Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beware the Craiglist Computer Repair!

I came across another astoundingly bad example of why it's important to use a reputable person to repair your computer.  A friend of mine managed to get her laptop badly infected with malware, no doubt because she deliberately neglected to update Windows and Java.  She'll know better next time, I hope.

And I hope she'll call me, rather than some guy she found on Craiglist.  Whoever this fellow was, he knew enough to wipe the computer clean--the only sure way to disinfect.  Unfortunately, he did a reformat and "clean install" from DVD, rather than using the built-in system recovery tools on the laptop. There was a time when I did a lot of clean installs, and sometimes that's necessary, but a system recovery (not the same thing as a "system restore") is usually better despite the bloatware that might be included.  That way the recovery partition is preserved for the future and the software, especially Windows itself, remains licensed under the original OEM license keys.

Here's the incredible part.  The Craigslist Guy installed Windows 7 Ultimate (not Home Premium as the laptop had previously) and DID NOT LICENSE IT at all.  He gave the laptop back working fine, probably knowing that three days Windows would start complaining that it was running an unlicensed, pirated copy (which it technically was).  And of course, he didn't update Windows or Java properly so the laptop was just going to get infected again.  About the only thing Craiglist Guy did right was that he managed to copy her files to the new install so she didn't lose her pictures and documents.

After a little research, I was able to fool Windows into thinking it was actually Home Premium, and then I could key in the license key from the back of the laptop--for there's no reason to run pirated software when you have a valid license key!  Then I did all the updates--including uninstalling Java altogether--and she was back where she needed to be.

When I gave her back the laptop, she asked me how much she owed me.  I told her it was on the house.  Let Karma catch up with the Craigslist Guy.  Me, I felt like the laptop and its owner had suffered enough.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's Wrong With Windows 8?

As people who use technology both for fun and for our livelihood, we're constantly embracing change.  Change is good, correct?  If a company spends millions on market research and makes "improvements" to their software, it should be better, right?

Not necessarily.  Sometimes even a smart company can overreact to a trend and produce software that is a step backwards.  I believe that Windows 8 falls into that category, both philosophically and pragmatically.  In trying to jump on the mobile computing bandwagon, Microsoft has thrown away most of the good ideas it spent the last thirty years developing.

The biggest idea behind Windows 8 is that a computer should operate like a cell phone, so Microsoft has done away with things that have existed for decades (for example, the "x" to close an app) and the Start Menu (which was a darn handy way to start things you didn't use all the time.)  Instead, you've got big ugly boxes you can touch (or more likely click, because almost no one has a touchscreen on their desktop computer)--a whole screen of them, because without the hierarchy of the Start Menu, there's other place to put them.  They aren't organized; they are simply displayed, all of them.

It's certainly ugly and confusing and unsettling when you try to use Windows 8 for the first time. But here's what amazes me:  Microsoft has abandoned a base of millions of computer users for an imaginary market of smartphone and tablet users that doesn't exist!  How many people do you know who use a Windows-based phone or tablet? Do you know one person?  Microsoft is changing everything about how their operating system works for devices they hope to sell some day in the future.

We can argue about how important mobile computing is, and how dominant it may become.  Personally, although I use my phone and my employer-issued iPad on a daily basis, when I need to get work done I sit down in front of a real computer, and that's not going to change anytime soon.  Sorry, but there's a reason why we're still using a mouse and a keyboard and why we can click to find a file faster than we can wave our arms about or swipe with a finger or try to give directions to the computer orally.

I'm typing this while I look at a 24 inch LCD screen, and many of us have double that amount of real estate on our desks now.  Why should the core system we use be defined by a four inch cell phone screen?  Mobile devices are different than desktop devices, and there's no reason they need to be the same.  Make mobile devices better, but don't cripple our desktops!

What did we need from a new Microsoft operating system?  We needed something reliable (no crashes) that  was secure (fewer chances for malware to steal from us).  Instead, Microsoft spent all their research dollars adding a touch interface that nobody needs on their desk.  In dumbing down the interface, they made it less logical and consequently more confusing.  Windows 8 is a weird mix of old and new in which nobody is going to be at home.

I didn't like the Ribbon when Microsoft introduced it years ago in MS Office, and still don't, because so often it makes no sense and has no logical order.  I didn't like it when Microsoft changed the START button to a blob without a name, because that made it more confusing.  Windows 8 is a giant leap into that void of confusion.

