Antivirus software intercepts and counteract threats posed by malicious software (“malware”). Malware tries to damage software installations, steal data, or extort money

Laptop in BedMalware threats can be introduced into your computer system in may ways, including when installing or downloading software, when opening data files that have been infected (such as word processing files), or when visiting websites that contain threats (the website owner may or may not know that the site contains threats).

There is a constant “cat and mouse game” or “arms race” going on between the creators of malware and the creators of antivirus software. The upshot of this is that most antivirus manufacturers update the “knowledge” of their products every day so as to keep up with the latest known threats.

What computer systems are at risk? In theory, any computer system that has any kind of link to the “outside world” is at risk. The most common way of creating that link to the outside world these days is by having an active internet connection. Any file opened or downloaded from the internet could, in principle, constitute a risk. Other media for passing malware include floppy discs (remember them?), CDs/DVDs, and USB pen drives (also known as thumb drives and – usually erroneously – memory sticks).

How can you stay completely safe from malware? Don’t connect your computer to the “outside world” (see above). There is no other way to be completely safe. This, however, is not feasible and certainly falls into the category of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. It is possible to protect your system from malware to the extent that it’s worth taking the risk of connecting to the internet.

Are Macs and Linux computers vulnerable to malware? In theory, yes. The main reason why almost all malware is experienced on Windows-based systems is that Windows in installed on the overwhelming majority of the world’s computer systems. If you were going to create something nasty, would you spend your time creating something that could attack 90% of the world’s computers or just 5%? It is also possibly true to say that Macs are inherently less vulnerable than Windows computers. In practice, most Mac users don’t seem to use any antivirus software. I don’t know about Linux users. In principle, mobile phones and tablet computers are also vulnerable but these, too, are not usually protected at the moment.

So, assuming that you have a Windows-based computer, what are the main features of the antivirus software you may install?

Free or Paid

Laptop and ThermometerPaid software has more bells and whistles than free versions. Personally, I’ve never been convinced by these. I even see them as a problem rather than a benefit as the more complicated the antivirus software, the more effect it has on system performance and the more likely it is to cause problems in its interactions with other parts of the system. The same, basic, antivirus detection is usually included in both paid and free versions of software.

Apart from the cost itself, there are other potential problems with paid software that include;

  • Occasional difficulties in renewing the annual licence – Norton and McAfee come to mind.
  • Automatic renewal of the licence – some of these companies will put their hand in your pocket for the renewal fee without warning you. No doubt this was mentioned in the (unread) small print of the “terms and conditions” you originally agreed to, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying when it happens. My experience is that companies who do this can be persuaded to give you your money back if you object to this and wish to cancel the renewal.

Scanning Action

There are two different things that can trigger your antivirus to check files. Both of these types of check are usually present and active in antivirus software:

  • Real-time scanning – this happens at the very moment you open a file or download it, and is intended to discover and neutralise a threat at the moment that the threat would otherwise have been launched. Your antivirus software might also refer to this as on-access scanning, background scanning, resident protection, or other names that suggest that the protection is there all the time, ready for any threat.
  • Scheduled scanning – this happens when all susceptible files are checked all at once according to a predefined schedule (usually once a week, by default).

Why have both types of scanning?

Suppose that a brand new virus appears today and your antivirus software does not know about it. This could mean that the virus will slip past the realtime scanner and be saved onto your computer. In the course of the next day or so, your antivirus software is likely to be updated with information about this new threat. If your system is set to run a scheduled scan then that scheduled scan may reveal the virus that had previously slipped past unnoticed.

To be continued next week…

It’s a whole year since I was congratulating myself on a whole year’s worth of weekly blog posts

2 candles on a calendarSo, what’s the same and what’s changed in the last year? To begin with, an update on the items I mentioned a year ago

Microsoft Security Essentials

I had recently introduced MSE as the antivirus program on my main computer. It’s behaved perfectly in the year since then. No viruses, no dramas, no complaints. It’s free, unobtrusive, and has a reasonable reputation for doing its job properly. I can’t imagine why I would want Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky or any of the other paid-for, bloated, antivirus programs.

