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.

 

How To Prevent Or Remove The Windows 10 Upgrade

Just when you think Microsoft won’t stoop any lower in forcing Windows 10 upgrades on its customers, now they’ve started changing the way your computer behaves in order to trick you into accepting the upgrade.

I’m referring to the X or close box in the upper corner of a computer’s dialog window, which is used in many operating systems (not just Windows) to indicate “close” or “cancel”. Until now, that is. Microsoft doesn’t want people to exit out of its overly-persistent Windows 10 upgrade reminder, so it has changed the X in the corner to indicate “accept” instead of “cancel”. You’ll find more details in this article from PC Magazine and this one from Computerworld, and more about Microsoft’s aggressive stance on Windows 10 in Tech Tips posts here and here.

In effect, Microsoft has made it next to impossible for the average nontechnical user to avoid Windows 10.

Please Don’t Turn Off Automatic Updates
As a tech professional I’m appalled that Microsoft would change such a fundamental part of a long-established interface in order to foist its latest operating system onto an unsuspecting public. It goes against all principles of information technology, not to mention customer service.

However, I’m equally concerned that people are turning off automatic updates to avoid Windows 10. I understand why – no one likes having their computer upgraded unexpectedly, without even the chance to make a backup. But turning off your updates also turns off necessary security updates that you need to prevent computer viruses. And, given Microsoft’s tactics, this may not hold Win10 at bay anyhow.

Tools To Prevent Windows 10 From Installing
Fortunately there are tools that can help keep Windows 10 off your computer. The two most popular are GWX Control Panel and Never 10. As always, use any third-party utility at your own risk, and make sure you have a full backup on an external hard drive (not the cloud) before you proceed.

GWX Control Panel offers a wide variety of features including disabling the Windows 10 upgrade notice, preventing the Win10 install, and removing downloaded installer files. Never 10 is ideal for the novice user, providing an easy-to-use interface that uses Microsoft’s own tools to prevent Windows 10 from installing.

Please don’t use some random utility you find in a web search. There are plenty of viruses out there that would love to trick you into downloading them by pretending to be something useful. Always be cautious of malicious lookalike apps!

What To Do If Your Computer Has Already Upgraded To Windows 10
If you find yourself already upgraded to Windows 10, Microsoft offers a one-month window during which you may revert back to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. You’ll find their instructions here. Again, I recommend making a backup before trying to make any major changes to your computer – you may not want Windows 10, but you probably want your data back if something goes wrong with the downgrade.

If you’re outside that one-month window, you could back up your computer, restore it to its Win7 or Win8.1 factory defaults according to your manufacturer’s instructions, and then install one of the Win10 blockers so it doesn’t try to upgrade again. This may be best done with the help of a tech professional who can guide you through the process or offer other solutions for your specific situation.

This Is Only Delaying The Inevitable
Bear in mind, if you choose to live in a Windows universe, you’ll have to upgrade to the latest version eventually. After a Windows version reaches end of life, it can no longer receive security or antivirus updates and therefore cannot be protected from viruses and Internet threats. Microsoft has information on their end-of-life cycle for Windows here.

More Information On Windows 10 From Tech Tips

What You Need To Know About Windows 10

How To Prepare For A Windows 10 Upgrade

Microsoft Alienates Customers With Forced Windows 10 Upgrades

Security Basics For Windows Users

How To Prepare For A Windows 10 Upgrade

win10Microsoft’s expiration of their free Windows 10 upgrade has PC users asking: Is it time to upgrade?

Many people have delayed upgrading. That is to say, they’ve tried to delay upgrading… but Microsoft’s aggressive marketing tactics have gone from displaying incessant reminders, to downloading gigabytes worth of upgrade files without the user’s consent, to performing upgrades in the middle of users’ workdays.

Recently I was sitting in a waiting room when I realized the computer in the office across from me had switched to Windows 10’s “Upgrading… 1%….” window. The woman in the office told me it suddenly began the upgrade while she was in the middle of another task, despite repeatedly answering “no” to Microsoft’s continual upgrade reminders. When I left an hour later, it was at 72% and she and her co-worker were attempting to run business from a single machine… which had autoupgraded itself to Windows 10 a few days earlier. (You can read more tales of Win10 autoupgrade woes in this article on The Register.)

