IN THIS ISSUE:
0. EDITORIAL: The Risks You Face Installing Unknown Programs
In last month's editorial I cautioned readers against downloading and installing unknown programs.
I warned in particular against downloading free search toolbars, internet accelerators, spyware cleaners and other attractive sounding freebies from pushy websites as these products are all too often packed with adware, spyware and worse.
This prompted a lot of correspondence from readers. Many readers felt that I was cutting off one of their greatest internet pleasures; downloading and installing free programs. Others suggested that surely they could avoid infection by checking the downloaded programs with security products before installing them.
Folks, I'm not suggesting you stop downloading programs. I'm just saying avoid unknown programs; stick instead to reputable programs from reputable sources of which there are many.
Reputable sources include the top download sites like SnapFiles, MajorGeeks, No-Nags, ZDNet and FileForum as well as the top newsletters like the LangaList, Windows Secrets, my own and others. You can add to that reputable software websites like BetaNews and many, many software forums.
The fact is that you have lots of choices for safe downloading. So many that there is no need at all to download unknown programs from unknown web sites.
And as for scanning downloads to check for malware, I have some bad news. It may not help you much at all.
An increasing amount of malware is distributed with the infected program file compressed and/or encrypted. That means that most anti-virus, anti-trojan and anti-spyware programs can't "see" the rogue product as it's hidden by the encryption. Hidden, too, are the characteristic "signatures" that allow the malware products to be positively identified.
Malware programs like this can't be easily detected by simply scanning the file with an anti-virus program or other security product. Often such files scan just fine. They look safe but are actually loaded.
It's true that these infected files can be detected when you actually install the program. That's because at some stage in the installation process the program files have to be unpacked and decrypted in order to run. At this point they reveal their true nature and can be identified and caught.
However, this is often too late. Even if detected by your security program, your PC may have already been compromised. Even if it hasn't, you may be faced with an extensive and time consuming clean up job to remove all traces of the infection from your PC.
Don't get me wrong; security software does a great job in protecting your PC. It is just imperfect.
When you deliberately install an unknown program on your PC, you are giving that program carte blanche to do what it wants. It's not like the program is trying to sneak onto your PC; you are giving it full permission to install.
Expecting your security software to protect you in this situation is too much to ask. It may, indeed it probably will, but you cannot depend on it.
A couple of years ago I remember reading the case of a guy who shot himself dead. He'd just bought a new bullet-proof vest and decided to test it by discharging his double barrel shotgun towards his heart.
While his death may have been regrettable, the fact is that what he was doing was plain dumb.
Installing unknown programs from unknown sources on your PC and expecting your security software to protect you is much the same.
When you visit an unknown website and are offered some attractive piece of software you must discipline yourself to resist. I know it's hard but it's unlikely the program will deliver on the promise and all too likely it will deliver something very unwanted to your PC.
Just think about the guy with the bullet proof vest. Perhaps this may just help you resist temptation. ;>)
See you next month.
1.0 TOP TECH SITES AND RESOURCES
1.1 HTML Version of This Newsletter Now Available
During this past month, I sent all subscribers an email with instructions on how to change from the plain text version of this
newsletter to the new HTML version if they so wished. If you missed that email and want to change then click the link below. If you are not sure what version you want then still click the link and you will be able to see both versions and decide
accordingly. If you have already requested the HTML edition but are still getting the plain text edition then you probably entered your subscription email address incorrectly. I suggest you try again but make sure you verify your correct subscription
email address as outlined in the instructions here:
1.2 Google Personalized Homepage Launched, GMail for All
Google personalized homepage  gives you the news, weather and stock information you want plus online bookmarks, GMail
notification, search history and much more. You can even drag and drop the screen panels to get the layout that suits you. Another new development at Goggle is the opening up of the previously invitation-only GMail service. Anyone with a USA- based cell
phone can now get an account .
1.3 Windows XP Myths Exposed
This is a well researched list that debunks dozens of commonly held Windows beliefs
such as "Periodically cleaning the pre- fetch folder speeds up boot time." While visiting, check out other sections of the site; they are first class.
