Category Archives: Windows

Microsoft Windows, of course.

21 Awesome (But Lesser-Known) Open-Source Applications for Windows

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock in Madagascar for the last few years, you undoubtedly already know about the All-Star open-source applications for Windows. I’m talking about applications such as Firefox, Thunderbird, GIMP, OpenOffice, and VLC.

However, there are hundreds of lesser-known but highly-useful open-source applications available for Windows. A few of my favorites are below.

These applications range from moderately popular to downright obscure, but all of them are open-source and FREE. All of them are worth the install time if you have never tried them. As a side bonus, many of them are cross-platform as well.

Here they are, in random order:

zscreen.jpg1. ZScreen

ZScreen is an open-source screen capture program that quietly resides in your system tray until needed. It can take screenshots of a selected region, the active window, or the entire screen. It can even send screen captures via FTP and copy the URL to your clipboard, all with just a single keystroke. Oh yeah, it can also interface with image editing software, such as Photoshop or Paint.net.

If you frequently take screenshots, ZScreen is light years faster than pressing Print Scrn and pasting into MS Paint.

pdfcreator-logo.png2. PDFCreator

PDFCreator allows you to create PDFs from any program that can print. Once it’s installed, simply “print” to the virtual printer that it creates, and the resulting document can be read on any computer with Adobe Reader (or comparable software).

There are several similar programs, but if you dig open-source software, PDFCreator trumps many of the others.

keepass-logo.gif3. KeePass

KeePass is one of those applications that you don’t realize how badly you need until you start using it. It securely stores and manages the login information that you use for e-mail, websites, banks, etc. Unless you always use the exact same login information (a terrible idea!), you need KeePass. It’s even available in a portable version.

I use KeePass to manage hundreds of usernames and passwords. I’d go crazy without it.

handbrake_logo.jpg4. HandBrake

HandBrake is a DVD to MPEG-4 converter that allows you to stick a DVD in your drive and have the video converted to a digital file for convenient viewing. It’s great for minimizing wear-and-tear on DVDs, plus it’s handy if you travel a lot and want to watch movies on your laptop.

For best results, use it in conjunction with DVD43. Continue reading 21 Awesome (But Lesser-Known) Open-Source Applications for Windows

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.

“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.)

Windows XP Setup Guide

For some reason or other, you’ve decided to re-install Windows XP. Perhaps the registry was bloated and corrupted. Perhaps you ran into a bout of spyware and don’t trust the security of your system anymore. Perhaps a destructive virus laid waste to your filesystem. No matter the cause, you’ve said, “Enough is enough, Bill.” If you’re like me, you usually wipe the slate clean and begin with a freshly-formatted hard drive at least once a year. Since 2001, I’ve probably installed Windows XP for myself and others several hundred times. No kidding. The following is a personal guide that illustrates what *I* do upon a clean install. Some of my examples are for security reasons, some will remove bloat, and some are based simply on personal opinion and taste.

I make the following assumptions in this guide:

  • You have a Windows XP installation disk (Home or Pro), and NOT a recovery CD from an OEM builder (ala Compaq). Much of my guide will still apply if you have a recovery CD, but not all of it. I leave it to the reader to discern the differences.
  • You have a legal copy of Windows.
  • You have backed up your critical data and know how to restore it.
  • You know how to partition disks. This is necessary if you want to leave room for a Linux/BSD installation.
  • You actually know how to install Windows.
  • You are smart enough to USE THIS GUIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK. I am not responsible for any harm that you do to your system.

In a nutshell:

1) Create a CD that contains updates, drivers, and essential software.
2) Install Windows.
3) Install the service pack two update (and any other security updates).
4) Install device drivers.
5) Remove certain OS components.
6) Install a decent web browser, antivirus, and firewall.
7) Customize your GUI.
8) Disable unnecessary “features.”
9) Disable irritating sounds.
10) Optimize network settings.
11) Check for disk errors and fragmentation.
(Optional) Tweak registry settings.
(Optional) Create a custom, unattended install CD for future use.

1) Create a CD that contains updates, drivers, and essential software.

