Hey Chief Heathen: What is Apple Pay, and why should I care?

Glad you asked. Go read this and be enlightened. It includes a minimum of background about how credit cards are processed today, and why Apple Pay is different, but the real money shot is this:

Credit card security falls down because every merchant gets a copy of your credit card number, but virtually none of them really safeguard that information, so you end up with situations like the Target breach. With Apple Pay, the merchant never has your credit card number at all.

Now, some merchants are up in arms about Apple Pay because the card number isn’t the only info they don’t get — in fact, they get just about nothing, because Apple Pay doesn’t have to leak any of that demographic information at point of sale. This is a feature, not a bug, but some merchants (Rite Aid, for example) don’t see it this way because they want to use the demo data to market to you, or to sell to advertisers as an alternate revenue stream, or whatever. That’s not your problem, though.

For a consumer, Apple Pay is a slam dunk good idea. Embrace it if you can, or whenever you get a device that supports it.

(Via DaringFireball.)

Hey Chief Heathen! Where’d them header images come from?

Glad you asked.

tl;dr: They’re all mine, and before today were mostly all on my Flickr. I selected, obviously, for pics that might look interesting when cropped to the window available above. WordPress randomly selects one when the page is built, so you get a different one nearly every time.

This link is to a gallery of the full-size images, in the event you’re curious to see them, or their context. The oldest of them are from 2005, and were taken with a point-and-shoot.

Hey Chief Heathen! How about those new iPhones?

You know what i know at this point. It’s been 2 years; I’ll probably get one, but it’s not clear yet which. I’ll definitely get the 128GB model either way.

By the by, if you’re curious about how the sizes actually stack up, Ars Technica has this handy PDF template you can print out that’ll give you a sense for their sizes.

I was surprised to learn this, but despite all the chatter about how huge the 6 Plus is supposed to be, it turns out it’s about the size of two standard checkbooks stacked on top of each other (3×6 inches).

  • The iPhone 6 Plus is 6.22 x 3.06.
  • The regular iPhone 6 is 5.44 x 2.64.
  • An iPhone 5 is 4.87 x 2.31.

What We’ve Learned: Burglary Edition

Right, so, we got robbed.

Late enough Friday night for to actually be Saturday morning, someone tossed a big-ass decorative stone through our downstairs sliding glass door and made off with my laptop and my backpack, which contained a variety of other delights including my camera and some really nice headphones. Awesome.

Let’s take a look at the tape:

Amazingly, there’s good news
You know what I didn’t lose? Any data whatsoever, thanks to Time Machine, CrashPlan, and Dropbox. Well, mostly the first, since that was the only one I needed to reconstitute my working environment, but had the nefarious jackholes grabbed the backup drive, too, I’d have the extra backups. Food for thought.
So how’d that go?
I ordered a new Macbook online and scheduled in-store pickup in Highland Village. I picked it up, took it home, plugged it into my Time Machine drive, and went to this little guy’s birthday party. When I got home, my computer was basically right where I left it — browser windows and all. Beat that.
Amusing Lesson Number 1
You can, with a big enough check, have your glass door replaced in the middle of the goddamn night.
Did they bring a shop vac and help clean up the glass?
Yes, they brought a shop vac and helped to clean up the glass.
What about Brenda? Is she really gonna move in with that guy?
Apparently so.
Who’s Brenda?
I have no idea, but the glass dudes were seriously discussing it.
So did the alarm go off?
Nope. Somehow, the crazy single lady who lived here first didn’t think to put a glass break sensor in the room where *30% of the wall is glass**. Go figure. Yeah, fixing that ASAP.
Amusing Lesson Number 2
This being Texas, the cops were utterly uninterested in the (obviously, completely, totally unloaded) handgun on the entryway table once I told them it was mine and not evidence.
Do we feel good about that safe now?
You bet your ass.
In which the wonders of plastics are explored
In searching for security solutions to the back door problem, I came across the fact that 3M is doing some pretty amazing stuff with window film. Sure, they can block heat and UV, but they’ve gone much farther than that. Like, you can get stuff strong enough to prevent the “flying daggers of bloody death” hurricane feature, and that will slow down or stymie a would-be burglar. More noise and less progress is anathema to that line of work, so it may well be that we eschew the “ghetto prison” look and go for for some space-age polymers instead.
Amusing Lesson Number 3
If you make enough noise, ADT will promise to help you sooner than October. Score one for “firmly assertive” and “willing to take your business elsewhere”.
Amusing Lesson Number 4
I feel really, really good about my decision to consolidate sensitive information in 1Password now. You should seriously be considering this for your laptops, too, unless you have some sort of whole-disk encryption thing going on.
Do you leave the laptop downstairs anymore?
Are you fucking kidding me?
Does your downstairs look like a holdout set from a zombie movie?
Shut up.

