Saturday, August 09, 2014

Use Two-Step Authentication (or How to Prevent Social Media/E-mail "Hacks")

So first things first, when someone gains control of your Facebook account because you clicked the wrong link, that is not a hack. It is social engineering. Or if you want to get technical, it's phishing. I promise. Google it if you don't believe me. But seriously, if someone got hold of your password and is posting weird stuff to your Twitter account, there's a slim chance an actual hacker has been at work. Anyway...

With that out of the way, this is something I've been seeing more and more of lately. Two weeks ago it was a friend via Twitter, spamming out dubious links to every single last one of his followers. A few days later, I talked to someone who had their bank account emptied out via an EFT that was done with their login info on their bank's website. Earlier this week, it was a friend's e-mail account telling me to click a link to collect the money they owed me via PayPal (pffft, like I'd lend anyone money). And today, it was another friend who was sending out Facebook messages that seemed good natured enough, but included a link that didn't look quite right.

A lot of these links direct you to sites that do a decent job of passing themselves off as a Google, Twitter, Facebook or a banking login page. You think, "Oh, I need to log in again," and enter your username and password. But what you really did was give that information to someone creeping along in the shadows of the Internet. So what do you do?

You have a few options. You can suffer the consequences and work with the site to regain control of your account. Better, you can quickly realize what's happened and scurry off, full of anxiety, as you race to change your password. But better still, you can take a few minutes and protect yourself from all of this happening in the first place.

How can you protect yourself? Well, the first is the most obvious: Don't click weird links, ever. But everyone makes a mistake now and then. So the second way you can protect yourself is using two-step authentication. It's fairly quick and easy to setup and not really all that intrusive to use.

Before I get into how to use it, let's define what two-step authentication is. The name really spells it out; it's a login process that requires two steps. The first step is entering your username and password as you normally would. The second step is entering a random code that is sent to you via text message, e-mail or through an app. My personal recommendation is to use text messages or an app on your phone because waaaaay too many people use the same password on every site (and if you do, STOP IT!). So if you give away your password because you entered it on a site that kinda looked like the one you thought you were on, the jerk who set all of that up most likely will try to use that same password for any other account of yours they can find. Which means they will try to login to your e-mail if they can find it. So use your phone. You don't even need a "smart phone." You just need a phone that can accept text messages.

So now that I've given you an idea of what two-step authentication is, let's start where the most actual damage can occur: banking. Most banks have this option somewhere on their website. For my bank, when I login from a browser or device I haven't used to access my account before, I get redirected to a page saying as much. On that page I can choose to have a text message sent the phone number on file with the bank or an e-mail to the e-mail address I provided in my banking profile. Before I can finish logging in, I have to select which option I want and then the bank sends me a code. Once I get that code (it only takes a few seconds), I enter it, re-enter my password, and I'm in. Setting this up will vary from bank to bank, so you may need to reach out to your bank's customer service if you can't find it for yourself. And if your bank doesn't offer two-step authentication, you might want to consider changing to a bank that takes security a little more seriously.

On Facebook, you can enable two-step by clicking the little padlock at the top right corner of the page and selecting "See More Settings." Once you're on the the Privacy Settings and Tools page, look to the top left and click Security. You can setup Login Approvals to send you a text message with a login code, or you can use the Facebook app or Google Authenticator app (available for Android and iOS). You'll see "Login Approvals" and "Code Generator" for the respective option you wish to use. I won't go into the detailed instructions, because Facebook has written it out, step-by-step, and it is actually very simple to setup.

While you're on your Facebook Security Settings page, go ahead and setup your Trusted Contacts as well. "Trusted contacts are friends that can securely help you if you ever have trouble accessing your account." That's right off the Facebook website. I've never had to use it, but the simple version of how it works is your trusted contact will have something they can click when they login to Facebook that will help you regain control of your account if you're locked out.

Moving on, Twitter has something very similar. Click the gear icon at the top right, and select Settings. Once you see the Settings page, look to the menu at the far left, just under your account picture, and click on Security and Privacy. You can choose whether you want to have a code sent via text message or, if you have the Twitter app installed on a phone or tablet, you can select the option to send a login verification request to the app. If you choose the latter, you won't even need to bother with a code; you'll get a notification via the twitter app asking you if you want to authorize a login attempt. You click the check mark if you're the one trying to login, or the x if you didn't try to login recently. I know this Twitter app approval works on Android, but since I don't use an iPhone or Windows phone, I'm not sure if the Twitter apps on those platforms provides the same functionality. If they don't, you can still use text messages to get a code to enter after your login attempt.

Google has two-step authentication as well, and it will cover you no matter which Google service you're trying to use. By now you're getting an idea of how it works, so I'll just give you the link to read more about how it: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/180744  You can set it up to send you a text message or you can choose to use the Google Authenticator app (more about that in a bit), both are fairly simple.

