Monthly Archives: October 2016

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

A dying hard drive is the worst thing that a technician has to deal with, partially because the process is unpredictable, but also because most people don’t have a recent backup. The drive may die quickly or slowly, partially or completely, and it may even die in the technician’s hands … then that technician has the difficult task of explaining to their client why “it is running slowly” turned into “your data is lost”.

Everything in your computer gets stored on a hard drive. Even if you predominantly use cloud storage, your data is still on a hard drive somewhere. That hard drive may be a delicate spinning disk (a traditional hard drive), or it may have no moving parts (a solid state hard drive, or SSD). Many files on your hard drive are easily replaceable, like your operating system and programs; however, unless you have a backup, your data is not easily replaceable.

Diagnosing a dying hard drive can be difficult. Hard drives read and write millions of bits of data every minute, so they’re used to correcting the odd glitch. They do this by using error-correcting algorithms. The result is a medium that works very dependably … slowing down, sometimes imperceptibly, to compensate for a glitch in the process.

Once the technician finds enough clues to decide that the hard drive is dying, it is still not clear how dead it is, or how quickly it is dying. For spinning hard drives, this life may be extended by a few minutes by cooling the hard drive or tipping it at the correct angle, but the best approach to slowing its death is to not use it … but then, that is counterproductive to saving the data on it!

Backing up a dying hard drive has two general approaches: attempt to “clone” the whole drive, or just grab the data. Obviously, if things are going downhill quickly, the latter makes the most sense, but if it looks like there is time, it is nice to clone the whole drive to another drive so the operating system and programs don’t need to be reloaded (assuming the computer will be reused). It should also be pointed out that recovering data from a dying hard drive can take an incredibly long time … sometimes weeks.

If all else fails, and there is no backup of the critical data, there is still the option of using a data recovery service. But know that prices for these “clean room” services start at $500, and they are hit-and-miss.

Morals of the story:

  1. Back up your data regularly
  2. Diagnose small problems before they become big problems
  3. Back up your data regularly
  4. Don’t shoot the messenger when your hard drive dies.

Improvements are on their way

Windows 10 has been out since 29Jul2015, and it has been pretty good in terms of stability, compatibility, and usability. There have been some challenges, but in most cases “10” just needs some tweaks to the defaults and drivers to make it run smoothly.

For example, I think Microsoft made a big mistake when they designed the Windows 10 start menu to resemble the awful Metro screen from Windows 8. This can be adjusted by simply “unpinning” all the “tiles” from your start menu, which only needs to be done once (per user), and only takes a minute.

It seems like Microsoft realizes this now, because their latest Windows 10 update, entitled “Anniversary Update”, corrects this. Goodbye to silly tiles, and hello to a more streamlined start menu. Thankfully, they kept the “Recently Added”, “Most Used”, “Right-Click”, and “type-to-find” features of the start menu. If you don’t know what these last two features are, let me explain.

In most cases, you left-click the start menu to access our full list of Apps and Settings. But, when you need to do the “teky stuff”, you can simply right-click that same start button to get quick access to a “teky” menu. Thank you, Microsoft!

The “type-to-find” feature of the start menu is another nice feature. Simply click the start button (or tap the Windows key on your keyboard), and type part of the name of the app you are looking for. You can quickly find things this way, as long as you know part of the name of the app you are looking for.

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update has been rolling out to Windows 10 PCs since 02Aug2016. How do you know if you have it? Click the start button and see if you get the old start menu (one column of icons plus optional tiles), or the new start menu (one narrow column with 5 icons that only have names when you hover over them, a second column with everything else, and still the optional tiles).

How do you get this update? You can either wait for it to come in with your regular updates, or go get it from http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/p/?LinkId=821403.

If you are having issues with Windows 10 after an update–such as slowness, freezing, or crashing–you are not alone. As I have mentioned, drivers are often the culprit. The manual process of locating/installing drivers isn’t easy, but there are programs (such as the US$16.95 program Driver Talent) that makes it easy, or contact your local computer technician. Beware of free driver update programs, as they are nearly always rife with spyware.

