Friday, March 28, 2008

Maximizing Broadband Speed, Comcast Policy Change

Tech Expert Segment for 28 March 2008

Comcast this week announced plans, under much pressure, to change the way it manages high-bandwidth users. Under a previous policy, users would get kicked off if their internet downloads consumed an extraordinary high amount of the pipe connecting users to the Internet. Now, Comcast says, they'll throttle these users -- giving them effectively slower connections -- during times of congestion, rather than deny or drop their internet downloads.

If you notice an unusually slow connection to the Internet, or your connection just isn't what is used to be -- try these troubleshooting steps to restore speed:
  • Reset your broadband modem, router or other devices that connect you online. Sometimes they just need a break... switch off (or unplug), grab a cup of coffee, then turn back on.
  • Check your computer. It's possible your Internet connection is fine, but your computer itself is running sluggish. Try a different computer or have a friend use your connection with their laptop for comparision.
  • Update your router's firmware. Especially if your router (typically the box that plugs in after your cable or DSL modem) is a few years old. Getting new router software may improve performance and ensure the latest protection from hackers and other unwanted intrusions that may be clogging the pipe.
  • Check with the neighbours. Often if there's a widespread problem, the house next door will notice as well. If more than one reports a slow or unstable broadband connection -- call your provider for them to take a look.
  • Lock down your wireless. As you can guess, if your wireless network is open for anyone to use, that means more people taking advantage of your connection. Unprotected wireless connections are often most problematic in dense buildings such as offices and apartment complexes.
  • Consider switching. It's unfortunate, but sometimes DSL is just better in some areas and Cable better in others. Again, ask a neighbour for their feedback, or use a benchmark service such as Broadband Reports Speed Test.

Still having trouble with your Internet connection? Is it taking too long to load web pages? Drop me a line, I may be able to help or connect you to the right resources. Email me: techexpert (AT) brianwestbrook (DOT) com.

Listen to this report, originally broadcast on KXL-AM Friday March 28: kxl_techexpert-managingbroadband_20080328.mp3 (MP3)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Stuck with HD DVD? Best Buy Helps With $50, Trade-In Program

Are you one of the many customers burned by the HD DVD vs. Blu Ray war? Best Buy launched a customer service campaign today to help ease the pain. Fifty dollar gift cards are being sent to customers who purchased the now obsolete units before February 23, 2008.

For details on the program and how to get your gift card, check out this notice on Best Buy's website. They're also starting a buyback program on March 21 if you're looking to offload your old HD DVD player, details at the same link.

Navigating Spring Break Road Trips with GPS Directions

Tech Expert Segment for 21 March 2008

Heading off for that Spring Break road trip? Before you go, pick up a new GPS navigation system for your car. In addition to providing turn-by-turn directions to get you to your destination -- newer models have traffic details and even gas prices.

The first decision in buying a GPS is what type you're looking for -- but chances you'll fall into the portable navigation category. These sleek units are about the size of a portable music player and have a full-color screen that sits on your dash. The obvious benefit is being able to take it from car car, great for multi-car families or getting around in a rental in a strange city.

Two popular makers in the GPS navigation space are Garmin and TomTom. Both have regularly updated maps (highlighting changes in streets, new routes, and street names) and a variety of models to suit any price range. They start at just a couple hundred bucks for a basic portable and can cost thousands for custom built-in upgrades.

Regardless of which system you buy, you'll want to keep it updated. Usually once a year or so the map makers publish updates. Newer models will update when you connect to a computer, some older models require expensive extra memory cards to load the new maps.

So go ahead, take that road trip... just grab a GPS navigation gadget on your way out of town. You'll never get lost again.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Best Websites to Know" - KOMO's Northwest Afternoon

