Getting the best out of your Windows PC

In the 4 years (counting from 2006 when I purchased my first desktop computer) that I’ve been an active PC user, I have encountered the following scenario several times:

  1. User buys a PC because it’s cheap.
  2. User ignores all the how-tos included with PC including crucial information on how to keep the system running optimally.
  3. User keeps ignoring those pesky prompts to install updates or continues to cancel the installation of said updates.
  4. User goes deep into the weeds when infected and does things like installing multiple AV programs on 1 machines, reading & using advice obtained from sketchy forums on the internet.
  5. User’s PC slows to a painful halt and he/she either calls for a friend or has to spend money to fix the problems.

Of course, from time to time, stuff will get borked on your Windows machine and even through no fault of your own sometimes. Those kinds of problems can include having faulty hardware which can be rectified by getting firmware updates or updated drivers for the faulty hardware or . My main theme in my posts about taking care of your computer revolves around proactive user intervention. As a Windows user, you *absolutely* have to take care of your computer or else you *will* see degraded performance over time. If you are completely clueless around computers, look around your neighborhood for free community resources that can help you with your computer. For instance, I currently volunteer with Free IT Athens which is a “non-profit community advocate for free software and open technology” and they’ll be very happy to help with computer issues!

What does being proactive around your computer mean? For me, it entails *all* of the following:

  1. Regularly checking for Windows Updates if you have turned off Automatic Updates
  2. If you’ve got automatic updates turned on, visit the “Windows Updates” page occasionally to verify that the system hasn’t been waiting for your permission to install those updates.
  3. Check your PC manufacturer’s website for product/firmware/software updates
  4. Running your antispyware/antivirus utility weekly or daily (depending on how much on the at-risk scale you fall). Please try to be available when the scan is complete in order for you to be able to weed out false positives. Several AV engines have been known to accidentally mark critical system files as viruses. If you’ve set your AV scanner to run overnight and it detects your critical system files as viruses, you’ll be screwed if the AV ends up deleting such a file. So, my advice will be to start your AV scan early in the day so you don’t do overnight runs.

My list is not exhaustive, but by merely doing these things, I think a lot of issues could be avoided.Several good ways to see if your computer’s components has received any upgrade is to do the following (which is tailored to HP computers because my 2 notebooks are from Hewlett-Packard) include:

  1. Going to your Windows PC’s control panel and setting Automatic Updates to “install automatically” and *also* allowing Windows to check for updates to other products. See the relevant settting:

    These other products will show up as “optional” updates and I’ve found recent driver versions for things like my Nvidia graphics card, Ethernet/Internet, Synaptics touchpad, modem, etc. Case in point: my Realtek NIC driver recently received a driver update via Windows updates. As you’ll see, the HP support page for my notebook still has the old drivers!
    Old Realtek drivers:

    New Realtek drivers:

    My point: besides software updates meant to improve your system, driver and/or firmware updates can be very helpful to your system as well! Bear in mind that your laptop/desktop is composed of several 3rd party components that may have flaws in them. If you never check their website(s) to see if updates for their products (e.g. fingerprint reader driver, HP quicklaunch buttons, touchpad, etc) are available, how will you be able to fix any problems you are currently having with these items?

