Five things you should know about iOS security

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Security is an extra-hot topic these days, as all sorts of government agencies short on letters but long on budgets keep getting accused of spying on their own citizens, and debates rage on whether what look like accidental bugs may actually turn out to be quite intentional.

In the midst of all the ruckus, Apple has updated its iOS Security whitepaper, a longstanding document outlining the thought processes and technologies that go into keeping its mobile platform as secure as possible. Here are just a few of the most interesting tidbits from this latest revision.

More keys than a hardware store

Remember how, back in June of last year, Apple published a statement in which it claimed that iMessage data is “protected by end-to-end encryption”? Well, it seems the company really meant it.

Like many Internet services, iMessage depends on public-key cryptography to function. This technology uses two very long numbers, based on cryptographically secure random data, that can each be used to decrypt information encrypted with the other. When you activate messaging on each of your devices, iOS generates a pair of keys and sends one of them—appropriately called a public key—to Apple, tucking the other one securely away in its local memory storage.

Now for the fun part: When someone wants to send you a message, they ask Apple for all the public keys that belong to all your devices, and then use each to encrypt a separate copy of the message, sending the encrypted messages to the company, which, in turn, forwards them to the appropriate device using iOS’s push notification system.

Crucially, each device’s private key, without which data encrypted using the corresponding public key cannot be decrypted, is never transmitted across the Internet, which means that the company really cannot read your messages, just as it claims.

Note, however, that this system is not absolutely secure. In theory, since Apple controls the directory of public keys used by all the devices, it could surreptitiously add—or be forced to add—its own set of public keys (for which it knows the corresponding private keys) and thus gain access to every last bit of information that is exchanged on its messaging network. Therefore, it would perhaps be fair to say that iMessage is secure as long as you trust Apple—just like your mail is secure as long as you trust that the mail service won’t photocopy it on the way to its recipient, or that your phone company isn’t rerouting your calls to someone who just pretends to be your mom.

There’s fruit in them cables

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The authentication chips found in Lightning cables keep Apple’s pocket well-lined with banknotes, but also help ensure the safety of your devices.

As long rumored by various outlets, Apple’s Lightning cables really do include a special authentication chip that iOS can use to verify that they were produced by an authorized manufacturer.

According to the security whitepaper, the chip is actually manufactured by Apple and contains a special digital certificate known only to the company. Manufacturers that participate in the Made for iPhone Program receive the chips directly from the Cupertino giant and incorporate them into their products during production.

Interestingly, the authentication process is not limited to cables: Any authorized accessory that wants to communicate with iOS—including those that use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections—must incorporate it, or risk that the operating system will refuse to play nicely with it.

While this process undoubtedly allows Apple to keep a tight rein on its lucrative accessory licensing business, weeding out third-party manufacturers who produce sub-par hardware or refuse to pay up the necessary royalties to receive the company’s official blessing, the authentication chip also helps keep things secure by reducing the likelihood that malicious actors will be able to inject malware into our phones and tablets just because we want to recharge them.

Siri knows everything, but she ain’t talkin’

Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, also gets some time in the security spotlight. The company has laid out the steps that it takes to balance the service’s effectiveness with the privacy and security of its users.

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Siri gets to know about you, but only if it absolutely needs to.

As you can imagine, Siri is complex enough that much of its work takes place on Apple’s own servers rather than on each individual device. This allows the company to offload the most taxing aspects of the assistant’s functionality, such as turning audio into actionable text, and makes it possible for the service to be updated outside of iOS’s traditional upgrade cycle.

Clearly, this means that your device must send Apple a fair bit of information in order for Siri to work—starting with a full recording of your voice, which is transmitted alongside your name and rough geographical location whenever you request your digital assistant’s services.

In order to protect your privacy as much as possible, however, Apple uses a mechanism called progressive disclosure to limit the amount of information that reaches its server. For example, if you need to find a restaurant near you, Siri’s servers may ask your iPhone to send them a more accurate location; if you want the service to read your email or SMS message, the remote portion of the system will simply delegate the task to the device itself, so that your private data never has to leave the confines of your handset or tablet.

Apple also outlines what it does with your data once it gets hold of it: Information like transcriptions and locations are discarded after ten minutes, while recordings are kept for a period of up to two years—after six months, however, they are scrubbed of all digital data that could be used to identify their source. Presumably, the company uses them to help improve its voice recognition software, particularly when it comes to non-standard words like proper names and music or movie titles.

More than a pretty chip

The CPU that resides inside every iPhone 5s, dubbed the A7, contains all sorts of technological goodies. Among them is a special co-processor, dubbed the “secure enclave,” that is designed to help provide iOS with an extra-secure area of memory.

Each enclave is primed with a unique digital identifier when it’s manufactured. Not even Apple knows this number, which means that whatever information is stored in the enclave cannot be pried out of it without your explicit permission—even if a sophisticated hacker were to phisically steal your device.

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Touch ID may get to see your fingerprints, but the rest of your phone can’t get its hands on them.

The enclave also gets its own secure operating system, boots separately from the rest of the device, and uses a special technology to ensure that the software it is running was officially sanctioned by Apple. All communication with the enclave takes place in a securely encrypted area of memory, which is re-encrypted with a different key every time the device on which it resides boots.

All this paranoia is a good thing, because the enclave is used to store some of the most sensitive information that makes its way onto your device, such as the digital information required to unlock your iPhone with your fingerprints when you use Touch ID.

Keychain sync could probably withstand a nuclear attack

It seems that Apple designed iCloud Keychain so that it would be able to withstand just about everything short of nuclear winter—perhaps explaining why it took so long for the feature to return after it was discarded during the transition from MobileMe to iCloud. According to the whitepaper, you should be able to securely sync and recover your keys even if you reset your iCloud password, if your account is hacked, or if the iCloud system itself is compromised, either by an external entity or by an Apple employee.

To accomplish this feat, Apple uses a complex web of asymmetric digital keys and advanced elliptical encryption algorithms, coupled with manual controls (like activation codes that must be entered manually by the user on a device) to ensure that the company effectively never holds enough information to decrypt the contents of a keychain stored on its servers.

