The Apple Hardware Report: Some Things Don’t “Just Work”!

November 6th, 2008

It’s very easy to sell a Mac to the skeptic when things function normally, and to be frank, they usually do. Indeed, I’ve also done pretty well in making that occasional deal to sell my old hardware to a local buyer.

However, on a rare occasion things don’t always work predictably. Some years back, for example, I was in the midst of ridding myself of a Power Mac G4. The prospective purchaser was just about ready to take the cash out of his wallet when I began a final backup of some remaining files.

Unfortunately the deal was almost aborted, as it appeared that the external drive failed at that very moment. It turned out to be the result of an early-release Mac OS X bug that would cause directory damage on some FireWire drives. In the end the problem was resolved with a fast Apple update and a corresponding update to the drive firmware, but I had to make some fast excuses to preserve the sale.

Rather than go into details about a possible Mac OS bug, I said the drive had been flaky for a while, and don’t worry. The Power Mac, I said, was perfect, and after a long period of silence during which time he considered the matter, he finally completed the transaction.

But it was embarrassing nonetheless, and I vowed to be far more cautious in the future when engaging in an in-person sales process.

It’s also true that even some of the features in the latest Macs don’t always function, even when everything is working properly.

A major offender is Leopard’s screen sharing feature, dubbed Back to My Mac in one of its variants. Now in theory, it’s a tremendous tool, because it allows you to take over the screen of another Mac on a local network or across the Internet. For the latter, all you need is a MobileMe account to handle the interconnectivity at both ends. Of course, MobileMe, one hopes, isn’t suffering from one of its periodic outages when you attempt to share another Mac’s desktop.

When it works properly, the hookup process happens nearly as fast as standard file sharing. This can be a tremendous advantage if you want to help a friend or relative solve a problem, or just teach them how to do something interactively. It’s also a more advantageous file sharing technique, since you have virtually full control over the networked Mac. All this comes at no extra cost, beyond your MobileMe membership, without having to buy any special desktop sharing software, such as Apple’s Remote Desktop, which can get rather costly.

At least that’s the theory. But in practice it doesn’t always work so well. To be assured a reasonable chance of success, you should have a recent Apple AirPort Extreme router or a Time Capsule at both ends of the connection. That will ensure maximum compatibility. Now it’s also true that third-party routers are, to some degree, also supported, but don’t bet on certain success.

According to Apple, those other routers need to support something called UPnP (also known as Universal Plug and Play) technology. They even maintain an online list of routers that are supposedly compatible with Back to My Mac when properly configured. However, the setup may not be so simple, because some of those products require accessing Web-based configuration panels that are often poorly designed and badly explained in their documentation. You may be coping with lots of trial and error, or find yourself calling an outsourced support center that can barely understand English, let alone deal with the technical fineries of this sort of setup.

And that even assumes that the router maker has any interest in supporting Mac users.

To make matters worse, some ISPs provide proprietary DSL or cable modems with built-in routers, which are preconfigured by their technical people. They may not be willing — or able — to set things up so they support Back to My Mac.

Now there is also a screen sharing capability in iChat that allows you and your online contact to take control of each other’s Macs. This substitute may actually succeed where Back to My Mac fails, but it does, of course, require that there be someone at the other end of the connection to manage their part of the process.

So we have two variations of a wonderful feature that, in the real word, often fails to perform as promised. It almost makes you think of Windows, where some things aren’t as reliable as they could or should be.

Now perhaps Apple is guilty because of over-promising and under-delivering, although Back to My Mac isn’t something they advertise too heavily. They may also be the victims here, simply because so many routers are badly designed. Indeed, consumer electronics outlets used to complain they had more returns on routers than almost any other gadget.

But maybe — just maybe — Apple will find a better way to implement this and other broken features in Snow Leopard. It shouldn’t just be about more efficient plumbing.

| Print This Article Print This Article

3 Responses to “The Apple Hardware Report: Some Things Don’t “Just Work”!”

  1. Adam says:

    I love Back to My Mac, it works great for me but network configurations being what they are I understand the frustrations when it doesn’t work. The Airport Extreme is one of the products made by Apple which garners a lot of “too expensive to compete” comments. To that I say, configure any other consumer router and then go to an Apple Store and ask for a demo of the Airport Utility. Again, it’s a case where Apple makes it so much easier to do that it may be worth a bit more money. The ease of use is just phenomenal!

    Before I sound too much like an Apple ad I will freely admit that I have used many other brands of router/hub/802.11 boxes and I would have no problem doing so again. Although I also have yet to find another consumer model that has lasted more than two years of daily use. My experience is that, over time, the costs are actually about equal. Unfortunately I also have a hard time finding a retailer that will let me try out the “easy web-browser based” setup. My Airport WiFi network is hidden and has WPA2 password security. I set something like this up for a friend about 2 years ago using a new Linksys router. It took the 2 of us (he is very technically competent as well) 90 minutes of manual searching and setup tool tweaking just to find out how to create a private, hidden WiFi. I’ve set up 6 such Airport networks over the last 4 years. None of them took more than 10 minutes start to finish and they all work.

    As for any ISP that requires me to use their router for my LAN? They won’t get my business! If there were no other alternatives I would still put my LAN behind an Airport so that I can have some control over security. In my neighborhood I am pretty much limited to Comcast or Verizon DSL (no FIOS). Comcast has much better network speed but I will drop it like a hot potato if they ever tell me that I need to let them administer my home network. That thought just scares me.


  2. @ Adam: I agree with you about some of those third-party routers. I’ve tried a few, and they invariably fail in a year or two. So you do get what you pay for.

    As to the ISP issue: Well, that assumes you have a choice, and some people don’t.


  3. Adam says:

    You are absolutely correct. I am glad that I live between Washington D.C. and Baltimore as this assures me some choice. Having said that, all of the folks around here who constantly complained about Comcast and never tried the equal, but marginally less costly, services of Millenium cable effectively destroyed what little competition there was in cable services by allowing Comcast to run Millenium out of business. A shame as the services provided really were on par with each other.

    My neighborhood is one of the few in the area that has no FIOS yet, so I really have very limited choice also as I really need faster than residential DSL to be able to tele-commute when the kids are ill, etc… If Comcast tells me that I can’t have a LAN downstream from there WAN I will be in a real pickle too!

    Many of my former customers at the Annapolis Apple Store live on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore where your choices tend to be dial-up and satellite. I was on first name basis with many who would come by frequently to use our free WiFi, particularly when there were OSX updates available. I love the Shore (as we call it) but my current lifestyle is not possible there. I hope that the next 4-8 years shows some renewed emphasis on information infrastructure.

Leave Your Comment