Bill Bennett

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Personal computers or PCs remain important despite their numbers falling behind phone handsets.

Two months with an M1 MacBook Air

Apple sent a M1 MacBook Air for testing in late November. I’ve spent the last two months using it as my everyday mobile computer. This write-up is not a conventional product review, it’s about the experience. View it more as a glimpse into a possible mobile computing future.

At first sight there’s little to tell the new M1 MacBook Air from the most recent model that now sits in the cupboard. There was no choice. It had to go in the cupboard. If they sat side-by-side on the desk I’d need to open both (or mark one) to know which is which. From the outside they are peas in a pod.

In fact its worse that that because when I set-up the new MacBook Air, I copied all the settings from my old one. Which means the opening display on both is identical.

The only physical difference are the small icons printed on the F4, F5 and F6 function keys. You have to look to notice. They show controls for MacOS’s Spotlight search, dictation and Siri features.

A globe printed on the function key at the bottom left of the keyboard tells you this can open an emoji picker. It’s not something I ever use. That’s because I learned to use Command-Space to open Spotlight. Apart from testing that they work, I have yet to use the other new functions.

Clues

There are a few more clues to help distinguish the two MacBooks. The M1 model is much faster. We’ll come to that in a moment.

The battery goes for hours longer between charges. We’ll look at that in more depth later.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air is cooler and quieter. There is no cooling fan. It doesn’t need one. Mind you, the fan on the older MacBook Air doesn’t kick in until you push the hardware. With my writing work, that’s not common.

I’m a journalist. I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing. I prefer lightweight writing apps over the big, sprawling word processors. Yet there are jobs where I have to use Microsoft Word. In normal use none of the writing apps in my toolbox draw on enough resources for the cooling fan to kick in.

Goodbye humming fan

To get the fan humming I’d need to run a media creation app or do a demanding spreadsheet or database task. It also hums when playing games.

That said, the old MacBook Air can still warm up during a lengthy work session. After two months with the M1 model, I’ve yet to detect the merest hint of processor heat.

Given that I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing, I didn’t expect to get much of a performance kick from the M1. After all, it doesn’t help me type faster.

Processor intensive

Yet, in practice there are dozens of small processor intensive tasks that now work faster. I rarely used dictation on my Mac. It wasn’t great. It is now. The new MacBook Air shows how much processor speed changes that experience.

Likewise Siri. Because I’ve been a touch typist for years I tend to use keyboard commands others might prefer speech.

Movies load faster. Complex web pages perform better. On the odd occasion where I need to edit a photo, clip audio files or chew through a lot of data it all happens at speed.

I’ve never had a problem waiting for a MacBook Air to wake-up when I open the lid. It happens in a few seconds. With the M1 model, it happens in fewer seconds. That’s not a big deal, but I like it.

Pushing Safari

The other effect is more subtle than that. I’ve learned not to have more than a handful of apps open at any given moment and to not push Safari by opening lots of tabs. That could test my old MacBook Air. These restrictions have gone. when. testing this, I got bored opening new apps and tabs long before the new Air began to struggle with the workload.

You can benchmark the new Macs to get interesting looking figures. These numbers may mean something to certain people. Yet I’d argue everyday use matters more: The new Macs offer a much improved experience. It feels more fluid, more natural, there’s less of a gap between what you might want from a computer and what you get.

One aspect of the M1 Macs that worried users was the 16GB limit for system Ram. The MacBook Air never had more Ram, but MacBook Pro models could have 32GB. Desktop Macs could have 64GB.

In the event, it’s not an issue. M1 Macs have a design that does more with less Ram.

To my surprise I found I ended up more excited and enthusiastic about the new M1 MacBook Air than expected.

The new normal

The problem with performance boosts is that higher speeds soon become normal. As an acid test, I fired up the old MacBook Air. I wanted to know different the new experience was. The test confirmed it, the M1 MacBook is much better.

There’s a link between a fast processor like the M1 in the new MacBook Air and gigabit fibre.

Few, if any, everyday applications that push a gigabit fibre connection to the limit. Yet having plenty of headroom means you’re never going hit a speed barrier. Likewise, even if you have modest computer needs, there are times when headroom is useful.

