Vonage – How to keep your original home telephone, or office number, when you move

Ok, so this isn’t exactly a Mac topic, or even related to Apple. But because so many clients have opted to purchase the digital bundles offered by service providers – whereby phone, television (cable or satellite), and internet are provided together, it’s time to let you in on a secret. Despite what some people and companies will tell you, you CAN keep your number when you move. And I don’t mean just a move across town. I’m telling you if you move to the South of France, you can keep your 310 area code number, and receive calls there – inexpensively.

To hear phone companies tell it, it’s virtually impossible to keep the original home phone number you and your children have known and loved for years. The phone company may tell you it doesn’t serve the area you’re moving to, and that you will have to give up that number. The company servicing your new area may not only tell you it can’t get the number you had, but that you’ll have to use a new area code, such as 424, along with a new, foreign number. According to Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, for example, there aren’t enough 310 area code numbers to go around.

Not to offend the residents of Catalina Island, but who wants a 424 area code when living in Beverly Hills? It’s just absurd.A client faced this very situation when she moved from West LA to Beverly Hills. She had accepted the idea of getting a completely new number, but assumed that number would at least be within the 310 area code. Time Warner Cable, also the provider of internet and phone services these days, informed us that 310 area codes are just about sold out. There are few available. In fact,  the “pool” of available numbers that Time Warner has, was reduced to 424 area codes. That’s all the customers who need new numbers can get.

Baloney. Perhaps it’s all a customer can get with Time Warner, but there are plenty of 310 area code numbers out there. Between foreclosures, the bad economy and businesses shuttering across our country,  more “old” phone numbers are becoming available every day. You just have to know where to look for them, and, you need to know how the system works. There are even consumer rights to be considered here.

Unbeknownst to many, you’ve been paying for a “feature” on your landline for several decades. This feature is known as the “digital phone portability service”, a fee you paid  that would allow you to take your number with you if you were to ever move to a new location. Yes, you heard right. We’ve been paying for that capability for not some months, not years, but decades. PRE-INTERNET! And, it wasn’t a fee one could opt out of. It was a mandated fee.

I remember discovering it on my phone bill back in the 80s. The fee amounted to $1.50 per month, and was right up there with the digital touch-tone charge of $1 that phone companies charged when rotary phones were still common.

Yes, I am that old. I remember rotary phones, and the days prior to touch-tone. I also remember my first Sony Walkman. It was made almost entirely of metal, and played something called “cassette tapes”.  Back then, a Sony Walkman cost $250 – a great deal of money for a teenager back then. And, kids who had a Walkman also sported “roller skates” with Chicago Struts.But I digress.

We protested those digital portability and touch-tone fees at the time, since operating touch tone technology was actually cheaper for the phone company than rotary service.

As the cellular market took off in the 90s, people REALLY wanted to keep their original home numbers as they went mobile. The migration of phone numbers from landlines to competing cellular markets was a complete nightmare for the phone companies. Yes, they had been collecting fees for this eventuality for many years, but now the chickens had come home to roost.

Not long after hemorrhaging business to the cellular market, the larger phone companies had enough of this hassle. They unceremoniously announced they would no longer offer the migration of numbers to other services. Not only that, but clients could no longer transfer their calls from an old number that had been set up to be virtual, to their new number across town. When a client moved years ago, an AT&T agent on the phone told me it was too complicated to move the number, and that they no longer offered that service. Some politicians sued, successfully, and even delayed the implementation of an area code overlay – calling the phone companies bluff. But that impasse only lasted for awhile. Eventually, the phone companies got what they wanted, and area code 424 (as well as many others) were born.

 

Enter an internet phone service, known as Vonage. Years ago we learned that a relatively new company called Vonage could assume the original phone number we had been using. It would allow me to CANCEL the virtual number with SBC Global (now AT&T), forgo the per minute charges for forwarded calls, AND, provide me with a very clear phone signal. All of that for considerably less than I was paying then. At the risk of sounding like a commercial . . . “but wait, there’s more.”

