Everything

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are organised and those who are not. I'm firmly in the latter camp, so finding a document I saved to my hard drive six months ago can be tricky. Luckily help is at hand in the shape of a tiny program called Everything. It indexes the files on your hard drive so that you can find them instantly if you can remember a small part of their name. Perhaps Windows Vista does this already - I'm still using (and writing for ) XP.

Download Everything from http://www.voidtools.com/download.php and double click the file to install it. There are a few choices to be made during the installation - just accept the defaults if you don't know which to choose. It's a good idea to agree to let it load when you start Windows - don't worry, it won't slow your system down noticeably.

The program takes just a few seconds to build its initial index and it indexes any new files you create on the fly.

Any time you want to search just open the Everything window (from the quick launch toolbar or system tray) and type a few letters from the name of the file you are looking for. As you type, a list of possible files appears in the window and the choice narrows down as you continue to type. Just double click on the file to open it in its associated program.

For example, I wanted to find a diagram of a room layout I did years ago. First I typed "room" and got 127 hits.



As soon as I added "lay" to the search string it narrowed down to six and I found what I wanted.



Try it, you'll be amazed how fast it is.


Notes
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(1)If the search window is empty the first time you use the program, you may need to tell Everything which drive(s) to index. To do this, click on Tools > Options and select the Volumes tab. Click on a drive (e.g. C: or D:) and make sure all four check boxes below it are ticked.

(2) The current version of Everything requires administrator privilages to allow it to build its index. Most people run with administrative privilages anyway (whether they know it or not!) so generally this isn't a problem.

If you are one of the few people who run as a limited user for security reasons (very wise) you can still use Everything providing you know the name and password of an account with administrator privilages. Let's say there's one called admin with the password hello.

You need to download a small helper program called CPAU from http://www.joeware.net/freetools/tools/cpau/index.htm. Copy the CPAU.exe exectable into the same folder as Everything, most likely C:\Program Files\Everything.

Now create a new shortcut on the desktop (right-click, New > Shortcut) and type in the target
"C:\Program Files\Everything\CPAU.exe" -lwp -u admin -p hello -ex everything.exe

Note the position of the inverted commas and the spaces - you need them! And of course you need to put your own values instead of admin and hello. Make sure the shortcut works, then drag it onto the startup menu or put it in the Startup folder so that it runs with Windows.

(3) If you save your work with names such as Document 1, Document 2 etc then Everything is probably not for you! You'd be better off installing a program such as Copernic which indexes the *content* of documents so you can find your work by typing a few unique words from within it. The main drawback of this approach is that Copernic is a bigger program which places more demands on your system.


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Easy panoramas

Producing panoramic pictures used to be difficult unless you paid thousands of pounds for a specialised camera. Cheapskates could use Photoshop to manually stitch together a series of overlapping shots - if you had the skills and patience. Times change and now you can get free software which does all the hard work for you. Autostitch is one such program.

This wonderful, amazing (add your own superlatives) program can be downloaded for free from http://tinyurl.com/5xa4o and is a tiny 1 MB download. It says on the web site that it's a demo version but it seems to work just fine so don't worry about that. Just unzip and double click the autostitch executable to run it - no need to install. In fact, you could copy it to a floppy disk or USB stick and run it from there.

The principle is simple. Tell autostitch which photos you want to convert to a panorama and then stand back and let it get on with the job - no user intervention necessary. You might want change a few settings to get the best results and you might want to crop the resultant panorama, but we'll tackle these later. Let's get started.

Hold on a minute! Have you got a set of photos ready to create a panorama from? If not you'd better go and shoot some. Pick a scene which will look good in a long, wide shot and then shoot a series of photos from left to right, overlapping each image with the previous one by about a third. Try and keep the camera level as you rotate. If you use a tripod then better still, but I am too lazy to do that...

Ok, so now we have (say) 3 to 6 photos to stitch together into a panorama like the ones below.











(If you're in a rush to try things out you can use the five pictures above - just right click on each one and save to your hard drive. But note that they are low quality so don't expect perfection)

Double click the autostitch program file and it will open into a simple window with just a menu bar. Click on File > Open. In the resulting dialogue box navigate to the photos you want to stitch and select them all by holding down the Ctrl key and clicking on each picture in turn. When they are all selected click the Open button. The dialogue box will close and the program will go to work immediately. After chugging away for about 30 seconds the resultant panorama will be displayed and a copy automatically saved in the same folder as the original pictures. Impressed?



Well, that first panorama is rather large and of quite low quality (and has jagged edges as in the example above) so let’s delete it from the folder and make a few changes to the settings to improve it.

Go back to the autostitch program and click on Edit > Options. At top left set the Width (pixels) to 1000 and at bottom right change the JPEG Quality to 100 and then click OK. Now make the panorama again by following the same steps as previously.

You’ll notice that the picture is rather rough at the edges where the program has stitched the overlapping pictures, so the next step is to tidy it up. You can use any photo editing software to do this, but I’m going to use an old friend, Photofiltre. This great little program can be downloaded for free from http://photofiltre.free.fr/download_en.htm and I explain how to use in detail here.

Open your newly-made new panorama file in Photofiltre. Use the selection tool to select the centre area that you want to keep and then select Image > Crop from the menu bar. The rough edges will be cropped away and you will be left with a neat rectangular picture. Click on the sharpen tool once or twice and the image will be sharpened nicely. Click File > Save As and save your finished picture somewhere sensible.



Send it to your friends and amaze them with your photographic skills. Send it me too, I’d love to see your creations.

That’s about all there is to it. In case your wondering why I set the program to create a panorama 1000 pixels wide, it’s because most people have their screens set to 1024 pixels, so the finished picture will just nicely fit on the screen and look bright and sharp.


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SFF websites

You know that I like Simple, Functional and Free software. But nowadays the computing world is increasingly on line, so here are a few of my favourite web sites  - which are also simple, functional and free...

I'm always going on about backing up important data before your hard drive fails, so the first website I'd like to recommend is Dropboks, a place to save a few critical files online. It's interface is a model of simplicity. Navigate to www.dropboks.com and sign in with your email address. Click the Add Files link and find the file(s) you want to upload (hold down the Ctrl key to select multiple files). Click OK and the transfer starts immediately. Log out when the transfer has finished.

If you like you can create folders in your online storage space to help categorise your files, but other than that there's nothing to fiddle with; what few commands exist are accessible from the More menu. You get 1 GB of free space, which is enough for the really critical files.

Note: if you want to upload a folder full of files then zip it up first. Assuming you're using Windows XP just right click on the folder and choose Send to > Compressed (zipped) Folder.

» » » » »

Ever wanted to send someone a large file but found it was too big to email? Many ISPs put a 5 or 10 MB cap on email attachments, pretty small these days when 10 megapixel cameras are common. Several services have sprung up to get around this limitation and they all work in basically the same way: upload your file to a temporary storage area on the 'net and send the recipient(s) a link so that they can download it. After a short time - usually a week - the file is deleted from the web space.

I've tried quite a few, but the one I use today is Wikisend, stripped to the bare bones and sporting a streamlined interface. Go to http://wikisend.com - no need to sign in even though there is an option to do so - and browse to the file you want to upload. Click the Upload file button and then go and have a cup of coffee. When the upload is finished you are presented with a download link. Copy and paste this link into an email message and send it to your friend(s). When they get the mail they simply click on the link and download the file. Maximum size is 100 MB, big enough for most purposes.

» » » » »

Ever find yourself in an internet cafe wanting to use Yahoo Messenger or one of the other chat services, only to find they don't have the right chat client installed? And even if they do, are you wary about adding your log in details to it on a public computer? Me too! Meebo to the rescue! This web site is a "chat client aggregator" which allows you to chat on any and all of the major services, including Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, AOL and Gmail, from inside a standard web browser.

Go to www.meebo.com and sign in to each of the services you want to use. A standard buddy list appears and you can chat to anyone on line. Most of the normal chat features are available such as sending files and setting your availability status. When you've finished chatting just log out and close the browser window.

Note: For reasons know only to Microsoft, Internet Explorer 6 saves passwords by default. Astonishing I know, but there you have it. Before using a web browser in any internet cafe you can disable this action. Go to Tools > Internet Options > Content > Autocomplete and deselect the box offering to save names and passwords on forms.

» » » » »

Here's a site especially (but not exclusively) for the teachers amongst us. Writeboard is an online collaboration tool which allows you to easily edit and compare versions of a document. Unlike the crop of clunky online word processors which are beginning to clutter the internet, Writeboard loads instantly and is fairly bug-free. That's because it deals only with unformatted text - this is not the instrument for writing your thesis on. But for working collaboratively on the content of a document or for giving feedback to students it's great.

Go to www.writeboard.com and fill in the three boxes to create a new writeboard: name, password and email address. A new, blank writeboard is generated and you can either type directly into it or copy and paste text from any other program. When you've finished, enter your name in the box at the bottom and click Save.

So far nothing special. But when someone changes the contents the old version is saved along with the new, and the two versions can be compared at the click of a button. Each new version is saved and can be compared with any of the previous ones. Click on THIS LINK to see a live whiteboard (password:albok) and add some corrections and comments - it's there for you to try out.

Writeboard is perfect for when you are trying to hammer out a draft of something with your colleagues - you are all working on the same document rather than emailing copies to each other and trying to keep them in sync. It's also the ideal tool for when students want you to take a look at their writing as they can easily compare your corrections with what they wrote originally.

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MP3Gain

If you have a large collection of MP3s then most likely you will sometimes find yourself lunging for the volume control when a quiet track is followed by a loud one. At other times, whole albums are too loud or too soft in relation to the rest of your collection and you need to adjust the volume when you change albums. Why put up with these irritations when MP3Gain can magically correct them? And it's free!

This neat little program can be downloaded from http://mp3gain.sourceforge.net/download.php and is just 651 KB in size - it'll be down in a flash, even over a modem. Make sure you choose the stable version at the top of the listing. After downloading, double click to install it and accept the defaults. If you're not sure how to do this then a quick read of http://albok.livejournal.com/2005/03/02 will show you how.

The program is easy to use as long as you understand the difference between the two kinds of adjustments it can make: track gain and album gain.

Track gain

If you have a collection of miscellaneous tracks which you play together (e.g. dance music) then you will want all the tracks to have approximately the same loudness. But if you got the tracks from different sources then most likely some will sound much louder than others. MP3Gain analyses the tracks and estimates how loud they will sound to the human ear. Then it offers to make all the tracks equally loud by applying the required gain (+ or -) to individual tracks. You can set the target loudness yourself or leave it set at the default value of 89 dB. Since most of my tracks were closer to 92 dB I adjusted the others to match that value.

Start the program, click the Add Folder button and browse to the folder containing the tracks you want to adjust. Then, if the third button on the tool bar says Album Analysis, click the little arrowhead next to it and select Track Analysis. The button will change to read Track Analysis; click on it and allow MP3Gain to analyse the tracks.

 

This will take a minute or two. When it's finished, you can see how far each track is from your target dB by looking in the Track Gain column. Now click the fourth button on the toolbar, which you should set to Track Gain. The program will now adjust the gain of each individual track so that they are all of approximately the same loudness. Note that they are automatically saved - there is no save button!