On KOMO-TV's Northwest Afternoon for 19 March 2008, I highlighted a few websites you may not have heard of. The sites featured, in no particular order, are after the video clip and also available on the NWA site here. (Instant Messaging) - You know the problem… you’ve got a few friends on one instant messaging client, some on others – brings them all together into a single website. Handy for those that might have trouble with the traditional IM clients downloaded to your computer, perhaps banned by your company or school’s network settings – makes it easy. Networks supported: MSN, AOL/ICQ, Yahoo, and GTalk/Jabber. Bonus points for registering: Ability to save chat logs, single sign-in, and customization. (Product Reviews) - Before you buy anything online, it’s good to get the good, bad and the ugly from those who have ventured through the checkout path before. Are the shoes true to size? Does that product really do what it’s designed to do? Did you have any problems? Consumer reviews are a powerful force. A leader in product ratings online is Power Reviews and their consumer site brings this data to potential buyers. The same folks that power sites from big players such as REI, Toys-R-Us and Brookstone – present the shopping site Features to look for: Narrow search results by various criteria, compare brands, upload customer images. Unique: Buzzillions users have, for the most part, actually bought the product they’re reviewing. (Online Music) - Pandora creates a radio station tailored to your tastes. By selecting songs and artists you like, the online service selects other music based on hundreds of criteria in the Music Genome Project. The service is free and doesn’t require you to load a player – it works right in your browser. The more songs you review the better it predicts what else you might like. Limitations: It’s not a music-on-demand service, so you can’t play a particular song or request only songs from one artist, given rights issues – only US customers can play, a bummer if you travel. Favorite feature: Thumbs-up, Thumbs-down ratings are super-simple. (Local Guide) - Looking to check out that new neighborhood restaurant? Want to try a new night club? Want to share your review with friends and get their feedback? Social Networking meets local community reviews with Yelps slick interface, intuitive navigation and the ability to add darn near everything in your ‘hood. Seattle’s a focus city, so you may not find the same level of detail if you’re visiting, say Peoria. (Electronics Bargains) – Shopping for a bargain? Don’t really care what the bargain is? Look to woot! Woot offers exactly one product (most days) and each customer can buy up to three of this item each day. When the item is gone, it’s gone… some products can sell out in hours or even minutes and are generally electronics or related gizmos. Sign up for various woot! notification services to have new products sent to you daily. Caveat: Return policy restrictive, shipping can be somewhat slow. (Handmade Marketplace) – The “ebay for handmade products” allows anyone to sell homemade products to others online. Unlike Ebay, which sells anything to anyone, Etsy focuses only on handmade products. One real benefit to this site, as opposed to buying from some of the larger mass-merchants, is that you can focus your search on those items made right in your area – perhaps you’re limiting your carbon footprint or just want to support local artists. Another neat feature – search by color. How clever is this? The site offers the ability to pick a color and it will find products that match that color. Wouldn’t you have loved to have this feature the last time you were decorating a room or in search of the “something blue” at a wedding.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Free with gadget purchase: Bonus malicious virus

Tech Expert Segment for 14 March 2008

Could that gadget you bought to share your photos actually be sharing YOUR personal information?

Electronic viruses are a costly annoyance for computer users and they’re finding their way on to systems from gadgets purchased from your favorite retail store.

The digital devils that infect your system range from annoying replicators to devastating file destroyers and personal information extractors. The danger of these buggers is severe. Recent reports, including this article from the Associated Press, give users new cause for concern.

A batch of digital photo frames sold at Target, Best Buy and other stores are reported to have been infected with a computer virus at the manufacturer. Even Apple’s iPod has been affected – though instances are slim. While rare, the frightening reality is that it is possible to get a free virus with purchase of electronic gadget!

The Source.

Rogue viruses pre-installed on devices such as photo frames or music players are not said to be the work of hackers – though it’s not a far stretch. Rather, these cases seem linked to careless practices at China device makers.

Imagine it could happen something like this:

A worker at the Chinese factory brings in their iPod and notice a low battery. Not wanting to be stuck on the train without their tunes, they plug the music player into one of the photo frames to charge. Seems innocent, but now the frame is contaminated. Oh… guess what? That frame was the “master image” for all photo frames shipping to a retailer in the States. To quote Homer, “Doh!”

Even if the gadget maker provides isolated iPod charging stations, they’re not completely immune from this nightmare. Let’s say you buy a digital camera (or a memory card for that camera, an e-book reader, a music player, even a remote control – anything that connects to a computer) and decide you don’t like it so you take it back for a refund. The store employee, desperate to make a commission, resells that fancy photo-taker without sending it back to be wiped clean. The next buyer gets a deal on an “open box” model – with more than a discounted price: a free bonus computer virus.

