Goodbye Evernote, you doublespeak snake

I got the note recently from Evernote, much like all my friends, that starts:

At Evernote, we are committed not only to making you as productive as you can be, but also to running our business in as transparent a way as possible. We’re making a change to our Basic service, and it’s important that you know about it.

They go on to drop the bombshell that they’re raising prices on the paid plans, changing feature allocation, and most egregiously, putting new limitations on the Basic (free) accounts. Limiting free users to only having two devices is a serious attack on all those who’ve been working under the assumption that we should continue to invest our memories, data and daily workflow into their platform with the knowledge that we’d always be able to use it everywhere we were.

My PM Perspective

It’s obvious that Evernote’s VCs are putting the screws to them – either that “growth in user signups” is no longer what they’re after, but top-line growth in revenue – or that (more likely) Evernote’s growth in new users is fast waning (the market is now matured), and they need to start farming those millions of naïve suckers for increased revenue.

Either way, the revenue play couldn’t be more obvious. Make it nearly laughably inconvenient for most of their users to use, and at the same time boost the pricing on their subscription plans. Dangerous move kids.

In one way I have hand it to the Product Manager(s) who came up with this scheme – this is the boldest move they could make to convert free users over. I have to believe that they looked at their user base’s # of connected devices before deciding that “2” would be the magic tipping point (i.e. most users have at least three frequently-used devices to use Evernote).

It’s unfortunate that they had to rush the subscription price increase at the same time, however; had they waited another 6 months to let the hordes rush over to their more affordable plans, and *then* raised prices, they might not have caught our ire quite so widely.

Here’s a more winning alternative: convert me to one of the existing paid subscriptions, let me get used to the new normal, settle in to my old habits, let my addiction to the convenience of Evernote at these lower prices take hold again, and *then* ask for a little more money (see Netflix’s recent move to boost streaming prices by a couple of dollars, without changing features *or* the DVD subscription pricing).

I’m gladly giving Netflix the extra dollars, as I currently feel *happy* and agreeable to them, even though I don’t particularly feel like they should need more money for an increasingly-crappy catalogue of non-Netflix movies (which is precisely why I hang on to the DVD subscription).

Had they earned my trust either up to now or through these transitions, I suspect I’d be singing their praises, not migrating out wholesale.

Value Delivery Issues

The obvious value gap – for me – is in what I get back for the price at each subscription level.  At the Plus tier ($34.99/year), there isn’t one feature that I’ve ever actually needed – except the multi-device access (which just pisses me off).  At the Premium tier ($64.99/year), the only feature I would enjoy is the Business Card scanning feature – and as mentioned below, I have learned to mistrust it.

Perhaps I’m an outlier in feeling burned by Evernote, but I sincerely doubt it: there’s been an undercurrent of discontent with Evernote’s products for years:

  • Hello/Food starved out, features added then removed, unceremoniously dumped, and their rich content templates never migrated to Evernote.
  • Business Card scanning feature totally screwy – added to Hello with a “one-year free” promo then silently removed; added to Scannable with another “one-year free” promo then also silently removed from there; template for the scanned data changed at least once that I noticed, and made increasingly less useful *and* less searchable throughout my limited use of it. NOTE: I’ve never had any of these changes communicated to me through their apps, so I don’t know what noob Product/Community Manager thinks they are smoking when they say “running the business in as transparent a way as possible”. I’ve learned not to believe that for a second.
  • Many obvious features requested repeatedly with no acknowledgement let alone commitment (see the forums for a good laugh)
  • An “editor” feature that’s been abysmally poorly written, such that pasting content from Evernote notes is laughably painful for those using that content elsewhere like WordPress
  • A web-based interface that’s tolerable for read-only but horrific for writing – even in Chrome, it can’t seem to auto-save without creating multiple conflicting copies of the same note

And outlier or not, within 24 hours I went out to find the tools to migrate my eight years worth of notes over to OneNote. I’d looked into this a few times over the years, hearing good things Windows types said about OneNote, but never quite believed that it had outgrown its wart-on-the-ass-end-of-Office roots. Given the obvious migration incentive though, I’m willing to give it a try.

OneNote After A Week

So far OneNote has been performant and useable:

  • the migration tool seemed to bring over all the content, though (because of Evernote’s screwy CDATA embedded-HTML formatting) the layout of the content is loose and weirdly-fonted.
  • The difference between Notebooks/embedded notebooks and Notebooks/sections took me a bit (and two tries with the migration so that I got an acceptable arrangement of Tagged content), but otherwise so far so good.
  • I have no evidence that I’ve lost any data, or had any sync conflicts arise. (Unlike Evernote in app or on web)
  • The in-app editor is clean and hasn’t done anything I didn’t want it to do.

