Monday, December 17, 2007

SSC #48 Viruses and Spyware Revisited

by Jeff Smith

One of the problems I'm finding about my articles is that I covered most of the really important things early on. This means that those of you who jumped onboard a little later may have missed some of the really good stuff.

I am still coming across people with either no antivirus software at all, or else out-of-date antivirus software, which is just as bad. So in the interest of helping those of you who may have only recently started reading my articles, this week I'm reprinting snippets from a couple of the early ones.


Many people speak about viruses and spyware as though they are one and the same thing, but this is not true. Often they work in tandem with each other and give your PC a underhanded double-whammy, but they are not in fact the same thing. Often a virus will install spyware (and other viruses) and vice versa. Think of it as a well-planned comprehensive package just designed to give you grief.

Viruses are small snippets of computer code that are not really complete files. They infect your machine by appending themselves to other files that will be run. Think of it like the P.S. area of a letter from your sweetie. But instead of "P.S I love you" its more like "P.S. I'm deleting important files and I'm stealing all your passwords and credit card information."

For easy and thorough virus removal, I recommend AVAST Home Edition found for FREE at It updates itself regularly whenever an internet connection is present. So if you're a dial-up user keep that in mind if your speed is slow for a few minutes after you first connect. It scans email clients, all running processes, protects your web browser, scans all downloads (even from p2p), and you can scan any new files by right clicking them.

Next time you see an alert from your antivirus program, take note of the location of the infected file. If you see C:\WINDOWS\ as part of the file's location then it could be an important system file. Google the name of the file to see if it is a legit windows file. If not delete it. If it is important, try quarantining it or replacing the file from a backup. If all else fails, try to use system restore to rewind to before the infection occurred.

Learn to know when you're out of your depth. If it is a business PC or contains valuable irreplaceable data ask the help of a more experienced friend or seek professional help before taking shots in the dark. Be aware that the restore disks you probably received with your computer will often wipe everything before reinstalling Windows, you probably don't want that. Often valuable data is lost by repair attempts of the inexperienced. If you don't know what you're doing, talk to someone who does.

Spyware (also called malware or adware) is full-fledged programs designed to do much the same things that viruses do. The difference is that while viruses are just snippets of code, spyware is actually complete programs. Spyware is often downloaded by mistake by people looking for legitimate programs. Spyware's biggest avenue of infection are malicious websites whereupon spyware automatically installs itself via ActiveX controls. When you see popup ads that tell you that you are infected or that you need to download an "internet optimizer" to speed up your internet connection, those are usually fake. You don't just believe any advertisements you see in other places, online ads are no different. If you're curious about a program, ask a friend, preferably one who knows more than you. Offline word of mouth is still very valid in the online world. Don't just download and install any old thing you see that has flashy ads. That's the fastest and surest way to lose the use of your computer altogether. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do your homework.

Spyware, like viruses can do anything from harmlessly displaying a few more unwanted ads (even when you're not surfing the web) to full-out waging war on your personal information.
he two most popular free spyware removal tools out there are Ad-aware and Spybot Search & Destroy.

Ad-aware 2007 Free is free for home use. It does a good job of removing spyware threats, has a pleasing appearance and is easy to use. You can also upgrade the program for a bit of cash and instead of just removing spyware it will actively block it from getting on in the first place.
Spybot S & D is another free program for spyware removal. I found it to be very effective at removing spyware as well, though I found it slightly less user-friendly.

After you've successfully cleaned your system get Spyware Blaster. This program does not remove spyware, instead it blocks it from coming in. These programs can be found on

Unlike antivirus software, you can use multiple anti-spyware programs on the same machine without conflicts. In fact I recommend if you want to be thorough. That being said, once you have anti-spyware software, run it weekly, or whenever you notice something suspicious. And when you scan for spyware, follow it up with a virus scan as well because they often run together. Always remember to check for updates for your scanning program before you scan, if it does not do that automatically.

Never get your antivirus or anti-spyware programs from a pop-up ad. It is like buying your kids vitamins from a stranger in a back alley. There are some fake security programs that are spyware in disguise. So consider yourself warned.


Hope that helps someone...

Til next time, stay safe!

phone: (606) 218 - 4088 (before 8pm please)

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Monday, December 10, 2007

SSC #47 Remote Access

by Jeff Smith

    There are lots of reasons why a person might want to access their computer remotely.  Perhaps you are traveling out of town and you left your driving directions at home on your desktop.  Or perhaps you forgot to start downloading the next episode of Dexter before you left and you want to watch it as soon as you get home.  Or perhaps you're running low on computer monitors and you want to make a headless server that you can control via another computer on your network.  The possible reasons for remote controlling your computer are diverse and numerous. 

    Fortunately, the means to do so are also diverse and numerous.

    Remote controlling your computer can take many paths and varying levels of complexity.  There are solutions that require you to have software installed on both machines, such as VNC or PC Anywhere.  These are about the best experience for usability because they are both relatively lightweight and don't take a lot of system resources to run.  If you are an Ubuntu user, you already have VNC installed.  You'll find it under System>Preferences>Remote Desktop. 

    Either of these two programs will allow you to control your mouse and keyboard on the remote machine as though you were sitting in front of it.  You will be able to see the desktop and any programs you have up.  Take note that you cannot watch video from the remote machine across this, nor can you hear sounds or music.  3D games are off-limits as well.  But you can open documents, change settings, and do normal every day stuff as though you were sitting in front of your home machine.

    The same rules apply when using the QnextMyPC feature of Qnext.  This application is just about an internet Swiss Army Knife.  Combining instant messaging using 5 major networks, file transfers of unlimited size as well as Java based remote control features, this program has got something for you.  Its a little heavy on the resources, but if you can run it, the QnextMyPC feature will enable you to control your desktop from any Java enabled web browser.  Even on some phones!  This one is the easiest to set up, and the most readily accessed.  You don't need to install any software on the controller end, just browse to and log into your desktop at home. 

    Microsoft also has a remote desktop service built into Windows, and you can send control requests via MS Messenger.  Personally I've never used this one.  It may be really easy, I wouldn't know.  Between my inherent distrust of all things Microsoft, and the fact that I hardly know anyone on Microsoft's messenger network, I just never needed it. 

    Of all of these, my favorite is VNC.  VNC stands out to me because there are versions for Windows and for Linux.  And they are interoperable... you can control one from the other, both ways.  On the Linux side its even possible to make it so that the remote control starts at the right edge of your screen.  This makes it possible to have a Windows machine and a Linux machine side by side and control both via one mouse and keyboard.  You just move your mouse from one screen to the other.  Yeah.  Its just that cool.

If you need help, I'm just a phone call or an email away.

phone: (606) 219-4088  (before 8pm)

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Monday, November 26, 2007

SSC #46 What to watch

by Jeff Smith

    As you may or may not be aware, the Writers Guild is on strike claiming that the big media companies are not fairly compensating them for their work.  Personally I side with the Writers, but I'm not an expert on it.
    Be that as it may, today while I write this (Nov 26) the Writers Guild is purportedly meeting with the media execs to open up communications about ending the strike.  By the time this article hits print, it may be over.  Or it may not.
    If it doesn't end soon the majority of today's best TV shows will be entering re-run holding patterns indefinitely.  The TV corporations had enough shows already in production at the time of the strike to last until January, for the most part.  After that, its reruns and filler.  In other words, prepare for a non-stop parade of reality TV.  Ugh.  Just shoot me now.
     This is a big concern for the media companies because they know that a lot of viewers will turn to other activities, and without the big viewer numbers, they can't charge for advertising what they normally would.  Losing this kind of money, the media companies will eventually fold, they pretty much have to (its not like they have any creative talent themselves)... the question is how long will it take?
    A while back I wrote an article about streaming TV shows to your PC, which you can find by going to the following page  (I used to shorten the really long web address to something that wasn't so hard to type in)
    But since I'm ever on guard for things to talk to you about, dear reader, I've come up with a few more websites that weren't included in that article. 

    Miro - (Win, Lin, Mac) This is a new and open source (yay!) media player that has more content on it than any of the other net video players.  Its a little more involved to set up as you have to subscribe to some of the channels before you see all the available content, but with a little perseverance you'll find plenty of stuff to hold you over until the writers get back to working on Heroes.
    Hulu - (in browser) Hulu is the new website brought to you by joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corporation (try not to hold Fox News against them).  This site boasts high quality streams of today's top shows.  The only problem I see is that unless they also have yesterday's top shows, they're going to run out of em just like regular TV when the fallout from the Writers strike hits.  Hulu is in beta stage right now, you have to sign up and wait for them to invite you into it.

