Tuesday, 19 May 2020

How to get the most out of the Google Universe

In a previous post I discussed how Google was a giant company offering many more options than just the Google search engine which most of us are familiar with - in fact it is now a verb in our language!

However Google, as a company, has many more apps and programs that many of us use, and plenty more useful ones that some of don't know of, including:

Google Chrome (the web browser)
GMail (Google's email client
Google Maps
Google's online Office suite (Docs, Sheets, Slides etc)
Google Drive (online storage)
Google Keep (online notes)
Google Bookmarks
Google Blogger (which I use to write post on this blog)
and many more, including YouTube

Today I thought I'd let you know how all of these can work together to keep you organized and also on occasion minimize data loss, when for example you have to reinstall Windows, or even Chrome.

All you need to get started is a Google Account and password.
If you have a gmail email address you already have an account and can simply sign in with that.

Download Google Chrome browser, if you don't already have it, and sign in with your existing Gmail address and password or create a new account.

I like to set some settings right off the bat, like making my home page Google's search engine page (www.google.com, or .ca or your country preference) 
I also like to make sure the home button and and favorites bar are turned on.
 All this is done in the settings - under the 3 vertical dot menu at the top left of Chrome.
I also set the home button to point to google.com for convenience.

Once you are signed in you can access any of Google's apps from the app menu which is a 9 dot icon beside your user icon (you can add a photo or customized icon to that user icon if you like)

You can customize the apps menu and add other shortcuts - that's a whole other lesson, but know it can be done.

If you use google bookmarks to create a list of your favorite sites
and Google Keep to keep important notes 
and Google Drive to store files
and YouTube to subscribe to channels or save favorite videos...

...all of that data stays linked to your account.
so if you have to get a new computer, or use a different computer while away, simply log into your Google account and all your info is already there.

I especially like having access to my bookmarks when away from my home computer.

If more than one person shares your computer they can have a separate Chrome icon linked to their own account, and it will show their own photo or customized icon in the corner of the Chrome icon for easy identification.
This works if you don't sign out of Chrome when you close it.
Of course on a computer other than your own, be sure you DO sign out, and if you had to add your account to Chrome on another user's computer for temporary access, be sure to remove it when you no longer need it - especially on a public PC!

Basically, with a Google account you have a portal to the whole Google Universe of apps without having to have a separate user account and password for each one.

This is also how Chromebooks work.
A chromebook is an less expensive laptop alternative that doesn't store a lot of info on it's own drive. You simply use it to log in to the Google Universe of Apps online. 

For many people the Chrome Apps cover almost all of their computing needs, and for others it's just a really helpful way to keep a lot of info available wherever they are.

You can pay a fee every year to have more Google storage, for Gmail and Google Drive and so on. There are some fairly reasonable tiers to choose from. However if you only need the basics, you can get by with all the free options.
So checkout a few of the Google apps you are less familiar with and see if you find them helpful.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Windows 10 Versions - Should I upgrade?

Since the release of Windows 10 in 2015, Microsoft has introduced a major update to the Operating System every 6 months.
They are named by year and month.
1703 was introduced Spring 2017
1709 Fall 2017
1803 Spring 2018
1809 Fall 2018
And the latest so far, 1903 was introduced in May 2019 (though it was delayed for some users as there were some bugs that needed ironing out)
These are complete Operating System Updates (like installing a new version of Windows) and this doesn’t count the regular weekly or bi-weekly small updates and security updates that still happen behind the scenes as long as you have automatic Windows Updates turned on.
As a side note to that, it’s good practice to turn on your computer at least once a week, and leave it on for a couple of hours, or those updates don’t get a chance to finish. That means that when you finally do need to use your computer for a more extended time, you can be way behind in updates – and worse, your antivirus is out of date.
A Fall 2019 version has not yet been announced, as far as I am aware as of writing this, and there is talk that Microsoft is ready to change to an annual major update with a minor update possibly in between.
This new upgrade system is superior to the old system, whereby, when the Operating System was no longer supported and became insecure, like Windows XP did,  and Windows 7 will as of January 2020, the end user needed to buy a new version of Windows and go through a major overhaul.
Those people who tended to hold on to an Operating System for many years would end up using something insecure, or face a 10 year newer upgrade with HUGE changes. Many just gave up and bought a new computer with the latest version already installed, but the learning curve getting used to that new system could still be daunting to some.
Doing upgrades incrementally is easier to manage, and it will become clear when your aging computer is no longer going to be able to handle the latest update.
Of course, new and improved features are not important to all people, and many would prefer not to have to change anything, but bear in mind that these new versions also improve and tighten security, which is becoming more and more important in today’s internet connected world.
Also, incremental updates are less jarring as they don’t make too many changes all at once so it can be an easier transition.
So the short answer to the question is yes, you should upgrade, however, after a couple of these big upgrades caused unexpected issues to some users, Microsoft introduced an option in the Windows Update section to delay updates for up to 35 days – so you can wait until it’s clear there are no major bugs.
If doing these kind of big updates makes you nervous, ask someone you trust, someone with computer experience, to check your computer in Spring and Fall, and upgrade when necessary. Sometimes an upgrade requires a few “tweaks” once installed so someone in the know can make sure it’s all done properly.
For some people updates are eagerly awaited and enthusiastically embraced, for others they are a necessary evil - but it IS better to keep up to date.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Setting up a new computer

