Archive for July, 2008

Random green pixels on my Mac display

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

This is most strange. In recent weeks I’ve started seeing individual green pixels randomly appear on my iMac screen:

My first thought was that I had some stuck pixels on my display. But now I don’t think so.

For one thing, if there was a physical problem with the display, I wouldn’t be able to screen-grab the green pixels (as shown above). Also, they appear fairly randomly on the screen; they’re not in the same position each time (though they seem to cluster around the upper portion of the screen).

The pixels only appear when the content “underneath” them is stationary. For example, if I drag an image window around in Photoshop then there are no green pixels, but when I stop dragging then one or two green pixels appear in the image window after around half a second.

It seems to only happen when the content on the screen is dark-ish – for example, they’re very noticeable when opening Front Row – but that might just be because they’re light green.

Also I’ve just done some testing, and the pixels only appear when the display is in “Millions” colour mode. When I switch to “Thousands” colour mode the pixels don’t appear.

Frankly, I’m stumped. If it’s not a display issue, is it a problem with the graphics chip? But then again, I only noticed the problem since upgrading to Leopard a few months ago. Graphics driver problem? Some sort of issue within Leopard? It sounds vaguely similar to the problem in this Apple discussion thread – which would indicate dodgy VRAM – but unfortunately there’s no example screenshot to compare with.

What’s more, the problem seems to be getting worse by the week, with more and more pixels appearing, and – ooh – I’ve just noticed my first ever blue pixel.

Anyone ever seen anything like this? My graphics card is an ATI Radeon X1600. Is my Mac slowly dying? Heeeeelp! :(

How to get Dashboard widgets on your desktop

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

The Mac’s Dashboard is a great idea: a separate work area where you can store mini-applications called widgets that can do all sorts of wonderful things, from telling you the current weather, news and stock prices through to giving you calculators, translation tools and games.

On the whole, it’s nice to have those widgets hidden away on the Dashboard. You can bring them up instantly with F12 (F4 on newer keyboards), and dismiss them all just as easily.

However, sometimes it’s useful to have a widget on your desktop, where you can keep an eye on it. Examples include calculators, clocks, and anything that you need to look at while you’re working. By default, the Mac doesn’t let you put widgets on the desktop, but there are a couple of ways you can work around this.

Free those widgets

One trick is to switch Dashboard into developer mode – the mode that widget developers use to create their widgets. To do this, open a Terminal window (Applications > Utilities > Terminal) and type (all on one line):

defaults write com.apple.dashboard devmode YES && killall Dock

… then press Return. Your dock should disappear and reappear. Now hit F12 (F4 on newer keyboards) to bring up the Dashboard. To drag a widget onto your desktop, start dragging it in the Dashboard, then hit F12/F4 while dragging to dismiss the Dashboard. Now position the widget on your desktop and release the mouse button. Here’s a BBC Radio widget on my desktop:

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The Mac clones go on… and on… and on…

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Renegade Mac cloner Psystar is in the news again, with reports that Apple is finally suing their ass – and, what’s more, they want Psystar to recall all the “Open Computers” they sold, thereby reversing any pollution of the pristine Macosphere by their horrid clones. Apple argues that “as a direct and proximate result of Psystar’s infringing conduct, Apple has suffered and will continue to suffer lost sales and profits in an amount… to be proven at trial.” Good luck defending against that, boys.

But as Apple knocks Psystar down, up springs another cloner. An outfit called Open Tech – tagline: “It’s good to be open” – is flogging a range of PCs that can run any operating system under the sun, including, they claim, Mac OS X Leopard. Cunningly, they don’t preinstall Leopard – Psystar did, which no doubt was a red rag to Apple’s bull – but they certainly tell you how to.

Cloning of Apple computers is by no means a new thing. In fact, the Apple ][ was cloned way back in the 1980s. The most popular of these clones was the VTech Laser 128 (gotta love computer names in those days). Personally, though, I like the Agat best – a Russian-built clone with rugged, angular casing to endure those harsh Siberian winters. Just look at that baby!