Say you’ve spent months working from home on gigabit fibre. Then, say, you return to the office and a more modest connection speed. That connection now feels laggy and flat, even though it may be fast by accepted standards.

That’s how the M1 MacBook Air feels after using the Intel model.

Battery

One reason I switched from Windows to a MacBook Air seven years ago was the improved battery life. I could get more than ten hours from the MacBook. The Windows machine it replaced struggled to do three hours.

At that time I had a job working part-time in an office. I’d take my MacBook on the bus and work a full nine-hour day without hunting for a power outlet. Two years later the MacBook could still last the entire working day. It changed how I worked.

The Air had enough battery life for a long-haul flight. Enough to work in the Koru lounge and for the trip to, say, Singapore with a few hours of down time for naps or meals.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air almost doubles that time. I won’t be taking any long-haul flights soon, but, if I did, it would get me to Barcelona or Paris.

Working from home, I can go a couple of days without charging.

This is the start

It’s interesting to realise that Apple used its new processors first in low-end models. There are M1 models of the MacBook Air, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. The message isn’t that subtle. If Apple’s low-cost laptops are this fast, what can we expect from more expensive models?

Which leaves us with another question. How is this going to affect the Windows laptop and PC market? At the time of writing, Apple’s low-end Macs are at least a generation ahead of Windows computers. When Apple releases its Pro model computers that gap could be wider.

Let’s stop and qualify that last paragraph. The NZ$2200 eight core M1 MacBook outperforms almost every Intel-based laptop. This includes models costing twice as much. There may be faster Windows laptops out there. Good luck finding one.

Fanless

Intel can’t build a fast fanless Windows laptop. The Air is silent. If that matters to you, that’s an Apple advantage its rivals can’t match.

When I first switched back to Macs from Windows, I configured my MacBook to dual boot Windows and MacOS. I stopped doing that years ago. If there’s a spare Windows licence in my home, I can no longer find it.

Reports suggest a MacBook Air runs Windows faster than native Windows laptops. That has to rattle Intel.

Last week Intel responded with its own set of cherry-picked benchmarks in an attempt to prove… well, it’s not clear what that goal was other than to muddy the waters.

No doubt Intel will respond. But from a computer user point of view, you now need a powerful reason to choose a Windows laptop over a MacBook.

Acronis True Image 2021 review – Back-up, security

Acronis True Image 2021 promises to keep your data safe for around A$100 a year. It protects PCs and Macs from disasters, accidents, criminal attacks and ransomware.

What is True Image?

True Image started life as a back-up application. The name refers to the way it creates a copy or an image of your computer data on an external hard drive or cloud server.

Two years ago Acronis added security features adding ransomware protection to back-up. The most expensive version of the software included blockchain certification. I’m not convinced that is necessary. Yet there are those who find it useful.

The 2021 version of the software adds more protection. Acronis says it deals with malware, malicious websites and code injection. There’s a new antivirus scan.

All this means the security software has to work in real-time.

There’s the timely addition of protection from videoconferencing interference. This is a threat that emerged during the Covid-19 lockdown. The feature is not included in the MacOS version.

In effect, Acronis repackaged its enterprise security technology for individuals and small businesses.

One user interface

Having back-up and security controlled by a single user interface simplifies the two processes. That’s important. Many small business buy back up and security then fail to make the most of them because it’s difficult.

True Image 2021 has a clean, straightforward interface. This hasn’t changed since the True Image 2019 review written more than two years ago.

It’s not immediately obvious how everything works, but it is easy to learn. The trick is to mouse your way around the user interface and try all the options.

Once you’re done, you can leave True Image to work without day-to-day intervention, although it is likely you will need to revisit the app.

Testing True Image

I tested it on an iMac. Here it adds an icon to the menu bar. Unlike other MacOS apps, this is not a menu, instead it shows notifications. There is an option to open the app’s main screen from here.

Back-up remains the focus. You can create images of entire drives, partitions, folders or even individual files. True Image can back-up your network drives and add back-ups for your mobile phone or tablet.

