Finding Stuff in Windows 11

Windows Search

One of the first things you notice when you display the Windows 11 Start Menu is that while it’s still there – unlike Windows 8, where it wasn’t – it’s a departure from Windows 10, which brought back something resembling the venerable Windows 7 Start Menu. Gone are your categories of tiles, and gone, or at least hidden, is the alphabetical list of programs. They’ve been replaced with a collection of pinned apps and a curious section labeled “Recommended”. We will explore those in future posts. Right now, though, a user new to Windows 11 could be forgiven for thinking, “How the $#^@& do I find anything in this new Windows?!” Fortunately, Windows Search is still here, it’s prominently featured (I’ve circled it in the lead screen shot, above), and it’s better than ever.

Windows Search has been around a long time – about 20 years, in fact. It was first added as an optional update in Windows XP, but that early edition of Windows Search was balky, slow, not very effective and tended to cause the whole computer to get sluggish. But with every version of Windows since then, Windows Search has become better and more tightly integrated. Many people never discovered that they could click the Windows 7 Start button, begin typing without pointing the mouse at anything and find menu items, Control Panel applets and software. That was too bad, because it brought much of the power of Windows 7 right to your fingertips. It was invaluable in Windows 8, which had an annoying habit of hiding frequently-used tiles in unintuitive places. I still use the click-Start-and-search trick constantly on my Windows 10 desktop PC, where it does a decent job of finding data files as well as software. My experience with it so far on my laptop suggests that it’s one of the handful of real under-the-hood improvements in Windows 11.

While searching for software this way in Windows 10 is usually faster than scrolling the alphabetical app list in the Start menu when I need a program that isn’t pinned to Start or the Taskbar, I’ve often found that newly installed software can take several days to get indexed by Windows Search, and, some software, particularly infrequently-used programs, just never seems to show up at all. It does a better job of indexing data files that are stored in common locations, such as Documents or Pictures. And depending on how busy the computer is, searches can sometimes take awhile, and occasionally fail. But all this seems to work like clockwork in Windows 11!

Here, I’ve done a search for the Intel Driver & Support Assistant, a program I don’t run frequently from the Start menu. (It auto-launches in the background, and I usually launch it via the Taskbar Notification Area.) By the time I finish typing “intel” I see:

Searching for a program

Similarly, here’s a search for a spare computer parts Excel workbook that I’ve never actually opened on this laptop before. As with the program search, I’m barely done typing the first word of the title when Windows finds it for me:

Searching for a data file

Windows Search in Windows 11 is so good at finding everything you need that you could probably use the new operating system productively without learning how to navigate the new interface at all!

You Can Always Reinstall Your Software… or can you?

One frustration that clients face when recovering from a computer failure or moving to a new computer is reinstalling their productivity software. (Productivity software is the software you use to do your job: for example, Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud.) This is a minor frustration compared with what it takes to recover data that wasn’t backed up, but it’s still hard to be productive when you have all your data but you’ve lost the software that you use to create and maintain it.

Once software is installed on a computer, the installation source and any license numbers are out of sight, out of mind for most people. Thus, they tend to misplace the files and information they used to install it, despite warnings from software companies to hold onto them. Today, I am going to explain why it’s important to make sure you keep those things safely stored and documented.

Many computer users fail to understand that while data can be easily copied from one computer to another, most software cannot be, at least on Windows computers. Software that runs under Windows typically includes common files that are stored in the Windows folders, other common files that are stored in shared folders within the Program Files or Program Files (x86) folders, configuration files stored in subfolders of the invisible ProgramData folder and the user’s invisible AppData folder, and Windows Registry settings. Because of this, most software made for Windows computers must be properly installed within Windows in order to run. There are utilities that purport to transfer software from one copy of Windows to another, but I’ve never seen one that works well. There is simply no substitute for making sure your installation source and license information are available.

“Just make full image backups!”, I hear some people answer. (A full image backup is a snapshot of absolutely everything stored on a computer, which, when restored, transforms the computer to exactly the way it was at the time the backup was made.) Unfortunately, while this can work around the problem in some cases, it’s not a cure-all. Full image backups take a long time to make, relative to data-only backups, and also consume much larger amounts of storage space. It’s expensive to make and keep full image backups of all your computers locally, and generally impractical to make them online. And restoring a full image backup is really most helpful after you’ve repaired a failed computer. Using them to load up a new computer often results in system instability. (The “restore to dissimilar hardware” feature found in some image backup software is best for restoring a backed up computer temporarily a new computer, just long enough to get everything you need off of it, and then restoring the new computer back to the operating system that came with it.) Full image backups are also not much help when a single program becomes corrupt. Who wants to restore an entire full image backup just to regain access to Adobe Acrobat Pro, for example?

For the installation sources, I recommend using both of the following methods: First, keep any original media, such as CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives and downloaded files. (Downloaded files can be stored on whatever media are most convenient for you.) If the media didn’t come in an easily stored box, folio or envelope labeled with its name and version, then put it in something that can be so labeled. You can designate a drawer, cabinet shelf or box to hold these. Second, for redundancy and convenience, you should also copy your original media. (It’s completely legal to do this for the purpose of making sure you don’t lose your software. It’s only illegal if you share your copies with someone else.) If you have a network server or network attached storage device (NAS), you can create a software installations share on it and copy your installation media to subfolders within that share. Again, be sure that one way or another, you preserve the software titles, versions, system requirements and any special installation instructions for each program.