Album gain

Similar, but different. Here the aim is to preserve the relative difference in loudness between tracks on an album, but make all your albums sound equally loud. MP3Gain will analyse the whole album and then apply the SAME gain to all the tracks. The quiet tracks will still sound quiet relative to the loud ones, but you shouldn't need to adjust the volume when you switch between albums.

Follow a similar procedure to the above but, after selecting the folder containing the album tracks, click the Album Analysis button, and when it has finished click the Album Gain button. And that's it, finished.

One nice thing is that the changes are completely "lossless" and can be undone if you are unhappy with the results for any reason.

There's a very good Help file included with the program, so have a read and understand the theory behind what the program does and also it's limitations.
 

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Puppy love

Intro
Many people have only ever used computers running Windows and for them Windows is computing. But there’s a whole non‑Windows world out there waiting to be explored. To do that you could buy yourself an Apple Mac or a Unix workstation, but if you have a Windows PC there is a free way to try out a new operating system: switch to Linux. Well, you know that I love free, so let's get on with it...

What is it?
If you already know what Linux is then skip this section. For those of you who don't, let me explain that Linux is essentially a free operating system which (nowadays) has the look and feel of Micro$oft Windows. It's similar to Unix, the secure operating system used by Big Business, so generally it is unphased by viruses and other nasties. Up until recently it has been a pig to install, but fortunately all that has changed and the latest distros (gotta use the jargon!) virtually install themselves.

Unlike MS Windows, which has only half a dozen different versions, there are literally hundreds of versions (“distributions”) of Linux, each one subtly - or not so subtly - different from the others. Some are intended for the enterprise, while some emphasise ease of use and are aimed at the home market. Take a look at http://distrowatch.com/ to see just how wide the field is. But nearly all of them have one thing in common - you can download and use them for free.

Now, ditching Windows and installing a new operating system is not for the faint of heart. So we're not going to do that. Instead we're going to use one of the many "live CDs" which boot the computer from a CD and load the whole Linux operating system into RAM. Once loaded it behaves as if it was actually installed on your hard drive, but with the added bonus that it runs faster because the whole of the OS is in memory! By using a live CD you can give Linux a test drive and see if you like it – without disturbing your Windows installation or affecting your data in any way.

There are dozens of live CDs to choose from and many of them are (unbelievably) almost as bloated and slow as Windows, but a few are “lean and mean”, having been designed for use on older or more modest computers; I have chosen Puppy Linux as being perhaps the best example of the genre. It’ll run on any just about any computer and despite being only 70MB to download it includes the complete Linux operating system, a word processor, spreadsheet program, drawing program, media player, games etc etc. Everything you need to handle routine work (and play) is included in the package. I’m using Puppy right now, writing this while instant messaging with friends and playing music in the background.

If you want to find out more before you take the plunge then visit http://www.puppyos.com/

Downloading
This being Linux, there are several versions of Puppy to choose from. The "standard" version is called Seamonkey, and that's the version I downloaded and used for illustration. If you prefer a different version (e.g. with the Opera web browser) then go ahead and download that instead, it will behave in basically the same way. Linux developers keep making small changes and releasing new revisions with numbers such as 2.02, 2.03 etc. Just choose the latest (highest number) and download it to your hard drive. Note that the file you want ends in .iso, not txt.

You can find Puppy Linux on various servers and there's a list of links on the developer’s web site http://tinyurl.com/rs4rf; I downloaded it from http://tinyurl.com/cf9ez. It's a fairly big file, but if you're on broadband it'll only take a few minutes to bring it down. If you're using a modem.... better get a broadband friend to download it for you!

Creating the CD
Ok, so you have this big .iso file sitting on your hard drive somewhere. You can't install it like a normal Windows program 'cos it's not a Windows program! Instead you have to burn it to a CD. And you have to do it in a special way.

Put a blank CD in your CD writer and then open your usual CD burning program. You may have to read the help to find out how to burn an iso file to CD (I had to!) but it’s actually very simple: in Nero you choose File > Burn Image and then open the iso image. You are usually given the option to "close" the CD or leave it open. Since most of the CD will the empty it's best to leave it open so that you can add extra files to it later.

If you haven’t got a CD burning program such as Nero then download BurnCDCC from http://www.terabyteunlimited.com/utilities.html. This free program is designed to burn iso files to CD and nothing else, hence it’s both tiny and very simple to use. Just follow the screenshot below.

As an aside, it’s often best to burn CDs at less than the maximum rating of your CD drive – the slower you go the higher chance of an error-free burn.

Booting from the CD
Ok, we're ready to rock and roll. Leave the CD in the drive and restart your computer. If you're lucky it will boot from the CD. If not (and you end up in Windows again) then you will have to change the boot order for your computer. Shut down, then power on again. Watch the screen carefully and you should see a message telling you which key(s) to press to enter the setup program. It could be Del, Esc, F1, F2, F10, F12, Ctrl+Alt+Esc or any combination of them. Luckily all but the most secretive manufacturers post a message on the screen to tell you.

Once inside the setup program you need to find the entry which controls the boot sequence. It'll probably be called something like "Boot Order" or "Startup Order" but you may have to root around for it. Take your time. Read the instructions at the bottom of the screen to find out how to navigate around and change settings. When you find it you need to change the order to tell the computer to boot from the CD first and from the hard drive second. Then save your settings and exit the set up program. If you think you have made a mistake then exit and don’t save the changes; restart and try again. When you have got it right the computer will boot from the CD...

Setting up
The first time you run Puppy Linux (or any other OS for that matter) the setup program needs to scan your computer to identify the hardware (keyboard, mouse, graphics, sound, network etc.) and install the correct drivers. So the first run through will take a few minutes and you will need to answer a few simple questions. Subsequently it will boot straight to the desktop, just like Windows does.

Puppy does a fantastic job of finding and installing most common hardware, but don't expect it to work with every obscure video and sound card out there - not even Windows will do that. The video, sound and internet worked faultlessly on my main machine right off the bat, but the sound didn't work on another, older PC. Perhaps it will if I get around to fiddling with it.

A bunch of text will flash past on the screen as the program initialises. Then it will stop and prompt you to select a keyboard type from a long list. If you are typing in English then you are probably using a US qwerty keyboard (or UK qwerty). In any case, scroll down the list using the arrow keys until you find the correct keyboard and press Enter.

Next you need to set up the video. Every computer contains a graphics card (or chip) which sends the output from the processor to the monitor. Puppy will attempt to identify the graphics chip and then select a combination of resolution and colour depth which will work with your monitor. The setup program contains a special utility to probe the hardware and come up with a list of suggested settings.

At the outset you can choose either Xvesa or Xorg, and since Xorg is better you should try that first - it worked on both computers I tried it on. Just follow the instructions step by step and don't worry if the screen goes blank for ten or twenty seconds, it's normal. When it's finished probing the hardware it'll offer you a list of possible screen resolution/colour depth combinations. If one of them already has a cross (X) next to it then that one is recommended. If there's no firm recommendation then choose one of the combinations marked as “supported”. You may as well go for the highest one (biggest numbers) and see how it looks. You get a chance to test your proposed settings before committing yourself to them, so if the screen looks wrong you can always go back and choose slightly less ambitious settings and try again. Once the graphics are set up the desktop will appear. That's it, set-up complete - much faster than installing Windows!

Finalising
I think you will be able to find your way around very easily as Puppy Linux bears a close resemblance to Windows 98. Click on a few desktop icons to see what they do - single click, not double click. Open a few programs from the (start) menu - and try them out. They should open quickly as they are already in RAM - the whole of the OS is loaded into RAM, remember? They do look a little different from what you are used to under Windows, but that's different rather than worse. If you had been brought up on Linux you would find Windows a little strange at first.

 

One thing that probably won't work (yet) is the internet. How easy it will be to get online depends on how you connect. If you click the Setup icon on the desktop you'll find three wizards to help you out: analogue modem, ethernet interface and wireless interface. Choose the appropriate one and work your way through the wizard. If you don't know the correct values then you can copy them from your current settings the next time you run Windows again. Here in the factory we connect through the LAN, so I chose ethernet interface and told it to get me an IP address automatically using DHCP. I was online instantly, no hassles.

Ok, before you go too far you should make some final decisions about your "installation". Right now everything is in RAM - the OS, your programs, your configuration settings. As soon as you shut down all of these will be cleared from the memory and lost. It doesn't matter about the OS and programs because they’ll reload at the next boot, but you don't want to lose the keyboard, video and network settings (or you’ll have to go through the setup process again). So Puppy gives you a chance to save them the first time you shut down.

You can save these files (and any documents you subsequently produce or extra programs you install) to one of several places: the hard drive, a zip drive, a USB flash drive or even the CDR that Puppy is on. Which one you choose is up to you, but to keep things simple I chose my hard drive. Linux uses a completely different drive naming convention from Windows, but it's quite logical. The first hard drive is called hda, the second hdb etc. If the first hard drive has one primary partition and one logical partition they will be called hda1 and hda5 respectively. Choose which one you want, or choose one of the other options such as USB flash drive.

Ok, now restart the computer with the CD in the drive (and the flash drive too, if you saved to flash) and this time the computer will boot straight to the desktop without prompting for any hardware information. Once Puppy has loaded you can remove the CD from the drive, it’s not needed any more. In fact, you can put a music CD or video in the drive now and play it.

Using Puppy
I’m not going to go through all the features of Puppy one-by-one ‘cos that’ll take the fun away – and Puppy is supposed to be fun! Instead I’ll just suggest some starting points for your own experimentation.

One of the first things you might want to do is change the look somewhat. Puppy has a few colour schemes and themes you can try out, so click anywhere on the desktop to bring up the menu, then click Control Panel > JWM Configuration and try out a few different settings. You can even make Puppy look like Windows XP if you want to...

Puppy comes with a fairly comprehensive selection of programs pre-installed but you can download more if you feel the need. Click the Install icon on the desktop and run the DotPup Installer. Click Yes to download the list of the packages available. You might not recognise many of them, but there are some common ones such as Firefox and Adobe Acrobat. Once you have made your selection Puppy gets on with downloading and installing them automatically. When it's finished you should refresh the desktop (click Menu > Restart JWM) and then look for the new program icons which will have been added to the menu. Run and test your new programs.

If you can't find what you're looking for in DotPup then you can try PupGet! This is an alternative repository of packages and here you can find many common programs such as Skype, Open Office and various web browsers such as Opera and Firefox. You start PupGet from the Install icon on the desktop. Using it is self-explanatory.

Hmm, what else might you want to do? Well, you may want to access existing files on one of your drives. Before you can access drives under Linux you have to attach them to the file system, or “mount” them. Click the Drives icon on the desktop and you will see a list of all the drives that Puppy is aware of. If you see the word Mount next to a drive then it is not mounted - click Mount to mount it! (see screenshot below)

Once you’ve done that the drive will be visible in any of the file managers such as ROX-Filer and within the Open/Save dialogue boxes of programs. But…

Linux organises its files very differently from Windows so you will need take time to find your way around. Puppy gives you a default set of folders to work with and since you are logged in automatically as "root" your home folder is called root. Inside it are various folders including one called My‑Documents (note the hyphen) where you can save new documents, but this is (obviously) not the same as Windows' own My Documents folder. If you want to find your “real” My Documents folder then you will first have to mount the drive it is on (probably hda1) and then look for it in Linux's mnt folder, the folder where all mounted drives are attached. It can be a bit confusing because many of the folder names are repeated at various places in the file structure…

Let’s work through it to be sure. On my own system Windows is installed on hda1 and its My Documents folder is on a different partition, hda6. So first I click the Drives icon on the desktop and mount hda6 (if you only have hda1 then mount this instead). Close the Media Utility Tool window, you don't need it any more.

