Saturday, December 1, 2012

Windows 8

Windows 8 was officially released by Microsoft on October 26th. This week we had our first Windows 8 machine come through the door for a service. This was the first time I've personally used the final release of Windows 8, and it was definitely a different experience.

The first thing you'll notice when you sit down at a Windows 8 computer is that it looks nothing like any Windows machine you've used before. The interface was designed to look more like Android or iOS than previous versions of Windows. What Microsoft has essentially done is replace the Start Menu with a Start Screen. This has caused quite a bit of confusion for people that aren't prepared for this new approach. Everybody is comfortable with the idea of booting into a blank desktop and having to click on a menu to bring up a list of programs. What Microsoft has done is to do away with that blank desktop and now you boot directly into a screen that is really just a redesigned Start Menu. All of your programs are represented with large square icons instead of written in list form, but other than that it's essentially the same. If you are completely uncomfortable with the new look there is an icon that will take you to a traditional Windows desktop view. However, there is no Start Menu on this desktop, and you'll have to go back to the Start Screen to open any programs or perform any functions that you haven't made desktop shortcuts for.

The second main difference I noticed with Windows 8 is what Microsoft is calling charms. There are now two types of Windows programs. There are the traditional programs that we're used to that open in a re-sizable window that we can move around the desktop. The second type are programs that are specifically designed for Windows 8. Instead of a plain square icon on the Start Screen, these programs have live tiles which give access to constantly updated information about that program. An example is Microsoft's email program, which will let you know how many new messages you have and alert you when new messages come in by displaying the information directly on the icon on the Start Screen. These Windows 8 programs also launch as a full screen. When you launch Internet Explorer, for example, there is no desktop behind it. It is the entire screen and it can't be resized. If you are browsing the web and want to check your email you have to exit back to the Start Screen and open the email application. To go back you then have to exit the email app and relaunch Internet Explorer. The experience was very similar to using a smart phone or tablet. There are quite a few programs that have already been put out specifically for Windows 8, and Microsoft has started an app store. This store is similar to Apple's and Google's app stores. There is an icon for the app store on the main Start Screen and you can purchase and download programs directly from their much as you do on an Android or iOS device.

Another thing that jumped out at me was that Microsoft definitely designed Windows 8 to be used with a touchscreen. Luckily, the laptop I was working on was equipped with a touchscreen. I was able to navigate using the touchpad, but it was very cumbersome and I couldn't imagine trying to put in a full day of work that way. If you are in the market for a new computer and are thinking about Windows 8 I would put a touchscreen on the top of the list of required features. If you are thinking of updating to Windows 8 and don't have a touchscreen I would probably advise you to hold onto Windows 7.

Windows 8 comes in three different flavors. In this area Microsoft has improved quite a bit and it's very simple to figure out which version you need. Standard Windows 8 is for home users, Windows 8 Pro is for small to medium sized businesses and Windows 8 Enterprise is for large businesses(more than 500 systems). If you're running a business out of your home and find it necessary to network multiple computers there are features in Windows 8 Pro that will make it worth the upgrade.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday Deals

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at UCC. We know that some of you are going to be heading out this weekend to stock up on the Thanksgiving weekend savings. We just wanted to give you a quick reminder of how to make sure that you're getting the most for your money when it comes to electronics.

The first thing to realize is that just because something is advertised as a Door Buster doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great deal. I have been researching the advertisements and have spotted several “deals” that are actually full priced. This is usually done by advertising an older model of a popular product knowing that people will become confused and buy it without realizing that they have last year's model. The products that I'm seeing this the most in is tablets. Companies often release new tablets every year with very similar model names in order to capitalize on brand recognition. I've seen last year's iPad, Kindle Fire, and Samsung Tab all marketed at their full retail price and labeled Black Friday Specials. Electronics always get less expensive as time goes on. A store is able to give an inflated retail price by going off of the manufacturer's original suggested price even though that price hasn't been used any time recently.

Another thing that many people don't realize is that while products may be marked down from last month's prices, those prices are often times marked up from where they are at other times of the year. For example, many electronics stores are advertising high definition televisions in their Black Friday ads. If you need that new TV for the holidays these can be great deals. However, research has shown that if you wait for the Super Bowl sales that happen in January you can save even more. The new models of TVs come out in the spring and the stores are looking to capitalize on the popularity of the Super Bowl to clear out last year's models. The same is true for digital cameras. The new cameras come out in spring, so shopping in January and February can lead to better deals than Black Friday has to offer.

