“Get a Personal Trainer for Your Computer!”©










Now that I’ve written hundreds of pages, FAQs and TIPSs for this site, I’ve noticed two common themes:

1.  In order to answer most users’ questions, there is a simple  “threshold” question that must almost always be asked:  “Why am I doing this ?”  That is, whether purchasing a computer or other device, deciding whether to start a website, sign up for a cable plan, thinking about encryption, downloading music or videos or buying a program, what do you expect to accomplish?  Most of the time, the answer to this simple question will define what, if any, hardware or software you will get.  Don’t pay for features you won’t use or excess speed or power you can’t take advantage of.   Making the correct choice can make your life much more enjoyable.  Making the incorrect one may provide you with hours of frustration.  Decide what you want, then work backwards.

2.  Spend less time debating the purchase of the “latest and greatest” hardware and software than making sure you’ve covered the basics first.  Don’t spend all your money on the latest gimmicks; instead make sure your personal files or hard drive are backed up and that your hardware is protected from predictable damage from power surges, viruses and malware. 



 As Oscar Wild once said:  “I’m not young enough to know everything”.

 But I do at least know the answers to the following questions...


































































































COMPUTER FAQ #3: SHOULD I CONSIDER GETTING AN APPLE COMPUTER INSTEAD OF A PC?  Both Apple and PCs are excellent machines and, to me, the issue usually comes down to the quality and availability of software for the intended use of the computer.  Click HERE for my advice.

COMPUTER FAQ #4: I DON’T DO MUCH WITH MY COMPUTER, DO I REALLY NEED ANTI-VIRUS PROTECTION? Yes.  Absolutely.  Your computer is an electronic and mechanical tool.  And even when maintained and used carefully, it can become sick, just like you.  And just like a healthy person can risk disability or death without inoculation against serious diseases, if you are not using preventive maintenance on your computer such as antivirus, your computer can become infected, get sick and even die.   Luckily, a computer can be wiped clean and set up from scratch again to remove viruses.  But this can be expensive and you will lose your personal data if you have not backed it up (see these FAQs about backing up).  Installing and maintaining a good antivirus program is a must and it is not expensive, often absolutely free.  But you still have to be vigilant - just as you can still get the flu even though you have had a flu shot, your computer can still get a virus, even with antivirus software.  Moreover, you should use a layered approach to security.  See Baseline for more...

COMPUTER FAQ #5: DO I REALLY NEED TO PAY FOR AN ANTI-VIRUS PROGRAM? WHAT ABOUT THE FREE ONES?  For residential users, particularly ones with laptops, I generally recommend using one of the free anti-virus programs you can download from the Internet (e.g. AVG, Avira, Avast, Microsoft Essentials).  Not because they’re free, but because, unlike Norton and McAfee, they don’t hog system resources, possibly slowing your machine to a crawl, especially laptops.  And they do about as well protecting you.  The paid versions don’t do much more for non-business users, as those users aren’t on networks.  Don’t fall for the scare tactics of  anti-virus companies - they count cookies and other items as possible infections to increase the number of threats - which overreport and exaggerate security problems to get your business.  There’s no standard for what truly constitutes a threat or attack, so there’s no true way to evaluate these programs.  And don’t uninstall using the control panel, use the uninstall features on the anti-virus program.

COMPUTER FAQ #6: WHAT IS “BACKING UP” MY COMPUTER, AND WHY SHOULD I DO SO?  HOW ABOUT MY PHONE?  YOUR COMPUTER:  “Backing up” your computer means to take some or all of the information stored on your computer’s hard disk drive and copying it somewhere outside of the computer in case it’s lost due to hardware failure, virus or user error.  Since the main drive on your computer is a mechanical device (see Hard Disk Drives), it is not a question of whether it will eventually fail, but when it will fail.  Therefore it is absolutely essential that you back up any data that you have created and stored on the computer, as it will be permanently lost if you don’t when the hard drive fails.  If you never create, download or install anything on your computer, i.e. you only read e-mails and surf the net and don’t care if any of your e-mail or web history is saved, you can forget about backing up.  Otherwise, you should consider some form of backup, as described in this LINK.  What you back up, how you back up and how often you back up will vary, depending on what you do with your computer.  YOUR CELL PHONE: As smart phones become more and more like mini-computers, it’s increasingly important to back up your programs, pictures, files and the like, otherwise they may be lost.  One way to assure that this data won’t be lost would be to share it across the internet on all of your devices would be to use a cloud storage service like Google Drive, Amazon Cloud or DropBox.  Another would be to select from many available apps for both Apple and Android.  For my  Android, I use Super Backup, which allows separate backups for apps, SMS, Contacts, call logs calendars and bookmarks.  This program backs up to your SIM card; other services provide for cloud backup.  Also, depending on your phone hardware, you can usually use a micro-USB to USB cable to connect to a computer, then copy the files from your phone to your conputer’s hard drive for safekeeping.  It’s just a little harder to locate the files on your phone, since they’re in separate places (e.g. DCIM for the camera images).  For more, click on TIP #102

COMPUTER FAQ #7: WHAT’S BETTER, CABLE, DSL or FIOS? This question doesn’t have a simple answer, because there are several considerations including availability, cost, speed and service.  Click HERE for a very detailed discussion about cable, DSL and FIOS...

COMPUTER FAQ #8: I’VE HEARD THAT I SHOULD DEFRAGMENT MY HARD DRIVE EVERY WEEK - SHOULD I? Years ago, when hard drives were much, much smaller and much, much slower, you had to “defrag” the drives fairly often (almost weekly), depending on the amount of data stored on them.  Now with the higher drive speeds and larger capacities, depending on use, you really don’t have to defragment the drive any more often than every few months.  And you may not notice any significant speed increase once you’ve done so, either.  Whether defragmentation will improve the performance of your computer depends on a variety of factors, including what type of disk drives you have (IDE, SATA, SCSI), what file system (NTFS, FAT) you use, and how full your drives are.  A benchmark of 7ms average “nonsequential seek time” is standard for hard drives; severely fragmented files, particularly execute files, can add significantly to the time it takes to load a program, so if you notice slowness, it couldn’t hurt to defrag your drive.  Luckily, if you use the built-in Windows Defragmenter in Windows XP (Start>Programs>Accessories>System Tools>Defragmenter) it’ll tell you if defragmentation is unnecessary for the selected drive.  If you have Vista, Win 7 or Win 8, it is by default set to defragment once a week, but you can modify this setting.  And Windows 7 has a different defragmentation algorithm which doesn’t move fragments larger than 64Mb on the theory that 64Mb is large enough not to have any appreciable impact on performance.  Also new with Win7:  It can defragment multiple hard disks simultaneously; it defragments system files that previous versions simply bypassed; and it allows you to terminate or interrupt a defragmentation more quickly and safely than previous versions.  As with Vista, the defragmentation can be scheduled.  And NEVER defragment a solid-state drive (click HERE for why)!

COMPUTER FAQ #9: IS SURGE PROTECTION REALLY NECESSARY?  WHAT ABOUT BATTERY BACKUP? I’ve always said that I’d rather see a client spend less on the bells and whistles and more on surge protection and data backup.  Without an explanation of joules and clamp time, suffice it to say that a decent surge protector, which costs about $40, can save your entire computer system.  Moreover, if it’s a “smart strip” (see UPS), it can save money each month by turning off hardware that consumes power even when it’s turned off.  We live in the lightning capital of the world (click HERE for interesting lightning info), and construction is going on all over the area.  You should expect power interruptions and surges and be prepared for them.  A battery backup or UPS (“Uninterruptible Power Supply”) not only keeps your computer running for a little while if the power is cut off, but the battery itself can absorb a substantially larger “hit” from a surge than a simple surge protector.  These cost about $75 and up.  Both are an excellent investment, much less expensive than a new computer! However, the “whole house” protection from FPL specifically excludes sensitive equipment like computers, so you can't depend on that. [For more information, see the definitions in the Glossary for SURGE SUPPRESSORS and UPS.]  JUST AS IMPORTANT: Protect your telephone or cable modem line.  Your surge protector or UPS should include protection for these two inputs to your computer.  Almost half of the power surges that damage computers are found to have come into the computer, not from the power line, but from the telephone or cable connection.  Protect it!  ALSO, don’t plug your laser printer into the UPS or surge protector (see discussion in TIPS) because it may exceed the power limit when it starts up or damage the printer.  Inkjet printers, however, can be plugged into the UPS outlets.

COMPUTER FAQ #10: IS IT O.K. TO DAISY-CHAIN SURGE PROTECTORS AND UPSs?  No.  Each unit should be plugged into a properly grounded outlet for optimum power protection.  “Daisy-chaining” protection devices (plugging one into another) will not provide any additional surge protection, or UPS runtime, and will effectively result in overloading the first UPS or surge protector on the line, knocking out all of the others downline.  If you have them, connect each separately.

COMPUTER FAQ #11: WHERE’S THE BEST PLACE TO PUT MY COMPUTER? The two most physically damaging elements to computer hardware are heat and dirt.  Those fans inside your computer are there for a reason, to keep it cool.  Try not to shove your computer way back under a desk, especially if it’s in a cabinet with a door that is closed.  The heat will build up and shorten it’s life, not to mention squelching any wireless signal.  Same for dirt:  If it covers the boards, fans and components inside the machine, it will act like a blanket and cause it to overheat and possibly short out.  Also, from a usability standpoint, have the light (from windows, lamps, etc.) at your back, because when it shines from in front of you, it makes the screen harder to read and its hard on your eyes.

COMPUTER FAQ #12: MUST I RUN WINDOWS UPDATES? Years ago, I used to recommend that you periodically run Windows Updates.  These days, the Updates, usually issued on Tuesdays, are more often “patches” to correct security or incompatibility issues than to install new features (except for the last Tuesday of the month, when Microsoft releases non-security updates, those resolving Windows problems).  Sometimes these updates create more problems than they correct, or correct a lot of problems that the casual user might never have, particularly if an antivirus and/or firewall is installed.  I generally recommend manually reviewing the updates and only installing those that are crucial to you, perhaps just the security and critical updates.  After all, correcting problems with the Kannada or Telegu language support in Windows doesn’t affect many people.  If unsure, just wait until professional help arrives.  And never stop in the middle of an upgrade!  COROLLARY:  You SHOULD install program (particularly Adobe and Java) and Internet Explorer updates when prompted, even if you’re not currently using them.  Why?  Unpatched software can be a “back door” into your computer for unwanted intrusions and viruses.  It’s like leaving your back door open when you leave your home.

COMPUTER FAQ #13: I HAVE AN ANTI-VIRUS AND WINDOWS FIREWALL - DO I NEED ANOTHER FIREWALL? As you probably know, antivirus protects your computer from malicious code that is introduced to your computer, while the purpose of a firewall is to protect your computer from unwanted intrusions onto your computer, good or bad. For residential users, the Windows firewall in XP, Vista, 7 AND 8 is usually quite sufficient.  Many users also have a built-in hardware firewall if they use a router.  If you have a broadband (i.e. cable, DSL) connection, your modem is on 24/7 and it’s “address” never changes, so once someone has that address, they can theoretically get back into your computer.  The firewall that comes with Windows can prevent this and protect you from “incoming” communication.  It also has a handy feature that lets you know if the firewall is turned off, in case it is compromised or by accident.  The additional software programs (e.g. Black Ice, Zone Alarm) that you can purchase also provide a firewall covering “outgoing” communication, by limiting the websites that you can access from the computer.  Trouble is, the insistent questioning by the firewall program itself can be annoying to residential users.  Business users, however, should almost always have a full firewall installed.

COMPUTER FAQ #14: SHOULD I UPGRADE MY OPERATING SYSTEM?  This decision depends on several factors which you must consider.  These include (1) the age of your computer, (2) the age of your peripherals (printers, scanners, monitors, etc.), (3) the software (particularly proprietary programs) that you are using and (4) the nature of the particular operating system upgrade.

Whether your have an Apple or a PC, you’ve got to see if the new upgrade has features that are truly important to you.  If not, why bother?  (Of course, if you have to have the same O/S as your office, that’s another story, you may have to upgrade for sheer consistency.)  If you have a PC running Windows XP, leaving Microsoft’s most popular, and now unsupported, O/S isn’t completely necessary (see TIP#58).   It’s successor, Vista, was never widely adopted.  And Windows 7, while very nice, can involve both software and hardware obsolescence (see below).  Windows 8 is a horse of a completely different color, and is like starting all over again, both from a hardware and a software standpoint. The move from Apple Snow Leopard to Apple Lion has the same drawbacks.

If you have Windows XP, and you’re a home user, I would say leave it as is. Just use your computer, which may be approaching the end of its useful life anyway, because it may not be able to physically handle Windows 7’s heavy demands.   Although it is more than 10 years old, XP is an extremely stable operating system, is quite widely adopted, and will still be supported by Microsoft through 2014.  Vista, on the other hand, offered very little improvement and caused many problems so, unless it came pre-installed on your computer, don’t ever upgrade to it.   Windows 7, which came out on 10/22/09 not only fixed Vista’s shortcomings, but has turned out to be an excellent O/S.  But it takes a lot of power, so be sure your hardware can handle it (not an issue, of course, if you purchase it pre-loaded on a new computer).  [You can speed it up by typing “adjust” in the “search” box on the Start button, then disabling items in Visual Effects.]  Also, as Windows 7 is a completely new rewrite of Windows, you may have some issues with the availability of or incompatibility with legacy (older) drivers (for some  printers, scanners, cards) and programs (e.g. Photoshop, QuickBooks), including some utilities (Flash, Nero, RealPlayer).  So check first for available drivers and updates (especially if you upgrade to 64 bit Win 7), if you want to continue to use your old programs and hardware.  I hate to say it, but you may need a new computer.

Windows 8, which debuted in October 2012, may not be a necessary upgrade either.  While the Windows 7 interface is pretty familiar to PC users, the Windows 8 [formerly dubbed “Metro”] interface is quite a change and not particularly useful for desktop productivity apps.  It will take some getting used to, and RTC can’t handle most drivers and Windows apps. 

The nature of your upgrade will also control what you can retain from your old system.  While upgrading from Windows XP let’s you keep only your personal files, an upgrade from Vista will retain your Windows settings and personal files.  Windows 7 upgrades keep the apps, Windows settings and personal files.

Similarly, Apple switched to Intel processors in 2006, which required it to write completely new software for the different machine architecture.  So, while Apple Lion adds new features over OS X Snow Leopard, including an iPad-style interface, wireless file sharing and an expanded group of multi-touch gestures, it removed some software such as Rosetta and may require upgrades for other programs such as Photoshop and Office. 

[For both Apple and Windows O/Ss, the adoption of cloud software may soften the issue, since they are platform neutral, and any upgrade of software will fall on the cloud vendors themselves.]Consider the issues above, and there’ll be few surprises if you decide to upgrade. 

COMPUTER FAQ #15: HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE SPYWARE ON MY COMPUTER? A sure sign that you have a virus or spyware on your computer is if it has become noticeably sluggish when operating.  Also, if you feel like operating your computer has become like playing “Whac-A-Mole,” x-ing out an endless string of pop-up ad windows.  (You know, that arcade game where you hit pop-up “moles” with a mallet and, as soon as you hit one, another one pops right up somewhere else.)  Other good indicators: Redirection to websites other than the one you wanted to go to, new toolbars that mysteriously show up on your web browser, new icons in the task tray, a new home page on your browser, new software installs that you didn’t ask for, a change in your search engine or the appearance of Windows error messages or other purported Microsoft messages set by fake antivirus warnings (“Warning - Your computer has been infected by 3,142 viruses, click here to remove them”), an unusual number of pop-up messages, your friends receiving e-mails purportedly from you that you know you didn’t send, your online passwords suddenly changing and your mouse moving on its own and making selections you don’t want often when you’re not even using your computer.  For more information about spyware, adware and the like see SPYWARE link, also the Security link for current and specific types of viruses and malware.

COMPUTER FAQ #16: WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO PREVENT SPAM?   Here are just a few tips on spam prevention:  1.) Do NOT click on removal button of known spammers, it only lets them know you are there.  [Although legitimate (corporate) e-mail spam may be removed using the unsubscribe button (or SafeSubscribe)]  True spammers, don’t even try. 2.) Use a "disposable" e-mail address for lists, etc. I have a separate e-mail account at G-mail (they do a great job on spam by the way). I use this account for all the newsletters, list-serves, etc. that I am on. I can easily shut it down anytime I want without losing important info. 3.) Make certain that when you do opt-in to a list or S/N site that privacy restrictions are in place. 4.) Use a spam filter like iHateSpam or Spam Arrest to weed things out before they come to you. [See the Links and Baseline and Security pages in this site].   5.)  READ the boilerplate, EULA or installation information before installing software to be sure you’re not agreeing to additional software installation, and uncheck boxes that agree to these items.

COMPUTER FAQ #17: SHOULD I SWITCH FROM MICROSOFT OFFICE TO ONE OF THE FREE OR WEB OFFICE SUITES?  It depends, but you probably shouldn’t, unless you’re using it solely for yourself, for several reasons:

I.  Cloud (Web Based) Programs:  First, Microsoft products are designed for consistency and interoperability.  Second, the web-based (“cloud”) office suites (think the free ones like Google Docs, Office Online (formerly Office Web Apps), Adobe Creative Cloud, Think Free, Zoho and Amazon WorkSpaces (and Apple’s iWork for iCloud beta) [also XO for Linux], while universally accessible, are dependent on the speed and availability of internet access. You must go through an internet browser to use them. Third, even if stored on a local drive, your data will still reside ”in the Cloud,” which may cause some people privacy concerns. Since Google scans virtually “everything” it comes across, you might not want to go with Google apps for this reason alone.  Fourth, MS Office dominates the office suite market, meaning you’ll be exchanging documents with customers and partners using that format for the foreseeable future. The paid web-based apps like Google apps for Business (priced by each computer/mo.) and Microsoft Office 365 (home or business versions available, priced by monthly subscription) may be better in some ways, but still aren’t always perfectly compatible with the full desktop versions of MS Office. For example, your templates and macros in the version of Office installed on your home or office computer may not work with the Cloud software, or you may not be able to link to an external server, or the Office ribbon won’t have as many choices, or will all of the features of one version be available in the other.  You may not be able to edit graphics as much or as well.  Or change styles as easily or at all.  And most aren’t tablet and touch compatible.  There are lots of differences.  You have to decide what you normally do with your programs and check compatibility before moving everything over to the complete suite.  The little glitches may be meaningless or may be a deal breaker.  Finally, there will be a learning curve switching the software and, no matter how good you are, you should anticipate this.  Compound it if have others that network or collaborate with your files. On your phone, QuickOffice (PC and Mac versions available) has proven to be an excellent and compatible app and is now integrated into Google Drive as well.

What’s Microsoft Office 365 about and should I try that? Office 365 is Microsoft’s “rental” version of Office which is accessed through the cloud.  [Just like the free version of Google Apps (word processor, spreadsheet & presentation) is now located on Google Drive which, of course, competes with Microsoft’s OneDrive (until recently SkyDrive) for cloud storage.  Got it?  Yeah, gotta keep up with these name changes.]  It comes in several versions, such as Personal, Professional, iPad, Home & Student, with varying costs, programs, supported computers and cloud storage limits and charges.  Generally, it works like this:   Instead of paying a couple of hundred dollars for each desktop version, you rent the Office suite for about $7-10 per month per computer or $70/yr.  You set up a free Microsoft account (just as you would a Google account for Google Apps).  You store all of your work product in the cloud and you can access it from multiple devices.  You must log on at least once a month to keep your account.  And it is quite secure, as it supports encryption and you can use permissions.  But it’s not exactly the same as desktop Office, lacking some of the more sophisticated features but adding others not available on a purchased version. On the other hand, it’s updated constantly, and you don’t have to wait for service packs to install.   If you have an organization with many users, it’ll save you money.  Also, if you work from more than one location or have many different devices editing the Office files, it may be a good idea.  Otherwise, the desktop Office may still be your best bet. My rudimentary calculations are that the break-even point is about five or six years:  The cost of a owning new program is in the $400-600 range, vs rental.  But the included free upgrades in the rental versions are worth something, too, as you won’t have to purchase them as you might if you own the program.  For home use, if you go for the Home version if you can find four other persons to share it with you.

