Thursday, March 19, 2009

Feeling Secure Online

"Just how safe is it to purchase something online?"

I get asked that question a lot.  I usually start out by explaining that I have done online purchasing since the web started getting busy in the mid 90's and online versions of stores started appearing.  My earliest purchase were mostly computer parts - I simply couldn't find what I needed locally.

Like many people, I was cautious.  After all, what prevented my credit card information from being hijacked??  In 1995, Netscape (an alternate browser of the time) released the first version of what it would call Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL for short.  It had began development in 1993 in response to concerns from both consumers and credit card companies.  Today, a newer version of security is called Transport Layer Security.  Information about these technologies can be found in an article in Wikipedia.  These are now used in all browsers.

SSL/TLS is the protection used for transporting personal data, including credit card information between your computer and the store's website as it is sent across the Internet.  If anyone walked you through some of the precautions of using the Internet, they should have mentioned watching for the padlock that appears in the browser when conducting a transaction.  Another thing to look for is in the address bar.  When the link is secured, the letters https:// will appear at the beginning of the address instead of just http://.  The additonal "s" at the end indicates a secure connection.  

So, we've got the secure link, so we are all set, right?  Well, in short -- NO.  

Aside from guaranteeing that we have a secure link, there are several other things we need to look at to make sure we're being smart about sharing our private information.

First - make sure that the store we are about to do business with is a trusted company.  The Better Business Bureau  has an online presence to investigate whether a business can be trusted or not.  If the website is not from someone you recognize, you should probably take a moment to check them out to see if anyone has reported problems.  Sometimes, this can be hard to do, especially with online auctions - but taking the time to read information left by customers can be helpful.  

Second - make sure that you keep up with your antivirus and scan for malware (see my first post) so that your computer itself doesn't give up personal information to some unscrupulous character through a virus or trojan.  Many trojans use programs to copy keyboard entries, including credit card numbers.  

Practice safe computing, and always watch for any signs that your privacy has been hacked - online or otherwise.  Identity theft has been on the increase for many years, and we as consumers need to take steps to protect ourselves.  The Federal Trade Commission provides a website to educate consumers about online fraud and protecting personal information.  Take the time to check it out.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Browsers and Browser Alternatives

I get asked "what on earth is a browser?" every once in a while - it makes me forget that some of the things I take for granted everyone knows, isn't always true.

A web browser is the program used to view web pages.  If you use a PC, Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the most common browser people are familiar with.  Microsoft has now begun releasing version 8 of it's browser for public use.  For some folks, this may be already installed on your computer, and for others, it will begin being pushed out as part of Microsoft's updates if it isn't already.

Almost everybody uses a browser, but not everyone understands what it's job is.  

Underlying every web page is a programming language that instructs the browser how to make everything look.  HyperText Markup Language or HTML for short, is the name of this programming language.  It instructs the browser on text appearance, photo or other object locations, and uses other progamming such as java for special effects.  It also makes use of "plugins", or smaller applets or programs for the browser to properly display video and audio information from websites.

Even though all browsers make use of this similar function, there are differences between how browsers interpret that information.  Internet Explorer has been criticized for it's bulk and how slow it completes the process of displaying the information almost since it's introduction in the early 90's.  

This led early on to alternative browsers coming on the scene, with Netscape being one of the most popular early on.  Microsoft, concerned about what it considered to be a threat, countered by including Internet Explorer as part of the operating system - thereby insuring it would be the most likely product used by consumers.  Other products made appearances, but none successfully competed with Microsoft.  

Today, Firefox, an open-source (free) alternative browser from Mozilla, is the closest competition with Internet Explorer, and it has been gaining popularity as lightweight and fast alternatitive.  Apple has recently introduced a PC version of it's browser, Safari, Google has introduced Chrome, and even a European competitor, Opera, has been making a comeback.  Each has it's positives and negatives, but it is interesting to try these different products and see how they operate compared to IE.  

What do you use for your browser, and how happy are you with it?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surviving a meltdown

Sorry for the delay in getting back - things got a little busier than usual.  I've spent part of the last 5 days or so dealing with two customers who suffered a melt-down of their operating system.  In both instances, the bottom line was a hard drive that had run into problems, causing the OS to hiccup and refuse to boot.

