A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A Beginner’s Guide to Scanning

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)


A lot of folk ask me whether they should buy a scanner: those things that take bits of paper, or photographs, and turn them into files your computer can use.

Frankly, I’m surprised by this (not the taking and turning, but the asking). Why would people not have a scanner? I have four.

Well, five, actually, if you include that little business card scanner sitting in a drawer somewhere. OK, six. I bought a backup scanner once in case all my other scanners eloped. I scan every piece of paper that I can.

I scan whole books I want to read on my computer. I scan coworkers who pass me in the corridor. The truth is that scanners can save you lots of time, space and pain. But I readily accept that my passion for scanning may not have won you over.

First off, don’t get your hopes up. Twelve years ago I bought a scanner that, lulled by the pictures on the box of pages flying into my computer, I thought would rid me of a ridiculous four-drawer filing cabinet full of stuff I had been lugging around Asia.

I was to be disappointed. Scanners won’t digitize everything paper, I learned, and sometimes they will but will take so long the task won’t be finished in your lifetime. No, scanners won’t make you paperless, but they may lighten your load.

So, the second task is to figure out what there is you have to scan, and then get the right scanner for the job. There are flatbed scanners, which look a bit like the tops of photocopiers, which scan one loose sheet of paper at a time. (You can sometimes buy sheet feeders that, well, feed the sheets in, to some of these units.)

These can be cheap: Less than US$100 will buy you a quality Canon device. These are good, and do the job well. They’re fine if you’ve got the odd document or photo to scan, or the odd chapter in a book you want to store on your computer.

But they’re not good if you’ve got lots of stuff. For this, I’d recommend something like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have one of the basic models (5110EOX, selling for $300 to $650), which looks a bit like a small fax machine, and it’s still going strong after three years of heavy-duty scanning.

You can only scan single sheets into it — none of the flatbed/photocopier option — but it will scan pages fast, front and back, without you having to do anything other than press a button. The pages are scanned direct to a common file format called PDF.

I love my ScanSnap. I will scan all incoming business mail — bills, receipts, statements, letters of eviction — which means I need keep no formal paperwork except the odd will or letter from Aunt Maude that has sentimental value. The ScanSnap can also handle business cards, which it can scan more or less directly into Microsoft Outlook.

Neither of these options is particularly portable. If you scan and you travel, you may want to consider a small portable scanner. NeatReceipts has two scanners that make more sense if you move around: one a thin, long device that looks more like a truncheon or night stick, and one a small, cigarette box-sized business card scanner.

Which brings me to the important bit of scanning: What happens to the document once it’s scanned. Most software simply converts a physical thing to a digital thing, but to make the text that is on that physical thing something you can edit, search or add to, you need to run more software over it called optical character recognition, or OCR.

This software – which usually comes included with the scanner — basically looks at the patterns in the image of your document that the scanning software has created and tries to figure out the letters.

OCR software nowadays is remarkably accurate, so long as you give it good, clean documents to start with. Don’t expect your spidery handwriting or a smudged and heavily annotated tome from the Dark Ages to come out 100 percent accurate.

NeatReceipts doesn’t just specialize in digitizing and organizing your receipts: The smaller device handles business cards too. But for most jobs, you’d be better off with something like Paperport, which will handle all the OCR for you and also help you organize your documents into folders.

Bottom line? Scanning stuff is a very useful way to keep your desk clear and to be able to find stuff. But you have to be disciplined about it, and get a rather perverse joy out of watching paper disappear into a roller.

And be prepared to be regarded by co-workers, friends and family as a bit of a freak.

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The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

A Beginner’s Guide to Managing E-mail

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

I’m always horrified when I see people’s e-mail inboxes.

They are always so full — brimming with messages that should have been answered, or should have been deleted, or should never have arrived in the first place.

It’s not the way to work, since you’re bound to lose stuff that way and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get steadily more and more depressed about all the stuff sitting there you won’t, after a while, even bother opening your inbox until after a stiff drink.

