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How to Backup your computer online for free

Welcome to the Pittsburgh Tech Guy!  Your local source for good, dependable technical support and information!  Keep up with the latest Tech news here!

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Saturday
Jan272018

Washington state bill would make hard-to-repair electronics illegal

A number of states are considering right to repair bills, legislation which if passed would make it easier for individuals and repair shops to replace or repair electronics parts. Repair.org reports that 17 states have already introduced bills this year and while most aim to make repair parts and manuals accessible, Washington's proposed legislation would straight up ban electronics that prevent easy repair. "Original manufacturers of digital electronic products sold on or after January 1, 2019, in Washington state are prohibited from designing or manufacturing digital electronic products in such a way as to prevent reasonable diagnostic or repair functions by an independent repair provider," says the bill. "Preventing reasonable diagnostic or repair functions includes permanently affixing a battery in a manner that makes it difficult or impossible to remove."

Motherboard reports that the bill is cosponsored by a dozen representatives, a group that includes both Democrats and Republicans, and was recently moved out of committee, meaning it's closer to a vote than similar bills in other states. "With Apple phones in particular, they glue the battery in the case, so for me, that sounds like a purposeful attempt to make it so you couldn't repair the phone," Jeff Morris, the representative who introduced the bill, told Motherboard. "It helps accelerate the path of those devices to the waste stream. So we're trying to keep the philosophy our state is behind, which is recycle, repair, reuse."

Naturally, tech groups have jumped to make their opposition clear. In a letter to Morris, groups such as the Consumer Technology Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Computer Technology Industry Association said the bill was "unwarranted" and added, "With access to technical information, criminals can more easily circumvent security protections, harming not only the product owner but also everyone who shares their network."

The bill is still in its early stages, so there's no guarantee it will pass. Also, the January 2019 cutoff that it currently sets for manufacturers to abide by the proposed legislation is very soon, which could cause some pushback, and not just from the tech industry. However, it's an interesting addition to the pile of right to repair bills under consideration across the country and if it does pass, it stands to help consumers, third-party repair shops and even the environment.

Saturday
Jan272018

You Need a VPN, and Here's Why

What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?

Simply put, a VPN creates a virtual encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. All external internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is secure from prying eyes. Best of all, your computer appears to have the IP address of the VPN server, masking your identity.

When your data reaches the VPN server, it exits onto the public internet. If the site you're heading to uses HTTPS to secure the connection, you're still secure. But even if it was intercepted, it's difficult to trace the data back to you, since it appears to be coming from the VPN server.

 To understand the value of a VPN, it helps to think of some specific scenarios in which a VPN might be used. Consider the public Wi-Fi network, perhaps at a coffee shop or airport. Normally, you might connect without a second thought. But do you know who might be watching the traffic on that network? Can you even be sure the Wi-Fi network is legit, or might it operated by a thief who's after your personal data? Think about the passwords, banking data, credit card numbers, and just plain private information that you transmit every time you go online.

If you connect to that same public Wi-Fi network using a VPN you can rest assured that no one on that network will be able to intercept your data—no other users snooping around for would-be victims, nor even the operators of the network itself. This last point is particularly important, and everyone should keep in mind that it's very difficult to tell whether or not a Wi-Fi network is what it appears to be. Just because it's called Starbucks_WiFi doesn't mean it's really owned by a well-known coffee purveyor.

Another example showing the value of VPNs is using these services to access blocked websites. Some governments have decided that it is in their best interest to block certain websites from access by all members of the population. With a VPN, those people can have their web traffic securely tunneled to a different country with more progressive policies, and access sites that would otherwise be blocked. And again, because VPNs encrypt your traffic, it helps protect the identity of people who connect to the open internet in this way.

For the most part, VPN clients are the same for both Windows and macOS. But that's not always the case, and I have found marked performance differences depending on the platform. I have split out reviews of Mac VPN applications, in case you're more into fruit than windows. Note that you can skip client apps altogether and connect to the VPN service simply using your computer's network control panel. You'll still need to sign up with a VPN service, however.

