Helping with the Christmas purchase part 3: “So many ways to die!”

Following on from my attempts to answer friends’ questions this blog takes a final look at what you need to know, in the form of security.  I am not a security expert and talk broadly based on my decades of experience which in more recent years has largely involved programming on ‘safe’ systems like Linux and OSX while frequently being asked to fix people’s PC’s because they were a bit too keen on downloading free programs or finding some rude pictures they had heard were out there.  The first rule of creating a trap is understanding what bait will work, of course.  I should also add, no one pays me to have a particular opinion so recommendations are made with impartiality.  if I am wrong, please comment and add to the pot – this is just based on my experiences and yours might be quite different.

Keeping your connected device safe
For the purposes of this final blog in my pre-Christmas series of helpfulness I am going to address a question that I get asked occasionally but is one thing I wish people would worry more about, rather than less.  I am often heard telling people not to worry and to just dive in, where technology is concerned, after all, it’s getting easier and easier to do incredible things.

However, if your device can do lots, and perhaps contains internet history and passwords that make quick access to your bank account (for example) then keeping it out of the virtual hands of the malicious is of the utmost importance.

There was an old phrase, often said with hubris by tech support types about their customers, or more entertainingly when an otherwise expert makes a schoolboy error, and that is: PEBKAC which is short for the diagnoses ‘Problem exists between keyboard and chair’.  This is true of the biggest security risk facing you and your data:  You!

People have often willingly allowed malicious code to run on their computers having been promised improved performance and free security software.  They have also filled in forms which look real, providing enough information to steal their identity or even their cash (on a so called ‘phishing site’).

If you have fantastically clever security but still fall for the offer of a free iPad and click a link which runs a script on a webpage, you could potentially have handed everything over to hackers, be that your data or the use of your hardware to make further attacks (during which, you will be paying for the bandwidth).

So, the first important bit of advice is this:

  • Only install applications from trusted developers
  • If a program says it will speed your computer up, it will probably break it
  • If you get an email with a link, make sure the link goes where you would expect (youtube.com not yoootube.com for example, which could be a ‘phishing’ site).
  • If you get an email asking you to click a link and confirm your details (sometimes cheekily because they say they’ve been compromised) – don’t!  This is more obvious when it is from a bank you don’t have an account with, or a badly written email that is not at all convincing, but easy to fall for when all the proverbial ducks are in a row.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Update everything regularly – developers quickly patch flaws as they are found, but if you don’t install the patch, you are at risk
  • Finally, it’s harsh, but the security people put it bluntly; if you run anything on your computer/device that you do not know the source of for certain, it isn’t your computer/device any more.

In the spirit of the original question (what tablet should I buy this Christmas) there are considerations which you can make early on, before buying.  The most secure tablets are iOS devices by Apple.  This isn’t debatable, it is simple a result of the closed platform which Apple operated.  Unless an ‘app’ meets a whole host of rigorous criteria it cannot be listed on the App store, even if its free.  Android is a pretty safe platform, but the Play store is an open playing field so there is some risk.  If in doubt – don’t download it.  The ‘real world’ sense is that there is little to worry about on all (non-windows) tablet devices.  In all cases observing the common-sense rules will serve you well.

In the land of computers, there are many types of ‘malware’ viruses and hijacks.  Apple and Linux operating systems are considerably safer although one could argue that the sense of invulnerability can leave users wide open.  The best protection is to act intelligently and to have a solid level of baseline protection.

For Windows PC’s and tablets, my personal favourite and firm recommendation for PC security Software is Eset Smart Security.  Unlike some others, it doesn’t slow PC’s down and speaking personally has a 100% track record at keeping my father’s computer virus and malware free where free, cheap and even similarly price main brains security suites have failed in the past.  On Mac’s  there are virus checkers, but these predominantly focus on viruses that might not affect you but could be passed on to a windows user, possibly in your own home.

Credible Threat
The most credible threat I have heard about in recent times is CryptoLocker.  CryptoLocker is malware which can run on Windows machines and what it does is encrypts your data and offers to sell you the key for a price, for example $300, within a short period, such as 2 days, or they throw away your key and your data, whether thats all your family photos, college work, or whatever.

