iCloud Drive: Don’t do what I did!

Being deeply immersed in the Apple ecosystem, a couple of years ago I made a decision:

I’ll move all of my work files onto iCloud Drive!

I work (as in, write code and edit image files) mainly on my Mac. But I was seduced by the possibility of accessing all of my work files in a pinch on my iPad (which I still had at the time) or even my iPhone. Plus, since my files would be in “The Cloud”, I could even access them from another computer (or from my Mac when booted into Windows) if I needed to, by logging into my iCloud account from a web browser.

It seemed… so obvious. So perfect.

Umm… maybe not.

For the past two years, I have been constantly fighting with iCloud Drive. One of its signature features is that it can manage disk use on your Mac automatically, so as your hard drive fills up, it deletes files you haven’t used in a while, keeping them safely in the cloud while freeing up disk space on your Mac. And with my MacBook Pro sporting a (meager?) 256 GB hard drive, with 40-odd GB allocated for a Windows partition, and over 60 GB occupied by Logic Pro X sound samples, my drive is filling up constantly.

While this is great in principle, it is completely unworkable in practice for three interrelated reasons:

  1. If you have a large amount of data in play here (for me, it’s in the vicinity of 100 GB), iCloud Drive may get to a point where it is constantly transferring data. If you’re not on a gigabit fiber connection, this can both use up all of your Internet bandwidth and take ages.
  2. Because #1 is taking place constantly, if you do find yourself needing to grab one of those files that has been deleted locally (as indicated in the Finder by a cloud icon with a down-pointing arrow), you may find yourself waiting several minutes for the file to become available, even if it’s small (as in, under 1 MB).
  3. In an effort to make this all appear seamless to the user, the Finder represents cloud-only files as… regular files. But they’re actually just pointers with a hidden .icloud filename extension… as you’ll find if you ever try to perform Finder actions inside another program, such as syncing files to a web server using Transmit.

All of this might be tolerable if Apple gave you any control whatsoever over which files get deleted locally. But they don’t.

It gets worse.

What’s worse than getting stuck in this situation? Trying to get out of it. It’s like quicksand… the more you struggle against it, the faster and deeper you sink into it.

I made the decision earlier this week to extricate myself from the iCloud Drive nightmare, by buying a 250 GB SanDisk external SSD. First off, a little unpaid plug for this drive… it is awesome. It’s super light and small, seemingly at least as fast as the internal SSD in my MacBook Pro (in that I am able to transfer multiple gigabytes of data in seconds), and it even looks cool. I’m going to be using it all the time, so I’m actually considering putting adhesive Velcro on both it and the top of my MacBook Pro so I can keep it permanently attached. (Which says a lot about how much my regard for Apple has fallen lately — in the past I would never have sullied the exterior of an Apple laptop with something adhesive.)

So anyway, external SSD acquired, my goal was to start transferring my files from iCloud Drive over to the SSD.

Uh… good luck with that.

Because I’m now at a point where I have more than double the amount of data stored on iCloud Drive as I have available space locally, a majority of my files are now only in “The Cloud.” Ugh. Which means waiting for all of that data transfer stuff to happen. If only I could, somehow, bypass this broken process, I thought.

There has to be a way.

tl;dr Nope.

So, here’s the thing. I’ve been using iCloud Drive for the bulk of my cloud-based file storage, but I do use other services as well. I have Google Drive. I have Dropbox. I know how they work.

Specifically, I know that you can, y’know, like, select a folder and download the entire thing as a zip file.

So I thought to myself, I’ll just go to iCloud in a web browser and do that! Download the whole friggin’ thing as a big zip file, or maybe a few zip files, and be done with it.

Nope.

For whatever reason, iCloud doesn’t let you do that. Probably because of the whole seamless “It just works” Kool-Aid drinking song everyone in Apple land has been singing. (Myself included, mostly.)

You can only download individual files, not folders, from the iCloud web interface. It does let you select multiple files at once, but only within one folder.

Check out this delightful thread full of know-it-all asshats whose response to a legitimate question — why doesn’t Apple allow this thing that every competing service does? — is to challenge the validity of the question and the intelligence of the questioner. (That thread is now closed so I’ve just opened my own new thread on the topic. Watch this space for trolls!)

There. Are. Plenty. Of. Reasons. A. Person. Might. Have. For. Needing. To. Do. Something. That. You. Have. Not. Previously. Considered. Stop challenging their premises and answer their question, or shut the hell up.

Whew.

I ended up “solving” the problem by resigning myself to the fact that it wouldn’t be completely solved. So instead I took the drastic approach of temporarily logging out of iCloud completely, just so I could strand the files I did have saved locally, and copied them to the SSD.

Then I logged back into iCloud Drive and tried to get it to stop syncing my files by unchecking the Desktop and Documents Folders option.

The only problem is, I didn’t have my work files in those folders. I had them in a separate top-level folder in the iCloud Drive that I created myself. Because, you know, you can do that and it didn’t seem like a crazy idea or anything.

It was.

I discovered this morning that even though I had done all of this and tried to purge the nightmare of constant iCloud Drive syncing from my Mac life, once I had logged back into iCloud, the Mac went right back to quietly, constantly, syncing that iCloud Drive data on my Mac. As I type this, I have a Finder window open to my iCloud Drive and in the status bar it says “downloading 120,079 items (36.14 GB of 48.66 GB)”. Fun!

