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Blocking malware at the operating system level

In recent months I’ve been recommending that everyone run Adblock Plus with the malware domains subscription, to get extra protection beyond what your antivirus/antispyware suite can give. Given a choice between detecting and blocking bad stuff, or not downloading it at all, it’s much better to not download it at all.

There are some downsides to this. Adblock Plus uses a fair bit of memory. It’s tolerable on my desktop PC with 2 GB of RAM, but less so on my netbook with 1 GB of RAM. And if you have to use a browser that doesn’t have a compatible version of Adblock Plus available, you’re unprotected.

The solution is to block at the operating system level, using the hosts file.

Here’s a script that does it, with instructions.

But I know of one malware site list that his script doesn’t use:

Read More »Blocking malware at the operating system level

Turn off that stupid IE "throbber" in Explorer windows

You know how Microsoft decided in 1997 to make Windows look like a web browser? And continued that decision for the next 20 years? Don’t like seeing that stupid Windows logo moving while you’re waiting for Windows to display your files?

Me neither. Go download Throboff, which works on all versions of Windows up to XP. I don’t know about Vista or 7, sorry.

Even if the throbber doesn’t bother you all that much, turning it off regains some screen real estate, which is useful on netbooks.

Fixing reverting TCP/IP settings in Windows XP

My ISP’s DNS, to put it politely, leaves a lot to be desired. I wanted to change them, but my network settings kept reverting. I’d change them, and they would change right back.

That pretty much made the fantastic DNSBench useless. I could find the fastest DNSs, but I couldn’t use them.At one point I thought it was Microsoft Security Essentials blocking the change, but nobody else reported that symptom, so I think that was just coincidence.

The solution is to completely reset TCP/IP. Either open a command line and follow Microsoft’s instructions, or click the little applet to let Microsoft do it for you. Then reboot.

Microsoft’s instructions are good, but they don’t go into much detail as to why you might need to do the procedure.

Theoretically at least, the same problems could happen in Vista and Windows 7 as well. The same fix would apply. If earlier versions of Windows break like this, you could remove TCP/IP and re-add it.

I’m happy to say now my PC is using the DNS settings I want.

The "good enough" PC

PC World has a treatise on “good enough” computing. This isn’t actually a new trend but it’s never stood still for as long as it has now.Jerry Pournelle used to describe cheap CPUs from Cyrix and IDT in the late 1990s as “good enough.” Running at 166 and 200 MHz, they ran Windows 95 and NT4 and Office 97 just fine. They weren’t good gaming CPUs, but for everything else, they were great, and you could build a computer with one of those and save $100 or more over using a comparable Intel CPU.

Trouble was, the mainstream moved. Intel knocked off all the upstarts by starting a megahertz war, and AMD came back from a near-death experience to compete. The requirements to run Windows increased nearly as rapidly, and it wasn’t all that long before 900 MHz was pretty much the bare minimum to run Windows comfortably.

But chips kept getting cheaper, and today you can buy a 2 GHz CPU for pretty close to what a Cyrix or WinChip CPU cost. But you get more than 10 times the power for that money. And Windows XP runs perfectly comfortably on a 2 GHz CPU, whether it’s a new Intel Atom or Celeron or a 5-year-old corporate discard. So does Office 2003, which is the very last version of Office that any sane person would want to use.*

*Besides being the evil spawn of Windows Vista and Microsoft Bob, Office 2007 also crashes more often than Windows 3.0 did. The only way I can go a week without losing work from Office 2007 crashing is to go on vacation.

The PC World author claims that Linux and Open Office running on Intel Atom CPUs will be the undoing of Microsoft. I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Netbooks running Linux got returned to the vendor a lot. I suspect the biggest reason is because they probably couldn’t figure out how to get their USB mobile broadband cards–I’m talking the stuff that cellphone vendors offer for 50 bucks a month–working in Linux. That, and they probably couldn’t get Flash working so they couldn’t see Facebook and other popular sites the way they could on their regular PCs.

Frankly, the two things that keep me from buying a $200 Dell Vostro netbook this weekend are the price of mobile broadband ($50 a month), and my concerns about the reliability of anything sold by Dell in the last 5-6 years. I work with a lot of Dell equipment, and once the warranty goes, their machines do not age gracefully at all. But I think Dell will sell a lot of these units, because the price is absurdly low, they weigh two pounds, and they run anything but 3D games and intensive graphics apps nice and fast. Sure, a dual-core system with its memory maxed out and a solid state disk will outrun it, sometimes even running circles around it, but that system will also cost 10 times as much.

