Tips and Tricks

Troubleshooting Your DNS

If you’re unhappy with your DNS, whether because of performance, ads, or security, there are things you can do to improve it.

The first step is to test it. A great free tool—Namebench—can help. The software runs a series of lookup tests, using multiple DNS services (including the one you’re using now), then produces a report to show you which ones delivered the best results.

The second thing to do is switch to a new DNS provider. As Namebench will show you, there are several such alternatives. Let me focus on three of them

Lightning Lessons from the Ground

As long-time listeners of the Mac Geek Gab podcast know, I am no stranger to the the damage that can be caused by lightning strikes. My home and office setup has suffered from no less than three since we moved here in 2005, and I've learned quite a bit about this the hard way. Here I'll share what I've learned in hopes that you don't have to learn it the same way I did!

Two of my three damaging strikes here at the house have only impacted DC cabling. About 15 months ago I had a strike hit close enough to the house that AC power was compromised, too. All of my UPSs went into "overload" mode, shutting themselves down to protect connected devices. A few devices that weren't plugged into a surge protector or UPS were completely fried and will never work again. The good news is that I believe that strike marked the last lesson I needed to learn about protecting my equipment in this particular setup, and though we've had a few strikes since then, I have suffered no more equipment damage. I want to share the sum of those lessons with you here.

10 Utilities for extracting Files from Your iPod

Apple’s tight control over the iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecosystem has a lot of benefits, yet it also means that you’re forced to play by Apple’s rules—some of which may be a little too restrictive for your tastes. Take, for example, the inability to copy songs back from your iPod to your computer.

Even though iTunes has a manual mode in which you can copy songs willy-nilly onto an iPod from an iTunes library (or multiple libraries), it does not allow you to perform the same procedure in reverse. And if you lose all of the music on your computer in a giant crash, say, it would be really useful to be able to recover what’s stored on your iPod.

That missing piece of the puzzle is available, however, supplied by a host of third-party developers who’ve made applications that perform the task of copying back songs from any iPod onto any computer. Here’s a look at ten such apps—ranging from the feature-laden do-it-alls to the bare-bones minimalists, the paid to the free, and everything in between—to help you decide which one(s) should be in your arsenal.

Treat a misbehaving Time Capsule

If the hard drive in your Mac starts misbehaving, you can run Apple’s Disk Utility (or any of numerous third-party utilities) to repair it. But what if the drive in your Time Capsule develops errors—as anecdotal evidence suggests is quite common? Although Apple has not yet provided a way to repair your Time Capsule disk directly, there are a few techniques you can try that often bring a wayward disk back to life.

If Time Machine consistently reports errors when backing up to a Time Capsule, or if your backup volume won’t mount at all, here are some things you can try.

Four essential PDF Tips for Snow Leopard

PDF files are practical and easy to work with, not only because they retain the layout of your documents, but also because users on any platform can view them. When you want to share documents with others, even if they don’t have the software you used to create the documents, PDFs are the natural choice. Here are four tricks everyone should know for using this versatile file format with OS X 10.6

The 10 Best Apps to improve Your iPhone Photos

When you're used to shooting with a full-fledged camera and editing images with Photoshop, the iPhone's camera and default software can be a disappointment. But download these ten apps (none of them very expensive) and you'll be much happier with your iPhone photos.

Find the fastest DNS using a Free Tool

Since Google announced their new free public DNS service, there has been a lot of talk about the speed of various DNS.

If you'd like to find the fastest DNS for your location, use the free Namebench, which tests well-known DNS as well as your regional DNS.

I had been using OpenDNS, but it turns out my ISP's DNS is 53% faster!

Christmas Gift Ideas!

Looking for cool, interesting, fun or otherwise different gifts for this Holiday Season? While we will always recommend buying from our wonderful sponsors - 1Password, Ambrosia Software, SmileOnMyMac and Circus Ponies - you can also check out these ideas to see if any of them fit your budget or style and even add your own suggestions.

So far, we've got suggestions for a back up iPhone battery, a camera bag and geeky gifts that also benefit charity!

Click here to read more "Christmas Gift Ideas!"

What is Google Voice?

Ever since I got my Google Voice account, I have had to repeatedly explain to friends and colleagues what Google's free phone service is and (more importantly) what it isn't. If you, like them, have heard about Google Voice but still aren't completely clear about how it works and why you should care, here are some quick answers.