The cloud comes with risks. Behave accordingly.

First, let me preface this by saying “behave accordingly” doesn’t mean “eschew the cloud.” Networked, connected computing can give us far too many benefits to abandon as a concept. However, as is often the case, new paradigms mean new risks and new ways of protecting yourself.

Now, read this terrifying article. The subject of the hack is a tech journalists who should have known better, and could have ameliorated the damage done with some very simple steps. That he did not have backups of his primary machine is, frankly, mind boggling — especially when it was the only place his digital photos of his newborn daughter were stored. (Really? On a Mac, with Time Machine as an option? WTF?)

If you’ve read the whole thing, either now or before, you know the drill:

  • Bad guys got his Amazon, Apple, GMail, and Twitter accounts easily because all were connected.
  • They were particularly savvy at exploiting what amounts to an inadvertent security hole that exists only because of complementary policies at Apple and Amazon.
  • They locked and remotely wiped his phone and laptop.

They did all this because they wanted his Twitter handle, no shit. What they could have done, but did not, was extend their nefariousness to his financial life; after all, they had full control of his email.

Hey Chief Heathen, What Should I Do?

Lots.

  1. First and foremost, if you use Gmail, enable two-factor authentication on your Gmail account. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Basically, after you configure it, you can’t log into your Gmail account from a random, other computer without ALSO having access to your phone, because Google will insist on texting you a security code you must provide as part of the login process from a non-trusted computer. This makes compromising your email WAY harder. (This may sound familiar if you bank with Chase; they do something similar. If your bank doesn’t, find another bank.)

  2. If you use a Mac, do NOT use “Find my Mac” until Apple secures it better. (Two-factor would make a big difference here.) This is not to say a stolen-laptop service like Prey isn’t a good idea; they are. It’s just that Apple’s combination of approach and (lack of) security here is what allowed the bad guys to remotely wipe the victim’s machine. Oops.

  3. DO NOT USE THE SAME LOGIN AND PASSWORD ON ANY TWO ACCOUNTS ANYWHERE. Yeah, I know this sounds onerous. Trust me. It’s important. Using a good password assistant program, and it’s much easier. The nice ones include browser plug-ins that will fill logins for you, so you don’t even have to remember passwords anymore. I like 1Password which, as a bonus, has a simple password generator built in. It costs money, but is well worth it.

  4. Finally: Backups, backups, backups. I’ve talked about this before, and my methods are still the same: Time Machine, Super Duper, CrashPlan, and Dropbox. Yes, all four. Trust me. I know things.

HEY CHIEF HEATHEN! Should I buy a new iPhone?

No, not yet.

Apple is widely believe to be preparing the next iPhone (and let’s be clear; they won’t call it the iPhone 5 — expect it to be “the New iPhone” just like the 3rd iteration of the iPad was simply “the new iPad”) for release very soon. While they’re notoriously tricksy and secretive, we can divine at least a little information from past behavior and market realities.

Above all, Apple is certain to want at least one if not more than one new product in hand going into the holiday quarter.

Second, we can look at the release dates and “life spans” of the prior iPhone versions:

Iteration Release Date Duration to next version
Original iPhone 6/29/2007 378 days, or 1.04 years
iPhone 3G 7/11/2008 343 days, or 0.94 years
iPhone 3GS 6/19/2009 370 days, or 1.01 years
iPhone 4 6/24/2010 477 days, or 1.31 years
iPhone 4S 10/14/2011 ?

