You may think that going through a list of instructions for carrying out a computer task is daunting – and the longer the list the more daunting it looks

Cartoon of a long listI’ve often thought about this subject and it certainly occupied a large chunk of my mind as I was writing the instructions for next week’s blog about printing a list of albums in iTunes. I’d like to think that the list looks more daunting than it actually is. The key to such lists is to ignore the fact that it looks difficult. Just start at the beginning and concentrate on one instruction at a time. It will, of course, take a lot longer to go through any specific list the first time than it would if you were to go through it a few times. Don’t be put off by a list of intructions just because there are ten items in it. If you want to achieve the promised result, then just give it a go.

However long it takes you to go through a list written by me, I can promise you that it took me longer to write it! Next time you find a list of computer support instructions hard to follow, just imagine what it’s like for the person writing them. Not only does he (or she, of course) have to check the specifics of each step, but s/he must also take an informed guess at the level of knowledge of the person who will carry out the advice in the intructions.

Imagine for a moment that you have been asked to write down the instructions for your house guest (a martian) to boil herself an egg. It’s no good saying “put egg in boiling water for 3 minutes, lift out with spoon (not hand/tentacle)“:

  • Does the martian know how to boil water?
  • Does she know what to put the water in?
  • Having decided on a saucepan (and defined “saucepan”, maybe), where do you keep the saucepans?
  • Where does she get the water from?
  • Where are the eggs kept?
  • What do they look like?
  • What’s an egg timer?

And so on…

Cartoon martianIf you were really trying your best to be nice and accommodating to this martian then you could end up with a very long, deeply considered and carefully worded, list. She might well take one look at the length of this list and mutter to herself “blow this for a game of soldiers” and head for home (hungry).

This, I suspect, is what a lot of my readers do when confronted with lists of instructions that I create for this weekly blog. Fair enough. However, I’d like to offer a few hints:

  • Make a conscious decision about whether it’s worth spending 15 minutes of your life (which you won’t get back, of course) tackling this list. What you’re doing here is putting a value on reaching the (promised) result.
  • Only tackle the list when you’re in the right mood for it and can concentrate on it one step at a time
  • Allow the 15 minutes that you’ve already decided it’s worth putting aside
  • Think of it as a challenge that’s also fun
  • Remember that it’s not going to matter if you don’t achieve it. If you really want to achieve it and can’t – either because my instructions are at fault or because your brain has gone on holiday – then call me

Cartoon of computer frustrationI know that a lot of people find computers very very frustrating and quite intimidating. That’s good for me, of course, because I might starve otherwise, but I’d still like to encourage the frantic and the fearful by saying that most computer issues aren’t a matter of life and death and almost everyone can get a sense of achievement by successfully working through a list and then being able to do it more and more easily with practice and growing familiarity.

Do give it a go, but if all else fails, you can always pay me to come and help you!

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the iPhone keyboard

…and I know from discussing this with friends and computer clients that there are plenty of other people who share this slight frustration. If it’s only a case of prodding a few characters then that’s OK. Just take it slowly and pay attention. Better still, use a stylus.

If it’s a long and complicated email that needs to be sent from the iPhone then I’ve concluded that the best way to do this is – don’t. If I haven’t got access to a keyboard better than the iPhone’s then the email can just wait. If it’s that urgent then a phone call is probably the best option.

Steve Jobs with iPhone

I wonder how Steve Jobs got on with typing on the iPhone

But what if it’s a text message that is needed? An iPad’s no obvious benefit as there’s no texting available and neither, in the ordinary course of things, is a proper computer any use, either. I have several times investigated the possibility of texting from a proper computer but have never found a straightforward solution that is worth the effort (or the cost). A while ago I blogged about a piece of software for preparing a text message on a computer and then sending it to an iPhone for onward transmission as a text message. I did use this for a while, but it proved flakey and I gave it up.

That was when I decided it was time to get to grips with an aspect of the iPhone that I had always found too tricky and tedious to bother mastering – “copy and paste”. After a bit of practice, I now routinely use this method to send long text messages. It involves sending an email first from something with a better keyboard than the iPhone (ie a computer or a tablet).

So, here are step by step instructions. You may find, like me, that this makes sending long text messages quicker and more accurate than using your iPhone’s keyboard.

