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In this issue: Apple's OS updates; Covid: What we know; M menu for Sentinel; End of Flash; Quick notes; Not the year we wanted; Software recommendations; Hardware recommendations; Security Recommendations.
December 2020 Newsletter
Apple's OS updates
Apple just released a new set of operating system updates for Mac, iPhone, iPad, AppleWatch, HomePod, and AppleTV. Because of Apple's increasing integration among these products, it gets harder to not update everything—even when something should not be updated.

The initial release of macOS 11 Big Sur rendered unusable some 2013/2014 MacBook Pros for example. Even with the latest update that fixes that bug, Big Sur is not something that we'd consider reliable. (It also apparently has the same Mail app bug that was never fixed in Catalina, so that's distressing.) Given time, we still have hopes that we'll be able to recommend Big Sur. 

At the same time, Apple hardware has perhaps never been better. The new M1-based Macs are spectacular in terms of performance and battery. The iPhone 12 series is unrivaled. The iPad line up is the best its ever been. The HomePod and now HomePod mini are amazing speakers. The AppleWatch Series 6 and SE are easily best of class and should be considered essential for many people. Apple's got a lot to love. 

We've not had time to test every OS that Apple just released, but iOS/iPadOS 14.2 fixed a major security hole, so if your iPhone/iPad is not at least on 14.2, you should upgrade to 14.3 (the only thing that's available now) sooner rather than later. 

How fast you upgrade your AppleWatch, tvOS, or HomePod is of less concern. These products haven't faced any major security issues historically, so rushing to get the latest update isn't likely to be necessary. Generally, once Apple releases an update for these devices, you can wait a week or two then upgrade safely. Apple's had some bad updates—including one that rendered some AppleWatches so unusable that they had to be replaced—but Apple also pulls back those updates fast and fixes them quickly. If you've waited a week or two, odds are very strong that everything is going to go just fine. 

As always, you can see exactly what we're recommending in terms of software, hardware, and security at the bottom of every newsletter. 

Covid: What we know
COVID-19 is spread primarily through aerosols—tiny invisible particles exhaled by an infected person—and close, direct contact. Although it is possible for the coronavirus to spread via surfaces, I am unaware of any surface-based outbreaks. 

Age makes a difference both in viral transmission and disease severity. Those under age 10 tend to be asymptomatic and are apparently unlikely to be so-called “super spreaders” (individuals who go on to infect many people). This does not mean they cannot be infectious. Because of some kind of undetermined change around puberty, older humans seem to become more susceptible to the virus. This makes high school and college in-person environments much more dangerous than K-8. The dangers, including mortality, increase as one gets older. Certain factors like obesity, diabetes, smoking, etc. also increase disease severity.

Right now the best defense you have is isolation and avoiding close, direct contact with others. Beyond that, individuals should use a multi-layered defense to prevent COVID spread: 

  1. If you must be in close, direct contact with others outside your family or isolation bubble, wear a face mask. 
    1. Not all masks are created equal when it comes to stopping aerosols. Masks made of fleece—typical in many gaiter-style masks—are actually worse than no mask at all as the fleece acts to spread out but not contain the aerosols. Masks should also not have vents of any kind.
    2. Cloth masks are not nearly so good as surgical, KN95, or N95 masks. While cloth masks are likely sufficient for outdoors, when indoors, use a surgical mask under a cloth, or use a KN95 or N95.
    3. Face shields are not an effective barrier to aerosol transmission and should not be relied upon. 
  2. As much as possible, avoid indoor, shared respiratory spaces. Meet outdoors where UV rays and lots of fresh air kill or diffuse the virus. 
  3. Viral load exposure time matters. If an indoor space might have a heavy viral aerosol load, you want to be masked and spend as little time as possible exposing yourself to that environment. This matters both in whether you get the virus and the severity of the COVID that follows. 
  4. Ventilate spaces. The CDC recommends spaces have complete air exchange 6 times every hour (once every 10 minutes). More is better. This lowers the viral load in the area in question. 
  5. Do not meet in large groups. Each person you’re in close contact with carries with them the potential exposure from the people they’ve encountered in the last few days. In a time of uncontrolled spread meeting with a large enough group of people almost guarantees that someone has the virus. 
  6. Avoid indoor spaces where people breath heavily. Choirs, band concerts, gyms, athletic events all should be avoided indoors. 
  7. If you are exposed to someone with COVID, you should get a test and quarantine for 14 days. In most cases, if you have COVID you will get symptoms within 5-7 days but it is sometimes as long as 17 days and a good number of people are asymptomatic—they never show symptoms at all. 

