Protect Against Windows Catastrophic Failures With Two Small USB Sticks

You’re working away on your machine and Windows starts to behave oddly. You reboot, and (uh oh) on startup your machine crashes entirely. But that’s not necessarily always a problem. Windows has built in tools that allow for OS repairs without affecting your files. And if that repair doesn’t work, Windows provides another option to reinstall Windows back to a factory fresh state. But. With this latter ‘sledgehammer solution’, you’re now looking at possibly hours of work to bring your machine back to it’s pre-crash state. And worst case scenario, neither a refresh nor a reset to factory state work. Your computer has now become completely unusable. Your worst nightmare has just come true – and it happens more often that you might think. But no need to rush off to the expensive repair shop just yet.

Please take a few simple steps in the next few days to proactively protect yourself from such a disaster. You’ll have to invest just a few dollars on a couple of small USB drives. Find them at Best Buy, Staples, or your favorite computer store – two small sticks shouldn’t cost any more than $10 or $15 on sale. You’ll also need to set aside an hour or so to set up the sticks and configure two free software downloads. Once done, you’ll be able to reinstall Windows no matter how catastrophic your crash was. That’s a big deal. Even better, you should be able to restore your entire PC to a working pre-crash state without needing to reinstall any apps or files. An even bigger and better deal.

To get it done, you’ll need two dedicated USB sticks, minimum 8GB each and 16 GB recommended. You won’t be using these sticks for anything else, so make sure you set them aside later to be used only in emergency. You’ll use one stick to create “bootable Windows 10 media” from the official Microsoft website. The other stick will be used as an emergency boot drive to boot to a known good system state.

First, you’ll create a bootable copy of Windows install media using the official Microsoft Media Creation Tool (MCT). To get started, click the Download Tool Now button. The instructions on the site are easy to follow and you will end up with an .iso file. A slight inconvenience here – an .iso file is not bootable and needs to be converted to a bootable format saved on your USB stick. To do so, download Rufus, a freeware program that converts .iso files to bootable media. You’ll use it to “burn” the .iso file you saved on your computer onto your USB stick. Rufus has a couple of nuances, such as getting the Partition Scheme (usually MBR) and File System (usually NTFS) right. Please contact me if needed to confirm the correct settings for your system.

Once Rufus is done, label your drive and set it aside. You now have a way to reinstall Windows, even if you cannot do so from within your PC at all. Great insurance so far.

You’ll’ll be following the same process in a moment to create a second USB stick. This time, you’ll be creating an emergency boot disk for a known good image. My image creation and recovery software of choice is EaseUS ToDo backup– free, simple to use, and reliable. But first, what is an image?

Simply put, an image is a backup of a drive, stored somewhere else. The ‘somewhere else’ might be an external hard drive, a NAS, or a cloud solution such as OneDrive or Dropbox. The point of a backup is, of course, a means to restore lost data from an external source. Placing an image on the same drive as the one you’re trying to protect is clearly NOT a backup.

There are three main “levels” of backup: (1) specified files only (2) Windows Operating System (3) the entire drive. There are pros and cons to using each option, which you use depends on your needs and backup habits. Option (1) is simplest and fastest, but least thorough. Option (3) is completely thorough, at the expense of disk space and time to complete a full backup. Option (2) works for most people, as it backs up Windows to a known good state. Chances are your user files will still be intact post-crash, you just need to get to Windows first. Whichever method you choose, make sure you set a backup at regular intervals, with daily recommended for most users. Also limit yourself to a small number of backups (I only keep 2 days) to prevent your backup location from rapidly filling with backups that become rapidly irrelevant once new backups are made.

Configuring EaseUs will depend entirely on how you choose to use it – files only, operating system, or entire drive. The configuration options aren’t entirely intuitive sometimes but there are a few YouTube tutorials to be found. A better source is the comprehensive support page on the EaseUs site. Or if you prefer, you can contact me directly. I’d be happy to help you through the best configuration for your needs.

Once you download and install EaseUS ToDo, you will be presented with the option to create an emergency drive. Follow the same process as before to download the .iso file and then convert it to bootable media on the second USB stick. Label both sticks and put them in a safe space, as these may turn out to be lifesavers one day.

In the event of catastrophe, you now have two excellent tools to assist with repairs. Try the EaseUS stick first – just insert, power up your PC, enter the BIOS and boot from External USB Source. Entering the BIOS varies among PC manufacturers, it’s usually a repeated key press of one of the function keys during boot. A simple “BIOS bootup myPCModel” google search should tell you the right key to press. If EaseUS doesn’t work, you still have the Windows Media Stick to try. It will create a fresh install of Windows. That’s not ideal by any means but still something done at home to get your PC breathing again, without repair shop downtime or expense.

If you found this article helpful or have any questions, please leave a comment below. A special thanks to Leo Notenboom of AskLeo.com, for tirelessly preaching the backup gospel. I encourage you to check out his site for all kinds of backup ideas and all around good computer advice. Thanks for reading!

