Stan's Chrome-Plated Tech Tips

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

 

Farewell, Old Friend. A Requiem for XP.



As of today, Windows XP reaches the end of its long and winding road.  For those who've stubbornly (yes Windows 7 and even 8 are improvements - no comment on Vista) held on to the venerable OS, it’s now time to wave farewell and move on. We know it’s hard, we know it’ll take some time to get used to something else, but that’s the joy of it all, right? Experiencing something new, experiencing something you haven’t had much time to experience before.  Let’s take this moment to remember all the good moments about XP and what it brought to the table.

 

A huge improvement from the get-go was the highly reduced crash rate. If you remember, Windows ME and earlier would almost always lock up once or twice a week, while Windows XP was locking up, if ran all the time, once a month. Faster Internet performance was another key aspect of the upgrade from earlier Windows versions. Not only did they soup up the Windows 2000 operating system for the modern world, but also files downloaded twice as fast over DSL. If you ever needed to access your computer away from the office, you might remember using Remote Desktop. That was a really awesome, new feature of Windows XP, which still transcends into today’s versions. However, the best feature when dealing with a laggy program or frozen program was this (Go have an infinite amount of fun with the simulator here:



Something that soothed most of us entertainment users was the fact that Windows XP treated the CD/DVD drive as an actual drive, utilizing not only the ability to burn CDs, but as well as play them through Windows Media Player that had support for movies and music (Remember that AWESOME visualizer?). 



While all of this was beneficial to Windows XP, the simplicity of it all was what rang true to most. The ability to go highly advanced or keep it bare was what brought the two mindsets together. Not only could the masses use it with ease, but the people who have the intellect to code and develop have highly advanced features to use around the office and at home. This is the main factor in why XP gained its popularity and stardom. It had a little bit of something for everyone, like a nurturing mother to the many children it oversaw.



Just as a child that has transgressed through puberty into young adulthood has to move out of the house, so should the masses with Windows XP. There are, dare I say, hipper choices to go with nowadays, all geared towards maintaining a fresh outlook.  You might think it’d hard to move on, you may even think it’s a whole different planet going to the newer Windows, but it’s not. Windows 7 is the XP of the current age and even that is slowly growing old; just imagine how XP is feeling!



And with that, we wish you farewell XP. As mentioned, it’s been a fabulous run and you’ve done your best to keep it hip for as long as you possibly could. You will always have a place in our hearts and minds.  We hope to see you in a few museums around the world sooner than later, so that we, too, can show our children where we grew from. 


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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

 

This is the End . . . Preparing for the End of the Road with Windows XP

With D-Day quickly approaching for Windows XP, it seems we have come to the end of an era. Since 2002, XP has dominated the PC market, and even today, it accounts for 29% of current operating systems in use.  And with that, we here at STG would hate to see our friends be stuck with vulnerable computer. Here’s what you need to know:

·      On April 8th, 2014, Microsoft will be pulling all it’s resources for Windows XP, including security fixes, vulnerability patches, and software updates.

What does that really mean?  Well, this could be dangerous for your data on day one.  Hackers could be sitting on a new exploit just waiting to strike when they know there's no update coming.  You'll be vulnerable, and unless some third party starts patching Windows XP for the remaining holdouts, you're going to stay vulnerable.

What options does that leave you?  Well, you're basically left with two: upgrade to a supported operating system or buy a computer with one.

Chances are your computer doesn't warrant an upgrade, but on the off chance that it can handle a modern OS, you can purchase a copy of Windows 7 or 8 in the $120 ballpark.  If you've neither the desire nor inclination to install a new Operating system, you can of obviously hire someone to do it for you or buy a computer with the latest OS (typically Windows 8) already installed.
If you are thinking upgrade, you'll want to make sure your PC meets the minimum requirements:



Look, your precious XP system won't just magically cease to function one tragic day in April.  But you already know that old PC is starting to lag.  It can't properly support the faster, modern hardware of today and virtually no new software is being written to support XP either.  Even with the chance of a massive strike against remaining XP systems by hackers being more or less the same as April 7th, it's time to let go, and you know it.

Just like with waiting to pay your bills at the very last moment or forgetting about a traffic citation, the consequences can become a huge headache. This isn’t the end of the world, but just like ignoring that warrant to appear, you're much better handling it before it becomes a problem.

