iTunes – A Big Pile of Stink

Mad Face image

This isn’t an article complaining about changes iTunes 11 made. In fact, I held off writing this article in the futile hope that iTunes 11 would be more than lipstick on a pig (apologies to pigs). It wasn’t, so I waited for update 1. No better. This also isn’t an article about how iTunes stinks on Windows. I run it on a Mac. So here goes…

First, I really like iTunes as a music manager. It’s what helped bring me to Apple and the iPod back when it was just for music. I rarely use it to actually play music directly but I love the flexible smart playlist feature. I make heavy use of playlists based on the date last played in order to keep playlists fresh without any effort. I also made the effort long ago to rate all my songs. This was more to manage playlists than and actual rating against other songs. For example, “Best of” for an artist or genre are 5’s. Songs that really suck and need to be kept out of playlists are 2’s. One’s are reserved for spoken audio that I’ve listened to but don’t want to delete. Three’s and fours are a mishmash and more or less the same. But iTunes has slowly beaten me down and those features aren’t worth the frustration.

Rant 1 – Video Handling

I recently returned to trying video from the iTunes store. I bought and watched the video on my Apple TV or iPad. Yet when I sync the iPad to iTunes, iTunes wants to download the video yet again.

iTunes has the option to turn off automatic downloads or purchased music, apps or books and I’ve turned them off. But the LARGEST FILES can’t be turned off. Automatic download of videos can’t be turned off and those files are measured in gigabytes. If I cancel the download and mark the library entry as watched it will try to download again sometime in the future.

But that’s not all. I tell iTunes not to sync video on my iPad. So what’s it do if it finds a video on my iPad that it doesn’t have? Ignore it since I don’t want video synced? Of course not. It asks if I want to transfer purchases. If I say no it deletes it from the iPad and enables sync of future videos. If I say yes it copies the video to iTunes and enables sync for video. In the ultimate frustration iTunes 10 would then tell me the video wasn’t playable on the iPad it just copied it from and would delete it. I don’t know if that last “unplayable video” issue exists in iTunes 11 or on my fresh, new Mac since I’ve avoided the condition that syncs video.

My current solution to both these problems is to stayed logged out of the store in iTunes and cancel the login prompt along with limiting my syncing. My ultimate solution is to dump iTunes.

Bug 1 – App Updates in iTunes

This was introduces in iTunes 11.0 and remains in iTunes 11.0.1. I’m told I have 53 app updates (and growing). Neither the “Check for updates” button or the “Get More Apps” button do anything when clicked. Others have reported this happened to them but went away. It’s been with me since I installed iTunes 11. I update my devices directly so this is more a frustration than a real problem. But new software on a new Mac, come on Apple. I already re-installed iTunes once to fix Bug 2 (listed below). Another reason to give up on iTunes.

Rant 2 – iTunes Match

Where to start? This made a mess of my library. Songs that were unchecked got checked. Songs were duplicated. Songs were deleted (a failed match update maybe?). The last played date eliminated or set to some distant past date on many sons. The only plus side is I’ve gotten a bunch of older iTunes store songs updated to non-DRM and better quality. So I consider that my money’s worth. But Match itself  is off, never to be turned on again. And I’m going through a cleanup. Thankfully CrashPlan backups never delete the deleted files so as I find missing files I can at least restore the pre-match version.

Bug 2 – Constant Firewall Prompt

After I upgraded to iTunes 11 I’d be prompted to allow it through the firewall every time I started iTunes. I deleted the firewall preferences, rebooted and saw iTunes add the exclusion but I would still get prompted at each iTunes launch. I deleted iTunes (the app, not library) and re-installed. Then the problem went away. An Apple program installing on a new Mac should just work. Yes, problems happen but they should be rare. With iTunes it’s the fixes that are rare.

Solutions?

I’m convinced iTunes is two big for Apple to handle. Or they feel the solution will cause too much pain among users.  It’s arguable whether the new interface changed much. Each screen looks better. But it it really easier to use? I’m skeptical, but even if the answer is yes it’s just not worth it. So what are my alternatives?

I took a look at Media Monkey (for Windows). The free version seems to give me nearly all the features I would want and the paid version seems to give me everything. The price is reasonable but the real cost is re-rating all my songs. Plus I’d lose the play history. I’m not sure I really want to go through the effort of recreating everything and recreating playlists. So it’s time to rethink music.

