Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't buy the hype! Expensive HDMI cables are for suckers!

This is such a perfect example of what I talked about in my shopping guide. I'm convinced that most big name electronics stores make 90% of their profit on huge cable and accessory mark ups. I walked into one such retailer today and saw this:

I felt slightly violated. An HDMI cable for $40 plus tax? Does it come with a massage or a lobster dinner? For that price, it should. These retailers are counting on your ignorance to charge these kinds of prices and laughing all the way to the bank. Check out what I found on Amazon after about 30 seconds of searching:

Is there a difference between what I saw in the store and what I've linked you from Amazon? Sure there is! A pizza and a 6 pack of beer. Oh you meant technically speaking? Negatory ghost rider. CNET's "Quick Guide: HDMI and HDMI Cables" explains it beautifully:
"If you walk into your typical electronics store to buy an HDMI cable, you're likely to see prices upward of $50 with promises of better performance and faster speeds. Do you really need to spend that much money on a single HDMI cable?
Absolutely not--those cables are a rip-off. You should never pay more than $10 for a standard six-foot HDMI cable. And despite what salesmen and manufacturers might tell you, there's no meaningful difference between the $10 cable and the $50 cable. Unless you see something obvious, such as dropouts or a flashing screen, the digital information transmitted by both cables is exactly the same--no cable can make the picture any better or any worse."
I couldn't have said it better myself. This also goes for just about every other kind of cable you can think of. Networking, printer, power supply...I can't even think of an exception. Do yourself and your pocket book a favor and pass on in store cables and buy online.

Sprechen sie interwebs?

Are your kids confusing you with their internet lingo? Get up to speed by visiting the Internet Slang Dictionary & Translator! Also watch this video, because it cracks me up:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What's a defrag?

If your computer seems to be running a bit slow, one of the easiest things you can do is defragment or "defrag" your hard drive. If this is something you've never done before, you might notice quite a nice performance boost when you're done. It's time consuming, but very simple, and it's something you can just set to run and walk away. Before we get into how to go about this, let's go through what fragmentation is in the first place.

When we think of our hard drives, we tend to think of them like vast, open, linear space. But your computer doesn't see it that way. Puny human brains! Windows sees your hard drive in a series of clusters, all the same size. I like to think of this series of clusters as a big bag of identical Legos. Windows will assign however many of these "Legos" to each file, depending on its size. The picture of you on a fishing trip may get one "Lego" while the video of you falling out of the boat may get 3. Now, your computer does not need these "Legos" to be kept together, it can still read them if they are separated to make room for more information. Over time, this happens a lot. You install programs and uninstall others. Add data and then delete it. Your "Legos" get moved around and separated from one another. After a while, it's about as tidy as the t-shirt table at Old Navy around closing time on Black Friday.

Now remember we said that Windows didn't need to keep all of the "Legos" from your file together to read them, but it does eventually make them slower to access. Imagine you are now trying to put the "Legos" together to read your midterm paper, and instead of being all lined up in a row, they are spread out all over your house. Even if you know exactly where they all are, it's still going to take longer for you to run around and put them together than if they were all neatly in one place. This is how a fragmented hard drive can slow your computer down over time. Like trying to recall all 50 states upon returning home from a healthy dose of nitrous oxide at the dentists office.

It's good practice to defragment your hard drive every few months or so, and Windows even has a built in utility to do so. You can access it in the Computer Management area of your Administrative Tools in the Control Panel. I'm not taking you through step by step, because I am not too jazzed with the performance of the built in utility. It reminds me of cleaning my room when I was a kid by  throwing everything in the closet. It looked tidy but wasn't really thoroughly clean. Instead, I'm going to have you use a free application called UltraDefrag. Download it here, and follow the installation wizard. Open it up and click the "Analyze" button to get a break down of how fragmented your drive is. Now, click the "Defragment" button and let it do its job. Easy peasy freesy...just how I like it!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sneaky installs

Beware the sneaky install! What's a sneaky install? Well it's what I call it when you're trying to install one thing, and another application comes along for the ride. It's not even that the stow away software is necessarily bad, it's just it's not something you signed up for. It takes up space and memory, can slow down your boot time, and can invoke rage when it pops up in the middle of something important, like slaying virtual dragons.

A perfect example of this, is McAfee Scan Security Plus. This little nuisance likes to install itself when you install Adobe Flash Player, which everyone needs to get their funny cats fix on YouTube. It will then constantly pop up asking to scan your system, then try to sell you solutions. If you've been following this blog at all, you've probably already procured yourself a nice free little antivirus solution and have no need for their snake oil. Removing it is not hard, you simply have to access the add and remove programs feature in your control panel, find it in the list and click uninstall.

