Sep 28
Upgrading software: early adoption?
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Software, Tech | icon4 September 28, 2008| icon3No Comments »

Upgrading Windows

Do you always want the latest and greatest software and operating system upgrade straight away? Or are you not really bothered and quite happy to wait till later. Perhaps you aren’t even aware there’s been an upgrade. Upgrading straight away is called early adoption. I’m not an early adopter and I’ll try and give you the advantages and disadvantages of early or late upgrading.

Early adoption

The big plus of early adoption is that you get the latest functionality and bug fixes straight away. Many geeks and techies take this route but they are aware of the risks. In fact they may have been beta testers of the software before the main release. However on the downside, new bugs and glitches may be present in a new version and at worst these may hose your system. Many early adopters had difficulties with upgrading from Windows XP to Vista until problems with drivers, etc. were sorted out. The SP1 version seems to be fine for most people. I also know that quite a few people run into problems with early adoption of Windows automatic updates and just recently an iTunes upgrade led to the blue screen of death in Windows machines. I also recall Mike Smith of the Mike Tech Show podcast mentioning that an iTunes upgrade wiped his music catalogue. If you want to go the route of early adoption, best make a restore point and have all your data backed up just in case. Trouble is, making a system restore point just isn’t intuitive.system restore point Here’s a link to a useful desktop shortcut to run System Restore. Another thing to bear in mind is that quite often progressively newer software versions can become bloated and slower than older versions. The older versions may also have some useful functionality which may have been dropped from new releases.

Wait and see approach

There’s a lot to be said for this approach. Look at tech blogs and tech forums and wait and see what problems an upgrade is giving, if any, then when those are sorted out, go ahead and upgrade. How do you know when its safe? Well you don’t really know for sure, but you will have reduced your risks of running into problems. A good site reporting Microsoft and other upgrade problems is AskWoody. Ask Woody I would suggest wait until Woody says it’s okay before you upgrade Windows. However, on the downside you may be slightly delaying an important security vulnerability fix, but if you’re a careful surfer you should be okay. I’ve never had a problem.

Many people rushed in to get the latest Firefox 3.0 upgrade. In fact Mozilla created a record for downloads in one day. Well that’s fine but Firefox relies a lot on third party extensions and plug-ins and many just weren’t ready for the new release. Besides, the functionality in Firefox 2 was fine and all the plug-ins work. I’m still on Firefox 2 (which is still being upgraded) but will move to Firefox 3 soon.

On the OS front, I’m still running Windows XP and am quite happy with it. It does everything I need and I see no reason to upgrade to Vista.

Late adoption

Although you might think from what I’ve said above that late adoption is the safest approach, you would be wrong. Old and outdated software versions can have security vulnerabilities and also might not support newer hardware.

All in all, I think the best approach for beginner and intermediate users is the wait and see approach. With a new operating system, it’s often best to wait until the SP1 release if you upgrade at all, as Vista has shown. Watch Woody and the tech blogs, tech podcasts and forums, then decide when to upgrade.

Here’s a couple of websites which give good tech info presented quite simply for the beginner or intermediate tech user. Add their RSS feeds to your RSS reader.

Sep 18
Take it on the road
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Life, Podcasts, Tech | icon4 September 18, 2008| icon3No Comments »

Blogging, forums, chat rooms, gaming, streaming TV, IM, twitter, Skype… You could spend 24/7 in front of your monitor! Being a web worker only adds to the problem of never letting go.

We’re all becoming increasingly sedentary and our health is suffering as a result. We’ve just got to get more exercise. 30 minutes of brisk walking is recommended, but how do we fit this into our busy schedule.

Road to Paradise

Photo credit: Flickr user Ross2085

Here’s a tip. Download your favourite tech podcasts to your mp3 player and take them on the road – literally! You don’t have to sit in front of the computer to listen to a podcast. You don’t actually have to be in the chat either when the podcast is going out live. Seriously, this is a great chance to get out and do 30-40 minutes of brisk walking – and you’ll feel much better after it.

I’ve been won over to this routine and actually look forward to my daily walk. If you’ve got an hour for lunch, spend half an hour walking first. Don’t quit if it’s raining. Get your umbrella or waterproof and get going.