While this step could be considered optional, it will save you a lot of time once you’ve finished the initial installation. I recommend using a CD-RW (or DVD-RW) for this task so that you can update it later without using another disc. Data to add to disc includes:

  • XP service pack two plus any other post-SP2 updates that you find
  • All device drivers for your motherboard and peripherals
  • Major updates for applications that you want to install, such as Photoshop, SoundForge, game updates, etc.
  • A good web browser (don’t forget your old bookmarks), security / antivirus / anti-spyware software
  • Other applications that will fit on the CD, such as OpenOffice and iTunes

That is the bare minimum that I would add. Feel free to add to taste.

2) Install Windows.

You’re on your own here, but I will mention that I usually do this with the ethernet cable UNplugged from the computer. I also recommend that you use NTFS as opposed to FAT32. Good luck. See you on the other side.

3) Install the service pack two update (and any other security updates).

Congratulations, you made it through the initial install. The *first* thing that I like to do now is to go ahead and install SP2. At this point, you obviously have the least chance of causing a conflict with an existing application or device driver. Go ahead. This will take a while. When it’s finished, install any remaining security updates from the custom CD if you have any.

4) Install device drivers.

Once the updates are installed, it’s time to install device drivers. You did put these on the CD, right? Install the motherboard chipset driver first, then ethernet, audio, and video drivers (and whatever else you have). When prompted, reboot between driver installs, though I have pushed my luck by installing all drivers before rebooting.

5) Remove certain OS components.

By default, XP does not come with a lot of software, especially when compared to a typical Linux installation. Even so, I like to uninstall / remove access to certain components. Go to the Control Panel, switch to classic view, and launch ‘Add or Remove Programs.’ From there, click ‘Add / Remove Windows Components’ on the left side.

Add or Remove Programs

Uncheck Indexing Service, MSN Explorer (click ‘yes’ button to confirm), Outlook Express, and Windows Messenger.

6) Install a decent web browser, antivirus, and firewall.

Have you read my Windows Security Guide? If so, then you know how deplorable Internet Explorer is. I suggest using Firefox or Opera instead. Hopefully you already put this on your custom CD. For an antivirus, I suggest using an application like Grisoft’s AVG. Service pack two should have enabled the Windows firewall, but I usually disable it in favor of a third-party firewall, such as Zonealarm. To disable the built-in firewall, go to the Control Panel –> Network Connections –> Right click on your device and click ‘Properties’ –> Go to the ‘Advanced’ tab –> Click ‘Settings’ –> Now turn the firewall OFF. The security center will pop up and complain, but this will go away once you’ve installed a third-party firewall. Keep in mind that I do all of this stuff BEFORE plugging in my internet connection in order to give Windows a fighting chance against all the malware floating around on the internet. Sound unbelievable? Take a look at this article. Once your new browser, antivirus, and firewall are in place, go ahead and connect to the internet. Now is a good time to check if there are any other critical Windows Updates. If you’re interested, go ahead and install Windows Media Player 10 from Windows Update as well.

7) Customize your GUI.

Now it’s time to make that Fisher-Price graphical user interface (GUI) a little more livable. Here we go:

Under ‘Display properties’ (Control Panel –> Display):

  • Set your video resolution to its highest setting (Settings tab).
  • Change the color scheme to ‘Silver’ (Appearance tab).
  • Reduce the ‘Caption Buttons’ size to 20 (Appearance tab –> Advanced –> Change the ‘Item’ to ‘Caption Buttons’ and reduce the size).
  • Use ‘ClearType’ smoothing of screen fonts if you have an LCD monitor (Appearance tab –> Effects –> Change the screen font settings from ‘Standard’ to ‘ClearType.’)
  • Set a higher screen refresh rate (Settings tab –> Advanced –> Monitor tab –> Set the refresh rate to the highest supported)

General desktop settings:

  • Use toolbars, such as the Quick Launch and Windows Media Player toolbars. Right-click on the bottom toolbar, go to the toolbars menu, and select the toolbars that you want. If you use the Quick Launch bar, delete all shortcuts except for ‘Show Desktop’ and ‘Firefox.’ If you later install iTunes, you can also use an iTunes toolbar when you minimize the application.
  • Find ‘My Network Places.’ By default, Microsoft does a pretty good job of hiding networking functionality. Why? Stupidity, I guess. Let’s remedy this. Right-click on the start button, go to ‘Properties,’ click ‘Customize,’ and go the the ‘Advanced’ tab. Scroll through the list, making sure to put a check next to ‘My Network Places.’ I also set the ‘Network Connections’ to ‘Link to the Network Connections folder.’ You may also want to set the ‘System Administrative Tools’ to display on the All Programs menu.
  • Set a few desktop shortcuts. I like to have a clean desktop, but I do set a few shortcuts, namely My Computer, My Documents, and My Network Places. To add these, click the start menu, right-click your desired shortcut, and select ‘Show on Desktop.’
  • Find a better wallpaper. You’re on your own again for this one, but some nice places to look include http://wallpaper.deviantart.com, http://www.digitalblasphemy.com/dbhome.shtml, and http://art.gnome.org.