Bonus: the web editing experience is seamless.

Tip: if you want full editing power in Windows, use the free Desktop client, not the default “Trusted App” (the Win10/Metro/tablet-oriented app).

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Useable Security tales, part the 23rd: TouchID spoof still smells in the realm of the fantastic

CSI Fingerprint Investigation KitSaw the latest video proof of the possibility of spoofing the iPhone 5S TouchID sensor with a fingerprint replica ‘recovered’ from the iPhone.  Yes, the “proof” is in the video, and congrats to the CCC who have demonstrated their mastery of fingerprint recovery over the decades.  But I think we should remember to think critically about this laboratory demonstration, and what it does and doesn’t demonstrate.  I’m going to focus simply on the first step, the capture of a viable fingerprint from the phone itself.

In a word, trivial – under what real-world (not Hollywood) scenario will you be finding such a (a) clean phone (b) just logged in via passcode and (c) capture the phone in a state where that fingerprint hasn’t been smudged?

I don’t know about you, but in my experience this is quite a unique usage model:

(a)    Take a clean iPhone screen (no previous smudges, swipes or smears on the screen to muddy up the about-to-be-captured fingerprint)

(b)   Login via passcode on a 5S where TouchID has already been enrolled (i.e. this phone hasn’t been used in 48 hours, or it’s only *just* been rebooted and never unlocked)

(c)    Grab the phone *immediately* afterwards (before the user has a chance to touch, swipe and pinch the crap out of that “perfect” fingerprint image)

(d)   Make sure you don’t touch the screen before you capture a hi-res scan of the fingerprint image (i.e. don’t grab it too heavily as a running thief might, and definitely don’t throw it in a bag or pocket as you run away)

When will I be unlocking my 5S with a passcode?  Statistically speaking, most likely in one of the two locations where I use it most: at home, or at work.  Is it likely a thief is waiting behind the credenza for me there?  With an adult diaper and a bag of snacks (as he waits for that perfect moment to bonk me on the head)?

I’m also pretty likely to continue to use the phone – I don’t know too many people who unlock the phone and then leave it aside.  So I’m very likely to pinch, swipe and tap all over that screen, given all the apps locations and usage models I and many users have.

Finally are we relying on a threat scenario where the thief happens to have a forensic evidence-quality bag to drop the phone into…and is he wearing rubber gloves?  If Benson, Stabler or Grissom wanted to grab my phone, I’m pretty sure they’ve got other ways to get at the secrets that I happen to have stored on my phone.

Are we really accepting that this is a realistic enough scenario to warrant all the fear against a significant advancement in consumer security technologies?  Yes the industry can do better, but I hope we’re not letting perfect be the enemy of good – I’d hate to see anyone’s next business ventures all be judged on that model (and still derive the massive profits we’re all in search of).

Good sharp leftie-friendly capacitive stylus for iPad

Finally dove into the most awesome right-brain-enabling technology, an iPad 3. I want to use this to help me quickly dash off sketches and mockups of web page designs, business process workflows and the kinds of stuff I’d whip out on a whiteboard.

I’m addicted to whiteboards; whenever I’m in a meeting with folks at work I’ll inevitably go up to the whiteboard and start sketching out thoughts. Sometimes I’m just organizing the random ideas that people (including me) are spouting off; other times I’m trying to express a thought that just isn’t coming through clearly from my sometimes-addled brain-mouth interaction. (I have a love-hate relationship with the way my brain makes me feel like brilliant ideas are a lottery – they’ll sound amazing in my head, but it’s a crapshoot whether they’ll come out of my mouth – or my hands – in any recognizable form.)

So there’s two cases when the ubiquitous whiteboard isn’t nearly ubiquitous: working with someone as-hoc (e.g. meeting in the cafeteria), and working with someone who’s a state or country out of reach from me.

When I can’t get up to my usual tricks with the totally-free-of-expectations whiteboard markers, I seem to have an aversion to capturing stuff in my little paper notebook. Well, it’s a learned aversion – after years of carrying this little memory crutch around, I’ve noticed that it’s the intellectual equivalent of the Roach Motel: lots of ideas go in, very few of them escape the gravity well back out into the public sphere.

What’s Your Point, Mike?

Sorry, sometimes I get on a confessional roll. (Recovering catholic tendencies.)

So I’ve been trying out a bunch of note-taking, sketching and mockup tools on my shiny New iPad. I find it’s pretty easy to get started, but I quickly get bogged down by the lack of control I feel over my finger. (weirdly, I don’t get hung up on what my whole hand – in control of a whiteboard marker – can or can’t do.)

