Thursday, September 29, 2005

Before Calling Technical Support

Sometimes calling technical support is a bigger hassle then its worth these days. Although, not all technical support people are one step above computer illiterate. I have talked to some really sharp ones over the years, but they're few and far between.

There are some basic troubleshooting steps that you can perform, before or while you waste 30-60 minutes on hold for someone to help you. These techniques can help eliminate the call in the first place.
  • If all else fails, save all your work, close all your applications and reboot your computer. If your computer will not let you reboot it, try pressing the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys. If that still doesn't work, try holding in the power button until the computer turns off. Although, if your computer is still not rebooting unplug it, wait 10 seconds and plug it back in (this is a step of last resort, and it is not recommended).
  • While your computer is turned off, if you have any external hardware devices (i.e.: scanners, hard drives, etc...) that you don't need turn them off and unplug from the computer. If you can't unplug a device or you just don't want too, make sure all the cords are properly connected. Check the Device Manager for unrecognized devices:
    • Check the device manufacturer's web site for updated device drivers and firmware. Also check if the site has a knowledge base of known issues that can help your problem. If you recently updated a device driver and you think its giving you problems try rolling it back.
    • Go to Windows Update and download the latest update for your system and hardware. Check the non-critical updates to see if they can fix your problem.
    • Check to see if you can find a solution to your problem in Google. Also make sure to check out Google Groups.
    Related Articles

    Wednesday, September 28, 2005

    Windows Performance Tips (Hardware)

    Since I just completed a four part article on 'General Windows Maintenance Tips' (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), now I am going to cover some tips for increasing your systems performance. The maintenance tips that were provided in the previous articles can help speed up your computer, but if you want to see a real boost in your system's speed then you have to invest in some hardware.
    • RAM vs. Virtual Memory: When RAM was very expensive, a technology was created called 'Virtual Memory'. The way it works, is that the Operating System (OS) sets a side a chuck of hard drive space, then as the physical RAM gets full it swaps out chunks of memory to the hard drive that are currently not being used. The great thing about this technology is that if you need the extra memory it can be a life saver, but it comes at a cost. It can really slow down your computer, because the OS has to move data in and out of RAM to the hard drive. By purchasing more RAM for your computer you can see an increase in your computer's performance. I would recommend at least a 1GB of RAM for Windows and your applications.
    • Fast Hard Drives: One of the slowest components in your computer is your hard drive. The main reason why its slow is that its mechanical. Newer high-performance hard drives on the market, have faster interfaces (i.e.: SATA and SCSI3), large memory caches (i.e.: 8MB or larger), high RPM spindle speeds (i.e.: 10,000 RPM and faster) and access times. If you get a fast hard drive, you should also invest in a fast hard drive controller. If you have at least two hard drives, and the right controller you can create a RAID 0 array which can give you an extra performance boost.
    • Faster CPU: Another way to increase your system performance is to install a faster CPU with a large L2 cache on your computer. You need to check if your computer's motherboard can support a faster CPU then the one that is currently installed on it. A faster CPU will let you process more information quickly. Note: If you buy a faster CPU, you might want to also consider buying faster RAM if your motherboard and CPU support it.
    • Fast Video Card: If you're a gamer, engineer, or run any application that's used for creating realistic graphics then you might want to consider investing in a fast video card. New video cards are coming out all the time, that are faster and have more features then the previous generation. What you want to consider when buying a new video card is, make sure that it has a fast GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), 128MB or more of fast video RAM, and can use a fast APG or PCI-X slot.
    This article only briefly covers at a high level the hardware that is available to make your system run faster. You need to research carefully each type of hardware change you want to make to your system.

    Sometimes, when you change one component in your system, you can have a domino effect where you need to change other components as well. For example, some of the changes listed above could require a new motherboard, or power supply.

    If price is a consideration, try buying the previous generation of a technology to get more bang for your buck.

    Monday, September 26, 2005

    Windows Security Tips (Part 2)

    In the previous tip, we talked about running your computer with a 'restrictive user account' that doesn't have administrator privileges. The only problem with running your computer this way, you will soon discover that there will be times that you need these rights to perform certain operations.

