Computer Components – Motherboards

Originally published in The Clarion | May 30, 2012

Last week we began looking at the four primary components of a personal computer (and most any other computing device for that matter). We then took a closer look at Random Access Memory, what it does and how spending only a few dollars to increase a computer’s RAM can make it feel like a new machine. As a reminder, the four primary components of a personal computer are the main- or motherboard, memory, central processing unit and some sort of fixed media. While fixed media has become trivial in today’s “the smaller the better” hardware landscape, odds are good that the personal computer you use at home or at work includes a fixed disk of some sort. On the other hand, it is absolutely guaranteed that every computing device you use – from your desktop or laptop computer, tablet device, smartphone and quite likely even your flat-panel television includes inside it a motherboard and central processing unit.

Think of the motherboard as the central nervous system of your machine. Without it, you pretty much have nothing more than a box full of dysfunctional parts. Sure the motherboard has some (extremely limited) functionality by itself, but the other components must have the motherboard in order to operate and function as a usable computing device. Motherboards are really nothing more than a circuit board which typically come with several components permanently installed on them plus interfaces and expansion slots for adding additional components to the mix including RAM, fixed disks, removable media interfaces (CD or DVD drives), network interface cards, sound cards, a mouse and keyboard and much more. The motherboard also has a slot on it for installing the Central Processing Unit (CPU).

Motherboards have come a very long way over the years. It wasn’t so long ago that motherboards were designed in a very limited fashion. They allowed for the installation of the CPU, RAM, fixed disks and might have included a serial interface but not much more except via expansion slots. This meant that if you wanted to listen to streaming audio, a sound card would have to be purchased and added, the same was true for video interfaces, network interfaces and even USB ports. Today, most motherboards have virtually everything needed integrated into them. They come with on-board video cards, sound cards, network interfaces, USB and Firewire ports and often much more. This advancement in motherboard design has really made building your own PC from a mix of parts a breeze, not to mention inexpensive. I recently built a new machine including a motherboard-CPU combo, 8GB of RAM, 500GB hard disk, DVD-RW drive, case and power supply for well under $400. Thanks to the advancement of motherboard design, this machine has everything I’ll ever need in a desktop computer including digital audio and video outputs. Next week we will take a closer look at Central Processing Units.


Computer Components – RAM

Originally published in The Clarion | May 23, 2012

The personal computers many of us use on a daily basis are somewhat of a mysterious contraption to most. A typical PC user generally doesn’t care what is inside of the metal case, almost always all that matters is that it works. Similar to an automobile, refrigerator, microwave oven or any number of other devices, typical users don’t know (and probably don’t care) what’s inside or how things function. Again, all that matters is that they work. While somewhat overwhelming and intimidating on the surface, personal computers, and most any computing device for that matter, are all generally composed of only a few basic parts. The four primary components of a personal computer are the main- or motherboard, memory, central processing unit and some sort of fixed media. Add in a power supply, some sort of enclosure, removable media and cards or interfaces for connecting external devices including a monitor, and you have a computer.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look closer at each of the required components for a personal computer. Hopefully once we’re done you will look at your desktop PC differently, realizing that what’s inside the box is not some mystery, just a handful of components that work together to get the job done. We will begin with memory – specifically Random Access Memory or RAM. The term memory is often misused when talking about computing devices. People often use the term to refer to the storage capacity of a computer, or the size of its hard disk drive. RAM, or memory, is a critical component of any computing device. From personal computers to large enterprise servers to smartphones, memory is required for the operating system and software to function smoothly and properly. When a user opens an application, say a web browser, the operating system sends that application into RAM, enabling the software to launch and run in a (hopefully) efficient manner. As you can imagine, the more applications running at any given time, the poorer the performance of the system. It is not uncommon for a typical user to simply run out of available RAM by simply having a few software applications open at the same time.

When considering RAM, the old adage ‘more is better’ is always true. Most personal computers are sold with less RAM than the motherboard will support. Because of this, a simple and inexpensive memory upgrade can really help boost your PC’s performance and extend its life. I recently upgraded one of my computer’s memory from 2GB to 8GB (the maximum supported by the motherboard) and upon booting the system felt like I had an entirely new machine. If your personal computer seems to drag its feet on a regular basis, it most likely would be worth looking in to adding additional RAM. The benefit to cost ratio is exceptionally high and, as mentioned previously, will extend the life of your machine quite substantially.


FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alert System

Originally published in The Clarion | May 16, 2012

The ways we use technologies are continuously changing. It is no secret that for the most part, each and every one of us is somehow more connected today than we were five years ago, one year ago or even last week. With inexpensive mobile technology services and products, we no longer have to be at home or the office to “check in” or become “updated”. Alerting services from media outlets, popular social media applications like Twitter and even basic text messaging all combine to keep us updated while on-the-go. Whether a hindrance, a benefit or combination of both, it’s fair to say that today most of us have no excuse for being uninformed. Several news articles were recently released that caught my attention, and while not a new idea, they included updated information on technologies and services that have been in the works for some time now.