Minor defenses:

  1. Take Vitamin D. This is neither preventative nor a cure, but in 80% of serious COVID cases patients had a Vitamin D deficiency. 
  2. Gargle with an alcohol-based mouthwash (Listerine Cool Mint, for example) once a day. Only one study on this, but the idea is that the mouthwash kills the virus and thereby reduces the viral load in the mouth. May help; won’t hurt. 
  3. Wash your hands using soap and water and/or use Purell or other hand-sanitizer. The coronavirus is almost never spread by surface contact, but this may help stop the spread of other viruses and bacteria. 
  4. Monitor your temperature and blood oxygen levels. Because Covid infections can be asymptomatic, you may not realize that you have it. Monitoring your temperature for a low-grade fever and blood oxygen levels below 95 may provide you with indicators that prompt you to get a test. (The AppleWatch Series 6 supports blood oxygen monitoring.)
Because a large number of Americans have ignored warnings not to gather for the holidays, we are seeing uncontrolled spread and almost full hospital ICUs across the United States. January will be worse. But highly effective vaccines are rolling out, and in a few months time, viral spread will begin to slow then decline. We will get to the other side of this. Please stay safe! 

M menu for Sentinel
Sentinel+ members are probably familiar with our M menulet. It's our little stylized black diamond with a white M in the middle that sits up in the menubar. Clicking on our M menu gives provides some options for launching Sentinel+ Maintenance, starting up or downloading our Splashtop remote support tool, visiting our newsletter archive, and so on. 

We recently rolled out this same tech for our Sentinel clients. It won't launch Sentinel+ Maintenance of course, but we're hoping quick access to both our newsletter archive and Help Center proves useful. 


End of Flash
Adobe is dropping all support of Flash within the next 30 days. There is no reason for anyone to wait. 

As has been true for awhile, for security reasons Adobe Flash should be removed from your system if you have it. If you're not sure if you have it, you can go to System Preferences and Adobe Flash will be sitting in the bottom row. If it's not there, you don't have it installed. 

There are a couple ways to remove Flash: It can be removed by using the Flash Player Install Manager in Applications/Utilities or by downloading the uninstaller from here: https://helpx.adobe.com/flash-player/kb/uninstall-flash-player-mac-os.html.

If you'd prefer, you can schedule a remote support session with MacAtoZ to have us handle the removal.
 

Quick notes
A few quick notes: 
  • Snap Camera: SnapChat's free Snap Camera software allows you to put a crazy number of different filters/lenses over your video—including your Zoom video. Great fun for the holidays!
  • Beware Zoom links: A recent email scam involves official-looking Zoom email links. Be careful about what you click in emails!
  • macO 10.13 High Sierra end of life: it's the end of the road for macOS 10.13 High Sierra, an operating system that had a fair number of problems early on, but which eventually got there in terms of reliability. If your Mac is still on 10.13, you should look to upgrade at least to 10.14.6 Mojave—which is stable and secure. If history is a guide, Apple will not issue any further security updates for 10.13—meaning it grows increasingly less secure over time. 
  • Holiday closure: MacAtoZ will be officially closed December 21 through January 3 so that we can celebrate the holidays with our families. We will continue to monitor Sentinel and contact clients as necessary. If something important crops up, clients should feel free to contact us, though obviously our response time and availability may be a little longer than usual. 
Not the year we wanted
Like many of you, we are ready to throw 2020 into the dustbin of history. This has been an extraordinarily difficult year in many ways, not the least of which is the Covid-19 pandemic. The Salem Mac Users Group (SMUG) had just moved to a new home at Center 50+ when I started hearing reports of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China. By late February, I was concerned enough about this that I returned to Facebook (which I loathe for privacy reasons) to warn everyone to stock up on supplies and face the possibility of quarantine. 

