The end of the road for XP. End of Life on 8th April 2014.

Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP and Office 2003 on the 8th April 2014. This means that there will be no more updates and any security holes found after this date will go unpatched and unprotected (though Microsoft’s Security Essentials will continue to receive updates until April 2015).

According to netmarketshare.com however, XP still accounts for just under 30% of all desktop machines which as windowsitpro notes,

…if Microsoft’s estimate of 1.5 billion active Windows users is correct, there are over 510 million PCs still running Windows XP on this planet. 510 million.

In all likelihood, the bad guys have been stockpiling security flaws for XP in the hope that what isn’t found by April won’t get fixed. This potential flood of exploits has become known, charmingly enough, as the XPocalypse.

If you are one of the 30%, there are a number of possible solutions to this problem.

1. Treat your current machine to an Operating System upgrade.

If your machine supports it, ebuyer.com (and others) has stock of Windows 7 install discs and licenses from ~£70. The ever evolving Linux Mint is, of course, a free Operating System which supports a wide range of hardware. If you’re going to learn a new operating system, Linux could be the perfect choice for extending the life of older systems.

2. Replace your XP machine with something running a more current operating system.

eBay has a wide range of used machines running Windows 7 or take a trip to your favourite online retailer and buy something shiny. I would suggest those coming from XP try to get a Windows 7 machine. Windows 8.1 may still yet be a step too far for many.

3. If neither of these appeal, you should, at the very least, ditch Internet Explorer. Both Firefox (my personal preference) and Chrome will continue to provide updates for their browsers on XP.

For those with Office 2003, take a look at Open Office and Libre Office, free office suites with all the functionality you would expect.

If you have an XP machine and would like some help, get in touch

Anatomy of a Phish

Phishing

I received an email recently from a client, or at least, from his email account. The account had been hacked and was being used to send phishing emails. Phishing is when attackers spoof popular login pages to get their victims to enter their username and passwords. Instead of being logged in, their details are saved to be used in further attacks/sending spam/fraud.

In the email, the attacker claimed that the link led to a Google Docs spreadcheet and used html to hide the address but it appeared in the notification area at bottom left (see image below). The page was on a Portuguese local council website which had also been hacked in order to host the offending page.

Thunderbird Inbox

Curious as ever, I followed the link, arriving here:

Phish Site Screenshot

Clicking on each logo brought up a generic, grey form asking for username and password. I chose not to but instead took a look at the page source where I found references to a website called isolatedcano(dot)com which is a parked domain. On further inspection, I found that the owner of isolatedcano uses a privacy protection service provided by Moniker Privacy Services, based in Florida, US. Unfortunately there is little that individual’s can do against the numerous phishing sites beyond reporting them as web forgeries. In this case, Firefox soon marked the page as potentially malicious, as can be seen in the following image:

Firefox Forgery Warning

Many more will pop up however. The major defence is vigilance and a healthy dose of paranoia.

Has Gwynedd overpaid for its superfast broadband?

Strange rumblings from the Public Accounts committee in Whitehall concerning BTs council contracts to bring faster internet connections to those in rural areas. BT has won all 26 contracts, including Gwynedd’s, to perform the infrastructure upgrades but has failed to provide information on which 10% of the population won’t be covered. In addition, BT has been accused of being less than open about its costs: government auditors have found that BT has committed £207m less to the programme than had been forecast, while councils have spent £236m more.

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), which represents a number of other telecoms providers, have called for increased transparency over BTs cost and deployment plans, increased competition, open access to the new infrastructure by alternative providers, and new investment models to promote “investment, innovation and better value for money” for the £250 million that the government has added to the pot.

The PAC went on to recommend that the additional £250 million should be withheld until more stringent conditions have been imposed on BT.

Source: The Guardian

 

Best programs for your Windows computer

Over the years I have developed a list of Windows programs that I feel perform especially well at their given tasks. Sometimes it’s because they run quicker or are more secure than the alternatives. It’s not a definitive list and it’s certainly subjective but here’s my list of preferred software and the programs which they replace.

 Anti-Virus

 Microsoft Security Essentials or Eset Nod32

When Microsoft released their free anti-virus they bestowed upon the world an easy to use, regularly updated and lightweight system for keeping nasty stuff out. The two big pluses are no nagging you to upgrade to the paid version and a small footprint that means even older machines can run it without slowing everything to a crawl. MSSE is a very credible, albeit basic anti-virus. For those who appreciate the extra security of a paid security suite, Eset Nod32 is a solid contender being lightweight and performing well. Use these to replace Norton/ McAfee/ BullGuard/ AVG/ etc.

