We’re offering 50 percent off the entire Take Control catalog through 25 February 2015, so act now for great savings! Apple has announced a repair program for select MacBook Pro models with video problems; Josh Centers explains how to get your Mac fixed for free. Apple’s Book Proofer app stopped working in Yosemite, but Michael Cohen explains how you can use iBooks to proof your EPUBs on an iOS device. Much has been said about the FCC’s proposed net neutrality regulations, but Josh points out that they won’t fix many of our broadband woes. FunBITS returns this week, as Julio Ojeda-Zapata explores the Sling TV service, which offers cord cutters many basic cable channels for $20 a month. Finally, we have a new chapticle from Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” that explains how to improve your passwords. Notable software releases this week include VMware Fusion 7.1.1, Coda 2.5.6, Audio Hijack 3.0.2, DEVONagent Lite, Express, and Pro 3.9, OmniFocus 2.1, and Airfoil 4.8.13.
Faced with rising snowdrifts and falling temperatures here at Take Control HQ, we’ve decided to liven up the season with a sale — it beats shoveling the driveway again! No matter what your weather, now’s the time to add any number of our books to your Take Control library for 50 percent off, through 25 February 2015. All our titles are DRM-free and available in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats, so you can access the real-world Mac and iOS advice you need wherever, whenever, and on whatever device you like.
Since Apple’s massive releases of OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 last year, our hard-working authors have been researching and writing new titles and updates alike, all with the goal of providing you with up-to-date answers to your Mac and iOS questions.
In particular, check out our snazzy new Take Control Crash Courses, which bring you the first-rate content you expect from us in shorter, magazine-like chunks so you can dip in and read quickly. We have Crash Courses on Yosemite, iOS 8, and “Digital Sharing for Apple Users” — that last one explains how to work effectively in today’s spaghetti-like ecosystem of devices, services, and collaborators.
Other titles that have been revised recently to cover changes in Yosemite and iOS 8 include the following:
- “Take Control of Pages” has friendly and thorough directions for handling complex word processing and layout tasks on the Mac, in iOS, and on iCloud, plus a deep look at iCloud Drive.
- “Take Control of Apple Mail, Second Edition” tells you what you most need to know about Apple’s Mail app in Yosemite and iOS.
“Take Control of iCloud, Third Edition” remains the canonical reference to everything iCloud can do. If you’re not sure which features go with iCloud, how they work together, or how best to use them, read this book.
“Take Control of Dropbox” explains how to sync your own files through the Dropbox service and collaborate productively with other Dropbox users. It includes a cheat sheet you can share with colleagues who need Dropbox help.
“Take Control of FileVault” walks you through the how’s and why’s of OS X’s built-in FileVault feature so you can secure the files stored on your Mac’s drives with confidence.
“Take Control of OS X Server” covers Yosemite Server for anyone looking to turn a Mac into a server for a home, small business, or classroom.
More gems are available for 50 percent off in our catalog, making this a great time to stock up on books you can turn to for help when you need it, including titles about upgrading to Yosemite, automating your Mac, setting up a paperless office, the impressively useful utility LaunchBar, AirPort Wi-Fi networking, the Apple TV, and much more. We give readers minor updates for free, so your library can stay up to date throughout the year!
Remember, we don’t expect you to read every book cover to cover; instead, use the Table of Contents and Quick Start to jump instantly to the topics that explain what you want to know.
Thank you for supporting the Take Control series — we couldn’t do it without you! And, if we can ask a quick favor, it would be great if you could spread the word about this sale, since the proceeds make a big difference to our authors and help them continue to focus on writing books for you.
Apple apparently read our article about 2011 MacBook Pro graphics issues (see Topher Kessler’s “Apple’s Baffling Response to 2011 MacBook Pro Graphics Issues,” 13 February 2015), and was sufficiently embarrassed to announce a repair extension program for those suffering from the problem. (OK, we’re not really taking credit, but the timing was too good.) The company will also be reimbursing those who already paid for repairs.
The extension program covers 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro models manufactured in 2011 and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display models manufactured between mid-2012 and early 2013. If you own one of these computers and it’s experiencing the following issues, Apple will repair it at no charge:
- Distorted or scrambled video on the computer screen
- No video on the computer screen (or external display) even though the computer is on
Computer restarts unexpectedly
You can enter your MacBook Pro’s serial number into Apple’s Check Your Service and Support Coverage page to see if it’s covered.
If your computer is covered and affected, you will either need to bring it into an Apple Store or an Apple Authorized Service Provider for repair. Alternatively, you can call 800-275-2273 to request a postage-paid box to send your MacBook Pro to the nearest Apple Repair Center.
On the other hand, if you’ve already paid for a repair through Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider, Apple will be contacting you to arrange for reimbursement. If you aren’t contacted, you can contact Apple via a link at the bottom of the repair extension page.
