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December 9, 2002 - Vol. 2, Issue No. 36
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
Here's an example of the kind of email I've been receiving since I wrote in the last issue that, while people's complaints about Symantec's tech support were fully justified, but the problems weren't intentional on Symantec's part:
Hi, Scot. I think you are dead wrong about Symantec's now awful user support; it looks quite intentional. Consider that as little as six months ago they used tracking numbers, full copies of the user's problem, and the ability to reply directly via email as the means of communication by their support folks. Now they have none of that. The user has to start over every time, even though the response email includes a link that identifies the customer and problem. Moreover, it can take two or more attempts to get a one-sentence response in logical English. And the non-tech people can't look up customers' account numbers, so the problem has to be submitted a third or fourth time; and, of course, it takes three to five days to get a response." --Gene Goldenfeld
If this is the trend at Symantec, I fully agree it's terrible. In fact, I abhor all terrible tech support. Why would you skimp on what's probably your sole end-user-facing department? It seems obvious.
But it's not. How much money do you think Symantec makes on software sales? Norton Internet Security (NIS) 2003 is $70. There's a $30-off coupon in the box. The store you buy it from takes a cut. Symantec probably makes, wild guess, $20 a copy for NIS2003. And NIS cuts into Norton Antivirus sales since that software is included in the package. Symantec comes out with a new copy of NIS every year. They have to develop, test, document, manufacture, and distribute a new copy of NIS every 12 months or so. Given that software is mostly intellectual property, you'd think it wouldn't require much overhead, but it does.
Now let's talk about tech support for a minute. You need at least three tough skills to be a good software (or hardware) tech support person:
1. The ability to interface calmly and professionally with irate people all day long.
2. A technical orientation with significant computer experience.
3. The ability to rapidly absorb the technical nuances of a constant procession of new products.
Think about it for a second, how many products and versions do companies like Symantec, AOL, and Microsoft have?
What's more, tech support people aren't paid as much as they're worth at most companies, and that makes attracting good people that much harder.
Look, you may feel I'm playing the apologist for software companies. That isn't what I'm trying to do. Symantec probably has the worst tech support of any major PC software company, and its website is impossible to find things on, so even do-it-yourself support is tough. Microsoft makes it all but impossible for people to get help without paying through the nose for it. Zone Labs has a tendency to just forget to respond. I could go on and on.
Software companies are not going to make it over the long-haul, not with end users anyway, providing the level of support they are now.
But increasingly, software companies are looking to the corporate market. It offers volume sales that require far fewer tech support calls. Moreover, since home PCs haven't sold well in over 18 months, the end-user market looks less and less attractive to software makers.
It's a hard reality, but end-user tech support is both expensive and not the top priority of software makers. No amount of carping on our part is likely to change that.
I sense a groundswell, though, among Scot’s Newsletter readers. You're fed up with software that messes up your PC and companies that barely make an effort to do anything about it. I don't blame you. But railing about better support is not going to get us anywhere.
It comes down to this: We need to get software and hardware companies to focus on improving the user experience. The right approach is to avoid the need for tech support by making software work better to begin with. Software companies need to focus their resources during development on preventing problems and doing a much better job of testing for and eliminating bugs. Developers need to identify more installation scenarios. Companies need to elevate the priority of documentation.
What I'm talking about is software quality. Whether you agree with me or not, I welcome your input on this subject.
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Check out the results of last year's poll if you're interested. But please do not take last year's broadband poll or the 2000 poll. Many people do that whenever I link back to the results from a previous year's poll, and those responses will not be counted for the current poll. The only way to vote this year is to use the email links you'll find a few paragraphs below. Or if you prefer to send in your response from a Web page, please use this link.
So, anyway, on to the poll. Please choose the ONE answer that most closely matches the availability of broadband Internet access in your town -- whether or not you subscribe to the service.
Please read the following important instructions covering how to take this poll, what to do if you use Web mail, and how to treat Satellite Internet availability.
Read These Poll Instructions
1. Choose the one response that best fits broadband availability in your area.
2. In body of the message, write the word below that best describes your location:
3. I invite you to write any other comments you wish to, but please don't expect a response.
If you use Web mail, the email links may not work for you. Instead, please create a new message manually. Send it to:
Then, into the subject of your message, copy and paste the exact line of text that follows the "Web-mail subject line" from whatever answer you choose below.