Vonage offered unlimited calls within the US, free calls to certain foreign countries, included voice mail, and an online web portal for managing the account, and call logs. All for $25 a month? Well, no. By the time we upgraded the calling plan for Europe, and added taxes and fees, it was more like $52 per month. Still, we LIKED it.

I like it so much that since then, I’ve installed another Vonage account for our home. Our long distance bills dropped from $200 or so a month to about $75. If we miss a call, the voicemail message gets emailed to us. If we want to know just how long we were on the phone on that last call, we can log in to our web portal, and look it up on the call log within minutes. No more waiting for that bill at the end of the month. This has helped us immensely with client billing on service calls. What’s not to love?

One of our clients claims he takes his Vonage box (a small device that is less than the size of half a paperback book) with him to the South of France when he vacations there in the summer. If people call his Los Angeles number, he picks the call up in France, and no one knows the difference. While I haven’t been invited there to confirm this (yet), it would seem that where ever there is internet, your home number can stay with you.

More recently, Vonage has introduced an app for your smartphone, called Vonage Extension. With the app, I can call friends overseas using my Vonage service, via my iphone. Instead of paying $.99 per minute to call Europe, I now pay $.37 per minute. Nice.

But the point of the story is this:

Don’t let them tell you that number portability is dead, or that you can’t have any area code you want.

For our client in Beverly Hills, we went online immeditely and ordered a Vonage account. Within minutes, we chose an easy-to-remember number within the 310 area code, and set it up to forward to our client’s cell phone. It would take less than a week to receive the little Vonage box necessary to have the number ring in the home. In the meantime, she could give her new number out to friends and family, and receive calls to that number, on her cell. We then contacted Time Warner, explained that we would need to revise the bundled deal our client had signed up for, and have them remove the phone service from that bundle. She did not want a 424 area code number.

To be fair, Time Warner was very helpful in making that happen, did not impose any penalties for making the change, and admitted that we were not the first to complain about the area code issue. Unfortunately, not many people know they have options. Now you do.

Let’s review how the service works.

Vonage, like many phone service providers these days, uses the internet connection you have established in your home to offer you a discounted, often unlimited phone service. They send you a small box that you plug in to your router (or network), and configure to operate with the regular phone hardware in your home. (It sounds more complicated than it is. Three wires have to be plugged in, and you’re good to go). The box is plugged in to the router, the phone is plugged in to the box. And voila, you have internet phone service.

 

There is one caveat. Your internet service must be broadband, have a speed of at least 6 megs per second, and NOT use DSL – for ideal phone connectivity. Time and again some of our clients jump on the Vonage bandwagon, not realizing that if their internet connection is on the slower side (such as 3 megs per second download or slower), they will have trouble with the Vonage phone connection (or ANY internet phone connection).

Yes, they TELL you it will work fine, but I beg to differ. With a slower connection, the phone may work alright, but as soon as you go online to download something (even email with attachments), or do some streaming, your phone will drop out. The person at the other end of the line will become harder to understand, and so on. With a faster connection, it’s just not an issue.

At the risk of getting long-winded, let me elaborate. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line. It’s internet that is offered over your existing copper phone line. As such, it’s considered very 1990s – less than ideal, and not very stable. You have to realize that in some areas, those original phone lines were put in perhaps 100 years ago. They’ve been spliced, re-routed, chewed on by rats – you name it. As the digital signal travels over those lines, the likelihood of signal loss is high. Some areas, of course, are on the edge of broadband service, and thus have no choice but to go with DSL. For those areas, I would NOT suggest exploring Vonage service just yet. Wait until your area has upgraded internet, so that transmission speeds reach at least 6 megs per second.

If you have cable internet service, with Time Warner or Charter for example, then you’re in business. Order a Vonage box, choose a number, and run with it. Most cable connections will surpass 6 megs per second, even if you’re only paying for 3 megs per. Some will even hit 25, 35 or even 48 megs per second. Keep in mind that if you’ve already bundled your services, you are probably committed to a two year contract. And, since both services (Time Warner and Vonage) are of the same type (phone over internet, aka VOIP), there isn’t much point to making a switch to Vonage. It’s the same technology.

