Free software comes in many flavors: freeware, shareware, open source, and others. But freeware can also contain malware and viruses, so it’s important to practice some discretion when installing free software from the Internet.

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A picture of AVG PC Tuneup in action.

PC TuneUp Software: Great in Theory, Awful in Practice

This is a story about automated PC TuneUp software and how it can go horribly wrong.

Background

A client brought me 4 new PC’s to setup at his business.  This involves completing the Windows setup wizard, installing his software, porting over his data, updating, and setting up security.  In this instance the client bought his own antivirus: AVG Zen Protection, which comes with AVG’s PC TuneUp.

AVG PC TuneUp and products like it function similarly: analyze your computer, find ways to free up resource and make it faster, and implement them more or less automatically.

That all sounds great. PC’s do need regular maintenance. The promise of software like PC Tune-Up is that it will act as a mechanic who shows up and changes your oil and checks your filters  without ever being asked.  That’s fantastic. Until it’s not.

The PC TuneUp Problem

After installing AVG with PC TuneUp, the software went to work trying to determine how badly this brand new computer needed optimized. It found things.  So many things. Out of sheer curiosity I actually allowed it to implement the solutions it recommended on one of the 4 PC’s.

It felt no faster.  But it did render the application the client depends on to do  business totally unusable.  PC TuneUp tries to be helpful by creating a restore point.  I rolled back to the restore point and the application still wouldn’t run.

The problem was caused by the fact that PC TuneUp had disabled one of it’s services. When I went to re-enable the service, I found that it wasn’t being disabled the standard way, so using the Windows Services console to start the service failed. In the end I ended up removing PC TuneUp completely.  If that’s how it’s going to behave, I certainly can’t send it into production.

The Bottom Line on PC TuneUp

I’m not writing to talk smack on the entire AVG product line. I still use AVG for antivirus. But PC maintenance is best left to folks that understand the implications of their actions.  PC TuneUp and products like it take a shotgun approach to optimization: they try to intelligently determine what programs and services can safely be disabled, but it’s safe to say PC TuneUp isn’t running Ex Machina level artificial intelligence because it seems to have no problem erring on the side of disabling things you need.

So if your computer is slow, don’t choose some automated optimization tool like PC TuneUp that errs on the side of speed, not safety. Call a professional.

Exploring Donation Based Services

In the last video I talked about a some ways that website owners and software vendors use to make money from you on the Internet.  The reason I described them is because the methods folks use to make money have a direct effect on your Internet experience.

Some of these methods are obvious, others hide behind camouflage and masquerade as something they’re not. Some of the methods are completely safe, and others are very dangerous.

Unfortunately it’s not so easy to tell what’s what on the Internet sometimes.  So in this video we’re going to exploring the first money-making method that I talked about: donation-based sites and services.  I’ve got some very good examples to show you along with some important lessons to learn along the way.

Wikipedia

The first example is Wikipedia.  You’re probably heard of Wikipedia but if you haven’t, it’s a free online encyclopedia that’s updated by its users and a panel of expert editors that keep the content authentic, accurate, and well-cited.  Wikipedia is also completely donation-based.  So let’s check it out.

I’m going to open a web browser and go to www.wikipedia.org, and when I get there I need to select my language.  Once I’m on the home page for  Wikipedia I’ll notice that there is no obvious page content asking for payment and no advertisements.  Well if I look close enough I can see a “Donate to Wikipedia” link on the site’s main navigation.  They also have a “Wikimedia Shop” where you can buy Wikipedia branded merchandise.  Let’s click on the donation link.

What we see is a pretty typical Donation Page: it has a brief message from the Wikipedia founder calling you to action, and it has a form requesting a donation amount and donation method.

Learning how to use the Internet safely is all about recognizing patterns.  So take a moment to explore Wikipedia and their donation page.  Wikipedia is a very popular website with a very positive public image.  People trust them, and I think it will pay off to internalize some of the features of a “safe” donation-based service

  • A prominent donation link
  • A positive public image
  • No advertisements
  • A donation form
  • A Call to Action from the site’s founder.

Obviously mileage may vary, but these are features to look for when you’re trying to decide if a website is donation-based and whether or not it’s actually safe.