Interestingly, the engineers responsible for this feature have built a degree of selectivity into it, so that only data that is specially marked can actually be sent to the cloud. iOS makes use of this feature to keep some information that is device-specific, like VPN logins, out of the synchronization process, while other information, like website credentials and passwords, are allowed to go through.

The anti-Google

All told, Apple’s whitepaper paints the picture of a company that is—at least publicly—deeply committed to the security and privacy of its customers.

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Security and privacy are at the core Apple’s products, and much like its iconic design help the company set itself apart from its competition.

Of course, the actual veracity of Apple’s claims depends to a large extent on the trust that its users place in the company, since we can’t just waltz into its server facilities and ask—nay, demand—that we be shown the source code. Even though practically everything that flows through iCloud and Siri is encrypted end-to-end, there is still a possibility that the folks from Cupertino may maliciously tweak its services (or even its operating systems themselves) in such a way as to silently compromise our every email, our every call, and our every text message.

It seems to me, however, that privacy and security are more than just a point of pride or marketing pitch for Apple: They are among the primary selling points of its products. As the company says in the first line of its whitepaper, “Apple designed the iOS platform with security at its core.” All the complex encryption mechanisms, digital key exchanges, software sandboxing, and hardware protection boil down to a simple message: Invest your money in our wares, and we’ll stay out of your life.

This stance places the company in sharp contrast to its rival Google’s insistence on collecting, collating, and distilling as much information on its users as possible. Any revelation that anyone from Apple’s management to its engineers aren’t taking this message to heart, even by omission, would damage its business in ways that would be very hard to recover from.

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Windows 9 Rumors

With the sluggish reception of Windows 8, the rumors (nothing official yet) are flying about Windows 9. (I suggested a few weeks ago that Microsoft needs to be working on Windows 9 now—although I felt that it should be a super Windows 7.) It appears that Microsoft has gotten part of the message from the consumers with the release of Windows 8.1, a planned Windows 8.1 update, and work on Windows 9—codename “Threshold.”

Since there has been no official Windows 9 announcement, people are dependent upon leaks. However, there is no shortage of speculation. Here is a look at some of the guesses about Windows 9, but first a look at the Windows 8.1 update which is due out soon.

Windows 8.1, Update 1

Microsoft isn’t giving up on Windows 8. Having just released Windows 8.1, it’s planning a major update for either March or April release. (I guess it will then be time for me to come out with a ninth edition of Misunderstanding Windows 8.) This time the concentration is on making the operating system and its Modern apps more mouse and keyboard friendly for PCs.

In particular, it looks like it will be possible to pin Modern apps to the Desktop Taskbar (see Figure 1). This is consider a step toward Windows 9 where the speculation is that it will finally be possible to run the Modern apps in a window on the Desktop thereby eliminating the need for the annoying full screen views.

These images are from WZor, a Russian leaker of early Windows builds considered reliable by many and thought to have contacts inside Microsoft.


Figure 1. This leaked image of Window 8.1 Update 1 shows a Modern app pinned to the Windows Taskbar.

For those of us who habitually click the right mouse button when exploring, a right-click menu is being added to the Modern interface. See Figure 2. This is an important step toward making Windows 8 Windows-like again.


Figure 2. This leaked image of Window 8.1 Update 1 shows the right-click menu in the Modern interface.

Other changes include easier access to search and shutdown of Modern apps with an X in the upper right-hand corner of the apps. These are interim steps toward Windows 9 which may represent a move toward a little more separation between the Desktop and Modern interface for the different Windows platforms: smartphones, tablets, Xbox, and the PC.

Windows 9 Rumors

Microsoft is not abandoning the combined tablet/PC model nor touch technology, but it may be tailoring Windows 9 more for each type of operating systems. All versions will continue with the same underlying Windows NT core. This produces compatibility between the different products making it possible to produce apps which will run o\in all Windows systems. The Windows store will continue to be a prominent part of the systems for delivering new apps.

It looks like there may be three versions of Windows 9, one for Windows phones and devices, another for Xbox, and the last for computers.

Give Me Back My Start Menu!

Probably the most hoped for change in Windows 9 might be a greater de-emphasis of the Modern interface with the return of a functional Start Menu. While Windows 8.1 has added a Start button to the Desktop Taskbar, it is far from a true Start Menu. Now people who are heavily dependent upon the Start Menu and replacing it with utilities such as Stardock’s tools or Pokkie Start Menu you won’t need to add a third-party Start Menu to the Windows 8 Desktop. (I personally don’t use an add-on Start Menu, because I’ve found it more convenient to use my QuickLinks AutoHotkey app tailored for my personal use. I use it on all of my various Windows computers. But that’s just me.) If Microsoft brings back the Start Menu in Windows 9, then the business market may be convinced to give it a try.

Right now it is businesses, even more so than individual users, who are resisting Windows 8. What may seem like a minor adjustment to many computer users is a major obstacle for a business looking to upgrade a multitude of machines. The learning curve that comes with the Modern interface may seem enormous to any enterprise which would need to retrain virtually everyone—especially when you consider that many corporations have no use for the Modern apps. Those apps only represent an annoyance. If businesses upgrade at all, they are likely to stick with Windows 7 which will run their old reliable Windows software without distractions caused by the Windows 8 the Modern interface. If Microsoft produces a Windows 9 which eliminates the bulk of the current Windows 8 learning curve, then they will likely have a winner with businesses.

Modern Apps Running in a Window on the Desktop

The other major change leaked which could provide more separation between Windows 8 and the PC version of Windows 9 is running Modern apps in windows which can float on the Desktop. This could completely eliminate the need for (or at least the forced use of) the current Modern interface which is the major source of irritation for Windows users. Suddenly, there would be a newly branded version of Windows which sheds the difficulties of Windows 8 while including its improvements. Learning to work with the Modern interface would become an option in Windows 9, rather than mandatory as it is currently in Windows 8.

Windows 9 April 2015

The word is that Windows 9 will be released to the general public in April of 2015 (although there are reports that it could be as early as October of this year). There is no word on whether there will be pre-release versions such as those for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, but I suspect that Microsoft may want the mass beta testing. A preview of Windows 9 is expected in April of this year at Microsoft’s developer’s conference.

Who Wants New Coke?