Coincidentally, I’ve just listened to Stephen Fry’s first Podgram, Broken Arm, and at the end he mentions podcasts and brisk walking. So it must be right.

You know it makes sense!

Sep 17
Preventing a hard drive disaster
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Backup, How to, Tech | icon4 September 17, 2008| icon33 Comments »

An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter

Hard drive. Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever had a hard drive failure and lost irreplaceable photos and other data, you’ve already learned the hard way. Make no mistake, a hard drive definitely won’t last for ever so if you don’t backup your data, you need to start now to prevent a disaster.

Problem is, backing up your hard drive isn’t an easy process for the beginner or average user. Terms like cloning, imaging, incremental and differential backup are more familiar to geeks and advanced users than beginners, so many just wing it until disaster strikes.

Warning signs of hard drive failure

In some cases, you will start to see signs of a problem before the hard drive fails. Early warning signs include:

  1. Computer freezes often. When it happens, the mouse cursor is unmovable and keyboard input is ignored. Nothing works and a restart is required to recover the computer./li>
  2. Files mysteriously disappearing.
  3. Frequent lock-up during booting. I say “frequent” because all computers will freeze every now and then and it doesn’t necessarily mean the drive is failing. You’re looking for a pattern here.
  4. File access mysteriously slows to a turtle’s pace. Saving files or open files simply takes forever.

(from Hard Drive Failure: Warnings and Solutions; PC Mech)

In addition, you may get error messages during booting or the dreaded clicking sound or strange metallic noises indicating imminent drive failure.

I’m going to try and outline a reasonably straightforward backup strategy where you will always have a bootable backup hard drive with all your data should, or rather when, disaster strikes. We’ll divide it into four parts: (1) purchase a backup hard drive and external enclosure; (2) clone your hard drive; (3) backup your data and (4) recovery after a hard drive failure.

Purchase a backup hard drive and enclosure

I know this seems like overkill but it’s a great help if you get a backup USB external hard drive when you purchase your desktop PC or laptop.Iomega external hard drive We’ll see why shortly. Get a disk that matches the one already in your PC or laptop or one with larger capacity. If you’re not sure of the make and model, in Windows XP, you can find out what hard drive you have by double clicking on the My Computer icon on your desktop, highlight Local Disk C , then select File, choose Properties, then the Hardware tab. That should give the drive make and model. Or use a free system information program like SIW or PC Wizard to get the drive information. The enclosure will have a data cable and power connector to connect one end to the backup hard drive and the other end to a USB port on your PC or laptop.

Clone your hard drive

Assuming you have bought your external drive with your new PC, once you have installed Windows on your new system and your essential application software (applications) like word processor, email client, etc., remove any junk or unnecessary programs using PC Decrapifier. Once everything is set up just the way you want it and the PC is running fine, now is the time to clone or image the drive. You’ve probably heard the terms cloning and imaging and very often they are used interchangeably. I’m going to make a slight distinction which some people make.

  • Cloning is making an exact, uncompressed copy of your hard drive; just a mirror image.
  • Imaging is making a compressed copy of your drive as a file which can be restored or uncompressed back to your hard drive.

I thing cloning is more straightforward for the beginner/intermediate user, at least until you become familiar with the process.

At this point, I’m going to refer you to two excellent articles which will guide you through the cloning process:

Acronis True Image Acronis True Image is an excellent package and well worth investing in for both cloning and imaging.

So now we have a bootable backup hard drive in the external enclosure, with our Windows operating system, and our essential apps. We’re now going to regularly backup our data to this drive so that if disaster strikes we can be up and running again in less that half an hour.

Backup your data

There are different ways to do this from running a batch file which automatically copies your data across to the backup drive to using a backup or syncing program like the free Microsoft SyncToy, Allway Sync or SyncBack. These are probably the best options for the beginner. The important thing is to make sure you have backed up your Documents and Settings folder, including your browser bookmarks. Assuming you’re not using internet email like Gmail, find out where your email boxes are and be sure to back them up too and also any other important data not stored in the Documents and Settings folder. Use Explore to check down through all your folders and ensure that you are backing up all the data that’s important to you including your photos.

