Do you accommodate technology too much? Sizing up the options

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, February 15, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

Cartoon - I'm fine!  This is just my computer face.
The tension is obvious. Head and neck pitched forward; shoulders hunched; brow furrowed, eyes squinting … all supporting the virtual manipulation of objects on a computer screen. I see it all the time, not just in client’s offices and home, but at internet-enabled cafes and in other public spaces. We work very hard to create, modify, read, and navigate our computers and mobile devices.

As a result, we develop CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome), a combination of headaches, eye and neck problems from staring fixedly at the screen. 90% of people who use a computer screen three hours or more are likely to experience these problems. Besides display-related problems, repetitive motions like typing and mouse clicking also take their toll in the form of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and RSI (Repetitive Stress or Strain Injuries).

Most of the time of we work harder than we need to, accommodating how information is presented on the screen or how information is entered, instead of having the screen or software, or input devices accommodating us. It doesn’t have to be that way, because there are many ways to adjust existing settings to improve the experience.

Typical Icons sizes from 16x16 to 48x48 pixels

Making things easier to see

Most icons, mouse pointers, cursors, and text are too small to comfortably locate or understand at today’s high screen resolutions. Icons and pointers, for example are usually 16×16 or 32×32 pixels (picture elements). This was fine years ago on a 19” monitor with 1024×758 pixel resolution. However, a common scenario today is closer to a HD screen (1920×1080 pixels) on a 15” laptop. This reduces the relative size of these objects tremendously. Here are some ways your system can adjust this relative size.

Available Mouse Pointers in Windows 7


Change the size of your mouse pointer

Mac: On older Macs, go to Universal Access in System Preferences, choose Mouse and Trackpad. For newer Macs, locate Accessibility in System Preferences (or press Command-Option-F5, choosing Preferences) and select Display. In all cases, locate the cursor size slide control and adjust the slider to your desire pointer size.

Mac OSX Mountain Lion Accessibility Display Options

Windows: Choose one of the large or extra-large Schemes in the Pointer tab of Mouse Properties. In Windows 7 or earlier, you can quickly search for Mouse Properties by typing “mouse” directly in Control Panel (upper right-corner) or from the Start Menu. In Windows 8/8.1, use the Search charm to locate this Control Panel item.

Windows 7 Mouse Properties - Pointers


Change the pixel size or DPI (dots per inch) of your text and icons

Mac: Right-click on the Desktop and choose Show View Options from the menu. This will display a panel that lets you adjust both icons and text for the Desktop. There are also additional options for adjusting finder windows and applications.

Mac - Show View Option

Windows: Right-click on the Desktop and choose Screen resolution from the menu. Click on the link “Make text and other items larger or smaller.” The Control Page that displays will let you switch from the default of 100% to 125% or 150% (the last item only appearing on systems supporting at least 1200×900 pixels). You can also set a custom or larger size using the “set custom text size (DPI) link on the left side. For Windows 7 and later, this is consistent. The procedure changes for Windows Vista and Windows XP.

Maker Text Bigger - Windows 7

For Windows 8/8.1, these settings do not impact the new Windows 8 UI or apps. For those, go to Ease of Access in PC Settings at bottom of the Settings charm and turn on “Make everything on your screen bigger.” This option is disabled on displays less than 1024 pixels high.

Windows 8 - Ease of Access - Make everything on your screen bigger


Other sizing and accommodation alternatives

Of course, your web browser also has the ability to resize text on web page. We will explore some of those options next week.

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April 8th – The End for Windows XP?

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, February 8, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

Today marks the 48th-day countdown to a major event in the computer world. It’s not a major product launch or a new technical advance. “It’s the end of an era,” some say or at least, the beginning of the end <smile>.

On April 8th, Microsoft stops supporting Windows XP.

Microsoft has been promoting this day for years in the tech press, hoping to move businesses and consumers out of an operating system that launched the same year they launched the original Xbox game console, and were still working out an anti-trust agreement with the US Justice Department. It was 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks and our entry into Afghanistan; the year Wikipedia went online, Apple started a music download service called iTunes and their first portable music player, the iPod.

Windows XP, despite its age, is still being used by 29% of Windows users, according to Netshare, so there is concern about what this move by Microsoft means. Here are some answers to the common questions I am hearing about the 12 year-old operating system.

Does Windows XP stop working on April 8th? Can I continue to install it or reinstall it.
No, Windows XP will continue to function and you can continue to install it on computers. Of course Windows XP has not been available as a new purchase with or without a computer for years.

Since Windows XP still requires activation to continue to use it within 30 days of installation, the online activation feature will still continue to function. What will not be available is activation through a phone call. Microsoft will no longer be staffing that service.

