Category Archives: Operating Systems

Overarching category for OS’s

Basic OS X Hardening

apple-logo.jpgBasic computer setup and security compiled for Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther), 10.4 (Tiger), and 10.5 (Leopard)

I spend a lot of time with computers… it’s my job. Most of the time, people worry about patching up their Windows machines — and for good reason! Similar to our (slightly dated) Windows Security Guide, the purpose of this page here is to list the steps for securing a Mac OS X computer, including commands for lab managers and network admins who have to manage a large number of these computers. In the last week, there have been 3 security exploits / viruses for OS X. No OS is completely secure! So it begins…

4 simple things you can do to protect your computer

1. For everyday use, run as a limited user!

I don’t care if you rigged an election, aggressively invaded a foreign country, or slept with an intern — you simply don’t need to run as the Admin of your computer, no matter what OS you use! If you just bought your Apple computer, don’t let their glitzy setup fool you! It’ll ask for your name and and password, but this is to setup the Admin account, and it should be treated accordingly. After you’ve set up the Admin account, you can always go back to System Preferences and add a standard account for everyday use.

Trust me. You don’t want the computer booting automatically into an account with full Admin privileges. If nothing else, it’s far, far easier to find and backup all your files if you’re running as a limited user; all your files will all be in your home directory. If you’re Admin… who knows where you could have stashed them… good luck finding them all. What if you already set up your account, and whoops! It’s an admin account? What do you do? In Mac OS X, changing this is really easy. I appreciate the ease of it because this same thing is a holy pain in the arse on Windows.

I’m assuming you’ve got one account on your computer and it’s an admin account. Go to the Apple Menu → System Preferences, and open up the Accounts panel. Click the (+) to add an account, and check the box to let that user “Administer this computer.” You are temporarily creating a second admin account. Be sure you give it a good password and that you remember it! It’s the ultimate in rookie computing to forget your admin password.

Now, log out. Don’t just do a fast user switch. Log out completely, then log into the new admin account you just created. Go back to System Preferences → Accounts, and find your original user. Uncheck the box for that account that allows it to administer the computer. Poof. You’ve now changed your regular account into a limited user account and you’ve created a new admin account that you’ll hardly ever use. That’s the point: only use the admin account when you absolutely need to.

2. Turn ON your Firewall!

It’s under System Preferences → Sharing. Microsoft got ridiculed for shipping Windows with this turned off, and Apple should be next in line for a kick to the groin. If you need to open a port for some service, that’s always possible later, but TURN IT ON AND LEAVE IT ON.

3. Turn ON Automatic updates!

If you are the only person using your computer, and you are its administrator, you should turn this feature on by going to the Apple Menu, System Prefs, and find the Software Update panel. Check the box so this runs, preferably DAILY, if your internet connection can handle it.

4. Turn OFF “Open ‘Safe’ Files After Downloading”

The most recent security hole (as of this writing) exploits the fact that many people leave this checked. Go to the Safari menu → Preferences, and on the General tab, uncheck this box. That will prevent any nasty code from auto-executing.

This particular hole is not so much a problem if you are running as a limited user because the malicious code executes with the privileges of the current logged-in user. A limited user can’t do that much damage, but your computer can be completely hosed if you were dumb enough to be logged in as an admin.

Oh, and one more thing – Block Pop-ups in Safari! Again, why the @#$& this isn’t turned on by default, I don’t know, but there’s no reason to let those maggot-sucking, pop-up-producing advertisers ruin your browsing.

An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Multi-Part Series

Do you currently pay to use an antivirus program? Have you thought about trying a free replacement, but had no idea where to start? Do you really get what you pay for?

Fear not. As a champion of free software, I assure you that you can easily survive using a free antivirus program. In fact, I have been using a free antivirus program for about five years now. Though I had my favorites before I began this series, I decided to try every free antivirus program that I could find. This series serves as documentation of that process and provides an overview of the free antivirus program currently available.

If you have been following my series, then you know that I recently completed the ninth installment. There are still a few more possible programs that I am considering for review, but I plan to take a brief hiatus from this series. Therefore, I will use this post as the overall summary of what I have discovered so far, and will add to it when I review an additional program.

