A different default browser with a different default search

Several weeks ago, I switched my laptop to a setting I’d last maintained in the previous decade: Mozilla Firefox as the default browser.

Firefox took the place of Microsoft’s Edge, which I’d decided to give a shot as part of my reintroduction to Windows before seeing Edge crash too often. In another year, I would have made Google’s Chrome the default instead–but a combination of privacy and security trends led me to return to an old favorite.

Firefox had been my default browser in Windows since February of 2004, when it was an obvious pick over the horrific Internet Explorer 6. But a few years after the 2008 introduction of Chrome, Firefox had stopped keeping up, and I began relying on Chrome in Windows.

I kept Safari as the default on my Macs for its better fit with the operating system–although its memory-hogging habits had me close to also dumping it for Chrome until a recent round of improvements.

Last year, however, Mozilla shipped a faster, more memory-efficient version of Firefox. That browser has since finally caught up with Chrome in supporting “U2F” two-step verification, where you plug in a cryptographically signed USB flash drive to confirm a login. And as I realized when writing a browser-comparison columns for USA Today, Firefox comes close to Safari at protecting your privacy across the Web–especially if you install its Facebook Container extension, which blocks Facebook’s tracking at other sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve dropped Chrome outright. I almost always keep both browsers open, with much of my Chrome tabs devoted to such Google services as Gmail and Google Docs. (Confession: I only learned while writing this that Google Docs’ offline mode now works in Firefox.) Chrome continues to do some things better than Firefox–for instance, while it doesn’t offer a simplified page-display option like Firefox’s Reader View, it’s been more aggressive at disciplining intrusive ads.

When I set Firefox as the default in Windows, I also switched its default search from Google to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo. That’s something I’d done in my iPad’s copy of Safari years ago, then recommended to readers last July in a Yahoo post; it seemed a good time to expand that experiment to a browser I use more often.

Since DuckDuckGo doesn’t match such Google features as the option to limit a search to pages published within a range of dates, I’m still flipping over to Chrome reasonably often for more specialized searches. But even there, I’ve reduced my visibility to Google by setting a sync password to encrypt my browsing history.

All this adds up to considerably less Google in my Web life. I can’t say it’s been bad.

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How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

A travel to-do for Android Pie: enable lockdown

The first new feature in Android Pie that I noticed after installing it on my Pixel 12 days ago was its Adaptive Battery feature, which hunts and handcuffs energy-hungry apps (yes, that seems like a feature that shouldn’t have had to wait for a 9.0 release). The first new setting I changed was Pie’s “lockdown” option.

That’s the feature Google left out of the keynote sessions at Google I/O in May and instead saved for the closing minutes of a more technical briefing on the last day of the conference. Lockdown disables your phone’s fingerprint unlock and hides all notifications from the lock screen–a useful option if, as Android security manager Xiaowen Xin said during this presentation, “you need to hand it over for inspection at a security checkpoint.”

Or as avgeek blogger Seth Miller phrased things in a tweet then, it’s Android’s “airport mode.” It’s how you’d want your phone to behave if you must hand it over to somebody you shouldn’t automatically trust.

But lockdown isn’t on by default or all that easy to find. You have to open the Settings app, tap “Security & location,” tap “Lock screen preferences,” and then tap the slider next to “Show lockdown option” so it’s highlighted in blue.

Turning it on isn’t super-obvious either: Wake but don’t unlock your phone by pressing the power button, then hold down the power button again for about a second. You should see a “Lockdown” button on a menu that will pop out of the right side of the screen; tap that, and your fingerprint’s no good to unlock the device.

Now you know. Whenever you get Android Pie on your phone–yes, I realize that could be many months, unless apathetic vendor support prolongs that timeframe to “never”–enable this option. Then please get in the habit of using it.

Another part of the world where I need to use a VPN

I spent last week in London with my family–yes, actual vacation-esque time! It was great, except for when I was trying to keep up with news from back home.

My first stay across the Atlantic since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into force May 25 brought home the unpleasant reality of some U.S. sites’ continued struggles with this privacy law. And instead of experiencing this only briefly in a Virtual Private Network session on my iPad, I got a full-time dose of it.

The biggest problem is sites such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times that have blocked all European access instead of providing the privacy controls required by the GDPR.

That’s not the fault of the GDPR–its provisions were set two years ago–but is the fault of Tronc, the long-mismanaged news firm formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Tronc could afford to pay $15 million to former chairman Michael Ferro after he quit facing charges of sexual abuse but apparently couldn’t afford to hire any GDPR-qualified developers. I hope the LAT can fix that now that Tronc has sold the paper, but it may be a while before I can link to any Tribune stories without annoying European readers.

With my client USA Today, the issue isn’t as bad: It provides EU readers with a stripped-down, ad- and tracking-free version of the site, which you can see at right in the screenshot above. What’s not to like about such a fast, simple version? Well, I can’t see comments on my own columns, and simply searching for stories requires switching to Google… by which I mean, Bing, since right-clicking a Google search result doesn’t let you copy the target address, and clicking through to a Google result will yield an EU-specific USAT address.

The simplest fix for these and other GDPR-compliance glitches was to fire up Private Internet Access on my laptop and connect to one of that VPN service’s U.S. locations–yes, as if I were in China. It seems a violation of the Web’s founding principles to have to teleport my browser to another continent for a task as simple as reading the news, but here we are.

