Thursday, December 18, 2008

Did I get that update?

Patch Tuesday.

Every month Microsoft distributes critical security updates for Windows computers. If you have Windows Update configured to automatically install these updates, it will do so. Unless something goes wrong. Your computer may have been offline. Something may have interrupted the process. You may already have a virus that prevents updates.

Here's how to check that a specific update is installed:
  • Go to Control Panel > Add or Remove Programs.
  • Check the box Show Updates.
  • Scroll down to find the update you want to verify.
What do all those crazy KB numbers mean?

Everything Microsoft does is affiliated with a Knowledge Base article. When the techie community writes about a bug in Windows, they say "this is related to the flaw in KB123456." If an article says "you're toast without update KB123456," you need to check your updates. You can find out more by browsing to and searching on the KB number. Maybe you'll find it only applies to some esoteric program you never use anyway, so you don't have to worry.

Add/Remove Progams screenshot

(c) 2008 Bill Barnes
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

My hard drive won't boot!

We have a 4 year old Dell laptop running XP. It died last night while we were using it. From what I have been able to figure out online, it looks like her hard drive might be dead, but maybe you can give me your opinion:

The first thing that happened is that we got a blue screen with a message at the bottom -- something like "physical memory dump successful" Then, we ran some sort of diagnostic and got: ...

It sounds like you have a “Type 2” failure below. Sorry.

There are two types of “fatal” problems with disc drives. Sometimes they spontaneously recover from either of them – at least for a short time. Take that opportunity to immediately back up your data. 1) Windows won’t load, but the drive is physically mostly OK. 2) The drive has some sort of mechanical failure. I lost 2 drives in my older Dell laptop; probably due to overheating.

1) Your data are probably in fine condition, although it may be awkward to retrieve it, especially with a laptop.

2) Cross your fingers and pay homage to any angel of fortune you use. Generally the computer doesn’t even recognize that it has a drive attached when you look at the status page at power-on Setup (for most post-2002 Dells, press F2 at the Dell splash screen). Suggested steps to attempt include: repeatedly powering it up until it comes on, lightly tapping the case while it is turned off, or chilling the drive before it’s turned on. If you hear a “clicka-clicka” when you power it up, you’re probably toast.
In either case, my first response is to minimize the chance of further corruption until I preserve the data. I do this by removing the drive from it’s current computer and installing it as a secondary drive in another computer. (See mechanical handling notes below.) You can connect it directly to the motherboard’s interface in the alternate computer or use a USB adapter.

Once the alternate computer recognizes the disc drive, you should immediately copy critical data off it before proceeding with any other recovery attempts. If you encounter missing password file access problems, you can try logging on to the alternate computer as an administrator. If necessary, create an account on that computer with the same name and password as the administrator on the failed computer. In an extreme case, you can break the user rights with a Bart’s PE boot CD. Start here:

Now that you have your data, what do you do with the old drive. If it is showing hardware issues, physically decomission it and throw it away. If the only problem is that Windows wouldn’t boot:

a) Run the SpinRite ( disc recovery utility.
b) Run Windows recovery from a Windows installation disc.
c) Reinstall Windows from your manufacturer’s distribution discs. You will also have to reinstall all your programs, drivers, and accessories; but your data will probably still be where it was. There is also a chance you will trash everything in the process.
d) Install Windows on a new drive and install this one as a secondary drive (not applicable to laptops). Same comments as c) apply.
e) Install Windows on a new drive and copy all your data back to it. Same comments as c) apply.

The mechanics of moving a hard drive around.
Drives come in 2 flavors, SATA and IDE/ATA/PATA, that use a different cable to connect to the computer. SATA is the newer standard although most aftermarket drives are still available in either format. Very few computers support both versions natively on their motherboards although you can get add-in cards for either version. Furthermore, older IDE laptop drives (2.5”) use a different cable and power adapter than IDE desktop (3.5”) drives, but otherwise are interchangeable. Most USB adapters (such as support all versions although there may be some old IDE-only adapters still on the market.

Always disperse any static electricity by touching a grounded metal object before working with electronics. Never handle a disc drive that is powered on (ie spinning). Always disconnect the power supply from the wall before connecting or disconnecting cables. Don't forget the main battery(ies) in a laptop.

On most laptops the disc drive can be removed with one or two screws without disassembling the case. If you remove a screw that opens a panel into the electronics, that’s probably the wrong one.

When temporarily installing a drive in an alternate computer, you will probably have the least problems if you use the cables for that computer’s CD drive. Using a USB adapter may require that you change jumper settings on an IDE drive.