Similarly, you should keep at least two copies of your license keys on hand. The first should be kept in printed form with your original installation media. For example, if you purchased QuickBooks on CD, be sure you store one copy of the license key for QuickBooks with the CD. For the second copy, I recommend a document or spreadsheet into which you transcribe your license keys — and be sure to double-check your transcriptions. Your document or spreadsheet can be stored with the copies you made of your original installation media for your software.

Nowadays, many software titles are distributed electronically. You purchase the software online, and the company e-mails you the license information and a link to download the installation files. It’s fine to keep track of the license keys by keeping the original e-mails in an easy-to-find folder in your e-mail, if you like. However, the software companies may not keep the installers available for download in perpetuity, so it’s a good idea to keep a copy or two of the downloaded installers.

One final note: Some software, like QuickBooks, is provided to you when you purchase it, and the software company periodically sends out updates for it during its lifecycle. As with original installers, though, the software company may not keep the updates available forever. That can be a problem for software like QuickBooks, in which updates may alter the data files and render them unusable with older builds of the software. So, if the updates are provided via download, it’s a good idea to keep copies of the updates with the original installers. (Some updates are just that – updates – while others are free-standing installers that will install the latest build of a particular program.)

Unfortunately, there are some software packages that download and apply their updates autonomously, without the company providing you a download to install. If you have to reinstall a program like that too long past what the software company considers end-of-life for that program, then you may have no choice but to purchase the latest version. If your company depends on any such software, it’s best to be proactive about making sure you’re always using a supported version, even if that means buying and upgrading to the newest version every few years.

Properly maintaining your software library will make the difference between a smooth computer restoration or replacement, or suffering serious loss of productivity when equipment fails or must be replaced. It makes sense to take care of this before an emergency arises. If you don’t feel up to doing it yourself, then please don’t hesitate to hire Lebowitz IT Services to help you organize your software installers and license keys.

Connecting Windows 11 to WiFi

Windows 11 WiFi Glyph

Windows 11’s user interface changes – dare I call it a face lift? – improves some things, while making (or leaving) other things counter-intuitive. Connecting to a wireless network decidedly falls into the latter category. If you mostly use a computer with a wired connection, or your computer pretty much stays at home, then it may be quite awhile before you notice how this has changed. But if you carry a laptop with you frequently and often have to connect to different wireless networks, you’ll run into confusion pretty quickly.

Please note that this is a “how-to” post, not a troubleshooting post. If you know how to connect to a wifi network with Windows 11 but are having difficulty doing so, then your best bet is to go to our Contact page and request a service call. (Or you could go back to good ol’ Google and keep searching…)

As you can see from the introductory screen shot on this post, the first change to the wi-fi interface is actually a good one. In Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8, the wi-fi icon in the Taskbar Notification area looked like the cellular signal strength bars that people were used to seeing on their mobile phones. In Windows 10, Microsoft changed that icon to something similar to the wi-fi signal strength indicator seen on Mac computers and smartphones, but they rotated it 45 degrees to the left so it appeared to sit on its side. Since I know of no other milieu in which the wi-fi symbol looks like that, I began describing it to clients as a “quarter of a target”. The symbol for “no connection” was even less intuitive – a line art image of a globe. (There is a subtle difference between the “No Internet” and “No Connection at All” versions of the globe, but most people fail to see it.) Unfortunately, the “no connection” icons haven’t changed noticeably for Windows 11, but the wi-fi connection now looks like the ones found in Mac OS and on most cell phones, with the slice of the target standing on its point, allegedly resembling radio waves coming off of the top of an antenna. I don’t know if the latter interpretation qualifies as intuitive, but at least it’s consistent with other devices now, and thus should be less confusing.

As with Windows 10, when you want to connect Windows 11 to a wireless network, click on the network glyph in the Taskbar Notification Area:

No Connection network glyph

So far, so good, or at least so familiar. Unfortunately, what appears next is not:

Notification area status dialog

The pop-up that appears is actually a combined status dialog box. Starting from the top row, left corner, we have wifi status, Bluetooth status, and the last-used VPN, if any. On the second row, we see Airplane Mode, which toggles all networking on or off; Focus Assist, which we’ll ignore for now (there will be a future blog post on this), and Accessibility, which we will similarly ignore for now. Below that we have a brightness control (if you’re using a laptop or all-in-one with software-controlled brightness) and volume control.

Windows 11 leaves the uninitiated wondering what to do next. The most intuitive thing to do is click on the wifi symbol in the upper left, but all that does is turn the wifi radio off. (Click it again to turn it back on.) What you actually need to do is click on the “>” in the right half of the button with the wifi symbol.

Connect to wifi

Doing that brings up a the familiar list of wireless networks. From this point on, the procedure is the same as in Windows 10: choose the network you want, enter the password when prompted and Windows 11 connects right up.

What’s a Good Brand Of…?

