The Northern Spy: yet another migration
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The Northern Spy: yet another migration

By Rick Sutcliffe

Last Month the Spy recounted his adventures with changing his Linux server to a bigger, badder machine running a much more recent OS. This month, he bit yet another migration bullet, moving into a new laptop.

Why an issue? Software. The longtime reader may recall the iconoclast Spy has continued to use good old reliable Eudora for his mail client, lo these many years. Well, he cannot do that even with Lion, much less Mountain Lion. BTW, the new machine is a 15-inch Retina PowerBook Pro tricked out with 16G of RAM and a 500G SSD.

Retinal impressions are somewhat mixed. The Spy has been using a 17-inch, mid-2007 vintage MacBook Pro, and going down a size causes a noticeable reduction in screen real estate -- though when in desktop mode hooked up to a larger monitor this is scarcely an issue. The new screen is sharper and more readable. with the glossy finish not so much a problem as it was in past years.

However, the changes are not so startling that they warrant all the excitement in the press. Having no Firewire connections, no ethernet connection, and a new type of power connector (Magsafe 2 is Apple proprietary; adapters available) are all artifacts of a much thinner case, one that cannot accommodate wider connectors. This little machine needs a lot of Thunderbolt adapters and splitters, and the ones for Firewire only became available after he had the new laptop a few weeks. At least there are two USB connections and an SD card slot, but all those cables do add to the cost. Was it worth it to save a few millimetres in thickness?

Video is multiple redundant. Besides the two Thunderbolt connections (which could be used for video if not taken for ethernet, Firewire, or an eSATA adapter) the right sides sports an HDMI outlet. Add a high speed cable and a $3 adapter to DVI on the back of the KVM switch (courtesy of the surplus section of Princess Auto) and the new puppy is tied in nicely to the Spy's desktop without using either Thunderbolt port for external video. Note that the machine could run four monitors simultaneously, though.

The Spy notes that the new machine (and OS?) is much better at detecting changes in attached monitors, except that when the KVM switch is pressed to make it active, the TB cable sometimes needs to be unplugged and plugged in again for the MacBook to notice the monitor. The keyboard is recessed slightly instead of protruding, so a screen protector cloth may not be necessary. However, it is the typical portable keyboard: okay for travel use, but not much for heavy duty writing. Also, an SSD is much faster than a mechanical drive, but the Spy knew that, as he already had three.

OTOH, the Spy notes that these new MacBooks are essentially non-upgradable. Order with the maximum RAM and drive, because changing anything in a system where everything is glued or soldered together is not easy. Ditto batteries, whose failure in three years will be a major repair. The Spy sees Steve Jobs' smiling face looking up at him from every aspect of this "you get what we make and no user-upgradeability" philosophy.

For this reason, the effective average lifetime of these boxes is bound to be lower. The Spy cannot see them lasting five+ years as have their predecessors. This one was delivered as a work machine and will be used principally for classroom projections; the economics for an individual purchaser are questionable. Buying one of the last remaining 17-nch MacBook Pros might be, for many people, a better investment.

On the OS side of things the new machine arrived with Lion installed, but Mountain Lion had just been released. So the Spy used his one Snow Leopard machine and his developer account to get a coupon to download the new cat from the Apple Store for free, made an installer disk from the image buried therein, then nuked the new machine, partitioned the drive and installed the new OS from scratch (always the best way).

See, the Spy has this paranoia about running anything, including an OS, that he hasn't installed himself. Note that downloads from the store are marked with the AppleID of the account, and can only be upgraded from that account. Thus pirated software (none here folks) will always be flagged as needing to be upgraded through some other account.

How does Mountain Lion look against its predecessors? Well, the Spy has never used Lion, so is comparing to the two Leopards. Hey, the more things change the more they remain the same. Yes, there are differences, but for the most part the Spy finds his workflow unaffected. A few tweaks to the Finder and other behaviour soon restored more of the look and feel he was used to, and life on the desktop continued more or less as always.

It's interesting, when one thinks about it, that anyone who could use the original Mac 128K machine back in the 70s could use today's comparative behemoths. The leap from Leopard/Snow Leopard to Mountain Lion is far, far less than that from OS9 to OS X, where much of his software became nonfunctional in a hurry, or saw new versions that took years to catch up to the old.

As for the new stuff, the notification centre seems obtrusive, and the finger gestures are of little value when attached to a desktop and in closed lid mode unless an external pad is also present. And, sorry to say this kiddies, but the Spy doesn't use Twitter, and only occasionally looks at his own Facebook page, so doesn't care about the "deep integration" of the two (the latter only in 10.8.2 BTW). Oh, get over the shock. The Spy has work to do, and prefers real friends to the virtual ones. Blood is thicker than a bit stream.

Most of the Spy's software had new versions available for Mountain Lion and there were very few issues. Firefox, Scrivener and NisusWrite Pro just ran, as did BBEdit, USB Overdrive (needed for Kensington trackball), DragThing, the MS bloatware and Excel. Synology Assistant and the Synology server software needed an upgrade, and no doubt other issues will surface as he tries out his lesser-used software over time. The much-touted new Safari 6 has unified search and browse into one box, which is convenient, but not earth shattering. The Spy generally prefers Firefox over Safari, though not by much. There are very few sites that neither can render.

Of considerable interest to the Spy is that his mid-2007, 17-inch MacBook Pro is the earliest machine that can run Mountain Lion. He's personally purchased that box from his workplace as a retired machine, bumped the memory and hard drive up to 6GB and 500G respectively, and will make it his desktop machine at home. He took the stable image of the new Retina book and copied it to the old machine, and now ... he writes even as the MBP17 is booting into Mountain Lion for the very first time, and ... and ... it works! Very good, though of course not as fast as the new Retina.)

