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Newsletter Issue #326

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

With both the technology and mainstream press filled with reports about those newly-discovered security threats to the Mac platform, we devoted a fair portion of the February 23rd episode to the subject. We invited Intego’s David Loomstein back for a brief visit, and we caught him on the road in crowded LA traffic. His headphone system wouldn’t operate, but he was game and managed to deliver the basics via his standard mobile handset. Author Kirk McElhearn worked with Macworld to actually examine the Oompa-Loompa virus and see how it did its dirty deeds, and he appeared during the first third of the show to explain what it could do and what it couldn’t. Although it hasn’t been generally reported, the iChat users potentially impacted by the virus are confined to your local, or Bonjour, network, and not AIM and .Mac users at large.

We also featured Shell Haffner, Product Marketing Manager for Xerox’s Office group. He talked about the technology behind the company’s line of solid ink printers, such as the 8500DN we examined in last week’s issue. Rounding out the show was none other than Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who talked about current Mac developments, and that recent “geek” cruise he took to Mexico.

Actually, in case you don’t readily recognize his voice, Bob is heard on all our shows, as the voice behind some of the musical interludes or bumpers that you hear throughout the program.

For March 2nd, we’ll feature ace Mac troubleshooter Ted Landau. Other guests will be announced soon.

In case you’re wondering about that other show, “The Paracast,” we have a couple of shows almost ready to roll. Unless last-minute troubles intervene, were on track to debut the first episode on Tuesday, February 28th, from 9:00 PM until 10:30 PM Eastern Time. When the site goes live, which will be no later than the day of the broadcast, you’ll be able to check it out at TheParacast.com, and it’ll be listed in iTunes and other Podcast directories before long. Our first guests for The Paracast include the famous author of over 160 books, Brad Steiger, and the always outspoken Jim Moseley, publisher of “Saucer Smear.” Next week’s guest list includes long-time UFO advocate Tim Beckley, who is known to some as “Mr. UFO.”

And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, video tuner/recorders, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

THE NIGHT OWL REVIEW: A LOOK AT TWO ANTI-VIRUS APPLICATIONS

Intego VirusBarrier X4:
Night Owl Rating: ★★★★★

Norton Anti-Virus 10:
Night Owl Rating: ★★★★☆

The need for software to protect you against Mac malware is debatable. Some say it happens so rarely that just installing Apple’s security updates as soon as they appear and being careful about downloading files should be more than enough to protect you from possible harm. Others say that this approach ignores the larger PC world, that the current Mac security situation is just the tip of the iceberg and more threats are in the offing.

But there are still other considerations: You cannot ignore the fact that more than 90% of the personal computers on the planet run Windows, and that you risk accidentally infecting them if you accidentally pass on a file or message containing a virus, even though it doesn’t affect Macs. If you use Classic for any reason, you also cannot forget that several dozen viruses impacted the original Mac operating system over the years, and you need protection. Add to the equation Word macro viruses, which are cross-platform affairs, and you can see where having up-to-date virus protection may indeed be essential.

So I think it’s time to catch up on the commercial anti-virus applications available for Mac OS X. I’m going to deal with just two: Intego VirusBarrier X4 and Norton Anti-Virus. Both Sophos and Virex are out of the equation for now, because they’re not available for individual users; you have to spend extra for multi-user packs. I won’t presume to comment on the marketing decision, because it ignores the fact that many of you are home users or small business users and you have no need for more than one or two copies. I am also omitting a freeware virus application, ClamXav, simply because its protection is nowhere near as comprehensive as the other offerings.

When it comes to the entrants from Intego and Symantec, the devil’s in the details, and the features of the two are far more similar than different. At the core, they both offer background scanning, which means that, when you create, open or close a file, it is quickly examined for the presence of a known virus or suspicious activity. Understand, here, that I’m lumping all viruses into one category, although that includes Trojan Horses and worms and any possible variations on the theme.

The scanning process also includes downloads and emails, both common sources of potential virus infections. Once files have been scanned, you can add them to a safe or secure zone, so they aren’t rescanned, which supposedly speeds up performance. Or at least that’s the claim.

In addition, both Norton Anti-Virus and VirusBarrier X4 can do drag-and-drop manual scans of a file, folder, or drive, and scheduled scans. You can also have them regularly go online to check for updates, either for the applications or the virus definition files. These are the files that allow them to examine the signatures of known malware in search of infections. Both programs can scan or repair infected files. The latter can be done manually or automatically. But it’s also fair to say that a file should be checked after it’s repaired, just to make sure it hasn’t been damaged and has become unusable.

The two programs can also scan for Windows-based viruses, so you don’t accidentally infect someone using that operating system. They do, after all, have enough grief as it is. If you’re using an Intel-based Mac, or planning to, you’ll be pleased to know that they are both Universal binaries, which means they run native on either PowerPC or Intel processors.