I’ve also tried my partner’s stylus. It’s a pretty smooth experience, though I can see what people mean about how the thing can get a bit “grippy” when it starts to wear. Worse though for me is that it feels like I’m not able to precisely target the pen “tip” – the tip is rounded, fat – seems like I’m drawing with my fingertip, not a pencil.

Not only does it feel like I can’t quite get the line to go where I think the stylus is touching down, but the damned stylus itself is blocking my view of what I’m drawing. I’m sure it’s the same experience as others watching me writing something on a whiteboard (as I’m left-handed, more on that later).

(Or now.) One of my fears of getting a really precise stylus is that it’ll work really poorly for me, a leftie. (Both politically and in manipulating a writing implement.) One of the problems that all lefties know too well is that we (at lesdt those who scribe in left-to-right languages) have to push the writing implement across the piece of paper – whereas you damned righties get to drag across the page. The really sharp precise pens that just lightly scritch the paper for a rightie act more like a dagger or digging tool when we southpaws are trying to force the little f*cker across the page.

So: I’m keeping my eyes peeled for good well-worn recommendations for stylii:
– Warren Ellis (ritual abuser of technology) happened to FAQ-ate his current tech complement here : http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=13843 and happened to mention the Boxwave stylus for his iPad. I’m a huge fan of Warren, and I know that what he talks about using are things that stand up to his brand of torture – he brooks no crap. However, looking over their entire line of stylii, I can’t help but think they’re all going to be fat, obtuse and opaque.
– google search led to the Just-Mobile Alu-Pen http://www.amazon.com/review/RAHGTD4T5XQ1P/ref=cm_cr_dp_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0042U9AT6 (rave) and http://www.amazon.com/review/R1QD3A6WP6BL66/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0042U9AT6 (just a toy)
– a “clear sharp tip”stylus comes from DAGI. Their web site (http://www.dagi.com.tw/) is really no help, but they sure have an array of different models that might all be good, if only I could tell what the differences are. (Why are there like eight or 10 different models, all mentioning Apple products? Do some work better than others, or can theses dudes just not make up their minds?). Bottom line of reading all the reviews that are on Amazon: sounds like it works great until it breaks (which is early and often).
– another hit led to this recent Kickstarter star, the Jot Pro http://adonit.net/product/jot/ with a clear disk and a ridiculously fine tip. Looks good on paper – ideal for my desires really – but I figure it’d be irritating in practice to always have to “flatten” the disk each time you lift and re-use the pen. Which bears out from this thread I found here (which gravitates to IFaraday products) http://www.ipadforums.net/ipad-accessories/44578-jot-stylus-6.html
– iFaraday review here: http://www.macworld.com/article/1165546/ifaraday_fabric_styluses_for_ios_devices_are_simple_but_sturdy.html
– the last consideration is a personal recommendation I got, for the Bamboo Stylus http://www.amazon.com/Bamboo-Stylus-for-iPad-CS100K/product-reviews/B004VM0SE6/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop/185-4762383-9477650?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#RXZ21W2ZX6GGR. The reviews are good (for the mashable-rubber-tipped stylii), but still not stellar.

I’m inclined towards the iFaraday RXII or the Bamboo – sounds like the Jot is terribly precise but damned irritating when you write non-cursive like me and raise the pen a lot while writing.

As for the leftie angle:
– page after page of google results keep repeating the same marketing BS from Griffin – “great for left or right-handed users”. Which just means (a) they did nothing special to help lefties and (b) it’s unlikely they talked to any lefties in the first place. (Damned right-handed world.)
– anytime someone says “designed for” or ” developed for”, that’s telegraphing to me that the writer is right-handed and just parroting the marketing drivel. (Especially clear if they qualify with “basically…”)
– first-person testimonials from lefties using iPad with a stylus don’t tend to talk about this problem, even though I noticed it pretty much instantly. All the talk is about how many apps assume their “wrist detection” only think about right-handed users – or amazement about the apps that finally figured out how to mirror the setting for lefties. Lots of chatter about apps such as http://www.ipadforums.net/ipad-apps/55326-lefty-note-taking.html
– for some good old-fashioned anecdotal evidence (I.e. the kind I was looking for), this positive review of the Bamboo from Wacom makes specific mention of the “drag” non-issue – but it looks like the author is driving their writing while holding the stylus straight up, which avoids the problem entirely http://www.themacuniverse.com/2011/07/02/review-wacom-bamboo-stylus-for-ipad/
– same question asked here but not well answered: http://www.thriveforums.org/forum/toshiba-thrive-accessories/4514-thrive-capacitive-stylus-2.html

Bottom line, I think I’ll order both the Bamboo and the iFaraday – I want this iPad to replace all my other note-taking and sketching carry-arounds, so I better get the maximum satisfaction out of my input. Trying to save $30 now after spending $600 on the damned iPad would be pretty short-sighted.