But it isn’t the same thing as Office Online, which you really should take a close look at if you’re leaning toward a free cloud-based suite. It has come so far that you’ll be hard-pressed to find features in the paid programs that are offered for free in the Online package.  Office Online’s features and complete compatibility with desktop Office programs run way out ahead of the competition. And both run faithfully inside your favorite Web browser.  To download and use it, you will have to sign up for a free Microsoft account (like when you start Windows 10).  It can be found on the Office home page, where you should avoid the Office 365 trial option at the top, looking instead for the free online apps below.

All of the above being said, it certainly appears that the big guns are moving away from desktop installed software suites and toward cloud based software rental.  It’s the future.

II.  Free-Ware and Open-Ware:  The above problems are more apparent for web-based software, but also apply to free-ware (not residing in the cloud, but on your own computer) like LibreOffice (forked from Open Office, with a redesigned user interface in 2016); soon to be available for Android), Kingsoft Office Suite (which is proprietary, not open), Oxygen OpenOffice; Apache Open Office (formerly a German program named Star Office, later purchased by Sun Microsystems, and later again purchased by Oracle, then again to Apache Software as well as IBM (which used the code for it’s own fork, Lotus Symphony, below); but by then dissatisfaction with the multiple owners’ lack of commitment to the program led it’s developers and backers like Red Hat, Novell and Canonical to defect and fork to LibreOffice) and IBM Lotus Symphony which are free or at minimal cost; available for Windows, Mac, Solaris and Linux).  LibreOffice will save files in the”x” format (i.e. .docx), while Open Office (as of 2016, still won’t), so be aware of this if you have to be compatible with MS Office 2007 users who save this way. It’s also included in the majority of Linux distros as included office software.  And, generally, LibreOffice has faster development, better distribution, a slicker website and a greater focus on meeting customers’ needs.  [Reading between the lines, I personally believe that LibreOffice is the better choice if you decide to go open source.] 

Same for open-ware:  For a small fee for up to 3 users, try SoftMaker Office, at $79.95.   If you’re a home user balking at the high cost of MS Office, either use the Windows built-in word processor (Wordpad) or MS Works, and perhaps that will suffice.  If you are a small office, try and purchase less than the full MS Office package (i.e. Basic, free but ad supported [sometimes still available], or student edition).  Alternatives for text editors (a la Notepad, which was designed for text only) are apps like Programmer’s File Editor, Crimson Editor, TextPad, EditPlus and UltraEdit.  While these apps are primarily designed for code writing, they have many useful features that can be used for those who want to create and edit simple text.

Although web-based and freeware office suites are getting much better, there are still compatibility issues if you’re exchanging work or personal data with others, particularly users of Microsoft Office. If your computer came with freeware and you’re just using it for yourself, it’ll probably suffice.  But beware formatting problems exchanging documents between Open Office and MS Office since Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems (who bought out the original StarDivision developer) in 1999, creating incompatibilities between older Office versions, resulting in the offshoot development of LibreOffice by disgruntled Oracle developers.  Also, LibreOffice doesn’t work with Apple, limiting its usefulness across multiple platform and devices.  Oracle has finally given the code to Apache, so it’s open again, but it’s still not the same thing as the original Open Office. 

II.  Best office apps for Android SmartPhones:  These days, as phones become more like computers, it’s often necessary to create or edit office documents, spreadsheets and presentations on a smart phone.  Here are the highly rated ones:  MobiSystems’ OfficeSuite 8 (both free and paid,with lots of add-ons); Microsoft Word (familiar interface, but lacking some features); Google Docs; Infraware’s Polaris Office; Kingsoft’s WPS Mobile Office (formerly Kingsoft Office); DataViz’s Docs to Go.  The ratings are similar whether it be for documents, spreadsheets, databases or presentations.

ON A RELATED SUBJECT:  See FAQ #45 for a discussion about free e-mail programs. And, for larger businesses, see this excellent 2013 spreadsheet by TechRepublic comparing the costs/features of Office 365 vs. Google Apps.

I know I can read/edit an old Office document in a newer version, but can I do the same with a newer version document and an older Office version?  Yes, you can.  If you don’t have any version of Office and all you want to do is view and print something, download the “viewers” of Word, Excel and Powerpoint directly from the Microsoft site.  If you already have an older version of Office on your computer and you want to edit a file, there is an app named the Office Compatibility Pack that will serve this purpose.  Sinply select the file, then right-click to Open With and select the app.  This is useful if you have an older version of Office (say, 2003) and don’t use it enough to upgrade to a later version or Office 365.  To view files for the discontinued (2012) MS Works, go to TIP #99.

COMPUTER FAQ #18: SHOULD I CONSIDER GETTING A VOIP TELEPHONE SERVICE OR A MAGICJACK?  Services like Vonage and Skype are cost effective and a useful alternative to land line telephone services, particularly for those who have heavy long-distance bills, but there are negatives and limitations.  For a full discussion, see the TELEPHONE page of this site.

COMPUTER FAQ #19: TO UPGRADE (HARDWARE) OR NOT - IS THAT THE QUESTION?  Years ago, when computers cost a lot more and new boards and other components weren’t being introduced and replaced as quickly, upgrading a computer was quite common, just as “overclocking” made the machine faster.  But today, it is usually more cost effective to completely replace the CPU than to upgrade it.  There are several reasons for this:  Main boards are often manufactured for a short period, and can be proprietary, so that they cannot be replaced. [For example, we had a Dell XPS tower, less than a year old, for which we couldn’t get a replacement main board.]  Main boards also have limitations on the processor, RAM and other attachments that cannot be exceeded without replacing some of the other components as well, usually not worth the total cost.  Also, even if only some components can be upgraded on the main board, it often requires additional hardware, such as RAM, fans or heat syncs, which again increase the cost of the upgrade beyond the expense of a new computer (and you’ll still have an old main board).  Many of the less expensive computers have everything on the main board (not separate riser cards), so that the failure or replacement of any major component may well make the entire machine a throw-away. CONCLUSION:  Usually, unless you are increasing the RAM, adding an additional or replacement hard drive or repairing a power supply, these days you’re better off with a new CPU rather than attempting an upgrade.  Check with your computer pro first.  VISTA, WIN7, WIN8 NOTES:  While you can increase the amount of RAM on most boards, the CPU speed might require another main board, or the amount or type of RAM that can be recognized by your main board may be limited, so check your hardware requirements before upgrading your O/S (See #14 above).

COMPUTER FAQ #20: WHAT’RE ALL THOSE “F” KEYS AT THE TOP OF MY KEYBOARD AND WHAT DO THEY DO? Years ago, before the mouse and Windows were invented, computer users had to type “commands” using their keyboards, because that was all they had.  So, for example, if you wanted a word to be shown in bold type, you would type Ctrl+B to start the bold attribute, then Ctrl+B again to stop it after typing the word.  Consequently, computer keyboards were built with so-called “function” keys across the top, which were shortcuts (macros) for keyboard commands.  So, for example, in Word Perfect Version 5, the shortcut for bold might have been the F4 key.  After a while, the 12 function keys were insufficient for all of the new commands, so another 12 resulted from the combination of the Shift+F keys; another 12 with the Ctrl+F keys; still another 12 with the Alt+F keys.  That’s 48 commands. People who used certain programs like word processors actually had templates, and later flip charts, attached to the top of their keyboards detailing all of the function key combinations.  For example, click HERE to see a chart I recently created for Word.  This became rather burdensome, so with the invention of the mouse came the Windows menu bar with its drop-down and fly-out menus, allowing you to see and click on the various commands.  The function keys became largely an anachronism with the exception of certain (usually proprietary) programs which specifically require you to use a real function key.  Still, by force of habit, the standard 101 key IBM-type keyboard retains the function keys.

COMPUTER FAQ #21: WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH MUSIC AND VIDEO DOWNLOAD SITES? Let me explain once again why P2P networks are such a great security threat:  These file-sharing networks (KaZaa, Napster, Morpheus, Limewire and even BitTorrent), when used by the uninitiated (or uncaring) can easily result in the sharing of confidential information, sometimes illegally.   Most often this occurs because users (or their progeny) have installed a P2P program to download music or a TV show, then routinely clicked “O.K.” to all questions during the install process.  One of those questions was undoubtedly which folder to share files from, and often the default is the Windows “My Documents” folder.  The result is that everything, whether business, personal or confidential in the default My Documents folder can be shared, literally with the entire world.  In addition, you are downloading files from an unknown, possibly virus infected, computer which could result in infecting your own computer or even the entire network that you may be connected to.  Even in large businesses, one simple P2P music download can result in the sharing of thousands of confidential or proprietary documents.  If you run a business, you should periodically search the Internet to determine whether you have had any security breaches.  You might be surprised by the results.

COMPUTER FAQ #22: HOW COME MY COMPUTER DOESN’T LOSE THE DATE AND TIME, EVEN WHEN IT’S UNPLUGGED? Your timer coffee pot won’t remember, how come your computer can?  The reason that your computer doesn’t forget the date and the time and “what it is” (its drives, software, settings) is because there is a very small, low voltage battery on the main board that saves these settings.  The battery is commonly a silver nickle-sized device that is held on the board by a spring clip.  As your computer ages, especially if it remains unplugged for lengthy periods of time, the battery will eventually run down, and must be replaced.  If you notice that your Windows clock is losing time, it’s a good indication that it’s time to replace the battery, otherwise you may lose some crucial settings and have to rebuild the BIOS and you may not receive your e-mails properly.

COMPUTER FAQ #23: SHOULD I CONSIDER GETTING A LAPTOP? A NETBOOK? AN iPAD? Laptops can be great.  They take up much less of a physical “footprint” than a desktop and can transported to operate at more than one location.  But there is a cost for this.  Laptops can be more expensive than desktop computers:  The smaller the computer, and the greater number of desktop features, the higher the cost.  Laptops generally have a shorter life - 5 years on the average vs. 7 years for a desktop.  Moreover, the screens can be tiring, as can the smaller keys, odd key layouts and built-in mouse.  For long periods of use, the laptop can be especially tiring, because the screen is lower than a desktop screen, causing you to hunch over, and the mouse and keyboard are closer together, causing more frequent mistakes.  And they run hotter, so you need to keep it well ventilated if you use it a lot, possibly putting it on a “fan pad”. If you truly require a transportable machine or have limited space, a laptop may be correct for you.  Or perhaps a netbook, a tablet (like an iPad) or a smart phone, all of which have more limited capability, may be sufficient for your needs, particularly if you only need the Internet. Figure out what you want it for, there are lots of choices in the portables category.  One more tip:  Because laptops are difficult, expensive and time consuming to repair, usually requiring return to the manufacturer, be sure to get the longest possible warranty and, if offered, the warranty that covers the machine against all damages, including possible abuse.  Even replacement of the screen (the most frequent repair) can cost hundreds of dollars.  (For a discussion of the types and features of laptops, tablets, notebooks, etc. go to “laptop” in the Glossary.) 

COMPUTER FAQ #24: HOW OFTEN SHOULD I SHUT MY COMPUTER AND OTHER HARDWARE OFF?  There’s no single answer to this question.  It depends both on your system and the amount of use.  If you have a business system running, say, Windows Server 2008 software, you should probably never shut down the server.  (In fact, on servers, Shut Down isn’t even offered as an option, except to upgrade software or hardware.)  These type of machines are designed to run continuously, 24x7x365.  The answer for a home computer is slightly different. A good rule of thumb is the “two hour rule”:  Once you’re done with your computer for the moment, you should leave it on if you expect to use it again within the next two hours or so.  If not (perhaps you’ve read your e-mail in the morning and don’t expect to return again until later in the afternoon), then turn it off.  Particularly if it’s a laptop, which generates more heat, which can decrease the overall life of the computer. (See FAQs 27 and 28 about extending laptop battery life.) Of course, if you are having problems due to installation of drivers, Windows Updates or the like, you’ll almost certainly have to cold boot the computer to get it working again. There are some popular misconceptions about power usage that, after researching, I will now dispel:  First, that turning the PC on and off will reduce its performance and useful life.  Absolutely not.  Modern computers are designed to handle some 40,000 on/off cycles before failure.  During an average computer’s 5 to 7 year life span, then, you would have to on-off cycle every five minutes of that time to harm a hard drive.  Not likely.  Second, that the power used turning on the PC negates any power savings resulting from turning it off.  Again, no.  In reality, the small surge of power created when some devices are turned on is vastly smaller than the energy used by running the device when not needed.  Third, that leaving the PC on but running the screen saver will save energy.  Nope.  Screen savers don’t save energy, and some of the more graphic-intensive ones can actually burn even more energy and prevent the computer from going into hibernation. Now, about the printers:  You should always turn off your laser printer at the end of the day or if it’s not going to be used for a while.  The fuser (that hot bar on a laser that uses heat to “fuse” the toner to the paper; see Printers for more) has to be set to a certain continuous temperature in order for the printer to print.  If continuously left on, it not only consumes power, but shortens the life of the fuser itself.  Inkjet printers can consume power as well, but much less, but shut them off anyway when not in use.  Today’s flat panel monitors use less power and generate less heat than the old CRT monitors, but you can and should save power by turning them off when not in use for any substantial period of time. See Tip #34 if you’re going away for a while.

COMPUTER FAQ #25: WHY DO HACKERS AND SPYS DO WHAT THEY DO? This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get.  And there are almost as many explanations as questions.  While there are a few hackers that break into computers and networks just for the fun of showing they can do it (real experts or just “script kiddies”), this is not really the primary reason for hacking.  (Sure, there are a few hackers like the Lizard Squad that hacked the Sony and Microsoft Christmas Day 2014 gaming outages, and which claim that they will hack the Tor anonymous network, but they are very few.)  But computers aren’t inherently good or bad, only their users.  Just like a knife can be either good (when it slices bread) or bad (when it stabs someone), it’s all about the user, not the tool itself.  (Notice how I avoided the “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” cliche?)  That’s why there are Tools of a Crime Laws.   Read on for the actual major reasons why people hack computers...

Denial of Service (“DOS”) attacks, which actually can “shut down” a particular web site, can have their own reasons: Some, like the Twitter DOS assault in August 2009 were politically motivated (silencing blogger Georgy Jalhaia [online known as Cyxymu], a critic of the Russian Government), crippling Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal (where Jalhaia was known to blog).  Or consider the wave of targeted attacks in January, 2010 from China on Google, Adobe and more than 20 other companies that began with users at the targeted companies getting duped by spear phishing messages with poisoned attachments, the main goal of which was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists on their servers. Of course, there is the element of international espionage:  It was revealed in 2013  that China has been running an extensive network of infected computers which have been hacking into U.S. newspapers New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others for years.   Iran claimed (correctly, it turned out) that the U.S. and Israel, both of which have cyberwarfare programs, unleashed the Stuxnet worm in 2010, which allegedly sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program by attacking computers by corrupting centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium (see also similar Flame and Doqu viruses, discussed in Security).  A new type of targeted attack (e.g. Shamoon, which also targeted a single energy-sector group in the Middle East) actually destroys files and data and cripples infected machines, and doesn’t just stop at stealing data.  Other hacks cover up fraud, such as when attackers have stolen ATM information and don’t want victims to be able to see their diminishing balances on their bank’s website.  Disgruntled employees can sabotage their former employer’s web site.  One company, say a car dealer, could knock out a rival dealer’s website on a particularly busy holiday or sale day.  Of course, such overkill often results in crippling tens of thousands of legitimate users of these sites as well (as in the Twitter attack).  Even more onerous, terrorists may be probing networks for electrical grids or military installations, toward disruption of our way of life. 

Why such an increase lately?  If you read the SPYWARE section of this site, you will see that there are many botnets of infected computers all over the Internet, just waiting for the instruction to launch attacks, infect with viruses or send spam.  No password cracking is necessary.  Of late, the creators of these botnets actually “rent” these networks to those willing to pay as little as $200 per incident.  It’s as simple as a couple of clicks and entering an address, no hacking ability necessary.  Hence the doubling of botnet activity in the last year alone. 

As for spam, keyloggers and the like, as discussed in the SPYWARE page of this site, the overriding purpose is to make money.  See, HACKERS. Malware crooks make money many ways:  By selling products (through infected or sham websites or links) that they think users are liable to purchase or order, stealing login credentials (perhaps phishing using names of real companies), pay-per-click fraud (manipulating web traffic through fraud such as page hijackers or pop-ups), selling fake security software (or ransomware), via social media spam (spam from people you know as friends), banking malware (sometimes capturing logins over cell phones via SMS and premium-rate SMS fraud (pirated apps which send SMS messages to premium rate numbers at your expense).  Promoting these hijackers are what is known as “partnyo’rka owners,”  (translated from Russian to English as “partner networks,” kind of like those American multi-level marketing schemes) those affiliate marketing schemes set up to encourage low-level criminals to spread the word about fake luxury goods, Canadian pharmacies, Viagra, Rolexes and the like.  The partnyo’rka operators pay commissions to their workers for each sale, which use various malware such as e-mails, chats, blogs and social media to promote their schemes.  Just to name a few ways they make money.   As bank robber Willie Sutton used to say: “I rob banks because that’s where the money is!”  Consider, for example, the indictment in mid-2010 of three men for “scareware” pop-ups such as AntiVirus 20XX, WinFixer and VirusRemover 20XX, which tricked users into installing malicious software by leading them to believe their computers were infected  (see examples in Security) - They raised $100 million alone on these products by using deceptive screens and checkboxes on web sites.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even legitimate advertising is unbelievably lucrative:  Take Google, for example:  Advertisers bid on specific words or phrases, and Google attempts to show ads to people who are most likely to click on them.  If someone clicks, the advertiser pays Google for that click.  You probably know this.  But how much they pay is often quite surprising.  According to WordStream, the following per-click rates are currently (8/2011) applicable:  “auto insurance price quotes” is $54.91; “consolidate graduate student loans” is $44.28; “alcohol rehab center” goes for $33.59; and “cord blood bank” costs $27.80.  For each click! Yeah, follow the money.

On the corporate data theft side, an illuminating analysis is provided by the 2010 Data Breach Investigation Report jointly issued by Verizon and the U.S. Secret Service.  According to the report, 85% of all stolen data records can be traced to organized crime.  Insiders, like employees, seem to participate in much smaller breaches: While they were actively involved in 48% of the breaches, they were implicated in only 3% of the total records stolen.  Even more surprising, no foreign governments at all were implicated in data thefts.  How do they get the data? 98% was snatched directly from the company servers through malware or hacking.  The second most popular method is by infections requiring user interaction (“click here to clean your system”).  Keyloggers, while making up about 36% of breaches, accounted for only about 1% of the collected data.  Even more interesting, there wasn’t a single reported instance where malware exploited a system or software vulnerability.  Of course, this is just last year’s trends - they may well be different next year.

2014 was the year of the mammoth hacks of corporate credit databases, like those of Target and Neiman-Marcus.  Protection of individual users’ computers won’t protect them from hacks of the corporate servers, which aren’t usually as protected as they should be, subjecting users to liability and theft.  Unless and until the government requires higher encryption and verification levels, it appears that companies won’t change their practices.  Click HERE and HERE for more about how to protect yourself.  And HERE to learn more about how hacking works.

