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Computer repair tips and tricks

Would you know if you’d had your email hacked?

October 19th, 2015

Martin

Yes, you would! Your friends would soon start telling you about how they’d received nonsensical emails from you, and people you’d never even heard of (possible businesses you’d once had email contact with) would be sending you confused messages and “I’m currently out of the Office” type mail. Read more

Backup: your complete guide

September 17th, 2015

Martin

Backup: everyone knows they should do it, but so many don’t. Whether it’s your family albums or your business’s accounts, you need to protect what’s on your PC from loss or damage.

You may worry that it’ll take ages, cost a fortune, or that you’ll forget to keep it up. In this guide I’ll show you the different types of backup available, the software to use, and how to get around all these problems and worries.

Basic Backup

There are two types of backup you can do right now (as long as you’re reading this on a desktop or laptop!). They’re not the perfect solution, but they’re infinitely better than doing nothing.

Copy and Paste

At its most basic, a backup is just a second, reserve copy of your files so that you can recover from accidentally deleting things, or if your computer breaks down. So, the easiest way to back up is simply to copy and paste all your files to a new, second location. Try copying everything to a dedicated folder on your C:\ drive, or – even better – onto an external disk. That’s it – you now have an infinitely better backup than you did a moment ago!

System Restore, or Recovery

Open the Windows menu and search for ‘restore’. In Windows 10, open ‘Recovery’, from where you click on ‘Configure System Restore’, then ‘Create…’ to save your computer’s current state. With Windows 7 you should look for System Restore.

If Windows suffers a problem, such as being unable to boot, you can roll back to any of the system restore points that have been created, and essentially undo any damage. This tool does not back up your own documents etc., so use it in conjunction with (at the very least!) Copy/Paste to preserve your machine properly.

Proper Backups

There are much better ways to backup your computer than the ones mentioned so far. There are a handful of different types, and so the following will give you an idea of your options. Choose the one which suits your needs the most.

1 Synchronising backup

This type creates a copy of all your files, and then whenever you run this backup again it simply updates any files which have changed at the source, deletes files which have gone from the source, and adds new files which have been created since the last run.

This is one of the smallest backup types, and takes up the least space. The second run, and all runs after that, are quick. However, if you accidentally delete something but don’t notice until after the next backup run, the file will be gone entirely. Therefore it’s not very sophisticated.

Examples: Create Synchronity, GoodSync, Allway Sync.

2 Incremental backup

Incremental backups first make a copy of all your files. Then later runs make a record of all new files, deleted files and changed files, and notes the date.

That means that updates after the first one are quick, and you can roll your computer back to any date on which a backup was taken. It takes more space than the Synchronising type, but it means that every file that’s ever been on your PC is preserved, until the drive is full. At that point, your software should start deleting old backups as it creates new ones.

Examples: Time Machine (for Macs), Backup4all, EaseUS.

3 Disk Image

With a disk image backup, your entire hard drive with all its contents – program files, documents, photos, registry – is wrapped up into a single huge file, and put away for safe keeping. If your computer was to be abducted by aliens, or fall into a canyon, then as long as you had the image, and built a computer identical to the one it came from, you could restore the disk image and carry on from there.

It’s a long process to create a disk image, and every new backup takes the same amount of time to make. This type of backup also takes up the most space, as your whole computer is effectively cloned every time. However, it’s also the most comprehensive, taking in everything in one go, and has other uses, such as duplicating systems in offices and the like without having to install Windows on each one.

Examples: Macrium Reflect Free, Acronis True Image.

4 NAS and Cloud backups

NAS stands for ‘network attached storage’, and usually refers to a dedicated box linked to your router or modem at home. It can be used to share storage across all your computers, or maybe to stream digital media around your home. It can also be used to store your backups. ‘Cloud backup’ is a similar idea, except that the data is uploaded to the ‘Cloud’, i.e. the Internet. Both processes might use one of the methods already mentioned in this article, such as incremental or disk image.

The big advantage of these network locations is that your files are secured away from your PC. If possible, you should always keep them in a different location to your computer, so that if something happens to the computer it is less likely to happen to your backup too. Imagine if your files were on a USB disk in your laptop bag, and your laptop was stolen, USB disk and all!

