Thursday 29 March 2012

Join hands in line...

Having spent most of the morning in a horrendous spiral of impending doom, I thought it was about time to share a simple yet effective solution to remote desktop sharing.

One of the biggest difficulties any IT department will face is having a competent enough user on the other end of the phone who can navigate around a PC efficiently enough and follow instructions correctly so as to do as instructed. For the most part, most issues can be resolved over the phone, but if the call is destined to go on for longer than 5-10 minutes, the user will only get frustrated and want to hand off the controls to somebody who knows what they are doing.

Having faced this issue this morning we tried to establish a remote session using Microsoft's built in "Remote Assistance".  Sadly because of intervening unchangeable firewalls, the session wouldn't start or connect and so that option was abandoned.

Next option was to try the free session called "LogMeIn" which uses the Hamachi networking system.  The Free pro client looked very impressive, but it required some intricate installation procedures to install the software on the client machine, and we test this locally before subjecting our disheartened subject with the ordeal.. and between us in the IT Dept we felt it was too complicated to talk through over the phone and thus disbanded that option too.

We tried MSN Messenger, in the hope that the remote desktop session could piggy back on the Messenger ports, and were faced with countless "updates" required by Windows Live and a confusing collection of (pointless) add on's to the chat system before it would connect.. so again this was abandoned.

Finally we discovered a simple and, more importantly, FREE system from a web site called "See My PC" and it gave us the following link for downloading a small file for running.

Upon downloading the EXE, it sat quietly until needed, didn't require installing and ran as a stand alone program.  The client simply clicked on "Show My PC Now" and ensured that the "Give full control to users" was ticked, and it gave them a secure password to give to us to allow us to connect remotely.  It ran and connected in under 30 seconds and we were able to resolve the system quickly.

If you have had experience where you needed help remotely, and an IT Guru was able to assist you, what program did they use?  Let us know how that experience went...

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Backup Backup (And Give A Brother Room)

It's a 90s Will Smith reference, and it's a tune. No one? OK, moving on...

What would happen if your hard drive exploded right now? How much of your data would you be able to recover from other sources? If the answer is 'none', then we need to talk. Backup is another of those boring subjects that only becomes of interest the split second after it's too late to do anything about it. To save the aggravation, here's some best practice tips.

Firstly, choose your method of backup. The most straightforward is an external hard drive. They've dropped in price of recent times and you could now get a 1TB (over 1000GB) hard drive for under £80. Windows has some basic backup features built in, but you may find a bit more flexibility in third-party software. I can recommend SyncBack, but try some free demos and find out what works for you.

You may find some on-line solutions work well for you. We've talked about this previously in the context of cloud-computing, but let's refer specifically to email for a second.

For a long time, POP was the way to access your email. Post Office Protocol (no really) means the email is downloaded and kept locally on your computer. Great for offline access but not as useful if anything bad happens to your computer. It is possible to back up POP folders, but even better is to leave the email on your ISP's servers. The key expression to look up is IMAP and although we won't go into it now, it essentially means your computer and email servers stay in sync, while actually storing the emails safely with your email provider. If you lost your hard drive, you could re-download your entire email history on to a new computer.

A second consideration is regularity. Now technically once a year is regular. It rather depends on how much you use your computer as to how often you need to back up. A serious power user, including every business that uses a computer, should be backing up at least once a day. As a casual user your going to have to make a decision. After every session ask yourself what the impact would be if your computer disappeared overnight. If you would consider it disastrous because of the lose of data, then it's time to backup.

Backing up is not optional for any serious - or regularly casual - computer user. There are a myriad methods to do it, all you have to do is do it. And I don't want to worry you, but can I smell something burning?

Friday 23 March 2012

It's all in the code

No doubt you've seen them around, those crazy looking squares with blocks of black ink. Random patterns from another world? A new art form?

QR Codes is the new kid on the block and is currently spreading rapidly and seems to be the "thing" to have. So what is a QR Code?

QR Codes (Quick Response Codes) are a 2D bar code.  Instead of bars or black which signify a number or letter format, these codes also represent position within the square, giving the code a greater capacity to store localised information.

