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Category: Email.

Given our massive usage of email (according to latest research 63 billion genuine emails are sent daily!) you would imagine that we are all now experts are making the best use of it. Unfortunately I come across problems every day caused through the misuse of email. Some of these are technical but many are actually related to human nature and are very easily remedied.

Here’s my list of the top 7 issues and annoyances when using email:

1. Sending an email when you are annoyed or upset about a situation.

If something has particularly annoyed or upset you then the last thing you should do is send an email to the person you believe to be responsible. An email can never be unwritten and no matter how carefully you think you have worded it there is a high possibility it will be misinterpreted or that you will simply regret it.

If after sleeping on it you still feel that the subject needs to be raised then either call the person on the phone or even better, arrange a face to face meeting.

E-Mail will never be a tool to resolve issues!

2. Not including your contact details in your email.

Obviously the person you send your email to can reply via email, but there are many times when they may prefer to discuss the email with you and those other contact details are very useful.

Ideally you should set up your email Signature to include these details automatically.

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Category: Mobile Computing.

Looking back to my younger days I used to have fond memories of heading out with my parents on a Sunday afternoon to go blackberry picking. And the best bit was when the fruits of our labour (couldn’t resist the pun !) resulted in a delicious apple and blackberry pie for dinner.

BUT we are now in the year 2009 and Blackberry Storm has taken on a whole new meaning. I purchased the device back in November of 2008 so it has now been road-tested for over five months and I have mixed feelings. Unfortunately I’m in an 18 month contract so love it or hate it my options are limited!

The BlackBerry Storm is the first BlackBerry to have a touch screen user interface which I feel has been developed to tackle the ever increasing domination of the Apple iTouch. Ever since Apple released the iPhone, every phone manufacturer has been trying to produce an iPhone killer and this is BlackBerry’s answer. The Storm incorporates two kinds of virtual keyboard – the full QWERTY keyboard and the SureType keyboard – the keyboard switching depending on whether you’re in portrait or landscape mode. The Storm uses a new innovation called ‘ClickThrough’ that means the screen responds to pressure, so it feels almost like you’re using a real keyboard. This actually works really well and I do find that typing is quicker than the old style Blackberry with SureType learning new words as you use it more.

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Category: Home Computing.

The Internet has brought many great benefits, not least is that children have a huge wealth of information to tap into. Schools have recognised this fact and actively encourage them to use the internet to assist with homework.

Unfortunately the Internet also contains a lot of unsavoury information and it is with this in mind that you need to consider how to ensure your children can surf safely. As a start it is beneficial to provide some basic rules for them to follow:

  • Encourage your kids to share their Internet experiences with you. Enjoy the Internet along with your children
  • Teach your kids to trust their instincts. If they feel nervous about anything online, they should tell you about it
  • If your kids visit chat rooms, use instant messaging, online video games, or other activities on the Internet that require a login name to identify themselves, help them choose that name and make sure it doesn’t reveal any personal information about them
  • Insist that your kids never give out your address, phone number, or other personal information, including where they go to school or where they like to play
  • Tell your kids that they should never meet online friends in person. Explain that online friends may not be who they say they are
  • Teach your kids that not everything they read or see online is true. Encourage them to ask you if they’re not sure
  • Control your children’s online activity with advanced Internet software. Parental controls can help you filter out harmful content, monitor the sites your child visits, and find out what they do there.

Whilst this will hopefully encourage them to follow “good practise”, I also add to this with some software to monitor and protect them whilst online.There are numerous products on the market but one of the easiest and most effective products is something from the Microsoft stable. It is already installed with Vista and is a free download for Windows XP – Windows Live Family Safety. It is simple but effective and just does what it says on the tin. If your child wishes to access a site not on the “allowed” list then they can send you an email or you can provide access immediately by authorising the request. Having now used it for a couple of months I would recommend it to anyone with kids.

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Category: Latest.

Traditionally PCs have appeared in two main forms – a workstation and a laptop. Saying that, the laptop I used back in the early 90’s actually weighed more than a modern workstation!