About Satellite Internet and Fixed Wireless Most people in North America have access to at least one satellite Internet service (many are offered two or more), and satellite Internet is available in several other parts of the world, including South America and Europe. Because of this, I've structured the answers differently this year. All the answers except "None" pre-suppose satellite Internet as a silent option. So "DSL Only," for example, means DSL and Satellite. So, unless you're sure that satellite Internet is NOT available in your area, please don't count satellite Internet. If you're sure satellite Internet is not available in your location, please note that in the message. (My apologies to my many non-North-American readers on this one.)
In case you're unfamiliar with the term Fixed Wireless, this refers to services sold locally. Fixed wireless requires direct line-of-sight visibility of a large tower and usually some sort of dish or antenna mounted on the roof. Although it's often marketed more to businesses, fixed wireless is available to everyone in some markets.
This Year's Broadband Poll Question:
What Kind of Broadband Internet Access Services Are Available in Your Town (either where you work or where you live)?
Please select one of the following answers and click its link to send your email-based response:
Cable Modem, DSL, and Fixed Wireless
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_DSL+Cable+Fixed
Any Other Combination of Three Services (specify in message)
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_3x
Cable Modem and DSL
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Cable+DSL
Cable Modem and Fixed Wireless
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Cable+Fixed
DSL and Fixed Wireless
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_DSL+Fixed
Any Other Combination of Two Services (specify in message)
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_2x
Fixed Wireless Only (local, line-of-site tower and rooftop "dish")
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Fixed
Cable Modem Only
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Cable_Modem
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_DSL
Satellite Internet Only (StarBand, DirecWay, etc.)
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Satellite
None (this means no satellite Internet either)
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_None
Other (specify in message)
Web-mail subject line: BBPoll2002_Other
Thanks for you answer. I'll report the results in a future issue of the newsletter.
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For that, you pay more too. The three-user version costs $130 a month, and the five-seat version costs $170 per month. (See StarBand's pricing chart.)
The big catch is the upfront costs, $800 for the equipment plus shipping, and then you'll also pay installation fees that vary considerably. Plus there's a one-year contract that's very difficult to get out of. (An optional 18-month contract reduces the equipment costs to $500, but I don't recommend going that route.)
Still, for a small office that has no access to DSL or cable modem and can't afford a T1 line or any other expensive telephone company solution, StarBand Small Office is reasonably priced. Even work-at-home people might find $130 worth the investment if they have no other options and they can write it off as a business expense. I'm paying $105 a month for 384-kbps up/down SDSL service. And have been for a couple of years now. That's very expensive for DSL, but since DSL isn't formally offered in my town, I'm very lucky to have it at all.
How much faster is it? StarBand claims download speeds of up to 1Mbps (and a targeted minimum 150kbps download speed). I have routinely seen it perform exactly in that range, from about 900kbps to about 1.1Mbps. I use a variety of bandwidth tests, including PCPitStop.com, BandwidthPlace.com, and MSN's test. I also tested a 50MB download, and StarBand did well there too, downloading the file in just under one minute and 15 seconds. That's about half the time it took the residential StarBand service to download the same file, about four times faster than my cable Internet service, and almost 20 times faster than my SDSL service. So StarBand Small Office's performance matches StarBand's claims. Subjectively, web surfing in particular is very fast. It's on par with my DSL and cable modem services.
But there are some caveats. First: More than some other broadband connections, satellite Internet seems to be plagued by steep reductions in performance as the number of simultaneous users of the network rises. Second: From what I can tell, StarBand placed me in a VIP section of their network. So my performance levels may be better than what you can expect if you purchase this service. It should be noted that StarBand has extended the Small Office service to me for free as a reviewer. Third: Even though it was unveiled in March, I don't think there are many StarBand Small Office customers yet. So it's possible that even if I weren't placed in the "good section," my performance might be quite good. With fewer customers allocated to a larger pool of bandwidth, the odds are good that performance will be much better than StarBand's residential service. For more on StarBand's residential service, see the Scot’s Newsletter review of it from January of this year.
