People frequently ask, “How often should I upgrade QuickBooks?”

Here’s the flip side of the question: “How often should I upgrade my QuickBooks computer?” Let’s talk about that.

In the corporate IT world, there are policies for that. Many will replace machines after three years.

Small businesses could adopt that policy too and establish a product life cycle of somewhere between two to five years, and just plan for scheduled equipment replacement.

But a lot of small businesses want to squeeze as much life out of their equipment (computers or otherwise) as they can to help keep expenses down. What then?

Here are a few scenarios that could trigger a computer replacement decision:

* One obvious time to get a new computer is when the old one has failed, or seems about to fail. I had a Dell desktop that was starting, after a few years’ use, to whine sometimes. I’m not sure if it was the power supply or the hard drive, but it really didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to get better, only worse. And when it finally failed for good, it would be a bad day for me. So why go there? I replaced the machine.

Now some might say, “Why not just replace the power supply and/or hard drive?” Well, you could do that. I’ve replaced power supplies in machines back in the day, and it’s not a super big deal. But you have to make sure that you acquire the right kind, take your machine apart a little bit…it’s a multi-step hassle to me now. Replacing parts costs less, but it still costs. I’d rather invest that money in a new machine that will last longer.

* Another scenario for replacing a computer is when the hardware, operating system, and main application (QuickBooks!) start to get out of sync. For example, if you buy a new computer today with Windows 7 on it, and install QuickBooks 2012 on it, everything is perfectly synced up. QuickBooks will have been well-tested under that hardware platform, and it will have been well-tested under Windows 7. Should work great.

However, if you are trying to run a really old version of QuickBooks on a brand new computer, it might not work right. Likewise if you are trying to run a brand new version of QuickBooks on a really old computer. Running QuickBooks under versions of Windows that weren’t on the market when your version of QuickBooks came out might not work. Versions of hardware, Windows, and QuickBooks should all sync up for best results.

* You should also maybe replace your QuickBooks computer when it gets too slow. Now, if QuickBooks is running slow for you and your computer is pretty new, then it is probably because the data file has gotten really big and needs to be supercondensed.

But if your computer is pretty old, and your file is not all that large, and things are slow, then it’s time to consider making a hardware upgrade. When QuickBooks runs slow, it is more likely to experience data corruption. Why go there?

* If you run QuickBooks on a network, it’s a very good idea to have all your workstations approximately of the same vintage and computing power — even the same brand and model, if you can manage that. Likewise with your networking hardware. Dull uniformity is a beautiful thing in a network.

On the other hand, sometimes you can keep using your old computer for a long time and don’t need to change anything for years. If you are content to run QuickBooks 99 on a decade-old-but-still-going-strong machine running Windows XP (but please, not Win ME!) then more power to you. (Just make sure your backup system is a good one…but then that would be the case on any computer!)

CRAZY EXAMPLE: We do data support for an old discontinued non-Intuit accounting software product line called BPI Accounting. We mostly do file repair for people who have damaged BPI data. I got a call the other day from a lady who until now had been running her BPI accounting software on an APPLE IIe! As in, from 1983 of so. Unbelievable. But it had been working just fine for her until she accidentally formatted one of her program disk(ette)s. Oops! NOW it’s time to shop a new computer, and maybe a new version of QuickBooks!

What’s your approach? Do you have a rule of thumb to guide the timing of your computer purchases?

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Posted in IT.

I bought this printer about a month ago for home office use, and it works so well I had to write about it. This is the first non-HP printer I’ve had in memory, and I love it.