Your Microsoft account, right along with Outlook.com (AKA Hotmail) has two-step authentication as well. Click the gear in the top right corner, select Options and then choose the Account Details options on the Options page. That should redirect you to a Microsoft account login page. Once you've logged in, look to the menu at the left and select Security & password. About halfway down the page you will see Two-step verification. Click to turn it on and follow the on-screen instructions. Microsoft has an app available as well, and you learn more about that one by clicking on "Learn more" under the Identity verification apps on the same Security and password page. I give Microsoft kudos on their implementation of two-step authentication: if you're using the e-mail or text message options, you have to enter the e-mail address or phone number you stored before they will send the code. This adds yet another layer of security.

I'm sure you get the point by now. I'm not going to detail every single site that offers two-step authentication because that would take way, way too long. If you're wondering if a site or service you use offers two-step authentication, look for your account settings, paying special attention to sections that are labelled security or something similar. If you still can't find it, try a simple Google search of the site name and two-step authentication. For example, you'd Google "Yahoo two step authentication" I have no idea if Yahoo even offers it (I bet they do), because I don't use Yahoo. But again, you get the point. If you still can't find anything, contact the support or admin of the site or service and ask them about it. And if all else fails, I'll see if I can help you. But I'm in the tech field and I don't work for free (you wouldn't want me to ask you to do your job for me for free now would you?) Payment terms can be negotiated. If I really like you, I might accept chocolate chip cookies as payment.

"Yeah, but that's a hassle to go through every time I want to login." You're right, it would be a hassle if you had to do it every time. But you don't. Most banks, along with most social networking and e-mail that offers two-step authentication will usually give you an option to remember that you've said it's OK to trust a particular computer, phone or browser. It may say, "Save browser" or "I use this computer regularly" or "Don't ask me on this browser again." Whatever their exact wording, it'll be an option for you to indicate that you have pretty decent confidence that no one else will be able to access your computer (or phone or whatever). I only see these two-step requests on new or public computers. Once I've told a site that I trust the browser I'm using, they don't bother me again (as long as I don't clear the cookies, at least). For example, yesterday I did a fresh install of Windows 8.1 Professional on my desktop. After I installed Chrome, I needed to login to my banking website. Since I chose to wipe the data off my hard drive when I installed Windows, the cookies from Chrome when I was running Windows 7 were gone. When I tried to login, I was prompted to go through the two-step authentication process. When I did, I selected the option that this is a computer I use regularly and they don't need to ask me again on this particular computer with this particular browser. When I logged in again this evening to pay some bills online, all I needed was the username and password and I was in.

By the way, you should never indicate that a browser on a public computer (libraries, schools, work, etc.) is a "trusted" computers. The same goes if you're borrowing someone's phone or tablet. Those aren't your devices, you don't have control over them, so you don't want them being stored as trusted. Don't select the option to remember or trust such instances.

Before I wrap up, I want to briefly revisit the Google Authenticator app. As I mentioned earlier, it's a free app in both the App Store and on Google Play. You install it on your phone and it generates random codes that expire every 60 seconds. When you need a two-step authentication code, you simply open the app and enter the appropriate code. Don't worry, they're short codes so the 60 second expiration won't catch you unless you type really really really slowly. Google Authenticator works with Google sites, obviously, Facebook and a few others. I find it more convenient than getting a text message or e-mail. While I almost always get such texts or e-mails nearly instantaneously, there have been a handful of times that they were delayed or never arrived. By using the Google Authenticator app, I don't have to wait to receive a message; my phone was already generating codes for me to use. I will say this about setting up the Google Authenticator app; follow the on-screen instructions to the letter. There are very specific steps you have to go through to get the app and add it to your account(s).

And that's how you can help protect yourself from falling prey to phishing. No system is going to protect to give you complete, 100% protection. But by using two-step authentication, you are significantly reducing the risk of falling victim to such schemes. So what are you waiting for? Go set it up!

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: The Final Entry

Yup, it's come to an end. I have owned a Mac for one week now, and so my first week impressions are wrapping up. I didn't post a day seven update yesterday because, really, there was only one thing to say. And I will begin with that.

I bought the Mac for homework and studying. It will help in a couple of specific classes and will generally be better suited to portability than my other laptop. The only new revelation that came yesterday is that there is not a native client to for Visual Basic. While I realize that Visual Basic exists primarily for Windows programming, I'm sure there are programmers using Macs (poor souls) who at least occasionally need to do something with Visual Basic. The only way to get it to run natively on a Mac is to do the whole Boot Camp thing, install Windows on its own partition, and then install Visual Basic Studio in the Windows environment. I have the free space to do that (I'd need around 30GB free, and the Mac has around 85GB), but I don't really want to do that. I may consider just doing a remote connection to one of my Windows machine from the Mac. I think that would just be easier than going through a bunch more installations. And that's all that came up on day seven.

