How Dropbox works with Backblaze cloud backup

It’s important to understand the differences in cloud-based file sync and backup services, so you can make sure your data is as safe as possible. In my latest blog post on Backblaze, I take a look at one of the most popular sync services, Dropbox: How Dropbox works with Backblaze cloud backup. While you can back up files after a fashion with Dropbox, there are limitations you need to be aware of.

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After we posted this, Ben McCarthy responded with a pithy tweet that I thought really framed the issue well.

How to add Pixelmator’s new Retouch extension to Photos

Pixelmator has added an extension that enable you to retouch photos using Pixelmator tools inside of Apple’s Photos app. The new feature lets you use Pixelmator’s image editing engine to improve images without disrupting your Photos workflow. Pixelmator 3.5 was released this week, and the update is available to download from the Mac App Store.

There are a lot of great changes in 3.5, including a new smart Quick Selection tool, new Magnetic Selection tool, efficiency and performance improvements for El Capitan and much more. New retouching tools work with Apple’s Photos app.

Photos’ support for third-party app extensions lets you to make changes to your photos without leaving the Photos app itself. The functionality you get is a subset of the full app, designed to help you make quick changes to your photos without disrupting the Photos workflow. Pixelmator already had extension support, but the new Retouch extension adds Repair, Clone, Light, Color, Soften and Sharpen tools.


Apple leaves you in control of extensions’ connectivity to your Mac. Even after you’ve updated Pixelmator, you still need to tell your Mac you want it to use the new features. Follow these steps to activate the new functionality.

To enable Pixelmator extensions in OS X

  1. Download and install Pixelmator 3.5 or later from the Mac App Store (link above).
  2. Click on the  menu.
  3. Select System Preferences.Sys pref
  4. Click on Extensions.Screen Shot 2016 05 26 at 9 02 46 AM
  5. Underneath All, make sure the Pixelmator Retouch extension is checked (you can check the other ones if you want too).Pixelmator extensions
  6. Close Extensions. When you open Photos, you should see the new Retouch extension available. (Pixelmator already supported Distort). Click the checkbox to enable the new feature.

How to update your AirPort networking hardware

If you have an Apple AirPort Extreme base station, an Apple Time Capsule or an AirPort Express networking device, you should probably check to make sure it’s running the latest firmware. Apple this week released new firmware for all of its 802.11n and 802.11ac-based network routers – that goes back 7 years. The update “improves the stability and performance of your base station,” according to Apple.

Specific changes include: 

  • Fixes an issue which may prevent communication between clients on the same network
  • Improves performance with an extended guest network
  • Addresses potential naming conflicts with Bonjour Sleep Proxy

Not sure if your AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express or Time Capsule is up to date? Here’s how you can check using your Mac.

To check your AirPort base station firmware

  1. Click the Spotlight icon in your menu bar (it looks like a magnifying glass).
  2. Type “airport utility.” Spotlight will find the AirPort Utility. Double-click to launch the app. (Alternately, find AirPort Utility inside the Utilities folder on your Mac.)
  3. If a firmware update is available for your device, it should pop up with a notification badge to let you know. Click on the device’s icon to get more information.Update
  4. Click on the Update button to download the new firmware and begin the update process.Updatebutton
  5. During the update, the network device will be unavailable. Click the Continue button to proceed.Continue

The update should download and install, and the device should reset automatically.

Feature bloat and the tyranny of choice: Why I like distraction free writing tools

Research has shown over and over again that people want more options but then don’t want to deal with having to choose more options. This explains why app developers encumber their products with “feature bloat” and why we complain about it. Why we continue to abuse ourselves is a different story entirely, of course.

I admit to occasional cantankerous social media rambling about the good old days, when I play the role of the cranky old fart who preferred it before computers and smartphones were ubiquitous; when the home computer market largely catered to hobbyists, most of whom were “in the biz” in their day jobs. It’s an act, or perhaps more than anything, a punchline to a joke. Because I really don’t believe we were better off 30 years ago.

