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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Troubleshooting Errors On Your PC

I will wager a bet that at some point we've all run into some sort of error on a PC or a MAC.  Errors are inevitable, annoying, and they interfere with what we are doing on our computer system.  Back in the day, the first thing most people would do is reach for the phone and dial the phone number to technical support, and have the person on the other end walk us through a seemingly endless array of tasks to narrow down the problem to find a solution.  In today's world, we are a little more responsive to errors, and with the availability of the internet we can look up a solution to almost 95% of problems that occur.  Depending on your level of expertise, these solutions can be relatively easy to very complex to the point where only an advanced user should be performing the resolution.  There are some tips, though, that can be done by anyone of any usage level to eliminate some key suspects in a situation where an error comes up.

Once more, I have to caution the reader that this information is strictly guideline only.  If you feel your error or problem is much too complex, please contact your system administrator, or go to your local computer repair outlet where a certified and trained computer technical professional can assist you.

As I said, most errors have a commonality to them, and most can be resolved with a few simple tricks.  Listed below are some general tips that I think are the best possible tricks short of taking your computer in for a more thorough examination.  Again, they are just general guidelines.

1) Document the Error - It should go without saying that if you encounter an error that you are unfamiliar with (and even if you are), you should definitely write it down, including all error numbers and codes as well as what you were doing when the error occurred.  This can help you narrow the possibilities down to a minimum and work from there.  The most frequent complaint of techs is the lack of documentation with an error, especially what transpired prior to and during the problem.  Please do us techs a favor and give us as much detail as possible related to the error or problem.  No, we don't need your life story, and no, we don't need to get into how new your computer is, and how much you paid for it.  All we need are some basic items of information such as your Operating System, installed RAM, the program you are using, and what error occurred and what happened before and during that problem.  If it involves porn, come clean and get it over with.  We've heard it all, trust me!

2) COLD BOOT - This should be your first and last troubleshooting technique when it comes to error troubleshooting.  One of my former technical supervisors had a small, but clear message on his emails that he sent out regularly to other techs, which said "If all else fails, COLD BOOT!".  That seemed to always stick, and 65-80% of the time, this trick worked.  Doing a proper shutdown of Windows (or whatever your OS is) is key, and once properly shutdown (if the computer doesn't turn off automatically), you should definitely power down everything on your computer.  After 30 seconds, it should be turned back on until everything has booted successfully, including any background programs.  Once up and running, try performing the task you were doing when the error occurred.  If you are able to proceed, then there is no further need to troubleshoot.

3) Background Applications/Programs - Turning these off may either provide a temporary solution, or resolve the problem altogether.  But, if you're like me, and want these background programs to come on, then you'll want to systematically, and methodically, turn off each program until you've found the culprit that conflicts with what you are doing.  After identifying the cause, there are two things you can do.  Either turn it off for good so that it doesn't interfere with what you are doing, or contact the provider of that other program to see if there is a fix or some other solution.  My personal advice would be to do the former since background programs aren't really that necessary, and just clutter up memory.

4) Websites - Often a program vendor has a website that you can go to, and some even have user forums where you can chat with others who may have experienced the same error or problem.  Forums often provide a rare opportunity to share knowledge to other users, and is a great way to earn friends.  A word of caution though.  Those same forums also have users who are simply there to belittle others for what they do not know.  I've had the unfortunality of going to one such forum where my question had been met with ridicule from a few inconsiderate individuals with nothing better to do than to troll forums and be jerks.  This avenue often offers patches for programs and applications that can solve a lot of frustration.  Check to see if your application has a website that you can check to see if there's a new update to your program version.

Finally, if you've exhausted all other avenues, it's time to call technical support and be guided through some other procedures.  A tech support agent will most likely walk you through steps that you may or may not have done before.  If this happens, please do us techs another favor and don't get all bent out of shape about it.  We're just doing our jobs, and would appreciate a level of respect during the phone call.  Just let us do what we do, and we'll get you the quickest possible resolution.

Have a comment? Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog? Email me at And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer. :) Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Anti-virus Software and You

Okay, so we all know by now (one would hope) to have a good, solid anti-virus program installed on your computer, whether you use a MAC (heaven forbid!  Just kidding!) or a PC.  If anyone has taken the time to read up on reports throughout the tech world, you'll know that hundreds of viruses are created every day that can have devastating impacts on your computer, and your wallet.  As a computer tech, I know the risks involved not having in place a software program to protect my PC, so I make sure to have one installed and active at all times.

