Things to do for your relatives’ computers this Christmas

I wish I’d posted this last week, since many of us see one set of relatives at Thanksgiving and a different set at Christmas (and perhaps New Year’s). Here are things you can do as preventative maintenance for relatives whose computers could use a little help. Read more

This “Computer Maintenance Department” sure doesn’t know much about computer maintenance

“Peggy” from “Computer Maintenance Department” (1-645-781-2458 on my caller ID) called again. Lots of people are aware of these phone calls. They call, make vague claims about receiving a report that your computer is running slow and giving you errors, and are very careful not to say who they are or who they work for. Usually I just do whatever I can to get them off the phone.

But after having lunch with some other computer security professionals last week, a couple of them talked me into finding out how these guys operate. So I fired up a PC that turned out to have a real, legitimate issue. After resolving that issue myself, I turned the caller loose on my semi-functional PC so I could see what these scammers actually do. He had me connect to Teamviewer.com and run their remote access software. I followed his instructions, watched him connect, then slyly unplugged my network cable.

When my network connection dropped, “Peggy” quickly transferred me to a “senior technician” who used the name “Roy.” Read more

Some computer maintenance for the upcoming family get-togethers

If you’re like me and do some computer maintenance for families during holiday weekends, the time to plan Easter computer maintenance is now.

Here’s some stuff I recommend doing to keep your non-computer-enthusiast relatives’ systems running smoothly. Be sure to bring your own laptop along, just in case. If a computer is too broken to get online or to get online safely, nothing beats a working system for downloading the stuff you need to fix it. Read more

What to do when you need to clean-install Windows 7 and all you have is a restore disc

Many brand-name PCs, rather than giving you a regular Windows CD, give you a restore disc, which returns the laptop to factory configuration–junkware and all.

Just about the best thing you can do to pep up a brand-name PC’s performance is to do a clean Windows install. So here’s how to download a regular Windows CD so you can do just that, when needed.

And there’s one other situation where you’ll need this. If your PC came with 32-bit Windows and you want to upgrade to 64-bit, or it came with 64-bit and you need to downgrade to 32-bit for compatibility reasons, you can download the other version. The CD key for one will work with the other.

Read more

Slimming down Windows XP for SSDs and nettops

I found a very long and comprehensive guide for using Nlite to reduce the size of a Windows installation.

The guide is geared towards an Asus Eee. But it should work well on pretty much anything that has an Intel CPU in it.A couple of tweaks to his settings will make it suitable for AMD-based systems. Just remove anything Intel-specific, and add back in anything specific to AMD, and there you go.

And if you have a multi-core or hyperthreaded CPU, leave multi-processor support in.

I also recommend slipstreaming SP3 and all the hotfixes you can. Then you don’t have to run Windows Update, them, and you don’t have to clean up after it either. I haven’t investigated all of the whys and wherefores, but I’ve noticed that the more you slipstream ahead of time, the smaller your Windows directory ends up being. I have some systems at work that are constantly bursting at the seams on their system partitions. Other systems, which were built later from a copy of Windows with more stuff slipstreamed in, have a lot more breathing room.

Using the i64x.com instructions, you can pretty much count on getting a Windows XP installation under half a gig in size. That makes life with a small SSD much more bearable, since a typical installation tends to take a couple of gigs these days.

I’ll add some tips of my own. Inside the Windows directory, there are some subdirectories named inf, repair, and servicepackfiles. Compress those. That’ll free up some more space–at least a couple dozen megabytes in most cases.

If you’re really cramped, compress the whole Windows directory. Boot time actually decreased by a couple of seconds when I did this (down to 12 seconds from about 14), but software installations slowed considerably. But for everyday operation, you could almost consider NTFS compression a performance trick. It makes sense; an SSD can sometimes saturate the bus it’s connected to, so data compression lets it shove 20-50% more data through that saturated bus.

The downside is that when you install something that lives in the Windows directory, it has to not only copy the data into place, but also compress it. Installing the .NET Framework on a system with a compressed Windows directory takes a while.