Next I open ROX-Filer from the (start) menu and look for the mnt folder. Initially I am in my home folder (~) and although I can see a folder called mnt, it's not the one I want!

So I click the ∆ symbol on the tool bar to go up to the top of the tree (shown as a forward slash / and confusingly called “root” too! ) and then I can see the main mnt folder.

Now I click on mnt and I can see all the drives, including hda6.

I click on had6 and then I can see (and access) all my folders, including My Documents.

Ok, I think that’s enough to get you started. The way to learn is to just use the darn thing. When you can’t do something then try to figure it out. Read the help files (on the menu) and if you really get stuck then write and ask me - though I’m a Linux newbie myself. Puppy has several online forums (http://www.puppyos.com/forums.htm) where you can post questions and get answers from people far more knowledgeable than me. There are also some nifty instructional videos at http://rhinoweb.us/ which show you how to do lots of stuff in Puppy.

Note that I wrote all of this, made the screen shots and posted it all to my blog using Puppy, so I know it works. Have fun!

Disclaimer: Using Puppy Linux should be perfectly safe, but if you decide to do something really crazy like telling Puppy to delete everything on your hard drive then I can’t stop you. As always you should back up your important files before you start using new software.

Was this useful for you? Any problems? Any comments? Click the Leave a comment link below, scroll to the bottom of the page and .... well, leave a comment!

(Previous posts at http://albok.livejournal.com/2005/03/01/)

Tasty Programs (2)

Some more useful/interesting/fun programs for your delectation... and all of them free!


If you are feeling adventurous then jump down the page and read about Altiris Software Virtualisaton which enables you to install new programs into layers and switch them on and off at will. Otherwise work your way through the list at leisure and install any programs that take your fancy...


(1) One of the nicest programs I have installed recently is Xentient Thumbnails which converts all kinds of image files to tiny thumbnails in every folder. Yep, I know that Win XP displays files as thumbnails in the My Pictures folder, but this tiny program gives you them everywhere. Compare the two screen shots below to see the effect. It's such a nice feature that it’s bound to find its way into Windows itself sooner or later ... but you can have it now if you point your browser at http://xentient.com/products/thumbnails/ and download the tiny installation file (it’s less than a megabyte so it’ll only take a few seconds). Double click to install it and .. that’s it, just enjoy this super little enhancement.


without Xentient


with Xentient



(2) I came across a new expression the other day: feature creep. It refers to the way software starts off small and nimble and then slowly gets bogged down in succeeding versions as more and more (often unnecessary) features are added. Windows Media Player (WMP), currently on Version 10, is a classic example of this. With so many built-in functions – it plays CDs, MP3, video, streaming audio, rips CDs etc. it's become increasingly difficult to use. Most of the time I just want to play MP3 files on my hard drive and for this I have found the perfect program: STP MP3 Player.


This tiny 200 KB download (from http://tinyurl.com/jla78) does exactly what it says on the box: it plays MP3s. Once installed it sits as an icon in the system tray from where you can play single tracks, whole albums or play lists. It has a few other neat features such as a built-in equalizer and CDDB support, but these extras don't intrude at all. The interface is... what shall we say... a bit plain, but you can download skins from http://tinyurl.com/go2up to spruce up the looks a little; I quite like Shadow 2 as it makes the tray icon more attractive.

Once you have installed the program, right-click on it in the system tray and choose Settings > Automation > Setup. Click the tiny + button and add the folder(s) where you keep all your MP3s. Click OK and allow the program to scan the drive and add your music to its database.

Configuring STP


You select music to play via a cascading menu rather like the Start menu. To play an album right click on the STP tray icon again, point to Tracks, then point one of your favoutite artists, then to one of their albums. As you point to an album you'll see all the tracks in it – just click on a track and the album will start playing from that point. Once started, a single click on the tray icon pauses the music; a second click restarts it; a double click jumps forward one track; a triple click jumps back one track. Beautifuly simple.

STP album selection menu



(3) This next program, Taskbar ++ is one you won't realise you needed until you have have used it for a while. This nifty little utility allows you to drag open program buttons along the taskbar to a new position. Stunning, eh? Why would you want to do that? Well, every time you open a new program (or folder), it appears as a rectangular button on the task bar to the right of all the other buttons. You might be opening and closing lots of programs but want to keep one particular program open all the time. For me, it makes it easier if that program's button is on the left, near the Start button, rather than changing its position all the time as I open and close other programs. Or sometimes I'm switching continuously between two programs and it's just easier for my brain if the buttons on the taskbar are the opposite way round. Not convinced? Give it a try! Download the 595 KB installation file from http://tinyurl.com/rokop and double click to install it. To move a button on the taskbar just hold down the Alt key, hover the cursor over the button until it changes to a pointing hand, and then drag it along the taskbar to a new position.


taskbar doing its stuff...



(4) Another small utility you might never know you needed is Winroll, which you can download from http://www.snapfiles.com/get/winroll.html. Instead of minimising programs to the taskbar, it allows you to "roll them up" so that only the title bar is showing on the desktop. Not an eartshattering innovation, but using it does help to keep the desktop free from clutter and makes workig more pleasant – and therefore more productive. For example, when you write a new email the message window is usally smaller than the main program window, so it sits rather untidily on top of it. If you have Winroll installed, just right click on the main program title bar and it immediately rolls up out of the way, making it easier to see the message window against the desktop. Winroll has another trick up it's sleeve too: hold down the Shift key and right click on a window's minimise button and the winodw will minimise to the system tray rather than the taskbar. This is great for programs which you keep open all the time but seldom look at – such as your email program – as it keeps them out of the way but still immediately available; a single click on their icon in the system tray brings them back up on the desktop.


before Winroll


after Winroll...



(5) Another of my favourites is XstreamRadio. Like all the other programs outlined here it does (mainly) one thing, but does it well – in this case streaming radio. In case you don't know, streaming radio is radio played over the internet. You can listen to thousands of radio stations for free if you have an un-metered broadband connection, and the sound quality is generally good. If, like me, you live somewhere with a limited selection of stations on "normal" radio then intenet radio is a god-send. Now I can listen to the Beeb or Virgin Radio instead of the local radio stations which are nearly all in Khmer.


Now you can use Windows Media Player to listen to streaming radio (allegedly) but I haven't worked out how to do it. Fortunately, XstreamRadio doesn't take any brain power to use.
  1. Start the program and wait a few seconds while it initializes its list of radio station
  2. Click the select station button
  3. Choose a genre (if you want) and then scroll down the list to choose a station (sorted by country) from the 1000+ available
  4. Click on a station and wait a few seconds for it to bufffer
  5. Sit back and enjoy the music...

Not too difficult, eh? Oh, I forgot to mention that you can record the program you're listening to or you can schedule the program to record a station while you're away from the computer. And if you click on the little pink heart icon you can add your favourite stations to a list at the bottom so you can get to them immediately. Once playing you can minimise the program to the system tray or you can have it showing as a thin horizontal bar at the top of the screen. Eiher way it is unobtrusive.

Nip on over to http://www.xstreamradio.co.uk and download the 3 MB installation file. Double-click to start the installation and then just follow the prompts.


main panel of Xstreamradio


Note: there are supposed to be country flags next to each of the stations in the selector box, but for some reason this doesn't work on my computer with the latest version of the program (although it did with the previous version) – but maybe it will work on yours.



(6) The first installment of Computing Ideas introduced the wonderful Photofiltre program and outlined how to crop, resize and title photographs ready to email to people. It seems that some folks (no names, you know who you are) haven't taken that advice to heart because I still get huge photos emailed to me which take for ever to download and are too big to view in the email message.


Ok, this time I'm going to make it really simple. This method is so easy that you have absolutely NO excuse for sending out 5 MB photos any more. Assuming that you are runnng Windows XP (does anybody use anything else these days?) then navigate to your pictures folder, right-click on the photo(s) you want to email and choose Send To > Mail Recipient. A dialoge box opens asking if you want to make all your pictures smaller. Of course you do! Click on the more options link and the dialogue box expands to show you... more options. I suggest you choose "small" if you know the recipient is using a modem, otherwise medium is fine. Click OK. An email message opens with the resized photos already attached. Just add the address and a message and click send. Your recipient will love you to bits for making this tiny bit of effort.

Note: in case you're worried, your original photos are not affected in any way using this method.


resizing photos n Windows XP



(7) There are lot of children's educational programs available, but most of them costs real money. One of my favourite is TuxPaint, now on version 0.9.15-2 (honestly!) and available for free. It's a basic painting program which is designed to be fun and - most important - simple to use. If you compare it to Windows' own Paint program you'll see what I mean. With Tuxpaint you don't really need to read or write any English (though the program does help you to learn new words), just fire it up, click an icon and start painting. You can draw common shapes such as lines or circles or use the built-in rubber stamps to generate lots of fun shapes (animals, fish, insects, fruit, household objects etc) automatically; there are even a few backgrounds for you to paint on. Click the save icon and your picture is automatically saved and a thumbnail created which you click on next time to open the picture again – no need for file names. There are lots of special effects on tap and also "fun" sounds assigned to many actions which will keep the kids amused.


using TuxPaint


You can download the program and extra rubber stamps from http://www.newbreedsoftware.com/tuxpaint/download. If you're comfortable installing from .zip files and setting up shortcuts yourself then choose the .zip files, if not choose the Window installers which automate the installation. These files are quite large at 7.3 MB and 15.3 M respectively, but should only take an hour to download even on a slow dial-up line. On broadband they'll be down in five minutes or less.

The web page says that TuxPaint is aimed at the 3 – 10 age group, but I think it's great for kids of all ages...



(8) And finally, one for the software junkies amongst us... Altiris Software Virtualization is the best new application I've come across for ages – a computer geek's delight. It allows you to install any number of programs and capture them in "layers" which can then be turned on or off at will. When a layer is active the program in it appears to be installed on your PC and can be started and run normally; when the layer is deactivated the programs and the shortcuts to it disappear. If you don't want the program any more simply delete its layer and its gone for good.


Why is this better than installing and uninstalling programs normally? Well, for one thing, you can install two programs that do the same job, but have only one of them active at a time so that it automaticlly becomes the default for that particular function. For example, I recently downloaded the trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 (a beta test version weighing in at 440 MB!) and installed it to a layer. When I feel like messing aroud and trying out its fancy new interface I activate the layer and Word documents automatically open in the Office 2007 beta. When I deactivate the layer Word documents open in Word 2003 and I can do some real work.

