Improve your Internet Connection and Microsoft Account Warnings
A very common issue we get asked about is broadband speeds, or lack of, and/or intermittent dropouts. Firstly, this shouldn't be confused with the strength, and stability, of the internal Wifi signal in your home or office. If your site is making the WiFi work particularly hard then this could be why internet connections aren't stable and your broadband supplier may not be at fault. WiFi connectivity can suffer for many reasons, the most common ones are as follows:
Poorly positioned routers/access points.
Heavy usage through gaming /TV/video applications and devices.
Interference from other Wifi networks on the same channel.
Old WiFi protocols being used.
Reliance on repeaters (these can extend the range but always come at a cost of throughput, rarely a good idea to implement).
Worth remembering that those unsightly network cables will always perform better than WiFi so always use ethernet cables, where you can, over WiFi.
A simple test is to unplug all devices, except for one, and cable this directly to the router to see if speeds improve, if things suddenly speed up dramatically it indicates a WiFi issue rather than a broadband problem. Once you've established that none of the above is causing the lethargy with your network it's time to look at the router and cabling. If both are in good order, then it's time to speak to your ISP (Internet Service Provider).
This is where the fun begins, but if you are to realise any improvements you will need to be persistent and get some proof that the fault lies with the broadband provider's connection which, to be fair, will normally be due to a cabling issue somewhere between your property and the nearest exchange. Even if you are on so-called fibre broadband, this still relies on good old BT cabling to get to the nearest cabinet.
Only two real options at this point, the first is to log in to your router and take a screenshot, or note, the up and down connection speeds which are normally in kbps (kilobits per second), divide this by 1000 which gives the Mbps figure. You can now compare this to the promised figure from your ISP. The second important route to take is to speak to a close neighbour and ask them if they can do the same, if they have a much better connection than you, and you have something to prove it, you are in a much stronger position to get a positive outcome.
Often an engineer will visit your property and do some tests which won't necessarily solve the problem, now is the time to produce some proof a close neighbour is getting a better service (assuming you have signed up for the same, or similar) and to ask the engineer to provide a valid reason as to why your connection is inferior. You may find BT will move you on to another connection at the exchange, or local cabinet, which makes things permanently better.
We appreciate this seems a chore but we had recent issues with broadband speeds at our own offices and it was only when we went to the lengths above we are able to get this actioned; our speeds doubled, up and down, once an engineer reluctantly moved our line.
Local User Accounts
After updates you may get notifications from time to time that you are not logged in to Microsoft as a general user and Microsoft doesn't recommended this. There's no reason you need to be logged in to a Microsoft account on your PC for you to use it and this message can be ignored.
When Cure May be Better than Prevention
Viruses, malware, ransomware, trojans, the list goes on and many software vendors will suggest they have the solution to preventing such intrusions. After many years of dealing with the fallout of such annoyances we have witnessed shortfalls in every piece of software which purports to keep you safe. Yes, some work better than others, but often at the expense of system resources which means your "protected" computer runs so slow, and has so many annoying pop up messages, the benefits are questionable.
Microsoft's operating systems historically came with no anti-virus but Security Essentials and Windows Defender have improved to the point they now offer an acceptable level of security for most instances (we've been using them for years without issue). The better approach, in our opinion, is to take a complete backup of all data on a daily basis or better still take a daily image of the workstation. This means that should your PC fall foul of one of these nasties, which aren't so common these days anyway, it's nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Cloning, or imaging, can be done for free using the built in Windows backup tools but can take quite a while and is quite a manual operation. Acronis offer a more robust cloning solution for around £35.00 per workstation and well worth a look: https://www.acronis.com/en-gb/
All of this enables you to recover your data, or entire PC, to a previously working state, should you have an issue, and means you don't need to pay annual subscriptions for bloated, intrusive anti-virus and/or endpoint protection.
Laptop Desktop or Tablet?
A question we are often asked when it comes to choosing a new or replacement PC so here’s a few pointers which may help in the decision process.
