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March 22, 2004 - Vol. 4, Issue No. 55

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • First Run: Windows XP Service Pack 2 RC1
  • Say Hi to Desktop Pipeline
  • Microsoft to Snap Up AOL?
  • Tech Support Test: Trouble With Routers
  • Testing the Linux Waters
  • The 4th Annual Broadband Reader Poll
  • Happy Birthday Scot's Newsletter Forums!
  • Tips for Linux Explorers: 5 Ways to Fix App Woes
  • Link of the Week: Froogle
  • Thanks to All Contributors, and SFNL Update
  • Newsletter Schedule
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, or Change Subscription.


    First Run: Windows XP Service Pack 2 RC1
    In a somewhat unusual move, Microsoft released RC1 of Windows XP Service Pack 2 for download and installation by virtually anyone who wants it. You'll find the 273MB download and several support documents available from the Windows XP Service Pack 2 Technical Preview page on the Microsoft site.

    Before you rush off and install XP SP2 RC1, though, please read through the rest of this article. First, duly note my standard beta software diatribe #2: Do not install any beta software or "Release Candidate" on a computer that you're not prepared to do a complete clean install on. What's more, this particular set of code does not seem Release Candidate-worthy to me. You should only install this on a test machine, not your primary computer. End diatribe.

    To get up to speed on Windows XP Service Pack 2, check out my guided-tour coverage of XP SP2 Beta 1:

  • First Look at Windows XP Service Pack 2 Beta 1

    Next, read these Microsoft documents, which tell you about Windows XP Service Pack 2 and the changes apparent in RC1:

  • Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2 Release Candidate 1 Fact Sheet
  • RC1 Release Notes
  • Changes to Functionality in Service Pack 2 for Microsoft Windows XP

    What's New in RC1
    Microsoft has turned on the Internet Explorer pop-up blocker by default and the software maker continues to work on and revise the Windows Update site in conjunction with the XP Service Pack 2 code. But the big change in RC1 is the inclusion of a new Control Panel called Windows Security Center.

    Because a picture is worth ... well, no they aren't. But pictures are cool. Take a look at this screenshot of Windows Security Center:

  • Screenshot: Windows XP SP2 RC1's Windows Security Center

    But here's the 1,000 words anyway. Windows Security Center provides links to disparate security settings dialogs, including the Internet Control Panel (where browser Security settings are provided), the System Control Panel (where you'll find the Automatic Updates settings), and the settings for Windows Firewall, the updated and renamed built-in software firewall previously known as Internet Connection Firewall. Windows Firewall is turned on by default in XP Service Pack 2. And if you followed the advice from he SP2 setup screens, Automatic Updates will also be turned on to its most aggressive install-them-all-automatically setting.

  • Screenshot: That Advice in the Auto Updates Setup Screen

    Beyond that, Security Center monitors three aspects of your system's security with three separate checks running in background:

    1. The Firewall Monitor: Checks whether you have a software firewall installed and running. Even if Service Pack 2 RC 1 is aware of another firewall installed on your system, Windows Firewall will be on by default. Running two software firewalls is unnecessary, and it could cause conflicts or problems -- although it's unlikely to cause anything so severe that you'd be prevented from turning off one or both of the firewalls.

    2. The Automatic Updates Monitor: If you didn't opt to turn Automatic Updates on all the way during XP SP2 RC1 setup, this monitor will imply that you're somehow in trouble. Even if you have Auto Updates configured to download critical updates automatically and notify you when they're ready to install, you're still not good enough for Security Center. Think of Security Center as Windows Security for dummies.

    3. The Virus Protection Monitor: Have you installed an antivirus program? Is it running? Has it been updated with the latest antivirus signatures? Those are the three security checks this monitor makes.

    All of this functionality boils down to one thing: Microsoft wants to push users to use a firewall; to keep their systems up to date with the latest security patches; and to install, use, and maintain an antivirus program. Microsoft does not want a repeat of MS Blaster. In fact, Windows Service Pack 2 in general is largely a giant reaction to MS Blaster.

    Before you get all riled up about this, defeating Security Center couldn't be simpler. You can disable it entirely with a few clicks. And there's nothing to stop anyone from going completely without a firewall, antivirus program, and automatic system updates. Microsoft is not forcing you to do anything. So if you find yourself annoyed by the somewhat heavy-handed approach Microsoft appears to be taking in order to get more people using security measures, remember this: It's in everyone's best interest for less experienced Windows users to increase their security levels.

