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Software Archives - Florian Freundt

Florian Freundt

A few notes on the iPad 2

Back in 2010 when the first iPad hit the market I hesitated for a moment and moved on, didn’t see how this could be useful. Since then I realized that I read a lot on my iPod touch, close to an hour a day on average. I don’t have a TV, and I don’t read printed newspapers – I get all my news via RSS feed, and I do read a lot of them. And while the iPod is a great little device, it is a bit small for so much reading, especially when it gets to reading scientific papers. So this time around, I didn’t hesitate long either…

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Many people feel that the lack of USB ports and overall filesystem access renders the iOS devices useless. That may be if you expect them to be desktop/laptop replacements. They are not. Their real value to me is in consuming information, not producing it. If I have to write a document, if I want to edit photos, if I need to archive files and push them around – I use a computer. But if I want to read anything, access any information on the web, get a word from a dictionary or just watch a video the iPad is really amazing and a lot more optimized for these tasks than any computer, no matter which OS they run.

While the touch interface is gorgeous for consuming information, the most important touch feature is currently (as of iOS version 4.3.2) disabled and hidden though for no apparent reason: the four/five finger gestures to go back to the home screen and to switch between apps, which proved to be the most experience improving additions compared to my old iPod touch. One can enable them by installing Xcode 4 (supposedly Xcode 3 works as well, didn’t work for me though) and activate the iPad as a development device which releases this beta (?) function.

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Any other gripes than the hidden multitouch gestures?

  • Don’t mind the cameras, they are for Facetime/Skype an maybe a little bit of video only, for anything other they are pretty much rubbish. Then again, the form factor of the iPad really makes shooting video or photos with it rather awkward.
  • It still has a mechanical home button. Yes, that’s a negative factor, since Apple appears to be incompetent to build a button that lives longer than it’s product cycle. I’m on my second iPod touch with a failing home button!
  • The speaker is located on a single side, easily covered by a hand while holding the iPad, decreasing sound quality immensely.
  • It’s not an iPhone/iPod, it doesn’t fit in your pocket. It’s not an iPhone/iPod though, so you don’t have to limit yourself to a small screen. Really, back then I had only the iPod touch I though it’s screen was just fine. Now I think it’s a bit tiny…

So far that’s all I can think of at the moment, battery life for example is great. Yesterday I had it half a day on standby, then did 30 minutes of video skyping, 30 minutes of audio skyping, 15 minutes of a 3D game, 1.5 hours reading and surfing the web, running music via AirTunes for 3 hours. And after all that I watched an episode of the Daily Show and an arte documentary, about 1 h of video streaming from the web. And the battery was still at 35%. Not bad!

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Oh, there’s one big bad part I nearly forgot: It’s damn expensive. But for a tablet on the current market it’s actually not. Quite surprising, for an Apple product. I recently stumbled over an old invoice from January 2003, for my very first iPod, the first Windows compatible one with 10 GB storage – back then you didn’t pay much less for one revolutionary mp3 player, yet just that and nothing more. Now you have nearly all the information you can imagine in your hands in a very comfortable form factor. If that’s what you need, this thing is very well justifiable.

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Is it good for photographers? Except as temporary storage and a display (which can be a lot) it’s not much of a photographers tool. It’s cameras suck, but which cellphone sized sensor doesn’t, compared to a D700 or a 5D Mk II? And on the app side I haven’t found anything of particular interest for photographers so far.

But there are a few general software recommendations I’d like to share:

  • Reeder: by far the best RSS reader for the iOS platform, very well designed.
  • Instapaper: offline website reading tool, for all those articles that didn’t pop up in my RSS feeds.
  • Papers: synchronizes with the OS X application, which is a scientific paper manager.
  • Skyfire: a browser that can show flash videos on the iPad, essential if you like to watch the Daily Show.
  • Air Video: streams your local video content from a Windows or OS X machine to the iPad.
  • Parallels, Teamviewer, Screens, etc: if you need to access a machine with a full desktop OS from your iPad.

That’s it so far, of course this was not written from my iPad – as I said, it’s strong for consuming, just ok for producing.

Full Disk Encryption on a Mac

U P D A T E : September 2011: With OSX Lion, FileVault2 was introduced, offering full disk encryption. This made many software recommendations in this article redundant. So far, the full disk encryption of FileVault2 works like a charm on my Lion system.