Another benefit of the Vonage service is the ease with which you can add a second line, either for fax or for that teenager who has suddenly commandeered your telephone handset and the television remote. For more details on current offers, go to the Vonage website. If you’re wondering, we still do not have a referral deal with Vonage (though we probably should). While we love our Vonage service, we remain financially independent and impartial. And we don’t endorse services lightly.

To sum it up, know that you can keep your current number for as long as you like – most easily, in our opinion, by transferring the number to an online service like Vonage. As with all internet phone services, there is one potential downside. If the power were to go out, or if your internet service were to go down, you’d lose your phone line while the internet and or power is out.

The traditional landline receives it’s low voltage power through the phone cable. That’s why phones may still work after an earthquake, but the lights won’t come on. Internet phones, including Vonage, require electricity to operate the small box that connects your phone to the internet. No power, no internet. No internet, no phone.

Thankfully, Vonage has a solution. Should your phones go down in your home or office (where the Vonage box is installed), the service automatically re-directs any incoming calls to whatever number you provided. Most people configure the service to revert to their mobile number if there is a problem. Works for us.

As an additional safety measure (and for convenience), we’ve installed UPS (uninterrupted power supply) units to our internet modems, Vonage boxes and cordless phones. If the power goes out, we can run a couple of hours on battery backups. (See our separate review of APC UPS battery backup units – coming soon)

There really is no easier way to quickly and inexpensively add a fax line to your home office, if you still need a fax line. Or, for that foreign exchange student, a private, inexpensive phone line in his or her room.

One final note before you run off to join Vonage (or some similar service). If you wish to keep your old number, you must make sure that the original phone service is NOT interrupted or cancelled before Vonage has a chance to contact your old phone company. The number has to still exist if Vonage is to take it over. Cancel the number too soon, and it’s gone.

 

This is very important. Vonage will NOT be able to assume your number for you if you’ve already cancelled the old service. The transfer usually takes about a week. if you’re starting with a new number, it can be up and running within minutes of signing up online. It’s that easy.

 

If you checked out Vonage many years ago, and had a less than stellar impression back then, take another look today. It’s not your Dad’s internet phone. They really, finally, have this stuff down to a science. The most important thing to know is that you need better than average internet connection speed (better than 3 megs per second). Once you’ve confirmed that, you’re good to go.

 

To check your connection speed, go to http://www.speakeasy.net, and click on speed test, then the city nearest you in the list that appears. Vonage may not be an Apple product, but you’ll enjoy how easily you’ll be able to manage your phone service, using your Mac online. And, now you can tell your friends something they may not know. That number they have? As long as they pay for it, they have a right to keep it, no matter what.

Making the Case for Redundant Backups – A Really Good Idea

It’s that time again. Time to talk about your backup. You would think the topic is like discussing a trip to the dentist for a checkup. We all know it’s a good idea, but somehow, for some of us, we never quite get around to it. The backup situation for most of us in the Mac community has improved greatly over the last five years. Time machine, the program on every new Mac that facilitates the automatization of your backup routine, requires only that you attach an external drive to your minty-fresh, new Mac when you first set it up.

But there is a catch. You have to actually attach an external drive, preferably as new and at least as large (in capacity) as the drive within your Mac. And, unfortunately, there is another catch. Just because you have Time Machine all nicely set up with an external drive, sitting right next to your Mac, does not mean your data is safe. It requires that you periodically check the status of that backup. Was it disconnected by accident when you last moved that stack of folders on your desk? Did someone unplug it? Did you turn it off? Did you remember to turn it back on? Or is it just full, and hasn’t backed up since last October? You don’t want to find out in December, after your computer dies, that the backup stopped working a year and a half ago.

Some of you may be relying on online backup systems, like iCloud, Mozy, Carbonite, and many more. Not to slight those services, but they too are not impervious to trouble. There is a reason they have you click through lengthy pages of legalese (a service contract) before you can start uploading your precious data. They do not accept responsibility for you data. Period. Indeed, they cannot. The liability would be insane. And, as we have seen, online backups, such as that promised by iCloud, are not fool-proof. (See the previous article, “Cloudburst”).

