In Praise of Dual Monitors

A lot of people have claimed that the desktop system is dead—that people are only interested in using tablets and smartphones for computing. In fact, there is concern that the desktop might become a thing of the past. It’s true that my own efforts, such as HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies and CSS3 for Dummies, have started to focus on mobile development. However, I plan to continue using my desktop system when working because it’s a lot more practical and saves me considerable time. One such time saver is the use of dual monitors.

Yes, I know that some developers use more than just two monitors, but I find that two monitors work just fine. The first monitor is my work monitor—the monitor I use for actually typing code. The second monitor is my view monitor. When I run the application, the output appears on the second monitor so that I can see the result of changes I’ve made. Using two monitors lets me easily correlate the change in code to the changes in application design. Otherwise, I’d be wasting time switching between the application output and my IDE.

I also use two monitors when writing my books. The work monitor contains my word processor, while my view monitor contains the application I’m writing about. This is possibly one time when a third monitor could be helpful—one to hold the word processor, one to hold the IDE, and one to view the application output. However, in this case, a third monitor could actually slow things down because the time spent viewing the output of an example is small when compared to creating a production application.

The concept of separating work from the source of information used to perform the work isn’t new. People have used the idea for thousands of years, in fact. For example, when people employed typewriters to output printed text, the typist employed a special stand to hold the manuscript being typed. The idea of having a view of your work and then another surface to actually work on is used quite often throughout history because it’s a convenient way to perform tasks quickly. By employing dual monitors, I commonly get between a 15 percent to 33 percent increase in output, simply because I can see my work and its associated view at the same time.

Working with dual monitors not only saves time, but can also reduce errors. By typing as I view the output of applications, I can more reliably relate the text of labels and other information the application provides. The same holds true when viewing information sources found in other locations. Seeing the information as I type it is always less likely to produce errors.

Don’t get the idea that I support using dual monitors in every situation. Many consumer-oriented computer uses are served just fine with a single monitor. For example, there isn’t a good reason to use two monitors when viewing e-mail in many cases—at least, not at the consumer level (you could make a case for using dual monitors when working with e-mails and a calendar to manage tasks, for example). Dual monitors commonly see use in the business environment because people aren’t necessarily creating their own information source—the information comes from a variety of sources that the user must view in order to use reliably.

Do you see yourself using dual monitors? If you use such a setup now, how do you employ it? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Your Security is an Illusion

I receive a number of queries about security from administrators and users every month, and many of these questions have links to all sorts of security issues that have occurred recently—everything from National Security Agency (NSA) spying to the Target security breach (incidentally, a number of other businesses have been attacked in the same manner). The fact of the matter is that books such as Administering Windows Server 2008 Server Core, Microsoft Windows Command Line Administration Instant Reference, and Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference have been telling you all along that security is a matter of vigilance—that software will never do the job alone. Even so, readers keep sending requests for some sort of magic bullet that will allay all their fears and make the task of security automatic.

Maintaining a reasonably secure system is a matter of observing personal, data, and system-wide best practices. Many other authors have listed these best practices in the past, but here are some of the techniques that people fail to use most often:

 

  • Use complex passwords that are easy to remember so you don’t need to write them down—consider using a passphrase whenever possible.
  • Change your password reasonably often and don’t rely on the same set of passwords all the time.
  • Keep your passwords secret so that no one else can abuse them.
  • Encrypt your data.
  • Perform local data backups regularly.
  • Ensure your applications remain updated with the latest security fixes.
  • Update your system as needed to ensure it provides a full set of modern security features.
  • Install security applications that check the incoming and outgoing flow of data, and block anything that looks remotely dangerous.
  • Check your system regularly for any files, folders, software, or other items that look out of place.


This list doesn’t even include some of the common user foibles, such as opening e-mail from parties they don’t know. In addition, none of these techniques are automated. You have to perform the manually in order to get the benefits they provide. Yes, it’s true that some of the techniques are automated once you start them, but you still have to start them. For example, installing security software will automatically monitor the data flow on your system, but you still have to install the security software manually.

