Tuesday, 30 October 2007

I can see clearly now...

Eye strain is a hazard to anyone who uses their computers for any extended period. So anything that eases the pressure on the eyes is a bonus. To this end, Microsoft have developed a tool for making text more legible called ClearType Tuner.

The ClearType Tuner only works on Windows Vista and XP, and is available as a web-based tool here. You will be required to choose which is the clearer text from a variety of options a couple of times, and then - hopefully - text should be clearer on your screen. Windows XP users can also download a Control Panel version from the Microsoft XP Power Toys page.

If you are a Vista user and wish to switch off ClearType check out Diana Huggin's instructions on the excellent Lockergnome site.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Windows Taskbar explained

The Windows Taskbar is usually to be found at the bottom of the screen, although it can be moved to any edge. It includes the 'Start menu' button, toolbars, a button for each application you are running, icons for other programs that are running at the time.

I will gloss over the 'Start menu' button - because all it does is open the start menu - and move straight on to the toolbars. Most versions of Windows will display the 'Quick Launch' toolbar by default. This toolbar will look something like this.
To add a new button to this toolbar for a different application, simply drag and drop the application's shortcut to the toolbar. You can drag and drop from the Desktop or from the Start Menu. To delete a button, right-click on it and select 'Delete'.

There are a number of other toolbars available, including one that will offer shortcuts to the 'Links' directory in your Internet Explorer favourites. The Windows Media Player taskbar is quite stylish, if you switch it on and minimise Windows Media Player, it will show a toolbar that includes the media player's controls rather than the usual plain button. To enable (and disable) the other toolbars, right-click on an area of empty space on the Taskbar, then click on the various entries in the 'Toolbars' sub-menu to switch them on and off.

To move the toolbars around in the Taskbar, make sure that the taskbar is not locked. To unlock the taskbar, right-click on an area of empty space on the taskbar and click on 'Lock the Taskbar' to remove the tick. You can switch it back on when you are happy with your arrangement in the same way. Once the Taskbar isn't locked you can drag the toolbars around on the Taskbar. You will also need to unlock the Taskbar if you wish to move it to another edge of the screen by dragging and dropping it.

Note: this feature may not be enabled if you are using Windows 2000 or an earlier version.

Application Buttons
As you no doubt know, you can switch between applications by clicking on the buttons on the Taskbar. If you right-click on the buttons you are presented with a variety of options for displaying the application, such as maximise and minimise, and also an option to close the application - a handy way of closing an application without bringing it up on screen.

The last section of the Taskbar is called the Systray, which looks something like this:
The icons in the Systray represent programs that Windows automatically runs at start-up, usually programs like anti-virus software, the audio controller, and video card control software. You can access the menu for each of these by right clicking on them. If you have many icons in your Systray you may want to consider stopping some of them from running, as they take up system resources and are usually far from critical. For advice on changing the programs that run automatically check out my post on the subject.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

"Bloody Computer!" Author Wins Award

Last week, Colin at Free PC Security gave me the Community Blogger Award. This prize was recently created by Cellobella at Red Sultana, to celebrate those that reach out to the wider community.

I am honoured to receive this award, because it comes from fellow bloggers, and because the ethos of the award is for winners to pass on the award to worthy recipients. As such, I am also honoured to present the award to the following three bloggers:

Etienne Teo - for good advice for bloggers wishing to monetise and develop their sites.

Mark R. Stoneman - for efforts in promoting the historian blogger community.

Shirley Gibson
- for the variety of blogs she writes, and for blogging community work.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: screen capture

If you wish to capture what you have on your screen as an image you can do so by pressing the Print Screen key (sometimes abbreviated to Prt Scr or similar) - on most keyboards this key will be found next to the F12 key, above the Insert key.

This will put an image of the screen into the 'Clipboard', which is the name for the "holding area" where windows keeps things that you have copied. You can then paste this image into any program that accepts pasted images, such as image editors or word processors.