When you buy a brand new laptop or desktop computer you may be tempted to think you can simply turn it on and start using it.
Of course, technically that’s true, but generally it’s not wise.
You will get the best experience if you set it up properly, or have it set up for you, right from the start.

When I do a new computer setup it takes several hours. I charge a flat rate of $99 for the basics.
The store you buy it from will likely offer a setup service too, however you should get a clear written report of what it will entail as each service may differ.

This is what I include:

Run all windows updates 
There will have been new updates to the operating system, and new security updates, during the time that your computer left the factory and came into your hands.

Update hardware if needed
I look for any updated drivers for all the hardware in your computer, and run those updates. This is less likely in a brand new computer, more likely if you buy a used computer.

Remove all bloatware
Most PC vendors put lots of third-party, pre-loaded software on your computer. From 30-day trials of antivirus software, to casual games that you may not want to play, all of this bloatware sucks up system resources.

Install good antivirus software
At present writing I set up the built in Windows Defender plus the latest version of Malwarebytes. This comes with a 14 day trial of the Premium version with ransomware protection, among other features. This gives a user enough time to do some research or ask questions and decide if the Premium version is worth it to them.

Set up user accounts
Many people have accumulated several accounts, including but not limited to:
Microsoft Account
Google Account
Email Account(s)

Most people set up Social Media accounts themselves, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on.

Set up email 
I can set up your email in the built in Windows 10 mail app, or your preferred email client.

Setting up an Office program
If you purchased a copy of Microsoft Office I will set that up
If you simply want to use  a free, no bells and whistles, Office suite I recommend LibreOffice, which I can download and install

Start Menu setup
I set up the Windows 10 Start menu so that it is not cluttered and has shortcuts to your most used programs.

Set up Web Browsers
I add a second Web browser, usually Google Chrome unless I get a specific request for a different browser such as Firefox. I tweak the settings in Edge and in Chrome to ensure it is set up efficiently. I usually set the home page to www.google.ca. I can also import saved bookmarks if you choose, though some people like a fresh start.

Advice about your Programs
You may have programs that you have always relied on on your old PC,  but be aware that if it has been some time since you purchased a new computer, and if the programs you are used to using are old, and have never been replaced with updated versions, you may find many simply don’t work on your new updated Windows 10 PC.
I can advise which ones will not work, and which ones you may need to replace (sometimes at a cost) with newer versions.

External Devices
If you have external devices; printer, scanner, webcam etc I will ask for the model numbers and locate and download set up software for those. You can use this downloaded software to set up those external devices when you get your computer back*

Data transfer
If you request it I will transfer files; Documents, Downloads, Photos, Music and Videos from your previous computer to your new one.

I pick up your new computer (also your old one if necessary) and I charge for the work that I can do in my office before I return it to you.

 *If you need extended help once you have it returned to you - setting up iTunes for example, or your Social Media Accounts, or installing Printers and the like,  we can negotiate an added expense.

At your request I will also properly wipe the hard drive of your old computer so that it can be safely disposed of at a designated electronics recycling depot. If this step is not done before recycling you run the risk of theft of data, and passwords, or even identity theft if your old computer falls into the wrong hands.
This step is an extra cost as it takes some time but I always recommend it for your protection.

The implications of using a computer with an Operating System that is no longer supported

This post most specifically applies to Windows computers. You may have heard or read about the implications of running Windows XP, a well loved version of Windows, once Microsoft ceased support of it in 2014. It was released in 2001, so by 2014 it was pretty long in the tooth, but people loved it and I’ve still seen some computers running it in recent months.

Is that a bad thing?