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How my cellular carrier paid me to upgrade to a leading edge free phone

Canadian cell phone bills are still among the most expensive on the planet. Government intervention has helped bring the costs of data and other services down a little over the last few years. However, our relatively small population base, large geographic area and the lack of real competition will help ensure Canadians won’t see a significant reduction in mobile service and hardware pricing any time soon. But not all is lost. In fact, far from it.

Despite the landscape, there are easy ways to stay well ahead of the game. A few days ago, I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S9 (not the S10, more on that below) for a total cost of less than $0. In addition to a $0 dollar phone, my carrier fully subsidized the cost of a quality case, a tempered glass screen protector, the hardware upgrade fee, and I still had a little money left over to apply to next month’s bill. All while keeping my great $55/month legacy plan. I think I made out like a bandit – and you can too once armed with a bit of knowledge. This post will discuss which factors to consider when hunting for your next cell phone bargain. They are, in no particular order, your actual data usage, the device technology itself, your relationship with your carrier, the importance of the loyalty/retention department, haggling, and thoughtful timing on when to buy. First up, when to buy:

Timing: Timing is everything. There’s only one simple rule to remember: Once the current year’s generation of phone is announced, it’s usually time to pounce on last year’s now-baby brother model. Six months ago my S9 would have cost almost $500 out-of-pocket. Last week, it was $150. About a week after the S10 was announced, it dropped to zero. I know this because I had left my name with a couple of different retailers asking them to call me when the cost hit the magic $0 or close to it. The day it hit zero was the day I bought. And my phone is (in my view) 99% as amazing as the $850 Samsung Galaxy S10, for $850 less. A no brainer as far as I’m concerned.

Data usage: How much data you consume in a typical month is also an important factor. Unless you are regularly exceeding your plan’s data limits, chances are you’re paying for more data than you actually need. Downgrade your data plan right now if you can. Downgrading will not affect the quality of the relationship you have with your carrier, and will save you money immediately. Even a $10 monthly savings adds up to $240 over the life of a typical 2-year contract. Ask yourself how much data you want vs. how much you actually need. If you want to stream YouTube video regularly without the benefit of wifi, be prepared to pay more for your data. Much more. If you do occasionally go over your data cap, take a close look at the overage amounts and compare that cost to occasionally going over on a cheaper tier plan. Overage charges are a great way for providers to scare consumers into “insuring” their usage limits with an overpriced plan. It may not seem intuitive, but sometimes it actually costs less money to pay for more overage on a cheaper plan.

Device Hardware: The gist of this section is “it doesn’t much matter”. Honestly. I’m going to use the industry terms leading edge and bleeding edge to make my case. In this post, leading edge is the Samsung Galaxy S9 (released 12 months ago) and bleeding edge is the Samsung Galaxy S10 (released this month). My personal bias is to never buy this year’s “new and exciting” bleeding edge unless some huge leap in technology has happened from last year. Whether it’s phones, TVs or laptops, bleeding edge is not only enormously expensive, it most often buys only incremental improvements.

Real World Performance: A popular website to compare cell phone specs is https://gsmarena.com. If you place the S9 and S10 side by side and look at the charts, the S10 does outperform the S9 in some aspects. It had better, the S10 is this year’s big news. But performance on a test bench and performance in the real world are different things. Rather than comparing specs, read the product reviews first. In most cases, any given review will conclude that an upgrade to a model one year newer may not make sense, but a phone two years or older may be worth considering. If you need this year’s latest and greatest for some reason, you will pay either up front or over the life of the contract term. My carrier was very excited to offer me this year’s S10 for “free”. At a plan difference of $35 more a month, which works out to $840 more over 24 months. It was either that or a one-year-old amazing phone for $840 less than that. Enough said.

Why the camera doesn’t matter: Because all modern phones have very good cameras. Unless you are a very talented and demanding photographer who also plans to keep your phone for well beyond 2 years, a fantastic camera is virtually a non-issue. Camera specs seem to be the biggest differentiating factor among modern cell phone manufacturers’ offerings. This makes sense since most of the rest of the phones’ capabilities don’t vary much from one device to the next. My advice is not to fall in love with a particular phone just because it has a great camera. I have frustrated salespeople to no end with a flat “Don’t care” response when they start trotting out the virtues of this or that phone’s “revolutionary” (read: pricey) camera. I’m relying on my trusty 10-year-old dSLR for any serious photos, not my phone. And if you’re a serious photographer, you’re probably already doing the same.

Your relationship with your carrier: Hopefully it’s a good one, meaning regular and full bill payment every month. If that’s not the case, start paying on time, in full, every month from now on. When your contract is up, that’s huge negotiating power. It’s a truism that it’s much harder to gain a customer than to keep one. Keep that in mind while holding for Tier II customer service, also known as the retention or loyalty department. To save yourself some time, ask to speak with retention straight away. The magic phrase is “Loyalty and retention please. Yes, I’ll hold”. The front line folks that initially answer the phone when you call are not authorized to give the kinds of deals that retention can. Politely but firmly insist you be put through to retention, where the real customer service begins.