In one instance, I was able to repair the drive's major problem, but in the other the drive was completely dead.  

My first words to a customer when I get this kind of call is, "Do you have your system or at least files backed up?".  Nine out of ten times, I get the emphatic "nope".

I thought I would take a few minutes and talk about the importance of backing up your system.  Normally, we take this for granted until we are faced with the grim reality that we can't start our computer, and we break out in a sweat about the photos, or tax return, or scans of important documents we made that might be soup.

Many times, it's possible to still retrieve data.  The boot sector develops a problem, and we see the dreaded "blue screen of death" or BSOD when we go to boot.  Basically, the hard drive has started to develop problems with certain areas of the disk, and the data gets snafu'd, preventing a boot-up.  99.9 % of the data may still be intact - and often inserting the hard drive in another computer will let you get a peek.  But sometimes, and I saw this happen this week, the hard drive just dies.  It may be some sort of electrical problem, or physically, a platter in the drive totally croaks, making the drive useless.  Sometimes it's still possible to retrieve data - but usually in this scenario, it requires a specialist, and you may spend more than the drive is worth to retrieve data (or even more).  And in the end, you still have to purchase a new hard drive, and have the system reinstalled.

Sometimes, I get told - "there's nothing I need to keep on there - just format it and start over".  My hat is off to these folks, as I simply can't survive without storing stuff on my drive.  But for some folks, the computer basically handles internet chores, and they keep their email on a remote server - either through web-mail with their provider or using one of the popular web-mail sites like Hotmail, or GMail.  For a few out there, it's simply the knowledge that they have their system backed up and they can simply copy back the data once the computer is restored.

Late last year, I purchased a new back up drive for my own system.  I was able to get a 320 GB portable for just under $100 at a local super center.  I am now seeing 500 GB drives in the same price range.  As our hard drives now approach the Terabyte level (1,000 GB), keeping copies of our irreplaceable data becomes even more important.  If a drive goes, we face the mortal truth that we often have a lot to lose on our computers!

If you work in a business or office environment and have an IT person, you know that your system is networked and you are instructed to save documents to the "server" and not on your individual desktop or laptop.  They will often have a tape back-up in place or depend on systems with a RAID array that carries duplicate hard drives in the event of a failure.  If you deal with sensitive data, they may even keep copies off of the premise in case of a disaster such as a fire.  You need to keep this in mind when developing a strategy for home backups as well.  

With the cost of hard drives at an all time low, you can't afford not to backup.  Think about it.

Do you have your system backed up?  If so, what do you use?


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reader comments & questions

I received the following from a friend today, after I had sent out an email about my blog - thought readers might find questions of interest -  Gerry

