Friday, September 4, 2009

Wireless in the Townhouses

ITS has completed installed wireless in the Townhouses. This means that all residence halls have wireless Internet.

We had been planning to install this by the end of the term, but everything fell into place so we were able to complete the job before the term began.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Basics: Function Keys.

Back in DOS days, the function keys were essential; now that we're using windows, they are an afterthought.  But they still can be useful; if you're typing something, it's usually faster to use them than to find the mouse and move it where it you want it.

Here is a brief listing of some useful function keys in Office:

To do this Press
Get Help or visit Microsoft Office Online. F1
Repeat the last action. This is especially useful in Excel; I use it to delete non-contiguous columns multiple times. F4
Choose the Go To command to let your find and replace. F5
Go to the next pane or frame. F6
Choose the Spelling and begin a spell check. F7
Extend a selection. If you've selected a character, this will select a word.  Pressing it again will select the paragraph. F8
Show KeyTips. You can then press the indicated key to activate items on the ribbon. F10
Choose the Save As command F12

One of my favorite and most useful features of MS Word has been something that's been unchanged as part of the program since DOS days, but which is poorly documented: The Case Toggle.  It switches characters from upper case to lower case and vice versa.  It also capitalizes words.  So if you have your caps lock on and end up typing a whole sentence, you don't have to retype it all.

To change the case, highlight the text and then hold down the Shift key and press the F3 key.  The text will change case, changing UPPER CASE to lower case; lower case to Capitalizing Each Word; and Capitalized Words to UPPER CASE.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wireless vs. Wired

Everyone loves wireless, and it's certainly convenient. But it does have drawbacks.

The main one is security.  Wireless signals are sent out for anyone to intercept. For general web surfing, this doesn't matter, but if you're sending personal information over a wireless card, it can be concern.  Be careful when using wireless to make sure you have a secure connection when sending any personal data. This can still be intercepted and read, but the data is encrypted and difficult to decrypt.* If you're dealing with highly sensitive information, it's safer to use a wired connection if possible.  The chance of interception is not high, but the consequences could be disastrous.

A second issue is speed. Wireless connections often aren't as fast as a wired ones. This is especially true of older wireless cards.  The new 802.11n standard is rated as being faster than many wired connections, but often doesn't work at its rated speed, and wireless slows down as more people use the same access point (like here at Siena).  You may notice slower download times or choppy video and audio playback. Switching to a wired connection will fix this.

For general use, wireless is a good feature.  But there are specific areas where it's better to have a wired connection that get better speed and security.


*Not impossible, given enough time, but a hacker is more likely not to bother and look for easier pickings.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Basics: Faster Scrolling

I'm always looking for ways to work faster, and sometimes I discover that people don't know about some simple tricks I've used for years.

image For instance, suppose you're on a window with a scroll bar (the bar at the right side). Most people will click on the arrow at the bottom (red arrow). But that only scrolls down a line at a time.  You either have to click quite a few times, or hold down and wait.

It's much better to click on the scroll bar (green arrow).  This moves down a screen at a time.  Another quick way is to click and drag the slider (at the top of the scroll bar). Another advantage of these two methods is that the spot is a much easier target to click on than the down arrow.  These also work moving up, of course.

And here's another tip when your browsing the web:  use your spacebar.  This will scroll down a page at a time, much faster and easier than using the scroll wheel on your mouse or the scroll bar.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Setting up your Smartphone E-mail

Siena's e-mail system does support a connection with a smartphone like a Palm, Blackberry, or iPhone. While we can't give detailed instructions, setup is generally easy. 

Most phones have a setup utility to help with setup. They ask you for your e-mail address and password and can figure out the setting from that. 

If that doesn't work, you can do it manually.  Here are a few tips:

  • If there's a "Microsoft Exchange Server" option, use that.
  • If there's no "Microsoft Exchange Server" option, select "POP3" as the protocol.
  • The incoming mail server is ""
  • The outgoing mail server is ""
  • The connection should be using SSL security. There is generally a check box for that.
  • If a log-in name is asked, don't include ""

It may take some fiddling with manual information to get things to work. You may have to contact your phone provider to find out what you need to do.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Basics: Installing a font

Windows comes with some nice fonts, but, if you're like me, you sometimes need something different. Luckily, it's easy to find new fonts and install them on your computer.

First, of course, you have to find them.  There are many free font sites on the web; a search on "Free fonts" will find many of them.  But there are several things you need to know:

  • Watch out for viruses.  Font files have a .ttf extension or they may be within a zip file. You should be wary of other extensions.
  • Make sure all characters are there.  Some fonts only have the alphanumeric characters and a handful of punctuation marks. These may do the job for you, but if you need something other than the basic characters, they aren't going to be useful.

