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#739: Be Vigilant!, Apple Responds to iPhoto '11 Data Loss Issue, Solid State Drives (SSDs) Are Not Perfect

 
     
 

Happy Tuesday,

As the Manchester repair department is more and more up to speed while we approach the one month anniversary of our new store in Manchester, NH, I’m preparing my exit strategy so I can spend more time at home with Owen. Manchester is a great city, and it’s been wonderful experiencing it for the past few weeks, but I miss the strength and beauty of the mountains guarding the Mad River Valley and am excited to be home more of the time. As I mentioned in previous issues, my wonderful mother is taking care of Owen (and becoming very attached to him!). As great a time as Owen’s having with Mom’s two golden retrievers, I’m excited for that reunion.

I drove from Manchester to Vermont last weekend to better prepare my home for more common below-freezing temperatures, and was amazed that just thirty or forty miles north of Manchester the leaves are almost completely gone. My bedroom window in Manchester still boasts a lovely and expansive view of foliage.

With Daylight Saving Time ending this Sunday, the days will certainly be shorter, and snow can’t be too far off. There’s a bug with iOS that caused many Europeans to oversleep by an hour this morning, so be sure to check for software updates if Apple fixes the issue and your iPhone doubles as an alarm clock.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.

Matt
matt@smalldog.com

 
   
     
  All Internet Users Should Be Vigilant  
   
 

Most Mac users, including myself, feel pretty secure from the nastier bits of the web. It is a false sense of security however, and only a matter of time before more and more hackers turn their beady little eyes towards our shining tower on the hill. Last week SecureMac discovered a trojan horse that can affect our systems and is spreading through social networking sites like Facebook.

The trojan masquerades as a video often attached to the phrase: “Is this you in this video? Click here to find out.” The trojan then runs as a Java applet, downloading files to your computer. These files include an automatically launching installer that will modify system files to bypass the need for passwords. This process opens the gates by allowing outside access to your system. This sneaky little bugger also runs invisibly and in the background at startup and will periodically check in with command servers to report info on your system. There have been reports of infected computers spreading the trojan through email and other social media sites.

The best defense against attacks like this is to simply not click on suspicious links, and stay away from the seedier side of the web. But if you simply can’t avoid the shadows you can also run antivirus software on your computer. Though be prepared to have them slow your system down significantly, especially if they’re always scanning your files. I run ClamXav (http://www.clamxav.com/) myself. It’s free, lightweight, and uninstalling it doesn’t kill your system like Norton can. It also seems to have the least performance-affecting processes out of all the antivirus programs out there.

Another good tip is to have a strong password set up on your computer. A blank password is not secure, nor is having your password show up as the password hint. As a service technician at Small Dog, I see all sorts of passwords and the majority of them are not very good. You’d also be surprised at how many passwords I’ve been able to guess just by seeing the hint and having access to just a little bit of owner information like address or telephone number. A strong password will be made up of numbers, letters and symbols with at least one letter capitalized and the entire password will be at no less than 12 characters. You should also make use of the built in security features of Mac OS X, like the firewall. If you really want to get paranoid (though not so far as wearing a tinfoil hat and taping over your iSight camera) you should periodically change all your passwords.

Finally, another way to monitor your system is through an application like Little Snitch, which will monitor all outgoing communication by your computer. You can permit and deny communications process by process. It can be a bit much for the novice to set up and maintain, but for those with the know-how it’s a good tool.

To help defeat the trojan, SecureMac has put together a tool that will remove the trojan from your system if it has been infected. The tool can be directly downloaded from this link: http://macscan.securemac.com/files/BTRT.dmg

 
   
     
  Apple Responds to iPhoto '11 Data Loss Issue  
   
 

This weekend, Apple released an important update for current users of iPhoto ’11 and prospective buyers alike. Version 9.0.1 resolves a critical flaw in the initial build of the software that in rare cases could result in data loss. Within hours of the iLife ’11 suite becoming publicly available, Apple’s discussion boards were ablaze with reports of data loss when upgrading to iPhoto ’11. In actuality—as is often the case—the affected number of users was much smaller than it may have seemed.