If you rely on a Windows world, you’ll be faced with Windows 10 sooner or later. Windows XP and Vista users can no longer run current antivirus, so it’s past time for you to make the move. Win7 and Win8 are currently still supported but will eventually face the same fate. But you should learn more about Windows 10’s shortcomings and what you’ll need to do before you upgrade, or before it upgrades itself.

First, I recommend you review Windows 10’s notorious privacy issues, so that you know what configuration changes you’ll need to make. Here’s more information on how to change Win10’s security settings as well as other information to help with your upgrade.

Next, you’ll want to check your existing computer against Microsoft’s Win10 system requirements. If you’re already on Win7 or Win8, it’s likely your hardware is compatible.

And, of course, you should back up your computer before upgrading. Don’t just rely on a cloud-based backup; take the opportunity to protect yourself from ransomware by creating an offline backup to an external hard drive.

Here are additional articles about Windows 10 that may help with your upgrade.

Ransomware: A Dangerous Threat To Your Computer

Computer SecurityRansomware is a particularly nasty form of computer virus that encrypts your data, then demands an electronic ransom for the encryption key. Why is ransomware so hazardous, and how can you remove it?

Ransomware is vicious because it doesn’t just render your computer unusable. It encrypts all of your files, including those on networked computers, removable drives, and server volumes. To get the key to unlock the encryption, cyber-criminals demand that you pay. Ransomware has decimated businesses and consumers alike. It’s been around on Windows for ages (see my writeup of Cryptolocker from a few years ago), but recently the first Mac-based ransomware has appeared in the wild.

Should You Pay?
There’s some debate amongst computer security experts as to whether it is better to pay the ransom or not. Sophos’ Naked Security blog has a good overview of the discussion. They also have an excellent article on what you can do if you are infected by ransomware.

How To Avoid Ransomware
You are far better off avoiding ransomware in the first place. Start by making sure you have multiple sets of known good backups. A clean backup is one of your best protections against ransomware and other viruses. Below you’ll find my guide on backup options for Windows and Mac, including how to test your backups to make sure they work when you need them.

All of my usual security recommendations apply as well. Use a top-quality antivirus program, and keep your computer up to date. If you’re on an obsolete version of Windows or Mac, now’s the time to upgrade. Check your default security settings, and use strong, unique passwords on every site.

Here are some Tech Tips articles to help. You can also sign up to receive Tech Tips by email and follow Tech Tips on Facebook for the latest tech support advice for Windows and Mac.

How To Back Up Your Computer (For Windows And Mac)

How To Create Strong Passwords (2016 Edition)

How To Configure Security Settings For Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android

Security Basics For Mac Users

How To Protect Your Web Browser

What You Need To Know About Windows 10

win10Many people have asked me about Windows 10. They want to know if they should upgrade, and how they can reconfigure the settings to avoid Win10’s notorious privacy issues.

Windows 10’s default security settings are not conducive to consumer privacy, to put it mildly. (Microsoft isn’t alone in this; it’s become an increasing problem with modern operating systems.) You should research Win10 thoroughly before you upgrade and make your privacy configuration changes as soon as possible after installation. And, of course, always use good antivirus software and strong unique passwords, keep your software updated, and follow basic Internet security guidelines.

Unfortunately, as I have discussed before, Microsoft is forcing Windows 10 onto unsuspecting Win7 and Win8 users via Windows Update. Do NOT turn off Windows Update to solve this! Set it to notify but not download or install without your permission (instructions for Win7, instructions for Win8.1). Then make sure you install the rest of your security updates manually until you are ready to upgrade to Win10.

I have real problems with Microsoft’s aggressive auto-upgrading to Win10. It goes against longstanding IT procedures to do, not to mention alienating your customers. Believe me, after 25 years of tech support I can tell you that one thing users do NOT like is an unexpected system upgrade. It’s easier for technology companies to ignore security in favor of pushing out products, but the customer is the one who pays the price.

Here’s more information on Windows 10’s privacy problems.

Here’s some info on Microsoft’s aggressive auto-upgrading to Win10.

Don’t forget to sign up to receive Tech Tips by email and get the latest computer news straight to your inbox. You can also follow Tech Tips on Facebook for more computer help for Windows and Mac.

