Can a slow computer become a speed demon?

One of the activities at my kids’ summer camp during a camp wide competition is tug of war. It is said that a chain is only a strong as its weakest link.  I’m sure that there are always stronger and weaker members of the team in tug of war. I’ll bet that the stronger members of the team wish that they could replace the weaker members with super strong people! 

losing at tug of war can often mean a trip into a messy puddle!

The slowest part of your computer is also the weakest link in the chain. The hard drive has traditionally been the slowest part of the computer. This is because hard drives were a set of moving parts that contain all of your files. Memory and the processor are very fast so when you’re sitting there waiting for something to happen on your computer, it was usually the fault of the hard drive.

A slow computer doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Solid State Drives, known as SSD are hard drives with no moving parts. What this means for you is that they are very very fast.

The Little Computer That Couldn’t

A few years ago my cousin Gerry bought a little computer that he could use for travel, a HP Pavilion x360 Convertible. This was in addition to his primary home computer and using techniques like cloud storage he could still access everything from this small machine.

it looks small and powerful but one feature made it nearly impossible to use

After setting up the computer and installing things like Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox, Gerry found the computer to be extremely slow. It took over 15 minutes for the computer to power on and get logged in and even then everything was sluggish. This was a new computer out of the box and it was painful to use.

Eventually Gerry got fed up with using it and while discussing it, I convinced him to get a cheap Chromebook. While a great solution for many tasks, Gerry still wanted a travel computer that could run Windows. I have had much success with replacing old, slow hard drives with SSD but this computer appeared very challenging to open. So we left it as is.

After about 2 years, we got to discussing this computer again and I decided that I was up for the challenge of opening it up to see if the hard drive could be replaced. There wasn’t much to lose as it was to slow to be of any use. I learned that modern computers are made to be hard to open. To be fair, on very thin computers, it’s quite a challenge for manufacturers to pack in all the parts in a small case.

I searched YouTube for instructions on how to open a computer like this. Several made reference to screws hidden underneath the pads on the bottom (red arrow pointing to them).

there are screws hiding inside!

The Assessment

I carefully pried these off and sure enough there were screws underneath. After removing all the screws, I gently pulled off the top keyboard and got access to the internals. If you’re wondering what the inside looks like, I’ll save you the suspense – here it is. The hard drive sits in that empty slot in the side so I realized it would be quite easy to replace it.

the top secret internals of a HP laptop

Inside was a slow, old 500 GB traditional, slow, with moving parts hard drive. There’s much better solutions, such as fast SSD drives so that is exactly what I suggested that Gerry do – get a replacement hard drive.

The Solution

Gerry ordered a new 1 TB SSD hard drive for $136 (CAD). Prices have really come down. The next part would appear to be the most difficult but was actually very simple – copying from the old to new hard drive. For that I used my hard drive duplicator. It looks kind of like a pop up toaster oven but instead of bread you put in the source and target hard drives. Press one button, and then wait awhile, and voila, your entire hard drive is cloned!

I think I’m a clone now

How the patient is doing now

The difference from before with the slow hard drive to the new SSD is like getting past a slow section on the highway and kicking it up to highway speeds! The computer now boots up and is ready to go in less than a minute. Everything is fast and smooth and will be a productive and valuable tool. With a 1 TB drive, Gerry can have a full copy of his Dropbox files on the computer. This means that while travelling and away from internet access, he can still have access to all his files. Gerry is leaving on a trip soon so I’ll have to get a full report when he gets back. There’s no excuse now for vendors to ship computers with slow hard drives. SSD drives have come down in price so every computer has the ability to have a speedy disk. And if you have an older slow computer, or even a new one with a slow hard drive, there is a cost effective solution to make your computer at a much faster rate.

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Goodbye Windows 7

It’s been several months since I sent a newsletter. My new year’s resolution is to send a monthly newsletter. I want to write about relevant technology issues that are important to you. Please feel free to email me with any ideas or questions you have. 

It’s out with the old Windows 7, as of January 14, 2020

Cars vs Computers

In spring of 2009 we bought a 3 year old used Dodge Caravan minivan. It’s always risky to purchase a used car but here we are 11 years later and our minivan is still in remarkably good working order. We’ve made this happen by following the recommended maintenance over the years and using a talented, creative and honest mechanic. By the way, Leo (our mechanic) says to get your car rust proofed regularly with a service like Krown. It’s one of the few extra things he highly recommends and we still see the results today.

