What's .Mac Worth?

For Mac users, the free ride is officially over. The end came this past summer, when Apple decided to improve iTools, its landmark suite of free, integrated Web services. The new suite, named .Mac (www.mac.com), features expanded e-mail, Web-authoring, and online-storage services; new backup and virus-detection software; and a smattering of extra perks for Jaguar users. It also features an upgraded price -- $100 per year -- a move that has many Mac users crying foul.

On the surface, .Mac's base services sound fairly common. In fact, you can find each of these services elsewhere for less money. What Apple is really selling with .Mac is integration -- not only between the different services but also with Mac OS in general. .Mac makes creating Web sites, sharing files over the Internet, and backing up data as easy as drag and drop. This is something no other service can offer. Sweetening the deal, .Mac lets Jaguar users share their calendars and synchronize data between Macs, via Apple's iCal and iSync tools (see "Apple's Information Hub," elsewhere in this issue).

But is it worth $100 a year? To help you decide, we'll show you what each of .Mac's services has to offer, where their weaknesses lie, and how they compare with other services.

Mac.com E-mail

Although everyone who uses .Mac will likely already have an e-mail address from an employer, university, or Internet service provider (ISP), having another, totally independent address can be helpful if you want to change ISPs, maintain a consistent address after you leave school, or separate personal and work e-mail.

What It Offers Apple has made Mac.com's e-mail accounts flexible enough to fit into whatever workflow you already have in place. You can forward Mac.com e-mail to another account or download it from Apple's servers via either POP or IMAP. If you don't want to download your mail at all, you can now read it via the Web -- a boon while you're traveling. On the downside, we found that mail didn't always arrive at Mac.com accounts. This may be the result of filters Apple put in place to reduce spam; however, Apple did not comment on the subject when asked.

If you receive a lot of messages, you'll be happy to hear that Apple has increased the amount of mail you can keep online to 15MB (up from 5MB); even more space is available for a fee. (Mac.com limits the size of e-mail attachments to 3MB.) Each additional Mac.com e-mail address for a family member costs $10 per year.

Mac.com Alternatives Of course, if all you need is a second e-mail address, there are plenty of alternatives to Mac.com. Some, such as Yahoo Mail (http://mail .yahoo.com) and Hotmail (www.hotmail.com), offer free Web mail accounts. Microsoft Entourage users can even access Hotmail accounts directly from their mail browser. Paying between $20 and $50 per year increases storage and (in the case of Yahoo Mail) adds e-mail forwarding and POP (but not IMAP) access.

A more comparable service, though, is FastMail (www.fastmail.fm), which provides free e-mail accounts with both IMAP and Web access -- although you'll have to put up with ads. By paying $20 to $40 per year, you can forgo the ads, increase storage and bandwidth, and add spam filtering and additional addresses.

iDisk Remote Storage

Sharing files (either between your own machines at home and work, or with other people) remains a tricky proposition. Not every computer supports the same external media. At the same time, sending files via e-mail isn't practical with large files, and FTP sites are too difficult for most people to set up and use. That's where iDisk, .Mac's online file-sharing tool, comes in.

What It Offers Simply put, iDisk is 100MB of virtual disk space accessible from almost any Internet-connected Mac or Windows PC. Once you've signed in, your iDisk folder appears on your desktop, so transferring files is simply a matter of clicking and dragging. Pop your PowerPoint presentation onto your iDisk before you leave work, and you can finish it after dinner. Or copy your new album to your iDisk and listen to it at work. Jaguar users can upload their iCal and iSync data to .Mac and share it with other software and hardware. If 100MB isn't enough, you can buy as much as 1GB of space.

Sharing with Others You can also share files by dropping them into your iDisk's Public folder. This is particularly useful for files that are too large to send easily via e-mail, such as a draft of a long report. Restrict access to your files by setting up user names and passwords. Jaguar users can do this from the iDisk tab in the Internet Preference pane. OS X 10.1 users will need to use iDisk Utility. (You'll find this in your iDisk's Software folder, which includes useful programs and updates from Apple and other developers).