 Media Player

 VLC

When it comes to playing media files there is nothing close to VLC. It’s quick, plays virtually everything without needing bundles of extra codecs and is absolutely free. Also, if you dig into its more advanced options you will find a treasure chest of functionality such as converting video and audio files and downloading YouTube videos. Replaces WIndows Media Player/QuickTime/KMPlayer.

 Documents

 Foxit PDF Reader

There are a number of free PDF viewers but Foxit gets myvote. Free, lightweight and quick. Replaces Adobe Reader.

 Libre-Office

If you are in the market for an office suite that is fully functional, well designed and compatible with the major player in the field, Libre Office is top of the list. Formed from the bones of Open Office, another open source office suite, Libre does everything you would expect an office suite to do and because it is open source, is absolutely free. Use this instead of purchasing ever more licenses for Microsoft Office.

 Browser

 Firefox

I understand that some people prefer Chrome but I would rather not give any more personal information to Google than I absolutely have to. In the world of internet browsers, there can be only one. Firefox + add-ons such as Adblock Plus and HTTPS-Everywhere make the internet a much nicer place. Replaces Internet Explorer/Chrome/Safari.

 Email

 Thunderbird

An open source project from Mozilla, the makers of Firefox. This is a great desktop email client with a very intuitive interface. Use this instead of Outlook.

Operating System

Linux Mint

This is a bit cheeky as it’s not a program in the common sense but a replacement for Windows itself. Microsoft’s intention to end support for XP in May 2014 will be the perfect opportunity to try out Mint, a Linux based Operating System with a lot going for it. I must admit to being a Linux afficionado, having run it in various forms for over a decade but XP’s demise will create a lot of machines which are unable to upgrade to Windows 8 but still have a lot of useful life in them. Mint is free, fully-featured and easy to use once you’ve picked up the basics.

So there are my recommendations. All of these programs can be installed alongside whatever you have already have except for the anti-viruses. Running more than one of these will cause problems. Comments and counter-recommendations welcome.

Sim unlock and jailbreak on iPhone 3G/3GS

I was recently given an iPhone 3G which was network locked to a major carrier. The owner was looking for a way to get the phone (which was well outside of its justifiable period of lock-in) to work with another network. The process is fairly straightforward but the instructions are scattered across a number of forums and blog posts. The network lock is provided by the baseband, which on most iPhone 3G/S is 05.15.04 (with an iOS version of 4.2.1 which was the last one released by Apple).

The best baseband for unlocking is 05.13.04 but you cannot simply downgrade – you need to upgrade to the iPad baseband 06.15.00 and from there you can downgrade. The tool for this is Redsn0w version 9.14b1 (get it via your favourite search engine). The process is: download the iPhone firmware (more than likely 4.2.1), connect your iPhone to your pc and run Redsn0w. Click ‘Extras’ ->> ‘Select IPSW’ ->> from the tick menu select ‘Install iPad baseband’. Once it has completed, run Redsn0w again and select ‘Downgrade from iPad baseband’ and ‘Install Cydia’.

Verify you are on the correct baseband by going to ‘Settings’ ->> ‘General’ ->> ‘About’ and look for ‘Modem Firmware’.

Once you are on 05.13.04, open Cydia and install the latest version of Ultrasn0w. Run Ultrasn0w and insert your SIM of choice. If you have trouble getting a signal or the phone is unstable, take a look over here.

Rooting a 10″ Android WM8850 tablet

Android Logo

Android, in common with other operating systems, has two basic modes of working: a user mode and a superuser mode. In normal use, android devices run in user mode, only invoking superuser mode to run restricted actions such as updating important parts of the system. In most cases the system works fine and helps keep people safe from doing things which may harm their device but for certain tasks, access to superuser mode is required.

Certain software, such as Titanium Backup need superuser access in order to function correctly. Other software, such as AdAway, work directly with some of Android’s protected system files (specifically, the hosts file). Unlike PCs and laptops, the Android operating system isn’t installed via a generic disc that can be used in any compatible machine – it is supplied as a firmware image which is tailored to particular device and is not interchangeable. It will normally come unrooted, i.e. it won’t allow the user to run commands as the superuser.

When I bought an Android tablet (a Mapan MX88T) recently it came unrooted, though the manufacturer had firmware available for download which, it claimed, was pre-rooted. After flashing the firmware, however, I found that the tablet was still lacked root access. I emailed the manufacturer but after a few days had still received no reply. Thus began numerous days of scouring forums and websites looking for information on rooting the tablet.

I discovered the chipset was the snappily titled WM8850 and after some searching found a few tools which claimed to be able to get root access on standard firmware. One by one, however, they all came back with the same message: “Unable to get root access. Try another method.” I found some similar tablets under different brandnames and flashed their firmwares which also proved both unrooted and unrootable. Finally, after days of obsessing over this tablet I found a custom firmware which promised root. It worked but with provisos: the marketplace didn’t work properly, the wireless was a bit flaky and there were a few more niggles which made it unusable.

