Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Prepare your new PC for a long run

Summary: A few recommendations that can help you get the best out of a new PC.

You just brought home a new laptop (or desktop) and feel an urge to run your favorite programs or download stuff from the Internet. Before you put your hands on the keyboard, take a few minutes to learn how to configure your system for better performance, prepare it for a disaster, and avoid common problems. Here are some recommendations which can help you get the best out of your new PC.

Before connecting to the Internet, do the following:
  1. Complete Windows installation.
    When you first turn the computer on, it will prompt you to complete the Windows setup process, during which you will create a Windows login account, select the region, time zone, language, and define other configuration settings. When creating the login account, keep the blank password for now (the following steps will require you to reboot the system and log on to Windows several times, which will be easier to do with a blank password); you will define the password later. Do not activate Windows, yet, or register the computer (since you are not connected to the Internet, the activation/registration attempts will fail). Follow the setup wizard until you log on to Windows. [Note: You may have heard or read recommendations to replace Vista/Windows 7 with XP. Unless your PC has less than 1.5 GB of RAM, which, for some reason, you cannot upgrade (you can easily upgrade RAM to 2 GB for about $20-$30), downgrading the operating system to XP makes little, if any, sense. Most people who make these recommendations, either do not have much experience with Vista/Windows 7, or base their recommendations on earlier problems, such as software and driver incompatibilities, and many of these reported issues have been resolved. See The Mojave Experiment for some insight on this topic.]
  2. Create the repair disks.
    If your computer came without the operating system and/or repair (restoration) disks (which is most likely), you must create them yourself. Without the repair disks you will not be able to restore the system if your hard drive fails (hard drives are notoriously prone to failures). You may want to rebuild the system for other reasons, e.g. if your kids install a virus which you cannot remove, or the system becomes slow and nothing else you do improves its performance. Check your computer manual or the quick start guide for instructions on creating the repair disks (normally, there is a program that lets you create the disks). Keep the repair disks in a safe place.
  3. Enable Windows firewall.
    Windows Firewall blocks unwanted access to your computer. It is not the best firewall, but it's good enough, so unless you are using something else, make sure that Windows Firewall is turned on.
At this point, you are ready to connect your computer to the Internet. If you use a wireless router, configure the wireless settings to let your PC connect to the wireless network (make sure that your wireless network is secure); otherwise, connect the network cable to the network port on your PC. After connecting your computer to the Internet, perform these tasks:
  1. Get Windows updates.
    Although your PC is new, it's probably missing the latest Windows Updates and therefore more susceptible to virus infections and other exploits. Before you start browsing the Internet, install the latest Windows updates.
  2. Uninstall crapware.
    New computers, especially the cheaper ones, come filled with crapware that a typical user does not need. These include trial versions of software that you will not purchase, toolbars that you will not use, applications that have better free alternatives, and programs that slow down your system (see the list of common crapware). The free PC Decrapifier tool can help you remove most crapware from your PC.
  3. Install anti-virus software.
    Most new PCs come with a preinstalled anti-virus application (normally, Norton or McAfee). Keep in mind that, unless you purchase a license, these trial versions will stop working after 1-3 months. If you do not intend to purchase a license for the pre-installed anti-virus, uninstall it and get a free alternative, such as Avast Home Edition, AVG Free Edition, or Avira AntiVir Personal Edition. I'm not sure about AVG and AntiVir, but I have been using Avast on my home PCs for a few years and have no complaints (if you use Avast, make sure that you register it with a valid registration code, which you should get via e-mail; otherwise, it'll stop working after one month). UPDATE: For a free anti-virus software, I now wholeheartedly recommend Microsoft Security Essentials (read why).
  4. Change your Windows login password.
    If your Windows login password is blank, change it to a strong password (use Password checker to test password strength). If you leave your login account with a blank password and someone steals your computer (or gets access to it), s/he may be able to read your sensitive documents, access your online bank accounts, steal your secrets, and do other damage. If your computer supports hard drive passwords, it may be a good idea to set up one, too (hard drive password can be defined via the BIOS settings).
  5. Install your favorite programs.