AVG Free Antivirus

I said a year ago that I’d stopped recommending this as their marketing tactics (in leading users of the free product to upgrade to the paid product) had become too aggressive. They must have been listening to complaints such as mine as one client asked me this year to backtrack their system from the accidental installation of the paid version, and AVG offered to reinstate the free version that the client had previously been using. This is an improvement. Apart from the their marketing tactics, my experience of AVG Free antivirus had always been positive.

Zen Internet

Zen keep on winning awards for the best ISP. If price is the most important aspect of your broadband provision then I recommend investigating PlusNet as their support is also based in the UK. If you just want the best service and think it’s worth paying to make sure you get it, then I would continue to recommend Zen. In all the support calls I’ve made to ISPs on behalf of clients in the last 12 months I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the likes of BT, Talk Talk, AOL, Virgin, have done anything at all to improve the service they provide when something goes wrong with their broadband service.

What else has changed in the last year?

Dropbox

Dropbox logoDropbox is a cloud-based storage system that allows you to synchronise content between your different computers, access your content from other computers, and share folders (and their contents) with other people. It’s gained a really strong foothold over the last year or two and there are “apps” for other devices (such as iPhones and Android devices) that give you access to the contents of your Dropbox folders on those devices. Plenty of other apps are now also allowing you to share their data between your different computers/devices by using Dropbox. Dropbox doesn’t give you the most free space of the cloud-based storage systems. If you need lots of free space, look at Google Drive or Box or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. It does seem, though, that Dropbox is the most prevalent of the cloud storage services. If the initial 2gb of free space is not enough, you can either pay for more space or “earn” more space by recommending new users and/or jumping through other hoops that Dropbox offer you. Click here to get your free Dropbox account (and you’ll earn both yourself and me more free space if you use this link!)

Windows 8

Windows 8 LogoWindows 8 has just been released. It’s too soon to say how it’s being received but the predictions were that it might just not succeed in combining the requirements of touchscreen devices (such as tablets) with the requirements of a “proper”, keyboard and mouse, system. From what I’ve seen of it so far I think it might be OK.

I was thinking that it might be time to install it on my main machine, so I ran Microsoft’s Upgrade Assistant to see if any problems were anticipated. I was quite surprised to find that Windows 8 claims not to be compatible with Microsoft’s Access 2007 (although other modules in the 2007 version of Office appear to be ok). Life starts to get a bit complicated at this point as Office 2013 is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2013. So would people in my position upgrade to Access 2010 now or wait for Access 2013?

If it wasn’t for the fact that I need to get a grip on Windows 8 in order to help out my computer support clients then I’d let sleeping dogs lie for the time being. Another reason for waiting a while is that iTunes for Windows is not currently compatible with Windows 8. I think that most of my clients would only need to think about Windows 8 if they are going to buy a new machine. At the moment, if you buy a new Windows 7 machine you can upgrade to Windows 8 later for just £15, and maybe that would be the simplest decision to take for now. However, if you are thinking of buying a new Windows 8 machine then I would definitely run the upgrade assistant on your present setup to see if any other software will need to be upgraded or replaced.

Where’s the “Show Desktop” icon gone in Windows 7?

"Show Desktop" icon for XP

“Show Desktop” icon for XP

In Windows XP there was an option on the Start Menu that allowed you to show a desktop icon on the taskbar. Clicking on that icon immediately showed the full desktop without closing the windows that had previously obscured it. Those windows could be accessed by just clicking on their icons in the taskbar. The icon changed in Windows Vista, but it was still there.
"Show Desktop" icon for Vista

“Show Desktop” icon for Vista

However, in Windows 7 it disappeared. Well, actually, it didn’t. Some bright spark at Microsoft decided to (a) move it from the lefthand side of the screen to the right and (b) disguise it as part of the taskbar by turning it into a completely nondescript rectangle. It’s now the area to the right of the clock on the taskbar. On my own desktop it’s the rectangle at the bottom right of this image:

"Show Desktop" icon for Windows 7

“Show Desktop” icon for Windows 7

As well as moving it and disguising it, Microsoft also added the “feature” that if you just hover your mouse over the icon (without actually clicking on it) then it shows you a view of the desktop showing through the outline of any windows you currently have open. Maybe someone, somewhere, has found a use for this “feature”, but every time I show clients how to use the “show desktop” icon, they are a little nonplussed when this “feature” activates just before they click on the icon. I advise them to just ignore it and click the icon to reveal the desktop in the normal way.