For mobile devices, the situation is a little thornier. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. However, VPNs don't always play nice with cellular connections. That said, it takes some serious effort to intercept cellphone data, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.

While VPN apps are fairly similar in look and function regardless of mobile platform, iPhone VPNs often use different VPN protocols than their Android counterparts. This is fine for the most part, however. In some cases it may represent an actual bonus, as iPhone VPN developers do the extra legwork Apple requires to use newer, more robust protocols.

Three-Letter Threats

Among the enemies to free speech and privacy, there are two three-letter groups to be especially concerned about: the NSA and your ISP.

Through years of reporting and the Snowden leaks, we now know that the NSA's surveillance apparatus is enormous in scope. The agency has the ability to intercept and analyze just about every transmission being sent over the web. There are jaw-dropping stories about secret rooms inside data infrastructure hubs, from which the agency had direct access to the beating heart of the internet. With a VPN, you can rest assured that your data is encrypted and less directly traceable back to you. Given the mass surveillance efforts by the NSA and others, having more ways to encrypt your data is a good thing.

Your ISP may already be involved in some of these spying operations, but there's an even-newer concern. The FCC recently rolled back Obama-era rules that sought to protect net neutrality, and in doing so allowed ISPs to profit off your data. The ISPs wanted a slice of that big data monetization pie that has fueled the growth of companies like Facebook and Google. Those companies are able to gather huge amounts of information about users, and then use it to target advertising or even sell that data to other companies. ISPs now have the green light to bundle anonymized user data and put it up for sale.

While it is true that companies like Google and Facebook make money off your behavior, you are not necessarily forced to use those services. If you suddenly decided to stop using Facebook, you might miss out on cute pet pics and political rants from your friends and family, but you could still live a decent, perhaps better, life. You could even choose to avoid the Google-o-sphere entirely by using the privacy conscious DuckDuckGo for your web searches, or drop the Google-backed Chrome for the nonprofit Firefox.

You don't have this same level of choice when it comes to your ISP—your home's gateway to the entirety of the internet. While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, most Americans have limited home ISP alternatives. Some areas have only one ISP offering wired internet access. That makes recent changes that allow ISPs to sell data from their customers all the more troubling. It's one thing to opt into a shady system, it's quite another to have no choice in the matter.

"ISPs are in a position to see a lot of what you do online. They kind of have to be, since they have to carry all of your traffic," explains Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula. "Unfortunately, this means that preventing ISP tracking online is a lot harder than preventing other third-party tracking—you can't just install [the EFF's privacy-minded browser add-on] Privacy Badger or browse in incognito or private mode."

What a VPN Won't Do

We should note that there are multiple ways your behavior can be tracked online—even with a VPN, things like cookies allow web services (Amazon, Google, Facebook, and so on) to track your internet usage even after you've left their sites (here's a handy guide to pruning cookies on your browser.)

VPNs also only anonymize your online activities so much. If you really want to browse the web anonymously, and access the dark web to boot, you'll want to use Tor. Unlike a VPN, Tor bounces your traffic through several server nodes, making it much harder to trace. It's also managed by a non-profit organization and distributed for free. Some VPN services will even connect to Tor via VPN, for additional security.

It's worth noting that most VPN services are not philanthropic organizations that operate for the public good. While many are involved in progressive causes, they are all still for-profit organizations. That means that they have their own bills to pay, and they have to respond to subpoenas and warrants. They also have to abide by the laws of the country in which they officially reside.

This is why it's so important to read the privacy policy for VPN services, and to find out where a VPN company is headquartered. NordVPN, for example, operates out of Panama, and is not subject to any laws that would require it to retain user data.

Things can get tricky when it comes to trusting a VPN. Recently, PureVPN handed over log information the company had to federal investigators building a case against a cyberstalker and general dirtbag. Some were surprised that the company had any information to hand over, or that it did cooperated with investigators at all. It seems to us that PureVPN stayed within the bounds of its stated privacy policy. But it's also true that other companies, such as Private Internet Access, aren't able to connect any of your personal information to your account information.

