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Data Doctors Advice Columns



Computer Advice and Answers to Reader Questions



 



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.




Is it safe to continue using Windows Vista?

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Operating systems aren’t something that most users think about, but the reality is you engage with your operating system every time you use your computer.

This essential interface becomes very familiar and changing to a new one often evokes a visceral response, which is why we see so many people clutching to their old familiar versions of Windows.

Microsoft realized how much of a deterrent this was for millions of its users each time they released a new version of Windows, so they made a change.

The Last Version of Windows

With the release of Windows 10, Microsoft proclaimed that it would be the last version of Windows ever.

It’s not that they’re going to abandon the Windows platform; they just plan to deliver Windows “as a service” much like how we get updates to our browsers.

Windows is no longer the primary ‘cash cow’ for Microsoft, so for now, once you’ve installed Windows 10, the updates will be free for as long as you’re using the same computer.

In this model, changes will occur incrementally so users don’t have to contend with deciding whether to switch to a new unfamiliar interface.

Vista End-of-Life

Microsoft actually stopped mainstream support for Windows Vista on April 10th, 2012 but continued what they call ‘extended support’ until April 11th, 2017.

When they ended mainstream support, they were simply saying that they would longer be creating any enhancements or new features.

Extended support continued to provide the all-important security updates, which has now ended.

Risks of Continuing with Vista

If the Internet weren’t such a prominent component in daily computing, continuing to use Vista would be a let less risky.

In fact, if you have a computer that has no way to connect to the Internet, there’s no reason you can’t continue to use Vista.

Hackers know all the backdoors and security holes in every piece of software ever created. From this point on, when a security hole is discovered in Windows Vista (and now there’s more incentive for hackers to find them), Microsoft will not be developing a fix or patch for the hole.

If you’re a small business, not only are there major security concerns, depending upon your line of work, there may be compliance risks as well as major incompatibility issues with newer programs.

Windows Vista was originally released in January of 2007 when the Internet was a very different place.

The safeguards built into Windows 10 are exponentially better at defending your computer against today’s threats, so as painful as it may be, upgrading isn’t a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’.

It’s Not Just Windows

Security risks exist in virtually every program you use, so using really old versions of any software puts you at a higher risk of being exploited.

Popular program such as Microsoft Office are a constant target of thieves and hackers because they know most people don’t think about updating them nearly as much as they do their operating system, so it’s important to update or remove old programs if you’re no longer using them.




In light of the recent Internet privacy legislation, will using a VPN keep my ISP from tracking what I do online?

Wed, 5 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The recent bill passed by both houses of Congress will essentially overturn a rule passed by the previous FCC chairman that would have required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ask for your permission before sharing your browsing and usage data with third parties.

The rule was never put in place, so in a sense, the recent bill leaves things the way that they have always been.

Your ISP Knows The Most

Regardless of any regulations, your ISP has and always will know the most about how you generally use the Internet as a normal course of providing you their service.

The issue is really more of what they can do with that information, which is now a confusing mess that’s up in the air.

Services like Facebook and Google can only track you when you’re using their resources or their associated third parties, which admittedly, is pretty extensive but your ISP logs every site that you visit.

For clarity, when you visit encrypted sites (those that start with https://), your ISP can see that you went there, but they can’t see what you do within the site, so much of the ‘privacy’ that many people want already exists.

How VPNs Hide You

Using a VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, will reduce your ISPs ability to track where you go online because everything you do after you connect to a VPN is masked in a private ‘tunnel’.

Your ISP would then only see you connecting to the VPN, but nothing afterwards, but there are tradeoffs.

VPN Tradeoffs

If you decide to us a VPN service, you’re essentially trading WHO can see everything you’re doing from your ISP to your VPN service provider.

Can you trust a VPN service provider any more than your ISP?  That‘s the primary question you’ll have to answer yourself before making the change, so make sure you’ve thoroughly researched any company before you start using their service (some of them are based in other countries and aren’t necessarily subject to our privacy laws).

Keep in mind that a free VPN service is most likely selling your browsing history to pay for the service and even some pay services could do the same because there’s no regulatory body overseeing these companies.

Some VPNs can also degrade performance, depending upon the quality of their network and can be confusing for non-technical users.

Tech-savvy privacy advocates often choose to spend the money to setup their own VPN server, but that’s not a very realistic option for most people.

True Privacy; All or Nothing

Using a VPN might limit how much your ISP knows about your browsing habits, but that won’t stop the dozens of other ways you’re being tracked every day by lots of others.

If you’re truly concerned about privacy, you’ll need to completely change what you use to browse the web, how you maintain your computer and stop using all of the most popular websites and social networks as a real person.




I'm having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi in various parts of my house and yard. Should I add a range extender or just buy a new Wi-Fi router?

