Why is my Computer Running so SLOW?

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Woah, who slammed on the brakes? Your computer used to speed through startup and let you open almost everything at once, but now it’s struggling to crawl along! Everything takes so much longer or crashes without warning. Something isn’t right. If it’s gotten so bad that you’ve found yourself drooling over the idea of a new computer, even though your system isn’t that old, I’ve got some good news:  you can get your speed back with a little TLC.

Computers generally start slowing down within 12 months, but it’s not usually because their parts are broken. And it’s not because they’re faulty. It’s not even because you have so many browser tabs open that you lose count. Slow computers have a number of causes, but the most common ones are easily fixed.

Background programs

Whenever your computer is turned on, it’s running programs in the background. You didn’t start them and they may not be essential to operation, but off they go anyway. You can’t even see some of them, they don’t have windows or anything to look at.  A good example is your antivirus program. You don’t need to see it all the time, but you know it’s running in the background, protecting you.

Over time, more and more programs might slip into the background and casually suck up your resources, like iTunes helper, Acrobat updater, Cortana listening, Skype or Spotify.  We can speed up your system by setting these background programs to run only when you need them, or remove them completely.

Application bloat

How do you improve last year’s version of a program? Add more features! The problem with this is the applications become bloated with features you may not need (or even know about), but that keep needing more and more resources. Each time the developers review their programs, they assume you’ve bought the latest and greatest computer and can run whatever they release.

This means a slow computer can sneak up after an auto-update. You may not even know the update happened, just that your computer is suddenly making you very unhappy. Eventually, your system grinds to a halt. You can remove unused applications or increase your computer power as required.

Slow hard drives

Your data is stored on a part called the hard drive. It’s usually a mechanical type that works like a record player, with a spinning platter and a ‘needle’ reading it. If your data is spread out across lots of places on the platter, the hard drive head ‘needle’ has to go backwards and forwards thousands of times just to retrieve a single file. Unsurprisingly, that takes more time to bring up your file. You can optimize your data to give the hard drive head a break, but an even better solution is to upgrade to an SSD. That’s a Solid State Drive that stores data in memory chips, like your USB drive, and has no moving parts. Without the physical need to move a hard drive needle, your computer can access data much faster.

Unfortunately, once your computers starts slowing, for whatever reason, the problem only gets worse. The background programs will continue to multiply, the bloat keeps coming, and the hard drive begs for relief.  Rather than buy a whole new system though, it’s completely possible for your current computer to go back to being lightning fast – and for a fraction of the cost.

Would you like me to give your computer a new lease on life? Give me a call at (828) 290-8237.

Boost Your Email Impact with These Smart Strategies

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Most small businesses rely on email as their preferred form of communication. Either internally or externally to clients, customers and suppliers, email is the go-to format we’d be lost without. Our love affair with it is no surprise – it’s quick, simple and provides a paper trail. But its convenience doesn’t always mean relaxed. In fact, poor email communication can hurt your reputation and cost you customers. Here’s how to be smart with your business email:

Manage your inbox: Your inbox is only for items you still need to access. Once you’re finished with an email, you should delete it or archive it. If you were to imagine your inbox as physical letters, you’d never let it grow to a 6-foot high stack of chaos. Instead, you’d either throw them out or do the filing. It’s not hard to identify which ones to keep for reference, so create inbox folders to sort them accordingly. As emails arrive and are actioned, move them to the relevant folder or the delete bin.

Write professional messages: Stepping across the line from casual to careless is easy if you skip the basic elements of good business writing. Grammar will always be important and the sentence structure of your language hasn’t changed. All email programs include a spell-checker, many of which draw attention to errors immediately, so there’s really no excuse. Typing in all CAPS is seen as yelling, and breaking your text into paragraphs makes your message so much more readable. One last thing before you click send, quickly glance over your email to make sure your tone is appropriate and no mistakes have snuck through.