In this week’s installment from “Take Control of Security for Mac Users,” Joe Kissell turns his attention to the keys to the kingdom — passwords. Put bluntly, if you can answer the question “What’s your password?” you likely have not one but two problems. You should have many passwords, not one, and most should be so long and complex that you couldn’t possibly remember them.
In Chapter 5, “Improve Your Passwords,” Joe explains why this is so important, looks at what’s involved with a “strong” password, suggests several password managers that make using strong passwords easy, and encourages you to change a few key passwords right away.
If you’ve read Joe’s full “Take Control of Your Passwords” and put his advice there into practice, you can skip this chapter — it’s the executive summary of that book. Conversely, if you want more explanation, that title expands this 9-page chapter into a full 104 pages.
If you need to catch up with “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” so far, the first two chapters are available to everyone, but all subsequent chapters are limited to TidBITS members. Those who join the TidBITS membership program receive other benefits too, but what’s most important is that TidBITS members have kept TidBITS afloat the last few years — your support truly is necessary. If you’re already a TidBITS member, log in to the TidBITS site using the email address from which you joined to read and comment on these chapters.
- Chapter 1: “Introducing Mac Security”
- Chapter 2: “Learn Security Basics”
Chapter 3: “Perform Quick Security Fixes”
Chapter 4: “Beef Up Your Security Settings”
Chapter 5: “Improve Your Passwords”
The full ebook of “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” will be available for purchase by everyone in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats once it’s complete.
According to Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of books there is no end,” a statement with which almost any publisher can agree. For those who spend their endless time developing ebooks in the EPUB format — the format used by most ebooks sold through Apple’s iBooks Store — Apple used to supply a small but useful utility to help speed the process along: Book Proofer.
This little app enabled ebook developers to edit any of an EPUB’s constituent files on the Mac and, at the same time, view that EPUB-in-progress in iBooks on a connected iPad or iPhone: make a change and iBooks displayed the results of that change almost immediately. This was a great boon to publishers… until the app stopped working with the release of iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite.
The unexpected demise of Book Proofer caused many book developers (a small but proud community of which I am a member) more than a little consternation. Without Book Proofer one has to go through the arduous process of editing an EPUB’s files, packaging them all up inside an EPUB file, loading that EPUB into iBooks, reviewing the results, and then, if the results aren’t as desired, deleting the book from iBooks, and engaging in another round of editing, packaging, and loading.
As if to add insult to injury, the iBooks app that ships with Yosemite ostensibly offers a way out with its Advanced > Add ePub to Library as Proof command. (You must first enable the Advanced menu in iBooks > Preferences > Advanced.) Frustratingly, though, that command doesn’t seem to work. Choose it, and you see a standard Mac file dialog in which EPUBs show up as unselectable!
However, it turns out that the command does work, just not with a normal EPUB file. Here’s the trick — in four-part harmony — for making it work.
The first part of the trick has to do with understanding that an EPUB file is actually a Zip archive. The archive contains all the files that make up an EPUB: the HTML files that provide the book’s text and layout, the image files used for its illustrations and cover, the files that store the book’s table of contents and other metadata (such as the title, genre, and publisher), and so on. What the old, now-broken Book Proofer used to do was to allow a book developer to put all of those files into an ordinary Finder folder and use that folder as the “book” to be proofed.
The second part of the trick is the “package” format supported by the Mac. A package is just an ordinary folder that the Finder treats as a single file if its name ends with any of a number of certain special filename extensions. It turns out that all sorts of things on your Mac that look like files are actually packages. For example, a Pages document is actually a package, a folder containing a bunch of files inside. You can see the contents of a package by Control-clicking the package in the Finder and choosing Show Package Contents from the contextual menu: a Finder window opens and you can then access and edit any of the packaged files.
The third part of the trick is Paul Durrant’s simple AppleScript application, ePub Zip/Unzip, which you can download from the bottom of the first post in this MobileRead thread: drop an EPUB on that app and its files are extracted into a new folder; drop that folder back onto the app and it is zipped up into a normal EPUB. (Note that Paul’s AppleScript app is unsigned, so you must Control-click its icon in the Finder, choose Open from the contextual menu, and then give it permission to run.)
The fourth part of the trick, and the part that makes book proofing possible, is this: take a Finder folder that contains all the files that make up an EPUB and append the extension
.epub to the folder’s name. The Finder may warn you that doing so may have consequences if you do this by hand, but in this case the consequences are to your advantage: the folder becomes a package that appears as an EPUB in the Finder, and it is this special package that iBooks on the Mac allows you to add as a proof to your Mac’s iBooks library. Happily, you need not rename the folder by hand: the latest version of the ePub Zip/Unzip app can do this for you automatically, appending
_pkg.epub to the folder name when it unzips an EPUB.
