Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Holiday Helper

Recently I was working on a computer that had Windows XP on it and had a problem with a critical system file. The system wouldn't let me login to fix the problem, and I didn't have an XP CD handy to go into Repair mode and copy over the file I needed. Luckily, I've started carrying PendriveLinux on my USB drive lately, and it was a life saver!

Mind you, I'm not an expert in customizing this little tool, and that would have made it much easier to perform this operation, but with that little stick and a couple of web searches, here's what I was able to do.

Setting the BIOS to boot from USB, I inserted the stick and booted the default option. After a minute or two, the PC was booting into Linux and figuring itself out. Shortly, I had a GUI and access to the Internet (through the cable modem/router combo the user had set up). From there, I had to update the stick and install NTFS support (unfortunately not a default -- yet), mount the drive and copy over a backup of the SOFTWARE hive in the Windows system files.

The nasty details: In order to get at the NTFS partition, I had to load up the ntfs-3g drivers from a version of the stick called "Lenny" (Debian based Linux distribution). I had to edit the apt sources.list file and replace "etch" with "lenny", then apt-get update the works (which only took a moment). apt-get install ntfs-3g and I was done setting up.

Granted, this isn't amateur stuff -- but for semi-support people or even the pros, it could be a useful tool to carry. The only other ways to access an NTFS partition (that I'm aware of) are to use a DOS NTFS driver (which is a bit of a pain to try fit onto a single floppy, although USB drive booting is becoming a more common option) or something like the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (which may be just slightly shady in terms of it's legality).

Apparently, Microsoft bought out Winternals, the company that made the only viable NTFS DOS driver available, and they buried it, so that's not much of an option. The questionable legality of the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows comes into play because Windows XP is only licensed for the one computer you install it on -- it's not made to be portable. Use at your own risk!

So, just to make the lives of ordinary people out there that want to be able to rescue their relatives files, or need to fix their own NTFS without a Windows XP CD handy, I'd like to put out a public request: can anyone update the Pendrivelinux USB image to include NTFS read/write support? Please?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Hard Drive Question

Every now and then, the same question always pops up: is it better to leave my computer on all the time, or will my computer last longer if I keep the computer on constantly?

Well, we're going to answer this one for once and for all. Let's get started!

Let me clarify one thing: the most probable components to "die" in your computer are the power supply and the hard drive. Providing you have surge protection and don't do anything odd with your computer (like rub your feet on the carpet and shock it every chance you get) your power supply should survive the life of your computer without issue. So let's focus this question on the hard drive.

The first thing we need to do is figure out how long a hard drive (HD) is expected to be useful before failing (called the "mean time before failures" or MTBF ). If we hunt around at popular HD manufacturers, like Western Digital, Seagate and Fujitsu, we find that most modern drives have about 1 Million Hours MTBF; they're actually expected to last over 1 million hours of constant use!

Putting that into perspective, that's about 136 YEARS of constant use that the hard drive of your computer should survive. Not bad, eh? Mind you, older drives had less of a life expectancy, like around 1/3 that -- 300,000 hours. That's only about 35 years or so, but still pretty impressive.

Now, let's do a little frivolous calculating. Let's say you lose a day of life from your hard drive every time you shut it down and turn it back on (not that I'm saying that's what happens, but let's just play Devil's Advocate here). An average workday is about 8 hours, so we'll call that a "day" for purposes of this calculation. For every 8 hours of operation, you'd lose 16 hours of operation due to wear and tear on the physical mechanisms that operate the drive. Alright, so then you're going to lose some of the useful life of your hard drive, aren't you? Nope! Even with this over-exaggerated figure, you'd actually extend the life of your hard drive beyond 200 years, just by shutting it down at the end of the day! Even an old HD would benefit, extending it's usefulness up to 51 years. Now on to the real world...

In the real world, your hard drive is most likely to experience failure under normal operating conditions within about the first 3 to 5 years. If it doesn't fail under normal use in that time, you can pretty much expect the hard drive to outlive its usefulness. This would be why most manufacturers have 3 year warranties on their hard drives (although some offer up to 5 years). They know your drive is going to survive if you get past this age, and most of them do.

