Have a computer at home? How can you keep it healthy? I spoke with computer tech Casey Champie about common home-office computer problems and how to avoid them. He suggests small but important tweaks to typical computer setups that can help home users avoid computer catastrophes.

Shannon: Casey, can you tell me a little bit about your computer support company, and the services you provide?

Casey: Certainly. My company focuses on home-office computer support and repair. The goal is to go into the client’s home and help them with any and all computer-related problems. These can range from something as simple as installing a printer or second monitor, to more complex problems like spyware/malware removal and data recovery. We also offer a range of other products like Windows 7/8 tutorials, smart phone tutorials, and hard drive backups.

Shannon: What do you find to be some of the biggest computer problems in home offices?

Casey: The two most frequent issues I have seen so far are the severe lack of malware protection, and zero forms of backups. Malware can be tricky, so that is fairly understandable. Not having a backup can be a huge risk, so I certainly try to convince my clients to use one of the many available options to ensure they don’t lose everything.

Shannon: With all we’ve been hearing about the Target data theft, the Heartbleed hack and more, how concerned do you think individuals and small businesses should be about their data and online security?

Casey: You definitely need to be cautious these days, especially businesses. Storing financial data is so easy and convenient with a computer, but you certainly have to understand the risks involved in doing so. You can take a few simple steps to give yourself much better protection, but at the end of the day no one is 100% safe all the time.

Shannon: What backup solutions do you normally recommend for small businesses and individuals?

Casey: There are two options available when considering doing backups. You can do the in-house approach using an external hard drive to back up all your data locally. There are risks involved in taking this approach, however. Your local drive can break, be stolen, or simply malfunction and all your data is lost. I call this the “putting your eggs in one basket” approach. It is certainly doable, but not recommended. My go-to backup is definitely going online. Carbonite or Mozy offer solid back up protection for a reasonable annual cost.

Shannon: What symptoms might appear in someone’s computer if they were infected with a virus or malware?

Casey: Some viruses and malware can be pretty subtle, while others can be fairly obvious. The usual tell-tale signs are things like slow boot speeds, sluggish response in Windows, internet browser auto-loads, pop-ups or a search engine you usually do not use, or you can’t load certain programs. These are some of the usual suspects associated with malware and/or a virus, but this isn’t a 100% foolproof way of knowing for sure. Having reliable malware protection and solid anti-virus software are solid first steps to take to ensure you are better prepared for these attacks.

Shannon: If you only had a $100 budget to spend on bullet-proofing your computer, how would you spend it?

Casey: I am a huge fan of two programs, and you can have both for this kind of budget. Kaspersky Internet Security is my go-to anti-virus, and would be first on my list of must-haves. There are definitely cheaper (even free) alternatives to anti-virus, but this is an area where I definitely feel that you get what you pay for. Kaspersky is very user friendly and incredibly effective in stopping malicious attacks. For 50 to 60 dollars, depending on discounts, you simply can’t go wrong with this program.

My other must-have product is Carbonite. This is an online backup program that can copy as little or as much of your computer as you desire to their servers for immediate restore. This program gives you ultimate peace of mind in knowing that if your hard drive dies on you, all is not lost. Having a backup can save you tons of time and money, so I see this as an absolute must for the price.

Shannon: What about people who don’t see themselves as very tech-savvy? Any words of advice for them?

Casey: Technology seems like it is always moving at a thousand miles per hour. Keeping up with the constant changes and advancements can certainly be overwhelming, even to most tech-savvy people. My best advice is to stay patient and never be afraid to ask for help. In my line of work, I get calls from people saying “this is going to sound stupid, but…” and this could not be farther from the truth. The reality is, there are no dumb questions when it comes to technology, because every person has a different learning curve. So never hesitate to ask for help, no matter how big or small you might consider the problem to be.

Shannon: Thanks, Casey.

Casey Champie is the owner of BVComputerGuy.com in Buena Vista, CO.

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?

Posted in IT.

Memory aid
Do you remember to make QuickBooks backups?
The classic problem with backups (Quickbooks or otherwise) is that they don’t get made consistently.

So people are always calling with QuickBooks data corruption and…you guessed it…no good current backups.

So what’s the answer? The solution is to always have backups available that are technically sound, current, and deep.

Deep? Well, sometimes your file gets corrupted, and your last good backup is corrupted too. You can’t just restore your backup, if you’re only “one backup deep”. So you need a number of backups going back in time. If your last backup is bad, perhaps the one created the day before that is OK.

There’s gotta be an easy way to do this, right? A way that you don’t have to think about too much?

These days, backing up your QB data can be easy and automatic. Let’s look at some options.

1. Intuit Data Protect. This plan seems to be replacing QuickBooks Online Backup, although it is only available for QuickBooks 2011 and higher (QuickBooks Online Backup works with earlier versions too.) This fee-based service will automatically backup your QuickBooks files, and other files too, to Intuit’s cloud. It will keep your data around for 45 days. So that’s pretty good “depth”. This plan is included for no extra charge if you have certain Intuit support plans.

2. 3rd Party Online Backup Services. There are a lot of these out there. Global DataVault, iDrive, Carbonite, Mozy, and others compete in the online storage marketplace.

Most of these will automatically sync your hard drive to your online storage account, and backup your files whenever then change. This includes your QuickBooks company data files.

The potential vulnerability here is with one-generational backups. Example: Your company file is getting synced continuously with your online backup account. But then your data gets corrupted. And backed up to your online account. Hmm, where’s a good backup? It’s not online!

The workaround for this is to still make manual backups within QuickBooks. You can configure your preferences in QuickBooks to prompt you every time you exit to make a backup. I would recommend that you do this. Making a backup doesn’t take much time. Then, theoretically, you have an almost limitless number of backup generations if you get in trouble.