A big disadvantage is that transferring your files over a network connection is always going to be slow compared to backing up to a disk connected to your PC. And if your internet connection is limited, then backing up 200 gigabytes (GB) of photos to the cloud might use all that up in one go (or might take weeks)! You also need to pay a subscription to a company if you want cloud backup, and you need to trust that company not to spy on your stuff.

Examples: SpiderOak (cloud), Carbonite (cloud), Western Digital My Cloud (home NAS box).

Back up today!

However you do it, backing up your computer’s files and folders is arguably the most essential maintenance task you can do with your PC or laptop. It’s the first thing I do when a customer trusts me with their machine, and I make sure all my own computers are backed up at all times.

I must admit I got burned once many years ago, and nearly lost some valuable and much loved files. Luckily, even in those prehistoric days a computer repair shop saved things for me, and I learned my lesson. 🙂

Now you know how many options of you have, and how easy a basic backup is, so you’ve no excuse. Of course, if you need any more advice, just give me a call and I’ll be happy to help!

Speed Up Tools, Registry Cleaners and Driver Updaters

September 1st, 2015

Martin

We’re always looking for ways to speed up our PCs and laptops, aren’t we? We want to make them run more smoothly, reduce errors and Blue Screens of Death. There are plenty of free downloads which promise to help. But are we putting our computers at risk?

Registry Cleaners

The Registry is infamous, and hundreds of software titles claim to be able to solve the problems it causes. These programs strip out bits of the Registry which they claim are useless or broken.

But the Registry hasn’t benefited from cleaning since Windows Vista, and doing so will not speed up your PC. You could even end up breaking Windows by using one of the poorly-programmed titles which are a bit gung-ho about their job.

Driver Updaters

You see the adverts everywhere online, trying to get you to scan your PC and ‘Update Your Drivers’. You can download software tools which will do this for you, and bring all your hardware drivers up to date.

But bringing a driver up to date only helps in very specific cases, and can actually cause more problems than it solves. Many crash-prone Windows systems have bad drivers as their cause, and some newer drivers are not compatible with your laptop from a few years back.

PC Speed up tools

You can find dozens of all-in-one suites which will clean the Registry, update your drivers and strip out tonnes of ‘unnecessary’ Windows components to help give your PC a speed boost.

As you can probably tell by now, carrying this out without the proper caution can really chop mighty holes in an otherwise healthy computer. You really need to know what you’re doing to make proper use of these software suites.

How to solve the problem

So are all these programs mere snake-oil, to be avoided at all costs? They certainly can bring unwanted extra malware onto your computer, and some titles try to get you to phone premium rate international numbers.

But not all these titles are untameable monsters. Here’s how to stay safe, while getting the best out of these titles:

  1. Only use these tools to target specific problems. If you’re having trouble uninstalling a program, a Registry cleaner might be needed, but only remove those entries related to your problem software. A good cleaner will let you do this.
  2. Only use software that’s been recommended by an expert, or someone you know who’s used it. I’d go with CCleaner for junk file clearance, SlimDrivers for driver updates, and System Mechanic for all-in-one cleaning. These titles let you pick and choose which problems to solve. Avoid the temptation to tick all the boxes!
  3. Backup, backup, backup your whole system before you do anything! And know how to restore from the backup when something goes wrong.

At Ship Shape Computers, I’ve seen my customers use every type of program to speed up their PC, often with devastating results. So think about what you’re trying to do, and use a tool that is accurate and reliable. And most importantly of all, make sure you can roll back any changes you make, before you risk making a bad situation worse.

Alternatively, call in someone who can carry out the pinpoint repairs needed without resorting to these scanners and Russian Roulette repairs!

Image: Crash at St.Marys Corner – Andrew Beaumont – LDS Alfa Romeo – Glover Trophy practice – Goodwood Revival 2013 – Driver ok by PSParrot (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Get Your Shiny New Windows 10!

July 29th, 2015

Martin

Editor’s Note: It’s Windows 10 Day! No, not national holiday (yet) but the day Microsoft releases its next operating system, Windows 10, into the world. Below, I’ve reprinted an article you may have seen in Bristol’s Direct Local magazine.

