Product testing, the hard way

I hope never to verify the effectiveness of an airbag using my face, or the completeness of my life insurance at the cost of my life. I guess I won’t get a pass on testing the promise of my new Time Capsule, however.
Today the hard drive on my inordinately hard-working MacBook Pro bit the dust. I’d had no signs of trouble whatsoever, but I admit the machine did take a spill from several feet up a few months ago. (Let’s just say the Slingbox is working out better than the idea of perching a laptop on a music stand.) That jolt didn’t cause it to skip a beat, however–not even to disrupt the show that was streaming.
This morning, however, my apps started running really slowly, with the Mac beachballing so hard that I finally had to hold down the power button. After that, no más: just an endless gray startup screen. The guys at the local Mac “genius bar” (not geniuses, but not bad) confirmed that this critter is toast.
Thus far the Time Capsule (acquired in the nick of time, evidently) has been a bit of a mixed bag. For my tastes it’s a little off the mark from “As simple as possible, but no simpler”–omitting the second half of that phrase. I haven’t found a way to set backups to be nightly, not hourly, so I have to do them manually. (Otherwise the system would presumably be trying to copy my multi-gigabyte Entourage data file over wireless every hour–not a good use of CPU and bandwidth.) I also don’t see a way to store a superset of data on the Time Capsule (i.e. keeping a large image collection there but not on my local Mac). Overcoming the latter obstacle may not be that hard, as it seems possible to mount the disk as a normal server, but I haven’t had a chance to test it out. And finally, like just about every Apple networking system I’ve tried (AirTunes, Apple TV, iChat AV, etc.), the Time Capsule doesn’t get along with my Cisco VPN connection, meaning I have to shut it down before connecting.
All of these little beefs will melt away, of course, if the TC saves my bacon. I guess we’ll see once I get a new HD or a new machine. (This post comes to you from my wife’s MacBook.) I’m really curious to see whether it’ll be possible to restore things like the list of tabs and clippings I have in NetNewsWire, as that plus my Adobe Contribute drafts constitute all my pending blogfodder. (Without all that stuff, expect a dry period here for a while.)
Crossing fingers,

0 thoughts on “Product testing, the hard way

  1. You shouldn’t be afraid of just getting the TimeCapsule do its standard hourly backups. Just exclude the Entourage DB file from the backup, and any other ridiculously-frequently-updated-huge-files. The Entourage DB was the only one I found that I had to exclude. I don’t even notice the hourly backups when they occur.
    [Ah, but if I exclude Entourage (which is the central nervous system of my work life, for better or for worse) from regular backups, won’t it be excluded from manual ones, too? This is the kind of granularity I’m missing with TM/TC. Not backing up Entourage (esp. given my long history of dealing with its database getting corrupted) would put a huge hole in my backup story. Therefore it’s better to back up everything occasionally than to exclude the most important thing every time.
    I’ve come close to switching to Apple Mail, but the lack of three-pane viewing is a deal-breaker for me. –J.]
    Oh yeah, and sorry about your MacBook!
    [Thanks. That HD lived several lifetimes in just 18 months. (Clearly I’m on the computer rather a lot…) –J.]

  2. John,
    I have a better idea for you. Get the following:
    1) one bus powered portable Firewire hard drive with identical or bigger size than your Laptop drive. (eg. Lacie Rugged)
    2) get one copy of SuperDuper!
    Now use SuperDuper! to do full bootable backups of your laptop drive on a daily basis. Schedule the backup to run at the end your workday. The first backup will take a while. The second and subsequent backs will be incremental and take a lot less time.
    Now comes the beauty part. SuperDuper! actually makes a 1:1 copy of your drive. This means if you laptop drive kargs it you simply plugin your backup drive, start your Mac while holding the C key, now select to boot from the external drive… done… Go ahead and work like nothing has happened…
    The really cool thing is that even if your entire Laptop is write off (due to theft, drowning in water or what ever) you simply go up to any other Mac, plugin your drive and boot from it. It will look like your old computer. No changing of drivers etc. required.
    The beauty of Mac!
    This beats TimeMachine hands down in my opinion.

  3. Is this what you mean by “three-pane viewing”? I’ve been using Letterbox since early Tiger and it’s solid.
    [Awesome–thanks, Mark! I’m trying it on m wife’s machine now (the MBP is being lobotomized as I type), but so far it looks like just what I need. –J.]