Things were simpler, of course, and the pace wasn’t quite as crazy as it is now, but ease of use and sophistication of tools, communications, operating systems, and other ancillary systems have improved so dramatically that it’s pretty incredible. The things I can do with my current computer and smartphone would be unimaginable to the 15 year old who fired up a 512K Mac all those years ago.

A few weeks ago I spent a bit of time running classic Mac OS and application software in emulation on my current Mac. It was a challenge and a lot of fun. My goal was to reacquaint myself with my favorite old-school Mac word processor, T/Maker’s WriteNow. WriteNow was developed for the original Mac and was a favorite of early Mac users straight up until the Mac’s transition to the PowerPC architecture. I’ve written about it before.


Working with WriteNow helped me understand one modern trend a bit better: “Distraction free” writing tools. I spend most of my time these days in Ulysses, which has the added benefit of some nifty iCloud sync features and multi-platform support that lets me run it from any device I happen to have at the moment. I also frequently dabble with 71 Square’s Focused (which started life as Typed before Realmac reinvented Typed as a blogging service). They and other similar apps enable the writer to enforce some discipline by offering an environment that simply encourages a focus on the act of writing. If you find modern word processors like Microsoft Word and Apple Pages to be too cumbersome and intrusive, as I do, distraction-free writing tools can be of enormous benefit.

Screen Shot 2016 05 25 at 11 09 18 AM

In some ways, they’re a real throwback. Using that emulated Mac Plus with WriteNow provided me with an almost purely distraction-free environment. The small screen, streamlined feature set and limited operating system capabilities enforced a discipline of use. You couldn’t meander off and surf the web for a few hours, hop on Facebook or send instant messages.

It’s a bit like the punchline in the Simpsons episode Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment: “To alcohol!,” says Homer. “The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”

Constantly evolving and improving technology has changed the way we use computers – we’re at once able to do enormously more sophisticated things with them than ever before, but that comes at a price of increasing intricacy and complexity in a way that makes the technology no longer as user-friendly as it was before.

Fortunately, developers of distraction-free writing tools understand that sometimes less is more.

How (and why) to rotate disks with Time Machine

Apple’s Time Machine makes it easy to restore from a catastrophic drive failure, and also gives you a way to restore deleted files or older versions of files you’ve been working on. The vast majority of us using Time Machine have a regular hard drive to back up to.

We all know that hard drives fail, unfortunately. What can you do? One solution is to rotate your backup disks. (Another, of course, is to use a cloud backup service like Backblaze.)

Time machine multiple drives

Time Machine handles multiple drives pretty easily, but just in case you’re confused about how to do it, I recently posted this step-by-step guide to help walk you through the process.

How to use multiple hard drives with Time Machine

A trip down memory lane

David Gewirtz recently posted a link to an old television interview with Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. The fantasy author swears by his DOS-based computer running WordStar 4.0, a word processor that was released in 1987. It seems anachronistic, but many of us, not just writers and other creatives, display really obsessive compulsive tendencies when it comes to their tools of choice.

I’ve adapted to the modern age – I write most of what I’m working on in Markdown-compatible text editors these days, and really love Ulysses – an app from The Soulmen which runs on iOS and OS X, and makes it really easy to sync between devices via iCloud. But just for fun, I spent a bit of time this morning getting refamiliarized with my favorite word processor from the “classic” Mac OS days: WriteNow.

Published by T/Maker, WriteNow is a contemporary of Martin’s WordStar 4.0 – it came out in the mid-1980s after the Mac was introduced. Anyway, I got WriteNow working in emulation on my Mac this morning and took it for a spin.


What’s amused me the most is how hard-wired my muscle memory is. It took all of about two minutes to get reacquainted with the keyboard commands to do everything I need to. It tempts me to get started on that ten part space opera book series I’ve been planning. I mean, if a three decade old word processor is good enough for the Game of Thrones guy…

Should I use an external drive for backup?

