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.

Google Chromebook: Is It For Me?

Welcome to the first of a recurring series here on my Making Technology Simpler blog: “Is It For Me?” I’ll explain a product or technology, then help you figure out if it meets your needs. This week’s subject is the Google Chromebook.

Chromebook laptops
Google Chromebooks (Photo courtesy of

Google Chromebooks are a series of inexpensive laptops with great battery life, strong integration with Google, and little maintenance needed.

Chromebooks use an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS…the whole operating system is basically the Chrome Internet browser that many people use on Windows and Mac computers. The computer hardware is made by companies like Acer and HP.


Here’s another thing that makes Chromebooks unique among laptops: the whole operating system is designed to be used with Internet access, and the hard drive in the computer is tiny.

Google intended for these computers to be used in conjunction with Google’s cloud storage, so photos will need to be stored in Google+ and documents stored in Google Drive. (I wrote about cloud storage here.) With everything stored in the cloud, there’s no need for a big hard drive. The benefit of this is the computer will boot up very quickly.

This reliance on cloud storage has a couple other ramifications. On the positive side, no data backups are needed, since almost everything is in Google’s cloud. And once the computer needs to be replaced, you can sign into your next Chromebook with your Google account, and all your emails, documents, etc. will be available immediately. No file transferring necessary.


On the flip side, you will be limited in what your Chromebook can do without Internet access. You can do some document creation, for example, and the document will save to Google Drive when you connect to the Internet again. Internet access is becoming more widespread, however, and some Chromebooks will allow you to also connect to a 4G network through a carrier like T-Mobile.

Because almost everything you do on a Chromebook involves Internet access, the speed of the computer itself will be heavily influenced by the speed of your Internet connection. If you regularly use a slow connection, be prepared to pay for faster speeds to really enjoy a speedy Chromebook experience.

The other main limitation of Chromebooks is that you can’t install PC or Mac programs on it. So if you really need the full version of Microsoft Office or some specialized accounting program for your work, a Chromebook isn’t for you (unless it’s as a secondary computer). You’re limited to using Google’s apps and others available through the Chrome web store.

Ease of use

Chromebooks are low maintenance devices, partly because they update automatically and Google says they’re very secure and have no need for antivirus software.

Setup is also easy, to the degree that you’re already part of Google’s services. If you already use Google for email, documents, photos, and music, your new Chromebook will be ready to go as soon as you open it and sign in with your Google account.

If you use iTunes for your music and store documents or photos on your current computer, you’ll want to transfer all of it to Google’s appropriate online service before you make the switch to a Chromebook. (And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, know that they won’t sync with music on your Chromebook.)

Remember, third-party apps like iTunes or Microsoft Office can’t be installed on a Chromebook. So you’ll need to use a Google service or a third-party service that can be accessed online (such as Pandora for music streaming or the online version of Microsoft Office).

Is it for me?

A Chromebook might be great for you, if:

  • You use Google for all of your email, documents, photos, media, and calendar (or are willing to move all those things to Google)
  • You have Internet access almost all the time
  • You need a very portable computer with a battery that lasts all day
  • A low up-front cost is important to you

You should probably stay away from a Chromebook, if:

  • You need an application that only runs on a PC or Mac, like Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, or iTunes
  • You prefer to store your documents, photos, or media locally (i.e. on your computer’s hard drive)
  • Your computer needs to handle intense tasks, like games or video editing

Have you seen or heard about another device or technology that’s made you ask, “Is it for me?” Let me know below, and I’ll write about it soon.



Which cloud storage service is best for you?

Note: this is a follow-up to last week’s explanation of cloud storage.

Cloud storage comparison
The logos of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and OneDrive (clockwise from top left)

There are lots of companies that offer cloud storage, and several of them are quite well known. This post is going to focus on the services that I (subjectively) view as the major players, and which service is best for you.

I feel certain that there is no one cloud storage service that is best for everyone. Instead, I think that each has certain advantages depending on how you use it and which devices you use.

As I mentioned last week, I actually do not pay for storage from any of the companies that I will describe below. I use the free storage amount from several different companies: Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud from Apple.

This isn’t a very practical long-term solution, because I’ve got many more files on my computer and other devices than can fit in the free storage allotments. And the more providers I sign up for, the harder it gets to keep track of what files I’ve stored on which service.

So I recommend using the free storage space each provider offers as more of a trial run. You get to see how the service works without plunking down your money first. Once you decide which one works best for you, then decide how much storage you need to pay for.

I’ve only recently begun to feel that paying for a cloud storage subscription might be worth the money for my family. By using those three services, I’ve started to get an idea of which one I’d prefer to pay for.

So without further ado, here’s a comparison of the four main cloud storage providers[1].