I realize that at some point soon there are going to be enough things wrong with the van that we’ll have to say goodbye. As long as it’s safe to drive and reasonably cost effective to run, we’ll keep it.

Think about the computers you’ve bought in the last decade

Do you still have one that is in good working order? Is it still ‘safe’ to use? Safety for a computer is a bit different than that of a car. Microsoft and Apple release security updates on a regular basis to keep the computer safe from hackers and other nasty villains out there on the internet. You can think of the security updates over time much like the Krown rust spray that we have put on our car every year. If you have a Windows computer that was bought between 2009 and 2012, it likely came with Windows 7. In fact, Windows 7 was such a successful and reliable operating system, that it was still being installed on new computers past 2015 when Windows 10 was released.

Up until now, if you asked me if you should upgrade your Windows 7 computer, I would ask these questions:

  1. What are you doing with your computer?
  2. Is there anything you are doing with your computer that can’t be done with Windows 7?
  3. And if the answer to the previous 2 questions was that everything is working properly, I would ask if you enjoy causing unnecessary chaos in your life?

That all changes now.

On January 14, 2020, Windows 7 will be reaching End of Life (EOL). You can read all about it here: https://support.microsoft.com/en-ca/help/4057281/windows-7-support-will-end-on-january-14-2020

What does this really mean to you?

As of January 14, 2020, Microsoft will no longer release security updates. It would be as if the fine people at Krown looked at our van and said, sorry, your car is too old for a rust proofing, we’re not going to do it anymore. As you can imagine, at first the car would continue to run just fine but as time goes on, and no additional rust proofing is done, the rust will overtake the car and make it a good candidate for the junkyard.

It’s similar with your Windows 7 computer. On January 15, 2020, everything will work properly. And possibly for days and months to come it will be fine. But eventually a security issue will be discovered and there will be no fix from Microsoft. Your chance of some type of hack on your computer will only increase over time.

Should you throw out your computer on January 14, 2020?

No, you have several choices after Windows 7 goes end of life.

  1. Continue using your computer while being aware of the risks.
  2. Install a program such as Malwarebytes to provide some level of protection 
  3. Upgrade your computer to Windows 10

Continue using your computer

We already talked about what happens if you continue to use your computer after Windows 7 goes End of Life. Continue at your own risk!

Third party anti-virus and malware protection

Even after Microsoft ends support for Windows 7, numerous anti-virus and malware protection software will continue to work for some time. Examples include Norton Antivirus, McAfee Antivirus and Malwarebytes. I highly recommend a paid subscription to Malwarebytes as it runs all the time and can protect you from problem websites and other online issues. This also applies to modern up to date Windows 10 computers.

It is important to note that even with the best antivirus protection software running on Windows 7, continuing to use Windows 7 is risky.

Upgrade to Windows 10

Since Windows 10 was released in 2015, they have made a free upgrade to Windows 10 available at https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/software-download/windows10. You need to either run it from the website, or create a USB key or DVD to do the upgrade. It will check your computer first and will notify you if any of your hardware isn’t compatible with Windows 10. I have had much success with this upgrade, even on some computers that are 10 years old.

Concluding thoughts

While on the surface it appears that the end of Windows 7 support means that your computer is now garbage, it’s couldn’t be further from the truth. With a little planning and effort, your computer can still be a useful tool for several more years.

Now if only there was a USB key that would upgrade my 2006 Dodge Caravan to the latest model!

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Malwarebytes to the Rescue

Many times in the past few years I’ve had a frantic call from a family member or a friend whose computer has either slowed to a crawl or is acting strangely. The first thing that I do is have them go to www.malwarebytes.com and to install the free version of Malwarebytes and run a scan. I’d say about 9 times out of 10, the program finds tons of malware and other nasty stuff. The computer starts running much faster and my friend or family member things I’m a hero!