This Windows 8 scenario reminds me of the fiasco caused by the introduction of New Coke in 1985. The top brass at Coca Cola who felt that the brand was stagnating encouraged both innovation and risk taking within the organization. One project was to reinvent the Coke formula based upon taste tests of hundreds of thousands of people. After the tests were completed New Coke was introduced as a replacement.

The uproar was unbelievable. People rushed to the store clearing the shelves of the old Coke. Coca Cola was inundated with complaints. People cried, “If I wanted something that tastes like Pepsi, I would buy Pepsi.” The corporate staff received numerous letters which included many comments about their personal lack of intelligence. Eventually, the old Coke was brought back as Coca Cola Classic. Today, New Coke is nowhere to be found.

Ironically, the whole ordeal turned out to be a marketing coup for Coca Cola. The excitement and media attention pushed the Coke image and business to a new level which never would have occurred through an advertising campaign. When asked if that was actually the plan along, the CEO responded with “We’re not that smart.” or something to that effect.

Although they are also not that smart, ironically Microsoft may benefit in similar fashion to Coca Cola. Whether people like it or not, Windows 8 is an innovation in the operating system market. But people want their old Windows back. My guess is that’s exactly what Microsoft will deliver in Windows 9, only with many of the good things (performance) which have come from Windows 8. Windows 8 may be another throwaway operating system (although it’s not all that bad) which will pave the way for the best of all worlds in Windows 9—an operating systems that works like “real” Windows, plus access to a library of optional tablet-like apps.

What Should I Do?

The answer to the question, “What should I do?” depends a lot on your situation. If you own a business with a number of computers which need upgrading, then I would seriously consider installing Windows 7 on those machines. While there are some speed and performance advantages to Windows 8, the problem of teaching everyone in the company how to use Windows 8 will be more daunting than migrating the users to Windows 7 from an earlier version. While some people take to Windows 8 and love it, there are others who just won’t comprehend the change. Of course you can set up a Windows 8.1 computer to boot directly to the Desktop and use tools such as AutoHotkey (which works in all versions of Windows including Windows 8) to make the working environment for your business easy, but changing to Windows 7 from Windows XP or Vista is much smoother than jumping to Windows 8 and the Modern Start screen.

If you’re getting a computer for yourself, then the decisions depends upon how you see yourself. If you’re a quick learner and like a little adventure, then I would probably recommend Windows 8. (That’s what I would do for myself.) It is a good operating system—just different. However, if it took you a good while to get to your current level of computer literacy while learning your current version of Windows—and you like it—then you might be better off sticking with Windows 7.

If you’re currently using Windows 7 (or even Windows XP) and feel no compelling reason to upgrade right now, stand pat and wait to see how Windows 9 turns out. Since Microsoft generally gets every other Windows version right, Windows 9 should be next up in the queue.

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On April 8, Microsoft will cease support for Windows XP. Here’s what you need to know.

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Windows XP is so old, it predates 9/11. The software first landed on personal computers sold to consumers and businesses way back in August 2001. Yet more than 12 years later, a substantial number of PCs with Windows XP as their operating system are still in use.

According to consultant Net Applications, XP machines represented a 29.23% market share last month, ahead of all the PC operating systems that came after it except for Windows 7, which has a 47.49% share. Microsoft’s more recent operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, come in with modest 6.63% and 3.95% market shares, respectively, suggesting an area of concern for new CEO Satya Nadella.

The many folks who still rely on Windows XP will have their own major concern to deal with in a few weeks. On April 8, XP reaches the end of the line. No, your XP computer won’t suddenly blow up on that date. But it does mean that official support from Microsoft ceases. Microsoft will no longer issue patches or system updates to protect the machine against viruses, spyware and other malware that could result in crashes, or worse, the theft of personal information. If you run into any other kinds of snags, you won’t be able to call Microsoft for technical assistance.

“There is a risk,” cautions Microsoft spokesman Tom Murphy. “How big a risk we can’t quantify.” But Murphy is unequivocal in advising consumers to part ways with the operating system that many have loyally stuck by all these years. “We’re really black and white about that,” he says.

Though some third-party anti-virus software may provide some protection post-April 8, Microsoft still considers the computer system vulnerable.

The April deadline shouldn’t come as a rude awakening. Microsoft announced the date that XP support would end as far back as 2007, but a number of people haven’t paid close attention.

IS UPGRADING AN OPTION?

What measures should you take? One option, but only available to a relatively few XP owners, is to upgrade your current machine. You can download Windows 8.1 for $119.99 or 8.1 Pro for $199.99. But make sure your PC meets the minimum system requirements: a 1-GHz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM (for a 32-bit system) or 2 gigs (for 64-bit) and 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit) of storage. If your PC meets the requirements, make sure you install the proper Windows 8.1 software, either the 32-bit or 64-bit installation disc. (This bit about bits refers to how the PC processor handles information). (One way to find the specs on your old XP machine: right-click My Computer and click Properties.)

Another thing to consider is screen resolution, especially on netbooks — remember those? Microsoft points out that many Windows XP-based (or even Windows Vista) netbooks had a screen resolution of 800 x 600. You’ll need a resolution of at least 1024 x 768 to take full advantage of the modern Windows interface.

Critical point: Whether you’re going to update your current computer or move to a new one, don’t forget to back up all your data onto an external hard drive, USB drive, CD or to one of the myriad online storage services.

Even if your older PC can actually run Windows 8, don’t count on any kind of screaming fast performance. And keep in mind that software from outside publishers may also run poorly on Windows 8, if such programs run at all. Microsoft provides a tool available at www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/CompatCenter/Home that may help you determine which of your programs will work work with Windows 8.1.

Microsoft, of course, would prefer that most of you spring for a spanking new computer, presumably one of the latest models with the 8.1 upgrade, though Windows 7 PCs can still be had. The PC business has been steadily losing ground to smartphones and tablets, so every sale helps. (Windows 8 is designed for both tablet and PC duty).

BUYING A NEW MACHINE

There are surely benefits to modern hardware: The computers are more robust, more secure and better able to exploit the latest networking tools, certainly compared with the XP machine you’re about to retire. You’re unlikely to get much (if anything) trading in your old XP clunker, but there are deals to be found.

If you’re not a serious gamer or plan on engaging in heavy-duty video editing, you can find halfway decent Windows laptops typically starting in the $300 range, though of course, you can spend a lot more for a system equipped with high-resolution touch-screens and state-of-the-art specs. As always, you get more bang for the buck with a desktop PC system, but lose out on the mobility that a portable provides.

