The Only Monthly Mac Blog That Matters…

A Few Hints For Buying A New Mac

Looking to get yourself a new computer? Or perhaps one for a student?

The unboxing is sometimes the best part.

Fortunately, this is probably the best time of the year to upgrade. With new Macs being announced in the next few weeks, Apple is clearing out its old inventory, so usually there are bargains to be found. Many Apple-authorized retailers slash anywhere from $100 to $200 off the price to encourage sales.

In addition, Apple is also offering a carrot to college students (and those who buy laptops for college students), free AirPods! If a free pair of AirPods isn’t enough to sway you, I noticed that Apple is lopping $100 off the price of a MacBook Air.

But what computer do YOU need?

July 22, 2020 – SoNo Apple Store

For the average student, an off-the-rack MacBook Air will suffice. $899 (last time I looked) and a free pair of Apple AirPods sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. (If you don’t want the AirPods, there’s always eBay or Facebook tag sale groups.) And since a lot of work is done (and saved) online, there’s no need to spring for all sorts of internal storage. (Unless the aforementioned user is big into movies, TV shows, music or takes lots of pictures.)

For the rest of us? The standard model of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro or the iMac will do the trick. The same internal storage situation goes for this group, and unless you’re into editing audio, video or large graphics files, the standard 8GB of RAM is fine. And if you’re a professional graphic artist, well, you know what to ask for when it comes to the specs of a new Mac.

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Do I Need a VPN? (And Exactly What is a VPN?)

VPN? What’s that?

VPN? I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat!

According to the Dataprise tech glossary, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is “a means of securely accessing resources on a network by connecting to a remote access server through the Internet or other network.”

Hmm, still not crystal clear?

OK, let me try to simplify things here; A VPN is a privacy tool – essentially shielding your online activity (including what sites you visit and what you download). It also obscures your IP address from anybody wanting to stick their nose into your business. Also – it hides encrypts all the data you send and receive.

Better? Yes. A little.

But why? Does this have anything to do with you? Or is it Spy vs. Spy kind of business? Why do you care about any of this cloak-and-dagger stuff?

Because, if you’re out in public, it’s a no-brainer. You don’t want any busybodies sticking their noses into your business – your usernames and passwords and all that happy stuff. But at home or in the office? What about a VPN there? Necessary or overkill?

Well, that all depends on how you view the world. Nobody is going to spy on your home Wi-Fi network because you have a password, right? And if you’re just happy to get online service from your local joker internet provider, and if you don’t care what they do with your data, then you’re fine.

But – if you are concerned about the about the fact that your ISP (Internet Service Provider) is allowed to sell your online activities to anybody they damn well please (our fine Congress approved this), then go for a VPN. There is plenty of money to be made selling your data, so why let Google have all the fun? I’m sure your local ISP wants a piece of the action too.

Something to think about.

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Accessing Your Files When Away From Home (Or The Office)

Your files, in the cloud.

These days, accessing your data when away from home (or the office) isn’t a top priority for most of us, considering what’s happening in the world. But in this era of working from home, having your files available wherever you are is a good thing, and being able to get to them at a moment’s notice is a real time saver.

But – if your work is on one computer, how can you access it on another computer? Sure, you can set up a dedicated server in your home or office, but that can be a pain, and besides, if your internet provider changes IP numbers midstream, you’re out of luck. And what about updating it? If you work on File A on your home computer and File B on your work computer, what do you do about syncing them? Do you have to remember what changes you made to which documents and where you made them? And does all this cost money?

A bunch of different options are out there – most have a free component as well as a premium version, which most individuals don’t need, at least for day-to-day stuff.

iCloud

iCloud is Apple’s cloud-based service that allows you to sync files, photos, contacts and yes, files. It’s hard to avoid getting an iCloud account, as Apple hectors you constantly from the moment you power on your device for the first time. The free version gives users 5 GB of storage; problem is, if you start sharing photos between devices, your storage space gets gobbled up pretty quickly. Ditto when synching your iPhone to iCloud. Of course, it gives you option to buy more – $0.99/month gets you 50 GB, $2.99/month for 200 GB and a whopping 2 TB for $9.99/month.

