Massively speed-up your Mac's public VPN

26 May 2017, 07:54

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Update July 2017: I can no longer recommend the application listed below because it has serious DNS leak issues that compromise your privacy. Instead I recommend the use of Viscosity. Alas, this isn’t free, but does not have the DNS leak issues. The original article is still below, and the advice is still good for Viscosity, even if the steps are slightly different.

Recently I underwent a revelatory experience when using the public VPN service I subscribe to. I’d only ever been able to get 1Mbit speeds, at best, and typically the speed yo-yoed between that and just a few kilobits. On a whim I tried a third-party VPN client and, wow, suddenly I was getting near-native DSL speeds – up to 50Mbits, or thereabouts, and staying around that range while downloading.

I had spent a long time thinking the VPN service simply wasn’t very good, when the real story was that their client wasn’t any good (I had updated and reinstalled it several times). I understand from speaking to others that this is sadly not uncommon.

If you’re in a similar position then here are some steps that might help.

OpenVPN config files
We’re going to use the free-of-charge Tunnelblick app, but before downloading and installing it we need to go on a voyage of discovery. Visit the support/help pages of your VPN service and find out if they provide OpenVPN access points. They very likely will, and often they do so specifically for mobile devices, or Linux computers, so it might help to search for something like “Android OpenVPN” or “Linux OpenVPN”. What you’ll probably find will be ready-made OpenVPN configuration file downloads. OpenVPN configuration files come with .ovpn or .conf file extensions. Some VPN services might even offers specific readymade Tunnelblick configuration files.

You’ll probably find many OpenVPN config files available, with one for each end-point city and/or country (that is, there might be ones for California, or London, or Belgium etc). Download the ones for locations you want to use on a regular basis but, crucially, rename each as you download them to make it clear what the location is (that is, something like “California.ovpn”). Ensure you leave the file extension alone, however.

If offered a choice between UDP and TCP OpenVPN config files, select UDP, because this is usually fastest.

Here are links for readymade OpenVPN configs for some popular public VPN services:

Know of others? Add them to the comments below.

Setting up Tunnelblick
Download Tunnelblick, and then double-click its icon to start the installation procedure. It’s best to select the stable release, rather than beta, or at least until you get more experience using Tunnelblick.

When installing Tunnelblick you’ll be prompted to install OpenVPN too. This is a necessity because this open source and hugely popular app unfortunately doesn’t come preinstalled with macOS. However, you’ll have to type your macOS login password when prompted to let installation take place. During setup you’ll also be asked if you want Tunnelblick to periodically check for connection changes while you’re connected to a VPN – the choice is up to you (it’s a good idea) – and you’ll finally be asked if you already have configuration files. You do, of course, so select that option when offered.

When setup has finished, simply double-click the first of the OpenVPN configuration files you downloaded earlier. This will install it, and that file can then be deleted. Repeat for any of the other OpenVPN configuration files you downloaded earlier.

Opening/closing a VPN connection
From this point on opening a VPN connection is simple. Just click the OpenVPN icon on the menu bar (its icon is that of a train tunnel), and then select which connection you want to use. When making the initial connection you’ll be prompted for your VPN username and password, so type them when required, and then put a check in the Save In Keychain boxes so that you won’t have to enter them again in future.

To disconnect the VPN connection, again click the Tunnelblick menu bar icon, but this time select the Disconnect option from the menu. Alternatively, simply quitting Tunnelblick will kill the connection.

Hovering the mouse cursor over the Tunnelblick menubar icon will cause a pop-up window to appear showing connection speed and status.

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Fill your Mac's menu bar with USEFUL info!

26 May 2017, 04:03

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Speaking personally I love the Mac’s menu bar, which runs across the top of the screen. I think it’s one of many things that makes using a Mac so much more likeable and fun. It stays there no matter what (provided you don’t choose to hide it!), and the menu bar icons it contains show a host of useful info.

However, you can boost this information display even more using the steps described below. All use free tools so will cost you nothing.

