to save your attachments manually in a folder other than Mail’s “Downloads” folder, the problem does not occur. OS X correctly replaces the file. The problem is only with files saved in the default “Downloads” folder.

Like I said, it’s a detail, but it’s not an insignificant one. If you don’t pay attention and don’t notice this behaviour, you might end up having and using the wrong version of a file. You might think that your existing file with the name has been replaced, but it has not and is still the “old” file.

This is very unfortunate, and in my eyes, yet another sign that such details are increasingly escaping the attention of Apple’s developers. Such a flaw means that you essentially can no longer trust Apple to handle your files reliably without your supervision. Sadly, I am not surprised. When you see that the very notion of a file is being slowly deprecated in a computing environment such as iOS, you do wonder whether Apple can still be counted on to provide a proper “conventional” computing environment, where people create files, share them, store them, handle multiple versions of them, and so on.

iOS might be a fine operating system, but its level of complexity, as far as I am concerned, is a degree of magnitude lower than the level of complexity of OS X. If the developers that Apple has working on OS X these days cannot handle this higher level of complexity, we are in big trouble.


Word 2011: Use Keyboard Maestro to fix command-G madness

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
November 18th, 2013 • 4:50 pm

I have finally had enough. Word 2011 might be highly customizable (compared to Pages ’09, for example), but there are still behaviours that are completely non-sensical and cannot be altered.

One of my pet peeves is the non-standard use of the command-G shortcut. In most OS X applications, it means “Find Next”. In MS Word, it does not. I’ve written about this before. You can customize the value of the shortcut in the regular Word 2011 interface, but you cannot customize what happens when the “Find and Replace” dialog box is open and in the foreground.

In such a situation, even if you’ve changed the meaning of the shortcut via Word’s keyboard customization features, command-G still takes you to the “Go To” tab instead of being the equivalent of clicking on the “Find Next” button. While you can use the Return key as an equivalent for clicking on the button, since it’s the default button (in blue) in the dialog box, command-G is such a common shortcut that it is now part of my “muscle memory” and I cannot help but use it to find the next occurrence.

Fortunately, once again a third-party tool, namely Keyboard Maestro, can come to the rescue. Keyboard Maestro has the nifty ability not only to mimic user interactions with the interface in its macros, but also to use control flow commands to test the current state of the user interface and branch out to different actions depending on that state.

This means that we can create a macro that tests to see if the “Find and Replace” dialog is in the foreground in Word. If it is, the macro can mimic a click on the “Find Next” button. If it is not, the macro can simply pass the command-G shortcut back to Word 2011 and trigger the behaviour normally associated with command-G shortcut (assuming you used Word 2011‘s keyboard customization features to change the default meaning of command-G to “Find Next”).

The Word-specific macro ends up looking like this:

km-word-findnext

And it works! No more accidental switching to the “Go To” tab!


iBooks App: PDF documents treated as second-class citizens

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh
November 18th, 2013 • 4:02 pm

Now that iBooks is also available as a desktop app in Mavericks, I find myself wanting to use it for more than just purchasing e-books from its store on the iPad. I also want to use it as an alternative to Safari’s “Reading List” feature, by saving long web articles as PDF documents for reading later. My reasons for this are fairly simple: the “Reading List” is little more than a special list of bookmarks; selecting an entry in it simply reloads the page in question from the server in Safari. I want to keep local copies of articles for reading later or for archival purposes, because it’s faster, and you don’t have to depend on an Internet connection or the on-going availability of the article on-line. (Some articles are moved behind a paywall after a while. Others just disappear.)

In theory, the iBooks functionality in Mavericks should be ideal for this. Whenever I load a page in Safari that I want to read later, I can use Safari’s “Print” dialog to save the page as a PDF document directly in iBooks, using the “Add PDF to iBooks” option in the “Save as PDF” menu:

mavericks-addpdftoibooks

The problem is that this only adds the PDF document to my collection of PDF files in iBooks on my Mac Pro running Mavericks. What if I want to read the PDF on my iPad?

Initially I thought that iBooks would use iCloud to keep my entire iBooks library in sync between my Mac Pro running Mavericks and my iPad running iOS 7. But that is not the case. Here’s what the help feature for iBooks and iCloud says:

Your books, collections, highlights, notes, and bookmarks are available automatically on your computers and iOS devices—just use the same Apple ID to sign in to the iBooks Store.

  • If you buy a book on your Mac, it’s automatically available on all of your iOS devices with iOS 6 or later and with Show All Purchases turned on in iBooks settings. (Books made with iBooks Author aren’t available on iPhone or iPod touch.) To see all your purchased books on your Mac, choose View > Show Purchases in iCloud.
  • If you start reading a book on one device, you can pick up right where you left off on another device. Collections, highlights, notes, and bookmarks are also available on other devices when “Sync bookmarks, highlights, and collections across devices” is selected on your Mac in the General pane of iBooks preferences. On your iOS devices, turn on Sync Bookmarks and Sync Collections in iBooks settings.
  • If you’re not seeing your info on all of your devices, make sure you’re using the same Apple ID in the iBooks Store on your Mac and on each iOS device. Also, make sure syncing is turned on in the General pane of iBooks preferences on your Mac and in iBooks settings on your iOS devices.

