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IN THIS PREMIUM ISSUE:
0. EDITORIAL: A PC That Cannot Became Infected with Malware
I don't normally review hardware but I could hardly wait to get my hands on the IMGolden PC that the manufacturer claimed was immune to malware infection. The "manufacturer" is actually a Support Alert Subscriber, Bob Schweighauser who, together with some of his colleagues, designs and makes the machines. Here's what Bob wrote when out of the blue, he first contacted me:
By now you should get the idea: the IMGolden PC is a Linux Based PC with no hard drive. When you start it up it boots a version of Ubuntu Linux that's stored in a non-volatile memory module. It's kind of like running Ubuntu from a Live CD except that the Live CD is actually in permanent memory. As is the case with a Live CD, there are a whole bunch of programs pre-installed and ready to use, including Open Office and Firefox.
It's a clever idea with some immediate advantages. Every time you boot the PC it comes up in exactly the same state as the last time you booted it. Indeed, in exactly the same state it left the factory. And of course the operating system running from memory is much faster than running from a CD.
As there is no hard disk, there is nowhere for malware to hide. Any infection resident in normal memory (RAM) is destroyed when you power the machine off.
I know what you are thinking. "If this thing returns to the same state each time I boot it, then how can I save any of my work?"
You can't. Well, not on the IMGolden PC anyway. You can, however, save your data to a USB flash drive or write it to a CD or DVD.
But that's not the best way of saving your data.
Far better is to save it to a website. In fact, that's the ideal way to use the machine. Instead of using the applications installed on the PC (such as Open Office), do all your work online using free web services like Google Apps and save all your documents and data to the web service.
It's totally practical. You could use Gmail for your email, Google Apps for documents and spreadsheets, Flickr for your digital photos etc. Indeed, there are now free web services for digital editing, instant messaging and just about any other desktop application you can name. And you don't even have to worry about backup!
I've felt for some time that web applications are the future of computing. Of course you don't need a PC like the IMGolden in order to use web based applications; you can use any PC or device with a web browser. However, the IMGolden PC will, out of necessity, encourage you to move in that direction and that's not a bad thing.
After using the IMGolden PC for a few days I was sorry to see it go. It, together with web based applications, introduced a kind of simplicity to computing that was a breath of fresh air. No worries about security, software updates, defragging, registry cleaning, backup and all the other usual PC hassles. It allowed me to simply use the computer to do what I wanted to do without any of the usual distractions.
On the downside the IMGolden PC is built into a standard PC case which strikes me as unnecessarily large. The Ubuntu Linux Desktop may also be confronting for some users even though it looks very similar to a Windows XP desktop. Still, all most users will need to do is double click the Firefox icon; from then on they are in familiar territory.
And is this the machine totally immune to infection? In theory no. The machine could become infected while you are actually using it, for example by visiting a hostile website that exploited a Firefox vulnerability. The machine would remain infected until the next reboot and in the interim that infection could result in confidential information being transmitted to a remote attacker. And of course if you leave a USB flash drive plugged in, that could be used to transmit an infection even after rebooting.
However, we are talking very low risk possibilities. I'm not aware of any Firefox vulnerability involving code injection that works in a Linux environment. Similarly, malware infections that propagate using a flash drive are rare in Windows setups let alone Linux.
No, I think it's fair that in practice the probability of the IMGolden PC becoming infected is low enough that you could safely ignore it.
But I have one final reservation and an important one at that: The idea behind the IMGolden PC only works well if you are prepared to use web based applications. If you are not yet prepared to make that leap then using a diskless PC like this is likely to be a very frustrating experience.
There are various "thin client" PCs around that claim to provide similar functionality to the IMGolden PC. How they compare I cannot say. What I can say is the IMGolden PC did exactly what it was supposed to do without any problems and that is all you can ask for.
All reservations aside, this is a very clever idea that's well implemented. It reinforces what I have long known: you subscribers are a clever lot.
See you next month.
PS If you want some more details about this product please contact subscriber Bob Schweighauser directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: I did not get paid
to review this product nor did I receive any other
benefit, direct or indirect, from the developer. As is
my normal practice, the review product was returned to
the vendor after testing.