Some people have asked me repeatedly what good antivirus programs they should use.  Naturally, I tell them what I use, and people seem to go with it.  Is that enough, though?  Are you asking the right questions to your computer technician when it comes to your computer?  The average person will settle for something that is "out-of-the-way" at a reasonable cost, and does its own updating on its virus definitions/database.  For the advanced users, like myself, we tend to go with products that allow for more control, flexibility, and above all reliability.  If the antivirus program doesn't detect things that could harm our computer, we don't want it.  That's numero uno on our list!

There are many good programs to use out there on the web. Some are free to use, and some have a try-then-buy string attached. Whatever you decide on using, there are some good ideas to keep in mind before using a new antivirus program, or switching your existing program for another.  What I'd like to do is go over some brief points to consider.  Please keep in mind these are guidelines.

1) Price - I'm sure most of us will agree that price is usually at the top of anyone's list.  Obviously, we'd all like our software to be free, but free isn't always effective.  After shopping online and in stores, I've found that most antivirus programs are between $25-$50 depending on where you shop.  Some of them are really reasonable, and offer relatively good protection.  There are a few that, even after purchasing, you have to purchase a separate subscription to get updates.  So it's up to you how far you are willing to go to protect your computer.

2) Features - A lot of programs offering antivirus protection also offer many side-benefits such as anti-spyware, malware protection, etc.  Some are packaged as a suite of security products that include a firewall, parental controls, and it just goes on.  This is where you should write down what your computer needs and compare those needs to what features are offered.  Obviously, if you are single and have no kids, you really don't need parental controls, unless you're that much of a control-freak that you have to control your own movements. 

3) Reviews - These can be both good and bad.  It should be noted that not all reviews are created equal, so do your own research, and read carefully what these reviews tell you.  Maybe what one person experienced won't apply to you, or maybe it will.  It's almost like movie reviews.  Sometimes, critics will rave about a movie that you absolutely hated, but give poor marks to a movie you simply loved, and would see again and again.  My advice is to never go off of reviews alone, even professional reviews.  In my view, reviews are just biased ways of altering the public's perception of a product, regardless of the intent.  I've even read some that go as far as to bash a program-maker, i.e. McAfee, Norton, Microsoft, Avast, etc.  I know, they don't go and outright bash those companies, but if you read carefully the reviews, it can be more obvious than a turd in a punch-bowl.

4) Simplicity or Complexity - This is sort of related to number two.  Do you want a simple program to just locate, quarantine and destroy unsanitary files, or do you enjoy fiddling with settings like an amateur advanced user?  For some, a simple yet effective program is all they need for their computer's protection needs.  Others want a more advanced, fully-featured, complex program where they can actually manipulate how the program behaves when a virus or other potentially harmful file is found.

I could go on and on about some of the other guidelines, but these are the four core ideas.  When asking a tech to give you a recommended product, make sure they know what you use your computer for.  An obvious thing would be to avoid telling the tech how much you love internet porn!  Yes, believe it or not, I've heard that one unfortunately.  Also, let the tech know if you have children who will be accessing the computer as well, since this could mean the difference between your computer running smoothly, and the kids downloading something... errr... not-so-safe.

Just a little note from me (the author), I've used many different antivirus programs over the years, and one thing that I can say is that there's always going to be an anti-virus program that seems bigger, better, and more advanced than the last, but remember that all good things do come to an end.  I can't begin to count how many times I've had to switch my anti-virus program because it became outdated very quickly.

Again, don't just go off of what the tech tells you.  Do your own research, and find out what program is best for you.  Remember that cheap isn't always a good deal, and all the fancy features aren't for everyone.  My best advice would be to talk with tech friends who have experience with such dilemmas, and ask them what their best anti-virus experience was. 

Have a comment? Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog? Email me at And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer. :) Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Email and You

With all of the wonderful adventures one can have while browsing on the internet, it's important for all of us to have that one piece of communication that exists which allows us all to connect to each other in a rather personal way.  We're going to discuss the topic of email, its rules, etiquette, and some general practices that can keep you and your computer safe.  Some of the following may seem like common-sense items, but overall they are worth repeating.  However, you are ultimately responsible for the email that you open, read, and write (which eventually you'll send out).

Over and over, I hear it all of the time.  "Don't open this email, or your computer will explode!"  I can't help, but laugh my freaking ass off when I hear that.  Unless your computer is rigged like in the movie "Live Free or Die Hard", your computer WILL NOT explode from an email, or from a virus, or from any other source other than some C4 with a remote detonator.  Okay, so I exaggerated that, but the point is the same.  I get emails all of the time from family members claiming there is an email that is going around that, if opened, will download a virus that copies everything on your hard drive and sends the contents to the FBI, then erases your drive to the point of being useless.  Again, exaggeration!  While some of it may be funny, it is always prudent to be careful. 

