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OS Upgrades: Should You Do It or Hold Off?

One subject I’m often asked about (and I am constantly asked about stuff – I was called DURING the recent Super Bowl as well as on Christmas Day last year, but that’s another story!) is about OS (operating system) updates.

System Preferences: Software Update pane. Or Software Update pain?

It would seem logical that the latest and greatest is the way to go. In theory, yes, but there are all sorts of conditions that go along with it. For example, a software package you’re using might not be compatible with the latest version of the OS (or worse, not work at all), so you’ll be forced to buy an upgrade of your software package. But if that software is Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite, then you’ll be subscribing to them just to keep working, as there is no more “buying” these software packages, only renting them.

OK, first of all, understand there are TWO different types of OS upgrades: There are VERSION upgrades – where you go from one version (OS X Catalina to OS 11 Big Sur). These are major upgrades, and you have to download the installer from the App Store.

Then there are the INCREMENTAL upgrades: These are the “fixes” that Apple offers in between the versions of the software. These are usually minor security tweaks, but sometimes they’re larger.

So how do you handle OS upgrades?

Go ahead and accept the incremental upgrades, they’re not likely to change anything in a major way. In fact, if you want to have them download and install automatically, go into SYSTEM PREFERENCES > SOFTWARE UPDATE and enable AUTOMATICALLY KEEP MY MAC UP TO DATE. That will free you up from having to sweat out the smaller updates.

As far as installing version updates goes, it’s best to hold off for a while, especially if you’re running any third-party software. There’s nothing worse than having to pay for a new version of your software because the old version isn’t compatible with the new OS. Or worse, having to “back down” your Mac to its previous OS. A totally time-consuming (read; expensive) process that nobody wants to do.

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Are You (or your Mac, actually) Suffering From A Full Hard Drive?

There once was a time, way back when, that space on your hard drive seemed infinite. In those days, 500 photos and 250 songs were considered a lot, and nobody had tens of thousands of unread emails (see my Quick Tip below for more on that subject) and all was good. Installing software on your computer warned you how much space it would take in megabytes, not gigabytes.

And even though hard drives have dropped in price faster than the recent Twitter freefall, computers (of all makes and models) these days are coming with smaller internal storage, for a few reasons. One is that the standard “hard drive” with spinning platters and moving parts (with the occasional grinding noise as well) are pretty much a dead issue. Instead, solid state storage is the way to go. Of course, these drives are more expensive on a price-per-gigabyte basis, so smaller is the trend.

Then, of course, a lot of the media we consume is streaming, meaning it’s nothing we have to store on hard drives. Movies and music take up a lot of space, as do pictures and other stuff. But that aside, sometimes you CAN run out of internal storage. No shame with that, of course, but knowing how to properly fix that situation for either a “quick fix” (to get you through a work deadline) as well as a “permanent fix” (to prevent this issue from coming back anytime soon) will pay dividends, as least when it comes to the time you would spend trying to figure this mess out.

Places to look for space hogs:

The Trash

Located on the right (or bottom) of your dock, this is where a lot of no longer necessary files reside. You’re put your stuff in the trash, but now you have to EMPTY it. In Finder, pull down the FINDER menu and select EMPTY TRASH.

Downloads Folder

Located inside your home folder. This is where your downloads end up. In there are probably a lot of Adobe Flash Player installers, Zoom installers and other assorted stuff that you no longer need. Note that photos and files you download from the internet (bank statements, for example) wind up here. Pull all the unneeded files into the trash.

Pictures Folder

Also located inside of your home folder. A typical large, no longer relevant file is an iPhoto Library that has ALREADY BEEN MIGRATED into Photos. This can be a huge file – but before trashing it, confirm it has already been migrated into Apple’s replacement for iPhoto, which is the cleverly-named Photos. Again, trash it if you want to get rid of it.

MobileSync

Located in the Application Support folder, which is inside Library folder, which is inside of home folder (though it could be hidden). This is the folder where your iPhone or iPad backups reside (if you elect to back them up to your computer instead of iCloud), so there may be multiple folders inside there. One problem – these folders don’t identify the name of the device that is backed up (they have names like 00008030-000924CE0A00802E), so you’ll have to go with the “date modified” to find out if they’re relevant folders. If you do delete a current iPhone backup, don’t worry, next time you connect your iPhone, the folder will repopulate.

NOTE: If your Library folder is hidden, you can still access it. In Finder, pull down on the GO menu while holding down the OPTION key, and you’ll be able to see the Library folder in the menu.

Microsoft User Data

Located inside the Documents folder, which is inside of your home folder. For users (or ex-users) of Microsoft Office 2008 and Office 2011, this is where your mail database (actually all the mail files) were located. If you’ve graduated to Office 365, then you can trash the entire folder. However, if you’re still using Office 2011,  you can trash the Office 2008 folder. If you’re still using Office 2008, well, you shouldn’t be, but if you are, that isn’t your biggest problem.