With cloud services like Backblaze, iCloud Drive and Dropbox readily available, is it worth it to continue to use an external hard drive for backup? This is a question I tackle in a recent piece at Backblaze.

Blog external drive

Really, there’s no mystery here: A combination of onsite and offsite (cloud) backup provides you with the best possible coverage. So I take a look at something we call our 3-2-1 Backup strategy and how that applies here. The 3-2-1 plan encourages you to consider having two onsite copies of your data and one offsite copy. The two onsite copies include your original and a backup, such as a Time Machine archive, and then one offsite copy can be your Backblaze backup, or backup via another cloud service, backup via iCloud or Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or anywhere else you care to use.

Can I use an SSD with Time Machine?

Bottom line: Yes, you can. Should you, is an entirely different question. I tackle this in a recent piece I posted over at Backblaze.

Blog ssd for timemachine

Time Machine is Apple’s backup software built into OS X, and it makes for simplified backup, version control and file recovery. If you upgrade your Mac or if you have to get it repaired, Time Machine makes it trivially easy to keep going where you left off.

SSDs, or Solid State Drives, are storage devices that use memory cells instead of “traditional” hard drives. They’re much faster than hard drives – faster to boot, faster to read, and faster to write. SSDs are a popular internal upgrade for older computers that still use conventional 2.5-inch SATA hard drives inside. You can also put together your own external SSD with USB 3 or even Thunderbolt 2 without spending a fortune, and you can buy a few pre-made ones too.

That got me thinking: Time Machine works using an external hard drive, and with SSD prices coming down, you may think that you’ll get faster backups with an SSD instead of a regular hard drive. You’d be right. But SSD performance is much more important for your actual boot drive than it is for backup media, which usually doesn’t have to happen quite so fast. SSDs are cheaper than they used to be, but regular hard drives still win the day when it comes to price per gigabyte.

Anyway, feel free to read on for more details, and let me know here or there if you have any questions.

In praise of AppleCare

Once again, I’m very grateful for having AppleCare, Apple’s extended warranty. Because for the second time in three years, Apple replaced the top case of my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. What’s more, it was about a week past warranty when I alerted Apple to the problem, but they covered it anyway.

IMG 0445

About a month ago I first began to notice problems with the trackpad’s operation. Occasionally the trackpad would fail to register a click or a tap. At first I thought it was me, or some software change I’d made. Perhaps an interaction with some third-party software I’d installed, or a setting I had changed inadvertently. By last week it was clear the problem I was having was, in fact, a hardware problem, so I called Apple.

Replacing a trackpad is not a trivial repair on the Retina MacBook Pro. It’s part of one integrated assembly that includes the entire top case. The trackpad, keyboard, speakers and battery are all part of the same assembly, and Apple replaces them as a single part. It’s a pretty major repair that requires almost the entire disassembly of the computer to do. A trained Apple service technician can do the work without any problem, but this isn’t an easily user-serviceable part with replacements readily available on eBay. It’s kind of a big deal.

This computer already has had the top case replaced once, which I think made it easier for Apple to agree to cover this new repair under warranty, despite the fact that it was about a week out of coverage. They were very nice about it over the phone, and while the initial tech I spoke to didn’t have the authority to bend the rules, the next person up the chain had no trouble creating an exception for me to facilitate the repair.

Buying an extended warranty is always a crapshoot, and often a total ripoff. I’ve gotten bilked on things like extended warranties for appliances.

I think getting AppleCare can be a wise investment on something as expensive to fix as an Apple laptop, however. Because the cost of a single repair is almost guaranteed to be greater than the cost of the extended warranty. AppleCare costs $250 for the 13-inch laptops, $350 for the big one, and its price is sometimes negotiable if you do business with an Apple-authorized reseller. 

There are a few exceptions. If you have a credit card benefit that extends warranty protection or some other insurance that will cover the cost of the repair, that may be more worthwhile. Also, consumer protections vary from country to country, so make sure to be familiar with your rights.

