Search This Blog- Enter the tip # or a keyword(s)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

1242. Computer collaboration

It seems that we (Doug and Ken) often need to collaborate in such a way that Ken can see Doug's computer desktop from his office, or vice versa. What are the options for screen sharing and collaboration across the Internet?

There are many options for screen sharing with friends and co-workers. In each case, the technology is secure, because you control who sees your screen and when. You control what portion of your screen the viewer can see; you control whether guests can take control of your keyboard and mouse; you control whether guests can transfer files.

Although there are several different options for providing screen sharing (an excellent way to provide and get technical support, by the way, and one that many major software vendors now use for technical support), they all basically work alike. In every case, the computer doing the sharing must install host software that allows the computer's screen to be seen; the client computer must install the same (or a different) piece of software that allows it to view the host's screen. In addition, the software manages the connection between the two computers through the internet.

Depending on the software, you may only be able to perform one-to-one screen sharing sessions, or you may be able to host meetings where one person shares a screen with many people (for online training, for example) or where many people share their screens with many people (for online meetings). Some services allow you to share audio and video in addition to screen sharing.

In terms of simple screen sharing (the point of this tip), the most common service is VNC (Virtual Network Computing), an open-source standard that's built into Linux and Mac OS X for free screen sharing. If you have a Linux or Mac computer, you can set up a VNC client application (such as RealVNC, TightVNC, or UltraVNC) and quickly set up screen sharing using the VNC standard. Going this route is free, but requires some technical expertise on both ends.

In terms of simple-to-use screen sharing, you can't beat TeamViewer (free for non-commercial, private use), and LogMeIn (free in a limited-use version).

Commercial (for pay) services include,,, and Doug's favorite, Microsoft’s Lync .  You can also sign up for your own company's Office 365 service that includes Lync support at the Malibu Software Group website.

If you are looking for technical help from friends, want to work on a spreadsheet with a co-worker, or need to give an audio/video presentation to 25 people, there is software available for you--and at very reasonable prices.

1253. Sharing files

Shari wants to share large files with co-workers and friends.  What is the best solution?

First of all, resist the urge to send large files as email attachments, especially when they're large files -over 1MB.

There are far better ways than email to send large files to your friends and co-workers. If nothing else, be sensitive to the fact that your friends may suffer with a slow connection (or worse, dialup) and nothing is more infuriating than to quickly connect to the internet to pick up your email, and to find a huge attachment of a movie of Aunt Eleanor's parrot or the latest antics of a newborn. Just say "No!": Don't send these files via email attachments.

To share those "important" videos (please note the irony implied by the quotes), post them to Facebook. That way, people who want to watch the baby smile can do so. If, on the other hand, you need to actually share files with friends and co-workers, consider a legitimate file-sharing service.

There are myriad such services, and they all offer different features, at different costs. You can easily share files and folders that you store in our favorite file sharing/synchronizing/backup service, Dropbox. The beauty of DropBox is that it doesn't require you to upload the file--by storing it in your DropBox folder, it's instantly available for sharing.  Actually it still uploads it, but that is all done under the covers.

If you prefer to upload the files you want to share, check out file sharing services like YouSendIt, MediaFire, WeTransfer, Droplr, and Ken's current favorite, CloudApp. (And there are lots more, as well!) All these services provide limited free accounts, with fewer restrictions, greater bandwidth, and larger file size caps with paid accounts.

Treat your friends the way you want to be treated: Don’t make them receive the files unless they want to receive them.

And remember: only share legally.  No pirating please!

1237. Mac or PC

Connie asks: "I need a new computer.  I have an old Windows system.  Some of my friends have Macs.  Should I switch?"
I certainly don’t think you should get a new computer unless there is a good reason.  
You can certainly expect to use any current computer for at least three to four years without expecting any hardware failures, and with expectations that it will be powerful enough for any software you might want to run in that time period.  Business software usually has feature upgrades every one to three  years.  Most computers built in the last six years should be able to take advantage of any of the software upgrade features.  
So what is the reason you're considering upgrading?  Do you want a faster, shinier computer, or do you just want the latest and greatest like Ken does?

Changing from a PC to a Mac or visa versa is a big step.  I personally think you should buy a computer based upon the best software for your needs.  
Years ago the Mac was thought to be better for art, drawing and music applications.  
The PC was generally thought to be better for business needs.  Today for the most part there are no significant advantages for applications running on a PC or Mac.  There however are exceptions.

Again, find the best software for your needs and get the best computer to run your software.

1240. I get too much spam: How do I get less?

I keep getting spam.  I have spam filter software.  It doesn't seem to work. What can I do to make sure I get less spam?