Music Library Disaster? How to rip Songs from Your iPod

Despite the fact that Apple constantly "encourages" users to back up their music, people still often find themselves in the awkward predicament of needing to download their entire libraries back off of their iPods. Maybe they suffered a catastrophic hard drive crash, or perhaps their laptop was stolen and they no longer have access to their home libraries. Either way, people want to get their media off of their iPods and—through Apple-provided methods, anyway—they can't.

(Apple now allows you to transfer your purchased music from iTunes off of an iPod onto a new machine, but this only works for music you have bought from Apple. Any MP3s that you have ripped yourself or bought from other online retailers are not transferred.)

That's why third parties have swooped in to rescue aggravated iPod users on every platform.

iPhone Ringtone Roundup

There’s...a way to create customized ringtones using GarageBand but that’s a complex process that likely will not appeal to folks who don't otherwise use the program. Fortunately, there are alternatives in the form of standalone apps that let you create custom ringtones.

I took a few of the available choices out there for a spin: PocketMac’s RingtoneStudio 2 for iPhone; Xilisoft’s iPhone Ringtone Maker for Mac 1.0; Pixel Research Labs' Ringer; and AMG’s Make Ringtones on your Mac. These apps are specifically designed to help you easily create a new set of ringtones that make your iPhone sing the tunes you want it to.

Digital SLR Cameras Buying Guide

And thanks to recent innovations, their popularity with casual photographers is growing, too. Many DSLRs now feature preset shooting modes, friendly interfaces, and smaller designs.

You can find great DSLR cameras for well under $1,000. Still, a DSLR is a considerable investment. How to choose the right one? We’ve got some tips on shopping for a DSLR if you’re in the market for one this holiday season. And we’ve got a few recommendations for cameras that topped our testing over the past year.

Jailbreaking Your iPhone: The Pros and Cons

iPhone “jailbreaking” has been a hot topic since Apple released its smartphone more than two years ago. While the amazing little device does indeed have applications for “just about everything,” Apple’s sometimes arbitrary or self-serving rejections of apps such as Google Voice has turned more people on to the idea of freeing themselves from dependence on Apple for these resources (and also, in some cases, from AT&T for a network signal).

For the moment, however, the legality of jailbreaking is in question. The Dev-Team offers its free tools without any proprietary code so as not to violate copyright laws. But Apple recently filed a statement arguing that jailbreaking constitutes copyright infringement because it incorporates a modified version of Apple’s bootloader, the software that loads the main operating system.

Suppose you’re interested in a relatively simple jailbreak to experience third-party apps. This has some definite advantages, but some cautions to consider as well.

YouTube with All of the Sizzle but None of the Flash

Let's face it: Flash on the Mac is a dog. Actually, that's an insult to dogs, which are known for running fast. Flash for Mac is such a an unoptimized beast that you can expect it will suck up as much CPU as possible, even for the simplest of videos.

My first line of defense is ClickToFlash (which I've mentioned before), but the folks over at NeoSmart have another solution, at least for YouTube: HTML5.

HOW TO: Use Twitter Lists

The just-launched Twitter Lists feature is a new way to organize the people you’re following on Twitter, or find new people. In actuality, though, Twitter Lists are Twitter’s long awaited “groups” feature. They offer a way for you to bunch together other users on Twitter into groups so that you can get an overview of what they’re up to. That’s because Lists aren’t just static listings of users, but rather curated Twitter streams of the latest tweets from a specified set of users.

In other words, you can create a list that groups together people for whatever reason (the members of your family, for example), and then you can get a snapshot of the things those users are saying by viewing that list’s page, which includes a complete tweet stream for everyone on the list. Lists allow you to organize the people you’re following into groups, and they even allow you to include people you’re not following.

SnowChecker will help You make the Jump to Snow Leopard

SnowChecker is a free Mac application that does one thing -- it tells you whether or not your applications will run under Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. SnowChecker performs a scan of your hard disk for apps, then compares the list of found apps against compatibility info stored at snowleopard.wikidot.com. It displays the the results, noting which apps are OK, which might have slight compatibility issues, and which will be totally hosed under Snow Leopard. SnowChecker uses a simple green, yellow, red color scheme to pass along the information to you, and often provides quick notes telling you about workarounds or updates that will help get all of your apps working smoothly.