And I’m going to pray that the combination of keeping my wrist off the screen and the supposed “smooth glide” of these devices is enough to counteract the usual “digging into the medium” problem of a leftie who usually pushes the writing implement into paper like an amateur pool player tearing into the felt on a pool table.

Got a new iPhone 4S? Worried about how to "maximize the battery"? Me too

Just got the iPhone 4S today, and before I even *powered it up*, I made a point of digging around the Interwebs to find out whether I should (a) drain the battery & fully charge it a few times (to ‘condition’ it), or (b) charge it as much and as frequently as I can.  I’ve literally heard both urban legends over the years, and even though I keep buying Li-ion battery’d devices, I can simply never keep it straight (or feel confident that the story is true and consistent).

Today’s research yielded a couple of great links, and while I’m sure this isn’t 100% definitive (I didn’t even go through the 2nd page of Google results), it’s compelling enough for me:

http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=943276

Preparing new lithium-ion for use

Unlike nickel and lead-based batteries, a new lithium-ion pack does not need cycling through charging and discharging. Priming will make little difference because the maximum capacity of lithium-ion is available right from the beginning. Neither does a full discharge improve the capacity of a faded pack. However, a full discharge/charge will reset the digital circuit of a ‘smart’ battery to improve the state-of-charge estimation

http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/how_to_prolong_lithium_based_batteries

Similar to a mechanical device that wears out faster with heavy use, so also does the depth of discharge (DoD) determine the cycle count. The smaller the depth of discharge, the longer the battery will last. If at all possible, avoid frequent full discharges and charge more often between uses. If full discharges cannot be avoided, try utilizing a larger battery. Partial discharge on Li-ion is fine; there is no memory and the battery does not need periodic full discharge cycles other than to calibrate the fuel gauge on a smart battery.

A partial discharge reduces stress and prolongs battery life. Elevated temperature and high currents also affect cycle life.

Somehow the battery lasts *longer* and retains a *greater* maximum charge if you fully discharge it as *little* as possible.  “Topping it off” as much as possible is the best way to keep it from running down.

Further, these articles made it clear to me that there’s no such thing as “conditioning” a Li-ion battery – unlike a car engine, which urban legends make clear should be run at lower speeds for the first XXX miles, the Li-ion battery seems to be as good as it gets when it leaves the factory, and needs no special handling.

Suh-weet – just act like I always have with my previous phone and I’ll be laughing.

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: TV tuners

 

Do I really *need* a tuner?

One of the major hang-ups I had – in making the switch from Windows Media Center to a Mac Mini – was worrying whether I’d be able to plug in enough TV tuners into the Mac Mini to be able to record all the TV I usually watch.

However, after having been *without* an HTPC for almost a year, it’s amazing how little I feel like I *must* get record whatever current-run TV shows are being played.  What with the availability of almost every TV season on Netflix instant watch, or a full season on DVD, or (theoretically) a quick download via bittorrent, there’s almost no sense of urgency left to the act of watching TV, and if we happen to miss it – oh well, I’m sure I’ll be able to get it real soon. I’ve caught up on a year’s worth of The Big Bang Theory just recently, and I’m about to re-orient myself to two years’ worth of Supernatural (so I have the possibility of watching current-run episodes within the next few weeks).

All that said, I can’t quite bring myself to give up my ability to accumulate a “taped” copy of the shows that were broadcast to me, for later viewing when I have more time.  Breaking the cycle of dependence between me and the timeslot the broadcaster decides to air the show is a powerful mental leap to make, and makes me feel less like a prisoner of the networks (and their increasingly hostile attitude towards their audience).  If only to make myself feel like I have a modicum of control over my TV habits, I’ve decided to drop another $200 on an Elgato EyeTV 250 Plus tuner.

Why that brand and model?  Couple of reasons:

  1. My research into Mac-based HTPC’s and Mac-compatible tuners seems to mention the Elgato products more than any other brand.  It feels like what I saw with Hauppauge for Windows Media Center, and if my satisfaction with the Hauppauge products is any indication, the Elgato products should be good.
  2. It’s not just the hardware – apparently the EyeTV software is the best available for recording and managing playback of recordings on the Mac.

