Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What computer should I buy?

All technology people get the questions all the time but during the holidays, year end and graduation time we hear it the most.  "What computer should I buy?"

We always have to follow that up with questions.  Purchasing a computer system is more like purchasing a car than most people realize.  You wouldn't just walk onto a dealership lot and pick any car the sales person suggested.  You need to get what meets your needs for features, size, style, driving requirements and budget.  Computers are the same way.

First, know what you want to spend.  Know what the maximum you want to spend is $500, $1000, $1500, $2000.  Pick one of those numbers.  You will immediately narrow down your choices.

Next, what do you plan to do with it?

  • Is it for home use, younger children, office workstation, school work, home business or maybe all of the above?  
    • In an office, do you need something that is for general administrative work or is it for an advanced user with all kinds of number crunching and custom applications in play?
    • Home computers vs home office computers can be used in very different ways today.  Do you want to use it to connect to your TV or will it just be used to manage accounting and business emails?
    • I recommend never combining everything on one machine - especially if kids are going to be running games and access websites (even ones designed for them) on the same machine you are trying to run a home business or work from home.  
  • Do you need to run specific applications on it for you school, work or business?  What do those applications require?  
    • If you just want it to create documents but not necessarily using Office tools it is a different requirement than one that requires MS Office applications.  
    • If you want to run applications from your company make sure you know what they require.
  • Do you need to move it from place to place regularly or occasionally?  
    • If you want to be able to move from place to place or take it on trips you obviously don't need a desktop but how light and small do you need your device to be? 
    • If you are going to leave it in one place it can be much more cost effective to have a desktop with more computing power than a laptop.
  • Is it something you mainly just want to use for email and Internet access?  If so, where will you want to have access to the Internet?  
    • Do you only need to connect to your single wired connection at your desk in the office?
    • Do you need to have wireless access but only to a WiFi hot spot signal?
    • Do you need mobile internet capabilities?

Now, we can review the choices within in those limits that meet your needs.  (I will assume the limit doesn't include all the taxes, shipping and accessories you may incur.  Just the price of the equipment.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My favorite FREE tools

Whenever I set up a new computer there are certain tools I like to load on any machine.  Here are some of my most favorite ones that I think should be automatically loaded on most machines.

First, install another browser - I rarely use Internet Explorer on my computer unless it is required for the site I need to access.
Chrome - The browser created by Google.  I really like how fast it responds and the fact that I can just type my search words in the address line if I don't know an address and it will automatically search and respond for me in one step.

Firefox - The best known alternative to the IE browser.  Some pages work better in Firefox (FF) than in Chrome.  If anything isn't working the way I expect I immediately try it in FF.  (Some people also call this Mozilla since the official name is Mozilla Firefox but Mozilla is also responsible for other useful products besides FF.)

Next, a PDF reader and updating tool.  Adobe is a memory and system hog.  It runs very slow and uses way too many resources.  Most documents and images are currently exchanged much easier using PDFs, though.  I install different readers and also PDF printers so I can also create and edit PDFs not just view them.
CutePDF - A very simple PDF creator tool that installs as a printer.  Anything you can use a print option on you just select this as the printer and it creates a PDF of the output.  No paper.  A PDF you can email, archive or save for reading later.  Even better, add markups to it and pass on your notes about the output.  A note on installing this - make sure you get both the CutePDF driver and the Ghostscript driver included in the instructions.

PDF-XChange viewer - A PDF viewer and editor in one.  This tool becomes your default PDF viewer and it is much faster than the Adobe Reader free version.  It also allows you to add notes, text and even stamps to a PDF.  You make your changes and then print to a PDF using CutePDF above and you have a whole new version with your comments.

Nitro PDF - This one is a brand new product that is currently in Beta testing but it looks really good so far.  It allows you to create, read and update PDFs with one tool.  I have just started using this one but see the potential to be a great solution for all the PDF needs.

There are some other nice ones you may find more suited for your environment such as Foxit Reader,  Primo PDF and PDFill.  I just believe it is important to have at least one alternative reader as your default instead of Adobe.

Finally, I have a few additional tools that are handy to always have available that replace standard Windows functions.
FreeCalc - A different version of the calculator than the one that comes with Windows.  The best part for me is the "tape" it creates so you can see what you have done.  You don't have to just start over anymore!

