Wouldn’t it be nice if Mac error messages actually told us what’s wrong?

As I pointed out in a recent article, bugs exist in every application and hardware device, and Apple has a bug reporting system that many developers find annoying. But for end users—you and me—dealing with these issues can be frustrating. The error messages you see when something goes wrong with your software or hardware often offer you no help, nor give you any clue as to what is causing the problem.

You may have a crash with Mail, and be met with a message saying “Mail quit unexpectedly.” I guess this is from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, because, unless you direct an app to quit, this shouldn’t happen. This sort of error message doesn’t help you understand anything, but at least it informs you about what happened. You might have an app in the background and wonder where its window went, so this dialog informs you that you won’t find it.

Error messages on the Mac often appear as Zen kōans; they suggest that you ponder the deeper meaning of the universe in order to understand what they mean. For example, you sometimes get an error from iTunes saying that there is a “temporary problem.”

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Apple’s bug reporting system: An impractical black hole that’s frustrating to use

Everyone who uses a computer or any other computing device—tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, game consoles—know about bugs. These are glitches in an operating system or application that can cause something to go wrong. The name was given when a malfunction on an early electromechanical (pre-transistor) computer was found to have been caused by a moth.

Bugs can be just an annoyance, or they can prevent an app or operating system from performing its tasks. You may find that, say, a window doesn’t display as it should, which is a small problem, or that a specific app doesn’t run, or can’t accomplish a feature you need. In some cases, you can move on and continue what you wanted to do. Some bugs are random, and only happen occasionally, but others are “reproducible;” they occur every time you perform a certain sequence of actions.

No software is bug-free. Like typos in books, there are always bugs to be found. (I have formulated the Law of the Preservation of Typographical Errors, which states that, when proofreading a book, “For every typographical error that is discovered, another one will generate spontaneously.”) We accept that software has bugs, and, in most cases, we live with it. But there are bugs that prevent us from using our software or hardware, and those are very annoying.

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Apple’s desktop Mac lineup: A showcase of old technology

There are lots of things that Apple needs to fix, but one of the most glaring right now is the product line. Sure, we’re on the usual annual cycle of iPhone upgrades. We’ve seen new iPads in recent memory. But what about the Mac? The venerable computer that used to be Apple’s core product is now just an afterthought.

To be fair, the much-ballyhooed MacBook Pro with Touch Bar saw the light only a few months ago, but it’s pricey, underpowered, and connector-challenged.

What about the desktop? Where are new Macs? The iMac hasn’t been refreshed in 521 days. The Mac mini hasn’t seen any changes in 883 days. And the Mac Pro? Apple should be embarrassed selling a computer that hasn’t been changed in 1,184 days at the same price as when it was launched. That top-of-the-line Mac features three-year old technology at three-year old prices. (Thanks to MacRumors whose Buyer’s Guide keeps track of release dates.)

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The mess left behind by Messages

We all send and receive lots of text messages. Some are iMessages, some are SMSs, but everyone uses them. I use text messages to stay in touch with friends and family, to chat with clients and editors, and more. My doctor and dentist send me text messages to remind me of appointments. Amazon, Apple, eBay and others send me text messages letting me know when packages have shipped, and when they have been delivered. And I get text messages from a number of services where I use two-factor authentication to receive 6-digit codes I need to log into my accounts.

It’s convenient that I can see all my text messages on all my devices, thanks to my iCloud account. I can get a text message on my iPhone and see it on my iPad, my iPod touch, or on either of my Macs. For example, it may be useful to see that Amazon text message thread—the one telling me that a package was shipped; then telling me that a package will be delivered today; then telling me that the package was delivered—on every single device. If I don’t have my phone handy, and I’m using my iPad or I’m working on my Mac, I can see a text message, and reply if I need to.

I’m a bit OCD about my Messages list. I don’t like the clutter of conversations I don’t need. It’s easier to find someone in your list if there’s not a long column of throwaway messages in the way, so I delete them when I’m finished with them. It’s not hard to do: on an iOS device, swipe to the left and tap Delete. On a Mac, hover over an avatar in Messages and click the x button.

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When backups go bad: The problem with using network drives with Time Machine

Everyone needs to backup their data. No matter what’s on your Mac, if you lose files, you’ll be in a pickle. You may be able to work solely in the cloud, using services such as Dropbox, Google Docs, or Microsoft Office, but there are still essential files on your Mac.

Kirk’s first law of data protection is this: “It’s not a question of whether your hard drive will fail, but when.” If you’re lucky, and if you upgrade your computers frequently enough, you may never see disk failure, but trust me: it eventually happens.

Apple is well aware of this, and its Time Machine backup software is designed to make backups automatic and idiot-proof. Introduced in 2007 with Mac OS X Leopard, Time Machine has saved a lot of bacon over the years.

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Hey Apple, let me control my iCloud Photo Library

Compared to many people I know, I don’t have a very large photo library. With about 1,300 photos, it takes up just under 6GB on my iMac. Many of my friends have thousands of photos and videos, and their libraries take up tens of gigabytes. But I don’t have any young children, and I don’t shoot a lot of photos when I’m out and about. (I do have two cats, one a kitten, who’s been getting snapped lately though.)

I recently noticed that my iPod touch, which I use for listening to music and for testing iOS betas, was running out of space. The culprit was my iCloud Photo Library. Even though I had the device set to optimize iPhone storage and not download all my photos, it was doing the latter. It had apparently downloaded all my original photos and videos, all 6GB of them. On a 32GB device, which also contains apps and music, that’s quite a lot of storage used up.

photos settings ios Apple

These are the settings I had on my iPod touch. It ignored them, and downloaded all my original photos and videos.

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No internet connection? Be prepared for iTunes to drive you crazy

It’s no secret that the iTunes Store is so tightly integrated into the iTunes application that it’s almost as though they were Siamese twins. As your local copy of iTunes has become increasingly linked to Apple’s cloud, it has become dependent on internet access.

But what if you don’t have internet access? Your connection is down; or your router is broken; or you simply don’t want your computer to connect to the internet? Well, iTunes will remind you of this, over and over and over. In such a case, iTunes will pop up an alert every single time you play a song and every time one song finishes and another one begins.

itunes network Apple

If you don’t have network access, you’ll see this dialog whenever you try to play anything. Over and over and over.

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