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Scot’s Newsletter

Operating Systems. Broadband. Issues. Reviews ...
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June 2007 - Vol. 7, Issue No. 91

By Scot Finnie

In This Issue

  • More on Software Firewalls for Windows
       - ZoneAlarm 7.0.337 (freeware)
       - Look 'n' Stop 2.06
       - Eset's Smart Security Suite Beta
       - Myths About Other Firewalls
  • Review: Verizon BroadbandAccess WWAN Service
  • Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis
  • Hall of Shame
       - Microsoft's WGA Updates
       - MyRealBox
       - Modomail
       - FiOS TV
  • Picking Plasma Now
  • Status Report: The A-List of Mac Software
  • Link of the Month: Jobs and Gates Interviewed at D5
  • Call for Contributions
  • Newsletter Schedule
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, Change Address, Change Format
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    More on Software Firewalls for Windows
       - Reviewed: ZoneAlarm 7.0.337 (freeware)
       - Look 'n' Stop 2.06
       - Eset's Smart Security Suite Beta
       - Myths About Other Firewalls

    The research for my ongoing series on software firewalls for Windows has entered an interesting phase since the last newsletter, in which I focused on Comodo, Jetico, and Kerio.

    For one thing, a large number of readers responded with requests and suggestions. The suggestion I heard most frequently was: Please consider ZoneAlarm. (I also received some flames from misinformed ZoneAlarm fanatics, but that's another story.) So, I'm starting this issue with a full test of ZoneAlarm.

    Review: ZoneAlarm 7.0.337 Free Version
    Last September, when I launched my search for a great lightweight, quiet, low-overhead software firewall, I left Check Point's free ZoneAlarm software off the list. My primary security focus was outbound firewall protection. Testing from earlier last year by showed that ZoneAlarm Pro offers excellent outbound software firewall protection, and the free version of ZoneAlarm — surprisingly — does not.

    As it happens, Check Point has upgraded its free ZoneAlarm firewall from 6.1 to 7.0.337 since FirewallLeakTester conducted its March 2006 tests.

    For the detailed results of the FirewallLeakTester tests, visit this page. (Scroll to the bottom of this page and click the "View Results" button.)

    Because so many SFNL readers use the free ZoneAlarm, I decided to retest it fully using as much of FirewallLeakTester's methodology as I could find on the site. At the time of the March 2006 test, FirewallLeakTester had 18 leak tests. There are 19 tests on the site now. One of the tests, Immunity, appears to have gone commercial and apparently did not allow FirewallLeakTester to continue to offer a download link to a free version. Newly added tests include the Comodo Parenting Injection Leak (CPIL) test and the PC Flank leak test. So 17 of the original tests are the same, and there are two new ones. In my tests, I was unable to make three of the tests work: Outbound, MBtest, and BreakOut. So that brings the number of available tests down to 16.

    With that as a preamble, let me give you the results of my testing of ZoneAlarm 7.0.337. Check Point's free firewall passed only 5 of 16 tests. ZoneAlarm Free 6.1 passed only 3 of 18 tests when FirewallLeakTester tried in in March 2006. You could say that it has improved marginally, but you'd be kidding yourself.

    It's important to note that ZoneAlarm Pro tests much better than free ZoneAlarm. In FirewallLeakTester's tests, ZA Pro passed 14 out of 18 tests. I didn't retest ZA Pro because it doesn't meet my criteria of being small and lightweight. Also, many SFNL readers have complained that it has serious interoperability problems with other security products. ZA Pro includes an anti-spyware module, and there's also anti-spam, identity theft, and a bunch of other protections that raise my hackles. I'm looking solely for lightweight firewall security. I rely on Eset's Nod32 for anti-malware protection.

    So, why does ZoneAlarm Pro test better than free ZoneAlarm? Well, I'll tell you. Check Point wants you to spend some money on its products. If you look in the "Program Control" configuration area, you'll find that the slider bar is limited to Medium protection. The High setting, which is specifically designed to protect your computer from "the abuse of trusted programs" (the precise thing that leak tests check for), is disabled. A note tells you that you have to upgrade to ZoneAlarm Pro to get that protection.

    The moral of the story: If you're concerned about your level of outbound protection from a software firewall, free ZoneAlarm is a bad way to go. If you don't believe my tests, then please check out Matousec's fully up-to-date set of leak tests. Matousec lists ZoneAlarm Free as "very poor."

    Keep in mind, even if your firewall passed all of the leak tests out there, that wouldn't mean squat. There are many other spoofs and exploits that leak tests don't check for. You want the best protection you can get — and 5 out of 16 tests doesn't even come close.