When you open an EPUB package with iBooks’ Add ePub to Library as Proof command, it appears in iBooks on the Mac with a special badge that labels it as a proof. This proof opens just like a regular EPUB does, and you can read it just as you would any other EPUB.
However, the proof book’s window features a new button: Devices. Click it and you’re given the opportunity to view the book not only on your Mac but also in any other iOS device you have connected to your Mac via USB.
To put it all together:
- Find an EPUB that you want to edit.
- Drop it on ePub Zip/Unzip to turn it into a folder and append the
In iBooks, choose Advanced > Add ePub to Library as Proof and select your renamed folder.
Open the newly imported proof in iBooks.
Connect your iPad to your Mac via USB, and choose it from the Devices button’s popover.
Once you have run through these steps, you can start making changes and previewing them. Open the EPUB package on your Mac with the Show Package Contents command, and edit to your heart’s content. Whenever you make a change to any of the EPUB’s files, those changes appear within seconds in iBooks on your Mac and on any connected iOS device.
When you finish editing, you can turn the package back into a normal EPUB file by dropping it on ePub Zip/Unzip again. (If you want do want rename the package manually, choose File > Get Info in the Finder and then remove the
.epub extension from the package’s name in the Info window — you can’t remove the extension directly in the Finder because all that does is hide the extension instead of removing it.)
After that, you are ready to ship your book… and move on to the next one. After all, of the making of books there is no end.
[Author’s Note: After I wrote the first version of this article, Paul Durrant modified his ePub Zip/Unzip app to append
_pkg.epub to the folder name automatically, and to re-zip folders dropped on it that have that extension. I revised the article to reflect how the new version of his app operates. Moreover, if the EPUB package contains the standard OEBPS folder, the app also opens the package for you to that enclosed folder (though if that internal folder is missing or has a different name, you see an error message and have to open the package manually). Thanks, Paul!]
After a year of nail-biting anticipation over the fate of net neutrality in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) surprised and delighted the technorati by revealing plans to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers (see “FCC Goes All-In on Net Neutrality,” 7 February 2015).
Well, put the cork back in your champagne, Sparky, because we haven’t won anything yet. These new regulations may be great, but they do nothing to bring broadband to those who need it and leave telecoms more than enough power to crush competitors and control your experience.
While guaranteed equal access to all online services is important, that guarantee is almost meaningless when many Americans don’t have connections sufficient to access those services in the first place, or are severely limited by data usage caps.
Life in the Slow Lane — I’m a relatively lucky guy in terms of Internet access. Despite living in a tiny, isolated town in rural Tennessee, I have a Comcast Business line with guaranteed speeds of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up, and no data usage caps.
However, I don’t have to travel far to find friends who aren’t as lucky. Outside of the small Comcast service area around here, the only choice is our local phone company, North Central Telephone Cooperative (NCTC), whose DSL speeds can be abysmally slow.
A while back, I was at a friend’s house well out of town. We were discussing how to replace a broken iPhone screen, and I mentioned that the tool he needed could be found on Amazon. It took several minutes to bring up Amazon’s site — and even then it didn’t load fully — a shocking reminder of how awful American broadband can be. Being able to access all Web sites at equal speeds is meaningless if they’re all equally bad.
My friend told me that he was paying around $80 a month for that DSL connection and the required phone line, after taxes and fees. It was supposed to offer a 512 Kbps download speed, but he said it was generally about 23 Kbps — slower than my 1998 dial-up connection. Happily, he was recently given the opportunity to upgrade to a much better connection, which I’ll get to in a bit.
After that experience, I started wondering how many other Americans were stuck with slow connections. According to Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report from Q3 2014, the average American’s download speed is 11.5 Mbps. If you go by the FCC’s more optimistic numbers, it’s closer to 18 Mbps. However, averages can be misleading, since the range includes connections as slow as my friend’s and as fast as the 1 Gbps service available in some parts of the country. (If you’re wondering about the median, the FCC lists a median American download speed of 18.43 Mbps in 2013, but for some
reason, the FCC excludes connections of 4 Mbps or less from that calculation.)
I wouldn’t have to travel far to find gigabit download speeds. In 2010, the city of Chattanooga here in Tennessee began offering municipal broadband at 1 Gbps. It’s touted as the fastest in the Western hemisphere, and it costs only $69.99 per month (my Comcast Business line is about $100 per month). Soon, my friends in Nashville will be receiving similar service when Google Fiber rolls out there.
Chattanooga’s fiber network has made it something of a boom town for tech, attracting an Amazon distribution center, Volkswagen’s North American headquarters, Claris Networks, Co.Lab, EDOps, and Lamp Post Group. While many may think of Tennessee as a hillbilly flyover state (when they think of it at all), once you look past the pickup trucks, camouflage, cowboy boots, and shotguns, we have our own little Silicon Valley growing right here in the south.