Finally, I should point out that a 50MB download test emphasizes satellite Internet's strengths, while minimizing its weaknesses. First, upload performance of StarBand Small Office in the 90-100 kbps range. Much slower than my SDSL service, for example. But also, there are huge latencies with satellite Internet. The satellite is over 22,000 miles away in geosynchronous orbit. Every call to a server on the Internet requires at least a 44,000-mile to trip up the satellite and back, and then across land-based connections to the destination server. That extra travel time wreaks havoc on Internet activities that involve frequent clicks or "realtime" applications, such as online multiplayer games or videoconferencing. Those problems are not fixed with StarBand Small Office. The advantage in download a 50MB file is that it's a single call to a remote server (in this case, in Rochester, NY). So there's one latency period and the rest of the test involves raw download horsepower. This is what StarBand Small Office does best.
Equipment and Installation
StarBand Small Office uses the exact same hardware as the most recent version of StarBand Residential, which is to say the StarBand Model 360 Ethernet/USB satellite modem and the 36-by-24-inch StarBand dish. Existing StarBand customers can upgrade without paying a dime for new equipment. StarBand will send you an installation CD and instructions. The only caveat for upgrades is that you must fully uninstall the existing StarBand software from your PC before you start. It's even best to search the Registry for StarBand entries and delete them before installing StarBand Small Office.
I had little trouble installing StarBand Small Office on my Windows XP test machine. (It also works on Windows 98, Me, and 2000, but not NT, Linux, or the Mac.) I've also configured it to work with Internet Connection Sharing, but haven't tested that yet. Installation took under 30 minutes, and after the last reboot, it worked fine. In fact, over the last three weeks or so, I've found StarBand Small Office to work a lot more reliably than StarBand Residential. With the lower cost service, if I walked away from computer for a couple of hours, leaving it on, when I returned, the StarBand service would have shutdown. A restart of the computer solved the problem, but that got old fast.
The dicey part of the StarBand Small Office installation I didn't have to go through because I merely upgraded my existing StarBand Residential service. Installing the StarBand dish and running the thick cabling to your computer room is the bigger deal. StarBand offers this website to help you locate a dealer in your area.
I've heard from Scot’s Newsletter readers that, in some areas, they've had a hard time finding a dealer to do the job. Be sure to ask about pricing upfront, because dealer/installers often change the pricing for StarBand's suggested list price.
Before you order, you should also check out potential problems from buildings, trees, or other obstructions with the required line-of-sight clear sky to the satellite. The actual direction varies quite a bit by your location. StarBand offers this neat Web page for figuring that out.
Should You Get This?
This is a first report on the StarBand Small Office. I've learned that with broadband services it's best to live with them for a while before rendering a final verdict. My early results are quite promising. But there are several other factors to consider. I have yet to test the networkability of StarBand Small Office. There are numerous reports of support issues from StarBand customers. (I've experienced some of these problems myself, although not recently.) StarBand is also in Chapter 11. Although it is seeking to come out of bankruptcy protection, and still actively providing service and performing installations, there is no guarantee that the company will come back. If it does not, your service and contract would be terminated. But given the steep upfront cost for equipment, it's something everyone should think twice about.
On the other hand, the service I've been testing is worth the $130 monthly charge to any business person whose job requires fast Internet access and who has no other broadband options.
What about the competition? The only other nationwide service comes from Hughes Network Systems. That company provides two-way satellite Internet under the brand name DirecWay. It too offers residential and small business solutions. It also offers an enterprise solution. DirecWay's two-user solution costs $90 a month with a $580 equipment charge and a $100 installation charge. For anything beyond two users, the pricing is set wholly by the dealers. The DirecWay sales pages are but mum about performance except for vague adjectives, but one performance chart has a footnote that assumes throughput of 400kbps, the same speed as the DirecWay home service.
I tested the two-way DirecWay services (resold by Pegasus Communications) last year and found it to be ok, but not as fast as StarBand. Performance was also more highly variable than StarBand. I've been attempting to test the DirecWay service directly Hughes for 18 months now. The company has never returned my phone calls or emails.
Finally, it appears that a different technology, Ka-band satellite, could offer a much higher-speed future for satellite Internet customers. Two companies that I'm aware of are talking about this. One is WildBlue and the other is Hughes Network Systems' SpaceWay.
It's not clear whether WildBlue is still a going concern. The satellite Internet/TV industry is incestuous, and there are business links between WildBlue and Hughes Network Systems (namely EchoStar). They may in fact be the same service. Since neither company is responding to me at present, I haven't been able to nail down particulars. But if I learn more, I'll report it.
So, that's what I have to say about StarBand Small Office and its competition for the moment. I'll keep testing the StarBand product and wrap it up in a future issue of the newsletter.