    Sidereel - (website) Sidereel is by far my favorite new TV show hotspot.  On this one site they have all the info on your favorite shows, and if they don't have it, you can add it in yourself because it is user-editable.  They also have links to stream individual episodes of your favorite shows from other websites.  They don't host the video themselves, instead they are a hub from which you can find info about cool shows you may have missed in the past week, year, or decade and then go watch them.

    While you may not be able to watch your favorite characters get into and out of precarious situations, that doesn't mean you have nothing to watch.  From the beginnings of TV to present, there is currently enough television programming out there that you could watch something different every waking moment of your life and not run out of shows.
    On second thought, thats kind of depressing.  Go ride a bike.

phone: (606) 219 - 4088


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Thursday, November 15, 2007

SSC #45 Talk Talk Talk

by Jeff Smith

    So you don't type so well.  By the time you've hunt-pecked out "Hi there, loong tim no see!" the other party has done given you a 3 page description of their entire workweek.  What to do, what to do...  Oh yes, VOICE CHAT!
    You may not know it, but your computer can save you a lot of money on your long distance phone bill.  If the people you talk to most also have a computer, you can even talk for free!   I'm not talking about a free twenty minute phone call, or only at certain times on certain days, I'm talking about 24/7 FREE, 365 days a year!

    In this article, I'll just hit the high spots.

    Skype - (Winows, Linux, Mac) Skype is about the most popular net-phone software out there.  With it you can make free PC-to-PC phone calls and video calls (note, no video calls for Linux version... yet).  You can purchase handsets that look and work just like a regular phone.  If you want to set up an account with them, you can make really cheap calls from your PC to a regular phone line (they may have prepaid cards, I'm not sure).  You can purchase the official Skype brand phones at places like Walmart... I saw some last time I was in Somerset.

    Gizmo - (Windows, Linux, Mac) This is the one that I use myself.  Gizmo does not do video calls like Skype does, but Gizmo integrates seemlessly with which is  fascinating new project recently purchased by Google.  Using these two together, I have one number that will ring my house phone, my cell phone, and my laptop (running Gizmo) and I can pick up that call on any one of them, as well as transfer it between them... even during a call.  This allows me to be hyper-available and never miss an important phone call.  And if I do miss one, it goes to a unified voicemail box and will even email me notice that I have a voicemail.  And I can listen to it online... Way Cool, no?  Whats more, there's a button on my weblog that will connect a call from you to my GrandCental number automagically!
    I'll be switching my business advertisement to my Grandcentral number as soon as I've drawn up the new ads.  GrandCentral is via invite only, meaning you have to be invited into it by a current user.  I've got a few invites left, so if you're really interested in it, drop me a line and I'll invite you.

    Ekiga Softphone - (Windows, Linux) This one is full of features, but isn't for those of you who are easily intimidated.  This net-phone allows you to make free PC-to-PC voice and video calls, EVEN ON LINUX!  It can make calls to regular phones, but it takes some setting up.  Its installed by default on Ubuntu Linux and its completely open-source.   From the website -- "Ekiga is compatible with any software, device or router supporting SIP or H.323. It includes SwissVoice, CISCO, SNOM, ... IP Phones, but also software like Windows Messenger, Netmeeting, SJPhone, Eyebeam, X-Lite, ... or also the Asterisk popular IPBX, as well as any other commercial or Open Source IPBX. Ekiga is not compatible with Skype and will never be as long as their protocol will stay proprietary."

    As more and more people move to net-based phones, long distance bills may eventually become a thing of the past.  These programs provide a real and inexpensive way to communicate with the people you need to talk to.  While some of you may feel intimidated, keep in mind that they have the potential to save you lots of money.  And with the cost of communications no longer a barrier between you and your loved ones, you may just find you keep in touch a lot more often.

    Keep in mind that these are just some of the available programs.  There is a lot of internet phone software out there, so if you want a more comprehensive list, just point your browser to

Next week:  Have you heard about the Hollywood Writer's Guild strike?   I'll be talking about how to find online enterainment when your favorite shows go into indefinate re-run holding patterns.  Yay.

phone: (606) - 219 4088  (not after 8pm please)

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Monday, November 12, 2007

SSC #44 Chat it up!

by Jeff Smith

    Often, one of the first joys a new computer user finds is chatting with friends and family across the internet.  Some of you may have purchased your computer explicitly for this purpose.  All in all, its a great way to keep in touch with loved ones, without raising your long-distance phone bill.
    But one problem you often run into is that not everyone you want to chat with uses the same chat network.  Your sister may be on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), your brother on Windows Live Messenger (MSN).  Still further, your old collegiate chum may use Yahoo. 
    To talk to all of these people, you'd think you would need to download the chat program for each network and install them.  But there you would be mistaken. 

Enter the Multi-Messengers
    A multi-messenger is one program that connects to multiple chat networks.  There are a few of them out there, such as Trillian, Qnext, and my own personal favorite, Pidgin.
    I began my use of multi-messengers with Trillian, ( which had both a trial version and a pro version.  Trillian connects to 5 chat networks including the big 4 (AOL, MSN, YAHOO, ICQ) and adds in the granddaddy of chat networks, IRC (Internet Relay Chat).  It has a skinnable interface (meaning you can change how it looks) and has a system of plugins that lets you add extra features.
    Its a very nice program with lots of features for power users, but honestly, why pay for software when a free program is just as good or better?
    When facing a choice of upgrading to a newer version of Trillian, (and paying for it again), I took a chance and tried out Qnext. (  Qnext is free.  Qnext connects to all the same networks as Trillian, as well as its own Qnext chat network.  It also does file transfers of unlimited size which is great for when you've left something on the PC at home that you need at work.  Qnext runs on JAVA, which basically means that it works for just about any operating system that has java.  You can use it on Windows, Macintosh, or Linux, and it'll look and work the same.  For Windows users, it also lets you control your PC from just about anywhere in the world that has internet access.  Very very handy.  It is kind of big, though, because along with Qnext itself, JAVA is also loaded in your RAM at the same time, and on an older computer, this can really slow things down.
    I used Qnext for quite a while, but when I moved to using Ubuntu Linux, I learned of a program called GAIM.   GAIM started out as a Linux version of AOL's program AIM, but it just kept growing.  After being faced with some legal issues from AOL over the similarity of the project's name, they changed the name of the program to Pidgin.    
    Pidgin ( is free and open source.  It runs on both Windows and Linux, and it comes installed by default on Ubuntu Linux.
Pidgin can connect to all of the following networks: AIM, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, Google Talk, Groupwise, ICQ, IRC, MSN, MySpaceIM, QQ, SILC, SIMPLE, Sametime, XMPP, Yahoo, and Zephyr.  Whew!  16 chat networks with one program, I think we have a winner here!
    Keep in mind that with any of these multi-messengers you have to set up accounts for each network that you wish to connect to.  Also, multi-messengers often do not have the full functionality of the individual clients for each network.  Namely, with multi-messengers, you cannot voice chat, or use Yahoo Audibles for instance... stuff like that.  What you get is basic chat functionality.  But you will be able to be visible on all of these networks using one program, which is WAY easier on your computer's hardware. 
    So if you've got friends chatting all over the place, use a multi-messenger to gather them all together in one manageable window.

