Apple Announcements

Written by rob on September 12, 2006 – 4:35 pm -

I don’t have too much time, but I’ll briefly summarize what Apple announced today. A lot of iPod stuff.

  • iPod w/ Video has upgraded screens (60% brighter and “more vibrant”). The lower-end version is still 30GB but is cheaper at $249. The high-end is now a massive 80GB and costs $349. Unbelievable! I just hope the video battery life is better.
  • iPod Nano now features click wheel, and is allegedly smaller. How that is possible is beyond me. Anyway, three versions are now out. A 2GB silver one replaces the old 1GB line at $149; the 4GB line now features silver, pink, green, and blue for $199; there is now a new 8GB line in black for $249. Interesting that the 8GB version costs the same as the 30GB video iPod, but I guess some people are willing to pay for the compact size.
  • iPod Shuffle – $79 1GB version… even smaller, thinner, etc. WOW! Check out the picture of this thing. I want one!!
  • iTunes 7 – supposedly the best iTunes update since 2001. Maybe it will actually change more than the interface, unlike 5 and 6.
  • iPod games now available on the iTMS for $4.99. They look pretty decent. They’ve got Pacman, Tetris, and other classics.
  • iTV, which I quote from Marketmwatch.com: “a device that attaches to a television and can wirelessly receive and play digital content from any computer running iTunes software. Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said iTV, which will be available in the first quarter of 2007, will sell for $299” Sounds awesome to me!

Good news for us iPod lovers. Now Apple just needs to introduce an iPod Trade-in program so you can get the new generation every year! I think I’ll stick with my 30GB 1st generation video for now, but I may upgrade in the future.


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Plextor CD-RW: Destroyed

Written by rob on August 24, 2006 – 7:32 pm -

I read an article on Lifehacker about 10 must-have Ubuntu utilities. One of the things on the list was XGL/Compiz, which utterly amazed me. I suggest you check out the video of it here (AVI download). It’s got amazing effects, sort of like Mac OSX Leopard and Vista combined, and then with added twists (and I mean twists literally, haha). I had to give it a try. I currently had Ubuntu installed on my test machine, but only the server version (which didn’t include the GUI). It was also severely broken after I combined testing and stable packages into the same repository… not a good idea. I had to re-install. Unfortunately, my CD drive wasn’t working to well. It barely worked. In fact, I had to eject the drive tray just to let the computer boot. And by the time the system was up, the drive’s tray would forget how to go back in, so I had to manually push it in (the gears wouldn’t finish the job as usual when you pushed it in). That being said, yesterday it actually did work… or at least I thought.

I got to the install screen, and even started installing. Unfortunately, at 72% of the way through installing it,  it froze because the CD-ROM drive refused to continue reading. What a bummer. Luckily, I had Debian 3.1 (Sarge) installed on the same machine already. I used that, and did a dist-upgrade to Debian Etch (Testing), which let me try out XGL/Compiz. It was very fun, but had some bugs. I wanted the full experience, so I would need to install Ubuntu Dapper Drake some way and follow the above guide. My first impression was to spend a whole day hacking a PXE network install of Ubuntu, but then I remembered I still have my old CD-ROM drive lying around (that was replaced by the Plextor CD-RW that was currently in the machine). So, I would kill two birds with one stone… put in a working drive capable of installing Ubuntu without any hacks or confusion, and I would also rid myself of the annoyance of remembering to eject the CD drive every time I boot the computer.

Then the idea hit me. Why would I content myself with simply replacing the drive and throwing the Plextor in the garbage? It didn’t even deserve to be in a dumpster… it needed to be DESTROYED. So, that is what I did. I dropped it off my sun roof (three stories up), but after that yielded disappointing results I smashed it with a hammer until it was in a million little pieces. Check out the photos of the whole thing right here.


Posted in Tech | 3 Comments »

Mac OS X Leopard: Sneak Peek

Written by rob on August 7, 2006 – 2:58 pm -

Words cannot even describe this. Just do yourself a favor and go on over to the Mac OS X Leopard preview over on Apple.com. The new features are amazing. In particular, check out the videos for Time Machine, Spaces, and iChat. Unbelievable! Then go on over to CNET and look at the Vista Beta 2 preview. Tell me which one you think is better! I’ve got two words for Microsoft: watch out. As for me, you know where I’ll be Spring 2007 (at an Apple store!).


Posted in Tech | 2 Comments »

Overclocking Journal

Written by rob on July 13, 2006 – 11:19 pm -

The new computer that I’ve been talking about lately was built for one reason: overclocking. Why else would I use a processor like the Pentium D 805 that, at stock speeds, is inferior to my old computer’s processor? And why else would I get water cooling?

Overclocking is the process of setting components inside your computer to perform higher than their stock (default) speeds. The main reason why overclocking works is because processor manufacturers want to be sure that their processors will be 100% stable even with the measly fan that is usually included with it. However, if you have superior cooling methods, like the water cooling in my case, you can set the clock speed of the internal components much higher than their desired speeds without any consequence in stability.

A variety of motherboard manufacturers create boards that are aimed at overclockers. DFI, ASUS, and Abit are just a few well-respected manufacturers in the field, but there are truly a lot of boards great for us overclockers. I personally am using a board from Abit called the AW8D, which is most definitely meant for overclocking. Abit even includes a special sub-menu in the BIOS that has all the overclocking options in one convenient location. Even without that, though, overclocking is a rather easy process with modern motherboards. The trick, however, is not setting your components to a faster speed, but rather balancing speed, temperature, power consumption (which is linked directly to voltage), with the desired result of stability. Most people would like 100% stability, so really the only things you then become limited by are your temperatures and power supply’s ability. And, of course, the components themselves. It is really a mix between a science (actually knowing what settings will help achieve stability in certain conditions) and an art (achieving the perfect balance with the hardware and BIOS available to you).

Not every processor or RAM module can be overclocked well. There are certain processors, especially from AMD (AMD actually overclocks their processors a bit before selling them, which makes them less overclockable by consumers), that can barely increase by 100mhz, while there are others that can be pushed to over 150% of their stock speed. Probably the two best modern chips for overclocking (that are dual core) are the Pentium D 805 and the D 930. I chose the 805 because it was $60 cheaper, but the 930 starts at a higher clock speed (3ghz versus 2.6ghz) and so can end up at a higher speed. The 805’s maximum ever achieved is around the 4.25ghz range, with normal cooling (by normal I mean either fan or water… not liquid nitrogen or anything insane like that). The 930 has been known to reach 5ghz in certain conditions.

Regardless, every single processor is manufactured differently, so even if you were to purchase the exact same models of every component that someone else used, your overclocking results would vary. Some processors, just by the nature of their production, have lower voltage requirements. This means that they are better to overclock. It seems my 805 is somewhere in the middle in terms of performance. There are those, like Tom’s Hardware Guide, that can reach over 4ghz. However, there are also people who can’t break 3.6ghz. I made it to 3.8ghz in the end, which I think is definitely respectable (and a definite improvement boost over my previous system).

