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Version 7 looks like just what Firefox needed

Firefox 7 is out. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already have it, because, historically, a large proportion of my readers use Firefox or, in the past, used other Mozilla-based browsers.

The last couple of Firefox versions have been yawners, and a frequent butt of jokes on Twitter. “It’s Tuesday. Time for a new major Firefox release.” This one looks better. Here’s my review, after a few days of use.

Read More »Version 7 looks like just what Firefox needed

Secure that public wi-fi with a low-tier, no-cost home VPN

If you spend any time at all using unencrypted wi-fi networks at hotels and coffee shops, you need a VPN. Public connections are fine for reading news headlines and checking sports scores, but cannot be considered safe for e-mail, online banking, making purchases, or anything that involves a username and a password. A VPN, which encrypts that traffic from prying eyes, is the only way to make them safe.

Here’s how to set up a VPN that’s good enough for personal use. All you need is a home Internet connection, a computer at home, and the laptop you take on the road.

Of course corporations can set up VPNs that are much faster and much more robust, but this is something you can set up in a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon without spending anything.

Read More »Secure that public wi-fi with a low-tier, no-cost home VPN

Microsoft sold 400 million Windows 7 licenses; what does it mean?

Steve Ballmer announced today that Microsoft has sold 400 million Windows 7 licenses, but anywhere from half to two-thirds of PCs are still running Windows XP and need to get with the program.

He also continues to insist Windows 8 will ship in 2012, which really makes me wonder why those XP users need to switch now. December 2012 is 17 short months away, and XP support runs until 2014. I see little need to rush out now and buy Windows 7, use it for 18-24 months, and then turn around and buy Windows 8. If XP is fulfilling users’ needs, what’s the hurry? Unless Windows 8 is going to be late, as bad as Vista, or both. But none of that can happen, right? (Note: It’s not 2014 anymore, so if you haven’t upgraded from XP, you need to.)

I’m sure the Windows 8 Police will be along to haul me away shortly for insinuating such things. But until that happens, that 400 million figure lets us do some other interesting extrapolation.Read More »Microsoft sold 400 million Windows 7 licenses; what does it mean?

Disadvantages of Windows 98 and 98SE

Many years ago, I wrote about the disadvantages of Windows 3.1 because I started noticing people searching for that. Now, I see people asking the same question about Windows 98. I spent 9 months of my life ripping Windows 98 apart and putting it back together again and writing about it, so I know it well.

As much of an improvement as Windows 98 was over Windows 3.1 and even Windows 95, it, too, is feeling the effects of time. Windows 98SE was the best of the Windows 9x series (better than its successor, Windows ME), but there are better things to run today.

Read More »Disadvantages of Windows 98 and 98SE

Short takes: Ed Felten, Sparky Anderson

Sparky Anderson died today. When I was a kid, Anderson was the manager of the Detroit Tigers and already a legend from having managed the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati in the 1970s. He was always a true gentleman in every possible regard.

He actually managed longer and won more games in Detroit, but his Tigers teams never matched the mystique of that great Reds dynasty.

A poignant quote from the article linked above: “The biggest thing that young people can learn is, do the best you can at what you do, and then when you’re through with it, don’t try to live it again. I don’t live baseball anymore.”

And in much happier news, Ed Felten got a job at the FTC. Felten is a rather outspoken computer science professor at Stanford. He famously demonstrated that Internet Explorer could be separated from Windows 98 in various ways during the Microsoft anti-trust trial in the late 1990s. He has a long history of being an advocate of allowing people to fix and modify the hardware devices they paid for, as opposed to the all-too-common-today idea that if you take something apart, you’ve violated some license agreement.

His insightful, sometimes snarky Freedom to Tinker blog is always a good read.  His series Fritz’s hit list is an Internet classic. 

Felten’s statement says his role will be an advisory role. They would do well to do whatever he says, because he understands technology much better than anyone else in Washington.

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: http://www.malwaredomainlist.com/hostslist/hosts.txt.

Read More »Blocking malware at the operating system level

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.

My poor-man’s SSD boots DOS really fast

So, my no-name compact flash adapters arrived today. I ripped one open like a kid at Christmas, pulled a PC off the scrap heap, yanked my 128 MB compact flash card out of my PDA, and went to town.Unfortunately I couldn’t get Xubuntu to boot, let alone install a minimal configuration, because my CD was corrupt. I wasn’t sure if I could install anything in 128 MB, but my last Debian 3.0 install was smaller than that, so I held out hope.

So I grabbed a Windows 98 SE CD. Surely that would fit in 128 megs if I left out all of the optional components, right? And if not, there’s always Doublespace, right? Wrong. The installation bombed out, saying I needed 205 megs.

The original Win98 was smaller though, right? So I grabbed that CD. It wouldn’t play either. It repeated that same 205 meg line. I’ll bet it says that to all the guys.

So I grabbed my Win95B CD. I’m pretty sure I once crammed Win95B and Office 97 onto a 170 MB hard drive. It wasn’t pretty, but hey, it was an emergency. But no joy there either. The CD wouldn’t even read. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since it’s a CD-R that I last touched sometime in 1999. I have no idea where the original CD is, but I know where the manual and COA are, not that that helps any.

I dug around for a Debian CD. I come across those fairly often when I’m looking for something else, but tonight I couldn’t find one.

I found my OS/2 3.0 sleeve, which got me thinking, but I couldn’t find the disc. I know I could make that fit in 128 megs and it would really scream–as in, it would complain loudly about the ATI video, and it would run really fast–but I never found the CD.

So for lack of anything else to put on it, I reinserted the Win98SE disc, rebooted, picked the Command Prompt with CD-ROM option, and dropped into DOS for perhaps the first time since the Clinton administration. I ran FDISK, blew away the partition table and repartitioned it, rebooted, found FORMAT.COM hidden in the WIN98 directory on the CD, formatted the drive, remembered I had to use the /S option, reformatted the drive, copied over himem.sys, oakcdrom.sys, mscdex.exe, and whatever else I could find, and built up config.sys and autoexec.bat files by hand using copy con, since I couldn’t find edit.com anywhere on the CD. I removed the CD, rebooted, and it booted fast–into an error message saying I’d neglected the /d parameter. Considering the last time I used the /d parameter was in 1999, that shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is that I remembered the syntax. So I deleted config.sys and autoexec.bat, built up new ones with copy con, and rebooted again.

The Win98 splash screen flashed, then I got a familiar DOS prompt, including indicators that the CD-ROM driver was working. It took about as long to boot as it did for the BIOS to do its thing–probably 1-2 seconds. Not bad for $7 worth of hardware ($5 for the adapter from Compgeeks, and $2 for the CF card from a garage sale).

Supposedly Windows 2000 can shrink down to 60MB if you get really aggressive with nLite. I’d really like to see that, but that means I’ll have to find my Windows 2000 CD. I’m sure it’s hiding somewhere in Argentina, playing cards with my OS/2 3.0 and Debian CDs.

I also ought to download Debian 3.0 again. I’m thinking 60-120 megs of Debian is probably more useful than 60 megs of Windows, but I really want to see how quickly Windows 2000 boots off flash.

Supposedly these cards support UDMA, so I probably ought to order some larger CF cards so I can do something really useful with them. Seeing DOS boot instantly is enough to convince me that these things can be useful. Who knows, I might be insane enough to try running my webserver off flash (the memory, not the obnoxious Macromedia/Adobe product).