As we all know, Microsoft ceased support for Windows XP in April of this year

XP logoThis means that any new security weaknesses discovered in XP will not be rectified. All of the publicity about the end of XP has prompted people to ask “when will Vista be pensioned off?” and even “what about Windows 7?” Well, users of those operating systems can relax – for a short while, at least.

Actually, there’s no big secret about these things. Microsoft publish the information. Each version of its products (including all the Windows versions) goes through certain stages between introduction and final demise. Taken together, these stages are known as the Support Lifecycle.

There are two main phases of support – Mainstream Support and Extended Support. You can see the types of support offered during these phases by referring to the table below(source: Microsoft).

Support is generally offered for the version of the product (eg Windows Vista) that has had the latest “service pack” applied. Service Packs are updates to the program that include all of the individual fixes, patches, and updates that have become available since the previous Service Pack was released. It is always best to have the latest available Service Pack installed. If you have your Windows set up so that updates are automatically received then the latest Service Pack should be installed automatically.

What is the difference between mainstream support and extended support?

Microsoft Support Lifecycle Phases

Items marked with a star are only available to organisations who sign up to special “Premier” support deals. (Source: Microsoft)

The cut-off date, after which the support phase finishes, is defined by the lifecycle policy laid out by Microsoft. Click on this link for more information about the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy .

Luckily, we normal people don’t have to concern ourselves with the details of the policy as Microsoft have published the dates of the lifecycle “landmarks” for each of their products. You can find the relevant dates for any of their products by clicking this link to Microsoft Products Lifecycles and then clicking on the link to the relevant product.

If we follow the link for Windows Vista, for instance, we find that mainstream support for Vista Business ended on 10/04/2012. We are now in the “Extended Support” period for this product. This means that no new features will be announced and updates will generally relate only to security issues.

Then, on 10/04/17 we’ll go through the same thing with Windows Vista that we went through with Windows XP in April of this year. In other words, Microsoft will stop patching any new holes that are discovered in the security of the product and people like me will be telling you that it is no longer safe to use the product on a machine connected to the internet.

Windows XP TombstoneWhether you continue to use the product after that date is for you to decide. “End of Support” does not mean that the product will stop working or will self-destruct or anything of that nature. It just means that any new bugs or (more significantly) any new security weaknesses, will not be addressed and rectified by Microsoft. This leaves the software wide open to exploitation by the bad guys out there who are trying to get into your computer to steal your information, hijack your internet connection, hold you to ransom, or place viruses on your computer.

So, there you have it. It’s quite easy to check just when your Microsoft product will be consigned to history, so you’ve got plenty of time to plan ahead and make sure you’re not left with an unsupported product. Haven’t you?

… and if reading this blog nudges just one of my computer support clients into replacing their (unsupported) XP, then it will all have been worthwhile!

You cannot ignore Windows Libraries if you wish to use File History

“File Explorer” is the file manager application in Windows that lets you see what files and folders you have on your computer and where they are. You can then move, copy, delete, open programs, open data files, and so on from within a File Explorer window. Note that this is the same function that was previously called “Windows Explorer”.

With the advent of Windows 7 a new concept was introduced into File Explorer. This was the concept of “Libraries”. They appear in the navigation pane at the lefthand side of a File Explorer window. I confess that I’ve often avoided defining “libraries” when introducing my computer support clients to File Explorer as they can be very confusing until you realise what they are. I would probably still be avoiding the issue except that the concept of Libraries is central to how Windows 8’s backup feature works (as mentioned in my blog on Windows 8 File History).

So, what are Microsoft’s Libraries?
Maybe my mind is a bit too literal (pedantic even?), but when I think of a “library” I think of a physical collection of “things” such as books, magazines, CDs etc. The main point about a library (to this pedant, anyway) is that all of these things comprising the library are all to be found in one place. A library is a physical thing that actually includes its contents!

Windows Libraries

These are the default libraries in Windows 7 and 8

Not so with Microsoft’s Libraries. In fact, it’s just the very opposite. A library in Windows 8 is not a “place” or a “thing” at all. It would be more accurately described as a “list” containing items that probably have something in common (eg all of a family’s photos, all documents relating to clients, all items to be backed up). The whole point of the Microsoft Library concept is that the constituent parts are NOT in the same place. They could be scattered all around the computer or, indeed, all around the local network, and a library can even include items that are in The Cloud.

