How to stop autoloading programs in Windows 7 and Windows 8

1_auto_loadAfter reading my article on killing unwanted processes, Joe Balbona asked how he could keep those processes from loading in the first place.

There’s no direct correlation between the programs that load when you boot and the processes slowing down your PC six hours later. Many autoloaders (programs that automatically load when you boot) do their thing and then close down properly. And some programs you load manually long after the boot leave processes running even after you’ve closed them.

Nevertheless, most Windows PCs load way too many programs at boot time. These definitely slow the boot process. Some remain running and can slow Windows. And some may cause conflicts and instability, although that’s rare.

So let’s see how we can trim your autoloaders.

The fact that you like a program doesn’t  necessarily mean you want it running all the time? For instance, regular readers know how much I like KeePass. But I turned off its autoloader because I just didn’t see the point. A password manager only needs to run when you need a password. On the other hand, your antivirus program needs to watch over your PC constantly, so it’s a legitimate autoloader.

Windows 8 significantly changed how we manage autoloaders. I’ll therefore give you two separate sets of instructions.

Windows 7 and earlier versions

Click Start, type msconfig, and press Enter. This brings up the System Configuration page.


Click the Startup tab for a table listing your autoloaders. Now you can uncheck those you don’t want.

But first, you have to figure out what each autoloader does. Usually the program’s name makes it obvious. But sometimes the names aren’t clear.

If the name isn’t helpful, you can usually get an idea by examining the Manufacturer and Command columns in the table. These will tell you who published the software, and where the file is on your drive (usually the folder for a program you installed). If all else fails, use your favorite search engine to find more about the name.

Remember that you can always experiment. Uncheck something and see if that makes things better or worse. The last column, Date Disabled, provides a record of what you’ve just unchecked.

Windows 8

In the old-fashioned Desktop environment, right-click the taskbar and select Task Manager. Once it’s up, click the Startup tab.

This table doesn’t give as much information as the old Msconfig one, but it’s easier to read. And if you know where to look, the information is there.


One particularly useful column is the last one: Startup impact. It tells you—in admittedly vague terms—how much that program slows boot time. This can help you decide what to remove.

To disable an autoloader, right-click it and select Disable.

And take a look at the other options on that context menu. Open file location shows you where the program is located on your hard drive—a good clue about who put it there. And if you really can’t figure it out, select Search online to see what the Internet says about this program.

Unfortunately, this Startup tool lacks Date Disabled information. If you’re going to experiment with disabling various autoloaders, make a note about which ones you just disabled. That way, if something fails, you can fix it.

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Great Buy! 24″ iMac

iMac for Sale

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How to synch Google Calendar with Outlook 2010 and 2013

Using this method you can set up one way syncing from Google Calendar to Outlook. Outlook will periodically check the Google Calendar for updates, and if any new or modified events are found, they will be downloaded and displayed alongside with your Outlook appointments.

Copy Google Calendar’s URL

  1. Log into your Google account and click Calendar on the Google bar.

If you are logged into your Gmail account, then you will need two clicks instead of one. As you probably know, about two months ago Google rolled out the new update and all of a sudden the Calendar button disappeared from the G-mail page’s task bar. Anyway, click on the Apps launcher icon and select Calendar from the list of apps.

  1. Hover over the needed calendar in the calendar list at the left-hand part of the screen, click the drop-down arrow that appears to the right of the calendar name, and then click Calendar settings.

This will open the Calendar details page.

  1. If your google calendar is public, then click the green ICAL icon next to Calendar Address. If it is private, click the ICAL button next to the calendar’s Private Address.
  2. Copy the calendar’s URL. Now you can paste this URL into any other application that supports the iCal format (.ics) and access your Google calendar from there.

Synchronizing with Outlook 2010 and 2013

Method 1:

  1. Open your Outlook and switch to Calendar > Manage Calendars ribbon group.
  2. Click Open Calendar button and choose “From Internet…” from the drop down list.
  3. Paste your Google calendar’s URL and click OK.