Irrespective of the version of Windows, there are other ways of immediately getting back to the desktop. These are:

  • Press the Windows logo key and, while this is down, hit the letter “d”

or

  • Take your mouse down to the taskbar, right-click, and then left-click on “Show the desktop”

Arranging Windows Side By Side

Windows Logo Key

Windows Logo Key

OK, having whinged a bit about fixing something that wasn’t broken, here’s a feature introduced in Windows 7 that is much more useful. It’s the ability to (reasonably) easily arrange two windows so that each occupies half of the screen. Very useful, for instance, if you need one window open for writing, and another for reading. It’s also very useful when dragging things from one window to another.
Cursor Keys

Cursor Keys

A small tip, here, is that when I’m dragging stuff between windows I always arrange the windows so that the “source window” (where the content starts off) is at the left and the “destination window” is always at the right. I find that sticking to this convention just makes it that bit harder for me to get it the wrong way round during a senior moment.

So, how do you arrange windows side by side?

  • Make one window the “current” window by clicking in its “title bar” (the coloured bar at the top of the window).
  • Depress the “Windows” key and, while this is down, tap either the “cursor left” or “cursor right” key.
  • Depending on which cursor key you tapped, the window (now occupying half of the screen) will be either down the left or right side of the screen.
  • Repeating the key-tapping combination will move the window to the other side of the screen.
  • Repeating it again will put the window back into the size and position it occupied before you started playing with this (except that if you had previously had the window “maximised” it will now be “restored down”).
  • Now just click onto the other window (that you want on the other side of the screen) and repeat the same procedure.

I found that it’s worth practising this a bit and committing it to memory as I often feel “better organised” in what I’m doing if I have two windows neatly set up side by side.

You might wonder if there’s any easy method – or software – available so that you can immediately and automatically re-arrange a set of windows in a way that you like. As far as I know, there isn’t. I’ve looked before but never found anything. To my mind, this is one of those extraordinary omissions in Windows. You really would have thought that someone at Microsoft would have noticed some time over the last 20 years or so that it’s really annoying having to repeat the same actions time and again to get the windows back to where you want them every time you want a particular arrangement.

Three things with nothing in common except that I get asked about all of them from time to time and none would justify a blog on their own

Windows Taskbar Location

If your Windows taskbar has suddenly relocated itself to the side of the screen – or even the top – then you can put it back by left-clicking on a vacant part of the taskbar and then dragging it back to the bottom edge of the screen. You can, of course, do this to move it to one of the alternative edges on purpose. Funnily enough, in all my years of providing computer support, I can only think of one client family who has re-located the taskbar of all their machines in this way. If it doesn’t seem to behave properly when you drag it (and this does happen occasionally for some reason), then right-click on the taskbar, left-click on Properties, and choose the preferred location by clicking on the dropdown menu next to “Taskbar location on screen”.

Taskbar Properties

The Taskbar Properties “Taskbar” tab, showing how to relocate the taskbar and/or autohide it

If you want, you can even turn the taskbar display off so that it only shows if you move the cursor into it. You do this by right-clicking on a vacant part of the taskbar, left-clicking on Properties, and then ticking the box labelled “Auto-hide the taskbar”.

Playing around with these two options is probably a really good way of annoying any other users of your computer.

Forcing a Re-Boot

If you learn a snippet of computer information but then don’t use it, it’s very easy to forget it while, at the same time, knowing that you’ve come across it. As I often say to my computer trainees, learning computer skills is not like learning to swim or ride a bike. If you don’t reinforce a piece of computer knowledge by using it then you get into the annoying situation of knowing you’ve come across it but not remembering what it is that you need to know. I’ve never found an easy way around this but the method I use for myself is to have one of the Windows Sticky Notes (see this blog on Sticky Notes) available with short notes on it that I can easily call to the screen. In time, the piece of knowledge either bludgeons its way into my long-term memory, stays on the sticky note, or gets deleted from it because I never use it and can’t remember why I put it there in the first place.

