Monday, May 30, 2011

Windows 7 - Everything Else Is FREE

I read a two part article series on the WindowsSecrets blog written buy Woody Leonhard. If you follow my blog you have read about WindowsSecrets before. I like the skinny of these two articles so much that I "stole" their text from the second part of the article to post it here, with some textual changes and additions to enhance the readability and understanding by non-geeks, IMHO at least.
Most if not all of the software that stores will try to sell you when you buy a new computer does not need to cost any additional money. But since stores and dealers live from selling you something they will try - and sometimes really hard. The most often applied method to up-sell an unsuspecting not-too-PC-literate customer is good old FUD, Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt. The sales guys in some stores can scare the daylights out of you just to get you to buy some additional software.
The kicker is that if you steadfastly refuse these software add-ons they sometimes even will throw it in the bag anyway "because it's free"; stuff they five minutes ago wanted to charge you for! If my customers got any antivirus program in this manner I always tell them to give it as a gift to their best enemy.
If you buy a new PC with Windows7 Home Premium pre-installed then there is hardly anything else you need to pay money for besides your fast Internet connection.
Let me go into a few more details for the most commonly offered add-on packages. This first part is from the WindowsSecrets blog with some textual additions.
Antivirus: Microsoft Security Essentials is free and works for the average PC-user just as good as commercial products and often even better.
It runs totally unobtrusive in the background and it's work load balancing is so good that even on weaker older computers you hardly ever will recognize that it is running.
Even while it is scanning your machine you can still work with your computer; I don't know any other antivirus program that does that in such a graceful way.
And if it has to "talk" to you it speaks in clear, simple English; you don't need a college degree to understand what it's telling you.
Backup programs: Windows 7 backup isn't particularly neat or fancy, but it covers the bases automatically and (almost always) works well.
I strongly recommend to invest a little bit of time to learn the ins and outs; it's all right there in the Windows 7 Help and Support displays.
And I strongly recommend to buy an external disk drive to keep the backups outside of the computer. A backup on the C: drive is no backup at all, at best it's a fig leaf.
Defragmenters: Windows 7 defragments your drives automatically (once a week by default), and you don't need to lift a finger or spend a penny. But you can set it to your liking, like have it defragment daily at a certain time - or only manually started. The latter then very soon gets forgotten anyway.
Disk Partitioning: Windows 7 does all you'll need!
No, Windows 7 doesn't have a full-fledged disk-partition manager. But it does everything with partitions that most people need (if you need it at all!) -- and it gets the job done without messing up your hard drive. Which is more than I can say for some third-party disk-partition managers.
Where is Windows 7's partition manager you ask? In an administrator account, click Start and in the Search box type "Administrative Tools", without the quotes naturally. In the resulting window double-click Computer Management. In the left panel, under Storage, click Disk Management.
You will see all your disk drives and the partitions on the disk drives.
Again, I strongly recommend to invest a little bit of time to learn the ins and outs; it's all right there in the Windows 7 Help and Support displays.
Registry Cleaners: Some do more harm than good.
I have never seen a real-world example of a Windows 7 machine that improved in any perceivable way after running a registry cleaner. Registry cleaners and Defragmenters may have been useful for Windows XP (before SP 2) and certainly were a good thing for Windows 98 and ME as long as these programs worked correctly - what sometimes they did not. With Windows 7 I think they're useless, if not worse than useless.
In my experience, working with hundreds of Windows 7 machines, I have never found a single Registry cleaner that caused any perceivable change in performance.  The Registry is an enormous database, and all this cleaning really doesn't amount to much. It is like sweeping out one parking space in a parking lot the size of Texas.
Even Microsoft has abandoned its Registry cleaners. E.g. Windows Live OneCare (precursor to Microsoft Security Essentials) once included an online scanner and Registry cleaner.
(Disclaimer: I can not confirm this claim but usually Woody Leonhard is a dependable source of such information.)
Windows 7's Firewall works only one way, that is inbound.
Like its predecessors, the Windows 7 firewall only keeps outside threats from getting in — it is an inbound firewall. Outbound firewalls alert you when an unauthorized program attempts to send data out of your computer. At least that's the theory. In practice, many outbound firewalls bother you mercilessly with inscrutable warnings saying that obscure processes are trying to send out data.
If you simply click through and let the program phone home, you're defeating the purpose of the outbound firewall. On the other hand, if you take the time to track down every single outbound event warning, you might spend half your life chasing firewall snipes.
Some people think an inbound-only firewall is woefully inadequate. I think it's good enough for almost everybody. It certainly is big time good enough for the computers in my household.
It's surprising how much old advice isn't valid any more!
So much for the part that was inspired by and partly copied from WindowsSecrets. Let me add a few categories that are not part of MS Windows.
Office software: Almost all new brand name computers I have seen over the last 6 or 7 years came with some Microsoft Office package pre-installed.
When you just start to use these programs they will work for 30 or even 60 days. After that point in time you will have to buy a license from Microsoft or your favorite computer store. Depending on the version of MS Office the sales clerk talks you into that is anything between $100 and $300. Ka-ching says the cash register and sales guys in the store smile.
You don't need to pay for this! There are at least three packages with office programs around that will not cost you a single penny! They can read and write files in the commonly used Microsoft formats, at least for texts, spreadsheets and presentations.
Currently I favor LibreOffice; it covers 99% to 100% of what the average home user ever uses or needs; only in very "tricky" formatted text or spreadsheet files you will find some features that maybe are not 100% compatible; in this case the Help forum mostly has a workaround.
A category by itself: Google Earth just because it is such a great toy. Whether you want to check out a new vacation location before you book or just see the Kremlin or Tiananmen Square from the birds eye view, it is worth trying it. Even on average decent basic computers like I recommend to my customers it works very well; the speed of the Internet connection is much more important.
Photo Management and Editing: For the average home user Google's program Picasa IMHO is unbeatable. just watch it finding and removing the red rabbit eyes from the photos of your loved ones. And that for FREE! You can build albums with it, publish photos to the internet so the family members on the other side of the planet can see them and, and, and…
Web browser: If you are my customer or listen to me on WTKM then you know that I strongly favor Mozilla's Firefox web browser. Although quality and security wise Google's Chrome browser is a very serious contender as well.
Email Client: If you are my customer or listen to me on WTKM then you know that I strongly favor Mozilla's Thunderbird email client. I don't even know whether there is another alternative still around.
Should you require any other software and don't know where to begin to look for it, I will gladly help. For much if not most of what you may want to do on your computer there likely is a free solution available.
As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.
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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Help Requests - Correct, Complete And Courteous Please