    Reboot your system and install your favorite programs. Keep in mind that some older programs fail to install on Windows Vista/Windows 7. You may be able to find a workaround, get/buy a newer version of the program, or switch to an alternative. For example, if you have trouble installing Microsoft Office 2003 on Vista/Windows 7, try these workarounds (see post by Dominic), but if it does not help, check free alternatives, such as Open Office (another option is to get Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 for around $100). You may be surprised how many excellent programs are available for free (see my free software recommendations).
  6. Register your computer.
    There is no rush to do this, but when you get a chance, register your computer with the manufacturer, so you can get support. You should be able to register the system directly on the manufacturer's web site, or using a built-in registration program (if it is installed by the manufacturer). If you haven't done so, registered your other hardware devices: printer, router, etc.
  7. Activate Windows.
    Follow the Windows activation procedure (Windows activation must be completed within 30 days after installation).
Once you get your new PC running, perform the following steps every few months or so:
  1. Check Windows updates.
    Make sure your system is patched with the latest Windows updates.
  2. Check anti-virus software updates.
    Keep an eye on your anti-virus software to make sure that updates the virus database.
  3. Remove unnecessary programs from the startup list.
    Check if the Windows startup program list contains any applications that don't need to start up automatically, and if so, block them (do you really need Skype to run all the time?). Some programs allow you to remove themselves from the startup sequence; for others, use the System Configuration utility.
  4. Defragment the hard drive
    A fragmented hard drive can significantly slow down your system. Use the built-in Windows Defragmenter (if your disk is badly defragmented, you may need to run Windows Defragmenter a couple of times) or a better alternative, such as Smart Defrag, UlimateDefrag, Defraggler, Ultra Defragmenter, or some other defragmenting tool to defragment the disk. Before defragmenting the drive, it is a good idea to delete unnecessary files using Disk Cleanup.
  5. Install the latest firmware updates.
    If your PC runs smoothly, you do not need to worry about this, but if it crashes or causes problems, which cannot be solved by regular software updates, check if updates to the system BIOS and drivers (video/audio/network/wireless/etc) are available from the PC manufacturer. You can get updates directly from the manufacturer's web site, or via a built-in program (if your computer comes with one).
Finally, a couple of tips, which can extend the life of your PC (these mostly apply to laptops):
  1. Use laptop cooler.
    Overheating (which is more common in laptops that one may wish) can cause anything from performance degradation to hardware failure (motherboards are especially prone to failures caused by overheating). To prevent your laptop from overheating, invest $10-$20 in a notebook cooler.
  2. Do not carry a running notebook.
    If you carry a running laptop from one place to another, you are increasing the chances of the hard drive failure. Unless you wish to spend $100 or so on a new hard drive, before moving the notebook, switch it to a sleep mode (it takes just a couple of seconds to turn the system to and from the sleep mode).
Okay, don't go, yet: here is one more piece of advice. While you're enjoying your new PC, keep in mind that sooner or later, you may need to replace it with something else. To make your next PC replacement easier, address the data migration strategy now (by data migration I mean the process of moving your data -- such as documents, photos, music files, Internet bookmarks, e-mail messages, and so on -- from one system to another). A common recommendation is to perform frequent backups using an external hard drive or an online backup service such as Mozy. In addition to backups, you can use other strategies. One option is to keep your important files online. For example, you can store your photos at photo sharing sites, such as Flickr and Picasa. Your office documents can go to Microsoft Office Live Workspace or one of the file hosting services, such as Adrive, SkyDrive, or Box.net (file hosting sites can be used for storing not only office documents, but other files, too). You may also consider moving from the desktop-based office suite, such as Microsoft Office or Open Office, to a web-based office suite, such as Zoho, Google Docs, or ThinkFree. There are many file synchronization services that can make your files available for easy migration, such as Dropbox, Microsoft's Live Mesh and FolderShare, Syncplicity, or SugarSync. You can use one of these file synchronization programs to back up (or synchronize between multiple computers) your Internet Explorer favorites. Firefox users can greatly benefit from the Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer. Or you can use a social bookmarking service, such as Delicious (or one of these), which has certain advantages over traditional bookmarks. For e-mail, I always recommend GMail because it is free, offers lots of space, can be used with most e-mail client programs (such as Microsoft Outlook), and it is the only service which allows you to redirect your e-mail to any other e-mail account for free (Hotmail only supports redirection to Microsoft-hosted e-mail services, while Yahoo!'s e-mail forwarding feature is not free). I haven't figured out where to keep my music (MP3) files, yet; most services, such as Imeem and Deezer, allow you to upload and listen audio files, but I cannot find an option to download my own files from these services (if you have any recommendations, please leave a comment).