Anyway, what I would now like to do is go through the steps that I took in overclocking, step by step. Any true overclocker pays attention to one key virtue: patience. As intriguing and tempting as it is to just clock your 805 to 4ghz and hope it boots, it can seriously damage your processor. However, if you take small steps (like 100mhz at a time), then there is almost zero chance you could ever do harm to your system. The worse thing that can possible happen is that your computer fails POST, in which case you reset CMOS and try either upping the voltage, relaxing the memory timings, or admitting your defeat.

Before I begin, however, I wanted to cover the software utilities that I used to determine my computer was stable. First of all, I used the wonderfully feature-filled program called CPU-Z in order to see the actual clock frequencies of my components. If you set the FSB to 180mhz in the BIOS, it will likely only be 179mhz when you boot up. It’s just the way it is for some reason. CPU-Z will show you exactly what the current bus speeds are, despite what the BIOS may want you to think. Also, Windows XP updated the System Properties dialog box to show the amount of RAM, as well as processor speed. Previous versions of Windows just showed the description hard-coded into the processor itself. (Most of the time this says GenuineIntel… that doesn’t tell you much about the processor, now does it?) Also note that CPU-Z can be useful if you want to upgrade your RAM. It tells you the speed of your RAM, which is what you need to know when purchasing an upgrade.

Aside from CPU-Z, the single most useful application is something called Prime95. At first, it seems to be a program only for mathematicians. It does something regarding the Mersenne primes. Don’t ask me what that means, because I have no idea. The general idea is that whatever this prime number calculation is, it taxes your computer to insane proportions. The Prime95 application comes with a Torture Test option that will do the calculations over and over and over again, until you tell it to stop. This is used to recognize stability in computer systems. It is recommended that you run Prime95 between 6 and 24 hours straight to get an accurate idea of your system’s stability. I didn’t feel that was necessary, so I used 4 hours as my magic number. However, I will say that when it did fail, it was always within 1.5 hours (the longest one I had go that failed was 1 hours and 13 minutes). I just did the four hours to be safe. Do realize that if it fails within two minutes, you are going to have major system instability. If it fails after an hour, you may be able to safely ignore it, as Prime95 taxes your computer in ways that even modern games don’t. But I refuse to run my computer if it is less than 100% stable, and I hope you do the same. Anyway, because I have a dual-core processor, I ran two instances of the Prime95 program at once (this is referred to as Dual Prime in the overclocking world). I should probably also note that while running Dual Prime, I was also downloading with Azureus, surfing the net with Firefox, and using GAIM for IMing capabilities. I figured that if my CPU withstood that, it was stable. And I would like to point out that the system was quite responsive at this time, despite Dual Prime doing 100% CPU usage.

Also before I begin (you’re probably thinking I’m never going to say anything, aren’t you?), I wanted to make sure you know where I am getting my temperature units. I am giving two temperatures per overclocking step: idle and load. Idle is the temperature of your computer when it isn’t doing anything. I got this value by booting my computer up and letting it sit for 30 seconds after I was fully logged in and booted. I then took whatever value I saw pop up the most (the temperature changes ever second, usually within a 5 degree range). Load is the temperature your computer reaches when at 100% load. The way I determined this value was to run Dual Prime for 4 hours. During those four hours, I would occasionally (once every twenty minutes), look at the temperatures (which were taken with the utility ABIT includes with their motherboards, by the way). The load temperature I recorded was the HIGHEST value that I saw. Most of the time, the temperature was 2-3 degrees lower than what I said is the load, but I figured I would come out and say the highest value my CPU reaches.

OK, so let’s begin, shall we? My CPU has a stock speed of 2660mhz (we will be dealing in megahertz from now on). It has a multiplier of 20, which makes the stock front-side-bus (FSB) speed 133mhz. If you take 133 * 20, it would equal the 2660mhz of the processor. Thus, to find a processor’s speed, you take the multiplier (this cannot be changed on most Intel processors) and multiply it by the FSB. Also, to find the memory bus frequency (this will be hereby called memory speed, but it is not to be confused with the actual memory speed, which is only two times the FSB… this is what the speed is actually at, but the bus speed is the thing that is often referred to when you buy RAM), you multiple the FSB by 4. So, at 133, my memory speed would be 533mhz, which is good considering I bought memory rated at DDR2-533 (simply put, DDR2 memory meant to run at 533mhz). Simple enough, right?

However, when I first booted up my computer it wasn’t at 2660 for some reason, but rather at 2720, slightly higher than it is supposed to be. I’m not sure what caused this, but the increase is so little that no major increase in speed over the stock would be recognizable. I ran Dual Prime for four hours on this original setup just to make sure my computer was stable before overclocking (and what exactly would I have done if it failed the test? LOL). The temperatures were as follows: Idle 22, Load 35. (all temperatures are in Celsius, by the way. Keep in mind throughout this whole thing that 60 C is considered the safe temperature for Intel processors, while 45 C and below is considered very good.) Now it is time to actually begin overclocking. Nothing really interesting happens for awhile, so I’ll just give you the speed it was clocked at and the temperatures. My first step was 2880 mhz, which yielded 26 idle and 39 load. 3100 mhz clocked in at 25 idle and 40 load. Finally, 3350 mhz was 25 idle, 42 load.

I am going to take this time to introduce some other settings that I have no yet had to change but will shortly. Almost every component you connect to the motherboard has a certain voltage pumped out to it from the power supply, by way of the motherboard. The two main voltages that matter during overclocking are the VCore (voltage of the CPU), and the DDRV (voltage of the RAM). Another important setting are the memory timings. There are four main memory timing settings you can change, and what they mean is way beyond the scope of this document. Just remember that these settings are measuring latency (delays), and so lower values are better. Just know that the lower your memory timings, the overall speed increase of your computer. However, in some cases it is better to relax (increase) the memory timings and get higher speeds. The VCore for my CPU was set to 1.350 V by default, while the DDRV was at 1.80 V. The memory timings were 4-4-4-12 (this is how memory timings are expressed, each number between the hyphens a separate setting).

So, I upped the CPU clock speed to 3520 mhz. To my surprise, the computer would not pass POST. I had to reset CMOS to get back into the BIOS. I figured this would be where our good friend Mr. VCore would come in. I then upped the VCore to 1.400 (from 1.350). The computer now passed POST, but when it started to boot into Windows I got an error about a missing System32 file or something. I knew my Windows install wasn’t corrupt, so I figured it was a problem with my BIOS settings. I then realized that since I was at 3520 mhz for the CPU, that meant my memory was running at 705 mhz. Considering it is only rated to run at 533 mhz, that is a substantial increase. I then visited the memory timings, and relaxed them to 5-5-5-15, which I read in a review about my memory is a good place for them to be during overclocking. With the adjusted memory timings and CPU voltage, the computer could finally boot into Windows XP, and seemed pretty stable. I went ahead and started up my Dual Prime, started an Azureus download, and started to watch some anime in VLC Player. I kept the windows positions so I could see the temperature at all times. Also, you can monitor Prime95’s progress just by lookign at the system tray. The icon will be red if still running, or yellow if idle (if yellow, when you were previously running a test, it means it errored out). I went through about three episodes (50 minutes total) of the show, with the two Prime95 icons still red. Then, somewhere in the middle of the fourth episode I saw that one had turned yellow. The test had failed, meaning my computer was instable! At this clock speed, even though it was instable, I still recorded the temperatures. They were 28 idle, 42 load.

