Mac OS X Snow Leopard review

Snow Leopard is the new version of Mac OS X. It came out yesterday. I installed it on my Mac Pro this morning. The install was quick and smooth. I won’t bore anyone with the specifics here, but there are lots of little changes and details which make the whole experience even cleaner and tighter than Leopard, which was the last version of Mac OS X (including improvements to the Dock which sort out the problems which annoyed me in my review of Leopard).

The most amazing thing is how much faster it is than Leopard. Each version of Mac OS X gets faster than the previous one (unlike Windows, which is usually the opposite because it’s so crap), but this time it’s really dramatic, at least on my Mac Pro. Apple have implemented lots of impressive technologies to make this happen (Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL, 64-bit, etc.), and what’s great is that things will only get faster still when third-party applications start making full use of these facilities.

Safari is now so super-fast that I don’t think I can continue to resist switching back to it as my primary browser, even though there are a few annoyances involved with not using Firefox (but there are other benefits too, such as simpler bookmark syncing over MobileMe). All my other applications have continued to work perfectly except for EyeTV, which is what I use for watching live television, but that’s understandable because I’m using a very old version of that software. I could pay to upgrade it to the last version, which works fine on Snow Leopard, but since I’m not sure if I’m going to keep my TV licence I might just not bother.

So, all in all, Snow Leopard is an excellent step forward for Mac users, and an unbelievable bargain at only £25.

Edit: I’ve fixed EyeTV by trashing its preferences and setting it up again from scratch.

iPhone photography

For some time I’ve been increasingly interested in photography which largely ignores expensive hardware and precise attention to settings in favour of cheap, convenient hardware and instant point-and-shoot methodology. I think this approach is, in many ways, more in the ‘proper’ spirit of photography. It’s all about capturing a passing moment and presenting it as art, as opposed to carefully attempting to visually record a specific scene in as high a level of detail as possible.

Whilst I’m not opposed to SLRs in principle (and I probably ought to get one for my landscape photography really), I dislike the assumption that you have to use one in order to produce worthwhile photos. I also don’t like the way that SLRs are bulky so that you have to designate particular periods of time as being ‘photo time’ in which you carry your camera with you. I prefer to be able to take photographs instantly at any time. You never know when inspiration is going to strike.

It’s therefore quite compelling to use cheap, light cameras which can be carried at times when you might not have a bigger camera with you. Such cameras are inevitably going to produce photographs which are less perfect and detailed than photos taken with an SLR. However, this can be an advantage; artifacts added to photos from cheap cameras such as blurring, inconsistent lighting and inaccurate colour rendering are often visually desirable and can add mood and atmosphere to a photograph. There is a form of photography called Lomography which embraces the point-and-shoot application of cheap cameras mass-produced in China and Russia to get these kinds of atmospheric photographs.

I was thinking about obtaining a low-tech camera of some kind in order to experiment more with this sort of photography, but then it occurred to me that I’m carrying a potentially suitable camera around with me all the time in the form of my iPhone. This is certainly a comparatively low-quality camera which is pure point-and-shoot and tends to add blur and artifacts to resulting photographs. Upon investigation, I discovered that I wasn’t the first to come to this conclusion: there is an increasing trend for ‘iPhoneography’, even amongst a few professional photographers, for the reasons I’ve just described. However, there is another dimension to iPhone photography in the form of third party applications from the App Store, and there are loads of available apps enabling you to directly edit photos on your iPhone. These range from the sorts of things you’d expect such as crop, rotate, contrast adjustment, etc., right through to flash and HDR simulation, emulation of Lomography cameras, and various other weird and wonderful things.

As a result of all this I’ve been exceptionally inspired by the photographic capabilities of my iPhone, and I’ve been taking and editing lots of photos as a result. Consequently I decided to create a blog for my new photographic direction, which consists of the photos I’ve taken plus thoughts and ideas surrounding the photos. I like the way this all works well together due to the often surreal or somewhat otherworldly nature of the photographs that I tend to produce with the iPhone. I chose to use Tumblr for this blog, because it enables quick, easy and very creative blogging, and there’s a great iPhone client for it. I think Tumblr is a great site generally, and it seems to encourage creativity and interesting stuff that’s very easy to submit and enjoy. It’s sort of like Twitter but with media.

So, my new blog (or ‘tumblelog’) – featuring photos and text created and processed entirely on my iPhone – is here.

Excitingly, my iPhone photography has also been featured on the excellent iPhoneography blog.

The audio interface on my Mac Pro

For some time I’ve been using an Edirol UA-4FX USB audio interface on my Mac Pro. Whilst I was sorting out my new backup system, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why I was still using this device. I originally bought it to record things such as guitars and microphones which aren’t happy being fed into the line level audio input on my Mac Pro’s sound card. But I’ve been using Darien’s mixer for a long time which effectively takes care of that problem.

