Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Tablet Wars

Surface Pro 3 – the tablet that can replace your laptop or even a MacBook Pro? That’s the new tagline for the Surface Pro 3 and the theme of the new television commercials.

Microsoft released their new Surface Pro 3 last Friday. After less-than-stellar sales and rumored to have lost over $1.2 BILLION dollars on the Surface 1 and 2 they’re hoping that the 3rd time is a charm.

Its obvious Microsoft got off to a rocky start with its first two Surface Pros, but I still think there’s a lot to like in the laptop/tablet hybrids. With their aggressive update schedule, we’re finally seeing the third Surface Pro just a year and a half after the first one hit store shelves.

The Good
It’s thinner and lighter even though it has a larger 12”display.
New kickstand design with more angle flexibility
New keyboard/cover design with backlit keys and improved trackpad.
Comes bundled with a battery powered stylus/pen.
The top button on the stylus opens OneNote.
Writing or drawing on the screen is much like drawing on a piece of paper.

The Bad
No built-in storage for the bundled stylus.
The keyboard is not included ($129.00 additional)
Battery life has not improved over the Pro 2. Microsoft claims up to 9 hours browsing websites.

To sweeten the pot even more – if you bought a Macbook Air only to find it doesn’t quite fill your “laptop” needs, Microsoft is offering up to a $650 trade-in allowance through July 31st.

When it comes to price, the Surface Pro 3 is basically on par with the MacBook Air. The Surface Pro 3 starts out cheaper at $799 — but that’s for a Core i3 model with only 64 GB of storage. The Core i5 Surface Pro 3 with a 128 GB SSD has both the same basic hardware and the same $999 price tag as the base 13-inch MacBook Air. The Core i7 will hit the streets at $1,949 with 512GB of storage. There’s also a $199.00 docking station and an Ethernet adapter available.

If you want to take a Surface Pro 3 for a test drive just visit your local Best Buy or Staples. They have the entry level units in stock and ready for sale. I’ll have a more thorough review once the higher end units are shipping and in use here at ACTSmart.

You can visit the Microsoft store on the web for additional information or check out this Wall Street Journal first Look video

Public Wifi for Xfinity Customers

If you’re a Comcast cable customer, your home’s private Wi-Fi router is being turned into a public hotspot.

It’s been one year since Comcast started its monster project to blanket residential and commercial areas with continuous Wi-Fi coverage. Imagine waves of wireless Internet access emitting from every home, business and public waiting area.

Comcast has been swapping out customers’ old routers with new ones capable of doubling as public hotspots. So far, the company has turned 3 million home devices into public ones. By year’s end it plans to activate that feature on the other 5 million already installed.

Anyone with an Xfinity account can register their devices (laptop, tablet, phone) and the public network will always keep them registered — at a friend’s home, coffee shop or bus stop. No more asking for your cousin’s Wi-Fi network password.

What about privacy?
It seems like Comcast did this the right way. Outsiders never get access to your private, password-protected home network. Each box has two separate antennae, Comcast explained. That means criminals can’t jump from the public channel into your network and spy on you.

And don’t expect every passing stranger to get access. The Wi-Fi signal is no stronger than it is now, so anyone camped in your front yard will have a difficult time tapping into the public network. This system was meant for guests at home, not on the street.

As for strangers tapping your router for illegal activity: Comcast said you’ll be guilt-free if the FBI comes knocking. Anyone hooking up to the “Xfinity Wi-Fi” public network must sign in with their own traceable, Comcast customer credentials.

Still, no system is foolproof, and this could be unnecessary exposure to potential harm. Simply opening up another access point increases the likelihood that someone could tamper with your router.

What about connection speed?
Having several people connecting to a single router tends to clog up the Wi-Fi. Comcast says it found a way to make this work.

With two separate networks, each antenna has its own data speed cap. Comcast said the private channel provides whatever speed customers already pay to get (most have 25 Megabits per second). The public hotspot channel is given 15 Mbps and allows up to five people to connect at a time.

That means having your data-hungry friends over shouldn’t slow down your Netflix streaming if they are logged into the “public” side of your router.

Comcast also says you shouldn’t experience any conflict between the two networks. It’s something Comcast engineers thought about carefully. Obviously, the last thing they want to do is to create a bad user experience.

Before this project, there was no value in having a home Internet subscription when you’re not at home. Every time you left the house you walked away from your subscription. But with all these new hotspot locations, you can now connect to the Internet remotely using your home or business account. Everyone’s devices are a lot more mobile.

But what if you hate the idea of your private Comcast boxes being turned into public hotspots? You can turn it off by calling Comcast or logging into your account online. The company says fewer than 1% of customers have done that so far.

Fake Faxes Carry New CryptoLocker

We’ve started seeing yet another version of CryptoLocker .

