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Latest Technology, Tips & Tricks

How to Force Graphics Options in PC Games with NVIDIA, AMD, or Intel Graphics

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PC games usually have built-in graphics options that you can change. However, you’re not limited to the options built into games — the graphics control panels bundled with graphics drivers allow you to tweak options from outside PC games.

For example, these tools allow you to force-enable antialiasing to make old games look better, even if they don’t normally support it. You can also reduce graphics quality to get more performance on slow hardware.

If You Don’t See These Options

If you don’t have the NVIDIA Control Panel, AMD Catalyst Control Center, or Intel Graphics and Media Control Panel installed, you may need to install the appropriate graphics driver package for your hardware from the hardware manufacturer’s website. The drivers provided via Windows Update don’t include additional software like the NVIDIA Control Panel or AMD Catalyst Control Center.

Drivers provided via Windows Update are also more out of date. If you’re playing PC games, you’ll want to have the latest graphics drivers installed on your system.

NVIDIA Control Panel

The NVIDIA Control Panel allows you to change these options if your computer has NVIDIA graphics hardware. To launch it, right-click your desktop background and select NVIDIA Control Panel. You can also find this tool by performing a Start menu (or Start screen) search for NVIDIA Control Panel or by right-clicking the NVIDIA icon in your system tray and selecting Open NVIDIA Control Panel.

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To quickly set a system-wide preference, you could use the Adjust image settings with preview option. For example, if you have old hardware that struggles to play the games you want to play, you may want to select “Use my preference emphasizing” and move the slider all the way to “Performance.” This trades graphics quality for an increased frame rate.

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By default, the “Use the advanced 3D image settings” option is selected. You can select Manage 3D settings and change advanced settings for all programs on your computer or just for specific games. NVIDIA keeps a database of the optimal settings for various games, but you’re free to tweak individual settings here. Just mouse-over an option for an explanation of what it does.

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If you have a laptop with NVIDIA Optimus technology — that is, both NVIDIA and Intel graphics — this is the same place you can choose which applications will use the NVIDIA hardware and which will use the Intel hardware.

AMD Catalyst Control Center

AMD’s Catalyst Control Center allows you to change these options on AMD graphics hardware. To open it, right-click your desktop background and select Catalyst Control Center. You can also right-click the Catalyst icon in your system tray and select Catalyst Control Center or perform a Start menu (or Start screen) search for Catalyst Control Center.

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Click the Gaming category at the left side of the Catalyst Control Center window and select 3D Application Settings to access the graphics settings you can change.

The System Settings tab allows you to configure these options globally, for all games. Mouse over any option to see an explanation of what it does. You can also set per-application 3D settings and tweak your settings on a per-game basis. Click the Add option and browse to a game’s .exe file to change its options.

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Intel Graphics and Media Control Panel

Intel integrated graphics are nowhere near as powerful as dedicated graphics hardware from NVIDIA and AMD, but they are improving and come included with most computers. Intel doesn’t provide anywhere near as many options in its graphics control panel, but you can still tweak some common settings.

To open the Intel graphics control panel, locate the Intel graphics icon in your system tray, right-click it, and select Graphics Properties. You can also right-click the desktop and select Graphics Properties.

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Select either Basic Mode or Advanced Mode. When the Intel Graphics and Media Control Panel appears, select the 3D option.

You’ll be able to set your Performance or Quality setting by moving the slider around or click the Custom Settings check box and customize your Anisotropic Filtering and Vertical Sync preference.

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Different Intel graphics hardware may have different options here. We also wouldn’t be surprised to see more advanced options appear in the future if Intel is serious about competing in the PC graphics market, as they say they are.


These options are primarily useful to PC gamers, so don’t worry about them — or bother downloading updated graphics drivers — if you’re not a PC gamer and don’t use any intensive 3D applications on your computer.

Image Credit: Dave Dugdale on Flickr


    






Latest Technology, Tips & Tricks

Information to Use a Bluetooth Keyboard with Your Android Instrument

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Android devices aren’t usually associated with physical keyboards. But, since Google is now bundling their QuickOffice app with the newly-released Kit-Kat, it appears inevitable that at least some Android tablets (particularly 10-inch models) will take on more productivity roles.

In recent years, physical keyboards have been rendered obsolete by swipe-style input methods such as Swype and Google Keyboard. Physical keyboards tend to make phones thicker, and that won’t fly today when thin (and even flexible and curved) is in vogue. So, you’ll be hard-pressed to find smartphone manufacturers launching new models with physical keyboards, thus rendering sliders to a past chapter in mobile phone evolution.

It makes sense to ditch the clunky keyboard phone in favor of a lighter, thinner model. You’re going to carry it around in your pocket or purse all day, why have that extra bulk and weight? That said, there is sound logic behind pairing tablets with keyboards. Microsoft continues to plod forward with its Surface models, and while critics continue to lavish praise on the iPad, its functionality is obviously enhanced and extended when you add a physical keyboard. Apple even has an entire page devoted specifically to iPad-compatible keyboards.

But an Android tablet and a keyboard? Does such a thing even exist? They do actually. There are docking keyboards and keyboard/case combinations and the Asus Transformer family. Logitech markets a Windows 8 keyboard that speaks “Android”, and these are just a few examples.

So we know that keyboard products that are designed to work with Android exist, but what about an everyday Bluetooth keyboard you might use with Windows or OS X? How-To Geek wanted look at how viable it is to use such a keyboard with Android. We conducted some research and examined some lists of Android keyboard shortcuts. Most of what we found was long outdated. Many of the shortcuts don’t even apply anymore, while others just didn’t work. Regardless, after a little experimentation and a dash of customization, it turns out using a keyboard with Android is kind of fun, and who knows, maybe it will catch on.

Setting things up

Setting up a Bluetooth keyboard with Android is very easy. First, you’ll need a Bluetooth keyboard and, of course, an Android device, preferably running version 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or higher. For our test, we paired a second-generation Google Nexus 7 running Android 4.3 with a Samsung Series 7 keyboard.

In Android, enable Bluetooth if it isn’t already on. We’d like to note that if you don’t normally use Bluetooth accessories and peripherals with your Android device (or any device really), it’s best practice to leave Bluetooth off because, like GPS, it drains the device’s battery more quickly.

