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Charles on… anything that comes along

Sunday 3 September 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:51 pm

So what *do* I like in Apple’s Tiger (and for that matter Leopard)?

In my article for the Guardian the other week I said that I think that the big show about keeping secrets back about what’s going to be in Leopard is just marketing fluff; and that mostly I don’t use the stuff that gets shown off at the Apple keynotes, though I do use OSX. (I had early tryouts of both Tiger - aka 10.4 - and Panther, aka 10.3.)
And in case you think “why is your stuff slow?” my answer is I don’t know - I’ve got a 1.67GHz PBook with 1GB RAM and a 5400rpm disc (the faster version that was on offer), so this was front-of-line when Tiger came out, and ahead of the game for Panther (or whatever 10.3 was called).

So, now, I don’t use

  • Expose. Hardly at all; because I use lots of tabbed windows, and lots of windows, and my Powerbook chugs away thinking where to put them all. It’s not the roaches-fleeing-the-light experience it’s made out to be.
  • Dashboard. Nope, barely ever, even though I did buy the Flickit widget. Dashboard too takes ages to chug up and appear.
  • Spotlight. Well, hardly at all. Very rarely. Slow to appear.
  • Automator. I write Applescripts and shell scripts, which get the work done a hell of a lot faster and even let you write branching code - you know, like “if … then..”.
  • Safari. Too slow for me; I prefer Camino, which looks and feels lighter and faster. Perhaps it’s just cosmetic, but having a dozen Safari windows open makes it look like you have a gathering storm on your machine - all that dark grey metal..
  • iMovie. Haven’t used it since about iMovie 2: it’s bug-prone, and downloading video chews up lots of disk space. But the principal thing is that it takes ages to edit video - and that’s time I don’t presently have. Plus its Applescript dictionary is rubbish, as is the case with almost all Apple’s own products. I only use iPhoto and iTunes of the other iLife products. And only iTunes has a good Applescript dictionary - which it has had since before Apple owned it, when it was Cassady & Greene’s SoundJam.

OK, then, so what the hell do I use and delight in? Here’s what.

  • Stability. I really like the fact that forced restarts are very, very unusual. (It equally means that I curse any company that insists I should restart my machine to install their damn software. Give me a week and I’ll get around to it. Perhaps.)
  • Search in Preview. This is fabulous. You have a huge document, like, say, the thousand-page MySQL manual, and you want to find stuff about creating indexes for databases. Type “create index” in the drawer and every page where that appears comes up. And you go there by clicking. Brilliant. Plus it’s lightweight; not a memory hog at all.
  • Apache and PHP right there on the machine. PHP is marvellous for getting things done in simple webpages (very easy to learn), and Apache serves the pages up. Though to be truly useful you also need..
  • MySQL. OK, this isn’t on the machine itself (unless you get Mac OSX Server, which puts you in a very small group), and I am trying to contain myself to things that come on the machine out of the box. It’s not quite drag-and-drop, but installing this industrial-strength free open-source database is pretty straightforward; plus there are great GUI tools to handle it. (Sure, you can put Apache, MySQL and PHP on Windows, but here you start with two out of three.)
  • You can do whois queries straight off the command line. Want to know who’s running the site that’s annoying you? whois millionchristians.com or whois try-a-diet.com (who are both, I suspect, the same organisation, and are spamming the Guardian’s tech address to hell with fake spammy mailing lists). Works for IP addresses too.
  • Other Net utilities like ping and traceroute work straight off the command line too, which helps to track problems and sites down.
  • Applescript. It’s brilliant for tying together processes across different programs - I can process emails where I have to open a webpage which has to have something added, meanwhile replying to the email with some of its content reflected back; or I can (and have) written a script so I can find what’s happened in the past four hours on the blogs I subscribe to, or subscribe in my newsreader to blogs and sites I’m viewing in my browser. And the new Script Editor, with its column view style for functions, is very good; I’ve long forgotten what the 1.x versions were like, because this is so good.
  • Closing windows that are behind other windows but which have their red ‘close’ buttons in sight. (Except on Word. Grr.) In “classic” Mac, you have to bring the window to the front to close it. Dumb.
  • Parental preferences on childrens’ accounts. Very useful indeed.
  • Multiple concurrent accounts - they can all run at the same time. (They only got this sorted in 10.3, as I recall. Before that you had to log completely out of one account to join another, which even XP had got sorted in 2001.) Nice thing is that the invisible running accounts will still do stuff like picking up email and refreshing newsfeeds if they have a connection, so there’s no wait for everything to get back in sync.
  • Synchronisation between Address Book, iCal and mobile phones - via Bluetooth. I think Address Book is a pile of poo (too slow, search is rubbish) and iCal just as bad if not worse (terrible interface - done far better and faster by Palm Desktop, and that goes for the Address Book function too) but the Bluetooth-mediated link with my Sony Ericsson mobile means that I’ll use them even so. Well, I don’t ever look at iCal; I’ve written an Applescript so that I can enter events into it through Applescript dialogs. It’s about 10 times faster than going to iCal and waiting for it to catch up with my typing and tabbing.
  • Mail. This has achieved the status of “not terrible”, though I had to junk its indexes to get it to search my mailboxes properly. It’s useful primarily for handling my Gmail POP mail, because that needs SSL which Eudora doesn’t have (yet?). It also handles my mac.com mail, which is increasingly just junk, and makes me wonder quite why I bother with mac.com at all, but that’s a separate story.
  • Unix stuff - the shell scripts and piping and also all the programs that work on Unix but never worked on Windows or the old Apple OS. Here, there’s a huge playground of things to try. Very cool.