Enthusiastic police in the US have traced the servers and closed them down.  They always have more available, and what the police essentially did was remove your opportunity to get your data back for your $300!  Elsewhere in the US police force, Massachusetts police were forced to pay a ‘2 bitcoin’ ransom for their data – a sum which equates to more than $2000 at todays exchange rates.

This leads me seamlessly to the final leg of personal protection.  Backup EVERYTHING.  In years gone by, when I was much younger, I heard an old lady say that if she had a house fire she would run back in to rescue her budgie and her photo’s.  Until then I had not really considered the value of pictures.

Now, as a parent who struggles to remember how cute his expensive and challenging tweenage daughter once was, I see the value.  Even low resolution videos taken on my first camera phone are precious.  You should back up in more than one place (i.e. on more than one physical device) and in more than one location.  Cloud solutions are plentiful now, so you haven’t got this covered, do so very soon.  Even if you have 10 drives with everything duplicated, you would be in trouble if the room they were in went up in flames.

My final personal recommendation is for Flickr pro.  This relatively inexpensive service allows you to upload all of your images to unlimited protected storage, which you can, but don’t have to use to share images with your family or friends.  So many services are available in this field now though, it is certainly worth shopping around.

Next up: Normal service will resume and the ThoughtsOfEd will return to being that.  

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Helping with the Christmas purchase part 2: “What the specs say?”

In my previous rough guide I attempted to answer the common question I am asked, especially with Christmas coming, which is ‘what should I get to carry out my/the person I am giving this to’s daily computing tasks’.  To which my most likely response is, unless you need a keyboard (all of the time), these days it’s all about the tablets.  I say most likely, as I laboured on the importance of thinking about what you actually want it for or might actually use it for once you get the thing.

Mulling (straight in with a Christmas reference!) over the questions I am frequently being asked leads me to focus on what all those complicated sounding specifications mean.  My first reaction was to go through each specification and to explain it.  Chances are, if you care, you’ll know, but if you don’t you are probably who I am ‘replying’ to by writing this.

Get your hands on!
A few parents I have spoken to have been nervous about looking silly and in the whole they would rather click on the one that fits the bill on a site like Amazon and be done with it.  Don’t deny yourself!  If you are going to go ‘real’ shopping at all this Christmas, trying out tablets is a lot of fun (even if you don’t intend to buy).  I mentioned trying the ones which might even be out of your price range and the reason for that is you will notice obvious differences between the top-notch and the hotch-potch, as it were.

Specs:
The Screen (display)
Size is a matter of preference.  You might want to hold the device in your hard like a book or you might want to put it on the table in your student kitchen and sit around watching movies.  A lot of numbers are banded about in the name of ‘best display’ including result ion (how many pixels) or pixels per inch (ppi).

The simplest way I can explain this is that it you have an HD TV that is 21inches across the picture will look amazing.  If that HD TV is 105inches and you go up close, you will be surprised at how blurry it looks.  Smaller will look better, but you know what, I saw a bargain basement ‘standard’ definition 10 inch screen this week and it looked great.

Pixels schmixels though – it obviously  matters how it looks to you, but for a tablet computer, how the touch screen behaves is everything.  This is where trying the actual one you plan to buy (not one just like it by a different manufacturer) is very important.  A good screen is responsive and doesn’t stand between you and what you want to do, whereas a bad example can make you simply not want to use the thing.

If you have, e.g. an iPhone and think a cheap android tablet will serve your children in exactly the same way you may well be disappointed.  You might be right, though.  There are so so so many tablets out there now that you might find a bargain basement gem, but the point is, it isn’t something you can guess at.

Processor, RAM and performance
Tablets are a lot more forgiving than the computers we have grown to despise.  I have mentioned that they are generally a lot more secure, but they also suffer far less from the slow down you get with an older say, laptop.  However, if the thing doesn’t run nicely to start with, it is unlikely to improve age.  You know what I am going to say… Try it first!

Storage
People who are less ‘nerdy’ often talk about memory, but frequently overlook the different meanings to this and often talk about memory when they mean storage. Many tablets seem happy with around 1GB of RAM and some advertise this, but actually (again) it’s whether the device runs well with what it has installed.  You can’t change it.
Storage however, is different.  Many complain at the hike between a 16GB iPad and a 32GB iPad of the same specs (usually about £100). Android devices (or more accurately anything not made by Apple) often have memory card slots.  This means that you could use a memory card (maybe 8GB for under £15) to store music and pictures.  These are not ‘just the same’ as is often said.  If you are taking photos in burst mode, for example, the memory cards can fail to keep up, or if you are recording video or audio they can struggle after a while.