Another use for software virtualization is in testing new programs. You probabaly know that frequently installing and uninstalling programs builds up a layer of sludge in Windows which eventually causes it to run slowly and crash more often. That's why I usually reinstall my operating system from scratch at least once a year. But with Altiris I can install new programs in a layer, test them out and then delete the layers if I don't want to keep the programs. This continuous creation and deleteing of layers has no effect on the underlying Windows installation - hence no sludge and no slow down.


Ok, if I have sold you on the idea then download the installation file - a modest 1.5MB - from http://tinyurl.com/fdhkt and install it as normal. You'll need to be logged on as an administrator to do this, which most users are by default. Towards the end of the installation you'll be prompted for a license key, so follow the web link given and generate a key which will be sent to you by email. A bit of a faff I know, but the software is free after all, so Altiris would like to have an idea of how many people are using it. By the way, don't hang about too long before you download – Altiris seem to have removed the free download link from their web site so it might not be easily available for long. Having said that, I think I would actually pay for this program if I had to...







Once Altiris is installed and working it's easy to install a new application into a layer. Open the Software Virtaulization Admin program and click File > Create New Layer. Choose the first radio buton "Install application" and click Next. Give the new layer a name (the name of the program you are about to install seems a good choice) and click Next again. On the following page you have two choices: Single program capture or Global capture. If you are installing a simple program which will not require much customisation then choose the first option and click Next. Glance at the summary on the next page and then click Finish.


The virtualization admin program will minimse to the system tray and appear as a flashing green ligthtning bolt, signifying that it is monitoring and capturing the program being installed. The installation should proceed as normal and there is no need to do anything special. When it finishes make sure you untick any box saying "start the program now" or such like as we want a clean end to the install. The Virtalizaton Manager should realise tha the installation has completed and end its capture, but if it doesn't for any reason then right-click on the green lightning bolt and select End Capture. The Virtualization Manager will pop back up and the newly installed program will be in the list of available layers. In fact it will be in bold, showing that it is already active. That's it, finished.

Try out the new program and make sure it works properly. If you want it to be available all the time then select it within the Virtualization Admin program and click File > Start Layer Automatically. From now on that particular program will always be available, just as if it had been installed normally. If you don't want to have the program available all the time then just activate the layer when you need it.

A few notes to finish with:


If a program you are installing needs a lot of setting up - such as arranging the interface, setting language options etc. - then when you do the installation you should select "Global capture" rather than Single program capture. That way you can run the program, do all your fiddling around and only then tell it to end the capture. Now all your special settings will be saved in the layer and you won't have to enter them each time you run the program.

Do read the manual that comes with the program. Despite its small size its quite a complex bit of software and there are a few little wrinkles which might catch you out. For example, if you accept the default settings for an application layer then when you turn off the layer all the documents you created with that application are hidden along with the program. Worse still, if you delete the layer to remove the program for good then all the documents are deleted too! But it's easy to overide this behavour and assign folders to save to which will not be virtualised. So – read the manual!


The other thing to note is that not all programs can be virtualised in this way. Software which digs in deep - such as virus scanners and firewalls - don't work with the current version of Altiris. But most "ordinary" programs should work just fine. Give it a try, it might well become one of your indispensible programs.



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Backing up made easy

I've read that there are only two kinds of computer users in the world: those who have lost important data and those who are going to. Clearly, ya gotta take precautions... so back up!

Really, there's no excuse for not keeping a copy of your critical data files as it's just so easy these days. You may already own the necessary hardware, but if not it's relatively cheap to buy. And as always, I've dug out the best FREE software to make the job easy. So if your computer goes up in smoke and takes all your work with it, don't expect any sympathy from me!

I guess the first question is: why should you back up your data? Well, hard drives typically fail after 3 or 4 years' use, but of course yours could last for 10 – or fail without warning tomorrow. If you haven't backed up your data then it's either gone for good or you face an expensive bill from a professional data recovery service. Or your computer might get stolen, especially if it's a notebook, in which case there is no way of recovering your data. If it's not important then stop reading now. But if you really don't want to lose your contact addresses, emails, digital photos, bank account records, love letters etc. then you'd better read a bit further.

The next question is: what data should you back up? I've mentioned some of the obvious things, but ultimately only you can decide what is important to you. For example, you might not worry if all your emails disappear, but you almost certainly wouldn't want to lose your digital photos. Anyway, the best thing to do is look over all the folders on your PC and make a list of the data you don't want to lose. Most things will probably be kept in My Documents, but expect to have to dig around a little bit. Some things are easy to overlook: your Favorites, email account settings, dial-up phone number and password, FTP login details etc., so spend some time and make sure you get a complete list.

You also need to know how much data you have to back up as this has a bearing on the way you go about things. Open My Documents, right-click on any folder and choose Properties from the pop-up menu – one of the bits of information shown will be the size of the folder's contents. What do the numbers mean? Well, a floppy disk holds about 1.4KB whilst a CD holds 650MB. So if you have an 80GB hard drive and it's chock full of music and photos then you're not going to back it up to floppy disks, that's for sure.

(1GB = 1000MB = 1000,000KB)


Folder properties


What kind of backups do you want to make? By that I mean do you want to make frequent, static snapshots of all your data; or make an initial backup and then back up only the data which has changed; or do you want to keep your backup constantly synchronised with your live data? You might decide to treat some data as essentially static (your music collection?) but synchronise data which changes frequently (your mail folder?).

Next consider where to store your backup data. There are quite a few options here, but for home use you're probably looking at:

  • flash drive
  • writeable CD/DVD
  • external hard drive
  • another PC
  • online storage (Internet)

And finally, you need to think about how you are going to perform the backups. Of course you could do everything manually, but I'm going to suggest a few ways of making the task easy – so easy that you'll actually do it!

Ok, that's enough background, let's discuss a couple of home-computing situations and see what would be a sensible back-up strategy for each.


Example 1 - Light user, mainly Word and Excel documents, Email and perhaps digital photographs.

Once a week seems like a good frequency for backing up to me. It’s easy to set a reminder for a certain day every week (download EH Windows Reminder from here) and it’s not so frequent as to seem troublesome. Of course, if you add some vital files to your PC mid-week you might want to do a one-off back-up, just in case.

Word and Excel documents are fairly small (and compress nicely into zip files which take up even less space) so unless you've got tens of thousands of them it's usually quite feasible to zip them up and burn them to a writeable CD. To get a feel for file sizes, I just compressed 200 Word and Excel files and the resulting zip archive was just 4.5MB, down from 10MB. Since each writeable CD holds around 650MB of data, you would be able to burn my sample archive to the same CD once a week for more than two years! Alternatively you could copy the archive to a USB flash drive and just keep overwriting the old one each week.

If you already have a zip program and/or CD burning program installed then go ahead and use them. If you don't then you can download ZipCentral from http://zipcentral.iscool.net/ and DeepBurner Free from http://www.deepburner.com/?r=download. They are both easy to use – just read of the Help files if there's anything that's not obvious.

If you're using Windows XP then it's easy to produce compressed archives without additional software – just select the files and/or folders, right click on one of them and select “Send to compressed archive”. The archive will be created right there alongside the original files and folders.

XP makes writing to CD easy too. Select the newly created archive and then, under File and Folder Tasks, click Copy the selected items. Choose your CD writer in the mini-Explorer window which opens and then under CD Writing Tasks, click Write these files to CD and follow the Wizard's prompts. Once you have burnt the archive to CD you can delete it from your hard drive.

One word of caution: make sure you check that you can read your backup CD on another computer. Writeable CDs are pretty reliable, but you should always check and not just assume that everything is ok.

Let’s think about digital photographs next. With each image occupying typically 3-5 MB these days, you don’t get so many on a CD. And since they are already compressed you can’t save space by zipping them up. So it’s not really feasible to keep writing the whole of your photo collection to CD every week or you'll soon fill a cupboard!

If you have a second computer in the house with spare hard disk space then I suggest you copy your photos to it using a USB flash drive or across the network if you have one. Once you’ve copied the whole collection across, all you have to do is copy any new ones at the end of each week. This can be a bit fiddly if you organise your photos into lots of folders, so if you are networked then you could synchronise the two PCs as described later.

If you don’t have a second PC then I guess you will have to settle for burning to CD. The main problem with this is in trying to duplicate that lovely, sensible folder structure that works so well on your main PC. Suppose you have a folder of food pictures on your first backup CD along with lots of other folders. Once the CD is full you have to create another food folder on the next CD. Well, maybe it’s not such a problem, but it might be easier to use a separate CD for each of your subject folders if you only have half a dozen or so. That way you can keep adding to the food folder until the whole CD is full of food photos – delicious.

Backing up your email is probably a good idea too. I'll use Outlook Express as an example since lots of people still use it. If you use a alternative email client then you'll have to adapt these ideas to suit.

Email can take up a surprising amount of space. My mailstore is currently 125MB. And of course it is growing daily. But do you know where your email is stored? If you're using Outlook Express then it's in a very obscure location which is almost impossible to find. So the first thing to do is to move it somewhere sensible where you can get to it easily. First create a new folder in My Documents and call it Mailstore. Then go to Tools > Options > Maintenance > Store Folder > Change, and navigate to the Mailstore folder you just created in My Documents. You will be asked if you want to move all your mail to the new location and you should answer Yes. After you restart the program it will store all new mail in the new location.

 

Setting mailstore location


Before you think about backing it up it's a good idea to delete any old mail in the various folders and empty the trash. Having done all this you might find that the mailstore folder is still as big as ever. That's because the “deleted” mails have only been marked as deleted, they haven't been purged from the disk yet. To do this you have to “compact” the folders thus: Tools > Options > Maintenance > Clean up now > Compact. Now you can back up your mail folder like any other. If you are networked then it would be best to synchronise it with a copy on another PC since it changes frequently. Otherwise copy it to a Flash drive and just overwrite it each week.

Your address book is small enough to back up just about anywhere. It's tucked away somewhere totally inaccessible (of course!), but fortunately you don't have to go digging around for it. Just open it (either from within Outlook Express or directly from the Start menu), choose File > Export, and save a copy to your Flash drive or somewhere else convenient. I like to put a copy somewhere on the Internet so that I also have access to it from anywhere...

A few years ago there was a rash of free online storage sites where you could upload files as a backup to your hard drive. They all disappeared or started charging real money. There's a strong rumour that Google is going to launch a free high-capacity online storage service soon, but for now your best bet is Yahoo! Briefcase. Yes, Yahoo! still offers a modest amount of free online storage to all its account holders, though you wouldn't know it from looking at their web site! Still, it's there if you know where to look. If you already have a Yahoo account then navigate to http://briefcase.yahoo.com and sign in with your normal Yahoo! ID. You will find that you have 30MB of free online storage available, plenty to store your most critical files. Be a bit careful though – don't store your bank details up there unless you encrypt them first - Yahoo!'s technicians have easy access to your files, even if no-one else does. If you don't have a Yahoo! account then you might want to sign up for one just for the online storage.

One advantage of online storage is that it's offsite. If your house burns down your precious data is still safe. So do think about where to store your backups. Don't keep your backup CDs next to your computer – it's tempting fate. Lock them in another room if possible. If the data is really important consider storing a copy at another site altogether. For example, when we went back to the UK last autumn we took copies of all our photos on CD and left them with my mother.


