I reckon that more than half of all of us are frustrated by poor ISP support and dread having to contact them

We all know the scene: something’s gone wrong with your internet connection and you want to pursue it with your provider. It goes something like this:

HurdlesHurdle 1: you can’t find a phone number for technical support. Many organisations with an online presence (not just ISPs) try to reduce the number of cries for help that actual reach human ears by making their customers jump through hoops such as “have you looked at our FAQs page?” After that, you may have to fill in a complicated form that only allows you to express your problem in the pre-defined terms of the form instead of wording it the way you want. Eventually, you may be lucky and be given the option to call a number. I wonder what percentage of initial calls they have weeded out before a call is even made? As I’ve suggested in a recent blog post, googling for “tech support” followed by the name of the organisation might find you a number.

Hurdle 2: the phone number you finally find is a premium number
and you resent paying £1 or £1.50 per minute to have a problem rectified that is the ISP’s responsibility. I will always try to beat this one by using a smartphone app that tries to find an alternative number, whose use is free as it’s within your allowance (see WeQ4U, for instance).

Hurdle 3: You finally get a phone connection, but it’s to an automated service
that forces you to choose a menu option. This wouldn’t be so bad if they told you at the start how many options they are about to provide. How often have you listened for what you want, only to find it never occurs and you didn’t make a mental note of what might have been the best alternative?

I try to jot down the options as they say them. If this doesn’t work and they don’t offer to repeat them, just hold on and they will probably either repeat the options or put you through to a human. If this just gets too frustrating (and assuming you have access to a web browser with an internet connection) just google for “sales mynemesis” where “mynemesis” is the organisation in question. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to find a sales telephone number and a human being to answer the phone. You can then ask to be re-routed to a support person.

Indian Call CentreHurdle 4: You finally get through to a human being who identifies himself as “Kevin” but seems to be talking like a cross between Stanley Unwin and Peter O’Sullevan (remember them?). He (or she) may think (s)he is speaking English as an English person would, but (s)he isn’t. When this happens to me, I have no problem whatever in asking them to please repeat what they said and to say it slower as I’m having trouble understanding them. I will do this as often as necessary during the conversation and will not feel embarrassed to do so.

Hurdle 5: Kevin then insists on repeating back to you the situation you have just explained and promises that he is “absolutely going to help you with this matter”. He then asks you to confirm that his confirmation of what you just said is correct. Not sure about you, but this is where I’m starting to lose it. I haven’t found a clever way of dealing with this hurdle except hissing “yes” at him through gritted teeth. He won’t continue until you do confirm his confirmation, so you might as well bite the bullet, play his game, and attempt to be gracious and dignified.

Hurdle 6: Kevin then insists – absolutely insists – that you tell him you are now carrying out the same ten tests/tweaks/fiddles that you tried ten times before you eventually gave in and started this process of contacting him. There is nothing you can do here except play along with his game. I’ve lost count of the number of times my computer support clients have asked me to help because they can’t bear to phone their ISP for help, only for me to be told to repeat all the steps I’ve already tried. It’s no good saying to them “Trust me, I’m an IT Consultant”: that little joke just plummets into the cultural divide.

The key thing to remember with Hurdles 5 and 6 is that Kevin is following instructions on a screen. Although (s)he is a highly capable graduate doing a job that is well-paid in the place he resides, he knows that his supervisor is quite possibly listening in to what he is doing and it really is more than his job is worth to try to use his/her initiative or to try to take shortcuts through the process. We are not dealing with a “free human being” here: we are dealing with a human being who is just a part of the machine. You can just imagine what Kafka or Orwell might have said.

Jumping through Hoops

Hurdles and hoops. The metaphors may be mixed, but the reality is depressingly similar amongst most ISPs.

Hurdle 7: Kevin admits that the ten things he’s insisted you check (again) haven’t revealed the problem and he’s now going to “escalate your issue to the next level”. However did that phrase gain currency? He means, of course, “I’m going to pass you to someone else, who is trained in a slightly different microscopic slice of the whole process”.

Hurdles 8, 9, 10: repeat Hudle 7, through “ever escalating levels” until some kind of decison or answer is reached, or until you lose the will to live.

This whole sorry scene is surely one of the worst aspects of our techological age. What it all boils down to is, of course, money.

Take my own ISP, for instance – Zen internet. Although I don’t think they are as brilliant with customer support as they used to be, they are still much better than most. Until I upgraded today, I have been paying £16.25 plus VAT per month for a 35mbit/sec fibre optic connection with a download limit of 50gb per month. This is a lot more expensive than some providers, but think about the total package.