Pros:

  • Easy to set up.
  • Syncs not only your files, but your contacts, calendars, bookmarks and more between your devices.

Cons:

  • Once you’re on the paid plan, it’s hard to downgrade.
  • If you get locked out of your account, quite often it’s like extracting molars without anesthesia to to get back in.

Dropbox

Dropbox is the original mass-market cloud sharing and syncing service. For a while, it pretty much was king of that space; naturally, the copycats came along and eroded its market share, but it’s still a dominant force. It’s a simple concept – create an account, download the application and drag your files into the Dropbox folder on your computer, and you’re off and running. You can also use the web-based interface, but that’s a bit more confusing for users. As long as you use the finder-based option, you’re golden. Similar to iCloud, Dropbox gives you 5 GB gratis; its plans are Basic (free), as well as the premium Plus and Business. Both of those levels offer a wide range of pricing for all sorts of businesses and enterprise users.  Depending on how mush storage you need, of course.

Pros:

  • Intuitive sign in and setup.
  • Ability to work on files while offline.

Cons:

  • It is always begging you to sync your photos from your iPhone to Dropbox – which might not be your plan.
  • Dealing with sharing folders and the selective sync features is above many user’s paygrade.

Google Drive

Quite similar to Dropbox, Google Drive is tech behemoth’s file storage and sync service, its Pepsi to Dropbox’s Coke. It requires a Google account (Gmail will do) and a quick download and it’s business as usual – there’s a finder-based application as well as a web interface. Google triples the free component (15 GB) and is comparably priced to its competitors with its premium plans.

Pros:

  • Requires a Google account, which most people already have.
  • Accessible on every type of device.

Cons:

  • Google has reputation of being a snoop with your personal data, so buyer beware.
  • It is a challenger to Microsoft’s Office, so it’s always pushy with the Google Docs, Slides, etc.

Of course, there are other players out there – Microsoft offers file storage with its Microsoft 365 subscription service. The biggest drawback is that it defaults your files to be saved there, something you might not always want to do.  Wannabes in the space include Axway Syncplicy, Box and Citrix Share File, among many, many aothers. Happy syncing!

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Learning To Love Zoom For Your Virtual Meetings

The big name of the moment in online conferencing is Zoom. I would wager that most of us have used Zoom recently, or at least heard of it. So, what is Zoom?

Zoom is the most popular video conferencing software du jour.

Zoom is online video conferencing software. It allows any number of participants to meet via audio and/or video. Like many similar products, there is a free version and a paid tier of services. You can easily download it for your computer (link at end of article) or from App Store for your iPhone or iPad.

There are similar products out there. FaceTime, Apple’s video conferencing software is great for friends and family members who have the required Apple ID and have signed in to it on their computer and/or iOS device. Skype is another one, but ever since it was brought under the Microsoft umbrella, it hasn’t been updated and is clunky. Furthermore, Microsoft seems to ignore it, strange for such a prestigious tech firm.

But back to Zoom. Yes, I’m fully aware of the security issues surrounding it. Some of these have been remedied by software patches available through updates, and I would think there are more to come in the near future. So, if you already have it on your Mac, you should update it before your next use, as the software doesn’t seem to proactively alert you that it needs an update.

So, if you already have it on your computer (it sits in the APPLICATIONS folder, at the bottom if you’re sorted alphabetically), it’s easy to update. Launch it, then pull down on the ZOOM menu – upper left corner of the screen – and select CHECK FOR UPDATES… (You’ll need your computer’s admin password to proceed with the installation.)

But – should you use it? I would say “yes.” Unless you’re handling the nuclear codes or reading through sealed indictments, there’s no need to buy into the scare of this issue. But be smart about using Zoom. Check for updates on a regular basis, make sure the meetings you join (or instigate) require a password and remember that anything that is said or seen on the screen can be captured for posterity. That said, in these uncertain times Zoom is a good choice for any type of online meeting.

If you don’t have it yet, download Zoom HERE.

