Sunday, November 30, 2008

Microsoft Warns of Worm Attack on Windows

Gregg Keizer

worm, flaw, bug, security, microsoft, windows

Graphic: Diego Aguirre
Security researchers at Microsoft Corp. last week warned of a significant climb in exploits of a Windows bug it patched with an emergency fix last month, confirming earlier reports by Symantec Corp.

Microsoft again urged users to apply the MS08-067 patch if they have not already done so.

The new attacks, which Microsoft's Malware Protection Center said began last weekend but spiked in the past week, use the same worm Symantec first spotted Nov. 21.

Dubbed "Conficker.a" by Microsoft and "Downadup" by Symantec, the worm exploits the vulnerability in the Windows Server service, used by all versions of the operating system to connect to file and print servers on a network. Microsoft patched the bug in an out-of-cycle update five weeks ago after it discovered a small number of infected PCs, most of them in Southeast Asia .

According to Ziv Mador, a researcher with the Malware Protection Center, the new wave of attacks has spread in corporations and hit "several hundred" home users. Most of the infection reports have come from U.S. users, said Mador in a post to the center's blog , but his team has received calls from users in several other countries too. The worm avoids infecting Ukrainian computers, Mador said, which may indicate the malware was written by a Ukrainian; hackers often purposefully skip systems in the country where they live, hoping that will postpone or eliminate any reaction by local authorities.

"It is also interesting to note that the worm patches the vulnerable API in memory so the machine will not be vulnerable anymore," said Mador. "It is not that the malware authors care so much about the computer as they want to make sure that other malware will not take it over too."

The worm also resets the machine's system restore point, said Microsoft in its technical write-up , which may make it difficult or impossible to "roll back" Windows to a pre-infection state.

PCs that have been patched with the MS08-067 fix are protected, Mador stressed.

Last week, Symantec bumped up its ThreatCon security alert status from "1" to "2" in response to attacks it had tracked hitting its customers and honeypots. Others security vendors, however, disputed the uptick.

Original here

Put Under Revision Control!

by Tim O'Reilly

Last week, the New York Times wrote about Changes at

The policy section of the transition site was removed without notice just days after went live shortly after the election. At the time a spokesman for the Obama-Biden transition effort said they were “re-tooling” it.

There was an almost instantaneous outcry from bloggers and other advocates of transparency in government who noticed disappearance. At least one site posted a complete archive of the old Agenda pages. (Increasing transparency, by the way, is a key feature of Mr. Obama’s government reform agenda, according to the site’s “Ethics” page.)

The changes, as it turned out, were mostly to tone down the partisan politics of the policy documents as published during the campaign. But the lesson remains: when public documents can be changed without notice, it's essential for the public to be able to see what changed, and why.

There's a profound and simple tool that the Obama administration can use to improve government transparency. It's something that's enabled worldwide collaboration among software developers, and whose relevance for content development has been definitively demonstrated by wikipedia: Revision control. Not only does revision control allow a community to work independently on a common project, it makes it possible to review the changes.

There's a primitive form of revision control in word processing products like Microsoft Word, but we need more than that, especially for documents that bring together the work of multiple independent authors. For, the wikipedia model might work: logging of every change, with only authorized participants allowed to make changes, but everyone (the public) able to review and comment on associated discussion pages.

The real holy grail, of course, would be to provide revision control on all government regulations, and eventually, on legislation. This would no doubt be fought tooth and nail by lobbyists who don't want their fingerprints on the final result, but that's precisely why it would be such a breakthrough. And that's also why I suggest that the Obama team start with demonstrate that the system works, that it has enormous benefits in transparency, and work from there.

Of course, there are major technical and workflow obstacles. Many of the documents in question are probably worked on independently as Microsoft Office files, with bulk merges that obscure the history. What we really need are distributed revision control tools. There's a lot of good work happening in this area in the software development community; it would be fascinating to see it extended to collaborative document development. (Of course, shared editing a la Google Docs is coming to Microsoft Office as well, so perhaps the point of leverage is for Google to improve the revision control capabilities in Google Docs, starting an arms race with Microsoft. Once the tools are in place, the social pressure to use them has a point of leverage.)

Like so many things that go under the rubric of "change," I'm sure that there would be many complications to this proposal, many problems I haven't thought of. Many current assumptions and processes would need to be challenged, and some of the challenges would take us down dead ends. But that's what change is all about. If it was just like the present, it wouldn't be change.

I'd love your thoughts both on the general proposal and specific ideas for implementation.

P.S. I wrote on this same subject about a year and a half ago, in a post entitled Why Congress Needs a Version Control System. It was Karl Fogel who first put this idea into my head, and that post explains his thinking. There are also some comments there from 2007 that may provide more grist for the discussion.

Original here

Most Popular Top 10's of 2008

Almost two years later, our weekly listicle, the Lifehacker Top 10, still proves to be one of the most popular posts that publishes here. Since our top 10-making bot is off this weekend, take a gander at 20 of the most popular Top 10's that have published in 2008 so far.