Like most of the all-in-one genre of printers, this one does these four things:

* print
* copy
* fax
* scan

Here are things I like about what it does:

  1. It’s fast. The pages shoot through the document feeder fast. The scans are done fast. The prints come out into the output tray fast.
  2. The software is good. Especially the scanning software. You can easily control the properties of the scan you are getting ready to do, and the end results are quite good — clear, clean, what you expect and want it to look like. You can scan directly to PDF format, which is what I scan virtually everything to. I use the text enhancement switch when scanning documents — it really crisps things up. Here’s what the main scan screen looks like:
  3. Super easy and reliable wireless networking. This Epson sits on a desk by itself and receives print jobs from computers all over my house. It doesn’t need to be connected to your router with an Ethernet cable, nor connected to any of your computers by a USB cable. I leave it turned on all the time, so anytime anyone in my family needs to print something, whatever computer they are on can print on the spot. (You do of course have to install the printer drivers on whichever computers you want interfaced with the printer). This just works great. We’ve never had a connectivity problem.
  4. Affordable, long lasting ink cartridges. I am still on my original ink cartridges (there are four of them) but I expect them to last a long time, and the replacement cartridges look reasonable inexpensive. They break out black, cyan, magenta, and yellow ink into their own cartridges. The black cartridge has twice the capacity of the others — great when text printing predominates your printing habits.
  5. Bells and whistles. There are two that stand out: Dual paper trays, and double-sided scanning and printing. I don’t use either of these often, but they are nice when needed.

I bought mine from Amazon because of the price; here’s their listing:

Anyone else using this fine little printer?

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Posted in IT.

There are some things in life you just don’t want to go without: Seatbelts in a car. A batting helmet when you’re playing baseball. Sunscreen when you’re outside all day (well, at least for a fair-skinned chap like me!)

Same with your business computer. There are just some things you’d better have:

1. Battery backup. This is such a no-brainer. During thunderstorm season, the power in your office can go off for an hour, or a millisecond. Either way, it’s bad for your computer.

It could affect QuickBooks, or an Excel spreadsheet, or any program you’re running. If the flow of power changes, the data on your computer is likely to change too. You don’t want your data changing in random ways. (This is one common cause of QuickBooks data damage).

Good news: Battery backups, also known as uninterruptible power supplies, are widely available and inexpensive. I like APC battery backups these days, mostly because they come with software that will automatically turn off your computer after a specified number of minutes in the event of power failure. That way, it won’t use up all your backup’s battery reserve in just one incident, if you’ve gone to lunch when the power goes down.

2. Internet security software. If your computer is connected to the internet, you’ve simply got to have current security software in place. This is true even if you rarely browse the internet. The number of online threats “out there” has been rising for years, with no end in sight.

Getting online without having current security software in place is like sending your grandmother out for a walk by herself in a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night. No.

You should at least have basic (free) protection like AVG. Better yet is a more comprehensive protection package, like Norton 360.

3. Online backup service. Your computer’s hard drive is a machine, and all machines fail sooner or later. So it is wise to have something in place now for when that failure will happen. It’s not a matter of if it will fail; it’s simply a matter of when it will fail.

I talk to people all the time with nonexistent of inadequate backup systems. Sad, and unnecessary.

It used to be that a good backup system required either a very conscientious user or some sophisticated in-house IT. This is no longer true.

These days, services like IDriveGlobal DataVault, SOS Online Backup and others make it quite easy for regular, non-technical users to be well protected in case of IT disasters.

Backups “in the cloud” have a couple of advantages over local hardware backups (meaning tape backups, external hard drives, flash drives, etc.) One advantage is that you don’t have to manually maintain or rotate those drives. Online backup services do the maintenance for you and are always available (if you pick a quality service.)

Also, backups in the cloud are unaffected by problems at your location — theft, flood, fire, power surges, etc.

What do you think about my IT short list? Have any of these been a lifesaver at your office?

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Posted in IT.

On purpose!

It was actually my wife’s laptop.

This laptop had been having issues for months. The issue that worried us the most is that it couldn’t install new Windows Service Packs. The computer would install smaller updates, but not SPs. None of the troubleshooting advice we found worked. It would download the SP update, but fail in installing it — without providing much helpful error diagnostics.

