Windows

The past 5 days have been something of a saga. If you read my Stumbling Blox post on Goodreads.com, you might remember that this past weekend  was going to mark my migration from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. I had everything mapped out, everything planned and absolutely nothing went as expected. It all began when I ran a system-wide backup late Fri. afternoon. It went as expected and I was off to a good start – or so I thought.

That evening, I made a few minor changes to my files & on Saturday morning, I decided to do another system-wide backup in order for my back-up to reflect the current state of things. I started the back-up process & went to run a couple of errands. I was back home in less than an hour and the backup was done. Not a good sign since the thing usually takes 3 hours +/-. I restarted the application and this time around it took longer – like all afternoon and into the evening. Since this was well over twice the amount of time that a full back-up takes, I decided to investigate and discovered that absolutely nothing had been backed up.  Rather than waste any more time, I decided to manually make copies of the important stuff. I finally went to bed around 1:00 AM.

The following morning, everything was ready to go and I began the migration by inserting the upgrade DVD and powering up. The installation reached the point where it asked for my product key but none of my keys worked. I decided to quit the upgrade, reboot and look in a few other places for the right key. That was the intention, anyway. I quickly discovered that the installation had changed things on my hard drive and now, I couldn’t log in. My Windows 7 installation DVD was MIA so there was nothing for it but to go to Staples & buy a fresh copy of Win 8.

Staples was out of stock so I had to go to BestBuy where I stood in a queue to check out and had the anti-theft alarm go off when I tried to leave the building. On my way home, I stopped at Jimmy John’s and ordered a ham sandwich to go. When I got home, I discovered that I’d been given the wrong order.

After lunch, things got slightly better and I was finally able to install the new operating system and began re-installing the world. 48 hours later, I had things the way I wanted them and set about getting my notes in order so I could resume writing. I’ve been assisting a small business upgrade from Win XP to new laptops, go wireless & move to a new location for the past month so Urban Mermaid has been on hiatus.

Well folks, part of my notes for the novel have vanished completely – not all of them, mind you – just some of the more recent stuff. How much is missing is unknown and I can probably reconstruct a lot of things from other sources. It’s what I don’t know is missing that worries me.

The latest sensation that’s sweeping the nation is something called Ransomware. This is a particularly nasty piece of Malware that infects your system through the usual vectors:

  • Visiting infected websites
  • Opening attachments to e-mails
  • Clicking on links that someone sends you via e-mail
  • Applications such as Skype
  • Etc.

Once it’s on your PC – or MAC!! –  it will do things like encrypt your hard drive or generally restrict access to sensitive files or, indeed, the entire system until you pay a fee – read ransom – to get a key or code to unlock your files or system. The ransomware will display a fake message warning you of the problem and claiming to be the Police, FBI, etc. Paying the ransom is the last thing that you want to do because:

  1. You’ll be out however many dollars they want for the unlock key
  2. They’ll have your credit card information
  3. There’s no guarantee that there is not another piece of this malware lying underneath that will re-encrypt your hard drive or lock your system in some way once you apply the original unlock key.
  4. There is the distinct possibility that they won’t even send you an unlock key at all because once they have your credit card information, they’ll have everything they need so to heck with you.

There are ways to remove ransomware and SelectRealSecurity.com shows you one way to do it. However, since the bad guys are usually at least one step ahead of the good guys, there’s always the chance that you’ll be hit with a new version of ransomware that necessitates a new approach to removal.

The best approach is not let the stuff get on your machine in the first place. To do that, you need to:

  1. Keep a good, reliable, up-to-date anti-virus application running on your system. There are some freebies out there that offer only anti-virus protection. If you want anti-malware, etc. you will have to pay for the full registered version. This is not the time to be cheap as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  2. Use a secondary anti-malware application such as MalwareBytes. While there may appear to be a duplication of effort here, there is always the chance that what is missed by one will be caught by the other. You need to be thorough.
  3. Do not open e-mail attachments or links from senders that you do not recognise. In fact, don’t open e-mail messages from people you don’t recognise.
  4. Be suspicious of e-mail links or attachments sent to you by people who you do recognise but who do not usually send you such things. Address books can be hacked.
  5. Avoid questionable websites like the plague. McAfee offers a product that flags questionable or unsafe websites when you do a search. If your security software warns you of a malicious website, don’t go there even if it’s one that you’ve visited before.

Just in case something DOES find its way on to your system, Be Prepared!