Stuff I’ve missed? Stuff that’s really indispensable? Tell me in the comments.

31 Responses to “So what *do* I like in Apple’s Tiger (and for that matter Leopard)?”

  1. Rick Says:

    Interesting. Safari is faster for me generally than anything else– 1 Ghz PPC. Also, why would you have a dozen windows open when it, too, uses tabs? Also, with Spotlight, it’s very quick for me– and a lifesaver, finding things I had long thought gone.

    Toe each his own, I guess.

  2. Graham Says:

    Not sure which part of Address Book you find slow. I find it both loads quickly and the “find as you type” search is fast. Granted some more sophisticated boolean style queries would be nice, but the smart folders feature is very powerful for automatically grouping contacts by, say, city or company.

    Curious about MySQL/Apache/PHP… does this mean you actually run a live web server from your Mac? Or is it just for testing purposes?

  3. John Davis Says:

    Spotlight loads almost instantly on my PB and is EXTREMELY useful, I run my business on iCal - some of the best free software out there - I can’t think what you don’t like about it. I wonder why you find Safari so slow? Because you have so many windows open at once? Try using the tab feature. I wouldn’t call Safari slow. Some SITES are slow, but they are slow on anything. Expose is also extremely useful. Dashboard? What’s not to like? With one touch I can see the weather in several locations, my day’s schedule and my staff’s schedule without having to load iCal and rapidly calculate currency.

    John Davis

  4. pauldwaite Says:

    > “Iíve got a 1.67GHz PBook with 1GB RAM and a 5400rpm disc… so this was front-of-line when Tiger came out”

    Front-of-line for Mac laptops when Tiger came out, yes, but Mac laptops were generally seen as somewhat behind the curve at that point. I’m not saying Apple shouldn’t have done better at making Tiger run nicely on the hardware they were selling, but the G4 was an out-of-date chip in April 2005.

    I believe Tiger comes with SQLite, which PHP now (I think) recommends as the easiest database to use unless you’re doing some proper heavy-duty stuff (and maybe even then… sorry, I really should have an idea about what I’m saying before I write.)

    > “Safari. Too slow for me; I prefer Camino”

    I’d agree that Camino feels a bit faster (I wonder how much of my perception stems from its lack of a brushed metal window style), except when I have lots of tabs, or any plug-in (e.g. Flash, QuickTime) running. Then it starts chewing up processor like nobody’s business, and occasionally crashed. Simon Willison said good things about Opera 9. But I’m not keen on the bloat. Camino, if nothing else, is the least bloated browser I’ve ever used. Well, except maybe Lynx.

    > “iMovie… itís bug-prone, and downloading video chews up lots of disk space. But the principal thing is that it takes ages to edit video”

    Heck yes. When I was putting together a fairly silly thing based on a holiday in Newquay, I found I couldn’t make any progress without 4-5 hours work. I now know I definitely don’t want to be a film editor.

    > “only iTunes has a good Applescript dictionary - which it has had since before Apple owned it”

    And, like Mail, little to no AppleScript access to smart folders.

