Friday, April 27, 2012

Personal cloud storage, the choice is yours

People work and play on their own computers, mobile devices and on the Internet. Nowadays, it's more than just certain applications and/or platforms being available in the cloud. It is about having a person's data immediately available. The general expectation of most people is that their work follows them onto whatever hardware they are using or wherever they go. No matter where they save their documents, photos or media, they want to be able to read, edit, update or retrieve it from whatever platform they are using at that particular moment. Enter personal cloud storage. The bottom-line goal of personal cloud storage services is to provide people with the ability to access their personal data from ANY device that they are using.

There are plenty of services for accessing and sharing files across your devices. The personal cloud market for the average consumer includes the major tech companies that we know and love: Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Let's not to forget smaller cloud storage pioneers such as Dropbox, SugarSync and Box or newcomers like LogMeIn's Cubby. Each offers cloud-based storage for documents, photos and other files. Each service also provides paid tiers for increasing storage beyond the free amounts given to those who sign up. Each one also comes with their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the consumer to chose the service that best meets their needs.

This week we saw several cloud storage providers provide major updates to their services (Dropbox, Microsoft) as well as see an established company introduce their cloud storage offering (Google). It can get confusing when trying to choose the one that best fits a person's digital lifestyle. Both The Verge and CNET provide a great breakdown of the various cloud storage options that are available to consumers.

My advice for those trying to decide which cloud service to use is to first determine what your needs are and then to see what works best with the technology that you use. Just as you would if you were buying a new car, give the different services a test drive to see which one best fits your lifestyle.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Prepare for Any Certification Exam

I teach several IT-related continuing education courses at one of the local universities part-time. One of classes that I teach is a prep class for the A+ and Network+ exams. Some students are always asking for an easy way to pass these exams. There is no magic method for passing any certification exams. What I suggest to my students is to follow three methods to help them pass any certification exam: preparation (study), practice (hands-on) and process (of elimination).

First, you have to prepare to take an exam. This simply means that you need to study the material associated with the certification your are pursuing. In other words, read a book. Do some research on the available books related to the certification you are pursuing. You can do this by going to your local bookstore (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, etc.) and reading through the first chapter of a book or by checking out reviews of the book online (Amazon is a good source). One thing to keep in mind is that you have to pick a book that YOU are comfortable with. Does the author's writing style keep you interested? Are you comfortable with the printed text in the book? Is it the right length for you to read within a reasonable timeframe? How well does it actually cover the material for the exam? A book that may have helped me pass the exam might not help you pass.

It takes more than reading a book to prepare for a certification exam. The second thing you need to do is get some hands-on practice with the material related to the exam. If you are not already in a position that allows you to perform work related to the certification you are pursuing, this is something you can do own your own if you have the resources available. For example, if you are pursuing the A+ certification, find some old computers that you can take apart and put back together (click here to view one of my earlier post about getting experience working on computers).  In addition, you can find courses locally that will provide you with the hands-on practice you need under the guidance of an experienced instructor (like me) who can answer questions for you.

Once you feel that you are ready to take the exam, use a process of elimination as you answer questions. Through the 10+ years I have been teaching, the thing that I see most often is that while people can learn well, many of them cannot test well. Some of not being able to test well stems from natural nervousness and anxiety that occurs when presented with an exam, but the truth is that many students have not been taught how to take a test. Certification exams are generally multiple choice. You are given a question and then provided with several answers to choose from as the correct one. Examinees read the question and then immediately try to pick the right answer. With some questions, the answer is very obvious; however, that is not always the case (if it was then everyone would pass these exams). This is where the process of elimination comes into play.

A typical question provides you with four answers to choose from as the correct one. You know that one answer is correct. The secret is to eliminate the wrong answer first. In most cases, the incorrect answer is very blatant. Sticks out like a sore thumb. Once you eliminate the most obvious wrong answer, repeat the process with the remaining choices until the correct answer becomes clear. If you have done your due diligence in preparation and practice, the process of elimination is easy.

All things said, I am by no means guaranteeing that you will pass your exam on the first try. However, if you are properly prepared, gained some hands-on practice and use a process of elimination in answer the questions, you will find that experience is not as scary or difficult as it may seem. Good luck!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Windows Phone 7...Yeah, I like it

Let me start by saying that my work-provided cell phone is an iPhone 4 (previously an iPhone 3G) that I love and use every day (except for AT&T service in some areas or lack thereof). I will also upgrade to the latest iPhone when it comes available. That being said, I decided to take a closer look at Windows Phone 7 when it was time to upgrade my personal cell phone (plus, it would be a little weird having 2 iPhones to carry around everyday).  Plus, it's good for business if I'm familiar with a variety technology other than what is popular ;-)

iPhone 4 (left) next to HTC Trophy (right)
My cell phone provider is Verizon. Unfortunately, they only provide the HTC Trophy as of this writing as their sole choice for a device that runs Windows Phone 7. I'm not going to go into a long, detailed review of the phone because there are enough online already, but I will say that I love this phone!