Time to simplify. I’m thinking of Synology for my local music management and player. While it has smart playlists, they are no where near as smart as the iTunes playlists so I’d use them little if at all. There’s a music player for my iPhone which is my primary music device. It also works on the iPad. There’s also apps for Android and Windows Phone (including 8) so I’m covered for any change. The Synology NAS also has several other playback options and includes Internet radio. Since I have already have it, I’ve begun to copy music to it and I’m giving it a try.

Then there’s cloud players in general Amazon and Google both have cloud experience I trust. I’m not adverse to having my music in the cloud, but I do have data caps. While the Comcast cap is suspended it will return. No sense using the data if I don’t have to. The Synology player, and most cloud players will cache songs locally and some provide the ability to pre-cache (download) songs so I won’t have to stream when I’m out and about. They do seem to stream by default so I may have to take action to play local files. I picked Amazon to give a try first, despite earlier problems with the player. It tends to be where I buy most music these days so it will add songs automatically.

I have to give up on my obsession about listening to songs I haven’t heard in a long time and keeping the play information in sync. I need to just enjoy the music.

Updates, Updates, Updates and More Updates

os and software text

There have been a lot of updates this past week. Much to my relief most of these updates went smoothly. The main problem were with the updates to this site but I half expected it so allowed extra time to get them done and I did plenty of backups before starting.

WHS 2011 Update Rollup 4 & More

I was happy to see WHS 2011 is alive and well within Microsoft, even if it has been marked for death. Tuesday’s patch bundle included Windows Home Server 2011 Update Rollup 4 with 10 documented fixes. I’m pretty aggressive in keeping my WHS box up to date so it was updated back in November, but it still had 8 patches waiting in addition to the rollup.

I generally take Microsoft’s default selections when I chose which patches to install then do the unselected ones after, if they are still needed. In this case I also unchecked UR4 and started the update.

A couple updates failed and I selected them and the other remaining updates after the reboot, only excluding UR4. It was fine this time and UR4 was successfully installed after that reboot. The connector updates were then pushed out to the clients automatically. This required a reboot, but that was done when the client patches were installed.

No problems so far.

Windows 7 & Windows 8 PCs

Lots of updates all around and they all needed reboots. Windows RT got its share of patches, including a firmware update. I haven’t noticed any difference but some report better performance.

Windows 8 threw in another patch on Thursday which also required a reboot. These are annoying since I run a lot of apps and unlike my Macs they don’t restore running apps automatically. So while the actual reboot is fast, it’s a frustrating 15 minutes of preparation and recovery.

Mac OS X

My new Mac Mini had a BIOS update related to HDMI monitor connections. I haven’t had an issue. My monitor goes through an adapter to the Mac’s HDMI port. I’ll be moving my old Windows monitor to the Mini and then it will be HDMI direct. So probably a good update to have.

The iTunes 11 update wasn’t problem free. But the new bugs were minor compared to the nightmare that is iTunes anyway. More on this in a future post.

Debian 6 and WordPress (My Web Server)

WordPress LogoThis was the big one for me. Just about every major software component of this server was slated for an update. Apache, MySQL, PHP and WordPress all had updates waiting. I held off on the Apache, MySQL and PHP updates until WordPress 3.5 was released. I’d do it in two phases – everything except WordPress, then WordPress. Of course, before starting I did a full server snapshot backup and a file system backup of my web server.

The OS updates and Apache, MySQL and PHP updates all went fine. Everything tested out OK after the update. Then the problems began.

The WordPress upgrades on my test sites only had issues on the ones using the new Twenty Twelve theme. The theme is now part of the core WordPress installation and I install through Subversion (svn). The sites were broken until I deleted the Twenty Twelve directory and re-ran the svn update. That wasn’t going to be a problem on this or my other production sites since they didn’t have the Twenty Twelve theme installed.

I saved this site until last, since it’s my biggest one. So naturally, that’s when the problems began. Short version – the SVN update went horribly wrong. It was possibly self-inflicted. I had deleted the old Twenty Ten theme since I never used it. SVN didn’t like that and threw an error. This must have affected the rest of the update. While pages were still being served from the cache, the site was basically down.

I spent some time trying to work around the error but without success. Finally I did a fresh WordPress installation to a temp directory using Subversion. Then I copied those files over the installation for this site, being careful not to overwrite or delete and files I added or changed. After that, and a restart of Apache all seems fine.

