Monthly Archives: February 2010

Computer Basics – The Elements of Your Internet Connection

There are some concepts that, if understood, may come in handy on this subject when one uses any kind of internet connection. Even if one is not an expert on the subject, a basic grasp of these will generally help keep an internet connection going, and make it easier if you are to explain to a technician what, if anything, might have gone wrong with it or if  he/she is to walk you through corrective steps when it goes down.

In sequence, from far to close to the user, these elements are:

The Cloud:

Another name for the Internet, the term derives from the preferred way to represent it in diagrams and flow charts (as a cloud). The apparent reason for that it allows for a way to represent something that has no shape or a constant changing shape, but also conceals its actual complexity. Also in diagrams and such it is of no particular interest compared to the other internal elements of a network, which get more attention, definition and precise form. In any case, the cloud (Internet) is simply a collection of computers interconnected via a specific network protocol that allows for rapid transmission of data, be it websites, email, sound or video.

Connection:

This refers to the line that runs from the cloud to the entry-point device at your site. There are several types of connections that can be classified by method, media, or speed. For more details  see next week’s article about these.

Modem:

Regardless of what kind of connection is used, the entry-point device of your Internet connection is, as of this writing, always a modem. What is a modem, and what’s with the funny name? It’s a coined word from mo(dulator)-dem(odulator). Well that’s fine you might think, but what the blazes is modulation and demodulation then? Simply stated, modulation is transforming data into a suitable medium (audio for example) that can be transmitted over the chosen carrier (such as a telephone line); demodulation is merely reverting that process so that the data at the receiving computer matches what emanated from the originating computer.

Router:

Now that we have brought the internet connection inside (with a modem), and if one has more than one computer, normally one wants to split it. This is where the router comes in. Consider the router an intelligent signal splitter that knows what data to send to which computer. This splitting of the signal can be achieved through network cables that go from the router to each individual computer or, as it has become increasingly popular in recent times, in a wireless fashion. Remember, if you have only one computer connected to the Internet, it is possible to omit this device.

Gateway:

Sometimes in the name of technological convergence, a gateway is used instead of a modem and a separate router. a gateway is a multi-use device that includes a modem and a router, all in one. So it can take the internet signal from the street, demodulate it, and distribute it to more than one computer, wired or wirelessly.

Network card:

The next stop in your internet connection, your computer must have a network card to be able to plug a network cable coming from the modem, router or gateway (or a wireless network card to receive the wireless signal if your router or gateway is capable of supplying a wireless signal). The only exception to this is if you are using dial-up, since there are internal modems that can be in your computer and that will connect straight to a phone jack through a normal telephone cable for internet connectivity.

It would constitute a useful drill to locate and identify each of the above elements in your current setup.

Free tip of the day: Sometimes you might be asked, by your Internet Service Provider for example, to reset your internet connection by turning off and back on all the elements in this line that are under your control in order to resolve am internet connection problem you might be experiencing. Now you understand why it’s important, once powered off, to turn them back on in the proper sequence. The proper sequence is of course, modem, then router (if there is one), then your computer.

Need help with anything related to your Internet connection? Contact me.

The Blue Screen of Death – Part II

For those who missed it, this first part for this article can be found here.

So now that we have covered what a BSOD is and what it means, we can delve into what causes it and what can be done about it.

There is a variety of reasons a BSOD occurs. Namely:

  • Hardware incompatibility (conflict): This usually follows shortly after adding a new device to your computer, such as a printer. Resources already in use might be demanded by the new device, creating a conflict.
  • Software incompatibility/error: Under this we can include drivers, altogether faulty programs that make “illegal” demands from the computer, or perhaps a program not meant for the operating system installed in your computer.
  • Hardware failure: This is a broad sub-category. It includes defective RAM, an overheating component, a component that is no longer working, or about to fail (such as a dying power supply). From my experience the ones in this sub-category are perhaps the hardest to narrow down.
  • Malicious software (malware): Malicious code injected in your computer might, intentionally or unintentionally, cause a BSOD. An example of creating a BSOD on purpose is, your computer gets infected and you try to start your computer in safe-mode, but as soon as the computer starts in said mode, it crashes due to the malware trying to avoid removal. With the infections running around rampant these days, whenever a computer starts, without any explanation getting BSODs out of the, well, blue, and especially if combined with any of the other signs of an infected computer, one should get the computer thoroughly checked for malware.

