Help! I’m Out of Memory

I often hear beginners say that their computer is out of memory. This is often a clue that they are beginners. Computers contain two different types of “memory” and you need to carefully distinguish between them. I could give a detailed technical explanation, but it would be obsolete in a few years, and wouldn’t be all that helpful. Instead, I’ll describe how they are used, what the symptoms are when you run short and finally, what to do about it.

RAM vs. Storage

Current computers contain two main types of memory, RAM (Random Access Memory) and non-volatile storage. This is true for Macs, PCs, iPads and iPhones, etc. Confusion arises because these very different things are both measured in the same units, Megabytes and Gigabytes. If someone says their computer or phone has 16 Gigabytes, you should be thinking: “16 Gigabytes of what”?

Storage (Hard Drive Space)

Storage is what old-timers think of as their hard drive. Since iPhones and some Macs really don’t have hard drives, Apple simply uses the term Storage, which I think is a really good choice. So, what is storage? Storage is where things go when you save them, close them or download them. Things stay in storage until you delete them. Storage has a firmly limited size, and when you try to exceed it you will get a definite message. If you see a message on the Mac about a specific device (probably Macintosh HD) being out of space, this refers to storage.

RAM

RAM is where things go while you open them, edit them, view them or play them. RAM is lightning fast, but it is temporary. Things usually don’t stay in RAM long, and it is all erased when the device is powered off.  Apps and documents flit in and out of RAM as you navigate between them. The operating system of your computer or device works hard to make sure you don’t run out of RAM. If everything doesn’t fit, it will compromise by keeping things that should be in RAM in slower storage temporarily. So, you probably won’t ever see a message about being low on RAM. Instead, things will just slow down, usually dramatically. The worst slowdowns are likely to occur when running a single memory-hog program like a video or photo editor. Running a guest operating system like running Windows under Parallels will use up your RAM quickly.

Gigabytes of Advertising

Apple’s marketing definitely de-emphasizes RAM. It is not mentioned at all for iOS devices, and for Macs, it’s down in the fine print, where it is called “memory”. When shopping for an iPhone 6, say, you will see a 16 GB, 64 GB, and 128 GB model. Those are Gigabytes of storage, not RAM. iPhones have RAM, and newer models may have more RAM than older ones, but Apple never mentions it.

How to Check

On the Mac, you can see how your RAM and Storage stack up by going to the Apple Menu, and selecting About This Mac. In the Overview pane, you will see  your computer’s installed RAM where it says Memory. You will also see an item at the top, Storage. Next to that you may or may not see one that says Memory. The Memory item only appears on computers with memory slots that allow additional RAM to be installed. If you don’t see that, your Mac already has all the RAM it’s ever going to have. That’s the way most of them are now, especially the laptops.

About This Mac Overview Dialog
About This Mac Overview

The Storage pane of About This Mac show an overview of how much storage you have, how much is being used for what and how much remains free. You should try to keep at least, say, 15% of your storage free. If it ever gets full,  your computer can become almost completely unusable.

About This Mac Storage dialog
About This Mac, Storage Pane

The memory pane of About This Mac shows your options for upgrading RAM. This pane only appears on Macs with upgradable RAM.

Memory pane of About This Mac
Memory pane of About This Mac

I’m Out of RAM!

First of all, you’re probably not out of RAM. Most beginners are very unlikely to need more RAM than their computer has unless the computer is several years old. If you really are low on RAM, you can do one of three things. First, install more RAM if that’s possible in your computer. It’s not possible on iOS devices. Second, if your RAM isn’t upgradable,  upgrade to a whole new device with more RAM. Third, you can limit your RAM usage. First, quit all applications that you are not using. Consider if you can reduce the size of the documents you are working with. Can you edit that giant novel in separate chapters, one at a time? Can you work with lower-resolution photos or videos? Maybe you could split up your photo library into smaller sections. Those type of things are likely to reduce demands on your RAM.