1.4 Good Malware Prevention and Removal Site
can find excellent advice on how to configure your system to reduce the chance of spyware infection plus detailed information how to remove an existing infection. Most of this information is available elsewhere but the site owner Shanmuga has done an
excellent job compiling the information and making it accessible. Well worth visiting and bookmarking.
1.5 Downloadable Collection of Firefox Extensions
This site run by Dan W. offers a selection of 26 "best" Firefox extensions in a single download. I agree with
most, though not all of Dan's selections but overall it's one of the best lists around. This site is a great time saver for those who don't want to wade through the 600+ extensions now available.
1.6 Everthing You Wanted to Know About Cookies
Well not quite everything. This site covers the basics pretty well, has an excellent FAQ and gives good guidance on cookie removal but there's not much on the curly issues such as
setting cookie management policies.
** Additional Items in the SE Edition **
1.7 Wizard Chooses Best Linux Distro for You
Here's a clever idea: a site where you plug in your Linux needs and get recommendations for the distro that comes closest to meeting
those needs. The recommendation for me was Ubuntu which, oddly enough, is the one I'm using at the moment.
1.8 Free Stock Photos for Private and Commercial Use
Here are numerous sites that offer free stock photos. Many are free for both
personal and commercial use. The first site is my favorite even though access can be sometimes slow or even impossible.
1.9 Free Photoshop Video Tutorials
Nice collection. I particularly liked the tutorial on recovering badly under-exposed
1.10 Free Knoppix Book, Linux Training
"Knowing Knoppix"  is a free downloadable 124-page book released under the GNU Free Documentation License. It's a great introduction to Knoppix for those coming from a Windows background. For a more
formal set of tutorials, try the free online courses from this  site.
Got some top sites to suggest? Send them to
2.0 TOP FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES
2.1 Free Anti-Virus Program Shines
I've been giving AntiVir "Personal Edition Classic" a thorough testing and have come away most impressed. There's no doubt this baby has first rate detection; a tad
better in fact than the two other main popular anti-virus programs AVG and Avast. However, it's also got some glaring weaknesses. First, the free version has no email scanning. Second, it seems to take a fair time for the latest threats to be added to
the signature file updates. Finally, its ability to pick up variants of existing viruses using heuristics appears to be somewhat limited. The lack of email scanning alone precludes general recommendation, however, I think that AntiVir makes an excellent
backup scanner to your existing anti-virus product. Normally it's not a great idea to run two AV products at the same time but that should not be a problem with AntiVir. That's because during installation it gives you option of disabling the real-time
memory monitor. Turn that off and you should be conflict free. I tried it with NOD32, AVG, Avast and Ewido with no conflicts but it's still possible it may conflict with other products. If so, boot in Safe Mode and uninstall it. Once you've set up
AntiVir give your PC a full scan and then repeat weekly. Don't be surprised if it finds some malware missed by your other security products. 7.2MB
2.2 Free Utility Minimizes Windows Apps to the System Tray
I've mentioned in the past a couple of programs that allow you to do
this but I must say TrayIt! impressed me with its combination of simplicity and effectiveness. First, it requires no installation; just double click the program file and it's up and running. Second, it can minimize open windows to the tray either
temporarily or permanently with just one click. Third, it handles "difficult" windows such as skins, with ease. Fourth, it works with all versions of Windows. Fifth, it's a tiny 45KB! Finally, it's free. A little gem.
2.3 Identify Any Changes to Your PC
The web description says it all: "SystemSherlock Lite is a free command line utility designed to analyze changes made to the registry and file system on your Windows workstation. SystemSherlock Lite saves an image of the
registry and all your files and folders. Later on - for example after installing some software - you can analyze in detail what changes have been made to your system. You will find out exactly which registry entries and files have been created, deleted
or modified. Very useful to monitor program installations or to keep track of which files and registry keys are tampered with over time. Uninstalling trojans, spyware, viruses and keyloggers is an easy task when you know what modifications the software
made to your computer." Well, I wouldn't say removing malware is ever an "easy task" but this product sure makes it easier.
