There – it’s all in the title

Let me explain

A few times recently, I have had computer support clients asking for my advice when upgrading to a new laptop (as they do) and expressing concern that most modern laptops don’t have a CD/DVD drive. So, they ask, should they avoid such machines?

“No”, is my answer, unless BOTH of the following situations apply to you:

  • You still regularly use a CD/DVD drive (and the operative word here is “regularly”)
  • You carry your laptop around with you on a fairly regular basis

“But what about my music? What about that game that’s on CD that my darling little grandchild plays when s/he comes to see me?”

CD/DVD drive - from Amazon

CD/DVD drive – available from Amazon at £12.99 plus delivery

“No problem” (as everyone says, inappropriately and ad nauseam, these days). You can buy an external CD/DVD drive – and very cheaply, too. And that’s why I say that it’s all in the title. The fact is that external CD/DVD drives manage to keep a very low profile. They’re rarely advertised and if you didn’t know they exist then it probably wouldn’t occur to you to wonder if they do – even if you could do with one!

The fact is that we are using CDs and DVDs far less often than we used to. Most software and most music is now downloaded from the internet rather than supplied on physical media. Also, we don’t use CDs and DVDs for backups very often nowadays. Therefore, it makes sense for laptop manufacturers to save both space and money by not including them.

If you do use a CD/DVD drive regularly and you do need it on the move, then I can tell you from my own experience that it’s a little less convenient, and a little heavier, dragging around separate computer and CD/DVD drive than having an internal drive. However, the trend towards less and less use of them is likely to continue, so the balance is likely to go more and more towards laptops without integral drives.

CD/DVD drive - Apple

CD/DVD SuperDrive from Apple – £65

External CD/DVD drives are cheap. At this point, I was going to suggest budgeting about £30 but then I did a bit of research and found a CD/DVD drive on Amazon for just £12.99 (plus delivery). OK, it’s no style icon, but that hardly matters. You will see from the illustration above that it comes with a CD with “Driver” written on it. If, like me, you are a bit of a smarty-pants, then you might wonder how you get to load up the drivers to make the drive work if you need to have the drivers installed before the drive will work. Hmm, I can’t think of a smart response to that. The truth is, though, that I have never needed drivers to make an external CD/DVD drive work. Just plug ’em in and off they go.

You will notice that there are two cables with this model. One is the data cable and the other is a separate power cable (they both connect to the laptop via USB ports). It needs the second (power) cable as the device needs more power than can be delivered through the same cable that handles the data. Clearly, if you have a laptop that only has one USB port then this solution won’t work for you. Instead, look for a drive that manages (somehow) with just one cable. Using up two valuable USB ports isn’t usually a problem as the drive is not usually being used for more than a single operation. It can then be disconnected.

CD/DVD drive - Samsung

Samsung CD/DVD drive – available from PC World at £22.99

I notice that this particular drive claims compatibility only with Windows machines and not with Macs. My bet is that it would work on a Mac as well, but if you don’t want to take the risk (and if you are inured to the pain of paying Apple prices), then you might feel more comfortable paying £65 for the official Apple USB SuperDrive.

If you’d like something a little more elegant than the one from Amazon, then you might like this CD/DVD drive by Samsung from PC World at £22.99. This one does say that it’s both PC and Mac compatible.

So, there you have it. Now that you know that external CD/DVD drives exist, you can go ahead and buy your new slim, lightweight, notepad with confidence.

Nothing too involved today – it is a holiday weekend, after all

iPad and iPhone tip – recent list

iPhone Open Apps Image

Swipe up on the image of the app you wish to close

If you wish to return to an app that is difficult to find on your home screens then a double-click on the home key will bring up a list of your recently used apps. You can swipe left and right through this list to go backwards and forwards between the open apps. Just tap on the app that you are looking for and it will come to the front.

This is also the way that you unload a program that’s in memory. Just bring the program to be closed to the centre of the screen (as described above) and then swipe upwards. I often use this function (when I remember) to close any mapping programs I have open (such as the London A-Z). These programs track your location even if you are not actively using them (as long as they are open and the GPS feature is switched on). In my opinion this is a cheek. If I’m not using the program then there’s no legitimate reason at all for its publishers to continue to track me.

Amazon Pickup Locations
Amazon pickup locations now include post offices. This is extremely useful if it is unlikely that anyone will be at home when deliveries are attempted. Amazon send an email to tell you when the package is at the pickup location and you just collect it at your leisure (armed with the usual proof of identity and Order Tracking Number).

Post Office SignWell, that’s the theory, but I think Amazon are touchingly naive in thinking that just because they’ve delivered it to the pickup point, then it’s ready for collection. The Post Office in Clapham kept telling me last Saturday that they hadn’t received a package that Amazon said they had delivered. It took a bit of time to persuade the PO clerk to go and check for parcels they hadn’t yet booked into their system. It was there, of course.

