Mac owners, this is for you. Practical Mac explores Apple's new software offerings, hardware upgrades and more. Appears every other Saturday.

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Practical Mac

Recently I was contacted by a reader named Bob who owns an iPhone and an iPad, and is concerned about “malware or other nefarious schemes” showing up in iOS.

I can’t blame him. The past few months have seemed like a steady drip of security warnings and cautionary advice. It’s good to be cautious, but it’s also often difficult to sort through the information.

The good news, for Bob and most iPhone and iPad owners, is that malware on iOS is practically nonexistent. The locked-down nature of the iOS app ecosystem, one of the things Apple is often criticized for, turns out to be its best defense against viruses and similar threats. Developers must submit every app to the App Store, a process that includes checks for malware or unstable code.

More significantly, apps are “sandboxed” so that code can only be used by the apps themselves, or tie into specific system resources, and not reach into areas like the operating system itself.

Now, that doesn’t mean iOS is completely secure — that’s an impossibility. There are always bugs that are found and exploited, which Apple has been quick to patch (so make sure your devices are running the latest security updates; go to Settings > General > Software Update to check).

Researchers have been able to penetrate iOS during hacking contests such as Pwn2Own (where the fissures are reported to Apple, Google and other vendors who create operating systems), and it’s rumored that the CIA and other government agencies (not just in the United States) are sitting on unreported vulnerabilities.

More common, and annoying, are attempts to scam people into giving up private information, which doesn’t require specialized malware. Official-looking, but fake, pop-up messages when browsing websites use JavaScript to trick you into clicking to other sites. Content blockers, such as 1Blocker, can be installed and definitely help to a degree.

The recent high-profile revelations of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities are more serious. These take advantage of bugs in the physical processors that power all of our devices, which can allow a malicious attacker to read memory that for years was assumed to be completely protected. All of the main software vendors, Apple included, have released software updates that patch these holes; however, in some cases, mostly across large server installations, performance can be reduced. So far, the performance hit on Macs and iOS devices seems to be negligible.

So to answer Bob’s question: yes, there are many potential vectors for attacks on iOS devices. But for the majority of iPhone and iPad owners, the risk is still exceedingly low that malware will actually infect their device.

The play/pause that refreshes

If you listen to music on your Mac, you may have run into an annoyance after installing macOS High Sierra: pressing a media key on the keyboard, such as the Play/Pause button, would not, in fact, play or pause the music playing from iTunes or Spotify. High Sierra attempts to use those keys for whatever media is frontmost, such as videos on webpages, which leads to confusion.

I was relieved to discover a third-party fix: High Sierra Media Key Enabler. It’s a simple application that appears in the menu bar and restores the pre-High Sierra behavior for the media buttons. That’s it. I use it every day.

Is there anything Preview can’t do?

The Preview app built into macOS is more versatile than it appears. It can display photos, edit and sign PDFs, annotate documents and more. A friend who needed to just find the pixel dimensions of an image was surprised when I told her she could open it in Preview and choose Tools > Show Inspector (or press Command-I) to reveal that and other information about the file.

This week, I learned of yet another neat trick. If you’re in a position where you need an application icon or interface item — say, for a presentation you’re building — drop the application onto Preview in the Applications folder. It opens as a single document containing all of the image resources used by that application. Select an image and choose File > Export to choose a destination and file type, or drag it to the Desktop to save it as a TIFF file.