Finding all the digital channels available to be recorded with your tuner

If you’re going the OTA route, then this seems like a great way to see what all is available without a prescription (ha – I mean, subscription):

http://www.equinux.com/us/products/tubestick/tuningmap.html

If you’re stuck (like me) with wanting to get the few remaining channels that haven’t gone the full-streaming/Hulu/TV.com type of approach, and you *need* that subscription to bastards like Comcast, then your tuner has one of two uses:

  1. Analog tuner (receiving the analog output from a DTA box), in which case be prepared to buy an “IR blaster” (device that allows your HTPC to direct “change channel” commands to the IR receiver of the DTA box).  This way, you get all the channels to which you’ve subscribed – whether the cable company is encrypting those QAM signals or not.
  2. Digital tuner (receiving whichever unencrypted (aka “clear QAM”) channels your cable company hasn’t yet obfuscated with the 56-bit DES encryption that (so far) is only supportably-decryptable by the DTA and/or full cable box solutions they hook up on your behalf).  This way, you get all the channels your cable company hasn’t yet encrypted – usually including the “extended basic” channels, and probably a few others that might not be high on their list of “must-have” channels.

The EyeTV software that comes with Elgato products includes a feature called “Exhaustive Scan”, which picks up the digital channels that aren’t sent out on the typical frequencies that are publicized by Comcast.  I was able to find about 80% of the non-local channels that I normally watch (and a bunch that I’ll *never* watch, no matter *how* high-def they are).  However it took me most of the afternoon to map those channels out.

Be careful though: I don’t know why, but somehow all the configuration that I did to map those channels went up in smoke the next time I rebooted the Mini. Now maybe the system crashed before shutting down EyeTV – but is this software *really* so fragile that it doesn’t cache these settings as soon as they’re configured?  And make sure that the file that stores these settings doesn’t get wiped out by an errant half-open write operation or something?

 

Future question:

Is there a similar Plex plug-in for EyeTV as is available for Boxee?

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: software & configurations

Now that I’ve done the whole hardware upgrade and full, clean install of Mac OS X 10.6, I have to start all over again (this time with a little practice under my belt) on getting all the stuff assembled for a well-oiled home theatre machine.

Plex, Boxee, EyeTV, VLC, Transmission, Silverlight, MacTheRipper

Lots of software, so little attention span. 🙂

Plex

  • As my chosen media front-end, I intend to do as much as possible from here, and only veer into the other apps I’m using when necessary
  • I choose to install the following apps: Hulu, Apple Movie Trailers, South Park, Netflix, The Daily Show, Pandora, PBS, Picasa Web, Trailer Addict, YouTube

Boxee

  • I hear this is the only way to get full streaming of the CBS TV shows in a 10’ UI experience (rather than fire up Safari/Firefox and click away directly)
  • So I logged into Boxee.tv, downloaded the Mac OS X alpha of Boxee (which is simply yet another XBMC fork/port) and started looking at the “Applications” – Videos > CBS > Full Episodes shows listings for How I Met Your Mother (which I watch) but not for The Big Bang Theory (which I *slavishly* watch)

CBS: Fail.

EyeTV

  • Once I decided to definitely get a tuner (more on that in another blog article), the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard Elgato’s products recommended (not just their tuner, but their pretty great EyeTV software app to manage the tuner) was the clincher
  • The trickiest part was upgrading EyeTV from 3.0.x to 3.2 (which just came out a few days ago).  It turns out that on systems running Mac OS X 10.6, EyeTV 3.0.x won’t even launch – Apple in the infinite wisdom intentionally put a “block” in place so that it won’t start.
  • It turns out there’s an “under the covers” way to bypass such Mac OS X “blocks”, by launching the application’s actual binary file, rather than using the “user friendly shortcut” that is presented in the Applications folder (and which I, like most Mac users, seem to happily use until something prevents us from getting in the easy way).
  • I found an article at Elgato’s site that outlined the process: http://support.elgato.com/index.php?_m=knowledgebase&_a=viewarticle&kbarticleid=3628
  • Once I got EyeTV 3.0.x (I think it was 3.0.3 that shipped with my EyeTV 250 Plus tuner) running, I was able to use the EyeTV “Check for Updates” menu option to get the 3.2 download and be back working like a charm.

VLC Media Player

  • I remembered that VLC was the easiest way to get access to all the significant codecs, and have a nice media player in the background in case any of the rest of ‘em weren’t working out for me.
  • Downloaded, installed, and already confirmed that VLC can play VOB files that were copied directly off a DVD (for backup purposes, naturally – who wants to scratch their only copy of Robot Chicken?)

Transmission BitTorrent client

  • Ever since hearing about PeerGuardian for Windows (a piece of software that prevents your computer from connecting to “blacklisted” IP addresses – e.g. those servers setup by the RIAA, government agencies and others to track what you’re doing with your downloads and other torrent-like activity), I’ve been dreading the conversion over to my Mac Mini
  • Then somehow today, my searches through Lifehacker’s archives for “p2p file sharing ‘mac os x’” turned up an article from 2008 on Transmission – a BitTorrent client for Mac OS X and Linux.
  • It turns out that the friendly and nice folks at Transmission have integrated the PeerGuardian functionality into their app, including automatic downloads of the Bluetack blocklists
  • That’s enough for me – I’ve already got Transmission installed and slurping down some great media for later watching.