It sounds like iBooks keeps everything in sync via iCloud, but in actual fact the only things that iBooks syncs via iCloud are the e-books you purchase via the iBooks Store, as well as your bookmarks, your notes, your highlights, and the collections that you might have created to organize your purchased e-books. If you have added any PDFs to iBooks on your Mac, these PDFs will not show up in iBooks on your iPad. And the reverse is also true.

The only way that you can keep your entire iBooks library really in sync is to use… iTunes. Yes, even though the “iBooks” functionality has been moved from iTunes to the separate iBooks app in Mavericks, there still is a “Books” section when you plug your iPad in and open it in iTunes on your Mac. And that section gives you the option to manually sync your libraries.

As far as I can tell, there is no way to do this syncing without a physical connection between the iPad and the Mac, i.e. with the Lightning-to-USB cable connection. (You can try Wi-Fi syncing in iTunes, but in my experience it’s not very reliable. Sometimes the iPad shows up. Sometimes it simply does not.)

It is quite inconvenient. While thankfully most PDF files are fairly small in size (compared to music or video files, that is) and the syncing is admittedly pretty fast, it still represents a number of extra steps and requires a physical connection that should not be necessary.

I realize that Apple’s incentive is to sell more e-books and so the “Store” part of iBooks is treated as a priority. But the iPad is also quite convenient as a general-purpose reader for documents other than e-books, including PDF files that are either user-created or found on-line. Sadly, right now PDFs are treated as second-class citizens and, while you can, with some effort, keep your entire iBooks library in sync across your devices, it could and should be much simpler. One should be able to add PDFs to iBooks on one device and have them automatically show up in iBooks on other devices running iBooks and connected to the same iCloud account.

But that, apparently, is too obvious for Apple to bother implementing it, at least at this point in time.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to play the part of a dumb Apple customer and called Apple’s tech support for my (brand new) iPad Air. The first time I called, the voice recognition software apparently didn’t recognize my pronunciation for “iPad”. I was finally able to select the option from a menu, and then I was put on hold for about 5 minutes, after which I got… a busy signal. I had to call again and wait several more minutes. Finally I got through to a live representative.

I complained about my PDFs not syncing. The tech support representative put me on hold while he went to speak to his supervisor and came back with a suggestion: I should use iCloud.com to upload my PDF files from my Mac to… Pages and use Pages on iCloud to read them on my other devices.

What kind of joke is this? Pages does not even support the PDF file format, whether for reading or for placing inside a blank document. I have no idea what this supervisor actually meant. And apparently he was not aware of the remaining “Books” section in iTunes, which I found by myself. It was quite obvious that I knew more about all this than the representative anyway, so I didn’t pursue the issue any further.

It’s no wonder people remain sceptical about Apple being able to offer truly reliable and flexible on-line services. iCloud might work for some things for some people, but it still suffers from various restrictions that make it much less useful than it could and should be.

Further reading: “Apple’s iBooks is a Mess


OS X’s Mail: How to manually restore plug-in compatibility

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
November 16th, 2013 • 5:56 pm

Most of the time, when Apple comes up with system updates that modify the Mail application, the changes cause Mail to reject installed third-party plug-ins (known as “bungles”) by moving them from the “~/Library/Mail/Bundles/” folder to the “~/Library/Mail/Bundles (Disabled)/” folder at launch time. This happens even if there is no known compatibility issue between the new version of Mail and the plug-in.

Macworld had a column about this a few years back, and about what you can do to manually restore the compatibility — at your own risk, of course. (Sometimes, plug-ins can become incompatible and so it’s safer to wait until the developer updates the plug-ing himself or herself.)

In Mavericks (OS X 10.9), the situation has changed a bit. Mail updates still cause bundles to be rejected, but now it is no longer necessary to update the plug-in’s info.plist file with the UUIDs for both the Mail application and the Message framework.

So there is only one process left to do. After you’ve quit Mail:

1. Enter the following line in Terminal:

defaults read /Applications/Mail.app/Contents/Info PluginCompatibilityUUID

2. Keep the UUID that this command returns in a safe place.

3. Go to the “~/Library/Mail/Bundles (Disabled)/” folder and locate the info.plist file in the “Contents” folder of the bundle for the plug-in. Open this info.plist file in a text editor. (I use BBEdit.)

4. In the section called “SupportedPluginCompatibilityUUIDs”, add a line that reads:

		<string>XXX</string>

where “XXX” is the UUID that you’ve retrieved with the Terminal command above.

5. Save the info.plist file.

6. Move the entire bundle folder back to the “~/Library/Mail/Bundles/” folder.

Now you can relaunch Mail and it will no longer reject the “incompatible” plug-in bundle.

Before Mavericks, you had to repeat the same process for the “Message” framework in “/System/Library/Frameworks/”. But as far as I can tell, this is no longer necessary in Mavericks.

Again, I stress that, if you use this tip to restore plug-in functionality for a rejected Mail plug-in, you will be doing so at your own risk. Eventually, plug-in developers will release updated versions of their plug-ins that will “officially” restore the compatibility. But it can take a while and you don’t necessarily want to have to wait, especially if you are reasonably confident that the plug-in remains compatible with Mail.

