Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Remote Web Cam using Skype (Windows/Linux/MAC)

So many of us are already proficient web cam users. We use web cams for video chat, video streaming, recording video greetings and email, and some of us also use web cams as security devices.

This blog entry will focus on the latter item - video security/monitoring. There are many programs available to utilize your web cam for security purposes.

They allow you to use your web cam to monitor a designated area. Some allow you to record by frame steps so you can collect a video log of the monitored area for later review. Some allow you to monitor an area and trigger email or file transfer of captured images in real time.

Many web cam suppliers include such software with their web cam products. But, what if you just want to be able to remotely view a web cam from anywhere at anytime without purchasing security web cam software?

You may just want to check up on your office cam, maybe check on the backyard, or maybe a bird feeder. The possibilities are endless.

Well, if you are a SKYPE user, you already know that video has been a feature of Windows based SKYPE for a long time. And very recently, the folks at SKYPE have added video capability to the Linux derivatives of SKYPE. Most of the popular Linux distros (distributions) are supported.

And, as a SKYPE user, you probably know that you can have your SKYPE configured to automatically activate your video web cam when a call is answered. But --- did you know that you can also configure SKYPE to automatically answer all calls? That means unattended receipt of incoming calls!

Here's a possible scenario. You have your laptop or desktop in your apartment setup with a web cam and you configure SKYPE to (1) activate video for all calls and (2) answer all incoming calls automatically.

Now, what do you need to complete the remote access of this web cam? At a minimum, you need (2) SKYPE accounts. Remember, they are free! Account number (1) will be assigned to your remote web cam computer SKYPE log-in. And the second will be the account you use when you are away from your apartment.

I would suggest that you setup an account that will be easy to remember but not so easy for someone to guess. For example, let's say I create a SKYPE account name from my initials and web cam identifier - e.g. jas_cam1_office. I would sign in to that SKYPE account on the computer in my apartment. I would then use my original SKYPE account to sign in on a remote laptop or friend's computer. The last setup item is to allow each account to accept the other so they are in each other's SKYPE contact lists.

Now you are ready. Leave SKYPE running on your apartment computer with web cam functioning. Then, while you are away at some other location and computer, use SKYPE to call the SKYPE account at your apartment. After a ring or two, the apartment computer will automatically answer your call and it will then stream the web cam video to you! If you have an active microphone on that computer, you will also hear everything.

That's all there is to it. And with SKYPE's recently announced support of high resolution cameras, you will see a very nice picture. Another interesting item, your audio does not have to be limited to the microphone. I sometimes feed the audio from a police scanner or my ham radio to the computer. So when I SKYPE my office cam remotely, I see the activity just outside my office window plus I can hear the radio activity.

A few notes about SKYPE security - you can configure SKYPE to allow only calls from your contact list and you can further decide who gets video. I strongly recommend that you limit who can call your SKYPE enabled web cam for obvious reasons.

I should also mention that if you have not found SKYPE yet, you are in for a treat. It is used by millions of people everyday for pc-to-pc communications - for free! You can also SKYPE to regular telephones by purchasing minutes and the rates are very, very reasonable. Many folks also use it as their main business telephony service since it is very reliable and there are plenty of utilities and third-party programs for recording, PBX, help desk, etc.

Visit SKYPE for more information and your free download.

I hope you enjoyed this installment and hope to read your comments.

Cheers - Joe (My SKYPE name is "ToolsNTipsByJoe)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Slow Computer, Causes and Fixes (Windows)

During a recent conversation with a friend, Frank, from Queen Creek AZ, the issue of "slow" computers came up. Why do they slow down and what can be done about it? This is a great issue to address, especially since this is the time of year some of us think about upgrading our present computer in favor of a faster, feature-rich new model.

That's fine but don't be so quick to retire that "slow" computer!

All computers experience some slowing down. This is quite common and there are several reasons for this. Most folks computer experts agree on the following items:

- You may have too many programs and processes running
- There may be malicious processes running (Spyware, Viruses, Trojans)
- Inadequate RAM
- Hard drive errors, capacity, or fragmentation issues
- Inadequate processor speed
- Other hardware issues
- Registry Issues (e.g. Invalid entries)

The above links navigate to an article by David Levine, Tech Specialist at Colby-Sawyer College, entitled, "Slow computer syndrome".

Here's what Derek Anthony Williams suggests (from, April 7,2007) as fixes for slow computers. You can read the entire article at Suite101.
  • Use the defragmentation tool (defrag). A hard drive consists of hundreds of sectors which or broken up into clusters and then further into allocations. As a computer gets used the files that are accessed are sometimes not put back to the sector or allocation unit where they belong. The drive becomes “fragmented”. The defrag tool can be accessed by going to the start bar, to programs, accessories, system tools and defragmentation tool. It may take several hours to properly defrag a hard drive, but the resulting gain in speed will make this time well spent. Files will be more quickly accessed and all of the bad sectors on a disk will not contain any information on them. Hence, a user will not wait in vain for a file that is stuck on a bad part of the hard drive.
  • Use registry fix programs. The computer registry can be described as the database that contains all of the settings and options for 32 bit versions of Microsoft Windows (including Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, XP, and 2000.) It also contains all of the settings for the hardware, software, users, and preferences of the P.C. Whenever a user makes changes in the Control Panel settings, file associations, system policies, or installed software, the changes are reflected in the computers registry. Many times a registry error occurs and this causes files and data to be inaccessible. If there are numerous minor errors (which is usually the case) a registry fix program will get the data back in accessible sequence and a slow computer will be speeded up with this fix.
  • Adding more RAM (random access memory) to your system will almost always help speed up a slow computer and the act of multi-tasking will not bog down the computer as it would with a lower amount of RAM. RAM is hardware that needs to be physically added and tends to be somewhat costly. However if you plan on keeping your system for a while it is an excellent investment.
  • For faster browsing speed clear your Internet cache (temporary Internet files) and delete your cookies. This causes the computer to gain speed on the Internet and the pop-ups from sites that you have been to will also be less frequent.
  • Remove unnecessary items from the start menu. To do this type “msconfig” in the “run” box and hit enter. Choose selective startup and uncheck all of the programs that you do not need to load every time you start your computer. This will make the computer start more quickly and efficiently. DO NOT uncheck items that you do not recognize. This could cause you computer to run improperly.
  • Use a browser with an integrated pop-up blocker (Firefox for example) to decrease the amount of pop-ups and increase browsing speed.
  • Constantly scan for viruses and Trojans. Trojans can be on a system for weeks even months unbeknownst to the user causing major slowdowns and file errors. Try using a specific Trojan scanner instead of the conventional virus all-purpose scanner. Many Trojans slip past the “big name” virus scanners and need to be sought out specifically to be removed.
Before jumping to any course of action, always be sure to ask the obvious questions:

- Am I low on disk space?

- Have I recently installed a game or application prior to this noticeable slow-down?

- Do I have a large number of resident programs loaded on startup?

After you are satisfied that you have resolved the issues contributing to the slowing down your computer, be sure to always use the following tools:

- a good anti-virus program (Try the highly rated free AVG Anti-Virus)
- a good anti-spy program (Try free Ad-Aware)
- a registry cleaner (Try Registry First Aide from Rose City Software, not free)

Please note: There are many "free" registry tools but most just identify registry problems - they don't fix them!

While there is never a 100% guarantee of trouble-free computing, the tools listed above will increase your chances of keeping your computer safe and your computer experience more enjoyable.

Here are a few links that can give you a bit more information on the subject.

Please post your comments regarding your own "slow" computer experiences.

Happy holidays - Joe