Good governance has had a profound impact on Tennessee’s economy, but don’t be fooled — our legislature is rife with embarrassing stupidity. I could write a tome about my state’s missteps, but one particularly stands out: the State of Tennessee has placed tight restrictions on municipal broadband and has prevented Chattanooga from expanding its network to neighboring areas. Tennessee isn’t alone in this: it’s one of 20 states that has enacted such restrictions, usually lobbied for by major telecom companies, and usually voted for by “business-friendly” interests.
This isn’t entirely a partisan situation. The Center for Public Integrity documents how big telecom has sandbagged broadband in Tennessee and other states, and profiles Tennessee State Senator Janice Bowling, who has fought AT&T to expand municipal broadband. She said, “I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.”
To the FCC’s credit (with a push from the Obama administration), it’s working on proposals to nullify broadband restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina. But these proposals will surely be met with resistance within the FCC, and from Congress, the states, and the telecom firms. And the question of whether a federal agency can override a state legislature is up for debate.
But government proposals and even money can’t always solve the broadband gap. Let’s circle back to my neck of the woods, where the local telco, NCTC, was awarded $50 million by the federal government under the Broadband Infrastructure Investment Program, part of the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act. The purpose of this money was to build a high-speed fiber-optic network throughout NCTC’s service area.
This is the service that my friend was just able to sign up for. But it may not be what you think. Here are NCTC’s fiber broadband Internet speeds and prices. If you’re drinking a beverage, I suggest that you swallow and carefully place the cup down on a coaster first:
- 4 Mbps for $39.95 per month
- 6 Mbps for $47.95 per month
- 12 Mbps for $59.95 per month
- 30 Mbps for $69.95 per month (vs. Chattanooga’s 1 Gbps)
- 50 Mbps for $99.95 per month
- 100 Mbps for $199.95 per month
Mind you, these prices apply only if you also subscribe to old-fashioned landline service. These speeds and prices are not what most people would think of when they think of fiber Internet — perhaps the fiber in question is hemp instead of glass. In fact, the FCC wouldn’t even consider half of these speeds to be broadband.
Don’t get me wrong, this service represents a huge improvement for the rural citizens of my community. My friend is thrilled with his 12 Mbps connection (for which he pays about $130 per month, after the required landline, taxes, and fees). It gives people like him access to services most of us take for granted, but it’s a far cry from what’s happening in Chattanooga, where subscribers get 1 Gbps for what 30 Mbps costs from NCTC.
Indeed, broadband penetration in the United States is paltry, according to Akamai. The good news is that 73 percent of Americans have a connection with a download speed of more than 4 Mbps. But the number of Americans with speeds over 10 Mbps drops significantly to 39 percent. Also notable is the percentage of Americans with download speeds of 15 Mbps or higher, the throughput considered sufficient for 4K video: that figure is only 19 percent. While 4K video seems luxurious in 2015, that level of bandwidth will undoubtedly be necessary for next-generation online services — imagine having a connection that couldn’t properly stream 1080p video today. Worldwide, the United States doesn’t even break into the top 20 countries in terms of broadband penetration.
Maybe the questionable Internet access of rural America doesn’t concern you. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few to have access to Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS. Or maybe you’re like me and live in a town or city with sufficient broadband access for the services you need.
But this issue affects us all. As the gap between the rich and poor widens, so does the broadband gap. Imagine how your life would be different if you didn’t have fast access to Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and Netflix, among many others. Or even worse, imagine how much of a disadvantage your children would be at without these resources.
If you live in a city, as more and more Americans do, you may not think of your fellow citizens in the country, but many of those people are the ones that grow your food, raise your meat, bottle your water, assemble your cars, and build much of what you use every day. As automation takes more and more American jobs, the Internet will be even more vital in providing opportunities to these people. Can we afford to leave them behind?
I’m a living example of this. Without fast, reliable Internet, I’d probably be flipping burgers or filing papers somewhere. Not that there’s anything wrong with these jobs, but how long before they’re automated out of existence as well? Broadband was my key to economic opportunity.
But even if broadband access isn’t a pressing issue for you, there’s another threat on the horizon that you won’t be able to ignore: data usage caps.
A Tip of the Cap — Even under the strict yoke of Title II, the FCC has offered a loophole to help Comcast and its ilk make online video services like Netflix unpalatable: data usage caps.
If your home broadband connection doesn’t already have a data cap, you may roll your eyes and think that I’m Chicken Little. But trust me, data caps are coming sooner than you think. And if the FCC’s net neutrality proposal passes, expect them even sooner.
Until recently, I used a residential Internet connection from Comcast that had a data cap. In this part of the country, Comcast has been testing data caps of 300 GB per month, charging an additional $10 for each additional 50 GB used.
