Monday 17 August 2015

Windows 10 Upgrade Advice

If you’re using Windows 7 or 8 you will have noticed a little Windows 10 icon that has appeared in your system tray and is by now probably nagging you to ‘reserve’ your upgrade. We’ve received many queries from our customers about this and our standard answer has been to advise them to wait for 6 months to allow the early adopters to iron out the pain of the new operating system for them.

While this advice is conservative, so is our average customer.

We all know somebody who absolutely has to install the very latest piece of software as soon as it’s available. They want to stay at the leading edge of technology, but when things don’t go smoothly they rapidly find themselves at the bleeding edge instead, and I have to admit that we were rubbing our hands at the prospect of all these failed upgrades arriving at our service centres for resuscitation.

The reality has been quite the opposite. While we’ve seen a few problems, all the upgrades that we’ve carried out ourselves have been fault free, and the one problem we have seen has been in Eset firewall software blocking network traffic after the upgrade, which is easily fixed by reinstalling the software.

Several of these upgrades have been so that we can familiarise ourselves with the final release of the operating system, and others have been at the request of clients, but we’ve also carried out several upgrades as a quick and easy way or repairing broken operating systems, and we’ve been very impressed with what we’ve seen so far.

I’ve only been using Windows 8 on my home PC for a couple of months after breaking Windows 7, and I’ve never been a big fan of metro interface on my desktop PC, although I love it on my 8” Linx tablet. I was therefore quite happy to take the plunge this weekend, although I did take a precautionary backup of my entire system before proceeding, but in the event the upgrade was so uneventful as to be almost disappointing.

The few problems we have seen have come in to our service centres as casualties, and we’ve found the problem was down to  the original operating systems being riddled with malware.

As of today our official advice is that you can upgrade when you want to, but if you are already having problems that might indicate a virus please give us a call first. I’m going to recommend you take a full back up before you start, because you can’t have too many backups, though I don’t expect you’ll need it.

Next week I will publish our definitive list of this you need to do after you upgrade, so watch out for more…

Saturday 25 July 2015

Companies Behaving Badly

There are some things that we are simply better without; things that, once they are gone, you feel little reason to mourn. Things like Windows 98, or the Windows 8 Charm bar. This week I've added the Comet Group to that list. You'll probably remember the consumer electronics and white goods giant that went bust at the end of 2012, and one of our customers is unlikely to forget them in a hurry either.

The story starts with the MacBook Pro that was brought in with a faulty touchpad. Our initial thoughts were that this was most likely to have been caused by a liquid spill, but the customer was adamant that he had never had any little accidents with his laptop. He explained that he had bought it from Comet shortly before they went into administration using a voucher provided by his insurance company which allowed him to purchase a brand-new machine to replace one which he had broken. The touchpad problem had started shortly afterwards, but hadn't been a problem initially as it was only intermittent to begin with. Over time the problem got worse and when we opened up the laptop there was visible corrosion on the motherboard that could only have been caused by liquid damage.

At that point we simply assumed that the customer had spilt liquid on his laptop without noticing it, or somebody else had without telling him, but then we made a rather curious discovery. If you're familiar with the insides of Apple's laptops you will know that there are several liquid indicators incorporated into the case. When they get wet they turn red and stay red, and the one mystery was that despite clear evidence of water damage all the indicators were still white. While we were pondering this mystery Lee peered closely at one of the indicators and suddenly got a glimpse of red where the indicator appeared to be peeling up slightly. It turned out that what we were actually looking at were some small round and very professionally produced stickers that had been placed over the top of the liquid indicators to disguise the tell-tale red warnings.

Our client assures us that we are the first people to take his laptop apart since he bought it, which leads us to believe that he had been sold a water damaged, and poorly reconditioned unit, which had led to the eventual failure of the touchpad.