    Why? Almost three years ago I got a first-hand lesson on this subject. For over three months I received several hundred emails a day from a single PC that was never turned off and was perpetually connected to the Internet. Every message contained a worm payload that was easily defeated by my antivirus software. But the person who owned that machine was unwittingly sending out hundreds of thousands of worm-infected emails. Presumably I wasn't the only one. And that was just one PC in a world of millions.

    On the other hand, Windows Security Center does something that I know it's not going to be well liked for. Its monitor panels let you change your security settings, but they only go in one direction: More secure. For me, that goes too far. Just because you put on a safety belt doesn't mean you'll never, ever want to take it off. And, while it is easily possible to use other control settings to turn off these security measures, one-way controls are just terrible user-interface design.

    Another mistake is the fact that in this release with Automatic Updates cranked up to its maximum, Windows prompts you to install pending updates when you shutdown your system. And this is pretty stupid. Microsoft sets the Auto Updates scheduled install feature to go off at 3AM every day. Presumably it prompts you to install updates on Shutdown since your machine might not be turned on at 3AM. A better process is needed for this. People don't want to install patches as they're shutting down.

    In very early testing of the RC1 Firewall and Virus Protection monitors on two test PCs, I found that third-party security products were not well supported. While the Firewall monitor detected that ZoneAlarm Pro 4.5 was installed, it wasn't able to verify that it was running (even though it was running perfectly). As a result, Security Center's Firewalls monitor implied that I wasn't protected. The same was true when I installed Norton AntiVirus 2004 on my test machines. The Virus Protection monitor agreed that NAV2004 was installed on my system, but it couldn't be sure the utility was running, so I was advised that my security wasn't up to snuff. Of course, NAV2004 was fully updated and running perfectly on my system.

    If the RC1 Security Center monitors could not detect the current versions of ZoneAlarm and Norton AntiVirus, that aspect of the pre-release bits of Windows XP Service Pack 1 don't seem ready for prime time in this release.

    App Compat
    Application-compatibility issues could be another sticking point. Peer-to-peer network applications (such as file-sharing utilities) and network games could be affected by SP2's networking and remote-access-related security patches. It's possible that some Internet-based features of other types of programs could also be affected.

    SFNL Reader and Forums MVP ThunderRiver reports that a few programs require MAC or NIC Adapter addresses as part of their activation processes are failing. So far Thunder has found the following programs that don't work properly under SP2 RC1:

    1. Frontline Excel Solver Premium Platform 5.5 Setup Wizard. This failure could cause license deactivations in machines that installed Solver Premium in XP prior to Service Pack 2.

    2. Maya 5.0 seems to have its license deactivated because it fails to retrieve a correct NIC adapter or MAC address.

    3. PowerPoint 2000/XP/2003 presentations are reporting errors inside Internet Explorer when the user clicks on PowerPoint presentations published to the Internet.

    Microsoft does expect to issue RC2 before finalizing Windows XP SP2 in June. So they have another chance to get things right in what I suspect will also be another wide test of the service pack.

    Finally, this is a very early look at Windows XP SP2 RC1. I expect to continue working with it and may update my assessment of it on the website version of this piece. So check back on the website version if you're following this closely.

    Windows Longhorn Delay
    Meanwhile, why are we not surprised that Windows Longhorn might be delayed until 2007? Because Microsoft is notoriously late with client operating system releases. But in this case, Windows Longhorn is a very ambitious new version of Windows. Combine that with the fact that it now appears from published reports that Microsoft is planning to release a new version of Windows Server before Windows Longhorn, and there's just no way the next major version of desktop Windows will arrive before 2007.

    There's also been some talk this month that a first major beta of Windows Longhorn could arrive before the end of this year. I hope so, although Microsoft does have an awful lot on its plate right now.

    Back to the Top


    Say Hi to Desktop Pipeline
    There's a new newsletter and website in the world you might be interested in. At TechWeb (my day job), my title reads "Editor, The Pipelines" these days. I'm the editor in charge of a growing stable of more than a dozen IT publications covering topics such as Security, Linux, Small Business, and Mobile. And we're not done launching these online publications.

    The Pipeline site I know Scot's Newsletter readers will be most interested in is Desktop Pipeline. It covers desktop operating systems (including Windows, obviously), desktop applications (like Microsoft Office), and PC hardware and peripherals, including both Wintel, Macintosh, and Linux hardware.