Embrace the subject line: Many emails are missed because the subject line was empty or meant nothing to the receiver. Writing these attention-grabbing nuggets can be tricky, but if you simply summarize the message, you’ll do fine. Just remember to keep them under 5-8 words so they fit on mobile displays.

Be smart with attachments: Keep attachments small – under 2MB – as they can clog up the email server. For larger attachments, share the file location as a link using cloud storage. When you’re sent an attachment you’d like to keep, save the file and then delete the email. And as always, be careful with unexpected attachments, especially from unknown senders. It’s more important than ever to scan all attachments with an antivirus before opening.

Keep your CC/BCC under control: The carbon copy (CC) and blind carbon copy (BCC) let you send the email to additional stakeholders, more as an FYI than anything else. As a rule, use BCC if you’re using an email list or privacy is an issue. But before you add extra people to the email, make sure the email IS relevant to them. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a pointless email chain!

Call me at  828-290-8237 for help with your business email.

4 Simple Tips to Keep Your Internet Banking Safe

online-bankingOnline banking has boomed in the past few years to become the new norm. Branches are out and apps are in. Some banks now steer you towards a computer for a DIY transaction – with optional assistance.  But is internet banking really safe? You’re always told to keep your financial details private, but now also to jump on board the online banking train – talk about a push/pull scenario! The good news is you CAN bank safely online with a few simple precautions.

Always type in the website address

Many attackers will attempt to trick you into clicking a fake link to your bank website. Usually sent as a ‘phishing email’, they’ll claim there’s a problem and ask you to click through to your bank and correct it ASAP. The link points to a fake website that looks almost exactly like your real bank site and is recording your private account info. You can avoid scams like this simply by accessing your bank by manually typing in the website or using a bookmark.

Avoid public computers and networks

Jumping onto a PC at the library or mall might seem like a quick and easy way to check your account, but public computers are often targeted by scammers. In just a few moments, they can install keyloggers to record usernames, passwords and other private data, then sit back as all future user details are emailed to them. The same problem applies with free, unsecured Wi-Fi. You’re better off using an ATM or a data-enabled smartphone.

Use a strong password with 2- factor authentication

Create a unique password for your online banking, something you’ve never used anywhere else. Mix up words, numbers and symbols to create a complex password that can’t be guessed easily. Avoid giving attackers a head start with data they can find on Facebook, like kids names, pet names, birthdates, etc and really think outside the box. And never keep it in your wallet, on your phone or laptop computer. If remembering is likely to be an issue, you might like to consider a secure password manager app. Many banks will also help boost your security with two-factor authentication, sending random codes to your phone (or a special LCD device they provide) to verify any activity.

Check page security before entering data

Finally, take a micro-second to spot the small padlock icon before you enter any data. You’re looking for a padlock appearing as part of the browser itself, not just an image on the webpage. It will be either in the bottom corner or next to the URL. The address will also start with httpS:// instead of http://. If you don’t see these things, the page is NOT secure and you shouldn’t log in.

 

Need some help securing your system against scammers? I can help. Call me at (828) 290-8237.

When is Your Business Ready to Move to the Cloud?

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By now you know that the cloud isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, cloud computing has become a natural step in business growth, thanks to the numerous (and continually growing) benefits. More and more applications are coming out in web-based form and staff are exceptionally comfortable with this type of change. So when is the right time to move your business computing to the cloud?

Many businesses are facing this question now that cloud computing has become a mainstream norm. After all, you’ll be able to roll out new apps in days, not weeks, and nobody ever says ‘no thanks’ to increased security and efficiency. Like any strategic business decision though, timing is everything. Here’s how to assess your need before you make the switch:

1. Age of servers and workstations

If your workstations and servers are reaching their end of life and a large capital investment is coming up, you’ll be able to minimize the expense by moving to the cloud. You may even be able to skip certain upgrades completely. Your staff will still need devices to access the cloud data, but you’ll have a lot more flexibility in your choice and they won’t need to be as powerful. This can be a huge cost saving made in just moments.