Just about a week ago an email conversation with an acquaintance and customer of mine went totally, horribly wrong. On first impulse I wanted to completely post the email exchange with my background thoughts added but all names except mine and all locations neutralized. My dear wife convinced me not to do that but rather try to explain why I asked the questions I asked. All this appears to be sufficiently important (to me at least!) to put it in a generalized form and to publish it here.

I need to write something that truthfully and forcefully makes it clear beyond excuses, cop-outs and exceptions why I do request certain information. I have to get this across in a way that “hits home” with the vast majority of my customers; if I can't get this done I am going to burn out.

Here we go:

I receive many, many emails from customers with questions about technical issues and so far I believe not a single email has remained unanswered, either by an email reply or a phone call. And please consider that my email advice is a free service!

Please remember, I do not retain any personal information about my customers! No phone numbers, no address information and no information about their computer configuration. Why you ask? Simply because I need to avoid any risk of eventually being accused of “leaking” any of that to someone who is not entitled to this info and may misuse it.

From my side I see these emails with support questions as business communications, not personal ones. What I would expect in business communications is at least proper identification and contact info, that is the sender's full name, phone number and eventually address info. An example: A sending email address like signed with John is NOT correct identification. “risibisibear” does not resemble any name I know and I know at least twenty gentlemen named John.

And I ask to please include that information in every email you send to me or I have to go on a wild goose chase, either scrolling and scrolling through a long thread or even read through potentially many old emails from that customer to find that info. Frankly, I don't have the time to chase this sort of wild geese. If this info is missing most likely you will get a standard reply asking for the missing info.

As far as I know email is a fast and convenient way to send someone a written note, aka a little letter. Do you like to get letters that miss addressing you with your name and/or missing a signature at the end? I didn't think so.

In this context I point you to one of the IMHO better web sites about Netiquette (etiquette on the Internet), especially the pages about email etiquette.

Every week I see many customers and I get many support questions via email. If I were to remember all technical and environmental details of all the many installations I have seen there wouldn’t be space left for anything else in my scatterbrain. And if I had to hunt down contact information every time I get a request from a customer there wouldn't be any time left to do actual customer visits.

Please include technical info on what you are asking about; that includes all technical details, like what operating system you use, what program you are asking about, the version number and so on. Simply give as much detail as humanly possible if you want fast and good answers. These details can be (but are by no means limited to)

     - a screen shot instead of re-typing lengthy messages
     - tell me what program you are using
     - what you were attempting to do or achieve  
     - please spell names correctly
     - please use the reply button; this leaves the context in a longer conversation so I don't need to go on a wild goose chase to establish the context again
     - if your question is about emails please tell me whether you “do” emails in a web browser and which one it is or in an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook.

Did you see my request to please send a screen shot? If that seems too difficult please read this article on my blog for more details; thank you.

Should you send your email from another than your own email account then please tell me so. I don't care for your reasons to do so but I do care about correctly addressing my reply!

PLEASE remember above explanations and understand that I need to insist on everybody's cooperation. I do not want to get forced into a situation where I would have to charge for this service; that really is the last thing I want to do!

Lastly I want to quote two snippets of text from this article on the NetManners blog:
"Simply because one is the “customer” certainly doesn’t give them permission to e-mail without any details, courtesy or proper e-mail etiquette."

"… when you e-mail with courtesy, details and clarity, you can bet the other side will value your business and go out of their way … to promptly answer your requests with the same! "
Am I asking too much? Frankly, I don’t think so.

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Backup - My Final (?) Words

Here a quickie, I've got to run.

Okay, the skinny is that at least for Windows 7 and to some extent for Windows Vista users there is no longer any excuse not to have a backup and a Repair Disk if something serious happens.

Please read this article on the Windows Secrets web site. Most of it is applicable to Vista as well.

And if you are still on Windows XP. all I can say is PLEASE, your system is at least about 5 years old.

You should upgrade to a Windows 7 computer rather now than later! 

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Click here for a categorized Table Of Contents.