Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Multiple Web Browsers Make For Easier Surfing

For the better part of the past decade Microsoft's Internet Explorer Browser has dominated the online surfing world. And with good reason, as it was well integrated with Windows, especially once Windows XP became available, and it was generally reliable in displaying nearly any page on the Web, if not especially fast.

In the past year or so, however, Microsoft's dominance has shown some cracks as Version 7 of Internet Explorer was released with less than universal applause. Meant to compliment Windows Vista, IE 7 implemented a wide range of additional security features that many users found annoying.

IE 7 was also found to be slower and buggier by many users, and even after being offered as a “high-priority” download by Microsoft's Windows Update, many users uninstalled IE7 and went back to IE6, which is often seen as being more reliable and easier to use with Windows XP.

Although Web browser usage statistics vary widely by source, a number of Web browsers now offer a significant alternative to Internet Explorer, and for at least some users will load pages faster and more reliably than IE 7.

By far the most popular of the browser alternatives is Firefox, which was developed from the Mozilla project, an Open Source browser that can trace its roots in part back to the popular Netscape browser of the 1990's.

While Netscape was eventually acquired by AOL, and finally announced earlier this year that it would effectively close its doors, Mozilla began development of what eventually became Firefox in earnest in 2002.

Firefox began to first be generally noticed in 2004, and has since gone on to achieve a market share of around 18%, according to the latest statistics from MarketShare by Net Applications. Internet Explorer's various versions come in at around 75%, according to the same source.

Firefox and Mozilla also offer Thunderbird, a free e-mail application that competes with Microsoft's Outlook Express and Windows Live Mail. Both applications can be found at

Apple released its Safari Browser for the Mac in 2003, and subsequently a Windows version was released in 2007.

While the initial Windows release of Safari was found to have considerable bug problems, Apple has continued development, and the latest version is considered to be more reliable.

Part-time Mac users, as well as users of Apple's iTunes music service will likely appreciate the browser's interface and speed.

Apple's Steve Jobs has trumpeted Safari's speed versus other Windows browsers, but most tests report little functional speed difference between it and other popular browsers in everday use. Safari can be downloaded from Apple's Web site at

A fourth browser choice, and one deserving more attention, is the Norwegian-developed Opera. While Opera has been around for more than ten years, its most recent Version 9 offers speed, ease of use, and some useful features including a page loading indicator that shows how large a page is, and whether a page has frozen during loading. Opera 9 also maintains the useful Stop/Refresh button Microsoft moved in IE 7. Opera also makes a free browser that is extremely useful in many Web-enabled cell phones, as well as browsers for game and other platforms. You can download Opera free at

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cyberville Q&A On Word Documents & SD Cards

Here are a few of the latest questions (and answers) from the Cyberville inbox:

Q: I recently received a document from a business partner that was in a “.docx” format. When I try to open it in Microsoft Word, all I get is gibberish. How can I open it?

A: In Office 2007, Microsoft changed the long-time default formatting that had been used in Word 97, 2000, XP and 2003 to an XML-based standard.

While that allows for more creative documents to be easily be produced in Word 2007, it also means earlier versions of Word can't open the documents. The same applies to new versions of files from Excel and PowerPoint.

There are a number of ways to deal with this issue. Once of the easiest is to ask the sender to use the “Save As” function and select an earlier version of Word, Excel or PowerPoint, and resend the document in a compatible format.

If you have an earlier version of Word, you can download the Microsoft Office Compatibility pack, which will allow users of Office 2000, XP and 2003 to open Office 2007-formatted documents. Be aware it is a large download, however (more than 27mb). It can be found at, and several other sites.

Users of Sun's free Open Office Suite may have more difficulty. There is a compatibility tool that can be downloaded from Sourceforge (do an online search for Open XML Translator), but it may not always work. Microsoft is involved with developers to improve the reliability of this tool and has promised an updated version in the near future.