A good compromise is to install pretty much everything you think you’ll need on the system, then start compressing.

It’s difficult to make a case for compressing the entire drive, however. Most modern data file formats are compressed–including all modern media formats and Office 2007 documents–so turning on NTFS compression on directories storing that kind of data gives no benefit, while introducing overhead.

Outsource your home e-mail to keep viruses at bay

I’m going to be spending most of Saturday patching servers at work, and Microsoft just kindly dropped four new patches I didn’t want in my Easter basket (so run Windows Update on your home PC if you haven’t recently), and that reminds me of something.

End users are notoriously bad about running Windows Update and updating their virus definitions, both of which really need to be done on a regular basis in these terrible times. Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize not everyone has broadband and this takes some time, but that’s the price of running Windows, I guess.

I have a suggestion for people who aren’t very technical.Those of you who are technical and provide help for friends and relatives, get your friends and relatives to quit using Outlook Express to read their ISP’s mail and move them to a webmail-based solution, such as Yahoo Mail. Yahoo’s spam filtering is pretty effective, and Yahoo keeps its virus definitions up to date. Since most viruses transmit through e-mail these days, this may provide adequate protection for most people. Yahoo limits the size of attachments you can send, so configure Outlook Express for sending large attachments using the ISP’s SMTP server, but change the return address to point at the Yahoo address. If the person is reluctant about changing e-mail addresses, call the ISP’s technical support line and see if the ISP will forward the account’s mail to the Yahoo account.

Those of you who aren’t technical, get someone to help you do this if it sounded like Swahili to you.

Hotmail works too, but when you register for Yahoo mail, you get access to Yahoo’s discussion groups too, and Yahoo has a discussion group/forum for just about everything imaginable. Way back in the dark ages before the Internet was in every household, the discussion groups were one of the major draws of online services like CompuServe, GEnie, and Delphi.

Google’s GMail will be better than Yahoo’s mail, allowing people to search on their inboxes, but it’s not ready for you and me yet. I still don’t understand the big to-do about Google targeting text sidebar advertising on your e-mail–they already do it when you search using their site. But that’s another discussion.

Dave installs Windows XP

We needed an XP box at work for testing. Duty to do the dirty deed fell to me. So after ghosting the Windows 2000 station several of us share, I pulled out an XP CD. It installed surprisingly quickly–less than half an hour. The system is a P3-667 with 128 MB RAM and an IBM hard drive (I don’t know the model).
It found the network and had drivers for all the hardware in the box. That doesn’t happen very often with Microsoft OSs, so it was nice.

I booted into XP, to be greeted by a hillside that was just begging to be overrun by tanks, but instead of tanks, there was this humongo start menu. I right-clicked on the Start button, hit Properties, and picked Classic view. There. I had a Win95-like Start menu. While I was at it, I went back and picked small icons. I don’t like humongous Start menus.

I also don’t like training wheels and big, bubbly title bars. The system was dog slow, so I right-clicked on the desktop to see what I could find to turn off. I replaced the Windows XP theme with the Classic theme. Then I turned off that annoying fade effect.

Still, the system dragged. I went into Control Panel, System, Performance. Bingo. I could pick settings for best appearance (whose choices are certainly debatable–I guess they look good if you like bright colors and have a huge monitor) or best performance. Guess which I picked? Much better.

Next, I went into Networking. I saw some QoS thing. I did a search. It’s intended to improve the quality of your network, at the price of 20% of your bandwidth. Forget that. I killed it.

After I did all that stuff, XP was reasonably peppy. It logs on and off quickly. I installed Office 2000 and it worked fine. The apps loaded quickly–just a couple of seconds. That’s how it should be. If I went in and edited the shortcuts in the Start menu to turn off the splash screens, they’d load instantly.

WinXP brings up a bunch of popups that I don’t like. If I wanted unexpected popup windows, I’d run a Web browser. I couldn’t quickly figure out how to disable those.