What does Microsoft mean by “end of support?”
End of support is defined in some detail for Windows XP on Microsoft’s Support Lifecycle page, but essentially it falls into Mainstream support and Extended Support categories. Mainstream includes free warranty support for a new product installation and other no-charge support options. For Extended Support, focus shifts to paid support, and free online support options.

At the end of Extended Support (in this case, April 8, 2014), Microsoft stops staffing support, as well as development and testing of updates for the product. While many of these free online support options like the Microsoft’s Download Center may still continue to be available, any active or staffed services related to Windows XP will not. Windows XP-specific support topics in Microsoft’s Knowledge Base will still be available on the web site, but no longer be updated or maintained.

Microsoft’s most utilized support service is Windows Update. WU provides product fixes and security updates to improve the system and keep it protected. End of support for most people means the elimination of that service. The implications of not receiving additional security updates is that Windows XP will not be protected from attack if there are vulnerabilities discovered after April 8th.

What are the dangers of going on the web with my Windows XP system after the 8th?
Without the protection of new security updates for Windows XP, the chance of a newly discovered security weakness being exploited by malware is very high. Some people are suggesting that malware authors will try to hold information back on vulnerabilities in order exploit them on Windows XP after the April date. Others speculate that Windows XP will simply become more vulnerable as time goes on.

While up-to-date anti-malware software will often catch viruses and other malware, a system update is the most effective deterrent against infection, data loss, or other consequences. For that reason, I recommend that you not connect a Windows XP system to the Internet after April 8th.

I need my Windows XP computer for Internet access to email and other web sites, what do I do?
I recognize this is a tough spot if your goal is to keep your existing computer running Windows XP. Aside from purchasing a new computer, you might also upgrade your system to Windows 7. Though less common today than a year ago, it is still possible to find Windows 7 available for purchase online. The key concern is whether your computer hardware will support a later version of Windows. Downloading the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor can help you determine this.

While Microsoft is providing some customized options for large companies, the only other alternative is to purchase a new system. Fortunately, the average price range of a new PC desktop or laptop is about the same it was 10 years ago though the system has evolved in capability and capacity.

I am running Windows 7 but have programs running in “Windows XP Mode.” Does this impact them?
Windows XP Mode is the capability of Windows 7 to run applications that don’t work under Windows 7 itself in a “virtual” Windows XP system. As this is a complete Windows XP environment, that environment is also subject to the same lifecycle constraints as Windows XP on the standalone computer. If you truly need Windows XP Mode to run your program and do not need Internet access, I recommend going to the settings of Windows XP Mode (right-click on XP Mode in the Windows Virtual PC folder and chose settings) and under Networking, change Adapter in use to “Not Connected”

I heard that Microsoft Security Essentials for XP will also no longer be supported. Is this true?
Yes, but in April, the only restriction is that the Security Essential for XP program will no longer be downloadable. If you are current using Security Essentials on XP as your anti-virus, virus signature updates will continue to be available until July 2015.

Is Microsoft ending support for anything else soon?
Yes, Microsoft Office 2003, the last version of Office that doesn’t use the Office “ribbon” also reaches its end of support on April 8th. Many of the same security concerns about Windows XP also apply to this version of Office.


Virtual Credit Cards Put Online Card Requirements under Your Control

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, February 1, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

While leading a discussion on electronic books recently, an attendee raised a question about security. He didn’t like the idea of having his credit card “on file” with the eBook retailer. Unfortunately, most providers of eBooks devices and applications seem to require this. I recently tried to download an eBook from Barnes and Noble. Though the eBook was free, they still required a credit card on file to complete the transaction.

The Price of a “Buy” Button
It’s not just eBook stores. Anyone who has a iTunes account, buys apps for their tablet or smartphone, or uses Google Wallet or a Starbucks card often has a credit card on file. In a world where purchases are made with a single button, giving out your card info has become a necessity. While there are legal protections against fraudulent charges, it is still uncomfortable to not control your own credit card.

The Flexibility of Virtual Cards
There are card companies who offer “virtual card” for customers in place of your regular credit card. CITI calls their program, Virtual Account Numbers. Bank of America’s service is ShopSafe.

Both these services let you set payment limits and expiration dates from one month to 12 months, providing the period is within the expiration date of your regular credit card.

Using ShopSafe
I used Bank of America’s ShopSafe and found that it works well, though finding the feature on the web was a bit challenging. To find Shopsafe in a current BoA account, go into your current credit card area after signing in to view your card activity. Then switch tabs to Information and Services. Finally click on ShopeSafe under Features to display ShopSafe’s activity window. From here you can create a new card number and manage any existing numbers you have created.

The ShopSafe activity window is built using Adobe Flash Player which does not work well for some mobile devices like iPads and iPhone but should work fine elsewhere. When I have had problem displaying the window, usually closing the web browser and logging back into the Bank of America web will solve that problem.

