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.

That’s probably the most common suggestion I make when offering support and advice to my computer clients. But where does the phrase come from? What does it mean?

Dr Martens boot (showing bootstrap)“Booting” or “bootstrapping” is a contraction of the phrase “To pull oneself up by the bootstraps”. Bootstraps are the tags on boots that help you get a better grip on them when pulling them on (see image). The phrase doesn’t refer to pulling your boots on: it refers to actually lifting yourself up by pulling on your bootstraps. This is clearly an impossibility (akin to trying to raise yourself off the ground by pulling your hair upwards). The term “booting” or “booting up” has been in use since the 1950’s in relation to the starting up of computers. The cynical among us may think it appropriate that the very process of getting a computer started has taken on a name derived from something that’s impossible!

What Does It Do?

When a computer is started, a tiny piece of “hard-wired” code is run that then invokes other processes. These processes then invoke others and so on, until all the bits and pieces of software required for the computer’s operation have all been made ready.

The reason that this boot process is necessary is that very nearly everything that is software (drivers, operating system, programs, data) is unavailable when the computer is first switched on. It has to be loaded into memory to be useable. Everything in memory is then lost when the device is switched off. So, the entire process of loading it into memory has to be performed whenever the computer is switched on and that process is initiated by running the one piece of code that doesn’t have to be loaded into memory before it can be run. That piece of code is the “boot code”, and “booting up” means starting everything off by running that boot code.

So, it’s not hard to move on from there to understanding that “re-booting” means “to boot the computer again”. In other words, the entire contents of memory are emptied and everything is loaded back into memory by initialising the boot sequence again.

Why Re-boot?

The most common reason for re-booting is that something in memory has started to misbehave and it can’t be rectified in any other way. For instance, if a program “freezes” (ie becomes unresponsive to commands issued via the keyboard, mouse, or trackpad), it may be impossible to do anything other than re-boot.

In days gone by, another common reason for re-booting was that the computer got slower and slower without actually freezing. This was caused by programs taking more and more of the available memory and then not returning that memory for use by other programs. This is much less of a problem these days. It is now usually possible to run a Windows PC or a Mac for many weeks between re-boots without any noticeable loss of performance.

How Do You Re-boot?

The best way to re-boot is via a “soft re-boot”. This means issuing a command to the operating system, telling it to close everything as if switching off, but then to run the boot process again. This is the preferred method since there is less likelihood of any damage being caused to data files (eg word processing documents, or spreadsheets) that are open at the time of re-booting. This is because all programs and data files are closed in the normal way, in an orderly fashion, before the re-booting takes place. If you start a soft re-boot and the process doesn’t complete, then it may be necessary to perform a hard re-boot. Always try the soft one first.

On a Windows PC the soft re-boot is initiated by clicking on the “Start” button and then looking for “restart” or the restart option of the “close” action (depending on the version of Windows). On a Mac, click on the apple in the top lefthand corner of the screen and then click on the “restart” option.

The power switch on a Samsung RF511 laptopA “hard re-boot” is needed if the computer has become so unresponsive that you can’t perform a soft re-boot. All computers – Macs as well as PCs – can be switched off by depressing the main power switch on the computer and holding it down for five seconds. The computer can then be switched on again in the normal way. But be warned – a hard re-boot is quite drastic. Since the programs weren’t closed in the normal way they may behave unexpectedly when re-started and data files could be corrupted. Only ever perform a hard re-boot when a soft re-boot won’t work.

Other Devices

It’s not just Windows PCs and Macs that need re-booting. Routers often need a re-boot. In fact, re-booting your router should be the first thing to try if your internet connection fails. There is no standard power switch on a router so re-booting is best achieved by pulling out the power cord for a few seconds and then re-connecting it. It may then take a minute or so for the router to boot up and (hopefully) re-connect to the internet. Mobile phones sometimes need re-booting as well. If all else fails, remove the battery, replace it, and switch on again.

There is a rather sardonic myth that computer support consists of just three tactics – the three “R’s” – Re-boot, Re-install, Reformat. As a computer support consultant I’m bound to say that that’s a tad simplistic, but there’s no doubt at all that “re-boot” is by far the most common thing to try first when your computer goes wrong. But please try a SOFT re-boot before resorting to a hard one.

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

Should I turn off my computer at the end of the day or leave it on?

1) A computer that is switched on is a fire hazard

I have never heard of a computer catching fire, so I did some Googling. There were suprisingly few results (about 30,000) to the phrase “computer caught fire” and almost all of them seemed to refer to “enthusiasts” making their own machines, overclocking, and so forth. I found nothing to suggest that I should worry more about a professionally-built computer than I should worry about, say, leaving my fridge or TV switched on.

2) It takes more electricity to switch off and on than to leave it on. A variation of this is that it wears out the components faster if you switch the machine on and off as compared with leaving it on

These seem to be a type of “cyber myth”. I can find no evidence at all one way or the other.

3) Switching the computer off at night makes it run faster

This is true up to a point (with Windows computers, anyway) but not as much as it used to be. However, it’s not the good night’s sleep that’s done it good, but the re-boot (which has flushed the memory out). Windows computers used to run slower and slower the longer they were left switched on as more and more of the memory was allocated to programs and not then released when the program was closed. I seem to remember that in the days of Windows 3 it would have been unheard of to leave a computer on for days on end. It would just grind to a halt. These days this is hardly an issue – if at all. Windows and the programs using it are much better written and there’s much more memory available.

4) It’s far more convenient to leave it on as it takes so long to boot up from scratch

Undoubtedly. I suspect that computers take as long to boot up now as they did 25 years ago. However, “standby” (sleep mode) is almost as quick to re-start as leaving it fully awake and alert.

5) The computer can’t do background tasks and housekeeping tasks if it is switched off

True, but a computer that is asleep (ie in standby mode) can be woken automatically to perform scheduled tasks and then be put back into standby.

6) The computer is not available as a server if it’s switched off

Can’t argue with that. If, for instance, you use a program like TeamViewer to access a machine remotely then that machine has to be switched on!

7) Turning computers off saves electricity.

This is being perceived as more and more important, but it’s nowhere near as clear-cut as you might expect. I tested the power consumption of two of my laptops and my (oldish) Compaq desktop under different conditions. These results are not scientific and the short test time (about one hour for each condition) means that they should be taken as nothing more than a guide. In the laptop tests, the laptop’s own battery was connected and fully charged. In all cases, only Windows plus security programs (firewall, antivirus) were running. Just out of interest, I also tested the consumption of my TV (a Sony Bravia LCD of reasonably modest screen size). The results were as follows:

Power consumption - chart 1

From these results, one thing is very clear. From the point of view of power consumption, there is no point at all in switching off a computer if you leave it connected to the power supply. The power usage is almost exactly the same as leaving it in standby (sleep) mode.

Is it worth switching it off?

It’s almost impossible to apply an average cost of electricity to this analysis as it depends on the company, the tarriff, the price at the margin of use etc. It seems that a kwh (kilowatt hour) of electricity can be anything from 4p to 20p. As guide, though, the next table shows the total kwh that a machine would consume over a complete year. If you know how much your electricity is costing per unit then applying that figure to the annual consumption will give an idea of the potential savings (but remember that your computer may be in use for, say, 25% of the time so savings during that time would not be so high).

Power consumption - chart 2

My own rule of thumb is that I leave machines in sleep mode (standby) if I’m expecting to use them in the next 24 hours and switch them off otherwise.

Memo to self: unplug it if switching it off. Switching it off and leaving it plugged in is pointless. It’s a much better compromise to leave it in sleep mode.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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