Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Disk Defragmenter Utilities Help Improve System Performance

One of the most common complaints about PC's is that over time, they tend to run slower and slower.

Even more so than today's automobiles, computers are prone to significant performance degradation over time.

In what seems an ironic twist, today's cars containing multiple computers use those systems to require even less regular maintenance than PC's.

Fortunately, a number of freeware utilities have appeared recently that can help with maintaining PC hard drive performance. Here are a couple of my personal favorites:

Many PC owners know that occasionally (I recommend weekly) running the Disk Defragmenter found in the System Tools folder is a good idea.

Best used with the adjacent Disk Cleanup program, Disk Defragmenter reorders the data on a disk to make it faster for Windows to find data on a hard drive, improving performance.

Far fewer users know that Windows Disk Defragmenter is actually a (very) “lite” version of Diskeeper (www.diskeeper.com), a professional program that has been in use for years in professional and enterprise-level commercial applications which are required to process as much information as possible as fast as possible.

The drawback for most home PC users to Diskeeper is its cost, starting at around $50. However, two new freeware disk defragmenters have recently become available that can help improve on the performance of the standard Disk Defragmenter.

The first is the Auslogics Disk Defrag (www.auslogics.com). This simple to use free program performs additional steps beyond the standard Windows version to help reorder drive data.

I recently used this program on a system that had been serviced with Windows Disk Defragmenter. The Auslogics Disk Defrag program found the drive was still almost 25% fragmented, and was able to bring that down to under 10% by the time it was finished.

Auslogics Disk Defrag is available for Windows 2000, XP and Vista systems. It;s usually a good idea to run it once a week at night without other tasks running.

If your system is running well and has plenty of free memory, a second program can offer the same kind of “on-the fly” disk defragmentation that expensive paid programs provide.

The IOBit SmartDefrag program (www.iobit.com) actually runs continuously in the background, optimizing data and disk performance automatically.

This freeware utility has received strong reviews from most major software sites, and with good reason. It's the only easy-to-use free utility of its type that runs in the background, unlike Windows Disk Defragmenter or other programs that users have to remember to run an regular intervals for maximum usefulness.

The downside of SmartDefrag is the fact that like any program running in the background on a PC, it uses system memory that is also used for other tasks.

My experience with SmartDefrag suggests that it is best used on Windows XP systems with at least 1GB of system RAM, and on Vista systems with at least 2GB.

Keeping both of these free programs on hand and running them on a regular basis can help keep system performance at levels closer to when systems were new.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Musicians Reach Out To Fans Directly Online

While the music industry's complaints about online file sharing are no secret, the flip side of music online is that finding information about musicians has never been easier.

Traditional record companies are being bypassed in favor of direct communications between artist and fans.

While traditional music promotion continues to be valuable, more and more musicians are realizing that communicating directly with potential buyers is growing increasingly important in a world where increasing numbers of consumers young, and old, are buying music directly for their iPods, rather than hoping their local record store has an item in stock.

One of the biggest drivers of this shift to direct communication between artist and public has been the social networking site MySpace (www.myspace.com).

Around two years ago, MySpace began offering free musician accounts, allowing artists to post a set of songs, combined with easy ways to accumulate members, post performance calendars, and send out information or release bulletins to those who'd joined the site.

Almost overnight, musicians and bands that had previously faced building custom Web sites requiring considerable time and expense had a way to generate an online presence in only a few hours with little or no Web site creation expertise.

MySpace also offered the means to readily recruit a set of base members by doing a search of the MySpace existing membership, and then sending an invitation to join a MySpace site dealing directly with a band or musician.

In most cases, those persons who already expressing an interest in a particular band or musician as a part of their MySpace profile are more than happy to join a MySpace page dealing with said artist.

In a nutshell, these sites provide a high-level working example of just how social networking was supposed to work – providing an opportunity for perilsons with like interests to easy find and communicate with each other.

Musicians, especially those from outside mainstream radio airplay, have found MySpace makes one of the most effective ways of reaching out to their fan base at very little cost. Some musicians are now actively posting performance samples on sites such as YouTube in the hope of drawing new listeners.

The success of MySpace musician accounts have spread so rapidly that even some of music's biggest artists, most recently Bruce Springsteen, have erected MySpace Music pages.

An example of MySpace's potential reach was seen in the creation of a home page for a 1970's latin jazz-rock group called Azteca (www.myspace.com/aztecaband).

Azteca Reunion Concert, September 15, 2007 - Photo By Tom Meek

After not performing for more than three decades, the creation of a MySpace page for the band announcing a reunion concert was a key factor in helping to create a successful concert with hundreds of fans in attendance.

The site will also be used as a key component to help promote and market a DVD being produced from the same concert event.

Thousands of musicians now have MySpace pages announcing concert events, communicating directly with fans, and providing the opportunity to both listen to and now directly sell music to consumers.

It's likely the music business will only continue to evolve in this direct marketing model, rather than relying on traditional retail delivery. Doing so may eventually mean musicians will earn a greater percentage of the income their talent ultimately generates.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Cyberville Q&A Answers Firewall and Picture Moving Questions

Q: I have dial-up Internet service and want to buy firewall software for added protection. I am also considering upgrading to a home network with DSL service that will run two other computers in my house. My computer runs Windows XP – what should I buy?