Third, we can pay attention, just a little, to the rumors circulating now about a September release date.

Many times when we try to read the tea leaves, we get conflicting information.

This is not one of those times:

  • To get product in the channel for Christmas, Apple needs to release the phone in September.
  • The past release cycles strongly suggest Apple prefers to have a model be top dog for about year — n.b. that the 4S release date was basically acknowledged as a delay, and that Apple’s intent was probably to release the 4S in the summer as well. The 4S’ release date? Just about a year ago.
  • Finally, actual rumors are circulating that also say “September.”

So, your iPhone is messing up? Battery life sucks? Screen broken? Tough it out. Mrs Heathen’s battery doesn’t last a whole day anymore, and my home button only works about half the time. But neither of us are at all interested in buying a 4S within 60 days of its replacement, and neither should you be.

Import Update for Mac People

No, not Mountain Lion, though that’s kinda important, too. (Official Heathen rec: As with all major upgrades, wait 3-6 months.)

I mean the all-important question of “what virtualization platform to use?” Since the Mac platform migrated to Intel chips, it’s been possible to run Windows in a window at near-native speeds — I do it all day, even running SQL Server and IIS locally, with completely acceptable performance.

Now, your needs probably aren’t my needs, but few are the Mac folks who don’t have at least one Windows holdout program they can’t quite get rid of. (For my mom, it’s Quicken, for example.)

Up to now, the go-to options for non-techie types were VMWare Fusion, from a company that made its name on server-side virtualization in high-availability environments, and something called Parallels (no link; keep reading for why) from a company that just does Mac desktop virtualization. For me, that choice has always been pretty simple: Go with the guys who do this for a living on lots of levels. They know more.

Historically, Parallels has performed pretty well, too, and in some areas was actually better than Fusion (mostly graphics, which doesn’t matter to me). I generally gave no recommendation to folks beyond “pick whichever of these is on sale.”

That’s no longer true. Parallels, apparently, actively spams its users with in-app advertisements and sales pitches, and makes it very difficult to turn this off, even to the point of deleting messages on their support forums sharing the command line (!) required to do so.

Their statement on the subject is a cornucopia of weasel-words and bullshit:

We use in-product notifications to share several types of information with our customers. First, and most importantly, we share information about product updates which are generally related to compatibility with OS X, new features and product enhancements. Second, we occasionally share special offers from Parallels or other third party companies who provide special deals for our customers. Many of our customers rely on the information about product updates and appreciate the special deals for products that are of interest to them.

Individual notifications can be turned off by clicking the “don’t show this again” button. However, because customers need to receive important product information, there is not a mechanism for customers to completely disable notifications.

This, of course, is a lie; there IS a terminal command you can issue to disable it. That line is:

defaults write com.parallels.Parallels\ Desktop ProductPromo.ForcePromoOff -bool YES

Parallels isn’t shareware or freeware. It costs real money — typically about the same as Fusion, which is nearly a hundred bucks. It’s absolutely inexcusable that they’re insisting on this spamming behavior, and doubling down by (first) lying about the fact that it CAN be disabled and (second) trying to keep people from discovering this truth.

Do not buy Parallels. Send your dollars to VMWare. They’ve had plenty of time to address this; it’s clear this behavior is deliberate, and that they have no intentions of changing. Vote with your money.

(h/t: Fireball.)

What were they thinking?

Apparently, it’s possible on some Android devices to allow Facebook to take over and manage your address book based on your friends list.

Yeah, I know, right? What a HORRIBLE HORRIBLE IDEA.

If you reacted as I did, it should come as no surprise to you that this turned out to be a horrible, horrible idea.

Don’t outsource that kind of thing, people. Especially don’t outsource it to a “free” service that makes billions by selling information about you, and that has a financial motive to push you away from normal channels of communication and towards methods that rely on a private service.

Facebook will fuck you if you let them. Keep as little information there as you can, and don’t let them worm their way into other aspects of your life. It’s not worth it.

Hey Heathen! How do YOU use Facebook?

