Free Hard Drive Diagnostic Utility

Seagate offers a great tool for testing the health of your hard drive called SeaTools. If your computer makes a periodic clicking, screeching or other mechanical sound, it’s likely caused by an electronic or mechanical failure in the drive. Any drive making odd sounds should be considered a ticking time-bomb and all important files should be backed up as soon as possible. When you’ve backed up those important files you can use SeaTools to check the health of any hard drive, even non-Seagate drives!

Any drive making odd sounds should be considered a ticking time-bomb and all important files should be backed up as soon as possible.

SeaTools is a boot-disk, which means you will need to download it and burn it to a CD. You’ll find the steps required to make the boot disk at the end of the article. Once created, leave it in the CD/DVD tray and restart your computer. At that point your computer should automatically run the SeaTools CD and you’ll see a list of hard drives connected to your computer accompanied with some information about the drive(s).

Click on the Basic Tests menu at the top-left and run the Short Test first. This test takes only a couple minutes at best, and if it finds problems then you didn’t have to waste time going through the Long Test. If, however, the hard drive passes the Short Test, you can put it through the Long Test which will basically test every part of the drive.

If your hard drive makes funny noises and passes both tests, then it probably isn’t the hard drive! Try running the Acoustic Test which will actually shutdown the hard drive so that it is completely silent. If you still hear those clicks, screeches and whirs, then it has to be something else like a fan, CD/DVD-ROM or floppy. There are often several fans in a desktop computer – one to draw air into the case, one to cool the CPU, often two to cool the power supply, and sometimes there is a dedicated fan for the video card and another for overall exhaust. With up to six fans or more spinning between 3k-10k RPM, often clogged with dust and pet hair, there is plenty of opportunity for failure. It is important to identify those failures as a slow or stopped fan can quickly cause components to fail. A fan is maybe a $10 part, but a new CPU with installation can cost hundreds!

How to burn SeaTools to CD

SeaTools is provided in the common “ISO” form. An ISO file is basically a bit-for-bit image of the contents of a CD or DVD and is much easier to work with than ZIP files or folders full of individual files. The ISO file format is especially useful for Administrators as they can store them on a hard drive, and use virtual CD-ROM software to emulate a CD-ROM and open the ISO file without having to burn it to disk first. But I digress… here is how you can turn this downloaded “ISO” file into a CD:

  1. Download SeaTools by clicking “Download SeaTools for Windows setup file” if you haven’t already
  2. Insert a blank CD and open your CD burning software (Nero for example)
    • If you have no CD burning software and are running Windows XP or Vista, download and install ImgBurn from FileHippo, then right-click on the SeaTools file you downloaded and choose “Burn using ImgBurn”
    • Windows 7 (and maybe Vista?) include the “Windows Disk Image Burner” so you don’t need a third party program to burn ISO files to CD. Simply right-click on the file, and choose Open with -> Windows Disk Image Burner. Choose the appropriate disk burner and click Burn.
  3. Most disk-burning software has an option to burn an image file from the File menu. Choose this option and locate the file you downloaded, then follow the bouncing ball choosing any default options when they are presented to you until the burning process starts
  4. When you’ve burned your SeaTools boot-disk, make sure to label it, then put it back into your computer and restart
  5. At this point most systems will start from the CD by default and you don’t need to do anything further
  6. If your computer boots to Windows as usual instead of booting from the CD, then you will need to press a key during startup to choose a different startup device, or if there is no option to choose a temporary startup device, you will need to enter setup. The magic button for these options are usually F1, F12 or Delete, but your miles may vary. Be warned that if you enter the BIOS and make the wrong changes, your computer might not work the way you want it to until those changes are reversed.

March 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Easy and Secure Remote Support is Available

For the last week I have been looking for an inexpensive remote desktop solution for providing support to my customers from home. Many times a problem can be solved over the phone, but as tech support it can be difficult to “drive blind”, especially with there being a few different common operating systems out there. Yesterday I found a good free option for basic remote support, and today I’ve tested and confirmed that UltraVNC will do the job.

There are many companies out there offering “desktop sharing” where one user can take control of the other users computer over the internet. Most of the good ones are free for personal use, but cost money to use commercially. My two favorites are TeamViewer, and LogMeIn.