Be the squeaky wheel: No matter how good a deal is, there is almost always something more on the table that you won’t get if you don’t ask. For me, it was an additional one month’s bill credit (on top of everything else I already had) if I agreed to sign a contract right then and there while at a retailer. And so I happily signed up right then and there.

Your deals and incentives may vary from carrier to carrier, but there is always phone goodness to be had when it’s time to renew. Happy shopping, I hope this post has helped, and please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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How To Speed Up Your Website

Do you own or manage a website? If so, has your site’s overall speed and responsiveness been tested lately? First and most importantly, how long does your site take to load? By load, this means First Load Time after the browser’s cache has been cleared. If that time is any longer than 3 or 4 seconds, you may be running the risk of losing valuable visitors. If initial load time takes longer than 5 or 6 seconds (an eternity when staring at a monitor or phone screen), the so-called visitor bounce rate tends to increase dramatically. Speed is a big deal. Without a fast website, all the hard work you have put into developing great design and content may never reach an intended visitor’s eye.

The best first step in optimizing site speed is understanding where the bottlenecks are. This is a simple matter of testing your site against a few well-known performance reporting sites. The tests will not fix performance, but they will provide valuable intelligence on where to start your optimization efforts. In many cases, the fixes can be quick and straightforward if you understand how to interpret the test results. To get you started, check out these popular and highly regarded testing services:

Google Page Speed Insights: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
GTMetrix: https://gtmetrix.com
Pingdom: https://tools.pingdom.com

All three sites will analyze your website performance and return a report with identified issues and suggested improvements. You will have your test results in as little as one or two minutes. Be aware that none of the tests measure all the same metrics, and some metrics are measured differently by different engines. Some reports are more detailed, others less so. Confused? Don’t be. Look for common trends among all the reports. Those are the findings to focus on first.

You’ll likely be provided with more information than you’ll know what to do with. Before digging in, ask yourself how fast your site is actually loading right now. If it’s, say 5 seconds or more then, by all means, pay close attention to every suggestion. If you’re loading around 3 seconds or less, it probably makes more sense to decide which findings to tackle first – and which ones to possibly not bother with at all. The reports are all sorted in order of suggested importance, but keep in mind it’s an algorithm that has done that sorting. One size does not fit all. Different solutions may or may not make sense for different sites depending on individual circumstance.

For example, you may see a suggestion to move your content to a CDN (Content Delivery Network). While this is a great idea in principle (many servers globally caching copies of your pages for faster delivery), it can sometimes cause more trouble than it’s worth. CDN providers use their own servers requiring you to switch out the servers provided by your web hosting company. And although site performance typically improves on a CDN, that bump in performance may not be worth an extra layer of complexity. If your audience is mostly local rather than global, there is usually little value in utilizing a global delivery network. A report algorithm cannot know where your audience is, all it knows is technical opportunities for increasing speed.

On the other hand, some suggestions are worth paying immediate attention to. One such example is image optimization, meaning file size reduction without losing image quality. Even a handful of sub-optimized images can bloat site size such that load times jump noticeably. Compared to other improvements, image optimization efforts tend to produce big results in a small amount of time. By optimizing images before they are even imported to your web development environment, you can dramatically reduce your site’s image size footprint. Optimizing images again once they are imported will produce even more dramatic improvements. Image optimization tools are widely available on the internet and most are intuitive to use. Image optimization is one of the easiest and biggest bang-for-the-buck optimizations possible.

Finally, it’s important to recall that different performance measurement sites use different testing algorithms to report results. Some suggestions are impractical or too difficult to implement, others cannot be acted upon at all. While a “100% Performance Score” may sound like a logical goal, it’s not performance on a test report that counts so much. In the end, what really matters is your visitors’ experience.

With a little effort, the testing tools along with some judgment calls should improve your speed in fairly short order. If you don’t have the time or inclination to test and improve, contact me for a no-obligation quote to help. In most cases, I can turn results around in a day or two.

If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below. Thanks for reading!

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The Case For And Against Extensions

Extensions (sometimes called add-ons or plugins) are mini-apps that may be added to your web browser to extend the browser’s capabilities. Since extensions are part of the browser, there is no extra software to install on the desktop. Like any other software, extensions can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, there are some really worthwhile add-ons that extend your browser such that you’ll wonder what you ever did without them. On the other hand, poorly chosen, poorly managed, or too many extensions can come with privacy and security risks. In this post, I’ll be discussing the risks, benefits, and my recommendations on how to proceed with extensions.

Before considering any extension, ask yourself if you really need it or could do it some other way. For example, the Grammarly extension is a popular app that can correct complex grammar mistakes in real time. The trade-off for this convenience is privacy: Grammarly can potentially see everything you’re typing as long as the extension is active. Last year, Grammarly also had to deal with a security bug in its Chrome extension that inadvertently allowed access to a user’s account – including their private documents and data.