Welcome to Windows 8, the OS that people are going to hate.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More "I Think It's Clean" Thinking

Just found another local computer company bragging that they don't have to reformat because they are experts at malware removal:

"At [name removed] , we are experts at malware removal and virus repair. The first thing many PC techs want to do is format your hard drive and reload your operating system. That shotgun approach works, but you then have to reinstall all your programs, printer software and data. We have the expertise to remove the infection while leaving your programs and data intact. We also have the track record to back this claim up. Rest assured that if we tell you that it will be necessary to back-up your data and reinstall your operating system it will be not only rare, but necessary."

Well, that sounds good--less trouble for them, and maybe less trouble for you.  Most computer folks really want to solve the problem, so it's natural for them to dive right in and try to "fix" an infection.  Trouble is, every tool you run will find different bits of malware.  Who has time to run them all when a single scan may take hours?  Which tools do you run? How do you know that you've found everything?  You don't!  You give the computer back to the customer telling them (and yourself) that it seems to be fine now, when in fact there could be a trojan waiting to trigger or a keylogger looking for the first time someone types a credit card number or bank password.  Remember, the best criminals don't get caught--even detected--until it is too late.  

At PCliferaft, we are not geniuses, but we've been disinfecting and reformatting (more often today, "system recovering") computers for over a decade now.  We can reformat and reinstall the most common software for you, minimizing the need for you to reinstall printers, etc. in less time than the "experts" above can run their scans.  If we deliver the computer, we'll set up the printer for you.  You get the benefit of knowing (at least as much is possible) that your computer is clean, and as a bonus you'll often find your system running faster and better than it did before malware slowed it down.  We install every driver and every patch and everything we know you need (but nothing you don't) to give you maximum protection for the future.

Disinfecting a computer is like vacuuming  a room without moving any of the furniture. Everything looks good from a distance, but when you finally have to move that sofa, the crud you find under there is not for the faint of heart.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Do I Feel So Alone?

A UTC faculty member brought me her computer after it had been reformatted by a locally-owned computer repair shop.  Although I've had no direct dealings with this shop, they had not impressed me in the past: they took a brand new drive (still under warranty) that they said failed--it's very possible since even new drives can fail--and charged the customer for another one without mentioning the warranty.  Somebody got cheated there.  Strike One.  Then, on their website they named one brand of computer they definitely did not recommend because they'd had "bad experiences": a little company called Dell which I know from a decade of experience and thousands of computers is top tier.  Well, that was two strikes against them, but then I took a look at the faculty computer.

The problem was that it wasn't connecting to the network when it got home.  In about ten seconds I knew why: the shop had reformatted, all right, but had not bothered to reinstall any drivers!  The PC couldn't see the network because so far as Windows knew, there was no network card installed.  I absolutely could not believe it.  I mean, reinstalling drivers is about as basic as it comes, step two in what I consider a ten step process (and if you don't do step two, you can't do anything else on the list).  I don't know what they had charged, but basically they had done about five minutes worth of work at most, and probably more damage than good.  Installing Windows 7 takes about four or five clicks of the mouse, and if that's all you're going to do, without even checking to see if things such as the network card or the audio work, it's a pretty sweet gig that a six year old could routinely accomplish.

So why do I spend several hours on each and every computer I touch, making sure that every file is saved and every driver installed, updating Windows, installing antivirus, copying back all the customer's files, making sure the computer is absolutely clean and safe and working?  Is PC Liferaft the only company that goes to these lengths?  I honestly don't know.   Does the Geek Squad install drivers?  I'm sure they do, but do they save your files and reinstall your apps?  If they make a mistake, do they eat the cost or just pass it along?  I think I'm the only one crazy enough to do these things.

This particular shop--and in their defense I'm sure they have done good work for somebody, or they wouldn't still be in business--has been expanding, so they evidently are making money.  Is it possible to make money and do the job properly?  I hope so.  One thing's for sure: I'm no businessman.  My business model--and it's not one I'm willing to change--just might lead to the poorhouse.  But it's the right way to do it, and that's the road I'm going to drive.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Myth of Disinfection

A co-worker at the university where I work part-time fell victim to malware on her office PC, and called tech support.  They arrived quickly, took the machine away, and then returned with it later that same day--amazingly fast.  Too fast, I thought.  Based on the behavior the computer was exhibiting on the network previously, they knew exactly what bit of malicious code to find and eliminate in a surgical strike.  Once disinfected, the machine exhibited no immediate signs of infection, so they put back on my colleague's desk.