Random tech logos

One of the most common questions people ask me is “What’s a good brand of ______?” You can fill in the blank with whatever technology product you can imagine buying, but my answer is nearly always the same: “There is no good brand of ______. All companies that sell these products make some that I feel comfortable recommending and some that I don’t.” (That answer is not entirely truthful. There are a few manufacturers that make nothing I’m willing to recommend. But I’m not talking about them today.) People don’t like to hear this answer, because it requires them to pay attention to details that they would rather not have to think about. In today’s post, I’m going to tell you why I won’t simply recommend brands when requested. It all comes down to two concepts that I’m sure marketing professionals have more polite phrases for, but I call them Brand Dilution and Brand Prostitution.

Brand Dilution is what happens when a company has a brand that has a reputation for something that people like and respect, but then they begin using that brand to sell products that don’t measure up. For example, in the mid-1980s, Toshiba began producing laptops. Toshiba wasn’t the first company to make laptops, but their laptops were such an improvement on what had been available up to that point that they’re described by many industry pundits as the world’s first mass-market laptops. Toshiba soon earned a reputation for making laptops that were reliably sturdy, powerful, dependable and easier to live with than most others. (Note that we’re talking about a time in which a 16-pound laptop was considered portable, and 45 minutes of runtime per battery charge was considered long!) People came to expect that any laptop bearing the Toshiba brand would be a high-quality laptop.

But after a number of years, Toshiba introduced laptops that were cheaper, both in price and quality. Imagine my surprise the first time I encountered one of those: it was slow to the point of hanging constantly, and it felt downright rickety in my hands. I couldn’t understand why Toshiba would put their highly-respected name on such a piece of junk! The owner of the laptop couldn’t understand it either, and, not surprisingly, that was the last Toshiba branded computer she ever bought. Over time, I learned that if one wanted a high-quality Toshiba laptop, one had to shop for one of their Tecra or Portege models, which could only be found in places where businesses purchased computer equipment, and not in the big-box stores that had become the primary sellers of consumer electronics. But to people who don’t buy computer equipment on a regular basis, that distinction is invisible. It didn’t take long before most people came to regard Toshiba laptops as junk, and eschewed them in favor of other brands. It didn’t take the big-box retailers much longer than that to realize they weren’t selling many Toshiba laptops, after which they stopped carrying them.

Toshiba never managed to repair their brand image as far as laptops were concerned. They eventually sold off their laptop division to Sharp Corporation, which now produces Satellite Pro, Portege, Tecra and E models under the DynaBook brand. But I have never seen a DynaBook brand laptop in person, and I don’t know where to buy one other than online at the DynaBook web site. (That’s the danger of diluting your brand: you can damage it beyond hope of repair.)

Brand Prostitution is similar, but it happens when a company is indiscriminate about licensing use of their brand name by other companies. The harm to the brand is done when a licensee produces inferior products that are then sold under the brand name, thus compromising the brand’s reputation for high quality. For example, Verbatim was a company that became well-known for producing high-quality diskettes in the 1970s and ’80s, and since then has expanded into other storage products, including recordable CD and DVD blanks as well as flash storage media, like USB flash drives and SD cards. But Verbatim, the company, was acquired by Mitsubishi in 1990, and by 1994, it was nothing more than a brand name owned by Mitsubishi, and, most recently, CMC. Apparently, the brand wasn’t important to Mitsubishi, because they became quite cavalier about the products sold under the Verbatim label. Some Verbatim-branded products are made in factories owned by their parent company, and are excellent. Others are made under license by factories owned by other companies, and the quality, in my experience, is inconsistent. So, if you were to ask me, “Are Verbatim brand USB flash drives good?”, I would have to answer, “I really don’t know. It depends on who made the ones in the package you bought.”

My perception is that both Brand Dilution and Brand Prostitution are common in nearly all market sectors nowadays, and the result is that the consistency of product quality within brands is quite low. That’s why I refuse to make blanket brand recommendations. If I make a product recommendation, it will most likely be for specific models, and then only because my personal experience with those models has been positive.

Adventure of the Week: Unexpected Synergy

Ethernet Jacks

The photo above is of a pair of Ethernet jacks, the kind we see on the backs of desktop computers and don’t really think about unless they mysteriously stop working properly, something they rarely do. That’s not to say that network connections never malfunction; it’s just that when they do, it’s rarely the fault of the network jack in the computer. Today’s tale is about a pair of problems that a client asked me to fix. One was that his network was down, and the other was a computer that wouldn’t boot normally, and those problems turned out to be related in a very unexpected way.

The more pressing issue that the client had was that none of his computers could connect to his network, even though all the cables appeared to be in the right places and all the expected network indicator lights were on or flashing, whichever was appropriate. His ISP had sent a field technician out to look at it, and the technician had concluded that the problem wasn’t with their equipment. This client is fairly tech-savvy, and had spent some time troubleshooting his LAN equipment – which consisted of the ISP’s gateway, a simple, unmanaged network switch and half a dozen CAT8 cables, one connecting the gateway to the switch, and the rest connecting computers to the switch.

No, CAT8 was not a typo. This client is using Category 8 Ethernet cables, which are intended for high-speed, short-range use in data centers and usually not deployed in office settings. This client obviously didn’t read up on IEEE, CCITT and ISO network cabling standards before buying these. But while I conducted some of my tests using a more appropriate CAT6 cable, that was mainly to rule out the idea that unorthodox use of CAT8 might be causing his problems. I was not, in fact, there to troubleshoot the network cables, as they had been in use for quite some time and the problem had only appeared a week or so before my visit.