On the surface, this seems entirely fair. After all, you pay for how much water, gas, and electricity you use. But I’m willing to bet that you have more Internet-connected devices in your house than water taps, and unless you have a leak, those taps don’t just start spraying water by themselves. Likewise, most electric devices have been refined to use as little power as possible, or can at least be turned off with a switch.
Until you have a data cap, you have no idea how much data you truly use. My family probably relies on the Internet for roughly the same things you do: Web browsing, email, iTunes, Netflix, app downloads, operating system updates, and the like. We do not run Internet-facing servers, nor do we use BitTorrent.
Thanks to the data usage cap, our monthly bills from Comcast crept up over time. In February 2014, we used over 350 GB and were charged $20 in data overages. By June, we’d exceeded 400 GB and our overages cost $30. By November, it was $40, meaning more than 450 GB of data. In December 2014, we were charged a whopping $120 in overage fees, thanks to data usage somewhere over 850 GB — and no, I have no idea how we consumed that much data. Our last bill was a total of $222.30 for Internet, a basic SD television package, and HBO.
That bill didn’t crush us financially, but it could have hurt many less-fortunate families. Even still, our budget depends on somewhat predictable living expenses. An unexpected $120 charge wasn’t a good thing.
Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to track how much data your household uses every month. Some routers track this for you, but my AirPort Express doesn’t. Comcast and some other ISPs offer data usage trackers, but who knows how many customers are aware of these or if they would identify a culprit in excessive data use. There are a number of Mac utilities that will track data usage, but they help only with a single machine, not the entire home.
But even if you can monitor your usage, that goes only so far. In my case, what could I have done? Turn off iCloud? Cancel Netflix and avoid YouTube? Stop backing up my Mac to the cloud? Those are some of the reasons I have broadband in the first place!
As a result of our huge bill, I switched to Comcast Business, which offers a predictable, flat monthly rate. On the downside, although Comcast Business uses the same lines as residential Comcast, it’s a separate business unit. So if you sign up with Comcast Business, you have to cancel your residential Comcast Internet, which nullifies any bundle discounts you may have for cable TV or Internet phone. That gives you an opportunity to investigate Dish Network and DirecTV for your TV needs, and also gives you leverage with Comcast for negotiating lower prices for the previously bundled services. I ended up sticking with Comcast for TV and ended up paying less than I was before with a bundle. If you have no need for live TV, you can save
even more (or investigate the new Sling TV service — see “FunBITS: Sling TV Is Made for Cord Cutters,” 20 February 2015).
But will Comcast Business always run without caps? Will every customer have such easy access to it? No one knows.
Even if you don’t tend to exceed your data cap, there’s always a bit of stress whenever you watch Netflix or download a new version of OS X. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on that, but it’s a palpable tension that I’m glad is gone.
While I concede that data caps make sense for wireless Internet, where pesky physics limits the amount of available spectrum (I’ve noticed mobile service improving since caps were implemented), data caps make little sense on wired connections. The amount of data you consume is determined by your download and upload throughputs. If telecoms are straining under the load, why do they keep offering faster packages? The whole thing stinks.
And even if data caps were a necessary evil, they should scale to your tier of service. For my 50 Mbps connection, a cap of between 500 GB and 1 TB would have been reasonable while still allowing me to actually use the connection speed I paid for. As it stands now, data caps are like airline baggage fees: most people will end up paying more for no improvement in service.
I worry that these data caps will become more widespread and more strict should the proposed net neutrality regulations stick. Without revenue streams from paid prioritization deals, bandwidth caps will become a safe way for ISPs to “innovate” (read “make more money”). And since most telecom companies also offer TV services, data usage caps may be the last way to squeeze out high-bandwidth competitors.
Being able to access everything on the Internet equally will be great, as long as data caps don’t restrict us to accessing far less than before.
What to Do — As I’ve hopefully shown, while the FCC’s net neutrality proposals might be good for the Internet, they are far from the end of its challenges.
Ultimately, net neutrality is trying to foster competition in the online service space, but equally important is competition in the online access industry. While regulation can be helpful, regulatory capture, where regulatory bodies are taken over by the interests they’re intended to regulate, is a real risk.
Regulatory capture may explain government regulations that have helped lead to this noncompetitive market. Many cities, by law, make it almost impossible for non-established players to break into the market.
Similar government regulations have often thwarted cities from providing their own broadband options, like the one in Chattanooga. 20 states have laws that prevent municipal Internet, and the Obama administration is fighting to get those laws overturned.
I believe there is only one surefire way to make things better: vigorous, brutal, all-out competition. Less than 40 percent of Americans even have a choice in broadband providers. To see what can happen when competition is fierce, read Kirk McElhearn’s “Free Disrupts Telecom Market in France,” (30 April 2012).
