Apple Mail malaise (update)

There’s no program on my Mac that’s annoyed me more over the last year than Mail. Which is funny, because for years I held up that program as an example of Apple working to fix customers’ problems while Microsoft let Outlook Express decay.

Apple Mail about boxBut sometime during the development of OS X Mavericks, Mail went off the rails. It shipped with a bug that made syncing with a Gmail account awkward to implausible. Apple fixed that within weeks, but other problems lingered through many or all of its updates to Mavericks:

  • Searching for old messages was intolerably slow, to the point where it would be faster to grab my iPad, log into the relevant account and start the search… after first running up and down the stairs to find that tablet.
  • Switching back to Mail from other apps would leave the insertion point randomly shifted to a point months or years in the past–which, to be fair, is great for cheap nostalgia.
  • Some mailboxes would be shown sorted by subject instead of date, never mind that sorting by subject is a total waste of time unless a mail client can’t handle search (ahem).
  • More recently, Mail began forgetting the custom app passwords Google generates for mail clients and other apps that can’t process its two-step verification codes.

Apple’s updates fixed some of these issues before OS X Yosemite. I don’t think I’ve seen a mailbox randomly sorted by subject in months, and I haven’t had to open Keychain Access to copy a saved Google app password back into Mail since last month.

Yosemite, to judge from its performance on my MacBook Air, has also returned search in Mail to a state of good repair. I can only hope Apple keeps working on these other issues. Because between Web-mail’s issues with offline access and working with other apps and the lack of a compelling alternative client (understandable, given how many people rely on Web-mail or don’t spend as much time in a mail client as me), firing this app just doesn’t seem too practical.

And at least the prominent mentions of Mail in Apple’s product page for Yosemite suggests the company realizes it can’t leave this app in maintenance mode. If only I could say the same for iPhoto…

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Weekly output: net neutrality, teens on Facebook, Chrome and passwords

I had two stories this week show up online without the links I’d added. Since two different sites and CMSes were involved, I’m left with the conclusion that I’m personally snakebit. Or that I maxed out a monthly link quota that I didn’t know existed.

Yahoo Tech net-neutrality post1/14/2014: Why Is Tuesday’s Court Decision on Net Neutrality Such a Big Deal? And What Happens Next?, Yahoo Tech

This was not the column I’d originally written for this week, but when a federal court handed down a ruling Tuesday morning that gutted the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to enforce net-neutrality regulations, I had to drop everything and write an analysis of a result that I saw coming back in 2010. This post initially appeared without any of the links I’d added, for reasons nobody has been able to figure out; we fixed that earlier today.

1/16/2014: Rob Pegoraro, columnist for USA Today and Yahoo Tech, talks about teens dumping Facebook, WTOP

WTOP had me via Skype to talk about an iStrategyLabs report, based on usage data Facebook provides to advertisers, of declining teen Facebook use. About 10 minutes afterwards, I remembered that only two months ago, I’d heard about some enlightening research into teen social-media use that would have been useful to cite on the air.

1/19/2014: Why does Chrome ask for your Mac Keychain password?, USA Today

For the second time in three weeks, my USAT column dealt with a problem I’d experienced on my own computer–in this case, annoying Keychain prompts by the Mac version of Chrome. The column somehow got posted without any links; I’ll ask management about that.

On Sulia, I observed that Netflix’s data on average streaming rates across different ISPs showed how much viewing there involves lower resolutions, heaped scorn on the Weather Channel’s attempt to guilt DirecTV into paying a higher carriage fee, confessed to having a Digital Compact Cassette in my office, shared a fix for Evernote’s iPad app not digitizing scanned business cards, and complained about Netflix becoming unwatchably slow over my 15-Mbps Verizon Fios connection.

 

When do you decide it’s time to fire an app?

I guess I don’t have to drag the icon for Apple’s Mail program out of the Dock after all.

Mail iconAn update shipped Thursday fixed the ugly Gmail-synchronization bug that I had been displeased to confirm in OS X Mavericks. Until then, I was about 90 percent sure that I’d have to dump the e-mail app that had been my daily driver since abandoning Eudora on the Mac at least a decade ago.

The likeliest replacement was Airmail, except its lack of support for the nifty data-detectors feature that lets me create calendar events from mentions of dates or times in messages had held me back.

Also, I’m really slow to move from one app to another, to the point that seemingly minor feature requirements like that become an enormous obstacle.