To go over what we just covered, here’s a short list of things you can do or mull over before you decide:

1.     Decide if you want to keep your existing computer or buy a new one
2.     Find which OS you like more! Windows 7, Windows 8, or even a Mac.
3.     Backup your current system’s data
4.     Just do it! You’ll thank yourself later.

As Always,

Stan

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Monday, February 3, 2014

 

Stock is for suckers, make mine Custom!


Ever hear the phrase you get what you pay for?  Well, when shopping for a new PC it couldn't be more true.  Gone are the days when you could get a custom built PC from a little shop around the corner for half the price of one from a major manufacturer at a big box store.  The big boys moved their operations overseas, and started using far cheaper, lower quality components to crush their mom-n-pop competitors.

What you, dear reader, were left with was an inferior product at only a small discount, if any at all.  Now you should Rage against the Machine, escape corporatism and maximization of profits from this industry by opting for one of many sweet custom-built computers. With you in mind, the benefits of these hand-built beauties heavily outweighs the competition. 

Complete control over the components that make up each custom build is key. Never again do you have to sacrifice quality in order to receive the same parts you would building your own computer. Not only that, but down to the motherboard and case, you can pick and choose the components you need, not receive what the company thinks would be best. 

Keep in mind, each and every computer manufacturer can and will cheap out on certain portions of a computer they sell you. It's absolutely a guarantee that the motherboard, power supply, and RAM in a major manufacturer's PC is the most mediocre component they can source at the cheapest prices.  Definitely not the case when you build from scratch.  Preventative measures can be taken when the computer is built to prolong the life of any computer. With pre-built desktops, you’re going to see components that mismatch in reliability with the other pieces to the computer, leading to planned obsolescence.

From the very beginning of the custom built process, the entire computer is built with you in mind. Ever wanted a lit up case, drowning in blue or red lights, shining in the night like some sort of ghoul? You can have that done. What goes into the computer is built around your needs and what could be needed in the future. Let's not forget the Operating System.  Pretty much every new PC comes preloaded with Windows 8 nowadays.  With a custom build, you can get Windows 7, no problem.  Heck you even want XP or Vista (although who in their right mind would), they're yours for the asking.  And you always get a clean install without the bloatware pre-installed as major manufacturers feel is some sort of preordained necessity.

So whether it’s your need for power, speed, or reliability, custom built PC’s are the way to go. With the whole process being about you, is there really any question about which to go with? Not only do you choose the case and what goes inside, but you get the satisfaction of a clean and neat build, with easy upgradability, and a sense of control you're not going to get from an assembly line PC.

Now if you need a little help getting yourself into one of these beauties, I know just the guys.

As Always,

Stan
I'm not a Geek.  I'm your friend.  And I'm here to help.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

 

Windows 8.1 - Um I don't think that's what the people meant by Start Menu.

So if you bought a new PC in the last year or so and you didn't go far out of your way to find one with Windows 7, you got Windows 8 by Default.  Odds are you also weren't overly thrilled with the new Windows 8 interface.  From there you could have done a couple of things - found a start menu app or pissed and moaned about it hoping Microsoft would fix it.

You likely heard about Windows 8.1 and that the start menu was coming back!  The joy you must have felt!  Then you got it as it was a free upgrade,  and when you clicked that magic start button hoping to get you back to the familiar Windows interface to which you'd become so accustomed, you landed right back on the thing you were hoping to avoid.  This right here:





Um, how exactly is that any different than the crap people have been complaining about since it's inception?  Great job Miss-crosoft, that'll save the struggling PC market!

But on top of all that, there's all this new erratic behavior popping up.  All of a sudden you may notice something like this pop up on your screen:


Now try as you might, there's no straightforward way to get this thing to go away.  To things worked out for me with varying degrees of success:

  1. Move the mouse pointer all the way to the upper left corner and it'll usually make these "tips" go away.
  2. Use the old Alt+F4 (on newer Windows 8 machines you may have to use Alt+Fn+F4) on the newer Windows 8 app to close it and make the tips go away.

Now if you're the adventurous sort, you can disable these tips from ever appearing again by modifying the registry.  Yes the registry - that scary mysterious thing that can unlock all the mysteries of your Windows computer not entirely unlike the Smoke Monster from "Lost."  Anyway, our friends over at Eightforums.com created a handy little registry file for this very purpose.  Download it via THIS LINK and simply double click to run and click yes when prompted.  Poof - there go those annoying help tips.

