How to buy a smartphone

A friend sent me this question (capitalization isn't her favorite part of the English language):

i'm considering purchasing an iphone, but those are EXPENSIVE, so i wonder if you would help me do a cost/benefit analysis?

i wouldn't even consider such a purchase except i was given the go-ahead yesterday to do an interview series/column, so i need a recording device. a dictaphone seems sort of expensive for a one-use gadget, so it seems that a smartphone that would allow me to do such recording as well as take photos and gps and play music (which look like the main features i would use aside from texting) might make sense. it's a large enough expense that it would be a major purchase for me, and i'm not sure what questions to ask (other than, hey verizon, will you please not charge me full price for the upgrade or i'm going to have to switch to sprint which totally makes me shudder).

thoughts? ideas? etc?

It's a great question, and one that's shared by many people. Here are some observations that might help:

If you're truly only buying a device so you can record interviews, a smartphone isn't necessary. Lots of budget-priced MP3 players have a recording feature built-in. The Sansa Clip, for instance, is usually about $30 or $40 in stores, and it produces a satisfactory recording. There are also dedicated digital voice recorders available for similar prices.

If you're looking to take advantage of using a smartphone for other reasons, too (and there are many), consider some of these matters:

1. Pick your network first. Nothing will make you more miserable than dealing with a bad cellphone network, no matter how nice your phone is. I've known people who couldn't get reception in their own kitchens. A great phone that doesn't ring and won't let you call out isn't worth any price.

2. Pick the form you like best, starting with the keyboard. You can get keyboards on the face of the phone (mainly from BlackBerry), slider keyboards, and virtual keyboards (they only appear on the screen when you're in a typing mode). The main advantage to a smartphone over a classic cell phone is the ability to do things like surf the Internet and send email -- the kinds of things that require a keyboard. If that isn't convenient for you, you're not going to get the experience you want from the phone.

3. After you've narrowed down your options based upon those first two questions, you may be ready to compare operating systems. People who like a hassle-free experience tend to rave about the iPhone because it's pretty seamlessly compatible with other Apple products. But it's also usually noticeably more expensive than comparable phones running the Android operating system, because there are lots of manufacturers competing to make Android phones, versus Apple's monopoly on the iPhone. If you get an Android-based phone, you will probably get more features than in a comparable iPhone (for instance, some Android phones can use 4G networks, which the iPhone presently can't), but the trade-off is that there remain more bugs in the Android system. There isn't a lot of customer support for the Android operating system -- but, offsetting that, there are so many other users now that any problem you have is probably one someone else has already addressed somewhere on the Internet. Android supposedly has 53% of the US smartphone market share. That's a pretty large number of fellow users troubleshooting the same problems you might be having, and it's also a very attractive market for developers creating applications.

4. From this point, some of the major distinguishing factors remaining include screen size, memory capacity, battery life, and camera quality. By this point in the process, you're probably down to just three or four remaining options anyway.

A comment on planned obsolescence

There's no doubt that lots of this stuff has planned obsolescence built-in, but then again, maybe we want that. I still use the television I bought in college, 15 years ago. It works just fine, but it's a woefully out-of-date, standard-definition, heavy-tube monster. I paid $270 for it, so whenever I replace it with something current (flat-screen HDTV) for the same price, I'm going to be happy I didn't pay more to get something that would have lasted longer. Especially with tech stuff, you probably want it to be cheap, since you don't want to be overpaying for things that last so long they're still working when they're several generations out of date. Why pay $10,000 for a computer that will last 10 years when it's going to be completely surpassed by something that will cost $2,000 in five years?

Time for some program updates

If you haven't updated your program files in a while, some significant programs have been updated in the last few weeks and months. It's time to update these programs if you haven't lately:

These updates are important to the security of any Windows-based computer.
There are a lot of tasks that computer users should really -- in an ideal world -- be doing every single week. The pressures of life, however, inevitably keep us from doing them regularly enough. As a substitute, then, many people would be well-served to adopt a policy of doing some computer "housekeeping" once a week, and rotating through four essential tasks. That way, none of those tasks go more than a month without getting done. It's imperfect, but it's far better than the common alternative -- never doing any of them at all.

