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#858: MacUpdate: Compendium of Cool Software, How to Disable Dashboard, Why Did My Hard Drive Die?


Hello all,

I recently had a realization that for those of us in the north, Groundhog Day is a win-win. If our man Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow, we get an early spring. If he does see his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter…which for us here in Vermont is still an early spring! If spring really sprung here in mid-March, we’d be ecstatic.

Like most things in life, Groundhog Day comes down to relativity and perspective. Relativity is inescapable. Perspective is mutable and slippery, and it takes effort and practice to keep a perspective that keeps you going — or rather, helps you get back up after being knocked down. Everybody gets knocked down. Being able to get back up is the trick.

Why am I writing this? First, it seems I do well reminding myself of this stuff in the middle of the winter to stave off them winter blues. Second, I see this cycle play out every day watching my kids go from joy to meltdown to joy in a never-ending circle that shows me the incredible resilience of human beings. And third, due to a set of circumstances beyond any control, we are bringing back some articles from the past since that other perpetual cycle, winter illness, has caught up with us hard this week.

We’ll bounce back next week. Thanks for reading.


  MacUpdate: Compendium of Cool Software  

One of my favorite things about being a Mac user is getting to enjoy all sorts of great freeware and shareware applications. There are cooking programs, network utilities, games, interface enhancements, widgets, and much more. I’m a daily reader of MacUpdate, which is a site that lists freeware, shareware and commercial updates as they are released or updated. There are as many as fifty entries each day! Here are some of my current favorites:

Chax 3.0.2 provides enhancements to iChat, including a unified contact list, growl notification, and more font control. It also adds more preferences to control auto-accepting chats and file transfers, and several other options. The feature I like most is the automatic resizing of my contact lists as my contacts go on and off-line. I should note that Chax is no longer under active development and will not work with any version of OS X later than Snow Leopard (10.6).

BBEdit 10.5.2 is one of the most powerful text-editing tools on the Mac. I use it for web development, editing configuration files, and many other things. BBEdit has been around for since 1993, and I’ve been a loyal customer from the very beginning. It supports profiles for numerous programming languages and web languages. It has command-line tools to let users access its text editing engine from the terminal. My second-choice text editor is probably TextMate 1.5.11, which I also own.

MenuCalendarClock iCal 4.5.2 is a simple menu bar item with a quick calendar view, event list, and rapid access to iCal data. I like that I can make a quick check of upcoming consults without opening the full iCal window. There is also a version for Entourage.

Transmit 4.2 is an excellent FTP client with a great tabbed dual-pane view for easy drag and drop of files to and from servers. It supports a variety of protocols and allows you save a list of server favorites. I have my Transmit setup configured so I can double-click on remote files and have them open up directly in BBEdit, an image editor, or a CSS editor. I’ve also heard great things about a fairly new FTP client, ForkLift 2.5.4 and many people still rely on the venerable Fetch 5.7, which is still meaningfully evolving after twenty years.

SuperDuper! 2.7.1 While I rely on Time Machine for daily backup, I still use SuperDuper for a second cloned backup. Its great Smart Update feature quickly updates my clone drive in a fraction of the time a full clone would take. It just copies what has changed since my last clone, and also removes files to match my system drive. I can’t use it to go back for long-deleted files, but I can boot directly from my clone backup. If you still use Mac OS 10.4, you should definitely look at SuperDuper if you won’t be upgrading to 10.7 or 10.8 with Time Machine.

I encourage you to search MacUpdate and other Mac shareware sites to see if there are cool programs you might like to try. Let us know your favorites and we’ll publish some selections in an upcoming TechTails!

Originally written by Jason H. back in 2009; however, all links are for current versions of these applications. You can view the original newsletter here.

  How to Disable Dashboard  

Dashboard is a feature built in to Mac OS X 10.4 and up that allows you to customize a variety of widgets within a readily accessible screen overlay. This may seem like a handy tool to have on your desktop, but the truth is, these widgets can be quite the little ram hogs, slowing down your regular processes.

In order to fix this and increase the performance on your machine, it is possible to completely disable Dashboard from your system. It does require some basic Terminal work, and can just as easily be reversed, so don’t be worried about making any permanent changes. Note also that you don’t necessarily need to disable Dashboard completely; simply closing widgets you never use will help quite a bit too.

Now, if you’ve decided that you don’t need Dashboard, and would rather have the heightened performance, the first step is to open Terminal (located in Macintosh HD > Applications > Utilities). Once open, type this command:

defaults write mcx-disabled -boolean YES

and hit return. Now you can restart the Dock by typing the following command:

killall Dock

This command will allow the changes to take effect. Dashboard is a process owned by the Dock, so it is necessary to restart the “parent” process to see the desired change.

So there you have it — Dashboard has been completely disabled on your system. Later on, if you begin to miss this feature, it can easily be restored in a very similar fashion. Open up Terminal, and type this command:

defaults write mcx-disabled -boolean NO

Now, run the killall Dock command once again to restart the Dock, and there you go — Dashboard has been restored.

Originally written by RJ back in 2011. You can view the original newsletter here.

  Why Did My Hard Drive Die?  

