Another XP Bug — Time to Upgrade?

I wrote a while back about what to do if you have a computer running Windows XP, in light of Microsoft discontinuing support for the venerable operating system. At the time, my recommendation was to not panic, and keep using the system if it works for you, and keep an eye out for any new security vulnerabilities were discovered that might be a problem.

So, what’s new?

Well, now a news has hit the Internet that says all versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer — the web browser which is built-in to every version of Windows — have a very serious flaw which could allow a hacker to get into your system. You would have to go to a website that has some specific malicious code on it to fall victim to the flaw, which isn’t going to happen to everybody, but it’s still a big risk to leave your system unpatched — and Windows XP will not get a patch from Microsoft. If you’re using Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8.1, you’ll get that patch very soon.

The risk is great enough that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued an advisory, telling users of Windows XP to stop using Internet Explorer, and instead use a different browser, like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, or Opera.

I’ve been saying that for years. But I digress.

This brings up two issues: First, will switching browsers be easy, and will it keep my computer safe? Second, is NOW the time to ditch Windows XP for good?

Switching browsers

Moving to another browser isn’t too hard. As you install Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera (or any of a dozen other browsers you might find, if you look for a while), the installers will ask if you want to import information from IE. Usually, they will import bookmarks, history, some saved passwords, and auto-fill information, if you’re using that. Once that information has been imported, you’re off and running.

Also see my article on passwords for suggestions about using a password manager, to keep your saved passwords independent of your browser, adding one more layer of security to your system.

With a less-likely-to-be-a-problem browser, you can dodge this particular bullet. However, there will be other bugs and security holes found in Windows XP in the future, so at some point, you will need to move forward, either by upgrading Windows on your existing computer, or moving to a new computer.

So, YES, start making steps toward replacing your old computer that is running Windows XP.

Make a migration plan

I think it’s prudent to start making a plan now for some kind of upgrade, whether it will be on your existing computer with a new version of Windows, or to a new computer. My general recommendation is that if you computer is less than 5 years old, it may be a good candidate for an upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 (Actually Windows 8.1 performs better on older computers than Windows 7 — go figure!). It wouldn’t hurt to  give the hardware a once-over before making that choice; a new hard drive or a little more memory could help extend the life of the computer a bit.

At some point, though, you will need to replace the computer you have, whether it’s now, a year from now, or even farther out. So make some decisions and preparations now for that eventuality.

First, know where your data is on your computer. are all of your files in the “My Documents” folder? Are some on a second hard drive? Is your email in Outlook, Windows Mail, or do you only access it through Yahoo or Gmail via your (non-IE on XP) web browser? Are you using cloud storage, like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive?

Next, make sure you have a good backup scheme for your data. Do you copy your important files to a flash drive or CD-ROM once a week/month, and store that in a safe place? Or do you use an external backup drive — and is the backup software actually WORKING? How about an online backup service, like Crashplan, or my new favorite, Backblaze?

Once you’ve got your data and its safety nailed down, you have the luxury of time to think about your next computer. There are several choices to make: How much do you want to spend? What is the timeframe for replacing your computer? Do you need top-of-the-line performance for graphics or gaming, or an average performer for everyday work? Will it be a desktop or a laptop? Will you stay with Windows, or move to Mac?

I’d suggest starting with cost: set in your mind how much you are willing to spend on the new computer first. With that in mind, start shopping around for things that fit into that expectation. Don’t get bogged down in the dizzying number of options and technical specifications — those are for the geeks. Stick with good brand names, like Dell, HP, Lenovo, or ASUS.

If a new computer is out of your reach right now, start putting money aside for it. Let’s all be good little savers, now, and avoid the credit cards!

Pay attention to the programs you will need to have on a new computer, and realize that you can’t copy programs over the way you can your data. Each program will have to be installed fresh, so make sure you have your installation discs or downloaded installers available. Or look for new versions from the software publisher, and decide if you want to spend the money on those upgrades, as well.

With those decisions made ahead of time, you’ll be in a good position when it’s time to upgrade — whether by choice or as the result of a computer failure.

Conclusion

Here’s the recap, for those of you who are still awake:

  • If you’re still on Windows XP, stop using Internet Explorer.
  • If you’re still on Windows XP; make plans to move off of it.
  • Know where your data is on your computer and/or in the cloud.
  • Use a good backup strategy, and make sure it’s working.
  • Decide how much money you’ll spend on your next computer.
  • Decide some of the specifics of the new computer — laptop/desktop, brand, etc.
  • Make sure you have your program installers.

How long should you wait? Let me make this suggestion: Have a plan to be DONE with Windows XP by the end of the 2014, whether by upgrading your existing computer or replacing it.

Questions? Contact me using the form on this page.

Passwords – The Smart Way

The recent Heartbleed bug has made everyone think about their passwords for different Internet sites, and while a lot of the tech news folks are in a lather about the ins and outs of password management, most of the folks I talk to just want to keep their information safe, while not adding too much work to be able to get to their information. Unfortunately, not doing anything and hoping for the best isn’t a good approach. So let’s take a few minutes to talk about a smart approach to your passwords.

