Netbook Setup for Kids – Cost Effective & Secure Solution

I recently bought my son a netbook for his school work. These are small, cheap laptops with low powered processors, but are great for smaller hands doing web browsing, mathletics, reading eggs, and even word processing.

The only issue I had was that securing these devices can be more expensive than the device themselves and you can’t risk bringing viruses into your local network as they are more than likely to get into every machine in that connects to it.

To minimise the chance of problems I searched for cheap, appropriate solutions, and thought that I would share them with you.

One thing to note. Although these guidelines should secure your netbook, there is no such thing as complete security, and giving your kids a netbook makes it particularly vulnerable, due to their more trusting browsing habits. Never, ever do your internet banking on your kids computers.

I have written this assuming some knowledge of Windows, how to set up accounts, add and remove programs etc. If you are unsure of this, let me know and I will try to add additional help.

Your Kids Computer

Chances are your computer came installed with Windows XP and a whole load of trial programs, most of which are pretty much useless after a trial period (and often aren’t appropriate for this type of machine in the first place).

First thing to do is connect your computer to the internet and run Microsoft Update, making sure you don’t do anything much until this is completed. What this does is plugs up any security holes that are known and patched. It can take a while, and prepare for a few restarts along the way.

Second thing you need to do is create another user account that your kids will use. The reason you do this is so that you can restrict what this account can do, and hopefully therefore restrict what any malware can do with your computer if it get in. You should also put a password on the main account, but not your kids, so they don’t go into the wrong area by mistake.

The third thing to do is remove the junk programs. The type of trial programs you will find are: –

  • Microsoft Office
  • Norton Antivirus
  • …a whole lot more

Do this using the add and remove programs feature to declutter the computer. The new antivirus you are going to install also doesn’t like other antivirus being installed.

Antivirus

My choice for antivirus was Microsoft Security Essentials. This is a free program available from Microsoft. The reason I picked this was: –

  • It is free
  • It is light weight, so doesn’t bog a low powered machine down
  • It is relatively quick
  • The integration from Microsoft may help remove things that have got in to the machine

This product is not the best antivirus, but is probably the most appropriate for this class of device, and is free.

Download Microsoft Security Essentials from:

http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/

Web Browser

Windows is very much integrated with Microsofts Internet Explorer (IE) browser. However this is a browser with problems. Although IE8 is much improved, and has some nice security features, it is still very insecure compared to many of the alternatives. You can’t uninstall IE, as it is used in many other places. If you want to really reduce the risk with it, you can change the security zone to high (allowing Microsofts sites only to run scripting) however basic advice is it’s wise not to use it as your day to day browser.

Alternatives browsers include: –

Firefox (http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/firefox.html) – the second browser in terms of market share. Firefox is a browser with many great features, but can hog your computers resources in the latest version at least. One great feature of Firefox that make it your browser of choice is that it warns you when the Flash plugin (allows you to play many videos on the net) is out of date.

Safari (http://www.apple.com/safari/) – Apples browser for windows is fast and includes many features that IE and Firefox currently don’t. However, in Windows it has had some security issues itself, though it’s unlikely it has the market share for them to be widely exploited.

Chrome (http://www.google.com/chrome) – Googles browser is fast and includes the same features as Safari. It allows the best performance of Googles online apps and Google is probably going to patch security holes quicker than others. Disadvantage is that privacy could be a bit of a concern.

Note that any or all of these browsers can be used alongside IE as your main browser.

In all cases I would ensure you go into your browsers settings and disable use of 3rd party cookies. This prevents advertising companies, and others from adding cookies into your system, potentially tracking you round the net or worse.

Email

Chances are you computer came installed with Microsofts Outlook Express. My advice would be to not use this (unless you lock down IE). Instead use webmail, which is also portable across different devices. The most common services are: –

  • hotmail – Personally I’ve not used this, but is is renowned as being the worst of the big 3.
  • yahoomail – Yahoomail is okay but has some issues with security, and wants to charge you if you try to pull it into an email client.
  • gmail (https://mail.google.com) – the standout service. Gmail has the best spam filters in the industry, enforces a secure connection, allows you to sync email across accounts, allows push email to iPhones etc etc etc….and it’s free!

