All posts by Phil

Does your browser sometimes show you the wrong website? Fix it quickly!

Do you sometimes click on a link in your web browser and find that the site you are taken to is completely different from the one you expected? It can happen quite innocently if a site has moved to a new address, perhaps due to a company takeover. It can also simply mean the old site has gone and the domain has been bought by a squatter, in which case you may see a page full of advertisements. More worryingly, it could mean that your internet router has been hacked – try swapping the router. But the problem I’m talking about here is a known limitation of old browsers on encrypted connections.

Green padlockYou may have noticed that many websites now make you use a secure connection  – with a green padlock, and https instead of http in the address.

The reason is simple – without encryption, anyone can snoop on your connection and see your passwords, which is disastrous if you’re shopping online or even just checking your email. Worse still, hackers can redirect your connection to a convincing “phishing” site without your knowledge. Encrypted connections prevent that.

The problem was, until recently every secure website needed its own separate IP address and security certificate, which was expensive and difficult to set up (IPv4 addresses are in short supply). That all changed in 2016 because Microsoft finally retired the old versions of Internet Explorer that required separate IP addresses, and because an organisation called Let’s Encrypt started offering free automated certificates. Problem solved.

Except that a lot of people are still hanging on to Windows XP (unwisely, because it’s now very insecure and a big target for hackers). Internet Explorer on Windows XP can’t handle secure sites on shared addresses (it doesn’t support “SNI“) which means it will show you completely the wrong site.

Solution

The solution is simple – use Chrome or Firefox (or even Microsoft Edge) instead of Internet Explorer. As a bonus, modern browsers allow you to install an Ad Blocker to make your browsing much more pleasant. Since ads can contain malware your browsing will be more secure (and faster) as well.

Getting a Sony Vaio laptop working on Windows 10

Kudos to user “paloseco” for his very helpful post on the NotebookReview forum about upgrading a Sony Vaio Z series laptop to Windows 10. Also to users “ComputerCowboy”, “Treofred”, “psyq321” and others for the related instructions for hacking the BIOS and INF files. How did we survive before the internet allowed sharing of information like this?

Negative kudos to Sony for shamefully not supporting a laptop that is only (gasp!) 6 years old, effectively forcing most users to use insecure software.

Why we use WordPress or Drupal

This incident affecting the owner of a popular site who used “site builder” software from his hosting company is a good example of the downsides of this solution – you can’t (easily) upgrade the site, archive it or move it to another host.

If you use a well-supported content management system like WordPress or Drupal there are tools to help you upgrade and migrate. We recently upgraded another site that had stopped working because it used a mix of old systems (Joomla, Magento, phpBB, CiviCRM, WordPress) some of which no longer worked properly in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. We moved it all to WordPress without losing content, using standard plugins. Keeping it updated or moving it to a new host is no longer a problem.

Quick guide to personal email addresses

A personal email address that matches your own name or business name is obviously a nice thing to have – something like me@myorganisation.com or firstname@lastname.me instead of  nickname99@internetprovider.com. It looks more professional, it’s easier to remember and it doesn’t change every time you change your service provider. Here’s how to set it up in a nutshell.

personalemail

1. Choose a domain name

The domain name is the bit after the ‘@’ symbol in an email address and after ‘www’ in a website address. If you already have a website you can use that domain and skip this step, otherwise you will need to search for an available domain at a registrar such as namecheap or gandi.net and pay them a fee, typically only about £10/year.

This used to be a frustrating process because everyone wanted a ‘.com’ domain and all the good ones were taken by squatters. These days there are many better alternatives such as ‘.uk’ or ‘.me’ so it’s a lot easier to find a good name. Try to get something short and memorable and avoid any name that might be confused with another person or company, unless they are inactive.

The bit of the address to the left of the domain name is supplied by you and can be anything you like, using uppercase or lowercase letters, numbers, dashes, underscores and hyphens – but no spaces or other characters. You can have several different addresses going to the same mailbox if you like.