Next time, I'll be talking about voice chat, VOIP internet phones, and Skype!  Talk to you later!

chat: straightshootincomputin on the Yahoo network

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Monday, November 5, 2007

SSC #43 Wireless Health Concerns

by Jeff Smith

    All day, every day, we are surrounded by and bombarded with radio waves.  More things emit radio waves than you can probably think. 
    Right now there is a lot of controversy surrounding WiFi (wireless internet) usage, and its associated health risks.
    In one camp, there are those who think that it can cause cancer, disrupt a good nights sleep, or just plain degrades general health.  In the other are all of the scientists who, so far, have found no evidence that it is harmful at all.
    Radio frequency waves are part of a larger spectrum of radiation that goes all the way from X-rays, which are definitely harmful, through the infrared spectrum, (thats infra-red to some of you, you know who you are) which is known to cause skins cancer, on down into the radio spectrum which is used for just about everything wireless these days.
    Believe it or not, whether you are a WiFi user or not, you're most likely being bathed in radio waves right now as you read this.  Wanna check?  Turn on the radio... if you hear music, thats radio waves at work.  Turn on the TV, do you get a station?  No? thats just because you live in Russell County.  But if you DO get a station, then that is also a sign of radio waves at work.   Here's a good one, look at your cell phone and see if you have any bars.  If you can call someone with it, again, thats radio frequency radiation. 
    Just because you turn off the radio, the TV, or switch off your phone doesn't mean they go away.  They're always there, unseen, waiting to be received.  The little keychain that you use to unlock your car? Radio waves.  The power lines to your house emit radio waves.  Your indoor cordless phone? Radio waves again.  Baby Monitor? Garage door opener? Satellite TV? CB radio?  Radio waves, radio waves radio waves!  Remote for the TV? Well, thats most likely infrared (infra-red) but thats worse than radio waves (skin cancer, remember?). 
    You get the picture.  If you are concerned about your WiFi, why don't these things bother you as well?
    The short and skinny is that there is no conclusive evidence that radio waves cause the sort of problems that people are claiming.  And theres a lot we don't know about it.  I'm not going to tell you that it is safe, because I can't.  We just don't know. 
    But even if you go out into the wilderness, with not a man-made device in sight, there are still radio waves coming down from from space... Apparently, ET wants to phone home.  Actually, spaceborne radiowaves are emitted from the stars themselves.  Or you can consider the brightest emitter of radio waves in the sky... the sun.
    There is a company that makes WiFi-resistant paint, that you can use to block radio waves from entering your house.  I've heard that it works, but I advise against using it unless you own your own home and you're absolutely sure that its WiFi thats causing you problems.  I'd be really mad to move in somewhere and find that previous tenants had slathered that stuff all over and that none of my gear would work.
    If you're interested, you can find this anti-WiFi paint at

Until next week, stay safe and try not to cook yourselves.



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Monday, October 29, 2007

SSC #42 Wireless Security

by Jeff Smith

Wireless Security

   If you use a wireless router in your home, you are essentially broadcasting your internet access in a rough sphere around your WiFi router.  Any computer with the proper equipment (a compatible wireless card) that is within that sphere can pick up the signal and use your internet.  That is, of course, unless you use encryption.
    Wireless encryption is reminiscent of scrambled World War II military radio messages. You need a certain code or key in order to decipher the message.  Thats what is going on here as well, the only difference is that the messages are coming many thousands of times per second, and what is being carried is your internet.
    While there are several types of encryption, what you're likely to be dealing with comes in two main flavors. 
    WEP is an older standard that is the most common.  WEP stands for Wireless Equivalent Privacy.  And for most uses it is fine.  Unless you're living next to Jack Bauer or someone on his team, your network is likely safe.  But still, it has a bad reputation because it can be cracked.  The key to the network is scrambled and broadcast along with the signal.  This "leak" makes it possible that your network could be accessed by unwanted parties, who would then have access to any files you have shared across your network, as well as the ability to download whatever they want across your registered IP address. 
    WPA was created to address the security weaknesses of WEP.  This newer standard allows you to broadcast your network without fear of being hacked into.  If you have sensitive data on your network, WPA is for you.  But keep in mind that it isn't supported on all routers, and its a little tricker to set up.

    I also must mention that keeping your network open, meaning without encryption, is not a bad option if you live far away from neighbors who might "borrow" some of your internet bandwidth.  It certainly makes setting up computers a lot easier.  And in some countries it has been successfully used as a defense in filesharing lawsuits, simply because there is no way of proving who downloaded what on an open network.  I think there's a government term for this... ah yes, plausible deniability.

    There is also a company called FON, which has a network of shared WiFi access.  Meaning simply that you share your wifi with other FON users, and likewise, whenever you are roaming around with your laptop and you happen across another FON network, you can access it for free!  This is a pretty cool thing, but keep in mind that you might open up the door one morning to find some stranger checking his email on your lawn.   FON has special routers for this though, that will allow you to have both an Open and Secured network running simultaneously.  Other FON users access the Open part, and you and your machines use the Secured.  This keeps strangers from accessing your shared files.
    FON is used a lot heavier in Britain than the US, so if you're planning a vacation to see Big Ben, you may wanna sign up before you go.

    Next week I'll be discussing the controversy over health risks associated with all this wireless gadgetry.

See ya then!


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Monday, October 15, 2007

SSC #41 Wireless for beginners

by Jeff Smith

So you need to connect 2 or more computers in your house, but they're not in the same room, and you don't want to run cables all through the house, or drill holes in your walls... you need wireless networking.

Wireless networking doesn't have to be hard, and for Windows users it generally isn't. But there are some things to keep in mind.

First off, sharing a dial-up connection is pointless and will only give you frustration, so I wouldn't recommend it, while you may get it to work, dial-up is notoriously slow on ONE computer, imagine how slow it will crawl when you divide that connection in half!

There are many different kinds of wireless. Aside from infrared, and Bluetooth, or cellphone based wireless connections, there's the common wireless networking protocols 802.11something, which is what we'll be covering today.

I say "something" because theres lots of things that can go on the end of 802.11. There's A B D G and soon to be N. B and G are compatible together, whereas A routers connect only to A cards and the case is the same with D. 802.11N is a new standard that is due out soon, which is expected to be backwards compatible with B and G as well. On the equipment you buy, it may not say 802.11g, it may instead say Wireless-G (or B... you get the picture) Don't worry, its the same thing. Marketing departments just feel that letters are less scary to consumers than numbers are.

To network your broadband around the house, you're going to need a wireless router. These come in varying shapes and sizes, and a wide range of prices. Being the spendthrift (ladies, you would call it cheapskate) that I am, I've only used the less costly equipment. So I can't really tell you if spending more money makes a big difference.

Some routers are more easily configured than others. Generally, LinkSys makes some good ones that are easy to set up. D-Link are pretty good as well. I've had some problems with Belkin, and their tech support is horrid, but thats just my own personal experiences. You yourself may enjoy talking to people who barely know english. Personally, I don't. For Linux users, you won't be able to just put in the "Easy Install Disk" that comes with these routers, you'll have to configure them yourself. Its really not THAT hard, you might just have to submit to learning something new, which never hurts... too much.

Ok, so you got your wifi router, whats next? If one of your machines is near your router, you should just be able to plug it in via ethernet cable. Cool, you're halfway there. Now for the other machine, you'll need to get a wireless card. These come in many forms. If you have a desktop system, you can get a PCI wireless card, but you'll have to open up your case to install it.

Or the easy way out is to get a USB wireless card. This will work in any computer with an unused USB slot. This is what I recommend for those of you who aren't quite brave enough to venture inside your computer tower.
If you're on a laptop, you can get a PCMCIA wireless card that will slide right in the cardslot, but chances are if you have a fairly new laptop, it will have a wireless receiver built into it. Just make sure you know what type (A B D G) that it has inside before purchasing your wifi router. USB wifi cards will work for laptops too, but you may find them to be a bit unwieldy as they usually have a 6 ft cord on them.

You must understand going into this that you will NEVER get the advertised range out of these things without modifying them. Those ranges are based on some theoretical perfect situation that is unlikely to happen in your house (or mine).

Effective signal range can be shortened by just about any obstacle, like thick walls, furniture, or extremely lazy pets that won't move. If you think you're going to have a range problem, look into getting a wireless router with removable antennas. This will enable you to upgrade the antenna to one that will throw out the signal a little better. Adjusting antennas trying to get a stronger signal will likely remind you of the days before cable TV when you had to work the rabbit ears just right so you could watch Mork and Mindy without snow in the picture.

If you're a tinkerer, like me, its pretty easy to make a homemade directional antenna from a large coffee can, but while that gets the job done, and done well, it isn't likely to color coordinate with your wife's idea of taste.
Another inexpensive way to boost your signal a bit is to make a reflector shield out of aluminum foil. Though you're probably not going to see a really huge difference, its a good cheap way to boost a weak signal.

For the advanced-geek, you can REALLY increase your wifi router's range (5 to 10 miles line of sight) by jacking in to a modified Primestar dish!

Personally, I'll be keeping my eye out for any derelict dishes that I can pick up on the cheap! Who knows? Maybe I'll mount one on my car. While the increased wind resistance is sure to hit me in the gas tank, on the other hand, it will likely be so tacky that my wife will refuse to drive it... and that will save me some gallons in the long run. (but honey, it can pick up our wireless network from the Tennessee!) Do you think she'll go for that??

Me neither. :(

I'll continue next week by following up with the pros and cons of wireless security.

For more 802.11something information, check out

Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon is OUT! To request a free copy, go to
or for more info, go to

See you next time!


Saturday, October 6, 2007

SSC #40 General news

by Jeff Smith

    Sorry about last week folks, I missed my deadline.  Did ya miss me?