Glad you asked.

Lock down your profile
Only some friends can see my activity. I decided long ago that I’d accept requests from most people I know, or have known, but most of those distant connections go into a group that can neither see nor comment on any activity on my wall.
Sanitize the info in your profile
I keep essentially ZERO personal data in my profile. Not my job, not my real world address, etc.
Never use your Facebook login on other sites
This ought to be easy. Doing this gives Facebook access to all your activity on any site that uses your Facebook credentials. Seriously, don’t do this.
Use a dedicated browser
This is the biggie. I don’t go to Facebook with my regular browser. I use Chrome for most of my web activities, and I allow Chrome to store some limited login information about various sites. That makes my life easier. On the other hand, Chrome is also configured to explicitly block most ads as well as nearly all site-to-site tracking methods.

This means some sites won’t work right for me. I’m okay with that. When I run into a problem site, I switch over to Safari, which is set up with much more permissive settings — but it’s also set up to purge all local cookies and data every time I quit. Chrome runs for weeks at a time on my laptop, but Safari is quit and restarted every time I need it to protect my privacy.

Because Facebook is so craven and shameless about snooping on its members, I only ever visit Facebook with Safari.

How To Tell If You’re Irritating Your Customers

Just about everyone gets this wrong, including the joint that cuts my hair, so let me break this down for you.

Unless you ask me explicitly for my okay, you do not have permission to add me to your email marketing list. I’ve given you a phone number and an email solely for the purpose of communicating with me about meaningful things, and that does not include advertising. Email was bad enough; but you absolutely do not have my permission to send me a text message advertising your new text-message reminder service.

A great rule of thumb is this: If you need to communicate with me, specifically, about something connected to my business relationship with you — if, for example, you need to reschedule an appointment — then by all means contact me.

On the other hand, if you’re using an automated bulk service to send the message? It’s mostly likely garbage. Don’t waste our time.

(Confidential to the entire bulk mail industry: You realize that, every time someone does this, more and more folks block email from companies like ConstantContact and DemandForce at the server level, rendering your offering less effective, right?)

Hey Chief Heathen: Talk To Me About Backups

I’ve just had a pair of calls from a very, very frantic friend. In a hustle to get to the airport this afternoon, he managed to (a) not close his SUV’s tailgate; (b) only close it remotely once he got 50 yards down his street; and therefore (c) not notice his laptop bag had fallen out until he got to the airport. Upon return to his street, of course, an hour or more had passed and the bag was nowhere to be found. And his only backup drive was in the bag, too. And, to add insult to injury, he had no password on the computer, which contained lots of personal financial information in unencrypted files.

So he called me. He had no online or secondary backups. He hadn’t signed up for a stolen-laptop service. Did I know of any other way he could track or try to recover the computer? Sadly, no, I don’t. I gave him some pointers on identity theft prevention and protection, but that was about all I could do. His computer — with all his tax information, his business files, his contacts, his pictures, his digital life, was simply gone.

Now, if you don’t have an ugly bolus of nausea in the pit of your stomach right now, well, you’re made of stouter stuff than I am.

I’ve spoken before at some length about the supreme importance of backups, and how critical it is to have more than one kind, in more than one place. My friend had made a few seemingly small errors here that compounded into a seriously catastrophic situation. Read along now, and figure out where YOU would be if it were your laptop box and not his.

Device Security
First, security. Your laptop needs a password, for sure. Try to make it a good one. You don’t want just any nefarious goon to be able to sniff around on your laptop. You wouldn’t leave your home unlocked; you shouldn’t leave your data unlocked, either.

Data Security
Security extends beyond this, though. For truly sensitive information, like bank account access information, or passwords to credit card accounts, you should use some kind of encrypted storage. I like 1Password, which takes this idea to the next level. In addition to storing my passwords and account numbers in an encrypted file that locks after a few minutes of idleness, it includes the ability to create secure password AND a browser plug-in that makes remembering those secure passwords unnecessary. Just click the toolbar button, and 1Password notices I’m at Chase and fills in the right info. (Obviously, if the db hasn’t been used in a while, it’ll demand my passphrase — but it’s easier to remember one long, secure password than a whole bunch of them.) Cost: $49.99 for Mac or Windows license; $14.99 for companion iPhone/iPad app. Browser plug-ins are free.