It's easy to want to find the perfect, magical tool that will protect you from all possible threats. But the honest truth is that if someone targets you specifically and is willing to put forward the effort, they will get to you. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer to activity on the VPN server. But using security tools like a VPN ensure that you won't be an easy target, or get scooped up in mass surveillance.

Saturday
Jan132018

How to tell if you need a new iPhone Battery

If you have a new iPhone (iPhone 8, 8 Plus, or the much hyped iPhone X), battery problems are the last thing on your mind. But for those with older iPhones, it's probably top of mind—especially after Apple admitted to secretly slowing down batteries and is now offering $29 replacements until Dec. 31, 2018.

Battery slowdowns on aging phones are nothing new; lithium-ion batteries are the best option we have for mobile tech today, but they're far from perfect. The more power cycles they go through, the worse their capacity gets.

Apple's "fix" is why many people with older iPhones report battery problems whenever a new version of iOS comes out. It's not just that iOS is written for new devices and runs slower on old models (though that's certainly part of it). It's that Apple, in its infinite wisdom, actually cripples older phones in the name of "overall performance and prolonging the life of...devices."

It's maddening. But Apple got caught when some older iPhones improved after new batteries were installed and people went public with it on Reddit. Weeks later, the company is being sued, and the battery replacement is its public relations response.

The $29 battery replacement only applies to iPhone SE, 6, 6 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus, 7, and 7 Plus. Older phones have to be covered by AppleCare or the battery replacement still costs $79—except if the battery is less than 80 percent capacity when fully charged, in which case the AppleCare battery swap is free.

To get your new battery, take an iPhone to the Apple Store's Genius Bar or mail it in. But what if you're on the fence about your own iPhone's battery? How do you tell if its capacity is low and it's gone through 500 charge cycles—Apple's somewhat arbitrary number for what it considers the lifespan of an iPhone battery?

In other words: how do you tell if you need a replacement battery?

Check Wear With an App

The easiest thing to do is download an app like Battery Life (there are multiple apps with that name, but this version, by RBT Digital, seems to be the most robust).

The first thing the app will do is display a giant front page graph showing battery wear level. Here are three versions you can compare. The first one is on a 2-year-old iPhone 6s Plus; the second is a smaller iPhone 6s purchased a year ago; the third is an iPhone X that's barely a week old.

Wear level is the battery's capacity to hold a charge compared to its capacity when brand new. For example, an iPhone X comes with a battery (the X actually has two batteries inside) with a total capacity of 2,716 milliamps per hour (mAh); according to the Battery Life app, it still has that full capacity. However, the iPhone 6s Plus has a battery that was originally capable of 2,725 mAh, but now can only hold 2,300 mAh, or 84 percent of what it once could handle.

The more you check this app, the more history it keeps, so you can check to see as your iPhone battery capacity decreases over time. That happens after more and more charge cycles are used.

A charge cycle happens every time you discharge 100 percent of a battery's capacity. That doesn't have to be all the way down to 0. If you keep your phone charged to 80 percent, then use it down to 30 percent, and do that twice in a day—using that 50 percent twice is a full charge cycle.

Apple says its batteries are good for 400 to 500 charge cycles. That usually takes a year or two—or around the time you'd upgrade iOS and see it all slow down when the new iOS detects an aging battery and reduces processor output to "help" you. It doesn't hurt that Apple would also prefer you purchase a new phone around that time, too.

No app lets you see how many charge cycles you've used on an iPhone. (Unless you jailbreak your iPhone.) Maybe that'll change in 2018. Apple is promising an iOS upgrade that will "give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone's battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance." Until then, the only way to actually check the charge cycle usage of an iPhone is with...a computer.

Check Charge Cycles on a PC

It might seem counterintuitive to require a laptop or desktop PC to check how many times you've used a charge cycle on your iPhone's battery, but alas, those are Apple's rules.

Previously, whenever developers tried to release an app that measured iPhone battery charge cycles, Apple pulled it from the App Store. With iOS 10, Apple then pulled info on charge cycles as well as battery temperatures so third-party apps like Battery Life could not get to them. Let's hear it for transparency!

