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Author: Daniel Westerstal

Secunia PSI

If your computer is filled with a lot of different programs (like mine) chances are that it is a full time job to keep track of all software updates. This leaves your system open to vulnerabilities, which in a worst case scenario will get your system hacked.

Secunia PSI is a vulnerability scanner, which basically means that it scans all programs installed on your computer and updates them. Obviously you will get rid of having to check updates on your own, or even start programs to see if there are any updates available.

In addition to checking for updates Secunia also give you a complete overview of the different vulnerabilities using a graph. The software also rates the seriousness (or threat rating) of the vulnerabilities on your system. If you move the cursor over the threat level indicator Secunia will even suggest what a hacker can do to your system using the insecure program.

A scan for the different programs and vulnerabilities on your system does take some time, on a 1, 86 GHz Intel Core2Duo processor with an 80 GB hard-drive it took about 5 minutes to scan the whole system. Not too bad. The system scanned gets a rating, my system got 71%.

Most of the programs Secunia highlights needed updating, but for some weird reason it marked Firefox 3 as a severe security threat stating that “A hacker can typically use this to gain full control of your PC”. However when I started Firefox and checked for updates there were none to be found. After checking the Mozilla website for the latest version of Firefox it seems as Secunia sometimes give erroneous warnings.

Secunia also highlights the programs on your system that is no longer supported (end-of-life). This means that the program no longer receives security updates. There is also an option called Program Monitoring, which means that Secunia continuously monitors every program installed on the computer and checks of for updates on the fly.

A concern with live monitoring of programs is performance issues. The system does seem a little bit slower when Secunia is running, for a home PC it is however possible to turn Secunia program monitoring off and just run the program once a week. For business computers it is advisable to leave it on.

Secunia is a good piece of software and a must have for security conscious users. It is still a bit rough around the edges, but given that it is free Secunia has infinite value.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 6: Let’s wrap it up

It is now finally time to wrap up the My Ubuntu Experience series, and it is not easy. After using Ubuntu for almost a year I must have come to some sort of conclusion, in fact it is my duty.

Ubuntu is a great operating system and is certainly a breath of fresh air for an avid Windows user. But it’s a little bit like a buying a new car and then realizing that it is just the same as your old one.

The real difference from Windows is of course that Ubuntu is free. Think of it this way, when you buy a new PC a percentage of the price you are paying will be for the operating system (Windows). If you buy your PC from a large manufacturer such as HP or Dell it will in most cases be packed with software you just want out the door, and Windows.

Ubuntu does what Windows does, and it also comes with software that people would want to use. It already got an office suite, a drawing program and a great e-mail client. So if you were a first-time computer buyer or PC-user Ubuntu would be great.

But most users are not. I have spent years building my software library for Windows, why should I go and throw all my expensive software out the door and move to Ubuntu? Exactly, there is no real compelling reason if I already have a working Windows computer with all the software I need.

There are areas where Ubuntu however can take market shares, the first one being schools. Why should a school pay high license fees to Microsoft when they can get it all for free? Another area where Ubuntu will excel is secondary computers. Most advanced users have several computers, for example I have a laptop. I always take it with me on business trips, when I am on the road all I need is an Office suite, Internet and security.

A third area where Ubuntu probably be popular is in markets where Microsoft has not achieved market dominance. For example in new economies and third world countries. For initiatives such as OLPC Ubuntu will make a great operating system.

It is clear that Ubuntu can fill voids in the market, and will probably also do some good in the process. As of right now it is not a complete replacement for Microsoft Windows, but that might change.

Google Chrome – Shiny and new

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks you will have heard of Google’s new web-browser, Chrome.  It might even be the most hyped web-browser release ever, but does it live up to the hype?  You are about to find out.

The Google Chrome interface seems sleek and fast, the exact opposite of Internet Explorer 7. Chrome only has 6 buttons; compare that to the myriad of buttons in IE7 and Firefox (although the Google toolbar is a culprit in adding buttons).  Chrome is easy to navigate even if this was your first encounter with a web-browser you will know your way around.

There are some smart enhancements in the interface compared to the competition. For example Google Chrome will display the websites you have visited frequently as a start page. Another neat thing is that the adress bar also searches, while you type it even gives suggestions.