Computer Recovery
There is also now a whole class of tools designed to make recovering a stolen laptop easier. The most famous is the Prey Project, discussed in some depth by Lifehacker here. Basically, you install it, and at an interval you choose it silently checks in with the Prey servers to see if the computer has been marked “stolen.” If that’s the case, it busily starts sending in all sorts of information about the theif’s activity — up to and including webcam pics. Prey is also free for up to 3 devices, which is kind of insane, but it’s well-reviewed and well-liked, and there are many examples of lost laptops being recovered using it, or using tools like it. I do not yet use any such tools, but I’m actively considering it. Cost: basic Prey is free for up to three devices; they have more elaborate plans and services, however.

Backups
My previous backup scheme, detailed in this space before, is unchanged. The driving principle is “measure your backups in spindles and time zones.”

Spindles are the “axles” inside hard drives. To measure by spindle is to count the ones involved in keeping your data safe. More spindles means more copies on more drives, which protects you from single points of physical failure.

Measuring by time zone means to keep physical separation between your data copies — keep some local, within easy reach, but keep some far away in the event of a local cataclysm. (And for God’s sake don’t put your only backup in your laptop bag.)

To recap:

  • Apple’s Time Machine runs all day every day. This is powerful, because of instead of just “big dumb copies” it keeps up with file versions. I used to just make a copy of my hard drive periodically, but that’s not enough, because if a region of your drive starts to go it’ll destroy files well before the problem is obvious. By dutifully copying my drive to my backup drive every week, I just spread the corruption to the backup drive, too, and in so doing lost a whole bunch of data — including about a year’s worth of pictures. Time Machine protects you from a drive or computer failure, but it also protects you from more subtle failures like the one I experienced. Best of all: it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. As long as the backup drive is accessible, Time Machine will work with no intervention from you. (I still don’t know a good Windows option here.) Cost: Free with Macs.

  • I keep all my active files in Dropbox, which sucks copies into my folder there more or less instantly. Dropbox is really meant for synchronization between multiple computers (say, your work PC and your home PC), but the basic mechanics of the tool mean it’s a great extra backup step, too. Fun fact: about 18 months ago, my laptop went dark all of a sudden, in the middle of the day. No power, no nothing. I made an Apple Store appointment and then just powered on my backup computer, and the file I was working on was already there, thanks to Dropbox. Can’t beat that. Cost: Free for up to 2GB; I pay $9.99 a month for 50GB.

  • Periodically — before any major change to my laptop, or before any long trip — I make a perfect clone of my laptop’s hard drive using SuperDuper. Despite the trouble I mentioned before, keeping a clone around of your hard drive is a good idea — especially if you travel. Imagine how much less freaked out my friend would have been if, inside on his desk, a perfect copy of his data was safe and sound? In the ideal case, you keep TWO such copies and rotate them between two different locations. For example, during Hurricane Ike, one of my cloned drives was in Erin’s office on the 43rd floor of a building downtown and presumably therefore flood-safe. Cost: $27.95.

  • The final step for me is Crashplan, but competitors Mozy and Carbonite are also well regarded. (And Mozy is probably better for less-sophisticated users.) These are online, so-called “cloud” backup tools. You configure the client to protect certain folders or groups of folders, and the data is slowly and securely uploaded to the service. Once the initial backup is complete, only changes go up the wire. This type of tool is of HUGE value for three reasons: First, it happens automatically. Second, by definition the backups these tools perform are offsite, far away — your house could burn down, and you’d still have whatever data you stored there. Third, because these tools store file histories, you get protection from the “creeping corruption” problem that stung me years ago. I keep about 140GB of data backed up with CrashPlan, including over 100GB worth of photos. (While I just waited for the first backup to be done (it took a couple months), most of these services will allow you to seed your backup by sending in a portable hard drive.) Cost: Varies by service, and usually paid by the gigabyte. MozyHome is $4.99 for up to 50GB, e.g.