Now, the thing you need to realize about Prime95 is the errors will mean nothing to you. For example, one error I got was “Rounding error. Expected less than 0.4, got 0.49728193.” Thanks for the info, Prime95! But in reality, it actually is very helpful. You see, when I do my Dual Prime test, the first instance is a Large block test, and the second is a small block test. All math aside, the large block test is primarily to generate heat and RAM usage, while the small block test (which can fit inside the L2 cache and doesn’t use RAM), tests the CPU primarily. That being said, I had failed the small block test, so that told me I had a CPU-related problem. This is where Prime95 really shines, because now I knew to up the VCore but not worry about the memory (the timings I set would last me all the way to the end). Still, though, I chose to up the DDRV as well, just to be safe.

So, the next step was for me to up those voltages. I brought the VCore to 1.425 and the DDRV to 1.90 (my RAM is actually meant to run at 1.9, so I figured it couldn’t hurt at this point). I also upped my clock speed to 3580 mhz (up by 50mhz), just because I figured it would be able to work with the new voltages. This is where the art part of overclocking comes in, because the science aspect would tell you that there is no logical reason to up clock speed when trying to fix instability. But, I ran Dual Prime for 5 hours (wanted to be sure this time), with no problem whatsoever. I was officially stable again. This was the first real hurdle during the overclock, and it had been overcome. Temperatures were at 28 idle, 44 load.

However, as stable as the system was, my system started beeping after about one hour of Dual Prime. I checked in the ABIT utility, because I knew the beep was being caused by one of the Abit EQ settings. Sure enough, there was a Beep EQ set for temperature monitoring (it would beep if something overheats, a nice feature). I turned off the beeping so it wouldn’t annoy me, but I had to address the problem. The culrpit was a little sensor called PWM1. That meant absolutely nothing to me, until I went over to the Abit forum (a very helpful place, by the way. MUCH better than ASUS’s site). It seems the PWM overheating is a common problem with motherboards, the Abit one’s especially (because the way they are designed), if you don’t use standard CPU cooling (air). The PWMs on the motherboard are some type of voltage regulators. As it was explained to me, they make sure the components get the right voltage (that you set in the BIOS), so as to not overvolt (i.e. fry) the components. Regardless, when you overclock, your voltages are going to be higher, so these PWMs need to work extra hard. The end result is that they overheat. The way the motherboard is designed, the PWMs are placed right above where the CPU socket is. Therefore, if you use a standard CPU fan, the air it blows onto the CPU will also be blown onto these PWMs. In short, a CPU fan will also cool the PWMs.

However, if you use heat pipe (like most members on the Abit forum) or water cooling like me, the CPU fan doesn’t exist and so no air is blown over the PWM region. This means they will overheat a lot quicker than usual. So, I was forced to mount a fan with L-brackets purchased from Home Depot above the PWM region. You can see a picture of that here. The sky-blue metal things are heatsinks for the PWMs themselves, and so that is where I was aiming (no pun intended) to have my air directed towards. The L-bracket mounted fan, while it increased the noise level of my computer substantially (the case fans in my system are all ultra-quiet, and the water system is also fairly quiet. This fan is the main noise maker in my case, unfortunately) capped the PWM1 temperature to 55 C, while it was previously reached 83 C (80 C is considered the limit). I think that is a substantial benefit: it is an eighty-two degree difference in Fahrenheit!

After the PWM1 overheating was dealt with, I continued the overclocking process. The next step was 3680 mhz. Rather than test it first, I decided to just up the voltages right away. I knew this would require some substantial boosts, so I went ahead and brought the VCore to 1.475 and the DDRV to 1.95. I was now at 3.7ghz, which I considered to be the home stretch. Only 300mhz away from the desired 4ghz. That is why I didn’t hesitate to raise the voltages more than I normally would have. I might as well get them near what I wanted them to be in the end, since it is indeed coming to the end. This clock speed was Dual Prime stable for four hours, so it looks like my voltage increases paid off. Unfortunately, the CPU temperatures took a nice jump, now at 27 idle, 50 load. Pass the 45 C mark, my CPU is no longer in the “very good” range for temperature, but it is still quite far from the 60 C safe range. I just wanted to quickly note that my AMD Athlon XP 1600+, running at stock speeds with the included CPU fan, ran at 48 C idle, 65 C load, with absolutely no problem. A lot of people get really into following that 60 C mark, but you can realistically go up to 75 C without risking damage to the CPU (though you will have to change the thermal paste often), and one guy on the Extreme Overclocking forums has his system running at 102 C load, fully stable! But if you are really willing to go to 102 C , then you would never want water cooling. Most people get water so they never have to see a temperature above 60 C again, and I tend to agree.

The next step was 3780 mhz. I had a couple hiccups in Dual Prime using the voltages from before, so I used a VCore of 1.550 and a DDRV of 2.05. Both voltage values were substantially increased in order to achieve complete stability. I am actually sitting directly on the “safe” recommendation for VCore, which for my processor is exactly 1.550 like what I am now at. The DDRV could probably go up to 2.1 without any problems, so I’ve got a little bit of room with that. However, I doubt it will be necessary because in the review that mentioned the 5-5-5-15 memory timings, it also had my exact memory running at DDR2-884 at only 2.00 V, which is much better than I even thought possible (if my memory reached 884, then it would mean a CPU clock of 4.4 ghz… dream on). This seemed to be about the voltage limit, then, so I was hoping for stability. This was Dual Prime stable, but the temperatures showed the voltage increases. 28 Idle, 56 Load.

My next step was to try 3880 mhz. At first I kept the voltages where they were, but Dual Prime failed extremely fast. Previously, the failures happened after a good 45 minutes of testing, if not more. However, this time it literally failed within 5 – 15 seconds. That was definitely a bad sign. I upped my voltages as far as I was willing to go, with a VCore of 1.600 and a DDRV of 2.10. Still no luck, as the Dual Prime was failing after about 15 minutes now. So, I bought a little bit of time, but it wasn’t stable by any stretch of the imagination. I figured testing a higher CPU voltage couldn’t kill anything, so I tried 1.675 (the max my motherboard allows, and the voltage that Tom’s Hardware Guide used to get 4.1 ghz). However, my motherboard refused to boot at that voltage. I also tried boosting the DDRV to 2.15, but it wouldn’t boot there either.

So, it seems that I have crossed beyond the limit of my hardware. 3780 mhz, or 3.78 ghz, is as far as my system is going to go. The temperatures are still way lower than they could be (I was willing to hit 65 C), so the water cooling is doing its job. I can’t imagine how hot the CPU would be with air cooling… it would probably catch fire! Needless to say, I am disappointed that I didn’t make 4ghz. In all reality, the extra 220mhz probably won’t even make a two frames per second difference in a game, but the 4ghz mark is just such a braggable place 🙂 But hey, this is my first time doing a serious overclock, and I think 1.11 ghz above the stock speed is some great stuff.

