Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Why backup?

Although this does relate to the previous article I wrote (see “O.K. You Now Have Thousands of Digital Photos, Now What?”), I thought it was important to dedicate a section just to backups. I recently had a client come to me that told me his laptop had been stolen when he walked away from a table he was sitting at to go to the restroom. As it turns out, this man had an extensive database of confidential information about his clients on his laptop… and ONLY his laptop. He kept no backups of the data on his desktop (because he didn’t want people getting into it when he wasn’t there). This raises several topics, only a few of which I will touch on at this moment.
1. If you are going to have your data in one place, then MAKE BACKUPS.
2. A laptop is NOT a reliable means of storing your data for long term purposes.
3. If your laptop gets stolen and you do not take the appropriate precautions in securing your data then you are liable for any information that may be obtained from said device.

In today’s day and age, backups of data are more critical now, than they ever were. People store photos, music, documents, databases, applications and much more on their computers and many times need to refer back to them for one reason or another. Hard drives are very reliable these days and getting more reliable all the time. However, the fact remains that hard drives have moving parts in them (to spin them up and to move the read/write head back and forth). Although not having them will significantly reduce the amount of data loss problems people have, it won’t eliminate the need for backups all together. I recommend to everyone (including home users) that they run at a minimum monthly, backups. Good practice is weekly full backups and daily incremental backups. I will go into more details on that in a few minutes.

Backups can be done on CD, DVD or if you want to protect your data, put it on a password protected flash drive. These can store a tremendous amount of data these days and are very reliable. If you have an enormous amount of data (over 10GB) it is probably advisable that you either backup to Tape or external hard drive. Tape is more reliable, but it is more expensive, thus the hard drive option will probably make more sense for most people.

Let’s get down to basics. What is a backup? A backup is a copy of a file or files that you want to keep for a long time, if not indefinitely. Backups are grouped into three different categories, and pay attention because it can be a little confusing:

Full Backups – Which backs up all of the selected data in a given set.
Incremental Backups – Which backs up all of the data that has not been backed up since the last backup. (not the last full)
Differential Backups – Which backs up all of the data that did not get backed up since the last full.

So, the first thing people usually ask is “Isn’t an Incremental Backup the same as a Differential Backup then?” The answer is No. An incremental backup backs up all of the data that has not been backed up since the last backup. That’s ANY TYPE of backup. The last backup could have been another incremental, or it could have been a differential. The downside to incremental backups is that to do a full restore of data and have it UP TO DATE, you must have a full backup AND EVERY incremental backup that took place up to the date you want to restore to. Whereas, if you are doing fulls and differentials, you only need the last full and the last differential.

Okay, that covers the basics.

Physical Backups vs. Online Backups
There has been a lot of discussion (see Brian’s comments in “O.K. You Now Have Thousands of Digital Photos, Now What?”) regarding online backups and physical backups such as CD or Flashdrive.

Online backups (such as Dell Datasafe and EVault) have come a long way, but from a personal standpoint it will be a while before I exclusively trust an online backup company. Basically the way it works is, you load software on your computer and your computer securely encrypts your data and sends it to a server somewhere on the Internet. In theory, should you lose your data or hard drive then you can download your files from your backups. My main concerns with this method are the fact that these companies are new and there is no way of telling who will be around in ten years and who won’t. What if a company goes under and you are not informed? You’ve lost your data. Or what if your data is damaged in transit or your files get corrupted enroute? You’ve lost your data. Worse yet is the fact that although everyone’s Internet connections are improving (speed-wise), if you have gigabytes of data then it can take hours, days or even weeks to do a single backup. This is why I prefer physical backups and if necessary use online backups as a secondary backup.

Physical Backup Software
Now on to software. Keep in mind, that I try to aim this Blog at the home user. If you want to know good business or enterprise grade backup solutions, then post a comment and I’ll be happy to expand on that. So as far as software goes for backing up there are hundreds (if not thousands) of choices. So I will just mention a couple of my favorites. Microsoft’s Backup & Restore that is native to Windows XP (and Server 2003) is very good for the average user (and most power users). It is actually a scaled down version of the professional backup software “Backup Exec”. Nero works very well and is getting better all the time, however it has a lot of auxiliary components that install (various little do dads that do nothing but take up memory and CPU usage). Roxio has several backup software products that do well. Almost all of these products can do the three types of backups listed above. If all you are backing up is photos and video, then Picasa does a good job (see the above mentioned article).