When you find a font you like, download the file.  If it's in a zip file, double click to open the file and then save it. It's usually easier if you avoid the desktop; the font installer doesn't always recognize "desktop" as a location and you need to figure out the path.  A folder named "fonts" on your hard drive is ideal.

The next step is to add the font. 

For Windows XP:

  • Click on "Start."
  • Click on "Control Panel."
  • Click on "Appearances and Themes" (if it doesn't display, go on to the next step).
  • Click on "Fonts."
  • Click on "File."
  • Click on "Install New Fonts."
  • Navigate to the folder where you downloaded the font.  Find the font, click on it, and click OK.

For Windows Vista:

  • Click on "Start."
  • Click on "Control Panel."
  • Click on "Appearances and Personalization."
  • Click on "Install or remove a font" under "Fonts."
  • Right click and select "Install New Fonts."
  • Navigate to the folder where you downloaded the font.  Find the font, click on it, and click OK.

The font will be installed.

One rule for the proper use of fonts in a document:  Never use too many. Generally stick with two fonts, one for the main text and a different font for headings and titles.  Use fancy display fonts sparingly; what looks good in a six-word headline can be unreadable if used for a paragraph of text.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Wireless Project Completed

Siena now has upgraded its wireless availability in residence halls and throughout campus. We now have wireless in Hennepin, Hines, Padua, Plassmann, and Ryan Halls.  This is in addition to existing coverage in Serra Hall, the Sarazen Student Center, Standish Library, Roger Bacon and Morell.  A map of the current coverage is at the SienaAir web page. (Note -- in the map, red and blue designates wireless areas).

The system is features new 802.11n access points. This means that you can connect at the highest possible speed.  If you have an older wireless card, it will work fine, but at lower speeds.

We are planning to add wireless to Siena, Foy, Kiernan, MAC, and the Townhouses in 2010.  The Townhouses will have high priority in that project.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rant: Bad Uninstallers

I recently started having problems with a program I needed; it kept coming up with errors when I tried to run it.  No problem, I thought.  I'll just uninstall it and reinstall and all will be well.

It wasn't.  I keep getting errors from the uninstaller.  First, it has to "verify application requirements."  Huh?  If the program has been installed, obviously the requirements have been met. Why on Earth is it checking?  And why does it fail?

I've seen other variations.  Some programs search for the original installation file.  If you deleted it, or installed it in a temporary folder, it can't find it, so the program can't be deleted.

The worst was many years ago (back in the days of DOS) when I installed a demo program.  I didn't like it, so I uninstalled.  But the uninstaller didn't work properly, so my program kept trying to run the demo program.  When I contacted the company, they told me to go into debug mode.

For those who don't know, debug mode let you edit and change the actual code of the operating system.  It requires someone who, if not an expert in code, at least knows something about what the various hexidecimal codes meant.  To tell the average user to mess with this is like telling someone to take a hammer to a fragile glass sculpture in order to get it into position.  It might work, but if you make the wrong move, it will wreck everything.

For me, an uninstaller should do two things:  delete the files from your hard drive and remove all registry entries that were put in by the installer.  It shouldn't be too hard, but programmers seem to want to combine the installer and uninstaller, thus making it impossible to fix problems because you can't do a new, clean install.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Be careful where you save!

clip_image002Many students use e-mail to send documents to themselves when working in labs. This is fine, but be very careful when you save.

If you open the file by clicking on an e-mail, it will not be saved in “My Documents.” When you log off the computer, your work will be lost. We get questions about these missing files from students this time of year, and there’s usually nothing we can do to help.

To prevent this:

  • Use a flash drive to save your documents instead of e-mailing them to yourself.
  • If you do e-mail, do not open the file by clicking on it. Instead, save the file in “My Documents” and open it there.

If you just click "save," the file will be lost when you log off. Don’t find this out the hard way.

Did you know? Files saved in “My Documents” are available on any I&TS lab computer. If you save the file there, you don’t need to e-mail it to yourself. Just log on and you’ll find it in “My Documents.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's about Time! (Threatfire)

imageThere's a new tool in the antivirus toolbox that looks very promising.  Threatfire works with other antivirus to detect viruses and spyware in a different way:  it detect malware behavior, and not specific malware infections.

This is big.  For many years, I've been making the point about antivirus software:  it's flawed because it depends on virus definitions -- an identifying code specific to a particular virus -- for detection.  This means you need to constantly update.  And now, with the constant mutations of Antivirus XP and its clones, the updates are always way behind the virus makers.

Threatfire doesn't need updated definitions.  Bad behavior is bad behavior no matter what the software.  If something is causing popups, it will find the process and fix it, even if it never saw that particular code before.