However, if you like most users migrate from other browsers the most annoying difference is the placement of the different page-tabs.  In every other web-browser (Opera, IE, Firefox) tabs are placed below the adress field, in Google Chrome they are above the adress field.

Google Chrome is said to be faster than the competition. In regular web-browsing it is probably close to Firefox, but it is hard to measure and depends on a number of factors (such as computer speed, web-server load, ISP and so on). Google has developed a new java-script engine for the Chrome browser, named V8. This gives a boost when using java-script or AJAX based web applications. Since the industry is moving into cloud computing the extra speed boost is welcome, and it will be even more needed in the future.

When using Firefox or Internet Explorer all web-pages are displayed within the same process. In Google Chrome each tab is its own process. This increase the stability of the web-pages you are visiting.  Obviously it is not a big deal if your session of Yahoo Finance or something suddenly crashes, but imagine having a presentation in Google Docs crash or an important data transfer.  Multiple processes eat more memory, but with a fairly recent computer you will probably be fine.

Google Chrome comes with Google Gears, which is an API for developers. Among other things Google Gears can provide offline access to data and it also helps syncing web-applications with your desktop. This isn’t a huge deal for users right now, but it might be interesting in the future.

Privacy is a main-concern when browsing the web, so Google created the Incognito mode. It is reached by pressing CTRL+Shift+N or clicking the new page icon selecting “New Incognito Window”. It is important not to confuse the Incognito mode with services that prevents websites from logging your information. What actually happens when you browse incognito is that Chrome does not save the websites you’ve visited or the files you have downloaded.

Chrome isn’t exactly feature rich compared to Firefox or Internet Explorer.  There is no way to protect your saved passwords with a master password (as in Firefox), it is impossible to disable scripting or JAVA and there are few add-ons.

It is tough to see what Google Chrome actually brings to the table for users right now. However as a future application platform Chrome is interesting, and from a technology preview even more so.  I can’t give any compelling reason to switch from Firefox or IE to Chrome, but if you are interested in where the web will be going in the next couple of years you should take a look at Chrome.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 5: Is Ubuntu more secure?

Security is getting more and more important. We have all heard the security problems Windows XP, Internet Explorer, Quick Time and many other programs have been experiencing. By many people Ubuntu and Linux is regarded as more secure than Windows, if it is the truth I don’t know.

One thing that need to be understood is that far more computers (and I mean far more) are running Windows than Linux, so malware and viruses are often by default designed to attack Windows-based computers rather than Linux-ones. The Windows user-base might also be less tech-savvy than the persons using Linux, a lot of family computers are running Windows.

So what security features does Ubuntu use? I would say that the real difference between Ubuntu and Windows XP is the user account management. In Ubuntu you do not have administrator rights by default as in XP, which means that viruses trying to take over your computer will not be able to without your account password.

Windows Vista has a similar feature, User Account Control. UAC was attacked by users and media for being annoying and in the way when installing software and configuring computers. Ubuntu also has an equialent of UAC, it prompts for you to enter a password every time you want to configure something, however it is not as frequent as UAC in Windows. UAC and similar features are probably the best security measure that any computer can have, it really makes life harder for hackers and malware. But requiring the user to enter a password each-time is a bit over the top I think, creating a password free UAC is something Ubuntu should borrow from Vista.

All current Linux distributions have a firewall on a kernel level, it is called iptables. Iptables is an old style Linux product which does not include a GUI and it is pretty hard to configure and always allows everything by default. There are utilities to help you though, Lokkit is probably the easiest and most straightforward one. There is also one called Firestarter, which is an easy alternative. If you are already behind a firewall there is no reason to worry too much about Ubuntu’s lack of a firewall, but if you are using a laptop on the road or have your computer connected directly to the Internet you will want one.

A common Linux legend is that you do not need any anti-virus program because Linux is engineered so it is hard for viruses to run in the first place. But if you have files being used on Windows computers you will still want anti-virus. Even though infected files will have a hard time infecting your computer, the system will carry the virus to the next Windows computer. Obviously if you are using a dual-boot setup it will be needed even more.