So, for instance, you could have a library that contains all of your folders that relate to your clients. You might have spreadsheets relating to clients and word processing documents relating to clients but these could easily be in different parts of your drive (if you tend to keep all your spreadsheets together and all your word processing documents together). It would be quite simple and sensible to create a “Clients” library and to include client spreadsheets and client word processing documents in that library.

A proper library - this is the new one in Clapham

A proper library – this is the new one in Clapham

The whole point of Microsoft libraries is that they do NOT involve moving the files themselves into the library. You can see (and access) all the files that are in a library by opening up that library, but the files themselves are still actually stored in the same folders as they were and are still accessible via those folders as well as via the library.

Now, you might think I’m making a bit of a meal of explaining a very simple concept. If so, I apologise, but my experience is that for every person that grasps the concept easily, there are many more that can’t get their heads around it.

To my mind, the whole thing would have been a lot simpler to understand if Microsoft had just been a little bit more prosaic and literal in their nomenclature. Why didn’t they just call them “lists” instead of “libraries”? Everyone knows what a list is.

Windows Libraries - one is user-defined

A user-defined library (“Items Backed Up”) has been added here. Note that folders can be included in more than one library (the folder “Documents” appears in two libraries here)

Perhaps a better analogy is offered by iTunes and iPhoto. In these programs you can create “playlists” and “albums” (respectively) that just consist of the tracks and images that you place in them. Putting an item into a playlist or album does not move it physically around the hard drive. It just adds it to a list. And that’s all a Microsoft Library does.

As I’ve already said, I’ve tended to avoid trying to get that across to people just learning about files and folders and so on, but you will find Windows 8 File History very limiting if you don’t get to grips with it as it deals in libraries as its “unit” of stuff to back up. It is libraries that it backs up, and any files and folders that have not been added to a library will not be backed up. Also, any libraries that you have created (over and above the pre-existing default libraries) will not be backed up unless you add them to File History’s schedule.

You can easily configure some aspects of the Windows 7 taskbar

Switching off “Aero Peek”

Last week, I mentioned that if you hover over the rectangle at the bottom righthand side of the taskbar then you will be shown the contents of the desktop superimposed with an outline of the windows that are currently open. If you find this feature a bit distracting and pointless you can turn it off as follows:

  • Right-click on the “Start” button.
  • Left-click on the “properties” option of the menu that pops up.
  • Click on the box next to “Use Aero Peek to preview the desktop”. This will remove the tick.
  • Click the “OK” button at the bottom of the window.
Preview Desktop With Aero Peek

Removing the tick will disable Aero Peek

By the way, the window that you have just closed is an example of what is known as a “dialog box”. A dialog box is a window that requires you to make a choice, enter information, or just click a button to acknowledge that you have read the information that it contains. In other words, it’s a box that enables a dialogue between you and the computer. When a dialog box is open it is very likely that you will not be able to do anything else until you have “finished the dialog” (ie entered the information and/or closed the box).

Notification Area Icons

The notification area is the area at the bottom righthand side of the taskbar. Mine currently looks like this:

Notification Area Icons

Notification Area Icons

You can control some aspects of this area of the screen:

  • Right-click on the “Start” button.
  • Left-click on “Properties”.
  • Click on the “Taskbar” tab.
  • Click on the “Customize” button.

The “Hidden Icons”

The icon for Hidden Icons

The icon for Hidden Icons

If you have a “hidden icons” icon in the notification area, you will need to click on this to reveal icons that would otherwise be permanently displayed. Although there may be some benefit to this in reducing clutter, it can be irritating to have to click on this to reveal icons that you need regularly. The example that crops up most often on my clients’ computers is that the icon that you click on in order to “safely remove hardware” is often hidden. This particular icon is the one you (should) click on before disconnecting USB pen drives, external drives, or SD cards. It would be nice to have it permanently displayed on the taskbar instead of hidden. This – and other icons – can be forced to stay out of the “hidden icons” as follows:

  • Starting from your normal view of the desktop, left-click on the “hidden icons” icon.
  • Left-click on “customize…” that is at the bottom of the small window that pops up.
  • Look through the list of configurable icons and change the options for any icon by clicking on the dropdown menu next to the item you wish to change. If you want to prevent an icon from disappearing into the “hidden icons” category then choose the option “Show icon and notifications”.

