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Computer Advice and Answers to Reader Questions



 



Trying to decide between Amazon Echo and Google Home. Any thoughts?

Wed, 21 Jun 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The ‘smart home assistant’ market continues to grow and improve but there’s so much more to this battle than what meets the eye.

‘Smart speakers’ allow you to interact with them through verbal commands and connect to a variety of devices and online services to act as a virtual butler in your home.

The Proxy War

All of these devices are actually a proxy to the real battle: the platform wars.

With the ‘connected home’ market expected to grow to over $50 billion by 2022, finding ways to get consumers familiar with one platform over another can lead to a bigger piece of the market.

Amazon was first to market with the Echo, but being first doesn’t always ensure that you’ll end up being the market leader and the gap between Amazon and the rest of field is narrowing.

Echo vs Google Home

Google’s entry into the market was with a smaller device that they call Google Home.

As expected, Google Home is designed to integrate with many of Google’s services like search, YouTube and the Chromecast but also popular services like HBO Now and Hulu.


The Echo has substantially more ‘skills’ (https://goo.gl/t953vP) than Google Home, so you can ask it to do more things.

Amazon has over 10,000 skills while Google only offers a couple of hundred.  This may sound like a huge deal, but it’s likely that the most useful skills like ordering a car or a pizza and getting your favorite playlist to start playing are available on both.

Google’s responses to information found on the web is generally more robust, but as you would expect, the Echo excels when it comes shopping related questions.

If you plan on using the device as a music speaker, Home has a fuller sound and it’s smaller, so it’ll fit in smaller bookshelves and nooks.

Which Is Best For You?

What was once a no-brainer choice (Echo) has now become a little more complicated as each platform has added features and capabilities.

The best way to determine which is best for you is to review the supported services and devices for each.  Start with your preferred streaming service as well as your music and video streaming services.

Amazon made a big splash at this year’s CES with announcements that they were integrating with a lot of other companies including Ford, which is going to allow Alexa to work in the car or check on your car while you’re in your home.

Apple’s Upcoming Option

Apple users will be able to add a third option in December when Apple will reportedly release the HomePod powered by Siri.

As usual, Apple’s option will be the most expensive ($349) vs Amazon Echo ($179) or Google Home ($129) and we really won’t know what it will actually do until it’s released.

If you’d like to dip your toe in the smart home assistant pool but you’re not ready to spend the big bucks, I’d highly recommend getting the Amazon Echo Dot ($49) as a primer.




Have you had a chance to test any of the mesh network products for a larger house?

Wed, 14 Jun 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Wi-Fi can be a challenge when you have a large area that you’d like to cover or when you have construction materials that impact coverage.

Concrete walls, metal structures and lots of metal air conditioning ducts are common reasons that a Wi-Fi signal can be obstructed, even in a smaller home.

In the past, if you wanted to improve your Wi-Fi signal in low signal areas, you either installed another access point or a range extender.

Neither of those solutions was perfect as one required you to run new cables and the other would generally give you half the signal strength as connecting directly to your router.

Mesh Networks

A newer technology known as a ‘mesh network’, while more expensive, is significantly better when dealing with large areas of coverage.

A typical system will consist of three ‘nodes’ which all talk to each other and provide the same level of performance as a result.  It’s almost like having 3 access points in your home.

In our tests using the Ubiquiti Labs AmpliFi HD (https://amplifi.com), we found dramatic improvement in coverage over a traditional single router in a large home.

Ubiquiti has long been a supplier of commercial grade networking devices and recently entered the consumer market to provide some of the same technology at a lower cost.

The Setup

The setup was pretty simple with a base station that took the place of the original router and two additional wireless mesh nodes that simply needed to be plugged into an AC outlet in the areas that we wanted to improve the signal.

The wireless mesh nodes automatically find the base station and connect themselves within a few minutes of plugging them in.  All three will appear as the same SSID (or network name) throughout your house.

A signal strength meter on the nodes lets you know how strong the signal is in your chosen location.

Not only did it fill in the gaps within the home, it extended the signal reach far outside of the house, which allowed for connectivity by the pool, which was a good distance away from the house and the garage, which never had signal before.