  1. Prepare the message as an email and send it to yourself. I include in the body of the email exactly what is going into the text message. No more and no less. It doesn’t really matter if the email program is set up to add a signature to each message as it’s easy enough to delete this from the final text message just before sending it. The only important – if blindingly obvious – point is that the iPhone must be set up to receive the email that you are going to send to yourself.
  2. Open the email message on your iPhone.
  3. Do a “long press” anywhere in the body of the email message. When the magnifying glass pops up then let go of the long press.
  4. It doesn’t matter what part of the message has been initially “selected” by the long press as a short menu now pops up that includes the option to “select all”. Tap on this option.
  5. All of the text will now be selected and a menu pops up with the single option to “Copy”. Tap on this option.
  6. Press the Home button and open your text messaging program. If the text message that you have just prepared is a reply to an incoming message then open that message. Otherwise, press the option to start a new message and fill in the recipient’s name or mobile number in the usual way.
  7. Tap on the message area.
  8. Do a “long press” on the message area until a menu pops up with the single option to “Paste”.
  9. Tap on the “Paste” option.
  10. Tap “Send” in the usual way.

iPhone in landscape mode

Of course, it’s always easier typing on a smartphone with it held in landscape mode

Et voila… your long, complicated, and accurate text message is on its way without any typing tantrums (or is it just me that has those?).

This method is much, much easier to carry out than it is to explain – especially after a bit of practice. It also means I can go back to being as pedantic as I like in my use of English and my refusal to succumb to using “textspeak” just because it’s easier to type.

I’ve done it – I’ve committed myself to Evernote for my digital administration

The Evernote logoFollowing on from last week’s blog, I have started using Evernote to improve my digital organisation. It may be a bit premature to start recommending it, but I think I’m ready to take the risk. It’s a very versatile program, but it’s also one that’s very easy to start using. However, the only way you’ll find out if it will work for you is to “suck it and see”. You may have tried programs like this in the past and then abandoned them for no apparent reason. Actually, in my experience, there is probably one or both of two reasons that so-called “productivity programs” fall by the wayside of the electronic superhighway:

  • You don’t use it for long enough for it to become an established part of your routine (so you soon forget all about it and then, when you do remember it, you can’t remember how it works).
  • There is more effort and/or time required in using it than you get back in terms of the benefits of using it. As my mother used to say, “the game isn’t worth the candle”.

Evernote really helps in both these respects because it’s very easy to get started with it and to start organising your data in a way that is meaningful to you. To use some management-speak, the learning curve is very shallow. Thereafter, there are any number of ways that you can make better use of its capabilities.

Shortcomings

I’m very much a beginner with it, so I don’t know all its shortcomings yet. However, if I list the ones that I’ve found so far, then it may just save you from wasting time if these limitations are crucial to you:

  • You can not “print” a document from a program so that it goes directly into the Evernote system. This is not such a problem if you can create a pdf file from the program you are using (either with Adobe Acrobat or from within Word, for instance) as you can create a pdf file in a folder whose contents are automatically imported into Evernote.
  • There isn’t much encryption available. It does require a username and password to open the entire “file”, but, thereafter, there isn’t much choice. It is possible to encrypt a selected piece of text (and this seems to work well enough), but you can’t encrypt (or hide) complete notes or notebooks.
  • Evernote doesn’t deal in “files and folders” as such, so you can’t just copy Evernote notes around your computer as if they were files available to other programs. They can be “exported” to html files but this isn’t the same thing at all.

Benefits

On the other hand, I’ve already found loads of huge “pluses”, such as:

    • You can designate folders on your computer as “import folders” for Evernote. Anything placed in these folders is automatically imported into Evernote as notes (the original files are unaffected). I am using this to store the maps I keep that remind me of the route and journey time to my clients. This will be really useful for clients that I see rarely as I think that punctuality is very important. I am also using it to import copies of my client invoices automatically. Incidentally, both of these import folders are Dropbox folders, so the data was already accessible from all of my computers and devices. I’m expecting, though, that it will be much easier to access it from within Evernote.
    • You can put shortcuts inside notes – eg to launch programs.
Paper Filing System

Would you like to move away from paper filing systems?

  • You can create voice memos (eg from a smartphone) and include tags so that you can identify and store that voice memo (eg by tagging it with a client code). I am trying to get into the habit of creating a voice memo when I leave a client so that there is a record of the visit. Evernote allows me to do this “on the hoof” with my iPhone such that I don’t need to do any subsequent filing or labelling or anything at all. The memo will just be there if I need it. I will be able to identify it by its tag (client code) and its date and time.
  • When I started with Evernote it seemed as if the “notebooks” were just a “flat” structure. In other words, it seems at first sight as if all notebooks are independent of each other. This could start getting out of hand if there are, say, dozens of them. However, I then discovered what Evernote calls “stacks” (stacks of notebooks). The result is like nesting folders within folders. So, you could have a stack called “Clients” and have notebooks inside it called “Invoices”, “Pending”, “Finished Work”, “Contact Details” etc.
  • You can send emails directly into your Evernote system and automatically file them in the right notebook and with relevant tags.
  • You can send web pages or clips of web pages directly into your Evernote system and, again, specify the notebook and any relevant tags.
  • There are comprehensive search facilities.
  • Evernote supports Windows, Mac OSX, Apple IOS, Android, and Blackberry.