This is the sort of despicable behaviour that we sometimes see at the bottom end of our industry, but when this sort of fraudulent behaviour comes from a large plc it is absolutely reprehensible, and my only regret is that we are unable to take any action against Comet as they no longer exist. Which on balance is probably a good thing.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Calling Dick Tracys everywhere

you've probably seen quite a lot of coverage of the 60th  anniversary of VE Day, and by coincidence I recently been reading through my late father's diary which he started writing at that time. He was working as a junior newspaper reporter in East Sussex at the time, and was only 16 at the time he started writing them, which you would never have worked out from reading them because as an orphan and a refugee he had to grow up pretty fast. After hours of immersion in the pages of his diary I began to get a real sense of what life was like at that time.

In those days before the Internet, and even television, entertainment came in the form of whist drives or trips to the cinema, and I can understand his captivation with Dick Tracy's iconic wrist radio, but while that was only a dream for his generation for ours it's fast becoming a reality. In fact I've recently taken to talking to my watch in much the same way as Dick Tracy did.

I have to say that mine is a little slimmer than Dick’s, and comes in the form of the Microsoft Band. I've wanted one of these since they were first launched in limited numbers in the US six months ago, so as soon as they were made available for pre-launch in the UK I signed up for one. Its arrival was a moment of great excitement in the office, and after a month of using it I'm convinced that the days of dumb watches are numbered.

I'm almost ashamed at the speed with which my trusty old watch, which has served me well for almost 20 years, was cast aside in favour of the shiny new usurper. At least watches don't have feelings, at least not just yet.

Let's get the negatives out of the way; while it's comfortable to wear the form factor is bulky and it catches on my shirt cuffs. The rectangular screen is designed to be worn on the inside of the wrist, which I was surprised to find I got used to quite quickly. It is however a flat screen on a curved wrist which makes it cumbersome, and although the screen comes with a screen protector I know from other users' experiences that it's prone to scratching, and compared to my old analogue watch it’s pathetically fragile, so don't even think of using it as a knuckle duster, Mr. Bond.

And that's about it. As far as I'm concerned all the rest is positive.

The other great contender for the space my wrist was of course the Apple watch which I finally got to play with at the weekend. As I expected its far prettier than the Microsoft Band, and I had fully expected it to match or exceed its specifications, but in this respect the Band stood head and shoulders above the Apple watch. The biggest omission in my opinion is that Apple have decided not to include GPS with their watch, which means that most of its functions depend upon it being paired with an iPhone via Bluetooth. Break that connection and a lot of the smart in smart watch falls away.

The biggest opportunity that Apple are missing here is for using the watch is a sports tracker, and one of my main reasons for buying the band was that it allows me to go running without carrying my phone. As soon as I finish my run and get back to my phone it synchronises my run data (including the GPS data of course) so that I can immediately look at my splits or check out the route I took on a map.

The other huge difference is in battery life; Apple are quoting 18 hours, which in practice may mean substantially less. I still don't know how long my battery lasts at its never run out, but if I wear it at night (of course I do, it tracks my sleep patterns) and then charge it for half an hour while I'm in the bathroom it's good for the rest of the day.

Having said that I have absolutely no doubt that when it launches the Apple watch the far outsell Microsoft band, and what they both do very well as provide notifications that you can glance at without having to get your phone out of your pocket. If I was to say that this has changed my life I might be exaggerating a little, but it has certainly changed my behaviour. Now whenever I get an email a quick glance at my wrist tells me whether it's urgent or not and this is changing the way I manage my email, which marks a fundamental shift in the way I manage my workflow.

I'm not sure if this is good or bad; whereas before I would check my mail every few minutes or hours now I'm constantly screening them, and on one hand it might make me more efficient, but on the other hand my work-life is now constantly intruding into my personal life in a way that it didn't before. At the moment that's fine, but when I head off on holiday this summer I'm going to be interested to see whether this behaviour has become a habit that I can't leave behind.

Who knows? After spending most of my life wanting to be like Dick Tracy, maybe what I'm really going to be reminiscing about in the future is my good old analogue watch.

Monday 27 April 2015

Feedback Loop

It seems every time I visit a website these days I'm prompted to fill in a survey.

