What APFS is, and; why you should care

A major change in macOS 10.13 High Sierra is the switch to Apple’s new Apple File System, or APFS. With any luck, you’ll barely notice the change, just as almost no one did earlier this year when Apple updated millions of iOS devices to APFS with iOS 10.3. But let’s unpack what APFS is, why you should care, and what gotchas you might encounter.

A file system is a mechanism for storing files on a hard disk or SSD—it keeps track of where on the drive the pieces that make up each file are located, along with metadata about each file, such as its name, size, creation and modification dates, and so on. You see all this information in the Finder, but since the file system is a level below the Finder, you won’t have to learn anything new when Apple starts using APFS.

Why is Apple making this switch? In 1985, Apple first developed the Hierarchical File System (HFS) for the Mac, later replacing it with HFS+ in 1998. Although HFS+, now called Mac OS Extended in Disk Utility, has received numerous updates in the last two decades, it wasn’t designed to deal with terabyte-sized drives, solid-state drives based on flash storage, full-disk encryption, or supercomputer-class Macs.

That’s where APFS comes in. Being a modern file system, it’s vastly faster than HFS+. For instance, have you ever used File > Get Info to see how much disk space a folder uses? For a folder containing thousands of files, it can take minutes before you see that number. But with APFS, calculating folder sizes becomes nearly instantaneous, as does duplicating a file that’s gigabytes in size. Saving files should also be faster.

APFS is also more resistant to data loss or file corruption due to application crashes, and it keeps your data more secure with advanced backup and encryption capabilities. If you use FileVault to encrypt your drive, APFS will change the underlying encryption mechanism during the upgrade, but everything will look and work just as it always has.

When you install High Sierra on a Mac with an SSD or flash storage, which includes all recent Mac notebooks and many desktop Macs, your drive will be converted to APFS automatically. You cannot opt out of the conversion, and the installation will take a bit longer. However, if your Mac has a hard disk drive or Fusion Drive, it won’t be converted to APFS at this time. (If you’re not sure what sort of storage your Mac has, choose About This Mac from the Apple menu and click the Storage tab.)

That’s one gotcha, and although there are others, they get pretty geeky and most won’t affect you:

  • Macs running OS X 10.11 El Capitan and earlier cannot mount or read volumes formatted as APFS. So don’t format external hard disks or USB flash drives as APFS if you might need to use them with older Macs. However, Macs running High Sierra from APFS-formatted drives work fine with external hard disks still formatted as HFS+.
  • Although the High Sierra installer can convert a volume from HFS+ to APFS during installation, you cannot convert an APFS volume back to HFS+ without first erasing it. You’ll have to back up any data on it, format as APFS, and then restore the data.
  • We recommend against using old disk repair and recovery software that hasn’t been updated for High Sierra on an APFS-formatted volume.
  • Apple’s Boot Camp, which lets you run Windows on your Mac, doesn’t support read/write to APFS-formatted Mac volumes.
  • Volumes formatted as APFS can’t offer share points over the network using AFP and must instead use SMB or NFS.

Apart from the problem of APFS-formatted USB flash drives not being readable by older Macs (or Windows computers), most people shouldn’t run into any problems with APFS—everything it changes is under the hood and will just result in a Mac that’s faster, more reliable, and more secure. And since Apple already quietly transitioned millions of iOS devices to APFS, it’s a good bet that switching millions of Macs to it will go equally smoothly.

Stop Unwanted Notifications with Do Not Disturb

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There’s nothing worse than being woken from a sound sleep by a notification from your iPhone, particularly when it’s something annoying like a robocall. On the Mac, notifications won’t generally wake you up, but they can be distracting when you’re trying to focus. Or, imagine the embarrassment if you get a text message from a snarky buddy while you’re giving a Keynote presentation. Do Not Disturb to the rescue!

In both iOS and macOS, you can engage Do Not Disturb manually at any time. That’s perfect if you want to make sure your iPhone doesn’t make noise in the theater or prevent your Mac from showing notifications while showing your latest work to your boss.

