Plugged In: Last-minute warnings for holiday computers

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

This week’s column on last-minute computing was, appropriately, written just before deadline.

Cutting a Christmas tree, wrapping presents and making a run to the landfill all somehow seemed more pressing earlier today until it’s now literally the 11th hour of Sunday evening. Good thing that the Reporter’s editor is probably busy chasing down other recalcitrant writers.

My original plan for this week’s column was to compare reasonably priced, high-quality, third-party lenses made for a variety of digital SLR cameras, but several fairly significant computing problems intervened.

Security alert

A serious security hole has just been discovered in Adobe Acrobat and in the ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat Reader. Practically everyone has Acrobat Reader on their computer and it’s the de facto document standard for both businesses and governmental agencies.

Acrobat’s security hole allows an infected PDF file, when opened in Acrobat, to introduce a malicious Java script into your computer that discovers and transmits private information from your computer to someone, somewhere. The bug has been found in PDF files floating around the Internet, so this is a real security problem, not merely a theoretical concern. Theft and misuse of financial and identity information are possible.

Adobe promises an automatically applied fix by Jan. 12, 2010. In the meantime, you can take some manual steps to protect yourself. First, in both Acrobat and Acrobat Reader, go to the menu bar, click on Edit, then click on Preferences at the bottom of the edit menu.

This will start a configuration routine. In the left-hand column, click on the JavaScript option. That brings up a box in the right-hand column that allows you to alter JavaScript options. Click and uncheck the Enable Adobe JavaScript check box. Save and exit. Do this for all Acrobat and Acrobat Reader programs that you have installed on your computers.

At this point, JavaScript should be disabled in Acrobat products. You should then see a yellow band stating that JavaScript is disabled displayed across the top of any PDF files that have embedded JavaScript. Not all PDF files include embedded JavaScript, so don’t be concerned if you don’t see the yellow band across every PDF file.

Adobe will probably automatically update and correct any affected products when a security fix is available and advise users that JavaScript can be again used safely. My gut sense is that this JavaScript security hole probably affects many computer programs in addition to Adobe products but, since first discovered floating around the Internet a week ago, it’s only been found in PDF files so far.

Windows 7

Vista was a disaster for Microsoft. The standard 32-bit version was notoriously slow and unstable. The 64-bit version, which was developed from the very stable 64-bit version of Windows XP (XP Professional, x64 version), was actually a fairly stable operating system.

Unfortunately, 64-bit Vista ran slower than both XP and XP x64. Hardware compatibility, particularly with scanners, was also a real problem, at least initially. Microsoft really built a lot of security into Vista, perhaps too much to be easily usable by the average business user. Because Microsoft seriously overstated Vista’s performance, reviewers and users were even more disappointed, resulting in a PR and financial disaster for Microsoft. Vista was dropped only two years after introduction, which is some sort of record for Microsoft.

Enter Windows 7, which seems to have had the same sort of advance PR buildup as Vista. Early Microsoft leaks implied that Windows 7 would finally use a modern microkernal architecture like Linux and would shift away from the massive and increasingly creaky monolithic architecture that characterized Microsoft’s operating systems for the past decade. That would have been very promising because microkernel operating systems are often faster and more stable. However, it appears that Windows 7 as shipped continues to use the same large monolithic as prior MS operating systems rather than a true microkernel-based product.

Despite that, early users seem to like Windows 7 a lot more than Vista, but I recall that Vista also enjoyed a similar honeymoon period. Hardware vendors like Windows 7 even more because every introduction of a new version of Windows usually results in increased hardware sales as users realize that their old systems run the new Microsoft operating systems at glacial speed.

It’s still quite early in the Windows 7 product cycle, so it’s likely that there will inevitably be some stability, security and usability issues to be resolved over the next year or so. Typically, Microsoft ships a comprehensive “Service Pack” update about one year after the product first ships.

I plan to wait until Windows 7 Service Pack 1 is well-proven before moving over to Windows 7. In the meantime, I’ll just upgrade my existing computers, which run 32-bit XP or 64-bit XP. There are no generally available programs that require Windows 7 or Vista, so there is no true impetus to change to a new operating system that may, or may not, run your existing hardware and software as smoothly and as quickly as your current operating system. In addition, just as with Vista, there will likely be some significant hardware incompatibilities with the new operating system.