If you’re feeling bold — that is, you’re ready to join the cloud computing age and are willing to eschew Windows altogether — you might consider an entry-level Google Chromebook such as Acer’s $299 C720P-2600.

Moving to a Mac is an option, too, but after all your years with Windows XP, that might strike you as particularly radical move. It’s certainly more expensive. Apple’s MacBook Air laptop, for example, starts at $999.

You may not even remain in your comfort zone sticking with Windows. Windows 8 might make the XP loyalist feel as if he’s landed on another planet. The touch-friendly tile-based interface is very different than the standard desktop view in XP and for that matter, other versions of Windows that you’ve gotten chummy with all this time.

There has also been some scuttlebutt concerning what happens to all the ATMs out there that still run a version of XP, upwards of 95% of the machines, according to Robert Johnston of NCR. Johnston told me he isn’t overly worried. Banks have had time to prepare, and protective measures are in place. He says the consumer shouldn’t notice any negative impact. “The world is not going to collapse on April 9 from the ATM point of view,” he says. That said, Johnston is planning to upgrade the XP system he still has at home.

THE BOTTOM LINE ON XP

Am I at risk by doing nothing with my XP PC after April 8? Microsoft says you are. You won’t get any system updates for XP or be able to call tech support.

Should you retire your current XP computer and buy a new computer or upgrade it? It depends. You can upgrade your current machine if it meets the requirements. Even if it does, don’t expect screaming fast performance.

How much will a new Windows PC cost? Deals can be had with prices on laptops starting in the $300 range, even less in some cases. Of course, you can spend a lot more. You get more bang for the buck (but lose the mobility) with a desktop PC.

Is there a learning curve to Windows 8? In a word, yes. The live tile-based Windows 8.1 interface will look unfamiliar to folks schooled on the old Windows desktop environment, though for some purposes, you can still summon screens in the new Windows that look like the old interface.

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Closing the door on Windows: A guide to changing operating systems

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Is it time for you to dump Windows XP, or maybe to abandon Windows altogether? Windows 8 has improved significantly with the 8.1 upgrade. Nevertheless, for many users, Windows 8’s modern-style interface—incorporating major changes like Live Tiles and the removal of the Start menu—remains an object of scorn. And security has always been a bigger headache for Windows than for other platforms.

If you’re still running Windows XP, making the switch to Windows 8.1—or to Windows 7, if you can find it—will probably involve replacing more than just the operating system. Your current hardware may not be able to handle a newer Windows OS; and even if it can, you’ll likely need to replace software and peripheral devices, as well.

If you’re going to invest money and time in making the transition to a new OS, you might as well consider all your options. Microsoft’s stranglehold on the desktop market has loosened over the past few years. Mac OS X, Linux, and even Chrome OS are sophisticated operating systems and are enjoying growing mainstream adoption. Here’s what to expect if you embrace one of these alternatives.

Mac OS X

There’s a reason people (and not just Apple marketers) say “once you go Mac, you’ll never go back.” Apple defined the GUI we know today and set the bar for user-friendly computing. Macs have a reputation for being expensive, but that’s not entirely accurate these days. You can certainly find cheaper Windows-based desktop and laptop options, but in bang-for-the-buck terms, Macs are on a par with—and sometimes cheaper than—similarly equipped Windows machines.

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Microsoft charges $120 for the full version of Windows 8.1, while Apple offers the latest version of OS X gratis.

Pros

OS X’s most obvious advantage is that it raises far fewer security concerns than Windows. One disadvantage of being the dominant OS is that you have the biggest target on your back. Macs aren’t immune to malware attacks, but using one significantly reduces your security risk.

OS X also has the edge in cost. The full version of Windows 8.1 will set you back $120. For the past several years, OS X upgrades have run just $20 to $30, and the latest version, Mavericks, is free. OS X also comes with its own productivity suite (iWorks), and boasts proficient email, note-taking, calendaring, media-playing, image-editing, and instant messaging applications.

With a Mac OS X system, you can continue to run Windows—either in a dual-boot configuration, or as a virtual machine using a program like Parallels. You would still need a legally licensed copy of Windows, however, and you would still need patch and update whatever version of Windows you ran. The system would also be susceptible to the same security vulnerabilities as a stand-alone Windows PC, but you could continue using legacy Windows software for applications that you can’t discard.

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You don’t have to abandon Windows if you switch to OS X: You can run it as a virtual machine using Parallels.

Cons

Unless you decide to run a virtual version of Windows, switching to OS X will require you to replace all your software. Popular products like Microsoft Office (if you choose not to use iWorks) and Adobe Creative Suite have Mac versions, but for other applications you’ll have to find suitable alternatives. Either scenario will increase the cost of switching and slow the learning curve for getting used to the new applications. Of course, you may face similar challenges if you upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 8.1.

Linux

If you want to install a new OS on your existing hardware, Linux is the obvious alternative. The open-source operating system has many variants, one of the most widely used of which is Ubuntu Linux. Generally speaking, Linux has less-demanding hardware requirements and is much more forgiving of older PCs. Laptops are available from Acer, Asus, and Dell that run some version of Linux.

Pros

The biggest benefit of choosing Linux is cost. Most Linux distributions are free, as are the applications available to run on it.

Linux tends to be less of a resource hog than other platforms, and it can perform admirably on older processors and with less RAM or hard-drive storage than Windows or OS X. You can choose from various user interface desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME, and if you like you can install or create a desktop environment that is virtually identical to Windows XP.


Linux has made great progress from its hobbyist roots and now comes preloaded on some machines from Acer, Asus, and Dell.

Like Mac OS X, Linux can run Windows in dual-boot or virtual-machine form. Tools like WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) can run Windows software natively within Linux. (Note: WINE is a compatibility layer that converts Windows “calls” rather than emulating them; hence its name.)

Cons

You’ll have to replace all the applications you use, and you’ll have to hunt down software and drivers for your printer, wireless network adapter, and other peripheral devices—or replace them with Linux-compatible equivalents.