This service is one that has the potential to be highly beneficial, assuming of course it is not abused and at the same time is taken seriously. The federal government, under FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security and in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission, has begun rolling out a project they call the Commercial Mobile Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts. According to FEMA’s website, this system allows public safety authorities to send geographically targeted wireless emergency alerts to the public. Wireless emergency alerts will relay Presidential, AMBER, and Imminent Threat alerts to mobile phones using cellular broadcast technology that supposedly will not get backlogged during times of emergency when wireless voice and data services are typically highly congested. Most of these alerts will be issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service, sending weather-related alerts to specific geographic areas during imminent and severe weather events. All major wireless carriers are participating in this wireless alert program. Citizens do not have to sign up to receive these alerts, and assuming their mobile devices are compatible, should automatically receive all emergency alerts that are released for their location.

Unlike typical text messages, alerts from this system will automatically pop up on the mobile device and include a unique ringtone and vibration pattern. Also, the messages will be limited to 90 characters. Recipients of these emergency alerts will not be charged fees from their wireless provider. The messages will be received as they are delivered but will not interrupt active voice calls. Thankfully, individuals will be able to opt-out of receiving Imminent Threat or AMBER alerts, but not Presidential alerts. As I mentioned a few moments ago, let’s hope the system is not abused.


Google’s Street View – More Than It Might Appear

Originally published in The Clarion | May 09, 2012

It may sound like a skipping record (or a scratched CD for the younger ones out there), but Internet and Web security is a subject of paramount importance in today’s society. While many businesses recognize the importance of their corporate data and take appropriate measures to help ensure their data is protected, it would be fair to say that the average home user does not. With wireless routing devices so easily accessible and inexpensive, any Average Joe can go to his favorite big box store and pick one up, carry it home and have it operational in no time. Without proper configuration, our buddy Average Joe has just opened himself up as a target for the bad guys out there. His unprotected wireless point has not only made available a free connection for the bad guys to commit an untold number of online crimes, but he has also potentially opened up his own wirelessly-connected devices and the data on each of them to the world (or at least to those in his neighborhood).

I have had an eye on a story for a few years now that, from the beginning, really concerned me. While a fan of their products and services, Google, Inc. engaged in some questionable-at-best data collection measures that essentially affects each and every one of us. One of my favorite service offerings from Google is their Street View feature in Google Maps. If you are unfamiliar, along with being able to type in a street address and seeing both mapping and overhead satellite imagery of an address, Google’s Street View feature allows you to literally roam the streets of most any location in the United States and other countries around the globe. With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, I can drop in to the street in front of my house and see all sorts of things – the vehicles in the driveway, the flowers and plants in the flowerbed and in some cases my neighbor as she was taking a walk around the block. Google obtained this imagery by literally driving around the streets in a vehicle that was equipped with a camera on top, capturing images from all angles as it cruised the roads.

As it turns out, Google wasn’t only taking pictures as it rode around – they were also collecting wireless network data. According to documents filed by the Federal Communications Commission, Google captured and documented each and every ‘open’ wireless network in the country as it cruised the streets – but they didn’t stop there. In many instances (again, according to the FCC), Google not only obtained data telling that the open network existed, but also collected and preserved data on these networks including eMail messages, usernames and passwords, browser cookie data and more. What they plan to do with this data is unknown, but consider yourself warned – open wireless networks should be avoided at all costs.


The Nastiness of Malware

Originally published in The Clarion | May 02, 2012

As the old saying goes, most things in life aren’t easy. This almost always applies to computing. Whether you’re an IT professional or a basic home user, computing can become difficult at any given moment. Unfortunately, in our always-connected environment, failure to take preventative measures in keeping our PC’s and other connected devices updated and clean can result in any number of problems. While operating systems and software have drastically improved over the years, the simple fact that we have so many connected devices opens the door for all sorts of undesirable bugs in our systems.

In just the last week I have witnessed first-hand what a compromised device (in both cases they were smartphones) can do to a PC and network. The ramifications of connecting these compromised devices to outside systems were not pretty, fortunately neither wreaked too much havoc. Every home user should routinely take action to ensure their computing device is as secured as possible. This includes installing all available software updates, maintaining a functional anti-virus solution and ensuring they have some sort of firewall device or application that helps keep their devices safe from those who get kicks out of causing trouble.

One of the leading sources of computer bugs today is social media sites. These, combined with eMail hoaxes, can lead to all sorts of issues as quickly as you can click your mouse. I’ve said it countless times – if it seems too good to be true or if it seems to be from an unreliable source, it most likely is. The most basic rule of thumb in computing can go a very long way. When in doubt, simply don’t do it. If you do fall victim to a computer bug, there is a free software application that can often do the trick in cleaning things up. The application is called Spybot Search & Destroy. I have used this application countless times over the years to compliment anti-virus software and it has worked wonders. Many of the annoying computing bugs aren’t necessarily categorized as computer viruses. Because of this, most anti-virus software applications simply don’t recognize and protect against them. These bugs fall into a category known as spyware or malware. The malicious software embeds itself into your machine and, often without you even knowing it’s there, does all sorts of undesirable things.

The nature of spyware is an ugly one. When a machine is infected by one piece of spyware it’s almost guaranteed more will follow. Applications like Spybot Search & Destroy scan your entire hard disk looking for traces of such malware. Once Spybot has finished its scan, it can usually clean up the mess leaving your machine in a much better situation. Just like any software though, Spybot needs to be updated frequently and run on a regular schedule. The best preventative software in the world does no good if it’s not updated and executed regularly.