  1. Top 10 Obscure Google Search Tricks
    "Dozens of Google search guides detail the tips you already know, but today we're skipping the obvious and highlighting our favorite obscure Google web search tricks."
  2. Top 10 Harmless Geek Pranks
    "Since the dawn of time, geeks have been playing harmless pranks on their beloved (but unsuspecting) associates, and it's up to all of us to carry the torch forward."
  3. Top 10 Ways to Stay Energized
    "You can overcome a late night of net surfing, a rough morning, or just the post-lunch stupor without becoming an over-wired mess."
  4. Top 10 Software Easter Eggs
    "The best easter eggs aren't painted pink and stuffed with jelly beans—they're the undocumented and unexpected fun features hidden deep inside various software apps."
  5. Top 10 BitTorrent Tools and Tricks
    "BitTorrent is the go-to resource for downloading everything from music and movies to software and operating systems, but as its popularity continues to grow, so do the number of tools available for making the most of it."
  6. Top 10 Firefox 3 Features
    "The newest version of our favorite open source web browser, Mozilla Firefox 3, offers dozens of new features and fixes, but only a handful will make the most dramatic difference in your everyday browsing."
  7. Top 10 How To Videos
    "Your crafty older relatives used to have to mail-order their video tutorials or wait for "This Old House" reruns to get their DIY on, but the age of streaming video has been good to those who like to tinker and try out neat tricks."
  8. Top 10 Things You Forgot Your Mac Can Do
    "From pure eye candy to outright productivity-boosters, read on to get reminded of some of the more obscure things you can do with your Mac, fresh out of the box."
  9. Top 10 Telephone Tricks
    "When getting things done involves making phone calls, you want to spend the least amount of time and money on the horn as possible—and several tricks and services can help you do just that."
  10. Top 10 Computer Annoyances and How to Fix Them
    "Computers are supposed to make our lives easier, but too much of the time they can be frustrating, time-wasting, stubborn machines."
  11. Top 10 Ways to Get Cables Under Control
    "When you finally decide it's time to do something about that rat's nest of cables that's spreading like kudzu, you don't have to spend a lot of time and money to get it under control."
  12. Top 10 Modern Life Survival Skills
    "Avoid everyday problems and modern mini-calamities by arming yourself with the right know-how before you head out into the world."
  13. Top 10 Ways to Trick Out Your Desktop
    "For something that you look at every day of your working life, your computer desktop doesn't get as much attention as it deserves."
  14. Top 10 Conversation Hacks
    "A whole lot more than just words passes between people who are talking, so a few simple conversational skills can help you recognize what's really being said and help you lead the discussion your way."
  15. Top 10 YouTube Hacks
    "Summer's ending, and with it goes a certain sense of taking it easier, relaxing a bit at the office—you know, caching up on all that YouTube browsing you skip when there's real work to be done."
  16. Top 10 Office Supply Hacks
    "Given some spare time and a few neglected items in the office supply closet, anyone can make their workspace more functional, create a cool tools for their home and office, and even rescue seemingly ruined stuff."
  17. Top 10 Easy Ways to Look Sharp
    "In a perfect world, it wouldn't matter what a genius JavaScript programmer or top-flight professional looked like. In this world, though, coming across as an unkempt schlub won't do anything good for your career, your social life, or your luck with that cute guy or gal from marketing."
  18. Top 10 Apps Worth Installing Adobe AIR For
    "While many of them are simply desktop translations of web interfaces that were easy to use already, a handful of AIR apps truly make work and play easier, or just more interesting."
  19. Top 10 Underhyped Webapps
    "Even in this golden age of Big Internet Companies Acquiring Everything In Sight, there are still a few independent, small webapps out there that don't get the attention they should for their useful functionality."
  20. Top 10 Things to Look Forward to in Windows 7
    "While the next iteration of the ubiquitous Microsoft desktop operating system, Windows 7, isn't a dramatic overhaul of its predecessor Windows Vista, it does fix several sore spots and add a few welcome features."
Original here

Is Free Microsoft PC Security Dangerous?

(CBS) Last week, Microsoft dropped a bombshell on the PC security industry by announcing that it would eliminate its $50-a-year Windows Live OneCare service and instead offer a free anti-malware program, code-named Morro.

The software, which will be available for download in the second half of 2009, will provide protection against viruses, spyware, rootkits, Trojans, “and other emerging threats.”

I have no doubt this will cause at least some consternation for companies like Symantec, Trend Micro and Check Point that sell anti-malware software, but I’m hopeful it won’t destroy the market for third-party security applications. It’s in the interest of consumers for there to be a vibrant, competitive PC security marketplace.

My sources at security companies have told me they’re not particularly worried. Laura Yecies, Vice President of Check Point software’s ZoneAlarm division, said she doesn't "see Microsoft's recent announcement about free security as being significant for ZoneAlarm."

"This is not the first free product - those customers who have been willing to only get a free AV have already had choices for that," added Yecies.

At first glance, the Microsoft announcement is great news because people who are now paying $50 or more a year for protection can get what they need for free. While Microsoft OneCare has never been the highest-rated security suite, it has been a credible defense against malware. And I have no doubt Microsoft’s new product will be adequate for many PC users.