Just imagine that you've walked into your local supermarket and picked up a can of beans. On the side of that can, you'll see a bar code.  The bar code will likely also have a "human readable" number underneath which is designed for the operator of the till to enter the code should the scanner fail to read the black lines correctly.  However, that bar code is 'just' a number.  It's often down to the computer system at the till to match that code to the products information and price etc.

For example, my bean can might have  12345678 on the side and in my store it means "Maf's beans" however, if I took that same can and ran into my neighbours wood yard, he might have 12345678 to represent a plank of wood.  Therefore, the bar code simply represents a number, and it's down to the computer system to translate that into a usable item. (It should be noted for those interested, that there is a numbering system supported by GS1 who ensure that no two retail codes are used twice. However, to keep this article as simple as possible, we'll not explore that part)

QR Codes are different, as they can contain information WITHIN them.  Therefore, they are not dependant on a computer system to relay that code into a database to find out what it might represent, but that it contains everything in the code that is required for the QR Scanner to interpret.

By way of example, I visited a web site ( and generated the following code based on our Estuary IT Web Page.

Within this code is our URL which points to our Web page.  You could also put your contact details into a QR code, or just some notes or information.  You could put product descriptions or even a SMS text message, ready to fire up and send off.

One of the most common uses is to have this next to a product, so that customers can scan the code while in the store and receive special offers or discount for the product they are viewing.

Certainly, codes will change the way we interact with things that we do.  If you have a smart phone, why not download a free QR scanner and see what you can do in a QR code.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

A Wash And Brush Up

We referenced maintenance briefly in our Keeping Up post, so let's talk about that for a second. Boring huh? Not half as boring as waiting for a machine that has slowed to a crawl because it hasn't been maintained.

There's some basic IT truths that makes the need to maintain a computer easier to understand. Software is like doughnuts, the more you take on the bigger and slower you're going to become. A hard drive full of 'stuff' has no room to manoeuvre. Apart from not being able to take on new software, it also cannot serve as virtual memory. Explanation? Sure.

To function, a computer uses its memory, the RAM that we make such a big deal about. If there is so much information being processed that the memory becomes full, then it drops back into virtual memory. That involves reading and writing what it would normally send and receive to the memory to your hard drive instead. It's slower, but it works. If, however, your hard drive is so full as to not have enough room for the computer to read and write to, then the information queues up waiting for space. Your computer has no option but to stop accepting new input until it clears the backlog. So there is a direct correlation between how much space is on your hard drive and how fast your computer will go.

Making space varies in simplicity. The first and easiest port of call has to be Add/Remove programs. Scroll through the list of installed programs and look for anything that you don't use. Windows updates are generally good, keep them. But if you have five different CD burning programs but only use one, ditch the other four. That process should hopefully clear you some space.

I've also found a program called TreeView invaluable (I know, installing a program to make more room. Just go with it.) It gives a graphical representation of your hard drive and lets you quickly identify what the big space-takers are. Many will be valid, but you may find an old test video you'd forgotten about taking up 1GB of space that you can readily delete. Or documents and photos that you can burn to a disk. You'll be amazed what you'll find as part of this process, although do be sure of what you are deleting. Pagefile.sys is probably huge, but necessary.

There's one more trick that can give you a significant amount of space back, but comes with some potential dangers. First, the method. Right-click your hard disk drive and select 'Properties'. Click the 'Disk Cleanup' button. Talk amongst yourselves, this can take a while to process. Once done, a new window will open. If you don't see a 'More Options' tab then you should have a 'Clean up system files' button. Click that, then you should get the tab. Select it. Now, before the next stage you should understand what you're about to do. Recent versions of Windows have a System Restore function. It takes a snapshot of your system at regular intervals so that if you have major problems you can roll your Operating System back to a happier time. That takes a lot of space. What you are about to do will delete all of those snapshots except the very latest one. If you're machine has basically been running OK, that should be fine. But after this your recovery options will be limited. If you're happy to carry on then press the bottom 'Clean up...' button. Are you sure? Delete away.