2. Need for remote and mobile access

Many businesses are growing while on the move, with a mobile workforce needing to access files from anywhere at any time. This could range from moving around the one location, between offices or even working from home. Forget frustrating connections and lost productivity, cloud computing allows staff to work securely and efficiently from any location with internet access.

3. Current support setup

If your business currently outsources all your network management, you’re perfectly suited for the move to cloud computing. Network maintenance and monitoring becomes a non-issue, handled 24/7 as part of your cloud service. Network efficiency just keeps rising too, as your cloud provider is always improving their systems. You’ll find problems are fixed before you knew they existed, and server downtime becomes a thing of the past.

4. Need for predictable IT costs

If it feels like IT costs can spiral out of control at times, challenging your budget and patience, cloud computing will seem like a dream come true. When you make this shift, you’re moving from a capital expense to an operational one – server and system replacements are no longer your concern. You’ll be able to budget for IT costs in advance, knowing no blowouts are hiding around the corner. Monthly costs are known and (usually) capped based on what you use, leaving your cash flow much relieved.

Today’s cloud computing is more advanced, secure and priced more competitively than ever before. At its core, cloud computing is purely about doing things better, and it can have a massive impact on your profits, productivity and even staff satisfaction rates. If your business requires a robust, always available infrastructure with easy monthly costs, it’s time to take a serious look at your cloud computing options.

Give me a call at (828) 290-8237 to discuss how to improve your business IT.

How to Make Your Photos Last A Lifetime (and Beyond)

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Digital cameras are great, and thanks to smartphones, we have one with us almost all the time. We’re taking more photos than ever before, and building a lifetime of digital data. But despite the enormous value of these photos and videos, most people don’t have a backup. It’s time to shine a light on this essential task and make it a regular habit before those precious memories are gone forever.

If you asked someone what possession they’d save from a house fire, most would say photos, and they’d make a point of grabbing a frame or album on the way out. But with digital photos, you don’t need a fire to lose everything, they could simply disappear in the blink of an eye with hardware failure or theft. There’s no warning, no smoke alarm, and without a plan already in place, no chance to recover the data. It’s time to get set up with a true backup system.

Is one copy enough?
You might think saving your information to an external hard drive or flash drive is enough. You’re right, it’s better than nothing, but since the data is stored in only one place, this isn’t a backup – it’s just storage. That drive could fail at any moment, perhaps from age, malfunction or plain old theft.

Often enough, that drive even becomes lost over the years, put somewhere ‘safe’ and promptly forgotten! And with the way technology is moving, accessing that data in 5 years might even bring up compatibility issues – some newer computers don’t even have CD/DVD drives, yet hundreds of thousands of homes would still have photos stored on a disc.

Two copies?
You might have your extra storage drive as backup and keep a copy on your computer. This is a better solution, and how most people store their data, but it still may not be enough. While you’re protected against device failure, that house fire is going to take both copies up in flames. Thieves would probably grab the external drive while they’re bundling up your computer too, so again, you’d be left with zero copies. It’s close, but it’s not a true backup system.

The rule of three
The safest option is the backup rule of three. Just reading this may sound like overkill, but tech is fragile and device failure is a constant risk. I recommend keeping one copy on the computer/device, another on an external drive, and a third copy as last resort tucked safely away in the cloud. The cloud backup can be fully automated so you don’t even need to worry about remembering to do it. If the day comes that you need your data back, it’s ready and waiting in perfect condition. Cloud technology also means your data is far away from any potential fire or flood, it’s secure and with the right provider, guaranteed against loss.

There’s a saying in the IT industry: “There are two kinds of people: those who backup, and those who have never lost all their data”. No matter what the cause of your data loss, it always has a deep impact, particularly when it comes to precious data. While re-creating some homework or the family budget might just be inconvenient, there’s no way to recreate photos once they’re gone. It’s a loss that hurts for a long time, but it’s also so very avoidable.