Let's get one thing straight. I've nothing against feedback. We invite our customers to leave feedback every time we do work for them, but the way we do it is to send them a link that they can elect to click on that will take them to a nice, simple and short questionnaire. What we don't do is foist a huge pop-up over the top of the webpage they're on which they have to dismiss they want to proceed any further.

To say that I find this irritating would be something of an understatement; it's particularly galling when it happens on websites that I visit frequently, and where the option not to take a survey could at least have been noted so that I'm not prompted every couple of days (usually when I'm in a hurry to get something done), to once again let them know what I think. I do wonder who completes these feedback forms, and come to that, what they look like as I've never ever in all my time of using the Internet filled one out. For all I know they could be beautifully crafted questionnaires that offer you marvellous free gifts with every question answered. But somehow I doubt it.

I'm also curious to know if the majority of feedback that is left has to do about the irritating requests for feedback, which am sure must figure quite prominently on the list of negative criticisms of any site that offers visitors the opportunity to respond to a feedback survey. Clearly, if I'm right in this assumption, feedback is ignored as I haven't noted any reduction in the number of tedious pop-ups getting in the way of my work. I'm also curious to know what exactly this feedback is being used for; somebody somewhere is probably analysing the feedback data as a way of justifying their existence, but the cynical side of me wonders whether the process is simply about identifying people who are prepared to leave feedback in the first place, which will then allow them to be targeted for advertising, or more active sales activities, in an attempt to convert the respondents’ accommodating nature into hard cash (at their expense of course).

Sometime soon I'll have to accept a feedback request just to see what happens. Unless of course that's exactly what they counting on.

These days I do quite a lot of my surfing from the comfort of my sofa using a tablet, or on the move using my phone, and these these pop-ups reach a whole new level of irritation as I often fail miserably to dismiss them because the screen isn't large enough me to get to the ‘no’ button. It's a bit like the ubiquitous pop-up advert that is easy to get rid of using a mouse, but nearly impossible to dismiss by pressing the little cross in the top right-hand corner when you're using a tablet. I used to think that I was simply a really bad aim when it came to hitting the cross, but I now realise that this is just a cynical trick by the advertiser who, having identified that you're using a tablet, is going to take you to their website regardless of whether you have managed to hit the cross or not, and you of course will just assume that your aim was poor as usual.

All of these irritations pales to insignificance, however, when compared to my pet hate which is adverts in the form of videos embedded at the side of webpages that decide to pay themselves without any intervention from you. One of the neat features of Chrome is that you can at least see which tab the sound is coming from, but this in no way reduces the heinous nature of the internet crimes being committed by advertisers in their attempts to promote more rubbish. And if I'm beginning to sound like a grumpy old man I'd just like to remind our advertisers and survey monkeys that they're the ones that have driven me to this.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Ignorance Is Bliss

If you’ve visited one of our service centres you will have seen that we have wire mesh wall displays that are used to organise small peripherals, accessories, and of course many, many cables. Over time the range of cables that manufacturers produce, and the frequency with which we sell individual cables will change, so for the last month or so we've been reviewing the ranges of cables that we want to carry in our retail display area.

Unlike Currys or PC World, we are a real tech shop, and this is reflected in the cables, accessories and peripherals that we stock, and over the years we've built up a diverse collection of legacy connectors and cables that we tuck away in the corner, but it's been the mainstream products that have been causing us the most problems. Generally for cables our preferred manufacturer is Belkin, but our experience with the business-to-business sales team has been pretty poor, to the point that, rather than relying on the stock codes they are giving me, I've been visiting competitors’ stores and quietly photographing stock codes from the retail packaged items that they carry.

We’ve got to the point where we can offer a fantastic selection of excellent quality cables, unless of course you want to plug anything into your network, at which point things get a little more difficult.

If like most people you aren’t familiar with both purchasing processes as well as network technologies I need to explain a few things: firstly cables are sold in two ways; retail packaged (these are the ones that come in boxes or blister packaging and hang on hooks) and OEM, which stands for own equipment manufacturer, and this means they come in plastic bags, and are intended for bulk use. Next we need determine what we mean by a patch cable; these are network cables that are intended to be used over short distances, often to connect routers, switches, or computers to the network. And finally we get to the tricky bit; there are many specific variations of cable types, but when it comes to patch cables they come as either STP or UTP, which stands for shielded twisted pair and unshielded twisted pair.

