10/12/15

Permalink 09:29:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General

Pushing the ON button on a running computer has different results depending on the power settings.  It may cause the system to do nothing, enter sleep mode (the default), hibernate, or shutdown.  Computers setup by me are altered to shutdown when the button is pressed.  But what happens if you hold that button in for more than 4 seconds ?  It shuts down abruptly.  

This is sometimes the only way to shut it down if Windows is so messed up that nothing else will do, but it is exactly the same as pulling the power cord.  Hence, it is strongly discouraged as it is most likely to cause a corruption of some Windows files which will at best provide unexpected results next time you start (and forever after) and at worst prevent the system starting at all.

Why is that I hear you ask.  Well, these are a few of the things that have to happen in a clean shutdown:

  • Checking to see if any user applications have not been closed yet (like an unsaved document) and prompt the user if necessary
  • Stopping background services
  • Waiting for the termination signal from services and applications that are open or running
  • Flushing the cache to disk
  • Writing log files
  • All users are logged out
  • Ending the shell
  • Start installing Windows updates and tell the system to finish the update process during the next system start-up if necessary
  • Send the ACPI shutdown signal (this is what turns the machine off)

If these things don't happen Windows is in an unknown state when it starts.  If you have to do this then at least try a repair immediately you start next time (SFC/SCANNOW) but try to avoid it at all costs.  The best advice if you have a non-responding or hung system is simply to do nothing as often times Windows will sort itself out eventually.  Failing that a Ctrl/C or Esc could help.  Try a Ctrl/Alt/Del and then logout as at least then your user profile record will be preserved.

02/12/15

Permalink 10:56:00 am by Eugene Gardner, Categories: Security, General

In a word, yes.  You're probably aware of the commonly used arguments against this: that Apple Store software is curated and thus harder to impregnate, also that there are so few Macs that the bad guys are more likely to target the lower and more plentiful fruit that are Windows PCs.  Both these points hold less water as the months go by. 

There are plenty of OSX ready packages that can be found from outside the Apple store now, for each of these you must trust not only the intent but also the quality of protections implemented by the supplier.  Many infections come as Trojans and therefore bypass the Apple Store security as the end user inadvertently invites the infection.  It is true that OSX is sandboxed by design but this cannot be considered as more than just another hurdle to the inventive and determined hacker.

 As time goes by Windows is becoming more secure and the number of Mac installations is increasing; also Apple computers, being more expensive, are typically owned by the more affluent  - facts not lost on would-be felons. 

There are cheap and easy steps that can be taken to give the bad guys an extra challenge: ensure that the latest updates to OSX and applications are installed, and be wary of browser plugins and other 'free' software that add high risk platforms such as Flash and Java (the default on latest versions of Safari).

 There are two suggested protective programs: Avast Free Mac Security and Bitdefender Antivirus  for Mac.  Which you choose depends on your appetite for risk, the effect that an infection would have on you, and the thickness of your wallet.   

26/11/15

Permalink 07:50:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General, Articles

I have previously written about the waste of time and resources that are programs, usually initially free, that suggest they can improve performance, enhance your registry, or pretty much any other simple maintenance task.

There are a catagory of programs designed to help you maintain device drivers at the latest version.  Sometimes they claim to fix problems by modifying drivers.  Do not waste time or money installing any of them.  Here's why.

A device driver is simply an interface between hardware and Windows.  If the hardware works there is liitle scope for improvement.  On a test system it has been shown that false concerns are raised by suggesting that old drivers are installed, but this is nothing more than a blatant attempt to upsell the paid version of the program.

The updater software suggests that old versions 'can cause problems, system slowdowns and bluescreen errors.'  This is technically true, but very unlikely.  It's also technically true that updated drivers could cause problems, system slowdowns, and blue-screen errors by introducing new bugs. It's a wash.

The fact is that with the possible exception of graphics drivers for hardcore gamers you don't need driver updates.  Any necessary legitimate updates will arrive automatically via Microsoft Update so nothing further needs be done.  If you have the urge to see what genuinely is running an old version it is a simple matter to manually run Device Manager then right click each device and 'Update Driver...'. 

The concern is partly the waste of money and poor performance that is introduced but also the corruption that often occurs from installing the wrong driver.   The difficulty is that to ensure you are not using Windows on more than the number of computers it is licensed for, Microsoft records some details of the hardware and firmware that are not usually changed and compares those each time Windows starts.  If there is a difference then they assume that you are trying to run Windows on a different PC and cause the current installation of Windows to become marked as counterfeit.  This results in all future genuine Windows updates failing and the computer becoming less secure.

Even worse, unsigned or correctly validated drivers run in protected (kernel) mode and do cause computers to fail to start.  In this case reinstalling Windows will not help unless the disk is formatted first.

So the take away message is if it ain't broke don't fix it.  If Windows is reinstalled from a generic disk then manufacturer supplied drivers will usually be better than Windows default, but using the right driver is far more important than using the latest version.

