|The Personal Computer Radio Show||
New York City
August 2006 Show Summaries
Apple is recalling over a million laptop batteries because they may overheat and pose a fire hazard. As with Dell last week, the batteries were made by Sony. Three different G4 models sold between October 2003 and August 2006 are being recalled. This represents a third of all Apple laptops sold during this time frame. Amazingly, some laptops are having their batteries recalled a second time. Apple earlier recalled batteries made by LG.
Is this all Sony's fault? They sell batteries to many laptop vendors. A Sony spokesman said that because of the way other companies configured their laptops, the Sony batteries in them do not pose a fire hazard.
As with the Dell recall last week, if you own an affected laptop, you should remove the battery and only power it with electricity.
Radio Shack fired about 400 employees by email. Radio Shack: You've got pink slip by Steven Musil August 30, 2006.
Olivia had a flood in her apartment and all her computers were destroyed, along with her on-site backups. Fortunately, she had off-site backups too. A word to the wise. Michael suggested using web site space for off-site storage. There is one web hosting company offering 100 gigabytes of space for $75/year.
Bill Machrone on digital music
One of his favorite sites is www.pandora.com which creates your own personalized, free, streaming radio station. You start off with a genre or an artist and then train it by telling it the songs you like and those you don't. Other, somewhat similar web sites are Last.FM and the free Yahoo Music (Launch). Bill wrote about Pandora in PC Magazine on May 3, 2006.
For normalizing the sound levels (such as when a recording starts out too low) Bill suggested SoundForge and Audacity. Audacity is open source and free.
When recording audio, the larger the bits/second the better the resulting quality. For music, Bill said 128Kbps was listenable, especially with the variable bit rate option. He called 192Kbps great. For voice recordings he suggested 64Kbps. WBAI records all shows on the station at 24Kbps and that's the feed used for our Podcast. In addition, to make small files for those with dial-up access, Michael usually records the show at 16Kbps.
A caller was frustrated with limits in the current version of Excel. The new Excel 2007 is supposed to have expanded rows, columns, and in-cell sizes. The spreadsheet in OpenOffice has more functions for math programming. Bill suggested Mathcad. Then too there is R, a free, open source math/stats package. Finally, there is a Microsoft blog dedicated to Excel with answers to many questions.
Our topic was Xandros Linux and we had two guest from Xandros: Andreas Typaldos Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and Todd Kanfer, Vice President of Sales and Marketing.
While Linux is typically used for servers and maintained by computer nerds, Xandros is trying to break out of that pattern and sell a version of Linux for consumers, one that installs easily and looks and acts like Windows.
One question is why pay for Xandros when other versions of Linux are free. One reason is the 300 page manual that comes in (some of) the retail boxes. Then too, there is free technical support for the first 60 days to help you install the Operating System - and a single copy of Xandros can be legally installed on five computers. Finally, there is the secret sauce, a.k.a. "value added" software. This includes things like Crossover Office that lets you run some Windows applications under Xandros. They have also written their own application for applying bug fixes, analogous to Windows Update.
To run Xandros you should have a processor running at 450MHz or more (they say the minimum is 200 MHz) and 256 MB of ram (they say the minimum is 128 MB). At the most, Xandros will use 3 GB of hard disk space, but depending on the options you chose, it can use about half that.
Joe, Hank and Michael all installed Xandros and offered their experiences.
Wal-Mart sells some computers with Xandros pre-installed, but not yet with version 4 which was released about two months ago.
A caller with a laptop computer complained that when he typed letters,
numbers appeared on the screen. A likely reason is that Num Lock was enabled
accidentally. Laptop computers can simulate a numeric keypad when Num Lock is
turned on. This is visually indicated on the keyboard with small numbers on top
of some of the letters.
Dell Battery Recall
Dell is recalling over four million laptops because of potential fire hazards with their Sony made batteries. If you have a Dell laptop computer that was made between April 2004 and July 2006, there is an 18% chance the battery is being recalled. You can see if your Dell laptop is being recalled at www.dellbatteryprogram.com or you can try to call Dell at 866-342-0011. To be safe, remove the battery from the computer and run it solely on electricity.
The affected Dell laptops are:
If your Dell laptop is not on the list above, be aware that the problematic batteries were also sold by Sony to other companies. Which other companies? Sony won't say. They will say that some of the batteries were used in their own VAIO laptops, but there have not been reports of them overheating and there is no recall.