    There's lots going on lately that may be of interest to you.  If you recall, awhile back I wrote about Dell making the uber-smart decision to start selling PCs pre-loaded with Ubuntu Linux.  Well it seems that having this powerhouse seller on the Linux team has really turned some heads.  Perhaps you recall me complaining about ATI's driver support for Linux?  Well, they are still a little shoddy on their support for their older cards, but they've recently committed themselves to providing open source hardware specifications for their newer graphics cards.  In fact, a new driver set has already been released.  Who knows? Perhaps they read my article!  Or maybe it has something to do with Dell saying that they wouldn't be buying from hardware manufacturers that didn't support open source drivers.  Hmmm... nah, it was definitely the article.
    What this means to Linux users is that there are now three different graphics card makers (ATI, Nvidia, Intel) who are committed to competing for your graphics card slot.  And competition isn't a bad thing at all.  Now, perhaps if I write a scathing article about Wireless card makers...
    Another big thing that is happening shortly is that Ubuntu is about to release their next version,  Ubuntu 7.10, codenamed Gutsy Gibbon.  This new version promises to have a lot of new features for those of you with Linux compatible accelerated graphics cards.  If you wanna see what I'm talking about, go to and search for Compiz Fusion.  Yeah, its just that cool. 
    Ubuntu releases a new version about every 6 months.  In fact, 7.10 means 2007, 10th month (October).  With each new version, the code names go up a letter.  The earliest I'm familiar with was 6.04 Dapper Drake, and 6.10 Edgy Eft after it.  I'm currently writing on 7.04 Feisty Fawn.  After Gutsy Gibbon, the next version will be 8.04 Hardy Heron.  Personally I was hoping they'd call it Hungry Hippo, but you can't have everything.   
    Of course, updating to a new operating system every 6 months would be a real pain in the rear, except that it really isn't.  Starting with Feisty, they've made it so that you can just update your existing Ubuntu installation to the newest version quite easily.  No need to re-install, and all your personal files stay put!  Now isn't that thoughtful? 
    If you've bought a new computer recently, you're likely dealing with learning a whole new operating system... Microsoft Vista.  While Vista has a slew of exciting new features, many users are expressly not happy with it, claiming that it is so bloated that it makes their brand new systems seem sluggish.  So many have complained, in fact, that a few of the bigger PC companies have quietly begun to offer" downgrade" disks that will let you replace Vista with Windows XP.  So if you're struggling with Vista, or you're aggravated that your high powered new PC doesn't feel too high powered, you should contact your PC's maker and see if they offer a downgrade. 
    But getting away from computer geekdom for a moment, the thing that I am definitely MOST excited about is the new Radiohead album coming out on October 10th. 
    I'm really excited by this for many reasons, not least of all being that I'm a HUGE fan.  But even better, currently Radiohead is without a label.  They are not under contract to any music companies.  Of course, being a world-class band, they would have no problems finding a new contract if they wanted to, but they've instead opted on a new way to do things.
    Starting October 10th, they're going to let their fans decide on how much they want to pay for downloads of the album.  If you only want to pay a penny, you only pay a penny.  For the true fan, there's also a boxed set priced at around $80 that includes two vinyl records, two cd's and various artwork and fan pleasing items. 
    So, you say, this band is giving away their music, so what?  Well, when you look at the fact that the RIAA (Recording Industries of America Association) just won a lawsuit against a private citizen for over $200,000.00, and you realize that most of today's music is more about monetary notes than musical notes, it is really refreshing to see a band (my fave band) taking the "industry" out of the music industry.
    So, even if you're not a fan... even if you have never heard Radiohead before in your life, I urge you to go to and download the new album and give it a listen.  And while you do that, keep in mind that what you're hearing is the sound of change.

Next week I begin discussing wireless networking!


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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

SSC #39 Video Editing (finally!)

by Jeff Smith

Wikipedia defines "video editing" thusly
--Video editing is the process of re-arranging or modifying segments of video to form another piece of video. The goals of video editing are the same as in film editing — the removal of unwanted footage, the isolation of desired footage, and the arrangement of footage in time to synthesize a new piece of footage.

That being said, in order to have everything go smoothly, you need to have all of your ducks in a row. 

    First, have some clear idea of what you want your finished video to look like.  If you go into the video editing process without any idea what you want out of it, you're output is not likely to make much sense to the person(s) viewing it later. 
    Learn how to use your video editor.  For you Windows user, your best bet is Nerovision Express.  Many of you already have it on your PC and don't know it.  If you have the Nero Suite, then its there.  But regardless what you're using, play with it and figure out how everything works and what all the buttons do before you attempt a serious project.
Make sure you can cut scenes down to the exact moment, learn how to add background music if appropriate, learn transitions.  You wouldn't try to build a house if you didn't know how to wield a hammer, would you?  So play with it, do some non-serious stuff that you don't plan on showing off.  Once you're comfortable you know what you're doing, then you can feel free to get all Spielburg on something.
    Make sure you have all the neccessary codecs needed to convert any and all videos that will be in your project.  It can bust you out of your creative process rather quickly if you have to jump online and search for codecs or software.  This should be figured out in your playing around phase.
    You don't have to go too flashy.  Just because your program has 50 some-odd special transition effects, doesn't mean you need to use every one during the half hour of footage from last Christmas.  I try to follow the KISS rule when it comes to video projects... Keep It Simple Stupid.  It will keep your finished videos from looking too obviously amateur, and will speed up the final encoding process since those transitions add lots of processor work.
     Keep your intended audience in mind.  When you're making a creative work, its sometimes helpful to envision who you think will be enjoying it in the future, and add or remove elements based on how you think they would like it. 
    If you're mixing to a DVD, it adds a touch of class if you spend some extra time on the title screen.  Many editors allow you to loop video sequences and sound bites during the main menu sequence, some even allow you to use parts of the video content to make animated buttons!
These extra touches add a lot of polish to a DVD project and are the icing on the cake.
   You should do all of your footage editing before you go to make a DVD.  Not many programs do everything, but even in those that do, its possible to lose your vision in the midst of all the complexity.
If you'd like some more tips, feel free to write me.  Or if you have some tips you care to share, you are welcome to leave comments to this article on the weblog.

See ya next week!

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

#38 How it went with SFD '07

by Jeff Smith

    First off, I'm happy to say I'm writing this from a laptop that was given to me just today by my mother-in-law.  I plan to put it to good use!  Thanks Sherry!
    Secondly, I'd like to tell everyone how it went with Software Freedom Day.  And to start that, I must start out with an apology.  It seems a few people called asking when we would be starting up, and my wife told them that we'd be getting out there around 9am.  But unfortunately, it was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, because my plans were to get out there at about 1pm.  Not because I'm a lazy cuss, (which I am) but because I knew we'd be up late the night before burning off CD after CD in order to give away.  We finished up the night before, which I am tenuously calling Software Freedom Day Eve, at about 3:30am. 
    So no, 9am just wasn't going to work.  So to those of you who were looking for us out there early Saturday morning.  I am really sorry.  I'm sure your distress was causing me some troubled dreams.
    We went out there with just under 100 CD's and only managed to give out about 40 of them.  It probably would have went better had we gotten out there earlier.  My wife even baked some Open Source Oatmeal Raisin cookies for the event! (the recipe *should* be on the blog by the time you're reading this, so if you wanna "compile" some cookies for yourself at home, you can)
    It seemed that a lot of people just assumed that we were trying to sell something and avoided us just on principle.  But for those of you who did take the time to come over and get a cookie and some software, thanks for taking the time to do so.
    Next year we hope to do a better job of it.  And I'll make a point to have all of the preparations done in advance so that come next Software Freedom Day Eve, I can be snuggled, all warm, in my bed while visions of penguins dance in my head.  In other words, I'll get an earlier start.

I don't see why you people put up with me.  Anyway...

NEXT WEEK:  Back to tips on video editing, as promised.
If you're having PC problems and need some help, call (270) 866-7608 (before 8pm) to set up an appointment and I'll be happy to come help!
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Sunday, September 9, 2007

#37 Lots of announcements

by Jeff Smith

This is the week I'm supposed to tell you about how to edit your videos, or at least I said so last week, but there's a lot going on so I probably won't have the room to write about it in the detail it deserves.

As you should know, if you read my column regularly, Software Freedom Day is coming up on September 15th, and my family will be one of only two teams in the entire state that will be giving out stickers, flyers and free CD's full of software. We'll be giving out Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn CD's for those of you who would like to give the most popular distrobution of Linux a try. And for those of you not quite brave enough to step out of your virus harassed comfort zones, we'll be giving away copies of the Open CD.

