Quick View conflicts in iCloud

Sat Feb 28, 05:22 PM

If you get an error about file conflicts when accessing iCloud Drive — that is, a file was edited on both your Mac and another device so that OS X is no longer sure which is the current version — you can click on each of the thumbnails in the dialog box to instantly open a Quick Look preview of its contents. This should help you work out which is the latest version.

Keir Thomas

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Scary boot-time icons on a Mac

Sat Feb 28, 09:59 AM

I see this coming up over and over again in forums, so here’s what to do when you see boot-time icons on a Mac:

Flashing question mark in a folder icon: Your Mac can’t find the boot disk it’s used to. Turn your Mac off and on again, but this time hold down the Option key (Alt on some keyboards) as soon as the Mac starts. You should then see a list of possible boot disks. Lift your finger from the Option key, then select the boot drive from the list using the cursor keys, before hitting Enter to select it. When you boot to OS X, open System Preferences, click Startup Disk, select your boot disk, and click the Restart button.

No Entry symbol/“No” icon/Prohibition icon: Something’s gone wrong and your Mac simply can’t boot. It might be that a bodged update has happened, or you might be suffering a boot disk failure. Whatever the suspected cause try the steps in the entry above — reboot holding down Option and see if you can select a boot drive. If this doesn’t work you may need to boot to the Recovery System. Good luck!

[Update Needed] with an icon of a person and a question mark: The drive you’re attempting to boot from is encrypted and needs unlocking. It might be that FileVault has been set on the drive. You might see this if you’re attempting to boot from a recovery partition on an external USB/Firewire/Thunderbolt drive, for example. Obviously, you’ll need to type the encryption phrase. There’s no way of asking for a passphrase hint here, so if you’ve forgotten it then you’re in trouble. There’s simply no way of unlocking the disk without it (unless you have friends at the CIA/MI5).

Flashing globe icon: For some reason your Mac is attempting to boot from the network (a.k.a. NetBoot). It might do this if it can’t find the correct boot drive. You might see the flashing question mark icon appear immediately after the flashing globe. Whatever the case the instructions to fix things are as described in the first entry above – hold down Option/Alt and then select the boot disk in System Preferences. Note that a globe icon can also indicate Internet Recovery is taking place, although you’ll see a message beneath the icon telling you this.

Keir Thomas

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DIY Fusion and RAID on an old MacBook Pro with Yosemite

Sat Feb 28, 08:53 AM

I’ve just finished writing a piece for Macworld here in the UK called “Create a FrankenMac”. It’s about ways in which older Macs, going back to the first Core 2 Duo models back in 2007, can be boosted so that their day-to-day performance is as good as new models. The feature also looks at how you can get modern Mac features on your old Mac, such as Fusion drive technology, and Handoff/Continuity.

It’s not yet published. I’ll update here when it is but I don’t want to spoil the surprise by revealing details.

However, when writing the piece I had to figure out a way to make a DIY Fusion drive on Yosemite. I searched extensively and it appears nobody has written about this. All the instructions I found relate to DIY Fusion drives on Mavericks or earlier versions of OS X, and with the move to default CoreStorage on Yosemite the task is not quite as simple as it used to be. I can’t let the cat out of the bag about how it’s done because that’s what Macworld paid me for but I can tell you of a few experiments I did.

SSD + SSD = Fusion
What if two SSDs are combined together into a DIY Fusion setup under Yosemite? That’s what I did with a Crucial M4 256GB, fitted as the main drive in my MacBook Pro, and a Kingston V300 128GB, fitted where the optical drive used to be. Theoretically there’s nothing to be gained in terms of performance but it seemed to be a simple way of concatenating two drives into one, so that I didn’t have to mess around choosing which disk to store certain files on. Well, I can say that it works and has been reliable so far. It’s at least as fast as when I used the Crucial M4 on its own as a boot drive. It might even be faster but I have trouble accepting that because it doesn’t really make much sense. Most apps start within a second. Bigger apps like Photoshop start within 2-3 seconds. Because I used a Time Machine backup to restore from I also have a recovery partition on the disk, so have been able to enable FileVault too. One concern I had was that OS X might default to the slower Kingston drive, rather than the faster Crucial M4. However, Patrick Stein who initially probed Fusion technology and pioneered the DIY approach says that Fusion “always [chooses] the faster drive“. How Fusion works is entirely undocumented, I believe, but it might be that OS X has some kind of benchmarking function built-in. Whatever the case, I suspect that Fusion might be offered as a function in future versions of Disk Utility as a way of concatenating two or more drives into one volume without RAID. The fact Patrick combined three drives into one using Fusion seems to suggest it has ambitions beyond mere faster rotational hard disks.