So, my new plan for today is to watch that window, and as the little cloud icons next to individual folders goes away, I’m copying those folders to my SSD and then deleting them from iCloud. My assumption is that as I do this, I am freeing up more local space and iCloud will continue to download the remaining items, and eventually I’ll have everything transferred over.

But please… do yourself a favor and don’t do what I did. iCloud Drive is not suitable for professional use.

A couple of quick steps to improve the Yosemite UI on non-Retina Macs

I’m guessing most Mac users running a Mac that can handle it have already updated to Yosemite, or will soon. I’m the kind of user who always runs OS updates whenever they’re available.

I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s decision to make Helvetica Neue the new system font in Yosemite. I like Helvetica, but I don’t love it. I prefer something with a little more personality, a little less ubiquity. That said, I do prefer geometric and Grotesque-type fonts over humanist fonts… and I was really sick of Lucida Grande, which I never really liked in the first place.

My first reaction when I tried the Yosemite beta was that it looked half-assed. The final version is a bit more polished, but it still feels poorly thought out. Or, at least, it did until last weekend when I was at an Apple Store and I saw Yosemite on a Retina MacBook Pro for the first time.

Wow.

Retina is clearly what this interface was designed for, and eventually that’s how we’ll all be experiencing it. But for now, and for a while to come, most of us will probably be stuck with non-Retina Macs and the inferior presentation of Yosemite’s refined UI that they deliver.

That said, there are a couple of things you can do to improve the experience. Part of why Yosemite doesn’t look great on a non-Retina Mac is that there’s too much subtle stuff going on that just kind of gets mucked up when you don’t have that precise definition on letters and icons. You can improve this aspect of the UI immensely by reducing its use of transparency. Open up System Preferences and switch to Accessibility. Check the box labeled Reduce transparency.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.23 PM

Another optional change you may wish to make is to darken the menu bar and Dock. This is more of a matter of taste, but personally I like the darker look. Switching this on essentially inverts the colors, so your menu bar has a nearly black background with white text, and the Dock becomes translucent dark gray, instead of translucent white.

Once again in System Preferences go to General and check Use dark menu bar and Dock.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.16 PM

Now enjoy your new OS!

How to install Windows 8 on a MacBook Air

No longwinded backstory in this post. I’m just posting this here so I can remember it if I ever have to install again, since I seem to keep forgetting.

If you’re trying to install Windows 8 (or Windows 7) on a MacBook Air, and you boot to the Windows CD (from a SuperDrive, of course), you may find that when you try to select the BOOTCAMP partition, you get an error stating that Windows can’t be installed on this drive, because it’s in GPT format, and you need to have an NTFS partition.

Well, it doesn’t matter if you have that partition formatted as NTFS or not. The error is happening because of the way you booted up!

Quit the installer, and restart, holding down the Option key. Then when the disk selection comes up, don’t select the Windows installer, select EFI Boot instead. That’s it!

How to get iWork (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) apps to stop defaulting to iCloud when saving

Ever since I semi-fully embraced iCloud, I’ve found that the iWork apps — Pages, Numbers and Keynote — always default to wanting to save every new document in iCloud, which I never — well, OK, almost never — want to do. It’s fine that it’s an option, but I want the default to be saving to my local hard drive (which, actually, means saving to my Dropbox account).

It didn’t take much effort to find this thread on Apple’s support forums, but the first suggested solution — turning off “Documents and Data” in System Preferences → iCloud — seemed draconian. With this option you can never sync your documents to iCloud.

A little further down the thread I found the “real” solution, courtesy of “Bernie_uk”, which was important enough for me to want to share here.

It requires opening up Terminal, but it’s not too scary. You just have to run this command:

defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSDocumentSaveNewDocumentsToCloud -bool false

This command doesn’t turn off anything in iCloud; it just tells the system that your default should be saving files to disk, not to iCloud. Note that since this is a global setting, it will affect not just iWork, but any other apps that use iCloud’s “Documents and Data” syncing. (I guess.)

The uncomfortable marriage of the UNIX command line and Mac GUI, and its implications for my sudoers file

I’m a longtime Mac user. A “power user,” you might say. Not so much a power UNIX user, though I do a fair bit of Linux-based command line tomfoolery as part of my job.

But things get ugly when the two come together. At the command line I am a bit too inclined to treat my Mac like a Linux server. It may have UNIX at its core, but it’s not Linux. And Apple has put some effort into de-UNIX-ing it as well. Things you expect to work don’t work the way you expect them to. (Yes, I just wrote that sentence. See what this is doing to my brain???)

For reasons I don’t care to get into, I decided today that I needed to modify the sudoers file on the studio’s Mac mini file server. And in my own inimitable and slightly stupid way, I handled this task as I typically do anything involving changing buried system files, not by struggling through using a command line text editor, but by copying the file to my desktop (where it is magically released from the prison of UNIX file permissions in which Apple has… uh… imprisoned hidden UNIX system files). I edited the file and put it back in the /etc folder where it belongs.

Only problem: in the process, the file’s ownership and permissions got changed. No problem, I thought. I’ll just sudo that sucker. Only problem is, when the permissions on the sudoers file aren’t what the system expects them to be, it doesn’t let anybody sudo anything.

Well… crap.

But then I remembered… Mac GUI solutions to the rescue! I opened up Disk Utility and ran “Repair Disk Permissions.” Problem solved! Apple has saved me from myself.

Now I can go back to my delusion that I am a power user.