It needn’t be like that. Here’s my two-step recipe for e-mail order. Follow it and stay sober:

Keep all your e-mail in one place

In other words, make sure all your accounts are accessible from one location. It means that no e-mail will go missing, you’ll know exactly what you’ve got, and when you’re on the road you’ll have only one place to go to check.

Nowadays this is possible to do for nothing. This is how I do it, and how I think you should too:

  • Set up an account with Gmail. (More on why Gmail is best for this later.)
  • If you have other accounts, set them up so they land in Gmail. (For the complete instructions for this, go here). It’s a tad fiddly, but when it’s done you’ll be glad: Basically, Gmail will go off and fetch your e-mail from other accounts — and, most important, let you send e-mail from your Gmail account as if it is from those accounts.

(In other words, if you want to, you can continue to use Gmail as your main sorting office, while still using your old e-mail account, or accounts without having to add another e-mail address.)

Why is Gmail better? Well, it’s free, for one thing, and it loads quickly on slow machines. And it has a great — though not perfect — interface. Yes, it scans your e-mails to better target you with ads. For some people this is a showstopper.

But the advantages, for me, outweigh the disadvantages. (One point I should mention is that you can’t forward Yahoo! e-mail to Gmail, unless you have a paid account with Yahoo!.)

Get labeling

An inbox should be just that. A place where you pick things up. They shouldn’t stay there. A bloated inbox is like reading your physical mail and then putting it back in the mailbox at the end of your drive/in the lobby/on the door of your home.

It doesn’t make sense. So the cardinal rule of good e-mail management is to move anything you’ve read out of your inbox as soon as you can. That means having somewhere to move it and, in the past, that meant folders and subfolders. No more.

Gmail doesn’t use folders, it uses labels, which makes it possible to organize your e-mails in a logical way — since you can apply any number of labels to an e-mail, you’re not forced to agonize over which folder to put an e-mail in.

So one e-mail I receive could have the label “PR stuff” but also be labeled “USB devices” as well as “gadgets to check out”. (Not very inspired labels, I admit, but they work for me.)

Labels can be applied manually, or they can be automated via filters, which will do the labeling for you when the e-mail arrives.

Labeling in itself doesn’t solve the bloated inbox problem. Gmail has one more feature for this called Archive. One of your e-mails is either in the inbox (what you see when you open your account) or the Archive.

You can ask the filters to move incoming stuff straight into the archive, or you can select one, some or all the messages in your inbox and archive them with one button.

You’ll still be able to find them by doing a search, or, if they have a label attached to them, by clicking on one of the label links on the left. Archiving something merely moves it from your inbox.

Which is what you should do. Create lots of labels as you work — you can have as many as you like, but it makes sense to give them some thought. Assign incoming e-mails to labels manually or automatically as you read them.

Then, at the end of your working day, when you feel you’ve done everything you can with the e-mails in your inbox, select them all and archive them. You’ll then have an empty inbox, and — trust me — you’ll feel good.

Now you may not be able to get everything done before you go home. If necessary, you can create a special folder (mine’s called !Tickler — the ! ensures it’s at the top of my label list) which I put stuff in I still need to deal with.

Gmail offers its own solution: a star you can assign to an e-mail that will make it stand out. Either way, you have a way to ensure important stuff doesn’t get lost. (Of course, you then have to monitor your special label and make sure it doesn’t just become a siding for your inbox inefficiencies.)

One other tip: Gmail is great with spam. It will do a near-perfect job of getting rid of all the stuff you don’t want. But you still have to monitor your spam box and weed out the few good e-mails that land there.

Get into the habit of emptying the spam box every day, too, otherwise you might find you lose the occasional e-mail that got buried there.

In the future I’ll offer more tips on managing e-mail but this should get you started. Let me know how it works for you, or if you have other tips that work better for you.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today