This comes to £234 per annum. Now imagine that I have just two “issues” per annum that require half an hour each of Zen’s time to resolve. If we assume that Zen’s employees cost them (say) £20000 per annum (Zen support is – unusually, but thankfully – sited in the UK) then that hour of support has probably cost about £30 (including overheads for that employee). To put it another way, every hour of customer support costs them more than 10% of what I pay them annually. It wouldn’t take many big issues in the course of a year for me to be an unprofitable customer. And if I was only paying half as much for my internet provision (say £10 per month), then each hour of support that I need in the course of a year could soak up 25% of their income from me.

These figures are, of course, estimates but I think they demonstrate just how important it is for the profitability of ISPs to be maximised by reducing as far as possible the number of phone calls they have to deal with and “de-skilling” the support they provide as far as possible. If they can deal with 50% of problems by making the customer jump through the same hoops that some of them already tried, and employing a “lesser skilled” person to handle that 50%, then they are going to save money in a very important area. Being prepared to pay more for your internet provision can mean you get a better level of support.

When it comes down to support from your internet provider, you get what you pay for.

Windows XP will not be supported, or updated, or patched by Microsoft after April 2014

Windows XP Logo - crossed outI have argued before that it will not be a good idea to run Windows XP after Microsoft cease support for it in April 2014. The main argument is quite straightforward – from the point of view of people wanting to do you harm, there will probably be so many installations of XP running after that date that it will be worth spending time and effort exploiting vulnerabilities that they know Microsoft will not be fixing.

Here’s another argument – taken directly from an official Microsoft Security Blog:

Whenever Microsoft become aware that there is a vulnerability in one of their products, they always check all other SUPPORTED Microsoft products to see if the vulnerability also exists in those other products. If it does, then it fixes the potential problem in all places at once. The reason they do this so assiduously (and not just because it is good housekeeping) is that the bad guys analyse security updates to see if they can find what it is that the update fixes, and then see if other products are affected in the same way.

Since Microsoft release the update for all products at once, the bad guys can’t use the knowledge to exploit an “unfixed” program. However, after Microsoft stop updating Windows XP then the bad guys can use knowledge gleaned from analysing updates to Windows 7 (for instance) to discover an unfixed vulnerability in Windows XP.

And this risk is by no means just hypothetical. To quote the Microsoft blog referenced above:

How often could this scenario occur? Between July 2012 and July 2013 Windows XP was an affected product in 45 Microsoft security bulletins, of which 30 also affected Windows 7 and Windows 8.

In other words, it could happen two or three times a month. And the effect will be cumulative as older vulnerabilities won’t ever be fixed.

Windows XP TombstoneI’m tempted to apologise for bringing this subject up again. After all, it probably won’t affect most of the readers of this blog as most people will be using either Mac OSX or a more recent version of Windows. But what about that old computer you’ve got in the spare bedroom on the third floor? You know, the one you boot up just occasionally when you can’t be bothered walking all the way downstairs? What about the computer you passed down the line to a family member? Are they likely to be using it next year and beyond? For all the users out there who change their computers every 2-5 years there are also plenty who don’t, as they only use their computer for the internet and don’t need the fastest and newest.

No-one knows for sure just what will happen after April 2014. Maybe nothing at all will happen (remember the Millennium Bug that turned out to be more of a damp squib?) Personally, I’m not going to risk it (unless I choose to do it on purpose on a computer completely isolated from the network of my others). However, I can just hear plenty of people saying “I’ll carry on just the same and do something about it if I have to”. But by then your data may be well and truly messed up, corrupt, missing. “OK”, you say “I’ll throw a six and start again on a new computer”. Fair enough – but be prepared to discover there are all kinds of passwords, account details, purchase histories, old correspondence, and goodness knows what else that you may have lost if your old machine has become well and truly messed up.

Viruses

Is it worth risking?

Windows Vista was released worldwide in January 2007. Lots of people still specified Windows XP on new machines after then. So let’s just estimate that any Windows XP machine is going to be no newer than, say, April 2008 (16 months after Vista was released). This means that by the time April 2014 comes around, any XP machine is likely to be six years old at the very least. Are you really going to risk all the potential problems just to prolong the life of a computer at least six years old? I don’t advise it.

PS: I do realise that many organisations were still deploying new XP installations well after the dates above, but my own IT support clients tend to be individual professionals or home users (or both). They are the readership I am addressing. Besides which, there’s an argument for saying that it’s even more important for organisations to move away from XP than individuals – even if those installations are newer.

You may think that going through a list of instructions for carrying out a computer task is daunting – and the longer the list the more daunting it looks

Cartoon of a long listI’ve often thought about this subject and it certainly occupied a large chunk of my mind as I was writing the instructions for next week’s blog about printing a list of albums in iTunes. I’d like to think that the list looks more daunting than it actually is. The key to such lists is to ignore the fact that it looks difficult. Just start at the beginning and concentrate on one instruction at a time. It will, of course, take a lot longer to go through any specific list the first time than it would if you were to go through it a few times. Don’t be put off by a list of intructions just because there are ten items in it. If you want to achieve the promised result, then just give it a go.