Once others know your .Mac member name and Public folder password, they can connect to your Public folder from OS 9, OS X, Windows (98, 2000, and XP), and the Web. The instructions for each operating system differ significantly, so check the iDisk page on the .Mac Web site for details you can send to people you want to share files with. On that page, you'll also find instructions on how to make your Public folder available via the Web -- something that isn't turned on by default.

iDisk Alternatives The way Apple has integrated iDisk with Mac OS, iPhoto, and other .Mac services sets iDisk head and shoulders above its competition. If you want only to share files, though, you can get 30MB of free disk space from Yahoo Briefcase (http://briefcase.yahoo.com/), but you must upload and download via a Web browser. My Docs Online (www.mydocsonline.com) lets you access your account from OS X's Finder (via WebDAV) but charges fees starting at $35 per year for 50MB of space. Take the time to test services before committing to a yearly fee. Some, such as IBackup (www.ibackup.com), require you to use a separate WebDAV program rather than the Finder.

HomePage Remote Publishing

There's nothing revolutionary about HomePage, another member of the original iTools lineup -- it basically makes and serves Web pages. Nevertheless, HomePage remains easier to use and more efficient than almost all comparable services.

What It Offers As a Web-publishing tool, HomePage is perfect for people who want to put up a simple Web site but have no desire to learn HTML or fuss with awkward uploads. Instead of creating HTML files, you can pick and choose from nine page templates (each of which offers a variety of attractive designs) and then simply fill in the blanks on HomePage's forms. HomePage creates all the HTML code for you, complete with any graphics. In fact, HomePage's integration with iPhoto, Apple's OS X photo-management software, makes creating Web-based photo albums particularly painless. Just select the pictures in iPhoto and click on the program's HomePage button to upload them.

Do It Yourself If HomePage's Web templates prove to be too limiting, you can create your own HTML files and copy them to your iDisk's Sites folder to make them available via the Web. This makes uploading much easier than with almost any other Web-hosting service, as there's no FTP or mucking about with uploading in a Web browser. Still, advanced users should keep in mind that HomePage isn't ideal for everyone. Those looking to build very complex or traffic-heavy Web sites will likely find themselves in conflict with Apple's bandwidth limits and license agreement (see "HomePage's House Rules").

HomePage Alternatives Of course, if you decide to forgo the .Mac fee, you can still accomplish much of what you can do in HomePage -- just with a little more effort on your part. You can use iPhoto to export Web-based photo albums even without HomePage. In fact, for better results than you'll get with iPhoto's built-in Web-page export, try the free BetterHTMLExport (www.droolingcat.com/ software/betterhtmlexport/).

You'll need space on a Web server to upload your HTML files and images -- check with your ISP since most offer a limited amount of free Web space with Internet accounts. There are plenty of free Web-hosting sites you can use, but you may be disappointed by what you find. Services such as Yahoo GeoCities (http:// geocities.yahoo.com) offer prebuilt page templates, but they are nowhere near as elegant as those Apple provides for HomePage. Worse, their free accounts are marred by intrusive advertising and bandwidth limits.

You can pay an additional fee (typically starting at around $60 per year and topping out at $240 per year) to eliminate ads, increase disk space and bandwidth limits, and get extra e-mail addresses. However, if you're going to bother to pay for a personal Web-hosting service, you may as well pay for .Mac: HomePage's integration with iDisk and iPhoto, its elegant page templates, and its good interface definitely set it above the competition.

Backup

Whether it's through failed hardware or a natural disaster, you'll lose data at some point -- and your only protection is a backup copy. With the addition of Backup to the .Mac suite, Apple has finally given users a built-in backup solution. Unfortunately, it succeeds only slightly at helping users protect important data.

What It Offers Backup is a simple OS X-only application that can back up files to your iDisk (where it shares the 100MB of space with everything else you upload), CD-R, or DVD-R.

Backup offers two ways of selecting important files to back up: manually and with QuickPicks, preconfigured sets of important files you might want to back up, such as Word files in your Home folder, your iTunes playlists, your Keychain, and so on (see "Backing Up to iDisk"). Although you can't create your own QuickPicks, you can add your own files or folders to be backed up merely by dragging them into the Backup window.

When you back up to iDisk, Backup copies only changed files. (Pay attention to how much free space is left on your iDisk, since Backup won't remove deleted files unless you turn on the Mirroring option in its Preferences pane). If you back up to CD-R or DVD-R, Backup copies all selected files every time, whether or not they've changed since the previous backup.

Severe Limitations If you're not currently backing up in some other way, Backup is better than nothing. That said, Backup is a lousy backup application. When executing a scheduled backup, it frequently failed to connect to our .Mac account. It can't back up to traditional backup media such as external hard disks (which are fast and cheap) or tape drives (which are capacious and good for archiving). Worse, it can't back up applications or system files, so if your hard disk flakes out, you'll spend hours or even days reinstalling everything from scratch.