File Shredder - A tool that permanently deletes files from your computer.  Many people don't understand that just deleting a file from your computer does not actually erase it.  It only removes your ability to get to it easily.  The data is still sitting there on the hard drive until something cleans it up to use it again.  This tool really deletes a file.  It is completely removed from the system with no ability to recover it.

For more advanced users, I also add:
Filezilla - FTP client and server utilities for moving files between computers.  It is a very powerful tool on both ends and allows you to create Site settings for different server connections.

PDF Creator - this tool is similar to CutePDF because it let's you create a PDF by printing to it just like any other printer.  But, this tool has many more advanced tools that let you do things like merge separate PDF files into on largefile, encrypt the files, digitally sign the files and output different formats. - a image and photo editing application that supports layers, special effects, multiple undo and many other powerful editing options.

With these tools in place you are much more capable and productive without spending anything more than your time to install and get to know the applications.  Some of them accept donations instead of license fees.  If you find a tool very useful and use it regularly, think about making a donation.  It cost money just to have the software published and available for you to download.  Even if it is only a few dollars it matters.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

To the cloud? Cloud Computing? What to think of it all....

Small Business rarely has opportunities to truly compete with the big corporations when it comes to buying power for mobility, productivity and collaboration tools. The tools designed for big enterprise have previously been so expensive to purchase and maintain the Small Businesses that implement them never fully utilize them to gain the advantages they were looking for. Cloud Computing is changing that.

What is the Cloud? What do they mean when they say "To the Cloud" or "I'm in the Cloud" in those ads? The term is yet another chance for the tech crowd to add to the world vernacular. A cloud is the way you represent the Internet in a network diagram. Therefore, when something happens "in the cloud" it is happening using the Internet.  When you store data and run applications directly on the Internet instead of programs on your computer you are working "in the cloud".

Cloud computing is the technology wave we are currently riding. It is moving at a rapid pace.  It is also providing new options for Small Business by opening up access to tools and services at a reasonable rate with very little, if any, hardware and software investment.

If you haven't gotten to know much about cloud computing, take the time now. The paradigm shift is in progress. IBM expects cloud computing to add about $3 billion of net growth to its business by 2015. Microsoft signed a five-year deal with New York City in October to provide services in the cloud. Los Angeles is already working with Google to move services to the cloud. An industry giant and the two largest cities in the country making moves doesn't usually indicate a passing fad.

Chris Mankle writes an excellent analysis of Cloud Computing risks and rewards. I highly recommend the read to get a better understanding of what it means to your business.
Taking the Fear Factor Out of Cloud Computing
— It’s allowing organizations to free themselves from building and managing their own technology infrastructure and is changing how businesses operate. It touches everything from the software running desktop computers to complex business processes and foundational IT infrastructure.
The cloud has provided dramatic gains in efficiency and productivity. It has pervaded blogs, industry conferences and the minds of CIOs with its promise of adaptability, cost benefits and agility, but despite its advantages, some are still hesitant to get onboard due to its inherent risks. While some simply aren’t ready to take a leap of faith, they’re putting themselves at another kind of risk: losing ground to competitors that are taking the risk, and becoming more agile and flexible as a result.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sharing Pictures on the Internet

I was recently asked the best way to send pictures to other people. I learned that the people asking the question had been sending individual pictures to others for review. It was a problem because they were sending 5 or 6 at a time in emails and, at times, sent several emails to get all the pics to the person they wanted them to see.

I suggested using an online web album to share pictures. Unless you need to use a high def jpg just a shared online album will work for most any other need.  There are many out there but here are some I have experience with and would recommend to anyone.

Try any of the following services:

Picasa - It is a Google service.  You load a client on your computer and you have a web album to upload your photos and share.  The PC program lets you edit pictures or just click a button and upload them to your web album. You can sign up by going to If you have a Google account you can just use it to activate the service. If not, just create a Google account to get started.

Kodak Gallery - It is Kodak's online service. The tool makes it easy to order all kinds of Kodak prints right from your album. The client you download for this one is very nice, too. You just create an account with them.

Snapfish - This is a very popular site if you like to share and print all kinds of interesting things like books, mugs posters, etc. You can also share videos and edit them using the tools they have.

Flickr - another very popular site that does a lot of integration with other tools.

I have used all of them for one thing or another. They are all nice and any of them would work well for most purposes. I use Picasa these days because it is fully integrated with our Google Apps for Business.  There are many others out there but these are the ones I see the most often.

