Keeping XP

Screenshot 2014-04-07 19.02.15
Windows XP caught frolicking on its last day of freedom

So goodbye Windows XP. You know, I’m actually sad. Since it came out in 2001 I’ve grown from being indifferent (“Windows 2000 in a dress”), through slightly awed (when Tablet PC edition introduced handwriting recognition that actually worked), to comfortable and complacent. For a long time there, XP was just the way things were, an everyday ubiquitous tool. After using it for over ten years there was very little about it I couldn’t mend, maintain, or make better. And now Microsoft have declared those skills redundant.

You can see their argument: They haven’t made anything out of XP for years now. Well yes but…

The thing is, there’s a big secret about IT. In the terms I’ll be using in the exam I should be studying for right now, information technology cannot provide a strategic advantage (Carr, Harvard Business Review 2003).

In lay terms: IT is for suckers.

When it all began, people thought that computerising a business would mean radically improved efficiency and so lead to greater profits. That seems to make sense, yet somehow it never did. You do increase efficiency, sure. But that almost never translates into more money. This is because very quickly everybody was able to invest in the same technology, levelling the playing field again.

Only now to keep up with your competitors you have to keep on investing in your system, on a hamster wheel of hardware and software upgrades. That was never such a problem with filing cabinets. So bizarrely the technology may actually cost you more than you’ll ever save through improved efficiency – but you need it now just to stay in business. Nobody makes money directly from IT except the people who sell you the IT; Microsoft in particular have made billions and billions and billions and billions.

So I think they kind of owe us one.

It’s not that I don’t want to upgrade. I have a Windows 7 computer too and I quite like it. It seems fussy compared to XP, but it has some good points. I actually like a lot about Windows 8, despite its cool reception. Though Microsoft seem to have lost all sense of direction, their stuff has never looked better.

No, upgrading is just out of the question. Between my own devices and ones I administer for my family I am looking after four XP computers. At over €100 each, that’s far more money than I am either able or willing to give to Microsoft just now. And even if these computers can run Windows 7 or 8, they will not run it well. So I’d be paying them money to convert PCs that are fine into ones that are annoying.

Is there another way? Well yes. In a word: Linux. Two, possibly three of these computers will become Linux boxes now. High time too. But that is not for everyone, and I will want at least one of them to be able to run non-Linux applications like Photoshop. Can that be done?

I’m going to see, I guess… While continuing to use an unsupported operating system is not a course of action I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to get their computer invaded, held to ransom by criminal gangs and used as a spam-vomiting zombie, how would you go about it?

Well there’s one safe way…

PLAN A

Don’t go online. It sounds a bit crazy now I know, but some of us still remember how computers were actually quite useful even before the Internet. If there’s a job you need to do that doesn’t actually require a live data stream it is perfectly feasible to disconnect. Your XP computer will be perfectly secure – forever!

(Well, you’ll still have the problem of moving your files onto and off it without getting it infected the old fashioned way.)

But if you really have to go online – say, you have no other computer – there’s…

PLAN B [>>>Not Recommended!<<<]

1. Stop being an administrator. Ridiculously, every account on an XP computer is an administrator by default. That means you can do pretty much what you like to the system. Unfortunately it also means that if you catch a virus while logged in as administrator, it can do pretty much what it likes too. It is far, far more secure to use a Limited Account. You may have to log in as admin to install software or other such tasks at times, but the security will be worth it. And if this is a family member’s computer that you mind for them, there’s a good chance that they won’t see any difference. Simply go to the User Accounts section of Control Panel and change the account type.

Unfortunately though there is some software that doesn’t like running without complete privileges, Adobe Photoshop being a particularly egregious example. If – like me – you need to work in Photoshop and then email the results, seriously consider logging out of your admin account and into a limited one before you go online. Ridiculous I know – Adobe and Microsoft really need to share the blame for that one – but far safer.

