Happy Independence Day

Just wanted to give a shout out to my subscribers that there is no tech blog this weekend.  I have started my Independence Day holiday early, so here is wishing everyone a Happy Independence Day!  Please take the time to remember why we have our nation’s independence, and say “thank you” to a veteran, police, fire, and emergency personnel.

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Discount Wireless Carriers

I can remember the first time I had a wireless phone.  It was 1994, and it was a massive bag phone with AllTel in southwest Georgia.  There was really only one carrier in the region, so the wireless company had you over a barrel.  Those were the good old days where you were limited to certain number of minutes, and of course, there was no such thing as a “data plan”.  Hey, it was just a phone!

Fast-forward to the modern era, and there are a ton of wireless phone service providers.  The big three of course are AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.  I am quite certain I will get hate mail from T-Mobile subscribers for not including them in the big three.  The types of phone plans we have today included unlimited calling and free long distance, a data plan.  Those data plans range from 1GB to 5GB or “unlimited data.”

Big Three = Big Costs

The problem with the big three carriers is the costs add up quickly.  For example, in our family two of us had phones with a major carrier.  Our data plan was 3GB per month and that was a shared data plan along with our mobile phone service.  After all taxes and charges, we were paying nearly $200 a month.  To be blunt, that is ridiculous.  When we tried to renegotiate our deal with our carrier for better pricing we were told to take a hike.  So we decided to take them up on their offer and left.

Same Networks – Half The Cost

You may have wondered if going to a discount carrier, like Straight Talk, Net10, or Virgin is worth it?  What kind of quality are you going to get with a discount carrier, and what type of support can you expect?  We are going to answer those questions, and I will be basing them on my experience.  Your results may vary.  There, my disclaimer is out there now!

When you take on discount wireless, or what is called a prepaid wireless carrier, you are literally making phone calls, and using the exactly same data lines that you would with one of the major carriers.  The way it works is, these companies lease the lines for their own service and then offer it as a discount.  Therefore, depending on the area you are in, you could be using the AT&T network, Verizon, or whomever.  Have you looked at your most recent mobile phone bill lately?  Now imagine being able to get the same benefits, or maybe more, but for half of what you are paying?  If you are still interested, read on.

Data Considerations

Many of the big three companies make you choose a data plan.  So you are constantly trying to figure out if you have enough data on your plan to avoid overage charges.  Usually, the data offered is around 3GB per month.  However, with discount carriers, they will offer an unlimited data plan up to a certain amount of data at 4G LTE speeds, like 8GB.  Some discount wireless providers are starting to raise that amount depending on what plan you are currently on.

Also, take note of your current data usage.  Do you find yourself connected to WIFI most of the time?  Chances are you probably are, what with more and more businesses offering free WIFI when you shop in their stores.  Therefore, why are you paying $90 a month for an “unlimited” data plan if you are not using that much data?  If you are a WIFI Commander, then maybe it is time to consider a switch and save some cash.  There is one thing to be mindful of on discount wireless data.  If you reach your data limit, you are throttled down to 2G speeds.  However, you never get data overage charges, unlike the other carriers.

Support

The type of support you get with discount wireless is by and large going to be through chat, email, or a self service portal.  If you are a person that likes to call in and speak with a representative, then this might be the deal breaker on switching.  However, most of the interactions we do with customer service these days are not over the phone.  If you are fine with that, then support is not going to be a major issue.

BYOP – Bring Your Own Phone

Remember the old days of when you switched carriers you had to buy a phone right up front?  Well, with discount carriers you literally can bring any phone to their network.  It is as simple as inserting their SIM card into your old phone and bang!  You are on their network, but still have the familiarity of using your own phone.  This is nice especially if you recently bought a new smartphone and are out $500-700.  While some of the major carriers are also letting you bring your own phone to their network, in my experience and research, the sheer number of phones they allow is nowhere near the variety that discount carriers allow.

Still Want To Switch?

If you have read this far, you are seriously considering switching, so how about a personal testimonial?  As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I left the Big Three after nearly 15 years of service with them.  Admittedly, going to a discount carrier was a bit unnerving.  As a System Administrator, I have to be reached at all times no matter where I am.  Having spotty service, which might as well be no service at all, was going to be disastrous if it went south.

To our surprise, switching to a discount wireless provider was one of the best decisions we have ever made.  I have yet to go anywhere in East Texas and not be able to make or receive a phone call.  Sure, there is always going to be the odd dead spot, but that is with any carrier.  However, call quality is great, data speeds are awesome, and all of that again, for less than half the cost of our old service provider.  If you are considering cutting costs in your technology budget, then moving to a discount wireless provider may be right up your alley.

Hunter Bonner is a System Administrator.  He can be reached through his blog techedgeblog.wordpress.com and on Twitter @TechEdgeBlog.

Computers For Children

Note:  I blogged about this back in 2014, so this is an updated article.

