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Apple Announcements, and Alternatives to AirPort

Reminder: it’s safe to update to macOS High Sierra, and iOS 11

We have many clients running these now without issues. As always, we recommend you confirm you have a backup before upgrading; ask us if you need help checking.

 

Apple WWDC Announcements

Apple just held their annual developers conference, known as WWDC, and announced what’s coming with their computer, mobile, TV, and watch operating systems. (There were no hardware announcements.)

Nothing is going to blow your mind, but there are some nice additions to look forward to in the fall, when the new operating systems are released, and we’ll write about them in more depth then. Highlights include an emphasis on better performance for iPhone and iPad; features for minimizing “iPhone distraction”; a “dark appearance” mode for Mac; a long-overdue and very welcome group chat mode for FaceTime; better privacy protection in Safari; a “walkie-talkie” feature for Apple Watch. Groundwork is also being laid for some iOS apps to be able to run on macOS, if developers tailor their apps to do so.

 

Is your router spying on you?

There are a number of recent news stories stemming from an FBI advisory that home routers may have been targeted and compromised by Russian malware called VPNFilter. Your router is sometimes built into your cable or Fios modem, and sometimes is a separate device, such as an AirPort.

It appears that most readers of this newsletter won’t have anything to worry about, because the affected models are not provided by Spectrum and Verizon, nor made by Apple, so that clears most of us. With that said, the full scope and breadth of this router infection is not known. What is known is that specific models of router made by Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, Asus, TP-Link, Ubiquiti, Mikrotik, QNAP, UPVEL, and ZTE are vulnerable. Again, this ain't gonna be most of you, but if you are in doubt, ask us, and provide your model number, if possible.

The general guidance is to restart your router by disconnecting power for a few seconds and then reattaching it, but that’s only a temporary measure, and the FBI requested it be done as a means of disrupting the spread of the attack. The only way to truly and fully purge the malware is to reset the router’s firmware (internal software) to its factory state, which is a moderately technical operation that varies by model. We don’t think it’s necessary if you don’t have one of the affected models, but if you’d like to do this and would like help, let us know.

We do advise you change your router’s administrative password from a default like “password” or “admin”. Many newer routers come with a unique administrative password printed on a label, so if you have one of those, you’re good; and if you have an Apple AirPort or Time Capsule as your router, you’re also good. If you need our help, let us know.

To wrap up: you’re fine. Take a deep breath and enjoy your day. If you think you may have one of the brands above as your router and have any doubts, give us a call!

 

A Requiem for Apple’s AirPort

When Apple announced their first AirPort base station, in 1999, I was in the audience at MacWorld Expo NY. I was immediately in love. Before that day, if you wanted to have your computer be connected to the internet, you had to attach either an Ethernet cable or telephone cable. AirPort was the first consumer WiFi (before it was called that) product, and it was shaped like a grey UFO. I bought one as soon as they were available, and I have experienced the joy of wireless internet ever since. As much as we take that for granted now, it was a revelation then.

Later, Apple introduced the AirPort Express, which, was compact enough to be ideal as a repeater, and it also pioneered wireless music in the home, using AirPlay (then called AirTunes). They also released Time Capsule, which was an AirPort Extreme with a built-in hard drive, allowing all computers in a home, including laptops, to be automatically, wirelessly backed up. Not sexy, but it’s saved the day and provided peace of mind for many people.

Nearly two decades later, Apple has announced the discontinuation of their AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, and Airport Time Capsule products. It’s too bad, because the Extreme and Time Capsule were excellent, even if they hadn’t been updated in years.

Fortunately, there are many other products on the market which can take the place of the AirPort line, and some are better, with more modern technology, than Apple’s own products, though not with all of the functions in a single box.

Wi-Fi: For a smaller home, the Wi-Fi that is provided by your internet service provider may be adequate. But if you are not getting coverage across your whole home, then you want a “Mesh Wi-Fi” product, which is designed for high-performance, easy-to-set-up repeating. There are several of these products on the market, and our favorite is Eero Pro, made by Eero. It costs $200 per unit, or $500 if purchased in a kit of three. (There is also a $400 “Eero Home” kit, but two of its three included units are lesser-performing “beacon” models.) Setup is performed via a very simple app, so you might not need our help with it, though we’re here if you do.

Backup: The best products for network Time Machine backup (like Time Capsule) are made by Synology. They offer a daunting number of models. The cheapest is the DS115j, a single-drive unit. If you add a 4 TB hard drive (which you need to purchase separately), the total will be around $220. If you want redundancy for your backups, which was never an option with Time Capsule, you could get a DS 218j, which, once you add two 4 TB hard drives, costs around $370. Costs for either model may be lower if you don’t need 4 TB of backup storage, such as if you’re only backing up, say, a MacBook Air; ask us if you’re not sure. You may want our help setting up a Synology unit.

Wireless Printing: Nearly all new printers have built-in WiFi, and using that enables you to wirelessly scan as well, if it’s a multifunction. But if you want to keep using the USB-only printer you’ve got, get a new or used AirPort Express. New units are still available, for now, at Amazon, and there is no shortage of used ones at Amazon and eBay. We recommend model A1392 or A1264, in that order; avoid A1084 or A1088. (Several other router brands have a similar capability, but we don’t have a specific one we’d recommend, and they probably won’t be as seamless as using an AirPort.)

AirPlay: AirPlay lets you play music or audio wirelessly from any device on your network to your own speakers, using either analog or digital input. (If you want to play from a Mac outside of iTunes, though, you’ll need to buy software called Airfoil.) If you already have an entertainment system and you use an Apple TV, then you already have AirPlay at your disposal. Also, a few speakers and receivers have AirPlay compatibility built in.

Otherwise, you need an AirPort Express. Get a new or used one, as mentioned above.

There’s no alternative product that doesn’t require considerable technical effort to set up.

Also, if all you want is wireless music played from a single nearby device, you may not need AirPlay at all. There are many Bluetooth adapters available for under $20, and Bluetooth speakers are numerous and varied at all price points. On the higher end, Sonos may also be an alternative to AirPlay, particularly you mainly want to listen to music from streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music. But if you want to use your own speakers with Sonos, rather than buying one of theirs, a Sonos Connect will set you back a whopping $349.

(June 2018)

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