Something separate for each of Mac and Windows users this week

First the Windows tip – Windows has mis-interpreted the type of files kept in a folder

Windows is sometimes just a bit too clever for its own good (so is Mac OSX, but that’s another matter).

Windows Folder-type Choice

Choose “General Items” to see the normal information associated with files in Windows Explorer

I’ve just opened a folder inside my Dropbox folder that I use as a temporary place to move things between computers. As such, it can contain all types of files (music, pdfs, spreadsheets, etc). For some reason, Windows has just decided that this folder contains music tracks and, therefore, is showing me file attributes that it thinks are relevant – in this case, “Name, Title, Contributing artists, and Album”. It’s not showing me the date modified or anything else that is useful and “standard”.

The way to disabuse Windows of its notion (in Windows 7 or Windows 8) is as follows:

  • Find the folder using Windows Explorer (or, as it’s called in Windows 8, “File Explorer”)
  • Right-click on the folder
  • Left-click on the “Properties” option at the bottom of the list of options
  • Left-click on the tab called “Customise” (at the top of the window that’s just opened)
  • Left-click on the dropdown list under the heading “Optimise this folder for:”
  • Choose “General Items”
  • Click OK

And now the Mac tip – banish the icon bounce!

One thing that has always driven me dotty when using a computer is having anything un-ncessarily flashing, moving or doing something else that screams “look at me, look at me, I’m the most important thing in your life at this second and I won’t go away until you find out why I’m trying so hard to get all your attention”. How do the designers of these distractions get to be so arrogant that they think this is legitimate? Is it just the Victor Meldrew in me, or does everyone else get annoyed as well?

Safari icon bouncing on trampolineThis happens on a Mac when a program that is “in the dock” tries to distract us by bouncing up and down. Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I blogged about a browser add-in called AdBlock Plus that stops ads appearing on web pages. It seems to work perfectly well running in Firefox under Windows. I also installed it to run with the Mac’s own Safari browser. Every now and again the two get in a scrap and the Safari icon bounces up and down (even when I’m not looking at a Safari window) and continues to do so until I click on it – only to be told that Safari couldn’t start the add-on. Big deal. I don’t really care at the moment. Now, please stop bothering me and let me get on with the Sisyphean task of sorting out my iTunes music.

Finally, I did a bit of research and am happy to share with you the method for keeping these docked icons in their place. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument as it stops ALL of the icons from bouncing. You can’t stop just the more egregious programs from behaving this way.

  • Open the “Applications” folder
  • Open the “Utilities” folder
  • Open the “Terminal” application
  • Enter the following two commands (without the quotation marks)
    • “defaults write no-bouncing -bool TRUE” – and then hit the Enter key
    • “killall Dock” – and then hit the Enter key

If you ever want to bring the bounce back, repeat the commands exactly as above, except replace “TRUE” with “FALSE” in the first of the two terminal commands.

What we have done above is suppress the bounces when an application wants our attention. It is slightly easier to suppress the bounces that happen whenever we click on a dock icon to open that program. To suppress those bounces:

  • Click on the Apple (top left of screen)
  • Click on “System Preferences”
  • Click on “Dock”
  • Untick the box next to “Animate opening applications”

It’s 50 years (really!) since The Rolling Stones sang “Not Fade Away”

It could almost be an anthem for Windows XP.

Microsoft Ends Support for Windows XP - screen capture from Microsoft

Click the image to find out for yourself

Is no-one listening to the warnings about the impending end of Microsoft support for XP? I’ve just been looking at some statistics of my website visitors and was astonished to find that the percentage of Windows XP users visiting my site in the last month (16.1%) is exactly the same as the figure for the last 12 months (16.1%).

What could be the reasons that there seem to be as many XP users as ever?

No-one is taking any notice

I’ve heard people compare this situation with the “millennium bug“. They’re saying that the world didn’t end then, so why should it end now? Well, that’s a bit like saying that Krakatoa’s last eruption didn’t finish us off, so why worry about Somerset turning into Waterworld?

