Dealing with a dead disk? Data recovery expert John Christopher reviews Alsoft’s DiskWarrior, which offers unique recovery techniques. Also, Matt Neuburg reviews RichLink, an authoring environment and browser plug-in for creating pop-up hypertext links on Web pages. In the news, Netscape releases Communicator 4.61, and Apple releases the ATI Video Software Update 1.0. Finally, TidBITS is on vacation next week; we return 05-Jul-99.
No TidBITS Next Week — We try to take a couple weeks off every year, especially as summer approaches in the U.S. So, the next issue of TidBITS will appear on 05-Jul-99. However, we’ll continue to post TidBITS Updates to our Web site during this time and TidBITS Talk will continue unabated. [JLC]
ATI Video Update Fixes Crashes — Apple has released ATI Video Software Update 1.0, which corrects a few crashing problems with recent Power Macintosh, PowerBook, and iMac models containing ATI RAGE graphics accelerators. The update fixes a system freeze problem on Macs with processor speeds higher than 400 MHz using screen resolutions of 1280 by 1024 pixels, and also when using a high resolution monitor set to display millions of colors. Some applications that crashed when scrolling will operate normally after applying the update. ATI Video Software Update 1.0 is a 1.2 MB download. [JLC]
Communicator 4.61 Adds Stronger Encryption — Netscape Communications has posted version 4.61 of Netscape Communicator, adding 56-bit DES ciphers for the U.S. and export versions, an updated AOL Instant Messenger 2.0, and various bug fixes. Contrary to the release notes, this version contains RealNetworks’ RealPlayer 5.0, not RealPlayer G2; also missing is Apple’s QuickTime browser plug-in. A version supporting 128-bit encryption is also available for U.S. and Canadian citizens. (See "Netscape Communicator 4.6 Available" in TidBITS-481.) According to Netscape, some printing problems introduced in version 4.6 are not resolved in the current release, as they require an architectural change in the program’s printing model. Netscape 4.61 requires Mac OS 7.6.1 or later and a PowerPC-based system. [JLC]
If you’re going to get excited about a software application, it probably won’t be about a disk utility program. There are simply too many cool games, graphics applications, and action-packed accounting programs to tickle your fancy, compared to a small selection of products whose main function is to check the integrity your hard disk – and, after all, you didn’t buy a computer just to spend time maintaining it. Nonetheless, disk utilities help ensure your Macintosh runs as it is intended, which in turn enables you to spend more time playing cool games, creating eye-popping graphics, and even balancing your checkbook.
When Alsoft introduced DiskWarrior several months ago (see "Alsoft’s DiskWarrior Combats Directory Damage" in TidBITS-457), I was curious why someone would develop another disk utility program. Symantec had updated Norton Utilities to version 4, MicroMat stayed in the fray by adding directory fix-it routines to its TechTool Pro product, and even Apple had pumped up the simplistic Disk First Aid into a more robust tool available for free with the Mac OS.
After spending a few months with DiskWarrior, I now understand the product and believe in it. So here’s the story.
Enter the Warrior — Without diving into HFS, HFS Plus, allocation blocks, or other low-level disk terminology, I like to describe the Mac OS file system’s basic function as being similar to the table of contents in a book. Just as a table of contents indicates where each chapter and page are located, the Mac’s directory structures track the locations of your files. These structures are divided into several pieces which record how many blocks are in use, the number of fragments a file has been split into, as well as where each fragment is stored. These structures have intriguing names like the Master Directory Block, the extents directory, and the ever-popular popular catalog b-tree. (See Geoff Duncan’s "All About Macintosh Extended Format (HFS Plus)" in TidBITS-414 for more details on how Macintosh disks are organized and how HFS Plus volumes work.)
Most disk utilities operate in a similar fashion, scanning your hard disk, examining the various directory structures, and making their best guess at what needs to be fixed. When these utilities attempt to repair a problem, they write permanent changes to the disk’s directory. Most of the time, these programs fix whatever problem they identify, but sometimes errors occur, the programs mis-identify a problem, or fix a problem in such a way that it creates others. In a worst case scenario, repair efforts might make the disk inaccessible, or fix the directory to the point where it’s empty and all your data is seemingly gone!
Come Out and Play — DiskWarrior takes a different approach than other commercial disk utilities. Rather than being a potpourri of specialized programs and features, DiskWarrior offers only two basic functions: recovering data and optimizing directory structures to improve performance. DiskWarrior features the most simplistic interface of any disk utility on the market – in fact, it recently took home multiple honors from the Apple Software Design Awards, including one for its user experience.