Office Suite

Netbooks were originally designed to run web based applications, and Office Suites are no exception. For low end word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, use Google Docs (https://docs.google.com) or Zoho’s huge range of web based applications (http://www.zoho.com/).

If you want something more powerful (and I’m not sure why you would on a netbook), but don’t want the expense of MS Office, try OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org). This is similar to MS Office, but free and open source, so in many ways tends to be more secure.

Backup/Recovery

There are many aspects to backup and recovery, but the ones I tend to use focus on the netbooks idea of a small, light weight, portable device that isn’t designed for heavy duty applications. As this is the case, there is actually very little need to create backups. If you are using Google Docs for example, you don’t save locally, but to Googles servers, so you have nothing on your machine to backup.

If you really have a need to backup, I would suggest using an offsite backup solution such as Jungle Disk (http://www.jungledisk.com/) or Carbonite (http://carbonite.com/). Both of these work in the background, are light weight, and just back things up without you really noticing. They are both paid solutions though.

More of interest for a netbook in many ways is recovery. Many netbooks provide a recovery system, but I know that in the Acer unit we have, this is not that good. A better recovery solution would be to use MS Windows Steady State (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/sharedaccess/default.mspx). This allows you to roll back your windows installation to a previous known state. What makes this useful is that it will also delete any rubbish that has been acquired on the computer over time.

Steady state is a free tool available from Microsoft. I must admit I haven’t added it to my system yet, but will be doing very shortly. For what I have read, essentially it creates a mirror image of your installation and allows you to reset at any time.

Other Programs

I personally believe that netbooks should be kept as clean as possible, but I have installed some programs for web communications: –

Skype (http://www.skype.com) – Netbooks are great machines for video chat and Skype is the king here.

Drawing – I have installed the open source Tux paint (http://www.tuxpaint.org/)

iTunes – if you want to listen to music etc. Note that you can share another iTunes library so don’t actually have to keep your music on the netbook.

For Older Kids

If your kids are older than mine, there are other issues that you might want to think about. These include censorship and social media.

Censorship

Although I’m not a big fan of censorship (try keeping the computer out of the kids room works too) there are various ways of doing it that are unobtrusive and harder to get around than your standard government scheme!

For content filtering try OpenDNS (http://www.opendns.com/). DNS is the system the web uses for taking the name of the link you type into your browser, and translating that into the  address the website lives at (IP address). OpenDNS replaces your ISP’s DNS servers (often increasing speed into the bargain) but also allows you to filter objectionable words, create whitelists (allow only those sites) or blacklists sites of concern (ban sites). It is easy to set up both on a single machine, or you can put the settings into your router so all sites going through your router will be filtered, including yours!

Social Media

There are various social media sites, and which one your kids like will no doubt depend on which their friends are on. Things you need to know about social media are as follows: –

MySpace – still big in music, but a dying social media platform. Not likely your kids will want to go on here, but if they do, it is a closed system. This means it’s not searchable by Google and friends have to be approved.

Facebook – the big one! Facebook was a closed system. This used to mean it’s not searchable by Google and friends have to be approved. Note though that they have tried to open this up recently and the standard settings on a new account now mean that it is accessible from outside of Facebook (I believe). You will need to go into your privacy settings and make sure everything is appropriately closed off.

Twitter – twitter has the buzz at the moment with everyone using it including a lot of celebrities. It is totally open and searchable, so may not be a place you want your kids to lay their souls bare! I am http://twitter.com/funkygorilla by the way!

Foursquare – this is the new kid on the block, that will come on strong this year. Part game, part social network, part marketing machine. My prediction is that this will take off with a bang. For kids it is a closed system but it relies on ‘checking in’ at certain locations. This means your location becomes known, which may not be so great even for their friends.

