Electronics Are Not A Physical Investment

My last article, Technology Forces Personal Progress & Benefits Everyone, addressed the idea that holding out on a new computer can be a costly strategy if your old one is holding you back. This time, I want to play Devil’s advocate and talk about how horrible of an investment any electronic device is (meaning the physical object itself).

Famed photographic blogger Ken Rockwell has a great term for the degradation of value of digital cameras. He calls it Digital Rot. He goes on to explain how a camera sold in 2003 for $5,500.00 now sells for about $75.00 – virtually worthless. It still takes the same kind of pictures it did 7 years ago, but so much has changed that there is no longer a demand for that camera. The same thing applies to just about anything that plugs in and does something more than light up a room.

Just like driving a new car off the lot, the minute your new computer comes off the shelf or the Fed Ex truck it goes down in value a considerable amount. There is little sense in the value we place on electronics, as they take a lot of work to develop and manufacture. The true devaluation comes from the constant advancement of technology. Within a year’s time, most computer technology surpasses itself. Newer processors, faster RAM, bigger hard drives, etc. You can never keep up with the new stuff.

There was a time when you could buy a computer and upgrade all the components to keep it relevant for a longer period of time, but with the popularity of devices like laptops, netbooks, and smart phones, the computer has headed down a “closed system” road. All-in-one computers like the iMac or Dell Studio One are not easily upgraded. This means that now more than ever, computers and digital devices have a shorter life span.

The next time you purchase a new computer, realize that it is not a long term relationship you are getting into. Make a plan on how you will eventually dispose of your current machine (E-Cycling Central is a good resource for that). Make sure that you have a good backup of the real digital value – your data.

Eventually, we will see less demand on the personal computer and more on internet based services so that our digital devices will all communicate and access your data without care of the device itself. It is already happening now, but there is no standard that has been set. Pretty soon, when you take a picture on your camera, it will appear on a digital frame instantly without a wire. A new song will come out from your favorite artist and play on your iPod or stereo automatically without having to transfer it from your PC. You’ll drive home from work and get a text message from your refrigerator that you’re out of beer, so you stop at the store on the way home to get some. Your TV will know you are a little late and have the game all queued up and ready to play. Sure you can do this all now, but it’s costly and complicated – nothing works seamlessly yet. The point is the value in all of the digital devices you own is in what they do to make your life better, not in what they physically are. And the real investment is in your data, so backup you computer!

Technology Forces Personal Progress & Benefits Everyone

No duh, right? The title of this article pretty much states the obvious, but for some reason most people still fear change when it comes to technology. It is a definite problem for the more conservative in nature to deal with the amazingly rapid pace of progression that technology rolls forward at. How is it possible that the application you finally mastered is now updated and in the process has thrown everything you know out the door in favor of some newfangled way of getting things done?

I can only give one solid piece of advice for my friends, colleagues, and customers that suffer from this onslaught of change – get over it. You can’t stop the landslide of innovation and if you try to hold back you will get buried. Truly successful people challenge themselves on a daily basis by doing something that scares the pants off them, and then overcoming it. If it makes you sweat to move from one version of Windows to a newer one, well that’s OK. Just dive in – the water will be cold for a second and then you will get used to it pretty quickly. You say that you don’t have time to learn, but really, do you have time not to learn? Can you afford to deal with it another day knowing that that other day will be just as constricted as today and then some because you put it off?

The secondary reason for my pep talk is that I run into a lot of people who refuse to embrace new or current technology because they are clutching onto what they are comfortable with, regardless if it is actually holding them back. Desktop applications for businesses are being replaced by web applications but people can’t see the value in them. Not because they don’t offer any, but because they are used to what they have. Lets take Outlook for example. This widely popular application has alway stunk on ice when not used in conjunction with a Microsoft Exchange email server. People got used to it and now can’t let it go. They seem to love how the PST file gets corrupt and wipes out all of their email, calendars, & contacts. They must truly enjoy accidentally sending a large attachment and having the file get stuck for days in the outbox until a tech can come and remove it. And they can’t wait to see the message that Outlook is scanning their files because it didn’t shut down correctly for 40 minutes at a clip. Why are you still using Outlook when you could switch to a hosted Outlook Web Access account, or better yet a Google Apps account? Because it’s different!