The security of external drives is as good as the security of their location – whether it’s your home office or your office in some commercial building somewhere. Some punk may crawl in through your kitchen window and steal not only your computer, but also your backup drive. Yes, it’s true. Real vermin will take your backup drive. It’s the equivalent of asking you for your money at gunpoint, taking your wallet, and then shooting you anyway. It has always puzzled me why backup drives are stolen. It’s not as if they’re worth much on the street, unless you’re store some seriously important data, and the data was the real target. Perhaps the thief plans to backup his own data. Bastard. The thief knows how important backups are, but you don’t?

Usually it’s those pictures of our kids growing up that we care about most. Adults break down in tears at a theft, not because their computers were stolen, but because of the data (pictures, memories, even memoirs) that were lost too. Hardware can always be replaced, but those pictures, they’re gone. Unless they’re of some hot celebrity, the drives will end up in some dumpster somewhere, or erased and re-used by someone who scored it in a garage sale. (There is a special place in hell for those who take backup drives).

Lest you lose your data, here are a few relatively easy steps to take so that you may sleep better at night.

First, realize that your house may be hit next. Maybe not this week, or next month, but break-ins are on the rise. Police recently told one of our clients how surprised they were that the thieves took the computers from her home. They don’t usually take computers, the detective said. Apparently Macs are the exception. Apple hardware is very desirable. That client went for a walk for thirty-seven minutes. When she returned, her iMacs and laptop were gone. Thankfully, the backup drives happened to be hidden, and were left behind. Thirty-seven minutes, in broad daylight. It can happen to you.

How to protect your hardware and your data

Download and install lojack for laptops onto not only your laptop, but also your desktop computers. The software doesn’t really care whether it’s a laptop or not. And it will help the authorities track down your computer.

Most criminals aren’t too swift. If they were, they’d probably have a real job. Just watch a reality cop show, and see what they have to deal with. Chances are good that they wouldn’t know whether you have tracking software installed on your computer or not, nor would they have a clue on whether it can be thwarted. There is hope for recovery of that stolen item.

Lojack for laptops runs about $35 per year. At the moment they offer a “back to school special”. See their website for details. Note that it’s an annual fee, and you need to renew it every year. They offer discounted rates if you buy several years in advance. Whether that’s a worthwhile investment is up to you. (Some lucky folks buy new hardware every year). For students, lojack really is a must on laptops. The number one place laptops are stolen is airports. The number two? School campuses.

After you install LoJack, make sure you print out a security certificate, available on their website. Lots of instructions are available on their website. For more details on this software, see our review of it in a separate article. For the record, we do not have an endorsement agreement of any kind with Absolute Software, the maker of Lojack. We don’t even get a discount, but would still not live without it.

Find the receipt for your hardware. If you can’t find the receipts, contact the store. Chances are good they can do a reprint for you, or email you a copy (Macmall and Apple both do this). Whatever happens, go to the Apple at the top left of your screen, then click on “About this Mac”, then click on “More info” . You’ll find the serial number listed here. Make a note of it, take a screen shot, print it out. Save that somewhere so you can have a record if it’s stolen.

If you’re unlucky enough to have your stuff swiped from your home or office, make sure you report it, with your serial numbers, to the police. They may recover it. Without a serial number though, your chances of recovery are virtually nil. (I mention this serial number thing in case you don’t go the lo-jack route). Surprisingly, there are folks out there who don’t bother reporting thefts. They assume it’s a waste of time. I can tell you from personal experience that the police do often recover stolen goods, and make every effort to return them to the rightful owner. Finding the owner helps them prosecute their case against the thief.

 

 Set up time machine to an external drive, TWICE. If you’ve already done so, congratulations. A     surprising percentage of Mac users do not. Once the time machine backup has completed, unmount and disconnect that backup drive, and attach a NEW one, which will serve as your redundant, off-site backup. Why two? Because, if your computer and backup drive are even stolen, you’ll be relieved to know that you have a SECOND backup drive stashed somewhere. If your data is important to you, you’ll want to rotate those backups every week, or at least once a month. It depends on how active you are on your computer. Do you take many pics every week? Or do you only download pics when you have an event, like a holiday, birthday or wedding?