However long it takes you to go through a list written by me, I can promise you that it took me longer to write it! Next time you find a list of computer support instructions hard to follow, just imagine what it’s like for the person writing them. Not only does he (or she, of course) have to check the specifics of each step, but s/he must also take an informed guess at the level of knowledge of the person who will carry out the advice in the intructions.

Imagine for a moment that you have been asked to write down the instructions for your house guest (a martian) to boil herself an egg. It’s no good saying “put egg in boiling water for 3 minutes, lift out with spoon (not hand/tentacle)“:

  • Does the martian know how to boil water?
  • Does she know what to put the water in?
  • Having decided on a saucepan (and defined “saucepan”, maybe), where do you keep the saucepans?
  • Where does she get the water from?
  • Where are the eggs kept?
  • What do they look like?
  • What’s an egg timer?

And so on…

Cartoon martianIf you were really trying your best to be nice and accommodating to this martian then you could end up with a very long, deeply considered and carefully worded, list. She might well take one look at the length of this list and mutter to herself “blow this for a game of soldiers” and head for home (hungry).

This, I suspect, is what a lot of my readers do when confronted with lists of instructions that I create for this weekly blog. Fair enough. However, I’d like to offer a few hints:

  • Make a conscious decision about whether it’s worth spending 15 minutes of your life (which you won’t get back, of course) tackling this list. What you’re doing here is putting a value on reaching the (promised) result.
  • Only tackle the list when you’re in the right mood for it and can concentrate on it one step at a time
  • Allow the 15 minutes that you’ve already decided it’s worth putting aside
  • Think of it as a challenge that’s also fun
  • Remember that it’s not going to matter if you don’t achieve it. If you really want to achieve it and can’t – either because my instructions are at fault or because your brain has gone on holiday – then call me

Cartoon of computer frustrationI know that a lot of people find computers very very frustrating and quite intimidating. That’s good for me, of course, because I might starve otherwise, but I’d still like to encourage the frantic and the fearful by saying that most computer issues aren’t a matter of life and death and almost everyone can get a sense of achievement by successfully working through a list and then being able to do it more and more easily with practice and growing familiarity.

Do give it a go, but if all else fails, you can always pay me to come and help you!

I was recently setting up a new computer for a client, and kept seeing Google ads relating to a particular theme

There was nothing wrong with the theme, but it did relate to something highly personal, and I wondered if the client realised that this gave an indication of something that had clearly been on her mind recently. I do realise – and appreciate – that my computer clients place trust in me with respect to the parts of their data that I can’t help seeing, but there must be many things that we treat as belonging very much to our private sphere that are now “leaking out” into a more public space. Even within the confines of her own home, this client may have preferred other members of her family, for instance, not to know what had been on her mind recently.

As time goes on, this sort “leaking” or “bleeding” of our private pre-occupations into wider domains is likely to increase, thanks to computers and the internet. I know I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before, but this incident set me to thinking about how all this tracking and information-gathering may change us as humans and society as a whole.

Paris Brown

Paris Brown – lost her job before it had started, thanks to things said on Twitter years earlier.

I hear that there is now software available that analyses the language used on Facebook pages and comes to conclusions about likely personality traits of the page’s owner based upon the actual words they have used. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of a good story! Assuming it’s true though, (or soon will be), how do people working in HR feel about using such tools for candidate selection? How do the people analysed feel? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t like it happening to me. Are potential job seekers being more circumspect on Facebook since the highly publicised case of the Youth Commissioner losing her job before she’d even started because of some rash statements a lot earlier on her Facebook page? I do know that there are people earning a living by “cleaning up people’s online reputation”, but I suspect that the average computer user is still way behind in appreciating just how much information they are giving away and how this is being used.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Modern internet browsers come with a setting called “Do Not Track”. It is hoped that the writers of the software that tracks our movements around cyberspace will honour our expressed preference not to be tracked, but it’s too early to say how many will be honourable in this way. In the meantime, tracking software can follow us around cyberpace and build its own pictures of who we are, what we care about, what motivates us into action, and so on.

George Orwell predicted our being watched by technology, of course, in his novel 1984. The motivation he ascribed was political control. The way things are going, we will achieve the same results but the motivation will be money and we will have sleep-walked into it because we want a free internet. Once collected, the data can then be used by others who can claim legitimacy to see it. For example, the police can already access our recent travel history if we use an Oystercard.