First, why Gmail?  Why not yahoo, hotmail, or something else?  Is there some clear advantage?  Are you some elitist?  Or is it because you are the G-man so you want Gmail?
  • Well Don, I can't really say there is a definitive advantage - I also have a Yahoo mail address that I've had for years - but I decided to give G-Mail a try.  This blog is connected to Google, and that address was the easiest to use for signing up -- but hey, the G-Man connotation works for me!
Second, my father-in-law wants a new laptop.  He has an older Dell Inspiron (don't know the model number) that came with XP (to help you date it).  The biggest reason he wants a new one is so he can use wi-fi (not an aircard).  Can he add a wireless card to his current laptop to use wi-fi at home, hotels, etc.? 
  • You can definitely still get a wireless G card to put in an XP laptop.  The laptop should have a PCMCIA slot, which will accept a wireless card, and I see these in a variety of brands in the $60-100 range.  In all honesty, there are also quite a few USB stick styles of wireless converters as well.  The slot style is a little sturdier type, but the USB are less expensive.  This would provide what he needs to connect to any hotspots he would run across.
If not, he is very interested in the new "mini" laptops.  I think he would have a hard time typing on the smaller keyboard and a hard time seeing text on the smaller display.  He wants to do internet, word processing, email, and photos on his "mini."  He also wants an optical drive and card reader.  His price range is upto $500.00.
  • The new "netbooks" are definitely becoming popular, especially for their price range, but they do have their limitations, including lack of an optical drive.  He should be able to find a decent buy on a lower end laptop that is more full size and will do what he wants.  The best thing is to start looking in an electronics store and see what is available in the price range or slightly above, and then watch for sales.  If buying with Vista, stay at 2GB of RAM or higher. A card reader can easily be added via USB slot.
Third, my personal needs.  I've been wanting a laptop for a long time.  The kids are still using our old Dell we bought in 1999 and still running Windows 98SE.  I bought a high-end workhorse when I bought it, and I think it still does amazingly well considering that it is ten years old, but it has great limitations.  The kids could get our five year old XP if we get a new laptop...
  • Well, to be honest, getting 5 years and 10 years out of computers is excellent!  (10 years is almost unheard of anymore), but as you probably know - you can't buy much of anything anymore that is still compatible with Windows98 - so eventually you will hit a wall if something needs to be replaced.
I'm not afraid of Vista.  If you throw enough system at it you'll like it, right?.  Although, I hear a new OS is on the horizon (Windows 7?).  Should I wait for the new system?  Technology outdates itself so quickly, I don't want to start out an operating system behind already.
  • I am hearing that if you wait a few months, you may start to see machines being sold with a free upgrade to Windows7 (when it becomes available), possibly as early as this summer.  So that may be one avenue to take.  I have been running Vista since the beta came out and although there are some things that take getting use to, it has been a good operating system for most home users.  Naturally, with every new OS there are bugs, delays with new drivers, and so on - we went through this with XP, but many people don't remember this unless they've been computing a while.  Vista will have had about a 3-4 year run by the time the next OS is released, which is about typical.  If you are interested in Vista, consider getting the 64 bit version, as it can address more than 3 GB of RAM.  This seems to be becoming more popular and I see more and more machines being offered this way.  There are a few more issues with compatibility, especially with older software and hardware, but less of them if what you have is only a couple of years old (printers, scanners, etc).  I believe that in general, Vista support will last as long as your computer (barring another 10 year run!) 
Do you have an opinion on what brand to buy?  Based on value?  Based on reliability?  Based on reputation?  Based on personal preference?
  • I get asked this question probably more than any other.  I have to say at this moment in time, no one company stands at the top of the heap.  I believe Dell and HP to be the most popular and you can throw in Toshiba if looking for a laptop.  I usually will tell customers to stick with a name they recognize and compare the warranty.  I have had to deal with all name brands in regard to problems and each brand has had problems with certain runs on the machines they make.  Even the support offered has it's issues - wait times, dealing with out of country phone support and so on.  I always look at value - and if you watch for deals long enough, eventually you'll find something you feel is a good value.  There are a few I feel have more than their share of problems - but then I know others that have had very good luck!  My personal preference is still to build my own, but I can't do that cheaper than I can buy one pre-made.
