May 29

It’s important to check your PC regularly and carry out maintenance – deleting temporary files and unnecessary files, checking for malware and updating software. I’ll run through my weekly maintenance routine here, built up and refined from years of practice and from reading tech blogs and listening to PC repair podcasts. By the way, if you have to download any of the following free maintenance utilities, be careful not to install any unnecessary or unwanted toolbars during installation. Read the installation screens carefully.

Pre-maintenance steps

1. Back up your data, just on the slim chance that something goes wrong. I’ve already gone over my PC backup routine recently.

2. Create a restore point, again just in case. I use Quick Restore Maker to quickly generate a restore point.

3. Close your browser/s. You’ll need to do this anyway later so that all temporary internet files can be deleted during maintenance.

PC maintenance steps

1. Run the CCEnhancer/CCleaner combo to delete temporary files, internet history, etc. CCEnhancer adds support to CCleaner for cleaning 500 additional programs. Run CCEnhancer first, it will download the latest definitions then it will ask to start and run CCleaner. Another good alternative to CCleaner is Glary Utilities. Carey Holzman has recommended this in the past so that’s good enough for me. It includes a number of nice routines including Disk Analysis (showing the space occupied by your files and folders) and Duplicate Files Finder.

2. Run a quick scan with Microsoft Security Essentials. This has been my first choice anti-virus program for a couple of years now. It’s free if you’re running Windows.

3. Run Malwarebytes Antimalware Free and SuperAntiSpyware. I regularly listen to Podnutz podcasts for repair techs and for many techs, these are the two mainstay utilities for identifying and removing malware. I have the professional version of SuperAntiSpyware which is resident at all times for real time blocking of threats so I just run a quick scan with these two programs to make sure there’s no malware on my system. I do find that SuperAntiSpyware picks up and lets me delete cookies which CCleaner and Malwarebytes ignore. They aren’t really threats but I like to remove these trackers anyway.

4. Run the Kaspersky free anti-rootkit utility TDSSKiller to check for rootkits. Be careful about quarantining what it finds. On my system it flags a hidden Akamai Netsession file as suspicious but googling the filename suggests it’s actually okay. Check everything out before quarantining anything.

5. Run JavaRa to check for Java updates and to remove old unnecessary Java installations.

6. If you use Chrome, run OldChromeRemover to remove obsolete versions of the Chrome browser.

7. Update your software with the latest versions. There are a bunch of software updaters out there. Here’s a few: Patch My PC, SUMo, FileREX, and Secunia PSI, but I do find that they tend to occasionally misreport your current software versions and suggest updates when they sometimes aren’t needed. If you’re in doubt about a suggested update, open the program and look under About for information on the software version. The one software updater I do like is Update Checker from FileHippo – it usually gets it right each time but on the downside, it doesn’t update as many programs as some of the others. It also clearly indicates beta software releases but it’s up to you if you want to try these.

What I don’t bother with in my PC maintenance

Up until a couple of years ago, I used to clean the Windows registry using CCleaner. When you read around, you’ll find opinion is divided on the benefits of cleaning the registry. I never really saw a performance benefit in it and now subscribe to the view, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The same applies to driver updates for me. If my system is performing well with no obvious problems, I just leave driver updates alone.

Defragging the hard drive is another routine I used to carry out every 3 or 4 months but again, for the last couple of years, I haven’t bothered. Lifehacker says: Windows Vista and 7 automatically defragment your drive, so there’s no need to do it yourself. So I tried defragging my Windows 7 PC recently before writing this post using Auslogics Disk Defrag and it reported only 1% defragmentation before I started, and I hadn’t defragged for a couple of years, so it really doesn’t seem to be necessary with Windows 7.

So what’s your PC maintenance routine? Which utilities do you favour? Drop a comment below.


May 22

So you’ve subscribed to a website in the past, perhaps a shopping site. You’re getting tired of their regular emails pushing promotions and stuff and you want to unsubscribe from further emails. Usually there’s a link at the bottom of the email to unsubscribe, but not always. And sometimes even when you unsubscribe, you keep getting the emails. Pretty annoying. So how do you get round this so you are no longer bothered by them?