The Hardy Tree

The Hardy Tree

Thomas Hardy was mindful, while writing the Wessex Novels, that he was recording a way of life that was soon to be ended by the advent of the railways. The communities about which he wrote would soon no longer be self-contained: they would be joined to everyone and everywhere else by the railway. I dare say he had a lot of time to ponder the implications of the coming railway as he worked as a surveyor before becoming a full-time writer and was responsible for overseeing the proper re-location of bodies in St Pancras Churchyard to make way for the coming railway. On a side-note, many of the gravestones were temporarily re-located around a tree and have been left there for so long that the tree has grown into them. This is now known as the Hardy Tree. The church and churchyard are also noteworthy for other reasons.

Is the internet doing exactly the same thing as the railways but on a global scale and at a much deeper level? Will it change the way we see ourselves and behave as individual humans? I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the thought of the loss of privacy and independence that all of this portends, but, on the other hand, I’m sure that we are all creatures of our own time and grow up embracing the realities of the world that we see at the time. Even if it does change us as humans, we’ll probably just accept change as it happens, and crusty old antedeluvians like me will continue to tut and say “where will it all end”. “you wouldn’t get me in one of those” and “it’ll end in tears”.

PS: for an irony of publishing in the digital age, see this link on how Amazon disappeared 1984 from countless Kindles

I’ve been having a clear-out

Living, as I do, in a very small flat, there just isn’t the room to accumulate things I won’t need again. I’ve come across loads of bits of computer hardware that might have come in handy again when they were first dumped in the cupboard, but which now look a bit quaint and past it. There are sound cards, modem cards (the old dial-up type, that is), my zip drive, internal and external floppy and DVD drives, no end of internal drive cables, and so on.

Computer Rubbish

Ready for disposal. Yes, Sarah, that was your old HP printer!

All of this stuff is going on the pile in the middle of the room that I’ll need “a man and a van” to come and take away for me. He’s going to have to dispose of it properly, of course. Electronic waste can no longer just be dumped in your wheelie bin: it has to be collected separately and disposed of properly. Since I live in Clapham, I’ve just googled “electronic waste Lambeth” and pretty soon found the website of the Western Riverside Waste Authority. They cover waste for Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth, and Lambeth. If you live in a different borough then I would recommend that you do a similar Google search if you have a similar need to get rid of stuff like this. You should be able to find out whether your own council will collect electronic waste put out separately from your normal waste. Some, or all, councils used to do such collections free of charge but I think you should expect to pay for it these days. I decided not to try and use Lambeth Council to get rid of my pile as their website wasn’t at all clear as to how they would cost a big pile of stuff as opposed to neatly boxed items. Anyway, the point of this digression is to suggest that if you have your own electronic stuff to get rid of then you need to abide by the disposal regulations for electronic waste and not just hide that old monitor at the bottom of your wheelie bin!

The real focus of this blog was meant to be that seeing all of this old stuff led me to thinking how little “hardware work” I actually do these days. Ten or twenty years ago it was very common for me to visit a client in order to attach another box to a computer or pull the case open in order to add or replace something inside. Bits of hardware would fail, or need upgrading, or need giving a good talking to so that they worked properly with all the other hardware.

We now seem to have reached a point of maturity in the industry whereby almost any computer will do everything the average user needs and it already contains all of the bells and whistles you will ever need. You can almost take it for granted that a new computer will include a microphone, speakers, sound card, networking capabilities, webcam, enough memory to do all “normal” things, and a hard drive whose capacity would make the Tardis blush.

Computer with Halo

My six and a half year old Samsung Q35 still does good service helping me provide computer support to Windows Vista clients.

Moreover, it seems to me that the hardware is very much more reliable these days. My own experience tells me that the most likely component to fail is the hard drive (so make sure your data is backed up or is safe in The Cloud). Apart from the hard drive, most computers these days just go on working until the owner fancies a newer, shinier, model.

When I first started working in the computer industry, in 1983, it seemed that most of my work was challenging but creative – designing small database systems. These days, much more of my work is trouble-shooting. From my clients’ point of view, spending money with me is often a “distress purchase”: it’s not uncommon for their parting comments to me to include things like “I hope I don’t see you again for a while” (I’m slowly developing a thicker hide as I get older). It would be very easy to think that all computers are always causing problems and generally being a pain in the neck.

However, when I look at all these bits of old hardware that I’m now getting rid of, and then I look at the (still shiny) six year old Samsung laptop that I’m still using to help me with support issues for Windows Vista, I think that I should stick up for the computer hardware industry and acknowledge that maybe it is reaching a point of stability and maturity that I suspect we would all welcome if we could just realise that it is actually happening.

Recently, I blogged about the Windows Snipping Tool and how convenient it is for grabbing a copy of all or part of a screen. This is fine for normal purposes, when everything is behaving normally . . .

A dreaded BSOD (blue screen of death).

