Tech Q and A: Get Your Kicks on Router 66

Every other week or so, tries to solve your most vexing technology-related problems. Send your questions to and we'll reply to selected ones in our next installment.

Windows XP Death Watch Update

At least one major computer supplier, Dell, is about to stop taking orders for systems with Windows XP pre-installed. Orders end on Wednesday, June 18, so that the company can meet Microsoft's deadline of not shipping XP after June 30.

However, Dell is squeezing through a legal loophole and will still sell five systems with an "XP Professional downgrade," in which you pay for a Vista license but get XP Pro instead.

You can choose among four entry-level to midrange desktops, but only one laptop — the relatively high-end, $2,400 XPS M1730. To Dell's credit, you won't pay any more for XP than you would for Vista on the same machines.

Dell doesn't sell any of those new low-end "netbooks," the only market category Microsoft will allow XP on after June 30. That may be because its Inspiron 1525 starts at $500, competitive with many lower-powered netbooks that have fewer features, such as no CD or DVD drive.

Sadly, the Inspiron 1525 isn't part of the XP downgrade program — the only options are Windows Vista (with the pointless Home Basic edition on the cheapest model) or last fall's version of the always-improving Ubuntu Linux open-source software package.

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How Does a Router Protect Me?

Q: In your last installment you wrote, "Don't forget the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself from the bad stuff: Install a router between your computer and your broadband modem."

How does a router protect me from the bad stuff? Where can I purchase a router? How much does a router cost? How do I install the router?

A: You know how you get home after working all day and sit down to dinner — and then the phone rings and the voice on the other end urges you to vote for a candidate you don't like?

Know why that doesn't happen to you at work? It's because those who interrupt your dinner have the direct number to your home — whereas when they call your work number, they reach that bulldog receptionist, whose job it is to transfer only business-related calls to your extension.

In Nerdspeak, we would call your home telephone number a "public address," even if it's unlisted, because anybody with a telephone can dial it directly.

We would call your extension at work a "private address" precisely because it can't be dialed directly.

A router works in the same fashion.

For the purposes of this discussion, a router is a device that allows two or more computers to share the same broadband Internet connection.

It does this by taking the role of the receptionist. It "answers the phone" when information is sent to your "public address" — and directs (or "routes") it to the computer which requested it, which has taken a "private address."

It knows that you're perusing the financials on the Wall Street Journal Web site, while your teenager is looking up friends on MySpace — or vice versa — and keeps everything straight.

This process is called Network Address Translation, or NAT.

The reason this "protects you from the bad stuff" is that it eliminates all of the systems on the Internet which are scanning public Internet addresses looking for unsuspecting systems to infect; all they can detect at your "public address" is a router, and they move on.

So the only bad stuff that can get to your computer is the stuff you go out and find on your own.

You may already have this feature and not know it. Some broadband providers send you a modem with a built-in router when you first set up your account.

The easiest way to tell is to open a Command Window (press and hold the Windows key — the one with that little four-square flag on it, to the left of the spacebar — and type an "R". Then type "cmd" into the dialog box that appears and click on "OK").

A window will open with a black background and white letters, and the words "C:Documents and SettingsYourNameHere>" or something along those lines will show up.

Type "ipconfig" and press "Enter." In the results that spew out, look for the line that reads "IP Address."

You Mac users are looking for the Terminal application (in Utilities), and the command is "ifconfig."

Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are displayed in "dotted quad" notation, which is Nerdspeak for "four numbers, each between 0 and 255, separated by periods."

If the first number is 10 (for example, your address is private. If the first is 172 and the second is 16 through 31 (for example, your address is private. If the first two are 192 and 168, respectively (for example, — by far the most common sequence — your address is private.

If the numbers are anything else, you don't have a private address and should seriously consider getting a router.

You can find one online, at your local "big box" store or from whichever nerds-in-little-cars company you trust. They will cost you somewhere between $20 and $160.

I've had pretty good luck with those made by Linksys, D-Link, Netgear and Airlink 101 — but there are certainly other brands which will work just as well.

Installation is simple. On most systems, you take the cable which connects your modem to your computer — it should have a connection on each end that looks like a telephone connector, but slightly bigger — and unplug it from your computer. Plug that into the "WAN" or "Internet" connection on the router.

Then take the cable that came with the router — it should have the same connectors — and connect one end to any of the "LAN" ports on the router and the other end into the hole in the back of your computer the first cable came out of.

If your router came with an installation CD, you will probably want to run the setup program on it before you move any cables. If it's not clear how it all hooks together, most routers come with a toll-free number for installation help.

