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#918: Native Resolution on Retina Macs, Surf Safe, Electromagnetism and Hard Drive Destruction


Hello friends,

I hope everyone is enjoying this holiday season. We have had some unusually warm weather for Vermont as of late, but by the time you receive this newsletter, we should be right back into the teens. The days are finally getting longer and, even though it is an unpopular sentiment among the many outdoor enthusiasts around here, I hope the snow melts soon.

You may have noticed that I am not the usual Mike that writes the Tech Tails intro. As we continually insist: Always have a backup! I may not be a true clone (Don has put an end to our genetic engineering experiments in the tech room…for now…) but I can still boot this issue up.

We have articles this week on how to take advantage of the incredible screen resolution on Apple’s Retina displays, avoiding phishing scams, and, last but not least, Scott gives us a science lesson and then smashes some stuff.

Thanks for joining us in 2014. We’ll talk to you again in 2015. Happy New Year!

-Mike D.

  Native Resolution on Retina Macs  

The primary benefits of a Retina screen go without saying, but I’ll say them anyway: incredible pixel density and beautiful colors create a sharp and vibrant image. The specific reason for the sharpness of everything is that where there used to be one pixel, there is now a group of pixels refining the image and creating the sharpness you see. This creates a much more visually appealing image but, when it comes to the potential screen real estate of the computer, is very wasteful. All those pixels could be put to work showing you more things on your screen, not just sharpening what is already there.

The easiest way to achieve this is to go into the display setting in System Preferences. By default the setting “Best for Retina display” should be checked. If you check the other option, “Scaled”, then it brings up a list of different resolutions. “More Space” is the most space you can select in the Displays preferences. To give you some reference, a 15” Retina MacBook Pro’s default resolution has the same amount of screen real estate as the old 15” computers, 1440 × 900, not very much room to work with. The “More Space” setting brings this up to the equivalent of a 1920 × 1200, a much better amount of screen real estate.

But what if you want to squeeze all the usable screen real estate out of these amazing displays? That’s where a third party app called EasyRes comes in. Costing only $7.99, this little app lives in your top bar and easily lets you switch between all possible resolutions the display can conform to. This includes an option for “native” resolution mode. This mode utilizes all the pixels of the display with no doubling, which massively increased the highest usable resolution of the display from 1920 × 1200 to its truly massive natural resolution of 2880 × 1800. Now this does make all of your text incredibly small but if you are using it on your lap and need to improve your workflow, more screen real estate can be incredibly valuable.

  Surf Safe  

When I decided to write my first Tech Tails article I was going to do a article on retro gaming on your MacBook. Then, I got a phone call from Dave (name changed for this tail tale). Dave is a Mac user, family man, and one of our clients. On Christmas Eve, Dave received a phone call from “Apple Service” saying that his iMac and MacBook had been compromised and were “full of viruses”. But what Dave was experiencing wasn’t a malware infection, but another form of the dark arts: social engineering.

The Wikipedia article on social engineering defines it as, “psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. A type of a confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional ‘con’ in that it is often one of many steps in a more complex fraud scheme.” Basically it takes advantage of the trait of decision making known as cognitive biases (also sometimes known as “bugs in the human hardware”) to confuse you and then get you to give up sensitive information.

There are different types of social engineering: pretexting, diversion theft, phishing, phone phishing, baiting, quid pro quo, tailgating, shoulder surfing and more. In Dave’s case this was phone phishing. He thought it was a legitimate phone call from Apple, but towards the end it turned into attempting to convince him to buy bogus software that would likely have allowed the hacker to access his machine remotely. Also, if he had purchased this software, the attackers would have his credit card information. With this information in hand, these criminals can purchase what is called white plastic (or blank magnetic credit cards), transfer the credit card numbers onto the magnetic strip, and then have a functioning credit card to use as they wish.

Now I’m used to hearing this all the time in the PC world: “Microsoft just called me did some stuff with my computer and now my laptop doesn’t work anymore.” Microsoft would never call you out of the blue about your computer, and the same goes for Apple. The only way to prevent this is education, not anti-virus software. I highly recommend reading this helpful information on Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks to learn how not to be a victim of these types of scams.

Surf safe my friends!

  Electromagnetism and Hard Drive Destruction  

I received some great feedback about my article about boost converters in the last edition of Tech Tails. That series is certainly one I plan on continuing and am also forming a list of other things that I will be writing about. This week, though, I wanted to write about hard drives.

Platter-based magnetic hard drives all eventually wear out because they have moving parts. The bearings in the motor can dry out, the read arm can become misaligned…it’s a miracle that with the precise tolerances required hard drives work at all. When they do fail, it’s important to destroy them properly so that data cannot be recovered off them.

There are a number of ways to destroy hard drives so that the data is not readable on the platters. If you have a good drill press, you can drill right through the case and platters. There are also degaussing machines that attempt to remove (to nearly zero) the magnetically stored bits on the platters. The Department of the Navy lists bending, drilling, cutting, shredding or melting as acceptable platter destruction techniques.

Recently here at Small Dog HQ, we began cleaning out boxes of old PATA hard drives. The data on these drives, while old, still might have value, so it was important that we destroyed them properly. Since we don’t have a good drill press here, I took to disassembling the drives and removing the platters by hand. With the platters removed the empty shells can be recycled as e-waste.

Eventually, I had quite the stack of silver platters sitting on my desk. Originally, I planned to simply drill holes through the bare platters, but this proved to be time consuming and hard on the portable drill and bit we were using. Instead, I opted for a hammer and nail setter to put dents all over the platters before bending them. I set up the first platter on a block of wood, knocked it a few times with the setter and done. Easy! I grabbed the next platter, aligned the setter, swung the hammer and SMASH! The platter fractured into hundreds of tiny shards!

This is an important lesson I’m surprised I didn’t already know; hard drive platters can be made of aluminum or glass. The aluminum ones dent easily and will not shatter, but the glass ones definitely will. Now I had a problem. How on earth was I supposed to tell which platters were aluminum and which were glass? They look identical, they feel identical, they even weigh the same.

There are a number of ways to distinguish aluminum and glass platters, but this one is my favorite and was 100% accurate when I used it. It involves using one of the strong neodymium magnets inside the hard drive case. If you take the magnet and place it flush against the platter and drag it across, you will feel some resistance if the platter is aluminum. Almost like it’s sticking to the platter. A glass platter will exhibit no resistance. Of course this is not possible because neither glass nor aluminum is magnetic. What’s going on here? Aluminum is not magnetic, but it can carry electrical current. Physics 101: Move a magnet past conductive metal and you’ll create electrical current. In the case of the platter, the currents being generated will have magnetic fields that exactly oppose the original change in magnetic flux (the one created by dragging the magnet across the platter). This result is predicted by something called Lenz’s Law.

The induced currents (called eddy currents) and their respective magnetic fields act to interfere with the motion of the magnet being dragged on the platter. This is why you can feel resistance as though the magnet is sticking to the platter. The same effect can be demonstrated more dramatically with neodymium magnet and a straight copper pipe. Copper is also non-magnetic, but if you drop the magnet through the pipe, it will fall far more slowly than if it was falling based on gravity alone. Once again, eddy currents and magnetic fields are being created by the moving magnet and acting to cancel out the original change in magnetic flux. In this case, gravity wins out, but not before the magnetic fields slow the magnet’s descent substantially.

So there you have it. A neat application of a very basic and important law of electromagnetism.

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