It’s been quite a few weeks since my last post. That’s because during most of that span, whenever I’ve had time to sit down with my laptop, it’s been to work on restoring things from the catastrophic hard drive failure I suffered just before Christmas. I’m happy to say that as of now, I’ve finally got the computer back to a state where I feel my life is under control again (as much as it ever was, anyway), and in fact the system is (in some ways) better than ever.

All the gory details below the fold…

First of all, it turned out that the contents of my previous hard drive were completely unrecoverable. After some delay (it was the holidays), the data recovery gurus informed me that it was a physical failure; a head had broken and scratched gouges in the data platter(s?), and that was all she wrote. So: that was roughly 40 GB of data wiped away without backup, including the last three+ years of my financial records, several chapters of a book I’d been writing, my calendar and contact database, a huge quantity of e-mail, and any number of other personal documents, projects, et cetera.

At that point there was nothing left to wait for; I had to reconstruct what what I could from square one. I maxed out my PowerBook’s RAM to 2 GB, and it now had a new 160 GB internal drive (twice the previous capacity)… in addition to which I had an old external drive (40 GB, which seemed like a lot when I bought it in 2005) and a new external drive (500 GB). The former contained some pre-2006 archive files, and the latter contained a backup of my photos and music, FWIW (although I could have re-ripped the latter if necessary). Having the multiple drives gave me a little wiggle room to shuffle things around as I rearranged… although the old drive had been partitioned, which added a complication. The steps I wound up having to go through included:

  • Copying the archives on the old external (OE) drive to the new (NE) one
  • Reformatting the OE as a single partition using my OS X 10.4 master CD (so I could still access some legacy files in Classic mode if necessary)
  • Reinstalling a fresh copy of 10.4 on the internal (PB) drive from the master DVD, and downloading all the multiple layers (7!) of incremental updates (security patches and so forth)
  • Duplicating the PB to the OE as a bootable backup, using CarbonCopyCloner
  • Copying the archives from the NE back to the OE, along with the photo/music backup
  • Installing OS X 10.5 on the PB from its master DVD (the most recent version a pre-Intel machine will run—and that’s fine by me, since I haven’t heard anything too great about 10.6 anyway), and downloading all of its incremental upgrades
  • Reformatting the NE, just to be on the safe side
  • Copying the recent backup back to the NE, along with a duplicate of the bare-bones 10.5 install
  • Reinstalling downloadable software—e.g., DropBox, Growl, and of course Firefox… thus also including finding and re-installing the myriad Firefox add-ons I needed to match my prior functionality
  • Reinstalling all my off-the-shelf software from master discs, including MS Office, Dreamweaver, Photoshop Elements, and a smattering of others, then downloading all of their incremental upgrades
  • Setting up TimeMachine to back up the PB automatically to the NE on an ongoing basis. (I’m also looking into online “cloud” backup options, as more than one correspondent has suggested; after an experience like this I figure a belt-and-suspenders approach can’t hurt)

Now, this is the point at which things started to get complicated, since I needed to find new software for certain basic functions. For years I’d used Quicken ’98 in Classic mode for my financial management, but that was no longer an option under 10.5… and I’d read enough scathing reviews of more recent version of Quicken for Mac to look for other options. I’d used Eudora as my e-mail program for fifteen years, but it ceased development in 2006 (except in an ersatz version built atop Thunderbird), so I figured the time was right for a new e-mail client as well. And I’d long used Palm Desktop as my calendar-and-contact manager… but it hasn’t been update for years and won’t sync with my recently acquired iPhone, so I needed to find something new in that category too.

