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Posted on Dec 21, 2015 in Newsletter, Welcome | 0 comments

TWT Newsletter NG – Issue 31 – Windows activation worries, VTech hack and more

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Top Windows Tutorials
TWT Newsletter NG – Issue 31

Welcome to the December 2015 TWT Newsletter

Seasons greetings one and all! It still feels too early to be saying that, but the countdown to Christmas has well and truly begun. We hope last months newsletter helped you shop more safely online, if you still have presents to buy, you can check out last months shopping tips by clicking here.

Important! A number of our subscribers have had difficulty receiving our newsletter. At Top-Windows-Tutorials.com we never send out unsolicited e-mails. To make sure your TWT newsletter reaches your inbox, please add topwindo@top-windows-tutorials.com to your contacts, buddy list or white list.

In this months issue:-

What’s new at Top-Windows-Tutorials.com?
DRM-free downloads make great last minute gifts!
Windows 10 activation, a ticking time-bomb?
Tip of the Month – Remove Office ads!
Free Utility of the Month – WhoCrashed
Windows Store App of the Month – Network Speed Test
Shocking hack at toy manufacturer VTech

What’s new at Top-Windows-Tutorials.com?

In November we posted two new videos that cover some important core topics for PC security. Firstly we looked at Windows updates on Windows 10 machines, and then at creating and using user accounts.

picture Child-proof your Windows 10 PC with user accounts

Do you share your Windows 10 PC with other users in your home? If so, you should configure separate user accounts for everyone that shares the device. This is particularly appropriate if you share your Windows 10 device with your children. In this video we show you how to create a separate, secured user account for your child or anyone else in your home. Click here to view the tutorial.

picture Get Windows 10 Superguide in Physical Book Format

As promised in last months newsletter, our Windows 10 Superguide is now available in physical book format. No matter how you want to learn Windows 10, we have a solution that’s ideal for you. Our premium training courses let you learn on your PC, but since our material is so in-depth, many readers benefit from having an e-book or physical book for reference too. Now you can have the entire 65 lesson course in physical book format. Click here to grab your copy now!

Remember our books are shipped from the USA, so particularly if you live outside of the United States, you should order your copy quickly and choose express shipping to ensure delivery in time for Christmas.

picture Windows 10 update settings and manually updating

In this video we look at manually updating a Windows 10 machine. We’ll also look at the revised update options available in the new operating system. Windows 10 has radically overhauled the updating process and not every change is a welcome one, although there are some interesting enhancements. Click here to view the tutorial.

DRM-free downloads make great last minute gifts!

With the unpredictable Christmas post, you may think that you have left it too late to order one of our Superguides as a gift this year. However, have you considered using our digital download service? Software that you can download is delivered instantly through your internet connection. You don’t need to wait for the postman!

Maybe you’re thinking that a digital download doesn’t make a great gift, but it’s all in the presentation! You see, our downloads are DRM free, that means they aren’t restricted to the PC you download them on. You could make a quick trip to any electronics or computer store and pick up a USB stick. There are even festive themed ones available at many stores now. Rather than just giving the stick itself as a stocking filler, download our Windows 10 Superguide and then copy the installation files to the USB stick. A perfect gift for anyone getting a new Windows 10 device this Christmas!

Looking to give your loved one something to play on their new PC too? GOG.com have a huge range of DRM free digital download games. No need for a super powerful, expensive gaming PC, GOG’s catalogue spans decades of PC games new and old that suit any kind of machine and all kinds of players. Check out their page here and get some festive fun for your new Windows 10 machine!

Windows 10 Activation – A ticking time bomb?

If you’re still using Windows 7 or 8 on your PC, it’s becoming abundantly clear that Microsoft are very keen for you to take the plunge and upgrade to Windows 10. Some would say a little too keen, given the constant pop-ups and other notifications that badger Windows 7 and 8 users into upgrading. Until now, we weren’t aware of any particular reason to stay with an older version of Windows, unless you had some specific piece of software or hardware that wasn’t compatible with Windows 10. Here at TWT HQ we’ve done more Windows 10 upgrades than the average person however, and we’ve certainly seen a full spectrum of problems and issues amongst the machines we’ve been responsible for upgrading.

