Firefox logo with tubular bells and whistlesOne of the great strengths of the Firefox web browser is the ability to bolt on goodies – bells and whistles, if you like – that add useful features to the browser. These “bolt-ons” are usually free but the authors may invite you to make a small donation of a couple of pounds.

There are lots of these “add-ons”. They go under the name of “add-ons”, “plug-ins”, “extensions”. I can’t find any definition of these terms that differentiates between them so I’m not sure if there’s some subtle difference between them or not. Anyway, they’re all “bolt-on goodies” as far as I am concerned and Firefox is the best of all the major browsers in this respect.

The best place to go hunting for these add-ons is to open Firefox, click on the “Firefox” button (see figure 1), click on “Add-ons”, then click on “Get Add-ons” and then click on “browse all add-ons” (bottom righthand corner of screen). Figure 1 illustrates Firefox version 6.

Firefox Add-On Button

Figure 1 - Firefox Add-On Button

To give you an idea of what’s available, here are half a dozen of the ones that I find the most useful:-

Adblock Plus 1.3.9

This removes most online advertising and blocks known malware domains. I appreciate that I’m open to charges of hypocricy and biting the hand that feeds me as I, myself, advertise my computer support and training services online using Google AdWords. Maybe I wouldn’t encourage blocking ads if it wasn’t for the fact that some of them are very distracting and irritating – especially the animated ones. AdBlock Plus is a godsend for grumpy old men like me.

BetterPrivacy 1.66

Normal methods of removing tracking cookies do not include the removal of “super cookies” created by Flash objects. This add-on gives the option of manually managing them or automatically deleting them, thereby reducing the chances of third parties discovering where you have been on the internet.

Flagfox 4.1.5

This add-on shows an icon of a flag in the website address bar. This flag is of the country in which the website server resides. I tend to glance at this to help me decide whether a website is genuine and/or trustworthy. This helps my decision-making if I’m considering an online purchase from an unknown company.

My Homepage 1.2

It was stumbling on this “extension” this morning that caused me to write this blog offering computer advice on this subject. I have always been irritated by opening a new browser tab and not having it open my Home Page. Why open a new tab with a blank page? What good is that to anyone? Anyway, this little extension solves it – magic!

Print Edit 5.4

I was thinking of writing a blog post on the problems of printing from web pages, although I have mentioned the subject before – eg Website Frustrations. This add-on greatly helps in overcoming those problems as you can choose which “elements” or “chunks” of a web page will be sent to your printer. Isn’t it amazing how irritated we all get when the printer spews out four pages and all we wanted was a couple of paragraphs?

TrackMeNot 0.6.728

OK, we’ve had the “grumpy old man” a couple of times already today, so here’s more of the paranoid: I really don’t want anyone taking any kind of note of what I do on my computer unless it is information that I have specifically and knowingly provided. What TrackMeNot does is to issue random search requests to the main search engines – AOL, Yahoo, Google, and Bing – so that genuine searches are “hidden” amongst all this chaff. This reduces the chances of the search companies being able to compile meaningful profiles based on user search patterns. On the authors’ website they say “Placing users in full control is an essential feature of TMN, whose purpose is to protect against the unilateral policies set by search companies in their handling of our personal information“.

They go on to say “We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance“. Quite.

Is your hard drive working properly? Is it likely to fail? What would you do if it did?

A hard drive melting and going down a drainHard drive manufacturers used to rate the reliability of their drives in terms of a number of hours “MTBF” (mean time between failures). This was supposed to tell you how long you could reasonably expect a drive to last before a problem is likely, on average, to occur. It seems they don’t do this any more and I haven’t found out whether it’s because the figure was misleading or meaningless. Certainly, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that users change their drives 15 times more often than the manufacturers would think they should.

I have seen various figures that suggest that, in practice, the reliability of drives starts to plummet at anywhere between five and seven years. All of this is irrelevant, really. The only important, irrefutable, fact is that drives DO fail. Given that fact, does it really make any difference whether there is a 1% chance or a 20% chance that your drive will fail in the next year? I’m by no means the only person to have known drives fail within their first year of life. The fact that such a drive would still be under warranty is not the point. The value is in the contents – your Windows installation, the programs, and the data. The best computer advice I can offer is that you assume that any drive can fail at any time.

So how do you know if a drive is failing?