  • In iOS, either go to Settings > Do Not Disturb and toggle the Manual switch, or swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal Control Center and tap the Do Not Disturb button. You can also ask Siri to “Turn on Do Not Disturb.” A crescent moon moon-inline  icon appears in the status bar at the top of the screen when Do Not Disturb is on.do-not-disturb-iphone do-not-disturb-control-center
  • On the Mac, click the Notification Center icon in the top-right corner of the screen, scroll up to reveal the Do Not Disturb controls, and toggle the switch. For a quicker way, Option-click the Notification Center icon. In Sierra, Siri can control Do Not Disturb as well. The Notification Center icon is light gray instead of black when Do No Disturb is on.do-not-disturb-nc-manual

You can turn Do Not Disturb off manually (which is a good idea if you’ve disabled it on your iPhone during a doctor’s appointment, for instance). On the Mac, it turns off automatically at midnight.

No one wants to enable Do Not Disturb manually every night. Happily, both iOS and macOS can turn it on automatically on a schedule.

  • In iOS, go to Settings > Do Not Disturb, turn on the Scheduled switch, and tap the From/To times to adjust when it should turn on and off automatically.
  • On the Mac, open System Preferences > Notifications > Do Not Disturb, select the checkbox next to the time fields, and enter from From and To times.

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The Mac offers a few welcome options that automatically engage Do Not Disturb when the display is sleeping (usually a no-brainer) and when mirroring the display to a TV or projector (which should prevent notifications during presentations).

In iOS, you can choose which calls can break through Do Not Disturb’s cone of silence. On both platforms, you can allow repeated calls through — if someone wants to get in touch badly enough to try twice in quick succession, it’s probably important.

Nearly everyone should be using Do Not Disturb, so if you haven’t taken advantage of it yet, check it out now, before an errant phone call or iOS notification wakes you in the middle of the night.

Understanding Two-Step Verification

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It seems that we can’t go a week without hearing about some new security breach involving tens of thousands or even millions of passwords. That’s why it’s essential that you use strong passwords of random characters (and manage them in a full-featured password manager like 1Password or LastPass or, for a more basic approach, iCloud Keychain). But many major Internet companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Dropbox offer an option for a higher level of security, called two-step verification.

With a normal account, a bad guy has to get only one thing—your password—to break in. With an account that’s protected by two-step verification, however, breaking in becomes far more difficult. That’s because logging in requires both your normal password and a time-limited one-time password that is generated by a special authentication app or sent to you in an SMS text message or via email. What’s important about these secondary passwords is that they’re valid only for a short time and they can be used only once. You have to enter these secondary passwords only the first time that you log in on a particular device or in a particular Web browser, so they are just an occasional extra step, not a daily inconvenience.

Sites that offer two-step verification will provide setup and usage instructions, but the basics are as follows. You’ll enable two-step verification in the account settings, and then tell the site how you’ll get the one-time password when you want to log in, generally providing your phone number or email address. For services that use an authentication app like Google Authenticator, Authy, or 1Password, you’ll have to scan a QR code on screen or enter a secret key—either way, that seeds the app with a value that enables it to generate a valid one-time password every 30 seconds. Make sure to record any backup codes the site provides; they’re essential if you lose access to your phone or your email.

When it comes time to log in to a service protected by two-step verification, you’ll enter your username and password as you normally would. Then, however, you’ll be prompted for a one-time password, and the service will either send you one via SMS or email, or require you to look it up in your authenticator app. Since a bad guy who might have obtained your normal password would also have to intercept your text or email messages, or have stolen your mobile phone (and be able to get past its passcode), you’re far, far safer.

Most sites that use two-step verification don’t require that you enter a one-time password on every login, since that would be overkill. It’s also unnecessary to enable two-step verification for every account you might have—there isn’t much liability to someone logging in to your New York Times account since they couldn’t do anything diabolical once in. For more-important accounts—email, social media, cloud services, banking—you absolutely should use two-step verification for added protection so a bad guy can’t impersonate you to your friends, receive email-based password resets for other sites, or access your most important data.

You may also hear the term two-factor authentication, which is even more secure than two-step verification when implemented correctly. That’s because two-factor authentication combines something you know (your password) with something you have (such as a secure token keyfob that generates time-limited one-time passwords) or something that’s true of you (biometric info like a fingerprint or iris scan). It might seem like using your iPhone to get a text message or run an authenticator app qualifies, but if you end up doing everything on a single device that could be compromised, it’s not true two-factor authentication.