The last thing that I want to mention is to watch for cheap imitations. Some stores will try to pass inferior electronics off because they can claim to have ridiculously low prices for items that common sense says should be way more expensive. The general rule of thumb is that if you don't recognize the name of the company that makes a product stay away. Tablets seem to be the hot item for this trick, though I have seen it with laptops and TVs. A store will advertise an “Android tablet” for $80. They don't make the specifics immediately obvious, and further research shows that that tablet is a cheap Chinese knockoff that's only worth $80 to start with.

The trick to getting great deals on electronics on Black Friday is to do your homework in advance. If you see a deal that looks too good to pass up make sure you get a specific model number. Then go online and check what that model is selling for at other stores, don't trust the regular price that's shown in the advertisements. Price tracking sites such as can be great as they will show you the current price of a product at multiple stores. They can also show you a history of what a particular item's price has been over the last year. This can give you an indication of how good of a deal you're actually getting.

There are definitely good deals to be had on Black Friday. Unfortunately, there are an equal amount of sales that are made by preying on people getting caught up in the hype. By following these tips and doing your research you can make sure that you're getting the most bang for your buck during this year's festivities.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Too Much Power?

The least thought about computer component is the surge protector. Most people put careful consideration into how much processor power or how much memory they need in their system, but protecting those components is an afterthought. It's not uncommon for people to let us know that they can get power strips for their computers at Wal-Mart for five dollars, and they work just fine. Unfortunately, these are usually the same people who are coming in with hundreds of dollars in damage to their systems caused by power surges.

The first step to understanding why we need to invest in quality surge protectors is understanding why we need them at all. Everybody understands that if a bolt of electricity hits a power line near your house there will be a large electrical jolt. What most people don't realize is that there are smaller power fluctuations that occur in our electrical systems every day. These surges are usually small and short lived, so most electrical devices are unaffected. However, electronics such as computers and TVs have relatively small and delicate components that can easily be damaged by these fluctuations. When contemplating power fluctuations, it's usually easiest to compare electricity to something we have more experience with. I like to use plumbing as an example. Everybody is familiar with the idea that as you turn on more faucets in your house the water pressure to each individual faucet will drop because the pressure is being divided between the open faucets. We also know that if we shut off all of the faucets except for one that single faucet will have a sudden spike in pressure. The person that is using that faucet will recognize that they are all of a sudden getting a lot more water than they expected, and they will turn the water down. However, there is a short time between the water pressure jumping up and that person turning the water down where the water was gushing out of that faucet way faster than was needed. The same thing happens with electricity. When your refrigerator or air conditioner is running your electrical system will draw extra current from the power grid to compensate. When those appliances kick off there is a small delay where your system is suddenly getting more power than it needs. That electricity has to go somewhere, so everything that is still plugged in and turned on will experience a surge in electrical power.

A large power surge, like a lightning strike, can be dramatic and the effects immediately obvious. When you hear thunder and all of a sudden there is smoke pouring out of your computer, it's not too hard to guess what happened. However, smaller power fluctuations can have a cumulative effect on your system. While the effects are not immediately visible, over time they can do the same amount of damage. If we go back to the plumbing example, an average home system is designed to withstand 80 psi of water pressure. A large burst of 1000 psi of water pressure will produce immediate and dramatic results. Usually this would look like all of your pipes simultaneously bursting. However, having the water pressure spike to 100 psi several times during the day won't have any immediate noticeable effect. That doesn't mean that the damage isn't being done. Sooner or later all of your fixtures will start to fail, and if left enough time your pipes will begin leaking as well. Likewise, the circuits in your computer's components are designed to carry a certain amount of electricity. A lightning strike will cause many of them to burst dramatically and at the same time and routine but smaller fluctuations will cause them to fail one at a time.

If these fluctuations are happening constantly in most homes, how do we protect our computers from them? The answer is surge protectors. A surge protector is really just a power strip with an extra circuit that can absorb sudden bursts of electricity. This energy is then either released into a grounding wire or gradually released back into the main circuit depending on the design of the surge protector. These extra circuits have a rating of how much electricity they can handle. This rating is measured in joules. I would recommend purchasing a surge protector with a rating of at least 3000 joules. This will protect you from the small to medium power surges that are seen most often in people's homes.

The last point I want to make is that surge protectors work by sacrificing their own circuits in order to protect your electronics. Every surge that a power strip absorbs lowers it's performance rating for subsequent strikes. Over the course of four or five years, the protection of a surge protector can be completely exhausted even if you've never noticed a serious power surge. For this reason, most quality surge protectors on the market today will have an indicator light to let you know if they are still operating at an adequate level to protect your components. I would strongly recommend replacing your surge protectors every two to three years and making sure that any new surge protectors purchased have an indicator light so that you can visually see when they need replacing again.