Well I had this problem recently. It was a shopping site with a pretty dated looking interface. I bought stuff there a few years ago, gave them my email address and a password and they’ve ben sending me emails ever since. There’s no unsubscribe button in the email and when you log on to your web account, there’s no way to tell them you no longer want emails or to delete the web account.

Yet again I’m indebted to Rich Menga at PCMech who gave me the solution in two blog posts. His recent post How to Properly Abandon a Web Account suggests you point the web account to a throw-away email address and an earlier post Need Advanced Disposable Email Address Control? Use 33Mail.

So head to 33Mail and sign up for a free email account. It will end in …@<username>.33mail.com. You’ll have to give them your contact email address so they can forward any emails to this address. Then sign into your troublesome web account, let’s use nuisance.com as an example, and head to the page with your account details. Change your contact email address to, say, nuisance@<username>.33mail.com and save the changed account details.

Next time nuisance sends you an email, it will go to nuisance@<username>.33mail.com and be forwarded by 33Mail to your contact email address through an alias. Now when nuisance.com send you emails you don’t want, or even if they sell your email address to a spammer, just click on the link at the top of the email from 33Mail, and they’ll block their alias.

And that’s another web account that won’t bother you again.


May 16

I’ve already talked about my backup routine in an earlier post. Part of that involves daily backups to CX (Cloud Exchange) –  it’s my first choice cloud storage site as it gives 10GB free storage. Like Dropbox and SkyDrive etc, just drag your files to the CX desktop folder and they are automatically synced to the cloud.

That’s great, but what about scheduling automatic daily backups of your changed documents to the cloud? For me, it’s important to have a second copy of my recently changed work files in the cloud, just in case my PC doesn’t boot next morning, for example. We need a way to automatically select documents you’ve worked on that day, and at a preset time, copy those files to your CX folder for syncing to the cloud. I’m going to show you how I do this.

Get some free cloud storage

If you haven’t already done so, sign up for free cloud storage and make a note where your desktop folder is for syncing to the cloud. For me, it’s C:\Users\<user name> \Desktop\CX Sync.

Create a batch file to copy daily changed files to the CX folder

Yes, I know batch files are a little old school but, once set up correctly, they get the job done. We’ll make one to execute a simple command to copy today’s changed files to our syncing folder, but first why select just changed files? Well, if you have a good backup routine in place, all your documents older than today should be on your external drive anyway. During the current day, you’ve been editing documents, photos or videos and these current files should be backed up to your external drive and the cloud at the end of the day. You could use a backup program but why download another utility when you already have the tools to do it for free in Windows.

We can create a batch file with a text editor like Notepad++. In the batch file, the command Robocopy is used to copy your daily files from the source folders to a destination folder, your syncing folder. Robocopy is available in Windows Vista and Windows 7.  The format for the Robocopy command here is Robocopy <source folder> <destination folder> switches. The switch /MAXAGE:1 makes the command select just today’s files (i.e. it excludes files older than 1 day). The switch /S tells Robocopy to copy subfolders. Open your text editor and copy and paste the following lines to make your batch file:

echo off

echo Daily files to CX

Robocopy “c:\Users\<user name>\Documents” “C:\Users\<user name>\Desktop\CX Sync” /MAXAGE:1 /S

echo Backup complete
pause

You’ll have to edit <user name> to your own user name and you’ll have to change some details to point to your correct source and destination folders. The destination folder should be your syncing folder, in my case CX Sync. If the source or destination paths contain spaces in them, enclose these in double quotes as shown above. Now save it as a batch file (.bat) on your desktop, NOT as a text file (.txt). Give it a sensible name, something like Daily docs to CX.bat. Here’s how the Save as screen looks in Notepad++:

Save as batch file

Try it out by double clicking this batch file on your Desktop  to see if it’s copying today’s changed files to your syncing folder.

Schedule your daily backup with Windows Task Scheduler

So far so good I hope. But so far we’re relying on remembering to click this batch file each day. Much better if we could automate this process to run the batch file at a specific time each day, say 9pm when all work for the day is finished and we are doing other things on our PC. Well, we can set up Windows Task Scheduler to do this.

Click the Windows Start button and key in Task in the search window. This should bring up Task Scheduler on the list. Click it, then right click Task Scheduler Library and choose Create Task. Under the General tab, fill out the task Name:

Task Scheduler1

Then click on the Triggers tab and click New. Fill out the time for your scheduled backup to run and make sure Daily is selected. Click OK.

