Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have been in the news a lot recently so you may be wondering just what it is, how it works, and whether or not you should be using one. With the government allowing your internet service provider to sell your web history, It may be a good time to start looking for a good VPN product.
Normally, anything you send or retrieve from a website is sent in the clear. Anyone intercepting it can view or capture it – they can see exactly what you send or receive from a website. A VPN can make surfing on unsecured networks more secure by encrypting all of your traffic on that network and then decrypting it before sending it out – It’s a middleman between you and the internet. Your ISP can only see a bunch of encrypted traffic that looks like random characters and it looks like you only visited one website, your VPN server.
Figure 1. IP Cloaking
Figure 1 shows what happens when you use a VPN. I used dnsleaktest.com to detect my IP address in three ways: with no VPN, a VPN server in the midwest, and a VPN server in New Zealand. The VPN service that I use has over 35 other choices for servers in many other countries. Although I have blanked out the IP address with no VPN, it is just the IP address that my ISP automatically assigns when I connect.
Figure 2. VPN Diagram
A VPN connection is just like having a really long ethernet cable from your Mac to the server on the other end. VPNs are not new. Businesses have used them for many years to ensure the privacy of their communications and to allow employees to access their work network securely when they’re away.
One common misconception about VPNs is that they provide user anonymity. Jeremy Campbell, creator of DNSleaktest.com has said that “Using public VPNs for anonymity is foolish and potentially dangerous, no matter how securely it’s configured, simply because the technology was not designed at all for anonymity. VPN services require that you trust them, which is a property that anonymity systems do not have.”
Choosing a trustworthy, reliable VPN service provider is hard, but Reddit user That One Privacy Guy collected virtually everything there is to know about most large (and many small) VPNs and put them into a single color-coded Google Sheet that’s easy to read and understand. This online chart outlines VPN business practices, logging, service configuration, and other features, pinpointing contradictory policies and misleading claims that various services are 100 percent effective.
Tip: Be careful when selecting a VPN provider. While the traffic is encrypted, make sure you go for a company with a good reputation rather than one that looks a little too good to be true!
Although there are free VPN services available most experts caution against using them because they may not provide the best security. It is better to pay for your VPN service which can be as little as $40/year.
Most VPN providers offer their own desktop clients that make it easy to connect to the service. Simply install the software that they provide and set some preferences. From there it is usually automatic. Most services let you pick a server location and set some networks to be trusted at all times.
I recommend using the VPN Comparison chart to select one or more product to test. Most of them will have a free trial so you can see how they work, see where their servers are located and test the impact on your internet connection speed (should be minimal). Occasionally you will find a site that doesn’t work well with your VPN but it is easy to turn if off temporarily. I tried several services before I settled on the one I use now. Make sure you select one that allows you to use the service on several devices, including your iPhone and iPad.
The gentleman was about 30 and seemed like a really nice guy. He stood sobbing uncontrollably in front of me and two co-workers as though he had just lost a beloved family member. In a way, he had. My co-workers and I understood, or at least we tried.
Perhaps a little explanation is in order.
One of my “post-retirement” jobs was at a retail computer establishment. A privately owned business, we had a staff of approximately ten people and did retail sales and service. A significant part of our business was with a major university and we regularly dealt directly with the students. My position there involved inventory control, a little WordPerfect phone support, and service duties.
One day late in the school year, our unfortunate friend presented his cheap, no-name, Widows box to our service department for repair and/or replacement of a hard drive. I was not involved in this transaction so I did not follow the progress of this service but by chance was present at the counter when he came in to pick up his computer.
Most likely, those of you who are conscientious about doing regular backups (and hopefully those of you who are not) can see where my story is going.
As it turns out, our gentleman friend was a Ph.D. candidate at the university, and while in the final preparation for the presentation of his thesis suffered a major hard drive failure. Between sobs, he explained that his research, notes, diagrams, and the thesis itself were contained on this one hard drive. All of it.
His life’s work for the past few years was on this hard drive, now deceased, and sitting on the counter next to his computer. There was no backup, nothing in the Cloud (this was well before the Cloud as we know it today), no written outline of the thesis text; nothing.