I would argue that not only was the millennium bug a completely different situation, but it wasn’t even the non-event that people now choose to remember. I was designing database systems at the time and I remember having to come up with some pretty nifty formula changes to compensate for the fact that software date arithmetic at that time assumed that all dates were in the 20th century. Had we not been concerned about similar problems in the chips themselves, there would have been a lot of inconvenience that was avoided.

Aside from silly comparisons with the millenium bug, do you want to risk everything on your computer – and every other computer that is connected to your local network – just to keep an XP machine running a bit longer?

Windows XP logo as a gravestone against Windows XP desktop backgroundPeople have taken notice but think they are invulnerable

Yes, I think this could well be true of a lot of people. There are still people out there who won’t take antivirus software seriously, so why would they even bother to consider the possibilities of virus and malware writers exploiting an increasingly fragile XP? To those people I say “thank you for paying me to remove your viruses”, but please, instead, just accept the reality that you are safer using antivirus protection and you’ll be safer not using a Windows XP computer after March 2014.

My figures are not typical

Actually, they are. Figures published in Jan 2014 by Net Market Share, StatCounter, and W3Counter, show Windows XP share of the market as 22.3%, 13.8% and 13.8% respectively.

Most of those XP users are in the developing world

Surprisingly, I can’t find any figures that show operating system usage by country. Looking at my own visitors, I find that UK, North America, and the Rest of Europe make up 86% of my visitors, leaving 14% from the Rest of the World. Is that 14% the same people as the 16% still using XP? I doubt it, but I’d like to find out more. There’s no doubt that the use of XP is likely to be skewed towards countries and regions less wealthy than Europe and North America. One of the big criticisms aimed at Microsoft for ceasing support for XP is that it will hurt users badly in areas where they can’t afford to upgrade their operating system and/or computers. Whether that is fair criticism is another question.

Pile of junked computers

Coming to a council tip near you?

There are loads of XP machines about to be pensioned off

I have seen evidence of this among my own computer support clients. It seems that a fair number of computer users have several machines and one or two of the oldest are running XP. These will be rapidly taken out of commission if XP becomes dangerous to use after support ends.

So, I think I’ve now done my fair share in warning my computer support clients about the end of Microsoft’s support for XP. I’ll try not to bang on about it again – until and unless we have more real news, at any rate.

If you’ve missed the whole subject and want to catch up, here are links to my previous blogs on the subject:

Replace Windows XP
Microsoft Will Stop Supporting Windows XP in 2014

and last week’s blog might help you along the road towards replacing a Windows XP computer:

Buying a New Laptop – February 2014

That’s it. I’ll shut up now.

Figure 1

Figure 1

At the end of last week’s blog about Windows 8.1, I pointed out the option to go straight to the desktop when opening Windows. If you’ve been to that dialog box you will have seen that it also offers the option to tick a box to display the desktop background image as a background image on the Start Screen. This does make the switch between desktop and Start Screen less jarring. See Figure 1 for the full dialog box.

You will also see another option in this dialog box that suggests that Microsoft have been listening to feedback from users. A lot of us found it a real nuisance that navigating to the top righthand corner of a screen in order to close a program would often bring up the list of so-called “charms” because we’d moved the mouse past the corner of the screen. This unwanted result can now be prevented by unticking the box next to “When I point to the top-right corner, show the charms”. There is a similar option to stop the intrusion of the last “app” used when sliding off the top lefthand corner of the screen.

How do I get the upgrade to 8.1 if I declined it when the offer popped up on my screen?

The upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 takes place from the Windows Store. It is not just a link in any old Microsoft web page. This means that even if you normally sign into Windows 8 with a “local account”, you will need to sign into your Microsoft account to get at the upgrade (see this recent blog re signing in to Windows 8 ). So, if you are one of those people who found it a pain creating a Microsoft account when installing Windows 8, and didn’t think you would ever need it, here’s an example of an occasion when you will need to have its details handy.

I suppose it’s just possible that I had a senior moment during the upgrade process and that something happened (or didn’t happen) that left me needing to sign in to my Microsoft account to open Windows 8.1 when the upgrade had taken place. The cynic in me says that Microsoft have nudged me in the direction they want me to go. The pessimist in me says that I’m probably losing the plot and took a wrong option somewhere during the upgrade process. The realist in me reminds me that it doesn’t matter as it’s possible to switch back to using a local account as detailed in this recent blog.