There is open-source virus software, ClamAV. It seems very capable, but I went with AVG Free Edition for Linux just because I use it in Windows Vista and it’s great. AVG for Linux doesn’t do much else than detect viruses and scan for them. It can’t heal files, which is a bit weird but at least you know you are infected.

As you already know Ubuntu is open-source. In the media it is often said that open source is more secure than closed source. Some argue that open source applications are more secure since a large community has been able to test the code and find exploits. Obviously it can also pose a security threat if the community does not find the exploits and bugs first, so there are really two sides of the coin and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Using Ubuntu feels more secure, from a security perspective it is better engineered than Windows so at least you can relax somewhat. One should however be clear that threats directed towards Linux-computers will increase as Linux become more and more popular.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 4: Using IPods and Printers in Linux

One of the main problems when upgrading to any new OS is to get the peripherals to work. Microsoft took a lot of heat when people could not get their printers, network cards and what not to work with Vista. In my world drivers are the main responsibility of the device manufacturer and not the provider of the operating system, with that in mind I will not bash Ubuntu completely for the lack of drivers in the Linux community.

To my desktop I have a Canon MP450 multi-functional printer, an external hard drive and my IPod. I also use USB-thumb drives and two digital cameras on a regular basis.

Using the Canon MP450 original software was out of the question since it requires Windows. To get the printer to actual print is impossible. Ubuntu recognized the Canon MP450 and displayed it as an available printer, but when you send print jobs to it nothing happens. I went to the Canon website trying to find some drivers for Linux, no luck. After some poking around the net I finally found a working driver called TurboPrint. TurboPrint is actually commercial software and costs 29.95 Euros; you can however try it for 30 days.

Since the MP450 is a multi-functional printer I thought it would be nice if the scanning worked. Ubuntu comes with a pretty neat program called Xsane Image Scanner. Xsane recognized the MP450 and I was able to scan, it even worked faster and was more efficient than the software that came with the printer. With the original Windows software you had to scan the images to an image-editing program, it slowed the process down dramatically. In Xsane it is possible to get previews of the scanned image and edit the scanned results.

The external hard drive and other USB-storage devices worked surprisingly well. When you connect a thumb drive an icon will appear on your desktop, it could not be easier.  When I briefly used Linux several years back I remember USB support being very limited, if it worked at all. It is great to see that the Linux-community has worked those problems out.

Getting my Ipod to work with Ubuntu is a different story. When connecting it a small Ipod-icon appear on the desktop, if the Ipod is formatted using FAT32 instead of HFS plus it is possible to manage MP3-files just as any other USB storage device. But the strength with the IPod is ITunes, and since Apple has not made a version for Linux you will not be able to use it. Tough luck, but there are a few Linux alternatives. One of them is gtkpod, which claims to be a GUI for iPods. The program keeps track of your songs, ratings but more importantly has the ability to import and read your ITunes DB from the IPod.

Obviously the whole IPod process is not as easy as in Windows or OS X. Of course Apple has no real interest in releasing a Linux version of ITunes, when looking at the market share Linux is not that far behind from OS X. For Apples perspective it probably makes sense not to give the Linux community ITunes, Linux might even catch-up.

A main-usage for many family computers is online-banking. Many banks have platform-independent solutions, such as dongles generating passkeys. They will work with Linux; some banks have other solutions such as card-readers or certain programs that needs to be installed. Chances are that many of them are not compatible with Linux, so before moving over to Ubuntu it might be good to check with your bank.

In the old days most devices had problems with Linux and were lacking drivers. It is clear that there have been improvements since then, most devices actually worked somewhat. However it is also evident that there are still more work to be done, the real question is however who is going to do the work. Most hardware manufacturers are not providing Linux-drivers for their devices, some will never do it. Why? Because Linux is still a small operating system compared to Windows.  Other device manufacturers, like Apple will probably not provide working software and drivers since Linux is a competitor to their own OS X. I think that drivers and getting devices to work is the main obstacle for Linux to reach popularity and a sizeable market-share.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 3: GNOME vs Windows

The interface in Ubuntu is actually not Ubuntu but GNOME. For those of you who don’t know the Linux world is divided into two major graphical user interfaces (GNOME and KDE) and one minor, XFCE. No matter if you choose SuSE, Mandrake or Ubuntu you will most likely use GNOME or KDE. Basically the kernel, software-updates and packaging is what is Ubuntu, not the desktop interface itself. However the Ubuntu team implements the desktop theme and decides on which packages (applications) and drivers that should be included by default.