I excused myself from the room as the owner and head service technician tried to assist this hapless fellow. I subsequently learned that he had, at our suggestion, submitted the hard drive to a data recovery company that utilized “clean rooms” and other sophisticated methods of rescuing hard drives in distress. Even at a cost of approximately $5000 (if memory serves) aimed at its recovery, all his data was gone. Although I never learned of his fate regarding the Ph.D. thesis, all these many years later, I wish him well.
It would be easy to disparage this poor fellow for his carelessness (or in my cynical view, stupidity) but that does no one any good. Better we should learn from his misfortune. I’m certain he did.
I went home that evening, hugged my backup drives, and vowed never to find myself in such a position. So, I told you that long story to tell you this:
Backup Up Your Stuff!
I’ve been lucky. Over the years, I’ve never lost a hard drive currently installed in one of my computers. I have, however, lost a drive in my one of my network attached storage system units (NAS), see Figure 1, and a couple of external hard drives used for backups, one as recently as late last year, see Figure 2. As these drives were but one layer of my backup strategy, I suffered some minor inconvenience and expense in replacing them but NO data loss!
I’ll be the first to admit that my multi-layered backup strategy, however familiar and useful to me, is somewhat complicated and most probably not for everyone. There is some expense involved along with considerable time, although much of the process is automated to some degree. It has evolved from some simple and long forgotten batch files in MS-DOS using the BACKUP command to the procedures I use today.
My current backup system layers are as follows:
The computer’s internal hard drive. Now, thankfully, an SSD memory drive.
Time Machine to my local NAS.
Automated constant backup to the commercial service, Backblaze. (Off-site backup.)
Weekly SuperDuper backups to an external hard drive resulting in a bootable drive should disaster strike.
Periodic backups of selected files to the Cloud. (iCloud, MS OneNote, Box, and others. Another layer of off-site backup.)
Miscellaneous backups: Selected files to my NAS and thumb drives as needed.
Layers 2 and 3 are completely automated requiring no action on my part for them to proceed. I could do this with layer 4, the weekly SuperDuper backup, as well but opt to do this manually as it allows for safe storage of the external drive.
As I mentioned, my system has continuously evolved over the last thirty years and continues to do so. I’m currently developing procedures to generate separate backups of the ever-expanding databases in DevonThink Pro after my recent adoption of that program. There are currently two layers of off-site backup and all above mentioned external drives and disks are stored in a secure, fireproof safe.
There you have it. Please look over my system and adopt and/or change whatever works for you.
If you do nothing else in the world of backing up or learn nothing from this poor fellow’s experience, please, please, go out today and purchase a couple of external hard drives. They’re not expensive. Marry them up to Time Machine, rotate them periodically, and store one off-site.
OK, so now you have a super duper (sorry) backup system in place and are churning out backups every hour, day, week, and year. Do they work?
I recently had an email exchange with an extremely knowledgeable and experienced Mac user who was in danger of losing some data to a Time Machine glitch, possibly hardware related. He and I were discussing the importance of periodically testing our backups. Here’s how:
From time to time select a few random files from your backup system and restore them to your computer. Backblaze and the other commercial services provide directions on how to do this on their websites and it goes without saying that you should know how to accomplish a complete restore if necessary.
Testing Time Machine is easy. Simply enter the application, navigate to the desired file(s) and click on “Restore”. If you are creating bootable backups, periodically test to determine that they are indeed able to boot up your computer.
And of course, periodically test any external or thumb drives to ascertain if they are reading and writing properly and that you can restore a file from them back to your computer. Can you recover the thousands of irreplaceable photographs you have backed up to that single external hard drive that you’ve been using for the last five or six years? One of my external drives went belly up recently. Yours can too.
And finally, please don’t be complacent and dismiss our unfortunate friend’s experience thinking, “This could never happen to me. After all, I have this brand new,
ultra-expensive, space gray, tricked out 15” MacBook Pro complete with the new touch bar.” Although not very common these days, new drives, both spinning and SSD, can and do fail.
Remember, although today’s SSD drives are considerably more reliable than the old spinning type, there are still only two kinds of computer drives and SSD’s: the dead and the dying.