One requirement for ShopSafe card numbers is that they are tied to a specific merchant. Once you have used a card number to pay for something, that card can only be used at that place of business as a security measure. Fortunately, you have no limit in creating additional card numbers to use elsewhere.

Finding vCards
As useful as virtual credit cards are, not all credit card vendors offer them. American Express shelved their vCard plan a few years ago in favor of prepaid credit cards, a sort of debit card that you can load the card with cash for use. Discover has discontinued its Secure Online Account Numbers service, effective February 6th of this year.

While prepaid credit cards provide a number of the same benefits as virtual credit cards, they may not be protected under the same liability rules as your regular credit card. You should check with your credit card vendor to confirm this and what kinds of virtual cards they offer.

Remember, its not “real”
While virtual cards are great for online and telephone purchases, they do not include a physical card. As a result, you cannot use them for on-site purchases or a purchase that requires you to present your card to confirm merchandise pick-up.

That said, it’s nice to have a card number in situations where you would prefer to limit the time or amount available.


A Little White Lie Trips Up Apps

Author’s note: I recently started writing a tech column for an online community newspaper on the theory that if I couldn’t regular commit to regular posts on my own blog, it might be easier to commit to someone else’s publication.  We’ll see how this works.

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, January 25, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series.

“Quicken 2014 says my Windows 7 is not supported.”

That was the problem posed to me a few weeks ago by a client who had been using Intuit’s accounting package for years, faithfully upgrading it each year. Starting Quicken after his most recent upgrade produced two puzzling error messages.

The first message stated that Quicken does not support “running as administrator.” Closing that message produced another message, stating that “Quicken requires Windows XP Service Pack 2 or later to run.” and adding that his version of Windows is not supported.

Since my client had the only account on the PC, he was the administrator, but the first message suggests he shouldn’t be. The other message suggested that he might be running a pretty old version of Windows. It was very confusing.

Why were these messages appearing? Because Windows 7 was telling Quicken 2014 what it thought it wanted to hear … all in the name of program compatibility.

Compatibility Is in the Eye of the Application

As Windows has changed in feature sophistication and security, its compatibility with existing applications becomes more problematic. Older applications are unaware of these changes and often have difficulty handling the new restrictions placed on them. The most common compatibility problems occur for programs when (1) they either do something no longer permitted or (2) the Windows version is interpreted incorrectly.

As a result applications, as they start up, typically make requests of the operating system to check for earlier, incompatible OS versions. Unfortunately, many applications misinterpret the results of those requests, disqualifying a new, unfamiliar OS.

For this reason, Windows has included the ability to “lie” to applications, telling them that the current version of the operation system is actually earlier version of Windows that is more acceptable to the application.  This functionality has been built into Windows for the last decade or so under the name “Compatibility Mode.” Compatibility mode will also change Windows’ interaction with the program to accommodate the use of old-style program requests. The latest form of this is included in the Program Compatibility Assistant.

Older programs are also unaware of many security restriction Windows now have in place to protect the system and other applications from malware infection. So these programs often fail if they cannot access or save to protected areas of the hard drive or system memory. In order to run successfully, they need “administrator access.” or to “run as an administrator.”

The Compatibility Tab

As a result, the properties for a program displays a tab for Compatibility (example shown here from Windows 8). To view this on your Windows 8.1 and earlier system, Right-click on a Desktop or Explorer program icon and chose Properties from the resulting menu.)

Though settings have evolved over the time, two of the most useful are “Run this program in compatibility mode for…” and “Run this program as an administrator.”

The first allows you to tell an application you are running in a previous version of Windows. The second grants the program “administrative rights” to access normally protected parts of the system.

Compatibility Settings are a Double-Edged Sword

Of course, setting administrative rights and a different version of Windows can also backfire, especially with an up-to-date version of a program like Quicken 2014.

A check of the compatibility tab on the icon for my client’s version of the software showed both the administrator and compatibility mode options checked and the compatibility mode was set to Windows XP, Service Pack 2.

Now the error messages actually make sense. Quicken 2014 does not support any version less that Windows XP, Service Pack 3. And, as it was designed to work within the security boundaries of Windows 7, an objection was made running the using less secure administrator settings.

How Were These Compatibility Settings Applied Initially?

Its hard to know for sure, but I suspect the icon and its compatibility settings were “inherited” from one version of Quicken to another over the years, until a version of the software was installed wouldn’t tolerate them in place anymore.

This Could Happen to an Application Near You

Given that Windows XP, an common compatibility emulation for Windows Vista, 7, and 8/8.1, is reaching its “end of support” cycle this year, we will probably be seeing more of these scenarios in the coming months. More and more application updates will drop support for Windows XP, and if Windows XP compatibility settings are in place, they will also complain as Quicken 2014 did for my client.