The next question I’m usually asked is how can they prevent this type of thing from happening again? I follow this with my own question – are you willing to spend a bit of money to fix this? If they’re willing to spend about $50 per computer for year then I point them to the full version of Malwarebyes:

Malwarebytes for Home | Anti-Malware Premium | Free Trial Download

Link to purchase Malwarebytes

Full disclosure – if you purchase by downloading from the above link, I will make a small commission on your purchase, at no cost to you.

Whether you purchase from here now or at elsewhere in the future, I highly recommend Malwarebytes. Think of it as having a permanent security guard always watching your computer to make sure that nasty malware is stopped in its tracks. That is essentially the difference between the paid and free version. The paid version is always running and you might not even know that it’s removing malware when you click on a link to a website.

I recommend downloading and installing the free version and doing a scan of your computer. You just may find that things run a lot more smoothly afterwards. Then you can decide if and when you are ready to purchase the full version for always-on protection.

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How to log in to student school wifi for York Region (YRDSB)

My daughter started in grade 9 at Westmount Collegiate Institute in Thornhill in September 2019. Trying to find the right information to connect to school wifi proved to be quite difficult. There is nothing online that tells you how, or if it’s there they’ve hidden it really well. My son has been in the York Region school system for a few years and must have somehow figured out how to connect as his Chromebook connects. We ended up going to the school with both Chromebooks and I checked the settings of the one that does connect and entered the right information and it worked.

The directions below are for a Chromebook but should work for any Windows or Mac too. The field names may be different.

To save others the same trouble we went through, here is what you need to fill out on the wifi settings.

  • First, make sure to connect to the YRDSB-S wifi network.
  • Choose EAP security, EAP method PEAP.
  • You may be able to choose automatic for EAP Phase 2 authentication but I saw that it used MSCHAPv2 so selected that.
  • Do not check for Server CA certificate
  • Identity is your 9 digit student number
  • Password you should already have for Google Classroom

Click Connect and you should be good to go.

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Brightness on iPad goes dark

I had a call from my mom while she was a passenger in a car for a long trip. She brought her iPad with her, loaded with movies to watch. For some reason, the brightness kept dropping, even when she manually moved it back up. She couldn’t figure out why and when she called me, I couldn’t figure it out either.

I asked her to send me a screenshot so I could see what was going on. This is what she sent:

brightness icon shows up on iPad screen

I searched some discussion forums and found some mentions of auto brightness but that didn’t fix it. Then someone mentioned a bluetooth keyboard whose keys were accidentally pressed. So I called her back and asked if her bluetooth keyboard was possibly in her bag and turned on. Yes! It was on and this keyboard has keys for controlling brightness. It seems that the ‘lower brightness’ button was being held down. As soon as she turned it off, all returned to normal.

I hope that someone finds this post when dealing with a similar annoying issue.

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Should I store files in folders?

As the family genealogist, I have regularly experienced the thrill of coming across a box full of photographs. It’s a surprise venture into the unknown to go through a stack of picture that may or may not have to do with each other. As the quantities of pictures get larger, the thrill starts to wear off as I think to myself that it would be much easier to deal with these pictures if they were in some kind of order. Compare this to coming across carefully organized and planned photo albums that have written comments and descriptions of who’s who. In the paper based world, it makes sense to put photos in albums or papers into labelled file folders. When it comes to the digital world, the same situation doesn’t necessarily apply.

Photo by Fancycrave.com from Pexels
a stack of photos may be fun to look through but can take forever to sort!

The benefits of storing files in folders

I’ve talked before about my method for organizing photos into folders. This gives structure and and easier ability to find photos. Combined with my method for naming and tagging photos, it makes finding that proverbial needle in a haystack a bit easier to find. This can be applied further to any types of folders, for example I keep folders of bills and statements sorted by company types, ie credit card, insurance, hydro, etc. If I want to find my Mastercard bill from 3 years ago, it’s easy enough to go through my folder structure to find the file that I know will be named something like ‘2016-03 Mastercard.pdf’.

I do the same thing with email. Several years ago I moved my email to Gmail. Gmail uses a structure for folders that they call labels. What this means is that you tag emails with a label name but you view them like folders. If you tag an email with more than one label, it will then appear to be in more than one folder. But if you delete it from a folder/label, it’s gone as there is really only one copy.