Silverlight 3.0 (for Netflix)

  • Silverlight is necessary for playing the Netflix Instant Watch streaming movies, and it doesn’t seem to get installed “in the background” by Plex, Boxee or any of the other media-front-end apps that provide a Netflix wrapper
  • Makes sense now that I think about it, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed by the fact that the Mac software community hasn’t made all this stuff entirely hidden from my relatively novice eyes.

MacTheRipper

Great little app for making backup copies of your DVDs onto a local hard drive.  Essential in this day and age.

Issue: Mac OS X 10.6 intercepts all Apple Remote commands

As of OS X 10.6, the operating system itself intercepts all Apple Remote commands, and cannot be overridden by application-specific configurations (as was apparently the case with Plex and probably others in the past).  Instead, hitting the Menu button on the Apple Remote will always bring up Front Row; hitting the volume buttons will always change the system-wide volume, and other irritating effects (for an HTPC user who’s using third-party HTPC-oriented software) are seen as well.

While there’s no supported, by-design way in OS X to disable this “feature”, there are some known workarounds – which I’ve implemented:

http://forums.plexapp.com/index.php?showtopic=8658

  • edited the /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.RemoteUI.plist file (after making a copy of the file in the same directory, in case I later want to revert back to the original settings)
  • deleted the /System/Library/LoginPlugins/BezelServices.loginPlugin (after making a copy of the file – ibid)

http://www.tech-recipes.com/rx/2754/os_x_edit_file_using_textedit_as_root_superuser/

I had to use this article’s cluefulness to allow me to interactively edit the RemoteUI.plist file using TextEdit.

http://support.apple.com/kb/TA25121

I also got bit by the “blank admin password” problem – wasn’t able to fire up sudo when my current account had a blank password.  So I changed it, did the sudo-enabled edit, and changed the password back.

Next Steps…

Wondering – do I really *need* a TV tuner, to enjoy the world’s best offerings of TV and other media?

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: upgrading hardware, optimizations

 

Replace RAM, Hard drive with beefier options I bought myself

I wanted to have the maximum available ‘headroom’ in this box before I committed a lot of time installing and configuring lots of software (e.g. if I wanted to run software-driven encoding, have multiple big apps running at the same time, or even to run a virtualized instance of Windows whenever I felt the ‘itch’). 

So after reading about what some of the braver souls have done under the hood, I decided that I’d purchase the lowest-end Mac Mini (with the exception of getting the fastest processor, which aren’t upgradeable AFAIK) and then purchase 4 GB of RAM & a 320 GB 7200 RPM SATA drive.

4 GB of RAM (or 8?)

While deciding on a brand of RAM is usually a decision with way too many options, on what should be but sometimes isn’t a commodity purchase, I cheated.  When browsing around Amazon.com for what kinds of prices they had available for Mac Mini’s, I noticed their “what other people purchase with this item” was consistently coming up with one package of Corsair 2 x 2GB DDR3 (PC3-8500) RAM – this one, for (at the time I purchased)

Note: I’ve done as much reading as I could about the new 64-bit capabilities unlocked by Mac OX 10.6 (Snow Leopard), and while there’s promising speculation that the Mac Mini could take 2 x 4GB RAM (i.e. 8GB total), the reality is the price of the 4GB PC3-8500 modules is astronomical compared to 2GB modules.  I’ll keep that in mind for the future, but for now the 4GB is plenty of extra capacity for now, and I can keep the extra couple hundred dollars for something else.

Which Hard Drive?

Over the decades, different hard drive manufacturers have produced drives of higher or lower quality, and I can never keep up with “which manufacturer is the king for each drive size and capacity”.  For this I trundled down to my local PC supply shop with two specifications in hand: it has to be a 2.5” drive (the bigger ‘desktop’ drives won’t fit) and it has to be a 7200 RPM drive (my reading suggests the faster drive speeds make a big difference in a Mac Mini HTPC).

The dude behind the counter was very definitive – according to him, the most reliable and best-performing 2.5” 7200 rpm drive on the market today is from Western Digital (aka the “Scorpio Black” line of drives).

If you’re looking at other brands, and you’d like to know if other Mac Mini owners have been successful upgrading with them, I found a really useful resource that could help: “Mac Drive Upgrades/Compatibility Database” at http://forums.xlr8yourmac.com/drivedb/search.drivedb.lasso

Procedure to Open the Mac and Upgrade the Components

Search Google for “Mac Mini RAM upgrade” and/or “Mac Mini hard drive upgrade” – there are many step-by-step guides available (e.g. this one), and a number of great YouTube videos that take you visually through the process. I just followed the first couple that I found and everything seemed to work fine (at least, for this “old hat” at constructing my own PCs for so many years).