I also think it makes sense for the company that makes the world’s most popular operating system to offer free anti-malware software, as it makes sense for automakers to bundle air bags and seat belts.

But the comparisons between car safety and PC security can take us just so far. Unlike dangers behind the wheel, PC threats are constantly evolving as the bad guys find new and innovative ways to steal our information and invade our privacy.

Indeed, the types of threats have changed from viruses written by hackers out for a bit of ill-gotten fame to malicious programs designed by criminals looking for ill-gotten wealth. Keeping up with these criminals is a full-time job for thousands of security experts working for companies around the world.

This competitive marketplace benefits consumers and businesses and, ironically, even helps out the security companies. People I know in the PC security industry tell me there is a great deal of cooperation and information-sharing about threats and best practices, even while they try to one-up each other on features, performance and other issues.

There is a risk associated with Microsoft’s decision to give away security software if it winds up destroying the market for other security companies.

For one thing, the competition keeps everyone - including Microsoft - on their toes, and fewer players could cause the remaining companies to be a bit more complacent. And if Microsoft were to drive other companies out of business, or simply dominate PC security, I would worry about its software’s effectiveness.

Having multiple players in this field helps keep the bad guys at bay because they may be clever enough to defeat one product, but are less likely to get past the defenses of them all.

Microsoft’s software will not be bundled with Windows but must be downloaded separately. I was told on background by a Microsoft employee that the company takes antitrust issues very seriously as it develops new products.

While this could have some impact on the revenue of PC security companies, it doesn’t completely eliminate their market. For one thing, the Microsoft solution is not likely to appeal to large businesses that have come to expect a level of service that Microsoft is unlikely to offer at no charge.

Also, there are added features in many of the fee-based services like phishing protection, anti-spam and warnings before you click on a potentially dangerous Web link.

There are other product categories besides Windows PC security. All of the major security companies have, or are working on, solutions for mobile phones, including smart-phones like the BlackBerry and iPhone. There are also security products for Linux and Macintosh.

It's not as if Microsoft is the first company to give away security software. AVG offers a pretty good suite of security programs for free while other vendors, including Check Point and Trend Micro, give away pieces of their products, such as Trend’s HouseCall virus and spyware scanner.

Still, I worry. Free is good but competition is also good. Let's hope that they can coexist in the world of PC security.

This week in open source: Fedora 10, Ubuntu 9.04 alpha

By Ryan Paul

This was a good week for distro releases—Fedora 10 finally landed and Ubuntu 9.04 reached alpha status. It was also a busy week for SCO. The dying UNIX vendor received and then appealed the final judgment in its dispute with Novell.

Fedora 10 released, brimming with new features: The developers behind the Fedora project announced the official release of Fedora 10. Ars takes a close look at the new features, including glitch-free PulseAudio, RPM 4.6, and the new version of Network Manager.

First Jaunty Jackalope (Ubuntu 9.04) alpha hops into view: Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 1 is now available for download. New packages have been merged in from Debian and work is progressing on the ARM port. Plans are also beginning to coalesce for a Mono 2.0 transition.

Final judgment: SCO owes Novell millions (plus interest): Judge Dale A. Kimball has handed down the final judgment in the SCO case. He dismissed SCO's claims and sustained his previous decision, which orders SCO to pay Novell $2.54 million.

Gitting going with git: creating your first repository: Ars walks you through the process of creating a Git repository at the Github project management site.

lns: Simple symbolic links: Don't let ln's unmemorable argument order ruin your day. Use lns instead and move on to other priorities like promoting world peace and establishing liberty justice for all... and getting your red cape to the dry cleaners before picking up your Starbucks order.

GNOME's Empathy IM client gets file transfer support: The open source Telepathy messaging framework has gained preliminary support for file transfers. This functionality will be included in the next version of GNOME's Empathy instant messaging client on Linux.

Mozilla to extend Firefox 3.1 beta cycle: Firefox development director Mike Beltzner has proposed extending the Firefox 3.1 beta cycle by adding an additional milestone release. This will give developers more time to increase the robustness of the browser before it is ready to enter the release candidate stage.

KDE's Kate text editor gets Vi input mode: KDE's Kate text editor got a new Vi input mode that is designed to support Vi's normal and visual mode keyboard operations and motions.

Ubuntu launches Free Culture Showcase: The Ubuntu community has launched its second Free Culture Showcase, a contest that gives artists the opportunity to have their creative works included in the next major version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. All submissions must be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.

SCO files appeal on ruling in Novell case: SCO has filed an appeal on a ruling that ordered the company to pay Novell millions of dollars for breach of fiduciary duty. SCO's futile legal assault on Linux will continue.

Stay tuned for more open source software news next week and keep an eye on Open Ended, our journal for Linux and open source software.

Original here

Nokia launches Home Control centre

In future, you'll be able to run a bath and preheat the oven using your mobile phone
In future, you'll be able to run a bath and preheat the oven using your mobile phone

It is the stuff of science fiction: house lights, ovens, televisions and even security systems that can all be remotely operated and controlled at the touch of a button.