2.4 New from Google: Desktop Search V2 and Google Talk
Many of you will now be aware that Google is now offering a beta of version 2 of their free desktop search program. The latest version has a novel sidebar which, according
to Google, "shows you your new email, weather and stock information, personalized news and RSS/Atom feeds, and more." Also new is a desktop find- as-you-type search box, personalized search, an application launcher, a new Outlook toolbar and the ability
to search your Gmail offline. After using it for a week I'm impressed with the integrated desktop/GMail search and the search personalization but found the sidebar more intrusive than helpful. On balance, Google is now level pegging with Yahoo for the
best free desktop search utility though I still prefer the way search results are presented in Yahoo DTS. Also new from Google is Google Talk, a free IM client that's based on the open Jabber XMPP IM protocol. The client is easy to use and effective but
not yet as full- featured as competitive clients. However, in one area it shines: its VoIP implementation is the best available with exceptional voice quality and notable lack of delay. This alone will convince many IM users to switch. I've long
speculated that Google will one day offer users a free browser-based operating system providing users with all the web-based applications they need. These latest releases only reinforce this belief.
2.5 One Firefox Tab Extension to Rule Them All
Firefox's tabbed browsing is wonderful but the base browser provides limited control over how the tabs work. There
are several free extensions available that offer more tab functionality but none gives full control. That's why, until recently, I used three tab extensions to get what I wanted: TabBrowser Preferences, Tab Clicking Options and UndoCloseTab. Following a
suggestion from regular contributor Leib Moscovitz, I've replaced all three with just one that does pretty well the same thing as the other three combined. It's called Tab Mix Plus. It's a must-have for all Firefox users.
** Additional Items in the SE Edition **
2.6 Free Memory Testing Utility
Memtest86 is a stand-alone GPL utility that provides comprehensive memory testing for all x86 based PCs regardless of the operating system. It
can be run from a floppy disk, CD or USB drive. It's a tool geared towards experienced users and, if that's you, download it now for your PC toolkit. (58KB)
2.7 Best RSS Feed Generator
A number of readers have asked me how I generate the RSS feed files for the Tech Support Alert
Website. Initially, I did it manually using a free web service  and free web feed validator . However, maintenance proved to be a pain in the butt so I quickly decided to move to a specialist program. Of all the products I tried, FeedForAll , a
$39 shareware product, was easily the best. I can heartily recommend this product to anyone. If you can't afford $39 you might like to look at the free Open Source program ListGarden . It's not quite as slick to use as FeedForAll and it can't import
existing feeds but its support for Podcasts is actually better. The site also offers some excellent tutorials.
2.8 Best Free Parental Filter
quite a few requests for a recommendation in this category. Alas, there are not a lot of free contenders in this very commercial product class and what is available is largely unimpressive. Perhaps the best is iProtectYou V3. This is an early version of
a commercial product now at V7. Unlike the current version, V3 offers you the choice of a free "Basic" installation. iProtectYou allows parents to control access to a wide range of different kind of web sites, newsgroups, chat sessions, IM conversations
and ads based on the occurrence of certain key words. You have the option of blocking using an inbuilt keyword database or defining your own. Individual web sites and ports can also be blocked or specifically permitted. Access to all settings is password
protected. Parents can also examine log files of computer activities. On testing, iProtectYou worked well enough but suffered the usual problems associated with this kind of software such as falsely blocking some standard sites like cnet.com and being
easily bypassed by anyone who is tech savvy. It also interfered with the downloading of email on my test PC if any emails in the stream contained offensive material. Overall, it sort of works and while it is arguably the best free product out there, I
can hardly endorse it. In fact, I have mixed feeling about this kind of product. Personally I don't like the concept of spying on our children however I do appreciate the pressing need many parents feel to protect their children from unsolicited
offensive material. If the latter is really important to you, I suggest you look at the class-leading commercial filter program Cybersitter  and its competitor CyberPatrol . Both are better products than any of the freebies I tested, though still
imperfect. Yes, iProtectYou V3 will do the job for free but way less effectively and what's the point in that? Note that version 3 is no longer available from the vendor's site but is available from a number of download sites . Freeware, Windows 98
and later, 2.8MB
Got some favorite utilities to suggest? Send them to mailto:
3.0 SECURITY PATCHES, SERVICE RELEASES AND UPDATES
3.1 Microsoft Security News
This month Microsoft cancelled its regular batch of security patches due to "quality control problems." This only further delays long overdue fixes to numerous outstanding
3.2 New Flaw in Mozilla and Firefox Fixed
On September 6, a serious security vulnerability affecting all
versions of Mozilla Firefox and the Mozilla Suite was reported to Mozilla. The problem which affects even the most recent versions of Firefox and Mozilla could be exploited using a specially crafted long URL consisting entirely of dashes. Firefox and
Mozilla could then be made to execute the attacker's code of choice. Mozilla responded quickly with a patch and have just today released a new updated version 1.07 that totally eliminates the flaw. The new version includes other security patches and some
stability enhancements so all users are advised to update ASAP.
