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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Thank You Bluehost

Written by rob on April 26, 2006 – 3:55 pm -

I believe I mentioned this in my first post onto this blog, but I use Bluehost.com as my hosting provider. They provided me with my domain name, as well as the exorbitant amount of space and bandwidth. Well, they are working their magic and providing even more to their users, free of charge. The newly upgraded version has 15GB (up from 10GB) of storage space, and – this is the real biggie – 450GB of bandwidth per month! That is an absolutely insane amount, and I can’t imagine ever using that. But at least now I can rest assured that I will never run out, even if the site continues to grow. I just wanted to take the time to publicly thank Bluehost for the 100% uptime ( *knock on wood* ) in these past months, and the continual improvement of their offered services.

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“Silent Hill” (2006)

Written by rob on April 23, 2006 – 11:41 am -

It is a well-known fact that video game to movie adaptations turn out bad. Look at Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, or pretty much any movie made by Uwe Boll, such as the recently released BloodRayne. Video games are the latest and greatest form of entertainment, perhaps because they add the interactive piece we have all been waiting for in movies. Maybe that is the reasons why no movie director can capture the essence of a video game on the Big Screen. Or maybe they just don’t love the games enough to fully capture it. Whatever it is, gamers everywhere were hoping that Silent Hill would deviate from this unfortunate fact.

But it didn’t.

Let me begin by saying that I’ve never actually played the games. I watched the majority of Silent Hill 2 being played, and I must say it was quite frightening. In particular, the boss named Pyramid Head scared anyone with two eyes into crying like a baby, for the very reason that it wasn’t as slow as the rest of the zombie-type creatures in the game. While the game wasn’t worthy of any Game of the Year awards, it was a master of portraying atmospheric creepiness and using it to scare you. The key word here is scare… that is what we were all hoping for from Silent Hill the movie.

The film starts off portraying Rose ( Radha Mitchell ) frantically looking for her daughter Sharon ( Jodelle Ferland ), who has sleepwalked out of her bed and into the night. When Rose finally finds her, Sharon is slowly chanting the words, “Silent Hill”. The movie gives you the impression that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. The next morning, Rose tells Sharon about what she does at night, and that they are going to a trip to Silent Hill in order to find out what is wrong with her. A few scenes later, Rose crashes the family jeep right in front of the sign welcoming her to Silent Hill, and awakens only to see that her daughter is missing…

The rest of the movie, for about an hour, is just gratuitous violent and horror when Rose chases around a girl that looks like Sharon. One key thing to note here is that the setting of Silent Hill is masterfully captured. In Silent Hill 2, some of the places you go are the Grand Hotel and the bowling alley, both of which are featured in wonderful detail in the movie. Every time a town siren goes off, the entire town transforms, as everything goes dark, the walls crack, and strange monsters appear. From the ripped wallpaper to the monsters themselves, players of the game will recognize everything. Pyramid Head himself is also well created. However, the fact that the siren is there to alert you before every potentially scary image, and the fact that the camera doesn’t spook you (you see the monsters well before Rose does), leads to the unscariness of this movie. Now, for those of you that are scared by gore and frightening settings alone, you will probably be scared nonetheless, but don’t expect many times where you are going to jump when something appears out from behind the corner.

Music in this movie is very well implemented. I think the soundtrack adds to the atmosphere and mood of scenes very well, building suspense for a scary moment. If only the director gave you those scary moments, this might be a worthy scary movie.

Unfortunately, aside from the wonderful music and setting, this movie doesn’t have much else going for it. Rose’s husband, Chris ( Sean Bean ), is looking for Rose and Sharon, as well as details on Silent Hill’s past throughout the whole movie. The minor story bits that are gained from him are essentially useless, and it seems like he is just there to break from the intense horror of the rest of the movie. On the topic of story, this movie definitely has one. However, it is not elaborated enough to give you any sense of what is going on. There is a particular point in the movie (about thirty minutes before the end), where the film just starts throwing story at you. It is as if the writer forgot he needed a story until that point. I wouldn’t have minded it if they gave you enough, but they most certainly do not. You will undoubtedly be scratching your head at the gory climax of the movie, and the ending will make your headache even worse. The story that is there is definitely intriguing, but that makes it all the more disappointing when you never get enough to fully understand everything. There are parts that are well-communicated, but there are gaps that never get filled in. I originally thought my misunderstanding was attributed to not playing all the games, but a friend of mine played all four and still didn’t understand the movie any more than I did.

(EDIT: I talked to a few more people who played the game, and it seems that they did understand the movie’s story. They told me that the story was very much like the original game [remember I watched Silent Hill 2 being played, so I knew nothing of the first one], and with some common sense you could piece the plot together. They explained it to me and I can now say that I understand the movie to a certain degree. But this doesn’t change my review: the average movie goer should not have to research a movie just to understand it!)

