Improving security out of the box: Change Internet Explorer’s default homepage

When purchasing a new computer, or reinstalling Windows, one of the first things I do is change Internet Explorer’s default home page. By default, Microsoft sets the home page to MSN, which has had its fair share of security risks in the past. I always ask myself, why take the extra risk when I haven’t yet installed any other browser, or anti-virus, or possibly a firewall and go to a unsecure website from the get go. Instead, I opt to change the home page of IE before I even start IE. And, you can too … here’s how.

First, before you open Internet Explorer for the first time, open up the Windows Start Menu / Start Screen and type internet options in the search box. Select the option Internet Options to display the dialogue box.

Note: If you are using Windows 8, you will still search internet options in the start screen, BUT, you must navigate to settings (on the right pane) and then click Internet Options.

Once done, you should get the following dialogue box (click on image to make it larger, if needed):

image

See the highlighted text? This will automatically point your browser to MSN.com (actually, it first directs to Microsoft.com, then forwards you to one of their MSN servers) … a potentially risky environment. Instead, I like to leave this option blank and instead navigate directly to the Microsoft Security Essentials download page. You could, of course, set IE’s home page to something like Google or another preferred search engine, but this also has had it’s issues with security in the past. To be safe, I opt to just leave it blank and navigate to the MSE download site manually.

If for any reason you wish to go back to the original settings after you’ve installed your favorite security tools, just access this dialogue box again and click the Use default button. As always, have fun and be safe.

Have a Kinect? The Kinect for Windows SDK May Be Right For You

Microsoft today released the Kinect for Windows SDK. The highly anticipated development kit is just in beta at this moment but it does offer what many have been anticipating (and what others have already accomplished through self-brewed drivers), connecting and using a Kinect with a PC.

Not only is this product still in Beta, but one interesting note is it hasn’t been given a proper department for it to be held under. Instead, Microsoft Research is still sponsoring the SDK while it is in beta (perhaps forever?). You can download the beta bits here. Just be careful though, there are distinct 32-bit and 64-bit variations to this SDK so make sure to grab the right one. The files stand at 20.8MB and 21.8MB in size, respectively.

There are also already a slew of documentation regarding the API/SDK. Head on over to MR’s main documentation site for the Kinect SDK to get more information on that topic. Documentation includes a programming guide, a brief read me, and several code walkthroughs/examples. It’s worth checking out for anyone beginning their first steps in a Kinect/Windows development environment.

System requirements according to Microsoft Research (Note, this is a direct copy/paste from MR’s site, thus includes links to the download/reference pages for the system requirements):

Hardware
  • Kinect for Xbox 360 sensor
  • Computer with a dual-core, 2.66-GHz or faster processor
  • Windows 7–compatible graphics card that supports DirectX® 9.0c capabilities
  • 2-GB RAM (4-GB RAM recommended)
Software

The best part is that this is relatively free from a development perspective (only cost for most people will be the Kinect device) as the development tool is the free express edition of Visual Studio 2010 (of course, the normal editions of Visual Studio 2010 will work just as well). As always, have fun and code safely!

Release of IE 9 Garners 2.35 Million Downloads in 24 Hours

At 12:00AM EST Tuesday I was sitting in front on my computer eagerly awaiting my install of Internet Explorer 9 RTW. After several months of beta testing and even more months of testing the Platform Previews for IE 9, I was thoroughly excited about finally getting my hands on the final product. In fact, I wasn’t the only one downloading IE 9 at that time. Some 2.35 million users downloaded IE 9 in just the first 24 hours of its release.

There’s good reason for those many downloads. Microsoft has made some great strides with IE 9, making it the best version of IE available to date. Microsoft’s huge bet on HTML 5 is sure to pay off even if it takes another five years for HTML 5 to become fully recognized and standardized. What this means is that for once Microsoft is finally adhering to web standards and producing a product (especially Internet Explorer) that has almost no negative feedback or comments on. In fact almost everyone I’ve talked to has completely enjoyed using IE 9 as their new, default browser.

Not only is IE 9 becoming more standards compliant, but Microsoft has offered more security features to stack on top of the already secure IE 8. Active X filtering enables users to creates lists of websites to block or allow streaming media, such as Adobe Flash. This is a very useful tool for security users because many of the attacks against Internet Explorer involve Active X in some sort of manner.

Microsoft didn’t stop there though. To add with it’s already good performance with HTML 5 and CSS 3 implementations, Microsoft work hard in creating the first truly hardware accelerated web browser. What hardware acceleration allows for is for both the CPU and GPU to be used during page rendering, which includes anything from loading a basic page to playing a video or a game on the Internet. According to Microsoft only 10% of total PC power is utilized through the processor, which is how traditional browsing took place (IE 8, Chrome, Firefox, etc.). However, by including the GPU with hardware acceleration, the web browser is able to ascertain the remaining 90% of your PCs total power.

There’s many other features that make IE 9 a great upgrade from previous versions and I’ll be writing up a review shortly. If you’re currently interested in downloading IE 9 RTW (Release to Web), you can do so by visiting Beauty of the Web.

How to Get Back the Missing Outlook People Pane

I opened Outlook the other day, as I do everyday, and noticed the People Pane was missing. Trying to figure out what was going on, I thought maybe I hadn’t installed the Outlook Social Connector (which includes support for Facebook and Live Messenger) to enable it. After-all, it was a fairly clean install of Windows 7 + Office 2010. However, I clearly remembered accessing this exact feature the day before, but I definitely did not remember turning it off or even remotely disabling it in any way, yet it wasn’t there.