The company rates their coverage of the full system at about 20,000 square feet, so if you don’t need that much coverage, you can buy a base station and a single wireless mesh node and save some money.

The Amplifi HD is designed for less tech savvy users, so complicated security issues are handled with their mobile app (iOS or Android), which also allows parents to manage the various devices that connect to it.

The app makes it simple to limit usage by certain devices based on the time of day, so you can create a ‘virtual bedtime’ for internet access for a child’s device.

Conversion Tip

If you decide to replace an existing router with this or any other mesh network solution, make sure you use the same SSID and password you were using on your previous network to avoid having to reset all your devices in order to connect.




Q: Is it true that color laser printers print invisible dots to ID the printer on every page?

Wed, 7 Jun 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The leaked top secret document that led to the arrest of government contractor Reality Winner has caused a long running privacy issue to resurface.

The hidden yellow dot ID pattern technology on some color laser printers has actually been around since Xerox developed it in the 90’s.

The primary reason for the dots is purportedly to help the Secret Service in counterfeiting cases.  Color copiers and laser printers became so good at reproducing colors that they become a tool for counterfeiters some time ago.

Not all color copiers and laser printers print the dots, but for obvious reasons, the printer manufacturers and law enforcement don’t generally acknowledge which printers do and which ones don’t.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy advocates such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation have been calling attention to this for almost a decade (https://goo.gl/4g8XGk). Their position is that your printer shouldn’t be another tool for government surveillance.

In the Reality Winner case, it’s believed to be what led to her arrest because the dots were easily viewed on the document published online by the Intercept (https://goo.gl/b3KlN9).


What Gets Tracked?

The yellow dots when decoded can indicate the make, model and serial number of the printer and in some cases, include the date and time.

With this information, law enforcement can potentially track down the owner of the printer by following the serial number from the manufacturer to the reseller and then to the purchaser.

Making The Dots Visible

By design, it’s nearly impossible to see the dots with the naked eye, so you’ll want a way to magnify any page that you want to inspect.

Using a microscope or magnifying glass with magnification power of 10x or better to view a blank part of a printed document should allow you to see the dots if they exist.

If you want to make it easier, use a bright blue LED flashlight in a dark room, which should turn the yellow dots a dark blue or black.

If you have a good quality scanner and a graphics program that can zoom and invert the colors, you can also find the pattern, which should repeat itself throughout the page.

List of Known Printers

The EFF has published a list of printers that they say do and do not display the tracking dots (https://goo.gl/UV3q9K), but it’s not up-to-date nor is it a complete list.

In some cases, the printer manufacturer will acknowledge the use of the tracking information in their documentation, but it’s not easy to find even if they do.

What Can You Do?

Technically speaking, setting your color laser to print in black and white won’t allow the yellow dots to be printed.

If you have to use color and are concerned about the tracking dots on a known printer, there is nothing you can do to stop them short of getting rid of the printer.

If you are overly concerned, switching to either a color inkjet or any type of black only printer will ensure that the tracking dots won’t be included. 




Which browser is best to use if I tend to open a lot of tabs?

Wed, 31 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Tabbed browsing changed the way we used the Internet and has become both a blessing and a curse.

If you spend time gathering information from multiple sources while researching anything online, this feature has been a game changer.

Being able to open additional tabs eliminated the need to hit the ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons in order to jump from one page to another, but the downside to this convenience is the memory usage.

Every tab you open consumes working memory (aka RAM) which can eventually lead to significant performance issues so keeping the number of open tabs to a minimum is always in your best interest.

There are many variables involved in determining actual memory usage, so the various testing sites that proclaim one browser over another may not be applicable to you unless you use your browser the exact same way they tested them.


If I had to make a general recommendation, Firefox for Windows users and Safari for Mac users  seem to have the lowest memory usage based on a compilation of various tests.

Changing Your Behavior

If you can change the way you manage open tabs, you won’t have to consider changing browsers.  As convenient as it may be to have a tab open all day with Facebook running in the background, if you can do without it, you can save memory.