Evernote ItemsI was so impressed within the first few days of using it that I bought the premium version (actually, it’s a subscription – £35pa), so now my mobile devices can store a local copy of the data and the data upload limit goes up from 60mb per month in the free version to 1gb.

I don’t care if I do sound sad for enthusing over a data organising system. This might just be the closest thing yet to having all my work data organised from one place. And that’s important in helping me to provide an efficient service to my computer clients – and it may just be important to you, too.

“Recommended”, “Maybe”, and “Time for Something New”

Anyjunk

Not so long ago, I blogged about the pile of redundant and knackered stuff that has been sitting in my flat for months. I stopped driving many years ago, so I couldn’t just take this to the nearest proper place myself, and I didn’t want to presume on friendships to get it done. So I had to find a commercial solution. Well, it’s done and I’m happy to recommend the company – Anyjunk – who took it all away. They charge by volume, with the minimum being 1 cubic yard (but, no, they don’t charge in groats or £sd). They gave an estimate over the phone and we agreed a final price when they arrived.

AnyJunk logoThe final pile was a bit smaller than the one featured in my blog a few weeks ago, but it’s still a reasonable guide as to their prices. The total cost was £120. The two guys who took it away were friendly, efficent, and didn’t huff and puff about climbing up and down 53 steep stairs several times. So, Anyjunk might work out too expensive for just a few items, but if you’ve got a load to get rid of, then have a look at their website.

AVG Mis-direction

The AVG logoI used to recommend AVG Free antivirus software, but became too embarrassed at the number of my clients who fell into the many traps set by AVG to “encourage” their users to trade up from the free version to the paid one. Well, I know they’ve got a lot better, but they’re still not completely squeaky clean. I have AVG Free on my netbook and the box displayed here in Figure 1 popped up today.

AVG Program Update - figure 1

Figure 1 – AVG tell me they need to update my free program

“Here we go again”, I thought, “I’m ready for you this time, watching your every step”. So, I clicked the “update now” button. Then up pops Figure 2. I won’t go banging on again about all the nice friendly green ticks in the column they want you to go for. Suffice to say that they have put a little dot against “Ultimate Protection” at the bottom of this column. If you just click the “Next” button then you will install a trial version of the paid product. In order to update your Free product to the latest version of the Free product, click on the dot inside the red elipse I’ve put on Figure 2 and then click the “Next” button.

AVG Program Update - figure 2

Figure 2 – you must click the button in my red elipse if you want to update your existing, free, program.

Then all will be well. In fairness to AVG, they have definitely made things simpler than before. There is now only this one trap you can fall into, and if you do accidentally install a trial copy of the paid version then uninstalling it (using the standard Windows method) will prompt AVG to offer to install the free product you wanted all the time. Sharp as knives, aren’t they? Let’s hope they stay as good at antivirus protection.

Microsoft OneNote vs Evernote

Why don’t Microsoft make much fuss about their note-taking/organising software, OneNote, that is part of all the Office versions? Perhaps they don’t think very much of it. I’ve finally given up on it altogether. It’s just too tedious and idiosyncratic in how it organises the blocks of text on a page. That may sound like a minor gripe. If you think so, I challenge you to try it. It’s infuriating.

The Evernote logoSo, I have had another look at Evernote. This seems to be the only other serious program around for organising all the disparate parts of your digital life. Everything from note-taking, to picture embedding, to voice-notes, web pages. I’m sure I haven’t yet found just how much it will do, but I’m delighted by what I keep finding and I’m writing this blog on my Windows 8 PC using it now. If I want to look really cool, I can take my iPad Mini (with its Logitech keyboard, of course) and do some more work on the blog somewhere more public than my own flat.

That’s because it’ll work on all devices and the data is in the cloud, so I can get at it anywhere that my iPad has either a 3G or WiFi connection. I was initially put off Evernote as I thought it was “cloud only”. Not true: I am confident that I have a backup on my PC in a place of my choosing. I am contemplating taking out a subscription so that I can also work on my iPad or iPhone when no internet connection is available. That will also remove the ads that are (not unreasonably) earning Evernote a few bob in the free version. I’d prefer a “one time purchase”, but the main offering is the ongoing use of their servers to store the data and make it available on all devices, so I can’t blame them for preferring the subscription option.