First of all, I assume that by "spam" you're referring to unwanted emails, not highly processed, salty luncheon meat right? We'll just go with that assumption.

At this point, just about all the popular online email services have spam protection built in.  Some are better than others. (Ken swears by his Gmail spam protection--he never gets any unwanted emails in his Gmail accounts.) You may also find additional free and/or fee-based spam software to add to your base service.

Some popular spam protection products for consumer use include Spam Arrest and Spam Assassin. Corporate email providers might want to investigate Postini, by Google.  Both Office 365 and Google Mail have great spam filters built into them.

Almost all spam filters allow you to adjust the severity of the filtering. The more restrictive the setting, the more likely you are to get "false positives" -- that is, email that isn't spam sent to your spam folder. You can adjust the level of filtering, and it may take some trial and error to work out the best setting.

Most spam services allow you to set up "black lists" (email address and domains from which you will accept no email) and "white lists" (email address from which you will accept any email, which avoids the false positive problem). Make sure you check out these options in your own spam filtering software.

If things get too bad, you can usually set your spam filter to only allow email to be received from people in your contact list. This means, of course, that you'll never see email from strangers, but that can be a good thing!

In addition, consider that when you sign up for a web service using your email account, you will most likely and up receiving more spam--almost every free service requires you to "sign" an agreement that allows the site to share your email information. If at all possible, when you sign up for a service, attempt to limit the exposure of your email address by not agreeing to its free use.

Many people set up "throw-away" email addresses using a free email host (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and others) just for signing up for sites online. That way, if you find that you get too much spam at that address, you can simply close the account and set up a new one.

Finally, as a "last-ditch" drastic step, you can sign up for a new email address that will become your primary email address, alert all your contacts that you have changed your address, and then close the original address. You must ensure never to use this email address for anything except email--use a "throw-away" free email address for everything else. It will take some effort to set up, but this may be your best solution.

1236. Will Operating System Updates break my computer?

Should I keep my Windows system updated?  I heard an update could break things.
Yes, it’s true--it's possible that operating system updates can break compatibility with existing applications and functionality. And this really applies to both the PC and the Mac.  

Although regular operating system upgrades are tested thoroughly, they have been known to break compatibility with some applications, so that things that may have worked before an upgrade no longer work afterwards.

It seems like Microsoft and Apple have come a long way in trying to make sure the upgrades do not break things.  Both systems create checkpoints when they upgrade your system and you can usually remove an upgrade if it breaks something. But problems still occur, and the best approach is to make sure you have important information backed up.
Our advice is to use the automatic upgrades so your system does not become vulnerable to viruses and other problems.  On the other hand, this technique only works if you ensure that you have a current backup.

Use Time Machine on your Mac and Windows Backup to insure that all of your important information is always backed up.

1238. Fix a Dropped Internet Connection

I always lose my internet connection. I don’t know if it is my wireless connection, my internet provider or my computer. What is the best way to get connected again?

The solution to this problem depends on the type of connections you have to the internet.  This tip assumes you have a broadband connection, such as DSL or cable. (If you're using dialup, the only solution is to hang up the phone and redial!)

Typical home broadband internet connections consist of three logical devices.  First is the modem (which  connects your DSL/cable connection into a computer connection usually referred to as ethernet.)  Next is the router, which allows multiple computers to share the connection and often allows both wired and wireless connections. (Sometimes, the modem and router are combined into a single physical unit). The third part of the device chain is the network hardware in your computer.

The quickest way to attempt to fix a problem is to turn off all of the devices. Turn the power off for each and wait at least 15 seconds before starting to turn power back on.  Use the normal computer shutdown functions and then make sure the power is off.

Next, turn on the devices in this specific order: First the modem, then the router, and finally your computer.  I would wait at least one minute or more between devices to make sure each device has completely started up before turning on the next device.

If you still have a problem, you will likely need to contact your ISP to help determine where the problem is.  The good (or bad) news is that ISP support technician will most likely require you to perform these same steps again in order to be able to help you. You can try convincing the technician that you've already taken the steps, but be prepared to walk through them again.

If you want more information, check out the following link on the web site.

1239 . How can I make free calls?

