Got troubles? We can help, particularly if you’re an iMac user, since installing Jaguar is rendering some iMacs unusable. Then there are the problems with SuperDrives and new DVD media, and a security flaw in StuffIt Expander 6.5.2. Along with solutions to these problems, Adam finishes off his Troubleshooting Primer, Kirk McElhearn offers suggestions for using the PowerMate, and we glance at the Palm Tungsten-T and MacTiVo Blesser.
Apple Posts Important iMac SuperDrive Update — Apple has released the iMac SuperDrive Update, the first of a series of SuperDrive firmware updates that are critical for owners of SuperDrive-equipped Macs. A bug in the firmware of Pioneer DVD-writing drives (such as the SuperDrive, though Apple doesn’t use Pioneer drives exclusively) makes them unable to identify media belonging to a new specification for higher-speed DVD media. Using these discs, which record at 4x speed for DVD-R and 2x for DVD-RW, can potentially damage the drive itself: the device’s laser attempts to determine what type of media has been inserted, and since it doesn’t recognize the new format, it keeps trying until it overheats and burns out. (Macintosh author Jim Heid has published more detailed information at his Macintosh Digital Hub Web site.) So far, Apple has released an update only for the iMac G4 (15-inch Flat Panel), and only under Mac OS X; the company says that updates for the Power Mac G4, as well as Mac OS 9 versions for both types of machine, will be posted soon. Recent models, such as the 17-inch iMac G4, the SuperDrive-equipped eMac, and the Power Mac G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors), include the latest firmware version and are not affected by the problem. The iMac SuperDrive Update for Mac OS X is a 1.2 MB download. [JLC]
Aladdin Expands StuffIt Deluxe 7.0.1 — Soon after introducing a new StuffIt compression format, Aladdin has released an update to its system-wide utility for compressing and expanding files. StuffIt Deluxe 7.0.1 improves compatibility with Mac OS X 10.2, speeds up the Fast Compression option of the new StuffIt X file format, and adds support for Finder command keys while using the Dvorak key layout. The utility also adds support for Intego’s VirusBarrier. The StuffIt Deluxe 7.0.1 updater is free for registered users and is a 7.9 MB download for the Mac OS X version, or a 2.8 MB download for those running Mac OS 8.6 through Mac OS 9.
Aladdin also recently released StuffIt Expander 7.0, part of the StuffIt Standard Edition package (formerly known as StuffIt Light). Due to a security vulnerability discovered in StuffIt Expander 6.52 and earlier, Apple offers StuffIt Expander 7.0 by itself via Software Update. [JLC]
Palm Unveils Tungsten T — Palm, Inc. improved the top of its line of handhelds today by releasing the Palm Tungsten T, a color organizer that adds multimedia capabilities and the new Palm OS 5 to the company’s lineup. The $500 Tungsten T includes built-in Bluetooth wireless networking, 16 MB of memory, a high-resolution (320 pixels square, double that of previous Palm-branded handhelds) color screen capable of displaying 65,000 colors, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and a button for recording voice memos. Most striking, however, is the Tungsten T’s compact form factor: the bottom section of the device slides down to reveal the Graffiti area. It measures 4 inches (10.16 cm) tall when closed, or 4.8 inches (12.19 cm) when open, is 0.6 inches (1.52 cm) thick, and weighs 5.6 ounces (158.8 grams). The unit is powered by a built-in lithium-polymer battery, and in a departure for Palm, runs on the Texas Instruments 144 MHz OMAP 1510 ARM-based processor. As with most high-end Palm handhelds, the Tungsten T also includes an infrared port and an expansion slot for Secure Digital/MultiMedia Card media. [JLC]
MacTiVo Blesser Available Again — Mac users who want a do-it-yourself approach to adding a hard disk to a TiVo can once again download the free MacTiVo Blesser program (the original site disappeared in the iTools to .Mac transition). TiVo upgrade vendor Weaknees.com is now hosting MacTiVo Blesser at the link below; the page also provides links to the necessary instructions. Note that MacTiVo Blesser works only for preparing a second hard drive for adding to any single-drive TiVo other than the new Series2 TiVo; it doesn’t help you swap your existing drive out or make a backup of your existing drive. For more details on upgrading a TiVo, see "Upgrading the TiVo" in TidBITS-644. [ACE]
Last week, I began to see credible reports that installing Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar on some iMacs was "frying" the motherboards. Users would run the Jaguar installer, everything would proceed correctly, and when users tried to restart the screens would remain black, rendering the machines unusable. Furthermore, the screens stayed black: restarting the machine from a Mac OS 9 CD or other bootable volume made no difference. Some users who contacted their Apple dealers were reportedly told the only solution was to replace their iMac’s motherboard, potentially at a cost of $700 or more.
