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The Battle of the Bouncers, Part 2

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In the first part of this article in TidBITS-439, I looked at how three crash detection devices - the PowerKey Pro, Rebound, and Lazarus - compare in terms of hardware, restart method, and crash detection capabilities. This week, I'll look at each product's documentation, interface, logging features, and pricing.

<http://db.tidbits.com/article/05002>
<http://www.sophisticated.com/products/ powerkey.html>
<http://www.sophisticated.com/products/ rebound.html>
<http://www.kernel.com/kernel/lazarus.html>

Since last week's article appeared, I've received a MacCoach unit from Neuron Data Systems (who are located in the Netherlands, not Belgium). I'll include more about MacCoach in this part, but since I haven't had time to test the device, I'll leave full evaluation for the future.

<http://www.neuronsys.com/Products/>

Interface -- The PowerKey Pro's interface, available via the PowerKey Editor application, is by far the most convoluted of the devices, mostly because restarting crashed servers is only one of its many capabilities. Other actions include toggling different power outlets; starting up, shutting down, and restarting Macs; executing AppleScripts; typing keystrokes; opening files; quitting applications; mounting SCSI devices; and logging actions. Each event can have multiple actions, plus a trigger. Triggers can activate once, on a repeating basis, on days of week or month, when the Power key is pressed, when a hot key is pressed, when the phone rings, when the system is idle, when power returns, and at shut down. The Server Restart Option adds triggers that kick in when the system crashes and when a timer expires. Triggers have qualifiers, so you can limit them to particular times and dates, or have them activate based on how the system was started, whether the system was idle, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless. To restart a server, you just need an event using the When System Crashes trigger and a Restart action (I always throw in an Add to Log action as well). It's also a good idea to create an event that restarts the computer when power returns after a power failure.

I don't want to imply that the PowerKey Editor application is hard to use. It's not, but you must think about how you want to use it. Ideally, Sophisticated Circuits would add a menu listing common events like restarting after a crash or restarting after a power failure, so you could start with those options and customize them later.

Rebound's simple control panel enables you to toggle system and application crash detection, and set three variables: length of time before restarting, time allowed for the system to restart, and number of restart attempts. Keep the restart events set to one in most cases, but resist the temptation to set the times too low. I was once running Norton Disk Doctor, and the file check took more than five minutes, causing Rebound to restart the system during the check. Worse, I pressed Shift to boot without extensions, and that combined with fact that the Mac had restarted ungracefully meant Rebound's timer hadn't been reset. Five minutes later, it restarted the Mac again. I've eliminated this problem by increasing time before restarting to ten minutes and setting the number of restart attempts to one, so Rebound won't repeatedly restart the Mac again in this situation.

Lazarus provides a small status window that tells you it's enabled and lists the time and date of the next scheduled restart, if any. I like the status window, but it should also provide the date, time, and details of the last crash.

Lazarus also offers several settings. You can set it to restart the Mac automatically every few days at a specific time (but there's no way of isolating particular days). You can have Lazarus monitor applications, and a Choose button brings up a dialog where you can add all open applications, add a specific application, or delete an application from the list. Overall, Lazarus's software is functional and easy to use, but lacks the polish and professional feel of the Sophisticated Circuits interfaces.

Logging -- It's important for these devices to log their actions because logs are often the only indication of trouble. Otherwise, you may never realize the server is being restarted every few hours.

The PowerKey Pro offers basic logging capabilities via an Add to Log action that writes a user-specified message to a text file (called PowerKey Log in the PowerKey Folder in the Preferences folder), along with the date and time. You must view the log in another program, such as SimpleText (the PowerKey Pro keeps the log under 32K), which requires setting up aliases for quick access. You can create an action that automatically opens the log file after a crash, but that's best done with a low-volume local server, not a high-volume remote server.

Rebound provides minimal logging. In its control panel's About box, it counts the number of system and application crashes, and gives you the time and date of the last restart. I'd like to see significantly more logging information in Rebound, since I'd want to know if the Mac has crashed ten times in the last three hours.