I still have Safari as my default browser in OS X, even though Chrome does a lot of things better–aside from automatically filling in contact information from my Contacts entry. And I continue to use iPhoto for my pictures, despite its glitches and Apple’s apathy about fixing them (although with 55 GB of photos, moving to a new photo-management app would be a non-trivial endeavor).

About the only major app that has exited my workflow in recent years is Microsoft Word. But since I’d have to pay for a no-longer-so-current version of that–while either Google Docs or TextEdit augmented by WordService provide all the tools I need for my formatting-free writing, leaving Apple’s Pages sufficient for the occasional venture into graphic design–that was a much easier call to make.

What was the last program you fired for cause? Tell me about it in the comments.

Why Web-mail alone doesn’t work for me

I installed OS X Mavericks on my MacBook Air Wednesday, and now I can no longer use my Google-hosted work e-mail account in my laptop’s copy of Apple’s Mail–an undocumented change in how that client treats Google IMAP accounts has made them borderline unusable, at least if you want to move a message out of your inbox.

Gmail Offline app(Thanks, Apple! Really, you shouldn’t have.)

My complaint about this issue yielded the responses I should have expected: Why not just use only Web-mail? That’s a fair question. Here are a few reasons why I’d rather not:

Offline access. Google does provide a capable offline app for Gmail, and I use it all the time–but its Chrome-only Gmail Offline can only download the last month’s worth of mail. To find anything older, I need to get back online. It’s also easier to take my e-mail to another host if all my old messages are already synced to my hard drive.

A separate tool for a separate task. Because a mail client has its own interactive Dock or taskbar button, it can show in real time how many messages have arrived–and can’t get overlooked among 20 other open browser tabs. And without ads or a browser toolbar that doesn’t help with mail management, I can see more of my mail.

Message management. It takes fewer clicks to select a batch of messages and move them to another folder–especially if they’re not contiguous–in a local mail client than in Gmail’s standard interface, much less the simpler Gmail Offline.

Quick Look. If somebody sends me a Word, PDF or some kind of complex document, I can get an instant preview of it by selecting the document and hitting the space bar, courtesy of OS X’s Quick Look feature. In Gmail, I have to wait for the file to download and preview in a separate window.

Better calendar integration. Both Gmail and Mail can create a new calendar event if they see a date or time in a message, but Gmail insists on adding that to your default Google calendar. Mail allows you to add it to the calendar of your choice.

Individually, these are little differences, but they add up. And while a better Web-mail system could address them all someday, I can have these things on my checklist today with a functioning client running on my Mac. It’s too bad Apple chose to break its own.

So do I now switch to something like Postbox or Airmail–or do I get around Google’s wonky implementation of IMAP entirely by switching to, say, Microsoft’s newly IMAP-comaptible Outlook.com? That’s a topic for another post. But I welcome your input in the comments.

Weekly output: Neil deGrasse Tyson, iCloud files, Mountain Lion notifications

This was not a good week for productivity. The inauguration took out Monday, and a couple of late nights for inaugural festivities made the cold I was already feeling a lot worse. Then caught a glancing blow from some kind of stomach bug that left me uninterested in eating for 20 hours or so.

I could take notes and socialize at the events I went to Tuesday and Wednesday–washing my hands all the time to try to avoid sharing my illness–but I didn’t have the strength to write anything once I got home. And while I did file two things I’d been working on for the Disruptive Competition Project blog Friday afternoon, neither was posted. Hence the total of two headlines on this week’s list.

Ars Technica NdGT post1/24/2013: Neil deGrasse Tyson: science funding can “guarantee your economic future”, Ars Technica

My NASA Tweetup connections led to an invitation to a talk by one of America’s favorite astrophysicists to mark the launch of a new House Science and National Labs Caucus; then I wrote up his lecture and Q&A for one of my favorite tech-news sites. I tried to put his talking points into the political context of how hard it can be justify government funding of any new projects.

In the process, I had to leave out some notes about the sense of humor Tyson displayed, such as a comment about the compatibility of astrophysics’ shorter words with hip-hop lyrics (“I can’t rhyme with orthoclase feldspar or deoxyribonucleic acid”). So if the post makes him sound like a scold, that’s on me.

1/27/2013: How do I move files from iCloud to Mac?, USA Today

I knew iCloud didn’t act like other Web-based file-storage services, but I didn’t realize how much it departed from OS X’s traditions until I stumbled across the one easy way to move multiple files from iCloud back to a Mac–using iCloud file dialogs. The column also includes a tip on making Mountain Lion’s Notification Center less intrusive.