You would think this could have been done before now. It actually has been tried, but the nature of computer journalism gave people the impression that the virus definition model was superior.  Years ago, computer magazines would test both behavior-based and definition-based antivirus.  Both would be equally good at detecting viruses and protecting the computer.  But the definition-based antivirus would say "You were infected by the stoned virus" while the behavior-based one would say "You were infected with a virus."  Because definition-based antivirus could name the actual virus, it got higher ratings even though it was no better at protection than the other.

Threatfire is not a replacement for your antivirus, but rather a supplement to it. It will protect against the malware your McAfee or Avast or AVG or Symantec doesn't know about it.

I have only been able to give it a limited test; it seems to work quietly in the background and I haven't had any viruses to test it with.  But assuming it works even close to as advertised, it's an solution that's a decade or more overdue.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Save Ink!

Here's a neat little way to save in when printing:  EcoFont.

It's a great idea: a font with small holes in it. Because of the holes, less ink is required.

At small sizes, like 12 points, the holes are barely noticeable.  It's a tiny big gray, but not enough to make it hard to read.

Just download the font and install it to increase the life of your print cartridges.

(Suggested by Kim Komando).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Basics: The Task Manager

One of the most useful tools for determining what's going on with your computer is the Task Manager. This program lists what currently running on your computer and lets you determine what's using up memory.  You can also use it to shut down things that you don't want running.

Task ManagerTo access the Task Manager, press Ctrl-Alt-Delete (all three keys at once). In some cases, it will pop up; in other configurations, this will bring up a list of options. "Task Manager" is one of them.

There are several tabs on the Task Manager.

  • Applications -- these are programs currently running on the computer. If you click on one and then select "End Task," the program will close. This can be useful if the program stops responding (which will show in the status). You can end the program if it's frozen.
  • Processes -- This is trickier.  These are various processes running on the computer. Sometimes, you can kill a rogue process like a virus so that you can run other programs. You can also use it to shut down things that are taking up too much memory. The processes can be sorted so you can see which one is taking up memory (ignore "System Idle Processes"; that's just free memory, so you want it to be high). Note: If you end the wrong process, the computer might crash. But don't let this faze you:  a restart will fix things.
  • Performance -- Shows how much memory is being used.  If the CPU usage is at 100%, your computer is going to run slow.  The task manager also puts an icon near the clock on the taskbar; it will indicate how much memory is being used with a bright green bar. 
  • Networking -- Shows how your local area connection is working.

How is this useful?  In several ways:

  • If a program is not responding, open the Task Manager and look at the Applications tab.  Look for tasks listed as "not responding."  Click on them and then on "End Task" to free things up (you will get a warning window before they shut down).  It may take a few moments for it to work, but it's quicker than restarting the computer.
  • If your computer is running very slowly, open the Task Manager and look at the processes.  Click on the heading "CPU" twice to sort largest to smallest.  The processes at the top (not counting "System Idle Process") are taking up the most CPU time.  If you can determine what they are, you can end them, or reconfigure. 
  • Occasionally, you may find that your taskbar has disappeared and you can't get it back.  Go into the Task Manager, click on "File" on the menu, and then "New Task (Run)."  Type "Explorer" in the space and click OK.  The taskbar should return.

The Task Manager is a handy way to maintain your computer.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Don't Fall for it

We've been getting some cases of people's e-mail accounts being compromised and used for sending spam. This was generally because the user gave out his password.  Most commonly, people are tricked into it by an e-mail requesting the password.  Here is one example:

From: <Address removed>

Sent: Wednesday, April 01, 2009 7:03 PM





This mail is to inform all our {EDU WEBMAIL} users that we will be upgrading our site in a couple of days from now. So you as a Subscriber of our site you are required to send us your Email account details so as to enable us know if you are still making use of your mail box.


Further informed that we will be deleting all mail account that is not functioning so as to create more space for new user. so you are to send us your mail account details which are as follows:


*User name:



Failure to do this will immediately render your email address deactivated from our database.


Your response should be send to the following e-mail address.


Your Admin Manager: <email address removed>


Yours In Service.





There are several things about this that should raise alarms.

  • First of all, no I&TS department will ever ask for your password. There is absolutely no need for it. In the case above, if we were upgrading our site, we'd would use your same user settings.  If, for some reason, we couldn't use your current username and password, we would create new accounts and let you know what the new information is. We would never have to ask for your password.
  • Note the phrase:  "we will be deleting all mail account that is not functioning." IT departments know the English language well enough to handle basic subject/verb agreement.
  • Though I hid it, the e-mail address for the Admin Manager was not a address (it was from the .info domain, which is not all that reputable in any case).  Even if we for some reason needed this information (as I mentioned, we don't), we would ask you to send the e-mail to a e-mail address.  This is a given.
  • At a college, it's pretty easy to know what student accounts are active and which aren't.  There is no reason at all to delete an account before you graduate. 
  • If space is needed, and we can't add memory, the solution would be to set quotas, not delete accounts.
  • "FROM THE EDU EMAIL SUPPORT TEAM."  Maybe it's just me, but I'm always suspicious about anything that comes from a "team."  Scammers always seem to use it.  While it can be legitimate, it's at least a warning flag.