One example of this type of information is “how do you safely re-boot a computer that’s completely frozen and won’t respond to the three-fingered salute?” The answer is that you depress the on/off button (ie the power button) for five seconds continuously. I’ve never yet met a computer that hasn’t responded to this. Three fingered salute? The time-honoured method of re-booting a computer by pressing Control, Alt, and Delete at the same time.

Why Doesn’t My Screensaver Come On?

Screensaver Settings

The screensaver is set to show after 60 minutes of inactivity.

If you think you’ve selected a screensaver but it never comes into effect, then you’ve probably got your Power Options set so that the screen goes blank because of the power options before the screensaver gets a look-in. For instance, in the illustrations here, the Power Options will turn off the display after 5 minutes or 20 minutes (depending on whether the machine is plugged into the mains), so the screensaver (set to display after 60 minutes of inactivity) will never be shown. By the way, be very very wary of downloading screensavers from unknown sources as malware can be hidden in them.
The Display Settings In Power Options

The display will go blank after 5 minutes if running on the battery or 20 minutes if running from the mains adaptor

And, finally, a factoid….

If you are older than 105 then you can’t open an AOL email account without lying about your age.

I was setting up a “dummy” account for some reason recently and got ratty – as I always do – when asked for my date of birth by a website that has no legitimate reason to insist that I provide it. I don’t mind them asking, but I’m not going to tell them unless there is a legitimate reason for them knowing (and marketing purposes couched in language such as “to improve your user experience” do NOT meet that test). So, if I can’t complete the form without giving a date of birth, my usual response is to tell them I was born on 1st January 1900. Anyone inspecting the data is likely to suspect that I am lying. Good. Sue me. Anyway, AOL wouldn’t let me be born on 1st Jan 1900 or even 1st Jan 1907. I had to be born on 1st Jan 1908 before they would allow me to “submit” the form. Very odd – and definitely discriminatory against 106 year olds.

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”. 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.

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”.

Every time a new version of Windows is imminent, people who are thinking of buying a new computer ask the same question: is it better to wait until the new version is released so that the new computer will be up-to-date?

There used to be so many people pondering this question that it seriously affected computer sales in the months leading up to the release of a new version of Windows. Microsoft dealt with this problem in a very sensible way in the run-up to Windows 7: they offered a free upgrade to the new version when it became available. So, people carried on buying computers with Vista, knowing that it would be relatively simple – and free – to upgrade to Windows 7 when it became available. As well as being able to buy a new computer without being disadvantaged by a near-obsolete operating system, this also meant that the buyer could wait a while before taking the plunge into Windows 7. In other words, they could let other people do the “real world testing” before taking the plunge. In the meantime, they had the use of their new machine (albeit with the much-reviled “Vista”).

Windows 8 LogoWe are expecting Windows 8 to be released some time in the autumn (probably) and Microsoft has just announced a similar offer. This time, however, there is a $14 charge for the upgrade (I’m not sure if that’s also the exact price we’ll see in the UK). It will upgrade from any version of Windows 7 to the best version of Windows 8 – Windows 8 Professional. Microsoft say this on their blog

… starting on June 2nd, 2012, Microsoft will roll out the Windows Upgrade Offer in 131 markets including the US and Canada. Consumers who purchase eligible Windows 7 PCs that are preinstalled with Windows 7 Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate and include a matching and valid OEM Certificate of Authenticity through January 31, 2013 will be able to purchase an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99 (U.S.) which will be redeemable when Windows 8 is generally available (the program expires in February 2013).

Windows 8 (screenshot 1)However, the decision to buy a new machine immediately is not as easy as it was when Windows 7 was imminent. Windows 8 includes a lot more functionality for interacting with a desktop or laptop computer in the same way that we interact with a smartphone or tablet computer. In other words, there’s going to be less typing and mouse-clicking, and more “flicking” and “tapping” and “swiping” of the screen. Touchscreens for Windows computers have been around for some time, but they are still not the norm and the “trackpad” on laptops is also not yet working optimally with this new way of interacting with the computer. Microsoft are currently working on this with Synaptics (the company who write the software that makes the trackpad work on laptops).