The first week of every month, one should run a complete backup of personal information on the computer's hard drive. This is usually best done straight to a portable hard drive, and run overnight when it won't affect any users. Once every few months, one should go a step farther and burn the really essential files (financial files, family photos, important e-mails) to a DVD, and send that DVD somewhere far away for safe keeping. This step is important because there's always the risk -- no matter how low, it's ever-present -- that one's home and entire community could be destroyed in a massive disaster, like the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, or Parkersburg, Iowa. Having a solid-state backup (like one burned to a DVD) of the really essential files somewhere far away guarantees that those most precious files won't be lost forever, even if everything else in the home is gone. An easy rule of thumb: Find a bank in a town at least 100 miles away from your home, but someplace you're likely to visit at least a couple of times a year, and rent a safe-deposit box there. Whenever you're in town, drop off your latest DVD in the box and walk away knowing that your most precious data is safe and sound behind lock and key.

The second week of every month, check for updates to the programs on your computer. This includes programs like the Internet browsers Firefox and Chrome, mail programs like Thunderbird, office suites like LibreOffice, and the add-on programs that make other programs work, like Adobe Flash Player. This task falls to the second week because it should always follow a data backup.

The third week of every month, install the latest Microsoft updates issued on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of every month). This advice obviously doesn't pertain to Apple or Linux users, but they too should practice good housekeeping by looking for operating-system updates at least once a month. Microsoft, though, sets the Patch Tuesday schedule, so this task has a natural place in the normal monthly rhythm of good housekeeping on your computer.

The fourth week of every month, run a full (or "comprehensive") antivirus scan of your computer. Like a backup of the hard drive, this should be run overnight, when it won't interfere with any computer use. A thorough antivirus scan should also include a scan for spyware and other malware, and it could easily occupy 50% or more of the computer's processing power, so it can be a massive nuisance to run while the computer is in use. An overnight scan is just as effective and won't bother anyone in the process.

These recommendations, of course, depend on the precise circumstances of the individual computer user. But as general guidelines, they're good for ensuring that the truly essential steps for computer security get taken on a routine basis. Ideally, one would actually conduct a full backup, a round of program updates, and an antivirus scan every single week...but it's a sad fact of life that nobody but a small handful of hard-core enthusiasts does this. Committing to following at least a monthly cycle for these steps, though, will at least bring one's computer use to an acceptable level of safety and security.

Adobe Illustrator

We received this message in the inbox the other day:

Does Adobe Illustrator record IP addresses as you are building a document?

Now, in order to answer this fairly, we need to back up. Adobe Illustrator is one of a number of programs that can be used to manipulate images. It's closely related to Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is targeted at the manipulation of things like photographs, whereas Illustrator is better for drawing things like corporate logos or cartoons.

As to the question of whether either one of these programs records IP addresses as the files are being created or modified, the short answer is: No, I don't think so. At least, we have no evidence of them doing so.

But that short answer can be misleading, if the real question isn't "Is this recording my IP address", but really "Is it recording information about the computer that is either creating or editing the file?" If you're really asking the second question, then the answer is "Yes, it certainly is."

Save any picture you like off the Internet. For instance, let's take the first thing that showed up on Flickr when I searched for the word "Radio": A photograph of someone's very elaborate radio room. Note that on the right-hand side of the screen, Flickr says "This photo was taken on January 17, 2010 using a Canon EOS 50D." That information comes from the "metadata" stored along with the image. Metadata is the information about the picture that's stored inside the file data about the picture itself. If, for instance, you were to download the original version of the photograph in that link, you could then (using Windows) right-click on the file and select "Properties".

What you'll see depends upon which version of Windows you're using. Using Windows Vista, you'll have a choice of tabs, one of which is named "Details". Clicking on that tab brings up a list of details about the photo. Again, each computer is configured differently, but among the many pieces of information that may be stored include the name of the author, the title of the picture, the photo's dimensions and resolution, the time and date when it was taken, the type of camera used, details of the photo's setup (including factors like ISO speed and F-stop). All of this extra information is called metadata. It's also stored along with many other files you routinely use and create, including files in spreadsheets and word processors, PDF files, MP3 recordings, and virtually everything else. And, depending upon how your computer is configured, every such file you create may be recording details about your computer that can be retrieved easily by anyone who gets a copy of that file.

