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.

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.

Windows XP is (Mostly) Dead

After April 8, 2014, Microsoft will no longer support Windows XP  its venerable operating system that has been around since 2001, and still runs on millions of PCs around the world. It was replaced by Windows Vista (which was awful), which was replaced by Windows 7 (which was pretty good), which has now been replaced by Windows 8 (which is a mixed bag), which has been updated to Windows 8.1 (which is also a mixed bag, just mixed a little differently).

I’ve been getting some questions about this change from a few people who still have XP, so it’s worth dispensing some advice. Lots of technical news websites have waxed eloquent on it, so you can Google some of their answers, but here’s my advice for non-techies.

What does it mean that Microsoft is ending support for XP?

It just means that they won’t provide any more updates to Windows XP. These updates usually deal with bugs and security holes in Windows, and without them, those holes Windows XP can be used to infest your system with viruses, or hijack it to use for nefarious purposes. While your antivirus software can cope with most of these, Windows itself may be a sitting duck for the bad guys.

Why are they doing this?

Windows XP is old, plain and simple. It’s twelve years old, and that’s a long time in technology. To expect Microsoft to keep supporting it is a little like expecting your Chevy dealership to keep stocking parts for your 1982 Impala.

Will my computer keep working?

Yes. Not having updates won’t make Windows stop working. Of course, those security holes I mentioned earlier may let malware in, which can cause problems. And if your computer is old enough to have come with Windows XP, it could just break down, as old computers sometimes do.

Should I upgrade to a newer version of Windows?

Maybe. Depending on how old your computer is, it might not have enough oomph (that’s a technical term, don’t’cha know!) to run a newer version of Windows. Here’s my rule of thumb: If your Windows XP computer is less than five years old, think about upgrading the memory. updating to Windows 7. If it’s older than that, don’t throw any more money at it, since it is much more likely to break down before you get your money’s worth out of the update.
Your Windows XP system will most likely NOT be sufficient to run Windows 8. Maybe. But probably not.

If it ain’t broke…

My general advice is this: Don’t worry about upgrading or replacing your computer or Windows if what you have is working well for you. If there is something you want to do with your computer that you can’t do, because it’s too old, or it requires a new version of Windows, then that’s the time to replace or upgrade. That brings up a lot more questions about what to upgrade TO, but that’s a discussion for another day.
One caution, though. BACK UP YOUR DATA! An older computer is much more likely to break down, and you risk losing your files when that happens, or at least losing access to them until they can be recovered. I wrote an article on backing up  a couple of years ago, and my recommendation to use Crashplan still stands.
If you have questions about your specific system, please contact me, and I’ll be glad to help out.

What’s the Deal with Windows 8?

Microsoft has released its latest version of Windows, and it’s been a while since an operating system upgrade has generated as much press – both positive and negative. So what’s the deal? Should you good upgrade, or not?

(The short answer: Probably not. Read on for details, if you care to.)

The main thing that makes it a “big deal” is that Microsoft has completely changed the main user interface. Instead of starting up to your Desktop, where you can see files and folders, you go to a Start Screen, which shows tiles that launch programs, open websites, and display information. For instance, one tile can have an icon for Microsoft Word, another for Gmail, another a picture for one of your contacts, another the weather conditions in your area. The tiles can be sized differently, so the weather tile can show a summary forecast with big enough text for you to read it, while the tile for an app just shows a familiar icon.

Of course, there are dozens of under-the-hood changes, changes in the various Control Panel windows, and even a new Internet Explorer. You can easily share pictures and links to Twitter, Facebook, and Windows Live Mail (and with some help, even Gmail or Yahoo Mail). The designers at Microsoft did a lot of research into how people use Windows in order to decide what changes to make. (Some interesting details and Explorer history are at http://blogs.msdn.com/b/b8/archive/2011/08/29/improvements-in-windows-explorer.aspx).

That all sounds kind of neat, doesn’t it? So what’s missing?

The Start Menu, for one. Well, it’s still there, but in Microsoft’s new design, the Start Menu and several other central features of the interface are hidden until you use key combinations or mouse gestures to reveal them. That really takes away from any intuitiveness in the interface. You can’t just go hunting through the Start Menu, and find things you’re looking for – like the option to shut down or restart your computer.

The Windows Explorer (where you see your files and folders) isn’t readily apparent, but you can get to it – but it has changed a bit, as well. The main difference you’ll see is the “Ribbon” across the top of each folder window, with some of the most commonly-used commands. If you’ve used Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010, you’ve seen the Ribbon interface there.

