Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Software review: Midori web browser

I recently decided to try out some new web browsers to see if I could be more efficient working online.  Midori seemed like a promising choice -- its web page describes the browser as "lightweight, fast, and free," which is a pretty good combination.  However, after trying Midori on two different computers, it failed to impress.

The first computer I downloaded Midori on was a 10-year-old Windows XP machine, which obviously wouldn't bring out the browser's full potential.  On average, it ran comparable to Chrome in terms of speed and memory usage, and not quite as fast as Firefox ran on the same PC, but Midori also had a few unique drawbacks.

The first time I opened Midori after downloading it, it took a long time to come up, and when it did, it gave me a DLL file error.  After that it opened normally.  The browser's speed was acceptable, but when I tested YouTube, all I got instead of a video on every page I tried was just an empty black box.  Refreshing the page would load the video, but for almost every video I tried, Midori just put up an empty black box the first time.

One of the first few times I ran Midori, it shut down on me with only three tabs open, after running for only about five minutes.  That was the only time that happened, but that hasn't happened with Chrome or Firefox in similar situations.

Midori has a similar look and feel as Chrome, which isn't surprising since both are built around WebKit.  There are some functional differences though in Chrome's favor.  In Midori, holding down the back button doesn't display a list of previous pages to choose from, like it does in Chrome.  (You have to click and release the button to see the list.)  Clicking on the address doesn't automatically highlight the URL like it does in Chrome and other browsers.

Downloads are displayed along the bottom of the browser window, like in Chrome, however Midori is not very intuitive at all; after downloading both a .DOC file and an .EXE file, Midori could not natively open either one of them.  I had to open the files from outside the browser, whereas Chrome would have launched both of them right from the download bar.

For users who are members of the Amazon Associates program, Midori does not handle Amazon Associates link windows well.  When you try to build a product link from Amazon, Midori won't allow you to switch between tabs in the link window at all, which prevents you from selecting other options for your links.

Midori is not all bad.  It comes with some extensions that could be useful, including an ad blocker.  The only time it shut down on me, it opened right back up with the same tabs.  One nice feature is that you can select which browser Midori identifies itself as, which could help with compatibility issues with some web sites or programs.

Running Midori on a Windows 7 PC allowed it to run faster than it had on the XP computer, but it still wasn't as fast as either Chrome or Firefox.  It froze for about a minute the first time I opened it, then ran better after that.

Overall, Midori seems to be a newer browser that hasn't had all its kinks worked out yet.  Once its many bugs have been addressed, it may be a more viable option as an alternative to mainstream browsers.  But as of right now, I'll stick with either Chrome or Firefox for better performance.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Printer review: Brother MFC-240C All-In-One Printer

The Brother MFC-240C is an all-in-one printer, capable of being used as a printer, scanner, copier, or fax machine. It comes with an automatic document feeder, which allows you to scan, copy, or fax a stack of up to 10 pages at one time. The MFC-240C connects to your computer via an included USB cable. It prints at standard low-volume speeds of up to 25 pages per minute in black and white, and up to 20 pages per minute in color.

The ink cartridges (an individual one for each color) are easy to replace, and are comparable to ink cartridges of other models in price. Because it uses individual cartridges, you can save money by not having to replace an entire color ink cartridge when only one color is out. The machine will let you know when ink for a particular color is running low, so you'll have some warning before it's completely used up. When you replace any of the ink cartridges, the printer will automatically detect the new cartridge. There is also a self-cleaning feature which you can use if your copies or prints start to look smeared or dirty. One downside to the MFC-240C, that many other printers share, is that when one ink cartridge is out of ink, the printer won't print at all, even if the ink cartridge that's empty is a color cartridge and you only want to print in black and white, so it's a good idea to keep an extra set of cartridges on hand.

The machine doesn't jam very often, and when it does it's often user error. It doesn't handle very thick paper well -- because it has to bend it so much to feed it through the paper path -- but it prints envelopes and labels reliably (as long as the envelope flap isn't sticking up).  The document feeder can hold a small stack of papers, but if the pages are of different consistencies, or they tend to stick together, the feeder may not feed all the pages reliably.  You can also scan and copy off the glass, anything 8.5" x 11" or smaller.

When there is a paper jam, it can be a pain to clear it. Depending on where the paper got stuck, you can either remove the paper tray to get to the jammed paper, or pull it out through the exit area. If it's stuck right in the middle of the feed path, you can remove the rear cover (which pops right off) to get to it. Getting the paper out usually isn't hard, but the machine doesn't always recognize when the jam has been cleared, and quite often you have to turn the printer off and back on (resetting your print job) to clear the jam.