Since that time, the Mac has frequently been cloned – legally or illegally – both through software emulation and through out-and-out hardware clones. Psystar and Open Tech are just the latest in the cloning saga.

Where’s the money?

Presumably there’s some sort of market for Mac clones, otherwise these cloners wouldn’t keep springing up. But my question is: Who buys them? Speaking as an iMac owner, I wouldn’t touch one of these with a 10-foot pole; one of the main reasons I switched from Linux to Mac was to get decent, reliable, compact, nice-looking hardware that doesn’t sound like a Hoover on heat when it’s switched on. But maybe that’s just me.

Assuming I’m a typical Mac user, that leaves Windows and Linux users (or folks who’ve never used a computer). I can sort of see how a clone would be desirable for these people – they’ve heard that Macs are nice and they’d like to try “switching”, but they don’t want to fork out for posh Apple hardware, no matter how sleek it looks. Of course, they buy one of these clones, it looks ugly, makes as much fan noise as their PC does, OS X crashes all the time, software updates don’t work, and the support is terrible. So they think this Mac thing’s overrated and rush back to Windows or Linux, never to return. What’s more, Apple loses a Mac sale in the process (and it makes most of its money from hardware).

No wonder Apple’s pissed off with these cloners. But considering how easy Macs are to clone these days, I can’t see the cloners giving up any time soon. I’d imagine Apple’s legal team is going to be very busy in the coming years. Is Apple starting to regret its move to Intel, I wonder?

Budget Mac web design software: FTP apps

Monday, July 21st, 2008

So you’ve designed and built your website using Mac apps that don’t cost a small fortune. How can you upload your site on a budget?

In this post, the last of my 3-part series on cheap (or free) Mac web design apps, I’ll be exploring various affordable ways to upload your site to your web server.

Cyberduck

Most web servers allow you to upload your website via FTP (File Transfer Protocol). To do this, you need an FTP program of some sort running on your Mac. One of the nicest Mac FTP apps, Cyberduck, also happens to be free and open source. It supports FTP and SFTP (Secure FTP), as well as FTP/TLS (another secure way of uploading) and WebDAV, which is another protocol for uploading and managing files on a Web server. It even supports Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service), which is a data storage system for developers to use. Not bad for a free app!

Cyberduck’s interface is simple and elegant, if a little quirky. For example, it doesn’t have the standard two-pane approach of many other FTP apps such as Transmit. Rather than having one pane for your local files and another for files on the server, you just see the files on the server in the Cyberduck window. To upload and download files, you drag them directly from or to a Finder window. It’s OK once you get used to it, and saves on window space within Cyberduck, though sometimes things get tricky if Cyberduck’s buried under lots of windows.

It’s easy to bookmark FTP sites with Cyberduck so you return to the exact folder next time, and the app also features a decent Synchronize feature that you can use to keep a local and remote website in sync. Other niceties include support for Leopard’s Quick Look to preview files, and the ability to rename a file as you’re downloading it. (more…)

Budget Mac web design software: Page editors

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

In this short series of posts I’m looking at Mac software that lets you build a decent website without costing the earth. I’ve already covered image editors; in this post I delve into the murky and varied world of web page editing apps.

When it comes to web page editors, Adobe once again rules the posh end of the market with Dreamweaver ($400), which is great for both visual- and text-based page editing. So what else is available?

Web page editing software seems to me to fall into three broad categories these days:

  • Text-based page editors. With these editors you essentially work with the raw HTML and CSS code. The editor may have some sort of preview facility so you can view your page visually as you go, but all the editing is done in text mode. Examples include Coda, TextWrangler, and practically any text editor you can imagine!
  • WYSIWYG editors. These let you work with your web pages visually, much like using a word processor. You can enter and format text, and drag images and other media into the page. Under the hood, though, you’re still working with an HTML page, and can usually go in and edit the raw HTML if you need to. Examples include Dreamweaver, KompoZer and Amaya.
  • Template-based page creators. These are a relatively new breed of web-building apps. Rather than editing HTML pages, you build your pages using templates built into the app, then publish, or export, your finished site as HTML, CSS and images. It’s usually not possible to flip to a text editing mode and edit your HTML page in its entirety. Examples include iWeb, RapidWeaver and Sandvox.