Regardless of the terminology, going beyond a single password, no matter how strong, significantly increases your security, and you would be well served to employ such a security technology for your most important accounts. To learn more about why strong passwords are necessary, using password managers, and even more details behind two-step verification and two-factor authentication, check out Take Control of Your Passwords.

Adjust iPhone Flashlight Brightness with 3D Touch

The iPhone’s flashlight is one of its most popular low-tech features, but have you ever wished you could make it brighter or dimmer? Now you can, at least on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 models in iOS 10! Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring up Control Center, and then 3D Touch (press hard!) the Flashlight button to reveal Bright, Medium, and Low Light options. Tap the one you want to get that brightness level. iOS 10 remembers your last setting, so if the light isn’t as you want the next time, you may have to adjust it again.

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Triple-Press the Home Button in iOS 10 for the Magnifier

Don’t you hate fine print that’s too small to read comfortably? iOS 10 can turn your iPhone or iPad into a magnifying glass! Press the Home button three times quickly to bring up the Magnifier and then point the camera at what you want to see. The view is zoomed automatically, but you can change the zoom level with the slider, tap the flash icon to turn on the LED light (if one is available on your device), enable a filter to change the color or contrast, or lock the focus by tapping the lock icon. You can also freeze the image by tapping the big round Take Photo button, which is great for grabbing a picture of a tiny serial number on the back of some device (press that button again to resume using the Magnifier). Press the Home button to leave the Magnifier.

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Universal Clipboard’s Six Requirements

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Install macOS 10.12 Sierra on your Macs and iOS 10 on your iOS devices and you’ll get a cool new feature: Universal Clipboard. As you’d expect from the name, Universal Clipboard transfers anything you copy to all your devices so you can paste anywhere. Copy some text on your iMac and a few seconds later you can paste it on your MacBook Air, your iPhone, or your iPad. Or copy an incoming phone number in the Phone app and paste into an email message on your iMac. Universal Clipboard even works with graphics and videos.

Neither Sierra nor iOS 10 provides any interface for Universal Clipboard at all. You can’t turn it off or configure it in any way. In other words, it should just work. But what if it doesn’t? It turns out that six things must be true for Universal Clipboard to work. Miss any of these and Universal Clipboard will fail to copy the clipboard contents from device to device without warning. The requirements are as follows:

  1. Any Macs involved must have been introduced in 2012 or later, or, in the case of the Mac Pro, 2013 or later. Choose  > About This Mac to check your Mac’s age. Since Sierra runs on most Macs introduced since late 2009, Universal Clipboard won’t work on some older but otherwise Sierra-capable Macs.
  2. All Macs must be running macOS 10.12 Sierra or later, and all iOS devices must be running iOS 10 or later.
  3. All the devices must be on the same Wi-Fi network. This requirement can be tricky since devices might join different Wi-Fi networks if several are available. On a Mac, look in the Wi-Fi menu bar menu, and on an iOS device, check Settings > Wi-Fi.
  4. Each device must have Bluetooth enabled and be within Bluetooth range of the other devices. That’s usually about 30 feet, but it’s safest to assume that both devices need to be in the same room. On a Mac, check in System Preferences > Bluetooth. On an iOS device, open Settings > Bluetooth.
  5. All the devices must be signed in to the same iCloud account, and that account must be the primary iCloud account on each device. To see which account is signed in, on a Mac, look in System Preferences > iCloud. On an iOS device, check Settings > iCloud.
  6. Handoff must be enabled. On Macs, turn it on in System Preferences > General. On iOS devices, the necessary switch is in Settings > General > Handoff.

If you still have trouble after verifying that your setup meets the six requirements above, make sure that your Wi-Fi connection is working well on each device, and that each device can connect to the Internet. If either of those isn’t true, Universal Clipboard may not transfer the clipboard contents.

When it’s working, Universal Clipboard takes just a few seconds to move the contents of the clipboard from device to device, and the transferred item remains available for pasting for about two minutes. It’s a subtle, but welcome addition to the Apple experience.