Windows includes an image editor, called Paint, which is found in the 'Accessories' folder on the Start Menu program list. This application enables you to edit the screen image, should you wish to copy a section of it, or change its size, and save it as an image file.

Most word processors also include a few limited image manipulation features. In MS Word there is a toolbar that includes image manipulation tools, such as brightness and contrast adjustment, and a tool to crop the image. To show it, right-click on the image you wish to edit and click on 'Show Picture Toolbar'.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Five tips for buying a new PC

1) Buy a good monitor
The monitor is the peripheral that you will interact with the most. For the sake of your eyesight and to prevent headaches from extended use, make sure that you purchase a quality monitor. Make sure that the monitor is the right size for you, don't be pressured into buying a larger monitor than you need. For most purposes a 17" screen will serve well. Also, read users reviews for the monitors even if you don't read reviews for anything else.

2) Hard-drive capacity
The more the merrier. Hard drive space is like cupboard space: you can never have enough of it, especially in these days of multimedia computing. The capacity of the hard-drive is more important than its speed. 100 gigabytes should be enough for most purposes, but if you know you are going to install many games, or store lots of movies or music files you may decide to buy a PC with a larger drive. Better to buy enough to begin with rather than buy a second drive later.

3) Build Quality
This is particularly important when selecting a laptop to buy. If you can, try and see the laptop models "in the flesh", check out the manner in which the monitor is attached to the rest of the laptop, and make sure the keys don't wobble around. The build quality is often the best indicator of how good a PC is overall.

4) Added extras
Make sure that you need all the added extras that come with the PC packages you are looking at. When it comes to additional software, decide whether you will be better off downloading and installing freeware virus checkers etc. Sometimes the additional virus checker only includes one years worth of updates.

Decide whether you really need the packaged hardware. Would you prefer to buy a printer separatelty? When it comes to printers check how much new ink cartridges cost, as you may end up with a printer bundled with your PC that will cost more in ink than buying a separate printer which uses cheaper ink cartridges

5) Power Supply
Find out what wattage the PC's power supply is. Again, this is a case of the more the merrier. I have known some PC manufacturers to install power supplies that are barely adequate to power the PC, let alone any additional cards you put in it later. Avoid anything less than 240 watts output. It may be difficult to find out the power output if you are purchasing online as it is rarely included in specifications, however, you could email the manufacturers who should be more than happy to respond (if they think there is a likely sale).

Friday, 19 October 2007

Speed up your PC: streamlined visuals

Over the years the Windows interface has become increasingly visually appealing, however, these graphic effects can have an impact on performance.

The effects of effects
Windows 2000 and XP users can switch off some of these effects in order to get better performance from their PC. To do this, right-click on the desktop - away from any icons and select 'Properties'. This will open the 'Display Properties' dialog box. On this box select the 'Appearance tab'.
Click on the 'Effects...' button, and the following dialog box will open.
To increase performance make sure that 'Show shadows under menus' and 'Show windows contents while dragging' are not ticked. Click 'OK' on all the boxes when you have made your changes.

Pick a better wallpaper
Another factor that may impact performance is the size of the image you use as your desktop background - also known as a wallpaper. You can use any size of image as your wallpaper and Windows will resize it to fit the screen. By picking a smaller image, you will free up some system resources. Of course, you can free even more resources by having a plain background with no image at all.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: the great escape

The escape key (marked 'Esc' on most keyboards) has a number of functions, but probably it's most useful function is for closing dialog boxes (those small windows that open within a program, such as the 'Save as...' box) where it is the equivalent of pressing the 'Cancel' button or the close button in the top right hand corner - the equivalent of pressing the 'OK' button is the return key.

Pressing the escape key also close menus, including the start menu, which can be opened using the windows key (the one with the Windows logo on).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Toolbars gone AWOL

There is a bug in Windows XP that causes the toolbars in Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer (the thing that opens when you double-click on My Computer etc) to disappear.