This, though, was a lead. Root was possible on this device and I had a plan of attack. Decipher how the custom firmware obtained root and transfer the process to the manufacturer’s firmware. Simple. I asked about it on the forum that I got the rooted custom firmware from but received no helpful input. I was on my own. I started by extracting and examining the differences between the contents of each firmware. I found a posting in German that pointed to certain files which needed to be changed/moved/removed and I went through the firmware and copied and transferred things and merged folders and numerous other tweaks. After each modification I would have to repack the compressed folders, flash the modified firmware, setup the tablet and check for root. Each time it would come back negative.

I combed through config files, xml manifests and shell scripts, checking for any minor variation which would hold the key to getting root access. I became sure that the problem lay in one particular compressed folder and would extract, adjust, compress and flash it again and again but nothing worked. I knew that it was possible though, so I kept working. Eventually – accidentally – I found the key to the problem. In both firmwares there were two compresses folders: android4.1.tgz and androidroot4.1.tgz. I had focused on the former but it was only when I tried to extract the latter that I got an error message. In the official firmware, the androidroot4.1.tgz folder which provided root access was corrupt. The tablet wasn’t rooted because the files for gaining root were unreadable. After transferring a good copy, from the Universal Uberoid ROM, into the manufacturer’s firmware the root checker came back positive. If you’re curious about why root access is so important take a look over here.

If you’re having trouble with your android device get in touch via Facebook, our contact form or via the telephone numbers listed above

How to deal with a major cause of slow laptops – start-up services.

Picture of a snail

I recently worked on a fairly new laptop of a decent specification (Core i3 processor, 2GB RAM, 5400 RPM hard drive) which was slow, sluggish and close to being unusable. We get these cases fairly frequently and, excepting those with hardware faults, the causes are generally boil down to the same thing: excessive services running at startup.

Equipment manufacturers, to a greater or lesser extent, do deals with software companies who pay to have their software on every machine that rolls off the production line. As an aside, the software will usually be part of the recovery partition image so it’s still there even when you re-install. The software could be anything from a hobbled version of DVD burning software that you need to pay for in order to get further functionality, trial period anti-virus or monitoring utilities for things like the wireless or battery. The thing they have in common is that they all run when the laptop starts, each taking up a bit of memory space and processor power.

When you install printers and scanners and the like, they will generally come with additional software that will do things like monitor for when you connect a digital camera so that it can then start up the picture-printing wizard/ import media wizard, or monitor for when the printer is getting low on ink so that it can easily take you to the appropriate webpage to buy more. The thing they have in common is that they all run when the laptop starts, each taking up a bit of memory space and processor power.

Those readers with retail experience will be familiar with the idea of a loss leader. This is when a shop will heavily discount a product or service to get the customer through the door so that they can then sell them on the more profitable stuff. Free software is a bit similar in that the developers , by giving away the software, can get a customer base which can be monetised in other ways, such as by bundling software such as toolbars or semi-legitimate stuff like registry cleaners/boosters/optimisers into the installer. These other software can also be set to run when the laptop starts, each taking up a bit of memory space and processor power.

The cumulative effect of these kinds of software is to make a modern, fast laptop into a sluggish monster that takes minutes to get to the desktop and minutes more to become half-way usable. One way of stopping these services is using Window’s own controls but your machine can become unusable if you switch off the wrong thing. A much safer way is to simply go through the list of installed programs and use Google to identify which can be removed without adverse effects. You can do this by going to:

Start -> Control Panel -> Programs and Features

A couple of the big ones to look out for are iPlayer Desktop and Google Desktop.

Whatever your technical trouble, get in touch via Facebook, via our contact form, or on the telephone numbers listed above.

The finicky Inspiron 1545 power button

A client recently brought in his laptop, an Inspiron 1545, which was exhibiting some strange behaviour.  The laptop would quite often refuse to start, though the charger was functioning correctly and the battery was in good condition. The power circuit on this model consists of a power button which presses on a switch which is itself connected to the motherboard via a cable ribbon.

The button is mounted on a panel and has two arms on either side which allow it to flex. On the back side of the button is a bit of plastic (circled in blue) which, when pressed, pushes on the switch. The points where the arms connect to the panel (circled in red) are a weak spot and can disconnect, allowing the button to shift about.

 

Back side of power button

Back side of power button

 

In addition, the cable ribbon connector from the switch (circled) to the motherboard is a potential trouble spot.

 

Inspiron 1545 power switch

Inspiron 1545 power switch

 

Using some high-tech super-glue, I re-attached the button arms to the panel which would guarantee a good connection with the switch and then reseated the cable ribbon in its housing. Once it was back together the laptop fired up as it should.