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I've been planning to cover this built-in XP functionality for quite some time. You can save yourself a little time and some potential pain if you just take this piece of advice and be done with it: Don't use XP's Internet Connection Firewall. Or to put it another way, ICF is to firewalls what Notepad is to word processors.
But since you're probably the inquisitive type, let me expand on that. Let's start with how you turn this thing on. Click Start > Control Panel > Network Connections. Right-click your primary LAN or High-Speed Internet connection icon and choose Properties. Click the Advanced tab. There you will see a checkbox described as "Protect my computer and network by limiting or preventing access to this computer from the Internet." But before you put a check in that box, click help link that tells you more about Internet Connection Firewall. Read that long page of information because it's what Microsoft offers, and because most of the trade-offs with this utility are listed right there.
If you have an Internet Connection Sharing network and you don't have firewall software, turning on ICF will provide some added protection. But it will also do things like kill your ability to use VPN, and in general, it is not very configurable. It's configuration options also have the tendency to leave you open for attack.
The other way it's permissible to use ICF is when you have a single computer connected to a broadband modem (cable and DSL are the only types Microsoft mentions). In this scenario, ICF should be used without ICS (ICS's only purpose is to provide networking and share Internet access with two or more computers).
You should not enable Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) on any computer that does not directly connect to your broadband modem. If the firewall is enabled on the network adapter of an ICS client computer, it will interfere with some communications between that computer and the other computers on the network. Many people are unaware that ICF can cause this behavior, and they frequently blame network unreliability on XP. Another way to say this is that only one computer on your network should have ICF enabled. Any more than that and you'll have networking problems.
Bottom line, ICF is a rudimentary stopgap that is nowhere near the equal of software and hardware firewall products like ZoneAlarm, SyGate Personal Firewall 5.0 Pro, Norton Internet Security/Norton Personal Firewall 2003, and Linksys's Firewall Router (all recently reviewed in this newsletter).
Here are some third party sites on ICF that provide additional detail:
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You should not run two personal firewall programs (or even an intrusion-detection program with a firewall) on the same PC. Before you installing any software firewall, you should uninstall all previous firewalls.
Another paragraph, this time from the Linksys Firewall Router review in the same issue, added to the uncertainty:
The Linksys firewall is ideal for a small network of computers sharing a DSL or cable modem broadband connection that currently isn't using any sort of firewall. You need a router anyway, and the security is a plus that doesn't really cost any more. If you decide to move up to a software firewall later on, you can also disable the Linksys Firewall Router's firewall features.
Apparently I touched a nerve. People have questions in this area. Here are two of them, with answers:
1. Can I run a software firewall and a hardware firewall on the same computer?
Yes. There's no reason why you can't do this. For most people, running hardware and software firewalls may be overkill. The best software personal firewalls (ZoneAlarm, Sygate, Norton Personal Firewall) all do an excellent job of protecting the PCs they run on. The only real advantage of a hardware firewall is that it protects all the computers connected to it, whereas personal firewalls are client specific. (There are software firewall products designed to protect entire networks, by the way, but they cost a lot more and require a dedicated PC.)
But there is also a drawback to running both a hardware and software firewall on the same PC. You'll have two firewalls to configure for special applications (such as VPN, online games, videoconferencing, remote access/control, and many other apps) that require specific ports. Software firewalls usually provide far more flexible port-configuration options than most low-cost hardware firewalls. Also, it could definitely complicate things for you if you don't fully understand how to use both firewalls.
On the other hand, if you've got both products, there's no reason not to try using both. But the option to turn off the hardware firewall features in order to rely solely on your software firewall is key in that case. Otherwise, you would have to swap out the hardware router/firewall in order to disable its firewall, something that would require fairly significant network reconfiguration.
2. I purchased both a firewall and an anti-Trojan program from the same software company. Should I not install them both on my PC?
The best kind of security takes the form of layers, such as firewall, anti-Trojan, intrusion detection, anti-virus, and regular vulnerability testing. So it's always a good idea to run a suite of security software, assuming its programs are known to work well together.
Increasingly, the distinctions between firewall software and intrusion-detection utilities is blurring. To a lesser extent, anti-Trojan and anti-virus packages are also coming together. In this case, belt and suspenders is a good thing. Where you can get into trouble (not certain trouble, but it's a good possibility) is when you wear a belt and then don a second belt. In other words, when your intrusion-detection program has firewall features that might not work well with your separate software firewall.
