Monday, January 28, 2008

PCPhoneHome Not Recommended

Update 2009 Sep 28: Do It Yourself PC Phone Home

What if I left my laptop in the car for a moment, and someone ripped it off? or, perish the thought, someone broke in and took my nice new computer? It happens all the time, especially in the corporate and public sectors, but certainly it happens to private individuals too. One in 14 laptops is stolen, say some experts.

But what if that stolen laptop or computer was powered up by the thief, then connected to the internet, and it sent an email back to the original owner describing where it was? And what if "someone" could then tell the police the name and address of the thief?

That's what PCPhoneHome is supposed to do. It costs $30, a modest one-time charge. There is a Windows version and a Mac version. You install it on the hard drive of the computer, and whenever the computer gets a new internet connection it sends an email to any email address that you specify. This happens regularly, day after day, and unless the computer is stolen it's of little use except to let you know that it is still working. But if the computer is stolen, that email contains vital information including the IP address of the computer on its local network, if any, and especially the IP address of the mail server from which the email is actually sent. That IP address can be traced back to the user who was connected to the mail server at that time.
PcPhoneHome Registration Screen
Brigadoon software, the makers of PCPhoneHome, promise to help with the task of tracing the computer and contacting the police with that information. So, for the price of $30, you are buying an insurance policy that may get your computer back, assuming that Brigadoon will actually answer their telephone and trace the PC, and that the police will take the time to retrieve the PC.

I downloaded three trial copies:

Laptop running Windows XP:

Version 3.0 is the "standard" version set up for a 30-day trial. It doesn't say that it works on Vista, but it does on XP. It installed with no problems, I filled out the form with details of my laptop computer (make, model, serial#, more...) and it immediately sent its first email to the address that I specified in the form. The laptop was connected by WiFi, and when I connected it directly to the LAN it sent another email. In fact, it sends TWO emails every time, with a slightly different FROM address, for some reason. No problem. So far, after three days, it works just fine.

New home-built desktop running Vista Ultimate 64-Bit:

I knew that Version 3.0 was not recommended for Vista, even though that was the standard trial download from Brigadoon Software. So I downloaded a 3.2 "upgrade" version and tried installing that, with a subsequent comedy of errors:
  • First, the installation program failed to run because, according to Windows, I did not have sufficient privileges to run it even though I was logged on as administrator;
  • So I clicked on the installation program's Properties, then Compatibility, and selected "Run as Administrator;"
  • Then the installation program went a lot farther, but eventually reported a different error;
  • It continued past that error and put up the "registration" screen which takes data to be included in the email that PCPhoneHome sends, but because of the reported error I didn't bother to fill out the screen;
  • Nevertheless, the installer said the installation was successful, though I knew better;
  • I uninstalled it (still possible until reboot), and tried again;
  • Same results, so I rebooted;
  • PCPhoneHome disappeared from the list in Programs and Features - it could no longer be uninstalled. This is a security feature built into PCPhoneHome;
  • So I "reverted" the drive to the most recent restore point, deleted one leftover executable, and started over;
  • This time, surprisingly, the installation went well. I filled out the "registration" screen and allowed it to reboot the computer.
  • After logon, Windows alerted me that an "unknown" program XYZ (I won't disclose the name here) wanted to run and asked me if that was OK;
  • I said yes. Pretty soon I received the two emails. Yay!;
  • Sadly, though, upon each succesive reboot, Windows continues to ask whether program XYZ can run;
  • I have modified "User Account Control" (UAC) in Windows Vista so that this no longer occurs, but of course this modification is unacceptable for the long term. UAC is a pain in the ass, but it has a purpose and should be turned ON for day-to-day activities.
  • I requested a technical service response by email on January 25, but so far have not received any.
Friend's laptop running Vista Home Edition 32-Bit:

Wow I'm SO SORRY that I tried PCPhoneHome on this computer. I tried downloading the official trial version and installing that first, as most users would do. Of course it didn't work, because that version is not for Vista, so then I downloaded the upgrade and tried to install that on top of the first install. The resulting comedy of errors totally eclipsed anything that I had encountered with the desktop installation, and it still doesn't work. I have installed a lot of software on many different machines, but this takes the cake. I have requested a technical service response by telephone and by email, but so far have not received any.


In my opinion, it works fine on XP but is not ready for Vista yet. It phones home on only one of my two Vista installations. There is a workaround for the XYZ "unknown program" prompt at bootup, but that workaround simply trades one security risk for another. Brigadoon Software must fix that problem somehow, perhaps by getting valid "digital signatures" for their software.

Perhaps this is all my fault for installing it on both Vista systems incorrectly. But I don't think so; I suspect anyone running Vista with UAC turned on will experience similar problems. If true, that's an astounding failure, since:
  • The most-easily-stolen computers are laptops;
  • Almost all laptops sold in the last YEAR run Vista;
  • UAC is turned on by default in all new Vista systems;
  • Brigadoon Software had months BEFORE THAT to prepare for Vista; so
  • They are about two years behind the curve and falling further behind daily.
It's as if Brigadoon is a one- or two-person shop, too busy to take the time and do the testing necessary to make their product really install and run correctly. What happens then, I know from experience, is that you spend so much time dealing with tech service questions that you have no time to fix the product. Meanwhile you are selling more of the junky product and compounding your problems. I'm only speculating here though ...