From where I’m sitting, my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro has been my near-constant work companion for the past three years. I’ve put a lot of miles on it and it continues to work well. I don’t treat my gear with kid gloves, but I’m not the worst person with a laptop either. Regardless, my MBP has been in the shop a few times over the years, including once before for this particular problem. I’ve also had the screen replaced, and had to get the main logic board replaced once too. I don’t think there’s an original part on this thing except maybe for the bottom case.

Obviously there’s a case to be made that at least some of those repairs shouldn’t have had to happen, that perhaps there are some issues with product quality or durability. But every repair has been under warranty – manufacturing-related faults, as opposed to regular wear and tear. All of the problems I’ve had have happened after the 1 year mark, so after the point at which Apple’s standard warranty applied. I can’t tell you that you’ll have the same experience with AppleCare as I have, but for me, it’s been worth it – not just on this device, but on my iPhone 6 and on one of my kids’ computers as well. So consider AppleCare the next time you buy a new Mac, and consider carefully what kind of device you’re buying and how you plan to use it. You may find that it can save your bacon the same way it’s saved mine.

My dream keyboard from Apple

Orthogonal to the discussion about the MacBook and its single USB-C port last week, I got to thinking about the one Apple peripheral that I’d love to tweak. If I had my druthers, I’d love to produce a customized version of Apple’s new Magic Keyboard.

Magic accessories

The Magic Keyboard made its debut in 2015 with the refreshed Skylake-equipped iMac that Apple offered late in the year, along with the Magic Mouse 2 and the Magic Trackpad 2.

Apple’s wireless keyboards were overdue for a change; they hadn’t been updated since 2009. The older keyboards used Bluetooth for wireless communication but depended on removable AA batteries (Apple sold an optional, expensive set of rechargeable batteries, though you could use others as well).

The Magic Keyboard looks different than before. Apple’s gone with a more wedge shape, and it’s integrated a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack inside. The keyboard charges using a Lightning cable, just like the iPhone and iPad. And the batteries last a good deal longer per charge than the old keyboard managed.

The shape isn’t the only thing that’s different in the Magic Keyboard. The keyfeel of the keyboard – the way the keys feel when you press them – is dramatically different than it was before. That’s thanks to some clever engineering inside the keyboard replacing the scissor mechanisms that rest under each key.

The keyboard feels much more stable than before, and keys travel less distance with each keypress. The net result, in my experience, is a more precise sensation of typing that enables me to type faster and more accurately with less hand fatigue.

After using it for a couple of months, I have to say that the Magic Keyboard is the best keyboard I’ve used from Apple since the legendary Extended Keyboard II. It’s a real pleasure to type on. In fact, I’d like to type on more of it.

Apple Extended Keyboard II

In my fantasy, I’d create a 101 or 104-key layout based on the Magic Keyboard, complete with number pad, cursor and function keys. I’d also throw in backlighting, because I’m fantasizing anyway. I often keep the office lights dim but still want to be able to navigate the keyboard – I’m accustomed to backlighting on my MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and even have it on a Moshi Luna keyboard I use with a Mac mini.

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to keyboards. Almost without exception, my favorite keyboards rely on mechanical keyswitches. They produce a much stiffer, more tactile response (and often a louder audible “click”) than the membrane pads underneath most modern keyboards.

So the appeal of Apple’s new keyboard surprised me, because it’s not the sort of tactile response I’m accustomed to. If you haven’t gotten your hands on the Magic Keyboard yet, I heartily invite you to an Apple Store so you can check it out for yourself.

If all this sounds twee, here’s the thing: I spend my day on a computer keyboard. As a writer, stuff like the feel of the keys I’m pressing is incredibly important to me. So yeah, I spend a lot more time thinking about this stuff than I probably should.

Apple’s not going to make the product I’m looking for, and I’m fine with that. I’ll keep an eye out for suitable third-party replacements, but in the interim, I’ll be enjoying the Magic Keyboard.