  4. Entourage is a finicky app once you start to get more than a few gigabytes of email – I can’t yet say if the Office 2008 update improves this at all. But I will say that any mail application that stores everything in one huge database is asking for trouble.
    I’ve done some comparisons with Mail and Entourage and 10,000 messages at 450 megabytes is double or triple that in Entourage on disk (this could also be a non-compacted database). I personally don’t feel Entourage is worth running since it’s never been very stable.
    As to Mail’s shortcomings, check out Hawkwings which lists add-ons and tips for enhancing Mail. I believe there are several options for multi-pane viewing available.
    I also should add that as far as I understand it, Time Machine clones your entire drive, then tracks updates, so once you boot from your Leopard DVD and restore it you should have everything from your last backup – including Netnewswire settings, etc.

  5. Hi John,
    I feel your pain. My Powerbook HD died on my last year. Luckily, I had backed up most of my data to an external drive only two weeks prior. But still, I lost two weeks of new data.
    I haven’t tried the Time Capsule, but I do have my MBP hooked up to a Time Machine drive, which I love. My solution for keeping backups of data without keeping the same data on my local HD may not be as eloquent as you’re looking for, but this is what I do:
    I have two external drives. One 500GB drive for backing up photos and data, and then a 1TB drive for Time Machine, which backs up both my local HD as well as the 500GB drive. It’s an extra drive, but I have all of my data in at least two places, and I don’t need to clog my local machine with anything I don’t want to.
    I hope you Time Capsule works out well. Good luck!

  6. There is a small program that will let you specify which time span Time Machine backs-up (
    The machine could be awakened at 2.00 am through the preference panel Economy (I am not sure if this is the name of the panel in English, as my copy is in Spanish), execute an automator action to disconnect VPN, make the back-up at 2.05 (TimeMachineEditor lets you specify the back-up time if it is done daily) and shut down the machine at the hour specified in the Economy panel. It is easier than it sounds.

  7. I TOTALLY hear you, ahem, on the nightly backups. While I don’t have a Time Capsule, I have a regular external hard disk that just wouldn’t last (space wise) much longer if I did them hourly. It seems like such an easy thing to fix, hope it’s in the next osx update.
    And too my condolences on the dead internal drive. It happened about a year ago to my Macbook, that i cart daily to and from university, before I’d implemented any kind of structured backup. Faulty hard disks seem to be the most frequently criticised/complained about Mac-related problem by far here in Australia.

  8. Gosh Jack,
    Wow, I did not think guys like you had tech issues, lol.
    In fact, I can’t seem to get Adobe Contribute to even work with wordpress blog.
    Thanks for the report

  9. Sorry to hear that. I don’t think Apple’s backup solution will work for you. Time Machine doesn’t work at block level, which makes updating huge monolithic files, like you Entourage database, a real pain. You could try rsync, which does block level update. I’m currently considering rsync + Amazon S3, and there is even Jungle Book if you get tired of messing with the command line, though I haven’t tested it.
    I have two coworkers that had database corruption issues in Entourage, one of them successfully rebuild it, the other didn’t. is ridden with well known bugs ( it is amazing that in 2008 you still can’t have a flawless solution for sending, receiving and storing messages in such a simple protocol; that maybe why some people still use pine) but at least each email is a single text file, so you don’t loose all your emails due to database corruption. And you can even browse them in Finder’s Cover Flow.
    As to the 3 pane deal, there this hack, LetterBox
    Never tried it though
    good luck!

  10. Time Machine doesn’t back up your whole machine every hour. It only backs up your whole machine once. Then, every hour it backs up what changed. Now, if you’re getting gigabytes of email every hour then you’re out of luck but i assume you only get 20-30 mb of email per hour which should be fine.
    [The problem, as I understand it, is that because Entourage stores all its data in one huge file, Time Machine keeps seeing that as one modified file and copying *the whole thing* over the network. Mail (AFAIK) stores messages individually, so only the new/changed ones are backed up. –J.]

  11. A good description of the restore process by James Duncan Davidson:
    I switched to Mail from Entourage and I would never go back. I am able to respond to meeting requests, but there are a few shortcomings when connecting to an Exchange Server, most notably the lack of sync with iCal. I can live with those, but ymmv.
    Any news on Time Machine vs. the Lightroom database? Version 2.0 looks really great, by the way.

  12. Oh, John.
    I’m so sad to read the hunchback-ed MBP died.
    But there are reasons for optimism in this case:: last week I did a full system restore from my Time Machine back-up, and not even the hard drives’ mother could notice the difference 🙂
    BTW, for $150 you can get a 320GB laptop drive. It’s a VERY good idea. Now I carry most stuff with me without carrying extra hard drives and it’s so fast, the machine boots in no time. I can’t recommend it enough.

  13. Yes good question
    What is the compatibility between TimeMachine and Lightroom ? Is it fixed ?
    Or is it still saffer to close LR before a backup ?

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