One other big change is the way in which Windows 8 displays the windows for multiple programs. Simply put, it doesn’t. Every app or web page or document always runs in full-screen. If you’re used to switching between windows using your mouse, you’ll have to get used to the Alt-Tab key combination for switching. (I’ve always found that easier, anyway, but others may find that it may take some getting used to.)

Why did Microsoft make these kinds of changes? Because they are trying to make one single operating system that runs on phones, tablets, and personal computers. (That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but its basically true.) The newest Windows smartphones run Windows 8, Microsoft’s new Surface tablet/laptop hybrid runs Windows 8 (or a variant called Windows RT), and other PC vendors are bringing Windows 8 tablets to market.

Microsoft is trying to position its operating system to survive in what has been called the “Post-PC” age. Tablets and smartphones are becoming many people’s primary computing and information-access devices. Apple’s iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) and Google’s Android on mobile devices are getting a lot more attention than “boring old computers.”

The problem that I see (and that others have commented on, as well) is that in trying to make a single interface for both a touchscreen device and a keyboard-and-mouse device, the interface is lacking when you don’t have BOTH a touchscreen and a keyboard-and-mouse setup. The tiles of the Start screen are great for tablets and smartphones, and the full-screen display of any app you’re on makes reasonable sense. But multitasking functionality, such as switching between apps and using copy-and-paste to move data between apps really is much better suited to the traditional desktop/laptop situation.

A touchscreen is great for a tablet that you’re using while carrying around, or using to read and web surf on the couch. Keyboard-and-mouse control is great for working with multiple windows and manipulating data between programs, or moving files around. However, trying to use a device that has both the traditional input and control method of keyboard-and-mouse AND a touchscreen has not caught on. Mostly because it’s awkward to do touchscreen operations on a screen that’s sitting up behind the keyboard you’re typing on. Moving your hands between mouse, keyboard, and screen isn’t comfortable to use.

So, the question is, should you upgrade?

If you’re a technically-savvy person, who can figure things out on your own… well, you’re probably not reading my opinion! You’ve probably already upgraded, or are planning to! Go for it!

If you’re someone who just wants your computer to do the things you need it to do, and you’re just wondering about Windows 8 because of all the buzz around it, then I’d say, “NO!” It won’t make you more productive, and it won’t gain you any real important functionality that you don’t have with Windows 7. If you’re used to Windows 7 (or even Windows XP or Vista), stick with it, until there is some real compelling reason to upgrade. If you get a new computer, make sure you can get it with Windows 7 before you buy.

That being said, Windows 8 is a compelling tablet operating system, for a device you use in addition to a computer. If you’re interested in using only a tablet for your primary computing device, a Windows 8 tablet is a compelling alternative to an iPad or Android tablet, though most Windows tablets are more expensive. (Pricing on these kinds of things will change over time, of course, and I expect pricing on all types of tablets to get a bit more competitive.)

As always, if you have questions, complaints, rebuttals, etc. click here to contact me.

Taming the Paper Mountain

If you need a little (or a lot of) extra space in your filing cabinet, or want to get rid of the cabinet altogether, you can take all of that paper and scan it into your computer. This can make it easier to find what you need to when it comes time to do your taxes, review your pay history, compare your old insurance policies, etc.

There are five things to consider when you decide to start eliminating paper:

  • A scanner that will work for your situation
  • Software to organize what you’ve scanned
  • Hard drive space requirements
  • A workflow for getting everything scanned
  • Backup of your documents

Scanners

There are almost too many options when it comes to scanners. There are flatbed, document-feeder, or single-sheet-feed scanners; standalone devices or all-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax machines; connection via USB, wired network, or wireless networking…. the variables go on and on.

I find that having an all-in-one (AIO) device with a good document feeder is a great way to save space, instead of having a separate printer and scanner. Of all the various manufacturers, I’m partial to Brother, because I find they give you a good balance between cost and funcionality. The other most prominent AIO vendors are HP, Epson, and Canon. You’ll pay anywhere from $150 to $400 for an all-in-one unit — cheaper ones are, well, cheap, and might not last very well.

There are also small, portable scanners, which feed single sheets through, and connect via USB. These are good if you need to take a scanner with you to scan receipts or short documents, but if you have a lot of pages to scan, they’re not ideal.

If you only have one computer, a USB-only device is fine. Networked AIO devices are great for sharing between multiple computers, and wireless networking is a great option if you have a wireless network and don’t want to deal with the wiring issues. HP and Brother do a great job with Wi-Fi equipped AIO devices.