It may be worrying that Amazon are single handedly destroying our town centres, but at least they can usually be relied upon to be efficient while doing it. You do lose the “free delivery” option when you arrange for delivery to a pickup location.

Transferring or copying Microsoft’s Sticky Notes to a different computer

A while ago (see Who Needs Word?), I blogged about the rather useful little utility built into Windows that allows you to create sticky notes on your screen and display or hide them at a keystroke. I find this so useful that I’ve got a version of it on my main laptop and also on my Microsoft Surface Pro 3. The problem is that the notes are completely different from each other. I wondered if it might be possible to store the data (ie my specific sticky notes) in a Dropbox folder so that both computers would address the same data.

File Explorer Address Bar

Figure 1. Type the circled text into the File Explorer (Windows Explorer) address bar to open the folder containing the Sticky Notes data file.

This is a bit fraught with problems such as could you have the same file open on two machines, what happens if you change them both, and so on? The only way of finding out would be to try it. Well, I couldn’t find any way of easily changing the location of the file. It’s almost certainly to be found in a key in the registry but I never play with the registry unless I’ve got very good reason. What I did find out, however, was that your Sticky Notes data is to be found in one of those folders that is normally hidden. If you want to open the folder (so that you can copy the file for pasting into a different computer, or for backup purposes), then do the following:

  • Close the Sticky Notes program. Do this by right-clicking on its icon on the taskbar and left-clicking on “close window” (or you could close it via the Task Manager)
  • Open a Windows Explorer window (NOT Internet Explorer, but Windows Explorer (now known as File Explorer, actually))
  • Type the following into the address bar of the Explorer window – %AppData%\Microsoft\Sticky Notes (see figure 1) and click the enter key.
  • You will then find the file called StickyNotes.snt. This can be copied and pasted elsewhere for backup or for transfer to a different machine.
Sticky Notes Data File

The circled file is the Sticky Notes data file

We are being bombarded with offers of “free cloud storage”

Cloud ClipartThe phrase “in the cloud” just means that computers remote from our own local network are involved. I covered this in a blog three years ago called Cloud Computing, but then I was thinking more of the provision of software in the cloud rather than just storage space for our data.

Today, though, I’m just looking at the provision of storage space. You can avail yourself of free cloud services just to use the storage space – whether or not the service actually includes software. Some of the most popular are:

Google Drive – 15gb space, 10gb max file size
OneDrive (was Skydrive) – 7gb space, 1tb max file size (you’d need to upgrade to a paying service for a 1tb file)
Amazon – 5gb space, 2gb max file size
Dropbox – 2gb initial free space, max file size is the same as available space
Box – 10gb free space, 250mb max file size

Filing cabinet in the cloudsThe free space listed above is what they are advertising today (28/05/2014). There are often special offers. For instance, I was lucky enough to latch onto “Box” at a time when they were offering a whopping 50gb free space. And with the Dropbox service, you can earn extra free space – eg by introducing other users. In fact, if you were to open a free Dropbox account via the link above, then I would receive an extra 500mb space for introducing you and you would earn an extra 500mb space for joining via a referrer (me).

Why would you use cloud storage?

  • It provides you with a “remote backup”. In other words, if the worst happened and all your computers, files, backup drives, usb drives, DVDs, and everything else were all lost in one single event (such as fire, theft, or flood) then the remote copy in the Cloud would not be affected.
  • It can provide a way of synchronising data between lots of devices (eg a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop). True synchronisation is when the data is kept on different devices and they are all kept “in step” (in this case, via a Cloud service). An alternative to synchronisation is to use the Cloud storage as the ONLY copy of the data. In that case, no synchronisation is necessary, but you do have to have an active internet connection to access the data. Most cloud storage services offer the ability to synchronise to your local device.

Why wouldn’t you use cloud storage?

  • If you were very concerned about the privacy of the data you were storing in the cloud. Although the data is encrypted, it has come to light that some of the storage companies could decrypt the data if they had to. All these storage companies will divulge your data in response to legal instruction to do so – eg in response to government agencies demanding legitimate access to the data. How much the most powerful governments can also glean by other methods is, of course, now open to conjecture. You could also encrypt your data yourself before sending it to the cloud so that it has been double-encrypted by the time it is stored in the cloud. This could get messy, though, if you wanted to access the data from devices running different operating systems (eg a mixture of Windows, Mac, and Android).
  • If you have lots of data to store, it may not fit in the allocated space. Also, some services have limitations on the size of individual files. That great Box account of mine has the slight drawback that it will not store files bigger than 250mb.
  • If you have a feeble internet connection then it may be too tedious to upload files to the Cloud.

So why are all these companies competing to offer us a free service?