Consult the manual (or ask tech support) how to change the password and disable the wireless feature (unless you have need of it — in which case you should make sure it's encrypted).

This New-Fangled Phone System Killed My Internet Connection!

Q: I decided to switch from my current telephone provider to Vonage. It worked great for a couple of days, but then my Internet stopped working and now, instead of a dial tone, my phone tells me it is unable to reach the server. What happened?

A: The new technology is called "Voice over Internet Protocol" or VoIP, for short.

Basically, it digitizes your voice — turns it into data — and sends it to the party on the other end of the line using the Internet, thereby eliminating the phone company. It does the same thing to the voice on the other end.

VoIP providers can offer a ton of features and free long distance (or greatly reduced rates on long distance to foreign countries). VoIP is not without its idiosyncrasies, but it can be a great answer, especially if you make a lot of calls to Canada or Mexico.

Do you remember when you were talking to the VoIP representative and he asked you if you wanted to keep your same phone number? And you replied, "Why yes, I would like to keep the same number, thankyouverymuch!"?

You were sent a form to sign which said, basically, "Yes, I really do want to transfer my phone number to this VoIP provider."

That form was sent to your phone company, which started the transfer procedure.

What you weren't told is that upon completion of the transfer — which usually takes about 10 business days — the old phone connection is turned off.

And turned off with it is your high-speed DSL service, on the same connection, a couple of days after you got VoIP working.

You can solve this problem one of two ways. You can go back to your old phone company, or you can get a new Internet connection.

If you have cable TV service in your area, find out how much it costs to get high-speed Internet from your cable provider. Or go to your phone company and ask for "dry-loop" or "dedicated" DSL service.

Normally, DSL and voice are delivered over the same wires — dedicated DSL gives you DSL only.

As soon as your Internet service is restored, VoIP will start working again.

For those of you considering VoIP service, it's all about bandwidth — how fast is your high-speed Internet connection?

Bandwidth is usually measured in thousands of bits per second, or kbps (or, if you're one of the really lucky ones Mbps, or millions of bits per second). How fast are those zeroes and ones traveling up and down the wire?

You can save yourself a lot of grief by first logging onto and running a free online program called "MyVoIPSpeed". It simulates a VoIP call and displays the results with a series of easy-to-understand dots: red, yellow, or green.

There's one each for upload speed, download speed (download is usually much faster than upload), quality of service, jitter and packet loss.

You're looking for five greens. You can make do with less, but you really should have at least 100 kbps — both up and down — to have a superior VoIP connection.

My Laptop Screen Goes Black

Q: I have a Toshiba Satellite laptop running Windows Vista, which I bought in November. From the very first week after purchase, I have experienced intermittent problems whereby the screen suddenly goes completely black and stays that way. I have no idea what causes this.

For a while, I thought it was a thermal issue related to monitor components. However, the monitor works properly upon immediately restarting the computer. I've come to suspect the entire computer suddenly and inexplicably just shuts down. The LEDs on the laptop indicate the computer is still running, but I have never been able to successfully recover whatever I had been working on. It always requires a reboot.

Got any ideas what could be causing my laptop screen to suddenly go blank? Alternatively, know of any reliable sources for obtaining the answers to my question/issue?

A: The first step in diagnosing laptop screen issues is determining whether it's the video card (or the onboard equivalent) or the screen itself.

The easy way to do this is to borrow a regular "outboard" monitor from someone and hook it to the "VGA Out" port on your laptop. This connector has three rows of five holes in it and is a little wider at the top than the bottom so the connector won't fit in upside down.

Look for the command sequence which directs output to that port. On most laptops, some of the keys have blue symbols. One of them will read "FN" (for "function") or something similar. Another will have a symbol for a monitor. You press and hold the first, then press the second.

Do this one time, and the display is directed to the external monitor — it lights up and the laptop screen goes dark. A second time, and video goes to both the external screen and the laptop screen. The third press restores it to the laptop screen only.

Run the computer with video going to both the monitor and the external screen and wait until you get another of those "blank screen" episodes.

If the external monitor also goes black, it's a motherboard/video card issue. If the external screen stays lit, it's a screen issue.

Either way, I'd suggest you send it to Toshiba for repair, since it's extremely tricky to replace a laptop's LCD screen.

If you purchased it this past November, as you say, it should still be under warranty. See if Toshiba will just replace it outright.

Or is it possible that in your regular computer work, you're accidentally pressing the "Function/External Monitor" keystroke combination?

That would cause the symptom you describe without anything being wrong with your hardware at all.

Guy R. Briggs is a member of the Nerds On Site international IT service team and is based in Los Angeles.

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