There are also a few other gripes I have of the movie. First of all, which sort of goes hand-in-hand with what I already discussed, is the fact that Pyramid Head is not scary at all. In the game, he was probably the most scary thing ever to be put into a video game. Chasing after you in the Grand Hotel in Silent Hill 2, Pyramid Head made you wish you wore diapers. In the movie, he was extremely disappointing. Not only did he not scare you, he seemed severely crippled as opposed to his quick-moving videogame counterpart. Secondly, the creatures seemed to “dissolve away” at all the right times. Rose didn’t even get a scratch on her, aside from the initial crash of her Jeep in the beginning of the movie. She was covered in the blood of others, but it just seemed like she never got properly attacked by the many monsters in the movie. I mentioned that the siren of the town made all the monsters appear. Well, they all disappeared just before killing Rose, it seemed. I’m not saying she should have been killed, but in most good scary movies, the main character takes a beating, and it adds to the reality of the horific situation.

The movie undoubtedly had a high production value. The sets were well-detailed, and the special effects of the monsters and atmosphere was very convincing. However, the story was severely useless and the movie was not scary at all. I would have much preferred if Pyramid Head was as scary as he was in the game. I would not recommend this movie to anyone, as it has nothing except visuals going for it.

(EDIT: After consideration and watching the movie a second time [not in the theatre this time around], I decided to give two scores below. The first is the original score, which I will call the mainstream score. This is the score that any average person going to see this movie should consider. The second, however, is the hardcore score. This is for people that either played the original Silent Hill video game, are highly intelligent, or are willing to do some research on the internet either before or after watching the movie. I did the said research, and it made me realize how ingenious the plot was. I just had to give it credit in the form of this hardcore score. The story, I now consider, to be perfect; however, this does not help the fact that the movie isn’t scary and Pyramid Head is under-done, in my opinion.)



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Useful Tips From Japan

Written by rob on April 22, 2006 – 10:57 pm -

It is no secret: Japanese people are highly intelligent by nature. Well, it seems that their secrets are also no longer a secret, thanks to YouTube.com. There are a variety of “How to” videos, straight from Japan, that introduce practical solutions to every day issues. Some of them are downright ingenious and can save you much time. Here are three of the coolest ones:

You can access a list of all of these cool, helpful videos by clicking here.

Posted in General Stuff | 3 Comments »

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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Spam Explosion!

Written by rob on April 11, 2006 – 9:27 am -

Almost every blog out there today suffered a huge spam explosion, including this one. You may or may not have noticed it, but the ‘comment spam’ (spam left in the comments section of posts) was quite explicit. I managed to delete all 100+ messages, but that is only a temporary solution. Therefore, I am now requiring approval for every comment user. So, if you go to post a comment now, I will have to approve it. However, after I approve one comment all subsequent comments under the same name won’t need to be reapproved. This should keep the spammers at bay temporarily, while I tweak the filters.

Posted in General Stuff | 5 Comments »

Microsoft Office 2007 Preview

Written by rob on April 4, 2006 – 5:51 pm -

Microsoft Office is a set of software programs that nearly everyone uses on a daily basis. Whether it is high school students writing papers or accountants keeping track of finances in Excel, it has become an integral part of our lives. However, Office hasn’t actually changed that much over the past few years. In fact, Office XP (2002, the version I use) and Office 95 have nearly an identical interface. Office 2004 had a floating formatting bar that becomes transparent when you aren’t using it, but overall no large changes have been made. Save for the tune-ups to the Spell Check dictionaries and Grammar check, differences between recent versions are almost nil. Microsoft has recognized that, and hopes to change everything for the better in Office 2007. I have recently come into possession of the Beta version, and prepare to share my thoughts.

First of all, let me say that the Beta version I have is by no means ready to use. I definitely don’t feel comfortable writing a paper in it, as it unexpectedly quits on me for no appranent reason. I left Word open while writing this to talk specifically about certain features, and, while minimized, it quit for no reason. I wasn’t even using it, and hadn’t typed a single thing into it. Also, starting Word causes a bunch of errors, but clicking OK on all of them eventually gets you into the program. This is, after all, a Beta version. Microsoft wouldn’t give it out for free to developers if it was good enough for day-to-day use. The whole purpose of it is to iron out bugs, but more importantly let people see what it in store for them at the end of 2006 (when the final version of 2007 is released… perhaps around the same time as Windows Vista).

Anyway, on to the actual coverage. Pretty much everything new in Office 2007 is graphical related. That is, there are not really any new features (or at least not that I can tell); it is all interface and visual changes. And let me be the first one to tell you… they are incredible. The first simple change you will notice is the overall appearance of the scroll bars and title bar. It is a very minimalistic gray and blue theme that doesn’t get in the way. Perhaps that was put in place to make room for the biggest new feature: the ribbon. It will smack you in the face as soon as you go into the program for two reasons: 1) it is visually very attractive and sleek, and 2) it replaced the menu bars and toolbars completely! That’s right. No more menus.