  1. Keep all of the installation disks that came with your system or that you subsequently purchased in a safe place that you will actually remember. These things aren’t coasters or toys to let the kids play with.
  2. Keep a list of all of the activation keys for your software products in a safe place that you will actually remember.
  3. If you purchase software and install it via the internet, keep the installation file(s) and activation key(s) in the same safe place as # 1 & # 2.
  4. Keep a list of all of your passwords, etc. in the same safe place as # 1 & # 2.
  5. Find a good, reliable system/file back-up application and actually use it. Once you’ve completed backing up your system/files to a USB drive or whatever, detach the aforementioned device from your system. Do not reconnect it until you need to restore a file or make a new back-up.

That’s enough to get you started. Do not think that simply because you have a MAC rather than a PC that you’re safe. MACs have been shown to be vulnerable to attacks. You may not get what’s currently affecting PCs but you might get something that’s especially designed for MACs.

All this week, I’ve been talking about how unwanted applications can “suddenly appear” on your system and how you can get rid of them. For this final installment, I want to discuss what you can do when the bad boys infect your system.

There is a popular misconception that you have to download and install some too-good-to-be-true-and-absolutely-free software application to your PC in order to infect your system. Friends, that is not the case. In some instances, all you have to do is visit a page on a website in order to be dumped on. This is what is known as a “drive-by infection”. You could try to prevent this by doing things like:

  • Turning of JavaScript
  • Disabling Java – This is different than and separate from JavaScript
  • Not accepting cookies

The trouble is that by configuring your browser(s) in this way, you will miss out on much of the rich content on the web as well as features on legitimate sites that you have come to depend on.

There are, of course, other ways to protect yourself. Your first line of defence should always be a good firewall and anti-virus. There are more products out there than I have time to mention so we’ll leave that for another day. All I will advise at this point is that you find a good package and then keep it up-to-date. You will probably have to pay a bit as there’s no such thing as a free lunch but the small outlay will be much less than calling Dr. Data so he can tell you that your PC is hosed.

Another good toll is McAfee Site Advisor. There is both a free-ware and paid version available. While the paid version has more features, the free version is still quite worthwhile as it will flag both trusted and untrusted sites when you do use a search engine like Google.

Unfortunately, the bad guys are always one or two steps ahead of the good guys and sooner or later, your system will probably be attacked via a website that has not yet been classified or infected via malware for which there is no known signature. So, what do you do?

There are several tools out there – bot free and paid – that can help you keep the bad guys out or at least help you clean up the mess.

  1. Spyware Blaster – This is a free tool that helps prevent spyware, etc. from taking up residence on your system by using the methods available in your browser. It does not take up any memory and is quite easy to use. If you want automatic updates, the paid version will take care of that and also help fund the war effort. The only downside is that Spyware Blaster does not protect Google’s Chrome browser. 🙁  Nonetheless, you’ll most likely wind up using Internet Explorer or FireFox on occasion so it is worth your while to use Spyware Blaster.
  2. Spybot Search and Destroy – This is another good tool that is available as free-ware. It both scans your system for spyware, malware, adware & other bad stuff as well as remove anything it finds. Spybot Search and Destroy will also immunise your system against future threats from the web. There is a paid version that provides automatic updating.
  3. MalwareBytes – If you buy any protection tools then this should be one of the first. It does an outstanding job of finding malware on your system and removing it.  MalwareBytes also actively protects your system by scanning items as they come down from the web. There is a 30-day trial version that is good if you think that you have an infection because your system is running slow, etc. The paid version, which also provides proactive protection, is a small monetary outlay but it’s less expensive to pay MalwareBytes now than pay Dr. Data – or somebody like him – later.

You will probably notice that there are overlapping features between the above products. While each may claim to be the best at what they do, the reality is that no protection software can be all things to all infections. Using two or more of these products improves your chances of thorough protection. There may, of course, be some products out there that are better than the ones I’ve described but, through my long experience, these are the ones I’ve come to rely on.

A Tip from Dr. Data:  When using MalwareBytes  and/or Spybot Search and Destroy, be sure to run repeated full system scans until they come up clean. Sometimes, malware, etc. can mask other infections.

Another Tip from Dr. Data: The above tools are great but they will only work if they are used and updated regularly.

Dr. Data™ is a service mark of Parsonage Data Services.

OK. So some add-on software snuck onto your system or you intentionally installed some application that promised – among other things – to make the trains run on time and revamp the postal system but instead turned out to be a real turkey. You’re tired of all the pop-ups, ads, consumption of available memory and you’re wondering just what sort of information it’s phoning home to the mother ship. In fine, you want it outta here. Now!