So, after some investigation, here’s the deal:
Installing Jaguar on some slot-loading iMacs can render the machine unusable by blacking out the internal display, even when trying to start up in Mac OS 9. The bug is apparently in Jaguar, not the installer.
You can avoid the problem altogether by updating your iMac’s firmware before installing Jaguar. The current firmware version is 4.1.9; it’s a 1.2 MB download.
If you’ve already been hit by this problem, no, the iMac’s motherboard is not fried, and replacement is not necessary. See below for the fix.
A reasonable person would think the Jaguar installer would check for a supported firmware revision before attempting to install. It does not, though the ReadMe and slim installation brochure that comes with Jaguar both hint at the possible need for a firmware update.
Firmware Versions — At this time, it’s not entirely clear which iMacs are vulnerable. The original "slot-loading" iMacs and iMac DVs introduced in September of 1999 are affected; the problem may extend to later iMac models with built-in CRTs, which Apple designates "Summer 2000," "Early 2001," and "Summer 2001." Neither flat-screen iMacs nor eMacs are affected.
Be sure you read the instructions before attempting to update the firmware: you’ll need to locate and use the programmer’s button on the side of your iMac. Firmware updates can be run only when launched from a writable disk under Mac OS 9.x (or Mac OS 8.x, if your computer is old enough). You cannot run a firmware update from the Classic environment in Mac OS X, nor can you run one when the computer is started up from a CD-ROM or network disk. Your PRAM will be reset after installing a firmware update, so you may need to check some of your system settings. In particular, make sure the setting in your startup disk control panel is correct if you have multiple bootable drives or partitions.
If you don’t know what firmware version you’re currently running (and who does?), you can find out by using Apple System Profiler; an entry for "Boot ROM version," "ROM revision," or "Boot ROM info" appears under the System Profile tab. If you’re using Mac OS 9, the version will appear in an ugly decimal format like $0004.17f1 – that corresponds to firmware version 4.1.7.
The following Knowledge Base article lists the current firmware revisions for Macs which support Mac OS X.
Seeing Black? If you’ve already attempted to install Jaguar and are looking at a black screen, you can recover, but it’s not simple. Essentially, you must find a way to update your iMac’s firmware from a writable drive without having use of the iMac’s screen.
Perhaps the best approach is to open the iMac, remove its hard drive, and connect the hard drive to a second computer (like a Power Mac G3 or G4 with an available drive bay). Then copy the firmware updater to the iMac’s drive, install a remote control program like Timbuktu onto the hard drive and configure it to allow incoming access, and set the drive to boot in Mac OS 9. Next, move the hard drive back to your iMac and boot the machine in Mac OS 9 (the screen will still be black). Then, connect to the iMac over a network from another Macintosh using the remote control program and run the firmware updater. Once you’ve done that, the iMac’s video should be restored. If your iMac is under warranty, note that opening your iMac to remove the hard drive may void that warranty.