[UPDATE: Reader Brad L. notes that there is a utility called MailPluginFix that can be used to automate the process. It’s listed as Mavericks-compatible.]


Mail 7: Saving multiple attachments now requires multiple clicks

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
October 28th, 2013 • 9:11 am

Apple’s engineers have a strong tendency of being unable to leave good enough alone.

In the previous version of Mail, if you received an email message containing multiple attachments, there was a way to save all these attachments with a single click. You could just use a single click on the “Save” button in the message header, and this single click would automatically save all the attachments in the “Downloads” folder defined in Mail’s preferences (under “General”).

Now, in Mail 7, if you use a single click on the “Save” button, the result looks like this:

mail7-saveall

The only option here is to select the “Save All” command and then to select your destination folder manually. There is no longer any option to save the attachments directly to the “Downloads” folder defined in Mail’s preferences from this menu.

As far as I can tell, the only place where the “Downloads” folder defined in Mail’s preferences still has any relevance in Mail 7’s interface is in the contextual menu you get when you right-click or control-click on the icon of an individual attachment in the body of the email:

mail7-saveto

But of course this only works for one attachment at a time.

I have to save multiple attachments multiple times every day. Now every time this will require several extra clicks with the mouse.

I guess that they call this progress down in Cupertino.

[UPDATE: Reader Kevin Bush points out that you can use command-A to select the entire body of the message and then save all the attachments to the “Downloads” folder at once. It is indeed better, but it still requires more than one step.]


More on Pages 5

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Pages
October 26th, 2013 • 10:23 am

Since my previous post on Pages 5 was mentioned on Daring Fireball, I have received quite a bit of feedback, both directly and indirectly. I’d like to address some of the issues about my post and this situation that were raised in that feedback, in order to clarify, as they say, “where I am coming from” and better explain why the situation is so discouraging.

First, several people couldn’t help but compare the situation with Pages 5 to what happened with iMovie ’08 or, more recently, Final Cut Pro X. In both cases, Apple took a fairly well established product with a familiar feature set and subjected it to an extensive overhaul, to the point that existing users were shocked, angry, distressed, and so on.

Not being a video editor myself, I am not familiar with either product line, so all I know about these two other situations is the commentary that I saw on the Mac web at the time and afterwards, especially regarding the fact that, after the initial shock, some users were able to get used to the overhauled software and adapt their workflow fairly easily, whereas others experienced much more difficulty and were left very frustrated for a long period.

Apparently, over time, especially in the case of Final Cut Pro X, Apple took pains to bring back the features that had been eliminated, by incorporating them back into the new software architecture. Of course, iMovie and Final Cut Pro are quite different in terms of their target audiences and their price points, so it’s not surprising to hear that Apple’s response to user feedback was much better and more prompt in the case of the latter. (Apple couldn’t exactly “afford” to alienate professional movie makers and videographers for years — although admittedly even at the best of times the revenue generated by sales of Final Cut Pro and related pro-level Mac hardware purchases is clearly dwarfed by the revenue generated by iOS-related hardware, so from a strictly financial point of view, Apple probably could afford to do alienate pro users.)

It is also true that no one was forced to switch the new, overhauled versions right away, and that the previous versions continued to be supported — just like Pages ’09 continues to work just fine in OS X Mavericks. So there is no need to panic here, and I believe that my reaction (as well as the reaction of many other Pages users) is primarily a mixture of heavy dismay and disappointment (especially with the fact that, after waiting for a new version for four years, this is what we got) and strong concern about the future. Eventually, Apple will stop supporting Pages ’09. How confident can we be that, by then, we’ll have a new version of Pages with a more or less restored feature set? Do we really want to continue to generate lots of content in a file format that is now already obsolete and will not be supported forever? (Like other software makers, Apple’s own history in that regard is pretty abysmal. Try opening old AppleWorks files on a modern Mac…)

It is quite clear that, for people like me, the present situation probably means several more years of using Pages ’09 with not a single enhancement or bug fix. The best we can hope for from Apple is minor application updates to maintain compatibility with the OS or for security purposes. And even that is not guaranteed. It is very discouraging.

One other point that was made by some is that Pages is not a pro-level piece of software. So why do “prosumers” or professional users rely on it for their work? Anyone who’s been reading my Betalogue site for a while knows very well why that is. There is no real alternative (although I promise that I will try and explore other products like Nisus Writer more seriously). Microsoft Word is a piece of crap, and there is no hope of it ever improving and becoming a proper piece of OS X software. It’s slow, it’s flawed, it’s buggy, it’s unreliable, and Microsoft does not care about the needs of prosumers much more than Apple does. They only care about the needs of special interest groups with lots of purchasing power, which include IT departments and other technology “experts” who know very little about issues regarding usability, user-friendliness, and so on.