So what are the main differences between Windows Vista and GNOME? Well first off there are three “start-menus” instead of one (Applications, Places and System). They are by default in the top-bar of the desktop, the open applications are in the bottom. Naturally you can move around the menus to make them suit your needs, windows-users might wanna move the three menus to the bottom location for better windows-resemblence.

Other than the default-layout there are few real differences between Windows and GNOME. However there is one neat feature in GNOME that Windows does not have, the ability to use different workspaces. When running out of room on the desktop in Windows the only option is to add another display. However in GNOME you just move to another workspace using the same screen, very neat. It is very odd that Microsoft have not implemented this feature in Vista, both GNOME, KDE and Apple OS X has workspaces.

I like the three menus instead of one giant menu, it is easier to navigate depending on what you want to do. For example if I just want to open my word-processor I don’t want to try distingushing it from a number of other applications.  The applications menu in Ubuntu is divided in Accessories, Games, Graphics, Internet, Office and Sound&Video. The Places menu is where you have shortcuts to Music, Pictures, different drives and the ability to search.  All configuration and maintenace is done using the System-menu, there are also some fairly large help sections about GNOME and Ubuntu.

Windows Aero was apparently more for show than for real use, the Ubuntu team actually developed some 3D effects of their own to counter. If you turn up the detail level (System->Preferences->Apperance->Visual Effects) you will be able to see windows moving around like the wind and little ripple effects when you click something. The effects are not turned on by default. If you change from one workspace to another you will get a nice little cube-effect, how cool is that? The Apperance section also gives you the ability to change themes, fonts and general icons.

Desktop search is all the rage these days, Google and Microsoft is gearing up to own the search-engine on your desktop. GNOME is however way behind. First of all the search-engine is located in (Places->Search), so basically I have to click my way down to find it. It could have been placed somewhere more prominent, how about where the name of the current computer user is.  After all most users will probably know their name after all? Second the search-engine is slow, and resembles the horrible search functionality seen in Windows XP. It is impossible to search for shortcuts in the applications menu, and you can’t just start a program by entering the first three letters of it as in Windows Vista.

There is a “Show desktop” -icon in GNOME, and it has a much better place than in Windows. If you click the lower left corner the system will hide all currently open windows and show the desktop. Also the recycle bin has a more prominent position in GNOME, in the lower right corner.  Overall the effects in Windows Vista has a much better look than in GNOME, especially together with Dreamscene. But GNOME seems more productive in its layout, I love the extra workspaces and placement of stuff often used.  When it comes to desktop search GNOME is way behind Windows Vista, I actually miss the simple and fast search-functionality in Vista a lot.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 2: Ready, Set, Go

Grabbing Ubuntu was easy; it’s just a matter of download it from the Ubuntu website. It is possible to order free CDs with Ubuntu, but it is much easier to just download an .iso-file from the website. Then just burn a CD from the iso-image using CD Burner XP.

If Ubuntu wants to reach out to the average users just wanting to do their spreadsheets downloading iso-images and burning them to CDs is not a viable distribution method. There are other ways of getting Ubuntu, such as ordering it from a vendor, order the free Ubuntu CDs or buy a new Dell computer. Seriously though, average users should be able to download Ubuntu and get it on a CD or USB-stick with ease.

Most current Windows users would probably want a dual-boot setup, enabling to choose between Windows and Ubuntu. This is actually quite easy to achieve without much work. The key is however to install Windows first and Ubuntu last, since Windows will over-write the boot sector.

Dual-boot installation of Ubuntu, step-by-step

1) Make sure your Ubuntu CD is in the drive and start your computer. Enter the BIOS; select the CD-drive as the primary boot partition.

2) If you restart the computer Ubuntu will eventually show a menu. You can either select to install Ubuntu directly or try it out first without installing. I decided to try first.

