Usability

Exhaustive/exhausting Sunday, April 23, 2006

Maurits, of plasticsfuture, has posted an exhaustive, two part review of backup programs on Mac OS X. The first part focuses on the general issue of backing up files on OSX, and the second contains an extensive analysis of more backup programs than I’ve seen covered in one place—freeware, shareware and commercial.

In my blog, I tend to talk about the usability aspects of SuperDuper!, because that’s where I focus my efforts. I can only do that because Bruce and I have very high standards for the rest of SuperDuper!, and Bruce’s copy engine is second to none. In fact, in this review of 16 tools, SuperDuper! was the only tool that worked correctly:

The surprising conclusion is that almost all Macintosh backup or cloning programs do not fulfil (sic) their primary purpose, i.e., they are not able to restore files with all associated metadata. This is despite the fact that many of the tools are advertised as “safe”, “accurate”, “bug-free”, etc. The tools that fail are harmful because they generate a false sense of security. Even more exasperating is that many of these tools cost (significant amounts of) money. The only laudable exception is the great SuperDuper application, which performs flawlessly. (Emphasis mine.)

Many thanks to the pseudonymous Maurits for putting this whole thing together: it couldn’t have been easy to do.

MCE Experience vs. Comcast DVR Saturday, March 18, 2006

I was reading Wil Shipley’s recent post about his horrible Comcast DVR experience, which has some kind of Microsoft DVR software on it, and it amazed me how lousy it was, compared to my Sony VGX-XL1 Media Center PC.

I know Microsoft is a big company, but it sounds like the DVR division (if, indeed, they provided the software he was using) not only hasn’t talked to the Media Center team, they haven’t even looked at Media Center. Because MCE doesn’t have any of these problems. (Which isn’t to say it’s perfect, but it’s positively shiny in comparison to what Wil describes.)

I’ve been avoiding anything but analog cable because of exactly this kind of issue—I just don’t want to be forced to take Comcast’s lousy box. The Vista version of MCE, with CableCard support, can’t come soon enough.

Toshiro Mifune Gets His Organize On! Monday, January 23, 2006

Looks like the fine folks at Bare Bones Software have released Yojimbo, an great new take on the organizer-cum-database that many have tried, and failed, to do well…

The Yojimbo team has done a great job, addressing many of the classic missteps directly, with:

  • A good first cut at a smart “Quick Input” panel that analyzes what’s on the clipboard and pre-fills as much as possible
  • Rapid, global search capabilities that make it easy to locate things—including Spotlight support
  • A useful set of built-in datatypes
  • Easy “sub” organization using groups and tags
  • Full support for “archived” web pages, PDFs and the like
  • Item-by-item encryption
  • And, best of all, transparent, multi-machine synchronization through SyncServices and .mac
They’ve leveraged the great new features of Tiger like CoreData, SyncServices and—hey!—it’s even a Cocoa app!

The price is a very reasonable $39 for a single user on any number of (automatically synchronized) computers, with family pack and educational pricing, too.

To top it off, there’s a free, 30-day demo. There’s no excuse not to check it out—go to it!

Media Centers Sunday, December 11, 2005

More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!

Hello? It’s your other anchor calling. Hello? Friday, November 18, 2005

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I’m a fan of the i-mate SP3 Windows Mobile Smartphone.

Mobile phones are one of those things that are difficult to generalize: your reaction to the phone is likely based entirely on what you expect to get out of the device. So, if you’re looking for style and “fun”, there are phones for you. You want an email monster? Got that covered with the Treo or—for the truly disturbed—the Crackberry.

I have some basic requirements:

  1. The phone has to be GSM.
  2. It has to be able to be used as a bluetooth, tethered modem for my PowerBok.
  3. It has to be a good phone, of course.
  4. It has to be reasonably pocketable.
  5. It should work well with Salling Clicker.
  6. It has to support a bluetooth headset.
  7. It has to have a full-featured, totally synced phonebook that isn’t just a list of names/numbers.
  8. The mail client has to be full-featured, with IMAP support and folders.
  9. The web browser has to be fast, reasonably modern, and render well on a small screen.
  10. The calendar/tasks module has to sync, too.
I’ve gone through a lot of phones—a disturbing number—and the big problem I had was getting the “balance” right: they were either focused too much on being just a simple phone (Motorola v600, Sony T610), had flaky software (Sony P800/P900), weren’t phone enough (i-mate PDA2k, i-mate JAM), or just plain sucked (HP 6315).

But, with the SP3, i-mate/HTC got it right, at least for me.

It’s small, light, fast. Unlike a lot of Microsoft stuff, you can tell they not only thought about what the user needed, but actually came up with good solutions for those needs. A perfect example of this is the way you look up names in the phone book—you just start typing on the keypad, and it finds names that match those keys by number, any of the various letter combinations, etc.

It just works. And that can be said for the whole package: it works. Well. That’s a really good thing, and too rare in this market.

And now, they’ve gone and one-upped themselves with the SP5/5m.