    Desktop Pipeline: http://www.desktoppipeline.com/

    Desktop Pipeline's editor is Barbara Krasnoff, someone I've admired and worked with on and off for many years. Yours truly is Editor-at-Large of the site, and I'll be contributing regularly to it. In fact, the Windows Longhorn story that first appeared in this newsletter is now published on the Desktop Pipeline site:

  • Windows 'Longhorn,' Microsoft's Next Desktop Operating System

    I do have a favor to ask regarding Desktop Pipeline. I'd like you to try its weekly newsletter, which I will be authoring some of the time. You can always unsubscribe later, and you know where to find me! Here's where to subscribe if you decide to:

    http://www.desktoppipeline.com/newsletter.jhtml

    The first issue of the Desktop Pipeline Newsletter went out a couple weeks ago, and I wrote it. What follows is an editorial excerpted from that premiere issue to give you a sense of what it's like.

    Process And UI Are Important IT Concerns
    After a career in business computing, lately I find myself cursing computers.

    During the early 1980s, I became an accidental IT guy - a term that I believe was coined by Dan Rosenbaum, a blogger, editor, and writer who lives in New York City. Yes, the term is a take-off on the novel "The Accidental Tourist," by Anne Tyler. But it describes very well what happened to many of us who, 20 years ago, came naturally by our computer skills and talents. Briefly put, I was instrumental in transforming the business processes of a small magazine publisher that owned its own typesetting equipment, but whose myriad reporters and editors all used typewriters. When I was done, they all had PCs on their desks, and copy was transmitted digitally from start to finish.

    So why, 20 years later, am I now finding the rapid change of business processes to Web-based solutions within corporations - things like intranet applications, VPNs, online expense reports, content-management systems, Web-based meeting products and group-schedulers, just to name a few - may not be worth the apparent savings their automation brings? Well, let's just say it's not because I've suddenly become a computer Luddite.

    I've seen with my own eyes just how damaging to employee productivity ill-conceived Web wonders can be. My favorite ploy is that promising new Web tool, which sounds great until you realize its primary purpose is to simplify life for one small department in the company - while doubling or tripling the time it takes to complete a task on the desktops of every other employee in the organization. And the truly odd part about this phenomenon is that it repeats itself over and over again. No one is paying attention to the fact that every time it happens, employees at hundreds or even thousands of desktops have a little less time left to get their real jobs done.

    The other huge productivity robbers are interfaces that are downright barbaric - or, worse, that were designed without any thought whatsoever to the business processes they're supposed to replace. Does your development team ask the actual users what a Web app should do before it's built? Probably not. They always seem to know better because they're omniscient. To be honest, that's probably not fair. Developers are often pressed for time and faced with frustrating technical limitations. It's senior IT management that needs the reality check.

    Regardless of who is to blame, enterprise IT should take responsibility for the fact that bad interfaces, poorly conceived applications, and apps that don't serve the organization at large are draining the lifeblood of many companies: employee productivity. And that's ironic when you consider that the promised ROI of most internal development initiatives boils down to little more than the hope of boosting productivity.

    In the real world, at the desktops of millions of employees at corporations around the globe, someone should be asking the question: "Are you better off now than you were two years ago, before we installed all those company-specific Web apps on your PC and forced you to do things the new way?" Because I can tell you what the answer will be. And the top brass isn't going to like it.

    *            *            *

    For more about the Pipeline websites, please consult this page on the TechWeb site:

  • TechWeb Network's Pipeline Publications

    Two other Pipeline sites just launched are

  • Web Services Pipeline
  • Developer Pipeline

    Back to the Top


    Microsoft to Snap Up AOL?
    Even though numerous published reports quoting Time-Warner as denying it and Microsoft as no-commenting it, the New York Post reported on Friday that Time Warner is in talks with Microsoft over the possible sale of AOL to Microsoft. It's kind of a juicy story, true or not. AOL has hit tough times, and its membership is sliding, at about 24 million subscribers now. At one time the companies customers topped 30+ million. Meanwhile, Microsoft's MSN is limping along at 8 million subscribers.

    A lot of what's wrong with AOL could be fixed, though, if a new company with deep pockets and a clear understanding of software invested in it. The consumer computer marketplace may not look like such a great place to be spending R&D dollars right now, but I think Microsoft's vision to go after this market (and the search market) are very sound. People may not be driving PCs in droves right now, but it's not like the PC is going to shrivel up and die. People don't want large business machines in their homes; well, big whoop. They don't want to spend $1,500 or more for this equipment either.