You may or may not wish to consider all this new “flicking” and “swiping” when thinking about buying a new desktop computer or laptop. Even if you do wish to consider it, we’re not yet sure just how good it’s going to be in practice. But we know that Windows 8 will not require any more sophisticated hardware than Windows 7, so all of the touchscreen stuff mentioned above is an optional alternative to the mouse or keyboard. In other words, you could just ignore all of this and use Windows 8 in the same way as you currently use XP, Vista or 7.

Windows 8 (screenshot 2)So, it appears that with Windows 8, Microsoft are trying to bring together the two different worlds of screen-based interaction and keyboard/mouse interaction. I can’t yet offer an opinion as to how good this is, but I’m sure you can already find many different opinions by doing a bit of googling (a word that is now in the OED – “search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet, typically using the search engine Google“).

You could judge Windows 8 for yourself by downloading the newly-available “Release Preview”. It’s meant to be fully functional and it’s completely free of charge. Be careful, though, as you can not easily go back to your previous operating system without re-installing it from scratch from recovery media. I would very definitely advise installing it on a different machine than your “normal” one. If you wish to install the Release Preview onto a separate partition of your hard drive, then it can be done by installing it from an iso image that can be downloaded from here.

Click here to read more about Windows 8 and the upgrade offer.

Hand rising form a  sea of iconsDo you need more room on your Windows desktop? You can change the size of the icons on your desktop and also their spacing – particularly useful for small netbook screens. And if you thought you knew how to change icon spacing in Windows XP you could be driven mad looking for the same command in Windows 7. So, I hope there’s at least one person out there who can benefit from a half hour of my weekend spent trying to work out how to do it!

So, let’s look at this as two separate tasks (icon size and icon spacing) and with two sets of instructions (XP and Vista/7).

Icon Size

XP

  • Right-click on an empty part of the desktop
  • Left-click on Properties
  • Left-click on the Appearance tab (at the top of the window)
  • Left-click on the Advanced button
  • Left Click on the triangle next to “Desktop” (see figure 1)
  • Click on “Icon”
  • Change the number in the “size” box
  • Note that you can also change the size and font of the text beneath the icon as well
  • Close all Windows, clicking on the “OK” button where applicable.
Dropdown Menu

Figure 1


Vista/7

The easiest way:

  • Press the Ctrl key and roll the wheel mouse up or down to change the icon size

Or:

  • Right-click on the desktop
  • Left-click on “View”
  • Left-click on “Large Icons”, “Medium Icons” or “Classic Icons” (Vista) or “Large Icons”, “Medium Icons” or “Small Icons” (Vista)

Or (if you want more control over the exact size of the icons):

  • Right-click on the desktop
  • Left-click on “Personalize”
  • Left-click on “Window Color” near the bottom of the screen. Yes, in order to change icon size you click on “Window Color”. Thank you, Microsoft. That one cost me half an hour of my life.
  • Click on “Advanced appearance settings”
  • Left-click on the triangle next to “Desktop” (see figure 1)
  • Click on “Icon”
  • Change the number in the “size” box from the default
  • Note that you can also change the size and font of the text beneath the icon as well
  • Close all Windows, clicking on the “OK” button where applicable.

Icon Spacing

XP

  • Right-click on an empty part of the desktop
  • Left-click on Properties
  • Left-click on the Appearance tab (at the top of the window)
  • Left-click on the Advanced button
  • Left Click on the triangle next to “Desktop” (see figure 1)
  • Click on Icon spacing (horizontal)
  • Change the number in the “size” box from the default of 43
  • Do the same for the vertical spacing
  • Close all Windows, clicking on the “OK” button where applicable.


Vista/7

  • Right-click on the desktop
  • Left-click on “Personalize”
  • Left-click on “Window Color” near the bottom of the screen.
  • Click on “Advanced appearance settings”
  • Left Click on the triangle next to “Desktop” (see figure 1)
  • Click on Icon spacing (horizontal)
  • Change the number in the “size” box from the default of 43
  • Do the same for the vertical spacing
  • Close all Windows, clicking on the “OK” button where applicable

If you are using a netbook with Windows 7, you may also like to reduce the size of the icons on the taskbar (the row of icons that are usually at the bottom of the screen). To do this:

  • Right-click on the Start button
  • Left-click on Properties
  • Left-click on the Taskbar tab (at the top of the window)
  • Click on the box next to “Use small icons”
  • Click on “OK”

By the way, the reason I was messing with Windows 7 desktop arrangements at the weekend (sad person that I am) was that I’ve just put Windows 7 on my netbook. I thought it might struggle, but so far it seems fine. No doubt that’s because there’s 2gb of memory in it and not the standard 1gb that netbooks usually come with.