2. Choose where to store received messages

If you already have a mailbox you’re happy with (plenty of storage, reliable, good spam filtering, accessible anywhere) and you don’t want to keep your new address completely separate, you can simply forward all your new emails to your old address and skip to the next section. A btinternet account would usually be fine for this, for example.

If not, I suggest you sign up for one or more free accounts at a provider like Gmail or Outlook.com and forward all your messages there.

Separate accounts help to keep things organised and minimise the risk of accidentally replying to the wrong person or from the wrong address.  For example, it’s usually a good idea to keep work and personal email accounts separate so you can set different signatures, different rules and it doesn’t matter if you change jobs. Nevertheless you can often achieve the same things all in one account just by using folders and filters if you need to.

A combined account saves having to set up multiple accounts and passwords on all your devices and constantly switch between them to get new messages.

I do NOT recommend the traditional solution of storing messages temporarily at the domain registrar or web host and retrieving them on your PC using the ‘POP3’ protocol. One problem is you can lose messages if you go on holiday and your mailbox fills up. Also there can be a delay of up to an hour in delivering messages. You also risk losing your entire message archive if your PC crashes. Finally, it’s difficult to train the spam filter if a message is misclassified.

If you need more storage than the free plans offer you could pay for a Google Apps account.

3. Choose how to send outgoing messages

Technically it’s possible to use your existing mail account and simply change the “From” address in any message you send so it appears to come from your new personal address, but I do NOT recommend this. The problem is, spammers have misused this ability so much that many spam filters will block delivery. Even if it’s delivered, it may show as coming from your new address “on behalf of” the existing address, which is probably not what you want.

It’s better to send your messages through an outgoing ‘SMTP’ server that is specifically configured to send messages from your new personal domain. Your domain registrar or web host may offer this for free – if not, you could pay for a Google Apps account and use that or we can supply one.

If you find that outgoing mail is not reliably delivered, check with your host that the ‘SPF’ and ‘DKIM’ records are correctly set and use a tool such as mxtoolbox to check that the IP address of the SMTP server is not blacklisted.  We specialise in solving such problems.

If you want to send messages to a mailing list with many members, you will need to use special software such as Dada Mail or CiviCRM or an external service like Mailchimp to limit the sending rate and handle bounces and unsubscriptions.

Flash is insecure. Here’s what to do about it NOW.

Adobe Flash used to be a popular way of displaying animated content, videos and sound on web sites. It was used by YouTube and the BBC for example. But it’s old technology now (most sites use HTML5 instead) and full of dangerous bugs that can allow hackers to take over your computer when you visit a normal web site. That’s a huge risk. Here’s a recent example www.theregister.co.uk/2016/05/12/flash_zero_day_hole/

My first advice is to uninstall the Flash player from your computer (if you still have it installed) and just use the player that is built into your browser instead, because browsers are easier to keep updated and they run Flash in an isolated “sandbox”. In Windows 10, right click the “start” button at the bottom left of your screen, click Programs and Features, find the Adobe Flash Player and click to uninstall. In earlier versions, go to Control Panel > Programs > Uninstall a program instead. For Mac OSX you’ll need to run an uninstaller as described here helpx.adobe.com/flash-player/kb/uninstall-flash-player-mac-os.html

Second, prevent Flash running automatically in your browser. You can still run it when you need to on a trusted site by right-clicking. In Internet Explorer, click the gear icon, then Safety, then ActiveX Filtering. You want the check mark beside this option to show. In Chrome, type the address chrome://settings/content into your address bar, scroll down to Plugins and select “Let me choose when to run plugin content”. In Firefox, click the menu button then Add-ons, Plugins, find Shockwave Flash and set it to Ask to Activate.

While you’re at it, if you still have QuickTime installed on a Windows computer you should uninstall that NOW as well, because it is no longer supported or patched and has critical vulnerabilities similar to Flash. It’s still supported on Mac OSX but I would avoid it. RealPlayer is also vulnerable and probably unneeded as well.

