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December 6, 2012

Michael P. Soulier
But I Digress
» The Apple Support Experience

So, having jumped into Apple land with a Mac Mini recently, and having some problems, I of course took advantage of my included 90 days technical support. Being part of the Apple ecosystem includes being subject to how they support their customers, so I think it's important to write about.

Normally my idea of support is to figure out what piece of software I'm having a problem with, locating the open-source community responsible for it, and then tracking down a mailing list, IRC channel, whatever, where I can ask for help. I usually loathe help lines of any kind, as North America and most of the world handles these very poorly these days.

You know the story. You call hoping that you'll talk to a flesh and blood human, and you get a machine telling you that, "we are currently experiencing a higher than normal call volume," which is what you'll hear every damn time you call so obviously it's not higher than normal, and they're just cheap bastards who understaff their support infrastructure, but I digress.

Well, I collected a few questions together before calling Apple Canada, as I hate calling help lines so I figured once I found a human I'd hammer him/her with several questions. Better throughput. Can't help it, I think like a programmer. And, of course, I got a machine. I asked me what product I was calling about, using voice recognition to understand me as I said, "Mac Mini", and asked me for the serial number. That all worked, and I finally got a human, with little difficulty. No Indian accent either, I think it was Spanish, but I've called a few times since and there's no discernable pattern, so perhaps it's not overseas for a change. Not that I care all that much, as long as they actually help, but I've had some really bad experiences before with uninformed first-line support reading from their scripts.

Well, the guy I talked to couldn't help with the software bugs, obviously he doesn't own the code, but he can report the issues and I can hope that a developer at Apple will fix them. I already reported the issues at anyway, and hopefully that's not a digital black hole like most feedback pages. He did help me understand how to do a couple of things that OS X considers advanced, like launching a terminal from a keystroke. BTW Apple, that's pretty basic in any Linux window manager, so please do better.

Then we got down to the hardware issue I'm having. At least, I think it's hardware. Many other people are having the same problem. It makes me wonder if there was a bad batch of Mac Minis out of Apple recently. I called in about it, mentioned to the nice lady that wanted to sell me an Applecare package that I likely wouldn't need it, as I was thinking of taking the unit back, and suddenly I was talking to a nice man in second level support.

He took the issue on personally, gave me a direct contact number to him, and the email address, and we started swapping hardware to narrow down the potential problems. I swapped the LCD with one upstairs, no help. Got a new HDMI to DVI adaptor from Apple, no help. He arranged for a full unit exchange and data migration, which was done very professionally (albiet with some data loss that was easily made up for), unfortunately it didn't help.

Finally, we're running an app from Apple to gather up logs, and I'm told that the Engineers at Apple know what the problem is, they think it's software, and to keep my eyes on the software updates. There was one recently in fact, labelled graphics performance and reliability, so I wonder if that was it. I'm waiting to see if the issue happens again.

Thus far, I must say that Apple raises the bar for what good customer support should be. I've had plenty of bad experiences with other companies, and so far I've had mostly good ones with Apple, and now an exceptional one. The guy I'm talking to deserves a raise. Fingers crossed that the experience continues to be this good.

November 19, 2012

Michael P. Soulier
But I Digress
» Joysticks? We don't need no stinking joysticks...

So, after unpackaging my brand-spanking new Mac Mini, I grabbed a copy of the X-Plane demo, dropped in an old usb joystick and fired it up. Oddly, X-Plane itself asked me if I wanted to calibrate the joystick, which struck me as odd, that hasn't happened in years, not since my days with plain old DOS. DOS didn't have a controller subsystem so there was no way to calibrate a joystick once, for all apps, but Microsoft fixed that long, long ago. Even Linux has jscal to allow the same thing. It's command-line, but it works.

So of course I assumed that on a Mac, with it's reputation for dead simple plug and play, everything just works, dead simple and easy, it would have the same right? Umm, no. No command-line tool, no graphical tool, no voice activated tool, no swiping on my LCD, nothing. It's left up to the application, kinda like DOS. Way to go Apple.

Now, why do I care, since X-Plane has such a utility? Well, in X-Plane, I don't. But after downloading and installing Flightgear, I do. They leave the joystick calibration up to the OS, and rightly so. So, I can't use the joystick in Flightgear, not that I'd want to use it on this machine anyway, as I've already found out that the OpenGL rendering performance on the Mac Mini is horrid. Wow, another strike over my cheap Linux box sitting next to me that was made out of spare parts from a friend's basement. That is truly, utterly, sad.

Seriously Apple, is that the best you can do? If you think I'm interested in tilting an ipad to fly a plane in any realistic simulation, you guys have been smoking way too much of what you usually smoke. I want realism, and last time I flew, the pilot didn't have to lean to bank the plane. At least, I hope not, the door was closed and locked, post-9/11 and all, but I digress.

Bottom line Apple, for what I paid for this thing, you could have done much, much better in this regard. X-Plane rocks, but Intel graphics in the mini? Pleease, put a smoking Nvidia chipset in there and give me a decent framerate for games!

Are you listening?

November 17, 2012

Michael P. Soulier
But I Digress
» Umm, done unzipping yet?

So, the first thing I did after after wrapping my head around the cocoa interface was to start installing software like a madman. I wanted Firefox, VLC, Kobo, Gimp, Vim, etc, etc, etc. So, I had to learn how to install apps on OS X.

Apps in OS X seem to come in at least two different forms: .app files, which are self-contained application packages that you simply drop into /Applications on the system (totally awesome), and .pkg files, which are more windows-like installers.

The latter seems to be required with more complex installs, like plug-ins that need to put files in privileged places all over the system, requiring root access to install. As an admin user, I can already put .app files into /Applications without root access, the implications of which are that a virus could infect the apps in /Applications too, so that's a strike, security-wise, for OS X over Linux. Still better than Windows though, where a Power User can change anything under Program Files or Windows without escalating privileges.

The .app files or .pkg files can come in many forms, the most common of which is a .dmg file, which is a disk image that OS X will casually mount on a loopback. I've noticed that the Finder can mount .dmg and .iso files with a simple click. With an .app file, you just drag it to /Applications, and you're done, and uninstalling is just a simple. Far superior to any OS that I've used in the past. It's also common to download .zip files, which clicking on in the Finder fires-up the Archive Utility.

So there I was, clicking along and installing, and then a progress bar indicating that the .zip file was opening just kept going, and going, and going. I looked online, and found that I am not alone in having this problem. Apparently, the appleeventsd daemon requires killing under those circumstances, something that the nice guy at Apple support did not know. Looks like the issue is in OS X 10.8.2, which I am running.

Hmm. Bad timing in jumping on the Apple bandwagon? I wonder how long they'll take to fix the issue. Good test for what it will be like to live as part of Apple's ecosystem.