COMPUTER FAQ #26: HOW DO I CHARGE A CELL PHONE BATTERY AND HOW LONG WILL IT LAST? Depending on its usage, your cell phone may last from six hours to six days on a single charge. The older batteries were made of nickel cadmium; they suffered from memory loss.  If you didn’t fully charge and then fully discharge it each time, it would hold a progressively smaller amount of juice.  The newer lithium-ion batteries don’t suffer from such memory loss - it’s safe to “top off” the battery because they can’t be overcharged - the device’s circuitry cuts off the power when full.  However, battery manufacturers still recommend that laptops not be continually connected to power once the battery is charged to capacity.  And, if it won’t be used for several months, they recommend that it be stored in a fifty percent charge state.  Eventually, every battery will fail to hold a new charge for very long, and it will be time to replace it.  Generally, batteries can be fully charged and discharged for a fixed number of “cycles,” usually between 300 and 500 cycles. And some of the newer batteries on the market (such as Sanyo’s Eneloops NiMh Pre-Charged) are capable of running a lot of electronic devices for a long time.   [For further information, check your battery manufacturer’s website, or go to ]  Also, keep an eye out for any recalls on Li-ion batteries to avoid damage to your electronics (like the disasters with the overheating iPhone 3GS cells, Dell’s 4.1 million laptop battery recall in 2006, the Tesla Roadster meltdown in 2012 and the 787 Dreamliner fleet grounding in 2013, to name the biggies.)  But don’t get nervous about it, these recalls are quite rare. NOTE ABOUT THE PAD TYPE CHARGERS:  I thought that the “universal” chargers manufactured by Powermat and WildCharge were going to make it easier to charge all my mobile devices.  Just stick your phone, iPod, iPad on the charger when you get home and let it charge.  Not exactly.  Most devices require some sort of retrofit.  Seems that for devices such as the iPhone, Blackberry, Nintendo and iPod Touch, you have to get either a special (larger, thicker) battery door, case or dongle.  Doesn’t that defeat the point?  I have noticed that in 2015 some Samsung ads show wireless charging by simply placing the phone on a pad, but I don’t know if the phone is thicker because it includes internal technology.  But for the most part, inductive type chargers generate heat (see FAQ #28, below) and that’s never good for the life of your battery or your phone.  UPDATE:  In 2014, two new technologies have been introduced which may be used at longer distances from the device and may charge faster. But they still require some additional hardware retrofit. See Wireless Charging for more.  Solar chargers? Try these - Surfr iPhone 6 ($99 for iPhnes); JOO Orange ($149), Brunton ($175), PowerAdd Apollo 2 ($39.99), SolarMonkey Adventurer ($130), SunVolt ($99), and PowerFilm USB Mini-Rollup.  Most work with iPhones many with Android phones.  Some are attached to the phone case, others are more full-blown external panels.  Some can power more than one device, and some have higher voltages.  Investigate and see for yourself, there are new ones coming out every day.

COMPUTER FAQ #27: I HAVE A LAPTOP.  IS IT BAD TO LEAVE IT PLUGGED IN ALL THE TIME WITH THE BATTERY INSIDE? No. Once it’s charged 100%, it will stop charging and will work on your home or office power. It won’t hurt the battery, though, to leave it plugged in all the time (although some say Li-Ion batteries work best when only 20-80% charged, not 100%.  Who knows?). Of course, any battery will still slowly degrade over time whether it’s plugged in or not, so don’t expect it to last more than three years or so either way (see next topic for more discussion).  It’ll still degrade even if you unplug it and leave it in a drawer, too; but at least it’ll provide some surge protection if you leave it plugged in.  On the other hand, if it’s removed, it’s arguable that your computer might run cooler and conceivably last longer with the additional ventilation.

COMPUTER FAQ #28: HOW DO I EXTEND THE LIFE OF MY LAPTOP OR CELLPHONE BATTERY? [Most recent devices have lithium ion (“Li-ion” or “LIB”) batteries, as opposed to the older NiCd or Ni-MH types, measured in mAh (milliamps/hour) so these comments are limited to this type.] Battery experts recommend the following:  Keep your batteries at room temperature, well ventilated and especially away from heat.   Because batteries deteriorate about the same over time, whether or not they’re used, getting two at the same time doesn’t help much.  [Don’t store them in your refrigerator, in a sealed plastic bag or in a hot shed or garage.  Li-Ion batteries are negatively affected by both heat and cold (although cold causes less battery and phone damage), so they’re meant to be stored and used at room temperature.]   Similarly, don’t leave your cell phone in your car or on your car’s dashboard when you are not driving (this includes those clips for your phone which attach it to your air vents for GPS directions).  You can purchase a “high capacity” lithium ion battery (see mAh), which will probably last longer.  (Don’t forget to check the manufacturing date, get one that’s recent; some of those Internet specials probably aren’t.  And Li-Ion batteries work best at 40% to 80% charge, so they should be good out of the box, without further charging).  Generally, don’t completely discharge a lithium ion battery, with one exception: Some experts say that, after about 30 charges or more, you should almost completely discharge (see below) then recharge the battery, eliminating the condition known as “digital memory,” which results in decreasing accuracy in your device’s power gauge, among other things.  Discharge resets the gauge.  (I’m not sure about this, what if you unintentionally and inadvertently go below 10%?)  Whatever you do, never completely discharge a lithium ion battery, because if it falls below 2.5 volts per cell, a safety circuit built into the battery opens and the battery will appear to be dead, and cannot normally be resuscitated with the  original charger (a special charger with a “boost function” may have a chance of restoring power).  If you must store a laptop battery, never store if fully charged, you’ll be sorry.  You should discharge it to about 40%, then store it in a cool place (refrigerator is O.K., but not the freezer).  This information is equally applicable to your cell phone battery.  You can try using rechargeable batteries (if made for your device), but be aware that, the nickle-metal-hydride (“NiMH”) batteries, while more powerful than the old nickle-cadmium (“NiCad”) ones and have less of the memory discharge issues, lose charge relatively quickly, which is why those types of batteries have such a low rate of “self discharge” that they can be left continuously on their chargers without any damage.  Li-Ion batteries, which have a low self discharge rate have chargers with special circuitry that reduces the danger of overcharging by tapering off the charging current, and that’s why you should always use only the charger that came with your device, even though the plugs from an older charger may fit your cell phone.  Generally, the act of charging a battery is bad for it, but most people upgrade every two years anyway.  And using the fast-charge feature, which speeds up charging by allowing power to pulse into the battery in specific modulations, thus increasing the speed at which the lithium ions in the battery travel from one side to the other, can cause the battery to discharge more quickly and lead lithium-ion and lithium-polumer batteries to corrode faster than they might otherwise. Or, if it works with your device, try the Eneloop NIMH battery from Panasonic (successor to Sanyo Corp.) and Rayovac, which holds up to a 90% charge for up to a year.  But it’ll cost ya! - $30 or so for an 8-pack.  And don’t forget to add the cost of the (correct) charger, as chargers aren’t interchangeable.  To recap, the best way to protect your batteries and maximize their life is to avoid heat buildup, use the proper charger, avoid electrical fluctuations (get a good surge protector), don’t continuously charge your phone or battery, and don’t drain it down to zero. 

Physically, there are ways to increase battery power: Get an asolar and wind charger1dditional battery, or a high capacity battery.  (See e.g. batteries, discussing Eneloop and others.) Batteries are rated in milli-ampere-hours (“mAh”), the higher the rating, the longer it will last per charge.  (See the definition for more about this.)  Get battery chargers - car chargers, power inverters for cars, home docks, juice packs (extended batteries) and chargers, even solar chargers (see photo at right for the K3 wind/solar charger, about $25) to name just a few choices.  See the discussion and references at the end of FAQ #26 above for more.  For emergency charges there are devices like the Energizer Instant Charger for Micro USB Phones ($19.95; transfers the charge from 3 AAA batteries to any device with a Micro USB port); the Anker Astro E5 Portable Charger ($49.99; same as the Energizer, but draws from AC current); if you want to put in some effort, the SOS Charger Hand-Crank Emergency Cell Phone Charger ($29.99; enough to get your cell phone on life support), the Soladec Hybrid All-in-One ($79; has multiple power inputs); and the American Red Cross FRX3 Hand Turbine ($42.99; hs it all - emergency radio, flashlight, hand grank, power source).  You can get them from your phone manufacturer, service provider, stores like Radio Shack or on-line sources like Amazon

Adjust your settings to conserve battery power:  You can further extend the charge life of your cell phone battery by dimming the display, turning off searching features (e.g. for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS or backing down from 4G to 3G networks), checking mail manually, turning on “airport” mode or using various conservation apps like Advanced Task Manager or Carat, depending on the O/S of your phone. Most cell phones and many other devices have internal apps to do this.  [See Tip #67 for more.] But don’t expect a major difference unless you’re a heavy user of these services, in which case you won’t shut them down anyway. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS don’t drain your battery unless you’re using them, not just turning them on, so it’s not a big a battery drain as you think. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not the Internet that drains battery power most, it’s gaming apps.

And, to answer another frequently asked question - CAN A BAD BATTERY HURT MY COMPUTER? - the answer is no.  If you’re on electric power, it’s not being used.  If not, it’ll just shut your machine off, and you may lose your data if you’re working on something at the time (and ignore the warnings), but it will have no effect on performance nor will it damage your computer.  Also, using the device while it’s charging causes no damage; off-brand chargers won’t damage your device if they’ve got the right connection and mAh; and don’t worry about battery “memory,” it doesn’t exist (just don’t drain it 100%).  There are lots of websites that devote space to this subject (see, e.g. Battery University, referenced in FAQ #26 above).

COMPUTER FAQ #29: I’M GETTING A NEW COMPUTER, DO I HAVE TO WIPE MY HARD DRIVE AND, IF SO, HOW MUCH?  HOW ABOUT MY CELL PHONE?  Whether discarding your old computer, or just your old hard drive, it’s always a good idea to “wipe” or “sanitize” (i.e. erase) your personal data off of the drive.  Not only that, if you have installed any programs other than those that came with the computer, you should also uninstall those and wipe any data associated with them, otherwise you may not be able to reinstall them on your new computer.  How seriously you should delete your data and programs depends on what you stored on your computer and how you used it.  [Personally, I don’t buy those old wives tales about hammering the drive, crushing it with your car tire, drilling it with a drill press, setting it on fire, soaking it overnight in salty water, boiling it, microwaving it,  or running a magnet over it; most newer drives are immune to shock and magnetism.]  If someone is motivated to get your data, these aren’t dependable choices.]  If it has just a bunch of website “favorites” (bookmarks) on it, then it’s no big deal.  Erase your e-mail account, favorites, browsing history and documents, and you’re safe.   If you use online banking or bill paying, erase your web links from your favorites, and also your cookies, which might contain some data.  Nothing else is on your computer from those sites.  But if you use the computer for business, investing or tax purposes, then you might want to consider “wiping” all information off the entire drive.  Just “deleting” the data may not do the trick.  In fact, when you cut, move, delete or otherwise erase a file from any location on your computer, Windows doesn’t normally do anything to the file’s original data but, instead, the file’s header is simply changed to mark the space as available for reuse (until overwritten at a later time). If it hasn’t been overwritten yet, then the original data can be recovered with any unerase, undelete or file-recovery tool.  Some say that it is sufficient to merely reinstall Windows, selecting the option to delete all existing partitions, possibly encrypting the disk before reformatting it (from the elevated prompt cipher /w:c:). For those who don’t want to spend the time and effort to do that, there are many free and paid programs that will adequately wipe a drive (Dban and KillDisk come to mind).  Many promise that they make multiple “passes” over the disk in order to fully erase that data (so-called “government” wiping).  It may not really be all that necessary: This technology originated a long time ago when data could be found and restored because it was stored more contiguously; these days, with faster drives and different technology, the only gain from multiple passes is drive wear and time lost. Besides, if someone wants to get your data, there are lots easier ways (key logging, social networking, malware and the like) and few people are running around willing to spend the time and expense of decoding discarded drives.  Unless you’re in the mob or on the run from the IRS, you probably don’t require sophisticated drive wiping technology.  And, if you’re really into wiping info, don’t forget to wipe (or just overwrite) your router settings as well if you’re discarding the router.  Now, that being said, if you require professional drive wiping, standard tools may not be adequate.  Sophisticated recovery tools can now unravel many passes of overwriting and even read between the tracks to recover some lost data.  And SSDs can’t be overwritten, because they have hardware-level protection that prevents writing to the same disk area over and over, so the overwrite data may actually be saved to a new area instead.  What to do?  Use the SAFE (Scramble and Finally Erase) process recommended by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (see Associations):  First, encrypt the some or all of the data on the drive.  Then, use a proven disk-erase tool to wipe the drive.  For more about erasing SSD type drives, see the definition or click HERE.

On a related subject, when you sell, trade or give away your old cell phone, you should also erase your personal data (photos, documents, links, etc.) before doing so.  But you should be aware that if you have an Android phone (not an Apple or Blackberry), even if you think you’re deleted your data, it may still be there, just hidden.  This, according to a 2014 study by Avast, the data isn’t overwritten and only the file references are deleted, so that someone who would want access to that data could probably retrieve it. Click HERE for a link to unscrupulous repair stores that delight in copying your naked selfies for their own amusement or, even worse, reposting or selling.  How you erase cell phone data depends on large part on your particular brand and model of phone.  Also where you stored your data (e.g. on the phone or a SIM card).  If it’s on the SIM card, you can remove it and scrub it by connecting it to your PC, but flash memory is much more difficult.  There are often apps available to do this lots easier.  Try Sanidroid or iShredder3, almost free.  If you have any trouble, any phone store can help you.  Or, simply first encrypt it, then manually erase it; at least it’ll be encrypted if anyone gets into it.

COMPUTER FAQ #30: HOW CAN I BEST PROTECT MY COMPUTER FROM VIRUSES & SPYWARE? Click here for the link to the SPYWARE page and a discussion (“How to Protect Yourself”) about how to protect yourself from viruses, intrusions, spyware, keyloggers, social interaction and the like.  Also, the BASELINE  for how to maintain your computer.

COMPUTER FAQ #31: SHOULD I GET A WIRELESS ROUTER AND, IF SO, WHICH ONE?  Wireless routers not only help you get an Internet signal throughout your house, or even outside of your house quite easily, but also allow several users connected to that router to access the Internet simultaneously.  So, while you’re using the Internet in your office, your wife could use the Internet in the kitchen to get a recipe, while your kids could be gaming on the Internet out at the pool.  An additional benefit is that wireless routers have a built-in firewall to protect you from malicious hackers.  A router is an electronic box that takes the Internet signal received from the cable or DSL modem, splits it up into at least four signals, and broadcasts them either wired or wirelessly to computers throughout your home or office.  They cost between $60 and $150 and come in current versions known as “G” and “N”.  The “N” series are faster (you can download that movie in less time)  and have more range (can pass through more physical obstacles and travel further).  I recommend the N series at a minimum, AC is better.  Also, if you expect interference from other electronic devices such as cordless phones and microwave ovens) the N series routers can also be “dual band” which is a little more costly but solves these potential issues.  Finally, there are “Powerline” routers, which operate through your electrical system, but they can be slower and spotty.  The newer ones are much faster, though, and can be used to create “hybrid” wired and wireless networks.  See the discussion HERE.  In reality, your Internet travels at only 5 to 11 Mbps, far less than the 300 Mbps that the N signal transmits.  But, if you’re downloading large files or transferring files between computers, it may be necessary.  Also, if you have the choice, always use a cable to connect to the router (for example on your main computer), as it will always be twice as fast (100 Mbps vs. 54Mbps) as wireless.  Finally, if you’re buying a router now or in the future, make sure it is IPv6 compatible, as this will be necessary for future web surfing.  Dual Stack IPv4/IPv6 is fine. Click HERE to link for more about IPv.  But don’t expect your router speeds to be as advertised.  There is always a difference between its advertised speed, ceiling speed and real-world speed.  Ceiling speed is the maximum theoretical speed in a controlled environment, which can be adversely affected by the network and other factors (see, e.g. Amdahl’s law).  The advertised speed is just that, just as misleading as the top speed on your auto speedometer - it’s there but not necessarily attainable.  Your real-world speed depends on a number of factors, including your broadband connection, network cables anddevices and router type. An example:  The Linksys EA8500 has an advertised speed of 2533Mbps, and a ceiling speed of 1,733 but a real-world speed of 437.8!  Other routers are similar.  And remember that the speeds will drop to the maximum Wi-Fi speed of the connected device or the slowest device on the network.

COMPUTER FAQ #32: SHOULD I GET A 32 BIT OR A  64 BIT WINDOWS SYSTEM?   First of all, if you’re not even sure what the difference is, you’d better click HERE.  Now, even though the 64 bit version of Windows has been available since the introduction of XP in 2005, very few processors were available back then with 64 bit architecture, so getting it was kind of pointless.  Not much 64 bit software was written, either.  Now, virtually every piece of hardware supports 64 bit, including printer and card drivers.  So, should you go to 64 bit and, if so, why?  The answer is yes, it’s here and it’s the future.   One of the primary benefits is that the 64 bit registers make it possible to surpass the 32 bit 4GB RAM limitation, so you can increase your RAM to 8GB (Win 7 Starter and Home Basic), 16GB (Home Premium) or even up to 192GB (Professional and Ultimate versions).  RAM is far less expensive than processors and even a moderate increase in RAM will noticeably speed up your operations, particularly if you are running several things at once or are using memory-hogging applications such as video, music and image editing. Why not, then?  If you are running some sort of proprietary program that will not operate on a 64 bit system (you have to check this; also check to see if it might still run on XP compatibility mode, even if it won’t run in 64 bit mode), or if you have legacy hardware that doesn’t have 64 bit drivers, and you want to keep it; or if you have some applications (used to be iTunes, Google’s Chrome or Adobe Flash, all of which seem to be O.K. now) which don’t play well with Win 7 64 bit; or if you just don’t need the power -  then you might want to hold back on the upgrade.  Otherwise, it’s a good bet now and for the future.  If you’re buying a new computer, you’re probably safe.  If you’re upgrading, check the Windows site for the minimum hardware recommendations to be sure you’re safe.

COMPUTER FAQ #33: CAN COMPUTER VIRUSES HARM HARDWARE?  We’ve heard this question enough that it bears answering:  Yes.  Computer viruses can harm your computer hardware as well as the hardware that it may control.  Witness the Stuxnet virus of 2010, which was used to burn out the centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program by causing them to increase their speed until they self-destructed.  Your computer accepts and generates instructions that control itself and other hardware and, when those instructions are corrupted, the hardware can suffer.  That being said, most viruses don’t do this, but instead are content to spy on you or use your contacts to make money by redirecting your searches toward sites where they can make money off of you.

COMPUTER FAQ #34: CAN I RECOVER A FILE I HAVE DELETED?   We’ve all done it - that “d-oh” moment when we realize we deleted a file we now need.  It just can’t be gone forever.  Can it?  The good news is that with the newer operating systems, there’s at least some chance that it may be recoverable.  But first, let’s get this straight:  If you’ve never saved the file, it’s gone forever.  It you’ve created a document, then didn’t save it when prompted, it’s gone.  That’s it.  But if you’ve actually created and saved it at one time or another, it may be retrievable. [This includes the “autosave” and “backup” features in many newer word processors, if you’ve enabled them.]  These are your choices:  Recent deletions may be recovered from the Recycle Bin (all recent versions of Windows have this feature).  Not so recent?  Try the Restore Previous Versions function if you have Windows 7.  Also, if you have Windows 7 backup or other proprietary backup software, you can recover using that.  Finally, you may be able to recover it from an old System Image.  But remember that System Restore won’t save earlier versions of your data files. (see Computer Tips #23 for more).  If it’s really, really important (e.g. a tax return), and it hasn’t been overwritten (which depends on how long ago you deleted it), a computer expert may be able to recover it (see FAQ #64).  But it’ll cost.

COMPUTER FAQ #35: HOW MUCH SHOULD I TRUST CUSTOMER SUPPORT?  In a perfect world, the technical support from every vendor, including Microsoft and Apple, would demonstrate a complete knowledge of their products and interactions.  But, alas, this isn’t always the case.  First, let me say that there are many technical support people who are excellent.  Apple, particularly, usually delivers a high level of support, although I’ve had a few exceptions, probably newbies.  Microsoft and Linksys are also usually pretty good, although you may have to go to a higher level of support to reach the more knowledgeable reps.  The lowest level simply uses “cookbooks” of instructions that the rep parrots back to you, having no personal experience with your problem.  But, in general, because customer support isn’t an income generating part of the company, it suffers from poor training, out-sourcing and lack of response and is often judged more by the number of calls handled per day rather than customer satisfaction (despite the survey you may complete).  Forgetting the more obvious problems of not understanding what the tech is saying (poor English or communication skills), knowing that they’re wrong and either getting no return calls or e-mails, watch out for the following:  Any tech who tells you that the answer to your problem is to either (1) purchase additional software to diagnose or correct the problem, (2) reformat and reinstall your system [probably failing to mention that all will be lost] or (3) taking control over your system remotely without telling you what he will be doing while he is doing it.  [Also, beware the Ctrl + F5 trap, click HERE.]  It’s like telling you that, in order to fix that sink leak in your bathroom, you have to strip the room down to the walls, then rebuild it.  These are signs that you have a “one solution tech rep” who gives the same solution to everyone and who probably either doesn’t fully understand the software and its interaction with operating systems or wants to get you off the phone fast. Overkill would be an understatement.  A professional computer consultant has lots of tools and skills at his disposal to attempt to solve the problem short of refomatting.   You’re far better off  either Googling, checking blogs or forums or even checking the vendor’s FAQs before calling for technical support.   But Beware:  Many of those people on blog and tech support sites that offer advice can’t see your computer directly, so their solutions may be incorrect, inappropriate or even damaging to your computer.  I’ve seen this happen.  There’s no substitute for sitting in front of a damaged computer and seeing the whole picture.  The internet advice might have worked on someone else’s computer, but they might have actually had a completely different problem than yours, just the same symptoms.  Don’t trust just anyone because they claim they have a solution.  Free advice isn’t always reliable advice.