The problems don't stop there. Although different users on the same Mac can back up to the same .Mac account, you can't back up more than one Mac to your iDisk at a time. So forget about protecting both your iMac and your iBook (unfortunate since it would be good to back up while you're on the road).

Although backing up to iDisk will work with any Internet connection, Backup is primarily useful if you have a high-speed connection, as it doesn't reduce upload time by performing compression. And since Backup doesn't encrypt your data, you should make sure your .Mac password can't be easily guessed.

Little Support As with any backup application, support is essential. Your .Mac membership includes technical support, but only through the .Mac discussion forums. Postings from Apple moderators do appear there from time to time, and the moderators have offered helpful suggestions to .Mac members who have had problems with Backup. But while that level of support is OK for much of .Mac, where problems are unlikely to be mission-critical, it's unacceptable for a backup application.

Backup Alternatives If you're seriously looking to protect your data, the best choice is probably Dantz Development's $49 Retrospect Express Backup (mmmm; Reviews, July 2002), which can back up to a variety of removable media, hard drives, and FTP servers over the Internet. FWB's $40 Backup Toolkit (mmm; Reviews, May 2002) is another possibility; it offers a streamlined interface for backing up, restoring, and synchronizing files to Finder-mountable media.

In the end, Backup can play a role in a broader backup strategy (see "Backup Strategies") and is better than not backing up at all, but people who are serious about protecting their data should look elsewhere. (For more information on protecting your files, see "Save Your Data," September 2001.)

Virex

Even though viruses are nowhere near the problem on the Mac that they are in the Windows world, everyone should have an antivirus application to protect against new viruses or macro viruses hiding inside received Microsoft Office files. To this end, Apple has included McAfee's Virex (which would otherwise cost $33 or more) as part of its .Mac services.

What It Offers Like all anti-virus applications, Virex finds and removes known viruses. Whereas Backup is restricted to OS X, Virex supports both operating systems: version 6.1 is for OS 9, and version 7.1 is for OS X.

Virex 6.1 (mmmm; Reviews, July 2000) offers excellent flexibility, letting users invoke scans via a Control Strip module, droplet, or contextual-menu command. The program's eUpdate feature automatically downloads new virus definitions as McAfee releases them.

The OS X-native Virex 7.1 is less versatile than its OS 9 counterpart, lacking some of Virex 6.1's alternative ways of starting a scan. A more notable failing, though, is Virex 7.1's handling of monthly virus-definition updates. Whereas Virex 6.1 finds and downloads them automatically, 7.1 requires that you download a disk image and run an installer manually; if you want the updates weekly, you'll have to not only download the files manually but also use the Unix command line to install and run them. This unnecessary tedium is disappointing, especially considering that Apple is offering Virex as a benefit of an online service.

Virex Alternatives Other than manually downloaded virus-definition updates for version 7.1, there's nothing wrong with Virex. If you want to look elsewhere, you have two main choices: Symantec's $70 Norton AntiVirus 8.0 (mmmm; Reviews, November 2002) or Intego's $60 VirusBarrier 10 (305/868-7920, www.intego.com). If you're looking to protect your files from every form of damage -- from viruses to unexpected data loss -- consider the $130 Norton SystemWorks 2.0, an attractive bundle that includes Norton AntiVirus and Dantz's Retrospect Express Backup, as well as Norton Utilities, Alsoft's DiskWarrior Recovery Edition, and Aladdin's Spring Cleaning.

Macworld's Buying Advice

When deciding whether .Mac is worth $100 per year, you must first figure out which of the services you'll actually use. Although you won't find anything that compares with .Mac for integration with Mac OS or other programs from Apple, it is possible to put together a comparable set of services separately. If you need only a small subset of what .Mac provides, you might even be able to do so less expensively. No matter what, keep in mind that .Mac does not provide Internet access, so you'll still have to pay a monthly fee to your ISP as well.

If you think you'd use only one of the .Mac services, $100 might be too much to spend. However, if you want to use several of them -- Mac.com e-mail, sharing files via iDisk, and publishing photos on HomePage, for instance -- .Mac's elegant interface and tight integration with OS X make it a solid value. However, those who are serious about protecting their data should get a stronger backup application.

Ultimately, .Mac may prove to be just like the Macintosh -- it's a little more expensive, but what you get is worth the extra money.

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