Bookmarking your commonly used sites for easy access and remembering that you can quickly reopen recently closed tabs in most browsers by hitting Ctrl-Shft-T should help you feel better about closing idle tabs.

Sniffing Out Memory Hogs

Different web resources will use different amounts of memory, so you if you want to see how much memory a specific site is taking up, most browsers offer a way to do that.

In Chrome, hitting Shift-Esc will open Google’s Task Manager, which lists all of your open tabs along with various details.  If you click on the ‘Memory’ heading, it will re-sort your open tabs in order of the largest memory usage.

Internet Explorer provides the information as a pop-up that you have to open on each page by hitting Control-Shift-U (hitting it again will close the pop-up).

Firefox users can install an add-on called Tab Memory Usage (https://goo.gl/DXtBuK) which will display the memory usage of each page in the upper right section of the browser window.

By identifying the memory hogs in your regular rotation, you’ll know which ones to close first if things start to slow down.

For ‘Tabaholics’

If there’s no possibility for you to change your tabbing behavior, then adding more RAM or installing add-ons may be a better solution to allow for lots of tabs.

Chrome users can try The Great Suspender (https://goo.gl/DCj4Gt) which will automatically suspend unused tabs to free up memory.

Both Firefox and Opera users can try Tab Suspender (https://goo.gl/9sDEcs) to accomplish the same thing.

Unnecessary Add-Ons

Add-Ons also contribute to memory usage, so avoid installing them if you don’t really need them and disable or get rid of the ones you may have already installed that you don’t use.




If I got hit by ransomware, should I pay the ransom?

Wed, 24 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Ransomware is one of the fastest growing cyber-crimes because it’s one of the most profitable.  Unlike other malware that a hacker may or may not be able to monetize, ransomware is a direct path to getting paid through extortion.


The Ransomware Business Model

Today’s sophisticated ransomware scams are based on a proven business model that often times will even come with tech support websites to make sure you get your data back.

The criminals know that if word got out that paying the ransom did not result in getting your files back, no one would ever pay. 


There is no guarantee, however, that if you pay the ransom, you will get your files back as we don’t have any credible data to work with.  Most companies that have been hit with this attack don’t want the word to get out, much less admit that they paid the ransom but didn’t get their data back.

A couple of things are certain: paying the ransom is risky and absolutely encourages them to continue attacking others.

Before You Consider Paying

There are a number of steps you can take before you have to decide whether you should pay the ransom or not.


The easiest way to avoid having to pay the ransom is by having a solid backup that isn’t connected to your computer or company network.

If you do have an uninfected backup that can be restored, removing the infection and the encrypted files is pretty easy to do by anyone with even moderate technical skills.


Which Ransomware Do You Have?

If you don’t have a current backup, there may be tools available that can break the encryption if you were hit with one of the older or less sophisticated strains of ransomware that have been cracked.  


A website called https://NoMoreRansom.org has created a repository of keys and applications that may be able to decrypt your files.

To help determine which strain you’re infected with, you simply upload a couple of the encrypted files along with some of the details within the ransom demand note.

For security reasons, make sure to choose files that don’t contain any sensitive personal or corporate information (picture files are usually a good choice to use for the upload test).


Protection Tip

First and foremost in protecting against this growing threat is the proper backup strategy.

Unfortunately, a traditional external backup drive isn’t good enough because anything that’s connected to your computer or is available through a network share will be encrypted as well.


Even if you routinely disconnect your external hard drive when you aren’t backing up, you’re still not fully protected as this malware runs silently in the background so you could unknowingly overwrite your good files with encrypted files.


The best backup solution physically stores your files separate from your computer and incorporate ‘file versioning’, which means it keeps multiple copies of the same files as they are changed.


Incorporating a cloud-based backup such as Carbonite (https://goo.gl/XKum9f) provides the best protection against not only ransomware but fire, flood, theft and even employee sabotage. 




How can I check to see if my HP laptop has the key tracking problem?

