Lock in your 25GB free cloud storage

This week has brought some changes in the retail cloud storage scene. Google has come out with its Google Drive, offering 5GB of free space, and Microsoft has revamped the terms of service of its Skydrive facility.

MS used to give away 25GB of free space. That sounds nice, but the problem was there was a file size limit of only 50 MB, if I remember correctly. Happily, that problem has been taken care of, for if you install the Skydrive desktop program, for some reason the size limit vaults up to 2GB – which is a pretty big file size.

Take note, however, that along with MS’s revamping, the new free allotment of space is only 7 GB. And not only will all new accounts be that smaller size, but older accounts will be reduced to it too, unless the old 25GB limit is reclaimed within a certain period of time.

So basically, if you have an existing Skydrive account, you need to get over to live.com and reclaim that higher limit. And do it soon, or you’ll lose it.

And now a note on the services. To really condense this down to a few sentences, the Google and MS services are good, but Google is accessible only via the Web interface, and that means no automatic syncing with your computers. MS hits a lot of the right feature points, but you will find that its sync program is extremely basic. I also found upload speeds to be rather lethargic.

That brings us to the Dropbox/Sugarsync offerings. Dropbox is an excellent service, and if you can benefit by all the third party plugins that extend its functionality, it may well be your best choice. But if you want a better desktop engine, with more built-in functionality both in the local program and web-side (indeed there is a bit of a learning curve to how it all works), and if 5GB free sounds a lot better to you than 2GB, then Sugarsync is a better choice over Dropbox.

And let me add that if you use this promo link, you will get an extra .5GB for free from Sugarsync (it will say 5GB but it’s actually 5.5, and it’s permanent).

What I’m going to do is use both Sugarsync and Skydrive. Sugarsync will be for my daily syncing needs, and I will use Skydrive for plain vanilla deep storage, since it’s desktop interface is virtually devoid of options. I think that’s the best of both worlds, with the extra 25GB from Skydrive being like having your own small hard disk in the cloud.

And there is no reason you can’t set up local encryption with any of these services (save Google, which doesn’t sync at all). See my two articles here for how to do this using secretsync or boxcryptor.

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Clean your RAM for ultimate speed!

I just made an amazing discovery. A friend brought in a computer than suddenly had stopped booting. It was a laptop that powered up, but then died without ever showing the BIOS splash screen.

The machine was six years old, and I feared the motherboard had fried itself. Sometimes the video connection going out to the screen can short out and take the MB down with it. And I knew her machine has a USB bus that is on its way out, so I thought that might be the source of the problem.

But what I did was flip the machine over and take out the RAM module. I then took a pencil and used its eraser to clean the contacts really well. I brushed the contacts off and replaced the stick, then turned the machine on. It booted right up.

There are few things a functioning motherboard needs to boot up. It can do so without video, mouse or, usually, keyboard. But the one thing it absolutely requires is memory. So if the contacts are dirty or oxidized, that’s a wrench thrown into the works.

My friend was delighted to have her machine back. But here’s the amazing part, that even I didn’t anticipate. As we were playing around with the machine, changing some settings and whatnot, we discovered that the machine was now lightning fast. I really do mean that it was fast. It’s an old Pentium 4 Dell, with only 1.25GB of Ram, but the thing was absolutely flying.

It turns out that that RAM connection didn’t just die suddenly, it had been dying a slow death. Who knows how long it was at 40%, then 25%, then 10%, before it finally dropped under radar entirely. And so now, with the connections cleaned up, the bottleneck was off the machine like never before.

That settles it for me. When I do tune ups from now on, I’m going to clean the RAM as a matter of course. The benefits are simply amazing.

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Act NOW to give your computer maximum resale value

There are a few steps you can take now that will enable you to get maximum value when it comes time to sell your old computer. Yes, that bright shiny cutting-edge machine you have will someday be yesterday’s model and you will need to replace it.

What I’m going to talk about today centers on preserving your computer’s operating system. Computers can lose their operating systems if their hard drives fail, or if the restoration partition fails. If a computer goes on the market without a viable operating system, it immediately loses some $50 in value, maybe more. If you’re selling on eBay you will have to list the machine “For Parts or Repair” rather than Used, and that immediately eliminates a broad swath of potential buyers.

