System image backups can save a lot of time and grief if your system goes belly up

A hard drive melting and going down a drainThink of your computer as containing three sorts of file:

  • Windows (or Mac OSX if you are that way inclined)
  • Your programs (eg Microsoft Word or Sage Accounts)
  • Your data (eg photos, documents, accounts data)

For the most part, we think of backups as containing the third of these categories. After all, if your hard drive fails you can find Windows or OSX files (known collectively as the “operating system”) and program files from somewhere else. It is your own data files that are irreplaceable unless you have made copies (backups).

To be honest, I find it difficult enough persuading my IT Support clients that data backups are essential, without making the whole subject bigger and more complicated with system and program files as well.

So why bring up the subject now?

Because of an experience with a client just a few weeks ago. This client has a Dell laptop that is less than a year old. It recently refused to boot up. Windows tried to repair itself but couldn’t. Eventually, we decided that we would need to re-install a fresh copy of the Windows files, a fresh copy of the program files, and restore his latest data backup. It turned out that the hard drive didn’t appear to have a fresh copy of the Windows files so we spent time downloading it from Dell (an easy enough process thanks to their policy of uniquely identifying each computer they sell by a “service tag”). However, the process failed. Dell’s own diagnostic program then told us that it could no longer find any hard drive at all. At this point, we concluded that the hard drive had probably failed and that it was a warranty job (luckily, with John Lewis).

Now, if we’d got a recent backup that contained all of the Windows files, the program files, and the data (plus all the correct configuration files) we wouldn’t have had to spend time finding a fresh copy of Windows (a waste of time, anyway, of course as the drive was failing). More importantly, when the machine comes back from Dell it will have none of his programs on and none of his data. Had the client had a special type of backup called a “system image” then one process would have been all it needed to put his system back exactly the same as it was when the system image was created – Windows, program files, configuration files, data, the lot.

Why don’t we routinely make System Images?

Time is the main reason. It can take many hours to create a system image. The other problem is that system images have to be restored all at once. You can’t just choose to restore a single file that you inadvertently deleted and then emptied from the recycle bin. The fact that it all has to be restored at once also means that it either works or it doesn’t. All or nothing. And there’s no way of knowing whether a system image is going to work until you try it (by which time it’s too late, of course, to do anything about it if it’s broken).

What’s the best plan?

Macrium Reflect logoCreate a system image periodically (say, every six months) and create data backups in-between just as you do now (don’t you?). Keep the last two or three system images that you make so that if one fails you can at least try to restore an older one.

The time problem of taking system images can be reduced by creating them with a program such as Macrium Reflect. This allows you to make full backups and then backups of only the bits that are new or which have changed (known as incremental backups). There is now a method of creating system images in Windows 10, but these are only full backups. You can’t create incremental backups.

Nevertheless, if you use Windows 10 I do urge you to take the occasional system image. You will need an external drive that’s at least as big as the drive you wish to back up. If you need the backup and it doesn’t work then you are not really any worse off. If it did work, then it could save endles hours and endless grief.

Carbon Copy Cloner logoIf you use a Mac, then its inbuilt “Time Machine” software will probably save you, instead of having a system image. However, some of your Time Machine files may have been automatically deleted if the backup drive has filled up (see my blog post “Will Mac’s Time Machine Always Keep Your Files“). Personally, I make system images of my Macs using Carbon Copy Cloner and I use Macrium Reflect for my PCs. Note that Carbon Copy Cloner is not a free program (and it’s also somewhat complicated to use).

No, I’ve no idea what “Bamboo Slate” means, but the product has a definite use

Bamboo Slate logoThe Wacom Bamboo Slate is not a new product and not everyone would benefit from one, but it helps me in a specific way and might just be of interest to you.

Wacom Bamboo SlateWhat is it? It is a writing pad. You write (or draw or doodle or sketch) onto normal paper with a special ballpoint pen (a bit fatter than a normal ballpoint pen, but it feels the same otherwise). The magic is that, at the push of a button, what you have written is transferred to a mobile phone app and to a cloud account that can be accessed by logging in to a web page.