I do think Office 2007 is the best thing that ever happened to Open Office. Open Office’s interface is a lot more familiar and doesn’t hide anything, and while it may not be as fast as Office 2003, it’s certainly faster at most things than Office 2007 is.

Linux has been usable for basic computing for a very long time, but getting it installed and configured remains a challenge at times. A netbook that connects painlessly to the wireless networks in restaurants and to cellphone makers’ mobile broadband cards while running Linux probably stands a chance. Giving some automated, easy means to synchronize application data and web bookmarks between the netbook and a desktop PC would probably help a lot too–something that does the same thing that Activesync does for moving data between Windows PCs and Windows Mobile PDAs. Will these things happen?

But I do think an era of “good enough” is upon us. There was a time when the top-of-the-line PC would be entry level within a year or two, and that’s not really true anymore. The entry-level PC of today is comparable to the mid-range PC of five years ago. For most of my lifetime, basic computing on a five-year-old PC was always painful, no matter how good that PC was when it was new. That’s not the case today.

Graphic designers, video producers, and scientists will always need ever-more powerful systems for their work, so they’ll continue to drive the cutting edge. But everyday computing is stabilizing. I don’t think Intel wants the future of everyday computing to be the cheap Atom CPU, but at this point it may be impossible to avoid it. If Intel decides to quit playing in this space, AMD can design something comparable to replace it in the marketplace. The Geode won’t cut it, but something based on the Athlon XP architecture and built using a modern process certainly would.

And frankly I’m glad about this development. It’s been nice not having to buy a new computer every three years or so.

How to make a really nice $500 computer

Steve Jobs: “We don’t
know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.”

Steve Jobs is either lying or lazy. I’m guessing he just doesn’t want to play in that space. Of course, you probably
already knew that.

Here’s how to make a really, really nice $500 computer. All prices are
from Newegg.Intel Atom 330 motherboard/CPU combo: $82
Kingston or Crucial 2 GB DIMM: $20
OCZ Vertex 30 GB SSD: $129
2.5″-3.5″ HDD adapter: $19
Lite-on 22X SATA DVD burner: $23
Foxconn MicroATX case with 300W power supply: $40
Windows XP Home OEM $90

So there you have it. $403 before shipping. You still need a keyboard
and mouse, but there should be enough after shipping to get something,
assuming you don’t already have one. While this system won’t burn the
house down, the dual-core Atoms are surprisingly quick and more than
adequate unless you’re heavily into gaming or media production. But if
you’re into those things you aren’t in the market for a $500 computer

The Intel board is unglamorous but very dependable. It also draws very
little power and runs very quietly. It’s great for word processing and
e-mail, adequate for multimedia, and it’ll play non-3D games just
fine. Other companies are making Atom boards, but I’d stick with Intel this time. ECS doesn’t have a history of producing top-quality boards, and I’ve never heard of the outfit making the other Atom boards Newegg sells. Plus, I think the non-Intel boards have Atom 230 (single-core) CPUs in them. It’s worth paying the extra $15-$20 to get that second core.

The SSD will make this computer outperform many more expensive
computers. But more importantly, it won’t crash. Anyone who’s gotten an
untimely phone call from a relative wondering why the computer won’t
start up and where all those digital pictures went will appreciate that.
A conventional hard drive would cost as little as $40 and gives more
space, but 30 gigs will last a while with a casual user. And the lack of
disk crashes is probably worth the extra money. Between the SSD and the
Intel board, the system will be very quiet, which is probably worth
something. In this era of PCs that sound like wind tunnels, you don’t
really appreciate whisper-quiet PCs until you have one.

The memory probably isn’t totally critical, but when you can get Kingston or Crucial for 20 bucks, it makes sense to do it. They’ve both been around forever and have a long history of making quality memory. There’s no reason to put anything other than a 2-gig stick in this board’s single DIMM slot. The system will take 2 gigs, and 2 gigs is cheap.

The rest of the parts are nothing special. Lite-on makes reasonably good
optical drives and has been for some time now, but if something else happens to be on sale for under $20,
or something else happens to be available with free shipping, that’s fine. You
won’t lose anything by using it. Foxconn cases look reasonably
professional without costing a lot of money, and their power supplies
are decent enough. An Atom board with an SSD won’t tax any power supply very hard anyway. You can buy a
cheaper case if you want, but be sure to read the reviews. Some cheap
cases are made of really light-gauge metal and are prone to cut you.
I’ve never had that problem with Foxconns.