The MFC-240C has one paper tray, which holds up to 50 sheets of regular 20-pound 8.5" x 14" or smaller paper. The feed system is comprised of one feed roller and a friction pad, and both the roller and pad will last a very long time (years, with moderate use) before needing to be cleaned or replaced.

The MFC-240C comes with its own drivers and Brother's comprehensive software suite, called the Control Center, which allows you to set different options (such as what type of file you want scanned images to be saved as) and also control various functions from your PC. Along with the Control Center, the setup CD also comes with several fonts you can install on your computer. The scanning function is versatile, and allows you to scan to a file, an image, or an email (with proper setup).  You can scan in either black and white or color.  Scanning can be configured with different options depending on which type of scanning you are doing, and you can initiate scanning either from the PC or from the printer.

This printer does not have the capability to do double-sided (duplex) copying or printing. It also lacks an Ethernet port for TCP/IP connectivity, so you can only connect it to one computer at a time using USB, though you can share it out to other computers (as long as the computer it's connected to remains powered on.) The operation panel is very small, and can only show a little bit of text at a time, but it provides good description for whatever function you are using, as well as when anything is wrong (such as an empty ink cartridge, paper jam, or lack of paper).

The MFC-240C is a robust, full-featured multifunction printer that ranks above average compared to other similar models on the market. The user interface is easy to learn, and the machine's multiple functions work well and integrate seamlessly with your computer.

(Originally posted on Helium.com, August 2009)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How to maximize the life of your hard drive

Even though solid state drives (SSDs) are the new "it" thing, many people still have regular old EIDE or SCSI hard drives with movable parts.  These hard drives, like any mechanical device, will degrade and eventually break down over time.  However, there are some things you can do to prolong the life of your hard drive.

* Error-checking

Windows has a handy utility called Error-checking that can scan your hard drive for bad sectors and other problems and attempt to fix them.  This process takes a while, but it should be done on a regular basis -- once a month is a good interval.

To run Error-checking, open My Computer and right click on your hard drive.  Select Properties, then go to the Tools tab.  Click the Check Now button under Error-checking, and in the box that appears, put a check next to both options.  When you click Start, the system will tell you that the scan can only be run when your computer is restarted.  Click Yes, and the next time you reboot your computer, Error-checking will run.  Plan to run it at a time when you won't need your computer for at least an hour or so.

* Use partitions

Partitioning your hard drive not only makes good organizational sense, but it can help your hard drive live longer.  By putting similarly-grouped files in the same partition, you can keep the read/write heads of the hard drive from wandering all over the disk to find or place data.  For example, you could have one partition for operating system files, one partition for work or professional files, and a third partition for everything else.

Partitions can be created and managed through the Disk Management snap-in (Start > All Programs > Administrative Tools > Computer Management, then click Disk Management from the list on the left).

* Defragment

For the same reason you should make use of partitions, keeping your hard drive defragmented can also alleviate some of the work the read/write heads have to do.  If a file is in one piece instead of three or four, the hard drive's arm only has to go to one place to retrieve that file.  The less you can have your hard drive parts move, the better.

Windows comes with a defragmentation utility (the Disk Defragmenter, located in the System Tools folder or in the Tools tab of the hard drive's properties screen), and it should be run at least once a month to keep your files from getting too broken up.  If your hard drive is partitioned, run the defragmenter on each partition.

* Disable the page file

Windows uses an area of the hard drive as extra RAM and calls it the page file.  If you have plenty of RAM and you don't need the extra virtual memory, you can disable the page file to cause less wear and tear for the hard drive.  To disable the page file, right click on My Computer and select Properties.  Under the Advanced tab, click the Settings button in the section labeled Performance, then go to the Advanced tab in the new window.  In the Virtual memory section (toward the bottom) click Change, and then click the circle next to "No paging file" and click Set to make the change.  Then just click OK to get out of the various windows.  (You may have to restart your system for it to take effect.)

If you find your computer running slower or locking up, or if you start getting memory errors, simply go back in and turn the page file back on.  A good page file size is about one and a half times the amount of RAM you have.

* Use other media for long-term storage

For back-ups, music libraries, or other forms of long-term storage, use alternative storage media rather than your main hard drive.  Some storage media you could use include DVDs, tapes, flash drives, and external SSD hard drives.

(Originally published on Helium.com, May 2010)

Friday, April 17, 2015

How to clear the recent documents list in Windows XP

When you open a document, image, or other data file on a Windows computer, Windows makes a note of that file and adds it to a list of recently-opened documents, so that you can reopen it from the list later if you need it again.

