Do you really need Windows or OS X?

If you are thinking of replacing your computer, it’s a good time to take stock of what you actually use it for.

Most people user their computer for researching, reading news, reading and posting social media, collecting pictures, listening to music, streaming videos, playing games, audio/video/text chat, and reading and writing emails, documents and spreadsheets.

You really don’t need a full-blown Mac or PC to do those things; they can be done using other operating systems like Linux, Android, iOS, or ChromeOS. The beauty of these operating systems is that they tend to be less expensive to buy, and both less expensive and easier to run.

One reason that devices running those operating systems are less expensive to buy is that they are not as demanding on hardware, so they don’t need the latest, fastest, most expensive hardware. Another reason is that those operating systems are free. They are cheaper to run because the apps that run on them tend to be less expensive, or free … they use less electricity … and they can often be run without additional security software because they aren’t prone to infection.

Those other operating systems tend to be easier to operate because they are built with the legacy of Windows/OSX as a model, without having to support the legacy of Windows/OSX. PCs, in particular, put in a lot of effort to be backwards compatible with (in some cases) decades-old systems.

A quick note for PC gamers: save yourself some money and switch to a video game console … they are a fraction of the price.

If you are hooked on one or more particular Windows or OS X programs that aren’t available on other platforms, then you have no choice. But in most cases, there are alternatives. So, if it’s time to replace that aging Mac or PC, give some serious consideration to Chrome/Android/iOS/Linux/console devices.

Tweaking Windows 10

As good as it is, it is easy to get turned off by some “features” of Windows 10. Being Microsoft’s long-term operating system, it is best if we can figure out how to get along with it. In this article, you will find common beefs, and fixes, for Windows 10.

Microsoft was very heavy-handed when it came to rolling out Windows 10 … many people were “introduced” to it in a rather forceful way (some successfully sued Microsoft for this). On the bright side, it was offered as a free upgrade for those of us with a valid Windows 7 or 8.x license, and it is still possible to take advantage of their offer, long after it was supposed to end.

The shock of being upgraded to Windows 10 was exacerbated by the sneaky way Microsoft introduced us to their new browser (Edge) and email tool (Mail) by making these inferior products our default programs for those two functions. However, it is easy to fix this by going to “Settings | Apps | Default Apps” and changing them to better alternatives (IE/Chrome/Firefox and Outlook/Thunderbird).

Microsoft didn’t stop there … they also forced games and other apps upon us. These apps are easily uninstalled with a few clicks each (right-click one, Uninstall, and confirm) … and for the most part, they don’t come back.

As a final poke to their customers, Microsoft automatically turns on “Occasionally show suggestions in the Start”. (What are they thinking?) This setting is easily turned off in “Settings | Personalization | Start”.

Then there are “Tiles” … an unwanted carry-over from the much-disliked Windows 8. It takes about a minute to right-click each tile and choose “Unpin from Start” … making your Start Menu clean and efficient again.

Drivers can be a problem in Windows 10. Beware of “Driver Updater” programs, because they are nearly all riddled with spyware. It is safer to update them manually (Microsoft Article 4028443).

Updates can also be a problem in Windows 10. Firstly, I suggest being patient … some can take an hour or two. If updates break, you can often fix them using “Settings | Update & security | Troubleshoot | Windows Update” or with judicious use of a tool like tweaking.com. Sometimes updates happen right when we least want them … note that you can adjust your “Active hours” in “Settings | Windows Update”.

Finally, Microsoft seems to enjoy disabling our File sharing every time there is a major update. So far, you simply turn it back on again.

On the bright side, Windows 10 has been fairly fast, stable, and compatible with most PC hardware and software.

Passwords

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are still some who think they are the only ones struggling with passwords. Let me tell you that you are definitely not alone.

There’s not much that hasn’t been said about passwords. We all know that they should be unique and not recycled, sufficiently long and complex, and changed on a regular basis. But most of us are still struggling to balance those password attributes with the biggest one: recallable.

By recallable, I mean that you can recall it without resorting to a handwritten list or an unencrypted electronic list, which are both strongly frowned-upon.

I would like to believe that we are on the verge of a password-free world where all your devices and services recognize you by face, voice, fingerprint, retina, etc., instead of requiring you to memorize strings of characters. Smartphones have recently made great strides with their fingerprint readers, but that has, so far, failed to progress to apps and services on the smartphones, or to most tablets and personal computers.

Until that day comes, you might consider using a password manager: an app that stores your usernames and passwords in an encrypted form, unlockable by fingerprint or strong password. Most have a good level of encryption, meaning there are no alternative methods of decrypting your list. Some have extra features that make it easy to display or even enter your credentials into apps/sites for you, and some can maintain the same list on all of your devices.

In closing, I will mention a couple of password managers that I have encountered. There are several tools with the unimaginative name “Password Safe”, but only one that was originally designed by Bruce Schneier. Its logo is easily recognizable with its red triangles and diamond, and its home is pwsafe.org. This tool is truly multi-platform (it is available for Windows, OS X, Android, iOS, and Linux), and there are ways to synchronize your database between your devices. The second one is a relative newcomer: Intel’s “True Key” (truekey.com) has many of the same features as Password Safe, but in a more refined form. There is, however a price for this refinement … you can store the first 15 passwords for free, but beyond that, it will cost you $19.99/year.

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.

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 to decide which to upgrade to. 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. If you read on … I’ll assume the latter.