I couldn’t run Windows Update. It froze every time I tried.

I found a Windows XP tuning guide at ExtremeTech. I suspect turning off the eye candy will help more than most of the suggestions in that article. I suspect if I dug around I’d find other things. We’ll see if I get some time.

XP isn’t as bad as I expected, I guess. But I’m still not going to buy it.

This, on the other hand, is worth a second look. And a third. You can now run MS Office on Linux. No need to wait for Lindows, no need to abandon your current fave distro (at least if your fave distro is Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian, or Caldera).

It’s 55 bucks. It’s available today. It brings Office 97/2000 and Lotus Notes r5 to your Linux desktop. Other Windows apps work, but their functionality isn’t guaranteed.

You can get some screenshots at CodeWeavers. It even makes the apps look like native Linux apps.

03/03/2001

Mailbag:

Napster; Pentium 333-II; OS and APP installations

Emergency Repair Disks are your friend. We have no company policy on ERDs. That needs to change. Yes, I know floppies are about as reliable these days as dear departed Royals closer Ricky Bottalico (nicknamed “Blow-ttalico” last year because of what he so frequently did to late-game leads). But an ERD created on a fresh floppy and then put away in a safe place ought to be reasonably reliable, and an unreadable ERD is less maddening than no ERD at all–at least you’re taking precautions, right? Besides, hopefully you’re like me and you grabbed a 386 off the scrap heap and put DOS and the old DOS version of Norton Utilities on it so you have Disktool and Norton Disk Doctor (run in that order) to fix bad floppies, right?

Why are ERDs your friend? Well, on a system at work Friday, NT must have asked the question, “Kernel? What’s a kernel? We don’t need no stinkin’ kernel!” because the NT loader couldn’t find it. So they brought me in. I asked if there was an ERD available, knowing full well what the answer would be. Well, I didn’t predict the puzzled look, but I got the “no” part right. So then I asked what the most similar system in the immediate area was. They looked it up in the database, so I grabbed a disk, went to the system, and ran RDISK.EXE to create an ERD to use. Then I grabbed an NT4 CD and got ready to go to town.

I booted off the CD, then chose the option to repair an installation. It asked for the ERD, which I dutifully provided. It then asked what aspects to check. I de-selected all the registry-related stuff because I didn’t want it mixing registries between the systems. I just wanted it to replace system files, preferably just the missing ones like, um, the kernel.

Luckily for me, the HD’s filesystem was in pretty good shape because it found files immediately and started prompting me to replace them. An awful lot of them. This bothered me but I let it do it. In the end, I had a bootable system that wouldn’t run Internet Explorer. I realized pretty quickly that the two systems had mismatched service packs, and that was the reason for the large number of files, and IE was my ticket to SP6a.

The moral of the story: Had the system had an up-to-date ERD, I could have had it back up and going in about five minutes. Lacking the ERD, I spent five minutes making one, five minutes repairing the installation, and about two hours uninstalling and reinstalling Internet Explorer and the myriad of security updates Microsoft’s released over the course of the past year.

Not that I’m complaining too badly–the user shares cube space with one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and she turned out to be friendly and interesting as well. But downtime’s not good for the company’s bottom line, and while I’m on the clock, the bottom line’s more important than my social life.

A correction from yesterday. It took several hours for my brain to warm up yesterday I think. At least one person wrote in to ask why I ran Windows Update so close to the beginning, rather than at the end. I have no idea why I wrote it that way. He’s right, you should run Windows Update at the end, in case something you install clobbers an updated file. Slim likelihood but hey, I’ve seen all kinds of weird things and seeing as MS doesn’t know where the OS ends and applications begin, better safe than sorry.

So I went back and changed yesterday’s post to reflect the correction. Far be it from me to add more misinformation to the Information Superhighway-turned-Misinformation Traffic Jam.

Mailbag:

Napster; Pentium 333-II; OS and APP installations

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