 

Once you have that redundant drive, think of a safe place to stash it. Ideally, you want that place to be somewhere OTHER than your home or office. The point is to avoid catastrophe. Here in Southern California, we live in earthquake country. What if, God forbid, your home is wiped out? Having a scan of all your important paper work (insurance, id, passports, credit card accounts, bank accounts, titles to vehicles, etc) would come in pretty handy.

 

Some folks go beyond just one redundant drive, and stash a second drive somewhere else in the home, AND a third backup drive off-site, at a friend’s house, mom’s house, the office or even a safe deposit box at the local bank. You will best know what your comfort level is.
A word of caution though. If you do scan critical, sensitive information and store it on a hard drive, you will want to encrypt that information. (See our video clip of how to create a secure disk image in the how-to video section of this site.)

While this sounds like an awful lot of hassle to protect the data on your computer, I’m afraid it’s up to you to stay on top of it. For some of you, the computer is just an internet portal. You don’t store much on your computer, and prefer printed, hard-cover photo albums to anything digital. For most of us though, computers and the files within them have become an integral part of our lives – or better put, a documentation of our lives. Those files offer proof of who we are, and for some, validation of our dreams.

When you think about it, for a few hundred dollars, and a simple routine at least once every week or every month, you can protect all of that data so easily. Why not get to it today?

Here is a list of what we recommend:

Lojack for laptops:  http://www.absolute.com/lojackforlaptops/

Easy setup, good follow-thru. A great tool against that punk that’s eyeing your hardware.

G-Technologies G-Drives: External backup drives that fit in nicely with iMac design.

La Cie External Rugged Drives:  Slightly less expensive, but adequate, these drives can take a beating. Make sure you use the firewire 800 connection, and not the USB. USB connection has proven to be a bit dodgy in our tests.

With Time machine built in to your system, all you have to do is attach an external drive, and follow the prompts. (See our “How to set up Time Machine” video clip in the How-to section of this site).

Once you have your data backed up, you’ll be prepared for the worst. May your data stay safe, your computers not crash, and the criminals never figure out how to get into your home.

Cloudburst! – First reports of iCloud security breaches surface

Social Engineering. That’s a polite term used to describe the art of lying
to obtain sensitive information from unsuspecting victims, or in this case,
service providers. It’s a tactic that has been used for decades, whereby
someone poses to be you, and asks a series of carefully worded questions
designed to get into your account. If the setup is convincing enough,
compassionate service staff is duped into helping an impostor access your
account. Remember those times you tried to “talk sense” to the support desk,
but they wouldn’t help you if you couldn’t remember the answers to security
questions? This is why. These kinds of social engineers have gotten really good at pleading
for help on your behalf (or what the target assumes is your behalf). Situations range from “mom is in the hospital”, “I’ll lose my job”, to the financial ruin they (you) will face unless they (you) can retrieve that spreadsheet for a meeting. With multiple online services that don’t use a standardized security format, innocuous information on one account can serve to unlock an account elsewhere. According to Mat Honen, an IT journalist for Gizmodo and Wired Magazine, this was the tactic used to wipe the last year of data he stored on iCloud. He is the first to admit that as an IT journalist, he should have known enough to backup his data elsewhere, in addition to what he had in the Cloud. But like many of us, he never quite got around to it. A link to the full story of his nightmare is posted at the end of this article.

In the beginning of our modern era, social engineering was used effectively by pranksters to gain information about phone services, so they could then make calls for free. (Case in point, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who went on to build “Blue Boxes” to place free long-distance calls). Since then, criminals have taken the art to entirely new levels, gaining access to email, online data, credit card information, and even bank and investment accounts.

How many times have you requested a new password be emailed to you because you couldn’t remember it? Hacking a server that stores your email could make it available to that hacker. There are time limits on temporary passwords, in an effort to protect you of course. However, many of us out there use the SAME password across to board, for all accounts. Once one “harmless” account’s password is revealed within an email, it can be used to
unlock everything else, for an unlocking, cascading, domino effect bonanza. Worried yet?