. . . but what happens if you suddenly see the dreaded “blue screen of death”? Sometimes a simple re-boot is enough to sort the problem, but if you see the BSOD again you will probably need to investigate. You will quite possibly need some help as to what to do next and how to get to the bottom of the problem. It would be very handy if you could use the “Snipping Tool” (or Gadwin PrintScreen, that I blogged about here ), but you can’t. The BSOD means you can’t do anything except switch off and back on again. And if you do re-boot after seeing a BSOD it’s quite possible that you will see some kind of message that relates to the problem that caused the BSOD. Once again, you probably won’t be able to use a normal Windows tool to grab the contents of the screen.

This happened to a client of mine last week. She valiantly tried to write down the gobbledeygook she saw on the BSOD and the screens that showed on re-boot, but I was unable to persuade Dell Technical Support that these suggested we’d got a hardware problem. The “PC Check” software that was installed on the machine gave the system a clean bill of health so Dell insisted that it must be a software problem and that the only thing to do was re-install everything from scratch.

I wasn’t at all convinced that it was a software problem. It wasn’t consistent, and I had already re-installed the driver (software that manages hardware) that related to the hardware mentioned in the error message. I had also looked elsewhere for possible causes. Nevertheless, we decided to follow Dell’s advice and re-install.

Photograph of the first screen after the BSOD

Fast forward to my next visit a few days later to begin the re-installation and, luckily, the intermittent problem cropped up for me (I hadn’t seen it before). And this is when I had a very simple (but you may say “obvious”) flash of inspiration. I used my smartphone to take pictures of the two screens that came up after re-booting following a BSOD. Unfortunately, I couldn’t examine the BSOD itself as it just flashed up and was gone. Then I phoned Dell Technical Support and arranged to email these photos to the technician I was speaking with. Wonder of wonders! After a break of about 10 minutes she came back on the line and admitted that we had a hardware problem! I won’t dwell on the fact that she then tried to convince me that we didn’t have an onsite warranty. I’ve learned before that it’s well worth checking the details of your warranty before calling on hardware support from the supplier. We had done that in this case so I knew I was arguing from strength when I asked for an engineer. The engineer arrived, as arranged, the following day and he fixed the problem.

Photograph of the second screen after the BSOD

That still left the client with no installed programs or data (as a new drive had been installed), but at least it meant that we hadn’t reinstalled everything only to find the problem was still there.

Smartphones are great for this situation because they make it very easy to email a picture. You could do it with an ordinary digital camera but then you’d have to upload the pictures to a computer and attach them to an email (which would be impossible, of course, if you only have one computer and it’s currently very poorly). You just need to take a reasonable amount of care when taking the picture so that any text on the screen will be legible in the photograph.

So, this was a lot of words to explain something very simple, but I think it’s worth it because it could often make a fraught experience a little easier. I’m not suggesting you should always have a camera at the ready next to your computer, but if you should remember this trick when a problem arises, it might make computer support from the likes of Dell a lot easier. It might also help when you wish me to support you with computer problems. I’d certainly be happy to try it and neither digital photos nor emails cost anything!

Fed up with your ISP (Internet Service Provider)?

Fed up face superimposed on globeIf you are not happy with the service or the deal that you are getting from your broadband provider (your ISP) then you may wish to change to a new one but not know how to go about it. In principle this is not difficult. Unless you are changing from a connection via a telephone line to a cable connection then there’s no change of wiring or hardware required. The only changes that need to be made to your equipment are software settings in your router/modem.

When the internet started it could be difficult to change providers as the company you were leaving could make it very difficult for you to leave and you could then have a period of as long as a month between ISPs and, therefore, without an internet connection.

Clearly, this was very bad for the user and “consumer choice” and very bad for the smooth running of a free, competitive market. As a result, OFCOM (the Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) established the Migrations Authorisation Code (MAC) Broadband Migrations Process.

The main aspect of this process (and your ISP must conform to it) is that changing ISP is now – in theory – much simpler than before and there is no hiatus between connections. In practice, you may have just a few minutes without a connection and the router settings may need to be updated manually.

It works like this:

  • Contact your existing provider and “request a MAC”. They may insist that only the account holder can do this and that contact must be by a specific method (eg phone, in writing).
  • They are obliged to provide you with a MAC within 5 working days.
  • Contact your new ISP, establish a new contract with them and give them the MAC provided by your old supplier. If you do not “use” the MAC within 30 days of its issue (ie if you do not move to a new supplier in that time) then the code “lapses” and your previous service continues. You can ask your old ISP for a new code if you still wish to move away from them. You do not have to pay anything for a MAC.
  • Your old and new providers then work out the actual transfer of your broadband provision between themselves. You will be informed by your new supplier when the changeover will take place.
  • When the changeover has taken place you may need to change the settings in your router. Your new ISP will advise of the settings. This is reasonably straightforward (if a bit geeky). It is one of the computer support services that I provide for my computer clients in London.