Example 2 - Heavy user, all types of office documents, email, photographs, music, video, downloaded software etc.

So much for the typical light user. How about the person who uses their computer a lot and has many GB of files to back up? I suppose that using a writeable or re-writeable DVD is a possibility, but really the best solution is to use an external hard drive for your main backup. These drives have tumbled in price and an 80GB model can easily be bought for under $100. Ok, that's not exactly beer money, but think of it as an investment. With all your data backed up securely you can sleep easily. Shop around (online) and you'll find some real bargains.

There are basically two types of external hard drive: desktop and portable. I don't think everyone uses those names, but you get the idea. The desktop drives contain 3.5” hard drives, the same as inside a desktop computer. They come in capacities from 40GB up to 250GB, plug in to the computer via USB (or sometimes Firewire) and have a power brick which plugs into the mains. They're really designed to be placed next to your PC and plugged in more-or-less permanently.

Portable drives use the 2.5” hard drives from notebook computers and are consequently much smaller - and more expensive. They connect via USB (or Firewire) and come in capacities from 20GB up to about 120GB. They take their power through the USB cable and therefore don't need to be plugged into the mains. You can think of them like a giant-capacity USB flash drive – just plug it in as-and-when needed and lock it away for security when you don't.

I have been using a portable hard drive for my main backup since last autumn when I bought a Freecom Classic Mobile 80GB drive. With such a large capacity I find it easy to back up everything without sorting or compressing my data. The photo below shows how small the drive is next to my computer.


Freecom mobile classic


Ok, so you have bought your shiny new external hard drive and connected it to your PC. It probably came with some proprietary backup software which you might want to try out. If you like it then stick with it, but if not you should download SyncBack from http://www.2brightsparks.com. This free program is designed to synchronise folders across two locations such as two PCs or a PC and an external hard drive, making it ideal for our purpose. Make sure you scroll down the page and download the FREE version!

When you run SyncBack for the first time it will ask you to create a profile. A profile is simply a folder you want to backup and instructions on where and how to do it. You can see an example of a profile being created in the screen shot below. If you keep your data in My Documents and want to treat it all the same way then you only need one profile. But if you keep it in discrete folders like I do then you will want to create separate profiles for each folder. This has the advantage that you can use a different backup scheme for each folder if you desire.


SyncBack profiles


What I suggest you do is create a folder on the external hard drive and name it Backup or some such thing. Inside it create folders with the same names as the folders you intend to back up. That makes the first step in setting up a profile – choosing which folders to link – as simple as possible.

There are quite a few choices available on the Advanced tab, but generally it makes sense to do the following:

  • if any file has changed in the source, overwrite the copy in the backup

  • if there are any new files in the source, copy them to the backup

  • if any files have been deleted from the source, delete them from the backup

Well, you might argue with that last one. You could choose to leave files on the backup even if you delete them from your main PC, just to cover yourself if you made a mistake and needed the file a few months later. I don't make that kind of mistake of course :) Or might choose to use your external hard drive to archive certain files which you don't access often, in which case you would not delete them from the backup even though you deleted them from the source. Think this through carefully for each profile you create.


Profile properties


Having created the profiles, you just need to run them. Select one (or more by holding down the Ctrl key) and click run. It's a little scary the first time since there's a risk of deleting your data accidentally if you make a mistake, but fortunately SyncBack allows you to perform a simulation to see exactly what will be copied and/or deleted when you do a run for real. So do a simulation and look carefully to see what SyncBack is going to do.

If this is the first time you have done a backup, then essentially what will happen is that all the files in your source will be copied across to the backup drive. This could take a long time – it took more than two hours for me the first time. But after that it will be much quicker – probably just a few seconds - as only new and changed files will be copied. All you need to do now is to remember to run the backups.

So far so good. But it gets better. If you leave your backup drive attached all the time, you can tell Syncback to do the backups automatically according to a schedule that you decide. You might choose to back up every day at 10.00 a.m. or perhaps 8.00 p.m. if you are usually at the computer in the evening – note that it has to be switched on(!) even if you are not actually logged in and using it. To set a schedule, right click on any profile and choose Schedule. Enter your Windows login password and then click the Schedule tab at the top and set the time and repeat values. The only other thing to do is to set SyncBack to run automatically when Windows starts – do this from the Preferences menu of the main program window. From now on it'll sit in the System Tray and spring into action at the appropriate time.


Setting password

 

Setting schedule frequency

If you can't find a regular time to schedule backups then at least set yourself a reminder on a specific day each week using download EH Windows Reminder – see download address earlier.

Note:
Although I have used backing up to an external hard drive as an example, you can use SyncBack to back up to a second PC connected over a network or even to a rewritable CD or DVD if you don't have too much data. You can also use it to synchronise files on two PCs so that each has an exact copy of the files on the other – this could be useful if two people work on the same set of files but on different machines, as Ming and I do. If one person creates a new document it is automatically copied to the other PC; if the other person modifies it then it is automatically copied back and overwrites the original - if that's what you want.


Belt and braces
Well, with your data safely backed up to a second hard drive, you can certainly sleep more soundly. Still, if some of your work is really important/irreplaceable then I suggest you opt for an offsite solution as well. Small files can be backed up to the Internet as described earlier, and larger files can be burnt to CD or DVD and left with a friend. It might seem like a lot of trouble, but that chance theft (or fire) will most likely take out your backup too if it's kept too close!


Was this useful for you? Any problems? Any comments? Click the Leave a comment link, scroll to the bottom of the page and .... well, leave a comment!

101 uses for a USB drive

Remember floppy disks? Once ubiquitous, they have, to all intents and purposes, been replaced by writable CDs (CDRs) and USB Flash Drives or Thumb Drives or Memory Sticks or whatever you prefer to call them. CDRs are themselves being replaced by writable DVDs, but the flash drive market is just getting into its stride. With prices as low as $25 for 256 MB it's not hard to see why. But if you’re only using your flash drive for storing files then you are missing out on a big part of its usefulness. When properly set up it can become a portable computer...

Ok, I was exaggerating on that last bit. But you can store and run a lot of useful programs on a modestly sized USB stick, making it an ideal travel companion. All modern computers have USB ports and as soon as you insert a flash drive the correct drivers are automatically loaded and you can access it through My Computer just like any other drive. You can, of course, use it for storing files, but here I want to look at alternative uses that may not have occurred to you. All of the programs mentioned can be downloaded for free so there's no excuse for not giving them a try. And they are all nice and small so you’ll still have lots of room for saving files…

But just in case you don't actually own a USB drive (impossible, surely?) let me give you a few pointers for buying one. Firstly, 256 MB is about the smallest that's worth considering these days. Smaller capacities are available but they aren't that much cheaper. And you'll be amazed how fast you can fill 256 MB. So why not buy the biggest you can afford? Seems like a good idea, but bear in mind that they don't last for ever even though they have no moving parts. I have "lost" two so far: one got fried when I plugged it into a faulty PC and the other got bent in my pocket. If you spend $100 on a 1 GB flash drive and it only lasts a month you're going to be pretty miffed.

Try and inspect the drive before you buy it. Does it feel solid in your hands? Does the cap fit snugly or will it drop off easily? How big is the casing? - if it's too big it can be difficult to fit in to USB ports which are crammed too close together. For me, small is beautiful. Does it come with a mini-CD containing a driver for Windows 98? - not all do, yet you might want to use it on an older PC. And is there an extension lead included which you can leave plugged into a USB port round the back of the computer so that you don't have to go grubbing around every time you want to plug in the USB stick? - they're very useful.


USB drive and accessories

Hot tip from Jan (thanks!): if you spend a bit more you can buy a USB stick with built in FM tuner and MP3 player. Take a look - you might decide that the extra cost and weight are worthwile.

By the way, USB is on version 2.0 now. What used to be called simply USB is retrospectively called USB 1.1 (don't ask me what happened to version 1.0!) and it’s much slower. I don't think that you can still buy USB 1.1 flash drives, but the USB ports on older computers will be version 1.1, which will slow down version 2.0 drives. But at least they’ll work, so you don't have to worry about compatibility at all.

A new implementation of USB - called U3 - is just arriving on the scene. Basically this is a tightly integrated hardware/software approach which will allow you to run specially configured programs from a compatible USB drive. In other words, what I am describing to you in this document will be common in a year or two...

Ok, let's dive in and install some software. It’s a good idea to create a new folder on your flash drive to put all of these programs in – call it “Utilities” or something like that.


Personal Information Manager (PIM)
Many people use Microsoft Outlook for email, contacts, scheduling etc. Some go further and synchronise it with a palmtop computer so that they can carry their data with them. Personally I find Outlook too big and clumsy and I don't own a palmtop computer. So I looked around for an alternative system…

Essential PIM is a nice, simple alternative which - as its name suggests - does just the essentials: Contact, Schedule, To-Do and Notes. It can import data from Outlook or Outlook Express to get you started, or you can enter data manually. Whilst you can install the program on your desktop PC, there's a portable version available which is designed to run straight from a USB drive. So instead of trying to synchronise two versions of your data, just keep the program and data on your flash drive at all times and run it from there.

Download the file EssentialPIMPort1.zip (careful - there are lots of files on this page) from http://www.essentialpim.com/?r=download and unzip it into a new folder called EssentialPIM on your flash drive. Open the folder and then double click on the Essential PIM icon to start the program. The first time it runs it opens a special demonstration file which gives you an idea of the program's capabilities. It's a good idea to play around with this data for a while to familiarise yourself with the program.

When you are ready to start using the program for real click File, New, and all the test data will disappear. Import your contacts, add to-Dos etc and then click File, Save. In the Save dialogue box that opens, give the data file a sensible name (yours?) and save it to the Database folder in the Essential PIM folder on your flash drive. The next time you open the program it will use your own data instead of the demonstration file.

Ok, if you are already a dedicated Outlook or Lotus Notes user you probably won't want to change to a "puny" little program like Potable PIM. But if - like me - you have more modest demands, you might find it an excellent alternative. It'll certainly help you stay organised and allow you to carry your essential data with you on the road. Highly recommended.


Email
Although most people get by using web-based email such as Hotmail or Yahoo when they're travelling, wouldn’t it be nice to use your normal POP–based email account instead? No more painfully slow page refreshes or lost emails like you get when using Hotmail on a slow internet connection, and you can just carry on using your usual email address and have all you mails in the same place when you get back home. All you need to do is run a portable email client such as Popcorn from your USB drive.

Popcorn does not work in quite the same way as a typical mail program. In reality you're reading mail directly from your POP3 server, without downloading it to a local mailbox on your PC (although you can save mail messages to your USB drive if you want to). You can use it to read email headers only, which makes it ideally suited for checking mail over a slow internet connection and deleting the junk. Since all your account information is saved with the program you can easily move between locations. And if you are carrying a notebook PC with you then you can write all you mails in Popcorn, nip to the internet cafe, plug in your USB stick and click send. Convinced?