What can shorten the life of your hard drive? Dropping it is pretty high on the list, but the amount of shock required to damage a hard drive these days is getting fairly high for normal abuses. Usually hard drives need to run within certain temperature ranges, too. Keeping your computer within a range of 0°C and 60°C seems to be about the right temperature range to keep all the components in your system pretty happy. Airflow in and around your computer is the key here. Unexpected power outages can cause damage to your hard drive in some instances. If consistent power is an issue in your area, or if the computer you use is almost always on, you may want to consider purchasing a personal uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Sometimes little fingers finding the power button on an older computer can be an issue, as well; with newer computers this isn't as much of a problem thanks to the power button sending a signal to the operating system (OS) to shutdown instead of just cutting the power.

Regardless of your preference (on or off) remember one thing: always back up your important data, because no matter how reliable a drive may be, there's always the chance of failure. And it will most likely occur just when you need something important!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How To Buy A New Computer

Okay, so this hasn't been done before, right? Well, I gave it some thought and I believe there are still some areas that can do to have some light shed on them with this topic. Any computer geeks can leave the room now, because this is aimed at the "average user" who doesn't really know what they're getting inside the box.

First Things First
Before you even begin to think about getting a new computer, you should really consider why you want/need one. Did your previous computer die of some kind of hardware failure? Does your current computer feel slow? Is there some new feature you wanted to add on to your computing experience? How much can you afford to spend?

All other factors aside, if the only reason you are looking at a new computer is because of hardware failure, sometimes replacing the part can save you hundreds, even after you pay a technician to take care of the matter. For a simple thing like a burnt out memory stick or a hard drive that no longer boots, the replacement is fairly quick and painless. If you're happy with your current computer and can get the parts, this is a great, inexpensive option.

Second Thoughts
Of course, if you can't get the parts, this leads to the next best thing: buying a refurbished computer. I know, nobody likes to get "hand me downs", least of all from a stranger, right? Well, the fact of the matter is that a properly configured computer from a few years ago is really all most people need. If your primary uses are word processing, publishing your photos, surfing the web and emailing your family, there's nothing wrong with staying away from the "bleeding edge" of computing.

Several companies refurbish computers at a greatly reduced price from their brand new counterparts. If you look around, you can usually find them. Things to note are that the older computers tend to come with less RAM (or memory) and less disk space. If you're a photo buff you'll probably want to upgrade the default hard drive; adding a stick of RAM can speed up your computer considerably if you like to surf, email and run your word processor all at once.

If refurbished just isn't for you, there's always the clearance models. These are still new computers, but at the end of their production run. The benefit to you is that they still have the same warranties as new and are factory-fresh, but they're "last year's model" and won't be snapped up by the bleeding edge crowd. These also tend to be at a generous discount, and are a bit easier to find at major retailers.

Take Three
Okay, so you're not in the market for a new computer because something broke, you don't want something refurbished and you're not in the mood for a clearance sale. The next common motive for buying a new computer is that your computer is getting slow. Or there's something new out there that Microsoft or Apple says you've got to have. Here's where you make a judgment call: is your computer really getting slower in it's old age, or are you expecting more of it? When you run the same old programs you've run on it for years, does it actually take longer? If so, you may have a virus or some malware on your system that needs to be looked at. Instead of a new computer, have a trusted technician clean up your PC and whip it back into shape.

Computers don't slow down with age, they just seem slower in comparison to their newer counterparts. A clean bill of health for a slow computer probably means you've been exposed to newer computers and can no longer wait for the older processing speed to do the same old things. That's fine, and it's a perfectly valid reason to upgrade. Just be careful: buying a new computer with a new Windows OS on it will probably only be "zippy" for a little while before clutter begins to slow it back down to the same pace as your old computer! Once you add in the anti-virus, the anti-spyware, the firewall, your programs, the tools you usually have running in the background, etc. the overall system speed will decrease.

The same is basically true of any OS, Windows is just known for it more; load too much in the background and it will crawl instead of run. Basic OS X runs very nicely; add too many gadgets running around and it will slow you down. Default Desktop Linuxes run very nicely, as long as you don't add in a web server, too many applets, or an indexing service somewhere in the background to slow it down. The difference with OS X and a UNIX-like Desktop (Linux, FreeBSD, etc.) is the reduced need for malware protection.

Final Four
You're looking for the latest and greatest new toy and you want to have something modern and efficient and cool-looking. Well, you're in luck, because spiffy new computers come in three basic varieties (barring the options of laptop, notebook, tablet, desktop or tower!): Windows, OS X and Linux.

The first two you probably know a bit about and know where to get them. Pick up a Windows-based computer at any retailer that sells computers. Chances are, you'll get a flavour of Windows Vista, the shiny new offering from Microsoft. Apple, you can get in a few less places, but the Apple store is a good place to start.

