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#903: What You Pay For with Small Dog's Service Department, The Last Media Player You'll Ever Need, Mac Security Tips


A high school student in AP Chemistry class reprograms his TI-86 graphing calculator to play Tetris.

A television studio releases the latest episode of a show via 109 15-second videos on Instagram.

A grandmother scans her wedding photos from 1931 and backs them up to an external hard drive for the first time.

…all examples of great moments in technology.

Welcome to Tech Tails, a guided journey through the world of all things Apple and to a greater extent, all of the technologies that make our world amazing.

My name is Mike Dalius, one of the technicians at our South Burlington store, and I will be taking over hosting duties from Barry, who was a technician in our Manchester, NH location (more on that here).

Though some of the faces may be different, Tech Tails remains the same for now. “Tech talk made plain & simple” is our motto, and together I believe that we can make the most out of Apple technology. (After all, these are Macs and iPhones, not Dells and Androids. ;))

Our goal is simple: Remedy your spinning pinwheels and restore order to your operating systems. This week, we will learn where your money goes when you check in a computer with us, a solution to your media format woes, and some helpful hints for keeping your Mac secure.


  What You Pay For with Small Dog's Service Department  

During my tenure as the full time technician assigned to our headquarters in Waitsfield, VT, I’ve seen our repair diagnostics fee rise from $50 to $65. It’s safe to say that whenever any price goes up, whether for taxes, or rent, or products and services, nobody is jumping for joy.

I’d like to use my article this week, however, to explain what that $65 does for you and defend it as a reasonable fee for what we, at Small Dog Electronics, provide.

Our service technicians are Apple Certified. This may not mean a whole lot to some, but for us, it means many hours of personal time and dedication reading manuals, articles, and studying procedures. It also means that Apple officially provides, endorses, and underwrites our training and allows us to perform warranty and out-of-warranty work on their products at our company so you don’t have to send your computer to Apple directly and be without it for weeks. It’s not possible to have someone log every moment we spend studying and training for our job outside of work, so in order to quantify this knowledge and expertise, there needs to be a baseline. That’s where your $65 starts.

At the check-in counter, our staff is trained to determine whether an issue is best resolved on the spot, with a consultant, during an in-store 1-on-1 lesson (not to be confused with Apple’s 1-to-1 service!), or whether a device needs to be checked in to be diagnosed and worked on by a technician. We have had customers mention that they didn’t understand the $65 charge for what may seem like a “quick/5-minute” diagnosis, but I should clarify that, should a device come through the service department, it is never merely tested for five minutes.

Instead, here is what happens…

We start by attempting to replicate the issue. In some cases, when there is a clicking sound indicating hard drive failure or a flashing question mark folder, we may bypass an attempt to boot the system and immediately run diagnostics externally. Once we’ve found the root cause, we make a judgment about how most efficiently to move forward. Often, this means finding an applicable diagnostic part to test with. If this does not resolve the issue, we then see that something else is wrong or that we’ve tackled the problem from the wrong angle. Eventually, we will discover what needs to be replaced or reinstalled and, if it is not covered under warranty, we call the client to discuss costs and what is involved.

Over the past year, we have made significant efforts to raise the bar with regard to customer-technician communication. We are always open to questions, concerns, and feedback about the service and are happy to explain why a certain part is needed or why something is not covered under warranty, etc. Careful documentation and internal communication is part of the $65 that you pay for diagnostics — it allows us to take care of you, quickly and properly answer your questions, and keeps everybody on the same page. So many times, because of humanity’s busy schedules, we need to leave voicemails and play phone tag with customers.

For example, if you call in to check the status of a repair in South Burlington and I, in Waitsfield, answer the phone, I can tell you what you need to know or find out immediately. Your money goes toward that efficiency and customer service, even if the employee you’re talking to is in a different location than where you left your device off. Often I will counsel customers who brought their devices elsewhere in purchasing a new computer or in choosing one of several options the technician has laid out for them.

Finally, when we are diagnosing a computer we will test the integrity of the whole system and make sure that when you receive back the device it is functioning within established parameters. This means testing everything beyond the initial issue and symptom set. Of course, we like to give systems back to users in better condition than they arrived. As you can imagine, by the way, none of this takes a mere 5 or 10 minutes but is really stretched across multiple people, multiple hours, and quite honestly multiple days. It is a team effort to get your product back in your hands so that you can go back to enjoying it. And when you do get it back, you have access to technician notes summarizing what was done, any important communication you may have made, and of course a breakdown of price by part and labor.