About 18 months back I ran a contest for a new name for my website and this newsletter. The winner was "GizmoGold.com."
Within a week of announcing the winner I received a threatening legal letter from another publication that also used "Gizmo" in its name that they would sue me if I used the name "GizmoGold." Now I don't mind a fight but there is no way a one-man-band like me can take on a big corporation without doing serious harm to my business and finances. So I put the idea on hold.
Then about a year ago a subscriber wrote in and suggested another name for the site: "46best.com." The idea grabbed me. It was short, it was memorable and keyed into the fact that most people visit my site for the "46 Best-ever Freeware" list.
So here is where I need your help. I
am seriously thinking of changing the name of www.techsupportalert.com to
1.7 Ten Killer Firefox
Nice find Paul, but I have some reservations: First up, this is a big download - 149MB with all the Codecs. Second, it wouldn't install on my test PC - the installation just hung. Yet on another of my PCs it installed without problem. Third, the Codecs are not free, they are only provided on a 15 day trial basis.
But you are quite right; it is very easy to use and that is a real plus. I'm no video dude but I managed to edit two short videos a relative had sent me without even reading the manual. In fact, I'd rate VideoSpin as the most user friendly freeware video editor I've used.
However if you mainly process AVI files then you should also check out VirtualDub . It's not quite as easy to use but it's free, has video capture and has a more established user base.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could press a button and have all the new email in your in-box read to you in a pleasant human sounding voice while you were doing other work? And wouldn't it be nice if I could tell you a free program that does just that?
Well, I'm sorry, I can't.
Yes, there are a few free text-to-speech utilities available but they are quite basic in their interface and outright crude when it comes to voice quality. That's because the really hard part in producing a good text-to-voice program is the voice and the best "voices" are commercial products. Most of the free text-to-voice programs use free voices such as those from Microsoft and these sound distinctly robotic.
However, if you are prepared to tolerate this you can get good results with the freeware text-to-voice program Speakonia . It comes with about 20 voices and will either read text aloud to you in real time or record the spoken results to a .WAV file for later replay. It uses the Microsoft voices which I would describe as "clear but annoying" unless, that is, you actually enjoy listening to Robots. The user interface is simple but not particularly convenient; it plays any text you've copied to the Clipboard.
If you can afford to buy a commercial product, then TextAloud is my top pick. At $29.95 it's reasonably priced, though you'll almost certainly want to purchase a commercial voice, such as one of the impressive AT&T "Natural Voices," as well. That will set you back another 35 bucks and 600MB of disk space.
With the use of one of these commercial voices, the spoken quality from TextAloud is surprisingly good and much better than Speakonia. Indeed, it exceeded my expectations. TextAloud also has a much better interface than Speakonia. It will read directly from Word, PDF, and HTML files and has plug-ins for Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Outlook. It can also record directly to either MP3 or WMA audio files.
So if you really want your email read to you then this is the sort of money you are going to have to pay. Thanks to subscriber "WILTON" for the suggestion.
Freeware, all Windows versions, 2.6MB.
2.6 How to Protect Your PC
from Security Threats
In issue #154 I gave my hearty endorsement to three freeware application launchers: Launchy , Find and Run Robot  and Enso . However, subscriber Ryan Reif has suggested yet another program:
"Gizmo, I have been a user of program launchers for a while. My first was a purchased version of AppRocket but after lack of updates I switched to Launchy. Recently though I shifted to Keybreeze  and found it is superior. First of all it is very fast. Secondly, it provides many configurable options to change how it functions and appears. The list of supported features  is impressive and is even larger than my Gnome-Do launcher for Linux. Impressive ones include automatically opening typed websites in a preferred browser (it includes my favorite, Opera, as an option as well) as well as quick searches, user defined macros, looking up movie times, notes, reminders, inserting commonly typed text into programs and has a smaller memory footprint than Launchy. I have not tried Enso because the options do not look to be as extensive as Keybreeze, and a see no benefits at the moment for using it. For a computer enthusiast like me who loves streamlined feature rich programs, Keybreeze is sure to stay installed for a while."
Nice find Ryan. It sure is fast and very full-featured, and if you want even more features there's a Professional version available for $14.95. However, Launchy is more attractive to the eye and has better indexing of files and folders, while Enso is, for me, more flexible.