    AppleScript rocks. I’ve recently used it to evaluate the potential effectiveness of server-side spam filters, transfer iPhoto metadata to exif/iptc/xmp headers in the files themselves, and make a tiny interface for tagging tracks in iTunes.

  5. pauldwaite Says:

    @John Davis

    > “I run my business on iCal… I canít think what you donít like about it”

    You’ve never had that thing where you click on a to-do, and suddenly iCal freezes and your processor usage leaps to 100%? (Which I think is because Apple once hired a bunch of guys who knew nothing about XML to do some XML work. I might be remembering that wrong.)

    You can create a to-do via a keyboard shortcut, but only edit its title unless you use the mouse. And it has no “next four weeks” view. For the entire last week of every month, I have no at-a-glance idea of what I’m doing next month.

  6. Charles Says:

    iCal is dire! Adding appointments is just a calamity if you do it direct in the UI. (Can’t find the link about the inexperienced XML team; have heard something along those lines, though think it might have been to do with SOAP and REST and all that.)

    I suspect that the thing which hobbles my machine is NetNewsWire, as explained here by Brent Simmons: if you have lots of news items, each one is a tiny web page. Urr. Once my unread count heads about the 40,000 mark the whole machine slows down. (It’s now steady around 32,000.) If anyone knows a newsreader that (a) has a good Applescript dictionary (b) doesn’t whump your machine when it has thousands of items, let me know. (Before you say “Shrook”, let me repeat: it needs to have a good Applescript dictionary.)

  7. Nick Miners Says:

    I think you’re missing out by not using expose. I have a MightyMouse programmed so by squeezing the sides I get the Application Switcher, and by pressing the scroll button down I get expose, and it has speeded up my workflow no end.

    Dashboard annoys the hell out of me, and I wish you could just switch it off completely. Something like that should be optional as in my opinion it’s a separate application (just like Mail, Safari etc) and should not be part of the Finder.

  8. Andrew Brown Says:

    What strikes me about this is that there is hardly anything on your list which could not be said of Windows. The stability is fine. Obviously, the LAMP stuff is available here and very easy to install and use. There is a lot of COM-type scripting available. Most of the unix utilities can be installed onto the command line …

    What I envy about macs is precisely the useless gloss and the prettiness. And I can’t help suspecting that the availability of all that juicy Unix programming fun detracts from getting real work done. At least, it would me.

  9. Charles Says:

    Ah, but, the other thing I use that isn’t in Windows is… zero virus /spyware concerns. So OSX becomes Linux with usability, or Windows without the constant threatening pain of malware.

    Now, if I could just get rid of the spam (which has ramped up enormously in the past few weeks) things would be swimming.

  10. John Davis Says:

    Charles, is it difficult to click on a time, drag it down to the required length of an appointment and type in the space that automatically comes up? Is it difficult to option click/ drag an appointment to repeat it on another day? Or option + command click and drag to add an appointment over already existing ones? Or to publish A’s calendar to B who publishes his to A?

    I don’t see anything dire or calamity about it.

    I used Personal Organizer for years until iCal came along. The problem with PO was that it didn’t have publish and subscribe.

    iCal may not be a “Killer App” but it gets the job done, search is fast and efficient and the bottom line is the price!

    FREE

    John Davis

  11. Paul Guinnessy Says:

    Regarding preview, I would add one other feature it has which is extremely useful, is that you can load up pdf files that no longer work or are broken in acrobat, then save the file so that they can be re-opened in acrobat for editing. A lifesaver feature after a network drive trashed 4,000 odd-pages I was working on.

  12. Chris Miller Says:

    I was surprised that you would be disinclined to use Expose because it is too slow. For me, the enormous usefulness of Expose for my workflow is such that I would tolerate even a noticeable lack of snappiness, but:

    I’m currently at 450MHz G4 tower with 512M of ram, and out of curiosity tried opening about 50 instances of Safari, Word, Finder and misc. windows.

    Invoking the desktop was instantaneous, and show all windows had a hesitation of about a third of a second, which I couldn’t rightly describe as forcing my machine to “chug away”.

    I’m not saying your experience isn’t satisfactory to you, I’m just puzzled. Is it that you have two or three hundred windows open at a time?

  13. Charles Says:

    Just tried it - I’ve got 50-odd windows open, and invoking Expose took 18 seconds to clear away the windows.
    Part of it may be the slower disk than a desktop, but NetNewsWire does increasingly look like a possible culprit.