Clouds on laptop screenNo doubt they are trying to build large customer bases that they will be able to capitalise on in the future. Even now there are usually “professional” versions of the free storage plans that charge a monthly subscription for an enhanced service.

This is exactly where the computer companies want us to go. The likes of Microsoft have realised that it’s difficult to keep selling “new improved, enhanced” versions of their software every 2-4 years. From a marketing point of view it’s much better to get people to sign a direct debit for a small monthly amount that they will continue to pay month after month, year after year. This is the basis for the Office 365 version of Microsoft Office. I’m not quite sure when they sneaked it past us, but if you open Word 2010 on a Windows 8 computer and go to open a file, then the initial (the default) location that it will look for the document is now “OneDrive” (the renamed Skydrive – Microsoft’s Cloud storage service). Presumably this only happens if you actually have a OneDrive account. Nevertheless, I would prefer to have chosen to change the default to a cloud location myself rather than be led by the nose by Microsoft. Maybe this can be changed in Word or Window “Options” but I couldn’t find it.

In conclusion, as far as I am concerned it’s worth using Cloud storage for purposes of synchronisation (for this I use Dropbox) and for storing “remote backups” that I wouldn’t want to lose altogether. I still prefer to think of my own laptop as being the centre of my computing world and I suspect that a lot of other people do likewise. I’m prepared to bet, though, that we’ll allow ourselves to be herded in the direction that the big computer companies want us to go and I think that this is already starting to happen. I think that cloud storage is here to stay and will probably become the norm.

Large eye through a magnifying glassWe may be fighting a losing battle with online privacy. As mentioned in last week’s blog on Internet Privacy, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon hoover up every crumb of information they can glean about us and use it to target us with ads and content that they think will appeal to us. As far as I know there’s isn’t any perfect strategy for maintaining online privacy, but there are lots of small things we can do that will certainly help.

I’m not concerned here with security on the internet as it relates to the safety of children, or trying to hide our identity so that we may be completely untraceable. I’m just trying to keep down the amount of un-necessary information we give to the likes of Google. These tips are equally valid in a home computer or business computer environment.

So, here are some tips. They’re not listed in any particular order. Some are easier to put into practice than others:

  • Create another email account that you never intend to use for “real” email. Don’t include your own real name in the account name and don’t give real data when completing the compulsory items of information in the account profile. Quote this email address on any websites that demand you supply one and where you don’t expect a normal, ongoing, email exchange (since you don’t want to have to keep checking this account for incoming emails). Having an “anonymous” account like this also helps in keeping spam out of your main email account.
  • If a website demands that you give personal information that is not connected with a financial transaction nor has other legal implications, then LIE. I will NOT give my real address or date of birth online when there is no legitimate NEED for it (and there are few legitimate needs except the protection of the other party in financial transactions). If I am entering a compulsory date of birth on a website where this is “relevant” (but not essential for financial reasons) then I enter a date that is close to my own (so that it makes no difference for the legitimate purposes of the website) but from which I can not be traced.
  • When filling in online forms, exercise judgement in completing any item that is not marked as compulsory (usually indicated by an asterisk or written in red). If they don’t require you to give a date of birth then why would you? If an item is compulsory but impertinent then LIE.
  • Don’t click on any “like” buttons in Facebook or anything similar (eg in Google).
  • Don’t take part in online quizzes or polls.
  • Preferably, don’t use Facebook at all. If you are a Facebook user and have any concerns at all about the privacy of your data, read this article about Facebook’s attitude to privacy.
  • Magnifying glass over computer keyboard

  • If you’re still keen to use Facebook, go through all the settings and mark everything private except what you explicitly wish to share.
  • If you use LinkedIn, do not click on ads without first changing your privacy settings to exclude monitoring your activity re ads.
  • Do not use Gmail or any of its branded versions (I think Virgin’s webmail is one of those). Google reads your emails and bombards you with “appropriate” Google ads (sponsored links). See last week’s blog on Internet Privacy.
  • If you must use Gmail, at least ensure that you sign out when you are not actually using the email as Google records everything you do in your browser if you are logged in as a Gmail user. They then use this info to target you with Google ads. I also sign out of other sites, such as Microsoft Live, as soon as I’ve finished with them.
  • Disable or remove browser add-ons that place “toolbars” and/or “search boxes” at the top of your browser. These often have tracking software in them. Incidentally, your browser performance will also be improved by doing this and your browser screen will be less cluttered.
  • Be very careful about “linking” any social networking site to any other (by giving any of them permission to access others). You might add data to one program, believing it to be private, forgetting that you have linked it to another program that sucks in what you thought was private data and spits it out somewhere more public.
  • Set your browser so that all cookies are deleted as soon as you close the browser (but this has implications – read on).
  • Set your browser to delete your browsing history as soon as you close your browser.
  • Set your browser to disallow third party cookies.
  • Turn off Amazon browsing history.
  • If you use Firefox or Chrome as your browser then you can install AdBlock Plus. This will stop most ads from appearing while you are browsing.
  • If you use Firefox, another excellent add-on is Better Privacy. This deletes the “flash cookies” that are placed on your hard drive by Flash Player. Flash cookies (also known as LSOs – Locally Stored Objects) are not removed or blocked along with other cookies.
  • Do not be misled into thinking that “private browsing” will give you any protection. It does suppress evidence on your own computer but it does not prevent sites you visit from recording your activity. Nevertheless, it may help to turn it on.
  • More technical ways of throwing websites off your scent include using proxy servers and using a dynamic IP address.
  • If you want to make an online purchase from a website that you don’t completely trust, you can use a prepaid Mastercard. This will limit your financial exposure to the value on the card and will also keep all your personal information from the website.