That’s the majority of my GUI tweaks. I like to focus more on functionality than pizzazz.

8) Disable unnecessary “features.”

Now it’s time to adjust some system settings. Some of these will collectively help to speed up your system, and others remove possible chances of security breaches.

Show all file extentions. Open any folder, such as ‘My Documents.’ Click the ‘Tools’ menu, click ‘Folder Options,’ and then click the ‘View’ tab. Look down the list until you see a checkmark labeled ‘Hide Extensions for Known File Types.’ Remove the check from that box. While you are in here, scroll down to the bottom and uncheck ‘Use Simple File Sharing’ (XP Pro only).

Under ‘System Properties’ (Right-click on ‘My Computer’ –> Properties):

  • Disable ‘System Restore’ (System Restore tab –> check the box to turn it off). Though this probably isn’t necessary, in four years I’ve never had a use for it.
  • Change ‘Automatic Updates’ settings (Automatic Updates tab). Select the setting that you desire. I usually tell it to notify me, but don’t download or install anything.
  • Disable ‘Remote Assistance’ (Remote tab). Uncheck the boxes to allow users to send remote invitations and to allow users to connect remotely to your computer.
  • Disable automatic restarts (Advanced tab –> Click ‘Settings’ under ‘Startup and Recovery’ –> Uncheck the ‘automatically restart’ option). This is Microsoft’s sneaky way of hiding the blue screen of death (BSOD). Granted, it occurs much less frequently than in the 98/ME days, but it still can happen, mainly when a device driver fails. When this happens, I want to know.
  • Disable error reporting (Advanced tab –> Error Reporting). I usually leave the option to notify me when a critical error occurs.

Automatic Updates_Error Reporting

While you’re at it, delete unnecessary users. [Right-click on ‘My Computer’ –> Manage –> Expand ‘Local Users and Groups’ –> Select ‘Users.’] I usually delete all users except the Administrator, Guest, and my own account (plus others that *I* have created).

9) Disable irritating sounds.

I get really tired of the Windows default sound scheme and usually opt to disable all sounds. To do so, go to the Control Panel, open ‘Sounds and Audio Devices,’ click the ‘Sounds’ tab, and change the sound scheme to ‘No Sounds.’ Whew. That’s music to my ears.

No Sounds

10) Optimize network settings.

Right-click ‘My Network Places’ and click ‘Properties.’ Now right-click your network device and click ‘Properties.’ Select the QoS Packet Scheduler and click ‘Uninstall.’

11) Check for disk errors and fragmentation.

Though this probably will not affect you after a clean install, it is a good idea to check for errors and defragment now and then, though not as frequently as required during the 98/ME days. To do this, open ‘My Computer,’ right-click your hard drive (usually C:) and select ‘Properties.’ Now select the ‘Tools’ tab. Click ‘Check Now’ to open the ‘Check Disk’ box, and select ‘Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors.’ Click ‘Start’ and go get a cup of coffee.

Disk Tools

To defragment, click the ‘Defragment Now’ button. The ‘Disk Defragmenter’ window should open. Select your hard drive and click ‘Defragment.’ Go get a refill on your coffee.

(Optional) Tweak registry settings.

If you are feeling daring, there are a number of registry tweaks that you can do to further customize your system. Hundreds of them can be found here. Be careful with these, as you can destroy your Windows installation by messing with the registry. Make a backup of your old registry first.

(Optional) Create a custom, unattended install CD for future use.

One nice thing to do to speed up this process in the future is to create a Windows XP Unattended Install CD. Instructions for doing this can be found here. In essence, you can create a bootable CD that partitions your drive(s), installs Windows with your serial number, user account name, additional Windows updates, registry tweaks, and additional software ALL without any interaction from you. This is a slick tool to have if you have the time and patience to learn how to do it.