There are many other signs of that an e-mail is fake; if you have an example, add a comment.  But the first rule is always the best: never give out personal information when replying to an e-mail.  If you have any doubts, contact the "sender" by another means -- by phone (finding the number in the phone book, not in the e-mail) or by visiting their web page (by typing the address into the address bar, not clicking on a link).

Here's a good overview of how to remain safe from phishing e-mails like this.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Filefixer Pro Repair Tools

I mentioned Filefixer Pro a few days ago.  At the time, there was no tool to repair files encrypted by the program.

That's changed.  The first was reported here by "Bobby" in the comments to my post.  Anti-Filefix does seem to be able to unencrypt the files.  I haven't been able to test it (I don't have any infected computers), but is looks pretty simple.  I can't guarantee it, but it was worth a try.

And now, Symantec has come up with a decrypting tool.  (Link is at the bottom of the page or you can download it directly).

So, for now, the tools are there.  But who knows what tomorrow may bring?

I had a particularly stubborn infections yesterday.  The software prevented Malwarebytes, SuperAntispyware, or Combofix from working, even in safe mode (I didn't have a chance to use Smitfraudfix).  The student was finally able to clean it using Norman Malware Cleaner, a tool I'd never tried before and which I don't recall where I found.  Evidently, Antivirus 360 didn't know about it either, since it didn't stop it from running.

I did learn one trick that I didn't get a chance to test out, though. Some sources say that if you can't install Malwarebytes to clean the computer, rename the Malwarebytes installation file (the name doesn't matter).  It looks like the virus identifies the software by name and will let it install if it's not called "malwarebytes."  You may also need to rename the executable in addition to the installation file.

AVG 7.5 Support Discontinued

AVG has announced that they have discontinued support for version 7.5 of they software at the end of February.  This means that if you're using it, you will no longer get updates.

You will need to update your antivirus. If you have AVG 7.5, you probably have already seen a warning screen. 

imageFirst of all, don't be fooled; the "warning screen" may, upon closer inspection, be an Antivirus 360 warning.  You don't want to mess with that.  AVG has the AVG logo on it -- a square with four different colored sections.  Anything else is suspicious.

Another sign that this is legitimate is that when you close the window, it stays closed.  In any case, your best solution is to go directly to the AVG download page at and find the free version.  Current version number is 8.5.  AVG will suggest you get the paid version, of course, but the free version is easy to find.

Important!  There are reports of problems on Vista machines with AVG 8.0 running Firefox.  If you use Firefox, do not install the AVG linkscanner or toolbar when installing AVG.  If the problem still recurs, uninstall AVG and switch to Avast Antivirus.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Preventing Antivirus XP Infections

I've been talking alot about this and how aggressive and nasty it is.  Antivirus software is not effective, since it mutates constantly to sneak by — and once it's installed, it prevents any antivirus updates that might detect it.

There is one thing in your favor:  this malware is a trojan.  It cannot install itself on your computer; you need to install it yourself.  That's one reason why the warnings are so urgent — to make you take the one step required to get infected.

The problem is that when Antivirus XP 2009 pops up, it can be difficult to shut it down.  If you try to ignore the alert or close it, it will usually come back again and make it impossible for you to browse away from the infected page.

If this happens, the fix is simple:

  • Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete (i.e., all three keys at once)
  • A window will pop up.  Select "Task Manager."
  • The Task Manager will display.  Make sure the "Applications" tab is selected.
  • Look for Internet Explorer (or whatever web browser you're using).  They may be identified by the web page instead of the program name.  Identify it by the browser icon (the blue E for Internet Explorer, for instance).
  • Click on it.
  • Click on "End Task."
  • Look for other instances of your web browser, select, and click on "End Task" until they are all gone.
  • Close the Task Manager.

Your web browser is closed and the popup should be gone.

It's a good idea to use this method as soon as the Antivirus XP popup displays.

Were you infected?  It's certainly possible.  Luckily, you'll know pretty quickly if the malware was installed:  it will start nagging you to clean the computer, and you'll see virus warning you've never seen before.  If you don't notice anything different about your computer, you're probably OK.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to Recognize a Fake Virus Alert Message

The various mutations of the Antivirus XP 2008/2009/360 viruses out there try to get you infected by giving out scary warnings about how your computer is infected with viruses.  A typical version looks like this:

 AV360 alert -- fake

Note these things:

  • It "detects" multiple infections.  It's unusual for a real alert to find more than one at a time.
  • The "online scanner" pops up in a second or so. It takes time to scan your computer -- ten minutes or more.  Anything that finds multiple viruses on your computer in only a couple of seconds is lying to you.
  • If you're using a web-based scanner, you must install software before it scans. If you haven't done this, it won't detect any viruses.  So if you haven't deliberately downloaded the software first, no scan will work.
  • A legitimate web-based scanner like Housecall only installs from a single site named for the scanner.  It does not show up if you don't deliberately go to it. The fake alert here will display when you're not going to a scanner website.