Friday, October 19, 2012

$250 Laptop

There was another presidential debate this week, and it was clearly evident that no matter how different the views were on most issues there was one issue that both candidates could agree on. Our economy has gone through some rough times in recent years. While most people are willing to spend an ever-growing percentage of their budget on technology, the fact is that most people simply don't have a lot of money to spend on anything right now. In light of this fact, Samsung and Google have collaborated and announced Thursday that their new $250 laptop will begin shipping on Halloween.

The first question that comes to mind is “How good can this thing be for $250?” The answer may surprise you. While the new Chromebook is admittedly not going to replace your desktop computer anytime in the near future, it is surprisingly capable of handling most day to day tasks for the average user. As the name implies, the Chromebook is loaded with Google's Chrome OS. As one would expect from a Google product, this platform is geared towards web usage. However, it also comes with a variation of most of the applications that you'd expect to find on any other laptop. Web browsing is handled by the popular Google Chrome browser. Google Docs handles the text editing and spreadsheet functions. It also comes preloaded with calendar, notepad and media player applications. It has a webcam for video chatting and is available with WiFi and 3G chips installed for Internet connectivity.

The hardware is not what you'd find on a $1,200 MacBook Pro, but with Google's light weight applications it performs admirably at 17% of the price. Samsung used an ARM processor in place of an Intel chip. What this means is that the computer runs extremely efficiently allowing for 6.5 hours of battery life and does not need a fan. With no moving parts the computer is absolutely silent. While there is no optical drives for CDs or DVDs there are two USB ports to allow for external peripherals.

Of course there are always trade-offs. Otherwise every laptop would only cost $250. With the Chromebook you have the processing power to play 1080p high definition movies, but you can forget about playing the latest and greatest video games. Being a Linux based system, you also can't install most software that is made for Windows. However, you can download and install software from Google Play, the same app store that is used on Android devices.

While this new laptop isn't going to replace your desktop workhorse, if you are one of the 90% of people that spend 90% of their time online or on email this might be a great fit for you. At $250, it is also an option for families that want to get a second computer for their kids but don't have the income to spend on a Windows-based system. It could also be useful for people that aren't technologically inclined as the Chrome OS is wonderfully simple to use, and isn't vulnerable to malware and viruses that plague Windows and Apple products. Another group that could find value in this system would be students. At 2.5 lbs. and 8” across, the Chromebook will easily slide into a backpack for easy travel. Whether or not you fit into any of these categories, the Chromebook might be worth a look for you.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Speed Up Your Start Up

One of the more common services that we perform is to optimize start-up programs. This is also one of the services that our customers seem to find the most surprising. However, when we look at a computer that is running slowly and bogging down under heavy loads unnecessary start-up programs are one of the most common culprits.

Start-up programs are exactly what they sound like. They are programs that start when you boot into Windows. They usually run in the background, and for the most part are not malicious. The most recognizable start-up programs are anti-viruses. Odds are you have an anti-virus running right now, and it started automatically when you booted into Windows. It's a background process, which means that there's no window that opens to tell you that you're running your anti-virus. There's usually just a little icon next to your clock that lets you know that you're being protected.

In the case of an anti-virus, we want that program to start every time we log onto the computer. It prevents incidents where we forget to protect ourselves before going online or checking our email. However, in many cases start-up programs only serve to draw off of system resources and bog down our system. Most of the times these programs are put out with good intentions by software developers, and individually they don't have much affect. The thing to remember is that your system has a limited amount of processing power and a limited amount of memory. Any program that is running pulls from that central pool and leaves less resources for you to use as you go about your tasks. Think of the water pressure in your home. If you're taking a shower and somebody decides to wash their hands in the kitchen, no problem. However, if every faucet on the house is turned on, the washing machine is running, and you're watering the garden you might be in some trouble when it comes time to rinse the shampoo out of your hair. The same is true of start-up programs. Having a couple programs constantly running in the background isn't going to be noticed, but when they start to add up you start to have problems.

I'm going to use the computer I'm on right now as an example of what I'm talking about when I say that start-up programs aren't malicious just unnecessary. I'm writing this article on my home computer that is used by my entire family. I have a smartphone that I plug in occasionally to load the pictures that I've taken so that I can back them up. We also connect our digital camera for the same reasons. We have a GPS that gets connected for map updates once every six months. My daughter has an electronic book reader that gets connected to download new material. Each of these actions requires us to download and install a program to let the device interact with the computer. Knowing that people don't want to try to find the proper application when they plug in a device, the manufacturers of these products have their programs start in the background when the computer is booted. That way, when we plug a device in it magically pops up the correct software. Because of this Samsung, Canon, Magellan, and Leapfrog all have programs that are set to constantly be running on this system. This doesn't even include the three different programs that HP has set to constantly run to keep track of my printer. You can see how this can quickly add up.