Most of us are constantly collecting bits and pieces of information that we find interesting and useful. We’ll read some household or technical tip on the internet that we say “hey, I could use that someday.” So we file that away in our brain, or maybe write it on a piece of paper and put it in a stack with all the other bits of useful knowledge.
Then, three weeks, or three months later we have an occasion to need this bit of knowledge, but we not only can’t remember it but can’t even find the piece of paper.
There is a better way. Start creating your own Personal Knowledge Library (PKL). A couple of years ago I talked about creating a reference library of all your user guides and equipment manuals. A PKL takes this concept one step further and becomes your long-term memory assistant. You might even call it your personal Wikipedia (or for us older folks, a personal Encylopedia Brittanica).
So, how to get started?
First, you will need to decide on an app to use to house your PKL. Ideally, you want one that is easy to use, can store many types of information and is searchable. Also, you would like your information to be accessible from your computer and your iDevices. The app should contain your collection of knowledge in a single file or database but have the ability to easily export stored information in a variety of formats.
Theoretically, you could do the same thing by saving everything in individual files on your computer, but this would quickly become a nightmare and defeat the entire purpose of your PKL.
Next, think about some of the categories you might want to use to identify your knowledge entries. I would suggest starting with some simple ones and expanding later — any good PKL app will make it easy to modify and add to your organization structure as it goes. For example, you might start with simple categories like household tips, technical tips, OMUG newsletters (saved as PDFs), favorite websites, travel plans, and important documents.
Finally, get an app and start using it. There are many to choose from, but here are a few to try. You might want to try several of these for a few days to see what works for you.
Apple Notes: This app is on all Macs and iDevices. The latest version of Notes in Sierra and iOS 10 satisfy many of the requirements but is not as flexible as some of the other choices. It is good for quick notes such as shopping lists that you want to use on your iDevice. Sharing between Mac and iDevices is done through iCloud.
Evernote: This cloud-based service is free, is easy to use, and has downloadable apps for the desktop and iDevices. Also, there are browser extensions that make it very easy to clip information from the web for later retrieval. There are paid upgrades available, but most users will be happy with the free version. Sharing between Mac, PC, iDevices, and Androids is done through Evernote’s web-based servers.
Microsoft OneNote: OneNote has been around for years on the PC and is now available on Macs and iDevices. It is free but requires you to have a Microsoft OneDrive account to allow sharing of documents. The user interface can be a little confusing but you might give it a try to see if it works for you.
DEVONthink: Devonthink is the best of the bunch in terms of power, flexibility, and searchability. You can dump almost anything in it and almost instantly find it later. It isn’t free, but there are several versions available and you can get a fully functional trial version to see if it is what you want. I have used DEVONthink as my own PKL since I switched to a Mac about ten years ago. DEVONthink knowledge bases can be shared using Dropbox, iCloud, Box, and a number of other services.
There are many, many other choices out there, but the best thing is to pick one or two and just get started. I think you will find that having your own Personal Knowledge Library will be one of the most useful tools on your Mac! Think of something like Apple Notes as your short-term memory and Evernote or Devonthink as your long-term memory.
Too many times when I am helping customers I get a blank stare when I ask for their Apple ID. Some quickly look through scraps of paper while oters just start guessing. You Apple ID is the personal account you use to access Apple services like the App Store, iTunes Store, iCloud, iMessage, the Apple Online Store, FaceTime, and more. It includes the email address and password you use to sign in, as well as all the contact, payment, and security details that you’ll use across Apple services. So, yes it is important and you should remember it.
Setting up an Apple ID
Okay, so you are new to the Mac and want to take advantage of all that iCloud stuff, FaceTime and buy stuff at the App store. You need to set up your Apple ID. Before you run off to create a new Apple ID, consider whether it might be better to continue using one you already have. Remember that you might not be able to move data or purchases from an old Apple ID to a new one.
If you aren’t sure if you already have an Apple ID, Apple can help you find it. If your email address has changed, you can change the address you use for your current Apple ID to continue using it.
A valid email address to use as your Apple ID username.
A strong password.
Your date of birth.