I know very well that it is not quite normal that I have ended up relying on Pages so much in my work. But that’s the way it is, because that’s the way the desktop publishing industry is. The so-called “industry standard” (Word) is junk, and there is no real competition that leads to better products for end users. Pages ’09 was a bit of a miracle, in that it was a well-designed (albeit far from perfect) piece of OS X software with quite a bit of power “under the hood”, if you were willing to spend a bit of time to scratch the surface — hence the attractiveness of the software for more advanced users like myself. My Betalogue site contains numerous examples of things that can be done with Pages ’09 (sometimes with the help of AppleScript and Keyboard Maestro) and that make it a quite legitimate alternative to Microsoft Word. (Even with all my customizations and enhancements, I still have to use Word on a regular basis, of course. But I would say that for about 80% of my work I am able to get away with using Pages ’09 instead, and just export my documents in Word format at the end. My Word-using clients do not really know the difference.)

The reason we are in the situation we are in today is that the desktop publishing industry is not a healthy one at all, and has not been one for decades. Microsoft Word was already driving me mad 20 years ago. Since 2006, I have actually been able to improve my productivity and be much more happy in my daily working life thanks to the availability of Pages (and, to a lesser extent, of Numbers as an alternative to Excel). This is extensively documented on this blog, for anyone who would bother to actually research the issue. The reality is that there has never really been two classes of desktop publishing software, one for “consumers” and another one for “professionals”, so you cannot really blame people like me for trying to build a working environment around a product like Pages, whether it can really be considered “iSoftware” or not. It’s a bit like blaming professionals for using an iMac for their work instead of a Mac Pro.

If Apple does actually opt to restore AppleScript support in Pages 5 or an ulterior version, and bring back some of the functionality that has been lost (and also add new features that are still missing in both Pages ’09 and Pages 5, such as the ability to use different page orientations in the same document, or hierarchical style sheets), then, even if it takes a couple of years, I will be reasonably happy, and I will probably be able to learn how to live with the new Pages then. But what guarantee do we have that this will happen? The history with iMovie and Final Cut Pro is no proof that there is a real commitment on Apple’s part. We don’t know how much of Apple’s response for these two other products was due to the unexpected outcry from end users or was simply always somehow “part of the plan”. Apple won’t communicate at all about these things.

iWork is now free, so it’s rather hard to ask for your money back, or to threaten to boycott the product. All we can do is submit bug reports and other forms of feedback through available channels. But that’s yet more work (= lost productivity) for us with no guarantee of a positive result. It would take me hours to clearly and neatly document all the missing features in Pages 5 and explain why it is important to restore them. With my posts on Betalogue (and my advocacy offline), I feel that I have already done my part in promoting Pages as a viable solution. This has brought me very little reward except for the positive feedback from readers. I just cannot spend my whole working life waiting for the right tool to finally become available. The very fact that Apple felt the need to completely overhaul the Pages interface yet again clearly demonstrates that no one really knows how to design a really good hammer for us wordsmiths and document editors.

Writing in and of itself is a pretty basic computing task, which can be done with a wide variety of tools. (I am writing this in BBEdit right now, and I am perfectly happy.) But as soon as you start talking about creating “smart” documents with quality typography and with structure, tables, illustrations, and so on, the situation is objectively a complete mess and has been ever since I started using a computer as my main working tool. No one should be surprised or shocked that the Pages 5 revamp is generating such a strong response. It’s like asking a taxi driver to relearn how to drive every four or five years. I am, quite frankly, getting a bit tired of all this.


Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Pages
October 24th, 2013 • 8:45 am

Dear oh dear. They really have done it, haven’t they? They have taken what had evolved into a rather decent word processor / page layout application and have eliminated so many useful features that it effectively is now a piece of useless junk, and I honestly have no idea for whom this latest version of Pages is intended.

It certainly is not intended for people who, like me, appreciated the combination of simplicity and power that was the hallmark of previous versions of Pages. I realize that it must be hard to maintain the right balance between simplicity and power when you try to add more features, more customizability, and so on. But Apple’s engineers appear to have chosen to keep the emphasis on “simplicity” at the expense of “power”. They have not just neglected to add features to bring the feature set of the application closer to that of a word processor like Microsoft Word. They have actually removed many features for no apparent reason other than to bring the application in line with its iOS counterpart, which is, inevitably, much less powerful.

To take just one example, it appears to be no longer possible to assign shortcuts to paragraph and character styles in Pages 5. The ability to assign shortcuts to styles was woefully limited in previous versions of Pages, but at least there was one. Now, there is nothing. If you want to use styles, it’s clicks, clicks, and more clicks with the mouse. Each and every time.

To make matters worse, they appear to have completely broken AppleScript support in Pages 5, which means that my solution for customizing Pages with a combination of AppleScript scripts and Keyboard Maestro has also become useless. (Not that AppleScript support in Pages ’09 was perfect, far from it. But at least it was working to some extent. And bugs and limitations could be worked around.)

I guess that, in an era of mobile, touch-based computing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Apple engineers to understand that document writers spend most of their days with their hands on an actual keyboard, and providing easy access to functionality via the keyboard is particularly important for them.

But this is just one example. There are many, many more:

(And much more here.)

We Mac power users have been complaining about the “dumbing down” trend in computing that the mobile era has ushered in. Now it’s definitely come to hurt us in a big way. It’s as if the entire iWork team of engineers has been replaced by iOS specialists with little or no interest in the needs of “prosumers” and the like.