    To do this, you can use the 'Run As' command, to perform administrator tasks even if you're logged in with a restrictive user account. To access this feature, right-click any program icon and select 'Run as...". A security dialog will display, click 'The following user' radio button, then enter the administrator usrename and password.

    For more information see the following Microsoft Knowledge base article: 'How to enable and use the "Run As" command when running programs in Windows' (294676).

    Sunday, September 25, 2005

    Windows Security Tips (Part 1)

    For your protection, its not a good idea to always run your computer using an account that is privileged (i.e: with administrator rights). By doing this, you can prevent malicious programs from being able to easily infect the OS because it doesn't have the rights.

    When you have to perform an operation that requires privileged access, such as installing or configuring an application or OS. That is when you login with the administrator account.

    To add or remove users, or change user account privileges open the User Accounts control panel. To use this control panel does require administrator access.
    • Open the Control Panels folder
    • Double-click the User Accounts control panel

    Friday, September 23, 2005

    Lock Your Windows Quickly

    Computer security has been a hot topic for a few years, and a good security practice is to lock your computer when you walk away from it. One of the quickest ways to lock your computer's screen is press the WinKey+L key (if your computer keyboard doesn't have the WinKey, then you can press the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys, then Enter). When you lock your computer's screen, you will be required to enter your log-on password to access your computer again (or have an administrator password).

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    Powering Down or Standby, Which One?

    Normally when you're done using your computer, you shut it down. Then when you need it again, you turn it on, and load all your applications to start working on it. There is nothing wrong with this scenario, but there is a different way to shutdown your computer.

    This feature is called hibernate, this is where the OS writes the contents of RAM to the hard disk and turns off the computer. Then when you turn on the computer again, you are able to continue where you left off.

    The advantage of this using hibernation over the standard shut down procedure should be clear. Although, I would recommend that you reboot every few days just to allow Windows to perform some house keeping.

    To put your computer into a hybernation state, under the Start menu select 'Turn Off Computer'. When you see the dialog with the 'Stand By', 'Turn Off', and Restart buttons, hold down the Shift key. The 'Stand By' button will change to Hybernate.

    This doesn't happen you have to turn on this feature:
    • Open the 'Power Options' control panel.
    • Click on the Hibernate tab.
    • Check the 'Enable hibernation' checkbox.
    • Press the OK button when done.

    Running programs from your USB flash drive (Part 2)

    One technique that I have used successfully to run utilities that come with their own installer from my USB flash drive. I run the installer application and install it on my local hard drive. I then copy the program's folder out of the C:\PROGRAM FILES folder to the USB drive. I then uninstall the original program from the computer.

    To test the program, I try to run it from the USB flash drive. The uninstall technique will let you know if the program has any dependencies (such as DLLs, or registry entries) that will prevent it from running properly on another computer.

    Finding Programs for your USB Drive
    There are sites on the Internet that host programs that can be run from these devices, for example there is and These sites contain several different types of useful utilities and other miscellaneous programs.

    Tuesday, September 20, 2005

    Running programs from your USB flash drive (Part 1)

    Installing and running programs from your USB flash drive, can be a hit and miss proposition. You need to find programs that don't have dependencies on being fully installed on to a computer's hard drive in order to run.

    For example, Microsoft Office can not run from a USB flash drive. When the application is installed, it installs its support files all over the computer's hard drive for various reasons (which I don't plan to discuss). Microsoft Office is not the only program that has this requirement, several other applications from several different vendors can't be run from a USB flash drive.

    The real trick is finding programs that don't have installation dependencies in order to run. These programs are primarily written by small software vendors and can come in all shapes and sizes. I generally classify these programs in to two groups, ones that don't require a folder structure to run and ones that do.

    There are some programs that all you have to do is copy one or two files to the USB drive and its ready to go. There are other programs that require their own folder structure to run. A lot of the time the only thing you can do is copy the program files to your USB drive, and try to run it.

