Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

ITunes’s Usage Limits

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about iTunes’s usage limits, the screen zooming feature on Microsoft’s Wireless Optical Mouse 5000 and backing up your hard disk.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

My friend’s brother-in-law insists that songs downloaded from iTunes can be transferred only three times (including computers and iPods), and then if you keep trying to do so, the music degrades. Is he right?

No, he’s absolutely wrong about music sold at Apple’s iTunes Music Store. A downloaded song is a digital file, so it shouldn’t degrade naturally, any more than a word-processing file degrades when it’s copied. And the Apple copy-protection system called FairPlay, which is embedded in each song, never causes it to degrade. All that happens if you exceed the usage limits is that the file simply doesn’t play.

And what are those usage limits? Every song you buy on iTunes can be copied to five computers, in any mixture of Windows and Macintosh machines; plus an unlimited number of Apple iPods; plus an unlimited number of recordable CDs. The only catch is that the same exact playlist of songs can only be recorded to CD seven times. After that, you merely have to change the placement of a single song on the playlist, and you can record it to seven more CDs.

Some people wish the record companies didn’t set these limits, but they have every right to do so. And these iTunes rules are liberal enough that the vast majority of users will never bump up against them. How many people have more than five computers? How many would ever need, for legitimate purposes, more than seven copies of the identical playlist burned to CD? Almost none.

Last week, you praised a feature in a new Microsoft mouse that magnifies the screen, and said that feature was one reason you preferred the mouse over a new mouse from Apple. But Apple has had a screen zooming feature in its operating system for years. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the magnifier feature, which is invoked by a special button on Microsoft’s Wireless Optical Mouse 5000, isn’t a simple screen zoom. With Apple’s zooming feature, and similar zooming techniques for Windows PCs, the entire screen is blown up. That means less information is visible and the entire screen image must be moved to display everything at the edges. That can be annoying and even disorienting.

But the new Microsoft magnifier blows up only a rectangular area around the cursor, keeping the rest of the screen intact, at its original resolution. And this rectangle isn’t a static viewer, but an active part of the screen, in which you can type, click, select and do anything you can do in the unmagnified part of the screen. You can even adjust the size and shape of the magnifier window. That means you can blow up whatever part of the screen you need to see in more detail, without sacrificing anything near the edges.

I can’t sleep at night thinking my PC will someday crash and I will lose all my files. I did save your column about backing up, where you recommend using SmartSync Pro and an external hard disk. Do you still recommend this?

Yes, that’s one way to go, and it’s what I do myself — only I have two identical backup hard disks. I keep one connected to the computer, and the other in a bank safe-deposit box. I swap them every month or so.

I like SmartSync Pro, which synchronizes whatever folders you choose so there are up-to-date copies on the backup drive. But there are other synchronization programs available. And you might also consider more traditional backup programs that create backups of an entire hard disk. Or, you could sign up for an online backup service, which works over the Internet and stores copies of your files on a remote server.

But, whichever method you choose, you should back up your important files, if only so you can sleep better.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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