    I hope I've put to rest the question of why I omitted ZoneAlarm from my software firewall tests. Check Point could change my mind by making changes. And if it did that, I might very well opt for ZoneAlarm. But in the meantime, you should not be relying on the free ZoneAlarm firewall product.

    What's Good About ZA
    I still love the ZoneAlarm user interface. (You never forget your first firewall, I guess.) It's easy to configure and the controls make sense. You don't get a blizzard of pop-ups, and the ones you get offer links to detailed information and recommendations about programs it detects. ZoneAlarm is the most evolved desktop software firewall product.

    In putting the product through its paces, I set up a trusted zone for my network. ZoneAlarm still does this better than any software firewall competitor. Interestingly, I found that my Windows XP/Vista peer network ran much better with ZoneAlarm running and a trusted zone in place than it had before. As soon as I turned on the trusted zone, several nodes on my network popped up, one after another, in the Network Places folder. I generally experience intermittent balkiness with XP computers appearing in the network browse folder.

    In using ZoneAlarm, the only annoyance was its incompatibility with Cisco's VPN client software. ZoneAlarm "disables" the VPN client on installation, and while the Cisco client still runs, it just won't connect. Since most desktop users aren't able to choose the VPN they use, this seems like a bad decision to me. Check Point should get to the bottom of the problem and fix it, and not just assume that the user can get along without his or her VPN client.

    All in all, I like ZoneAlarm. I always have. But the free version is defanged, and the Pro version comes with a lot of stuff that mucks up the works. ZoneAlarm doesn't have the right stuff anymore.

    Look 'n' Stop 2.06 Gets a Miss
    Unfortunately, I'm crossing another one off the list. Look 'n' Stop offers good, basic, do-it-yourself security, and its new 2.06 version purportedly runs on Vista (I haven't tested that claim). But this is one strange product that's neither silent nor particularly confidence-inspiring.

    I can boil down my big problem with Look 'n' Stop to this: After I installed it and ran a small handful of Internet clients, it caused my Windows XP computer to beep on the order of once per second for most of an hour. With each beep, the program was apparently announcing the appearance of yet another uploaded or downloaded filtered packet of data.

    Look 'n' Stop appears to have been designed to give you this level of granular notification and control. And if you don't have a life, and like to manage your software firewall this intimately, it may be the product for you. But I have better things to do. Much better. I finally had to turn off the sound on my computer. It was maddening after a while. Even after it got through its initial list, with the sound back on, I found that Look 'n' Stop would still issue a beep now and then, and, of course, any time I ran a new Internet client. Nothing is worth this kind of hassle.

    I also had trouble creating a trusted zone for networking that would work properly. Though the UI exists for doing this, I got only partial network operation once I was done messing around with it. No software firewall should mess with my local-area networking without making it relatively easy to restore.

    In a nutshell, I want protection and convenience. And other products already do a better job of this. Comodo, for example, while not being the ideal solution for convenience, is less noisy than either Jetico or Look 'n' Stop. The question is, does Comodo have the security? It appears to, but as I narrow down the list of contenders, I'll shine more light on that question.

    Eset's Smart Security Suite Beta Is Intriguing
    The late entrant in the race is Eset Smart Security beta, a small suite product. You know how I feel about security suites, but Eset is also the maker of Nod32, Scot's Newsletter's Best Antivirus Product of 2007. The company's new suite adds a firewall and anti-spam functionality to the Nod32 anti-malware engine.

    If the firewall performs well, this product could be a contender. The anti-spam module, which supports only Microsoft Outlook in Beta 1a, can be disabled. The Nod32 engine has been updated to version 3.0 (the current version is 2.7). And the controls and settings have received a bit of a facelift. The settings are still there in the Advanced mode with the full configuration tree exposed. But a lighter, less intense screen is what you see first.

    I've been testing Eset Smart Security only for a short while, but so far so good. I'm impressed. I'll continue to work with it and let you know in future what I learn.

    So why would I smile on a suite product? Eset's Smart Security is really only two security utilities: anti-malware and software firewall. You can turn off anything you don't like. I need to spend time with the firewall and test its protective qualities. One thing of note: It's got a silent mode that's switched on by default. Naturally, I've changed that to interactive for test purposes.

    Something else I was impressed by: As part of installation, Eset Smart Security's firewall sets up a trusted zone for your network. Smart indeed.

    For more information and to download Eset Smart Security yourself, see the company's beta page.

    Myths About Other Firewalls
    A number of you have sent suggestions about other firewalls that I should evaluate. Since my focus is primarily on outbound protection, again, I'll be relying on third-party testing as well as performing my own tests.

