Because I regularly review Apple’s Mac laptops and desktops, I’ve developed a setup routine for to make them my own for the brief period I have them. It’s similar to what I do when I get a new Mac for myself, though that takes place over a period of days and includes copying over data that I don’t have stored in iCloud.
Yeah, I know, I could use Migration Assistant or other tools to automate this, but I like the idea of a fresh start, and being able to ponder, then pick and choose what I want to keep or discard.
Of course, there are steps I’ll forget, so I wanted to write the process down. This is as much for my convenience and forgetfulness as it is for your geeky voyeurism. Anyway, here’s how it goes:
In the initial setup process, I typically just keep the default selections. If I want to change something, I can always do it later.
Go to Settings > Trackpad, turn on Tap to click
Open Finder, drag Applications, Utilities, Documents folder to the right side of the Dock
Settings > Display, set to More Space on a laptop, Default on a desktop
Finder > Settings, add Hard Disks and Connected servers to the desktop, remove CDs, DVD, iPods In Sidebar, add user folder In Advanced, performing a search to Current Folder In Finder > View in the Menu bar, turn on Path Bar, Status Bar, Tab Bar
But even Berners-Lee is dismayed at what the web has become, saying today’s version of his creation is laced with “perverse incentives.” Indeed, trying to get the information, goods and services you want from the web involves running a gauntlet of intrusive ads, obstructive overlays and unyielding paywalls.
To be clear: Businesses and individuals deserve to be compensated for the information and services they offer online. But too often how they go about it gets in the way of the product itself. Everyone reading this has had the experience of visiting a website that has so many ads, videos, popups and overlays that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the content.
Over the years, I’m assembled a toolkit of browser extensions and strategies that have made the web tolerable. I use these judiciously in instances where doing so might deprive a website of needed revenue. But at the same time, I don’t have much sympathy for those sites that are so junked up with distractions and obstructions that they’re inaccessible. Desperate sites call for desperate measures.
Here’s a list of tips, tricks and tools for restoring some sanity to the web.
The most common way to clean up your web experience is through ad or content blockers. As the name implies, they block ads and other revenue-producing components from appearing on web pages. Out of the box, they’re a shotgun approach, and as such they also deny revenue to sites that rely on advertising to survive. “Free” sites are not really free, and many site operators consider content blockers to be unethical.
Content blockers are available as extensions for desktop web browsers as well as iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. They allow you to block everything, which leaves sites you visit fairly ad-free, but most also feature controls that let you customize what happens at specific sites. For example, if you visit an ad-supported site regularly and its ads aren’t overbearing or intrusive, you can put its domain into what’s called a whitelist or allowlist – and indeed, this is the best use of it. If you love a free site’s content, add it to your blocker’s allowlist.
Many content blockers will also prevent tracking by third-party cookies, and you can typically toggle this feature on and off. If privacy is important to you, content blockers can help. (Though some web browsers themselves can block tracking cookies, most notably Firefox, Safari and Microsoft Edge.)
Blockers also have downsides, sometimes blocking things you may want to see. If a site isn’t behaving the way you expect it to and you have a blocker installed, disable it for that site.
There are other ways to view content without ads or other distractions without installing a content blocker. Some of them are already built into your web browser.
A feature found in Apple’s Safari (both desktop and mobile), Microsoft’s and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers provide a “reader view” that presents text without background images, ads, video players, sharing buttons, etc. Typically, these features increase the font size and tweak the background color of the page to improve readability. In some instances, the feature can reveal full stories that show only a stub as part of a paywall.
While Chrome doesn’t have this built-in, there are several extensions that provide it, though I’ve found that many of them don’t work as well as those built in to other browsers. This Chrome extension does a decent job of mimicking the Reader View in Firefox.
I primarily use Microsoft Edge on both Macs and Windows PCs, and it puts an icon that looks like an open book in the URL field when a page works with reader view. Clicking it presents a highly readable view that’s pretty smart about providing both text and images of value. You can typically set reader view to always be used on specific sites, or toggle it as needed on stories.