Even with all of these security measures in place, someone who is truly determined can break into your system. You should simply count on it happening at some point, even if you’re incredibly careful. When a security breach does occur, you need to have a contingency plan in place.

Any good contingency plan will include a method of evaluating the damage caused by the security breach. You need to know just what was compromised and what the fallout of the compromise will be. Even individuals experience fallout from security breaches, such as identity theft. Once the damage is evaluated, you need a method for fixing the problems it has caused. In some cases, you may actually have to format the drive and start from scratch, which is where that data backup is going to become critical.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to security. Over the years I’ve searched, in vain, for a magic bullet and it isn’t even possible to conceive of one. Therefore, it’s the user and administrator who are best prepared for the eventuality of spying and security breaches that are in the best position to handle it later. Let me know your thoughts on security at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Book Reviews – Doing Your Part

Readers contact me quite a lot about my books. On an average day, I receive around 65 reader e-mails about a wide range of book-related topics. Many of them are complimentary about my books and it’s hard to put down in words just how much I appreciate the positive feedback. Often, I’m humbled to think that people would take time to write.

There is another part to reader participation in books, however, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me—it has to do with other readers. When you read one of my books and find the information useful, it’s helpful to write a review about it so that others can know what to expect. I want to be sure that every reader who purchases one of my books is happy with that purchase and gets the most possible out of the book. The wording that the publisher’s marketing staff and I use to describe a book represents our viewpoint of that book and not necessarily the viewpoint of the reader. The only way that other readers will know how a book presents information from the reader perspective is for other readers to write reviews.

A good review will tell what you liked about the book—how it met your needs, what it provides in the way of usable content, and whether you liked intangibles, such as the author’s writing style. The review should also present any negatives. For example, the book may not have provided detailed enough procedures for you to actually accomplish a task. (Obviously, I want to know about the flaws, too, so that I can correct them in the next edition of the book and also discuss them on my blog.) Many reviewing venues, such as the one found on Amazon, also ask you to provide a rating for the book. You should rate the book based on your experience with other books and on how this particular book met your needs in learning a new topic. The kind of review to avoid writing is a rant or one that isn’t actually based on reading the whole book. As always, I’m here (at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com) to answer any questions you have and many of your questions have appeared as blog posts when the situation warrants.

So, just where do you make these reviews? The publishers sometimes provide a venue for expressing your opinion and you can certainly go to the publisher site to create such a review. I personally prefer to upload my reviews to Amazon because it’s a location that many people frequent to find out more about books. With that in mind, here are the URLs for many of my books. You can go to the site, click Write a Customer Review (near the bottom of the page), and then provide your viewpoint about the book.

 

Thank you in advance for taking the time and effort required to write a review. I know it’s time consuming, but it’s an important task that only you can perform.

 

E-mail in Windows 8

A reader recently wrote to ask about using e-mail in Windows 8 with a POP3 account. It’s a topic I didn’t cover due to the limits in the size of my book. Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference is meant more as an overview—the kind of book you grab when you have a quick question about a native Windows 8 feature. There are some issues I wish I had covered, but then the question arises of what I would remove to provide that coverage. It’s a constant battle for an author.

The native e-mail option for Windows 8 is to use your Microsoft account. It’s the account you use to access the Windows Store and other Windows 8 features. Of course, you probably have an existing e-mail account and will want to use that instead of Microsoft’s offering. Unfortunately, anyone moving from Windows XP directly to Windows 8 will be shocked to learn that there is no Outlook Express to use. In fact, Outlook Express has been dead since Vista. There really wasn’t space in the book to discuss any other options, but I know that readers still have questions about what to do with the Post Office Protocol version 3 (POP3) account.