Dropbox logoDropbox is the platform that really first made cloud storage usable for the ordinary folks like us. It’s also unique on this list because the company was created around this cloud storage service; the others on the list are branches of much larger tech companies.

Pricing: 2GB free…1TB $10/month

Pros: Available on almost any device, simple pricing plan, very customizable

Cons: Smallest amount of free space, not automatically integrated with Google, Apple, or Microsoft

Best for: People who own a mixture of devices, such as an iPhone, Windows PC, and Kindle Fire.

Google Drive

Google DriveFormerly known as Google Docs, Google Drive is available with any Google or Gmail account. Included with Android phones, whose software is made by Google.

Pricing: 15GB free…100GB $2/mo…1TB $10/mo (Free space is shared with Gmail and Google+ storage)

Pros: Most free storage, familiar design to users of Gmail’s website/apps

Cons: Stores and shares files, but not many other features

Best for: Android phone users or people who use Google products heavily

OneDrive (Microsoft)

OneDriveFormerly SkyDrive, Microsoft has revamped their cloud storage service and OneDrive is a big part of their focus with the newer Windows operating systems.

Pricing: 15GB free…100GB $2/mo…200GB $4/mo

Pros: Works extremely well with Microsoft Office, generous free storage

Cons: File sharing not as simple as others

Best for: Microsoft Office users or those with newer Windows computers/tablets

iCloud Drive (Apple)

iCloud DriveFormerly called just iCloud, Apple’s revamped storage service was updated this fall. iCloud Drive is notable for features tied in with Apple devices, such as backing up the entire device and locating the device if you lose it.

Pricing: 5GB free…20GB $1/mo…200GB $4/mo…500GB $10/mo…1TB $20/mo

Pros: Coordinates data and settings between multiple Apple devices, new family sharing helpful for family accounts

Cons: Less free storage, no Android app

Best for: Those with multiple Apple devices


As you can see, pricing is very competitive between the providers. I expect storage allowances to continue to rise in the coming years, making it even more feasible to store almost everything on your computer in the cloud.

To me, the biggest difference among the services is the integration with other software/hardware made by the companies.

Dropbox only does cloud storage, and is a good option for those with a variety of device types. Outside of those rare cases, I think it’s at a disadvantage because it’s not tied in with one of the other major companies.

For those who use Google or Apple products heavily, I think Google Drive or iCloud Drive will work really well. I use Apple products heavily and love the features of iCloud, and I’m sure the same is true for Google/Android fans.

OneDrive (the only one of these I haven’t personally used) seems like a great fit for those who use Microsoft Office often, or have a newer Windows PC or tablet. If you use the newer versions of Windows or Microsoft Office, I’d recommend giving OneDrive a try. It’s not as well known, but I see it as a great option for many people.


Which of these do you use, and what’s been your experience? Do you have a favorite I haven’t mentioned? Join the conversation below! I’d love to hear from you. 


1 – Amazon also has a cloud storage service. Although I haven’t included it in this comparison, if you use Amazon frequently or own their devices (such as Kindles), consider checking out what they offer here.

Mac vs. PC – longevity

Apple's MacBook Air
Apple’s MacBook Air (Photo courtesy of

After reading my earlier post about the differences between PCs and Macs, a reader wrote in with a follow-up question: “I’ve heard the life expectancy is longer for a Mac, is this true?”

That seems to be a fairly common assumption, especially among Mac owners (who probably paid more for their computer than their PC-toting friends).

My personal experience seems to agree with that premise, but I’m one of those Mac owners who paid more for my laptop than the average person.

So I want to see some hard evidence before I call it fact. And I haven’t found any. Every source I’ve found seems to be more personal anecdotes.

I think most people would agree that Macs are built of more durable materials than all but a few PCs (aluminum vs. plastic, etc.)

However, that brings me to one of my biggest frustrations about Macs (and Apple hardware in general): Macs are not user-upgradeable.

Once upon a time, if your Mac was starting to run slowly, you could buy more memory and install it yourself. If your battery no longer held much juice, you could buy a new one and swap it out. That kept the computer functional for at least a couple more years.

Not anymore. Now, the outside of the computer is shut with special screws and most parts inside are glued or soldered in place. This is a trend that Apple began several years ago and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

This may make for a more durable computer (especially in a laptop), but it also means you need to pay close attention to the memory, hard drive, etc. when you’re purchasing the computer because you won’t be able to upgrade them later.[1]

In conclusion: while I do think Macs offer the best user experience for most people, I don’t think they necessarily have a longer life expectancy than PCs.


Fill out the form below with a question or comment. I’d love to hear from you!

1 – I think the RAM (aka memory, or how well the computer can multitask) is a much higher priority for upgrading at purchase, because you can always plug in an external hard drive or thumb drive to add additional storage to the computer down the road. No such options exist for RAM.

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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