Saturday, March 15, 2014

A little computer advice

Being an IT professional, I get asked for computer advice a lot. The most frequent questions I'm asked by the "average user" are "why is windows 8 so horrible", "how do I fix this virus I've got on my computer" and "what computer should I buy".

I have lots of answers to why Windows 8 is awful, but none of them will help most folks, except my one suggestion: Download a program called Classic Shell. It's free, it's a 30 second download, and it makes Windows 8 suck FAR less.

The virus thing... 

Well... I'll illustrate the issue with an anecdote...

I took a family friend on as an emergency client. They home school, and the system they use for homeschooling was well hosed up, to the point where it was completely unusable. It would boot, but applications and web pages wouldn't load, it would reboot randomly etc...

I looked at it... No exaggeration, there were over 6,000 individual pieces of malware, spyware, adware... and that's with 4 different AV/adware/spyware/anti-malware packages running, including the commercial and updated norton 360. They also had 4 different "system optimizer" or "system cleaner" packages running, and god knows how much other "helpful" garbage.

He asked what I charged and I said "I'm doing this as a family friend, because to clean this up... Labor alone would be more than you make in two weeks. It's going to take me at least two full days. It'd be faster to wipe it and start over but you don't have backups or install disks for a bunch of this stuff. Even then, I really recommend wiping it when you get the chance, because I might have missed something.

And yes, it did take two full days... actually more than. I actually put over 20 hours into cleaning the system up, then rebuilding it to a consistent and usable state, then locking it down and putting tools in place to... I wish I could say prevent, but it's a windows machine so I can only say reduce the likelihood... of that sort of thing ever happening again.

Just so he would understand and appreciate the amount of work involved, and what that kind of work costs, I printed him up an invoice, with a 100% discount. Yes, it was more than he made in two weeks. He just about crapped his pants.

So, my advice on the virus thing is this... Wipe the machine completely, and install from scratch. If you can't do that yourself, donate the machine or give it to a smart kid who can, and buy a new one. It'll be cheaper and easier for you.

Oh and NEVER EVER EVER EVER buy or install norton, or mcaffee, or frankly any of the major vendors anti-virus, "security suite" or software "firewall" packages, and never buy or install a "system cleaner" (except piriforms ccleaner aka crap cleaner, which I install on every windows machine automatically). If they come on your computer from the factory, clean them off completely before you try to run anything. They are actively harmful.

For anti-malware, use windows security essentials, and comodo, AVG, Avast, or malwarebytes as a secondary scanner, and run Winpatrol to keep control of your computers settings and startup programs etc...

In general, don't be an idiot. Don't download anything, or open attachments or web pages, you don't know, or are not well known and trusted sources etc... etc... Virus scan everything before you open it, and turn on live virus scanning in your security software.

Oh and NEVER load or use a browser toolbar of any kind, unless you are absolutely sure you want to use it, exactly what it does and who it came from.

Most importantly, always live behind a physical firewall. Never expose a windows machine to the bare internet, no matter what kind of software "firewall" you have running (software firewalls don't protect you worth a damn. Also they shouldn't be called firewalls, because they aren't). You WILL be compromised, within minutes, without question.

That just leaves buying a computer...

This is where things get more interesting.

Now, if you're looking for a desktop, the answer is pretty simple: if you plan on keeping it more than a year, buy the second best CPU, most ram, and best monitor you can afford.

If you can change out your own hardware when it breaks, brand doesn't matter. If you can't, buy an HP (seriously, don't even think about buying other brands of desktop unless you can support them yourself).

For a laptop... it's a hell of a lot more complicated and involved. Of course, most people only buy laptops these days, leaving a lot of folks having no idea what to buy or how to decide, and no resources available to them to help.

So mostly, they end up buying on price, and buzzwords, and mostly they end up unhappy. There are some very good reasons why laptop shipments have been trending way down the last couple years, and the much simpler and more user friendly tablet has been taking over as peoples casual computing device.

As it happens, in the last few weeks, I've had about a dozen people ask for my advice on buying a laptop. Also, I've ended up buying (as presents, as replacements, for projects etc...) six laptops in the last four months.

Since it IS one of my most frequently asked questions, I've given all of this advice many times before... in fact so many times I went through writing it all down to send to folks or post on forums, but I'd never bothered to post it here. Someone asked again tonight, so I decided to post my little guide on the blog.

Ok, here's my basic question list:

  1. How portable/light/small do you need/want it to be? Will you be travelling with it more than a couple times a year?
  2.  How long do you plan on keeping/using the machine
  3.  How big a screen do you want?
  4.  Do you want an optical drive? If so, DVD or BluRay drive? Is an external drive acceptable?
  5.  Since you can run MacOs, Windows, and Linux on one, is a Mac acceptable?
  6.  Are you going to be doing any non-casual gaming on the system
  7.  Are you going to run any engineering graphics or calculation packages
  8.  Will you be running any large spreadsheets, desktop publishing, design etc...
  9.  Will this be your primary computer
  10.  Will this be your primary digital device for consuming rich media (music, video etc...)

Prioritize the following for me:

- Performance
- Cost
- Ruggedness and durability
- Portability and light weight

The answers to these questions, along with some general guidelines (below) pretty much determine what machine to buy.