To enable Bluetooth, simply go to “Settings” -> “Bluetooth” and tap the slider button to “On”. To set up the keyboard, make sure it is on and then tap “Bluetooth” in the Android settings.

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On the resulting screen, your Android device should automatically search for and find your keyboard. If you don’t get it right the first time, simply turn the keyboard on again and then tap “Search for Devices” to try again. If it still doesn’t work, make sure you have fresh batteries and the keyboard isn’t paired to another device. If it is, you will need to unpair it before it will work with your Android device (consult your keyboard manufacturer’s documentation or Google if you don’t know how to do this).

When Android finds your keyboard, select it under “Available Devices” …

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… and you should be prompted to type in a code:

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If successful, you will see that device is now “Connected” and you’re ready to go.

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If you want to test things out, try pressing the “Windows” key (“Apple” or “Command”) + ESC, and you will be whisked to your Home screen.

So, what can you do?

Traditional Mac and Windows users know there’s usually a keyboard shortcut for just about everything (and if there isn’t, there’s all kinds of ways to remap keys to do a variety of commands, tasks, and functions). So where does Android fall in terms of baked-in keyboard commands?

The answer to that is kind of enough, but not too much. There are definitely established combos you can use to get around, but they aren’t clear and there doesn’t appear to be any one authority on what they are. Still, there is enough keyboard functionality in Android to make it a viable option, if only for those times when you need to get something done (long e-mail or important document) and an on-screen keyboard simply won’t do.

It’s important to remember that Android is, and likely always will be, a touch-first interface. That said, it does make some concessions to physical keyboards. In other words, you can get around Android fairly well without having to lift your hands off the keys, but you will still have to tap the screen regularly unless you add a mouse. For example, you can wake your device by tapping a key rather than pressing its power button. However, if your device is slide or pattern-locked, then you’ll have to use the touchscreen to unlock it – a password or PIN however, works seamlessly with a keyboard – other things like widgets and app controls and features, have to be tapped. You get the idea.

Keyboard shortcuts and navigation

As we said, baked-in keyboard shortcut combos aren’t necessarily abundant nor apparent. The one thing you can always do is search. Any time you want to Google something, start typing from the Home screen and the search screen will automatically open and begin displaying results.

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Other than that, here is what we were able to figure out:

  • ESC = go back
  • CTRL + ESC = menu
  • CTRL + ALT + DEL = restart (no questions asked)
  • ALT + SPACE = search page (say “OK Google” to voice search)
  • ALT + TAB (ALT + SHIFT + TAB) = switch tasks

Also, if you have designated volume function keys, those will probably work too. There’s also some dedicated app shortcuts like calculator, Gmail, and a few others:

  • CMD + A = calculator
  • CMD + C = contacts
  • CMD + E = e-mail
  • CMD + G = Gmail
  • CMD + L = Calendar
  • CMD + P = Play Music
  • CMD + Y = YouTube

Overall, it’s not a comprehensive list and there are no dedicated keyboard combos for the full array of Google’s products. Granted, it’s hard to imagine getting a lot of mileage out of a keyboard with Maps, but with something like Keep, you could type out long, detailed lists on your tablet and then view them on your smartphone when you go out shopping.

You can also use the arrow keys to navigate your Home screen shortcuts and open the app drawer. When something on the screen is selected, it will be highlighted in blue. Press “Enter” to open your selection.

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Additionally, if an app has its own set of shortcuts, e.g. Gmail has quite a few unique shortcuts to it, as does Chrome, some – though not many – will work in Android (not YouTube, for instance). Also, many “universal” shortcuts such as Copy (CTRL + C), Cut (CTRL + X), Paste (CTRL + V), and Select All (CTRL + A) work where needed – such as in instant messaging, e-mail, social media apps, etc.

Creating custom application shortcuts

What about custom shortcuts? When we were researching this article, we were under the impression that it was possible to assign keyboard combinations to specific apps, such as you could do on older Android versions such as Gingerbread. This no long seems to be the case, and nowhere in “Settings” could we find a way to assign hotkey combos to any of our favorite, oft-used apps or functions.

If you do want custom keyboard shortcuts, what can you do? Luckily, there’s an app on Google Play that allows you to, among other things, create custom app shortcuts.

It is called External Keyboard Helper (EKH), and while there is a free demo version, the pay version is only a few bucks. We decided to give EKH a whirl and through a little experimentation and finally reading the developer’s how-to, we found we could map custom keyboard combos to just about anything.

To do this, first open the application and you’ll see the main app screen. Don’t worry about choosing a custom layout or anything like that, you want to go straight to the “Advanced settings”:

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In the “Advanced settings” select “Application shortcuts” to continue:

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You can have up to 16 custom application shortcuts. We are going to create a custom shortcut to the Facebook app. We choose “A0”, and from the resulting list, Facebook. You can do this for any number of apps, services, and settings. As you can now see, the Facebook app has now been linked to application-zero (A0):

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Go back to the “Advanced settings” and choose “Customize keyboard mappings”:

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You will be prompted to create a custom keyboard layout, so we chose “Custom 1”:

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When you choose to create a custom layout, you can do a great many more things with your keyboard. For example, many keyboards have predefined function (Fn) keys, which you can map to your tablet’s brightness controls, toggle WiFi on/off, and much more.

A word of advice: the application automatically remaps certain keys when you create a custom layout. This might mess up some existing keyboard combos. If you simply want to add some functionality to your keyboard, you can go ahead and delete EKH’s default changes and start your custom layout from scratch.

To create a new combo, select “Add new key mapping”:

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For our new shortcut, we are going to assign the Facebook app to open when we key in “ALT + F”. To do this, we press the “F” key while in the “Scancode” field and we see it returns a value of “33”. If we wanted to use a different key, we can press “Change” and scan another key’s numerical value.

We now want to assign the “ALT” key to application “A0”, previously designated as the Facebook app. In the “AltGr” field, we enter “A0” and then “Save” our custom combo.