    Sunday, September 18, 2005

    Deleting Entries out of IE's Autocomplete Feature

    If you have the Internet Explorer with the Autocomplete feature enabled in your browser, you will discover it comes in handy when trying to complete web forms where you have to enter data that you have already entered. Although if you mistype an entry in to the web form, that mistake will display everytime you use a web page with a particular fields on it.

    For example, I use Google to find the proper spelling of words. Although I hate seeing those mistyped entries everytime I do a search.

    There are two ways to delete items from the Autocomplete feature. One, delete all the entries in Autocomplete (sometimes this is good to do anyway for privacy reasons). Two, delete a single entry from a particular field. For example, go to favorite web site that has a field on it (i.e.: Google) then type any letter. If IE's autocomplete feature is enabled, you will see all the words/phrases that you have searched for that start with that letter.

    To delete an item it the Autocomplete list:
    • Goto the web site, that has the field that contains the entry you want to delete
    • Use the up or down arrow keys to select the entry, then press the Delete key (Note: I don't mean the Backspace key).
    If you type that letter again, you should not find the entry listed anymore.

    Friday, September 16, 2005

    PhotoFiltre (Free Image Editing Program)

    There are only a few free good image editing programs available on the Internet in my opinion. Some of these programs are easy to use but have limited functionality, and others are more powerful but the complexity of using the program increases.

    One you might want to check out is PhotoFiltre, it’s powerful and easy to use. Here is an excerpt from their web site: "PhotoFiltre is a complete image retouching program. It allows you to do simple or advanced adjustments to an image and apply a vast range of filters on it. It is simple and intuitive to use, and has an easy learning curve. The toolbar, giving you access to the standard filters with just a few clicks, gives PhotoFiltre a robust look."

    PhotoFiltre is free for a private, non-commercial or educational use (including non-profit organizations). Commercial or professional use requires registration.

    Thursday, September 15, 2005

    General Windows Maintenance Tips (Part 4)

    This is part 4 of the 'General Windows Maintenance Tips' article.
    • Removing Startup Programs: Some applications you installed can come with components that are designed to load in the Notification Area, or in the background as a service when Windows starts up. If you use these services a great deal, then it might be to your advantage to have this software run this way. Although, if you use these services once in a great while, then all these programs are doing is wasting system resources (like: memory and CPU cycles), making your computer run slower, and taking longer to fully boot up. On my personal systems, I really try to prevent these programs from loading if I don't need them. To help manage these startup applications Microsoft includes a utility called MSCONFIG which is designed to allow you to temporarily prevent these programs from loading for diagnostic reasons. Note: to permanently prevent these programs from loading requires removing their entries from the Windows registry. Warning: Disabling certain system services and startup applications, can disable Windows functionality. Use this tip at your own risk. Although, the good news is that MSCONFIG doesn't allow you to delete permanently these startup items. A good resource for managing system services is Black Viper Service Configuration page. To manage Startup application, check out PacMan's-Portal or AnswersThatWork.
      • From the Start menu, select Run...
      • Type "MSCONFIG" and press the Enter key
      • To disable startup services, select the Services tab. To disable startup applications, select the Startup tab.
      • Select the items that you want to prevent from loading, then press the OK button
    • Cleaning The Registry: When you install applications on your computer it places new files on the hard drive, and new entries in the Windows registry. Later when you uninstall an application, it may not remove all of its files from the hard drive, or its registry entries. To help find and remove these orphaned registry entries, there is a free utility called RegSeeker. It can scan your computer for these left over registry entries and remove them. Warning: Deleting registry entries even with specialized utilities can disable Windows or your applications. Use this tip at your own risk. It is also highly recommended that you backup your computer before using these utilities.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    General Windows Maintenance Tips (Part 3)