Maybe in a year or so, if I really see the need to get a faster CPU (somehow I fail to see a 3.8ghz CPU as a bottleneck, but who knows), I’ll spring for the D 930. I should be able to overclock that to around 4.7 ghz with my cooling setup, a full 1 ghz above what I’m at now. And with the Conroe chips from Intel being released the end of July, the 930 price is set to decrease substantially.

If anyone out there is in the market for a PC, the D 805 is a great option for cheap. With some good air cooling (like the $55 Zalman monster), you could probably make it to 3.4ghz without trouble, but remember that high-end air cooling does not take silence into consideration. I heard the Zalman CNPS9500 is akin to a jet engine :p In reality, though, anyone truly looking for a high-performing PC should just wait for the release of Conroe. Early benchmarks of the stock processors will destroy an overclocked 930 any day. And given the lower voltage and temperatures of the Conroe at stock speeds, it can be overclocked to insane proportions. One fan overclocked an early Conroe version to 4.8ghz, and it’s performance is off the charts. It absolutely blows away Quad-Core computers and the $1000+ offerings from both the Intel EE line and the AMD FX line. It is definitely something to look out for in the coming weeks, and very possibly the thing that secures Intel’s position as market share leader for microprocessors for many years to come.

I will post Excel-generated graphs of benchmarks comparing my old computer, and then the new computer at stock and overclocked speeds. Expect them in a week or so.


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MacBook: Tri-Booting

Written by rob on June 18, 2006 – 2:12 pm -

The Apple MacBook and MacBook Pro have now hit the market and are becoming widespread. I actually saw someone with a white MacBook in Philadelphia, so they’re definitely starting to go mainstream. If you read online news sites at all, you have probably heard dozens of sites talking about how the new Intel processors allow you to dual-boot Windows or Linux with the standard Mac OSX.

Apple even released their very own Boot Camp, which is essentially a boot loader. For those unfamiliar with the term, a boot loader is a very small program, that for PCs must be within the first 512KB of the hard drive (not sure how Macs handle it, but I’m guessing a lot differently), that reads the hard drive for operating systems and then allows you to choose which one to load. If there isn’t more than one available, it often doesn’t even ask you which OS to boot into, since there is only one. I know Windows’s NT Loader doesn’t ask you unless you tell it to in the C:/boot.ini file. Common non-Windows bootloaders that are used for everything from custom OSes to Linux to BSD are LILO (LInux LOader) and GRUB (GRand Unified Bootloader). Apple’s Boot Camp is a boot loader that will let you boot into the various different OSes on your hard drive.

Everyone talks about the dual/multi-booting abilities, but few articles actually tell you how to accomplish that. I expect to be getting a MacBook after a new revision comes out in a year or so, so I am naturally very interested in the process. I did some quick research and found an excellent resource that teaches you how to not only dual boot, but tri-boot all the major OSes on your system: the stock Mac OSX Tiger, Windows XP SP2, and finally Debian Linux. You can probably use whatever version of Linux or Windows you want, but I think most of the drivers for Windows are XP-only. You can access the article here.

The article starts by discussing how to partition your hard drive. The MacBook comes with a hard drive that has a single partition, for Mac OSX. A partition, for those who don’t know, is simply a divider inside the hard drive. You need to place these dividers between each OS, because each operating system is going to want to use a different file system (special standards in computing that define how files are stored on the hard drive… they are way too complex to discuss here) and doesn’t want to mix its system files up with another computer. If you make three partitions, one for Linux, one of Mac OSX, and one for Windows, all three systems can exist separately, but still on the same hard drive. Windows will see partitions as separate hard drive icons, as will Mac OSX. If you know a bit about Linux, you probably already know about partitions because good practice when installing Linux requires three partitions (boot, swap, and root).

It then moves into installing Windows, which is fairly straight-forward. Windows XP will need some drivers off a CD that you burn near the beginning of the article, mainly for the mouse and keyboard to function as expected. From there, you install a utility called rEFIt. This essentially takes care of feeding the NT Loader what it wants so Windows doesn’t get mad at you. From there, it gets a lot easier.

You can install Linux as they mention. Nothing really difficult or out-of-the-ordinary, except maybe the swapfile being on the same partition as the root filesystem. Any Linux user should be familiar with every step of that (mkswap, swapon is standard practice when making your own swap partition; Mandrake, Debian, etc. do this for you in their installers, but it’s good to know how to do it yourself for situations like this). Fstab editing is also simple, as well as Xorg configuration. From there, they go to build the custom kernel. That may be shaky for a lot of users, and unfortunately I’m not going to cover that right now. (I am planning a series of Linux articles this summer, so you can expect an article fully devoted to customizing your Linux kernel… not hard, I promise) After that it’s simple Linux application setup (thank apt for the easy wireless setup).

As I’ve said before, I do not yet have a MacBook so I can’t try any of this stuff. However, this article seems to break it down fairly well, and the article it tells you to reference through the whole thing has a lot of good sections explaining what you are doing. Once I actually get a MacBook in a year, I’ll probably run an article on my successes/failures, though I’m sure Leopard will be out by then and Apple plans on making it a lot easier to multi-boot in Leopard (Boot Camp will be included, and I expect a lot of other utilities that will hold your hand). Right now, dual booting is still sort of like a hack. It just doesn’t feel like Apple. Any Apple user knows that Apple computing is all about stuff “just working” automagically. I expect Apple to address the difficulties that currently come up to those trying to dual or tri-boot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Leopard had a “Multi-Boot Utility” under /Applications/Utilities, or maybe had something integrated into the new version of Disk Utility, that would easily let you install multiple OSes on an Intel Mac.

Until then, articles like the ones linked to above will be the way to get things done. Early adopters of the MacBook systems who have a desire to run Windows and/or Linux alongside their Mac could most likely follow the above guides with success. I’m sure there are probably ambiguous areas, but if you have any questions don’t hestitate to leave a comment. I don’t have a MacBook, but I may be able to decipher some of the instructions for you.


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Howto: Secure a Web Browser over WiFi

Written by rob on May 22, 2006 – 11:12 pm -

The following link points to a simple and easy-to-follow guide on how to secure your web browsing experience over WiFi, using SSH encrypted tunnels. Keep in mind that whenever you use your laptop computer to connect to a WiFi network that you don’t own (Starbucks, McDonald’s, random unprotected access point, etc.), there is a possibility that someone on the network is running a network sniffer. Doing something as simple as opening your e-mail client can give them access to your passwords (POP3 has always been notorious for sending plain text passwords over a network).

While you may be thinking your e-mail password isn’t that important, think of how many private e-mails you receive, or how many times you type your credit card number online. While it is a bad idea to be shopping online via an untrusted Wireless hotspot in any situation, the following guide makes it a LOT safer, to the point where the most skilled network crackers won’t be able to get your data.

Click here to read the full guide. The guide is geared towards Windows users running Firefox and GAIM. The technique used will also work for Internet Explorer and regular AOL Instant Messenger. In the comments section, someone describes how to do the same thing on Mac OSX or Linux.