The fact that Linux is open-source can be a double-edged sword with regard to support and troubleshooting. In most cases, you simply download software from an open-source project, and there’s no “parent company” to turn to for support. Some Linux variants do offer support options that you can buy. The upside is that everything you need to know is available online—and plenty of forums exist, populated by Linux experts who are willing to lend a hand.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS, developed by Google, is the new kid on the block. It’s a Web-centric platform that basically makes the browser itself the operating system.

Pros

With a Chrome OS machine, you have far fewer security concerns than with a Windows PC—in part because of the relative obscurity of Chrome OS, and in part because in most cases the operating system isn’t designed to run locally installed software or store data on the PC itself, so there’s far less to exploit or attack.

Acer Chromebook C720 (1) 
Chrome OS’s Web-based platform takes advantage of computing’s move to the cloud.

If you’re already invested in the Google ecosystem, the Chrome OS may be a perfect match. It revolves around Google services, and it integrates nicely with Android smartphones and tablets to give you access to the same email, stored data, and other information.

Cons

On the flip-side, if you don’t use Google services, Chrome OS probably won’t work for you. You can use Office 365 and SkyDrive, and other cloud-based services from a Chrome OS machine, but it’s a bit like paddling upstream, or trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Because most of Chrome OS’s capabilities are tied to cloud-based services and resources, the functionality of Chrome OS is severely limited if you lack an Internet connection. Google recently rolled out Chrome Apps that can run offline, but they’re not the full-featured software you’d find on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux.

As the saying goes when the bar is closing, “You ain’t gotta go home, but you gotta get the hell outta here.” In this case, you don’t have to upgrade to Windows 8.1, or even to Windows 7, but you do need to dump Windows XP and move on to something else. Change can be painful—but if you’re going through it anyway, it makes sense to consider all your options.

Info: PC World

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How to keep your neighbors from hijacking your Wi-Fi

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A number of issues can produce intermittently slow Internet access, and most of them don’t involve foul play. You could have bad cables, a bad modem or router, or simply outdated firmware on either of these devices. The problem may be with your ISP, and therefore completely out of your hands. For more on these possibilities, see my past column on obscenely slow Internet connections. Also, check out My Test on how to test your home Internet connection speed.

But as much as we’d like to think otherwise, your problem could be with a dishonest neighbor. And in these days of data caps, such neighbors could be running up your bill as they’re slowing down your connection.

I’m assuming you’ve password-protected your Wi-Fi network. If you haven’t, check your router’s documentation and do so immediately.

But nothing is ever completely secure, and Wi-Fi networks can be cracked. You need to take extra precautions.

Every technique I’ve seen for cracking Wi-Fi networks involves either a dictionary or a brute-force attack. There’s a very simple tool for protecting yourself against these attacks: a strong password. Use a long, random string of numbers, upper- and lower-case letters, and punctuation, and avoid anything found in the dictionary. Read more here on how to  use strong passwords.

Since you and other people will likely be typing this password manually from time to time, avoid lower-case L, upper-case I and O, and the digits 1 and 0. This will avoid confusion when people read the password and recreate it on a keyboard.

Test the password’s strength with How Secure is My Password, which estimates how long it would take a standard PC to crack your password. If it would take more than a million years to crack, consider the password safe.

The usual complaint against strong passwords—they’re too hard to remember and type—doesn’t apply here. You only have to type this password when setting up a new Wi-Fi-capable device, or when helping a guest who brought their own device to your home. You can just keep the password on a scrap of paper—or in your password manager.

Of course, if you’re worried that a neighbor has already cracked your Wi-Fi, changing the password will get them off of it immediately.

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In addition to your password, make sure your Wi-Fi security is properly set up. Go into your router’s setting screen and check the options. Ideally, you should be using WPA2 encryption. If your modem doesn’t support WPA2, use WPA-Personal–or better yet, buy a new router. For more on these issues, see 5 Wi-Fi security myths you must abandon now.

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Start the year off right with a clean PC

Call or email me!

Call or email me!

Unsavory detritus lurks in the vents and crevices of your computer hardware: Hair, dust, cigarette smoke, and pet dander can accumulate in your PC and also in your peripherals, even down between the keys of your keyboard. Some of it’s just gross. However, buildup on fans and other key components can increase the heat stress on your machine, potentially making it unstable and shortening the life of individual parts. That’s no way to start a new year.

So email or call for an appointment:

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I have all re-built Desktops & Laptops for sale I also have a 24″ iMac and a couple Printers AS is

merry-christmas-graphic-400

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Huge security breach with Adobe

adobe

I’m sure you remember a story last month about the major security breach at Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Reader, Flash and a dozen other popular programs.

The initial reports said hackers stole usernames, passwords and even encrypted credit card numbers for 2.9 million Adobe customers. Well, now there’s news that the attack affected at least 150 million customers!

To make matters worse, the average consumer isn’t always informed about major security breaches like this one. That means hackers could have their hands on your private information – and you might not even realize it!

If you’ve ever had an Adobe account or use an Adobe product, I recommend checking right now. It only takes a couple of minutes.

Before I show you, let me share with you one of the biggest lessons that came out of the Adobe attack.

The software giant recently revealed that the security breach was made worse by millions of weak user passwords.

The company says that at least 1.9 million people used the password “123456″ to safeguard their account!

Adobe’s major security breach helped out by weak passwords

Unbelievable? Well, believe it.  And “123456″ isn’t the only offender. Check out the list below for the 20 most common and easy-to-crack passwords found in Adobe’s database of compromised accounts.

1. 123456
2. 123456789
3. password
4. adobe123
5. 12345678
6. qwerty
7. 1234567
8. 111111
9. photoshop
10. 123123
11. 1234567890
12. 000000
13. abc123
14. 1234
15. adobe1
16. macromedia
17. azerty
18. iloveyou
19. aaaaaa
20. 654321

Don’t risk using a weak password to protect your accounts.

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Moving up to Windows 8.1 without an MS account

Microsoft makes it difficult — but not impossible — to run Windows 8.1 without a Microsoft account.

There are ways around Redmond’s demands, but only if you know the right path. Plus, solving other problems with the Win8.1 upgrade.

As anyone who has upgraded to Windows 8 — and now Windows 8.1 — knows, Microsoft really wants you to have a Microsoft account. There are, of course, good reasons to sign in to Windows 8/8.1 with a Microsoft account. It can, for example, automatically sign you in to SkyDrive, Mail, the Windows Store, and other online accounts. And there are less obvious but still important reasons.