There you go. You are free to install all additional software that you like. Have fun.

—- Brian Bondari —

Windows Security Guide

Update: though much of this guide is still relevant, some parts are outdated. This guide is in need of an overall revamp, which might happen soon. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment. May 2007

06.12.04

The following are recommendations for securing and using your Microsoft Windows operating system, compiled from years of use and observation. In a nutshell:

  1. Use common sense.
  2. Use and update antivirus software.
  3. Run Windows Update service frequently.
  4. Use a browser other than Internet Explorer.
  5. Use a software firewall.
  6. Scan for Adware/Spyware.
  7. Run as a “limited” user.
  8. Know what’s on your system.
  9. Probe your ports.
  10. Alternatives.
  11. Make backups.

1. Use common sense.

Rule number one of internet security: What you don’t know CAN hurt you. Due to the massive popularity of Microsoft Windows, and its inherent insecurity, it pays to be in control of your PC, not the other way around.

The internet is full of malicious people and programs, who want nothing more than to scam you or break into your computer. Ever received an e-mail from eBay, PayPal, or a bank asking you to “confirm your account” by entering passwords, credit card numbers, or social security numbers? It’s a scam, and if you comply, you’re almost guaranteed to become a victim of identity theft. Be smart. Question everything.

Ever received a virus as an e-mail attachment? Sure, we all have. Sometimes I receive several in one day. NEVER open an e-mail attachment unless you KNOW what it is, and why it was sent. Your friends are not immune. Don’t open an attachment just because it came from a friend. Many viruses masquerade as patches sent from Microsoft. News flash: Microsoft does NOT send patches via e-mail. Delete it immediately if you receive one.

Use Outlook or Outlook Express? Be especially careful. Many people humorously dub “Outlook” as “Lookout” because the majority of e-mail viruses target the soft underbelly of Outlook. If you use Outlook or OE, be sure to disable the “preview pane” under the “View” menu. This way, an infected attachment will not automatically execute when you click that e-mail message.

2. Use and update antivirus software.

This is critical. Running a Windows operating system on the internet without antivirus software is comparable to swimming through shark-infested waters with an open wound. Just as importantly, make sure you UPDATE the antivirus software. New viruses come out everyday, and antivirus software is only as effective as its latest virus definitions. Most new antivirus software comes with either an “automatic” or “scheduled” update feature. Know what you have and verify that it’s working!

Inevitably, the “What antivirus software should I use?” question arises. The answer is that it doesn’t really matter. Most people use and recommend big names like Norton or McAfee, but these are not the only options. You don’t even have to pay for antivirus software. My favorite free programs are AVG [http://www.grisoft.com], Avast [http://www.avast.com], and Antivir [http://www.free-av.com/]. No matter what program you use, never install more than one antivirus program.

[KU specific: KU has a site-license with Sophos antivirus, which means that students, faculty, and staff can download and install their software for free. See http://www.ku.edu/acs/virus for more information.]

3. Run Windows Update service frequently.

This is equally as critical as running antivirus software. New vulnerabilities are discovered frequently in Windows operating systems, and it’s important to patch those vulnerabilities as quickly as possible by visiting the Windows Update web site. One way to do this is to launch Internet Explorer, click the “Tools” menu, and click “Windows Update.” Make sure to install all of the “Critical” updates, but scan through the “Recommended” updates as well.

If you use Windows XP, you can set your system to automatically download and install updates at a time you specify. Right-click on “My Computer” and then click “Properties.” In the new window, click the “Automatic Updates” tab. Click the radio button for the option to download and install the updates everyday at a specific time. Choose your time, and click OK. Hint: Make sure your computer is usually on at the time you specify.

If you use Microsoft Office, you should also check for security updates. [http://office.microsoft.com/home/default.aspx]

4. Use a browser other than Internet Explorer.

Most people equate “Internet Explorer” with the Internet, and this is a crying shame, because IE is a terrible web browser with a horrendous security record. Do you like pop-ups? No? Then don’t use IE. Some forms of spyware can automatically install when you visit malicious sites with IE. IE is also easily “hijacked” by malicious programs.

