BUILD A BOMB-PROOF PC

JONATHAN PARKYN EX­PLAINS HOW TO PUT TO­GETHER A SAFE, SIM­PLE COM­PUTER FOR OLDER (OR YOUNGER) REL­A­TIVES… WITH­OUT TURN­ING YOUR­SELF INTO THEIR PRI­VATE TECH SUP­PORT TEAM

PC & Tech Authority - - CONTENTS -

How to put to­gether a safe, sim­ple com­puter for older (or younger) rel­a­tives… with­out turn­ing your­self into their pri­vate tech sup­port team

Be­ing the tech-savvy one in the fam­ily is a dou­ble-edged sword. It’s great to help el­derly par­ents and other rel­a­tives, but once they know you’re will­ing to help them with their com­puter prob­lems, you’re al­ways on call. And, when ran­somware or some other dis­as­ter strikes, it’s in­evitably you they’ll turn to – not Mi­crosoft nor their PC man­u­fac­turer’s ac­tual tech sup­port team – for as­sis­tance. With the best will in the world, it can be pretty an­noy­ing to find your­self re­duced to the role of a helpdesk op­er­a­tor. Wouldn’t it be bril­liant if you could pre­vent their com­puter from hav­ing any such prob­lems in the first place?

Well, one so­lu­tion would be to tackle the source of many prob­lems: Win­dows it­self. As much as we love Win­dows, it’s in­trin­si­cally prone to pre­cisely the sort of prob­lems – viruses, slow­downs, up­date is­sues and Blue Screens of Death – that you’ll be called upon to re­solve. In­stalling se­cu­rity soft­ware of­ten isn’t enough, ei­ther. Luck­ily, we have some al­ter­na­tive ways to make a PC easy to use, re­li­able and, above all, safe.

THE LINUX METHOD

Swap­ping out Win­dows for a Linux in­stall – or run­ning it side by side with Win­dows in a dual-boot con­fig­u­ra­tion (see over­leaf) – has sev­eral im­por­tant ad­van­tages, de­pend­ing on which dis­tro you opt for.

There’s no short­age of choice in this re­gard and your de­ci­sion is likely to be gov­erned by your pref­er­ences, as well as the re­quire­ments and/or skill level of the per­son you’re build­ing the PC for. We rec­om­mend Linux Mint, which, in re­cent years, has de­fined it­self as one of the best dis­tros for any­one switch­ing from Win­dows.

There are four vari­a­tions of Linux Mint avail­able from lin­uxmint.com at the mo­ment – Cin­na­mon, MATE, Xfce and KDE – each with a slightly dif­fer­ent desk­top en­vi­ron­ment. For older users who are fa­mil­iar with Win­dows, Cin­na­mon is the best bet. It’s straight­for­ward, clean and modern look­ing.

32-bit ver­sions of all the desk­top en­vi­ron­ments are avail­able as well as 64-bit va­ri­eties. In ad­di­tion, the dis­tro’s light­weight sys­tem de­mands and sup­port for a wide range of hard­ware means that Linux Mint works just as well on older sys­tems as it does new ones. As such, it’s a great way to keep an older ma­chine go­ing when the PC’s orig­i­nal OS – XP or Vista, for ex­am­ple – is no longer sup­ported and vul­ner­a­ble to in­fec­tion.

As well as look­ing and work­ing a lot like Win­dows, Linux Mint comes pre-in­stalled with many of the tools most users will need, in­clud­ing me­dia play­ers, email and Li­breOf­fice, which will be in­stantly recog­nis­able to any­one who has used Mi­crosoft Of­fice. There are hun­dreds of other soft­ware pack­ages to in­stall, too – in­clud­ing Skype, Spo­tify and other pop­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tions – which are all avail­able for free via Linux Mint’s spank­ing new Soft­ware Man­ager.

The chief ben­e­fit of Linux Mint is that it’s se­cure. Pass­word-pro­tected root ac­cess pre­vents sys­tem­level files from be­ing tam­pered with, and mal­ware is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent. That’s not to say that Linux mal­ware is com­pletely The Cin­na­mon flavour of Linux Mint is ideal for users who are used to the Win­dows in­ter­face

You can con­vert a lap­top into a Chrome­book- like de­vice via the CloudReady Home Edi­tion soft­ware

un­heard of. Ear­lier this year, a ma­li­cious pack­age was dis­cov­ered in the Ubuntu Snap app store – a cryp­tocur­rency miner called 2048buntu, dis­guised as a game. Mal­ware is still so rare, though, that you could get away with not in­stalling any se­cu­rity soft­ware. For those who pre­fer to err on the side of cau­tion, though, there are free an­tivirus (such as ClamAV) and fire­wall tools (such as Gufw) that can be put in place for a beltand-braces ap­proach.