In particular, running two full-fledged software firewalls is not a good thing. While I have done this successfully in the past, I have also seen it cause problems. That was the point I was trying to make in the last issue.
Especially if you're buying all your security components from one vendor, not only is there no problem running them together, if the software maker has done proper testing, it's a good thing.
Did I miss your question about security software? Send me a message and I'll do my best to give you an answer in a future issue of the newsletter.
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All I know is that Vivisimo works. I've been trying for several days to find an online store that's selling a very specific decorative, educational toy. The only catalog that had been selling it (or so I thought) discontinued it. So when Scot’s Newsletter reader Mike Lynn sent me Visimo's URL (thanks, Mike!), I thought, well, I'll give it a shot. Wow. It found the educational toy in about 5 seconds. I called and ordered it right away. There were only a few left in stock. Vivismo proved itself in seconds where Google.com, my all-time favorite search site, had failed after an hour's research. I'm sold. Vivisimo clearly deserves Link of the Week status, and a spot in all our bookmarks.
Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows- or broadband-oriented website that everyone should know about? Please send me the URL, and let me know why you liked it.
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More About Multiple Mice
Last issue's Q&A question about how to use two mice, one left-handed and one right-handed, on one PC elicited a response from me suggesting that Stan Reynolds create two users on his Windows XP PC and configure the mouse differently from Control Panel in each of the users. Windows XP's Fast User Switching feature makes switching between users a very fast and convenient process.
But what was interesting is that there are at least three other ways of solving the problem, and the other ways don't require Windows XP, so they're worth exploring.
Lee Plaisted wrote to say he had the exact same issue sharing a computer with his girlfriend, and he solved the problem with the WhyMouse adapter, a mouse port splitter product by PI Engineering. The product costs $50, but it should be a hassle-free solution.
Reader Rob Cope sent in a 353K freeware software solution called SwapMouseButtons that works with a single mouse, but lets you quickly and easily swap the buttons just by pressing the F12 key. Rob uses Windows 95, and it works fine there. The website specifically mentions 95/98/Me/NT/2000 support.
I'm not left-handed, but I am ambidextrous, my 11-year-old is left-handed, and it appears my one-year-old daughter may also be a leftie. Rob Cope, whom I presume is left handed, asked me to plug the UK-based AnythingLeft-Handed.com website where he found SwapMouseButtons, and that sounded like a plan.
The third solution is actually one I mentioned as a possibility in the newsletter last time: Using a USB mouse and a PS2 mouse on one PC. Apparently folks who tried this have found success. That includes systems analyst Kevin Wood and William Garrett. Actually, William Garret is using a trackball on COM1 and a mouse in the PS2 port.
The one drawback to this solution is that you may run into trouble trying to use two different mouse drivers on the same machine (part of why I didn't think this would be much fun). And I'm not sure it would work at all with the exact same hardware. Both Kevin and William are using different brands and models of hardware, in addition to using different ports.
The fourth solution came from an anonymous user who suggested using hardware User Profiles (available in the System Control Panel). User Profiles allows you to configure different hardware configurations and name them. You would have to restart your computer to switch profiles, and you would just simply disable one mouse in one profile and the other mouse in the other profile. This one hasn't been tested, but it should work. It's probably the least convenient of all the solutions offered though.
There's something very important I forgot to point out about ClearType in the Windows XP tip last time. ClearType is aimed primarily at LCD displays. While Microsoft says it may have some positive effect on CRT text quality, some Scot’s Newsletter readers found the reverse to be true. Reader Mike Combs found that it made his display blurry, a problem that went away when he disabled ClearType. But ClearType does help some CRT users. Reader Pete Crane wrote:
ClearType must be the best kept secret Microsoft has. I just had a cataract operation on one eye and am due for the other in a month. After reading your tip on ClearType, it took 10 seconds to change, and what an improvement!! And I'm using a 19" CRT. Thanks a million.
So CRT users, your mileage may vary. But as one reader wrote, "ClearType is addictive" for LCD users.
Here's another item of note about ClearType. Thanks to Mark Kendall, who sent this link to a small freeware program called ClearTweak. The little utility gives you finer control over ClearType's contrast setting, but for me it didn't result in a better looking display. Still, you may find you prefer it. It's a small 327K download, and it's worth a try, especially for LCD users.
Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
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