When I was growing up, computers were barely making their ways into the lives of kids.  I distinctly remember the year my junior high school setup their first computer lab, with shiny Apple IIe computers.  We thought we were on top of the world at 128K of RAM and big old double density floppy disks.  1985 was such a good year!  (I know I just dated myself)

Nowadays, computers go with kids like peanut butter and jelly.  They are certainly in most, if not all, their classrooms at school, and most homes today have at least one computer in the house.  So if you are a parent and considering getting a computer for a child, this article can be your guide into finding the appropriate computer for your children.

Desktop or Laptop?

For many parents, the first conundrum is whether to get their child a desktop or laptop computer.  Desktops are typically built with more durability, which can help with little hands that may not know their own strength, and have more space for expansion, such as hardware upgrades.  Laptops are nice because they take up very little space and in the last decade have proven themselves to be just as powerful as desktops.  In the last few years, the major benefit of course, is the addition of touchscreens on many laptops being manufactured.

Some of the down sides to a desktop is taking up space in the home.  While laptops are space savers and are portable, they could become a potential web security issue, especially with older children like tweens and teens taking them behind closed doors.  Also, laptops from a cost perspective are considerably more expensive than desktops.  Yes, there are those “amazing” deals you see on laptops out there.  I will address that topic later on.

New or Used?

When considering purchasing a computer for your child, the next question that arises is whether one should get a new or a used computer?  This is really going to come down to your own decision and works right for you.  Here are the benefits and risks associated with both.

When purchasing a new computer, you are getting something that no one else has ever used.  Also, new computers come with a manufacturers warranty for at least the first year, so if you have any problems like the hard drive crashing, you have somewhere you can go for repair support and not pay additional money.  Also, a new computer is going to have the latest technology inside, such as the latest processor, memory, and other hardware items.  However, when you are buying a new computer, you are paying brand new prices, which depending on what you are buying, either desktop or laptop, can be pricey.  Those prices can range from $500 to nearly $1600 or more.

Some parents may consider getting their child a used computer for them to cut their teeth on due to cost concerns.  Used computers are not just the ones you find on Craigslist, but that also includes refurbished computers.  When you purchase a used computer, you are not going to have the latest Intel processor, but what you will get typically is a computer that was made in the last couple of years.  If you are purchasing this for your kids to browse the net, use email, and watch cat videos on Youtube, this may be the way to go and save a lot of money.  I recommend purchasing refurbished computers from trusted sellers, as you typically can get a limited warranty from them.  If you are going to purchase one from Craigslist, it is definitely “buyer beware” territory.  Get a computer geek friend to help you out on that.

PC or Mac?

I will not spend a lot of time on this, but this is something to consider.  First, if you have children that attend school, find out what is the primary operating system they use for all their school related work.  Also, look at the computers your already have in your home and what operating system they run on.  While both have their strengths and weaknesses, I can tell you that the overwhelming number of computers today on the planet, and especially in schools, are PCs, which means they are running Windows.  However, if your family is a Mac family, then you may want to go that route.  Again, this is a personal decision.

 

What About Those “Amazing Deals?”

I have addressed this topic before, when covering Black Friday technology shopping, but this also applies when buying a computer for your child.  You will inevitably come across computer “deals” either in snail-mail advertisements, email, or perhaps TV commercials.  You may see something like, “15 inch laptop with Windows 10 only $299.00!”  Sound great when purchasing for a kid right?  Let me tell you why it’s not.

Computers that are advertised with the latest operating system, but for dirt cheap prices, are because you are getting a cheap PC, which is to say, a piece of crap.  It is a machine built with cheap parts and the very minimum amount of hardware to run the operating system.  A closer look at these “deals” and you will find that they have 2GB to 4GB of RAM trying to run Windows 10.  This means almost right out of the gate, your child is going to complain how slow the computer is, and that will get old really quick.  Frankly, you would make out better on Craigslist than with one of these advertised “deals”.

Time To Get One

Regardless of what route you may go, PC or Mac, desktop or laptop, I would highly recommend getting a computer for your child.  Computers are as much a fact of life for children as they are for adults.  Hopefully this guide will help you with making that decision without breaking the bank.

 

Once Again, Microsoft Releases Security Patches for XP

I know that most of my readers are on at least Windows 7, with most of you on Windows 10.  So you may be wondering, why on Earth am I writing about Windows XP security patches?  The answer is very simple.

Unprecedented

First, Microsoft no longer supports Windows XP, unless you are a government agency still using the OS.  However, last month’s #WannaCry ransomware infection that hit the world wide web like a ton of bricks, prompted Microsoft to make the unprecedented decision to manufacture and release security patches to an OS it no longer supports.  That is how bad the WannaCry event was.

Second, security experts at Microsoft are saying that there is the potential for something worse than WannaCry coming down the pike.  They do not go into great detail, but suffice to say, they make the claim that nation-states could potentially be involved.  That means, foreign governments could be involved with the next cyber-attack.  Incidentally, this is not the first time that would happen.

How To Patch Your XP Machine

While Microsoft made the incredible decision to release patches for XP, they did not make them available through Windows Update.  You will have to download them manually.  Please visit the following link and then sort by “last updated”.  I would start on page two, and beginning in May 2017 I would download all patches through 06/12/2017 and install them.  The main reason why people got hit with WannaCry was due to unpatched systems, so if you do this, you should be good to go.