… and Evernote has a “word count” option that tells me I’ve written 872 words (before revisions), so now I can go out to play.

I was recently setting up a new computer for a client, and kept seeing Google ads relating to a particular theme

There was nothing wrong with the theme, but it did relate to something highly personal, and I wondered if the client realised that this gave an indication of something that had clearly been on her mind recently. I do realise – and appreciate – that my computer clients place trust in me with respect to the parts of their data that I can’t help seeing, but there must be many things that we treat as belonging very much to our private sphere that are now “leaking out” into a more public space. Even within the confines of her own home, this client may have preferred other members of her family, for instance, not to know what had been on her mind recently.

As time goes on, this sort “leaking” or “bleeding” of our private pre-occupations into wider domains is likely to increase, thanks to computers and the internet. I know I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before, but this incident set me to thinking about how all this tracking and information-gathering may change us as humans and society as a whole.

Paris Brown

Paris Brown – lost her job before it had started, thanks to things said on Twitter years earlier.

I hear that there is now software available that analyses the language used on Facebook pages and comes to conclusions about likely personality traits of the page’s owner based upon the actual words they have used. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of a good story! Assuming it’s true though, (or soon will be), how do people working in HR feel about using such tools for candidate selection? How do the people analysed feel? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t like it happening to me. Are potential job seekers being more circumspect on Facebook since the highly publicised case of the Youth Commissioner losing her job before she’d even started because of some rash statements a lot earlier on her Facebook page? I do know that there are people earning a living by “cleaning up people’s online reputation”, but I suspect that the average computer user is still way behind in appreciating just how much information they are giving away and how this is being used.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Modern internet browsers come with a setting called “Do Not Track”. It is hoped that the writers of the software that tracks our movements around cyberspace will honour our expressed preference not to be tracked, but it’s too early to say how many will be honourable in this way. In the meantime, tracking software can follow us around cyberpace and build its own pictures of who we are, what we care about, what motivates us into action, and so on.

George Orwell predicted our being watched by technology, of course, in his novel 1984. The motivation he ascribed was political control. The way things are going, we will achieve the same results but the motivation will be money and we will have sleep-walked into it because we want a free internet. Once collected, the data can then be used by others who can claim legitimacy to see it. For example, the police can already access our recent travel history if we use an Oystercard.

The Hardy Tree

The Hardy Tree

Thomas Hardy was mindful, while writing the Wessex Novels, that he was recording a way of life that was soon to be ended by the advent of the railways. The communities about which he wrote would soon no longer be self-contained: they would be joined to everyone and everywhere else by the railway. I dare say he had a lot of time to ponder the implications of the coming railway as he worked as a surveyor before becoming a full-time writer and was responsible for overseeing the proper re-location of bodies in St Pancras Churchyard to make way for the coming railway. On a side-note, many of the gravestones were temporarily re-located around a tree and have been left there for so long that the tree has grown into them. This is now known as the Hardy Tree. The church and churchyard are also noteworthy for other reasons.

Is the internet doing exactly the same thing as the railways but on a global scale and at a much deeper level? Will it change the way we see ourselves and behave as individual humans? I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the thought of the loss of privacy and independence that all of this portends, but, on the other hand, I’m sure that we are all creatures of our own time and grow up embracing the realities of the world that we see at the time. Even if it does change us as humans, we’ll probably just accept change as it happens, and crusty old antedeluvians like me will continue to tut and say “where will it all end”. “you wouldn’t get me in one of those” and “it’ll end in tears”.

PS: for an irony of publishing in the digital age, see this link on how Amazon disappeared 1984 from countless Kindles

I’m not a great believer in trying to remember a lot of “quick key” keyboard shortcuts

There are several reasons for this:

  • A certain amount of effort has to be put into learning a shortcut and this effort will quite probably interrupt the flow of whatever it is that you were doing.
  • A shortcut key combination may do one thing in one program and a different thing in a different program.
  • We are moving more and more into computing that works by screen touches, swipe gestures, mouse clicks, and so on.
  • If you don’t use a particular shortcut on a regular basis then you won’t remember it when you need it and, quite probably, you will not even remember that you ever learned it in the first place.