The other trick with cases is to watch shipping prices. For whatever
reason, Newegg charges more to ship some cases than others, so it could
very well be worth your while to look at cases that cost $5-$10 more.
Shipping could actually make them cheaper.

You can get the proper mini-ITX case for boards like this, but you’ll pay more for it. Unless you need the really small form factor, it makes sense to just use a cheap and common micro-ATX case. The bonus is that you get some expansion space if you want to add another optical drive, card readers for your digital camera memory, or stuff like that.

And XP Home is XP Home. Vista may run on this system with 2 GB of RAM
and an SSD, but seriously, does Vista do anything that XP doesn’t?
Especially Vista Home vs. XP Home? I’ll stick with the old reliable. I
happen to know from experience that XP Home runs very nicely on a system
with 2 GB of RAM and an SSD.

This particular system will perform nicely, will be extremely reliable
(it wouldn’t surprise me if it still functioned perfectly fine 5 or 10
years from now), and depending on the case, can be easy on the eyes. And
if you want to get swanky, you can skip the cheap case, get an $80
Lian-Li and a separate sale power supply, and have a great-looking PC
while still staying south of $600.

Any way you do it, this system will cost more than a $399 mass-market PC. But I think it’s more than worth the $50-$70 premium.

Anyone up for a $239 SSD?

The cost of a decent SSD skipped the $299 mark and zoomed all the way down below $249.

Super Talent’s MasterDrive MX is available in several capacities, but the most interesting one to people who want performance on the cheap is the 30 GB model, which Newegg is selling for $239.While $239 for 30 gigs of storage isn’t very interesting when an 80 GB drive using conventional technology sells for less than 50 bucks, SSDs have never been about the lowest cost per gig. But $239 for an SSD that gives enough capacity to be reasonably useful and reasonable speed is big news, considering many SSDs of similar capacity still cost closer to $500.

There’s a reasonably full review of the MasterDrive MX available at TweakTown. TweakTown reviewed the 60 GB model, which costs closer to $500.

But here’s the short of it. This inexpensive Super Talent drive costs $239 for the 30 GB model, gives consistent read performance of around 100 megabytes per second, gives slower write performance a shade under 40 megabytes per second, and seek times of 0.5 ms.

The read performance is very good. The write performance is less impressive, but for many uses is also a lot less important. The seek time isn’t as good as current high-end SSDs, which weigh in at around 0.2 ms, but 0.5 ms is still far better than a conventional hard drive. A modern high-end 15K SCSI drive offers seek times ranging from 3.3 to 4 ms.

I can see drives like the MasterDrive MX being a huge boon for productivity-oriented desktop and laptop computers. While its 30 GB capacity is small, it’s more than large enough to hold Windows XP, an office suite, and some other productivity software while leaving plenty of room for data files. The resulting system will run cooler and use less power (the Tom’s Hardware test claiming that SSDs don’t decrease power usage has pretty well been discredited because the benchmarks they were using caused the CPU to work a lot harder), which will cut electric bills. Plus the system will be a lot quieter, which is nice in business environments. The system will boot quickly and load applications lightning fast.

How fast? Some of the reviews on Newegg are saying Vista boots in 34 seconds (XP should be similar, and possibly a little faster) and Photoshop CS3, a notoriously slow loader, loads in 5 seconds.

Of course it would be nice to see write speeds higher than 40 megabytes per second, but I still remember when conventional hard drives finally got to the point of delivering read speeds greater than 33 megabytes per second and I’d like to think it wasn’t that long ago. The people who will notice the difference the most are those who are creating and editing large media files, and those are precisely the people who aren’t likely to be using a 30 GB drive because 30 gigs isn’t very much space for those uses.

So what’s the downside?

The thing that keeps me from buying one of these today is the number of reviews on Newegg reporting problems. I always take those reviews with a grain of salt, but nearly half the reviews report the same strange failures: Usually the drive works fine, but then after a number of days it starts reporting itself as a 4 GB drive and stops operating. If one person out of 20 reports the problem, I’m willing to blame that on a weird incompatibility, user error, or something else. But when half the respondents report nearly identical symptoms, there’s probably something to it. So I’m hesitant to be an early adopter of this drive, as much as I’d love to get one.