If you are worried about needing  more RAM on the Mac, you should open Activity Monitor and visit the Memory tab. The Memory Pressure feature in Yosemite has done a lot to reassure me that I’m in little danger of running out of RAM.

Activity Monitor Memory Pressure
Activity Monitor Memory Pressure

I’m Out of Storage! 

This is all too common. Your first thought should be to delete something you don’t need. Your Downloads folder is a good place to start. Things tend to pile up in there. They all came from the Internet anyway, so if you find you need them, you can always download them again. Empty the trash. Storage belonging to trashed files isn’t freed until the trash is emptied. Empty the trash in applications, like iPhoto, that have their own trash.

While scanning your folders for stuff to be deleted, sort by size. Finding and deleting the biggest files first will save you a lot of time.

Another option is to add external storage. This is not possible for iOS devices, usually, but it is easy for Macs. You should move some of those big files to an external hard drive.

 

 

Apple ID Sanity Check

If you will be buying a new Mac or iOS device soon, it really pays to get your ducks in a row as far as your Apple ID goes. Your Apple ID is more important than ever in the new operating systems, Yosemite for the Mac, and iOS 8 for the iPhone and its ilk.

Apple ID Is Your Single Credential for all Things Apple

If you have, or have ever had an iCloud account, Dot-Mac account, or Me.com account, you have an Apple ID.

Your single Apple ID is used for all these things:

  • To access your email
  • To buy music, movies and books & iOS apps from the iTunes Store
  • To login to your computer
  • For instant Messaging and FaceTime
  • To access iCloud, including Photos and Find My iPhone and Find My Mac
  • To buy hardware from store.apple.com
  • To buy Mac software from the App store
  • To sign in to the Apple Support Communities
  • For Apple Pay

I’m probably forgetting something that should be in this list. It’s also used for developer access, if you are a registered developer with Apple.

Decide Which ID You Want To Use

If you’ve been using the Mac for a while, you may have more than one Apple ID. You probably want to settle on a single ID for your on-line life.

If you have been sharing an Apple ID with a significant other, you should get separate IDs. (It’s not that I don’t love you, but how can I send you a message if you don’t have your own ID?) Apple’s family sharing lets you share iTunes purchases with family members with their own accounts, so there’s no reason to use the same ID any longer.

Email Addresses

Although Apple has changed their mind several times about what domain they want users to use for email, they have done a good job of making it transparent. Email sent to johndoe@me.com, or johndoe@mac.com can be received at johndoe@icloud.com. John Doe  can also use any of those to log on to his one iCloud account.

Apple could phase those older domains out some day, so use @iCloud as much as possible going forward.

It’s good policy for personal email addresses to belong to one and only one person. Some couples share an email address, but it’s a bad idea. One person can miss an email because the other one read it or deleted it. It can be awkward for your friends who are not sure which person they are addressing in an email. It’s certainly awkward if a couple separates for any reason — Who gets the email address?  And, when the inevitable happens, and one person passes away, it can be extremely weird for you to send, or your friends to receive, email from the account of a dead person.

Use Really Good Password Practices

The strength of your password is the only thing keeping bad guys from buying a new Mac and charging it to your credit card. Since your Apple ID is so important, you want to make sure you have a good password. Don’t use the same password for your Apple ID as you use for any other service! I’d say that 10-12 characters is long enough for a password these days. Make sure your password or simple modifications to it are not in any dictionary.  Mix in some numbers, caps and special characters.

In new installs, your login password on your Mac is  your Apple ID password by default.  That’s a pretty good idea, because it makes  you remember your Apple ID, since you’ll use it every day to login. If you just set up a new Mac, or just installed a new OS from scratch, you’ll likely get to a point where the machine restarts, and you are asked for a login password. If you’re like me, you’ll think “Panic! I don’t know the password because I haven’t created a password for this machine yet.” Well, don’t panic. The login password is your Apple ID password.