Phonetic AlphabetTIP:  Whether you are dealing with an English-speaking phone tech or one from a foreign country, everyone knows the phonetic alphabet used by military and companies.  So it often helps to use this when providing serial numbers, account numbers and other information to the online technicians.  At the right is the uniform information for this purpose:

COMPUTER FAQ #36: WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO TRANSFER DOCUMENTS TO MULTIPLE RECIPIENTS?  We get asked this quite a bit.  Say you’re having a meeting and want to make sure all seven recipients, not all of which are in your office, get a copy of your fifteen page document ahead of time.  What are your choices?  Well, of course you could print, collate, staple and deliver it to each of them.  That’d be time consuming, expensive and use lots of trees.  Then again, you could e-mail to each of them, letting them decide whether to print it out, but that assumes that each has the correct program and version to open it, and retain the formatting, which may be important to you.  This may be easier if you are in a cloud environment, which will be consistent, at least within a company, but what about outsiders?  Your best bet is to transmit a PDF file.  [If you have most Office versions after 2010, this feature is built-in.]  It will retain the formatting intended by the sender, will be secure, and is compressed for faster transmission.  Most of the newer Office programs even include a “Save as PDF” button right there for you.  And, even if you don’t have Adobe Acrobat, which can cost a bit, there are lots of free programs such as PDFCreator, deskPDF and CutePDF, all of which will do the trick nicely (See Links).

COMPUTER FAQ #37: WHAT IS MY RESPONSIBILITY TO PRESERVE DOCUMENTS FOR E-DISCOVERY?  If you’re in any type of business, odds are that someday, you’ll be unlucky enough to be involved in a lawsuit.  And, if you are, you’ll be asked to produce whatever documents are relevant or may possibly produce relevant information about the litigation.  Even if you’re not a direct party to the dispute.  Years ago, this was bad enough.  It was reams of paper.  But now, in the electronic information age, it’s a serious burden.  Consider: Not just paper documents, but audio and video tapes, e-mails, texts, collaborations and all of their incremental backups at the very least.  Wherever it’s stored:  Computers, laptops, iPads, cell phones, all of them.  It is therefore imperative that you prepare for this immediately, before any litigation, because if you can’t timely comply with a court-ordered discovery request, you may suffer severe consequences.  See, Laws.  Developing your storage and identification strategy well before litigation will make it so you can identify and retrieve the relevant documents quickly and easily and won’t be in the position of altering the metadata (the data about the data) which attaches to it.  Also, you won’t be risking failure to comply with a litigation “hold” order.  You should consider your business processes, the data that they generate, how the data created and stored and who is in charge of it.  It may even dictate how you archive and back up your data.  This proactive approach does consume some thought and time, but it will save you time, cost and liability in the event of litigation, when it will probably be too late and may well bring your organization to a standstill.  See, Disaster Recovery Plans for more.

COMPUTER FAQ #38: COMPUTER CLEANING: MY COMPUTER KEEPS SHUTTING DOWN, WHAT CAN I DO? Computers can shut down, with or without rebooting, for any number of reasons.  Viruses, failing hard drives or power supplies, power surge damage, to name a few.  But by far the most common cause is overheating, so check this first.  And it’s an easy fix.  If you’ve ever looked inside your computer case (or unscrewed the back of your laptop), you’ll notice a number of fans and a finned metal heat sink over the processor and maybe another on the video card.  When these parts accumulate dust (see photo at right), they can be far less efficient in their duties cooling the computer chip and other parts in the case, even shutting the computer down completely.   The heat sink wicks heat off of the processor chip over which it is attached; the fans remove heat from the boards and case.  Most parts operate efficiently at temperatures below Dust clog100 degrees or so, but the temperature of a chip can exceed five times that if there is a problem.  [Luckily, most motherboards have a fail-safe that will shut down the computer if it suspects overheating.  That’s one indication of an overheating issue.]  Often, just removing the cover, then (gently) removing the dust on those parts with a vacuum or canned air will solve the problem.  On older computers, if the problem persists and you feel mechanical, you may have to remove the heat sink, scrape off the special thermal paste that cements it to the chip, and put in new paste before reassembling.  Or oiling the fan spindle, if you know how. (See Tip #88)  There are several programs (e.g. Intel Active Monitor, SpeedFan) available on-line which let you monitor your system’s temperatures if you feel like trying them, and your motherboard manufacturer should be able to tell you the proper temperature range.  If the problem still persists, at least your system is clean.

COMPUTER FAQ #39: HOW CAN I SET UP PARENTAL CONTROLS FOR MY KIDS?  Once you face the fact that many kids (or their helpful friends) will welcome the opportunity to figure out how to get around any controls you install, there are many types of controls you can set up.  The younger your children are, the more success you will have.  Easiest are the controls which come built right in to you operating system.  In current Windows systems, you should first set up unique user accounts for each child.  (Control Panel>Add or Remove User Accounts>Create New Account).  Once it is set up, click on the “Set Up Parental Controls” link where it says “Additional Things You Can Do”.  You will see a screen  which will let you set up time limits for use, game ratings, program limits and the like.  If you sign up for a Windows Live ID (free), you can do more.  After you sign in, you will notice an option to “Monitor Account” to the right of each of the accounts.  If you check that option and select a Family Safety Member for monitoring (both web and offline activities), it’ll walk you through the setup.  Once installed, you can block websites and other activities, and enable or disable lots of other features, including how often and how to view the activity report.  Want even more?  There are lots of specialized programs, both free and paid, as well as settings from various ISPs, such as AOL. RELATED: Check on the apps that your kids are using on their cell phones - the way that most connect to social media sites.  Used to be that everyone was on FaceBook, but there are lots more apps now.  Currently the most popular apps are Snapchat, Kik, Whisper, Twitter and, of course, texting.  And there are programs that they can download to put all of these programs into a “folder” so that it’s hidden from the desktop, so prying (parental) eyes can’t see what their kids are up to.  For concerned parents, Googling “parental controls for social networking” will provide lots of links to educate you about how to monitor your kids’ activities (if you can get the phone from them).

COMPUTER FAQ #40: WHY CAN’T I PLUG IN MY HEADSET, MOUSE OR KEYBOARD ON MY NEW LAPTOP?  In the world of computers, things are constantly changing.  Keyboard plugs have evolved from DIN to PS2 to USB connectors, mice from serial to PS2 to USB connectors.  Now, headsets have changed connectors from the two-prong type (audio and mic) to a single pin headphone connector for both.  While adaptors are sometimes available to bridge the gap for these changes, it’s not guaranteed that they will work or continue to work.  For more, see photos at Connectors.

COMPUTER FAQ #41: HOW CAN I PROTECT MY CELL PHONE AGAINST HACKING?  Now that cell and smart phones have replaced many laptops for mobile apps, they can be hacked just like the computers they are:  Hackers can remotely listen to your calls, read your texts, track your movements, snap photos with your cell camera, even access your passwords to bank and billing accounts.  A sophisticated hacker can even have your phone transmit audio and video when it is turned off, allowing them access to intimate encounters or sensitive business negotiations.  Most compromises come through what’s called the “man-in-the-middle” attack (see Spyware), which is when someone hacks into the phone’s operating system and reroutes data to make a pit stop at a snooping third party before sending it on to its destination.  How to protect yourself:  The only sure way is to remove your phone’s battery (or maybe use a prepaid disposable SIM card, if your carrier uses cards), but that’s a big inconvenience for something that may never happen.  Many of the usual cautions for computers apply:  If you receive a message from your cell phone provider asking for permission to “re-provision” or alter any of your phone’s settings due to some network outage or other problem, don’t click O.K. but call the carrier directly to verify this.  Same for downloading apps from an unknown developer.   Don’t agree to grant permissions to app developers that may be overreaching, like making phone calls or playing audio when it doesn’t seem to be necessary for a game.  Don’t download free unofficial versions of popular apps.   Look for unexplained increases or charges on your cell phone bill, delayed e-mails or texts, slowness in receiving e-mails and shortened battery life.  Try to use 3G rather than Wi-Fi if available, 3G is much more secure. 

DO download anti-virus and anti-malware apps as well as security updates for your phone.  Many apps are trash or even dangerous to your cell phone.  But don’t just blindly download from the Google App Store. Instead try and stick with a known provider.  Some suggestions:  Avast Mobile Security & AntivirusKaspersky; Lookout Security & Antivirus (free and paid; even has tools for lost/stolen phones) [most work with Apple as well].  Don’t forget an app to locate and, if necessary, remotely wipe your stolen or lost phone.  I’ve found that the feature included within the Android Device Manager works quite well for this purpose.  A password and even a password manager might be an excellent idea, depending on your usage habits.  If you have a VPN, make sure it has good encryption (use VyprVPN (3 day free trial, $7 - 10/mo thereafter), ExpressVPN ($8 - 13 mo with money-back 30 day guarantee), IP Vanish ($5 - 10 mo with one week money-back guarantee), Hotspot Shield (free ad based version, $2.50 per year with ad-free Elite version) or the like.).  And don’t forget to back up your data (text and images) if you need it (see FAQ #6, above).  When you dispose of your cell phone, sanitize it (see FAQ #29).  And, if you’re going through a break-up or divorce consider the points mentioned in FAX #81.

COMPUTER FAQ #42: HOW CAN I USE MY SMART PHONE TO ACCESS MY HOME VIDEO CAMERA?  There are lots of apps available for this, many of which come with the cameras themselves (e.g. Linksys), but one of the easiest is iCam.  Download the iCamSource from, then select your webcam from the drop-down list next to “video source,” create a user name and password and (if necessary) permit it access through your firewall.  This assumes you have a computer webcam; if you purchase an IP webcam, that’s slightly different.  To get started, get either the Android or iOS app and install it.  After you log in with your U/N and P/W, you’ll be able to see your cameras.  Of course, you have to leave the cameras and computer on and connected to the Internet to do this.  There are several preferences that you can fine tune (e.g. motion detection, which may require you to store the stills in a Dropbox folder, pan and zoom (if your camera allows these features), etc.  But it’s easy to configure and, once set up, quite impressive.  BUT NOTE THIS WARNING:  Some of these units are easily hackable.  See Security.  Particularly if you’re using the older easy setup wireless cameras which transmit over the 2.4Ghz band (like Linksys and others), your wireless cameras, often used for baby monitors, home security and even businesses, are startlingly susceptible to interception. People can see if you’re home or at work and view the premises.  They may even show up on those wireless cameras installed on cars and trucks to prevent backup accidents.  Best to use better encrypted and protected software than the simple software that comes with these cameras, even at additional cost, then you’ll be protected.

COMPUTER FAQ #43: IS IT GOOD TO RUN MORE THAN ONE ANTI-VIRUS PROGRAM ON A COMPUTER AT ONCE?  Just as it isn’t a good idea to daisy chain surge protectors (see FAQ #10), running more than one anti-virus program on the same computer isn’t a very good idea, either.  Not only will it slow down your machine by fighting each other to scan and open programs, it will probably shut down one of the programs by determining that it is a virus itself.  Get a good anti-virus program and trust it.  Note that this doesn’t refer to anti-spam or anti-spyware programs, which can usually exist side-by-side without causing much interference.

COMPUTER FAQ #44: WHAT IS WIRELESS TV OR INTERNET TV AND HOW DOES IT WORK?  Here’s the deal with wireless TVs:  Maybe 10 years ago, Panasonic and others made “wireless” TV’s which you just plugged into a wall outlet and then watched “live” broadcast TV.  No cable or antenna connector was necessary.  They don’t make these TVs any longer*.  And they were expensive anyway.  Now, they’ve been replaced with newer so-called “wireless” TVs, which are actually devices that relay TV programs, videos and movies from a computer to a television via your wireless computer network.  [You can also connect to Internet TV, of course, either (1) directly with cables or wirelessly, through a computer, set top box (like Apple TV, Apple TV, Roku or Amazon Fire TV), video game player (like Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii), or (2) if you have an older (non-smart of internet TV) a special dongle like ChromeCast or Sony Smart Stick (see FAQ 68 below) or Samsung HomeSync (see FAQ #46 below)Or even the Aero broadcast service (if the Supreme Court doesn’t put them out of business, see LAWS.] Most new TVs, at least the larger ones, now have the built-in “smart” capability to access the Internet directly, so the dongles aren’t required any more. Either way, you’ll still have to subscribe to a service like Netflix or Hulu for a choice of content.  But Smart TVs do cost more and, depending on your needs, it may be cheaper to buy a standard TV and add a device like HomeSync, above.

But wireless is really a misnomer.  You cannot relay “streaming” real-time broadcast TV from a computer to wireless TVs like the old wireless TVs.  UPDATE:  Actually, now you can.  Verizon FIOS Quantum and also some versions of Comcast advertise that your can view streaming live TV on any devices connected to your account.  There may be restrictions.  For example, CBS All Access doesn’t stream to most cities here in Florida.  And you still get those same repetitive  commercials. Of course, so does Hulu and most of the others, but not Netflix.  And starting 2016, Netflix will allow your to download (some, not all) programs for later viewing, perhaps on a plane.  See for reviews of these services.  Most services, however, will only let you relay programs after a delay of a day or more (e.g. Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime).  You will not be able to receive live TV wirelessly in real time from your local network channels, like you can on your wired cable TV. (Well, maybe.  See above.)   If it’s available in your area, you may be able to use an antenna or antenna-like service like Aero (If the Supreme Court allows it.  They’re deciding right now.  Check LAWS for progress.  Nope, they’re shut down.)  An additional benefit of the online television services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime is the expanding presence of their own original programming, which can be quite good.  Shows like  “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix), “The Awesomes” (Hulu) and “Betas” (Amazon) are all going well past their first seasons, have received awards and each service is now working on additional shows and genres.   [*One exception: You may still be able to purchase a “wireless kit” (from a supplier like Actiontek or AITech, about $229) which will broadcast a live TV signal from your cable box to the TV. But first you must have an existing Hi-Definition cable box, one with an HDMI connection (although there are still some legacy analog wireless kits available, too).  Next, you have to attach the broadcast box to the cable box with an HDMI cable.  Then, you have to attach a receiver box to the wireless TV with its own HDMI cable.  These boxes aren’t very big, and the receiver box could probably be attached to the back of the receiver TV with Velcro. Setup is easy.  That’s it.  And you can buy multiple receivers to make other TVs wireless as well.  But remember:  Both TVs must always view the same channel.  And, some cable boxes (e.g. Motorola) or home theater setups may not be compatible.] Go to FAQ #46 for more information about “cutting the cord” and using Internet  (“Smart”) TV.

COMPUTER FAQ #45: SHOULD I GET A FREE E-MAIL ACCOUNT? WHICH ONE IS BEST?  Normally, when you sign up for Internet service, your Internet Service Provider (“ISP” - such as Comcast or Verizon) assigns you e-mail accounts.  Those e-mail accounts, however, use their servers as the mail recipients for your address.  So, for example, your e-mail address will end in “” or “”.  These are the equivalent of your local “post office”; you can be the only JoeK at the post office, although there may be another JoeK at the post office, which would prohibit you from moving to that particular post office and using the same name to receive your (e-)mail.  If you change ISPs, you will lose these e-mail accounts, and will have to sign up with a new address (your old name, e.g. “JoeK”, might not even be available from the new provider) with a new extension (e.g.  You can avoid this two ways:  First, have your own domain (e.g., which is usually hooked to a web site and can become slightly more complex and costly.  Or simply get a “free” e-mail account over the Internet.  One like G-mail (from Google), (from Microsoft), Yahoo Mail or others.  You just sign up on line, select an e-mail name and password, and you’re off.  You retrieve the mail over the internet (“webmail”) rather than using a separate program such as MS Outlook  (the full program) or Incredimail which is used primarily to “aggregate” the mail from multiple addresses and providers.  And, no matter how many times you switch your ISP, the e-mail address stays the same.  Moreover, you can import your old mail address into web mail like G-mail and if you set it to, your mail recipients won’t even realize you’ve made the change.  Even better, you can use the additional e-mail address either for junk mail or for the opposite - solely personal communications.  At the moment, I think G-mail is the best of the crowd for several reasons:  It’s simple to use, occupies less bandwidth, has superior spam filters, settings and filters, can have priority mailboxes and can run lots of Google apps (talk, translation, Drive, calendars, tasks, etc.). It also runs across platforms (PC and Mac) and devices (pads, phones and other increasingly important hardware).   On the down side, I wouldn’t post anything you don’t want made public to the cloud, as companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo make it a practice to monitor some aspects of your communications for advertising purposes (what, you thought they were giving you free e-mail out of the goodness of their heart?).  But, unless you’re working for the Pentagon, or running a drug ring out of your home, as a residential user I wouldn’t sweat it.  See e-mail for more, including “disposable” e-mail accounts.  For ways to protect your e-mail from snooping click HERE.

COMPUTER FAQ #46: SHOULD I CUT THE CORD AND GO TO INTERNET [“SMART”] TV? Internet TV will most probably be the future, although when the future will arricutting the cord royalty freeve is up for grabs.  Internet TV means “cutting the cord,” i.e. the cable.  The difference between a “smart” or “standard” TV is the same as that between smart and standard cell phone, i.e. the “smart” designates an Internet connection. The TV can be manufactured smart, or made smart with set-top boxes like Roku or Sling, dongles like Chromecast or Sony’s Stick, which may either have their own programming or use services like Hulu or Netflix to stream channels.  Getting rid of Comcast or DirectTV is a dream for many.  Already, in 2014, the number of pay-TV defectors is steadily rising, according to Experian Marketing Services:  About 6.5% of households nationwide have cut the cord, up from 4.5% in 2010.  By 2015, the number went up to 11% or 4.9 million users.  And nearly one-fifth of Americans who have working Nextflix or Hulu accounts don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service at all.  Moreover, Diffusion Group and other surveys in 2016 show that about 15% of adult broadband users who subscribe to pay-TV service are considering unsubscribing within the next six months.  In 2014, the numbers are up 25% from last year, with 126 million Americans watching video on a smart phone at least a month. And by 2016, cable networks continued their further descent, with the biggest losers those targeting younger viewers, who are more likely to view TV on their pads and smart phones than subscriber TV. It would be even more of a defection were it not for the unadvertised “cord shaving” deals offered by the cable, satellite and telco services, cutting down how many channels users subscribe to so that users don’t bail completely.  For example, starting July, 2015, Comcast is offering an app called Stream which, for $15/mo is a “skinny bundle” that lets subscribers watch TV, as well as HBO and other on-demand content on their laptops, tablets and phones without the need to purchase individual apps at a greater cost.  By late summer 2015, Verizon says it will release its own television app for mobile devices as well.  But, as the number of broadband subscribers is starting to exceed the number of pay-TV subscribers, the trend will likely continue.  The Neilson Total Audience Reports for 2014- 2016, confirm that users really only watch about 10% of the nearly 900 or so channels offered and that there is a large group of people who are more than willing to wait a couple of days to see their favorite broadcast shows, but there are also lots of people who must keep their pay-TV services, especially for sports broadcasts.  Update:  ESPN announced that starting in early 2015 sports fans will be able to watch ESPNs programming streamed online to their tablets, laptops, smart phones and TVs, all without paying any cable or satellite bill.  For $20 a month, ESPN will offer access to sports, CNN Food Network and Cartoon TV through Sling TV, its creation.  This will be the game changer sports addicts have been waiting for.  The announcements in June, 2015 that the NFL will finally live-stream a game through Yahoo and that ShowTime will be available as a streaming service through Apple underscore that the cable TV model is rapidly changing, as streaming alternatives are coming of age.