It’s probably a good time to wait anyway. OCZ just announced a new drive, which they’re calling Core. Directron is taking preorders on them, estimating they’ll be in stock next week. OCZ’s 32 GB model is selling for $220 and promising slightly faster read speeds, but more importantly, write speeds along the lines of 80 MB per second. If Directron has them next week, then I’m sure Newegg will have them too, and it’ll probably only be a few weeks before those reviews start pouring in too.

As much as I hate to wait, I still didn’t anticipate prices falling this far until December. This development makes it look like I may buy one sometime in August. Color me happy.

Registry optimization

I gave my Windows 2000 system a little tuneup today. Nothing major, but it feels peppier now, and didn’t take all that long to do. Nor did it require any expensive utilities.

This works with Windows 2000, XP, NT4, and Vista. For Windows 9x advice, you’ll have to turn to an old critically acclaimed book written by someone you’ve never heard of.First, I ran Ccleaner, which does a general cleanup of temporary files and obsolete/incorrect registry entries. It found more than 300 MB of garbage to get rid of. Be sure to run both the file and registry cleanup, as they’re separate buttons. It found a lot less in the registry that needed to go.

Stage 2 is to run NTregopt. I recommend downloading the all-inclusive collection from Donn Edwards, which includes NTregopt, plus the Sysinternals system file defragmenter and the excellent JK-Defrag. NTregopt packs the registry, removing the empty space formerly occupied by now-deleted entries. In my case, it reduced the size of the registry by about 200K. Not a lot, but I don’t do a lot of installing/uninstalling on this system.

Stage 3 is to run the Sysinternals Pagedefrag, which is included in the Donn Edwards bundle. In my case, most of my registry files were in nice shape, but one of them was in a startling 28 fragments. Pagedefrag took care of that.

Of course, while you’re at it, it doesn’t hurt to do a general defragmentation. JK-Defrag is fantastic–much better than most commercial programs, and it’s free. In my younger days I might do a quick defrag both before and after registry optimization, but one defrag afterward takes less time and should usually suffice.

The registry optimization took about 10 minutes total, including the reboot. The disk defragmentation took another 45 minutes, but there was no need for me to sit and watch that.

The system boots faster now. It also feels peppier, but since the registry wasn’t in horrible shape, I’m guessing the defragmentation did more to help system speed than the registry work. Getting rid of 300 megs of garbage and moving a few gigabytes of rarely used data files to the end of the disk to make room up front for the stuff you do use makes a difference.

The nice thing is that optimization like this used to require a $99 software package, like Norton Utilities or Nuts & Bolts, and both of those packages also installed some junk that really did a lot more harm than good (like Norton Crashguard, which I used to call Norton Crashmaker). I devoted an entire chapter of the aforementioned book to installing and using utilities suites while keeping the problem-causing stuff off your system.

Today, you can download and install two files that do it for free and stay out of your way except when you need them.

Escape from Windows 98

There’ve been a few times that I’ve met someone who was stuck in an old Windows 98 PC because it had all their software and data on it, it was set up the way they liked it, they may or may not have all the installation media, and it would take several days’ worth of labor to set up a new one like the old one.

So usually in that situation I just bubblegum and duct tape the system together as best I can.

No longer. Not now that I’ve discovered PC Mover.PC Mover is a Laplink product. It’s really pretty simple. Set up the old PC and new PC on the same network (ideally the new PC should be as pristine as possible), install and run PC Mover on the new PC and follow the prompts. Eventually it will tell you to install and run it on the old PC. Follow the prompts there, and it will do its very best to move all of the programs and data to the new PC.

I literally set up Mom’s old Windows 98 PC and her new(er) Compaq Evo D51C (running Windows XP), set the options, watched for 30 minutes, then went out and spent an hour mowing the lawn. About 15 minutes after I came back inside, it was finished. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure her Windows 98 PC only has a 10-megabit NIC in it, so under what I would consider reasonable conditions, the migration would have been faster.

Now I wish I’d thought to change the NIC out.

But at any rate, at the end of the process, I rebooted the new computer and it came up looking just like her old PC. Her desktop looked the same, all her data was in the right place, and her old programs ran.

System-level stuff like antivirus and CD burning software won’t transfer, but that’s not PC Mover’s fault. Utility software is usually very OS-specific, and if I manually tried to install the Windows 98 version of Norton Antivirus in Windows XP, it would tell me to get lost. She can install her scanner, and XP will detect her printer and take care of setting that up for her.

When I ran PC Mover, I selected the advanced options and deliberately de-selected stuff I knew she wouldn’t need, in order to speed up the transfer and lessen the likelihood of something going wrong. But I’d be reasonably comfortable just letting it run on autopilot.