[Updated 29-Oct-02: Another option for owners of iMacs which have a VGA video output port is to connect an external VGA monitor to your iMac; in many cases, it appears the iMac’s display will be correctly mirrored to the external monitor, enabling users to update the system’s firmware without going through the arduous process above. -Geoff]
Obviously, not every iMac owner has a second computer and a remote control program at their disposal, or the technical acumen to transplant hard drives between machines. An Apple dealer may be able to perform these or similar steps for you to recover your iMac, but they’re unlikely to do so for free even if your iMac is still under warranty: expect to pay at least an hourly rate for the dealer’s time, but that’s certainly cheaper than a new motherboard. A well-versed Mac consultant might be faster and less expensive. Under no circumstances should you let a dealer convince you that your iMac’s motherboard must be replaced. Motherboard replacement was initially Apple’s official solution to this problem; however, now that the issue has been more thoroughly identified, Apple dealers now have access to information about it how to recover iMacs without replacing the motherboard. If your dealer isn’t yet aware of it, ask them to look.
Seeing Red? This situation is troubling. It’s incredible that Apple would release operating system software dependent on particular firmware revisions and not check that appropriate firmware was available before installing. C’mon: that’s just common sense! We’re also disturbed Apple would recommend dealers and service centers replace motherboards on affected machines – a costly solution, especially for machines out of warranty – when there’s nothing wrong with the motherboards, and Apple’s own software caused the problem. We realize working out solutions for these problems takes time and dealers need to provide solutions as quickly as possible, but we certainly hope Apple plans to provide refunds to affected users who have already paid for motherboard replacements.
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I have always had mixed feelings about gadgets. I like the cool factor inherent in some of them, but I tend to find that the cooler they look, the less useful they are. So I rein in my gadget-buying impulse, and try to purchase only those that are both cool and useful.
Sometimes it’s hard to find whether a given gadget is useful. If a friend or colleague owns one, you can try it out; if you see it on display in a store, you can give it a whirl. But some gadgets are hard to find – especially here in my Alpine village, where mail-order is my only option.
When Griffin Technology’s PowerMate came out last year, there were lots of articles saying how cool it was, including a mention in the traditional TidBITS Macworld Expo Superlatives article. The coolness is clearly visible – an attractive brushed aluminum knob/button, taken from the most minimal of stereo designs, sits atop a thick layer of translucent plastic with a soft blue light pulsing beneath it.
However, cool is one thing, but not one of the articles I read, nor the manufacturer’s Web site, did a good job of describing how I might apply the PowerMate to my everyday tasks. This brief article is intended to do just that – you’ve gotten a gist of how cool it looks, so let me tell you how I have been using this gadget for the last week, and why it will most likely remain by my keyboard for a very long time.
Setting It Up — Setting up the PowerMate is a breeze. It connects to a USB port via a short USB cable, about 18 inches (48 cm) long, but also comes with a 40-inch (101 cm) extension cable if you need to connect it to a computer farther away.
You configure the PowerMate via a preference pane under Mac OS X or a control panel under Mac OS 9. When you open its preference pane, you see four sections: Setting, Action, Pulsing, and Long Click Length. The first section, Setting, lets you choose for which applications you want settings to apply. The PowerMate doesn’t do much – you can rotate it (right and left), click it (press the button), use a long click (press and hold briefly), or click and rotate (right and left). That gives you a total of six actions, each of which can tell your Mac to do one of several things: rotating can raise or lower volume, scroll up or down, move the cursor left or right, move the cursor up or down, or (and here’s the most important) invoke a key combination; clicking can invoke a click or a double-click, mute the volume, open a file, or send a key combination. Choose which action you want to program, choose what you want it to do, click Apply, and it’s set.
The PowerMate also works as a power button – you can use it to turn on compatible Macs. This can be useful for those with keyboards that lack power buttons and whose computers live under their desks.
To help you get started, the PowerMate driver comes with presets for a handful of applications. For example, in iTunes, rotating the knob raises or lowers the volume, and clicking it pauses playback. For iMovie, it is set to work as a jog and shuttle controller. For most other applications, it is set to scroll up or down, but you are free to change these settings, add applications, or delete any of the predefined applications’ settings.