So: Is Adobe Illustrator recording your IP address? Not likely. But is your computer routinely storing information about you and your files inside the metadata within those files? You bet.

Have your own evacuation orders

You never know when a worst-case scenario could cause you to have to leave home in an emergency. Not all disasters are predictable, nor is there always time to gather belongings. But often, one has at least a couple of moments of clarity before having to evacuate.

In those moments, everyone should have a plan to grab a digital backup of their most important files. Everyone should have an SD card or USB flash drive they could grab in an instant with at least three essential sets of items:

- copies of digitized family photos
- scans of important paper records, like medical details, birth and marriage certificates, school and employment information, and tax filings
- backup copies of any accounting records or other essential financial and business information that's routinely kept on a computer hard drive

The flash drive or SD card should always be kept current, and stored in its own secure location -- but one that can be reached speedily if the need arises.

The laziest credit-card scam ever

Here's an item from the inbox at my online store:


How are you doing. I would like to purchase some items from you to Rochester IN 46975 via next day air . Let me know if you accept credit cards as only method of payment. Kindly get back to me with the your website address.


Jessica Johnson.

Really? This must be the laziest scam attempt ever. "Get back to me with your website address"? It's like the crooks don't even care about their craft anymore. Where's the artistry?
It may seem like a novelty or an extravagance, but everyone should own their own domain name -- specifically, whenever possible, one should own one's own name, ending in dot-com. There are many fine reasons, but four stand out above the rest:

#1: There is no better way to secure your online reputation in a single step
Nobody should doubt that the importance of one's online reputation grows every day. The breadcrumb trail you leave behind on the Internet simply by taking up space on this planet is greater than most people would imagine -- even if you do nothing at all on the Internet yourself, you'll still almost undoubtedly end up with a presence there. Because that trail you unintentionally (or intentionally) leave behind now influences such important decisions as whether you're considered credit-worthy or whether you're employable, it's important to have as much influence over that reputation as you can grasp. The single easiest way to capture that is by securing your own name as a domain name.

#2: E-mail services may change, but your e-mail address shouldn't
Any decent domain-name service (I like, but there are plenty of decent providers) will allow you to forward e-mail sent to your domain name to your choice of destinations. That means you can set up your own permanent e-mail address on your own domain that will forward to whatever service you want to use -- Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, your Internet service provider, or any combination of destinations you choose. This makes e-mail management easier for you (since you can set up multiple incoming addresses to suit different needs, like financial services, personal messages, and comments you post on public message boards), and it means that nobody will ever have to search for your e-mail address again in the future, just because you changed webmail services.

#3: Everyone has some sort of domicile on the Internet anyway
If you have a Facebook page, then you already have a website of your own. If you have a Flickr account or a YouTube channel, then you already have a website. If you have a LinkedIn account, then you already have a presence. If you keep up a Twitter account, then you already have an address on the Internet. The problem with all of these is that they become your "domiciles" on the Internet -- and they're all owned by somebody else. Sure, you may have rights to your account, but that isn't the same as actually owning your own domain name. The difference is like that between being a renter and being a homeowner. Both give you a place to stay, but only one is really "your" property. Buying a domain name is a way to ensure that your chief domicile on the Internet really belongs to you. There's nothing that says you can't use that domain name to point directly to your Facebook wall or your YouTube channel. But if you're going to invest your time and energy into anything resembling a digital version of yourself, then you really should ensure that you own the digital version of the very name that belongs to you in the real world.

#4: You don't know how much you'll use it until you get it
...then, once you get it, you won't know how you got along before you got it.

Social-networking websites, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter, Google Buzz, and LinkedIn, encourage people to share what's on their minds. In a way, it's just an amplification of the water-cooler talk that we've shared since the Industrial Revolution, and the campfire talks we probably had as cave-dwellers.