So what can be done about it? as you might have guessed, a BSOD needs to be addressed on an individual basis, depending on the content of the diagnostic file created at the time it happened, and that is the first lesson to learn about how to resolve them. Because of the nature of these articles, I won’t include detailed information on how to use a debugger program to load the diagnostic files, much less how to interpret the output of the files. But if you are an intermediate user or above, there are internet forums where you can get help on doing that. Otherwise contact an expert – for example, me 🙂 – and have him/her guide you on how to resolve your computer’s crashes.

Driver

It’s a file in your computer that the system can use to interact successfully with a certain device, such as a printer, a camera, a monitor, etc.

Installing a new device usually includes providing your computer with the right driver so the device can interact successfully with the rest of your computer system. From time to time drivers might become outdated and new to be updated.

The Blue Screen of Death

My bet is more users have experienced this in a Windows based computer than the number of users that know the above to be its name. Less users than that know what it is and what it means when it happens. Even less users know what causes it. And less than that, what to do about it. So I’m here to help change those numbers.

Abbreviated BSOD, sometimes BSoD, it’s basically a fatal crash of your computer, and by fatal crash I mean an error involving core components of your system that makes it so the computer cannot continue operating, and if it could, damage to your system would possibly ensue. As its name indicates, you see a blue screen in your computer’s monitor, and depending on how it is configured, it might give you some data as to why it happened (although that initial data is not the most useful), and it might save diagnostic information in a specific file for troubleshooting purposes. Depending on how it is set up the computer might restart by itself once the diagnostic file is saved to your disk, or it might stay there until you power cycle the computer (turn it off and then back on). Depending on the cause of the BSOD, power cycling the computer might clear up the error that caused the crash (until the conditions are replicated) or it might go into a cycle where the computer is not even able to boot up without going into a BSOD, thus creating a vicious circle.

So what is it and what it means we have now covered. Next, what causes it and what you can do about it.

Stay tuned for part 2 next week. Same time, same channel!

User Account Control – What is it? Should I Enable it or Disable it?

Users who in recent times have migrated to Windows Vista, and even more recently, to Windows 7, have run into this. More configurable in 7 than in Vista (probably based on the feedback of annoyed users who felt UAC was often getting in the way of their interaction with the computer) it is nonetheless still present (enabled) by default. So what is UAC? and what is its purpose?

UAC is a security mechanism that prompts the user for a choice to allow or deny certain actions in a computer. What kind of actions? they are called “elevated”, meaning actions that require higher-than-usual privileges in the computer – actions usually performed by an “administrator” as opposed to a regular user. Examples: installing or uninstalling a program, or device. Creating or deleting a file or folder in certain core locations of the computer.  One of the expressed purposes of this is to make sure those elevated actions are being approved by the user and not performed without his/her OK. To that degree they can safeguard against malware since malware often include elevated actions to carry out and perpetuate an infection.

One less known purpose of UAC is to annoy. While some might think I’m joking, I’m not. It was apparently put there so that software developers would be more careful in their creation of  the routines in their software to avoid abuse of elevation requests. If abused, it would translate in too many of the actions of certain programs causing UAC to prompt the user for approval or denial of the action, thus annoying the user.

While Windows 7 kept UAC, at least there is one difference in how the user can control it. In Vista, it’s either enabled or disabled, while in Windows 7 there is a “sliding bar” that gives several different levels of protection between “totally on” and “totally off”. This is a change, and some will call it an improvement (because you can set it to NOT be prompting you for OK constantly), but unfortunately in Windows 7 the default level opens the door to unauthorized applications executing elevated tasks, thus defeating the purpose of UAC as far as security is concerned.

So my recommendation, in Vista: leave it turned on, or turn it on if it’s currently turned off. In Windows 7: raise it to the top level.

Sure, it might be somewhat bothersome, but it sure beats  having malicious programs running unchecked  in your computer.

If you need help changing the settings for UAC, contact me.