Start by downloading version 1.48 of the program from http://www.woundedmoon.org/win32_freeware.html. This is an older version of the program and the last free version which allows you to use multiple accounts - very useful for some people. If you only ever use one email account then you can download the last available free version from http://www.freedownloadscenter.com/Email_Tools/Mail_Clients/Popcorn.html

Create a new folder called Popcorn on your USB drive and extract the installation files in the into it; double click on the Popcorn icon to start the program. You will be asked if you want to create a new profile, so if you are ready you should go ahead. Click New and then give the profile a name such as " Yahoo". You will need to enter a few essential bit of information: your email address, your POP server, your user name and your SMTP server, so make sure you have all this information to hand before you start! You can get it all from your existing email program, probably under the heading "accounts". For example:

andyprice@myisp.com
pop.myisp.com
andyprice
smtp.myisp.com

Although there's a place to enter your password and even the option to save it, I suggest you leave this blank and enter the password each time you run the program.


Email settings


Once you've entered the information in the appropriate places, make sure you are connected to the internet and then try it out. Click the red tray icon to get all headers from the server. If everything is working then any mails on the server will be listed in the top part of the program window. Click on any one of them and the contents of the mail will be downloaded to memory and displayed in the bottom area. If you want to save the mail to your USB drive then click File, Save and save it as you would any other file. To write a mail just click on the yellow envelope icon, enter the email address and then compose your message as normal.


Popcorn email client


Not all ISPs allow you to use their smtp server unless you are actually connected to the internet via their lines. In other words, you might not be able to send mail when you are sitting in an internet café rather than at home. If yours doesn’t work then you can use the Yahoo smtp server if you have a Yahoo account:

  • in the SMTP Server section enter smtp.mail.yahoo.com
  • tick “my server requires authentication” and click Settings
  • enter your Yahoo user name and password and click OK

Give it a try – you might never go back to Hotmail.
 

Instant messaging
For some people –  especially young people like me(!) – instant messaging (IM) is more important than Email. But when I’m on the road I’m reluctant to put my account details into IM clients in an internet café because of privacy fears – lots of computers are set  up to remember passwords by default and sometimes you can’t delete the account when you’ve finished. Luckily there is a nice IM client that can run straight from a USB stick – Portable GAIM. It’s fairly basic but has the advantage that it can connect to MSN, Yahoo, ICQ and AOL accounts all at the same time, as well as keeping all your account details within the program – cool.

Download the installation file from http://portableapps.com/apps/internet/chat/portable_gaim and extract it to a folder called Portable GAIM on your USB drive. Double click on the Gaim icon to run it. On first run you will need to enter the log-in name and password for each service you wish to use. You do this from Tools, Accounts. If you want, you can tell the program to remember your password and log you in automatically, but I’m not keen on doing this in case I lose my stick!

That’s about all there is to it. Using Portable Gaim is pretty much like using any other IM client, but it doesn’t have all the advanced features such as video conferencing which the “real” clients have. Still, it doesn’t have their complexity either, and it doesn’t shove annoying weather forecasts and stock quotes in your face, so for me the simplicity is a bonus.


GAIM IM client

 

Spell checking

I know that most programs have got spell checkers built in these days, but if they are web-based (such as Hotmail) they can be pretty slow and they definitely won’t know all the words in your custom dictionary; hence they’ll keep flagging “dunno” as a spelling mistake! And no IM client has got a spell checker as far as I know.

You can get round these problems by using a USB-based spell checker called tinySpell which checks your spelling as you type. If you make a mistake it beeps at you and you can then choose the correct word using the keys. And you can train it to remember the unique words you use and take those customisations with you.

Download the program from http://www.snapfiles.com/download/dltinyspell.html; extract the files to your hard drive and then double click setup.exe to install it. The program is really designed to run from your hard drive but works equally well on a USB drive, so make sure you install it to your stick. The install will add a few entries to your start menu, but you can delete these.

Once you’ve finished, open the tinySpell program folder on your USB stick and double click the tinySpell icon to start the program. The only thing you’ll notice is a tinySpell icon in the system tray; right click on the icon to set configuration options etc.

Using the program is simplicity itself. Just type. If you hear a small beeping noise (which indicates a word the program doesn’t recognise) then press the Ctrl and ; (semicolon) keys at the same time. A small window will pop up offering alternative spellings or the option to ignore or add to the custom dictionary. Make your choice and continue typing.


Security
Carrying private information around with you and using other people’s computers is potentially less secure than computing at home. Next up are four utilities to help keep you safe on the road.

Not everyone has an up-to-date virus scanner installed on their PC, so when you are practicing portable computing you run the risk of catching something nasty from a computer outside your control. I've been looking around for a while for a virus scanner which would run off a USB drive and recently stumbled upon Portable WinClam. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it seems to do the job. Download it to from http://tinyurl.com/q7gts and install it directly to your USB drive. Accept the prompt to download the latest virus database and you're all set.

The next time you are working on an unprotected computer you can scan any files you download to make sure they are clean. Simply choose the drive, folder or files you wish to scan and click the Scan button. Note that Portable WinClam doesn't run in the background like a "normal" virus scanner installed on the PC does - you have to specifically tell it what to scan. Still, for most purposes this is more than adequate. Just remember to update the virus signatures before you use it



Did you know that when you delete a document it’s not really deleted at all? Instead the operating system just labels the file as deleted and marks the bit of the hard drive that it occupies as available again. Until another document gets written to that area of the drive, your old file is still there and easily recoverable. Ultrashredder is a small utility which overwrites selected files with random characters (up to 20 times), which makes them effectively unrecoverable. There’s not much more to say about it really; it’s small, simple and gets the job done.

Download the installation file from http://www.xtort.net/xtort/ultra.php and unzip it into a new folder on your USB drive. Double click the Ultrashredder icon to start the program and set the number of passes you want – use 20 for maximum security. Open a folder containing files you want to delete and drag the files onto the Ultrashredder window. Click the Shred button. You’ll get one chance to back out and then that’s it, gone for ever.
Ultrshredder


How about keeping your files safe from prying eyes in the first place? While many USB drives come with free encryption software, all of them seem to require you to install the software on your PC, as well as on the stick. So if you want to read your encrypted files on a different PC you have to install the software on that too. Duh! Remora USB Disk Guard is a free utility which installs and runs directly off a USB drive and which can encrypt either files or complete folders.

Download it from http://www.soft32.com/download_121611.html and double click the file to begin the installation. Select your flash drive (e.g. F: drive) as the destination and ignore any warning about the directory already existing. Once complete you will see a folder called Remora USB Disk Guard and a red icon labelled usbdiskguard – double click on the latter icon to start the program. Nothing much seems to happen, but a small red padlock icon appears in the system tray; right click on it and choose restore. A small window appears asking you to choose a password to gain access to the program and then another password to actually encrypt files. Input some good passwords that you can remember and then you are all set.

Anytime you want to encrypt or decrypt files or folders, start the program and then right click the icon in the system tray and choose Restore. Type in your access password (the first one you entered) and a small USB drive-shaped window appears. The first two icons are for encrypting/decrypting files, the second two for folders, and the last one for configuration. Using the program is quite straightforward; for example, click the Encrypt selected files button, select one or more files (hold down the Ctrl button while you click) in the dialogue box, then click the Open button. The files are instantly encrypted (using the second password you entered earlier) and replace the original files; test.txt becomes test.txt.~s for example. To read the files again you must first decrypt them: click the Decrypt selected files button, select the encrypted file(s) in the dialogue box and then click Open. This time you will be asked for the password, so enter the second password; the files are decrypted and replace the encrypted ones. Encrypting and decrypting complete folders works in the same way.

Remora USB Disk Guard
Ok, it sounds a bit complicated but it’s very easy in practice. Just remember your two passwords as there’s no way of reading encrypted files if you should forget them…

 

Talking of passwords, how many do you have? And are they good, long ones which are impossible to guess or crack? If they are then there’s a good chance that you have them written down somewhere since good passwords are difficult to remember! The easiest way out of this dilemma is to use a good password manager such as Keepass in which you can enter all your user names and passwords and secure them with a single passphrase. Download the program from http://prdownloads.sourceforge.net/keepass/KeePass-1.04.zip?download
and unzip it into a folder called Keepass on your USB drive. Make sure you download the .zip version for the above address; there is a .exe version which adds items to your Windows Start menu, but since we’re installing on a flash drive we don’t want to do that.

Start the program by double clicking on the Keepass icon. The program window appears – empty. Click on File, New Database, and then enter a master passphrase. This should be long and difficult to guess; but don’t forget it or all your other passwords will be inaccessible. Next, click on a category on the left (Email, Home banking etc) and then right click in the empty space on the right and select Add Entry. Fill in your account details and then click OK. Add your other accounts in the same way. When you’ve finished, click File, Save Database, and save the database in the Keepass folder on your USB stick. Close the program.

To use a password, start the program and enter your passphrase. Select a category on the left and all the accounts in that category will show on the right. If you entered the URL (web address) for an account then you can double click on its entry to open your browser at the appropriate web site. Make sure you can see the Keepass window and then drag your user name from Keepass into the user name field on the web page. Do the same for your password. Simple and effective.


Keepass


 

If your Keepass database gets corrupted for any reason (mine hasn’t, but you never know) then you’re going to lose all your passwords. Not good. So to forestall this disaster, use the Export function in Keepass (File, Export to) and save a copy of the information as a text document in a secure location – you might want to encrypt it!


Well, I think that’s enough to be going on with. I’d just like to mention that there are portable versions of quite a few mainstream programs such as the Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client and the Open Office office suite. They’re all excellent programs and if you’re wedded to them on the desktop then you might want them on your USB drive as well. Download them – and others - from http://portableapps.com.


Was this useful for you? Any problems? Any comments? Click the Leave a comment link and .... well, leave a comment!

Online security (2)

Last time we looked at virus scanners, firewalls and spyware removal tools. I’ll try and keep this second instalment on security simple and sweet. Really I just want to give a few pointers about tightening up Windows itself. Before we start, here's a ...




intro
You may not realise it, but a default installation of Windows is extremely insecure because Microsoft chose to trade off security for ease of use. Perhaps most users preferred it that way a few years ago, but I’m not so sure about nowadays. Luckily you can take control and tip the balance towards the security end of the scale, but don’t expect it to be painless. Simple, yes, but it does require some effort. The good news is that once you have done the groundwork, keeping on top of things is relatively quick and easy.

Please read the whole of this document before trying things out as I have written them in the best order for understanding rather than the order you should do them in.

bugs and patches
All software contains programming errors, charmingly referred to as bugs rather than mistakes. Some of the bugs in Windows are security related and can be exploited by viruses, hackers etc. If the potential consequences of the exploit are serious enough then Microsoft will create a “patch” to fix the bug. The idea is that you apply the patch to your Windows installation to eliminate the potential problem - but you have to do this before the baddies start exploiting the bug. It follows that keeping your copy of Windows patched and up to date is vital - perhaps even more important than using a virus scanner. Patches are available for download from the Microsoft web site, each version of Windows having its own specific page.

service packs
You can install patches one-by-one, and system administrators often do it this way to retain total control over what gets patched and what doesn't. But for ordinary users this would be a pain, so every year or so Microsoft gathers all the latest patches together and re-issues them as a Service Pack. Instead of applying individual patches you can just apply a Service Pack and the installer will work out which patches you need and install them for you. Neat. Each new service pack contain all the previous patches, so if you have an original copy of Windows 2000 with no Service Packs installed, you simply install the latest one, SP4. Likewise, for XP you would install SP2. You can download the Service Packs over the Internet or you can obtain them on CD. The only problem is, if you wait for the service packs to come out you leave your computer vulnerable for a long, long time.


microsoft update website
Nowadays Microsoft has a web site which applies the patches for you automatically. All you have to do is visit the web site - http://update.microsoft.com - and follow the onscreen instructions. You can also start the update process by clicking Start > Help and Support > Keep your computer up-to-date with Windows Update (in the Pick a task category) in Windows XP, or find the Windows Update icon on the Start menu for Windows 98/2000.