The SP5 uses Windows Mobile 5, rather than 2003, and WM5 has made a lot of subtle improvements that definitely make things better, in little ways. The screen has been massively upgraded to a full QVGA unit, and it’s bright, sharp and gorgeous. And, somehow, they’ve put in both EDGE and WiFi support, while keeping the battery life and—for the most part—the small size.

It does have some faults, of course. It’s slightly underpowered, and has some problems pushing all those bits on the new screen. The radio stack, as is the case with most just-released HTC units, is a bit flaky. And it doesn’t have as much free memory as I’d expect it to have.

Plus, Salling Clicker doesn’t work with it yet, though it does work very nicely with the SP3. C’mon, Jonas—the SP5 needs some love!

But the biggest issue right now is that it doesn’t sync directly with my Mac, because it’s not supported by Missing Sync for Windows Mobile yet. No doubt they’ll fix that, but in the meantime I’ve actually managed to get things working reasonably well by making use of my Kerio Mail Server’s Exchange functionality and—of all things—Entourage. More on Entourage and this whole sync solution in another post.

In the meantime, it’s good stuff, and recommended.

Full stop. Thursday, November 17, 2005

As of about five minutes ago, I finished the new SuperDuper! v2.0 User’s Guide. Barring any egregious errors (there’s always one), I won’t have to revisit again for a little while… a relief.

I hope that all of you out there in Blogland find it an improvement and if not—when you get to see it—please drop me some feedback.

On to the next task!

The Ninety-Nine-Per-Cent Solution Sunday, October 30, 2005

A recent post on Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch’s Tales from the Red Shed reminded me to give a bit more of the philosophy behind what we’re doing in SuperDuper!

Wolf points out that we don’t do “temporal versioning”—i.e. traditional “incremental backups”—and he’s right.

The Technical Problem
Doing versioning “right” requires both a non-native file format and a database of what’s been going on over time. (I don’t consider the technique used by some programs—stuffing old versions in special folders on the backup media—a reasonable solution, since it pollutes the original and complicates restore. And, yes, you could store in a parallel location with dated folders… but read on.) You need to be able to reconstruct this database from the backup media. And you need rather extensive UI to manage this stuff. (I could keep going, bringing up other issues like the patent problem, but those are the big issues involved.)

This, by definition, significantly increases the complexity of the program’s back and front ends—which makes the program much harder to QA properly. As Wolf says, it’s incredibly important this stuff works. Of course, that’s our problem—it’s our job to ensure that the features we implement are well tested and work.

The User’s Problem
That added complexity has another major problem: it can alienate and confuse users, and a proprietary, single-vendor format leaves them without an alternative should a problem arise. So, it’s important that any solution be easy to understand, usable, and not have any “lock in”.

Staying Balanced
So, to determine whether that complexity is worth adding, it’s important to ask—when do most people need to restore? In general, we’ve found that “regular users” (and by that, I mean real “end users") need to use their backups when:

  • They’ve made a “bad mistake”, like accidentally deleting an important file, or overwriting one (this kind of mistake is almost always recognized immediately)
  • Their drive (or computer) fails catastrophically, requiring a full restore
  • They sent their computer in for service, and it came back wiped clean
  • An application they installed, or a system update, caused their system to become unusable/unstable
None of these situations require much other than a high-quality, up-to-date, full copy backup. (The last has a better solution than a backup—a “Sandbox”—which we offer in SuperDuper! as well.)

Covering the 99% Case
Given that, it’s pretty easy to see that most end users don’t need to retrieve a two-year-old (or even six-month old) version of a file from a backup. (An archive is a different thing: I’m talking about backups.) It’s just not that common a case. Developers, on the other hand, do need older versions of files, but they should be using a version control system: something a backup should absolutely not be.

But, it is possible that a user won’t notice a problem in a “bad file” until they’ve already overwritten their backup, thus losing any chance of recovery with a “full copy”. I suggest that while this is a problem for some, we have a good solution: rotate more than one full backup.


Any need for this kind of “temporal rollback” can be significantly reduced with a single rotation—say, on a weekly basis—and nearly eliminated with two—a weekly and a monthly. It’s incredibly rare that, on a non-archival basis, you’d need to go back more than four weeks. (It’s similarly likely that a daily incremental would become difficult to manage, and thus “recycled”, in this kind of timespan.)

Storage Space is Cheap and Plentiful
The only real disadvantage? It takes disk space, something that was incredibly expensive and limited when these other schemes were originally invented (floppies, anyone?). But, these days, disk space is cheaper than cheap, with the “sweet spot”, Mac-boot-compatible 200-250GB FireWire drives going for $150-$200. And most “normal” users can store a lot of backups on a 250GB drive or two.

Simple to Understand
The advantages to this kind of approach are many, not the least of which is that a non-technical user can easily understand what’s going on. It’s incredible how many people are confused by conventional backup terminology—“incremental”, “differential”, backups “sets” and the like. And, complicated storage mechanisms require a significant amount of expertise to perform a full recovery in the event of that all-too-common disaster: the total drive failure. (Look, for example, at what you have to do with Retrospect or Backup 3 should you lose your boot drive (very common)—where the vast majority of people also store their “Backup Catalog”. Yes, it can be done. Even if the program works properly, it can take days to recover.)