Tiled Apps

There are many changes, additions, and enhancements to the “tiled apps” available from the Start Screen. I’m not sure whether I ought to apologise for not being able to give you an enthusiastic, in-depth analysis of these changes. The truth is, I just don’t care very much about this side of Windows 8 computing. If I want to do “fun things” I’ll pick up my iPad.

Homer and Windows 8.1Of course, if my computer support clients want to know more about these “apps” then I will pay them more attention. As I recently said, though, I’ve only ever had one client even mention Microsoft’s Surface computer to me (where these “apps” presumably shine), and I can only think of one client in the last year (since Windows 8 was released) who has shown any real enthusiasm for the Start Screen and its “tiled apps”. Maybe you all love them but don’t want to risk incurring my disdain by saying so. I doubt that, somehow, so I’m going to continue not paying them much attention. If you’d like a more enthusiastic view of this aspect of Windows 8.1, then try this blog.

There are also changes to how things are displayed in “File Explorer” (or “Windows Explorer” as it was called prior to Windows 8). We used to look for “My Computer” as the option to prowl around the contents of the computer. This became less patronising in Windows 7 by just calling it “Computer”. In Windows 8.1 it has become “This PC”.


8.1 Install Screen


I must stress that this is the first time I’ve upgraded Windows 8 to 8.1 so the experience may not be typical. Yours may be different. If it’s possible to conclude anything from a single instance, I would say that the upgrade process is slow but that 8.1 seems to have user advantages over Windows 8. Whether you actually need to perform the upgrade is another matter, but I’d say that the security argument probably wins the day. I can’t yet say whether it was Windows 8.1 that broke my Outlook calendars, but I’m glad I took a copy of my Outlook “pst” file just before the upgrade.

And now, after one more week’s experience of 8.1, I’m happy to report that everything seems to be back to its previous speed. Not only that, but my calendar synch is working again – with no intervention from me. Nothing else has happened that shouldn’t have, and I’m a happy bunny who is glad to have Windows 8.1 instead of 8.

Now, there’s a question I’m often asked…

There’s no doubt that Mac users (and users of other Apple devices such as iPads and iPhones) are much more fiercely loyal to the brand than owners of computers and devices that run Windows or Android.

Most PC owners hardly give a thought to the brand of their computer, other than when making the buying decision. Not so with Mac owners. They are forever conscious of the fact that they have bought something different, something beautifully designed, something expensive. And they are not backward in coming forward when it comes to making recommendations:

Macs never go wrong
Macs can’t get viruses” etc etc.

MacBook Pro 2012

MacBook Pro 2012

Well, these statements are not strictly true, although I’ve never had a single complaint from my four year old Mac Mini (despite my upgrading the memory and the hard drive, which we are strongly encouraged not to do).

It’s probably true that Macs are inherently more secure than PCs when it comes to viruses and malware, but the real reason that they “don’t get viruses” is that the nasty people out there writing software to exploit or damage our computers are not stupid. They’d rather spend their time developing nasty things that can attack the 90% of the computers that run Windows than the 10% that run Mac OSX.

Frankly, that’s the main reason that I, myself, took so long to start learning about Macs. Why double my workload to increase my potential clientele by 10% (ok, 11.11% if you want to be pedantic)? The reality, of course, is that it’s not doubling my workload: a great deal that I’ve learned about PCs over the years is directly applicable to Macs and doesn’t need learning again. And that would also apply to you if you were thinking of making the change.

Anyway, back to the main point. Let’s forget about the mystique that’s grown up around all things Apple. Let’s just consider the practicalities if you are thinking of jumping ship from a PC and, as a client of mine put it, “going over to the dark side”.