Three security questions and answers to verify your identity and a rescue email address. You can also use this information to reset your password.
It really doesn’t work well to have multiple Apple IDs and they cannot be combined after the fact so be careful to only set up one that you will use for a long time.
Managing your Apple ID
Things change. You may have to change your email address, you may want to change your password or payment method. You can do all this at the Apple ID Account page (https://appleid.apple.com/#!&page=signin). Here you can:
Update your Apple ID email address to make sure it’s an address that you use frequently.
Change your password to help maintain the security of your account.
Manage your payment information to keep your payment method or billing address up to date.
Add additional email addresses to help people find and communicate with you on Apple services like FaceTime, iMessage, Game Center, and Find My Friends.
See and manage the devices that you’re signed in to with your Apple ID.
Setting up an Apple ID without a Credit Card
If you already have an Apple ID and want to remove your payment method it is easy. You can choose to remove the payment method for your existing Apple ID after you have signed in to the iTunes Store, App Store, or iBooks Store. You won’t be asked for a payment method again until you make a purchase.
If you are just setting up an Apple ID you can do so without a payment method. On a iPhone, iPad or iPod touch follow these steps:
Open the App Store app, iTunes Store app, or iBooks app.
Choose any free app, song, video, or book.
Tap iOS Get button next to the item, then tap again to get it.
When you’re asked to sign in with an Apple ID, tap Create New Apple ID.
Follow the onscreen instructions. When you’re asked for payment information, choose None.
After you enter your information, you’re asked to verify your Apple ID by email. You must verify your Apple ID before you can begin using it.
It is a little bit different if you are setting it up on your Mac.
Open iTunes, then go to the iTunes Store.
Scroll down and find the country or region flag in the lower-right corner of the window. If it’s not the flag of the country or region where you live, click it and choose your country or region.
From the menu in the upper-left corner, choose Music,TV Shows,bApps, or Books.
Download a free song, TV episode, app, or book. To find free items, look under Quick Links on the right side of the iTunes Store window for any link that includes the word “free.” When you find a free item, click Get beneath its icon.
When you’re asked to sign in with an Apple ID, click Create Apple ID.
Follow the onscreen instructions. When you’re asked for payment information, choose None as the payment type.
After you enter your information, you’re asked to verify your Apple ID by email. You must verify your Apple ID before you can begin using it.
Protecting your Apple ID
Make a strong password, use uppercase and lowercase, numbers and letters and not your dog’s name
Reset your security questions to make sure they’re easy for you to remember but hard for others to guess.
Add a rescue email address. If you forget your password or the answers to your security questions, your rescue email address will help you regain access to your account.
If you haven’t already, set up two-step verification or two-factor authentication to add an extra layer of security to your account.
Sharing your Apple ID
Your Apple ID should not be shared with anyone else. It provides access to personal information including contacts, photos, device backups, and more. Sharing your Apple ID with someone else means you are giving them access to all your personal content and may lead to confusion over who actually owns the account. To share iTunes & App Store purchases, photos, a calendar, and more with someone else, try Family Sharing, iCloud Photo Sharing, or other easy-to-use sharing features.
By Phil DavisPublished February 2012; Updated December 2016
Use Keyboard Shortcuts
Screenshots can be made using these shortcuts.
Capture screen, save to file CMD+SHIFT+3
Capture screen, save to clipboard CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+3
Capture a selection, save to file CMD+SHIFT+4
Capture a selection, save to clipboard CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+4
Use the Grab Application
You can also make use of Grab application which is included with the Mac OS. You can find it at /applications/utilities/grab. The captured image can be saved to a file or can be copied to another application.
Select Capture from the Menu
Select the type of capture needed (Selection, Window, Screen, Timed Screen)
Select FILE > SAVE to save the image, or
Select EDIT > COPY to put the image into the clipboard
Or, use the following keyboard shortcuts
Capture selection CMD+SHIFT+A
Capture window CMD+SHIFT+W
Capture screen CMD+Z
Timed capture of screen CMD+SHIFT+Z (capture occurs 10 seconds after selection)
Use the Preview Application
Preview gives you the ability to annotate your capture without the use of other software.