With Windows 8, you've basically got to accept the fact that you're a Beta Tester.  They're no longer gunning for your PC dollar, but a viable transition into the more sought after mobile market and they're banking on Windows 8 to help make that a reality.  Whether it works out for Microsoft or not remains to be seen.  However this shakes out, I'll be here to steer you in the right direction.

As Always,

Stan
I'm not a Geek.  I'm your friend.  And I'm here to help.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

 

Kobe hard at work!









Sup Readers!  As you know, the Garage is a very dog friendly spot.  We've got two of our own here - Reese and Kobe - any they love to meet new doggy visitors.

When we're not busy doing computer repair, data recovery, or doing on-site IT for businesses and individuals, well, we're probably playing with the dogs.  We've even managed to teach them a couple tricks in the process.

They also love to show off.  Oh yeah - they've got tricks and will use them any time treats become a part of the equation.  So naturally I recorded Kobe doing his signature move - "The Kobe Dance." and without further adieu, heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Kobe:




 


Bring him a treat and he may just do it for you too!

Next time I'll post a video of Reese do her thing.  You'll love it.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

 

HTPC's - Why You'll Probably Want One

You probably don't even know what an HTPC is and what you're missing out on by having one of these magnificent beauties attached to your television.  Well fear not Dear Reader, for today's the first day of the rest of your life!

A Home Theater PC (HTPC for short) is your key to having the entirety of the Internet and all its glorious content at your disposal whilst connected to your beautiful HDTV and Surround Sound system.  With no restrictions either, I might add.  Sounds good doesn't it?  Yeah I liked the concept so much I'm in for 2!

Basically, we're talking about a typically small form-factor (SFF) computer, with an HDMI output that connects to your TV.  Throw in a wireless Keyboard or Remote, and there you have it.  Youtube.  Netflix.  Amazon. Hulu.  HBO.  Showtime.  Just about anything you can stream to your computer, you can now get on your TV.  Now while your connected devices like Roku, AppleTV, or various connected Televisions and Blu-Ray players typically can't easily display a lot of this content (to protect the Cable and Satellite monopolies), your HTPC can show you ANYTHING.  That's not even taking into account what the less-scrupulous of you can find online for free (it rhymes with shmeverything).

So how do you get one of these glorious things?  Glad you asked!  Well, in reality you probably already have one.  Most laptops and desktops of the last few years come equipped with HDMI ports that you can connect to your TV.  While that's not the most elegant solution, it'll mostly do in a pinch.  If you want to do this the right way, there are both off-the-shelf and custom built solutions out there for you.

Apple, and a handful of other name brands offer SFF PC's specifically geared towards the HTPC market.  If you want to really do it right and match the esthetic of your Home Theater setup, a customer setup is the way to go.  The beauty is that it won't cost you a arm and a leg because an HTPC doesn't need to be a supercomputer.  

First, pick a case that works for you.  Depending on the case, you need a motherboard and power supply fits.  An entry level i3 CPU is more than sufficient.  Add a motherboard with an HDMI output.  Then throw in around 4GB RAM.  Add a Solid State Drive in the 64GB range for storage (you can always add an external for a large media library).  Connect a combo wireless keyboard with a trackpad and you're basically set.  All in, you could build something in the $200-$400 range depending on the options you choose.  In any case, even at the least expensive in the range, you have far greater options than you get with a single function device like an AppleTV.

But they best thing about an HTPC is yet to come.  The writing's on the wall folks.  Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are already lining up original content.  The major carriers offer streaming as a free "throw-in" to their service.  Live events (sports primarily) are still shaky, but they'll get there.  It's only a matter of time before the Cable and Satellite companies go the way of the dinosaur.  Don't believe me?  Ask a record, book, or video store about it.  What's that?  Can't find one?  Then you get my point.

As Always,

Stan
I'm not a Geek.  I'm your friend.  And I'm here to help.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

 

Your Hard Drive is S.M.A.R.T-er than you think - Using Linux to identify Hard Drive Health

Oh boy, where to begin?  Hard drives man.  They be killin' me sometimes.  They hold all your precious data, programs, and in many cases, your entire digital life.  They are also the most likely component to fail in your computer.