Downside of changing to Macs

  • There’s much less choice in the model you buy, but that may be less important than it used to be as most computers these days are capable of handling anything the normal user will demand of them.
  • Macs are much more expensive than PCs of comparable power. True, but you get what you pay for and nothing else comes close to the build and finish quality of a Mac.
  • If you are looking for specific software that is not “mainstream” then it may not be available on Macs. Microsoft Office is available for Macs and so are the main accounts programs for independent professionals and small businesses (eg Quicken and Sage). This is probably not the problem that it would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Nevertheless, if you have many different types of programs (particularly old favourites that are no longer being updated/supported) then it may be worth carefully checking each one that is important to you before plunging into change.
  • You may have to carefully consider how you are going to get your existing data into equivalent Mac programs. This may be easy, it may be impossible, or it may be possible with the help of someone like me.
  • If you have previously been a PC user then there’s no doubt that you have a learning curve to face. You will need to adapt to the way that Apple works. In general, it’s probably fair to say that Macs are a bit more intuitive to use than PCs, but that doesn’t help much at the beginning if you are shouting at the screen because it doesn’t understand your old PC way of trying to do something.

Upside of changing to Macs

  • There’s no arguing with the fact that Apple computers and devices are consistently more “desirable” and beautifully designed and manufactured than anything else.
  • Macs seem to last longer than PCs. Whereas a PC is usually thought to be on its last legs at five years old, Macs go on for longer. I’ve just bought a four year old MacBook Pro from a client. She kept it in immaculate condition and it seems to me that I’ve bought a new computer rather than a middle-aged one (mind you, I could have bought a new, low-end, PC laptop for the same price).
  • The screen image on a Mac is usually much better than on a PC. I was amazed at how much better my photographs look on a MacBook Pro than on any PC/monitor combination I’ve ever had before.
  • If you are starting from scratch, Macs are almost certainly easier to get to grips with than a Windows PC.
  • The inbuilt “Time Machine” backup system on the Mac is far superior to anything I’ve ever found for a PC. It is reliable and easy to use. You will, of course, still need an external backup device.

In summary, I would say that if you can answer “yes” to all the following questions, then it’s certainly worth thinking about changing to a Mac:

  • Can a Mac provide the software you need?
  • Can you get your essential existing data across to a Mac?
  • Will your peripherals (eg printer, scanner) work with a Mac?
  • Are you prepared to pay the price premium for a Mac?
  • Are you prepared to re-learn some of the ways that you do things?

Picture of brick

Typical Windows laptop

In practice, my experience is that almost all of my clients who have made the change have been happy and wouldn’t go back. The two exceptions I can think of are one friend and one client who both thought that the Mac was taking away some of the control they felt they had over their PC.

I’m often asked whether I support Macs in my capacity as a Computer Support Consultant. The answer is that my Mac knowledge is growing all the time as the number of Mac clients that I have increases. Also, I have had my own Mac Mini for nearly four years and have now acquired a MacBook Pro. So, my experience is growing and I am certainly happy to discuss any issues you may have with your Mac. I don’t think, though, that my Mac experience is ever going to catch up with my PC experience (thanks to a 25 year head start!)

At least I am now trying really hard to get out of the habit of saying “that would work on a proper computer” when my PC assumptions are thwarted on a Mac.

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.


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.

I’m not a great believer in trying to remember a lot of “quick key” keyboard shortcuts

There are several reasons for this:

  • A certain amount of effort has to be put into learning a shortcut and this effort will quite probably interrupt the flow of whatever it is that you were doing.
  • A shortcut key combination may do one thing in one program and a different thing in a different program.
  • We are moving more and more into computing that works by screen touches, swipe gestures, mouse clicks, and so on.
  • If you don’t use a particular shortcut on a regular basis then you won’t remember it when you need it and, quite probably, you will not even remember that you ever learned it in the first place.

Keyboard ShortcutSo, is it worth the effort? My advice is “yes”, it is worth it for anyone who is interested in investing a little time and effort in becoming a more efficient computer user. Despite the move to touching screens, swiping, and so on, most people still do a fair amount of typing on a keyboard, even if it’s just for emails. When doing some concentrated typing it is often easier to keep your hands on the keyboard when issuing a command than it is to grab the mouse or even move around a touchscreen.

When I’m training my computer clients I approach the subject of keyboard shortcuts as follows:-

  • “Cut, copy, and paste” shortcuts are the essential ones. They apply to many programs and situations in both Windows and Mac computing.
  • Menus often include the shortcut keys that can be used instead of the menu. You can choose for yourself which of these shortcuts are worth learning.
  • Shortcut keys can be useful for things that you do often and/or things that are very awkward to do by other means (such as digging down three levels of menu). It’s usually very easy to find a list of shortcuts for any popular program. Just google “xyz shortcut keys” where “xyz” is the name of the program.