Overlays are one of the most annoying web obstacles. These first cousins to popup ads place an image on top of a web page, and are often used to push newsletters, subscriptions and other products. They also can serve as rudimentary paywalls, blocking your view of content unless you pay a subscription fee. They’re also used to complain that you have a content blocker installed, and request that you disable it for that site.
Most content blockers don’t stop overlays, unfortunately, and a separate extension is required to block them. Most of the ones I’ve tried have undesirable side effects, or simply don’t work. For example PopUpOff for Chrome and Edge does a good job of blocking overlays, but at its most extreme setting also prevents things you want to see, including navigation menus on some sites. It’s also available for Opera and Firefox.
The one that works best for me and doesn’t seem to have negative effects is Behind the Overlay, which lets you manually blow away overlays. In Chrome and Edge, it places a button in your extension toolbar that you can click and dismiss almost any overlay, including those paywall overlays that don’t have an X button for closing. There’s also a version of it for Firefox.
Few things are as inconvenient as finding something you want to read on the web, only to discover it’s behind a paywall, meaning you must pay a subscription fee to read it. Unless you’re a regular reader of that site’s content, it’s hard to justify coughing up a monthly vig to read one story.
But let me stress again: If you do find yourself frequently consuming content from specific sites that have a paywall,you should pay for that content.
As more and more sources of journalism move away from ad-based funding, they rely on their readers to show support by paying directly. It would be nice if all sites on the web had some form of micropayments in which you could pay a buck or two to read just one story. Unfortunately, experiments like these are few and far between.
What follows are a few tips for viewing paywalled content. I’ll repeat: If you regularly consume content from the specific sites,please pay up. Otherwise, try these:
• I’ve already mentioned two of the tips: The Behind the Overlay extension will get you past a paywall that relies only on an overlay, though most sites that use them block content in other ways. And the Reader View feature of Edge, Safari and Firefox (along with available extensions) may also work occasionally. If you set a browser’s reader view to always open on a specific paywalled site, it may open all
• Archive.ph is one of the most effective ways around a paywall. Paste the web address for a story you want to read into the URL field on the Archive.ph home page, and watch in amazement as it examines the structure of the paywalled site and extracts the content. However, in most cases you may find someone has beaten you to it and you’ll see what you want right away, because Archive.ph has already extracted the content. [Update 5/3/2023: There’s now an extension that lets you quickly submit a page to archive.ph. Archive Page is available for Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Apple’s Safari and Firefox. ] [Update 10/30/2023: One of archive.ph’s more popular URLs, archive.today, may be blocked by some content delivery service, such as Cloudflare. There are other domains that are used with the archive.* URL. More details here.]
• 12ft Ladder takes an interesting approach, unearthing the cached version Google’s search engine makes of story pages it crawls. You can also invoke it simply by placing “https://12ft.io/” (minus the quotes) in front of any paywalled item’s URL. So, https://paywall.com/cantreadthis.html becomes https://12ft.io/https://paywall.com/cantreadthis.html. However, it doesn’t work as reliably as Archive.ph. Some sites, such as Bloomberg, block it. [Update 10/30/2023: The site apparently has been taken offline by its hosting service, as per Mathew Ingram.]
• Most paywall sites give you a certain number of free story views before blocking you. Switching to a browser’s private or incognito mode hides the counter from the site, as though you’d never visited before. Some sites have protections against this, so it doesn’t always work. And really, if you’re using this approach, you’re probably enough of a regular site visitor that you should pay to subscribe.
• You can also clear your cookies, which are text files that store the aforementioned counters, as well as other information about your activities on a site – to get access after using up your free views. How you do this depends on the browser, but all web browsers let you remove cookies for specific sites. There are also extensions that make this easier, such as Edit This Cookie for Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Opera. But “easier” is relative; using these does require a level of technical expertise.
• This trick works on some sites: In the web address of a story that’s blocked, try placing a period after the domain in the URL, and before the slash. So, for www.apaywallsite.com/readthis.html, you’d place a period between “com” and “/”, e.g., www.apaywallsite.com./readthis.html.
• Some sites load the entire content of a paywalled article but only show you a stub. Browsers will let you view the source code used to display a web page, and sometimes you can read the content there. But expect to wade through a lot of coding to find it, and even then the story may be so full of code that it’s an effort to read. Consider this your last resort.
