Friday, October 3, 2008

Get in the loop, or remote computing on the cheap

Okay, so I fix a lot of computers. Both professionally and on a friendly, just buy me a pizza or a starbucks card basis. I am very fortunate that I get paid to do something I love. But sometimes I get asked questions over the phone long distance, and it is hard to answer the technical questions when I can't always visualize what they are talking about. See this great 3 dead trolls in a baggie routine on youtube, for example.

This is classic. But there is an easier way. For those of us who have friends and family we need to help remotely, there is a way. Sure you can use the remote help feature in XP, but that is clunky and kind of a pain. Then there are free html based programs like (pretty good, but can be tricky for you to get them logged in to, because you need to install the program on their PC, and then leave it running until you need to connect. Now there is an easier way. There is a program called Crossloop. Okay, a site really, sign up for a free account, and install the software. Then have your remote person do the same. They call you and say, I have a problem, you say okay, get on the internet and start crossloop. They click the give access tab, and get an access code which they tell you (email, IM, text, call whatever), and you enter their accountname, and the code, and BLAMMO! they get a request to allow you to remote control their PC.

Okay what it is is VNC with a better encryption. This way they won't get hijacked by some script kiddie scanning for open VNC ports on the internet. They can start the program when they need your help, and you are available, you can connect to them with 128 bit encryption and rock on. Okay there is no file transfer or chat tools, but come on, it's free. Check it out.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Software - the very very basics

You have gathered your tools, you can replace hardware, now what about software? Well there are some very very basic tools I use frequently, and no true geek should be without them. Since this is Tech For Free, I am going to focus on the free ones. Let's start with protection:

Anti virus

You to need anti virus. Plain and simple, if you don't you will get infected and you may lose time, data and worse could get your identity stolen. A good number of PCs come with anti virus preinstalled, and that is great while it lasts. Yes I meant while it lasts, you see most of these programs require a subscription in order to get updates. And most don't do a good enough job of explaining this. That is why I wind up wiping out PCs on a regular basis, because sometimes that is the only good way to get rid of the virus. Can you get free anti virus? you bet. I have been using AVG Free for about 3 years, and no problems so far. Some people I know have had good luck with Avast, but I have only installed it once, and it seemed okay. Either one, make sure you always download the free version, not the trial version, that expires. If you want to buy anti virus, I highly recommend Trend Micro's products. In fact if you think you have a virus, you can go to their free online scanner called Houscall and test for Virus , Trojan horses and some spyware. This does not count as installing anti virus.

Spyware stoppers

Spybot search and Destroy, my hands down favorite. Absolutely free, easy to install and includes some handy extra tools, like the startup cleaner. Download, install it, follow the instructions to update it, and then let it clean your system. I don't use the Spybot memory resident bit, or Tea Timer from them, you can if you like, but they annoyed me. You can also use ad-aware, but it does want to be purchased, and will point that out to you. Get spybot, run it about once every couple of weeks or so. Love it. Make sure you run the immunization to prevent other problems.


If you have Windows XP you have a minor firewall, if you have SP2, it is better. But if you want to get something better than that, comodo free firewall is pretty good and pretty easy to set up. you can also get a free copy of zone alarm, but I have never loved this program. It is pretty good though, and the pay version is very good.

I hear someone back there saying "I have a wireless router, isn't that already a firewall?" or "Gigantic Internet company gave me free software for that already when I got internet through them?" The answer to both is a very big well...kind of. The answer to this is a future blog entry anyway, but here is the long and the short of my opinion. To the router; yes but use a firewall on your PC too. To the Big Internet Company, do you really trust this software from them? if so, please do so...if not use your own choice. Me, I use a firewall on my router and my PC too.

Practice Safe computing...

We call it that, kind of like safe sex. The big thing is, run your windows updates, if you don't like to do it yourself, turn on the automatic updates. Update all your software frequently. Keep your antivirus up to date, don't open emails attachments from people you don't know, or odd ones from people you do. Be careful what links you click on, and if you are not sure what it is Check Snopes to see if it is a hoax, fraud or real. Some good reading on snopes.

I highly recommend using a web mail program like gmail (, or ask me to give you an invitation, I will be glad to). Gmail has a pretty good spam filter. Use the built in spam filters in your mail client (outlook 2003 has a pretty good one, but set it to high). And here is a big one...don't just give your email out. I keep a special email address just for filling out forms on line and in life, that is my junkmail only email address. Don't drop your business card in the fishbowls at restaurants, they sell those to data miners for email addresses. I spoke to a friend recently, their CTO told them that each week their email system processes 3,000,000 plus emails. Out of these 50.000 are legitimate email, the rest is spam. Some people say 90% of the traffic on the internet is spam. So do your best to get rid of it, don't buy products sold to you in spam. Don't reply to it, just delete it. without installing windows?

