Hardware

Moving your TimeMachine

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It's bound to happen to everyone, they outgrow their TimeMachine and want a new one, a bigger one, one that will allow them to go further into the past... I'm talking about OSX's built-in backup system here, I don't know what you were thinking..

So ever since starting to use OSX Leopard I've been using TimeMachine to keep a running backup of my laptop for two reasons - I can instantly jump back to an old revision of a file, and it keeps a near-constant mirror of the OS as it is with all of the software & settings intact. My laptop came with a 120gb drive and I've been using a 160gb USB drive for TimeMachine. Obviously enough, when this is my main machine I move a lot of files around - download lots of files (all legit), delete some, move others to a file server, but with TimeMachine keeping a regular hourly backup of all change files it can end up bloating up pretty quickly. Sure enough, within a few short months I'd filled up the drive and for the past three or four months it regularly informs me that it has flushed some older backups in preference to keeping newer data.

It's 2009 and hard drives of all sorts are insanely cheap. Taking advantage of the early sales I snagged a 320gb replacement internal drive for the laptop and a 500gb external drive for TimeMachine. Incidentally, both of the drives were made by Seagate, as all of my drives are, as all of their drives (at least up through their January 2009 new models) come with a five year warranty, so between backups I'm (mostly) guaranteed five years of usable storage.

Moving on.

I personally don't like moving data off a primary drive due to the inherent reliability problems of external storage - if it's important data then it needs to be on an actively used internal drive, not on a DVD or CD sitting on a shelf somewhere for grubby little fingers to play with (or get knocked over), and definitely not on a USB memory key that's going to get put through it's paces in the next laundry cycle. All external storage formats should be used for backups exclusively. End of story.

So, in order to keep my data intact I planned a drive shuffle. First I was going to migrate the TimeMachine backup data to the new external drive, then I was going to swap out the internal drives and follow up with a quick restore off the backup drive to the main OS drive. Simple enough, and something I've done before.

Well the first step, as mentioned, was to migrate the 160gb (actually only 145gb due to drive companies lying about the size of a "gigabyte") to the new 500gb drive so I could retain the last few months of data as an active backup. That seemed simple enough. Because the drive comes pre-formatted for use with Windows (NTFS), I plugged the new drive to my laptop, ran the funky Seagate software installer & allowed it to wipe & repartition my drive for OSX. After rebooting (yeah, go figure, silly company) I has a 465gb usable drive. But it didn't have my TimeMachine data.

The official guideline on migrating TimeMachine data is to use DiskUtility to "restore" the data to a new drive - odd terminology, but it kinda makes sense. Well, for some odd reason it started giving me an error when I tried this. Just to be sure (and because computers make us crazy by expecting different outcomes for repeating the same procedures) I tried again, and sure enough, the same error.

Poop.

A quick google later and I find two shareware utilities that might also do the trick - CarbonCopyCloner and the amusingly titled SuperDuper. Long story short - both tools would run for a few minutes and then seem to get stuck, sitting with zero change in progress while saying they're copying this file that's actually rather tiny (so it wasn't that it was just moving a huge file). Enough of that, back to google.

A bit more research turned up an article on the excellent MacOSXHints.com which detailed how to use the UNIX tool dd to copy a drive, including to use it to recover lost data off a partition. So I gave it a spin.

The instructions are simple. First off, use the tool "df" to find out the exact location of the partitions or drives you wish to copy (the first column marked "Filesystem"), e.g. the 160gb drive showed as "/dev/disk3" and its partition as "/dev/disk3s2", while the 500gb drive was "/dev/disk2". Then, once you know the drives you just run the following command: "dd olddrive newdrive" e.g. "dd /dev/disk3 /dev/disk2".

Well, while I was overjoyed that my first h@rDk0r3 use of UNIX in some time actually started to do something, I was dismayed to see it say the average copy speed was "1705KB" i.e. 1.7meg per second, and at that rate would take 26 hours to complete. Bummer. As it turns out, by default it works with tiny 512byte data blocks, which obviously takes FOREVER.

While researching it I come across another tool that bids itself as a simpler tool for migrating partitions called "ddrescue". I do a quick download, compile and run, and sure enough it's using the same block size. Sure enough, there's a handy little option called "--block-size", or just "-b" for short, that lets you tell it to use larger blocks of data at a time. A quick "-b 4096" later and the transfer speed jumped to ~5KB. Good enough, though it still took six hours.