Naturally, I concentrated my attention on the network switch, which is an unmanaged, 8-port PoE model (although the client doesn’t have any PoE devices). You might ask why I didn’t start with the gateway, which is one of those all-in-one cable modem/router/wifi devices that incorporates a 4-port switch. After all, many cable Internet companies deploy these to their customers, and they’ve been known to cause problems, mainly with VoIP phone service. But this client doesn’t have any VoIP phones, and the one computer that was communicating properly over the network was plugged directly into the gateway, So, the mystery was why the computer plugged directly into the router was working fine, but any computer plugged into the switch either failed to obtain an IP address, or, if it did manage to get a valid TCP/IP setup from the DHCP server (in the gateway), it still could not communicate on the network afterward. So, the logical place to start seemed to be the switch.

The client had a couple of spare network switches, so I tried swapping switches — no change. I checked and re-checked all the connections; again, everything appeared to be hooked up correctly. It made no difference if I connected up using my CAT6 cable or the client’s CAT8 one. If I connected my laptop to the gateway, my laptop got a working connection, but if I plugged into the switch, it didn’t. It seemed unlikely that all three switches were bad, especially since one of which was just a few weeks old.

So, I then turned my attention to the ISP’s gateway. I had never seen that particular model gateway before, so maybe there was some obscure setting in it that had could affect a connected switch and had accidentally been changed. But no matter where I looked in the gateway’s administration GUI, I couldn’t find any settings that might be responsible for causing issues with the switch.

So much for the places where I most often find this sort of trouble. I now had to start looking at the rest of the network. In a typical home or small business network, plugging certain kinds of rogue devices into the switch can bring down the network. Fortunately, this was a small network, and it was pretty much down anyway, so I unplugged all the client’s network cables from the switch, except for the one that connected it to the gateway, and then plugged just my laptop into the switch. Aha, now I was getting somewhere! My laptop was instantly assigned a valid IP configuration and went online.

Next, I began plugging the client’s network cables back in one by one, testing with my laptop after each. Since we’re only talking about four cables, it didn’t take long to find the problematic one. What surprised me, though, is that the cable that brought the network back down turned out to be plugged into the second problem I was asked to fix: the computer that didn’t work.

It’s instructive to note that a modern computer’s Ethernet jack works even if the computer is turned off, as long as a) it’s plugged into a working electrical outlet, b) the power supply is at least working well enough to energize the system board, and c) the Wake-On-LAN setting in the system board’s BIOS hasn’t been turned off. Apparently, this computer’s Ethernet jack was not only energized, but was also transmitting a constant stream of garbage data out over the network cable. That stream was causing the network outage.

The computer turned out to have some strange things about it. First of all, it has two network jacks instead of the usual one. (Two network jacks is quite common when the computer in question is a network server, but this one was a custom-built, but otherwise fairly ordinary, desktop PC, albeit one equipped with high-end components.) One of the jacks was, in fact, connected to the cable from the network switch. The other one was incorrectly connected to a network printer via a standard Ethernet patch cable. I had to explain to the client that such a connection doesn’t work, particularly not without a special crossover cable, and not without at least setting a static IP address on the printer. But even with a crossover cable, such a configuration was unlikely to make the printer work, so I removed the Ethernet cable that had connected the PC directly to the printer.

But could that unworkable connection have caused the network to go down? That seemed unlikely, because, as mentioned earlier, that computer wasn’t working. OK, to be more precise, it wasn’t running an operating system, because, as I would find out later, its power supply was failing. The system board was getting enough power in its off state to energize its Ethernet jacks, but unless there is something very strange about the way those Ethernet jacks were connected to the system board, having a printer improperly plugged into one of them shouldn’t have caused the other one to create problems on the network.

A failing power supply can, theoretically, cause a component like an onboard Ethernet module to fail, but this, too, seemed unlikely under the circumstances. The power supply in the computer was good enough to get the computer through its power-on self-test. It only failed shortly before or after Windows 10 displayed the logon screen, at which point it would shut down.

So, it seemed more likely that the Ethernet jack connected to the (correct) network cable had gone bad. Or maybe the Ethernet adapter circuitry to which that jack is soldered went bad. Either way, moving the network connection to the other Ethernet jack seems to have solved the network problem. Now the client is waiting on a new power supply for that computer.

The moral of the story is that after you’ve eliminated all the common causes for a common problem, be sure to investigate the uncommon causes before giving up.

Introducing Windows Wednesdays!

Microsoft’s recent release of Windows 11 has spurred a fair amount of online chatter, much of it negative. However, whether the online talking heads like it or not, it is here, and a look at computer sellers’ advertisements and store displays makes it clear that if you’re shopping for a new computer, there’s a very good chance that the one you bring home is going to come with Windows 11 installed on it. Since I’m in the business of supporting computer equipment, and it stands to reason that it won’t be long before I start getting calls from people who need help with Windows 11, I decided it was best for me to begin familiarizing myself with the new operating system. So, when Windows Update offered me the upgrade free of charge on my laptop, I accepted the upgrade. And as long as I’m getting up close and personal with Windows 11, it occurred to me that this also presented me with a great opportunity to re-animate my stagnant blog by sharing my experiences with you. As an adorer of alliteration, I have decided to post these experiences midweek every week (at least until I run out of experiences) on what we will call Windows Wednesdays.