Photo by Mike from Pexels
those paper file folders did make finding information a bit easier

In the early days of computing, it made sense to apply structures from the real world into the computer world. Folders in your filing cabinet became folders in your computer. Photo albums also can easily be structured into a computer in the form of folders. I was talking this week with an older friend who agreed with me that this structure makes a lot of sense to him, but his son doesn’t necessarily agree.

An argument for one big free-for-all folder

Part of the power of computers is that they can do the hard work of sorting and searching. Imagine picking up a big box of photos and being able to find the one you want in seconds. That’s what computers have done for the digital world. Let’s look at how this might work in a few examples where we eliminate the use of folders.

Email with no folders

Anyone who has used Google knows at what speed search results are returned. Gmail and many other online email systems use this same concept to allow you to search your personal, private email. Although I choose to label all of my emails (into folders), I could leave them all in the inbox. When I want to find a message, I can just search for any words in it and/or the sender and the results will be returned as in a Google search.

Digital photos all in one big virtual box

Let’s say I put all of my thousands of digital photos into one folder. I could still search for them by date as every digital photo taken has the time and date embedded in the file. This isn’t the case for scanned photos but there is software that will allow you to set this information. Google Photos and other similar photo sharing services don’t use folders. You just upload all your pictures and Google lets you search and organize them into albums.

Files in one big folder

Going back to the example of the Mastercard statement. If I name my files in meaningful ways then I can search for them easily. Let’s say I had a folder with these files in it:

  • 2016-03_Mastercard_statement.pdf
  • 2014-03_hydro_statement.pdf
  • 204-02_letter_to_joe.doc

Searching the folders for any words that I know will appear in the name or maybe even in the content of the document will find the file. This would mean I could keep many unrelated documents in the same folder but still be able to find them.

So which way is better, folders or not?

It really depends on your way of thinking. On one hand, the folder structure is based on the physical world of folders and albums. If you are able to find what you want with searching then having less structure could make sense. Personally, I prefer more folders that allow me to browse when I want, but since all my files are searchable within the computer I can still do both. If I’m searching for copy of a specific statement from 5 years ago, I know exactly which folder to look in. If I want to find a letter that I wrote to a friend at some unknown time, I can search their name in my folders to find it.

Without some level of organization, certain data will drop into a virtual ‘black hole’ never to be found. Think about it this way. If you had 10,000 photos and put them all, unlabeled into a single folder, imaging how hard it would be to pinpoint a specific one. By putting some organization into your files structures, you make it easier to find what you are looking for.

What is your digital organization system?

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Forgetting your password and how to get back in

My sister called me recently to ask if I could help her friend’s father. It seems that due to illness and memory loss, he forgot his password for his Windows, Android phone and e-mail. I offered to go over and help to see what could be done to get him back to all of these important systems.

Have you ever forgotten your smart phone passcode?

Passwords, passwords everywhere

We rely so much on our digital systems today and most are protected by user names and passwords. Keeping track of them is critical to gaining access to devices and accounts and also it is important to have a way to share this information in case of illness or death. No one wants to think about these until it is usually too late, so some prevention is required. There are two primary methods for keeping track of passwords:

  1. Paper based, such as notebooks
  2. Digital based such as password managers that run on a computer or mobile device. These generally are encrypted programs that only require you remember one password to get into the system that contains all of the other ones

Neither of the above methods is better or worse, it really depends on your needs and comfort with using digital systems to track important information.

The forgotten passwords

Back to our story about forgetting passwords. I prepared in advance by creating by USB and CD based password recovery using this free program at
http://pogostick.net/~pnh/ntpasswd/. I went over to the couple’s apartment expecting that I wouldn’t be able to log into the computer. It turned out that there was an administrator account without a password but three other user accounts that he could not log into. Using tools built into Windows 10, I was able to reset the three accounts and returned access to the computer.

The next step was to reset the email account and with that, I hoped that it would be able to be used to unlock the Android phone. We contacted the internet provider and after explaining who we were, they very kind support technician reset the password and then I reset it again to something that this man could remember. I then attempted to find the account that was used to set up the Android phone. After numerous attempts at looking up this information, it turned out that he had never set up the phone to sync up to an online account. With this done, we would have been able to remotely unlock the phone. This mean additional techniques had to be investigated.