Kahn Academy

 

Next let’s look at Kahn Academy.  Kahn Academy is a free online learning tool.  It’s not as old and entrenched on pop culture as Wikipedia, but Kahn Academy is still a very well-known and highly regarded resource in its own right.  If we go to the Kahn Academy website, we can immediately see how they get their funding: the big Donate tab on the top-level site navigation. If we click that link we see a page very similar to Wikipedia’s: No ads, a donation form, a Call to Action from the site’s founder.  What’s more is that Kahn Academy prominently displays their IRS Non-profit status.  While many free sites and services won’t have non-profit status, it’s certainly another item to add to the list of evidence for a site’s legitimacy if they do.

Camstudio

 

Finally, let’s take a look at Camstudio.  Camstudio is a free screen recording tool.  It’s completely free and donation based, but there are definitely some lessons to learn from the website and how the author presents their software.

If we search for Camstudio the first thing we’re going to notice is that in addition to the official website, there are dozens of “free download” sites also offering the software.  Now you’ll notice this for just about any software that you try to download from the Internet and it doesn’t say anything about Camstudio’s legitimacy that there are multiple download sites.  But what you need to remember is to always download from the official site when possible.  Let me show you why.

In the video you’ll see me click the link to download Camstudio from a download site called Softonic (I’m intentionally not providing a link to it).  I immediately notice a giant red flag: multiple, intentionally confusing download buttons.

Eventually I just pick a button and  it begins downloading a “downloader” for Camstudio.  A downloader is a program that downloads another program, and often a bunch of other junk along with it.  The Softonic download installs several junk programs on my computer along with Camstudio.  The PC Optimizer application that it installs obviously lies to me about the problems its finding with my computer, then wants money to install these imaginary problems. 

So now that we’ve explored an alternative download option and discovered why you should avoid them, let’s go to the official website.

You’re immediately going to notice the Donate button, but we’re also going to notice that the site serves advertisements as well.  Generally these ads are safe, but during my testing I found some ads that were not that resulted in ad-ware being installed on my computer.  I’m not mentioning any of this to pick on Camstudio: it’s a quality product.  But be aware that some sites and some programs will “mix-and-match” their revenue streams and understand that even a free, donation-based product can pose problems if you click and install without thinking.

In the video I click a suspicious advertisement on Camstudio’s home page. The ad runs a downloader called InstallIQ which installs Camstudio as well as RealPlayer, Google Chrome, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, and another PC Optimizer program.  Once again the Optimizer lies about computer problems that it detects and wants money to fix them.

Finally lets click the official download link and show you what a regular installation looks like.

In the video you’ll see that the official download for Camstudio takes just a few seconds.  After checking my desktop, Start Menu, and Control Panel I’ve verified that nothing installed other than the program I wanted.

This exercise has taught us to look for the following red flags when downloading free software:

  • The website states that it’s not affiliated with the program you are downloading
  • The website states that it may provide other offers during installation
  • The website provides multiple/intentionally confusing download buttons
  • The downloaded file is a “downloader”, not the actual program.
  • The downloaded file installs any sort of Registry Cleaner/PC Optimizer programs.  They’re almost always bogus.

Summary

Now that we’ve seen some examples you can identify donation-based software and services, you should understand that some websites use multiple revenue streams, and some donation-based programs can still be problematic if you download and install them without thinking.  In the next video we’ll explore some more money-making schemes you might run into on the Internet, and how you can avoid them.  Catch you later!

Converting My Business to Linux, Part 1

Call it frugality.  Call it insanity.  Call it what you will, but I’m converting my computers that I use for my consulting business to Linux.  That’s right, I’m a Microsoft Certified computer consultant whose going to switch to Linux.  Actually, I’ll go one step further: I’m going to try to switch completely to Free Software. This means:

  1. I will install and use Ubuntu Linux as my operating system.
  2. I will use OpenOffice.org as my office suite.
  3. I will use Evolution for email, calendars, and contact management.
  4. I will try to find and use a Free Software alternative to QuickBooks to manage my business accounts.
  5. I will try to find and use Free Software alternatives to Adobe Creative Suite.
  6. I will try to find and use a Free Software alternative to Virtual PC, so I can install Windows 7 and Server 2008 into virtual machines for my Microsoft training.

I’m pretty darn goods with computers, but this will be a daunting, quite possibly annoying, and maybe even futile task even for me.  So I invite you to come along and gawk at the train wreck I’m about to embark upon…

Proceed to Converting My Business to Linux, Part 2: Installation.