Let’s start with a very basic question: Should I get it, and, if so, how?

The first part of that question brings to mind a host of tired comparisons and recommendations from online pundits, most of whom have only experienced a pre-release version of Windows 11 and maybe not even that. “You never want to get Version 1.0 of anything.” “You can always tell who the pioneers are; they’re the ones with arrows in their backs.” “It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.” And while there is truth to such statements, I can tell you that, at very least, Windows 11 has been quite stable for me. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few glitches. For example, after the first update Microsoft pushed out (about 48 hours after I got the upgrade), my laptop developed an irritating habit of losing Internet access over its wi-fi connection. A new cumulative update I received last night (six days after I got the upgrade) seems to have cleared that up. But this is no worse than my initial experiences with Windows 11’s predecessor, Windows 10. Sure, it’s going to take a little while to shake all the bugs out, but so far, I haven’t encountered any show stoppers, just annoyances. At the moment, I’m not recommending that anyone rush out to get Windows 11, but I have yet to encounter any problems serious enough to advise avoiding it altogether.

If you want Windows 11 on your current computer, there are two ways to get it: Windows Update and direct download. If your computer runs Windows 10 now, and you open the Windows Update window (click the Start button, then the Settings icon, then click Update and security from the Settings window), you will probably see one of three messages about Windows 11: If your computer passes Microsoft’s Windows 11 compatibility checks and Microsoft has made the upgrade available to you, you will be able to click on a link to get it right then and there. If your computer passed the compatibility checks but Microsoft has not yet made the upgrade available to you, the message will tell you, essentially, to stay tuned. If your computer did not pass the compatibility checks, you will see a message saying your computer is not compatible, and, in that case, Microsoft will not offer you the upgrade.

If you’re in a hurry to get Windows 11 for some reason, you can download an installer on your own from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows11. The installer will run the same compatibility checks that Windows Update runs, though, so if Windows Update tells you that your computer is not compatible, this download will not install Windows for you, either.

So what makes your computer compatible or incompatible with Windows 11? The most publicized requirement for Windows 11 is the presence of a TPM v2.0 chip in your computer. TPM stands for Trusted Platform Module, and it’s a hardware security chip that, up to this point, has mostly been used in corporate PCs as a hook for network security systems employed by medium to large businesses. Windows 11 uses TPM v2.0 to make it more difficult for cyber-criminals to gain access to computers. Other requirements for Windows 11 are much more conventional, and generally any computer that runs Windows 10 will meet them. There is plenty of information about this elsewhere online, as well as several methods for getting around the TPM v2.0 requirement. These, as well as the reliability of the TPM work-arounds, are beyond the scope of what I want to discuss in this series, so I will not be investigating them. I’ll simply say that if the compatibility checks indicate that your computer isn’t compatible with Windows 11, then that’s as good an excuse as any to stick with Windows 10 until you buy a new computer.

Will Microsoft attempt to force users to install Windows 11, as they did with Windows 10? As of right now, the answer appears to be no. Between the TPM requirement and, no doubt, lessons learned from the by-hook-or-by-crook automatic upgrades when Windows 10 first came out, Microsoft doesn’t seem to be pushing Windows 11 aggressively, at least not to Windows 10 users.

Should you get Windows 11? The fact is that at this time, there is no good reason why you should. At least for the time being, Windows 11 doesn’t do anything that Windows 10 can’t, there is no software on the market at this time that requires Windows 11, and Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 will be supported until October 14, 2025. So, if you’re currently using Windows 10 and you’re happy with it, then stick with Windows 10 and don’t worry about upgrading. If you recently purchased a new computer that came with Windows 11 or is being offered Windows 11, or you are considering purchasing one in the near future, then stay tuned and enjoy this series.

And don’t worry, most of the entries in this series will be much shorter than this one!

Why I Don’t Fix Printers

I get this question all the time: “Do you fix printers?” My pat answer to that question is “No”, because most of the printers I’m asked to look at are cheaper to replace than to have me fix, and the few that aren’t require special training and access to dealer/authorized servicer parts that I simply can’t get. That said, many SOHO printers can actually be fixed without breaking the bank, but only if you have the basic repair skills and time to do it yourself, and if your time wouldn’t be better spent doing something else.

I will illustrate this by relating my recent experience fixing my own printer, a Canon MAXIFY MB5120. In short, this printer is a beefed-up inkjet all-in-one that offers faster-than-average printing and scanning, better-than-average paper handling, automatic duplex printing and scanning and a host of networking options that make it accessible to all my devices, whether they’re computers, tablets or phones, both at home and via the Internet. But at the heart of all that, it’s still an inkjet printer, and it’s subject to the same problems that affect all inkjet printers. The most common of those problems is clogging of the print head, and that’s exactly what happened to my MB5120.

Inkjet print heads get clogged for many reasons. Most often, the cause is disuse. Printer ink is a liquid that gets sprayed on the page by the print head (in a highly ordered way, of course, so as to make clear, sharp, full-color printouts with crisp text) and dries there to make the printout permanent. Obviously, in order for the ink to dry before you get a chance to smear the printout, it needs to be formulated to dry very quickly when exposed to air. But as an old, possibly obscure song says, “The air, the air is everywhere.” That includes inside your printer, just outside of the print head. If left undisturbed long enough, that ink just inside the print head will dry out and harden, clogging the head. That’s why inkjet printer experts advise users to print, and print often, preferably in full color. (That’s right — that setting your boss wants you to use to print monochrome on your office’s color laser printer to save money on toner? That’s false economy if you do it with your inkjet printer at home.) I’ve heard a lot of recommendations about exactly how much you really need to print, but a good guideline is at least 5 full color pages per week.