There is also a moral implication involved here. In a nutshell, there is a group called the World Wide Web Consortium [http://www.w3c.org] that sets standards for how web browsers should behave and render HTML (the “code” behind web sites). Microsoft has completely ignored w3c, deciding instead to set their own standards. This has lead to a schism in web design, in that some designers code exclusively for IE, and others code for standards-compliant browsers.

My favorite alternative browser is called Firefox [http://www.getfirefox.com]. It’s free, it supports tabbed-browsing, it blocks pop-ups, and it is standards-compliant. I strongly suggest that you try it. The only reason to use IE is for Windows Update, since Microsoft does not support browsers not based on the IE-core (big surprise).

5. Use a software firewall.

A software firewall serves two purposes: It prevents unauthorized access INTO your operating system, and prevents information from LEAVING your operating system without your permission.

Without getting into too much detail, most attacks from outside come through “ports.” If your computer is behind a hardware firewall (such as at a major university or business), most ports should automatically be blocked. A software firewall provides an added layer of protection against port attacks.

Some Windows software loves to “dial home” to Microsoft or another company and report information about your computer and surfing habits. Sometimes this is justified, but sometimes it’s downright unnecessary and should be considered a violation of privacy. A correctly-configured software firewall will allow you to determine what information is sent from your computer into the unknown. Remember, your computer is not a television. Information travels both ways.

My personal favorite software firewall is called ZoneAlarm [http://www.zonelabs.com]. You can download a free version, or you can try a demo for a paid version. If you think you may be behind a hardware firewall, or are part of a larger network of computers (such as at a major university), contact your system administrator about the necessity of a software firewall. The sys admin may also have recommendations for the configuration of a software firewall.

[For advanced users: If you are feeling savvy, disable unnecessary Windows services. For a terrific guide on what services are running, their descriptions, and whether or not to disable them, visit Black Viper’s site [http://majorgeeks.com/page.php?id=12]. Read it, decide what to disable, and lock down your system.]

6. Scan for Adware/Spyware.

If you use Windows, you need to know about Adware and Spyware. Adware is usually pretty harmless, but sometimes annoying. It usually comes bundled as third-party applications with freely downloadable programs, such as KaZaa. The purpose of Adware is to display advertisements, often in the form of annoying pop-up windows. When you installed that free screensaver program, did you actually read the license agreement? No? Congratulations! You’re now infested with Adware.

Spyware is much more serious. This includes programs that read “cookies” (text files with information about your surfing habits), key loggers (programs that record every key you press – Logged into a bank account recently?), and other malicious programs that I generically refer to as “internet flotsam.” Again, did you actually READ the license agreement when you installed that fancy cursors program? Collectively, too much adware and spyware can slow even a fast computer down to a crawl.

To exterminate Adware/Spyware, download Ad-aware [http://www.lavasoft.de] and/or Spybot [http://www.safer-networking.org]. Update them, and run them at least once a week. You’ll be surprised at what they catch. Be careful about what you delete with these programs. Some ‘free’ programs (mainly file-sharing programs) will not function properly after their adware is removed. Still, I recommend that you delete everything they catch and then uninstall the offending programs. Be smart about what you install in the first place, and you won’t have too many problems of this nature.

7. Run as a “limited” user.

The default user in Windows XP is called the “administrator.” Newly-created user accounts have administrative privileges by default. This means that you can install software, delete the Windows folder, format your hard drive, and do just about anything else that you want. If you get infected by a virus, it can also do whatever it wants without asking your permission. This is a major reason why almost all viruses target Windows.

An often-neglected, but excellent security measure is to do your daily tasks as a limited user rather than an administrator. Limited users are prohibited against installing new software, they cannot access protected system files, and generally are protected against doing something stupid or allowing someone/something else to do it for them. This means that a malicious program will do drastically less damage under a “limited” user account.

To do this, simply go to the Control Panel (Start — Settings) and select “User Accounts”. Click on “Create a new Account”, give it a name, select “Limited User”, and assign a password. You may need to copy your documents into the “Shared Documents” folder or into the “My Documents” folder of your new profile (generally found in “C:\Documents and settings\your_username\My Documents” Then log off and log on to your new limited account and give it a whirl.

If you need to install new software or make major changes to your system, simply log out and log back into your original account. Note: Some older software may not work well under a limited account. Your best bet is to set up a limited account and try it.

Hint: If your computer has already passed through the hands of a capable systems administrator, this should not be a concern for you.