There are options to do a full back-up, this can take a long time, or to do a differential back-up. This means backing up everything that changed since the last back-up.

Back-up options

You control the back-up frequency. Options range from monthly, which I’d regard as “why bother”? all the way to hourly.

The default is daily. There’s a twice daily option which I’ve set to back-up about half way through my working day and then late at night. That way I’m never going to lose more than a few hours work.

More frequent back-ups are possible, but this can tie up resources.

There are options to remove older back-ups when you are running out of space on your target disc. You can do this manually or leave it to the software. You can also set up validations.

Pricing

There’s a basic A$70 subscription that doesn’t include cloud back-up. You’ll need a local or network drive. Acronis does not appear to allow you to use alternative cloud storage.

The A$98 Advanced plan includes 500GB of cloud back-up storage. There is a A$140 plan with a terabyte of storage. These prices are for one computer.

Acronis’ per computer price drops if you add more, but you don’t get more cloud storage.

This complex price structure is strange given that everything else about True Image 2021 works to hide complexity. I’m concerned that buyers can end up buying more than they need, or not enough.

Back-up updates

There are updates to the way True Image handles back-ups. It no longer duplicates data if a back-up is interrupted, say if you lose your connection. Instead of restarting and doing the whole back-up again, it picks up from where it left off.

While testing I ran into a couple of interesting observations. First, there may be times when you want to turn off protection. I did this when bittorrenting a copy of LibreOffice 7 for review.

True Image’s security stopped my bit torrent client from working. Fair enough. To allow it through I paused the software, then forgot to restart. The next morning an email arrived telling me the scheduled back-up failed.

This is excellent. It’s easy to forget to switch back on and leave yourself without back-ups or protection. Getting a non-intrusive reminder is the best way of fixing this.

Safe replication

Likewise, after first installing the application, I chose to make a replica of my Mac hard drive using the Acronis Cloud. All good. Then I swapped out my home Wi-Fi router for a D-Link Wi-fi 6 router.

The router remained installed. When I went to update the drive replica, True Image responded with a message saying replication would restart after I connected to an approved Wi-fi network.

This protection would stop True Image from automatic drive replication when, say, a laptop connects to public Wi-fi. It takes a couple of clicks to resume replication with a new router.

True Image’s replication will wait until the everyday back-up is complete. It handles tasks one-by-one, not in parallel. This is useful on slower connection.

Fast, if your network is fast

Cloud back-ups are fast. I have a gigabit fibre connection, my Wi-fi 6 router is the bottleneck. It can clock speeds of over 500mbps. On my set-up, when True Image connects to the Acronis Cloud the reported speed fluctuates from around 100 mbps up to over 200 mbps.

Back-up times vary. The time indicator on the user interface gives a rough guide, but don’t take it seriously. It warned me a full drive back-up of 340 GB would take 52 minutes. I left it running and checked 30 minutes after starting to find it had finished.

Incremental back-ups of around 200 MB take a couple of minutes. Again, the times reported on the user interface can be misleading. The ‘less than one minute’ turned out to be a few seconds over two minutes.

Early back-up software, including earlier versions of True Image, could hurt system and network performance. I found this year’s edition of Norton LifeLock ties up all system resources when in full flight and then some. That is another story for another time.

True Image 2021 has no noticeable impact on performance. Automated back-ups can happen while I’m on a Zoom call and I’d never know. I haven’t seen a spinning Mac beachball while using True Image. This is in part down to plenty of headroom on a fibre connection and Wi-fi 6 local network, but, as mentioned, Norton struggles with the same resources.

Acronis True Image 2021 verdict

I can’t think of any other application that combines back-up and security in the way True Image does. The price is on a par with buying separate applications to do the two jobs.

You won’t need to pay for Acronis back-up and a separate security suite. You won’t need to learn two user interfaces. This is important if you don’t have full time IT professionals to call on for help.

Getting both back-up and security in a single integrated package from one source simplifies both.

Today, True Image is comprehensive to the point of providing more protection than everyday users or small businesses need.

It could be overkill for your needs.

If your data is precious or your work makes you a security target you should consider True Image.

If you handle other people’s data it could be essential. It makes sense if you work for a company or agency that requires high levels of security. Choose it if losing your data for more than a few minutes will cost you money.