    Consumer PCs aren't about spreadsheets any more, they are a means to access the Internet and do basic personal tasks, like helping you do your taxes, store information, send email, and so on. While the computer industry has abandoned the consumer PC like rabbits zig-zagging away from a baying dog, the lowly desktop PC has become a near-appliance in many homes around the world. Consumers are just not going to replace these PCs as quickly as businesses are. They'll replace them about as frequently as they replace TV sets, audio equipment, or the family car. In other words, roughly five to 10 years. PCs don't really last 10 years. But the marketplace will determine this more than manufacturers might like to think. And the margins involved may make selling consumer PCs not highly profitable. But sooner or later the numbers will take over. The sheer volume in the number of PCs being used and replaced will make it more and more feasible for the Walmarts of the world to make a fast buck and be done with it.

    Some of you may think that ludicrous, since the operating system and applications that run on PCs aren't good enough to make a consistent user experience. We're getting there though. Not the user interface, but the fact that recent versions of Windows are far more reliable, for example. Linux is reliable. The Mac is reliable. All the available choices have quietly gotten better. And most importantly, PC prices have come way down.

    When you stare at that picture long enough, you realize that there's still a huge potential universe of people who don't have PCs but who probably would like them. And they're going to need a helping hand out onto the Internet. That's why on paper at least, a merger of AOL and MSN makes a great deal of sense. I would hope to see Microsoft dump a lot of its online system in favor of AOL's. But at the same time fix the kludgey AOL email system. Microsoft should prefer MSN's out-on-the-Internet software and tools over AOL's. Marrying the content the two companies have amassed would also create a better set of user benefits.

    The one question about all this is that, despite what the government might say, there is an antitrust aspect of this in my opinion. Of course, before MSN, AOL basically owned this area. But in the real world, subscription rates would likely edge upwards.

    Back to the Top


    Tech Support Test: Trouble With Low-Cost Routers
    What are the odds that two different broadband routers would go down at the same time? Apparently not as slim as you'd think. There are three low-cost wired broadband routers on SFNL Top Products list right now. They're all firewall-enabled 4-port models from D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys. The Linksys is older, but the other two are both under a year old. And both went down for the count with 30 days of each other.

    This is the story of problems I encountered D-Link's Express Ethernet DI-604 and Netgear's Web Safe Router Gateway RP614. Both products went belly up, and both were replaced by their companies. And I now have fully working replacements.

    The Netgear RP614 was first. It did a long, slow swan dive. The problems started with drop offs. After a week or so of drop-offs, I pulled it out of commission and let it lay there for a month. The next time I tried it was when the D-Link starting acting up. At that point, the Netgear was fully dead, not responding.

    The D-Link's problem began as "Honey, the Internet connection is down." My wife was letting me know I had IT duties to attend to. [Editor's note: That *is* the job of a wife, no? Managing the Honey-Do list? --Cyndy.] It turned out that when I power cycled the D-Link, it worked again. At first it worked for a few days. But two weeks later it was only lasting 12 hours. And eventually, it became inaccessible.

    In fact, both routers reached the point where I could no longer access their Web-based config screens, even with a crossover cable. The D-Link would not respond to a press of its reset button either.

    Interestingly all this began not long after Comcast cranked up the performance on my cable Internet connection (although both were also used for various stints with my somewhat less swift Verizon DSL connection). But the truth is that I vary routers constantly, and both of these models had seen rest periods and had also served other Internet connections. Both had also received regular checks, periodic (like once a month) power cycling, and had recent firmware -- but not necessarily the latest, greatest, least tested updates. In short, they all got caring treatment.

    Dealing with Tech Support
    Let me cut to the chase and say that based on two recent Netgear experiences and one D-Link experience, Netgear gets an A- from me for the overall experience. And the only reason that Netgear doesn't get a full A from me is that its phone system, which is based in India, is terrible. The India-based support I received was superb. But I was disconnected twice, at the same transition point (where they were trying to transfer me from one rep to another), and also the sound quality is poor. Netgear should force the issue to solve the phone system problem. Other than that, the support policies, the reps, and everything about the way Netgear supports its customers is excellent.

    Although not terrible overall, the D-Link experience is inferior on several of the fine points, and I would have to give it a B-.

    D-Link uses U.S.-based support. The first issue isn't the phone system per se, but the voicemail messages the company has set it up with. The D-Link website lists tech-support hours that are far more liberal than what the company actually offers, and that's very confusing. Even though you're calling during what appears to be standard support hours, you may be faced with leaving a voicemail. It's also not clear whether the voicemail you might leave will be directed to tech support. It sounds like a general mailbox. Finally, it's altogether too easy to wind up in a looped process in the voice-menu system.