You may have heard that a new version of Microsoft Windows is soon to hit the shelves. It’s the follow-up to Windows 8.1, but Microsoft have, rather oddly, decided to call it Windows 10.

Windows 8 was widely hated, with many customers sticking with tried and trusted earlier versions like Windows 7 and Windows XP. Can Windows finally convince these users to upgrade? And will it be worth updating from Windows 8?

If you’ve got Windows 7 or 8 you’ll have seen a little pop-up message in the taskbar asking if you want to register to download the update when it’s released on 29th July. Should you take the plunge?

getwindows10

What’s new in Windows 10?

Windows 10 needs to make up for all the mistakes Windows 8 made. Here are the new features Microsoft are offering to get you to upgrade:

  1. The Start Menu returns: controversially, the Start Menu was removed from Windows 8, and replaced with the Start Screen, covered in ‘live tiles’ which showed you everything from breaking news to weather reports and social media updates. It was no longer easy to browse through all your installed programs, and your PC started to pretend it was a touch-screen phone. After much outcry, Windows 10 brings back the Start Menu, though it gives you the option to include Live Tiles in there. The menu will also adapt to your screen size, and let you make it full-screen again if you were keen on the Windows 8 way of doing things. This is a great improvement, and almost a reason in itself to upgrade to 10 if you’re using Windows 8.startmenu
  2. Windows 8’s ‘Modern’ apps will be in a window: The full screen ‘Modern’ apps of Windows 8 which jump out at you when you tap a Live Tile were another example of Microsoft trying to catch up with Apple and other companies. They’re nearly useless on a proper computer, and look ridiculous on a 20″ monitor. Windows 10 sensibly puts these apps in a window on larger screens, so that they stay a usable size. They make much better use of the space compared to the Windows 8 predecessors.
  3. The Notification Centre: This is another feature that began life on phones, but this one is a Good Thing. It shows messages about social media updates, information about your computer, and info from different apps you’ve got installed. It’s a great way to keep on top of what’s going on, and you’ll be able to control which apps can use this tool – just in case you’re worried that it’ll be just another inbox to get snowed under. It’ll make Windows 10 easier to stay in control of.
  4. Continuum: if you thought Windows 8 made a total hash of pretending it was on a trendy tablet, then Continuum will be there to ease your woes. Continuum will help Windows 10 adapt to different screen sizes, so you’ll get your Live Tiles if you’ve got a small screen, but a larger screen will see the interface look more like the desktop you know and love. If you remove the keyboard from a 2-in-1 device, the full Start Screen will appear. And best of all, Windows 10 will automatically detect which kind of screen is present. No more mis-placed touch-screen interfaces on your widescreen monitor.
  5. Cortana: Microsoft’s voice activated assistant is its answer to Apple’s Siri. But as well as being your personal assistant, Cortana will sit on the taskbar next to the Start Button and allow you to quickly search through your computer and the internet, and ask questions like “what’s 45 times 12?” or “what’s the capital of Peru” – so called ‘natural language’ questions. You’ll also be able to search your OneDrive files if you keep some of them on Microsoft’s cloud storage service. Cortana will turn your PC or laptop into a super-useful digital assistant.
  6. Spartan Web Browser: Internet Explorer was the web browser everyone loved to hate. Microsoft managed to make it the most popular browser in the world, and then development on it stagnated for a decade. It’s still trying to catch up with better browsers like Firefox and Chrome. While IE will still be available on Windows 10, a new web browser known as Spartan will be much more prominent. Microsoft hopes that, like Window 10 itself, Spartan can erase the memory of its predecessor in consumers’ minds. It should be faster, render websites more accurately, and be less memory intensive.
  7. Virtual desktops: This might be a difficult thing to picture until you’ve actually used them, but virtual desktops are like running two more computers side by side. You can have one desktop where all your Office windows are open, another with a music player, and a third dedicated to web stuff and online videos. Instead of having all thirty windows open and cluttering the space, you can sort them onto different desktops and keep less-used ones out of the way. Macs and Linux computers have had these for some years now, and if you make the most of them you’ll start to wonder how you ever managed without.virtualdesktops
  8. Settings: OK, not the most glamorous of topics, but if Windows 8’s main problem was its split personality, the Control Panel was the worst example. There were effectively two in Windows 8 (the usual one and another for the Start Screen), with settings randomly spread across the two. Sometimes the same setting was there on both sides. Now, there will just be one Settings screen, with all the control panel elements in one place. Windows 10 should be much easier to manage than 8.