Share your photo albums online and make it quick and easy to send to anyone, anytime without sending them over and over via email.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stay Safe Online

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month.  It isn't well known but it has been around since 2004.  It is a national public awareness campaign to encourage everyone to protect their personal and business computers and, by extension, our national cyber infrastructure.  

We are constantly connected today.  The Internet is the basis of our digital lives.  Almost everything that you do today is either over the Internet directly or supported by the Internet in some way.  All our financial systems, communications, transportation networks along with the power grids that keep them going are, at some point, using the Internet to function.  It is a fantastic Web-based, digital life we lead.

This campaign is about educating the public that the Internet is our backbone today connecting us to everything and everyone else.  While that continues to create new possibilities and opportunities there has never been one entity responsible for securing the Internet.  Therefore, each of us are responsible for our computers, devices and networks connected to cyberspace.  No one should take it for granted or treat it lightly.

Take the time to understand the risks and where you are vulnerable.  In 2009 a study was conducted to analyze small business' cyber security practices and attitudes.  The summary of key findings are somewhat eye opening.  I encourage everyone to read through the one page summary.   

Finally, while you are getting educated, check out the new global online safety campaign called STOP|THINK|CONNECT.  They have some great tips and tools on that page to help you be more aware of what the threats you are up against when you are connected.

Practice Stop. Think. Connect. and encourage others to do it as well.  It may feel like a daunting task but we are all responsible for protecting ourselves.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bounce Back Emails

I recently learned that people don't actually look at what the bounce back message tells them!  I had no idea that the average user would just see the subject and get frustrated, irritated or give up sending the message.  That black hole they call the Internet has rejected my attempts and I have no other option but to tell that person I can't email them.

Actually, those bounce back emails almost always give you a clue as to why your message was returned.  It is usually just a one line error message that gives the "geek in charge" the information to know why when they get a bounce back question.  Each server out there can send there own messages but there are basic reasons for the bounce back and messages usually mention one of them.  Most people just don't try to look for it because it is buried in a lot of geek speak.

Here are a few common ones and what they mean to you.

Mailbox Not Found, user unknown, invalid user name - these are all messages that mean what they say.  They usually mean you have something wrong in the address or the address you have really is no longer valid.

Content not allowed - this kind of response means the server on the other end is reviewing the content of the emails coming to the server and you didn't make the cut.  Content rejections don't always refer to naughty nightie kinds of content.  Content that can be noticed by blocking software includes things that refer to credit card numbers or social security numbers.  Things that make it think you are trying to get someone to send information via email that shouldn't be sent unsecured.  (You should never, ever include any social security number or credit card numbers in an email).

Once you have been blocked for this reason you have to get someone at that site to "clear" your email address.  No matter how many times you try - you will be rejected.  Sometimes from then on no matter what the content is in future emails.

Your address/domain has been blacklisted - Not a good feeling.  Yes, it means what you think it means.  You are listed as a very bad person to exchange emails with due to something making you look that way.  This is very upsetting to some people and not a simple process to resolve.  There are many different Blacklist services that review email traffic and try to ID the trouble servers and accounts.  They do a really good job so if you end up on this list it is usually because something really is wrong, not because they are.

The last time I dealt with a client who was blacklisted the problem turned out to be a setting at their Internet provider that made them not pass a test with the ONE Blacklist company they were listed with.  That one listing made emails get blocked by several large companies just because they happened to use that list.  Once the ISP found the problem and made a change the name was removed within a couple of hours automatically. It did take a while to figure that one out, though.

Server not available, server busy - Sometimes, you get this message just because the server is having trouble on their end.  If the server gets really busy or needs to be restarted you will get these types of messages.  Those just need time to work themselves out.

Backscatter - It is very important to note there is one other bounce back that can happen which doesn't have anything to do with you.  If you start getting bounce backs that are strange emails you never sent, something else is happening.  You are being hit with backscatter.

Spammers will use all kinds of tricks to get past email servers and get to your inbox.  In order to get around things they set up their spam to make it appear like it came from you.  You never did sent it, it just looks like you did.  That is why you sometimes see your own email address on spam coming in.  They are tricking the servers to let them in.  The Spam Filters figure out  it really is spam once it gets in to the server.  They reject the email and return it to who they think sent it - YOU.