Thors Magnetic Charging Cable review

Thors magnetic charging cable USBThors’ NZ$15 magnetic charging cable can save your precious devices from an early grave.

A magnetic charging cable has two main advantages over an everyday cable.

First, it protects your hardware from being flung across the room if you trip or otherwise yank the cord.

Second, magnets snap connections together fast. Connections are instant, you can do it in the dark. There is no shuffling around making sure things fit. It makes life a lot easy if, say, you have ports hidden on the back of a device in places that you don’t normally see.

Likewise, you can unplug a cable straight away without stressing the connection. This means the cable and, in some cases the ports, last longer.

Have a safe trip

Everyday cables rely on a snug fit between a plug and socket. Give the cable a good tug and you’ll pull the device. Tripping over the cable can break your device, smash the screen and cause other chaos.

I tested two Thors magnetic cables. The USB-C one has two parts. One part is a USB plug. It sticks in the device leaving a small magnetic surface that sticks out about 3mm.

This marries up with a similar magnetic surface that’s mounted on a pivot to give it flexibility. There’s a small blue LED to show when it is connected to a power supply at the other end. In the case of this cable the other end is a USB-3 plug that connects to the power supply brick.

The magnets holding the connection pull apart without needing much force. When the two get close, the connection snaps into place. If you trip on the cable, the inertia of the device means it will not move much, instead the magnets come apart.

Remember Apple MagSafe?

Anyone who owned an older Apple laptop will remember the companies MagSafe connectors. These were standard fare on MacBooks until around five years ago.

It was a bad day when Apple stopped using MagSafe. The technology saved many Apple users from accidentally wrecking MacBooks.

There is something similar on Microsoft Surface devices. Other computer brands can have variations on the theme. Or they did until the industry decided to standardise on USB-C.

Thors has a variety of options. There are one metre and two metre cables, charge cables and data-charge cables. You can buy extra plugs. You’ll find them in computer stores or can buy direct from the Thors website.

Huawei Matebook 13 compared to MacBook Air

Huawei pitches its 2020 Matebook 13 as an Apple MacBook Air alternative. That’s not my words, this is a quote from Huawei executive who said this at a recent industry function.

Comparisons with Apple are a big deal at Huawei. The company wants to be China’s Apple.

While there are similarities, it’s not a direct comparison. Few people who choose one of the other.

Apart from anything else, Huawei runs Windows 10 and the MacBook Air runs MacOS. Switching between operating systems is not something you’d want to do every upgrade.

Matebook 13 versus MacBook Air

How does the comparison work in practice?

The review Matebook 13 sells for NZ$2200 and uses an Intel i7 processor. It has an Nvidia MX250 graphics processor, 16GB of Ram and 512GB of storage.

The nearest MacBook Air costs NZ$2350, had the same 512GB of storage. You get 8GB of Ram and an i5 processor.

Given the specifications, it is no surprise the Matebook does processor intensive work better than the MacBook Air. To be fair, Apple doesn’t sell the Air for this work, the company points power hungry users at the MacBook Pro models.

In testing the Matebook beat the Apple for video editing. Otherwise there was less difference that you might expect give the different processors.

Simple versus complex

If you use a laptop for simple tasks like, writing or answering emails, then any performance gap between the two is academic. The Matebook 13 does a better job with, say, manipulating large Excel spreadsheets or complex calculations.

The MacBook hard drive is much faster than the Matebook 13’s drive. The MacBook Air could send large files to a server in about half the time it takes on the Matebook 13.

When it comes to graphics, the MacBook Air beats the Matebook 13. The 13.3 inch screen has 2560 by 1600 pixel resolution. The Matebook screen is a fraction smaller at 13 inches and has a 2160 by 1440 resolution. If you compare the two side by side, Apple’s display is far more impressive.

Apple wins by a long margin on battery life. You can work on a MacBook Air for ten hours between charges. In my testing the Matebook 13 ran out of juice a few minutes before the six hour mark.

 

Portability

One strange point of comparison is with weight. Huawei’s specification sheet says 1.3kg. That’s as near as it can be to the MacBook Air which Apple’s tech sheet says weights 1.29kg.