Data encryption is always a good idea, even if you think you have nothing to hide. I won’t go into that argument here, but if you use a portable computer the high risk of physical theft is reason enough to encrypt any personal data. Even on a stationary desktop computer encryption is a good idea.

Encryption is not without problems though, one is data recovery in case of hardware failure, another one is a proper backup strategy and of course the encryption shouldn’t hinder you when using your computer.

So, let’s start with the encryption options available. One is creating encrypted containers or folders without encrypting the whole disk. That means though that every time you want to access a file from such a container or folder, you have to mount it and enter your (ideally) long and strong password. I actually do this for the most sensitive data by using a password program (such as KeePass, Wallet or 1Password for example). But the much more convenient option is using full disk encryption, meaning your whole hard disk is encrypted, and you have to identify with your long and strong password when you boot up your machine or come back from hibernation. Additionally this means that all temporary data produced and stored by the operating system is automatically encrypted as well and one doesn’t have to care about what the OS does when working with sensitive data.

Other reasons not to use single folder encryption or encrypted containers? It’s not practical when you do incremental backups. Even Apple’s own FileVault isn’t fully compatible with TimeMachine – you have to be logged off to backup when using FileVault which is a deal breaker for me (and pretty ridiculous for Apple). And if you change anything in a TrueCrypt container, TimeMachine (and probably every other backup software) will sync the whole container, not simply the changes. Backing stuff up with full disk encryption is a lot smoother.

The first question when I switched to a Mac was: what software options are there for full disk encryption? Back when I had a Windows machine this was fairly easy: TrueCrypt is not only open source freeware, it also works very well and supports full disk encryption. There’s a problem though – while TrueCrypt works well on OS X for encrypted containers, it does not support full disk encryption due to the Mac’s EFI bios. So what other options are there?

There’s PGP Whole Disk Encryption, WinMagic SecureDoc DiskEncryption for Mac, Pointsec Full Disk Encryption and Sophos SafeGuard Disk Encryption for Mac. Maybe there are more options, but I didn’t find more. None of them is freeware though and the price tags are quite big. Initially this put me off the task of encrypting my MacBook Pro. Now, about a year later, I finally made the decision and left my money with PGP Whole Disk Encryption.

Setup is easy and well documented, but requires a reboot. Encrypting the disk requires you to create a PGP key, unlike TrueCrypt where the encryption isn’t associated to a key but simply to a password. This doesn’t come with any benefit to me, but as far as I understand you can provide access to the encrypted disk to another person with a different password which could come in handy for a machine used by different users. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to use my existing PGP key I generated with GnuPG for encrypting and signing my emails.
Actually encrypting the disk works on the fly – it takes some hours, but you can use the computer at the same time so it isn’t a nuisance. After all is done you have to enter your password when booting and that’s it. I didn’t have the impression that my Mac ran any slower after the encryption so it isn’t a nuisance at all. And you don’t have to have any PGP-related software running while using the computer, so it’s totally unobtrusive. You can find a more detailed review of the installation and encryption process on Paul Stamatiou’s blog.

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There are some problems though. The biggest one is that when you enter hibernation, your Mac remains decrypted and is therefore not secured. You really have to shut down the OS to secure the disk which is hardly practical. As far as I understand though this isn’t exactly a limitation of PGP Whole Disk Encryption but a limitation of Apple’s OS. It might be a deal breaker though, so be aware! I’m not exactly happy with it, but any thief getting his/her hands on my hibernating MacBook has to get past the OS password first, and once the machine has to reboot or the hard drive is actually removed from the MacBook and mounted elsewhere, the data is protected. It could be better, but I can live with that.

Other problems might arise when you combine full disk encryption with your backup strategy. Backing up your encrypted machine with TimeMachine will result in an unencrypted backup, obviously. You can simply encrypt your backup drive and mount it before backing up. Anyhow, in a case of hardware failure, encryption always decreases the chance of data recovery – so be sure to do regular backups, possibly on multiple hard drives on different physical locations. Then again, that is something you should do anyhow…

So, to conclude this lengthy thing… Am I content with PGP Whole Disk Encryption? Yes, it’s a good solution and does what it’s supposed to do while being totally unobtrusive, but by lacking hibernation encryption it’s far from perfect. It’s a whole lot better though than the free options for single folder encryption. The day TrueCrypt steps up and introduces OS X full disk encryption this piece of expensive software becomes obsolete – but waiting for something that isn’t even on the horizon is risky when it comes to protecting your data and your privacy.