When it comes to getting updates as soon as a potential malware threat is discovered, the commercial security software publishers share information. Yes, Intego apparently got the jump in releasing an updated virus protection file for the Oompa-Loompa virus, but Symantec wasn’t far behind. We’re talking of a matter of hours or a day or two at the most.

There is a major difference, however, and that’s purchase price. Norton Anti-Virus is $49.95, but VirusBarrier X4 is $20 more.

So why did I give the latter a higher rating? Well, all things being essentially equal, you don’t want to install a security application that, itself, can create potential conflicts. Here Symantec’s record of stability and reliability is somewhat mixed. Most recently, some users of Norton Anti-Virus for the Mac reported false positives; that is, good files mistakenly flagged as infected. An updated virus definition file fixed that problem, but it surely caused plenty of aggravation while it lasted, and you wonder if Symantec was a little quick on the trigger in releasing the original buggy update. Some months back, it was also reported that the software, itself, might actually create its own security leak, but that problem has since been addressed.

When I installed Norton Anti-Virus on my first-generation Power Mac G5 with twin 2GHz processors, I found I couldn’t create a disk image with Disk Utility. It kept reporting some arcane system error. The symptom disappeared as soon as I ran the Symantec Uninstaller and vanquished all the program files. I then installed VirusBarrier X4, and didn’t notice any anomalous behavior from its presence, other than a very slight slowdown in the launch times of some applications. The latter is the side-effect of scanning those applications for possible infections, and it’s a worthy trade-off.

To be fair to Symantec, the problem I encountered may not impact too many people; it may even be unique to my particular installation. If that’s the case, the $20 savings may be reason enough to buy a copy. What’s more, Symantec has been pretty good about fixing bugs with its software over the years, so this particular problem may soon be addressed if its widespread.

But for my purposes, I prefer VirusBarrier X4. It does everything you expect a virus protection application to do and is minimally invasive. Just sitting back and doing noting may be okay for some of you, but that, too, will change, alas.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: DON’T THROW OUT THAT ANALOG TV JUST YET

If nothing changes between now and February 17, 2009, your old fashioned analog TV set may become obsolete. Well, not quite, but the broadcasts that it receives here in the U.S. will go dark, as the frequency spectrum is freed and offered via auction to wireless carriers and for emergency response teams. I won’t begin to debate the wisdom behind this long-delayed action, but the bill sailed through Congress fairly quickly, and got the requisite presidential signature.

But don’t despair. You won’t have to throw out that old set, particularly if you get stations from a cable or satellite provider, using one of their set-top boxes, since they can convert all-digital signals to analog. The new law also includes $1.5 billion in Federal funds to cover the cost of offering two $40 vouchers per household so you can buy digital-to-analog converters, which would only be needed if you receive TV via an antenna.

Despite this planned obsolescence, analog TVs are still being sold. Do not, for example, expect the TV you buy for less than $200 to be digital, although prices will come down over time. Over the next couple of years, you’ll see analog sets begin to fade, and they’ll soon be relics of the closeout aisles. But is there any benefit to all this, other than to give the government money when they reallocate the unused frequencies?

Well, from a reception standpoint, digital simply looks better. You won’t see the typical analog artifacts, such as ghosts and other ills that many of you put up with for years. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to become high definition, any more than standard digital cable is high definition. You see, there are many flavors of digital TV, and only some offer widescreens and higher resolution pictures.

Without covering every single variation, it’s easy just to look at the basic three. The first is standard definition, which is just the digital alternative to what you have now, and that’s already available, as I said, from cable and satellite providers. There’s also EDTV, for extended definition, which delivers picture quality on par with a progressive scan DVD player. It’s actually quite good, and if you don’t want or can’t afford a large-screen TV, EDTV is a worthy alternative. I can’t tell you how many years I existed with just a 19-inch set, and was perfectly happy. With a picture of that size or even quite a bit larger, EDTV will seem a revelation.

But when you start considering sets with screens of 30 inches and higher, the benefits of HDTV become up close and personal. The price also goes up considerably, usually starting at over $600. There are also two types of high definition sets, one of which, called HD-Ready, doesn’t even have a real HD tuner, just an analog version. But if you intend to get your HDTV broadcasts from cable or satellite, you can use their set-top boxes and save a few dollars. Such sets, however, are rapidly being displaced by models with built-in HDTV tuners. Just check the specs to be sure what you’re getting.

Another aspect of this confusing picture, and please forgive the pun, is that surveys show that many of you don’t realize that getting an HDTV is just one part of the equation. You still need to set it up to receive high definition broadcasts. Many cities already have HDTV stations on the air, but most of the fare on cable and satellite remains standard definition. More important, you may have to trade out your current set-top box to get true HD fare. This is something you’ll have to check for yourself, and I’ll have more to say on the subject in a future issue.

THE FINAL WORD

The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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