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Support for Small Businesses
and Home Users


We provide assistance and advice to small businesses and home users. This includes advice on purchasing (what to buy and where to buy), setting up small networks so that you can share printers and internet connections, anti-virus precautions, software purchases and what to avoid, and general care and maintenance of your computer.

Should you break your computer, it's quite possibly software related, and we can assist in sorting out these problems. Be warned however, that sometimes the best solution is to scrap the lot (software-wise) and start again, by re-installing your system from scratch.

A nasty virus and the associated cleanup procedure can leave collateral damage that makes your computer very unreliable. Sometimes it is necessary to take a final back-up of your data, and then wipe the hard disk and re-install everything. This is not a quick process, and needs to be done with care if you are not to lose data. Alternatively, you can take the computer back to the shop, where for £50 or so, they will "re-stream" your computer for you. This will put your software back to the state it was in when you bought it. You then need to install your data, software and software updates from the software disks that you own and your regular data backup disks. Fine for a "commodity" PC, but not so clever if you have any real data!

We can assist you with data recovery and fighting viruses.

Once you have "caught" a virus, it's too late. The damage is done. Very often even more damage is done by inexpert use of anti-virus tools, or worse still, users deleting everything in sight as part of a scatter-gun approach.

 

Computers 101

A Computer is the most complex machine that you will ever own. It's a machine with literally millions of moving parts, the parts are moving hundreds of millions of times every second, they are too small to see (which makes it difficult to tell if they're working properly!) and they are very sensitive to static electricity, electrical interference and magnetism.

When a problem occurs, if you're lucky, it disables the computer and it "crashes". If you're unlucky, it carries on working, but gives you the wrong answers!

Often whole sections of a computer get damaged and stop working properly. The engine may still be running, but steering and front suspension has all dropped off. Typical examples of this style of fault are when a device driver (a piece of software that makes a device work) gets damaged, and your scanner or printer stops working. Sometimes you can just lift the suspension and bolt it back on, other times you have to remove it completely before you can put it back properly.

Forget the advice that "you can't hurt a computer" - it's utter rubbish! Computers are delicate precision instruments, and it's very easy to break them! So, some simple rules...

  1. Always power off a computer in the most gentle way that you can. Exit all programs using the menus or keyboard shortcuts. Use the shutdown option from the main menu. If the computer is doing something (especially if it's writing stuff to the hard disk), let it finish.

  2. If you have to interrupt a program, CTRL-ALT-DELETE is drastic. Press it and wait. After a short while (could be 30 seconds), the Task Manager should kick in, and allow you to select the program that you wish to shut down. This can be the start of a slippery slope that leads to your computer locking up!

  3. Many computers come with a "Reset" button. Use this when all keyboard options have failed!

  4. NEVER pull the plug on the computer except as a very last resort. Next to last is the power switch on the PC - if your PC has really crashed, pressing and holding the power switch for five seconds normally switches most computers off.

  5. If you get a "Blue Screen Of Death" (BSOD), it's normally a really serious error. Windows has probably got so screwed that it hasn't realised there is a problem, and a protection feature in the central processing unit (CPU) has detected the problem. One of the few "not so serious" BSOD errors is when you eject a CD that the computer hasn't finished with. In this case, putting the CD back in and following the on-screen instructions may get you out of the mess.

  6. If you are the proud owner of a real BSOD error, it can screw your computer up so badly that you not only need to shut down, but once the PC is off, you need to disconnect it from the mains for 30 seconds or so just to make sure it is dead dead dead! Quite a few crashes survive a "Restart" because the power doesn't really go off. Very few crashes survive a complete shutdown, but there is still sometimes enough electricity getting far enough into the PC to allow the problem to persist. (Have you ever noticed that the light is still on inside the mouse even when the computer is off?) So for a final solution, shut down and then switch off at the plug for a minute or so.

  7. Healthy computers don't crash. Sometimes you can get a "glitch", and the computer runs fine afterwards. Other times it's not quite right, and the best bet is to shut it down, and then restart it.

  8. If you suddenly get a faulty piece of hardware (commonly the scanner or printer stops working, or the CD ROM won't read a disk), then often a "reboot" (closing down, then switching it all off and starting again) solves the problem.

  9. Computers are only human. They have bad days. But if your computer is crashing as often as once a week, you have a problem! It may be software related - a particular web site, a particular document, whatever. If you have regular crashes, start a diary. Make a note of when it crashed, how it crashed (any error messages, etc.), what you were doing immediately before, and anything else that you think could be relevant. (Has this only started happening since you installed that wizzo new piece of hardware or software?) As mentioned above, you can't really see the computer working - you have to infer the fault from the symptoms.

