Monthly Archives: July 2012

Stocking a few spare tech parts, what and why

Stocking a few spare tech parts, what and why If you use a computer as part of your daily work or personal life — and you probably do — then you know that they often run into minor problems.

Some can be fixed quickly and easily by simply re-booting the machine, or by doing software stuff. (I covered these in the post “Basic Quick Fixes for Troubled Gear.”)

Some of these fixes are best left to an IT professional or somebody else with experience in fixing computers — in particular, anything that involves opening up the case. Not only can this be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can also create additional problems if you aren’t careful.

But there’s a lot that you, a coworker, family member or friend can do if you have the right part on hand.

And since many of these problems occur when it’s not convenient to go out and buy the part — you may be on deadline and can’t take the two hours. Or the weather may be abysmal. Or it may be midnight or a holiday when the stores you want are closed. As for going online, you may not be able to wait for delivery — and the problem you’re facing might mean you can’t get online, anyways.

I’ve found it’s best to have a few spares and other things on hand.

The best — and certainly most extreme — “spare part” is another complete computer, of course. Of course, that’s not always an option. Luckily, a remarkably small set of things will solve many common problems.

The Basics: Peripherals and Cables

Here’s my recommended starter list:

  • Keyboard

All it takes to ruin a keyboard is a little dirt or spilled coffee — even one bad key can keep you from working comfortably.

Because keyboards aren’t all exactly alike, get one that’s the same as the one you use. For example, I use a Microsoft “ergonomic” keyboard, which has the keys angled — I can use a “regular” keyboard, but it’s much less comfortable. (Make sure that it has the right type of plug as your current keyboard, e.g., USB, PS/2, Bluetooth wireless.)

  • Monitor

When you buy your next monitor, save your old one if it still works.

  • Mouse (or other pointing device)

Like keyboards, make sure you have a spare like what you use. For example, I use a trackball. I could use a mouse if I had to, but I’m comfortable with my trackball. And, if you use one, a mousepad.

  • Headset (if you normally use one)
  • Main cables

Your computer’s power cable or video cable aren’t likely to fail, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  • Other cables

I keep several spare cables around, including a printer cable, an Ethernet cable, and a few USB cables (there’s several types of USB jacks, make sure you’ve got the right bunch).

  • Any other ergonomic accessories you use, like wrist pads.

Extra-Credit Suggestions

Even if your computer has a built-in optical CD/DVD drive, having an external USB-powered one can’t hurt — there’s other good reasons to have one anyway.

A handful of cable adapters, including “gender-menders” and type-to-type adapters, e.g., 9-to-15 pin VGA, and a VGA/HDMI adapter.

If you’re comfortable and confident, a spare hard drive may be useful — along with an external USB hard drive adapter/chassis.

Depending on how old the computer is (some of your friends and family still have a few that are five, ten, or more years old, I guarantee), you may also want a USB floppy drive.

My list isn’t that long, you’ll notice.

I’m not saying you should rush out and buy all this stuff — other than the keyboard, if you don’t have a spare already. But keep your eyes open at yard sales (see my post, “Yard Sales: A Good Place for Tech Bargains“) and other places. Used/yard-sale prices for keyboards and mice are usually one to five bucks — if friends don’t have some to give away. Smaller (19″ and under) , classic-format flatscreens should be ten bucks or less — or free. (You should be able to get a good CRT for free, but flatscreens are less bulky to store, of course.)

And put as much of these in a box, label it carefully — and remember where you put it all.

Sooner or later, you’ll thank me for this advice.



Should your next laptop have a solid state hard drive?

Now that you can get solid state hard drives (SSDs) on most laptops, it might be timely to consider purchasing one. These drives are somewhat of a misnomer: there is no rotating media, unlike the vast majority of hard drives that you have used since your first PC. Instead, they contain a bank of memory chips, like the ones used in PC memory (RAM). They have two issues: the capacity of the hard drive is generally less than the traditional disk. While it’s rare to find a laptop that has less than a 350 GB hard drive, it’s unusual to find SSDs with more than 256 GB of capacity. They also cost more money too.

In June, Apple announced new MacBooks with SSD options: previously, they were only available in the MacBook Air models. Here is an example from Apple’s website showing the options available and the SSD will cost you at least $200 extra):

Apple MacBook Pro hard drive options
Apple SSD Options

They are also available as options from Dell and other PC makers. Here is a screenshot from the Dell ordering website where you can see you’ll end up paying up to $230 extra for the SSD: Lattitude hard drive options

Dell SSD Options

So given that you will pay more for less storage, why bother? One big reason is performance. Your websites will load a lot faster. You can switch from one window to another in an instant. If you are doing tasks such as video or photo editing, you will notice that your computer works much faster when it has to save or read your files. To get an idea of the various manufacturers’ price/performance, check out AnandTech’s benchmarking page here.

You can also get a better-performing hard drive for less money than an SSD. On the screenshots above, you can see Dell offers a 7200 rpm drive for less than the SSD. This number refers to the speed of the rotation of the drive: traditional drives usually operate at 5400 rpm.