This Sounds Complicated!
It’s really not. If you know me well enough to have my phone number, you also know that I’ll help you with this. Don’t put it off. Do it today, or at least this weekend. Your data is important.

Epilogue
Now, I do have a little bit of extra news. I mentioned before that my friend had called twice. I got the disaster rundown in the first call, but an hour or two later he called back. It seems his neighbor had seen what happened, and collected the bag for him. Bullet dodged, of course, but you can be sure my pal is busily acquainting himself with the tools and services listed in this post. I think I’ll send him a link to it, just in case. For reference.

As for you, dear Heathen public, don’t count on having such a kind neighbor or such extraordinary luck. Protect yourself.

Hey Chief Heathen! What’s all this foofooraw about the Cloud?

Well, odds are, you already use “The Cloud.” The term refers to any product or service that lives in whole or in part on computers provided by some other party. For example, your Gmail is in “the Cloud.” Flickr is a “cloud service” for sharing photos. Every social network lives in the “cloud.” Basically, somebody decided a little while ago that marketing this “cloud” thing like it’s some new magic fairy dust was a good idea, but mostly it’s just confused the nontechnical people I know. So, you know, yay marketing!

I love “cloud” services that involve both remote and local storage. I think of cloud-mediated syncing services as one of the best things to happen to my personal computing needs in like EVER. Instead of keeping my handheld in sync with my desktop by religiously plugging a cable in and pressing the Big Sync Button (like I had to do with Palms), today it just happens silently via connections to central servers — for my mail, my addresses, my calendars, my notes, my working set of files, etc. It’s awesome.

There ARE cloud services that don’t use local storage at all, like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets. Mostly, I don’t use any kind of service where my work is residing only on someone else’s servers. I think this is a good guideline. With all my syncing mail and other data, I retain a full copy on my computers, and therefore on my various backup tools. Because I access my NoGators mail via a local mail program, Google could vanish and I’d still have all my mail, for example, because it’s all saved locally. Same with all my address and calendar data. (There are of course people who don’t do that, and trust Google not to accidentally fuck them. I think of this as a bad plan.)

With something like Google Docs, that isn’t the case. It’s only at Google. If Google fucks up and zaps your account, good luck getting that data back. I use GDocs for some things — collaboration, mostly — but not for real work for precisely this reason.

Other use cases make the cloud even more appealing: for example, there exist a whole HOST of cloud-based music streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora and others, that give you access to vast libraries of music without having to download anything or maintain a giant local media library. You need a reasonably robust Internet connection, but that’s easy in an urban area like Houston (even, I suspect, in GBV, ha ha). Sure, if the service goes away, you lose access to the music, but you also get to stop paying them. This may or may not be appealing to you, but it’s one use of the so-called cloud. (I use a low-end Spotify account ($5/month) as my “giant sampling account” — sometimes, it keeps me from buying music I only need to listen to a little bit to quash an earworm or whatever; other times, it convinces me that a CD or download is in order.)

Another area the cloud has completely revolutionized is backup. There are SEVERAL good, reputable cloud-based backup services, and I’d advise you to sign up with one. Apple’s TimeMachine does a pretty good job of protecting you, assuming you remember to keep the laptop plugged into a drive. Cloning your laptop’s drive to an external drive periodically is a great second option, and I do that, too — usually before big trips, or before OS upgrades. But the what most people forget to do is arrange for some kind of off-site backup, in the event of catastrophic household loss. Cloud based backups put your (encrypted) data elsewhere by slowly uploading the files and folders you designate, and then keeping the online copies up to date quietly, mostly in the background. House burns down? No problem. Have CrashPlan.com send you an HD of your most recent backup, and you’ve suddenly got all your photos and financial records and email back. This is HUGE.

Finally, you may have heard about a cloud-based service called Dropbox. Dropbox is pretty amazing. Basically, you can use it to keep a folder hierarchy in sync between an arbitrary number of computers. My main working folder is my Dropbox folder now. Everything is always in sync between my laptop, my backup laptop, and my little Mac Mini, just for safekeeping. Even better, I can log into the Dropbox web site and access any of the files from my Dropbox from any other computer — you may recall I pulled an MP3 out of my Dropbox at y’all’s house one evening. Dropbox also makes keeping a shared folder between two Dropbox users pretty trivial, and that’s an enormously powerful idea, too.