With improving technology and everything reducing in size and power consumption, some of the big manufacturers developed a new type of portable machine called the Pocket PC. This was backed by Microsoft who developed the Windows Mobile operating system that included a cut down version of Office to allow viewing of basic spreadsheets and Word documents. Both HP / Compaq and Dell have sold machines in this form since around 2000 but with the advent of Smart Phones this market has all but died.

Smart Phones now include a multitude of applications and with some of the more powerful devices they can manage your email, display your spreadsheets & documents and provide full internet capability. But for me they are still a phone and even with the larger displays have limited appeal for anything but some basic business needs.

In a similar way the iPhone, the Blackberry Storm and some of the more recent offerings from Nokia & Google offer some more advanced functionality with a half decent screen. But again I have real issues navigating some basic websites or reading anything but a basic Excel spreadsheet or Word document.

What has really got me excited has been the introduction of the Netbook. Asus took the market by surprise when they introduced a full portable PC for around £150 in early 2008. It offered a fully functional PC with either Unix or Windows XP and could run all the standard Windows applications with no loss of functionality. Since that time nearly every major PC manufacturer has now brought out something in this form factor and the market is absolutely buzzing with variety. They come in at around 1KG in weight, include 1GB of memory, 80GB hard disk, integrated mobile broadband or Wi-Fi and cost around £250.

As an example of how flexible they are here is a great story – I was working away from the office when a customer called with a support issue on their Netbook. I plugged in my Mobile Broadband Card, connected to their Netbook (which was sitting in the back seat of their car also using Mobile Broadband !) and resolved the issue in 10 minutes.

True Flexibility… and great IT support!

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Category: Podcasts.

For those of you that haven’t already come across podcasts, let me first explain what they are. A podcast is like a radio program except people can download it to a portable media player (such as an iPod or other mp3 player) and listen to it whenever and wherever they want – like they would a downloaded and listen to a favourite piece of music.

Generally speaking a podcast is made available for download via syndication rather than just being a file available for download. The files are usually retrieved with software applications (known as podcatchers) such as Apple’s iTunes so that subscribers can listen at their convenience. The podcatcher can be set up to receive podcasts from web sites of their choice, from specific authors or relating to specific subjects.

So what can a podcast do for you and how do you go about making one?

Podcasts are a great way to get your personal or company profile raised in the world at large. Many people don’t have time to sit and read documents but do have time to listen while they’re on the move – just look at the rising popularity of audio books! So if you create something people want to listen to then more people will get to hear about you and/or your business. There are many syndication sites where you can place your podcasts and if you have a web site you can also place links back to your site which will help with its search engine rankings – further increasing your profile.

Remember that people want to be entertained and/or informed so your podcast needs to do one or both of these, otherwise is will not be listened to or you and your business will gain a bad reputation… exactly the opposite of what you intended.

A few quick tips on producing a good podcast are:

  • Think about how you say things as well as what you say – the tone, pitch and speed of your voice can all make a difference
  • Make sure you don’t record and distribute a recording of anyone without their knowledge and consent
  • Set the bar as high as possible for audio content and production – how it sounds is almost as important as what is being said.
  • Ask yourself if a podcast is the best way to communicate your message – listen to some and experience a podcast from a listeners perspective and then decide
  • Make sure that when you publish any podcasts you describe them fully and accurately – this will help you find the right audience

A simple way to create a podcast is to download an audio editor to your PC, purchase a microphone and away you go. An excellent and free audio editor is Audacity (see http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) which provdes you with all the basic editing functionality (and more) plus it allows you to save files in MP3 format which is the podcast standard.

Happy podcasting!

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Category: Computer Games.

A game for lovers of the Zombie genre, think Dawn remake or 28 days, although the Romero purist may argue that Dawn (2004) was rubbish and 28 days are infected rather than zombies.

This is a game that puts you in the position of the survivor, as you make your way through hazardous terrains to get to the security of a safe room and eventually to some other survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

This is one of the few co-op games out there where you have to work together as a team (though single payer with bots is available but it’s just not the same). The beauty of the game lies in the group dynamics. Are you the type to lay down covering fire or run into a crowd of zombies? Do you choose to heal yourself or heal a partner?