So, I simply removed the Edirol audio interface and went back to using the regular audio input and output on my Mac Pro’s sound card instead. This makes for a tidier setup, and I’ve discovered I actually seem to prefer the sound quality of my Mac Pro’s internal sound card compared to the Edirol device; it seems to have a wider frequency response including a much more well-rounded bass. I’ve read in places that the sound card which comes in a Mac Pro is not brilliant, but it sounds pretty good to me. Also, the sound card in the Mac Pro seems perfectly capable of handling a variety of different sample rates and resolutions in software with minimal hassle, whereas with the Edirol you have to keep changing the settings on the physical device itself, and there are limitations with certain configurations.

So, I’m now thinking: should I buy a new audio interface? I don’t have much motivation to do so because the internal Mac Pro interface seems fine for my needs. But maybe I’m missing out on vastly improved sound quality or some other features I’m not aware of?

Backing up Macs with Time Capsule

After months of juggling data around in increasingly frantic ways, I finally came to the realisation that I needed more disk space in my Mac Pro, so I bought a new SATA drive and fitted it. I now have three drives in there totalling almost 2 TB of space. This seems like an absurd amount of disk space, but it is amazing how much space all my data takes up. A lot of this is because I have my music, films and other media stored on hard disk instead of on CD, DVD, etc. like many people have, although all the audio for my own music production takes up vast amounts of space too.

I always enjoy doing upgrades on my Mac Pro because it’s a chance to take it out of its dark corner and really admire what an incredible piece of workmanship it is. I genuinely believe it’s probably one of the most beautiful tools ever created by humankind. Unfortunately, though, it’s bloody heavy, and I managed to strain my neck whilst moving it around. Whoops. Still, another thing I love about Macs generally is the ease with which you can move absolutely everything from one drive to another, including the operating system. Within about an hour I created an exact clone of my original main disk onto my new disk and was able to boot off the new disk and the wipe my original main disk. God only knows how I’d have had to do this with Windows.

Anyway, I then realised that the external drives I was using for doing backups were now woefully undersized, so it was time to invest in a new backup solution. Backups are, of course, absolutely vital for anyone who uses their computer for much more than faffing around on Facebook, so I didn’t want to compromise and thus I invested in an Apple Time Capsule. This is a box containing a disk which you can connect all your Macs to, either wirelessly or with ethernet, and it also functions as a wireless base station. All you have to do is switch on the superb Time Machine on each Mac you want to back up, and from that point on backups happen quietly and automatically over the network to the Time Capsule. It’s an extremely simple, powerful and elegant solution that is a prime example of why Apple stuff is so bloody brilliant.

Edit (23/01/11): My Time Capsule died after 17 months, and I discovered that a lot of them die after about 18 months due to a design flaw which causes overheating. That’s clearly not ideal, but apparently Apple have fixed this now, and they replaced my Time Capsule for free, so I’m hoping this one will last longer. That aside, it’s still a great system. From initially switching it on to setting up full backups from three Macs on my home network took just half an hour.

Having trouble selling CDs online

I took delivery of the new Dicepeople CDs three weeks ago, not that you’d believe it from the fact they haven’t appeared for sale anywhere yet. The reason they haven’t been for sale is because I made the disastrous choice to use a company called CD Baby to sell my CDs. CD Baby had a great reputation up until that point so I had no hesitation in trying to use them. Unfortunately, just before I signed up with them, they came under new management and immediately decided to attempt to migrate their site from an excellent and well-liked open source platform to a new Microsoft-based platform. The results of this were catastrophic.

Even weeks after the migration the site is still badly broken, the users are complaining about a drastic loss in functionality, and – alarmingly – the payment systems aren’t working properly. They’re so snowed under with work trying to fix all of this that they’ve stopped replying to emails from customers. In the time I’ve been with them I’ve had no communication from them at all apart from a couple of brief responses on Twitter, and I have no idea what is going on with my album. I’ve totally lost confidence in them so I’ve asked them to halt all processing on my album, refund all my money, and send my CDs back. I hope they at least manage to do this successfully.

As an alternative, I’ve been trying to set up PayPal. I’m not sure this is a perfect alternative, but I don’t have many other options. The PayPal site is slow and confusing and I’ve spent quite some time on there now trying to set up a ‘buy now’ button which, stupidly, doesn’t give me the option of providing different types of postage depending on whether the buyer is in the UK or overseas. Then I tried to set up my Dicepeople email address to work with the PayPal account and I can’t get the forwarding working because this involves a configuration change with my DNS provider and the email bit on 123-reg‘s admin console is broken.

So it’s not going too smoothly. I hope it proves easier when I get round to setting up digital downloads.

Edit: I’ve got this set up with a PayPal button on the Dicepeople website now, and I reckon it’s not looking too bad.