So, what do I recommend? If you’ve seen the message asking about reserving Windows 10, should you accept or not?

Well, whatever older version of Windows you’re using, there are reasons to upgrade. The system should be faster, notifications will tell you what’s going on in the world (and on your PC), and the much loved Start Menu is more flexible than ever. And at the low low price of Free, anyone who wants to keep up to date with the latest from Microsoft should certainly consider it.

However, if you’re using Windows 7 and your computer is running smoothly, then I’d wait a while. Find out the public reaction to the system from July 29th onwards. Do people like the new software, or is it further frustration from the Seattle company? There’s also the common advice to always avoid software when it’s brand new, until the final few bugs are ironed out.

Windows 10 fixes a lot which is wrong with Windows 8, but Windows 7 was a perfectly good operating system, so if the new features outlined above don’t catch your attention, I’d wait.

Those on Windows 8 machines, however, will probably want to have a serious look at Windows 10. Windows 8 was a mess, and Windows 10 might be the very thing users of that poor operating system have been waiting for.

More questions? I’m always here at the end of the phone to answer questions on this and any other computer questions, so pick up the phone or get in touch via Twitter and Facebook.

And the ultimate question: will I be upgrading? Well, I’ve been on Windows 8 for the last few months, and personally can’t wait to move off it onto something better…

Need more advice on whether to upgrade? Want help doing it when it arrives? Ship Shape Computers can help with this and all sorts of other computer problems. Just pick up the phone!

Cryptolocker: what is it and why is it so evil?

June 1st, 2015

Martin

Cryptolocker is bucking the trend. While most reports will tell you that viruses are no longer the dominant threat to home computer and laptop users, Cryptolocker comes along and shows just how dangerous viruses can be.

A computer infected with the Cryptolocker virus has all its important documents encrypted. This means that the information in them is scrambled, and hidden from anyone who does not have the key or password.

In Cryptolocker’s case, you are locked out of your own documents, photos and videos.

And who has the key to unlock the encrypted files? Why, Cryptolocker’s creator of course! And he or she is not giving it to you for free.

In essence, you’ll be asked to pay a fee for the release of what’s rightfully yours.

I can’t quite emphasise enough how mad this makes me. Cryptolocker is quite possibly the most evil of all computer infections. It doesn’t wreck your computer; it doesn’t steal anything; it just sits there smugly showing you all the thing you had just moments ago, and which the virus programmer could give you back if only you… hand over the cash.

It’s extortion, plain and simple.

How does Cryptolocker get onto my computer?

Corrupt DownloadCryptolocker uses the same sneaky ways of getting onto your PC or laptop as other viruses. You might download it from spam email (including email sent unintentionally by your friends). You might get it included with legal and not-so-legal downloaded files. It could come in Internet chat discussions or dodgy social media links. Another way is through Flash Player. Make sure you keep Flash Player (and other software) updated to minimise the risk. Go to Adobe’s website to check your Flash Player is up to date.

The only way to stop it is to be vigilant: watch what you’re doing online. Be paranoid. Keep everything updated (and keep reading).

How do I spot Cryptolocker?

I’m writing this post now because one of my customers became victim to it recently, so we know Cryptolocker, or a copy of it, is still doing the rounds out there.

In hindsight, it showed itself early on when the laptop it had infected became slow and unsteady. Downloads too became difficult. The whole computer was crawling to a halt.

This was because encrypting files is no easy task. Although the laptop was a pretty decent model, encrypting every file on the hard drive takes time and effort. The clever thing about Cryptolocker is that it does its evil deeds in the background, without telling you.

It makes encrypted copies of all your files in secret, and when it’s finished: bam – it deletes all the originals, with the encrypted copies put in their place.

And then you get the dreaded message, which looks a little like this:

Cryptolocker screenshot

Here’s one version of the message you’d see once your files have been encrypted (click for larger version)

What can I do when I get Cryptolocker?