In the aftermath of Mat Honen’s disaster, Apple has quietly made adjustments to their security procedures. (Mat, by the way, was by no means the only victim. He just happens to be the public face on the issue). At Applecare, passwords will apparently no longer be reset over the phone. Period. That takes some of the human error out of the equation. Amazon, meanwhile, is said to be reviewing its security practices as well.

So do we throw up our hands in surrender? Do we lose sleep over all the data we have already sent out via email, shuddering at the implications of the security risk? No. What we want to do is lock down our information in a simple, yet effective manner. First, don’t upload your sensitive data to a “cloud” (read “online storage”) account of any kind, UNLESS you encrypt it first. Encryption can be achieved in several ways. There are inexpensive apps available to do the job, or you can use the Disk Utility in your Utilities folder, to create what’s known as an encrypted disk image. (See our how-to video clip on how to do that, coming soon). Microsoft Word also offers a relatively easy way of password-protecting documents from within the program. The catch is, of course, that if you forget that password, the data is irretrievable. The average Joe will not be able to get back in to that data, nor want to pay some genius hacker somewhere to crack it open. Back it up before you encrypt it and post it.

Second, don’t send explicit photos of your naked significant other via email, unless you won’t mind those images being posted  across the universe, completely out of your control. Eventually, someone you never intended, somewhere you never imagined, could access those images and run with them, even use them on their own site. Just ask the thousands of teenagers who have faced suspension, expulsion and / or ridicule as their private images made the rounds of their schools. Or celebrities whose smartphones were supposedly hacked (more likely, things were forwarded, then forwarded again, multiple times).

Third, do not use the same password for your online banking, your online gaming site, and the local online pizza delivery service. Use passwords that make sense to you, but no one else, preferably combining an invented word or short phrase with a number (NOT “123”!) Create a high-security, for-your-eyes-only password that only YOU know, for your online financial accounts. Never stick to a temporary password a provider gives you. It’s best to take the time to go in and change that temporary password to something you will remember. Who can remember “tZ005Ty#4eduL”? Not me. We encourage clients to change their passwords on their Macs after we’ve made a service call. Or, they can change their admin passwords to something they’d only use for troubleshooting, then change it back to something private and more secure after a technician leaves. Absolutely valid. For our part, as techs for our clients, we do not track client passwords as a matter of policy. We fully expect our clients to change their passwords themselves on a regular basis. It’s the smart thing to do. (For instructions on how to do this on a Mac, see our how-to video. The process remains the same across all OS X versions)

It’s always fascinating to me when I find someone using their first name or the word “password” as their online password for anything. While I understand keeping it simple for the login in of a kid’s profile on a Mac at home, you would never want to use something like that online. Indeed, many online services won’t allow it, and will prompt you to choose something more secure. Other favorite (and easily guessed) passwords are pet names, kid names, addresses and birthdays. One scan of your facebook account will offer that information up pronto.

Believe me, I feel your pain. Who can track all the various types of passwords that online services, computers, and devices require to get anything done? Some sites want caps, no caps, numbers and symbols, while others require more than six, but no more than eight characters. Apple iTunes requires that you use a DIFFERENT password if you’ve already used a favorite one within the past year. And they wonder why a majority of IT guys are bald, but wear a goatee.

What we suggest to our clients is a database. There are many out there that will fit the bill. Obviously the database itself should be password protected, with something secure (read “complex”), yet easy for you to remember – like “Green!Berries9”. Bento, and offshoot of Filemaker, is a good option if you want to keep it relatively easy. Apple makes that available for download online for about $50. A database like Bento is more practical than a Word document, because databases are searchable. Yes, Word documents are searchable too, but who wants to scan through a Word document to find a password?

We would not recommend storing passwords online. Keep a written record somewhere in your home, preferably not in a booklet labeled “Passwords” on your kitchen table. Why not cut out a hidden compartment into that paperback copy of War and Peace, and hide it in there? Works for drug dealers. At least in the movies.

But seriously, we do NOT recommend storing passwords within your Mac address book. Now that contacts sync wirelessly, losing your phone means you could potentially lose your keys to your Kingdom, and to your identity.