  10. If you're installing hardware (internally or externally), make sure you know what you're doing! USB devices are generally designed to be "hot plugged" (connected or disconnected whilst powered up), but it's nicer to them if they are switched off when you make or break a connection, and you certainly shouldn't disconnect them while they're actually in use.

  11. Installing software may break your system, and uninstalling it again may leave some "poison in the wound". If you're planning on uninstalling it again, perhaps you shouldn't be installing it in the first place? Magazine CD's are a good example of software that you should really think hard about before installing. Far safer to put them in a box (with the magazine page that describes the contents), so that you can install it later if you need it!

  12. When uninstalling software, use any supplied uninstall programs, or uninstall via the Add / Remove Programs option in the Control Panel. Few programs uninstall completely just by deleting the folder contents, and some people think that deleting the desktop icon deletes the program. It does not!

  13. If you get a warning message, read it! Try to understand what it's trying to tell you, and if you are uncertain, look for the cancel button and use that!

  14. Computers are very literal. If you tell a computer to "forget it" (delete a file, folder, document etc.) then it will. And although you may be able to get it back from the Recycle Bin, it's not worth the risk! So take care - especially with "file manager" programs. You can have awful accidents simply by dragging a folder into the wrong place!

  15. Try not to get crumbs, tea, Coca Cola, or anything else that doesn't belong there in your keyboard, computer, printer, etc.. Consider a dust sheet for when it's not in use.

...and that's just for starters! But perhaps it'll help avoid some of the common ways of breaking your PC.

As a computer owner, it is up to you to care for the health of your computer!
We can assist you with advice and health checks.

 

Anti-Virus Precautions

It's a dangerous world on the internet, and thanks to some magnificently bad decisions by Microsoft, your computer is probably at risk. EVERY internet user should use a good Anti-Virus (AV) tool, and should keep it regularly updated. This should provide a lot of protection, although it WILL NOT protect you from all threats.

If you don't want to buy an AV program, then you can download a free version of AVG from www.grisoft.com. This is an excellent product, and the one drawback is that it's a 6Mb download - say 25 minutes on a good 56K dial up connection - and keeping it up to date involves a further, regular, large download.

If you're prepared to buy an Anti-Virus program, then reputable Anti-Virus companies include Norton, McAfee, Kapersky, www.hbedv.com and Sophos.

However, anti-virus software is just the start. You also need to use common sense (often not so common!). Too many viruses are spread because someone clicked on a strange e-mail attachment with a "wonder what this is..." wafting through the brain.

Some simple suggestions follow...

  1. Learn about Windows file extensions, and then switch them on. That way, you can see what type of file you are about to open. Although "fluffykitten.jpg" looks safe, if someone has put a "double extension" on the file, "fluffykitten.jpg.exe" is probably very unsafe. File extensions to avoid are .exe, .com, .bat, .vbs, .pif, .js, .shs, .hta and .scr.

  2. Don't open e-mail attachments unless you are sure that the user intended to send it to you and you know that it's safe. Many viruses propagate by infecting a computer, and then e-mailing themselves to e-mail addresses lifted from the address book or web page cache. So your friend's computer could be infected, and broadcasting viruses to everybody they know!

  3. Use the security features of your software - allow your e-mail client (Outlook Express) to block unsafe attachments, and use the macro protection features of Word and Excel to stop unsafe macros executing on your computer.

  4. Be skeptical about virus warnings. Many hoax viruses spread by asking you to pass "this warning" on to everyone in your address books. Check out "hoax" at any reliable anti-virus website, and you'll see an impressive list! And that "teddy bear" file really IS a part of windows!

  5. Beware of "official" messages from Microsoft / Symantec / Barclays Bank / Lloyds Bank / EBay etc. Microsoft do not send out security patches by e-mail, and Barclays and Lloyds (amongst others) have been the victims of forged e-mails being circulated.

Firewalls

When you establish an Internet connection the technology under the bonnet opens up a two-way communication line. If your PC is insecure, then it is possible for anyone on the internet to connect to your computer, read your files, alter your files, or write information to your disk - all without your knowledge.

A firewall is something that sits between you and the internet and monitors and controls what goes in and out of your computer. Sometimes a black box, and sometimes a piece of software, firewalls require care and feeding to work properly. Windows XP comes with a very basic one, and a good (free) (real) one is Zonealarm, available from www.zonelabs.com. Real firewalls are not for the faint-hearted, and need to be configured to allow all those programs to connect to the internet - your browser, e-mail client, and anti-virus updates for a start.

When you see how often your computer is scanned from the internet, you can quickly become paranoid! (But then again, just 'cos you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you!)

 

Other Internet Threats

In addition to viruses, there are a whole range of other threats that exist on the Internet, that can be downloaded onto your PC and run without your knowledge. This class of problem includes :-

  • Spyware - which monitors the web sites, pages and advertisements that you view, and reports this information back to their systems.