Open Preview (from the Dock or from the applications menu)
Select FILE > TAKE SCREENSHOT
Select FROM SELECTION, or FROM WINDOW, or FROM ENTIRE SCREEN
If desired annotate the capture: Select TOOLS > ANNOTATE
By Phil Davis Published December 2011; Updated December 2016
Use Spotlight to Launch Applications
The simplest and fastest way to launch an application is to use Spotlight. Use the keyboard shortcut CMD+SpaceBar to open Spotlight, enter the name of the app (usually you only need the first few characters) and click on the app’s icon. It couldn’t be simpler!
Look For The Obvious
When trying to track down a vexing computer problem most of us will spend a lot of time on google, asking experts, calling Apple, etc. However, sometimes we are so immersed in the details we forget to look for the most obvious cause.
In a recent blog, the author was trying to uncover the cause of a drastic slowdown in his iMac’s performance. Nothing worked until he happened to notice that there were 0 GB left on the hard drive! Once he deleted about 10 GB of unneeded files, the Mac ran fine.
Remember: try to keep at least 15% of your hard drive free.
A Quick Way To Add a Software License Items to 1Password
One of 1Password’s features is the ability to securely store all your software licenses. The normal way is to use File > New Item > New Software License from the 1Password menu.
However, a faster way is to view your applications in the Finder, then drag-and-drop the app’s icon onto 1Password’s Dock icon and a new license item will be created with most of the needed information. Then you can paste your license into the new item for safe keeping.
Use Preview to Sharpen Text
Sometimes you have a PDF file that has fonts that are faint or in a color that is hard to read. With Preview you can adjust the contrast somewhat to increase the contrast.* Open the PDF with Preview* Choose File > Export* Click on the Quartz Filter drop-down menu and select Lightness Decrease* Click Save
Force a Disk to “Unmount”
Sometimes Mac OS X goes a little crazy and won’t let you eject an external drive, even after it’s no longer in use by any application. If you can’t unmount a disk even after all open applications are closed, and don’t want to restart your machine, this little Terminal trick is for you.
Open the Terminal utility, and type:
diskutil unmountDisk force /Volumes/DISK_NAME
Replace DISK_NAME with the volume name (yes, it is case sensitive) and you are all set!
By: Phil Davis. Published April 2013; Updated December 2016
You just bought your shiny new Mac and you are anxious to get started using it. However, you might want to take a few minutes to understand (and document) what you have before downloading all those apps.
Here are three easy ways to learn about your Mac.
Use About My Computer
The easiest way to see what is inside that fancy box is to click the Apple icon in the upper left corner and select About This Mac. You will see the version of OS X installed on your computer, the processor type and speed, the amount of memory, and the name of the start-up disk.
If you click Displays, Storage, or Memory at the top of the small window you will get even more useful information. The storage window is one of the most useful as you can see how much space is left on your startup drive.
If you click back to the Overview page and select System Report you will get all the gory details of all your hardware and software.
Get a Manual and a Specification Sheet for Your Computer
If you click on Support you can download a PDF copy of your computer’s manual (1) and spec sheet (2). Your serial number will be used to get the correct information.
This is also a quick way to get hardware and software information from Apple.
Your final source of information is to download a free app called MacTracker. Go here and grab this little gem http://mactracker.ca/.
Mactracker provides detailed information on every Apple Macintosh computer ever made, including items such as processor speed, memory, optical drives, graphic cards, supported OS versions, and expansion options. There is also information about Apple mice, keyboards, displays, printers, scanners, speakers, cameras, iPod, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Wi-Fi products, Newton, iOS, Mac OS, and OS X versions.
Now, you will be able to start downloading those apps, learn how to master your machine and start on the road to becoming a Mac wizard.
In last week’s article, I discussed how iCloud Photo Library works to synchronize all of your photos and videos on all of your devices — Mac, iOS, Apple TV, Windows PCs and so on — so that regardless of the storage available on any device, you have access to your entire visual media library. iCloud Photo Library provides a constant and thorough backup of all of your photos and video as well, without having to put any thought or effort into the process.