In our March 10 newsletter, we announced a new "remote-only" policy for MacAtoZ and laid out everything we knew at that time about Covid-19. We have continued this policy and will until vaccines and masking return us to a place when the risk of transmitting the virus is low. I suspect that will be sometime in Summer 2021. 

April, May, and June brought more updates on Covid—and what we were doing about it: free troubleshooting for Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype; a free grocery delivery service if you didn't feel safe going to the store; how to use your Mac to help find Covid solutions with Folding@home; and so on. In sum, we did whatever we could think to do to serve our clients safely. 

In July we announced Sentinel Ultra, a new next level security product. As the pandemic brought a lot more people online we saw a big uptick in malware and scams. Ultra was designed to help protect against these threats. The enthusiasm for the service has been gratifying and validating. We so very much want you to be safe in your online endeavors, particularly since the consequences of the scams and malware have escalated. We have heard so many tales from people who've fallen victim to the bad guys, that we knew we needed to do more. So Ultra is our best attempt to proactively protect our clients. 

Further, this do-everything-we-can approach to stopping the bad guys is what led to the simultaneous introduction of Sentinel AM, our anti malware add-on for Sentinel+ and Sentinel Ultra. If you have Ultra—which is a proactive shield against getting malware in the first place—you probably don't need AM. But if you want to have the most secure Mac you can, we're not going to tell you no. 

In September we published for the first time our complete recommended security stack for the Mac—the products and services we use and recommend in order to keep your data secure. We've continued to publish these Security Recommendations (along with Software and Hardware Recommendations) at the bottom of every newsletter. 

In October we introduced Abby Carter as our new administrative assistant, successfully concluding an extensive hiring search. This move allowed Brittany Stenger, our long-time Client Relations Manger to recede into family life while continuing to occasionally help the company with Special Projects. That MacAtoZ was able to move from strength to strength in this transition is a testament to both Abby and Brittany. In the long run a company is only as good as its people, and in this MacAtoZ has been very fortunate indeed.

November came with a personal note that my wife Erin was diagnosed with breast cancer—detected early thanks to regular, annual mammograms. Her surgery successfully removed the cancer but also found more cancer in a lymph node. Although her long-term prognosis remains excellent, the next 3-4 months will be crummy as she undergoes chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I expect to miss a substantial number of work days while caring for her. In advance, I want to thank the MacAtoZ team for helping pick up the slack and our clients for their understanding. Also, both Erin and I have appreciated the thoughts and comments from everyone—it's meant a great deal to us both. 

For all of us at MacAtoZ, our best wishes to you for a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. We have some great things in the pipeline for MacAtoZ clients during 2021, and we're looking forward to sharing them with you. In the meantime, again, stay safe. 

 


Software Recommendations

macOS 10.14.6 Mojave. We not crazy about macOS 10.15.7 Catalina. It's had a lot of reliability issues, and still has a Mail app bug that can cause the loss of email when a user moves a lot of messages. That said, Catalina is acceptable from a security perspective and depending on how Big Sur evolves we may end up having to recommend Catalina a stop-gap. macOS 10.13.6 High Sierra (and earlier) is no longer secure. It and earlier versions should be upgraded ASAP. You can see your Mac's operating system version by going to the Apple menu in the top left corner of the screen and choosing "About This Mac." Again, we DO NOT recommend macOS 11 Big Sur yet. Among other things, Big Sur has the same email bug as Catalina and issues corrupting PDFs.

iOS 14.3. Seems good in limited testing. The previous update, iOS 14.2, contained numerous important security updates, so if your iPhone is not already on 14.2, you should probably do the 14.3 update sooner rather than later. If you're not sure what iOS version you have, you can see your iPhone or iPad's operating system version by going to Settings > General > About > Version. 