The standard procedure is to:

1. Go to your system’s control panel. It’s on the menu brought up by clicking the “Start” button. (Clicking on the image below will show a full-size version of the screen capture.)

2. Select “Programs and Features” from the Control Panel items.  (Clicking on the image below will show a full-size version of the screen capture.)

3. Select the bit of software that you want to rid your system of.  (Clicking on the image below will show a full-size version of the screen capture.)

4. Right-click on your selection and then click “Uninstall” from the pop-up menu. (Clicking on the image below will show a full-size version of the screen capture.)

5. The uninstall routine will run and while you may have to restart your PC to complete the uninstall, you should be good to go. Right??

6. Wrong!!

Software installation packages will add either a custom uninstaller or rely on the bog-standard Windows software removal utility but quite often, these tools don’t quite do the necessary job of removing all traces of the application you wish to be rid of. Instead, these tools will often leave files, folders, registry entries or DLL’s behind. It’s the last item that is the most problematic as they can remain months or years after the software application has been removed. They will be loaded every time your system starts thus prolonging your boot time and using precious bits of memory. Registry Entries are the next most worrisome remnant and your registry should be purged of all entries relating to the software at the time it is uninstalled. Files and Folders are, for the most part, junk that clutters your HDD or SSD.

So how do you get rid of this detritus?

The best solution is to use a stand-alone uninstaller.  These applications can be used in place of the Uninstall option in your control panel’s Programs and Features tool. They work by first identifying all instances of installed software on your system. Once you select an application to be removed, the Uninstaller will either run the custom uninstallation package or use its own routines to remove the software. It will then scour your system for the leftover items mentioned above and remove them as well. The depth and thoroughness of  this second step depends on the stand-alone uninstaller itself, which options – if any – you select and whether you’re using a free/trial-ware version or the full-featured paid version.

Dr. Data has not one, not two but three stand-alone uninstallers on his system. The reason for this was (1) evaluation and (2) uninstaller A may not always find all the installed software that uninstaller B does and vice-versa. Recently, Dr.Data had to uninstall some back-up software and it was not located by the first two stand-alone uninstallers. Fortunately, the third one found the back-up software and thus saved the day.

Dr. Data can recommend all three stand-alone uninstallers and they are listed in the order of (slight) preference:

  1. Revo Uninstaller
  2. Your Uninstaller
  3. Advanced Uninstaller

While they may have differing features they are all good and get the job done. Unlike Dr. Data, most folks will only need one and they will usually cost somewhere between $19 & $40. (There are some free versions out there but they usually have limited functionality.) The only thing that you need to do is to use it!

It never ceases to amaze Dr. Data how folks will resist shelling out a few bucks for a useful tool and yet on a Fri. night, they’ll drop $30 or $40 bucks for drinks at the pub without even thinking twice. Then, they will wind up paying Dr. Data $60 or more to clean out their unwanted application clutter. Perhaps he needs to open a bar as a sideline.

 

Whether you’re ready or not, another release of Microsoft Office is in the offing. Tech Republic recently posted a slide-show giving consumers a first look at Office 2013. Yet another new version. Yet another reason to open your wallet. If you’ve just installed Office 2010 on your system then you most likely will be good to go for a while and can wait until Office 16 or 17 arrives. If you’re using Office 2007, it may be time to upgrade and if you’re still using Office 2003, it most definitely is time to upgrade and pony up big bucks for the privilege.

But why should you have to spend so much for the ability to read, edit and create Word documents or Excel spreadsheets?

As it turns out, you don’t. Enter the LibreOffice suite, a set of productivity tools that are 100% compatible with Microsoft Office and are free, Free, FREE.

C|NET offers a highly positive review of Version 3.4 as well as a download of the software and Infoworld calls Version 3.5 “The best Office Killer yet.” If you’re wondering how you’re going to read or create MS Word & Excel documents, the LibreOffice suite is capable of saving files in the various MS Office formats (*.doc, *.docx, *.xlsx, *.xls, etc.) as well as reading them.

