Category Archives: PC Problems?

Having trouble with your PC? Here are some posts that can help get you out of a fix.

A faster PC in two easy steps.

I received a call the other night from a friend who was complaining that her PC was running horribly slow and taking forever to boot.  Naturally this  only became a real problem when her online games were so slow that she couldn’t keep up.

As is typical in these situation there were two questions running around in her head:

  1. Do I have a virus?
  2. Is my PC so old that I have to get a new one?

The answer to the first one is…possibly.  But if you have an updated anti-virus installed (and see my earlier post here if you don’t!) then you are probably safe.

The answer to the second one is…it depends on what you are doing with it.  If all you do is check in with your friends on Facebook then the chances are that there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

So, if the PC is OK and we don’t have a virus then what could be causing such bad behavior?  The most likely answer is the dreaded Bloatware!  <cue organ music and loud scream>.  Once installed bloatware sits there sucking the life out of your poor PC forever.

Let’s start by looking at that slow boot time.

When Windows starts it loads a number of programs during the startup.  When you install software companies often add their own items to the list of programs that start every time you turn on your machine.

These can be helpful, such as a program to start iTunes when you plug in your phone, but others do nothing more than run regular checks on their software to make sure that you are running their latest version – but do you really need that running all the time?  Finally others are much nastier and can do things such as monitor your internet traffic and pass information back to the mother ship.

One clue that you have too many of these things is to look in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  If you have a ton of little icons sitting in the tray near the clock then there is a good chance that you have too much junk in your computers startup.  Just because they are there doesn’t mean they are bad, but you should know exactly what every one of those does and make a conscious decision to keep them.

Let’s start by getting rid of any startup programs that are not adding value.  After all, once these things load they typically stick around in your computer’s memory and just get in the way.  But which ones should you keep and which should you get rid of?  A little detective work is necessary here, but don’t worry, it’s not that hard.  In most cases simply typing in the name of the program (including the .exe) into Google will pull up search results that will tell you what it is, whether it is dangerous, and whether it should be there.

Once you figure out what to keep and what to get rid of, here’s a nice little article that covers how to remove things using the built-in msconfig.exe utility or, my favorite, ccleaner.  http://www.howtogeek.com/74523/how-to-disable-startup-programs-in-windows/

Next, let’s take a look at that browser.  In the case of my friends PC she had 5 browser toolbars running.  I’m surprised she had any room to see any web pages at all!

So if your browser looks like this 

then it might be time to consider getting rid of a few things.  One way to do it is to go into your browser settings and disable them.  That works fine if you think you might want it back one day, but if you aren’t using the darn things anyway then why is it even allowed on your machine?   In those cases the better option is to to remove it completely.

Here’s a simple post that shows how to get rid of those pesky things entirely.  So here’s another post that will help you take care of that:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/241720/how_to_remove_browser_toolbars_in_internet_explorer.html

In the case of my friend about 30 minutes work (plus about 15 minutes waiting for reboots) had her PC  booting quickly and surfing like a Hawaiian native and I (naturally)  was once again the hero.

If you can follow a recipe then you can clean up your PC and have it running like new, so why put up with a slow PC ?

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Technology, Windows

My Favorite Free Software!

I love the Open Source/Free software movement.  It has provided me with some incredibly powerful tools to solve problems, not to mention hours of fun tracking down and playing with this stuff.

The following is a list of some of my favorite open source or free software tools.  It’s a mixed bag of things that can help improve productivity, solve PC problems, aid with development or just have fun.  

I’m always looking for more so please post your own favorites as comments and, assuming it makes my Geek-o-meter twitch, I will update the list as time goes on.

toondoo

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Technology

Oh $*@! – Recovering Deleted Files from your PC

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Restoring files that have accidentally been deleted, even after the recycle bin has been emptied.   5 minutes.

Oh-no-Second: Def:  The span of time it takes to realize you did something dumb.

Sooner or later you are going to hit the delete button on a file and immediately realize that you shouldn’t have done that.

When that happens the first thing you should do is DON’T PANIC!

Recycle Bin to the rescue!

Lucky for you enough people have done this that Microsoft introduced the Recycle Bin back in the days of Windows 95.  If you delete a file you can recover it quickly and easily by doing the following:

  • Open the Recycle Bin by double-clicking on the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop.
  • Find the file you want to recover and click to highlight it.
  • From the top menu choose File and then Restore.
  • The file is now back on your computer in its original place.