Here are the links to the individual reviews:

  • Part I – AVG Free Edition
  • Part II – PC Tools Free Edition
  • Part III – Comodo Antivirus 2.0 Beta
  • Part IV – Avast 4 Home Edition
  • Part V – BitDefender v10 Free Edition
  • Part VI – EAV Antivirus Suite Free Edition
  • Part VII – Avira AntiVir PersonalEdition Classic
  • Part VIII – Clamwin
  • Part IX – McAfee/AOL Special Edition
  • Part X – Blink Personal Edition
  • Part XI – Rising Antivirus 2009 Free Edition

Keep in mind that this series focuses more on usability rather than on sheer detection rates. Naturally, the malware detection rates of antivirus programs are important, but they are not the sole indicator of a program’s merit. After all, if a program excels at detection rates but slows your machine to a crawl, is it worth using the program?

I do not have a system chock full of viruses to test, so instead I decided to focus more on aspects such as aesthetics, features, and resource consumption. If a program already has an excellent track record for detection rates, I try to point that out as well.

Summary of Features

Click the thumbnail below for a quick summary of each program, including information on registration, rebooting, ads, scanning, and upgrades.

antivirus_summary.png

(click to enlarge)

Recommendations

So, which programs do I recommend? It depends on your needs. If you use a POP3/IMAP e-mail client such as Outlook or Thunderbird, then I can easily recommend Avast or AVG.

If you do not use an e-mail client and rely on web-based e-mail, I highly recommend Avira AntiVir (provided you can deal with the popup after updates).

If you are an open-source junkie, ClamWin may suit your needs. Keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming release that includes an on-access scanner. ClamWin is also available as a Portable App.

For all-inclusive protection, I actually recommend McAfee/AOL Special Edition. Just try it before you knock it because of the name.

Other Thoughts

If I have only accomplished one thing by creating this series, I hope I have convinced a few people that there is no real need to purchase antivirus software when there are a number of solid free programs available. If you want to support a free program by purchasing an available upgrade, feel free, but I cringe when I see people purchasing yearly subscriptions to commercial programs without even considering an alternative.

How about you? What’s your favorite free antivirus program and why? Feel free to comment below.

Oh, if you find a free antivirus program that you think I should review, contact me.

This series took a long time to write, so if you enjoyed it, please give it a digg (or a Stumble, or Mixx, or whatever). 🙂

Also, please subscribe to my feed for future updates!

Convert CD Image Types to ISO Without Installing Anything (Windows)

If you ever need to convert between different types of CD images, here is an easy and install-free method of doing so (for Windows).

The free utility is IZArc2Go, which is a portable version of the archive manager IZArc. One of its slick features is the ability to convert image types, namely:

  • BIN to ISO
  • MDF to ISO
  • NRG to ISO
  • PDI to ISO

To quickly and easily do so, launch the program and go to ToolsConvert CD Image.

Now simply choose your original image file and make sure the Convert Type is correct.

I find this utility especially handy for converting the occasional BIN or NRG (Nero image) to ISO. Best of all, it’s free, and it requires no installation.

If you found this tip helpful, please subscribe for future updates.

How-To: Create Screencasts on (nearly) Any Operating System

Screencasts, or capturing a digital video of movement on your computer screen, are a great way to create tutorials, presentations, and even entertaining videos. Software used to create screencasts abounds for (nearly) every operating system, and ranges in price from free to upwards of $50.

As an example, here is a sample screencast (2.5 MB – Ogg Theora) showing the installation of Google Desktop for Linux. If you can’t open the video, please use VLC.

Naturally, I prefer the free options, but will give credit when credit is due if a paid option is simply better than a free option. That said, here is an overview of some of the screencast options available for Windows, Linux, and OS X, and possibly other operating systems.

Windows

Option 1: Wink

Price: FREE

wink-logo.gif

Wink is a free screencasting program aimed at creating tutorials. As such, it offers a plethora of options in addition to simply recording the action on the screen. Some of the options include audio recording, inclusion of navigation buttons, adding text, and exporting to various formats, such as PDF, HTLF, and SWF. Wink also allows you to capture still screenshots, including the ability to capture screenshots based on the mouse and keyboard input.

wink-image.jpg

If you simply want to record the action on your screen, choose the designated section on your screen and press SHIFT + PAUSE to start/stop recording. When finished, you can render your video as a Flash movie. Continue reading How-To: Create Screencasts on (nearly) Any Operating System

“Ghost” Your Windows System for Free Using Open-Source Tools

The following tutorial is intended for those with some knowledge of Linux and the command line. At the least, you should be comfortable with creating and navigating directories, and should possess a fundamental knowledge of hardware device names under Linux.

Sound scary? A “point-and-click” guide to accomplishing most of the same tasks is also available.

The Problem

Like it or not, Windows needs to be reinstalled occasionally. Whether the cause is a bloated registry, a virus/spyware attack, or an idiotic user, with time Windows just seems to slow down and/or behave erratically.