Probably the most important factors are space and portability. Obviously if you need to work on the move then laptops/tablets are the choice but you probably don’t need the burden of a laptop if you are only sending email and web browsing.
Tablets, such as Ipads and their Android counterparts, are generally much quicker to turn on, have longer battery life than laptops and, due to their operating systems, are less of a worry when it comes to viruses and malware. Unfortunately the very operating system that gives them those advantages also means you cannot always install the same software as on your desktop PC or laptop, so compatibility can be an issue. They are also a bit uncomfortable to work on for long periods due to their size and, whilst keyboard attachments are available, it’s not the same as working on a standard size keyboard. The other main reason to choose a laptop/tablet over a desktop would be if space is an issue as they obviously have a much smaller footprint and require less cabling.
All laptops running on Windows operating systems can generally operate in the same way as a desktop PC. Be aware though that if you buy a modern laptop it may not have a CD/DVD drive, something to consider if you have lots of software/music on CD’s/DVD’s. Also, laptops and tablets normally come complete with built in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cameras, all of which are normally additional items to buy on desktops, if required.
So it sounds like the end of the road for the desktop PC but not so, there are a few areas where their lighter, skinnier cousins fall short. Firstly longevity, due to their size there is less room for cooling and the circulation of air on a laptop and the inbuilt nature of their construction, means repair is generally far more difficult, and costly.
Desktop PC’s are generally more ergonomically friendly and, with their full size keyboards and mice, it means longer periods of work are less of a chore. Component failure is less of a problem on a desktop PC and it’s much easier to configure multiple screens and other external devices. Upgrading the internals is less common these days, but still far easier on a desktop.
Whilst, the laptop/tablet may look like the obvious choice you may find the old desktop PC actually suits your needs better in the long run.
Scams to be Aware of
3 scams which are still quite prevalant at the moment to be aware of.
The first involves an email warning the recipient they have been looking at dubious websites and need to send money, via Bitcoin or similar, or have their activites advertised to the wider world. The clever aspect of this is the scammers reinforce the message by claiming they have the recipient's password on file to enable them to hack their social media accounts and notify friends and family.
What they actually have is an older password gleaned from a list which has been sold to them by hackers on criminal websites. These password lists are acquired, then redistributed, after serious data breaches of larger companies which are often reported on the news. If you get one of these emails, ignore it, but make sure you change, and are no longer using, any password the criminals clearly have access to.
The next is a TV Licensing email doing the rounds claiming you are behind on payments or similar. A series of hyperlinks then leads you off on a path which only ends in a potential loss of funds so ignore any such emails, more on this one here: TV licensing scam details
There's also been a rise in email scams coming from HMRC and Amazon so treat any emails, or text messages with links, with the utmost care. If in doubt always inspect the properties of any email sender, and links to any website addesses, very carefully for typos and accuracy.
Chrome Warning of Impending Doom
We've seen a few recent cases of clients' computers showing rather alarming screens within the Chrome browser announcing their PC is about to self destruct and to call a telephone number within a certain time frame or risk losing everything. In all cases we've seen it has proven nothing more than a scam created via a browser extension in Chrome.
The alarming audio and screen can be shutdown using task manager, and resetting Chrome to its default settings gets rid of all extensions, it's then a good idea to do a full scan with anti-virus and anti-malware software, just to be sure.
This has always been a concern in business environments in regards to viruses and data security, but USB is starting to make the news more as a potential for malware infection on home PC’s. Recent reports have shown it is possible for USB sticks and devices to contain code that trick the PC into thinking a keyboard has been plugged in, the “keyboard” then instructs the computer to go online and start downloading further malware. USB sticks should be scanned before any files or folders are opened on them, it only takes a few seconds and can save a lot of problems later.
To scan a USB drive: open My Computer, from there you can normally right click on the icon and select scan for viruses, this should scan the USB device and report back.
If you tend to transfer data between computers using your own USB stick or external drive, it pays to scan them for malware and viruses regularly and not assume they are free of nasties just because you haven’t seen evidence of infection. Businesses with servers can disable all USB devices with Group Policies, something we always advise to do.