IE7 Options window

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Open your browser faster

Do you open your browser to go somewhere specific and end up waiting for it to load a home page you’re not going to look at anyway? I always set my browser to open a blank page so there’s no delay before I can enter my destination address. If you really often go to the same home page, you can use the browser tabs feature in Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox. Set the first tab as a blank page and your home page as the second tab. That way it can be loading while you’re entering an address in the, already open, blank tab.

In Internet Explorer 7:
• Open tabs with all your favorite sites. Make sure the first tab is a blank page.
• Click Tools > Internet Options.
• Under Home Page, choose “Use current.”

IE7 Options window

In Firefox:
• Open tabs with all your favorite sites.
• Click Tools > Options.
• Under Home Page, choose “Use current pages.”
Optional: Reopen the Options window. Under When Firefox starts, choose “Show a blank page.” Firefox will now open with a single blank tab. You can open your home page(s) at any time by clicking the Home icon on the toolbar.

Firefox Options window

(c) 2008 Bill Barnes
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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Configuring your router

You plug your router into the broadband modem, plug your computer into the router, and you’re on the internet. Ah ha! Everything must be set up correctly, right? Wrong!

The security your router provides you is only starting when you take it out of the box. As soon as you install it or after you have to do a reset (not just a reboot) of the router, you should check to ensure that your settings are still valid. Everything we recommend for your router will help with your security.

Every router’s configuration screens are different so these tips are necessarily generic. If the router has a setup wizard, it may not cover all of these features so we recommend after you run the wizard that you go back and check all of the settings.

• Open your browser and connect to your router. Find the IP address of your router with these instructions . The router is (typically) the default gateway. Or, you may be able to connect to the router using other instructions in its documentation. The documentation will give you the user name and default password you need to get in.

• Follow the wizard, if available, or instructions to ensure you are connected to the internet.

• After the wizard is completed, click on every button or tab to be sure you have completed the following tasks.

• Change the logon password. You probably cannot change the user name, but choose a non-trivial password of 6-10 characters.

• Disable remote access. Some routers allow you to configure them from the internet. This is a no-no.

• Set the wireless security. You will have a choice of WEP or WPA. “No security” is not acceptable and WEP is no better. WPA may have several options. Any of them is acceptable although you may have to experiment to find a schema that is compatible with your wireless devices. Some non-computers may not support WPA in which case you will need to make some hard choices. Without security, the information on your network is vulnerable to anyone within 300-1000 feet.

• Choose the wireless password. Use a password of 13-63 characters. There may be some limitations on your router such as it only accepts exactly 13 or 26 characters. Don’t worry that this is an ugly password. You’ll keep it on a flashdrive and only need to enter it in your portable computer once.

• If you do not need any wireless computers, turn the wireless off.

• Disable UP&P. This feature was created so some online games or other peer-to-peer programs could automatically give others on the internet access to your computer. Unfortunately, it can also allow malware to give bad guys access to your computer. You may wander through all your configuration screens and still not see it; but if you do, turn it off. If you find that a program or non-computer device on your network like TV adapters or video game consoles are missing features, you will need to make some hard choices. Insist that the manufacturer give you instructions to give their devices adequate access without UP&P. It is an idea as out-of-date as a car without airbags.

• That’s most of the security features you need to configure on your router. There are other settings you can change, but they belong in another article.

• Document what you’ve done. At the very least, write down the instructions to access the router, reset it to factory defaults, the default user name and password, the current user name and password, and the wireless password. Tape this information to the top of the router. This is not like sticking your password on the monitor of your office computer. If someone has physical access to the router, they can reset it themselves.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

To sleep, perchance to lose my thoughts ...

What do you do when you walk away from your computer?

What happens when you choose “Turn Off Computer” from the Start button is pretty well explained in this article from 2004: A recent reader asked for elaboration, specifically about background tasks.

But first … In Windows Vista, everything is the same – only different. There is no Start button, but when you click the Windows logo; there are “power” and “lock” icons. Except, by default, the “power” icon puts you in a fast hibernate where the screen goes blank immediately, but Windows is still doing something for a while.

To really shut down, you have to click the arrow at the right of the menus for another sub-menu of options. It is a good idea to fully shut down Windows occasionally to force it to finish all its tasks.

Now, for the body of our story …

Dear Bill Barnes,

I just came across an excellent article of your from 2004 (!) but there is still one unanswered issue for me.

When using a laptop (XP) and want to allow nighttime updates, on what power mode should the computer be set at?

For any unattended action to occur, the computer cannot be in sleep or hibernate. This includes automatic updates (Windows or antivirus; most other programs such as browsers, Adobe products – ie Flash and Reader – or applications check for updates when you use them and delay you then), scans, networked file or printer access, remote access, or idle-time programs such as SetiAtHome. As a rule of thumb, if you have to do more than wiggle the mouse to wake up the computer, background activities are not available either.