Instead of crawling through the data on your hard disk in an attempt to identify and correct problems, DiskWarrior tries to build a completely new directory for your disk, using every last iota of information it can discover about your disk, its files, and how they’re organized. This holistic approach to rebuilding a drive’s directories can yield significantly different results than a utility which merely attempts to correct directory damage, one item at a time, as it moves through your disk’s directory structures. If you like the results of DiskWarrior’s reconstructed directory, DiskWarrior can use it to replace the damaged directory on your disk; you can also use DiskWarrior for preventative maintenance, both optimizing your directory and identifying small problems before they blossom into full-fledged disasters.
When you launch DiskWarrior, a single window displays a pop-up menu, enabling you to choose which drive or volume to rebuild. The window also displays information on the drive’s file system, bus location, and status. That’s about it.
After selecting a disk to rebuild, DiskWarrior starts a ten-step process of creating a new directory, reviewing your disk’s directory structure, and optimizing the catalog. This is an extremely fast process: the program took roughly three minutes to scan a severely damaged 4 GB hard disk on a PowerPC 603e-based StarMax Macintosh clone I used for testing. Once the scanning is complete, DiskWarrior displays a report of any problems it discovered. At this stage, DiskWarrior has already built a new directory, but hasn’t made any changes to your hard disk. If you plan to use DiskWarrior in conjunction with another drive utility, it’s important to use DiskWarrior first, since you can get to this point and reap most of its potential benefits without altering anything on your disk.
Wait – how can DiskWarrior help you without making changes? DiskWarrior’s best feature is its Preview, which lets you see and interact with the contents of your drive before writing directory changes to the disk. DiskWarrior accomplishes this feat by mounting a kind of virtual disk on the desktop, which is locked to prevent writing. Not only are you able to see the contents of your drive, but you can also test the functionality of the new directory by launching programs and opening files. Most importantly, you can rescue your data by copying it to another storage device. In some cases you may not need to go any further with DiskWarrior: simply copy off those one or two critical files you can’t live without, then attempt to reformat the disk.
Just before submitting this review, one of our backup servers crashed – it’s a Power Mac G3 running Mac OS 8.5.1 with a 24 GB disk array, using four 6 GB drives with Conley’s SoftRaid driver software. The server didn’t contain critical data when it went down, so just for the heck of it we tried running the latest versions of Norton Utilities and Apple’s Disk First Aid on it. Norton Utilities’ Disk Doctor didn’t recognize the array; it merely saw each drive individually on the SCSI bus. Disk First Aid was able to work with the array but could not fix the severe catalog damage.
Then we tried DiskWarrior. The program recognized that the drives were striped together in an array. After pressing the Rebuild button and waiting a few minutes, we previewed our new directory – all our files were back. The whole process took about fifteen minutes and DiskWarrior performed flawlessly, doing what the other programs could not.
Optimize from the Inside Out — Most disk utilities include an application to defragment your hard disk and eke out performance improvements. These programs work by locating the various file fragments scattered around your hard disk and reassembling them into a group of contiguous blocks. This helps speed up access to files and programs.
Here again DiskWarrior takes another path. Instead of defragmenting the files on your disk it concentrates on optimizing the disk’s directory. Other optimization programs defragment the catalog b-tree and extents files, but DiskWarrior makes improvements by changing the tree structure itself. On a healthy hard disk, you simply have DiskWarrior rebuild the disk’s directory structure, just as you would if you were attempting to recover missing data. Speed addicts that crave even an smidgen of improvement may get enough of a hit from DiskWarrior to make the program worthwhile.
Just Directory Assistance — DiskWarrior assumes any problems you have with a drive will manifest themselves as errors in the drive’s directory structures – and for the most part, this is a good assumption. Software crashes, power outages, and forced restarts are all-too-common events in the lives of most computer users, and they in turn are all-too-common causes of directory damage.
By focusing solely on directories, however, DiskWarrior doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of your disk. If your disk were a book, DiskWarrior checks, confirms, and creates an elegant new table of contents, but it can’t paw through every page character by character looking for a particular sentence. Given the life spans and reliability of today’s storage devices, DiskWarrior’s approach is fine in many cases. However, if the data region of your disk is damaged – perhaps due to failing media, a misaligned mechanism, deficient components, or physical damage from a fall or other impact – DiskWarrior won’t be able to identify and repair a problem. Physical damage is more prevalent in removable media like Zip cartridges, but it can happen with any storage device. Searching the contents of a drive for fragments of a document is arduous work, but it’s sometimes easier than re-writing a thesis or re-acquiring key data. Other disk utility packages offer these types of low-level tools, and many hard disk formatters and disk optimization programs can perform surface scans of disks, looking for signs of physical damage. And remember, despite the reassuring claims of manufacturers, the failure rate of all storage devices is 100 percent: it’s just a question of how soon the failure will occur.