These are really the only easy and automatic methods I know of. If you have in-house IT, perhaps you have a way of getting automatically produced server backups off-site and off your server. I’ve talked to too many IT consultants over the years who end up with a crashed RAID and NO good server backups. No good. It might seem scary, but you really want to backup your most important data to the cloud. The scarier alternative is finding yourself with no good current backups at all.

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?

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?

Posted in IT.

I’ll bet QuickBooks is a mission-critical application for your office. What would happen to your business if QuickBooks went down? Here are 7 ways to avoid that:

1. Maintain your network. Actually, get your IT guy or girl to do it. Nothing can take down QuickBooks like a flaky network.

Keep your server defragged and your whole network optimized for speed. Use the highest-performing server you can afford. Use the same kind of routers and connectors across your network. Have plenty of memory on every workstation accessing QuickBooks.

2. Be careful with your imports. Importing bank or other transactions into QuickBooks is a tremendous time saver. Except when they’re messed up. If you are getting ready to import transactions from a new source, make sure you’re well backed up first. After you import, check the results immediately. If there’s a problem, restore your backup. Otherwise, it can be really difficult to undo the effects of badly imported transactions, especially if there are hundreds of them.

3. Back up often and effectively. Global Data Vault is a great online backup service. Many small businesses have been greatly inconvenienced because their backups weren’t what they assumed.

4. Verify/Rebuild. Run these commands periodically to get early warning on data problems.

5. Schedule data work for weekends. Sending your data off to be supercondensed, repaired, recreated, or something else? Schedule it for a weekend so the wheels don’t stop turning at your office on weekdays.

6. Send Accountant’s Copies. Taking advantage of this QuickBooks feature lets you get your data to your accountant for corrections without you having to pause in the use of QuickBooks — you can keep working at the same time your CPA is reviewing your file.

7. If down, get up. If your file becomes unopenable or has fatal errors, get overnight data repair services to be up and running by the next morning.

Do you have another suggestion to avoid QuickBooks downtime?

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?

Posted in IT.

Did you just get yourself a shiny new computer? Or maybe you need to get QuickBooks onto your laptop so you can get caught up on your bookkeeping?

If you need to get QuickBooks from one computer to another, it’s not a big deal. Here’s what you do:

1. Computer #2: Install QuickBooks (you’ll need your original install disk or downloaded install file, plus your installation codes that came with the software.)

2. Computer #2: Update QuickBooks: Run QuickBooks and click on Help / Update QuickBooks. That way, you’ll have the same QuickBooks updates on computer #2 that are on computer #1.

3. Computer #1: Backup your company data. You can back it up to any medium that will be accessible to computer #2. That would normally include CDs, USB/flash drives, external hard drives, or online storage services (like Global DataVault.)

The smallest backup you can make is a Portable file. This kind of backup is only about 20-25% the size of your regular QBW company file, yet it contains all your data. (The backup excludes the internal indexing in the file – that’s why it’s both smaller and takes longer to make and restore.)

4. If you made a backup to a physical backup drive, take it to computer #2 and plug it in or insert it. If your backup is online somewhere, download it to computer #2’s hard drive or desktop.

5. Computer #2: Run QuickBooks, and at the opening dialog box select “Open or restore an existing company”, and then “Restore a portable file” (or “Restore a backup copy” if you are bringing over a regular backup copy from computer #1.)

6. Computer #2: Navigate to the drive and folder where your backup is, and select the backup file.

7. Computer #2: Specify where you want the file to be restored to. You can accept the default that QuickBooks suggests, or point to a particular folder that makes sense to you. My Documents is not a bad choice.

8. Computer #2: Finish the restore.

Once your data is restored, everything should be set up for you to work in QuickBooks on your new computer. If you need to take your company file back to computer #1, simply reverse the process for steps #3-8.

What’s your favorite way to move QuickBooks data between computers?

We have repaired many sets of damaged QuickBooks accounting data over the years and we are often asked “How did this happen?”

Good question! Here are some of the most common causes of QuickBooks data damage:

  • Network glitches. You are using QuickBooks across a network in multiuser mode. One of the workstations loses connection with the server for a moment and then reestablishes connection. During the disconnecting and reconnecting, the data stream gets changed a bit, and the database gets corrupted.
  • Performance bottlenecks. If your QuickBooks data file is huge and you have a lot of people in QuickBooks at the same time and your computers are old, QuickBooks is not going to be able to keep up with all the read and write requests to the database. The file will get damaged at some point.
  • Power blips. If the power momentarily goes out in your office, it can change data and corrupt the QuickBooks database. Most users have their server protected with battery backups, but many don’t protect their desk computers or network routers with battery backups. Uninterruptable Power Supplies (battery backups) are cheap insurance.
  • Disk crashes. Hard drives have moving parts, and like any mechanical device, they will fail at some point. If the only copies of your data are on your hard drive, that’s a recipe for disaster.
  • Bad software. Malware, spyware, viruses, worms, trojans…if your computer gets sick, it can affect QuickBooks and other applications you depend on.
  • User error. Just kidding! Users can’t really trash or crash their database unless they do something silly like unplugging the power or a network cable while QuickBooks is running. You can’t mess up the database by doing normal processes within QuickBooks itself.

To prevent data corruption in QuickBooks, you basically want to do whatever you can so that QuickBooks can read and write to its database quickly and without any interruptions. You also want to regularly backup your data to a location OFF your hard drive.

If you somehow find yourself with data errors in QuickBooks and no current backup, AccountingUsers Inc. provides fast, guaranteed data repair services.

What did I miss? Any other known causes of QuickBooks data damage you know of?