Compu-Home Blog

These articles by Malcolm and John Harding address current issues in the world of personal computing. We hope you find them helpful! If you have any questions or comments, please let us know.

New for 2019 – The Exciting and The Mundane

Posted Feb 24, 2019

January 2019

If today’s headline made you think of robots and self-driving cars, we’re afraid that you had better keep looking somewhere else.  This month we are looking especially at some developments, trends and devices for everyday users like you and me that have been in the works for awhile and whose time has (probably) come to shine this year.

SSDs, or Solid State Drives are disk drives that use integrated circuits to store files, using the same technology as USB Flash Drives which have been in use for more than 15 years.      SSD SSDs are often now installed in computers instead of (or along with) traditional hard disks (HDs).  An SSD is many times faster than an HD and has the significant advantage of being more robust, due to the fact that there are no delicate moving parts.  Until recently, SSD drives were much more expensive than equivalent HDs but their price has dropped radically in the past year, which means that it is now possible to have a reasonably priced laptop with an operating speed quite a bit faster than you might have expected just a short time ago.

 

 

 

USB ports that have been common on desktops, laptops, and even some tablets and phones have gone through generations 1, 2 and now USB-C.   This is the first USB port to have a USB3different shape from previous versions and it has the advantage of being symmetrical, meaning that there is no fumbling from trying to plug it in upside down – a deceptively important improvement when the ports are often located in a place on the computer that is hard to see.  Far more important, however, is the speed of data transfer.  USB-C speed rounds off to 10  times faster than USB 2 and several hundred times the speed of USB 1.  This may not make much difference in your connection to a printer, but it is huge for any sort of data transfer.  For example: copying videos or large numbers of photos or data backups may now take seconds instead of many minutes or even hours.  Expect computers to have both older and newer USB ports during this transition, and for awhile you will have to put up with adapters to make the old and new versions fit, but we predict that it will not be very long before you will definitely want to have USB-C ports on your new equipment.

 

6126248-new-modern-black-network-router-isolated-on-white-backgroundImproved routers and range extenders will overcome one of the most common problems that Compu-Home clients have been fighting with.  Annoying connection failures in certain rooms of the house, or when moving from room to room with a portable device are now being overcome with improvements in the strength and speed of new generation wifi gear.  This is due to better equipment being supplied by the Internet providers and/or better devices being available for purchase by the homeowner.  This development is sometimes as much as twice the cost of what was previously available but the resulting reliability means far less frustration.

 

 

Refurbished smartphones are becoming more popular.  Most cell phone plans in the past took advantage of an offer from the cellular provider for a shiny new phone at a Refurb phonegreatly reduced cost or sometimes free, in return for agreeing to an extended service contract.  Nowadays, however, many people are deciding that the fancy features of the most recent smartphones are not worth their exorbitant prices.  (Do you REALLY have to pay $800 for your phone to recognize your face in order for it to unlock?)  As a result, many users are simply buying outright a used or refurbished slightly older phone and signing up for a considerably cheaper cellular plan. You can read  https://tinyurl.com/ycxtu8e4  for a lighthearted discussion of this moneysaving trend.

The Fraudsters Haven’t Left Town

Posted Feb 24, 2019

December 2018

 As you have probably noticed in these columns, we find ourselves returning repeatedly and depressingly to discussions of the dangers and pitfalls of computer and Internet fraud.  (If you got as many calls from victims and near-victims in a typical week as we do, you would probably find yourself focused on the dark side too.)

The crooks nowadays are attacking mainly in three ways: 

1) there are the telephone calls  Phone from the so-called “technicians” at “Microsoft” or “Windows” or some other recognizable tech industry name.   Advice for responding to the phone call is short and simple:  Just hang up – without a word.  Don’t be polite; don’t be angry; don’t be mischievous.  Any response whatever is going to flag your telephone number as a “live one” and will trigger more calls later.  A reputable tech business is NEVER going to call you to report a problem.

 

2) there are sudden pop-up invasions on your computer display with Popup bright flashing graphics and audible alarms.  The smart response to the invasive pop-up is almost as simple; shut down your computer.  If the screen is disabled and you can’t shut down by clicking in the usual way, instead you press and hold the power button for a minimum of eight seconds.  When you restart a minute later it is almost certain that the attack will have disappeared, but when your web browser asks you if you want to go back to the pages where you were when you shut down, the answer is no.