Note that the icon that you click to “safely remove hardware” is named in the list of icons as “Windows Explorer”. This item will NOT be included in the list if you don’t currently have a device attached that can be “removed” using this icon. In other words, you have to connect a USB pen drive, external drive, or SD card before you can configure the “safely remove…” icon to stay permanently on your taskbar.

"Safely Remove Hardware" Icon

The “Safely Remove Hardware” Icon

If you want to dispense with the “hidden icons” entirely, so that all icons are always permanently shown, then just tick the appropriate box at the bottom of the window as follows:

Always Show All Icons and Notifications

Displaying and Hiding System Icons

There are also a number of icons known as “system icons” that can be individually displayed or hidden by clicking on the link called “turn system icons on or off” in the Notification Area configuration screen

System Icons

For nerds only – Tclock

If you would like to have more control over how the date and time is displayed on your taskbar (eg by showing seconds as well as hours and minutes on the clock), then I recommend installing Tclock from “Stoic Joker”. This is a freeware program that’s been around for yonks and that has been developed by different people at different times. It’s absurdly “feature rich” for such a basic task. Tclock can be downloaded from this link.

You may have been using Windows 7 for a while without realising the benefits of “jump lists”

Jump lists are menus attached to items in the taskbar. The taskbar is the line on the bottom of the screen that shows icons for two classes of programs:

  • Programs that are currently open.
  • Programs that have been “pinned” to the taskbar for easy access. Pinning a program to the taskbar is as easy as dragging a shortcut from the desktop down onto the taskbar.

Portion of TaskbarIn the first image here, there are four programs shown as being on the part of the taskbar that is shown (in this case, the taskbar is green). The status of each of these programs is as follows;

  • The two leftmost programs (Microsoft Access and OneNote) are available just by clicking on the taskbar icon. These programs are not currently “open” (loaded into memory). We can tell that by the fact that there is no border around their icons. Note that when launching a program from the taskbar (by left-clicking the icon in the taskbar) then only a single left-click is required (whereas, by default, a double-click is needed to launch a program from a desktop shortcut).
  • The third program (Treepad) is both open (as indicated by the border around it) and is also the “current” program. This is the program that is currently being used. It is said to “have the focus”. We can tell that by the fact that the background inside the border is lighter than the rest of the taskbar (as if it is lit up).
  • The fourth program (Textpad) is open but is not the current program. We can tell that by the fact that there is a border around the icon but the background colour within that border is more-or-less the same colour as the rest of the taskbar. We can return to this program (“give it the focus”) simply by clicking on the icon.

Irrespective of whether a program on the taskbar is already open, or is the current program, we can very quickly open files that use these programs by right-clicking on the relevant program icon and then choosing the file we wish to open.

If I right-click on the Microsoft Access icon then the following “jump list” pops up:

Jump list

At the moment that I “grabbed” this image, my cursor was hovering over “Dilbiz.mdb” (the name of one of my databases). There are three things to note here:

  • There is an information box, telling me exactly where that file resides on my hard drive.
  • While I am hovering over the filename there is a map pin lying on its side to the right of the filename.
  • All I need to do to open the selected file with its proper program is to left-click on the filename (in this case, “Dilbiz.mdb”).

You will see that the files are listed under the heading “Recent”. Windows will build up the list of recent files as I open different files. The time will come, though, when it can’t make that “Recent” list any longer so it will start dropping the oldest items off the list. This is where the map pin comes in. If we want to ensure that a file stays on the list, then we just highlight the file (by hovering the cursor over it, as above) and then click on the pin.

Jump List With Pinned ItemThe list will then change as shown to the left. Windows has created a new category of file listing called “Pinned” and placed the Dilbiz.mdb file in that category. Files on this list will remain there, however many newer files come and go under the “Recent” heading. If I want to “unpin” a file, I hover over the filename on the jump list and click on the map pin again.

In the case of the jump list for Access, there are two further options:

  • Clicking on “Access” will open the program without opening any database file (which is the same as left-clicking on the item in the taskbar instead of right-clicking to the jump list).
  • The last option will remove the program from the taskbar. The program will still be accessible by other means (such as choosing it from the start menu or by double-clicking a shortcut on the desktop).

Jump List for Windows ExplorerDifferent programs offer different options from the jump list. The Windows Explorer program, for instance, remembers recently opened folders rather than specific files. It’s also possible that some older programs won’t offer any options at all in a jump list.