RAID stripes
Talking of which, I also tried a RAID stripe setup combining the the two SSDs together. First I tried 32KB blocks (which is default), and then started afresh with 16KB blocks. RAID is setup using Disk Utility from the Recovery Console — you simply drag the two partitions from the disks to the box under the RAID tab heading. The block size can be set by clicking the Options button beneath. Anyway, to cut a long story short, IO performance wasn’t great. Still faster than a traditional rotational disk, but slower than the Crucial M4 had been on its own. Additionally, a recovery partition isn’t allowed on a RAID setup, and this means no FileVault either. Considering that the total size of the RAID array is less than the actual combined size of the two disks – a limitation of the way RAID striping works – then it’s a pretty dumb idea.

Let the hacker beware…
There are a few caveats if you’d like to create a DIY Fusion drive using either two SSDs, or a rotational disk and an SSD. The first is that Patrick Stein reported getting a few system crashes during his testing (kernel panics). However, his testing was done on older versions of OS X and it may be that the bugs have since been fixed. Apple tends to be pretty tight on core technologies. The second warning is that spreading data across more than one drive increases the possibility of drive failure — if either of the two drives fails, then ALL my data is lost. The probability of one of two drives failing is higher than that of a single drive failing, as in a traditional setup. However, I run a tight backup routine so I consider this aspect guarded against, and apps like DriveDx can help monitor underlying drive diagnostics, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Keir Thomas

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Clean fingerprints off your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad

Thu Feb 26, 01:54 PM

Got ugly fingerprints, dust or other detritus on your beautiful iDevice? Just get a small blob of Blu-tac (a.k.a. sticky tac/clay) and rub it on the screen. After a few rubs any marks will disappear. This is also good for giving the TouchID sensor a clean, and for getting rid of those ugly stripes that appear on an iPad screen from the creases of a Smart Cover.

For what it’s worth, this trick can be used to clean grime off virtually any surface. I just used it to clean years of accumulated human grease off the aluminum surround and the keys of my Apple Keyboard, for example.

Keir Thomas

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Stopping message notifications vanishing

Tue Feb 24, 11:32 AM

By default iOS shows new messages as a dropdown at the top of the screen if the phone isn’t locked or in sleep mode. This appears for only a few seconds before disappearing. Because I have two-factor authentication enabled, it’s not unusual for me to want to have these messages stick around a little longer while I type the code into another device, or my Mac. I could just open the Messages app, I guess, but that’s a lot of tapping :-(

The solution is simple. Just drag down the notification. This will open the quick reply field too, but you haven’t got to use it, and the notification now won’t disappear until you get rid of it by dragging it up, or by tapping on the screen/switching apps.

Keir Thomas

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Saving battery power on a MacBook

Mon Feb 23, 12:55 PM

Despite considering it common knowledge, I still see people on the Internet asking how to get the most from their MacBooks when out and about. Here is my selection of tips.

  1. Turn LCD screen backlighting as low as possible. This is simply the biggest factor that will affect your battery longevity.
  2. Turn off keyboard backlighting. Does anybody actually use this? It’s always seemed like a gimmick to me.
  3. Quit any menu bar apps, especially cloud apps. Menu bar apps are those that live at the top right of the desktop near the clock. Cloud apps like Dropbox or Google Drive will eat power checking and uploading files. Of course, if your work involves using cloud files then you may have no other choice than to keep apps like this running. You’ll have to remember to restart them when you’ve back on mains power, though.
  4. Quit all open apps that you aren’t using right now. Just start them up later if you need them. A quick way of doing this is to use the Alt+Tab way of switching apps, then moving the highlight to an app you want to quit and tapping Q.
  5. Use Safari browser, if you can. It has power saving features built-in that other browser developers have yet to match (assuming you’re running Yosemite).
  6. Turn off Bluetooth if you’re not using it, or even turn off Wi-Fi if you’re working without the need for Internet. Connect to the network/Internet via a wired connection, if you can (that is, Ethernet). Unfortunately OS X doesn’t have any kind of AirPlane Mode button. I reckon the next version of OS X probably will.
  7. Use your iPhone/iPod/iPad to listen to music, rather than your Mac. It’s only a little bit of juice needed to power those headphones but why not let a dedicated device take the hit?
  8. Remove any USB storage devices you’re not using, or any SD cards. If you’ve more than one disk installed in your MacBook (I have two SSDs, for example), then unmount any you’re not using. This can be done using Disk Utility — select the disk, then click the Unmount toolbar icon.
Keir Thomas

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Garbage collection on Crucial SSDs

Mon Feb 23, 09:31 AM

Crucial SSDs have built-in garbage collection but it only kicks-in when the drive has been idle for some time. OS X’s many, many background processes mean this is unlikely to occur. As a result the drive slows down over time.

