When Windows gets a file association with .exe files, get a hammer. This one.

I spent a maddening couple of days with a Windows computer that somehow had gotten a bogus file association with .exe files, which roughly translates to, “Windows quit running any programs.” Microsoft has a fix for that. Except neither solution worked. Nor did connecting via remote registry, or even renaming their automated fixer-upper to have a .com extension (presumably because it turned around and tried to download and run a .exe). It’s too bad that didn’t work, as I was pretty proud of myself for remembering that little trick.

So where’s my hammer?

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Ways to speed up an aging laptop

Yesterday Lifehacker did a feature on laptop tweaks and upgrades, that basically came down to reinstalling the OS, adding memory, and upgrading to an SSD. All of those are good things to do of course, but there’s more you can do. I posted a response there; I’ll elaborate a bit here, where I have more room to do so.

There are tons of links here to previous content I’ve written; optimizing aging machines is a recurring theme for me. I’ve been writing on that topic for 11 years now.

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Unlocking the Malicious Software Removal Tool

When Microsoft’s┬ámonthly security patches come down, if you’ve ever clicked on the button to see what it’s installing, you may have noticed the Malicious Software Removal Tool.

If you’re wondering, it’s a rudimentary antimalware tool that removes selected vermin from your system. It doesn’t remove all known malware. And I don’t know exactly how Microsoft decides what to remove and when. But given the number of people who don’t run any kind of antimalware software, it probably seemed like a good idea when they rolled it out in 2005. And in the first 15 months they pushed the tool out with the monthly patches, it removed 16 million instances of malicious software. Not bad.

The tool has some power that you can unlock that normally isn’t exercised when you do your monthly updates.

Note: In a corporate environment, you may not get the Malicious Software Tool automatically if you’re managing Windows updates yourself. Microsoft has instructions for deploying it to your enterprise.

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I just downloaded Microsoft Security Essentials

I just downloaded Microsoft Security Essentials, and, depending on your situation, I recommend you do it too.

MSSE is free antivirus software, from Microsoft. It’s not the best thing out there, but it’s far from the worst. If you don’t have any antivirus software, go get it.The usual suspects fell all over themselves to heap praise on MSSE. Some people never saw a Microsoft product they didn’t like, so no surprises here.

I trust PC Magazine a whole lot more. They found it was overall a decent product. Not top-tier, but much better than nothing, and it didn’t interfere much with system performance.

That’s the knock on a lot of AV software. Uninstall the preloaded Norton Antivirus from the computer you bought at Office Depot, and suddenly your $399 computer feels like a $3999 computer. And it might also, like, work or something. (My mom’s HP gave random filesystem errors until I uninstalled that scourge on humanity.)

If you can afford NOD32, I continue to believe it’s the best overall antivirus product out there. It’s fast, it’s reasonably priced, it catches more than any Symantec product does, and it slows the system down a lot less. It’s better than McAfee’s products too.

But if you can’t afford NOD32, I suggest running MSSE. And frankly, even if you paid and subscribed to a Symantec/Norton or McAfee product, I don’t think you lose much by switching. Regardless, it’s definitely better than running nothing.

First impressions: HP Mini 110

I spent a few hours last night with an HP Mini 110 1012NR. It’s a model with a 16 GB solid state drive (no spinning mechanical hard drive) and Windows XP.

My biggest beef is the keyboard. It’s undersized, and I can’t touch type on it. Try it out before you buy one.

The rest of the system isn’t bad, but there are some things you’ll want to do with it.The system acted weird until I removed Norton Antivirus 2009. By weird, I’m talking not staying on the network, filesystem errors, chkdsk running on reboot, and enough other goofiness that I was ready to take the thing back as defective. The system stabilized as soon as I removed Norton Antivirus, and stayed stable after I installed ESET NOD32.

The system also ran a lot faster.

Don’t believe the hype about Norton Antivirus 2009. Use ESET NOD32. This is the second HP laptop in a month that’s given me Norton Antivirus-related problems.

McAfee is better, but only sufficiently better to use if your ISP is giving it to you for free. I still think NOD32 is worth the $40 it costs. The Atom CPU in the Mini 110 feels like a Pentium 4 with NOD32 installed. It feels like a Pentium II or 3 with something else installed.

