Ask The Geeks

EXCLUSIVE: The Geek Squad Solve Your Tech Problems

The Geek Squad

 (The Geek Squad)

You've got tech questions, we've found the answers. We've asked the tech experts at the Geek Squad to help you make the most of your technology, answering your thorniest tech questions. So if you're wondering what to buy, how to plug it in, or how to fix it, the Geek Squad can help.

This week, Geek Squad agent Matthew Dworkin fields YOUR questions.

ask the geeks

"What kind of storage will last the longest?" -- Don Francis

There are various factors that can contribute to degradation of storage, but assuming they are cared for properly, in ascending order it goes optical media (CD and DVD), platter-based hard drives, flash media (SD cards, USB flash drives), then solid-state hard drives.

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However, when it comes to what happens when there are problems with that data, some are easier to recover than others. Once a CD or DVD has become corrupted, there is very little that can be done to retrieve the data. 

If an ordinary hard drive fails, usually the data recorded to the disc itself can still be retrieved by an advanced data recovery process. Data recovery is also possible in some cases for flash media and solid-state drives.

The surest method for long-term data storage would be on-line data storage. On-line data storage makes use of the Internet to upload your data to a remote location, which is typically made up of several different servers. Because it uses multiple servers in different locations, you are disaster-proofed as well.

"My Mac used to be lightning fast, but now it slowly grinds to open web pages -- what can I do to restore its speed?” -- Nikki Johnson

There are a number of different factors that can slow down a Mac, and depending upon what the cause is there are some quick and easy solutions, and some not so quick and easy. But before doing any troubleshooting, make sure you're running the most recent software versions by checking Software Update. You can access this from the Apple menu.

If your issue is primarily web browsing, you should first try to clearing the cache, and deleting your browsing history. For Safari, you can do this by going to the main menu and clicking Reset Safari and selecting or de-selecting the options that you would want.

If your Mac is mostly slow while running a particular application, for example Safari, you can delete the "plist" file for that application. In Finder, go to Library, Preferences, and then find the file for the application you are concerned about -- for example Make a copy of the file before you delete it, in case it erases some settings that you need, and then delete the original. 

Your Mac will create a new file the next time you open the application. This will resolve configuration issues or small bugs which may have worked their way into the application.

The last step you can take, depending upon which version of the MacOS you are running, would be to reinstall the operating system by performing an “Archive and Install” from the original disk. This process makes a backup of your system files, re-installs the operating system, and then (if selected) puts your user files, documents, and preferences back on the fresh install. Always make sure you backup your critical data before performing this step, just to ensure that there is no data loss if something goes wrong. 

There are also other possible causes, including hardware issues, however. If these steps don't work, you may want to bring your Mac into your local Best Buy store to see the Geek Squad to evaluate if there are problems with the computer.

"I have both a PC and cable television connection in one room of my home. I watch a lot of television that's streamed over the Internet from sites like Hulu and Netflix on the PC and broadcast shows on the television. Is there some way to connect the cable TV feed to my PC so that I can receive HD TV on my PC's monitor? My monitor only has one HDMI connection so I'm unable to just run a connection from my cable box to my PC's monitor." -- Ken Holloway

The software capability to view television on your PC is built-in to both Windows Vista Home Premium/Ultimate and Windows 7 Home Premium/Ultimate through Windows Media Center. However in order to receive television (HD or SD) signals on your computer, you need to have a video capture device.

This can either be an internal card or an external device (typically USB). Some higher-end multimedia computers will have these already, but they are not included with most computers. The video capture device enables your PC to receive the input from the source, which can include analog cable, over-the-air digital SD or HD channels, or digital cable from your cable box.

These devices may come with their own software to use, or you can use Windows Media Center. Features of this include the ability to pause/rewind programming that you are watching, as well as use it as a Personal Video Recorder to schedule shows to record for later viewing.

"Hey Geeks! Can smartphones, like my iPhone 4, pick up viruses off the Internet and e-mails like the kind PCs are vulnerable to? If so, are my passwords and other personal data on my phone at risk?” -- Ernie Wiatrek

Smartphones use different operating systems than PCs, so the same viruses and spyware that affect PCs generally cannot impact smartphones. However as the popularity of smartphones increases, there are going to be more efforts to attack their security.

There have been numerous security vulnerabilities that have been found in each of the various smartphone operating systems, although these are usually patched very quickly. The iPhone, by design, can only run applications available through the App Store, and therefore it is much more difficult for malicious code to be executed on it.

However, you should still use caution when using public wireless networks that you may find at airports, cafes, or other wireless hotspots. Information that you send across the Internet can still be intercepted by cyber-criminals -- so don't browse any sensitive sites.

"I recently installed System Mechanics on my XP computer. I ran the "duplicate files" utility and found that I have thousands of duplicate files totaling about 15 gig on my hard drive. How can I tell which files can be safely deleted? If there were just a few, I could back them up and test it out. But with thousands ... For instance, I have user accounts for myself, my wife, and the administrator. They each have gazillions of identical files. Can I merge two user accounts if I only need one?" -- Mark R. Johnson, Iowa

There is no real way to merge two user accounts into one, although you can always back up the data located in one user account and transfer it to the other. You can do this even without an external storage device by transferring the data to a shared directory.

As far as identical files, in a lot of cases there are files which belong to each user account that are important to the functionality of those accounts. There are also files which are of almost no use, such as temporary files and the Internet cache. Most web browsers by default save a copy of every image that you view on the web, to make for faster browsing in the future. This can lead to many copies of the same image being downloaded.

The best thing to do to clear up that space is to clear the cache and delete the saved Internet files. In Windows XP, close all windows of Internet Explorer, and then double-click Internet Options in the Control Panel. You can do this under the Internet Options applet of the Control Panel in Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7.

You can also visit Microsoft Support which gives complete instructions and also provides an automated tool by Microsoft which can do it for you.

I recommend against deleting files that are flagged as duplicates that you are unfamiliar with and fall outside of the temporary files. Sometimes deleting a single file can prevent you from being able to login to Windows. In other cases it may be files which exist in two places due to the installation of software, drivers, or other important files, and may be necessary in both locations.

Got a question? E-mail us at and we'll relay it to the Geek Squad. Next week, the Squad will answer the most interesting or most frequently asked questions.