Method 2:

  1. On the File tab, select Account Settings twice.
  2. Switch to the Internet Calendars tab and click the New… button.
  3. Press Ctrl + V to past the Google calendar’s URL, and then click the Add button.
  4. Click Close to close the Accounting Settings dialog.
  5. In the Subscriptions Option dialog box, type the folder name for the imported calendar and make sure the Update Limit checkbox is selected. If you want to transfer the attachments within your Google Calendar events, select the corresponding option too and then click OK.

That’s it! Your Google calendar has been added to Outlook and you can see it under “Other Calendars“.

Note! Remember that the Google Calendar imported in this way is read-only, the lock icon is displayed in the lower right hand corner of all imported Google Calendar’s events, meaning they are locked for editing. Changes made in Outlook are not synced with your Google Calendar. If you want to send the changes back to Google Calendar, you need to export your Outlook Calendar.

Calendar Sync / Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook

Updated on 1-Aug-2014.

Google officially announced “Google Sync End of Life“, including the Google Calendar Sync, last year. And on 1 August 2014, our good old Google Calendar Sync has finally come to an end, alas.

Initially, this section contained a backup download link for Google Calendar Sync and instructions on how to make it work with new versions of Outlook 2010 and 2013. But since all that stuff is of no use any longer, we have removed it.

I’m explaining this so that you won’t be confused if you come across mentioning of that magic link in early comments to this post. Even if you find it somewhere else, it would be of no avail because Google Calendar Sync has stopped functioning altogether.

So, what alternative does Google offer to us now? I guess everyone already knows – Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook plug-in. This new sync app supports all versions of Outlook 2003, 2007, Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2013 and automatically syncs e-mail, contacts and calendars between Outlook and Google apps servers. It can also simultaneously copy data from a company’s Exchange servers.

A fly in the ointment is that Google Apps Sync is available only for paid accounts as well as for Google Apps for Business, Education, and Government users. If you are one of those lucky customers, you may find the following resources helpful:

Download Google Apps Sync for Outlook – on this page you can find the latest version of Google Apps Sync and watch an introductory video that will help you quickly get started with this plug-in.

Work with your Google Calendar in Outlook – detailed guidance on how to set up and use Google Apps Sync with Outlook 2013 – 2003.

Free tools and services to sync Google Calendar with Outlook

In this section, we are going to look into some free tools and services and see what benefits they provide.

gSyncit – free add-in to sync Outlook calendars, contacts, notes and tasks with Google

gSyncit is an add-in for Microsoft Outlook purposed for syncing calendars (as well as contacts, notes and tasks) between Outlook and Google. It also supports synchronization with Evernote, Dropbox and some other accounts.

An advantage of this tool compared with the sync method that we’ve just discussed is that you are free to edit Google calendar events imported in the Outlook calendar.

The gSyncit tool has a free and paid version. Both versions allow 1-way and 2-way syncing of calendars, tasks, contacts and notes. The main limitation of the free version is that it allows syncing with only one calendar and displays a pop-up window on Outlook start making you wait for 15 seconds. Apart from that, this is a nice tool, intuitive and easy to configure.

How to configure Outlook and Google calendar syncing with gSyncit

  1. You start by clicking the Settings button on the gSyncit tab on the Outlook ribbon.
  2. In the Settings window, choose what items to sync on the left pane and then click the New button.
  3. After that you create a new mapping by specifying 3 essential things:
  4. For additional options, switch to the Sync Options tab and check the options you want. For the 2-way syncing, select both “Sync Outlook to Google” and “Sync Google to Outlook“:
  • Click the Verify Account button to enter your credentials and verify your Google account.
  • Click Select Calendar… under Google Calendar section to get the calendar URL.
  • And finally, click Select Calendar… under Outlook Calendar section to choose the Outlook calendar you want to sync with. It may be something like “\\personal folder\calendar” or “\\account_name \calendar”.

Of course, there are a handful of additional options on other tabs, but in most cases the settings on the Sync Options tab absolutely suffice.

  1. Now you only need to click OK to save a new mapping that will link your Outlook and Google calendars together.

Once a new mapping is created, you simply click the appropriate button on the ribbon and your Google calendar will get synced with Outlook straight away.