Unused Applications

Look inside your Applications folder and see if there are any packages you no longer use. Apple won’t let you toss any of its applications (Safari, for example), but any third-party stuff can chucked. Also trash anything that has a slash through it, as that’s stuff that is no longer compatible with your operating system.

There are also other files that can be expunged, like everything in the Caches folder which is inside of the Library folder but venturing in there is where angels fear to tread. One false move and you can be in the middle of an inconvenient tech disaster.

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Your Tech Resolutions for 2021

2020 was, for most of us, a lousy year, to say the least. The year of the mask, of social distancing and cancel culture. It was a hunker-down kind of year, not one for proactive activity.

January 1, 2021. TGIF!

But time marches on and all of that is SO 2020 – and there ARE some things you should do in 2021 that can improve your tech life. (Seriously, do you REALLY want more of this stuff next year?) All things that can boost your productivity, save you money and give yourself some more joy.

OK, a few resolutions for 2021!

Back Up Your Data!

This device can save your bacon in case of a hard drive crash.

A no-brainer. Every Mac has built-in backup software called Time Machine. An external USB hard drive is cheap – under $60 at Amazon, Staples or Best Buy. If your hard drive bonks, you’ll be glad you have a backup.

Upgrade Your Wi-Fi Network!

Mesh is the way to go in 2021 – and beyond.

Mesh is the way to go. Apple AirPort routers were great, but that ship has sailed. And the free router that your internet provider supplied you? Lousy. Mesh isn’t dirt cheap but can be set up quickly. It’s a “set and forget” type of deal.

Confirm Your iCloud Settings

iCloud is also known as your “Apple ID.”

iCloud is a service that Apple provides, and there is a free tier and a paid tier. The only difference is the amount of storage you’re allocated. But no matter if you’re paying or not, you can still sync your contacts, calendars and even your pictures if you choose, so they’re the same on all your devices.

Clean Out Your Email

Would your life end if you lost any email more than two years old? Doubtful. Highly doubtful.

Most users have too many messages in their email accounts. Now, I know that some of it is important, but any retail or political messages more than a week old are worthless. (A lot of the current ones are also garbage, but that’s an entirely different issue.) Plus – anything more than two weeks old and are unread should be trashed. And empty your email’s deleted folder too!  

Get Rid of Unused Applications

Trash it!

Look in your APPLICATIONS folder – if you see anything with a slash through it, it’s no longer supported. Either update it or trash it. Toss any older versions of software you’re using – Adobe and Microsoft Office are two notorious offenders here. And any “MacCleaner” or “CleanMyMac” type of stuff should be expunged. Immediately.

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What The New Apple Products Mean To You

On November 10th, Apple gave its THIRD product announcement in the past two month. Looks like Apple wants you to want its new technology.

Updates were given to the Apple Watch, the iPad, two new iPhones (12 and 12 Pro) and most importantly, a new of Macs. What’s notable about this new breed of animal is that, for the first time in a dozen or so years, Apple computers are going to sport a new processor, the in-house developed M1.

So, without getting too geek speak about all of this, the new computers are touted to be superior to anything out there. Of course, Apple conducted (with great fanfare) another “event” to present this new technology to the world. To see an edited version of event, click here. If you’re brave (or bored) and want to see the entire 48-minute presentation, click here.

As far as software goes, all of the native Mac applications going to be compatible. As far as other popular packages go – namely Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite – new versions are in development. So, if you’re looking to buy one of these new Macs, confirm that any software packages you plan on using are going to be compatible with the new hardware and the Big Sur operating system. Otherwise, you’ll have a great new computer that won’t be able to run your vital software.

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And You’re Not Backing Up Your Data Why?

Another month, another hard drive crash…

Sometimes, it’s physical damage.

Once again, a non-functioning computer – a crashed (or damaged) hard drive, and worst of all – no backup! No Time Machine backup, no iCloud backup, no Carbonite backup, nothing. And at the worst possible moment, a week before a huge project.

What does this mean for the user?

Well, it means that he or she has to scramble to try piecemeal the data together from here, there and everywhere. From sent attachments. Asking others to return documents that were sent to them. From photos and videos on the iPhone. Sounds like a stressful pain in the neck to me. The worst part – this entire mess could’ve been avoided.

Now, the hard drive crash was probably unavoidable (although there are sometimes red flags, but let’s give the client the benefit of the doubt). First of all – understand that for the most part, the most valuable stuff on your computer is YOUR DATA. The other stuff – system files, applications and such are all easily (or semi-easily) replaceable, but if your hard drive contains the only copy of your data, you’re living in a powder keg, giving off sparks.

Here’s what could’ve saved the day:

$59 buys you peace of mind.