2. Tool up. When XP support goes, updates for Microsoft Security Essentials go with it. So if this is all you have in the way of antivirus you’ll need to upgrade. Currently I’m testing the different free options that are out there, and I’m really liking Bitdefender. This because it scores almost if not as well as the best available when it comes to detecting viruses, but demands very little of your system’s resources. In fact it seems significantly lighter than even Microsoft’s minimalistic solution, despite offering far better protection. Wish I’d used it years ago now…

3. If the OS can’t be updated, at least keep all your application software patched. A great tool to help with this is Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector, which checks the versions of what you have installed against its database of the latest ones, and lets you know when there’s an update you need. Sometimes it can even do the updating for you.

Apart from that, the usual rules still apply – just more so. Never use Internet Explorer (the version XP has is hopeless outdated now anyway), use Firefox or Chrome or… anything else. Make sure the device you use to connect to the Internet has some level of inbuilt protection like an NAT firewall. Only connect to known secure networks, not random Wi-Fi signals. Avoid visiting criminal corners of the Internet. Don’t install anything, ever, unless you’re absolute sure it’s safe. Be careful out there.

There's Yer Feckin' Start Button

Win81

Terrible fuss was made when Windows 8 introduced a whole new interface designed around touch, completely lacking the familiar and comforting Start Menu. Now instead of mousing through a list to find an app you were supposed to tap or click on its big bright “tile” on the new home screen.

This is an attractive interface, and as well designed for touch as anything from Apple or Google. The little problem is, the vast – indeed, vasty vast – majority of users do not have a touchscreen. They are still using mice, touchpads, and similar pointing devices. Because while touchscreens are cute and all, most people use Windows PCs for work things like typing reports or articles, or entering numbers on spreadsheets – things you need a keyboard for. And in those situations, a touchscreen is at best a frivolity. It’s actually inefficient because, at least compared to a touchpad, it requires you to move your pointing hand further from the keys.

For all these people, having to use an interface designed for touch is a small irritation but a constant one – and we all know how infuriating constant small irritations can be. In response, some PC vendors introduced their own solutions: third-party apps that imitate the old Start Menu. Samsung took a different turn, and equipped some of their Windows 8 laptops with an extension that looks remarkably like the Dock from the Mac OS X desktop. This has led me to formulate the theory that Samsung actually like Apple’s legal team personally, and look forward to meeting them.

Eventually though Microsoft responded to the outcry and yielded with good grace, restoring the Start Button to its pride of place in the free update called Windows 8.1.

Did they buggery.

They said they restored it. But if you’ve downloaded the 8.1 preview (or more likely, watched the demo video), you’ll see that all they’ve really done is placed a button on the taskbar of the Windows Desktop – a button that opens not the Start Menu, but that same old shiny tiled home screen. It is an improvement in that you can find your applications in the place that your hand has spent the last fifteen-odd years going to and so don’t have to change direction every. bloody. time (the “proper” shortcut is at the right-hand edge of the screen), but it’s still a touch-oriented interface on a mouse-oriented device.

Similarly, it won’t let you boot straight to a desktop like all previous versions of Windows. Even if you only ever want to use applications on the desktop, you have to get there through that damn screen of tiles. Every time.

A tip: If you move the Desktop tile to the top left position it becomes the default option, and so can be selected without any mouse movement at all by hitting the “Enter” key. Similarly you can put the Windows Media Center tile here – if you have it – to make Windows 8 more usable with a remote control. Or perhaps I should say, less unusable.

Why does Microsoft not allow these as options – even turned off by default? The reason is they want to ‘encourage’ software vendors to develop for the touch interface – by taking away any other option. In its visionary ruthlessness it’s a very Apple-like move, certainly a bold one. Probably, once the new religion catches on, they will allow flexibility and convenience again. But right now it’s just another little thing that makes me want to spend less time as a Windows user and more as a Linux one.

By the way, this is the first Windows version with a point-release name since Windows NT 3.51, way back in 1995. Though it should be pointed out that Windows 8.1 is known internally as NT 6.3. As the NT series started not at 1 but at 3.1, we deduct that to find that Windows 8.1 is really NT 5 – which was Windows 2000.

OK now I’m confused.

Linux For The Normal

Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04
Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.