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Wi-Fi connectivity has become one of the most common problems most of us face, whether it’s at home, at the office or on the road.

Weak signals in specific areas can be very frustrating as we’ve become accustomed to having the Internet at our fingertips at all times.

Common Causes of Problems

If your wireless router is fairly old and you’ve never done a firmware upgrade, you may be surprised by how much better if operates if you simply do the update.

If you’re not familiar with the process, go the support section of your router manufacturers website and search for ‘firmware update’ to get specific instructions.


The further you are from a wireless router, the more likely it is you will experience performance issues, which is why the concept of a ‘range extender’ makes sense.

But before you attempt to use a range extender to solve your problems, you need to make sure you understand all the potential causes.

If you live in an urban area surrounded by many other wireless routers, you’re problem may be less about range and more about congestion.

Wi-Fi signals are transmitted on an open frequency that can be shared by many devices that can cause interference and there are a finite number of channels in which they operate.

If you can see a long list of wireless access points available to your device when you initially try to connect, your router could be trying to use the same channel as lots of other routers causing congestion.

Adding a range extender to solve a congestion problem won’t get you very good results, so using resources to see if changing channels might help is another possible solution: https://goo.gl/r3oucp.

Newer wireless routers are capable of automatically avoiding congested channels when they are rebooted and most routers do diminish in performance over time, so if yours is more than 3 or 4 years old, upgrading to a newer one may be the best solution.

If you do decide to try the range extender solution, try sticking to the same manufacturer as your router for the best results.

Mesh Networks

If you do decide to purchase a newer router, there have been so many technical advances over the past few years, especially if you have a large area with ‘dead zones’ to cover.


A ‘mesh network’, which was once the domain of expensive, high performance business networks, is now readily available for consumers.

Instead of relying on a single device to do all the work, newer offerings from companies like Linksys (https://goo.gl/A9kOme), Netgear (https://goo.gl/shZ1Lu) and Google (https://goo.gl/gTu4tB) use multiple transmitters that all talk to each other around your house removing the ‘single point of failure’ issue.

The technical merits of the higher performing platforms that typically use MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output) allow you to keep adding devices to increase your coverage area without a huge degradation in performance.




I'm interested in adding smart devices to my home but have heard horror stories about security. What should I know before I get started?

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Smart or connected devices such as doorbell cameras, thermostats and home security webcams are growing in popularity, with estimates that over 24 billion internet-connected devices will be installed by 2020.

If you plan on installing these devices in your home or business, understanding the security issues is pretty important.

IoT - The Internet of Things

Often referred to as the ‘Internet of Things’, these everyday items generally incorporate Internet connections to allow for remote access, monitoring and control.

Getting alerts on your smartphone whenever a webcam detects motion or when someone rings your doorbell as well as having finite control over your thermostat and lighting from just about anywhere has tremendous appeal.

As someone who loves to travel, I personally love the added benefits as they provide pinpoint control as long as you have an Internet connection.

Access is Access

The thing to keep in mind is that if you can access your devices from outside your home, technically, so can anyone else.

The Internet is one huge global network of devices all connected to each other, so you can be next door or on the other side of the ocean and have the same access.

The primary thing keeping unauthorized users from accessing anything you install on your network is whatever security has been setup by that device.

The Default Password Problem

Usernames and passwords are the primary line of defense you have against unauthorized access and making sure they are secure is always your first task.

There have been lots of stories over the years, especially when it comes to web cameras, showing how many of them are completely open to the world because the user didn’t change the default username and/or password.

If you've already installed smart devices on your network and want to see if they are publicly accessible via websites like Shodan, checkout BullGuard's IoT Scanner: https://goo.gl/HbmIuz

Using any Internet connected device with the default administrative password will make you a sitting duck as every default password for just about every device ever made is readily available online at sites like: https://cirt.net/passwords

Don’t Be Afraid

Lots of Internet security experts have written about the ‘security as an afterthought’ approach that the industry has taken, and rightly so.

Security should never be taken lightly by anyone using anything connected to the Internet, but it can also be overhyped or agenda driven.

No different then driving a car that could potentially kill you every day, empowering yourself with knowledge is the key.


If You Don’t Understand It, Get Help

Nothing is 100% ‘hacker-proof’, especially if a malicious party is motivated, but unless you’re a celebrity or a politician, you’re much more likely to become a victim from a ‘random act of hacking’.

This means you made it really easy for an outsider to take advantage of you because you skipped simple security measures like updates and patches that can appear too complex for non-technical users.

For the average user, the convenience benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to most IoT devices, so don’t let the ‘horror stories’ keep you from educating yourself and using them.




What are the pros and cons of using ad blockers in my browser?

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Ads on the Internet are a fact of life that frankly speaking, help pay for many of the ‘free’ services that we all enjoy.