If you value your data, give me a call at  828-290-8237 to implement a well-rounded backup system.

What is the Cloud? And Where is it?

 

cloud-computing-printThere has been a ton of talk about the cloud. Cloud this, cloud that. But what actually IS the cloud? Most people don’t understand it and even some tech people tend to wave their hands towards the sky when trying to explain it!

Since it actually has nothing to do with the clouds in the sky, let’s lay it all out:

Cloud computing is about storing and retrieving your data (personal or business) within your own piece of the internet. It’s so you can access it from anywhere, just like you do a web page, and it won’t matter if your office is closed and you’re squeezing in a little work on your phone at midnight. Everything will be saved and ready to pick up when you get back to your desk. Colleagues in different locations can even collaborate on documents in real time.

If that all sounds a bit futuristic, think about how an email service like Gmail works. None of your emails are actually being stored on your hard drive or device, they’re stored on the Gmail server and you can access them anytime you like.

Your read/send/receive changes are applied instantly, remembered for next time you log in. This is a form of cloud computing. So is Netflix, where you can stream movies and TV shows on demand. All the video is actually stored on a computer somewhere else in the world and sent to your device in tiny pieces as you watch it. Netflix remembers what you watched, where you got up to, and even if you’re hopping immediately from one device to another, it still has it all ready to go.

Where is ‘cloud’ data stored?

Good question. And it’s why the term ‘cloud’ causes so much confusion. The data absolutely must be physically stored somewhere. Companies who offer cloud storage have huge warehouses dedicated to holding servers whose sole job is to send and receive data all day. And by huge, I mean HUGE.

You could get lost walking the rows of servers, just box after box for what seems like forever. The biggest server farms or ‘cloud campuses’ are still growing, but to give you an idea: they can be upwards of 1million square feet. It’s big business, literally.

In terms of location, the US and UK are popular server farm locations, but the company could also have copies of your data stored elsewhere in the world. This is so they can fulfill their redundancy guarantees – if disaster hits one location, the other still has a copy.

Having additional locations and copies also increases the speed of access. With some companies, you can choose your preferred location so that data doesn’t have to travel quite as far across the world, increasing speed even further, which of course, saves time and money. Collaboration, security, redundancy, AND savings? I’d call that a win.

Ready to take advantage of cloud computing? Give me a call at (828) 290-8237.

Everything You Need to Know About Facebook Privacy

fb-privacy-printFinding the balance between Facebook privacy and Facebook fun can be challenging. It’s a double-edged sword that allows us to connect with friends no matter where they live, but it also publicly shares information that just a few years ago, we’d never dream of putting online. You can search for people based on where they went to school, town they live in, clubs they belong to, who they’re related to…but when is it too much?

Your birthday is the first piece of info collected when you sign up, and it’s great getting birthday wishes from friends and family when it appears in their newsfeed. But while Facebook is sending you balloons and funny memes, your birthday is now public knowledge. It seems harmless, but when you call your bank or other institution, what’s the first question they ask to verify your identity? Your birthday! Some password recovery systems even ask questions like ‘which high school did you go to?’ assuming this is knowledge that only you would know. Except…you’ve just publicly shared it on Facebook.

We’ve all heard stories of people who’ve lost their jobs after less-than-wholesome pictures or statements have gone public. If you have a reputation to keep, you definitely don’t want pictures from last weekend’s private party showing up, especially if you really let your hair down. While you can’t control what others do with photos they take of you, you can control whether or not you’re tagged in them.

Fortunately, there are settings in Facebook that allow you to control who sees what information and what happens when you’re tagged. Despite what you may have heard or seen floating around in a Facebook share hoax, you do have complete control over your Facebook privacy, and it’s easy to adjust.