Keyboard ShortcutSo, is it worth the effort? My advice is “yes”, it is worth it for anyone who is interested in investing a little time and effort in becoming a more efficient computer user. Despite the move to touching screens, swiping, and so on, most people still do a fair amount of typing on a keyboard, even if it’s just for emails. When doing some concentrated typing it is often easier to keep your hands on the keyboard when issuing a command than it is to grab the mouse or even move around a touchscreen.

When I’m training my computer clients I approach the subject of keyboard shortcuts as follows:-

  • “Cut, copy, and paste” shortcuts are the essential ones. They apply to many programs and situations in both Windows and Mac computing.
  • Menus often include the shortcut keys that can be used instead of the menu. You can choose for yourself which of these shortcuts are worth learning.
  • Shortcut keys can be useful for things that you do often and/or things that are very awkward to do by other means (such as digging down three levels of menu). It’s usually very easy to find a list of shortcuts for any popular program. Just google “xyz shortcut keys” where “xyz” is the name of the program.

Yul Brynner

The original short cut?

Having found a list of available shortcuts, do not lose the will to live. Instead, just scan the list and pick out one or two that you think you would use. WRITE THEM DOWN. Write them down somewhere that you know you can find within seconds. A post-it note is fine as long as you can see it amongst the other 600 post-it notes that have taken over your workspace. Then, when you are using the program next, just try to remember that you’ve written a couple of shortcut keys down so that when habit leads you to do things in the old way you will say to yourself “aha, I’ve got a shortcut key for this” and you will be able to find the post-it note within seconds. Then use your new shortcut. This is a learning process. You must expect to spend a bit more time using the so-called shortcut than doing things the old way. If you use the shortcut often enough then you will eventually remember it and it will save you time. If you don’t use it often enough you will forget it and the post-it note will sink down the strata of other unregarded paper in your workspace.

I know that the above sounds facile, but the point of it is that you will only bother to learn a shortcut if you can remind yourself of it within seconds and if you then practise using it. If it takes too long to remember what the shortcut key is then you will say to yourself “blow this for a game of soldiers” and go back to your old way of doing things. On the other hand, if you force yourself to invest 5 seconds in looking for the right post-it note and then executing the shortcut then there’s a chance that you will do this often enough that it will stick in your mind and become a true improvement to your keyboard skills.

But a word of caution: don’t try to learn too many at once. That way lies disaster as the whole shortcut business will get in the way of what you were trying to achieve and you will, once again, say “blow this for a game of soldiers……”.

I’ve been having a clear-out

Living, as I do, in a very small flat, there just isn’t the room to accumulate things I won’t need again. I’ve come across loads of bits of computer hardware that might have come in handy again when they were first dumped in the cupboard, but which now look a bit quaint and past it. There are sound cards, modem cards (the old dial-up type, that is), my zip drive, internal and external floppy and DVD drives, no end of internal drive cables, and so on.

Computer Rubbish

Ready for disposal. Yes, Sarah, that was your old HP printer!

All of this stuff is going on the pile in the middle of the room that I’ll need “a man and a van” to come and take away for me. He’s going to have to dispose of it properly, of course. Electronic waste can no longer just be dumped in your wheelie bin: it has to be collected separately and disposed of properly. Since I live in Clapham, I’ve just googled “electronic waste Lambeth” and pretty soon found the website of the Western Riverside Waste Authority. They cover waste for Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth, and Lambeth. If you live in a different borough then I would recommend that you do a similar Google search if you have a similar need to get rid of stuff like this. You should be able to find out whether your own council will collect electronic waste put out separately from your normal waste. Some, or all, councils used to do such collections free of charge but I think you should expect to pay for it these days. I decided not to try and use Lambeth Council to get rid of my pile as their website wasn’t at all clear as to how they would cost a big pile of stuff as opposed to neatly boxed items. Anyway, the point of this digression is to suggest that if you have your own electronic stuff to get rid of then you need to abide by the disposal regulations for electronic waste and not just hide that old monitor at the bottom of your wheelie bin!

The real focus of this blog was meant to be that seeing all of this old stuff led me to thinking how little “hardware work” I actually do these days. Ten or twenty years ago it was very common for me to visit a client in order to attach another box to a computer or pull the case open in order to add or replace something inside. Bits of hardware would fail, or need upgrading, or need giving a good talking to so that they worked properly with all the other hardware.

We now seem to have reached a point of maturity in the industry whereby almost any computer will do everything the average user needs and it already contains all of the bells and whistles you will ever need. You can almost take it for granted that a new computer will include a microphone, speakers, sound card, networking capabilities, webcam, enough memory to do all “normal” things, and a hard drive whose capacity would make the Tardis blush.

Computer with Halo

My six and a half year old Samsung Q35 still does good service helping me provide computer support to Windows Vista clients.