If you suspect Cryptolocker

If you’re lucky enough to spot your laptop or PC slowing down, and you’re worried it’s Cryptolocker on the way, turn off your laptop now and call me. I will:

  1. Scan the drive with a suite of powerful antivirus products, and with my own two eyes, and remove Cryptolocker if it is there.
  2. Whether it is there or not, I will back up your files to an external hard drive or other source of your choosing, scan them and examine them again, and keep them safe.
  3. Reboot your computer and perform some final security measures to minimise the chances of Cryptolocker surviving, or getting in in the first place. You’ll get a security audit whether you had Cryptolocker or not.

Either way, I will have removed Cryptolocker or any other virus which was on your PC, and made your computer much more secure in the long run. You’ll also have a backup, in case something goes wrong in the future.

If your PC or laptop falls victim to Cryptolocker in the next 30 days, you’ll get your money back from me, and you’ll still have that data backup.

Once you see the dreaded Cryptolocker message

VirusAt this point, I’m afraid your prospects are much worse. Your files are encrypted, and there is little chance of getting them back unless you have a backup or you pay the criminals.

You may have seen the Fox IT Decryptolocker website, which promises to decrypt your files for free. While this is a legitimate site, it only has access to the decryption keys for the initial 500,000 victims as of August 2014, so there is little point in sending your files there if you’re infected today.

Whatever the outcome, and whether you pay up or not, once you’re ready to banish Cryptolocker (and your chances of recovering your files) once and for all, do a System Restore and a virus scan with the antivirus software that’s on your PC already.

Even better, reinstall Windows, because this is one virus you really do not want on your computer again.

Can I prevent Cryptolocker getting on my PC in the first place?

Yes, you can. Here are my top tips to prevent Cryptolocker:

  1. Keep all your software up to date. This includes Java, Flash, your web browser, its plugins and add-ons, your email software (if you use a desktop program) and your malware programs.
  2. Install an antivirus suite. I recommend Kaspersky Internet Security, which is affordable and passes comparison tests with flying colours. If you want something free, try Avast Free.
  3. Keep your Antivirus programme’s virus definition files up to date. These are the files which help it tell a virus from a friendly programme.
  4. Be vigilant. When you open an email, is there something suspicious about it? Even if it’s from a friend, do the contents sound like them? Scan all attachments for viruses if your antivirus software offers it.

With these simple steps, Cryptolocker and a lot of other nasties can be kept away from your computer, your laptop, your precious files and your bank account.

What does it mean to say it’s ‘Your PC’?

April 21st, 2015

Martin

Photograph of ancient Greek pottery showing Cerberus the three-headed dog

For a while now, and certainly on this blog, I’ve been writing within a concept I’ve simply called ‘Your PC’. Having worked on dozens of desktop and laptop computers, I’ve come to realise that so many problems were caused by users not realising that this was Their PC.

With that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about what it means to know it’s Your PC, and just how this can prevent problems arising. With these few tips, you’ll be effortlessly blocking malware from wrecking your PC experience.

Permission

It boils down to permission, and your willingness to give it.

I say: on Your PC, Give No Permission.

But then again I’m prone to hyperbole.

But to some extent it’s true: certainly give no permission by default. Try following these ideas:

  • Don’t presume that the software installed when you buy a PC or laptop is the Best For You. Don’t presume that what’s shoved in your face is even the best software on this laptop.
  • Don’t just let the manufacturer install its own updates. HP do this, Samsung do this, and Sony and Dell do it too. They’ve got little programs which go online and update your this, that and other. They’re updates for things you probably didn’t ask for in the first place, so why waste time and download limits on more junk?
  • Always check to see if your new software – that program you’ve downloaded from Cnet.com – is trying to fill up your hard drive with adware and other dangerous nasties. Look for tick boxes with a tick already in them, and remove that tick. Click ‘Decline’ whenever you can; never ‘Accept’ unless you really understand what it is you’re doing. Sometimes, there might even be tricky ways of hiding the Decline button. It’s there; seek it out.
Screenshot of offer bundled into free software installation

CNet have become notorious for bundling ‘offers’, but it could happen anywhere

Those are just some tips for starters. What I’m saying is (and some people are not going to like it) you need to actively be the gatekeeper for what gets into your computer.