How to Check and Adjust Your Facebook Privacy Settings

1. See what your account looks like to an outsider

From your Facebook homepage, click your name on the blue bar at the top of the page. Click the three dots next to ‘View Activity Log’ and then select ‘View as…’

2. Run a quick privacy checkup

Click the question mark in the top right corner and choose ‘privacy checkup’.

Think about what you really need to share – do people need to know the YEAR of your birth or just your birthday? Your friends will still get the notification, and you’ll still get the balloons.

3. Edit advanced privacy

While the checkup covers the most obvious info, you can go much deeper. Click the V-shaped dropdown to the right of the question mark. Go to settings and choose privacy.

4. Adjust timeline and tagging

In the privacy settings, you can explicitly control who can tag you, who can see or share the tagged content, and what shows up on your newsfeed.

Tightening your Facebook privacy only takes a few minutes, but it can save you a whole lot of trouble in the future. If you need help with this, or with another issue, give me a call at (828) 290-8237.

How Much Could A Ransomware Attack Cost You?

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Have you ever thought about how much your data is worth? Information is possibly the most valuable part of your business – there’s your client database, accounting software and inventory management, and of course, any intellectual property you may own.

When ransomware hits, businesses are suddenly forced to re-assess the value of their data: is it worth saving, and what’s the deeper cost of the attack?

Most ransomware attacks cost $150-$600 to get your files released, but that’s only IF the cyber-criminals honor the payment and actually give you the decryption key. Meanwhile, new client calls are still coming in and you may find yourself unable to operate with your systems down. Paying the ransom or restoring from an unaffected backup seems like a quick fix, but it doesn’t end there. There’s still the downtime involved to restore all your data – possibly days – and that’s a lot of lost productivity.

Plus, if word gets out that your data has been compromised, you may find confidence in your business plummets and your existing clients head elsewhere.

Keep your systems up to date: Many ransomware attacks take advantage of a flaw in older versions of Windows, ones that have since been patched by Microsoft. But to be protected, businesses must be up to date with their patches AND be running a supported version of Windows. Delaying patches and updates puts your business at risk – I can help you update automatically.

Consider Locking down employee computers:

Very few staff require full administrator access to your business network. The higher their level of permissions, the more damage a person can do – either accidentally with a wrong click, or by inadvertently installing malware. By locking down your employee computers, you have a better chance of containing a malware attack to non-vital systems.

Educate your workplace:

Most employees believe they’re being cyber-safe but the reality is quite different. Many malicious links and embedded malware have become hard to spot in an instant – which is all it takes to click and regret. I can work with your staff to establish procedures around checking links for authenticity before clicking, awareness around verifying the source of attachments, and the importance of anti-virus scanning. I can help get the message through!

Have a solid backup plan:

When ransomware hits, a connected backup = infected backup. Unfortunately, synced options such as Dropbox immediately clone the infected files, rendering them useless. The only safe backups will be the ones both physically and electronically disconnected, with systems designed to protect against attacks like this. I can set you up with a backup system that protects your data.

Be proactive:

The best way to avoid the financial cost of a ransomware attack is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Smart businesses are the ones watching these widespread ransomware attacks from the sidelines, completely unaffected and seizing opportunities while their competitors are down.

I can help protect your business against the next cyber-attack. Contact me today by filling out the form on the contact page or call me at (828) 290-8237

How To Keep Your Tech Squeaky Clean

June Residential1Our tech is something we use every day, but did you know it’s also the most disgusting? Your screen may look clean, but studies show that a mobile phone can be 18x dirtier than a public restroom! It gets worse (sorry)…that keyboard you tap at while eating your morning toast? It’s probably the biggest bacterial threat in your house, with about 20 000 times more germs than a toilet seat, more if you share it with children.