The risks with extensions may sound dire, but used with care and a bit of research they can be excellent tools. Before installing any extension, there are a few things you need to be aware of. First, every extension requires a certain level of permissions. The more permissions an extension needs, the greater access it has to the rest of your computer. Chrome has a permissions management system, and well behaved extensions should only ask for the permissions they need. Poorly coded, lazy, or potentially malicious extensions may require all permissions. Be wary of any extension that asks for full permissions in Chrome. In Firefox, things are more dangerous because unlike Chrome, there is no permissions management system. Every add-on gets global access by default. For a more in-depth overview of potential extension issues, this article is well worth a read.

The good news is that extensions are easy to turn on and off when needed. For example, a remote access extension is handy only when you actually need to connect to a remote computer. Until then, there is no reason to have it enabled. To toggle extensions on and off in the Chrome menu, navigate to More Tools > Extensions. In Firefox, the path is simply Menu > Addons.

There are some truly outstanding extensions available from reputable developers. These tools are actively managed for security and ongoing compatibility with your browser. When looking for new extensions, look for a high number of downloads, great reviews, and ideally a vendor you have heard of and trust. Here is my short and carefully chosen list of extensions I use myself:

LastPass: Forget your dozens of weak, repetitive and hard to remember passwords. LastPass will help you create strong and unique passwords, and remember them for you across different devices such as PCs and phones. What makes LastPass the “killer app” is it’s ability to optionally autofill passwords on login pages. All you need to remember is one master password to access the LastPass “vault”. Security is such that the staff at LastPass can neither retrieve your master password nor access your vault.

Ublock Origin: Browse the internet without ads getting in your way! It’s not a 100% ad removal guarantee, but you will definitely notice far fewer ads online. UBO is an ad blocker, similar to AdBlock and Adblock plus. I like UBO for it’s ability to whitelist sites, block part of a site or the whole site temporarily or permanently, and create custom rules.

Chrome Remote Desktop: This extension is very handy when needing to troubleshoot someone else’s PC. When two PCs are running this extension in tandem, one PC will grant permission to the other to access it remotely. The controlling PC can now see and control the other PC, with access revocable at any time.

Office Online: For those of you that don’t have Microsoft Office installed, a pared down version is available online through an extension. It’s certainly not the same experience as a full install of Office, but it does let you save file to your local PC and has features enough for most casual users. Slightly off topic, if you want to install an Office suite, I use and highly recommend the free LibreOffice suite. LibreOffice offers all the power of MS Office in a free suite that includes equivalents to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and even Visio and Access.

I encourage you to explore your extensions options, there are a lot of different gems out there for various needs. Chrome users can start here, Firefox users here and Edge users can get started here

Have a favourite extension or a great experience to share? Please comment below, and thanks for reading!

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Should You Defrag Your Hard Drive?

The short answer: Unless you’ve noticed a performance issue with your drive, it’s unlikely you’ll need to make any manual intervention. Disk defragmentation is probably already being done automatically. And in the case of more modern SSD drives, defragging shouldn’t be done at all.

But first, what is defragmentation and why should you worry about it?

When you use your PC, data is constantly being read from and written to your hard drive. Your drive is made up of sectors, and larger files naturally occupy more sectors. Interestingly, sectors are not necessarily being written to contiguously. This means that the contents of any given file will be distributed across different areas of the drive. Think of it as sprinkles on a cupcake, where the sum of a certain collection of sprinkles makes up a file. As more files are saved to the drive, this “fragmentation” becomes more pronounced and the drive very gradually becomes slower. For most people, ongoing fragmentation is not a noticeable issue. Modern spinning drives are highly efficient and are able to read data very quickly despite a certain level of fragmentation.

The process of defragmentation reorganizes file fragments such that they reside on physical sectors close to, or next to each other. Defragmentation tends to have better results if there are a larger number of smaller files than if there were a smaller number of larger files. On a heavily fragmented drive, running a defrag may noticeably improve performance. For most people though, a defrag will yield little noticeable changes. If you’re curious about how defragmenting improves your drive, you could benchmark before and after drive performance using a tool such as CrystalDisk Mark.

In practice, defragging your drives once in a while is still a good idea. Fortunately, Windows already has a built in tool to defragment your drives according to a set schedule. No need to bloat your system with a third party utility, Windows does a fine job all on its own. And no need to stop working on your PC while defragmentation is being done.

To access the defrag tool, just type “defrag” into the search bar. You will see a list of Hard Disk Drives and/or Solid State Drives and scheduled run times. Unless you write to your drive heavily and on a regular basis, the default once a week schedule can safely be set to monthly.

Click on “Optimize” to immediately run a defrag across all drives. Click “Change Settings” if you’d like to adjust the defrag schedule or turn off scheduling for particular drives. Defragmenting your hard drive is an easy behind-the-scenes housekeeping measure that contributes to overall computer efficiency.