LogMeIn actually offers a free solution which is cleverly called “LogMeIn Free”. All you have to do is create an account on their website, then click Add Computer to install LogMeIn on your computer. Every computer you install LogMeIn onto will be listed on your account and you’ll be able to access them from anywhere in the world through a web browser.

I have two problems with this when it comes to incident-based remote support. First, the customer either needs my LogMeIn account credentials to install LogMeIn Free on their computer, or I need to have already installed it previously. Second, I don’t want an incident-based remote support tool to leave traces of itself on my customers computer. I don’t want them to feel like I could login again and spy on them at any moment.

LogMeIn has another tool which does exactly what I want, and it’s called LogMeIn Rescue. With LogMeIn Rescue, the customer goes to a website and enters a pin code which is issued over the phone, e-mail or text message. When they click Connect, a small program is launched which allows the support agent to control the desktop for as long as the small program is still running. Rescue has a lot of great features and it is what our support team uses at my day job, but it isn’t cheap at $129/month or $1188/year. And that price is per agent, so if I ever bring on a partner it would cost twice that for the two of us to be able to help customers simultaneously.

TeamViewer doesn’t offer any free options to commercial users like myself, but they are a cheaper alternative to LogMeIn Rescue with all the same features. Still, I can’t smile as I fork over $749 for their entry-level product right now – especially when I may only do one or two sessions per month in the beginning. What I really like about TeamViewer is that you purchase the right to use that version of the software forever. If you want to upgrade to the latest version you get a trade-in credit, but if you don’t need any of the new features then you don’t have to pay for them. I like this model a lot, and it is far less expensive than LogMeIn Rescue.

There are other options out there like Crossloop, Mikogo, ShowMyPC and more, but they either cost money or don’t work they way I’d like them to (or both). UltraVNC Single-Click is a customizable program that can be run without installing, and connects directly to my computer providing mouse and keyboard control, and file transfer ability. The session is encrypted with 128bit RC4 encryption, and when either of us ends the session the program closes and leaves no trace of itself in your Program Files directory or registry. Finally, it is completely free open-source software which means that if I was smart enough I could make changes to the software myself (but I’m not, so I wont).

It isn’t the best solution out there as far as features and reliability go to be honest. One of these days I will probably move toward TeamViewer or something similar. This custom UltraVNC utility works great for now though, and I could install LogMeIn Free during our first remote session for customers who might need ongoing support.

February 26, 2011 at 8:51 am

Now Accepting All Major Credit Cards!

I came across an ad today for a company called Square who offers a free product to allow merchants to swipe credit cards using their iPhone, iPad or Android device. The cost to the merchant is only 2.75% per swipe with no commitment or monthly/annual fees and the service accepts Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover.

Signing up was easy and free, and there is no charge to install the iPhone app. The little credit card reader will show up in the mail in about a week – meanwhile I can process credit card transactions manually at a slightly higher fee. I was able to link my Square account to my checking account so that payments or (gasp!) refunds will be tied straight to my account.

Oh, and don’t worry – you won’t see any kind of convenience fee from me for using plastic! That drives me crazy when they tack on an extra 50cents at the gas station. I consider that a cost of doing business and I’m just proud to be able to offer the option!

February 23, 2011 at 9:54 am

Is your computer running slow?