Why do they do this? Well, it's not an evil plot to drive you to the verge of madness, even though it seems like it. They're all in it for the money. And we can't even really be mad at them, because often times we're benefiting from the free software they created. All you can do is try to avoid installing what you're not interested in.

There's no real secret to avoiding these little tag alongs. You just have to pay attention and read the fine print. To avoid the example above, all you had to do was uncheck the box that said "Install McAfee Security Scan Plus" on the Adobe Flash Player download screen. Other software sneaks in during the actual installation process, which is why it is key to read each step of the installation wizard carefully before clicking the continue button.

Nothing about this information is all that technical, but it's a reminder to be mindful when working on your computer. We all get tired and click happy sometimes and every installation seems to look the same. But if you're not careful, you may just end up with more than you bargained for.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Feel like shopping?

In this funky economy, everyone is looking to get the biggest bang for their buck. When it comes to tech purchases, a little bit of research goes a long way. I wish there was a magical place I could send you to, where unicorns lead you to the end of the rainbow where all the best deals could be found. Unfortunately, there is no such place. I apologize for getting your hopes up. If you want the best price for your new laptop or hardware upgrade, be prepared to shop around a bit.

One thing you can consider, especially for larger purchases like computers, is looking at refurbished items. Sometimes you can get a great deal on a factory returned item that has been refurbished to "new" condition. Most of the big name PC companies like Dell and HP have outlet sections. Remember, however, that warranties are win! It's not a good idea to buy a big ticket item without a warranty, and sometimes retailers will charge extra for warranties on refurbished items. Take a moment to picture the sound of your heart breaking when your new laptop catches fire and you can only hold yourself accountable. Add a year or so of protection to your purchase, and see if the price is still competitive with something new. If you find a smaller ticket item, refurbished, you don't necessarily need to spend extra for a warranty. I've risked it before. Just do whatever you feel comfortable with. Before you buy, check the description thoroughly first to be sure it comes with all the same cables/cds/adapters included with a new one. Some refurbished or open box items do not and that could end up being an extra expense.

If you can, try to avoid the urge to have it right this second. A little bit of patience can save you big bucks. I recently purchased a DVD burner sold locally for $44.99, online, for $17.99 with free shipping. My favorite sites include Fry's Home Electronics,, and The cool thing about Fry's and Tiger Direct is that they do have some stores. So if you happen to be lucky enough to live close to one, you can spec out your purchase online and pick it up in your local store. Make sure you check your local store availability before you drive over there! Nothing is more disappointing than driving half an hour only to find they are out of stock. On a side note, if you haven't been to Fry's and you're close to one...go. Go just to witness its splendor. It's like they built a store to enable gamer nerds (which doesn't resemble me in the slightest...cough) to only leave the house TO GO TO FRY'S! They sell just about anything that lights up or plugs in along with an astounding selection of snacks and beverages. I kinda want to go right now...

OK, since they're not paying me in any kind of monetary or deep fried currency for that plug, I'll get back to the topic of the hour.

Compare different sites! The cool thing about Internet shopping is that you can do this in just a few clicks. I've saved a lot of money by just navigating over to another site and typing in the model number of the part I'm looking for. Factor in the cost of shipping before making your final decision. Most of these sites will have deals on shipping, especially if you're ordering more than one item so make a list of everything you need and see if you can get it cheaper by ordering it together.

Always order things like cables online! Big name retailers like Best Buy will charge you $30 or more for an HDMI cable that you can get for $10 online. I like to order networking cables in multiples, so I'm never left having to pay through the nose for convenience.

Speaking of Best Buy, I'm not going to tell you to avoid it all together. What I will say, however, is avoid just wandering into the store to make your purchase. If you want to go there because it's convenient, try to find what you want on their website and purchase it to pick up in the store. Their store will not honor their website's prices any other way. When I was monitor shopping last year, I went to Best Buy and pulled up their website on my iPhone. I found the same monitor I was looking at, on sale, for $50 less. Even though I had the ad in my hand and showed it to the clerk and his supervisor, they refused to honor the price. I could have just bought it using my iPhone and walked up to the front to pick it up but I don't tolerate difficult people or poor customer service very well, so I walked out. I've bought stuff from there since, so I'm not boycotting it, it's just my last choice.

Don't forget to play it safe! If you find what you're looking for on mega sale on some website you've never heard of, make sure to Google them first. You're looking for lots of good reviews from satisfied customers. Avoid websites with many negative customer reviews or no reviews at all. There are lots of fly by night businesses out there that will sell you junk, or worse yet, are just looking to get their hands on your credit card information.

Now get out there and spend some scrilla, kids! And if you do decide to visit Fry's...tell them they owe me some Cheetos or something.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Remember modems?

This made me giggle.

Buy vs Build

I may get some crap for this one, but hear me out. Occasionally somebody will come to me asking if they should let their boyfriend's, neighbor's, cousin's, math tutor who took a computer course in 1997 build their computer for them instead of buying one from someplace like Dell. Short answer? Please for the love of all things sacred, such as Cool Ranch Doritos, DON'T DO IT!