This all brings me to my conclusions. Let's summarize the past few days with a pros and cons list for the MacBook Air 13":

Pros:

  • Outstanding design and construction with premium materials
  • Weight and profile thickness make it easily portable
  • Solid hardware that can handle everyday tasks with ease
  • The keyboard is comfortable to type on despite the small form factor of the laptop
  • Surprisingly decent sound from a laptop
  • Battery life is absolutely amazing and I have not had to take the charger with me once
  • Initial setup is quick and relatively simple
  • Instantaneously wakes from sleep
  • Spaces is well implemented and incredibly useful, especially given the small amount of screen real estate available in this form factor
  • Includes a lot of useful software that is more fully-featured than the included software you find in other operating systems

Cons:

  • Far more expensive than similarly equipped laptops of the same form factor constructed from similar materials
  • The automatic brightness for the keyboard and screen are rarely set appropriately bright or dark enough for the environment
  • Time Machine is not a robust backup solution and cannot take advantage of existing network shares without a lot of ugly "hacks" that do not result in a reliable, elegant backup solution
  • Adding a true network printer is not a straight-forward procedure as it is on every other modern OS
  • When it is needed, the cooling fan is far too loud
  • The touchpad requires too firm of a click compared to other laptops I have used
  • The OS is way too dumbed down. "So easy, a child could use it" is why I often refer to Mac OS as a "PlaySkool OS" 
  • Apple has sacrificed intuitive controls and easy access to things power-users want all in the name of "user experience"
  • "Apple's Way" of doing things is often contradictory to what the rest of the industry is doing making OS X unfriendly for those who need to use multiple operating systems
  • Outdated Microsoft Office suite (blame on Microsoft for this one)
There may be more pros than cons, but the con's far outweigh anything the Mac has going for it. That's a shame, really, but Apple has it's head way too far up its own cult-like ass to do anything about it. From everything I've read so far, the upcoming Yosemite update is really going to make matters worse (so I will probably skip it; I've already turned off automatic updates for that very purpose).

At the end of my first week, I simply cannot recommend a Mac to anyone unless they have been lifelong Mac users that have never touched a Windows machine. The cost, the counter intuitive OS and it's inability to play nice in a multi-OS, Windows Server based environment are simply too much to overlook.

Now that my first week is over, however, I'm going to dig into a lot of the support documentation to set this thing up the way I really want it to work. Anything with code can be modified, even if it isn't always easy to do. So I will find workarounds for all of the things that annoy me about OS X. My only concern is that they may not be very elegant or robust in their implementation. I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, if only to keep my sanity in check. This is, without a doubt, going to be the computer I spend time with in class and for homework, so I need to invest the time to make it less irritating.

And that, my friends, is the conclusion of a Windows Guy Buy a Mac. I'd love to hear your comments and opinions on what I've written or on the MacBook Air 13". You can leave them on any of these entries, or contact me via twitter or facebook. And be sure to check out the "infographic" at the very bottom of this entry.

If you've linked directly to this final post and want to read the previous entries, here's some handy links (or you just click the header at the top of my blog to be taken to all posts):

A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Intro & Day One
A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Day Two
A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Day Three
A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Day Four
A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Day Five
A Window's Guy Buys a Mac: Day Six

I stumbled across the following little gem the day after I originally wrapped up this series. Here's one easy graphic that properly summarizes what I spent the last week writing:


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: Day Six

Today has been much of the same with the Mac. Took it to class. Did some homework. Wrote a blog entry. Cursed the annoyances of OS X. Marveled at the battery life.

One thing was out of the ordinary, however. I met a good friend for lunch. As we were leaving his house, he asked me, "So how's the new Mac?" I offered to bring it to the restaurant. Once we arrived (Celito Lindo, in case you're wondering) and ordered, I got the Mac out of my bag and handed it to him.

He commented on how nice it looked and then ask, "What's this feel like?" The aluminum chassis reminded him of something, and I knew what it was. "My phone," I replied. I have the original HTC One that uses the same type of aluminum finish as the Mac. He agreed that's what it reminded him of, and moved on to doing... something. I couldn't see the screen so I'm not sure what he was doing. He did remark on seeing the Chrome icon. I didn't really say much to him about what was on it or what he could do, I just left him alone to tinker. This is a guy who grew up with Windows machines in school and went on to work for HP in tech support for consumer notebooks. He and all of his family use Windows machines in their home. He is by no means a power-user, and he often turns to me for assistance with his computer. He is definitely far above a typical computer user though. His dad had a Mac for a short time, but sold it after after a few months. Yet in under five minutes, my friend was bored with the Mac. You could see a look of confusion on his face as he tinkered around, not really sure what to do with it. He handed it back to me and I put it back in my Powerbag. We talked for a couple of minutes about battery life and I summed up a few of the points I've made over the past few days on my blog. And that was that. He was not at all impressed.

This encounter brought me to something I really wanted to evaluate with this Mac. Could I recommend a Mac to someone who has grown up using Windows computers? The short answer: No. The long answer is that someone already familiar with the Windows environment can get a computer with the same functionality, performance, and form factor for a few hundred dollars less and not have to completely re-learn a new OS, especially one that I have a rather low opinion of.

With that said, both Apple and Microsoft, along with the various vendors building Windows machines, all donate millions of dollars worth of computers to schools each year. While many see that as a lovely philanthropic gesture to support education, I do not. I see it as Apple and Microsoft ensuring marketshare. If you can get a child using your product early on in school, they will most likely become your customer down the road. Whether it's their parents buying a computer for them to use at home or their own purchases as adults, people are going to buy what they're familiar with. And that's what my recommendation would come down to. If you're already used to Windows, as most people are since they have a larger presence in both schools and business, buy a Windows machine (and save yourself a lot of money). If you have had more experience with a Mac, however, then shell out a few hundred bucks more and buy a Mac (and then walk around with a feeling of superiority for being in some elite group).