If you regularly use the same dozen or so data files in programs such as Excel or Word or PowerPoint, it is worth playing with jump lists and pinned items as you may find they provide the quickest way to open such files.

Microsoft has issued a “Security Advisory” warning that gadgets (in windows 7 and Vista) are unsafe

I am trying to ignore the “fingernails on blackboard” sensation in my head at seeing the word “advisory” used as a noun instead of an adjective (I get the same sensation when the noun “leverage” is used as a verb).

The headline reads “Vulnerabilities in Gadgets Could Allow Remote Code Execution”. (source). If you are running a Mac or Windows XP computer then you can allow yourself a smirk as you are not affected. If you are running Windows Vista or Windows 7 then you could be vulnerable.

Clock GadgetWhat are gadgets? They are the small “one trick ponies” that can sit on your computer’s desktop and perform a single function such as giving weather forecasts, news tickers, a clock, currency exchange rates etc (see pictures). They arrived as part of Windows Vista, and were the successors to the failure that was “active desktop” in Windows XP. Running under Vista, they were confined to an area of the desktop called the “sidebar”. When Windows 7 came along they were allowed to just sit anywhere on the desktop. I would estimate that about half of my own computer support clients use them – especially the weather gadget and the currency exchange one.

Currency GadgetWhat’s the problem? Until this month there was no apparent problem. But now, in Microsoft’s own words, “Disabling the Windows Sidebar and Gadgets can help protect customers from vulnerabilities that involve the execution of arbitrary code by the Windows Sidebar when running insecure Gadgets. In addition, Gadgets installed from untrusted sources can harm your computer and can access your computer’s files, show you objectionable content, or change their behavior at any time. ” (Microsoft Security Advisory 2719662).

Weather GadgetWhat’s the solution? Microsoft have issued a “fix it” (available here). Just click on the link (or logo above the link) that relates to “Fix It 50906”. At the time of writing there is a mistake on the Microsoft page as it shows the heading “Enable” above the Fix It that actually disables.

Calendar GadgetMicrosoft used to supply lots of free gadgets, but their web page now says “the Windows website no longer hosts the gadgets gallery”. This is almost certainly because the forthcoming Windows 8 (due for final release in the autumn) will have its own “metro” interface that aims to compete with Apple and Android “apps”. This will make the “gadgets” of Windows Vista and Windows 7 redundant. That’s fair enough, but is it too very cynical of me to wonder if it’s more than coincidental that Microsoft have only now (July 10th, actually) issued their “security advisory”? Would it be too very cynical to suggest that there may be a connection between them saying that something old (that they’ve been supplying and supporting for about four years) should suddenly become unsafe just a week or two after announcing the launch date of the product that includes its successor?

Cynicism aside, where does that leave us? Would it be good advice to suggest disabling the gadgets? I’ve tried to research this, but all I’ve found so far is half a dozen sites that report the facts of Microsoft’s actions but don’t offer opinions or advice. There is some more information from Microsoft (available here) that you might like to read.

Anyway, if I want amusing little toys I’ll put apps onto my iPhone or Sony tablet and leave the Windows computers for “proper stuff”.

Calculator

A few days ago I watched one of my computer clients do a calculation on a piece of paper that converted a distance in kilometers into miles. This is the kind of thing I find myself doing quite often as well. It seems that all of my life we have been running imperial measurements side by side with metric ones and can’t just take the plunge into using only metric (or is it just people of my own vintage who are trapped in this endless transition phase?)

Anyway, my point here is that my client didn’t think to use a simple tool built into Windows 7 (and neither did I). This tool is a small program called an “applet” (ie a small “application”). In this case the applet is the calculator. This has different versions built into it for standard use, programmers, a scientific calculator, and a calculator for statisticians. Not only that, though, it also has some pre-defined conversion utilities, such as the one that converts kilometers to miles (or vice versa).

The calculator is easily invoked by clicking on the “Start” button (bottom lefthand corner of the screen) and typing “calc” into the search box. After typing just a couple of characters you will see the calculator program appear in the menu above the search box. Click on the program to start it. You can also place a shortcut to the program directly onto the taskbar by just dragging the program name from the start menu down onto the taskbar.