However, there are some desktop programs to get you through.

On a Mac, download coconutBattery, which will also tell you all about the health of your Mac's battery.

Plug your iPhone into the Mac via the USB-to-Lightning cable, then turn on coconutBattery to get a reading on the iOS Device tab. Under the charge capacity graphs, you'll see a listing that says "Cycle Count" so you can tell how far you are from that dreaded 500. If you pay to get coconutBattery Plus for $9.95, you can monitor all this info over Wi-Fi on your Mac without plugging the iPhone in via USB.

It works on iPads as well but iPads aren't getting slowed down by iOS, even if they're older.

Windows users should turn to iBackupBot; it works on Windows 7, 8, and 10 and costs $35 after a 7-day free trial. It's ostensibly for backing up all sorts of info off an iOS device to your PC, but when you plug in an iPhone to the PC and run iBackupBot and build a phone profile, you can also access a section called More Information that clearly shows a "CycleCount" under the battery section (as well as the original DesignCapacity and current FullChargeCapacity of the battery.)

HowToGeek reports that you can also contact Apple via their support website, give them remote control of your iPhone, and they'll reveal the battery's health (albeit without specific numbers). Whether you trust that from the company that just admitted to crippling CPUs just because batteries get old is up to you.

When Should I Get a New iPhone Battery?

Now that you're armed with the info needed to measure capacity and even charge cycles, you've got to decide when to get that new battery.

Here's what I'd suggest: if you've got anything older than an iPhone 7, get the $29 battery change next time you're anywhere near an Apple Store. It's the cost of a few venti hot chocolates, and worth it to give those older iPhones another year of decent performance.

If you've got an iPhone 7 or newer, check the Battery Life app infrequently and see where things are headed. If your iPhone battery is headed to just 80 percent then look into the replacement options stat, hopefully before Apple's battery deal runs out at the end of the year. (Remember, if you have AppleCare and your battery goes below 80 percent capacity, they'll replace it free, or maybe give you a replacement iPhone equivalent if anything else has gone awry.)

Or, buy the battery replacement kit from iFixit and do it yourself. It also costs $29, but will be available after Dec. 31. And it works on older iPhones, but not iPhone 8, 8 Plus, or X. The downside is you have to open the iPhone up yourself.

Monday
Dec182017

Farewell, AIM: AOL Instant Messenger has signed off permanently

It’s the end of an era that realistically ended a decade ago. On Friday, AOL shut down AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) permanently. Plans for its death were first announced in October.

When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to the boxes full of America Online CDs in every store, to the dubstep-like beeps and boops of a 28.8K modem connecting to the Internet, and AIM chat rooms providing a real-time connection with people around the world long before social networks accomplished the same task.

But the rise of social networks like Facebook and Whatsapp were the final nail in AIM’s coffin. The company acknowledges that the times aren’t just a-changing now that we’re in the smartphone era—they’ve already been altered forever. “AIM tapped into new digital technologies and ignited a cultural shift, but the way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed,” wrote Michael Albers, VP of communications at Oath (the Verizon brand that gobbled up AOL).

AOL discontinued active AIM development in 2012, and cut off third-party apps (like Adium, Trillian, and Pidgin) earlier this year. And AOL Instant Messenger isn’t the only turn of the century vanguard to fall on hard times; Microsoft shut down MSN Messenger in 2014, while Yahoo Messenger closed up shop last year.

An AOL help page says you’ll continue to have access to your @aim.com email address, but there was no way to save or export your AIM buddy list for posterity. That era is really, truly dead.

So pour one out for AIM. Who could’ve guessed that AOL’s dial-up Internet business would outlast the one-time chat giant? If you’re looking for an all-encompassing AIM alternative, this handy Chrome extension lets you access Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Slack, Google Hangouts, Discord, Steam chat and more from a single window.

Monday
Dec182017

Does the End of Net Neutrality Mean I Need a VPN?

With the FCC repealing net neutrality rules, you may be asking yourself: do I need a VPN to protect my privacy and keep my access to the web running? The answer is, probably not now, but maybe in the future.