A word on Solid State Drives (SSDs): Modern systems are increasingly using Solid State Drives (SDD). SSDs are faster than traditional spinning drives and have no moving parts. SSDs flash (write) data to a memory board, much like a USB flash drive does. Defragmenting doesn’t apply to this type of drive, and scheduling defrag jobs will decrease the life of an SSD. While you’re in the main window of the defrag screen, please take a moment to turn off defrag for any Solid State Drives you have.

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PC Slow? It Might Be Hardware

Computers have a way of slowing down over time, particularly when you have little time to do any serious troubleshooting. An antivirus scan is a popular first step. Sometimes this helps. But more often then not, there is either no performance improvement or very little. Now what?

Take a moment to observe your PC. Is your hard drive indicator light on often for no apparent reason? Does your laptop feel abnormally hot to the touch underneath? Can you hear fans blowing more loudly or frequently than before? Are programs crashing randomly? Symptoms like these could be an indicator of hardware problems. The most common failures over time include hard drives, RAM, CPUs, and graphics cards. Those parts that generate heat or have moving parts tend to fail most often.

But before you rush off to the expensive repair shop, take a moment. A little testing and discovery on your own can go a long way. You wouldn’t let a mechanic upsell you on car parts you don’t need, would you? So why take that risk with pricey computer parts?

There are a few tests you can run yourself using nothing but Windows and some great freeware utilities. Of course, the less advanced tools can only provide a more simplified view. In many cases, that may be enough. At the very least, you should get a sense of where the problem might be. Here are a few search terms to get you pointed you in the right direction:

Windows 10 RAM diagnostics
Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool

Windows system-wide diagnostics
– Easiest: “xyz laptop make &model analyzer/diagnostics/test” etc. Many manufacturers include a decent diagnostics tool right out of the box
– Medium: perfmon (Performance Monitor)
– Intensive: HWiNFO: Very rich in information but not geared to more casual users

Windows 10 OS drive diagnostics
– chkdsk (Check Disk)
– sfc (System File Checker)
– DISM (Deployment Image Servicing and Management)

Freeware drive diagnostics
– CrystalDisk Info (high level overview of overall health)
– CrystalMark Info (benchmarking diagnostic tool). Rich in information but there is a learning curve

Laptop battery health
– BatteryInfoView

There are many other diagnostics possible but the above should catch most of the problems, most of the time. Please contact me if you need more help or have more advanced testing needs. As always, I am unbiased since I have no products to sell or commission to earn.

Happy Testing! 

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Securely Wipe Your Drives With No Extra Software

Do you have an old PC or hard drive that you’d like to get rid of, without worrying about personal data that might be left behind? For your own privacy and security, it’s important to securely wipe your old hard drives before selling or disposing them. There are plenty of software choices for the job. Some are free, some paid, but none are as convenient and reliable as the wipe tool you already have: Windows.

At first glance, the below may seem overly complicated but it’s just a few steps (6 keyboard entries, to be exact). You’ll be done far quicker than googling “wipe windows drive”. Give it a go.

The shorter (geek-friendly) How-To-Wipe instructions:
(Command prompt with admin privileges)
e: {specified drive to be wiped}
E:\>vol {note volume name}
E:\>format e: /p:2 {2 wipe passes through the drive}
Enter current volume label for drive {volume name from above}
Proceed with Format (Y/N)? y
Formatting x.x TB
Would you like to force a dismount on this volume? (Y/N) y

The longer version (with explanations along the way):
Windows has offered the ‘format’ command for many years. In its latest iteration, format is more powerful than ever. You will need to use format via the command prompt to wipe your drive (easy).  The below assumes you have no prior experience with the command prompt.

In this example, my drive letter is E and the number of passes I’ve chosen is 2. More on passes a little further down.

Step 1: Find the drive letter of the drive you want to wipe. One way of doing so is to open File Explorer (Keyboard shortcut: WindowsKey + E)

Step 2: Open Command Prompt with Administrator Privileges. An easy way to do this is by using the search bar (magnifying glass in the bottom left of the screen) and typing the word command. You should see an app shortcut titled “Command Prompt – Desktop App”. Right click the icon and choose the “Run as Administrator” option.

Step 3: Type the following into the command window:

e: {or whatever letter your old drive is}
E:\>vol {type the word vol at the e:\>prompt. You”ll get the message below:}

Volume in drive E is My DriveName {Take note of whatever this name is}
Volume Serial Number is 1A2B3-C4D5E {unimportant}

Now use the actual command for wiping the drive:
E:\>format e: /p:2 {which gives the following message:} 

The type of the file system is NTFS.
Enter current volume label for drive E: {the drive name you just noted down}
WARNING, ALL DATA ON NON-REMOVABLE DISK DRIVE E: WILL BE LOST!

