Thursday, March 20, 2008

Microsoft Releases First Major Service Pack For Windows Vista

Microsoft's long-awaited first Service Pack for Windows Vista is finally being released, and none too soon. A standalone installer is now available, and Windows Update will shortly begin offering Vista SP1 to all Vista users.

The first version of this Service Pack was available to some users back in February, but Microsoft delayed issuing the full release until now in order to try and better address lingering driver incompatibility issues.

The driver compatibility improvements Microsoft is touting as part of Vista SP1 are welcome, and overdue.

While it is helpful that Microsoft claims the number of Vista-compatible devices has gone from 13,000 to 54,000 according to Microsoft, the fact that a four-fold increase has even been possible speaks volumes about why so many users have desperately turned away from Vista in search of compatible drivers for Windows XP.

Microsoft has used the error reporting process in Vista to target the largest problems for fixes, and now claims nearly all have been resolved in the top hardware and software issues.

Again, while that is an improvement, users of older hardware and programs should be aware that driver and software compatibility issues will continue to be a problem.

It is wise to research Vista and whatever hardware or software you may be dependent on before performing a Vista upgrade. Microsoft's release notes with Vista indicate that while hardware driver compatibility has been significantly improved, software that did not function with the original release of Vista will also likely not function with SP1 because of basic compatibility issues.

What is also not stated in the driver compatibility improvements for Vista are separate figures for fully compatible 64-bit driver versions, which lag far behind. In many cases users of 64-bit Vista are compelled to either buy new hardware or run minimal drivers with reduced functionality, if any are available at all.

When upgrading to Vista SP1, be aware that this is by far the largest download I have ever seen offered through Windows Update, and even on a fast system and connection it will take a considerable length of time to download and intall. There will also be, for many users, a series of other patches that must be installed first before Vista SP1 will be able to be installed.

Computer administrators are being advised in Microsoft's Vista newsgroups, and I concur, that because of the size of the download, it is wise to obtain a separate standalone installer from the Microsoft Web site, which was well over 700mb alone when I recently downloaded same.

Vista SP1 will also generally report when 4GB of RAM is installed in a machine, a major complaint of the original OS. However, users should be aware that the 32-bit version of Vista will use no more than 3GB of system RAM, and a system must also have a motherboard BIOS capable of using 4GB of RAM, even with 64-bit Vista, before a system can actually use more than 3GB of RAM.

My lack of love for Windows Vista is, to regular readers of Cyberville, no particular secret at this point. Microsoft intends to try and force users to switch to Vista over the next two years, first by not allowing OEM installs of XP after June of this year, and then ending “mainstream support” for XP after April, 2009, although I, for one, expect that date will be pushed back, with the possibility that even Congress will enter the Vista fray.

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

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Make Smart Choices To Keep Your PC Secure

Online security remains a genuine issue for nearly anyone connected to the Internet. Maintaining that security should be a major concern, especially as more and more financial transactions are being done online.

There are a number of steps and best practices that go along with being a savvy computer user. Making sure you are familiar with them, and making them part of your daily routine, will minimize the chances you'll encounter a major security problem in the future.

Secure passwords – It's a long standing computer security protocol that passwords need to be secure. Although most home users don't need the high levels of password security demanded by the military and large corporations, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the chances your password will be stolen or hacked.

One of the most common ways is to use a mix of letters and numbers. Many Web sites require a mix to become a member of a group, for example, but it's a good policy to put this into place for all your accounts.

It's also a good idea to use multiple numbers and letters that are familiar to you, but not easily guessed by someone else. Birth dates are a common choice, but it's more secure to choose the birthday of someone other than yourself you can easily remember, and then mix letters with that choice.

It's also a good practice to use separate passwords for sensitive accounts that involve financial data, such as bank or credit card accounts, PayPal or others. In doing that your financial accounts are protected should one of your e-mail or other accounts be compromised.

