The mess that is media management with Apple devices

Media management across Mac OS X and iOS is a mess.

If you want to find TV Shows on your Mac, you go to iTunes, but on an iPhone or iPad, you go to the Videos app. Podcasts? Also in iTunes on Mac, but in your iPhone they've moved to the Podcasts. Photos? Try explaining the difference between iPhoto on Mac and iPhoto/Photos/Camera on iOS to regular people. Looking for a book? That's easy, you'll find it in iBooks across all your devices. Unless you haven't "moved books from iTunes". Then they'll be in iTunes on your Mac. Well, some of them. Some will be in iBooks depending on where you purchased them from or if they're PDFs.

Hang on... what?

A week ago I was having a coffee with a friend who's not technically savvy. He has been a happy Mac and iPhone user for years, but he's not the type to spend hours figuring out his gadgets and he couldn't care less about things like application preferences and other nerdy stuff like that. He just wants things to work. He is, what most would call, normal. 

Of course, as with most of my non-geek friends, I've become his personal Apple Support assistant, and every time I see him he remembers something geeky he needs help with. Last week he raised an interesting point.

He complained that he just couldn't get his head around where his stuff was at any given time on his Mac and his iPhone.

By stuff he meant media content. Things like music, podcasts, TV shows, movies, books, and photographs.

During the holidays, he downloaded the free content from Apple's 12 Days of Gifts app, and he got confused with where things had ended up. I can't blame him. Even reading the FAQs from the 12 Days app would confuse many people:

Where can I find the gifts I’ve downloaded?
 
On your computer, you can find your music, TV and film content in your iTunes library and books in your iBooks library. On your iOS device, you can find your music in the Music app, your TV episodes and films in the Videos app, and your books in the iBooks app. Apps will appear on your home screen.

That's messy to begin with, but it gets worse once you start digging deeper.

For example, music videos live in iTunes on the Mac, but on iOS they appear in both the Videos and the Music apps. In Videos they're clearly labeled as music videos, but in Music they're just in there with the rest of the songs. In a way, I guess it makes some sense.

However, books are where things start to get really confusing.

Books, like everything else, used to be in iTunes on the Mac, but the latest update to the Mac OS brought iBooks to Mac OS. You'd think all books are now in iBooks and sync across OS X and iOS. That's true for books purchased from the iBookstore (although you might have to tell iBooks to move them over from iTunes), but it doesn't work as seamlessly with books from elsewhere or with PDFs. Those you have to manually add to each device or sync via iTunes which pulls them from iBooks. See? Confusing.

Even worse, audiobooks aren't considered books apparently, or at least are not worthy of iBooks. Audiobooks stay in iTunes on Mac and in iOS will be in the Music app, which just does my head in.

As I was explaining how all this works go my friend, I drew a version of the table above in an attempt to clarify things.

That's when I realised just how broken content management across Apple devices currently is.

Normal people must be really confused. My mom is currently travelling and can't figure out Photo Stream on her iPhone so she keeps sending us photos via Messages.

I believe the right approach is one app for each media type with a Mac and an iOS version and everything kept in sync via iCloud. Audiobooks should be in iBooks. Photos should make sense to users. And you should be able to read purchased magazines full screen on your 27 inch iMac.

The introduction of dedicated apps for iOS makes me think that's the direction Apple is headed. Maybe we're just in transition at the moment. Maybe in the next OS X update we'll see a counterpart for Music, Podcasts, Videos, etc. But what will be the fate of iTunes then? It's an interesting dilemma.

Halfway through my explanation my friend just gave up. Too hard, he said, and changed the subject.

Has Dropbox made Time Machine irrelevant?

Backing up your data is important. Most nerds know that, even if we don’t do it as often as we should. The problem is that “normal” people (ie. my Mom) don’t know that… until it’s too late.

In my opinion, that’s what makes Time Machine so cool.

Time Machine just made it easy for everyone to back up. The instructions area as simple as “Mom, just plug in any drive and click ‘yes’ when it asks you if you want to use it to back up, then forget about it”.

My back up strategy is slightly more complex than that, but not by much. Currently, my main machine is a MacBook Pro with a 500GB drive. That’s enough to hold all my data (except for movies and TV shows, which are managed separately).1

So, I keep all my stuff in my MacBook Pro, which gets backed up to 3 drives:

  1. Clone Drive: A weekly clone using Carbon Copy Cloner and kept at home.
  2. Time Machine: Backing up whenever I’m at my desk and kept at work.
  3. Media Drive: Additional backup of my Aperture Library (as a Vault) and iTunes Library.

The weekly clone lets me get back up and running instantly if my internal drive ever fails. The Time Machine backs up files while in between clones and gives me access to previous versions of files. The Aperture Library back up is because I love my photographs and like the peace of mind of having multiple backups. Same with my iTunes Library.

I’ve been using this setup for a long time. Luckily, I haven’t had a drive fail yet, although I have had to use Time Machine to get to older versions and deleted files a few times. It’s worked great so far.

However, I now have a 50MB Dropbox 2 account where I keep all my documents. Since Dropbox backs up everything to the cloud and has the “back in time” feature, I’ve been wondering if Time Machine is still necessary.

I’m thinking a weekly clone and Dropbox would be enough.3

That would effectively mean:

  • Documents: exist in 3 places (MacBook Pro, Clone Drive, Dropbox Servers)
  • Photos, Music/Videos: exist in 3 places (MacBook Pro, Clone Drive, 3rd Drive)
  • Personal data & settings: exist in 3 places (MacBook Pro, Clone Drive, MobileMe4)
  • email: since I use IMAP for all my email accounts through Google Apps and MobileMe, it’s backed up on the servers anyway.
  • Applications: exist it 2 places (MacBook Pro and Clone Drive). I don’t need multiple back ups of these as I can always re-install if necessary.

And if I move my Clone Drive to live at work, I can still have data in multiple places (home, work, cloud).

I’m not sure yet if I’ll ditch Time Machine though as I may be missing something here, but it sure seems to me that Dropbox has really made Time Machine irrelevant. At least in my case.


  1. They’re on an iMac that serves as a media centre and family computer. ?
  2. Referral link, gets you and me additional space for free. ?
  3. Plus my extra Aperture and iTunes back up, of course. ?
  4. I use MobileMe Backup to back up personal data and settings to my iDisk. ?