I’ve written previously on how I think you should dump Windows XP and stop using Internet Explorer, and now I’m telling you to take an inventory of what software you currently use and see if there is a better way to get things done. The goal is to find a tool that gets the job done faster and more efficiently overall no matter what the conditions. Maybe that does mean sticking with Outlook for your situation, but more often than not people don’t want to move on for reasons of comfort instead of progress.

The primary reason for my pep talk (or as my wife would classify it – a lecture) is that in 2010, time has become the most valuable asset we have. We don’t seem to have enough of it to get everything done as well as experience the best parts of life without cutting some corners and making some sacrifices. Every second counts and if you can save a few by using better technology, then you and your loved ones will be in a better place for it.

It’s Time to Kick XP

I’m sitting here looking at a script designed to remove the hooks of a Windows malicious infection on a computer running Windows XP so I can successfully clean the computer of the Trojan and Spyware onslaught it is currently suffering. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours looking at the same window on a couple of other customer’s computers and the same thing on the day before that. What do they all have in common? They were all running Windows XP. They also all use Microsoft Internet Explorer and they all had up-to-date reliable anti-virus software. They all got infected by simply browsing the web as they always do. Like chain smokers who still think they’re not going to be affected even with all of the knowledge of the detriments of smoking, Windows XP users keep running Windows XP and Internet Explorer. They also get surprised when they get infected and ask, “How could this happen?” and, “This never happened before – what did I do wrong?” Folks, it’s not a matter of if you will get infected while running Windows XP and using Internet Explorer, it’s a matter of when.

There are plenty of reasons that people are still sticking with XP in their businesses. A lot of them really don’t have a choice because the cost of upgrading all of their software is either too expensive in a down economy or the software just hasn’t been written to work on a newer operating system yet. I get that, but at some point you have to move on. Microsoft already ended mainstream support last year for Windows XP, so if you call them about it, it will cost you. They are planning to end support completely in 2014, so after that it will not be patched with security updates at all, and Microsoft will pretend you don’t exist. If you are in a situation where you have been unable to update for similar reasons, you should make it a priority to get the transition done by the end of this year, or come up with an alternative (I consulted with a customer just yesterday who will be changing the program they have been using for over 10 years in favor of one that is more modern and works on newer computers running Windows 7).

For home users, if your computer is able to run Windows 7, (you can follow the instructions here to figure out if your computer is compatible) I think it is quite important to take the steps necessary to upgrade your system in the near future. If you have a computer that is ready to be replaced, please give Apple’s line of Macintosh computers a hard look. To date, there are no malicious infections in the wild that affect Macs. If you’re just using the Internet, checking email, and storing digital photos and home movies, you really can’t get a better computer than a Mac. Otherwise, a Windows 7 based computer is still a good choice. While Windows 7 isn’t rock solid and there are still plenty of security threats that affect it, it‘s a heck of a lot more secure than Windows XP.

If moving away from Windows XP is just not an option for you in the near future, the least you can do to help prevent infections is to make sure you keep your Windows updates current, make sure your anti-virus software is up to date, and for Heaven’s sake, please stop using Internet Explorer for browsing the web. I have been using Mozilla Firefox for years, but it too has fallen victim to malicious attacks as of late and I have found myself using Google’s Chrome browser a lot on my PC’s instead. I could write another article on reasons to stay away from Internet Explorer, but just understand that it is the most popular browser because it comes with every PC and it’s tightly integrated into Windows, and those are two major factors that make it the first point of attack in most malicious infections. Abstinence is the best protection, so stop using Internet Explorer and get one of the better and faster browsers out there.

How Long Should My Computer Last?

Today I had a customer ask me over to take a look at her computer for a routine check-up. She then popped the question – she wanted me to tell her how long it has to live. It sounds very morbid, but unfortunately in my line of work that question comes up quite a bit. The answer is not always a simple one either.

Every computer user has different needs, but not every computer is designed to specifically fulfill those needs. Furthermore, as time goes on and life does what it does best and steers you into different directions throughout its course, your computing needs may change as well. A journalist may take up photography and then their underpowered netbook they used for word processing and email is no longer sufficient to run a program such as Photoshop. A photographer may move on into the world of motion pictures and now their requirements to run an Avid workstation are a bit higher than when they were just pushing still pixels.