After perusing the Outlook 2010 ribbon for a little bit, I came across the option to turn it back on. I’m still thoroughly perplexed as to how it was turned off in the first place. And for the record, this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me either.

If you’re in the same predicament I was in I can show you how to get the people pane back up and running, even if I can’t tell you exactly why it disappears from time to time.

Simply click on the View tab in the Ribbon, click on the People Pane option and either select Normal or Minimized to re-enable it. Mine, for some random reason, was set to off. For what it’s worth, I usually set my People Pane to Normal, being able to minimize and restore it on the fly.

outlook_people_pane-01

That’s all there is to it. If you’re wondering what the People Pane is, it’s simply a useful feature in Outlook that keeps track of e-mails, social networking interactions from your colleagues with integration of the Outlook Social Connector (a separate add-on from Microsoft). Thus, when you select a colleague from your contacts page, or receive an e-mail from the person you can use the People Pane to see their latest status updates, received mail, etc. all in one location. I hope to do a more in-depth coverage as to how the People Pane works and how it can be beneficial for the average user.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter (@jctierney) for more tech news and updates along with answers to some of your shorter, less than 140 character questions.

Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Now Available

If you’ve been anticipating the public release of SP1 for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2, the wait is over. Last week, Microsoft made SP1 available for TechNet and MSDN subscribers, but it’s now available to the general public in either a (gasp!) 2GB ISO file, or via Windows Update. If you’re going for speed over functionality, go with Windows Update. However, if you really need the ISO file to perhaps install on non-Internet enabled machines, you can grab the ISO here.

win7_sp1-003

Of course, there’s not much new in SP1. As usual, service packs generally are update roll-ups and don’t include major new functionality (*cough* Windows XP SP2 *cough*). It’s still a worthwhile update though that you should consider installing sometime in the future.

Some (hopefully) worthwhile links:

Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1

Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 SP1 FAQ

Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 SP1 Documentation

Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 SP1 Mail Ordering

That last one on the list (for mail ordering Windows 7 SP1) appears to redirect to a non-Microsoft domain. However, I did get the link from Microsoft’s official site (from the Windows 7 SP1 Direct Download page).

Now for SP2. I’m just joking.

As usual, have fun with the update!

Windows 7 SP1 RTM Available for TechNet and MSDN

Yesterday, Microsoft made available the final Windows 7 RTM bits for MSDN and TechNet users (along with, it seems, volume licensing partners as well). There isn’t a whole lot to talk about with the Windows 7 SP1, of course, there’s a lot more on the Server end. However, I finally got around to installing it last night.

The official release to general users will be next Tuesday, February 22. However, if you have an MSDN or TechNet account, the ISOs are now available. Plus, not only do subscribers get the SP1 by itself, but Microsoft also gave us ISOs of the OS with SP1 already integrated. No slipstreaming needed here! Of course, Microsoft has done this with XP and Vista as well, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

With SP1, my build jumped from 7600 to 7601. Not too big of a jump here, but normal for a service release.

win7_sp1-001

For those interested in the longer build string, going by the setup file, it is 6.1.7601.17514:

win7_sp1-002

I’ve been running SP1 on most of my computers since the initial Beta, and I haven’t noticed any problems, save for one specific install error with the original beta. The major change that I’ve noticed with the RTM was installation. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes to install the RTM or roughly three to four times longer than the RC or the Beta. This install was merely via a direct install (i.e. from the hard drive or DVD) and not via Windows Update. I’ve tested the RC and Beta under several install scenarios and none of them took more than about 20-30 minutes. Hopefully, the Windows Update version (which most people will receive in the coming weeks) will be much faster.

Over the weekend I hope to install SP1 on several different machines and hopefully, even on a Server 2008 R2 machine! With that aside, I’ll have a more in-depth coverage of SP1, along with, of course, my usual assortment of screen-grabs and even some tips and tricks. Stay tuned!

As always, you can find more of my tech mumblings and grumblings on Twitter by following @jctierney!

Yahoo! to Blame for Windows Phone Data Leaks?

Earlier today, Rafael Rivera, Windows hacker and Windows 7 Secrets co-author, may have found the reason for Windows Phone data leaks that have been discussed recently around the web.

The reason: Yahoo! seems to be sending and receiving far more data than it really needs to. In fact, on Rafael’s count, it sends roughly 25 times more data than it needs to. Yikes!

Rafael provides a fair amount of detail at his site, which covers the information sent to/from Windows Phone. The discussion covers specific IMAP4 issues and implementations, including STARTTLS extension.

Although, to me, the best fix for this would be to stop using Yahoo! as an e-mail provider and switch to a more efficient service like Hotmail or Gmail, Rafael does offer a different approach as well. That is, to simply not transmit data via a cellular connection. Although, this seems a bit rash to me, not on his part, but on Yahoo!’s. The only way, apparently, to use their service efficiently is to use it via a wireless (i.e., non-AT&T or T-Mobile) connection? That’s fairly lame on Yahoo’s part. It also means your mobile device just became less useful, because of Yahoo!. Terrific.

Yahoo! may indeed be one of the culprits in the recent Windows Phone data leaks. However, it may not be the only source of a leak. As I currently don’t have access to a Windows Phone device to tear into to start dissecting data transfers, I can’t make any firm decisions. However, if Microsoft wishes to send me a developer device, I would more than gladly dissect all that I can. But, I won’t hold my breath.

Hopefully, Yahoo! will work out their data usage issues in the near future, and we won’t have to worry about this anymore. Until then, just don’t read your Yahoo! e-mail on the fly and you’ll be fine.