Task Scheduler2

Then click on the Actions tab and click New. Fill out the location of your batch file by browsing to your desktop and selecting the file. Click OK.

Task Scheduler3

Select the Conditions tab and set it up as shown.

Task Scheduler4

I found it best to uncheck the default ‘Start the task only if the computer is idle for:’ I want it to run right away at 9pm with no delay. Click OK to complete setting up your scheduled backup task and close the Task Scheduler.

When this scheduled task runs at your chosen time, it runs in the background anyway. The pause command at the end of the batch file means the window will remain open so you can check it has run correctly.  When you’re satisfied everything is okay, press any key to close the batch file window.

So there we have a free route to set up a scheduled backup of your daily edited files to the cloud without downloading any utilities. Eventually, when your free online storage starts to fill up, you can delete some of the older files to free up space. They should all be on your external drive anyway. How do you schedule backups? Have you any suggestions to improve this routine. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update (28 July 2012): If you want to take this a little further, and you’re interested in client-side encryption before backing up, I’ve recently added a new post on Scheduling Encrypted Daily Backups of Changed Files to Cloud Storage.


May 11

I still use my trusty old Samsung YP-Z5 mp3 player to listen to podcasts, trouble is it won’t display or play MPEG-4 or MP4 format files, for example audio files with the extension m4a. Occasionally, I download podcasts in this format so I have to convert them to mp3 format. A quick search on line for m4a to mp3 brings up a whole bunch of free converters but I already have enough utilities on my PC without downloading another.

I remembered reading that VLC media player does audio and video conversions so I gave it a try. Launch VLC and click Media, Convert/Save (Ctrl-R). Click Add and browse to your m4a file,  click Open, then click Convert/Save.

VLC1

Then under Destination, select a folder and name for your converted file remembering to add the .mp3 suffix. Under Settings, select Audio – MP3, then select Start.

VLC2

Along the bottom of the next screen, the Play progress bar actually indicates the progress of the audio conversion. Conversion of an 80MB m4a file took 5 to 10 minutes on my PC. I also checked out the conversion of m4v video format to mp3 audio and that works well too.

So there’s a great way to convert audio and video file formats using VLC without adding any extra free conversion utilities to your PC.


May 8

ATM keypad

I read an interesting post recently on 10 Snapshots You Should Keep in Your Phone’s Photo Album but it was one of the comments and follow-up answers that really caught my eye. How do you securely store PIN numbers if you have to so they can’t be easily identified? Personally for the cards I use regularly I’ve memorized the PIN code, but some cards I only use occasionally and need to store the PIN in a secure form so only I can identify it. What I hit on was disguising the PIN as a date or birthday and storing that in my address book or as note on my phone. For example, a 4 digit PIN of 6238 would convert to 6th February 1938 in my notes, but I always felt this was a little too easily guessable.

Lynn posted this response on the above blog post:

I give all my cards-with-pincodes ‘names’ and include the pincode in the phone numbers attributed to those names in my contact list. Only I know what I call them, but, just in case, only I know which four digits of the 10 in the # are the pincode ones.

That sounded perfect for me. In the UK, we typically have 5-digit STD codes and 6-digit phone numbers, so my example PIN could be saved as a fake name/phone number like: Sid 01234-623810. You can see where I’ve put the PIN. Obviously, as Lynn says you have to remember which ‘name’ goes with which card. This method seems to me to be pretty secure, particularly as the PIN reminder is stored on your phone, completely separately from your wallet or purse with your cards.

How do you store PIN numbers when you have to? Drop a comment below.

Image credit: ATM keypad 1/4


May 7

I’ve already blogged about backing up all your Thunderbird emails using MozBackup. Well that’s fine but what about restoring all the mails and settings to make sure MozBackup has done the job correctly. I use Windows 7 on my main PC but I have a backup PC running Windows XP. Could I restore Thunderbird to the backup PC? There are a couple of ways to do it, one uses MozBackup and the other just involves copying the Thunderbird profile from PC to PC, even across operating systems. So I tried it.