Before I tell you why the Ribbon (that is Microsoft’s name for it… not mine; I’m not pretending to like it) is great, I figured I would subscribe to the whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” mentality. Click here to see a screen shot of Word 2007 running (let’s face it: when I mention Microsoft Office, Word is the word (pun very much intended) that comes to everyone’s mind… screenshots of the other programs in use are at the end of this article). You should probably consult an eye doctor if you can’t see the Ribbon right away. Hint: It is the entire top of the screen.

Now, putting it off even further, before I delve into the issues of the Ribbon, I will address the other interface changes that you will notice in the above screenshot. Aside from the Ribbon itself there are only three icons: Save, Redo, and Undo. Then there is the File menu that lets you open documents and Save As…, etc. Notable is the fact that you can easily put any icon you want beside Save, Redo, and Undo. That is sort of like a favorites bars in your browser… you can keep links to your favorite tools. For example, I added a Spell check icon after taking the screen shot, because I’m not exactly fond of where Microsoft stuck Spell Check in the Ribbon. Also notable is the fact that when you highlight any piece of text, a small box comes up right beside it that has Bold and other common features. The box quickly disappears if you move the mouse far enough away from it. I think this is a pretty nifty feature – it is there if you want it, but unintrusive otherwise.

But enough delay. Let’s talk about what will really make you consider the upgrade to Office 2007: the strangely named Ribbon. The top of every new Office applications sports a similar interface. There is a tabbed view, where you choose the task you wish to perform. This makes only the tools relevant to your current task visible. Think about it. Do you really need the Margin information visible when you are writing your document? When you’re writing, you care about getting the text actually in, and formatted. Layout is a later task. Tools related to that can be accessed when you design to lay out the document. Or, if you are writing and decide to include a diagram or something, your can go to the Insert task. That will include tools for inserting pictures, charts, etc. This setup really keeps things organized. There is no reason to confuse a user with tons of tools if they are only going to be using a third of them with their current task.

For Word, the Write task is the default task. You can see in the screenshot that you have your common font manipulation tools available, just like the toolbars you are used to. Well, they behave a little differently. When you drop down the Fonts menu, simply hovering over the new font will allow you to preview that with the selected text. So, if I were to select the title of a document and go into the fonts menu, whenever I moved my mouse over a different font, the window would update to show what that font would look like. Previous versions of Word only allowed you to see what the font looked like in spelling the name of the font, but didn’t actually show you how it will look applied to your document. But let’s face it: isn’t that what we really want to know? Every feature of the Ribbon, not just fonts, behaves this way. Mousing over the Heading style, for example, in the Write task will apply the bold and larger font to your selected text in realtime preview. This previewing is extremely helpful for picking what looks the best in a document.

Moving on to another screenshot to illustrate another example, click here. Not only does the Ribbon divide things into Tasks, but it is also context sensitive. What I mean by that is that some Tasks will only appear when you are doing certain things. This way, you won’t get a Table formatting task when you aren’t working with Tables. It is a very intuitive concept, and it really helps keep down the clutter of what could be an insanely unmanageable Ribbon. In the screenshot you can see that I have a sub-Ribbon (I’m starting to coin my own terms now) for Charts, called Chart Tools. This includes Design, Options, and Format. See the Quick Layout and Quick Styles pieces of the Design Task? Those are common features across the Office suite that apply to tables, charts, headers and footers, etc. The coolest thing about these is that the hover-over preview works here too. So, you can literally see what a different chart layout will look like simply by hovering over it. You can imagine how helpful this will be in Excel if you’ve ever made a graph before. Sometimes the little preview image Microsoft gave you wasn’t enough… now you can see how it will actually look with your data. If you think about it, all of these features just make sense and should have been employed years ago.

I already stated that there aren’t that many new features. You can notice the prettier graphs, and the other Quick Styles are just as nice. But really, that isn’t a new feature, just adding on to what has already been a part of the program. In Powerpoint there is a new feature that may definitely jive up some presentations. You can select any bulleted list and convert it into a sort of flow diagram (see before and after converted to diagram). It is definitely nifty, but nothing to go crazy over. Again, features aren’t the focus here… it is Ribbon and the redesigned way of doing things. And that is where the suite really shines.