But now a new type of smart technology from mobile phone maker Nokia looks set to turn that fantasy into a reality.

The Home Control Center, which will go on sale at the end of next year, will mean British consumers are one step closer to living in "networked homes", where everyday systems and devices are connected to the internet, allowing the home owner to monitor and activate them remotely using their mobile phone.

Nokia's platform will run the open-source Linux operating system, meaning that third-party manufacturers that make fridges and televisions, will be able to build compatible technology into their devices at minimal cost. The Home Control Center will enable other smart-home solutions to be connected together, and provide users with a single, consistent way of controlling all their gadgets.

The system will initially be used to help people control heating in their home. Nokia has signed an agreement with energy company RWE to work on building compatible systems that can be operated remotely by mobile phone or through a computer.

In future, however, it's likely that many more systems will be able to connect up to the Home Control Center, giving users the chance to measure their electricity usage, preheat an oven before they arrive home, and adjust the temperature of their house.

While Nokia acknowledges that so-called "smart home" technology has been available for years, it argues that the biggest barrier to mainstream adoption is pulling all of the systems together.

"Building blocks for an intelligent house are readily available in the market. Putting it all together is, however, like trying to build a house from blocks that do not fit with each other," said the company. "There are smart refrigerators, energy-saving washing machines, heating systems that can adjust the room temperature with one-celcius-accuracy, security systems with touchpanels, low-energy walls, programmable thermostats, self-adjusting curtains, configurable set-top boxes, self-operating yard lights and much more.

"The problem is all these systems are separate and you end up having a dozen remote controllers and miles of cables in the living room.

"Nokia’s aim is to integrate state-of-the-art solutions from each area to the framework so that the systems can be controlled via mobile device. This provides the systems with remote access via the same user interface regardless if you use a mobile phone, web browser or an internet tablet, also enabling the different home systems to talk to each other."

Smart homes are already a feature in countries such as South Korea, where some modern buildings use fingerprint access, rather than conventional keys, to gain access, and many devices within the home are connected to super-fast broadband internet.

It is not yet known how much the Nokia Home Control Center will cost when it goes on sale towards the end of 2009.

Original here

Botnets Can Trample Most Anti-Virus Programs

John E. Dunn,

A new analysis of botnets has come up with a possible reason for their prodigious ability to infect PCs -- many anti-virus programs are near to useless in blocking the binaries used to spread them.

According to FireEye chief scientist Stuart Staniford, detection rates are so poor that, on average, only around 40 percent of security software can detect binaries during the period of greatest infectivity and danger, namely the first few days after a particular variant starts being used by botnet builders.

In a detailed blog, he describes how he uploaded a sample of 217 binaries culled from FireEye appliances in customer premises between September and November to the independent VirusTotal test website. This runs 36 anti-virus programs -- a representative sample of the security programs used by businesses and individuals -- giving researchers access to data on get statistics on how many malware binaries have already been uploaded to the site by other researchers, when they were uploaded and how many were detected by each program.

Roughly half of the binaries picked up by FireEye were unknown to VirusTotal, a result indicative of the core problem of detecting botnet malware -- speed.

Because malware often uses 'polymorphism' -- programs are constantly changed very slightly to evade binary pattern detection -- the problem of detecting and blocking malware quickly is huge. According to Staniford, this makes it important that anti-virus programs can spot malware in the first week of its use.

"The sample is likely to get discarded by the bad guys pretty soon after that," he notes.

During the first three days after initial detection by FireEye, only four in ten anti-virus programs could spot the offending code, which suggests that many bots would evade security software during attacks on real PCs in they happened during this same period.

"The conclusion is that AV works better and better on old stuff -- by the time something has been out for a couple of months, and is still in use, it's likely that 70-80 percent of products will detect it," says Staniford.

FireEye's appliances can be seen as an 'early warning' system because of the way they use behavioural analysis to spot malware in real time, in some cases days or weeks before a program has been formally identified and documented by security companies. By the time it has been spotted and a signature rolled out to anti-virus databases, however, it might already be too late.

Equally, many prominent security vendors will use similar techniques to spot malware as quickly as possible, making it surprising that so many anti-virus programs failed to spot FireEye's sample binaries. The reason might simply be the vast number of samples that appear in any given period.

What nobody doubts is the importance of botnets to the spread of malware and spam, as evidenced by the recent takedown of a US hosting company McColo, which had been accused of hosting botnet controllers. In the hours after the hoster's demise, spam levels were reported to have plummeted dramatically.

Original here

IBM: Talking Web Will be Commonplace in 5 Years

Written by Richard MacManus

Every year IBM releases a "Next Five in Five" list, a list of innovations that "have the potential to change the way people work, live and play over the next five years". This is the third such list, and it mentions a "Talking Web" among the 5 items. You will talk to the Web and the Web will talk back, according to IBM. In the future "you will be able to surf the Internet, hands-free, by using your voice - therefore eliminating the need for visuals or keypads."