Windows 7 End of Life
Reminder - End of life for Windows 7, basically you'll need to upgrade any Windows 7 workstations as there are no longer any security patches and fixes for this operating system.Learn more
Windows 7 will continue to work but we don't advise exposing any such machine to the internet. Most workstations can still be upgraded for free using the following link: https://www.microsoft.com/software-download/windows10
The W10 updates have generally been problem free with only a few older workstations offering resistance. We'd advise backing up all valuable data beforehand as a precaution.
Passwords & Encryption
Password protected files are not the same as encrypted files (which offer a whole different level of security). Information sent to and from encrypted websites, and via encrypted email, is also a lot more secure, so here's some basic differences explained.
Passwords have been around for a long time and offer a "better than nothing" defence against intruders; the problem is passwords alone, once cracked, obtained or discovered, allow any data to be easily read. Think about a common scenario, your PC's operating system breaks and we need to transfer data from your old hard drive to a new PC, do we need your password to access your data? No, it's simply a matter of changing permissions on your old hard drive. However if you had encrypted your data we would need a "key" to decrypt it.
Sounds great but there's no "back door" so if you don't have the key, or the password that generated it, no-one can access it.
Passwords and encryption are often used interchangeably but without going into detail (and encryption is detailed), suffice it to say that a password protected Excel file is quite easy to open without the password but an Excel file on an encrypted drive/USB stick is pretty much impossible to access. Passwords are used with encryption but only to generate the "key" which scrambles the data, passwords alone do none of the scrambling.
Microsoft provides Bitlocker for encryption purposes on its later Windows operating systems, there are also plenty of encrypted USB devices (starting around £20) and NAS (Network Attached Storage) boxes which provide an alternative. Encryption can slow things down and have other side effects so no need to encrypt everything, you could get a couple of encrypted USB's and store any sensitive data on those, safe in the knowledge that should they get lost or stolen, the data is safe.
Website addresses starting HTTPS:// (note the S) show the traffic to and from them is being encrypted in transit, your email software will be using SSL/TLS if this is using encryption in transit.
There has been a rise in macro viruses spread through the usual channel of email attachments, normally in the form of Word or Excel documents. Macro code can be included in Word or Excel documents which can then be used for malicious purposes, typically a user opens an attachment and is then asked to enable macros via Microsoft Word, if the user agrees the malicious code is executed.
Macro security, with Word and Excel, can be found in the Trust Centre settings under File / Options / Trust Centre Settings and should be set to disable with notification unless there is a good reason for not doing so. As always, be extra vigilant if you receive an attachment via email, but macros are not always bad and are an excellent way of recording and storing repetitive tasks when using Microsoft’s Office programs.
Screens and Battery Life
Modern phones and tablets use a lot of battery resources if the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are left on, try turning them off when not needed. Apple have made this even easier on the new IPhone by simply dragging your finger up from the bottom of the screen whereby you can quickly access the on/off buttons for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, other brands have similar gestures giving the user quick access to these power hungry components.
Screen Cleaning - If your computer, phone or tablet screen needs a clean, try some hand cleaning gel and/or a clean cloth dampened with water from the kettle once it has cooled down. Always try a small area first and needless to say too much water and computers don’t mix well.
Old Scams Still Doing the Rounds
We are starting to see more encryption viruses appear, these are generally spread by the usual channels of a convincing looking email from a bank, building society, DHL, HMRC or other business or government body. Please be extra vigilant with any email attachments and if in doubt do not open anything suspicious, you are welcome to call us if you have any concerns over a particular email or attachment.
Microsoft Phone Call Scam - This has been around for a while but continues to catch people out, Microsoft will NEVER call you out of the blue. If someone calls you saying they are from Microsoft, or similar, and knows of problems with your computer the best course of action is to gently put the phone down, go and make a cup of tea and hope they have gone by the time you return. Some of our customers have recently been duped by these convincing scammers, and lost money, so always be wary and by all means give our office a quick call for free advice on any such matter.