If you’d rather have automatic syncing, head over to the Applications Setting tab > Sync Options and configure your preferred synchronization intervals. You can also enable automatic syncing when Outlook starts or exists:

If you want advanced options, the following ones may come in handy:

  • Synchronize all appointments or within a specified time range only (Sync Range tab).
  • Sync Outlook appointments from certain categories only (Categories tab).
  • Remove duplicate appointments (Sync Options tab).

Summing up, if you are an active user of both calendars, gSyncit is definitely worth your attention as a tool to automate Outlook and Google calendar syncing.

gSyncit Pros: easy-to-configure, allows 2-way syncing of calendars, tasks and contacts; additional options such as pre-configured automatic syncing, removing duplicate items etc.

gSyncit Cons (free version): displays a pop-up window on Outlook start preventing Outlook usage for 15 seconds, supports syncing with one Outlook calendar only.

SynqYa – free web service to synchronize calendars and files

You may consider using this free service as an alternative way to handle your Google and Outlook calendar synchronization. A really nice feature is that it allows two-way syncing, i.e. from Google to Outlook and in the reverse direction. Synchronizing between Google and iPhone is also supported, which adds one more argument in favor of SynqYa.

The sync process is pretty straightforward and requires just two steps:

  • Sign up for a free synqYa account.
  • Authorize access to your Google calendar.

Wrapping up, this service seems to be a decent alternative if you don’t have the admin rights on your computer, or if you are reluctant to install any Outlook add-ins, or if your company has a strict policy with regard to installing third-party software in general and free tools in particular.

SynqYa Pros: no client software, no installation (admin rights are not required), syncs Outlook, Apple iCal and other calendar software with Google Calendar.

SynqYa Cons: more difficult to configure (based on our blog readers feedback); syncs with one calendar only; no option to check for duplicates, meaning if you have the same appointments in Outlook and Google, you will have these entries in double after syncing.

Calendar Sync for Outlook and Google Calendar is one more free tool that may work a treat (thanks Sam for contributing!).

Paid tools to sync Outlook and Google calendars

Added on 1-Aug-2014.

Originally, I did not plan to include any commercial tools in this article. But now that the former top player (Google Calendar Sync) is out of the game, it probably makes sense to review some paid tools as well, given that our readers have already started discussing such tools in comments and how they compare to each other.

Below you will find a quick overview of the syncing tool that I tried personally and liked. I will probably add some more tools in the future if you find this info useful.


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8 Signs Your PC Might Be A Zombie


Zombies are making a killing on TV (The Walking Dead), in movies (World War Z), and in books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). There’s even a zombie game/fitness app, Zombies, Run!

But zombies aren’t so entertaining if your computer becomes one.

In PC terms, a zombie is a computer that’s been taken over without the owner’s consent by a third party (or group of people). Once your computer is among the living dead, it often becomes part of a ‘botnet,’ or a network of other zombie computers. Rogue hackers control botnets to perform orchestrated denial of service (DOS) attacks and to widely spread email spam and malware, among other misdeeds.

Botnet attacks have been around for a long time but are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. So far this year, there have been several high-profile cases that illustrate the power of botnets. Through the global ‘Pony’ botnet attack, for instance, criminals stole about $220,000 in bitcoins and other digital currencies. And a large botnet recently infected Internet-connected home appliances —including refrigerators!—to send out more than 750,000 malicious emails.

Here’s the really scary part: Your computer could be part of a botnet, and you might not even be aware of it. And if your PC doesn’t have at the minimum, an antivirus and two-way firewall, you’ve just increased the chance that your PC could be a zombie. Here are 8 signs your computer might be a zombie, and what you can do to bring it back to the land of the living.

8 Signs Your PC Might Be a Zombie
1. Your computer’s performance is noticeably slower, even when you don’t have many applications open. Criminals want your computer to carry out illegal actions, and those actions require the use of your computer’s processor and network. So if your computer and/or your Internet connection speed have become sluggish, it may be because of a zombie.

2. You receive unexplained error messages.

3. Your computer crashes frequently.

4. You discover messages in your outgoing email folder that you didn’t send. A tip-off might be if you receive bounce-back notifications from people you don’t know or haven’t emailed.

5. It takes your computer longer to shut down and start up.

6. You discover an unexpected loss of hard disk (or flash storage) space.

7. Your Web browser frequently closes for no obvious reason.

8. Your access to computer security websites is blocked.

How to ‘Kill’ a Computer Zombie
If your PC has become a zombie, there may be ways to resurrect it.