Wed, 17 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A recent discovery by Swiss security firm Modzero exposed a major security problem in a large number of HP laptops.  They found that an audio driver that was ‘listening’ for specific ‘hotkeys’ was also recording every keystroke and storing them in an unprotected log file.

Often referred to as ‘keylogging’, this type of activity is usually associated with nefarious programs that try to steal passwords or other sensitive credentials by recording all your keystrokes.

In HP’s case, there’s nothing indicating that anyone was remotely capturing the keystrokes contained in the log files; It’s more of a major mistake made by the company that provided HP with the software.

Who’s At Risk?

Conexant is a primary supplier of audio componentry to most of the major laptop manufactures as well as devices like Amazon’s Echo (Alexa), but this particular issues appears to be isolated to specific HP laptops.

They inadvertently left special debugging code active in the final driver provided to HP, which can potentially be exploited in a number of ways because every keystroke you make – even if you can’t see the character as you type – is being captured to this unprotected file.


It’s the digital equivalent of your computer ‘talking in its sleep’; any program that cares to ‘listen’ could make use of this extremely sensitive information.

Owners of any of HP’s Elite, EliteBook, ProBook or ZBook models from 2015 and 2016 should check their computers for the bug.


How to Check Your Laptop

The following steps may be a bit technical for some, but it’s too important to ignore, so make sure you get help from a trusted technical resource.

Different model laptops exhibit different behaviors, but many of the most common models will have created this log file in the following location: C:\Users\Public\MicTray.log.

If your computer has this log file and you can see data in it when you open the file, your computer has the problem.

If you see the file with no data in it, you’re still not in the clear as the debug output could still be exposing your keystrokes to other programs or it will be empty if you just logged into your computer.


To check for leaking keystrokes, you can run Microsoft’s DebugView while typing random characters on your keyboard to see what is being captured.  If you see any lines in DebugView that refers to ‘Mic target’, your computer is operating with the defective audio driver.


How to Kill the Keylogger

Both HP and Microsoft have released updates to fix the problem, so if you regularly keep your computer updated, you may have already fixed the problem.

HP laptop owners that want to make sure they have the updated audio driver can go to HP’s driver download page in the ‘Support’ section of their website.

This logging behavior goes back to October of 2016, so even if you have fixed the problem, your old backups could contain old log files. Make sure you search for and delete any instance of the MicTray.log file in any of your backups as well.




Q: Is there an easy way to get my personal information off of public listing websites?

Wed, 10 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) If you’ve ever tried searching for someone on the Internet, you know how many ‘people search’ sites are available online offering information for a fee.

What’s even more shocking to so many is the type of information that can be easily found: your full name, address, previous addresses, birthdate, phone number and more.

Private or Public?

While many would perceive this type of information to be private, the reality is that so much information is easily acquired because it’s actually very public.

Most of the sites you’ll run into are data brokers that collect information from a variety of public record sources: real estate transactions, court records, voter registration databases, marriage and business licenses and the list goes on.

Combining public records with social media profiles, advertising networks and your various online shopping accounts is a huge data-mining resource for many companies in today’s digital economy.

The Bad News

When it comes to public records, there is very little you can do to remove your information.

If you’re willing to pay a visit to your county clerks office, it would allow you to review what is being made public and allow you to inquire as to what information can be removed or at least redacted from the public view.

What You Can Do

Knowing that certain records are always going to be public should get you to start thinking like a celebrity.

High-profile individuals have always had to work harder to protect sensitive personal information and you can do the same.

Using a P.O. box or better yet, a private mailbox service from companies like the UPS Store or PostNet prevents your primary home address from being shared via public records.


A P.O. box will only accept US postal mail and often can’t be used for things like voter registration, which is why having a physical address through a private mailbox service is better.

A private mailbox service can also accept the shipments from all your online purchases, further protecting your home address.

Creating a trust or a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for all of your real estate transactions is another way to mask a lot of your personal information.  It’s important to not use personally identifiable names or your home address when you create these entities.

Opting Out

Many of the data broker websites allow you to ‘opt-out’ of their databases, but they don’t make it easy.