Yul Brynner

The original short cut?

Having found a list of available shortcuts, do not lose the will to live. Instead, just scan the list and pick out one or two that you think you would use. WRITE THEM DOWN. Write them down somewhere that you know you can find within seconds. A post-it note is fine as long as you can see it amongst the other 600 post-it notes that have taken over your workspace. Then, when you are using the program next, just try to remember that you’ve written a couple of shortcut keys down so that when habit leads you to do things in the old way you will say to yourself “aha, I’ve got a shortcut key for this” and you will be able to find the post-it note within seconds. Then use your new shortcut. This is a learning process. You must expect to spend a bit more time using the so-called shortcut than doing things the old way. If you use the shortcut often enough then you will eventually remember it and it will save you time. If you don’t use it often enough you will forget it and the post-it note will sink down the strata of other unregarded paper in your workspace.

I know that the above sounds facile, but the point of it is that you will only bother to learn a shortcut if you can remind yourself of it within seconds and if you then practise using it. If it takes too long to remember what the shortcut key is then you will say to yourself “blow this for a game of soldiers” and go back to your old way of doing things. On the other hand, if you force yourself to invest 5 seconds in looking for the right post-it note and then executing the shortcut then there’s a chance that you will do this often enough that it will stick in your mind and become a true improvement to your keyboard skills.

But a word of caution: don’t try to learn too many at once. That way lies disaster as the whole shortcut business will get in the way of what you were trying to achieve and you will, once again, say “blow this for a game of soldiers……”.

“How on earth do you switch Windows 8 off?”

Last week’s blog looked at how the new “Start Screen” in Windows 8 replaces the old “Start Menu”. The old Start Menu was one of the main ways of launching programs and searches. It was also the way to access the button to close the computer. This week’s blog looks at how we close the machine now that we no longer have the old Start Menu with its shutdown button.

Windows 8 LogoFrom my experience with many computer clients over the years, I would say that the vast majority of my clients do want to close their computers at the end of the day. I get the distinct feeling that a lot of users experience a scintilla of relief when the screen goes black and the fan shuts down. For a lot of people, I think that closing a computer down is a bit of a ritual. It’s a marking of the end of a period of fighting with an alien force: a sign that it’s time to return to the “real” world (or maybe they are just pleased that it’s a sign that I will soon be leaving them).

Well, like it or not, the old shutdown button has gone. Microsoft don’t want us to switch the computer off. Windows 8 has been designed so that the Sleep mode is very efficient: there just isn’t any need to power the machine down when you are not using it. Putting it to sleep reduces the power requirement to a very low level and waking up from sleep is almost instantaneous.

Windows 8 Charms Bar

Windows 8 Charms Bar on an otherwise empty desktop

If you really do want to switch it off, the easiest built-in way to do it is from the Charms Bar (yes – that is really what it is called – see illustration).

To access the Charms Bar:

  • Touchscreen – swipe inwards from the right edge of the screen
  • Mouse – point at the top or bottom corner of the screen at the right edge
  • Keyboard – depress the Windows key and, while it is down, type the letter “c”


  • Click on the “Settings” cog wheel
  • Click on the “Power” icon
  • Click the desired shutdown action

Windows Shutdown IconIf you find that rigmarole a bit of a pain, then here is a method for creating a desktop shortcut that immediately closes the machine. This is not a complete replacement for the old method as it doesn’t offer options for re-starting etc., but if you just want to make sure your computer is switched off before getting back to the real world, then this is how to create the shortcut:

  • Go to an empty part of the desktop (ie a part where there are no icons) and right-click your mouse
  • Look down the menu that pops up and left-click on the option labelled “new”
  • Left-click on the option marked “shortcut”
  • In the space below the text “Type the location of the item” enter the following text:
    C:\Windows\System32\shutdown.exe /s /t 0
  • Click “Next”
  • Enter a name (eg “quick shutdown”)
  • Click “Finish”

You can change the icon of the new shortcut as follows:

  • right-click on the new shortcut
  • Left-click on the “properties” option
  • If necessary, click on the “shortcut” tab at the top of the window
  • Left-click on the “change icon” button
  • A warning message will pop up that there are no other icons available in that file. Just click on “OK” and a whole bunch of different icons from different places will be offered. Just click on one to highlight it
  • Click on the “OK” buttons until all windows are closed

– you have your own “shutdown” shortcut. You can drag it onto the taskbar so that it is always available while you are in “desktop mode”.

