Bran's Geek Blog

The 3 Phases of owning a computer

posted Nov 30, 2010, 10:42 AM by Brandon Dodds

Found the funniest cartoon on computer ownership today at one of my favorite sites...
I can help make your computer owning experience less frustrating and more productive!  Give me a call for a tune up, a tutoring session or upgrade!  I'm happy to help you!

Computer Repair FAIL: CompUSA installs files on Wrong Hard Drive!

posted Nov 14, 2010, 5:52 PM by Brandon Dodds   [ updated Nov 14, 2010, 5:55 PM ]

Big name PC repair shops don't need any more bad publicity, but they're getting it anyway courtesy of a pretty embarrassing SNAFU by CompUSA. Here's what happened.

According to CBS News in Chicago, a woman named Kymberli Mulford entrusted the CompUSA in Hoffman Estates with removing a nasty virus on her system that she believed was causing it to shut down. Around the same time, Karen Davis took her PC in to th same store for repairs. CompUSA purportedly took care of both issues, but they also installed Mulford's files on Davis's PC. Oops!

"It was everything, pictures of her kids, notes, and emails," Davis said. "Even what meds her kids were taking, just very personal stuff."

Davis did the right thing by getting in touch with Mulford to tell her what happened, but now Mulford fears her data could have been loaded onto other machines too.

"All of that information is a gold mine for thieves," said Roger Safian, a computer security expert. "They back up all the data first, then they re-install it after they remove the virus, and that could be how they ended up making this mistake. They re-installed one person's data to the other person's machine."

According to CompUSA, the tech and his supervisor were fired because of the incident.

Should I turn my computer off at night? Or leave it on?

posted Nov 5, 2010, 6:59 AM by Brandon Dodds   [ updated Nov 5, 2010, 8:21 AM ]

There are several reasons why it may be a good idea to turn off your computer at night. For some, it may not matter whether the computer is on or off. Most newer computers have a sleep mode when they are inactive which doesn't use much power. However, in businesses or at home, it may be wise to turn off the computer at night for security reasons.

For example, computers connected to the Internet via DSL or cable modem are vulnerable to hacking if they are still connected. You can either turn off the connection or turn off the computer. You may need to keep the computer turned on, conversely, if the computer is used as a fax machine as well.

 However, if you work from home and log into a business, you should definitely turn off the computer at night, or at the very least, log out from the business. Not only does leaving the computer on threaten the security of your personal computer, but it could also give hackers entry to your business.

 Sleep mode on computers still uses some electricity, and the most economic thing to do is to turn off the computer at night, especially if you're is penny pinching. Saving electricity also has environmental benefits. Older computers may not have the sleep feature, so if you have an older computer you might want to turn it off to save money. Obviously, laptops, which run on a battery, will have a longer battery life if they are turned off when not in use.

 You may turn off the computer out of the common misconception that this will protect the computer from power surges. Actually, this is not the case. Even when people turn off their computer, the computer is still vulnerable to power surges if it's not hooked up to a surge protector. Be sure to purchase a good surge protector and do not skimp on money in this case. Find a well rated one that will protect your computer whether off or on from power surges.

 Some computer experts suggest that certain programs benefit from getting a break at night, like Windows®. Turning off the computer at night may help eliminate crashes during the day, since the program is rebooted when the computer is turned on again in the morning.

 There used to be many reasons to turn off your PC, often at the end of a workday or before a weekend. These days? Not so much. For those who'd like a longer answer, here are the more common reasons for turning your PC off often and leaving it turned on full-time, and the techie replies for each:

"Leave your PC on to prevent the hard drive from wearing out."

When you start your computer, the hardware goes through a little more mechanical effort than usual. The theory was that this extra wear was bad for the equipment. But hardware is more durable now, and this isn't really an issue. By the time hardware wears out naturally, you'll be way overdue for an upgrade!

"Turn your PC off to prevent the hard drive from wearing out."

Yep, I've heard this same argument for leaving a PC off and on. Leaving a hard drive turned on full time is not a bad thing. Like the answer above, a good hard drive is durable enough to last longer than it takes for your computer to become outdated. Additionally, there are often built-in power settings that will temporarily slow down or stop a drive from spinning after a period of disuse.

"Turn off your PC to keep your monitor from wearing out."

This was also the original intent of the appropriately named "screen saver". When a monitor was left turned on, it would fall victim to "burn in". This is when an image displayed on the screen would "stick" - the image would still be there even though the monitor was turned off! You can still see this effect in any video game arcade: Look carefully at the monitor of any turned-off video game that uses a CRT, and you'll be able to see the faint image of the video game's main menu.