    Since I couldn't reach a live human when I called, my next inclination was to send tech support an email. I was pretty sure they were going to reach the same conclusion I had, that my D-Link router was kaput. So I emailed tech support (something they show as an option to their support phone number), and gave all the details to support my finding that the box was dead. It took only about an hour to get a response, but it wasn't helpful. The rep who replied agreed that the box "probably" needed to be replaced, but he directed me to call D-Link Tech Support. Why did I bother emailing them if they can't do anything via email?

    The next day I reached a support rep, who as I said, was based in the U.S. Unlike the Netgear tech reps, my D-Link rep spent very little time confirming that my DI-604 was dead. After a few perfunctory questions, he went right to the bottom line: D-Link would send me a replacement for the unit. The Netgear people put me through more hoops, asking for specific tests and verifying things. You may think you prefer the D-Link approach, but let me tell you, that would be a mistake. Because in the end, when D-Link gets the box you send them, if their engineers decide there was nothing important wrong with it, the company is going to charge your credit card for the full-boat coast of the replacement broadband router. You're better off with Netgear's more rigorous process.

    My D-Link support rep gave me what he called an RMA number, which turned out to be a case number, something you need to get an RMA number. D-Link has a separate department devoted to assigning and tracking RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) processes. And that department is not open on weekends. Because I was calling on a Saturday, I was directed to D-Link's RMA website. So I figured what the heck and tried that site using IE 6.0. It presents a step-by-step system. Some of the steps aren't very well explained, especially given that you have choices about how to return merchandise, all of which involve shipping costs, and the prices aren't explained very well.

    I managed to figure it out, but when I got to the page designed to show me the results, including the all-important RMA number, the server conked out and the page wouldn't load. I tried hitting refresh. That produced an error page saying that I had already been assigned an RMA number. It listed the RMA number, but since it didn't identify it as such, I wasn't sure whether it was my actual RMA or an error code.

    Something even worse happened. I tried clicking my browser Back button. When I did that, I was given a page listing the personal name, address, and partially filed RMA request from an entirely different customer. Needless to say, this was a pretty severe server error that would show me someone else's contact info. Later, when I confronted a D-Link rep about this, he acted like I was making it up. But he did want the name of the other customer, which I gave him.

    Because the server failed, I also didn't get the address where I should ship the broken unit. And that meant that the RMA website was totally useless to me. I had to wait two more days to call D-Link's RMA department. When I did, I was finally given all the information I needed to return my unit and get a new one.

    Return Policies and Results
    Netgear and D-Link have similar policies. You pay for shipping one way and they pay the other. Netgear edges out D-Link on how this works. For about $15 and your credit card number, Netgear will ship you out a replacement right away. I got mine in two days. This is one of several options the company gives you, but it's the best one (unless you need the overnight option, which costs more). I like the Netgear approach because you get the box in the mail, and it comes with a pre-paid return shipping label. Swap the new equipment out and the old equipment in, seal up the box, slap on the return label, put the RMA in bold markings on the box, and you're ready to go. I've done this twice with Netgear. The first time the return was via U.S. Postal Mail. The second time it was via Airborne. Neither was a problem for me. But Airborne is more convenient. You can just call them to come pick it up.

    D-Link takes your credit card too, but only to ensure that you return the defective product. They send out the replacement, and when you receive it, you use that box, go through the same steps as for the Netgear, and then mail it back to them the cheapest way possible that will get it there within 10 days. If saving every dollar is more important to you than anything else, the D-Link process is a little less expensive. But so far as I'm concerned, time is money. Netgear saved me time.

    There is one place where D-Link beat Netgear on the merits. Netgear sends the replacement unit only, with no frills. (On one of the two replacements they sent, I didn't even get a new AC adapter.) The D-Link DI-604 replacement came with all manuals, CDs, power equipment, and accessories. It's not a big deal, but it's a nice touch that I appreciated.

    Takeaways
    I ran into a similar issue two years ago with an SMC wireless access point. This was handled with tech support, and the experience was very similar to my Netgear experience, which is to say, it was positive, although I recall it took a lot longer to get the new unit from SMC than the other companies.

    About three years ago I had a similar problem with a Linksys broadband router. It worked, but I could no longer access its Web-based config screens. The swap was handled by Linksys's PR department at the time, since I was in the middle of evaluating the product on deadline. I believe the problem was caused by a firmware installer issue that they subsequently corrected. So I can't really talk about that experience meaningfully.