For greater protection,  you can enable two-factor authentication (aka two-step verification) for your Apple ID. This provides much better security for your Apple account. It eliminates social engineering attacks where the attacker is able to find out the answers to those lame security questions  (your mother’s maiden name, etc.), and get Apple to reset your password. With Apple’s two-step verification, your security becomes entirely up to you. Apple cannot help you if you forget. You are responsible for remembering your password. You will also be given a recovery code which you are responsible for keeping in a safe place where you can find it if needed.

Two-factor authentication isn’t for everyone. Read the instructions carefully before enabling it. You will have to use application-specific passwords for certain things. Make sure that doesn’t scare you before you commit to the change.

 

No Service Bug with iOS 8.0.2 and iPad 2

I patiently waited out the first couple of versions of iOS 8. After iOS 8.0.2 had been out for a while I figured it was safe to update my iPad. Not so. For iPad 2 users, iOS 8.0.2 has been causing loss of cellular data service. Obviously this only affects cellular capable iPads (3G models).

No real workaround is known. Rebooting the iPad restores service for a short time, but it soon fails again.

There is also no easy way to revert to iOS 7. So, DO NOT Upgrade to iOS 8.0.2 if you have a 3G iPad 2 and intend to use cellular data.

Apple has been slow to even acknowledge this bug, much less do anything about it.

iPad 2 lost cellular service after iOS 8.0.2 update
iPad 2 lost cellular service after iOS 8.0.2 update

Update Oct 13, 2014: Strange behavior — I connected my iPad to my Mac, but didn’t really do anything but transfer a picture to iPhoto. I noticed that the cellular service came back, although at one bar (I usually get 3 bars at home). It went to 3 bars, and stayed good for about a day, but is now back to “No Service”.

Update Nov 2014: This problem appears to be fixed by iOS 8.1. My iPad 2 has become glacially slow in recent updates, but that’s a separate issue.

Nova Flash Review

 

This thing is very bright -- this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.
The Nova Flash in action. It’s very bright – this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.

I am a backer on Kickstarter for the $59 wireless Nova Flash from https://www.novaphotos.com/. The hardware recently shipped to backers, so I have had a chance to try it out.

Since I have been interested in off-camera flash in general, I backed and bought the Nova flash. The Nova brings the general advantages of off-camera flash to the iPhone and Android platforms. Off-camera flash improves your photos by moving the light source away from the lens. Your subject has more natural shadows and detail. Off-camera flash is at its best in portraits, where subjects lose that deer-in-the-headlights look and have more natural skin tones. An off-camera flash can also give your portraits a nice catch-light reflection in the eyes.

The Nova flash works with a dedicated Nova camera app which fires the flash using Bluetooth radio control.

The initial release of the Nova is oriented towards the iPhone, with a very basic camera app for the Android. I only tested with the Android version for this review.

Nova requires iOS 7 or Android 4.3 or greater. It requires that your hardware support Bluetooth 4.0 low energy. For this reason, the Nova requires newer iOS devices: iPhone 4S/5/5C/5S, iPad 3/4/Mini/Air or the iPod Touch 5G.  I tested on the Motorola Moto X, running Android 4.4.

 

Nova Flash and iPhone
The Nova flash next to an iPhone 4. The Nova requires a newer model for Bluetooth compatibility.

 

The Nova hardware is super simple. It’s a thin white plastic case with no user controls or buttons at all. It has a micro USB port which is used to charge the internal battery. It is extremely compact which should encourage you to take it along frequently. The translucent case allows the LED lights to shine through with a nice diffuse glow.

Nova App on Android taking a photo
Taking a photo with Nova

 

Below are before and after photos taken with the regular Android camera app, and with Nova.

 

Stock Android camera, no flash
Before: Stock Android camera, no flash

The face is underexposed without flash. I took another photo using the stock camera app, with the built-in flash, but it was a total disaster — shiny skin, closed eyes, really awful, trust me. Mercifully, I deleted it.

 

Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness
After: Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness

The Nova flash provided a nice fill-flash here and really made a much nicer photo.