Back when I worked for MTV Networks we had a policy to determine the life cycle of a computer. Basically if the hardware failed after the 3 year warranty expired, we replaced the machine. If a machine didn’t die of natural causes, eventually it would fall off of our supported standards list and get replaced, so we didn’t have many machines older than 5 years running. This might be very aggressive for the average home PC, or it might not be aggressive enough for someone who’s whole livelihood is based on how fast a computer can do its job. The idea of such a policy is to minimize the downtime suffered by computers that fail in the middle of an important function (such as producing a live TV show). It is a good idea to create your own personal policy to address future problems before they happen.

Apple computers can tack on a couple of more years to their expected life because they really don’t sell budget machines. That’s right, if you bought a $300.00 computer from WalMart, don’t expect it to run forever. If you bought a $3,000 Mac Pro, well, I think you should expect a good six year usable life from the beast (but maybe only half that if you’re a creative professional who uses it to make their living).

OK, so let’s get into the math of this. If you own a computer for your home and you’re just getting online, checking email, and balancing your checkbook, you really don’t need a very expensive machine. In fact, I would advise you to buy a cheaper computer in this situation because if your path in computing changes, you’ll be able to jump into a newer computer without much of a financial loss. If you go and buy an expensive computer to do menial tasks, you might find that when things change you’re either behind the curve or your computer isn’t right for the specific job anyway. For some people, the idea of change is downright scary and they want their computer to run for 8 years. That is perfectly OK, just buy the more expensive decked-out computer because it will show its value when it is still running reliably after a cheaper computer would normally start to fail. Another scenario is the hobbyist or creative family who uses a computer to create home movies and store and edit photos and music. In that case you want a “prosumer” type of machine such as an iMac or media PC. These machines are in the mid-range of pricing and are great for doing said tasks. These are usually good for about 5 years before they start showing their age. See how complicated the question of life expectancy is? You need to figure out what your computer is going to be used for before you buy it, and what kind of return on your investment you plan to get.

So, what happens when you have purchased a computer that fits your need and at some point before the time you planned to replace it something breaks. Well, the decision of whether to repair or replace is simple now, isn’t it? If your hard drive fails after two years and you only had a one year warranty, and you planned to keep the computer for four years, then by all means call us up and let’s get that hard drive replaced. Now if the same thing happens closer to four years, you might consider replacing the whole computer instead of throwing good money into an outdated machine.

What do you do with your old machine after you replace it? Let’s face it, computers at the cheap end are becoming like cell phones – they get replaced so often that there is a stockpile of unused machines that are going to waste. Contact your local Salvation Army or church and see if they would like it. Most major manufacturers will also recycle your old computer when you purchase a new one from them. Just make sure you securely erase your hard drive or remove it completely before you give it away!

As always, feel free to contact us if you need some help determining your needs and what the best computer for you may be within your budget.

Netbooks – Massive Value, Minuscule Size

I have been suggesting Netbooks to my customers for a while now. For some people, the Netbook fulfills all of their needs while saving them a lot of money. What is a Netbook, you ask? I’m sure by now you have seen these tiny laptops in Best Buy, Target, or any other place that sells computers. They are about the size of a portable DVD player and do just about everything a lot of computer users use their computers for these days. They are stripped down of the stuff most people don’t even take advantage of anymore, such as an optical drive (CD or DVD drive) and a modem. They also strip out high performance graphics processors and CPU’s. They pack in just enough power in a small form factor to get you on the internet, check your email, and run some general office programs like MS Office.

The reason I’m bringing this up right now is that I decided to pick one up for myself today as I’ve grown tired of lugging around my full sized laptop all day. I took inventory on what I used my laptop for during the day and found that I really don’t need anything more than what a Netbook has to offer on most occasions. In fact, I can only think of a couple of times I’ve needed anything more than the USB ports and/or a network connection while on site. When I’m working in my office it is a totally different story, but out in the field, a Netbook should serve me well. The best part? It only cost me $228!

I’ll give you a quick overview of my impressions of Netbooks in general (as well as my thoughts on mine). I am using an eMachines EM250, which is identical to the Acer d250 with the exception of the color and name printed on the case.