Why would you want one? When I visit IT Support clients, or speak to a client or potential client on the phone, I usually take notes. In most respects, my life is as paperless as I can get it, but typing directly onto a computer or tablet or phone gets in the way of things (such as listening to the client). I don’t want to have to type up hand-written notes later as there’s a very great chance that I’ll never refer to them agan. Nevertheless, I want a permanent record and, obviously, I need to be able to find specific notes if I have to.

Bamboo penWhy not just use paper? Trawling back through several notebooks to find a record that may or may not exist from six months ago is very tedious. To some extent, the software with the Bamboo Slate can actually read my writing and search through text for me. It also keeps the date and time that each note was saved, so that can also help in searching for specific notes. Notes are kept in the app on a smartphone and also in the cloud, accessible via a browser. This also means, of course, that you don’t have to lug old notebooks around in order to have access to their contents.

Why not just take a photo of a normal hand-written note? Tried that. It does work, and the image can even be searchable (to some extent) if you import it into Evernote, for instance. However, it’s all just too much effort. The beauty of the Bamboo Slate is that it’s very very quick and easy to translate a normal hand-written note into a permanent record and then easier than with paper notes to search for an item later.

The slate itself and the special pen that you have to use weigh just 284gm (plus the weight of a normal notebook), so it’s not a hassle to carry around (as long as you remember to do so!). Refills for the special pen undoubtedly work out more expensive than using a cheap ballpoint pen, but I don’t think that will be a problem.

I have had this Bamboo Slate for several months now. I’ve held off from writing this blog post about it as I thought this might just be one of those things that seems great when it’s novel, but which you stop using and then forget all about. That’s not happened yet, but I’ve found that there’s a little bit of discipline needed in using it:

  • You have to remember to press the button to turn it on – before starting to write the note you want it to record! There’s no boot-up time or anything like that, but I’ve often had to write the beginning of a note twice because I’ve remembered part way through that I’ve not switched it on. Doh!
  • I am careful not to write passwords, or other very sensitive information, on the slate. I have no reason to think that the “Inkspace” cloud account is any less secure than any other cloud-based account, but that’s insecure enough to make it wise to think about what is being stored there.
  • You have to remember to take the Slate with you! One of the mixed blessings of writing notes in a normal notepad is that you can have one on your desk, one in your work bag etc. I say it’s a mixed blessing because searching for an old note might mean searching several notebooks that were on the go at the same time. That doesn’t happen if you use a Bamboo Slate.

How much? £84.99 from PC World for the A5 size (there’s also an A4 size).

Isn’t it odd how we can become obsessed with small details when it comes to computers?

Mouse ClickI have been mildly amused many times over the years by my computer support clients asking me to help with seemingly small problems that amount to nothing more than being forced into making one or two more mouse clicks or screen taps than would seem to be necessary. The reason I am amused is that I am just like that myself, and it’s good to know that what I might think is my own obsessional behaviour is, actually, fairly normal.

Sometimes when these situations crop up, a part of me would like to point out that a way of improving the situation might be possible but that it would cost (say) half an hour of my time and that they might prefer to live with the status quo. That might be the professional approach, but I’ve got to eat, after all! Actually, that is just the advice I do give when appropriate. However, there are some occasions where there is a quicker way of achieving the same result, and I’m very happy to point it out when this is the case. There seem to be many situations, though, when all I can do is sympathise and agree.

New Shortcut

Figure 1

My own current favourite “bete noire” in this respect (if it’s possible to have a favourite bete noire) is my Barclays iPhone app. From the screen where I can see how little money I have in the bank, to the point of being logged out of the app, requires four screen taps. Why four? Logging off is the one thing you do every time you use an app (or, at least, it should be for important apps like internet banking). So why not streamline things by having a “log off” button on all screens and, if they must, a dialog box that requires a confirmatory tap before the app logs off?

How long do those extra taps take? Probably less than a second, but I still let myself get upset by this. If I used the app once a day for the next 5 years I might waste a total half an hour. For goodness sake, David, get a grip! And yet, it still seems annoying.