Under normal circumstances, you may not know. However, there are two very definite signs that might be present – alone or together – that clearly indicate that something is going wrong:

  • An increasing number of errors, freezes, and program crashes may be caused by a failing drive. Such problems could be caused by disc drive read/write errors or by many others causes. It’s definitely worth heeding the warning and making sure your important data is backed up. You can then investigate further, knowing that you’ve protected the most valuable part of your computer system – your data.
  • A clicking noise coming from the drive. Act immediately. The drive could fail at any time. If there’s any data on the drive that you don’t want to lose, back it up NOW. If you’re not sure whether what you can hear is serious, visit this link and listen to some death rattles of failing drives. Be warned, though, that if your drive is starting to fail it could go at any time, so backing up data is a better use of its dying moments than having it clicking away in the background while you decide which of the sounds on the above link is the best match.


Monitoring a Healthy Drive

Most drives have something called S.M.A.R.T. technology built in so that appropriate software can monitor the health of your drive. The software that I use on my own machines for this purpose – and when providing computer support for clients – is called Active@ Hard Disk Monitor Free. This keeps a constant check on many of the parameters that indicate the health of your drive. It also has a temperature gauge to warn you if the drive is overheating. The only real limitation of the software is that it can only monitor internal hard drives. You can’t use it to monitor the health of, for instance, your USB-connected external backup drive. Nevertheless, I consider this a useful computer support tool that can give valuable warning of problems ahead.

Replacing a Hard Drive

If your drive has failed and Windows won’t start then you need to take a deep breath. There are specialist data recovery companies who may be able to get some or all of your data back but the cost could run into four figures. You may need or choose to buy a new drive and re-install everything from scratch, re-loading any data backups that you do have or that recovery specialists have been able to rescue. You may or may not feel confident to do this yourself: this is the type of computer support that people such as I, myself, offer. Don’t necessarily jump to the wrong conclusion, though. If you’ve just turned on your computer and Windows won’t load then there could be a reason other than hard drive failure, so there could be less drastic and less expensive options.

If your drive does need replacing, but is working reliably at the moment, then the best plan is probably to employ software such as Paragon Partition Manager to clone the entire drive. This is not entirely risk-free. I’ve known such software completely trash the contents of a hard drive partition by making a simple error when creating the clone. My own strategy when using it is to back up important data by a different means first, and then to use the cloning software. This is much, much, quicker than installing Windows, programs, and data from scratch. It has to be said, though, that this kind of task is not for the faint-hearted and may be beyond the technical knowledge of the average reader of this blog. Nevertheless, I hope it’s useful to point out the kind of options you may have if you suspect that your hard drive may be going on the fritz.

To sum up, the best single piece of advice I can give on this subject is this – don’t ignore the signs of a failing drive. You might be able to prevent a problem from becoming a disaster if you heed the warnings and act immediately.

F11 keyI often say, when delivering computer training, that it’s not worth trying to learn all the keyboard shortcuts that you come across as there are just too many of them. However, I recommend noting new ones from time to time and seeing if they’re worth committing to memory. Here’s one such – the F11 key “toggles” the full-screen mode when using a browser in Windows (except when using Safari – which is a Mac program).

I’ll explain that bit by bit:

    • The function keys are those at the top of the keyboard numbered F1 – F12. They perform different functions in different places and in different programs. See my blog on Function Keys for further information.
    • A browser is the program that you use to view web pages. The most popular browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari. See my blog on browsers for further information.
    • Normally, when you are looking at a web page, a fair proportion of the screen is taken up with toolbars, status bar, taskbars and the like. You may be doing far more scrolling up and down to see the content of the web page itself than you would like. Hitting the F11 key maximises the size of the window and hides all the un-necessary stuff – leaving you to concentrate on the web page itself. Hitting the F11 key again puts the window back to the way it had previously looked.
    • A “toggle” switch is a bit of computer jargon that you may come across from time to time. It means a switch that is operated in the same way irrespective of its current setting. Imagine a light switch in the form of a cord. If the light is off and the cord is pulled then the light goes on. If the light is on and the cord is pulled then the light goes off. This, therefore, is a toggle switch. You pull the cord and the light changes its current state. So, in the case of the F11 button, repeatedly hitting it while viewing a web page turns the full-screen view on and off.

