The Apple upgrade mill rings the juice out of me

A recent job reminded me of why I no longer buy Apple products. The client calls to say they just got a new iPhone and are having problems getting a custom ringtone onto it. OK, sounds simple so I run over on lunch. Client had gone to a local AT&T store when their old phone gave up the ghost. AT&T store guy asks client for the password for their Apple iCloud account so they can set up the new phone. Client doesn’t remember it, OK, no problem – they ask for the client’s email password so they can reset the iCloud account and get into it to set it up. Client doesn’t remember it since I had set it up a long time ago and its saved on the phone and MacBook at home. Note: client has all the passwords written down but didn’t realize they would need that info and so didn’t bring it. AT&T store guy resets both account passwords, sets up the phone and the email account on the iPhone with the new passwords. Client hadn’t yet realized that all other devices tied to his account no longer worked since the new passwords had only been set up on the new iPhone.

Figuring this out upon my arrival I proceed to explain that we really need to reset these passwords again to something we control. The passwords chosen by the AT&T store were obviously default passwords they use for all clients they set up and so, are fairly insecure. Also, the client doesn’t want to run the risk of having the phone hacked into by someone connected to the store someday, right? It wasn’t as easy as I hoped given that iCloud forces you to use security questions and AT&T guy had changed them and not told the client? Selecting appropriate security answers and passwords and getting them all written down on the (previously forgotten) sheet of paper for the client as well as setting them on all the client’s devices took most of “lunch”.

Now, on an android device there are lots of ways to get a custom ringtone (or any file) onto the phone. Plugging an android phone into a computer you can usually just copy the file over to it (if your computer and android device are set up properly for this) or you could just email yourself the file and save it to the android device from the email. Apple on the other hand wants to ensure that any and all media files are passed through their “DRM managment system” (iTunes) to ensure that you didn’t steal that file you created yourself which pleases their Corporate Media Partners.

I had originally gone over to this client expressly to set up a ringtone so I plugged the iPhone into the client’s MacBook and fired up iTunes only to be greeted by an error message: “This iPhone cannot be used because it requires a newer version of iTunes” OK, so not a big deal – I downloaded the latest version of iTunes and went to install it but was met with a second error message because the new version of iTunes required a newer version of OSX than was already on the MacBook. At this point I realized I couldn’t finish the job right away, and made arrangements to come back later that evening..

The client purchased his MacBook in 2013 with OSX 10.8 and has been very happy with it. Certain third party software on the Mac required that version and since upgrading to a new version of an OS is sort of a drastic measure to take when everything is working fine, he/we opted to stay at 10.8 over the last couple years even though newer versions had come out. The new phone forced the issue, and I started the upgrade. Even though the update was free, when you are using an existing Apple ID, Apple requires you to enter a credit card for the Apple store to work even for a free download. This is horrible thing, and its reason enough for me to never use Apple again but thats the way it works. Supposely you can get around it by creating another Apple ID at the time of purchase and selecting None as the payment method, but what a hassle – we opted to just put in a card.

…and, it didn’t work. Thats right, for whatever reason a corporate AMEX didn’t work and we tried it several times. We ended up using a personal VISA card to complete the “free” purchase of an OS upgrade. Speaking as a Linux user, the idea of paying for an OS upgrade at all is sort of anethema, but to be forced to fork up a credit card number over the internet for a FREE upgrade is just plain ridiculous. The download took about an hour, and the actual upgrade somewhat less and it went fairly smoothly. After a reboot I only had one issue with keychain errors which kept popping up on the screen about it and I couldn’t close them all. It was disheartening and annoying until I found that all I had to do was delete a folder (the one named with a long series of digits) from ~/Library/Keychains and reboot.

Once OSX was upgraded on the MacBook and running, I could finally install the latest iTunes (thankfully a painless process), connect the iPhone (again thankfully the cable wasn’t some new proprietary connector the MacBook didn’t have), drag the ringtone over to the phone in iTunes… Whoops! iTunes recognized there was an important OS update for the (brand new) iPhone! Downloading that took some more time, and then applying that update took some more and restarting the iPhone and then I could finally attempt to copy one single goddamn file to the fucking iPhone once again.