The Final Fix — DiskWarrior is an excellent utility if you experience frequent crashes, or maintain Macs for users who have problems with software errors or data loss. DiskWarrior’s greatest assets are its preview function, the speed of the rebuild feature, and the simplicity of its interface. DiskWarrior is a very capable program that can recover drives where other utilities fail, and deserves a place in your utility arsenal.
DiskWarrior is available electronically from Alsoft for $70, and on CD-ROM from a variety of resellers. The DiskWarrior CD-ROM features system folders with Mac OS 7.6.1, 8.1, and 8.5.1, and some nifty prestidigitation from the folks at Alsoft enables you to use this CD-ROM as a startup disk on any system that supports booting from a CD-ROM drive (this ranges from at least the SE/30 all the way to the most recent iMacs and blue and white Power Macintosh G3s). DiskWarrior requires a system with a 68020 processor or better (including all PowerPC-based systems) and System 7.1; DiskWarrior needs Mac OS 8.1 or higher to rebuild HFS Plus disks.
One of the Information Age’s most powerful concepts is hypertext. Originally described by Ted Nelson, hypertext can take various forms, but the basic idea is that a word or phrase in one document can be a portal into another. Being obsessed with information retrieval, I’ve long been fascinated by hypertext, and some of my TidBITS reviews have described hypertextual applications.
Thanks to browsers and the World Wide Web, hypertext has become a familiar concept. Unfortunately, a Web browser’s implementation of hypertext has certain drawbacks:
There is no easy way to link a single phrase to several different texts, amongst which the user can choose. A browser’s hyperlinking is one-to-one, not one-to-many.
Sometimes you just want the user to be able to peep at a brief comment, without leaving the current document – something on the model of a footnote in a book. A browser isn’t very apt for this sort of thing; you can manage it with frames or a few browser-specific techniques, but not easily.
Sentius Corporation has a solution to both problems. The solution consists of two parts: an application, called RichLink Author, and a browser plug-in, called RichLink View.
Creating Rich Documents — In RichLink Author, you start with a styled text document, which can include inline pictures, rather like SimpleText. In a second pane of the document window, you attach comments to particular words. This document, meaning the text plus the comments, could be your final product; it can be opened and edited and read, and you could give it to someone else to read in their own copy of RichLink Author. But the document’s real purpose is to be made available over the Internet through a Web browser.
To do this, you use RichLink Author to generate an RLF file (meaning that the file’s name ends in ".rlf", standing, I suppose, for "RichLink file"); then you make an HTML document containing an <EMBED> tag linking to this RLF file. A user can now view the RLF by opening the HTML document in a browser which has the RichLink View plug-in. The RLF is displayed within the browser window as a scrolling pane of text with some controls at the bottom, much like a PDF seen through Adobe’s PDFViewer plug-in. And what about your comments? That’s the interesting part. The comments are initially invisible. When the user passes the mouse over a word to which comments are attached, the cursor changes to indicate their presence. When the user holds down the mouse button on such a word, a hierarchical contextual menu pops up under the mouse. This menu displays the comments.
This simple device, a hierarchical contextual pop-up menu to display comments attached to a particular word, is quite ingenious. Because it pops up, it’s temporary: the user never leaves the current document, and the menu vanishes when the mouse button is released. Because it’s a menu, it can contain many different comments simultaneously, but because it’s hierarchical, the user only sees one comment at a time. For example, suppose a word has three comments: an explanation, a criticism, and a joke. When the user clicks on the word, the pop-up menu might just contain the three items Explanation, Criticism, and Joke; but each of these is hierarchical, so if the user holds the mouse on Criticism, the actual text of the critical comment pops up to the right.
Multiple comments in a single category are possible; so, for example, holding the cursor over Criticism could show a further hierarchical menu with two items, Post-Structuralist and Feminist, each leading to a different comment. Comment text can be styled, and several special fonts (such as Japanese characters and phonetic symbols) are embedded in the plug-in. Even a single menu item is able to scroll, so a comment can be a fairly long paragraph, though to be sure things are easier if a comment is brief. A comment, instead of text, can be an ordinary browser link: you provide the URL of a Web page, an image, and so forth, and if the user chooses that item, the browser simply loads and displays it in the usual way (and so, multiple links can emanate from one stretch of text). A RichLink document, like a DOCMaker document, can consist of multiple sections; to navigate between them, there’s a pop-up table of contents, and arrow buttons at the bottom of the frame.
Dictionaries Extend Power — The remarkable thing about RichLink is that it’s free – not only the RichLink View plug-in, but also the RichLink Author program for creating RLFs. How, then, does Sentius expect to make any money from this product? Through dictionaries. A common reason for annotating a document is to assist a reader who isn’t quite fluent in the language. Typically, such a reader can make out the general sense, but there are a few words he or she just doesn’t know. With an RLF, there’s no need to spend any time hunting for those words in a paper dictionary; just click the word, and its definition appears.