Do yourself a favor and keep this guide in mind any time you have to make a last-minute online purchase while using an untrusted access point (when I’m down the shore, I use an unprotected hotspot to trade stocks. While E*Trade has the standard web RC4 encryption which has never actually been broken, cracking into my e-mail would pretty much lead an attacker to discover the answers to my Forgotten password question, and then let them reset my password and retrieve it since they have access to the e-mail. I will be using this from now on!)


Posted in Howto's, Tech | Comments Off on Howto: Secure a Web Browser over WiFi

Apple Announced MacBook; Skype offers Free SkypeOut

Written by rob on May 16, 2006 – 3:36 pm -

Apple announced the MacBook Pro a few weeks back, as the Intel replacement for their Powerbook product. Their iBook line of laptops, however, went unupgraded… until now. Today, Apple showed off the new MacBook. MacMinute summarizes its features:

Apple today unveiled the newly designed MacBook with a new 13-inch glossy widescreen display, which the company says is up to five times faster than the iBook and up to four times faster than the 12-inch PowerBook. Together with the 15-and 17-inch MacBook Pros, the new MacBook completes Apple’s Intel-based portables lineup and replaces both the iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook. Apple’s entire portables lineup now offers Intel Core Duo processors; a built-in iSight video camera for video conferencing on-the-go; its Front Row media experience with Apple Remote; and several advanced features including DVI with dual display support, optical digital audio input and output, Gigabit Ethernet, Sudden Motion Sensor, Scrolling TrackPad and MagSafe Power Adapter. Pricing starts at US$1,099.

I am extremely excited about this. Not all of us can afford a MacBook Pro, but, more importantly, not all of us want a MacBook Pro. I use my 700mhz iBook G3 very happily, with no complaints whatsoever. The only reason I want to upgrade, however, is because the ability to tri boot Windows, Linux and Mac OS X natively would be unbelievable. There are some applications that only run on Windows, and Virtual PC (the PC version is fine, but the one for Mac is horrendous) just doesn’t cut it. I would love the ability to use Parallels to quickly switch for simple tasks, or just to reboot into Windows or Linux for some dedicated tasks that they perform better (Windows for games, and many proprietary apps; Linux for war driving and general programming).

Also announced today was the increase of MacBook Pro speeds to make the gap between them and the new MacBooks enough to warrant the extra money. MacMinute covers this as well:

Apple today also increased processor speeds on both models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The $2,499 model now includes a 2.16 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, up from 2.0 GHz, and the $1,999 model now includes a 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, up from 1.83 GHz. Beginning today, the MacBook Pro also offers the new glossy widescreen display as a CTO option on both the 15-and 17-inch models at no additional cost.

This was to be expected, given the introduction of a lower end that may attract the attention of would-be MacBook Pro purchasers. The news that was not present, however, that many rumor sites expected, was new iPod Nanos. In the same way the upgraded MacBook Pros will create a bigger gap between the low and high ends, justifying the huge price difference, larger iPod Nanos need to be introduced to lessen the gap between the iPod Video and Nano lines. They are 26GB apart, yet only with a $50 difference. That obviously is bad for the Nano line, as most people just spend the extra fifty for the much larger capacity.

In completely separate news, Skype announced yesterday that their SkypeOut service would now be provided for free for U.S. and Canada calls until the end of the year. While not many people understand why it will be ending at the end of the year, it doesn’t change the fact that it is an unbelievable thing! For those readers who aren’t aware, Skype is the leading provider of Voice over IP (VoIP); that is, transporting telephone voice data over the Internet. Before this recent announcement, you could use Skype to talk to your other friends who had Skype over the Internet. However, now, for free, you can use Skype to call a real telephone. So, if you have a microphone for your computer, you can call someone anywhere in the U.S. or Canada for free! This unmistakable deal is made even better when you consider that Skype is cross-platform. It can work on Windows, Linux, Mac, and also some Mobile platforms. Hopefully Skype will decide to extend this service beyond the end of the year, but all we can do now is enjoy it while it lasts. Also, for those interested, there is an article about making your own portable phone for Skype out of an old cordless set.


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A Look Into the Future: Apple > Microsoft

Written by rob on May 2, 2006 – 8:06 pm -

I am going to begin by saying I use Microsoft Windows. In fact, I use it as my main operating system on my main computer, and I enjoy it. I have been running it for as long as I can remember, and aside from some issues that were Dell’s fault a few years back, the OS has never failed on me. There are occasional (once a year or so) issues: most recently, my Windows XP user profile became corrupted. My files were all fine, but logging in took five to eight minutes, literally, which was completely unbearable. I followed the tedious, yet working fix on the Microsoft Knowledge Base, and it was soon resolved. I haven’t had a problem since then, which was like six months ago.

Despite my successes with Microsoft Windows, I am well aware that most users are not in my shoes. Not taking proper precautions (like, for example, opening an unknown e-mail attachment or not running anti-virus software) can yield extremely bad results, like your entire computer not booting anymore. It just seems that, generally speaking, Windows is a high maintenance operating system, when it definitely shouldn’t be. Undoubtedly, Windows’s largest user base is home users, who are, on average, not technically proficient enough to assess the authenticity of phished e-mails, etc. That being said, the focus of the operating system should be ease-of-use, above all else, but that is really where it falls short. If you put a person who has never touched a computer in their life in front of a Windows computer with no direction whatsoever, it is extremely likely they will have no idea what to do or how to operate anything, especially transferring pictures from a camera or other day-to-day tasks that are made difficult due to the shortcoming of the Windows operating system.

Simply put, Windows is a flawed operating system compared to its current peers of today. It has not evolved in any large way since Windows 95. I use it because I have no problems with it given my ability to navigate the system, and also because I have to. Being a fan of computer games, I am virtually locked in to Windows. Mac gets games years after they are released on Windows, and Linux only gets certain games from certain developers (namely Unreal Tournament, Quake, etc.).

Now is when I introduce the “other side”. Mac is really Windows’s complement. It is ease-of-use and UI perfection translated into an operating system. The underlying interface paradigms of the operating system make more sense to the average person. More importantly, some things “just work”. Someone once described it to me by saying Macs are smarter than PCs, which I think is true. Plugging in a digital camera launches iPhoto, which, with one click of the mouse, will transfer all the photos to your hard drive. The same functionality could be configured on a Windows PC, but it requires user intervention. And that is the whole point… it shouldn’t have to. Computers aren’t meant to make things difficult, and it just seems like Windows introduces too many hurdles that the average user needs to overcome.

This was just supposed to be a brief comparison, and it is getting a little too verbose for my liking, so I’m just going to dive right into the point of this article.

Apple, now using Intel processors, is getting huge press with the ability to run Windows and Linux on their hardware, previously a difficult proposition. The fact that they use similar hardware to Windows, and the rumors that their next OS update (10.5 Leopard) will be able to run Windows apps, will bridge the gap between platforms. When both Windows and Mac can run the same applications, then what would everyone choose? Whatever interface is better. Apple needs to deal with the fact that they are the only ones making computers that can run Mac (in other words, let OSX install on any x86 platform). What is all comes down to is that Apple is as innovative as always and moving forward.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is just trying to keep up. Beating Apple to the punch, they had a head start, which made them lazy. But much like in the tortoise and the hare tale, you should never take a rest, even when your winning the race. In Microsoft’s case, they can’t stop innovating just because they’re making a lot of money today. Who knows what tomorrow brings? And with Apple growing every day, the tortoise is getting closer and closer to the finish line.