Joe does a lot of long distance calling.  He wants to save money and not use all of his calling minutes on his limited cell phone plan.  Is there a phone service that allows him to make free local and long-distance calls while home?
There are a number of free or low-cost telephone services that work using your high-speed internet connections.  We personally use a combination of these services.
Ken previously provided a tip about Skype, which works great with video and audio calls but provides free calls only between two computers. That is, the call must be originated on a computer, and both sides of the conversation must be running the Skype application on the computer.  You can’t call a regular land line or wireless phone unless you pay additional fees. You can't originate a Skype call from a land line without paying extra fees to Skype, either.
Google Voice has a great free service that allows you to call phone lines, but the calls must be initiated on a computer. We’ll discuss Google Voice in more detail in several other tips. If you are technically savvy and can live with initiating calls to phones from your computer, Google Voice is a great, free option.
OBiHai Technologies  has released a hardware device that allows you to use a regular telephone to make Google Voice calls.  You aren’t required to have a computer to make and receive the calls, and for $50 or so, you get free calling over Google Voice. Ken uses and loves this device (he has the Obi202, which costs slightly more than Obihai's cheapest device).
There are a ton of Voice over IP (Or VOIP) providers that will supply service for a very low per-minute cost. You can start your search here.
CostCo currently sells a product called Ooma that provides free calling, similar to Google Voice using the Obihai box, except that you must pay monthly taxes and fees.
Magic Jack and Vonage provide similar services, for a monthly fee.

There are tons of options. Choosing the right one for you requires a bit of research, however. (You must also have a reasonably reliable and speedy broadband connection.)

Note that you may not use VOIP phone lines for 911 calls, in almost every case.

1234. Make Mac Tray Icons Bigger

Doug asks: "As you're painfully aware,  I have just started using a Mac. I can get around my Windows computer with no problems, but the tray of icons at the bottom of the Mac screen seems awfully small.  Is there some way to make it bigger?"

Doug, I feel your pain. After using Windows exclusively for nearly 25 years, I started using Mac about four years ago and remember the pains it took to learn the operating system.

You can easily show or hide the icon dock (as it's called), and you can change its size. Look carefully at the right hand side of the dock, between the main group of icons and the small set on the right. You'll see little tread marks that look like the divider down the middle of the road. If you click and drag on those tread marks, you can change the size of the dock.

If you right-click on those tread marks you'll find other options, as well.  For example, you can turn hiding for the tray on or off. You can turn magnification of icons on or off. (That is, as you drag your mouse over the icons, if magnification is on then you'll see a magnified view of each icon.) You can control the dock's position on the screen and you can control other dock preferences as well.

But to answer your specific question, clicking and dragging on the tread marks will increase the size of the dock containing program icons.

As you'll find in any graphical operating system, there are a lot of non-discoverable features on the Mac and you have to use the operating system, and dig around a little, to find them.  This is just one of the many features like that.

1233. Replacing a Laptop Keyboard

Kirsti asks: "My son took his laptop apart because the fan wasn't working. He blew dust out of the fan, and it's all better now, but now the keyboard doesn't work. How can he fix it?"

As Kirsti's son found out, it's generally easy to take a laptop apart and clean out the insides, given a few screwdrivers of varying sizes. I have done this many times with my own, because I have several cats and the laptop gets clogged up with cat hair over time. I just pulled apart a friend's laptop to replace the DVD drive, as well. It's just held together with a lot of screws--we had to remove 16 screws to get the bottom off of my friend's laptop.

The problem with digging around inside a laptop (besides the fact that you're likely to void your warranty by doing so) is that it's very tight inside there, and there a lot of connections in a very small space. I am sure Kirsti's son didn't break the keyboard: Most likely he just didn't reconnect it correctly. There is generally a very small connector on a ribbon cable that attaches the laptop keyboard to the motherboard of the laptop. If you don't attach that just exactly right, the laptop keyboard won't work. This is easy to test: If the computer boots up but the keyboard doesn't work, try connecting an external keyboard. If that works, most likely the existing built-in keyboard just isn't connected right. (Of course, it is possible to break a laptop keyboard--pour a can of Coke on it, for example, even when the computer's off, and that keyboard will most likely never work again. But that's a completely different topic.)

If, on the other hand the keyboard is really broken, it's generally easy to replace the keyboard. You can often find replacement parts at the manufacturer's website. I have also found and Ebay to be useful places to find individual parts for my laptop. There are a lot of "fly-by-night" computer parts dealers online, so find a reputable dealer, and you should be able to replace any part, including the keyboard.

1232. Sync Phone Contacts

Dee asks: "I have a lot of contacts on my phone and I am worried if I lose my phone I will lose all of my contacts. How can I back up the contacts on my phone?"

This is a really important question because everyone is likely to loose a phone at one point or another. Unless you physically attach it to your person, it's easy to drop, misplace, or destroy.

