Bangkok Diary

    10 December 2007: Catch Up Preview version 1 - Aesthetic Displays of System Information

Graham K. Rogers

One of the features of utilities and the System Preferences in OS X is that they use the advanced facilities available in the Unix installation that runs beneath OS X, but are covered with a pretty graphic ingterface, so that we do not have to get our hands dirty at the command line. As an example, we looked recently at Balthisar Tidy, a cleanup utility for HTML pages that builds on "tidy" which is part of BSD Unix available with the BASH shell (default with OS X).

checkup icon A few weeks ago I signed up for a look at a new system utility that was "coming soon" with a smart new interface. I am always game for anything like this. I had email notificaton this morning (Thai time - 10 Dec.) and downloaded the software preview, called CheckUP, immediately from App4Mac.

The intention is to give a user a complete graphical overview of what the system is and does. On the whole, its good looking interface does this, with a couple of minor surprises (nothing unpleasant). The utility is in an interim, pre-release stage, so some of the features are disabled (or not yet available), but these too show some interesting actions to come.

It installed in the Applications folder as expected and on initial start, instead of going straight to a systems check, I opted to view the the applications preferences panel. I noted that remote monitoring was one of the features that is not available for the demo version (see below).

checkup preferences

There are four main panels available: Profile, System, Processors, Memory, Disks, Network and Processes. The utility is reading information that is available already, for example by using the iStat nano widget, which would give basic data; or by the Activity Monitor; or in System Profiler. Presentation, however, is the key and this has the edge. Above the selection panels is a toolbar with Connect (offset by a dotted line), Alerts, Tools and Preferences.

checkup preferences

The opening panel is aesthetically satisfying and clearly takes advantage of the Core Graphics features now in Leopard. Little arrows to the left of the panel allow one to copy information to the Clipboard: on the General panel, for example, the serial number and IP number have this available.

Switching between panels is not simply a new drop down panel appearing, but the cube effect is used, giving a heightened (visual) sophistication to the appearance.

checkup panel

The System panel gives an overview of the operating systems that can be used on the machine being tested. My MacBookPro is compatible with 10.5 Leopard and 10.4 Tiger (at least 10.4.8 required it tells me correctly); but it is not able to run 10.3 (needs PowerPC). It also reports that Windows Vista and XP are compatible via BootCamp or a virtualization program, while Ubuntu and Red Hat Linux distributions may "be used via a virtualization program."

The processor panel has two main readings in the form of "speedometers" for procesor activity, and graphs. One of each for each processor. It is possible to change the graph size from a minimum 5 minutes up to 1 hour, but when there is unusual activity (I moved the mouse about a lot to change the readings), there is no accurate way to asses the exact time of the event. Simply, a few dots along the top would assist here.

checkup panel

The Memory panel has basic details of both the available memory and the optimal installation. The RAM readings are displayed twice: a bar and a module representation. At the bottom is a reading of memory used in real-time.

As I am testing this within hours of its arrival, I do not have access to an external disk so cannot see what readings the Disks panel might provide here. However, the panel does provide an interesting insight to the Leopard installation on this MacBookPro.

checkup panel

It is possible to view disk information in two ways (selected by check box): "Compute Total with Hard Drives only" (selected by default) and "View Hidden Partitions". When the latter was selected, I found that the hard disk has an extra (hidden) partition of 200MB labeled EFI System partition. It is shown as being locked.

EFI is Extended (or Extensible) Firmware Interface that is a link between the firmware and the software and (for the Intel processors) is a replacement for the older BIOS on a PC or Open Firmware on PowerPCs.

The Network panel gives basic information in text form concerning input and output as well as the IP number of the computer. Mine showed the link to the router but not the true IP (which iStat nano can provide). A graph displays highs and lows and (like the processor panel) can be set to any time between 5 minutes and 1 hour.

checkup panel

The final panel is marked Processes and, like Activity monitor, can display what is running on a computer in several ways, although this does it with a lot more style.

The default is to display only the top 10 processes (activity and memory) and even that list goes off the page. We can add to the information by checking "Display Technical Details" and the process ID number (the PID is useful information for sure), plus threads, User and Memory are added. To the right of each process listed is a small cross in a white circle: this enables one to force quit a renegade process and a warning panel appears to make sure that is what you really want to do.

Other default settings that can be unchecked are "Display Only My Processes", "Display Only Applications" and "Autoscale Values." The first adds all processs running on the computer, including Root applications (although if Top Ten is selected this may not make much difference).

The Display Only Applications box really ought to be kept checked as what appears is all of the underlying processes which may confuse many ordinary users: "genredection" and "mdworker" were two that appeared in my list using the Unix Executable icon that signifies a system process. Too much information can be dangerous.

The last box was Autoscale Values and this made subtle changes to the graphing displays of each process. "Off", it compared the activity against a line of 100%. "On", the process was compared to its own maxima of activity and memory usage.

This panel also has a button (top right) that allows sorting depending on different parameters. The default was the top item, Processor Usage. Also available is Memory Usage, User, PID, Process Name, and Threads.

checkup tool panel

The first item on the toolbar is not yet available (and will only be for those with a license), but will expand the flexibility of the application as it is intended to allow remote monitoring of computers on which Checkup is also installed (which probably means two or more licenses). With the button (currently greyed out) there is provision for details of several computers to be entered.

While new features of Leopard allow remote access and control of the desktop, an application like this, to help with analysis, would be of considerable value to a System Administrator when assessing problems on several machines particularly if working remotely.

Likewise, the Alerts tool is currently unavailable, but itself has five sections to match the readings panels: Processor, Memory, Disks, Network and Processes.

checkup tool panel

Alerts will be available for temperatures, processor activity and fans; and this alert can launch CheckUp and dispay the problem. Growl notification is also available (I use this for MSN and Mail so that I can continue working but be aware of who is mailng me or coming online).

Similarly if there are memory problems, disk space is short, or the SMART status changes, there are network problems or processes become out of control, the applicationwill launch and a Growl notification will appear.

Tools currently available are to repair permissions, to run maintenance scripts, Update prebinding, and browse hidden files or folders. A small question mark (?) beside each of these brings up a panel in which there is a clear explanation of what the process entails.

Three others are planned for the final version: Rebuild Spotlight Database, Ping a remote computer and Create a report of the computer. The information panel reveals that the report will be in PDF format.

The final item in the Toolbar is Preferences which is where I started when opening the program for the first time.

There is little here that may not be done or seen in one of the many other utilities that either come with an OS X installation or can be downloaded and installed for free (or a small charge). What we have here, it seems to me, is a consolidation of many of these processes: it is more efficient to have everything under one roof than keep switching programs.

What will make the final version far more valuable is that remote monitoring facility which, if it works as intended, will give easier access to other computers that need to be checked.

What this application also has in spades is style. As good as Activity Monitor is, many ordinary users are deterred by its utilitarian interface. People like me don't care about that; and if necessary I can find more information using Terminal and Unix commands. A majority of Mac users do not want that: ease of use and good design are the mantras that guide us. This application has that aplenty, although I have one or two minor reservations.

These minor points include the aforementioned lack of time points on graphs, but also there is no ability to scale (or otherwise reduce the size) of the display. While Activity Monitor icons are tiny, there might be a halfway size so that more information might be displayed onscreen, particularly with the Processes panel.

The final version is due for release at the end of January 2008. Currently it is in English, although French and Italian versions are planned. Right now a user licence may be ordered at a cost of $29 (until 31 December).


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