On Sulia, this week’s highlights included my first impressions of Facebook’s Graph Search, continued excoriation of CBS Interactive’s interference with CNET’s reviews, context about smartphone unlocking becoming illegal (again) this weekend, and some snarky comments about Twitter’s new Vine six-second-video-clip service.

How to test laptop battery life in your sleep

The most boring task I have as a gadget reviewer is testing battery life. First I tediously configure a phone, tablet or laptop to run a few Internet-connected apps and keep its screen on instead of dimming automatically. (To Android vendors who remove that option from Google’s Settings app: Try tapping a mobile device’s screen every 10 minutes for six hours straight, you jerks.) Then I have to sit there until the gadget in question throws up its hands, electronically speaking, and powers down or enters a last-ditch sleep mode.

But on most laptops, I can stop paying attention once I unplug them. That’s because Windows and Mac OS X each automatically log all system events, including low-battery sleep, and make that data reasonably accessible to the user.

In Windows 7 and 8, open the Control Panel and search for “event log,” then click the “View event logs” link. In that app, click the “Windows Logs” category at the left, then its “System” listing. In a second or two, the center of that window will fill with entries.

Click there, hit Ctrl-F to open a search window, and type “Kernel-Power.” Click the search dialog’s “Find Next” button until you spot an entry whose description reads “The system is entering sleep. Sleep Reason: Battery.” That time is when the battery ran out.

On a Mac, the menu bar will show the last time the computer was on for a few seconds  after you power it on again. After that, the following routine applies.

Hit the Apple-icon menu, select “About This Mac” and, in that About window, click its “More Info…” button; in the next window that opens, click “System Report…” That will open the System Information app (formerly known as Apple System Profiler, also available in the Applications folder’s Utilities sub-folder). In its left-hand column, scroll down to the “Software” heading and select “Logs”; from the list that will present in the app’s top-right pane, select “Power Management logs.”

Click in the the pane below that heading, hit Cmd-F and search for “low power sleep”; you should see an entry including that phrase, preceded by a timestamp and followed by a note in parentheses that the battery was at “Charge:0%”

(I don’t expect many of you will need to employ this knowledge. But at least I won’t have to research this stuff all over again the next time I test a laptop.)

A CalendarAgent cure

A runaway, memory-eating process in Mac OS X Mountain Lion that I’ve whined about on Twitter and in last weekend’s USAToday.com column seems to have returned to sanity.

At first, this CalendarAgent program had been a mild-mannered citizen on both my MacBook Air and on my older iMac. But a day or two after Discovery News posted my generally positive review of Mountain Lion, the iMac started locking up as CalendarAgent devoured as much as three to four gigabytes until I force-quit it with OS X’s Activity Monitor app.

The problem went away long enough for a cautious endorsement of Activity Monitor in Sunday’s USAT piece, but then it resumed. After a few days of getting bored with killing off this process two or three times an hour, I was trying to remember how to yank its execute privileges when I thought to check the Console app.

The repeated errors listed in this troubleshooting tool indicated that CalendarAgent was choking on my wife’s shared Google Calendar feed. I’d subscribed to that in Lion’s iCal without any issues (parenthood requires a non-trivial coordination of schedules), but Mountain Lion apparently had other opinions. I deleted the subscription from ML’s Calendar app,  added it back in the BusySync software I use to publish my own set of calendars to Google, and was soon treated to the welcome and overdue sight of CalendarAgent’s memory allocation dropping back to normal levels.

I still don’t know what exactly went wrong on the iMac; the MacBook Air didn’t have this problem even after I subscribed directly to my wife’s schedule in its Calendar app. Adding it under the “delegation” option for the Google account I’d already configured in that copy of Mountain Lion–but which I hadn’t set up on the iMac–didn’t result in any memory leaks either.

But if you’re tired of seeing CalendarAgent hold up your Mac, try changing how Google calendars get to the computer. Instead of adding a direct .ics subscription via Calendar’s Edit menu, subscribe to that feed in your Google Calendar, add that Google account in System Preferences’ Mail, Contacts and Calendars pane and you should see the subscription when you click Calendar’s “Calendars” button look under “Delegates.” Or revert from the delegation approach to a direct subscription. Let me know if that yields any better results.