Let’s discuss the possible ramifications:
 It is not secure, and you could be susceptible to malware, viruses, hacking and identity theft.
(of course it might not happen - just like those life long smokers who live to be 101)
This is especially timely information right now, as Windows 7, another version of Windows well loved by many is set to be “retired” and no longer supported in January 2020

Here is a good post with some excellent info on the subject:

Computer Operating Systems are technically advanced and complicated pieces of software built on billions of lines of code written by very clever, but not perfect, humans.
The more lines of code, the more options for human error. There are always “bugs”, and errors in the code, and nefarious parties will attempt to find and use these to their advantage. While an Operating System is being supported, Microsoft is fast to patch those “holes” as soon as they are discovered. Once it’s out of support though there are no more patches. Some people say the worst of the bugs have already been squashed, and they will take their chances, but for the average user, it’s a much safer bet to move on, unless you plan to completely and permanently disconnect it from the internet.

If your computer is capable of running a newer, supported, Operating System, you may be able to just upgrade. If you keep on top of upgrades as they are offered you might have a chance to upgrade to a newer Operating System when it’s introduced, at a lower price; possibly free. This was true for Windows 7 and Windows 8 users when Windows 10 was released, but that free upgrade is no longer offered.

Just be sure to make a back up of all of your personal files before upgrading to a new Operating System. While many upgrades go smoothly, with all data present and accounted for at the end of it, that’s not always so. Things can, and do, go wrong! Don’t take your chances. Of course, If you don’t know how to upgrade an Operating System have someone in the know do it for you, or work with you.

If your computer hardware is not up to the task of running the latest Operating System, or if the upgrade cost would be better put towards a new computer, you will need to make a decision about your old PC.
It has to be taken to a designated Electronics Recycle Depot and you should make sure there is no personal data left on it that could be retrieved ( especially passwords, which can possibly be found even if you think you never wrote them down, as long as you typed them into a website.
So have the hard drive FULLY and properly wiped; or removed and destroyed. If you don’t know how to do this, bite the bullet and pay someone. I charge around $50 for the service, and it’s much better than running the risks of identity theft, or scammers stealing your passwords and creating headaches that can take months to sort out.

If you want to get a few more useful months before recycling check out my blog post on ways to use a obsolete computer that’s  still actually functional.
Ways to use a computer that has become obsolete

Ways to use a computer that has become “obsolete”

In a previous post I considered why you might find that your perfectly healthy and still functioning computer may need to be replaced, at least as your main computer for daily tasks and internet access. However,  is there a way you might keep it out of the Recycle Depot a while longer?

Well yes, you simply need to consider ways it can be useful without internet access.
So let’s consider some ways:

1.  Use it as a word processor, or glorified typewriter. It has a screen, and you can connect it to a printer. However, if you want to share documents with others you will need to save them to an external disk and then email or share them from your main computer.

2.  Use it to play games that do not need an internet connection. There are lots of computer games;  card games, scrabble, word games, crosswords, and so many more, that will still run on older hardware and an older Operating System. If your computer is a laptop, and therefore portable, it can be a great entertainment portal for someone who is confined to home, or for use at a cabin where there is no internet, or when travelling, as long as the battery holds out.

3.  Load it with educational programs for children, again ones that need no internet connection, and use it as a teaching tool. There are many excellent  programs for teaching Reading, Math, Colours and Shapes at every age level. There are also videos and books that are educational and do not need a sophisticated computer setup.

4. Load it with a COPY (never trust an older computer with the only copy of any of your data) of your music collection. Hook up a nice set of speakers and use it as a stereo system, either in your home or cabin.

5. Load it with a COPY of your video collection. Install a media player that can play your files and will run on older hardware. VLC is a program that can play most digital video formats. There should be a version available that is supported your older system. If it doesn’t work, you will likely find a program that does work for you.
When you travel you’ll have an entertainment system separate from your working computer.

6. Load it with a COPY of your photo collection, then set up a screensaver that cycles through your photos, and hook up a nice monitor, possibly mounted on the wall. Now you have a digital photo screen!

7.  Load it with some delightful screen savers and hook it up to a monitor. Now you can enjoy a digital aquarium, or fireplace, or swimming dolphin, or any other screensaver that  appeals to you
It’s moving artwork!

You might have even more ideas. Or you might be ready to let it go, but you know a family member or friend who would like to implement one of these ideas -  so ask around before you take it to be recycled. Bear in mind that after a certain age that older computer is not worth anything financially, you’ll likely be giving it away. If you give it away be sure to remind the recipient that if it’s not running a current supported version of Windows it should not be connected to the internet.

All of the above ideas can be implemented with a Mac computer too, but Macs have historically been less vulnerable to viruses and do in general have a longer usable lifespan, but you may be wanting to replace your Mac anyway once it doesn’t run the latest version of the MacOS,  if there are features in the newer version that appeal to you. That’s how this industry is driven!