There are two keys to preserving your system’s operating system: having recovery disks and preserving the Windows product key.

Most modern computers are shipped without recovery disks, and instead use a dedicated recovery partition on the machine’s own hard drive. This way, the manufacturers can save the immense sum of maybe $2 or so. But they also figure that it’s easier for the end user to recover the system via an internal partition, accessible by a key sequence at boot-up, than to have him find and then wrestle with disks. And then, an increasing number of small computers – netbooks, tablets and the like – are being sold that do not even have the optical drives necessary for using disks. So a disk recovery in that case would involve purchasing a separate external optical drive. Though that’s not a bad idea anyway, most users will not want the bother or expense.

And so manufacturers usually opt to place the recovery files on the computer’s own hard drive. This is a fine system, except when your hard drive goes south. Then what do you do? And if you go online and shop hard drives, and check user reviews, you will find that an extraordinary percentage of modern hard drives do in fact retire south after an all to short working career.

This means that the first rule for preserving your OS is to make your own recovery disks. It’s a simple process that will take only a short while, and will pay big rewards if you ever need it – whether you want to sell the machine with a fresh install of the operating system, or reinstall the operating system for your own use after a hardware failure. To make the disks, on the Start menu, type “recovery” or look for a Recovery item, and your system’s maker should have a utility that will do the job for you. You’ll need a few blank DVD disks and maybe a half hour or so. This is something you’ll never be sorry you did.

But understand this very clearly: using recovery disks will take your system back to the way it was the day you walked out the store with it. All your data, all the programs you have installed, and all your configurations, will be lost. That’s just what you may want if you’re selling the system, but if the recovery is for your own use, even if you have data backups, plan on spending a massive amount of time to install, configure, and load everything back.

That is why recovery disks are not a substitute for taking a full image backup of your system, and for doing regular data backups. See my article HERE for how to do that. You should have both a system backup and recovery disks, because they perform different functions. If you do this, you’re operating system will be well-covered.

The other thing that many users don’t think of is protecting their Windows COA sticker. If you do a reinstall from a manufacturer’s restore partition, you won’t need the Windows product key. But if you reinstall from a disk, you will. This is where protecting the product key, which is printed on an external sticker on the machine, comes in. On desktops this is not much of an issue, because desktops are pretty much put in place and left there. But laptops are another story. The sticker is on the bottom, and the laptop is often moved around and rubbed against things. After a year or two, those stickers can easily become illegible. That means that if even if you can reinstall Windows, you will not be able to activate it. And that means you will need to shell out anywhere from $90 to $200 to get your machine working again.

The solution here is ultra simple. Take a small piece of clear shipping tape and cover the COA sticker with it. This will take you about 30 seconds to do. Do the manufacturer’s product ID sticker while you’re at it. This will extend the life of the stickers by years. Then copy the product key to a safe file, or to a piece of paper you can file away safely.

You want to get the recovery process down to a smooth and quick process, so you can get back up and running without an angina attack, or you can sell the machine for maximum value.

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Tune up IE9 to work faster and better for you

If you read my piece a couple of weeks ago, Does Your Browser Serve You Well?, you may have walked away thinking that I’m not terribly fond of Internet Explorer. If so, you are right, actually. My opinion is that IE is the most popular browser simply because it is shipped with Windows and has indeed been integrated with Windows, and most people never dig any deeper than that. To them, Internet Explorer IS the Internet.

Evidently Microsoft also came to the conclusion that IE’s popularity was resting on failing momentum, because they have been putting on a full-court press to improve their browser. It’s still has nowhere near the configurability of a Firefox, a Chrome or an Opera, but it is improving.

Take the area of startup time. In IE9, you will get a popup telling you how much time has been spent loading addons. This is a nice feature. You can click the balloon and go directly to addon management, and there you can disable away unneeded extensions. VERY few of them actually are necessary, so most people will be able to get opening time down to a second or two with a few mouse clicks. (Don’t worry about breaking anything. You can always go back and reenable, or in a worst-case scenario, go to Control Panel / Internet Options / Advanced tab and click on Reset to bring IE back to the way it was shipped.)