    Clipart star
    Internet Explorer 9 Favorites

    Two clients asked me for computer support this week after their favorites disappeared following an upgrade to Internet Explorer 9. If you can’t find yours, don’t panic – they’re there. It’s just that Microsoft is following the trend of making their browser look less cluttered. Look for the cluster of three icons at the top righthand corner of the screen. It looks like this:

    IE9 Favorites Icon

    The middle icon of these three is for Favorites. If you click on the star it will open a window with your Favorites displayed. This is a toggle switch so clicking on the star again will hide them again.

    If you are also missing your Favorites Bar (that used to display your favorite links across the top of the screen), then you can set this to display – as well as other items – by clicking on the relevant option that pops up if you right-click on the star icon. Just to emphasise that – you RIGHT-click on the star to display the toolbar options menu. The menu that pops up is like this:

    Menu of options for displaying IE9 Favorites

    Select or de-select the various bars by clicking on them (yet more toggles). Items that are currently being displayed have a tick next to them.

    In fact, the way that the Favorites works in IE9 is very similar indeed to the way that it works in Firefox 6, except that Firefox calls them Bookmarks (which does have the merit of not upsetting pedantic Brits like me who were taught how to spell properly).

A lot of business users and home computer users automatically turn to Microsoft Word every time they want to create text that needs to be saved. Word is a great fully-featured “word processing package” but using it often seems like using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, and it doesn’t necessarily offer a good solution in terms of organising snippets of information and finding them again in a hurry. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that Word has now become too clever and complicated for its own good, confusing average users with a plethora of options while not answering the real-world needs of data storage and retrieval.

Think, for example, of wanting to record notes about household things such as car maintenance records, or recipes, or anything else where you want to record information that you might just need to find again in the future. It seems to me that the trick is to make it as easy as possible to do the recording while, at the same time, making it as easy as possible to find something in, say, a year’s time.

Let’s take this a bit further by adding the possibility of including images (including screen captures), links to web pages, and links to files on your own computer. What we are beginning to see now is not just a program for recording text but an entire “information management system”.

Microsoft does have its own program for this kind of need. It’s called OneNote and it’s included in Microsoft Office packages. However, in all the years that I’ve been providing computer support in London I have never heard a single client mention it. I’ve been testing it for myself for the last three months or so. If I decide it’s worth using I’ll write a blog post on it, but I have to say that so far I’m finding it a bit irritating and possibly resource-hungry. On the other hand, it does seem quite powerful and useful.

In the meantime, the program I use for this kind of thing is one called “Treepad”. Indeed, I write these blog posts using Treepad and then copy and paste them onto my website. The reasons for using Treepad in this context are:

  • I can concentrate on creating the text without worrying about formatting etc.
  • I can easily drop images into the text that I might want to include in the blog post.

I also use Treepad for all kinds of computer technical notes that I may never need again or that I might just need one day. I have found that the really important thing is that the effort of writing down and saving information like this is only repaid if it’s easy to find it again. That also means that it has to be easy to do the recording. Treepad is excellent in these respects.

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

Figure 1 - Treepad - showing the tree structure on the left and part of an article (the contents of a node) on the right

Treepad is basically a text manager that allows you to organise content in a “tree structure”. On the left of the screen is the structure, and on the right is the content of the particular “node” that is currently selected. Nodes can be “nested” inside nodes in much the same way that Windows organises folders within folders (see Figure 1). By the by, you can see from the top of Figure 1 that I keep my Treepad files in my Dropbox folder so that they are always available on all my computers – see my blog about Dropbox.

But it is not only text that can entered into a node. We can also paste images, hyperlinks to programs or data files on the same computer, hyperlinks to websites, and links to other nodes in the same Treepad data file. It’s very easy to use and it’s powerful.

The only major gripe that I have with Treepad is that there is no inbuilt “tagging”. By that, I mean the ability to define each node as belonging to one or several user-defined “definitions” or “groups”. For instance, I might want to tag the content of nodes with “computer support London” or “silver surfer pc training” or “one-to-one computer training” or “blog ideas” so that all nodes with one or more specific tags can be selected easily. This is not absolutely critical, though, as there is a search routine, so I try to remember to add the words that I would like to treat as tags to the top line of the content of nodes. If I then search for a specific word it will list all nodes that include that word.

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

Figure 2 shows the results of searching my Treepad file for “AVG”:

I can then click on any selected node to see it in its entirety.

Treepad is available in several versions. There is a free version so it costs nothing except a bit of time to give it a try. If you are the sort of person who is forever mislaying bits of information that you think should be easily accessible on your computer then it could pay you to have a look at it. I’ve been using the “Business” version for several years.