It turns out that a battery can start to overheat even with the laptop computer turned off. In some cases all that's needed it shaking the computer.
HP said their laptops are safe. Apple is still looking it. Lenovo said their laptops are safe. The design of the computer can increase or decrease the likelihood of a battery overheating.
If you take the battery out of your laptop computer, the recalled Sony batteries are labeled "Dell", not "Sony". If you have a Windows XP laptop (any brand), its easy to tell if Sony made the battery or not:
Joe tried this on a machine that originally had an earlier version of Windows and was upgraded to XP and it did not work. Also, we did not try this on older versions of Windows.
In addition, your laptop vendor may have custom software that reports on the status of the battery. ThinkPads, for example, come with a Battery Status program that provides more information than Windows XP. See sample output: the detail tab includes the current temperature, the information tab includes the manufacture date (both open in a new window).
Alfred pointed out that when, as a reviewer, he asked Dell in the past, who made assorted internal parts, they always refused to say. However, now that the you-know-what has hit the fan, Dell is quick to point out that Sony made the problematic batteries. Touché.
For more see:
Not to pick on Dell and Sony, Apple has recalled batteries made by LG Chem, Ltd. of South Korea because, they too, may overheat and cook marshmallows.
But, to pick on Dell, they are being sued in China for false advertising on the central processing units of some notebooks. The second story below tells of an arrogant company. They dealt with their customers in such as way as to offend and outrage them, leading to the lawsuits.
And this comes on the heels of last years problems with bad capacitors on the motherboards of OptiPlex computers that cost Dell about $300 million.
Update: Although the same Sony batteries that are fire hazards in Dell laptops are used by other laptop vendors, the other companies (including Sony themselves) are saying that their machines are safe. Why? They are smarter than Dell in designing the machine.
There is a security bug in ten D-Link routers (both wired and wireless). It's a classic buffer overflow and could allow for a total re-writing of the firmware in the router.
The problem was found by security company eEye and they issued an advisory about it on July 13, 2006 that said all the vulnerable routers had fixes available in the form of new firmware. Updating the firmware in a router (typically called flashing the firmware) is the logical equivalent of Windows Update. Joe owns a D-Link router and he couldn't find new firmware for it at D-Links web site. A security Podcast last week said there were no fixes at all. D-Link's web site says nothing about this problem anywhere. What's the true story?
Michael was in contact today with both eEye and D-Link. eEye is investigating this again, but at first glance they said it does appear that some routers have not been fixed (DI-524 Revision A, DI-604 Revision E, DI-784). D-Link said that yes, some of the 10 routers have had fixes made available and some have not. The unfixed routers are scheduled to have updates available by the end of this week.
In the mean time, if you have a vulnerable D-Link router, there are work-arounds for the problem. The bug is in the Universal Plug and Play (often abbreviated to UPnP) feature so if you have a D-Link router it's best to turn off this feature ASAP. In general, the UPnP feature is a security danger and it should never be turned on unless you are absolutely sure you need it. This applies to all routers at all times.
In addition, WiFi routers are more susceptible to the problem than wired ones because the attack has to emanate from the LAN side of the router. It is highly recommended that WPA or WPA2 or WEP be enabled on all WiFi routers. Also, don't broadcast the SSID and enable MAC address filtering.
This bug did not get much publicity, perhaps because D-Link routers are not used in corporate settings.
Updating firmware is a reasonably simple matter. You download a file from D-Link's web site (a ".bin" file) and then point your router to the file and tell it to update itself. However, D-Link warns that all customized settings will be lost. If you are using WiFi security, it will have to be re-enabled all over again. You may want to write down all the settings in the router before updating the firmware. Routers typically have a feature that lets you back up all the current settings to a file. However D-Link warns that old backups can not be restored to the new firmware.
For more see:
Update: Almost as the show was airing, this article on the subject was released on the CRN website
Turning Off WiFi Radio Transmitters
Last week we discussed a new security vulnerability where any WiFi enabled computer could be hacked even if it was not connected to the Internet. All that is needed is for the WiFi radio transmitter to be on (WiFi wireless networks are based on radio waves). By default, it is always on. To protect yourself, you should turn off the WiFi radio when you don't need it to connect to a wireless network.