There are three reactions to this:

  1. Yay, Martin, you’re so right! I will henceforth be like Cerberus unto the underworld!
  2. Hmm, I’m not really sure I can be bothered…
  3. I don’t know anything about computers. I love to tell people I’m a technophobic idiot! La la la la!

The last of these is, of course, accompanied by fingers in ears and an end to further rational conversation.

No Excuses

If computers were onions, I would indeed know my onions. But just because there are such things as Computer Experts, this doesn’t mean that everyone else should be content in ignorance.

I’m not saying anyone is. Almost all of my customers would love to know more about their computer. What I’m saying is that I’m giving you permission (just in case that’s what you were waiting for) to demand to know what’s going on. And that’s because, after all, it’s Your PC.

Won’t I need a manual?

But I’m not just giving you permission to learn a little more about your PC. I’m giving you permission to learn only a little more. Here’s the rules which I live by, and which you can start with, to take control from those who would steal it from you:

  1. Know what programs are running when you turn your PC on. Is there a toolbar on the screen? See if you can find out what it does. Was it made by your PC manufacturer? Does it do anything useful? Do you ever use it?
  2. If anything new starts to appear on the screen, perhaps after you installed something new, perhaps a printer, then check what it is. Is it essential?
  3. If you’re asked whether you want something to happen – anything – by a pop up box or a message, read the message and act on it according to what you want. Don’t just click Yes, or OK, or Shaft Me Now, Thanks.

Don’t give away Permission on Your PC.

There are other ways to keep Your PC yours. These are just the things which you should do as rightful owner to prevent other companies changing things for you.

Finally, it’s OK not to know straight away whether that thing you’ve just investigated is doing Good, or doing Evil. You have two options: do a quick Google to see if other people are wondering about it; or call me at Ship Shape Computers. If it’s a quick query I can answer it, free of charge, over the phone. If it’s worrying you, or things have started to go wrong, then I can pop around to your house and sort it out for you there and then. Get in touch via the Contact page for a chat.

The problems facing the kids

April 16th, 2015

Martin

When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple, like many others in the nascent Silicon Valley they started in a garage. In fact, Steve W (for that is easier to spell on this much caffeine) had been visiting the Homebrew Computer Club in their own garage for a while beforehand.

What is the ‘American Garage’? It’s like the good old-fashioned British Shed. It’s a workspace for tools, tables, and downright Getting Stuff Done. Or pretending to, but the Apple founders certainly Did, as did the Homebrew Computer Club. The Garages, like the Sheds, were places to try stuff out, learn new skills, play around, experiment, gather with like-minded souls and swap ideas.

The Homebrew gang were one such gathering, who loved nothing more than to design circuit boards and gadgets, and build fun and new homebrew computers (hence the name). The first Apple computer, the Apple I, was conceived at, and inspired by, one of the get-togethers. It was Steve J who saw the potential in selling it.

Can you imagine that today?

That’s more of a plea than a question. If you have kids, or know someone who does, and those kids are in any way interested in computers, could you imagine them designing one themselves? What if I include teenagers and university students – any computer designers? Real computer designers? Would the Kids even know how to go about designing a computer?

Probably not. And it’s for this reason that new start-ups, like Apple once were, are unlikely to challenge the big boys in the near future. And because of that situation, it’s unlikely that UK companies will be doing the challenging.

The Raspberry Pi is one British exception. Designed by ARM in Cambridge, it’s been an incredible success. But it has (intentional) limitations. It’s low powered, designed to be cheap almost to the point of disposability, making it a good choice for schools teaching computing.

Apple’s business model soon became (and remains to this day) one of complete control over the hardware and software. So you get an Apple operating system running on Apple hardware. The Personal Computer (PC) by contrast, has a (usually) Microsoft operating system running on systems from a variety of manufacturers.

BUT! All those systems are ‘IBM PC compatible’, which means that they are the latest in a long line of computers originally inspired by IBM’s 1981 5150 Personal Computer. They’re essentially an evolution of that ancient ancestor.

What I’d like to see ia revolution.

The problem with evolution

It was great fun following the progress of the PC in the 1990s. The Internet and World Wide Web were just finding their place in the home, and computer speed grew in leaps and bounds. Your 1995 model was almost useless  by 1999, whereas a 2005 PC would probably be fairly serviceable even by 2009.

