Master Your Remote Computer Repair

Cross-platform media player VLC is often referred to as the "Swiss Army knife of media applications" for good reason: Not only does VLC play nearly any file you throw at it (you even voted it the best desktop media player), but it can do so much more. From ripping DVDs to converting files to iPod-friendly formats, let's take a look at the four coolest things you can do with VLC and start you on your way to becoming a VLC ninja. Photo by R'eyes.

NOTE: Many of these VLC tricks use the same dialogs, so rather than repeat the same steps every time, I'll be doing a thorough step-by-step once and then highlighting only the differences in the subsequent mini-guides. I'm using Windows in most of my examples, but since VLC is cross-platform, most of the same tricks should work just as well on any platform. VLC has a Streaming and Transcoding Wizard that's supposed to make this process even easier, but it's been buggy for me in all my tests, so I decided to go with the slightly more difficult method detailed below.

Rip Any DVD

You may have thought that you needed some fancy DVD ripping tools to rip DVDs to your hard drive, but VLC can actually rip any DVD with ease. As reader joelena pointed out, since VLC plays the DVD in order to encode it, it can bypass any copy protection. Here's how it works:
  1. Open the Disc and Find the Correct Title: Insert your DVD and open it with File -> Open Disc. We need to find the right title to rip from the DVD, so at this point we're going to preview titles from the disc one by one. To do this, start with 0 as your title number and increment one number at a time until you find the title you want to rip. I've found it's quicker if you choose DVD rather than DVD (menus) at the top of the Open dialog so you only have to wade through actual video.
  2. Pick a Folder to Save the Rip and Name It: Now that you've find the right track, you just need to tell VLC that you want to save it. To do so, tick the Stream/Save checkbox, then click Settings. Here you need to tell VLC where to save the file, so tick the File checkbox and pick a folder to save it to and then give it a name (e.g., My DVD Rip.mpg).
  3. video-and-audio-output-settings.pngDetermine Video and Audio Settings: Now you're ready to tweak the final settings before it's time to rip. Tick the Video codec and Audio codec, then choose the output codecs you prefer. This is really up to you, and if you don't have a preference I've had good results using the defaults described in this excellent VLC rip guide: mp1v for the video codec and mp3 for audio. If you need a specific file format for a mobile device, you may want to choose a difference encapsulation method and codec. Hit OK when you're done.
  4. Rip Away: You've made it. Just hit OK again (make sure Stream/Save is checked) and it should start ripping.

vlc-progress.pngVLC will rip the DVD faster than real-time playback, and you can follow the ripping process in the corner of the VLC window.

Convert Any Video for Your iPod or iPhone with a Drag and Drop Batch Script

vlc-ipod-converter1.pngIf you regularly convert files to a specific file format—say, for your iPod—you can set up a batch file with VLC that will make video conversions as easy as dragging and dropping the to-be-converted file onto the script.

Create a new text file and save it as VLC Converter.bat. Make sure your filesystem is showing file extensions so you aren't saving it as a text file (you don't want to end up with something like VLC Converter.bat.txt). You need to make sure it's saving with the BAT extension.

command-line-options.pngIf you were building the script from scratch, at this point you'd open up the file you just created and paste "C:\Program Files\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe" %1 in the first line. Now you need to get the command line options that describe how VLC should convert the file. For that, you can use the text generated by the Target textbox at the top of the Stream/Save Settings window described in steps two and three of the DVD ripping guide above, which displays the command line options you need for your batch file. Luckily a user at the iPod forums at iLounge already put together a VLC batch conversion script for iPods, so we can just use those settings, which look like this:

"C:\Program Files\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe" %1 :sout=#transcode{vcodec=mp4v,vb=1024,scale=1,height=240,width=320,acodec=mp4a,ab=128,channels=2}:duplicate{dst=std{access=file,mux=mp4,dst=%1.mp4}}

That's a lot of text, but it's just telling VLC everything you would normally tell it in the Settings dialog. The %1 variable will be replaced by the name of the file you drop on the script. Copy and paste all of that text (and only that text) into your batch file and save it. That's all there is to it. Next time you have a video file you want to convert for your iPod, just drag and drop it on your newly created batch script. The script was built specifically for converting videos to an iPod-compatible format, but you can build your own scripts to do virtually common conversions you want.