They fail for any number of reasons.  Impact.  Vibration.  Heat.  Moisture.  They'll eventually go out from normal wear and tear.  Sometimes,  they fail for no reason at all, with no warning whatsoever.  Failures can range from a total, unrecoverable loss to just a partial, recoverable loss where the data can still be salvaged but the drive needs replacing and software may or may not be recovered.  The latter being the most common type of failure.

So what can you do to identify, prevent, and recover from a hard drive dying on you?  Well, the obvious answer is back up.  Back up early, back up often, and back up to at least two different locations, and once in a while, actually verify those backups.  If you do at least 2 out of the 3 above, you're ahead of at least 99.5% of your typical computer user so feel free to pat yourself on the back!  For the rest of you, you should at least get yourself some insight as to how your drive is doing health-wise.  Your drive actually can give you fair warning when that's about to happen -  that's where S.M.A.R.T. comes into play.

S.M.A.R.T stands for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology, and if you really want to get into the nitty gritty of it, I suggest you read the Wiki Page.  Basically, it's here to tell you what's going on inside your hard drive.  In the most imminent of failures you can get a message looking somewhat like this:


it means SMART is warning your computer that the drive is going to fail.  Be forewarned though, those only happen in the most extreme cases, and I've seen drives that were completely unusable that SMART did not give any heads up on either.

The hard drive stores this information for a wide variety of criteria, and if you keep an eye on it, it can act as an early warning system for drive failure.  The things we really keep an eye out for are the "Reallocated Sector Count" and the "Uncorrectable Sector Count."  Now drives can function with bad sectors.  It's not an ideal situation by any means, but something in the neighborhood of under 10 bad sectors seems to be tenable.  Occasionally you can have quite a few more and not run into any trouble at all.  Sometimes a single bad sector at the very start of the drive can render the whole drive unusable.  In any case, being able to identify the problem is the first step.

After having diagnosed literally thousands of bad hard drives, as soon as there's even a suspicion that it may be a hard drive error, I want to get a look at the drive's SMART data.  The easiest way I've found to do this is to use a bootable Linux disk on the suspect computer.  Since most computers of the last half decade or so can easily boot off a USB drive, and putting Ubuntu Linux on a USB flash drive is as simple as following these instructions.  If you cannot boot from a USB flash drive, Linux can also be loaded from a CD.  Once you're booted into Linux, you can easily launch their Disk Utility, click on SMART Data, and you'll see this screen:


So as you can see, the SMART data shows just a single bad sector but the drive is ready to fail completely.  Conversely, I've seen a drive reporting upwards of 3.5 million bad sectors that SMART didn't flag as failing, but both of these drives needed replacement (and both were fully recovered I might add).  This whole process takes a just few minutes to identify a hard drive in danger of failure, doesn't rely on the suspect hard drive to boot into the operating system (if it even still can at this point), and minimizes the risk of any permanent data loss.

Now you've probably seen Windows ability to check a hard drive for errors, but this process is far from ideal.  A full exhaustive disk check can certainly rectify some limited errors on a drive, but in many cases can serve to exacerbate them.  When a drive has shown ANY signs of failure, the last thing you want to put it through is an extended period of read/write activity, unless, of course, you don't care about the data on the drive.  In that case scan away, but like this article from InterData states, when trying to preserve the data on a suspected failing drive, the LAST thing you should be doing is putting it through extensive reads/writes.

So where does this leave us?  OK, so now you know to back up your data.  Every drive will fail eventually.  What else?  Oh, so here's a nifty way to monitor SMART Information from within Windows - a cool little app called Speedfan you can download here.  It's got a number of features, and a SMART tab that'll let you view that information on any of your installed hard drives.  It's a great way to keep tabs on your disk's health, and it's totally free too.  A lot of times if we can't get Linux to load on a customers PC, we'll remove the hard drive, hook it up to our recovery computer, and use Speed fan to get the SMART data.  Thanks Speedfan!

Like anything, none of this is foolproof or 100% applicable.  I haven't known a SMART reading to be incorrect, but drives with even 100's of errors can be scanned and made to function normally for the life of the computer.  In other cases, drives with a relatively small number of errors end up needing a clean room recovery.  It's unpredictable, and personally, I like to err on the side of caution because even the most expensive hard drive costs less than the cheapest data recovery.

As Always,

Stan
I'm not a Geek.  I'm your friend.  And I'm here to help.

A very special thanks to C.C. for inspiring this post!

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