You can also buy a laptop with the smallest traditional rotating media and replace it with an after-market SSD too, if you are handy enough and patient enough to re-install the apps and operating system.

So, should you take the SSD plunge? If your storage needs are modest, or if you can offload your biggest files to an external drive, and if you want the lightest laptop and don’t mind spending the extra dough, then yes. Figure on spending at least $900 to $1,200 for current SSD-enabled laptops. If you need more than 128 GB of storage or are price-sensitive, then wait and stick with traditional rotating media for now.


Mozy Stash - Mobile 

Silver Lining: Small-Business Owners Suggest Economic Optimism During Tough Economic Times

A silver lining for small businessesHere’s something that might seem counterintuitive, given all the economic bad news that small-business owners have to wade through in these times: small-business owners aresaying that the future’s looking bright and looking up.

That’s what became clear in a June 2012 in a survey of more than 1,000 small-business respondents. Of them, 76% said they are optimistic about their company’s growth for the remainder of the year. Other interesting numbers from the survey include:

  • Fewer than 7% said the opposite of “expected growth,” that they thought conditions for their business would decline by the end of 2012.
  • About 17% of the small-business owners said that the November U.S. Presidential election would further determine how they feel about a positive or not-so-positive future for their shops.

But that’s not all. The survey also reveals a correlation between the age of the business owner and the level of optimism. The younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is positive about the future. Let’s dig into those numbers.

Youthful Optimism: Digging Deeper into the Small-Business Owner’s Mindset

The survey, conducted by j2 Global — a provider of cloud services, such as e-fax, virtual phones, and e-mail — indicated that while a majority of respondents are optimistic about the months to come, those under 32 years old were the most confident of the lot.

The tally: 85% of the Millennial generation’s respondents said that they expected their business to grow. The numbers then dipped a bit as the answers came from older owners.

  • 81% of those between 33 and 47 years said they felt optimistic about their business.
  • 71% ranging from 48–66 years were positive about business growth.
  • 64% of owners over 67 were feeling bullish about the future of their work.

“I think younger business owners are in a group maybe more tailored to the current economy and current world,” said Mike Pugh, vice president, marketing of j2 Global. “Maybe they adopted mobile devices and models that allow them to be more nimble. They may have less infrastructure and overhead, with what they do based on the cloud-based solutions that are out there.

“Another part of it is what I like to say is the sheer optimism of youth,” Pugh continued, referring to youth especially during tough economic times. “They have been through this on a shorter timespan, and the older generation: they’ve been through more. They’ve been through this before. Maybe they fell less heartened about taking it on another time.”

Social Media as Growth Promoter: New Opportunities for the ‘Nimble’

One of the reasons the youngest cohort is the most positive might be that the business world is shifting away from brick and mortar to online and interconnected.

According to j2 Global’s survey, one in three owners say their marketing strategy is now completely social-media centered. And 26% say social media takes up half or more of their marketing-strategy time.

And then there’s the effect of mobile-device technology.

No longer shackled to a desk in some back office, mobile-minded small-business owners may be saving up to 370 million hours of time per year by going mobile with location-non-dependent apps.

Indeed, the survey says that 38% of small-business owners use five or more mobile applications to keep their operations running well.

“Nimble is the word that comes to my mind,” said Pugh. “My opinion about these mobile-based businesses is they have the flexibility to start up, to wind down, to change and to restart faster. An older capital-intense business has to raise money, get a facility, buy equipment. Your ability to change your mind is pretty slim.”

And so, when it comes to optimism, Pugh said: “The key word is nimbleness, and that compresses all these timeframes, and it makes for more opportunities to change. And with that, you can change the rules.”


Mozy Mobile App


Just Say No to App Overload

Just Say No to App OverloadIt started innocently enough. The first one was free. So you tried it. And you liked it. And you wanted more. So you went back, this time handing over $1.99. It was good, but it could have been better, so you tried one for $6.99.

Before you knew it, your smartphone began to resemble a sort of third-rate strip mall, a hodgepodge of how to speak Thai, how to win at poker, how to properly carve a turkey. Your reliance on applications didn’t pass unnoticed, but you began making excuses, saying you were just downloading them for a friend.

As an app-aholic, downloading apps began to affect your life negatively in the following ways: You were recklessly wasting precious megabytes on your phone, you were spending more than any man should on ‘80s arcade games, and you were leading an all-around disorganized mobile existence that was affecting your work performance.

Don’t give up, though. There is help, and it only takes three or four steps to bring order back to your iPhone or Android device. Read on to find out how to restore organization to your smartphone’s applications.

Cut Ties With the Past 

That Bubblewrap app certainly provided you with hours of mindless fun, but that was three years ago. It’s time to let go of the past and move on. Delete it. It’s simply doing you no good on page 8 of your apps screen.

Call it tough love, but it’s a good idea to habitually go through your apps and get rid of ones that no longer provide any meaningful function. If you haven’t used an app in six months, cut it loose. If you find you need it again, you can always reinstall it on your phone without having to pay for it again.