So, that looks like the end of using XP on a regular basis for me. I’ve put XP back onto my old laptop so that I can still see what my computer clients are looking at when providing telephone support for XP. This doesn’t apply, of course, if I’m remotely controlling the client’s computer using Teamviewer. In that situation I can see exactly what the remote computer client can see on his/her own screen, whatever the operating system. This type of support really can cut the costs: it only takes a few minutes to set up the first time and after that a connection can be made in seconds. It’s often possible to solve an issue in 10 minutes of a remote control session that would previously have needed a visit. You can find out more about how this works by visiting the remote support page of my website.

Do you regularly want to copy a file to a specific folder? I’ve often noticed during 1:1 computer training sessions that people have their own way of filing that could benefit from a simple tweak to Windows Explorer.

Here are a couple of examples from my own working habits:

  • I often want to make a file available to my other computers. Since I use Dropbox, all I need to do is place the file in my dropbox folder and it will be automatically synchronised to my other computers. So, I want a quick way of copying my file into my Dropbox folder. I’m still a big fan of Dropbox, by the way. Here are my first and second blogs on the subject.
  • I create and download a lot of pdf files. I may well have them filed “by function” (eg a pdf file relating to a specific computer support client might be in the folder dedicated to that client). But if the file has more general application then I might also want it in a folder containing nothing other than pdf files (since I can often remember that a file I’m looking for is in a pdf format even if I can’t remember its name or where else I’ve put it). So, I might want a quick way of copying a pdf file from a specific client folder to my “pdf file store” (which, as it happens, is a specific folder inside my Dropbox folder).

So, what we need to do is to personalise a Windows “context menu” so that when we’ve selected a file in Windows Explorer we can easily send a copy of that file to a folder that we’ve previously defined as a destination for a “send to” action. A “context menu”, by the way, is a menu whose contents are dependent on the current context – ie the sort of item it includes depends on what you were doing when you invoked it. The context menu is invoked by right-clicking on the selected item.

Personalising the “send to” option is quite easy. Just follow the instructions for your own operating system:

Windows XP

  • Click the Start button.
  • Click Run.
  • In the Open box, type “sendto” (without the quotes), and then click OK.
  • Right-click on a blank part of the window that has opened.
  • Left-click on the “new” option.
  • Left-click on the “shortcut” option.
  • Left-click on the “browse” button.
  • Navigate to the folder you wish to add to the “send to” menu.
  • Click “OK”, “Next” & “Finish”.
  • Close the “SendTo” window.


Vista and Windows 7

  • Click on the Start button.
  • Type “shell:sendto” (without the quotes) into the search box.
  • Click on the shell:sendto option that is now listed above the search box.
  • Right-click on a blank part of the window that has opened.
  • Left-click on the “new” option.
  • Left-click on the “shortcut” option.
  • Left-click on the “browse” button.
  • Navigate to the folder you wish to add to the “send to” menu.
  • Click “OK”, “Next” & “Finish”.
  • Close the “SendTo” window.

Now, whenever you want to copy a file to that chosen destination, just right-click on the file, left-click the “send to” option, and then left-click on the sub-option you have just created (as below):

SendTo Menu

Some purists might say that this is all wrong: that instead of copying files all over the place we should be creating shortcuts that point to the one and only original file. I would agree with this when the file in question is one that’s often changed/updated after its creation. There’s nothing worse than having multiple versions of files all over the place and never knowing which is the latest version. If you need to get quick access to such files then the easiest way is just to place a shortcut on the desktop and access it from there. The “sendto” technique is better kept for files that are unlikely to change often – in which case, the “sendto” technique is much quicker than creating shortcuts and saves precious space on the desktop. As for not creating copies of files because that’s a waste of hard disc space, that’s only really an issue if you are definitely short of space.