Regarding Theft of Data
The most important thing you can do if your data is stolen is file a police report IMMEDIATELY. Next, contact as many people as possible that you believe may have been compromised by this loss of data, INCLUDING your employer if their data was in the stolen set. Any delay in not contacting all those involved puts you and them at risk.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Viruses, Hoaxes and Zombies... Oh! My!

There has been an ever growing quantity of Spam on the Internet these days and we all notice it. From erectile dysfunction ads to hair loss ads to gibberish emails that make no sense what-so-ever it is just out of control. The big question... Why?

Why is Spam so out of control?
The problems with Spam can be be isolated down to 3 major problems:
1. The desire for specific individuals (or groups of individuals) with a desire to bring the Internet to a halt.
2. Home and Business users with insufficient virus protection (I'll explain in a minute)
3. Zombies

What is the point of the gibberish emails?
Many of the junk emails (Spam) that users get these days is basically gibberish or a collection of words that mean nothing at all. This is because these emails are not there to inform you of anything. They are there to simply get through your Spam filters and fill up your email box.

Who 'dun it?
Although computers are sophisticated, let's face it, only a human can set the ball in motion when it comes to setting up a program. So, let's address the first topic: Who is doing the Spamming?

There are those out there who for several reasons have a desire to bring the Internet (and businesses connected to the Internet) to a halt. These are people who have a complete aversion to technology (a bit of irony here as they use technology to cause the attacks); People who feel that our technological / informational society is out of control; and those who simply like the power kick of causing disruption to others. These are the primary culprits when it comes to Spam transmissions.

How they do their 'dirty work' is where things get really interesting and that takes us to our next two topics.

Home and Business users with insufficient virus protection
The average home user has some form of virus protection normally given to them freely by their ISP or a trial that they downloaded from a company such as McAfee or Symantec or Trend Micro. The major problem is almost all (decent quality) antivirus programs out there require a subscription (at least for home users) to maintain their antivirus definitions.

Many home users simply either forget to update their subscriptions or just can't afford to keep them up to date and thus get out of date on their virus definitions making them more susceptible to an attack. Given their vulnerable state, all the user has to do is inadvertently access a malicious website and voila! They have downloaded a virus and been compromised. Now, these viruses are much more complicated than your typical "I'll destroy your data" virus.

These viruses are designed to load a special piece of software (or softwares) on your computer called server engines. These server engines are actual email transmission servers that operate in the background of the computer where you can not see. The only thing that may give an indication that you have been taken over is a very slow computer or many pop-ups.

This brings us to the next topic: Zombies

What is a Zombie?
A Zombie is a computer attached to the Internet that has been compromised by a security cracker/hacker, a computer virus, or a trojan horse. Generally, a compromised machine is only one of many in a "botnet", and will be used to perform malicious tasks of one sort or another under remote direction (such as using your computer as an email server to send Spam email.)

What does this mean exactly?
It means that the virus that the user downloaded inadvertently, installed a piece of software that contacted a main computer somewhere on the Internet. That main computer then told the computer that it will be responsible for a specific malicious task, for example; The master computer tells the computer to transmit out 1,000 emails to a given set of addresses. The user's computer than acknowledges the command and begins transmitting. Keep in mind, these addresses are NOT from the address book of the user's computer, they are a set of addresses predefined by the Spam Master Host (or sometimes a defined parameter such as 500 different names for domain

Now, it's one thing having a single computer sending out 1,000 emails that are Spam, but these masters typically communicate with thousands of home computers. So for example you take 1,000 "zombied" computers all talking to a master computer and that master computer tells it's "botnet" to each transmit 1,000 emails and suddenly the Internet is flooded with 1 million false emails going into people's email accounts.

Keep in mind these example numbers are all very small numbers compared to the reality of what's going on. According to PC Magazine (August 2007) there is on average 800 thousand Spam emails in transmission every second of the day. That amounts to 69.1 billion Spam emails flying around the Internet per day!

What can the average user do about it?
Two things:
1. Use a high quality antivirus program such as Symantec, McAfee or Trend Micro
2. Keep your antivirus definitions UP TO DATE!

It may cost you a little money, but you know the old saying "An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Spend a little money now and save yourself hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in headaches later. It also never hurts to have a computer professional check out your computer just to ensure that everything is running fine and make sure you have no unknown threats floating about. Have them run SpyBot (A good free spyware removal software) and a good Antivirus to check for problems.

Monday, October 29, 2007

O.K. You Now Have Thousands of Digital Photos, Now What?

There are two major problems when it comes to the use of Digital Cameras.