If you're a bit on the shy side when it comes to doing upgrades, SnowChecker can make you feel a lot better about making the jump to Snow Leopard.

iPhone and iPod touch Remote Controls

Getting up from your couch to “change the channel” on your Mac-based media center is so 1970s. If you’re going to the trouble to mutate a Mac into something that delivers music and video via your AV gear—or even enjoy a movie on a 27-inch iMac across the room—you’ll also want to replicate the experience of watching real TV as much as possible. That means having a remote control that lets you manage the works without a lot of fuss and bother.

If you own an iPhone or iPod touch, you’ve managed the largest hurdle in controlling your Mac’s media applications—paying for the bulk of the remote. It only remains to add one or more inexpensive remote control applications to your phone or iPod to complete the picture.

5 Cool Things to sync with Dropbox on Your Mac

If you're not already familiar with file syncing service Dropbox, you should be. The easiest way to describe Dropbox is that it acts as a type of online storage that gives you access to your files wherever you go, no matter which computer you're on, what OS you're using, and where you are in the world. No need to use a DVD, USB drive, or e-mail to transfer important files. However, Dropbox is really much more than that: you can access and work on files even when you're offline, share folders with friends and coworkers, and most importantly (for this writeup, anyway), sync settings for numerous applications without having to fork over any cash.

Why is this good? If there are multiple computers in your life—like a work machine and a home machine, or a desktop and a laptop, or all of the above—you probably use many of the same programs. Some of those programs might have their own built-in syncing services to keep things like your bookmarks or passwords up-to-date, but many do not. That's where Dropbox comes in—the free account offers 2GB of space (up to 100GB for paying customers) for you to do whatever you please. And since we like telling you how we use things, here are a few of our favorite Dropbox uses.

Inside Apple’s iWork.com Update

If you have iWork ‘09 and you have any need to collaborate with people, you should be using iWork.com. Apple’s recently sweetened the pot with some enhancements that make it safer and easier to use than ever.

iWork.com is an online service currently in public beta that dovetails with iWork, Apple’s suite of page layout/word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software it sells for $69. Available for free with 1GB of online storage capacity, iWork.com lets you share files you create in iWork with Mac and PC users alike — they access Web-based versions of your documents.

iWork ‘09 was updated earlier this week with numerous enhancements to each of the individual applications, along with changes to the iWork.com beta service itself. New to the service is fully automatic 128-bit Secure Socket Layer (SSL)-based encryption and document password protection.

The security improvements alone make iWork.com beta’s update worthwhile; if you’re transmitting any information that’s confidential, encryption and password protection should be mandatory.

MMS arrives: What It means for You

Multimedia Messaging Service support for the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS is now available, giving AT&T subscribers in the U.S. the same functionality other iPhone users have enjoyed since the June release of the iPhone 3.0 software update. The newfound ability to send pictures, location data, contact information, voice memos, and video via MMS integrates so seamlessly into the iPhone’s existing messaging features, you’ll wonder again why AT&T delayed support for the capability in the first place.

So now that you have the ability to pester friends and contacts with photos of your cat, how do you go about doing it?

Mac 101: Create a Wireless Network between Mac and iPhone

Many applications require your Mac and your iPhone to be on the same wireless network in order to communicate properly or sync. Apple doesn't advertise the ability to use such applications without a wireless router... nor do many developers. It's not only possible, it works great in a pinch or even as a standard.

Please read on for a step-by-step, illustrated guide to create a wireless network between your Mac and your iPhone (or iPod touch).

10 Apps for taking Photos and Editing Images on the iPhone

Of all the things we do with our iPhones, one of the most popular is certainly taking and sharing photos. The best part is the iPhone allows us to do all the basics without even connecting to a computer.

However, there are apps available on the App Store that will help you take better photos and edit them before you upload them to MobileMe, Facebook or Twitter. I’ve gathered a few of the best ones below.

Slow Browsing with Safari?

Apple's Safari web browser is one of the fastest available, with advanced Javascript handling and fast HTML rendering, which along with it's simple and straightforward interface makes it quite appealing. Sometimes, however, people are finding the browser (and web browsing in general) to be quite slow on their Macs.

There are a variety of reasons why web browsing can be slow and as such, if this happens you can do several things to help combat it:

How to “Paint” Photos with Light

Normally, when you take a photo, the shutter opens for a fraction of a second, light hits the image sensor, and the moment is frozen as a photograph. Light painting is different.

With light painting, you take your photographs in darkness, leaving the shutter open for long periods, and then manipulate points or beams of light in front of the lens. Each light painting can take minutes or even hours, depending on the effect you want. Such a long exposure allows you to use flashlights and other sources of light to “paint” in midair and pick out objects that you want to appear in the photograph.