After the six hours I now had a drive that seemed to all be there, but it only said it was 145gb and my efforts to resize it with Disk Utility just gave a wonderfully error that says "Error with partition: MediaKit reports partition (map) too small".

Back to the drawing board.

I then thought "maybe I have to copy just the partition instead of the entire drive. Six hours later... and I was left with basically the same thing - Disk Utility said that the entire drive was in one large 465gb partition, but Finder said it was only 145gb.

Back to the drawing board. Again.

And back to Disk Utility.

This time around I deleted the existing partition first so that the 500gb drive was completely blank. I then set the Rescue action to erase the destination. Four hours later it had copied all of the data, another two hours later and it had verified the data.

Golden. Or so I thought.

I now have a single, 465gb partition that shows up in Finder and Disk Utility. The only problem is that Disk Utility says that the drive itself has no partitions! While I'm stumped, I think I'm going to count my blessings, just deal with it - TimeMachine works again, and if I find a fix I'll post an update.

Laptops are complicated wee beasties!

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Last night when I went to bed my new (to me anyway) Powerbook G4 was working fine. This morning when I got up it was severely misbehaving - there was 9.5gb of RAM in use and nothing was responding. I started shutting everything down and at one point tried to turn off the local ColdFusion 8 server using sudo, only to have an error that my account wasn't in the sudoers list; given that my account was an administrator, this was not good. I left it to continue rebooting but when I got back, a half hour later, it had pretty much frozen up trying to load a few starter apps. This, along with the noise coming from the drive, told me what I already knew - the drive was dead.

Given that I bought the laptop off a guy on ebay two weeks previously, and that there was no extended warranty on it, I was up the proverbial creek. Given that I had to go meet someone anyway, I jumped in the car and picked up a new drive, along with an external USB chassis for the off-chance I'd be able to access the data one last time.

Well, that was the easy part. The tricky part was opening up the blasted laptop. There is a covered panel on the bottom of the 12" Powerbook G4 (1.33ghz model) that for some reason in my anxiety I mistook to be where the drive went, despite the obvious fact it was too small, and the fact that the nice KLACK!! noise came from elsewhere. The first problem of the repair - I didn't have a screwdriver the correct size. So off I go looking for a repair kit that would have a full set of screwdrivers and other tools; the first store I checked stopped carrying tools because they wanted to sell their services (or simply a new computer), and finally I got the last set of six "precision" screwdrivers at Wallyworld. After opening up said panel I felt like slapping myself as I was presented with: the memory upgrade slot. Yay.

At this point google was my friend and I found a full manual that detailed exactly how to disassemble our Powerbook. Let me tell you, this was a complicated wee beasty - tonnes of screws all over the place, some hidden behind keys on the keyboard. In addition there were two "allen"-type screws that I didn't have a correctly sized key for, so off I go to Lowes. Some of the screws were also very tightly in place, and there were several times I had to awkwardly put pressure on this tiny little screwdriver so that it would break the seal, but not so much pressure that it broke anything else; and did I mention the screwdriver was tiny so it was difficult to twist?

After much frustration I finally got all the way down to the very last screw holding in the dead drive only to realize that a) the screw was really tight, the screwdriver was wearing away and would probably rip the threads off the screw, which would have been bad. So off I go to Lowes again to get another set of screwdrivers, and this time I struck gold - a larger screwdriver with interchangeable tips, which worked wonderfully well, and I wish I'd had it earlier.

So finally I get the new drive installed, close it all back up, boot and... it works! After last week's data loss I'd made a full backup of the now dead HD to an external drive so was able to do a restore off it. Eight hours after discovering that the drive was dead I was finally able to work again. ARGH!!! <sigh>.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to OSX Leopard's new Time Machine backup system. Since I'd ran the backup I'd copied about 100 pictures off a camera memory card and saved some timesheets - the pictures I'll probably be able to recover off the card, but I'm going to have to retrace my time for the timesheets, and hope I get it right.

Oh, and annoyingly, with the price of the replacement drive and all the hours of work I've lost for the day, I could have bought a refurbished MacBook that had an actual warranty. Argh.

So, did I mention that you should backup often?

New Commodore company signs own death warrant

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The company Commodore, once known for calculators, then this really awesome home computer (C=64), then this even more awesome computer (Amiga), then for management incomptence which ultimately led to its demise in the early 90's, is finally back to market with... a stupid PC with a fancy paint job. Yep, that's right, after being known for innovation they're selling a Windows-based PC aimed at the games market. What a total waste of twenty years of good PR. Idiots. I don't expect them to last very long.