Google Buzz – Googles first attempt at getting into the social space is both interesting and useful. You can post things both privately and publicly and Google do use it in search results, so it may not be the one for kids!

I hope this is helpful. If you come across any tools that you think are netbook appropriate, please post a comment and I’ll add it into the post.

DVD to iPod Conversion

I often buy DVD’s and while some companies are now providing iPod and AppleTV compatible files, many are not.

To convert I use handbreak to rip the DVD to a suitable format. However there has been an increasing trend of trying to hide the track number in 99 tracks, most of which are just the same chapters out of order.

To record the correct track you need to know what it is, so I’m going to start posting the actual track numbers on my site whether I rip a film or not. I would appreciate any help you can give me by posting in the comments too.

The way I find track numbers is a control on my DVD remote labelled I think prog which gives chapter and track number of what you are watching at the time.

I should add that I am looking at Australian (region 4) content. If you have any details from other regions let me know and I will put them in a seperate post.

G-force – track 32
Up – track 68
Harry Potter & the half blood prince – track 1 (as it should be)
Ice Age 3 (has iPod version on disc) – track 1 (as it should be)
Fame – track 1 (ok no taking the mickey for this one! I know I’m sad!)
Michael Jackson – this is it – track 1 of 99
Lego – The Adventures if Clutch Powers – track 23 of 26
Sherlock Holmes – track 48 of 99
Princes and the frog – track 51 of 99 (US is track 29 of 99)
Alice in Wonderland – track 35 of 99
Iron Man 2 – track 33 of 99
Last Airbender – track 7 of 99
Cats and Dogs 2 – 1 but also get track 3 a roadrunner cartoon.
Sorcerer’s Apprentice – track 28 of 99

Apple iSlate – What I’d Like to See

I always thought that the slate format would be great for business meetings or studying. Here’s what I would like to see for business: –

If they do it right you could flick documents to colleagues arranged around a virtual table, finally making a paperless office, and pushing Macs into the office space.

If you tie that in with a virtual keyboard, iChat for those that can’t be there and speech recognition to take notes for you, that would make life easy at work, or for studying.

On top of that an e-book reader would again help in studying, making the iSlate an ideal PC for those studying coarses that are more arts based and have less emphasis on computing horsepower.

What would you like to see?

Amazon Kindle – Review for Australia

I have just received my Amazon Kindle and thought I would give my impressions of what the device for use in Australia.

Firstly I should explain my motivations in buying a Kindle.

The first reason is that I, like many people, have a file on my computer called “to read” which just fills up and virtually never get read. Most of these are pdfs or Word files and I thought that the Kindle might mean that I get them off the computer and onto a device that is easy to read on. I also have a library of pdf reference books that I again need to get off the computer and actually read!

Second reason was that I like both the environmental benefits of not having a paper copy of a book. I’m sure you’ve seen the email signature that tells you how many litres of water it takes to make 1 sheet of paper. I have also seen some research on the energy requirements, and paper is higher than steel per tonne produced, which really surprised me! Well imagine being able to reduce that.

Thirdly, I have relatives coming over from the UK and the ability for them to read the UK papers is a big cost saving and convenience for them rather than buying international versions from local shops.

Lastly I would like to read more books and this might give me the ability to do so.

The ordering process on Amazon is seamless as usual, and a Kindle account is created for you so that you can buy books etc without having to enter your credit card. This is a great convenience and I guess we won’t worry about security at this point!

Converting files was a lot easier than Amazon made it sound. There are a few options: –

  • Amazon have a paid for service where you email them files and they convert and send them directly to your Kindle. This is the service you hear about most often, and I’m not sure why. I can only ever see using this if I want someone to email me a document when I am out somewhere (hopefully on a beach).
  • Amazon also have a free service where you email them files and they convert and email you back a link for you to download them to your PC/Mac. This seems ideal, as if you have emailed them, you are going to be at your computer and you typically get the file back in under 5 minutes!
    Using this service the conversion of pdf’s (Kindle doesn’t natively support pdf’s) was ok. With technical books there were some issues, but they are certainly readable.
  • Downloading Stanza and converting them from there. Stanza (http://www.lexcycle.com/stanza) was bought by Amazon a few months back and has some great tools for converting between ebook formats. I found that this did the job, but code in the pdf’s seemed to execute rather than be shown as copy. I haven’t tested this on the Kindle yet, but Stanza’s desktop reader was executing both html and javascript.