The FCC is all for Broadband over Powerline. In English, this means using electricity wires as a transmission medium for Internet access, competing with phone lines (DSL) and coaxial cables (cable TV). Danny said that RCN is currently doing this on an experimental basis in a few buildings on the upper west side of Manhattan. A very fast fiber-optic cable carries the signal to the building and it is distributed within the building via the electrical system.
Yesterday was Patch Tuesday and Microsoft released another clump of bug fixes. Of the 23 bug fixes, 16 were rated "critical", so be sure to run Windows Update (in Internet Explorer, Tools -> Windows Update) and Office Update (or Microsoft Update). Five years after the release of Windows XP, there are still new critical bugs in the operating system that let a remote attacker take total control of your computer. One of the bugs was so critical that the Department of Homeland Security said to apply it:
Linspire, the Linux distribution that used to be called Lindows, is about to release a free version called Freespire.
If you work in an office, and like to goof off by surfing the web, then www.workfriendly.net is for you. It is a free service, currently in beta testing, that reformats web pages so they look like Word 2003 documents. Anyone walking by your computer would think you were using Word. The reformatting removes colors (the Word document is black/white) and pictures and adds a Word 2003 toolbar (really just an image of one). Links in the web pages are live.
For an example, open this page in workfriendly format.
WiFi enabled computers (pretty much every recent laptop) face a new danger. At a conference in Las Vegas researches showed that they could take total control of a victim laptop even though the victim was not logged on to the Internet. Up until now, if you weren't logged on, you were safe. No more. This new security hole exists in personal computers regardless of the operating system. That is, the problem can be found on machines running Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. The bug is not in the operating system itself, rather it is in the drivers for the WiFi network adapter.
What to do? Turn off the WiFi radio when not using it. On some laptops this is easily done with a switch somewhere on the outside case. On others, a key combination controls it (Fn-F5 on ThinkPads).
The September 2006 issue of Consumer Reports has a number of computer articles. Hank took issue with a statement in the virus article, Michael said the article on Backup was terrible.
Joe discussed www.yousendit.com a web site that lets you send BIG files to people and avoid emailing them. According to the web site you have to either pay $5 a month or be limited to files of 100 megabytes. But Joe found that after you register, there is a third option, you can send a file up to 2 gigabytes for a one time charge of $3. They refer to it as the "pay-per-use option".
Lots of small topics and points of interest.
Joe briefly discussed Paperport. Originally it was software included with scanners that helped you organize the scanned documents. Now it lets you store scanned files in any folder on your computer. When you view a folder, Paperport not only displays thumbnails of the scanned documents, it also displays thumbnails of other file types. This frees you from having to store all scanned documents in a single Paperport folder. Paperport has their own proprietary image format, but the new version (11) lets you scan documents and create PDF files.
Michael liked a couple anti-virus products. For virus scanning a single file he suggests www.virustotal.com where you can upload a file and have it scanned by 17 different anti-virus programs. For scanning an entire computer he likes the Kaspersky online scanner. Many vendors of anti-virus software have a free online facility that will virus scan your computer (usually using ActiveX and thus requiring Internet Explorer). In that sense, the Kaspersky product is no different. However, Michael said it was a very well done product with an excellent user interface.
A company called Code Weavers is about to release a Mac version of their CrossOver product. The software will let you run Windows programs under Linux. It is not an entire virtual machine as is the Parallels product for the Mac or VMware and thus there are some programs that it can not run. To see if a program is supported go to www.codeweavers.com/compatibility/search/. It does not support Paint Shop Pro, but there is a similar native Linux program called GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). CrossOver used to be called CrossOver Office and it has been around for Linux for a long time.
A caller asked about documentation for the free version of Visual C++ from Microsoft.
Another caller asked about copying data files off an internal hard disk in an old computer where the power supply had died. Michael suggested a special cable that can connect an internal 3.5 inch IDE hard drive or an internal 2.5 inch laptop hard drive to a USB port, thus avoiding the hassle of opening a computer and dealing with IDE vs. SATA and Master/Slave and Primary and Secondary. One such cable is the BYTECC BT-200 which NewEgg.com sells for $20.
AOL is giving up the ghost. They are walking away from their core dial-up
business in favor of free services with ads. As part of this, AOL will give away
free email addresses. If you were an AOL customer and quit in the last two
years, they saved your old email address for you. AOL is also laying off
thousands of employees, those involved in acquiring and retaining
customers. Michael thinks that AOL customers will leave in droves - many
kept paying for the service solely to avoid changing email addresses.
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