Note that your old supplier must provide you with the MAC even if you have an unexpired contract with them. You may, of course, be laying yourself open to charges for premature termination of contract but the point here is that the ISP can’t stop you from moving away to a new provider.

In theory, that’s all there is to it and my experience when using the process both for myself and when helping my computer clients is that it does usually work well. However, we all know that getting assistance and co-operation from the large ISPs can be very tortuous and difficult (and it’s quite possible that that’s the very reason you want to move away from them). I am in the middle of helping a client move from TalkTalk to Zen Internet. I logged into the client’s online TalkTalk account on their behalf on 19th December and submitted a request for a MAC via an online form. Nothing happened. No MAC. No acknowledgement of my submission. Silence (definite lack of “talk talk”).

I phoned them on January 4th and was told:

  • I can’t request a MAC via a website form – but they admitted that it didn’t tell me that on their website.
  • I can’t request a MAC on behalf of my client even though the client has given me all of their account details and authorised me to act on their behalf (a favourite trick of ISPs – hide behind vague references to “data protection”).
  • They can’t find any evidence of the form I submitted on 19th December.
  • Even if they’d found the form, it could take up to 28 days for them to acknowledge receipt of it. It’s somewhat ironic that this company is called “TalkTalk” and is in the comunication business!

Since they hadn’t told me that my request for a MAC via an online form would not be granted, and since they said it can take 28 days to even acknowledge receipt of an online form (assuming they haven’t “lost” it in the meantime), then it seems to me that they are in breach of the legal requirement to provide a MAC within 5 working days of it being requested. The supervisor of the original “adviser” that I spoke to acknowledged that “that would appear to be true”. He was either unwilling or unable to help me any further and insisted that the way to get the MAC would be for the account holder (and no-one else) to telephone TalkTalk (not send an email or complete an online form) and request it verbally.

TalkTalk’s main achievement during that (30 minute) conversation was to reassure me that I’d been giving my client sound computer advice in recommending that they move away from TalkTalk asap. I’ve been recommending Zen Internet for about 3 years now and continue to do so (I do earn a small introductory commission from them for introducing clients via this link).

Hard drive with file iconsWhat are the factors that make file size relevant?

  • The first that comes to mind is the size of an email attachment. As discussed in a previous blog on emailing large attachments it’s possible that an attachment of greater than 5mb will not get through.
  • CD – if you are copying (“burning”) files to a CD then you have about 730MB available (less if it’s a re-writable CDRW). Depending on the software that you are using to do the copying it is possible that you may be able spread the copying over several CDs. You really wouldn’t want to be doing too much of that. If you have so much data that it needs to span several CDs then you’d probably be better off copying to a different medium (DVDs or USB pen drives, probably).
  • The size of a USB pen drive. These are also called “thumb drives”, “flash drives” or “memory sticks”, but the pedant in me insists on pointing out that “memory stick” is a misnomer since it is the name of a specific type of Sony device. An old pen drive may have a capacity of 64mb or even lower. These days the most common sizes are 2, 4, 8, and 16gb. The best value in terms of “£ per GB” is probably 8gb at the moment. My advice to my computer support clients is that if you are only going to take backups of your most important data files, and if this is going to happen on an ad hoc basis, then copying onto a pen drive (say 4gb or 8gb) is going to be your best bet.
  • DVD – if you are copying files to a DVD then you have about 4.3GB available. There are also “dual layer” DVDs that double the capacity but they need the right hardware and the right DVDs. I’ve found them unreadable sometimes (even with the right hardware) so I don’t use them.
  • “Cloud” storage – if you are saving data to an online server (either for backups or to make data available to different computers) then there will be specific limits that depend on your package. For instance, Dropbox will give you 2gb free storage but you can purchase much bigger amounts. If you want a free Dropbox account, by the way, please follow this link to sign up as you will get an extra 0.25gb free and they will also give me an extra 0.25gb for referring you! The other consideration for online storage is that it can take an appreciable length of time to actually upload large amounts of data to online storage and it’s possible that the performance of your computer might be affected while the uploading is going on. This could become irritating if it happens often and for long periods at a time.
  • Hard Drive storage (both internal and external). If you have an old computer your hard drive may be as small as 40gb or 80gb. It’s hard to buy a drive smaller than 160gb nowadays and you can go all the way up to 2 terabytes (where a terabyte is 1000 or 1024 GB). If you are using Windows XP then your Windows and “system files” and program files could be taking as little as 10gb between them. A Vista or Windows 7 machine could easily be taking 50gb for Windows and Program Files. In either case, take the requirement of Windows and Program Files from the disc size and you are left with the space available for your data files. Do take an unhealthily large pinch of salt with these figures, though, as there are other things that take up disc space (such as the virtual memory “paging file” that could be anything from 1gb to 12gb).