Covering every little cool thing about the Ribbon would be useless, and mainly it is really hard to explain a lot of the benefits in words. But when you use it, everything just works. There is no more trying to remember if the Margins are set under File, Page Setup or Format, Document (people who use both Mac and Windows can relate). Just go to the Layout task, and it will be right there for you. This entire redesign focuses on giving the average user the ability to access every part of the program. What usually took advanced tweaking and menu surfing is now a few clicks away, and the realtime previewing takes the guesswork out of everything. Furthermore, having a consistent Ribbon-like interface across the entire Office suite makes things even easier. The absolute beginner could learn Word easily, and then feel instantly comfortable in Powerpoint when they see a trusty Ribbon with similarly named Tasks. It just seems like Microsoft’s design team has really hit a home run with this, and I can honestly say I can’t wait until the Final (unbuggy) version comes out.

Now the part everyone has been waiting for (or not). The screenshots:

  • Powerpoint: A view of themes and how they affect diagram flow charts.
  • Word: How the Ribbon handles margins. Notice that none of the preset options are MLA standard… that sort of bugs me.
  • Excel: A look at charts and some of their quick styles. Also, a view of how Excel now handles formula building.

Posted in Tech | 5 Comments »

April Fool’s

Written by rob on April 2, 2006 – 10:06 am -

Just so everyone knows, the previous entry (Sony Cancels PS3!) was just an April Fool’s joke. I thought it was pretty obvious, but I guess if you don’t have Firefox then the pop-up window I did in Javascript would look pretty real (Firefox adds the site URL it came from, which would say http://eatyourexam.com before the title of the window. This is to prevent people who actually spoof for bad purposes, like Paypal phishers). Regardless, I just wanted to clear that up so no one actually goes on with life thinking that the PS3 is no more. (especially all you XBOX fan boys)

Posted in General Stuff | Comments Off on April Fool’s

Sony Cancels PS3!

Written by rob on April 1, 2006 – 12:00 am -

In a surprising press release, Sony announced that the Playstation 3 has been cancelled. Allegedly, there was a lawsuit between some software developer and Sony. The developer claimed to have a huge part in the creation of the Blu-Ray disc format, but was not properly compensated. The judge ruled that Sony must never use the Blu-Ray format in any commercially-released products. What does this mean for PS3? The end, to put it briefly.

Ken Kutaragi and Phil Harrison commented to the press about the cancellation. It seems that the absense of a disc format will, obviously, cause the system to be further delayed. Unfortunately, Kutaragi stated that the redevelopment of a format could take over two years. This is an unacceptable amount of time for the PS3 to be pushed back, as it has already been delayed five months. Therefore, the system is going to be canceled. It seems that Kutaragi and company plan to develop a new disc format, in addition to an entirely different system, from scratch. I assume it will still use the Cell processing architecture, given the amount of time and money devoted to the R&D of it, though it will most likely be a tweaked version. It seems that the company has in mind to skip the upcoming next-generation completely, and instead focus on the current generation of PSP and PS2 gaming. They will also get a head start on developing the PS4.

Also notable is that fact that Kutaragi stated that a redesigned version of the PS2 will be released soon. No details were given. However, I suspect it will feature upgraded graphical capabilities to keep the PS2 semi-competitive with the XBOX 360 and Nintendo Revolution. Given the fact that the recently released Nintendo Revolution specs are barely equivalent to the original XBOX, an upgraded PS2 may very well be competitive in the next generation.

Kutaragi seems to be a mastermind, so I don’t doubt his decision to cancel PS3. However, I think I speak for every Sony fan in saying that I am immeasureably disappointed. But, you can’t change the truth. Without Blu-Ray, the PS3 would probably need to be redesigned largely. Kutaragi states in the press release that not only will a new format have to be created, but the drive that encompasses that format will then have to be integrated into the system and tested. All of this takes time, and as he stated, “In the competitive world of consoles, this time does not exist.”

Hopefully the new PS2 that will come out will feature enough horsepower to at least rival the Nintendo Revolution. I’m sure Bill Gates and his buddies at Microsoft are laughing right now. But let them. As the release said, the PS4 will strike back with a vengeance. Getting this huge headstart on it, and using the knowledge gaining from the development of the PS3, should lead to a HUGELY impressive PS4. I expect it to utterly destroy the XBOX 720 (or whatever they decide to name it) and Nintendo Counter-Revolution (or whatever they decide to name it) even moreso than the PS3 would have destroyed the Revolution and 360.

In conclusion, am I angry, frustrated, and disappointed? YES! But am I giving up all hope for Sony and withdrawling $400 from the bank to buy a 360? NO! The new PS2 should last me until the PS4, and meanwhile I will continue playing the PSP and PC games. Sony skipping a generation doesn’t mean we must all give up hope. They are a huge company that won’t topple from even a large blow like this. Their new CEO combined with the genius of Kutaragi should easily get them through the troubling times ahead.

On a side note, I decided to convert the theme of the site permanently to pink. This masculine color will help us remember PS3’s legacy and celebrate these fateful times.

Posted in Gaming | 6 Comments »