The Secret History of Mac Gaming

One of the things that Seth and I have in common is that we came up in the bad old days of the Macintosh - the pre-Return-Of-Jobs days. Back then your Mac wasn't sleek and metallic and razor thin; no, it was a beige box with a multi-colored Apple on the front and a serifed product name front and center.

You could work on the things, but gaming was a more questionable proposition. Mac games were an entire subculture unto themselves, and with the dev cycle of game creation so long and the market dwindling you didn't see many huge crossover titles.

So, it was with considerable nerdy nostalgia that I saw this cool project over at Unbound. I'm definitely signing up for this, and would encourage everyone else to do the same. It promises to be a tantalizing snapshot of a niche industry and what it became.

Braumeister

If you're using a package manager on the Mac then chances are that you're using Homebrew (http://brew.sh). Back in the day I was a proponent of MacPorts and Fink, but both of those projects have rather died on the vine - meanwhile Homebrew goes from strength to strength.

It's not perfect. One of the things that I don't enjoy about Homebrew is the mildly obfuscated method for finding packages. Enter Braumeister - an online browsable repository for Homebrew formulae. It's pretty great, actually. Now it's a snap to find and install a slew of freely available and well-supported tools as well as the things that make your computing experience mildly more enjoyable in oh-so-many ways. Which may or may not include ponies.

The pros and cons of going by the book.

I bought a new desk a while ago. My old desk (in the cramped home office I shared with my long-suffering wife) was one I made myself and was chiefly composed of cheap bits of wood and optimism. It was bolted to the wall at elbow height as a sort of glorified shelf, and did it's job remarkably well. It was, of course, hideous and an appalling travesty, but that rather goes with the territory when considering that it lay squarely in the category of Things Built By A Man With No Skills.

Shame drove me to ultimately unbolt the thing and break it down. Shame and the fact that the wall started to creak ominously, so instead of risking major property damage and marital disharmony I bought a nice standing desk with a motor that makes it go up and down. It's probably one of the nicest things I've ever spent any money on. Unfortunately, buying the new desk lead to a sort of office Renaissance, which included painting the place, putting up art, actually finding places to put paperwork, and reassessing my computer needs. The ancient, wheezing Mac mini (one of a small stable scattered around the place) had started making ominous noises of a one-day-I'm-not-going-to-turn-on nature, so I decided that it needed a replacement.

What I wanted was something with a lot of storage and a decent amount of oomph. Nothing ridiculous - I don't have any aspirations to do a lot of rendering or power computing - but I do have a huge media library and a lot of documents, VM images and large installers of various sizes and descriptions. A nice new iMac seemed like a good move - but also seemed like staggering amount of money to a man who'd just bought a near-as-dammit thousand dollar desk (still not going to feel bad about that. It goes up and down).

I had a nice screen, and it seemed a shame for that to go to waste. Another Mac mini wasn't going to cut it either; the new models are hamstrung by their lack of upgradeability and general fussbudgetry, and the new Mac Pros were altogether too much computer for what I needed. Putting one of those on my desk was tantamount to buying a Maserati to make runs to the grocery store.

Apple didn't make the computer I needed, so I decided that the thing to do would be to make my own. Enter, ladies and gentlemen, the world of Hackintoshes.

There are lots of articles and posts out about how to build a Hackintosh. If that's what you're after then you can't go too far wrong going over to tonymacx86.com and reading some of the guides on what to do and what to buy. There are a dizzying array of options available once you step outside of the Apple sandbox and start bolting together your own hardware, so I'll just state for the record that I built the equivalent of a really, really nice iMac (except using the screen I had already and putting in two 4TB drives and a 500GB boot SSD) for less than $1100.

The title of this post promised pros and cons, so I'll get to those now.

Cons:

  • You have to do a lot of setup to make the thing work, and it's not for the faint of heart. Setting aside all the fiddling around with bolting the thing together correctly (which itself involves a lot of research about what bits are compatible with other bits) you'll probably also end up reading the manual - which is an anathema to the average geek. Motherboards have jumpers and settings and specific foibles and wiring requirements. Said jumpers and settings are usually documented in manuals that have the flavor of being translated from Chinese to English by a Korean gentleman who oversold his English language translation skills to whoever wrote the wretched thing in the first place. As a work of literature you can almost taste the indifference.
  • Once you've got that handled, you also have to create a version of OS X that will actually install and boot the computer. Fortunately there's excellent documentation on UniBeast and Clover over at tonymacx86.com, but it's documentation that you have to read carefully.
  • Once you've got it all up and running there are often tweaks. My Hackintosh, for example, would randomly lock up now and again; it turned out that it needed to be persuaded that it was an iMac and not a Mac Pro. Once that was done it went back to working perfectly. Depending on build, hardware and software you may find things that are system-dependent (like sleep) work inconsistently.
  • Some things don't work (or work in unexpected ways). Messages - for example - will only work on an Apple machine with a legitimate Apple serial number. There are ways to acquire a legitimate serial number, but they're all fairly shady. iTunes won't play DRM-protected video. That doesn't bother me particularly as I don't watch a lot of TV or movies on my computer, but it's a probably a potential deal-breaker for some.
  • There's no warranty, and support is limited to the kindness of strangers. If you break something while fiddling around with it then there's no phone number to call, no returns procedure. You have to figure out the problem and fix it yourself. Okay, maybe this belongs in the "pro" column. Spending a couple of hours tinkering and humming happily over non-functioning computer hardware is pretty much the definition of My Happy Place™.
  • You have to be very careful with OS upgrades. Most point upgrades (i.e. 10.11.3 to 10.11.4) work fine and require no particular hand ringing. More major upgrades require some research to make sure that the computer isn't just going to stop working.