• Update your antivirus and/or anti-spyware software and scan your computer’s hard drive to find and remove the malware. Keep in mind some types of malware will prevent your antivirus software from running. In that event, download additional antivirus software and try to run each one until you find a program that will get past the zombie’s self-defenses.

• Often, zombie/bot malware hides from security software scanners by installing a rootkit. A rootkit is a stealth piece of software that’s usually malicious. There are free rootkit detection software programs you can download.

• Set your computer’s personal firewall to its maximum-security level. This will require applications seeking access to the Internet to notify you, enabling you to track all incoming as well as outgoing traffic. In turn, this can help you identify repeated requests from the same application to access just a few destinations—a telltale sign the application is a zombie.

• If that’s the case, do a search of the application’s name to see if others have identified it as malware. Try to create a list of all files associated with the suspicious application and where they’re located on your storage drive. Remove the application and any related files immediately and restart your computer. You may have to do this several times, because one piece of malware may have several variants on the same computer.

• You’re not going to like this one, but here goes: If you’ve discovered your computer is a zombie and want to make sure you’re completely zombie-free, you should completely wipe the hard drive or flash drive and reinstall the operating system and applications. Make sure your important files are backed up first, of course.

• Once you’ve restored your computer’s storage drive, applications, and documents, run your security software again just to make sure nothing is amiss.

Better Safe Than Zombified
If your computer has become a zombie, it’s probably because you clicked on a malicious file attachment or installed an application you weren’t 100 percent sure about.

To reduce the risk of your computer being compromised again, keep your security software running and updated and your personal firewall at maximum level. Check emails with file attachments closely; you can often tell that the sender didn’t actually email it to you by the stilted language, improper spelling, or other signs. Delete spam email messages without opening them. Don’t download applications if you have any concerns about their safety.

If you take these preventative steps, you can spend less time worrying about your computer and more time watching The Walking Dead. That’s the kind of zombie we like.

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To Xfinity WiFi we’re all hotspots, but you don’t have to be

Everything we’re told about digital security says that you should never let strangers roam your network without your permission. But if you’re a Comcast customer, that’s exactly what will happen as the company’s Xfinity WiFi service rolls out. Fortunately, there’s a way to bar the door.

With Xfinity WiFi, we’re all hotspots now

14102019444 70917d2f16 o Mike Mozart via Flickr
Comcast says it’ll give plenty of notice before your modem is Xfinity-WiFi-enabled.

If you live in a major metropolitan area in the East Coast or in the Midwest, chances are Xfinity WiFi’s already operating in your area. The service takes advantage of the dual-band (2.5GHz/5GHz) Xfinity Wireless Gateway 2 modem (model DPC3939) it’s been distributing to customers for the past year. (Other modems Comcast uses also have the capability.) Comcast reserves one band and antenna for your own use, and one to serve as a public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot.

There’s an easy way to tell whether the public hotspot’s enabled on your modem: You should see an “xfinitywifi” public SSID broadcast from your own router. To access it, users will need a Comcast Xfinity login and password.

Comcast has already installed 1 million Xfinity WiFi hotspots across the nation, with plans to reach 8 million by the end of the year. Target metropolitan areas include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C., Comcast says.

xfinity login
All you’ll need to log in to Xfinity Wi-Fi is your Xfinity login and password.

Comcast customers at the “Performance” (25-Mbps) tier or above will be able to surf on any public Xfinity WiFi hotspot for an unlimited amount of time, for free. (If you’re a Comcast customer at a slower tier, or not a customer at all, you can try it free for two one-hour sessions, according to a Comcast spokesperson.)

To ensure your bandwidth isn’t monopolized, only five people will be able to sign onto an Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot at one time, the spokesperson added.

Is sharing safe?

The security questions are more difficult question to answer. According to Comcast, if someone logs on and begins downloading pornography, for example, such actions will be linked to that person’s account. You won’t be liable, the spokesman said.

But whether that person will be able to access other devices on your network, including your hard drive, is a separate question. And Comcast’s response isn’t reassuring.