Unlocking an Android phone after forgetting the password

I did some research online and came up with various methods for removing the forgotten passcode to an Android phone. One type of method involves running various commands to a phone plugged in to your computer. The other are some commercial software that can be purchased for around $50 that will do the job for you.

I looked at the list of supported devices with this software and discovered that this newer phone, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is not supported. I decided not to experiment as this could completely destroy the software on the phone. I looked up some other methods but none of them appeared to be safe. I contacted a few companies that claim to be able to unlock a forgotten password. One method involves attaching directly to the motherboard and trying every number combination. Usually, if you try this option you will have to wait 30 seconds or more between attempts. This company would charge about $400 to do this.

Given that information, the phone owner decided to think about it. It’s more likely that the data on the phone isn’t worth the money.

End Result

So now he has his computer back and other family members know the password. The phone is likely going to be wiped out and then he’ll have it again. The key lesson here is in prevention. Keep track of your passwords and sign up with services such as Apple iCloud or register an Android phone with Google so that you have recovery options. It may be a cliche but it is true – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in this case, many dollars!

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Find Where Your Pictures are Stored – Windows and MacOS

I recently helped a friend set up backups on his computer. He uses a Mac and subscribes to iCloud. The level of subscription includes a few hundred GB of storage that more than enough covers his important documents and photos. I ensured that everything is stored in iCloud folders and we confirmed that all the files are showing up on a second Mac and also on his iPad. He also subscribes to another online backup service. As I frequently talk about, it’s important to have multiple types of backup so that you are protected in case something happens to one or more of the backup copies. It was no problem to point to the iCloud files on the computer to ensure that the backup service backed them up. The problem I had was finding the pictures that are managed by the Apple Photo Library.

The benefits of photo management software

Apple Photos Library on MacOS is a great way to view and manage your photos. You can view them by date or put them into albums. There’s also integrated tools for doing minor photo editing. Another alternative is to keep the photos in a regular folder structure similar to what I have written about before. My example is from Windows but this can also be done on MacOS. The problem arises when you go to back up these photos that are managed by Apple Photos Library.

Just exactly where are those photo located?

I had a look at my friend’s computer to see where the photos are located in Apple Photos Library. The backup software that he uses, Zoolz, works by either setting it up to backup all photos, documents or specific files types or to browse for specific folders. I was able to browse to his iCloud document folders but could not find the Photo Library. Then I did a bit of digging around through the folder structure. I opened Finder and went to his home directory. I browsed through the folders and then I saw Photos Library

here is where the Photos Library shows up in the MacOS file system

Double clicking on Photos Library just opens up the Photos Library program. By pressing CTRL and click, that opens the menu option where you can select Show Package Contents

This took me to the actual files and folders, looking quite similar to the system that I use for managing photos and videos.

Now I could copy or view any photo in the folder structure. But here is the big question. How can I access these photo folders from other software like Zoolz backup? I did some research and it looks like that since these are folders completely managed by Photos Library, your only option is to let iCloud back them up. For me, this goes against my practice of keeping multiple copies of important files such as photos and videos. Am I missing something? I there some other way to access these files, even from a back up only option? I understand that nothing except Photos Library should be able to change these folders.

If this is truly the case, then I cannot recommend using Apple Photos Library to anyone who is serious about effectively protecting their photos and videos. If you put these files in their own folder structure that you manage then you have control. In future, I will look at other options for managing photos and videos that does not involve Apple Photos Library. Or maybe there’s a way to sync files from Photos Library to another location. Do you have any suggestions for managing photos and videos on MacOS? If so, let me know in the comments.

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Cloud Storage as Prevention for Virus Infection

For the past number of years, I have used Dropbox as my primary cloud storage for my most important and frequently used files. Even though Dropbox only gives you 2 GB of free space, I was able to earn more free space by referring friends and family. This had brought me to a total of 22 GB of space. This was plenty of space to store documents and other files. I have Dropbox installed on several computers and mobile devices and it’s all kept in sync between them. Recently Dropbox made a change to their free tier allowing only 3 devices to be used. They did say that current users can keep their existing devices but I knew that over time this would eventually become an issue for me. Since I subscribe to Microsoft Office 365, I decided that this was the right time to move all of my Dropbox files to OneDrive.