8. Know what’s on your system.

If you have followed my advice so far, you are already more secure than 95 percent of Windows users. However, there are still more things that you can do.

By default, Windows hides file extensions for known file types. While this may seem convenient, it can present a security concern. Malicious programs frequently take advantage of these hidden extensions by fooling the user into thinking it’s a different type of file. For example, you open a text file on your desktop called “patch.txt.” The next thing you know, a window opens that reads, “yuo just been pwned by l33t hax0r!” Then your hard drive is erased. Whoops! What you did not know was that the “patch.txt” file was actually an executable called “patch.txt.exe,” but Windows hid the last part from you because it was a “known file type.”

To disable this “feature,” open any folder, such as My Documents. Click the “Tools” menu, click “Folder Options,” and then click the “View” tab. Look down the list until you see a checkmark labeled “Hide Extensions for Known File Types”. Remove the check from that box. Windows will now display ALL file extensions, placing you in the driver’s seat.

9. Probe your ports.

Now it is time to test your fully patched system. Even if you think you are fully protected, new vulnerabilities are found almost daily. It pays to have constant vigilance.

Remember the “port attacks” mentioned under item five? Let’s see how secure your operating system is. Open a web browser and surf to http://www.grc.com. This is a site maintained by a security guru named Steve Gibson. Click on “Shields Up!” Scroll down to “Hot Spots,” and click on “Shields Up!” again. Click on “Proceed” and then select “All Service Ports.” Wait a few minutes while you watch the ensuing test. Green results are best, blue is ok, and red means trouble, unless you know what you are doing (such as running a web server). Ideally, you should have all green results.

You can test your antivirus software by downloading the EICAR test virus [http://www.trendmicro.com/en/security/test/overview.htm]. Note: This is not a virus, but merely a test file that your antivirus software should recognize as a virus. Try to download the file to your hard drive. If your antivirus software does not catch it, check the settings to make sure it is actively scanning files. If your software still does not catch it, try different antivirus software ASAP!

10. Alternatives.

I have already mentioned an alternative to Internet Explorer, but there are also alternatives to other widely-used Windows programs. For example, I strongly recommend using a different mail client over Outlook due to security reasons mentioned under item one. Thunderbird [http://mozilla.org/products/thunderbird] and Eudora [http://www.eudora.com] are excellent (and free) alternatives.

Would you like a free alternative to Microsoft Office? Try OpenOffice [http://www.openoffice.org].
How about a free instant messaging client with no advertisements that is compatible with AIM (Oscar and TOC protocols), ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, and the Zephyr networks? Try Pidgin [http://pidgin.im/pidgin/home/].

If you have made it through this entire guide, and feel utterly disgusted and overwhelmed about Windows security, you should at least know that there are also alternatives to the entire Microsoft Windows operating system. Mac OS X [http://www.apple.com/macosx] and Linux [http://www.ubuntu.com] are two alternatives. Neither are without flaws, but both have a more strongly implemented security policy than Windows.

11. Make backups.

No matter what operating system you use, it is critical to back up your data. There is no excuse not to have backups. Your hard drive could die. Your computer could be cracked by an unscrupulous person. You could get a destructive virus. There could be a flash flood. Do I make myself clear?

There are several methods of creating backups. Is your computer capable of “burning” CDs? If so, purchase some CD-R or CD-RW discs and back up your critical data. Remember to keep those discs in a safe place. You could also consider purchasing an extra hard drive (internal or external) for data storage. Most newer computers are now capable of “burning” DVDs. If you are lucky enough to have one, this is an excellent method of backing up data, as DVDs have considerably more storage space than CDs.

Are you on a network? If so, you might be able to store critical data on a server. Speak to your network administrator for more details.

[KU specific: You may be able to back up data to a network file server. Open “My Network Places” and view your workgroup computers. Look for a computer with your department name. For instance, if you’re located in Murphy Hall, connect to the MUSIC_DANCE server. Enter your username and password. If successful, you can then save files to the server. Contact your local administrator if you need assistance.]

If you made it through this guide, you are well on your way to a more secure system. Remember that no computer is invulnerable, and it is important to always be aware of new security vulnerabilities. After all, the safest computer is one that is disconnected from the internet (or at the bottom of a landfill).

—- Brian Bondari —-
© 2004