Lazarus's logging is the best of the lot, but it's still mediocre. You can display Lazarus's log from within the application, but it's a small window that can't be resized and lacks a scroll bar. You can also save its log as an HTML file. Within the log, Lazarus lists the date and time of each event (a crash or scheduled restart), and identifies crashes either as global or as caused by a specific application.

According to the Neuron Data Systems Web site, MacCoach 2.0 now includes comprehensive logging, including a report of when the Mac starts up and shuts down, when applications launch and quit, and when the system or applications crash. The MacCoach control panel displays the log, plus it can save as an HTML file automatically.

Documentation -- The PowerKey Pro comes with an extensive manual explaining its triggers, qualifiers, and actions, and provides examples of how one might use these features. If anything, I'd like even more examples, since the hardest part about using the PowerKey Pro is figuring out what you can do with it.

For example, one useful setup would be to plug the server's monitor into a controlled outlet. When the system is idle, power down the monitor if it's not capable of entering a sleep mode (my favorite 12-inch monochrome monitors can't do this). However, if you restart a server with the monitor off, Timbuktu Pro can refuse to connect, since it doesn't know how large a screen to simulate. The PowerKey Pro could turn the monitor on after a crash so the Mac sees a monitor at startup, then turn the monitor off again at idle time to save electricity.

Rebound provides an 11-page manual in PDF format that covers the bases well, providing installation and setup help, along with details of Rebound's AppleScript support. Rebound also includes Apple Guide-based help that answers "how to" questions but ignores most "why" questions.

Lazarus comes with only a sheet of paper that details installation (which is easy) and briefly explains basic operation. At the very least, I'd like to see Kernel Productions create detailed online documents that explain how Lazarus works, plus provide real-world troubleshooting.

MacCoach's paper documentation is a sheet of paper containing essential information, though with little expansion of complex topics. More information is on Neuron Data System's Web site.

Price -- The PowerKey Pro 200 costs $140 with the necessary Server Restart Option; the PowerKey 600, which currently includes the SRO, is $200. The PowerKey Pro is available directly from Sophisticated Circuits and a variety of vendors, including TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost.

Rebound costs $99 directly from Sophisticated Circuits and should be widely available soon. It debuted for $50 for those who purchased WebSTAR 3.0 directly from StarNine Technologies, and that deal remains in place as long as supplies last.

<http://store2.starnine.com/store/starnine.tmpl>

Lazarus costs $100 directly from Kernel Productions.

MacCoach costs $100 and is available from TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost. For a limited time, it's also available for $55 from Tenon Intersystems for those who own or buy Tenon's WebTen Web server.

<http://www.tenon.com/products/webten/ Funnel.MacCoach.shtml#MacCoach>

Picking & Choosing -- All the devices I tested were similar in terms of efficacy, restarting Macs when necessary (which wasn't all that often). The two PowerKey Pro models cost the most, but are more flexible and support all desktop Macs. If you started to cogitate about possible things to automate as I reeled off the PowerKey Pro's list of features, you definitely want one. Rebound and Lazarus have similar price points, but differ in technique. Lazarus works with all desktop Macs, has a display and better logging, can watch all applications, and can restart the Mac on a schedule. However, Rebound's software is more polished and less prone to user error, and Rebound is physically better assembled and will be easier on hardware thanks to its keyboard restart method. MacCoach is probably comparable to Rebound, but not having tested it yet, I can't recommend it either way.

It's hard to make product recommendations in this category. My feeling is that Rebound is the best option if you want something simple to install and forget. Sophisticated Circuits is very experienced in this field, so I trust their hardware and software. As a newcomer, Lazarus is less tested and less polished, but it offers a different approach plus a few more features than Rebound. And finally, the PowerKey Pro offers an unparalleled level of control and flexibility, especially if you need to automate physical devices beyond restarting crashed servers.

 

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