And odd as it seems, when I started to research my options, I discovered that the Mac software options in the finance, e-mail, and (especially!) PIM categories seem to have grown worse over the last decade or so. Of course, OS X includes Apple’s native Mail, iCal, and Address Book apps. I tried them, and decided I don’t like them much (especially the Address Book, with its painfully ugly interface). In the end, here’s what I tried and wound up with:

For e-mail:

Let me stipulate up front that I hate using a browser interface for e-mail, so GMail was out (even though my ISP uses its mailservers). I like a native client that lets me consolidate the half-dozen e-mail addresses I use, and sort and archive the messages on my own machine. So, I experimented with:

  • Eudora 8 (the one built on Mozilla Thunderbird). Looks kind of like the original, but doesn’t work like it. Awkward and unpleasant.
  • Apple’s Mail. Unnecessarily hard to configure and customize.
  • MailForge. This goal of this app’s developers was to duplicate the look, feel, and functionality of the original Eudora, and they’ve largely nailed it. Unfortunately, it’s just too buggy to be ready for prime time.
  • MS Entourage. To my amazement (given my disdain for Microsoft products in general and Outlook in particular), this one was the winner. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was built into MS Office, so I had to try it. Turns out it’s the easiest to configure for multiple servers, and the most flexible in terms of setting up filter rules and the mailboxes that go with them. It’s not the most elegant interface around, but it’s not bad, and it just works. Its built-in spam filtering is terrible, but with the addition of SpamSieve (terrific, albeit a bit overpriced at $30) that’s no problem. (Another minor annoyance is that it stores everything in a single database file, meaning that file has to be excluded from TimeMachine to avoid creating humongous backup files, thus requiring an AppleScript workaroundonline to keep Entourage backed up.)

Along the way I also experimented with configuring my mailservers for IMAP rather than POP, since so many so-called experts seem to recommend it. However, I don’t see the advantages. I can’t fathom the notion of every single mail account needing its own Inbox, with Sent, Junk, and other folders subordinate to i; it’s a godawful organizational scheme. Moreover, it made all of these client programs even buggier in terms of server access. In the end I went back to POP, erasing my messages from the server as I go and filtering them on my own computer. (I was still able to configure my iPhone to access my two primary e-mail addresses, though, for those rare instances when I do need mobile access; I’ve just set it to leave messages on the server, so everything is ultimately centralized at home.)

For Contacts and Calendar:

This category has really suffered over the years. Back in the OS7 days I used Now Contact & Up-to-Date, and then later with OS9 DayMaker, in both cases wonderfully robust, full-featured programs. Sadly, they never made the leap to OS X (nor did the more enterprise-level ACT!). I was left with the following options:

  • Apple’s Address Book and iCal. It’s amazing the seemingly basic functionality these programs lack—for example, the ability to assign a contact or an event to multiple categories, or to have to-do items with deadlines show up on the calendar rather than just in a separate list.
  • NowX.  A descendant of the old Now suite, but it gets terrible reviews.
  • Contactizer Pro. Too expensive and un-Mac-like for my needs, and no easy way to sync with the Mac’s built-in Sync Services (and thus my iPhone).
  • DayLite. See Contactizer.
  • Soho Organizer. This seemed like a winner:  a nice integrated program with good reviews, all the functionality the native apps lack, and an attractive, intuitive interface. I downloaded the trial version with high hopes. Unfortunately, the first time I tried to create a sample event, the program crashed on me. And wouldn’t reopen, even after a system restart. And required me to drag a whole list of buried files to the trash manually just to uninstall it. Big disappointment.
  • Entourage. A partial winner: I wound up using this for its address book functions, which are attractive, well-organized and customizable, and can be set to sync automatically with Sync Services. (Although, to get it to share its categories with Apple’s program, I had to add the free AppleScript utility “Sync Entourage and AB Groups”—which doesn’t show up in Entourage’s Scripts menu like it’s supposed to, but which works all the same.
  • BusyCal. This may be a winner for calendaring, but I’m still using the trial version and not quite sure whether I’m willing to pop for the $40 registration when it expires. It’s very similar to iCal, both visually and functionally (including the annoying single-category-calendar approach), but just a little better designed: event details show up in a sidebar rather than a floating balloon, dated to-dos show up in the calendar, and it syncs seamlessly with Google Calendar (which iCal also finally does under 10.5, but not as well), allowing me to (A) back up my calendar online for free, and (B) share relevant events with my girlfriend automatically by sharing certain categories with her Google Calendar. It’s a decent but not perfect program, and I may decide just to make do with iCal itself until something genuinely better comes along.