3) After a while Ubuntu eventually booted (I takes time since it boots from the CD). The view you know see is actually Ubuntu running of the CD. It is perfectly possible to just browse around in the system and see if you like it. Check the examples folder for testimonials, there is even a video of Nelson Mandela explaining the concept of Ubuntu. If you like to make Ubuntu a permanent OS on your computer click the Install icon on the desktop.

4) Follow the steps in the Ubuntu installation (the usual stuff like time-zone, keyboard layout and so on).

The most important part is the partitioning of the drive; choose how much space you want Ubuntu to use by pulling the slider. A minimum of 4 GB is needed for space and the Ubuntu swap-file. Remember that you can store files on both partitions, so your reference should be how much software you eventually will use. I dedicated 180 GB to Ubuntu and the rest of my 500 GB drive to Windows Vista.

The Ubuntu installation will now partition your drive; this is a vital process which for me took about 20 minutes. Never pull the plug on the computer during this process, it can damage your drive.

The next time you re-boot you will be greeted by Ubuntu. Or not quite, you will actually be greeted by Grub (Grand Unified Bootloader) which is a boot loader allowing you to choose if you want to boot Windows or Ubuntu. Grub is the most common boot loader for Linux, and to be quite frank it is not a pretty sight. Visually it looks like leftovers from the old Unix-era. A little annoyance is that Grub is set to load Ubuntu by default (if the user does not take any action), I wanted it to boot Windows Vista (or Longhorn which Grub names it) by default.

Using a normal simple Windows PC (or Apple for that matter) I could have just clicked an icon or pressed a key or fiddle around in a menu and make it happen. But changing default settings in Grub is a little bit more complicated than that. After searching the handy Ubuntu user community I found the solution, which includes changing values in configuration files..

A very typical Linux experience, but I got what I wanted. I am no expert on boot times but Ubuntu does seem faster to boot than Windows 7.

When trying my new operating system the refresh rates was terrible compared to what I was used to in Windows 7. After a while I found a box where it was possible to change the rate, the terrible low refresh rate (50 Hz) was however the only option. Of I went trying to help my already strained eyes.

It turned out that System -> Preferences ->Screen Resolution is not the correct location for changing the refresh rate. Instead it’s done in the Nvidia-settings menu; the problem was of course that Ubuntu didn’t recognize my computer’s Geforce 8600 GT during installation. However it was quite easy to install the Nvidia drivers using the integrated Ubuntu Add/Remove programs functionality. When changing the settings in the Nvidia-menus the original Screen Resolution menu still displayed 50 Hz, but you could tell that the refresh rate was much higher.

I feel that Ubuntu still has a long way to go when it comes to configuration and changing settings. You often have to use the terminal window, which for Windows users would be a flashback to the Windows 3.1-days. While a lot has been improved in Ubuntu compared to older versions of SuSE there is still some work that remains to be done before the average user can install and configure his or her own Ubuntu installation.

My Ubuntu Experience Part 1: Why Ubuntu?

After using Windows for sixteen years I thought it was time to try something new. For the next couple of months I will describe my transition from Windows Vista to Ubuntu in this blog. Not that I feel that there is anything wrong with Vista, but maybe the grass is greener on the other side.

I know that Linux and preferably Ubuntu a number of dedicated followers, so it certainly seems to be something in there that people want and like. Ubuntu and Linux is also the only wide-spread free alternative to Windows and Apple OS X. So if you want to know about the highs and lows for a Windows user moving to Ubuntu be sure to follow this blog. Naturally I will put up some postings with the usual software picks between sharing my Ubuntu experiences with you.

What exactly is Ubuntu then? In theory Ubuntu is not more than a derivative of Debian, it is meant to be easy to install and user-friendly .The Ubuntu project is funded by Canonical, which is a company owned by Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth is a South African billionaire, most known for being the first African citizen in space. According to the Ubuntu wiki Shuttleworth is not in Ubuntu for the money, rather he wants to create a free and sustainable desktop OS.