    This is part 3 of the 'General Windows Maintenance Tips' article.
    • Hard Drive Maintenance: To prevent data loss on your hard drive, you need to check it to make sure that there is no damage to the file system, and you don't have bad sectors on it. Sometimes the file system which stores and retrieves the files from the hard disk can get damaged from system failure, power losses, or some other type of failure. Windows includes some basic utilities to scan the file system and repair the damage it finds. Note: More sophisticated disk utilities are available from 3rd party software developers, such as: Norton SystemWorks, or System Mechanic Professional.
      • Open My Computer under the Start menu
      • Right-click on the C: drive icon, select Properties.
      • Select the Tools tab
      • Press the 'Check Now...' button, in the 'Error-checking' section.
      • Then check the 'Automatically fix file system errors' and/or 'Scan for and attempt to recovery of bad sectors' checkboxes.
    • Defragmenting Your Hard Drive: To help increase your system's performance, you can defragment the files on your computer's hard drive. The defragment process organizes the files on the hard drive so that they can be quickly read into the computer's memory. Its a good idea to delete temporary files, and empty the trash can before running this utility. Note: There is some debate to how much of a performance increase you will get by defragmenting your computer's hard drive. All I am going to say is that you need to make your own determination.
      • Open My Computer under the Start menu
      • Right-click on the C: drive icon, select Properties.
      • Select the Tools tab
      • Press the 'Defragment Now...' button, in the Defragmentation section.
      • Press the Analyze button to see how much disk fragmentation your hard drive has, press the Defragment button to defragment the drive.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2005

    General Windows Maintenance Tips (Part 2)

    This is part 2 of the 'General Windows Maintenance Tips' article.
    • Remove Unused Software: Generally the older your computer gets, the more older software builds up on it that may never be used. These programs could come from Internet downloads, blotware that came as part of other software, and a million other places. These older programs are just sitting idle on your computer there taking up disk space, and cluttering up the All Programs menu. Depending on the type of software that was installed, these programs can also consume system resources (like memory, or CPU time) which can slow down your computer, or even make it unstable. To remove this software follow the instructions below:
      • Open the Control Panels folder
      • Open the Add/Remove Software control panel.
      • Look for programs that you don't use or want anymore, click on the entry, then press the Remove button. Most of these program will include a wizard to walk you through the software removal process.
      • Close this control panel when you're done.
    • Delete Temporary Files: Sometimes Windows or other programs create temporary files that are left behind on your computer consuming disk space. These programs can leave these files behind because there could be flaws in the software, or the program was not shutdown properly. If your hard drive is getting full, this can cause your system to slow down or behave erratically. A low disk space condition will prevent Windows from writing critical system information to the hard drive (such as the paging file). To remove this unneeded disk space, perform the following steps:
      • Open My Computer under the Start menu
      • Right-click on the C: drive icon, select Properties.
      • Press 'Disk Cleanup' button. This will launch a utility that can be used to remove these files.

    Sunday, September 11, 2005

    General Windows Maintenance Tips (Part 1)

    Computers like cars require some general maintenance to keep them running properly and in peek performance. If you don't maintain and change the fluids in your car it could fail on you. If you don't properly maintain your computer, it can also fail on you.

    Below is a list of ideas that you can use to help make your computer run better:
    • Run Windows Update: It is critical these days to keep your system and applications up-to-date with the latest patches. These patches are designed to correct known problems and security holes that can expose your system to different types of exploits. These security holes can be used by malicious software programmers to takeover your system, steal your personal data, and more. Note: If you enable Windows XP Automatic Update, it can automatically download and install critical updates for you.
    • Check for Malicious Software: Check your system for spyware, viruses, or other types of malicious software running on your computer. Even though you might be running anti-virus and anti-spyware software sometimes these programs can sneak past the resident scanners running on your computer. It is also a good idea to make sure that your signatures are up-to-date, and run scans of your system at least once a week.

    Friday, September 09, 2005

    Make the Caps Lock Key work like a Typewriter

    There are some functionality of the older typewriter keyboards that some people would still prefer to use over the more modern PC keyboard. For example, when pressing the Shift key on the typewriter keyboards, it would deactivate the Caps Lock key. If you hold down the shift key on a modern PC keyboard while the Caps Lock is on, all it does is allow you to type in lowercase letters.