A word on Mac's

If you don't mind the cost, MacBook Pros are simply physically better machines than all but the highest end windows machines (which actually cost as much or more), and they can run MacOS, Linux, and Windows natively. I HIGHLY recommend them for anyone who intends to keep a laptop for more than a year or two.

I live in the world of high end IT consultants, and high end security professionals, and unless our employers ban us from using them, almost all of us use MacbookPro's (whether we run OSX on them or not). I personally run OSX, several versions of windows, and several linux distros on mine, in both multiboot mode, and as virtual machines.

Really, they are just PHYSICALLY, so much better than all but the highest end windows machines, as to be in a class almost by themselves.

Let me illustrate what I mean...

A typical windows laptop might last me a year... I've had them die in just a few months. I've NEVER had one last more than two years of hard use. They just get loose and creaky, get unreliable, lose performance no matter how clean you keep them software wise... or they just plain die, with hard use.

My macbook pros?

Well, I've been running my current 15" MBP for almost exactly 3 years, it's still in 100% shape, it's still faster than most machines out there (quad i7, 1gb discrete graphics, 500gb SSD and 16gb ram). I really have no need, and no desire to upgrade.

So please, take my advice here... if you use your laptop seriously, and do any kind of travel with it more than a couple times a year, consider an MBP, even if you aren't a mac user.

These are my general recommendations:

As of right now, I wouldn't buy anything less than a core i5 in a general purpose laptop, unless I was looking to minimize power consumption to the extreme, or looking to spend under $400 (which means a machine only good for facebook and email). The miniscule price difference isn't worth the major performance hit.

I will not use a current AMD CPU/APU for anything other than the cheapest possible facebook and web browsing machine. Multi-GHZ Quad core machines shouldn't be at 100% cpu just watching youtube. They're garbage now, as general purpose systems and graphics processors (their high end GPUs are still great, and they do some interesting things in distributed computing, low power computing, and other specialized tasks).

If you don't want an optical drive, or don't care if your optical drive is external, and don't need a 17" display, get an ultrabook (preferably an aluminum or composite one, unless your budget won't cover it).

I always recommend SSD's highly, for everyone, even if they don't care about performance. If you need more than 400-600gb in your machine and SSD prices for this size range are prohibitive for you, I strongly recommend a hybrid SSD ($95 for a 1tb hybrid drive).

Let me be clear: Once you have more than the absolute minimum amount of RAM necessary to perform well, the single biggest thing you can do to improve your machines performance is to use an SSD. The difference is night and day, such that I will never willingly use anything other than an SSD or at the very least a hybrid drive, ever again.

I STRONGLY recommend a minimum of 8gb of RAM for windows 8, for any heavy work, or for lots of multitasking. 4gb is barely livable for Windows 8 and what I consider the real minimum for windows 7. 16gb is preferable for any kind of heavy use, multitasking, or running virtual machines. 32gb is WAY overpriced and most machines don't physically support anyway.

If you plan on keeping it more than 2 years, if a metal or composite chassis model is available within reasonable reach of your budget, make that reach. Even if you have to go down in spec a bit to do it. You would not BELIEVE the difference in toughness, and just quality feel, you get from a stronger chassis based machine rather than a plastic clamshell.

As of right now, my primary vendor recommendations are as follows, in three tiers:

Tier 1

HP(high end, particularly high end business models)
Dell (high end, particularly high end business models)

Tier 2

HP (mid/low end models)
Dell (mid/low end models)
Lenovo (used to be tier 1, now I consider them tier 2)

Tier 3


The tiers I've grouped the vendors into correspond roughly to what I consider their "utility vector". A combination of design, features, quality, durability, CONSISTENCY, warranty, technical support, and customer service.

I wouldn't ever even consider laptops from other brands at this point.

If you're comfortable with handling your own support, and doing your own minor repairs, then feel free to buy from any of the brands I listed.

If you are going to need to use the vendor to make minor repairs though, I STRONGLY suggest you go with a Tier 1 vendor, and consider buying the 2 year full hardware replacement warranty (at least if you plan on keeping the machine that long; and presuming it costs no more than 25% the replacement cost of the machine of course).

HP, Apple, and Dell just handle this stuff better, IN GENERAL (there are always breakdowns and horror stories), than the other vendors.

The reason I rate MSI and ASUS as tier 3 (and why I downgraded Lenovo from Tier 1 to Tier 2), is because their overall experience is inconsistent. I've had great stuff from them, I've had garbage. I've had great experiences with their support, and I've had awful ones. Overall, I'd prefer to avoid them, unless they have a spectacular machine at a spectacular price.

If you plan on keeping it more than a year or two, I STRONGLY recommend buying a "business" line laptop, rather than a consumer laptop. They're generally better designed, and better put together, with slightly higher quality components. Also, they're almost always a lot easier to service when things DO go wrong.

At this point I only buy computers from Amazon, Costco, WalMart (for the really cheap low end semi-disposable machines), Frys Electronics (sometimes they have spectacular deals on discontinued models or refurbs), Newegg, or direct from the manufacturers website.

No matter how great you think a deal is, always check the manufacturers web site, because they often run pretty spectacular specials.

... And that's about it really. The market changes so quickly that I can't make any more specific recommendations than that.