Stream Media to Other Remote Computer Repair

Now that you're using VLC to rip your DVDs, you've got gigabyte after gigabyte of your videos on your desktop. Rather than copying all of those files to any other remote computer repair you'd like to play them on, VLC allows you to stream video over your network or even over the internet.

First, go to File -> Open File. Browse to the file you'd like to stream, and then—like above—tick the Stream/Save checkbox and click Settings. This time, rather than outputting the stream as a file, we're going to tick the UDP box and enter the local IP address of the computer you'd like to stream to. On Windows, you can find your computer's local IP address by opening the command prompt (Win-R, type cmd, and hit Enter), and then type ipconfig and hit Enter.

Once you've got that, enter it in the computer you're streaming from in the text box next to the UDP checkbox you just enabled. Hit OK to accept your settings, then OK again to finish the setup. While you're still on the streaming remote computer repair, go to Settings -> Add Interface -> Web Interface.

Now it's time to start the stream on your other remote computer repair, and doing so is a breeze. Just open VLC on your second computer, go to File -> Open Network Stream, and—assuming the UDP choice is selected and the port matches the port you used in the setup above (unless you changed it, they should both default to 1234), just hit OK to start the stream.

vlc-web-remote-control1.pngYou're presented with a slight problem streaming the video using VLC this way, namely that you can't control the playback from the remote VLC interface. Luckily you already enabled the web interface, so on the remote computer repair you're streaming to, open a web browser and point it to the VLC web interface. If you're streaming over a local network, find your streaming computer's IP address the same way you did with the remote computer's address above, then enter it into your browser with port 8080 appended to the end. Mine looks like Through the web interface on the remote computer, you can control all of VLC's playback. Handy, huh?

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Testers speed broadband verification with remote computer

The 950 ADSL2+ addresses the need for a comparatively low-cost unit for testing ADSL2+ lines installed across the UK and Ireland.

3M has released two new telecommunications testing products designed to reduce the time and costs associated with verifying broadband lines Between them, the Dynatel Advanced Modular System 965AMS and Dynatel Qualification Test Set 950 ADSL2+ give service providers and their contractors a range of telecommunications line testing features, including triple-play access lines

The 965AMS is designed as a modular system, with a number of modules interchangeable across base units.
This means that telecom operators and their contractors can equip a field installation team with testing equipment far more cost-effectively, because there is no need to provide every engineer with a complete set of modules as well as a base unit.

Equipment can be swapped among individuals, because no base unit is 'paired' to any particular set of modules.

The 965AMS is designed to provide comprehensive testing of voice, video and data lines, initially across copper including VDSL2.

In the future, new modules will address VoIP services and fibre optic lines.
The Vikuiti display screen on the base unit together with an interface and a simple control panel ensures that the 965AMS is easy to operate with minimal training.

With one click of a button, comprehensive line tests can be carried out in a few seconds.
The unit can connect to remote computer repair computer systems for further diagnostics or to upload test results.
The 950 ADSL2+ addresses the need for a comparatively low-cost unit for testing ADSL2+ lines installed across the UK and Ireland.

Using this handheld device, field technicians can test for signal loss, noise, power-influence, longitudinal balance, voltage, loop-current and ground resistance.

The results can then be uploaded into a remote computer repair syestem.

Weighing less than 1.2kg, this portable unit is housed in a durable case for rugged field conditions.


Microsoft releases Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac 2

Microsoft has finally released Remote Computer Connection Client for Mac 2 after nearly a year in beta. It allows Mac users to, according to Microsoft, "easily connect to remote Windows computer."