    If you would prefer to use the older keyboard functionality in Windows XP, do the following:
    • From the Start menu, select Control Panel
    • Double-click the 'Regional and Language Options' control panel
    • Click the Languages tab
    • Press the Details... button.
    • Press the 'Key Settings...' button
    Note: If the 'Key Settings...' button is grayed out, press the Add button and add another keyboard definition. Select the keyboard you want to use and then press the 'Key Settings...' button.
    • In the section called 'To turn off Caps Lock', select 'Press the SHIFT key' radio button.
    • Press the OK buttons until all the dialogs are closed.
    Now whenever you press the Shift key it will disable the Caps Lock key if it is enabled. To re-enable the newer functionality, just repeat the instructions but in the second to the last step just select the other radio button.

    Thursday, September 08, 2005

    Keyboard shortcuts that you might not know...

    Below is a list of keyboard shortcuts that you might not be aware of:
    • Bypassing the Recycle Bin when deleting a file, highlight a file or folder and press the Shift-Del keys.
    • Quickly access a file or folder's properties dialog, highlight a file or folder and press the Alt-Enter keys.
    • Quickly expand all folders in the Windows Explorer, highlight a folder and press the Shift-Numeric Keypad Asterisk.
    • Automatically size all columns in the Windows Explorer, press the Ctrl-Numeric Keypad Plus.
    • An alternate way to quickly access the start menu press the Ctrl-Esc keys. This is handy if your keyboard doesn't have the Windows key on it.

    Wednesday, September 07, 2005

    Windows Network Troubleshooting Utiltiies

    Troubleshooting network problems can be a royal pain in the behind. Like any form of computer troubleshooting, there are a lot of layers of other technologies that you might have to dig through to isolate the problem. Then even after you isolate the problem, it might be beyond your control to correct (such as a problem at your ISP).

    To help you troubleshoot and identify problems, Windows includes some basic network diagnostic utilities. These utilities do require that you have an understanding of how networks operate in order to use them.

    You need to access these utilities from the command line in order to use them. So from the Start menu, select Run..., and type "CMD" and press the Enter key.
    • ipconfig /all shows your computer's IP-related settings. This information will tell you if your computer is configured correctly for communicating on your network.
    • ping [ip_address] (i.e.: ping allows you to check your connectivity with other devices on your network by using that device's IP address. This test can tell you if you can talk to other devices on your local and/or external network. If you get a response, you can assume you have basic network connectivity to that remote device. Note: the remote devices your trying to communicate with must support this functionality.
    • tracert [ip_address] (i.e., tracert shows how many routers (AKA hops) a packet must travel to reach a remote device. This utility is great for finding out where there might be a communication failure between you, and the device you're trying to reach.
    • netstat show you a list of all the active TCP/IP ports on your system. This information is handy for detecting which processes running on your computer are talk to the network.
    • nslookup [DNS_name] (i.e. nslookup displays the IP address related to a device's domain name. This utility can let you know if your computer can communicate with its remote DNS server.
    There are several more network utilities that are avilable, but these are the ones that you will use the most.

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Buying a USB Flash Drive (Part 2)

    In part one of this article, we talked about the technology behind the USB flash drives. Now we’re going to talk about the different physical aspects and features of these drives.

    These drives can come in all sorts of different shapes, sizes, and storage capacities; here is a list of things that you should consider before buying one.
    • Buy a drive with a small form factor, my general rule of reference is that it should not be bigger then a pack of stick gum (for example: check out the SanDisk Cruzer Mini). Avoid buying drives that have funny shapes to them. For example, there are a few drives that I have seen that have a round bulge on the end. The drives with odd shapes can prevent you from inserting it in computers where USB connectors only offer enough room to insert another cable.
    • Buy the highest capacity USB flash drives you can afford. A one gigabyte flash drive is now under a hundred dollars.
    • Buy the fastest USB flash drives you can afford. Most modern USB flash drives support USB v2.0, which can support transfer rates as high as 480MB per second, while USB v1.1 only supports 11MB per second. Make sure to read the packaging carefully before you buy it, to make sure it supports USB v2.0.
    • Two other important considerations that are often overlooked are how you’re going carry the drive, and the type of cap that is used to protect the USB connector. I like to keep my USB attached to my key ring, but I had to modify the tether that came with my drive. The one thing I really hate about my drive is the protective cap. It keeps following off, and I have lost a few of them.
    • Some drives come with extra software to perform special tasks such as encrypting your files. Manufactures do this to try to differentiate their drives from the competition. I generally delete this software because it is either trailware (that only works for thirty day), or it’s a poorly designed custom.