But iCloud Photo Library does have some downsides. In order to store all of your imagery — particularly if you also use iCloud for document storage — you may need to have a rather pricey 1TB or 2TB iCloud plan at $9.99 or $19.99 per month. But probably the most frustrating downside for many users of iCloud Photo Library is that deleting an image or video on any device results in that being deleted from all of your devices (see image below).
Delete from one, delete from all
In today’s post I’ll cover alternative ways to store a large photo library and show you a method by which you can still delete a photo from one device and keep it on the others.
My Photo Stream
My Photo Stream is a combination of a Photos album and an Apple service that is designed to take your latest photos (it does NOT work with video) and make them available on all of your devices. Enabling it is simple. On iOS devices, just go to Settings > iCloud > Photos and tap the button to “Upload to My Photo Stream” (see image below).
(Enable “Upload to My Photo Stream” to send new photos to all iCloud devices)
On macOS, the process is similar; launch System Preferences, select iCloud, select Photos, and then make sure My Photo Stream is turned on (see image below).
(Turning on My Photo Stream in macOS)
As you can see from the description of My Photo Stream in macOS, it allows you to “Import your recent photos from devices without iCloud Photo Library and send new photos to the My Photo Stream Album on those devices.” In other words, when you take photos on your iPhone or add them to a Mac from a DSLR or other source, My Photo Stream sends those images automatically to an album called My Photo Stream that appears on all devices.
You’ll notice that iCloud Photo Library is turned off in the screenshot above. It doesn’t need to be — if you are using iCloud Photo Library you can also use My Photo Stream. So what’s the difference in how they work? My Photo Stream is designed to upload the most recent photos you’ve taken so that you can view and import them to all of your devices. Photos are only stored in My Photo Stream for 30 days, so if iCloud Photo Library is shut off, you need to move items from My Photo Stream to other albums. If you use both iCloud Photo Library and My Photo Stream, photos added to My Photo Stream appear in the All Photos tab in the Photos app, where they’re then organized in Moments, Collections and Years.
So how can you use My Photo Stream as an iCloud Photo Library alternative? Using My Photo Stream alone ensures that all new photos taken with iOS devices are moved to your Mac (or PC) where you can manually decide which ones you wish to keep and move them into separate albums. Note that your photos and videos are not backed up to the cloud with My Photo Stream, so you’ll need to manually back up your photos to an external drive. One other caveat — your photo library will not be synchronized across devices. My Photo Stream is essentially just a good method of making sure that new photos are distributed to other devices so you can determine what you wish to do with them.
On the plus side, photos deleted from My Photo Stream on your iOS device or Mac (done by clicking the trash can button or clicking Delete) removes those from both Photos and iCloud. The photos imported from My Photo Stream to other devices aren’t deleted, so this is one way to get around that “Delete from all devices” message seen at the top of this post.
Prime Photos from Amazon
Prime Photos from Amazon
Amazon Prime customers who shoot a lot of photos and video should look into the Prime Photos from Amazon app (free) as an alternative to iCloud Photo Library. As part of the Amazon Prime perks, users get unlimited photo and video storage and can even collect imagery from friends or family for inclusion in a “memory”. The app is highly rated (4+ with over 350 reviews for the most recent version) and like iCloud Photo Library, it automatically backs up every image you capture.
The iOS app is fast and well-designed, and Mac and PC users can get work with their photo libraries in any web browser.
What free photos app has even a better rating than Prime Photos from Amazon? Google Photos, which is running a ridiculous 5-star rating with almost 2,300 reviews in the App Store. Like Prime Photos from Amazon, Google Photos can be used as an alternate “shoebox” in which to safely store all of your imagery.
Images can be up to 16 megapixels in size, while video can be up to 1080p HD. Beyond that, you’re probably best off with a more professional solution, like storing everything locally on fast RAID drives (the ThunderBay 4 family is perfect for this or any other number of external solutions from MacSales.com) and then using a cloud backup for an offsite solution.
There are other third-party solutions, but watch out — over the years, a number of third-party photo storage/syncing services have gone out of business, leaving customers to download their photo libraries in a hurry and then find another place to store all of those images. It’s probably a good idea to stay with one of the “big three”: Apple, Amazon or Google.