The Open CD is full of free open-souce software for Windows. There's lots of useful programs on there that I think you'll enjoy, and which will familiarize you with the concept and quality of open source software.

We should be spending a little bit of time in both Jamestown and Russell Springs handing out things and trying to spread awareness of the Open Source Sofware Movement.

Another announcement I have for you is that I've posted all of the past StraightShootinComputin articles online for anyone who may have became a regular reader a little late in the game and would like to go back and see what they missed. You can find all my past articles at They're laid out nicely, and you're welcome to comment on them right there underneath each article, as well as send individual articles to friends. This is a great way to share this column (if thats something you wanna do) with friends and family outside of the Russell County area.

Questions or comments:

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Friday, September 7, 2007

#36 Making DVD's

by Jeff Smith

After last week's article, hopefully you're somewhat familiar with what is entailed when working with video files. Due to the user-friendly-ness (if thats a word) of many of todays DVD authoring suites, you won't need to know how most of that works, but where that knowledge will come in handy is when something DOESN'T work, you'll have a pretty good idea why.
In Windows, there are quite a few DVD makers out there, and I'm sorry to say that there aren't any All-Star free ones out there. There are some that are free, but either they require you to convert videos into MPEG-2 format first (requiring another program) or they do all the encoding, but don't allow you to make nice menus and title screens for your DVD's. One such program is DVD Styler ( and is a quick and easy solution for someone who's videos are already in MPEG-2. Another free solution is called DVD Flick ( which can convert just about any video you have and burn it to a disk, but doesn't offer much in the way of window dressing. If you just want a versatile down and dirty DVD maker, this one is for you.
It won't always be this way though, one up and coming free program is Avi2DVD ( which promises to do conversions of just about any file you have a codec for and even lets you do menus. It looks like it has a little ways to go on the user friendly-ness (theres that word again) but if you're willing to take the time to learn to use it, or if FREE just happens to fit your pricerange, I say give it a shot.
Moving into the Proprietary (costs $$) software realm, NeroVision Express is about the best I've found combining both ease of use and a good feature set including video converting, stable burning, and the ability to make some nice looking menus. And being that many of you likely received Nero pre-installed when you bought your computer, its possible you already have it and just aren't aware of it.
Another good name brand DVD authoring tool is Ulead VideoStudio 11 ($99). Meanwhile, the editors over at C|Net recommend a program called DVDComposer 1.5 ($130). I've never personally used that one, but I do have a bit of trust for the guys over at C|Net.
After reading this, I hope you got a good sense of just how many options are available. When looking for software like this, always ask around a bit or get a recommendation from a trusted source (like me!) because there is lots of software out there that promises the moon, but only gives you a big stinking piece of cheese.

For further reading, check out

Questions or comments, write me at

#35 Video editing concepts

by Jeff Smith

This week, I'm introducing you to the many different
elements of video editing that I will be covering in the
next few weeks. I won't be mentioning software today, just
going over the terminology that you'll need to understand
in order to get a clear picture of what video editing entails.

First, understand that a video file, like any other file is
just made up of ones and zeros. In order to use the ones and
zeros in a video file, your computer must have a codec installed
that can read it. A codec is short for code/decode. Much like
scrambled military radio signals, video files are packed tight
with information. Without the codec, your computer can't make heads
or tails of the file, and therefore cannot play it.
Secondly, recognize that there are both Audio and Video codecs.
A video file will likely contain sound as well as visuals. In
for your PC to correctly play a video, you must have both the audio
and the video codecs that the file is encoded in.
The higher the quality of a video, the higher the bitrate of the file,
and also the bigger the file will be. Bitrate just means amount of
data per second.
Framerate means video frames per second. Much like an old
reel-to-reel projector, video files are made up of thousands of
still pictures that progress through the action being shown.
Re-encoding a video will allow you to change the bitrate,
framerate, and even the codecs for video or audio or both, provided
you have the codec the original is encoded in, and also the codec you
want to convert it to.
Re-encoding a video can make it much smaller, but doing so can possibly
compromise the quality. Re-encoding can only worsen the quality of a video.
It can never create a higher quality video than what is started with.

I think thats enough for this week, let those terms and meanings
roll around in your head for a bit and settle in. You'll be needing
them next week. See you then!

Questions or comments, write me at

#34 Couch Potato Heaven

by Jeff Smith

Having gotten hip to all this new-fangled internet media, you're probably pining away for the relative simplicity of your couch and your oldest and bestest friend, the remote. Why is it that if the remote goes missing, we'll spend 20 minutes searching frantically for it instead of just getting up and changing the channel manually? Its because we wish to reserve the right to be lazy at a later time. And I can definately understand that. I would do the dishes from the couch if it were at all possible. (I'm crossing my fingers that some day it will be!)

Now in order to enjoy this cornicopia of PC-based TV in true American style, we've just got to get a remote. You don't want to have to grab for a mouse every time you want to turn down your streaming
internet radio, do ya? Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do this. One popular way is with the Streamzap PC Infrared Remote (approx $50). This very functional remote has 35 buttons and controls most PC media players using the included software, right out of the box, and hooks in to your PC using a simple USB plug.

For those of you who are more daring, or wish to have a more customized remote control, you do-it-yourselfers would probably like the Creative PC-DVD Infrared Remote. You can also find it by its model number CIMR100. When looking to buy this remote, be careful as some places like to try and overcharge the
unsuspecting buyer. I've seen them priced over $150, but those are people just trying to make a quick buck from people who don't know better. If they're charging over $20 for it, keep looking elsewhere. This bare-bones remote features an infrared receiver that connects via serial cable, and a credit-card sized remote control. It doesn't come with any software, but I highly recommend a program called uICE (Universal Infrared Control Engine) which costs $20.

Using this nifty little program, you can program the functions for each individual button on the CIMR100. If the included remote doesn't have enough buttons for your liking, you can use almost any old universal remote you have laying around. In the end, the CIMR100 and uICE together cost nearly as much as the Streamzap, but if you happen to lose the CIMR100 remote, you can just head to the store and buy a new cheap universal remote and get back to being the kind of couch potato that other couch potatoes look up to.

Keep in mind this isn't an exhaustive list. There are tons of other PC-remote solutions out there. I recommend you do a little comparison shopping before settling on one. I recommend places like or when it comes to ferreting out the best prices online.

Next week, I'll begin covering Video Editing, so hope you come back for that,
I'm sure you will find it interesting.

Questions or comments, write me at

#33 Streaming TV Shows to your PC

by Jeff Smith

So far, we've covered streaming Internet Radio to your computer, and playing DVD's on it as well. This week, I'll talk about some of the many ways you can watch television shows on your PC. And when I say there are many ways, I mean it. You can stream many shows directly from TV network homepages like,, so for instance, if you missed the Season Finale of LOST or Grey's Anatomy, you can go and watch it (not right this second, finish the column first). Keep in mind that the quality of the show depends on your broadband speed, which locally, isn't all that great compared to more metropolitan areas.

There are other websites dedicated to hosting multiple channels/streams of content, such as or Other sites let you watch amusing clips and home-brewed comedy such as or And theres always the undisputed king of streaming video, which hosts videos on just about everything. An option for those of you who like to stay current on what's happening in the world is Another great site I just found out about is This site gathers links to TV shows hosted on other video sites such as YouTube. A definate must-see.

These are just a small percentage of the website-based video content providers you have at your disposal. Just google the term "video search" and you'll see a whole lot more. Still other websites allow you to watch streaming Internet-only TV channels using Windows Media Player. One such site is, and there are more to be found if you search around a bit.

Now getting away from websites, there are also programs that are dedicated to streaming continuous
content to you. A relatively new TV player is TVU ( which hosts quite a few streaming channels, but a newcomer thats making a lot of waves is called Joost ( I'm sure there are a few more by now. But these are the best ones I'm aware of at the moment.

Yet another way to watch TV on your PC is by getting a video capture card ($50-$70). A video capture card usually has a coaxial connector on the back for your cable-line, and often an RCA jack as well to get video from a VCR or VHS camcorder (helpful in capturing home movies in order to make DVD's). What this will do is allow you to capture video directly from your cable TV line and display it on your desktop or record it to your hard drive for later viewing.

Some of the really nice ones will let you record one show while watching another, or record two shows simultaneously. Essentially, it turns your PC into a DVR (Digital Video Recorder). Coupled with a TV-out enabled video card, your PC will take the place of your analog cable box (not sure how it works with Satelite or digital cable, sorry) as well as allow you to watch literally thousands of videos from the web.