Let’s take a look at some example Mac apps in each category.

Text-based editors

Coda

Panic’s Coda ($80) is a powerful text-based HTML and CSS editor that also features a file uploader. The idea of Coda is to have all the tools you need to build web pages – a text editor, a CSS inspector, a preview mode, and an FTP/SFTP/WebDAV uploader – all in one handy package. To this end, Coda does a fantastic job; it’s intuitive, easy to use, looks great, and really speeds up the website building process.

I particularly like the Sites feature that records everything about the current site you’re editing – open windows, your position in each file, and the connection to the FTP server – in a single, pretty-looking page icon. Double-click the icon in Sites, and you’re back to working on your site, exactly where you left off. Other really nice touches include a built-in terminal window for those times when you simply have to drop to a shell, and the built-in – and very nice-looking – reference books for HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP. Highly recommended. (more…)

Budget Mac web design software: Image editors

Monday, July 14th, 2008

The Mac is the web builder’s weapon of choice – at least, it is among the web designers I know – and practically all pro web design software is available on the Mac as well as Windows. But what about those of us who don’t want to fork out thousands of dollars to build websites with our Macs? In this series of posts I’ll explore how to create great websites on the Mac using low-cost – and in some cases, free – applications.

This first post takes a look at creating your website’s graphics.

Photoshop is, of course, the granddaddy of image editors, and it’s well suited to designing websites. However, it does come with a hefty $650 price tag for the basic version. There’s also Fireworks, which was designed as a web image editor from the ground up, and is priced at a more affordable $300.

If you’re a pro then you can afford these prices, but they’re a bit steep for the average web designer on a budget. So what other options are there?

Photoshop Elements

Photoshop Elements is Adobe’s cut-down version of Photoshop aimed at hobbyist photographers, and it has a mini-me price of $90 to match. Elements on the Mac lagged behind the Windows version for a while, but Adobe recently released Elements 6 for the Mac, bringing it into line with the Windows version.

On the whole, Elements includes most of the important Photoshop features that you want for web design, such as a fully-featured Save for Web command and limited layer styles. One notable omission is layer masks, but you can cheat and use a Levels adjustment layer to get a layer mask if you need to. It also doesn’t support editable layer groups or guides, so if you open a Photoshop file containing these features then there’s not a lot you can do with them.

You can download a trial version from the above link (but beware, it’s a monster download at 1.27GB). (more…)

Book review: Inside Steve’s Brain

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Inside Steve’s Brain is the third book about Apple written by Leander Kahney, the managing editor of Wired News and head honcho of one of my favourite blogs: the well-known Cult of Mac blog. His two other books are The Cult of Mac and The Cult of iPod.

I was intrigued by the title of this book, so I picked up a copy. (I haven’t read Kahney’s previous two books.)

While the book’s title is obviously an exaggeration – Kahney hasn’t been at Steve Jobs’s head with a scalpel, or stuck him on a psychiatrist’s couch – it does offer some insights into how Jobs might think about product design, marketing techniques and the user experience. It also offers a decent-enough potted history of Apple and Jobs’s involvement with it over the last 30 years (though there are other books out there that do a much more thorough job of this).