Pros:

  • You get a heck of a lot of bang for your buck. My Hackintosh has 16GB of fast memory, a quad-core 3.5Ghz processor, a ridiculously overpowered 2GB video card and a 500GB fast SSD. It's the fastest Mac I've ever owned. Frankly I could have shaved a couple of hundred bucks off what I spent on the thing and still had something more than I really needed.
  • You get a lot of say in what you want configuration-wise. I have a huge old Thunderbolt RAID that I cobbled together from other broken bits of gear, and it sits hooked up to another old Mac mini in a closet doing network backups of everyone's desktops and laptops. I wasn't thrilled about pushing nearly 3TB of backups from my desktop over the internal network on a regular basis, so I put the bulk of the data on an internal 7200rpm drive and installed another 5400rpm drive in the thing specifically for doing Time Machine backups of the boot drive and the data drive.

 

 

It's a good machine and a good fit for me. But then again, this is what I do all day long. If you have the time and the inclination (and if you don't mind spending a certain amount of time and effort doing things like gnashing your teeth and trying to wade through badly-translated boot menu BIOS options) then it's an inexpensive and productive way of getting exactly the machine you need.

If I'm brutally honest, I think that mostly I like the fact that it looks really good on my new desk. It goes up and down.

 

Mandatory Fun

Google announced yesterday that Google+ will be transitioning from a standalone product to a core service for Google Apps. That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, it's a decent enough social platform that does a good (although kludgy and unintuitive) job of connecting people and doesn't carry a lot of the sneakier privacy baggage that you get with some other social networking platforms (cough Facebook cough).

It seems like an odd move, though. Google+ isn't what you'd call wildly popular - they trumpet the figure of 111 million users, which seems impressive until you consider that Facebook has somewhere north of 1.4 billion active users. In fact, it's a product that's seemingly been on the bubble for a while; over the last few years it's been rumored to be scrapped or repurposed several times, and there's ample (albeit anecdotal) evidence that adoption isn't high inside Google/Alphabet itself.

Still, if it becomes a core service then there's no real harm, as your Google Apps admin can enable or disable any service for your domain, so you won't necessarily have to use it. It's something for admins to exercise vigilance over, though - by the fall their domain users will suddenly find themselves as Google+ users, and will doubtless be asking themselves why they should bother with the thing when Facebook is ubiquitous, simpler and better-supported...

 

RAID and macOS Sierra

First - and it's important to get this out of the way - I think "macOS" is silly. Yes, I know that we had iOS, which was fine because that carried the linguistic DNA of the iPhone/iPad/iPod. I thought that "tvOS" was a goofy but no matter - I mean, when do you ever really see that in print or media? I'll let that pass, along with "watchOS".

"macOS" just raises my hackles for some reason. We had MacOS back in the day (grumble-grumble-get-off-my-lawn) and that seemed sensible enough. That became MacOS X, which again seemed like a logical progression. Dropping the capitalized "M" just feels like a change made purely for the sake of change in order to bring the four operating systems that Apple currently puts out into some kind of thematic order. It breaks the history of their flagship product, and it's just dumb and bad and I'm probably old and grumpy.

On a happier note, with macOS (ugh) Sierra Apple have done a pretty good job of un-breaking something that they really screwed up on last time; removing RAID support. It's not an important feature for a lot of home users, but with Server setups on smaller systems that don't have the luxury of a dedicated RAID card and that need mirrored or striped internal storage it was a bit of a blow to see that removed in El Capitan. Imagine, if you will, my child-like joy when I cracked open Disk Utility in the latest beta and saw this:

My relief was palpable. No more fussing around with the Terminal, trying to remember the diskutil corestorage commands and generally pulling out my hair and gnashing my teeth in rage.

Now, if they could just fix the stupid name...

Sync Google Apps calendars across iOS devices

We’re enthusiastic proponents of Google Apps. There’s an eternal, roiling debate over the assorted pros and cons of every online collaborative solution – Exchange versus Gmail versus self-hosted versus ISP-hosted – and truth be told, the differences between most email providers is slight at best. Yes, there are differences in terms of form (and expense), but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself something akin to “Will I be able to send an email” and if the answer is “Yes” then the smart thing to do is choose a solution, quit worrying about it, and go back to work.

One of the things we like about Google Apps is the ability to share calendars in a simple, flexible way. This is tremendously valuable when I am at Client A and Client B calls me to report that the building is on fire or that something critical has exploded in a cascade of sparks or – as is more commonly the case – a problem of a rather more pedestrian but no less stressful nature has occurred. Being able to see that Seth is scheduled to be finishing up an appointment down the street and can swing by and save the day (as is his way) is tremendously valuable.

The only fly in the ointment is that it is – on the face of it – impossible to view subscribed calendars on your iOS device. It’s a puzzling omission, and while there’s a fix, it’s not an immediately obvious one. Here, for your delectation and delight, is how to remedy that.

First, sign into your Google Apps account via your web browser of choice. Once you’ve got that out of the way, navigate to https://www.google.com/calendar/syncselect. After a moment, it will present you with you calendars (actual and subscribed). Simply check the boxes of the calendars you want to be sync over your iOS devices, click “Save”, and quit the browser.

Et, as they say, voila! Give it a minute or two, and you should be able to see those subscribed calendars and know instantly what your cohorts are up to.