Akin to the “antennagate” issue which surfaced this summer, this bug, while a significant problem, only affected a small population, yet spread like wildfire. Due to the severity and the irreplaceability of the data in question, the bug resulted in users condemning the entire suite, giving it a rocky start.

Thankfully, Apple has wasted no time intervening with a patch. Citing reported data loss issues in “extremely rare cases,” the 9.0.1 update is accompanied by the following set of directions:

Before you update
The library upgrade process is generally safe and reliable, but it’s always a good idea to have a backup of your library in case of unforeseen issues. Keep in mind that fully upgrading a very large library can take a long time, even up to an hour or more.

 Before updating to iPhoto ’11, it is recommended that all customers download and install the iPhoto 9.0.1 software update (click to download).

If you’ve already upgraded to iLife ’11, and have not noticed any abnormalities or missing photos, you should be safe. However, if you are planning on purchasing iLife ’11 or have already but not installed it, absolutely download the patch. As long as the 9.0.1 update is applied prior to running iPhoto 9 for the first time, you should not experience any issues. As always, we recommend keeping a regular backup to protect against unforeseen issues such as this. To view our current line of available external hard drives click here.

You can obtain the 9.0.1 update by either clicking the link above, or by running Software Update from the Apple menu in the top left of your screen.

 
   
     
  Solid State Drives (SSDs) Are Not Perfect  
   
 

Apple’s latest MacBook Air models represent the first MacBooks exclusively equipped with an SSD, or solid state drive. Instead of spinning platters, these drives use non-volatile flash memory (like that inside the drive hanging off your keychain). The SSD in the MacBook Air delivers silent, cool, reliable, and fast operation; while they are more expensive per gigabyte than a not silent, not as cool, not as reliable, and not as fast conventional hard disk drive.

While SSDs carry many benefits over HDDs, I asked what one might need to take into account when operating a computer with an SSD that they might not have otherwise have had to when using a conventional HDD. For one, while a hard drive is often the component that survives a liquid spill better than any other in a modern notebook, an SSD is much more susceptible to electrostatic discharge, particularly one without any type of enclosure like that featured in the new MacBook Air. But what differences arise if you manage to keep your machine away from a beverage-wielding five year old, or an impromptu dorm room party?

SSDs handle delete operations differently than traditional hard drives. When you empty your trash, your Mac simply flags those blocks as “not in use” in the file system. On an SSD, the flash memory cells can only be written to when truly empty. Over time, the less empty your SSD becomes, the slower the drive becomes, particularly when writing. When writing new data to an SSD, the more inactive blocks there are, the more an SSD must read, then erase, modify, and then write; this is different than a traditional hard drive in which writing occurs the same whether a block is actually empty or not.

Some operating systems and SSD controllers have begun to support “TRIM,” a command which allows an operating system to inform the drive as to which blocks can be wiped internally upon file deletion. This keeps them empty and maintains hard drive integrity. Mac OS X does not have this sort of garbage collection implemented as of this writing.

A recent review at Anandtech of the new MacBook Air found marginal degradation in speed after intentionally filling up the drive with garbage and random writes, and then writing sequentially. Anand Lal Shimpi & Vivek Gowri state, “First, through normal use the drive should be able to recover its performance over time (assuming you give it enough spare area). And second, if there’s any idle garbage collection in Apple’s custom firmware for the Toshiba controller it should be able to keep the drive running at peak performance even without TRIM supported in the OS.”

So is SSD write speed degradation a non-issue? Ultimately, even an SSD with deflated read/write times is going to be faster than most any conventional hard drive. For those who are concerned about their custom SSDs, there is a $40 utility called DriveTester and a “guide to try it for free.”: http://jasontomczak.com/2010/06/21/reconditioning-an-ssd-on-the-mac-for-free/ While it’s hard to say for sure how the MacBook Air’s SSD will wear, I’m sure we will be hearing about improvements to hardware and software (Lion) to support the ever-increasing adoption of SSD storage.

I’ll be conducting my own tests in the coming weeks on my SSD-equipped MacBook Air and will have a follow up article in a forthcoming Tech Tails.

 
   
     
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