Fascinating facts

Some of the interesting things I learned from reading this book:

  • When Jobs returned to Apple, he cut the product line from around 40 products to just 4 core products – 2 laptops, 2 desktops – a move that undoubtedly saved Apple from going under.
  • He hates having multiple windows open. (This makes me laugh, since the zillions of windows you get with many Mac apps was one of the things that put me off Macs initially – yet now I love the multi-window approach.)
  • One Apple store can make as much as 6 other stores in the same mall combined; they’re “insanely profitable”. (Which reminds me, I really must get off my backside and check out the new Sydney store this week.)
  • Jobs understands what design’s really all about. “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course … it’s really how it works.
  • Apple is so secretive that no single department sees the whole product, and even the head of marketing can’t tell his family about the latest iPod until after it’s launched.
  • Jobs got his family involved in a constant 2-week debate over which washing machine to buy (actually I do this as well – I’m terrible).

One good thing about the book is that is looks at both sides of Jobs and his career. Yes, he’s done a lot of things right, but he’s also made some big mistakes like the G4 Cube, which sold poorly because he misread the market. And he seems to have an irksome habit of screaming at an employee for having a bad idea, then turning round the next day and saying it’s a great idea. (more…)

Can we trust Time Machine?

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

One of the much-heralded new features of Mac OS X Leopard is, of course, the Time Machine backup system. Its key selling point – apart from the Dr Who-style restore screen – is the fact that it’s a “no-click” backup solution; you just plug in an external backup drive, and Time Machine gets on with the job of backing up automatically.

This is all nice and reassuring – or is it? Well, not when you get errors like these appearing every couple of weeks:

I’ve seen the Unable to complete backup error on both our iMacs over the last few weeks. It’s a fairly common occurrence. I tried the trick of repartitioning using GUID rather than MBR on my Mac, which certainly reduced the errors, though I still get them.

It looks like there are quite a few other Mac users experiencing this error, too.

And what’s with that second error? The backup needs 13.8 GB, but only 20.3 GB are available? Looks like someone at Apple needs to go back to maths classes. How can I trust a backup system that can’t subtract two numbers?

Frankly I’m tempted to go back to using rsync for my backups until Apple makes Time Machine more stable. At least I know rsync works!

Malware: Coming soon to a Mac near you?

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

Nothing is guaranteed to bring the smug Mac user brigade out in force like a discussion on viruses and trojans. “Oh, we don’t get those – we use Macs!” they proudly announce. And they have a point; Mac malware is pretty thin on the ground right now. Indeed, the first virus to specifically attack Mac OS X didn’t come out until 2006 – five years after Mac OS X was launched.

Well the time for such smugness may be coming to an end. In the past few weeks we’ve had a published root escalation vulnerability, not to mention a Mac-targeted trojan in the wild that takes advantage of said vulnerability, and is evil enough to wipe the smile off even the smuggest Mac user’s face. Furthermore, Mac hackers have produced a tool to make future production of similar trojans almost trivially simple.

Maybe we’re seeing an increase in Mac malware now because Macs are getting more popular, with 80% of businesses allegedly now using them. More Macs make for a bigger, juicier target.

But Macs are secure – aren’t they?

Yes, Macs are built on UNIX, and yes, UNIX is generally pretty secure and battle-tested. But UNIX and Linux servers are compromised every day. Maybe not as much as Windows machines, but there are plenty of worms and rootkits out there for Linux. If malware authors start targeting the Mac in earnest, it’s unlikely that Mac users will get off that lightly. We can only hope that Apple starts tightening up security in Snow Leopard, as Dino Dai Zovi suggests.

Opening files from a Terminal window

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Here are some quick tips that are handy if you work in a Terminal window a lot (I know I do!). They show various ways to open files and folders right from the command line.

Opening a file

You can open a file using its associated application by typing:

open filename

For example, opening an image file with open usually displays it in Preview, while opening an HTML file displays it in your default Web browser.

Wildcards are allowed, so you can open all PNG files in the current folder with:

open *.png

You can also specify the application to use when opening the file by using the -a option:

open -a /Applications/Preview.app myimage.png

If you want to edit the file in TextEdit, use:

open -e filename

You can even open URLs:

open http://mac.elated.com/

Opening a folder

This trick also works on folders, in which case the folder opens as a new Finder window:

open foldername

For example, you can open the current folder in the Finder with:

open .

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