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The Working-From-Home Blues

OK, like it or not, you’re working from home these days. Not your fault, and maybe not your first choice of things to happen in 2020, but welcome to the new normal. For a while, anyway. (When the ball dropped in Times Square on midnight last New Year’s Eve, did you REALLY think that 2020 was going to be a cakewalk?)

There are plenty of articles out there about how exactly to structure your day when working at home – and I’m sure I’ve written a few of those over the years, as I’m a veteran in that war. Things like determining work hours, boundaries for others living in the house, your use of your work area outside of business hours and all that happy stuff. The thing you may be having an issue with – any problems you may be having with your computer.

Some home workers were able to bring their work computers home; others, not so lucky. Even if you were one of the lucky ones to make it through with your computer under your arm, you still may be missing some vital resources that you took for granted back at the office. These include, but not limited to printers, connected servers, bagel Fridays and an IT professional to help you solve your problems.

Sure, at first glance, working from home looks a lot more fun than the office. You can have your pets running around, you don’t have to endure annoying co-workers and the dress code is non-existent. And all the stuff you need is there –  you can easily connect to your home printer, have access to your company’s file server (we do live in the age of cloud-based computing) and even your bagel Friday, although that may mean a DIY project, or a giving a bribe to one of your kids. (That is assuming you’re really going to eat a carb.)

But after you’re all settled in, you discover that one resource is conspicuously absent – your IT department. You know who they are – the people who keep things moving along behind the scenes. And although a lot of tech types DO travel to different worksites (myself included), it’s probably not such a good idea to be darting in and out of other people’s houses in these uncertain times.

So – how do you get the computer support you desperately need?

TeamViewer is my screen sharing package of choice.

The good news – there ARE a host of software packages that support professionals can use to share your screen. These are easy-to-use programs that allow your helpdesk to solve problems remotely. There’s a bunch of then out there, under names like Team Viewer, GoToMeeting, LogMeIn and many others.

The bad news? Some of these are used by unscrupulous individuals to share your screen and scam you – or worse, steal your identity. NEVER share your screen with somebody you don’t know!

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How To Untangle Your Browser From The Grips of Facebook

Have you noticed that once you join Facebook, suddenly every other site you visit knows who you are? You surf onto CNN, and not only does the site know you, it tells you which articles your Facebook friends are reading.

Scary, isn’t it?

It’s all fun and games until you start being tracked!

Welcome to the world of Web personalization, a place where Web marketers know your name. (And your surfing habits, browsing history and more.) Click the “Like” button on any non-Facebook page and suddenly Facebook turns into Big Brother and knows more about you (and your preferences) than just what’s on your profile. And then you see an ad on Facebook, and your first thought is “I was just thinking of something like that!” Really, it’s because you just were LOOKING for something like that online. Truth be told – Facebook is only one of many culprits that compromises your online privacy.

So exactly how do you keep every site from being linked to Facebook? There are a few different ways to keep other sites from accessing your Facebook profile, some more complex than others.

The easiest way is to use a dedicated browser for your Facebook purposes only. Even if you regularly use Safari and Firefox, you still have other browser options, namely Google Chrome and Opera, so it’s possible to keep your Facebook activity restricted to one browser. Cnet.com has a link to all of these browsers (and more) here.

There are more involved ways to disable the social plugins that Facebook integrates with your browser, including this great piece on ThoughtPick. For a more world-weary view, check out LifeHacker’s take on the situation.

Bottom line: Web privacy and tracking is a huge deal on both sides of the fence – both for marketers and privacy advocates, and neither faction has any intention of going away anytime soon.

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What Is Apple TV?

Meet the Apple TV.

Apple TV is a digital streaming media device, a piece of hardware that is about the size of a hockey puck. It allows streaming media to be played on your television set. (Note that last November, Apple introduced a service named Apple TV+, so similar to Roku, Apple TV is a device as well as a content provider.)

But today I’m talking about the hardware device. It’s simple in concept: You connect it to your television with an HTML cable, connect it to your network (usually Wi-Fi, but it can be connected wired via an Ethernet cable) and you can start watching a series of channels. Similar to the iPhone and iPad, you can download apps from Apple’s App Store.