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And now we see our new application shortcut. Now, as long as we’re using our custom layout, every time we press “ALT + F”, the Facebook app will launch:

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External Keyboard Helper extends far beyond simple application shortcuts, and if you are looking for deeper keyboard customization options, you should definitely check it out. Among other things, EKH also supports dozens of languages, and allows you to quickly switch between layouts using a key or combo, add up to 16 custom text shortcuts, and much more!

It can be had on Google Play for $2.53 for the full version, but you can try the demo version for free. More extensive documentation on how to use the app is also available.

Android? Keyboard? Sure, why not?

Unlike traditional desktop operating systems, you don’t need a physical keyboard and mouse to use a mobile operating system. You can buy an iPad or Nexus 10 or Galaxy Note and never need another accessory or peripheral – they work as intended right out of the box. It’s even possible you can write the next great American novel on one these devices, though that might require a lot of practice and patience.

That said, using a keyboard with Android is kind of fun. It’s not revelatory, but it does elevate the experience. You don’t even need to add customizations (though they are nice), because there are enough existing keyboard shortcuts in Android to make it usable. Plus, when it comes to inputting text such as in an editor or terminal application, we fully advocate big, physical keyboards. Bottom line, if you’re looking for a way to enhance your Android tablet, give a keyboard a chance.

Do you use your Android device for productivity? Is a physical keyboard an important part of your setup? Do you have any shortcuts that we missed? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think.


    






Latest Technology, Tips & Tricks

No, iCloud Isn’t Backing Them All Up: How to Manage Photos on Your iPhone or iPad

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Are the photos you take with your iPhone or iPad backed up in case you lose your device? If you’re just relying on iCloud to manage your important memories, your photos may not be backed up at all.

Apple’s iCloud has a photo-syncing feature in the form of “Photo Stream,” but Photo Stream doesn’t actually perform any long-term backups of your photos.

iCloud’s Photo Backup Limitations

Assuming you’ve set up iCloud on your iPhone or iPad, your device is using a feature called “Photo Stream” to automatically upload the photos you take to your iCloud storage and sync them across your devices. Unfortunately, there are some big limitations here.

  • 1000 Photos: Photo Stream only backs up the latest 1000 photos. Do you have 1500 photos in your Camera Roll folder on your phone? If so, only the latest 1000 photos are stored in your iCloud account online. If you don’t have those photos backed up elsewhere, you’ll lose them when you lose your phone. If you have 1000 photos and take one more, the oldest photo will be removed from your iCloud Photo Stream.
  • 30 Days: Apple also states that photos in your Photo Stream will be automatically deleted after 30 days “to give your devices plenty of time to connect and download them.” Some people report photos aren’t deleted after 30 days, but it’s clear you shouldn’t rely on iCloud for more than 30 days of storage.
  • iCloud Storage Limits: Apple only gives you 5 GB of iCloud storage space for free, and this is shared between backups, documents, and all other iCloud data. This 5 GB can fill up pretty quickly. If your iCloud storage is full and you haven’t purchased any more storage more from Apple, your photos aren’t being backed up.
  • Videos Aren’t Included: Photo Stream doesn’t include videos, so any videos you take aren’t automatically backed up.

It’s clear that iCloud’s Photo Stream isn’t designed as a long-term way to store your photos, just a convenient way to access recent photos on all your devices before you back them up for real.

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iCloud’s Photo Stream is Designed for Desktop Backups

If you have a Mac, you can launch iPhoto and enable the Automatic Import option under Photo Stream in its preferences pane. Assuming your Mac is on and connected to the Internet, iPhoto will automatically download photos from your photo stream and make local backups of them on your hard drive. You’ll then have to back up your photos manually so you don’t lose them if your Mac’s hard drive ever fails.

If you have a Windows PC, you can install the iCloud Control Panel, which will create a Photo Stream folder on your PC. Your photos will be automatically downloaded to this folder and stored in it. You’ll want to back up your photos so you don’t lose them if your PC’s hard drive ever fails.

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Photo Stream is clearly designed to be used along with a desktop application. Photo Stream temporarily backs up your photos to iCloud so iPhoto or iCloud Control Panel can download them to your Mac or PC and make a local backup before they’re deleted. You could also use iTunes to sync your photos from your device to your PC or Mac, but we don’t really recommend it — you should never have to use iTunes.

How to Actually Back Up All Your Photos Online

So Photo Stream is actually pretty inconvenient — or, at least, it’s just a way to temporarily sync photos between your devices without storing them long-term. But what if you actually want to automatically back up your photos online without them being deleted automatically?

The solution here is a third-party app that does this for you, offering the automatic photo uploads with long-term storage. There are several good services with apps in the App Store:

  • Dropbox: Dropbox’s Camera Upload feature allows you to automatically upload the photos — and videos — you take to your Dropbox account. They’ll be easily accessible anywhere there’s a Dropbox app and you can get much more free Dropbox storage than you can iCloud storage. Dropbox will never automatically delete your old photos.
  • Google+: Google+ offers photo and video backups with its Auto Upload feature, too. Photos will be stored in your Google+ Photos — formerly Picasa Web Albums — and will be marked as private by default so no one else can view them. Full-size photos will count against your free 15 GB of Google account storage space, but you can also choose to upload an unlimited amount of photos at a smaller resolution.
  • Flickr: The Flickr app is no longer a mess. Flickr offers an Auto Upload feature for uploading full-size photos you take and free Flickr accounts offer a massive 1 TB of storage for you to store your photos. The massive amount of free storage alone makes Flickr worth a look.

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Use any of these services and you’ll get an online, automatic photo backup solution you can rely on. You’ll get a good chunk of free space, your photos will never be automatically deleted, and you can easily access them from any device. You won’t have to worry about storing local copies of your photos and backing them up manually.


Apple should fix this mess and offer a better solution for long-term photo backup, especially considering the limitations aren’t immediately obvious to users. Until they do, third-party apps are ready to step in and take their place.

You can also automatically back up your photos to the web on Android with Google+’s Auto Upload or Dropbox’s Camera Upload.

Image Credit: Simon Yeo on Flickr


    






Tips & Tricks

How to Sync Any Browser’s Bookmarks With Your iPad or iPhone

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Apple makes it easy to synchronize bookmarks between the Safari browser on a Mac and the Safari browser on iOS, but you don’t have to use Safari — or a Mac — to sync your bookmarks back and forth.