Proceed with Format (Y/N)? y {just make sure you’ve got the right drive!}
Formatting x.x TB

{You may see the following message. Select Y: Force Dismount}

Format cannot run because the volume is in use by another process. Format may run if this volume is dismounted first. ALL OPENED HANDLES TO THIS VOLUME WOULD THEN BE INVALID. Would you like to force a dismount on this volume? (Y/N) ? Yes.

Volume dismounted. All opened handles to this volume are now invalid.

 Dismounting a drive is simply removing it from view of the operating system. I could have dismounted the drive earlier (thus losing it’s drive letter) but dismounting on the fly like I did above was more convenient.

And now… you wait. Depending on how large your drive is and how many passes you’ve chosen, it can take hours. That’s the case whether you’re wiping from Windows or any other software. You can continue to use your PC as normal, you just won’t have access to the drive being wiped and the USB port it’s plugged into until the wipe is done. IMPORTANT: Before leaving your machine unattended for an extended time, make sure your PC’s sleep mode is disabled until the wipe is done.

A word on passes: Some experts suggest a single wiping pass through the drive is enough for most people. The number of passes is up to you, more passes naturally mean longer wipe times. My choice is usually 2 passes, meaning every sector of the drive is overwritten with random data once during the wiping process, and then a second time for good measure. Some people use as many as 35 passes, which seems outrageously paranoid to me. With two passes, I am confident that my data is securely enough wiped for my peace of mind.

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Happy New Website Year!

For a limited time, receive $100 off a complete website development package! I’m excited to launch a new arm of my business, dedicated solely to developing stunning websites at the best prices in Calgary. I won’t be undersold, I will deliver amazing results. Check out a few design samples at https://webfolio.ca . Happy New Year!

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One Step Registry Hacks To Make Windows 10 Better

This post is targeted at folks who want more from File Explorer, are comfortable editing the registry, and want a quick batch file solution rather than manual registry edits one key at a time. Read on if you’d like to:

• Take ownership of individual files or folders when permissions are getting in the way
• Encrypt individual files or folders by adding “Encrypt” to the right-click context menu
• Hide unwanted folders underneath the “MyPC” view

Take ownership of individual files or folders: When encountering file permissions issues, you could create a separate Administrator account. However, it’s much easier to take ownership of individual files or folders with a quick registry hack. No more “Permission Denied, contact your Administrator” messages.

Encryption: I discussed disk-level encryption in a previous post. There may also be times when you need to encrypt individual files or folders. A simple registry hack will add an ‘Encrypt’ / ‘Decrypt’ item to the right click context menu. Note that encrypted files and folders remain accessible to the user whose Windows Account activated encryption, but they will not be accessible to any other User Account.

Hide unwanted folders underneath “MyPC”: Perhaps you’re annoyed by the number of folders underneath the “My PC” folder? Six folders, all of which are duplicated in Libraries, plus a Paint3D folder which nobody seems to use. Would you like to remove some or all of these folders from this view?

For those interested, I have a few .reg files which will solve these issues. Available for 32 bit and 64 bit Windows, just click and run. As a precaution, it’s a good idea to create a restore point and backup your registry first.

The zip files are tiny (less than 20 KB in total) and easy to email. Please contact me and I’d be happy to forward along.

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Useful Chrome Search Options You Didn’t Know Existed

If you’re a Chrome user, here are a few lesser known tips to squeeze even more from Google’s popular browser. Use any of these example templates to power up your searches:

Search within a site: searchterm in site: sitename.com
Ignore certain words using the negative operator: gretzky -wayne
Track a package: track package (for any package from UPS, Canada Post, DHL etc)
Scientific calculator: calculator
Local weather: weather
Global clock: what time is it in Toronto
Time zone conversions: convert 9am EST to MDT
Unit conversions: convert 3 cups to ounces
Local movie times: movie times

Do you have you have your own favourite options? Which of the above are you using already? Please leave a comment, and thanks!

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No More Passwords?

Imagine going from your dozens of current passwords to just one. You won’t need to spend any money to get there. You’ll just need to invest a little bit of time setting up some software. It’ll be time very well spent.

Right now, how many passwords do you need to remember? How many of them are repeated (or changed with minor differences) across different sites? How often do you need to use “forgot password” when trying to log in somewhere? And how many of your passwords are strong? Take this random example: U*b!?m+)bzQOa. It’s highly unlikely that most people would remember that sort of password. But the good news? You don’t have to.

Enter a password management tool. I use the free edition of LastPass. Lastpass is a password manager that will store all your passwords inside an encrypted container. You only need one master password to set and remember. Just don’t forget your one master password, because even LastPass itself doesn’t know the master or any of the other passwords in your “vault”.

LastPass syncs across all devices,  and even works off-line. It’s highly secure and is trusted by millions of users. The free version is so feature rich that most people don’t need the extra features of Premium. The basic mechanics work like this: LastPass offers to store your username and password on any given site. If you allow access then the next time you log on to the same site, LastPass will automatically fill these fields for you and log you in. Most importantly, there is an offer to create strong passwords (strongly recommended).