It is just profoundly sad and depressing. In spite of all its flaws, I have been using Pages as my main word processor for many years now. Meanwhile, Microsoft Word has just become more and more horrible to look at and to use. I guess that, for now, I will continue to use Pages ’09 with all the customizations that I have painstakingly created with AppleScript and Keyboard Maestro. But sooner or later, I will have no choice but to switch to something else. Imagine being a plumber or an electrician and discovering that your main toolmakers are no longer able to make tools that enable you to actually get your work done in an efficient and effective fashion. Who do you turn to? How do you maintain your own productivity? I really have no idea.

At least I didn’t to pay for Pages 5. For whatever reason, after I installed Mavericks, the App Store made it available to me for free, as an “update”. Ditto for Numbers and Keynote, which I have yet to look at.

But it’s so bad that I actually might have to erase it from my hard drive altogether, in order to avoid any confusion with multiple Pages file formats and the like. (Installing Pages 5 does not remove Pages ’09. At least it did not on my machine.)


Safari in Mavericks: PDF downloading when native display is off is broken

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
October 23rd, 2013 • 5:56 pm

I have been posting small notes about my experience with OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) on my Twitter feed, but this one warrants a longer post — if only to properly express my indignation.

For months now, I have been testing the newest version of Safari 6 as part of my AppleSeed membership. And right away, I noticed one particular issue that affects people who, like me, do not like the so-called “native” display of PDF files inside the browser window and would rather get all their PDF files automatically downloaded to their “Downloads” folder instead. (See this older post for more on this.)

The newest version of Safari does not eliminate the ability to disable native PDF display via a command in Terminal. However, it breaks it in a way that makes it useless.

Here’s what now happens in Safari after you disable native PDF display and click on a PDF to download it:

Safari7-PDFdisplaybroken

It displays the PDF as raw data inside the browser window!

And of course, Safari being what it is, if the PDF in question happens to be fairly large, the app has a strong tendency to become totally unresponsive at the same time, with the typical “Web pages are not responding” alert, which obliges you to reload all your currently open pages in all your Safari tabs and windows. (How this is better than the Safari app simply crashing, I do not know. Apparently, it’s an improvement.)

What really infuriates me about this particular bug is that I noticed it as soon as I installed the very first seed of the new Safari, several months ago. And I immediately filed a bug report. I tried to be patient, but when I saw that the bug was not fixed in subsequent seeds, I tried submitting more reports.

Not only did they never acknowledge my initial report, but they also never flagged my subsequent reports as “duplicate”. It was like talking to a wall. At that stage, I became reasonably confident that they would fail to fix the bug in the final release, and sure enough, they did not fix it and now everyone can enjoy it as much as I have been doing for the past few months.

Of course, you can avoid the buggy behaviour by option-clicking on links to PDF files in order to force Safari to download the files instead of displaying them (wait until they break that feature in the next version of Safari!), but:

  1. It is a pain in the neck to have to remember to hold the option key down when clicking on a link to a PDF file, especially when it is not obvious that it is a link to a PDF file and not to another web page.
  2. This option-clicking workaround works even when native PDF display is enabled, so the ability to disable native PDF display is now effectively useless. It might as well not exist at all.

Apple cares very little about the needs of so-called “power users” these days, so I am not entirely surprised that they failed to acknowledge my bug reports and fix the bug in time for the final release, and I am not too optimistic that they will fix it any time soon — although the fact that the same feature was already broken once in the past and eventually fixed by Apple back then (see this older post) gives me a bit of hope (although it took many months). But it would help if everyone affected could bombard Apple with bug reports now that the new Safari is out.


Word 2011: Issue with text selection in right-aligned table cells

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
October 23rd, 2013 • 10:21 am

In Word 2011, if you have a table with cells where the text alignment setting is “Align Text Left”, and if your cell in empty, when the cell is selected, the selection highlighting and the mouse pointer look like this:

word2011-tablecell-leftaligned-selected

If you then click once anywhere in the cell, Word 2011 deselects the empty cell and put the I-beam cursor instead:

word2011-tablecell-leftaligned-clicked

On the other hand, if the text alignment setting for the cell is “Align Text Right”, and if your cell in empty, when the cell is selected, the selection highlighting and the mouse pointer look like this:

word2011-tablecell-rightaligned-selected

If you then try to click once anywhere in the cell, Word 2011 refuses to deselect the empty cell and put the I-beam cursor instead. In order to achieve the same effect, your only option is to switch to the keyboard and press a cursor key. Then finally Word 2011 deselects the empty cell and put the I-beam cursor instead:

word2011-tablecell-rightaligned-clicked

This problem only occurs when the cell is empty. If it already contains some right-aligned text, you can click on the text to deselect it and get the I-beam cursor instead.

There are some many little “details” like this one that are not right in Word 2011. And no one seems to care. It’s sad.


So I just had brain surgery…

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Society, Technology
September 15th, 2013 • 2:09 pm

I don’t usually share personal stuff here, but it went well, and it’s done, so I feel fortunate to be able to talk about it and share some of my (slightly amputated) thoughts on the whole process, especially when it comes to the “user-friendliness” of the thing, and boy, they sure could use some help in that department.

