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9 Websites That Will Make Your Life Better

The Internet contains a wealth of information on virtually any topic imaginable.  Some of it is extremely useful, while other content isn’t so reputable.

In this column, I’ve compiled nine really useful websites that can make your life easier, save you money or time, or provide some fun and entertainment.  I would be interested in hearing about websites you find useful as well – just email them to questions@calibre-cs.com.

1)     Planning a weekend get-away?  Heading to Evansville, but need to fuel the car?  We all know that gas prices can vary from town to town.  GasBuddy.com can help you locate the cheapest gasoline prices throughout the nation.  Prices are continually updated as users report gas prices in their area.  Mobile apps can be installed on your iPhone, Blackberry or Android phone to help you find the cheapest gas while you’re on the go.

2)     Rather than throw out an item because of an ugly stain, check out www.HowToCleanAnything.com.   This website features hundreds of handy tips and tricks for removing stains and cleaning all sorts of items – from carpets to vehicles to sports equipment and more.

3)     Financial advisors recommend reviewing your credit report at least annually to make sure its information is correct.  AnnualCreditReport.com is the only website that allows you free access to your personal credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (one per year from each agency).

4)     When you were growing up, were you always taking things apart to figure out how they worked?  Now you don’t have to.  HowStuffWorks.com tells you exactly what you want to know about almost anything.  And if you think you know it already, take their quizzes to find out.

5)     Need a phone number, but don’t have a phone book handy?  Whitepages.com allows you to find people or businesses quickly and easily – including phone numbers and addresses.  You can also do a reverse phone lookup if you want to find out who a phone number belongs to.

6)     Tired of having to listen to the confusing automated phone answering systems when calling big companies?  All you want to do is speak to a human, right?  GetHuman.com tracks the best phone numbers and contact options for over 8,000 companies worldwide to help get you to the right person quickly.

7)     Your calendar age may not reflect your “physical age” (the age of your body).  Leading doctors, including Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Mike Roizen, developed RealAge.com to help you find out your body’s health age.  Simply complete the online test, review the results, then follow their health advice to improve your overall wellness.

8)     Looking for a truly unique gift for that someone special?  Got a simple task you need done, but don’t have the time to do it yourself?  Visit Fiverr.com and see if someone is willing to do it for you for only $5.  You’ll find offers ranging from normal “I will draw you a caricature for $5” to zany “I will hand letter your message on my beer gut for $5.”

9)     Enjoy listening to the radio, but hate the constant commercials?  Want music tailored to your particular taste or a certain genre?  Pandora.com is a free Internet radio station that allows you to build stations around an artist, a genre, or a song.  You can also purchase an annual subscription for $36 that removes the ads.

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How to Protect Your PC from Springtime Threats

Power Surge

Spring time is upon us.  Sunny days and warmer temperatures invite us to enjoy the great outdoors.  But the spring season also brings with it the threat of storms, power outages, and damaging lightning.

Thus, it is important to consider how you can protect your computers from these destructive events and the associated expensive repair bills or insurance claims.

Power surges, sudden power outages and lightning strikes can cause a variety of computer problems.   These events can weaken or completely damage computer hardware, such as the power supply or motherboard.  When hardware is damaged, many times the computer will either not turn on or load the Windows operating system.

Other times, these events can cause issues with the operating system or other software programs.  If a computer is on when the power suddenly goes out, the computer immediately shuts off and does not shut down in a proper way.  This can cause corruption of important files that run your computer.  The computer may not load into Windows or error messages may appear as a result.

Loss of data files is another potential danger of power surges, power outages and lightning strikes.  You could lose all of that information you just typed into a Word document if your computer suddenly shuts off while you were creating that document.

The best way to protect your computer from these threats is to connect your computer components – the tower, monitor, printer and any other peripherals – to a battery backup UPS.  These UPS devices are designed to shield your computer against three different power problems –something that regular power strips cannot do:

  1. Voltage surges, spikes and sags.  Throughout a normal day, electrical voltages coming into your home or being passed through your electrical outlets may increase or decrease.  These mostly undetectable changes can damage sensitive computer equipment over time.
  2. Total power failure.  A complete loss of power due to a wide scale power outage or a blown breaker can damage your computer, as discussed above.  A UPS device switches over to battery power for up to 15 to 20 minutes, allowing you plenty of time to save your files and power off your computer.  A UPS can also automatically initiate a proper shutdown of your computer if you are not home.
  3. Frequency differences.  Power typically oscillates at 60 Hertz.  A UPS device can detect if the oscillation is higher or lower and can correct the frequency being passed to connected devices.

The UPS also allows you time to properly shut down your computer should you lose regular power.  You will be able to save any documents that you were working on and to close programs you were using.

Many UPS devices also include a protected equipment warranty ranging from $5,000 to $75,000 or more.  While manufacturer policies vary, these warranties generally will reimburse you for repair or replacement of equipment if they are damaged while those components are properly connected to the UPS device.

It is best to consult with a trusted computer professional to determine the appropriate type and size of battery backup UPS will adequately protect your computer system.  For most home users, a 550VA battery backup will suffice.  Our general-use recommended battery backup can be found here: http://amzn.to/IKGew8

Buying and implementing a UPS battery backup, though, is not a one-time event.  We recommend replacing the UPS at least every three years.

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Use the Web to Plan Your Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation

Summertime!  It’s the perfect season for making a getaway from the daily hustle and bustle of life.