But do the apps cost money? And where does the streaming content come from? Is it free or do you pay for it? And how do you get to watch what you want? Great questions, all.

Let’s start at the beginning; You need an internet connection to get one of these to work. In lower Fairfield County, Connecticut, we have Optimum. Other areas have Comcast. Some areas (not here) can opt for Verizon Fios.

Apple TV is a DEVICE that allows your television to receive streaming video (or audio) content. Similar devices include Roku, Amazon Fire Stick and Google Chromecast. (There are a few other also-rans, but these are the big three.) Although they have their differences, they pretty much all work the same; they connect to your television using an HDMI cable and you configure them to connect to your network. (And they each have another remote to contend with.)

They all have their pros and cos, but basically, they all work similarly. You click on one of the apps on the screen, and there you go. For example, if you want to watch Netflix, you click on the Netflix app, sign in (requires an account, of course), and 30 seconds later you’re watching “Cocaine Island.”

Now, some of the content is free (YouTube, Red Bull TV, Bloomberg Business), but most of it requires some kind of subscription (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go). You can also sign into your Apple iTunes account and rent movies and TV shows as well.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this than I have time for here – so let’s go to the video tape!

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Has Your Web Browser Been Hijacked?

You don’t want to see this…

When you launch your web browser – Safari, Firefox or Google Chrome, do you notice a strange homepage? Does your homepage look like a cheap Google knockoff instead of the real deal? (See above) Or perhaps your searches go to Yahoo instead of Google?

If the answer to any of the above is “yes,” then chances are you’ve been hijacked. Or at least your web browser has.

Now, that may sound worse than it really is. This doesn’t mean that somebody has tunneled their way into your computer; most likely it was installed inadvertently. In almost every case, it happens when a warning comes up that your Adobe Flash Player is out of date. So you download the Adobe Flash software, and then things go wrong very quickly. So you need to know two things – how to avoid installing these problematic programs from your computer; and how to remedy the situation in case you’re reading this after the horse was stolen.

So how do you deal with this mess?

First of all, run Malwarebytes. If you don’t have it in your Applications folders, you can download the free version at www.malwarebytes.com. Scan your hard drive – check to see if there is any funny stuff (e.g. malware) on your computer.

Next, open your browser. Each browser uses “extensions” – these are where the bad stuff usually can be found and expunged.

a preference pane – this is where you can configure a lot of your settings. Here’s where you will find them:

Google Chrome: Click on the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the page, and select MORE TOOLS > EXTENSIONS.

Firefox: Pull down on the FIREFOX menu and select PREFERENCES. At the bottom left of the page, click on EXTENSIONS.

Safari: Pull down on the SAFARI menu and select PREFERENCES. (Don’t select EXTENSIONS!)  Click on EXTENSIONS in the Preferences pane.

Now what? You should remove (delete, uninstall, get rid of) ALL extensions! Even ones that seem legit and helpful, like shopping and maps. THESE are the ones that cause grief!

And while we’re in Preferences,  you’ll want to reset your home page and search engine.

A couple more things: A nasty recent development in Google Chrome allows administrators to “manage” your browser. Lately, malware has been unleashed that “manages” your browser and is hard to remove. In order to eradicate this threat, take a look at below video. If that looks like too much for you to handle, call in a pro to keep your Mac squeaky clean, at least on the inside.

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Learning To Love The “New” Quicken

The Iconic Quicken Icon

Quicken, a personal finance management software created by Intuit, is the most common personal financial package in use, bar none. For many years, throughout all the various flavors, it has retained pretty much the same user interface. Of course, it has chucked in a few bells and whistles along the way but has kept a similar look and feel despite new versions and updates.

Of course, all good things eventually come to an end; the final version of “Quicken Classic” was released to be compatible with Mac OS X.7 (Lion) in 2011. A few years later, the “New Quicken” was launched – with a totally different interface. Longtime users were outraged at the difference, and a backlash ensued.