Serious backlight problem
Before: Serious backlight problem
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome by Nova Flash

The Nova acts more like a radio controlled LED flashlight than a traditional photo flash. When you take a picture, the flash comes on for a couple of seconds, during which time the photo is taken. So, you won’t be stopping any fast action with this flash. The long illumination time appears to allow the camera to adapt to the new lighting situation and take a properly exposed photo. The good thing about this is your subject has time to get over any blink reflex before the photo.

Nova Flash Summary

What’s Hot:

  • $59 price
  • Compact size, light weight
  • Bright enough to make a real difference

What’s Not:

  • Occasional trouble connecting via Bluetooth – restart App or turn Bluetooth on/off to recover
  • No indication of battery state. This would be a nice addition to the app.

Update: June 2016 Not Recommended

The Nova Flash just went on the trash heap of otherwise nice products condemned by a bad battery. Mine sat in the drawer for 6 months. When I was ready to use it again, it wouldn’t charge up or operate. The battery is not replaceable. Since the unit doesn’t have an off switch, the battery discharges drastically when not in use.  I can’t recommend getting this, since the same thing is virtually guaranteed to happen to every unit eventually.

 

Wireless Emergency Alert System Flops Badly

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will soon. Your phone or someone’s near you will alarm loudly, and you will see an important-looking message.  This is the government-mandated Wireless Emergency Alert system in action.

This is an alert I received this morning on my android phone:

Amber Alert

A system like this depends on user acceptance to function properly. So far, the main reaction of users has been “How do I turn this off”? Why?

There are several serious problems with this particular alert and the system in general. First of all, the alert on Android is presented as a one-time modal dialog box. You have to press OK before you can do anything else. Most people will do that within seconds. On my phone, at least, once OK is pressed, the alert is gone. You have no way to retrieve or review it. How many people will remember the license plate number even a minute later? The only way I could capture the alert dialog was to take a picture of it with another phone. I  understand that on iOS, the alert remains visible in the notification center. Can anyone confirm that? Two points for Apple if so.

I have no confidence in a system where I cannot review past history. Alerts should remain reviewable for some time, even if they are cancelled, if they appeared on my phone once, I should be able to look at them again.

The second problem is that the alert does not say who sent it. My first question on seeing one of these for the first time was, what app generated this alert? I had installed some weather apps, maybe it was one of those. I was vaguely aware of the WEA system, but wasn’t sure if that was the source of the alert I was seeing. The question of who sent the alert also applies at the agency level. Did this come from the governor, the corner police station, who?

Problem number three, the alert doesn’t say what to do. What do I do if I see the missing pickup? The weather alert said to turn on the TV, I believe, which is a little more useful. I can’t check that though, because there is no way to recall past alerts.

The fourth problem, is there is no way to get more information. Any half-baked messaging app will let you click to see a photo or web page. How about some photos of the missing person, the vehicle and the suspect? How about a weather map of the tornado warning area? We get none of that.

Another, less serious, problem is that users are unfamiliar with these alerts. They have never seen them before. I would suggest that in the settings for WEA, there be a button for users to generate a demo alert, just on their own phone, so they can see what the alerts look and sound like.

Ask about these problems, and you will hear that there are technical limitations — the system only allows 90 characters of text. I must say, that’s a pretty bad design. What do you expect from a government design? It needs to be changed. Some high school students could make a better system than this in an afternoon.

WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) Overview

WEA sends alerts through the cellular system. The alerts are sent only to phones and cell towers in the affected area. The system only operates on relatively new phones. On AT&T, the Apple models supported are the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, 5C and 5S.

The switches to turn off Amber Alerts and Emergency Alerts in iOS are in Settings/Notifications/Government Alerts. There is still the “Presidential Alert” which cannot be disabled.

I haven’t been able to determine for sure whether WEA alerts are supported on any model of iPad or not. They are not happening on mine which does have cellular.

Links

WEA Overview from CITA

A good blog post about problems with WEA