But what if you're someone who doesn't have much experience with computers at all? Well first I want to know exactly which third-world country or cave you've been living in. I was talking to my neighbor the other day about computers. He's around my age and has a couple of kids. He remarked how his kids seem like absolute experts with computers compared to him. He never had a computer in his home growing up, never used them in school - I can relate, I graduated in 1991 and had very limited exposure to any type of computer while in school - and never really used them much in his job as a mechanic. He said his kids began using computers in school and for homework in kindergarten, however. That's what lead him to his first computer purchase; his kids needed one at home for homework. He told me that his daughter made her first Power Point presentation in the second grade. So yeah, if you're someone without much experience with computers, where have you been living?

Anyway, for such a hypothetical person, I would recommend a Windows computer. There are two reasons for that. The first is cost: you can get a perfectly acceptable Windows computer for a few hundred dollars. You will be able to browse the web, watch videos, and send e-mail plus your kids will be able to get their homework done. You're going to spend several hundred dollars more to get an entry level Mac (I think the Mini is the cheapest that Apple offers, and even then you'd still have to shell out cash for a monitor, keyboard and mouse). The second reason is that Windows offers a better chance for people to become more advanced users. Mac OS X is way too dumbed down, engages in far too much hand holding, and does not offer as many options to explore more advanced features as a Windows computer does.

And that's what came from day six. Lunch with a friend helped me make up my mind on which computers I'd recommend to which people. And for the majority, that's going to be Windows.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: Day Five

I'll begin with something that really should have been included yesterday if I hadn't been hasty with the Publish button.

After installing Steam, I decided to install Civilization V from my Steam library just to see how the Mac handled it. It's a game with which I'm very familiar and have played across many different machines, so I know what to expect in terms of performance. I loaded up a game, leaving all the graphics options on their defaults (the game is typically does a good job of detecting the hardware and adjusting the settings accordingly), and started out playing. All went well, though the fan in the Mac made itself well known. That little fan can get LOUD! I had the system volume around the 50% mark which made the background music fairly loud. There were times, however, that the noise from the system fan completely drowned out the in-game music. The longer I played, the loud the fan became and the hotter the Mac began to feel. It was sitting on my desk but if it had been sitting in my lap, it would have been very uncomfortable. Of course the MacBook Air doesn't have discrete graphics, so the CPU was pulling double duty of the game and the graphics. I was expecting it to produce some heat, but nothing like that.

After about an hour, I was surprised by a low battery warning. When I fired up the game, the battery was at 94%. When I exited an hour later, it was at 9%. I guess I was pushing it to it's limits if it had that kind of impact on the battery. I've never attempted to play Civ on a laptop running off battery power before today, but I'm sure it'd hit anything that hard. Since I've haven't yet used the Mac while it was plugged in, it didn't even dawn on me to plug it in first. I'm not knocking such a hit to the battery. Quite the contrary, it has inspired such confidence in its battery life over these past few days that I just took it for granted.

I'm curious to see how it would handle even more demanding games, but for now, it's resting and recharging. Maybe when summer classes are over I'll actually throw some true benchmark utilities at it and see what's what. Until then, I know it can handle Civ V, at least the early game (the late game taxes even my beast of a desktop). I'm sure more casual games won't be a problem for it.

Now, onto day five impressions.

I completely abandoned Outlook on the Mac. It's inability to import my Google Calendar was the deal breaker. I need to be able to create and edit events on the calendar with my devices. Yes, I could launch a browser and do it from there, but that's adding in unnecessary steps. I could even grab my phone, or tablet, or if I'm home use my desktop or other laptop. But that's not that point. I want my calendar available to me no matter which device I'm using. Same goes for e-mail. So I reverted back to the Mail and Calendar apps built into OS X. This is where I ran into a problem however.

Like most computer problems, this one existed due to the user (that's me). When I installed Outlook, I forged ahead with gusto and set it as the default mail and calendar app. Why? Because it sounded so sad when the little popup appeared saying Outlook wasn't the default, and would I like to set it as such. OK, that's not true. But I did jump into the assumption I'd want Outlook to be my default because it's what I use on my other computers. When I ran into the problem of Google Calendar not syncing, I opened up the native Calendar app in OS X to see if there was something there that might help me figure things out in Outlook. Of course, it too now sounded very sad in a popup informing me Calendar was no longer the default calendar app, and would I like to change it? "No way! Get out of here," I thought, and not only clicked No, but I also clicked that "Hey, shut up and don't ever ask me again!" box. I then proceeded to spend way too much time trying to figure out a way to make Outlook 2011 for Mac play nice with Google Calendar.