There also remains the question of a separate to-do list manager, since iCal/BusyCal are so inadequate at that. I’m looking into several options right now, but haven’t settled on one yet:

  • I’ve read good things about Things (which like many other programs facilitates the currently trendy “Getting Things Done” (GTD) model of task management, but isn’t inextricably tied to it, in contrast to some other programs like OmniFocus). It syncs with iCal and also has an iPhone app with which it syncs wirelessly, but the combo is pricey ($50 for the desktop program, another $10 for the phone app). It also lacks any web-enabled interface.
  • HitList seems to be the biggest competitor for Things, and sports the same price and a similar feature set (tags, contexts, projects, etc.); reviews differ on which is better. It doesn’t have a native iPhone app, but can sync with one called 2Do.
  • A less expensive option would be to use the free ToodleDo web app as the hub for synchronization, which syncs with any of three iPhone apps (Appigo ToDo, Pocket Informant, or its own ToodleDo app)… but it lacks any desktop program, and the web interface is far from elegant.
  • EasyTask is another option, a $20 program with a free iPhone app and an online version to boot; the main downside seems to be that (unlike the others) it lacks “push” notification on the phone.

For Personal Finances:

Despite Intuit’s evident disdain for Mac users in recent years (with buggy software and expensive annual upgrades that improve little or nothing), there’s no hands-down Quicken killer on the market. Options include:

  • Jumsoft Money. Not really ready for prime time: just a jumbled, inelegant interface.
  • Moneywell. Too concerned with forcing me into a “bucket-based” budgeting paradigm.
  • iBank. Too concerned with visual bells and whistles (a cover-flow view for financial transactions? really?) instead of useful functionality.
  • Fortora Fresh Finance. A decent, easy-to-use program, but edged out by…
  • MoneyDance. The winner. It has a straightforward interface, no user complaints about buggy calculations or data downloads, an account-reconciliation feature similar to what I’m used to from Quicken (why reinvent the wheel?), and—unlike any other program mentioned—it allows you to assign not just a category but one or more classes to transactions (albeit using “tags,” unlike Quicken’s approach), a feature I’ve long found useful. It’s also just about the least expensive program, at $40 (and currently 20% less, if you click the site’s Blog tab and look for the discount code).

With all of that sorted out, of course, it still remained to get actual data into these programs. That meant manually entering scores of contacts (scrounged from various hardcopy sources, Facebook pages, etc.), then syncing to a free Plaxo account, which allows me to store the data online, import from other sources like my LinkedIn account, and invite everyone who’s so inclined to connect with me on Plaxo (thereby keeping their data current with no further effort on my part). It meant manually entering the last two months’ worth of transactions off the statements from my bank account, credit cards, and investment accounts (I arbitrarily decided that going back further would be a pointless exercise, and hope I’m right about that), not to mention as much cash spending as I could find receipts for. It meant digging through various handwritten notes, e-mails, tickets, etc. to enter everything coming up on my calendar. And, along the way, it meant doing my best to remember (or having to request reminders for) pretty much every online userid and password I’ve ever had occasion to use.

So, all told, that’s what I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time doing over the past six weeks—recreating my electronic life essentially from scratch. I don’t recommend it. Really, it’s more fun than one person should be allowed to have.  🙄 And if the precautions I’ve put in place do their job, with any luck, I’ll never have to endure it again.

(I can at least be thankful that my web site and this blog live online, though, and didn’t depend on my own storage for their survival. Both have remained intact through the whole ordeal… although I’ve lost lots of notes about stuff I’d planned to put up on them. But as I said up top, things are finally back in relatively normal shape now, so although I still have a few loose ends to tie off (e.g., organizing and syncing my bookmarks), I should be in a position to get new posts up here on a more regular basis once again.)

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One Response to “Back up and running again!”
  1. Great website. Lots of useful information here. I am sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you on your effort!

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