    Monday, September 05, 2005

    Buying a USB Flash Drive (Part 1)

    It’s not news to anyone that the floppy disk has been replaced by the USB flash drive for a few years now. Plus, these drives are getting cheaper, smaller and coming in larger storage capacities all the time.

    Personally, I have been carrying a USB flash drive around with me for a few years now. I mostly use it to carry large files between two different computers and to store software utilities that I use to fix different problems that I encounter. Although I have to admit I don’t use it too often, but when I need it, it’s a godsend.

    For those of you who are wanting to buy one of these types of drives, and are researching them. There are a few things that you should know:

    • There are two types of USB drives on the market, hard drive and flash based.
      • Hard drive based USB drives, offer larger storage capacities for less money. Although, they’re generally larger in physical size when compared to a flash-based drive and require and external power supply to use them.
      • Flash-based USB drives don’t generally have large storage capacities, but they’re smaller and more compact, and don’t require an external power sources.
    • These drives can be automatically mounted by most modern OSes without the use of special software drivers. All you have to do is plug them in, and wait for them to mount (this generally requires a few seconds). This means that you can plug it into just about any computer running Windows 98SE (or higher), Linux, or the Mac OS v9.1.x (or higher).

    Note: It is a good idea to unmount the USB drive before pulling it out of your computer. This makes sure that no applications are using the drive before you pull it out of your system, this help protect against data lost.

    Friday, September 02, 2005

    Fine Tuning Your Monitor

    Windows by default will try to auto-discover the correct resolution and refresh rate for your monitor. If its unable to figure it out, it will default the the monitor to a moderately high refresh rate (85Hz) for CRTs and a lower refresh rate (60Hz) for LCDs (note: LCD monitors are not effected by refresh rates, so by setting the refresh higher then 60Hz can slow down the graphics).

    If you need to manually adjust your CRT monitors resolution, color depth, or refresh rate you need to access the Display properties control panel (note: for LCD monitors don't change the native resolution).
    • Right-click on an empty area of the Desktop, and select Properties
    • Click the Settings tab
    • From here you can set the monitor resolution and color depth by adjusting the slider or changing the dropdown menu.
    • Press the Advanced button, and select the Monitor tab
    • Form here you can adjust the monitor's refresh rate. For CRT monitors, a general rule of reference, make sure its set faster the 60Hz to avoid seeing flicker on the screen. Check your monitors manual to find out what refresh rates it supports. Be careful not to refresh rate that is too high this canoverdrive your monitor, and could possiblily damage it.
    • Press the OK buttons when done.

    Thursday, September 01, 2005

    Making Windows Readable on Large Monitors

    It seems the older you get, the harder it gets to read the small type on the monitors that support fairly high resolutions (such as: 1280x1024 and higher). If you're below 25 years old and have really good eye sight and laughing at me for saying this just give it a few years. ;-)

    If I use a monitor below 17" inches at this resolution, I begin to squint to try to read the display (I am sure I am not the only one who has to do this). If you do have to drive your monitor at a high resolution because you like the extra screen real estate, but hate the tiny fonts in the dialogs and menus. There is a solution that can fix most of your problems, although its not a 100% fix.

    Windows has two features that support making the fonts in menus, dialogs, and more easier to read by making them bigger. The first feature only makes the fonts bigger:
    • Right-click on an empty area of the Desktop, and select Properties
    • Click the Appearance tab
    • In the Font Size drop-down menu select one of the following options (Normal, Large, or Extra-Large).
    • Press the OK button when done.
    If you want to make everything bigger on the screen (not just fonts), instead of choosing the Appearance tab, choose the Settings tab. Press the Advanced button, then in the DPI setting drop-down choose 'Large Size (12o DPI)'. This will make everything on the screen 25% bigger.

    Note: By changing this setting you will notice that elements of some applications will not display correctly (such as words spilling outside the display list boxes, or not aligning properly).