Please only think of rough estimates when doing calculations of file sizes, what will fit where, and so on. There are complicating factors not dealt with here. For example, the amount of space on a drive that a single file occupies is always going to be higher than the actual file size. This is just an inevitable result of the way the operating system allocates space and reads/writes files in “chunks” other than the actual file size. We needn’t be bothered about this as long as we’re always thinking in terms of approximate sizes and spaces.

So, all of this can get a bit complicated – not to say nerdy – and we should be wary of getting “delusions of accuracy” when trying to assess file sizes and space requirements. So why bother? Let’s take some extreme cases:

  • It wouldn’t be sensible to try and store a backup of your movie collection to an online account – especially if you are paying for the storage.
  • There’s no need to spend £60-£70 on an external drive if you just want to back up 1000 spreadsheets and word processing files of 1mb each. This could become an increasingly important aspect if the rise in hard drive prices (caused by the floods in Thailand) persists.

If you have no grasp of relative file sizes then it might – on the face of it – seem wise to store just 20 files (movies) online and 1000 spreadsheets on an external hard drive. In actual fact, ignoring for now any security implications, it could well be that the opposite would be the case – put the spreadsheets online and the movies on a spare external hard drive.

So, next week we’ll finally get to the details of how we can check the size of files and the space available on different media to accommodate them.

How big are files? Last week we looked at hard drives in terms of the different definitions of their size. Let’s have a look this week at the range of different sizes of files that will be stored on the drive.

File Icons - 1

The size of computer files can be important for a number of reasons:

  • The amount of space required to store them could be relevant. Will the file(s) fit onto the chosen medium – eg internal or external hard drive, CD/DVD, USB drive? An internal hard drive, by the way, is a sealed unit that stores data and which is more-or-less permanent in the computer. It can be removed fairly easily if necessary, but in normal circumstances it remains in the computer. When the computer is started it normally looks to the internal hard drive for the programming (eg Windows or Mac operating system) to get it started. An external drive is exactly the same type of drive but it is housed in a separate box that includes the electronics to allow it to be connected to the computer by a USB cable. An external drive can be attached or removed very easily.
  • The time it takes to copy or transfer the file(s) to any of the locations mentioned above might be relevant – eg if you ask me, during the course of computer support work that I am doing for you, to copy a dozen 4gb files from one hard drive to another then that could take an hour or more. You might decide to do that copying yourself.
  • It may be that the system that will handle the files may not be able to cope – eg email attachments might be too big to be delivered. See my previous blog on emailing large attachments.
  • There may be direct costs associated with moving/transferring files – eg the downloading costs of using a mobile phone data account, or caps on the amount of data that can be downloaded per month on a broadband account.

For all the above reasons it makes sense to have some grasp of the relative size of files so that you know whether size is an issue in any particular situation.

File Icons - 4


Let’s start by seeing how file sizes are measured:

  • 1 byte is the room taken by a single character (a letter or a digit, for instance)
  • 1KB (kilobyte) can either mean 1000 bytes or 1024 bytes
  • 1MB (megabyte) can either mean 1,000,000 bytes or 1024 X 1024 = 1,048,576 bytes
  • 1GB (gigabyte) can mean either 1,000,000,000 bytes or 1024 X 1024 X 1024 = 1073741824 bytes

This “dual definition” was touched on in last week’s blog. For a fuller explanation see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilobyte.

So, if you see a file size expressed in “KB” and the figure is less than 1000 (eg “580KB”) then you know that that file is “about half a megabyte”. Similarly, a file that is 256mb is “a quarter of a gigabyte”.

File Icons - 2

Size and importance are not necessarily related

As things have developed over the years, I have been struck by how much variation there is now between small files and large files. The largest files are now many many times bigger than the smallest files but that doesn’t mean they are any more important. A single page Word document of much less than 1mb (your CV, for instance) is probably more important than a movie that is 4000 times as big.

Also, it’s not necessarily true that large files are less convenient than small ones. A folder containing 70mb of music files (a typical size of a complete album digitised at a reasonably high quality) doesn’t change and doesn’t need backing up more than once at most. In contrast to that, you might choose to store all your usernames and passwords in a single (password-protected) spreadsheet file. That spreadsheet file could be less than 1mb but it would be absolutely crucial to take regular backups of such a file onto media other than the hard drive it normally sits on. This file would also be a prime candidate for storing online. So, you would need to be paying far more attention to the small file than the much larger music files.

File Icons - 3
What are some typical sizes of some popular file types?