1. You end up having thousands of pictures that you need to organize
2. If your hard drive dies, you lose all of those photographs (memories).

Let’s address number one first. At last count I currently have over 17 thousand digital photographs. Granted, I may not be your typical digital photographer (then again, I very well may be). I have two important pieces of advice when it comes to the enormous amounts of photos.

First, don’t be afraid to delete. Chances are you will never have the time to “make that picture look better”, so chose the photos you like and trash the rest.

Secondly, download Picasa from Google. It’s a free photo management software and it is amazing. Of course it allows you to organize by folder, date, etc. But here is the huge advantage; it allows you to keyword the photos in the META DATA of the photograph. When you add keywords in Picasa, it adds those keywords to a database (OK, that’s no big deal, most programs do that) but Picasa also writes (and reads) the keywords into the photograph file itself. There is a hidden area of the photograph called the META DATA, it contains information about when the photo was taken, what camera took it, what the F-Stop settings were, etc. You can also see this information by going to the properties of each photo (right clicking on the photo and choosing properties). There is also an area for keywords in there and Picasa embeds those keywords.

Picasa is available at:

What does this mean to you?
It means that you can search for photos by people’s names, events, dates, relatives, etc. (assuming you do a good job of key wording the photos). It also means that if you give a copy of that photo to someone else, the keywords will travel with the photo. So your Mom, Dad, your brother, whoever… will be able to search that photo as well if they have a program such as Picasa which can read this data. One other 'icing on the cake' is that you can upload any photos you like to a web based version of Picasa that will let other family members see and download them from the web. Yes, there is also an option on the website to allow your family members to download your web based photos into their own Picasa as well.
So this solves our organizational problem.

Data Lost!
Next big problem, hard drive lose. If you should lose your hard drive (hard drive dies) you WILL lose your photos as well. Granted there are data recovery services out there, but chances are you won't get much better than a 50% recovery rate at best. So I will keep this simple in four words. BACK UP YOUR DATA!

Do NOT wait for your hard drive to die and wish that you had backed it up. It costs next to nothing to backup your data on CD or DVD and store it in a safe location. You can easily back up your photo library using Picasa by going to Tools; Backup Pictures option off the top menu. But you can also just as easily back it up by burning them to CD or DVD (definitely DVD if you are talking thousands of photos) using the native burning utility in Windows or a software utility such as Nero. The most important thing to remember is make regular backups. If you are a home user then once a month should be more than adequate. If you are a power user (always on your computer making changes, saving photos, etc.) then once every week or two is probably a better idea.
There really is no excuse for ignorance in forgetting to backup your data and you will be the one who loses if you should have some sort of a catastrophic failure. So... BACK UP YOUR DATA!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Using the DVD Library in Windows Vista’s Media Center

There are a few tips and tricks when using the DVD Library in Microsoft’s Vista Media Center. It doesn’t simply recognize a folder with all of the contents copied to it. At least it does not display the information and the picture well.

What you will need to do:

  1. First things first, Media Center in Vista comes BY DEFAULT with the DVD Library disabled. So you will need to run “RegEdit” from your run menu (Windows Key + R).
  2. Navigate to \HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\DVDSettings
  3. Double click on the “ShowGallery” key and change “Play” to “Gallery” and reboot. That will enable the DVD Library.
  4. When you have a DVD you own and want to copy it to your Media Center, create a folder to store all of your DVDs in.
  5. For each DVD create a folder with the name of the movie that you will be copying. Next you will need to get a DVD copying software such as DVD Shrink or DVD Decrypter.
  6. Put in the DVD you own and open up the application. You will then choose to backup or copy the DVD to the folder you specified. I’m not going to go into details as to how each application works because there are many different applications to accomplish this and for the purpose of this article we are talking about Windows Vista Media Center.
  7. Ensure that after copying you have both a VIDEO_TS and an AUDIO_TS folder. Some applications do not create an AUDIO_TS folder, if it’s missing, just create an empty one.
  8. Media Center uses an XML file to identify the DVD (also known as DVDid) and either pull the information off the Internet or pull it off your DVDCache area. I have found the best way to identify a DVD’s XML to be a website called . There you can search for your DVD and download the appropriate DVDid XML file. You need to save that file to the root of the DVD’s folder. (not in the AUDIO_TS or VIDEO_TS folders)
  9. Next you will need the picture of the DVD. Probably the best way to do this is by going on Google and searching the Image Search Engine for the DVD cover you are looking for. Save it to the Root folder again but ALWAYS call it “Folder.jpg”

After all of this is done, you should be able to navigate to your new DVD Library by going into Windows Media Center and choosing “DVD Library” off the main TV + Movies menu.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Building a Microsoft Windows Media Center - Vista PVR (DVR)

Why build your own Media Center PVR/PVR?
I currently pay $4.50 a month to Comcast for my HD DVR box, $9.95, Digital Plus $11.20, coming to a total of $25.65 that I am paying into a pit that goes no where. I have never been a fan of renting ANYTHING because when all is said and done you own nothing relating to your rental.