The Missing Kies To Android Phone Syncing (2)

The MyPhoneExplorer Settings dialogue. Don't be scared.

When I told you about MyPhoneExplorer, the software that does for free what Samsung and other Android phone makers seem incapable of doing for money, I mentioned that there were helpful, comprehensive instructions. I did not, however, tell you where to find them… Here they are. There’s also a forum where you can ask any questions you might have. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in German, it’s an easy language to pick up.

Oh OK, the English section is here.

What follows are a few things I discovered for myself that may help you set it up right. It’s worth noting first that there are two parts to the software – a desktop application for Windows, and a phone app available from Google Play. Don’t bother downloading the latter though. On first using the desktop version, go the the Settings dialogue in the File menu and tell it that your phone is an Android and that you connect by USB (or set it to Autodetect the connection). Then when you plug the phone in it will install the Android app itself.

All I wanted to do was back up my photos and other files, without having to remember. Backups that need to be remembered are backups that don’t get done. Not when I’m in charge. MyPhoneExplorer can sync over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but as I often recharge my phone by plugging it into a PC I thought the most dependable way would be to do it automatically whenever the USB cable connects.

For this to happen of course, the program must be running on the computer. So I searched through the menus trying to find the checkbox that would make it launch on startup. And searched, and searched. To save you some considerable time, there isn’t one. You have to do it the old-fashioned way by creating a shortcut in the Startup folder. (Find the MyPhoneExplorer folder in the All Programs menu, click and hold the program icon and drag it to the Startup folder.) You know it’s freeware when the author finds the simple way just too boring.

There are other options for you to play with. Many, many other options. For example, you can choose whether to sync your contacts with Outlook or some other program. Under the menu item “Advanced 2” you can select the folder where your photos will be copied, so if you’ve already set up Kies to put them in a certain location you may as well use the same one again. Several copies of your pictures on different computers = Good management. Several copies on the same computer = Pointless (but pretty normal).

The crucial settings for syncing though are under the menu item “Multi-Sync” (see picture). A Multi-sync is what it calls a pre-set choice of items to sync all in one go. You can select exactly what you want to be copied, and where to. And while all the usual ones are available – photos, contacts, calendar and so on – the great thing for the power user is that you can create custom file syncs. For example, I copy across podcasts I’ve downloaded to the PC during the day. In the opposite direction, I have it transfer things I drew or wrote on the phone.

The crucial one here though, if you want things to happen all by themselves, is “Start Multi-sync if connection is initiated automatically”. Once that is checked the program should detect when you’ve plugged the phone in and start to sync, making backing your phone up as easy as putting it on charge.

If it doesn’t start, I dunno what you’ve done wrong. Try poking things randomly.

How To Play With Windows 8

Windows 3.0, released in 1990
Lovely, isn't it? Wait, wrong picture

So, you want to have a go on Windows 8? It’s easy enough, but there are a few things you must bear in mind first:

  • Only do this if you have a spare computer to try it on, or are familiar with setting up a dual-boot system. If you install it as an upgrade on your working computer there will be no way back afterwards short of completely re-installing your old version of Windows. And all your software. Assuming you can even find all those discs. And remember all those hundreds of settings. Basically it’s a world of pain and you don’t want to go there.
  • You’ll need at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of free hard drive space (20GB for the 64-bit version), and a DVD burner.
  • You indemnify me for anything that can, and probably will, go wrong. Windows 8 is Not Ready For Prime Time, and the management is not responsible for lost data or computers exploding in sprays of white-hot metal.

OK, You Ready? 

(If you’re starting with an empty hard disk, or one you are OK about permanently obliterating, you can skip the first two steps. Otherwise, skip nothin‘.)