In fact this is already starting to happen, as recent iPhone releases from Google and Say Where show.

We can definitely see the potential in a Talking Web - responding to emails quickly using voice, searching the web by barking orders into your computer / phone, composing blog posts by dictating, and so on. The shift to voice will happen in some places for cultural reasons and as a by-product of the rise in popularity of mobile phones to access the Web. IBM notes that in India the spoken word is more prominent than the written word in education, government and culture, so "talking" to the Web is set to usurp all other interfaces. IBM predicts that this change will be driven by new technology, with speech instead of text as the main interface. IBM calls this "VoiceSites," noting that "people without access to a personal computer and Internet, or who are unable to read or write, will be able to take advantage of all the benefits and conveniences the Web has to offer."

Will all this happen in 5 years? While at least one Slashdot commenter thinks it'll be more like 15 years, we see plenty of evidence of voice recognition software on the Web already. google mobileJust a week or so ago Google released an update of its Google Mobile App for the iPhone (iTunes link), which included voice recognition to translate voice commands into search queries. In our tests, we found the voice recognition to be very accurate. Google also offers voice search through GOOG-411 and Yahoo and other information providers offer similar services. There are a whole host of talking search engines in fact. Also, we're seeing voice apps from startups - such as the Say Where iPhone application (our review).

Here are the full 5 predictions from IBM:

  • Energy saving solar technology will be built into asphalt, paint and windows
  • You will have a crystal ball for your health
  • You will talk to the Web . . . and the Web will talk back
  • You will have your own digital shopping assistants
  • Forgetting will become a distant memory
Original here

Netbooks vs notebooks: which should you buy?


The Dell Inspiron 9 was the first Netbook to come with built-in broadband

The idea of a netbook isn't exactly new. Microsoft first touted the concept of a small laptop-style device with a long battery life as far back as the late 1990s. Back then it was pushing its Windows CE Professional operating system.

This was a lightweight OS that belonged to the same family of products that later become the Pocket PC and then Windows Mobile.

The machines that ran this OS, including the IBM Workpad Z50 and HP Jornada 820, used low-power processors, had Flash RAM instead of a hard drive, and sported relatively small screens. However, these devices never really caught on and were eventually quietly phased out.

More successful were sub-notebooks - as pioneered by Toshiba with its Libretto range. These gave you all the functionality of a Windows laptop, but in a much more compact package. These types of devices were very popular in Japan, but never became big sellers in Europe. In part, this was due to their high cost. Buying a Libretto or something similar often meant shelling out well over a grand.

The latest run of netbooks, in comparison, have met with instant market success. This is due in part to their reasonable tags from £200 up, but it's also because they seem to offer much of the functionality of a grown-up laptop, especially now that most models are available with Windows XP as well as the Linux OS that was used on the early models. But the question remains: does a netbook really have enough power to be relied upon as your sole computer?

What about connectivity?

As the name suggests, netbooks are really aimed at people who want an easy-to-use device that gives them access to the internet, and they certainly seem to deliver on this front.

All of them come with Wi-Fi built in and an increasing number now also have Bluetooth on board, so they can be connected wirelessly to a 3G mobile phone for internet access on the move. Some of the latest models are even being offered with built-in 3G, so that they can be used straight out of the box with mobile broadband services.

Companies like Carphone Warehouse and Currys offer these models for free when you take out a mobile broadband subscription. However, the cheapest netbooks, such as the Eee PC 701, use screens that have a resolution of just 800 x 480 pixels.

This means that when they're used to view a normal web page, the whole width of the page isn't viewable at any one time. As a result, you often have to scroll the page back and forth to read a full line of text and this can make them frustrating to use.

Thankfully, these low-resolution screens are being phased out in favour of newer displays with a higher resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. The extra horizontal resolution means that most web pages fit comfortably, negating the need for excessive scrolling.

Does it have enough grunt?

Nevertheless, you may still experience some other performance-related issues when surfing the web on a netbook, as the web is becoming more and more of a multimedia playground. A few years ago it was relatively rare to stumble across a web page with lots of animation and video content, but both are everywhere on the internet today.

Most of this multimedia content is built using Flash. Flash can be demanding in terms of processing power and we've certainly found that pages which are heavily reliant on Flash can slow down netbooks considerably, especially if you're running another application alongside your browser, such as a virus scanner.

On some web pages, standard Flash content can place over a 30 per cent load on a netbook's processor. Add in an additional load from a virus scanner and you're looking at really sluggish performance.

Flash is increasingly used for video content too, and the BBC uses it for its iPlayer service. Depending on the video stream, BBC iPlayer can gobble up to 60 per cent of a netbook's processor performance, leaving little headroom for handling other Windows XP tasks.

And while the Windows version of the Eee PC 1000 can play shows from iPlayer in full screen mode without any problem, we found the same model running under Linux struggled with full-screen playback, producing very jerky video that was all but unwatchable.

So although a netbook is fine for most internet tasks, there are times when you'll wish you had the extra grunt of a full-blown laptop on tap.