So, as time has gone on, a ‘new’ PC has felt less and less like a ‘new PC’. It still runs Windows, which hasn’t changed much since Windows 95, it’s more likely to be a non-upgradeable laptop, with only about a 20% increase on power over the last one. And as prices have come down, they’ve only really released a bottom end of plasticky, under powered junk which needs replacing in two years anyway.

Every new PC is barely distinguishable from the next. Tablets are growing ever more popular, and are sealed appliances, thrown away when done with. And the PC and laptop industry is dying as margins are squeezed more tightly. Big names like Sony and Samsung are getting out of the game altogether, which causes the consumer no end of problems.

And from my point of view, as a PC repair technician, the job is becoming ever more difficult as people abandon the repairable PC in favour of the replaceable ‘device’. At the same time, peoples’ expectations of their technology diminish: they are ready to throw stuff away when it gets the hiccups, they expect them to be difficult, fragile, always in need of replacement. And they expect them to be full of junk trials, useless shortcuts and cookie-cutter interfaces.

And they view desktops as antiques, forgetting some of their unique benefits, such as ergonomics, repairability, upgradeability, customisation.

Where are you going with this, old man?

This all adds up to a disillusionment with technology, an ignorance of the joys it can bring, and a pulling of the wool over users’ eyes. There are a few things you can do to combat this.

Consider a desktop computer

Or, at least consider which is the best computer for you. I get asked “Shouldn’t I just buy an iPad?” This is an impossible question to answer, without a host of other questions from me to you. iPads are not ‘the latest computer’, nor the ‘culmination of slim and light computing’. They’re extremely mobile gadgets which let you browse the web, read articles and send email on the go. They also run games, and apps which bring a little taster, a toolkit, to your travels.

But have you ever tried doing a spreadsheet on one? Or a novel? Or fast-paced shooter game, or giant session of Civilisation? Of course not. Apple might like you to think you could, but they’d never go so far as to pretend to your face that you should.

So, when in the market for a new computer, think: where will I use it, what will I use it for? Am I hoping to offload a handful of basic tasks from a different, bigger PC? Or do you need a main machine to store all your music, videos and photos, run your top games, and stream TV programs to your living room set?

Know what you need, and what you don’t

The first thing you should do when you get a new PC or laptop is to get rid of all the junk you find on it. Start with the short cuts on the desktop: are any of them pointing to useless programs you never intend to use? Go into Control Panel > Uninstall a Program and zap it.

While you’re in that list, see if there are any other things in there that can go. I’m thinking anti-virus trials, Free Game (not really free) and video editors. Really, when are you ever going to bother?

If you’ve chosen a desktop, the next thing you have the opportunity to do is to get a professional in to put one together for you. Desktops give you more oomph per pound than laptops or tablets. In fact, for the price of the latest iPad, I could build you an amazing machine which would last years before it needed an upgrade. And it wouldn’t have all the crap I just showed you how to remove. It would be CLEAN. A joy to use.

Encourage your kids to Know Computers

I’m not talking about building you a desktop, although that’s a great start. Get them interested in how they really work, right down to the silicon. Know which bits do what, and which bits are the bits and which are the bytes.

Make sure they understand why one company in Seattle controls the IT viewpoints of 90% of the population, and why Britain no longer holds any sway on the family PC. Help them understand why the 1980s was a beautiful era where dozens of computers competed for your cash, each trying a different way of working but, sadly, unable to talk to each other, leading to the de facto standard we suffer under today.

Lern Yerself Computing

And while you’re at it, make sure you know what you’re computer’s for. Put a bit of thought into why you’ve got the type you’ve got – desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone. Take control of your computing lifestyle, and don’t let the cruft build up.

Maybe if we all become more savvy IT consumers, we’ll make the PC manufacturers take more care over what they sell us, rather than them being forced into seeing what junk they can trick us into paying for.

And then, just maybe, a new generation of garage- or shed-dwelling teenagers will bring something new, adventurous and Revolutionary into the world, and make computing fun again.