  14. Limeybloke Says:

    Hmmmm , I’ve got the 1.5Ghz version of your PB and I just tried using expose to tile 30 - odd moving QT movies.
    It took about a second to think about it then instantly swished them out.

    I’m assuming you know about how lack of ram/hard disk space slows down the system?
    Checked your ram with ‘rember’ ? Bad ram can appear to be available without actualy helping.
    Repaired your file permissions with Disk Utility? If you’ve installed a lot of stuff it can have messed them up.
    Used ‘MacJanitor’ to run all those behind-the-scenes- tasks that it would do in the middle of the night if you left it on?

    It’s a bit strange really if it’s none of the above.

  15. Dhruva Says:

    I’m not too familiar with NewsNetWire, but I think you must be right; I have a iBook G4 1.42 Ghz w/1 G RAM, and Expose, Dashboard, and Spotlight are all very fast. In John Siracusa’s extremely extensive reviews of OSX over at Ars Technica, he tried using Expose with 200+ windows open and found that it still worked quickly. But if you’ve got thousands of webpages updating in the background, I could imagine that gumming things up.

    Check out the review at: http://arstechnica.com/reviews/os/macosx-10.3.ars/8

    Of course, you could just have a lemon…

  16. Matt Says:

    For me Safari is the fastest browser. I would like to use something else - especially Camino because it looks better, but I hate to give up the speed. Also, I believe Safari is actually a smaller application than Camino.

  17. Andrew Brown Says:

    Charles, I have — as you know — run without antivirus software for five years now. You need a firewall or two with any machine that is connected to the internet. But Windows without IE, or even with a patched IE, and running a decent firewall, is perfectly safe.

    I’m not arguing that Macs aren’t slick, desirable, and with some really nice software available. It’s the nicest front end for any Unix. But Windows has in many respects caught up with unix now. And nothing you have written on the subject makes NetNewswire seem more desirable than fedd demon, or even bloglines.

  18. Jamie Says:

    30,000+ unreads in NNW? Wow. Impressive!

  19. JulesLt Says:

    I think the thing with Dashboard and Spotlight is that the initial start-up time is too slow for occasional use, but if you make heavy use of them then they ‘feel’ faster. Spotlight seems pretty fast at doing a 3rd or 4th search (provided, as always, that you don’t have too many apps open, inducing lots of paging to those annoyingly slow disk drives).

  20. Charles Says:

    Yes, number of apps is perhaps a factor too. I’ve got 30 open just now.
    Tried Rember - it didn’t find any problems with my memory, though I left all my apps open while I used it. Looking at Activity Monitor, it seems to be finding and using all my memory. But paging back in when moving from app to app takes time.

    @Andrew - well, if you’re good with a firewall, it’s clearly better than AV. I don’t particularly bother with either. One thing NNW does have over Feed Demon or Bloglines is that it works offline. And the thing that OSX does have all over is Applescript. It’s hard to overemphasise how important that is to everything.

  21. Jim Says:

    Over half the things that you do use Mac OS X for are available “out of the box” on a decent Linux distribution.

    * Stability - check

    * PHP and Apache - check

    * MySQL - check

    * whois - check and don’t forget dig besides

    * net utilities - check and don’t forget tcpdump, nmap, and ethereal besides.

    * No applescript - but python, or ruby, or perl can do most if not all the tasks you described.

    * Closing windows that are behind other windows - been that way in Linux forever.

    * Parental preferences - check, in fact, there are multiple ways of configuring the interface and/or filtering content. All of them easy to use.

    * Multiple concurrent accounts - check

    * Mail - Not Apple mail, but there are well documented reasons not to trust it (http://diveintomark.org/archives/2006/06/02/when-the-bough-breaks).

    * Unix stuff - check in spades.

    None of this is to say that you should switch to Linux… but I find it interesting that most of the stuff that you list is easily met by Linux.

    I use Ubuntu, personally, as it is focused on the end-user experience. It may not be perfect, but its 6 month release cycle has it making huge leaps with each release.

    Definitely something to consider if Apple bites your data in a manner that is starting to turn away other devotees.

  22. GAlton Says:

    “Dashboard. Nope, barely ever, even though I did buy the Flickit widget. Dashboard too takes ages to chug up and appear.”

    Charles, you should take a look at Amnesty Singles:
    http://www.mesadynamics.com/amnesty_singles.htm

    It’s a small shareware utility that converts widgets into OS X applications. That way you can launch your Flickit widget whenever you want without waiting for the glacier-melting startup epoch in Dashboard.