A sick Spectre returns, apparently healthy

About a month after it fell ill, the HP Spectre x360 laptop I bought in November seems once again fine–thanks to a little cybernetic surgery bracketed by free air travel.

Spectre hinge close-upI thought repair might be necessary after my last post on this subject, when even reinstalling Windows from a clean recovery image failed. I jumped on HP’s tech-support chat (I’ve never had to call for help, which is nice), and after a quick recap of my situation to date (the rep didn’t ask me to reboot the computer, which is nice), my remote interlocutor agreed that the laptop would require hands-on care.

The next morning, FedEx delivered a box, prepaid return label included, in which I could ship the x360 for repair. The laptop was on its way back that afternoon, and the next day I got an e-mail predicting a return on April 26th. It came back on the 24th, something I found out first from a phone call from FedEx the evening before.

Parts of this machine have been replaced, but I’m not entirely sure which. A printout in the box reported the following details:

“Operating System Reloaded: NO”

“Parts Replaced: LCD DISPLAY”

“Other Repair Actions: PART REPLACED”

Well okay, then! But I do know that the laptop has been working properly since, so I am going to tell myself that the PART REPLACED was, in fact, a part that needed to be replaced.

My Windows laptop doesn’t seem to want to run Windows anymore

A week ago, I was sure I could cure the squirrelly behavior of the laptop I bought less than six months ago the hard way–by wiping the hard drive and reinstalling Windows from scratch. And for at least two days, that worked.

But then the laptop failed to wake from sleep, and when I force-rebooted it, the machine got stuck in the same “Preparing Automatic Repair” state that left this HP Spectre x360 unusable for a few days last month.

And this time, the laptop was back to refusing to recognize the USB recovery drive I’d created on it–even while it did boot up my ancient ThinkPad.

A chat session with HP’s tech support didn’t unearth any fixes for the problem, so the rep said he’d send me a second USB recovery drive. To HP’s credit, that drive arrived the next day.

But while this “Recovery Media” can erase the hard drive and reload all the necessary installation files on its recovery partition, the computer can’t then load Windows off that partition. At some point into the installation process, it gets stuck at a blank screen that features only Windows’ spinning circle of dots.

The Kafkaesque angle to all this: Installing Ubuntu Linux off a flash drive was no problem at all. Alas, this distribution of the open-source operating system doesn’t seem to recognize my laptop’s touchscreen, fingerprint sensor or Windows Hello facial-recognition cameras, so it’s not a long-term solution.

My next attempt will be to create a Windows recovery drive from the disc image you can download off Microsoft’s site. But if that doesn’t work either, this laptop’s next business trip will involve it going back to HP in a box.

A non-automatic repair of a mysteriously-hapless HP laptop

I went a few days without using my laptop, but that wasn’t actually part of the plan for our kid’s spring break. Having this HP Spectre x360 inoperative did, however, teach me valuable lessons about computing preparedness, which I will now share so that you may benefit from my experience.

(And so that Mac fans can dunk on me for my latest laptop purchase. I know what I’ve got coming…)

As far as I can tell, things started going sideways with the laptop last Wednesday. That’s when it failed to wake from sleep, I force-rebooted it, and it started into a screen saying Windows was “Preparing Automatic Repair.” There it stayed through multiple reboots until I set it aside for a few hours and finally saw it had returned me to the Windows “Recovery Environment.” From there, I could order up a System Restore that brought the PC back to health.

HP laptop stuck on repair

Except the same “Automatic Repair” message reappeared two days later and kept coming back. By then, I had learned that I was not alone in seeing this alleged repair stall a startup.

I gave up and did a “reset” of Windows Sunday. That clean reload of the operating system left my files intact but required reinstalling every app, re-typing every saved Web login, and even redoing things as basic as apps pinned to the taskbar and the Start menu–it reminded me too much of factory-resetting an Android phone three years ago. Alas, that evening, the laptop again failed to wake from sleep, then after another forced restart got stuck on the now-dreaded “Preparing Automatic Repair” screen.

I had thought to create a Windows recovery USB flash drive while my laptop was working Sunday. But the laptop ignored it every time I tried to boot from it.

After two days of fruitless troubleshooting–during which I did work in an incognito window on my mother-in-law’s MacBook Air, as if it were an overpriced Chromebook–I thought to try booting the HP off a USB flash drive loaded with Ubuntu Linux. That got the machine back online, so at least I knew the laptop’s hardware remained sound.

A Twitter conversation with my friend Ed Bott reminded me to try the Windows recovery USB drive on another computer, where it did boot–and on my next try using that in the HP, it finally started up the laptop. (This is not the first time I’ve needed to borrow somebody else’s device to breathe life into an uncooperative bit of circuitry.) Command-line tinkering found no issues with the HP’s solid-state drive or the Windows installation, so I did yet another system restore and finally had my computer back.

I’m typing on the same machine seven hours later, so hopefully things took. But if not, I now have two flash drives that I know can boot the machine. If you have a Windows PC, please learn from my ordeal and take a few minutes today to create a recovery flash drive for your machine.

And if that PC insists over hours that it’s preparing an “Automatic” repair, remember that when Windows keeps using that word, it may not mean what Windows thinks it means.