If you are using a standard (that is, not-smart) phone, you will need to rely on a service that your provider gives you.  For example, Verizon and AT&T provide services that back up the contents of your phone using their own tools. They may charge for the service, but it is (or was, the last time we checked) available. Other providers may supply a similar service, as well.

If you are using a smartphone like an iPhone, a Windows Phone, or an Android phone then you have more options.
I for example store all my contacts on Google, as part of my Gmail account. All my contacts "live" on Google's server, and I just sync my phone with my Google account. If I were to lose my phone, all my email and contact information would still be store on the Google servers, and I could easily replace the phone and simply sync the new one with the existing online information. For more information on how to set this up, check out this link.

If you use an iPhone, you can also take advantage of Apple's iCloud service. You can use iCloud to perform an automatic backup of the contents of your phone to Apple's servers for you. This is a free service. It comes with the phone, and only requires that you sign up for the service. For more information, check out this link.

If you have a smart phone, you should take advantage of one of these ways to sync your contacts with one of these online services so losing your phone won't cause you to lose all of your contacts.

1231. Free online video chats

Kathy asks: "I heard there is a free way to do video chats online.  What is it? I need this!"

I know Doug knows the answer because we both use this technology and it's also FREE.

Skype provides free audio and video chatting from computer to computer.  I found when I want to do a audio chat or just a conversation with a friend that also has Skype it provides a far better audio quality signal than I get with an ordinary phone line.  As long as I have decent bandwidth, it works great! Dial-up doesn't provide quite enough bandwidth, but even slow DSL or almost any other connection is fine for Skype. (Connections with very long latency, such as Hughes and BlueSky satellite connections, tend not to work well either.) Obviously, audio-only chats require far less horsepower than audio/video chats.

Skype also allows you to create free video chats with one or more other people.  And all you need is a Skype account, along with a computer that has a microphone and a video camera attached on each end.  It's simple to set up and it's free, when you're making calls from computer to computer. (Making audio calls from your computer to a land or mobile phone does require paying a per-minute or monthly fee, but these charges are generally much less than similar charges from the telephone company.)

Convince your friends to sign up for Skype. It's free, it's easy and you can have audio and video chats over your computer.  For more information, visit and sign up for a free Skype account.

1230. What phone number should I call to reach you?

Steve asks: "I have an office phone, home phone and cell phone. My friends never know which one to call to find me. Is there a way to simplify my life and give out a single phone number?"

That's a great question and this is the first in a series of tips we will do that all have the same simple free answer.

The answer is to use the free service provided by Google:  Google Voice.

If you have a Gooogle account you can simply sign up for Google Voice once you have logged into your Google account. If you don't have one, you can easily create a Google account and then add Google Voice to your account.

Google Voice allows you to select a free local phone number (often in a specific telephone area code and exchange). Given that number, you can set up "real" phone numbers that Google will ring when someone calls your Google Voice number. For example, I have one Google Voice number that I hand out to all my friends and relatives.  It calls me at my home, cell, and office numbers. I can control via the web site exactly when it calls me at each of those number, or which it calls first.

You can pick up the call at any of your phones and the caller will have no idea where they reached you. You can easily transfer incoming calls between the phones associated with your Google Voice account, and what's more, Google Voice includes voice mail service that converts the recorded message to text and can email you the transcript of the voice mail message, so you don't need to listen to the message to determine what the caller wanted. (The transcription service isn't perfect, but it's awfully good.)

Google Voice is a wonderful, free service. It's possible that Google might charge for the service at some point, but for now it's free. We use it every day and couldn't possibly recommend it any higher.

1229. Email from friends with text and a link

I have been getting a lot of strange emails from people I know, and in every case, the email contains a single sentence and link.  Clearly my friends did not send me these emails.  What's up with this?

I have been getting a lot of these, too, and it is amazing that the number of them has increased over the past two weeks.

The emails contain sentences like "wow this is intense you should give it a look", or "this is crazy you should check the out." (Note the excellent grammar in the previous one.)  Or "wow this is pretty crazy you should look into it".

In every case the text is followed by a link.  I don't know that you have to click the link to get infected by whatever this spammer is doing.  Most likely the spammer has guessed your email password and has broken into your account and is just sending email to everyone in your contact list.

If you find you have been affected by this, the first thing you need to do is change your password at your online provider (for example, if your email is supplied by Comcast, browse to and log into your email account there).  Chose a new password that is difficult to guess: for best protection, select one that includes both upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers and symbols.  If you just include just letters, anyone who wants to work at it can break into your account in a few seconds using a computer program built for that sort of thing.

In any case delete these emails.  Don't ever click the links! Remember: just because you know who sent you the email, it isn't necessarily safe to open it!