It's also a bad idea to store a list of passwords on your computer that can be easily found. If you do choose to store passwords, make sure the file you use is encrypted with a password itself, such as can be done with a program like Microsoft Word. A simple text document containing all your passwords is an open invitation for your information to be compromised.

It's also a good idea to make sure the firewall on your computer is engaged. Every Windows XP and Vista computer comes with a built-in firewall – make sure it is turned on. If you have a home network using a router, it contains one or more firewalls which add additional layers of protection.

It's also a must to have current and up-to-date anti-virus protection. AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition ( and Avast! Home Edition ( are both full-power anti-virus programs which can be downloaded and added to your computer at no charge.

It's also important to add another level of protection for trojans and password-stealing programs. My favorite free choice is Spybot Search & Destroy, which can be downloaded from various sites around the Web. While Spybot has to be updated and run manually to be effective, it remains one of the best tools for finding spyware that may have been loaded onto your computer.

Other common best practices include being sure that your e-mail is being scanned for viruses, and not opening unknown .exe or .scr files from strangers or friends, no matter how well you may know someone.

Users of Windows XP and Windows Vista also have access to the free Windows Defender, which helps keep spyware and adware off your computer. You can download it via or other popular download sites.

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

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Portable Audio Recorders Becoming Smaller & Better

It wasn't that long ago that producing quality live recordings required bulky tape machines, large microphones and yards of cabling, not to mention readily accessible AC power. All of those factors made field recording an expensive and difficult proposition for musicians and others interested in recording live events including meetings and presentations.

Yet another benefit of the increasing miniaturization of electronics has been the release of a growing series of high quality tiny recorders, some so small they can fit in a shirt pocket.

When these units first began appearing a couple of years ago, prices were often over $1000. Like most other electronics, an increasing number of competitors has come into the market, and prices have now fallen below $500, and in some cases as low as $200.

Falling prices mean these units are now affordable to nearly anyone with even an occasional need to make high-quality field recordings. Here are some of the best of the current choices:

Zoom H4 – The Zoom H4 has become a favorite of many musicians and others since it was released in 2006. At a retail price now often under $300, the H4 won't fit in a shirt pocket, but can easily be carried by hand or in a purse.

The H4 features onboard stereo microphones, as well as the ability to plug in nearly any professional microphone through a range of connectors. The H4 can be set on nearly any flat surface when using the onboard microphones, and with a few button pushes is ready to record.

Recording is done to a standard SD flash card, and recent firmware improvements mean SDHC cards up to 8GB in size are now compatible. The H4 runs for several hours off AA batteries, and using rechargeable batteries can keep costs down and performance up for frequent users.

Zoom now has a less expensive, and smaller, entrant field recorder in the H2. At a retail price of around $200, the H2 can fit in a shirt pocket, yet also record four-channel surround sound through four onboard microphones.

The H2 also comes with its own stand, allowing, for example, the recorder to be placed on a table or stand in the center of a conference room and capture sound from the entire room, which is handy for those recording conferences with questions from an audience.

The H2 also uses SD flash cards and AA batteries, allowing up to six hours of recording from one pair of AA batteries. The H2's size and portabilty should make it a favorite of podcasters and others looking to make inexpensive field recordings.

A somewhat more expensive unit that is a favorite of many musicians is the Edirol R-09. Another unit small enough to fit in a large shirt pocket, the R-09 is also available with an optional stand anc case that allow for optimal positioning.

I recently saw a pianist with an R-09 discreetly positioned on top of his piano on its tiny tripod. Just before he began playing, he reached up, pushed a button, and... instant live recording.

A number of other entrants are also making this a major area of competition, including Sony's PCM-D50, the latest in a long line of portable Sony field recorders. One of the newest entrants at around $400 is the very slick looking Olympus LS-10, a stereo professional recorder from the company that has a successful and long track record in the area of handheld pocket voice recorders.

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