Moreover, it seems to me that the hardware is very much more reliable these days. My own experience tells me that the most likely component to fail is the hard drive (so make sure your data is backed up or is safe in The Cloud). Apart from the hard drive, most computers these days just go on working until the owner fancies a newer, shinier, model.

When I first started working in the computer industry, in 1983, it seemed that most of my work was challenging but creative – designing small database systems. These days, much more of my work is trouble-shooting. From my clients’ point of view, spending money with me is often a “distress purchase”: it’s not uncommon for their parting comments to me to include things like “I hope I don’t see you again for a while” (I’m slowly developing a thicker hide as I get older). It would be very easy to think that all computers are always causing problems and generally being a pain in the neck.

However, when I look at all these bits of old hardware that I’m now getting rid of, and then I look at the (still shiny) six year old Samsung laptop that I’m still using to help me with support issues for Windows Vista, I think that I should stick up for the computer hardware industry and acknowledge that maybe it is reaching a point of stability and maturity that I suspect we would all welcome if we could just realise that it is actually happening.

My clients sometimes ask me what computers I have. In short – nothing special. Nevertheless, I thought I’d indulge myself by telling you

My main machine is a Samsung RF511 15 inch laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Bought in late 2011 for about £700, this has 8gb RAM and 1tb hard drive (1tb = 1 terabyte = 1000gb = 1000 gigabytes). It has the middle-of-the-range Intel i5 processor (better spec than the i3, but lower than the i7).

This is my third Samsung laptop. They have all been solid and reliable. It does everything I need and is well up to the job. I would only crave a higher specification if I started editing video files.


 

My Samsung NC10 netbook still provides excellent service

When I bought my first tablet last year I tried to see if it could replace the netbook that I always carried with me when visiting my computer clients. The answer is “no”. The lack of a proper keyboard definitely hampers a tablet if you are going to do a lot of typing (such as writing a blog post or a business proposal or something of that nature). Also, if I am with a client and need my own machine to fetch something off the internet for transfer to the client’s machine, there is too much fiddling about working out how to achieve it with a tablet (whose connectivity is somewhat challenged).

Nevertheless, the netbook is at least twice as large and heavy as a tablet, so now I tend to think carefully beforehand about what I’m likely to need on any particular client visit. I used to think this decision-making was a bit of a nuisance (and rather challenging early in the morning), but that’s the wrong way to look at it. The need to make a decision between them proves that they are doing different jobs: they are not perfect substitutes for each other. So, if you are thinking about buying one machine for carrying around with you, it really does pay to think carefully about exactly what you want it for. I wrote a blog post on Tablet vs Netbook a few months ago.

I love my new iPad Mini

I’m still new to this, but some aspects of the iPad Mini really stand out:

  • Superb build and finish
  • Perfect balance between size/weight and usability
  • Ease and smoothness of use

I chose to buy the mid size of storage – 32gb. I’m already thinking that maybe the 64gb would have been better for me. This is because I like seeing my photos on the iPad, and I’ve finally started downloading from BBC iPlayer (thanks to the Christmas TV schedules reaching a new level of dreadfulness this year). I have been astonished at just how smooth the whole process of downloading and viewing TV programs from BBC iPlayer to the iPad has been. This led me to thinking about connecting the iPad to my (old but fantastic) Sony Bravia TV. I know I should have got used to Apple by now, but I still get enjoyment from being outraged at their prices. In this case, the outrage was caused by finding that an official Apple connector from the iPad to an HDMI lead costs £39.

So where does that leave my Sony Android tablet?

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

I think this has now become the most expensive digital photo frame I could have bought. For anyone wanting to avoid Apple and buy an Android-based tablet, this is probably still a perfectly reasonable machine. For myself, though, I now find the disparate bits of software on the Android clunky and messy. This tablet is just no fun any more, after experiencing the iPad for a couple of weeks. I’m trying not to feel guilty about buying the Sony tablet. Actually, it’s not such a bad situation for me as I needed to have an Android machine to provide support to my clients. For anyone else contemplating buying a tablet, I would suggest that the first question might be “Am I prepared to consider Apple and the price of an iPad?” If the answer to that is “yes”, then look seriously at the iPad before looking at anything else.

My Samsung Q35 notebook is still going strong

This was my “main machine” for five years. It has behaved absolutely perfectly, except that the display is now starting to go darker. I could always overcome this by connecting an external display, of course, but it’s not necessary as this machine is now semi-retired: it just hosts Windows Vista, so that I can provide support for that operating system as needed.