However there are times when the recycle bin is not used.  These include certain types of removable storage, files that were too large for the recycle bin, files deleted by programs or if you have set up the recycle bin to be bypassed. You can also empty the recycle bin (I usually do that before running a large virus scan) and then realize that there was a file you wanted to keep in there.

What if it’s not in the recycle bin?

Fortunately PCs store files as a data and pointers – think of it as a a filing cabinet with index cards that tell you where to find things.  Normally when a file is deleted all that really happened is that the index card was removed – but the data is still there.  Eventually that area of the disk will get reused but, if we are quick, we can put the index card back and all is well.

There are many programs available to recover files but the one that I like to use is  Recuva by Piriform (the same folks that created CCleaner).  I like this because it is both free and simple to use.

When you start Recuva you are presented with a “wizard” that asks two simple questions.

  1. What type of file are you trying to get back?
  2. Where was the file?

Recuva will then scan the disk for files that match your description, check which ones can be recovered and present you with a list of files ready for restore.

Voila!

To show how it works I deleted some photo, emptied the recycle bin and then ran Recuva.  Here are the results.

What:

Where:

Restore:

Good luck!

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Windows

Microsoft Office for FREE!

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Install LibreOffice as a fully functional office suite that is Microsoft Office compatible.   5 – 20 minutes.
OK…that headline isn’t 100% true.  But I hate seeing people spend money on software they don’t need.
– 
Lately I have run into several people with Macs (or older versions of Office) who find themselves unable to open files from the School / PTO / Local Charity, etc.  because the files were created in Word or Excel.
Like it or not MS-Office is a standard today that cannot be ignored even if you do “think different“.
But before you blow over a hundred bucks on the latest version of  MS-Office I’m going to ask that you give LibreOffice a shot.

LibreOffice is a complete Office suite that is fully compatible with all versions of Microsoft Office.  And since it is open source it is also 100% free.

It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux PCs, updated often, and is the only office suite that works almost identically regardless of machine.

To be fair LibreOffice can’t do everything that MS Office 2010 does.  But it does a lot more than offerings such as Google Docs, and has more power than most users need. It is an obvious choice for any user, company, or organization that wants to stop paying for Office.

It comes with a:

  • Word processor (Writer)
  • Spreadsheet (Calc)
  • Presentation system (Impress)
  • Drawing package (Draw)
  • Database (Base)
  • Math equation editor (Math).
More details on the features are found here.

One very cool  feature is the ability to create PDF files right out of the box.  No need to mess around with additional software or creating fake printers.

Installation couldn’t be simpler – just download, run and…that’s it!  Depending on your Internet speed you could literally be up and running with it in a few minutes.  And if MS Office is your mainstay then I’d suggest taking a few moments to set the default file save format to Word/PowerPoint/Excel before you start.

The one thing it doesn’t come with is an alternative to Microsoft Outlook.  However, if you really need an email client, then Mozilla’s Thunderbird comes highly recommended.

But if you are looking for an office suite that is Microsoft Office compatible then you have nothing to lose – so  give it a shot!   Unless you actually enjoy spending money on software you don’t need.

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Windows

Free Anti-Virus – The Best Way to Protect Your PC

Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Replacing your existing Anti-virus with a free alternative.   20-30 minutes

As I mentioned in my last post, the first question I ask is whether people have a backup.   The second question ask is whether they have up-to-date anti-virus software installed.

A shocking number of people fall into the group of having anti-virus software that hasn’t been updated since their trial period ended, and yet still believe they are protected.

Let me make this clear – if your subscription has expired then you are NOT protected.

But who can blame them?  Anti-virus software is expensive, isn’t it?

If you go with what arrived on your PC then, yes, it is expensive.  PC manufacturers make extra money by including software (known collectively as Bloatware) because vendors pay them.  Norton and McAfee fully expect you to sign up when the trial period runs out because you don’t know that you have a choice.

But there are companies that offer great anti-virus solutions for free!  Why?  Well, some do it for philanthropic reasons while others (e.g. Microsoft) do it because they need Windows to appear secure if they want people to buy it.

Replacing your existing anti-virus with a free alternative is a relatively painless procedure involving 3 easy steps.