Finally, it should be noted that most devices are checked out and don’t contain any malicious software. Software makers, for example, meticulously check for all-known viruses before shipping boxes of software to stores. The ultimate responsibility lies to you, the user, which leads to…

The Solution.

Here are some tips to protect yourself, and valuable personal information, when buying a new gadget.

  1. Buy from a reputable dealer. Those shady back-alley deals that are too-good-to-be true not only increase your chances of catchy a computer cold, but they’ll be less supportive (or have moved on to another alley) when you go back for a refund.
  2. Always check any new devices. Anything that could, should, or would connect to your computer should be checked frequently. All gadgets with the initials “USB” – the most common means of connecting peripherals to your PC – should be automatically checked. Don’t forget about wireless devices! Cell phones using blue tooth and hard drives with WiFi are also at risk. Plug ‘em in to your computer and run a virus scan (with the latest updates!) before you load files, music, or expose the potentially corrupt device to other systems and users.
  3. In case of virus: UNPLUG. If your computer finds a virus on a connected gadget unplug the device AND disconnect your computer. Shut down any connections to the Internet, unplug any connected devices and stop using any external storage devices that may be affected – including memory cards and those tiny little USB memory keys you use to shuffle files to and from the office. (The latest Microsoft Security Intelligence Report labeled the USB drives as the largest threat to spreading malicious software.) It’s time to call in an expert.

The Security.

Start by installing, and keeping up to date, a solid anti-virus program. Many computers come pre-loaded with software and free options are available online. If your company has an IT department, they may have a license to use the same at-work solution on your home computer. No matter what software you install: keep it current. An out-of-date virus definition file (a list of the latest bugs and how to clean them) – even by a few weeks – is often worse than none at all (giving you a false sense of security while doing little to stop the latest worms).
Once you’ve checked your system, as well as other computers, laptops, organizers, USB thumb rives, digital camera memory cards, music players, portable hard drives, game systems, and all removable media – it’s time for the gadgets! Scan their internal memories each time you connect ‘em up to transfer files. It will add a few minutes to the process but save you valuable time and headache later.

Finally: Backup. Often. Then... do it again. While it’s possible to backup a virus (copying it to your removable media or burning it alongside family photos on a DVD disc) – you’re getting ahead of me – backing up is an important responsibility. By storing your data in a second or third location, you’re reducing the risk of catastrophic loss once you become infected with a virus. If a virus (or hard drive failure, or notebook theft, or leaving that USB key at the internet cafĂ© in Prague…) destroys your data – you can restore from a recent backup from before you became infected. I recommend two backups: one onsite and another at a separate location. The type of backup and frequency will vary depending on your situation so again, ask an expert for assistance.

As for those digital photo frames? Bring it home, give it a virus scan, and share your photos proudly – knowing you’re not sharing photos, or worse, with the bad guys.

Listen to Brian Westbrook on Newsradio 750 KXL each Friday at 6:40am and 8:40am as he chats tech on Portland's Morning News. Subscribe to his blog by visiting Got a question? Want to reprint this article? Email: techexpert (AT) brianwestbrook (DOT) com.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Election 2008: Two Essential Sites

Tech Expert Segment for 07 March 2008

Regardless of which candidate you're supporting in the race for the White House this year -- there are two sites you should check out, we discussed both on Portland's Morning News today.

The first, is a must-visit resource for all things voting. A one-stop-shop for election data, the site slices and dices "data galore" in many views, maps and charts. Updated frequently, the information is invaluable and a favorite among the "election geeeks" that just can't get enough.

Want to know who your neighbors are supporting? Chances are, if they've contributed to a political campaign in excess of a few hundred bucks -- you'll find their name on That public campaign contribution data -- online and searchable! Go ahead, you know you want to... drop in a neighbors name, family members, or even your favorite celebrity -- find out just which candidate (or candidates!) they support.

No matter who your pick for the top spot is, you've got to register to vote. That's the goal of a handful of Northwest college students who developed the "Your Revolution" Facebook application. It makes finding information about voter registration simple and appeals to the youth vote. Check it out on

For continuing election coverage... tune to Newsradio 750 KXL and online at