When the Kindle arrived (30 minutes after the tracking told me it was still in LA) packaging was nice. Understated, almost playing on the environmental side but at the same time giving an almost Apple quality feel. You don’t want to keep the box like you do with an Apple product, but at the same time it’s very nice.

First impression of the product is really the screen. When you take it out of the box, there are some instructions on how to get started. At first glance I thought those were printed on the protective film, but they were actually on the screen! Graphics look incredible, very detailed with no obvious pixels. Yes, the screen really is stunning. I had seen mixed reviews of this feature, but I’m guessing that the people who don’t like it, may have a problem with contrast perception as the light grey background with black text is certainly different from the pure white of an LCD. However, as there is no backlight, it just doesn’t have the harshness of a monitor, and you really do get the impression you are reading a printed page.

I dutifully plugged the USB cord into my iPhone charger and left it for 4 hours. After that time the orange charge light was still on but I thought that it should be enough. Once I started to use the device though I was finding that the controls were very laggy. You seemed to have to press the next page button way too hard and sometimes it just didn’t seem to work at all (see later when this was resolved). I also noticed that the battery indicator was still showing that it was plugged in, which it wasn’t! After about an hour I started getting battery warning and shortly after it locked up with a “Battery Dead” type message on the screen.

My next option was to plug into a different charger and see how that went. Bad was the answer as it still wouldn’t boot up and the charge light kept going on and off. Frustrated I sent an email to Amazon support assuming that mine must have a fault. Their reply was: –

If you have a computer available, please try charging your Kindle using an existing USB port. Many 3rd party charges are not able to sufficiently charge the Kindle.

It worked, but I have to say that does give me a few problems, in that I have all sorts of USB chargers and seemingly none will work. I really don’t want to have to drag a laptop round with me just to charge a Kindle. Also the advertising saying that you can use it without having a computer is just not right, if you need a computer to charge it. I guess here that there is a good market for a 3rd party charging product.

Note here that the version I received did not come with a US power plug, so I couldn’t even use that and a converter. It seems that some may have judging by other reports.

After that little disappointment it did charge and rebooted. The good news was also that this seemed to completely cure the lag problems I mentioned earlier. Buttons are now responsive enough so you can just roll your finger over them and the page turns (yes I still think I’m reading a book).

I have now used the Kindle at night and during the day in the house, and at a McDonalds sat outside. The screen is very legible and you really do forget you aren’t reading a book. Usability wise I would say a big thumbs up from me.

Content however may be a different story in Australia in particular.To test what was available and the pricing I went into a local BigW and looked at their new and featured books and wrote down a list of any that I thought might be good. The list includes: –

  • The girl who kicked the hornets nest
  • The six sacred stones
  • I can see you
  • The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown)
  • The five greatest warriors
  • The scarletta factor
  • The Fiery Cross

Of these only one was available, which was very disappointing. It was a lot cheaper than a physical book, but we really need more content. The frustrating thing is that I know most of these are available in the US. Come on Amazon and publishers, get yourselves sorted out and embrace the future rather than clinging to your old business model.

I am hoping that I can buy in other formats and can use Stanza (see above) to convert to Kindle. However, I do have my doubts about this as this won’t work if the book is copy protected, and I’m sure they will be!

The content I did get was a newspaper and a few book sample. The newspaper is on a 14 day free trial (remember to cancel if you don’t want to be charged for it after 14 days). I have to say that although not the same as reading an actual paper, in many ways I like this better. It is more like a web experience with articles arranged into groups you can navigate through. I think for people used to a physical paper it may take some getting used to, but if you get your news from the web, it is great. There is no doubting the convenience too with the paper being delivered to you anywhere in the world! The one downside is that these aren’t cheap. I will probably not continue my subscription, but would if they were halve the price.