One machine in particular, a desktop PC running an Intel Core i5 CPU on a Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H motherboard has had perhaps the worst Windows 10 upgrade experience possible. Initially, the machine refused to upgrade at all, failing part way through the process no matter which approach we took. Finally, in order to upgrade we performed a full, clean reinstallation of Windows 7. At this point, we were finally able to install Windows 10, though since we had to start from scratch, it was necessary to reinstall all our programs too.

Having finally managed to upgrade, we set about reinstalling all the programs and restoring personal files on the computer. Once this was done, we thought the machine was ready for use, but regrettably the machine then started randomly crashing, giving the Windows 10’s “Sad face” blue screen of death. After performing the usual troubleshooting steps of updating drivers and checking for malware, we eventually came across a great little utility called “WhoCrashed” by Resplendence Software. This tool makes it much easier to analyse the crash dump files that Windows leaves when it suffers a blue screen of death error (something that should, on a normal working PC, never happen). This super little tool pointed us in the direction of the machines network adapter. Unfortunately, there were no updated network adapter drivers available for the machine, so this necessitated the purchase of a whole new network card. A few days later and the card was installed in the PC. Thankfully this was a desktop PC and not a laptop, otherwise our options would have been severely limited.

At that point we hoped our troubles would well and truly be over, unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. After installing the new network card, strange things started to happen on the PC. The Windows store would not open and our desktop background disappeared. Had our PC fallen foul to some kind of malware attack? No, it was the turn of those three letters consumers dread, DRM (digital rights management). Windows had de-activated itself.

Just what is activation and de-activation? With Windows XP, Microsoft introduced new tough anti-piracy measures. Each copy of Windows sold to home users since Windows XP launched requires activation. This is a system that calls back to Microsoft servers and verifies that your product key is legitimate. If you buy a PC with Windows pre-installed, this process is normally done for you and you don’t need to worry about it unless you need to reinstall Windows. If you buy Windows to install on an existing PC, usually you can activate over the internet.

This system was begrudgingly accepted on introduction way back when Windows XP was released. The only problem is the whole archaic system hasn’t seen very much in the way of improvements or advances since then. The biggest problem with the system is that it’s designed to detect changes to the underlying PC, to prevent users moving copies of Windows between PCs with similar hardware. Sometimes (though thankfully rarely nowadays) something as simple as changing your mouse can cause Windows to become deactivated. Certainly something like changing or upgrading a CPU, Graphics card or network card can cause deactivation.

Now, normally, a deactivated PC can be reactivated again with a simple but frustrating call to Microsoft, which involves punching in a long string of numbers on your touch tone telephone and confirming that you’re only using the license key on a single machine. However, we’ve discovered that this process does not work for Windows 10 upgrades. Specifically, if you upgrade your Windows 7 or 8 machine to Windows 10, then you are unfortunate enough to suffer a deactivation, you cannot re-activate your machine, even by phoning Microsoft.

After trying and failing to re-activate our product using Microsoft’s automated telephone system, we were bounced around various technical support representatives in Microsoft’s call centre. We haven’t had need to call Microsoft technical support for many years and after our experience we hope that we never have to again. Clearly Microsoft have outsourced their call centres to parts of the word where labour is cheaper, but in doing so they have sacrificed call audio quality to the point where each and every representative is almost inaudible. Phoning a call centre to try to solve a frustrating IT problem doesn’t put you in the most patient frame of mind to start with, then to have to suffer being barely able to hear someone talking in an unfamiliar accent is pretty much unforgivable. Our hearts go out to those poor souls who work in those call centres, the amount of abuse they must have to deal with must be staggering. We tried the call from two different locations, both times using a land line rather than a mobile and the quality was as bad each time. We e-mailed a complaint to Microsoft regarding this abysmal call quality after the call but never received a response.

After initially being promised a new key to get our copy of Windows 10 up and running again, we were shocked that Microsoft’s official response to the problem was this. In order to re-activate our copy of Windows 10, we need to backup all our personal files, wipe our computers hard drive, reinstall Windows 7 from scratch, activate Windows 7 and then reinstall Windows 10.

Our jaws practically hit the floor when we heard that. We’d already had to reinstall Windows to upgrade to Windows 10 in the first place. Despite our protests the representative insisted this was the only way, even with the latest build of Windows 10 that is supposed to fix problems with activation using an existing Windows 7 or 8 product key. The following day we e-mailed Microsoft and asked for clarification, thinking surely this cannot be the correct policy. We received an e-mail confirming that it indeed was. Below is the response we received.