Fast forward through that bit of frustration to my decision to give Outlook the heave-ho and switch back to the native apps in OS X. Only there's a problem. I told Calendar to shut up and never ask me again about being the default calendar app. At first I didn't think that would be a big deal. Windows has had a Default Apps settings panel for as long as I can remember (one of the service packs on XP, I believe). I opened up System Preferences fully confident a couple of clicks would take care of the problem. I couldn't find one damn thing anywhere about setting default apps. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I thought I had to be overlooking something because surely a modern OS would have that functionality. I thought maybe it was set within the app itself but, nope, nothing there either. At least nothing that I could find. Maybe it's hiding somewhere underneath some of Apple's "magical" user experience. I don't really know.

So off to Google I went. I found two solutions, and neither are very elegant or robust. The first is to find a file that can use the app in question, right click (or two finger click in the case of the trackpad), and select "Open With." OK, fine. I'll go with that, right? Wrong. As I read the rest of the thread on Apple's support forums, I discovered that this doesn't always result in that file type being opened by the app you selected. Apparently, for reasons no one seemed to understand, OS X will sometimes decide to go back to the previous default app. And it won't be consistent in its choices. Users reported opening the same file, over and over, and getting random results. So I looked for another solution. The only thing I found that appeared to work properly is a third-party app. That's right, someone else had to write the app to include a rather basic feature that Apple left out.

So are Mail and Calendar now my default apps? I have no idea. I recalled that Outlook on Windows has options within the application to remove the default status, so I headed back to Outlook. I unchecked the boxes for Outlook being the default for mail and calendar, and hoped for the best. I'm still not really sure if the Apple apps automatically resumed handling things. When it comes to actually finding useful settings in OS X, it seems Apple's goal is to deceive, inveigle and obfuscate. More and more, Apple's "magic" is just so much smoke and mirrors.

Another rather small annoyance I ran into today had to do somewhat with a calendar, though nothing with scheduling events or editing them. One of my instructors realized he had made a mistake on the dates for exams listed in the syllabus and was trying to correct those. A few of the dates didn't sound quite right (and they weren't, he caught his own mistake), so I did what felt natural to get a quick peek at a calendar: I  clicked on the date in the Menu bar. Windows and every Linux distro I know of pops up a nice little calendar right then and there. OS X doesn't. WTF?! I had to open Calendar instead. Clicking on the date and time that stares you down from the Menu bar is a pretty obvious thing. If the people who put together other operating systems realize it should be there, why doesn't Apple? The only thing clicking on the date and time in the menu bar gets you is the option to change from a digital to analog clock or adjust the system date and time settings. Pffffft.

By the way, the definition of operating system is:
  1. the software that supports a computer's basic functions, such as scheduling tasks, executing applications, and controlling peripherals.

I suspect Apple takes the "basic" part way too literally.

I have also come to realize that if my fingers have the least bit of moisture on them, using the trackpad is quite difficult. I first realized it this afternoon when I had just washed my hands and then went to use the Mac. I noticed it again when I took a drink from a cold Dr. Pepper bottle and then tried to use the Mac. Nice, dry fingers glide without effort across the surface of the trackpad. Slightly moist fingers may as well be covered in superglue.

I do remain impressed with battery life, however. I have two classes on Tuesday's and Thursday's, so the Mac was in use for an hour during the afternoon class, about an hour at home after that, around three hours in my evening class and another 90 minutes or so tonight. Each time I stopped using it, I simply closed the lid and let it sleep. Sleep mode still drains the battery a little bit on any laptop. Yet without being plugged into the charger once since I grabbed it to go to my afternoon class, the battery is a strong 70% as I write this. Well done Apple. To compare, my phone is down to 44%, despite being removed from its' charger only about 30 minutes before the Mac was unplugged (granted a phone's battery doesn't have the capacity of a battery found in a laptop).

Finally for today, a classmate/former co-worker pointed something out to me in class tonight. I needed to move the Mac out of the way for a moment, so I picked it up with one hand, with the screen open, by the front left edge and moved it. His "WOW" lead me to ask what he was so impressed by. His wife owns an ultrabook (I forget the brand) of similar design and materials as the Mac, though it's a 15" model. He said if he would be afraid to pick up her ultrabook in the same manner because it's not very rigid. The chassis would flex and shift around, increasing the chances of dropping it. That's not the case with the MacBook Air. There is little to no flex in the chassis at all. Apple definitely didn't cut corners in design or construction. Though if it's true that each one of these is milled from a single block of aluminum, their manufacturing process is quite wasteful. Still, another kudos to Apple for a rigid design that looks and feels nice.

So that's day five with a Mac. In two more days I will finally read the manual and explore some of Apple's "get to know your Mac" videos and documents on Apple's support site. I am intentionally ignoring such things right now for two reasons. The first is everyone I know who gushes about how awesome Macs are claim that they are the most simple computers to use. The second reason comes form having worked in tech support for HP's consumer notebooks. Users never, ever read manuals, help files or support documentation. NEVER EVER. I wanted to see how much I could accomplish in assuming the role of a typical user and find out how accurate the fanboy's claims are. Typically, though, I RTFM.

By the way, you're my new best friend if you caught the X-Files reference in this entry.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: Day Four

Today was the first day I used the Mac in a classroom. As I expected, it was much nicer having the lighter, thinner laptop in my bag. I didn't even really notice I was carrying it around. It also left a lot more space on the desk at which I sat. Taking notes was a routine affair, though once again Spaces came in handy as I switched back and forth between one space with Word in full screen and Chrome in full screen.