In case you’re not convinced yet, consider this: I personally have 113 unique, long, complex passwords (I counted just now). I have no idea what any of those passwords are set to. If I wanted to, I could look them up anytime if needed, even offline. But there is no need. And since using LastPass I’ve logged in everywhere I needed without resetting one password, looking frantically for hidden cheatsheets, or stressing about passwords in any other way. What a relief.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any experiences with another password manager? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments section below. And for any help with PC troubles, android questions, or your web design needs, contact me now. Thanks for reading!

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Free File Encryption – Everywhere

When storing sensitive data, it is crucial that you take the necessary steps to protect that data. A Windows lock screen password is your first line of defence, but can easily be bypassed. Hard drive encryption prevents your private data from falling into the wrong hands, should you ever suffer loss or theft of your device.

In addition to hard local drive encryption, you may consider doing the same on whatever cloud storage services you are using. This blog post discusses simple and effective solutions for Windows, android, and cloud encryption.

Windows: There are many high quality free Window drive encryption tools available. I like Veracrypt, a free and open source tool to get full-disk encryption on any version of Windows. And if you are a Windows Pro, Enterprise, or Education user, you can use the built-in Bitlocker tool to encrypt your entire hard drive in a few simple steps.

Android: I mentioned mobile device encryption in a previous post. From Marshmallow on, android will allow SD Card encryption such that the card is not useable anywhere else except your device. Where to find this setting varies from device to device, but a search for “encryption” in Settings should get you to the right spot.

To complete securing your phone, take advantage of Google’s Find My Device service. In addition to locating a lost device, Find My Device can lock or erase your device data. Coupled with encryption, your device is now very well protected.

Cloud: Cloud encryption is an option for those who want an additional layer of security for their most sensitive files. All the major cloud storage providers including Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive already have excellent privacy and security measures in place. But they’re not perfect. For example, Google Drive briefly decrypts an uploaded file before re-encrypting it and uploading it. There is some excellent software available to encrypt your files before sending them to the cloud. My favourite tool is the free and open-source Cryptomator.

If you have found this post helpful, please leave any comments or questions below. If you need any further help, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to help!

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How To Protect Yourself From Facebook Hacks

On September 28th, Facebook announced that 50 million accounts were hacked due to a security loophole. High time to review your facebook account security practices if you haven’t already done so.

Yes, security can be a bit time consuming and not terribly exciting. However, spending just a few minutes implementing the handful of tips below will go a long ways to keeping you much more safe and secure. Here are a few tips I would suggest everyone should implement, right now:

1. External logins using Facebook or Google: These are convenient, but they’re also a security risk. The concern here is the same as using a single username and password for multiple accounts: If one account is compromised, then all accounts are compromised. Consider stopping to use Facebook or Google as your way of creating new accounts, or logging in to existing accounts with Google or Facebook.

1. Two factor authentication: Facebook (any many other services) have a 2FA option available. Consider activating it. Two factor authentication sends a confirmation code to your mobile device which must be entered before you can log in. This is a great option, especially if you think somebody has gotten hold of your password.

2. Strong and unique passwords: We see this advice all the time. Are you on board? If you have a weaker password, change to something strong. “Strong” means a random string of upper and lower case and special characters at least 10 characters long. How strong is this? At 10 characters, it would take a brute force attack machine an estimated 4 million years to crack your password, at a guess rate of half a million passwords per second!

3. Password Managers: Forget your new password. Really. Instead, install a free password manager that will automatically remember every single password you have, generate strong passwords on demand, and automatically fill the correct password in on whatever sites you need to log in to. The tool I use is LastPass, it works across multiple devices, and even off-line. I’ll write a dedicated article on LastPass soon.

This article sheds more light on this latest breach. If you have any questions or comments, please comment below. Thanks!

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The 5 Minute Android Security Check

Considering how often and in how many ways we use our smartphones these days, it makes sense to quickly check that your device is as secure as possible. Here are a few tips, many of them obvious but a good reminder.

  • Use a secure lock screen: A pattern is good, a PIN number is even better. If your device has a fingerprint sensor, enable it. There may also be an option to configure a message on the lock screen, mine asks the finder to send me an email.
  • Encrypt your SD Card: If you have sensitive information such as spreadsheets or Word docs on an external card, many devices can add an extra level of security. Encryption ties your SD card to your device, making the card useless anywhere else except on your phone. Assuming your phone is locked with a lock screen, you have now protected your entire device from data theft. The encryption option is usually found in your security settings.
  • Disable Developer Mode: Keeping Developer Mode on exposes vulnerabilities that would otherwise not be there. Also, don’t use “Install Unknown Apps”. If you have enabled this option (possibly to sideload an app), turn it off as soon as you are done with it for security reasons.
  • Don’t sideload apps: If you’re downloading from sources other than the Play store, make sure the source is reputable. The Amazon app and APK Mirror are two widely used and trusted sources. In the same vein, don’t take the obvious security risks inherent in pirating apps.
  • Make sure that “Google Find My Device” is enabled: You can then use any device to call and locate your lost phone.