UPDATE: For additional recommendations, see the Managing files and personal information online post.

Additional references:
How to set up a new PC in one easy session
10 things you should do to a new PC before surfing the Web
Things to do first on your brand new PC
First ten things to do with your new computer
10 things you should do to every Windows PC
MUO Polls: Do you Backup Important Files? How?
Reinstall Windows and outfit your system with all freeware programs

Friday, September 19, 2008

More fun with Yahoo! Pipes

Summary: A few advanced techniques for building Yahoo! Pipes.

In the previous post, I explained how to use Yahoo! Pipes for monitoring hot deals. In this post, I'll cover several techniques which can help you get the best out of your pipes.

Before I get to the the good parts, let me share a couple of problems, which I discovered. Understanding these issues can help you avoid some frustration.

Problem #1: Changes appear not to be saved.
If you create a new pipe (or make changes to the existing pipe), save the pipe, and then try to run it (or open it for edit), you may get an error saying that the pipe was deleted. If you re-open the My Pipes page, the new pipes may be missing, and if you open a modified pipe in the editor, you may not see the changes you just made. Don't panic, yet: your new pipes (or modifications) are there. Just refresh the page until the error message goes away (you will need to refresh the page a few times). I'm not sure what causes the problem, but to me it looks like there is a synchronization issue on the Yahoo! side (maybe your changes are saved in one database, but when you switch a page, you hit a different server to which your changes have not been replicated). After a couple of hours the problem will go away and you will not see the errors. I reported this problem to Yahoo! (and others did too), so hopefully, it will be fixed (no word on this, yet).

Problem #2: RSS reader is slow to report new posts.
I do not know if it affects all RSS readers, but I saw this problem on Bloglines, as well as Google Reader: matching posts returned by your pipes may appear in the RSS reader several hours after they have been posted in the original feed. This is not a big deal for regular posts (like your favorite blog subscriptions), but if you want to be notified about a product returned by your pipe faster, you may want to use the pipes' built-in notification mechanisms instead of relying on the RSS reader.

Update: A few weeks ago, Bloglines stopped retrieving RSS posts from almost all of my Yahoo! Pipes. Due to multiple issues with Bloglines (also reported by others), I no longer recommend using it (I switched to Google Reader).
And now, the good stuff.

Hint #1: Reuse your pipes.
Say, you want to build several pipes with something in common. Instead of duplicating the common functionality in every pipe, you can build a special pipe containing the shared logic, and then pick this pipe as any other module from the module library (you will find your pipe under the My pipes heading in the library panel of the editor). For example, I created the following pipe defining the input sources and transformation rules for all of my shopping-related pipes:

My other pipes use this pipe as input, and apply additional filters to specify pipe-specific conditions. Now, if I find a better way to define input sources and transformation rules, I just need to change one pipe and all pipes that use it will pick up the modifications automatically.

Hint #2: Use regular expressions for more precise matches.
Say, you are shopping for a ring, so you define a filter with the following rule:
item.title contains ring
What you may not realize is that this pipe will return posts with titles containing the following words: spring, boring, ringtones, and so on. To make sure that your filter finds exact matches of the whole word ring, instead of the Contains condition, use Matches regex.

Tips: For non-programmers: Regex stands for regular expression, which is a sophisticated mechanism for finding (and replacing) more complex matches. For programmers: In case you wonder, Yahoo! Pipes use the Perl-like regular expression syntax with certain caveats. For example, to look for case-insensitive matches, you need to prefix the search string with (?i) (I thought it would be /text/i). For all: Here are some great resources for learning, building, and testing regular expressions:And this is some informations specific to Yahoo! Pipes:
To search for the exact word match, you need to use the following pattern:
As you may have noticed the \W tokens surrounding the search string specify the word boundaries, while (?i) indicates case-insensitive search. Here is an example of the search filter one may use for baby-related products (notice that it uses another pipe as input):

Once you get a grip on regular expressions (if you are so inclined), you will be able to build more efficient filters, but in the meantime, the information I provided should get you one step past the novice. If you stumble upon a problem you cannot solve, check the Message Boards for Pipes (this is where I found how to implement case-insensitive search).

Additional references:
Yahoo! Pipes Documentation
Yahoo! Pipes Tutorials