  2. Run HP Updates: If you’re using an HP computer, HP includes a software tool called HP Update which I highly recommend you run first. In my experience, HP Updates works for critical updates issued by HP.
  3. Go to this website which will take you to HP Support website. You should know your HP model number and that is what you need to search for (select “Downloads and Drivers”). Now, don’t go download-crazy yet. First thing to do is: go to Windows “Add and Remove” programs and see the installed programs and their version numbers. Knowing the version numbers will help you figure out if you are running an old version of your hardware’s drivers. If you can’t find that information via “Add and Remove” programs, I would recommend that you visit the “Device Management” section of your computer. Get to that section by clicking the Windows ‘Start’ button and type “device manager” into the search bar. Then, you can rightclick the product you’re looking to upgrade, check out its properties and verify that the driver is out-of-date. If it is, return to the page of “Downloads and Drivers” and be very sure that you are ONLY downloading the HP software drivers for your exact operating system. In my computer’s case, here’s what the screen looks like:
  4. Install Secunia PSI which is a security tool that lets you know which programs on your computer are ‘insecure’ primarily because they are out-of-date or a newly discovered vulnerability. I run this weekly on my computer to give me a status update (so to speak) on all the programs I’ve got installed on my computer. Secunia PSI is free for personal use and I strongly urge you to install it on your computer. On a side note (related to finding version information), I also use a tool (Belarc Advisor) to give me a nice .html page that contains a listing of all programs installed on my computer, software license information for certain products, and critical information about your computer & connected devices like serial numbers, version numbers, etc. I highly recommend this tool as part of your Windows user arsenal.
  5. Manually checking programs installed on your computer for software updates that could affect the performance of your computer. Sometimes, programs you install aren’t very smart about calling ‘home’ to notify the user of an update. In this case, you have to either go to the software maker’s website to check if there has been an update or look for a “check for updates” button which is usually found under the “Help” section.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I’d also like to list several pitfalls that can occur with well intentions:

  1. Running programs like DriverMax, DriverCure, etc and accepting all “updated” drivers blindly. Please, if you are unfamiliar with rolling back your system with system restore or “if it ain’t broke”, don’t go there. I’ve used DriverMax and DriverCure. They both always found outdated drivers. *HOWEVER* the driver matching algorithm is clearly not 100% foolproof. PC manufacturers’ have a good reason for wanting you to use their packaged executables for installing any driver updates. That said, there’s nothing wrong with using those programs to see what drivers are potentially out-of-date. Then, I strongly recommend that you go to the source to download said updates yourself. For instance, through DriverCure by Paretologic, I was found out that were updates to my Realtek HD audio drivers, Realtek NIC controller drivers and Intel wireless drivers! Windows Update didn’t detect these updates and the HP support site’s drivers had not been updated. Now, if “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If your PC’s running just fine with the old driver versions, then sit tight. If you’re obsessed with running the latest & greatest drivers for your devices, be aware that you will cause things to stop functioning at some point. Of course, I had nothing to do with that. You’re on your own in implementing any tips given on this website, m’kay?

    As I always stress, PLEASE for the love of data, create a system restore point, manually copy precious files over a removable USB drive, create a whole system image, create a backup of your files, just save your work BEFORE attempting a driver upgrade. True story: I’ve had to pave a PC after a botched driver installation. So, I’m a little paranoid when it comes to having several copies of the same data. 🙂

Using Habari from a user’s perspective

I’ve been a WordPress user for the longest time. I love the easy out-of-box experience of WordPress. However, I got bored and began wanting to something else that was different from all the content management systems out there. I’ve toyed with Drupal, but there are way too many things to click just to get things done. Then, I heard about Habari again and decided to give it a try.

The installation process is actually faster than the famous 5-minute install of WordPress. Habari’s schtick is about building a solid foundation and letting plugins do the rest of the work. This is good from a developer’s perspective, but cumbersome for a user. I will delve into the reasons which are exactly why I’m struggling a little bit with Habari.

Here are the issues (for me):

1) Habari has 2 main versions: the stable version and there’s trunk version of Habari. The developers, I’m presuming, play with the bleeding edge versions a lot and this is evidenced by the large number of plugins marked ‘-trunk’ under the Plugin directory of the Habari Project.
2) Half the time, plugins I have an interest in using either: don’t work for the version of Habari they are listed for or (ii)work for the ‘bleeding edge’ version instead of the stable version. I know developers like to live dangerously, but I wish there’s be a set of tried & true plugins that will make the experience of using Habari less frustrating. I suspect things are simply being labeled wrongly.
3)For the plugins that do work, there’s no smooth way of finding out if there are upgrades except for browsing manually to the plugin folder on the Habari site or visiting the author’s page. I’d recommend providing a subscription method (which won’t scale if they get bigger) for now so that I can subscribe to updates of plugins I’m interested in.
4)Lastly, a lot of the current themes for Habari that I’ve encountered require plugins to function as intended. I’ll use the Dilection Theme as an example. Currently, this theme requires the following plugins: blogroll, monthly archives and flickrfeed. I was able to get Flickrfeed to work after much guidance from the very helpful developers at the #Habari IRC channel on Freenode. The last two simply cause the plugins.php page to emit a 1-line message about a “fatal error” and I have to manually delete the plugin folder before that message will go away.