First of all, the keyboard is small. Smaller than you are used too, and it may take a while to get accustomed to. The trackpads on Netbooks are usually pretty horrid, but the newer ones have really improved the experience with added features like two-finger gestures to simulate a scroll wheel and back/forward buttons. I have quickly grown accustomed to both, but luckily there are a few USB ports available so those of you who hate trackpads can hook up a mouse.

My Netbook computer came loaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition. It is a somewhat stripped down version of Windows that most people won’t even realize is stripped down (with the exception of the inability to customize your wallpaper – luckily there are some applications to overcome that hurdle).

Most ship with 160GB of hard drive space, the eMachines came with 250GB – both of which are plenty of space for most people’s needs. The current line-up also boast only 1GB of RAM, which so far seems to be OK for the job. On a regular computer I wouldn’t settle for anything less than 4GB’s, but with a Netbook, we are talking about a machine honed for a specific function, that is getting online. Speaking of connectivity, they all come with a built in WiFi card for wireless and an Ethernet port for wired connections. Wireless performance is on par with full sized laptops, and a lot of cellular companies are offering Netbooks with built in WWAN cards to hook up to their cellular network so you can have internet access anywhere you can get a cell signal.

The screen is at a smaller resolution than some applications were meant to display on, so you’ll want to be familiar with how to change that in case you run into a program that refuses to play nicely. On some models, such as the Asus EeePC line, there is a dedicated button to quickly change your resolution. For others, such as the eMachines, you will have to head into the control panel and look under the Appearance section to change the screen resolution.

The speakers are OK for viewing videos on YouTube and getting notification beeps from Outlook, but for actually enjoying music, I wouldn’t rely on the tiny tinny speakers that are built in. Most do include a headphone jack so you could hook up traditional computer speakers. That said, I found that iTunes does run well on a Netbook, as does Windows Media Player.

For photo enthusiasts, a Netbook is a great way to backup your memory cards in the field, but running something like Photoshop or Lightroom might prove to be a dismal experience. I would stick with Picasa for organizing an performing light editing tasks, or even Pixlr.com, the free online photo editing application. In fact, you will find there are a lot of online applications and advanced web services that are making the idea of a stripped down computer a lot more plausible than maybe even 5 years ago. I can store my photos on Flickr, my videos on YouTube, and write and manage spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs. I can use Logmein to remotely control my home computer and I can use Skype to have a video chat with my wife.

I’m only scratching the surface of what is available and more importantly what is to come with online services, and one thing is clear – the power of the client machine has become less important and the power of being connected has skyrocketed. Because of this, coupled with a very affordable price, the Netbook has become the next big thing in computing technology. I’ll update you if my feelings change after using mine for a while.

Phone Line Issues

Our phone service is having a switching problem in relationship to my main phone line’s ability to receive calls. I apologize for the inconvenience – please use (843) 883-4055 to call us until further notice. Thank you for understanding.

**UPDATE** According to my phone company, I am a victim of what is known as “Phone Slamming“. It is the illegal practice of switching a traditional wireline telephone company for local, local toll, or long distance service without permission.

**UPDATE 2** As of this afternoon, phone service has been restored to (843) 767-9500. Thank you for your patience.

When Is It A Good Time To Buy A Mac?

Apple is a company known to keep its product releases shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. It’s almost comical because there are a lot of successful websites dedicated to rumors around the company, its products, and its personnel. Can you think of any other company out there that the public has so much interest in? This is the kind of fanaticism reserved for musicians and athletic organizations. Somehow, Apple has learned the formula to pique the interest of not only its customers, but even its haters as well (Apple haters can’t wait for a new opportunity to bring out a cliche joke about one-buttoned mice).

So, for most regular people who don’t want to buy a new Mac and find out three weeks later that a faster/bigger/cooler machine is released, the obsessive data crunched by these rumor sites can be used to their advantage. Now, lets be sensible about the source of information received from a website that is designed around rumors. A lot of the time they are just plain wrong. The Apple tablet has been rumored for years now, and every January for the last three years there have been promises of a life altering device that will solve every one of your problems and be only 10mm thick. But, as far as their actual computers are concerned, there is a lot of external information to get a relatively accurate time frame of when a product will get updated so you can avoid that end-of-life purchase burn.