The context in a nutshell: Through a routine IRM of my head a few years ago, a suspicious area was spotted in my brain, above the right eye. I didn’t have any obvious symptoms of anything, so the decision was made to simply monitor the thing with regular IRMs and revisit the decision if necessary.

Three years later, there appeared to be enough of a change to justify intervention and so… under the knife I went. The tumour was removed on Thursday and I am here at home typing at my computer, so obviously things went quite well as far as the surgery itself is concerned (although of course I am a bit, let’s say, stunned and will still need to pace myself for quite a while).

The neurosurgeron is reasonably confident that he got “the whole thing” out (as far as that is possible), as was confirmed by the IRM that I had the day after the surgery, but we have to wait for the results of the biopsy to see what kind of tumour we are actually dealing with (there are many kinds, apparently). However, chances are that it is of the “low grade, slow-growing” kind, which will require on-going monitoring for the rest of my life, and hopefully not much else.

As for the process, a sure sign that my brain was functioning normally after the operation was that I immediately started thinking about all the things that could probably be easily improved in the recovery process, especially when it comes to technology (of course).

One of the most annoying aspects of being stuck in a “step-down” ward with other recent victims of surgery is that you are all hooked up to all kinds of monitoring devices that emit all kinds of signals. Easily the most annoying one was the arterial hook-up monitoring the heart rate. The thing is obviously configured by default to beep every time there is a sudden change in your heart rate. But apparently this happens so often that nurses have learned to ignore the beeps, unless of course they become persistent. (They can change the settings, but I suspect it’s too much of an annoyance to do it systematically and so… You know the rest.)

The stupidest aspect, as far as I am concerned, is that, at least in my case, the simple fact of falling asleep apparently causes enough of a change in my heart rate to trigger the alarm. As you can imagine, falling asleep is not the easiest thing to do in a busy ward at the best of time. When you’ve been put to sleep for six hours and have a bit of a headache, it’s even harder. But really, it does not help at all that, right at the time when you finally fall asleep, the idiotic heart rate monitor emits a beep that is, of course, close enough to wake you from your not-quite-asleep-yet state.

Next on the list are the IV pumps. These things sound exactly like inkjet printers going about their business or, worst-still, dot-matrix printers from the 1980s. Given that they have to be running permanently, you’d think they would put more effort into coming up with quieter designs. Yes, it is a repetitive sound and you eventually get used to it, but surely it’s one more thing that it should not be necessary to inflict on patients trying to regain their strength and get some much needed sleep.

Then of course you add the usual rudeness and general impoliteness of other people, including other patients and their visitors. For the first night after the surgery, my four-bed ward was, from my perspective, a Bosch painting come to life. Between the alcoholic/addict woman that had been hit by a car, with a broken hip and pelvis and something to her head, who kept pulling her tubes out and swearing in some incomprehensible language (there were enough “shits” and “fucks” in there for me to be able to tell that she was swearing), the aneurysm patient who had been driving all the nurses crazy for ten days straight by refusing to comply with their orders and attempting to get up and go away, himself releasing an endless stream of “oh my fucking god”s and other choice words, not to mention innumerable burps and farts and what not, and then the poor old soul who showed up at 5 am with a broken neck that, with his history of lung cancer, prevented him from breathing properly, instead making sounds that clearly indicated that he was drowning in his own phlegm and requiring the nurses to suction stuff out on a regular basis, all with nice, appealing noises for the rest of the room as you can imagine, it was quite a scene. Of course, I am not ignoring the fact that the people moaning and swearing were in real pain and clearly the morphine drips were enough to shut them up for a while, but it was never a very long while and I just did my best to enjoy my own morphine silently and keep my farts low-key.

The surgeon got word of the general ambience of the place and was kind enough to have me moved to a different ward for the next night, which was less apocalyptic, but the IV pumps were still active in their sonic ImageWriter-like majesty. (Fortunately, no one was hooked up to a heart rate monitor any longer at that stage.)

And then I was allowed to go home, which is of course a much better place to recover, under the care of my wife and with my familiar luxuries. I am not supposed to stay at the computer for too long, so I think I’ll keep it at that. I just sort of wanted to explain why things had been rather quiet for me on the blog/Twitter front lately.


Adobe InDesign CC: Selection colour and responsiveness affected by transparency of linked PSD file

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
August 14th, 2013 • 9:05 am

Yesterday, I wrote a post about a new problem introduced in InDesign CC that involves the presence of a link to a PSD file on the page.

Thanks to the feedback of Betalogue reader and fellow InDesign user Lars P., I am now able to confirm that the problem is more specifically linked to the use of transparency. As Lars says:

As soon as there are transparent objects (placed images, drop shadows, …) on a page, InDesign renders the whole page using the transparency blend space. That is normally set to CMYK, so all colours get converted to your CMYK working space ICC profile for display. Most vibrant colours (like your green for highlighting) will look washed out then.

Sure enough, changing the transparency blend space to “Document RGB” as opposed to “Document CMYK” does change the selection highlighting colour back to its normal shade. It does not, however, address the responsiveness issue that is also associated with this particular problem. (And you also need to remember to change it back to CMYK before sending the publication to the printer, if that’s part of your process.)