What we want to stock are retail packaged UTP patch cables, preferably in a range of lengths up to 15 meters, and we also like to use snagless cables as these are easier to work with them ones with sheaths. The problem is that the retail lines we used to order have been discontinued, and while we can still buy these cables in OEM packaging, Belkin only stock STP cables in retail packaging.

This clearly isn't an issue for all our competitors who are quite happy to fill their shelves with these STP cables, however for us this is a serious issue, because we know our networking technologies and simply put, Belkin, probably the largest cable manufacturer there is, have got it wrong. If you're going to put something in retail packaging then you can reasonably assume that it's going to be bought by consumers, and if a consumer is using a network cable it should definitely be a UTP cable. STP cables have their place, and that place is in the hands of professional cable installers who know how to manage the cable, and how to ensure that the shielding is optimised by way of earthed terminals.

This next bit is going to get a little bit technical, so I'll forgive you if you want to skip the next couple of paragraphs. Shielded cables are used to protect data packets from interference, and this is achieved by sheathing the cables in foil which is then protected by the (usually) PVC outer layer. You can also identify them by the metal sleeve on the outside of the RJ45 connector at each end. The shielding is important when you're running bundles of cables together (as they can interfere with each other, which is called cross-talk), and also when running cables in close proximity to power cables, but it also comes at a price. Because the shielding material is thin the cable is quite delicate, and something as simple as coiling it for packaging can cause the shielding to tear (particularly for CAT6 cable). Any tears will severely compromise the shielding, as will failing to terminate the shielding, preferably at both ends, using an RJ45 socket design for that purpose.

Unshielded twisted pair takes a different approach, and uses different twist patterns and pairing of the eight wires that make up the cable to tune out cross-talk. Because it doesn't rely on metal sheathing it is far more robust, and can turn in a much tighter radius than STP cable. As there was no sheathing to earth it also doesn't require the earthing of RJ45 sockets. While we wouldn't recommend it we know from our experience that UTP cable can survive the chair test, which is where you run over it on your swivel chair (probably several times a day), and I'm constantly surprised to find UTP cables that have been shredded to the point of multicoloured spaghetti which still manage to transmit data adequately.

So what on earth are Belkin doing selling STP cables to consumers? The first thing your average home user is going to do is use them to connect their computer to their router, and a quick check of the router plug will show that the earth prong is made of plastic, so the cable clearly isn't being earthed at that end. The next thing that's going to happen is they are going to ride their swivel chair over that cable repeatedly, in between letting the cat, dog, and a small child have a good chew of the cable (and probably in that order). Once the foil shielding has been completely destroyed you’re left with a compromised cable that's pretty much guaranteed to perform poorly.

All this could be solved by Belkin quite simply by using UTP cables in their retail lines, and relegating STP cables to their OEM lines. What beggars belief is that somebody in a senior enough position at Belkin was able to make this mistake in the first place. It's a sad indication that the company whose name is synonymous with cables no longer employs decision-makers who actually understand how they work.

And spare a thought for us as well, because we would much rather wallow in ignorance like our competitors than have to face the near-impossible task of trying to get a large company like Belkin to change the way they are doing things.

Saturday 28 February 2015

Superfish? Never Been a Problem for Us.

If you've been following the tech news this week you will have noticed a breaking story about Lenovo bundling malware with its newlaptops. I think in many ways this is quite a sad story, because for a reputable company to ship laptops which include software like Superfish is a tragic indication of where the industry is at the moment.

Superfish is a piece of software that would euphemistically describe itself as something that enhances your web experience, and it does this by inserting targeted advertising directly into webpages that you are viewing. The average user won't even notice the presence of the software, and will assume that the advertising is embedded in the webpage itself, and it's the mechanism whereby this is achieved that is particularly scary. Without boring you with the technical details, what the software does is inject its own content directly into the data from websites you are visiting, and it's a technique that is also used in something called "man in the middle" attacks, where hackers use the same technique to embed password capture elements into, for example, your online banking website.