Having said that, the way that ads are delivered via third party networks often causes slow loading of pages or makes it difficult to find the actual information that we seek.

Mobile users on a limited data plan can reduce the amount of data they use by eliminating the bandwidth required for loading ads.

Throw in the potential for ‘malvertising’, which are legitimate ad networks that have been infiltrated by malware-laden ads and you have plenty of reasons for wanting to limit ads while you surf the web.

How Ad Blockers Work

Ad blockers employ similar filtering techniques to anti-virus programs for identifying scripts which are then compared to a list of known sites and scripts that are blocked based on the programs pre-set parameters.

They can also simply hide certain HTML elements of the page from your view even if your browser loads them.

It’s far from a perfect technology, but by and large, they do a pretty good job.

Ad blockers are not limited to your desktop or laptop computer; you can also use them on just about any of your mobile devices.

The Downside of Ad Blockers

While the reasons for using an ad blocker may be many, there are some side effects you should be aware of.

The most obvious side-effect will be on pages that rely on scripts that when blocked can totally ‘break’ the page and dramatically change what you actually see.

For hardcore privacy advocates, there may be data privacy risks as some of the free ad-blocking tools collect your browsing behaviors for third-party use.

There’s also the very real issue of using a 'free' site that can only provide its content if they can pay for it through delivering ads.

Technically speaking, if everyone on the Internet used ad blockers, it would essentially destroy the business model that is the basis for what we all take for granted on a daily basis.

One way to use the technology but support your favorite websites is to use the ‘whitelisting’ option most of them employ, which allows ads on just the sites you choose.

Popular Options

One of the most popular browser add-on called AdBlock Plus (https://adblockplus.org) works with most major browsers and offers apps for both Android and iPhone users.

The Opera (https://opera.com) browser for computers and Opera Mini for mobile devices has an ad blocker built-in, so you can install it as an alternative browser for when you want to use ad blocking.

Firefox fans have long used the NoScript plugin (https://noscript.net) to manage a variety of scripts that range from ads to malware attacks, but I would only recommend this more elaborate tool for tech savvy users.

Fans of Google’s Chrome browser can also try ScriptSafe (https://goo.gl/9ow7Au) to offer similar features to NoScript, though it’s not nearly as powerful.




Do any of the Facebook blockers work to block political posts?

Wed, 8 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A lot of people that use Facebook on a regular basis are very likely to be suffering from some form of ‘political post’ fatigue.

There are a number of ways to better manage what appears in your newsfeed that can range from basic measures to drastic action.


Start with Unfollow

For those friends that seem to obsess over every twist and turn of this unprecedented political environment, you can simply stop following them so their every post does not appear in your newsfeed.

On your computer, you can easily do this by floating your mouse over their profile picture and changing the ‘following’ button to ‘Unfollow’.

On mobile devices, you can click on the small down arrow in the upper-right corner of anything they post and tap the ‘Unfollow’ option from the menu.


When you unfollow someone, there is no notification to that person, so you don’t have to worry about offending them.

Hiding Certain Sources

There are lots of allegations of ‘fake news’ being thrown around by all sides, but you get to decide which sources you want to see.

When a post is shared by a friend for a resource you don’t particularly care for, you can click on the small arrow in the upper-right corner of the post and select the ‘Hide all from…” option.  This will keep anything shared by anyone from that resource from appearing in your newsfeed.

Browser Add-Ons

If you don’t want to completely unfollow someone but attempt to filter out politically oriented posts, there are a number of options available for your desktop browsers.

One created for the Chrome browser that’s been getting a lot of mentions is called Remove All Politics From Facebook (https://goo.gl/fv7H8l).  In my tests, it didn’t work very well, but many comments from users claim that it does help, so your mileage may vary.


A more powerful tool that’s been around for a while is called Social Fixer (https://goo.gl/bkhAOS) and works with every major browser, not just Chrome.

Social Fixer lets you choose pre-existing filters (like politics or superbowl) or create keyword lists of your own, giving you a lot more control over what you see.

If you really want to shut down everything and only see posts from specific friends, News Feed Eradicator for Facebook (Chrome only) will do the job. 

Once you install it, you‘ll get an inspirational quote where your newsfeed normally appears, so you have to manually go to individual profiles in order to see any posts.

Keep in mind, all of these browser add-ons are at the mercy of Facebook’s code, so any updates or changes by Facebook can impact the effectiveness of them all.

The Nuclear Option

In some cases, you may feel it’s ‘healthier’ to completely disconnect from certain friends so you can ‘unfriend’ them by going to their profile on either mobile or desktop devices.

If things have really become problematic, you may want to completely block them from anything you post as well by going to your account settings menu and selecting the ‘Blocking’ option.




What age should I allow my children to start using social media?