Today, computer monitors are very resistant to burn-in, although it still can happen with certain older CRTs. If you're really concerned, you can adjust your PC power settings to put your monitor in "standby mode". This will temporarily turn off the screen if you haven't been using it, and you can "wake it up" with a shake of the mouse or a press of a key.

"Turn off your PC to conserve energy."

This is still a justifiable reason to turn off your PC. A desktop PC, monitor, and associated devices will suck up 300 or 400 watts. That's a lot of light bulbs burning full-time. If you're concerned about the electric waste, you can turn off your PC. If you don't mind paying the extra dollars in electric bills, leave it on.
If you aren't concerned about money, computer security, and crashes, then you don't have to turn off the computer at night. But, since at least one of these issues is usually a concern, you might want to turn off your computer at night.

The Computer Guy Mantra...Back it up baby!

posted Nov 3, 2010, 7:15 AM by Brandon Dodds

Even computer novices know that files should be saved to help prevent them from being lost and so that they can easily be found when needed. But if you don't also back up your files, all that time you spent saving them isn't going to help you find anything if—and when—your computer decides to go on strike.

Picture of a man who looks worried

In this article, I'll explain the basics of backups and show you how to use the Backup and Restore feature in Windows 7 and in Windows Vista. You'll also learn how to back up Microsoft Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 email so that even if your hard drive crashes suddenly, you've still got access to the email you need. Creating and implementing a backup plan now can save a lot of frustration in the future.

Why backups are important

Files can be lost from your computer in any number of ways—you might accidentally delete a file, or a virus might wipe one out. You can also have a complete hard drive failure. When a hard drive dies an untimely death, it's kind of like having your house burn down. Important personal items are usually gone forever—family photos, significant documents, downloaded music, and more.

Thankfully it's a really simple process these days to back up your content to a second, separate location. By doing so, your files can be protected against viruses or complete computer failure. This makes it easy to retrieve and place them on a new hard drive and get going again.

Today, there are many options for backing up your content. You don't need any sophisticated equipment—you can use CDs, DVDs, external hard drives, flash drives, network drives, or even online storage like Windows Live SkyDrive. It might be a good idea to back up your data to multiple places. For example, you might choose to back up your content onto both an external hard drive and to an online storage site.

Back up files to the cloud

Windows Live SkyDrive is only one option available if you choose to back up your data to an online storage space. A couple of additional storage options from Microsoft include Hotmail, which offers enough storage for you to store your email, calendar, and contacts, and Windows Live Mesh, which lets you sync all your files and folders across your PCs and devices and provides enough cloud storage for your most important files. Other places online will offer you unlimited storage for a price. Do a little research, and choose the online storage spot that best fits your needs.

It really depends on what works best for your lifestyle. The most important thing is to perform backups on a regular basis so that the most current files are always available, should you need them.

Windows Backup and Restore

Windows comes with a very cool feature called Backup and Restore, which has been improved for Windows 7. To open Backup and Restore in Windows 7, in the Search box, type Backup, and then click the item in the results list. In Windows Vista, click the Start button, and you should see Backup and Restore Center in the menu. Or just type the phrase into the Search box, and click the item from the results to open it.

What makes the Backup and Restore feature so cool is that it simplifies the entire backup process for you. With easy-to-follow steps and prompts, you can decide whether to back up specific files or your entire computer.

It's a good idea to back up your entire computer when you first set it up. This option captures everything from files to software programs to system settings. If your computer ever stops working completely, you can potentially restore it using the initial entire computer backup.

Back up your files

The first time you create a backup, it might take a while, depending on the number of items you need to back up. After that, backups should be quicker.

Restore your files

After you’ve completed your first backup, it’s a good idea to set up an automatic backup schedule so that you don’t have to remember to back things up manually.

Set up or change automatic backup settings

Note: The ability to set up automatic backups is not included in Windows Vista Starter or Windows Vista Home Basic.

Back up email in Microsoft Outlook

Most people don't realize that email isn't necessarily saved in backups the same way that other files are. That's because Outlook saves your emails in a Personal Folder file with a .pst extension that doesn't automatically get caught in normal backups. Unless you're using a Microsoft Exchange Server email account or a third-party HTTP account (like Windows Live Hotmail), you'll need to perform a few extra steps to make sure Outlook emails aren't lost forever if your computer goes belly up.