One cool feature I discovered by accident related to the back lit keyboard. When the ambient light sensor detects that there is enough light in the room to see your keyboard clearly, it disables the back light completely. I noticed the back light wasn't on, so I hit the keyboard button to turn it up. Instead of the usual adjustments I see, it just had a "NO!" symbol over the onscreen display. I thought something was wrong at first, so I Googled it and discovered this energy saving feature. Little things like that impress me. And the light sensor was correct, there was ample light to see the keyboard. The room not only has overhead fluorescent lighting, but I sit directly in front of a huge window.

I noticed that the keyboard on the Mac is louder and more "clicky" than the one on my Acer laptop. I hadn't really noticed it here at home, but sitting in a classroom, it was suddenly really loud. There's not anything I can do about that really. Maybe once the thing is out of warranty I will investigate to see if anyone sells a third-party replacement keyboard, open the thing up, and swap out the keyboards. But I'm not opening it up until it's out of warranty since I don't want to void the warranty.

The automatic screen brightness setting was still a bit too dark for my taste in the classroom and I found myself once again needing to manually adjust it. Maybe I'm nitpicking here, but if Asus and HTC can perfectly nail automatic screen brightness on my tablet and phone, respectively, why can't Apple get it right on the MacBook Air? Maybe people who prefer Macs have a different genetic makeup that makes their eyes more sensitive to light. In case you missed the subtlety, I just inferred that people who prefer Mac's might be mutant freaks. You're welcome.

A friend told me I'd wind up wanting more storage space than the 128 GB that's built in. He may be right, but so far I've installed Office, Chrome, Google Apps, Steam and Skype and I still have 85 GB free (and that's with one of my larger Steam games installed as well). Since I store all of my school documents on Google Drive in order to access them from all my devices, I won't need document space. I don't create videos or edit photos, and even if I did, those things would be stored on my server along with all the other photos and videos I have. My server has remote web access, so I don't need to tie up space on any of my computers. So I'm not really sure I'll wind up filling up the hard drive. My Acer has a 256 GB SSD (formatted, and with recovery partitions set aside, it shows as 214 GB in Windows), I have way more stuff installed there, and I still have 102 GB free there. I'd guess 15 GB of space is currently taken up by random installation files I haven't deleted or torented media I haven't yet moved over to my server. So I'm guessing the 128 GB was a good choice for the Mac.

If I do wind up running out of space, the Mac has an SD card slot and several companies make SD cards that Mac OS X will recognize as permanent storage instead of removable, and they're not really expensive. It's something I will keep in mind if storage space does get full.

Other than that, it was fairly status quo today. An hour of taking notes in class, three more hours of homework here at the house, and about an hour installed Steam, a game, and Skype. I still find myself annoyed that I'm forced into doing various things Apple's way, but that's not going away. And it will give me reason to continue grumbling about Apple and their PlaySkool OS.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: Day Three

Despite several people telling me to change the scrolling direction on the Mac instead of doing it "Steve's way," I've left it in the default. I find that I keep scrolling up when I meant to scroll down and vice versa. I'm undecided as to whether or not I will wind up changing the scrolling. Scrolling works the same way on Android, so I'm not sure where my disconnect is in remembering that it works this way in OS X. Maybe I just associate scrolling on a computer one way and scrolling on a mobile device the other. If I'm still making the mistake at the end of the week, I will probably change it. I'm guessing that's done in Settings > Touchpad.

I'm also missing the backspace/delete key separation. There are times when I want to delete from the cursor back, and backspace is great for that, on Windows. But sometimes I want to delete from the cursor forward, and delete jumps into play. Delete on the Mac works like a backspace key. Yes, I know there's a keyboard command that let's me change the functionality, and I looked it up on day one and used it once or twice. But I've since forgotten what it was. FN-Del? Command-Del? That's a big gripe I'm running into already - secondary functions for keys should always work with one modifier key (like the ALT or FN key on Windows laptops). But there seems to be no rhyme or reason to which modifier you'll need to use to get to secondary or tertiary functions on the Mac. Sometimes it's going to be the Command. Sometimes it'll be option or control. And sometimes it will be a combination of multiple modifiers at once. This could be another example of me missing something obvious, but second functions should always be one modifier, tertiary yet another and so on and so forth. But when it comes to the delete/backspace key separation, I cannot think of another modern OS that does not have it other than Mac OS. Steve Jobs, you were a stubborn old goat. And your turtlenecks looked stupid.

I take class notes, do the majority of my homework and write papers in Word on both my desktop and my other laptop. I had intended to use Pages to accomplish this task on the Mac since Pages can open Word documents. In fact I used Pages for all of my homework yesterday. One thing that annoyed me, however, was when it came time to save the document. In every other word processing application I know of, you can change the format to a different application through the "Save As" option. Not so in Pages. To save a document in Word format, you have to use "Export To." That wouldn't be bad in and of itself if it that took care of everything. But it doesn't. When I close the document I'm working on, even if I've just done the "Export To" to save in Word format, Pages wants to save the file as a Pages file. I don't need duplicate copies, thanks Apple. Pages should be smart enough to realize that I haven't made any changes since I did the Export to a Word file and just close when I want it to close.