    Since then, I haven't had a single problem with any of the many Linksys products I use. The main switch for my network is a 24-port Linksys product that has worked exceedingly well for me. It's quiet, well designed, and very hardy. I've abused it and it just keeps working. No fried ports, no lock ups, it's a champ. I also have several Linksys network cards working without issue (although many people have warned me they have had problems with some models of Linksys network cards). For the record, I also have Netgear, 3Com, and Intel network cards. I prefer the older cards that have been around for a long time, the ones that have fewer custom chips on them. Over the years, I've had the most problem with Intel NICs. I've also noticed that after three or four years of bullet-proof operation, 3Com cards have a tendency to just give up the ghost suddenly. The Netgear cards have a 100 percent operation rate for me. But the card I use is an older model that the company discontinued a while back.

    Despite my positive Linksys experiences, there are some SFNL readers who've had trouble with Linksys, and many have reported tech support issues not unlike some of the ones I've listed for Netgear and D-Link. I can't really comment, except to say that I believe the many readers who've written to me about this (fewer recently, for what that's worth). But I also can't help noting that when both my Netgear and D-Link routers were down, the Linksys BEFSX41 that I also use regularly continued to work perfectly.

    Finally, it's probably important to note that low-cost routers are prone to trouble over time. They're not designed for the throughput and heavy use to which I subject the broadband equipment in SFNL labs. Both of these products failed within their warranty periods, but three or four months later would have been too late for a free replacement. It's something to keep in mind.

    If you'd like to comment on this piece or tell me your networking product tech support experience, drop me a line.

    Back to the Top


    Testing the Linux Waters
    I love it when I guess right. In the last issue of the newsletter I wrote up the results of the annual Scot's Newsletter What's Your Next Operating System? poll. And in analyzing the data, I realized I hadn't considered the way most Scot's Newsletter readers have used or plan to use Linux. Bottom line: Most of you are Windows users, so you're not thinking Linux will be your primary OS. And many of you aren't (yet?) thinking that Linux will be your next operating system. That means you're probably using it on a second machine or in a multiboot configuration -- and you're not thinking of it as your primary OS.

    So I created a follow-on poll: Have you ever tried or do you plan to try Linux? The answers were simply yes or no.

    The poll is closed now (so please don't add your vote). The results proved my hunch correct. About 2,650 of you responded to the question, more than 5.5 percent of the Scot's Newsletter list. And 1884 of those responses were "Yes." And many of them included notes saying that you were running Linux on a separate partition or on a second machine. For the record, 770 people responded "No."

    I want to thank everyone for their participation in this poll.

    Additionally, I could use your comments, thoughts, suggestions about the Linux coverage in Scot's Newsletter. Just to be clear, I have no plans to halt my Windows coverage. (In fact, expect that to step up this year.) There is no threat that Linux is going to "take over." But I like to encourage competing technologies and products. And Linux is the first real competitor Windows has had in a long, long time that doesn't require the purchase of expensive proprietary hardware (yes, I'm referring to the Mac).

    But what do you think? Since I know most of you are running Windows XP and are focused on Windows, does the regular Linux coverage I've added just get in the way? Or is it okay by you? Your thoughts matter.

    Back to the Top


    The 4th Annual Broadband Reader Poll
    Dial-up users, please don't skip this! Your input is equally important.

    I'm several months late in offering the 4th Annual Scot's Newsletter Broadband Reader Poll -- which I normally run in the fall. (But I bet I'm the only one who noticed.) Traditionally, this has been the most complex poll I do each year. So this time I'm simplifying it greatly.

    Although this poll is called the Broadband Reader Poll, it's not just about broadband but about any type of Internet access Scot's Newsletter readers are using. So everyone should answer. Here's the poll question:

    What's Your Primary Means of Internet Access? (Please choose only one.)

    1. Dial-Up   (Any analog modem-based dial-up access at any rate)
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Dial-up" in the subject line.

    2. Cable
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Cable" in the subject line.

    3. DSL   (Any form, including ADSL, RADSL, iDSL, SDSL)
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_DSL" in the subject line.

    4. Satellite   (Any type, one-way, two-way, any band)
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Satellite" in the subject line.

    5. Fixed Wireless
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Fixed_Wireless" in the subject line.

    6. ISDN
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_ISDN" in the subject line.

    7. Powerline
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Powerline" in the subject line.

    8. Other   (Please specify in the body of the message)
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_Other" in the subject line.

    9. No Internet Access
    If this link doesn't work, send a message to poll2004@scotsnewsletter.com and type "BBPoll-4th_No_Access" in the subject line.

    Thanks for taking the time to send me your message. Look for the results in an upcoming issue.

    Back to the Top


    Happy Birthday Scot's Newsletter Forums!
    Scot's Newsletter Forums turned one-year-old last week. Our moderators traced the first public door-opening to March 18, 2003. Where does the time go? Happy Birthday SFNL Forums!