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 how: simply 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, 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.

Trusteer Rapport

Impressive name: Trusteer Rapport (or Trusteer Endpoint Protection). Impressive tagline: “Protect your identity and account against fraud and cybercriminals”. Impressive parent company: IBM. Impressive list of companies endorsing and encouraging its use: CIBC, INGDirect, HSBC, BMO, etc.

They may all sound like good reasons to install this software on your computer, but I recommend you don’t!

But don’t trust me; like any new technology you hear about, do a quick Google search on the name, followed by the word “problem”: searching for “Trusteer Rapport problem” will give you about 24,000 hits to sift through.

I have seen TR loaded on dozens of computers, but every one of them were having problems. Don’t be my next avoidable callout … avoid Trusteer Rapport … and if you already have it, uninstall it.

But even uninstalling it can be awkward. (This is a red flag to me right here.) At the very least, you will have to go through several steps, including entering a “captcha” and clicking on a button labelled “Shutdown”. If you encounter problems doing that (and it happens a lot), you will have to request, download, and run their available uninstaller program.

Instead of trusting Trusteer, stick with your tried-and-true antivirus program and follow safe computing practices.

Platform Independence

Last month, I explained “operating systems” and promised to talk about what was compatible between different operating systems. To do this, I’d like to introduce a few more terms.

The technical term “cross-platform” typically refers to a program that is available on more than one operating system. Examples are familiar names like Java, Adobe, Skype, or Office.

The nice thing about cross-platform programs is that you can communicate with a wider range of people than with single-platform programs.

The ultimate examples of cross-platform programs are “browser-based” programs. With these, the computing is done “in the cloud”, so it doesn’t matter what sort of device you are on.

A similar term, “platform-independent”, is usually used for data files that can be used on more than one operating system. Examples are familiar file types like pictures (JPG, GIF, TIFF), sounds (MP3), videos (AVI, MP4, MKV), web pages (HTML), and office documents (DOC, XLS, PPT).

The great thing about platform-independent files is that you can easily share them with a wider range of people than with single-platform files.

As more programs become cross-platform or browser-based, and more files become platform-independent, it doesn’t matter which operating system you choose … you can still do the same work, be it accounting, graphic design, or word-craft … and you can still enjoy the same media, be it audio, video, word-craft.

That’s what gives us the freedom to choose operating systems like Chrome, Android, or iOS. Unless you are a designer of programs or databases, or require a specific program written for a specific operating system, you are free to be “platform independent” yourself! Eventually, all popular computer-based activities will be platform independent.

File Associations

This is a simple, but important concept that everyone who uses operating systems should know. Let’s start by defining operating systems, files, and programs.

An operating system is the “main program” that runs when you start up your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. The popular ones are Windows, OS X, Android, iOS, and Linux.

Files and folders are the building blocks of the information that is stored on your device. The files can be categorized as operating system files, program files, or data files.

Programs are specific files that are “executable” … that is: they run within the operating system, manipulating the screen, speakers, files, and folders.

Data files are files *indirectly* created by you: like pictures, documents, email, and contacts. I say “indirectly”, because you are actually manipulating the *programs* to create, view, or edit those data files.

With those definitions in mind, I can clearly describe a file association: When you click to open a data file, the operating system needs to know what program is associated with that type of data file. For example, when you click to open a PDF file, the operating system needs to know if it is supposed to open it with Adobe Reader, Edge browser, or any number of other PDF viewers that may be on your device. This concept applies to DOC files, HTML files, JPG files, and all the rest.

This brings up another topic: “How do you change a file association”? File associations can get changed when you load a new program, load a new operating system, or (unintentionlly) load malware … so you may want to change them back to your preferred programs.

For example, this happens a lot with Windows 10: it “takes over” by associating your browser/email/picture/other files with their preferences, not yours. Now that you have the concept and the nomenclature, you can figure out how to change them back: simply Google “change file associations Windows 10” and learn how to change them back. For other operating systems, simply change “Windows 10” to your specific operating system.

What Everyone Should Know … About Operating Systems

The average person doesn’t have to (or want to) know much about Operating Systems, but I’d like to offer you two basics:

  • What is an operating system?
  • What are the popular operating systems?

An operating system is the piece of software that your devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones) use to perform basic operations. Some operating systems come with enough features that you don’t have to load any more, but most people like to add features to their operating system by installing “apps” or “programs”.

The way to solidify this definition is to talk about specific operating systems. Here are the main ones in no particular order:

Windows is the operating system on over 91% of all desktops and laptops. It includes basic features like typing, printing, browsing, and enjoying multimedia. It has a large selection of apps/programs to increase its functionality. There are many versions of Windows, right up to the current Windows 10.

Linux is the operating system on 1.66% of all desktops and laptops. It includes basic features, but also some more advanced ones like Office document handling. There are many distributions of Linux, and each distribution has many versions, but they are ally typically free.

Mac OS X is the operating system on about 7% of all desktops and laptops. It is made by Apple, and based on Linux, but I have listed it separately here. Like Linux, it has both basic and more advanced features.

iOS is the operating system on all Apple iPads and iPhones. iOS is loaded on nearly 14%2 of all smartphones.

Android is the operating system on (pretty much) all other tablets and smartphones. Android is loaded on nearly 83% of all smartphones.

Windows, BlackBerry, and others are loaded on the remaining 3.3% of all smartphones.

Next month, I’ll talk about what things are compatible between operating systems.