Step in the infamous rumor site MacRumors.com. This site has some of the most ridiculously obsessive news posts regarding Apple Corp. on the planet, but they have a very valuable resource that can ease your mind if you are planning to purchase a new Mac anytime soon. It is the MacRumors Buyers Guide. Basically how it works is they track the release cycle of Apple’s most popular products and track component manufacturer releases (like Intel) to figure out an average time each product exists on the market before it gets upgraded or replaced. So when the need arrives to purchase a new Mac and you have a little bit of time to wait, start with the buyers guide. Don’t bother asking Apple store or support employees for any information about product releases. They really don’t know – trying to brag them with cupcakes will not work.

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas and a belated Happy Hanukkah to all of my fantastic clients! We had a great year and I’m looking forward to serving you all in the new year. FYI, we will be open on the week of Monday, Dec 28th 2009, but will be closed on New Years day.

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Eddie, the Golden Retriever says Merry Christmas!

The Rogue Software Epidemic – Big Business At Your Expense

Over the last few weeks, the amount of service calls I have received regarding malicious software infections have been a lot higher than usual. It seems like the creators of various rogueware applications that pretend to be security software are cashing in on the holiday surge in spending. This has been a real cause for concern among my customers as the future of dealing with these kinds of infections appears bleak because they get sneakier, more common, and tougher to prevent. I have been answering a lot of questions regarding these attacks and I have decided to address the most common ones in this article.

First off, a little background. Who are these people? Well, the majority of the infections seem to point back to a Russian software company called Bakasoftware. As reported on Wikipedia; in November 2008, it was reported that a hacker known as NeoN hacked the Bakasoftware’s database, and posted the earnings of the company received from XP Antivirus. The data revealed the most successful affiliate earned $158,000 in a week. And that’s just one of many affiliates! In this InformationWeek article, they estimate that cybercriminals are earning about $34 million per month from rogueware, which typically sells for between $49.95 and $79.95. In December of 2008, the FTC issued a temporary halt to a massive scareware scheme, and two companies were charged in that case – Innovative Marketing, Inc. and ByteHosting Internet Services, LLC, who operate using a variety of aliases and maintain offices in various countries. According to the complaint, Innovative Marketing is a company incorporated in Belize that maintains offices in Kiev, Ukraine. ByteHosting Internet Services is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

How did you get infected? Well, the overwhelming majority of people I have helped have been running Windows XP and are using Internet Explorer as their web browser. This doesn’t mean that Windows Vista or Windows 7 are not vulnerable (I have cleaned up a handful of infections on Vista computers, but Windows 7 is still too new and I have not personally dealt with any such infections on it yet), it just means there are a whole lot more XP users out there. It does not affect Apple’s Mac OS X, so unless you are running Windows XP in Boot Camp or in a virtual machine like Parallels or VMWare’s Fusion, Mac users need not worry. This article on Wikipedia sums up the most common ways computer get infected:

Rogue security software mainly relies on social engineering in order to defeat the security built into modern operating system and browser software and install itself onto victims’ computers.

Most have a Trojan horse component, which users are misled into installing. The Trojan may be disguised as:

* A browser plug-in or extension (typically toolbar)
* An image, screensaver or archive file attached to an e-mail message
* Multimedia codec required to play a certain video clip
* Software shared on peer-to-peer networks
* A free online malware scanning service

Some rogue security software, however, propagate onto users computers as drive-by downloads which exploit security vulnerabilities in web browsers or e-mail clients to install themselves without any manual interaction.

I have found that Facebook has been the latest and most popular tool in socially engineering victims into infecting their computers. The most common instance is an email within Facebook’s direct messaging system that comes from a friend and asks quite generically to check out a video or photo with a link to a website outside of Facebook. After that the user will get a pop-up message that their computer is infected, and will ask if they want to install security software to clean the infections. Here’s the rub, even if they click cancel on the message, it will go ahead and install itself anyway.