As I indicated yesterday, removing the link to the Photoshop file from the page eliminates the problem altogether. But that’s not necessarily an option. I have found that, if you do not need transparency and can flatten the Photoshop document, this also causes InDesign CC to stop rendering the whole page using the transparency blend space. The selection highlighting colour changes back to its normal shade, and the responsiveness issue is solved.

In other words, both the change in the selection highlighting colour and the responsiveness issue appear to be due to the use of the transparency blend space by InDesign CC to render the page. According to Lars, that behaviour with transparency blend space and changing colours has been present in InDesign since version 2. But I certainly have never noticed it before InDesign CC on my machine with the kind of publications that I work on, so I suspect that Adobe did change something in InDesign CC that now causes the problem to surface in situations where it did not before.

I wouldn’t really care about the colour changes if the problem did not also affect the responsiveness of the application to mouse movements. But the responsiveness issue is very noticeable as far as I am concerned, and I will have to do everything that I can to avoid it. If it involves eliminating the transparency in the linked PSD file, that’s what I’ll do.

In this particular case, the transparency was not needed, as the background colour of the document was white, which was also the background colour of the PSD document involved once it was flattened. But I can easily imagine that I will soon encounter situations where I have no option but keep links to transparent PSD documents. And so that might force me to have to deal with the responsiveness issue.

Based on what Lars is saying, and the subjectivity of something such as responsiveness (it really depends on how fast you work with your mouse), I have little hope that Adobe’s engineers will notice the problem and do something about it. So it’s yet another flaw that one is going to be forced to live with… Sigh.

Thanks to Lars for his feedback!


Adobe InDesign CC: Presence of PSD graphic affects selection colour and responsiveness

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
August 13th, 2013 • 3:38 pm

It’s an inevitability: Every new version of a major software title introduces new bugs. I’ve just encountered one in InDesign CC, and it didn’t take an inordinate amount of sleuthing to identify its source.

The problem surfaced when I started working on a publication designed by a client, which I am expected to translate, with the required adjustments to the layout for the French text. I have been doing this for this particular client for a couple of years now on various publications in the same series, so the files in question were nothing new.

What was new in InDesign CC, however, was that sometimes the application switched from my regular selection highlighting colour (a dark green) to a different shade.

Here’s what my normal selection colour looks like:

InDesignCC-PSDfile0

And here’s what it looked like in some situations:

InDesignCC-PSDfile1

The problem was not purely cosmetic, however. The selection colour was different, but there was also a noticeable degradation in selection highlighting performance. In other words, when I dragged the mouse around to extend or shorten the current selection, there would be a small delay between my movements and the corresponding changes on the screen.

I am someone who works very fast, and this delay was very noticeable to me, making me consistently miss my targets because the screen display was no longer in sync with my mouse movements. It was very irritating.

I started exploring InDesign CC’s settings, to see if there was something about the display performance options that had changed. But I couldn’t find anything obvious. I also quickly noticed that the problem seemed to come and go as I was working on my publication, for no visible reason.

I also noticed that, if I scrolled so that the section of the document with the selection highlighting was off-screen, and then scrolled back to make it visible again, until I released the mouse button the selection colour was as expected:

InDesignCC-PSDfile2

As you can see, when you are scrolling in an InDesign window, the scrolling might be “live”, but the application only draws the content revealed by the scrolling partially, by using a lower-quality version of the text and graphics, without anti-aliasing. The anti-aliasing is only added when you release the mouse button to indicate that the scrolling is done. Here’s a screen shot that better illustrates the trick:

InDesignCC-PSDfile5

(In this screen shot, I am bringing back the right half of the text back into view by scrolling to the right.)

This is presumably done in order to offer better scrolling performance, also it seems like a rather antiquated mechanism to me. (And text and graphics without anti-aliasing sure look ugly — although Adobe’s own anti-aliasing is not the best looking one in the neighbourhood either!)

So this led me to suspect that the problem might have something to do with anti-aliasing. But turning anti-aliasing off altogether didn’t fix the problem — somewhat to my relief, since having to work with anti-aliasing would definitely have hurt my eyes.

I was back to square one. Then, while I continued working on my publication, I noticed that the problem only seemed to affect certain pages in the publication. So it was not randomly intermittent. It was intermittent because there was something on some pages that caused the problem to occur.

I ended up narrowing it down by creating a copy of the publication and deleting a bunch of stuff. Within a few minutes, I was able to establish that the problem was most definitely caused by the presence of a link to a Photoshop document (a “.psd” file) on the page. As soon as I deleted the link, the selection highlighting colour reverted back to the expected shade, and the normal selection highlighting responsiveness was back. As soon as the link to the Photoshop file was restored, the problem reappeared.

I was able to reproduce this in a blank document with a link to another Photoshop file, so it does not seem to be linked to a particular Photoshop file or to other aspects of the publication.

So here we are… A new bug to add to the list. For what it’s worth, I have reported it via this page.


Fix for kernel panics on Mac Pro with multiple GeForce cards: ATI Radeon HD 5770

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
August 1st, 2013 • 9:08 am

In the summer of 2012, Apple started seeding early builds of the OS X 10.8.2 update. As a member of the AppleSeed program, I was able to test these early builds. I quickly noticed (as one would) that they introduced a serious new bug that caused frequent kernel panics on my Mac Pro, up to several times a day. I of course immediately filed a bug report on these kernel panics.