Microsoft's website states, "With Remote Desktop Connection Client 2, you can quickly, simply and securely connect to Windows-based PCs to access Windows-based files, applications, devices, and networks from your Mac."

Features include:
One Mac, unlimited Windows. New Multiple Session Support gives Mac users simultaneous access to multiple Windows-based PCs or to a network server that hosts remote computer repair applications and files. Since it works with Vista and is a Universal application, Remote Desktop Connection Client 2 is compatible with the latest technologies on Windows and Mac platforms.

A more Mac-like experience. A redesigned user interface makes this application more customizable. Create your own keyboard shortcuts; and even access and change preferences during active sessions.

Print everything off your Mac. Access and print from Windows applications to any printer that can be configured from your Intel- or PowerPC-based Macs.

Get fast updates and easy help. Microsoft Error Reporting Tool and Microsoft AutoUpdate are included so you can anonymously submit data on software related issues and get software updates as soon as they are available. Remote Desktop Connection Client 2 also takes advantage of the new Helpviewer and improved help topics for quick access to fresh online product help from within the application.

Reduce security breaches. Network Level Authentication (NLA) is a new authentication method in Windows Vista that offers security enhancements that can help to protect the remote computer repair from hackers and malicious software. It completes user authentication before you establish a full Remote Desktop Connection. Please see Windows Help for more details on network level authentication.

This free download runs natively on both Intel-based and PowerPC-based Macs and supports eight languages: English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese.

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Geek Squad, P.I.? Computer Repair Uproar in Texas

A Texas law passed in 2007 has remote computer repair shops statewide up in arms. Seemingly pressured by the Private Investigator lobby, lawmakers enacted House Bill 2833, which seems to require computer repair personnel to obtain a Private Investigator license before being allowed to work on customers' computers.

The relevant sections of the law in question

"A person acts as an investigations company for the purposes of this chapter if the person:
(1) engages in the business of obtaining or furnishing, or accepts employment to obtain or furnish, information related to:
(B) the identity, habits, business, occupation, knowledge, efficiency, loyalty, movement, location, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of a person;
(b) For purposes of Subsection (a)(1), obtaining or furnishing information includes information obtained or furnished through the review and analysis of, and the investigation into the content of, remote computer-based data not available to the public."

According to a lawsuit initiated by the newly-established Texas Chapter of the Institute for Justice, the Texas Private Security Board, a state agency, is interpreting this as including simple computer repairs such as malware removal.

The law provides for punishment of up to one year in jail and $4,000 in fines, and up to $10,000 in civil penalties. Additionally, any customer knowingly enlisting the help of an unlicensed computer repair person (that is, without a PI license) is subject to the same punishment.

Matt Miller, Texas Institute for Justice Executive Director and lead attorney on the case, notes that "it makes no sense to require a remote computer repairman with 10 or 20 years of experience to get a degree in criminal justice just to continue working in his occupation. This law will drive up the price of remote computer repair for everyone, and that’s exactly what the private investigations industry wants."

For many small computer repair shops, this law would mean having to shut down their business until they acquire a license. To get a PI license, one needs either a criminal justice degree (with all associated costs) or a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed PI. Neither are realistic options for most small computer repair shops.

While it remains to be seen how this law will be interpreted by the TPSB and the courts, it sure is reopening the discussion about whether or not remote computer repair workers should be certified, and how. Computer repair is one of only a handful of professions that do not need certification in order to operate a business.

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Shop brings 'more mothering' approach to computer repair

Your computer's making a funny noise. It won't turn on. Smoke's pouring out the back.

Maybe you spilled orange juice on it. Or ran over it with your car.

That Computer Chick has seen it all — and fixed it — at her two Marietta repair shops. And she doesn't make a peep about how you could possibly have gotten yourself into this predicament.

Linda Pereira, That Chick herself, said many of her male customers have admitted bringing their computers to her because she's a woman.

"They're intimidated by the men because the men talk over their heads," she said.