How To Create Strong Passwords (2016 Edition)

Computer SecurityTime once again for my updated guidelines on creating passwords. The short version: use passphrases that are at least 12 characters long and different on every site, plus two-factor authentication where possible. And for pity’s sake, stop using weak passwords!

Many people say to me, “I don’t need a secure password. I don’t have anything sensitive on my computer, so I don’t care if a hacker gets in.” You, my friends, are a hacker’s dream. Because it’s not necessarily your personal information they want, although they’ll happily steal your credit card info if they can. No, what they really want is control of your computer, your email address, your Facebook page… anything and everything that will let them do their dirty work from behind a smokescreen.

Strong passwords must be:

  • Not in use on any other system
    This is perhaps the biggest no-no in the password rulebook. When hackers nab passwords, they try the same account/password combinations on popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter. If you’re using the same password you just let them in. Do not ever, ever, ever use the same password anywhere. Before you despair, keep reading. There are tools to make it easier.
  • Changed regularly
    Yes, you have to change your passwords. And yes, they still have to be different everywhere. In fact this is one of the best things you can do to secure your passwords. Use a password management tool if you need help keeping track of everything (see below).
  • 12 characters or longer
    Think passphrase rather than password. The longer and more complex a password is, the less likely it can be cracked.
  • A mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
    Some systems won’t allow you to use a range of characters in your password, in which case I suggest you reconsider using that site. Do you really trust someone who isn’t going to allow you to secure your account properly? Makes you wonder how secure everything else on the site is.
  • Not common words or proper nouns found in a dictionary
    Here’s a list of the 25 worst passwords of 2015. If your passwords sound like these, change them now.
  • Not the names of your spouse, kids, pets, or other personally identifying information
    Don’t create passwords out of information that can be gleaned about you, and don’t share information that can be used to guess security questions. For example, if you have pictures of your dog Fido on Facebook, and you also answer your bank’s security question “What’s your dog’s name?” with “Fido,” guess what? You have just given a hacker potential access to your bank account.

Examples of good and bad passwords

Good passwords (but don’t use these!)

AP@ssw0rdIJustMADE!UP!4U
Here’sAnOtHeR1FOR$You

Bad passwords

password
password1
password!
123456
<blank>
mypassword
spouse’s name
pet’s name

Password Don’ts…

  • Don’t rotate between the same two or three passwords. It’s just as bad as using the same password everywhere.
  • Don’t send passwords via sites like email, Facebook, Twitter. Use another means like text message, which goes directly to the recipient. Or even better, a phone call.
  • Don’t stick passwords on Post-It notes. Whether it’s under the keyboard or on a bulletin board, it’s exposed. Be like Gandalf: Keep it secret, keep it safe.
  • Don’t share passwords and accounts. This is especially prevalent in small businesses. Don’t create one account then share the password; create multiple accounts for each person who needs access. More time consuming? Sure. More secure? You bet.

Tools to manage your secure passwords

With a password management tool such as 1PasswordLastPass, or KeePass, all you have to remember is one master password and the software takes care of the rest. You can use the same password management tool on your computer and on your mobile devices.

But there’s a catch. Unfortunately any company can be breached by hackers and password management firms are no exception, as was demonstrated by a recent LastPass breach. In other words, passwords stored in management tools can be swept up in data breaches just like any other kind of data.

The good news is that most password managers encrypt your data, so even if hackers get hold of it, they will hopefully be hard-pressed to recover your actual passwords. That being said, you need to safeguard your master password with more vigilance than any other password you use. Please do NOT re-use your master password anywhere else! And be sure to keep another copy of your passwords somewhere safe in case you lose access to your password management tool.

Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) uses a password plus another unique identifier, like a passcode messaged to your phone. This is much safer than a password alone because the second identifier is constantly changing, making it much harder to break into an account. If a site offers 2FA, you should consider using it.

However, 2FA does not make a weak password safe. Your best bet is 2FA plus an excellent password. As with a password manager’s master password, you need to make absolutely sure you have copies of your 2FA backup codes, because that’s what’s going to get you into your account if you have trouble.

Password harvesting scams

Password harvesters are everywhere. For example, you might get a spam email saying you need to update your account. This message contains links to a page that looks like the real login, but it’s really just a fake designed to steal your credentials. Similarly, password-harvesting scams can be distributed via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. When in doubt, type the address for the site into your Web browser manually rather than clicking on a link.