Microsoft Office 365 is a way to license the full office suite, ie Word, Excel and others. You pay an annual fee to use these services. For our family, the 5 user license makes sense. What really makes this a solid deal is the inclusion of OneDrive accounts for each user, each with 1 TB of storage space. I had been using OneDrive as one of my photo and video backup locations, but now decided to take the leap and move all of my cloud storage there.

Moving My Files

I decided to move files a bit at a time to see that they were properly syncing up in OneDrive. I have only a few folders in the root of my Dropbox account, such as:

  • Archives (genealogy data)
  • Current Files
  • Documents (bills and statements)

I decided to move one and watch what happened. The process worked flawlessly and I quickly saw the files appear in my online OneDrive account. I made sure that all computers I use with Dropbox and OneDrive were powered on so that each would get synced up as I went through the moving process. I also checked my other online backup service to make sure that all of the Dropbox files were backed up in case of any issues.

A Warning from Dropbox

One of the more malicious viruses out there is ransomware. Your files can get infected if you open an attachment that causes all files to be overwritten with garbage data. Some of these give you an option to pay a ridiculous “ransom” to get your files back. One of the warning signs would be that thousands of your files cloud service suddenly get changed or deleted. Well, I discovered that Dropbox checks for this. Shortly after moving the first set of files, I received this email from Dropbox

a helpful warning from Dropbox

In this case, I knew that these files had been deleted from my Dropbox account since I moved them to OneDrive. It is reassuring to know that if this had been a real virus, I could have easily retrieved all of these files. I did some research and determined that OneDrive also has ransomware protection.

Knowing that my files are further protected against a virus by being in OneDrive or Dropbox is additional reassurance that they are kept safe. Like I’ve said before, this type of service, coupled with backups at home and to other online services will help to keep your files safe, even if bad things happen to them.

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Don’t let a disaster make your digital photos go down in the lake

I recently read this story on the news about a man who was ice fishing and disaster struck when accidentally dropped his phone into the hole he had drilled and the phone went down 27 feet to the bottom of the lake. On this phone he had a memory card that contained all of his digital photos from the past few years.

while small in size, memory cards can store thousands of your precious photos

No Backups in Sight

No one wants to lose their phone at the bottom of the lake. With proper backups, the worst part of this story should be the cost of replacing the phone. But that’s not the case here. He did not have a backup of the photos and there were some very precious ones on the memory card. The only way he was going to be able to retrieve these photos was to get the phone off the bottom of the lake, and then pray that the memory card was not damaged.

A Remarkable Rescue

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Through sheer determination and luck, the phone was retrieved from the bottom of the lake. When he properly dried off the memory card, all of the photos were able to be retrieved. While this story has a happy ending, it doesn’t usually happen this way. In many cases, the phone is not able to be retrieved from deep water or the memory card is damaged. We can’t always prevent destruction and damage to our devices but we can change the data recovery outcome

Preventing mobile device data loss

The obvious answer to preventing losing your pictures from your phone is backup. But how? Let’s look at a few ways that this unfortunate disaster could have been made less stressful.

The article doesn’t name exactly which phone but given the fact that the photos were on a memory card means it was likely an Android model as iPhones do not have the ability to have external memory cards.

Backup to a computer

With nearly any type of mobile phone, if you plug it into your computer, you can copy photos from either the internal memory or a memory card to your computer. From either a Mac or Windows the phone will appear as a folder where you can easily drag the photos to a folder on your computer.

plug your phone into your computer and back it up

There are programs available for free such as FreeFileSync that allow you to sync up photos from one folder to another or even from a device to your computer.

Cloud based backup

Using a service such as Google Photos or Microsoft OneDrive, you can back up your photos directly to a cloud service from your phone. The advantage to this option is that your photos will be backed up soon after they are taken. Most services will run by default when you are a WiFi network but can be set to back up over regular cellular service. If you choose to back up over cellular, make sure your data plan can handle this.

The best solution is to do more than one, so make sure you back up to your computer and use a cloud based backup. Accidents will happen so don’t make it more of a disaster with some preventative maintenance. No one wants to replace an expensive phone, but those memories stored on your phone are priceless.

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