But some hung onto the original software – and an upgrade for Intel-based Macs allowed users to keep their old software going. But, with the change to Mac OS.15 (Catalina), it’s all over for those holdouts. No longer will legacy versions of Quicken run.

The Legacy Quicken Icon

OK, two things about Quicken: First of all, nothing is certain in life except death, taxes and Mac OS updates, so the “legacy” version (the one with the yellow/orange icon) will no longer run on any Mac OS post-Mojave (OS X.14). If you’re using it and the familiar interface, you will have to freeze your Mac in time and no longer participate in any future OS updates.

Now, if you’ve bitten the bullet and have upgraded to the “new” Quicken (the one with the red and white icon), you don’t necessarily have to worry about post-Mojave compatibility, so you can breathe easy, at least for now.

But what you DO have to concern yourself with, is the inability to sync your bank account to your Quicken file, if you opt not to pay the annual subscription fee*. Intuit, following the lead of Adobe and Microsoft, have opted to make an important part of its service a yearly subscription. The good news? You can still use your Quicken without it – but you’ll have to do a little more work yourself. Me, I like to balance my accounts manually – letting it happen automatically makes me become complacent, and I might miss some transactions.

* Intuit is constantly offering “deals” to subscribe, so don’t pay bust-out retail!

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The Art of Handling Updates

Now or later?

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is “I don’t know what to update!”

If you own a Mac, it’s a pretty simple process (at least in theory). Updates for the Apple OS (operating system) are supplied by Apple. Similarly, updates for other software generally come from the manufacturer of that package. Ergo, an update for Microsoft Office comes from Microsoft, Photoshop from Adobe, Norton updates come from Symantec, etc.

Except for printers, as Apple now handles most of those updates as part of its OS updates through the App Store. Oh, and speaking of The App Store, apps bought through there have their updates supplied by Apple, even though most are third-party apps…

OK, so it’s not quite as easy as it should be. And furthermore, how do you tell which update prompts are legit and which ones are scams? Read on!

OK, updates (for the most part) fall under one of the following categories:

  • Mac OS
  • Apps from The App Store
  • Microsoft Office
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Adobe (Flash Player & Reader)
  • Firefox
  • Google Chrome
  • Intuit (Quicken & QuickBooks)
  • Norton Utilities
  • Other stuff*

*There is CAD and design software, high-end camera and imaging programs as well as other specialized software packages, each of which has its own upgrades. If you’re using any software that falls under that category, you can check with the developer about upgrades.

This is by no means a complete list, but it does cover most of the upgrades that average users would encounter.

How to check for updates:

Mac OS Updates and Apps purchased through The App Store: Pull down on the apple (upper left corner of the screen and select APP STORE

Microsoft Office: Pull down on HELP menu and select CHECK FOR UPDATES (Works with recent versions; versions before 2011 are no longer supported by Microsoft and no new updates are issued)

Adobe Flash Player: Open SYSTEM PREFERENCES (found in APPLICATIONS) and select FLASH PLAYER> UPDATES and click the CHECK NOW button

Adobe Reader: Pull down on HELP menu and select CHECK FOR UPDATES

Firefox: Pull down on the FIREFOX menu and select ABOUT FIREFOX (updates, if required, will be downloaded automatically) – click on RESTART FIREFOX TO UPDATE

Google Chrome: Pull down on the CHROME menu and select ABOUT GOOGLE CHROME – enable SET UP AUTOMATIC UPDATES FOR ALL USERS (a one-time process)

Quicken/QuickBooks:  Pull down on the QUICKEN (or QUICKBOOKS) menu and select CHECK FOR UPDATES

Norton: Pull down on the NORTON icon in menu (located to the left of the menu clock)

Avoid scams: Never click a link from an email or (especially) a web browser pop-up alerting you to upgrade any software. Anything that requires an upgrade can be performed from directly within the application!

Bottom line: You have to employ an “a la carte” approach to keep the software and operating system on your computer up to date – there is no “one process updates all” option available. In most instances, you do not need to apply an update the minute it’s available (although Flash Player is starting to claim it’s “out of date” when it’s only one revision old!), but it’s a good idea to check your software once in a while.

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