Add to this the ultra violence of killing as many zombies as possible and the tongue in cheek humour of a B (or Z) movie – including the movie poster while the game loads and the end credits (the movie is dedicated to the ones who did not survive). It even tells you how many Zombies were harmed during the making of the movie (the highest I achieved was 1700 Zombies)!

This is a great game- a dream for a zombie lover- but short lived. Each level takes between 30 minutes to an hour to complete – adrenalin packed though it may be – and there are only 4 levels at present… although the replay value comes from playing online and the maker, Valve, has mentioned additional levels in the form of downloadable content (free add-on, hopes this reviewer).

A Game that deserves 9.5 out of 10, but because of the lack of levels it will have to make do with 8.5.

Personally, I think this game is great- a fun way to kill an hour of your time and a few zombies too! I have to admit that I am looking forward to Resident Evil 5 – released 13th March (today), for which I will be writing a review of in the coming weeks. That is, if I can put it down for long enough to write it.

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Category: Web Hosting.

It seems that the demise of one of the original successful web businesses has gone under the radar of most people.

Lycos Inc. (a well known name way before Google was even a glint in Lary Page’s or Sergey Brin’s eyes) stopped all the mail and hosting services on the 15th February 2009.

This marks a big change since Lycos was sold in 2004 for £52M

Many businesses use third parties such as design companies to arrange their web site hosting so they may have their email services or web site hosting through Lycos and not even realise the implications.

If you have lost your web site or email service then you should check whether Lycos was hosting them. If they are then contact a company who can arrange to host your services in the future such as The PC Support Group and then go to http://www.united-domains.de/lycos-support/en/ and follow the instructions.

It’s vital that you do this as soon as possible to avoid loss of service for any length of time.

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Category: IT Support.

So the stock markets are in freefall , we’ve stopped spending money, businesses are going to the wall and your home is falling in value every day – That’s what we hear on the news and in the daily tabloids…

BUT Is it really all that bad?

In December 2008, I finally left behind the banking industry following the challenges of 2008 – It was one of those typical bi-annual departmental restructures that every large company goes through. The final result put me in the position of competing against another colleague yet knowing, in my heart, that circumstances were fighting against me. The process was regimental but fair and I was offered the choice of “look for another job within” or take voluntary redundancy.

I took the redundancy option not knowing what was next –heck I had been there for 25 years and really thought I didn’t know anything but the Bank.

That weekend I sat down and scoured the newspapers, the magazines and the web – at this point I had already said I was leaving but didn’t even have a job (with a wife and two kids to feed it was a bit scary !!).

Fortunately I had more than Banking skills; having run a small IT company part time for 12 years and latterly had been Head of E-Commerce at Bank of Scotland.

After carrying out tons of research, the most favourable option was to buy into an IT support franchise and the starting grid produced four candidates. Two fell at the first hurdle when they sent me a few lines of pre-defined text about how I could pay them lots of money and have the right to use the name to sell services in a small area of the country. The other two looked viable so I set off down the formal process of application. The end result was a no-brainer and so that is where I am today.

Was it the right decision?

I have never looked back since the day I left the Bank

I now run a real business that gives me the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people

The world is not all doom and gloom

The PC Support Group have the systems, the support and most of all the people

SO TO ANYONE WHO IS FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF REDUNDANCY; LOOK BEYOND THE NEWSPAPERS; LOOK BEYOND THE NEWS AND MOST OF ALL BE POSITIVE AND BELIEVE YOU CAN SUCCEED IN THIS EXCITING WORLD.

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Category: IT Support.

It just strikes me that at The PC Support Group we speak to businesses and home users daily who come to us with horror stories of their current or previous computer support provider. I don’t suppose that accountants, lawyers, financial advisors, designers and other professionals have anything like the same torrent of tales of woe. Why is this?