You may have seen TV commercials for the NeatDesk system. This is a cool device that will scan full pages, business cards, receipts, and other sizes. The software built into the scanner then read the pages to determine the kind of information that is on them, and then passes that info into the NeatWorks or NeatDesk software on your computer, where it is categorized and tagged with according to the contents.

Since Neat arrived on the scene a few years ago, other vendors have made similar scanners. You can find Epson’s Workforce Pro GT-S50 at most office supply stores. Fujitsu also makes the ScanSnap S1500. Both of these scanners are priced similarly to the NeatDesk, at about $400.

Document Management Software

To capture and deal with all of these scanned files, you’ll need some kind of software to manage it, organize it, label it, and view it. Ideally, you’ll also want to add identifying information, or tags, to each document, so you can use a search function to find whatever you’re looking for. You can also use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to read all the text, and automatically generate a searchable database of your files.

Neat has their NeatDesk software on Windows, and NeatWorks on the Mac. This takes advantage of the advanced output from the scanner, as mentioned above. It really makes for a much easier way of organizing things.

Paperport, by Nuance Software, is a great solution for Windows users, with support for just about any scanner you may have. On the Mac, Mariner Software makes Paperless, which dips into the data to give you all kinds of reports, charts, and graphs about the contents of your files. (Paperless is also available for Windows.)

Hard Drive Space

You’re probably wondering how much space those documents will take up on your computer’s hard drive. Won’t scanning all of these things overwhelm your computer?

Not really. Unless you scan everything at full-color, high-resolution, most documents will be less than one megabyte per page. My own document library contains hundreds of documents, with over 15 years of utility bills, bank statements, insurance policies, and other important documents, and takes up just about 2.5 GB of space. That will grow, of course, but with hard drive sizes of 1 TB (1,000 GB) becoming the de facto minimum on most new computers, document management for a small business or home office will be just a fraction of the space available to you.

Back It Up!

Once you start collecting all of these documents, it is vital that you have a way of keeping them safe. If you don’t have a backup strategy now, GET ONE! I’ll have another article about backup options on my site shortly, but for now consider these options:

  • Manually copy all of your document library to a second hard drive on your system
  • Use backup software to backup to a second hard drive (software such as Acronis True Image or Norton 360 for Windows, and Time Machine or Retrospect for Mac)
  • Use a service which backs up your files to a server on the Internet, such as Carbonite, CrashPlan, or Mozy

Workflow

Depending on how much paper you’re scanning, this process can take a long time. And more paper is coming in all the time, so you’ll want to stay on top of that, as well. Here are my suggestions:

Start with the most important documents first: vital records, legal documents, real estate paperwork, current insurance documents, and the things you’ll be keeping in a fire safe or safe deposit box. These are documents you won’t be shredding once they’re scanned, because you’re likely to need them at some point.

Next, start working your way through your tax records from the current and most recent years: receipts, bills, statements, W-2 summaries, etc. Again, you’ll probably keep the physical copies of these for up  to seven years for individuals, and maybe forever for a business.

Then go through your archived bills, bank statements, pay stubs, and all the other recurring documents you’ve been saving. Work your way through by year, by category, by account, or by shoebox, according to how you have them stored.

Then, if there’s no legal need to keep the physical copies, destroy them with a good shredder. I guarantee you that unless there are blood stains on them, you’ll never need the gas bills or credit card statements from 1996 again!

Then come up with a way of keeping up with the new paper that comes in. Scan it as soon as you get it, or as soon as you pay it, or save it up to scan everything weekly or monthly. Make a system that works for you and stick to it as best you can.

Legal Issues

The IRS has ruled in Rev. Proc. 97-22 that accurate scans of paper documents, or completely digital documents, can be submitted with your tax returns. That means you don’t really have to keep as much paper as you’re used to.

As for bank statements, credit card statements, and general bills, more and more companies offer paperless delivery as an option. If you download the documents from their websites, store them along with your scanned documents, and never print them out at all! As long as they’re digitally produced, or are accurate digital copies of paper documents, they are legal, according to nearly all financial authorities. Check with your local authorities to be sure if you have any questions about this.

Conclusion

While we’re not in a completely paperless society, as so many have promised over the years, you can definitely reduce the amount of paper you have around, and hopefully keep things more organized, using scanning technology and good strategies for management and backup of your data. If you have specific questions, use the contact form to send them my way.