Comcast encourages users to set strong passwords, and it supplies antivirus software to its customers. If the company does detect an unusual amount or source of traffic, such as a customer who may have been infected by a virus and turned into a zombie, or ‘bot,” that customer will be notified.

That doesn’t answer the question of whether an elderly customer blissfully surfing away on an unprotected PC will be unduly exposed by Xfinity WiFi. Comcast recommends that customers use antivirus protection plus a firewall and take advantage of its gateway’s 128-bit WPA and WPA2 encryption. “If a consumer doesn’t put the in the necessary precautions, to at least take some of these steps, they’re not doing everything they can to protect their account,” the spokesman said.

xfinity wireless gateway
The Xfinity wireless gateway.

Comcast says that users should have been notified of their router’s evolution into an Xfinity hotspot via email, mailers, and even a press release. If you don’t want Xfinity WiFi, however, you have to opt out. Here’s the process, as noted by Dwight Silverman:

  •  Log into your Comcast account page at
  • Click on Users & Preferences.
  • Look for a heading on the page for “Service Address.” Below your address, click the link that reads “Manage Xfinity WiFi.”
  • Click the button for “Disable Xfinity Wifi Home Hotspot.”
  • Click Save.

You can also call Comcast and ask that they put the modem into “bridge mode.”

The answer: buy an approved third-party router

The easiest way, of course, is to simply ditch Comcast’s modem entirely. PCWorld contributor Eric Geier gets into the nuts and bolts. To its credit, Comcast makes the process simple from its end as well.

First, check Comcast’s site to see whether your existing cable modem is expiring, as Comcast may not tell you. An older modem may be hobbling your premium-broadband service. Proceed to Comcast’s dedicated site to buy a new cable modem. (Cox has its own list of compatible modems, as does Time Warner Cable.)

On the Comcast site, you’ll find prices as low as $70 (new from Amazon) for the Arris/Motorola SB6121 bare-bones modem. (On the low end, of course, you’ll need to supply a separate router.) Have a look at the specs, too: the SB6121 can transfer 172 Mbits/s down and upload up to 131 Mbits/s. That’s more than enough for most small families, especially if your service is only rated at, say, 16 Mbits/s. But if you’re thinking of upgrading to the Extreme 150 tier, for example, that might be pushing it a bit. The $90 Arris SB6141 downloads up to 343 Mbits/s at a time.

arris motorola surfboard sb6141 box shot
One great alternative to the Comcast Xfinity gateway is this simple, inexpensive cable modem from Arris and Motorola.

You can also pay more, if you wish, to buy a true gateway with integrated router capabilities, including the most recent 802.11ac technology for higher-bandwidth wireless streaming and MoCA capability for using your existing coax runs as wired networking cables.

It’s fairly certain the third-party gateways on the Comcast site won’t suddenly sprout Xfinity WiFi capabilities. Simply buy Comcast’s low-end recommended modem and attach your own router to it—either one you already own, or a new model.

The most annoying part of the process may be returning your existing router, and phoning in your new router’s MAC address to ensure it can be identified by your cable provider.

Eventually, of course, any new cable modem you purchase will itself become obsolete. That doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon, however. Last Halloween, CableLabs released the specifications for DOCSIS 3.1, which sets the stage for whopping 10-Gbit/s connections. As Light Reading notes, end-to-end deployment trials will likely begin in 2016. And most cable operators are thinking of DOCSIS 3.1 in the context of a world where video is passed entirely over IP streams, which may be far in the future.

So far, Comcast hasn’t given any indication that it will penalize users for not adopting its Xfinity WiFi router. In other words, you can opt out of supplying a public WiFi hotspot, and still take advantage of other Xfinity hotspots in airports and elsewhere. (Or Starbucks, for that matter.) And with 4G cellular plans becoming cheaper, there’s always the option of tethering to your phone, too.



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Simple mouse and keyboard tricks for efficient file management

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: keyboard shortcuts will set you free.

Yes, they’re a pain to learn, and many of us are used to sticking with a mouse. Nevertheless, being familiar with even a handful of shortcuts will help you get around your system faster—plus it has the added benefit of making you feel like a power user.