If you’re an iPhone user who downloaded and installed iOS 16 after its release on Monday, take some time from learning to configure those nifty customizable lock screens and tap on the included Weather app. On the surface, it looks a lot like the updated version introduced in iOS 15 – but below the surface is where the action is.
Tap any one of the cards on the main display – hourly or 10 day forecasts, humidity, air quality, UV index, wind, precipitaton and more – and you’ll get a screen with lots more information. Suddenly, the iOS Weather app is one of the best out there for climate data junkies.
But in order for iOS Weather to get this new life, something had to die. That’s Dark Sky, the hyperlocal weather app that Apple purchased in 2020. It will be shut down on Jan. 1, 2023.
The Dark Sky Company launched the app on iOS in 2012, then added an Android app. When Apple acquired Dark Sky, the Android version was killed shortly thereafter, and paid users of that platform were given full refunds. There is no indication recent buyers of the $3.99 iOS app will get their money back.
At least one user, who replied to a Tweet about Dark Sky’s impending demise, expressed annoyance because she had paid for it twice, including a few months ago.
Dark Sky also built an API for its weather data, and charged other developers to tap into it. That API is also going away, along with the excellent Dark Sky website, shutting down on March 31, 2023. The API is being replaced by WeatherKit, an Apple weather service which will cost less than Dark Sky’s did, and offer developers 500,000 API calls per month before charging.
While the iOS Weather app is beautiful, and the depth of data very impressive, I’ll still miss Dark Sky app and the web page. The app’s interface was nowhere near as gorgeous as Apple’s, but it was simpler and I think clearer in some instances.
It’s hard to believe that Dark Sky has been around for a decade. I first discovered it in late 2013, when a friend using it told me it was about to rain, and a few minutes later the sky opened up in a downpour. I happily forked over my $3.99 and have been a fan ever since.
One of the features that Apple has finally brought over from the original app is the one that originally sold me: weather alerts for your current location. I’m hoping over time I’ll come to love the iOS Weather app as much as I do the original Dark Sky. A few predicted downpours oughta do it.
Anyone who reads my columns regularly knows that I’m a die-hard iPhone user. Over the years, I’ve flirted with Android (and even Windows Phone!) from time to time. But at this point I’m neck-deep in Apple’s ecosystem lock-in, and as far as I’m concerned, the water’s fine.
That said, I do enjoy playing with and reviewing Android devices, even if they are not my platform of choice. But I always feel like I don’t really know enough about Google’s mobile operating system. I want to fix that.
I’m buying an Android phone. While I regularly get review units from both carriers and phone manufacturers, I want one that I can call my own – a device I can customize, modify and hack if I want to. And one that I can use to track the changes in Android over multiple version updates.
I have my choices narrowed to two or three candidates, but there drawbacks to each that give me pause. So, I’d like your help.
Here’s my criteria:
It needs to get Android updates over at least three years. While no Android phone matches Apple in terms of OS support over time, several brands come close.
I want a new phone, not one from a year or two back. Since this will be used to watch the development of the platform, it needs to be up-to-date in terms of hardware.
This will not be my daily driver, though I’ll test networks using pre-paid SIMs. As such, I don’t want to pay a lot for a top-of-the-line device. At the same time, I don’t want a phone that’s so cheap that it’s a rehash of last year’s tech. My budget runs between $500 and $800-$900.
Ideally, I want as “pure” an Android installation as I can get, BUT … I also know that’s not what most people have. So, I’m willing to consider devices that have a tweaked interface or skin.
It needs to be unlocked; I want to be able to test different carriers’ networks.
Here are the smartphones on my shortlist:
Samsung A53 5G – At the higher end of Samsung’s mid-range line of phones, it’s got a decent camera system and display, good battery life and a responsive processor. It’s storage is expandable with an microSD card. It lists for $450, which is a great price. It will get four years of OS updates. But, it doesn’t have wireless charging, and Samsung’s skin makes significant changes to Android. It also has a notorious amount of crapware on it, some of which can’t be removed.
