New MacBook Pro

The untimely death of the mid-2015 MacBook Pro that had been my primary machine the past few years meant I forking over for another laptop. Given the hassles that resulted from buying that machine from somewhere other than Apple or MicroCenter, I didn’t take any chances with its replacement.

A refurbished version of this laptop (where I wrote this post) cost a little over $400 less than retail. I’m still in the process of setting things up the way I like them, but one new thing I learned was that Apple is still shipping their laptops with an ancient version of bash.

Having used bash since my freshman year of college (way back in 1992), I have no interest in learning zsh (the new default shell for macOS). So right after I installed Homebrew, I followed the instructions in this handy article to install the latest version of bash and make it my default shell.

There’s still plenty of other work to do in order to get laptop the way I want it. Data recovery hasn’t been difficult because of using a few different solutions to back up my data:

I’ve partitioned a Seagate 4TB external drive with 1TB for a clone of the internal drive and the rest for Time Machine backups. So far this has meant that recovering documents and re-installing software has pretty much been a drag-and-drop affair (with a bit of hunting around for license information that I’d missed putting into 1Password).

I wasn’t a fan of the Touch Bar initially, even after having access to one since my employer issued me a MacBook Pro with one when I joined them in 2017. But one app that tries to make it useful is Pock. Having access to the Dock from Touch Bar means not having to use screen real estate to display it and means not having to mouse down to launch applications.

Because of Apple’s insistence of USB-C everything, that work includes buying more gear. The next purchase after the laptop itself was a USB-C dock. I could have gone the Thunderbolt dock route instead, but that would be quite a bit more money than I wanted or needed to spend.

Even without the accessories that will make it easier to use on my desk in my home office, it’s a very nice laptop. Marco is right about the keyboard. I’ll get over the USB-C everything eventually.

Free Software for Your New Computer

If you’ve bought a new PC or Windows laptop recently, it probably came “bundled” with a bunch of free software.  It is a near certainty that the bundled software you got is awful.  Most people I know who make their living from computers (the ones who use Windows instead of Mac OS X anyway) reformat the hard drive and install only what they need to avoid this junk.  Why this software is on your computer in the first place is another story.  This post is about where you can find free software you actually want on your computer.

The Google Pack (http://pack.google.com) is a great place to start adding software you actually need.  As of this writing, the pack contains 14 applications.  This includes applications like Adobe Acrobat Reader, Firefox, Picasa, Skype, and RealPlayer.  The biggest benefit of adding these applications to your new computer via Google Pack is the updater software.  You can configure it to automatically update applications when there are new versions.

Open Source Windows is another great source for free software.  Unlike the Google Pack offerings, none of the software you’ll find at Open Source Windows is offered by Google.  The types of software are broader in many ways as well.  They include instant messaging (IM) clients, RSS clients, video playback, sound recording, graphics/photo editing, even games.

So if you’ve got a new Windows machine you need to get running, get rid of the bundled software and pay those sites a visit.  It will only cost you a little time, and the quality of the software you’ll get in return makes it a worthwhile investment.

Alternative PDF Readers

According to an article I got from my boss, there is a flaw in Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Acrobat Readers that will allow hackers to take over your machine if you open a PDF file they send you.  The article only mentions Windows XP Service Pack 3 as a vulnerable OS, so it’s unclear whether Vista can be taken over this way as well.  Despite how serious this flaw is, a fix for it won’t be available until March 11.  Between now and then, you can either swear off the opening of PDFs entirely, or use an alternative PDF reader.

Those of us using Mac OS X (which understands the PDF format natively) need only make sure that Preview or Safari is the default PDF reader.

In Search of Wireless Internet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of questions from family about where they can get wireless internet access.  People usually mean wi-fi when they ask this.  I tend to address this problem by location–either you want wireless internet when you’re at home, when you aren’t, or both.

The variety of places offering wi-fi is definitely increasing.  Beyond the usual suspects (Starbucks, Panera Bread, airports and hotels), it’s showing up in other places (e.g. downtown Silver Spring).  If you want to find the nearest wi-fi offerings in your zip code, visit http://hotspotr.com/wifi (thanks for the link Adrienne).  If there’s a charge for the wi-fi access, the service is mostly likely provided by one of the major cellphone service providers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile).

For wireless access at home, you have your choice of any provider who offers broadband access.  For most of us, that provider will be a cable company like Comcast or a phone company like Verizon.  Either type of provider will be able to offer you a modem that provides wired internet access and wireless internet access.  They may try to charge extra for setting up more than one computer, but I recommend not paying.  You’ll be able to get a family member or friend to help you for free, or a local high school or college student for a lot less than Comcast or Verizon will charge.

Alternatives to Microsoft Office

My dad asked me yesterday if there were any free alternatives to Microsoft Office.  The one that came to mind right away was OpenOffice.org.  Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw and Base are the OpenOffice.org answers to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio and Access.  The suite is free, open source, and available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Solaris.

If you’re ready to embrace cloud computing, even more options are available to you.  Google Docs offers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation capabilities.  It does a nice job of handling Microsoft Word and Excel files.  Another alternative to the Microsoft Office suite comes from zoho.com.  It offers the same level of compatibility with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint of Google Docs or OpenOffice.org.  Zoho.com offers a wider variety of applications than Google Docs.  They use plug-ins to integrate with MS Office, Outlook, Internet Explorer, Firefox–even Facebook and smartphones (iPhone and Windows Mobile).

Free Tech Support

For family and friends of mine who don’t work with computers, I often act as free tech support.  To bring something a little different to this blog in 2009, there will be posts from time-to-time that share a question I’ve answered about technology for someone.