Ironically, the Addon information popup itself quickly becomes a nuisance, so after you have disabled the addons you don’t need, you can set IE to warn you only when addon load time gets to a certain point. I set mine to 1.5 seconds, and haven’t seen the popup since.

The next thing you can do to make IE load faster is change your home page. For some very strange reason, IE stopped remembering tab sessions a few versions ago. I find this lack of continuity noisome. If I’m researching something late at night, when I come back the next day I would like the ability to pick up where I left off. Whom, exactly, is that hurting? But MS thinks it has a better idea.

MS’s version of session preservation is to provide the ability to set multiple home pages. You can set, say, your top five favorite pages, and they will open automatically each time IE opens. But this increases starting time significantly and is a poor substitute for real session management.

And so, without the ability to preserve tab sessions in IE, I went the opposite way: I set my home page to about:blank. This loads a single blank page quickly, and from there I go where I wish. But while that works pretty well, recently I came across a better solution.

IE9 gives you the ability to set about:tabs as your home page. This will bring up its version of Opera’s Speed Dial or Chrome’s New Tab page every time you start. Here you will find icons of several of your most-visited sites. Sorry, it’s strictly statistical and is not configurable, but it’s still useful. What’s more, hidden at the bottom of the page are two functions that will come in very handy: Reopen Last Session, and Reopen Closed Tabs. Yes, these are essentially the very functions that have been glaringly missing in IE for a couple of years, and now they’re quietly being slipped back in.

So if you want to reopen a session you were working on the day before, you can simply open an about:tabs page, then click on Reopen Last Session, and your multiple tabs will open. The next step for MS is to come full circle and catch up with the rest of the world by actually making this function automatic. What a concept!

My use of IE is pretty much relegated to opening secondary email accounts without having to log-out and then log back in in my main browsers. And sometimes I hit a site that doesn’t load well in the browsers I keep open so I resort to IE. Even with this minor use, it’s nice to rein the browser in and make it useful. If IE still is your main browser, you have all the more reason to tune it up to serve your needs better.

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Free local encryption of cloud storage: a second candidate

In my article, Secure, Free Online Backup, I described how to automatically encrypt your files before they are uploaded to an online storage facility. In review, it’s quite easy:

  • Subscribe to an online storage site. The market leader for consumer storage is Dropbox, and its name is almost generic for online storage. Dropbox is a fine service, but I eventually went with SugarSync because of a greater range of features and 5GB of free storage as opposed to the common 2GB. And with the referral link I just gave you, you’ll get .5GB more for free (it will say 5GB but it’s actually 5.5, and it’s permanent).
  • Install SecretSync. Installing SecretSync is pretty simple. You just point it to the folder you want to encrypt.
  • Point your online backup/sync service to your SecretSync folder.

I’ve been running this for many months now, and once set up the whole thing is seamless and carefree. I’ve also noticed no slow-downs due to the encryption algorithms.

But I’ve come across another encryption program that is definitely worth a mention. BoxCryptor works essentially the same way as SecretSync, but in some ways it might be further advanced:

  • There is an active user forum on the site where you can get answers from users and the company. SecretSync has a helpful blog and wiki set up, and has plans for a forum, and responded quickly to my support request via email. But their site is a little behind as of yet.
  • Boxcryptor allows for syncing multiple folders. It’s not yet straightforward to do so, but it’s manually possible, and a built-in solution should be soon coming. This will be a major step forward. I am unaware of this feature in SecretSync, but maybe it’s possible.
  • Boxcryptor allows for encrypting filenames as well as contents, for those who really want to be private.
  • Both programs are multi-platform: Windows, Mac and Linux. But Boxcryptor also supports Android.
  • Lastly, for storage over the nominal free 2GB, Boxcryptor has a pricing structure you might like better than SecretSync’s. SecretSync is free for the first 2GB, as is Boxcryptor, but then the price jumps to $40 per year for 20 GB of storage. Boxcryptor, however, only charges a one-time fee of $40 for unlimited storage. By any reckoning, that is a good deal. That is for personal use only, though, but even unlimited commercial use is a very reasonable $100 one-time fee.
    Considering that how much you store is no sweat to Boxcryptor, since its servers are not involved in the transfer process, this is a reasonable rate plan. SecretSync tells me that they are in the process of considering making their price structure more flexible.