Samsung Galaxy S22 – Ideally, I really want the S22+, as I prefer larger-screen devices. But the bigger phone is $1,000 compared to the S22’s $800. Other than screen size, the two devices are very similar – high-end devices with Qualcomm’s latest processor, wireless charging and an excellent camera system. But does have the Samsung crapware burden and the tweaked OS. While it will get OS updates, it won’t get them as quickly as other brands, particularly Google’s Pixel line.
Google Pixel 6 Pro – This is probably the top contender for my dollars at the moment. While its $899 price tag is at my budget’s limit, it ticks most of my checkboxes: Large screen, great display, excellent camera system, three years of Android updates and as pure an Android installation as you can get, with updates that come as soon as a new version is released. However, as is often the case with Pixel phones, quick updates also mean owners are beta testers. Early versions of Android are notoriously buggy, and Pixel owners sometimes lose features until the issues surrounding them are fixed. This Android Authority writer plans to ditch his Pixel 6 Pro because of connectivity issues, for example. Update: However, I liked it when I reviewed it last year.
Google Pixel 6a – Even though this is a smaller phone, with a 6.1-inch display, I’m intrigued by the great reviews it’s gotten. And given that its release comes well after that of the Pixel 6 line, it may not have some of the issues in its bigger and more expensive devices. At $449, it’s a solid competitor to the Samsung A53. But it is still a smaller phone, and with a plastic back, it doesn’t support wireless charging. The camera system is less capable than the 6 Pro, and it only has 6 GB of RAM compared to 8 on the Pro.
As I said, the Pixel 6 Pro is the leading contender, followed by the A53. The S22 still feels a little too expensive, and the 6a is something of an unknown – how it will do over time has yet to be determined. I love the idea of pure Android on the Pixel phones, but most Android owners in the U.S. have Samsung devices, so there is something to be said for keeping an eye on their experience.
If you’re an Android user, which would you recommend? And if you have any suggestions for other devices that meet my criteria and work on all U.S. carriers, please let me know. Leave a comment here, or reply on Twitter or Facebook.
As do a lot of cable internet customers, I dread each year the moment when the promotional price for my service expires. What was once a decent price evaporates, leaving an inflated number, and it’s time to make that call or do that chat and negotiate the coming year’s bill.
This year was different. For one thing, I last grappled with a Comcast rep in 2020 over their monthly vig, having agreed to a two-year deal in 2020 to pay $70 a month for the company’s gigabit service. As far as internet-bill angst goes, 2021 was peaceful.
But this time around, when $70 a month threatened to become more than $100 a month, the process was different. I didn’t interact with a rep, either by voice or chat. Instead, I opened the Xfinity My Account iPhone app, tapped a few links and buttons, and then my bill was $60 a month. I’m no longer getting the company’s 1.2-Gbps-downloads service, but close enough to it. And in reality, I never achieved the plan’s full gigabit speeds, except when I reviewed Comcast’s newest xFi gateway, the XB8.
More on that in a minute.
Back in 2020, when it came time to negotiate my price, I was offered a deal that seemed too good to pass up. I was paying for 275-Mbps downloads, and the Comcast rep I talked to offered me the gigabit service for the same price for two years. I was contractually bound the first year, but could quit if I wanted in the second, but Comcast wouldn’t raise my rate until the two-year period was up. I bit, but in order to get those faster speeds, I needed faster equipment.
I use my own network gear with Comcast, and my cable modem and router back then weren’t up to the task. I wound up replacing both, and it cost me dearly. As I wrote at the time, it would take me 32 months to recover the benefits of not paying Comcast’s $14-a-month rent for its own modem/router combo.
What I bought was a TP-Link AX6000 router and a Netgear CM1000 cable modem. As I said, I never was able to get the full gigabit service with this hardware, despite the CM1000 being a DOCSIS 3.1 modem. But not all 3.1 hardware is equal, and the best I could do in speed tests directly from the modem to the router were just over 800 Mbps, usually more in the 700 Mbps range. That said, our need for speed is not that high. We stream TV shows and movies; I’m fond of downloading multi-gigabyte operating systems; and my wife’s remote psychotherapy business involves lots of teleconferencing. We could easily get by with much, much slower download speeds.
