How To Prepare Your Computer For Reuse, Recycling, Or Donation

ttt-logoWe all need to take responsibility for disposing of our old computers properly. Instead of throwing out old electronics, please consider reusing, donating, or recycling them.

Old computers can have a lot of life left, especially if the hardware is good. However, if the computer can’t run current antivirus or software updates, it’s not suitable for reuse. Many people assume that if they never connect the computer to a network, it will never become infected. But I have seen plenty of “offline” computers that became infected anyway. One quick little login or infected flash drive and it’s all over. Don’t say it won’t happen because it certainly can.

Today’s viruses are so aggressive, it’s not worth the risk to use old computers that can’t be adequately protected. See my Tech Tips article on ransomware to learn more about the increased risks posed by modern viruses.

Before donating your computer, either wipe the drive or reset it to factory defaults following the instructions on your manufacturer’s website. Microsoft and Apple have advice on how to prepare your computer for donation.

Although recycling is far better than throwing your computer in the garbage, the e-waste recycling industry itself has its downsides (see these articles by National Geographic here and here for examples). When recycling your equipment, ask the recycler for more information about where and how they recycle.

Check your local city, village, or county for information on local electronics recycling events. Some manufacturers and resellers also accept old computers for recycling.

Thanks for doing your part to help minimize the problem of electronics waste!

Ways To Improve Your Wireless Network Signal

ttt-logoIf you’ve ever suffered from slow WiFi, you’re not alone. But there are a number of easy things you can do to try to speed up your wireless network.

The most common wireless problem I encounter is poor access point placement. Wireless access points should be placed as high as possible, such as on a bookshelf, and away from sources of interference like speakers and landline phones.

Building construction is also a factor. Try moving your computer in relation to the access point. If possible, line-of-sight gives best performance.

If you have an older wireless router, consider replacing it. The newer devices have improved speeds and are better at resisting interference. Similarly, older computers will be slower on wireless networks.

Make sure it’s a wireless problem and not an overall network problem. If you’re still experiencing slowness when you plug in your computer manually, it’s not just the wireless. Try rebooting your router and/or modem according to your Internet provider’s instructions. Using a surge protector will prevent equipment damage due to brownouts or blackouts.

If there is a virus infestation on your network, this can also cause a slowdown as the virus tries to call home to its command servers. Run antivirus scans on all computers, and be especially wary of ransomware.

 

Clean Up Your Computer With These Utilities

ttt-logoEvery computer needs a tune-up now and then. Unfortunately computer viruses often disguise themselves as cleaning programs and other utilities. You think you’re downloading a legitimate program, but you end up infecting your computer instead.

Here are some of my favorite bona fide utilities to help you keep your computer in top condition. I’ve included the full address for each product as a reminder that links, even on a benevolent site like this one, can be hijacked by hackers in order to lead you to malware-infected sites. Always visit the manufacturer’s site or app store directly to download programs, and remember that you use these utilities at your own risk.

Also make sure you are running a reliable antivirus program, that you have current updates for your system installed, and that you have a recent backup. See each utility’s site for more information and support.

Useful Utilities For Windows

  • CCleaner from Piriform
    https://www.piriform.com/ccleaner/download
    This program offers an easy way to clean out temporary files and other cached data. It also has options for optimizing your computer.
  • Malwarebytes
    https://www.malwarebytes.com/
    One of the top products for virus and malware removal. Your regular antivirus program offers routine protection, but Malwarebytes can help you remove the sneakies that manage to infiltrate those defenses.
  • Personal Software Inspector from Flexera Software (formerly Secunia)
    http://www.flexerasoftware.com/enterprise/products/software-vulnerability-management/personal-software-inspector/
    If you’ve been looking for a convenient way to make sure all of your Windows programs are up to date, look no further. PSI scans your system and lets you know which programs need updates or are obsolete. No more wondering if you have the latest versions!

Useful Utilities For Mac

  • El Capitan Cache Cleaner from Northern Softworks
    http://www.northernsoftworks.com/elcapitancachecleaner.html
    This little gem lets Mac users clear out caches and other miscellaneous junk. You can also use it to repair permissions, which can help to mitigate problems, as well as run other optimization routines. Despite the name it also works with previous versions of Mac OS.
  • Apple Diagnostics (Apple Hardware Test) from Apple
    https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202731
    This hardware testing program is built into your Mac. Restart your Mac, then hold down the D key until the Apple Diagnostics window appears.
  • Disk Utility from Apple
    https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201639
    This is another built-in tool that helps you diagnose and repair hard drive problems. You’ll find it in the Utilities folder in the Applications folder on your Macintosh HD.