    The Matousec site, Windows Personal Firewall Analysis, has a regularly updated multiple leak test product comparison chart that is hugely useful.

    But to get right down to the nub of the matter, here are Matousec's ratings for firewalls based on its extensive list of leak tests and firewall ratings.

    What you'll find on this page is that Comodo tops the list, followed closely by Jetico Personal Firewall beta. These are the only two firewalls that Matousec deems to be excellent. ZoneAlarm Pro (not free) 7.0.337 comes in third. Eset's Smart Security has not been tested yet.

    Those of you who want to send me input should look at these Matousec ratings and see where your recommended firewall stands on the list. You may be surprised by where products like Outpost Firewall Pro 4.0, Avira, BitDefender, SyGate, McAfee, Norman, and Ashampoo Firewall Pro place — all products that have been recommended to me recently.

    I don't mean to discourage suggestions. Your input matters a lot. But you should be aware of some of my yardsticks. To offer your software firewall experiences and recommendations, please drop me a line.

    If you're suggesting a little-known firewall, a link would be helpful.


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    Review: Verizon BroadbandAccess WWAN Wireless Access
    Anyone who's even half as addicted to the Internet as I am will surely lust after a service that delivers wireless broadband Internet service wherever you go. I've had Verizon's EV-DO Rev A. BroadbandAccess WWAN service for a couple of weeks, and I've found myself using it quite a bit. If you travel, this service is definitely worthwhile. It's especially worthwhile if you work for a company that will let you expense it. Because at $80 a month, it ain't cheap. It's definitely my kind of luxury, though.

    Let's get down to business: How fast is it? On the Verizon Wireless website, the company claims an average of 400-700kpbs. But it really depends on where you are and how many others are using it in the same area. I've seen everything from less than 200kbps to more than 1,200kbps, and Verizon's average seems reasonable to me. At all rates of connection, I've found Web surfing and email checking to be just fine. I've also yet to experience annoying interruptions or any hiccups whatsoever. Once you're connected, you're connected.

    Verizon Wireless also offers a less expensive $60-a-month version of the service whose average speed is supposed to be 60-80kbps. In for a penny, in for a pound, I figured. I wanted to be wowed, and I have been.

    To support the faster service, I opted for the top-of-the-line Novatel V740 ExpressCard/34 adapter. It sells for $180 with a two-year contract, but I opted for a one-year contract, which means I wound up paying $229. The Novatel card's Rev. A support delivers the fastest performance available from Verizon, as much as 600-1400kbps downstream and 500-800kbps upstream.

    The ExpressCard/34 form factor is very nice. On my MacBook Pro, it pops out when you press it in. My Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook has an ExpressCard/34 slot too. (Verizon also sells a $40 adapter that lets the V740 work in a standard PC Card slot.)

    I was able to configure the service from both computers without too much difficulty, although I inserted the card too early in the process under Windows XP (Verizon's onscreen wizard was a little vague on when to insert the card), which kept Verizon's software from detecting the card. On both the Mac and Windows, Verizon's VZAccess software has to be run before you insert the card — every time you use the service. A bit of an annoyance.

    Verizon's network consists of 242 metropolitan areas in the U.S. The coverage map that Verizon Wireless offers is next to useless, but the company does have a search-based tool that it is quite good. Visit this Coverage Locator page. Type the name of the town, select the state, and click the radio button beside "BroadbandAccess & the V CAST" to see a detailed map of coverage levels.

    One of the upsides to Verizon's BroadbandAccess service is purchase and installation. Verizon's website is pretty bad. It's easier just to use its local search than to try to actually make sense of it. But once you get past that, my total investment was about two hours, including my visit to the Verizon Wireless store (lots of waiting around) and the time it took to install and begin using the service (15 minutes or so). Installation on the Mac was incredibly fast and easy.

    The biggest negative of this service is the price. Frankly, it would have made sense for me to take the Verizon's WWAN service on a two-year contract. Verizon runs occasional specials that may reduce your monthly rate, even for the faster service, to $60. Plus, I would have gotten a $50 discount on the V740 card. From my perspective, though, I'm not sure I can justify the ongoing cost. Verizon charges $175 to break your contract. There's also a 30-day trial period. I will probably wind up either paying for one year or breaking my contract — the point being to do this review and to play around with something cool.

    Besides the steep price, the only other shortcoming is the fact that BroadbandAccess is incompatible with Cisco's VPN client. I saw nothing in the contract information that prevents VPN access. Probably because the EV-DO card is more akin to a modem than a network adapter, Cisco's VPN doesn't seem to recognize it.

