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Data Doctors Tips and Tricks



Computing Tips & Tricks



 



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.




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.




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.




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.