  1. Remove your existing anti-virus
  2. Install the new anti-virus
  3. Configure your anti-virus to automatically update and scan your machine

Here we will cover installing Microsoft Security Essentials.  Why MSE?  Well, as I see it, Microsoft know more about their products than anyone else and have a vested interest in presenting Windows as virus free.  Unlike the big boys in the virus world, it is not in Microsoft’s interest to have you worrying about viruses.  I have also found MSE to take less CPU than some of the other offerings.

Let’s get started.

1. Removing your existing Anti-virus

Since most PCs come with Norton or McAfee installed the first thing we need to do is remove that, because running multiple copies of AV software is really bad news.  Normally this is a simple affair, however do not take this step until you are ready to complete step number 2, otherwise you will be left completely naked – and for some of you that isn’t going to be anything we want to see!

To remove your existing software click the Start button and select “Control Panel”.  Depending on which version of windows you are running you will then take one of several options:

  • Windows XP:
    Select the option “Add or Remove Programs”  
  • Windows 7 or Windows Vista:
    Select the option “Uninstall a program” 

Wait for the list of programs to populate and then then locate your current AV software.  Click on that program name to highlight it and then click Remove (Windows XP) or Uninstall (Vista/Windows 7).  Follow the prompts to uninstall the software.  Make sure that you reboot your machine after uninstalling to be sure it completes this process.

During this step you will most likely receive warnings that your PC is unprotected.  Don’t worry – we will fix that in step 2.

Note: If you already have a paid subscription then uninstalling the program will not stop future payments - many companies default to charging your credit card each year "for your protection" and you will need to contact them to stop future payments. 

2. Installing Microsoft Security Essentials

Now we are ready to install the Microsoft anti-virus software on your machine.  To do this open a browser and visit this link – Microsoft Security Essentials.  Select the Free Download link and select the version for your Operating system.

If you are given the option to Run the software – take that.  If not, download the program to somewhere you can find it later, open that folder and (once the download is complete) and double-click to start the install.

Follow the instructions on the screen (which involves clicking Next a couple of times, plus agreeing to the software license).

3. Configure your anti-virus to automatically update and scan your machine

Once the install is finished take the option to scan your machine for threats.  Doing this will automatically download the latest virus definitions are part of the scanning process.  Your PC will continue to show an “at risk” status until this first scan is complete.   This first scan can take a while, depending on how large your machine is, however you can continue to use your machine while this is working.

Finally, you are going to want to set up your anti-virus to automatically scan your PC on a periodic basis.  This allows the scanning (which can slow your machine) to occur while you are not using the machine, and because it will download new definitions before each scan.

To set this up run the software (it will already be running if you are following on from above) by clicking on the little castle in the toolbar.  Select the Settings tab and set up a time when your PC will be on but not in use.  Make sure that the option to check for the latest virus and spyware definitions box is checked.

That’s it!  Now you can continue to enjoy the use of your PC free from viruses and without fear that your subscription will run out.  Better yet, you have just saved yourself  $50 per year, all for 20 minutes work.

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Viruses, Windows

Before Disaster Strikes – Simple Backup Strategies

If you don’t have a backup then your PC is a ticking time-bomb.  

When I get called because a PC has died the first question I always ask is “Do you have a backup?”

In most cases the is no, which often means that years of accumulated family photos, videos, financial records and music downloads are gone forever.
Remember – photos aren’t kept in shoe boxes anymore!
So, before you pick up the phone in a panic let’s get your PC backed up.

Creating a backup – which type!
For IT professionals failure to create a backup is grounds for dismissal – and with good reason.  Creating a backup is the #1 thing you can do to protect yourself.
Creating a backup is easy and cheap to do, but you need to decide which method of backup is best for you.  There are two main options – an external USB drive or Cloud backup.

External USB Drive
Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Install an external USB drive as a backup device   20 minutes + backup time (hours)

Advantages
:  USB drives are cheap, fast and can be setup by anyone in minutes.  They are also great for moving data to other machines – such as when you buy a new machine and want to transfer your data, or take some files to another place.

Disadvantages
:  External drives are in the same place as your main PC, which means that should you have a fire, flood, theft or other disaster then everything is gone and you are back to square one.