    If 24/7 access to the Internet is your top priority, you've got to get this thing. (I imagine that similar WWAN services from AT&T/Cingular and Sprint are equally intriguing.) But at $80 a month, this is tough to justify. It's ideal for businesspeople who travel frequently (Verizon promises significant airport coverage, for example). But if that describes you, maybe you can get your company to pay for it.

    Hey, I'm just glad I could come up with a reasonable excuse to try it.

      Fact Box
    BroadbandAccess (with NationalAccess), Verizon Wireless, sold at Verizon Wireless retail stores, $80 per month plus the cost of an EV-DO card and a $35 activation fee. 


    Mac vs. PC Cost Analysis
    The debate about whether — or not — Macs are more expensive than PCs has been raging on the Internet for more than a decade. There are some hard realities about the discussion, and there are also some myths. As a longtime Windows guy who has recently migrated to the Mac, I think I'm in a good position to put this discussion into honest context.

    For all those people who have ever bought Packard Bell or eMachines PCs — and who continue to believe that great value in a Windows computer is any model that sells for $600 or less — I agree: Apple doesn't have an answer for you. In fact, I suggest you skip this article entirely. You're not going to find anything of interest.

    It's the Hardware
    For those of you who are left, what my research shows is that neither the Macintosh nor the field of Windows PCs has a lock on good value. If you view this discussion from Apple's side, what you'll be doing is starting with Apple's relatively short list of SKUs (three or four model variations for each of its lines, such as MacBook Pro, MacBook, and iMac) and then looking for Windows machines that are comparable. Apple bests the competition in some spots, though not always. But the pricing is surprisingly on par.

    The reality is that there are Windows machines that fit in between Mac SKUs. And in those niches, they represent very good values. But when they Windows and Mac models meet square on, the answer is not so clear cut. That in itself may be a surprise to many Windows people. Only a few years ago, it was a no-brainer that Windows hardware was much cheaper. But if you're talking name-brand hardware, that's no longer the case.

    As an exercise, I spent an hour working on Dell's site, trying to find the cheapest notebook that offered everything Apple's top of the line, $2,799 MacBook Pro 17 provides. That includes a glossy 17-inch screen, 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, 256MB video RAM, 160GB 5400-rpm SATA hard drive, 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW), Gigabit Ethernet port, 54Mbps WiFi (upgradeable to 802.11n), Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, ExpressCard/34 card slot, three USB ports, one FireWire 800 port, one FireWire 400 port, DVI port, built-in iSight video camera, and a one-year warranty (upgradeable to three years). See Apple's full MacBook Pro tech specs.

    Important Note: Apple upgraded its MacBook Pro line fairly significantly on Tuesday, June 5. The research for this part of the newsletter was conducted a couple days earlier. Apple didn't raise its prices. The changes amount to one thing: The value proposition grew a good notch or two stronger for the MacBook Pros with the addition of the Intel Santa Rosa platform (or "Centrino Pro," as Intel has dubbed it), better NVidia video, and other improvements. I did not have time to revise this story to reflect the changes to the MacBook Pro. But Apple did have time to revise its spec sheet.

    I was a little surprised to find that Dell's Inspiron line doesn't currently offer processing power equaling that of the MacBook Pro. To get the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor, you have to change up to Dell's more expensive XPS M1710 model with Vista Home Premium.

    The Dell has some extra ports and things (six USB ports instead of three, for example), but it also weighs nearly two pounds more than the MacBook Pro and is much chunkier (1.69-inch thick as opposed to the MacBook Pro's 1-inch thickness).

    But here's the truly surprising number: The Dell M1710 tricked out with only those extras it had to have to compete with the MacBook Pro costs a whopping $3,459, some $650 more than the MacBook Pro.

    One important caveat that has an effect on value is screen resolution. Apple's 17-inch screen has a maximum resolution of 1,600 by 1,050 pixels. Dell's same-size screen has a maximum resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels. The native resolution of the Dell screen may give some people eye strain, but higher-resolution LCD screens are more expensive. I can't determine the added value of Dell's higher screen resolution, but it doesn't cancel out the significant difference in price between the MacBook Pro and the Inspiron.

    I visited Circuit City last weekend to take a look at high-end 17-inch notebook PCs. Like Dell, Sony has a very expensive 17-inch LCD notebook with every conceivable bell and whistle, selling for more than $3,000. But there are models in the $2,000 range from HP and Toshiba that approximate the MacBook Pro's equipment. The HP Pavilion DV9260US comes with the Intel Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor, a 240GB 5400-rpm drive, Windows Vista Ultimate, and a 17-inch screen whose maximum resolution is only 1,440 by 900 pixels (a major drawback). Circuit City's price is $2,000.