Do you need it for work?

Of course, as well as sending emails, updating your Facebook page and watching TV on the web, most of us have to use our laptops for boring work stuff from time to time. In this regard the netbooks on the market today equip themselves pretty well.

Instead of Microsoft Office, the majority come with one of the less expensive or free alternatives, such as Star Office, Open Office, Word Perfect Office or Microsoft Works. While both Star Office and Word Perfect Office take a while to adjust to, they have much of the same functionality as Microsoft Office and are mostly compatible with Office file types so you should have no problems opening, editing and saving documents sent to you by work colleagues.

Although the small keyboards and screens on models like the Eee PC 701 and Acer Aspire One make it a bit of a chore to work on long documents, this isn't such a problem on larger machines like the Eee PC 1000 and MSI Wind.

Speed-wise, we didn't experience many problems when working on Word, Excel or PowerPoint files on a variety of netbooks. File opening and saving times were fairly nippy and even cutting and pasting large images or lots of tables and graphs didn't slow things down too much. However, if you keep a lot of documents open at the same time and are constantly switching between them, it can place a strain on a netbook's limited spec.

This is mainly because netbooks tend to come with a limited amount of memory, but it's also due to the nature of the Atom processor, which isn't a patch on the dual-core and quadcore processors found in full-blown laptops when it comes to multi-tasking.

On the whole, we'd say that for day-to-day office tasks, netbooks have enough processing power to get the job done without feeling too sluggish.

Do you need to edit photos and video?

With digital cameras and camera phones so prevalent today, at some stage most of us will need to do a bit of photo editing and cataloguing. Using Google's Picasa software on both the Linux version of the Eee PC 1000 and a Medion Mini E1210 running Windows XP, everyday jobs like resizing pictures, rotating them and doing simple touch-up tasks were performed relatively quickly, although not quite as speedily as on a standard laptop.

However, when it comes to dealing with video, things aren't so rosy. Obviously video encoding is becoming increasingly important as most of us want to be able to re-encode videos to play on portable devices like the Apple iPod and Sony PSP. As a result, Intel has spent a great deal of time optimising its desktop and laptop processors for video encoding and decoding. However, lots of these tweaks have been removed from the Atom in order to keep its power drain to a minimum.

The effects of this were plain to see in our tests. Converting a 100MB high-definition (HD) trailer from WMV format to DivX format took a whopping 9 minutes and 20 seconds on a Medion E1210, which uses the 1.6GHz Atom N270 chip that's found in most of today's netbooks.

In comparison, the same job took just 2 minutes and 29 seconds on a Dell Vostro laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo T8100 clocked at 2.10GHz. These results make it clear that if you plan to use a netbook for video editing, encoding and other such intensive jobs, then you'll have to be prepared for a lot of waiting around.

Despite these performance issues, there is one major area where netbooks score highly: portability. A few years ago, a sub-notebook from the likes of Toshiba or Sony would typically cost two grand and still weigh well over 2kg. netbooks have swapped that equation – the cheapest models are actually the smallest.

In part this is because the most expensive component of a netbook is its screen, and so the smaller it is, the lower the price of the product. In fact, the smallest netbooks are now so tiny they'll slide effortless into a larger handbag, and they typically weigh less than 1kg.

Another advantage is that there are a large number of netbooks around that use SSD drives instead of hard drives. SSD drives store data in solid state memory, so there are no moving parts. This means that they're less prone to damage if they get knocked about.

Do you want to play games?

At a time when some laptops are starting to rival desktop machines in terms of gaming performance, the current crop of netbooks fall woefully short when it comes to gaming prowess.

The latest laptops come with dedicated graphics chips that help them produce stunning frame rates and amazing graphics in the latest and most demanding games. And while these represent the pinnacle of mobile gaming performance, even the cheapest and most basic notebooks have enough power to play slightly older titles at a decent frame rate.

However, the same can't be said for netbooks. Any 3D game that requires relatively demanding graphics – even titles that are a two or three years old – run so slowly as to be unplayable and some titles just don't work at all. For example, we tried the Crysis demo on the Medion E1210, but it refused to run, announcing that it wasn't compatible with the Mobile Intel 945 chipset.

Nevertheless, you will be able to play some ageing classics. The original version of Half Life worked without any problems, as did Halo I, although you'll need a USB optical drive to be able to install both titles. Still, it's clear that if you're a gamer and you want to be able to play titles created in the last four years or so, then a netbook will not provide sufficient power to even scratch your itchy trigger finger.

Should you opt for a Linux or Windows netbook?

The early netbooks, such as the original Eee PC, were all about price. To keep the price as low as possible, they came loaded with the Linux operating system rather than Windows XP.

Linux is an open source OS and therefore completely free. In contrast, Windows is obviously owned by Microsoft and it charges licensing fees for manufacturers to load it on their netbooks. Originally this fee was prohibitive, given the sub-£250 price of the early devices, but to make it more palatable Microsoft has since reduced the fee to around £20.