I won’t go through the whole process here, but basically the update site scans your computer to analyse your current configuration, compares it with the “ideal” state, and then recommends the patches to be installed. At that point you can choose to install them or not.

The process sounds simple and indeed it is, but the first time you do it you have to go through a number of hoops. If you are running Windows XP (which most people are these days) then the first time you visit the update site you may have to validate your copy of Windows to prove that it is not pirated (actually they call it the Windows Genuine Advantage Program!) - it’s an easy process which only takes two minutes, so go ahead and do it.

Once you have validated, you have a choice of two types of scan, Express and Custom. For now, click on the Express button. The computer will chug away for a few minutes and then recommend that you download and install a number of small programs to get it ready to use the latest version of the update site. You may have to do this a couple of times until eventually your PC is ready to scan for the actual critical updates…

So keep running the Express scan and eventually it will present you with a list of critical updates to apply. If you haven’t done any before (and if you haven't installed the latest Service Pack) then the list will be as long as your arm. They will all be selected by default, though occasionally one or more patches have to be installed separately and you should deselect these the first time. Assuming that you are on broadband then just click Install and go and watch a movie. When the update process is finished, restart the computer and then run the scan again and do any more updates which are recommended. Keep scanning until no more are required.

Ok, it sounds a bit of a pain and it is, but you only have to do all this the first time. Once you have validated, got your computer ready to use the update site and installed all the outstanding updates, checking for new critical updates takes just a few minutes once a month. In fact, you can set your computer to check and download updates automatically without any effort on your part. Read on...


automatic updates

Once you have got your computer up to date, it's best to make sure that Automatic Updates is turned on so that you are informed of new updates as they become available and (if you want) they are downloaded and installed automatically. You can do this in a number of ways: from the Microsoft Update site itself, via the Control Panel or, in XP with SP2, via the Security Centre. Once automatic updates are turned on, a small icon will flash in the system tray (bottom right) to inform you about new updates.

If you are on broadband then I suggest you let Windows download and install updates automatically. It'll do this in the background whenever you are online, so you can more-or-less forget about it. If you are using a modem and only go online for short periods, it's best to set automatic updates to inform you when updates are available but not to download or install them; instead you should log on at a convenient time and do the updates via the Microsoft Update site.




notes

1) Very occasionally, installing a critical update will cause a problem with a piece of software on your computer or even with Windows itself. This has only happened to me once and on that occasion ZoneAlarm was affected and had to be reinstalled. But I think that a single problem in the thousands of updates I have done is not too bad. Still, it makes sense to back up our important documents before you embark on a major undertaking such as updating Windows for the first time.

2) If you are on a modem rather than broadband, the amount of time required to update an original copy of Windows via the update site might test your patience. The best solution is to apply the latest Service Pack first and then go back to the Windows update site to do the latest few. Microsoft used to supply Service Packs on CD for free, but now they charge about $10.

  • You can order SP2 for Windows XP here: http://tinyurl.com/6g675
  • If you’re using Windows 2000 and live in the USA or Canada you can order SP4 here: http://tinyurl.com/7f5lb
  • If you’re still using Windows 98 then you’re out of luck – Microsoft doesn’t seem to supply the relevant Security Update CD any more. Ask around to see if any of your friends got the free update CD when it was available a couple of years ago.

How do you know if you already have the latest Service Pack installed on your PC? Just right-click in My Computer, choose properties, and read carefully what it says next to your version of Windows - see the screen shot below. If you already have the latest versions installed (SP2 for WinXP and SP4 for Win2000) then head straight for the update site.


 

3) Windows 95/98 never did get any Service Packs and support for Windows 95 was withdrawn ages ago. Windows 98 is still partially supported though, and you can update it via the update site in the same way as for XP. But not all bugs get fixed in 98, so it is getting steadily less and less secure.

4) The original update site only dealt with Windows, but the recently revamped version of the site, now called Microsoft Update, actually scans most (all?) Microsoft software in your computer, including Microsoft Office, and recommends patches for those too. In effect it has become a one-stop shop for keeping all our MS software up to date. However, you don’t always seem to get sent to the latest version of the site at present and you may end up updating only Windows, not Office. If that’s the case, you can update Office on it’s own web site, http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/officeupdate.

5) In Windows 2000 and XP you have to be logged on to the computer with administrative rights to do any updates, automatic or otherwise. As it happens, because of Microsoft's stance regarding security vs. convenience, 99% of users are already logged in as administrator by default so this is not an issue. But if you do try to do updates when logged on as a limited user you will get a warning telling you that you need to log in as an administrator. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read the section about logging in and authority levels a bit further down the page!

 

other software
As I said earlier, all software contains bugs, so you need to keep all the software on your PC up to date to be really secure. For example, I just read that the commonly installed Flash Shockwave browser plug-in has a critical security flaw which would allow an attacker to take over your PC, and should be updated to the latest version to correct this. But really... who wants to spend all their free time updating their computer software every time a bug is discovered? I think the important thing is to keep Windows, Office, your browser and your email client up to date, and then just get on with your life.


administrator vs. limited user
I won't make a big fuss over this, but I will try and explain authority levels and their significance in a security context.

With Windows 95 and 98, everyone who uses the computer has total control over it. He/she can install programs, delete files and generally screw things up. Windows NT (and its descendants 2000 and XP) introduced (to Windows) the concepts of authentication and access control. Each user needs a log-in name and password to gain access to the computer and, once logged in, their assigned level of authority allows them to do specific things and no others. For example, an administrator can do anything at all, whereas a limited user can only run programs and read/create documents.

Now, any virus or malware that gets onto your computer runs in the context of the currently logged-in user. If you are a limited user then the virus is partially contained as all it can do is run programs or save files. But if you are logged in as an administrator then it can do anything, even format your hard drive and wipe away all your data. So it makes sense to run as a limited user as much as possible, just to add an extra layer to your security. You still need an administrator account for installing software and  the like, but you won't need to use it often once you have got your properly PC set up.

Unfortunately, each new user account which Windows XP creates is automatically made an administrator, without ever explaining why this might not be a good idea. So you are probably running as an administrator right now - I have yet to find anyone who routinely runs as a limited user (outside of a corporate setting where they have no choice in the matter) despite the safety advantages of doing so. Mind you, it's hardly surprising when Microsoft is so backward on the whole topic.

Fortunately it's easy to create a new user and assign him/her the appropriate authority level: administrator or limited user. But if you simply to create a new limited account for yourself and leave the old one as an administrator account then you are going to run into problems. Windows 2000 and XP use something called User Profiles which attempt to isolate each user of the computer from all the other users. If you have been logging in as "Andy" for the past year then all your documents, Favorites, Bookmarks, Email setting etc will be stored in a folder called something like C:\Documents and Settings\Andy. When you create a new limited user called Pandy, everything specific to him will be stored in C:\Documents and Settings\Pandy and Andy's documents will not be accessible! In other words, your previous computer existence disappears from sight. Worse still, a few programs only appear on the Start menu of the user who installed them, so some of your programs might not be immediately available either. What a nightmare! Fortunately, there is an easy solution...

For Windows XP users, open the Control Panel and double click on User Accounts. You will probably see two users: your current user name and Guest. Click on Create New Account and create a new account called (say) Admin and make it an administrator. Set a good password (see later) and write it down somewhere. Don't lose it! You have to enter the password twice, and it's a good idea to get someone else to enter it the second time just to make sure it is correct. Now log off and log back on as Admin a couple of times to make sure that the account is working properly and that you can access it. While logged in as Admin, open the Control Panel, click on your old user name, click Change Account Type and change it to Limited User. While you're at it, set a password if one isn't already set (see later) and then log off and log back in to your old account. Everything should look the same and work the same, even though you are now a limited user. Check that you can access your documents, email etc and then get on with your computing as before.

Well, it's just possible that the odd program or two will refuse to run as a limited user. Some are designed that way deliberately, some are just badly written. But these days it's rare to find a new program that gives problems and I run as a limited user nearly all the time. If you find that a program won’t run when you are a limited user, right click on it’s icon in the Start menu and choose “Run as” from the short cut menu which pops up. Click on the “the following user” radio button and choose your administrator account (Admin?) from the drop down list. Enter the correct password and the program will run as if you are an administrator.




passwords
Might as well talk about passwords here as they are fundamental to good security. It is usually recommended that passwords are at least eight characters long and contain a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters such as ! or @. This makes them hard to guess or crack using software, but unfortunately it also makes them hard to remember. One possible way round this is take a word and change a few of the characters around e.g. nowayout becomes n0w@youT. Another approach is to use a long pass phrase instead of substituting numbers and special characters. "I'm the urban spaceman, baby" would be quite secure and perhaps easier to remember. Which ever way you choose, make sure that you do use good a password for your Windows administrator account as certain viruses look for weak or non-existent passwords and then attack.

Well, I think that’s enough to digest in one sitting. Actually, it’s pretty simple really, you just need to work through the steps one by one and it’ll all fall into place…

1) If you are on broadband go on to step 2. If you use a modem then check which service pack you have installed. If it's SP2 (Windows XP) or SP4 (Windows 2000) go on to the next step. If it isn't then obtain the latest service pack on CD unless you don't mind staying on-line for 12 - 24 hours.

2) Log on to http://update.microsoft.com and update your Windows and Office installations. Keep going until no more updates are available.

3) Configure Automatic Updates to download and install updates automatically.

4) If you are running as Administrator, consider setting up a new account for doing administration tasks and then downgrade your exisiting account to Limited.

5) Make sure that both the Administrator account and your own have got strong passwords.

6) Sit back and relax...


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Online security (1)

Yep, I know, you just want to get on with using your computer and not worry about all this security stuff. Fifteen or twenty years ago you could safely do that, but now you need to worry about:

  • viruses, trojans, worms etc – programs which infect your computer and do various things from the innocuous (pop-ups, silly messages) to the worrying (steal private information) to the downright malicious (disable your computer).
  • spyware – programs which report your surfing activities to someone on the internet who then uses that information for targeted advertising.
  • on-line scams – emails or web sites designed to fool you into parting with your account details or your money.

(There’s an excellent article by Sophos at http://tinyurl.com/a7fbo which explains the difference between them all if you are interested)

To achieve complete online security is impossible, but the home user can get close without too much problem. Let’s tackle the easiest areas first and save the real heavy lifting for next week.

virus scanner
A good virus scanner is your first line of defence against malicious software. If you haven’t got an up-to-date scanner on your PC then you’re crazy!