Since you can’t be sure which words the reader won’t know, you’d like to supply comments defining every word (or all but the most common words). Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But no: the process of creating these definition comments is completely automatic. Sentius supplies the dictionaries, in a proprietary format; so far, they have the American Heritage dictionary for defining English words in English, plus bilingual dictionaries for defining English words in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. You just tell RichLink Author that you want the document annotated with comments based on one or several of these dictionaries, and go get a cup of coffee. When you return, the comments have been provided, based on the dictionaries.
As a simple example, I’ve posted a Web page containing an embedded RLF. To view it, the plug-in must be installed before you start up your browser; you may also need to give your browser quite a bit of extra memory to prevent freezes. The page is a mock-up of an actual TidBITS article of mine from several years ago. The main idea here is that if (heaven forfend!) our French translators were temporarily incapacitated, we might want to post our pages with annotations to assist our French readers; so, word definitions in English and in French have been attached, automatically, with no effort on my part. I’ve also added manually one comment (to the phrase "a week" in the first sentence) and a couple of ordinary hyperlinks (to the words "University" and "Christchurch" in the first sentence). The whole thing took about five minutes of my time, though of course RichLink Author itself had to work longer to make the dictionary-based comments.
All That Glitters — RichLink Author’s interface is clever, but it’s also so clumsy and full of unnecessary surprises that it manages to make an easy concept difficult. I first discovered RichLink at the January 1998 Macworld Expo, and I’m disappointed that Sentius could, after all this time, ship a shrink-wrapped version which has matured so little. The product feels as if it has been subjected to little or no usability testing.
It is impossible to create a new document which is utterly blank; instead, every new document has two comment types which you must delete by hand to get started. As you’re creating and editing comments, you can tab from comment to comment, but tabbing to a comment does not permit it to be edited (you can’t type or paste); you must hit Return first, which is confusing and contrary to Macintosh conventions. There is no Save menu item; RichLink Author is constantly saving secretly, which makes one afraid to experiment.
Dictionaries, though huge, cannot be used directly from the CD; you must have lots of free hard disk space. Dictionaries can be browsed, but no menu item permits this; you must choose Startup Screen from the Window menu (!) and press a button in the resulting dialog. To dictate that comments should come from a dictionary, you have to say so in two different dialogs, which is maddening.
Installation is a nightmare of unexpected consequences. Without warning, several bitmap fonts are installed, bypassing any font management system (such as Suitcase or Font Reserve) you might use; one of these conflicts with a font you may already have (Mishawaka, from Eudora). RichLink’s file importing depends upon XTND, so a Claris Translators folder, full of filters, is installed in your Claris folder, regardless of what filters you may have in your Claris folder already. It took me some hours to straighten out the mess.
Documentation is not very good. The manual manages, in a mere 60 pages, to obscure a straightforward concept behind incomprehensible jargon; if I hadn’t known already what RichLink does and how to use it, I could never have guessed from this. The manual is available in printed form, and also as a PDF, and also as an RLF to be viewed in your browser. This RLF is a poor advertisement for RichLink itself, though, because its internal links between chapters don’t work; apparently, the feature which lets you jump between sections of a document is broken.
There is an online hands-on tutorial, which is initially mystifying. There’s no clue as to the purpose of the tutorial files; they’re BBEdit files, but they’ve been oddly disguised with Apple Guide’s icon, so it is up to you to figure out what they really are, guess which one comes first, and open it in a browser. These documents must be juggled along with two ReadMe files which provide important further details and caveats, and several example files. It’s all very confusing and frustrating.
Disconnected Links — RichLink is a brilliant idea, and it’s great that RichLink Author is free, but all these loose ends worry me. I don’t believe that Sentius isn’t eating its own dog food, that is, that the folks at Sentius don’t actually use RichLink much. Perhaps, with familiarity, they’ve become inured to the problems, or possibly they lack motivation to fix them, since users can’t pound the table and demand their money back. A good product should evince concern for details, should make hard things easier, should emanate a sense that your computer won’t crash nor your data be corrupted. RichLink Author doesn’t quite do any of that. But perhaps the idea itself is so powerful that users won’t mind the implementation.
RichLink requires a Power Macintosh running System 7.5.5 or higher, plus QuickTime 3.0 or higher. The manual claims that you need 6 MB of free RAM, but since RichLink Author prefers a whopping 39,506 K (38.5 MB) of RAM (and much more if you’re using any dictionaries), this seems unrealistic. The price of the commercial version (with dictionaries) starts at $500.