Backscatter if very unsettling when it happens.  Some users hit with it will get hundreds of bounce backs.  Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done until the servers clear out their messages.  There is no way to know where the spammer sent the information and nothing you can do to block it.  It just eventually stops.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Backup Considerations for Home Offices

Backup is the most expensive easy thing to forget about. It's like insurance. If you don’t have it, you will wish you had it, eventually. If you do have it, you think you rarely use it. When a crisis hits there is enough stress without dealing with the fact that you lost that important data on top of everything else.

There are many options to manage a backup. I recommend using more than one. You shouldn't put all your bytes in one basket.

Carbonite, Mozy, Dell Datasafe, Norton Online Backup and iDrive are a few of the many online backup solutions. For single computers it is a wonderful tool. You get data backed up to their server location secured and off-site automatically. Features and prices vary but there are some basic things I believe you should evaluate when making a decision on a service.

Your backup should be fully encrypted before it gets to their server. This means they can’t even look at it on their servers. All they see is there is a secure encrypted file. You have the encryption key and the ability to log in to see your files.

Can you recover everything up there or just one thing?  You may only have one file that got hosed by some bad program. You don't want to restore everything just to get at one thing.

Understand the amount of data and types of data you can save. If you have 30G of music and the backup plan allows for 25G total and of that 25G only half of it can be music files, the solution is not a good idea for you.

As with anything that seems easy and wonderful...... There are some caveats.

When you install the software it usually tells you it will set up the back up to run for standard settings automatically. Those settings include things in the “normal” places people put things. You should have the ability to go and mark anything that isn’t in that normal list to be included in the automatic backup.

Multiple hard drives may be an issue. If you store data on a C drive and a D drive or a C drive and an external hard drive you may only be able to back up data from the C drive. Know this limitation before you proceed. If you are trying to back up pictures and music from an external drive, it may not happen at all.

Unless you are sure what you have to be backed up and where it is stored, you can’t be sure everything you need is actually being backed up.

A slow computer on a slow connection will get slower running these online backup routines. They may tell you it doesn't create a problem but it does impact the system. You don't notice it very much on a newer, faster machine but you will on an older one. There are some tweaks you can do to help with that on the settings, usually.

As I mentioned originally, I suggest there are multiple backup options in your plans. You don't have to back up every single thing twice but important things should be redundantly backed up. Important documents or financial records, a DJs music collection or a photographers pictures or any other thing you hold dear should be saved in multiple places.

Consider using a flash drive to save those really important things separately from time-to-time. For example, financial records should be saved at the end of a period and then drop them off in a safety deposit box. The tiny flash drives hold plenty of data without taking up lots of space.

Also, consider investing in an external hard drive to use just for backing things up. Your system can be set up to save certain things automatically or you can do it manually. This solution protects your data in the event of a system failure but not if your computer and hard drive meet a miscreant or Mother Nature's Fury while in the same physical location.

Finally, a periodic review of what is being backed up and where is always a good idea. In the digital world we live in today we need to keep copies of everything important just like we did before with paper.

Yes, I said "we" - I am that old. :)

Antivirus Options for Home Office

There are several free version of antivirus software available for download. They are free because they are stripped-down versions of full featured products. Companies offer the free version to get you in the door so you will order an upgrade to the paid version. It allows for the most basics systems to be protected from the thugs that attack systems all over the world.

Some good free ones are offered by AVG, avasti and Avira.  You can do a web search for the name and free to get the links directly to them.

Remember, these are stripped down versions of a full featured security application.  Most will protect you from viruses and a good bit of spyware but they will not protect you from every threat you could run into on the Interwebs.  There are other things out there like phishing sites, rootkits, etc that will not be completely blocked.  You can read the differences between the free version and the paid version on the vendor website to see what is not included.  (There should be an easy to find comparison chart on the site or you probably shouldn't use the software.)  

Also, remember to always check the status of your antivirus software on a regular basis.  You should periodically confirm that scans are running without having to kill a lot of things every time.  Plus, make sure all it’s databases and software are up to date.  You should be able to set all of that to happen automatically.  But, just like everything else in the world, you have to check on it now and then to be sure it is doing ok.

That being said, there is no reason you can’t use one of these and save the money.  At least you are protected from the most dangerous stuff. Free protection that is up-to-date and verified to be scanning is the minimum configuration that should be allowed on any network, even a network with only one computer connected to the Internet. That is still a network.

If you are using your computer to run a small business, it is always better to use a full featured [paid for] security software application to protect your data and system integrity. If you can't afford the paid versions, don't run your system without the free version, at a minimum.