  • Diallers - often associated with adult sites, these can silently disconnect your internet connection, and then re-dial a VERY expensive phone number, often located abroad. Your internet connection is then making a lot of money for someone, and a big expense for you!
  • Hijackers - these boys replace your home page with one of their own, and often redirect searches through another site. The purpose is not always clear, but it's likely that they are making money out of you somehow!

Many of these nasties install as "Broswer Helper Objects" (BHO's) via Internet Explorer, and somehow get completely ignored by even the best anti-virus programs. They can install things on your computer without your knowledge, and run them when they want. And if they can do that, they are a real threat!

We can assist you with data recovery and fighting viruses and other threats.

Shields Up

Shields Up is a computer scanning service available from www.grc.com that probes your computer from the internet and tells you what it finds. If you run any sort of a network, you should definately check to see how much of the "works" your PC is showing to passers-by on the net. If you're badly configured, any shared disks and printers, plus the name of your PC and workgroup may be displayed (and thus vulnerable), and your PC may allow people on the Internet to connect to your computer.

The GRC site is a mine of information about Windows security vulnerabilities, and it has some very useful tools for dealing with a few of the worst vulnerabilities. Do you regularly get "instant messenger" style popups on your computer? If so, then you really need to look at GRC's "three musketeers"!

Windows Updates

King of the bloatware, Windows suffers greatly from poor security, and you really need to ensure that your PC is kept up to date with Windows Update (normally one of the options off the Start menu). This connects to the internet, downloads a small program (if you let it), takes a survey of your PC, and gives you a list of updates that are available. These fall into three categories -

  • Critical Updates and Service Packs,

  • Windows, and
  • Drivers

The Critical Updates are just that - Critical! Look at the descriptions and see just how many security holes have been found in your system! These updates should be downloaded and installed, and you need to check back on a regular basis, as new vulnerabilities are regularly discovered and fixed.

The Windows selection contain all sorts, but mainly seem to consist of every obscure language under the sun. There are one or two useful things in here occasionally!

The Drivers section may have updated drivers for some of your kit, which may make your PC work a bit better if you have problems.

Explore the Windows Update site, read the warnings, but seriously consider keeping your PC updated.

Recording CD's and Backups

You can never have too many backups. Recordable CD's are cheap, as are the devices to write to ("burn") them. If your hard disk dies, you may need to use the backups to recover your data.

Sadly, the life of burned CD's is proving to be a big disappointment! Verified CD's stored carefully are sometimes unreadable after as little as two years, and often unreadable by four years. You may be lucky, but is it worth the risk? (Note that most "production" CD's are created using a different process, and do not suffer the same problems - or at least, not to the same extent!)

As a backup medium, CD's may be fine. If your system dies, unless you want to do a lot of typing, you'll recover using a fresh backup that may only be a matter of days old.

However, as an archive medium, they may not be so clever! Copy the contents of your digital photo album to CD to create space on your hard disk, and after a few years the images may be lost forever. Or perhaps it's a previous years accounts. Or correspondence.

Be warned!

And keep the backups somewhere safe. It's no good if your business computer is stolen along with the backups. Or damaged in the same fire. Spread the risk by keeping the backups in separate premises. (And if you have sensitive information on the disks, make sure it's somewhere secure!).

You can never have too many
back-up copies of your data!

 
Shoeboxes

The most important piece of equipment that a computer user will have is the shoebox. This is rarely supplied by the manufacturer (although it should be!), and is used to hold all the little bits of paper and disks that come with your computer. This will often include a System Recovery CD and a Driver CD. These are used to recreate your computer as it was when you took delivery of it.

If you do a full system restore in this way, you will have to retrieve your data from your backup CD's, and all other software will have to be reinstalled from the original CD's that you obviously still possess.

Should you not maintain your shoebox correctly, it is normally possible to find and download drivers and such from the internet, but it is far easier if you have the original disks! A number of computer manufacturers have no interest (or no will!) to supply you with replacement disks, so it is up to you to keep the originals safe!

We aim to provide accurate, realistic advice to help you get the most out of your computer investment!

 
Computer and Data Use

As experts in using and managing data and systems, we can advise you how how your computer can be used to assist you in the day to day running of your house or business. We can assist you with choosing software and systems, arranging data so that it can be used to provide you with information, and provide training so that you understand what you are doing!

Key Benefits

  • Allows you to turn data that you already have, into information that you can use to help justify your decisions.

  • Allows you to make the best effective use out of two of your most critical resources - your time and your money.
  • Allows you to provide a more effective service to your customers, leading to increased customer satisfaction and customer retention.