To avoid this minor nuisance popping up every time I want to save a file as a Word document, I just installed Microsoft Office on the Mac. My student subscription to Office 365 lets me install Office on two computers for three more years (at which I can renew it for another four years at the student price). Since the Acer has become more of a leisure time laptop now that the Mac will be taking over school duties, I deactivated the install on that machine and moved it to the Mac. The process was simple enough. Download, then install. There was a huge update to run once I had Office installed, but that's not a big deal. What I dislike, however, is that the version of Office for Mac is nowhere near as modern and easy to use as the version for Windows. Blame Microsoft on that one. Again, this is 2014, a unified experience across platforms is a given. Shame on Microsoft for neglecting their Office users on Macs.

More shame for Microsoft has me sounding like a broken record with another "this is 2014!" complaint You cannot directly sync a Google Calendar with Outlook in Office 2011 for Mac. Wait, WHAT?! Haven't I been able to do that on my Windows machines since Office 2007? Maybe it was the version after that, but I know Outlook and Google Calendar have been playing nice together for years. It's rather unacceptable that Microsoft wouldn't bake this feature into Outlook for the Mac. I found a rather clunky and alleged (I say alleged because I followed the instructions I found, but nothing is showing up in Outlook's calendar yet) workaround of syncing Google Calendar to the OS X Calendar and then selecting the option to sync the OS X Calendar to Outlook. Oy vey! Microsoft, get your act together!

After homework last night, I poked around on the Mac some more to continue getting more acquainted with it. That lead me to tinkering with the Dashboard. Can anyone tell me the purpose of Dashboard? It let's you add a bunch of widgets such as a small calendar, clock, weather, and various utilities. But you have to scroll to a different screen to actually see any of that information. Granted, it's an easy three-finger swipe to the left to get there, but I've never been a fan of desktop widgets. I've had them turned off in Windows since they reared their ugly heads in Vista days. I prefer a clean desktop with as little on it as possible. I don't really know who had widgets first, Microsoft or Apple, but I don't like them on a computer. They're great on mobile devices where they can display a quick look at useful information, but I don't want them cluttering up my desktop. I will probably look to see if it's possible to turn off the Dashboard all together because I really can't see myself using it. If anyone knows of a good reason for it to be there, please tell me (scroll down a few posts and you'll find tons of ways to get in touch with me).

And that's really it for day three. I've not used the Mac much outside of homework today or yesterday, and I think that's going to be fairly true going forward.

Day Three: Part Two

OK, so that wasn't really it for day three. I have a confession and a couple of analogies.

First up, the confession. I had originally pledged to update all of these Mac related posts via the Mac itself, but I'm writing this bit on my desktop. The Mac battery was dangerously low and I do not yet have all the cables run about my desk in a manner I can use the Mac while it's charging.

One thing I keep running into with Mac OS X is that many functions are not intuitive for a Windows guy. I can jump into any given distro of Linux and most things are going to be very intuitive and similar if not exactly the same as they are in Windows. That's just not the case with Mac OS X. Apple has itself way too invested in doing things their own way and it leads to a frustrating experience. It also makes me question whether I could ever recommend a Mac to someone who all of their previous computer experience on a PC.

I won't go into the dozens of little things I've been annoyed by with the Mac, but I will say they are all things that should be more intuitive. In all of this, I'm reminded of the second grade. My family moved from Ohio to Texas in the middle of my second grade year. When my new teacher discovered I was left-handed, she insisted that the only proper way for a lefty to write was by turning the paper 90 degrees to the right and, essentially, writing sideways from top to bottom on the page. She insisted this made a lefty's handwriting appear "more normal" and that it would avoid the dreaded smear many lefties experience as the side of their hand drags through the graphite or ink. For me, though, it made absolutely no sense to do that. I've never had the best penmanship, but I had learned enough to keep my hand elevated a bit so I didn't smear the very letters I had just written. I spent two or three weeks with her smacking my hand with a ruler every time she saw me without the page turned 90 degrees (yea, she hit me. It was the early 80's and Texas. Not only did they still have corporal punishment, but I'm fairly certain they also had a firing squad for the really bad kids). I don't recall what made her finally give up her crusade, but I do remember that I spent those weeks utterly frustrated as I tried to relearn how to write. Her system simply was not intuitive to me and it impeded my ability to get anything done. And Apple is just like that second grade teacher. They stubbornly insist that there is only one right way to do any given task, and if that's not intuitive to you then you're just doing it wrong.

