Two Macs: Fail.

An experiment I've been running for more than two years now is over: running two Macs is more hassle than it's worth. I write not to praise synchronisation technology, but to bury it.

In 2006 I acquired a Mac Pro which was my first desktop Mac since the beige G3/266 desktop I owned in 1997. It's very fast and has two very big displays connected to it. It's got space for hard drives out the wazoo and you can do a whole lot with it. At the same time I had a laptop - first a Core Duo 17" MacBook Pro and, this year, a MacBook Air.

It's also a world of pain, and I'm done with it.

It's a world of pain because, whilst sync technology is definitely better than it was two years ago, I have never reached the point where I just don't have to think about where my information is.

I've been using a combination of MobileMe and Dropbox to get stuff between my desktop and laptop. Dropbox is undoubtedly a great leap forward in internet-based file syncing technology. It achieves the level of integration that iDisk, being produced by the platform vendor, should have had from the start. Dropbox is great, but it doesn't sync that area of non-file data that MobileMe attempts to address: Address Book, iCal, Mail, etc.

Once the well-known launch problems with MobileMe were ironed out, I found it was working relatively well for Apple applications. I found consistent problems trying to sync any third-party application. The three that I mostly wanted to sync were Yojimbo, Transmit and TextExpander. With the amount of PDF data I kept in Yojimbo, I found MobileMe consistently choked up and, in all the time I've been using it, I never once achieved a complete sync. In the end, I moved that PDF content over to Evernote, where it has synced pretty consistently since day one.

I also recently stopped using MobileMe for calendar syncing, since I couldn't share a calendar editably with another person. Instead I used Google Calendar and Busy Sync. For RSS, I'm using NetNewsWire syncing through NewsGator and OmniFocus syncs through my BingoDisk WebDAV share.

But look where I am: MobileMe, Dropbox, Evernote, NetNewsWire/NewsGator and Google Calendar/BusySync and OmniFocus/BingoDisk. Complex? Just a bit. Six services all of which work a little differently, any of which may develop a security hole and some of which cost good money and I'm still not really anywhere near a complete solution.

Don't even get me started on iPhone syncing. I am so done with this.

Storage

Storage was always the #1 thing that pushed me into the two-machine world. A couple of years ago, laptops were lagging behind desktop drives in capacity and remember how hard it was to swap a hard drive back then? Only the 17" MacBook Pro was easy. iBooks were likely to be permanently damaged and 15" MacBook Pros would survive but never quite be the same again.

When Apple recently introduced the new portables, I appreciated their design but remained unmoved at the 320GB drives. Just not enough for my only machine. Then I discovered that Western Digital had released a 500GB drive in a 9.5mm-height form factor.

Today I ordered a new MacBook Pro and threw my current Mac Pro and MacBook Air up for sale on Twitter (interested? Specs and prices.). Because this laptop is going to be my one and only machine, I went beefy: 2.8GHz, 512MB on the graphics. I downgraded the hard drive from 320GB to 250GB because I'm going to throw it away on day one in favour of a WD 500GB drive.

I'm also hoping that, in the not too distant future, MCE Technologies will update their OptiBay unit for the new laptops. OptiBay is a dummy optical drive replacement with a cut-out for a second hard drive. The possibility of having 1TB of internal storage in a laptop is just crazy, given where we were a couple of years back.

iTunes, Aperture and Secondary Storage

There are two parts of my digital life that crave storage: iTunes and Aperture. My iTunes library is pushing 300GB and my Aperture library is nearly 250GB. I'll be using the new machine with my FireWire Drobo (thanks for keeping FW800, Apple!) as offline storage and backup.

Aperture makes this kind of model easy. You can choose whether to have the master files inside the Aperture library or referenced on external storage. My approach will be to have recent master files within the Aperture library and, thus, available for editing and export at all times and to migrate older masters off to the Drobo as I finish with them. Aperture's architecture is so elegant that I can still have JPEG previews with me on the laptop for viewing and slideshows and the larger masters off the main disk and at home on the Drobo. You can also do some nice things like limit the size of the previews to the size of the computer's display, so that you don't retain more data than you need. Finally, the door swings both ways: if an older project becomes current again, you can pull the masters back into the Aperture Library for a while then push them out to secondary storage again.

To put some numbers to this: I have 195GB of master files and the Aperture Library that contains JPEG previews of all of these is just 38GB. Epic win.

iTunes, by contrast, is showing its age in this area. You have two choices when you add a file to your library: reference it in its current location, or copy it into the iTunes library folder. Unlike Aperture, this is a global preference - you can't choose on the fly as you import. Even worse, if you want to move a file out of your iTunes library folder to secondary storage, you have to remove it from the iTunes library and re-add it with the opposite setting selected.