Here is my process for cleaning a stubborn and slow PC…

  1. Verify that there is enough disk space left, especially on the C: drive which is where the operating system is installed. If there isn’t much space left then it will take extra time for the computer to find a place to save files as it will have to find a space big enough to put the file. If there is no space big enough, it might spread the file across a few different places on the hard drive. I try not to use more than about 85% of the available disk space.
  2. Download and run RKill. It doesn’t clean your computer, but if your computer is infected with a nasty virus which likes to close programs before you have a chance to use them, RKill will try to “kill” it and prevent it from closing programs prematurely until you restart your computer. If you restart before you run all the cleaning tools, you might have to run RKill again. If RKill starts and then closes immediately, you might need to run it several times until it is able to do its job as the virus can close it just as easily as any other program. If you have trouble running RKill, try downloading one of the versions with a different name so that the virus doesn’t recognize the program.
  3. Install and run CCleaner, short for Crap Cleaner. They shortened the name to make it more palatable for businesses. This utility will find and remove all your temp files (left-over install files, temporary internet files and such), as well as clear your browser history, previously opened documents list and more if you want it to. You can also use this tool to scan for and remove registry entries that aren’t doing you any good. By the way, your registry is a Windows proprietary database full of tons of system settings. This is typically where malware embed itself so that it starts along with all your other programs during the Windows startup process.
  4. Install and run CWShredder. This tool finds and removes several variants of CoolWebSearch which is adware usually installed along with common online poker games, peer to peer file sharing services and other less savory software. If you have one or more extra toolbars in your Internet browser, you might have one of the CoolWebSearch variants and they can slow your computer down.
  5. Install, update and run Spybot Search & Destroy. There is an immunize tab which you should check after updating. Click Immunize to help protect your computer from a lot of known threats. When you install Spybot S&D, you will see the option to enable the Resident TeaTimer and Resident SDHelper. The TeaTimer is a program that runs in the background and as soon as it sees a known piece of malware, it will kill it and notify you that it happened. It will also detect any changes made to system settings or the registry. This feature will mostly just be annoying, especially if you install and uninstall programs frequently, but it WILL help prevent infections in the future. The SDHelper is a tool for Internet Explorer which blocks known bad ActiveX programs. ActiveX programs are little programs used by many websites and while most are benign, ActiveX programs can take full control of your computer just like a program you install off of a CD.
  6. Install, update and run Ad-Aware. Ad-Aware cleans in the same way as Spybot S&D, but the two programs usually find slightly different things so I like to run them both.
  7. If you have an antivirus program, run a full scan and go watch a movie while you wait. If you don’t have one you can get a free copy of Avast! or AVG, or you can pay for a year or two of ESET NOD32 which is my favorite for-pay antivirus program. I don’t like McAfee or Symantec because they both tend to slow your computer down. If your computer isn’t all that fast to begin with or has less than 1GB of RAM (memory), you’ll probably see a considerable performance hit after installing one of them.
  8. My last step is always to defragment the hard drive. Windows comes with a defrag utility which you’ll find in Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools. You can also download Defraggler which will do the same thing but I kindof like it more than the built-in Windows utility and you can tell it to defrag every time you login to Windows if you want (I don’t do this though). You’ve probably heard of defrag since its been around from the Windows 3.x days, or maybe even longer, but you might not be sure what it does, or what a “fragmented hard drive” really is. The easiest way for me to explain it is that a fragmented hard drive is like a room full of file cabinets where each page of each document is stored in a separate folder in a different drawer of a random cabinet. As you can imagine, it would take a lot more time to read a document if you have to hunt for each and every page. When you defragment a hard drive you are putting all the pages in order. In reality these pages are your programs and files, games and settings so a computer with a very fragmented hard drive will definitely run faster after defragging.

If your computer is STILL slow after all of this, and your hard drive isn’t low on space, there might be a problem with the hard drive, memory, or even the motherboard. There is a boot disk out there called UBCD or Ultimate Boot CD. The CD is filled with tons of useful programs for testing hardware among other things. You can download the ISO for UBCD which is basically an image of the CD that you can burn to a blank CD using your program of choice. I use ImgBurn to make CDs out of ISO files. There is also a Windows program called BurnInTest which you can install and use to stress test all the components of your computer.

After all of this, if the hardware passes the tests, there isn’t much left to do but to backup your files and re-install the operating system. Sure, someone might be able to find out why Windows is running so slow by digging through the registry but in the long run it may be cheaper and take less time to simply re-install Windows.

I encourage everyone to try the tools above. Most of them can be found on www.FileHippo.com and they’re all free for personal use (some are free for business use as well). The process builds a bit of computing confidence I think, but I’m always here for you if you don’t have the time to go through it all!

February 22, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Check out FileHippo

A little over a year ago, one of my colleagues from my day job suggested I download a tool from www.filehippo.com. I looked at him incredulously, assuming he was joking but he wasn’t. When I checked out the site, I was surprised to see hundreds of useful programs all neatly arranged in the same place. Many of them I’d been using for years including Spybot Search & Destroy, AdAware, CCleaner, VLC Media Player and more.

Not only are all the programs neatly categorized in one place, but they are the latest versions and free of spyware, adware and viruses. FileHippo also has their own program that runs in the background which notifies you when a new version of something is released. They track a lot of common programs too including Adobe Reader, Flash, Quicktime, Skype, Winamp and many more. It’s like Windows Updates but for everything else on your computer.