Fortunately, there is a quick fix for the problem, even though Microsoft doesn’t make it readily apparent. The article, “How to Read POP Mail in Windows 8” tells you everything you need to know about installing support for your POP3 account. However, the Mail app in Windows 8 is extremely limited and another reader complained about it’s limitations to me after installing the POP3 support.

There are a number of options that you can pursue. For example, you could install Mozilla’s Thunderbird. Unfortunately, Thunderbird isn’t an app, so you can’t access it easily through the Modern User Interface (UI) (also known as Metro). The alternative is to use Windows Live Mail. It does offer a full range of functionality. The article entitled, “How to Install Windows Live Mail in Windows 8” tells you how to perform this task. The article entitled, “Windows Live Mail POP3” completes the task by telling you how to configure Windows Live Mail to use a POP3 account.

Given that Windows 8 is new and has a completely new interface, it will take a while for it to become a target platform for most e-mail vendors. In the meantime, you now have a few options for that POP3 account you’ve been wanting to use with your Windows 8 installation. I’d love to hear about any alternatives you might have or news about new e-mail applications for the Modern UI at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

There is No Start Menu

A number of readers have recently asked me about the viability of my comments about the Start menu in Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference. There are a number of stories that make it seem as if Microsoft is adding the Start menu back into Windows 8.1. You’ll see article titles such as, “Windows 8.1 set to bring back the Start button” online. It’s only when you start reading the details in the article that you realize that the title is misleading at best—someone with Microsoft marketing might well have written it. The fact is, if you want Start menu functionality in Windows 8 or 8.1, you still need a third party product such as ViStart. I discuss the updated features of this product in my ViStart Updates post.

In order to get a better idea of just how Windows 8.1 changes things, you need to read articles such as “Leaked Windows 8.1 Build 9374 disappoints Start button fans.” I’ll also be providing updates as readers ask specific questions and more information about Windows 8.1 becomes available. Remember that Windows 8.1 won’t be released until late this year (assuming Microsoft remains on schedule).

So far, my take on Windows 8.1 is that it doesn’t change much—it mainly fixes problems or addresses fit and finish issues. For example, a lot of people rightfully complained about being able to display only one or two apps on screen. (After all, this is a step backward compared to Windows 7.) Even with Windows 8.1, the ability to view more apps on a single screen will only work when your device has sufficient resolution (a minimum of 1366 pixels in Windows 8). The new version is supposed to let you view up to four apps at a time, but it sounds as if you need a high resolution display to do it. It does appear that you’ll at least be able to split the screen as long as you have a 1024 × 768 display, but this really isn’t much of a help.

There are some window dressing changes as well, which I won’t address until I see an updated beta. In addition, Windows 8.1 could work on other platforms. The point is, the Windows 8 book you have in your hands now should work just fine with Windows 8.1 as well. I’ll provide updates on the blog after Microsoft releases Windows 8.1. In the meantime, don’t believe all the rumors you see online. Windows 8.1 is an incremental release, much as the version number states. Let me know if you have any other questions or concerns about the book content at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

ViStart Updates

In Part 2 (page 62) of Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference I discuss a Start menu replacement application named ViStart. The basic reason that ViStart attracted my attention is that it provides the means for getting the Start menu back. Getting rid of the Start menu causes productivity issues for most users, especially users who have worked with older versions of Windows for a long time. ViStart is only one of several such offerings. I chose it for the book because you can download it and try it out on your system. It also provides one of the best experiences in getting the Start menu back.