I certainly would not buy a new computer just so that I could run Windows 7. Doing so makes little sense. Almost inevitably, early adapters of new Microsoft operating systems experience frustrating performance, usability and hardware compatibility problems until a comprehensive corrective service pack ships. 32-bit Windows XP is still available, but only on custom-built systems and on netbook computers, whose lower processing power favors the more efficient Windows XP operating system.

Custom-built systems

Microsoft’s very recent move to Windows 7 reinforces my own strong preference for custom-built computer systems because you can usually specify exactly what you want and can afford. Such systems use standardized, usually higher-quality components that are easy to replace or upgrade locally through any of several competent computer customization and repair shops.

In order to get a sense of what’s locally available, I requested some general quotes for new systems from Peninsula Technologies in Soldotna. A high-end gaming system, equipped with Windows 7, a medium-speed version of Intel’s fast Core i7 CPU, 4-GB memory, and AMD’s 4870 dual core video card runs about $2,000 without monitor. A customized basic business system using Windows XP and AMD’s fast but economical triple-core Phenom II CPU runs about $889, again without monitor. I would expect similar pricing from other local shops.

Netbooks, Notebooks

One reader just had yet another Dell notebook computer bite the dust and asked our opinion about other notebook computer brands.

It’s worth distinguishing between “notebook” computers, which are full-fledged PC and Mac computers, and “netbooks,” which are low-powered, highly portable units that are basically intended to be used in surfing the Internet from public wireless locations.

Netbook systems are usually about half the weight and size of a regular notebook computer, run for several hours on a single battery charge, and use smaller LCD displays and slower CPU processors, usually the Intel Atom N270 or N280 CPU. In fact, most current netbook computers don’t have enough processing speed to show a full-screen video without a lot of stops and starts.

Despite their limitations, netbooks are a light, highly useful way to check e-mail and use the Web. If you use some of the handy Web-based business computing programs from Google Apps, a netbook computer can be quite useful when working away from home base.

Netbook computers are probably ideal for teens. Most importantly, at least to a teen, they’re usually available in a number of luridly bright colors, such as pink and purple. Perhaps less importantly, they’ll run for several hours on a single charge and are easily slipped into a backpack.

Even better, many netbook computers sell for under $340, including a 160-GB hard disk and 2-GB DRAM. Be sure that you get one with at least a 10-inch screen. Otherwise, it will be too difficult to read. Almost all of them use the same Intel Atom processor, so you’re not likely to see any significant difference in CPU performance.

Many netbooks ship with the free Linux operating system in order to keep costs down. Linux is a fast and free microkernel operating system. It’s a fine way to browse the Web and check your e-mail but it may not run your business programs. On the other hand, my own HP netbook initially shipped with Microsoft’s Windows Vista. Vista was awfully slow, taking over five minutes to boot to the main screen. When I reformatted the netbook’s hard disk with older Windows XP, booting took only 45 seconds, a reasonable time, and I did not have any further problems. Many less-expensive netbooks can still be purchased with Windows XP, which not only keeps costs down but also improves performance.

The reliable Internet technology vendor http://www.newegg.com had 90 different netbook systems listed for under $400, with most clustered around $330 or so. These seemed to be clones of a single basic design with nearly identical hardware specs but different brand names and, of course, different-colored external cases. A fancy external case adds about $20 to $40 to the final purchase price of an otherwise identical computer.

Acer, Toshiba and HP are reliable brands. Get the 6-cell rechargeable battery version — you’ll be able to go much longer between charges. Buying a spare battery is a good idea.

Notebook computers are the more traditional, battery-powered portable computer. They’re about twice as large and heavy as a netbook computer, almost always run a commercial version of the Windows or Mac operating system, and typically include a faster CPU (which drains your batteries faster) and a 12-inch or larger LCD display. Notebook computer prices start at about $450 and can easily exceed $1,200 for a top-end system. I’ll discuss these in the near future. Overall, I find that HP is a reliable, low-cost consumer brand that Costco usually sells at excellent prices, while Toshiba and Fujitsu tend toward somewhat more expensive, upper-end systems.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under computers, Plugged in, technology

One response to “Plugged In: Last-minute warnings for holiday computers

  1. Hello,
    Just a word to say that Linux isn’t a microkernel operating system. Windows mostly is though (especially since XP).
    Not that it has any influence on anything.

    And a lot of businesses run on Linux of course (as does most of the Internet). But Linux will not run Windows software, except though special environments such as Wine (a transposition of the Windows execution environment in Linux) or in virtualisation.
    I do all of my photography work in Linux and never had any significant trouble.

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