Sleepin LaptopAfter a few week of using Windows 8, I have to say that I think too much fuss is being made of the demise of the Start button. It’s probably true, though, that the main reason I don’t miss it very much is that I never turn my computer off. It goes to sleep at night (just like I do), and wakes up really quickly in the morning by opening the lid (just like I don’t).

You may be thinking of buying a new PC and be wondering how you will get on with Windows 8

Windows 95 Start Button

Window 95 Start Button

In particular, you may have heard that Microsoft have done a strange thing by removing the “Start” button. This has been a part of Windows since the introduction of Windows 95 (was that really 18 years ago?) I remember the first time I encountered Windows 95 and my irritation at not being able to find any way of closing it nicely. Surely I can not be the only person who found it completely ridiculous that the option to “close” would be found within a button marked “start”! Anyway, we all got used to the Start button and a lot of users are rather upset that it’s gone.

It appears that people are missing two main things:

  • The ability to launch programs and system items from the Start menu
  • The ability to switch off the computer from the Start menu

So let’s deal with the first of these:

After a couple of weeks of “real” use of Windows 8, I find the tiled “Start Screen” irritating and pointless. If I want “apps” I’ll reach for my beautiful, light, well-behaved iPad Mini or maybe even my iPhone. So, the first thing I always do when I start Windows 8 is to click on the “Desktop” tile and get back to familiar territory.

If, however, I think of the Start Screen as being a replacement and evolution of the Start Menu (instead of a “re-imagining of Windows ” as Microsoft would like us to think), then things get better. Remember, for instance, the “search” box in the Start menu of Windows 7? Well, just click on the Windows key to go to the Start Screen and you can just type in the first few characters of any installed program to launch it. Once you get used to it, this is far quicker than searching through the old “desktop” for a particular icon. It works just like the “search” box in the Start menu of Windows 7. The key is to think of the “Start Screen” as being a replacement for the “Start Menu”. Just get used to accessing it with the Windows key instead of clicking on a Start button.

To illustrate, I am writing this blog in OneNote. If I now wish to launch, for instance, Adobe Acrobat (assuming that there’s no shortcut pinned to the taskbar) then I just hit the Windows key, type “acr” and the Enter key. That’s just five keystrokes. Let’s try another one. I can launch Opera by hitting the Windows key followed by “op” and the Enter key. Just four keystrokes. No Start button needed and no hunting through an insane confusion of desktop icons.

What about system utilities? No problem: the good old Control Panel is accessible by just typing the Windows key, “co”, and Enter.

Windows 8 Start Screen Icon

Start Screen Tile

There is an alternative way to access the Start Screen and that is to aim your mouse cursor at the bottom lefthand corner of the screen and click when a little “Start Screen Tile” appears. Don’t make the mistake of trying to move your cursor over the top of the tile before clicking as that will just make the tile disappear. Very annoying. So, just head for the corner of the screen and click as soon as the tile appears.

Directing search results to installed apps

When you start typing anything from the Start Screen you will see that the Windows search options that pop up are far more sophisticated than I suggest here. You can type your search term and then choose to narrow your results to “Apps”, “Settings” or “Files”. There are also a host of other places whither you can direct your search. For instance, I typed “cla” into the search box and then clicked on an app I have installed called “London Tube Map”. My search was then directed specifically to that app and the results returned were Clapham Common, Clapham North, etc. Clicking on one of these then displayed the tube map with the chosen station bleeping away at me. This was just for the purpose of illustration, of course. I’m afraid my mind really has decided that “apps” are for an iPad or Android tablet, and that “applications” are “proper” programs for a laptop or desktop.

