Several years ago (2006? 2007?), a guy posted on a big mailing list I'm on asking if anyone wanted to try out for a new Tech Q&A writing job on a "very big website". Readers would send in Q's, & the person who got hired would write the A's. Turns out, the "very big website" was Fox News. What the hell, I thought, I'll try out. So I did. Didn't get the job. No big deal. So here are the Q's & my A's.
Q. I keep running into an annoying problem in Windows XP. Often, when I install or upgrade a Web browser application—for example, Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari or even Microsoft's own Internet Explorer—XP prompts me to log out of my regular limited account and to log back in as the administrator. After I finish the upgrade or installation and log back in as myself, the browser won't work. Why does this happens, and how can I get around it?
A. Windows wasn't designed from the get-go with multiple users in mind, like Linux and Mac OS X were, so problems like yours are all too common. It's ironic that you run into this issue as you try to do the right thing and avoid using your PC as Administrator, since doing that can expose it to all sorts of added security hazards.
Basically, when you install software as an Administrator, Windows sets certain permissions on folders and files that allow access by the Administrator, but curtail access by normal, non-admin users. The end result? Broken browsers and other annoyances.
Continue to run as a normal user most of the time, and log in as Administrator to install or upgrade browsers. There are three additional things you can do to help mitigate the breakage you're seeing. First, if the browser gives you a choice between installing software for all users or just the current user, select All users. That way, you're telling the program to be more wide-ranging as it places files on your machine.
After the installation, and while you're still logged in as Administrator, open Windows Explorer and navigate to C:Program Files. Find the Mozilla Firefox folder (or the Safari or Internet Explorer folders), right-click on it, choose Properties, and then select the Security tab.
(Don't see the Security tab? For some reason, Microsoft hides that by default, which is tremendously silly. So, open Windows Explorer, select the Tools menu, then Folder Options, then the View tab, scroll down to the bottom of the choices, and uncheck "Use simple file sharing." Press OK, and the Security tab will now appear.)
Find the Users group, select it, and then, in the "Permissions for Users" section below, check the box next to Modify in the Allow column, which will automatically check Write as well. Press OK to close the Properties window for Firefox, and your non-admin user should now be able to use the browser with minimal headaches.
Finally, you'll want to copy the necessary shortcuts pointing to your newly-installed or upgraded web browser to the Desktop of your normal user. In Windows Explorer, go to C:Documents and Settings, and you should see a folder for each of the users on your PC. Let's say you see two: Administrator and Not Administrator. Look inside both the Desktop and Start Menu folders in C:Documents and SettingsAdministrator and copy any needed web browser shortcuts to the corresponding locations in C:Documents and SettingsNot Administrator.
Log out as Administrator and back in as the normal, non-admin user, and your web browsers should now work without bother.
Windows Vista is supposed to help resolve many of the problems you're experiencing, so you may want to think about upgrading. Still, buying a new operating system just to make installing web browsers a bit easier is a bitter pill to swallow.
Q. On a recent trip to London, I bought some DVDs of British television shows I'd enjoyed watching on BBC America. However, my living-room DVD player won't read them. I have heard that some PC programs enable you to watch DVDs from other countries on a computer. Any idea what some of them might be, and how much they would cost? And are there any that work on a Mac?
A. You've run smack into a "feature" (yes, that's sarcasm) of DVDs known as region coding, in which commercial DVDs are created in such a way that they can only be played in one of six defined regions in the world. The United States and Canada are Region 1, for instance, while Western Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa are all grouped together into Region 2 (and pity poor Antarctica—they have no assigned region at all, so I guess the South Pole Blockbuster is suffering!). The movie studios introduced this scheme to help control the roll-out of a film throughout the world, but in practice, region codes can cause major headaches for consumers like you who travel and just want to watch the movies they've legally purchased.
It's easy to get around the region coding, just as it's easy to copy DVDs from a shiny plastic disk to your computer's hard drive, but you're starting to wade into some dicey legal waters. Essentially, if you copy the DVD to your hard drive so that you can watch it, you're undoubtedly safe from prosecution, unless you happen to sit next to an MPAA attorney on your next flight to London. If you copy a DVD and start handing out copies to friends willy-nilly, however, then don't be surprised if you get a visit from Johnny Law.
If you're using a Mac, and you want to copy a DVD to a file on your hard drive that you can view on your computer (or on your TV if you connect your Mac to your TV using some cheap cables you can buy from Apple), then head over to http://handbrake.fr and download and install HandBrake. It's a free, open source app, and it works beautifully. A one-and-a-half hour movie on a DVD will end up as a file on your Mac that's about one gigabyte or so, which isn't a big deal considering the huge size of most hard drives these days. Windows users can also download a version of HandBrake that will run on their computers.
If you want to simply watch a foreign DVD on your computer, and not actually have to copy it to your hard drive first, then go to http://www.videolan.org/vlc/ and download VLC. VLC is a free and open source media player that can play just about every file you throw at it, including DVDs. Versions are available for both Mac OS X and Windows.
Q. I've recently installed Ubuntu Linux on my laptop, and find it to be a nice complement to the regular Windows XP system. However, it keeps mysteriously freezing. I'll be typing or just surfing the Web, and everything locks up. The cursor won't respond, nothing happens on the screen and the keyboard does no good. After a minute or so, everything goes back to normal. I can't detect any pattern to this—it seems to happen randomly. Is there something I can do to avoid this?
A. Random freezes can be very frustrating, especially as you begin your move to a new operating system. Let's start with something simple and make sure that your system is completely up to date. If there are any new updates available, you'll see an orange notification icon in the upper right corner of your Desktop, by the clock. Click on that and follow the steps to make sure all your software is as fresh as possible.
Freezes like the ones you're describing are often connected with Desktop Effects, nifty eye candy that works with your video card to provide fun visual goodies. Desktop Effects—which can include translucent windows, motions and animations, and 3D desktops—can be stunning, but on some computers, they interact poorly with the machine's video card, leading to problems similar to yours.
Fortunately, it's easy to disable Desktop Effects. Go to the System menu and select Preferences, then Appearance. When the Appearance window opens, choose the Visual Effects tab, and select None, which turns off Desktop Effects. Press Close and reboot your computer. Your freezes should be gone.
If you're still having lockups, it could be your video card drivers, the software that communicates between your computer's graphical interface and its video hardware. Go to the System Menu and select Administration, then Screens and Graphics. In the Screens and Graphics window, choose the Graphics Card tab, and change your driver to "vesa," a generic video driver that works with pretty much everything. You'll lose a lot of fancy graphics, but the vesa driver will allow you to work on your computer and verify if a bad driver was the problem. Press OK to go with vesa, and then press Test so your computer can try out its new settings. Once you're sure that vesa will work (and it should—it's a generic driver for a reason!), select OK to close the Screen and Graphics Preferences window, restart your computer, and keep your fingers crossed.
If you're still experiencing strange freezes, it may be time to look at new hardware. Obviously that's a last resort, but sometimes video cards and motherboards and other devices go bad, requiring replacements. However, try to exhaust all software-related possibilities before going down that road.