The bottom line is this. Microsoft has a great product, but its once-awesome features are quickly beginning to show their age, and it has usability issues that need to be resolved (see Spyware article for one of the biggest issues Microsoft needs to combat). All the while, Apple develops newer features that keep everything feeling fresh. I use both Windows and Mac on a daily basis, and wouldn’t give up either. The day will come, though, when Windows is no longer my main operating system, and by the looks of things, that is going to be a lot sooner than I had imagined.

I am going to close with links to two articles.

John Gruber, on his blog site, Daring Fireball, rebuts the media’s recent attacks on the security of Mac OS X.

Gartner, over at Reuters.com, theorizes about another possible delay in the Windows Vista operating system.

The themes of these two articles reverberates what I am saying. Microsoft Windows is lagging behind while Apple Mac OS X is keeping its status as fresh and secure while growing quickly.


Posted in Tech | 8 Comments »

Spyware 101: Detecting, Removing, and Preventing

Written by rob on April 30, 2006 – 12:33 pm -

When the Internet went mainstream, the first “danger” was the infamous viruses. Whether it was the popular Love Bug virus that struck the whole Internet via e-mail in mid-2000, or the Code Red worm of 2001 that was allegedly a cyberterrorist attack, everyone who uses the Internet nowadays has heard of viruses (or, more semanticly correct, virii). In fact, almost everyone in today’s cyberworld has Anti-Virus software to protect them from these viruses. There really is no excuse to not have one, as there are multiple free anti-virus scanners (Avast!, AVG) that work just as well as their paid-for counterparts from Symantec and McAffee. Suffice it to say, the Internet threat of viruses is no longer a huge threat, given this wide-spread knowledge and protection of the danger.

Enter Spyware. Circa 2005, spyware became a widespread threat to the unsuspecting Internet public. Spyware refers to a wide variety of malicious programs that, once on your computer, proceed to monitor where you go on the Internet (hence the spy part of the name) and give you unsolicited pop-up advertisements at an uncontrollable rate. By taking advantage of various holes in the Microsoft Windows operating system, combined with the Internet Explorer browser, spyware can install itself onto a user’s computer without their knowledge. Spyware, technically speaking, are usually programs that are very small in size, and hide themselves either somewhere in the C:/Program Files directory, or in the C:/Windows and C:/Windows/system32 directories. Simply by browsing the Internet using the aforementioned browser and operating system (Internet Explorer with Windows), you can slowly become infected with spyware. Unlike viruses, spyware will not replicate itself and attempt to send itself to people in your address book or buddy list. However, getting one form of spyware often times pops up windows of other spyware-ridden websites, and before long you are infected with dozens (sometimes, hundreds) of different variants of spyware.

Spyware is less serious than viruses on almost every level. Rarely does spyware delete your files, corrupt your operating system, or try to infect your friends and family via e-mail. However, it is indeed an annoyance that no PC user should have to endure. As briefly mentioned above, the most common symptom of spyware is pop-up ads that can occur at any time, even when your Internet browser is not open. Another symptom, which is one of the reasons spyware must be fought, is the general slowdown of your computer. Spyware, when installed, tells your computer to run it at start-up. Therefore, every time you start up your computer, every little spyware program you have will also start up, slowing the boot of your computer. Moreover, spyware is known to hog memory, which will slow down opening and closing programs, as well as your overall computer speed.

Now you know generally what spyware is and why it can be a bad thing. If you are eager to see if your computer has spyware, and want to learn how to combat it, read on.

As spyware sprouted up, so did anti-spyware applications, not unlike what occurred with viruses. There are many popular anti-spyware programs out there, but something you need to keep in mind is that some of them are fake anti-spyware or anti-virus applications, and instead of helping you, they will just install more spyware onto your computer. Some programs known to do such a thing are SpyTrooper, SpyAxe, and Antivirus Gold. Simply put, if you don’t want to have to worry about getting one of these rogue applications, just stick to the programs listed here, which should be more than enough for almost every situation.

That being said, I recommend you download the following anti-spyware programs:

While each of these programs can work by themselves rather well, the simply fact is that each and every one of them has their strengths. SpyBot is the best overall, as it searches for all known spyware and can eradicate it quite well. Ad-aware, on the other hand, can’t identify known spyware as well as SpyBot, but can identify unknown spyware, since it searches your whole hard drive instead of just locations of known spyware. Windows Defender combines the two of those to a certain extent, but its real strength is real-time scanning… that is, it will alert you if a spyware program is trying to install itself before it gets embedded into the system and does any damage, which is an especially useful thing to have. That being said, I use the programs to scan my computer in the order listed above (that is, SpyBot first, then Ad-Aware, etc.), but you can do whatever you feel is the best after you have a general feel of each program’s strength and weaknesses. Below I will go through the general installation and usage of all three programs.

SpyBot Installation and Usage

Installing SpyBot is very straight-forward. Just choose English as your language, press next a few times and agree to the License Agreement. When you get to the portion where you need to choose which components to install, I recommend you uncheck Additional Languages if you only speak English, as you don’t want to waste 2.7MB of hard drive space. Press next two or so more times until you get to the part where you can choose if you want an icon on the desktop, etc. As far as the icons go, that is your choice. As far as the permanent protection options go, I recommend you don’t use either. Windows Defender takes care of the second option, and the first option will become irrelevant if you don’t use Internet Explorer anymore (see below for Firefox discussion). Press next a few more times, then Finish (leaving the check box to run SpyBot checked).

When SpyBot first runs, it gives you a warning message regarding the fact that if you remove certain spyware programs, the programs that installed them may not work anymore. This is entirely true, and it is something you may want to keep in mind. Needless to say, you really should never need to use any spyware-ridden program, so I don’t think breaking the program should bother anyone. I recommend checking the box so it won’t show you the message again. Then press OK.

A wizard will come up that will guide you through the initial setup of SpyBot. The first option is backing up the registry. This will take a few minutes, but I highly recommend you do it, just in case something goes wrong later on. Press Next when it is finished. The next option is finding and downloading updates. This is a CRUCIAL step, as not doing this will leave you vulnerable to the newest spyware threats. During the course of the update, SpyBot may restart. If it does, you will be into the main interface. Otherwise, you can follow the rest of the wizard and then you will be at the main interface as well. The first thing you want to do is click on Immunize on the side. Press OK to the message that comes up, and press the green plus button at the top of the screen to immunize your system. This prevents certain bad software programs from being installed.

When immunization is finished, press the Search and Destroy icon on the side bar. This is the main part of the program, where SpyBot will actually go through and find any spyware. Press the Check for Problems button and it will do its thing. This may take a long time, depending on your computer’s speed. As of the time of writing, SpyBot was looking for over 38,000 spyware programs. To give you an idea as to why updating is so important, in October of 2005, there were only 23,000. In less than seven months, then, over ten thousand new threats were discovered. In my case, I didn’t find anything. If you didn’t either, you are in very good shape. However, if you use Internet Explorer on a daily basis I can almost gaurantee you will have at least ten problems. If you click on a piece of spyware, and expand the double arrows on the side, SpyBot will tell you what it is. Check all the ones you want to delete. Usually the ones it checks for you are the ones you need to get rid of. Then press Fix Selected Problems. It will go through and delete all the culprits. When it is finished, you can close the program.