The only thing that the LibreOffice suite does not offer is an analogue to Outlook.  If you’re contemplating a move to Linux thus saving scads of cash in operating systems, hardware, etc., there is Evolution – another freebie – that can serve as an excellent replacement of Outlook. There is an experimental Windows port of Evolution available but this project has been an on & off thing for a number of years now. The blog for Win Evolution has not been updated in over 2 years though the latest download is, as of this writing, less than a year old. If you’re committed to Windows, there are other substitutes available such as  Mozilla’s Thunderbird or the Opera e-mail client. There is a review of 11 FREE e-mail clients on About.com.

Returning to the topic at hand, LibreOffice is available on the following platforms:

  • Windows
  • Mac: Intel or PowerPC
  • Linux (deb): x86 or x86_64
  • Linux (rpm): x86 or x86_64

For Windows or Mac users, this is a way to experiment with your business tools before telling Microsoft or Apple to buzz off.

So, whether you’re sticking with Windows, OS X or moving to Linux, there are definitely some good substitutes for Office 10, 13 or whatever. By the way, did I mention that they are FREE?

This is what the sparse post that went out yesterday afternoon was intended to be. I wanted to gather a bit of information for the next day’s post before I went to see a client. I was short on time and apparently hit “Publish” rather than “Save as Draft”. My apologies.

I am always on the lookout for free software & utilities that actually work and have run across three more for your consideration.

  1. Advanced Uninstaller Pro – Some weeks ago, I posted about software uninstallers that worked better than the one built into the Windows Control Panel and offered two possibilities: (a) Revo Uninstaller (b) Your Uninstaller. There were one or two others that were more “trial-ware” than anything else & Advanced Uninstaller Pro was one of them. Innovative Solutions have decided to make version 10.6 absolutely free. Are all uninstallers the same? Well, some uninstallers are better at finding things than others. I had considered Your Uninstaller to be tops at finding installed applications but I accidentally installed a bit of “crap-ware” the other day & went to use Your Uninstaller to get rid of it. That application could not find it but Revo Uninstaller did. The moral? It always helps to have two uninstallers available even if you only install software on rare occasions because when you really want to rid our PC of something, you need to find it & get rid of it completely!
  2. WinDirStat –  Ever wonder which files are consuming the most space on your Hard Drive? Then this may be the answer for you. WinDirStat analyses your HDD and displays the results in a proportional sized, colour coded matrix. You can learn what type of file it is, where it is and how big it is. Perfect for finding that monster logfile that’s squatting in a forgotten folder.
  3. FileType ID – This scenario has probably happened to a lot of us. Some one sends you an email w/ a file attached. Maybe it’s a file type that you recognise. Maybe it’s not. Since you don’t know the true nature of this file & the sender has always sent you good stuff before, you double-click on the file and – surprise, surprise – you wind up introducing your system to viruses, malware and other “cooties”. So how do you know what’s good and what’s not. Antivirus file scanning programmes have been known to miss a lot of things. (They have also been known to quarantine and/or delete perfectly safe files.) FileType Id will give you detailed information on any file before you open it by analysing the file’s binary signature. You can save the results of a file’s analysis as an HTML document And share it with friends, co-workers, etc. to get a second opinion. With around 4700 file-type definitions at the moment, this application is a “must have”.

All three of these freebies were reviewed at The Windows Club so you know that the applications have passed through an initial trial and review.

Finally, always keep an eye on what is going on with the installation process. In other words, read each installer panel carefully.  A lot of good software uses installers that want to add a toolbar for a search engine, etc. If you’re not careful, you might wind up with something that you really didn’t want.

Week before last, I posted about three free-ware tools for Windows users. Today, I review Everything, a free file search utility by VoidTools.

Even though  the Search feature in Windows 7 is a vast improvement over that offered by Windows XP, It can still take a heck of a long time to find the file or folder that you’re looking for. Enter Everything, a file/folder search utility that pre-indexes every file and folder on your system. The up-front indexing is considerably faster than the Win 7 search and Everything monitors your file system for changes. If you add “Document-x.doc” to a folder or move “Document-y.doc” from folder A to folder B, Everything will track the changes and the file name and path will be waiting for you the next time you need to look for it.

It’s dead simple to use Everything. Simply start it – if it’s the first time on this particular machine, you’ll have to wait a minute or so for your file system to be indexed – and type in the file/folder name. If you’re not quite sure of just what that file or folder name was, the search accepts wild cards (“*”). Everything begins to filter the indexed files the moment you begin typing and continues until you’ve either entered the complete name or have entered enough of the name to narrow down the list of possible files or folders.