The SSD isn’t a barn burner. I have OCZ Vertex drives in my other PCs, and this one doesn’t measure up the Vertex. Reads are pretty quick, but writes can be a bit slow. Windows boots in about 30 seconds. Firefox loads in about five. Word and Excel 2000 load in about a second.

So it’s not bad. But an OCZ Vertex would be a nice upgrade. Drop it in, use it for the OS and applications, and use the stock 16 GB drive for data.

A memory upgrade would also be worthwhile. With the stock 1 GB, it’s hitting the pagefile to the tune of 400 MB.

Unfortunately, to really make the computer sing, you’re looking at spending $200 in upgrades ($40 for NOD32, $40 for 2 GB of RAM, and $120 for an OCZ Vertex). Spread it out over the life of the machine and it wouldn’t be so bad though. And you’ll be paying $40 a year for antivirus no matter what you use.

The build quality is typical HP. I have lots of aged HP and Compaq equipment that’s still going strong. I don’t get rid of HP stuff because it breaks, I get rid of it because it’s so hopelessly obsolete as to be useless. I hesitate to buy from anyone else, except Asus. And Asus, of course, is HP’s main motherboard supplier.

If you can get used to the keyboard, I think the Mini 110 is a good machine. It weighs 2 pounds and is scarcely larger than a standard hardcover book, so it fits almost anywhere. And having an SSD, there isn’t much that can fail. The battery will eventually fail, and probably the AC adapter will too, but I think other than that, one of these computers could last 20 years, assuming it would still be useful for anything then.

Psst… Wanna compete with Best Buy?

Best Bait-n-Switch is offering a service where they’ll remove crapware from a PC for 30 bucks.

You can offer to do the same thing for 30 bucks, but do a better job. Here’s how.Of course, the first thing you do is go into Add/Remove Programs and remove everything in sight, unless it’s something the client actually wants. That’ll take about 20 minutes, tops, and it’s probably the extent of what Best Buy does. That’ll help, but it doesn’t bring back all of the new PC peppiness.

Next, you need to install and run a couple of utilities. Start out with CCleaner to remove any stray registry entries that may linger behind. Hopefully there won’t be too much. Then grab the unbeatable Donn Edwards bundle of JK-Defrag, NTREGOPT, and Pagedefrag.

Run NTREGOPT to remove the slack space from the registry, then run Pagedefrag and reboot. You’ll end up with a defragmented pagefile and a fresh-as-a-new-install registry.

Finally, run JK-Defrag to move all the useless data to the end of the drive, and all the stuff people actually use to the front. It’ll do a much better job than Microsoft’s built-in defragmenter, even on a new system.

The tuneup should take less than an hour, and most of it is time you can just walk away from the system and let it do its thing. You can advertise your service as better than Best Buy’s and compete solely on that, or beat them on price by a few bucks while providing a better and more worthwhile service.

If you’re feeling really industrious, you can even consult the appropriate Black Viper services list and disable unnecessary services to free up a little RAM and CPU time. If you don’t want to do a lot of reading, Computer Browser and Remote Registry are two services that always make sense to disable in home environments. My personal list used to be a lot longer, but Windows’ defaults are a lot more optimal than they were 5-8 years ago. The other stuff I always used to disable is disabled by default now.

And here’s one last piece of valuable advice you can give your clients. Rather than buy the Norton or McAfee antivirus product that’s probably installed on their computer as trialware, delete it and have your client buy NOD32 instead. The price is comparable to the other products, but it consumes a lot less CPU time and memory than the rest. So if you want antivirus protection but also want the computer to stay peppy, that’s the best choice in town.

Technobabble

Grisoft AVG works as advertised. If you don’t want to pay for virus protection, do yourself and your friends a favor and head over to Grisoft and download the free edition of AVG. I used it Monday night to disinfect a friend’s PC that had become infected by the infamous KAK virus.
Free-for-personal-use anti-virus tools have a nasty habit of becoming un-free within a year or two of their release, but look at it this way: AVG at least saves you a year or two of paying for virus update subscriptions.

It’s not as whiz-bang as the tools from Norton or McAfee but it works. You can’t get as fine-grained about scheduling stuff but that doesn’t matter so much. You can schedule things like scans and updates, and it does find and isolate the viruses, and you can’t beat the price. Go get it.