If you are having any kind of technical trouble, get in touch via Facebook, via our contact form, or on the telephone numbers listed above.

How to sync your iPhone Contacts, Calendars, Reminders and Bookmarks with your Mac without using iCloud.

A gentleman in Caernarfon asked us to re-install his MacBook with OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard. Afterwards, he mentioned that he had never managed to get his iPhone to sync with the Mac so he could . This was due to the iCloud settings on the iPhone. Unfortunately, iCloud isn’t bundled with 10.6, so when the iPhone was connected, the settings for Mail, Contacts and Calendar in iTunes were greyed out, with a message to the effect that iCloud was looking after syncing. What he wanted was to sync these things whenever the phone was connected via its USB cable.

The solution is to turn off iCloud syncing on the iPhone. Connect your iPhone to the Mac via USB and iTunes should open automatically. Once it has registered the phone, select it in iTunes so you have the  ‘Info’ screen showing. Then go into ‘Settings’ on the phone and select iCloud:

 

iPhone iCloud Settings

iPhone iCloud Settings

Turn off each of the items you want to sync via USB cable. It will ask you if you want to keep or delete the items – I recommend you keep them just in case. Once you have done so, go back to iTunes and the previously greyed out items will become selectable:

 

iPhone Sync Settings

iPhone Sync Settings

Tick the boxes, click sync and your Contacts, Calendars, Reminders and Bookmarks will be available on your Mac. If you want to sync your email, open up the Mail application and set up your account. Once done, the account will appear in the Mail sync settings box. Click it and re-run sync.

Now, whenever you connect your iPhone, iTunes should start and automatically sync all the items you’ve selected.

 

 

 

Repairing a broken laptop power socket the hard way. A cautionary tale.

Incorrect laptop power socket

Incorrect laptop power socket.

A lady in Llanberis recently brought in a laptop with a broken power socket. In a lot of cases this would have been the time to get out the soldering iron because the socket is soldered directly to the motherboard. On this particular laptop, however, the socket is connected via a cable harness and plastic connector. It should have been a case of dismantling the laptop, removing the old socket assembly, fitting the new one and then putting everything back together. Obtaining the correct part in this case, though, was less straight forward than it should have been and serves as an example of the difficulties in finding parts for technology, such as this laptop, that is no longer in production.

Technology manufacturers work to a constantly rolling production schedule. As new lines are introduced, old ones are phased out. On a longer schedule this would be fine, as discontinued devices would be coming to the end of their life at about the time that replacement parts for them dried up. At the current rate, however, parts become unavailable for machines which are, in every other way, working perfectly. Fortunately, the space created when the original manufacturers cease production of replacement parts, is filled by a number of independent fabricators, both large and small, and of both good and less good quality. They manufacture and distribute compatible replacement parts, mostly via the massive online auction site ebay.

Ebay is a great source of replacement parts. It has a large number of sellers who, in the main, know what they’re doing. The product range is huge and whilst the quality is sometimes dubious, the Distance Selling Regulations, coupled with ebay’s feedback system, protect you from, and weed out, the real charlatans. Sometimes, though, things go wrong and there is no clear reason why. In this case of this laptop, a Sony Vaio, there was no Sony manufactured power socket available but there were three separate models of fabricator-made power socket and harness available from three different sellers. They all had the correct size socket, the right length cable and the right kind of plastic connector at the other end. The difference was in the placing of the power pins on the back of the socket itself. In order to sit in the recessed groove of the laptop correctly, the socket needed both positive and negative pins to come out of the bottom of one corner at a 90 degree angle to the socket itself.

The first had them coming straight out the back of the socket, at the top; the second had them coming out of the side, with one at the top and the other at the bottom; and the last had them coming out the side, both at the top. In other words, they were all wrong. In addition, none of them were particularly well made so the solution was to manufacture a power socket harness that would be stronger and, more importantly, fit correctly. This entailed removing the flimsy wire harness from one socket and replacing it with one made from cable from a PC power switch, making sure that the cable was soldered in a way to minimise the angle at which it protruded. Next, the cable was cut to the correct length and the connector on the other end was attached. After some careful squeezing and maneuvering, the socket was in place and the cable ran correctly to the motherboard socket. We put the laptop back together, tested the new socket and it charged up correctly again.

It would have been a shame to have had to scrap a laptop that was still completely usable in every other respect, due to something so small yet so important. Secondary fabricators offer a great service when they get it right (and which is more often the case), and they extend the working lives of devices beyond the point at which the original manufacturer is prepared to. It would be nice if they were a bit more diligent, though.

If you’re having problems with your laptop, PC or anything else silicon-based, get in touch. We are available on the telephone numbers above, via our contact page and  Facebook.