Friday, April 18, 2008

The basics - tools you need

Okay, first off you need tools if you are going to fix PCs. I know that there are a ton of "computer tool kits" they sell at every big box store, but really you only need a few things for most fixes. so if you already have one of those kits...pitch everything but these items, these are the must haves:
  • Magnetic tip screwdrivers, phillips and slotted
  • very small screwdriver (not eyeglass small, but about a 2 mil blade)
  • scissors
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Paperclip, just straighten one and use it to extract Cd's or DVDs from drives without power. That is what the little hole on the front of the drive is for.
This kit will do for around 90% of projects. I used to work for a great system integrator (Free plug Karl...Cierra Solutions), and I had to carry all the goodies I needed in my bag with me, so I leaned it out as fast as I could. Let me tell you, carry around a bag with a notepad, label writer, tools, cd book of all the possible Cd's you might need, pens and such and soon you learn what to cut down on.

The $10 kit I have pictured here is a good starting place, but you can ditch quite few of these tools. You don't need the chip extractor that is in many of these kits. And the tweezers are kind of useless most of the time. The tube is handy for storing spare screws, and believe me you will need them.

Put together a small kit like this, and if you have the time and money add these items:

Hemostats are useful for a lot of things
  • Nut drivers in 1/4 and 1/8 inch drives, these fit screw heads, and also the brass standoffs, as well as most of the posts on video cards and such.
  • Torx T-10 and T-15 bit drivers. Better yet get one that has a tip that flips. Even better is a screwdriver with a hollow handle that stores a variety of tips.
  • Hemostats, the kind that lock, get one curved and one straight, great for holding things and if you need to solder something, can work as a heat sink too. Beats the tar out of tweezers
  • Flash Drive, yes this is a tool, keep on here, and a couple of USB cables are handy often too.
  • Small flash light, I found a 1.99 book light that uses an LED, and has a flexible neck and clip that lets me put the light anywhere I need it and frees my hands to do other things
  • If you are getting older, get a pocket magnifier, and save lots of headaches
  • Small Zip Ties, get a few sizes if you have the room
  • Diagonal wire cutters (Dikes to some), get ones that you can hold comfortable, and make sure they won't pinch you when you use them
You can find a lot of really useful things at dollar stores and places like Wal-mart, or Target. Keep your eyes open for something useful, I have a set of tips that include several nut drivers that I salvaged from a dollar store ratcheting screwdriver. They fit in my drill's magnetic tip just fine. And just a side note, that magnetic tip on that comes with most drills these days (and some pocket screwdrivers) is actually a 1/4 inch driver, you can use that in a pinch, and I have. All of the above tools can be easily found, except many the hemostats, I get mine at the flea market 2 for a dollar. These tools can see you through just about anything you will run into on most standard PC repair. But here are the last couple of tools I would add, when and if you have the money.

Home depot sells a very inexpensive mini screwdriver set, with both Phillips/Flathead, and various Allen or torx tips for about $6 each. Mine came with three double ended tips in each, so for $12 I got 12 drivers. I bought both of my younger sons the basic one Phillips one Flathead version for stocking stuffer over Christmas, and had change from a five when I bought them. For laptops, or cell phones, or just plan taking things apart, these are great. Radio Shack and Fry's both sell a kit that has one driver and a mess of tips, and it costs about $15. I have one of these too, but the Husky branded ones are just as good, and easier to tote in my mini tool kit

This is a little more pricey, at about $30
but for me it has been worth the money over and over. This handy little device connects directly to the PATA ports on regular and laptop hard drives, or to a SATA drive, and then to your USB port. With it's own power supply for the full size drives, it allows you to access data from a hard drive without installing it, making it easy to copy data across drives. Being a typical geek, I also have a pile of old hardware, and this let me check which drives were good, and which should be made into clocks or other art. You could also use it with your laptop to test a drive without removing it from the computer it is in. Just connect the cables, add the power and see if it is the PC or just the drive that is dead.

Next time, CDs that are useful tools as well.
Until then, get your Geek on, and nerdy to me.

What is cheap tech?

Cheap tech is something I am really all about. I love gadgets. I mean I keep the manuals until long after the gadget has worn out. I actually ready the manuals first. I am also a Geek. By Geek I man a good thing. A person who sees things and wants to know how they work, and how to make them work better. The bad news for me is that I am a broke geek. So I have learned a lot of tricks to doing things on the cheap. This is the place for me to share that knowledge. I love helping people, I love getting things working and I love doing it on the cheap. I mean I usually fix PCs for people for a starbucks card or a pizza. For me I feel I am charging high if I ask for $50. And that is cheaper than the Geeksquad or Firedog guys. And in all modesty, I am better than those guys.

Background; I do not have a college degree in anything, but I work as a network administrator. I worked my way up for taking a very low paying job as a data center clerk to being a network administrator by learning more than the next guy. I have a talent for trouble shooting, and a very logical mind, so I can usually fix problems fast. Plus I am pretty good with a search engine. Really that is a skill in itself that goes unnoticed. There are a lot of smarter, or more dedicated, shall I say Geekier people than me out there, and a lot of them share their knowledge with the world. Learn to search.

I want to use this space to share some of the things I have learned, some of the freeware I have found that works, and also some other tricks and tips that I have picked up here and there. Maybe someday this will become a for real paying gig for me...but probably not. But hey in the mean time, if you want to help me click an ad or two, send me your tips and tricks, and if enough people are willing to donate, I will put out a donation link.

Let's get to the geekyness.