It's instructive to compare this alert with those of legitimate antivirus software.  Here are a few:


Mcafee alert

Note this tells you that the file has been deleted or cleaned (click on the image and see the state).  It does not require any further action.


(This may be an old image).

Symantec alert

This, too, doesn't require further action.  The virus is neutralized.


AVG Alert

AVG does give you options. "Heal" is usually the best. Note, though, that there's a single popup, and that it doesn't "strongly recommend" you remove them. 


Avast alert

One nice thing about Avast! -- its warning says "There is no reason to panic."  This is quite the opposite of AV360, which wants you to panic. There are several options, and a suggestion for a recommended action.

Checking for yourself

If you're using different antivirus, or to get a better idea of what the warning looks like on your computer, download the EICAR Test File. Most antivirus software will detect as a virus (it is a harmless file used for testing antivirus).  When you download it, you should get a virus warning.  This will show that your antivirus is working, as well as giving yourself a chance to see a legitimate warning so you won't be fooled by the fakes.

Beware FileFixer Pro

The sleazes at Antivirus XP are at it again, and taking their nastiness to another level with FileFixer Pro. It is a very dangerous bit of spyware, because it keeps you from accessing your own data.

Like all the other version of Antivirus XP (2008, 2009, 360), File Fixer Pro appears as a popup while you're browsing the web that warns you in very heated terms that you files are corrupted and you'll need to install the program to fix it.

Don't do it!

Once the program is installed, it encrypts your files.  They're perfectly good, but you need to buy the software (for $60 or more) in order to read them.  If you do buy it, it will (probably) fix things -- but they now have your credit card and can run up charges on it.

While there are ways to remove File Fixer Pro, the files will remain encrypted.  At the moment, there is no way to fix this. (Added 3/25Tools are now available).

If a window pops up with this warning (or any other virus warning), close your web browser immediately.  The software won't install without your help.

Be very careful when browsing the web.  If you get a pop up warning you about a virus or problems with your computer, don't believe it.

Here is a discussion; information is still scarce, so be warned.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Uninstalling Software

It's a simple process, and something that all computer users need to know, but there are plenty of people who don't seem to know how to uninstall software.

It simple enough: you used the "Add or Remove Programs" option on the control panel. 

  • For Windows XP, click on "Start," "Control Panel," and "Add/Remove Programs."  If the option is given again, you click on "Add/Remove Programs."
  • For Windows Vista, click on "Start," "Control Panel," and find "Uninstall a program" under "Programs."

The computer will list the programs.  Click on them and the click on "Uninstall."

Which to remove? That's up to you.  If there's something you never use, it probably won't hurt to remove it, especially if it's freeware that you can always download again.  And if you try some software and decide you don't like it, use this to clean it off your computer so it's not going to cause problems.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Anyone who Says Differently is Selling Something"

image I came across a good article in Slate today about "My Faster,"* a cleaner that promises to improve computer speed.

I'm wary of those sort of claims, especially by someone who has something to sell.  One of the advantages of Windows computer is that you can find free utilities for whatever you need. You only need to buy software when the freeware doesn't do the job -- which isn't that often.

In any case, computers do tend to run more slowly over time. There are two major reasons for this, both due to software, not the registry or hard drive:

  • The most common cause is the amount of software running on the computer.  If you install things that run at startup, it starts taking up memory.  The fix is to uninstall this software.  I'll discuss how in another blog.
  • Updated versions of software require more memory.  Your Office 2003 worked fine, but a update to 2007 runs too slow.  Newer software is always memory intensive, so it will run slower on older machines.  The best fix for this is to upgrade your memory -- the more, the better. 

Cleaning out bad entries in the registry doesn't hurt, but it also doesn't usually make a difference.  Like the author of the article, I've found that CCleaner does this just fine.  Advanced Windows Care is another good cleaner.  Both are free.

You can also clean files from your hard drive and defragment to increase performance.  These help, but probably won't solve slowness issues.  It's best to check your software to see what is running that you don't need and to turn it off.

*Which is how they show the guy entering it.  So already they're showing something wrong.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

POP goes your e-mail.

On campus, we use Microsoft Outlook for faculty/staff e-mail.  Students can use the Outlook Web Access, or can set up any e-mail client (including things like mail on mobile devices like iPhones).