    At the very top of the line for 17-inch computers at Circuit City is the Sony Vaio VGN-AR390E. It sells for $3,150. Like all the other Windows models available at Circuit City, the Vaio's processor is a 2GHz Core 2 Duo, not as fast as that of the MacBook Pro. The Vaio comes through with a 1,920 by 1,200-pixel screen resolution, a 5,400-rpm 240GB hard drive, and a whopping 527MB of video memory. But like the Dell, at 8.4 pounds, the Vaio also makes the 6.8-pound MacBook Pro feel like a lightweight.

    TAKEAWAYS: Assuming you want a high-end notebook designed for work, play, and to be everyday machine with extras, the MacBook Pro is a surprisingly good value. The models that I compared it with, the Sony and the Dell, had some extras here and there, but they were more expensive, not less expensive. The key to the perception that Macs are pricey is that people often compare the wrong Windows machines to Macs. It's easy to make that mistake because Apple offers fewer models.

    It's Similar in the Midrange
    In the midrange, where lower-cost 13-inch LCD MacBook models occupy a price range of $1,100 to $1,500, you may be equally surprised. Apple's recently updated MacBooks more than hold their own on price/performance comparisons with other 12-inch and 13-inch LCD computers from Sony, Toshiba, and HP.

    The desktop landscape may also be an eye-opener. Even though the likes of Dell, HP, Sony, and so on have machines with low-end processors and meager configurations priced from about $500 and up, those prices don't include LCDs (in most cases), and they don't start to get hardware competitive with the processors in Apple's iMac line until they hit about $1,000. Because of the iMac's built-in LCD, it's actually less expensive, though some of the details (such as hard drive size and RAM amount) may be tilted in favor of some Windows desktops. If you know your way around PCs, and want some extras, the Apple could in some instances (depending on your needs) be the clear value leader in this category.

    For comparison's sake, Sony's Vaio All-in-One Desktop PC VGC-LS25E attempts to out-Apple Apple. It comes with a 19-inch LCD, 2GB RAM, a 7,200-rpm 250GB hard drive, and Vista Home Premium, but has only a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The Circuit City price tag is $1,800.

    So how does that compare with Apple's 20-inch LCD iMac, which sells for $1,500? That model iMac comes with a 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 7200-rpm 250GB drive, and 1GB RAM. You would need to upgrade the video memory and system RAM to make the iMac comparable with the Sony in those areas. But the iMac has a bigger LCD and a better processor, no matter what. Even with the RAM and video upgrades, the iMac still costs less.

    Besides, you shouldn't pay Apple's steep $175 1GB RAM upgrade. You can save money by upgrading to 2GB after your purchase. Kingston memory is less expensive, and it offers excellent quality and Mac compatibility. I've also had great luck on my Macs with the bargain-basement-priced memory from Data Memory Systems of New Hampshire. (I just wish DMS would take PayPal.)

    Takeaways: When you configure Macs and PCs in the low-end notebook and desktop categories, you'll find that, except at the very bottom of the heap, Windows machines are roughly comparable in price to Macs. There are fewer Mac models, so if your needs vary from what Apple decided on, you may find a Windows model that costs less for you. But Apple's choices make a lot of sense for most people. When you do a point-by-point comparison, Apple is actually a better value for some needs.

    Background Realities
    The comparisons I've drawn above are by no means exhaustive. I didn't address computers at the Mac Pro's level, for example. I didn't cover the Mac mini — a computer that I'm not all that fond of. I didn't address the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and, full disclosure, I feel the MacBook Pro 15 is of dubious value. The only time I wish I was using one is when I'm flying coach. Since it's only $300 less than the MacBook Pro 17, and yet has lower resolution, a lesser hard drive, a lesser SuperDrive, fewer ports, and so on, it's nowhere near as good a value as the MacBook Pro 17.

    Anyone who performs a similar comparison will quickly run into subjective assessment about what's important and what's not. I chose to focus on hardware levels, such as CPUs, RAM, video memory, and so forth. I also happen to believe that many of the small details about Macs have a value that's hard to put a price tag on. How much is the very best trackpad in the business worth to you? To me, it's worth a lot. But I know that some people couldn't care less. So I'm sticking with the objective speeds and feeds as best I can.