Buying a drive
The good news is that USB disk drives are amazingly cheap these days.  I have seen 2 Terabytes (2,000 GB) for around $80.  For the vast majority of PC users that is way more disk space than you are going to need for some time.
My general rule is that I buy at least double the disk space currently in use.  In my case that is about 1TB.  This is more than enough for a full backup, plus lots of ‘incremental backups‘.  If you are in doubt then buy a 1TB drive, which should be more than enough for more PC users.
I prefer USB powered drives because they are totally portable, can’t accidentally be left turned off, and I have fewer wires to get tangled.  Just be sure to plug it into the PC directly to ensure it has enough power.

Installation
Installation requires nothing more than plugging the new drive into the USB port, plugging in the power (if necessary) and following the instructions on the screen.  No tools are necessary, you won’t have to open up the PC, and if you can plug-in a toaster then you have the necessary skills to do this.   Once installed they can back up even the most bloated drive in a few hours.
Most USB drives are pre-installed with software that will automatically back up your important files on a regular schedule. Set up the schedule to back up your files at least once per week, and if you turn off your PC when not in use, remember to schedule the backup for when the PC is actually on.  It won’t work otherwise.  Once set up – forget it!

Note: not all external drives automatically back up for you, some need you to run a program or push a button on the drive to start the backup.  If you are not sure then the Maxtor One Touch family can schedule regular backups.

Cloud (Internet) Backup
Summary Difficulty Rating Time to complete
Setting up a cloud based backup   20 minutes + backup time (weeks)

Advantages:
Backing up files to “the cloud” has several advantages – the most important of which is that all of your important files are stored away from your house.  Should disaster strike then you can always get your data back.
Other advantages are that you don’t have to worry about running out of disk space, and you can get access to your files anywhere there is an internet connection.
Finally, cloud backups are always up to date.  The software automatically recognizes when files have been added or changed and will back them up the next time your PC is not being used.

Disadvantages:
Recurring Cost:  Unlike purchasing an external USB drive, cloud solutions have to be paid for every year.
Speed:  When I installed Carbonite on my PC it took about three weeks for the initial backup to complete.  However, now that the initial backup has finished keeps up without any problem.

Installation
Personally I use Carbonite which I have found to work well.  Another popular option is Mozy.  But these are certainly not the only ones around.
Installing Carbonite is easy – download the software and select automatic setup.  The software will take care of the rest.
Carbonite also have a nice iPhone application which I have used to get access to files I needed on the road and email them to myself.  Nice.

What do I do?
Personally…I have both types of backup.
I have a 1TB USB powered external drive (“USB powered” avoids additional wires and it things a lot more portable) and a cloud based solution.
I use the 1TB drive periodically, but the cloud solution is my real backup.

This is fine for the occasional use (say a file was accidentally deleted), but I do have concerns about what is going to happen should I every have a major failure and need to get the data back.  Waiting another three weeks to download everything would be painful – hence the 1TB external drive.
Too much?  I don’t think you can have too many backups if you want to keep your data safe.
If you read this far you probably realize that a backup is a good idea.  So I am now going to ask you to do one thing.  If you don’t already have one DO IT NOW!  Yes, I mean, before you close the browser and forget.  Here are a couple of links to get you going:
In the next installment I’ll talk about setting up an anti-virus that won’t expire and won’t cost you a penny.

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Filed under PC Problems?, Windows

Protect your PC with Linux (Dual-boot)


Summary

Difficulty Rating

Time to complete

Install Linux alongside Windows to provide additional virus protection  and access your data if Windows becomes inoperable

 

Less than 1 Hour


Installing Linux alongside Windows provides a number of benefits, even to novice users. Benefits to installing Linux alongside Windows (a practice known as dual-boot) include:

  1. The ability to run virus scanning software from outside of Windows – more on that later.
  2. Should the Windows system become unusable for any reason you can still boot into Linux to access and backup your files before any drastic action is taken with the Windows partition.
  3. If all you are doing is browsing the web then Linux will boot faster and be significantly more secure that Windows.

Note: The instructions below enable you to set up your machine as a dual boot device.  However if the unthinkable has already happened and your Windows PC is already infected with a virus then a simpler option is to create a bootable Linux virus scanner.  Both AVG and Kaspersky kindly provides the necessary disk image which can be found here and here will allow you to create either a bootable CD or USB drive.  As with the dual-boot option below, this runs in a Linux environment and should therefore be immune to whatever nasty things have infected your Windows environment.