Municipal Internet is one of the keys to encouraging competition, especially in areas that aren’t economically attractive to big telecom firms. Despite all the bluster, Comcast still offers Internet service in Chattanooga, just as UPS and FedEx compete with the United States Postal Service. Heck, companies have even figured out how to compete with municipal water: by bottling it. Competition is a beautiful thing, even if it comes from the government. And frankly, if you can’t compete with government, you have no business being in business.
Finally, there is one aspect of the FCC’s Title II proposal that I’m particularly critical of: it doesn’t require ISPs to unbundle services, which would make things even more competitive. That would require incumbents like AT&T to let competitors use their infrastructure (for a fee, of course).
On the surface, this seems unfair. But bear in mind that many of these companies were able to build up their infrastructure with no fear of competition thanks to an unfair, government-backed advantage. I think unbundling helps to undo the damage caused by government interference.
But even more to the point: there’s a good chance that you own these lines.
What? Yes, it’s true. Back in the roaring 1990s, under a program called the National Infrastructure Initiative, $200 billion of taxpayer money was distributed to telecoms (mostly companies that eventually merged into Verizon and AT&T) to build a nationwide high-speed network, capable of 45 Mbps in both directions.
Needless to say, this did not happen. We were collectively ripped off, with nothing to show for it two decades later except slow DSL service. To the companies that received those taxpayer dollars, I say: give it back or prepare to be boarded.
There’s only one way we can gain real competition in the broadband market, and that’s to be a bigger voice than the lobbyists. Let your state representatives, your national legislators, and the FCC know that you want true competition in the telecom market. After all, you paid for it.
I’m a wannabe “cord cutter,” forever thwarted. I would have canceled my Comcast cable TV service years ago if it were up to me. I am married, though, and my wife has veto power over decisions like this.
She’s hooked on such basic-cable shows as “House Hunters International,” “Love It or List It,” and the suspiciously handsome “Property Brothers” on the HGTV channel. She loves having an on-demand archive of her favorite programs via Comcast’s X1 service, too.
But my case for ditching cable became stronger with a new Internet streaming video service called Sling TV. Aimed squarely at cord cutters, it offers an array of basic-cable channels for $20 per month, with no contractual obligation. No cable or satellite TV service is required (an interesting arrangement, since Sling TV is owned by satellite provider Dish Network).
Do you like sports? Sling TV offers ESPN. How about cooking? Sling TV users get the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. For news junkies, there’s CNN and Bloomberg Television. Kids can load up the Disney Channel, and Spanish-speaking households like mine can watch Galavisión.
Sling TV has roughly 30 channels, running the gamut from travel and home repair to general-interest programming on such popular channels as TNT and TBS, with more on the way. Sling TV recently announced that it will add AMC, home of “The Walking Dead” and the “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul,” along with Univisión, another Latino channel. And, yes, Sling TV has HGTV for my
Sling TV also offers add-on channel tiers. For an extra $5 per month, sports fans can expand from ESPN and ESPN2 to a total of 11 sports channels, including the SEC Network and several other ESPN channels. There are also $5 bundles for kids and news junkies. But you are out of luck if you crave Lifetime, A&E, USA, BET, MTV, Bravo, Spike, SyFy, TLC, the History Channel, the Weather Channel, C-Span, Telemundo, Nickelodeon, and many others.
All supported channels are live, just as they are via a cable or satellite provider, and some also include on-demand access to recently aired episodes. CNN is only viewable live, so I can’t record new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, but I can watch old episodes of his previous show, “No Reservations,” on the Travel Channel. Live programs can’t be paused, rewound, or fast-forwarded, but archived shows can be. There are no DVR features for recording video for later playback, unlike my Comcast X1
Archived content is limited compared to, say, the on-demand programming available from Comcast (some of it free but much not). While Comcast gives me archives going back seasons, Sling TV provides only recently aired shows.
Sling TV has one major omission: no basic broadcast channels are included. But this is simple to remedy for many people with a rooftop antenna that pulls in those channels in pristine, uncompressed high definition, and for free.
Sling TV also provides a selection of rental movies, such as “Fury,” “Lucy,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” much as Google’s Play store, Apple’s iTunes Store, Wal-Mart’s Vudu, and others have long done. As with those others, you pay for films individually; they aren’t included in the monthly fee. No one will join Sling for access to the movies.
But that may change. Sling TV earlier this month said it will soon add the EPIX network with four new channels and 2,000 more video-on-demand titles. The EPIX service will also cost an extra monthly fee, which hasn’t yet been announced.
Best of all, Sling TV is viewable on just about any device.
The service has iOS and Android apps, along with Mac and Windows applications. Users of recent Roku streaming-video TV boxes get access, and Sling TV has just added compatibility with the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. Microsoft Xbox One and Google Nexus Player compatibility is coming soon. Devices that are not yet Sling TV-compatible include the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast streaming stick.