iPadOS 14.3. Same commentary applies for iPadOS 14.3 as above with iOS 14.3. 

watchOS 7.1. We have just started tested watchOS 7.2. Based on Apple WatchOS history, we recommend waiting about a week before updating. Apple's updates have bricked watches in the past, but given a week Apple will have sorted out any problems. Older versions of WatchOS acceptable if necessary; upgrade if your devices (iPhone and Apple Watch) support it. You can see your Apple Watch's operating system version by going to Settings > General > About > Version. Generally, one does not have to worry about AppleWatch software security.  

tvOS 14.2. We have not tested tvOS 14.3 yet. tvOS 13.4.8 and tvOS 12 also acceptable. Note that earlier models of Apple TV do not run tvOS and are fine for what they do; not all channels, features, or apps will be available. You can see if there's a software update available for your Apple TV by going to Settings > System > Software Updates > Update Software. Generally, one does not have to worry about tvOS security. 
 

Hardware Recommendations

Macintosh
  • MacBook (Early 2015 or later)
  • MacBook Air (Mid-2012 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid-2012 or later)
    • Note that 2016-2019 MacBook Pro models have a higher than usual keyboard failure rate. Used 2015 models, which use a different style keyboard, may be a more reliable option. The new 2019 MacBook Pro 16" model uses a new keyboard mechanism and should be fine.
  • Mac mini (Late 2012 or later)
  • iMac (Late 2012 or later)
  • iMac Pro (all models)
  • Mac Pro (Late 2013 or newer)
These are minimum hardware recommendations based on what is necessary to run a secure operating system (macOS 10.14.6 Mojave or macOS 10.15.7 Catalina). If your Mac does not meet these specifications—that is, it will not run Mojave or Catalina—it needs to be replaced soon. macOS 10.13 High Sierra is no longer secure.

macOS 11 Big Sur was released in November 2020 and has its own set of system requirements. 

iPhone and iPad
  • iPhone 6S or newer. Older iPhones cannot run iOS 14. 
    • iPhone 7 models have a higher than normal failure rate over time. Given the choice, we would recommend iPhone SE (2020) model as a strong alternative to iPhone 7 models. 
  • iPad Air 2 or newer
  • iPad mini 4 or newer
  • iPad Pro (all models)
  • iPad 5th generation or newer
The iPad line is made confusing by the multitude of model names and types (Air, mini, Pro, and just plain iPad). Generally speaking, devices introduced in October 2014 and later will run iPadOS. iPads that will not run iPadOS and should be replaced unless they will not be used on the internet. 

Apple Watch
  • Apple Watch Series 4, 5, or 6 or SE highly recommended.
  • All versions (Series 0 through Series 6 and SE) are secure and acceptable though Apple Watch Series 0, 1, and 2 will not run the latest version of WatchOS and therefore lack both the speed and features of later Apple Watches.  
Apple TV
  • Apple TV 4K is recommended. Apple TV HD (4th generation) is fine as well.
  • Older models of Apple TV do not support tvOS and cannot run Apple TV Store apps, though we are unaware of any major security issues. 
 

Security Recommendations

A secure operating system
See Software Recommendations for details. If you're not running a secure operating system, it will be difficult to impossible to protect your data. 

Encryption
We recommend using Apple's built-in whole disk encryption, FileVault. It can be turned on in System Preferences > Security & Privacy. 

Backups
We recommend and use Apple's built-in Time Machine backup system. You'll need an external hard drive so that the data is automatically saved to a second location. Off-site backup remains important in mitigating the risk of fire or theft. We use and recommend Backblaze. At a cost of $6 a month per Mac, Backblaze will encrypt then backup an unlimited amount of data from your Mac. Data has a 30-day retention window, though longer time periods are possible for an additional couple bucks. 

Sentinel, Sentinel+, Sentinel Ultra, Sentinel AM [warning: we are tooting our own horn here]
Sentinel provides professional 24/7 oversight of the health of your Mac. We're monitoring all kinds of things (RAM, hard drive, Time Machine backups, battery, etc.)—150 different data points every hour.  