VIA USB PCI card unreliable on OSX

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Here's a frustrating one. I inherited a PC recently that had a USB 2.0 PCI card which I figured I'd try to get to work in my Mac. The card is based on the VIA VT6212 chipset and after some searching I found official drivers for the card (that only work with G4 Macs). Well, after rebooting the Mac the card seemed to work fine - it showed up in the system profiler and I could work with devices connected to it without any problems. At that point I decided to leave it for the night (it is set to go to sleep after 30 mins), so this morning went to see how it was doing only to discover the machine had locked up. It appears that there's a major problem with the VIA drivers that cause the Mac to not waken up properly after going into sleep mode. Rather unfortunate as I was looking forward to having the extra USB ports. So, I suspect if I hadn't set the machine to go into sleep mode it would be fine, but that isn't something I'm interested in doing. Ah well, back to ebay I suppose.

Labtec wireless keyboard+mouse for free (review)

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Here's a great deal I just came across tonight. Last night I dropped a full cup of hot Barry's tea on my keyboard so, rather than sticking it in the washing machine and hoping for the best, I went shopping for a new keyboard. As it turns out, most of the keyboards on the market fail two very simple requirements:

  • The six key insert/delete/page-up/down block should be three keys across and two down.
  • The function keys should have a default action to work as a function key.

For some reason both Logitech and Microsoft got it in their thick skulls a few years ago that everyone would rather have a cramped six-key block and wanted to press a special key before the function keys worked as advertised, so for the last few years it has been very difficult to find anything else.

Beyond those two basic requirements I also needed:

  • USB support, preferably directly on the keyboard but an adapter would do.
  • Basic volume controls - nothing fancy, just simple volume up/down keys.
  • Those special Mac keys, if possible, but I can live without them.
  • Not made my Microsoft :-)
  • It doesn't have to be wireless, and it doesn't have to include a mouse.

There are a few keyboards that fit all of the above, but unfortunately the most likely candidate, the Logitech S530 kit runs $80, a bit rich for my tastes right now.

After trying several stores, including buying a Micro Innovations keyboard that will go back to the store as it has a really bad key layout (I made the mistake of not checking first), I happened across what I think will work out just fine, despite failing some of the requirements.

The Labtech Media Wireless Desktop is a PS/2 keyboard + mouse set that retails for $40 that on a normal day I wouldn't think much of, but Radioshack has it on sale for $20 and then has two $10 mail-in rebates that make it completely free (excluding taxes) - what a deal! What's even better, only one of the two rebates has a limit on the number that can be submitted, so ultimately you could have a whole bunch of these for $10 each!

Having been using it for about an hour, now, I must say that I'm learning to live with the keyboard's small shortcoming. As intimated I needed a USB keyboard to work with my Mac, but luckily I had a PS/2-to-USB adapter which made it work. This has one side effect that I'll cope with - I can't do shortcuts of more than three keys and it drops the keypress if the keys are held in for more than two seconds, nothing earth shattering but occasionally annoying.

Beyond that little niggle, the keyboard and mouse are proving to be very good. The keyboard itself is very light so takes a little getting used to if you sit around with it on your lap (I'm used to a heavier keybord).

Under Mac OSX I can use some of the extra keys, mainly the audio controls and the sleep button, while the application launcher keys go unused. I must say that I like how the sleep function works in OSX, it pops open a dialog asking if you want to restart, shutdown, put the machine to sleep or cancel, which is better than how I've seen Windows XP work where it just immediately goes to sleep. I'll probably see if I can adjust the system keymap to use the extra keys, but it isn't a big deal.

The mouse is basic but works well. It is an optional mouse that seems to have good tracking - certainly as good as the basic Logitech ones we've been using for yonks. Unlike many mice on the market today, this one just has the basic two buttons and single-direction scroll wheel, which is just fine for my needs.

Finally, as this was my first wireless keyboard set I was interested to see how well the distance detection worked. The manual says that the keyboard and mouse should be kept within 1 meter from the base, so don't hide it on the other side of the room but you should still have enough flexibility to move around your desk (or spin around on your chair). As mentioned, this is my first wireless keyboardset and it is working quite well - no cables to get caught on chair legs or clutter up the desk.

So, for $0 this is shaping up to be the one of best computer purchases I've made, and for the price I recommend picking one up yourself.

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