Sounds good and noble, doesn’t it? But the fact of the matter is that in order for Ubuntu to be sustainable some cash needs to be brought in; according to the Ubuntu wiki the project gets income from customization of Ubuntu distributions. The Ubuntu website also sell t-shirts and mugs, take that Microsoft!

In 2004 Canonical released the first version of Ubuntu (version 4.10) Warty Warthog. The Warthog reference is made to describe that the version was still rough around the edges and probably needed more updating. Ubuntu took a comfortable market share from then very popular Linux distributions, such as RedHat, SuSE and Mandrake.

New versions of Ubuntu are released every six-months, each version is supported with patches for 18 months. Every two years the Ubuntu community is blessed with a new LTS-release.  When was the last time Microsoft or Apple used version numbers and abbreviations in the names of their operating systems? In the open-source world it is natural with version numbers and strange names, no one questions it. How about introducing names like Ubuntu Home Edition or Ubuntu Small Business? It sure sounds more inviting for an average user than Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Desktop Edition.

Anyway, be sure to check out syntax30.com to follow my Ubuntu experiences.

Picasa 2 – Manage your photos

Screenshot of Picasa 2

A down-side with the surge in digital photography is the pain of keeping track of all the photos. Google thinks that they have the answer to your prayers with Picasa 2. Picasa 2 creates an index of all your picture files on your computer and then categorizes them by year. After that you simply create an album and move the picture files that you want into that album.

The interface is pretty simple and a bit similar to Gmail. It’s possible to mark your photos with a star and describe them. Picasa 2 also has a number of features that enhances and alters your photos, such as red-eye reduction and cropping.  However if you are not familiar with Google from other software or services Picasa’s interface may prove difficult to use.

The real power with Picasa 2 is the different exporting and importing options. It’s easy to import photos from any digital camera. I just plugged in my Canon Powershot SD600 and Picasa found the camera directly.  Picasa 2 makes it easier to browse and select the photos that you want, compared to doing it directly in Windows.

A new feature in Picasa 2 is the web-album, which gives you the ability to upload pictures to online albums for other people to view. Albums can be password protected or public, you get 1GB storage for free. 10 GB of storage costs $20 / year and 40 GB $75 / year.  Smugmug costs $39.95 a year for an unlimited amount of photos. So basically Googles storage offer does not impress.  Other exporting options in Picasa 2 include sending the pictures to a blog in Blogger and burning pictures on a CD or DVD (which works great).

Overall Picasa 2 is a very good piece of software considering it’s free, basically it has it all.  However the paid online album and storage is not as appealing as competing services.

LogMeIn – Access your PC or MAC from anywhere!

The market for remote desktop software is surging as workers go mobile. Having access to your desktop computer at home or in the office from anywhere in the world is a huge advantage. A service capitalizing on the trend is LogMeIn, which offers a variety of solutions with the basic one completely for free.

LogMeIn is a web-based solution, which means that any computer with a web-browser can be used. Just log on to logmein.com and enter your username and password. Naturally there are some security concerns with having access to your computers online. Luckily LogMeIn has two layers of extra security, which can be applied. The first one is that a randomly generated code that has to be entered when logging in is sent to your e-mail. The other option is having LogMeIn create a sheet of randomly generated codes, which you can print and keep in your wallet.

The free and basic version of LogMeIn offers remote control with the ability to view your desktop. It is also possible sync data in the clipboard with the remote computer. LogMeIn Free is really all you need if you just want access to your desktop PCs from anywhere.

Another neat feature with LogMeIn Free is the ability to have several computers in the same account. Say for example that you want your two desktop PCs as well as a friend who constantly runs in to computer problems in the same account; it is possible with LogMeIn Free.

LogMeIn Pro, which is not free, offers extras such as the ability to drag and drop files between the connected computers, remote printing, file sync and drive mapping among other things. The Pro-version is $19.95 per month per computer, which might work for small businesses but is on the expensive side for an enthusiast with many computers.

The real problem with LogMeIn is the fact that the software only works on Windows machines (XP and Vista) and MACs. There is currently no Linux-version available.

LogMeIn Free is surprisingly fast and powerful, it does not need much configuration and setup. If you just want basic access to your computer from anywhere, LogMeIn Free is a great product.

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