Add in all the PC games your hardware can stand, and you have one really nice multi-media machine.

Oh, and whats all this high tech TV wizardy without a remote? See ya next week for that!

(you can go watch Grey's Anatomy now, thanks for being patient!)

Questions or comments, write me at

#32 DVD on your PC

by Jeff Smith


The next step in replacing your entertainment center's components
with your PC is replacing your DVD player.
Today's new computers pretty much all come with a DVD-ROM (reader)
or DVD-R/DVD-RW (reader/writer) as standard issue. But if you have an
old clunker, fear not, they're actually pretty cheap. You can find a
DVD-ROM for about $23 (including shipping) or a DVD-RW for about $10 more
from They used to be a lot more expensive than that, I have
a buddy who bought a DVD-RW when they first came out with them, and it cost
him a little over $400! (hey Bobby :-P) Apparently, it pays not to be an
early-adopter of new technology.
Having the newest and fastest stuff is
only good for bragging rights, and then only good for about 4 to 6 months.
For instructions on how to install a DVD drive in your PC, check out but skip the part
about PCI-based MPEG-2 decoders as you won't need one.
If your computer already has a DVD drive--reader or writer--then
you're most of the way there already. In fact, many new machines are set
up to play DVD's out of the box. So pop one in and see what happens.
If it tells you something about not having the proper plugins or decoders,
fear not, just go to and download the VLC Media Player.
This robust player will play just about any video you throw at it, including
Furthermore, its FREE! Its available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, so no
matter what operating system you use, VLC is there for you. It has all of
the needed codecs built in, so you won't need to add any.
Now you can sit back and enjoy your DVD's on your PC screen, or if your video
card has TV-out, you can pipe it on over to your bigscreen TV!

Next week I'll be covering multiple ways to stream TV shows to your
computer... See ya then!

Questions or comments, write me at

#31 Move over TV

by Jeff Smith

Your computer can be used for entertainment in many
diverse ways. Many of you already use it for
communication and games, but it is possible to get
much much more than that from your machine.
In our house, we've not had a TV for a few years
now. No cable, no dish. We've just had our
computers and our broadband internet connection.
We've not missed TV at all, in fact, when we go to our
friend's houses, commercials usually catch us by
If you're one of those people who just can't live
without your bigscreen, don't worry, using a video
card with a TV-out, you can output whats on your PC
monitor to your TV screen, regardless of its size.
And they make wireless keyboards these days with a
100-foot range, so there's no doubt that it will reach
to your La-Z-Boy. As with gaming, I'm going to break
this topic up over the next few weeks so that I can
get into more detail. But to give you an idea of
what will be covered, you can use your computer to
replace your stereo, dvd-player, cable/satelite box,
DVR/Tivo, and also record from your camcorder to
capture and edit your home movies.


Most of you probably already know this, but for
those of you who don't... as long as your computer has
a CD drive in it, you can use it to play store-bought
audio disks. Windows Media Player does this just
fine, and in fact, you can save songs from your audio
disks to your harddrive so you don't have to switch
out the disk every time you want to hear a song. You
can have your entire CD collection living on your hard
drive and mix up custom playlists to suit whatever
mood strikes you.
You can also download music from the internet from
places like, and from programs like
Itunes and those "other" programs.
For radio, with DJ's and everything, there's Shoutcast uses the net to stream
internet radio stations to your computer. While you
won't find out local weather and events from internet
radio, you will find much more variety than anything
you could possibly tune in on AM, FM, XM or Sirius. I
like to listen to the stream from
Now you may be wondering how those tiny PC speakers
are supposed to measure up to a full-fledged stereo.
Well, if you already have a nice sound system, they
don't have to. If your stereo has RCA-jacks on the
back you can buy a cord from Radioshack (1/8th in.
male stereo plug to male stereo RCA plugs) for under
$10 that will let you hear your PC through your
stereo. If your stereo doesn't have inputs on the
back, you can spend a bit more and get an FM
transmitter to pump your PC to your FM dial.
If you don't have a pumping stereo, you can always
invest in a set of premium PC speakers. They can get
as big and loud as the best stereo systems out there.
Though keep in mind that if you want to get a 7.1
Surround Sound setup, that you'll need a soundcard
that outputs in that many channels. It all comes down
to how much you want to spend.

Next week, I'll cover playing DVD's on your PC.

Questions or comments, write me at

#30 Computer Gaming - Linux Gaming

by Jeff Smith

For a long time, Linux has had a reputation for not being all that great for playing games, but I'm here to tell you, its just not so anymore.
When it comes to playing games on Ubuntu Linux, there are several routes to go. There are lots of simple games--like 60+ kinds of solitaire and tons of children's games--available via the package manager.
Some of the best Windows games are now coming out for Linux as well, such as Quake 4, America's Army, or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. There are also tons of awesome 3D games that you'll only see on Linux! A good place to see what's available for Linux is
If a game doesn't have a version built for Linux, don't fret, there's another way to go. Linux has a program named Wine (WINdows Emulation) that will run many Windows applications (including lots of games!) A company called Transgaming has taken Wine and upgraded it to a new program called Cedega that is specifically for running Windows games. Cedega boasts improved DirectX compatibility and can play many more games than Wine does... the only problem is, to get Cedega, you must join their website, which costs $5 a month or $55 a year. But for that subscription, you get nearly constant upgrades and updates as they make the program compatible to more and more games.
Using Cedega, you can play top games like World of Warcraft, Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion, Medieval 2: Total War, and Need for Speed Carbon and many more.
Another program that does basically the same thing is called CrossOver Linux. It handles new games like Half Life 2 and Call of Duty 2 (soon). It also handles Windows applications like Photoshop and MS Office. Crossover Linux costs about $40 and comes with 6 months of support.
Keep in mind that you'll need a pretty nice nVidia graphics card to play any 3D games on Ubuntu (or any kind of Linux for that matter). ATI graphics cards are great hardware-wise, but their driver support for Linux is abysmal. There have been petitions to ATI and mass phone-ins to express the Linux community's disappointment with ATI's support, but so far they seem to be turning a blind eye.
In summary, Linux gaming has quite a lot going for it and is starting to get the attention it deserves from developers. Making the choice to switch to Linux doesn't mean you'll have to give up gaming as there are lots of Linux-only games, tons of Windows games that will work, and it just gets better every day.

Thats about it for gaming, next week I'll begin explaining how to put your PC at the heart of your entertainment system.

Questions or comments, write me at

#29 Computer Gaming - The Right Card for YOU!

by Jeff Smith

When it comes to picking the best video card for your machine, what it really comes down to is what kind of slot is available for it to fit in. There are many different types of PC card slots, and its a pretty good way to guess the age of a PC if you don't know already. Keep in mind that the only way to upgrade what slots you have is to upgrade your motherboard or get a new machine. Note, if you wish to know what these slots look like so you can identify what's in your machine, just go to Google and do an image search for the type of slot.
The oldest slots I have dealt with are ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and they went out of style a long time ago. An ISA slot couldn't handle a graphics card from today if you begged and pleaded.
The next step up from ISA is PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect). A PCI slot can handle the lower end of the graphics cards from yesteryear. Your computer most likely has a few of these slots because they're used for just about everything, not just graphics. The best card for this slot (by online reviews) is the nVidia GeForce FX5700 (approx $90), but be warned, they're hard to find and be sure its a PCI card, because this model also comes in AGP.
AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port Interface) was the successor to the PCI slot. AGP was also the first slot dedicated solely to graphics. It came with increasing data transfer factors (2x, 4x, 8x) as time went by that let data flow through the port with increasing speed. Reviews say that the best AGP card out there is the nVidia XFX GeForce 7900 GS. And they're not too hard to find online for around $180.
The newest and fastest graphics slot yet is the PCI-e or PCX slot, which stands for PCI-express. This is the current graphics card slot of choice for the hardcore gamer. Like the AGP, PCI-e come with modifiers like x2, x4, x8, x16 and x32, but unlike AGP where these are factors of transfer rates, this number represents the number of data channels or "lanes" available for data to travel through. Each lane allows 2.5 Gbits/sec of data transfer. Being that this is the slot that all the graphics card companies are supporting right now, picking the best card is a bit difficult because the title will likely be taken by a different card next week. And some of the prices of these cards go way up there ($400-$600) for the top-end. But a good reasonably priced card can be found for around $80 to $150 so just shop around online to find one that fits your budget.