Yes, there are people out there who are capable of putting a machine together for you. But most of us who are, are really not that eager to. Let me give you a few reasons why:

Warranties are win. You know what's great about them? For at least a year (more if you purchased extra) after you get your new Dell, HP or whatever home, if something goes wrong, somebody else gets to fix it! I can't express how exciting this is. Sure, calling tech support and having some lispy guy on the other end talk to you like you're 7 years old isn't fun but wanna know what's less fun?  Realizing your motherboard just melted, and you may have to sprawl on the floor of your office trying to figure out how to replace it. One time a client's baby spit up all over the company's new expensive gaming laptop. We had the foresight to purchase same day support for these bad boys. I let that sucker dry out for a day, called the manufacturer for support, and looked as confused as I could when the tech came out. " just stopped working." What? Don't you judge me, you wouldn't want to deal with that either!

I know I sound like a jerk, but if somebody has come to you brimming with excitement over building a computer for you, they probably haven't a clue what they are doing. Don't believe me? Ask anybody in the IT industry how excited they are to build a computer for their third cousin when they get home from work. We're not! Sure we could do it in our sleep but when we get home, we want to play video games and eat pizza. Anybody bubbling over to put hardware together for you, is excited because they are new to it and can't wait to apply what they just learned to your $1200 worth of components. If it doesn't work like the book they checked out from the library last week tells them it should, they are not going to have the years of experience they'll need to figure it out and you'll be left with a very expensive paper weight.

It's really not cheaper to build your own computer. Again, I know I may get some crap for this, but when you factor in the costs of things like operating systems AND the fact that maybe your time is worth a little something, the savings are just nowhere to be found. Yes, you can prove me wrong on this. If you're up for standing in line for the hard drive deal at Best Buy on black Friday at 4am, more power to you! I'll be happily recovering from my tryptophan coma from the safety and comfort of the blanket cocoon I like to make for myself when I go to sleep at night.

I concede, that if you want to build your new computer yourself, because you're interested in learning, I can't give you a hard time for it. I did it too! It was one of the first things I did when I went back to school to learn the IT biz. It was hard, expensive, and as easy to navigate as a buttered floor but I learned quite a bit and I wouldn't try to take that right of passage away from any of you future Help Desk Technicians. But if you're just looking to save a little money by letting a well intentioned acquaintance do it for you, I'd advise against it.

How much computer do you really need?

This could end up being a novel of a topic, though there seems to be one consistency for those who are not so tech savvy. Ready for it? Everyone seems to like spending more than they need to! It's like that deep, inner, American need to supersize french fries. Your meal does not need to be the size of your head to be delicious and satisfying, and your computer does not need to be $3000 to email your cousin. It's not 1984.

Family and friends will often ask me to spec a computer out for them and I'm usually pretty happy to help. (I'm even happier to help if there are margaritas or baked goods involved!) I ask about their usage and what they would like to do on their new machine, head out on an Internet journey, and come back with something that is reasonably priced, will do everything they need, and has plenty of room to expand. Almost 100% of the time, they reply to me with some link for some outrageously beefed up machine, that costs twice as much as the one I found for them. That poor computer will probably need a prescription for antidepressants when its 16 gigs of ram and 8 processors are frittered away on watching YouTube videos of kittens and playing online Scrabble. Picture grandma buying a Ferrari to drive 8 blocks to church on Sunday. Get the picture?

Now before you can decide what you need, let's start by learning what some of these computer stats mean. Here are the three biggies. Knowing what they are and what they do, should make your shopping process a bit easier:

Hard Drive:  Your hard drive is where all of your information is stored. To get an idea of how much space you might need, we can take a look at what you're using. There are a few ways of doing this, for example, Windows XP you can open up My Computer, right click on your C drive and select properties. As you can see from the image, I'm almost using the entire capacity of my 150 gig hard drive. I could use an upgrade. When I make my purchase, I'll go for something that's at least 300 gigs. If you're only using 32 gigs of your 200 gig drive, you probably don't need a terabyte (1000 gigs) of space but if that's what floats your boat, I'm not going to judge you.

RAM (Random Access Memory): This is your computer's memory. How much RAM you have will dictate things like how many applications you can have running at once, and how quickly your computer will respond to you. I'm currently on an older machine with 2 gigs of RAM. I play World of Warcraft, blog, surf, and do everything I need to do just fine. An upgrade would be lovely, but I'm not hurting for one. I'd say for standard use, there's not much need for more than 4 gigs of RAM.