The old adage says there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d like to add a third: hard drives die. It might be today, tomorrow, next week, next year. It might be five years from now. At some point, it will die. The eternal question is, why? Hard disks are prone to two types of failures: physical and logical.

A standard hard drive is made up of three components: the platter, the head and the controller. The platter is a metallic disk coated with a magnetic surface where data is stored; each platter has two sides and most drives have more than one platter. The heads are similar to the needle on a record player — they float over the platters and read or write data as needed. The controller is just that — it controls the read/write heads and translates commands from the operating system to the drive itself. When you click the Finder icon, it sends a command to the controller saying “give me a list of folders.” It sends the necessary commands to the heads to gather this information, then sends it back to Finder.

If you’ve ever wondered what specs like “5400 RPM” or “7200 RPM” mean, it refers to how fast the platters are spinning — 5400, 7200 or even 10,000 rotations per minute. The faster the platters spin, the faster you can access your data. The platters are spun by a motor, and anything that spins that fast for a long enough period of time will eventually wear out. If the motor dies, the platters cannot spin, and you can’t get to your data. A sign that the motor might be failing is a loud buzzing or grinding noise from the hard drive as it spins.

Under normal operation, the read/write heads do not ever touch the platter. There is a gap of about 3 nanometers between the head and the surface of the platter. If you don’t know how small a nanometer is, picture a frisbee flying at a speed of 150mph about 3 inches from the ground. That’s how close to the platter the read/write head is, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.

Just as an errant gust of wind could cause the frisbee to hit the ground, any kind of shock to the hard drive can cause the heads to crash into the platter, scratching the surface and possibly causing the magnetic coating to be ruined. This can be anywhere from hardly noticeable to catastrophic, depending on where the heads happen to hit. Damaged areas can no longer reliably store data, but if there was already data there, it may now be inaccessible. Attempts to read damaged areas can cause the system to slow down, hang (beach ball) or freeze up altogether.

Condensation can also ruin a hard drive. Common belief is that a hard drive is completely sealed and air-tight, but this is not strictly accurate. There is a tiny air hole on the drive’s case (usually marked with a label that says “Do not cover”). Its purpose is to stabilize the pressure and humidity inside and outside the drive. If you leave a laptop in a cold car and then bring it into a warm room, you should let it sit at room temperature for several hours before trying to use it. Seagate drive packaging suggests that if the drive was shipped at a temperature of 30 degrees, the drive should sit for 15 hours before attempting to power it up. I have seen at least one system that was left in the car overnight and then would not boot from the drive the next day. The hard drive was unrecoverable; I can’t help but wonder, had the user waited until the system warmed up, if it would have been okay.

Modern hard drives will automatically move the heads off to the side, away from the platter’s data area, when you power down your system. You should always either shut down your laptop or put it to sleep before moving it to reduce the risk of a head crash. Carrying it around while it’s running is just asking for trouble, even with modern hard drives’ sudden motion sensor, which parks the heads when motion is sensed.

If you set your system down too hard (or drop it) while it’s not running, the hard drive will often be fine. If the system is running when it hits, the read/write heads can bounce off the platter and corrupt the data stored there, even with a sudden motion sensor. The platters have a lubricating coating that help protect against the casual bump here and there, but this won’t prevent the shock of a drop from damaging the drive.

The controller, like any electronics, can fail with or without any warning. Twenty years ago, hard drives and controllers were separate parts, so if the controller failed you could just swap it for another one and the data on the hard drive would be fine. Now the two are integrated, so if one fails the whole thing fails. Without the drive controller, the system can’t send commands to retrieve data. If you’ve ever turned on your computer and heard a clicking noise from your hard drive, this usually means the controller has failed and can’t send the correct commands to the read/write heads. As a result, they just knock back and forth. What would make the controller fail? Power spikes. An accidental drop. Liquid. Bad luck.

I haven’t mentioned the “b” word yet…anyone who’s read my articles knows I strongly recommend backing up your system regularly. Some day, your hard drive will develop problems. When it happens, one of the more difficult parts of my job is telling people that their data is gone. All the pictures of their baby growing up, all their college papers, all their music, gone forever. Your hard drive might die, but your data doesn’t have to go with it.

Back up your data. A technician’s least favorite job function is to report that all data is lost.

Originally written by Glen B. back in 2011. You can view the original newsletter here.

  TT SPECIAL | Cable Management is Key  

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  TT SPECIAL | Running out of USB Ports?  

TT | Save $10 on Quirky Contort USB Hub + FREE Shipping


Apple certainly has a keen eye for design when it comes to their products. They make things small and compact which makes their portability unmatched.

Unfortunately at the same time, you can run out of ports in the blink of an eye. The Quirky Contort gives you the extra expandability that you need.

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  TT SPECIAL | Movies On Your TV, From Your Mac  

TT | Save $80 on Refurbished 15-inch MacBook Pro & Hammerhead Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Cable


The new Retina display Macs are now coming with an HDMI port, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the not to distant past Mac owners had to use their mini DisplayPort to send video/audio out to their HDTV. To do that you need a cable.

Bundled together we have an Apple refurbished 15-inch MacBook Pro with a Hammerhead Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable.

Right now you can save $80 on this bundle and be watching movies on your TV from your laptop in no time!