The resulting system does have some unneeded cruft on it, but I can live with that. Windows XP is worlds better than Windows 98 ever was, and this Compaq is newer and probably better than her old computer too. Maybe running CCleaner would help with the junk, but for now I’m just going to leave well enough alone.

PC Mover costs about 40 bucks, but I think it’s worth it. The last time I worked on someone else’s PC, I charged $50 an hour (which is probably too little, considering what a lawnmower mechanic or plumber charges). It would probably have taken me 4-6 hours to do what PC Mover did in two, and that’s assuming I would have been able to locate all of the old installation media.

Whether you need to move data and programs to a new PC running XP or Vista for yourself or for someone else, I think PC Mover can make the job a lot easier for you. It worked so well for Mom’s PCs, I’m thinking I ought to use it to migrate a couple of old PCs I’ve been keeping around to newer hardware.

Identifying what processes are talking on your Windows box

If you’re curious whether a particular piece of software might be spyware, or you have some other reason to believe your computer might have been compromised and might be talking to something it shouldn’t be, there’s a quick and easy way to find out besides using the standard netstat -an command.

Windows XP and 2003 (and, presumably, Vista) have the netstat -o command, which tells you what IP addresses your computer is talking to and on what ports, plus it adds the process IDs that have those ports open. There’s a hotfix to add that functionality to Windows 2000, but it appears you have to demonstrate a need for it in order for Microsoft to provide it.

Regardless, I like the Sysinternals tool TCPview better. The most important thing it does is give you the names of the application, instead of the process ID, using each port. That saves you from having to run task manager and figure it out yourself. It puts everything in a GUI window, making it a little bit easier to scroll around, and it also tries to resolve the IP addresses, which can be nice. So if all you have open is a web browser pointing at Google and you see processes talking to web addresses you’ve never heard of, you have reason to be suspicious.

The next time someone complains to me that a computer is running slow, once I think I’ve cleaned off the spyware I think I’ll run this utility just to see if there might be anything left.

A Readyboost alternative for XP

I found a reference today to Eboostr, a product that adds Readyboost-like capability to XP. Essentially it uses a USB 2.0 flash drive to speed up your system, although it’s unclear whether it’s using it for virtual memory, a disk cache, or both.

I found a review.I don’t have a machine that’s an ideal candidate for this. The product, from everyone else’s comments on the blog, works best on machines that have less than 1 GB of RAM. If you’ve maxxed out the memory on an aging laptop, this product will extend its usefulness.

My ancient Micron Transport laptop would be a good candidate, since it maxes out at 320MB of RAM and none of the 256 MB sticks I’ve tried in it work, so I’m stuck at 192 MB. But there are two problems: It’s running Windows 2000, and it doesn’t have USB 2.0 slots. Any machine that came with USB 2.0 slots and Windows XP probably can be upgraded pretty cheaply to 1 GB of RAM or more.

I could put XP on the laptop, get a PCMCIA USB 2.0 card for it, and a $20 USB stick so I can use a $29 product to give me Readyboost. But by the time I bought all that, I’d be more than halfway down the road to a newer laptop.

I think a better solution for me would be to replace the hard drive with a solid-state drive. It would cost less than $200, boost the reliability (the latest I’ve heard is that solid state IDE drives will last about 10 years, which is about double the expectancy of a conventional drive), and then everything is on a device with a fast seek time. Plus the drive in that machine is getting old anyway and probably ought to be replaced. I could probably get a solid state drive for about the cost of a conventional hard drive, a USB stick, and this software.

I’m not going to dismiss the software entirely, since it clearly is helping some of the people using it. If you run lots of heavy applications side by side and you’re running up against your memory limits, it can probably help you. And if you can get a good deal on a flash drive (either you have one, or grab one on sale for $20), then there’s little harm in downloading the demo and trying it out for 4 hours. Make sure you stress the system before and after installing to see if you can notice a difference.

If you don’t see much difference, you’re not out much. USB flash drives are incredibly useful anyway. Use it as a cheap and fast backup device. If you do see a difference, then you’ve extended the useful life of your machine.

The mixed results don’t surprise me, frankly. Vista’s Readyboost gives mixed results too. It really helps some people. It has no effect on others. And in rare cases it may actually make things worse.

If you want to try to get some of the benefit for free, you might experiment with redirecting your browser cache, Photoshop scratch disk, and temp files to a USB flash drive. It almost certainly won’t hurt, and could help a lot.