You can do this with any browser. Whether you’re using Chrome, Firefox, or even Internet Explorer, there’s a way to sync your browser bookmarks so you can access your same bookmarks on your iPad.

Safari on a Mac

Apple’s iCloud service is the officially supported way to sync data with your iPad or iPhone. It’s included on Macs, but Apple also offers similar iCloud bookmark syncing features for Windows.

On a Mac, this should be enabled by default. To check whether it’s enabled, you can launch the System Preferences panel on your Mac, open the iCloud preferences panel, and ensure the Safari option is checked.

If you’re using Safari on Windows — well, you shouldn’t be. Apple is no longer updating Safari for Windows. iCloud allows you to synchronize bookmarks between other browsers on your Windows system and Safari on your iOS device, so Safari isn’t necessary.

Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome via iCloud

To get started, download Apple’s iCloud Control Panel application for Windows and install it. Launch the iCloud Control Panel and log in with the same iCloud account (Apple ID) you use on your iPad or iPhone.

You’ll be able to enable Bookmark syncing with Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome. Click the Options button to select the browser you want to synchronize bookmarks with. (Note that bookmarks are called “favorites” in Internet Explorer.)

You’ll be able to access your synced bookmarks in the Safari browser on your iPad or iPhone, and they’ll sync back and forth automatically over the Internet.

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Google Chrome Sync

Google Chrome also has its own built-in sync feature and Google provides an official Chrome app for iPad and iPhone. If you’re a Chrome user, you can set up Chrome Sync on your desktop version of Chrome — you should already have this enabled if you have logged into your Chrome browser.

You can check if this Chrome Sync is enabled by opening Chrome’s settings screen and seeing whether you’re signed in. Click the Advanced sync settings button and ensure bookmark syncing is enabled.

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Once you have Chrome Sync set up, you can install the Chrome app from the App Store and sign in with the same Google account. Your bookmarks, as well as other data like your open browser tabs, will automatically sync.

This can be a better solution because the Chrome browser is available for so many platforms and you gain the ability to synchronize other browser data, such as your open browser tabs, between your devices. Unfortunately, the Chrome browser is slower than Apple’s own Safari browser on iPad and iPhone because of the way Apple limits third-party browsers, so using it involves a trade-off.

Manual Bookmark Sync in iTunes

iTunes also allows you to sync bookmarks between your computer and your iPad or iPhone. It does this the old-fashioned way, by initiating a manual sync when your device is plugged in via USB. To access this option, connect your device to your computer, select the device in iTunes, and click the Info tab.

This is the more outdated way of synchronizing your bookmarks. This feature may be useful if you want to create a one-time copy of your bookmarks from your PC, but it’s nowhere near ideal for regular syncing. You don’t have to use this feature, just as you really don’t have to use iTunes anymore. In fact, this option is unavailable if you’ve set up iCloud syncing in iTunes.

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After you set up bookmark syncing via iCloud or Chrome Sync, bookmarks will sync immediately after you save, remove, or edit them.


    






Tips & Tricks

3 Ways to Make Steam Even Faster

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Have you ever noticed how slow Steam’s built-in web browser can be? Do you struggle with slow download speeds? Or is Steam just slow in general? These tips will help you speed it up.

Steam isn’t a game itself, so there are no 3D settings to change to achieve maximum performance. But there are some things you can do to speed it up dramatically.

Speed Up the Steam Web Browser

Steam’s built-in web browser — used in both the Steam store and in Steam’s in-game overlay to provide a web browser you can quickly use within games – can be frustratingly slow on many systems. Rather than the typical speed we’ve come to expect from Chrome, Firefox, or even Internet Explorer, Steam seems to struggle. When you click a link or go to a new page, there’s a noticeable delay before the new page appears — something that doesn’t happen in desktop browsers.

Many people seem to have made peace with this slowness, accepting that Steam’s built-in browser is just bad. However, there’s a trick that will eliminate this delay on many systems and make the Steam web browser fast.

This problem seems to arise from an incompatibility with the Automatically Detect Proxy Settings option, which is enabled by default on Windows. This is a compatibility option that very few people should actually need, so it’s safe to disable it.

To disable this option, open the Internet Options dialog — press the Windows key to access the Start menu or Start screen, type Internet Options, and click the Internet Options shortcut.

Select the Connections tab in the Internet Options window and click the LAN settings button.

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Uncheck the Automatically detect settings option here, then click OK to save your settings.

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If you experienced a significant delay every time a web page loaded in Steam’s web browser, it should now be gone. In the unlikely event that you encounter some sort of problem with your network connection, you could always re-enable this option.

Increase Steam’s Game Download Speed

Steam attempts to automatically select the nearest download server to your location. However, it may not always select the ideal download server. Or, in the case of high-traffic events like big seasonal sales and huge game launches, you may benefit from selecting a less-congested server.

To do this, open Steam’s settings by clicking the Steam menu in Steam and selecting Settings. Click over to the Downloads tab and select the closest download server from the Download Region box.

You should also ensure that Steam’s download bandwidth isn’t limited from here.

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You may want to restart Steam and see if your download speeds improve after changing this setting. In some cases, the closest server might not be the fastest. One a bit farther away could be faster if your local server is more congested, for example.

Steam once provided information about content server load, which allowed you to select a regional server that wasn’t under high-load, but this information no longer seems to be available. Steam still provides a page that shows you the amount of download activity happening in different regions, including statistics about the difference in download speeds in different US states, but this information isn’t as useful.

Accelerate Steam and Your Games

One way to speed up all your games — and Steam itself —  is by getting a solid-state drive and installing Steam to it. Steam allows you to easily move your Steam folder — at C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam by default — to another hard drive. Just move it like you would any other folder. You can then launch the Steam.exe program as if you had never moved Steam’s files.

Steam also allows you to configure multiple game library folders. This means that you can set up a Steam library folder on a solid-state drive and one on your larger magnetic hard drive. Install your most frequently played games to the solid-state drive for maximum speed and your less frequently played ones to the slower magnetic hard drive to save SSD space.

To set up additional library folders, open Steam’s Settings window and click the Downloads tab. You’ll find the Steam Library Folders option here. Click the Add Library Folder button and create a new game library on another hard drive.

