GCN lab guys sort out reader's e-mail havoc

Carlos A. Soto and John Breeden II, the GCN lab guys

The GCN Lab devotes a great deal of time and energy throughout the year to developing and conducting independent product reviews. Everything from enterprise-level servers and network appliances to new desktop and notebook PCs are rated for suitability in government.

Lab director John Breeden II and associate technology analyst Carlos A. Soto also field plenty of questions from our readers. Here are some of the questions the lab has received in recent weeks.

Letters to AskTheLab@gcn.com

Sam from Washington writes: I am about to throw my computer out the window! My Norton Internet Security ran out of update time on my home machine so I bought and installed Norton Systemworks. I also bit the bullet and upgraded to Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2, which was a huge pain to download via my dial-up connection. Now I can't get my e-mail and nobody in tech support from Norton, Microsoft or my Internet service provider can help. It just gives me a 'server not responding' error when I check mail.

JOHN: I think the reason that nobody can help you out is because you actually have multiple problems, which I can see just from looking at your e-mail. Any number of them could be causing your e-mail not to come in, but Carlos seems ready to jump at one of them, then I will let you know what I think is also a problem.

CARLOS: One of the big problems is that you have two versions of Norton Antivirus installed on your system at the same time. You would think that Symantec Corp., which owns the Norton suite, would know enough to uninstall existing versions of their program when new ones come on. But while the software will warn you if try to install a new Systemworks over an old one, it won't prompt you to uninstall other programs in the product line. So take the old program that has run out of support time and remove it from your system using its uninstall program. Multiple copies of Norton Antivirus will interfere with one another.

JOHN: The other problem has to do with your upgrade to XP Service Pack 2. By default, it probably activated the Windows firewall. First off, the software firewall that comes with the operating system has more holes than a sponge. Secondly, for users with dial-up connections, it can be downright detrimental.

When you check your e-mail through your service provider, your computer will wait only so long (normally 30 to 60 seconds) before it will give you a timeout error'which looks like your mail server is not talking with you. What is actually happening is that the Windows firewall has slowed your connection so much that your PC can't even complete the handshake routine within the allotted time.

Right click on the Windows security icon in the lower right of your screen or open up the security center in the control panel. Turn Windows firewall off, and your mail will come pouring back in.

Ultimately, you should upgrade to broadband if you are going to work from home a lot. But even then I would suggest getting yourself a nice, inexpensive, hardware firewall, such the broadband firewall router from Linksys Inc., to protect yourself.

Josie at NASA writes: Here is a big question for you big-brained fellows. How often should I turn my computer off, or should I turn it off at all?

CARLOS: Josie has hit on the age-old debate. I almost never power down my systems. Once they get up to temperature, they should run at a constant rate. Of course some systems, like big, powerful desktops with poorly designed cooling systems, don't do that.

If you notice your system running slower after a lot of use, it might be due to heat-buildup problems. In the lab's recent workstation roundup, one computer consistently scored lower after being on all day. Heat hurt performance.

JOHN: I am in the opposite camp. I shut my systems down each night and I have six reasons why I think it's correct to so.
  • 1. When a computer is on, even if it's in standby mode, it's using power for no good reason, and we should not waste power.

  • 2. Systems running Windows tend to bog down over time. Turning them off and bringing them up fresh seems to fix this problem'or at least hold it off longer.

  • 3. When your systems are powered up, they are much more vulnerable to things you can't control, like the weather. What if you are away and a lightning storm comes up and you left your computer on?

  • 4. Shorter boot times. New systems boot in just a few seconds, so there is no reason to leave them on all night. You are saving yourself a negligible amount of time when you could be getting a cup of coffee or tea.

  • 5. Heat kills. All those internal components like fans and heat sinks are there to push heat-killing energy away from your system. If you shut down when you will be away for a night or a weekend, no heat is being generated.

  • 6. You could be creating a security hole. My systems use boot-level passwords that are very difficult to crack. They are much more secure than operating-system passwords, because they occur before the OS loads.

CARLOS: But what about our servers in the GCN Lab? They're on all the time and never turned off.

JOHN: True, but servers need to be on. And we keep them nestled behind high-level power-protection devices, and the main lab is a frigid 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jay From federal law enforcement writes: I am trying to get rid of some programs that found their way onto my Start Up menu in Windows NT. I don't want to delete the programs, but I don't want them coming up when I turn my system on. What should I do?

JOHN: This is the same process to use if you have a Windows 2000, Windows 98 or Windows ME operating system.

With Windows NT, you have to do a few more steps. First, click Start then Settings then Taskbar and Start Menu Programs. Then click on the Start Menu Programs tab. Click on Advanced. Open the Programs folder. Breathe. Finally, open the startup folder and remove the program you don't want starting automatically. This is why NT is so secure. Nobody can do anything with it!
CARLOS: This is a very easy fix for users of Windows XP. For those who have this problem, you just go to the Start button and then select Start Menu as the program group. You highlight the offending program and right click. Select delete. This will remove it from your Start menu but you still have the program on your system. You can first create a shortcut to the program from the same menu if you are really worried about losing it. Just put the shortcut on your desktop. The program should still be accessible from the main program window or the shortcut.

Maurice in Maine writes: What is that 'stopping service' icon in my system tray all about? I just rip my key drives out when I am done with them, but someone said I should click there first.

CARLOS: That icon comes up whenever a Universal Serial Bus storage device is connected to your computer. In the old days, like four years ago, it was necessary to stop portable drives from spinning before you removed them. Now, with solid-state flash drives, you probably can ignore it.

JOHN: But not always. Flash memory is vulnerable to corruption during the read-and-write process. For example, if you put a Word or Excel file on the drive and that file is open when you pull the drive, you might lose data. In fact, it may corrupt the entire drive.

So just to be safe, go ahead and click that icon, then select 'stop service' on the USB key before you take it out. It won't hurt, and it may just save your data.

Do you have a perplexing technology issue or a burning question you need answered? Just send your query to the GCN Lab guys at AskTheLab@gcn.com and they will do their best to answer it for you here.

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