But in the 21st Century, sharing what's on one's mind in the form of an online "status update" (as it's usually called) can be a dangerous thing. What was once offered as a passing comment to a co-worker on an assembly line is now a declaration of opinion to a potentially global audience, and unlike offhanded remarks made over a lunch break and quickly forgotten, these comments are now recorded for posterity -- quite literally, as in the case of Twitter, which is being archived by the Library of Congress.

This brings us to the risks few, if any, users are thinking about. Posterity will look back on what we think is just the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet with a different attitude than we expect -- if we're even conditioned to think about the consequences at all. Some people will benefit, no doubt: Their Tweets and Facebook status updates may end up looking progressive and maybe even prescient, even when viewed 50 years hence. Others, alas, will be highly regrettable. Here are five examples of things people should refrain from declaring online:

#1: "My boss/my significant other is a jerk" or "I hate my job"
The old advice went that if you couldn't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. It was sage advice. It's along very similar lines to the advice that a married couple should never go to bed angry, but rather should always seek to resolve their differences quickly and with patience towards one another. Expressing angry emotions in a public forum -- in fact, a global forum -- isn't really a psychological release so much as it's a way of amplifying those emotions. Just because it's possible to inform the world in real time of one's soap-opera of life doesn't mean that it's a good idea to do so. It isn't. And when it's the boss about whom one is complaining, then it's an occupational hazard as well.

#2: "I'm on vacation in ___"
You wouldn't put a sign in front of your home saying "Attention burglars: This house is unoccupied. Feel free to rob us." Why would any sensible person put the same sign on the Internet where everyone on the planet can see it?

#3: "___ will hate me for saying this, but..."
If any instinct suggests to you that saying something might have bad consequences, or that doing so might violate someone else's trust, then it's time to trust the instinct rather than brazenly overriding it.

#4: "I'm calling you out, ___"
Rivalries, petty differences, and political animosity should be shelved whenever possible, rather than aired for all the world to see. Yesterday's competitors can easily become tomorrow's merger partners -- just ask Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, or anyone who's ever worked at a company with a hyphenated name. The people at Bear Stearns likely never expected to find themselves working for JP Morgan, but it happened in a flash, and anything disparaging that any of them might've said anywhere online about their rivals-cum-overlords could easily have meant the difference between keeping a job and losing it.

#5: "You know who I hate?"
US Senator Robert Byrd was associated with the KKK in his young adulthood, and it was remembered until his death at age 92, as it rightly should have been due to his influential public presence. Countless other celebrities and public officials have spent years trying to distance themselves from youthful expressions of hostility towards other people. A common theme among many of the most damaging personal histories is hatred, particularly of classes of people. The world is simply too burdened with hate already, and there's no reason to add to it in the public marketplace of ideas -- nor, for that matter, in one's own heart and mind. Yesterday's common prejudices frequently become today's points of embarrassment. Why place hatred on the permanent public record?

There are, no doubt, many other things people shouldn't be sharing online about their inner thoughts and feelings. But these five are a good starting point for halting bad behavior before it does permanent damage.
YouTube has at least three massive advantages that will keep it around long after other popular websites have faded away:

1. It requires no effort -- none -- on the part of most users. They literally have to just press the play button to watch a video. There's no logging in, no learning strange conventions like Twitter hashtags, no confusion about the purpose of having a Facebook "wall". Just a pure and simple purpose: Watch videos. Absolutely anyone can figure out how to use it.

2. It has become the default forum for hosting video. For those who wish to upload videos to the Internet, there's no question about where to go: YouTube is the default location. Anyone who bothers trying to come up with an alternative architecture would have a massive degree of effort required to convince people otherwise. Unlike Facebook, which took over social networking dominance from MySpace because MySpace ceased to have any "cool" appeal, there's nothing cool or trendy about using YouTube. It's just there, and doesn't attempt to make any waves of its own.

3. The amount of investment by users in YouTube makes it hugely valuable. Posting videos there -- many of which are not archived anywhere else -- is like putting something in one's safe-deposit box at the bank. Users have so much invested in their uploads that it would take a massive force to cause them to take them down and put them anywhere else.