Windows 7 Calculator Applet OptionsThe “basic” calculator is just like any small handheld calculator (except that it doesn’t slip down the back of the sofa with the TV remote control), but if you click on the “view” option you get some more interesting options:

The option that would have helped my client this week is “Unit conversion”. As you can see from the first illustration, there are many types of conversion offered. Once the type is defined, you choose the relevant units. When converting measurements you do not use the “standard” part of the calculator; just define the units in the righthand side and enter the figure in the “from” field. The converted figure immediately appears in the “To” field.

Windows7 Calculator Conversion Utility

Another very useful option (from the initial “view” window) is “Date calculation”. This allows you to calculate the difference between two dates or add/subtract a specific amount of time to or from a starting date.

The Snipping Tool

I’ve blogged previously about Gadwin PrintScreen and how useful I find it for grabbing parts of a screen display – either to save or to place inside other documents. Windows 7 has an applet called the “snipping tool” that is a bit simpler than Gadwin and, more to the point, is ready-installed.

In the same way that you invoke the calculator by starting to type “calculator” in the search box of the start menu, just start typing “snipping tool” into the search box and you will see the snipping tool appear on the start menu. Just click on it to start it. You can also drag the program down to the taskbar for easy access in the future.

When you open the snipping tool it invites you to “drag the cursor around the area you want to capture”, so you just place the cursor (a big “+”) in one corner of the area you wish to capture and then drag it to the opposite corner of a rectangle that you are defining. As soon as you finish doing this the “captured” rectangle is in the clipboard, available to be “pasted” into another document (using the Control key and the letter “v”). Note that it doesn’t matter whether it was text, images, or a mixture of both that you enclosed in your rectangle, the resulting capture will always be a rectangle in an image format. As well as placing the image directly into somewhere else, you can also save it to a file by clicking on the blue floppy disc icon on the Snipping Tool menu.

“Run commands” can make your Windows usage more productive.

There are often several ways of achieving the same end in Windows. An example of this is “run commands”. A “run command” is a an instruction to run a specific program or utility. It is an alternative to finding the program name or icon in Windows that would have achieved the same end. The advantage, of run commands, of course, is that you don’t have to hunt around Windows to find them.

As an example – in Windows 7 we can change the appearance of the desktop by navigating to the “personalization” screen as follows:

  • Start button
  • Control Panel option
  • View by small icons or large icons
  • Personalization

This can be achieved with a run command:

  • Start button
  • Run option
  • type in “control desktop” and then click on OK

In this case “control desktop” is the run command. There are well over a hundred of these. In each case, they are executed by opening the “Start menu”, clicking on the “run” option and then typing in the specfic command. I find that that it is worth remembering a few that I use often and, just as importantly, knowing where I can find a list containing many more. This can often cut down the frustration of not being able to find a particular command in Windows that you know is there but which you can’t find. In these cases, scanning through a list of run commands can be quicker and less frustrating.

If the “run” command does not appear on your Windows 7 start menu, you can configure it to do so by following Microsoft’s instructions.

Windows 7 Run Box

Windows 7 Run Box

Also, you can bring up the run box even if it does not appear on your start menu by depressing the key with the Window logo (if your keyboard has one) and typing the letter r. This brings up the “run box” ready to type the command into.

 

Windows remembers the previous run commands that you have issued and these can be accessed by clicking on the triangle at the right of the text-input area. This means that you don’t have to remember the name of the command if you have used it before: you just have to recognise it as the one you want when you see it.

I’ve sifted through lists of these run commands and selected 25 that you may find useful. I’ve tested these in Windows 7 but they may not all work in earlier versions of Windows. You can find more comprehensive lists and more information here.

Description Run Command
Add/Remove Programs appwiz.cpl
Administrative Tools control admintools
Calculator calc
Character map charmap
Computer Management compmgmt.msc
Control Panel control
Date and Time Properties timedate.cpl
Device Manager devmgmt.msc
Disk Cleanup Utility cleanmgr
Display Properties desk.cpl
Fonts control fonts
Malicious Software Removal Tool mrt
Notepad notepad
Power Configuration powercfg.cpl
Printers and Faxes control printers
Regional Settings intl.cpl
Security Center wscui.cpl
System Configuration Utility msconfig
System Information msinfo32
Task Manager taskmgr
Ease of Access Centre utilman
Windows Explorer explorer
Windows Firewall firewall.cpl
Windows Magnifier magnify
About Windows winver
© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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