Some people want to use Outlook Express.  That's fine, except that you have to be careful of the settings.

Outlook Express defaults to using POP3 e-mail. That's not uncommon and fine to use in most cases.  But Outlook Express is a bit behind the times:  the default is to move all e-mail from the server to your hard drive.

If you're not careful, all the mail in your inbox will move to your hard drive -- and be removed from the server.  In the days before portable computing, fast connections, and cheap memory, this made sense.  It was much more convenient to store your e-mail on your hard drive.

Nowadays, people want to keep e-mail on the server so it's available from anywhere. If you use Outlook Express with its default settings, your mail will no longer be on the server, and it isn't easy to restore it.

If you do want to use Outlook Express, check in the settings so that it leaves a copy of the message on the server. I'm not sure if that's part of the usual setup, so you may have to go into the settings and change it before connecting to the Internet.

We've seen several cases of people inadvertently deleting everything from the server.  If you want, you can use Outlook Express (though there are better mail clients out there), but don't make that mistake.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Browser Wars: Rating the features

I've decided to rate the five major browsers on the various features I think are important.  The links go to my analysis of the various browsers. 

I haven't updated Firefox or Opera.  All my points in the original reviews stand, and neither browser has added anything that makes the browser different.

But I have switched from Opera to Firefox as my favorite. I like Opera very much, but was ultimately defeated because too many things are designed for Firefox and MSIE, and thus don't work with Opera (Google Apps and the Google toolbar, for instance). In addition, Firefox offers add-ins that let you add some of Opera's best features, and the ability to use MSIE within Firefox.

10= highest
Google Chrome Firefox 3.0 MSIE8 Opera 9.5 Safari
Tabbed Browsing 8 10 9 8 3
Speed 7 6 10 5 10
Customization 2 10 7 8 1
Bookmark Management 2 9 10 6 3
Special features 6 8 8 9 1
Innovations 6 8 7 10 2
Security 9 9 6 9 10
Compatibility 9 9 10 5 9
Total 49 69 67 60 40


  • Tabbed Browsing.  How useful the tabbed browsing function works.  Ability to add additional features and manage tabs.
  • Speed.  How fast the browser renders web pages.
  • Customization.  The ability to customize the browser for your own web browsing habits.
  • Bookmark Management.  How easy it is to add, remove, and organize bookmarks. 
  • Special features.  The things that make one browser different from the rest. These are built-in features, not add-ins.
  • Innovations. What about the browser is new and different.
  • Security. How secure the browser is.  This isn't just lack of security holes -- Firefox had more bug last year than all other browsers combined -- but how quickly fixes are issued (very fast for Firefox) and how much a browser is a target (with MSIE as target #1).
  • Compatibility.  How web pages are rendered.  People design for MSIE, so that's a big advantage; they ignore Opera and that hurts.

For another analysis, see "If Browsers Were Women."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Browser Wars: Safari 4

In the past, I've rated Safari as the weakest of the various web browsers. The main problems I found was an inability to understand tabbed browsing, a poor design for the bookmarks, and a complete lack of customization, up to an including the inability to use any other inline search engines than Google and Yahoo.

A new version of Safari does nothing to fix any of the conceptual flaws in the design of the browser.

First, the good news.  Safari is fast. It and the new Internet Explorer 8 are by far the fastest of the browsers. Some tests say that Safari is the fastest, but I doubt any human being could see any difference between it and MSIE8. But, still, fast is good and the improvement over older browsers is considerable.

They've also set things so it uses standard rendering of text, so web pages look right.  You can use Apple's scheme if you want, but it's nice that Apple gives you the option to do things the way you want for a change.

In addition, Safari has the same private browsing feature that Google Chrome and MSIE8 have.

That's about it. Safari still doesn't understand tabbed browsing. They've improved things somewhat by adding a button to add a tab -- something that's essential since browsers don't create new tabs for inline searches.*  But it's much harder to move tabs around once they're created.  In all other browsers, you click anywhere on the tab and can move it.  In Safari, you have to click on a tiny corner with a symbol whose meaning is completely opaque to the user.  Why make it difficult?

Safari still has the same horizontal design for bookmarks that I just don't care for.  It's better than in previous versions and I suppose the design allows for a cleaner look (Apple always chooses looks over functionality). But the lack of space means that you need to put your bookmarks into folders instead of just having them available.

I get the distinct impression that Safari's developers never bother with bookmarks and merely type in all the web pages they go to (It's quite clear they never use tabs).

As for customizations -- forget it. You can't even add additional search engines to the inline search.  I search Wikipedia a lot, but Safari doesn't offer even that obvious option.  The best browsers will let you search any site through inline search; Safari gives you two.