If you cut the cord, you could save money and simplify your life.  As discussed above, these days, almost every new TV comes with “smart” connections to the Internet, which can be accessed either directly or via streaming set top boxes or HDMI or USB dongles with a one-time-purchase of less than $100, like the Roku stick ($49.95/1700 channels), AppleTV (only 30 channels), ChromeCast or Amazon Fire ($39 for the stick, $99 for the box; but you need to subscribe to Amazon Prime for a monthly fee), computers, video game consoles and the like.  See FAQ #86, below, about how a “TV stick” works.  Or wirelessly (See FAQ 44, above) or even an antenna (see more about this below).  And, with current technology and bandwidth, the choppiness and buffering of the old days has been mostly eliminated.  You can easily cut your cable bill by 75%. Even if you don’t want to go so far as cutting the cord, the so-called “TV Everywhere” apps from Dish Network, Sony Playstation Vue, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, CBS and others all allow you to plug in your pay-TV credentials to view real-time TV on any number of types of devices, wherever you may be.

But, at least for the moment, there are some cord-cutting drawbacks:  Some channels, such as CNN, are only available to cable subscribers.  You will have to select a service to stream video.  One like Netflix or Hulu, although the major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox) offer most of their current shows for free on their websites (although there is usually a few days’ delay before they’re available, and they’re cutting back and making you buy apps now).  But in 2016 Nextlix and Hulu both announced that they are planning on launching a live TV service so that paying customers will gain access to programming in real time, vice waiting for more than a day to view online.  HBO and CBS ($5.95/mo) provide subscriptions over the Internet.   But still  not all programs are available on every service.  Moreover, some services offer commercial free, or sports, or streaming “live” TV, and on other devices like phones and pads, while others don’t.  (These offerings constantly change, so check each service for your interests when making your decision.]  For example, Hulu doesn’t offer CBS programs.  Netflix offers original content not available on the networks, and only offers catalogs of shows’ past seasons, not current episodes.  And there may also be some delay in being able to see your programs simultaneously with their broadcast.  You may have to wait a day to a week, depending on the service and the geographic area.  (Although this may change in 2016, see above.)  Sling TV (a subsidiary of Dish) only lists non-local streaming channels (so you’ll have to get network channels like CBS separately), doesn’t allow watching TV on more than one device simultaneously, has commercials most of the time, doesn’t always have surround sound or usable VCR pause and other buttons, and other restrictions.  And your old ISP may actually charge you more for using less of their service.  And some offerings may prevent fast forward on many shows (read:  you must view the commercials).  Moreover, local channels (news,  local events & sports, weather and more) may not be available, although services like Simple.TV or Tablo will let you view local channels on all of your devices (for a fee).  Slingbox does the same thing with a cable signal, and many of the providers offer a service for this, so you can get your cable channels on all your devices.  So your best bet is to see what sources are available for the programs you really want to watch and what the terms and costs are before cutting that cord.  If you do make the change, note that there apps (like MyEpisodeGuide) which inform you how many days until the next airing of your TV shows and other handy features.  If you’re concerned with privacy, be sure to opt out o the ACR that records your every move on the TV.  And see also Apple TV and Google ChromecastJust for comparison purposes, in 2013, Roku accounted for 46% of streaming media players sold in the U.S.; Apple was second with only 26%.  Probably because Roku costs less ($49+ vs. $99), and offers an “all-you-can-eat” strategy for over 1,700 channels vs. Apple’s substantially less channels and extra fees.  Click HERE for a link to CNN’s Consumer Guide to Streaming TV Devices, published 4/25/14.  Most people keep the TV services for two reasons:  Kids and Sports.  (But see the 1/2015 update (above) - now that ESPN offers streaming content, that’s one less obstacle.  2015 comparison is below:












$149 (32gB)

Siri voice-powered controls;

No third-party apps not fr Apple,



$199 (64gB)

Apple Store multiple apps;

so no access to Amazon




slick user interface;

catalog, also no Ultra-HD 4K




confortable form










You can stream some 4K-HD

Large, unattractive set-top




programming from Nextlix

box, at 6 1/2 in wide

device, too



and Amazon;  Access to





third-party apps from Roku





app store, recommendations





based on your TV watching




















4k Ultra-HDD available; access

User vace is inelegant;




to Amazon streaming content,

hardware can be clunky,




free to Amazon Prime

third party and unauthorized




members.  Access to 3rd

apps difficult to access




party apps and other TV apps










Low budget device, but good

No remote at all, and streaming




for those who travel outside of

from a smartphone is slower




home and want to stream their





content elsewhere (e.g. hotel)





via Android phone of computer.





Small and portable.








Same for streaming movies: You’ve got the same problem here as well.  There are several services that claim to provide easy, comprehensive movie streaming (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Google, Microsoft, etc.).  But almost all fall short of being in any way comprehensive.  Virtually none of the recent Hollywood releases or other acclaimed films are normally available.  And Netflix viewers complain that only current and not older movies are available (although  sites like FandorMubi, the Warner Archive service and the newly introduced Filmstruck are available to serious movie buffs.  And, like TV, different services are linked to different movie production companies.  Interestingly, there was a program named “Popcorn Time” that was available for a short period in 2013, that actually did provide all first-run movies for instant viewing at the click of a button and a single monthly fee.  However, faced with legal opposition from the big movie companies, Just like Aero (see Laws) was shut down by the big players, it was taken down.  The point is that, while it is possible to achieve streaming video of first run movies from one provider for a single monthly fee, it will require massive changes in the movie business for it to happen.  This “fragmented” service is the result of the nature of the movie business, and no longer the result of technological limitations.  The industry practice of “windowing” or staggering the releases of movies to various outlets (theaters, DVD, Redbox, HBO, etc.) is the cause.  Generally, for example, if a movie is made available to pay TV like HBO, Starz and Epix for a “premium period,” for which they pay literally millions of dollars, it can’t be released anywhere else.  For those movies, it could be five to seven years before the restrictions expire and they’re released to, say, Netflix, by which time they’re pretty old.  TV is even more complicated, because it has a different “windowing” structure from movies:  Because popular TV shows actually get more popular as their franchise adds new seasons, there is even more competition to purchase them at a premium, and the big boys have more money for that as well.  So the upshot for the foreseeable future remains the same:  You’ll have to purchase more than one, or maybe all of these services to realize the dream of viewing top movies when you want.  There is no single service or place to get them all at once.

Also, depending on the data plan and the physical ports you have on your phone, you can either connect your phone with an HDMI to micro-USB cable to the back of most newer flat-screen TVs, or else use a wireless box like HomeSync from Samsung (kind of like Apple TV for Android, in the cloud) to stream TV programs directly to a TV in 1080 video.  You could, of course, purchase an Internet (“Smart”) TV; but if you’re going to have one of the newer smart phones (e.g. Samsung Galaxy Note), it may be less expensive to purchase a non-internet TV and add HomeSync.  You could save hundreds of dollars.

A related and Frequently Asked Question is whether it’s still possible to cut the cord completely and go back to plain old antenna TV?  Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance you can still get many local and some other channels, including some HD ones, using your own antenna.  To see, try unplugging the coaxial cable from your cable box and connecting it to either your old external TV antenna (if you left it on your house when you made the switch to cable) or else get a new inside or outside antenna (yes, they still make them, and they’re even better).  Click HERE for more about that.  Reposition the antenna to see what channels you can receive, either with a rotor (if it’s still connected) or manually.  Because most TV stations switched from analog to digital signals after 2009, you may have to purchase an inexpensive digital-to-analog converter box from a place like Radio Shack to view these channels.  For more information check the FCC’s site, which has guidance for picking the right antenna and also a digital reception map for you area. 

You should be able to get some signal, but if you can’t or it’s just not sufficient, you have the option of going to a broadband Internet connection (discussed above) or, if the lawsuits are finally settled (see LAWS), using companies like Aero and FilmOn to stream content. [UPDATE: These lawsuits concluded that such services could not exist.]  I’ve even gone so far as to connect an HDMI cable  (or wireless box like Homesync from Samsung) to a smart phone (with, thankfully, an unlimited internet access plan) and then to a digital TV, in order to view most TV channels without either an external antenna or even internet connection to the residence.  But, I suspect, if you’re trying to inexpensively go backwards to an ordinary analog antenna, this might be too much technology for you.

2015 Update:  I’ve always felt that, if we were to cut the cord, that ISPs would simply up the price for a straight internet connection to make up the difference.  Now, there an emerging alternative:  The “Cord Nevers,” those people who don’t even have home broadband.  Some 40% of cord cutters don’t subscribe to DSL, Cable or Internet, and instead stream TV from their cellular connection.  But doesn’t this cost a lot?  No.

HERE’s the Future, and it’s here:  The first to introduce as much streaming video as you want without drawing from your monthly data plan is T-Mobile’s Binge On. Others are sure to follow.  While looked that it might be upsetting to non-cellular ISP providers,  Comcast’s introduction of Stream TV. in 2016 provided some competition, as the FCC refused to regulate streaming TV on the grounds of net neutrality, claiming that it is a “cable video service,” not “cable internet service”.  In 2016, ATT/Dish announced streaming HBO/ESPN as well.  Looks like this is the year that “cutting the cord” will become much, much easier.  BUT CONSIDER THIS:  Your signal may be throttled (they call it “optimizing”) - T-Mobile downgrades its signal from 1080p to 480p, which may work with cell phone screens, less so for TVs.  And Comcast claims it can use caps and exclusions because it’s no longer an internet service but a stream service now!  Check before signing!

COMPUTER FAQ #47: HOW DO I GET MY COMPUTER TO RECOGNIZE MY VOICE?  Depending on your operating system, not much.  If you have Windows 7, the voice recognition options in the Control Panel will let you control (to a limited extent) how you operate your computer (opening files, programs, etc.), dictate within programs (like Word if you have it installed) and the like.  You can “train” your computer to recognize your voice by spending time dictating and learning the dictation shortcuts, and create a personal dictionary of your frequently used words and phrases.  But be advised:  This takes some degree of work.  It’s not as bad as learning programming or playing the piano, but you do have a limited learning curve, especially if you aren’t accustomed to dictation.  If you are truly interested in speech recognition, say for dictating medical or other specific types of notes, you may have to upgrade to a professional package.  Dragon Dictation, available commercially (v. 13 @ $199), has been around for a long time, although there are other programs as well, like Briana (free Lite or $29/yr, $59/3 yrs.), Express Dictate (free trial/$79.99), SpeakToText and Dictation Pro (free trial/$39.95), each with varying features.   It can be paired with specific pre-programmed dictionaries, like medical terms, that will avoid the creation of your own dictionaries term-by-term.  And they may be more sensitive for training purposes and have many more features and commands.  And in 2017, Adobe announce its Project Voco, which not only edits existing speech, but also can create new speech that sounds as if it is said by the original person.  One point:  How effective your speech recognition software will be depends in a large part on your hardware.  Make sure that you have (1) a good sound card, (2) an excellent uni-directional microphone or headset and (3) sufficient random access memory.  Without these items, your speech recognition program may not work properly.

COMPUTER FAQ #48: HOW CAN I GET MORE BATTERY LIFE FROM MY SMART PHONE?  Every phone is slightly different (e.g. Droid Bionic from Droid Razr from Apple 4S) but there is usually a “settings” icon where you can turn off power-draining features and then on again when (or if) you actually need them.  Some phones even have a built-in or downloadable app for this purpose.  Generally, however, these are the things that you can do to preserve battery life:  Turn off the screen immediately if you’re not going to use the phone for a while, rather than letting it sleep on it’s own (or adjust the sleep setting to shut off faster); use Wi-Fi wherever possible; use 3G rather than 4G if not necessary (there are toggle apps available for this); disable GPS unless you are using it, including the geotag feature on your camera; disable always-on apps like Twitter and Facebook unless you’re a user; also disable other always-on apps that are constantly updating themselves unless you are using them (message services, e-mail, social networking apps, etc.).  If you have one of the settings that lets you dim the screen at the touch of an icon (brightness not as big an issue indoors), that also saves lots of power.  Just know that, when you turn these apps or features on to stream YouTube videos or surf the net, you’ll be dramatically increasing your battery drain, so only use them when you actually need them.  Now, many users really like to be or must be continuously connected, so they have no choice.  In those cases, make sure you are getting a phone either with a removable battery (like the Droid Bionic vs. the Droid Razr; it’s also a better idea because you can re-set a frozen phone by removing the battery) or purchasing an external battery with charger that you can connect to the phone if your battery is low.

COMPUTER FAQ #49: HOW CAN I CONNECT TO A COMPUTER REMOTELY [RDCs and VPNs]?  Sometimes you may find the need to connect with your home or office computer from a remote location.  You may need to locate a file or photo on your home computer, or a presentation or spreadsheet from your office computer.  Regardless, there are several ways to do this.  First, depending on your version of Windows, you may be able to use the simple RDC (“Remote Desktop Connection”), included within the Windows O/S.  With this feature, you can identify a computer and connect to it when necessary.  Second, there are several free and paid internet programs (such as LogMeIn (Pro version only, no longer free after 1/20/14. $69.95/computer), Teamviewer (free; $749+), Chrome Remote Desktop (free), RealVNC (starting at $30/computer), WebEx (free and up) and ($13 and up/month) [both of which are conferencing apps but which will allow remote access] that will allow you to connect to a host computer and operate it from the desktop as if you were sitting in front of it.  Also, pcAnywhere (about $100) from Symantec is also a popular program that can be installed to accomplish the same thing.  And there’s Apple Remote Desktop 3 ($79). VPNs are useful if you must connect with your home or office computer on a daily basis (n).  The ease and extent of the connection between the remote and the host computer will vary with the type, version and cost of these programs.  In all cases, however, the host computer must (1) remain on and (2) connected to the Internet in order to be available to the remote connection.  Depending on your needs and security concerns (permissions usually apply), these types of connections can sometimes be complex to set up.  And, when functioning, the host computer will usually operate considerably slower than if you were sitting in front of it.  Almost all of the current apps will work on PCs, Macs and smart phones.

COMPUTER FAQ #50: HOW CAN I MAKE AND RECEIVE CREDIT CARD PAYMENTS ON MY CELL PHONE?  There are several ways to make and receive credit card payments using your smart phone.  This is assuming you don’t want to go through a credit investigation, pay a monthly fee and transaction fees, have a minimum number or amount of transactions and rent expensive card processing equipment.  Square (started by Jack Dorsey, who created Twitter), started the platform where one uses a (square) card scanner to plug in to the headset input on your phone, without any credit investigation, no equipment rental fees and no minimum usage requirement.  It’s all done on your cell phone, and the transaction fee is 2.75% for a swiped card, and 3.75% + 15 cents for an unswiped card (e.g. over the phone).  That’s it.  Not to be outdone by Square, PayPal started the PayPal Here system, basically an imitator with about the same fees, but with a few additional features.  The swiper is a triangle and takes a few more steps to complete the transaction.  But, if you forget the dongle, you can take a photo of the credit card (at the unswiped rate), and you can opt for the optional MasterCard debit card to get instant credit for the transaction, even photographed checks.  There are some 80 other card reader choices, like Intuit Quickbooks and Amazon Local Register, which are pretty similar.  Almost all work with most current Android and Apple smart phones, but check for compatibility just in case.  As these apps become more popular, they offer features such as inventory tracking, digital receipts and online ordering, useful for small businesses.  And there can be deals on transaction fees as well.  While I’ve seen some people use these to completely run their businesses, particularly mobile ones like cabs and food trucks, they’re an excellent choice for those who only require the occasional use, like consultants, yard sale payments, personal debt and the like.  Also, many of these type apps work with specific providers, like Starbucks, which can create a digital “wallet” (after your photo or ID and credit card are entered into their system) so that users can simply swipe their cell phone over a NFC or Bluetooth store reader to have the transaction charged to their credit card account.  Note that the requirement in the U.S. to finally switch from magnetic stripe swiping (PCI) to chips (EMV) will drive the mobile card readers to this technology, making them both required as well as more expensive.

COMPUTER FAQ #51: HOW DO I COPY FILES TO A CD OR DVD?  The process of creating (a/k/a “burning” or “ripping”) a CD or DVD goes like this:  First you must know where the source file is located (sometimes it’s useful to copy it to your desktop, since it’ll be easy to locate later), as well as its name and its size.  With this information, you can insert either a blank CD or DVD into a computer drive (called a “burner”) intended for this purpose. (Most burners will create either CDs or DVDs these days, but a few will only rip CDs.) Depending on your computer, you may have to start a special program (e.g. Roxio, Nero) to complete the burning process (it will usually automatically begin once a blank disk is inserted into the drive).  On Macs, the software is automatically included in the operating system software, as it is on PCs beginning with Windows 7.  Either way, follow the on-screen instructions to select the source file(s), sometimes the type of CD/DVD you want (e.g. audio, video or data) and then burn them to the destination disk.  Some programs will require you to copy or drag the file from one side of the screen and paste or drop it on the other, destination, side.  Windows may have you paste or drop the file to a window showing the burner drive destination, but the procedure is essentially the same.  Depending on the total size of your file(s), you may require a CD (size limited to 700Mb) or a DVD (limit of 4.5Gb) to fit them on the disk.  Or, if it’s too large, you may have to split up your files and copy them to multiple disks.  Also, when asked to “name” your disk, especially if it’s data, don’t forget to include a date as well as the description of the actual content, so if you create a later disk, it will be evident. And physically label the created disk with either a felt tip pen or a printed label, that’ll make things much easier later, too.

COMPUTER FAQ #52: HOW MUCH SHOULD I RELY ON REVIEW SITES?  If you are looking for restaurants and other services and products on the Internet, many people choose to consult review sites like Yelp, Zagat and others.  Some folks think the reviews are worthless, as they are not from professionals and may be self-promotional.  Others think that the pro reviewers don’t eat like the rest of us and would rather see reviews from a spectrum of real people, especially friends.  I use it just as one of many tools to locate and evaluate businesses.  I view the reviews as a curve - root out the really bad ones (everyone, diner and server included, can have a bad day) and the really good ones (which may, but shouldn’t be, biased endorsements [see LAWS]) and spot the median trend (e.g. where 61.5% give it three stars) and repeated positive and negative specifics (e.g. “you must try (or stay away from) the ...”; “their sales staff is particularly helpful”;“there’s inadequate parking”; “their return policy stinks”)  Keep in mind when reading reviews: Ignore general assertions of goodness or badness, as there’s no accounting for taste, which is frequently uneven and always subjective. Do look for believable descriptions of things like service issues — not “our waiter was sloppy and disinterested,” but rather “we waited for over an hour after placing our order and the food was cold” or “despite having a reservation, we were forced to wait at the bar for an hour anyway”.  Also, look for specific descriptions of dishes, particularly those that involve texture and temperature, two qualities that can be objectified. Size of portions and spiciness, less so but still to be considered.  Finally, look at every picture you can (if they claim to be from that business), as it’s hard to lie in a photo. WHEN IT COMES TO COMPUTER TECH SUPPORT SITES/BLOGS, the rules aren’t vastly different.  I’ve discussed them throughout this site.  First, just because someone provides advice on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.  It may not even be intentional, but the problem might not have been exactly the same as yours, so the solution may not work or may even make the situation worse.  Or, they’re not a professional, just a good Samaritan (or an egotist tech wannabe), and may be flat wrong.  Possibly, they’re subtly pushing hardware, software or services on you.  Now, I am acutely aware that much of this site provides advice to computer users, so I fall into that category as well.  So why listen to me?  Yes, I consider my three-plus decades or experience and this web site alone qualifies me as a pro.  But my writing has certain rules:  The facts and opinions expressed in this site are generally held by virtually every computer professional in the land.  When I occasionally express an opinion personal to myself, I do say so.  You’re free to ignore it.  While I try to be perfect, I’m only human.  I’m sure that sometimes I can be incorrect.  That’s the great thing about a web site, it’s changeable.  My opinions aren’t influenced by any financial or other gain.  There are no advertisers I have to satisfy and all the links I provide haven’t even been requested by those sites.  And it’s free (at least at this point).  Sure, I have an ulterior motive (expressed on the Home page) that, once you see my command of the subject, if you are in the area, you’ll want to call me for your computer service.  But this site is accessed from lots of countries (my analytics show) and I’m not leaving my local area anywhere soon.  The more of these points you see from advice sites, the better the chance the advice you are getting is accurate.  Applying the rule, then, if you must Google for a technical answer, you will probably see a percentage of answers that you know are completely incorrect, poorly written, blatant sales pitches or the like.  Discount them.  Then review the better ones.  If one is from a Microsoft advisor, it’s probably (not always) a good answer, but is often incomprehensible and sometimes a “one trick fits all” response that you should scratch (check the name for other responses).   Otherwise, look through the other more reasonable ones.  Usually, the ones that suggest that you run a scan using free or paid software are just guesswork.  You want a real answer, even if you don’t know how to edit the registry. What’s left will probably be from excellent sites like or Tom’s Hardware or the like.  Just as I discussed in How to Buy a Computer (FAQ #2, above), it’s a good idea to find someone whose judgment you trust and stick with them for all of your computer issues.  Still, free advice is always worth exactly what you paid for it.  There’s no substitute for hands-on repair by a paid professional if it’s necessary; it may even save you time, lost data and money in the long run.