For example, I recently had to refresh a Dell tablet running Windows 8.1 RT. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the machine had Windows’ BitLocker encryption enabled. I also didn’t know initially that Microsoft had automatically saved the BitLocker key to SkyDrive. Simply signing in with my Microsoft account let me safely refresh the system and keep all my files. I did not have to disable BitLocker, as recommended in various blogs such as Felipe Binotto’s post, “Refreshing a BitLocker enabled computer.”

On the other hand, there are times when you want to run Windows without a Microsoft account — for example, when you want to ensure that users save their files locally or limit access to cloud-based services. You might also have concerns about privacy. When you sign in with an MS account, Microsoft can track searches on your PC.

For whatever reason, you can create a local account that doesn’t require an MS account username and password.

In Windows 8, Microsoft made the process of setting up and using local accounts somewhat obtuse and complicated. It’s especially confusing when upgrading from Win8 to Version 8.1; you must agree to set up an MS account, even though you want to keep your existing local account.

Upgrading to Win8.1 without an MS account

Just getting the Windows 8.1 upgrade can be daunting. To start, you must have most — if not all — Windows 8 updates installed before Win8.1 is offered in the Windows Store. (Upgrading to Win8.1 via the Windows Store is primarily for OEM systems and retail versions of Windows 8. If you acquired Win8 through MSDN or TechNet, you can get the upgrade either through the Store or as an ISO, depending on the version of Windows 8 you’re using for testing.) On my systems, I had to add the otherwise optional rollup update, KB 2883201.

Note: If you set Windows 8 to automatically sign you in (as detailed in a How-To Geek post), I recommend you disable this option before starting the Win8.1 upgrade process. I know of one Windows user who had auto sign-in turned on and ended up locked out of his admin account after upgrading to Win8.1.

Once the Win8.1 update shows up in the Windows Store (see Figure 1), the actual upgrade process is mostly automatic. For the most part, you simply accept the update and let it download. When that’s done, the installer will warn you that it needs to reboot your system. A Microsoft online tutorial provides more details on the process. (Among other things, it recommends turning off your anti-malware app during the upgrade process.)

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Figure 1. The Windows 8.1 upgrade will show up in the Windows Store only when your system is ready for it.

After the restart, the Win8.1 installer asks whether you want to Use express settings or Customize your settings. I recommend that you click Customize and review your options.

Those options start by asking whether you’re connected to a home or work network or to a public network. (I’ll assume you’re upgrading a home/work system.) Click Yes.

Next, you’ll be asked to choose how Windows should handle updates for Windows and applications. In the installer’s Metro interface, your choices are “Automatically install important and recommended updates,” “Automatically install important updates,” or “Don’t set up Windows Update.” Assuming you want to keep the preferred “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them” option you’ve set in Windows 8, select the last option — Don’t set up Windows Update. For more privacy, I also recommend keeping Internet Explorer’s SmartScreen filter and Do Not Track option turned on.

Another set of questions determines how much information Windows can send to Microsoft — such as system errors and how you work with your PC. Among other things, Microsoft uses this data to improve future versions of Windows. It’s your call, but if you don’t participate, Microsoft has to base its decisions on a smaller pool of Windows users. The company states that it does not collect personal information — it’s simply analyzing patterns of Windows use.

Finally, you have the option of choosing what personal information is used by Microsoft and third parties. That information includes your name, account picture, advertising ID (bet you didn’t know you have an ad ID), browsing history, and location.

Now comes the confusing part. The installer will ask you to Sign in to your Microsoft account. If you’re using a local account, enter your username and password.

Next, the installer really wants you to set up a Microsoft account and connect it to your existing local account. Whether you set up a new MS account or continue using your local account, you must click the Create a new account link, shown in Figure 2. (The “Don’t have an account?” link simply takes you to an MS account pitch.)

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Figure 2. If you want to use your existing local account, you must still click the Create a new account link, highlighted in yellow.

If you want to stick with your local account, look for and click Continue using my existing account at the bottom of the Create a Microsoft account window (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. To retain your local account, look for the Continue using my existing account link.

I know several Windows 8.1 upgraders who have been caught by this convoluted process. I’m still investigating how to get one user back into his local account; his original password no longer works.

Once you’ve completed the sign-in account section, the installer loads apps you purchased through the Windows Store and displays the Windows 8.1 Start screen. Your upgrade is now complete.

Because you chose Don’t set up Windows Update during the Win8.1 installation process, you should now open the traditional Windows Control Panel and select Windows Update. Next, click the Change settings link and confirm that you’ve selected Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them or Download updates but let me choose whether to install them. Either choice still gives you control over Windows updates.

A few bumps on the road to Windows 8.1

As mentioned above, Microsoft recommends disabling anti-malware apps during the upgrade process. I take that a step further. There are reports that some upgraders who had McAfee Antivirus installed on their systems could not complete the upgrade to Win8.1. As a precaution, I recommend temporarily removing all third-party AV antivirus software — even if you know it supports Windows 8.1.

A few unlucky souls have run into an unanticipated problem with the Win8.1 update. Although their PCs had no difficulty running 64-bit Windows 8, upgrading to 64-bit Win8.1 failed. Apparently, some older CPUs are no longer supported by Microsoft. For example, a Neowin blog thread notes Win8.1 incompatibilities with some classic AMD processors.

The Win8.1 system requirements page states: “To install a 64-bit OS on a 64-bit PC, your processor needs to support CMPXCHG16b, PrefetchW, and LAHF/SAHF.” If your CPU is among those not supported by Win8.1, Microsoft recommends upgrading to a new PC. But you might also try downgrading to the 32-bit version of the OS (which will, of course, force you to forego the extra RAM support provided by the 64-bit architecture).

Users who’ve moved their data folders from Windows’ default location (typically from the C: partition; more info) will also be unable to complete a Win8.1 upgrade. If you’ve placed your data on another partition to increase usable disk space, the upgrade process will stop and display the message, “Sorry, it looks like this PC can’t run Windows 8.1.” This problem generated a slew of complaints and comments in a Microsoft Community forum. At this time, the only solution is to move your folders back to the default locations and try again.