    Software is the question that many people bring up to me over and over again on the subject of Mac vs. PC value. Long-term, entrenched Windows users (like I was until last September) tend to think in terms of the investment they have in software, peripherals, and so on. I can't account for your context. If you need Microsoft Office for the Mac, you need it. And that will set you back a few hundred bucks. But it seems to me that that's an ancillary thing. You can amortize that cost over the lifetime of your computer use. You're going to have to pay for your next Windows-based Office upgrade too, right? What's the difference?

    The more interesting question — the question that some Mac people are really tired of — is, What about all the software you've been using forever to solve problems? Will the Mac world have those solutions? You like to do things a certain way, and can you do that on the Mac? The feedback I got from Mac people on this point is that I should forget Windows and do things the Mac way. I reject that piece of advice, even though I have come to understand it. I don't agree because there isn't a "One True Mac Way" of doing things. There's just the way that people using a computer are comfortable with doing things — and that's a subjective determination made by each individual.

    As Windows users consider what their costs might be in getting up to speed on the Mac, though, I would recommend this: Don't sweat the smaller stuff. Just like Windows, there are solutions to esoteric Mac problems. There are resources out there that will help you. There's a ton of free software. There's a ton of very low-cost software. In fact, there's plenty of Mac software out there — much of it of surprisingly good quality. The release of OS X transformed the Mac marketplace. It's a vibrant, growing community. There's an excitement around Mac products — software and hardware — that you just don't feel in the Windows world any longer. I'd forgotten what that felt like.

    Get Involved with the Cost Analysis
    I'm interested in what both Windows and Mac people have to say about comparing the value of these two types of computers. There are a lot of ways to look at this.

    I'm asking for your input, but I'd also like people who heavily disagree with me to do these two things: 1. Read what I've written carefully. 2. Do your own homework. Don't make assumptions about pricing without doing a tech spec comparison of directly comparable Apple and PC equipment. With that said, please send along your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.


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    Hall of Shame
       - Microsoft's WGA Updates
       - MyRealBox
       - Modomail
       - FiOS TV

    Microsoft's WGA Comes Back to Life, Unbidden
    Microsoft's sad attempt to fight software piracy at the expense of its ordinary end users continues to leave me cold. For the second time since last year, Microsoft released a new update of the WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) Notifications code that attempts to install on your system as part of the Windows Update process. This is the case even if you have previously told Windows Update that you do not want to receive the WGA Notifications update.

    Microsoft's only excuse is: But hey, this is a new and improved version of WGA Notifications. We know this helps no one but Microsoft, but since we've spiffed it up, that means we no longer have to pay attention to the fact that you said you didn't want to get this code in the past — twice! There was a time when Microsoft was a much better company than this. It truly is a shame that Microsoft is treating Windows users this way.

    For more information on how WGA Notifications appears in Windows Update, and how you can prevent this version from installing, read this article from a previous Scot's Newsletter.

    MyRealBox Kills Accounts
    MyRealBox, the free email service once provided by Novell's NetMail development team, was totally mishandled by Messaging Architects, the company that purchased NetMail from Novell on January 30.

    After years of reliable service, my three MyRealBox accounts went dead without warning a couple of months ago. And there's no way to get them back. I used one of those accounts as my primary subscription account for hundreds of newsletters and websites. The inconvenience is huge. I don't even have a list of every site I registered to with my MyRealBox account. And worse, I advised SFNL readers several years ago to grab a MyRealBox account — and I know many did.

    I'm piecing together what might have happened, based mostly on a terse message box that appeared on the MyRealBox home page a couple of months ago. I saw the box for the first time when I visited the site after my accounts were closed. The message noted that the time was up for notifying MyRealBox that you wanted to continue your account. All of my messages to customer service to find out about this went completely unanswered. Apparently, Messaging Architects posted a message on its home page warning MyRealBox account holders to contact the company in some fashion or have their accounts revoked by such and such a date. As a POP3/SMTP user of MyRealBox, though, I never had a reason to visit the company website. Messaging Architects apparently didn't even bother to send an email to its users — or if it did, the message was so spammy it never showed up.

    Look, I can understand that the service was free and that nothing free lasts forever. But Messaging Architects might have at least given non-Web-mail users a fighting chance. Even 30-days' notice with no option of keeping your account would have been more reasonable.

    Add Messaging Architects to the Hall of Shame. It belongs there permanently, with no opportunity of parole.

    Modomail Messed Up, Too
    Late last year, I similarly lost a paid-for email account provided by a small email host called Modomail. Again, the service was stellar for several years. I never had an outage with Modomail that lasted longer than a few hours. My uptime was almost perfect. The service cost something like $25 a year. But one day, one of my two Modomail accounts went totally dead. I was still within my annual pay period by several months. But the account stopped recognizing my login. Since my login was saved in my email package, and was used every eight minutes by the software, nothing had changed on my side. (For you Mac cynics, this actually happened prior to my switch to the Mac.)

