Saturday 30 December 2006

Buying software for the wrong/right reasons (repost from other blog)

The podcast Security Now has been on my 'must listen' list for quite a while. Some podcasts I subscribe to are downloaded by iTunes, copied to my iPod and when they turn up in my "Unplayed" Smart Playlist I'll make a snap decision as to whether I'll listen or skip (this decision is usually directly dependent on the total number of podcasts in the "Unplayed" list).

But I'll always listen to Security Now. Steve Gibson knows computers. Not like some people know computers -- people who have used lots of software on several different machines, people who may have done a little scripting, or even programmed in 'C' or Pascal. Steve Gibson is familiar with the PC on a hardware level. His website, has loads of free Windows software utilities available for download. These are not the kind of idle utilities that someone thought up as maybe possibly useful, for someone somewhere. They are essential utilities that solve (and I mean solve, not just mitigate) specific problems with Microsoft Windows. I first came across Steve's utilities without knowing it. After suffering persistent pop-up spam windows on a new XP PC, I did a Google search and came up with something called "Kill The Messenger". I downloaded it, ran it, and have not been troubled since. At the time I knew nothing about Gibson Research Corporation, and didn't actually give it any more thought. It was only after listening to early episodes of Security Now that I went to the website and discovered I had successfully used one of Steve's free utilities several years ago.

Steve Gibson's flagship product is SpinRite, now up to version 6, and by all accounts is the world's best hard-disk recovery and maintenance utility. It isn't cheap, at $89, and some might balk at such a price for a download of only 170 kb. (Yes, that's kilobytes.) Remember, however, that Steve Gibson is 'old school' -- he programs in assembler, for DOS, so his utilities are really tight, fast and efficient. This is the ultimate low-fat software.

The Security Now podcast, part of the TWIT network, features Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson talking about various aspects of computer security, whether this is a comprehensive primer on cryptographic technology (and I do mean comprehensive -- this isn't something that you can give less than your full attention to; it's geeky in the extreme), or discussions on the underlying technology of something in the news -- such as the recent Sony rootkit debacle. Every fourth episode (which with typical geekness they designate a MOD 4 episode) is devoted to answering listeners' queries.

I've been considering buying SpinRite for a while, partly because Steve is providing a useful free service, not only via Security Now, but also to all Windows computer users via his Shields Up! website, and partly because if it's as good as everyone says it is, SpinRite will be a useful utility have instantly available. So today I purchased it.

A few months ago I bought a Maxtor 300GB external USB drive for my MacBook, and it began to regularly misbehave after being powered up for an hour or more. Apparently SpinRite is undiscriminating as to operating systems and file formats, and the recommendation is to extract the external drive from its case and mount it inside a PC before running SpinRite on it. Alternatively, it's possible to run SpinRite on a USB drive if the USB drivers are accessible by SpinRite, although this likely to be much slower in operation.

Well, I couldn't open the case, so I connected the drive to a USB port on the PC, just to see what might happen. I was surprised to find that SpinRite found the drive, and is now -- as I type -- doing its stuff. It will apparently take about five hours.

Watch this space.