My Compaq Desktop also looks set to work until the end of time

Goodness knows how old this machine is – eight years at least. It now has two hard drives as its day job is to host data backups from my other machines. It’s also the only machine I now have that hosts Windows XP. Definitely still needed as there are plenty of people out there who still look for support for Windows XP. Remember, though, that Microsoft will stop providing all support for XP – even security updates – next year.

Nearly forgot my Mac Mini

As most of my regular clients know, I’ve never been a big fan of Mac OSx machines. I’m trying to change that now – partly because an increasing number of my computer support clients want me to, and partly because I’m slowly being won over to all things Apple – seduced as I have been by the iPhone and the iPad. At the moment, though, my Mac serves mainly as a rather expensive music player and as a tool for helping me to support my Mac clients. The machine is now three years old and I’ve never had a single problem with the hardware – despite my pulling it apart to double the RAM and install a larger drive.

Mission Control

Mission Control – but not in Clapham!

Now that I look at this list of hardware, it doesn’t seem too ridiculously self-indulgent for a Computer Support Consultant. I reckon the 7 machines I’ve listed here have given me a total of 24 years service. That’s an average of about 3.5 years each. I think most home users and individual professionals keep their computers for 3-5 years.

Hmm, does that mean I can soon have a Microsoft Surface?

The end of Windows XP. Should you panic? Can you ignore it? And what does “support”mean anyway?

Windows XP LogoWell, if you are not a user of XP, you can ignore the news. But if your system is in the 14% of all systems in the UK still using it (as at November 2012), then you’ll have to wake up to reality some time in the next few months.

“Mainstream Support” for Windows XP ended in 2009. Since that time, we have been in what Microsoft calls “Extended Support”. During this phase the only changes to XP are those called “security updates”. These are the changes needed to keep up with new security threats as they crop up when the villains out there find new ways to exploit weaknesses in Windows XP. At the beginning of April 2014 Microsoft will stop fighting new threats to XP. They will no longer update XP to ensure that it is safe to use. In computer jargon, Microsoft will cease to support XP. Source.

What does it mean to “support” something in computer terms?

If we just look at a manufacturer “supporting” its own product, then it means that it will continue to make necessary changes (to remove bugs, for instance) and that you should be able to get help from the manufacturer if that product has a problem. So, if MegaBrill Software announces that it is no longer supporting MegaBrill 2002 it means that you are on your own if you still use that version. It doesn’t mean that the program immediately stops working.

Windows XP FlagIf we look at how products interact, then “support” means that the software was specifically designed to work with whatever it claims to “support”. It also means that the program will be tweaked and updated to cater for the changes and updates to whatever it is supporting (Windows XP, in this case). So, if MegaBrill Software say that MegaBrill 2009 supports Windows XP then you can expect it to work on a system running Windows XP. It’s just possible that the two items would work together without official “support” but if anything goes wrong then there would be no help available from the manufacturer. It could also mean that the version of the program you have been using may work with something else now, but that a newer version won’t.

So, if you have been using Megabrill 2009 quite happily with Windows XP and you decide to upgrade it to the latest version – MegaBrill 2013 – you may find that it won’t run with your Windows XP. You might then find in Megabrill’s product information that MegaBrill 2013 only supports Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. This means that it probably won’t work with your XP. In the computer jargon, “MegaBrill 2013 does not support Windows XP”.

You may encounter the same problem if you buy a new piece of equipment such as a printer. It may not support Windows XP. If you think about it, it makes sense. If the printer manufacturer is bringing out a new product in 2013, why spend time and money to make it work with an operating system (Windows XP) that is not going to be supported by Microsoft beyond Spring 2014?

More and more software and hardware will cease support for Windows XP as they release new versions of their products. Again, why would they spend time and money making sure that their software works with an operating system that it will become increasingly dangerous to use. So, an existing piece of software that you have that currently works with XP may become “unupdateable”. It will also mean, of course, that XP users will not be able to use brand new software as that new software will not have been written to be used with XP right from the start of that software’s life.

Windows XP StickerApart from software compatibility problems, Windows XP will become increasingly unsafe to use after April 2014 as the bad guys find new ways to exploit XP in order to mess up your system, extort money from you, steal data, and so forth. They may even increase their efforts to exploit XP and its users. For a while there will be a lot of opportunity for them as they know that their efforts to undermine XP will not be counteracted by Microsoft. Likewise, they will know that it may be worth spending some time and effort exploiting programs that stop supporting XP as they know that XP users will continue to use the vulnerable, unupdated versions of those programs.