Make sure to backup regularly. Twice a week is sufficient for me. I use a batch file and just copy over files that have changed in my important data directories. Probably not a great solution for a beginner but here’s some info anyway.

Here’s a copy of a few lines from my batch file:

@echo off

echo pause

xcopy c:\”documents and settings”\user name”My Documents”\*.* F:\”documents and settings”\user name\”My Documents” /s /e /h /i /r /y /d

xcopy c:\”documents and settings”\user name\”Favorites”\*.* F:\”documents and settings”\user name\”Favorites” /s /e /h /i /r /y /d

echo backup complete

You can add extra lines for each main data directory you want to copy. Just change ‘user name’ to whatever your user name is, and you may have to change the drive letter for your external hard drive letter. You’ll be able to see that in Windows Explore. The xcopy command and the switches at the end of each line are explained here.

Another important point. Disconnect the backup drive when not in use to minimize the chance of any malware getting on it.

It’s even worth disconnecting your PC’s hard drive and plugging in the back up drive before disaster strikes to make sure it’s bootable and you’re backing up all your important data. Follow the procedure in the next section.


Recovery after a hard drive failure

If your hard drive fails, no need to rush out and buy a new drive and restore an image to it. No time lost there so this is a great solution if you don’t have a secondary backup PC and you rely on your PC for work. The beauty of this procedure is that all you have to do to get your PC running again is: unplug and open your PC, disconnect the data cable and power cable from the original dead hard drive and remove it, remove the backup hard drive from your external enclosure and connect up this bootable backup. Your operating system, essential applications, settings and data (up to your last backup) will all be there but you’ll probably have to install some programs which you put on between buying your PC and the disk failure. But this is a good chance to assess just what you were and were not using and be more selective in what apps you reinstall. The other big plus is that your registry is now virtually back to as it was when you first bought your PC and the machine will probably boot noticeably faster.

If you’re not happy about changing over the hard drives or if it’s a laptop and difficult to do, bring it to a reputable repair shop. It shouldn’t cost much to do. Get an estimate first from several shops if you like. Ask your friends if they have used a repair shop and can recommend one in your area. Or perhaps ask a geek friend to do it for you.

One last thing. Don’t forget to purchase a new (bigger) backup drive to go into your now empty external drive housing, and then repeat the cloning process before disaster strikes again. And keep backing up your data regularly.

Hope this has been of some help. Any suggestions to make it all easier? Anything I’ve missed? Drop a comment please and I’ll try and update it.

Sep 12
Top tech podcasts
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Podcasts, Tech | icon4 September 12, 2008| icon32 Comments »

Podcasts have changed the way I consume media. Until about a year ago, I used to listen to radio on and off throughout the day, mostly news and talk channels. Then I discovered tech podcasts. Now I get the news first thing in the morning on the radio and that’s about it. Why? Well with podcasts you can listen to what you want, when and where you want. You can pause it, replay it, or fast forward through an item or ads you aren’t interested in.

Another big plus is that if you have a tech query and you can’t find an answer on a forum, many podcasters are happy to try to answer questions if you email them. Very often they will read out your email if they think that other listeners can help. If you have a suggestion or a show topic they’ll be delighted to receive them, or drop them an audio message for example as an mp3 attachment to your email. Very often they’ll play it. Not like radio at all!

Podcasts are real easy to download. I use podcatching software called Ziepod. You could also use Juice or iTunes. Then I copy the files over to my trusty Samsung YP-Z5 1GB mp3 player. Ziepod is one of my essential applications. I’ll mention more in later posts.

So, what do I listen to? Well, I’ve already mentioned three tech podcasts in my second post but here’s a complete list with a little info about each one. I’ll start with the unmissables:

Mike Tech Show: Going since March 2005, this show covers tips, tricks, cool sites and software. Mike has a great aura of enthusiasm for all things tech. He talks clearly and explains things well. The podcast archives and show notes are a terrific resource.

The Knightcast: Knightwise has developed the knack of recording a podcast on his daily commute. I’ve no idea what other road users think as they pass this guy seemingly talking to himself in his car! Living on the edge of real and cyberspace, Knightwise concentrates on making tech work for you. He’s clearly an expert on networking, security, virtualization and Linux. Great podcast and excellent music. I’ve discovered many new artists through the Knightcast.

