Spam, Web Toolbars and Email Woe

September 20, 2006 at 2:31 pm Leave a comment

A friendly one-man dealer popped into our shop the other day and paid me a quick visit. He wanted to know if I could come and help him with a few problems he was having with his internet connection. After work, I kindly obliged him and went to see what I could do. Many of his issues were fairly trivial and came down to a lack of understanding of the technologies that he was using, but the complete mess that his web browser had turned into and the impossibility of his web-based email made me shudder and has prompted me to post this in an attempt to help others, without the luxury of an IT department, get a better grip on what to do to keep your computers running smoothly.

Internet Connectivity

First up, I’m going to level my two-barrell shotgun at nearly every ISP (that’s Internet Service Provider to non-tech folks) in the UK (and possibly globally). For nearly every non-tech person I have helped out with their internet problems, half of their frustrations are caused by chunky and unnecessary software handed to them by their service providers. AOL is the biggest culprit of this mischief, but I may as well slap BT, Tiscali and a host of others with the same charge. So what are you meant to do when you get your new broadband connection? Aren’t you meant to install the software that comes with your subscription? I’m going to make a broad and sweeping statement here: NO! 99% of the time, your operating system (that’s Windows to most non-tech users) is quite capable of connecting to the Internet without a load of junk software that complicates matters. Here are some huge tips:

1) If your computer has a network card (most do nowadays), do not buy yourself a cheap ADSL modem. Get yourself an ADSL capable router. Why? Firstly, it means that you do not have to install any software on your computer.

Secondly, your router will act as a natural firewall between you and the rest of the internet, protecting you from a host of nasty hackers out there.

Most routers have a friendly web interface and a great instruction booklet that will help you configure your connection without any major issues. I have seen completely non-technical follow these manuals and set up broadband issues without hitch. So don’t think you can’t do it.

Another great thing about a router is that you can leave it on, even if your computer is switched off. It means that you don’t have to “connect” to the internet every time you want to get online, because your router will stay connected. That makes your whole experience a lot smoother and instantaneous. I can guarantee that this will give you a warm glow inside and make you a very happy person.

And lastly, many broadband routers will come with more than one network port, which means that if somebody else comes along with their computer, they can simply plug a network able into the router and they will also be able to access the Internet alongside you. You don’t have to worry about any of this network sharing malarkey! So you’re covering yourself for future expansion.

GET A ROUTER!

2) If you have to use a broadband modem (you poor person) for some unknown reason. Find out how to set up your connection without using any additional software. Even if you have to contact your service provider support line, insist that you want to find out how to set up your connection using Windows Dial-up Networking. Do not insert any CDs that come with your connection. My favourite ISP even offers instructions on how to do this. If you have to install drivers for your USB modem, get somebody to help you, but avoid installing any additional software like the plague.

3) Research your ISP before you sign up. Don’t just go with the names that make it to you through television advertising. Most of these people are the bastards that lump you with all that shitty software in the first place. Ask your friends who they use to connect to the internet, and what their experiences have been. Even if they’re not complaining about their connection, the state of their computers is often fairly indicative of the health of their relationship with the internet.

4) God help you if you still have to use dial-up.

Email

If you’re using some kind of webmail to access your email, you might find yourself getting pretty frustrated pretty quickly. Find out if you can use some other mail program to access and compose your email. While many service providers might tell you that the advantage of webmail is that you can access your email on the go, they’re only telling you half the story. Ask them how to set up your favourite email client to access your mail via IMAP. Here is why:

My frustrated dealer friend is using Tiscali to provision his internet access and his email. Up until yesterday he was checking his email via their webmail service. Unfortunately, Tiscali needs to learn a whole lot about spam filtering and his Inbox was cluttered with around 200 odd spam messages. Using webmail to scan through and delete messages en masse like this is a gruelling task to say the least. Using a webmail composer to email out is also tacky, it is slow to add attachments and you lose out on a lot of the functionality of a standard email application. Even adding addresses to your address book is a pain in the ass.

So, my solution was as follows. Firstly I checked whether Tiscali offered IMAP services. Although they only advertise POP3 on their website, a bit of ingenuity and checking revealed that they have an IMAP server available at imap.tiscali.co.uk. For non-technical people what this means is about to become apparent. With POP3 services, you download your email onto your computer locally. This means that you can only access your old emails from the same computer, which is not very useful if you’re in an airport in Dubai and just want to check your mail at an internet cafe. IMAP email is all stored on the server. This means that anything you do in your email program gets done on the server as well. That means that you can still use your webmail to check your email if you are on another computer, but you get to use all the benefits of a normal email program when you are working locally.

So what sort of benefits are we talking about? Firstly, email programs like Thunderbird have built-in spam filtering. This means that over time, your email program will learn what you consider to be SPAM or junk mail and will help you delete it or move it to another folder for review. It needs a little bit of training, but using a facility like this when you’re lumped with an incompetent service provider can be a godsend. Mail programs also usually have the ability to search your inbox in a variety of ways, that make it really easy to find specific messages very quickly. And of course, your ability to compose whatever garish HTML (Rich Text) emails you can think up, is greatly enhanced. Thunderbird, can also add email addresses that you send email to your addressbook automatically, improving the spam filtering algorithms and speeding up your productivity. A quick glimpse in the direction of any email application will highlight a million reasons to move away from webmail. So definitely check it out.

Web Toolbars and other Funnies

I’m allergic to these things. They have their functions (sometimes… rarely) but do yourself a favour and don’t install any software on your computer that doesn’t genuinely enhance the way that you work. And if you have already, go to your Control Panel and click on Add/Remove Programs and hunt down anything that you know you don’t use.

A huge problem with the Internet for end users, is the sheer amount of information that you have to take in. Advertisers and evil software (read spyware etc) developers know how to make popups and banners that look just like the messages that pop up in windows all the time. The result is that you’re constantly seeing messages telling your that your computer may have a virus or spyware or may be too slow or needs to be cleaned or can help you make money or can look really cool with this essential smiley toolbar. Just ignore every single one of these messages, and if you need to close them look for the little X at the top-right of the window and use that. NEVER click Okay. If your browser ever looks different to how it did before, go back to that Add/Remove programs and do some cleaning.

And finally… do yourself a huge favour. Go to mozilla.com and install Firefox. Then on your desktop and in your start menu and anywhere else that you can see that big blue ‘e’ that you used to use to browse the web, and delete it. You will save yourself a million headaches and as you learn about all of the extra cool features that this web browser has, you’ll congratulate yourself for the rest of your life.

Some final words

I’ve written quite a bit here, but I genuinely feel passionate about these things because I see how they affect people around me. Unfortunately, if you’ve made it to this post you probably know more than a very large number of people and so much of this is probably not that important to you. However, you may want to take some of these tips and pass them on to people less fortunate.

Even if you don’t understand technology or the jargon all around it, it must become apparent pretty quickly when the tools on your computer no longer look or work like they once did. If your desktop is cluttered and there are a million programs to choose from your start menu, and it just doesn’t seem as fast or as simple as it once did, you probably need to do some spring cleaning. It is actually very difficult to break your computer as the average user. Don’t be afraid to make folders to store your documents. Don’t be afraid to remove programs that you don’t use. Avoid clutter. Avoid software you don’t need. Read manuals and do a bit of research. These basic ideas will cut down on your own frustration and will save you having to call in the gurus.

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