Windows Key

Windows key – aka “winkey”

Maybe I can be lured away in time by Microsoft’s attempts to get us to view both “desktop” and “smartphone/tablet” app(lication)s on one device, but I must agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion so far – Windows 8 is a bit clunky as a result of merging a desktop operating system with a mobile/tablet one. For the time being at least, I am choosing to view Windows 8 as being “desktop based” and the new “tiled apps” as a bit of nonsense. And I’m not going to be seduced by Microsoft’s (presumably intentional) use of the word “apps” to include both proper “applications” and mobile “apps”.

But, to return to the main topic of the missing Start button, I found that as soon as I started to think of the Start Screen as a very big replacement for the Start menu (instead of being the main way to use my computer) then I started to progress in using Windows 8. I’m still “desktop focused” and I’ve quickly learned to access the Start Screen with the Windows key (aka “winkey”) instead of aiming for a missing Start button.

Next week I’ll look at the other main gripe about the lack of a Start button in Windows 8 – and that is the lack of a “shutdown” button within it. And just in case I can’t convince you that you don’t need it, I’ll show you how to create a shortcut for your desktop that will let you shut the computer down with a single click.

Have you noticed the “casual dishonesty” by commercial enterprises on their websites?

Cartoon robber stealing away from laptopWe all know – I hope – that there are some out-and-out villains trying to deceive us online, but many otherwise highly-regarded organisations also appear to be “ethically challenged” online.

You can sign out if you are not you

Take Amazon, for example. If you want to sign out of your Amazon account you need to click on the link at the top of any Amazon page that says “Hello, David, your account” (assuming, of course, that, like me, you are called David). The option that allows you to sign out is at the bottom of the menu that pops up. But it doesn’t say “sign out”, it says “Not David? Sign out”.

Amazon Sign Out Option

The Amazon sign-out. The only way to sign out is to pretend not to be David

The way that I read this is that this option is only for use by someone other than me. Is there any other interpretation that can be put on this? Hence, if I’m a bit overwhelmed by all this stuff I might not want to use this option to sign myself out and might look in vain for an alternative way of doing it. No doubt Amazon would say that they give an option to sign out. My guess is that their weasely wording just nudges the “sign out” rate down a smidgeon, so they can gather even more information from people who have failed to find the non-existent unambiguous sign-out option.

Go, Don’t Go

Green Button

Is this the nice, friendly, button …

A favourite trick is to style the button they want you to click as a green one, and the one they don’t want you to click on as a red one. This looks incredibly crass once you’ve spotted it, but I suppose that the whole point is that you don’t spot it: you only apply a part of your attention to what you are doing and the green button looks safe and suggests “go ahead, this is the safe way forward”. So, the green button is likely to represent “upgrade to the paid version” and the red button means “stick with the free version”.

Red Button

… or is this the one you were looking for?

You wanted to continue with the free version, but before you know it you’ve clicked on the green button and you’re on your way to paying for it.

The Microsoft Upgrade Assistant

I was thrown off balance last week by what semed like similar behaviour by Microsoft. They very helpfully provide a Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant so that you can check to see what problems (or “issues” as everyone calls them these days) you might encounter if you upgrade your existing operating system to Windows 8.

The Upgrade Assistant analyses your current setup and then gives you a report. This divides the results into two sections. The first section is headed “For you to review” and the second section is headed “Compatible”. Included in the first section of my report was an entry with a yellow icon of a “warning triangle” and the text “paid update available”. Given that other items in that section had red crosses and text such as “go to the app website for help”, I think I can forgive myself for believing that Microsoft were telling me that I had to pay for a newer version of the (Microsoft!) product flagged with the yellow warning triangle.

I actually ran the Upgrade Assistant twice on different days. Perhaps I was hoping for a second opinion. Not surprisingly, it gave the same result on both occasions. I decided to bite the bullet as it’s time I got to grips properly with Windows 8 and the only way to do that is to use it for real on my main computer.