Rather than going the other extreme, whereby you lock yourself in your house, unplug the computer from the internet, and refuse to store anything digitally, we suggest you take some necessary precautions when venturing onto the world wide web. Just as the safer days of leaving your door unlocked in a major city have mostly evaporated, so too have the carefree days of  surfing the internet. Use the “Cloud” by all means, but keep in mind what you upload could potentially fall into the wrong hands. (Several clients who had refused to use iCloud are feeling pretty smug about now). And always, always backup you data. It is so inexpensive and easy to do these days, that no one really has an excuse for losing data. Especially not, by his own admission, an IT journalist.

To read Mat Honan’s digital nightmare in detail: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/08/apple-amazon-mat-honan-hacking/all/

Running out of space after upgrading memory. Hard Drives & RAM: Storage vs. Performance

We hear it often. “I just upgraded my memory, so how I can I be running out of space?” Do you know what an SSD is versus a SATA Drive? Or what it was you upgraded when you added memory to your Mac awhile ago? Apple is increasingly shipping more Macs (specifically Macbook Air laptops) with solid state drives (SSDs), and many users may not realize what it means to have an SSD versus a SATA drive. Why should you care? Because it’s all about your data. Often it’s not until a laptop runs out of space that the hard drive is given much thought. At that point. the proud owner of a fairly new Mac usually complains that the Mac was purchased with “a LOT of memory”, and is surprised space has run out.

I should explain that operational memory (RAM) is very different from storage memory (hard drive space). Although both use the same measurement format (megs and gigs), they are not the same. More RAM allows the computer to process more calculations at the same time. Think of the size of RAM as being room for the computer to work. The higher the RAM number (4 Gigs instead of 1 Gig), the faster the performance of the computer system. I’ve found that the amount of RAM can even be more important than processor speed itself. Our trusty G5 Tower here in the office had no trouble keeping up with a “faster”, yet less-endowed-with-RAM Intel Mac. Even though the processor (brain) of the G5 is technically slower, the 12 Gigs of RAM available to it allows it to process more data than an Intel Mac with a much faster processor, but only 2 Gigs of RAM. Increasing RAM is the easiest way for a user to improve the performance of his computer. Period. Most computer systems allow for the addition of at least one, larger or equal RAM chip. (See our article on RAM upgrades, coming soon).

The higher the Gig number of a hard drive (500 gigs instead of 160 gigs), the more data or files a drive can hold. For most laptops, the addition of memory refers to RAM (Random Access Memory), not Gigabytes of hard drive space. The addition of RAM is fairly simple and involves a few chips or mini circuit boards that are plugged in to slots. The addition of hard drive space requires replacing an existing hard drive for a larger one. RAM you may be able to add yourself. Hard drive, maybe not. Get a pro to help you.

So what are hard drives anyway? People may lament that theirs “crashed,” but it’s likely they couldn’t tell you how it works. Why should you care? Simply put, the hard drive houses ALL of your data. Every document, every application, photo, song, and your operating system too. Without that drive, your computer is toast – an assembly of parts without any instruction. Lose that drive, and you’ve lost it all, unless you have a copy or backup of your data somewhere.

 

A hard drive is a box that holds a sandwich of highly-polished, electromagnetic disks. These disks spin at varying speeds, almost all the time you’re using it. A standard speed for laptop hard drives was 5400 rpm (revolutions per minute), and is considered “ok”. A better, newer standard, is 7200 rpm. The faster the spin rate, the faster the hard drive can offer up data stored on it, which translates into better performance. Higher speeds are more desirable, and more expensive. (Not that long ago, drives that could maintain a spin rate of 10,000 rpm cost over $1,000 each). The challenge comes when we reach a trade-off between storage capacity of a drive, and the spin rate (rpm). The larger a drive gets, the more difficult it is to spin and read data from those disks accurately. Depending on the specs, a one terabyte (1TB) drive will operate more efficiently and faster than a 2 TB drive.

The capacity + speed + accuracy = expensive engineering and production. While a three terabyte (3x 1,000 megs) hard drive seems very desirable because of it’s size, that drive may be considerably slower than a 1 TB drive, and will thus slow down computer operation. Three TB drives generally run at 5900 RPM, while 1 TB drives usually run at 7200 RPM. One would want to get the best trade-off and return for ones investment, and match the capacity to required performance.