The main dis­ad­van­tage of go­ing the Linux route is that, no mat­ter how sim­i­lar dis­tros such as Linux Mint may seem to Win­dows, it will in­evitably take many users a while to get used to how cer­tain things work, so you could po­ten­tially end up re­ceiv­ing more “sup­port” calls in the short term.

TURN A PC INTO A CHROME­BOOK… SORT OF

Chrome­books make for a great al­ter­na­tive to a Win­dows sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly for those who need lit­tle more than a web browser and email. Chrome­books are usu­ally light­weight, fast and very straight­for­ward to use, thanks to Google’s Chrome OS op­er­at­ing sys­tem; this works more like a

“CHROME­BOOKS ARE FAR LESS SUS­CEP­TI­BLE TO AT­TACKS THAN WIN­DOWS PCS”

web browser run­ning apps than a full­blown OS.

Just like Linux, Chrome­books are less sus­cep­ti­ble to ma­li­cious at­tacks than Win­dows PCs. This is partly due to the fact that the Linux-based OS is much less of a tar­get for hack­ers and mal­ware writ­ers than Win­dows, but also be­cause Chrome­books come with ad­vanced se­cu­rity fea­tures baked in – namely a cus­tom rmware chip, which uses a process called Veri ed Boot to pre­vent mal­ware from mod­i­fy­ing sys­tem code. In ad­di­tion, a Trusted Plat­form Mod­ule (TPM) gen­er­ates tam­per-proof en­cryp­tion keys.

Their porta­bil­ity, rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity and low cost make them ideal for stu­dents and younger users, but Chrome­books are also well suited to older users and any­one who doesn’t want the has­sle of wonky Win­dows up­dates and com­pat­i­bil­ity is­sues. The trou­ble is that even the cheap­est Chrome­books – such as the Asus C202 – will still set you back around $390.

How­ever, there is a free way of con­vert­ing an ex­ist­ing PC into a Chrome­book­like de­vice: by in­stalling Nev­er­ware’s CloudReady Home Edi­tion (nev­er­ware.com/ free­down­load), which is es­sen­tially a ver­sion of the open-source Chromium OS that un­der­pins Chrome OS. Load the CloudReady in­staller onto a USB ash drive, plug it into the PC you want to in­stall it on, then re­boot and fol­low the steps.

Be­fore you sign up your en­tire fam­ily, there are some caveats to con­sider. Firstly, un­less the PC con­cerned is on Nev­er­ware’s list of certi ed models (https://guide.nev­er­ware. com/sup­ported-de­vices/), com­pat­i­bil­ity isn’t guar­an­teed. Uncerti ed PCs may still work, but “may have un­sta­ble be­hav­iour, and our sup­port team can­not as­sist you with trou­bleshoot­ing,” ac­cord­ing to the tool’s in­stal­la­tion page. That said, we’ve got it work­ing on sev­eral non-certi ed ma­chines with­out any deal-break­ing bugs.

Many non-of cially sanc­tioned PCs also lack the TPM hard­ware needed to cap­i­talise on the op­er­at­ing sys­tem’s en­cryp­tion fea­tures, and Veri ed Boot isn’t sup­ported un­der CloudReady at all. Up­dates won’t nec­es­sar­ily come as thick and fast as they might on a real

Chrome­book, ei­ther – CloudReady users can ex­pect to re­ceive patches and se­cu­rity xes four to ten weeks af­ter they’re re­leased for Chrome OS. It’s also worth not­ing that many cen­tral fea­tures of Chrome OS are miss­ing or work dif­fer­ently un­der CloudReady – even ba­sic func­tions, such as shar­ing les from within apps and ge­olo­ca­tion in Google Maps, don’t work.

Those quali cations aside, CloudReady of­fers much of what many older and younger users will need, with­out the risk of in­stalling a du­bi­ous EXE le, en­crypt­ing a hard disk with ran­somware or spend­ing six hours re­build­ing a PC be­cause of a borked Win­dows Up­date. And it will look in­stantly fa­mil­iar to any­one used to run­ning Chrome on a PC.

RUN WIN­DOWS 10 IN S MODE

Win­dows 10 S used to be an en­tirely sep­a­rate edi­tion of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem, but since the April 2018 Win­dows Up­date (see is­sue 286, p52), it has been of cially re­cat­e­gorised as a “mode”. Some con­sider Win­dows 10 S mode a di­rect com­peti­tor to Google’s Chrome OS, by lock­ing down the OS to make it more se­cure and stream­lined. In S mode, users aren’t able to in­stall or run Win32 desk­top ap­pli­ca­tions – only Win­dows Store apps can be used. Other func­tions are ei­ther dis­abled (in­clud­ing com­mand line con­trols) or re­stricted – the only de­fault web browser al­lowed is Edge, for ex­am­ple.

