Friday, July 3, 2009

"How Can I Avoid Trouble with System Updates?"

You've probably seen the cries of pain on the Mac fix-it sites that arrive with every system update -- blank screens, lock-outs, networks going down, Apple apps failing, hardware not responding. Yet most people seem to experience little or no trouble. Why is that?

With something as complex as a system update, some incompatibilities are bound to occur. But some Mac users heighten the chances dramatically by loading their computers with crud.

By "crud," I mean small programs that modify the system to produce interface changes or add features. With every one of these you add, you make it all the more likely that the next OS X update will choke on an unexpected modification. And also with each one, you make it harder to locate the problem!

How do you spot these programs? Usually, they're the ones that use installers instead of drag-and-drop. An installer often means they're sticking files in places they'd be wiser not to. If they weren't doing that, they wouldn't need the authenticated OK that the installer requires you to give!

In case you have any doubt, these installers often tell you exactly where their files will go. Just select "Show Files" on the installer's File menu. If they're putting files in obscure folders, be very, very suspicious. And if they don't have a menu item to let you know, that's double the danger!

It's not all the fault of Mac users. The fact is, they're urged on to it by members of the Mac media, who should know better. These are the people who get paid to spend hours a day in front of their Macs. If something goes wrong, they can take the time to fix it, then write about it and get paid! They don't seem to understand that not all of us are in that privileged position.

For instance, let's take a look at the current issue of MacWorld, August 2009. The cover trumpets "56 MUST-HAVE MAC APPS: High-Quality, Low-Cost Mac Downloads." As you might figure, I'm skeptical of such articles, but I do look at them. Two of the recommended apps caught my eye: iAntivirus, a free antivirus program with a four-mouse rating, and GlimmerBlocker, an ad blocker for Safari with three-and-a-half stars.

Whenever I'm evaluating such software, about the first thing I do is go over to VersionTracker and read the feedback for it. (Click on "Show All Feedback" for the full treatment.) What did I find?

iAntivirus has only three out of five stars there. The very first message is from a fellow who actually tested the program on a collection of common viruses and found that it failed to find one of them. Some commenters found it to be a resource hog.

Skip iAntivirus.

The description of GlimmerBlocker sounded promising. "The problem with other ad-blockers for Safari is that they are implemented as awful hacks: as an InputManager and/or ApplicationEnhancer. This compromises the stability of Safari and very often create problems when Apple releases a new version of Safari. GlimmerBlocker is implemented as an http proxy, so the stability of Safari isn't compromised because it doesn't use any hacks."

It has four stars, too. Looks good! But then you look at some of the feedback. Slows down browsing. Prevents downloading podcasts in iTunes. A pain to remove.

None of that feedback was for the current version, so I thought I'd at least visit the developer's site. There I read a list of the applications requiring workarounds or special configurations to coexist with this app. And what about the incompatibilities the developer hasn't yet run into? Or the ones that the next version will introduce?

Scratch GlimmerBlocker.

Another small app often recommended by MacWorld is LittleSnitch, which monitors and manages outgoing network connections. I happened to try that out today on my Test volume, while gathering data about a problem with Microsoft Word.

Why on my Test volume and not on my main boot volume? Because of comments I'd read online, including the ones pithily reflected in the developer's own note on changes in the current version: "Fixed an issue causing system freezes at login on Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger." The app performed well enough on my Test volume with OS X 10.5.7 -- oh, except that all other volumes were grayed out in my Startup Disk prefs pane, so I had to uninstall Little Snitch before I could select my main boot volume.

Trash Little Snitch.

I'm not perfect. I do occasionally succumb to the lure of greater functionality. When I switched from OS 9 to OS X, I just couldn't live without some kind of replacement for the old Apple menu. After trying out numerous options, I finally settled on Butler, which seemed relatively fast and safe.

And it was, except for one little feature that I never used but that was turned on in the background: a custom clipboard. That little "enhancement" caused Microsoft Word 2004 to crash repeatedly for the better part of a year -- almost every time I tried to cut or copy a substantial block of text in a large file -- before I finally discovered it and turned it off. So, indeed, I paid for my sin. (Microsoft, please forgive me for blaming you all that time.)

People used to complain all the time about how unstable OS 9 was. Let me tell you a secret. OS 9 was incredibly stable. I use my computer for most of the day, almost every day, and with OS 9.2.1, I could easily go a couple of months without a system crash.

No, it wasn't OS 9 that was unstable. It was the crud that people loaded into it. And not just the small-time freeware and shareware, from which you might expect trouble. It was software from the big names too. Remember Adobe Type Manager? How many OS 9 users had that on their computers? When I saw how often my Mac crashed with it, into the Trash it went.

And then there were the Norton Utilities extensions. I remember once spending two or three days trying to fix a network problem and finally narrowing it down to a Norton extension update.

When OS X first came out, no one could believe how stable it was. People ran it for months without rebooting. And there was good reason for that: No one had yet written crud for it!

But now they have, and there's loads of it around. Do yourself a favor. The next time someone offers you an app to add a nifty feature to your system, measure that feature against the security of knowing your computer will start up after the next update.

I know you'll make the wise decision.

Late edit: Wow. I just discovered that one of the Google ads displayed with this post is for iAntivirus. Good match, Google!

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