And then there's Linux. Ironically, you can get it anywhere -- download a copy of it, legally, if you like -- but good luck finding a major retail store that sells it preloaded on their computers. Wal-Mart apparently sells some units, and Dell hides the odd Ubuntu or Red Hat Linux computer on their site (in the U.S. only), but for the most part vendors like Everex and Zareason are the easiest ways to get Linux preloaded. Likewise, look for smaller shops to support Linux, not the big guys. Which probably means your cost of servicing would be lower, too.

Ultimately, the choice depends on what you want in a computer. If you're not tech savvy and don't know the specific components you want in the physical hardware, don't worry too much -- any of the above options will serve you decently if you buy from a vendor you trust. What you run on it, ultimately, is your choice. Once you've made that choice, the choice of hardware it runs on is pretty much made for you.

Friday, November 9, 2007

But Everyone Uses It

Ah, the "everyone else has it" myth! How many times have we seen this one come up, especially when it comes to the ever-present Microsoft Office.

But wait... Does everyone really have a copy of Microsoft Office? Not so many people as you would think, and almost certainly not all the same version. Microsoft Office can be categorized in a number of different ways:
- Office 97 (a venerable but still useful version; forget about anything older than this!)
- Office 2000 (more recent, but less common)
- Office XP (the one where people start to get confused which version they actually have)
- Office 2003 (definitely more recent, but isn't it showing its age a bit?)
- Office 2007 (the latest and greatest, probably pre-installed for your convenience)

And this doesn't include the versions available for Mac, or the various combinations and add-ons you can get with Microsoft Office. The combinations are many! So, the odds of having the same version of Microsoft Office as anyone else you're interacting with are actually pretty slim. Although numbers you can find on the Internet vary, the distribution of users seems to fall into about 50% of people that have Microsoft Office use the 2000 or XP editions (or even older); 45% appear to be using the 2003 edition, and the rest are early adopters of the 2007 edition. Of course, this doesn't account for the entire market of users -- don't forget there are other office suites out there, like Corel WordPerfect, IBM Lotus Symphony, Sun's StarOffice (and the free OpenOffice it's derived from). So the percentages for individual Microsoft Office users, by edition, probably distributed just about as well as their competition. And you know what? The competition is very compatible with the mainstream editions of Microsoft Office in use.

Even the online Google Documents can read and write all the "common" Microsoft Office formats. This is a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation suite available on your PC, whatever your PC is running, wherever your PC is, and even if it isn't actually your PC! Just sign in and there you are! Amazingly, people will still pay hundreds of dollars to get Microsoft Office, or worse: they'll steal it, because it's all they've ever known.

Did you know that "casual copying accounts for a large portion of the economic losses due to piracy" -- in short, getting a copy of Microsoft Office (or Windows, or that favourite game...) from a friend, rather than buying it. I know the pressure. Schools use it, businesses use it, governments use it. And it's expensive. But there is (fortunately) a very inexpensive way to work around the problem.

Try this little experiment: download a free copy of OpenOffice and try it out for a bit. It's not that different from Microsoft Office, and if you already have Microsoft Office (whether purchased or otherwise) just try to avoid using it for a month. Save your documents in the DOC, XLS and PPT formats you're comfortable with, and just kick the tires a bit.

You may be surprised how easy it is to break your addiction. Life can actually go on without having Microsoft Office (and Clippy), and you can still be productive! Features come and go -- just look at the multitude of ways Microsoft Office has changed over the various versions -- but you have always adapted before, and you can again. And this time, you can make a choice to do things differently.

You don't have to feel guilty about taking something you didn't pay for. And you don't have to shell out a single cent. Welcome to freedom!

Office XP
Lotus Symphony
Google DocumentsYYYNY3N
1 - Only available with Professional versions of Microsoft Office
2 - Only available with Professional versions of Microsoft Office
3 - Integrated with Google Mail
4 - StarOffice comes with a complete clipart collection; OpenOffice comes with very basic clipart, but can be upgraded with the free OpenClipart collection

Friday, November 2, 2007

10 Reasons To Dump Windows

Just learning about Windows Vista? Here are ten reasons not to bother with it. You'll see why it's unnecessary, safer, and more worthwhile to ditch all Windows operating systems. Paraphrased from Microsoft's own site.

Find that file in a few quick clicks1) Find that file in a few quick clicks

You don't need to remember folder names to be organized anymore. Save time by instantly tracking down any document, photo, e-mail message, song, video, file, or program on your PC using Instant Search.

