Do You Know What You’re Installing?

Ask Toolbar in action
The Ask Toolbar is highlighted in red here. Totally unnecessary to have in your browser.

Do you have little random popups in the bottom-right corner of your computer screen? Does your internet browser have a random homepage you didn’t pick, or a strange toolbar along the top that you never use (like the one highlighted in red on the right)? Has your desktop filled up with app icons that you don’t recognize?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve been installing junk and malware without even knowing it. Read on for tips on how to be more careful as you install new applications.

Operating systems with app stores (Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome, etc.) theoretically check to make sure that every app in the app store gives you just what it advertises[1]. No junk bundled with the app, no malware, no viruses, no harmful things hiding where you can’t see.

Windows, in contrast, has no app store. So when you want to download Skype, for instance, you go online and find a place to download the Skype installer package. These installer packages are where malware and other junk lurk.

For more details, this week I’m pointing you to an article by the How-To Geek. The article explains how you can avoid installing junk programs on your PC.

Go slowly through the installation

First of all, downloads often have tricky options in their installation screens to try to get you to install stuff you weren’t wanting. 

An example from The How-To Geek: When you install Oracle’s Java software, you get asked to install the Ask Toolbar (not made by Oracle) in your browser. As far as I know, the Ask Toolbar isn’t going to harm your computer. But even if that’s true, “junk” is probably the most generous description I can give. It’s unnecessary and annoying, and it is another thing using your computer’s memory and processor.

Ask Toolbar installer
Think twice before clicking Next. If you leave the box checked, you’re installing junk on your computer.

You should always have the option to decline bundled software like this while installing an app, but the install packages make it as tricky as possible. There’s often a tiny checkbox at the bottom of a screen (checked by default), or the software you’re installing says it “recommends” you install this additional program. Well of course they recommend it; they’re getting paid to recommend it! Always go slowly while installing new software; make sure you’re only agreeing to install the software you’re intending.

ArcadeGiant installer
This “Special Offer” page will install malware called ArcadeGiant unless you click Decline (the greyed out button you didn’t notice).

Or sometimes the installer will show you a screen about a “Special Offer” with a bunch of legalese and the option to “Accept” or “Decline.” If you’re in a hurry or just aren’t prepared for it, you may click “Accept.” After all, who has time to sort through all this legalese, right? Voila! You’ve just installed junk that’s either bad for your computer or just unnecessary. Don’t assume that every step is necessary for installing your desired software; some steps are only trying to get you to install junk.

Sometimes the checkbox to install junk software is right on the website where you download your legitimate software. Adobe’s Flash Player website, for example, includes the option to install an additional program you didn’t ask for. Always keep an eye out for these kinds of offers and decline them.

Fake download links

Head to The How-To Geek’s original article for details on another trap you should look out for: fake download links. There are often multiple links that say “Download” on the page where you download your program. One of them is the correct link, and the others are all advertisements taking you somewhere you don’t want to be.

The How-To Geek article tells you how to know which link is legit. Plus, it’ll get you started on cleaning out junk you may have previously installed.

Let me know below what topic you’d like me to hit next!


1 – This of course isn’t always the case. There are so many apps submitted for approval on app stores, there’s no way the folks checking them can thoroughly review every app. Still, it’s a lot better than the situation for Windows.

What’s wrong with Windows XP?

Living dangerously can be exciting! That’s why some people love skydiving or rock-climbing. On the other hand, using Windows XP is dangerous, but not exciting. If you use a computer with Windows XP (or have a friend who does), this quick post is really important for you! (If you’re not sure, Microsoft’s website will tell you right away.)

Microsoft has ended support for Windows XP[1]. It’s a 12-year-old operating system, and this is a normal thing Microsoft does as it continues to introduce new versions of Windows. But it’s a big, big, BIG deal for people still using XP.

OS market share
Operating system market share as of June 2014 (Photo courtesy of

Why is this a big deal? First of all, check out the chart to the right. 1 out of 4 computers still runs Windows XP (the green wedge of the pie). That’s a lot of people affected by this end-of-support date! So if you’re still a Windows XP user, you’re not alone.

So what makes Windows XP dangerous? Well, Microsoft (and Apple) regularly offer free updates for their operating systems that users can download or install. These updates are primarily help protect your computer from newly-discovered hacks, viruses, and other bad stuff out there. Microsoft will no longer be providing these security updates for Windows XP!

In other words, Windows XP computers will become prime targets for hackers, because there are so many computers still running it and the hackers know Microsoft will no longer fix vulnerabilities that are found. Microsoft patched about 100 XP vulnerabilities last year alone[2]. This year they will patch ZERO (again, this isn’t a mistake by Microsoft; it’s normal procedure).