So in a side-by-side comparison, on paper I like the Boxcryptor scheme better. But I have to add that I haven’t actually used Boxcryptor yet. I can only assume there are no hangups. For Windows users, Boxcryptor requires .NET 2.0, while SS requires Java. Neither of these requirements will be any problem for any modern machine.

But now, let me get creative. If you have a 5GB SugarSync account, and need more than 2GB of encrypted storage, why not set up both SS and BC, for a total of 4GB of free encrypted online storage? It should be easy to do. One free SugarSync account will cover both encrypted folders, and that’s quite a bit of secure storage for most users, and then it will afford an extra GB of unencrypted storage.

Now, some more advanced readers may wonder, why not simply use a free encryption program such as TrueCrypt with SugarSync, for unlimited capabilities? With TrueCrypt you mount whatever size folder you want as a virtual drive. That sounds good, but there are two problems with this approach. First, TrueCrypt requires that you spec the virtual folder size up-front. So if you might need 3GB of space at some point, you must tie up that whole amount of your SugarSync account immediately, even if there’s absolutely nothing in the folder. The second problem is that SugarSync sees file changes by file timestamps. And timestamps of the TrueCrypt container don’t change until the virtual drive is unmounted. So you can kiss real-time syncing goodbye under this scheme, which I see as a major compromise to security, and you can say hello to uploading a huge file after you’re done working and may want to turn the computer off, which is inconvenient and uses electricity. The two solutions I propose – SecretSync and BoxCryptor – have neither of these limitations, which is why they are so great at what they’re designed for.

But let’s cut to the chase. I’ve seen one horror story after another of computer crashes and data loss. There really is no reason this has to be so. With free online services like SugarSync you can upload your data safely, and now with free local encryption available, you can know it is secure within the limits of AES-256 encryption. And that’s pretty secure, as long as you choose a decent key.

And, if you run multiple sites and machines – say, work, home and on the road – the ability that services like SugarSync and DropBox give you to sync files across machines and share with other machines is superb. If you’re not doing this yet, I suggest you click on some of those links above and get started making your data both more protected and more useful.

Be blessed.  SecretSync vs. Boxcryptor 

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Does your web browser serve you well?

I currently run three web browsers regularly, for various purposes, and over the years I have used many others. While quite a few readers will be able to relate to that, the great majority of users simply use the browser their operating system presents to them on their desktop: Internet Explorer.

So I’m writing this to touch on the subject of differences among the browsers, and to raise the question of which browser might serve your needs best. Because it might not be the one that is most easily available.

I ran across an interesting browser speed test over at http://peacekeeper.futuremark.com by the people known for their benchmark software. If nothing else, the graphics they use to stress the browser are absolutely vivid and entertaining, and worth a look. But I was surprised at the outcome of the tests among my three browsers:

IE 9 1007
Chrome 616
Opera 1676

The surprise for me was that not only did Opera win, but that it did so so resoundingly, and that Chrome did so poorly. How these browsers will do for you depends a lot on your hardware and how well in tune you keep your system, but it’s worth putting the browsers to the test (it only takes about five minutes) to see how they fare relative to each other.

More than speed

So I’ve established that on my machine Opera handles graphics the best and gives the best overall performance. Fine, but actually, how well your browser serves you involves a lot more than raw speed and graphics quality tests. The question is whether your browser does what you need it to do to help you perform the tasks you want to perform.

Does your browser enable you to do searches easily? Many people will answer, “why yes, I can simply go to Google and do a search”, or “Yes, I use the search box on the toolbar”. Good, but those are actually very basic ways of searching. Advanced browsers support right-clicking on selected text on a page and then choosing from multiple sites on which to search for the selected text. For instance, in Opera I can right-click on power supply and then select the custom NewEgg search that I created, and voila, I am taken to Newegg.com and I am looking at their selection of power supplies.