Shutdown Instruction

Figure 2

My theory is that what secretly annoys us is that we have no control over this stuff and we feel that it is not being designed with our best interests in mind and that – possibly worst of all – we don’t really have a viable alternative to just toeing the line and doing whatever it requires of us. We know that there’s no point in trying to complain, and trying to do without it would be (as my mother used to say) a case of cutting our nose off to spite our face. So we live with it, and get annoyed by it, and feel alienated and powerless.

Probably one of the more irritating procedures we have to go through with Windows computers is switching the things off. Would it really be so difficult to have one single button marked “Off”? And why does this procedure begin with clicking on the “Start” button? “Oh, obviously, I want to switch it off, so I have to click on Start. Perhaps I should look for a switch marked “Off” when I want to turn it on”.

Well, this is one thing we can do something about. To create a desktop icon in Windows 10 that switches everything off:

  • Right-click on an empty part of the desktop
  • Left-click on “new”. See Figure 1
  • Left-click on “shortcut”
  • In the box beneath “type the location of the item”, type in “C:\Windows\System32\shutdown.exe /s /t 0” (all on one line, without the quotes, but with spaces exactly where indicated). See Figure 2
  • Click on “Next”
  • Rename the shortcut if desired
  • Click on Finish
  • Try it

One small victory for mankind…….

In my role as an IT Consultant, one of the questions that I am asked most often is of the type “should I get a new computer?”

I am apt to answer with that most annoying of phrases – “it depends”.

Axeman and computerIt used to be an easier question to answer than it is now. With every new version of Windows, the hardware requirements increased, so buying a new computer was often essential to be able to run current software. That doesn’t really apply any more as Windows 8 and then Windows 10 have not required any more of the hardware than Windows 7. Also, it’s not that often that a computer completely fails. If an aging computer does physically fail, it’s likely to be a hard drive failure that brings an instant decision. Other than that, it seems that things just get slower and creakier (and possibly noisier), and it is easy to struggle on without any definitive event that forces the decision to replace an aging computer.

So, if you are beginning to wonder if defenestration is the answer to your computing problems, here are some guidelines that might help in your decision-making:

  • If you are running Windows Vista then it’s time to replace your machine however nicely it’s still behaving. Vista is being forced into retirement in April 2017 in the same way that XP was in 2014 – see the Windows lifecycle fact sheet.
  • If your computer seems irritatingly slow and it has a hard drive then replacing it with a computer with a Solid State Drive (SSD) will make a huge difference. It’s quite possible to replace a hard drive with an SSD and keep the existing hardware. I’ve done it myself on my Samsung RF511 and on my MacBook Pro. In both cases it made a huge difference. However, it doesn’t make economic sense for me to do this for you: it would be cheaper to just buy a new machine.
  • If your hard drive is running out of space then replacing the entire machine might be a better solution than fitting a larger hard drive. Note, though, that if you buy a new machine with a SSD (recommended) then this is likely to be smaller than your existing drive. Hmm. Maybe it would be better to keep your existing hardware and move some data off to an external hard drive, a large USB “pen drive”, or a large SD card. I’m fairly sure that we’ll soon see machines with both SSDs (to run Windows and the programs) and internal hard drives (to store data), but I searched in vain for such an animal when replacing my own laptop recently.
  • Shiny new laptopIf your machine has started sounding like a concrete mixer then that’s likely to be the fan on its way out. A replacement fan is probably only about £15-£20 but you’ve got to source exactly the right one and fitting it is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, I can’t think of a single one of my own IT support clients to whom I would recommend this course of action. My own Samsung RF511 spent the last six months of its duty without a working fan. I installed software to keep me appraised of the temperatures and everything was fine. Nevertheless, it made me slightly uneasy and a different laptop may well have run too hot for this to be an option (especially one with a hard drive rather than a SSD). You could take your laptop to one of those places offering “laptop repairs” to get a fan replaced, but I’d be very wary of going down that route.
  • If the machine is a laptop and the battery isn’t charging the way it used to, then that alone might push you into a computer replacement. A “genuine” replacement battery can be prohibitively expensive. A “compatible” might be be cheap but it might only last a year. If you use your laptop on the battery frequently, then it’s definitely worth factoring this into your decision.
  • While we are on the subject of laptops, if you carry yours around frequently then size and weight could be a factor. Laptops have become quite a bit lighter and thinner recently (while still offering the same screen sizes), so you might be quite surprised if you currently lug a five year old brick around in your bag.
  • If you are getting loads of software crashes and freezes, and you are running Windows 7, then “mending it with a new one” may be a better course of action than troubleshooting these problems. However, if you are runnng Windows 10, this is far, far, easier and quicker to re-install than previous versions of Windows and, although you may have to reinstall programs, you may not have to re-load your data if you reinstall Windows.