The mail issue generated by far the most work of the entire migration process. The Spy had looked into this a few months back, and the reader might recall him deciding to go with Apple's Mail, then finding a workaround to allow him to carry that mail from machine to machine, backing up and restoring with his files partition.

However, the instructions he detailed previously in this space turned out (a) to be not quite correct, as a preference file (~/Library/Preferences/ also had to be symlinked to a copy on the files volume and (b) even then not applicable to Mountain Lion as it keeps Mail preferences in a different location (~/Library/Containers/ and this container shows every sign of being the beginning of further changes to the way Mail and other Apple apps will interact with the system (most of its contents are currently aliases, and likely to be changed).

The Spy had all but decided to simply store his entire home folder on the separate partition (easy to do BTW by copying the home folder there and setting the path to it in User Preferences), but experimenting with Mail in its normal location ran him against an insurmountable obstacle. What with personal, work, business, and other connections, the Spy reads a total of eleven email accounts. He has more addresses than that, but most of them forward to one of the eleven. (Note to spammers: all eleven are heavily filtered. Don't even think about it!)

Of course, although one can in theory import mailboxes and assorted other preferences, one cannot import accounts, and must painstakingly re-create every one (Eudora called them personalities) in Apple Mail. This is tedious, with several more steps than necessary, but he did the first six or so, then experimented. All worked well in Leopard, but when the whole thing was moved over to Mountain Lion, problems surfaced in the form of timeouts when contacting SMTP servers.

Mail could be popped, but every time an SMTP server could not be communicated with within a certain (short) span, Apple Mail then erased the password and put that sending account offline. The password then had to be re-entered. The errors happened at random over the accounts every time the Connection Doctor was run, affecting different SMTP information each time. The problem appears to be some kind of timing issue under Mountain Lion, but the failed interaction rendered Apple Mail completely unusable for the Spy.

Time to reconsider the runner-up (and only other candidate) for handling his mail--Thunderbird. Last time he had looked at it, functionality seemed an issue, but this time he had little choice. First up was the question of whether he could run it with all operating files on his files partition. The answer was yes, provided that (a) after Thunderbird is initialized for the first time the directory ~/Library/Thunderbird/Profiles/ is moved to the files volume, and (b) the file ~/Library/Thunderbird/profiles.ini is edited to point there (can be done with the profile manager or other means). That file then needs to be on every machine using (a copy of) the files volume, but is NOT a preference file, and does not change as Thunderbird is used (unless profiles are added), so needs to be placed (moved in) a single time per machine.

So far so good. Next to create the "accounts" and try them out on both Leopard and Mountain Lion. This proved much easier than in Apple Mail, as Thunderbird is clever about working out the correct settings by querying the mail server to determine its type. As with Apple Mail, POP accounts were not an issue. This time, thought, SMTP servers also worked correctly, though one must attempt to send a message, have that fail for the need to set the certificate, then send it again.

But all worked on both OSs. So he bulled ahead, setting up all eleven accounts, compacting his Eudora mailboxes, transferring them all using Eudora Mailbox Cleaner (runs under Rosetta, not on Lion+) though Thunderbird itself has an import function--not tested,--then reorganizing things to accommodate Thunderbird's workflow, which is not all that different, but takes some getting used to. Eudora Mailbox Cleaner put all the mailboxes into a new profile in the default location rather than in the one on the files volume, but these could all be moved in the Finder to where they belonged, and afterwards all was functional.

Once Thunderbird was tricked out with a variety of extensions (25 so far) to improve the workflow (including a very poor date presentation) and to provide assorted on-screen clickable shortcuts, he then had to re-mark all the archived messages as "read" as importing changes them to unread. That done, all seemed copacetic. Thunderbird will take some getting used to, but it just works, and on all three tested machines and OSs is faster than either old Eudora or new Apple Mail. The only settings the Spy has used in the past that are not available in Thunderbird are (a) one to uncheck an account from being read on manual mail checks (he never does automatic ones) and (b) another to open every folder that has new mail in a separate window.

Almost the first thing he did to keep the clutter in the folders column down was to nest folders within accounts by category. That heklps. It would be even better, however, to allow the user to create "smart" folders across multiple accounts, or to allow the top folder in a hierarchy to be smart. Right now, it appears only the in, out, draft, and junk boxes can do this, and the action is automatic. Filters creation is about the same degree of difficulty as in Eudora and Apple Mail, but has to be done from scratch, as filters are not imported.

Bottom Lines

The Retina Mac is a nice machine with a very readable screen, but the price per feature may be too steep for most people, and the lack of upgrading options will turn others off. Also a clutter of adapters is needed on the desktops and in the carrying case for Firewire, ethernet, and video.

Apple Mail was a non-starter for the Spy. However, the reader should note that all his testing was done under 10.8.0, and by the time 10.8.1 was installed, he had given up completely on Apple Mail. On alternate hardware, if the wind is blowing from the east on a Tuesday, other users' kilometreage will surely vary. On the third hand, Thunderbird is good, fast, a brother to Firefox, and configurable to death. It does freeze or lose functionality occasionally, especially after installing or removing new extensions, but these may be artifacts of frequently changing contexts.

Thunderbird mail files have survived several trips among a variety of machines now, and the Spy is fairly confident all is working. Time to delete all the attempts at making Apple Mail work and write off the hours spent to experience. The Firefox/Thunderbird development communities do a terrific job, and are churning out updates as we speak, so the product is likely to get better and more configurable. Time will tell all, but the Spy is at the moment happy with this email client.

So, call this a passing first midterm exam for both hardware and software, with the final exam some distance off (so far an A- or better for all but Apple Mail, which gets a D- and the price of the Retina MAcBook Pro which gets a C-). No doubt there will be further software and hardware adventures in coming months. Stay tuned.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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