I wasn't surprised today when she told me she had lost network access again because her computer was infected.  The problem is not, as I was told, that my friend took a cleaned computer and carelessly got it reinfected.  The problem is that "disinfection," particularly one performed in just a couple of hours, is a complete crapshoot.  Yes, there's a chance whatever tools you take time to run (and those scans can take hours) will be able to remove all the nasties--but if just one remains, the game is over.  In my experience, the very first thing much of the world's malware is programmed to do is to download other malware (I suspect they get paid to do so).  The infection you remove, the one that triggered the problem, may well be just one of the children of something hidden deeper.  Assuming you take a day or two to scan with various tools, I'll give you 50-50 chances that the computer is clean and it's not sending credit cards or social security numbers to Croatia.  Is that good enough for you?

Not all criminals are stupid, just the ones who get caught.  The very best malware, the ones you can't see and the tools can't detect, are the ones we should fear the most.  Bottom line: anyone who tells you that they can use one or two tools to disinfect a computer in a couple of hours and know for certain that it's not still compromised is incorrect.  It just isn't so.

My co-worker's computer?  Tech support has collected it again, and this time they are going to reformat it, like they should have done in the first place.  She'll have it back in a day or two.  Will tech support learn anything from her adventure?  I hope so, but first they'll have to stop blaming the user for a problem that--this time at least--they caused.

Any job worth doing is worth doing right.  Right?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Upgrading to Windows 7

We have two recently-purchased computers in the household that are eligible for upgrades to Windows 7 from Dell.  I was able to register one of them (an Inspiron 537s desktop) for the upgrade but not the other (an Inspiron 11z netbook).  Evidently Dell has changed their website so that the 11z is no longer listed as eligible, although at the time we purchased (Sept 3) it definitely was listed as such--in fact, Google still has it indexed with the phrase "eligible for free Windows 7 upgrade!"  Interesting!  I've e-mailed Dell in an attempt to get a straight answer (and, of course, an upgrade).

I've looked at Windows 7 in the "release candidate" edition and it seemed to work well.  Word on the street is that it will run well on slower processors (like the Celeron in our netbook) where Vista tends to be sluggish.  Actually, I haven't found Vista to be all that problematic once I've turned off the fancy bells and whistles (such as the Aero interface) that look cool but consume too many resources.

If you're happy with Vista (or for that matter, XP), I wouldn't rush out and spend the $100 plus that an upgrade to Windows 7 will cost you unless you see a compelling reason to do so.  The upgrade from Vista should be fairly painless but jumping up from XP will require a "clean install" which means all your documents will need to be moved and all your software reinstalled.  If you've got your software organized and your documents backed up (Seagate 1 Terabyte external drives are just $109 at Walmart!) then you're good to go, either way.

  --Rodger Ling

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A euphimistic tale of Rugby, blood, gore, flat tires and the stormy waters of cyber space

I never cease to be amazed at the phone calls: “My PC is simply not running anymore. It just sits there.”  On arrival, I glance at the tray (the tiny icons near the clock on the lower right) to discover the customer running Skype, a camera, a TV card, Yahoo, MSN & AOL instant messenger, often with video on more than one of the IM installations. There will be three or more browser windows open, always with YouTube and either a CD playing or an online radio station. The browsers seem to never have less than three tabs each opened; today each page opened stays busy with constantly changing ad content. Oh, that background: the 32million color 600 mega pixel shot of a rugby save. There’s the computer owner, my customer, at the bottom of a mud pit covered in muck, slime, grime, blood, uprooted grass and angry opponents. That picture is a must-have, even if it does consume precious resources to look good.

Five minutes later, the property page of  MY COMPUTER finally populates to reveal Windows XP Home, Service Pack 3 on a Pentium 4 dual core with 2.86 Gig with 800mhz bus speed  and 512 meg of RAM.  You might as well drive a sports car on flat tires (or play that rugby match in bare feet).

PCLifeRaft is fully capable of purging your PC of viruses, spyware, malware and every flavor of services which do not need to run. But without RAM, you will never fill your sails on the high sea of cyber surfing and enjoy true performance.  Most every Pentium 4 dual core or newer PC will accept 2 to 4 gig of ram. Wait, let me take that back, I didn’t mean it. Here is what I meant to say: “most every Pentium 4 dual core or newer PC will DEMAND 2 to 4 gig or ram.”  If you do not have it installed; you will visit with me and say: “My PC is simply not running anymore. It just sits there.”  As I have detailed above. we never cease to see the biggest and best computer; cheaped out on the single most critical component; the supercharger of computing: RAM. Today, you will spend more on tickets to a NASCAR race than you will on that RAM.

So ask us to expand your RAM. We will assist you in ordering all your PC will hold. When it arrives in a few days, we will swing by and have it installed in minutes. Often, it takes three times longer to drive over than it does to put this in. Grab a cup of coffee and it won’t be cold before we are gone. But that tiny investment will leave you smiling at maximum speed as you navigate the stormy waters of cyber space.

   --Jim Bowman