I personally found Windows Phone 7 much easier to navigate and respond faster in some areas than the iPhone. Unfortunately, the biggest downside of Windows Phone 7 is the biggest appeal of the iPhone: apps. Windows Phone 7 has them but not on the same level or variety as iOS or Android.  In my case, I literally have downloaded hundreds of apps for my iPhone over the years. Realistically, I only use 5-10 regularly so apps are not the top priority for me with this phone. Some people feel the same way.  On the other hand, if you are a heavy app user or have need for some specific apps, you may want to look the iPhone or one of the millions of Android phones on the market. Microsoft needs to make a big push to get app developers on-board if they want to get Windows Phone 7 to appeal to the heavy app users looking for a new phone.

One thing that I really had to tweak to get working on the HTC Trophy was my calendar. My calendar is located locally on my Mac Mini desktop, which I use iCloud to sync with my iPad. I also use a program called BusySync to sync my calendar with Google Calendar (BusySync was the best option before it was built into OS X). Events in my Google Calendar would not sync with the phone. What I ended up having to do was to subscribe to my Google Calendars in Windows Live Calendar in order to get them to access on the HTC Trophy. Works beautifully now.

Overall, I have enjoyed using both the HTC Trophy and Windows Phone 7 over the past few weeks. Windows Phone 7 is simple and easy to use. It's actually a phone first and I think it can meet the needs of most people who want a phone that can do a little extra along with making calls especially if apps aren't that important to them.

Fix for Accelerometer issue on Dell Inspiron Duo running Windows 8 Consumer Preview

FINALLY!!!! There is a solution to the accelerometer/magnetometer issue with the Dell Inspiron Duo running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.  Basically when the Windows 8 Consumer Preview (or Developer's Preview) was installed on the Dell Inspiron Duo, the ST Microelectronic ST DL303DLH Sensor driver available wouldn't allow you to rotate the device to change the orientation to landscape or portrait as you would any other tablets. Unfortunately, Dell only provides the initial driver that was released with the Duo on their website that works with Windows 7.

While doing some digging online, I noticed that Samsung had a page for installing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on the Samsung Series 7 Slate PC. One of the available downloads was for the ST Micro Rotation Sensor Driver. Figured that I didn't have anything to lose trying it on my Duo and to my surprise it worked!  No error messages. So far I have not encountered any issues since installing it.

Portrait Mode

Landscape Mode

This link will take you to the page to download it. Remember to uninstall the Dell driver before installing the driver from Samsung.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

TECH TIP: Checking for the Flashback Trojan in OS X

Reality check, Macs can get infected by malware too. Sure, Macs may be less affected by malware than computers running Windows, but you still have to be careful. Enter the Flashback trojan (a trojan is a malicious program that appears legitimate to the user that is used to gain backdoor access to a computer) that has allegedly affected up to 600,000 computers running OS X. Basically, a computer gets infected after a user is redirected to a fake site and then JavaScript code is used to load a Java-applet containing the code. It will then try to connect your Mac to a botnet (a botnet is used to perform automated tasks on your computer without you knowing it such as sending out spam email, spreading other malware or attacking other computers).

If you think that you might be infected or want to check just to be safe, launch Terminal (found in /Applications/Utilities/) and enter (or copy & paste) the following into the Terminal window:

defaults read /Applications/ LSEnvironment

You should receive the following message:  "The domain/default pair of (/Applications/, LSEnvironment) does not exist" 

Now enter (or copy & paste) the following into the Terminal window:

defaults read ~/.MacOSX/environment DYLD_INSERT_LIBRARIES

Your Mac is not infected if you see the message "The domain/default pair of (/Users/<username>/.MacOSX/environment, DYLD_INSERT_LIBRARIES) does not exist" or something similar (Note that <username> would refer to your account name on your Mac).

UPDATE 4/10/2012: After dealing with a colleague who's Mac was flagged as being infected with the Flashback malware, I found that the process of checking using aforementioned Terminal commands might not fully detect the infection. In addition the Terminal commands, you can also use the web-based utility provided by Dr. Web, which immediately detected it on my colleague's iMac. You can visit the page at this link

If you are indeed infected, you can follow the steps at this link to remove the malware from your Mac.

In the meantime, you can do a few things to protect yourself from the Flashback trojan. First, download the Java fix that Apple recently released. Open System Preferences and select Software Update. Click the Check Now button. It should show Java for OS X  2012-001 (version 1.0) as an required update.

UPDATE 4/6/2012: Apple has released another update for Java that shows as Java for OS X 2012-002 when you run Software Update.

UPDATE 4/12/2012: Apple has released a new Java security update that removes the most common variants of the Flashback malware. It will show up as Java for OS X 2012-003 when you run Software Update.

Second, if you know for sure that you have no need for Java, it can be disabled by going to /Applications/Utilities/Java Preferences. Uncheck the box(es) next to the Java runtimes that are listed. Once those box(es) have been unchecked, anything that requires Java will not run until you check the box  to enable it.

Finally, if you are the extreme paranoid type, download and install a FREE antivirus solution for OS X. There are several to choose from such as Bitdefender Virus Scanner, ClamXav, Sophos or PC Tools iAntiVirus.

Bottom-line, this is not the end of world for Mac users nor is it a sign of the Apocalypse.  More than anything, it is a reminder that OS X, just like Windows, requires a small amount of maintenance and care to avoid these issues.