Black Friday ticketThis blog is not meant to be about what specification your putative new machine should have. Nevertheless, I’ll offer a few guidelines for free (since it’s the day after Black Friday and you may have just been tipped over the edge into splashing the cash):

  • Machines with solid state drives (SSDs) really are much faster than those with hard drives (but think about whether the SSD will be large enough and what you can do if it isn’t – such as external data drives).
  • Try to avoid machines with i3 processors unless you are on a tight budget. I5 processors are better (faster) and i7 better still.
  • As always, get as much RAM as possible. I recommend 8gb or 16gb.

And – don’t forget – if you need help setting up your new computer, transferring data etc, then you know where to come!

With the coming of iOS10 (Apple’s latest operating system for iPhones and iPads), my first generation iPad Mini can’t keep up: it can’t be updated to iOS10

ios10 logoIt’s not yet four years old, so if I’d got out of bed on the wrong side this morning I could well be whingeing about “built-in obsolescence”. But let’s take a sunnier view. It doesn’t mean that my iPad is about to stop working. It just means that I can’t run iOS10 on it. This means that some features of iOS10 are not available and, in time, some new apps won’t run on it either, and some existing apps will not be updateable.

Apple Store - Covent Garden

Apple Store – Covent Garden (sans Fan Boys)

Forgetting the Apple Fan Boys who camp outside Apple in Regent Street and Covent Garden the night before a new Apple product comes out, would a normal, sensible person, think iOS10 is a trigger to get a new iPad?

Probably not. I’ve said before that the iPad Mini is my favourite ever piece of technology and I think it probably still is. Mine is working just as well now as it ever did. I’m writing the first draft of this blog on it. Funnily enough, the excellent Logitech keyboard that I bought for it has some keys going a bit yellow, but the iPad itself looks and behaves like new.

Battery Life

My iPad’s battery has lost 13% of its capacity in almost four years

Does it wear out in ways that we can’t see? Yes. The battery becomes less efficient over time. I’ve just installed an app called Battery Life that tells me my battery is only 87% as good at taking a charge as it was when new. I don’t know how steep the curve is going to be between 87% and useless%, but it’s not worrying me today. It should also be said that I’ve got no idea how accurate the “Battery Life” app is.

Probably just as important as the battery, there’s no hard drive to wear out, and no fan to get as noisy as a cement mixer.

So, what’s a new iPad got that mine hasn’t? Well, it might be a bit faster, but it’s still the same size and weight, and the screen resolution is still the same. If, like me, you own a first generation iPad and wonder what benefits you’d get from a new one, you can compare them at the links below:

Original iPad Mini spec
Current ipad Mini spec

Personally, I can’t be bothered to check them in minute detail as I’m fairly sure the current model doesn’t have anything so staggering that it’s worth upgrading.

iPad Mini Logitech Keyboard Cover - White

The first iPad Mini with Logitech keyboard

The truth is that the iPad mini is proving to be a resilient, reliable fact in my life life that does its job extremely well. When my IT support clients ask me how long they should expect their laptops and desktop PCs to last, I say that anything over four years should be looked on as a bonus. That’s for Windows PCs. I’ve got a Mac Mini and a Macbook Pro of late 2009 vintage that are both still going strong at almost seven years old (although they, too, are now unable to keep up with the latest operating systems). As my clients will know, I’m not a particular fan of Apple as a company or of their computers (as opposed to iPhones and iPads), but there’s no denying that their (initially expensive) products do last very well.