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When you install a game in Steam, you’ll be asked which library folder you want to install it to.

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With the proxy compatibility option disabled, the correct download server chosen, and Steam installed to a fast SSD, it should be a speed demon. There’s not much more you can do to speed up Steam, short of upgrading other hardware like your computer’s CPU.

Image Credit: Andrew Nash on Flickr


    






Tips & Tricks

How Can I Check the Age of My Windows Installation?

Curious about when you installed Windows and how long you’ve been chugging along without a system refresh? Read on as we show you a simple way to see how long-in-the-tooth your Windows installation is.

Dear How-To Geek,

It feels like it has been forever since I installed Windows 7 and I’m starting to wonder if some of the performance issues I’m experiencing have something to do with how long ago it was installed. It isn’t crashing or anything horrible, mind you, it just feels slower than it used to and I’m wondering if I should reinstall it to wipe the slate clean. Is there a simple way to determine the original installation date of Windows on its host machine?

Sincerely,

Worried in Windows

Although you only intended to ask one question, you actually asked two. Your direct question is an easy one to answer (how to check the Windows installation date). The indirect question is, however, a little trickier (if you need to reinstall Windows to get a performance boost). Let’s start off with the easy one: how to check your installation date.

Windows includes a handy little application just for the purposes of pulling up system information like the installation date, among other things. Open the Start Menu and type cmd in the run box (or, alternatively, press WinKey+R to pull up the run dialog and enter the same command).

At the command prompt, type systeminfo.exe

[Editor's note: Helpful reader mjso74 pointed out in the comments section, that a more efficient command to use would be systeminfo | find /i "install date" as it returns only one line with the exact information we're looking for. Thanks, mjso74!]

Give the application a moment to run; it takes around 15-20 seconds to gather all the data. You’ll most likely need to scroll back up in the console window to find the section at the top that lists operating system stats. What you care about is Original Install Date:

We’ve been running the machine we tested the command on since August 23 2009. For the curious, that’s one month and a day after the initial public release of Windows 7 (after we were done playing with early test releases and spent a month mucking around in the guts of Windows 7 to report on features and flaws, we ran a new clean installation and kept on trucking).

Now, you might be asking yourself: Why haven’t they reinstalled Windows in all that time? Haven’t things slowed down? Haven’t they upgraded hardware? The truth of the matter is, in most cases there’s no need to completely wipe your computer and start from scratch to resolve issues with Windows and, if you don’t bog your system down with unnecessary and poorly written software, things keep humming along. In fact, we even migrated this machine from a traditional mechanical hard drive to a newer solid-state drive back in 2011.

Even though we’ve tested piles of software since then, the machine is still rather clean because 99% of that testing happened in a virtual machine. That’s not just a trick for technology bloggers, either, virtualizing is a handy trick for anyone who wants to run a rock solid base OS and avoid the bog-down-and-then-refresh cycle that can plague a heavily used machine.

So while it might be the case that you’ve been running Windows 7 for years and heavy software installation and use has bogged your system down to the point a refresh is in order, we’d strongly suggest reading over the following How-To Geek guides to see if you can’t wrangle the machine into shape without a total wipe (and, if you can’t, at least you’ll be in a better position to keep the refreshed machine light and zippy):

Armed with a little knowledge, you too can keep a computer humming along until the next iteration of Windows comes along (and beyond) without the hassle of reinstalling Windows and all your apps.

 

 


    






Tips & Tricks

Can Google Employees See My Saved Google Chrome Passwords?

Storing your passwords in your web browser seems like a great time saver, but are the passwords secure and inaccessible to others (even employees of the browser company) when squirreled away?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader MMA is curious if Google employees have (or could have) access to the passwords he stores in Google Chrome:

I understand that we are really tempted to save our passwords in Google Chrome. The likely benefit is two fold,

  • You don’t need to (memorize and) input those long and cryptic passwords.
  • These are available wherever you are once you log in to your Google account.

The last point sparked my doubt. Since the password is available anywhere, the storage must in some central location, and this should be at Google.

Now, my simple question is, can a Google employee see my passwords?

Searching over the Internet revealed several articles/messages.

There are many more (including this one at this site), mostly along the same line, points, counter-points, huge debates. I refrain from mentioning them here, simply carry a search if you want to find them.

Coming back to my original query, can a Google employee see my password? Since I can view the password using a simple button, definitely they can be unhashed (decrypted) even if encrypted. This is very different from the passwords saved in Unix-like OS’s where the saved password can never be seen in plain text.

They use a one-way encryption algorithm to encrypt your passwords. This encrypted password is then stored in the passwd or shadow file. When you attempt to login, the password you type in is encrypted again and compared with the entry in the file that stores your passwords. If they match, it must be the same password, and you are allowed access. Thus, a superuser can change my password, can block my account, but he can never see my password.

So are his concerns well founded or will a little insight dispel his worry?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Zeel helps put his mind at ease:

Short answer: No*

Passwords stored on your local machine can be decrypted by Chrome, as long as your OS user account is logged in. And then you can view those in plain text. At first this seems horrible, but how did you think auto-fill worked? When that password field gets filled in, Chrome must insert the real password into the HTML form element – or else the page wouldn’t work right, and you could not submit the form. And if the connection to the website is not over HTTPS, the plain text is then sent over the internet. In other words, if chrome can’t get the plain text passwords, then they are totally useless. A one way hash is no good, because we need to use them.

Now the passwords are in fact encrypted, the only way to get them back to plain text is to have the decryption key. That key is your Google password, or a secondary key you can set up. When you sign into Chrome and sync the Google servers will transmit the encrypted passwords, settings, bookmarks, auto-fill, etc, to your local machine. Here Chrome will decrypt the information and be able to use it.

On Google’s end all that info is stored in its encrpyted state, and they do not have the key to decrypt it. Your account password is checked against a hash to log in to Google, and even if you let chrome remember it, that encrypted version is hidden in the same bundle as the other passwords, impossible to access. So an employee could probably grab a dump of the encrypted data, but it wouldn’t do them any good, since they would have no way to use it.*

So no, Google employees can not** access your passwords, since they are encrypted on their servers.