Wed, 1 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

Raising children in the digital age is forcing parents to deal with questions that can’t be answered by a previous generation of parents.I can remember when my daughter was 10, she proclaimed that she was the only one of her friends that wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies.  Today’s parents are going to be faced with this same proclamation for a myriad of adult-oriented social sites like Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.As with many other aspects of parenting, the answer to the question “when are they old enough?” is going to be different for each child and situation.The child’s maturity level along with your relationship with them should play a big role in making the decision.Starting this process off with a discussions about the pros and cons of engaging in social networks is a much better approach then just telling your child “No, because I said so”.Technical Age LimitsMost popular social networks require that a child be at least 13 to sign up for an account, but it’s not necessarily a parental guide.  Most networks are doing so to comply with the FTC’s COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which was created to prevent companies from gathering certain types of information on minors.Despite that, there are plenty of experts that believe that until the age of 13, most children lack the cognitive ability to fully understanding adult-oriented social situations.  Keep in mind, this is a general guideline (like PG-13 movie ratings) and not a line in the sand for all parents. For a better understanding of the typical 13-year-old’s mindset, checkout Common Sense Media’s overview: https://goo.gl/811lFUAccessing your child’s ability to understand things like the context of a post (many adults still have a problem with this!), cyber-bullying or inappropriate content should be your primary guideposts.Age Appropriate PlatformsWaiting until a child is 13 to engage in any type of social platform isn’t necessarily the best approach in the digital age.  Pretending that they won’t be exposed to social networks until you decide it’s time isn’t very realistic, so it’s best for you to be the one to introduce them to it.There are plenty of age-appropriate and COPPA compliant platforms for children under the age of 13 like Lego Life (https://lego.com/life) and Kudos (https://kudos.ai) or you can create your own private social network with options like Gecko Life (https://geckolife.com).Getting together with other parents to create a controlled network with only friends and family is another method of introduction to social media you may want to consider.(A comprehensive list of kid safe options is posted at: https://goo.gl/Pm4DzV)Setting Guidelines EarlyThe earlier you start setting up the guidelines for your child, the better.  Making sure they have a grasp of things like privacy issues, mindful posting, identity theft, what cyber-bullying looks and feels like and an open ongoing dialogue with you is critical.Making sure you have access to everything they use, following them on the same networks and limiting their connections to people that you know in the real world are essential early in their development.[...]



Any suggestions on going paperless at home?

Wed, 22 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) We’ve been hearing the promise of the “paperless office” for over 30 years, but very few of us have taken the time that it takes to make the transition.

The good news is that going paperless at home is a lot less complex than doing so in a business.

Going completely paperless isn’t realistic, but going less-paper is entirely feasible with today’s various options.


Getting Started

One of the easiest ways to cut down on the amount of paper that gets sent to you is to opt for electronic billing and statements whenever a company offers it.

While there may be certain situations where you do want to have paper copies sent to you, start looking at every paper bill or statement you’re currently getting to figure out which ones can become electronic from the source.

Are You Disciplined Enough?

The next question you need to ask yourself is are you willing to adopt the behaviors required to be successful in converting all your paper documents into electronic copies?

You’ll have to completely change your ‘workflow’ as it pertains to all the paper that comes into your household.

You’ll also have to go through the learning curve on an electronic storing and filing system so you can find items when you need them down the road.

A Good Scanner is Critical

You’ll need an appropriate scanning device that makes converting and filing your documents efficient or else you’ll never do it.

Cheap flatbed scanners that require you to manually place each page on the scanner won’t do the trick; you’ll need a device with a decent document feeder.

You’ll also want one that can scan both sides of the document (duplex scanning) and wireless is a nice option for flexibility in where you can use it.

Fujitsu has long been a leader in high-quality scanners that will hold up to the workload that ‘going paperless’ will demand, but less expensive options are available from companies like Brother, Epson, Neat and Doxie.

Creating Your Workflow

The best way to stay on top of this new task is to have a physical ‘inbox’ next to your scanner where all your important papers get staged for scanning.

The single most important decision you’ll have to make is which electronic filing system you’ll use.

If you don’t create a solid filing, naming and tagging system, you’ll end up with a mountain of scanned documents that will be nearly impossible to search through.

Most document scanners have direct support to automatically send documents to both Dropbox and Evernote or others like Doxie and Neat offer their own integrated filing software.

Evernote provides a lot of flexibility for managing the documents and since it automatically converts everything to a searchable standard, it makes finding documents based on keywords much easier down the road.

Detailed Advice

If nothing that I’ve outlined so far has scared you off, there are some excellent resources that are much more detailed from Abby Lawson (https://goo.gl/3WBkeZ), Refind Rooms (https://goo.gl/aI2jiR) and Document Snap (https://goo.gl/2I8bzg).