One notable feature of SpyBot is starting before Windows loads all of your programs. If it was unable to delete some of the programs in the above step, it will ask you if you want to start it at system startup. What this will do is let SpyBot run before all your spyware loads. The reason this is necessary is because you can’t delete programs that are currently running, so if the spyware you are trying to delete is running in the background, you won’t be able to remove it with SpyBot. Using this start-up run feature can help get rid of a lot more of the problems than just running it normally, and I recommend you do it every time SpyBot suggests it, in order to eradicate all threats.

Make sure before every subsequent scan you do later on, you Search for Updates and download all of them.

Ad-Aware Installation and Usage

The installation of Ad-Aware is much easier than SpyBot. Just press Next through the whole thing. At the very last screen, before you press Finish, I recommend you uncheck Open Help File and Run Full System Scan Now, just so we get a chance to explore the interface before the initial scan. Do, however, leave Update Definition Files checked. The same thing goes with these as with SpyBot… the scanning is only as good as the definition files, so you need the latest ones to combat the latest theats. Press Finish and the updated definitions will be downloaded, then Ad-Aware will restart into the main interface.

The only thing you really need to note in this main screen is the little world icon in the top right (next to the i icon). This is what you will click on every time you start the program in order to update it, which I recommend you do before every scan. Once you open that window up, simply pressing Connect will search for and download any updates. Doing so now should tell you that you are up-to-date, so just press Finish.

Other than that, all you need to do is press Start. The two main modes available are Smart System Scan and Full System Scan. I use Smart System Scan nearly every time I scan, and I only recommend the Full scan if you think you are infected with spyware and want to make sure you get everything. I also usually uncheck the box that says Search for Negligible risk entires. All this does is look for the files that contain your Most Recently Used (MRU) files. What those are is, for example, in Windows Media Player, you can go to File->Recent File List to see the music you played recently. If you do want to clean those out, leave it checked. Otherwise, uncheck it now. Make sure the Smart System Scan is the selected option, and then press Next to scan your hard drive. If you have a lot of files, this will usually take longer than SpyBot.

When the scan is completed, press Next. The window that comes up will display all of the spyware objects found. The biggest difference between this and SpyBot is that Ad-Aware does not automatically check entires. You need to manually check the ones you want to delete. More often than not, you want to select them all, so right-click any entry, and press Select All objects. I just wanted to note that althought SpyBot found nothing, Ad-Aware found 1 critical object, a tracking cookie. This shows that each program has their own strengths. Anyway, after selecting the objects you wish to delete, press Next, and then OK to confirm. The files will be removed, and you will be brought back to the main interface. You can then close the program.

Windows Defender Installation and Usage

The Windows Defender install has some kinks in it. If you downloaded it from the Microsoft website (meaning you have a validated version of Windows), then the install should be fine. However, if you downloaded it from the mirror provided above, or any other site, then you may have problems. The reason is because it needs to see a certain version of Windows Update on your computer. Specifically, the version of Windows Update that validates your copy of Windows. There are numerous ways to get to that version of Windows Update without actually validating Windows, but for legal reasons they will not be discussed here. Google is your friend, if you decide to take that route.

Regardless, I am going to assume that, one way or another, you downloaded and completed the install of Windows Defender. After installing it, it will run in the background and alert you any time a program tries to do something spyware-like. Take note that if it alerts you while you are installing software, you should Allow the action. Installing software, even legitamite software, may edit registry keys or set a startup program, things Windows Defender considers to be spyware activity. So, just don’t panic and press Block every time it pops up. It will often tell you what program is doing it, but a general rule of thumb is to only Allow things while you are installing a known-good software applications (discussed briefly at the end of this article).

I use Windows Defender only to get those alerts. However, it does have scanning functionality like the rest of the anti-spyware applications discussed above. Go to your Start Menu, then All Programs, then Windows Defender to open the actual program up. All you have to do is press the Scan button at the top of the screen and it will go ahead and scan your system. If you click the down-pointing arrow next to the Scan button, you can specify a Quick or Full scan, which are similar to the Smart and Full scans of Ad-Aware. After the scan is complete, you can remove them similarly to SpyBot program, where it automatically chooses what options to do. Take note, however, that Windows Defender has the most false positives of all the programs. That is, it may say something is spyware that is actually a perfectly good program. One example I ran into was RealVNC; Windows Defender wanted to delete it, but RealVNC, while it can be used to monitor someone’s activity, has many good uses. Just make sure you look over what it is going to delete before giving the program the go ahead.

Like I said, I don’t use Defender’s scanning functionality that much, simply because it has those false positives and it doesn’t detect as many things as the other two programs. That being said, its alerts are very helpful in preventing spyware from getting to your computer, which is why I recommend you have the program. This brings me to the final topic…

Prevention of Spyware

If you followed the article so far, you know how to use SpyBot, Ad-Aware, and Windows Defender to scan and remove spyware that is on your system. However, removing it is only the first step. You must take the proper precautions if you want to prevent the spyware from infecting you all over again.

The first thing I recommend you do, and the most effective, is to install Mozilla Firefox and use that as your default browser. The reason Firefox is so much better in terms of spyware is because it does not support Microsoft ActiveX. That is the platform that most spyware programs exploit in order to get on your system, so if you don’t have it enabled (which is the case when you use Firefox), most spyware can’t even touch you. One particular line I liked on Wikipedia’s entry on spyware is that: “Not a single browser ranks as safe, because in the case of spyware the security comes with the person who uses the browser.” That being said, Firefox is the safest you can get in terms of just a browser.

You can get Firefox here. The install is extremely easy. Just press Next a couple times, and then, finally, Finish. When it first starts up, it will offer to import settings and bookmarks from Internet Explorer. Accept the default choice and press Next. The next option is for your homepage. I recommend you change this option to Import your Home Page from Internet Explorer. Then press Next, and finally Finish. The browser itself will now load. It will alert you that Firefox is currently not set to be your default browser, and then ask you to change it. Press Yes to set Firefox as your default browser. You will now be inside the browser. I now recommend you exit the browser and replace all your icons pointing to Internet Explorer to icons pointing to Firefox. I then recommend you to use Firefox ALL THE TIME.

If you take my advice, and plan on using Firefox long term (there is no reason not to!), then I suggest that you take this time to go on over to Macromedia’s website and download Flash player. Most new users to Firefox get discouraged when they go to websites, which don’t display because they are Flash sites. They then go back to the spyware-friendly Internet Explorer. If you install Flash Player now, I gaurentee you 99.9% of websites will work exactly like they did on Internet Explorer. The only sites that don’t work on Firefox are ones that require ActiveX. The only one that I use on a daily basis that requires ActiveX is FilePlanet, which has an ActiveX download manager that it uses when downloading files. I implore you to use Firefox all the time, and only open Internet Explorer to go to TRUSTED sites that require ActiveX. (Also, take note that Firefox has tabbed browsing. If you press Control+T, it will open a new tab. You can then go to another site, while your previous site remains in the other tab. You can switch between tabs simply by clicking on them. Learning how to use this feature effectively will make your browsing experience so much more efficient.)