I’m familiar with that guideline, and I have plenty to print on my printer, so lack of full color page printouts wasn’t the reason why my printer’s head clogged. Other possible reasons include poorly formulated ink (possibly a factor in my case, as I unabashedly use compatible ink tanks that I buy online instead of expensive, geniune Canon brand ink), the trend towards ever-tinier ink nozzles to get those increasingly sharp inkjet printouts, and poor overall print head design. Canon and I will disagree on this, no doubt, but I have good reason to suspect that those latter two potential causes may have come into play in my case. But at least Canon gave my MB5120 a print head that can be removed (with effort) and cleaned or replaced if necessary. At least one other manufacturer whose printers I have owned makes it next to impossible to remove their print heads. I will leave them nameless for the time being.

After the clogged yellow nozzles were diagnosed, and the Canon-ized (sorry, couldn’t resist) fixes of cleaning and then deep-cleaning the print head via the menu had been tried fruitlessly, I began warming myself up mentally to the messy and somewhat time-consuming task of removing and cleaning the print head. This would not be my first time doing this; part of why I was so reluctant was because I knew I would be spending 2-4 hours between actually fixing the thing and trying not to get ink all over the place; the latter is the part I find most daunting.

For my Canon MAXIFY MB5120, the tools for the job include a #1 Phillips head screwdriver, a small, plastic container, some Windex window cleaner, some water, some paper towels, a spray can of 100% isopropyl alcohol (sold at Micro Center, for cleaning electronics) and a lot of patience. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail, because the detailed procedure would only help you if you own a Canon MAXIFY MB5120 or one of its MAXIFY MB series siblings. (They are mostly sold online, and, therefore, are not very popular.) There is a lot of variation in the way printers are put together. If you want specific instructions for working on your own printer’s print head, I recommend searching for your printer model on YouTube, iFixIt.com or both.

For my printer, the first step is removing the ink tanks, which takes a bit of ballet with turning the printer off, turning it back on and unplugging when you hear the print head do its power-on self-test sweep, because Canon, in an apparent attempt to protect us from ourselves, did not provide a menu-driven means of removing an ink tank before the printer detects that it’s empty. The second part of beating that “safeguard” is manually turning a plastic gear inside the printer in order to activate the cartridge eject mechanism. I had to do this four times, once for each ink tank. After the ink tanks are removed, out comes a clipped-in plastic shield. Now I have access to the print head, but before I can operate the lever that releases it, I must remove two hard-to-reach screws that are there because… well, apparently, because Canon thought it was a good idea. (Anti-magnetic screws in a recessed location just above a spot where the only place they can fall is into the innards of the printer? Really, Canon?!?)

With the print head finally out of the printer, my next step was to give the print head a several-hour soak in what amounts to a sitz bath of a 50/50 mix of Windex and water. Ideally, I would be using a solvent specially made for cleaning inkjet print heads. Also, ideally, I would be using a sort of syringe with a short hose made specifically to fit on the print heads ink input ports. And at very least, it would be best if I were using distilled water for mixing with the Windex and flushing later. But, again, I don’t fix printers on a regular basis, so I don’t have those things. So, a sitz bath of tap water and Windex would just have to do, followed by a careful water rinse, trying to blow it out with the spray alcohol, and then an overnight dry-out period of just sitting on a pad of paper towels.

Fast-forward to the morning, and I reverse the print head removal procedure to put the head back in the printer and reinstall the ink tanks. But the process isn’t over yet, because remember that those print heads are supposed to be made to help prevent the problem I was trying to fix in the first place. In other words, no matter how hard you try to dry the print head out, there’s going to be some water and solvent trapped inside. That’s probably for the best, if you think about it, because loosening and flushing out as much dried ink as possible from the print head, only to have something else dry in there and clog it, would be a bad thing. But until all remaining water and solvent are flushed out, your printouts are going to be fuzzy, prone to smearing, and possibly dripping. So, the first thing I did after putting it all back together was a print head Deep Cleaning via the menu. Since that basically tells the printer to flush out the print head with a substantial amount of ink, that should have been just the ticket for flushing out the leftover solvent. After the Deep Cleaning was done, I printed a test pattern and… seeing that I was still getting very little yellow ink in the test pattern, I did another Deep Cleaning. This time, the test pattern looked a lot better — not perfect, but at least passable — so, the next step was to start printing every full-color e-mail in my Inbox to make sure that ink got flowing and displaced any solvent still left in there. I should probably print another 50 pages or so before I attempt any photographs.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of why I don’t fix printers. My Canon MAXIFY MB5120 would have cost about $200 to replace. At what I charge clients per hour, the 2-4 hours it would take for me to do something like this to your average printer would end up costing close to $200, and maybe more, and most of my clients with inkjet printers have models that cost less than mine. Note that most of the YouTube videos that show how to fix printers are made by technicians who live in countries other than the United States. In the US, computer hardware is cheap compared to labor. In many other countries, hardware is more expensive, and people are paid less, so repair is a more attractive option. But not here. So, why did I go to the trouble of cleaning my own printer’s print head? Let’s just suffice to say that due to circumstances beyond my control, it made more sense to take the time to fix it than to go shopping for a new one.