If you don't have Office, and need to open a .docx document, there are other options available.

One is to ask an online file translator service to do the conversion for you. I recently used the free Zamzar service ( to translate a .docx file to a .pdf and .doc file type, and got back a link to download the conversions about 20 minutes later. The conversions generally worked.

If you want even faster results, you can download a free program called “Docx2RTF” from NativeWinds Software which can convert a file to either the common RTF format than can be used by nearly any other word processing program, or save the document as a PDF (Adobe Acrobat/Reader) file for quick viewing. Docx2RTF can be found at a number of sources online including and others.

Q: I have a digital camera that uses SD cards, and would like to get one of the larger size cards so I can shoot more pictures at once. What is the difference between SD and SDHC?

A: This issue is one of the more confusing, and common to come along in a while in consumer devices.

2GB was the limit for SD memory cards until recently, when the SDHC standard was introduced which will allow for a 32GB card. However, in many cases it will take a firmware update for the cards to be used in a given device, so check your manufacturer's support page to see if one is available.

There have also been 4GB standard SD cards introduced recently which will work in most devices, but they can be difficult to find, and some brands don't work in some devices. The best bet is to go with 4GB SD cards from Transcend, which are available in standard (40x), 133x and 150x speeds, but may still not work in older SD devices. The faster speeds are better for cameras that can shoot multiple images in succession.

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, April 3, 2008

Hard Drive Maintenance A Growing Issue

The move into the digital age has meant more and more critical data, images, music and video are being stored on hard drives than ever before. While in most cases that's been a blessing, it also means understanding and maintaining hard drives is something that is becoming increasingly important.

A hard drive consists of a series of one or more thin metallic platters on which data is written and read by a head which travels across and up and down these platters at breakneck speeds, generally equivalent to the “redline” in most automobile engines, in excess of 5000 RPM.

One of the key realities of hard drive-based storage is that all hard drives eventually fail. No hard drive used on a daily basis will last forever, and they need to be treated as such.

Search engine giant Google uses hundreds of thousands of consumer-grade hard drives to power its search engine, and in 2007 published a study showing, among other things, that the key times for hard drive failure were when hard drives were new, and after three years, with regular failures occurring on an ongoing and increasing basis after that time.

No amount of special cooling or temperature control made a significant difference in improving the life of drives, other than avoiding truly excessive heat or cold. And drives that received heavier data use were also not significantly more likely to fail than those that did not, and in fact were somewhat less failure prone as time wore on.

The study also showed that drives that had one or more physical errors reported on the drive surface were far more likely to fail completely in the next 60 days, and that S.M.A.R.T. hard drive monitoring (a technology built into all recent hard drives) did not predict a significant percentage of hard drives that would fail prior to physical failure, although it did predict a majority.

Today's giant hard drives also have higher data error rates than their smaller predecessors, and my experience has been that these drives require somewhat more attention as a result.

One of the key things to check is when drives are first installed, when data is loaded to the disk. I have now begun a practice of, after installing the operating system and key programs, running the Windows drive error-checking program (fdisk) that is available under My Computer/Properties for each drive.

I have found that new large drives, when first loaded with data, sometimes tend to have errors that can be corrected quickly without data loss by using this practice. I also now recommend on drives of 300GB or above in desktops, and 120GB or larger in laptops, of running a monthly error check/fix cycle to help maintain data integrity.

Two key questions continue to come up on a regular basis from consumers and businesses when it comes to drives and PC's. First, I continue to recommend systems always be left on, rather than constantly switched on and off. While power savings may be minimal for systems that are switched, power supply failures are much more common in systems that are not left on continuously.

Hard drive defragmentation and other maintenance is also much more easily scheduled and completed overnights when systems are left on and not being asked to do other tasks.

Of course, backing up hard drives is now more important, and less expensive, than ever, with large external hard drives with built-in backup programs costing under $200. Installing one of these will be one of your best PC investments of 2008.

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