Even if you’re a tried and true mouse-only user, I’ve got one old—yet little known—trick for you too. All of today’s shortcuts center around file management with File Explorer/Windows Explorer and will work with Windows 7 and up.

Alt-ernative keyboard shortcuts

These shortcuts only work once you’ve been navigating for a while in an open File Explorer window.

Navigate File Explorer quickly with the Alt and arrow keys.

Going up one folder level

Let’s say you are looking at a group of folders such as Documents>Vacation Plans>2014>Summer. But now you need to get back up to the Vacation Plans folder, which is two levels up from where you are now.

Instead of clicking through with your mouse, you could just press Alt-Up Arrow (hitting the up arrow twice) to take you back to view the contents of the Vacation Plans folder.

  • Alt-Up Arrow: Move up the file tree by one level.

Back and forth

Now, let’s say you changed your mind and want to go back inside the 2014 folder. Just hit Alt-Left Arrow, which is just like hitting the back button in File Explorer. And that means, you guessed it, hitting Alt+Right Arrow is just like clicking the forward arrow in File Explorer.

  • Alt-Left Arrow: Go back.
  • Alt-Right Arrow: Go forward again.

Right-click hat trick


Your mouse also has a right-click trick to help you copy, move, and create new shortcuts for files. This trick works in Windows XP and up.

Let’s say you want to copy a file from the Desktop and move it to OneDrive. The standard way to do this is to right-click the file on the Desktop, select copy, open OneDrive, right-click again and select paste.

That’s an awful lot of steps so try this instead: Right-click the file on the desktop and drag it into OneDrive. Then release your mouse and a new contextual menu pops up with options to copy, move, or create a shortcut to your file in OneDrive. Select the option you want (in this case copy) and you’re all done.

Much faster.

These are pretty minor tricks, but learning them will make you just that little bit more efficient on the desktop.


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Apple iOS 8 – What’s Inside

apple_imageApple unveiled this week a major new update to its mobile operating system.

Each year Apple holds its WWDC keynote, where the Cupertino-based giant lifts the veil on new versions of its mobile and desktop operating systems. This year has been no different, and during the World Wide Developer Conference held earlier this week, Apple announced a new version of OS X called Yosemite, along with a new version of iOS – specifically iOS 8. What made this year’s WWDC more special than the previous keynotes is the fact that, in Apple’s vision, iOS 8 represents the biggest release since the launch of the App Store.

iOS 8 Overview

One of the biggest features implemented in iOS 8 which will definitely catch the interest of Mac users is Handoff. In essence, Handoff is an expansion of AirDrop, which allows iOS 8 devices to interact with the new version of OS X, dubbed Yosemite. Through Handoff, OS X and iOS users will have the ability to share numerous types of tasks and data between the iPhone and the Mac, including files, phone calls, messages and more.

Apple has also announced the new iCloud Drive, which will be available not only on OS X Yosemite, but also on iOS 8. In a nutshell, iCloud Drive allows users to sync application files across all compatible Apple devices. A more detailed explanation on how this feature works would be that the user can start an application, launch the iCloud Drive panel and open a file that is originally stored on a different app. Once the file has been edited/manipulated by the user, the file is then stored back to its original application/location. In other words, iCloud Drive is pretty much Apple’s response to DropBox and Google Drive.

Another very exciting addition to iOS 8 is widget support. Indeed, after many years of requests from iOS users, Apple has finally decided to implement widgets in iOS. However, unlike what you get on Android OS, the widgets in iOS will be implemented in the Notification center, not on the home screen.

Speaking of notifications, iOS 8 brings a handful of new features and improvements in this area. The new notification system now shows a pop-up at the top of the screen, which can be opened, ignored and/or replied to, without having to close the application that you’re currently running.

iMessage has also been revamped, and it now borrows a few pages from WhatsApp’s book. As such, iMessage now allows the user to send audio and video messages from within the application. The email client received a number of improvements as well, and users will now be able to easily discard a message with just a simple swiping gesture.

Moving on to the native keyboard, iOS 8 brings a number of improvements in this area as well, including better text and touch prediction, improved algorithms and (hold on to your hats!), support for third-party keyboard applications. As a result, we expect apps such as Swype and SwiftKey to be soon available on both the iPad and the iPhone.