Processor or CPU (Central Processing Unit): Think of it as the brain of your computer. Your brain makes your hand move when you request it, and the CPU interprets the requests you make of your computer and carries them out. These can be a bit trickier to navigate. Personal computers used to have one CPU. Now, most of them have the option for multi-core (dual core, quad core, etc.) CPUs. This basically means they've taken multiple CPU's and fused them together to make one mega CPU. It's pretty cool stuff. You don't need an 8 core CPU, but because the CPU tends to be one of the harder components to upgrade yourself, if you're a novice, I'd suggest going for a dual or quad core processor if you can afford it.

Common sense should play a factor in your decision making process as well. For example, if you're buying a laptop and plan to keep it with you all the time, remember that a super, ultra, monster, mega 20inch screen laptop is going to be heavy and hard to carry around. Do you really need something the size of a coffee table to update your Facebook profile on your way to work? You may want to consider buying yourself a desktop for that rich, video experience and then purchasing a much simpler and smaller laptop or nice smart phone for travel. This sounds expensive, but technology in smaller packages is expensive. You can get all the stats of a $2500 laptop, in probably about a $1000 desktop. This leaves you quite a bit left over for something more light weight to travel with.

There's a lot more information to cover, and we'll get to it all eventually! But this should get you started on your road to moderately priced technology bliss.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Safe mode

There may be times when you'll have to access Safe Mode in order to repair something. Safe Mode is like a minimalistic version of Windows that's used for maintenance only. You can access it by following these steps:
  1. Shut down your computer completely.
  2. Turn your computer on, and as soon as you hear it come on tap the F8 button. You're trying to get into a boot menu before you see the first Windows start up screen and the timing of your F8 tapping can be tricky. You may not press it in time and Windows will boot up regularly. If this happens, shut your computer down and try again. Tapping F8 too many times on some computers may bring up a keyboard error. If you see this power it off and try again. It takes some finesse, you'll get it eventually.
  3. Tapping F8, if done correctly, will bring up a Windows boot menu that asks you what mode of Windows you would like to start. Select Safe Mode, or if you're trying to update something that requires internet or network access, select Safe Mode with Networking. Windows will prompt you to hit continue, and you'll see what looks like computer code loading on the screen. Be patient and let it finish. It takes longer to load Safe Mode than when you're booting regularly.
  4. Once you've finished your task in Safe Mode, restart your computer and boot Windows normally.

My computer is infested!

So you clicked on Claudia Schiffer naked, huh? Or maybe you tried to find the latest episode of True Blood on some nasty video sharing website and now you're being inundated with pop ups that offer everything from penis enlargement to expensive fake spyware removal? What do you do now? Well, first of all, don't panic! This happens to everyone...even me. It's nothing to be ashamed of, there are baddies all over the internet just looking for a way in.

A few years ago, while trying to remove the Vundo trojan from a client's machine, I discovered Malwarebytes. It's a delightful little application that does the absolute best job at removing viruses, trojans and spyware from your machine. And the best news is that it's free for home use! Download it here and run the simple installer. I like to start by doing the quick scan, removing anything it finds at the end then running a full scan. After that's done, reboot and scan again.

Now you may have a particularly ugly trojan that blocks Malwarebytes from installing or functioning properly. If this is the case, you can try installing it and or running it in Safe Mode. If you do not know how to get into Safe Mode, I've typed up some directions here.

Even if your computer is not obviously infected with anything, I highly suggest installing this application and checking every so often anyway. You may find something you didn't know was there. Or if you do manage to catch a virtual sneeze, so to speak, you'll be really happy you already have it installed and ready to go. Happy surfing!

Identifying hardware the EASY way!

So you're thinking about upgrading your RAM or some other piece of hardware and not sure what you have? I guess that means it's time to grab a flashlight, open up your computer, and pray you don't break anything...right? Guess again! Thanks to a teeny little program called SIW or System Information for Windows, you can find out everything you need to know about your computer in just a few clicks. Simply download the free version for home use here and run it. It will quickly show you everything from the key for your Microsoft Office installation, to the make and model of your motherboard.

Development of this kind of software isn't easy, and since it saved you some time consider donating a few dollars by clicking on the "If you like SIW you can buy me coffee" link here at the bottom of the page. Geeks need their coffee to keep on being brilliant!

Free Anitvirus

There are three things I look for when deciding what antivirus software to use.
  1. Is it easy? Download, installation and continued updates should be easy and automated.
  2. Quiet monitoring is a must. I have no patience for software that hogs precious resources or constantly pops up requesting my attention and money.
  3. Cost! I'm a firm believer that there is no need to pay much if anything for safe web browsing.

There is a lot of software out there that fits the bill, but my current favorite is Avast! which can be downloaded here. You can upgrade to a paid version, but most home users will be fine with the free version. During the installation, it will try to install Google Chrome for you so if that's not something you're interested in exploring, make sure to check the bubble that ops for the "express installation" without Google Chrome. Enjoy!