If you receive the error message shown in Figure 4, “Something happened and the install of Windows 8.1 can’t be completed,” and clicking Try again doesn’t help, a Microsoft TechNet blog post might provide a solution: resetting Windows Update so it downloads a new copy of the Win8.1 installation files.

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Figure 4. Unlucky Win8.1 upgraders could run into various error messages such as this one.

Other upgrading issues are noted in Microsoft Community forums. For example, one post discusses the need to update to the latest drivers; another post recommends running Windows’ System File Checker (command sfc/scannow) to fix corrupted system files.

Your Windows future is tied to the Store

Some Windows users might assume that Microsoft will offer the Win8.1 upgrade as a service pack through Windows Update, bypassing the Windows Store. For OEM and retail versions of Windows, that’s not going to happen. For the foreseeable future, the Windows Store is the only way to upgrade to Version 8.1.

Businesses that use volume licensing will have to acquire Windows 8.1 Enterprise through Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Service Center, as noted in a Windows Springboard Series Blog post. The post lists several techniques for upgrading current corporate Win8 systems.

Officially, Microsoft says there’ll be no ISO version of the Win8.1 update for general distribution. But in a Microsoft Community post, you’ll find a back-door approach for acquiring and loading Win8.1 from an ISO file.

Windows 8 is on a two-year countdown

If at this point you’re dubious about moving to Windows 8.1, keep in mind that you have two years to install the upgrade. According to Microsoft’s Win8 product lifecycle page, “Windows 8.1 will remain under the same lifecycle policy as Windows 8 with support ending 1/10/2023. Windows 8 customers will have 24 months to move to Windows 8.1 after the General Availability of the Windows 8.1 update in order to remain supported.”

In other words, upgrading to Windows 8.1 does not reset the MS support clock. And if you haven’t updated to Version 8.1 by Nov. 2015, you will officially no longer have support from Microsoft. (You could, I suppose, gamble that Windows 9x will be out by that time, allowing you to bypass Version 8.1 altogether.)

Bottom line: You should upgrade, but you have the time to do so slowly and carefully, ensuring your PC is ready. Again, that could include disabling or uninstalling AV apps. It could also include removing system cleaners such as TuneUp and CCleaner and/or uninstalling any other similar type of third-party software that might interfere with the upgrade installation.

If Win8.1 still won’t load, dig out the upgrade log files (as described in a German blog translated into English) and post them to the Windows Secrets Lounge, using the link below. We’ll see whether we can find a solution.

We’re taking an entirely new road — and facing new challenges — in our journey with Windows. Tread carefully.

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‘PC settings’ gets major makeover in Win8.1

Microsoft made a host of changes to the commands and options on Windows 8.1′s PC settings page, adding new functions and moving or renaming others.

The result is a better user experience — but one that’s undeniably confusing at first. Here’s a guide to the most important changes.

Windows 8′s disorganized array of settings

Windows 8.0 was roundly — and fairly — criticized for its split personality. The most obvious manifestation of this was the tile-based Metro/Modern interface with full-screen applications versus the more-or-less classic Windows Desktop and multiple application windows.

But users who dug deeper into Windows 8 — including the many Windows Secrets readers who migrated to the new OS — quickly discovered an equally confusing schism in the dozens of common system settings used for personalization, privacy, screen size and resolution, accessing Windows Update, backup/recovery options, and so on. Some of those features now resided in a new Metro-based PC settings page; others, such as the Control Panel, remained in their traditional location.

There was no obvious rhyme or reason to where things ended up. Some options, such as Privacy, were on the Metro side; others were accessed only via the Desktop. Some ended up in both locations. For example, Win8.0′s Metro version of Windows Update let you check for and install Important Windows fixes. But you had to navigate to the classic Windows Update (typically, via Desktop/Control Panel) to see whether there were any optional updates available. (Most experienced Windows users probably went straight to Control Panel/Windows Update and never saw the Metro version.)

In other words, Win8.0 put related controls in different, separately accessed locations. Dumb!

Windows Update is just one example of Win8.0′s poorly designed system-settings schema. There were — and still are — many others.

Windows 8.1 cleans up much of the mess

Although the traditional Control Panel remains available for those who prefer it, Win8.1′s Metro-based PC settings pages now offer a wider and more complete array of important functions and features. You now can configure most Windows settings entirely within the PC Settings pages — there’s no need to jump back and forth between two different control windows, modes, or schemas.

Microsoft also gave the options and commands within PC settings better naming conventions and a more logical layout.

For example, in the Win8.0 layout, Microsoft (somewhat absurdly) lumped critical system-maintenance items — such as Refresh your PC without affecting your files and Remove everything and reinstall Windows — into the same category as relatively trivial items such as Highlight misspelled words. What were they thinking?

Win8.1′s PC settings page now has a separate and clearly named Update and Recovery heading, which, logically enough, now includes Windows Update and the Refresh and Remove options. Much better!

Unfortunately, those of us who eventually learned how to navigate Win8.0′s PC settings now face a time-consuming transition; as Figures 1 and 2 show in part, many of the categories and commands have been moved, renamed, or otherwise altered.

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Figure 1. Win8.0′s PC settings page contains a relatively small number of options in numerous and seemingly arbitrary groupings.

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Figure 2. Win8.1 reorganizes and expands the number of system settings offered in its PC settings page, making it far more logical and complete.

The rest of this article will summarize the changes in PC settings. To help make the information easier to digest, I’ve split it into two parts.

First, for the benefit of Win8.0 early adopters, I’ll focus on what’s been moved or renamed in Windows 8.1. This will help avoid the “where did it go?” confusion that can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming.

Then, I’ll list the major additions to Win8.1′s PC settings — and there are many! Whether you’re already using Windows 8 or will be upgrading from an earlier Windows version, this section will provide a solid overview of Win8.1′s PC settings. It could save you time and effort by revealing features and functions you thought were found elsewhere (such as in Control Panel).

In short, you’ll know where things are in Win8.1′s PC settings — before you have to go hunting for them!

What’s moved/renamed in PC settings, Version 8.1

You access the Win8.1 PC settings just as you did in Version 8.0 — open the Charms bar, click the Settings gear icon, and then click the Change PC Settings link at the bottom of the Settings bar.