    Numerous email messages to Modomail's customer service went unanswered. Eventually, I gave up on the account entirely. There was nothing I could do.

    Once the contract period expired, the account was deleted and I was able to create a new 30-day free account with the same email address and the same login and password information. That account worked just fine (though I let it expire). My other Modomail account will expire at the end of the month.

    Good riddance, Modomail.

    I've moved back to email host for several inexpensive, low-annual-fee POP3/SMTP accounts.

    FiOS TV Has Drawbacks
    I signed up to have Verizon install FiOS TV in my home on May 29th. Newer SFNL subscribers may not realize that I'm lucky enough to have 15Mbps FiOS FTTP (fiber optic to the premises) broadband at my home.

    I adore my FiOS broadband service, and so it was a natural extension to consider expanding it to FiOS TV (digital and HD) cable-TV-like service when it became available in my hometown.

    But when the FiOS tech arrived to install it, I learned two things that the salesperson neglected to tell me:

    1. Verizon uses your broadband access for on-demand TV, downloading the channel guide, and other data transfers specific to you or your town. Verizon says that they have a way to increase the bandwidth for these downloads so that it doesn't take away from your Internet service, but I'm not buying that. I'm willing to listen to them explain this, but so far, no one I've talked to at Verizon can offer one. (In fact, in my latest conversation on the subject, a Verizon Encore customer rep supervisor got angry with me saying that I didn't need to know how it worked, it just did. In my experience when the customer service people get defensive about a technical question, there's a problem.)

    2. Verizon expected to either install a new ActionTec router for my broadband (connected via coax) or for me to run a new Ethernet line from where my router is down to the FiOS box in the basement. Neither solution was acceptable to me. I might be willing to run the Ethernet line down there, but only if Verizon is willing to explain how my broadband service will not be affected by my kids' regular use of on-demand programming.

    The thing is, I asked my salesperson about any possible degradation of my broadband service prior to the installation date. So it's not like this is a last-minute concern on my part.

    Bottom line: I wound up declining my FiOS TV installation; Verizon needs to do better with its FiOS TV service. The vibe I got was that I was an idiot — just take the service and be quiet. But it's not like Verizon has a long history of serving digital entertainment content. I'll stick with my cable company.

    A Scot's Newsletter reader who already has FiOS broadband and TV gave me some insights about his experience that confirmed my concerns. Here are some excerpts from two messages he sent me last week:

    "Verizon installed an ActionTec MI424WR router. The router has very respectable hardware specs, but the routing firmware still has a few bugs. The firmware is Linux-based and appears to be based on Jungo's OpenRG (Residential Gateway) product, but I cannot find mention of the specific version ActionTec/Verizon is using on Jungo's website.

    "One major flaw in the firmware is that it uses a connection tracking table of only 5,000 entries. On the surface, 5,000 connections doesn't sound like a problem for a home user. However, what actually happens is that each connection creates two entries, one outgoing and the other incoming, effectively reducing the limit to 2,500. That's still not so bad. The problem occurs when a connection is not properly closed by both sides; when this happens, it leaves one or both sides of the connection stuck in the conntrack table with a five-day time-to-live value. Now the limit is something like 2,500 connections over five days. Apparently gamers and P2P users can kill the connection table in a matter of hours. At that point, the router will not even honor DHCP requests on the LAN, requiring it be rebooted. I have yet to manage a whole week without needing to reboot the router."

    About my concerns about degradation of my bandwidth, the reader writes:

    "On the on-demand front: The router has a rule to set up IP addresses and QoS (quality of service) for the set-top boxes. [In other words, you can set the priority of various streams of data based on the IP address. Each node on your network, including your set-top boxes, has its own IP address.] But like you, I don't see how they get around taking the bandwidth from the normal level of service, unless the upstream throttles know to let it through. If it were simply the QoS priority, what's to keep someone from giving their PC a priority? The only other way would be to give their video-on-demand server an exemption from being throttled."

    This was exactly my thinking. Again, if someone at Verizon can tell me how it is that the service opens up a wider pipe whenever on-demand video is being played, then I might consider FiOS TV. But I don't like the fact that some of the TV stuff is occupying my network. I don't like Verizon's intrusion there. My LAN is my LAN, not their LAN. All they provide is the broadband connection and television programming. Verizon's assumptions may work fine for unwitting consumers, but I don't think us computer folk are going to be happy with this kind of setup.