February 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Carbonite Unlimited Online Backup

If your computer stopped working today, and the files on it were completely irrecoverable, how would you feel? If you’re like me, you have a lot of things on your computer that are near and dear to your heart and that simply isn’t an option. Check out Carbonite for an inexpensive unlimited online backup plan.

Carbonite offers fixed 1, 2 and 3 year rates with unlimited space to backup your files! It’s a pretty impressive offer, and they admit that they are taking a hit on the customers with more than 200GB of data. Their mission is to provide simple online backup and restore to everyone, and they do it for only $54.95/year at the most.

The price is per-computer however, so if you have multiple computers you’ll either need to pay per-PC or you can use a solution like Dropbox to synchronize files with the computer licensed for Carbonite.  If you have less than 2GB of files that you absolutely can’t live without, you might consider using a free Dropbox account instead of Carbonite.

Another, more “techie” option, is to use your GMail account and a program called GMail Drive to take advantage of the free space offered up by Google. You can use 3rd party software to backup/synchronize certain folders to the “virtual” drive created by GMail Drive.

If you have any questions, feel free to post up and I’ll go into more detail. If you want assistance configuring backup software, contact me and I’ll be happy to assist!

February 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm

How to Recover Lost Files, or Backups Are For Wimps

If you’ve ever lost a research paper, family photos, or all your MP3’s because of a failed hard drive or USB flash drive… I share your pain. I’ve been there before, and it is the worst feeling to have to start all over again on that assignment or to lose your music collection. Loss of this kind of data can be easily avoided with a good backup strategy, but I’ll cover some of those in a future post.

If you don’t have a backup of your files, they still might be recoverable. There are hundreds of file recovery tools out there, and most of them will ask for at least $40 of your hard-earned money. Now if you ask me, $40 is worth it to avoid having to rewrite an entire paper from scratch the night before it’s due, or to replace gigabytes of music and movies. However, there are some good free tools out there and my favorite has got to be Recuva by Piriform.

Recuva will attempt to recover files that have accidentally been deleted on a healthy, or dying hard drive or memory card. It can even recover files on a drive that has been formatted and appears to be totally blank! Be aware though that no data recovery tool is perfect and there are no guarantees that you’ll ever get your files back. There are things you can do to improve the odds though…

  • Attempt to recover files as soon as possible
  • STOP using the drive unless you are trying to actually recover the files. The more you use the drive, and especially the more files you add to the drive before recovering your file(s), the less chance there is of recovering everything.
  • If you’ve lost files on your C: drive, you’ll have a better chance of recovering them if you shutdown your computer, remove the drive and connect it as an external drive to a second computer. This is especially true if you have 15% disk space or less remaining.

Good luck, and if you need help just let me know!

February 17, 2011 at 5:00 pm 1 comment

Which Internet Browser Should I Use?

When it comes to updating your Facebook status, you have options. The de facto standard for Windows users has always been Internet Explorer. It is the default browser for all versions of Microsoft Windows, and say what you want about its flaws in the past but it’s a pretty good option today.

In years past, Internet Explorer has been known for having numerous vulnerabilities. On top of that, it was pretty slow to load pages compared to the competition – especially pages with Javascript content. You may have thought that the internet connection you pay for every month is what makes things load faster or slower, but it’s more complicated than that. Web pages are nothing more than lines of code which define where the text and media should appear on the page. The browser is simply a tool to interpret and render that code into something humans can see and understand, and each browser does this in its own way. Instead of patching the leaky boat that was IE6, Microsoft essentially built IE7 from scratch and the current version, IE9, is pretty darn good.

The other major browsers in order of popularity according to W3Schools include Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome (the browser I’m using while writing this article), Safari and Opera. Each browser has its niche, but in my opinion Internet Explorer and Google Chrome are the top two. Chrome has been gaining popularity and while Firefox has the largest share of users by a wide margin, they have been losing share to Chrome since it was released.

So why would you use anything besides Internet Explorer if you have a PC, or Safari if you own a MAC, or Firefox if you run Ubuntu or some other distribution of linux? Some switch because their browser is unstable and hangs or crashes. Google Chrome shines here because if one page freezes for whatever reason, it is not likely that it will cause all other open pages to close unexpectedly. Some switch because their favorite website works better in a different browser. Others simply like the look and feel or features of different browsers. Firefox is so popular today because of the add-on market. There are literally thousands of plugins for Firefox to do anything from control your music, change the theme of the browser, or automatically refresh a webpage on a user-defined interval (for you Ebay lovers).