Since the release of the book, LeeSoft has made some useful update to ViStart. The quick list of changes is:

 

  • Control Panel Added
  • Ability to disable and enable these Windows 8 desktop features:
    • Disable hot corners
    • Disable charms bar
  • Skip Metro automatically when booting the system
  • Change skins at runtime using the Control Panel
  • Change Start button at runtime using the Control Panel
  • More context menus when you right click files in Start menu
    • Jumplist
    • File popup menu
  • Fixed the problem that prevented pinning folders to the Start menu
  • It’s now possible to drag and drop frequent programs to and from ViStart
  • Pin to ViStart added to Windows file context menu
  • More control over what the ViStart start orb does
    • Show the ViStart menu
    • Show the original Metro menu
  • More control over what both Windows keys do with ViStart open
    • Show the ViStart menu
    • Show the original Metro menu
  • Context menu for navigation pane items
    • Rename navigation pane items
    • Rename documents
    • Hide/show items (to show a hidden item, go to control panel)
    • Properties
    • Toggle navigation pane option to show as a file menu or to show up in an explorer window, like “Recent” in the normal Windows Start menu
  • More stable, ViStart doesn’t crash as much as it did before
  • ViStart has optional offset y and x properties for Start menu skins. When ViStart doesn’t appear in the correct position, you can offset the Start menu using this feature
  • Install new skins with ease, ViStart no longer needs to be restarted to identify new skins
  • Drag a pinned folder from the frequent programs to the navigation pane and ViStart will add it as a new navigation pane item
  • More control over how the Start menu appears
    • Toggle show program menu first instead of frequently used programs
    • Toggle user picture
  • Added Show Metro to the pinned program list
  • Added Show Metro Apps to the pinned program list
  • Added default program listing for fresh installs (such as Notepad and Command Prompt)


That’s a substantial number of changes. All of these new features should greatly improve your experience with Windows 8. You can see a video that explains the updates further on YouTube.

While nothing can make the Windows 8 experience precisely the same as using Windows 7, working with add-on products does help considerably. In fact, I discuss add-ons as part of my article entitled, “8 Ways to Reduce User Training Costs for Windows 8.” Let me know about your add-on experience at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Moving Metro to the Desktop

One of the problems I noted frequently while writing Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference is that there is a serious efficiency problem in switching between the Desktop and the Metro interface (or whatever Microsoft is calling it this week). In addition, each Metro app takes up the entire screen. That’s a serious misuse of desktop real estate when working with a larger monitor and I could understand most users getting frustrated with the entire situation. Fortunately, you can now move Metro to the Desktop using ModernMix, a $5.00 utility from Stardock.

Using this simple tool, you can display Metro apps in a Win32 frame. This makes it possible to display multiple Metro apps at once and obtain a significant productivity gain as well. It makes apps such as Skype usable again. After all, how many people are going to be willing to use Skype as a full screen app? Are you just going to sit there and stare at the screen waiting for someone to message you? You can read some additional comments about the unusable nature of the Metro version of Skype in the Channel 9 Coffeehouse. However, I’m not picking on Skype here—there are many Metro apps that simply don’t work well in full screen mode.

What’s more interesting is that using ModernMix makes it possible to shut down a Metro app simply by closing the window. Yes, there are other ways to shut down a Metro app, but this approach is simple. You don’t have to remember anything weird, you just close the window and the app is gone. Fortunately, you can download a free trial version of ModernMix to give it a try on your own system.

I’ve heard from a number of readers who have been looking for tools to help them run business applications better on Windows 8. There are rumors that Windows Blue is going to be an even larger departure from Windows of the past, so I suspect there will continue to be a strong market for third party tools. Let me know about your favorites at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Installing and Managing Third Party Products

Most of my books make recommendations about third party products that you can use to enhance your computing experience. Each of these products is tested during the writing process, but without any of the add-on applications that may come with the product. For example, if I test a Windows enhancement product, I don’t test the toolbar that comes with that product. So, it’s important to realize that the advice you obtain in the book doesn’t include those add-on features.