Time Machine Backup: Time Machine is software built into the Mac OS. It’s a simple setup – set and forget – and as long as you keep your external hard drive plugged into your Mac (and you haven’t ignored any “external hard drive is full” warnings), you’ll have a recent backup of all of your files.

Pro: Not only do you get a backup of your data, you can go back in time and access older versions of documents as well.

Con: If you don’t connect your external drive (or ignore any warnings), it’s analogous to realizing you forgot to lock your doors after a break in.

Bottom Line: No matter what other option you choose, this one is non-negotiable.

It’s free!

iCloud Drive: iCloud Drive backs up the data on your Desktop and in your Documents folder – provided that you enabled it. And don’t’ have an adverse reaction to storing your data online. You get 5GB free, after that threshold, you have to pay.

Pro: It’s an easy “set and forget” method of ensuring your data is backed up.

Con: It has its storage limits and if you forget your iCloud password, it’s a hassle to recover your files.

Bottom Line: A quick and dirty backup for your most important data but be careful of overloading your quota.

Dropbox is the most popular file hosting service.

File Hosting Services: Namely Google Drive and Dropbox. These are like Coke and Pepsi, the same basic thing with slight differences, but overall serve the same purpose. Amazon Prime members also have free storage offered to them as well. Storing your documents in the dedicated folder is a great way to safeguard your work. Similar to iCloud Drive, there is a free tier and a paid tier. But Google gives you 15 GB of free storage space!

Pro: Once you’re set up and remember to save to the dedicated folder, your work is backed up on the cloud.

Con: A measly 5 GB of storage from Dropbox is all you get with the free plan. After that, plan on paying for more storage.

Bottom Line: A good second-tier option to consider if you’re not confused by it all.

Mozy is only one option.

Online Backup Service: The big players are Carbonite Mozy and Backblaze, but there are many others. There’s no free ride here – it’s all pay to play. You have to sign up for the service and configure it on your computer. And check once in awhile to confirm it’s working properly.

Pro: Works in the background, so once you’re finished the initial setup, you’re good to go.

Con: Pricey, plus somewhat cumbersome interface. And huge files take time to recover. Like that 185 GB Photos library.

Bottom Line: Personally, I wouldn’t bother with this type of service. But I know I’ve got my bases covered with Time Machine and iCloud backups.

Truer words were never spoken…
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A Few Wi-Fi and Internet Things Clarified…

One thing I hear a lot – “what is the difference between the internet” and Wi-Fi?”

The entire world is wired, or so it seems.

Yes, they both have to do with how you see all your Facebook friends arguing politics or how those crazy Zoom meetings work. And yes, for the most part, they both have to do with your internet provider – which means, for a lot of us, Optimum, the company formerly known as Cablevision. (And the company formerly known for having decent customer support from its call center in Long Island.)

▶︎ Your takeaway from all of this (there will be a quiz later): Wi-Fi is simply a fancy name for wireless network. They’re interchangeable. It’s a wireless router that creates the wireless network. If you have Wi-Fi in your home or office, then you have a wireless router.

But, let’s start with your cable modem. For the most part, a cable modem is a black box with three wires coming out of it (unless your cable company provides your landline phone, then all bets are off). One is the power cord – it’s what plugs into the wall (or surge protector), so that’s easy to differentiate. The second wire is the line from the outside world into the modem, a round coax cable. The third wire (Ethernet) is what connects your Wi-Fi router to the modem.

A typical cable modem. An extremely boring-looking piece of technology.

So, let’s look at the world in two groups; what’s on the OTHER side of your cable modem (the entire internet, the world wide web) and what’s YOUR side of your cable modem (your Wi-Fi network).

One more time: On the OTHER side of the cable modem is where all the other computers, servers and cloud-based stuff in the world live. On YOUR side of the cable modem, that’s your own private club where only your devices (computers, iPhones, iPads, printers, streaming media devices, smart TVs, etc.) are members.

A Netgear wireless router. Not the best model out there, not the worst either.

Your Wi-Fi network also has a name. Like your children, it has the name you gave it (unless you used the default name that came with the router – boring!). It also has a password to keep out the riff raff. But in order for devices connected to your wireless network to be able to communicate with the internet, you MUST have a working modem and valid internet service.

A couple of things to remember:

  • Just because you have a working Wi-Fi network, that does NOT mean you’re necessarily connected to the internet.
  • Unless you’re using the wireless router that your cable company provided you with, it has no interest in helping you resolve your Wi-Fi issues.
  • If you are using a wireless router that your cable company provided you with, chances are it’s not a very good one.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this – things that will confuse you. Like Optimum Wi-Fi hot spots (they’re putting free Wi-Fi out in public places – as long as you’re an Optimum customer) and new-age things like its Altice TV service, where the cable box is also a Wi-Fi router (and not a very good one at that). All subjects for another day!

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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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