My preferred version of Linux is Ubuntu, mostly because it has a great graphical interface, so that is the one that we will focus on here.

Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace ...

Image via Wikipedia

For those not familiar with it, Ubuntu is the most popular version of Linux available today.  It comes in several varieties (desktop, notebook, and server being the primary ones).  Ubuntu has a very ‘windows like’ interface (except server), comes pre-packaged with software such as open office (which is Microsoft office compatible even up to Office 2010) and is, of course, completely free.

Part 1 – Installing Ubuntu

There are several ways to install Ubuntu but here we are going to assume that most people have Windows and would like to install it alongside – providing a choice of operating system to run appearing at boot time.  I have personally installed it alongside Windows 7 and windows Vista, and I’m told it will happily work with Windows XP.

Important note:  Before you start, please take a backup of your system and make sure that you have Windows boot disk available.  I have not seen it wreck anything yet, but I would hate someone to send me an email describing how they lost everything.

There are detailed instructions on the Ubuntu web site for installing Ubuntu alongside Windows, including the necessary download links to Wubi (the windows Ubuntu installer).  These can be found here : http://www.ubuntu.com/desktop/get-ubuntu/windows-installer.  Since they will keep that up to date there is no reason for me to rewrite that here.

At the time of writing there is a bug in the current version  Wubi of where it sometimes tells you that a disk is missing and give you the option to Try Again, Cancel or Continue.  Apparently this is something to do with extra disks (e.g. USB drives) being attached and is very annoying because it won’t go away.  However the solution is very simple – just hit continue many, many times (about 30 or so) and the program will continue and work fine (sic).

If presented with the option to do a Demo and full installation or Install inside Windows, select the Install inside Windows option.

You should then be asked which drive to install to (assuming C:) how much disk space to allocate (you should select at least 5gb), and you will need to select a user id and a password.  Passwords are used a lot in Ubuntu for admin functions, so make sure it is something you can easily remember and do not leave it blank.

The install will start and, after a while, you will be asked to reboot.  Once you reboot you should be given the option to boot into Windows (which will occur automatically if you do nothing) or Ubuntu.  Select Ubuntu and the installation of Ubuntu will continue.  Once complete you will be able to boot into either operating system on system startup.

Extra notes:

– If you are using a laptop and Ubuntu doesn’t have a driver for your wi-fi card then try connecting to a wired LAN and running a system update (System –> Administration –> Update Manager).  That sometimes solves the issue.  If not then you will have to install a program called ndiswrapper and use that to install your driver (quite easy to do).

– I always run the update mentioned above anyway to make sure that I have the most up to date software.

Part 2 – Using Ubuntu as a Windows virus scanner.

Some viruses are smart and act protect themselves.  One common way to do this is to  start multiple versions that watch each other constantly. Should an instance be stopped by your anti-virus software, the other instances immediately reinstate it.  But if you don’t start Windows then the virus never runs in the first place.  As such running a scan from a Linux partition can be particularly useful with stubborn viruses.

To run a full virus scan from Ubuntu you will need to boot into Ubuntu and install two programs.  By default Ubuntu does not come with any Virus scanning software installed (which I think personally smacks of hubris).
To do this do the following.

From the menu bar at the top select – System –> Administration –> Synaptic Package Manager

– Search for ClamAV and mark that for installation by checking the box.  It will automatically add any other software needed to support that.  ClamAV is the virus scanning software.

– Search for ClamTK and mark that for installation by checking the box.  It will automatically add other software needed to support that.  ClamTK is the Graphical User Interface for the scanning software.

– Click on the Apply button and wait for the software to install.

Part 3 – Running the scan.

From the menu bar at the top select – Applications –> Virus Scanner

The first time you run it, it will probably tell you that the virus definitions are out of date.  Let it sit for a while, close the program and then open it again and you should find they are OK now (it updates when you run it).

Scan –> Recursive scan

Select the File System disk from the options available and click OK.  If you are not sure which disk needs to be scanned then select the largest drive available – that is usually your main PC drive.

The scan will start but it will take several minutes for any information to be displayed in the scanner software.  Don’t Panic!

The full scan can take a long time depending on the size of your disk.  If any viruses are found they will be displayed at the end as a list and you can right-click on each file to choose an action.

That’s it!

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them here.

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Viruses, Windows