  1. First, back up any important data on the hard drive you’re partitioning. (If you don’t know what partitioning a drive is you are in too deep and should back out now…) If it also has your working Windows installation it would be a very good idea to image the whole drive, then if everything goes horribly wrong you have a good chance of easy recovery. (Macrium Reflect is a free yet reliable way to image drives.)
  2. In your spare drive space, make as large a partition as you can afford – it must be 16GB at least. It should be a primary as opposed to a logical or extended partition.
  3. Next, download the Windows 8 Developer Preview, choosing the right version for your hardware. (If you aren’t sure which is the right version then, again, you shouldn’t be trying this.)
  4. Once downloaded, burn it to a DVD. (If you try to mount and run the ISO image it will only offer you the option to install to your C drive, which you don’t want.) Label the DVD “Deadly Space Virus”. Or, you know, whatever you like.
  5. Boot from the DVD. (Just possibly, you may need to change your BIOS settings to allow that.) You’ll be offered a nicer-looking version of the usual Windows install dialogue. Go through it, selecting your options with great care.
  6. Take PARTICULAR care when you are asked which partition to install Windows 8 to. Make sure it’s the one you just created. One error here, and you return Earth to the stone age. Well all right, you destroy your existing Windows install and/or all your data. Which is bad enough.
  7. Once you pass this point, things go remarkably fast for a Windows installation. When it’s finished, you’ll be greeted with Windows 8. It’s quite pretty. You’re not finished.
  8. Get online. You may have a problem with this if the Developer Preview doesn’t happen to contain all the right drivers for your hardware, but you will probably find that an Ethernet connection to a router will work. Or if you have a 3G dongle there should be no problem. Once online, get all the Windows 8 updates. (Users of some earlier Windows versions may have trouble finding Windows Update, it’s: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/Windows Update. These downloads will make Windows 8 look and act a lot more polished.
  9. Simple! Oh wait, one other thing…
  10. If your other operating system is XP, you’re going to discover that you can’t boot back into it now. Bummer. This is because Windows 8 introduces a new bootloader that’s not compatible. To get around this, set XP as the default operating system. Go to: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/System, click “Advanced System Settings” and then “Start Up And Recovery Settings”. Here you can change the default to “Earlier Version of Windows”, after which you’ll be faced with an option screen when you boot. Phew.

So, could this be the answer to iPad and Android? Have at it.

Mac Users, Beware!

A new malware variant is doing the rounds. Calling itself “Apple Security Center”, it tells you your Mac is infected. It isn’t infected. But as a counter showing the number of viruses “found” rapidly rises, it will offer to clean your computer. Don’t agree to let it!

Oh, you did. Damn. Well now you are infected.

It’s like inviting a vampire in. Modern computers are designed so that software can’t just install itself, it needs interaction from the user. So malware (that is, evil software) can’t do any harm until you give it permission. Now Mac and Linux are more common, and Windows is a great deal tougher than it used to be, malware is increasingly forced to focus on the one major remaining weakness of all computer systems. This is what techies like to call the PBCAK – the Problem Between Chair And Keyboard. In other words, you. Sometimes called scareware, things like “Apple Security Center” attempt to mindgame you into infecting your own computer.

Stop and think. It’s a Mac, it is quite to very unlikely that it has a virus. And anyway, who the heck is in any position to know what’s on your computer? If you did not install an antivirus program – and even now you really don’t need to – then you will not get virus warnings. Not real ones anyway.

Mac Users, Beware!

A new malware variant is doing the rounds. Calling itself “Apple Security Center”, it tells you your Mac is infected. It isn’t infected. But as a counter showing the number of viruses “found” rapidly rises, it will offer to clean your computer. Don’t agree to let it!

Oh, you did. Damn. Well now you are infected.

It’s like inviting a vampire in. Modern computers are designed so that software can’t just install itself, it needs interaction from the user. So malware (that is, evil software) can’t do any harm until you give it permission. Now Mac and Linux are more common, and Windows is a great deal tougher than it used to be, malware is increasingly forced to focus on the one major remaining weakness of all computer systems. This is what techies like to call the PBCAK – the Problem Between Chair And Keyboard. In other words, you. Sometimes called scareware, things like “Apple Security Center” attempt to mindgame you into infecting your own computer.

Stop and think. It’s a Mac, it is quite to very unlikely that it has a virus. And anyway, who the heck is in any position to know what’s on your computer? If you did not install an antivirus program – and even now you really don’t need to – then you will not get virus warnings. Not real ones anyway.