There are no add-ins. If you want a feature that's not in Safari, you're out of luck; there's no way to add it.  No skins, either (though that's not really a flaw -- it's rare to find a skin that's worth using).

And there's no sign of innovation. MSIE now has the web slices feature.  Google Chrome invented private browsing and uses the history to create favorites. Opera invented tabbed browsing, the speed dial, and Paste and Go. Firefox developed plug-ins.  All come up with new and interesting ways to make browsing better.

Safari does nothing new.  It doesn't even do many old things (like automatically creating a tab instead of opening a new browser).

But it's fast.  If that's all that's important to you, use it (but check out MSIE8).  But if you want a flexible web browser that does what you want it to do, use something else.


*Something I can't understand.  Google Toolbar has done this for ages, yet if you type in anything in the search field in all browsers, your current page changes to the search engine.  Not very useful if you're trying to look things up on the fly.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Browser Wars: Internet Explorer 8

I've been keeping track of web browsers for some time now.  With two new versions of them (MSIE 8 and Safari 4) coming out soon, I decided to see what's new.

First up is MSIE8.

I will say I'm favorably impressed.  I've been using Firefox as my main browser* lately, but MSIE8 is a strong competitor.

The most obvious improvement is speed (the new Safari is also supposed to be very fast). Web pages pop onto the screen almost immediately.  Very impressive.

MSIE8 also has made some small but important changes in design. The Favorites been moved from the Tab bar to a spot just above it, which makes more sense to me. 

Web SliceBut the most interesting and innovative feature is MSIE's new "Web Slices." These let you put an item on the menu bar which lets you look at quick information from that site. For instance, if you add it for a weather report site, you'll see the current temperature and other information without having to go to the page. Only a handful of sites offer this capability, but I can see it being very popular.

Taking a page from Google Chrome, MSIE8 has what they call "In-Private Browsing," the ability to surf the web without saving cookies, history, etc.  There is also "In-private filtering" that blocks sites from sharing your private information with other site. Another nice security feature is the smartscreen filter, which identifies potential fake websites (that "Paypal" site that came in a phishing e-mail, for instance).  It also checks downloads to warn you if you're downloading spyware.

There are a few minor downsides.  There are far fewer add-ons than you'll find in Firefox. The browser doesn't appear to offer skins (not a favorite of mine -- most skins look horrible).  I also don't like the fact that menu items are both on the menu bar and to the right of the tabs; it makes more sense to me to group them in one place.

Still, given the better speed and security, MSIE8 looks like a strong challenger to Firefox and Opera.


*In the past, I used Opera, and I still like it a lot. But most sites don't believe Opera exists, it leads to problems, not with the browser, but with the sites.  Some of my favorite Opera features -- Paste and Go, Speed Dial, and the Wand -- are just not available (Speed Dial is an add-in for Firefox, though).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How do I recognize a hardware issue?

While I&TS will assist with software problems on student computers, due to warrantee and other issues (e.g., we don't stock computer parts), we cannot fix hardware problems with a computer.

But how do you tell?  Here are some simple ways to help narrow the issue down.

  • If the computer can't get to the login screen, it's usually a hardware issue.  It could be a bad hard drive or power supply, or something else, but this is usually a sign that it's just not running any software.
  • If something is physically broken -- cracked screen, water on keyboards -- than clearly it's hardware.  But this also applies to things like being unable to plug in your USB drive (I've seen broken USB ports).
  • If you've installed the drivers for a peripheral device -- printer, iPod, etc., and the device isn't recognized or does not work, there may be a problem with the device, not the software.

If you have a hardware issue, contact your manufacturer. If you bought a Dell computer under the Siena Purchase Program, the computer will be covered by a warrantee.  Dell will fix it.  Often they will come to visit you, but they also may want you to send it to them. It will only take a few days.

Other computers also may have similar programs.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Microsoft on the Move

It looks like Microsoft is busy readying three new pieces of software for later this year.

  • Windows 7 is their next operating system. There have been many complaints about Vista (some valid, some irrelevant to the average user), so Microsoft is working on a new version that removes some of the bells and whistles and improves functionality.
  • Internet Explorer 8 is, of course, an upgrade on their web browser.  I haven't seen it yet, but since MSIE7 is losing out to Firefox and even Safari (though it's hard to see why -- it is, by far, the worst browser out there), it made sense to come out with a version to compete with some of Firefox's advantages.
  • Microsoft Morro will be a free antimalware solution, focusing on viruses, spyware, and trojans.  I'm a bit skeptical that Microsoft can handle this (their last antimalware produce, Microsoft Defender, really doesn't work all that well), but it may be easy enough to use that more people get protected -- for awhile.

It should be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Backup Backup Backup

Old guys like me remember saving files to 8 1/2" floppy disks. You always had to save a file twice, on two different disks, so that if one disk went bad (and floppies went bad with discouraging regularity), you could retrieve the data from the other.