    One point that needs to be made: Our anonymous reader (he's written to me many times, so I know him, but he asked to be unnamed this time) doesn't hate his FiOS TV service. He also, though, said it might be interesting to test what happens to his broadband service when he's got three on-demand shows running to his three set-top boxes.

    I'd certainly like to know about that.


    Picking Plasma Now
    He who has more computers than he has a right to often doesn't have other advanced toys that he has craved.

    When it comes to big-screen HDTV, though, that's about to end. (My hybrid car and fourth Mac will have to wait, I guess.)

    Cyndy, my wife, will tell you that my HDTV decision is directly the result of my two favorite sports teams looking up this year — in a big way. One has a leading record and the other is having a very productive off-season. I learned long ago: Don't bet against my wife!

    But there's another reason I'm finally breaking down and getting ready to spend money I don't have yet on a 50-inch flat-screen TV. I'm talking about the confluence of the high-resolution 1080p standard with plasma display technology. Pioneer and Panasonic both announced 1080p plasmas early this year, and they've been shipping for a few months. Other manufacturers have them too. It's finally the right time to buy a big-screen plasma TV.

    I'm not going to get into a long discussion about plasma's strengths and weaknesses versus other display technologies. But suffice it to say that I also like the best of the LCD technology for big-screen TVs too. For two products I picked late last fall in Computerworld's 2006 Holiday Gift Guide, see this story.

    The plasma TV I'm giving strong consideration to is Panasonic's 50-inch 1080p HDTV model TH-50PZ700U.

    If you have experience with this plasma TV, or any other 1080p plasma, I'd be very interested in your input.


    Status Report: The A-List of Mac Software
    After the April issue's giant A-List update, the past couple of months have been a bit slower on the Mac software testing front. I've received several disk and system repair utilities that I'm playing with — including DiskWarrior, Drive Genius, and TechTool Pro. So far so good on those three. But more time is needed to fully evaluate them. (It just takes longer to run into problems on the Mac than it does on Windows.)

    I'm also looking at software-launching and UI-shortcut programs, such as Quicksilver, LaunchBar, and Butler. I've looked at the first two, and so far, I prefer Quicksilver.

    My only real gripe about Quicksilver's basic program-launching functionality is that you need two sets of keystrokes to launch something. The first opens the QS Execute box, and the second launches a specific program. On the Windows side, there's a program called ActiveWords that gets it down to one set of keystrokes, and I miss that.

    So far I've explored only about 10% of what Quicksilver does, so I'm still working through the features and spending time with it. Next up will be Butler, which I haven't even installed yet.

    What's wrong with LaunchBar? Nothing much was right or wrong about it for me. I just didn't find it that convenient. Ideally, I could launch Safari by just typing "sa" at any time, anywhere — without having to initiate something or click anything with the mouse. Not only didn't LaunchBar come close to that ideal, but I just found myself forgetting to use it. And when I did use it, it didn't really save me time.

    The A-List series has generated an overwhelming pile of email that I'm nowhere near finished sorting through. If you've sent me suggestions, please be patient. Not only are there a lot of messages to read, but looking at the software takes a lot of time. I'm going to be using the Mac for many years to come, and I've got a lot of great software suggestions to explore.

    You could probably help by sending me only the one or two best apps you think I should know about.


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    Link of the Month: Jobs and Gates Interviewed at D5
    It doesn't matter whether you're a Windows geek or Mac nerd; the Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher interview of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is a must see. I count eight Jobs-and-Gates videos hosted on The Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital website. Make some time to take a look and listen. There's little revealing in it about the future, but the videos are essential viewing for anyone interested in computers and consumer electronics. Go check them out.

    Have you discovered a relatively unknown, technology-related website that's a little fun or useful? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.


    Call for Contributions
    It's been a long time since I put out a call for contributions to the cause here at the newsletter. But it's time for me to do that again. If you enjoy this newsletter and would like to help me keep it going, I could use your help. This is a one-man-band operation. I do the work on weekends and evenings, and I don't get paid. The research I do often costs money that comes out of my own pocket. The ads help but they don't pay the full freight.

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    Thanks for your support.


    Newsletter Schedule
    Scot's Newsletter is a monthly e-zine delivered by email. My aim is to send each issue near the first of each month.

    More than likely, though, the July issue of the newsletter will be closer to the middle of the month. So many people are on vacation in the U.S. the first two weeks of the month that it makes more sense to delay the issue. My best guess is that the next issue will arrive the week of July 16th.

    You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.


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