Whenever you own something that doesn’t work and needs to be worked on by a professional, you can get a little crazy. I’m no different than anybody else who has ever brought in a device and wanted, nay needed, it back as soon as possible. Your perception of time becomes distorted as anxiety pervades.

My hope with this article is to put into perspective that we all do unequivocally appreciate your plight and, though things may sometimes seem expensive or delayed, we do the very best we can for every single customer and we do care that you are more than satisfied with our work. If there is an unexpected delay or issue, we’ll set it right. We stand by service excellence here at Small Dog and are always prepared to raise the bar.

  The Last Media Player You'll Ever Need  

The other day I was going through a box of old technology. Behind the CD-ROM copy of the Sierra Entertainment classic, the Incredible Machine, and a series of floppy disks for long forgotten version of Microsoft Word, I found a dusty CD-R simply labeled “videos.” After a double glance over my shoulders, I loaded the disc and delved into its contents.

Like the forgotten mediums of floppy disks and CD-ROMS I had uncovered that day, this disc was rife with video formats of the past: The Simpsons for QuickTime, my cousin’s wedding as a .wvm…far, far too many videos for RealPlayer. How, exactly, am I going to watch all of these?

Format wars aren’t new to the scene (VHS vs. Beta-Max is a classic example). Finding a technology that can handle multiple formats, however, is not so common. Luckily for us, a 1996 student project at a Parisian engineering school birthed what we know today as VLC media player. Version 1.0.0 of this packet based media player was released in 2009 and watching videos has never been so easy. Forget about formats and codecs — this application has handled any video or audio track that I’ve ever thrown at it.

It can stream half-downloaded files from P2P networks, bypass DVD region coding, play video from disc image files, track subtitles forwards and backwards by the millisecond, amplify audio past operating system limits; the list goes on and on to offer features for the most hardcore of users. VLC media is available for free at

  Mac Security Tips  

My last article detailed the arguments for and against anti-virus or anti-malware software on Macs. It turned out to be pretty popular because I got a good deal of feedback and further questions that fell into pretty much two groups; one set was about “beyond anti-virus,” which is what other measures can users take to keep their computers safe. The second group of questions were about pass-through viruses (e.g., infected attachments, documents and files that are harmless on a Mac, but if forwarded to Windows users or networks, can be harmful to the receiver).

For the first set, there are definitely some extra measures that aren’t time consuming and Mac users can take to enhance their security.

  1. Don’t have your regular users running as Administrators. This is really not a great inconvenience; if you need to install and update or make preference changes, you are prompted for the Admin user name and password. This is really easy; just create a single Admin account on your Mac in System Preferences under Users and Groups and then change your regular user’s account settings to Standard User. It means you’ll be prompted for any system changes.
  2. Keep OS X up-to-date. This doesn’t necessarily mean upgrading to the newest OS X version if you aren’t ready, but do readily check Software Updates .
  3. Keep non-Apple plugins and web browsers up-to-date. When you get that notice about an update being available, let it run.
  4. Confirm and legitimize links (this is for all personal computer and mobile device users). This is a bit of social engineering — always be sure that a link is legitimate (whether in email or on a Web page) BEFORE YOU CLICK. In most browsers, you can confirm the root of the link (with the exception of more advanced hacks) by simply placing your mouse cursor over the link. Make sure it starts with or or, etc. And never fill out forms directly in emails; go to the requesting site.
  5. Avoid using secure websites on non-secure (read: public) connections. Sniffers can easily monitor data flying over these semi-open networks. If you’re planning on banking or filling out taxes (it’s that time of the year) etc., on public networks (like at the local library, Starbucks, etc.) do that type of work at home on your own secure Wi-Fi! This is not just for laptops, but for phones and tablets as well.

Regarding passthrough malware, to answer the questions I received about this, there is really very little information about it being a vulnerability in my searching. Essentially, if you inadvertently send malware to a susceptible system (like someone with a PC) it’s really the responsibility of the receiver to have taken their own appropriate steps to avoid infections.

If it’s any level of corporate network that is receiving it, they will almost certainly have sufficient firewalls and internal malware filters running. Also, the type of malware any anti-malware software is going to be looking for on your Mac is not going to be checking for Windows vulnerabilities. So I’m completely unpersuaded that it’s a valid reason for installing anti-virus on a Mac.

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