Doug Knox has written an excellent little program to fix this problem. Download it from his website here.

Link to Bloody Computer!

If you wish to link to Bloody Computer!, copy the following code and paste it into your website's html file or add it to your blog. Please leave a comment if you need any help doing this.

The link will look like this:

Monday, 15 October 2007

Three free video tools

If you have a TV tuner card or video capture card then you can do worse than give dscaler a try. This free software combats the problems of interlacing and other visual quirks in captured video. It enables you to capture video from a hardware source and apply a variety of effects and filters to it in order to improve the quality of the output video file.

Once you have captured a video from an external source, you may wish to edit it. For professional video editing you have to spend serious money, but there is a free alternative: Virtual Dub. Whilst it is not as fully-featured as professional video editing software, Virtual Dub is still a powerful piece of software for editing or changing format of a variety of video file types.

Real Alternative is a small package that enables you to watch RealMedia files without installing Real Player. After installing this codec pack (software that translates digital information into video or sound) you are able to open RealMedia files with various media players, including VLC and Media Player Classic (both excellent freeware media players).

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: search and find

If you wish to bring up Windows' file search minimise all your windows and press F3. You can also search within a certain folder too: open that folder up in Windows Explorer (the name for the program that opens when you double click on 'My Documents', 'My Computer', etc) and - you guessed it - press F3.

Pressing F3 opens search dialogs in many other programs as well: in Internet Explorer it opens (and closes) the vertical search bar; in MS Outlook it opens up the 'Advanced Find' dialog. Try pressing F3 when using applications that have some sort of search facility.

In a similar vein, you can open up the find facility in many applications by holding down the Control ('Ctrl') key and pressing F. To explain the difference between search and find, consider that you will search for a web page and when you have opened it you can find text within it. In MS Word Ctrl + F opens the 'Find and Replace' dialog. As with F3, try it out in any program that has a find facility.

Of course some programmers use slightly different standards. For example in Firefox both F3 and Ctrl + F open the find word dialog at the bottom of the screen.

Happy hunting.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Four Hardware Tips: CD/DVD drives and scanning

Eject the CD or DVD drive when your PC is switched off
You will need some sort of pin (or straightened paper clip) which you can push into the small hole on most CD or DVD drives to manually eject the tray.

Stop your DVD playback stuttering
If Windows detects a problem with one of the drives on your PC, it may reset the disk controller mode to a slower level, causing DVD play back to halt intermittently.

To fix this, right-click on 'My Computer' and click 'Manage'.

This will open up the Computer Management console: click on 'Device Manager'.

Open up 'IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers, and right-click on 'Secondary IDE Channel' and click on 'Uninstall'.

Restart your PC.

Windows should re-detect the controller and set it back to a quicker mode.

Prevent scans from showing details from the opposite side of the scanned sheet
When scanning some media, particularly newspapers, you will notice that text and images from the other side of the sheet appear on the scan. To prevent this place a dark piece of cardboard - preferably black - on top of the sheet that you are scanning.

How big?
Scanning software generally defaults to a fairly high resolution for scanning (measured in dpi - dots per inch). If you are using the scanned image or text in a word processing document or a slide-show you probably don't need the dpi setting to be all that high - 90dpi should be enough.

Setting a lower resolution means that your documents won't be so large, and if you do a lot of scanning into documents this tip will help save hard-drive space.

How to make friends and influence your Technorati rating

"Money Shiok" are organising a Technorati Favorite Exchange project. So if you want to improve your Technorati rating, go and sign up.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Time for a purge: reclaiming hard-drive space

If you are running low on hard-drive space it may be time for a purge of files that you no longer use, or have no wish to keep any more. In my previous post on this subject I suggested installing and running the excellent Treesize to find out the size of each folder, and I explained how to clear the cache in your web browser. In this post I will describe what steps to take in a more general purge of unwanted files.