No, I won’t be replacing my iPad Mini any time soon. I’ll just have to get used to the fact that from now on it’s a click on the Home button to fire up the iPhone 5 (in iOS10) and the old familiar swipe rightwards on the iPad (in iOS9).

How to take a quick screenshot and save it in a file where you can always find it again

Scissors and ScreenI’ve blogged before about a piece of software called Gadwin Printscreen that I use to take screenshots of parts or all of screens and save them in files in a folder of my choosing.

In practice, my own computer support clients usually think that using Gadwin is a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and they would like something simpler and quicker. After all, you often want to make a copy of a screen just on the off-chance that you might want to refer to it again some time in the future. You do not want to spend a minute working out how to create something that you probably won’t refer to again. Well, there is something available and it’s already there if you have Windows 8 or Windows 10. I missed it before. Sorry. There is one annoying proviso that I’ll discuss below, but apart from that, all you have to do is depress the “Windows” key and keep it down while you press the “prt sc” (“Print screen”) key. The “Windows key” is to be found one or two keys to the left of the space bar on the bottom row of the keyboard.

Default Screenshots FolderWhat happens then is that a file is created in a sub-folder of your “Pictures” folder. The sub-folder is called “Screenshots”. The file is a “.png” file. This is easily opened in any images program. Double-clicking on a png file will open it in the default images program.

The “annoying proviso” that I mentioned above is that this may or may not work on a laptop where the “prt sc” function is on a key that also performs another function. If you have to depress the “fn” key (the “Function key”) before depressing the “prt sc” key, then my experience is that you may or may not get the desired re-direction of the output to a file if you then depress all three of the “Windows” key, “Function” key, and “Prt Sc” key together. A bit disappointing, but there you go.

You may also be interested to know that it is possible to re-direct the files created by “Windows prt sc” to any folder of your own choosing. This means, for instance, that you could re-direct the output to a sub-folder of your Dropbox or OneDrive folder. If you have several machines, this means that you can make all screenshots from all machines immediately available on all machines.

To re-direct the output:

  • Right-click on the current (default) folder. This is called “Screenshots” and is a sub-folder of “Pictures”
  • Left-click on the “Properties” option
  • Left-click on the “Locations” tab at the top of the window
  • Left-click on the “Move” option
  • Select the desired destination folder for screenshots
  • Close all open dialogue windows

To change the output back to the default:

  • Right-click on the current (default) folder. This is called “Screenshots” and is a sub-folder of “Pictures”
  • Left-click on the “Properties” option
  • Left-click on the “Locations” tab at the top of the window
  • Left-click on the “Restore Default” option
  • Close all open dialogue windows

Screenshots - change location
Screenshots - change location (2)

An alternative way to capture screens or part of them is the Windows “Snipping Tool” that I described in this blog.

This is also described in more detail on this Microsoft Support page.

Google can prevent you from accessing your own email if it thinks your email program is “less secure”

I have blogged before about email programs that can’t access your email and that try to insist that your password is wrong when you are quite sure that it isn’t. See “Oh dear – error“, for instance.

One of the situations that causes this completely misleading error message is if Google decides that you are using what it terms a “less secure” program to access your Gmail. It doesn’t say what your program is “less secure than” and it doesn’t tell you that this is why it won’t let you in. All it does is tell you that your password is incorrect.

Some circumstances that can definitely cause this are if you use:

  • The Mail program on an iPhone or iPad with an IOS version of earlier than 6
  • The Mail program on a Windows phone with a version earlier than 8.1
  • The Thunderbird or, believe it or not, Outlook email programs (including Outlook 2016 – the latest version)

Fig 1 - Accessing Google Account Info

Fig 1 – accessing “My Account” in Google

There is, however, a fairly simple way of rectifying the situation. Simple, that is, if you know how to navigate the seemingly Kafkaesque options in your Google account as accessed via a web browser.