Sentinel+ adds maintenance and security to Sentinel's 24/7 monitoring. Sentinel+ will handle most software updates so you don't have to as well as run maintenance routines to keep things running tip-top. This is includes basic scanning and quarantine of malware. 

Sentinel Ultra is our top-of-the-line, four-in-one service that includes everything in Sentinel and Sentinel+. Ultra blocks malicious web sites, filters objectionable content, protects against email phishing threats, and even increases the speed of your web surfing. It's proactive security. Ultra represents our best effort and the best tool in our arsenal to keep clients safe on the web. 

Sentinel AM is our anti-malware offering. It's a $5/mo add-on for Sentinel+ or Sentinel Ultra services. 

A secure web browser with ad blocking
Firefox with the free open source content blocker uBlock Origin is our first choice. Safari with AdGuard (and blocking cross-site tracking turned on) is another fine option. AdGuard is no longer free, but Safari extensions are getting enhanced in macOS 11 Big Sur, so we're hopeful that getting uBlock Origin (our favorite) back on Safari is just a matter of time. 

DuckDuckGo
There's really no good reason to use Google, Bing, or any of the other search engines. Not only does DuckDuckGo return excellent search results, you can use commands in the search bar (like "!g"—that's exclamation point plus the letter g) to search Google anonymously. You can search other search engines anonymously too via DuckDuckGo, and DuckDuckGo won't track you. In the search engine preferences for either Safari or Firefox, you can set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine. 

A Virtual Private Network
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is an encrypted tunnel between your Mac (or iPhone or iPad) and another computer run by the VPN company. It protects your internet traffic so that anyone who might want to spy on your traffic locally can't. We use PIA VPN which covers multiple devices (Mac, iPad, iPhone) for about $75 a year. 

A Password Manager
We consider password managers like 1Password indispensible. Instead of having to remember lengthy passwords or reusing the handful that we can remember, we remember one password to unlock 1Password, and the program takes care of the rest. 1Password can be a little complex to set up, so we typically will help clients with that. Actual use isn't too bad though and is typically within the reach of even basic users.  

A Spam Filter
Apple's built in Junk Mail filter works for most spam assuming your email address isn't widely dispersed on the internet. If you're swamped with spam email, though, SpamSieve can rescue you.

Avoid Social Media
If you're posting to social media like Facebook, you're not just telling your friends something. You're telling Facebook, and Facebook is hardly keeping your information top secret. Want to say something privately to a friend? Use Apple Messages or Apple's FaceTime. Both are end-to-end encrypted, and not even Apple has the keys. 

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Apple Consultants Network
MacAtoZ LLC provides technical support, upgrade, installation, networking, training and tutoring, and remote support services for Apple products like Macintosh computers, iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

Ty Davison and Dyneé Medlock, our Apple technicians, are the only Apple-certified, Apple Consultants Network members serving both residential and small business clients in Oregon's mid-Willamette Valley.

MacAtoZ has been providing computer services for clients in the Salem area since 2006 (and since 1999 as SiteRev.com). Our technicians are certified by Apple and carry $1 million in business liability insurance. We frequently present and are well-known at the Salem Macintosh Users Group (SMUG). You can count on us.

Our Sentinel, Sentinel+, and Sentinel Ultra services offer home users 24/7 Macintosh monitoring, maintenance, security, and web browsing protection. Join today!

Quick Links

MacAtoZ LLC: The main company web site. You can find information about products and services as well as advice here.

Amazon via MacAtoZ: Shop at Amazon via our referral link. Help us to help you. 

Offsite Backup: You should have one, and we recommend Backblaze. Only $5 a month for unlimited data. Get your 15-day free trial here. 

Salem Mac Users Group: Salem, Oregon-area Macintosh and Apple gear enthusiasts. Now holding Zoom meetings monthly. Visitors welcome! Visit the web site for details.

Apple Consultants Network: If you need help, entrust your computer and your data to professionals. 
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