You may have noticed that the cards I mentioned above were from nVidia. There's pretty fierce rivalry between nVidia and another company, ATI (recently bought by AMD) over the graphics card market, and there are fans on both sides. For a long time, I preferred ATI over nVidia hands down. NVidia's cards were often more powerful, but I always felt ATI's cards had more features, such as TV-out support and dual monitor support and such. Now that I've gone to Linux though, ATI no longer is my favorite brand. ATI doesn't support Linux very well, and even their best hardware suffers from lack of proper drivers in Linux. This is no one's fault but ATI. NVidia has caught up with them in the features, and has excellent Linux driver support. If you're even going to consider gaming in Linux, nVidia is definately the way to go.

Next week I will wrap up the gaming tips with an article solely on Linux gaming... whats available just for Linux, and also how you can run many Windows games on Linux.

Questions or comments, write me at

#28 Computer Gaming - Requirements

by Jeff Smith

Today's hottest games take some pretty strong hardware to run. You could be reading this while driving home with your new machine from the computer store even now (wow, you can read and drive?) and unless you bought a PC that is specifically built for gaming, chances are you can't run the newest games. And believe it or not, for some of the best games, a computer that can run them with all the graphics maxxed out doesn't exactly exist yet. Oh, they can be run, but some of the more taxing features have to be turned down or off, else they run choppy and slowly. Doing this allows a game to look up to date on hardware built five years from now, or at least thats the intention.
A top of the line gaming rig has to have it all. It definately needs a recent video card in order to handle the visual components of the game, it needs a good processor and lots of fast RAM in order to handle the huge gaming worlds and everything happening at once. It needs a fast hard-drive in order to pump the data where it needs to be when it needs to be. A good USB gamepad, flight-stick or racing wheel can make a big difference in some games. And recently, they've come up with whats called a dedicated physics card. This card does all of the physics related calculations for games so that it takes that task off of your processor. Game physics has to do with everything from how your Ferrari handles to how the bad guy flips over the railing like a ragdoll after you empty two full clips in his zombified head!
Now you can often run good games with a lesser than awesome machine, but graphics and effects need to be turned down. And in some instances you just plain can't. If a game requires 3D accelleration, or Hardware T&L (Transforming and Lighting) then your video hardware built into your motherboard isn't likely to cut the mustard. Familiarize yourself with the hardware that you have, and always check out the Hardware Requirements on the back of a game before you purchase it, because once it is opened, you won't be able to take it back to the store. The excuse "It won't run on my machine" just won't work (believe me I've tried it) and you'll just likely end up giving the game to someone who can run it, or else setting it on the shelf where it will continue to taunt you as it slowly gathers dust.
Next week I'll cover how to choose a good video card for your machine, and 3D gaming on Linux. See ya then!

Questions or comments, write me at

#27 Computer Gaming - Retro

by Jeff Smith

Computer Gaming has been around nearly as long as computers themselves have. It has gone from rudimentary dots and blips to hyper-realistic intense 3D scenery with positional sound and realtime weather effects. Needless to say, it has come a long way.
Today, I'm going to talk a bit about games that will play on older hardware. Most of you out there probably don't have a top-of-the-line gaming PC, even if you just bought it last week. The majority of systems sold just don't have the hardware to handle the top of the line games, even fresh off the shelf. The majority of new systems (unless they were designed for gaming) need some upgrading to be done before they can handle the intense number crunching involved in today's most beautiful games.
So in the interest of giving the most useful information to the greatest amount of people, I'd like to tell you about Home of the Underdogs, HOTU for short. You'll find it at (please note that the address ends in .info, not in .com) HOTU is not a game, its where old games get born again. HOTU is a collection of freeware, and abandonware. Freeware is a pretty easy word to figure out, Abandonware is software that was copyrighted, but since the company holding the copyright is now out of business, there's no one to file any lawsuits. Hence, the software is abandoned by its creators, and now up for grabs. If you're running a very very old machine, don't fret, they've got the some of the best games from the DOS era, and while they won't compare to this year's Game of the Year, they'll be more fun than solitaire and Jezzball. You can even find text-based adventure games, and take a stroll down memory lane using your imagination to fill in the visuals, ala the old Zork classics.
For those of you brave enough to try Linux, there are tons of free games to be had, of just about every gaming genre that there is. You only need to google a search for the terms "Linux Games" to see whats available, in Ubuntu, searching for "game" in Synaptic Package Manager brings up 877 different game packages. More on 3D linux gaming next time.
For casual gaming, there are tons of Flash games that will run in your web browser available online at places like or and many many more sites like them.
Next week I'll explain about 3D accelerators, physics engines, and the many different types of card-slots that exist for graphics cards, all of which is important to know for those wishing to play the latest high-end PC games.

Questions or comments, write me at

#26 Things to Come

by Jeff Smith

You've undoubtably heard that computers can do some pretty amazing things, and yet most people just use their own machine to check their email and maybe buy something on ebay from time to time. In the next several weeks I plan on giving an overview of just some of the many many things that are capable with the average home computer. The purpose of this is to open your eyes to the versatility of the machine you already own, and perhaps spur you on to getting more creative enjoyment out of your computer.

For the most part, my articles have been aimed at repair and maintenance, with a little news thrown in. But here begins a new chapter. Below is a list of topics I will be covering in the near future, so if you're not a regular reader of my article, this may be a good time to become one.

Games and Requirements - I will cover a wide range of game topics, whats going on now, and some golden oldies you may have missed.

Media (movies television music) - How to put your PC at the heart of your entertainment system.

Video Editing - From home movies to amateur filmmaking, dvd authoring and special effects

Wireless Desktop - the easy way to network, learn about building encrypting your home wireless network

Home Control - More than just turning the lights on and off, you can fully automate much of your house

Home Recording - Garage bands can do more now than ever before!

Teleconferencing, Chat and Instant Messaging - Still just using one chat network? I'll show you how to really get connected

Internet Telephone (VoIP) - From its infancy to today, learn about talking through the net

Digital Assistant - How to use your computer so that you'll never forget another appointment, birthday or anniversary

Voice Control - Not a good typist? Control your machine using your voice, or dictate into a wordprocessor

Touch Screen Control - Not just for Star Trek or fast-food joints anymore, control your machine with a touch screen

Remote Control - Use your machine from anywhere with a web connection

Remote Access - Access your files from work, on vacation, anywhere

PC Customization - From custom cases to sprucing up your desktop, make your machine a hotrod!

Child Friendly Computing - From internet nannys to keeping your kids from deleting important files

Broadband - Differences between different kinds of broadband

Digital Photography - Whats a megapixel and why it matters

Home Networking - Hook up all your machines at once and share files across your house

Multi-Monitor Systems - You can get more done when you've got more desktop space!

As you can see, we'll be getting into some pretty interesting stuff, so stay tuned every week! It all begins next week, so see you then!

Questions or comments, write me at

#25 Ubuntu on Dell Machines!!

by Jeff Smith

Dell finally listens...

Back in February, Dell launched a website called Ideastorm whose sole purpose was to garner feedback from the web community on what they could do to attain their former glory as the biggest and best PC distributer. The overwhelming response they got back was that people wanted Linux pre-loaded on Dell machines. Literally, it was a landslide of requests, and after a little deliberation, Dell responded by teaming up with Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu Linux.
Now you can buy a Dell machine pre-loaded with Ubuntu Linux. Everything is pre-configured, all drivers are present and working and you have Dell's customer support to back you up.
Preliminary reports say that the Ubuntu Dells are good solid machines, and Dell has included some backup features that make it really easy to re-install Linux if you mess it up while you're first getting used to it. Keep in mind that these machines are slightly cheaper than their Windows counterparts, mostly due to the fact that Ubuntu is free, so the cost of a Windows license is not included in the price. They are capable of running Microsoft Windows (why you would want to I dunno) though you'd need to buy your own copy of it separately.
While pre-installed Linux machines are really nothing new, ( this is the first time that a very large company such as Dell has ventured into this territory. Personally, I think its a strong sign of how much Linux has matured as an operating system.
If you'd like to hear what Dell has to say about their Linux machines, you can browse to and click on "Linux 101: What's all the fuss?" for an explanatory video.
If you're not sure you wish to try Linux, keep in mind that many of you already use Linux on a daily basis and don't know it. When you use Google, you're using Linux because Google runs their web servers on Linux. In fact, the majority of web servers use Linux, 58% of them in fact. TiVo runs on Linux. Many popular mobile phones run on Linux, including the Motorola Razr2, with more and more cellphone companies switching to Linux based software for their handsets every year.
So even though you may not be aware, chances are you're already a Linux user. And thats not a bad thing. Not at all.