So, until they mess around again with how your account information and options are presented, here are the steps you need to take to access your gmail by one of the aforementioned “less secure” methods:

  • Open a web browser
  • Log into your google account at https://accounts.google.com/login
  • Click on the circle at top right and click on “My Account” (see Fig 1)
  • Click on “Sign-in & security” (see Fig 2)
  • Scroll down until you see the box that includes “Allow less secure apps”
  • Click the “switch” to the right-hand (“on”) position (see Fig 3)
  • Sign out of the account (if desired) by clicking on the circle at top right and then clicking on “sign out” (see Fig 1)

Fig 2 - Sign in and security

Fig 2 – Click here

You may think that this couldn’t possibly be the cause of an email access problem today (or tomorrow) as it worked perfectly well yesterday, so why shouldn’t it work today? Because Google are quite capable of moving the goalposts overnight and they are not going to tell you if they do that. You just have to find out for yourself.

In fact, exactly this same thing happened to a computer support client of mine about this time last year. One minute the email was arriving perfectly happily on her iPhone and the next it wasn’t. I should point out here that my own strong advice is to keep up to date with IOS versions. Apart from anything else, it can take a long time to update everything all at once and it’s far easier (and keeps your device safer) to keep it relatively up to date all the time.

Fig 3 - allow less secure apps

Fig 3 – click to the right of the round “knob” to “slide” the switch to the right (“on”) position. It’s no good trying to “drag” the knob to the right: it doesn’t work.

Anyway, in this specific instance the client chose to force Google to accept a connection to a “less secure app”, so we took that route and all was quickly resolved.

So, if your email program suddenly tells you that your password is wrong and it’s a Gmail account that’s involved, do remember to ask yourself whether Google may have moved the goalposts again when it comes to what it considers “less secure apps”.

Yes, this is me whingeing about error messages again

See, for instance, “Oh dear – error!“.

I’m not just letting off steam again for the sake of it. This is a situation that I’m sure other people come across and fail to solve (and I challenge you to find the solution among Apple help pages).

Apple ID - password wrongBack in the mists of time (about four years ago), a new computer support client contacted me with a typical list of problems. Included in the list was problems with her Apple ID(s). Specifically, she had two different Apple IDs and some apps had been bought with one ID and some with another. She couldn’t update apps bought or downloaded under the older ID. At that time, we didn’t manage to get to the bottom of her Apple ID problems (mired, as we were, in AOL problems as well).

Anyway, last week I was visiting her for some reasonably routine stuff and she wanted a bit of help setting up a brand new iPhone SE. Not realising I’d stepped into a man trap (“fools rush in..”), I got stuck in and – you guessed – the problem of multiple Apple IDs cropped up again. Now, my client is pretty compos mentis and she has a pretty good idea of the possible passwords that she might have assigned to these Apple IDs, so why on earth were we still having problems? Why were we being told that the password was incorrect?

Apple ID - password entryThis time, it occurred to me that the first thing to do in cases like this is to establish unequivocally what the password is for a given account. So, instead of vainly shouting at her brand new iPhone (albeit viscerally satisfying for me and entertaining for her), we went to a browser (on a proper computer) and tried to log into the Apple ID. We reported that we’d forgotten the password and she demonstrated her clear-headedness by knowing the answers to the security questions it asked. So we were able to re-set the password without drama. We then logged in and out of the account a couple of times so as to be entirely confident of the password.

Now, the Apple ID whose password we had just re-set and clarified belonged to the old account that she’d used yonks ago. The ID that she uses currently causes no problems and we’d restored the software from the previous phone, updated all the apps that go with that ID and everything was fine.

Apple ID - password wrongHere’s the crunch. The phone informed us that it could not update the apps acquired under the older Apple ID without us entering the password. No problem. We now knew for certain what that password is because we’d just re-set it and logged in and out a few times. So, we entered the password and – guess what – it told us that it was wrong. “BUT IT CAN’T BE WRONG, YOU STUPID PHONE”. I don’t have perfect recall of even getting up this morning, let alone what happened four years ago, but both the client and I remember that this scenario was what had us almost in tears the last time.

This time, however, I had a brief moment of clarity – we’re still signed in to the other Apple ID. So, I signed out of the other ID, into the correct one (whose password is most assuredly what we think it is) and, hey presto, the apps updated without problem.