Though, a chief complaint among techs is the ever popular (and at times, annoying) practice of chain-letteremail messages.  I'm sure most of us have been victim of, or at some point the originator of, such emails.  These annoying pieces of email can clog an inbox quicker than a FOX News Commentator's voicemail.  The following are just some guidelines, tips, and general etiquette rules for email.  Whether you follow them or not is up to you, but I assure you that your friends and family will thank you for following such practices.

Etiquette Guidelines:

1) Keep it "G" rated (or at most PG-13) - My general rule of thumb is that if it can't be broadcast on TV in some form or another (cable TV, over-the-air stations, etc), it shouldn't be sent in an email, especially to people that might easily be offended.  Likewise, if you are sending an email to a friend or family members' work email account, it's probably best not to include explicit material.  I've known friends who have been terminated not because of what they did, but rather what their friends or family members sent to them in email.  Again, if grandma shouldn't see it, it's not a good idea to forward.

2) Pictures in Email - This is kind of tied in with number one.  Obviously, it's never a good idea to send mature material to people who might otherwise find it objectionable.  In other words, that hot and steamy weekend with that hot date at the lodge over the weekend shouldn't be viewed by your co-workers at the office.  Remember, if grandma isn't going to like it, it's always good to assume no one else will, either!

3) Keep it Short and Simple - I think I speak for every tech out there when I say we don't particularly like getting emails that require our long-term attention.  Email is meant as an excellent substitute for snail mail, but not always.  Remember that email is almost instantaneous, and with that said, you can email your contacts with as much or as little as you want.  There is no need to fit your entire life-story into an email.  Writing an email is like having a short, but casual conversation in person, only you have a rather short delay. 

4) Grammatically Proper - One of the main things I hear about all of the time is that people get upset over an email, and 95% of the time is because their friend or relative has used a term that has been misinterpreted, and often because of either poor grammar or vocabulary.  This is especially true when doing job searches.  Always, and I mean ALWAYS, use proper grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, even in email.  Yes, it is meant as a means of long-distance communication, but it's not like email has a word limit.  It's not like the old AOL days where you had to type everything in code.  It's easy to interpret something the wrong way with a given word, phrase, or how it's been punctuated.  Take time in writing that paragraph for your resume, or that email to a long-time friend.  I know your emails aren't being graded, but a lot of how you punctuate, use proper grammar, and good vocabulary can be a window into your life.  Unless your friends and family know how to read your "code", it's probably best to write in the same manner as you did in high school or college for a report on whatever subject you were assigned.

5) Reply to ? - We've all heard the jokes, and we've all heard the stories I'm sure.  When sending an email, make sure you are sending it to the appropriate addresses, and make sure you are not clicking on the "Reply to All" button when it's not intended.  One of the more popular stories I've heard involved a guy who was getting married, and had gotten an email from an old ex-girlfriend, who had sent it to him and all of his buddies.  What the email said I don't know, but what I do remember hearing is that the guy had clicked REPLY ALL, and typed something really raunchy, then sent it off thinking it was only going to be seen by his ex-girlfriend.  Well, it wasn't just sent to her, it was sent to several of his buddies, one of whom was his bride-to-be's brother, and was also his boss.  Needless to say, the wedding was called off, he was fired, and he never heard from his ex-girlfriend again.  The moral of the story should be obvious.

Now on to the general tips and guidelines.  Again, some of these should be obvious!

1) Email Warnings - I'm sure a good number of us all have received one of these at lease once per day or week.  Usually the emails come from family members (or friends) asking everyone to "watch out" for an elusive and deceptive email with some creepy subject line and accompanying message body.  Sometimes these can be helpful alerts, but often I find them to be useless since a lot of it is just common sense practice that should be utilized often.  For example, one of the more recent emails that I got was entitled "Fw: PLEASE READ THIS!!! Urgent e-mail!", and it talked about an email that contained a video (or video link) featuring Osama Bin Laden being hanged, and that upon opening this email or video link that it would download a potentially hazardous computer virus onto your computer, and destroys all data on your primary hard disk.  I filed it away, because it was from family, and I did read some of it, but to be honest, I ignored it for two reasons.  First, I know by common sense and logic that Osama Bin Laden has not been captured (that we know of), and two, when I checked out (did my research) on this particular email, I found out that it had been years ago that this email had gone around.  Most major anti-virus software makers have probably found a fix to prevent this type of attack, and if they hadn't after five years, something would definitely be very wrong.  So, moral of the story is: "USE YOUR BRAIN!"