However, it’s important to take a step back at this point and discuss why the product includes an add-on in the first place. Just like you, the product vendor has bills to pay and must obtain money from somewhere to pay them. An important concept to remember when working with computers is that free doesn’t exist. Typically, product vendors who offer free products will do so by paying for them in one of these ways:

  • Advertisements: Advertising comes in many forms, not just banner ads. Marketing types constantly come up with new ways to advertise products and induce you to buy them. A developer can obtain payment from advertisements in several ways, such as referral fees.
  • Product Add-ons: A developer can provide the means to install other products with the product that you’re installing. The company who provides the additional product sponsors the free product that you’re using.
  • Marketing Agreements: The application collects information about you and your system when you install it and the developer sells this information to marketing companies.
  • Value-added Products: The free product that you’re using is just a sample of some other product that the developer provides. If you like the free product, the developer is hoping that you’ll eventually purchase the full-fledged product.
  • Government Grants: A developer creates a product after obtaining a grant from the government. You pay for the product through your taxes.
  • Sponsorship: A larger company supports a developer’s work to determine whether the idea is marketable or simply the seed of something the larger company can develop later. You pay for the product through higher prices when you buy something from the larger company.

There are other methods that developers use to get paid for their work, but the bottom line is that they get paid. Whenever you see free, your mind should say, “This product doesn’t cost money, but there is some other price.” You need to decide whether you’re willing to pay the price the developer is asking. In the case of a government grant, you’ve already paid the price.

When you install a free product, you must watch the installation routine carefully. In almost every case, you must opt out of installing add-on products that the free product supports. So, you have to read every screen carefully because these opt-out check boxes are usually small and hard to see. The developer really isn’t pulling a fast one—just trying to earn a living. Make sure you clear any check boxes you see for installing add-on products if you don’t want that product on your machine. The reason I don’t discuss these check boxes in my books is that they change constantly. Even if I were to tell you about the check boxes that appeared at the time I installed the free product, your experience is bound to be different.

Of course, you might accidentally install one of these add-ons, an add-on that you really didn’t want. In this case, you must locate the product in the list of products installed on your system, such as the Programs and Features applet of the Control Panel for Windows users. The product name won’t be straightforward, but a little research will help you find it. Simply uninstall the add-on product. However, it’s always better to avoid installing something you don’t want to begin with, rather than remove it later, because few applications uninstall cleanly (even those from larger vendors such as Microsoft).

Unfortunately, there isn’t much I can do to help you when you install an add-on product. I do have some experience with the third party product in my book, but I won’t know anything about the add-on product. You need to contact the developer of the third party product to ask for advice in removing it from your system. This may seem like I’m passing the buck, but the truth is that the add-on products change all the time and there simply isn’t any way I can keep up with them all. When in doubt, don’t install a product, rather than being sorry you installed it later. Let me know your thoughts on third party products at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Myth of the Unbreakable Password

Complete books have been written about the topic of security and the correct way to create passwords. Each expert claims that if you only adhere to the conventions that he or she sets forth, that your computer will be safe. Let me say up front that the unbreakable password is a myth. Yes, you need to come up with something a lot better than “Secret” or your birthday, but be assured that any password you use is breakable. In fact, in the real world, what you’re striving to do is create a password that takes longer to break—realizing that anyone who really wants access to your system will gain it. Computer hardware has become so powerful that seemingly unbreakable cryptography is quite vulnerable today.

Many security experts want you to use completely undecipherable passwords such as @f*/L12-X]. If you can’t come up with a good password of your own, PCTools actually provides a generator to create one for you. If you’re unsure about the safety of your password, you can have it checked to determine how long it would take to crack. (Unfortunately, the number you get isn’t completely realistic because computer technology for cracking passwords improves all the time, as does the capability of the hardware used to crack it.) Of course, it would be absolutely impossible to remember such a password, so anyone having such a password is going to write it down. All someone has to do is pose as a janitor and pick up all the yellow stickies that have the password printed on them (or write them down as they pass through to avoid suspicion). For that matter, social engineering attacks can often yield passwords through a phone call in a few minutes.

Because truly secure passwords are the stuff of science fiction, other experts have come up with the passphrase. A passphrase such as “My yellow car is gr8!” theoretically has a long crack time and are easy to remember. Unfortunately, recent advances in cracking technology seem to make passphrases a bad bet too. It seems that the crackers now use grammar as part of their strategy to figure out your password. They use applications to figure out the most common words that would come in a sequence of words.