Of course, hard drives came along.  These were much more rugged than floppies, and didn't fail all that often.  And people got out of the habit of backing up files.

But hard drives do fail.  Not often, but it only takes once. And that's worse than a failed floppy, which might have only held 10 files. If you don't back up, everything is lost.

I recently got a question about saving files from a student whose hard drive failed. And I had to tell him there was little I can do.

So, even if hard drive failures are rare, it's vital to back up data in the off chance that you have one.

In the past, I have mentioned Mozy. It's a simple way to automatically back up your data.  The free version has limited storage, but it's plenty for your papers and other documents.

If you want back up pictures, use Picasa or flickr or another online picture sharing service (some come with your digital camera). When you upload pictures to share, you are also backing them up, so you win in two ways.

And to be even safe, put your most important file on some additional service. We saw this week how Ruckus collapsed; the same thing can happen to the place where you're storing your data. If Mozy goes under, you can use another option.  I've been trying out Mediafire, but there are many other free file hosting services.

It's best to prepare, so if the worst happens, you can recover as much as possible.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Of Passwords and Common Sense

We recently had a problem with a student who had someone hack into his e-mail account to send spam. And it turned out to be pretty easy for the hacker, since the student sent him his login and password.

This is very hard to understand.  I&TS will never ask for your password -- we just don't need it.  This is true of any IT department or website or bank. No one legitimate will ever ask for your password.

What's even harder to understand was that the e-mail that did the phishing for the password had no connection with Siena.  It wasn't sent from a Siena address, and you were supposed to reply to an address outside of Siena.  If we did need your password (and, as I said, we never do), wouldn't we have sent it from a Siena address?  Wouldn't we have had you reply to a Siena address?

You have to be alert on the Internet, and doubly alert when anything might involve passwords or money. Never trust an e-mail that asks for personal information, especially if you have never contacted anyone about a problem. 

If you have questions about an e-mail like this, you can always contact I&TS, or whoever you think is asking for the information. They can confirm that it's fake.  No one ever has a legitimate reason to ask for your password, and you should never be fooled.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

XP Antivirus Malware is Getting Worse

I haven't talked about this in awhile, mostly because I've become busier removing it from computers.  It's now got a new name:  Antivirus 360. But it's still the same old nightmare.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me anything you've seen it do.  So far, there have been cases where:

  • It installs without administrative privileges.
  • It tries to install on a Mac (it won't run, but it downloads and tries to).
  • It hides from your own antivirus.
  • It disables Windows updates.
  • It disables antivirus updates.
  • It prevents cleaning software from doing its job.

Malwarebytes always was the preferred cleaner for infections and was very dependable in cleaning and fixing things.  Not any more. The spyware causes Malwarebytes to hang, and I've had cases where it was not detected in a scan.

A second option is to use SuperAntispyware. It requires a bit more savvy to use, but if Malwarebytes doesn't work, it can do the job for you.  There are also other ways to fix things if you'd rather not use it.

We've set up a web page with cleaning instructions.  It should help you clean your computer. It will be updated as we find new weapons in this battle.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ruckus is no more

We've often recommended Ruckus as a solution for free, legal downloads of music.  But, alas, it appears that Ruckus has closed down. 

Ruckus main page

It's disappointing news.  Ruckus was a very useful service and had a solid library -- including a lot of obscure music that I hadn't heard in ages.  But evidently the bad economy has taken another victim.  It's hard to survive on advertising alone.

More annoying is the way it was handled.  There was no warning, no consideration for people using the service. I understand these things happen quickly, but Ruckus basically just shut down their site and let people discover it.  An e-mail to users (they have everyone's e-mail address) would be the classy thing to do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How do I know I have spyware?

If you're asking the question, you possibly have it.  However, there are some good signs:

  • You have too many popup windows.  Some of these are a normal part of web browsing. But if you get popups before you open your web browser, it's a sure sign you have spyware.
  • You can't reach certain web pages.
  • Your home page has changed and you can't change it back.
  • Software other than your regular antivirus warns you that you have spyware.
  • You get an antivirus message warning about multiple infections. Most antivirus software will give you a warning for each virus it detects.  If there's a second virus (unusual), it will give a second warning.  It will rarely give a single warning of multiple problems at once.  However, spyware sometimes does this in order to trick you into downloading it.
  • Your web browser has new toolbars you didn't remember installing. Toolbars come with a lot of software (Yahoo,, Google), but if one appears for something else, and you haven't installed software recently, it's a warning sign.
  • Your computer runs slowly. This can be caused if the computer is low on memory, but if you have a new computer, one cause of the slowdown can be spyware.

If you have any of these issues, it's a good idea to download and run Malwarebytes to scan for problems.