These are just some of your options to get a roomier hard drive. Feel free to comment on our Facebook page if you'd like some more advice.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Keeping Up

With the recent release of the 'New iPad' (really Apple? What do we call it when the next one's released? The Old New iPad?!), this seems a good time to talk about upgrading in general.

There is a law, Moore's law, that states the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. So far that's been pretty much bob on. In fact the entire industry is constantly upgrading, which can present somewhat of a dilemma.

The mantra for anyone who has bought a technological product has to be 'don't look back'. We're only semi-joking when we say that your PC is out of date as soon as you get it out of the shop. So it's normally wise to buy what you can afford. The second your purchase is made, the clock is ticking. Processor and graphic card speeds will be increasing, faster ports will be invented, new formats will be created. The more cutting edge your willing to go, the longer you will be able to wait before having to upgrade.

Of course, careful maintenance of your machine will lengthen its lifespan. A PC with a full hard drive will run considerably slower than one with space. Even just keeping the hardware clean can increase its speed, as components covered in dust run hotter and therefore slower. As a well maintained car will last longer than an uncared for model, so with computers. More on maintenance another day.

In the meantime we all have to find our peace with the fact that the machine you're reading this on is out of date. You are no longer new and improved. You are old and inferior.

Monday 12 March 2012

It's not personal, It's business!

I sent an email to somebody the other day, asking if they had considered putting a business page on Facebook.  His reply was quite amusing, and I fully respect his opinion, so I won't be criticising that at all.

Some of the comments he made about Facebook was "loads of messages from friends with irrelevant news/items such as what they're about to have for tea and how long it took them to do their washing up.." which made me smile.  But is it true?

It makes us wonder how Facebook can maintain that it will always be free.  How do they pay for the unknown quantity of staff that keep the Facebook servers running, and how they are able to program and monitor all those web pages and features and make a profit... but it's free, surely?

Well, this part might come as a shock to some of you, but why would somebody like Facebook be interested in how long it took to do your washing up? The answer? BUSINESS.

Every time you post a comment about washing up, your kids new toys, the run up to the next national holiday, the local shops that you have visited, Facebook use this information to place adverts next to your post that relate to the conversation.  People read your comment about the fact you've just enjoyed a nice bottle of wine, and lo and behold there's an advert for a bottle of red from Tesco's.

Have you ever noticed how relevant adverts are during certain sports events?  Why is it you always seem to get car adverts in between the Formula 1 racing, or hair care products in between daytime chat shows? It's all about product advert placement.  And THIS is how Facebook make their money, and this is why we should ALWAYS remember that Facebook is not just personal..

.. it's business.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

This Just In

Want to save with my bank? It's guarded by a solitary security guard with a big stick. What's the worst that could happen?

You're probably not that inspired, and rightly so. Yet far too many people are running the technological equivalent. If you don't keep your antivirus and security up to date or worse, don't have any, you may as well print all you emails, documents and photos and throw them to the breeze for all to see. Then burn the originals.

Antivirus is not optional. If you are running a computer, attached to the internet or not, you must have a good AV. If you don't then you instantly become part of a much bigger problem. Any bad effects won't just impact you. Most viruses are designed to pass on the infection, either to everyone you've ever emailed or out via USB sticks and the like.

Unbelievably in the 21st century, even some companies don't run AV software. The attitude appears to be 'nothing bad has happened yet'. That's like saying I'll wait until my house burns down before I buy smoke alarms. Just say goodbye to your business data now.

Even a good antivirus program is only as good as its latest virus definitions. If your AV hasn't been updated in the last month, then it's the equivalent of the bank we referenced at the beginning. The protection technology is there but is hopelessly outmoded in the face of modern attacks.

So step 1, get yourself a good antivirus program. The free ones, such as AVG and Avast, work absolutely fine. In fact in many ways they are better than the massively overblown Norton and McAfee. Once installed, keep them up to date. You must keep them up to date. Did I mention about keeping them up to date?

Now we can all crack on with living happy, virus-free lives. Now you'll have to excuse me, my bank's on the phone.