First Look: Dell S2340T Monitor

I’ve been in the market for a new desktop monitor. I’ve been looking at touch-enabled monitors since I figured Windows 8 was an inevitable upgrade for me. I finally decided on the Dell S2340T 23” multi-touch monitor. I based my choice on these reasons:

  • I have a bias toward Dell monitors. I’ve always considered them a good value with a good picture.
  • 10-point multi-touch
  • IPS Panel
  • LED Backlight
  • HDMI port which my existing video card can use.

It has several other features, but they weren’t a deciding factor for me. These include a webcam and speakers along with audio and USB ports. The monitor also support DisplayLink for connecting laptops but I haven’t looked at that at all and have no interest in it.

The resolution is 1920 X 1080 which has become quit common these days since it’s 1080P. I’d prefer a little more vertical height, say 1920 X 1200, but decided this was OK.

The monitor was backordered when I placed the order but arrived early last week, earlier than expected. I didn’t see the point of setting it up with Windows 7, so I waited until I could install Windows 8, which I did over the weekend. A fresh installation of Windows 8 was installed and running when I hooked up the monitor. I hadn’t installed any additional software yet since I wanted to make sure the hardware was solid before doing so.

The setup was slightly more complicated than a simple dumb monitor. The instructions sheet (yes, one sheet) was just a few unlabeled pictures. At the very least they should have labeled the picture that showed the package contents. The monitor includes 3 cables:

  • HDMI cable – this is what I’m using to connect my video card to the monitor.
  • USB 3 uplink cable – this connects the monitor a PC for all the non-video communication. Touch, USB ports, audio ports, etc…
  • A display port cable that I’m not using

The power cable includes a power brick, rather than just the electrical cable I’m used to. It’s one of those with the brick in the middle so it doesn’t take up extra plug space. There’s also a LAN port that I’m not using. There’s also a micro fiber cloth included for cleaning off those fingerprints.

The build quality of everything appears to be excellent and solidly built. I already had Windows 8 installed when I hooked it up and it worked right away. It just didn’t work perfectly although this proved to be an issue with my AMD video card and not the monitor itself.

Despite the resolution being set at 1920 X 1080 the picture didn’t fill the monitor screen. Worse, the touch points were off. First I went through the tablet calibration, which did fix the touch issue. Bit there was still this large unused border on the screen.

So for the screen issue I first made sure I had the latest monitor drivers. I also installed the Dell software to see if there were any possible settings there. There weren’t. Then I installed the Catalyst software for my AMD video card. I found this setting where the picture was being underscanned by default. So I set it to 0% so it would use the full screen.

AMD Catalyst Overscan Settings

Once I did that I had to reset the tablet calibration back to the default and everything worked fine.

I had considered the articulating stand as an added expense for something I wouldn’t use. I’m glad it wasn’t optional because I think it will be hugely beneficial. I’ve been using it at an angle on my desk.

Articulated Stand (Image from Dell.com)

I find it easy to use as a touch screen while still being easy to see. I’ve been doing a lot of configuration, installations and testing and this position is perfect for that. I may use it in the traditional vertical position when I’m writing or doing other work where the screen is fairly static. Windows 8 is touch friendly and mouse hostile (IMO) so I find it much quicker to use touch to get around. This is all new so my opinion may change over time after more use.

I bought my monitor from Dell but I just checked and Amazon now has the monitor and it costs less than it does from Dell. The one review from Amazon says they shipped the non-touch version of the monitor although that should be easy to resolve (but extremely annoying) as they are different model numbers. If buying from Dell be aware that Dell sells it through different segments, I found it to be cheaper through the “Home & Home Office” channel thanks to $50 instant savings which wasn’t available through the business channels. Like I said, I do like their monitors. But that’s about the only thing about Dell that isn’t frustrating.

I’ve only been using the monitor since Saturday afternoon, but so far I like it and consider it worth the price I paid.

The OS Quest Trail Log #78: Late Edition

Picture of snow in a forest

I actually had the draft of this written out by December 1st, but real life delayed my finalizing and posting it. But better late than never. The biggest change for the month of November was one I haven’t had a chance to write about yet. I replaced my 2009 era Mac Mini with one of the new models. As luck would have it, I had serious problem with it just as the new Mini arrived. The problem seems to be a corrupt user profile. Although since I’ve had what seems to be slower than expected disk performance awhile back I may have a problem disk or other hardware. My last OS upgrade was a full re-install, not so long ago, so any incidental file corruption would have been eliminated. I was able to logon once so I could de-authorize iTunes. After that I just used the backups.