Taking Sling TV for a Spin — I tried out Sling TV on an iPhone 6 Plus, an iPad Air 2, and a MacBook Air with no major problems. I also installed the service on a Windows PC, an Android-based Google Nexus 9 tablet, a Roku 3 streaming box, and both of Amazon’s Fire TV devices. Sling TV generally worked dependably for me, with very little buffering and lag, and only a couple of cryptic errors that forced app restarts.
Sling TV’s interface is nearly identical across the range of compatible computers, mobile devices and TV streamers. It features a basic design with two side-scrolling menus: one for channels and, just below that, another for shows on each channel. This worked reasonably well with both mouse-driven and touch-based platforms, but it felt a bit clunky with the Roku and Fire TV remotes, and the side-scrolling design tested my patience everywhere since I was constantly navigating through dozens of channels.
On computers and mobile devices, a drop-down menu on the upper right eased my pain a bit by dividing channels into four categories: sports, entertainment, news, and family.
On the upper left there is a second drop-down menu for shifting between Sling TV’s television and movie listings.
Navigation is slightly different on a TV. On the Fire TV remote, for instance, you tap the menu button to navigate to the movie section, a search engine, and more.
Streaming quality on my computers and mobile gadgets tended to be decent if not HD-pristine via my Comcast broadband and Wi-Fi router. Quality took a hit on my TV, via either Roku or Fire TV, but it was hard for me to tell whether Sling TV or my Wi-Fi network was to blame. I suspect the latter since my living room has tended to be a Wi-Fi problem area and I’ve had trouble with other services too. (That said, TidBITS Managing Editor Josh Centers has also seen poor video quality with Sling TV, even with a wired connection.)
Sling TV is supposed to save your place when viewing a show on one device, so you can pick up where you left off on another gadget later, but I found this to work imperfectly.
I also had a devil of a time remaining logged in to Sling TV on certain devices, such as my iPad and Roku. My multi-device use may have accounted for some of this misbehavior. The service doesn’t allow simultaneous access on multiple devices, so forget about sharing credentials with friends and family, HBO Go-style.
Login problems aside, the iPad Air 2 struck me as the perfect environment for full Sling TV enjoyment with its Retina display, flawless touch interaction, high portability, and nice audio. I suspect Sling TV was conceived with Apple’s tablet primarily in mind.
Is It Worth It? — Sling TV is affordably priced at $20 a month for its core channels, and even the $5 add-on bundles are reasonable, but the service has to be a good fit content-wise. If you like the channels the service has, you’ll be tempted to take the leap. My wife and I have no interest in the ESPN channels (the biggest selling point) and its other shows are a mixed bag, so Sling TV is not a slam dunk for us in that regard.
We’d definitely save money, though. Our Comcast bill comes to $175 a month with cable TV, broadband, and telephone service bundled together. If I canceled the cable TV part of the bundle, I’d pay only $70 a month, or $90 with broadband plus Sling TV.
We’d take a hit in terms of features, however, if we threw in our lot with Sling TV. Comcast’s X1 service provides a DVR along with a wealth of on-demand video, a powerful search engine with autocomplete, and movie and TV-episode purchases or rentals, plus pause, rewind and fast-forward for live TV.
Sling TV doesn’t compete well with Comcast X1 at any level other than price. It has no DVR options, a weak search engine, clunkier navigation, and much less on-demand content. When push comes to shove, my wife is more than willing to pay more for Comcast’s superior service, and so we will keep doing so. How that comparison works out for you, only you can say.
But, as I said earlier, I would have canceled cable a long time ago if it were just up to me, and that was before Sling TV came on the scene. Sling TV makes the cord-cutting scenario all the more alluring, and I’m sure many others will feel the same way.