There’s a Folder for That

The iPhone and Android devices have a super handy feature that allows you to group similar apps into a folder. This greatly reduces the overall clutter and sprawl that got you into this predicament in the first place, and it helps you quickly locate an app when you need it instead of having to scroll through numerous pages.

With the iPhone, simply touch one of the apps you’d like to add to a folder, wait for it to shake and then place it on top of another similar app and both will be added to the new folder. Simple as that, and each folder can hold 12 apps on the iPhone. Using this system, all of your apps could fit on just one screen.

Edit Before You Get It

Don’t be afraid to edit your app purchases before you make them, the same way you would weigh the pros and cons before buying anything. Sure, they’re cheap enough to buy on a whim, but so is malt liquor. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

If you’re confident the app will make communicating with co-workers or customers better, then go for it. If you think it might be good for only one or two uses, hold off.

It’s easy for life and work to get a bit messy every now and again. An easy way to begin regaining some order can simply start with your smartphone.

As far as restoring order to the garage, well, you’re on your own.




UPS update: What’s new, what to remember

There are several products every computer owner should have, to protect their hardware, software, and data. On the software side, this includes anti-virus/anti-malware, a firewall, and other security software.

On the hardware side, a UPS — Uninterruptible Power Supply — to protect against power glitches and outages.

(And a backup, in case something does happen.)

UPS update: What's new, what to rememberProblems with electric power can do everything from scramble the data on your hard drive or interfere with current work to causing your hardware to wear out faster — or even destroy key components instantly.

And even in the best locations, the quality of electrical power is subject to events that can send bad power to your computer. It doesn’t have to be a lightning strike; big-motor gear like an air conditioner, or other devices, on the same circuit, can reduce the power or send noise down the line. Or something can cause the circuit breaker to trip, resulting in zero power to the outlet.

A UPS includes a surge protector to guard against “bad” power — surges, spikes, and noise. And it also includes a battery, allowing the UPS to provide power (“run time”) to your computer even when not enough, or none, is coming in.

In general, small office/home office (SOHO) UPSs are intended to let your gear keep working throughout brief power interruptions of a few seconds or less, and give you the time to close files and shut down the computer in an orderly fashion if there’s a longer power outage (minutes to hours). (A UPS may then keep your cable modem and router going for an hour or more — or it may not. But it’s not good for the UPS battery to be drained all the way down.)

Buying the Right UPS

For desktop/SOHO users, UPSs are available for anywhere from $50 to $200.

UPSs come in several main “topologies” (types), and also vary in two dimensions of capacity.

To vastly oversimplify, for SOHO users, the types of UPSs available are Standby, Line-Interactive, and On-Line.

A Standby UPS, a.k.a. Off-Line UPS, switches over the battery only when the wall current voltage falls below a certain level or goes out completely. This is the least expensive type of UPS, it’s what most people get.

A Line-Interactive UPS can supplement low power levels from the battery.
Affordable; a good choice.

An On-Line UPS is the most expensive — and best — type of UPS, always providing clean power at the right voltage level. Good if your power is subject to lots of interruptions, micro-outages, sags, or surges and spikes.

For most SOHOs in places where daily power quality is good, a Line-Interactive UPS should be sufficient.

In addition to “type,” to buy the right UPS, you need to:

  • Know how much power all the devices you want to provide backup power to would use, for example your a desktop, a flatscreen, cable modem, and home router. Many UPSs will detect if you are plugging in more devices than the battery can power and will refuse to work – so you won’t have the illusion you’re protected when you’re not.
  • Know how long you want device(s) to run.

Once purchased and installed, a UPS for home or office needs close to no upkeep — but there are few important things to know and do.

Taking Good Care of Your UPS

  1. Test the UPS. Once the battery is charged up, plug in a desk lamp or a radio, turn it on, and (gently) remove the UPS power cable from the wall outlet. Does the lamp or radio stay on? Now test again with the computer gear you intend to plug into the UPS.
  2. Make sure the UPS is well ventilated. Like any electrical device, a UPS gives off heat. Don’t leave paper next to it, make sure it can get good air flow.
  3. Label the UPS with when you bought it.
  4. If it includes USB monitoring software, consider using it. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never done this — so far.)

UPS batteries typically are good for two to four years. They don’t just fail all at once; over time — and the more your UPS is asked to provide its backup power — they’ll have less capacity (run time) — be able to power gear for even fewer minutes. You may be able to get third-party replacement batteries for a good price, but shop cautiously!

UPSs themselves should be replaced — there’s no standard answer, but the consensus is somewhere between five and seven years. Mark your long-term calendar! (And update the UPS label — and your calendar — when you replace the battery.)

Buying a good UPS or replacing the battery every few years translates to about a dollar a week. The cost of a problem — lost productivity or replacing hardware — for even one event during this time frame would be many, many times that — and the likelihood of at least one such event is high. So don’t be a misplaced optimist — go get that UPS today!