Dropbox, obviously, wouldn’t be possible without the so-called Cloud. (It’s also become the de facto network file system for lots of iPhone and iPad based tools, and I suspect their counterparts on Android and Blackberry.)

Apple has also jumped on this bandwagon with iCloud, which is an interesting initiative. Or, I should say, there are some interesting aspects to it. Now, any music, TV, or movies you buy from iTunes are always available to any device you register with your account, regardless of whether or not the file is in the local library. It’ll just download a new copy for you from Apple. That’s kind of neat.

So: Does this impact your actual HD space needs? Probably not. You’ll still have a large MP3 library in the house. You’ll still need space for pix. You may accumulate digital copies of movies. The cloud may make sharing these things easier, but for anything you mean to actually keep, you’ll want to store your own copy on some device in your own home. The so-called Cloud just makes it easier to move all this crap around, and access it whenever you want.

Hey, Chief Heathen! Which Mac Laptop Should I Buy?

I get this question rather a lot. Please note these recs are really only useful from now until Apple revs the product lines again, so check the date; I’m writing this on January 25, 2012.

Your main choice at this point is between a Macbook Air (which has replaced the old “just Macbook”) and a MacBook Pro. There are no white plastic Macbooks anymore.

Macbook Air Options

The Air is insanely slim and portable, and boasts absurd battery life. It’s also really, really zippy. The battery life and zippiness are in part because ALL Macbook Airs use the new SSD type drives, which have no moving parts (unlike traditional hard drives, which contain spinning platters). SSDs are more expensive per gigabyte than regular hard drives, though.

If you haven’t actually seen and touched one of these, please make a point of doing so before you buy something. It’s difficult to explain just how game-changing the size and weight on these things is. They feel as much like something from the future as an iPad, if not moreso. They’re whisperquiet, too.

Dimensions will help you picture it, but definitely go to the store and SEE them. Airs come in 2 sizes: 11″ and 13″. The 11″ is less than 2.4 pounds; the 13″ is just under 3. At their thickest point (they have a wedge-like cross section), both are about 0.68 inches.

The 11″ models are very small, but that cuts both ways. More portable, but less screen real estate.

The “baby” model ($999) also has only 64GB of storage, which is insanely tiny in 2012, and also only 2 GB of RAM. I would not buy this one.

The nicer 11″ model ($1,199) doubles both RAM and storage, and is probably a viable computer IF you don’t plan on:

  • Keeping a media library of any consequence (movies, tv shows, music)
  • Accumulating lots of digital photos (I have 100+ GB of just photos on my computer)
  • Running a Windows virtual machine (which would take probably 20 to 40GB all on its own).

The “lesser” 13″ model ($1,299) has the same storage and RAM as the nicer 11″, but is slightly faster and (obviously) has a bigger screen, so it has the same limitations.

The nicer 13″ model doubles the storage space again to 256GB, but keeps the RAM at 4GB. This is absolutely a reasonable computer for nearly any purpose except very serious photography or very serious virtualization. You even have room for a modest media library. However, it’s $1,599, or significantly more than a larger (but still way sleeker than Dell or HP or IBM) Pro model that would have more storage. If I were buying an Air, this is the model I would buy, but my needs are probably not your needs.

Macbook Pro Options

If you switch over to the more traditional MacBook Pros, you get a bigger computer, but also more net computing power for your money. Let’s qualify “bigger,” though — my 15″ Pro is still lighter and thinner than nearly all mainstream PC laptops. It only looks clunky next to an Air.

Pros come in 3 sizes. I’m going to assume you don’t need a 17″ monster, so really we’re talking about 13″ (same screen size as the bigger Air, but 4.5 pounds instead of 2.4) and 15″ (the size I’ve used forever; these are 5.6 pounds). There are 2 configurations each for the 2 sizes.