Why not take this opportunity to change your passwords? It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself against identity theft and cybercrime.

[Originally posted in 2010 as How To Create Secure Passwords. This version has been updated with the latest advice on secure passwords.]

Windows XP Is Dead. Now What?

Windows XPAs you may have heard, Microsoft has ceased support for Windows XP. Many people assume it’s okay to keep using it. They’re dead wrong.

WinXP is already vulnerable to viruses because it’s been out so long. Now we have the nightmare scenario in which bugs are discovered but not fixed. Here’s how it goes: Microsoft announces a security vulnerability and offers patches for Win7 and Win8. The hackers rub their hands with glee and start testing to see if WinXP has the same vulnerability. Lo and behold it does, and they have an easy way to sneak into your computer.

Like the recently discovered Internet Explorer bug, which gives hackers a way to take over your entire system. It’s the first major vulnerability since XP’s demise. We know the bug exists in IE under XP. At first Microsoft said they weren’t going to patch it for XP, but now they’ve changed their minds. The question is, what about the next big bug? Using WinXP is like leaving your front door keys in the lock with a sign that says “Come on in, the best valuables are right over there!”

This isn’t a marketing gimmick or a way to increase PC sales, though I’m sure tech vendors don’t mind if you give them money. This is about you and the real-world repercussions of a hacked computer. Do you want your bank accounts wiped out? Do you want your identity stolen? Do you want your online identities hijacked? If not, then get off Windows XP.

Some of you will decide you don’t want to upgrade. That’s up to you, but I strongly recommend you reconsider. A very few of you – less than you think – will have some business-critical function that requires XP. Unless you are in that infinitesimal group, upgrade now.

What are your choices? Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac. I did a rundown on them a while back based on a question from a reader. At this time, my recommendation stands at Windows 7 or Mac depending on your preference, with Windows 8 a distant runner-up due to its unfamiliar interface and lack of apps. Or, you could go pure mobile with tablet and smart phone.

For those of you who really, truly, honestly cannot upgrade from Windows XP, you have my condolences and some advice:

  • Use a browser other than Internet Explorer. Never use IE even for a moment.
  • Make sure you have the last round of updates Microsoft offered for XP. You can still use Automatic Updates to install them.
  • Run a good antivirus program.
  • Double-check regularly with Malwarebytes and CCleaner.
  • Don’t use Windows XP for finances or online purchasing. Ever. Your smart phone is safer at this point and I don’t advocate using smart phones for finances.
  • Don’t use WinXP to access social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc). Social media is a virus cesspool and you don’t have a lifejacket.
  • Plan your upgrade. This is not a permanent solution. Eventually your PC will fail and you will have to replace it.

Do you have questions about Windows XP’s end of support? Ask 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.

Six Things Every PC User Needs To Know About Windows 8.1

Windows81The new Windows 8.1 affects you, even if you’re still using previous versions of Windows. Here’s what you need to know about the upgrade.

First Rule of Windows 8.1: There Is No Start Menu
Microsoft’s been shouting it from the rooftops: “The Start button’s back! The Start button’s back!” Except that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

What Windows 8.1 does is stick a Start button in the lower left corner, which brings up the new Start screen – not to be confused with the old Start menu you’re probably looking for. Dizzy yet? To make matters worse, not all applications will support the returned Start button, meaning it’s less of a fix than a kludge. A Start button that isn’t always present is as confusing as a Start button that’s missing entirely, if not more so.

Second Rule Of Windows 8.1: The New Look Is Here To Stay
Regardless of what they’ve done with the Start buttonmenuscreen, the Windows 8 interface (which I would call “Metro” except Microsoft says we’re not supposed to call it that anymore) is the future of Windows. So don’t expect Windows 8.1, or any other update, to restore your computer to yesteryear. The new look and feel is here to stay, and it’s time to get used to it if you intend to stay in the Microsoft world.

Third Rule Of Windows 8.1: Say Goodbye To Your Keyboard And Mouse
Windows 8 is made for tablets. In fact, many of us are still trying to figure out why Microsoft thinks a tablet interface is a good idea in a PC environment. If you don’t have a touch interface, it’s klunky to use – in other words if you’re one of the 99.99999% who still have a keyboard and mouse, which is SO 2012, PEOPLE.