As hinted at earlier, the OS update broke a vital piece of software which was purchased for and ran well under OSX 10.8 but would not run under OSX 10.12 at all. This required the purchase, download and install of a newer version of this large software. Not a fault of Apple, but this software’s authentication process was a bit arcane and took over an hour to complete properly. This software tested, the client wanted to print out a sample of a test document we created with the software …and the printer would no longer function. Luckily, Apple’s print dialog was smart enough to recognize that it needed new drivers and provided a helpful button to update the driver. It didn’t even require a reboot and started printing immediately after the driver was updated. Thank heavens for small favors.

While I’m not personally interested in being on the Apple upgrade mill, I do really appreciate the rest of you that are.

[update 161121]

In response to the very good point about this situation largely being brought upon the user by not keeping up with updates to the OS over time on G+, I feel I should add the following here:

In this case, the user is not particularly computer savvy, wouldn’t do updates on their own and would not pay for this kind of basic maintenance to be performed by yours truly. That said, the expensive third party software would have had to have been re-bought several times over by this time. I also find it interesting, actually, that just as every business person is now expected to be able to do all those things secretaries used to do now all computer users are expected to be their own IT staff. Generally I find most folks are doing those additional tasks about as well as you might expect. Very few can type as fast or as accurately as my grandmother did, and most folks can’t stand doing updates and dealing with the inevitable fallout thereof. As you pointed out, when otherwise brilliant people are not concerned enough about those things that IT folk care so much about they are indeed “sternly chastised” about it.

Windows 7 updates stuck

If you have older machines that are running Windows 7 you may have run into an issue where Windows Update gets stuck at the Preparing to install screen (seemingly forever). I’ve been able to get past this issue just by stopping the Windows update service, then applying the “July 2016 update rollup for Windows 7 SP1 and Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1” (see KB 3172605 below) though its possible thats because I already have applied a bunch of other patches so your mileage may vary. Also, it appears this may cause some issues with bluetooth so be aware of that if you use BT (my machines do not). There is a good article about the issue on InfoWorld by Woody Leonhard from back at the end of July.

KB 3172605

Comey is a backdoor man

FBI Chief Comey blames Snowden for releasing info, ignores the fact that mass spying on Americans was illegal and anti-American and so the FBI’s actions essentially were the catalyst for the mass adoption of encryption to begin with. Wants the US to have an “adult” conversation about how math should work – sounds like a child whining that his homework is too hard. With all the hacks and leaks over the last couple years talking about making encryption weaker (or outlawing software that protects folks) seems ridiculous. There should probably be some minimum requirements for becoming the FBI director which are more rigorous than going to the right school and getting a degree in theology. Comey is a lawyer, not a technologist and it shows.

Fix for Firefox typing delay and slow scrolling

I frequently boot Arch Linux from a USB3 drive in various Intel based machines which I’ve discussed here before. Recently I was using the drive in a Dell e7240 which is a fairly nice, if older, Core i5 based ultrabook and although the drive was inserted in the USB port marked SS (USB3) performance in Firefox was awful. While performance in terminal windows seemed as quick as usual, typing anything in Firefox induced a delay that was so bad that the letters I typed into the URL bar or into a search form field wouldn’t show up on screen until several seconds after I had typed them. Scrolling with the wheel on the wireless mouse would induce a pause every. single. time. I tried to scroll. It was actually quite maddening, and monitoring in htop didn’t reveal any CPU or memory bottleneck. I disabled a bunch of extensions (plugins) that I wasn’t using often anyway and restarted Firefox with not much change.

A quick Google search turned up this amazingly informative section on the Arch wiki. It turns out that OpenGL OMTC is indeed disabled by default when Firefox is running on this hardware. The page explains that this reduced performance setting might be getting set for a very good reason, but ignoring that good advice, I switched it on in about:config easily enough by toggling

layers.acceleration.force-enabled true

and restarting Firefox. Checking about:support again confirmed it was now enabled. Now Firefox is running just as fast as usual again! I will just have to use it for a while before I can really judge how stable the setup is, but at least I can use the machine.