You’ll have to manually go to each one to make the opt-out requests, so it’s also very time consuming. One of the most comprehensive resources for finding how to opt-out is at PrivacyRights.org (https://goo.gl/41rlP2).

Keep in mind, these data brokers are constantly scraping sources, so if you move, sell your home or do anything to change your public records, it will reappear in many of these databases.

If you don’t want to try to manage this manually, there are services such as Albine’s DeleteMe (https://goo.gl/qrHNAM) that help automate the process and then monitor changes for you at the cost of $129 per year.




I want to resurrect my vinyl record collection, so I need to buy a turntable. Any suggestions?

Wed, 3 May 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The “vinyl revival” as it’s been called, has been growing for the past ten years and there are many reasons for it.

For those of us that grew up pulling a record out, cleaning it and reading the liner notes while listening to the ENTIRE album, nothing in today’s digital music world comes close to that experience.

It’s much the same reason that those that grew up with the tactile experience of reading newspapers and magazines still prefer it over e-books and reading online.

Depending upon the quality of your sound system and your ear for sound, there can be a dramatic difference in what you hear -- I typically describe it as a ‘warmer’ sound.

Listening Options

How you plan to listen to these vinyl gems has a lot to do with which class of turntable you should consider.

If you don’t own any stereo equipment and plan on using your computer speakers, a Bluetooth enabled speaker or a TV sound bar, you’ll want to steer clear of a traditional turntable.

A traditional turntable will require a traditional amplifier with a specific ‘phono’ input on it because the output signal is very low.


Newer turntables have a built-in ‘preamp’ that boosts the signal enough so that it can be directly plugged into your computer via USB or to powered speakers or Bluetooth speakers commonly used by computers.


If you have a surround sound amplifier that lacks a phono input, you’ll still need a turntable with a built-in preamp.  If you don’t want to limit your future options, look for a turntable that has a switchable preamp so it will work with older or newer amplifiers.

The Downside to Cheap

Vinyl records have a consideration that pure digital music fans have never encountered: they wear out!

The wear comes from the contact of the cartridge needle in the grooves of the record and which cost you in the long run.

Cheap, especially all-in-one turntable solutions, use low quality cartridges and tonearms that can wreak havoc on your vinyl collection.

If you want to get the longest life out of both your vinyl collection and the turntable itself, look for something that is fully automatic, has a replaceable cartridge and an adjustable tonearm.

Belt Drive vs Direct Drive

Unless you’re a DJ or looking at more expensive turntables, you’re most likely going to end up with a belt-driven model.

This is not to say that belt-driven turntables are inferior, as explained by Bill Goodman of Arizona Hi-Fi (http://tubeaudio.com), one of the top 10 Hi-Fi stores in the U.S. according to Popular Mechanics (https://goo.gl/0e2F5f). 


“In general, belt-driven turntables have less audible vibration because the belt absorbs the motors vibration” Goodman said as he showed me a $16,000 belt-driven model.


The Vintage Option

If you are looking to score a vintage turntable, don’t forget to shop your local vintage record stores.  Legendary vinyl retailers such as Stinkweeds (http://stinkweeds.com) have been continuously selling vinyl for 30 years and offers both vintage and newer technology turntables.




Is it safe to buy one of the new Samsung S8 smartphones?

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Samsung’s well documented issue with exploding batteries in its Galaxy Note 7, rightfully has many consumers concerned about newer phones having the same issue.

In what has to be one of the worst PR nightmares in tech history, Samsung had to recall the phones not once, but twice as a result of a faulty design and a manufacturing defect.  

Why Batteries Explode

Lithium Ion batteries used by all smartphone manufacturers can become unstable if they overheat, so technically any device that uses this type of battery could experience a similar result.


Related: How safe are portable battery packs?: https://goo.gl/A7gKgU

We’ve seen similar issues with overheating batteries that catch fire in everything from laptops to hover boards and Tesla cars, so this isn’t unique to Samsung.

What’s Changed at Samsung

For obvious reasons, Samsung knows it has to release their new flagship phones (Galaxy S8 & S8+) without a hitch.