You can also adjust settings for the length of a long click (since the PowerMate software sends its actions when the button is released, you can adjust the long click length from 0.5 to 4 seconds). Finally, you can change the pulsing speed of the two blue LEDs beneath the knob – a feature that was frequently requested shortly after the PowerMate began shipping. One thing to note is that Unsanity Software has released a free CPU usage monitor, called Cee Pee You, which lives in the Mac OS X menu bar and can also indicate CPU usage via the PowerMate, so, for example, you can have it pulse faster or slower, or change brightness, according to your CPU usage.
Putting the PowerMate to Work — None of the above would have been enough to convince me to buy a PowerMate (which retails in the U.S. for $45; I paid 79 euros for mine). What would have been useful, though, is a clear explanation of how this gadget can be applied in everyday use. So, here are some examples of how I have programmed my PowerMate.
Microsoft Entourage: One of the most common actions I perform in Entourage is to check my mail. So, I set the click to Command-K (Send and Receive All). I’ve kept the right and left rotate settings to scroll – the PowerMate’s scroll is much smoother than pressing the spacebar and moving down one screen at a time. It is also easier than using a scroll wheel on a mouse – I have found that with the PowerMate under my right hand and my trackball under my left hand, I can do much more, and do it more easily.
Microsoft Word: I use the PowerMate to scroll within Word documents, and I set the click to Command-F6, which cycles through windows. When I long-click the PowerMate, Word saves my current document.
Internet Explorer: In addition to scrolling, I click the PowerMate to invoke Command-~ (tilde) to cycle through open windows. I also connect the long click to the Back command’s keyboard shortcut – Command-[ (open square bracket).
NetNewsWire Lite: This news gathering application has changed the way I receive news, and the PowerMate is a welcome addition. Command-G goes to the next unread news item, which I now access by rotating the PowerMate to the right. When I click-rotate to the right, I invoke Command-K to mark all items in a feed as read. I set the normal click to the Return key, which opens the item in my browser.
Terminal: What, use a multimedia knob to control the command line? Absolutely. I set the PowerMate to emulate the up and down arrow keys when I click and rotate, letting me scroll through my command history quickly. Clicking maps to Return, which runs the selected command. Rotating normally scrolls the window up or down.
Power, Mate — These few examples show you how versatile the PowerMate can be. I’m sure others will find even better ideas how to use it; I only wish there were a way for users to share this information. The manufacturer should allow users to post their ideas, but the Web site currently lists only a few tips. If you have other ideas, feel free to share them in TidBITS Talk.
It is rare that I adopt such a new type of tool so quickly, but in just one week I have become convinced that this is an essential tool for any kind of computer use. Have a look at what the PowerMate can do – you might be surprised how practical it is.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. He is co-author of Microsoft Office v. X Inside Out, published by Microsoft Press.]
In the first installment of this article, I talked about the basics steps necessary to troubleshoot any problem, including describing the problem, breaking the system apart, asking yourself questions about each part of the system, and finding answers to those questions and tests.
But what if, after all that, you still haven’t been able to solve the problem? Failure to solve a problem on your own is no cause for surrender, because you usually just don’t understand the system well enough to break it into appropriate chunks. Or perhaps you simply didn’t think of the necessary tests. For instance, in last week’s example of not being able to share files between a wireless-enabled computer and a wired computer connected to the same access point, if you didn’t realize that all the traffic had to pass through the access point, and a factory default reset (perhaps caused by a lightning strike-driven power surge) had turned off wireless to wired Ethernet bridging, you could easily have tested everything else without realizing what you were missing.
This is where experts come in. Sometimes they may have solved so many problems that they automatically know the solution to your problem based on your description. But more often they can simply break the problem down into more chunks, one of which usually turns out to be the problem.
Intermittent problems can really drive you crazy when it comes time to seek expert help. Although an expert can offer suggestions about where to look, if you have a system that works some of the time, it’s very difficult to determine whether you were testing the wrong variables or if you were testing the right variables at the wrong time or in combination with the wrong set of other variables.
Where should you turn first? Give the order in which you jump from expert to expert some thought, since your goal should be to find a solution to your problem with the least effort and cost.