I think one of the biggest problems is that the computer support market has undervalued itself. What I mean by this is that thousands of barely qualified (or not qualified at all) people have started offering IT support services at ridiculously low prices. I recently came across someone offering computer support for £15 per hour which, when you consider they will not be paid for the time they travel, market, sell and do their administration, is not far from minimum wage!

Unsurprisingly, low prices attract custom but the service quality is invariably equally low. Low prices means that those IT support businesses can’t afford to employ skilled people, they can’t afford to invest in the best support technology, and they can’t afford to invest in training to keep up to date with technological changes. The result is that computer support businesses, and in particular “one man bands”, have created an undervalued industry with an appalling service record.

The other major problem is that the computer support industry is generally hopeless at communicating to the rest of the world. Apart from this resulting in technicians bamboozling their customers, it has also resulted in customers not understanding the value of great IT support.

For example, a high quality business backup solution which guarantees to restore all the data exactly as it was and make it available within a day might cost a few hundred pounds a month. Many small businesses will simply refuse to pay this sort of money for something that seemingly sits there doing nothing. The irony is that if they had one major problem every 3 years (which is likely) then this would more than pay for itself and could even save the business from closure.

The problem is that most IT support companies struggle to get this argument across effectively and then get the fall out when the business can’t operate – yet again they are seen to provide a poor service.

At The PC Support Group we constantly strive to make sure we offer the best service at the best value for money. We have numerous examples where potential customers choose the “cheap” provider only to find that within 12 months they are back saying “You were right, the service was awful and we’ve had all sorts of problems. When can you come and see us.”

It is time for the IT support industry to be stronger and focus on providing great service at a value for money price instead of being cheap and providing bad service. This approach is ultimately the best thing for our customers and will raise the reputation of the industry as a whole.

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Category: IT Purchasing.

All Businesses want to shave off costs where possible. In fact, both in your personal life and in business it makes sense to look for the best deals. However in terms of IT support and equipment, the best deal is not necessarily the cheapest. What businesses and individuals often forget are the associated costs with what seems like the cheaper deals.

For example, the cheapest company may not have a turnaround time that is quick enough, or may not guarantee the availability of a critical service (for example an internet connection).

I recently dealt with a company that had purchased a bundle offer for Internet, IP phone and telephones. This was all wrapped up in nice cheap deal that saved money on calls and seemingly provided all the support needed, which was great until it all went wrong.

The connection between the package provider and the Internet went down, and suddenly none of the phones for the businesses multiple sites worked and nor did their internet connection. This problem went on for 4 days, and the company could not contact the provider by telephone or email. They were simply being ignored. All items previously ordered through the internet had to be ordered using a mobile phone. As customers and potential customers could not contact them, the loss business they faced was immense, not even considering other losses such as the damage to their reputation. To add to this, they could not redirect phone calls (due to the inability to contact the provider) and another company would take up to 10 working days to port the services.

To avoid the situation described here, I often ask companies to do a simple sum: If every person in your business is unable to work for 1 full day, because of computer system downtime, (by this I mean if they could not access email, documents, online research, ordering, banking, etc…), how much would this cost the business? You should then search for the right IT systems with this figure in mind.

Consider this, even 99% guaranteed availability with an internet connection means you could be without a connection for over 3 days each year! If this happens you want to know you can contact someone who will help. Is an extra, say, £30 a month worth this improved service for your business?

Another thing to consider is the computer product selection process. Buying products from the cheapest supplier makes sense: after all it doesn’t change the product… or does it? When purchasing a product it is often fruitful to look around at various suppliers and average out the price. This is the maximum amount you should be paying rather than the cheapest. When selecting a supplier, also consider the service they provide, the delivery terms and conditions, and other people’s experiences with the supplier. After all, when you get those much needed PCs and find out that some have problems, do you want to wait 10 working days for them to replace them. Would you not rather have a supplier that will replace the goods within the next 2 days? And tell me, it isn’t worth paying that little bit extra for this level of service?

Cutting cost at the expense of service is almost always a bad idea unless it is a service that you don’t require. This is something to keep in mind the next time you are considering purchasing IT equipment or services.