So it was time to wipe the slate clean. The first step was making sure that all the data was backed up off the laptop. I’ve talked to plenty of people over the years who reformated their drive and/or reinstalled Windows, then realized that they had not pulled critical files from the drive beforehand (e.g., QuickBooks company files.) Didn’t want to do something like that.

This laptop was running Windows Vista. I know a lot of people don’t like Windows Vista, but I do. I like how it watches out for your security better than XP, yet has fewer compatibility issues than Windows 7.

So I dug up my Vista install DVD, and popped it in the DVD drive. After failing to get a good reinstall, I figured out that you have to boot up from the DVD to be able to format the hard drive and reinstall fresh. That makes sense — if you booted up Windows from the hard drive, then it can’t destroy the copy of Windows that is running.

So while the laptop is turning on, you have to press the F12 key (on this particular laptop) to get into the startup selection screen. There, you can specify where you want the laptop to boot from.

So it booted up from the Vista install DVD, and I specified to format the hard drive. I didn’t want any residual problems from the previous OS installation to carry forward.

Success. Windows Vista reinstalled and booted up fine. Now, there was only one problem: The wi-fi on the laptop didn’t work anymore. I had wiped out the device driver for it, of course, when I reformatted and reinstalled Windows.

So I had to get on a different computer and download the wi-fi driver from the manufacturer’s website. I installed the driver on the laptop and…it worked! Whew!

Now, with internet access, I downloaded Windows updates to the laptop and installed them. All 80 of them. Without a hitch!

At this point, the laptop is lean and clean, free of crapware, registry problems, and whatever else was giving problems in the previous OS installation.

Reformats/reinstalls always take longer and have more problems than you think they will, but sometimes you gotta bite the bullet and get it done.

Have you ever gotten to a point with your computer where you had to wipe the slate clean and reinstall Windows? How did it go?

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Posted in IT.

Do you know which version of Windows you are running? A lot of non-technical users don’t. But it’s easy to find out.

Click the Start button in your lower-left screen. Then click Run, or All Programs/Accessories/Run.

At the prompt, enter winver and click Enter.

How to Find Out Your Version of Windows

Windows should then pop up a window which shows what version you are running, and which if any service pack (SP) is installed.

If you need to know which versions of QuickBooks work with which versions of Windows, here’s a chart.

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Posted in IT.

I love my smartphone because when I’m not behind my desk, I can still do almost everything associated with my job.

  • Check and reply to business emails quickly
  • Take business calls, forwarded from my main desk phone number
  • Manage user accounts and jobs
  • Admin our QuickBooks user forum
  • Moderate blog comments, and reply to them
  • Tweet, reply, retweet, follow — anything Twitter
  • Follow LinkedIn discussions I’m tracking
  • Gmail chat my family (ok, that’s not a business thing, but is really cool)
  • Listen to Pandora (ditto)

My current phone of choice? Verizon’s Droid Incredible. It has JavaScript and Flash support; there’s really no website I’ve browsed yet that hasn’t worked.

So if I’m on the road or even just checking email in a restaurant parking lot after lunch, I’m just as connected as I would be at my desk. That makes for better business communication, faster responses, and quicker customer service. Rocks.

I think the biggest competitive advantage small businesses can have is faster and more personal responses to opportunities and customers. And that’s a door that smartphones can open. Smartphones make it *much* easier to stay connected to your online network.

How about you? Is a smartphone an important part of your business life?

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Posted in IT.

When my family camped in Yellowstone National Park last month, we were camping in bear country.

Yellowstone grizzly bear
A clover-eating grizzly I photographed on the shore of Lake Yellowstone

Unfortunately, there have been some bad bear incidents in Yellowstone this summer.

A friend of mine let me borrow his bear spray for our trip. Bear spray is like personal-defense pepper spray, except it’s grizzly bear strength. I took the spray and packed it when we were on remote trails.

A warning on the can’s label almost made me laugh: “Don’t intentionally provoke a bear”. I could just visualize some nut feeling confident with his can of bear spray and chasing a bear down in order to confront it, spray it, and earn some kind of moronic bragging rights.