Book reading I can’t comment on too much. It really is just like reading a book with the added conveniences that it isn’t as big, it saves your place if you fall asleep reading it and you can set the text size and column width up just how you like it.

Overall, I have to say that I really am liking the Kindle. Even more than I expected. For me the big downsides relate to Australia, in particular: –

  • Doesn’t come with and Australian charger and you can’t use a standard USB charger. You thereefore have to plug into a computer to charge.
  • There is not enough book content on the Australian Kindle store.

There are things that I haven’t mentioned here including the basic web browser, which doesn’t work in Australia, wikipedia access which has been reported to work, but I haven’t been able to get going. However I am reviewing just as a reader for the moment and will hopefully get to those later!

*** UPDATE *** (after 10 days of use)

I have had my Kindle for about a week now and in general am enjoying it. However there are a couple of issues I have come across: –

– Septimus Heap book series was on the Australian store, I bought the first book and want to buy more, but it has now disappeared. I can only assume that Amazon didn’t have the rights to sell it in the first place which leads on nicely to point 2 below.
– The Australian Store just doesn’t have enough books on it. I am finding it hard to recommend the Kindle when the number of books I can get is so limited. I have bought 2 books so far and had sample chapters of about 5 more but you really have to choose by what you can get rather than what you want.
– I also have an audible account and should be able to play audible content. When I try it asks to validate the device with audible but when it goes to do this it tries to connect then fails. This means I can’t play audible content at all.
– I have tried converting quite a few technical pdf’s and despite my comments above, they don’t usually convert well enough to read. I really think they should have native pdf support in the Kindle, they have it in the DX, the iPhone has it, so I’m sure the device is capable enough. This would particularly help me (and many other techies) that tend to buy pdf books, and have a heap of pdf white papers we want to read on our computers. Having said that the problem is particularly when there is code in the books as it doesn’t keep the indenting, which makes it a nightmare to follow. Other books seem to convert okay, though native support would still be better (specially when there are side bars with additional info).

Having said all that, I am still enjoying reading on the Kindle, and it is making me read books socially rather than just work related topics.

*** UPDATE 25/11/09 ***

Updated software just coming through including PDF support. I will update this post when I have given it a try.

*** UPDATE 04/01/10 ***

I have finally tried the charging tip suggested by Andrew. It does seem to charge the Kindle quite happily if you plug into your printers USB input port (the one that reads the memory sticks on the front of the printer usually). It does lock the device while you are charging though, and I would advise turning the printer off before you pull the lead out, just in case.

Overall though I find charging through  the printer more convenient than via the computer.

I should also mentioned the books I have read so far. These are: –

  • Septimus Heap – Book One – This has now been pulled from the Australian Kindle
  • The girl with the dragon tatoo
  • The girl who played with fire
  • The girl who kicked the hornets nest – The above series was really entertaining and is definitely worth considering. The writing in the first leaves a bit to be desired but the story is good and after this one the 2nd and 3rd books were good. There is also a variety of styles here the first being a bit of a mystery, the second a thriller and the last a court room drama. Personally I liked the second best.
  • By reason of insanity – I really struggled with this one to about the 15% mark, from then on it has had me hooked. This is a courtroom drama with a serial killer and all sorts of things thrown in. It was only $2 when I bought it and once you get past 15% it is excellent. Looking forward to finishing it tonight.!

Flash Cookies, A Privacy Issue & How to Delete Them

Over the past year or so there has been a growing trend among internet users to regularly clear the cookies that websites put on their systems. This has meant that the web site owners can be frustrated either in their legitimate desire to save state in the users browser or the more dodgy track people round the internet.

Site owners have responded with the increased use of flash cookies, which do similar things, but are not so easy to delete or manage.