While the device manufacturers have good intentions, the thing to remember is that most of these devices are connected less than once a month each. In order to avoid the hassle of opening a program once a month I now have 7 unnecessary programs running constantly. This is in addition to the programs that I actually want to automatically run. Overall, on this machine I have 20 programs that are set by default to start on boot up. The other 13 are made up of software updaters, anti-malware, and utilities I use to track various metrics on my machine.

As you can imagine, having 20 programs running in the background may have some affect on the performance of my machine. When I have an email program, web browser and word processor open as I do now I've upped that number to 23. This is actually a pretty mild case, as it's not uncommon for us to see systems with 40 to 50 start-up programs. Therefore, it's not to surprising when the customer tells us that the computer is slow even though they only have a web browser open.

What we do when we perform a start-up optimization is to actually go through the start-up programs one by one and determine if it's something that needs to be run every time the computer is booted up. We can then deactivate the programs that are only used occasionally, thus freeing up your system resources. I have been able to cut my start-up programs down to 13 by eliminating the device helpers I mentioned earlier, thus freeing up nearly half of the resources drawn by my background processes.

I have to mention that some of the start-up programs are needed by Windows to operate properly. While it is possible for you to perform a start-up optimization yourself, deactivating the wrong programs can leave your system inoperable. A good example of this is Windows Explorer, which provides the taskbar and start menu. If you deactivate this you will have some trouble navigating your system. If you have any doubts about what a program does, play it safe and leave it activated.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Internet Explorer Drama

A security hole was found in Internet Explorer early this week that allows cybercriminals to download and run programs onto your computer. How it works is that the program is uploaded to a web server and when a victim browses to a page on that server the server exploits the security breach in Internet Explorer to download the malware with no interaction from the user. A security analyst stumbled upon it while browsing the Internet. The hole is what's known as a zero-day exploit. What this means is that the security breach was found “in the wild” before anybody knew it even existed. So far, there have been three verified cases of web servers exploiting this security hole.

Microsoft has deemed this as a critical security flaw and hustled to create a patch to make their browser safe against such attacks in the future. The patch was released on Friday, September 21st. If you have Windows set to automatically install important updates your system will have installed this update for you. If not, go to To manually download the security patch. You will have to find the version of Internet Explorer you are using and then finding your version of Windows. The blue colored text that reads Internet Explorer X is a link to the appropriate download page for your patch. When you get to that page there will be an orange Download button. Click that button and your browser will download the patch. You can find what version of Windows you're running by clicking the Start Menu and right clicking on Computer or My Computer and selecting Properties from the drop-down menu. You can find your Internet Explorer version by opening Internet Explorer and clicking on Tools and then About Internet Explorer.

While Microsoft was quick to react to this threat it brings up a deeper issue with Internet Explorer. 10 years ago, Internet Explorer was synonymous with the Internet. In 2004 IE had an estimated 91% of the market share. It was simply the best browser you could find, and coming preloaded with Windows there wasn't a reason to look for alternatives. That is no longer the case. In the last 8 years IE's market share has plummeted to an estimated 23%. There is good reason for this fall. Other browsers have caught up to and surpassed IE in nearly every relevant metric. Compared to the competition, IE is slower, takes up more system resources, is less secure and strays farthest from web standards meaning it causes errors on more web pages. For these reasons IE has lost nearly 70% of the market share despite being preinstalled on 90% of desktop computers. While Microsoft did a good job of patching this security hole once it was found, the fact remains that it was a hole that simply didn't exist on any other browser. In light of this last security snafu, many security agencies and governments have urged people to switch away from IE.

By this point in the article you can probably tell that I would be one of those people urging you to drop IE in favor of one of it's competitors. What competitor would I recommend? That depends largely on personal tastes. I will give a brief rundown of the three most popular and well regarded alternatives and leave it to you to decide which is right for you.

Google Chrome – Chrome has become the new market leader in the web browser arena. There are two main reasons for this. Google's goals when it set out to create a browser were to make it faster and lighter than anything on the market and to make it quick and easy to keep up to date. It has succeeded in both areas. Chrome is lightening fast and takes up a small fraction of system resources compared to any of the others on this list. This leaves your computer free to perform other tasks while you have the browser open in the background. However, the upgrading is where Chrome has really separated itself from the competition. Chrome's default setting is to check for, and install, upgrades automatically in the background whenever you launch the browser. This means that if you use Chrome you never have to worry about upgrades or security patches as the browser will take care of this without you even knowing. If this security hole was found in Chrome instead of IE the patch could have been put out the same day and the next time you launched your browser it would have been installed.