We have Spreadsheets to thank

Spreadsheets played a huge role in the early days of computing. Experimentation began on “computerized simulations of accounting worksheets” on some mainframe computers in the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that we could get the first spreadsheet program—VisiCalc—on the first personal computers.

As the story goes, once accountants saw what spreadsheets could do, the PC industry sprang to life. As a result, we often call spreadsheet programs the “killer app” of the early days of personal computing.

After VisiCalc came SuperCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3, and finally Excel (to name a few). We all know Excel as part of the Microsoft Office package, which is available for Windows, OS X, and some mobile and online systems. Today, there are many programs that mimic the features of Microsoft Excel, including reading and writing the exact same files. These competitive programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars, and go by such as names as LibreOffice, OpenOffice, WPS Office, etc. (See Wikipedia for a “Comparison of office suites”.)

What does a spreadsheet program do that makes it so popular?

For those of you not intimately familiar with spreadsheet programs, here’s a gist of what you can do with them:

  • You can enter columns or sheets of information, and sort/filter the data to your heart’s content
  • You can create calculations and “look-up” relationships between cells in the same worksheet or workbook (which is a collection of worksheets)
  • You can then change any of this information and the whole spreadsheet will recalculate based on that new information

Spreadsheets are (arguably) easier to use than databases because all the information (data, calculations, and results) are right in front of you. Calculations can be as simple as “C1 = A1 + B1” … add the first item in column A to column to the first item in column B, and put the result in the first row of column C.

If any of this interests you, get yourself a spreadsheet program and play with it. They all have built-in help screens, plus there is lots of help online by making generous use of search engines.

I like to use spreadsheets to organize lists, calculate gas mileage, and track/balance accounts and expenses. Most spreadsheet programs can then produce charts of all types, based on data in the spreadsheet.

Evaluating a PC’s Hardware

You might be evaluating your computer hardware to decide if it is time to upgrade, or you might be comparing computers once you have decided to upgrade. Either way, you need a way to make the right choices for YOU. You can trust someone who knows (and listens!), or you can arm yourself with some knowledge and go into battle yourself. Either way, here are some things to know.

First, let’s put you (the end-user) into one of three categories: light user, medium user, or heavy user. If you are a light user, you simply use your PC for browsing, email, light word-processing, and/or light gaming. If you are a medium user, you may like to multi-task, or run some heavier programs. And heavy users are either gamers or work with graphics or other heavy programs.

A light user can often get away with a Chromebook/Chromebox, Android/iOS tablet, or low-end computer. A medium user needs a faster computer. And a heavy user needs an even faster computer with faster graphics. PCs and Macs use the same hardware now, so this information applies to both (those of you in the Mac world just have fewer choices and fewer upgrade options.)

Now let’s break down the components of a computer that matter.

CPU (or central processing unit) can be hard to evaluate, unless you know this simple trick: look it up on http://cpubenchmark.net. The folks at Passmark Software spend all their time testing every computer component ever made, and assigning it a “benchmark” number. CPUs range in numbers from 79 to 25,911. If yours is under 1100, you are either a light user, or needing of an upgrade. Today’s average CPUs typically range from 1600-4000, with some going into 5-digits.

Next is RAM: light-to-medium users can get away with 4GB, while medium-to-heavy users need 8GB or more. Speeds between RAM types (DDR1/2/3/4) and RAM makes and models are listed on http://memorybenchmark.net, but don’t vary greatly, so I would base my decision strictly on amount.

Next is video card. Unless you are a heavy graphic user and/or gamer, they don’t much matter. But if you are “one of those”, check the make/model out at http://videocardbenchmark.net. Benchmarks range widely from 1 to 12,762 … yours should be a few hundred as a light graphics user, to thousands for a heavy graphics user.

Finally, let’s consider hard drives. Yes, most are listed at http://harddrivebenchmark.net, but in my mind, there are basically 2 categories and 1 hybrid: SATA/”HDD”, solid state/”SSD”, or hybrid/”SSHD”. SATA drives are the traditional ones: typically big, (relatively) slow, and inexpensive. Solid state hard drives are 5-times faster, but can also be 5-times more expensive per GB. Hybrids combine the two to give you more storage for less money, but speed where and when you need it.

The components “make or break” the whole, so consider them when evaluating old or new computers.