These computers come with significantly faster processors, but they won’t seem much if any faster than the Airs because they run traditional hard drives, which are MUCH MUCH slower than SSD.

Both sizes come in a “4GB RAM, 500GB drive” model ($1,199 at 13″ and $1,799 at 15″) as well as a “4GB, 750GB” configuration ($1,499 and $2,199). The 15″ computers are a little bit faster in terms of raw horsepower, but also include significantly nicer graphics chips (for gaming or video work).

Wouldn’t Those Big Professional Computers Run Circles Around The Tiny Air?

You’d think, but apparently not. The current Air is actually faster (when measured by CPU performance) than my Macbook Pro. Adding the speed boost due to the SSD makes the Air models seem absurdly, ridiculously fast when compared to almost anything using a traditional hard drive.

The chips in use in the Pro line are more powerful and faster, but for most users that extra power is wasted unless you’re doing photo or video work, or Windows virtualization, or gaming, etc.

Basically, it’s not an issue here.

Other Differences You May or May Not Care About

Only Pro models have the backlit keyboard.

Pro models also have more ports. The Air models have ONLY USB ports (2) and the new Thunderbolt port, which can support both superfast hard drives and external monitors. Note that this means Airs don’t even have a normal Ethernet port; it’s wireless only, unless you buy a USB adapter. Airs also lack a “Kensington Lock” slot, for laptop cable locks.

Pros include all the ports from the Air plus Ethernet, a FireWire 800 port (2x as fast as USB), and the Kensington slot. It’s possible none of this matters to you — I only use FireWire on my laptop, for example, for large bulk data moves. I use it on my Mac Mini that serves as our media repository, but that’s not a role I’d see a hypothetical Lindsey Air serving. Likewise Ethernet; outside of occasional weird hotels with hardwire-only net access, I never use that port.

Finally, the all Pro models have built-in optical drives. The optical drive for an Air is available as an external USB drive at $79.

What Does Chet Buy?

Well, that’s of little relation to your needs, but I generally buy the fastest 15″ model they make. I’ve done that several times, and it’s usually a hair under three grand when all is said and done. But I have needs you don’t have.

What Does Chet Tell His Mother To Buy?

A much more interesting question, since she’s sort of in the market right now; it turns out her nearly 6-year-old Macbook isn’t talking so well to her new $10,000 sewing machine.

(If your first thought there was “HOLY CHRIST FARMER I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW THEY MADE TEN THOUSAND DOLLAR SEWING MACHINES,” well, I’m right there with you.)

Anyway: I think the lesser 13″ Pro ($1,199) is the best deal in raw terms, but I’m a little on the fence, since the nicer 13″ Air ($1,599) is so sexy, light, and portable, and I still perceive nice laptops south of two grand as pretty good deals even though the Air is 1/3 more.

You’d definitely be paying a premium for portability (and, let’s note, stability — no moving parts in the HD makes it more robust) in both dollar and storage space terms. But I’m not certain I wouldn’t do it anyway just because of the sleek size and portability, especially if I were going to schlep it all the time.

Extra Notes

Apple remains the only vendor from whom I always buy an extended warranty. Add $250 depending on model, but that covers everything for 3 years (2 extra years over the basic warranty).

None of these devices have a “normal” (which is to say, VGA) monitor port. If you ever need to plug one into a projector to give a presentation, you’ll need an adapter. That’s extra.

Apple more or less ALWAYS has a no-interest deal going, and I always take advantage. It’s essentially free money.

You will of course want an external drive (USB is fine) of at least 2x the size of your internal drive to configure as your Time Machine backup. Trust me. I know things.

What About Software?

Depends on what you want to do with it. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but I’ll add that Microsoft Office ’11 (the Mac version) is pretty nice and, shockingly, isn’t very expensive ($149 for Home/Student, which omits Outlook, or $199 for Home/Biz which includes it). Use true-blue Office if you’re planning on swapping files with work. Use something else if you don’t need to bother with that. Some people will tell you that OpenOffice or Pages or Some Other Thing will swap files with Windows Office fine, but those people are liars. Trust me. I know things.