This technique will open up a whole new avenue of artistry in your photography, and the effect is surreal.

How To: Back Up all Your Stuff, for Free

People don't neglect backing up their computers because it's hard—it isn't, at all. No, people file into the inevitable death march of data loss for one reason: Backing up usually costs money. But it doesn't have to.

When your concerned friends and family insist that you have to back your data up (as anyone who's seen my atrociously beaten-down laptop in the last few months has done to me) they're effectively telling you two things: That backing up your data will save you a massive headache in the future, because more likely the not, your hard drive will fail; and, less bluntly, that you need to buy a hard drive. And who wants to do that? It's hard to lay out the cash for a backup hard drive, since the payoff is uncertain, and (hopefully) far away. It's a good investment—not an easy one.

The good news is, most of us cheapskates can still keep our most important files safe without spending a dime, or wasting more than a few minutes. Here's how.

Hands on: iTunes 9 Refinements Cool, but Hard to Find

Earlier this week, Steve Jobs characterized iTunes 9 the "the biggest release of iTunes in a long time." We naturally grabbed a copy and took it around the block a few times to see if we could verify that claim for ourselves.

Though the biggest changes (aside from the Home Sharing feature) are mainly connected to the highly revised iTunes Store, what we discovered is that iTunes 9 has many refinements that are hidden all over the application. Unfortunately, many of these little settings and features aren't easy to discover, and may be buried in menus you rarely think to check.

Why Your Web Content will look Darker on Snow Leopard

If you're a Web designer, expect your CSS colors & your untagged/unmanaged images to look darker on Snow Leopard than on previous versions of the Mac OS. You'll also see less of a visible color shift when going from Photoshop to Flash or other unmanaged environments (e.g. Internet Explorer).

Why is that? Apple has switched to a default gamma of 2.2, which is what Windows has used for years. Colors that aren't color-managed are going to look darker on the whole. Your whole display will now be closer to what Windows users see*.

Snow Leopard downgrades Flash, but it's an Easy Fix

If you have recently installed Snow Leopard (and you have, right?), your version of Flash has probably been silently downgraded. Though you may have already installed the latest version of Flash Player, 10.0.32.18, the version included on the Snow Leopard install disc is 10.0.23.1. This might not seem like such a big deal, but unfortunately there are a few unintended side effects.

The issue of most concern is that the latest version of Flash includes some security fixes. Taking advantage of potential exploits in Flash has become a pastime of some hackers and, as such, the version being downgraded—especially without knowledge of the user—does represent a potential security issue.

The other known issue is that the slightly older version of Flash can cause an annoying cursor glitch with Photoshop CS3 or CS4 when used with Snow Leopard. Somehow, having the older version of Flash can cause Photoshop's custom cursors to disappear whenever the mouse button is being pressed. Installing the very latest Flash Player seems to solve the problem.

If either of these are a concern for you then head on over to Adobe's Flash Player page, which will prompt you to install the latest version.

5 ways to Listen to Music on the iPhone without using iTunes

One of the major functions of the iPhone and iPod touch is, of course, music playback. The iTunes app has been designed in such a way to take advantage of the iPhone's touchscreen. But what if you want to listen to music that doesn't reside in your iTunes library, or you want to discover new music while not sitting in front of a computer?

Thanks to the incredible success of the App Store, there are plenty of ways now to access streaming music even when you don't have the files. Not everyone knows what options are available, though—either that, or there are so many options that sifting through everything can be tedious. For these reasons, we are offering the top five ways we here at Ars like listening to music on the iPhone without using iTunes.

Checking 32 or 64-bit Kernel Boot Mode in Snow Leopard

With the introduction of Snow Leopard, there is a some confusion about 32/64-bit apps and 32/64-bit Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) and 32/64-bit kernel extensions. We'll be sorting all that out in the coming weeks, piece by piece, to make it understandable.

By default, your Snow Leopard system (except for Xserves) boots into a 32-bit kernel, even on the latest Macs. That doesn't keep you from running 64-bit applications and addressing more than 2 GB of RAM.

The problem is that you may have some kernel extensions that are not 64-bit capable. You can try booting into the 64-bit kernel by holding down the 6 and 4 keys together at boot, but not everything may work correctly. To get a feel for some extensions that would be a problem, take a look at: About This Mac -> More Info -> Software -> Extensions.