Q: What happens if I change the hardware configuration of my Windows 10 device?

A: If the hardware configuration of your Windows 10 device changes significantly (e.g. motherboard change) Windows may require re-activation on the device. This is the same experience as prior versions of Windows (e.g. Windows 7 and Windows 8.1). The free upgrade offer will not apply to activation of Windows 10 in such scenarios where hardware changes reset Activation.

So, to use internet slang, if you’re looking for the TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) part of this story, if you change hardware in your upgraded Windows 10 machine, you may need to reinstall first Windows 7 or 8 and then Windows 10 from scratch, then reinstall all your programs and data.

How might this affect you? Read on to find out.

How likely is my machine to get de-activated? – If you’re using a laptop or tablet PC then chances are you rarely make any significant changes to your computers hardware. In this case you’re probably safe. If you’re using a desktop PC for gaming, video editing or other computationally intensive work and you change or upgrade your hardware, then de-activation is much more likely. Disappointingly of course, high-end PCs are those most likely to benefit from Windows 10 new and upcoming features, such as the new DirectX 12 gaming and multimedia software.

Is this policy likely to change? – We don’t know, our attempts to reach out to Microsoft on this one have mostly been met with silence. There were rumours that Windows 10 would overhaul the activation system completely, moving it to a more modern system where activations could be managed through your Microsoft account (similar to what Apple offers with OSX). Sadly, this hasn’t happened and seems unlikely to happen in the near future. So far we’re the only website reporting on this issue and we’re small enough for Microsoft to ignore. If one of the major IT news sites picks up on this story we may see a more positive response from Microsoft.

Should I hold off from upgrading to Windows 10 because of this? – In the short term, possibly, especially if you’re planning any PC upgrades any time soon. Longer term, you need to remember that Windows 10 will be supported with important security updates for longer than Windows 7 or 8, so we’d recommend upgrading before the end of the free upgrade deadline.

Yet again, DRM measures punish paying customers while their effects on the rate of software piracy remain unproven. If anything would get us to switch to Linux, it’s an episode like this. Hopefully Microsoft will eventually improve the Windows activation system as it seems like as it stands now it’s frequently not fit for purpose.

Tip of the Month – Remove Office Adverts!

While we love Microsoft Office, we find that the free LibreOffice.org suite meets our needs these days. We’ve written our entire Windows 10 Superguide in LibreOffice.org Writer, so it’s perfectly adequate even for tasks of that kind of size (though, we do understand why people vastly prefer Excel over LibreOffice.org calc!).

Anyway, we digress. If you have purchased a new Windows 10 machine and you keep getting Microsoft Office adverts, there’s a simple fix. Find the “Get Office” application by searching for it on the search bar, right click on it and choose “Uninstall”. That’s it, Office adverts are gone.

Free Utility of the Month – WhoCrashed

The dreaded blue screen of death should be rare on modern versions of Windows. Indeed, if your PC is working correctly you should never see it. When it does rear its head however, it’s sure to frustrate. Finding out why your PC crashed so catastrophically means looking at crash dumps, a snapshot of the memory in your computer at the time of the crash. This kind of detailed analysis is reserved for the most advanced IT professionals only.

If you don’t have a Windows programming expert on hand, there is a second option. WhoCrashed by Resplendence Software is an amazing little tool that can do some of the crash-dump analysis for you and often pin-point the piece of hardware or driver that caused the crash. While it’s still not the easiest bit of software to use, it’s definitely easier than trying to work through a crash-dump file yourself. Give it a go if you ever find yourself faced with a frequently crashing PC, it may just save you a heap of time spent troubleshooting or even an expensive repair bill. You can download the program for free here.

Windows Store App of the Month – Network Speed Test

Did you know things like fairy/Christmas tree lights can affect your internet speeds? Typically this is only when using WiFi in close proximity, but it’s still worth keeping in mind. With the Christmas decorations going up in many homes around the world, it’s convenient to have some means of testing your broadband speed quickly, easily and with the minimum of fuss. Microsoft’s own free Network Speed Test does exactly that, simply download it from the store, tap the app and hit the start button. You’re instantly given a speed rating for your internet connection. The app also logs previous results, allowing you to compare pre and post Christmas light scenarios.