Re-installing Windows from scratch is a pain. Once you get the base system installed, most people have to download millions of updates and patches, scour the web in search of the latest drivers, and reboot, reboot, reboot.

The Solution

Once you get your Windows system installed and configured the way YOU want it, you should be able to restore to that pristine state in a matter of minutes, not hours. The way to do this is to create an “image” of your freshly-installed system, from which you can later restore when necessary. Of course, there are a number of commercial packages available to do this task, but what if you do not want to spend any money?

Linux and open-source software to the rescue. Yes, you can quickly, and (dare I say) easily image and restore a Windows system using open-source tools. Before we begin, please back up any critical data. This procedure worked for me, but I am not responsible for any data loss.

The Main Tools

Repeat after me: “I am NOT afraid of the Command Line!”

The open-source tools that we are going to use are:

  • ntfs-3g – a driver for NTFS
  • GParted – a partition editor
  • ntfsclone – exactly what it sounds like
  • a Linux “live” CD

In order to restore Windows, you need to run from a different working environment, such as a Linux “live” CD. Any Linux “live” CD with the above tools will work, but two available options are SystemRescueCD and Puppy Linux. Both allow you to boot and run entirely in RAM, freeing your CD/DVD burner for any additional tasks that you might need. I successfully completed all of the tasks detailed below using both Puppy and SystemRescueCD. Just grab the latest version of whichever you prefer.puppy-logo.gif

Note: If you use SystemRescueCD, I recommend typing docache doeject at the boot prompt. These two options will load the entire rescue environment into RAM and then eject the CD afterwards. Puppy Linux, on the other hand, loads into RAM by default. The rest of this tutorial will use Puppy Linux, though the commands can easily be issued from any live CD that contains the above tools.

Before you can image and restore your system, you need to consider a few things: Continue reading “Ghost” Your Windows System for Free Using Open-Source Tools

A Choice List of Productive FREE Windows Applications

Let’s face it: Windows comes pretty barren by default. Thankfully, there is a plethora of freeware applications available to complement it. The following is a list of choice productive applications that I typically install on my own systems. This is similar to my now-obsolete list for Mac OS X.

Before I begin, allow me to say that creating any list of top freeware applications for Windows is bound to invoke the wrath of certain individuals. There are two reasons for this:

  1. There are A LOT of freeware applications for Windows, of varying quality.
  2. It is impossible to please everyone.

That said, it is only with trembling, fear, and trepidation that I post this list. 🙂

About my choices

I had a few stipulations in mind when selecting each application:

  • The application MUST be free, as in “free beer.” Open source is welcome, but not required. If an application has a “paid” upgrade available, that is acceptable, provided the “free” version is not purposefully crippled.
  • Each application must allow for productivity of some sort. This eliminates all security tools, such as antivirus and spyware scanners. Those are (hopefully) preventative tools, not productive ones. Games and other entertainment packages are ruled out for the same reason. Yeah, I’m fun at parties.
  • Bonus points are given to those applications that “do one thing and do it well.” That’s the UNIX junkie in me.
  • In most cases I tried to avoid the overly obvious. For instance, there is no point in listing a “productive” web browser or e-mail client. Plus, if you have not heard about Firefox, Opera, or Thunderbird, it’s time to crawl out from under your rock.
  • Every application must of course work with Windows XP. They probably work with Vista, but since I don’t own Vista, I can’t vouch for any of them.

Ok! Let’s get started. The following applications are in random order.

Launchy

Link – Launchy

Similar to Quicksilver on Mac OS X, Launchy is a neat little utility to launch files and programs. Once installed, simply press ALT + Spacebar to bring up the Launchy window. Start typing the name of any program in your start menu and Launchy should find it.

launchy_in_action.jpg

You can also easily browse your filesystem or add specific files and folders (such as MP3s or pictures) for indexing. Once you get used to it, it saves a lot of time.

Paint.NET

paint-net.gif Link – Paint.NET

Paint.NET is a very sophisticated image editor and photo manipulator that supports layers, unlimited undo, and a multitude of other features. No, it is not meant to be a Photoshop killer, but it can easily handle most people’s image editing needs. While The GIMP is also free (and more powerful overall), Paint.NET is significantly smaller, has a great interface, and loads much faster.

OpenOffice.org

openoffice-logo.gifLink – OpenOffice

If you have not heard of OpenOffice, where have you been since the turn of the century? If you need an introduction, let’s just say that OpenOffice is currently the best free replacement for the MS Office Suite. I write all of my papers for graduate school with it. In fact, I own a copy of MS Office 2000, but have used Openoffice exclusively since 2003 and have no plans to ever switch back to MS Office.