So what should you do? Well you have two options:

Option 1: Install Windows 8 on your current computer. I DON’T RECOMMEND THIS, mainly because if you have Windows XP, your computer likely doesn’t have the power to handle the new operating system well, if at all. (It will also cost $119 or $199, depending on the version.)

Option 2: Buy a new computer. Look, I hate telling you to go spend money. But Windows XP isn’t safe to use anymore! My recommendation is to buy a new computer with a newer operating system included. Feel free to check out this great laptop buying guide from Walt Mossberg or my post last week on Macs vs. PCs.

Bottom line: you’ve got to move on from Windows XP for security reasons, but a newer computer and software will serve you well. 

If you want some danger in your life, I’d recommend skydiving or rock climbing instead of Windows XP.


What topics do you want to hear about? Submit your question or comment below!

1 – Windows XP support ended April 8, 2014.
2 – According to

Mac vs. PC

Apple and Microsoft logos
Aaaaaand in this corner… (Photo courtesy of

A reader writes in: “At my school, they promote Mac laptops over PC’s. What are the difference between Mac’s and PC’s? Is one better than the other? Thanks!”

When I was looking at different options for universities, I noticed one of my top choices required journalism majors to have a Mac. I’d only used Windows PCs before[1]. So I started researching. I ended up going to a different school, but I did buy a Mac for college.

That computer lasted me 5 years, and when it died I bought another Mac. I know there are a lot of people who are fanatical about one system or the other. I have experience with both Macs and PCs, and I’ll give you as unbiased of info as I can.

First though, check out this Apple ad from 2006:

I think it’s a good laugh (apologies to any of you who have recounted your vacations with a pie chart). In reality though, Macs and PCs are much more similar than this ad implies (and PCs do a lot more than spreadsheets!) There are differences, however, and here are the main ones I see between the two:

Advantages of Macs:

-Apple makes both the hardware and software for Macs. In contrast, Microsoft makes the the software (Windows) for PCs, while other companies make the hardware (Acer, Dell, HP, etc.)[2]. If you buy an HP laptop, it will often have some HP software installed on it, plus trial versions of software like anti-virus. By contrast, all software that comes with a Mac is made by Apple, so no extra, hidden software eating up your computer’s performance.

-Likewise, Macs do come with apps like iPhoto and iMovie, which can be very helpful for organizing your photos and creating home movies.

The vast majority of viruses and malware are created to target Windows computers[3]. These problems are so rare on Macs that many people say Mac owners don’t even need antivirus software. (Of course, you should always use good judgment when clicking on websites and downloading files, regardless of your operating system.)

The parental controls options and backup software included on Macs are much easier to access and use than on PCs (although Windows 8 has made backup simpler).

Apple has better support, both online and in-person at their Apple Stores. In addition, when Apple updates their operating system, Mac users get to download it for free. On the PC side, you still have to pay to upgrade to new Windows versions (unless you buy a new PC).

Advantages of PCs:

PCs have many more options available. In addition to many different hardware manufacturers to choose among, each of those manufacturers often offer more choices than Apple does with it’s PCs. The choices include color, design, size, and many internal choices, too.

PCs are much more upgradeable (is that a word?). Macs are becoming less able to be upgraded without taking them in to an Apple store. By contrast, a PC user could replace almost any internal hardware from home.

-Here is the most obvious difference to most people: PCs are almost always less expensive. The cheapest Mac laptop currently costs about $900 regularly, while comparable PCs run about $700. And there are options among PCs even cheaper than that.


-If your work or school requires a certain operating system, don’t look to me for help!

-If you want specific customization options or want to build a computer for a specific purpose (like computer games), definitely go with a Windows PC.

-If you are interested in trying things like editing photos or videos, or recording music, look for a Mac, which has great apps for those things built-in.

-For the average person, I believe a Mac will give you the best overall experience, due to its simplicity, dependability, and support after the purchase. It’s also similar enough to a PC that switching is not usually a difficult process.

-For a person who expects to only write emails and documents, check social media, etc., a PC is a fine choice. The price difference between a low-end PC and a low-end Mac is big, and both will handle those basic tasks just fine.

Neither option is right or wrong…just a better option for your particular situation. I hope I’ve made things clearer for you. Let me know if you have any questions about this.

Plus, fill out the form below and your question could be the topic next week! I’d love to hear from you.

1 – PC stands for “Personal Computer.” Technically, a Mac is a personal computer, but PC has come to refer only to computers running the Windows operating system. So that’s how I’ll use PC in this blog post.
2 – Laptops running a Google operating system (known as Chromebooks) have been on the market for a couple years. Google’s OS is specifically designed to be connected to the Internet almost all the time.
3 – This is due to a combination of the more secure way Macs’ operating system is designed and the fact that 90% of computer users use Windows.

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