All these free launchers are great products, so it's more a case of choosing the product best suited to your needs rather than nominating "the best." Me, I'll stick with Enso.
Keybreeze: Free for non-commercial
use, All Windows versions, Portable version available,
The Microsoft "Patch Tuesday" in March resulted in the release of four security bulletins each of which was rated "critical by Microsoft." The bulletins covered in total seven flaws in Microsoft Excel including patches for a number of exploits that were in active circulation.
If you are thinking that the problems with Excel are all now fixed then think again. According to security organization Secunia  there are still multiple vulnerabilities in Excel including some confirmed by Microsoft as being in active circulation.
Until Microsoft gets around to patching all known flaws, users should not open Excel files from unknown sources or, alternatively, they should open such files in a sandbox or other safe environment.
Further details of the Microsoft March updates can be found here . All of the updates are distributed automatically via the Microsoft Update Service. Dial-up users in particular need to be aware that these updates are large files and will require a considerable period of time online to be successfully downloaded. If you are not certain that you have received the updates then visit the Microsoft Update Service  now.
4.1 USB Flash Drives Get even
4.6 The Top 10 Web Sites
You've Never Heard Of
This is one of most common questions I get from subscribers. It's also one of the most difficult to answer as there are serious legal issues involved.
So serious that many of the free software products designed to capture streaming media have been hounded off the web by copyright owners and their henchmen. I keep a short list of these programs on my website  but it's difficult to keep up-to-date as the download sites are always going offline.
And it's not only the legal issues; there are other complications: There is the associated problem of DRM protection not to mention the difficulties in dealing with many different streaming media formats and their associated codecs.
My advice for cutting through this maze is simple and pragmatic: If possible, use a free web service to record the streaming media, and, if that fails, simply record the streaming media while it is playing on your PC.
If you just want to do something simple like record a YouTube video, then sites like ZamZar , SplanDoo  and YouConvertIt  will do the job for you. Just plug in the address of the stream and select the format you want and you are finished. Depending on which site you've chosen, either a download link will be emailed to you or you will be able to download the captured file directly from the site.
Unfortunately, this simple approach will not work for many streams. In this situation I suggest you simply play the media stream on your PC and record what's happening on the screen and coming out your speakers.
Sure, there is some quality loss, but the great advantage of this approach is that it completely bypasses the whole question of DRM protection; if you can play it on your PC then you can record it from your PC. And you can record it in a form that is free of any protection and can therefore be replayed through any device that supports the appropriate file format.
For video streams there are several free session recorders that will do the recording job. You can find a good list of candidates on my website here . These products are really designed for preparing on-screen tutorials and similar tasks, but several are capable of recording video replays.
Krut  in particular works well,
though it can only output files in .MOV and .WAV
formats. However, the output files can readily be
converted to other formats using free conversion sites
like ZamZar  and YouConvertIt .
My personal freeware favorite for on-screen capture is CamStudio V2 , because the output is in the more widely used .AVI and .FLV formats. It too has issues with video and sound cards, so you had better read the Krut tutorial  for guidance on this issue. The same solutions suggested for Krut are also applicable to CamStudio.
Just as you can record streaming videos playing on your PC, you can also record audio streams playing through your PC speakers. In fact, there are a number of free programs designed specifically for this task. My favorite is MP3myMP3  which records directly from your sound card output. A slightly more complex alternative is to use the record option which is available in the Audacity Audio Editor , but this is probably overkill for average users who would be best off with the simplicity of MP3myMP3.
All these solution bypass the format problems and DRM protection issues. They don't, however, bypass the legal issues. I'm not going to preach to you on this matter; instead I trust in your good judgment.
(This item is an update to an article that first appeared in the October 2005 issue of this newsletter)
One of the most unnerving computer experiences is to notice sudden unexpected internet activity from your PC when you're not using the internet at the time.
It can be brought to your attention several ways. For example, the lights on your modem or router might start blinking furiously, or your firewall may indicate internet activity, or your download/upload monitor could show that a lot of information is being received or transmitted.
When this happens to me, the first thought that goes through my mind is that a malware program may be "phoning home" to some remote PC, divulging all my personal information.