Don’t forget two things while reading. First, see our piece about the free-of-charge Vanilla app that lets you hide menu icons. This can be incredibly useful if the menu bar gets cluttered. You can just hide away some of the less vital icons until you need them. Secondly, don’t forget that you can move and rearrange most menu bar elements by holding down the Cmd/Command key, then clicking and dragging each icon left or right. Some icons can’t be moved, though, such as the Notification Center icon.

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Seeing your Wi-Fi name
Huge thanks to Apple Help Writer’s blog for creating this trick, which makes the Mac display the current Wi-Fi base station name (SSID) that it’s connected to.

Apple Help Writer’s instructions assume quite a lot of technical knowledge, so here in easy steps is how to set this up. There’s a little technical work involved but I walk you through it, and it only needs be done once.

  1. Download the Hammerspoon app, and then drag it to the Applications list within Finder to install it.
  2. Open Hammerspoon by double-clicking its icon. Don’t worry when it reports it hasn’t got a config file. We’re about to fix that.
  3. However, one thing to do before even that is to click the Enable Accessibility button in the Hammerspoon preferences dialog box. Then click the Open System Preferences button in the dialog box that appears. When System Preferences opens, click the padlock icon at the bottom left, type your login password when prompted, and then put a check/tick in the Hammerspoon entry in the list you see. You can then close System Preferences.
  4. Click the Hammerspoon icon in the top-right of the menu bar (its icon is that of a small hammer), and then click Open Config.
  5. This will open a blank file in TextEdit, or perhaps a different text editor if you have one installed. Copy and paste in the following code into the empty file, and then save the file and close TextEdit (there’s no need to give the file a name or location – just click File > Save as usual):
    wifiWatcher = nil
    function ssidChanged()
    local wifiName = hs.wifi.currentNetwork()
    if wifiName then
    wifiMenu:setTitle("Wifi OFF")
    wifiMenu = hs.menubar.newWithPriority(2147483645)
    wifiWatcher =
  6. Click the Hammerspoon menu bar icon again, and click the Reload Config option. The Wi-Fi name (SSID) will now appear in the menu bar. Hold down Cmd/Command and click it to move it to where you want it to be.

Additionally, you’ll also want to click the Hammerspoon menu bar icon, select Preferences, and ensure the following option has a check (tick) alongside it: Launch Hammerspoon At Login.

You should ensure there isn’t a check alongside Show Menu Icon (unless you plan to install further Hammerspoon scripts, which is actually well worth investigating).

In future, if you want to get rid of your new Wi-Fi name menubar indicator, load Hammerspoon from the Applications list of Finder. This will open a console window, into which you should paste the following:


This will open Hammerspoon’s preferences dialog box, as described above. However, this time remove the check alongside Launch Hammerspoon At Login. Then reboot.

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Getting a better clock (and calendar)
The Mac’s built-in clock is useful but can be improved upon. How would you like to see the week number, for example, or have a pop-up calendar display appear whenever you click the clock?

Itsycal is the answer. Here’s how to get the best out of it.

  1. Download Itsycal and drag it to the Applications list in Finder to install it.
  2. However, before running it for the first time, we need to turn off the Mac’s own time/date display. To do so, open System Preferences (which you’ll find in the Applications list of Finder), then click the Date & Time icon near the bottom. Ensure the Clock tab is selected, and then remove the check alongside Show Date and Time In Menu Bar.
  3. Open Itsycal. The only sign it’s running will be a day-of-month display added to the menu bar. Click this, which will cause the pop-up calendar to appear, and click the small cog icon around half way down and to the right. Then click Preferences.
  4. Ensure the General icon is selected, and that there’s a check (tick) alongside Launch At Login.
  5. Select the Appearance icon, and then remove checks from all three boxes at the top: Use Outline Icon, Show Month In Icon and Show Day of Week In Icon. However, ensure there IS a check/tick within the Hide Icon box.
  6. In the text field above the Hide Icon checkbox, paste in the following and then hit Enter.
    E d MMM  h:mm a
    This will re-add the standard Mac day/date/time display – something like Mon 1 Jun 11.00 am.
  7. Clicking the small question mark alongside the text area in the Itsycal preferences dialog box reveals other letters you can add to add more information to the menu bar time/date display. For example, to add the week number, you might add the letter w to the beginning or end of the combination of letters. Note that capital and lower case letters are important here!
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Seeing battery time remaining—and more
In a recent macOS update, Apple turned off the ability to display the time remaining for the current battery charge. This is perhaps a good thing because allegedly it became inaccurate on more modern Macs. However, you can easily restore it – and add other information to boot. All you need is CoconutBattery.