RECOMMENDATION 1: Create different passwords for every site you use, especially on sites that hold important financial and personal information.

Using the same password for everything is a REALLY BAD plan. The ONLY thing that’s good about it is that it makes it easy for you to remember it. However, that’s small comfort if someone else gets hold of it. Since many popular websites use your email address as your account name, if you use the same password to read your email as you do for those sites, it makes it that much easier for a hacker to jump from your email to those sites. So take some time and create unique passwords for each site.

RECOMMENDATION 2: Create strong passwords

It’s also not a good idea to use simple passwords, with just a single word, or a string of numbers. Some hackers will use “brute-force” attacks to try and guess passwords, trying random combinations of letters or numbers. The more complex your password is, the harder it is to break. Complex passwords will have both upper- and lower-case letters, as well as some numbers, and perhaps a special character, like a dash, an exclamation point, or and ampersand. One common suggestion is to use three unrelated words, and separate them with a number or a punctuation mark (for instance “below!paper9mango”). This make the password somewhat more memorable for you, but less likely to be figured out by a hacker.

RECOMMENDATION 3: Periodically change your passwords

In order to keep malicious hackers from having an easy time of it, don’t let your passwords stay the same forever. From time to time, change the passwords for the sites you use most, and which have the most critical information — especially financial information. Pick a cycle — monthly, quarterly, annually, when Daylight Savings starts and stops, and generate new passwords.

RECOMMENDATION 4: Use a good password manager

You may have your passwords saved by your web browser, so it automatically fills it in on some websites. That has some value, but if your computer has problems, and you don’t keep track of your passwords elsewhere, then you may have trouble accessing your information. Keep track of your passwords using a password manager program, like 1Password, LastPass, or RoboForm. These programs store your login information for all your websites, and can also store other bits of info, like PIN codes, alarm codes, bank account numbers, etc. They protect your information with a password; essentially you only have to remember that one main password to unlock your list of all your other passwords. These programs can then fill in your login information as you go around the Internet. These programs also have features that will generate new passwords for you, and they can be as random and complex as you like.

If that’s not your style, you can put your unique, complex, and frequently-changed passwords into a notebook, as long as you keep that notebook in a safe place. It’s not very high-tech, I know, but for some people, it’s the most reasonable way to implement the first three recommendations above.

Questions? Feel free to contact me, using the form here on this page.

Windows 8.1 Update

Today is April 8, 2014, and it is notable for two things: First, Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP (Click here to read my previous article on this issue.). Second: Microsoft is releasing an update for Windows 8.1, which is called… um… Windows 8.1 Update. This update brings some really useful touches to Windows 8.1, making it a bit easier to navigate for folks who have used Windows for a while.
Rather than writing about it myself, I’ll point you to Microsoft’s official writeup about the update, and then give you three things I think you should do with the update, once you’ve installed it.
Go directly to the Desktop when you login
If you don’t like the Start screen, you can set Windows to show you the Desktop when you login, bypassing the Start screen. You’ll still have to go back to the Start screen from time to time, but if you’re just looking to open your Documents folder and start editing files that are already there, this will speed that up a bit.
Here’s how:

  • From the Desktop, right-click on the taskbar, and select Properties
  • In the Taskbar and Navigation properties box that appears, click on the Navigation tab
  • In the Start screen section, check the first option.
Pin apps to the taskbar
Since the taskbar can now appear when you’re on the Start screen or in full-screen apps (which Microsoft calls “Windows Store apps”), pin your most-used apps to the taskbar, so they’re always close at hand. To do this, right-click on an app’s tile on the Start screen, or right-click an app icon on your desktop, and select “Pin to taskbar.”
And then un-pin that green shopping bag, the Windows Store app. Unless, that is, you think you’ll be wanting to add apps frequently.
Explore the Start screen
I have spent a fair amount of time saying less-than-charitable things about the Start screen since Windows 8 showed up. However, it might work really well for you, so try it out, and see if you can make it do what you want it to do.
Remove tiles that you don’t want to see all the time, and tiles for apps that you do want to see. Resize tiles to make them fit the way you want. Some tiles are “live tiles,” meaning they will constantly update with new information, such as weather, stark market data, and news headlines. See what you can do with those tiles, and organize them in a way that makes sense for you.

If you want to add some of your installed apps to the Start screen, you can find them in the Apps listing that appears when you click on the arrow at the bottom left of the Start screen.
How to get the update
To get the Windows 8.1 Update, just run a normal Windows Update session. Move your mouse to the right side of the screen to show the Charms bar, and click on the magnifying glass to bring up Search. Type in Windows Update, and select the “Check for updates” option. Click on the “Check now” button, and let Windows update download and install all of the items listed as “important updates.” The update that applies here is the one that references KB 2919355, if you want to get real specific.
You may have to restart and re-run Windows Update to get all of the “important updates” completed. Once you see the new Shutdown and Search icons on the top right of your Start screen, you’ll have this newest update for Windows 8.1
And pay no attention to the goofy looking guy on the screen there.