Removing unwanted applications
From the Control Panel and open either 'Add or Remove Programs', or 'Uninstall a Program' (if you use Vista). Go through the list of programs and remove any that you don't use any more. This may sound like obvious advice, but the easy availability of freeware programs means that many of us have collections of applications installed on our machines that we played with once or twice and then forgot about.

Removing non-essential files
Over time, Windows collects various temporary files, logs and other non-essential files. To delete these, go to the 'Start' menu and select 'Search'. You may then have to select 'All files and folders.' In the search field type '*.gid' - without the quote marks - and hit the Return key. Windows will then search your PC for these index files, which help files generate. It should be safe to delete all of these, however, you may want to keep these files in the Recycle Bin for a while, just to be on the safe side. You can repeat the process searching for the following:

'*.chk' (these are files created by disk check process)

'*.dmp' (these are memory dump files created when certain versions of Windows crash)

'thumbs.db' (these are created whenever you look set the folder view option to 'Thumbnails')

Switching off thumbnail cache
If you have a lot of images stored on your PC, you may want to switch off thumbnail caching. This will prevent Windows from creating any new 'thumbs.db' files, but will mean that the thumbnail view of a directory containing lots of images will take longer to show them all.

To switch of thumbnail caching, open 'My Computer' (or any other Windows Explorer screen) and select 'Folder Options' from the 'Tools' menu. On the dialog box that opens, go to the 'View' tab and tick 'Do not cache thumbnails'.

Don't forget your emails
If you use an email application on your PC, rather than webmail, then your emails will be taking up some of your hard drive space. So, in order to recover some hard drive space it may be time for an email purge. If your email application has a 'Recycle Bin' or 'Deleted Items' folder, remember to empty that when you are finished purging. If you have attachments in the emails that you have also saved elsewhere on your PC, then you are storing the same thing twice: delete one or other of them.

Hopefully these tips have enabled you to recover at least enough hard drive space to stop those annoying 'Low Disk Space' messages. If any of the above processes didn't work on your version of Windows, please let me know as each different version of the OS has its own quirks, which I may have forgotten.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Keyboard shortcut of the week: help!

Just about every Windows application has a help file, or at least connects you to a webpage that provides help. Nevertheless, users with problems frequently forget about the help file. Often - as with the Microsoft Office products - these help files are searchable and sometimes even include tutorials.

You can access the help file for any program (or indeed for Windows itself) by pressing the F1 key.

So, before you seek the advice of a techie or search the web for help, hit F1.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Print the web and save the world

Web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox are notoriously bad at printing. You can end up with many disparate pages with sidebars and parts of images on, you have no idea how many pages are going to come out, and you use more paper than you need; which, can't be good for the environment - let alone your finances.

This is not the fault of the browser programmers, but rather, it is 'the nature of the beast.' One of the advantages of web pages is that they are not subject to the limitations of the printed page. Many web programmers are kind enough to supply a printable version of their pages. [I must find a way of adding them to this blog... maybe using the RSS feed...] Anyway, if there is no link to a 'printer friendly version,' then the best thing to do is to copy what you want and paste it into a word processor, which will then bypass all the problems mentioned above.

You can select the information you want by clicking and dragging with the mouse, although, this can be an irritating process, as your selection often randomly includes images that you don't want. When pasting into your word processor, you can make your life easier by using 'Paste special;' which, you should find in the 'Edit' menu. This will give you a selection of text formats.

If you just want the plain text from the web page and not the images, then select 'Unformatted text.'

If you wish to print both images and the formatted text, that is, keeping the same font used on the web page as well as any text that is bold or italic, then select 'Rich text format' (unfortunately this option is not available for text copied from Firefox.)

Avoid 'HTML format' as this will attempt to reconstruct the web page as a word processed document, often recreating the problems that you were trying to avoid. This option often takes a while to complete too.

You are then free to edit the text to your heart's content. You can change font sizes and remove 'white space' to save paper. You also have the option of adding your own notes to the text. So, reduce your printer output and save the world today.