So... I wanted something that would not only act as a DVR but also give me added benefits as well. I decided to build myself a Windows Vista DVR box. Now I have built hundreds of computers in my days as a network administrator and general "tinkerer". So this I thought should not pose a major issue. I would be using Windows Vista Ultimate as it comes with Media Center as well as some added bonuses.

Although you can choose anywhere to buy your equipment, I chose Mostly because I've bought a LOT of things through them and their prices are reasonable and they don't hassle you when you need to return something for no reason at all.

Now when planning this out I knew I wanted it to match some criteria. I have a server that has 1.6TB of drive space. So I wanted to copy over my collection of approximately 250 DVD's, be able to listen to my MP3's that I had ripped from all the CDs I own and also be able to view the thousands of digital photos we have of the family. So I knew that passing that kind of data I would want a VERY robust connection and it would help to have a good amount of RAM as a buffer.

So here is what I bought:
I already had a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate
SilverStone's LC19B 1U case: $209.99
SpecResearch's 01027 Black Wireless Keyboard with built in Trackball: $59.99
GigaByte's GA-MA69GM-S2H Motherboard: $79.99
Sony's Optiarc DVD Burner (slim): $61.99
Hiper HFC-20820 80mm CPU cooler: $39.98
A-Data 2GB (2 X 1GB) SDRAM: $64.99

AMD Athlon 2.1 GHz Dual Core CPU: $65.99
AverMedia AverTV ASTC/NTSC Dual tuner TV Card: $103.99
I already had a Seagate 500GB SATA Drive

So my total cost was: $686.91 (plus shipping)

The Advantages?
So I know it will take me 26 months to recoup the costs, BUT there are a TON of advantages here:
I have a young child, so DVDs get destroyed ALL the time. Having them on a hard drive in a secure location and being able to pull all of them up instantly at the touch of button on the remote is awesome. Being able to pull up all of the photos and play them to music through the Photo Library is wonderful when family is visiting and they want to see some pictures. Being able to cue up any music at any time is wonderful. We can of course DVR television shows, but here is a really nice feature. We can BURN the show to DVD to give to someone else or take to a friend's house. MAJOR bonus!

Best of all? I OWN it. So I never have to return it, risking losing shows that I enjoy re-watching. I never have to worry about losing cable service and having nothing to watch.

Now there is one important thing to remember with all of this though. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS back up your data. Again, something that could never be done with a cable provider.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Problems running ChkDsk in Vista

One problem I have recently noticed relating to my Dell M1330; When I want to run chkdsk on reboot, it never runs after setting it to run. I like to run chkdsk from time to time if I find that the drive is either running excessively or I had to run a repair after some sort of failure (such as not coming out of hibernation correctly or blue screen).

When I run the "chkdsk c: /r" to check for errors and repair them, it simply doesn't run after reboot as it should. Now, you should know, there is a work around for this in Vista. Similar to the "Recovery Console" in windows XP, you can boot up to your Vista DVD/CD and choose repair after choosing your language. Then choose "Command Prompt" and from there you can run chkdsk. This doesn't necessarily solve the problem of why it won't work from windows correctly, but at least it lets you run it.

I should also note that I have run into this problem on one Dell XPS desktop I was working on as well as two HP desktops. So my feeling is that this is a common problem for Windows Vista (at least until SP1)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dell XPS M1330 - Trash or Treasure?

Dell XPS M1330 In Hand

I purchased my Dell XPS M1330 to replace my existing Dell Inspiron 6000. I needed a lighter faster more powerful computer as I was tired of lugging around the Inspiron 6000 mooring on a regular basis to and from work.

I was very excited about the weight (or lack of), dual core processor and 2 GB or RAM as well as the HD display and various multimedia capabilities that come standard with this unit. Not cheap though it ran me a little over $2400.00 with the specs I ordered. However, I don't mind paying good money for a good machine.