The elimination of net neutrality means ISPs will be able to prioritize their own services, or services that pay them, over competitors. That means, for instance, that if Netflix doesn't pony up to Verizon, Verizon Internet subscribers would see more buffering or lower-quality video on Netflix. There's also the possibility that ISPs may outright block access to services unless consumers pay extra—for instance, demanding that you pay $5 per month more for that Netflix access, over and above your standard Netflix and ISP subscription fees.

This kind of service tiering is not happening right now. The worries about net neutrality are based on what ISPs may do in the future. But we've already gotten a glimpse of what could be; remember when AT&T forbid Apple's FaceTime from running over its cellular network for users on certain data plans?

Can a VPN Protect Me From My ISP?

If your ISP does start to slow down sites that don't give it kickbacks in favor of those who do, a VPN may help. VPNs hide your network traffic so your ISP can't tell what services you're using. (For more details on how they work, see Why You Need a VPN.) As a result, the ISP will need to treat all of your traffic on an equal basis, restoring effective net neutrality.

That said, ISPs could very well start to throttle VPNs in a non-neutral world. But they'd have to throttle all of the traffic on a VPN, not just specific websites or services. Once again, ISPs aren't doing this yet; we're speculating about what they may decide to do in the future.

A VPN expert, Max Eddy, points out that if major platform and device providers stepped up with their own VPNs, that would be a net neutrality game changer. If Apple, for instance, started tunnelling all of its traffic through a VPN, its power in the marketplace might mean the ISPs would be unwilling to face it down (or extort more money from it).

VPNs Provide Protection

VPNs also protect your privacy. Even with net neutrality, your ISP can surveil everything you do, for instance monitoring your downloads for filenames of commonly pirated movies so it can send you an angry letter if it sees you're downloading them. But Eddy warns that without net neutrality, ISPs could put privacy-oriented services in slow lanes, making it harder to get to secure services.

So the repeal of net neutrality doesn't mean you need a VPN any more than you ever did—right now. But VPNs were an important tool before the repeal of net neutrality. In addition to the privacy protection VPNs offer, it's absolutely worth shopping around and choosing one so that if your ISP does something shifty in the future, you know where to turn.

Monday
Dec042017

How To Resize An Image To A Desktop Wallpaper

Wallpapers come in different sizes. If you like an image and it’s a good, HD image you can use it on a large screen even if it isn’t the right size. Windows can stretch an image so that it fills the screen and normally, it does a good job. Sometimes though, it doesn’t work and the image is cut off at the wrong end. The best course of action is to resize an image to fit your desktop. Here’s the best way to resize an image to a desktop wallpaper.

Find Your Screen Resolution

Before you resize an image to a desktop wallpaper, you need to know what size it should be. This isn’t a one-size fits all deal. You’re cropping and resizing an image for your screen. It’s a custom job so use your screen’s resolution.

Open the Settings app and go to the System group of settings. Select the Display tab and look at the value set under the Resolution dropdown. This is the size an image should be to fit your screen perfectly.

Resizing An Image

For this, we’re going to use an image by Unsplash user John Fowler @wildhoney. This image is 4288x4800px. The width is less than the height so it’s a poor fit for the average monitor that is usually landscape oriented. There are two ways to treat an image like this; resize, or crop, or both.

You can resize the image and change it’s width to 1920px. The height will change proportionally and it will not be 1080px. When you set it as your wallpaper, some of it will still be cropped out. If this is acceptable, use IrfanView to resize the image and set it as your wallpaper.

 

Given the dimensions of this particular image, at least half of it will be cropped out even after you’ve resized it to fit the width of your screen. There’s no way around this but what you can do is crop the image so that it includes the better parts of the image you’re using.

Again, you can use IrfanView to crop it. Open the resized image in IrfanView and cut out the part that you want to include in the background. Remember to trim only from the top and bottom if you’ve already resized it to fit the width of your screen. Save the cropped image and then set it as your desktop wallpaper.

You can use this same method to crop and resize an image for your phone but you will need to get the size absolutely right. Not all phones will fit an image on the screen so it’s best to crop and resize it to fit.