I bring this up because someone else might and referring back to the first part of this series, you need to give serious thought to what you want the device for.  For what it’s worth, iPad wise, once the OS in installed and the main apps I use are on, 16GB leaves me little to play with.  I choose to carry my music on my iPad and make music, write documents and edit video, so have opted for the costly 64GB in the hope I get a few years use out of it.  So far I absolutely love it and have no regrets.

OS and Apps
For the purpose of answering this question, I am purely thinking in terms of Apple devices and Android based device.  Apple use their own operating system, iOS (currently v7) which is free and updated regularly, with a major release every year.

Android devices run the Android operating system (hence the category name!) which is ‘wrapped’ by various vendors, e.g. You might have a Samsung version of the operating system which doesn’t have the same features as the HTC version.

Google runs the whole shebang and have promised that their newest version, ‘Kit Kat’ (yes, like the chocolate, and with the consent of Nestle, though apparently no money has changed hands?!) runs a ‘pure android experience’ whichever version you have.  Kit Kat is being rolled out through the major manufacturers.

Less mainstream devices can be updated but things do not always go well and you may find yourself googling for answers to problems, when that is exactly what you wanted a tablet to get you away from.

This is an argument in favour of at least favouring a major brand, and possibly a feather in Apple’s cap; iOS is ‘closed’ which to some means inflexible, but to many others, this means that the software is made for the hardware and will always work.

Apple have a well known App Store with gazillions of apps for everything.  Android have there own store which is at play.google.com.  Here you can install the Android market and have a LOT of free fun.  If your intentions are more serious, check the apps you are likely to need as this in itself can be a deal maker or breaker.

Connectivity
Physical:
iPads have one connector which can have many things connected to it.  As Apple decided to keep the iPad 2 in the range alongside the iPad minis and ‘Air’ there are two types of that connector, known as the dock connector: 50 pin dock connector (iPad 2 as well as iPhone 4S – also current) and the lightening dock connector (small one).  Connectors such as camera kits and HDMI out are fussy, and sometimes discount versions are useless, meaning an expensive original cable is the only solution.

Android tablets tend to have actual standardised connectors and can have ‘proper’ (if mini) HDMI, USB, and memory slots.  Chargers can be the ubiquitous micro USB type improving compatibility over Apple’s specific chargers which use their own proprietary cable (which all comes free with the device).

Network
Wifi comes in various types, but the good news is that established standards (like the b/g or ‘n’ types you might see) are backwards compatible.  The only point of note is that if you buy a tablet with wireless ‘n’ you will need a router/wifi hotspot which supports this to get the full benefit.

I can’t imagine a tablet without wifi but the other type of network connection you can have is 3G/4G/LTE.  This is a connection to the internet which uses the mobile/cellular network.  You will need a SIM like you do for your mobile and will need to pay for that data in some way.  Whether this is useful depends on how much you would rely on the tablet having a data connection when, e.g. Travelling, and whether you are mostly likely to be near a wifi hotspot (or at home) when you are using it.

Again as a guide, I have 3G and my monthly bill ranges from 0pence to a few pounds.  I keep it switched off unless I need it which protects my wallet from routine downloads of Facebook statuses and alerts.  The bottom line is I paid more up front for my ipad, but the facility, which I regularly use, is there when I need it.  The running costs, for me at least, are very low.

Specs versus Hands on Impressions
No manufacturer has ever set out to be honest about a devices shortcomings unless it is to provide a comparison that might make you choose their ‘better’ version.  Some say that major programs like Microsoft Word have got worse over the years because instead of focussing on what was good, the developers have pandered to the features matrix on the back of the box, and have focused primarily on filling as many boxes with a tick as possible, however the program felt to use.  The specifications will usually look impressive (especially if you have nothing to compare them with) but how a device really bares it can be quickly revealed by using the thing.

So, if I had to sum up my thoughts on the specifications of a tablet? If you’ve really thought about what you want and have got straight in your head what areas of a tablet you will push then the final choice can only be made (cue Christmas music) ….by your heart!