[Update: Jose Marques pointed out that you don't have to visit iTunes' preferences to change this option - it can be reversed by holding down Cmd-Option as you drag into the iTunes window. You still have to remove and re-add the file, though.]

In these days of buying whole seasons of TV from iTunes, it seems obvious to me that having the ability to move batches of files into and out of the iTunes library folder - independent of their entry in the iTunes database itself - is becoming a necessity. If I'm re-watching all seven seasons of The West Wing, I'd like to be able to shuffle a season at a time onto the internal drive and keep the rest on the Drobo. If you agree and are the type to file bugs with Apple, you might care to dupe my bug #6320268 ("Provide Aperture-style referenced file management in iTunes") on the subject.

Glossy Controversy

Much has been written about Apple's decision to go all-glossy with the MacBook Pro. I have criticised glossy displays in the past but, if you take anything away from this post, you have to understand this: there is no comparison between a glossy display with a CCFL backlight and a glossy display with an LED backlight. None.

I had one of the first MacBooks with the glossy display and it sucked seven different ways. The CCFL backlight wasn't bright enough to overpower the reflections caused by ambient light, and the LCD panels themselves had extremely poor colour consistency across the viewing angle.

The current crop of glossy/LED displays are wholly different. The backlight is bright enough to compensate for most ambient reflections although I agree that, if you're watching a Batman movie, you'll be looking at a lot of shiny black. The panels are also much better, with less colour shifting as you move across the viewing angle. One thing I wish they had left out is the glossy black border. That's always going to reflect some light. The MacBook Air has an aluminium display bezel and I definitely prefer it to my wife's 20" Aluminium iMac with the glossy black bezel.

DisplayPort

Display adapters have been a fact of Mac-owning life for a long time. I no longer care what Apple puts on the side of the box, I'm just assuming I'll have an adapter to some other connector. If DisplayPort is the way of the future, so be it.

Interestingly, I don't see Apple providing a simple socket adapter to go from their Mini-DisplayPort connector to a full-size DisplayPort connector. You can go Mini-DP-to-DVI, Mini-DP-to-Dual-Link-DVI and Mini-DP-to-VGA, but you can't go Mini-DP-to-DP. I wonder if that's a gentle push towards buying Apple's new LED Cinema Display with a Mini-DisplayPort connector instead of, say, a Dell display with a full-size DisplayPort connector. No doubt such an adapter will appear in time from a third party.

Atlanticists, rejoice!

I like the US keyboard layout better than the UK layout. Several keyboard shortcuts make a lot more sense when you see where they're placed on the US-English keyboard. Two examples:

Cycling through windows within one application is Cmd - ~. On a UK keyboard layout, where ~ is between the Z key and the left Shift key, this choice is seemingly arbitrary. In the US layout, ~ is immediately above Tab. Cmd-Tab cycles through open applications, so Cmd - ~ is by obvious analogy.

In Aperture, you can filter the viewed images according to their star ratings by hitting Ctrl-{1-5} for those numbers of stars. I was always confused as to why the filter level that is notionally below one star (the "Unrated or Better" level) was Ctrl-`. On the US keyboard it's obvious, because the backtick key is to the immediate left of the 1 key.

It has previously not been possible to configure an Apple laptop from the UK store to have a US-English keyboard layout. You could get a French keyboard if you wanted (strange, considering our reputation as a nation of monoglots), or a British keyboard and a set of user manuals in French, but not a US-English keyboard. That has changed with the introduction of the new machines: you can now get a US-English keyboard on the MacBook, Air and Pro from the UK store as a zero-cost CTO option. Nice.

[Update: Paul Mison pointed out that Apple started offering US-layout keyboards sometime around June with the last-generation laptops.]

The Sad State of Sync

Reliable, robust, two-way data synchronisation, like flying cars, has been just around the corner for so long now, it's tempting to hail things like DropBox as The Solution. In reality, we're just finally getting to How It Should Have Been Done In The First Place for one specific kind of data - files. The rest either flies, jury-rigged together from multiple systems or falls in a twisted heap of smoking wreckage.

I suppose I should count myself fortunate that I never had a catastrophic data loss incident arising from syncing technology. That's like being grateful your child didn't lose an eye when you gave her that badly-manufactured Chinese toy. Only OmniFocus and NetNewsWire have truly, consistently worked well for me. It leaves me a bit glum that we, as an industry, have pushed on this for so long and are still hurting users daily with complexity and failure.