Pereira, 43, has five women on staff, plus one boychick. That's her son, Andy, who's leaving in a few months for college.

"We're more mothering," Pereira said. "When you come in, we sympathize with your problem instead of being like, 'You idiot.' I think they just want somebody to kind of hold their hand and not make them feel bad."

After all, the company slogan is: "Because you shouldn't hate your remote computer repair."

Pereira's clientele is evenly split between men and women. Her staff works on residential and small business computers and iPods, usually handling three to 10 per day.

Jack McKinney, 77, of Kennesaw, has been relying on That Computer Chick since she went into business in 2003.

"She hasn't let me down yet," he said.

McKinney drops in when he's getting a haircut nearby just to chat and ask questions — free of charge.

"I wish I had a problem because I wish I could go there to get it fixed," he said. "They make it such a pleasure."

Customers enter a welcoming environment where the walls are alligator green, the same color as Pereira's kitchen at home.

"It's very soothing," she said.

The lighting is kept low and the floors are wooden, adding to the homey feel. The counter is metal, and Pereira encourages folks to plop their computers there instead of putting the hardware on the floor, as some shops insist. She knows it can be hard to bend down to pick stuff up.

If kids have to wait a while with their parents, they're given a bad hard drive and a screwdriver.

"If the kids didn't get it all the way apart and they're sad they have to leave, she'll let the kids borrow the screwdriver and take it home," said Kimberly Austin, a senior technician.

That Computer Chick expects customers to return the favor and be nice, too.

If they're rude, they run the risk of being assessed a $50 meanie fee. Pereira hasn't charged "the attitude adjustment" fee yet, but has called people and asked them to apologize to her staff. She's kicked some of them out, too.

"I've kicked out more women than men," she said with a laugh. "Some of them will apologize, and others will just decide not to come back, and we're OK with that, too."

That Computer Chick promotes its family-oriented services, and will help with content filters for children.

If people want to know what their spouses have been up to, Pereira said, "I will give them all the data and I sit down with them privately. "

She works with counseling agencies to refer spouses with addiction problems.

The company also has a donation program, refurbishing cast-off equipment from customers and giving it to people in need.

In Katrina's aftermath Pereira and one of her two daughters drove to New Orleans with five complete systems.

"When people call and ask me, 'Do you have something really cheap? I always ask them, 'Are you having a difficult time? Are you struggling?' I say, 'I can't sell you one, but I'll give you one.'

"That's because my customers donated the equipment. If you donate equipment, I'll donate my time."

Pereira requires her staff to have a volunteer background in the community. She said they make the best employees. She has hired both men and women but has a strict "no nerd" policy.

"You can tell a major nerd," she said, "and I have fired many, many a major nerd."

So, how does a nerd get fired? "They start messing with my equipment and that's when I'm done," Pereira said, laughing.

Whatever their gender, Pereira's staff does what they call "that chick thing," customizing computers without any bells and whistles.

For example, they put your data back where you left it, "instead putting it in some bizarre folder," Pereira said.

But they do take out the bugs — sometimes literally.

Pereira's staff has found spiders and cockroaches — dead and alive — inside computers.

And that's not all they discover.

Betsy Collins, 19, who is working her way up to junior tech, recalls the slurping noise a keyboard made when Pereira removed it from a laptop.

A man had forgotten to mention that his wife had spilled a milkshake on it.

"The milkshake had actually melted onto the motherboard and then it fried the computer repair," Collins said. That Computer Chick's most amazing discovery? How about 122,000 pieces of spyware in a woman's remote computer? And Pereira would have found more if the power hadn't gone out in the shop.

"She just had kids," Pereira said, "and kids will go on everything. They don't have anything in their brain saying, 'Oh, I shouldn't go on that Web site.' "

She gave the customer a copy of "Cheep Tips" to avoid the same problem.

The guidelines are so good they've cut down on some repeat business, but Pereira makes up for it with referrals.

And that chick thing applies across the motherboard.

