Leopard's Time Machine should have been better tested

The most aggressively touted addition to Mac OS X 10.5 is drawing the most aggressive criticism

Apple gets an "A" for effort on Time Machine but barely a passing grade in execution, an executive at a major disk drive maker said after answering questions from users frustrated with the company's new backup and restore software.

Mike Mihalik, an ombudsman and former vice president of engineering at LaCie, criticized Apple's testing before the company launched its new Leopard operating system. "The two tech notes that it's released clarify what Apple should have done as part of the normal release," said Mihalik, referring to a pair of recent support documents that address problems users have reported with the backup tool. Instead, he said, it was as if Apple "Said 'oops, we forgot to check that.'"

Heavily-trafficked threads on Apple's support forums contain a number of complaints about Time Machine, the most aggressively-touted addition to Mac OS X 10.5. The complaints, which include stalled backups, invisible backup sets and drives that refused to work with the program when connected via FireWire, have drawn scores of posters and thousands of views.

Mihalik, who monitors the support forums for LaCie, has been active on several threads since the Oct. 26 debut of Leopard, responding to users who blamed their LaCie disk drives for Time Machine problems. Mihalik, who denied that his company's drives are at fault, instead blamed Apple.

"What's disconcerting is that what we as developers saw over the last couple of months is not what was delivered to customers," he said. "Apple made changes after the last developer update, and it's not the same."

Specifically, said Mihalik, Apple disabled the ability to backup using Time Machine to a network share. "They made the right decision; it's not stable," he said. "But it's also an indication of other problems."

Among those problems, he said, were oversights that Apple only recently corrected in the two support documents, one of which spelled out how to set up a drive to work with Time Machine. "Apple could have added a simple check to verify that the drive did not have a Master Boot Record partition," said Mihalik.

The Master Boot Record problem, Mihalik argued, stems from Apple's last-minute decision to pull support for the FAT32 file system, an older scheme used by Windows, from Time Machine. "They backtracked, though, probably because of the 4GB file-size limitation of FAT32. They would have had to break up Time Machine backups." Time Machine stores its backups as single files, often very large files considerably above the 4GB limit of FAT32.

The other issue Apple has addressed, that of computer names including nonalphanumeric characters causing backups to not appear in the Time Machine interface, should also have been noted -- and a blocker put into place to prevent improper names, he added.

In other words, a hard drive named "My_computer's drive" could cause problems because of the underscore, comma and space used in the name.

"Apple gets an 'A' for making a backup solution that's easy to use and a standard part of the OS," said Mihalik, "but it gets a 'C-' for not anticipating the problems people would have with Time Machine."

Even so, Mihalik downplayed the extent of Time Machine's problems. "People look at the messages and think, yeah, there are a lot of problems reported, but [what's there] are only in the tens, or maybe hundreds at the most," he said. "That's a very small number compared to the number of people trying out Leopard."

And of those who have problems, Mihalik rejected the idea that a large number of drives, LaCie's or those from any other seller, were flawed or somehow incompatible with Leopard or Time Machine. "The major manufacturers all make sure Apple has their equipment for testing, so if there were firmware surprises, [all the manufacturers] would be surprised at the same time." He said that while in contact with other drive makers to disk drives.

That, however, has happened. Within days after Apple released Mac OS X 10.3, a.k.a. Panther, in 2003, it acknowledged a bug that wiped data on drives connected via FireWire 800, and less than a week later, Apple issued an update to fix the problem.

That may be why Mihalik, when asked to rank Leopard against other recent Mac OS X upgrades, gave it better marks than Panther. "Overall, I'd say it's not as bad as 10.3, but it's not as solid as 10.4 [Tiger]."

Apple did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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