But, what about other kinds of printers? In the US, expensive laser printers and office copiers are worth fixing. In fact, many offices have service contracts for their copiers, because they can be very expensive to service. But I don’t handle those, either, because, as said earlier, fixing those requires special training and access to parts that I can’t get.

“CAN YOU GET ME A WEBCAM?” (NEW ANSWER: HOPEFULLY SOON!)

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, and until today, my answer has been “Alas, no. The pandemic caused a run on webcams, just as it caused runs on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and a number of other commodities (most recently, interestingly enough, bakers’ yeast). The few that are available are either overpriced or dubious imports, with long delivery estimates.”

It’s easy to imagine why webcams have been in short supply worldwide. After all, most everyone has been working remotely and attending virtual school classes for over a month now in much of the United States, and even longer than that in some other parts of the world. This requires webcams, so those people whose desktops didn’t have one (and whose laptops came with crummy ones) rushed out to buy them. But unlike some of the other commodities that people began to hoard, webcams were simply a victim of short supply to begin with. People who buy traditional desktops usually don’t buy webcams for them, and most all-in-one desktops and laptops come with webcams that are at least acceptable. So, under normal circumstances, retailers don’t stock a lot of webcams. After all, no retailer wants to store large quantities of a product that people don’t normally buy in large numbers. Doing so means a long wait to recoup their cost, not to mention the shelf space that the slow-moving product occupies, which could be more profitably occupied by more popular products. And, of course, it’s similarly unprofitable for distributors to keep large quantities of webcams in stock, and for manufacturers to produce them in large quantities. So, once people realized they were going to be stuck working and learning frrom home, it didn’t take long, or panic-buying or hoarding behavior, for the webcams in the pipeline to sell out.

A month and a half into pandemic stay-at-home orders (in the USA, that is), reasonably priced, webcams are starting to reappear, and it no longer takes 6+ weeks to get them. But the familiar webcam brands are still missing, and a lot of the end user reviews, when they’re present, look suspiciously like ‘bot-generated fakes. I’m still getting calls from clients who need webcams, but who wants to buy an unknown, untested model in hopes that it works? Who is going to take that risk?

The answer is: Lebowitz IT Services will! I just ordered the webcam pictured in this post. (I am not posting a link at this time, because I am not prepared to recommend it before I try it out.) It has genuine-looking reviews, some including photos and video, and most of them are positive. It’s in stock now on amazon.com, and I expect to receive mine in a week or so. When I do, I will run it through its paces, compare it with my trusty Logitech C270 webcam, and let you all know the results. After that, if the webcam proves worthy, it will be resold at cost, and more will be ordered for others who need or want them.

“I don’t want to be a criminal. Will you do it for me?”

People who know me well know that I respect intellectual property rights and honor end user license agreements. The fact is that failure to do so is stealing. I didn’t sit down to write a treatise on this today, but suffice to say that there is case law (both secular and religious, for those who compartmentalize) to back my assertion up.

I received a call today from a client who needed remote assistance from a software company. It seems that the software company technician wanted my client to install TeamViewer so that they could log in remotely. The client was unable to do so, and called to ask me to do it. I told the client, as politely as I could manage, that the request was rather surprising, that I found it more than a bit offensive, and if the software company’s technician wanted TeamViewer on my client’s computer, they should find a way to facilitate this themselves.

So, what was wrong with this request? Simple: Contrary to what many people think, TeamViewer is NOT freeware. TeamViewer (the company) graciously permits free use of their remote access product for personal use only. They do not leave “personal use” to the imagination; they explain what personal use means as far as they are concerned, and provide concrete examples to illustrate it. Using TeamViewer to provide technical¬† support to another company falls squarely into the category of business use, at least as far as TeamViewer (the company) is concerned. Business use requires a license, and TeamViewer licenses range in cost from about $700 to thousands of dollars, depending on a number of factors. I’m not going to try to argue that TeamViewer is inexpensive for this, that or the other. The fact is that many technicians find TeamViewer to be the very best remote access software available. TeamViewer (the company) knows this, and thus justifies the premium price. My business can’t afford that premium price, but I don’t use this to make an excuse for violating TeamViewer’s intellectual property rights. I simply license and use a less expensive remote access product.

The reason I found the request offensive is because it told me three things about the software company (which, I happen to know, charges hefty licensing and maintenance fees for their own products): First, they’re too cheap to license remote access software that they need to provide support. (To reiterate: TeamViewer may be the best remote access software, but it is not the only remote access software. There are cheaper, and even free, alternatives for those willing to open their eyes and look.) Second, they clearly know that providing TeamViewer to their customers without a proper license is against the law, because other companies that license TeamViewer appropriately have easy ways to distribute the TeamViewer host software to their customers, and this software company is not doing so. But what really made me angry was the third thing: while the software company knows that distributing TeamViewer without a business license to provide tech support is illegal, and therefore will not do so themselves, they are perfectly happy to ask other people to install it, and thus break the law for them!