Earlier this year there were a large number of rumors indicating that Apple will focus on its health application with iOS 8. Although the company has indeed expanded the health application’s functionality, the hype might have been overdone. Still, iOS 8 comes with what Apple calls HealthKit, basically an app that gathers all the data and information collected by the device’s health tracking apps into one place. In addition, Apple has also teamed up with Nike and the Mayo clinic, and according to the manufacturer, the HealthKit app will be capable of communicating with Mayo whenever the user’s vital signs are alarming. In turn, the clinic can contact the user in order to determine his or her health status, and whether or not the user is in need of medical assistance.

Interestingly, Apple has also promised a large number of changes in the App Store. As such, developers will be able to offer App Bundles, and they’ll also have the ability to demonstrate their products through videos, much like they can on the Google Play Store. More so, developers will be able to invite users to closed beta programs. Moreover, the new App Store will implement “Family Sharing” – a new feature that allows up to six family members to share iBooks and various iTunes and App Store purchases.

Since WWDC is a “developer conference” after all, it’s pretty obvious that Apple has shed more light on the new changes brought to the software developer kit. Perhaps one of the most intriguing changes is that the company has opened up the Touch ID to third-party developers, which should lead to a number of interesting applications in the future. In addition, Apple has introduced more than 4,000 new APIs, of which a considerable number will be associated with new technologies for game development.

Finally, we should talk about availability and launch dates. Long story short, iOS 8 will be officially released this fall on the iPad 2 and up, the iPhone 4S and its sequels, as well as on the iPod Touch 5. A developer beta was released earlier this week, so if you are part of the developer program then you can already take the new OS for a spin.

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Facing the Windows XP apocalypse? Here are some options

Are you ready for the “XP Apocalypse” on April 8?

That’s when Microsoft plans to stop issuing security updates for the aging, but still popular XP version of its flagship Windows operating system, which by some estimates is still running on nearly one in three personal computers in homes and offices around the world, along with some bank ATMs and other commercial systems.

Security experts say those machines will become significantly more vulnerable to viruses, spyware and other malicious hacks once Microsoft withdraws its support. No one’s predicting a Mayan-style cataclysm, but if you’re still using XP, here are some things to consider.

iStock image; photo illustration by Chuck Todd / Bay Area News Group

iStock image;

Microsoft started selling XP back in 2001 — long before the much-maligned Vista and two subsequent versions known as Windows 7 and Windows 8. The company says it’s already overextended the natural life cycle of XP, while newer versions of Windows offer better security and performance, especially when it comes to newer Web services and touch-enabled programs.

Even so, many consumers, businesses and government agencies have seen no reason to replace XP on their desktop and laptop computers, according to research firm NetMarketShare, which says XP powers nearly 30 percent of all personal computers worldwide. Others estimate 200 million or more XP users.

“XP is a solid operating system. People are used to it. They’ve got other software that’s compatible with it. And all their stuff is on it,” said Kevin McGuire, who owns the Bay Area Computerman repair shop in West San Jose. “I still have computers running XP in my shop.”

While McGuire is skeptical of the more dire warnings about XP, other experts say there’s reason to be concerned. Several makers of antivirus programs and other security software say their products will continue to work with XP, but they may not provide full protection.

Security programs can detect and neutralize malware, but they don’t repair vulnerabilities in the underlying operating system, said Gerry Egan, senior director of product management at Symantec, which “strongly recommends” that XP users upgrade to a newer operating system.

Like most software companies, Microsoft issues regular security updates or “patches” for Windows, which it distributes through free downloads as new vulnerabilities are found. It plans to stop doing this for XP, while continuing to release updates for newer Windows versions.

That in itself could create a road map for hackers to attack XP, said Egan, because some vulnerabilities may affect more than one version of Windows. When Microsoft issues a patch for a later version, he predicted, hackers will check to see if they can exploit the same, unpatched weakness in XP.

Computers running XP “will be an easy target for hackers” and could even be taken over by bots, or automated programs that disguise their malicious nature to infect other PCs running newer operating systems, said Ondrej Vlcek, chief operations officer at antivirus maker Avast, in a recent blog post.