Nevertheless, a healthy number of netbooks are still available with Linux pre-installed and the market is split very much 50-50 in terms of sales. Linux actually has a number of benefits over Windows when used on netbooks. For one thing, it boots up much faster. On an Eee PC 1000 loaded with Linux the machine booted to the desktop in just 25 seconds. In comparison, a Medion loaded with Windows XP took just under 50 seconds.

Also, because the Eee PC stores the entire OS on its drive, if anything goes wrong it can be quickly restored just by restarting the machine, holding down F9 and then selecting System Restore. The whole process takes under a minute.

The tabbed interface is also easy for computer novices to get their heads around and it comes with pretty much all the applications the average user will need, including a web browser, email client, word processor and built-in Skype software.

However, Linux is not without its issues. We've had problems with the Wi-Fi configuration tool on both an Eee PC 701 and 1000, randomly losing settings and refusing to connect to our router. Also the Linux version of Flash doesn't handle video as smoothly as the Windows version.

So, for example, although we could play video from the BBC iPlayer (which uses a Flash-based video player) in full-screen mode on an Asus E1000 running Windows XP, trying to do the same thing on the Linux version of the same netbook results in jerky video.

If you're already familiar with Windows XP (and let's face it most people are), then it may be the better option. You can run all the applications you can on a full notebook or desktop PC and you don't have to get used to new ways of doing things, as you do when you switch to Linux.

Nevertheless, Windows does have some drawbacks. It takes up more disk space, which can be an issue on machines with SSD drives, and it also places a higher stress on a netbook's processor, especially when running multiple apps at the same time (like having a virus scan running in the background while browsing the web). You'll also need to add some additional software, such as anti-virus protection, although this can be downloaded for free from or

So, should you go for a netbook or a notebook?

There's no doubt that netbooks are an exciting addition to the world of mobile computing. However, we wouldn't really recommend a netbook as your sole computer unless you're a fairly undemanding PC user.

For more intensive tasks, you'll find that a netbook's limited performance really gets in the way. However, as a companion for your existing laptop or desktop PC, a netbook is hard to beat. They're highly portable and the good battery life is also a boon. Add to this the fact that they're so competitively priced and you've got a really tempting device.

First published in What Laptop, Issue 118

µTorrent Comes to Mac in Beta Form

by Darrell Etherington

If I’m using stuck using Windows for whatever reason, I’m probably using µTorrent. It’s fast, lightweight, and far superior in almost every way to any of the other, more bloated Windows clients. That said, I still prefer Transmission overall, and that’s what I use on my Mac machines. I love them both, for similar reasons, but luckily I’ve never had to choose between the two, since they weren’t available on the same platform. Until now. µTorrent Mac Beta has been released and is shattering my carefully divided reality.

I had to fight a little reluctance, and remove my Transmission icon from my dock so it wouldn’t see my betrayal, but I managed to download and install the new beta. I have to admit, µTorrent’s icon is very appealing. Score one for the newcomer. It also opened very quickly, revealing a minimal, Mac-friendly, attractive user interface. So this is what temptation feels like.

With the proper ports forwarded in my firewall, and running one after the other, not simultaneously, I found download speeds to be roughly the same in both applications on my test file, a (legally) free audio book of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Both feature individual file prioritization, speed limits, peer information, and ratio monitoring and automatic stopping of seeding at customizable ratios. After I performed my brief test, I had to ask myself: would µTorrent unseat Transmission as my go-to torrent client?

There are a few reasons why it won’t. First, I really like Transmission’s automatic resizing of the application window to fit active torrents. It may be a minor feature, but I’m nuts for it. Can’t go back. Second, the Transmission icon can be badged with upload and download rate, while µTorrent’s cannot. That at-a-glance access to rate information saves me a lot of time in obsessive application window switching. Finally, Transmission supports remote control, groups, speed limit scheduling, and has an auto-add function for a folder you specify. That’s a lot of “finalies”, I realize, but I don’t want to overdo it with the feature listing. It’s probably the product of having been an actively developed app for far longer than µTorrent has, but Transmission still wins nonetheless. Recent Windows-switchers will have a familiar face to greet them when they cross over though, and that’s always a good thing.

Original here

Joost gets back on our radar with iPhone app

Posted by Harrison Hoffman

Men in Black playing on Joost's new iPhone app.

If ever there was a Web service that experienced a rapid fall from grace, it was online video start-up Joost. What started out as a much anticipated new service ultimately fell short of expectations and has recently struggled for attention. Friday, Joost released an iPhone app for its service that might be a game changer. Joost's iPhone app lets users stream and watch any of Joost's 46,000-plus videos for free.

Say what you will about Joost's library of content, the concept behind this app is fantastic. The ability to stream a movie, TV show, or other piece of video content on the go is great. I know the technology is nothing revolutionary--after all the iPhone has had a YouTube app, complete with streaming video, since the device launched. Even given that, when you load up Men in Black on Joost, it just feels like a whole different ballgame. This isn't a video of a dog on a skateboard anymore. This is real, Hollywood-produced content, delivered to your phone, for free.

