Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

The .Mac report

The .Mac report

Thousands of Mac users are prepared to pay Apple £70 a year for the extra functionality the .Mac service offers, but is it really worth the wedge? Cyber sleuth Rob Buckley dons his digital deerstalker and investigates

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As we all know well, the Mac is the ultimate digital lifestyle device. Nothing in the PC world (or even PC World) seems quite as stylish or as cool as a Mac. But ever since the Internet came along, no computer has been an island, and the Mac needed something to bring the Internet within its fashionable grasp.

Enter iTools (Bet you thought we were going to say .Mac, huh?). Launched in the year 2000, the free iTools service included four tools: a mac.com email address for every Mac owner; 20MB of online storage via ‘iDisk’; the web site vetting service KidSafe; and web page-publishing system HomePage.

Since then iTools has disappeared, replaced by .Mac, which itself has gone through two big changes since its launch. KidSafe is long-gone, but free software such as Virex, massively increased storage and data syncing have all been added to the mix, as has a £68.99 yearly membership fee. The latest update coincided with the launch of Tiger, which is why we’ve decided to turn our attention to .Mac and ask the question other Mac mags daren’t: is .Mac really worth the money or is it just another opportunity for Apple to extract money from us in exchange for an extra chunk of coolness?

1 Mail
What’s the main reason anyone signs up for .Mac? The mac.com email address of course! Only an apple.com address trumps mac.com in the scheme of things, and anyone signing up for the .Mac service gets a mac.com address straight away. If one’s not enough, you can purchase up to 10 others for up to £7.50 each – they get cheaper, the more you buy – and you can also set up up to five email aliases for your mail account. These deliver email to your main account’s email box, so you don’t get any extra storage, but you do get more mac.com addresses. You can also delete them at any point, and set up a new alias if you’re bored of the old one or it’s getting too much spam.

But how do you use it? Unlike AOL, Hotmail and Netscape Mail, .Mac email uses the POP and IMAP email standards, so you can use just about any email client under the sun to access it. Mail and Entourage make it even easier to read your .Mac email since they already know the settings you’ll need, saving you the hassle of finding them out and typing them in. If you’re away from your Mac, you can also use the .Mac webmail system (webmail.mac.com) to access your email from any web browser.

On the whole, .Mac doesn’t compare too badly with other email services (see our first table for more details). The integration with OS X is good. Impressively, for instance, Mail in Tiger automatically grabs a list of all your email aliases from .Mac and gives you the option to send emails using those aliases. The IMAP support is very handy, since it lets you keep your mail online and store it in folders, which is quite rare: many services offer POP at best or at worst, webmail only. But the security conscious will get annoyed that their .Mac password is sent unencrypted to Apple whenever they use .Mac mail; anyone who hoards email will be singularly unimpressed by the relatively paltry storage that .Mac mail has (it shares 250MB with the other .Mac services); and with many design professionals likely to be sending around large files, the 10MB limit on email attachments is a hindrance, albeit one shared by all the other free services.

2 iDisk
iDisk, the second of the survivors of iTools, is a nice idea that’s badly implemented, unfortunately. Essentially, it’s a disk you can put things into over the Internet and which you can access from anywhere in the world. Its initial 25MB limit has now expanded to 250MB, with the option to buy more, although this has to be shared with your .Mac email: you use an online control panel to decide how much should be dedicated to each service. If you want to share files with others, there’s a public folder that can be password-protected and made read-only, making it a snip to trade files when email just won’t do.

OS X also has some good tools for dealing with iDisks. The Go menu in the Finder has a menu for accessing iDisks, both your own and other people’s. There’s also the option in the .Mac System Preferences pane to set up iDisk syncing. This gives you a local copy of your iDisk; whenever you change or add something on the local copy, your Mac will wait until there’s an Internet connection and then copy the changes to the actual iDisk; it will also scan the iDisk to see if you’d made changes to it elsewhere and then will download anything new or different.

iDisk is a nice idea but it runs into a few problems in practice. Firstly, although it’s supposedly accessible anywhere, it relies on the “WebDAV” protocol. Unfortunately, OS X 10.0.x and earlier don’t know anything about WebDAV and neither does anything on the Windows side before Windows 2000. While there is an iDisk Utility for Windows XP to make it relatively easy to get to your iDisk from Windows XP, it’s a tortuous route through Network Places on Windows 2000 to get to your iDisk. So that means it’s a lot harder to trade files with Windows users than if you were using something a bit more standard such as FTP.

Secondly, Apple’s implementation of WebDAV sucks very, very badly. Sorry, Apple, it’s just no good. As a quick comparison, we copied 500 files, all of which were 60K or less to our local iDisk and waited to see how long it would take to synchronise the files. Even over a 1Mbps broadband connection, it took over three hours to copy just 11MB of files. We then tried uploading the files again, but this time using Panic Software’s Transmit. It took 18 minutes. If you rely on your iDisk to publish a web site, take advantage of a third-party WebDAV tool to reduce your stress levels.

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