* However, do not forget that any system that can be accessed by an authorized user can be accessed by an unauthorized user. Some systems are easier to break than other, but none are fail-proof. . . That being said, I think I will trust Google and the millions they spend on security systems, over any other password storage solution. And heck, I’m a wimpy nerd, it would be easier to beat the passwords out of me than break Google’s encryption.

** I am also assuming that there isn’t a person who just happens to work for Google gaining access to your local machine. In that case you are screwed, but employment at Google isn’t actually a factor any more. Moral: Hit Win + L before leaving machine.

While we agree with zeel that it’s a pretty safe bet (as long as your computer is not compromised) that your passwords are in fact safe while stored in Chrome, we prefer to encrypt all our logins and passwords in a LastPass vault.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


    






Tips & Tricks

5 Common PC Game Graphics Options Explained

computer-knobs

PC games offer seemingly endless screens of graphics options to fiddle with. Each involves a trade-off between graphical quality and performance, but it’s not always clear what each option does.

In addition to toggling these settings from within games, you can generally force them from your graphics driver’s control panel and enable them even in older games that don’t offer such modern settings.

Resolution

Resolution is fairly simple. On modern LCD monitors — forget those old CRT monitors — your LCD monitor has a “native resolution” that is the monitor’s maximum resolution. On your desktop, it’s important you stick with your display’s native resolution.

It’s not always so simple in games. Using your monitor’s native resolution will give you the best graphical quality, but will require the most hardware power. For example, if you have a 1920×1080 screen, your graphics card will have to render about 2 million pixels for each frame. This gives you the sharpest image possible on that display. To achieve faster performance, you could decrease your screen resolution in the game — for example, you could select 1024×768 and your graphics card would only be pushing about 768 thousand pixels per frame.

Your monitor would simply upscale the image and make it appear larger, but this would be at the cost of quality — things would appear blurrier and generally just lower-resolution.

In general, it’s important to use your LCD monitor’s native resolution. If you need some extra performance, you could cut your screen resolution down in the game to achieve higher performance.

screen-resolution

Vertical Sync

Vertical Sync, often referred to as VSync, is both loved and hated. The idea behind VSync is to synchronize the number of frames rendered to your monitor’s refresh rate.

For example, most LCD monitors have a 60Hz refresh rate, which means they display 60 frames per second. If your computer is rendering 100 frames per second, your monitor can still only display 60 frames per second. Your computer is just wasting power — while you may see a big FPS number, your monitor isn’t capable of displaying that.

VSync attempts to “sync” the game’s frame rate to your monitor’s refresh rate, so it would generally try to stick to 60 FPS. This also eliminates a phenomenon known as “tearing,” in which the screen may render part of the image from one of the game’s frames and part of the screen from another frame, making the graphics appear to “tear.”

VSync also introduces problems. It can cut your frame rate by as much as 50% when enabled in a game, and can also result in increased input lag.

If your computer can render much more than 60 FPS in a game, enabling VSync can help reduce tearing you may see. If you struggle to achieve 60 FPS, it will likely just decrease your frame rate and add input latency.

Whether VSync is useful will depend on the game and your hardware. If you experience tearing, you may want to enable it. If you experience low FPs and input lag, you may want to disable it. It’s worth playing with this setting if you’re experiencing problems.

screen-tearing

Texture Filtering

Bilinear filtering, trilinear filtering, and anisotropic filtering are texture-filtering techniques that are used to sharpen textures within a game. Anisotropic filtering (or AF) provides the best results, but requires the most hardware power to achieve, so you’ll often be able to choose between several different types of filtering methods.

Games generally apply textures to surfaces to make geometric surfaces appear to have detail. This type of filtering takes your viewing orientation into account, essentially making the textures appear sharper and less blurry.

anisotropic-filtering

Antialiasing

“Aliasing” is an effect that occurs when lines and edges appear to be jagged. For example, you may be staring at the edge of a wall in a  game and the wall may appear to have a jagged, pixel-y effect rather than appearing smooth and sharp, as it would in real life.

Antialiasing (or AA) is a name given to various techniques to eliminate aliasing, smoothing out jagged lines and making them appear more natural. Typical antialiasing samples the image after it’s generated and before it reaches your monitor, blending jagged edges and lines with their surroundings to achieve a more natural effect. You’ll generally find options for 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x antialiasing — the number refers to how many samples the antialiasing filter takes. More samples produces a smoother looking image, but requires more hardware power.

If you have a small, high-resolution monitor, you may only need 2x antialiasing to make images appear sharp. If you have a large, low-resolution monitor — think old CRT monitors — you may need high levels of antialiasing to make the image appear less pixelated and jagged on that low-resolution screen.

Modern games may have other types of antialiasing tricks, such as FXAA — a faster algorithm for antialiasing that produces better results. All types of antialiasing are designed to smooth out jagged edges.

antialiasing-sample

Ambient Occlusion

Ambient occlusion (AO) is a way to model lighting effects in 3D scenes. In game engines, there are typically light sources that cast light on geometric objects. Ambient occlusion calculates which pixels in an image would be blocked from view of the light source by other geometric objects and determines how bright they should be. Essentially, it’s a way to add smooth, realistic shadows to an image.

This option may appear in games as SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion), HBAO (horizon-based ambient occlusion), or HDAO (high-definition ambient occlusion). SSAO doesn’t require as much of a performance penalty, but doesn’t offer the most accurate lighting. The other two are similar, except that HBAO is for NVIDIA cards, while HDAO is for AMD cards.

ambient-occlusion


There are many other settings used in PC games, but many of them should be reasonably obvious — for example, texture quality controls the resolution of textures used in the game. Higher texture quality offers more detailed textures, but takes up more video RAM (VRAM) on the graphics card.

Image Credit: Long Zheng on Flickr, Vanessaezekowitz on Wikimedia Commons, Angus Dorbie on Wikipedia, Julian Herzog on Wikimedia Commons, Peter Pearson on Flickr


    






Tips & Tricks

How to Enable and Secure Remote Desktop on Windows

While there are many alternatives, Microsoft’s Remote Desktop is a perfectly viable option for accessing other computers, but it has to be properly secured.  After recommended security measures are in place, Remote Desktop is a powerful tool for geeks to use and lets you avoid installing third party apps for this type of functionality.