The things I really like about the XPS M1330 are:

  • Lo Jack for Laptops - Very cool application. It saves it's install files in the BIOS so even if someone steals your laptop, reformats the hard drive and then reloads the OS, it automatically reloads itself stealthily in the background without the thief ever knowing about it.
  • Built in Web cam - Another night feature that should have been done standard a LONG time ago. Apple has been doing it for years, why has it taken PCs so long to catch up with this?
  • Built in Stereo Mics - very good audio quality
  • Built in fingerprint reader - Very nice and well designed fingerprint reader. It uses the much more reliable and accurate capacitive fingerprint scanner. This also means that your fingerprint isn't left on a surface that can be "read" to later reuse and log in with.
  • Electrostatic buttons for CD and Sound operations - The electrostatic (touch controls) at the top of the computer are excellent and there is no "push" or spring technology to get in the way or wear out.
  • CD/DVD slot instead of a pull out tray - Another long needed implementation that Apple has been using for years. I'm really just surprised that it took this long for PC manufactures to learn this from Apple. (and believe it or not, I'm not an Apple guy)
  • Sturdiness of housing - Using a magnesium alloy has made this laptop VERY strong and VERY durable. Hats off to Dell on this.
  • Build in Remote Control - Very nice feature, this remote comes in very handy when doing a presentation, showing off photos (or playing a movie in a hotel for your 2 year old before bed)

Things I really do not like about the M1330:

  • Screen resolution - I think they could squeeze more pixels out of that awesome display if the drivers were configured for it.
  • Loss of PCMCIA slot - I really don't like the fact that in such a small form factor laptop there is absolutely no PCMCIA slot so expansion of with legacy devices is nearly impossible (although there is the newer ExpressCard slot).
  • All of the Dell software - I will get into more details on this shortly.
  • Magnetic sleeve case - I'll get into more details on this as well.

Strike one
I ordered the unit on August 3rd and after purchase was given an expected ship date of September 13th. (okay, I don't mind waiting if the hardware is worth it)

Strike two - the Dell software
Ok, let me first touch on the Dell software that is installed.

I received my laptop from Dell and went about loading all of software, added my files, etc. I then added the computer to the domain (my home network). Now this was using the pre-installed operating system from Dell. Within a week I began to have problems copying files from one drive to another it would simply lock up. Also when I would delete files it would say I don’t have permission to.
I called Dell and they said my operating system was damaged from something that I had loaded on my computer. I had only loaded the Microsoft Office 2007 and Macromedia Suite 8. So it wasn’t anything unusual. They said my only option was to wipe my hard drive using their OS reinstall disc that Dell provided me. So reluctantly I did that. Loaded all my software, etcetera.

About a week later it started up again, problems deleting files and some of my Operating System Critical updates wouldn’t install (using Windows Update). Called them up again, and again they said it was some software I installed.

So, this time I didn’t listen to them and I wiped my hard drive and installed the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version of Vista Ultimate (basically the same one you can get at Best Buy or another similar store.) The OEM version doesn’t come with any of the extra software that Dell pre-installs. I then added the Dell drivers from their website and added my software to the computer along with my files. I added it to the network again and viola! The computer has been rock solid for over two weeks without any problems.
So, it is MY opinion that the software that Dell pre-installs is basically not compatible with Windows Vista but they aren’t willing to admit it.

Strike three? (uncertain) - the magnetic sleeve case
I still find from time to time that I encounter quirky issues such as not shutting down after coming out of hibernation or standby. After running chkdsk /r I find that the computer has some corrupted files. It always repairs the files fine and everything is ok. But it leads me to question the integrity of the notebook. NOW, there is something else that could play into this. I have encountered many computers in my life that have ended up having severe corruption which I believe to be the case of nearby magnets, either stuck to the computer or in a nearby speaker.

This leads me to wonder if the case that they ship with the notebook which uses magnets to hold the flap down could actually be causing damage to the data on the hard drive. Now today's hard drives are significantly more resilient that those of yesterday. The new ones have shielding that prevents most magnetic fields from causing damage. However, those are designed to protect the hard drives from low level temporary magnetic fields. What about low or high level long term fields? Also the book is still out on Windows Vista and bugs are always prevelant until service pack one comes out (at least with Microsoft products).

Conclusion? Well all in all the Dell XPS M1330 is a very well designed rock solid laptop. It does have some quirks about it. But at the moment, they are quirks I'm willing to live with. Would I recommend this laptop to other people? Absolutely. But just be wary of problems and don't just write them off to a bad program or a bad Operating System, though the latter may very well be the case in this scenario.