This list of recent documents can be viewed in many Windows programs such as Word, Paint, or Excel, and you can also view it from your Start menu if you have that option enabled.  If you want to delete your list of recent documents on a Windows XP computer, either to protect your privacy or to free up a little disk space, you can do so by following the steps below.

First, right click on the Start button (in the lower left corner of the screen on most computers) and when the context menu appears, choose Properties.  There are two different types of Start menus in Windows XP: Start menu and Classic Start menu.  Whichever type you are currently using will be selected, and next to it will be a button labeled "Customize..."  Click on this button to open the Customize Start Menu or Customize Classic Start Menu window.

If you're using the regular Start menu (the first option) click on the Advanced tab.  At the bottom of the window will be a line that reads "List my most recently opened documents."  If that box is checked, then your recent documents can be viewed from the Start menu.  Whether the box is checked or not, however, click on the Clear List button to the right of that line to clear your recent documents cache.  Then click OK, and OK again, to exit out of the properties windows.

If you're using the Classic Start menu, there will be a button labeled Clear in the middle of the Customize Classic Start Menu window.  Click on this button to clear your list of recent documents, as well as the list of recent programs you've opened.  Then click OK to close this window, and OK again to close the properties window.

It may take a couple of seconds for Windows to clear out the recent documents list.  If you go in to delete your list of recent documents and the Clear or Clear List button is grayed out, then you have no recent documents stored in Windows.  (Either you haven't opened any documents or you've recently deleted the list.)

(Originally posted on Helium.com, January 2012)

Monday, April 13, 2015

How to import bookmarks into Firefox from another web browser

If you have bookmarks in Internet Explorer, Chrome, or any other web browser and you want to import them into Firefox, you can do it easily by following the steps below.

- In Firefox, click on Bookmarks on the menu bar
- Select either Show All Bookmarks or Unsorted Bookmarks
- Click on Import and Backup at the top of the screen
- Select Import Data from Another Browser
- Select the browser you want to import the bookmarks from
- Click Next
- Uncheck anything that you don't want to import (ie. Cookies, Browsing History, etc.)
- Click Next
- When the bookmarks have been loaded, click Finish

If your web browser does not appear on the list of possible web browsers to import bookmarks from, Firefox may not support importing bookmarks from that browser.  In that case, you would have to export the bookmarks from that browser into an HTML file, and then use Firefox's Import Bookmarks from HTML option instead.

These instructions were tested with Firefox versions 13.0.1 and 37.0.1.  The exact steps or wording may vary for other versions.

Friday, April 10, 2015

How to get the battery icon back on a Windows 7 laptop

You can set up a Windows 7 laptop to show a power icon in the lower right corner of the screen, to let you know the status of the battery (how much power it has left and whether it's currently being charged or not).  If you used to see the battery icon in your taskbar, but suddenly it's gone missing, this article can help you to get the icon back.  A glitch in Windows or an application sometimes causes the icon to disappear, and you have to "kick-start" the operating system to get it back.

Right click on an empty area of the taskbar.  When the context menu appears, select the Task Manager option.  The task manager window will load, showing all of the currently running programs and services.  Click on the Processes tab, and look for "explorer.exe" on the list.

Once you've found that entry, select it to highlight it and then click the End or End Process button in the lower part of the task manager window.  You should see your taskbar disappear, and the screen might flicker for a second.

Now you'll need to restart the Explorer process.  Click on the File option in the task manager, and from the menu, select Run.  Type "explorer.exe" and click OK.  Your taskbar should reappear, complete with the battery icon.  (Once the taskbar reappears, it may take several seconds for the system notification tray to repopulate with its icons.)

If the battery icon still does not appear, you may have another issue going on with your computer.  Check to make sure you have the power icon enabled (right click on an empty area of the taskbar, select Customize, then select the option for system icons and scroll down until you see the power icon setting).  Also check the taskbar settings to make sure the power icon isn't set to be hidden when it's inactive; if it is, you can disable this option and the icon should reappear.

These instructions can also be applied to Windows XP or Windows Vista computers with the same symptom, although the exact links and settings may vary.  On a Windows XP laptop, sometimes enabling another taskbar icon (such as the volume icon) will allow other icons to show up as well.  If none of the solutions here help you to get your power icon back, run a spyware scan or virus scan to make sure your computer has not been infected with any malicious software.