I have not experienced the major hiccups that very early users, like MG Siegler did, so those issues seem to have been taken care of. I did notice some occassional stuttering of the stream over Wi-Fi. I am, however, disheartened by the lack of streaming support over EDGE or 3G. Joost requires a Wi-Fi connection to work.

Even though Joost appears to have a really slick UI (in many ways it does), it breaks some of the conventions for UI design set forth by Apple. Flicking to view the next page of search results does work. However, it does not slide over as you would expect, rather a spinning wheel is displayed while the next page loads. Joost also did not implement the incremental find that we have all grown accustomed to for searching.

For me, Joost's iPhone app falls just short of greatness. I really like what they are going for here, but I would certainly like to see more content added to Joost's library and support for 3G at the very least, if not EDGE. Even though the videos appear to choke at times, even over Wi-Fi, 3G should be more than capable of streaming video.

I hope that Hulu and Netflix, with their expansive content libraries, are paying attention to what Joost is doing because they are both prime candidates for this sort of mobile application. I get excited just thinking about having access to all of those videos (almost) anytime I want.

Harrison Hoffman is a tech enthusiast and co-founder of, a blog about Windows Live. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

Original here

Picasa for Mac undergoing testing, may arrive by 2009

By Justin Berka

Although most of Google's software is available for the Mac, the company's Picasa photo application has been conspicuously absent. There hasn't been much in the way of Mac news related to Picasa, either, but some news appeared this week that is putting Picasa back in the minds of Mac users. According to an AppleInsider source, a Mac version of the software is not only coming, but is already undergoing internal beta testing at Google.

Google said in January that a Mac version of Picasa would be coming sometime in 2008, but given the lack of news since then, it didn't look as though that prediction would come true. Based on this new rumor, though, there seems to be a pretty good chance that Picasa will appear before 2009. Internal beta testing has supposedly "just begun," and it's unclear just how long that period will take. Since the company isn't exactly shy about releasing software with a beta label, I think a few weeks of internal testing followed by the release of a public beta sounds plausible. A release sometime in January is also possible if Google decides things need a bit more time to stew.

Our own David Chartier had good things to say about the newest version of the application, Picasa 3, and the Mac version of Picasa will provide iPhoto with a bit of competition by providing a reasonable alternative to Apple's application. I'm sure a good number of Mac users will be happy to see Picasa appear, so hopefully Google will get it out the door as soon as possible.

Original here

iPhone Dev Team successfully boots Linux on iPhone

By Aidan Malley

A milestone has been reached in iPhone firmware modification on Friday with the first alternative operating system for the hardware, Linux, now running on the device.

The first build created by Dev Team is now running on iPhone, iPhone 3G, and the original iPod touch in what's considered a "draft" version.

The software primarily includes the main Linux 2.6 kernel as well as rudimentary graphics, serial, and other functional drivers that are just enough to get a command line running when input is sent over the USB interface; the accelerometer, audio, networking and even the touchscreen have yet to receive any kind of software support.

Developers have also made a basic multi-boot front end known as OpeniBoot that lets users toggle between Apple's own operating system and an alternative platform.

While only just beginning, the project is the first known instance of a non-OS X operating system running on Apple's touchscreen devices where previous modifications have so far been limited to jailbreaking and unlocking handsets.

It also promises to expand in the future: the Dev Team is hoping to run Google's equally Linux-based but more complete Android mobile operating system on the iPhone and is searching for programmers to help with the project.

Original here

App Store Passes 10,000 App Milestone

Using the iPhone and iPod Touch as a legitimate developer platform was something we had all begged Apple for since we first got our hands on it. Apple swore up and down that they had no plans of ‘opening it up’ and letting 3rd party applications be installed.

This was so huge that developers, in their spare time, decided to come up with a system to distribute applications onto the device. Soon we saw Installer(and then later Cydia) released for anyone who jailbroke their iPhone or iPod Touch. This was so big that it spawned an entire niche(with a huge community) around it. Websites left and right were launched to not only help, but also showcase these 3rd party applications.

In repsonse, Apple not only ‘re-locked’ the device on each upgrade, but they also came up with a way to put ‘legit’ apps on the device. Apple’s App Store launched on June 27th July 11, 2008 with 500 applications. . .150 of which were free. As with anything Apple releases, the App Store had tons of press surrounding it(even though there had been 3rd party applications via jailbreak almost a full year before). Apple reported 30 million dollars in sales within the first 30 days of the App Store launch. With developers like Namco, EA, and even anyone else who wanted to. . .they were about to take the mobile platform by storm.

Since that launch day there have been some great applications to hit the device as well as some not so great ones. Companies have split apart. . .and individual developers are on the verge of becoming millionaires. This platform has proven itself to be a stable and viable business plan for anyone who has the time(or money) to develop for it.

10,000 applications later and the App Store is still going strong. A few hundred new applications get released every week, and even though some might say it’s becoming diluted, I feel that it’s just growing. I mean, developers will learn what sells and what doesn’t. Even though it takes time, this will cause the best apps ‘rise to the top’, and over time this will help the mobile revolution continue to grow.

Original here