Linux on vintage P2s. I helped Gatermann get Debian up and running on his vintage HP Kayak workstation last night. This is an early P2-266 workstation. Gatermann marveled at how it was put together, and with the calibre of components in it. It had a high-end (for its time) Matrox AGP card in it, plus onboard Adaptec Wide SCSI, 128 MB of ECC SDRAM, and a 10,000-RPM IBM Wide SCSI hard drive. It arrived stripped of its original network card; Gatermann installed an Intel EtherExpress Pro.

In its day, this was the best Intel-based workstation money could buy, and you needed a lot of it. Of course, back in that day I was working on the copydesk of a weekly magazine in Columbia, Mo. and chasing a girl named Rachel (who I would catch, then lose, about a year later). And I probably hadn’t turned 22 yet either. Needless to say, that was a while ago. It seems like 100 years ago now.

Today, the most impressive thing about the system is its original price tag, but it remains a solidly built system that’s very useful and very upgradable. He can add another CPU, and depending on what variation his particular model is, he can possibly upgrade to as much as a P2-450. A pair of 450s is nothing to turn your nose up at. And of course he can add a variety of SCSI hard drives to it.

Debian runs fine on the system; its inability to boot doesn’t bother me too much. I occasionally run across systems that just won’t boot a Linux CD, but once I manage to get them running (either by putting the drive in another PC for the installation process or by using a pair of boot floppies to get started) they run fine.

The system didn’t want to boot Debian on CD, or any other Linux for that matter. So we made a set of boot floppies, then all was well.

The batch that this computer came from is long gone, but I expect more to continue to appear on the used market as they trickle out of the firms that bought them. They are, after all, long since obsolete for their original purpose. But they’re a bargain. These systems will remain useful for several years, and are built well enough that they probably will be totally obsolete before they break.

Friday hodgepodge.

Now are we going to take viruses seriously? Top-secret Ukranian documents leaked out to the Ukranian press, courtesy of SirCam, including the president’s movements during the upcoming independence celebration. An assassin’s delight, to be sure.
Lessons learned:

1. Macro viruses can do damage without trashing your computer. Sometimes they can do more damage if they don’t trash your computer.
2. Don’t count on anti-virus software to save you. SirCam hides out in places McAfee Anti-Virus doesn’t look, and Norton Anti-Virus is reportedly not 100% effective against it either, especially if a document was already infected with another virus.

What can save you? Download your software from reputable sources only, and don’t open strange attachments. I used to say it’s much better to miss the joke than to wipe out your computer. Now we can amend that. It’s much better to miss the joke than to wipe out your computer or get the president of the Ukraine killed.

Motherboards. The Good Dr. Crider e-mailed me (among others) earlier this week asking for motherboard advice. He wanted respectable power for under $200. Interestingly, just the day before I went looking at mwave.com for motherboards for no particular reason. I spied the ultra-basic Gigabyte GA-7IXe4 motherboard (AMD 750-based) for 66 bucks. It won’t win any glamour contests, but it’s a fine meat-and-potato board at a fabulous price, and it’s not made in China so you’re not supporting an immoral government with your purchase either. You can pair that up with a $36 Duron-750 and a $10 fan and have a great start on a fantabulous bang-for-the-buck system. Of course, with a budget of $200, it’s possible to step up to a Duron-950 and still have a little left over.

Speaking of bang for the buck, here’s a review of the first commercially available SiS 735-based board. Put simply, right now it’s the fastest DDR motherboard you can buy. Pretty impressive, especially considering it’s coming from budget-minded ECS. I can’t wait to see what Asus or Abit will be able to do with it. But I know I’ll be waiting. ECS has manufacturing facilities in China.

Why the big deal about China? I’m not exactly in favor of slave labor–we freed our slaves about 135 years ago and we should be ashamed it took us that long. But slave labor exists in China today. I’m tired of China provoking the United States every chance it gets. I’m tired of China persecuting people who believe in Christianity and/or democracy. Need more reasons? OK. Fair warning: Some of the atrocities on this site will make you sick.