This in itself is frightening enough, but because the Superfish software was poorly secured a hacker could hijack the program and use it to fundamentally compromise the security of your computer, so that you next visit to your online bank might actually take you directly to a site in Russia where your banking details would be used to empty your account in pretty short order, and because you're going to see that green certificate flag next to the website address in your browser, your will have absolutely no idea that this is happening.

This isn't actually a new story, with Superfish being a regular topic of conversation in the Lenovo help forums over the last few months, and once the vulnerability was exposed Lenovo were quick to pull the software from all new laptops. What we don't know is whether its inclusion resulted in any real-world attacks.

You might be wondering why Lenovo were bundling this software in the first place, and the reason is quite simply because of the microscopic margins on consumer laptops. When manufacturers may only be making a profit of $5 on every laptop they sell, the temptation to include third-party software (for which they paid) is a strong one. That's why most new consumer laptops come bundled with all sorts of software that, if you know what you're doing, you will remove as soon as you turn on the computer.

This is a practice that's been going on the decades in what many see as a race to the bottom, and we've even created a word for it in the industry; crapware. You are statistically likely to be using a computer that still contains crapware that the manufacturer was paid to install. It's a business model that sees companies such as McAfee and Norton enjoying a far greater share of the antivirus market than they should based on the technical excellence of the products, so clearly it's a sustainable business model for some, and if at the end of the day it means that consumers are able to buy excellent laptops like the £300 LenovoEssential B50-70 then I've no problem with that for reasons I've given below.

So what should you, as a Computer Angels customer do? Well, if you bought your laptop through us, or if we prepared it for you then the answer is absolutely nothing. That's because the first thing we do when we’re preparing at Lenovo laptop for use is wipe the hard drive clean and reinstall everything from scratch. Not only does this removes the risk posed by this crapware, it also substantially increases the performance of the computer.

And if we didn’t prepare your laptop for you, and you’re worried that you might have a copy of Superfish lurking somewhere on your hard drive you can check for it here.

Friday 20 February 2015

Rotten Apple

Today the Apple online store refused to sell me a laptop.

I was more than a little surprised when this happened because I'm clearly not from North Korea, and as a regular Apple customer I really didn't foresee any problems with my purchase. My mistake when I tried to telephone in my order was in telling Apple that we, a business, were going to resell the laptop to a customer. Apparently Apple doesn't allow this, though whether they can legally refuse to sell me a laptop on this basis is an altogether different question.

As a business we regularly act as resellers of hardware. We are for example Dell Partners, and we buy Dell hardware in our own name which we sell on to customers, often at cost if it's a bespoke order, charging only for the time it takes us to specify and procure the hardware. This model works extremely well for some of the larger orders that our customers want to place, particularly ones involving servers, because our customers don't have to worry that we are over specifying the hardware in order to increase our margins. It's a model that is quite unusual because most companies see large hardware orders as extremely attractive business; we on the other hand would rather concentrate on the service we are offering, and we are also avoiding the temptation of simply becoming box shifters. If you have visited one of our service centres you'll also see that we keep Dell computers in stock, and you're buying one of these you'll find that our price is generally less or equal to Dell's consumer price, because Dell allow us sufficient profit margins to justify holding stock.

If a customer comes to us and wants to buy an Apple computer we advise them to buy directly from Apple. We have explored the benefits are becoming an Apple reseller, but the margins that Apple allow resellers are ludicrously small, and certainly don't compensate us for the responsibilities we take on as a retailer under the Sale Of Goods Act. It therefore makes sense for us to advise customers to purchase directly; at the end of the day we are a service company and it's our expertise in preparing computers and migrating data and software that customers pay as for. We do the same for other brands that are aimed at consumers, and therefore are sold at extremely tight margins; our favourite budget laptop at the moment is the Lenovo B50-70 which offers a solid specification at a very reasonable price.