Search the Web — Before anything else, try searching on the Web, both in company support databases and just generally in Google. The only hard part is coming up with appropriate search terms, but it’s worth five minutes of searching if it reveals the answer you need. You wouldn’t believe the number of questions we’ve received over the years whose answers were easily found in Google (since that’s where I look first, too).
Of course, if you have any books or magazine articles that touch on the topic, it’s worth looking in them as well, though I usually search on the Web first, since it’s faster than flipping through an index or scanning multiple issues of a magazine.
Ask an Expert Friend — If a Web search doesn’t turn up an answer, or at least some new tests to try, the fastest, cheapest, and easiest person to ask for help is a friend who is an expert at the topic in question. If you have such a friend, I recommend asking that person for help next. Be careful, though, because overusing a friend’s willingness to answer your technical questions or fix your problems can strain otherwise solid friendships. And if the friend is really more of an acquaintance, even more care is warranted to avoid causing irritation.
If possible, try to perform roughly equivalent favors so your friend doesn’t feel exploited. Tonya and I even have a "friend consulting rate" for computer help: dinner. That way, the event changes from a consulting visit into a social event with friends, and everyone feels appropriately rewarded.
Contact Tech Support — If you don’t have an expert friend, the next best option is to contact the technical support department run by the manufacturer of the hardware or software in question. If you haven’t already done so, visit their Web site and search quickly to see if they have an online database of problems and solutions that can solve your problem instantly.
If that doesn’t help, send the company email or call. Company tech support engineers are likely to know more about the products you’re using than anyone else, and it’s their job to help you if you’re a customer (but that doesn’t mean you should ever be snotty to them, as I explain below). Contacting tech support is often your best option for getting fast, accurate help.
That’s not to say company tech support works well in all situations.
Tech support engineers are often paid badly, so turnover is high and new hires often lack experience, meaning that it’s not uncommon to get a tech support engineer who knows less than you do. (In that case, ask politely if your problem can be escalated to second-level support.)
Some companies charge for support, and even when support is free, the calls are seldom toll-free. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to wait on hold for 30 minutes before you even talk to a person, and there’s little that is more frustrating than knowing that your phone bill increasing while you sit there, not getting your work done. (I usually call on a speakerphone, and read email while I’m waiting, so the time isn’t entirely wasted.)
Some tech support engineers may know their products well, but if the problem stems from an interaction between several products, they may not see the bigger picture, or they may try to pass the blame on to another company (which will, in the most annoying cases, pass it back).
Ask on the Internet — Assuming tech support fails you or isn’t worth contacting because of usurious charges or ridiculous phone wait times, the next place to ask is in an appropriate Internet forum. The hard part here is identifying the right place to ask, since so many different groups exist. Check for appropriate mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, Web-based support forums, and even IRC channels.
When I say "appropriate," I mean it. Watch the forum briefly before posting your question to make sure what you plan to ask fits in with the kind of discussions that go on, because posting an off-topic request for help will irritate people unnecessarily and won’t provide you with the solution you need. Plus, it wastes your precious time. Most forums also have a FAQ (frequently asked question) list that may contain the answer you’re looking for; be sure to check there to avoid posting a question that the other members have seen numerous times.
Don’t be greedy when it comes to asking for help in Internet forums. They work only because individuals are willing to donate their time and knowledge to the public good, so if you want the forum to thrive, be a sport and help others when you can as well.
Hire a Consultant — If all other avenues have failed, or if you have no time or patience for any of the previous approaches, consider hiring a consultant. Going the consultant route costs the most and isn’t necessarily quick, depending on the consultant’s schedule and how familiar he or she already is with your situation. But if the problem is sufficiently severe or annoying, the time and money will be well spent.
How to Report Problems — When it comes time to report your problems to someone else, your notes are invaluable, because without them, you find yourself repeating tests just to verify the results one more time. Obviously, how you report a problem varies depending on to whom you’re reporting it, but this approach should work in most situations.