VMware Fusion 7.1.1 — VMware has updated its virtualization package VMware Fusion (both standard and Professional editions) to version 7.1.1 with the capability to edit Processors & Memory settings for a restricted virtual machine without entering the restrictions password. Version 7.1.1 also fixes crashes when running the Bloomberg financial application and when running Outlook 2010 in Unity mode, fixes failures with the Command-G keyboard shortcut, and resolves issues with full screen mode on systems with some three-monitor configurations. There
are several known issues to be aware of in version 7.1.1, including a failure for a Mac to wake up and repeated messages that some Windows applications were being opened for the first time when running VMware Fusion on OS X 10.10.1 Yosemite or later. Be sure to check the release notes for these known issues and recommended workarounds. ($69.99/149.99 new, $49.99/$79.99 upgrade, 333 MB)
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Coda 2.5.6 — Panic released Coda 2.5.5 with a number of improvements and fixes for the Web site development tool. The update quickens the speed of Find and Replace (by up to 10 times in some cases), improves cache clearing in Preview, fixes an issue with reporting incorrect file dates, improves Git stability, adds PHP constants and “magic methods” to Autocomplete, improves the reliability of resolving network-based Places that may be unreachable, and makes minor cosmetic improvements. Shortly after this release, Panic updated Coda to version 2.5.6 to fix a possible exception when commenting code below folded code. ($99 new,
free update, 84.5 MB, release notes, 10.7.5+)
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Audio Hijack 3.0.2 — Rogue Amoeba has released Audio Hijack 3.0.2 to fix a critical App Nap-related bug that could produce incomplete or incorrect audio. The audio recording utility also now enables you to tweak recorder settings when a Recorder block is off (regardless of whether the Session is running or not), updates the Instant On component to version 8.0.6 to fix some minor bugs, ensures the Recordings tab reflects file name or title tag changes, changes the text of the Ducking block to add clarity, ensures session windows are remembered when re-opening or launching, and removes the capability to delete
in-progress recordings. ($49 new with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, free update for version 3.0 licenses, $25 upgrade from older versions, 14.3 MB, release notes, 10.9+)
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DEVONagent Lite, Express, and Pro 3.9 — DEVONtechnologies has updated all three editions of its DEVONagent research software (Lite, Express, and Pro) to version 3.9. DEVONagent Pro gets the most attention with the addition of a new Inspectors pane, which unifies several previous panes to provide access to page properties, objects retrieved by scanners, and related pages. The update also improves the See Also algorithm to be more precise and deliver more useful summaries, enables you to remove all search results from a selected domain via a menu command (Data > Delete Domain), and adds
.webbookmark bookmark files. Both the Pro and Express editions now support importing Safari 8.x history and update the Linked Audio/Video Files scanners to support embedded streams and videos (they’ve also been renamed to Audio/Video Files). All three editions now use HTTPS for all Google plug-ins and provide workarounds for memory management issues. (All updates are free. DEVONagent Lite, free, release notes; DEVONagent Express, $4.95 new, release notes; DEVONagent Pro, $49.95 new with a 25 percent discount for TidBITS members, release notes. 10.7.5+)
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OmniFocus 2.1 — The Omni Group has released OmniFocus 2.1 with changes to the user interface to more closely match OS X 10.10 Yosemite, including new toolbar icons and “incorporating vibrancy where appropriate.” The Getting Things Done-inspired task management app adds Today and Share extensions (found in the iOS version of OmniFocus for iPad and iPhone), adds support for Find and Replace in actions (in addition to
notes), enables you to share text from actions via the toolbar share button, reduces the minimum window width, and attempts to use English relative date names when localized relative date names can’t be parsed. OmniFocus 2.1 also updates its system requirements to a minimum of 10.10 Yosemite, but file format and syncing remain compatible with all previous versions of OmniFocus for Mac and iOS. ($39.99 new for Standard edition and $79.99 for Pro edition from The Omni Group Web site, $39.99 for Standard edition from Mac App Store (with in-app purchase option to upgrade to Pro), 37.7 MB, release notes, 10.9.2+)
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Airfoil 4.8.13 — Rogue Amoeba has released Airfoil 4.8.13, which resolves a rare problem where a sending Mac would fail to transmit audio to a remote speaker. The wireless audio broadcasting app also updates the Instant On component to version 8.0.6 to fix some minor bugs, removes an AppleScript issue with object references introduced in the previous release, and reports when an Apple TV has Device Verification enabled. ($29 new with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, free update, 15.1 MB, release notes, 10.7+)
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In this week’s collection of ExtraBITS, we learn that Apple is ending its support for AOL logins, the truth about AT&T’s “privacy fee,” and how Photoshop is trying to stay relevant after 25 years.
Apple Ending Support for AOL Logins — If you still use an AOL username to sign in to the iTunes Store, App Store, or iBooks Store, you must convert it to an Apple ID before 31 March 2015. As of that date, Apple will no longer support AOL usernames for logging in to those services.
The Lowdown on AT&T’s “Privacy Fee” — AT&T is planning to expand its GigaPower fiber Internet service in Kansas City. But unless you pay an extra $29 per month, AT&T will scan your Web traffic to provide you with targeted advertising. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham investigated and found that AT&T’s privacy offer can actually cost up to $66 per month, depending on package. AT&T also makes the private plan difficult to find on its Web site.
Photoshop Turns 25 — Adobe’s seminal Photoshop app is now 25 years old, and Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times looks at how Adobe is trying to keep it relevant. Adobe’s switch from selling Photoshop to offering it as a monthly subscription is one way the company hopes to bring it to more people, though so far, it has led to lower revenues. Adobe is also planning to split Photoshop into a number of smaller apps. Regardless of how Adobe’s plans pan out, photographers will never return to the darkrooms that Photoshop
replaced. (Be sure to check out Adobe’s Photoshop Anniversary page too!)