The second action I advise you to take is simply to run your anti-spyware applications once a month. I only use SpyBot once a month, and never use Ad-Aware unless I suspect that I’m infected. As the above quote from Wikipedia suggests, Firefox is not the ultimate solution. If you are a well-informed user of Firefox, you will not get any spyware. But the average PC user is not well-informed, and may answer Yes to the wrong dialog box. That being said, if you run SpyBot once a month you can insure that any spyware that did find a way to your system will be removed in a timely fashion. Also make sure you UPDATE the definitions of SpyBot and Ad-Aware (Windows Defender does this automatically) before running any scans.

One way spyware can get on your computer is that it can come bundled with software. Well-known culprits of this are Bonzi Buddy and Gator. To prevent yourself from being infected by spyware in this way, you should only download software from trusted sites. CNET’s Download.com is probably the largest software downloading site on the Internet, and all of its applications are now tested to be spyware-safe. Downloading from them should yield spyware-free applications, and add an extra layer of protection to your computer.

The final bit of advice for preventing spyware is also a great way to generally make your computer more secure. About once a month, you should run Windows Update (available through the Start Menu). This will update your version of Windows, filling in any holes that spyware-makers can use to infect you. Updating Windows also will give you the latest versions of Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer. So, when you go to those ActiveX sites that you need to use Internet Explorer for, you can rest assured that you have the latest and most secure version of the browser. Keep in mind that Windows Update runs in Internet Explorer, so when you are finished updating you should close Internet Explorer and go back to Firefox.

Following the above advice on detecting, removing, and preventing spyware should help you clean up your computer, end annoying pop-up ads, and can even speed up your computer considerably. Following the advice in the Prevention section should keep your system spyware-free, and keep everything running smooth.


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Howto: Burn an AVI file to DVD

Written by rob on April 15, 2006 – 10:54 am -

The first thing most people notice when they get a new DVD burner and go to burn that nice file they get from the Internet onto DVD is that it isn’t particularly simple. Burning a CD is something anyone can do: just drag and drop a few things in Winamp, Windows Media Player, Nero, iTunes, or countless other programs, and you have a beautiful audio or data CD. Windows even has an integrated way to burn Data CDs, right from within the Explorer interface. Piece of cake.

DVDs, however, enter a realm of codecs, framerates, and other things that generally don’t need to be worried about for CDs. Most songs that exist digitally are either mp3s, wmas, or aacs, with a few exceptions. Most programs can easily handle all of these. Furthermore, it is easy to tell between formats because they all have different file extensions. That is, you instantly know song.mp3 is an mp3 file. With video files, that is not how it works. Nearly every digital video file downloaded from the internet is in the AVI format. However, AVI is simply a container format, and actually is not a video compression format. Inside those AVI files could be Microsoft MPEG-4 type video, which Windows Media Player can easily handle, or maybe some Cinepak codec video. However, the most popular formats nowadays are DivX and Xvid, both of which cause Windows Media Player to choke (without the proper help). Regardless, these video formats all come in AVI, so it is difficult to tell which is which. A useful tool called GSpot (interesting name, I know) can give you tons of info on AVI files, including framerate and codec, and helps demystify these common issues.

The other thing I mentioned is framerates, which is measured in frames per second (fps). You either have 25 fps (PAL), 23.976 fps (NTSC Film), or 29.97 (NTSC) framerate. The former is used in Europe, while the latter two are used in America. NTSC Film is used on Hollywood DVDs (i.e. DVDs you buy from a store), while plain old NTSC is the American format for digital video. I’m sure each one has plenty of other uses, but that is the ways I remember them as. You can get any one of these three in an AVI file. Having a PAL usually means it was recorded in Europe or Canada, while NTSC Film means it was ripped from a DVD (see this article on how to rip DVDs). But it doesn’t really matter why a certain framerate is there… all you need to know is that you must have it at 29.97 to burn it to a DVD that will work on American DVD players. And don’t you know that 29.97 is the least common framerate for Internet-downloaded videos?

The reason for the above description is just to introduce to you how daunting burning AVI files can be. If you understood everything said above 100%, you can most likely handle burning DVDs the way I do. However, if you don’t, you may want to look at the many tutorials on Videohelp.com, the amount of which are available can also be a bit daunting, because the one I wrote is not exactly detailed.

The last thing I wanted to say is that there are programs available that (allegedly) automate everything for you and make it nearly as simple as burning a CD. Included with Nero Ultra Edition is Nero Vision Express (renamed to Nero Vision in version 7), which I will say works very well in most cases. I personally use Nero Vision to burn quick movies, like on Video CDs for example, if I just want them to be watched once. However, it doesn’t really give you the ability to get maximum quality if that is what you want. But the biggest problem with Nero Vision is the fact that you need to separately purchase various codec files, like AAC and Mpeg-4, to open most video files. Moreover, it still doesn’t handle certain files for no disclosed reason. When trying to quickly burn Chronicles of Narnia to DVD, Nero looked like it read it fine when making the chapters and during the preview stage, but when you get to burning it it errors out within five seconds, and the log has no details of why. It is for that reason that Nero Vision isn’t the tool for EVERY situation. While I know there are many others (Sony DVD Architect, DVD Santa, Pinnacle Studio, to name a few) I have had problems with almost all of them.

On a small side note, I’ve never had any issues with DVD Santa, and it is really easy to use. If you don’t want to learn about video files, etc., I recommend it highly. The only reason I don’t use it a lot is because it is TOO simple. It doesn’t give you enough control of the files. But again, it is great for beginners and those of you who don’t care to learn the small details and make absolutely perfect DVDs.

But, if you feel like you have what it takes to tackle burning DVDs the long way, you will be very impressed by the final result. In many cases, DVDs I make turn out better than the source material because I can apply various filters to fix up dark or bright (or grainy, etc.) videos, and resize them with barely any loss of quality. The howto that I am going to link to is simple a Word document (that I converted to HTML for sharing purposes) that I made for myself, as a sort of personal TODO list while burning AVIs to DVD. It is by no means step-by-step in terms of covering every single little detail, but if you understood everything above and don’t mind experimenting a little bit, I am sure you can take a lot out of my guide below.

Aside from the great quality, the other huge reason that I burn DVDs with this method is that it preserves audio/video sync. My biggest problem with Nero and Sony DVD Architect was that they produced un-synced DVDs, which gets ugly real quick. I had a Bourne Supremacy DVD that had about a six second delay by the end… not pretty at al, which was burned with Sony DVDA. The same video file burned with the below method not only looked better, but stayed in sync the entire time. (Note: most of the times when things get out of sync it is because the source is a PAL video and you are converting to NTSC, adding video frames but not taking care of the audio. That is why in my method we separate the audio and video streams in the beginning).

But enough talk. Without further ado, click here to access the “howto”. I will attempt to support people that have questions, but a lot of it really depends on the source video. If you give me a screenshot of GSpot output, I could probably help you the best.


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