PDF Download: Beware of Fake Antivirus Programs

In the last few weeks I’ve worked on more than a dozen computers infected with some varient of the “Win32/FakeSecScan” virus which sneaks onto your computer by pretending to be legitimate antivirus software.  In an effort to help my clients avoid the headache and cost of a cleanup, I wrote this Beware of Fake Antivirus Programswhich describes how to identify and avoid the FakeSecScan virus. Feel free to Beware of Fake Antivirus Programs!

My Top Ten Favorite Free Windows Programs

I’m broke and software is expensive. What more motivation does a person need to seek out free alternatives? Back before I began my professional career in Information Technology I used to pirate all of the software that I thought I needed; but these days I insist that my clients use legal copies of software, and so it’s only fair that I do the same. And the longer I play by this rule, the more I realize I never really needed all of the expensive software I once thought was indispensable.

There is plenty of free software out there that provides a quality alternative to the expensive products many of us can’t live without.  I’ve put together a list of my top ten favorite free desktop applications that I use every day.  All of them are available on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Though I have provided a direct link to each of these programs, I need to give credit to osalt.com, a website which lists popular paid software and their free, open source alternatives.

My Top Ten Favorite Free Windows Programs

1. InfraRecorder

(Alternative to Nero Burning ROM) InfraRecorder doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles of Nero, but it makes simple burning tasks simple.  It can create data and auto CD’s, data and video DVD’s, and supports the creation and burning of ISO disc images. If you’re a user like me who bought Nero and never burnt anything more complicated than the projects that Nero Express offers, InfraRecorder will more than fit your needs.

2. Crimson Editor

Not so much an alternative to a paid program as it is a free and handy utility for anyone who has to work with text files.  It’s quick, and supports source highlighting for a variety of programming languages. I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves opening Notepad or Wordpad on a regular basis, but especially for students who are just learning how to program.

3. Password Safe

If you’re like me, you have a lot of passwords to a lot of different websites; and if you’re like me, you’re also too paranoid to leave them saved in your web browser.  I use a program called Password Safe, which saves the website address, username, and password of all my accounts, all in a securely encrypted database that I can carry with me on a thumb drive.

4. Mozilla Firefox

No list of free software would be complete without the Firefox Web Browser.  Firefox is faster than Internet Explorer, and historically has been more secure.  If you’re tired of your computer filling with spyware and toolbars, start browsing with Firefox instead of Internet Explorer.

5. FileZilla

(Alternative to CuteFTP, WS_FTP) FileZilla is the best thing since sliced bread for anyone forced to deal with FTP uploads and downloads.  I use this application constantly at work, where we are required by law to upload reports to the state government, and Window’s default FTP interface is too clunky to reliably get the job done.

6. PDFCreator

(Alternative to Adobe Acrobat) If you need to create PDF’s but don’t need all the features of Adobe Acrobat, PDFCreator is a godsend. This program creates a virtual printer on your computer that allows you to create a PDF document from any program in Windows.  When I bill my clients I often email them an invoice in PDF format, and this program is what I use to create them.

7. OpenOffice

(Alternative to Microsoft Office) Open Office is the best alternative to Microsoft Office you’ll find.  Though I use Microsoft Office at my regular job (it’s an unavoidable part of our workflow), I use OpenOffice to create and manage my personal and business documents.  Personally MS Office is an application I’d be happy to pay for but if you want to save your cash, choose OpenOffice.

8. LogMeIn

(Alternative to Remote Desktop, VNC) Not a free application per se, but a free service you can use to access your computers from any computer on the Internet.  I use this to remotely resolve problems for my clients. It has some limitations, so you may eventually consider their paid service.

9. Microsoft Office Accounting 2008

(Alternative to Microsoft Office Accounting Professional, Quickbooks) Microsoft gets a lot of flack for being the “evil empire” of the software world, but they’ve come a long way and have given a lot back to their customers in terms of free software.  They have made an Express version of Account 2008 available for free.  It has taken me from a loose system of excel spreadsheets to a more organized billing system at zero expense to myself.  I highly recommend it to anyone in business for themselves who doesn’t already have an investment made in Quickbooks technology.

10. Quicken Online

Update: Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Quicken Online is free and available anymore.

(Alternative to Quicken, Microsoft Money) Yet another free online service that frees me up from installing more software on my PC.  Quicken Online allows me to view and summarize all my bank accounts and automatically downloads a list of my transactions.  It shows me an easy-to-understand overview of where my money is going, helps me develop a budget, and tells where I need to cut back to meet that budget.

Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine!

Now that I’ve listed a few of my favorites, leave suggestions on other free programs and services in the comments section!