There are going to be a lot of people affected by the withdrawal of support for Windows XP by Microsoft. In November 2012, Windows XP was still being used by over a quarter of all computers worldwide. Even in the UK, Windows XP is still the operating system on 14% of systems – more than the figure of 12% for Mac OSX (the operating system for Mac desktop and laptop computers). Source.

So, if you are still using windows XP, there’s no need to panic but it really would be a good idea to start thinking about replacing it. If you are still using XP then it’s almost certain that the hardware you are using it on should also be replaced. My guess would be that the hardware is at least five years old (as that was when Vista was released. So, even if you are a “light” home user who doesn’t need to be at the cutting edge of dekstop/laptop technology, I reckon you’ve had your money’s worth out of that computer and it’s time to move on. For what it’s worth, I advise my own computer clients that four years is long enough to expect a “business” computer to last and five years for a home user.

Three things with nothing in common except that I get asked about all of them from time to time and none would justify a blog on their own

Windows Taskbar Location

If your Windows taskbar has suddenly relocated itself to the side of the screen – or even the top – then you can put it back by left-clicking on a vacant part of the taskbar and then dragging it back to the bottom edge of the screen. You can, of course, do this to move it to one of the alternative edges on purpose. Funnily enough, in all my years of providing computer support, I can only think of one client family who has re-located the taskbar of all their machines in this way. If it doesn’t seem to behave properly when you drag it (and this does happen occasionally for some reason), then right-click on the taskbar, left-click on Properties, and choose the preferred location by clicking on the dropdown menu next to “Taskbar location on screen”.

Taskbar Properties

The Taskbar Properties “Taskbar” tab, showing how to relocate the taskbar and/or autohide it

If you want, you can even turn the taskbar display off so that it only shows if you move the cursor into it. You do this by right-clicking on a vacant part of the taskbar, left-clicking on Properties, and then ticking the box labelled “Auto-hide the taskbar”.

Playing around with these two options is probably a really good way of annoying any other users of your computer.

Forcing a Re-Boot

If you learn a snippet of computer information but then don’t use it, it’s very easy to forget it while, at the same time, knowing that you’ve come across it. As I often say to my computer trainees, learning computer skills is not like learning to swim or ride a bike. If you don’t reinforce a piece of computer knowledge by using it then you get into the annoying situation of knowing you’ve come across it but not remembering what it is that you need to know. I’ve never found an easy way around this but the method I use for myself is to have one of the Windows Sticky Notes (see this blog on Sticky Notes) available with short notes on it that I can easily call to the screen. In time, the piece of knowledge either bludgeons its way into my long-term memory, stays on the sticky note, or gets deleted from it because I never use it and can’t remember why I put it there in the first place.

One example of this type of information is “how do you safely re-boot a computer that’s completely frozen and won’t respond to the three-fingered salute?” The answer is that you depress the on/off button (ie the power button) for five seconds continuously. I’ve never yet met a computer that hasn’t responded to this. Three fingered salute? The time-honoured method of re-booting a computer by pressing Control, Alt, and Delete at the same time.

Why Doesn’t My Screensaver Come On?

Screensaver Settings

The screensaver is set to show after 60 minutes of inactivity.

If you think you’ve selected a screensaver but it never comes into effect, then you’ve probably got your Power Options set so that the screen goes blank because of the power options before the screensaver gets a look-in. For instance, in the illustrations here, the Power Options will turn off the display after 5 minutes or 20 minutes (depending on whether the machine is plugged into the mains), so the screensaver (set to display after 60 minutes of inactivity) will never be shown. By the way, be very very wary of downloading screensavers from unknown sources as malware can be hidden in them.
The Display Settings In Power Options

The display will go blank after 5 minutes if running on the battery or 20 minutes if running from the mains adaptor

And, finally, a factoid….

If you are older than 105 then you can’t open an AOL email account without lying about your age.

I was setting up a “dummy” account for some reason recently and got ratty – as I always do – when asked for my date of birth by a website that has no legitimate reason to insist that I provide it. I don’t mind them asking, but I’m not going to tell them unless there is a legitimate reason for them knowing (and marketing purposes couched in language such as “to improve your user experience” do NOT meet that test). So, if I can’t complete the form without giving a date of birth, my usual response is to tell them I was born on 1st January 1900. Anyone inspecting the data is likely to suspect that I am lying. Good. Sue me. Anyway, AOL wouldn’t let me be born on 1st Jan 1900 or even 1st Jan 1907. I had to be born on 1st Jan 1908 before they would allow me to “submit” the form. Very odd – and definitely discriminatory against 106 year olds.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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