But one of the main reasons I wanted Comcast’s gigabit tier was for its upload speeds. The cable provider is notoriously chincy when it comes to its upstream service – which, to be fair, is partly a limitation of the current DOCSIS standard and will be fixed in DOCSIS 4.0 – and you have to approach or adopt the gig-speed tiers to get decent uploads. Comcast’s 1.2-Gbps service gets you 35-Mbps uploads; for the 900-Mbps tier, it’s 20 Mpbs up. (Even more annoying: Comcast hides the upload speed when you’re shopping for service.)
As I knew that my promotional period was soon coming to a close, I started looking at Comcast’s other plans, figuring I’d drop down a notch or two to save money. That’s when I saw on my account page that my CM1000 cable modem was now labeled as “not supported”. There was no explanation as to what that meant, and the modem was working just fine. I contacted Comcast and was told by a support rep that the modem was no longer getting firmware updates, and that it didn’t support the company’s higher-speed tiers.
“It’s not going to quit working, you can keep using it,” he told me.
I’m the kind of user who likes to keep my hardware’s code up to date, and since unpatched vulnerabilities so not getting firmware updates was concerning. What I didn’t pay attention to was his second explanation: that it didn’t support higher-speed tiers, because he didn’t say explicitly that the CM1000 couldn’t support the 1.2-Gbps tier I was paying for.
This notation made me decide to replace my cable modem. I also was beginning to question the conventional wisdom that you an save money in the long term by owning your own router and modem, versus renting a gateway from Comcast. That might still be true at slower tiers, where lower-cost modems and routers would be paid off quickly, but once you are subscribing to the gigabit tiers, the cost of equipment jumps. It might actually be better to go with Comcast’s gateway in that instance, given that it could literally take years to recoup third-party equipment costs.
That’s when I decided to ask Comcast if I could review the XB8, the company’s latest xFi gateway. It’s big selling point, besides supporting multi-gigabit speeds, is that it supports WiFi 6E, which provides a third radio band as an expansion of WiFi 6. If you’ve got a device that can talk to its 6-GHz band, the result is dramatic. As I wrote in my review, a Samsung Galaxy S22+, which works with 6E, had download speeds of as much as 1.3 Gbps – essentially, the full throughput for Comcast’s 1.2-Gbps service. (If the stars align, Comcast’s tested speeds often exceed their tier’s top speeds.)
I might have indeed made the leap to renting the XB8 for $14 a month if it hadn’t been for two showstopper bugs. The gateway really wants its users to have just one network work name and it will sort out what devices work best on which band – 2.4, 5 or 6 GHz. But because of the way my home network is configured, I needed them to be separated. Unfortunately, when I configured it that way, the 5- and 6-GHz bands would occasionally vanish, leaving the anemic 2.4-GHz signal.
And my one of my wife’s computers, a Microsoft Surface Pro 5, was unable to connect to the 5-GHz band, even though it worked just fine on other routers. A Comcast rep said this was a known issue with this particular PC. But it meant that I could not set the gateway to one SSID, ever. Despite its speed and advanced tech, the XB8 just didn’t work for me, and I returned it when I was done with the review, rather than start renting it. (Comcast is working on a fix for the split-network bug, but at this writing it has not yet been released.)
I then wound up buying a new cable modem, a Motorola MB8611, which is capable of multi-gig speeds, for about $180. I also went through the process I outlined above of dropping back to Comcast’s 900 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up service for $60 a month, saving $10 a month off my bill. Unfortunately, the MB8611 was not reliable, spontaneously rebooting, sometimes several times a day. I’d seen other users complaining on this on forums and Amazon product reviews, but I figured I’d give it a shot. I was not immune to this problem, and ended up returning it to Best Buy.
I went back to using my unsupported CM1000. I’m getting about the same speeds as I was before all this started, and the modem is rock-solid and reliable. I’ve owned it and the TP-Link router for about two years, so I’ve got another eight months before the hardware has paid for itself. Lack of firmware updates may result in problems in the future, but so far I’m happy. But it may be a long time before I invest in my own modem and router again.