    The forums have seen lots of change and evolution in the their first year. Membership is a small but growing 2200 or so registered "Highlanders" as they call themselves. (I'm not 100-percent sure of the derivation of this term, but I believe it traces back in some wayward way to my Scots heritage.) I think the name Highlanders also gives a tacit nod to the idea that Scot's Newsletter Forums aims to take the high road. It's not the wild, wide-open west, that some other Web forums appear to be. There are rules, and we enforce them. The idea being that it's a family kind of place, where you can hang out and hopefully not be attacked by drive-by screamers. The membership is small, and that's just fine by us. The post count is fairly high at nearly 75,000 for that number of members -- a testament to the fact that SFNL Forums is frequented by a loyal bunch of regulars.

    The charter of the forums is to help other people with computer problems and provide meeting places for discussion of topics of interest related to computing. Forums include: Technical Q&A, Windows and Microsoft, Applications, Linux, Mac, Hardware, Security and Networking, Programming and Web Dev, and the ever-popular Water Cooler. Check out Scot's Newsletter Forums:

    http://forums.scotsnewsletter.com/

    Forum registration with email-based confirmation is required only for participation in the forums (posting messages and sending Private Messages). The forums are open to all who would like only to read. In order to register, you need a valid email address. You will receive a confirmation message containing a validation link that you must click to complete the registration process. (This is purely to prevent nuisance registrations.) Your email address is completely protected and not revealed to other members.

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    Tips for Linux Explorers: Five Ways to Fix App Woes
    Like any operating system, Linux occasionally experiences run-away processes -- a program that goes into an endless loop or stops responding. Although full system crashes are very rare in Linux, programs do occasionally act up. This installment of Tips for Linux Explorers is all about how to handle those situations. Here are five methods for diagnosing and solving Linux application woes:

    1. If a single program freezes, crashes, or won't stop running when it should, use your Linux distro's desktop changer to change to a new desktop and press the Ctrl-Esc keyboard combination. That opens the Process Table, which shows all the processes running on your system. You may notice that some processes appear to be running several instances, and that's normal.

    The first four columns of the Process Table are the most important. If you know the name of the process you're having trouble with, that makes things simpler. If you don't, the 3rd and 4th columns show what is consuming CPU cycles. Take note of the PID (Process Identifier) number for the culprit or likely culprit. If you see multiple processes with the same name, note the last PID number.

    Navigate to yet another desktop window, open a Terminal or Console window, and type:

    su {your root password}

    That logs you in as root. Next type:

    kill ####

    Replace the #### with the PID number you noted earlier.

    Rebooting is not required, and if you selected the right process, your job should be done.

    Note: You can also change desktops by pressing Ctrl-F1, Ctrl-F2, Ctrl-F3, and Ctrl-F4.

    2. If your desktop interface freezes completely, trying pressing Ctrl-Alt-F1. That exits your desktop GUI and opens an empty Terminal screen with a login prompt. (Note: There are 6 terminals available Al-F1 to Alt-F6.) Then login by typing "root" (not "su"). Then type:

    top

    That will give you a Process Table with the same data described above showing the PID numbers. Find the problem number, close top by pressing the Q key, and press Alt-F2. That opens another empty Terminal window. Login as root (by typing "root") and enter:

    kill ####

    Replace the #### with the PID number you noted earlier. To return to your graphical desktop, press Alt-F7.

    3. When your desktop is down, another useful command is Ctrl-Alt-Backspace. It logs you out of your desktop session and returns you to your graphical login screen where you can restart KDE, Gnome, or other desktop.

    4. Try the three tips above first. If they don't help, you can force a clean reboot with these steps: Press Ctrl-Alt-F1 to open a Terminal window, type "root" to login, and then type:

    reboot

    5. If all else fails, and your system doesn't respond to any input from you ... don't press Ctrl-Alt-Delete or hit the reset button! Under Linux, you do the Skinny Elephant trick. It recovers and restarts your system as safely as possible so that you lose no data. The trick is carried out by a series of commands entered in a specific order. To help you remember the commands and their prescribed order, use this mnemonic:

    Raising Skinny Elephants Is Utterly Boring.