Most computers are able to wake themselves up – even from a full power-off – at a pre-scheduled time. This setting is deep in the BIOS settings and not part of Windows. I have never had occasion to even experiment with how it works.

What I generally do with my laptop is set it to never sleep or hibernate when plugged in. Then when I’m at home and was using it before bedtime, it will get updates and everything else. Otherwise I generally use low power settings. When I’m on battery, I set it for aggressive power management. I always set monitor off at the minimum I can stand and use a blank with password required (“Show Welcome screen”) screensaver setting (these times can be different and mon off can actually be less than screensaver).

Powering down the hard drive will not inhibit background activities; although they may inhibit it going into idle. Whether to power off the hard drive is an open discussion. On the one hand, it is most likely to fail at and because of startups, not while running. However, on laptops there are other considerations:
• Heat is the greatest killer of all electronics after electrical surges. A running hard drive puts out most of the heat in an idle computer and most laptops have inadequate cooling capability anyway.
• Vibration while running is another threat to hard drives (they are very rugged when not running). If you even carry your computer from desk-to-desk, you risk damage.
• The hard drive is the greatest drain on the battery in an idle laptop.
Of course, I violate all of these considerations, especially the second one, and have only lost 3 laptop drives (out of over 10 years of running use in a couple dozen laptops); 2 of them to heat in the same computer. If you have a failing hard drive, I strongly recommend using SpinRite for maintenance and, hopefully, recovery.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Storm Season!

Here in the south, summer brings with it the almost daily threat of sudden thunderstorms. Best Buy, Circuit City, and the Asian electronics manufacturers make millions of dollars a year off equipment that is damaged or destroyed by outside electrical surges.

You should ensure that all your valuable electronics are protected by surge protectors when they are connected to outside wiring. Of course, you won't forget your entertainment system, but remember that a surge can enter one device and travel through any wire connecting it to others. This means you should protect printers, telephones, and networking devices - including the cable or phone connection that brings the internet - even if those devices themselves are not valuable.

Purchase good quality multi-mode surge protectors. A starting rule of thumb is that if it costs less than $20, you should save it for the kids' TV or other isolated low-value equipment. I prefer to use battery backups as my surge protector. Along with excellent surge protection, they'll save you from losing your current letter or having to reprogram the TV if the power is out for up to a few minutes. In addition, they protect against low or high voltage conditions (such as running a vacuum cleaner) that technically don't constitute a surge. The downside is that most UPSs will beep as long as the power is out unless you have connected them to a computer and used their management software to turn it off.

Most single-mode surge protectors will protect you once. That means, if it's saved your bacon once, it won't do so the next storm. It will still function as a plug strip and your equipment is still powered, just not protected. If it has an indicator that it's bad, believe it!

Of course, the best surge protector is 10 inches of dry air - that is, pull the plug in extreme storms.

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Protect your data!

Here's a cautionary tale that I heard on the net.

We had an incident that, not to get into much HR related stuff, appears to be a fired employee(s) initiating a mass deletion of files off the shared folder on the file server (over 100 GB). I happened to be looking at the file system at the time I started seeing all the files disappearing. Shortly after, I got calls from users that files were gone.

Anyone who has files shared by more than a couple very trusted users needs to read this type of article every couple months. It can happen to anyone either through malice, ignorance (that's a polite way to say "incompetence"), or accident. Poof - and years of work are gone.

Of course, that won't be a big deal since you all have good and current backups of your current data. A couple hours and it's all back where it belongs.

Even so, organizational and administrative practices - even for home users - will help minimize the likelihood of this happening to you and reduce the total lost time when it does.

  • Organization - Know what and where your data are. Did you let your bookkeeping program put it's data somewhere deep in a hidden folder? Do you have momentary notes and personal letters mixed in with archival documents? Where do you keep data that should be available to all users?
  • Permissions - Since we quit using Windows 98, we've been able to restrict who may view or change data on a file or folder basis. Are you using this capability to protect sensitive HR or financial files (or your paystub) from users who shouldn't be reading this information (your kids)?
  • Backup - Now that you've got everything straightened out administratively, you need to protect it against physical disaster.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Welcome to the Helpdesk

I've worked in Windows support for over 10 years and am the person many people come to with all sorts of random questions. When I complete a particularly comprehensive correspondence on a particularly common issue, I'll clean it up and post it here.

I know there are hundreds of other blogs and sites that do the same thing, but another opinion doesn't hurt. I know that many of my offerings may contain extensive content I've learned from others. If I have used primarily one resource, I'll make an effort to reference it. If you think I've misappropriated your work, please let me know.


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