Get your copy of Network Speed Test from the Windows Store here.

Shocking hack at toy manufacturer VTech

It’s only natural for children to want to copy their parents, and with more and more of us using laptops, tablets and smartphones, it was inevitable that companies like VTech, who specialise in making child friendly electronics, would enter the market with a supposedly child friendly range of devices just like mum and dads. VTech promised that children could use their devices to communicate safely with parents and relatives, while a PIN system would mean that strangers would be blocked from ever contacting the child. Sadly, while this system may have seemed secure at face value, the underlying infrastructure was shockingly poorly implemented. A recent hack attack on the company resulted in the leaking of nearly six million photographs of children who were registered to use these devices. Even more worryingly, the information also included personal details of the children in question and most damningly of all, logs, including audio recordings, of conversations between their peers and their parents. If you’re affected by this story and struggling to understand exactly what’s happened, we’ve compiled a list of the most pertinent questions and answers for you.

Exactly what information has leaked? – It’s been confirmed that the data leaked in the hacking attack contained the portrait pictures of around six million young users. It’s also been widely reported that it also includes other information such as address details, presumably belonging to the parents, though this is of little consequence since children tend to live with their parents anyway. There’s also strong evidence it included things such as children’s own drawings, messages they have written and even recordings of conversations made over the service. It’s even possible, given the lack of modesty of some younger children, that some of the images VTech were storing could fall foul of child pornography laws.

Why were VTech even storing these images and information? – Portrait photographs of the children were probably stored for convenience, along with their account details, to allow the user to quickly access their account on any VTech device. Why more intimate information, such as recordings of audio conversations was ever kept is unclear. VTech may argue this was logged for child protection reasons, so that parents or perhaps the authorities could review it, though this seems like a flimsy argument.

Why weren’t the images/information encrypted? – VTech have no excuse here. Not encrypting the sensitive information of vulnerable young people is unacceptable and a huge breach of trust. In our opinion there is no reason that the information wasn’t encrypted other than negligence.

What could this information be used for? – In the wrong hands, an individual can paint a pretty vivid picture of a child’s life based on conversations, drawings they may have done and other information. It all adds up to a worrying insight into the kinds of things that should be private to anyone of any age, let alone a child.

What are the legal ramifications? – While we’re not legal experts, we would say that the ramifications are potentially huge. Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000, for instance, it’s a criminal offence to collect personal information of anyone under the age of 13 without explicit parental permission. VTech will probably argue that permission was given, though it seems unlikely that parents consented to the kinds of logging that VTech appear to have been doing. If the suspicions about some images being classed as child pornography are true, VTech could face extremely severe criminal charges in several countries.

What should you do if your child uses a VTech device? – Other than discontinuing use of the device at least for the immediate future, there’s not an awful lot you can do. The hacker(s) behind the attack have promised not to leak the information they stole, but as we’ve seen before such information has a habit of leaking out anyway.

Sadly this is yet another in a long line of security breaches that once again reinforces the need for strong, properly implemented encryption and for companies to follow best practises for IT security, rather than skimp on their implementations to save money. The consequences for VTech could be very severe and we’re sure this isn’t the last we will hear of the story. At Top-Windows-Tutorials.com we’ve always been behind strong, properly implemented cryptography. Certain politicians the world over would have you believe that encryption is used by terrorists and should be banned, or at least re-engineered so that law enforcement can get unfettered access. Unfortunately, you can’t weaken encryption just for the good guys and any such attempt would just make it easier for criminals to access our data. We’re adding our voice to the Savecrypto.org petition and you should too.

That concludes our newsletter for December. On behalf of the team here at TWT, I’d like to say thank you to all our readers, new and old for your continued support. If you’re celebrating Christmas we hope you have a great time and that Santa brings you all the tech and Windows 10 toys you asked for. We’ll see you again on the 10th January 2016 for more tips, tricks and techniques to help you get the best out of your PC, be it Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10. We hope that you found this newsletter informative and useful. If you did not then please let us know why, you can contact us by visiting this page. If you have enjoyed this newsletter, feel free to pass it on to all your friends and family, or better still encourage them to sign up for their own copy. Until next month, keep checking Top-Windows-Tutorials.com and enjoy happy, safe and stress-free computing!

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