28/03/16

Permalink 08:46:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General, Articles

Windows 10 is now stable enough to enable me to suggest that most people should be upgrading their computer now. There are occasionally problems with sound and virus protection but these can be easily resolved. Nevertheless, I still recommend a validated image backup before you change anything.

  1. Which brings me neatly on to the first tip. If you're not already using File History ditch your current backup program and make the switch. There just aint nothing better.
  2. Similarly, move all your documents to OneDrive (assuming you sign in with a Microsoft account) so that you get a short term immediate backup and all your documents are available on another device.
  3. Also, make sure you use an account with your favourite browser so that bookmarks and other settings are synchronized with other computers - even the loan one I give you when yours fails :-)
  4. It's always wise to have a second account on your computer so that when the main one gets a corrupted profile or locked out with password problems you can recover. The easy way to do this is from an elevated command prompt
    net user administrator /active:yes
  5. If you prefer File Explorer the way Windows Explorer used to be (displying My PC on the opening screen) then click View > Options > Change folder and search options.
  6. Make the cursor jump to the default button when a new window appears by Settings > Personalization > Themes > Mouse pointer settings > Pointer options > Snap To.
  7. Set performance to be prioritised above electrical frugality by going to Settings > System > Power > Additional power settings > High Performance.
  8. Change the size of text in all windows to make it easier on old eyes with Settings > System > Display then move the slider to the right.
  9. Restore Documents, Music, Pictures etc. to the Start menu for easy access. Settings > Personalization > Start > Choose which folders appear on Start.
  10. Check out the new features by running the Get Started app.

If you have a tip of your own (Windows 10 related please) just make a comment below.

02/03/16

Permalink 01:59:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General, Articles

As Microsoft's File History (pretty much the same as what Apple have called Time Machine for donkey's years) is now being used by more people than before, it is pertinent to warn/advise that by default it only backs up Libraries, Desktop, Favourites, and Contacts (only those in the Windows People folder too).

So if you want anything else preserved as a protection for accidental deletion or some other risk you have to manually add the appropriate folder(s) to a library - perhaps even a new one you create just for this purpose. So if, for example, you use Windows Live Mail as your email client then
C:\Users\<accountname>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Live Mail
Would be the folder to add to your backup library.

Note that if your email account is setup to use the current IMAP way of synchronising with your mail server then there is no need to backup those messages as they are already on the server, just the 'storage folders' held locally need be copied.

Strangely, if you want your Windows Live Mail contacts backed up you have to arrange to copy
C:\Users\<accountname>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Live\Contacts

On a related subject, most browsers now allow you to create an account which will then synchronise your favourite bookmarks, passwords, history, and some other settings with any other devices you use that account on. So if, for example, your browser or indeed the entire computer get trashed, you can use another browser on another computer and not lose any of your saved data. It's a good thing.

21/02/16

Permalink 09:01:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General, 1ComputerCare related, Articles

A little time ago I was given a laptop to work on while the customer waited. Unlike all jobs where I work on the computer alone, I did not take an image backup before I started as my customer would not want to sit for an hour while I took thisprecautionary step. I was working on some Google Drive manipulation and I reached the point where I noticed that ALL photos and documents had disappeared.

The standard operating procedure in case of data loss is to shutdown immediately to prevent further loss (as would happen were Windows or a program to overwrite the lost data (which is usually not deleted, just the header is marked as pointing to free space). On shutting down I told my customer what had happened and explained that we would need to recover from the last backup. "Backup, what's that ?" In technical parlance this is known as an 'Oh Oh moment'.

To cut three week's worth of story to a paragraph, I went into data recovery mode whereby an image is taken of the entire partition - including sectors marked as unused. My long trusted software failed me and I bought another product that did work. And to make this image and recovery job more of a 24 hour one than a 7 day one, I bought a 1TB solid state disk at considerable expense.

Having trawled through the image I was able to salvage about 40,000 files, some corrupted, some duplicates, and all with computer generated meaningless names. I then further processed the data to remove duplicated photos and corrupted Office documents - a time costly endeavour.

Only now could I power up the customer's computer to copy the recovered data back. When I did so I was intrigued to see a backup program's icon in the system tray. Yes, the data was backed up all along as I had set that up 3 years prior when the customer last brought the computer to me. Of course so much water has flowed under the bridge that I had forgotten all about it, and the customer had not been following my advice to test recover a document every three months as part of normal housekeeping - hence, nothing was known about the existance of any backup.

So having spent more hours recovering data that the worth of a new comnputer, spent money on replacement imaging software and a 1TB solid state disk, the customer had all data back the way it was.

Lesons learnt:

  • Check the presence of a backup program's icon before pulling the power in case the customer remembers as little about their computer as I do three years later.
  • Warn while-you-wait customers that backups and the consequences of not having them when needed are their responsibility not mine.
  • Stress to all who would listen with increased vigour that testing whether backup are working as intended is time well spent.

11/02/16

Permalink 09:40:00 pm by Eugene Gardner, Categories: General, 1ComputerCare related, Articles

The size of your monitor is one of those things that you only appreciate when you have a larger one. Just like dialup internet many people think they work fine with the old 19" CRT but after a week with a twin 24" IPS setup they soon realise that as a general rule, bigger is better. Note that size is the viewable region measured diagonally.

Like all things you get what you pay for. I well remember the headaches I frequently got from spending too long staring at my first cheap monitor. So apart from size what should you look out for ?

Resolution is probably top of the list. 1080p monitors (that is, monitors with a native 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution) are very common, and a typical 23" screen produces fairly sharp images. But the larger the screen the larger pixel density you will need to maintain that sharp image. Larger densities are also good for offering the keen eyed more real estate, and those with poor eyesight space on a large monitor to enlarge text and images.

Screens are typically matte or gloss. The former is usually best as it minimises glare - especially important when the light source is behind you. However, if vivid colours are your thing then gloss wins out. Anti-glare coatings will help reduce the problem if you need a compromise solution.

The refresh rate tells how often the whole screen is repainted. 60Hz is the minimum acceptable. Pixel response is the time needed to change from one shade of grey to another - 6 milliseconds or less will be fine for general use, gamers may prefer 2 ms rates.

Physically, make sure the movement is what you want. Tilting around the horizontal plain is a must have, swivellingaround the vertical less so. Adjustable height is often useful. If you really must have speakers built in then do but don't imagine the sound quality with be high fidelity. A USB hub may be helpful if you are short of accessible ports - remember that USB 3 goes much faster than USB 2. You will need a connector to match that of the device you will connect to so check whether you need DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, or 19 pin analogue.

Beyond the above you could look at brightness, contrast ratios, and colour gambits but if you're that much into it you won't be reading an introductory text such as this. It is worth noting that the picture quality depends on the graphics card in use as well as the monitor screen - most built-in (to the motherboard) sockets will be fine for all but immersive gamers and watchers of Blu-Ray movies. For the best quality you may want to add a discreet graphics card, but then the price tag of this project will be sure to soar.

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.

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