18/10/15

Permalink 12:44:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General

It's been three years since I last blogged about femtocells - the little devices that you can plug into the back of your router and act as a miniature mast for the mobile phone signal.  If you have a reasonable (perhaps greater than 4 Mbps download) speed broadband line, adding a femtocell can boost your ability to send texts and phone considerable - up to about 15 metres from the device anyway.  

You can pick up these devices from between free (from your provider) and £100 but note that it is illegal to use those not sanctioned by your network provider.  Whatever it says on eBay, ask for proof of legality before clicking the buy button.

There is a good tutorial on all aspects of the technology over at radio-electronics.com

There are four main networks:

  • Three.  Their 'Home Signal' is free to customers with poor reception. £75 charge applies if not returned.
  • EE.   They sell a 'Signal Box' but it's only available to business customers.  A wi-fi calls app is available for home users though.
  • Vodafone.   'Sure Signal' costs £69 from the Vodafone Shop.
  • O2.   'Boost Box' is only available to business customers.  Residential customers can use TuGo, a free mobile app available for Apple and Android devices.

01/10/15

I think it may be interesting for readers to know that the following graph shows wireless signal strength over a period of 90 seconds as measured from a laptop positioned 2 metres from a router in the same room using the 2.4 GHz frequency band.   This is why a wired Ethernet connection is preferable where consistent connection strength is required.
 
Image taken using LinSSID

 
The red line indicates my connection and the other lines come from my neighbours' routers.  Note that the brown line would cause huge interference for me if both were on the same frequency/channel as is often the case by default.

25/09/15

Permalink 05:04:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General

FreedomPop have at last launched in the UK.   The standard free package is 200 minutes, 200 texts and 200MB of data a month and is guaranteed to be free for life.   They have plans for folks who use more airtime and they are competitively priced - especially if you sign up during their introductory trial period. 

You can roll over any unsued date to the next month.  At £1.49 a month, it doesn't cost a lot, but it is more than free.  You can roll over up to 500MB of unused data per month, and store a total of 20GB of roll over data in all.

You can share data with friends and family, but only if they're on FreedomPop.  You can sign up to receive usage alerts so that you won't incur any additional charges, and you can be assigned a virtual international phone number so people in other countries can call you for free.

https://www.freedompop.com/uk   takes to to a place where you can select the type of Sim you want and buy it for about a fiver.

Claimed benfits include:

  • Free calling app with free phone calls to anyone in the UK and anyone in the world with FreedomPop app
  • Free texting app with free messages to any UK mobile number
  • Free UK phone number to take with you anywhere
  • Free SMS app to stay connected with app and non app users alike
  • Free international phone calls to up to 50 different countries around the world
  • Use Freedompop as a free second phone line
  • Make free voice calls and send free texts anywhere over Wi-Fi
  • Try our Free Basic Plan (includes 200 Texts, 200 Mins -- 100% Free for life!)
  • Turn your iPad, iPad Mini, or any iOS device into a phone. Make free phone calls and send free text messages to anyone.
  • Free Wi-Fi texting and voice calling
  • Free texting and voice calling back to the UK when traveling abroad
  • Save tons of money on your mobile plan with free texting and free voice calls
  • Make HD-quality phone calls on Wi-Fi. Also works over 3G and 4G connections
  • No up-front costs, contracts, or hidden fees
  • No advertisements
  • No spam
  • We don't share your number with any third parties

However there are things to note:

  • It only works on Android based or IOS phones (which covers about 90% of them)
  • It's VoIP provider using mobile data.  No GSM/3G calls/texts.  That therefore means you won't be able to make/receive calls where signal is weak.  So network coverage is smaller than 3's but still not too bad.
  • It's not pre-paid. They keep your card details and will charge it for any out of allowance calls/texts/data so consider paying for usage alerts if you may exceed the free threshold.
  • There is currently no number porting - so you can not retain your current mobile number.
  • There is a one time £6.99 charge for shipping the SIM and activation.


21/09/15

Permalink 08:48:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: Security

There be confusion in the shires as people receive "Password Incorrect" errors when the password has been held in the mail client (Windows Live Mail, Outlook, Thunderbird, 3rd party email apps on Android devices etc.) unchanged for years. This causes folks to think their account has been hacked so they change the password; but woa - the same error message pops up again ! What's that about ?

The security minded people who run Gmail unilaterally decided that the old way of authenticating: passing your username and password in unencrypted form, is too insecure for comfort. So rather than setting an appropriate error message they chose to frighten folks with a cryptic puzzler.

This only applies with mail clients using the older 'basic' authentication methods such as those above; clients using OAuth 2.0 will not suffer so. What's to be done ? There are three possible solutions.

  1. Switch to a better secured mail client. Sounds simple enough but it's a right pain to get all old messages, contacts, and calendar entries moved. Never mind learning a new interface.
  2. Switch on two factor authentication. This is a good balance between increased security and spending a lot of time reconfiguring. You will need a second device to authenticate with, but who doesn't have a smartphone these days. If you don't there are alternatives such as Google Authenticator and GAuth Authenticator. You may need to create an app specific password in the process for the app or service too.
  3. Turn off Gmail's enforcement of the limitation by modifying your Google account to "allow less secure apps".

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