Dell offers an optional solid state drive instead of a hard drive.  I know nothing about this.  I can only guess that it is a much more reliable and durable drive, especially for a laptop.  Any comments?
  • This is the up and coming wave, especially for laptops. The advance already made in the last year in speed and size, compare to cost is quite amazing.  Are they as fast as a good hard drive - yes and no.  Some of the SS drives have longer access times than their HDD counterparts, but I feel this will diminish over time (they'll get faster).  Size is also an issue at this point, you can get a traditional HDD with much more storage for the money.  But for the newer "netbooks" this seems to be where they are going - using SSD.  If you get a traditonal size laptop, you will probably stick with a HDD.
When I compare Intel Core Duo processors, what is the actual advantage of  6MB cache over a 3MB cache?
  • Ok, you're going to get me here.  I don't have a good expertise with processors, but in general, the more cache or on-die memory, the faster it can handle data.  But, these numbers, like any numbers, can be deceiving.  The overall speed of the processor can make up for a smaller amount of cache - and vice-versa.  The concept is still pretty much how is the processor rated to others (compare speeds).  As you know, increasing the number of cores is the most recent venture in processors, with quad-core becoming mainstream, and change and improvement always around the corner.  The other thing you have to ask yourself, is what I am going to do this computer?  Unless you are a very serious gamer, or require some really heavy duty number crunching, any mainstream processor will do what you want in a time that reasonable.  For the most part, there are many things other than the processor that effect how fast things respond on the screeen.
What is the actual difference in the different Intel processors?
  • Well, as I said above - I don't consider myself even close to expert on this one.  If you want to spend some time on the Intel website - they have comparisons between their lines.  The newest is the i7 line. 
How upgradable are laptops now?  Should I truly spend as much as I can afford on RAM, video card, and hard drive now, or just invest the money saved in a future laptop?
  • In my experience, 3-5 years is the typical lifespan of a computer.  The variance really depends on use, and whether or not you have to do any large repairs early on.  Eventually, every machine will reach a point where it's just not worth spending more than $100 to repair, when that can be used to purchase a much faster machine.  Of course there are other factors - but in general, if I have someone facing $150 expense or more, I have to bring up the option to purchase a new one.  I'd lean toward repair at 3 years, but definitely replacement by 5 years.  For the typical home user, I usually recommend buying in the middle range.  Most people simply don't need the horsepower and graphics of top end machines unless they can afford the toys.  I have some minimum numbers I look at for RAM, and hard drive space - but that's about it.  Most computers in this range have built in graphics and they get along fine.  Again, if you are a gamer - you are probably going to want to get a separate video card and you'll tend to wander towards the top end for RAM and processors - but otherwise....I have a hard time seeing people spend the money unless they are going to make use of it.  Generally, internet, email and word processing don't require the top end.  If you are going to do photo editing, movie editing, or gaming, then lets talk about what you might need... 
Is it really worth it to spend $400-$500 to buy the 4 year accidental protection/warranty or, again, just invest the savings in the next laptop?
  • Some people believe in this stuff like religion - but I don't.  Put the money to the side just in case.  If however, you are like my daughter and accident prone - then maybe.....  This is really a personal decision based on cost, how likely you are to experience a problem and so on.  If you are going to travel a lot with it - then you should probably consider it.  The more movement, the more likely you are to experience a drop.  But, in general, I don't believe in it.  But remember - I can also fix my own most of the time.
Any other pearls for laptop purchase?
  • The big question is how are you going to use it?  Will it be a desktop replacement?  Are you going to travel with it?  Will you watch movies on it? Do video editing?  If you are looking for convenience - something to travel - consider a smaller size like a 15" screen.  It will travel better and can be used in most spaces well.  If you are looking for a desktop replacement, with only occasional travel, and want to use it for entertainment - go 17" and beef up the RAM and hard drive space a little.  If you are going to play 3D types of games or action/adventure, you should probably beef up the video a bit as well.  You will probably look at $700-1,000 for the former, and $1200-1500 for the latter.  A basic laptop for use on the internet can be had for $450-600. 
Thanks for the time.  I must be getting old, like you, since I too resist blogging, instant messaging, text messaging, etc.  If you answer my many questions in your new blog, just email me a link, otherwise I might never see your answers.
Thanks again,
  • Not a problem Don - hope you find this helpful - you can always give me a call.