Finding the perfect netbook-sized laptop

Falling in love with the form factor

Ever since I first got an android based ASUS Transformer model TF-101 back in 2011 I’ve been a fan of the tiny netbook sized laptop form factor. The Transformer could be separated from its (optional) keyboard but I never used the Transformer in tablet mode anyway, and the few times I did it wasn’t for very long. The Transformer was quite heavy – a solidly built device that certainly outlived its usefulness – and tablets always have to be held or propped up in a suitable position, my hands would tire using it that way quickly. Besides, the keyboard had an integral battery which would keep the thing going for about 12 hours! The post linked above goes into detail about Android as a choice for OS if you’re wondering.

asus-transformerI kept the Transformer relevant for as long as I could by flashing it with custom ROMs. After a couple years most manufacturers of android phones and tablets stop updating software for their older devices and users are left to fend for themselves against an onslaught of security breaches and malicious websites. The folks working to build custom ROMs for these older devices are doing so mainly because they want to use the latest software on their older devices and at least with Android (an open source project at its core) this is possible. I had very good luck running the Transformer on KatKiss ROMs and its still working fine running KatKiss 5.1.1.

note: Since Apple has monopoly over their devices, Apple users can usually keep their devices current longer – but ironically Apple has also successfully promoted a culture which encourages tossing the old devices and buying new ones every couple years even though the new devices are so similar to the older ones its almost incredible they are able to make the case! Customization, the removal of Apple’s bloatware, or installation of open source apps isn’t possible on these devices though.

The web is slowing me down!

The internet itself has changed over the years too and simply surfing the web takes a lot more horsepower than it once did. There are now sometimes upwards of 30 separate javascript connections being made out to other servers in order to create a single webpage (install noscript in firefox to review them); I routinely encounter mandatory ads that float over the page obscuring the text sometimes floating down the page as you scroll; videos are often set to play automatically when you load a page even if your little device isn’t powerful enough to play it and you’ll end up waiting for it to load before you can do anything useful; there’s often a lot of CSS (sometimes 10 or more stylesheets!) and while I’m a fan of the new standards – these styles are very demanding to parse and require the latest and greatest browsers to display properly. I’m a fairly patient person but it was late 2015 and the Transformer just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

An old Gateway gets refurbed

IMG_20160322_114229A friend at work brought in a netbook sized Gateway from around 2009 which looked perfect. The processor was sorta slow, but compared to the nVidia Tegra2 in the transformer it was lightning. My friend had brought it in for help replacing the hard drive which had failed, and when I stuck an SSD in that machine and slapped Ubuntu on it I instantly knew I could use that machine. I was thinking about looking for a used one online, but didn’t get very far and gave up.

The RCA Viking Pro (2015)

I’ve been using android in this format (a 10″ tablet with attached keyboard) for so long that when I started looking around for a replacement thats what I went looking for. There really wasn’t very much of a selection. I was, however, amazed to find a line of cheap Chinese tablets branded with the RCA trademark. I’m well aware that RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, went out of business in 1986 because that was a fairly big deal at the time. The trademark is maintained and licensed out to various manufacturers today, including which markets tablets made in China by Venturer Electronics in Shanghai and ALCO Electronics in Hong Kong. The tablets are very low cost and can be found in Wal-Mart or on Amazon (where I got mine) for under $100.

P_20160704_211326I think it was the cost that hooked me. Here’s a device that looked a *lot* like the Transformer I loved, with a faster processor and twice as much flash disk space. It had a detachable keyboard (though I wouldn’t need to detatch it as I’ve already explained), miniSD and USB ports, and it ran android 5. I didn’t realize at first that it would be running an older version of android (5.0) than I was running on my Transformer via the custom ROM, but it wasn’t too ancient and since it was fairly new there was some hope that it would get an update.

I used it for only a short time before I realized I would really need some kind of case for it. The Viking Pro is very cheap plastic and slippery – this was no over-designed and heavy duty ASUS Transformer. I opted for a faux leather folio cover which the page on Amazon describes as “Vegan leather” which got more than a laugh or two! The case keeps the keyboard and tablet snugly together as its carried and used, and while it makes it more difficult to detatch if you wanted to use the tablet on its own (which I have done more often than I did with the Transformer because its so light) you can still do it once you figure it out.