To avoid bear problems, you are supposed to be careful to not leave food out, not to smell like food, not to surprise a bear, not to run away from a bear…the list goes on.

Bear spray is designed to be the last line of defense against bears.

My company provides data repair services for QuickBooks users, and those services could be considered the last line of defense against QuickBooks data problems. But they are not the only defense.

There are lots of things you can do to minimize the chance of having QuickBooks data problems in the first place:

  • Have battery backups on your server, your routers, and all your workstations
  • Have internet security software installed on all your computers
  • Keep Windows up to date on all your computers
  • Keep QuickBooks updated on your system
  • Use the same kind of networking equipment on all your workstations
  • Make regular backups to a location off of your server

If you do these things, you greatly minimize the chance of encountering data problems in QuickBooks in the first place. But we’ll be your bear spray if somehow it ever gets to that point.

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Posted in IT.

My family was in Yellowstone National Park last week, and we needed to find a wifi hotspot so that my daughter could log in and add some college classes to her fall class schedule.

We saw this and went to the Visitor Center with our laptop:

yellowstone wifi?

Only one problem. That little graphic sign doesn’t mean wifi.

It means amphitheatre.

Low tech. A place for non-digitized presentations on plants, animals, rocks, the Shoshone tribe, and Wyoming natural history.

I felt a little silly.

But then again, maybe it would be silly to have wifi in the middle of a historic national park like Yellowstone. Come on, Yellowstone is about nature! A place to which we flee our technology culture.

So it’s cool with me that there was an amphitheatre instead of a hotspot. But maybe they should change their sign.

[Actually, Yellowstone sits on top of a huge geothermal phenomenon called a hotspot, which powers Old Faithful, the Black Dragon’s Lair and all the other thermal wonders of the park. But of course that kind of hotspot is about hot lava under the ground rather than internet access above it.]

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Posted in IT.

“I’m using an old version of QuickBooks, and my hard drive died today. QuickBooks won’t give me the install codes – they say they don’t support my version anymore, and I have to upgrade. But I don’t want to upgrade! I just want to reinstall my old version.”

I have this conversation with users all the time. And it’s a shame. The solution would have been simple if they had only backed up their license keys and install codes.

This isn’t just about QuickBooks. It’s about any software you use that comes with registration/installation codes and keys.

The simple fix?

1. Make sure that you keep your license keys/codes with your original install CD. Write it on a label and stick it on the jewel case with the install CD. If you downloaded your software, see #2.

2. Create a document that contains your license keys. It could be just a Word or text file. Whenever you install new software, update the file with a new line that has your software’s name and version plus any registration keys or codes.

With QuickBooks 2010, you had to call Intuit directly on the phone to get a ‘verification’ number that was needed to complete the software registration. Make sure you keep that number with your other registration info.

Make sure that your registration information file is either backed up to an online backup service, or is an online document in the first place (like a Google Docs file.)

Why backup your license keys? Because before you know it, your software vendor won’t give them to you anymore. So take ten minutes and do this. Then, when the day comes and you need to reinstall your old software, you won’t need to panic or call anyone. You’ll just grab your keys and go.

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Posted in IT.

You’ve been told a LOT of times that the world is a dangerous place, and that you should only use ‘strong’ passwords for your accounting software, your email and social accounts, your online financial accounts…really all your accounts and apps that are supposed to be secure.

So you know what you OUGHT to do, but how do you do it?

You probably already know that you shouldn’t use your name, your address, your birthday, or the word “password”.

Actually, you are not supposed to use any word found in the dictionary.

Many experts advise you to use a nonsense string of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters. One expert advised to use a longish phrase or line from a memorable book, movie, or song.

If you want to check out the quality or strength of your password, go to the free and secure Microsoft password evaluator and let it pass judgment on a password you use or are considering using. Very handy.

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Posted in IT.