This would be exactly the same kind of search available even in a free Linux distribution. On a Mac it's called Spotlight. If you want pay for a new PC or an upgrade, the Mac would be a good way to go. If you want to keep your existing PC, get a friend to recommend a good distribution of Linux.

See everything you have open at a glance2) See everything you have open at a glance

Lost track of what files and programs you've opened? Flip through all your open files and windows with a simple click of your mouse using Windows Flip 3D—you're just one click away from everything you're working on.

Two words: eye candy. And you can get this kind of thing on (you guessed it) a Mac in spades. The Linux options are coming along nicely, too.

Keep photos organized—and ready to share3) Keep photos organized—and ready to share

Digital photo collection getting out of hand? You don't have to search through folders to track down the ones you want. Now you can tag your photos with a date, keyword, rating, or any label you choose so you can find them quickly and easily in Windows Photo Gallery.

You can also use dozens of free programs to do exactly the same thing on any OS you want.

Create a custom movie without a fine arts degree4) Create a custom movie without a fine arts degree

Making a great home movie just got easier. Use Windows Movie Maker to blend videos and photos into a rich movie, complete with your own soundtrack, titles, and credits.

Several free options exist that are adequate for this task on Linux and other free OSes. If you're really serious though, get a Mac.

Keep track of your music—and play it anywhere5) Keep track of your music—and play it anywhere

The larger your collection of digital music grows, the harder it can be to organize and keep track of it. But now you can easily scroll, flip, browse through, and play your entire music library in Windows Media Player 11.

And you can do the same with iTunes, or RhythmBox, or Banshee, or Amarok, or... You get the picture. Plus, any of the open source options tend to play more formats with less fuss.

Surf multiple waves of the web at once6) Surf multiple waves of the web at once

Like to jump from website to website? Satisfy your appetite for multitasking without having to open several browser windows. You can open multiple webpages in one window and easily click between them with the tabbed browsing feature in Internet Explorer 7—plus, you can see thumbnail images of all your open webpages at a glance with Quick Tabs.

Quick Tabs aside, sounds like Opera, Firefox, Safari and most other browsers that have had these kinds of features -- secure, stable and tested -- for a long time now. Avoid ActiveX!

Record and watch TV on your time7) Record and watch TV on your time

Watch TV on your own schedule—not the TV networks' schedule. If your PC has a TV tuner, you can record, watch, and pause live television on your desktop or mobile PC using Windows Media Center.

I haven't tried this on a Mac, but I'm guessing OS X has a feature or two that will handle this task. For Linux, check this Linux Media Center video out.

Bring your TV and PC together—and take home entertainment to a new level8) Bring your TV and PC together—and take home entertainment to a new level

Tired of huddling around the PC for entertainment? Connect your PC to one or more televisions in your home using a Windows Media Center Extender like Xbox 360, and enjoy all your digital entertainment on the big screen—from photo slideshows, home videos, and digital music to live and recorded TV shows and movies.

Did you watch the video in the last point?

Keep the things you need most at your fingertips9) Keep the things you need most at your fingertips

No need to open a web browser to check traffic and weather, open a calculator to add up a few numbers, or open an application to see your calendar. Now you can put mini-applications called gadgets right on your desktop, where you can see and use them whenever the mood strikes. Just use the Windows Sidebar pane to store and organize your favourite gadgets.

Okay, but what if you have a web browser open, or a word processor? This is stuff on your Desktop, folks. If you have nothing open, it's nice eye candy, but if you open a single app, usually this kind of thing gets covered up. Of course, it looks nice, so screenlets, desklets and other names fill the bill anywhere but Windows.

Help your kids stay safer10) Help your kids stay safer

Worried about your kids' computer use—or what they may encounter online? Now you can set boundaries on what your kids can do on the PC to give them a safer experience, using the centralized Parental Controls in Windows Vista. You can even restrict games and websites based on your family's values.

Plus, you can better protect your PC and your personal information, as well as your family, with built-in security tools like Windows Defender and anti-spam and phishing filters.

Mac has Parental Controls, too. In fact, OS X had them first. Linux takes a different approach: there are many tools out there for securing your child's Internet experience you way; block what you want blocked, and only install what you want your child to use. As for antivirus, antispyware, anti-spam, phishing, etc.? That's largely a Windows problem. Mac and Linux don't experience anything remotely close -- they have an actual security model to follow.

Well, if you aren't convinced by now, here's reason eleven: get your credit card out.