Driveimage XML

dixml32.gifLink – Driveimage XML

Want a free way to “image” your drives and partitions? Look no further than Driveimage XML, a program that can create “hot” images of your drives and partitions and restore them later.Not sure how to use this program? You are in luck. I wrote a tutorial on Ghosting Windows XP for Free.

IZArc

izarc.gifLink – IZArc

Ah, I remember the days when most everyone had a shareware version of Winzip installed, but not registered. Fortunately, there are many more compression utilities available today, and it is possible to run into archives now in any number of varying formats. No worries, IZArc can probably handle it. As quoted on its website, IZArc can support:

7-ZIP, A, ACE, ARC, ARJ, B64, BH,
BIN, BZ2, BZA, C2D, CAB, CDI, CPIO, DEB, ENC, GCA, GZ, GZA, HA, IMG, ISO, JAR, LHA, LIB, LZH, MDF, MBF,
MIM, NRG, PAK, PDI, PK3, RAR, RPM, TAR, TAZ, TBZ, TGZ, TZ, UUE, WAR, XXE, YZ1, Z, ZIP, ZOO

IZArc also supports 256-bit encryption and the conversion of CD image types, such as BIN to ISO, and NRG to ISO, both of which are extremely handy.

FileZilla

filezilla.gifLink – Filezilla

Need FTP software? Way back in the day I used WS_FTP extensively, but as I saw future versions continue to bloat, I looked elsewhere. Most people’s FTP needs are simple: upload stuff, download stuff, save server settings, possibly rename files, and perhaps change file permissions. FileZilla does all of these easily and intuitively. Hint: combine FileZilla with Notepad++ for easy editing of text files on the server!

Mozy Backup

Link – Mozy Remote Backup

What good is doing productive work if you have no way of backing it up? Mozy is a backup software package that offers two gigabytes of free remote storage. Simply create an account with them, install the software, choose which directories you would like to keep archived, then forget about it. I wrote a more thorough review of their service here.

Stickies

stickies-logo.pngLink – Stickies

Love them or hate them, those little virtual post-it notes can be quite handy. I’m a fan of Stickies on Mac OS X, so I’ve been happily using Stickies for Windows. Just type whatever note to yourself that you want, and it will automatically be saved.

my-stickies.jpg

You can even synchronize Stickies across multiple computers using the Amazon S3 service. Slick! Note: both Stickies and Paint.NET require the .NET framework 2.0.

Notepad++

notepadplus.gifLink – Notepad ++

The original Windows Notepad is a pretty wimpy text editor, and there are a number of good replacements. I like using Notepad++ since it does everything I could ever want it to do. Here are some features:

Syntax Highlighting and Syntax Folding
WYSIWYG
Auto-completion
Multi-Document
Multi-View
Regular Expression Search/Replace supported
Full Drag

visual_studio_2005_express.jpgVisual Studio Express

Link – MS Visual Studio Express

Real coders just use VIM, right? 🙂

I admit, I’m not much of a coder, but if you need free development tools, it is hard to beat Microsoft’s Visual Studio Express Editions. There are tools available for web development, C#, C++, VB, J#, and SQL development. You must register with Microsoft for a free registration key in order to use the software.

PrimoPDF

Link – PrimoPDF

Like it or not, the ability create PDFs is essential now. Windows by default cannot create PDFs, but it can with the addition of utilities like PrimoPDF, which installs as a virtual printer. Once it is installed, you may “print” to it from any application that can print. Though there are many similar applications, I like PrimoPDF for its ability to “merge” PDFs together. For those interested, it also allows for file security, such as limiting viewing and printing unless you supply the specified password.

I recommend using PrimoPDF in conjunction with the free Foxit Reader, a PDF viewer that runs circles around Adobe Reader in terms of installation and loading speed.

Audacity

audacity-logo.jpg

Link – Audacity

Audacity is a free, crossplatform audio editor. Want to splice two audio files together? Or maybe trim the applause from a live recording? Or maybe record your podcast? Audacity performs all of these tasks with aplomb. There is also a nice “noise” removal plug-in that I have successfully used to remove background hum, such as from an air conditioner.

I make my living in the music world, yet I often find myself turning to Audacity for simple audio tasks rather than launching one of my larger, more “professional” programs.