COMPUTER FAQ #53: HOW CAN I GET TO THE BIOS ON MY WINDOWS 8 COMPUTER?  Because Windows 8 uses UEFI as opposed to the old BIOS to enable the “Fast Start” feature, your machine doesn’t fully shut down, even when you think it’s shut down via the shut down icon or the Power button on the Charms Bar.  Instead, Windows 8 performs what’s known as a “hybrid shutdown” which turns off the system hardware after saving the system kernel to the hard drive.  This is so that it can then perform a “hybrid boot” which quickly let’s Win 8 start just where it left off.  To bypass this feature and fully shut down Windows to reach the UEFI, you must either (1) hold down the Shift key while clicking on Power Off (or some other key combination you can get from your computer manufacturer), (2) do a command line shutdown (e.g. “shutdown.exe /s /f /t 00”), even create a key for this purpose or (3) disable the fast startup settings by deselecting “Turn on Fast Startup” at Control Panel>Hardware> Sound/Power Options>System Settings”.  Then click the BIOS/UEFI settings key on startup and you’ll be able to make your changes.  For more, click on the glossary definitions highlighted in red above.  See also FAQ#72

COMPUTER FAQ #54:  ARE HIGH END CABLES WORTH THE EXTRA COST?  Generally, no.  Ordinary, even budget, cables are just fine for most purposes, whether they are HDMI, iPhone, USB and even audio.  Yes, true audiophiles believe that gold plated cables have greater fidelity and last longer, but that’s an exception and it may not really be true.  It’s generally not worth the extra cost.  And don’t buy the cables at the big box stores that are stacked right next to the computer or TV you just purchased at a great discount, as they’re making up some of the discount by selling you those average quality cables at retail. 

COMPUTER FAQ #55: HOW TRUSTWORTHY IS REFURBISHED EQUIPMENT?  Usually, despite popular misconception, just as good, maybe better.  And the warranty is usually applicable.  Many refurbished computers actually undergo better testing than the random testing on production units.  And it’s a big savings.

COMPUTER FAQ #56: SHOULD I PURCHASE EXTENDED WARRANTIES?  Normally, I recommend, and most consumer reports agree, that extended warranties generally cost more money than they save.  But it’s the largest single source of profits for the big box companies, so they push them with each and every purchase.  The large purchases charge a hefty sum for the warranty, that you may never use, and the small devices charge less, but it’s not very costly to replace the device with the new one.  Besides, there is a standard warranty on most hardware from the manufacturer (usually one year) and you may have an additional warranty from your credit card company, so you’re usually covered anyway (See TIP #28).  The only exception that I sometimes feel is justified is for laptop computers, for which any major repair will probably exceed the cost of the warranty (even the screen, which is the most frequent repair).   But with the cost of many laptops coming down, even that may not be worthwhile.

COMPUTER FAQ #57: IS IT SAFE TO PURCHASE COMPUTER EQUIPMENT ONLINE?  Often, you can get big deals with on-line shopping.  But there are considerations.  First, if you need the hardware or software immediately, that discount you get on-line will probably evaporate with the increase in shipping and handling costs.  You might as well purchase it locally.  Second, you have to know how to surf the Internet and find the reliable sites.  Don’t believe everything you read.  Check out the ratings of the provider in other on-line listings.  The major players like eBay, NewEgg, Amazon and the like are pretty common, but read user’s ratings anyway.  Read the descriptions carefully to be sure that you’re not getting hacked software or a limited time download with no disks or that the hardware isn’t refurbished if you think you are paying for new, and that it’s the correct model and not one that’s out of date.  If you need advice about the purchase, better to go to a computer store and speak to a real person.  While you can return on-line purchases and get a refund, it’s not as easy as going to a local store.  And, if you get to the payment screen and see unforeseen charges that exceed your expectations, or a delivery date too far in the future, don’t be afraid to back out.  Don’t provide your credit card information until you see the full total charge and don’t provide that information unless you see that it is over an encrypted connection (a yellow or green URL bar or a lock symbol or https:// on the URL address).  UPDATE:  The following is from a review of the Black Friday buys last year, and provides examples of things to think about when a deal is just too good to be true:  11/28/14:  It’s Black Friday, where all those good tech deals were available.  But remember that quite often you only get what you pay forSometimes less.  C’mon, do you really think you can get a decent 60” TV for $300?  It may be 60” and it may be a TV, but it might not be HD, may be only 720p (not 1080i, even if it may claim to receive a 1080i signal) and it may have a low, choppy refresh rate, so watching sports will give you a headache.  See TVs for more.  InfoWorld reports that those super-cheap tablets you purchased were loaded with vulnerabilities and back doors.  Examples:  The $49.99 Zeki from Kohls had USB debugging turned on by default, a pre-installed security back door and four major security vulnerabilities (Masterkey, FakeID, Heartbleed and Futex) and it doesn’t have Google Play (meaning that it probably didn’t go through Google’s security certification).  BestBuy’s DigiLand tablet at $49.00 has so many problems that the rating company couldn’t even score it, among them the Futex bug vulnerability and allowing “root” access on the device to allow easier pre-installation of apps, but making it easier for attacks like Trojans if the feature isn’t turned back off.  Same for Worryfree Zeepad from Walmart and the Polaroid from Walgreens, both selling for under $50.  Other problem tablets include the Nextbook, the Pioneer 7” from Ematic and the RCA 9” from WalMart, as well as the RCA Mercury 7” from Target, the Mach Speed Extreme Play from Kmart, and Mach Speed Jlab Pro from Staples and the Craig 7” from Fred’s.  Without patching and running anti-virus and anti-malware programs, these tablets subject home users to viruses and intrusions and offices to much worse if their programs or emails are hacked.  Many machines were running older versions of Android (like 4.1.1 and 4.4.2, not 5), weren’t updated or misconfigured by cutting corners.  Devices running Android 5 (Lollipop) like the $99 Samsung Galaxy Tab got a good rating, even with an older Android O/S.

COMPUTER FAQ #58: IS THERE ANY WAY TO PRINT AND SAVE THE TEXT MESSAGES ON MY SMARTPHONE?  This is getting to be a pretty common question.  And there are a number of answers, depending on how tech savvy you may be: (1) The easiest thing to do if there is only one or two texts you want to save or print is to forward the text message to your e-mail account by typing your e-mail address where the number line would normally be for the text message.  You may, however, lose some of the original sender’s information, if that is important for you (see below).  (2) If you have a Bluetooth enabled phone and printer, you may be able to print directly (but Bluetooth enabled printers are still relatively rare.)  (3) The newer printers have wireless capability, allowing you to print over a network once it’s set up.  (4) Similarly, if your phone has a port for a data transfer cable, you may able to connect to the USB slot, if you have one, on the newer printers.  You may still have to download an app for your phone, because the texts aren’t usually saved in a place where you can directly copy and print them.  (5) If you want this done regularly, you could use an app to backup your messages to your computer.  SMS Backup+ for Android phones (free) or e-camm networks for iPhone ($20 charge, of course) will send your messages to g-mail if you have an Android or another network for iPhones, from which you can then print them.  (6) There are also a few web sites (e.g. that create free accounts to which you can save your texts and then print them by forwarding those texts to a special number (see #1 above). (7)  If you are a real tech, a SIM card reader is a useful tool to back up the texts on your SIM card, but it’s an additional cost.  Be aware, however that certain methods (e.g. #1, 5 and 6 at least) may not retain essential formatting such as dates and some sender information.  If you are backing up the information for a lawsuit (e.g. divorce, stalking, harassment, etc.) these backups or prints may not be legally sufficient.  Speak with your attorney first.

COMPUTER FAQ #59: IS IT O.K. TO READ SOMEONE ELSE’S OR MY SPOUSE’S E-MAILS?  Privacy is a tricky issue because it is the subject of both state and federal law.  The federal legislation is discussed more fully in the Laws and Privacy sections of this site, but it is usually the state laws that are most likely applicable, and they vary by state.  That said, because of the explosion of technology in communications, states are becoming much more uniform in their adoption of computer privacy, cyberbullying, cyberstalking and anti-pornography laws.  Most attorneys are now sufficiently proficient that they will routinely seek e-mails, texts and other media records in discovery and may also seek sanctions for their destruction if they were purposely destroyed in anticipation of litigation.   In divorce proceedings, attorneys will hope to discover damaging e-mails, texts or phone records of adultery.  In advance of legal proceedings, spouses may attempt to reach this same information to determine if there is a problem before going to an attorney.  That’s usually when this question arises.  So here’s a generalization:  If a spouse has a protected e-mail account (i.e. one which requires a password to sign in - which is virtually every normal e-mail account today, including Comcast, Xfinity, Verizon, Google, Yahoo, etc.) even a spouse cannot read or print the e-mail.  Not if the spouse leaves the e-mail window open after signing in.  Not if they can guess the e-mail password.  Not if they install a keystroke logger, phishing or other spyware device on the computer, even if they’re also a user, to determine the spouse’s password. Not without that spouse’s or user’s permission.  This is an invasion of a computer user’s privacy in most states, just as it is to take and open their regular mail.  Most states have either or both of “computer trespass” or “computer invasion of privacy” laws.  The first makes it a crime to use a computer with authorization to manipulate the data or the computers on it.  The second, makes it a crime to use the computer with the intention of obtaining or manipulating the data on it by “deceitful means or artful practice”.  There would be an exception for cases where either there is no password protection for the individual e-mail account or where everyone in the family uses the computer for all of the same programs, internet access and e-mail accounts together, i.e. they all get e-mail through the same “shared” account, not separated.  Also, if you are in a state where there is neither a statute or case law forbidding you from doing so.  You should check with a local attorney before doing anything.  Remember, this is a discussion only about private individuals, not the FBI or law enforcement.  Or even your employer.  For that see LAWS.

COMPUTER FAQ #60: IS THERE ANY SPECIAL WAY TO PACK A COMPUTER TO STORE OR SHIP?  First, there should be no fear about shipping or storing a computer, so long as it is packet properly.  After all, how do you think it got to the store in the first place?  It was shipped to them, of course.  Second, all you have to do is remember a few basic things.  The first is that all components of your computer system should have padding around all six sides.  Whether it is styrofoam, peanuts, air bags or even towels, it should be firm and about 1.5 inches in thickness.  Tape the box securely after that and shake it to make sure it doesn’t move inside.  Monitors should be securely wrapped with a towel or bubble wrap even before packing, even LCDs.  Supposedly, storing a CRT monitor for more than a few month degrades the display, but I’ve never seen that.  Most important:  You can pack a printer, but make sure you remove the ink cartridges, whether they are laser or inkjet.  I don’t recommend keeping them but, if you must, securely wrap and tape them with plastic wrap, as they can leak and make a real mess.

COMPUTER FAQ #61: IS IT TRUE THAT FALURES DON’T ALWAYS HAPPEN IMMEDIATELY AND CAN ACTUALLY TAKE SOME TIME?  Yes, absolutely.  For both hardware and software issues.  I know it sounds like B.S. when a tech tells you this, but think about it this way:  Let’s say you buy a new tire for your car.  They put it on, it appears to run just fine.  About a week later, you find a flat.  Turns out, when the tire was installed, there was a slow leak around the rim due to a defect or poor installation.  It didn’t go flat right away, did it?  It took a little time because it was a slow leak.  Similarly, computer hardware can take a little time to fail.  And the same for software, due to operating system incompatibility,  program conflicts or incorrect drivers.  They may work for a time, but will eventually fail.

COMPUTER FAQ #62: WHAT HAPPENS TO MY INTERNET ACCOUNTS AND DATA AFTER I’VE DIED?  It often seems like data can live forever on the Internet.  And it often does.  The cyberverse is crowded with listings for restaurants and other businesses as well as people I know have passed on, both well after their demise.  Doesn’t anyone every bother to check this stuff out?  Or don’t people remove those business listings when they move on or go out of business?  Evidently not.  Maybe it’s just to difficult to do so, or maybe they have their hands full after the death of a loved one or business.  Often, as with business listings (particularly with aggregators rather than directly), there isn’t any oversight.  But with individuals, their online presence (Facebook, Google and Twitter accounts, for example) may sometimes be questioned by the provider after some lengthy period of inactivity.  Or not, they could live on for eternity. You should be aware that, after you’ve died, due to security reasons, the ISPs will fight any attempts for family, lawyers or friends to access the decedent’s accounts.

So what do you do if this concerns you?  You may have not only e-mails, but also logins for financial transactions and holdings, insurance, receipts, photos or videos that are irreplaceable and which will probably be necessary for the administration of your estate.  Choice 1:  You could leave instructions in your will, or even appoint a “digital executor,” leaving instructions along with passwords and accounts so that your wishes may be fulfilled. But, because the ISPs probably won’t cooperate with him or her, you’ll have to leave your representative with the raw data, i.e. account numbers, passwords, security questions and answers and authentication information.  But you might not like this information floating around preceding your demise.  Choice 2:  You can use one of the online services which can transfer passwords and other data after you pass on, either to a digital executor or other friend or family outside of your estate.  For example, PasswordBox and SecureSafe both offer these features.  As an alternative, you could store the passwords on your computer (maybe even encrypting them using programs like 7-Zip) using programs like Password Safe and KeePass, or on an external device (stored away from the computer) using SplashID Key Safe.  Leave only the master password with your friend or executor and they’ll be able to unlock the necessary information when necessary.

Choice 3: Use the “Google Inactive Account Manager,” announced in April, 2013, which lets you auto-respond to e-mails or posts with a set message, after between 3 months to a year of inactivity (maybe “Don’t bother me, if I don’t respond.  I’m gone.  Really.”)  Also, if you set it up this way while you’re alive, when the account becomes inactive, you can designate up to 10 “designees” who will be notified and receive the content you choose to share (but they do not receive a tool to log in to your account after your death).  You can also choose content you wish deleted after you’ve died.  Facebook has its own (evolving) process, which “memorializes” a deceased loved one’s accounts upon proof of death.  It’s frozen; you can’t change anything posted or the audience or even log in to the account.  As of 2/12/15, there are additional changes.  Users now have three choices - Leave your account alone, “memorializing” it, as before.  Or, through a “legacy contact” (that must also be a Facebook account holder who a user can appoint or change, with or without notification to that person) that you designate before your death, you can ask Facebook to delete your account entirely, upon proof of death.  Finally, you can have your legacy contact “manage” your account. It will read “Remembering...” and there will be some ability to manage to a limited extent some of the information, posts and photos posted to the account.  But legacy contacts will not also have access to your (FaceBook owned) Instagram account, which can aso be memorialized if  requested by a verified family member.  And Twitter allows for “decommissioning an account.  Not always easily, but it can be done.   Twitter will make your heirs or friends jump through legal hoops, while the Google and Facebook procedures let you take care of this before your death, although there are hoops as well.   It’s uner “verified immediate family member of deceased”. Just so you know.  If you don’t go that far, consider using a service such as Legacy Locker, which promises to grant password access to friends of loved ones in the event of loss, death or disability, they can then make changes or close accounts as if in your name.  Other apps aren’t exactly the same:  LinkedIn will elt a verified next-of-kin have an account removed.  Snapchat will delete an account with a verified death certificate from a next-of-kin.  And Tumblr has a similar procedure.  Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL are following suit.  On line services like those that create backups are also similar, but if the data is encrypted, there is no help unless the deceased left the key.

As a result of these digital age issues, some states have passed laws to make it easier and consistent for family members to see the content of other family members.  For example, a 2013 Virginia law allows family members to see content in the death of a minor. Then, in 2014, the Delaware legislature passed a bill making it easier to view the content of someone who is deceased.  It is hoped that proposed standard legislation from the Uniform Law Commission’s Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act on this subject may eventually be adopted by all states.  But this may take a while.

RELATED:  How to clean your digital identity when you divorce (FAQ #81). How to recover or reset a lost Windows password.  (TIP #80)

 COMPUTER FAQ #63: HOW DO I TRAVEL INTERNATIONALLY WITH MY CELL PHONE?  BEWARE if you travel internationally with your cellphone!  (1) If you don’t turn off your “push” data apps, like the radios on your Windows mobile devices, they will continue to download data, in addition to your high per-call roaming charges.   (2) Also, if your phone automatically checks your e-mail every 15 minutes, your bill may be a big surprise, easily topping $1000!   When disabled, your e-mails will be available only when you request it. There are other ways around this: (3) Verizon and Sprint (which use CDMA, not the GSM technology favored by Europe) will lend you a phone if you’ve been a subscriber for over 6 months.  Most iPhones will work internationally, too.  (Either way, it may require a call to your service provider to temporarily add international services to your current plan.) (4) Or you can buy an inexpensive (“unlocked”) phone from Telestial or PlanetOmni for less than $50.  But, while it may be less expensive to purchase a compatible phone overseas, it may make it easier if you purchase it in the U.S. and set it up there to make sure it works properly.  (5) You may also be able to change your rate plan with your current carrier to account for your travel.  (6) Or possibly you may be able to obtain a special SIM card for your phone (unless, of course, you have a carrier like Verizon, which doesn’t use SIM cards).  (7) You can sign up for VoIP services from Skype or Boingo to reduce your costs.  For example, for $18 for 3 months, you can make calls on Skype from any enabled smart phone, computer or tablet and even have a local number so people in the States can easily reach you.  Even overseas, Skype-to-Skype calls are free, of course.  (8) Finally, you can always use a calling-card, some of which have discounted rates for international calls.  Just be sure to make plans ahead of your trip if you need to be connected from outside the country.  (9) Many phone companies, like Verizon, have specific web “brochures” offering solutions for those who travel internationally, like the Verizon Passport.  Or like AT&T, which will let you add international coverage for a flat fee of $30 for minutes and another $30 for data, all of which you can usually add directly from your cell phone. As you can see, your choices switch between paying for service or tinkering with your phone to reduce the costs of international service.

Other things to do if you’re traveling internationally with your phone:  Create a passcode in case it’s stolen.  Enable those features that allow remote phone locking and wiping, also auto erasing your phone data if there are too many attempted log ins (but be sure to back up your phone onto a computer or the cloud before leaving).  Separately adjust specific phone apps that auto update themselves just in case.  Don’t post your travel plans on-line for any number of obvious security reasons.  Consider getting one of those external battery packs, particularly if you’re going to be using translation and GPS features, as those suck up lots of power.  Maybe even get a power inverter for your vehicle to keep the phone charged.  And don’t forget international power adaptors for your charger as well as assuring that, if there’s a change in available voltage overseas, your usual charger can be adjusted between 120v and 240v.  While traveling, avoid the usual security pitfalls:  Avoid public Wi-Fi networks, coffee shops and those European internet “kiosks” as they’re havens for hackers.  If you must, make sure that your Windows firewall is set to ‘Public” for maximum protection.  Check with your hotel to make sure your Internet is free and not an additional charge.  Call directly to your bank or other secured server information, most have international numbers.  If you have a continuing need for a secure connection for work or otherwise, you could consider signing up for a short-term VPN service. For tips about useful international travel apps for your phone, go to TIP #78.