For me, the only tools I needed were:

  • a putty knife or scraper blade (anything thin, metal and long enough to wedge in a few inches into the Mac Mini case)
  • a Philips (the “x” kind) screwdriver that is thin enough to get into a very narrow plastic tube (eyeglasses screwdrivers are usually good for this), and has a small/thin enough head that it can unscrew (and not strip) the screws with the very narrow “x” channel.
    • As some pointed out, magnetizing the screwdriver head is very handy for extracting those tiny little, fidgety screws – otherwise they tend to drop into the Mac Mini guts, and then you’re shaking it hard enough to get it loose (but not too hard so that you risk “damaging” some microscopic parts – not that I think there is any real danger of this with what I saw, but even an “old hat” gets worried there’s some new level of miniaturization that makes some part extremely sensitive to impact from even a 1/4-ounce screw.

Remember: Format your new Drive

Oh, and don’t forget to format the drive using Disk Utility (accessible from the top menu bar after the Mac OS X installer has asked which language you want to install).  I went through the install twice, both times wondering why the new 320GB disk wasn’t available as a selection for “where do you want to install Mac OS X”.  I figured that the installer was so smart that it recognized an unformatted disk, and would automatically format it for me.  (Soon, perhaps, but not at present.)  Embarrassing, but easily corrected – once I realized that I *had* checked all connections twice, and there was really very little that *could* prevent the drive from being recognized at the physical level.

Reinstalling Mac OS X and the rest of the bits from the two DVDs

This part was a freakin dream – so few questions, everything possible automated – it’s like Apple realizes that most people don’t care to fiddle, they just want the sucker to work.

The only extra steps I had to take were installing the optional bits (mostly utilities, but also Safari, Mail, iCal and some other useful things) from the OS X install DVD, and then installing whatever comes on that DVD labelled “”.  (Heck, it only consumed 4GB of my new 320GB drive, and until I know more about what I *don’t* need, I’m pretty comfortable taking 4GB “just in case”.)

Misc optimizations:

  • enable SMB sharing in Mac OS X, so that Plex (or Boxee) can find and scour any locally-attached external drive for photos, music and video.  (Apparently the XBMC codebase always expected to find all media on a network-shared device, since the original XBox hardware itself couldn’t retrieve or store that much media locally on the puny 20GB XBox drive.)
  • Add an entry point in the Front Row menu for Boxee – does this work for Plex as well?
  • Added link to 10-foot-UI-friendly version of my Google Reader account (via http://mymediaexperience.com/feeds-as-newspaper-in-your-living-room/)
  • Something about reconfiguring audio for Plex: “As for setting up Plex with a DTS or DD receiver. Go Configure The System -> System -> Audio Hardware from the menu. Then change the audio output from analog to digital. ” (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=20440)

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: filesystem selection for external media drive

 

Quest: best filesystem for my external hard drive

I have a 750 GB Seagate FreeAgent drive, where I’ve kept most of my media (photos, music, video, backups) for the past couple of years.  Until now, I was operating in an all-Windows world of my own design, and NTFS was the best (most reliable, performant, flexible) filesystem for that drive.

Now that I’ve introduced a Mac into my life, and because I’m planning to plug it into the Mac Mini for the vast majority of the time (to host media I record from or wish to display via the Mini) I’m faced with what feels like an imperfect choice:

  • FAT32 doesn’t support > 4 GB filesize, which in this day and age of recorded/downloaded TV (not to mention the potential for virtualization in my future, in case I want to keep experimenting/developing) is damned easy to exceed.
  • NTFS isn’t natively supported in Mac OS X (at least, not for writes, though a read-only NTFS driver is available).
  • Mac-only filesystems (e.g. HFS+) feel like a bit *too* much commitment to a platform that isn’t the dominant in my lifestyle yet – e.g. what if I want to unplug that drive from the Mac mini and hook it to my Windows box to do some USB 2.0-speed backups or other file transfers?  I know that most of my file transfers will probably work fine with an SMB share over the Wifi network (it’s all 802.11 g or better, in a pretty confined space), but sometimes I just want to get something done quickly.  Not to mention I’m not yet familiar with what steps I would have to take if I were to hook up my external drives (the 750GB – cleaned off now – and my backup one – FAT32), format the 750 gigger and try to copy over all my FAT32 data into reasonable facsimiles of the data I replicated off the 750 (before I repartitioned it).

There’s some fairly predictable chatter about lower performance of 3rd-party (R/W) NTFS drivers when used within Mac OS X (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23243&highlight=ntfs), and I’d expect similar concerns about 3rd-party HFS+ drivers (R/W) running in Windows.  I’m not worried about booting from the external drive, so that limitation of NTFS-3g isn’t a concern for me (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23057&highlight=ntfs).