Just to come back to Dropbox, for a moment. If you click here to create a Dropbox account you will receive 2.25gb free space instead of the normal 2gb.

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How do you move the focus between open windows? There are several ways to do this, but I’ve noticed during one-to-one computer training sessions that most people are only aware of the method they already use. It could be, of course, that you are already using the method that suits you best, but let’s look at the options.

The Slowest Way

The very slowest way to move between open windows is to minimise one window and then restore the one you want next. “Minimising” is achieved by clicking on the “dash” icon in the top righthand corner of the window. This shrinks the window to just a name and/or icon and places it on the bottom row of the screen (known as the “Taskbar”). Clicking on a different icon on the taskbar will “restore” that window and make it the current one (ie the one in which the action will take place if you click the mouse or hit a key). A bit of computer advice: if this is how you are moving between windows then it will almost certainly pay you to learn a different method. Read on…

Better Than The Slowest Way

Just omit the “minimise” action in the method above. As soon as you click on an item in the Tasbar it will pop up and become the current window. The previously current window will then “move backwards” – probably out of sight. It can be recalled to the front just by clicking on its icon/thumbnail in the taskbar.

Escape Key (esc)The taskbar, by the way, is the row of easily-accessible icons presented at the edge of the screen. It is usually shown at the bottom of the screen but if you’re bored and looking for something to do you can click on a vacant part of it (ie a part where there are no icons) and drag it to a different edge of your screen. Something that’s marginally more useful to know about the taskbar is that you can make it bigger so as to accommodate more items. Very slowly move your mouse pointer over the inside edge of the taskbar (ie at the margin between the taskbar and the rest of the screen) and you will see the mouse pointer change to a double-headed arrow. When this happens you can then drag the edge of the taskbar inwards to give room for a second – or even third – row of icons. “Dragging”, by the way, means depressing the left mouse button and then moving the mouse (while the left button is still down).

A Very Popular Way – Alt Tab

Tab KeyDepress the key marked “Alt” (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard) and, while it is pressed, hit the “tab” key. The tab key is usually to the left of the “Q” key.

A display will pop up of all the open windows. In Windows XP and Vista the display will be of icons representing the open windows. In Windows 7 there are thumbnail views of the windows themselves and the “backdrop” of the screen you are looking at displays the currently selected window. Whichever operating system you are using, keep the Alt key down and press the Tab key several times. You will see a frame moving between the icons/thumbnails. As soon as you let go of the “Alt” key the currently selected (“framed”) program will come to the fore.

A Rather Silly Way – Windows Flip

Windows KeyIn Windows Vista and Windows 7, pressing the Windows key (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard and marked by some kind of representation of the Windows logo) and then the Tab key will pop up an angled view of the open Windows, stacked one in front of another. Repeated pressing of the Tab key moves different windows to the top of the stack. Letting go of the Windows button will then focus on whichever window is at the top of the pile.

Control Key (ctrl)If you want to get even sillier, hitting the Control key (usually marked “Ctrl”) at the same time as the Windows key, and then hitting the Tab key, will bring up the same 3-D view but it stays put if you let go of all the keys. You can then point the mouse and click on whichever Window you want. Apart from the fact that you have to hit 3 different keys at the same time, you also have to grab the mouse, work out which window you want, and then click on it. Thank you, Microsoft.

Often The Quickest Way – Alt Esc

Alt KeyIf you depress the “Alt” key, and keep it down, then repeated presses of the “Esc” key (usually in the top lefthand corner of the keyboard) will take you from one open window to the next. As soon as you see the window you want just let go of the Alt key.

When I am providing computer support and training I try to avoid jargon that doesn’t mean anything to normal people. Nevertheless, we can’t avoid new concepts when learning about computers and some of these entail words with specific meanings. It really is worth getting to grips with concepts and words such as taskbar, minimising, maximising, open windows.

Although this blog is about moving efficiently between open windows, it describes uses of several different keys that aren’t the standard letters and numbers. If you’d like to know more about the different parts of the keyboard you might like to look at these previous blogs:

Of Toggles And Missing Favorites 
Basic Keyboard Shortcuts 
What Are The Function Keys For? 
More Key Explanations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

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

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

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

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

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

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

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

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

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

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

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Computer Support in London
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