This may sound lim­it­ing, but it the­o­ret­i­cally makes the OS a much safer en­vi­ron­ment. For in­stance, Win­dows Store apps are vet­ted by Mi­crosoft and aren’t

“THE S MODE WOULD BE A LESS RISKY OP­TION THAN FULLFAT WIN­DOWS 10 FOR LOYAL USERS”

al­lowed ac­cess to sys­tem fold­ers in the way that desk­top pro­grams are. Per­for­mance should be im­proved too, since apps don’t slip them­selves into startup rou­tines.

Win­dows 10 in S mode doesn’t erad­i­cate the need for se­cu­rity soft­ware al­to­gether, though, and users will need to rely on the OS’s built-in Win­dows De­fender pro­gram, since there are cur­rently no third-party an­tivirus tools that sup­port the mode. Even so, S mode would be a less risky op­tion than full-fat Win­dows 10 for loyal, older users who are re­luc­tant to leave be­hind the fa­mil­iar Win­dows en­vi­ron­ment.

But there’s a prob­lem. Cur­rently, Win­dows 10 in S mode is only of cially avail­able on a hand­ful of de­vices, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft’s own Sur­face Lap­top. You can “test” S mode by down­load­ing the Ed­u­ca­tion preview in­staller from tinyurl.com/yb2m7lso, but there are nu­mer­ous stum­bling blocks to con­tend with. Driver sup­port is lim­ited, for ex­am­ple, so there’s a chance some of your de­vices may not ac­tu­ally func­tion once S mode has been in­stalled. More­over, the S mode in­stal­la­tion can only be ac­ti­vated if your ex­ist­ing de­vice is run­ning Win­dows 10 Pro, Win­dows 10 Pro Ed­u­ca­tion or Win­dows 10 En­ter­prise. If the PC con­cerned is run­ning Win­dows 10 Home, you’re out of luck.

In a re­cent blog post (tinyurl.com/ yc gdeo), Mi­crosoft’s Joe Bel ore con rmed that fur­ther changes to S mode are in­bound: “Start­ing with the next up­date to Win­dows 10, com­ing soon, cus­tomers can choose to buy a new Win­dows 10 Home or Win­dows 10 Pro PC with S mode en­abled.” This may be worth fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

DUAL-BOOT­ING AND VIRTUALISATION

One of the big­gest bar­ri­ers to build­ing a non-Win­dows box for older rel­a­tives is com­pat­i­bil­ity. Not only do they have to get used to an en­tirely new op­er­at­ing sys­tem, but they also have to learn how to use all of the pro­grams and tools that re­place the ones they’ve been us­ing for years on their Win­dows PC. In some cases, you’ll nd like-for-like re­place­ments; Li­breOf ce and Gimp are vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal whether you’re us­ing them on Win­dows or Linux, for ex­am­ple. But there may be Win­dows-only ap­pli­ca­tions that your users just won’t be able to do with­out.

One op­tion here would be to cre­ate a dual-boot con gu­ra­tion, so that the PC started in a safe OS by de­fault, but could also be booted to Win­dows, should the user ever need to ac­cess a speci c ap­pli­ca­tion. Linux Mint sup­ports dual boot­ing and, as­sum­ing Win­dows is al­ready in­stalled, it’s pretty easy to achieve; just se­lect the “In­stall

Linux along­side Win­dows” op­tion when in­stalling the OS. Sadly, dual boot sup­port is be­ing phased out of CloudReady and is no longer avail­able for fresh in­stalls – see tinyurl.com/y9qz­ca8x for more.

Linux users get an­other op­tion for run­ning old Win­dows ap­pli­ca­tions: virtualisation. Wine (winehq.org) has been al­low­ing users to run Win­dows pro­grams un­der Linux for years, but sup­port is far from uni­ver­sal. A fur­ther pos­si­bil­ity would be to run an en­tire virtualised in­stance of Win­dows un­der a Linux host – vir­tu­al­box. org would be your best bet for that. You could even sand­box the Win­dows VM by dis­abling net­work­ing, thereby ef­fec­tively elim­i­nat­ing se­cu­rity risks. The only real draw­back with this is that you’d need a full copy of Win­dows and valid li­cence to ac­ti­vate it.

“YOU CAN RUN A VIRTUALISED IN­STANCE OF WIN­DOWS UN­DER A LINUX HOST”

TOP: The Sur­face Lap­top comes ready equipped with Win­dows 10 S ABOVE: Try out Win­dows 10 S mode by down­load­ing the Ed­u­ca­tion preview in­staller

Linux Mint sup­ports dual boot­ing and makes it easy to set up

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