 

Hands-On With The Samsung Galaxy S4, Plus Antivirus For Android

galaxy-s4I recently had the opportunity to test-drive the Samsung Galaxy S4 from Verizon. If you’re looking for a powerful smart phone with some of the features of a tablet, this might be the device for you.

Related article: Galaxy S4: Vivid Color, Vibrant Performance by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

The Galaxy S4 looks similar to the Galaxy Note II, which I previously reviewed. In the hand it feels light and lively, matched by smooth performance when you use it. The 1080p Super AMOLED screen is unbelievably vivid even in sunlight, just the thing for entertainment on the go.

The S Apps are interesting, but I don’t know anyone who buys a device solely for the manufacturer’s add-on apps. If you want them they’re there, but as a recent article in Forbes asked, do people actually use these brand-name features? If you do, I’m curious to hear how you like them.

The Galaxy S4 is an Android device so you’ll get the full performance of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean plus the features available in the Google Play store. Just watch out for bad apps! Android is notorious for malware. You should run an antivirus program on any mobile device you use. For Android I am fond of Sophos’s Android security app. It’s free so there’s no excuse not to protect yourself.

Verizon is promoting its VZ Security service, which gives you antivirus plus SiteAdvisor for free, or antivirus, SiteAdvisor, and some other goodies for $1.99/month. Whether you pick Sophos, Verizon, or another product, please make sure you are running legitimate antivirus. Fake antivirus is skyrocketing on Android along with other malware.

Have you tried the Samsung Galaxy series? What do you think? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

 Disclaimer: Samsung Galaxy S4 provided by Verizon; this is an unpaid review.

 

 

Hands-On With The BlackBerry Z10

z10I recently spent some quality time with the new BlackBerry Z10. The Z10 is a lightweight, keyboardless smart phone… wait, a keyboardless BlackBerry? How does that work? Let’s find out.

The Z10 has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor with 2GB of RAM and a 4.2-inch 1,280-by-768 LCD display at 356 pixels per inch. It’s sized about the same as an iPhone, 5.1 by 2.6 by .35 inches, weighing 4.8 ounces.

Related article: Review: Will the new Z10 save BlackBerry? by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

The Unboxing

First, we have to install the battery. Fortunately the Z10’s case is a snap to open, no finger-mashing required. Once that’s done the unit launches into a setup wizard that talks you through a brief configuration process. It also gives you the basics of the Z10’s swipes and gestures.

I like to evaluate new products from the perspective of a brand-new user. How do you figure out how it works? What resources are available to help? In the case of the Z10, the learning curve is short and sweet. Swipe to the Hub for notifications, swipe to your apps to launch them. The Z10 reminds you with helpful glowing arrows if, for example, you forget you have to swipe from the bottom up to unlock your phone.

The Z10’s Software Keyboard

Instead of physical keyboard, the Z10 comes with a software keyboard which is responsive enough that you might forget it’s not physical. Predictive completion learns as you type, so your phone quickly becomes customized to your preferences. In other words, it’s still a BlackBerry even with a software keyboard. Weird but true.

BlackBerry 10

The Z10 runs BlackBerry’s signature BlackBerry 10 software, which has received rare accolades from the tech industry. It’s not hard to see why. BB10 is sleek and intuitive, giving you a no-frills environment that lets you get the job done with minimal interference. However, that easy of use comes at the cost of customization. This isn’t Android; you can’t just arrange your icons any old way you like. But die-hard BlackBerry fans will be pleased.

Features, Functions, And Apps

Unfortunately you’re not going to find as many apps for BlackBerry as for iOS and Android. BlackBerry’s app store simply hasn’t been around long enough yet, so you might find yourself waiting (and wondering) if your favorite apps will be released for it.

The Z10’s Help section rocks. It’s well-organized and helps you find everything you need to know, which is vital considering that this phone is brand new to the market. I especially liked the prominent Passwords & Security section which can help you protect your phone.

Related article: Tools To Protect Your Smart Phone From Malware

Conclusions

The Z10 is a decent entry into the smart phone arena, but BlackBerry has a steep climb ahead as it struggles to catch up to its competitors.