Why your computer becomes obsolete

In the computer industry an often quoted “rule of thumb” is that the average usable lifespan of a computer is around 5 years.
In some cases it’s simply true that if enough parts in a computer (more often a laptop computer) die, then the cost to replace the parts, especially if you have to pay someone to do the work, is not worth it. The money is best put towards a newer, more updated setup.
However, many people have computers that are still running happily after 10 years but then they find themselves forced to buy something new anyway. Why?
Perhaps the hardware is still chugging along happily, even the hard drive, which is one component very vulnerable to aging. So why not just keep using it?

Let me illustrate:
We all know of people who have old cars, some even lovingly looked after classic cars, that are still on the road after many, many years.
Perhaps some parts have had to be replaced; no one expects to run a car for 10 years and never replace brakes, filters, tires and more.
However, what if the country suddenly changed the type of fuel that our cars run on? Now your car, with a perfectly good engine, cannot run on the new fuel - in fact it would be damaging to the engine. So you are forced to switch to a car that is compatible with the new fuel. Despite your old car being in perfect running order, if you want to drive it on the roads, you need to replace it, or adapt it to use the new fuel.

This in a way, is what factors in to your computer needing to be replaced in a few years.
The Operating System in your computer is being updated and improved regularly, and the designers of programs update and improve their programs to take advantage of newer hardware, and newer Operating Systems. In time your older computer may simply be incompatible with the programs you want to run.

But what if you are perfectly happy with the older Operating System and older programs?
Then you can keep going for several more years, as long as your hardware holds up...
UNTIL... the Operating System (usually Windows) that you are running is no longer supported by the manufacturer. In the case of Windows that’s Microsoft.
Then, unless you simply unplug your computer from the internet, you need to upgrade your computer to a newer Operating System, or buy a newer computer with hardware designed to run the newer, more sophisticated, Operating System and programs. This newer computer should come with the latest version of Windows already installed.

This is one of the main reasons why still fully functional computers are consigned to the Recycle Depot, and why the “average usable lifespan” number is lower than you would expect.
In a  couple of different posts I will consider some of the ramifications of running an Operating System that is no longer supported, as well as some ways you might keep your older computer out of the Recycle Depot for a while longer.

Hopefully though, this answers the question of why you might be forced to buy a newer computer even if your old faithful setup is still running!

Monday, 22 April 2019

How I Use Online Storage

Here is how I use online storage options ( your choices may be different)

There are free and paid versions of most online storage services. You can simplify your life, if you pay more, by using one service primarily for all your storage and pay for the highest amount of space you can afford. However, for me, money is a major factor in my choices, so I try to find a way to maximize my storage at minimal cost.

I pay $1.50 or so per month for the first paid tier of iCloud storage, and I use it exclusively for backing up my Apple devices. I don’t do full backups. I find that if  I ever get a newer device I’d rather start fresh and simply restore my notes, contacts, safari bookmarks, calendars, reminders and photos. I pay for the extra space because of photos.
If you prefer to simply restore an old iPad, all settings intact, to a new one, be sure you have enough space to do full backups. iCloud storage plans are reasonably priced in comparison to some other services. 
You can use iCloud backup on your Mac, and you can also get iCloud for Windows and use iCloud Drive to back up folders on your PC, but if sharing files is important, and easy access across all devices, some other services can be simpler.

My all time favorite of all the services is still Dropbox, but for 1TB of space it’s around $99 per year. I would absolutely pay that if I could but for now I use the 2GB free plan and I use it mostly for files I want to share with others.
I find Dropbox’s shared folders options, and easy to use Dropbox links options, nice and easy when I want to share files.

Since I have Office 365, which, to save costs, I share with several other people, I have 1TB of OneDrive space (each person I share with has their own 1TB of space) so even though I still prefer Dropbox in some ways, I use my OneDrive space as my primary storage and backup. When I built up my computer I installed a second hard drive for my personal files, separate from my Windows and Programs Files. I save all documents, photos, videos, music and downloads to that drive and have it automatically back up to OneDrive.

Google Drive
I also have a free plan with Google Drive and I use that to store my e-book collection.
The reason for that is that I share my books with family members so I can give them access to that drive without them having access to any other files.
Their are other services available with free plans out there, like Box and Mozy, but I like Google Drive and I think that it isn’t going away anytime soon.

In summary
for Apple Devices I use iCloud
For sharing features I love Dropbox
For cost purposes I use OneDrive
For a single use option I use Google Drive

I have downloaded apps for all these services on my iPad and can therefore add them all to the files app. I can then access all my stored files in one app. That’s really useful.

Your choices could well be different to mine. This blog post is not so much a recommendation of any particular online storage plan, but more an example of how you can use online storage plans to your own benefit.