.Pst files can be quite large, so it's a good idea to make sure your backup location has plenty of room—and that you allow lots of time for an email backup to occur. After you've done that, just follow these steps to back up your Outlook content:

  1. Open Outlook.

  2. In Outlook 2010:
    Click the File tab, and in Backstage view, click Open, and then click Import.

    File tab in Outlook 2010, with Open options listed

    In Outlook 2007:
    Click File, and then click Import and Export.

  3. In the Choose an action to perform list, click Export to a File, and then click Next.

  4. In the Create a file of type list, click Outlook Data File (.pst) in Outlook 2010 or Personal Folder (.pst) in Outlook 2007, and then click Next.

    Picture of Export to a File dialog box, with Personal Folder Files (.pst) selected.
  5. In the Select the folder to export from list, click the folder you want to export from, such as Inbox or Sent Items, and then click Next.

  6. Browse to and select the location where you want to save the file. Remember, backups should be placed somewhere other than the original location of the source file. For example, if your source file is on your computer’s hard drive, you’ll want to save your backup file to an external source, like a CD or an external hard drive.

  7. Choose the default setting Replace Duplicates with Items Exported.

  8. Click Finish.

  9. At any time, you can restore your file by importing it into Outlook.

    Note: If you want to just view or access something in your exported .pst file without importing it back into Outlook, you can simply open the .pst file.

    In Outlook 2010:
    Click the File tab and, in Backstage view, click Open, and then click Open Outlook Data File.

    In Outlook 2007:
    Click File, point to Open, and then click Outlook Data File.

In closing
See how quick and easy it is to protect yourself and your data from permanent loss? Backing up your data might take you a couple of extra minutes a few times a month, but you'll be glad you took that time if an emergency ever happens.
S.E. Slack is a lifestyle and technology writer with more than 10 books to her credit. She co-authored Breakthrough Windows Vista and Office 2007 Solutions to help you easily use Windows Vista and Office 2007.

What is spyware? Is it a virus? And did I catch it?!

posted May 14, 2010, 7:40 AM by Brandon Dodds   [ updated Nov 2, 2010, 11:06 PM ]

Spyware refers to programs that use your Internet connection to send information from your personal computer to some other computer, normally without your knowledge or permission. Most often this information is a record of your ongoing browsing habits, downloads, or it could be more personal data like your name and address.

Different strains of spyware perform different functions. Some might also hijack your browser to take you to an unexpected site, cause your computer to dial expensive 900 numbers, replace the Home page setting in your browser with another site, or serve you personal ads, even when you're offline. Spyware that serves personalized advertisements is called adware also known as malware or scumware.

Some programs that have included spyware, like RealPlayer, disclose this information in their terms and conditions when RealPlayer is installed, though most users don't read the terms and conditions when they install software, particularly if it is free. KaZaA, a free file sharing program, also includes spyware and there are many others.

But spyware doesn't have to come bundled with another application to find its way on to your computer. In fact most spyware is installed surreptitiously. You might visit a website that pops up a window informing you the site won't display correctly unless you allow it to install a file or plug-in. Answering yes to a prompt that you don't understand can allow spyware to be loaded. You might also agree to load a program that, unbeknownst to you, has spyware code included.

The concern with spyware, whether its presence is disclosed or not, and the reason it is universally reviled by so many, is that the user cannot verify or monitor what is actually being gathered and sent from their computer. There is no built-in mechanism for the user to oversee the process and no checks-and-balances in place, legally or otherwise to ensure the security of, or confirm just how the information is being used. Spyware is virtually unregulated. Add to this unfavorable scenario the fact that spyware uses personal resources: your bandwidth, processing power, and memory, to perform work for an outside entity at the expense of your privacy. Still, some spyware programs like RealPlayer and KaZaA are very popular.

It is estimated that 90% of all computers on the Internet are infected with spyware.

Some telltale signs of spyware infection are:

  • Your computer slows to a crawl due to several spyware programs using up your memory resources.
  • Advertisements pop up even when you are offline.
  • You click on a link to go to one site, but your browser gets hijacked and you end up at another site.
  • Your computer is dialing up numbers on its own that show up on your phone bill.
  • When you enter a search item, a new and unexpected site handles the search.
  • Your bookmarks change on their own.
  • You click your Home button but it takes you to a new site, and when you switch the setting back, the new site appears again anyway.
  • You get pop-up ads that address you by name even when you have not visited site at which you have registered.

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