If someone doesn’t agree with intellectual property laws and end user license agreements, or just doesn’t want to play by the rules for whatever reason, we can agree to disagree. It’s not my job to police such things. But at least he should have the guts to commit the violation himself. I draw the line when someone asks me to be a criminal for him.

Your Hard Drive May Be Encrypted…

AND YOU MIGHT NOT EVEN KNOW IT.

No, this isn’t a warning about the latest virus, ransomware, or hacker-related misery (unless you’re one of those Mac or Linux fanatics who views Microsoft as pure evil). It’s about a feature built into your computer and Windows that you probably didn’t know about, want or ask for, and was provided to help protect you from those very things, but has the potential to cause data loss itself.

I’m writing this while waiting for a client’s ailing hard drive to decrypt so that I can make a full image backup of it and use that to move the system onto a new solid state drive. I hope the drive doesn’t fail in the process, and I’ve already backed up the data files separately in case it does. But how did this happen? The client was unaware that their drive was encrypted, and their computer runs Windows 10 Home. Most people assume Windows 10 Home doesn’t support drive encryption thanks to Microsoft’s minimal and misleading information on the subject, which mosty contains reminders that Bitlocker is not supported on Windows 10 Home! So, how did this situation come about?

I’ll try to keep this post from getting too long and complicated by simply saying that all flavors of Windows have supported drive encryption – generally referred to as “device encryption” – since Windows 7. However, until recently, computers didn’t have the hardware support to make it easy to implement and enable at the operating system level. That has changed over the last few years, and now nearly all mass-produced personal computers sold in the United States implement technologies such as Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), Secure Boot and some form of Trusted Platform Module. When Windows 8.1 and later are installed on a computer that have those features present and turned on, they automatically install with device encryption enabled, but not fully activated. The problem is that the installation does not tell you at any point that it is doing this, nor does it tell you how – or even that it is necessary – to take action in order to obtain your encryption key. What I find outrageous about this is that if you don’t take action to obtain your encryption key, Windows encrypts your drive *anyway*, just with a generic key. Look in any Windows support forum, and you’ll find plenty of requests for help from people who had no idea that their hard drives were encrypted until something went wrong, and you’ll find plenty of solutions suggested. Sometimes, one of those solutions helps someone get his computer back into Windows, but in all too many cases, none work, Windows must be reinstalled from scratch, and the data is lost.

I’m not saying that any of these technologies – UEFI, Secure Boot, drive encryption, or Windows 10 – are bad. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s good to have hardware support for drive encryption, especially in laptops, which are often targeted by thieves while their users are traveling. It’s not hard at all to get data off of a computer, even if you don’t know the user’s password, but hardware-supported drive encryption prevents that. However, I am saying that Microsoft’s decision to turn this feature on by default, without informing the user and making sure he either turns it off or takes action to obtain and secure his encryption key, is irresponsible. It leads to users getting locked out of their computers when manufacturers’ driver updates or Windows updates fail to install properly, and, in cases like the laptop that prompted me to write this, the potential to increase repair costs or even lose data when a hard drive starts to malfunction.

Here is what you need to do to ensure that drive encryption doesn’t bite you:

1. First, find out if it’s turned on. If your computer runs Windows 7 or 8.0, you can stop right here, because unless you explicitly purchased and installed a drive encryption system, your hard drive is not encrypted. If your computer runs Windows 8.1, its hard drive is still probably not encrypted. If you have Windows 10, click your Start button, then click on Settings, and then click on Update & Security. Look at the list on the left side. If you don’t see “Device encryption” listed, then you’re done. If you do see it listed, click on it, and the left pane will then tell you if device encryption is disabled, enabled or if you need to take action to finish setting it up.

2. If Device Encryption is turned off, and you want to simply leave it that way, then you’re done. Similarly, if the screen reports simply that Device Encryption is turned on, then you can simply leave it that way, although you may want to log into your Microsoft Account to make sure you know how to get to your recovery key.

3. If the Device Encryption screen reports that “You need a Microsoft account to finish encrypting this device”, then you need to decide whether you want to turn encryption off or finish activating it. Clicking the “Turn off” button will decrypt your drive. Clicking the “Sign in with a Microsoft account instead” link will take you to a screen where you can switch from logging in with a local account to logging in with a Microsoft account, after which you should return to the Device Encryption screen and finish setting up Device Encryption.

If you choose to use Device Encryption, then I strongly advise storing your encryption recovery key in your Microsoft Account, rather then relying on keeping it on a printout or a USB flash drive (the other two options). Anything kept on paper or flash drives is subject to being lost, damaged beyond recovery or stolen. You can misplace the credentials for your Microsoft Account, but you’re more likely to recover from that than you are to get back a recovery key that was stored on a lost, stolen or damaged flash drive or piece of paper.

Another consequence of using Windows 10 Device Encryption (or BitLocker, if you have Windows 10 Pro) is that it complicates data recovery efforts if Windows becomes completely unbootable or the encrypted drive starts to fail. Data recovery tools won’t work on an encrypted drive, and the drive can’t be decrypted if you can’t at least get into the Windows Recovery Environment. I’m always advising people to make regular backups anyway, but it’s absolutely critical to do so if your drive is encrypted.

As always, Lebowitz IT Services is available to assist you in protecting your precious data.