Guess what? The “flagged” item runs perfectly happily with Windows 8 (as does almost everything else). No paid update needed. For a few minutes I felt a bit of a ‘nana for letting myself be misled like this. Then I remembered that Microsoft – like all the other major web presences who are trying to lead us by the nose down paths that they choose – are paying lots of intelligent people to tweak web pages to the nth degree so as to get the very best response rates. Why would those people care too much about pushing the boundaries of ethical standards? They’re not standing in front of the end user, looking them in the eye and telling a barefaced lie. No, they’re sitting in front of their computers, tweaking their web designs so as to squeeze out the very last fraction of a percentage point of “response rate” or whatever it is they’re seeking to maximise. Or am I just being too cynical – again?

Concluding a look at the basics of Antivirus Software

Click here for the first part of this blog

How does your antivirus software detect threats?

This is likely to be through a combination of two different types of analysis:

  • Computer Screen and MicroscopeSignature-based detection – this is when the coding in the file being checked is compared with code that is known to be present in malicious files. Every day your antivirus software automatically connects to the online server (computer) of its manufacturer and downloads to your computer the latest list of known problems, together with their “signatures” – ie some specfic coding of the file that your antivirus software can check against the coding of the files it checks. This way, your antivirus program is usually no more than 24 hours behind in its knowledge of the known threats.
  • Heuristic detection – this is when the antivirus software looks at a number of factors in the suspect file, assign “weights” (or “scores”) to these factors, adds the scores together and then makes an overall judgment as to the likelihood of the file being malicious.

The downsides of anivirus protection

  • False negatives – if an antivirus program fails to detect a problem this is known as a “false negative”. The malware is then left free to do its business.
  • False Positives – your antivirus program may falsely accuse something on your computer of being malware. This is known as a false positive and can be a pain in the neck as it could take time, money, and expertise to analyse the situation and conclude that the antivirus program got a bit over-keen. Alternatively, you might just follow the on-screen prompts of your antivirus software and de-activate an important and valuable part of your system that wasn’t doing any harm.
  • Overhead – antivirus programs can slow down your system. With some complicated and large antivirus programs (disparagingly referred to as “bloatware”) this system degradation can be a noticeable nuisance – especially on older and less powerful systems.
  • Unhelpful messages – some antivirus programs are prone to popping up semi-cryptic messages about what they are doing and what they have found. These can be unsettling, annoying, and difficult to interpret.

Data file updating and program updating

Symbols representing internet connectionAs described above, almost all antivirus programs update their “virus definition files” or “signature definition files” every day. This does not affect the functionality of the program (ie what the program can do) – it just lengthens the list of known problems and how to recognise them. This is not the same thing as “updating the program”. Most antivirus programs now issue a new release towards the end of the year. Updating to a newer version of a program probably adds some bells and whistles but probably won’t change the basic antivirus detection of the program. I would suggest that it is far more important to ensure that the daily signature definition files are updated regularly than worrying about updating the program itself (especially if updating the program involves paying for it again).

So why bother with antivirus protection?

  • It’s not just your own system you are threatening. You could pass on malware to anyone you share files with.
  • The potential costs of not protecting your system are just too high. Over the years there have been several occasions when I have needed to re-format a client’s hard drive – ie wipe everything clean and re-install everything – to get rid of a virus infection. Apart from the disruption and potential loss of data, a half day spent trying to recover from a virus infection followed by resorting to re-formatting and starting again could easily cost £500-£750. Why would you risk that? Well, one response I sometimes hear to that question is “I only use my computer for web browsing and I use webmail so not even my emails are vulnerable”. My answer to that is that it could still take a day or more to re-format and re-install the basics of Windows, Windows Updates, printer drivers, other driver updates, browser updates, etc. And that is assuming that you have recovery DVDs or access to a recovery partition on your hard drive. Again I ask “why would anyone risk that”? And yet some people still do.They tend to change their minds, though, if they suffer a nasty infection that’s hard to remove. Please believe me when I say that it really isn’t worth waiting until that happens before installing an antivirus program.

If you want to do it now, with the minimum of fuss, download Microsoft Security Essentials from here and just follow the prompts. It’s free and it works.

But don’t do this if you already have an antivirus program installed. Don’t ever install more than one antivirus program on one computer. You might think that that would be a good way of improving your protection but what can happen is that the two competing products can get in each other’s way and cause the whole system to freeze.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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