When I picked the two computers up, the Matebook 13 felt heavier than the MacBook Air despite these specifications. I weighted them on our, not accurate but still indicative kitchen scales. The MacBook Air was 1.3kg and the Matebook 13 was 1.4kg.

That goes part way to explaining the practical difference, but not the whole way. The Matebook 13 is smaller than the MacBook Air. It measures 286 by 211 by 14.9 mm. The Air is 304 by 212 by 16 mm. Which means the Huawei computer feels heavier because it is denser.

This could be nitpicking, until you put the two computers in bags and carry them around all day. Both are light and easy to carry. Yet you’ll notice the Matebook 13 a fraction more than you’ll notice the MacBook Air.

Small and neatly formed

Both Apple and Huawei take a pride in build quality. The Matebook 13 almost hits the MacBook Air standard.

There are two places where it fails. First, the power button which doubles as a fingerprint reader. Apple’s square Touch ID sensor sits at the top right of the keyboard. It feels like any other key. Huawei’s round button sits north of the top right of the keyboard and doesn’t feel as solid as Apple’s key. There’s a small amount of wobble here. You can live with it, but it shows Huawei doesn’t have the same attention to detail.

A more obvious annoyance is the Huawei Share sticker on the keyboard’s bottom right. This is next to the as disfiguring and tacky Intel advertising sticker.

It’s amazing, computer makers go to extreme lengths to design sleek, beautiful hardware and then spoil the effect with stickers. Many are needless aesthetic wreckers, the Huawei Share sticker is not. It has a function.

Integration

Huawei Share lets you connect your Matebook 13 to a Huawei phone. The idea is loosely similar to the features that let Mac owners swap files and photos with iPhones or iPads. When you’re working with a Matebook, these Apple-Huawei comparisons are never far away.

Unlike Apple’s phone-computer integration, Huawei Share mirrors your phone’s screen on the laptop screen. I can’t think of why this might be useful, but you might.

It has to be a Huawei phone. That’s an oddity right there. Huawei may be New Zealand’s third favourite phone brand, but it enjoys, at best, a ten percent market share. If you draw a Venn diagram of the New Zealanders who have both a Huawei laptop and phone, it’s unlikely the overlap would be more than a couple of hundred.

A few last comparisons that don’t fit elsewhere. On paper both the Matebook 13 and the MacBook Air have the same Wi-fi specifications. In practice, the MacBook’s Wi-fi works better over longer distances. I connected both to remote servers via home Wi-fi and saw better speeds on the MacBook Air. I can speculate on why this is, but a proper answer is beyond the scope of this review.

Like Apple, maybe because of Apple, Huawei has gone for port minimalism. There are two USB-C ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can only charge the computer using the left-hand USB-C port.

Matebook 13 versus MacBook Air verdict

You get more computer for less money with the Huawei MateBook 13. You’ll be hard pressed to tell the performance apart despite the specifications. That is unless you run demanding apps. If that’s you, then you’ll appreciate the more powerful Matebook.

Apple’s MacBook looks and feels nicer, it has a better screen and way more battery life. Which means if you don’t need more processing grunt, it could be a smarter buy.

And yet few would choose between a Matebook 13 and a MacBook Air on these criteria. If you prefer Windows 10 or have to use it for work, the Matebook 13 gives you the most-MacBook Air-like Windows laptop experience.

Working from home surveillance arms race

The move to working from home means there’s a boom in employee surveillance software. Bosses can check workers are hard at it, not leaning back for a Netflix binge.

Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.

If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.

Counter productive

Keeping close tabs on workers can be counter productive. If the metric is measuring the number of mouse movements per hour, employees will focus on moving mice, not on doing what they are paid to do.

What you measure is what you get.

For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.

They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.

Snooping

Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.

The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:

  • Time Doctor,
  • ActivTrak,
  • StaffCop.

That last one is vile.

On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.

One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….

There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.

Listening in

Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.

And then there is this example from the Wired story

“PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life.”

Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.

It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.

The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.

Orwellian

In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.

Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.

Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.

As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.

One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.

There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.