COMPUTER FAQ #64: MY DRIVE CRASHED, HOW CAN I RESTORE MY DATA?  To some extent, this depends on what you mean by “crashed”.  If it is still running, but you get messages about the SMART sector or other blue screens warning of impending doom, the disk may still actually be spinning, and that’s a good thing.  Shut your machine off and call an expert.  If you turn it on again, even once, it may fully crash and not work at all after that.  If it’s completely dead, there are still options.  First, if you were lucky enough to create a backup, you can get a new hard drive and restore the image, so at least you’ll have the programs and data as of the date of that backup, and you’ll only lose anything you created after that date.  See FAQ 6 above and this LINK.  If there’s no backup, things get much more difficult and expensive.  I don’t recommend trying to run software restoration programs if you’re not an expert.  Some programs are better than others, but some can actually further damage your drive, making it completely unrecoverable.  Same for running CHKDSK, it may cause physical damage to the drive.  (In other words, stop listening to people who write these things on blogs.)  You may have to bring the drive to a knowledgeable computer tech who will try to run software recovery program(s) to get your data back.  While you may not get back your programs, at least you may be able to recover your photos, spreadsheets and that novel you started to write.  You may have to pay for a couple of hours of tech time.  If the drive is actually physically damaged, things become even more difficult, as you will have to send the drive to a restoration expert.  These people disassemble the drive in a “clean room,”  free of dust, contaminants and static, where they remove the drive disk, then assemble it with new parts and circuit boards, after which they attempt to get it to read sufficiently to archive the data onto a new drive.  However, if the actuator arm has physically scratched the disk, it may not be readable in part of at all.  And this can be expensive:  It generally runs over $100 just to have them run a basic test on the drive, can be over $1000 to get a large hard drive restored, if it can even be done, and even then there’s no guarantee that it will restore everything.  So you’ve got to determine whether it’s that important to you.  If it’s the data for your small business or it’s photos of a dead relative, you may have to go for this type of restoration.  Also, SSDs (which are not mechanical) drives and flash drives can also be restored, somewhat differently.  And there are specific photo restoration programs available as well.  For more about hard drives, click HERE.

If you are compelled to attempt to restore erased, corrupt or missing files, there are more and more programs available each week.  Here are a few:   Recuva is popular and free (with no support, unless you want to purchase the $24.95 version) and is relatively easy to use.  But it isn’t customizable for file types, and you have to wait until the scan is complete to access recovered files. PhotoRec is a free open source project which runs on Windows. Mac and Linux, and which uses file signatures to detect and recover files in some 400+ data formats.  It also has a feature for full drive recovery.  Another program, Sleuth Kit, which is actually a component a GUI application named Autopsy,  of is also a free and open source collection of tools for analyzing and recovering data  from a variety of drives.  According to its creator, Brian Carrier, it’s more suited to recover evidence of activity throughout an entire system, and is used mostly by law enforcement examiners to find out what happened on a particular computer, through the “Activity Module,” as well as the “Time Line” features.  But this is quite complicated and requires multiple third-party apps, making it overkill for most personal users.   If you are attempting to re-acquire data from a RAID array, then Kroll Ontrack EasyRecovery Enterprise is suitable for you. But this is a paid program and it’s not inexpensive  ($79 - $499).

COMPUTER FAQ #65: HOW DO I CLEAR MY BROWSER CACHE?  Frequently, when you’re having problems accessing a web page, particularly a sign-in page, you’re advised to clear your browser cache.  What is this and how do you do it?  The web cache is a locally saved copy of a web page which makes that page load much faster because the browser doesn’t have to download the entire page all over again.  Clearing the cache means that your browser will have to get the latest copy of the page, rather than showing an old one.  This is often the advice for $xx and 5xx HTTP errors (See Tip 57).  Generally, for Internet Explorer, click on the Gear icon on the right of the window, then on Safety, followed by Delete Browsing History (or on the Menu bar, click Tools and then Delete Browsing History).  For Firefox, click on the Firebox button, then click Options, then go to the Privacy tab then, in the History area, click on Clear Your Recent History link. For Mac, start Safari, then select Reset Safari, then Remove all Website Data, which actually removes both cache and cookies.

COMPUTER FAQ #66: HOW DO I CLEAR MY BROWSER COOKIES? For many of the same reasons discussed in FAQ #65, you may desire to delete your cookies.  (See the Cookies page for explanation about cookies).  Generally, for Internet Explorer go to the Tools Menu, then Delete Cookies (or the Gear icon, to Safety, then Delete Cookies).  For Firefox, from the Tools or History menu, select Clear Recent History and under Time Range to Clear, choose Everything.  For Mac, open Safari, go to Preferences, then Privacy, click on Details ten remove All or individual websites that store the cookies.

COMPUTER FAQ #67: HOW DO I SECURE MY WIRELESS ROUTER?  These days, almost everyone has a wireless router, whether it comes from their ISP or is purchased separately.  They’re great for connecting laptops, tablets, e-readers and other devices wirelessly.  But they also carry the risk that, if your network is hacked, your personal information may be at risk.  (See the Security page of this site for router security issues.)  Lately, lots of knowledgeable people have been recommending more router security, and they may be right.  So, here’s what you should consider:  (1) Make sure you have a secure router administration password.  Not “password” or “admin”.  See passwords for more.  (2) Also set a high quality Wi-Fi security key. (3) Next, set your router encryption to WPA2, not WEP or even WPA. (4) You might also disable WPS, which is an automated setup technology for many routers which can allow a back door attack to the equipment. (5) You can also disable the router’s broadcasting of its SSID (network name).  The network will still work, and it will thwart at least some snoopers.  (6)  Finally, you could apply MAC address filtering, another router setup feature which will make it hard for unauthorized devices to connect.  The degree of security, if any, will be determined by your protection requirements. TIP: If you forget the password on your home router and can’t find it, look for the sticker on the router itself if you got it from you ISP, then consider resetting the router back to its factory settings and using the factory password (usually password or admin) [to figure that out, go to the manufacturer’s website or your ISPs tech support or a site like]; there is also paid software to crack Wi-Fi passwords which might or might not work.  See also TIP #96 for more about adjusting port settings. And Security for more about how the Moon malware exploit affects home routers. Finally, LAWS for info about the FCC’s charges against D-Link for lax security, especially involving IoT devices.

COMPUTER FAQ #68: HOW DO SERVICES LIKE CHROMECAST AND SMARTSTICK WORK?  TV is constantly evolving.  It’s no longer free, like it used to be, but it offers much more than it used to, and it looks and sounds lots better.  [See FAQs 44 and 46 above.]  One of the latest offerings are dongles like Chromecast from Google and SmartStick from Sony.  (Of course, if you have an internet-ready “Smart TV” (See FAQ #46  above), you may not need these.)  Here’s how they work:  Google’s device, for example, looks like a USB drive on steriods, but it plugs instead into the HDMI port on your TV.  (Most newer TVs have an HDMI port, but older ones may not.) Power is provided via a micro-USB plug on the dongle to your wall outlet.  After connecting the dongle, you download an app that sets up the program onto your computer or Android or iOS device. The TV is streamed over your Wi-Fi network.  That’s it - you’re ready to watch TV.

However, like many other technological advances, it’s deceptively simple, especially the part about connecting to your Wi-Fi network.  Due to equipment incompatibility and other setting issues, this may take some fidgeting.  Some advice in this regard about Chromecast:  Don’t expect much help from Chromecast or your ISP with this new technology.  Before purchasing, verify up front that your particular router is listed on the Chromecast compatibility list.  Do this by searching for Chromecast and your router model online before you get started so you can be aware of any potential pitfalls.  Also, if you do have problems setting up Chromecast from one device try another.  Try turning off wireless encryption temporarily to see if you can get Chromecast set up, then re-enable it afterwards.  If your Wi-Fi still won't work, try temporarily swapping out your existing router or else hooking up an additional inexpensive router to see if this hardware change fixes the situation.  If you really get tired of trying to get it to work, just purchase a $6.95 HDMI cable and connect it to your TV and your computer and go that way, forgetting wireless entirely.   

So you’ve got it connected and you’re now ready to watch TV.  But exactly what TV?  Initially, Chromecast supports only three services:  Netflix, YouTube and Google (its own Play Movies pay-per-view service, that is).  In addition, if you have a Windows PC (but not other devices), you have the capability to send other video streams to your TV, but the definition won’t be nearly as good.  And remember, you are using your computer or other device to control your TV, which may not be what you’re used to.  If you are expecting the convenience of your usual TV remote, you’ll be sadly disappointed.  And, while it’s great for movies, you have the usual limitations about streaming shows in terms of networks and availability.  But, nevertheless, it’s cheap and its fast, although right now, it’s limited.  I guess Roku, with some 35% of the market, will have something to worry about (see #44, above).  But for now, it’s still on top and, for me, looks like the better value for what it offers.



COMPUTER FAQ #71: SHOULD I PURCHASE DISCOUNTED INK CARTRIDGES?  For a discussion about ink and paper, see Tip #38.

COMPUTER FAQ #72: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BIOS AND UEFI?  If you’re purchasing a new computer (Windows 8 and later), chances are that you’ll see that it has chip firmware known as UEFI, not old BIOS in the operating system.  For most users, it probably won’t mean anything at all.  And it’s not that there is anything wrong with BIOS, which has been around for about 30 years, but it has undergone an upgrade starting the past couple of years.  BIOS (“Basic Input/Output System”), which is written into a EPROM chip embedded on the computer’s motherboard, checks all of the basic devices connected to your computer, making sure that they’re working, before loading the operating system through what’s known as the MBR (“Master Boot Record”).  UEFI makes several necessary improvements to this process.  One of the biggest advantages is it’s resistance to the increasing number of paralyzing boot sector viruses which can infect the MBR, as well as rootkits and other malware.  That’s because there is no MBR in UEFI, which instead uses PKI for its validation process.  And UEFI is much faster; it’s what enables the Windows 8 “fast start” feature.  [Which can sometimes be a problem if you want to boot from a DVD or flash drive, see TIP #97.]  Plus UEFI automatically provides support for (the increasingly common) drives larger than 2.2Tb, as well as support for modern, 64-bit firmware device drivers that the system can use to address more than 17.2 billion Gb of memory during startup.  UEFI does, however, have a completely different (graphic) interface than the old (DOS based) BIOS, so there’s some learning curve, but nothing insurmountable.  Don’t despair, though - UEFI hardware is still compatible with BIOS if you have a computer with upgraded hardware with BIOS on the motherboard.  So don’t be concerned if you see you’re getting UEFI with your new computer. 

COMPUTER FAQ #73: IS THERE ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LOW AND HIGH PRICED EAR BUDS AND HEADPHONES?  Yes, there is.  Back when earbuds like the white apple ones came out, they were sufficient to listen to music, but no one claimed they were great.  But over the years, earphone quality has evolved.  Like everything else, the market is polarized:  There are lots of cheap earbuds, earphones (cans) and speakers available for less than $50, often much less.  And there are now quite a few high-end devices costing $250 or more as well.  But are they really worth it.  The answer is yes, but you have to be careful you’re not just paying for a popular name and the inflated price that comes with it.  Brands like Beyerdynamic, Grado and Sennheiser have always been tops in quality and cost.  Sony is good, too.  And the mid-level brands like Logitech have an assortment, too.  Same for Bose and Beats, but there are some detractors who claim that the cost includes the cachet of the name as much as the technology.  These days, Beats has created its own marketing powerhouse, with artists like Lil’ Wayne wearing diamond-studded Beats headphones or Lady Gaga in her own music video.  Some claim Beats is marketing “a Timex with a Rolex’s price tag” but there’s no doubt that they’re superior cans and a popular fashion item.  Beats controls 27% of the $1.8 billion headphone market and 57% of the premium ($99 and up) headphone market, so there you go.  But going back to the issue of technology, the new audio devices have far superior base and audio quality than the old models and are probably well worth the investment if you want to listen to music.

COMPUTER FAQ #74: IS IT O.K. TO SIMULTANEOUSLY USE MULTIPLE ANTI-VIRUS OR ANTI-MALWARE PROGRAMS ON MY COMPUTER?  This isn’t the same thing as multiple layers of security.  Rather, it’s duplicate programs of the same type of security, like multiple anti-virus or firewalls. Generally, it’s not a great idea to run multiple copies of any type of program at the same time, because they often don’t play well together.   That being said, some programs are specifically made to supplement others, not compete with them.  For example, MalwareBytes’ product support questions page makes it clear that the program is intended to supplement other full time anti-malware tools, therefore it should coexist with them without any conflicts.  Also, some programs run all the time (unless temporarily disabled) and others are run only manually.  You should research your intended programs before installing them.  Even if it appears that they will work well together, if they don’t you’ll find out quickly and will have to remove one of them.  But it’s entirely possible that you can run more than one of the same type of program.


COMPUTER FAQ #76: HOW DOES AIRPLANE MODE WORK?  With all the discussion about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, we’ve been hearing a lot of questions about how and when cell phones work on airplanes.  So here’s the answer:  Basically cell phones work by communicating through “cells” which are located on the ground and transmit signals between towers.  The towers also broadcast a signal into the atmosphere for several thousand feet, to a maximum of 10,000 ft. In reality this distance will most likely be much less, due to factors like the phone itself, atmospheric conditions, the distance between cells, rate of speed when flying and the metal body of the plane itself.  So the likelihood of getting cell reception on a plane while en route at altitude is quite poor.  And during takeoff and landing (although the FAA is discussing relaxing the rules somewhat), you’re usually forbidden from using cell phones.  So what, then, is “airplane mode”?  Actually this means the opposite of being able to communicate from an airplane.  It means that you can’t send or receive any communications while in this mode, as cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth are completely shut down.  So how then do people make cell phone calls from an airplane?  Some airlines have this feature, using “In-Flight Wi-Fi”.  This is usually done by enabling communication between satellites and the plane, then broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal throughout the plane that cell phone, tablet and laptop users can connect to to make calls, text and use the Internet.  Much like the Wi-Fi connection in your home is broadcast from a wireless router.  (Infrequently, some planes use earth base stations known as “picocells,” which relay cellular signals through towers or satellites specially equipped to work with planes.)  Back to Malaysia 370, if someone left their cell phone on during the entire trip, could it get any connection?  Theoretically, if the plane flew low enough to the ground and there were cell towers nearby, a connection could be established.  But certainly not over the ocean, where there are no such towers.

COMPUTER FAQ #77: HOW DO I SHARE FILES ACROSS A NETWORK?  Click HERE for the best ways to do this.

COMPUTER FAQ #78: WHAT ARE THE BEST TRANSLATION APPS FOR MY PHONE?  There are lots out there, each with its own capabilities.  Suggestions:  If you’re just translating the writen word, Google Translate works quite well. iTranslate is excellent for a text-to-speech application.  Translate Me adds a “swap button,” which goes back and forth between languages and also keeps a history of your translated phrases for later use.   Once you first manually the translations setting, Ask Ziggy will translate virtually anything you say. goes another step further by automatically detecting the language to be translated and also features a “topic” area containing categories like weather, business or sports along with a translation history.  There’s also Jibbigo (available for iPhones and Android), Linguo (no longer available for some reason), iLingual (now Gizmodo), an iPhone app which snaps a photo of your mouth, puts it on your phone screen and then moves the lips while it translates the text and, finally, Waygo, an iPhone app which translates Chinese characters like those found in restaurant menus.

COMPUTER FAQ #79:  WHAT ARE THE BEST APPS FOR MOBILE NOTE TAKING?  There are now lots of apps for taking notes on your mobile devices.  And many do additional functions, like keeping “to-do” lists, scanning business cards and recording voice memos.  The best known is Evernote, which does all of these things and works on both iPhone and Android devices. There is also Microsoft’s One Note, a major competitor which offers the same basic features for both platforms at no cost. (See a comparison of the two at the Evernote definition.)  Then, there is Fetchnotes, a free app available for both platforms which, in addition, has features for sorting items and sharing them with others. A similar app for both Android and Apple is SimpleNote, free, which creates and organizes notes and lists and can back them up online. iNotes is available for both platforms and also lets you sync notes with Apple Notes.  Notability is a $4.99 app only available for iOS, which has the increased features for handling forms, annotations, audio notes and illustrations, all with iCloud compatibility. NoteSuite is a $2.99 app which is also only available for iOS, but is slanted toward drawing, PDF annotation, photo arranging and audio recording, more than the other apps.  Notesy is a free iOS app for basic note taking, backed by Dropbox.  Papyrus, available for Android for free, is kinda fun.  It lets you write on the screen in your own handwriting using a stylus, active pen or even your finger, recording the graphic.  The most significant feature for SwiftKey, free and available for Android and Apple, is that it switches out the keyboard so that users can quickly “swipe” the keyboard for faster typing, even on Apple devices which don’t allow alternative keyboards. 

COMPUTER FAQ #80: HOW DOES HOME AUTOMATION WORK?  Years ago, when I first got involved in home automation (called “smart homes” back then), it was an involved process, generally running Monster cable throughout the premises, electric controllers for each system (sprinklers, lights, sets of outlets, HVAC, etc.) and then programming the system for remote access through computer or phone apps.  Now, just like everything else, things have become wireless and also much easier.  If you’ve been watching TV, you’ve been seeing ads from providers like Brighthouse, Verizon and Comcast providing remote home automation services, and Apple just announced its own HomeKit, which will be available with the upcoming Yosemite version of OS 10. (Apple hopes to encourage device makers to sign-up with their platform, so this may be a bottleneck.)  The promise:  You can program your home so that your home air conditioners and heaters, sprinklers, garage doors, even your coffee maker will be set to turn on and off when you desire, flawlessly.  The reality:  Although it’s much easier and more reliable than it was when it started, home automation is far from flawless.  The cable and phone company offerings aren’t particularly flexible, although they are affordable, and the custom systems are still into the thousands of dollars for a full system.  And installation is still very much a project where you have to add each element separately, each with its own sensors and connectivity technology, which often results in incompatibility between the other systems.  The more systems you install, the more the risk of glitches.  At this point in time (2014), you have two choices:  First, use the limited and somewhat inflexible offerings from service providers and hope that they meet your wish list.  Second, go with a “hub” to control several connected devices.  Companies like Revolv and SmartThings manufacture hubs  and sensors which provide this ability. But connecting to them may be problematic, since the devices themselves don’t use a consistent technology to connect to the hub.  They may include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee (more commercial applications), Z-Wave (a little less expensive than Zigbee, now emerging as the home automation standard), Insteon, X-10 and other wireless connection platforms.  Some are ridiculously easy to connect, others close to impossible.  And mixing the technologies, of course, exponentially compounds any problem.  And, even if you get everything working, make sure you have the hub connected to a UPS to protect against power outages.  Even then, expect at least some random issues - keep your settings handy.  [To see if you even like the concept, I suggest that you try something simple, like the Philips Hue light bulb starter kit, which is controlled by your home router, and costs about $200 for four remote-controlled light bulbs.  It can control the color and timing of your lights through an app on your smart phone.  But it won’t work with wired dimmer switches and you’ll have to change your routine, leaving your light switch always on and not flipping it off when leaving a room as you have been conditioned to do.]  See also, IoT for more specific stand-alone apps.

COMPUTER FAQ #81: HOW TO CLEAN YOUR DIGITAL IDENTITY WHEN YOU DIVORCE OR SPLIT:  Just like you should plan for the dissolution of your digital identity when you die (FAQ #62), you also have to make appropriate adjustments when you divorce, i.e. your marriage “dies”.  These days, your “digital footprint” is more complex than any paper trail, and more widely accessible.  At the least, you should (1) change your passwords (particularly your “shared” passwords, like those for e-mail accounts, see FAQ #59)) to each and every online account, and on each and every device that is yours.  Do it quickly, before your spouse has the chance to get to your devices and accounts and steal them, after which they may be changed and you could be locked out of your own accounts.  And create a new and better one, not in any related to the old one (see Passwords for more).  (2) Speaking of “shared” accounts on-line, change them.  Lots of couples have not only shared e-mail and Facebook accounts, but also Netflix, Amazon and similar joint accounts.  Separate yourself from them.  I know it’s a pain to start new accounts, but it has to be done.  [This is no different from what your lawyer is telling you to do with your bank or credit card accounts.]  Also, get rid of any shared Cloud accounts, like iCloud,  Amazon, Dropbox or Microsoft.  Otherwise, if you keep them, your ex only has to go the Cloud to see what you’re saying and doing, even if they’re locked out of the computer.  (3)  I shouldn’t have to say this, but erase the originals and all copies of financial records, e-mails, photos, videos and any other type of data that you don’t want released to the general public or your spouse’s divorce lawyer.  Make a copy, archive it if you want, then erase it.  Completely.  If you need help erasing it so it can’t be restored, go to to a pro. Also, there’s a reason for the enactment of so-called “revenge porn” laws. (4)  If you have a list of your passwords on your computer, or stored on a separate app, get rid of it.  Also, any backups, cloud or otherwise, which would have that information.  (5) And don’t forget to change the password for each of your electronic devices - not just your computer and on-line accounts, but your PIN for your cell phone, pad, laptop, whatever.  This includes changing the password for your router and any other firmware settings which might give someone a “back door” into your network.  And, I suppose now that IoT is the big thing, you should make sure you’re off the home network, otherwise you could have a host of other problems (a “haunted” house??) in addition to a back door to your network.  And the OnStar account, if you have vehicles with that feature. (6) If you believe that your spouse is paranoid or you want to protect yourself, you can install a keylogger on your device to detect any tampering.  Don’t you get paranoid, either.  I’ve investigated lots of cases where the client has believed that they were hacked by their spouse and, in most, it turns out that they got the data through simple “social engineering,” i.e. by talking to the kids (see #(8)) or just walking into the house and getting on an unprotected device.  (7) If you are giving up a device to your spouse, first save your data, then do a factory reset with a professional wipe of all data (see FAQ #29 for more). (8) Social media complicates the situation, because whatever you say (about your spouse or anything else) can be posted and then re-posted by your friends.  So, if you must post, decide who your friends are (including your spouse, of course) and review your privacy settings for each account.  Remember that divorce lawyers routinely scour social media, and so do your kids (they may be friends with both spouses, so anything you post to them can be seen by your ex and their lawyer) and that anything you say can be used against you.  Don’t get angry and give them fuel that’ll hurt you.  Better to simply resolve to just keep your postings rant-free on the subject of your spouse and the break-up. (see Social Networking for more). 

