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#791: The Unsung Server, Follow-up: Wireless Syncing, iPhone 4S: Siri-ously Cool, Fake Adobe Flash Malware Update


Happy Tuesday,

Look at your calendar. Now look out the window. Now look back at your calendar. It says it’s autumn. Now look back out the window. Sadly, the scene out the window isn’t autumnal.

New England saw its first snowfall of the season last week, and there was a significant storm over the weekend. It probably won’t stick around for long, but I’m sure our inventory master Art is happy to see the white flakes falling!

I’m looking at my calendar, and it says Halloween. In honor of that, the Manchester store staff dressed up for trick-or-treating in the Mall, and all stores held their annual Costume Contest on Monday. You can view our staff putting on their best (and worst!) on our Flickr feed.

Thanks for reading this issue of Tech Tails.


  The Unsung Server  

If you haven’t noticed, the most recent update to the Mac mini (July 2011) was quite a huge one. It’s a great injustice that the mini is pushed aside by so many Apple shoppers.

A customer recently brought in an Xserve that required quite a bit of work. This customer ended up paying twice the cost of the current Mac mini Server to repair the Xserve, simply because they couldn’t believe a Mac mini could compete with a machine like the Xserve. Well, it can.

A website I visit very often for simple Mac performance comparisons is Primate Labs’ Geekbench. They have tested most Mac models and are fairly immediate at testing newer ones as they are released. The best part about Geekbench is that they score each and every Mac. So, for someone who isn’t very tech-savvy but needs some kind of simple performance comparison, this is it.

The current generation of Mac mini Server received a performance score of 9456 from Geekbench. That’s higher than an Xserve (Early 2009) with Intel Xeon E5520 2.27GHz (4 cores), and very close to a Mac Pro (Mid 2010) with Intel Xeon W3530 2.8GHz (4 cores). Both of these machines are about 10 times the physical size of the Mac mini Server. Granted there are a few limitations to the Mac mini, such as the lack of both graphics card expandability that comes with the Mac Pro and the multiple hard drive bays standard on both the Xserve and the Mac Pro. However, Thunderbolt is a very up-and-coming technology that’s included on the Mac mini Server and could eliminate these shortcomings. There are already a few options for daisy chain-able external hard drives that utilize Thunderbolt.

With all this said, the Mac mini is not the best choice for all server-type applications, but you have to admit that given its physical size, very low cost and low energy consumption, it really is a magnificent machine.

  Follow-up: Wireless Sync with iTunes  

In an attempt to keep my article last week short and sweet, I may have oversimplified some things a bit. So, to clarify two points:

For sync purposes, “wireless” refers to not having to plug the device into the computer using the USB sync cable. While you do need a wireless network for this to work, the system that has all your music on it (where you sync your device) does not have to be using wireless. It does have to be on the same network, however, so if your music is on an iMac connected with an Ethernet cable and your iPod is connected to your wireless network, then your device will sync with your computer. If you have an AirPort Extreme with a main network and a guest network, your device must be using the main network in order to connect to your iTunes library, since the guest network is isolated from the main network.

Second, when you synchronize your device, it is connecting directly to your computer through your local network, not through iCloud. While you can set your music and photos to be shared via iCloud, the Sync button in iTunes or on your device connects the two devices together directly. As mentioned above, synchronizing with iTunes can only happen when you’re on the same network as the system with your library, but iCloud will sync as long as you have some form of a connection to the Internet. In iTunes, there are options to sync Contacts, Calendars and Notes to your device. If you already have these items set to sync through iCloud, you’ll get a warning that checking these off in iTunes may cause duplicate items.

Hopefully that clears it up. Sorry for the confusion!

  iPhone 4S: Siri-ously Cool  

I finally joined the cool kids.

I bought an iPhone 4S. I have wanted an iPhone for some time, but two things kept me from taking the plunge. First, I have been a Verizon customer for about 13 years and was a bit nervous about switching to AT&T. My last experience with them in 2004 was not a good one due to their lack of coverage in most of Southern NH. Sure, Verizon has their version of the iPhone, but due to the way their network is set up, you can’t talk to someone and use an Internet app at the same time (you can if you are on a wireless network, but not on Verizon’s CDMA network). Second, there were so many rumors that a new iPhone was coming, and I didn’t want to lock into a two-year contract only to have the next version arrive shortly thereafter. After using the 4S for a week, I am glad I waited.

My main reason for using a 4S, other than the obvious “it’s an iPhone,” is Siri. Siri is like a built-in assistant who is always at your beck and call. Simply hold the Home button (or the button on your earpiece) until the microphone pops up, ask a question, and Siri will give you an answer. Or, you can tell it to do something, and it will do it. If you wanted a weather forecast for the weekend, you could click on the Weather app, or you could ask Siri “what’s the weather like this weekend?” I just did that now, and Siri popped up a weekly forecast and told me “maybe not so nice this weekend.” We’re actually expecting snow tomorrow in some areas.

This morning I realized I was overdue for a haircut (something people around me have known for weeks), so I tried to make an appointment for a trim. Siri can be used for voice dialing, but when I tried to call the woman who cuts my hair, Siri told me I had no such contact. I guess I forgot to move that one when I changed phones, but not to worry—Siri offered to search local businesses for the number. Neat! I said yes, and within a few seconds Siri had the number and asked if I wanted to dial it. Once I made the appointment, I then told Siri to “Remind me I have a haircut at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.” Siri added a note to the built-in Reminders app (which syncs with iCloud).

I was driving and listening to a podcast on my iPhone, which was playing through my truck’s radio using an iTrip. Someone called me, the podcast paused, and the ringer came through my truck speakers. I use a Bluetooth earpiece, so I hit the button to answer the call. When the call was done, I hit the earpiece button to tell Siri to make a note of the call, then said “Play.” Siri started playing the podcast again. All this was done without taking my eyes off the road or fumbling with the iPhone to hit the correct buttons.

So far, I only have run into two issues. First, I talk too fast. This sometimes causes Siri to tell me that she can’t make any sense out of what I am saying. Second, I was inside a building where there was no 3G access, and I was unable to use Siri for voice dialing. Instead, I kept getting “Siri unavailable, connect to the Internet.” I understand that Siri needs Internet access in order to look things up, but to call someone in my contacts list? That should work regardless of my data connection.

If you already have an iPhone 4S, here are some funny things to ask Siri:

“What do you think of Windows?”
“What’s the meaning of life?”
“Open the pod bay doors.”

  Update on the Fake Adobe Flash Malware  

I reported that there is malware floating around that claims to be an update to the Adobe Flash Player. The variant initially discovered (OSX/Flashback.A) would install a backdoor on your system, allowing someone to access your files without your knowledge. A new variant has been found that not only installs the backdoor but also removes the ability to automatically detect it.

Back during the great MacDefender scare, Apple added the ability for OS X to detect malware and prevent it from being installed. Flashback.C will disable this feature, preventing your system from downloading updates to detect and remove it. It can be removed via malware scanners like Sophos and F-Secure.

Right away, people may question the security of an operating system that would permit this to happen. As I stated in the last article, these scams are targeting the user, not the OS. The OS is secure, but it still has to allow the user to maintain some level of control. If a user enters his or her password to install a rogue application, OS X will install it. It falls to the person using the system to decide what is and is not safe.

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