3) there are incorrect (fraudulent) search results in which web pages are cleverly designed to resemble the support sites of legitimate businesses. The end result is always the same:  the state of your computer is worse than anyone imagined, and it’s going to take a lot of money to fix it.  The fraudulent website is just a little trickier.  Let’s say that you are having a problem with your printer and you want to go to the Hewlett Packard site to get advice.  If the page is not really Hewlett Packard, there will be an early and prominent invitation to call a number.  Don’t!  Check the URL (the web address) of the website and see if it seems logical.  If you are at all suspicious, COPY the URL and PASTE it into the Google Safe Browsing Transparency Report - https://transparencyreport.google.com/safe-browsing/overview  which will disclose if that site has a history of problems.

 

For thoughts on fraud in tech areas and a in wider context as well, the basic information in a booklet from the Competition Bureau of Canada called The Little Black Book of  Little-Black-Book-ScamsScams has very worthwhile information and advice to help us keep the bad guys from the door.  You can go to http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/04333.html to order a copy or read the PDF right there on the site. Apparently as of this writing they are temporarily out of the hard copy and so there will be a delay if you order one mailed to you. It is 21 pages and so if you’re going to download and print it, be sure to set your printer to black-only.

Understanding Updates and Upgrades

Posted Feb 24, 2019

November 2018 

We sense that lots of our clients regard software updates with great suspicion, based on the number of people who reject them outright or ask us which ones are safe and which are not.  Our usual answer is that the great majority of updates are not only safe but also necessary for the secure and efficient operation of your computer.

It is important to understand the difference between upgrades and updates Upgrades are entirely new versions of the program, with significant differences and sometimes improvements over your current edition.  You usually have to pay for an upgrade and this can lead to deliberate confusion in which the publisher tries to convince you to switch from a free version of the software to an upgrade that is so vastly better that you will be extremely grateful to have bought it!  Sadly, it is more likely that you will find that the advantages of the upgraded version are subtle or minimal, with added bells and whistles that don’t apply to you.  In the case of many software titles it is a smart strategy to skip a few upgrades and then go with the newest version when it truly has new features that will be helpful, or when you replace your computer.

Updates, on the other hand, are relatively simple downloads that provide fixes and patches to the current version of your software.  Often these changes are related to security, and you are almost always well advised to apply them to keep the bad guys at bay as well as to improve performance.

One group of programs being updated frequently are the little utilities that enhance the operation of your computer.  Java, Acrobat Reader, Flash, office suites, media players, browsers, printer drivers and your anti-virus are examples of software that work best when they are kept up to date.  You can and probably should check the box that allows such programs to update automatically, in the background while you are doing something else.

Operating System (OS) updates belong in a different category.  This is not because they are not necessary; on the contrary, they are considered so vital that both Windows and Macintosh no longer ask you if you wish to update, and often don’t allow opting out, although there is sometimes the option of delaying to a more convenient time.  A fairly recent development in these OS updates is that instead of minor fixes being pushed out incessantly, there are now major updates happening approximately quarterly, with only emergency essentials happening in between.  The result to the user is greater inconvenience, but less often.

Because OS updates are now such a big deal, there is a slightly greater chance of them causing their own problem(s).  Sometimes, for example, a printer stops working the day after an OS update.  Fortunately these glitches are quite rare and usually quickly and easily fixed.

With smartphones and tablets there is one extra dimension to the OS updates.  In non-technical terms, there seems to be a closer relationship between the Apps and the OS in mobile devices.  This means that when an OS update has happened, you would be wise to check a few days later for potential updates for your Apps as well, in order to ensure compatibility and smooth, efficient operation.

What Are You Missing If You Don’t Use Podcasts?

Posted Feb 19, 2019

October 2018

 Almost all radio broadcasts are now made available for download to your computer or mobile device, for later enjoyment or study. The program (podcast) is downloaded as a standard audio file which can then be played back using whichever is your default media player on that device.

The original purpose of podcasts was to make programs available for listening at a time that is more convenient for you.  If you were busy at the original airtime it is a simple matter to download it to your device and listen to it at your leisure.