What do you think? Can BlackBerry woo its CrackBerry addicts back into the fold or has the company lost too much momentum? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to  subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

How To Prepare Your Computer For Recycling Or Donation

computer-recycleIf you have old computers and cell phones lying around, you’re not alone. Many of us hang onto old devices because we don’t know what to do with them. Sure, we want to donate or recycle, but what about the data?

Here’s how to erase your computers, cell phones, and tablets prior to donation or recycling. Don’t forget printers, copiers, and fax machines too! You can find more details on e-waste and e-cycling on the EPA’s web site.

Warning: This article presumes that you’ve either backed up or don’t need the data on the device. Make sure you have everything you need before you do this!

Computers

If you’re recycling you can simply format the drive. Try DBAN for Windows to erase your hard drive thoroughly. Mac users can use their Apple system software utilities.

If you’re donating, presumably you want to present a usable computer with an operating system on it. In that case you’ll want to do a factory reinstall from the original disks or hard drive partition. Check your manufacturer’s instructions for details on how to restore to the original factory software. This turns your computer back into what it was when you bought it, without your personal data.

When in doubt, you can always remove the hard drive and smash it to pieces.

Smart phones and tablets

First, delete all contact, calendar, and other private data. For both tablets and smart phones, perform a factory reset to zap any remaining data. If it’s a phone, remove the SIM card (check your manufacturer’s instructions).

Printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines

Computers and phones aren’t the only devices that keep a record of your data. Fax machines and copiers do too, and even some printers and scanners (usually the big fancy ones). Check the manufacturer’s instructions on how to perform a power reset or factory reset. Afterwards go into the printer’s configuration settings and make sure no private data remains.

Where can I donate or recycle?

The EPA has a web site with information on where you can recycle or donate your used equipment. Check with your local schools, libraries, and charitable organizations. You never know if your used computer might fill a need right in your own community.

Bear in mind that these techniques may still result in recoverable data, if someone tries hard enough. It’s always best to double-check. You can also reformat multiple times to reduce this risk.

Do you have questions about how to recycle or donate your computer? Ask in the comments, and subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Your Webcam Can Be Used Against You

webcamSmile! Your private life might be streaming live on the Internet!

Did you know hackers use viruses to commandeer the webcam on your computer, tablet, or smart phone? Makes you think about all the places you take these devices, and what they could be recording. In this month’s The Northwest Herald I talk about the dangers of unsecured webcams and microphones:

It’s not just your devices, but those of the people around you as well. Chances are, you’ve had a phone or tablet nearby during a private conversation with a lawyer, a doctor, a friend. What if someone else was watching and listening through that device?

Cameras can be hijacked in a number of ways. Cybercriminals can commandeer them with viruses, then extort you by demanding money for the deletion of potentially embarrassing photos and videos. Sometimes they have the nerve to imitate law enforcement, claiming that you have illegal content on your computer and will go to jail if you don’t pay their fee.

I’m fond of taping over the webcam unless you need to use it regularly – in which case a purse or pocket provides a lovely view of lint, should someone try to sneak a peek. That doesn’t help with microphones, of course, which is why it makes sense to store your mobile devices where they’re less likely to overhear private conversations.

I also strongly recommend to my fellow parents – get the computers and camera-equipped game consoles out of your kids’ bedrooms, NOW. There are some scary new statistics about the increase in predatory sexploitation which will make you want to take a hammer to every camera in the house.

Here are some articles about webcam security you might find interesting:

What are your concerns about webcam and microphone security? Share in the comments!

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

How To Learn Windows Phone 8

lumia-822I recently had the opportunity to test the Nokia Lumia 822 smart phone from Verizon. From my review in The Northwest Herald:

 At 5-by-2.7-by-0.44 inches, the Nokia Lumia 822 is a streamlined yet speedy device. The 4.3-inch, 800×480 WVGA AMOLED display may not be the fanciest, but it boasts sharp colors and good readability even in a brightly lit room. The Lumia 822 uses the 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, and it supports MicroSD cards as well as NFC.

I was particularly interested to find out how consumers are supposed to learn this brand-new version of Windows. Good news, everyone: there’s a convenient Help & Tips section in the menu, which is only a left-swipe away from the home screen. From here you’ll find simple instructions plus videos and other helpful links. Some quality time spent browsing here will save you frustration down the road. You may also find yourself making frequent use of the Back button, as the menus aren’t always intuitive.