The advice today is to use unrelated words separated by special characters—something I have advocated in any book I write that contains information about security. A password like “Elephant*Green?H3llo” is infinitely easier to remember than @f*/L12-X], but still quite secure. Even so, if someone is determined, they can combine a dictionary attack with some brute force techniques and discover your password in a reasonable amount of time—assuming you don’t simply give it to them as part of a social engineering attack.

There are technologies that promise to make it harder for crackers to gain entry to a system, but they’re usually complicated. For example, you can add a retina (iris) scanner or thumbprint reader to improve security, but that means an additional purchase, specialized software, training, and other costly changes to your setup. Security cards are another option, but again, you have additional costs to consider and the use of a security card is open to social engineering attacks (unlike a person’s thumb or retina, which are firmly attached). Most organizations still rely on passwords or passphrases in the interest of saving money, so creating usable, easily remembered passwords that truly are safe should be the focus of administrators whenever possible.

One new method of securing systems does appear in Windows 8. In this case, the system displays a picture when you start it up and you use gestures to circle or otherwise identify pictorial elements in place of typing a password. There are some experts who are already saying the feature is easily cracked. It seems as if the technique would be unwieldy with a mouse and it has already been said that most people aren’t buying touch screens to use with Windows 8 (see my Some Interesting Windows 8 Information post for details), so this security feature may be a non-starter for most organizations.

Passwords and passphrases won’t likely go away soon, so the best approach for most users and administrators is to create a system where passwords are complex, easily remembered (and therefore, not written down), and changed relatively often. The combination of these three elements should make your PC safer from crackers. However, the best security is vigilance. Check your system for intrusion often. Rest assured, someone who really wants to get in will do so and without too much effort. Let me know your thoughts about passwords at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Some Interesting Windows 8 Information

I constantly track information for my books because I like to keep readers informed about changes when I can. Even though Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference appeared in print not long ago, there have been some interesting developments about the operating system it supports. Of course, the least newsworthy development has been the relatively slow adoption of the new operating system. A number of industry pundits are saying that Windows 8 is another Vista, or possibly worse. Statistics have never impressed me very much. Windows 8 will either succeed or it won’t, but it really is too early to tell.

The most interesting piece of information is that people aren’t actually using the much touted Windows 8 touch interface. People are actually buying the least expensive laptops possible to run Windows 8—devices that lack any sort of touch capability. This bit of information has taken me by surprise because Windows 8 really does appear to need a touch interface to work correctly. That said, Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference does include a considerable array of keyboard and mouse techniques because I had expected desktop users who upgraded to become completely lost without this information. It may turn out that the additional information helps a lot more than current desktop users based on what the press is saying.

It also appears that you may have an interesting time downgrading your Windows 8 installation to Windows 7, even though Microsoft tells you that you’re legally able to do so. The problem seems to be one of finding the copy of Windows 7 to use for the downgrade. The vendor who supplies the copy of Windows 8 with a system is supposed to provide the copy of Windows 7 to you, but the real world reality is that the vendor often doesn’t do so. The other problem is one of licensing. Microsoft constantly changes its licensing and uses terminology that even a lawyer can’t understand (much less us mere mortals). Trying to figure out whether you’re actually able to downgrade your copy of Windows 8 to Windows 7 can prove daunting. Microsoft has recently provided a clearer set of rules as part of a downloadable whitepaper that you can use to determine your rights.

I’d love to hear about your experiences using Windows 8. In addition, it would be useful to hear from people who have downgraded their copy to Windows 7 and why they made the change. Tell me about the Windows 8 coverage in my book and whether you need additional help with Windows 8 to make the book useful at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. Windows 8 has truly turned into a surprising update; one that may require some additional posts to my blogs to provide good book support.