Do you understand how powerful that is? By means of various searches, you can turn your browser into a powerful research engine. I can do instant lookups in an online dictionary, Wikipedia, Amazon, eBay or other shopping sites, my local public library, the Bible and so much more.

In Opera, all you have to do is right-click in any search bar on a site and click “create a search”. In Chrome, all searches are automatically stored in Options, and you need to go into them and pull out the ones you want to place in the right-click menu. In Firefox (and I’m behind the curve here; it may be different now), you have to add an extension that will enable you to configure custom searches.

And while we’re discussing searches, you can also give custom searches a keyword (say, “w” for Wikipedia) and then use the search in the address bar to go directly to the site, like this:

w George Washington

More than searching

Custom searches are probably the most important function the browser can offer, but not the only one. Session management is another. Most all browsers use tabs now, but you should also be able to save open tabs as a custom group for revisiting later. And there is one basic function whose lack in IE I find inexplicable: persistent tabs across sessions. When you close Opera, Chrome or Firefox, you have the ability to have the current session automatically reloaded when you open the program again. For some reason, IE actually had this feature but dropped it a couple of years ago. When you close IE, you lose your place. I can hardly think of a worse way to try to do research than this.

While we’re on the subject of IE, let’s talk opening speed. If you are finding it takes a long time to get the program loaded, there are a few things you can do. You can go to the Tools/Manage Add-ons menu and disable add-ons you don’t need (which, chances are, is most of them). IE 9 even tells you how much time each one takes to load. In Options, make sure your browser cache is set to something reasonable: say 120MB. There are some people still dragging around a TB of cache with them, like a ball and chain on their system. Next, you might set your start page to a blank. Normally this is done by speccing about:blank as the start page in Options, but it’s better to use about:tabs. This will give you another feature found standard in the other browsers: the “speed dial” or “quick start” page, which will configurably contain icons of the sites you frequent. This page is invaluable, as you only need hit CTRL-t to open a new tab with these favorites showing, and then click on the icon you want to go to.

Speaking of hotkeys, your browser should allow you to set hotkeys for the pages you go to often, and for other functions. Not all browsers do so. And if you’re a mouse person, you will benefit from using a browser that supports mouse gestures to navigate and do other things. Most browsers now support gestures, but as of this writing, IE still does not.

The list goes on. There is automatic syncing of bookmarks and settings across computers, onboard note-taking, and onboard mail/news/RSS feed clients. And if that isn’t enough, through extensions you can get your browser to do just about anything.

I understand that the coming IE 10 will bring big changes to that app. I hope so, because in almost every case I just mentioned, the Microsoft offering is the one browser that does not support the function.

What browser you choose is up to you. But I want you to be aware that there are other choices out there, and that they offer powerful features that the browser much of the general public considers “the Internet” is actually the least-featured of them all.

Be blessed.

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Three years of web hosting – free!

I keep a small business web site. It’s very modest and I wanted to keep the costs down, so I looked around and found a web hosting service that had a free plan. I’ve had them for a year now, and while my demands are admittedly on the low side, I have been quite happy with their service. It only cost me $9 a year to park my domain (www.compu-rez.com) with them, and the rest was totally free.

The plan came up for renewal this month, so I did some more shopping around. I was thinking that I should get a more powerful plan, so I could consolidate this blog with the business site, and maybe add other things, such as an shopping cart and even a forum or chat.

Well, my shopping led me right back to where I started. My host – KVC Web Hosting – offered an unlimited plan for only $3.39 a month, and it included free domain hosting. Domain hosting is going up to $10, so in effect that’s only $2.75 a month for unlimited web hosting.

What’s more, they are currently running a Christmas special whereby if you sign up for three years, you get an extra three years free. This is an unheard of deal.

Also on the plus side, they have discounts for churches and charitable organizations, though I don’t know that the discounts are stackable with the above deal.

Do your own research, of course, to make sure it’s a good fit for you, but I can say that with my limited needs I found no problem with the service, so on that basis I recommend them. The link to get you started is HERE.

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