Beyond the lack of intuition is the lack of choice. You will do things Apple's way ("Steve's way" as some say) or you won't do it at all. That ridiculous. Completely, totally ridiculous. And here's where I turn to another analogy. I do not take the fastest, shortest route on my drive to campus each day. The route I take is slightly longer, by maybe half a mile, and slower, but I like it. Why? Well, because I do, that's why! There's lovely old homes lining the street I drive down, it's a nice tree covered street, and there's a lot less traffic to deal with. But if there's a problem with that route - one of the big trees fell and blocked the road or a lovely old home is burning to the ground - I can take three or four others that are all comparable in distance and time and they all get me to my final destination without really going out of the way. The point being: people like options. Sometimes I want to do something one particular way simply because it's the way I want to do it. It might not be the most efficient or may even seem ridiculous to someone else, but it's the way I want to do it. And I like that Windows, Linux and Android really do provide a multitude of ways to accomplish tasks. I'm already losing patience with Apple because they have very narrowly defined the "ideal" user experience and, as a result, frustrate users who want choices that are more intuitive than "Steve's way." Steve's way reminds me of the old "you can't there from here" joke.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Windows Guy Buys a Mac: Day Two

I've used the Mac for homework today for around five hours. In that time, I've really come to appreciate Spaces. Once again for the non-Mac users, Spaces allows you to create multiple desktops that you can switch back and forth between, much like Workspaces in Ubuntu and other Linux distros. It really comes in handy for me while doing homework because I tend to full screen the app I'm working in so I can see more of my work at once. On this small screen, this really helps. To aid that, I've also set the Dock to auto hide. I was a bit concerned about response time at first, but the Mac is speedy and the Dock pops up instantly when I move the cursor to the bottom of the screen and immediately disappears when I move away. Another nice feature when using full screen apps is that the menu bar auto hides. I don't know if that's a setting that can be changed or not, but I like it as it is. Like the Dock, it's there when I need and out of the way when I don't. So kudos to Apple for not only a slick implementation of full screen apps and hiding the Dock, but also for making it very easy to switch between desktops with Spaces.

One thing I noticed last night; after using the Mac for the better part of the day, I kept making a lot of typo's on the keyboards for my desktop and laptop (the laptop sits in a dock most of the time, with a wireless keyboard and mouse attached). The MacBook Air's keyboard isn't quite full size, so after using it for several hours, muscle memory kicked in and I kept missing keys on the full size keyboards for my Windows machines. I can't really fault Apple on this, however. On any "ultrabook" form factpr, you're going to get a slightly cramped keyboard layout. I could just as well experience this same problem if I were using a Windows ultrabook. It's just something that I will have to get used to.

To keep my brain from frying during homework, I take breaks every couple of hours. Today that meant catching up on some of the YouTube videos from channels I subscribe to. While I wouldn't really watch movies on the Mac - and why would I since my desktop monitor is actually a 32" TV that has a Chromecast connected, all with a few hundred watts of surround sound - this little machine is fine for watching YouTube videos. I was impressed by how loud the speakers can get, and that they can do so without distortion. My Acer's speakers are pretty much worthless, truth be told. And that's been true of pretty much every laptop I've ever owned (this Mac makes the 5th laptop I've owned, but my last job had me surrounded by literally dozens at any given time). They're good for hearing the various OS notification sounds, but not much else. With the Mac, however, the YouTube videos were sufficiently loud and clear. I even tried turning the volume all the way up to see how loud they could go and it was just too uncomfortable. The videos were loud and clear with the system volume only half way up. Granted it's still sound coming from tiny speakers in a very small form factor, so you don't get the very full sound and stereo separation is almost nonexistent. But still, for laptop speakers, I'm very impressed.

I'm also really pleased with the size of the MacBook Air. It weighs practically nothing (2.38 lbs compared to my Acer's 5.7 lbs), and the thin profile makes it easy to store out of the way when it isn't in use. I plan on getting a stand to keep it on my desk (and a wireless keyboard and trackpad) when I'm at home, but for now, when I'm done with the Mac I can close it and slide it into one of the document trays I have sitting on my desk. It'll also be a lot nicer when I carry it with me since it's so light and thin. When I put my Acer into my Powerbag messenger style bag, I could definitely feel both it's weight and size. It's a 15" laptop that measures at 15x9.9x1.3 inches, while the MacBook Air measures at a svelte 12.8x8.94x0.68 inches. That's going to make a noticeable difference lugging it around. I also shouldn't need to carry the power adapter with me like I did for the Acer, so that will save even more weight and free up some space inside the bag.

One thing I really miss is a ten-key on the keyboard. With the exception of the very first laptop I owned, every one has had a ten key. Granted, those were pretty big laptops. One of them was a beastly 17" affair, while the other two have been 15". But again, I can't really fault Apple on this one. The whole ultrabook form factor just doesn't have room for a ten key. I've become quite accustomed to having that ten key, though, so it's going to be an adjustment not having one.

For the final part of today's update, I did let the battery completely die before charging it up yesterday. I know that's not as much of an issue as it once was, but I still prefer to let my mobile device's batteries die completely before I recharge them. The Mac held out for 12 hours and 38 minutes on battery yesterday when it finally checked out. It took less than two hours to charge all the way back to 100%. So not bad. I've never really paid attention to how long the Acer takes to charge, since it typically happens overnight, but I know other laptops I've had in the past can take the better part of an afternoon (I'm looking at you, HP and Toshiba). So good job Apple for having a battery that lasts all day and recharges fairly quickly.

Click here to read my Day One thoughts on owning a Mac