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Why didn’t my Anti-Virus program stop this? Battling these types of infections is an uphill battle. Security software is only as good as the latest virus definitions that are installed. The malicious software coders are putting out mutated versions of their software daily, and once they get on your machine they typically disable your anti-virus program’s ability to update itself. The only proven way to prevent these infections is to either disconnect from the Internet or not use a Windows based PC! Unfortunately, that is not possible for the majority of people out there, so there are some things you can do to avoid them.

The first step is to recognize the events that lead up to an rouge infection. Downloadsquad has a great article on
how to spot a fake anti-virus program. From their article:

Here are some things to look for:

* cheesey names – never mind the old adage, with these programs you usually CAN judge the book by its cover. Rogue antivirus programs typically use names like Antivirus 360, WinAntivirus 2009, Spyware Police, SpywareProtect, etc.

* alerts that just don’t belong – Windows will tell you if you’re not running antivirus software or the definitions are out of date, but it won’t tell you that an infection has been found. Windows Defender will pop up alerts, but not Windows itself or the Windows Security Center. Alerts that claim Windows has found infected files are pulling your leg.

* poor grammar – Windows has its weak points, but real system messages are usually very well written and clear. Alerts from rogue apps don’t have the same attention to detail.

* bogus scanning – lots of these apps pretend to scan your system and find all kinds of infected files. Watch what folders and files are being scanned and see if they match the infected files being found.

If the scan is going through c:\windows\ and infected items in folders like c:\temp or c:\documents and settings\ are popping up, it’s bogus. Real virus scanners will display infected items as soon as they find them in the folder that’s currently being scanned – not random stuff from who knows where.

The old thought on preventing viruses was to never open email from an unknown source. While that is still true, nowadays most of the time these infections come from a person you know who may have been infected and is spreading it. They also come from websites that get hacked and advertising networks that become compromised. These types of infections usually take advantage of known and patched security holes, but because of the inconsistency of many software programs proprietary updating systems, most computer users get frustrated and confused by the daily reminders to update their programs and operating system and choose to ignore them altogether. This, coupled with the knowledge that the rogue vendors use almost identical automatic update methods to infect computers make users afraid to update anything!

Another personal gripe is that there are still people out there using Internet Explorer. No matter how much I preach, there are a lot of people that just don’t care. I suspect these are the same people who re-elect corrupt politicians because they don’t know who the alternatives are, and are too lazy to learn. This gets me angry, because the alternative browsers are free. They cost you nothing, yet so many people are not using them! Furthermore, most of them are better and faster. There is no legitimate technical source that will disprove that fact, yet people are scared to change.

Who are the alternatives? Well, there are a lot, but currently the 3 most popular are Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari.

So, there you have it. The best way to realistically prevent an infection is the ongoing knowledge of how they are spreading as well as the knowledge of how your computer and its programs update themselves. You also have to stop using Internet Explorer for all but certain sites that are too stupid/lazy to follow internet standards (such as the CTAR MLS site which mostly works as of this writing in Firefox, and a lot of local government sites). Don’t use Internet Explorer for Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or similar social networking sites. Sorry if this comes across as harsh, but the truth hurts – especially if it involves extra effort on your part. But, if you’re reading this far into the article, you obviously care enough to learn about malicious software prevention so you are on your way!

OK, last but certainly not least, what should you do if you are infected? This varies from case to case. The latest malicious infections are downright evil. They will not let you run programs, if you start up in safe mode the computer crashes before it can even boot, and if you install a removal tool it will delete it as soon as you install it. The most current ones are really sneaky, as they will infect your computer and pester you for a day or so and then go dormant. You will believe that it just went away on its own or that your anti-virus program took care of it, but it is still there in the background collecting information such as credit card numbers and passwords. So how can you fix it?

The best thing you can do if you are not confident in your abilities to deal with an infected computer is to call a professional. I know I deal with these problems on a daily basis, so what might take a novice days to deal with will take me about an hour. If your time is valuable and you can afford it, the cost of hiring a pro will be well worth it – and we guarantee our work. The alternative is to do it yourself with the help of some great online resources. My favorite database of how to remove known infections comes from the website bleepingcomputer.com. The methods that these infections use to make your life miserable are always changing, so when it comes to computer security, you need to strap on your tinfoil hat and be weary of everything you do on the internet. Or, just buy a Mac. To date, I have never personally encountered a virus on a Mac.