Reader Comment on Vista

Gerry: I tried to comment on your blog page but it asked me for a google account or a URL? I don't have either so you can post the following if you like. Thanks for the info. Gary

  • Gary - my apologies - I've tried playing with the settings, and I think I have that remedied and you should be able to leave comments now.
Nobody likes a "know it all anyway" Gerry, so this is good. Looking forward to learning some new stuff. I will give my two cents worth on Vista which I have been using for about 6 months now on my new HP notebook. Haven't had any major problems just inconveniences. I have found there are tons more antipirate stuff on the media player that prevents you from copying CD's onto HD and then making new disc. They don't seem to run on different players, but always work on the HP notebook I copied them from. Other than that I like the way you can see the windows you have minimized on the bottom of your screen. It shows a pic of the website you opened. Just a few observations.

  • Well, Gary, I have to admit that I don't buy too much "new" music. Most of what I have is older, however for the few that myself or my wife has tried to "rip" in Vista, I can't say that we've run into the problems you describe. Most of the issues with security on music have to do with placing the ripped music, or downloaded music on an MP3 player, but I thought it was more of an issue with rights on downloaded music. I will try and do some research though, and report what I find out in another blog - sounds like a good topic to cover. Movies are a different matter, and I do know there are many issues about ripping video to a hard drive.... Gerry

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Anti-virus, anti-malware and other stuff

If you are a fairly new home pc user, you've probably heard references to anti-virus software.
There are commercial products like Norton Internet Security, and McAfee Security Suite, which may come pre-installed with a trial period on a new computer.  Norton has pulled back in front as one of the most recommended anti-virus solutions after several years of being criticized as getting too big and slowing computers down.  

For the last few years, I had to remove Norton from some computers because of problems the user was having, especially slowing down the computer - but I used Norton products exclusively for my own machine for many years.  If you have a computer that you want to protect with a commercial product, I still recommend Norton - just look closely at the minimum requirements for your computer before downloading or installing.  If you're computer is fairly new (1-2 years old) you should not have any problems running it.  The Internet Security version also looks for and removes other types of malware that causes pop-up advertising and otherwise slows down your internet connection.  

There are also several free types of anti-virus programs available that can give you very good basic protection if you can't afford a paid product, or only use your computer on the internet for small periods of time.  Are they as good as commercial products?  Some people say yes - but it's really an independent decision.  I have installed AVG Anti-Virus on dozens of machines, and it seems to do an excellent job.  I have also used (and still use) Avast! on my own machine.  Both of these products are from Europe, and have commercial paid-for versions, but offer basic free versions for home users.

Does one product do it all?  Well the truth to that answer is yes and no.  Each product has it's shining part, but may be weak in others - and truth be told, there is no one product that provides bullet-proof protection for everything.  Even if you run a commercial product, I still recommend using at least one of several anti-spyware/malware solutions available.  There are several products available that are free to home users and combined with a good anti-virus increase the odds that you will remain trouble free from serious threats.

For the past several months I have been using a product called Malware Byte's Anti-Malware  which is available from many of the major download sites as well as their own site.  Their full version offers real-time scanning, scheduling scans and so on, but the free version can be used to continue manual scanning and removal after the full version expires.  I have had great success removing some rather difficult spyware with this product and highly recommend it.  Like commercial products, they all look at things differently, so using a second program to look for malware can catch things that the other doesn't.  Other programs I have used successfully include Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy.  Both of these have free versions that are capable of removing nasty stuff from your computer.

Doubling up on anti-virus programs is not recommended however - they tend to cause problems if two of these are actively searching the computer for viruses and can actually cause a melt-down if you aren't careful.  Most anti-virus programs will search for other programs during the install and tell you to uninstall the other product.

In a future post, I'll talk about how these nasties get into our computers and what you can do to avoid them.  There are also other "house-keeping" activities that should be done on a regular basis to keep your computer running smoothly.

What do you use on your computer and are you happy with it?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What's Windows 7?

Perhaps you've heard some buzz about a new version of Windows coming out maybe late this year or early next year...

Microsoft has been talking about the future release of Windows 7, which will replace the current Windows Vista operating system.

For the most part, what I've been hearing has been positive, and many folks seem to be excited. But don't expect anything radical - most folks that have taken peeks at the beta (test) version, say that this new operating system will look and feel like Vista, but will have added features that are currently missing and fixes for some of the things that have given Vista a bum rap.

If you're curious, you can take a look at what Microsoft has put on their website at

I will try and do some searching for information by other websites and provide links in a future article.

Some rumours going around this week indicated that Microsoft may offer free upgrades to Windows 7 on new computers sold later this summer. Is it worth the wait? That depends on what you use your home computer for and how desperate your need is to replace what you have now. For the most part and for most users, the upgrade to Vista has been fairly painless. Similar to when XP came out after years of Windows 98, there have been problems. Older software may not run on Vista, and some hardware may require new drivers, or may not be supported for use with Vista at all. Supposedly, Windows 7 will have a much larger driver compatibility because it will build on the available Vista drivers, and have more drivers available during installation.

What do you want to know about Windows 7?