In September 2012, the final version of the OS X 10.8.2 update came out, and the kernel panics were still there. Around the same time, Apple sent me a response to my bug report indicating that the problem was a “known issue” and closing my bug report as a “duplicate”. Meanwhile, a thread discussing the issue appeared on the Apple forums, and it quickly became apparent that the problem could be narrowed down to people running Mac Pro computers with multiple GeForce video cards driving multiple monitors, and involved a few kernel extension files that were updated in OS X 10.8.2.

In October 2012, Apple released an update called OS X 10.8.2 Supplemental Update, which updated one of the kernel extensions involved. Sadly, it quickly became apparent that the supplemental update did not fix the kernel panics.

In late 2012, Apple started seeding early builds of the OS X 10.8.3 update. It included updated versions of all three kernel extensions involved in the kernel panics. The update did appear to have an impact on the frequency of the kernel panics, at least on my machine. But it failed to eliminate them completely.

In March 2013, the final version of OS X 10.8.3 came out. Again, while it included updated versions of all three kernel extensions involved in the kernel panics, it failed to completely eliminate the kernel panics.

Meanwhile, Mac Pro users managed to identify various ways of dealing with the kernel panics. I myself provided a hack that offered temporary relief, at least for some people. But it was not a fix.

I purchased an expensive Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter, which enabled me to connect both of my Apple Cinema 30-inch displays to the same GeForce video card and stop using the second card. This eliminated the kernel panics altogether, but it also had a noticeable impact on video performance and general system responsiveness, undoubtedly due to the fact that my system now only had half as much VRAM and video card processing power available.

Some people in the Apple Discussions thread also mentioned that replacing one of the GeForce video cards with an ATI Radeon HD 5770 appeared to provide a permanent fix for the problem.

Personally, I went back to using my two GeForce cards when Apple started seeding OS X 10.8.3, which enabled me to continue to monitor the situation, but of course also meant that I continued to experience the kernel panics, albeit less frequently. This remained true with the final OS X 10.8.3 update, and with early builds of the OS X 10.8.4 update.

In June 2013, Apple released the final version of OS X 10.8.4, and it still did not fix the kernel panics. As I indicated at the time, it looked like Apple was working on the problem, especially since “graphics drivers” was listed as a focus area during the testing of early builds of the update. But the fact remained that the kernel panics were still there in the final version of OS X 10.8.4.

In spite of my willingness to voluntarily endure some level of computing hardship in the name of helping Apple improve its products, I finally decided that I had had enough, and purchased the ATI Radeon HD 5770 upgrade kit myself.

I installed it in early July, and I can now confirm, one month later, that it is indeed a permanent workaround for the problem. (I am reluctant to call it a “fix” myself, because the problem might be still there on the software side of things. But the upgraded hardware prevents OS X from encountering the software problem in the first place, so it’s as good as a fix.) I have not had a single kernel panic since installing the video card.

I can also confirm that installing the Radeon card is fairly straightforward and, for those (like me) sensitive to noise issues, I can also confirm that, even though the card is bulkier and more powerful and requires its own power supply, it has no substantial impact on the overall sound level produced by the Mac Pro. (Sound is a very subjective thing, and there are multiple factors involved. In the summer, for example, when it gets really hot, there is definitely more fan noise coming from my Mac Pro. But I don’t believe the situation is any different from what it was with the two GeForce cards.) Also, while the Radeon 5770 upgrade is listed for “Mac Pro (Mid 2010)”, it works just fine in my 2009 Mac Pro.

Of course, the card has double the VRAM of the GeForce and more processing power, so there is also a little bit of a boost performance-wise. But it’s the kind of small boost you very quickly get used to, and I don’t think I would say that it provides a significant improvement over driving the two Apple Cinema displays with two GeForce cards. It certainly does not appear to be worth purchasing if you are not having kernel panics to begin with.

The bottom line here is that Apple has failed Mac Pro users. While I cannot verify that the bug is still there in 10.8.5 (Apple has been releasing early builds for a while now), I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that it still is. How Apple can justify “knowing” about such a serious issue and not doing anything about it for several months or, indeed, nearly a year now, I just do not know.

As I said before, the cynical in me cannot help but wonder whether Apple is not just taking advantage of the fact that Mac Pro users (especially those with multiple monitors) tend to have more disposable income and don’t mind spending several hundred dollars to work around a problem created by the company in the first place. I know that, personally, being able to do my computing in an environment free of kernel panics is definitely worth the nearly $500 that I have now spent on this problem (not to mention the countless hours spent testing, bug reporting, and simply rebooting and restoring my work environment after crashes).

But it’s definitely not right, and Mac Pro users have every reason to be pissed off with Apple right now. (I am past that stage, but that’s mostly because I have taken steps to work around the problem and I have other important issues to worry about in my life these days.) Apple has let us down big time, and while there are still reasons to be excited about the new Mac Pro announced earlier this year, it will take more than a little effort on Apple’s part to repair its relationship with those affected by this very serious and (as yet?) unaddressed issue.