Another emerging use of podcasts is that you can plan ahead and download them onto your tablet or smartphone at home or anywhere that Internet is free and then play them later when Internet would be expensive or unavailable.  Internet radio of your choice can then be available anywhere, without burning up your cellular data.

Of course podcasts are available from radio all over the world.  Last winter we did a column and blog entry on the subject of Internet streaming international radio:   https://compu-home.com/2018/02/streaming-radio-the-price-is-right/  and making use also of podcast technology just makes the whole concept more useful.

It’s pretty easy to download podcasts to your laptop or desktop computer; just go to the website of the broadcaster that interests you and you’ll find that almost all of them have a button for finding and streaming or recording podcasts.  (Disclosure:  CBC Radio at this moment seems to be in a state of transition, with some instructions out of date.  Persist.)  Achieving the same thing on mobile devices is quite a bit more challenging, because they all try very hard to divert you into their special-purpose podcast App, which involves its own learning curve.

Listen Notes comes to the rescue!  This is a search engine specifically for podcasts.  Go to http://www.listennotes.com in your browser (computer, phone or tablet) and the website will help you search for any episode from any source, (out of 30,000,000) and allow you to stream and listen immediately if you currently have cheap Internet access, or record it for later if you prefer.  Listen Notes has become a busy shortcut on our phones in recent months.

Here are a few websites with overviews on podcasts:

Digital Trends:   https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/how-to-download-podcasts/

C/NET:   https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-best-way-to-search-for-podcasts/

Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_podcasting_companies  (A list to get started)

Exploring the Cloud – Part 2

Posted Sep 25, 2018 | 1 Comment

To Recap:  In our last Entry we defined the cloud as “an arrangement allowing users to save data in an alternate location via their Internet connection, remote from their own computer disks or systems.”   We discussed just a few of the free and commercial cloud offerings, how they work, and the fact that most people are actually making at least some minor use of the cloud, whether or not they realize it.

 

Jurisdiction is a concern mentioned often in the context of the cloud.  Canadians, for example, expect to be regulated in their activities by Canadian governments, but if the cloud storage service you use has servers in other countries, then it might be possible that the foreign government might exercise its jurisdiction by demanding access to your data and applying different laws and interpretations.  Frankly, the implications are usually scarce, but people who are concerned with tax matters, politics or citizenship, to name a few, might wish to download a Canadian perspective on the subject from     https://info.cloud.ca/jurisdiction-matters

 

Security is a subject that worries a lot of people but we think that this nervousness usually points in the wrong direction.  The companies that offer cloud data storage these days have such huge investments in redundancy and safety measures that risk to your data is very low.  We think that the misunderstandings about the use of social media – another form of cloud usage – should be of much greater concern and that this is an alternate form of data that has much greater potential for harm if it is used in the wrong ways.

 

The convenience of the cloud must not be overlooked.  First is the security of knowing that your data is being saved automatically in an additional location, so that equipment failure or loss becomes less a disaster than it might have been.  Some cloud backup services allow you to designate a folder on your hard disk to serve double-duty and anything saved there is automatically copied to an identical remote folder.  If another computer, tablet or smartphone is appropriately configured that same folder appears there also and so documents, photos, music, messages, calendars and addresses are always available.

 

Sharing of data among family members, friends or in a business context is another significant convenience.  The old days of clogging up someone’s inbox with a bunch of email attachment photos can be a thing of the past, if you post them to a cloud folder and then allow your friends access to that folder.  They can simply view them or download them and, if you allow it, they can add their own photos to that folder.  In another example, people all over the world can make edits and additions to a joint document, with the various versions saved for reference, if you have given them access.  Some cloud services, Google Docs being just one, even allow you to post your data and assign a URL (web address) to it so that anyone who has that  link can click on it and see it instantly.  Anyone with Gmail has automatic access to this service and a pretty decent amount of storage space is free!

 

Do your own research about using the cloud – but be careful.  When we were doing our background reading to prepare for these columns, we found a great number, perhaps the majority, of articles online that were VERY out of date.  Cloud computing, especially for business, has been around for more than a decade but there have been so many updates recently that we are suspicious of information older than a year or so.