The Internet is a great resource for planning a short weekend road trip or a full-scale family vacation.  With gas prices once again nearing record highs, the web can help you find creative ways to save money on your upcoming travels.

All major airlines and hotels have websites that allow you to plan an entire trip – everything from travel to accommodations to daily excursions.  But these sites may not offer you the best value or variety.

For adventurous vacationers who like to explore various parts of the country (or world), Groupon Getaways serves up unique weekend travel deals at huge discounts.  For example, a recent search found a two-night stay for two-adults at the Palms Place at the Palms in Las Vegas for only $169.  Another offer was for a 4-night stay for four at the Blue Ridge Village Resort for $259.  Groupon’s deals change frequently and do come with some limitations, but it may be worth checking out.  (Visit www.groupon.com/getaways.)

The State of Indiana offers a searchable trip planner for those who like to stay close to home.  You can search the type of activities you enjoy, such as family fun, outdoor recreation and sports, romantic retreats, and art and cultural.  Then you can choose where in the state you would like to explore.  (Visit http://www.in.gov/visitindiana/tripplanner/trips.aspx.)

Google is also your friend when it comes to choosing a getaway or vacation.  If you’re thinking of visiting a certain city or area, type in “visit yourdestination name” (such as visit Nashville TN).  You’ll discover many websites that provide visitor guides, nearby attractions, upcoming events and festivals, as well as hotels and restaurants.

Another good search term to use in Google is “things to do near (city and state)”.  Again, you will find many websites filled with information on activities and events to enjoy near a specific destination.

We would love to hear from YOU as you travel this summer.  Please feel free to email us pictures and descriptions of places you’ve visited and activities you’ve done.  We may share them in a future column or in our monthly e-newsletter.  Our email address is info@calibre-cs.com.

Happy trails!

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Are you guilty of this computer “crime”?

External Hard Drive

Your computer.  It’s an important part of your life.  Each day you use it to communicate with family and friends by email or Facebook, stay current on news and other events at your favorite websites, and print letters or other documents.  You may also copy pictures from your digital camera or smart phone and store them on your computer.

The one seemingly insignificant device you use every day holds the only copy of some of your most important information – pictures, music, letters, email addresses, family history, and more.

But most computer users are guilty of not backing up the files on their computer.  They never imagine that all of those items could be forever lost without warning and in just a click of a button.

Why should you back up?

The first reason you should back up your files is because computer hard drives fail 100 percent of the time.  It’s a matter of WHEN not IF.  As one person has said, “There are only two types of hard drives – the ones that have failed and the ones that will fail.”

Hard drives, where all of your files are stored on your computer, contain moving parts.  Over time, those moving parts wear out and fail.  If it is a catastrophic physical failure, it may be impossible for any files to be recovered from the hard drive.

With the recent surge in virus infections attacking computers, a second reason to back up your files is to protect them from being lost due to a nasty virus infection.  Sometimes a virus infection is so bad that the only way to remove it is to permanently erase everything on your hard drive and reinstall the operating system and programs.  Without a backup, all of your important files could be forever lost.

Third, performing regular backups allows you to recover a file that was accidentally deleted.  We’ve all done it – erased a file or folder from our computer thinking we didn’t need it any longer.  Then a day or so later, we realize we do need that file.  A good backup allows you to retrieve the last saved version of that file or folder.

Finally, backups protect your files in the event of a natural disaster, fire, or someone stealing your computer.  Recently, one of our clients brought in her laptop and had us perform our data backup service.  She called us about three weeks later thanking us for backing up her files to DVD because someone had broken into her house and stolen her laptop.  Without the backup we performed, she would have forever lost important documents and pictures.

What should you back up?

Although every person uses their computer for different purposes, there are some common things you should regularly back up:

  • Your email addresses – think of how long it would take to gather and re-enter those again
  • Your list of favorite websites stored in your web browser
  • Pictures saved on your computer (typically in the My Pictures folder)
  • All your documents, such as recipes, letters and spreadsheets (typically in the My Documents folder)
  • Your downloaded music files from iTunes (typically in the My Music folder)
  • Financial information from programs like Quicken, Microsoft Money or QuickBooks
  • Family tree information from programs like Family Tree Maker

How should you back up your files?

Backing up your files simply means keeping a copy of them in a separate location in the event of an emergency.  It is NOT wise to keep both copies of your files in the same place.  It is recommended that you have two backups on two different types of media in two physically different places.

One way to back up your files is to burn them to CD or DVD.  Most computers come with a CD/DVD burner installed, as well as software that allows you to copy your files to discs.  This method of backup is relatively inexpensive and very reliable.  The downside is that it can be time-consuming if you have a large number of files.

Another method of backing up your files is to copy them to an external hard drive.  The external hard drive connects to your PC by a USB cable.  Then you can manually copy the files from your computer to the external hard drive.  You can also purchase and install software that will automate the backup process for you.

If you have a high-speed Internet connection, a good method of backing up your files is to use an online backup service.  Your important files are automatically and regularly copied from your computer to their secure servers over the Internet.

Although it’s easy and cheap, do not use USB flash drives (also called thumb drives) as your primary backup device.  These devices are not designed for long-term storage.

Don’t wait to think about backing up your computer until it’s too late.  I’ve had the unpleasant job of breaking the bad news to clients that we are unable to save any of their files because their hard drive had failed, only to learn that they had not performed any backups.

Call us at Calibre Computer Solutions to protect your important files by setting up a reliable, inexpensive backup solution.