  1. Before using CoconutBattery, however, we need to turn off the Mac’s built-in battery status menu bar display. To do so, open System Preferences (which you’ll find in the Applications list of Finder) and then click the Energy Saver icon. Then remove the check/tick alongside Show Battery Status In Menu bar at the bottom left of the window.
  2. Download CoconutBattery and then drag it to the Applications list in Finder to install it. Then open it.
  3. You’ll see a display of useful details about your battery, but you can ignore this for now. Instead, open Coconut battery’s preferences dialog box by clicking the entry on the application menu, or tapping Cmd+comma.
  4. Ensure the General icon is selected, and then put a check/tick alongside Launch At Startup. Instantly you’ll see a battery percentage display appear in the menu bar. Note how it’s accurate to one decimal place, unlike the built-in Mac battery life indicator.
  5. Whatever appears in the Format text field determines the nature of what power figures CoconutBattery displays in the menu bar, and clicking the menu bar icon at the right shows the options. I use the following, which displays both the charge and battery time figures, along with an arrow that indicates whether charging or discharging is taking place (down means discharge, up means charging; note that CoconutBattery will take a few seconds to respond when a charger is attached/detached and isn’t instant, as with the built-in battery status menu option):
     %s %p% %r
    Be sure to hit Enter after pasting in the above, or it won’t work!

Once done you can close CoconutBattery’s preferences dialog box, and quit the app. The menu bar icon will remain in place, and will appear each time you reboot.

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Kill irritating web page elements in Safari

25 May 2017, 07:46

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The history of the web has sadly been a history of irritations. Even now web designers don’t know better than to place irritations in the way of content. Sometimes these are adverts. Sometimes they’re social widgets. Sometimes they’re just things the web designer thought were a good idea.

Here’s how to get rid of them on-demand if you’re using Safari.

  1. Head over to the QuickNuke website and download the extension. Once it’s downloaded to your Downloads folder, click on it.
  2. You’ll be asked if you want to Trust the extension. Click to do so.
  3. Within Safari’s extensions preferences panel, which you’ll now see, click in the box alongside Hotkey Is ⌘⌥ and type K. You can then close the Preferences dialog box.

From now on, whenever there’s an annoying page element that you want to get rid of, tap the Cmd+Option (Alt)+K key combination. As you move the mouse cursor around you’ll see a pink box surround on-screen items. The aim is to move the cursor so that the item you want to remove is surrounded by this pink box. Sometimes moving the cursor a nudge can extend an existing box, so try various positions. Once you’ve found the correct box, click the mouse button. The item will disappear.

Notably, you must hit the Esc key to turn off QuickNuke – unless you want to get rid of other on-page elements, that is.

The page element you got rid of will return when you refresh or revisit the page, so isn’t gone permanently. You’ll have to kill it each time, because QuickNuke doesn’t remember what you opt to get rid of.

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How to hide menu bar icons on Mac – for free!

2 May 2017, 09:30

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For many Mac power-users the Bartender app has been a solid inclusion in their must-have list of apps. It’s asking price isn’t high at $15 but there’s now a way to get the most vital feature it provides – hiding any menu bar icons you select – entirely for free.

All you need do is install the Vanilla app, which was created by Mac developer Matthew Palmer. There is a “Pro” upgrade available for $3.99 that’s well worth it but the core functionality is entirely free – and there are no nags aside from a prompt that appears within the Preferences dialog box.

Here’s a GIF showing how Vanilla works when you hide and unhide menu bar icons:

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Once the app is up and running you can expand the Vanilla enclosure, then hold down the Cmd key to grab an existing menu bar icon and put it inside – just ensure the icon is placed to the left of the little dot, which will shift to the right to make space. Again, here’s a GIF showing me adding a few menu bar icons:

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To open the app’s preferences, just unfold Vanilla so the hidden menu bar icons are visible, and then click the dot, before selecting the menu option.

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