The point of this blog is twofold:

  • Why – especially after all the years that iPhones and IOS have been around – are we STILL presented with a totally misleading error message when entering an Apple ID password? Surely it can’t be beyond the wit of the geniuses working for Apple to trap this error properly and come up with a decent message, such as “You are signed in with a different Apple ID. Sign out of that Apple ID first and then sign into this one”.
  • If, perchance, you yourself have used several different Apple IDS in the past, now you know how to keep all your apps updated without having a hissy-fit.

iPhone 5c - blueBy the by, do you happen to be in the market for an unused, unlocked, 32gb, blue, iPhone 5C? If so, the same client has one (no, it’s not either of the phones discussed above. This one is unused). Just let me know if you are and, preferably, an idea of what you’d like to pay for it, and I’ll pass the message on. It’s still got the original box and my client would despatch it by registered mail.

Computer software companies don’t sufficiently consider their products and developments from the point of view of the average user

Man Scratching HeadThis is something that I’ve contended for a long time, and I’ve often tried to reassure my computer support clients that it’s not their fault that they are struggling with programs that are ill-designed in the way that the user interacts with them.

Here’s an example in Windows 10. You enter “tablet mode” by clicking on the “notification tile” in the system tray (the area at the bottom righthand corner of the screen) and then clicking on the “Tablet mode” tile . Having got into tablet mode, how on earth do you get back to desktop mode? There is no tile anywhere that says “desktop mode” and the tile that said “tablet mode” still says “tablet mode”. In fact, you tap or click on the “tablet mode” tile again. Huh? How do arrive at that? In my case, by trial and error.

Tablet Mode Tile

The wording on the tile doesn’t change whether you are in Tablet mode or Desktop mode

This is just plain stupid. The “tile” looks exactly the same as it did before entering tablet mode. If they are going to use the same “tile” to “toggle” between desktop mode and tablet mode then why not label the tile with something meaningful instead of something that is actively misleading? And while I’m whingeing on about this, why on earth did they put the control for switching between these modes inside a part of the screen accessed by clicking on an icon labelled “notifications”? Since when did switching between modes have anything to do with “notifications”?

Here’s another example. This time from Apple. When I dutifully began the upgrade of IOS on my iPhone to version 9.3, I made the mistake of looking away for a minute or two. When I came back it said the upgrade had failed. This is the type of thing that seriously discombobulates “normal” users and deters them from doing things like upgrading operating systems. Anyway, I started it again and kept my eye on it this time. At one point it asked for my passcode before continuing. I put it in and everything completed normally. Clearly, the previous “failure” was caused by nothing more serious than my missing a request to put in my passcode. I can not believe that it would not be possible for the “failure notice” to have said something like “Sorry, but you didn’t enter your passcode when requested. Start the update again and enter your passcode when requested”.

Either they don’t do enough testing of their products on “ordinary users” or they don’t take enough notice of the results. I suspect that the clever people have spent all their time and effort getting the underlying programming to work and then they move on to something else. Everybody involved has probably spent so long using this piece of programming, with its particular user interface, that they just don’t realise that it doesn’t actually make much sense to anyone looking at it for the first time (or the nth time, come to think of it).

Notifications Icon

Why is the choice of Tablet mode or Desktop mode revealed by clicking on the Notifications icon?

It’s OK for the people who work in this technology. We have learned to push and press and prod to see what happens, because we know that this is how we learn all about it. We have an idea about the limits of any damage that can be caused and how to make sure we don’t risk anything important when playing with new stuff. But the ordinary, average, user of this stuff (at least as far as my own computer support clients are concerned) never gets to this stage of playing with the technology and doesn’t want to – and shouldn’t have to. The ordinary, average, user doesn’t want to risk “breaking” something and being worse off than they were before they touched it. S/he doesn’t want to risk suddenly finding that their emails are no longer accessible, or their music or photos have just disappeared (for ever?). This must surely spoil their experience of using the technology in the same kind of way that a 400 mile car journey is going to be spoiled and doom-laden if you fear that the engine is going to die if you change the radio station.