This guide and the screenshots that accompany it are made for Windows 8.1.  However, you should be able to follow this guide as long as you’re using one of these editions of Windows:

  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • Windows 8.1 Enterprise
  • Windows 8 Enterprise
  • Windows 8 Pro
  • Windows 7 Professional
  • Windows 7 Enterprise
  • Windows 7 Ultimate
  • Windows Vista Business
  • Windows Vista Ultimate
  • Windows Vista Enterprise
  • Windows XP Professional

Enabling Remote Desktop

First, we need to enable Remote Desktop and select which users have remote access to the computer.  Hit Windows key + R to bring up a Run prompt, and type “sysdm.cpl.”

Another way to get to the same menu is to type “This PC” in your Start menu, right click “This PC” and go to Properties:

Either way will bring up this menu, where you need to click on the Remote tab:

Select “Allow remote connections to this computer” and the option below it, “Allow connections only from computers running Remote Desktop with Network Level Authentication.”

It’s not a necessity to require Network Level Authentication, but doing so makes your computer more secure by protecting you from Man in the Middle attacks.  Systems even as old as Windows XP can connect to hosts with Network Level Authentication, so there’s no reason not to use it.

You may get a warning about your power options when you enable Remote Desktop:

If so, make sure you click the link to Power Options and configure your computer so it doesn’t fall asleep or hibernate.  See our article on managing power settings if you need help.

Next, click “Select Users.”

Any accounts in the Administrators group will already have access.  If you need to grant Remote Desktop access to any other users, just click “Add” and type in the usernames.

7-addusers

Click “Check Names” to verify the username is typed correctly and then click OK.  Click OK on the System Properties window as well.

Securing Remote Desktop

Your computer is currently connectable via Remote Desktop (only on your local network if you’re behind a router), but there are some more settings we need to configure in order to achieve maximum security.

First, let’s address the obvious one.  All of the users that you gave Remote Desktop access need to have strong passwords.  There are a lot of bots constantly scanning the internet for vulnerable PCs running Remote Desktop, so don’t underestimate the importance of a strong password.  Use more than eight characters (12+ is recommended) with numbers, lowercase and uppercase letters, and special characters.

Go to the Start menu or open a Run prompt (Windows Key + R) and type “secpol.msc” to open the Local Security Policy menu.

Once there, expand “Local Policies” and click on “User Rights Assignment.”

Double-click on the “Allow log on through Remote Desktop Services” policy listed on the right.

It’s our recommendation to remove both of the groups already listed in this window, Administrators and Remote Desktop Users.  After that, click “Add User or Group” and manually add the users you’d like to grant Remote Desktop access to.  This isn’t an essential step, but it gives you more power over which accounts get to use Remote Desktop.  If, in the future, you make a new Administrator account for some reason and forget to put a strong password on it, you’re opening your computer up to hackers around the world if you never bothered removing the “Administrators” group from this screen.

Close the Local Security Policy window and open the Local Group Policy Editor by typing “gpedit.msc” into either a Run prompt or the Start menu.

When the Local Group Policy Editor opens, expand Computer Policy > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Remote Desktop Services > Remote Desktop Session Host, and then click on Security.

Double-click on any settings in this menu to change their values.  The ones we recommend changing are:

Set client connection encryption level – Set this to High Level so your Remote Desktop sessions are secured with 128-bit encryption.

Require secure RPC communication – Set this to Enabled.

Require use of specific security layer for remote (RDP) connections – Set this to SSL (TLS 1.0).

Require user authentication for remote connections by using Network Level Authentication – Set this to Enabled.

Once those changes have been made, you can close the Local Group Policy Editor.  The last security recommendation we have is to change the default port that Remote Desktop listens on.  This is an optional step and is considered a security through obscurity practice, but the fact is that changing the default port number greatly decreases the amount of malicious connection attempts that your computer will receive.  Your password and security settings need to make Remote Desktop invulnerable no matter what port it is listening on, but we might as well decrease the amount of connection attempts if we can.

Security through Obscurity: Changing the Default RDP Port

By default, Remote Desktop listens on port 3389.  Pick a five digit number less than 65535 that you’d like to use for your custom Remote Desktop port number.  With that number in mind, open up the Registry Editor by typing “regedit” into a Run prompt or the Start menu.

When the Registry Editor opens up, expand HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE > SYSTEM > CurrentControlSet > Control > Terminal Server > WinStations > RDP-Tcp > then double-click on “PortNumber” in the window on the right.

With the PortNumber registry key open, select “Decimal” on the right side of the window and then type your five digit number under “Value data” on the left.

Click OK and then close the Registry Editor.

Since we’ve changed the default port that Remote Desktop uses, we’ll need to configure Windows Firewall to accept incoming connections on that port.  Go to the Start screen, search for “Windows Firewall” and click on it.

When Windows Firewall opens, click “Advanced Settings” on the left side of the window.  Then right-click on “Inbound Rules” and choose “New Rule.”

The “New Inbound Rule Wizard” will pop up, select Port and click next.  On the next screen, make sure TCP is selected and then enter the port number you chose earlier, and then click next.  Click next two more times because the default values on the next couple pages will be fine.  On the last page, select a name for this new rule, such as “Custom RDP port,” and then click finish.

Last Steps

Your computer should now be accessible on your local network, just specify either the IP address of the machine or the name of it, followed by a colon and the port number in both cases, like so:

To access your computer from outside your network, you’ll more than likely need to forward the port on your router.  After that, your PC should be remotely accessible from any device that has a Remote Desktop client.

If you’re wondering how you can keep track of who is logging into your PC (and from where), you can open up Event Viewer to see.

Once you have Event Viewer opened, expand Applications and Services Logs > Microsoft > Windows > TerminalServices-LocalSessionManger and then click Operational.

Click on any of the events in the right pane to see login information.


    






Tips & Tricks

What Does the RAM Slot Color Coding on Motherboards Mean?

Yellow and orange, blue and black, green and red: you’ll find the RAM slots on motherboards in all sorts of  color pairs. But what exactly do those pairs mean and how does it affect you when system building or upgrading your current rig?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites. Image courtesy of question asker, Totymedli. 