Simple solutions for slow computers

A computer that runs slowly or takes a long time to start up and shut down can be a massive annoyance and productivity killer. Here are some tips for finding and curing what I know from experience are the most common causes.

Low resources

Every time you add new software, documents or media to a computer, resources that it needs to run smoothly are consumed – disk space, memory space, processor time and network bandwidth as well as less obvious things like registry entries, file “handles”, power consumption and so on. Uninstalling a program or removing a document doesn’t always remove everything. Over time, some of these resources start to run out.

Solution: Use the Resource Monitor in Windows (under Ctrl+Alt+Del > Task Manager > Performance) or Activity Monitor in OSX (under Finder > Go > Utilities) to try to see which resource is causing pain. Often it will be Memory, and adding some extra RAM to most computers and laptops is quite cheap and easy.

Hint: There is a useful system scanner at www.crucial.com for finding the right type of memory for your system. Also, if you need more than 4 GB of RAM you must install the 64-bit version of your operating system, not the 32-bit version.

If there’s a lot of hard disk activity, upgrading to an SSD (solid state drive) can dramatically increase responsiveness and speed, especially at startup and shutdown. SSD drives are now cheap, reliable, silent and use less power.

If 100% CPU activity is the problem, upgrading your processor to one with more “cores” may make a big difference. Check that your power supply can handle it.

Background tasks

It’s common for programs to install background tasks and browser plugins that run constantly and invisibly and do things like informing you when upgrades are available, synchronising your files with “the cloud”, or just allegedly “improving your experience”. Many are useless or positively harmful. In old versions of Windows, the search indexing task and automatic system updater task were common culprits.

Solution: In Windows 10, use the Task Manager > Startup tab or in Mac OSX the System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Items to disable most items and see if everything still works. Re-enable just the ones you really need.

Virus scanner or infection

Some commercial virus scanners are notorious for slowing down computers, as are the virus infections that they’re designed to prevent.

Solution: Try disconnecting your computer from the network, uninstalling all virus scanners temporarily and restarting the computer. If it’s now running much faster then it’s time to disinfect and look for a better virus scanner (don’t pay money, there are good free ones). Also, don’t forget to scan your computer for “adware”, since advertisements can cause just as much trouble as viruses.

Graphics cards

Graphics cards have their own processor and memory and can slow the whole system down. Also, system drivers for graphics cards are notoriously unreliable.

Solution: Borrow a replacement graphics card and see if that makes a significant difference.

Wake-up events

It’s much faster to start computers from a “sleep” or “standby” state than from a complete power-down, with the added benefit that documents and web pages stay open at the place you were last using them. But many people don’t use this useful feature because laptops take too long to sleep when you “close the lid”, or wake again prematurely.

Solution:  On Windows, open a Command Prompt in administrator mode and run the “powercfg” utility to find out what’s waking the machine. Common culprits are mice and network adapters. Then use Device Manager as an administrator to go to the “Power Management” tab for the device and disable the wake function. On Mac OSX, check the Energy tab of Activity Monitor, and try unchecking “Wake for network access” in System Preferences > Energy Saver > Power Adapter.

Other

There are many other possible causes too numerous to list here, including some that are very difficult to diagnose. If your computer ran well in the past but is now slow, there are two solutions that fix nearly all of them:

Solution 1: Restore your system from a backup. On Windows, use the System Restore utility and on Mac OSX use the Time Machine to restore your system from a Recovery Point or backup from a date before the problem started.

If you don’t have such a backup or don’t know when the problem started or it doesn’t make a difference:

Solution 2: Do a “clean” re-installation (or upgrade) of your operating system and programs. This can take a few hours and has to be done with care (make a full backup first!) but is almost certain to succeed. It will clear out any viruses and free up some disk space as well. It’s worth doing every couple of years.