>>>These rules shouldn’t be much different for a non-divorce separation (a “break-up”).  Just because a lawyer isn’t involved doesn’t mean that people act any differently.  But without a legal marriage, the law doesn’t offer you as much protection.

What about if you decide to make life changes (like get married) and want to delete your online dating profile?  That can be done, but it does depend on the app.  Remember that deleting the app on your device does not delete your account or any of the information in it.  For Tinder, for example, go to the Settings pane, select App settings, then Delete Account and wait for a message that says “account successfully deleted”.  But for Tinder Plus subscribers, you have to cancel your subscription by mail.  For OkCupid, go to Settings then Delete Account, although you have the option to simply disable the account, which will retain your data until you decide to reinstate it.  For Hinge, you can delete it from a desktop computer, but for phone users, you have to do this through Facebook, via Facebook>More>Settings>Account Settings>Apps>Logged in with Facebook>Hinge>Remove App.   For, go to the gear icon, then change/cancel membership page in Account Settings.  They’ll still keep your data in case you want to re-subscribe, but you can delete it permanently, as they explain HERE.  Or just never log in after you cancel.  For Grindr, in the app go to Grindr Mask>Settings>Privacy, then tap delete profile>confirm.  Finally, for eHarmony, it’s two steps:  First “close” the account by going to Settings>Account Settings>Billing>Close Account.  Then, for permanent deletion, you must e-mail eHarmony at with the subject line “Delete My Account Informtion”, then make your request in the body of the e-mail as well.   Of course, like anything else on the Internet, if anyone else using the app copied, saved, printed or forwarded your profile or data, that will remain out there forever.

COMPUTER FAQ #82: HOW TO PROTECT YOUR E-MAILS FROM SNOOPING EYES:  For ways to protect your e-mails, click HERE.

COMPUTER FAQ #83:  HOW TO DELETE YOUR INTERNET PRESENCE:  First of all, once you have an internet footprint, you will never be able to delete everything.  Posts that you have written or e-mailed will have been repeated and forwarded virtually forever, and there’s nothing you can do about that.  But you can do a lot.  Moreover, it’s irreversible in the sense that you will not be able to get back any of those accounts (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) that you close, or the data from those accounts.  First, you must locate and go through every account you have ever created, including social networking, Twitter, file sharing, music sharing, support forums, gaming sites, eBay, Paypal, Amazon, Craigslist, photo sharing sites, cloud storage sites and the like.  This could take some time.  Deleting the accounts may also take some time as each site may have a different procedure (Twitter and Facebook deactivate; LinkedIn closes; Google+ removes profiles, etc.).  Then, to clean up those small, lesser known, support and purchase sites (e.g. you used Etsy to purchase a spoon ten years ago or ordered lip balm one time from, you could use apps like Account Killer, which provides direct links to every account deletion page, or Knowem, which will do a username search on hundreds of social sites.  See also FAQ #81 about divorce and FAQ #62 about death, how it affects your internet presence.

COMPUTER FAQ #84:  ARE THERE SAFE WAYS TO PAY WITH CREDIT CARDS?  All of these headlines about credit card theft, breaches of major department stores and banks and gas pump readers is worrisome.  And criminals have come a long way disguising credit/debit card “skimmers,” which fit over card readers on ATMs, gas pumps, restaurants and supermarkets which copy your account data when you swipe your card.  And, for debit cards, often a surreptitiously mounted camera then records your PIN when you put it in.   (See Security) Maybe you’re unsure if you should be providing your credit card information for online transactions or even manually at stores and gas stations?  Aside from cash, which isn’t always feasible online, and using credit vs. debit card processing, what other choices do you have?  Several companies have attempted so-called “virtual credit cards”.  Citibank has tried this, as have a couple of startups which are no longer around.  Citi, allows its users to log in to the Citicard website to generate a virtual credit card number to use when shopping online.  It’s different from the number on the physical card and where the expiration data and may even have a credit limit.  At the moment, a company called “Final” is also trying out this idea.  It’s also the idea behind Apple Pay, Google Pay and other “digital wallets,” which use smart phones and other digital devices to process credit card payments using NFC (“Near Field communications”) over a very short distance to process payments over accounts that are already approved for those users and devices.  Click HERE to see how Google Wallet works and HERE to see how Apple Pay works.  But while this is safer because it doesn’t use your credit card number but a token instead, it still requires pre-registration of an account and a merchant with the correct type of reader.  You can’t just go somewhere randomly and buy something with such a wallet.  Other possibilities, if you must pay online:  Consider Bitcoins or other virtual currency, if its accepted.  But it’s a little hassle to set this up the first time and it’ll take a little time to fill your wallet.  Or try prepaid money devices like Moneypaks or Western Union transfers for your cash.

COMPUTER FAQ #85:  HOW CAN I SEND & RECEIVE DISAPPEARING MESSAGES?  This has been covered within other FAQs, but click HERE for a discussion of currently popular apps.

COMPUTER FAQ #86:  HOW DO TV STICKS WORK?  After reading FAQs 44 & 46 above about cutting the cord on cable and satellite TV, many people are asking about TV “sticks”.  These little dongles, which plug into the USB or HDMI port on the back of most newer TVs are easy to install and use.  The most popular streaming TV stick is from Roku, for example, so lets talk about that one.  For as little as $40, you can purchase a USB mounted device and a remote which accesses the Roku service.  Plug in the USB dongle and setup is easy, right on your TV screen.  Once the device is set up on your TV abd the remote keyed to the device, you are up and going.  You can use the remote to access some 1600 channels for free.  There is no additional monthly charge from Roku for this.  However, there will be additional charges for some channels or services.  For example, if you want to access Netflix or Amazon Prime, and programs on those services, you must pay for those additional services, usually a monthly fee (right now Netflix is $7.99/mo; Hulu Plus is $7.99/mo and Amazon Instant Video is $100/yr.).  Unless, of course, you already subscribed to those services, then they can be added to your Roku at no additional cost.  Unfortunately, as discussed above, due to the nature of TV and movie programming, not every service has every channel or every movie studio, so you have to choose the one(s) which fit your viewing habits best and select those services.   And you have to compare the TV sticks (discussed above) to determine which one is right for you, too.  All of this takes a little comparison shopping but it’s worth it.  Thankfully, the setup part of the installation isn’t usually that big a deal.

COMPUTER FAQ #87:  TETHERING, UNLOCKING AND JAILBREAKING CELL PHONES:  Recently (starting 2011) carriers (AT&T and Verizon in particular) have been cracking down on “tethering.”  Tethering is using a cell phone to get a laptop onto the Internet.  This is typically done one of two ways:  First, by using free tethering apps (like MyWi) on jailbroken or rooted cell phones.  Second, by using an unlocked, unbranded cell phone.   For a phone to be unlocked, you have to have a phone with a SIM card.  That limits you to carriers which operate on GSM technology, currently only AT&T and T-Mobile.   Verizon, Sprint and most other carriers use CDMA technology and don’t have SIM cards.  It should be “unbranded,” meaning that it doesn’t use a particular carrier’s “firmware” (the software that operates the phone) so that the carrier can’t determine whether you tether your phone (so-called “tether tattling”).  An “unlocked” phone is a new phone that is not technologically tied to any particular carrier’s network.    A new unlocked phone is much easier to tether than an unbranded phone.  [These phones aren’t particular easy to get in the U.S., but if you work at it, you can pick one up on the Internet, either direct from a carrier or through other sources. Be careful if you purchase from eBay or Craigslist - claims of unlocking are difficult to verify.  But most are manufactured for the overseas market, so make sure you get the right radio frequency (“band”) that your proposed carrier uses and, if you travel internationally, that it has “quad” or “penta” band.]   Once you have the phone, you must replace the carrier-supplied firmware with third party firmware.  You’ve got to be sure that all the carrier software has been completely removed.  If you have an Android phone, you may have to root your phone before installing something called a “custom ROM” such as CyanogenMod.  “Rooting” your device means obtaining “superuser” rights and permissions to your Android’s software. With these elevated user privileges, you gain the ability to load custom software (ROM’s), install custom themes, increase performance, increase battery life, and the ability to install software that would otherwise cost extra money. Rooting is essentially “hacking” your Android device. In the iPhone (and the AT&T) world, this would be the equivalent to “Jailbreaking” your phone.  Basic difference:  JAILBREAKING a phone voids the warranty, but means that you can install third party applications on it that (Apple or AT&T, for example) might not want you to use.  UNLOCKING means that any SIM card can be used on it and it can access another carrier’s system or parts or your carrier’s system that they don’t want to let you access. Illegal?  Depends on whether you consider the phone yours to do with as you please or the firmware copyright protected property of the carrier.  Finally, get a cheap data plan from AT&T or T-Mobile, one of the prepaid or month-to-month types with a large or unlimited data allowance.  You don’t want to trade convenience for a huge phone bill.  Still, beware - after all this, if you constantly download movies or stream music, a carrier can follow the packet switching and see that you’re tethering.  The penalty isn’t much these days if you’re caught, but it may increase now that the carriers are aware of the increasing abuse.  All of the above being said, I’ve never personally had a problem.  I do it the easy way:  I purchased a Droid phone, continued my unlimited data plan, downloaded a program (PdaNet, FoxFi) that tethered my phone and it’s worked well ever since.  As a computer technician, if I go to a client’s house where their internet is down, all I have to do is load the program onto their computer, connect my phone with a micro-USB cable and I’m connected to the Internet.  But note that some carriers don’t support tethering, or charge a monthly fee for the service (like Cricket).

COMPUTER FAQ #88:  HOW DO I TEST MY INTERNET SPEED?  Sometimes we’re not sure we’re getting the fast internet speed that our providers have promised.  For this, there are ways to test whether it’s your computer or the internet connection.  But first, remember that there can be many reasons for speed variations other than transmission from your ISP.  Time of day, usage in your building or on your street, server repairs and updates, distance from the ISP server itself, events like elections or the Olympics that such up bandwidth, things like that.  So always test at the same time of the day that you are having the problem.  And always use more than one testing tool, as readings will vary.  Finally, test using a cabled connection, as wireless connections can cause even more variance problems with readings.  Here are a few free online speed test apps:  CNET, Ookla, Xfinity, Bandwidth Place, and Visualware.  A company named WhichVOIP also offers a Voip speed, bandwidth and jitter test to check your bandwidth speed and see if Voip would be a good choice for you.  Once you log on to these tests, they measure the speed of your internet connection on the basis of three things:  Upload and download transfer rates (i.e., the time it takes to transfer a single or multiple files between your computer and the server) and latency (sometimes called “ping”), which is the time that it takes a single packet of data to reach the server and then return to your computer (which is important for running time-sensitive applications like games and stock trading over the Internet).  Although download speeds are generally higher than upload speeds (as more users upload data to their own cloud providers), it’s becoming more even.  (see this page for more.)  If after all this you believe that you’re not getting the speed you’re paying for, contact your ISP and get them to check it out.  (Of course, first make sure you’re not paying for a discounted plan with purposely slower transfer rates.  If you’re unhappy, it may be time to upgrade your plan.


COMPUTER FAQ #90:  CAN I BLOCK ADS ON MY PHONE?  While the iPhone 6S introduced ad blocking as a feature to that series of phones, those of us with earlier iPhone models still have to install software for this purpose.  Try Purify, Crystal or 1Blocker.   To differing degrees, each app did allow pages to load faster, increased battery life  and blocked some, but never all, of the ads.  The accuracy of the blocking is also determined by whether the ad is popping up on the web page or thereafter on the general web.  For Android phones, try AdBlock Plus, NoRoot Ad-Remover Lite, Ad-Vanish Pro, TrustGo Ad Detector, AppBrain Ad Detector, all free.

COMPUTER FAQ #91:  CAN YOU RETRIEVE A DOCUMENT THAT’S ALREADY BEEN PRINTED?  I was watching a crime show the other day where an investigator found some evidence by going into the desktop printer and looking into the cache file for recently printed documents.  Didn’t know you could do this?  Maybe you can’t.  It’s fairly well known that, if you have a document or page link that didn’t print, you can go to the printer settings and locate it in the “queu”.  And if it’s on-line, you could probably find it in the browser’s history settings.  But what about a document the user created, printed and purposely erased so it couldn’t be viewed? Not on any of my (mostly HP) printers.  But I did find that some printers have this ability.  For those, you can open System Preferences, then Print & Fax, then select my printer in the list on the left. Click Open Print Queue. In the Menu Bar, go to Jobs and click Show Completed Jobs. From there, you can select the print job and reprint it.  Who knew??

COMPUTER FAQ #92:  WHAT’S THE BEST DIGITAL VOICE ASSISTANT?  If you’ve read any of this site, you will immediately expect the first answer to be “it depends on what you’re using it for”.  You’re right.  You’re also correct that if there is already an excellent explanation for this question, I won’t reinvent the wheel, and will refer you to it.  In this case, David Pogue, the well-known tech columnist, has created a video comparing the four most common digital personal assistants.  This, in case you’re thinking of buying one, of course.  Here’s the LINK.    For those of you who don’t want to watch the full video, here’s a summary: You’ve got a choice between Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, each of which can instantly answer questions about conversions, weather, stocks and the like.  But there is a difference between them as to how well they understand your questions.  And, while most can be used anywhere, the Amazon Echo is meant solely for home use.  And, while all of them can respond to voice commands, you may have to set the feature up (e.g. with the Win10 O/S) or may not be able to use it at certain times (e.g. “Hey Siri” works only when the iPhone is charging; “O.K. Google” works only on the Home Screen).  And Siri and Cortana have a physical button you can press anytime.   Pogue deduces from his comparison that “Siri (iPhone) and Google Now (Android) are light years more advanced than Cortana or Alexa (Amazon Echo)They know more, they do more, they speak more.”  And they’re superior at “followup” questions as well.  Pogue is constantly being accused of being Apple-centric, and he may be here, but he may also be correct.  He shows examples that Siri can do more things (answer different types of questions) and is far better when it comes to sports (also funny answers to stupid questions).  So the answer to this question depends on the type of phone you have (even if iPhone is better, do you really want to switch phones and relearn its use?), the type of operating system you’re used to, whether you use a desktop computer or almost exclusively your cell phone for searching, and what you are looking for in terms of features and categories of questions.  They’re all good, some just more capable.  And it’s certain that, as versions continue, they’ll “leapfrog” each other in features, just as cellphones always do. UPDATE:  Google’s introduction of it’s HOME digital assistant may change things.  While both Home and Echo are both speakers requiring a wired power connection to stream music and perform tasks like web searches, adding calendar appointments and looking up movie times, all over an Internet connection, the brains of Home will be Google’s extensive search database, while Echo relies on Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant.  It would stand to reason that, if you are a user of Google’s voice commands, you’ll likely find it easier to use Home.  Google’s Assistant, now just called Google, formerly Google Now, will be familiar to you, both in Google, as well as Google Home and Google Allo, Google’s new messaging App.  How well either digital assistant does with specialty items like making restaurant reservations will depend partly on the software connections that those vendors write for the digital assistants.  Early reviews are that while Home at $130 is cheaper than Echo at $180, Echo is slanted more toward ordering items from Amazon and has some broader smart home capabilities.  If you like the idea of  reordering household items using a speaker, or controlling your home accessories that way, Echo is for you.  But if you aren’t big on remote control or shopping, Home may be for you.  Of course, these two digital assistants will probably leapfrog each other forever, like many software driven items.  Home, for example, doesn’t currently show movie show times, but it probably will with the next update.  Some say, though, that people get rather tired of saying “O.K. Google” each time, like they’re playing Simple Simon or something.  While these devices can order a Domino’s pizza or an uber, stream audio, control your smart home, and wake you up every morning, they still can’t string commands, provide notifications, control multiple devices, or distinguish between voices.

COMPUTER FAQ #93:  WHAT ARE SOME GOOD ANDROID APPS FOR RECORDING NOTES:  Whether it’s just a reminder or keeping a shopping list, many of use our smart phones to keep notes while we’re out.  Here’s a group of free apps for your Android phone that might suit your needs:  The most obvious choice could be Google Now/Keep.  Using your Google Now command (e.g. O.K. Google Now) and adding “Note to Self,” you can dictate a note that will then be saved in Google Keep (across all your wireless devices).  Also quite effective are Smart Voice Recorder, Note to Self, Voice Recorder and ListNote.  Try all of these to see which features meet your needs and select the best one for you. And there are tons of others, many free, available for download at the Google Store.

COMPUTER FAQ #94:  HOW DO I REINSTALL WINDOWS 10 AFTER CHANGING HARDWARE:  This may be better than it used to be with previous Windows versions, as it is more automated, requiring less telephone time.  While major hardware upgrades (e.g. motherboard, processor) used to require a call to Microsoft to reactivate the license, it may be easier with the now computer-centric Windows 10.  Clients often ask whether it is necessary to create a Microsoft account rather than logging in as a local machine.  If you’re registered as a local machine, you have to find your information separately from wherever you stored it when setting the computer up initially.  When it comes to reactivating your software license, having a Microsoft account really makes things easier, because if you are registered (which only means creating a e-mail account) your information will not only be available across devices, but will also synchronize your settings (background, lock screen, preferences, etc.).  All you have to do is select “I changed the hardware on this device recently” after clicking on Settings>Update & Security>Activation, then sign in to your Microsoft account, select the device you’re trying to activate, then click “Activate”.  If the activation fails, you may be prompted to purchase Win10 from the Microsoft Store, but always call Microsoft support first, because you may be able to provide them with sufficient information to obtain a replacement activation code.  For more, see Reactivating Windows 10 after a hardware change” and “Using the activation troubleshooter” from Microsoft and one of many YouTube videos on the subject.

COMPUTER FAQ #95:  WILL TURNING OFF A COMPUTER IMPROPERLY DAMAGE IT? Lots of people now know that simply holding down the power button or just pulling the plug will shut off the computer .  They also probably know that it’s not recommended.  Why?  While it probably won’t cause any hardware damage, there may be serious software repercussions. This is because Windows is always doing something in the background, even when you aren’t.  That’s why the drive indicator light is flashing even when you’re not doing anything.  Sometimes this is the hard drive changing file contents.  This is done in two places, both the content section of the drive as well as the directory section of the drive that points to where the content section actually resides.  Because the disk writes sequentially and not simultaneously, this is done in two separate steps.  If you suddenly turn off the computer and only the first step is completed, the disk will not be properly synchronized and the directory will be inaccurate when it is next accessed.  Because newer drives are so fast, this doesn’t usually happen and, if it does, Windows has error checking software which may correct at least some of these errors.  But if you routinely turn off this way, especially without waiting for Windows to finish all writes, you may corrupt your drive, possibly to the extent that it may not reboot.  You’re taking a risk by not shutting it off properly through the Windows software.



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