Restoring Thunderbird on the same or another Windows PC using MozBackup

On my main Windows 7 PC, I ran a Thunderbird backup to my external hard drive using MozBackup as described in my earlier post in the first link. I then installed the current version of Thunderbird on my backup Windows XP PC and also installed MozBackup on it. On both the Windows 7 PC and the Windows XP PC, Thunderbird installs to C:\Program Files\Mozilla Thunderbird. Then I restored Thunderbird from my external hard drive to my backup Windows XP PC by running MozBackup, choosing ‘Restore a profile’ and selecting Thunderbird to restore:

MozBackup2

I then chose the default profile to restore and browsed to the directory on the external hard drive with the Thunderbird backup. Everything restored perfectly, even after backing up Thunderbird on a Windows 7 PC and restoring on a Windows XP PC. This despite the fact that the emails and settings are stored in different places in each Windows OS. In Windows 7, Thunderbird emails and settings are stored at C:\Users\<user name>\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\ while in Windows XP, the emails and settings are at C:\Documents and Settings\<user name>\Application Data\Thunderbird\. MozBackup must be checking the directory structure, doesn’t find the Windows 7 structure, determines which directory structure is present (Windows XP) and automatically restores to that directory. That’s very nice. Of course, restoring Thunderbird on your main PC with MozBackup is just as simple.

Restoring Thunderbird on a Linux Netbook

So far so good, I’ve managed to restore all my emails either on the same or another Windows PC using MozBackup. But I’ve also got an Acer Aspire netbook running Ubuntu. Could I restore Thunderbird there too? MozBackup doesn’t run on Linux so I had to copy the Thunderbird profile this time. First I installed Thunderbird on my netbook running Ubuntu. Then all you have to do is copy the Thunderbird profile in the C:\Users\<user name>\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\ on my Windows 7 PC into the folder /home/<user name>/.thunderbird/ on the Ubuntu netbook. For those not familiar with file management in Ubuntu, here’s the procedure I used. I copied the C:\Users\<user name>\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird directory on the Windows 7 PC onto a USB stick then plugged the stick into my Ubuntu netbook. When Nautilus opened, I navigated to the folder <user name> at the top. I clicked F3 to get an extra viewing pane then in the left pane, I clicked Ctrl-H to see hidden folders and files (the Thunderbird profile is in the hidden .thunderbird folder). Then I navigated down to the .thunderbird folder and double clicked it. In the right pane, I navigated to the USB stick shown in the listing on the left, and double clicked the Thunderbird folder in the right pane. This is what you should now see:

Thunderbird directories

Then I dragged the files and folders present in the right pane to the left pane. I merged folders replacing everything. I launched Thunderbird and all the emails were present just as they were on my Windows 7 PC.

I should say I don’t need to sync my emails between different PCs, I just need a way to ensure that if my main PC packs up for whatever reason, I can be up and running with all my emails on my backup PC or my Linux netbook. Of course, when I do go travelling, I can now happily get all my emails in Thunderbird on my netbook, then when I return just reverse the above process to restore my current emails back to my main Windows 7 PC.

I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts on working with Thunderbird on different PCs and operating systems. Drop a comment below.


May 1

Shareaholic

I’ve been using Shareaholic for a couple of years now. It’s a browser extension with a tremendous variety of options for sharing and saving links and is available for all the popular browsers including Chrome. I find it particularly useful for tweeting from webpages that don’t have Twitter share buttons. Surprisingly, there are quite a few around. But I don’t always like to tweet the link straightaway and prefer to space out tweets for my audience using Buffer, the tweet scheduling app. Just as an aside, another advantage of using Buffer is you can change your mind later and delete tweets from the Buffer queue if you like, before they go live.

Trouble is, my Buffer browser extension for Chrome hasn’t worked for a few months now, probably a conflict with another extension. So I looked again at Shareaholic, and sure enough, sharing with Buffer is there too and it works perfectly for me.

And there’s another bonus with using Buffer through the Shareaholic extension. I’m now able to delete my Buffer browser extension – and Evernote Web Clipper – so that’s two less buttons clogging up my Chrome bar and grabbing RAM. By the way, if you want to see how much memory your extensions are hogging in Chrome, press Shift-Esc when in Chrome to bring up Chrome Task Manager. Then disable or remove the extensions you don’t need or don’t use any more.


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