MPEG Streamclip

squared5logo.gif

Link – MPEG Streamclip

What is MPEG Streamclip? It is a video converter. No wait, it’s more than that. MPEG Streamclip is an editor: you can cut, trim, or join videos. It can convert MPEG files between muxed and demuxed formats. It can open and encode videos to a number of formats. You can even download videos into the program from YouTube and Google Video simply by entering the URL.

mpeg_streamclip-convert.jpg

Note: you need Quicktime (or an alternative) installed in order to fully harness MPEG Streamclip.

Supported input formats:

MPEG, VOB, PS, M2P, MOD, VRO, DAT, MOV, DV, AVI, MP4, TS, M2T, MMV, REC, VID, AVR, M2V, M1V, MPV, AIFF, M1A, MP2, MPA, AC3

deepburner_logo.gif

Deepburner

Link – Deepburner

Deepburner is a simple, free CD/DVD-burning package. It’s so simple a drunken cockroach could use it. Launch the problem and you will see three choices: Create data CD/DVD, Create audio CD, Burn ISO image.

deepburner-options.jpg

Oh, there is also a free “portable” edition available in case you would like to run it from a USB drive. If you have trouble, find a drunken cockroach.

Graph

graph-logo.png

Link – Graph 4.1

Mathematically-minded people will find this program useful. Graph will draw graphs of functions on a coordinate system. It supports standard, parameter, and polar functions. When your graphs are drawn you can save the results as an image or a PDF.

graph-inaction.png

Because sometimes you just need to draw a graph! 🙂

Google SketchUp

sketchup-logo.gif

Link – Google SketchUp

You probably already know about Google SketchUp. If not, then here is an introduction:

SketchUp is a 3D-modeling program that combines a suite of powerful drawing tools with a hefty amount of intuitiveness. You start with basic shapes, then mould and modify them into whatever creation you can imagine. As Google so succinctly puts it:

Design anything from a shoebox to a skyscraper.

Sketchup can seamlessly interface with Google Earth, allowing you to place the models you create using real-world coordinates, which you can then share with the world. Pretty cool stuff.

DAZ|Studio

Link – DAZ|Studio

daz_chick.jpgSpeaking of building things, another entry into the creative realm is DAZ|Studio. What is it?

DAZ|Studio is a free software application that allows you to easily create beautiful digital art. You can use this software to load in people, animals, vehicles, buildings, props, and accessories to create digital scenes.

In other words, DAZ|Studio is 3D figure posing and animation software that comes with hundreds of megabytes of figures and scenes, though you can buy more from their online store if you desire. The software even includes OpenGL preview, custom lighting, scripting support, content management, Poser project import, and much more. It is truly remarkable software.

Along the same lines, you may also want to try Blender if you do not know about it already.

FreeRip

freerip-logo.jpg

Link – FreeRip 3

Sure, there are a lot of applications that “rip” CDs. iTunes is one that I use frequently, but if you just want to rip or convert some music, iTunes is a bit on the excessive side. Plus, its formats are limited in comparison to FreeRip.

freerip-progress.jpg

Using FreeRip, you can currently save audio tracks to WAV, MP3, WMA, OGG and FLAC. You may also easily convert from one format to another. I really like FreeRip, but hope to see them add AAC in the future. (Aside: the FreeRip installer gives you the option to install the MySearch toolbar, but you can opt out easily.)

Review: BLAG 60001 – Linux Without Boundaries?

BLAG: Linux Without Boundaries?

If you happen to visit the BLAG Linux homepage, one of the first words your eyes will read is “overthrow.” Specifically:

[blag] works to overthrow corporate control of information and technology through community action and spreading Free Software.

Interesting. I’ve tried a lot of Linux distros, but this is the first one whose “anarchistic” intentions are so boldly stated. Alright, perhaps referring to BLAG as “anarchistic” is excessive, so let’s focus on the facts.

What is BLAG?
blag_logo.jpg
Made by the Brixton Linux Action Group (hence the name), BLAG is a Linux distro, and not a very popular one at that. It is currently ranked number 79 at Distrowatch, using the “6-month” time-span. More specifically, BLAG is a one-CD distro based on Fedora. The latest version (“60001” – as of this writing) is based on Fedora Core 6. Included on its one CD are numerous applications that a desktop user would “expect” to have.

I first heard about BLAG a few years ago, but did not work up the interest to try it until now. Is its lack of popularity deserved? More importantly, is BLAG worth installing over a more popular distro, such as Fedora, SUSE, or the venerable Ubuntu? Let’s find out. Continue reading Review: BLAG 60001 – Linux Without Boundaries?