Completely boycotting China when buying computer products is tough. Really tough. For example, Intel’s Craig Barrett publicly advocates Chinese manufacturing. Does that mean Intel’s next fab will sit on Chinese soil? Fortunately, a Web search with a manufacturer’s name, plus the words “manufacturing” and “China” will almost always tell you conclusively if a company produces any of its stuff in China. If you want American-made stuff, good luck. Supermicro and AMI make motherboards in the States, but neither has a very diverse product line.

Need a dictionary? OK. Visit www.wordweb.co.uk.

Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost

Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost. Have I mentioned lately just how pathetic a software company Symantec is? Norton Utilities is adequate, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think I’d put Norton AntiVirus on any computer that I wanted to work right. I’d give you my opinion of McAfee’s product, but that’s a violation of the license agreement, so I’ll give you my opinion of the company instead. They’d rather spend their time and money and energy keeping you from talking about their products than they would making them worth buying.
So, anyway. Since Symantec is making my life difficult, why do we keep rewarding them by buying Ghost licenses over and over again?

Knowing that the Unix command dd if=/dev/hda of=[filename] makes a bit-for-bit copy of a hard drive, I sought to utilize the Linux kernel and dd as an alternative. Pipe it through bzip2 and it’d be great, right?

Uh, no. I imaged a 1.6-gig HD that had about 400 MB in use. About an hour later, I had a 900 MB disk image. This is bad. Very bad. Ghost would have given me a 250-300 MB image in 15 minutes.

But then I stumbled across PartImage, which does an intelligent, files-only disk image like Ghost does. It’s fast, it’s small, it works. NTFS support is experimental, but as long as you defragment your drive before you try to make an image, it seems to do fine.

However, it doesn’t do a full disk clone like Ghost does. Not yet, at least. Not on its own, at least. But this is Unix. Where there’s a will, there are 47 ways.

First, dump your partition table: sfdisk -d /dev/hda > table

Next, get your MBR: dd if=/dev/hda of=mbr bs=512 count=1

Yes, Eagle Eye, dd does grab your partition table. But restoring the table with DD will only get your primary partition(s). It won’t get your extended partitions, so that’s why sfdisk is necessary.

Now that we’ve got that detail out of the way, you can use PartImage to create images of all your disk partitions. It’s menu driven like Ghost. It’s text mode and not graphics-mode, so it’s not as pretty, but it’s also a fraction of the size.

Got your files made? Great. Now, to make the clone, you reverse it.

Write out the MBR: dd if=mbr of=/dev/hda bs=512 count=1

Re-create your partition layout: sfdisk /dev/hda

Then restore your partitions, one at a time, using PartImage either in interactive mode or with command-line switches.

It's a lot to remember, so the best bet would be to dump the images plus these two small files to a CD, make a Linux boot floppy containing dd, sfdisk, and partimage, and write a shell script that does it all. Then you can think about getting fancy and making a bootable CD that holds all of it and restores a system lickety-split.

A lot of trouble? Ugh. Yeah. Worth it? Probably. Ghost licenses aren't cheap, and PartImage has the potential to be a whole lot quicker, since it's built on a better foundation. Today's PCs are extremely powerful, and DOS has been underutilizing PCs' power since the introduction of the PC/AT in 1985. Linux will very happily scale up to whatever amount of memory and CPU power your PC has under the hood, making compression and decompression go faster. And if you do a little tweaking with hdparam before creating and before restoring (again, a good job for a shell script), you'll get far better disk throughput than DOS could ever give you. On these P3-866s, I found PartImage was a good 20-60 MB/minute faster than Ghost.

So this is not only faster, it also frees you from the difficulty of keeping track of Ghost licenses, which is a hidden administrative expense. With Linux and PartImage and the associated tools, you're free to use them as you like. The only questions anyone will ask is, "How'd you do that?"

That's not to say I have any objection to paying for a good product, but when you can't even buy a site license to escape the paperwork, it gets ridiculous. I suspect some companies just count their PCs and buy that many Ghost licenses once a year in order to be rid of the administrative overhead.

So I think it's more than worth it to figure out how to effectively do this job with open-source tools.

Of course I've left some questions. How do you make Linux boot floppies? How do you make Linux CDs? The PartImage site has images of bootdisks and boot CDs, but they don't have everything you need. Notably, sfdisk is missing from those images. And obviously you'd have to write your shell scripts and add those yourself.

I'll let you know when I figure it out. I'm pretty darn close.