First, create a profile of your computer that lists:
Your model of computer, how much memory it has, and exactly which version of the operating system you’re using.
Any recent changes to the system, such as upgrading the operating system itself or installing new drivers.
Special extensions or add-ins installed, like a third-party firewall or, in Mac OS 9, system extensions.
Any add-on devices like a second monitor, third-party video cards, a SCSI card, audio/video hardware, scanners, etc.
Version numbers for software or drivers that are relevant to the problem. Often, outdated or too-new drivers can cause all sorts of problems.
The easiest way to develop a profile of your system is to use Apple System Profiler, which is generally accessible in your Apple menu in Mac OS 9; it’s stored in your Utilities folder in Mac OS X. Windows has a similar utility called System Information that’s usually in Programs/Accessories/System Tools. Both of these tools let you save a report.
Once you’ve developed a profile that you can make available if asked, it’s time to report the actual problem. Outline your problem briefly and note that you’ve done standard troubleshooting. Then briefly relate what you’ve tried already, but don’t go into detail right away, since the fact that you’re asking for help means that what you tested inherently wasn’t right. How you proceed depends on how interactive the support medium is.
For support situations where the medium lends itself to fast interaction – in person, via the phone, instant messaging – let the support person ask questions and guide you through the process, since they likely have ideas about where the problem is. If you launch into a detailed retelling of what you’ve tried right off, you may overwhelm them with unnecessary trivia. Don’t be offended if they ask you about whether lights are lit or the power’s plugged in. It can be irritating, but it’s their version of methodical problem-solving.
When you’re asking for help in a situation where interaction is slow – direct email, mailing list posting, Usenet news posting, or a Web support forum posting – follow your brief summary of what you tried with a more detailed list of the tests you performed and your system configuration. There’s no need to explain what happened with each test if it failed to shed any light on the situation, but it is important to list them all so people trying to help don’t end up asking about tests you’ve already performed (in these slow interaction forms of communication, a back-and-forth interchange can take a day or two, so you want to keep the number of messages as small as possible).
In either situation, try to answer questions from the experts as quickly and completely as possible. From our perspective of helping people over the years, there’s nothing worse than getting incomplete answers to questions, forcing us to ask the same question in slightly different ways and just stringing out the entire interchange.
Be Nice! Actually, there is something worse than providing incomplete answers to questions, and it’s a little hard to say this, but don’t be a jerk! You wouldn’t believe how many people assume that the problem is somehow the tech support person’s fault. Yes, you’re frustrated and possibly even angry because of having bought a piece of hardware or software that isn’t working, but if you want help, you’re far more likely to get it if you’re nice, or at least polite and professional, when talking with the tech support person.
Although most people are more polite when they’re asking for help in an independent mailing list or other online forum, there’s still a tendency to whine or threaten never to buy products from the company again. Bad idea, because the people who are most likely to be able to help you probably like the company and its products, and the more you rant and rail, the less interested they are in responding to you.
Put bluntly, there’s a time and a place for complaints, and they should be separated from requests for help. That way you get maximum effect for your complaint and stand the best chance of receiving help.
Dealing with the Insolvable — I’d like to pretend that if you just follow all of the steps in the previous article and in this one, that you can solve any problem. Unfortunately, there are a very small number of problems that will resist your best efforts, and the best efforts of every expert you can bring to bear. That’s because everything you try takes time and effort, and there’s a limit to how much energy and money you should invest to solve a given problem. Sometimes the better part of valor really is to give up and buy new hardware or software that eliminates the problem entirely. The hope is, of course, that you realize you’re heading down this path before you’ve wasted too much time and effort.
That said, don’t let the fact that some problems really can’t be solved with a reasonable amount of effort prevent you from trying. In the vast majority of cases, working methodically through the steps I’ve outlined in these articles will result in success.
One last note, for those of you who work as the unofficial tech support for your friends, family, and colleagues: I encourage you to send them a link to these articles so they stand a better chance of solving their own problems, or so they can at least be easier to help.
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