With the April 8 deadline looming, XP users have some options. One is to finally get a new version of Windows.

Microsoft, of course, hopes people will buy the latest version, although Windows 8 has a drastically revamped interface that longtime XP users may find confusing. It also requires more memory and processing power than some older computers can provide.

Windows 7 is a closer cousin to XP, but it was first sold in 2009 and is getting hard to find. Amazon, for example, only sells Windows 7 in a kit that must be installed on a new hard drive or one that’s been wiped completely clean — a tricky process beyond many consumers’ expertise.

More user-friendly installation kits may be available if you look. Stan Reynolds at On Balance, a Walnut Creek repair shop, said he can provide and install Windows 7 on an older PC, although it will cost several hundred dollars.

Given the cost and trouble of installing a new system, some XP users may opt to just buy a new PC, with modern hardware and software already on board. While many retailers promote the latest models running Windows 8, some stores still have machines with Windows 7. There are also desktops and laptops with rival operating systems from Apple and Google — or, for less money, a tablet or e-reader might suffice.

But for those who really want to keep using XP, experts offer this advice:

First, be sure to use an updated anti-malware program; some experts recommend using two, since one may find things the other misses. Microsoft Security Essentials is a free anti-malware program that you can download now; you won’t be able to download the XP version after April 8, although Microsoft says it will distribute updates for an unspecified time.

Second, switch to Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox for Web browsing. Both will continue to work with XP and have the latest browser security features. The two most recent versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer won’t work with XP, while older versions of Explorer don’t work as well with newer websites.

Finally, stick to trusted websites and avoid using an XP computer for online banking, shopping or anything involving sensitive information. Better still, disconnect from the Internet and just use the computer for word-processing, spread sheets or games that are already installed on your machine.

While those steps may reduce the risk, “our advice is to upgrade,” said Richard Yom, owner of the PC Clinic repair shop in San Jose. Still, he acknowledged, “some people will wait as long as they can.”


If you must keep using XP: Make sure you’ve got updated anti-malware programs, use Chrome or Firefox to browse the Web, and don’t store or transmit sensitive information on your PC. Better still, disconnect from the Internet and only use software that’s already installed.
Consider upgrading to Windows 7 or 8, but be advised: Windows 7 is getting harder to find, and older computers may lack the memory and processing power to support Windows 8.
Maybe it’s time to buy a new computer: Check out the new Windows-based PCs, or maybe a Mac or Chromebook (which use operating systems from Apple and Google). For smaller budgets, consider a tablet.

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Windows XP registry hack keeps security updates rolling for the dead operating system


Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP in April, but a simple registry hack lets users continue to get security updates.

The hack, as reported by ZDNet, fools Microsoft into thinking the system is running Windows Embedded POSReady 2009, a variant of XP that’s used by ATMs and cash registers. Those systems will keep getting security updates until 2019.

All XP users need to do is create a text file with the following contents:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00



Then, change the file extension from “.txt” to “.reg,” and run the file in Windows Explorer. Opening Windows Update at this point should reveal several new security updates.

On the downside, the hack only works on 32-bit systems. There’s a workaround for 64-bit machines, but it involves manually downloading update files from Microsoft’s website and tweaking them so that Microsoft doesn’t block the installation. (Windows XP 64-bit is based on Windows Server 2003, which Microsoft is supporting until next year, and Microsoft checks to make sure XP users aren’t installing those Windows Server updates.)

There are, of course, other caveats: While the registry hack doesn’t seem to cause any issues, it may not provide the same level of protection as a newer operating system with proper security updates. And unsurprisingly, Microsoft is not amused.

“The security updates that could be installed are intended for Windows Embedded and Windows Server 2003 customers and do not fully protect Windows XP customers,” the company said in a statement to ZDNet. “Windows XP customers also run a significant risk of functionality issues with their machines if they install these updates, as they are not tested against Windows XP.”

Microsoft would prefer that users upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 instead, of course, though various Linux operating system variants are viable options as well. Even if you enable this registry hack, you’ll still want to take steps to keep your Windows XP PC as safe as possible and upgrade to a more modern—and officially supported—operating system as soon as possible.


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Five things you should know about iOS security


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.

motor skills assistive siri
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.

touchid hero
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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