I stopped short of getting the high-end model, opting for a Mac Mini with a 2.3 Ghz Quad-Core i7, 4GB of RAM and a 1 TB Fusion Drive. I upgraded to 16 GB of RAM by buying two 8 GB sticks from Crucial. Getting 16GB of RAM from Crucial was about $80, compared to the 4GB bump from Apple (to 8GB) at $100. Unlike my old Mini, the RAM upgrade is a piece of cake on the new models so this was a no brainer.

The Fusion drive benchmarked well, which is to be expected since the SSD drive gets priority. It’s only been a couple of weeks but I’m happy with the performance. Naturally it out performs its predecessor. I was a little concerned about the on-board video because I want to do some video work. Nothing major like Final Cut, so I hope to be OK.

With the Mac Mini and all that available memory I took the opportunity to move some virtual machines off my MacBook Air and onto the Mac Mini. I also migrated them from VMware Fusion to Virtualbox.

Microsoft Surface RT

I’ve had my Surface RT for just over a month and I still like it. It’s pretty much replaced my iPad for me. Not so much app for app, but in real life usage. Even though I like it, it does have some serious dannoyances and contributes to my frustration level at times.

The app store apps are either non-existent or really bad. People say they’ll get bettor over time, and I don’t disagree. But life is too short and the crapware is too deep, so I’ve given up searching and comparing apps. I’m sticking to built in apps, the web browser and apps for services I already use. I do find IE much more capable on the Surface than Safari is on the iPad. The lack of add-in support leaves some websites inaccessible (like the iPad) but so far I haven’t run into them. I also find the touch interface to be better on the Surface, especially of websites with scrolling frames and elements.

The one app I really need is a good SSH client (Putty for RT would be nirvana). Right now to use SSH when I’m out and about I VPN to my home network and remote desktop to my Windows 7 PC and run putty from there. That’s a lot of moving pieces that can break easily. If I was to travel for an extended time (like overnight) I’d take my iPad or Macbook Air rather than the Surface RT just to be safe,

The Surface RT, actually Windows RT, is still rough around the edges. The unexpected switches from Metro to Desktop are jarring. On the one hand I really like having the desktop. On the other hand it would be a better tablet if they removed the desktop completely. They would have to “metro-ize” Office and other included desktop apps of course.

Mobile Data

November also saw me make some changes to my cellphone plan. I’ve been tracking my usage for several months so I knew I didn’t need the unlimited data with my grandfathered plan. I’d been well under 2GB each month for my phone (including tethering) and iPad. And since tethered data wasn’t part of the “unlimited” I didn’t have much to lose by jumping to Verizon’s shared data plan.

So I ended up dropping my iPad plan and adding a 4G MiFi device. While the MiFi is one more thing to cary it’s fairly small and has a nice long battery life. I have the extended battery and it makes it through the day without me having to always turning it on and off. It’s not continuous usage, but it makes it through my real-life day once I turn it on, typically late morning. For bonus points I also ended up with a lower monthly bill.

My contract is up at the end of December so I’ll be elegible for an upgrade. I’ve been considering my next phone but at this point I’m leaning towards sticking with my iPhone 4S. I don’t see me gaining much with the iPhone 5. Plus the iPhone 5 would require accessory and cable replacements, just like a non-iPhone. I don’t have many, but it adds up. I’ve been looking at Windows 8 Phones but I’m not blown away. I haven’t liked what I’ve seen of the Microsoft eco-system (music, video, etc…) on the Windows RT. Even if I liked it, I’m not convinced they won’t kill it off like their previous attempts. To be fair, I try to avoid ecosystem lock-in of any type. Added to that is Microsoft’s treatment of Windows Phone 7 buyers which leaves me concerned. And to be fair here, I have the same concerns with Apple and Android has it’s own upgrade issues. The iPad 1 become un-upgradeable and obsolete awfully fast. And the iPad 4 came out rather soon after the iPad 3. I’ve decided to get off the automatic  upgrade train and simply wait until I actually need a new phone. At the very least I need a reason other than “new and shiny”.

December

December will probably be a slow month on the quest, with the holidays coming. Not to mention the push to get things done by year-end at my day job. I did order a Dell touch screen monitor, due to arrive any day now. Once this arrives I’ll upgrade to Windows 8. The monitor is a bit early and I haven’t decided how I want my Windows 8 PC set up. I’m considering a hard drive reconfiguration but I’m not sure how much effort I want to put into it.