Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What happens when your hard drive dies on your Mac

As if you needed another reason to backup your important data such as years of family photos, videos, digital works of art, or other irreplaceable files, this will serve as another reminder. I visited the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store this evening and while waiting I witnessed the desperation of a woman whose hard drive failed on her MacBook Pro. The young man at the Genius Bar said they would replace the hard drive for $132, but they had to take the old hard drive, and they would not do any data recovery on it. The woman was in shock and lamented the fact that if she were to let the Apple Store replace her hard drive, she would lose all her files and Apple would not give her the opportunity to try to recover the data on the failed drive.

It is apparently Apple's policy to not attempt any data recovery on any failed drives, likely due to liability and privacy concerns. Feeling bad for the woman, and knowing that I might be able to salvage her data using some data recovery tools, I offered to try to recover her files myself (I'm a consumer IT moonlighter in addition to my day job working in IT for a large corporation). I stated that I would not charge her if I was unable to retrieve any data from her failed hard drive. Due to logistics with her travel, she needed to get her MacBook Pro running immediately and so she chose to have Apple replace the hard drive and lost all data from her old hard drive.

Whether you choose Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan, Dropbox, Live Mesh, Mozy, SpiderOak, SugarSync (my personal favorite), Wuala, or one of the hundreds of other online backup/sync services out there, having a backup will save you in cases such as this where your data is damaged, irretrievable, or stolen. Be safe!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The beginning of the end for Firefox

The web browser is probably one of the most important applications we run on our computers today. For many, it's the one application that remains open during an entire work day and is the means by which we connect, share, troubleshoot, learn, create, entertain and socialize. Think about what it would be like to go through your day without launching your web browser at all. Given that the web browser is such an important component of modern computing, it goes without saying that the stability and performance of a web browser is critical to its success and utility. In the last year or so, the performance and stability of the popular Firefox web browser has started to crumble.

Firefox has a memory leak problem (and has for some time starting around version 4, possibly even version 3). Mozilla's support site even states, "Firefox sometimes uses more memory (RAM) than it should. This can make Firefox slower, and in extreme cases, it can even make Firefox crash." The article then goes on to provide suggestions on how you (yes, YOU) can help Firefox use less memory. It's just sad that the web browser that upset Internet Explorer's dominance back in the early 2000s, and that was once the browser king in techie circles has started to show its age. Now on version 8, Firefox is performing extremely slow and is consuming too much memory for users that run the browser for an extended period of time with multiple tabs open.

For example, I'm running Firefox 8 on Mac OS X 10.6.8 and have the following app tabs pinned: Gmail, Hotmail, Google+, Twitter, and Google Reader (with additional tabs occasionally opened as needed). I'm using the following Firefox add-ons: Ad-Block Plus, Advertising Cookie Opt-Out (Google), Firebug, LastPass, NoScript, RSS Icon (necessitated by Mozilla removing the RSS icon from Firefox), Stylish, User Agent Switcher, Web Developer, and Xmarks. I've had Firefox running since this morning at around 7:30 am and it is now about 4:15 pm. Firefox is currently consuming 1.31GB of memory and spiking the CPU utilization around 15-26% with switching between tabs and user input becoming extremely sluggish:

I tried switching to Google's Chrome browser for a few weeks and noticed better performance, but I found myself missing the add-ons (notably NoScript and Ad-Block Plus, which don't have equivalent-performing Chrome counterparts) that I have become dependent upon over the years. There are also certain features of Firefox that I prefer over Chrome.  Such as when a pinned app tab lights up whenever there's an update, a new email, tweet, etc. Or, the ability to customize the user interface using Stylish to reduce the excessive space between bookmarks on the bookmarks toolbar.

Firefox has been a web browser favorite of geeks and power users in the past due to its rich ecosystem of add-ons and its ability to be highly customized. It has also not suffered from as many security exploits as Internet Explorer over the years. Third party developers have even developed Firefox add-ons to help fix the memory leak issue, which is particularly telling of the loyalty of the Firefox community. Between March 22, 2011 and Nov 8, 2011 Firefox went from version 4 to version 8. Firefox 9 is planned for Dec 20, 2011 with regular release cycles planned up through March 13, 2012 when Firefox 12 will be released. Regardless of the rapid release cycles and promised fixes to the browser, Firefox continues to be plagued with serious performance and stability issues. Let's hope Mozilla is able to resolve these issues soon, otherwise, there's going to be a major migration to Chrome and other more stable browsers. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How wireless carriers rip you off when you port your number

We recently ported our numbers from T-Mobile to Sprint, and then to AT&T all within a couple of weeks. We had a bad experience with Sprint, and bailed to AT&T after one week. We initially ported our number from T-Mobile on 10/14/11, but T-Mobile still charged for services through the remainder of our billing cycle which went to 11/06/11. Apparently, it is a common practice for wireless carriers to continue to charge you for services that you are not using when you port your number (because porting your number effectively cancels your service with a wireless carrier). Even though you cancel your service (we were on a month-to-month contract with T-Mobile and otherwise paid no early termination fees), the last bill is not prorated. T-Mobile does it, Sprint does it, Verizon does it, AT&T does it (although I could not specifically find it in their lengthy wireless customer agreement), and I'm sure every other wireless carrier does as well.

I was unaware of and annoyed by this sneaky little arrangement which is definitely spelled out in the T-Mobile terms and conditions. No one wants to pay two full cell phone bills in one month, even though you are effectively only using one carrier at a time. I'm not aware of too many other services where canceling your service doesn't result in a prorated final bill (maybe gym memberships?). How is the wireless industry able to do this? Indeed, the world still asks how they are able to keep charging so much for the quaint, old service we call text messaging when it only consumes 160 bytes of data. I suppose it's their way of recouping the costs of number porting. When I spoke to a T-Mobile representative about it, I got reprimanded that I should have read the terms and conditions more carefully.

UPDATE 11/16/11: Today I received our final bill from Sprint for the 7 days we were with them: $230. Ouch! Yes, $230 for 7 days of miserable Sprint service, during which time we dropped 99% of all voice calls and got only 1 bar of signal at my house and averaged data speeds of about 500kbps. The bill was originally $245, but they erroneously began charging me for Sprint service from October 11, even though our iPhone 4S phones didn't show up at our house and get activated until October 14. There is something morally wrong with the wireless industry forcing consumers into such anti-competitive agreements that discourage subscribers from switching mobile carriers, and continuing to charge for service when no service is actually being used by the consumer.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

"Where are we going?" Another amazingly beautiful time-lapse photography video

Amazon Prime customers can now checkout books from the "Lending Library" on Kindle devices

You can now checkout books on your Kindle device from Amazon's "Lending Library" if you are a subscriber to Amazon Prime ($79/year). There are no due dates, but hold on there, bookworm! Only one book at a time, and it is only available on Kindle devices, not on Kindle apps. The Kindle app is available on virtually all mobile platforms and computer operating systems, and is often preferred over more limited platforms such as Apple's iBooks, which is limited to iOS devices. This might have been enough for me to keep my Amazon Prime subscription for another year, if the Lending Library were available on all Kindle apps! (Sources: Amazon, The Verge)