It begins as a very simple plain text email pretending to be an email delivered fax. I’d like to point out that in an effort to evade filters or at least make blocking these a bit harder, the cyber thief has been utilizing DropBox links to give to potential victims. Much like many campaigns in the past, other virus campaigns have attempted to utilize legitimate, especially free, services to hide their malware. GoogleDocs was a favorite of spammers to peddle their pharma campaigns, but Google was usually pretty quick to clean those up. In this instance it would appear that DropBox does not scan their stored files for malware and CryptoLocker is taking full advantage of this.

This variation also appears to work a little differently in a few ways. Once the victim machine is infected, a few new pages pop up to inform the victim that they have been infected. One is a webpage explaining what just happened. Another is a text file that explains what you must do in order to decrypt your files entitled “DECRYPT_INSTRUCTION”. An interesting note in the decryption instructions his time is that they include Tor links that are supposed to be “your personal home page”. If you follow them though, you will just end up at a page that looks like the original instruction page that pops up when you are first notified of your new infection. DO NOT click on these links!

The third page that pops up is reminiscent of the original CryptoLocker providing a little countdown timer. Originally the timer represented the time you had left before they would destroy your personal encryption key, this time it states that when it runs out you will be charged double for their not so friendly decryption services. This go around i’s $500 – $600 and then $1000 – $1200 after the timer expires which appears to begin the countdown at 120 hours. With previous attacks, the payments were accepted through Western Union or Moneygram, this time they’re back to Bitcoin, and Bitcoin only.

This is a very nasty bug. Not only does it encrypt local files, but it also seeks out and encrypts attached storage as well as network shares and encrypts everything on those as well. If you have a cloud based storage system like DropBox open and logged in on your system it attempts to encrypt those files as well. It is not recommended that anyone pay these criminals the ransom they demand. We have not heard that anyone has paid and gotten their files back – the criminals just continue to bleed the user dry until the user stops paying additional money then they just stop responding.

This particular variation requires the recipient of the email to click on the DropBox link to retrieve a Zip file. The Zip file must then be opened. Inside that reveals a file by the name of Fax-932971.scr, note the screensaver .scr extension. Once the file is removed from the Zip it then appears as a pdf icon.

The ONLY way to combat this challenge is to remain HYPER ALERT AND VIGILANT to any and all emails that contain attachments. DO NOT CLICK ON ANY email attachments, faxes, bank transfers, PDF files, ZIP files.

This Trojan employs a very complex encryption algorithm and its removal has evaded everyone so far.  There is currently no antivirus or anti-malware program that can protect you from this nor can it remove and fix the problem afterwards. The ONLY RECOURSE available for anyone that gets infected is to isolate the compromised machines from their networks, format and re-install the affected systems and servers and then restore them from backups. In many cases, unless you have a comprehensive offsite backup solution, your critical data is encrypted and unable to be restored. We have found that even paying the ransom will not get your data back as the criminals do not respond even after you’ve sent the money.

iCloud Gets An Upgrade

Yesterday, Apple introduced a major update to its iCloud service. Up until now, iCloud’s storage offering was fairly limited when compared to competitors such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive. Now you can use it to store files of your choosing, and sync with not only other Mac devices, but also your Windows computers as well.

Apple also introduced a related service called Mail Drop, which allows for large-size file attachments in email, leveraging the cloud drive.

More importantly, Apple is dramatically lowering its pricing for iCloud Drive. In addition to the 5GB you get for free, Apple will provide an additional 20GB for 99 cents per month, and 200GB for 3.99 per month. This finally puts Apple iCloud more in line with Google, which charges $1.99 per month for 100GB.

We can expect more important announcements this week as Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference kicks off in San Francisco. Among the rumored announcements may be new offerings from health care to indoor location tracking. Watch for what may be a new application called Healthbook, designed to track and monitor fitness and health information.

It may be a few months before we get a new iPhone, but WWDC should bring announcements on ways to extend the iPhone’s functionality. One interesting turn could be using your iPhone as a remote control for a connected home.

There’s more anticipation than usual in 2014 because Chief Executive Tim Cook has promised that Apple will enter new product categories this year. Apple’s Internet services chief Eddy Cue heightened expectations last week, saying the company’s product pipeline is the best he’s seen in 25 years.

Apple has been riding a wave of momentum in recent weeks from a combination of strong quarterly earnings, a 7-for-1 stock split that took effect yesterday, and plans to repurchase additional billions in shares. Apple shares are trading at its highest levels in more than a year.

In recent years, the WWDC keynote has been a showcase for updates to Apple’s two software platforms – iOS for the iPhone and iPad and OS X for Macs. The conference’s focus tends to be on software rather than new hardware products.

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