Fourth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You Need It, Unless You Like Viruses
If history is any indication, expect Windows 8.1 to become the only acceptable version of Windows as far as being able to fix problems or install updates. Doesn’t matter if you want it or not, eventually you’ll have to install it or your computer is guaranteed to become a writhing infestation of identity-stealing viruses and malware.

This means you, Windows XP people – you need to upgrade. Now. I don’t care if you go Win7 or Win8, either is better than what you’re using now. Don’t wait until your computer is unusable, your financial data stolen, your accounts hacked, and your personal information spread across the Internet.

Fifth Rule Of Windows 8.1: It’s Not That Bad And In Some Ways Good
If it weren’t for the klunky interface and the lack of training for the average consumer (you know, the people for whom it’s purportedly designed), I would like Windows 8.

It’s fast. It’s powerful. It doesn’t take up a ton of memory (looking at YOU, WinME), doesn’t throttle your processor (Windows Vista), doesn’t cause incompatibilities with every single piece of hardware you own (Windows 95).

So, yes, it’s a technically superior operating system. So was OS/2 Warp, only it wasn’t widely used because it was hamstrung by a lack of apps and a failure to educate people on how to use it. Ironic that Microsoft may be following the same road to ruin decades later.

Sixth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You’re On Your Own Learning It (But I’ll Help!)
Microsoft has information online, but you have to hunt for it – using an unfamiliar touch-swipe interface, unless you happen to have another device handy, and doesn’t that eliminate the point? It’s no wonder many businesses have decided to hold off on upgrading. I don’t know why Microsoft has such blinders on when it comes to understanding that your average, everyday person needs to be able to use this without spending the entire morning trying to figure out how to accomplish a task.

To that end, here are some resources to get you started with Windows 8:

And don’t forget to follow Tech Tips for the latest on Windows 8, Mac, and more:

Once again we come to the age-old dilemma: Do you put up with the new features for the sake of security? If I were you, I would either a) get on Windows 7 ASAP, b) get on Windows 8 ASAP, or c) pick another platform (Mac? tablet? phablet?) because the Windows 8 train has left the station and anybody who didn’t jump on board is going to get run over eventually by viruses, malware, and other Internet scum.

What do you think about Windows 8? Love it? Hate it? Cowering in a corner hugging your Timex-Sinclair and dreaming of punchcards? Share in the comments!

 

How To Backup And Restore Files On Your PC Or Mac

backuprestoreEveryone knows you’re supposed to make backups, but choosing a method can be confusing. Here’s a rundown of your choices for Windows and Mac.

Built-In Backups
All modern computers come with utilities which you can use to back up to an external hard drive. The hard drives themselves often come with user-friendly utilities as well.

Third-Party Backups
If you don’t like the built-in options you can choose a third party backup – but watch out for lookalike viruses that pretend to be backup or “computer cleaner” programs. Your best bet is a solution from a reliable software vendor.

Cloud-Based Backups
Cloud backups are convenient because all you have to do is let the utility lurk in the background. Your backups are always current because the software is always running, always backing up changed files.

The danger with cloud backups is that you don’t know who has access to them behind the scenes, or whether the backups will remain available to you if the service goes down or bankrupt. If you’re going to store backups on the Internet, make sure you keep a copy on a local hard drive.

Encrypting Backups
The best way to secure your data when using cloud backups is to encrypt it. Mac users, there’s an easy trick you can pull with Disk Utility: creating a protected disk image.

Windows users, you’ll have to find a third party utility like TrueCrypt. But bear in mind, most encryption utilities were developed for tech professionals so they’re not always the most user-friendly. Also, any utility that works with files at a fundamental level runs the risk of damaging those files. Run your encryption on copies, not originals. I also recommend against encrypting your entire hard drive unless you really know what you’re doing.

Testing And Restoring Backups
Backups don’t do much good if you can’t restore the data on them. You should periodically run a test restore, to make sure you can before an emergency strikes. You should also maintain multiple backups in case one backup device fails.

Another way you can back up your files is with a drive imaging program that takes a snapshot of your entire disk. I’ll post about that in a separate article. Want a head’s up? Subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net