Austin remembers working on a new hard drive one day. "Then 'puff!' this cloud of smoke came out of the remote computer repair," she said.

What color was it? Pink, of course.

Spyware everywhere

The computer repair terms "trojan" and "spyware," often don't register with customers. So, she explains that each one is like having a fire in your house.

"You wonder, 'Why can't I sit on the couch?' Because the couch is on fire. When people use these anti-spyware products to actually remove those trojans, all they're doing is putting water on the fire and putting it out. So, now, you just have a charred couch."

So, does Linda Pereira take out the couch and put a new couch in?

"I can't," she said. "I have to rebuild the whole house.

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Texas Law requires remote computer repair techs to be Private Investigators

Unbelievable but true, in 2007 Texas decided that anyone employed as a remote computer repair technician needed to also have a Private Investigator’s license if they take any action that the government would consider “an investigation.” Because the law is so broadly worded, that could literally mean that I could replace your hard drive but not repair it. Nor could I retrieve your data. In order to comply with the law and obtain a PI license, I would have to quit supporting computers for three years and serve an apprenticeship under a licensed PI or attain a criminal justice degree. Either way, that would be several years away from technology that refreshes itself every 18 months or so.

According to the author of the law, state Representative Joe Driver, R-Garland, technicians are misinterpreting the law. Driver told the Houston Chronicle that the law was sought by the private security industry and would not apply to people who do nothing but repair hardware. It would only apply to those who retrieve data for the purposes of analysis to create a report for a third party.

According to Driver, a current class action lawsuit against the Texas Private Security Board is nothing more than a publicity stunt on the part of the Institute for Justice. But Matt Miller of the Institute for Justice says that the law is so vaguely worded that it could be enforced broadly.

The Texas Private Security Board has interpreted the law as being “data retrieval for a potential civil or criminal matter.” According to Miller, that could apply to a technician searching for the source of a virus, parents seeking to find out the names of the people their child emails or messages, or people employed by companies to determine what employees are doing on their work computers during working hours. The result of any of that kind of data retrieval and analysis could be considered potentially usable in a civil or criminal matter.

I look at it from the standpoint of having been there, done that. I have found all manner of things on a client’s PC in the course of doing a seemingly unrelated job. I have, as a part of my job, been required to provide detailed reports on user Internet activity to seniors. Probably a good thing I don’t work in Texas.

Another aspect of the law that should also be considered is that anyone in violation can be subject to criminal penalties up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine in addition to civil penalties of up to $10,000. And that doesn’t just apply to the technician. Any consumer who knowingly uses an unlicensed company faces the same penalties.

In my opinion, the Institute for Justice is taking the right path. By forcing attention on this law, hopefully the end result will be clarification of who may do what. Perhaps this time through, Mr. Driver will consider asking an average remote computer repair technician what kinds of work they do and possibly gain consensus on what should be acceptable and what should not. I can understand the Texas Private Security Board wanting to act to protect people’s privacy but I believe that this law may be a step too far.

Share your thoughts. In the course of your day would a law like this impact you? How?

Thanks to OnTheRopes for pointing this out!

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Unlicensed Remote Computer Repair Businesses Cited

The Department of Consumer Affairs is cracking down on unlicensed remote computer repair and appliance repair businesses.During a two-day sting, the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance remote computer repair said it cited more than two dozen businesses that were operating illegally in the Sacramento area.Fast Break Tech on Folsom Boulevard was among the local business that were cited.Steven Wright, the proprietor, has been in business since 1999 and said he never knew he needed anything other than a business license.All stores and individuals hit in last week's sting had been previously warned either in writing, or in person that they didn't have a current license to operate, the bureau said.Any electronic appliance remote computer repair businesses -- including big box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City -- are required to be licensed through the department.Electronic remote computer repair shops require more than just a business license to give consumers added protection and to help them with recourse if something goes wrong with their item, the bureau said.The department said consumers should always check to see if any business they're planning to do work with is licensed.

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