A: If you stick with dial-up service, firewall software is not generally regarded as necessary. The reasons for this are three-fold.

First, your computer is assigned a different IP address every time it connects to the Intenet, and is therefore harder for a hacker to potentially locate.

Second, few potential hackers are concerned about data transfer over dial-up connections, which are too slow to be useful to most.

Third, most computers using dial-up are also using a shared phone line with voice calls, which means they are only connected to the Web on an intermittent basis.

If you switch to a home network with DSL, then you need a firewall, as your computer will generally stay connected (which is actually a good thing) to the Web at all times, and do it through either a Static (fixed) IP address, or through a range of IP addresses generally well-known to those who might wish to cause mischief.

The good news is that in either case, your Windows XP (or Vista) computer comes with built-in free firewall software as part of the operating system.

To turn it on, just go to Help and type in “firewall”. Follow the prompts and your firewall will be activated. It generally requires little attention or additional user information, and is a good choice for most home computers.

If you end up connecting multiple computers to a home DSL network, you will need to use a router. Again, the good news here is that routers also have a built-in firewall called NAT (Newtork Address Translation).

NAT effectively hides the computers on its side of the Internet, as the router presents a false IP address to any program that might be trying to search for that computer's IP address.
Some routers also offer a hardware firewall, which offers additional protection and can be configured for specific applications by a technician or high-level user.

Q: I am trying to copy most of my pictures to an external hard drive, but I cannot erase them easily from my system drive after I do. I want to leave a few pictures on the system, and move most. What can I do?

A: In your case, use Windows Explorer's “Move” command, rather than “Copy”.

Use Windows Explorer (in Accessories on most newer PC's) to open the folder, such as “My Pictures”, where the images are located.

Click Edit, then Select All. If you want to leave some pictures on your PC, hold down the CTRL key, then click the left mouse button to de-select those images from being moved. Go to Edit, click on Move To Folder, and select the folder or hard drive where you want to move the pictures.

Practicing this will allow you to keep most of your picture files on an external hard drive, saving that space, and also back up your images to an external drive.

You can also take that drive with you if you want to work on another system, or show someone else the pictures now stored on the drive.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Free Software Can Outfit A New Computer

Perhaps you've been thinking about buying a new computer, but have held off because of the cost of buying new software.

It's not unusual for the cost of a common set of software programs including an office suite, anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewall, photo processing and media recording and playback to cost more than a low-end PC.

Fortunately, there are good free alternatives that can be used to make a very functional computer, legally, without spending a cent on additional software. If you think it can't be done, read on.

Office Software – Sun's OpenOffice will take care of word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, flow charts and database needs for most individuals and small businesses.

Although you can buy OpenOffice in a retail box, it's available for a completely free download at http://www.openoffice.org/.

Open Office can also create Microsoft-compatible documents, spreadsheets and presentations, simply by using the “Save As” command for a variety of compatible format choices.

Anti-Virus – It's common to spend $50 or more for an anti-virus program. And that program will generally charge an annual subscription renewal fee that as much on top of the initial cost.

The alternative is a free program from European companies AVG or Avast!, which do the same thing as a paid program at no charge. These companies sell paid and premium versions for business customers, but offer free software to home and personal users without cost.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition (http://free.grisoft.com/) can easily be set to download updates and run full system scans every night, if you're willing to leave your computer on. Avast! Home Edition (http://www.avast.com/) updates itself automatically as long as your computer is connected to the Internet. Both programs perform the same functions as McAfee or Norton without cost.

Anti-Spyware/Adware – Spybot and Ad Aware Personal Edition make a good tandem in fighting to keep your computer free of the never-ending glut of garbage nearly any Web surfer will readily acquire.

While both programs have to be updated and run manually in their free versions, doing so on a weekly basis will rid your system of most of the annoying junk that degrades system performance and serves up annoying ads.

Add in Microsoft's free Windows Defender for XP and Vista systems, and your PC will keep running better month after month. All three programs can obtained free of charge at http://www.download.com/.

Photo Processing – A number of good free photo programs are now available. One of the best is XnView (http://www.download.com/) which offers some advanced features while maintaining a simpler interface.

PDF Reader – PDF files are a way of life on the Web and in business. The free Adobe Reader program (http://www.adobe.com/) makes reading and saving those files a snap. A quick Web search can also find freeware programs that can create PDF files online.

Media Playback & CD Creation - A host of programs make CD creation and DVD playback possible. Among the best are Real Player 11 (http://www.real.com/) Windows Media Player (http://www.download.com/) and The KMPlayer (http://www.kmplayer.com/). The KMPlayer is a stand alone DVD player with many advanced features.

Other good freeware choices are 7-Zip (file compression), Gmail (free e-mail able to be read and sent through free mail programs like Outlook Express or Windows Mail), and Mozilla's Firefox, a Web browser that's a good alternative to Internet Explorer, especially on Windows Vista. And both Vista and XP have a free built-in firewall, just type “firewall” in Help to turn it on in a few mouse clicks.

Using this set of free programs will take care of more than 90% of the needs of the average computer user.

All without costing an added cent.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at adayincyberville@gmail.com.