3.3 Spyware Scanners Come Under Fire
In last month's
issue I mentioned that anti-spyware vendors were being pressurized by some purveyors of spyware to remove their products from detection lists or have them re-classified to a more innocuous category. I mentioned that Sunbelt Software, the maker of
CounterSpy has succumbed to this pressure. This drew a response from Alex Eckelberry, the CEO of Sunbelt, who wrote clarifying the situation. Here's part of his response. "We DIDN'T buckle to WhenU's attempts to get de-listed. The situation was
incredibly misunderstood, in large part because I went on a long-planned vacation immediately after it was announced and wasn't available to explain what had happened to the anti-spyware community. You can see my response to Broadband reports here:
I've reviewed all the material and accept Alex's explanation. However, this issue of legal pressure from spyware vendors is not going to go away. I sympathize with makers of anti-spyware products; they are going to have some tough days ahead.
3.4 Opera Browser Now Free
Opera V8.5 has just been released and is now ad-free. They have also removed Java from the installation package and Opera will now use
the Java package on your PC. This greatly reduces the download size. Opera is a great browser and a viable alternative to Firefox. Well worth trying.
4.0 OTHER USEFUL STUFF
4.1 Digital Spy Camera in a Zippo Case
This is way cool; it's even flip top just like a real Zippo! It takes around 300 shots, has a surveillance mode where it shoots continuously at preset intervals and will also record video. Around $79.
4.2 A Complete PC on a Flash drive
It had to happen: a flash drive containing a bootable version of Linux 2.6 with Gnome, a complete version of OpenOffice, Firefox browser, PDF viewer, GAIM instant messenger,
automatic network configuration and more. It even includes a boot CD for PCs with no BIOS USB boot support. The FingerGear "Computer-on-a-stick" starts from $149.
4.3 Use Google to Work Out the Length of a Trail or Circuit
Thanks to subscriber Matt Bond for suggesting this site where you can use Google Maps to determine the distance of your running circuit, biking loop or, indeed, any defined trail.
4.4 Complete Waste of Time Department
More flash sites to provide you with a momentary diversion from whatever you are really supposed to be doing.
** Bonus Items for Supporters **
4.5 Why You Should Hold Off Buying a Flash Drive
There's a new kind of USB Flash drive coming out this Fall designed to allow you to use a lot of your normal Windows software from your Flash drive. Most USB drive vendors are now working on new models
that comply with the new standard. Look out for the "U3 Compatible Smart Drive" moniker next time you buy a thumb drive.
4.6 Cars with the Best and Worst Fuel Economy
Nice set of official consumption tables.
Looks like you may have to sell your Macerate and buy a Honda instead. Better still, have one of each.
4.7 How to Make Anyone Look Beautiful With Photoshop
Nice tutorial. Try it now and make someone very happy. While at the site,
check out some of the other Photoshop tutorials.
4.8 Free PDA Fits in Any Pocket
Some of the smartest people I know don't use a PDA but instead carry around in their shirt pocket little pieces of paper that
contain just the information they need. This free web service uses Flash to create an 8 page paper PDA customized to your needs. Brilliant.