However, after thinking about what my *majority* usage will be, it’s clear to me that I’ll end up leaving the drive mounted to the Mac Mini 95% of the time, so I should optimize it for that scenario and not the “just in case” fear-based scenario.  If it turns out that I’m using the drive directly attached to my Windows box *that* often, I can always use a one-time read-only HFS+ driver in Windows to get the data off the drive, then reformat with NTFS.  Getting the data off the drive isn’t a worry of mine (these drivers all seem good enough for at least the “disaster recovery – get my data off the drive *eventually*” scenarios); so I’d be an idiot not to optimize for the day-to-day performance issues I’d otherwise be facing with a non-native filesystem for the host where it’ll be plugged in 95% of the time.

Next time

  • Quest: a tuner I can “set and forget” (i.e. reliable, stable, robust performance)
  • Quest: improve the screen drawing response time in “Screen Sharing” (aka VNC)

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: Plex or Boxee as the front-end?

After opening my mind to the possibility that I could find in the Mac Mini a worthy replacement for the aging (and rotting) promise of Windows Media Center as an HTPC, it didn’t take long to find out just how far the Mac HTPC community has come.  Between the streaming media front ends like Plex & Boxee, and the first-class support from digital-TV-tuner manufacturers like Hauppauge, and the number of people who’ve blazed the trail ahead of me, it seemed like a no-brainer.

However, unlike an Apple TV (a low-powered CPU ‘appliance’ that was intended merely to download movies and TV from the iTunes store), the Mac Mini isn’t specifically designed as a home theater PC (HTPC), and doesn’t present itself to the uninitiated user as a direct complement to their TV.

That said, with not a whole lot of effort and a few add-on bits of hardware, this Mac Mini is easily the equal of the functionality of my old Windows Media Center system, and has the advantage of being a lot smaller and ridiculously quieter than a clunky monster PC.  [Outside of an extra $grand or two for a custom-designed HTPC, if you’ve got more money than brains.]

Which streaming media front end?

There are plenty of “Plex vs. Boxee” articles/forum chatter for anyone who’s looking (these are just the ones I found in my first couple of pages of Google results: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).  There’s a lot of active development in both projects, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for both, but there seem to be some common themes to the discussions I’ve read:

  1. Plex is more “fiddly” to setup your library of existing, local content – finding the folders and assigning the metadata.  Boxee seems to have mastered the “point it at folders and it’ll organize it into a library” approach.
  2. Boxee is more socially oriented, as in it lets other members of Boxee find out what you’ve watched (at least among the online sources – presumably it doesn’t advertise what you’re watching of your locally-stored media).
  3. One covers the BBC online media; the other covers integration of the Netflix instant watch streaming. (Or at least that’s what I recall reading.)
  4. Since they’re both based on the XBMC codebase, they’ll both benefit tremendously from future enhancements to the
  5. Boxee seems to have already skewed towards/created a culture of “cut the cable” (i.e. “help me get rid of Comcast/Time Warner stat!”), while Plex (perhaps as a Mac-only product) has a little less of the prickly attitude.
  6. They’re both generally considered inferior to Front Row from a UI/usability perspective, but neither one is ever accused of being “unusuable”.
  7. They both integrate with the Apple Remote (or if you’re a Logitech weenie, with most Harmony remotes – personally, after trying and failing for over a year to get a Harmony to operate as a set-it-and-forget-it, “universal one-touch” remote, I’ll avoid those hack-jobs like the plague).

While my girlfriend is quite adept at her Macbook, our discussions so far have led me to believe that the less fiddly/quirky this setup is on a day-to-day basis, the more comfortable she’ll be at using this (and the less I’ll have to coach her down off the ledge and into the world of computer-based home media.

Thus I’m convinced by what I’ve read to veer towards Plex (and not bother her with it until I’ve got the existing content adequately catalogued in the Plex library).

Next Steps: setting up Plex

Apparently, as one poster indicated, “The key seems to be putting Plex in Library mode. Once done, its scraper will dl the video info.”

There’s also some question whether Plex yet provides integrations with Netflix and Flickr.  I’ll have to dig through the PlexApp plug-in announcement archives.

Then I’ll be interested to dig further into the question of whether, by installing VLC media player, the codecs that it uses will be available to all media players, or just to my Mac.

Finally, I’d like to revisit the question of which desktop resolution is best suited to my 1080p HDTV – I’d tried 1920×1080, but wasn’t able to see the Mac menu bar (so e.g. I couldn’t click on the little Apple menu to reboot), so now I’m at something in the 1300-pixel-width range.