(Originally published on Helium.com, April 2012)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to adjust the virtual memory paging file in Windows XP

The paging file, also called the page file or swap file, is an area on your hard drive that your computer uses as "extra memory" when it runs out of RAM (Random Access Memory).  It's a neat concept, but it doesn't always boost performance as much as it would seem to.

Windows picks a default page file size based on the size of your hard drive.  You are free to adjust the size of the page file as often as you'd like, or even disable it completely.  (Disabling the page file will be discussed later in this article.)

To increase or decrease the page file size, right-click on the My Computer icon (either on your desktop or the Start Menu) and select Properties.  When the System Properties box pops up, go to the Advanced tab (at the top) and and click the Settings button under the Performance heading.  Another box will open up (Performance Options), and again select the Advanced tab.  Towards the bottom of this box will be a heading called Virtual Memory -- click the button labeled Change.

Now you have accessed Windows' virtual memory settings.  Here you will see all kinds of information, including your page file's initial size (current size), maximum size, minimum allowable size, and recommended size.  To change the page file size, click on the Custom Size radio button (the white circular button that fills with a black dot when you click it) if it isn't already selected, and in the space labeled Initial Size, type the size you would like to set the page file to (in megabytes).  If this size is larger than the maximum size (listed right below), you will have to increase the maximum size.  Once you have chosen a page file size and typed it in, click the button labeled Set.  A message will appear telling you that you need to restart the computer in order for the changes to take effect.  Close this box and click OK on each open screen until you have exited all of the open settings boxes, and then close any open windows and restart your computer.  When it boots back up, your new page file size will have taken effect.

A large page file is beneficial for a couple different reasons.  It gives Windows extra room to store temporary data and programs if it runs out of RAM (which tends to happen when you have a lot of windows open at once).  It also allows some recovery of data if there is an unexpected system crash.  But having a large page file can also slow down your computer in some instances.

It takes your computer a lot longer to access data stored on the hard drive than it does to access data stored in RAM.  Since the page file is part of the hard drive, Windows will noticeably slow down when it is reading data from the page file.  A larger page file, while it does provide more space for temporary storage, can also cause more performance issues as it will take Windows longer to search through it for the specific data it wants.

An alternative to this slowdown is to disable the page file.  There are pros and cons to this approach, and each user will have to determine whether or not the page file is beneficial to them or not.

By disabling the page file, you are forcing Windows to use RAM for storage of open programs and data, which is great if you have enough RAM for everything you are running.  If your computer runs out of memory and does not have the page file to fall back on, you may get frequent system crashes or memory errors.  If you're going to disable your page file, you should make sure you have plenty of RAM installed first.  RAM is cheap these days, so you can max out your system's RAM without shelling out a lot of cash.

To disable the page file, access the virtual memory settings as described above.  Towards the middle of the screen you will see a radio button labeled "No paging file" -- select this button and click Set.  Restart your computer, and your page file is no more.

If you find your computer crashing or becoming unstable after disabling the page file, simply go back into the virtual memory settings and re-enable it.  Like many things technological, determining the optimal page file settings for your needs is a matter of trial and error.

(Originally published Helium.com, February 2009)

Friday, April 3, 2015

How to clear your YouTube history

YouTube is a great website for watching videos, and countless people use the site every day.  What some people may not realize is that if you are signed in to YouTube while you watch videos, a list of all of your viewing history is saved on the site.  This history may not bother some people, but for privacy's sake others may want to clear it out.  This article will guide you through clearing your YouTube history.

In order to clear your history, you have to be logged in.  Go to YouTube.com and click on the blue "Sign in" button in the upper right corner.  Enter your YouTube username or email address and your password, then click the "Sign in" button.  Once you are logged in, click on the settings button (the one with the three horizontal lines) in the upper left corner of the screen.

A sidebar menu will appear along the left side of the screen.  Click on History.  Your viewing history will now be displayed on the screen.  You can see what videos you've watched, starting with the most recent.  If you want to watch a specific video again, just click on it.

To remove a specific video from your history, click on the X to the right of the video.  That video will be removed from the history list.

If you just want to clear your entire YouTube history, click on the "Clear all watch history" button above the list of videos.  A window will pop up asking if you're sure you want to erase your history; click on "Clear all watch history" again.  All videos in your history will be erased.

YouTube offers another option that you can use to manage your viewing history, called "pause watch history."  By pausing your history, you can prevent videos that you watch from appearing in your history.  To pause your history, click on the "Pause watch history" button on your history screen.  To resume having your history recorded, go back to that screen at any time and click on the "Resume watch history" button.

(Originally published on Helium.com, November 2012; updated March 2015.)