Simple to Restore
With SuperDuper!, recovery in that situation is literally a matter of booting from your most recent backup. And restoration—which, should you be on deadline, you need not do immediately—is just a matter of replacing the drive and copying back.

Individual files are also easy to restore: just drag and drop from the backup. (Yes, applications without drag-and-drop install, or system-level files, are harder, but can typically be reinstalled/archive-and-installed should that be necessary… or, see the Safety Clone/Sandbox for another rather unique idea...)

The Other 1%
I know this all sounds terribly simplistic to those who run data centers, or large corporate networks, and for that kind of user, it is. And, I have no doubt that some users have need of more complex systems, with the ability to roll back to any given day during a six-month period—or whatever timeframe they choose to work within.

User It or Lose It
SuperDuper!’s approach is the kind of thing that regular end users can do, and feel confident about. And, with that confidence—and with the ease of use and understanding we provide—they’ll actually back up!

Even the most perfect program can’t work unless that happens—so, in some ways, it’s the most critical thing of all.

Paper Management on the Macintosh Saturday, October 22, 2005

I’ve posted before about my personal “boat anchor” that keeps a Windows machine close by—Microsoft Money. There was just nothing close enough on the Macintosh to allow me to move.

I was a bit more successful replacing another bit of business, though: my document manager.

I used to use PaperPort/Pagis to manage my bank statements, receipts and the like, but neither product was available for OSX. (PaperPort had an old version of desktop that ran, kind of, under OS9, but it hadn’t been updated for years and didn’t work very well in Classic… and I wanted to avoid Classic if possible.)

PaperPort’s sheet-fed scanner—the Strobe—was a really cool little unit that let you push a bit of paper into it. It’d turn on, automatically scan the paper, launch PaperPort Desktop, and place the scanned document there, all pretty easily. Pagis didn’t work quite the same way, but did do lots of other cool little things like automatic document orientation correction, OCR to allow searching of a scanned document while preserving its graphical appearance, etc.

I found them pretty indispensable for years, as they enabled me to organize of the mass of paper that arrived—and continues to arrive—every month.

But, the scanner wasn’t Mac compatible, so I had to buy something that was. The only duplexing scanner I could find with a sheet feeder, at the time, was by HP: the ScanJet 5590.

At first, I tried to use its own ability to generate PDFs, but the thing generated absolutely huge PDF documents, even at low (200dpi) resolution black and white scans: we’re talking on the order of 25MB for a single, 20 page bank statement. And multi-page scans were a huge pain to knit together. Utterly unreasonable.

It took a while, but I was able to find a similar product on the Macintosh—Dominion Software’s Working Papers. It wasn’t perfect, nor was it as elegant as either PaperPort or Pagis, but it did the job.

Unfortunately, it was also plagued with a decent number of annoying bugs. And while the developer no doubt had the best intentions, it’s clear that the product isn’t in active development any more.

Not to mention the fact that the scanner has bad drivers, especially in combination with Working Papers’ TWAIN handling. I was spending too much time mucking with drivers, working around crashes, skipped pages, unreadable scans… quite frustrating, and because of that, over many months , my system fell apart and paper began to stack up.

Well, I’m happy to say I’ve found the solution. Fujitsu (Fujitsu?!?) has released a Mac-compatible version of their ScanSnap scanner, the memorably named Fujitsu ScanSnap fi-5110EOXM (affiliate link). This scanner does duplexed, color scans at 15ppm, has an excellent paper feed mechanism that doesn’t seem to jam, has a decent driver that doesn’t crash, comes with Acrobat 7, and generates excellent quality, well-compressed scans. And a higher resolution, multi-page, color PDF from it is smaller than the one-bit, black-and-white compressed scans, in a proprietary format, that I was getting from the HP/Working Papers combination.

As they say, w00t!

There are some downsides:

  • It doesn’t work with anything but Acrobat, as the driver isn’t a standard TWAIN driver.
  • The driver is a standard “application”, and occupies space on your dock when running.
  • The Macintosh version only comes with Acrobat and the driver; the PC version comes with a full software suite including a standalone paper management application, business card reader thingy, and a $40 rebate, making it cheaper than the less-capable Macintosh version. The Mac version is white/aluminium, but it’s like putting a sock over the boot that’s kicking in your teeth. But at least they released the Mac version, so kudos for that.
  • Scanned documents default to a single file location, with an automatically generated name, rather than being an untitled document in Acrobat that can then be saved to the location of your choice. So, it’s more awkward than it needs to be.
  • Acrobat 7 is kind of slow doing OCR, if you want the scans to be searchable. But at least it’s possible!
But, they’re relatively minor points. The ScanSnap is an excellent unit that I highly recommend to those who need to do—or have considered doing—document management.

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