    The first letter of each word in the mnemonic is for the command key you press in combination with Alt-SysRq. (SysRq is the other function on the PrtScn button.) In other words, press these keyboard commands in this order:

    Alt-SysRq-R   (Puts keyboard in raw mode so kernel can receive commands)
    Alt-SysRq-S   (Puts the hard drive in sync)
    Alt-SysRq-E   (Stops all running processes)
    Alt-SysRq-I   (Kills all remaining processes)
    Alt-SysRq-U   (Unmounts the file system and mounts it in read-only mode)
    Alt-SysRq-B   (Reboots the system)

    You must use the left Alt key to make this work. It's also important to pause a moment after each command to ensure that the system has time to carry it out. Since there's no visual feedback as you're progressing through each command, just take your time to be sure. After the last command your PC will restart, and you should be in good shape.

    Extra Tip: One last tip everyone should be clear on: If you use the Ext3 or ReiserFS file systems and you get a message on reboot to do a file-system check, do NOT press "Y" (for Yes) or any other key whatsoever. In fact, you should do nothing at all. Just wait for the journaling file system to do its thing and solve the problem automatically.

    Sources
    Most of the material you find in Tips for Linux Explorers comes from Bruno of Amsterdam, one of the moderators of the popular All Things Linux forum at Scot's Newsletter Forums.

    Bruno is helped by All Things Linux co-moderators Peachy and Teacher, as well as other forum members who have posted in the highly useful Tips for Linux Explorers thread (from which LinuxClues.com and the Linux Explorers section of Scot's Newsletter are adapted). Previous installments of Tips for Linux Explorers can be found at LinuxClues.com.

    Tips for Linux Explorers is content-edited by Cyndy. (Scot copy edits.)

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    Link of the Week: Froogle
    Last issue I did what turned out to be a very popular 60-Second Brief called Shopping Savvy that listed some of my favorite price-comparison online tools and also online retailers for computers and electronics. I got a ton of email on this subject, and I expect to do a large follow-up story in the near future. It will include many of the sites you have suggested to me.

    There's one site that I use all the time, though, that I just forgot to mention in the Shopping Savvy piece. Froogle is very often my starting point for shopping expeditions. It's a beta price-comparison site from Google that really returns a lot of information quickly.

    My favorite way to use Froogle is to find an identifying word or phrase that's unique to the exact model in question. I'm always looking for good deals on IBM ThinkPad T41p notebooks. My favorite model is 2379DKU. Searching for that model number is one way to find this particular model extremely quickly, both from a long list of online retailers and also on other price-comparison sites, which sometimes advertise on Froogle. The search-based approach is not only way to use Froogle, but I find that the site's topic-based directory is less useful.

    Nevertheless, Froogle is a Link of the Week site because it's hands-down the fastest way to find a low price on anything you want to buy. I'm often able to arrive at my best price for any given item in about two minutes. What would be even better is if Froogle didn't rely on advertising from other price-comparison tools but instead regularly included them in its search results. That would make it a very powerful tool indeed.

    Have you personally used price-comparison online tools or online retailers for computers, electronics, or software that you'd like to recommend to me and other SFNL readers? Tell me all about them.

    I need your help! Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.

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    Thanks to All Contributors, and SFNL Update
    In the last issue, I made one of my occasional pleas for donations to help support the production of this newsletter. I'm taking this space to make public my gratitude to a long list of SFNL subscribers who heard the call and answered it. Not only did a lot of you contribute, but you were generous. I hope that this labor of love, the newsletter, will always be worthy of your time and financial contribution.

    It's also especially welcome because, with this issue, all advertising has dried up in Scot's Newsletter. I do not know the reason for this, although I have several thoughts about it; I'll save them for another time though. That lack of revenue is a significant concern for me.

    It's also welcome because my wife, Cyndy, whose name many of you will recognize as the somewhat acerbic editor of this newsletter, was recently laid off in yet another wave of pink slips issued by the Internet company where she was employed for half a dozen years. So the Finnie household is making do these days with less income.

    On the plus side, Scot's Newsletter is rapidly closing in on 50,000 subscribers. As many of you know, I've done very little to promote the newsletter. The growth in subscribers has come almost entirely by word of mouth. I have targeted 50K subscribers for quite some time now as a threshold number, which once achieved, would let me begin to think about creating revenue streams (such as a paid "Premium" version of the newsletter) that might make it a more viable and real business endeavor. I haven't lost my interest in that possibility, but I have given up all my free time. A recent promotion at work and the addition of regular monthly work for PC Today magazine has used up all my bandwidth. But who knows, maybe I'll get laid off next month and I'll have plenty of time to focus on the newsletter. ;-)

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    Newsletter Schedule
    Scot's Newsletter is on a more-or-less monthly schedule until further notice. The next issue is slated for the week of April 19th, but publication dates vary. You can find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is scheduled to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.

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