The Aussie Geek Podcast: What can I say. For me this is probably the best all-round tech podcast. The hosts have brought their wealth of experience gained doing the Global Geek Podcast to this new labour of love. Covering tech news, applications, sites and services, the Word from the Wise (a weekly rant from Knightwise; brilliant) and listener feedback, I look forward to this show every week. Great banter between the hosts Dave, Cait and Keith, language aplenty as they make their points and always some new site or app to check out after they finish. Highly recommended!

Podnutz: Started around March this year, Podnutz and Podnutz Daily are THE podcasts for PC troubleshooting, and setting up a PC and laptop repair business. On Podnutz, Steve has a different guest each week, although his solo show on computer repair was really instructive. I’m not a technician, but I’ve learned so much from this one on how to stay out of trouble and what to do if things go wrong. Highlights for me so far were the shows with Carey Holzman and Scott Mueller.

Podnutz Daily: When I heard he was starting a daily show as well as the weekly, I thought to myself this guy must have great energy and I just hope he doesn’t overdo it. However, Steve’s pulled it off brilliantly. He clearly has the podcasting bug. There’s a live TV link while he does the podcast. He covers the repairs he has done throughout that day. Again a great resource for anyone interested in PC troubleshooting and repairs. CitizenX has done a terrific job on the show notes recently so this should be another useful resource for troubleshooting.

This Week in Tech: TWIT is one of the first shows I listen to each week to hear the latest from the tech world. I don’t think Messrs Laporte, Dvorak and Norton need any introduction. A different panel each week, always topical, lively debate and often very funny. I’m one of the listeners who happen to enjoy Jason Calacanis’ appearances.

PC Mag Radio: This really is a great show. I enjoy the banter between Robyn, Sascha, Lance and Co. Great source of info on new hardware developments, phones, applications, etc.

Windows Weekly: Leo and Paul Thurrott discuss the latest developments in the Windows/Microsoft arena, phones, internet TV and anything else tech that takes their fancy. Paul really knows his stuff. What he doesn’t know about Windows isn’t worth mentioning!

Net at Night: Leo and Amber McArthur look at some new sites on the Internet. Always very entertaining and usually they uncover a new app or service worth checking out.

PC Mechanic: Dave gives a quick resume of a couple of important tech issues. Short but well worth a listen.

Alternageek: Linuxchic and Techmonkey with their insightful look at recent tech news, social networking, cell phones, etc. One for the geek. Some of the stuff goes over my head but very good all the same.

WNYCs RadioLab: Wow! Thanks to Download Squad for mentioning this one on their blog earlier this year. This podcast will really get you thinking. Since I’ve been listening they’ve covered: songs which you can’t get out of your head, the infinite universe, genetic engineering, shopping malls, deception, and a brilliant cellist called Zoe Keating, all in great audio with intriguing sound effects. Really thought provoking stuff and well crafted. You must try this one!

Going Linux: Now that I’ve managed to get Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex to see my network, I’ve just started listening to the Going Linux podcast. Just the thing for anyone using Windows who is considering learning about or moving to Linux. I’m going though all the archived shows at the moment.

Now to the shows I catch when I can:

Geek News Central: Todd’s take on tech. One of the first tech podcasters and clearly very good at it. I just can’t fit in the two shows a week though so I listen when I can.

boagworld: Unbelievably the only UK podcast in my top tech shows. Website design. Again mostly way over my head, but they do have some items of interest to me.

The Tech Guy: Podcast from Leo’s weekend radio shows. Everything from PC troubleshooting, phones, TVs, DVD, home theatre to digital photography. Big plus here is that he drops the radio ad breaks from the podcast.

Computer America: Carey Holzman must be the most clued up guy I know when it comes to Windows troubleshooting. I try and grab the Friday shows especially when Scott Moulton (data recovery) or Scott Mueller (PC troubleshooting/repair) are on. Big minus here is that they don’t drop the radio ad breaks from the podcasts. But I guess someone has to pay Carey and Craig’s wages.