What Everything does not do is search the contents of files. Fear not, there is a utility by Nirsoft that allows you to do just that. It too, is free and is knows as SearchMyFiles. While it will also search for file and folder names as well as the contents of files, its interface is a good bit more complex so it’s worthwhile to read the instructions on the download page. Dr. Data recommends that you use Everything for basic file and folder name searches and save SearchMyFiles for those times when you want to find a file based on its contents.

Either way, you’ve got two great search tools for Windows and they’re both FREE!

My Rating:

This is going to be quick and I promise that I won’t bug any of you about Passwords for a while. You will remember in Thursday’s TechnoRant© on Freeware that I would be evaluating the LastPass password manager. Whilst I was nosing around the lastpass.com website, I ran across a blog entry on password security. The post explains how weak/poor choices of passwords is endemic amongst internet users. Weak passwords are responsible for 80% of security breaches. This post is one that is definitely worth a few minutes of your time to read.

My review of LastPass will be online in a day or so.

We humans just love something that’s free whether it be lunch or software. Tech Republic’s 10 Things blog posted a list of 10 free-ware tools that IT professionals love. For most of my readers, a number of these freebies have no value. However, there are several that will appeal to the average Windows user and here they are:

  • NINITE – This free-ware application keeps track of other free-ware applications that you already have or would like to install and updates or installs them for you. The tool is great for use on new machines and saves you a LOT of time in getting up and running. Check it out at ninite.com.
  • EVERYTHING – The search feature in Windows 7 is a great improvement over the sucky version in Windows XP but it still could be much better. The old saw about building a better mousetrap may apply as well to Everything. It is reported to be fast and thorough. Download it at VoidTools.com.
  • LastPass – If you remember my post on Passwords earlier this week, you’ll know that keeping track of passwords can be a somewhat daunting task. This password manager is a multi-platform tool for shopping or surfing on the web. Like a lot of tools, there’s a premium version as well. Take a look at LastPass.com.
N.B. Readers should be aware that Ninite isn’t quite the same thing as implied in the TechRepublic blog. I don’t know if this is intellectual laziness or sloppy fact-checking/editing on the part of TechRepublic but it does present a WTF moment. Ninite  has a two versions that you have to pay for. The 3rd version – the free one – actually runs off of their website. On Ninite‘s home page, you are presented by a list of applications supported by Ninite. You select the ones you already have or want, click the big green “Get The Installer” button on the bottom of that page. and the website will download a custom configured installer that you can execute on your PC & does the heavy lifting. Want to add or delete something from your freeware suite? Go back to ninite.com and re-select the applications you want. This service is free and does beat paying $9.99 per year for the stand-alone version but TechRepublic should have been more up-front about this.
How well do these tools work? Dr. Data is going to give them a try in the labs at Parsonage Data Services and will give a full report in a future post. if you’re  interested in what else is available, take a look at TechRepublic’s 10 Things blog.

We’ve all done it. Installed this worthless application, that game we just had to try, a few pesky tool bars that slipped under the radar and before we know it our PCs are running as slow as can be. Dr. Data remembers one client who could never get his PC to shut down because so many games and gunk had been added – and never removed – over the years.

A good many games and applications – including free-ware – come with their own uninstallers. This is a big help in getting rid – when we remember to – of outdated, unneeded and unwanted software but there is a catch; these uninstallers often leave bits and pieces behind. This means that even though the software application is long gone, there may be one or more DLL’s (Dynamic Load Library) still being loaded at start-up. Your system has enough to deal with in loading stuff for the applications that you do want without loading old baggage from days of yore. (“Days of Yore” is a technical term in computing for anything from 6 months ago or later.)

But wait! There’s more! Let’s say that you’re moving from version 1.x of some game or utility to the new and improved version 2.0. The installer may say that it’s uninstalling 1.x before installing 2.0 but it doesn’t get rid of all of the bits from that earlier version. Even worse, version 2.0 is installed along side of version 1.x which means that you now have two versions on your system instead of one. What to do?

TechRepublic lists Five Uninstallers That Really Work on its blog for April 27, 2012. Some of these – like the venerable Revo Uninstaller – are free or have a freeware version while some others do cost a bit. Dr. Data has used Revo quite a bit in the past but the TechRepublic post has clued him into the fact that “Your Uninstaller” found significantly more software than Revo did. All of these uninstallers include additional tools for Windows that may or may not be exactly what you need. Nonetheless, all of the uninstallers are good and worth a look.

One final word; Always be sure of what you’re uninstalling.

If you need assistance, Call Dr. Data – He’s here to help!

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