Other Issues:
  1. If your computer is stolen and does phone home, will Brigadoon Software actually answer their telephone and trace an email for you? When I called their telephone number this afternoon during regular business hours, I got an answering machine and no callback today. This is not what you want, because the computer may soon evaporate into the black market and never call home again. I see other remarks on the internet which indicate that this is a real question. I will update this post and add a new post when/if I hear from them regarding my pre-sales technical service problems.
  2. One very good thing: My computers are set up to require a password for my own logon, to prevent access to my account through the network, and also through the keyboard if the computer were to be stolen. On both the XP and the Vista desktop system, if I booted up and did NOT log on, the computer sent the email anyway. Thus if a thief were sitting at the keyboard trying various passwords, and made the mistake of connecting the computer to the internet first, the email would be on its way.
  3. But what if the thief didn't connect to the internet before logging on? In another part of the FAQ document, Brigadoon goes into great detail to show how to set up a computer so that it will boot up with one account which does NOT have a password. They don't spell out WHY we should do that, because it obviously reduces the system's security. But I suppose if I were the thief, I might try each of the usernames on the logon screen, looking for one with no password. If found, I might start with that account, and might even use that account to connect to the internet. Obviously, that account should not have administrator privileges!
  4. Brigadoon makes another good point in their FAQ document: It's important to set up a password to the BIOS of a computer, and then set the BIOS to boot first from hard disk, not floppy or CD/DVD or memory stick. This prevents a thief from using an alternate boot to simply reformat the disk and install a new operating system, thereby obliterating the PCPhoneHome program. In case YOU have a problem with the hard disk, you simply enter the password and change the BIOS back to allow boot from alternate devices. Of course the thief can still remove the hard drive and reformat it some other way, but that's more work and by then the computer may already have phoned home.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Google Desktop vs. Copernic

The basic idea: What if I could search my own computer as easily as I can search the web? Then I could find an email or a Word document, even a PDF document, or a previously-viewed web page, or all of those on my own computer in an instant, just by entering a few words of text that I think might be in the document or in its name.

Enter Google Desktop (GD). I discovered this a year or two ago, when I was running Windows XP, and thought it was slicker than sliced bread. Well, almost, and certainly better than anything that Microsoft offered. It didn't work exactly right - sometimes I would click on a result and nothing would come up - but at least it did seem to find everything.

Except WordPerfect documents. I use WordPerfect and certainly prefer it to Microsoft Word, but the documents apparently have a unique format and are not correctly indexed by GD or by Microsoft's Vista indexing software. No surprise that Microsoft would deliberately omit WordPerfect, because they have been trying to bury it with Word for years (with obvious success), but we expect better from Google. There is a contributed Google Desktop plugin called Larry's WordPerfect Indexer, and it seemed to work when installed, but Google Desktop kept uninstalling it for some reason; I never solved that problem.

Enter Windows Vista; I have the 64-bit version. It supposedly has its own indexing, but I find that awkward and obtuse; I still haven't entirely figured what IS and what IS NOT indexed. Google Desktop was better.

However, if you Google "google desktop" and "vista" you will find complaints about Google Desktop slowing down Vista, and you will find that Google and Microsoft are having a legal hassle. Nevertheless a few days ago I downloaded GD and installed it. To my surprise, GD did not offer ANY indexing commands. I could not make it re-index, and there was no pause-indexing command. When I did a GD search it DID come up with results though, without ever doing an indexing search. From this I assume that it uses Vista's built-in index, and no longer builds its own index. I "installed" Larry's WordPerfect Indexer, but of course a search still did not bring up any WordPerfect documents. Conclusion: At least for now, Google Desktop is broken - no better than Vista's search, which itself is very clumsy and which will apparently never be able to search WordPerfect documents.

Enter Copernic. I downloaded this desktop searcher and couldn't be more pleased. It runs exactly the same on both XP (my laptop) and Vista 64 (my new desktop computer). In both cases it built its index in almost no time at all. Here are some of the features:
  • It automatically indexes WordPerfect documents - important to me if not to you;
  • You can select the types of files it will index, including PDF documents and ZIP folders, by type extension;
  • You choose whether the indexing function pauses while you use the computer, and if so, for how long;
  • You choose which folders you index and which you do not. For example, I have files that are encrypted and certainly don't want them in the index!;
  • Regardless how the index is built, you can limit a search to any particular file type, to avoid getting too many results;
  • For any specific class of files you can limit the search by date, partial file name, folder, and other attributes;
  • There is a quick and easy way to check for updates to Copernic;
  • I haven't even discovered all of the features yet.
Copernic does NOT seem to offer complex (advanced) searches. It seems to require that ALL of the words in the search box must appear in the document, with no "ANY" option or "DOES NOT HAVE" option. But I can live with that. Many of the features in the list above are also available in Google Desktop and Vista Search, but not all of them are.

I've only had Copernic for a couple of days now, but it sure seems far more robust than the competition, and yet easier to use. Unlike those, it's a completed, working product. If I continue to like it, I may just turn off Vista indexing altogether.

Please let me know if you agree, or disagree, or want more information.