Crucial’s advice is out of date. They advocate holding down Option (Alt on some keyboards) and booting to the disk selection screen, and leave it there for 6-8 hours for garbage collection to occur. However, in my experience Apple has nowadays configured power-saving to kick in here, so that the screen and (likely) the SSD are powered down. The same thing occurs at the login screen that appears during boot if you have FileVault enabled — if you don’t type anything, power-saving will kick-in.

A solution that seems to have worked for me is to enable the firmware password, as I described a few days ago, and then try to boot to the Recovery Console once the password has been set. However, when asked for the firmware password, just type a few letters. Then leave the Mac for 6-8 hours. For some reason Apple hasn’t seen fit to enable power-saving on this particular boot-time screen.

This worked very well for me. Leaving my MacBook Pro overnight has brought about a massive speed boost. It’s just like when I first upgraded to an SSD. Apps start in seconds.

Keir Thomas

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Reopen old iMessage conversations on Mac

Sun Feb 22, 03:29 PM

There’s an option within Messages on the Mac to close a conversation you’ve had with somebody, in which case it’ll disappear from the list. Just click the X at the right of the entry in the conversation list. However, the conversation doesn’t actually get deleted. To return it to the list if you remove it by accident, follow these steps:

  1. Ensure you’re online in Messages with all your accounts — that is, at the bottom of the Messages application window, ensure you select Available.
  2. Open Finder, or click a blank spot on the desktop, then tap Shift+Cmd+G. In the window that appears, paste in the following: ~/Library/Containers/com.apple.ichat/Data/Library/Messages/Archive
  3. Your conversations will be listed by date, going back a long time. Just open the relevant folder and double-click the .ichat file relating to the conversation.
  4. The conversation will open in a chat window, but don’t yet close this. Instead, look at the main messages list in the Messages application window. The conversation you’ve opened will be added to the bottom of the Messages conversation list. Click it to open it there, then close the new conversation window you opened earlier.

Keir Thomas

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Installing TrueCrypt on Yosemite

Sun Feb 22, 11:19 AM

Once upon a time TrueCrypt was the go-to choice for cross-platform encryption. Last year the folks behind it ended all development, stating that modern operating systems have made it redundant (this is actually a pretty questionable statement, but never mind).

The result is that the latest version of TrueCrypt might have security bugs, but it also has a major usability bug: it won’t install on Yosemite. You’ll see the following error: “TrueCrypt requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later.”

The solution is as follows:

  1. Download TrueCrypt, then unzip it, mount the DMG by double-clicking it, then copy the installation package to your desktop (this last bit is important!).
  2. Right-click the TrueCrypt 7.2 install file on the desktop and select Open from the menu that appears. This bypasses the fact the installation package isn’t signed – not an issue in this case because it’s downloaded from a safe location.
  3. You’ll be told that TrueCrypt can’t install, as mentioned above. Just quit the installer by clicking the Close button.
  4. Right-click the TrueCrypt 7.2 install file on the desktop, and select Show Package Contents.
  5. Open the Contents folder, then right-click the distribution.dist file and select Open With > Other. Then select TextEdit from the list of apps.
  6. In the file you’ll see the following cluster of lines around mid-way within the file. Delete the lines AFTER function pm_install_check() { and before return true;. See the screenshot below, where the lines you need to delete are highlighted.
    function pm_install_check() {
      if(!(system.version.ProductVersion >= '10.4.0')) {
        my.result.title = 'Error';
        my.result.message = 'TrueCrypt requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later.';
        my.result.type = 'Fatal';
        return false;
      }
      return true;
    }
  7. Click File > Save and then quit TextEdit.
  8. Close the Finder window, then double-click the TrueCrypt 7.2 install file to install the app.

Keir Thomas

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Testing your FileVault recovery key

Sun Feb 22, 10:18 AM

When you enable FileVault (which I strongly recommend), you’ll have the choice of either uploading a recovery key to iCloud, or avoiding putting the key online and writing it down somewhere for future reference. The latter seems most secure to me and I store the key in a password manager. The recovery key is like a master key that will unlock the disk if you forget your password. Without either your password or recovery key, it will be impossible to decrypt the disk contents.

Gazing at the key yesterday I realised that something had gone wrong. It didn’t look right. Characters appeared to be missing.

I was able to test the recovery key by opening a Terminal window and typing the following:

sudo fdesetup validaterecovery

After this you must type your login password (NOT the recovery key), and then input the key when prompted. If it’s correct you’ll see “true”. If it’s incorrect you’ll be told, and asked to enter it again in case you mistyped the first time around. To quit out of being asked, tap Ctrl+C.

So what do you do if, like me, you’ve either written down the key wrong, or your copy of the key has become corrupted? Simple. You have to turn off FileFault in System Preferences, then turn it back on again. This will take several hours to complete but you’ll generate a new recovery key, that you can jot down properly this time.

Keir Thomas

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(c) 2013 Keir Thomas. Unauthorized reproduction in any form is prohibited. Short quotations from this blog
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