2) Propaganda and other Topics - Once again, we are visiting the infamous work-safe email topic.  This is yet another reason why I've never given out my work email address to anyone outside of work.  I've known friends who have received emails from family members (and other friends) referencing religious and political themed ideas at their work email address.  Some of it was harmless, but in the eyes of the employer, that material is an offense that almost certainly warrants termination.  Some employers tolerate to a degree, but most won't.  We (us techs) have a term for such emails.  They're called "NWS" or "Not Work Safe".  This includes any email that talks about religious ideas, political garbage, and other more serious topics such as racism in any form, sexuality (including pornography), as well as emails that refer to a family members' sexual orientation in a way that is demeaning and hurtful.  My personal recommendation is to just not post such topics in an email without adding to the subject line "NWS" that way we'll know you're sending material not suitable for viewing at work.  Even better yet is to not send it to your family member or buddy's work email address in the first place.  On the flip side of that, folks, a work environment is NOT the place to view your personal email accounts.  I've personally had the unfortunality of watching a friend at work being escorted out, because that person decided to view something on his personal email account that wasn't "G" rated.  Employers can be very strict when it comes to that kind of thing. 

3) Keep It Separated - I know I'll probably sound a little redundant here, but it's worth reiterating.  When using email, it is ALWAYS best to keep your professional and personal lives SEPARATED.  When I think of the phrase "What goes on in Vegas, STAYS in Vegas!" is not necessarily true if the person in question is careless.  Most of us I'm sure want to have some sense of privacy, and employers aren't necessarily firing people for what they do at home, it's when their home (personal) life interferes with their job.  An employer could care less what you do in your own home, but if it's communicated to the wrong person, say a co-worker who has "morality" issues, that person may decide to report you to your boss, even if you've done nothing wrong or illegal.  These are the kinds of people who play the politics game, and it can get ugly FAST!  Not to mention that there could be a possible termination, and possible legal trouble as well.  Do everyone (including yourself and your loved ones) a favor, and keep your personal lives out of work, and your work lives out of your personal life. 

4) Not A Laughing Matter - This is one of those areas about email that can be tricky.  A lot of what I receive from family members and friends tend to be harmless fun with jokes, funny stories, quirky messages, etc.  However, there's a lot that can be sent that not everyone finds particularly enjoyable.  For instance, I receive a lot of emails that contain stories that, at the end, have a funny, but sexual tone to it.  While I might find this material enjoyable, someone else may not.  Also, just a side note, it's worth mentioning that if you are a parent, it's best not to let your children under 14 view any of your email messages, unless it's an email from Grandma or Grandpa specifically addressed to them.   Again, thinking back to the idea "if Grandma shouldn't see it".

Caution Recommended
Many of us at some point or another get emails that talk about our children, grandchildren, or other relatives, and while it may seem harmless and innocent in nature, it can be viewed as exploitation.  Obviously, there shouldn't be a video email from a relative that shows that person offering marijuana to their 5-yr old son, and in fact, that shouldn't be happening in the first place, period.  However, as we all know, some government agencies like to aggressively seek incidents that are questionable at best.  There was a story on the news not long ago about a couple who was charged with child neglect and exploitation after they had inadvertently sent an email to some random individual that contained a picture of their 6-yr old daughter in a rather strange, but cute position (fully clothed, mind you).  I don't remember the details of the story, but ultimately charges were dropped, because of the questionable practices of Child Services in that county/state.  The moral here is that while your photos of your kid acting funny and childish may seem innocent to you, others might not.  So it's very important to always check, double check, and then check again the email addresses you are sending to.

Some Final Thoughts
There may be some of this that you may perceive as patronage, and that is up to you to think that.  However, I am strongly advocating the use of common sense and logic when using email.  It's far better to be prudent about using your email account than to be careless and get in trouble for it.  Be wise and careful when sending email, and be mindful of the people who send (or receive) messages.  While I agree that we all shouldn't have to censor ourselves with email, it's become almost a necessity when there are very sensitive individuals who get offended easily, even by a polite "Hello" email message.  The best practice by far that I've found effective is to screen everyone's emails, and even screen my own, or better yet, not send them at all.

Have a comment? Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog? Email me at And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer. :) Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!