Feel free to contact me if you need help finding the settings for your particular device. For other phone and tablet services, please see my android page.

Any other tips you feel are worth sharing? Please leave a comment below!

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Facebook Myths, Debunked

Regular facebook users may have noticed a few odd messages in their feed lately. These feed items are at best misleading or wrong, and at worst can actually make you less safe if you believe them. The three most pervasive current myths are (1) Facebook’s new algorithms prevent you from seeing posts from more than X number of friends you’ve followed. (2) Facebook has something against a particular group of people (most recently, grandparents!). (3) Do not copy and paste at the risk of virus infection.

False, false, and false.

First off, it’s true that facebook algorithms are indeed secret, complex, and always changing behind the scenes. But why would the world’s largest social media machine want to limit the number of friends you’ve followed? Facebook (and social media in general) depends on engagement – the more, the better. Limiting friends is just counterproductive.

Second, the myth of blanket “hate speech” removal. Yes, facebook has (and should have) hate speech filters for criminal, indecent, and other blatantly unacceptable posts. Yes, occasionally some poorly worded post may be misinterpreted by the filters as hate speech. Chances are your post will not be flagged if worded more appropriately.

Last, the virus myth. Copying and pasting cannot transmit viruses. If it could, we would all be overwhelmed by viruses at every turn. This nuisance myth seems to be targeted towards fear and inexperience.

This article takes a more in-depth look.

If you found this post useful, please comment below. Thanks!

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Chrome’s 10 Year Anniversary Release: More Features, Better Looks

If you’re a Chrome user, you may have noticed a few cosmetic changes lately. Beyond the new skin, Chrome 69 also offers new features including better password management, security, and customization. Appearance wise, Chrome has moved to the new softer “Material Design” look with rounded edges and a cleaner look overall. New tabs can be customized with background images and convenient on-page buttons for favourite sites.

This release also offers an updated password handler and form filler. When registering new passwords, Chrome will offer to create strong passwords. These passwords are also synchronized to your Google account so that they are available on other devices that you use Chrome.

If you happen to not like the new Chrome for whatever reason, you can revert to the previous version. Here’s how: First type chrome://flags in the address bar and hit enter. Next, search for “UI Layout for the browser’s top chrome.” Switch from “Default” to “Normal.” Restart Chrome and the familiar interface will return.

This article takes a more in-depth look.

Do you prefer the old or the new? Please leave your comments below!

 

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Use These Two Weather Apps Together For Superb Forecast Results

Weather apps and weather forecasting have never been an exact science. If accurate weather is important to you, you may want to hedge your bets. Installing two different apps with two different weather source providers is a great idea. My apps of choice are Wunderground and the widget “Weather & Clock Widget”.

Weather & Clock Widget is highly customizable. You can configure size, appearance, hourly vs. daily forecast, weather advisories, and all kinds of detailed weather info. What I like in particular is one-tap access to 5 day and 10 day forecasts.

Wunderground can’t be beat for “hyperlocal” and up-to-the minute forecasts. I was amazed at the number of community based weather stations – there were three within 1 km of my home. The app is also rich in information, but I found the widget a bit more intuitive to use.

If you found this article useful, please comment below. Thanks!

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PSA: Disabling Location Services Doesn’t Eliminate Google Tracking

As a long time android user, I was a bit disappointed to learn of this in this week’s tech community news. There are arguments to be made on both sides: Tracking enhances and personalizes the user experience vs. (unsolicited) tracking violates the user’s fundamental right to privacy control.

If you own an android device or rely on Google Maps, opting out is not easy. Google has a vested interest in knowing as much as they can about their users. Depending on how strongly you object to the invasion, I can help by “flashing” a third party OS onto your android device. The other option? iOS. Both pretty drastic.

Full story here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below

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Virtual Private Network (VPN): My Favourite (Free) Solution

There is no shortage of Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers to choose from. Some are paid services, some are free. Very few are free, fast, and offer no server logging. Canadian-owned Windscribe is worth a look If your data needs are relatively modest. Windscribe offers a free tier with a generous 10GB/month quota. There are also paid tiers with larger data quotas and more servers.

Why use a VPN? To enjoy more privacy and security online. To protect yourself from potential financial fraud. Or just to unlock non-Canadian streaming content (for example, Netflix). Windscribe’s VPN service is fast, seamless, and reliable. Highly recommended; available here.

Please leave a comment below if you’ve found this article helpful. Thank you!

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Interesting News & Advice

As you might expect, this blog will focus on interesting technology news and developments in the world of Windows PCs, Android devices, and Web Design. I’ll keep it updated fairly regularly, please check back often for new content. Thanks!

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