In addition to the Help & Tips section on your phone, Microsoft has online resources to help you learn how to use Windows Phone 8. Here are a few to get you started, including Rooms and Groups which I mentioned in my review.

Whatever kind of phone you choose, let me remind you to enable your security settings. Passcode lock, remote data erasure, and Find My Phone are all included with your phone, but you need to set them. Microsoft has a nice primer on how to secure your phone: Microsoft: Tips to help keep my phone secure

Have you tried Windows Phone 8? What do you think? Share in the comments!

 

Readers Ask: Sending DOCX Files To Macs, Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites, Choosing New Computer Hardware

computer-booksI’ve been talking with Fr. Jack Sweeley about whether he should move to Windows 7, Windows 8, or a Mac. After our initial discussion, he had some followup questions, which I am posting with his permission:

Thank you so much, Triona. This is very helpful. However, I have a few questions.

1. As I stated, I have several books written and others in process as well a hundreds of commentaries all written with Word using VISTA. Will I be able to open and edit these on a Mac?

2. From time-to-time I have sent documents I have written to someone who at that time had a Mac and they told me they could not open what I sent written in WORD on a PC. Is this still the case?

3. Contrarily, will I be able to open documents sent to me in WORD using a Windows PC on a Mac?

4. RE Macs: Could you give me comparisons between hard drive space on a Mac v. PC (is a gig a gig on both), for processing speeds what are the terms used and are they the same for a Mac and a PC, what are the terms used for memory and are they the same for a Mac and a PC?

5. What amount of HD space, processing speed, and memory do I need to do what I described in my original letter? I am impatient and go crazy having to wait for Websites to load especially when I have 8-10 sites open at the same time.

6. I know a little about the landscape of PCs and once I know what parameters I am looking for I can find one. However, I have never even looked at a Mac to say nothing about being able to compare them. So, could you cite different kinds of Macs–with their price ranges for what I need–and the pros and cons of each.

Let’s look at Fr. Jack’s needs and see how we can help him.

Opening Word For Windows .DOC and .DOCX Files On Macs

wordmacYes, you can open Word documents, both .doc and .docx, on a Mac. Apple’s word processor Pages (paid; via App Store) can open both but saves in its own proprietary .pages format. NeoOffice (donationware, www.neooffice.org) can also open both .doc and .docx but again, it saves in its own .odt format. You can spring for Microsoft Office for Mac (paid; via Microsoft), which is the most expensive option but can handle Word .doc and .docx files without conversion.

The person to whom you sent the Word file may not have had a recent Mac word processing program, or did not have Microsoft’s free .docx converter installed. You can either make sure all Word files are saved as .doc and not .docx (.docx is default from Word 2007 onwards), or make sure the recipient can convert .docx. Don’t go looking online for free converters, use the genuine ones from Microsoft to avoid viruses.

For the most part, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files can be used interchangably between PCs and Macs. The main exception is if you have code in Visual Basic (VBA) or custom macros not supported by the Mac. Everyday documents work fine, and on the rare occasions they don’t, the one-time installation of a converter tool usually fixes the problem.

Now, if you have print-ready files, a Word document just is not a proper layout tool. Better to save final drafts to PDF which will keep the pagination you want. Professionals do document layout with industry standard tools like Adobe InDesign and Quark.

When it comes to file types and permanent storage – as in, stuff you want to keep longer than the software program that created it – I am a fan of good old RTF, or rich text format. It’s a universal file type that allows formatting like bold and italic but can still be opened by nearly every word processor past, present, and likely future.

Choosing A New PC Or Mac

question-computerA gig is a gig is a gig – 1,024 megabytes, sometimes rounded off as 1,000MB. So yes, hard drive sizes are consistent across Mac and PC hardware. Processing speeds are harder to compare. You can go digging across the Internet for all sorts of bench tests, but you’re better off comparing PCs to PCs and Apples to, well, Apples.

Typically a sub-$500 PC is not going to be worth the cost. In my experience they fail more quickly and catastrophically than more expensive models. A midline PC, in the $700-1,000 range, offers better and faster hardware. Laptops will be more expensive than desktops, and bear in mind that if you choose Windows 8, you’re going to want a screen with touchy-swipey capability for the best experience. That is, assuming you can find one; it’s not available for every model.

Macs may cost more, but in my experience they also make up for the price difference by outlasting their PC counterparts in the long run.

Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites

slowWaiting for web sites to load may be a function of your network connection and not your computer. Or, if your computer is gummed up with adware and malware, you’ll notice the drag particularly when using the Internet. For optimum speed you need to use a modern operating system – Windows 8, Mac, or Windows 7 as long as Microsoft deigns to support it – because you need to use a modern browser.

Your web browser is your window to the Internet. That means it’s also a vulnerable point. If your software is out of date, your connection will seem slow or you’ll be unable to load pages or images. The older the browser, the slower the connection, until you finally throw your hands in the air and buy a new computer. This is another reason it’s good to keep your software up to date, it’ll stave off that new computer moment as long as possible.

If you don’t know which browser you use, you’re probably using the default for your system. Common browsers as of this writing are as follows, but this information changes rapidly. Your best bet is to use the “check for updates” feature of the program to find the current version for your computer.

Windows 7 and 8

Mac

Note: there is no current Internet Explorer for Mac. If you’re still using the old versions, switch now!

Choosing A Mac Model

choose-appleThe easiest way to see the available Macs is to pop over to the Apple store: store.apple.com. They have a clickable list in the Mac section which shows the Mac model options.

In my experience, you are almost always better off opting for an iMac or a Macbook Pro than trying to cut corners with a Mac Mini. For one thing, you have to factor in the cost of the screen, and for another the Mini really doesn’t have the oomph for what most people want. You don’t have to go nuts on one of those bigger, expensive tower Macs. Those are usually purchased by designers and video experts who need the extra processing power and expandability.

When configuring a Mac using the Apple Store tool, get the fastest processor and best graphics you can for the model you want. You can always add more memory or a larger hard drive later, but with an iMac or Macbook you’re stuck with whatever processor and graphics card it has. You can go Macbook Air instead of Macbook Pro but remember you’re sacrificing processor speed for a lightweight form factor.

Apple Store has a nice comparison tool to help you make the choice.

Finding Discounts On Macs

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention you can look for discounts on warrantied refurbished Macs on Apple’s site. You can also find discounts at Mac retailers like Mac Mall and OWC. A good time to buy is right after Apple announces new hardware; you can get a discount on older models that still have solid tech specs. (Insider’s tip: Apple usually has events in the spring and fall; the next one will be in March 2013.) If you’re an educator or student, be sure to check out Apple’s education discount. Many colleges and universities have deals through the campus computer store.

Ask Your Computer Questions On Tech Tips!

Do you have a computer problem? Leave a comment and let the Tech Tips community help. Your question could appear in a future Tech Tips article!

Image courtesy of (1) ddpavumba (2) Danilo Rizzuti (3) Idea go (4) Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hybrid Devices: You Got Smart Phone In My Tablet!

I recently had the opportunity to test-drive the Samsung Galaxy Note II, a hybrid device that lies somewhere between a smart phone and a tablet. Are these hybrid devices just a fad or will they stick around?

From the review I wrote for The Northwest Herald:

The Galaxy Note is a hybrid Android device. At approximately 3.17-by-5.95-by-0.3 inches and weighing 6.44 ounces, it’s large enough that it may feel awkward while making calls. But the 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED display (1,280 x 720) is so gorgeous that you might not notice. (read more)

These hybrid devices are called by a variety of names, including phablet which I personally think sounds phabulous. They can be powerful devices. The Galaxy Note I tested has enough oomph to run some seriously resource-intensive apps. Hybrids also have larger screens but are still portable enough to fit in a pocket.

I can understand the attraction of a device like the Galaxy Note. There are a lot of things I would do with my smart phone if it were big enough for me to see what I’m doing, and it would be nice not having to schlep a full-sized tablet around.

I’ve seen a lot of tech gadgets flash then fizzle. I remember when everyone and their brother had a Palm Pilot, and I recall Microsoft’s original attempt at a tablet. But the technology’s gotten to the point where the things we wanted to do with those devices is both possible and affordable, like handwriting recognition and the ability to watch video or play games.

So I think phone/tablet hybrids or phablets or whatever you want to call them will stick with us a while. They may not be for everyone but there is a segment of the market that wants a single device to replace the cumbersome smart-phone-plus-tablet combo.

As I reiterated in the column, you need to secure your mobile devices as well. Here are some previous Tech Tips articles on mobile security and more:

Disclaimer: Galaxy Note II provided by Verizon; my opinions remain my own.

Have you tried a hybrid device? Which mobile devices do you prefer? Share in the comments and don’t forget to  subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.