As mentioned above, many PC settings components have been renamed or relocated; here’s an item-by-item breakdown of where they’ve gone:

  • Personalize: The Personalize functions have been extensively altered. Although a superficial vestige of the Win8.0 Personalize heading remains in Win8.1′s PC Settings/Personalize page, that screen really just contains shortcuts to the primary Personalize functions, now relocated to other areas in Win8.1′s PC Settings.
    • Lock screen (for changing lock-screen image and apps) has now been relocated to PC and Devices/Lock Screen.
    • Start Screen has been removed from PC Settings entirely. But it’s also been improved; you now can use any image — including your normal Desktop background — as the Start screen image.

To change the Start screen image in Win8.1, switch to the Desktop, right-click the taskbar, and select Properties. Select the Navigation tab and then select Show my desktop background on Start in the Start screen section.

  • Account picture is now located under the Accounts heading.
  • Users: Win8.0′s Users category has been completely eliminated, and its major functions have moved into Win8.1′s Accounts. (Some also are duplicated in the Top settings area, as shown above in Figure 2.)

Other categories moved to Win8.1′s Accounts heading include Your Account (local or Microsoft sign-in), Sign-in (password options), and Other users (add or delete user accounts on your PC).

  • Notifications: All the major Notification settings (on/off/adjust) are now found under Search and apps/Notifications.
  • Search: The settings to adjust Win8.1′s search tool are now located under Search and apps/Search.
  • Share: Settings to adjust sharing options (such as which apps should be used for sharing) are now found under Search and apps/Share.
  • General: The Win8.0 General category was a badly organized catch-all that placed items of major and minor consequence on an equal footing. The General category has been removed completely. Its components are redistributed elsewhere as follows:
    • Time settings (time, date, and daylight-saving adjusment) are now under the Time and language/Date and time heading.
    • App Switching settings have been relocated to PC and devices/Corners and edges.
    • Spelling settings are now under PC and devices/Typing/Spelling.
    • Language settings are now under Time and language.
    • Available storage has been renamed and relocated to Search and apps/App sizes.
    • Refresh your PC without affecting your files has been moved to Update and recovery/Recovery.
    • Remove everything and reinstall Windows is also under Update and recovery/Recovery.
    • Advanced startup options may now be accessed under Update and recovery/Recovery.
  • Privacy: This category keeps its name and has been expanded, as explained in the next section. (Some Privacy settings are also duplicated in the Top settings area, as shown in Figure 2, above.)
  • Devices: These settings are now located under PC and devices/Devices.
  • Wireless: The components of the Wireless category have been split. Wi-Fi and Ethernet settings are now found under Network; Bluetooth settings are now under PC and devices/Bluetooth.
  • Sync your settings: This control is now a SkyDrive subcategory called Sync settings.
  • HomeGroup: Look for this under Network/HomeGroup.
  • Windows Update: This all-important tool has been relocated to Update and recovery/Windows Update.

New items added to Win8.1′s PC Settings

There isn’t room here to list all the additions in Windows 8.1′s PC settings menus. Here are the most significant new features and functions:

  • PC and Devices:
    • Lock screen lets you turn on/off slideshows for the Lock screen background, control the use of a built-in or attached camera when the PC is otherwise locked, and allow specific apps to set alarms that appear on the Lock screen.
    • Display lets you customize a PC’s display resolution and orientation; configure multiple displays; connect or disconnect to a wireless display screen; and, on compatible displays, control the size of applications, text, and so forth.
    • Bluetooth. On systems that support this wireless protocol, you can enable/disable Bluetooth and control pairing options.
    • Devices. A truly significant new feature, it gives you the ability to set a custom save location — such as an external drive — for movies, photos, and music.
    • Mouse and touchpad adds basic mouse adjustments to PC Settings — select the primary mouse button, set the number of lines scrolled at one time, set touchpad delay/sensitivity, and so on.
    • Corners and edges combines Win8.0-style app-switching options with new corner navigation settings. Use the latter to enable/disable the upper-corner hotspots. (If enabled, the upper-right corner reveals the Charms bar; the upper-left corner switches to the most recently used app.)
    • Power and sleep offers simple screen- and system-timeout options when a PC is plugged into AC. On portable devices, it adds additional screen/system timeouts when running on battery.
    • Autoplay lets you enable/disable autoplay in general plus set what a autoplay-capable device should do when it’s recognized by your system
    • PC info. Look here for basic system information, such as Windows version, bittedness, RAM, CPU, product key, and so on.
    • SkyDrive (a completely new category):
      • File Storage lets you enable/disable the use of SkyDrive as your PC’s default save-to location, shows you how much space your SkyDrive account has available, and lets you view your SkyDrive files.
      • Camera roll lets you enable/disable the default uploading of copies of your photos and videos to your SkyDrive account. It also controls the resolution (size) of uploaded items.
      • Search and Apps: Use this setting to control whether Bing is the default search engine and whether Bing will have access to your local searches and location information. You also can control how Microsoft will generate personalized ads for you — and to what degree SafeSearch will filter your results.
      • Privacy: New controls allow apps to use (or disallow apps from using) your webcam and microphone. It also includes several lesser privacy-enhancing tweaks.
      • Network: It now includes features that were formerly available only through Control Panel or the Network and Sharing Center. For example, it includes Wi-Fi/Ethernet connection info, airplane mode, and your PC’s Find devices and content settings.
      • Ease of Access: This category gives more extensive control over Narrator, Magnifier, High Contrast, and Mouse settings.
      • Update and recovery: It logically groups the following under one heading: Update, File History, Refresh your PC without affecting your files, Remove everything and reinstall Windows, and Advanced startup.

Confusing initially — but definitely better

These changes, and many minor ones too numerous to include here, are a long step in the right direction. Most of Win8.1′s major adjustments are now available within the PC Settings pages. And you can still find them in their traditional locations, such as the Control Panel or the Network and Sharing Center.

We no longer have to memorize arbitrary locations for important settings; we can, once again, find them in familiar and logical places. In Windows 8.1, PC Settings is less hindrance and more help.

Although Win8 still feels a little schizoid to me — with one foot in the conventional desktop world and the other in the Metro/Modern world — it’s getting easier to use. There’s less mode-switching required, and when you do have to switch modes, the transition is far less disruptive.

That’s a very welcome change!

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