I pride myself on having a very little bit of a technical bent, but so far, Habari’s making me feel pretty helpless. However, it’s not all gloom and doom. The Habari Project obviously hopes that competent people will be willing to step up to the plate to develop for the platform. The plugin ecosystem is what will make or break Habari and I truly hope that by this post, more people will be interested in knowing more about Habari and might even get inspired to building themes & plugins! 🙂 In fact, if I visited the #Habari channel on IRC, the chances are very good that I’d stumble into one of the Habari devs and they WOULD talk me through figuring out what the problem with a particular plugin is. That’s just how awesome the Habari developers are. 😀 It’s just that after doing that 3 or 4 times, I worry about being too imposing or that I’m bugging someone.

As a content management system with a somewhat stable assortment of plugins, Habari works great. There are a few design bugs here and there, but I’m mostly happy with it and that’s why I’ve stuck with it thus far. For thiose out there who are wondering what does work with Habari 0.6.2, here are some recommended plugins I’ve got enabled & working on my blog:

  1. Code Squeezer 0.4 is the first plugin I’d recommend you install. It literally allows you to insert any code you like into the header, sidebar or footer. I use the Code Squeezer for squeezing in my Google Analytics tracking code and some super-secret other stuff. 🙂
  2. The Flickr plugin comes with a default install of Habari. It’s a beauty and I highly recommend it if you have a Flickr account. Unlike the built-in Habari media management silo, the Flickr plugin allows you to insert image thumbnails and is configurable! In this post about viewing chkdsk logs, the pictures were uploaded using built-in media management utility in Habari, but it inserts the pictures at the uploaded file size! Not good behaviour at all.
  3. Habari Media Silo: I love that they built media managment into Habari, but right now, it’s rather rudimentary. If I uploaded a huge image file and wanted to insert a resized version of the picture into a post, I can’t do that right now. Yes, I could google for the html code to manually resize the picture myself, but I would recommend that they borrow a page or two from the Flickr plugin’s playbook and provide an option to insert a thumbnail of the picture or a resized version of the picture.
  4. Habari Backup 1.5 by Scott Merrill (thanks to Michael Harris, one of the cool Habari developers for turning me on to this plugin in my post on backing up data). It works as advertised and I’m sleeping much easier at nights. 🙂
  5. Youtube Media Silo – need I say more? It simplifies insertion of my uploaded Youtube videos to my blog and again, it works as advertised!
  6. Smugmug Media Silo – again, excellent plugin for simplifying insertion of my media from my Smugmug account
  7. WordPress Importer – a clear must for people migrating from WordPress to Habari. They are smart to have this feature developed and working because Habari has some WordPress features in terms of the administrative backend layout.

Before I finish, I *have* to commend the Habari developer(s) behind the design of the administrative interface and the default “Charcoal” theme. Go to my front page (Jane Talks Tech!) and you can see how tasteful the greys and text mix together. In composing a post, I love how the focus is on the title bar and the textarea for entering your blog post or page. Any plugins that are enabled are simply available in a row of clickable buttons and they expand very gracefully when clicked. If you are curious about what I’m talking about, take a chance and install Habari. Before moving my tech. blog over to Habari, I installed several test installations of Habari and had a chance to make sure that there were no showstopping hindrances to successfully running my blog with Habari. So far so good. I hope this post will be seen in the light of constructive criticism with which it was meant.

Shoutout of members of the Habari cabal who have helped me on my road to becoming a Habari user (andyc, michaeltwofish, dmondark, mikelietz, lildude, rmullins, ringmaster, and many others in the #Habari channel on the Freenode IRC server! 🙂