Cranky Geeks: Just as the title says. Well worth dropping in on.

A lot of work goes into producing these podcasts and show notes, by dedicated geeks very often in their spare time. Many of them are frontrunners in the tech field and have a wealth of information to pass on. Guys, I really appreciate what you’re doing.

Have I missed any you like? I’d love to hear your top tech podcasts. Drop us a comment with your picks.

Last edited: 17th November 2008

Sep 8
Top tech blogs
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Tech, Tech blogs | icon4 September 8, 2008| icon34 Comments »

I’m interested in tech blogs which give me tips on using software, troubleshooting Windows, freeware, PC security and useful new Web 2.0 sites and services. I used to have a number of blogs bookmarked in my browser and visited them individually until I listened to the podcast Bookmark Oblivion by Knightwise. The second part of this podcast deals with using Google Reader to collect the blogs you’ve subscribed to in one place using RSS feeds. So since January this year, I’ve been using Google Reader to fetch my tech feeds. Once you have added a few feeds, by clicking Discover, Reader will actually suggest new ones based on these so now I have about 75 tech feeds.

Not all are updated daily. I star the posts I find interesting and that I may want to refer back to and also add tags to those blogs so I can search back to find them.

304px-Light_bulb_icon_tips.svgTIP: There’s little point in listing all 75 feeds here but I’ve found that by using Trends in Reader, I can list say the top 20 blogs where I’ve starred posts most often in the last 30 days.

Here they are:

So if you want to subscribe to 5 or 6 really good tech blogs which are regularly updated, I would recommend gHacks, Download Squad, Make Use Of, PC Mech, Online Tech Tips, Techie Buzz, and Bill Mullins Weblog – Tech Thoughts.

Sep 7

As this is my first blog, I’m going to post now and again on how I’m getting on with blogging. I do have a small business website which I set up myself (using Serif PagePlus) about eight years ago and occasionally update but this is my first attempt with WordPress.

I must say I was a little daunted getting started. There’s certainly lots of information out there and maybe that’s part of the problem. Anyway my path was smoothed thanks in part to a recommendation on gHacks to try a service from a website called Blogtastique which offers free help in setting up a WordPress blog and free space on their website to load up themes and play around with test posts. A big thankyou to Daniel Pataki at Blogtastique for all his help in getting me started.

I decided against a WordPress hosted blog on Daniel’s advice. I researched possible domain names through DomainsBot, registered my domain with GoDaddy and went for hosting with BlueHost partly on its rating on WebhostingGeeks.

So far so good. Installation of WordPress on BlueHost went relatively smoothly. I’ve used WS-FTP 95 LE for years as my ftp client and used it to upload WordPress to my blog. This app suits me fine but if you’re looking for a good free ftp client, I believe Filezilla is excellent. Just encountered one slight problem when the provider’s documentation said I should upload and install WordPress to the root directory of my blog. I emailed BlueHost and they were very quick to respond. They pointed out that I should upload and install in the public_html directory. I used a free two-column theme, modified it with my own header and tweaked some of the code in style.css and index.php. I used NotePad++ to edit the files and found it excellent.

Next problem was in getting text to wrap around images and also setting the margins so that the text wasn’t right up against the images. The style.css file wasn’t right in the theme I had chosen and no matter what I did I couldn’t get the text to wrap around the image. I had downloaded a couple of other trial themes so had a look at the style.css files in them and quickly figured out that the problem was in the missing alignleft and alignright styles. I copied these styles into my style.css then tweaked them till I got the right margins. This is the code I added and tweaked:

img.alignleft {
padding: 0px;
margin: 0 15px 8px 0;
display: inline;

img.centered {
padding: 0px;
display: block;
margin-left: auto;
margin-right: auto;

img.alignright {
padding: 0px;
margin: 4px 0 1px 7px;
display: inline;

#content .alignleft {float: left; }

#content .alignright {float: right; }

The site is still not quite right and I have to try out and add a few plug-ins. The first one I installed was Askimet which helps screen out spam from comments. Anyway that’s where I’m at now. I hope some of this may be useful if you’re starting out in blogging. I’ll post again as the blog develops and as I tweak the site with new plug-ins.

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