It’s not just sickness we’re up against, because as dust builds up inside gadgets, they also slow down, malfunction or overheat. Your device essentially chokes on gunk, as vents and filters are clogged by sucking in pet hair and floating debris. Here’s how to clean your essential tech items without damaging them:

1. Skip the household cleaners: Most cleaning products are too harsh for our technology and can end up causing permanent damage. You want something that can kill germs and remove everyday grime, without scratching or leaving behind a scented residue. Your best bet is Isopropyl Alcohol. You’ll find it in the first aid section of supermarkets and pharmacies, or at the hardware store. You’ll also want a microfiber cloth which you can find in department stores, hardware stores and auto parts stores.

2. Power down completely: Turn your tech off all the way, not just sleeping, and unplug from any power sources. Switch wireless keyboards, mice, etc off underneath or remove the batteries.

3. Remove any cases or covers: Undress your device as much as you can, but leave screen protectors on (unless there’s grime underneath). If your screen protector needs replacing, have a new one ready to apply.

4. Grab a microfiber cloth: Dampen the cloth with Isopropyl Alcohol and wipe screens and external surfaces gently. Older build-up may require extra effort.

5. Go deep: You can use a toothbrush or cotton tip to clean between most crevices, but some areas will need a bit more ‘oomph’ to clear. You’ve probably seen people use vacuum cleaners on their keyboard, but these are often TOO powerful and may suck keys or internal parts loose. They also generate damaging static electricity. Another option is to use a tech-specific vacuum, but these are usually underpowered.

Insider tip: Use a can of compressed air to blow the dust out. You can get these from many stores and they come with a long nozzle so you can really get in and direct the pressure. You’ll be surprised what flies out, so it’s best to do this outside! I don’t recommend using compressed air on your computer’s internal fans though, as this can make them spin too fast and damage them.

How often you clean your tech is up to you and your lifestyle. But it’s a good idea to blow out computer internal dust at least twice a year and wiping your tech down 1-2 times per week will definitely reduce germs and grime.

Ransomware Exposed: What it is and How it Works

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Ransomware has become an undeniable threat to business growth, profitability and security. It’s a ruthless type of malware that locks your keyboard or computer to prevent you from accessing your data until you pay the ransom, which is usually demanded in untraceable Bitcoin. Cyber criminals are turning this type of attack into big business, raking in billions each year as many businesses have no choice but to pay up.

How does ransomware get into the network?

Surprisingly, it’s NOT those random USB drives floating around from unknown sources. That’s old school, and cyber criminals operate much more effectively now. The most common vehicle for ransomware attacks today are email and compromised websites.

One email is all it takes.

We’ve all become so used to email as the major form of business communication that getting someone to click a link is easier than ABC. Ransomware attacks come disguised as legitimate emails that can trick your employees into clicking through to an infected website or opening an infected attachment. Unfortunately, cyber criminals have gotten really, REALLY good at faking internal emails, external communications from stakeholders and seemingly genuine inquiries from customers. They’ll often conceal their ransomware in normal attachments like invoices and reports in Office docs as well as PDFs. Even TXT files can actually be an executable javascript in disguise!

Infected websites aren’t always obvious.

Let’s face it, cyber criminals will infect any web page they can get their hands on, which is why of the less reputable sites should be avoided. But it’s not just about making sure you and your employees stick to suitable sites, mainstream websites can also carry ransomware infections ready to spread to all visitors. It’s happened before – in 2016 the New York Times, BBC & MSN homepages accidentally exposed thousands of web visitors when their infected site showed malicious ads.

What happens during an attack?

As soon as ransomware is in the door, it immediately scans local and connected drives (including connected backups) and encrypts thousands of files. Within minutes, everything from Office files to multimedia is locked up tight, inaccessible to all users – even admin. Then a notification appears demanding a ransom to unlock the files and gives helpful instructions on how to pay it. At this point, many businesses are on hold until the situation can be resolved. Typical options include: restoring from safe, external backups; wiping the entire system and starting again; or paying the ransom and learning a hard lesson in data security. Ransomware may not be fun, but it certainly makes for an interesting day at the office!

I can help you with a complete data security plan, including safe backups. Contact me today by filling out the form on the contact page or call me at (828) 290-8237