  23. Randall Says:

    Charles, Activity Monitor can help find the cause of speed problems.

    The obvious one is CPU time, which hardly needs description.

    The less obvious ones are swapping virtual memory and web-page updates.

    The System Memory tab shows a Page ins/outs” entry, and I find this useful for seeing before and after I do something that takes too long. Jot down the “before” numbers, compare after, and if there were lots of swaps it’s revealing.

    The Disk Activity tab shows disk read/writes, including those that come from swapping. Very handy.

    The Network tab shows network traffic, and it’s easy to see when lots of things hit the network at the same time.

    None of these will probably count as definitive proof, but they can be useful in finding out general trends, especially when you have lots of apps all running at once.

  24. Fredrik Jonsson Says:

    Later versions of Eudora, at least since v 6.2, have implemented OpenSSL so there should be no problem using it with Gmail. I use it with a number of mail servers via SSL without problems.

    Earlier versions used some very outdated SSL library that I never could get to work properly.

    See also: http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=35732

  25. Neil Says:

    Have you tried the open source Vienna RSS reader?

    http://www.opencommunity.co.uk/vienna2.php

    I’ve not tried using Applescript with it but their are a few scripts available:
    http://www.opencommunity.co.uk/vienna_files.php

  26. Andrew Brown Says:

    Quite seriously: what is it that Applescript does that Python or VB and COM can’t do? And Python, remember is free and very library’ed.

  27. Charles Says:

    @Jim - thanks, I wrestled with Linux distros a few years ago, trying to install them on an Intel box. It wasn’t a good experience. Maybe things would be different now. I might try Ubuntu. I’m not worried about data loss, though: I use MySQL for stuff; lots of documents in Word (which is easily read now); and my email is on .mac and Gmail, ie backed up on the web already. The only worry might be iTunes, but there are AAC players out there too.
    Not that Apple’s going away in a hurry.

    @Randall - thanks, yes, I have Activity Monitor going a lot of the time. I guess it would be nice if it had pageins for a particular app, but that’s probably not feasible. I do watch it closely. NNW and MarsEdit are often culprits - MarsEdit can use up 20% of CPU just sitting there with a WebKit preview window open (it badly needs an update to fix that reported bug).

    @Neil - yes, I’m trying Vienna right now. Wish I could order the folders on the LHS in the order I want, not alphabetically. Maybe the 2.1 version will be better.

    @Andrew - I don’t know! I don’t know what Python can do. VB and COM give me a headache, that I do know. VB for Word, for example, when compared to Applescript, is like Polish notation vs direct entry for calculators (and VB is the Polish one). It may be more precise, but it’s completely befuddling.
    I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m reaching my limit for languages. Between the MySQL query format, PHP, Applescript, HTML, shell scripts.. I get them confused. Happily not at the dinner table so far, though.

  28. Ryan Says:

    1 GB of RAM is quite probably not enough for 30 apps running at the same time, depending on what they are and how much memory they hog up.

    Not only does every app use memory for its own data, but every window (and some things you would never think of as windows) consumes memory in the Quartz compositor.

    If any applications have memory leaks, they will steadily consume more and more RAM the longer you keep them running. Might be something to keep an eye on.

    You also mentioned how much you love concurrent logged in users. This too is going to eat RAM for breakfast.

    If you *are* maxing out your physical RAM, you are going to take more of a performance hit than on a desktop machine due to the 5400 RPM drive as everything swaps.

    If you weren’t on PPC I’d blame Rosetta, too. Man, does that thing chow down on RAM.

  29. smz Says:

    map Expose to the “middle-mouse button” aka click-wheel and you’ll wonder how you lived without it…. ;)

  30. Charles Says:

    No, I won’t, I’ll think I’ve gone mad. See comment 13: pulling Expose on my system takes about ..5 seconds to happen, having only just logged in. (Eudora throws up a lot of windows.)
    It’s not about doing this or that. I’ve got an issue with memory management, seems like.

  31. Charles on… anything that comes along » Why I risked breaking the blog: because Wordpress blogs are getting hacked Says:

    […] So, OK, I’ve updated the blog (after lots of procrastination and hesitation, after checking it would work on a local copy of the latest Wordpress - thanks, MySQL+Apache+PHP on the Powerbook). […]

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