I’ve been using the Viking Pro for a few months now and I can say that I don’t like the ultra cheap keyboard as much as I liked the ASUS Transformer keyboard, but at about 1/5 the price what do you want, really?

Lots of the programs I use on the Viking Pro are the same ones I used on the Transformer. I’ve discovered new apps over time – perhaps I’ll list them out here soon – but I’ve been able to get most of my day to day work done on it. I can check email and calendars from lots of accounts, surf the modern web with some limited sluggishness on some sites, watch videos and stream them to the chromecast (which we keep plugged into the TV) with ease. I take notes on it at meetings, and play some light games. I play music on it from time to time but the sound quality of the speaker is horrible so only if I’m going to plug it in to a speaker.

Could a chromebook become my ultimate netbook?

It seems, however, that it has only taken some time for the rest of the world to catch up to what I already knew – in May Google announced plans to make the Play store available on chromeOS later this year which would bring android apps to the form factor I’d already been using for four years in a real way but for now this is only available in the development versions of ChromeOS.

P_20160704_211028I like the Viking Pro, but I really wanted something a bit nicer, preferably a netbook sized laptop no bigger than 11″ with attached keyboard and good battery life. I came across the ASUS Chromebook C201 and was instantly struck by its classic Macbook styling (though, in miniature) and when I looked into it I was able to find a bunch of them USED on Amazon some for as low as $140. Since Chromebooks don’t run Android and instead everything you run revolves entirely around the Chrome browser, I knew I wouldn’t be happy with it unless I could get around that limitation. At that price I’d be willing to do a bit of work to see if I could get Linux running on it.

With Google’s announcement of the Play store coming to Chromebooks (and this one is on the list) I figured that at least I’d be able to run some of the apps I love on it eventually. I didn’t realize when I was looking into them that this model doesn’t come with a touchscreen though so its unclear how much fun those android apps are going to be on the C201. Since I prefer to use a wireless mouse anyway hopefully it won’t be too bad. This Google I/O talk describes what this wedding of ChromeOS and android might look like:

I was able to get Ubuntu Linux (with XFCE4) running with ease using crouton and have been enjoying using all the tools I’m used to using on my big boy rigs and switching back and forth between ChromeOS and Linux. Some cases in point: ChromeOS doesn’t let you run Firefox which I prefer (for reasons I won’t go into here), but I can use it fine under Linux on this device. ChromeOS requires you to have a cloud printer (which I don’t have) to print. I was able to set up my printer just fine from Linux. There are just tons of tools I use every day that are free and open source – they don’t work under ChromeOS but run fine on this Chromebook under Linux. The Chromebook side is fine for checking email and playing some videos (though casting them seems a lot clunkier than on android), but for anything more than that I’ll be using this in Linux. I was *not* able to get desktop Minecraft running on it (I got close) because crouton doesn’t support 3D hardware acceleration on Arm (the Rockchip is an Arm processor).

So far the ASUS C201 Chromebook seems well made (certainly more so than the Viking Pro, though nothing has broken on that device as yet), though nowhere near as sturdy as the old Transformer. The C201 is really thin and light (which is nice) but definitely flexes when you put some twisting pressure to it. My advice: treat it with kid gloves. Its Rockchip Cortex‑A17 (some claim its actually A12) RK3288 CPU is no slouch and its able to run ChromeOS and a bunch of Linux applications with ease. It has two USB 2.0 ports (USB 3 would have been nice, but really I don’t think it is necessary since it has a miniSD slot which can be used to run an alternate OS). Since I have an Arch Linux 64GB USB drive which gets a lot of use I was able to stick that into one of the USB slots and make symlinks over for some folders so I can store files and images over to that drive instead. Linux initially took up only about 1.5GB of my 16GB internal drive but with it set up with all the tools I like its up to about 3GB now. I’ve had no issues closing the lid and having it wake from sleep even with Linux running. I do have to deal with the annoying Development screen at boot, just hit Ctrl-D to bypass but if someone accidentally hits the space bar its “game over man, game over!”