5.0 TIP OF THE MONTH
5.1 How to Speed-Up Firefox
Firefox may be faster than Internet Explorer for surfing but it sure takes a lot longer to start up.
In issue 118 I showed how you can make Firefox load faster by compressing the Firefox installation folder. However that technique involved using a UPX packer, which is a bit daunting for many users.
Here are two simpler speed-up techniques that make use of free Firefox extensions:
The main reason Internet Explorer loads faster than Firefox is that several of the key modules it uses are pre-loaded into memory when Windows starts. This makes Windows load a little slower but that's a small price to pay for having IE start up quickly every time you use it.
However, the same technique can be used with Firefox. In fact, there's a Firefox extension that does just that.
The extension is called Firefox Preloader, an open source utility that pre-loads parts of Firefox into memory at Windows startup. It works well; on my PC, Firefox now loads just about as fast as Internet Explorer.
But there's another option. Rather than close Firefox, why not always keep it open by minimizing it rather than shutting it down? That way it is always available for instant loading.
The problem with minimizing is that it takes up a fair chunk of your task bar real estate. A much preferable approach is to minimize it to an icon in the system notification area.
Firefox does not provide this option but there is an extension that does. It's called MinimizeToTray and you can get it for free from here:
MinimizeToTray works for Thunderbird, Mozilla Suite and Nvu as well as Firefox and provides quick access to many of Firefox and Thunderbird's most used features via the right click context menu.
Minimizing Firefox has another advantage: it frees up unused memory every time it is minimized. Not a bad thing as Firefox does tend to eat up memory with continuous use.
6.0 FREEBIE OF THE MONTH
6.1 Best Free Disk Defragger
My top recommendation here is Diskeeper Lite , an older, free version of Executive Software's
current commercial Diskeeper product. It works very well indeed but I've had a few complaints from subscribers about the annoying nag screen in the Lite version. I have no magic fix for this but there are other free defraggers worth considering.
SysInternals, for example, offers "Contig" , a robust, free, command line utility which defrags one file at a time. It's a pain to use but eXcessive software has built an excellent user interface  for Contig that turns it into a thoroughly usable
product. Also to be considered is "BuzzSaw" , a real-time defragger that works away in the background to ensure your files are always defragged. Personally I think this is overkill and not as effective as a total disk defrag. To this end, the folks
who wrote BuzzSaw offer another utility, "DirMS" , that does a full defrag. This can be used periodically in concert with BuzzSaw to provide excellent defragmentation. It can be used alone though the free version is a command line utility that's not
very user friendly. Many thanks to subscriber Chris Morgan who told me about "AutoIt 3", a free utility that provides a graphic free interface for DirMS. It works very well indeed though note that it requires version 1.2.20 of DirMS. All products here
are for Windows NT and later.
** Bonus Freebie for Supporters **
6.2 Best Free Folder Synchronization Utility
This is getting scary. First I recommend Microsoft Antispyware as the best free spyware scanner and now I'm
going to recommend another Microsoft product as the best in this category. But the best it is; in fact, I think this is one of the best sync tools I've used regardless of price. It called SyncToy v1.0 for Windows XP and, as the name implies, is only for
XP - well, XP SP2 to be precise. This program is more than a syncing program; it can copy, move, rename, and delete files between any number of folders and even computers. The program operates on the principal of pre-defined folder pairs. You define and
name these pairs and then when you want to perform a sync or other task, you recall one of these pairs and carry out the operation. Syncing can be in either direction and covers all options from complete sync to updating newer files only. The handling of
files with changed file names is exceptional as is the backup of overwritten files. Overall, everything you ever wanted in a sync utility. This one is a stayer on my PC. If you run XP SP2, it should be on your PC as well. Freeware, Windows XP SP2,
Got some top sites and services to suggest? Send them in to mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org
7.0 MANAGING YOUR SUBSCRIPTION
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Thanks to subscriber A. Belile for proofreading this issue.
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See you next issue.