Why you should hate those Microsoft call scams even more than you do

April 14th, 2015

Martin

On one level, they’re just another cold call. Just another waste of time. Another reason to consider dumping your landline altogether (unless you’re like me, of course, and they have your mobile number too). Gah!

I’m talking about the infamous Microsoft Call Centre Scam.

It starts the same way each time: “Hello, sir, my name is Kevin and I’m calling from Windows Security Centre.”

You wonder whether it makes you a little bit racist to wonder whether you know other Kevins with Indian accents. It does, but you keep listening.

“We’ve been noticing some errors on your computer…”

If you’re one of the unfortunate people who’s not heard of the scam, and are taken in, you’re then guided to:

  1. Give control of your computer to these nincompoops;
  2. Not look too closely at the screen of vague error-looking messages;
  3. Hand over all your cash.

At each stage you’re slowly led into believing that Microsoft have spotted a problem with your PC or laptop, and are fixing it. But all they’re doing is pulling playing cards out from the bottom of the unsteady pyramid that is Windows, and one day soon it’ll all come crashing down.

But by then the Kevins will be long gone, as will that cash.

The man who knew too much (for my liking)

What makes me fume about these pathetic people (even more so than their bare faced cheek in the first place), is demonstrated by the experience of one of my customers, who called me in to check on her laptop, post-scam call.

Kevin began his spiel, but my customer made her suspicions known. This is when Kevin revealed that her laptop was so bad that it was damaging the internet connection of everyone else in her block of flats.

Yes, he knew she lived in a flat. He knew which block, and where. He described the grounds surrounding the block where she lived, and where I visited her. Need I add that this was a sheltered block? The mind boggles at how people can do this to their fellow humans.

Nearly taken in now, my client asked if she could consult the building manager about this, and Kevin agreed to let her call back. I don’t know whether he had nerves of steel (and an extra script to call on), or whether something even creepier was going on, but sadly on this day the building manager was elsewhere at that moment.

The emotional blackmail, once back on the phone, continued, and a credit card transaction took place, for several hundred pounds.

Evil Kevin had succeeded. Nearly.

It’s almost worse when you try to get your money back

Luckily, our would-be victim couldn’t shake her paranoia, and called her bank soon after putting the phone down to Kevin. Said bank cancelled the transaction, and the money was safe. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it.

‘Kevin’ rang back.

Rang back!

And he was angry. I can’t tell you what he called my client, because she refused to divulge it. Her voice at this point in her tale gave the game away all to clearly. They were not nice words.

And as my client stood her ground, Kevin only got worse, and… well, my former amusement at this type of scam evaporated.

Grease stain on the fabric of life

(I got that subtitle from Googling what is an acceptable personal insult on a family-oriented blog. I want to call them much worse.)

To conclude: this is more hateful than a ‘straight’ scam. These people lie, call you names, threaten, cajole and put pressure on innocent and vulnerable people. They leave them with crippled laptops that cost more money to repair.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to tell anyone you know, who owns a computer, that this scam is still ongoing, especially if you think they’re at risk from being pulled in. And I’m not looking specifically at the elderly, because this can affect anyone, and my client was certainly not elderly.

And, if you get the call, be polite, let them chat for a moment, introduce themselves as Rachel or whatever. And then, when you’ve responded to the “We’ve noticed…” line with an angry tirade against unauthorised spying (that gets them angry, I tell you), clear you throat, pause…

Then yell ‘NINNYHAMMER!’ at them and slam the phone down.

Playing with your new PC – the non-boring way

December 17th, 2014

Martin

There are a million blog posts out there telling you what to do now you have a new PC or laptop. They all have one thing in common:

They are sooo boring!

Security this, firewall that, registry clean the other.

You’ve got a new computer for Santa’s sake! It’s faster, whizzier, and more shiny than the one before. It’s got so much… potential! I really hope you didn’t spend Christmas Day spending Actual Money on upgrading your trial antivirus to a full version, or sitting there while Windows updates, restarts, updates, restarts…

There’s a whole encyclopaedia out there to read for free, you know! Read more

Backup: it’s what you should be doing

November 26th, 2014

Martin

Backup: a word to strike fear and guilt into all but the most committed computer user. We all know we should be doing it, but we don’t. We forget, delay, become complacent. We don’t think we’ll ever need it.

Read more