I started looking at Microsoft’s OneNote because it appears to be a more sophisticated program (you can scan documents directly into OneNote for instance), but I find its text handling a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic (ie annoying) so I don’t know yet whether I would recommend it. Treepad is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth but it’s easy to use and repays the minimal effort required to use it.

I’m going to have a look at how good Treepad might be as a password manager program as I know that most of my IT clients do not have a simple, effective, consistent way of storing these and could do with a bit of well-aimed computer advice on the subject. Watch this space….

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Have you ever wondered how to type special characters that do not appear on the keys of your keyboard? I’m talking of things such as:

è é ç

These are all pretty standard French characters, but it’s not at all obvious (in Windows, at any rate) how to type them.

Likewise, symbols such as © (copyright) and ¥ (yen) may also be needed from time to time.

These characters, and many others, are accessible from the Windows “Character Map”, but you may well need some computer help to find it! Once you have found it, here is the Character Map for the font Calibri in Windows 7. It is very much the same in Windows XP and Vista. Note that some fonts (like the one illustrated) contain more characters than can be contained in the fixed-size window, so there is a scroll bar at the right.

A window showing Windows Character Map

It can be a little bit tricky to find the Character Map and a bit tricky to use it until you know how it works, so let’s take those as two separate tasks:

1) Creating a Shortcut to the Character Map

There are several ways to launch the Character Map (see, for instance, my blog on Run Commands ), but the easiest thing to do is to create a shortcut on your desktop. The Character Map will then be accessible at any time by just double-clicking on this shortcut. Here are the steps. They are the same for Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7:

1.1) Go to your Desktop and right-click on a blank part of the screen (your cursor must not be on top of an icon that’s already there)
1.2) Left-click on the option that says “New”
1.3) Left-click on the option that says “Shortcut”
1.4) In the space where it says “Type the location of the item:”, type in the following:

C:\Windows\System32\charmap.exe

1.5) Click on the “Next” button
1.6) Type in a name for this shortcut (such as “Character Map”) or leave the default name that it offers
1.7) Click on the “Finish” button

Your shortcut has now been created. If you double-click on it you should see the Character Map window displayed as above.

As this may be the first time that you have created a shortcut on your desktop it’s worth just noting the fact that what we have done here is to place an icon (or shortcut or button – they all mean just about the same in this context) on your desktop that “points” to a program. This means that we don’t have to find that program again: we just need to double-click on the shortcut and it will always open that program. The location of the program and its name are contained in the text you typed in (C:\Windows\System32\charmap.exe). There are many ways that you can personalise your computer setup with shortcuts like this and you don’t need to be a computer geek or computer specialist to start taking advantage of them. It just takes a bit of computer training and a bit of practice. In most cases it is easier to create a shortcut than in this instance.

2) Grabbing Characters from the Character Map

Back to the main point. Now that we have access to the Character Map we need to know how to use it.

2.1) Select your font by clicking the triangle next to “Font:”. Note that different characters are available in different fonts.
2.2) Select your character(s) by double-clicking on it/them. As you double-click on them you will see them build up in the space next to “Characters to copy:”
2.3) Click on the “Copy” button. This will put the selected characters into the Windows clipboard (an area of memory where Windows puts data prior to copying or moving it to somewhere else).
2.4) Return to the program into which you wish to place the special character(s).
2.5) Type Ctrl v to insert the characters. Note that “Ctrl v” (pronounced “control vee”) means depressing the key marked “Control” or “Ctrl” and, while that key is down, hitting the letter v. If the application you are using has a “paste” command then that will do exactly the same thing. See my blog on basic keyboard shortcuts for further information on this.
2.6) If you select your special characters from “character sets” that your program can not handle then they may appear in your documents as question marks. If this happens, go back to the character map, tick the box next to “Advanced View” and then select “Windows: Western” from the list next to “Character Set”. Then choose your characters again.

Voilà !

3) Wingdings and Webdings

If you scroll down to the end of the list of fonts (see (2.1) above) you will probably see several fonts called Wingdings, Wingdings2, etc listed at the bottom. These are special fonts that produce entirely different characters that are more like icons than letters. These can be inserted into “normal” text in just the same way as other characters. Here are just a few examples from the Wingdings font:

4 wingdings - yin yang, telephone, envelope, clock

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Computer Support in London
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