The Question

SuperUser reader Totymedli is curious about the color coding of RAM slots:

I have always seen that the motherboard RAM slots are colored in pairs, but never knew what it meant. I just put the 2 RAM in, and after a few tries it always worked. But after I tried to install a third one it always throws me a blue screen of death. Is there an order how should I install RAM to the board? What do the colors mean? Do they indicate a performance boost opportunity or are they just a guide for installation?

What’s the solution for his blue screen installation issues?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Enigma breaks the code:

It means that the colored pair is a dual channel set and that you should install RAM as a pair to take advantage of it.

You should install 2 of the same sticks as a matching pair on the same color slots and then another 2 that are the same in the remaining two slots.

Ideally you want to have all memory be identical in a system or else you will end up with some memory being potentially downclocked (or voltage/multiplier) to the lowest common denominator.

Further reading:

Tom’s Hardware Forum: How to Install Dual Channel [Memory]?

Hardware Secrets: Everything You Need to Know About Dual-, Triple-, and Quad-Channel Memory Architectures

Unfortunately the color pairing scheme isn’t standardized on older motherboards (more recent boards seem to consistently obey the color-indicates-memory-channel-rule, though).

In light of that, Ecnerwal’s advice on the importance of checking the manual carefully should not be ignored:

The colors are nicely answered by Enigma. As for:

But after I tried to install a third one it always throws me a blue screen of death. Is there an order how should I install RAM to the board?

The answer is Yes, there is an order, and the details are found in your motherboard manual, which nearly always has detailed instructions for what order the memory slots should be filled, and which configurations will work, so you can simply put it in once and have it work, rather than:

I just put the 2 RAM in, and after a few tries it always worked.

As in all things related to electronics and computer building, reading the manual first and avoiding blue screens of death (or, worse, damaging hardware) is always preferred to trial-and-error. When in doubt, reference the manual.


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


    






Tips & Tricks

How to Boot and Install Linux on a UEFI PC With Secure Boot

ubuntu-on-surface-pro-2

New Windows PCs come with UEFI firmware and Secure Boot enabled. Secure Boot prevents operating systems from booting unless they’re signed by a key loaded into UEFI — out of the box, only Microsoft-signed software can boot.

Microsoft mandates that PC vendors allow users to disable Secure Boot, so you can disable Secure Boot or add your own custom key to get around this limitation. Secure Boot can’t be disabled on ARM devices running Windows RT.

How Secure Boot Works

PCs that come with Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 include UEFI firmware instead of the traditional BIOS. By default, the machine’s UEFI firmware will only boot boot loaders signed by a key embedded in the UEFI firmware. This feature is known as “Secure Boot” or “Trusted Boot.” On traditional PCs without this security feature, a rootkit could install itself and become the boot loader. The computer’s BIOS would then load the rootkit at boot time, which would boot and load Windows, hiding itself from the operating system and embedding itself at a deep level.

Secure Boot blocks this — the computer will only boot trusted software, so malicious boot loaders won’t be able to infect the system.

On an Intel x86 PC (not ARM PCs), you have control over Secure Boot. You can choose to disable it or even add your own signing key. Organizations could use their own keys to ensure only approved Linux operating systems could boot, for example.

secure-boot-violation-invalid-signature-detected

Options for Installing Linux

You have several options for installing Linux on a PC with Secure Boot:

  • Choose a Linux Distribution That Supports Secure Boot: Modern versions of Ubuntu — starting with Ubuntu 12.04.2 LTS and 12.10 — will boot and install normally on most PCs with Secure Boot enabled. This is because Ubuntu’s first-stage EFI boot loader is signed by Microsoft. However, a Ubuntu developer notes that Ubuntu’s boot loader isn’t signed with a key that’s required by Microsoft’s certification process, but simply a key Microsoft says is “recommended.” This means that Ubuntu may not boot on all UEFI PCs. Users may have to disable Secure Boot to to use Ubuntu on some PCs.
  • Disable Secure Boot: Secure Boot can be disabled, which will exchange its security benefits for the ability to have your PC boot anything, just as older PCs with the traditional BIOS do. This is also necessary if you want to install an older version of Windows that wasn’t developed with Secure Boot in mind, such as Windows 7.
  • Add a Signing Key to the UEFI Firmware: Some Linux distributions may sign their boot loaders with their own key, which you can add to your UEFI firmware. This doesn’t seem to be a common at the moment.

You should check to see which process your Linux distribution of choice recommends. If you need to boot an older Linux distribution that doesn’t provide any information about this, you’ll just need to disable Secure Boot.

You should be able to install current versions of Ubuntu — either the LTS release or the latest release — without any trouble on most new PCs. See the last section for instructions on booting from a removable device.

How to Disable Secure Boot

You can control Secure Boot from your UEFI Firmware Settings screen. To access this screen, you’ll need to access the boot options menu in Windows 8. To do this, open the Settings charm — press Windows Key + I to open it — click the Power button, then press and hold the Shift key as you click Restart.

restart-from-settings-charm

Your computer will restart into the advanced boot options screen. Select the Troubleshoot option, select Advanced options, and then select UEFI Settings. (You may not see the UEFI Settings option on a few Windows 8 PCs, even if they come with UEFI — consult your manufacturer’s documentation for information on getting to its UEFI settings screen in this case.)

access-uefi-firmware-settings

You’ll be taken to the UEFI Settings screen, where you can choose to disable Secure Boot or add your own key.

surface-pro-2-uefi

Boot From Removable Media

You can boot from removable media by accessing the boot options menu in the same way — hold Shift while you click the Restart option. Insert your boot device of choice, select Use a device, and select the device you want to boot from.

After booting from the removable device, you can install Linux as you normally would or just use the live environment from the removable device without installing it.

windows-8-uefi-choose-boot-device


Bear in mind that Secure Boot is a useful security feature. You should leave it enabled unless you need to run operating systems that won’t boot with Secure Boot enabled.


    






Tips & Tricks

How to Save Money in Online Shopping

Everybody desires to save lots of extra money whereas procuring. We’re right here to let you know some issues, protecting in thoughts which you could...