I’m not really picky when it comes to my browser. As long as it supports tabbed browsing (open multiple sites in the same window but different tabs), Facebook, and GMail I’m happy. My only recommendation is to install at least one other browser just in case your primary browser is broken by a Windows Update or virus/malware. If all you have is Internet Explorer and it doesn’t work anymore, it’s going to be complicated for you to find and install tools to fix the problem.

If you’re curious, try out one (or all) of these browsers and see which one fits YOU best!

Google Chrome

Mozilla Firefox

Apple Safari

Opera

February 17, 2011 at 11:17 am

Is Google Apps For You?

Do you own your own domain and hate using Outlook or cheap web email applications to access your e-mail? You might consider switching to Google Apps, and not just for your e-mail!

Google Apps is a suite of office and collaboration software which work great for small to mid-size businesses and comes at a low price starting at FREE for up to 50 users. After that the cost is $50/user/year. Unless you need some of the more advanced features of Microsoft Office, you might consider taking Google Apps for a test drive. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish with their tools. They have basic equivalents to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio and of course Outlook, not to mention SharePoint and more! With the high cost of Microsoft Office, and the ongoing cost of upgrades, it might just make sense for you.

I host my fixitpnw.com e-mail with Google, and will use Google Docs to store invoices, spreadsheets and anything else I need to be able to access wherever I happen to be. I am even using Google Voice for a business phone number which forwards to my cell and has separate voicemail service which includes transcribing voicemails into e-mails on the fly. What more could I ask for (for free)?

February 15, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Tricks of the Trade – Safe Mode

Virus infections can be subtle, or disruptive and nasty. Yesterday I helped clean up a virus infection remotely, and it wasn’t easy. It was impossible to use Internet Explorer, and the virus was detecting and closing new command windows immediately. Without the possibility of accessing the Internet to download and install tools to clean up the infection or to even use local tools like the command prompt or Registry Editor, removing the virus would have been impossible.

Fortunately there is a way to start Windows without all the bells and whistles. This bare-bones Windows mode is called “Safe Mode” and you’ve probably heard of it before. If you start Windows using the “Safe Mode with Networking” option, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get online and download the tools you need. The reason is that viruses typically embed themselves into the startup environment in Windows. They are normally nothing more than really irritating and disruptive programs. They usually add themselves to the same list of programs that startup when Windows starts up, so while your instant messengers are popping up, the viruses are waking up and preparing to annoy you to death.

To access Safe Mode just repeatedly press the F8 key on your keyboard from the moment you turn your computer on until the Advanced Boot Options menu appears. If you see the Windows logo at any point before this menu appears then it is too late and you’ll have to shutdown and try again. When you’ve succeeded you’ll reach your login screen and you’ll notice that everything looks a bit bigger, and more plain than usual and this is completely normal. As I did yesterday, you may run into difficulties when it comes to installing new programs. The problem is Safe Mode only starts up the most necessary components of Windows and some activities require the optional components that are disabled. There may be a way around this, but I haven’t tried it since it hasn’t been necessary yet.

Once we made it into Safe Mode, I had the customer try to browse to a website to verify he was online. He immediately received a “Page could not be displayed” error suggesting he had no internet connection. Using the command “ipconfig /all” and “ping www.google.com” we verified that he had received an IP address from his home router, and that he could both resolve and ping internet addresses. Next, we clicked “Tools -> Internet Options” in Internet Explorer to check his proxy settings. These are found under the Connections tab and “LAN settings”. In his, and most home environments, everything should be unchecked. The virus had tweaked these settings effectively preventing him from reaching the internet using Internet Explorer. After clearing these checkboxes, he was able to browse the web which meant it was time to use TeamViewer to allow me to access the system remotely and start cleaning up the infection.

Once in, I immediately found references to the virus in the Windows Registry which were causing the virus to startup as soon as the customer logged on to the system. I removed these, and ran the free virus scan utility from Trend Micro called Housecall in addition to their utility “RootKitBuster” to search for more insidious viruses. Once these tools did their job, we installed the free edition of Avast! antivirus for ongoing protection.

February 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Newer Posts


Beaverton, OR

Josh Hendricks
971-217-8489
josh@fixitpnw.com

Hours:
  • Weekdays after 4pm
  • Weekends any time