Puzzled Computer UserIn the above case of the “tablet mode”, it happened to me when I was with a client. Since I never use tablet mode on a Windows computer, I didn’t immediately know how to get back to desktop mode. I was slightly embarassed by this, but the client said that she was pleased to see that this kind of thing can happen to an “expert” and that it isn’t necessary to panic when such things happen.

This kind of problem with the user interface is a big shame and a wasted opportunity. Any technology company that could significantly improve in this regard could gain massive amounts of market share by attracting ordinary average human beings who know they need to use this technology but who constantly experience a low level fear of something going wrong that they don’t know how to interpret or fix.

On the other hand, if they did do a better job then maybe my clients would need me less. Hmm.

Phishing for your information (and money) is becoming more sophisticated

PhishingWe’ve all received phishing emails that pretend they are from trusted sources such as banks. They want us to hand over information that will let them steal money from us. And who among us hasn’t made their fortune by partaking of a Nigerian businessman’s plan to move money from his own country?

When they first started, such email scams were a bit of a joke. The spelling, grammar, and use of English were poor. Over the years they’ve become a lot more realistic, but they all share a big flaw in that they are not personally addressed to the recipient. Anyone asking for personal information or money in an email that begins with “Dear Valued Customer” is a fraud. Just delete it, or, if any doubt remains, phone the person it purports to come from.

But what if you receive an email (asking for money) that you are expecting? Suppose you’ve just spent £5,000 on a conservatory and you get an email with an invoice asking you to pay the money into a specific bank account. This is a perfectly normal way of doing business. I, myself, am being paid more and more often by my computer support clients in exactly this way. The email appears to come from the correct supplier, the recipient’s name and address are correct, and nothing at all appears to be suspicious.

Spear FishingThis is an example of spear phishing. Instead of sending gerzillions of rubbish scam emails to all and sundry (phishing), the bad guy is homing in on a particular individual because he has some information about that individual that may allay that individual’s suspicions about his bona fides.

In this instance, what may have happened is that the supplier’s email has been hacked and the hacker has been watching the correspondence between the supplier and his customers (including you). So, he KNOWS who you are, what you bought, how much, and so on. He just has to jump in at the right time and ask you to pay money into his own bank account.

The above is a very specific form of spear phishing. There are more general kinds whereby someone emails you asking for something confidential from you, posing as a “friend” or a “friend of a friend”. Now, people who know me know how I loathe Facebook and other social media, and their avowed intention to share as much personal information as possible among as many people as possible. This is my chance for a mega-gloat and a smug “told you so”. Remember that thingy you bought on Amazon and Amazon asked you to “like” it on Facebook? You did, and now someone’s emailing you knowing you’ve recently bought it and they could use information such as this to start trying to gain your trust and get you to reveal information they can use to your disadvantage.

Spear PhishingAnother variation of spear phishing is that a bad guy hacks into a database containing customers’ names, email addresses and postal addresses, and then uses that information to convince them (in an email) that their demands for money are genuine even if no credible sale is mentioned. After all, previous rubbish scams asking for money didn’t have any personal information, so could be safely ignored, whereas if someone knows your postal address then they must really know you, right? They needn’t even be expecting you to pay the invoice. The supposed “invoice” attached to the email could be a link that downloads ransomware to your computer and then you really are in trouble.

So, there are lots of ways that the bad guys can lull you into a false sense of security by quoting information that is personal to you in emails that they send you.

I hope that knowing of this increased sophistication of the scammers helps to encourage you to be a little more careful than I am sure you already are when any email sender asks you to part with personal/confidential information or even money.

What do you do (and not do) if an email asking you for information or money arouses your suspicions in any way?

  • Contact the sender, but NOT by replying to the suspicious email.
  • Do not find the sender’s phone number or email address from the suspicious email. Find the contact details from a previous email, your address book, or phone history.
  • Do not open any attachment in the suspicious email.
  • Do not click on any link in the suspicious email.

For a more complete (and authoritative!) exposition, have a look at this article from Norton on Spear Phishing

And for recent examples, have a look at this blog post from Tripwire on spear phishing.

By the way, if you ever suspect that an email message with an invoice sent by me to you is not genuine, then just phone or text me on 07961 387564.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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