According to Samsung, the primary change to their manufacturing process is they now thoroughly test each batch of batteries from their suppliers with what they are calling an ‘8-Point Battery Safety Check’ (https://goo.gl/NF0qQT).

Under the new testing process, if they encounter a single faulty battery in a production batch, as many as 15,000 can be rejected and sent back to the supplier.

So much is riding on the launch of Samsung’s new smartphones, I’d be very surprised if we see any real issues with the battery.

Early Testing

The review unit that I’ve been testing from Verizon has run cool to the touch, even when it’s charging unlike several of my other Android devices.

The design of the S8 series is beautiful and the ‘bezel-less’ display design makes it seem like you’re just holding a screen in your hand.

They’ve gone to ‘virtual’ buttons, so the entire face of the phone is glass making for a stunning display that runs over the edges. When it’s placed next to a similar size iPhone, the increase in screen real estate becomes more obvious.

The larger S8+ is the same width as the S8 but taller, so it fits in your hand the same despite the much larger display.


Samsung wanted to make it possible for the average person to stretch their thumb across the entire screen for one handed use even with the larger screen.

The fingerprint scanner is on the back next to the single camera lens, so you may find yourself needing to wipe the lens if you choose to use it as your unlock mechanism.

The greatly improved, but not perfect facial recognition can unlock the phone as long as there is enough light for it to properly recognize you. Some reviewers have claimed that they were able to fool it with a picture and Samsung says that it’s not as secure as the other options, but it‘s really handy when it works.

Should You Be Afraid?

I wouldn’t be afraid of buying the new Samsung phones based on the past battery issues, but as with any new technology, letting a few million ‘early adopters’ be the guinea pigs for you is always a safe bet. 




I was one of the backers of the Plastc card, but they just announced that they are shutting down. Is there anyone offering a multi-credit card that works?

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Plastc is just the latest contender in the ‘Smart Credit Card’ space to go out of business.


This race to create a universal digital credit card that allows you to electronically consolidate all your credit, debit and gift cards on a single device started in 2013 from a company called Coin.

The Obvious Need

Coin’s slick video demo (https://goo.gl/6O2gPB) of what the card was supposed to do went viral and convinced a lot of people (including me) to take a risk and back their crowdfunding campaign.

Their initial goal to raise $50,000 was met in 40 minutes and they ended up with roughly 350,000 backers; a clear indication that the concept of this type of device resonated with a lot of people.

The Risks of Crowdfunding

Spurred by Coin’s crowdfunding success, a whole host of others launched similar campaigns including Stratos, Swyp and Plastc to name just a few, none of which are viable options to date.


The Coin card did finally ship in 2015 after many technical delays and the reviews of it were mixed.  I found it to be inconsistent depending upon the credit card terminal that tried to read it, so I still needed to carry all my cards as backup.

Anyone deciding to take a chance on backing any kind of a startup through a crowdfunding campaign should go in assuming that the product will either fall short of the hype or that it may never ship.

The Rush to Grab Backers

On the heels of all the complaints about the Coin card’s performance, many companies promoted their cards as a better option, adding features that the Coin card lacked.

The Plastc card was heralded by the technical media as one of the best options for “One Card to Replace Them All” causing many to pre-order their cards to take advantage of a healthy discount.

As great as they made it sound, having had the experience I had with the Coin device, I warned last year of the risks of backing a product still under development (https://goo.gl/9ZVe1N).

Why Smart Cards Aren’t The Answer

The mobile payment space is a huge battleground and my opinion is that these ‘smart cards’ are just an interim step in the eventual roadmap to mobile pay devices.

Coin has been acquired by Fitbit, Stratos was acquired by Ciright One in order to stay alive and the parent company of Swyp is pivoting, while Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay continue to grow in popularity.


Despite the wreckage of companies that have tried to create the ultimate all-in-one card, newcomers like the EDGEcard (http://edgesmartcard.com) are still popping up with the promise of the ultimate smart card.

Mobile payment technology that’s integrated into devices we already use everyday rather than a separate stand alone device is where we will all likely end up, so my advice is to stay on the sidelines and let the smoke clear.