If we put a very large drive into an older Mac , performance could suffer because larger drives spin at 5900 rpm, and not 7200 rpm, like the 1 and 2 TB drives. Another issue is whether an older Mac can even recognize a large drives. Some older Macs cannot, but that’s another topic. A common mistake people make is to replace an original hard drive with the largest drive they can find. Their computers then become so sluggish that the users want to throw it through a window.

In short, we want to consider performance AND storage capacity when upgrading a Mac.

Enter the Solid State Drive. As it’s name implies, the SSD has no moving parts, thus there is NO spin rate. The SSD is a collection of silicone chips that have been assembled in an array, much like the USB flash drives we have all come to use and love for moving files between computers. While they have dropped in price considerably, SSDs are still much more expensive than the standard SATA drives. A 500 Gig SSD option currently runs $500 at Apple, while a 1,000 Gig SATA drive, with twice the capacity, runs about $110 at your local Best Buy store. If you do some minimum shopping around, 1 TB drives can be had for under $100. iMacs still sport 1TB SATA drives as a standard, but a second, smaller and faster internal SSD drive can be ordered for that iMac now – straight from the factory.

So why go SSD? Speed, space and weight. Apple builds all of its Macbook Air laptops with SSDs in them. The thin form factor, and light weight, require it. This also limits how much storage space is on those machines – currently a maximum of 500 Gigs. iPads and iPhones too have a form of SSDs built into them, which accounts for their speed, expense and limits to capacity.

Some die-hard fans of performance boosting modifications install Solid State drives in their towers (G5s and Mac Pros). An SSD configured properly in a tower allows it to boot up much more quickly, and applications to really snap to attention. Still, if you’re not an expert with manipulating operating systems from a variety of sources, you may want to reconsider trying this at home. It’s easy to get confused, not backup what you think you’re backing up, etc. There are other limitations too, and you have to be knowledgeable to set up necessary work-arounds.

And finally, there is much debate around which type of drive, the more traditional SATA drive, or the newly “standardized” SSD, is best in a recovery situation. Currently, the recovery of data from a crashed SATA or IDE drive is more likely to be successful than from an SSD. In the case of SATA or IDE (the two older types of drives found in most computers today), a hard drive “crash” usually involves failure of a slider or drive head (think needle of a phonograph), the motor that spins (called the “spindle”), or the controller card that controls communication between the drive and a computer connected to it. Replacing the spindle, re-calibrating or replacing the head, and / or the controller card often allows for full recovery. That sort of work remains the domain of specialists like DriveSavers, and is not something you would or should attempt. But the point is, if you have the budget, at least some data recovery is likely.

SSDs, on the other hand, employ chips. Depending on the damage, and because of the technology used to store data on them, data recovery from solid state drives is less likely. As a rule, we rely on SATA drives here in our office, and use SSDs as temporary, even experimental storage media. We assume the data on SSDs is transient, and backup to SATA drives. That USB flash drive on your keychain? Make sure the data on it exists somewhere else. USB flash drives can fail too.

To sum things up, before you rush out to take advantage of a performance-boosting Solid State Drive for your system then, think it over. And, if you are lucky enough to own a Macbook Air with a 500 gig SSD in it, make sure you have a regularly scheduled backup configured for it. Time machine will do that for you of course, but only if you set it up with a backup drive. It’s up to you.

Apple says “Last Chance – Really”


Just when you thought you had blown it, and lost everything, Apple gives you a reprieve. Thankfully, all is not lost after all. Go to me.com, log in using your old mobile me or dot mac email account and password, and finally make the switch to icloud. Your mail will be moved to the new icloud.com servers, and you’ll be able to continue using your mac email address. If you haven’t done it yet, make sure you do it NOW. This reprieve will expire soon. No, really, they really mean it. Seriously.

Note also that your existing settings within your email client (like Entourage, Apple Mail or whatever you use to manage mail) will have to be changed too. See the screen shot below for that information. (Click on it and it’ll be legible) And welcome back!