Time To Upgrade

If you are reading this far, you are probably one of those XP holdouts for a variety of reasons.  Most people just simply have an inherent dislike for change, and XP was a great operating system.  However, to be perfectly frank, it is time to stop being a holdout.  Continuing to use outdated operating systems is asking for trouble.  Remember, attackers know that XP has not been patched since 2014, and thus, are going to write viruses to attack that very operating system.  The likelihood that Microsoft will release another patch for XP is extremely remote.

You need to consider upgrading to a Windows 10 machine today.  No, it is not going to look exactly like your XP machine, but you will get over it.  However, the trade-off is that you will have a system that gets regular security updates, unlike what you have now.  Make no mistake, Microsoft had no obligation to patch XP after support ended, and to be honest, people are lucky this is even happening.  Start shopping around, or better yet, follow this blog by subscribing, to get all the latest updates on tech for some ideas.

Email Management

Email is a wonderful thing.  I can fondly remember that, in the past, if I wanted to send someone a letter, I had to use paper, envelope, and a stamp.  Then of course was the waiting time to hear a reply.  With email, we can send in an instant, and get responses equally as fast.

However, email, can get out of hand by filling up your inbox fast.  When that happens, email ceases to be a “wonderful thing”, and turns into a nightmare.  Fortunately, there are some practices you can put into place today to conquer your inbox, and make your email activity more efficient and organized.

Tackling Your Inbox

If you open your email program, and see that you have an endless number of items in your inbox, you need to deal with that.  We will be referring to Microsoft’s Outlook for the purposes of this article.  First of all, if you let emails build up in your inbox to where you have several hundred, or even thousands of emails, how are you going to find anything?  Now some may say they will use the search feature, but when you use keywords, you are still going to have to drill down through a massive list of messages to find what you are looking for.

Consider creating folders in your email program.  In Outlook, you can simply right click on your Inbox, and then click “New Folder”.  Give them descriptive names like, “Travel Documents”, “Bills”, or “Online Shopping.”  Now go through your Inbox and drag and drop those items to your newly created folders.  Now when you are needing something that is of a particular subject, you can jump straight to that folder and search from there, thereby narrowing your search field.

Lay Down Some Rules

Just about everything in life abides by rules, and your email program is no different.  Rules can be setup to make messages take a certain action.  For example, lets say you have a folder called, “Jim”, and you would like to automatically have emails that come from Jim go straight to that folder.  You can create a rule by right clicking on any email from Jim, goto “Rules”, then goto “Always move messages from Jim..”  You will be presented with a list of folders.  Select the folder you want it to go, and then click “OK”.  You may get a prompt to take that action on currently messages in the Inbox.  Check that box and hit “OK” and you are done!

There are also other actions you can take in the Rules section.  You can go to the top toolbar, and click on “Rules” and then “Create Rule”.  From there you can make messages display popup alerts, get special notifications on invitations, or create a rule to have emails from someone who annoys you auto-delete.  Bottom line is, laying down some rules in Outlook will go a long way to restoring order.

Learn To Let Go

When it comes to email management, the inevitable situation comes up of someone who never deletes email.  When I say never, I mean, NEVER!  At the beginning of this article I made mention of an inbox full of hundreds, or thousands of messages.  Many of which are not even read yet, so if this is you, read on.

If you look at your inbox and see 1000 unread emails, it is time to delete those emails.  Now you may say, “Well I was going to read them later.”  When you get to that many unread emails, be honest, you are never going to get around to reading them.  Start with the oldest messages and start deleting away.  You can hold down the CTRL key while you click your messages to pick and choose.  If you have a bunch you need to delete in succession, select the first message, hold down the SHIFT key, and then click the last message you want to delete.  You have now highlighted all of that selection, now just click DELETE.  Once you have deleted all of the ones you want to get rid of, be sure to empty the Deleted Items folder.  Things should be looking a lot more better at this point.

Get Rid Of Junk Mail/Spam

Do you get a lot of junk email?  Like a lot of it?  Chances are you put your email address in on some website and now ti’s been sold half a dozen times over.  Thus, you are getting spammed.  There are a couple of ways to deal with this, and by doing so, you will cut down greatly the amount of junk email you are receiving.

First, consider unsubscribing from the email list in question.  By law, all advertising emails should have an unsubscribe link, usually at the very bottom of the email.  When you click on that, you usually will be taken to that company’s website, and you will see options to unsubscribe.  Be very careful with this option though.  Some spammers will put an unsubscribe link for you to click on, only for that to subscribe you to more spam.  Therefore, there is another option.

Another way to handle junk emails is to block them from ever coming in.  You can right click on a junk mail message, and then select “Block Sender”.  When you do this, it will go straight to the Junk Mail folder.  Another thing you can do is create a rule to delete it automatically, especially if it is a problematic sender that just will not seem to go away.  Also, when you are in Junk Email options, you can block emails from certain countries from coming in.

Final Analysis

Email management is not as hard as one might think.  Having a more organized email program not only will make things easier to find, but can also speed up the running of your email program.  So if your Outlook is a mess, you have the tools today to get it in order.