Norton and MacAfee are the best known and for sure they do the job. But they cost real money upfront and you have to pay a subscription fee to keep them up to date after the first year – without which they are useless. On top of that, they are rather resource hungry and tend to slow down all but the fastest PCs. Still, if you are already happily running Norton or MacAfee and pay the annual subscription to keep them up to date then I won’t try to persuade you stop using them. But if you would prefer to have an effective and free antivirus solution then read on…

For several years now I have been using the free version of AVG antivirus, currently in version 7. It scans incoming mail, certifies your outgoing mail, scans files as you open them etc, just like the big boys. If it finds an infected mail or file it moves it to the Virus Vault out of harms way. You update it online and generally it takes just a few seconds to download the update file, even on a slow modem connection. The free version is slightly crippled compared to the paid version in that you can’t schedule automatic updates or system scans, but I don’t find either of these features essential. What you do get is solid virus detection for free.

Download your copy of AVG Free from http://tinyurl.com/5lc83 and save it to your software folder or somewhere else where you can find it. If you are replacing an existing antivirus program such as Norton then make sure you fully uninstall that program first – trying to run the two together will give you problems. Next, double click on the AVG installation file and follow the on-screen instructions to install it. Accept all the defaults (unless you have a good reason not to) and reboot when the installation finishes.

When the computer restarts you should log on to the internet and allow AVG to update itself. This first update is usually large – about 5 MB – but subsequent updates are much smaller, so don’t be alarmed. After the update (disconnect from the ΄net of you’re on a modem) you’ll be asked if you want to create rescue disks, but they’re hardly worth the bother these days so just skip to the next step. Allow AVG to do a full scan of your PC unless you have been using an up-to-date virus scanner previously and are confident your machine is virus-free. Once that’s finished you are all set and should consider yourself lucky that such a good antivirus solution is available for free!

Just remember to update AVG once a day when you go on line – right click on the AVG icon in the system tray and choose Check for Updates. If any updates are available they’ll be presented to you and you have to explicitly choose to download them. Occasionally several downloads will be offered – a basic virus definition update and one or more, larger program updates. Always download the program updates to keep the virus scanning engine itself up to date.

Notes
Sometimes AVG updates itself without any user intervention, but I haven’t been able to determine what triggers the updating process. It also runs complete scans of the hard drive when it feels like it, so you might occasionally see a lot of disk activity and find your PC running slowly while the scan is in progress. Luckily, the scan can be stopped but there doesn’t seem to be any way of changing the scheduling without paying for the commercial version. Such is the price of free software…

If you can’t get on with AVG for the above reasons there’s a second free virus scanner you could try; Avast! We have installed t on one of our home PCs and so far it seems excellent. It updates automatically as soon as you go on line (which is a bit annoying for modem users if you only bob on line for a minute to check your emails, but great for broadband) and plays pre-recoded messages over the speakers to warn you of potential hazards etc. If you have a slow, old machine such as a Pentium II then it might be better than AVG, which tends to make downloading email rather slow. The only reason I don’t recommend it over AVG is that I have much less experience of using it, but so far so good… I think I’ll be changing over completely soon. Download it from http://www.avast.com/eng/free_virus_protectio.html

In case you’re wondering how virus scanners identify viruses, in essence they look for a bit of unique program code which only particular viruses possesses. An antivirus program contains a scanning engine and a database of thousands of virus “signatures” or “fingerprints” with which it compares the files on your computer. If it spots a file with a known virus fingerprint it flags it as a potential threat and issues a warning. Since new viruses are being introduced daily you need to update the virus database on your PC regularly to catch the new ones…

Removing viruses is not always easy. Sometimes they dig themselves in really deep and you need to download special tools from the internet to prise them out. You can usually locate such tools by doing a search in Google with keywords such as “nastyworm removal tool”. Avast! offer a compilation tool which removes more than twenty common worms; get it from http://www.avast.com/eng/avast_cleaner.html. Better not to get infected in the first place…

firewall
A few years ago only big corporations were permanently connected to the internet and needed the protection of a firewall. Nowadays many home users are online semi-permanently and are being constantly probed for weaknesses. I read one report recently which said that unprotected computers will be compromised within minutes of being connected to the internet. The threat is so real that even super-slack Microsoft turn on the Windows Firewall in XP by default nowadays (after getting slagged in the press).

So what is a firewall and why do you need one? Basically it is mechanism for monitoring and controlling traffic in and out of your computer. It can be either hardware or software based. It acts like a sentry, checking who is coming and going, and stopping anyone thought to be hostile. It uses some pretty complex rules to decide what to allow to pass, but fortunately you don’t have to know anything about them to make it work.

Note: Your office PC is most likely protected by a firewall already. Installing a personal firewall on your work PC will probably cause you problems and incur the wrath of your IT department.

For home use the best free firewall is probably ZoneAlarm, which you can download from Zonelabs at http://tinyurl.com/kzq. It is updated frequently and I have used it for years without problem. Once you have downloaded the installation file (about 6.7 MB) just double click on it to start the installation process. Accept all the defaults as it installs but be careful when you get to the screen asking you to choose between Zone Alarm Pro (costs money) and Zone Alarm (free). Yes, the installation file is actually the same for both, you just choose which version you want part way through the installation.


It’s a good idea to work through the tutorial which is offered when the installation completes so that you understand how the software works.

Zone Alarm blocks attacks from the internet by default, without any user intervention. It alerts you when it has done so, but this gets a bit wearing after a few times so I always turn off the alerts. The really neat feature of this program is that it can protect you from many internal threats too because it asks you to authorise each program the first time it attempts to access the internet. For example, the first time you try to use Internet Explorer, Zone Alarm will pop up a warning asking you whether you want to allow it to do so. Presumably you do, so click Allow but also tick the check box to get it to remember the setting – you don’t want to have to click Allow every time you want to surf the Net, do you?


But if you’re beavering away and suddenly Zone Alarm pops up a warning out of the blue asking if you want to allow nastyworm.exe to access the internet, you obviously click Deny and then investigate what exactly nastyworm is and what it’s doing.

Installing and using Zone Alarm is easy if you’re using a stand-alone PC attached to the internet. If you have a small home network then you’ll need to do some additional configuration to allow your networked PCs to see each other. Just ask me for details.

Windows XP has its own built-in firewall and if you have SP2 installed then the firewall is turned on my default. You should turn it off if you install Zone Alarm: Control Panel > Security Centre > Windows Firewall (near the bottom). And in case you’re wondering – yes, Zone Alarm is better than Microsoft’s offering because it protects in both directions whereas the Windows Firewall only monitors incoming traffic.

alternative web browser and email client
I’m probably on a hiding to nothing trying to persuade people to ditch Internet Explorer and Outlook (Express), but here goes anyway… 

One of the ways you can make being on-line safer is to use alternative browser and email clients. It’s not just that the Microsoft offerings are full of security holes, but their popularity makes them the target of constant attack. If you’re a virus writer then you’re probably going to target Internet Explorer (90% usage) because that way you can do the most damage. So it makes sense for us to use alternatives if at all possible.

For surfing the internet I recommend Firefox, which has risen (by a rather convoluted route) from the ashes of the Netscape browser which used to dominate the browser market in the same way that IE does now. Download the latest version from http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/, a modest 4.7 MB. Double click the file to start the installation and just follow the prompts. If you have lots of Favorites then you can import them from IE during the installation process. Firefox is small and fast, features tabbed browsing and other useful, modern features. It’s much better than IE as well as more secure, mainly due to the fact that it eschews the use of Microsoft’s ActiveX technology. Unfortunately, some misguided web designers (online banks seem particularly bad) design their sites so that they only work properly if you’re using IE, so now and then you might have to resort to using it. Write to the web master of the offending site and give them an earful.

Opera is another excellent browser which is more secure than IE and infinitely nice to use. It used to cost real money but now they are giving it away at http://www.opera.com/

For email I recommend Thunderbird, from the same stable as Firefox. Once again it is a good, modern program which offers many useful features in a compact package. Download it from http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird (5.8 MB) and double click to start the installation. You can easily import your internet settings, address book and mail folders from Outlook or Outlook Express during the install, so making the change is pretty painless. Thunderbird offers good junk mail filters in addition to the usual spell checker etc. It is currently at version 1.07 and I have been using it since version 0.7 – it just gets better and better.

If you don’t like Thunderbird then try one of the many other email clients out there. Eudora is still one of the best (http://www.eudora.com/download/) and has been around for a long, long time.

spyware
I’ve left this one ‘till nearly the end because I don’t have too much experience of spyware really, though I gather that it’s a major issue for many people. Poor performance, frequent crashes and a rash of advertisements are common symptoms. The thing is, if you’re taking all the aforementioned precautions then you shouldn’t have too much of a problem with spyware, especially if you steer clear of “naughty” sites and don’t use peer-to-peer file sharing. 

From what I have read, there’s no one tool which can detect and remove all spyware so it’s necessary to scan your PC with several different programs one after another in the hope that cumulatively they can clean everything. I have read good things about (and used successfully) the free version of Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com/support/download) and also Spybot Search & Destroy (http://www.safer-networking.org/en/mirrors/index.html). Both programs need to be updated before use in the same way as antivirus programs, but you will probably only scan occasionally when you suspect that you have an infection. Microsoft have also recently entered this field and have a free spyware scanner for download (http://tinyurl.com/6fuq4) which has received very good reviews. I tried it recently and it seemed good – very thorough. It might seem excessive to have to use three different programs to combat spyware, but if you do get infected it can be hell’s own job to shift the things.

Note that many “free” programs come with spyware as part of the package. Peer to peer download programs are notorious in this respect, though many free utilities contain it too, so read the small print carefully before you install anything. As far as I can tell, all the programs that I recommend in these tutorials are clean.

common sense
Perhaps the first line of defence should actually be common sense, but as someone once remarked: “It ain’t so bleedin’ common!”  Well, I’m sure you would never be taken in by an email such as this one:

I get several of these emails every week and (presumably) so do most other people, so someone must be clicking on the links and giving away their online banking details, despite the terrible English! I also get lots of mail from “lawyers” in Nigeria offering me a share of several million dollars, which Thunderbird’s junk mail filter generally handles appropriately.

Take a look at the email below which contains an attachment purporting to show my transactions on PayPal. I do have a PayPal account, though I have never used it, so this message could have been for real. But if you look carefully at the attachment details, you can see that this is really an .exe file – a virus in other words. The sender has disguised the file with a double extension to make it look like a .jpg file in most programs. Luckily its true nature shows up in Thunderbird.

 

The point is – online fraudsters are getting more and more sophisticated and you need to keep your wits about you when you surf the net or check your mail. I never open .exe files sent by well-meaning friends at Christmas, and I’m very careful about virus scanning any Word, Excel or PowerPoint files which I receive in the mail or download from the internet. It’s a shame that we have to suspect everything, but that’s how it is these days.

the good news
Well, if you’ve got antivirus and a firewall installed and you’re using Firefox and Thunderbird then I’d say you’re 90% of the way home. Next time we’ll look at how to keep Windows itself up to date and how to use its built-in user security levels to help prevent damage if any viruses do get past your scanner.

Was this useful for you? Any problems? Any comments? Click the Leave a comment link and .... well, leave a comment!