Mozilla Firefox – Anybody that was using the Internet in the late 90s remembers the old Netscape browser that gave IE a run for it's money. Unfortunately, Netscape was a relatively small company and simply couldn't compete with Microsoft in the web browser arena. In the end they had to close the doors and stop producing their program. Instead of letting Netscape die, they gave the code to the open-source community known as Mozilla who had been struggling to get their own browser off the ground. Armed with the code from Netscape, Mozilla created Firefox. Since that time, Firefox has been the go-to alternative for people looking to ditch IE. Much of the market share that has been lost by IE over the last 8 years has been lost to Firefox, who now owns an estimated 19% of the market itself.

Opera – The last browser I'm going to mention is Opera. Opera is produced by a privately owned company in Norway. Opera is credited with being on the cutting edge of browser technology despite holding just 5% of the market share. Opera was the first browser to offer features such as tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, caching to RAM, webpage zooming, saving sessions so that you can start from where you left off when reopening the browser, integrated search, pop-up blocking, speed dial, and many others. As you can see, the browser you currently use wouldn't be what it is without copying features from Opera. The feature that I like most, which is now also included in Chrome, is the ability to log into the browser. This will save all of your settings to an Opera server. When you log in from multiple locations Opera will sync the settings so that your favorites and history will be the same where ever you log in from.

There are many other options to choose from, and the differences could be daunting. My suggestion would be to install a couple and decide for yourself what you prefer. If you decide to stick with Internet Explorer though, make sure to follow the link above to the security patch and download it. Even if you have automatic updates activated, you can never be too safe with your online security.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Social Engineering

It seems like once a week we get somebody walking into our store and telling us about a phone call that they received telling them that there's a problem with their computer and offering help to fix it. These calls are supposedly from antivirus companies, Microsoft or even the FBI. These calls are actually coming from criminals using a method known as social engineering to gain access to your computers. I call them criminals because what they're doing is known as pretexting and as of 2007 it is a federal felony.

Social Engineering operates on a very simple premise. That premise is that it's much easier to trick someone into giving a password for a system than to spend the effort to crack into the system. Likewise, it's much easier to trick somebody into typing commands into their computer than it is to write a trojan or virus to run the commands. This is what we're hearing about from our customers. The scam involves somebody calling your house and claiming that they're from Microsoft and that they have reports that there's a problem with your computer or your copy of Windows. In order to avoid problems for you they'd like to verify your software. They direct you to open a command prompt and type in a series of commands. After you do so, they kindly tell you that everything appears fine and apologize for the inconvenience. This seems harmless enough, but what you've actually done is open a backdoor for the person on the other end of the phone to run code remotely on your computer. Your antivirus programs won't be triggered because you've physically typed the commands in yourself. Your computer is going to assume that you knew what you were doing.

A variation of this that we're seeing a lot of lately is a version of scareware that pops up a screen when you log onto the Internet that appears to be from the FBI. The screen will tell you that you've been logged as having downloaded illegal porn or pirated movies and/or music. It will advise you that your Internet services have been discontinued until you pay the fine for the illegal downloads. It will then prompt you to make a payment via credit card for several hundred dollars. If you fail to make the payment within a matter of hours a warrant will be issued for your arrest. This scam relies on the fact that a large percentage of people engage in behaviors that would bring them close to downloading illegal materials. Many aren't sure if they've done anything illegal when faced with an ultimatum like this. Due to the embarrassing nature of the supposed crimes, people are more likely to pay the money to make the problem go away. The problem is that these screens aren't put up by the FBI and the minute you enter your credit card or bank account information your accounts will be drained and your credit cards will be maxed out.

Both of these scams are becoming very common place. With malware protection becoming more complex and effective it is becoming harder and harder for criminals to gain access to your computers through technological means. This has caused them to revert to the simple act of preying on the trust of their victims. As of this time I am not aware of any company or agency that is going to contact you via phone or web browser to let you know that there is a problem with your computer. The FBI is not going to flash a screen on your computer to accuse you of crimes. They will knock on your door with a warrant. If you are contacted by somebody looking for information about your computer or asking you to run any commands on your computer, do your research. Ask them if you can call them back, then look up the number that they give you and see who it's registered to. If you have any lingering doubts, please call us at 262.767.3300. We will be happy to look into the situation for you.