Questions or comments, write me at

#24 Whats a BIOS?

by Jeff Smith
Hello and welcome back, this week, I'll be explaining a bit more about what a BIOS is and what it does.

Whats a BIOS?
Simply put, BIOS stands for basic input/output system. The bios is a small bit of software that resides on the BIOS chip. In most systems you can access the BIOS at startup time by pressing Delete, or F2 or F10, depending on the maker of the system. The BIOS has a lot of very important configuration options available that impact the performance of your system. IT IS NOT A PLACE TO PLAY AROUND! Back before I knew anything, I completely killed my very own first computer by playing with options in its BIOS that I did not understand. This led me to having to replace the motherboard and re-do everything from scratch. So don't muck about in there without a little bit of research first. If its not broke, don't fix it!

What a BIOS does:
This is the first thing that starts up when you turn on your machine. This chip has many jobs when it powers on, such as checking to see that you have RAM installed, finding and initializing your video hardware, detecting and mounting your various disk drives and other hardware. After it has successfully found all the hardware, it will start up your operating system.
Once your operating system is running, the BIOS becomes a kind of middle-man between your software and your hardware, making it easier for software developers to address many different models of computer parts.

Updating your BIOS
As time goes by, there may be upgrades for you BIOS that enable new features, or increase compatibility with newer parts. If you've recently added some hardware and are having lots of trouble getting your machine to recognize that it is there, a BIOS upgrade may be in order. Be warned, upgrading a BIOS is potentially a dangerous operation, so if you don't fully understand what you're doing, better call someone who does. And if your machine is running fine as it is, a BIOS upgrade is an unneccessary risk.
There's also some software that will scan your BIOS and let you know if an update exists and what it would do if you applied it. You can find that software here:
Til next time, take care of your machine, and it will be there when you need it.

Questions or comments, write me at

#23 Cleaning your heatsink

by Jeff Smith

Two weeks ago I finished up by saying that I would cover cleaning your heatsink in the following article. Well, the long and short of is is, I forgot, and did CMOS batteries instead. I was planning on writing about the BIOS today, but looking back, I found what I'd said, and I will cover heatsinks today.

What is a heatsink?
If you've ever taken a look inside your machine, you may have noticed something that is reminscent of a radiator. Usually, its square, metal, and is comprised of parallel verical fins. Most often, there is a fan attached to the top of this or the side to force air through the fins, radiating heat away from the processor, and keeping your system nice and cool. Over time, due to the airflow, dust and hair accumulate on the fins, much like the lattice on a window fan. The blockage diminishes the airflow and acts as an insulator, trapping in the heat. If left unchecked, it can get bad enough that your processor will overheat, causing your machine to reset unexpectedly, and eventually can cause your processor to overheat to the point of ruin. If you have pets, or have your machine situated in a location with lots of dust, this is bound to happen eventually.

How to clean it!
If your heatsink is not too bad off, it can be blown out using a can of compressed air. You can find these at department stores, though their locations vary from "hobby" areas, to electronics sections.
If you find that that didn't do a good enough job to suit you, you can take a toothbrush or something similar and clean out between the fins. Note that you will likely have to remove the fan for this.
If even this isn't enough to get it clean, you'll need to remove the heatsink from the processor, and wash it. Make sure to dry it thoroughly. You will also need some thermal grease to put on your processor to facilitate the heat transfer to the heatsink when you replace it on the processor. So make sure to have some handy if you plan to remove your heatsink.
Once your heatsink is clean and everything is put back, your processor will run much cooler, have less mysterious resets, and it will extend the life of your processor indefinately.


by Jeff Smith

Every computer (that I've ever seen anyway) has a small battery that is usually located on the motherboard. The purpose of this battery is to keep a small amount of electrical current supplied to the BIOS chip and the system clock. This allows the computer to save your BIOS settings and keep your system clock up to date even though your machine may have been banished to the back of the garage or closet for months on end. Its basically a watch-battery, roughly the size and shape of a nickel, and you can get a replacement pretty easily at Walmart or K-Mart or RadioShack. They usually cost around $5 or less.
They are usually pretty easy to replace, given that they are most often held in by a simple clip, in fact the most difficult part of the process is often just getting to it. Its a good idea to go into your BIOS and write down all of the settings BEFORE it goes bad.
CMOS stands for Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor, and it doesn't really have anything to do with the battery, but with the type of computer chips that the battery is providing power to.

When your CMOS battery goes dead you'll often experience messages during boot time that your BIOS settings are being "reset to default" and your clock will reset to a few years ago. Clocks on older machines may reset back to 1981! When you begin to experience these signs, its a good indication that you should change your battery.
Default settings often don't take full advantage of your hardware, so if your settings get reset, it could result in a loss of performance.
They usually last for years, so if you have a new computer, you're not likely to have to deal with this for a while. Keep in mind that replacing the battery will also wipe out your settings, so be sure to write down your settings before replacing it.

Thats it for this week, see you next time!

#21 Keyboard spill? No problem!

by Jeff Smith

This week I'd like to share with you a little gem of a tip that I have recently verified to work. I was reading about a month ago about what you should do if you spill a glass of wine (or sodapop) on your laptop. And while I hoped I would never have need to use the information, I did file it away in my noggin in case the need ever arose. Be warned, it may sound a little counter-intuitive, but a good friend of mine spilled a coke in hers and I decided it was a good time to put the trick to the test.
Now mind you, she had taken it to the local telephone company, and paid then $65 for them to clean it out for her. They pretty much wiped off the screen with a moist towellette and gave it back. A while later, with some of the keys not working, and with it overheating and shutting down at unexpected moments, she put it in my care.
This is what I did.
Turn it off, remove the battery. Remove any PCMCIA cards you may have in it, and unhook all cords and cables. Turn it over and remove all screws you see, making sure you know where to put them back. Turn it over and open it up. Remove the keyboard, remove anything that comes off easily, being careful not to tear out any wiring. Look for a small flat battery, about the size of a nickle and remove that. Now here's where it gets scary.
You're going to want to wash it under cool water. No soap. Rinse out all the residue from the spill.
Now hold it up and tilt it to drain out excess water. This next part is important, you're going to want to rinse it again with either distilled water or rubbing alcohol. Tap water won't hurt components, but the residues that stay behind after it evaporates will corrode electronics. Distilled water and rubbing alcohol both evaporate cleanly. So rinse out the tap water using one of those. I personally used the alcohol. Now drain it again, and sit it in such a way that it will get plenty of air circulation. And leave it for a few days. Before re-assembly, visually inspect it and look for any moisture. If you see none, re-assemble the machine and replace the battery and everything else and try to boot up. If it acts strangely, immediately shut down and remove the battery again and let it dry some more.
When all is said and done, it should work like it did before.
I hope you never need to use this trick, but its good to know, just in case.
Of course, if your machine is still under warranty, just send it back and let them deal with it. :-D

#20 Reader Response to Open Office

by Jeff Smith

This week I thought I'd let you read a response I received to my article last week on Open Office. John Moss lives in Fredericksburg, VA and receives the paper via mail and is also on my list of people who receive my article in their email. He's written to me numerous times responding to different articles that I've written, and I thought I'd share an excerpt from one of his most recent letters.

He writes:
I am not only surprised but impressed with the Open Office program. Wow!!!! That's saying something since I'm an old guy that has seen a lot of programs come and go over the years and it takes a lot to impress us. Downloaded the Open Office program with the BitTorrent program. Worked with the program for a while this afternoon and later this evening and got a new and finished manuscript almost ready for publication in a matter of hours. This is a new book that I have been pulling my hair out trying to get Microsoft Word to format and number the pages correctly along with the headers. In fact, publication has been put off over and over again while I look for someone who can help me that doesn't cost a fortune. With Open Office the manuscript is almost done and I learned a lot that can be used with the other programs. Looks like the MSWorks is going into the drawer along with the WP X3. Working on a new book now (almost half done) and I'm going to convert it to Open Office tomorrow sometime.

So, you have a convert and this experience makes me take a harder look at getting an operating system that isn't pouring good money after bad into MS's pocket. I have also cancelled upgrading to Vista. I'm going to put the money into a used or new box.

Thanks again for [the] generous wealth of information.

Thanks go out to John for being such an avid reader and for being willing to try something new. Open Office goes a long way to prove the point that just because something is free, does not mean that it is inferior.

If you have any questions or comments about any of my articles, or would like some advice on a computer problem or purchase, feel free to write.

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