MacBook Logistics and Security for the College Bound

| Tips

If you're planning to take a new MacBook to college this fall, there are some things to be aware of: transporting, backups and security. Here are some tips from the TMO team.

Transport

The first thing you'll want to consider is moving your beautiful new MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air from home to college. Whether you're driving or flying, there's some potential for scratching or denting the computer amidst the chaos of moving, so you'll want to consider a portfolio/messenger bag or a backpack that has a special pouch with a soft lining for a notebook computer. This will also come in handy when you're at school and carrying the MacBook around campus.

 

MacBook

Some people like to use a plastic shell that attaches snugly to the MacBook. They come in various colors or clear plastic. It adds a little weight but ensures the MacBook won't get nicked or scratched.

Once on campus, you'll be carrying the MacBook everywhere. Experienced business travelers, including the TMO team, will tell you that every pound counts. It's actually quite amazing -- the difference between a 5 pound MacBook Pro (13-inch) and a 3 pound MacBook Air is enormous after just an hour of lugging it around in a backpack with a charger. So if you've not yet made a choice, you may want to analyze the trade-off between the MacBook Air and its heavier siblings. After all, it's unlikely you'll need that DVD drive in class. Finances will dictate.

Back in the dorm or apartment, it's just a fact of college life that shiny aluminum MacBooks tend to sprout legs and wander away. It could be a roommate who just needed to borrow it for awhile or something worse. The Kensington lock that can secure your MacBook to a desk or something solid while you're away is a very good idea.

I find it annoying to unplug my charger and wrap it up every time I travel or move about, especially when the cord is slinked behind a desk. If it's possible, one that stays on your work desk and one that gets carried around in the backpack is very, very convenient.

Snapshots:

UNIEA Haptique Case

Speck SeeThru

Belkin TSA-friendly Laptop Case

Skooba TSA-friendly Bags

Spire Laptop and Messenger Bags

Backups

Over the course of a year in college, you'll accumulate a boatload of files: reports, possibly lab data, music, e-mail, calendar entries for important events, and photos. You'll want to make sure this data is backed up in the event your MacBook is damaged or lost. In addition, while modern hard disks are very reliable and can be expected to run for years and years, there is a statistical probability of a hardware failure. The manufacturers have to weigh the cost of building a perfect drive against the cost of warranty repairs. That means that some drives, a small percentage, will fail in the first year.

So if your drive fails, you lose everything. The current best practice says that the best way to backup a hard disk is with another hard disk. Inexpensive, bus powered portable drives, up to 500 GB, aren't very expensive any more -- and they can be locked up in a drawer when you're in class. Apple's Time Machine is a simple and reliable way to back up all your work. You'll have enough things keeping you up at night, depriving you of sleep. Knowing your MacBook is backed up will help you rest easy.

Finally, there's a chance that both your external Time Machine drive and your MacBook could be stolen, and then you'd lose everything. There are several ways to avoid that. One is to have a second drive that you keep in a different, secure location. Another is to use one of the Cloud backup services.

Snapshots:

Other World Computing "On-the-Go" Bus Powered Drives

LaCie Portable Drives

Security

There are several aspects of security. One is physical security, mentioned above. For example, using the Kensington Lock. Another is data security. That is, using password protection and encryption to keep prying eyes out of personal information like credit cards and account information, passwords, financial statements, and so on. Yet another is recovery of a stolen MacBook. Let's look at the last two in more detail.

Level One Security

Its a good idea to set a login password. A log on password is activated in System Preferences -> Accounts -> Login Options -> Automatic login (popup). Selecting "Disabled" means that after the Mac boots up, you'll be required to enter a password.

Also, check the radio button below that: Name and password. That will require the user to supply both the name and the password. Presenting a list of users eliminates half of the obstacles for an unauthorized user, attempting to guess how to access your Mac.

This login password is not iron-clad, and can be bypassed by experts, but it's a first line of defense against curious party guests.

If you get up and walk away from your Mac often, but don't want to log out, it's also a good idea to set a screen saver password. That's found in System Preferences -> Security -> General -> "Require password to wake this computer or screen saver." The password required will be the same as your login password. Again, this will keep nosy roommates from prying when you're away from your desk.

Level Two Security

While the above two methods are a very good idea, they won't stop an expert who steals your MacBook and has the liberty to sit at a workbench and take it apart. For that, you'll need to encrypt your data, just like Michael Westen does in Burn Notice. There are several ways to do this.

The first encryption technique is called FileVault. It's a built-in Mac OS X function, and activation is found in System Preferences -> Security -> FileVault. Basically, FileVault encrypts your entire hard disk and the decryption password is your login password. Activation requires as much free disk space as that already used, so it should really be activated before your disk gets very full. FileVault has been in Mac OS X for years and is considered reliable, but does have some limitations (see the article linked above). Also, there are reports of its on-the-fly decryption slowing down intensive video work.

FileVault's advantage is that your entire drive is fairly secure from just about anyone except an NSA supercomputer. The disadvantage is that in the very rare situation where something gets corrupted, you could lose access to your entire hard disk.

The best practice, and preferred alternative to FileVault, is instead to create an encrypted disk image, a .dmg file that uses the same AES 256-bit encryption, but is much smaller and only contains your critical personal data. After all, encrypting Mac OS X itself is overkill.

Use Disk Utilities found in /Applications/Utilities and start with File -> New -> Blank Disk Image. A volume size of 4.7 GB (DVD image), 256 bit AES, Apple Partition map, and Mac OS X Extended Journaled are good choices. Remember, the name of the volume that will be mounted need not be the same as the file name of the .dmg file. If in doubt, there are tutorials that can guide you through it. Do not save the password in your Mac OS X keychain -- that defeats the purpose here. Instead, you'll need to remember the password.

This .dmg file will be backed up along with all your other files as part of the Time Machine backup process. If, for some reason, it ever becomes corrupted and unreadable, you have the security of being able to go back in time until you find a good version.

It's probably not a good idea to keep private files, even inside an encrypted .dmg, on a Flash Drive on your (real) keychain with car keys, etc. The daily wear and tear, exposure to impact, bending, and possible loss just put the data at more risk, and you may forget to routinely back it up.

Loss Recovery

The final item for data security is in the unfortunate event of a stolen MacBook. There are products available that can assist not only with recovery, but also the remote wipe of your hard disk. If you want to take this extra step, you'll be confident that you'll either be able to recover a stolen MacBook or have your insurance company replace it.

Perhaps the first step here is to check the terms of your household goods insurance policy or that of your parents to ensure that your computer is covered for theft. Not every home owners policy automatically covers computer theft in a location away from the home, say, across country on campus. A special rider may need to be added. If you're on your own, many companies sell a household goods insurance policy that isn't as comprehensive as a home owners policy but does cover property theft.

The next step, if desired, is to install and register protection software, such as Lojack, Orbicule Undercover, or MacPhoneHome. These products are fairly inexpensive, and the track record of recovering stolen computers is fairly good. TMO published a review of Lojack for Mac earlier this year. Some readers thought that Orbicule's software is cheaper and better.

Summary

Individual situations and environments vary, so not every measure described here may be applicable. However, it's always a good idea to be aware of the tools available to you to protect your investment and data, especially in the fluid situation of life on campus. Combining even just a few of these measures will go a long way towards ensuring that your MacBook and its data are safe and remain the least of your problems.

No Comments

Log-in to comment