There are however some customers who are reluctant to either shop online, even when we’re standing next to them telling them which buttons to press, or who don't want, or are unable to visit a physical store, and in this case we offer them the option of ordering through us because that's what a good value added service provider should do.

As a business, Apple retail stores will generally allow us a discount of around 5% on new computers, and we explain to our customers that we will take this discount to cover our expenses in making the purchase, as well as the responsibilities we undertake as retailer (if there are any problems, we, not Apple are legally their first port of call). At the end of the day the customer is happy because they are still only paying the price that Apple would have charged them had they bought directly, and we’re happy because our customers are happy. As for the onus of being the first port of call when things go wrong, we're quite happy with this and in most cases would rather our customers called us before calling the manufacturer, as we're probably going to provide a better level of service.

In the end I'm happy to report that everything worked out nicely; I phoned the nice people at my local Apple store in White city, and they were more than happy to let me place an order. I'm not going to make any comments about organisational dysfunction, but isn't it nice to know that you can't beat your local retailer

Thursday 29 January 2015

The Problem With Passwords

Selecting a password is an art; hackers attempting brute force attacks will use dictionaries containing millions of known words and common password combinations, so if your password is ‘123456’ or ‘password12’ you will lose control of your account in a few seconds if attacked. Also beware of using the same password in more than one place, as if any single password file is cracked hackers wille routinely try the same username and password combinations on other common sites. If you follow these rules you will, like me, end up with a long list (for me it's hundreds) of different passwords, hopefully containing capitals, numbers and punctuation marks, all of which you need to be able to retrieve at any time. And of course you won’t be storing them as remembered passwords in your web browser as these are generally very easy to access.

This is one of the great problems of the Internet age. How do we manage our passwords? As somebody who has more than a passing interest in hacking, and understands many of the ways in which passwords are cracked, I probably have a bit of a head start. I've also been interested in cryptography for many years, and I've managed to develop a simple and ingenious method for generating passwords that I can then reverse engineer on-the-fly when I need to use them. And if you think I'm telling you what this is then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.

This may sound a little smug, but I assure you it's not; I may have been careful in crafting my keys, but as I have little control over the locks they are used in I don't have any illusions about the security my precautions give me. Instead I rely on simple maxim that if I absolutely don't want to share something, then it probably shouldn't be anywhere on-line anyway. That and two step authentication. Always. Let me give you an example of how my thinking has been shaped.

Fully ten years ago my home broadband was provided by Tiscali, who have long since been absorbed by TalkTalk. When I came to cancel my contract with them I was told that I would have to do this by logging in to their portal, using the username consisting of my Tiscali e-mail address which I had never used and a password that I had noted down when I first opened the account one year previously.

You would be right in thinking that this was unnecessarily complicated, as I was already speaking to an agent who had authenticated me. Most people ten years ago wouldn't have known their username or password anyway, unless they were actually using the e-mail address. All in all the cancellation process seemed designed to be as difficult as possible, no doubt in a sad attempt at “customer retention”. Things were easier for me because I had noted down my username, and obfuscated password.

So I logged in to my portal where I was presented with thousands of unread e-mails every single one of which was spam. After cancelling, I contacted Tiscali to ask them how an e-mail address that I had never used had ended up in the hands of every spammer under the sun. They declined to reply.

I'm not in the least bit surprised to read in the Guardian that TalkTalk customers are suffering from the same problem. TalkTalk are being particularly coy about the issue which seems to be resulting in fake service calls on a large scale

These leaks are of course entirely predictable; if you're going to pay call centre staff in India a pittance then don't be surprised if they look at other ways of supplementing their income. It's not as if they are being set a shining example by our own governments, who seemed quite happy with the idea of collecting all our data, much of which I am sure will one day be left on the back seat of a taxi.

So there are two things to remember here - firstly beware of callers offering to clean up your PC (Unless it's one of us, of course), and secondly, like I said, it doesn't matter how clever your key is if the lock you are putting it in is made of tissue paper.