This video shows how to manage and delete flash cookies in your browser of choice.

Thanks to http://www.brdatasystems.com.au, a local server rack manufacturer for letting me use their site, which I know doesn’t add cookies, to show how to manage and delete them.

Flash Cookies, A Privacy Issue & How To delete Them from Simon Griffiths on Vimeo.

Telstra to separate

Judging by my past post you’d probably think that today I would be celebrating the proposed structural separation of Telstra. I guess I am, but the way it’s being forced on them, although good for consumers, is not good for business. Government should not be able to force a commercial company to do anything, or prevent them from bidding in auctions.

The following is an extract from a comment I have just made on ITNews: –

“I agree with splitting Telstra, it should have been done ages ago, but …I really can’t agree with the way this is being done. How can the ACCC stand by and let the government say “and by the way if you don’t agree we’re not going to let you buy spectrum”. I always thought one of those C’s in ACCC stood for competion? Obviously not!

And what has Foxtel got to do with anything? Seems like it would just be a way to punish if Telstra don’t agree! Telstra is a commercial enterprise, the government created this mess by selling them, they shouldn’t now be able to impose new conditions on them.

Goverment and ACCC, my message to you would be yes this is a good idea, as it always has been (you should have kept control of the infrastrucure in my opinion). Unfortunately you realized that too late. Force Telstra into price parity for selling access. Ensure they don’t drive competition out of business with either anticompetitive pricing or legal actions, but don’t try to force a commercial company to split. You sold them now we have to live with the consequences, like them or not.”

Web Designer customer Cheat Sheet

These are some questions I normally ask clients when I am looking to develop a website.

I will expand on this post later to add in more details.

1. What is the website for?
Brochure, E-commerce, Business card, reinforcement
[Why: to see what the site need to include and what technologies should be involved]

2. Who are the customers?
Male, Female
Age range
What do they do
What is their job title
[Why: to try to profile the customer so that site design and content can be created to suit the audience]

2a. Who is the competition?
[Why: so we can look at their sites and see what we can learn about keywords, expected layout etc]

3. How would you expect the customer to find the site?
Search, word of mouth, literature/business card
[Why: to see how much emphasis needs to be placed on SEO/SEM]

4. If search, what would they be looking for to find the site?
[Why: so that keywords can be checked to see if there are more available]

5. What sort of device would they use to access the site?
PC, netbook, phone
[Why: to see what technologies need to be involved/avoided, to look at creating specific content for a device]

6. Where would they typically access the site from?
Office, home, out and about (using public wifi or mobile connection)
[Why: to see how much bandwidth the site can take without inconveniencing the user]

7. Are you geographically based?
What are the limitations you want to put on area.
[Why: to make sure content is written to make this clear, make sure Google is aware of this and to see what type of hosting is required]

8. What type of site are you thinking about?
Examples of sites that you like.
What do you like about these sites?
[Why: to get an idea of what you expect from the site]

9. What tone do you want to set with the site?
Professional (typically more subdued), light hearted, fun
[Why: to make sure that the tone of writing matches that of other literature or the image the company is portraying]

10. Do you have other literature/business cards?
[Why: so we can make sure the site matches the style and creates a total company image]

11. Would you want to be able to edit the site content?
All content, a blog, social media
[Why: to see what technologies we need to use and what you expect from updates]

12. What timeframe and budget is the site required in?
[Why: Timeframe will set what is there is time to do in terms of design and interaction, also whether the designer can actually do it or not. Budget will set again set what is possible to do].
[Note: Budget is always tricky as the client will not want the designer to design to a budget. Possibly ask for a range, or look at requested features and say roughly what each will cost].

Web Page Structure for Great SEO

I have just put up a post on the Webxopt site showing how to structure 2 and 3 column layouts to makes sure that your main content is always at the top of the HTML page, where search engines like it.

I’m never sure where to post these things these days, but just in case the link is

http://webxopt.com/wordpress/2009/08/web-page-structure-for-great-seo/