Now I know this is unlikely because my PC is well protected, but I know enough about security to know that it's possible. So whenever this happens I immediately investigate what's happening, and you should do the same. In the following paragraphs I'll show you how.
When you are connected to the internet you are not connected at one point but at multiple points. These different points are called ports. Data can flow into and out of each of these ports. It's a bit like the way flies get into your house. They can get in (or out) through the front door, the back door, the windows or the chimney. These openings in your house are just like the ports in your computer.
There can be up to 65000 ports on
your computer, but normally these are shut. When you
start a program such as your web browser that connects
to the internet, that program opens one or more ports
to make the connection.
There's a whole class of utilities called "port enumerators" that will do this job for you. In fact, there are more than a dozen such programs currently available. Additionally, many firewalls and anti-trojan programs have in-built port enumerators, though these are often quite basic.
I've looked at most of these products and found one freeware product that is outstanding. It's a tiny 50KB program that doesn't require installation, called CurrPorts  from Nir Sofer over at Nirsoft. It works best with Windows NT and later, though Windows 98 users can still use the product with less information displayed.
CurrPorts, like all port enumerators,
shows all the ports that are currently open on your PC.
It also shows you the process that opened each port and
the time the port was opened. Most importantly, it
flags, in pink, any suspicious ports.
And if you install CurrPorts sister program from Nirsoft called IPNetInfo , you can right click on a suspicious connection and track down the location and owner of the remote site. If it's somewhere like North Korea, China or Romania, you almost certainly have a problem.
If you do have a problem CurrPorts
allows you to immediately shut down that port. That
reduces the potential damage but of course doesn't
solve the problem. To do that you need to find the
malware program responsible.
So folks, download CurrPorts now so that the next time you have unexplained internet activity you'll know exactly what to do about it.
Many PCs don't come with a full bootable Windows Setup CD. Instead they come with a "Recovery CD" or, worse still, no CD but a special recovery partition on the hard drive. In most cases running the recovery CD or hard drive program will take the PC back to its original state.
That's all very well for the PC vendors, but it's a bad deal for consumers. Often, users want to re-install Windows without reverting the PC to its original state. Similarly, they may want to move their copy of Windows to another PC or engage in a task that requires a Windows Setup CD, such as building a Bart PE Boot Disk. That's why it's always useful to have a full Windows Setup CD for your PC.
But there is some good news: with Windows XP it's usually possible to create a Windows Setup CD from the PC Vendor's Recovery CD or from files on your hard drive.
If You Don't Have a Recovery CD
The main requirement is that you have a folder called I386 on your hard drive. This is commonly found at C:\I386, but it may be lurking elsewhere. If you can't find it try using Windows Search to locate it.
If you have such a folder (together with the license key for your copy of Windows) then you are in business; you can create a full bootable Windows XP Setup CD.
It's not a simple job but it's well within the capabilities of any experienced user. At this site  you will find a step-by-step tutorial that will walk you through the process.
I suggest you read the whole tutorial in advance before you start. That way you'll be aware of what you will need to complete the job and also have a good feeling for the skill level required.
You Do Have a Recovery CD
If your PC vendor supplied you with a Windows Recovery CD the process is a lot simpler as there is a freeware program called WinFuture XP-ISO-Builder  that will do most of the work for you. Furthermore, it works with Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003. The site is partly in German but it's easy enough to navigate. If you get lost the download page is here .
When you have downloaded and installed WinFuture, go to this site  where you'll find a guide showing how to create a Setup CD from your Recovery CD. And yes, it's in English ;>).
Once you have created your Windows Setup CD I recommend that you then create a Bart PE Boot CD. In the event your PC ever becomes unbootable this will enable you to boot into a Windows environment from the CD and recover your data and/or fix the problem. Every experienced PC user should have such a CD in their toolkit. My favorite Bart PE disk is UBCD4Win. You can find my instructions on how to create a UBCD4Win boot disk here  but remember, you'll need a Windows XP Setup CD to do it.
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The 46 Best-ever
The Extended List of the Latest
For lots more free IT
Thanks to subscriber Roger Keeny for copy-editing this issue. If you have a need for such services, contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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See you next issue. Next month's issue will be published on the Thursday the 17th of April, 2008.