As if all this wasn’t already a nightmare worthy of a Kafka novel, some of these measures nullify others. You can turn off Amazon’s “browsing history” and, similarly, stop ask.com from retaining your history but the instructions to turn these off are held in cookies so if you delete cookies (as recommended above) you’re back to square one with these two sites. Doh!

Some of the tips above are easy to carry out and others less so. I haven’t attempted to give specific instructions (eg for different versions of different browsers) as it would just take too long.

If you’d like some help in tightening up your online privacy, contact me to arrange either a computer support visit or some online remote support.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Amazon are now selling more books on the Kindle e-reader than any other format – see this link

There’s no doubt that e-readers have huge advantages over individual printed books:

  • It’s very easy to carry lots of books around. Great for long journeys.
  • It’s very easy to find, buy, and have books instantly available to read. This is especially true of the Kindle where you are more-or-less locked into Amazon. The purchase of a book (via the Kindle) is instantly and automatically followed by the download onto your own Kindle.
  • E-readers are easy to use and to read. If you have not yet looked at them because you think it is a strain to read a computer screen then do give them a try. The “e-paper” screen is very easy to read and does not induce any of the strain of reading a computer screen.
  • I hear from Kindle enthusiasts that subscriptions to periodicals works very well.

I don’t think that anyone is pretending that e-readers will replace real books altogether. There is none of the feel, or the smell, or the visual appeal that make proper books a joy to handle. They do work really well, though, for paperbacks and periodicals that you’d probably read once and then discard. You can also store pdf documents on e-readers so there’s plenty of scope for widening their usefulness.

There is one aspect of Kindles, though, that worries some people. This is part of the Kindle licence agreement:

The Software will provide Amazon with data about your Kindle and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files, and signal strength). The Software will also provide Amazon with information related to the Digital Content on your Kindle and Other Devices and your use of it (such as last page read and content archiving). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make using your Kindle or Reading Application and other information you provide may be stored on servers that are located outside the country in which you live.

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle

This agreement has been interpreted as meaning that anything you do on your Kindle may be reported back to Amazon. They could analyse your reading habits in the minutest detail – eg:

  • How fast you read.
  • Which (juicy?) pages you return to.
  • Whether you actually finish a book.
  • What times of what days you are actually reading.

It seems that a lot of people don’t actually mind this. They don’t see any threat to their privacy or they don’t care about it.

Other people seem to think like me. I don’t want any organisation or any software giant analysing my actions to any extent greater than they need to in order to provide me with the product or service I am buying from them.

As it happens, the Kindle situation isn’t quite as bad as I’m making out because I understand that there are at least some aspects of it that you can control with the options provided. One such option is to prevent any highlighting that you do from being reported back to Amazon. Yes, that’s right. If you highlight a section of a book on your Kindle it will normally tell Amazon that you’ve done it!

Sony e-reader Pocket Edition

Sony e-reader Pocket Edition

Of course, if you want an e-reader but don’t want big brother Amazon breathing down your neck, you could buy a Sony E-reader and not a Kindle. Buying a Sony also means that you are not tied into buying your books from one source. Although you can buy books from Sony you can also buy them from elsewhere. I’ve been buying books for my Sony e-reader from Waterstone’s for over two years now and I really like it. It’s true that the Waterstone’s website is not as good as it could be and it’s also true that you have to download your book to a PC or Mac and then install it onto the reader. Personally, I’d much rather do that than have Amazon recording my every move. There’s no doubt, though, that the convenience and simplicity of instant purchase and downloading to a Kindle outweigh any privacy issues for a great many people (or is it just that they don’t know they are being watched?).

Last word: if you are considering buying a Kindle, do consider the more expensive option that comes with wireless 3G connectivity. This means that you can download from almost anywhere whereas the “Wi-Fi-only” option means that you have to be connected to a wireless broadband connection when you want to download (fine when you are at home, but not so clever at an airport).

© 2011-2015 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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