  • Word document – anything from 5kb or less, to 1mb upwards
  • Spreadsheet – anything from 5kb or less, to 1mb upwards
  • A music track – probably about 1mb per minute of music
  • A jpg from a 3 megapixel camera at 90% quality – 504kb
  • A jpg from a 5 megapixel camera at 90% quality – 692kb
  • Video – hugely variable depending on the quality, the compression, the pixels per frame, etc. In any event, much bigger than other “data” files
  • Program files – hugely variable. It’s quite common now for a newly installed program to take up 100-200mb. Equally, you may have an indispensible little program of 5mb or less.

Next week we will look at some of the implications of dealing with files of different sizes and how we assess the size of files and the space to accommodate them.

Single candle on calendarIt’s a year since I started writing this blog every week. Before that I’d just dipped my toe in the water, wondering if I’d got anything useful to say on a regular basis to my computer support clients and potential clients. So, this week I thought I’d have a look back on some of the earlier posts and see what’s changed.

Microsoft Security Essentials

MSE LogoOn 16th October 2010 I wrote a post about Windows free antivirus program – Microsoft Microsoft Essentials. I had just installed it on an XP machine, and then I put it on my Vista Ultimate machine. It hasn’t caused me any problems apart from the tray icon disappearing initially on the XP version. The program just quietly gets on with the job. It’s caught a few nasties and seems to have dealt with them without drama. Admittedly, I don’t use these machines much except when providing remote computer support to clients who use Vista and XP themselves, and as destinations for backups from my main machine. Nevertheless, it appears to have done a near perfect job so far. It’s easy to install and very unobtrusive.

I now trust Microsoft Essentials to the extent that I have installed it on my new main laptop – a Samsung RF511 15.6 inch notebook. (This is my third Samsung and, so far, it’s as good as the first two.)

AVG Antivirus

AVG LogoShortly after blogging about Microsoft Security Essentials I covered AVG Free and even then I was complaining about how they try to mislead you into installing a trial of the paid version rather than installing/upgrading the free version. It’s my impression that this tendency has got worse during the last year and, frankly, I’m now too embarrassed to recommend it to clients unless I think they will be happy to do battle with AVG’s mis-directions. Recently, I’ve even seen AVG popups that suggest that AVG has saved the user from innumerable threats in the recent past. This is un-necessary, intimidating and misleading. I’d been recommending AVG for several years, but I now recommend Microsoft Security Essentials instead.

Zen Internet

Zen Internet Logoon 5th November last year I gave a plug, by way of a blog posting, to Zen Internet. They’d just won PC Pro Magazine’s award for Best Internet Provider for the seventh time. Guess what: they’ve just done it again.

As a consultant providing computer support to small organisations, independent professionals, and home users, I am often the person asked to deal with internet provider call centres on behalf of bemused and frustrated clients. I have some clients who call me to their homes and offices specifically to deal with these call centres because they find the experience too stressful, frustrating, and protracted to do it themselves.

Call centres appear to be geared to handling the maximum number of technical support calls with the minimum expertise. The way they do this is to force their support staff to follow a strict troubleshooting sequence that doesn’t require them to think: just to follow the instructions on their screen. The agent isn’t allowed to deviate from “the script”. so no real dialogue takes place with the client. It doesn’t seem to matter very much what the customer tells the “support agent”, the agent will still insist on making the poor client jump through exactly the same sequence of hoops every time. This approach tramples right over the customer’s primacy in the exchange. It’s appalling, frustrating and dis-empowering.

Compare this approach with that of Zen Internet. Their support people (based in Rochdale) actually listen to you, engage with you, and address your issue as a one-off that needs to be solved as such. It’s true that they don’t offer 24 hour support (it’s 08:00-20:00 weekdays and 09:00-17:00 at weekends), but that’s probably because they’re staffed by human beings – who need to sleep. Despite only being available during reasonable hours, Zen provide a much much better service than the likes of BT, Virgin and AOL. It’s true, though, that Zen are not competing on price. You won’t get broadband from them for a fiver a month. I use the Zen Lite service. It’s their “entry level” service and costs £15.31 plus VAT per month. It only includes 10gb downloads, but that’s fine for me as I don’t download movies or watch BBC iPlayer. As far as I am concerned Zen are worth every penny and I am happy to keep recommending them and plugging them.

So, as I’ve kept blogging on a weekly basis for a year there’s every chance I’ll stay with it. The readership is small but very very select! Actually, the readership is growing slowly and steadily, but I’ve not spent time and effort promoting it beyond the readers who matter most – my own computer clients and potential clients. I try and keep the focus on the needs of my own computer clients, but I am, of course, very happy for anyone at all to subscribe to the newsletter or read the blog online.

Thanks for reading!

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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