You know your company’s admin process better than anyone. But can you find software that matches it?
No. Of course you can’t.
Why? Because the software companies always come up with generic, one-size-fits-all solutions. Allegedly, that’s the most cost-effective way.
And it works, up to a point. For instance:
It’s a little frustrating, especially when you remember how much you paid for your software. But at some point, you’ll run into a problem that requires a workaround.
Perhaps this means you have to do your calculations in a spreadsheet and then copy the result into your accounting software. Or you end up producing quotes for work in Microsoft Word, but then create the invoice in Excel.
Sure, off-the-shelf software has wonderful extras, like storing people’s birthdays or converting yen to sterling. But there’ll still be no way of making your phone number print on delivery notes, or placing your logo exactly where you want it.
You can spend months looking for the right software, then more months trying to learn it. And even then you have to spend more time adapting your company’s processes to fit it.
But doesn’t every business have to waste months working with inadequate, inappropriate software?
No, I don’t think they do. Often, the answer is a bespoke relational database.
When you build your own database, an expert looks at how your business works, figures out which bit can be automated, and then makes that happen. The learning curve is shallow, because the new system is designed to fit around how you already do things.
You don’t have any features you won’t use. And as your company grows, you can adapt the database to suit.
You’ll save some time because you won’t have to continue the ongoing search for software. And you’ll save more because everyday processes will be updated and speeded up.
Martin Bridges is an expert in office admin and developing relational databases who works at dataBASED.biz.
Spreadsheets are great. They’re easy to set up, personalise, and use. Except when you want more than one person to access the information in the spreadsheet. That’s why it gets trickier.
However, there are a number of ways to work around the problem.
This method doesn’t require much technical knowledge, but can be labour-intensive, especially if you work with big files.
To begin with, set up a spreadsheet with all the calculations and fields in place, laid out and formatted exactly as you want.
Give a copy (with or without data) to each person who needs to use the spreadsheet. Let them add or change data according to their requirements.
Once everyone has finished changing the spreadsheet, someone has to manually open each edited file and collate the information back into a single spreadsheet.
This master copy can then be copied and disseminated, starting the process again.
If you take this approach, it’s important to have a convention for naming the files so you don’t get confused. I tend to use a combination of file name, user name and date. For instance:
Sometimes I have to add the time to a file name too, like ItemPrices_Martin_21.1.14_11:33.xlsx.
If your business has a server — whether in your office or in the cloud — you can keep a single copy of the spreadsheet.
Because only one person can open the spreadsheet at a time, there shouldn’t be any data issues, because one person has to close the spreadsheet before another can open it.
However, you'll inevitably find that more than one person wants access to the data in the spreadsheet at any one time. So what happens is one of your team takes their own copy, changes it … then confusion reigns and you’re back at method one again.
Spreadsheets are just tables, with columns (field names) across and rows (records) down.
Instead of storing your data in a spreadsheet, you can save it using database software. This still keeps your data in a table (or several tables), but is superior in several ways:
For instance, you can have a table of customer details and a table of invoices, linked together.
The advantage of using a database like this is that you only ever have to enter information once. You can simply re-use it when you need to. That avoids cut-and-paste errors and eliminates worries about which copy of the data is the right one.
Martin Bridges is an expert in office admin and developing relational databases who works at dataBASED.biz.
If you want to start accepting card payments, there’s a wide range of card payment machines to choose from. With so many options available, it can be hard to know where to start.
The first thing to do is consider your business and your customers. What do you sell? Are you always at a desk or are your customers spread out? How do you carry out most transactions: face to face, over the phone, online?
Once you answer these three questions, the type of card payment terminal you need should become clear. There are three basic types:
One other thing to consider is whether you’d like to have the ability to take contactless payments, where customers can pay smaller amounts by waving their card over a card reader, instead of having to input a PIN.
To encourage use of contactless payments, some payment providers are offering lower commission rates on debit card payments, so if this appeals to you and your customers, it could be worth your while.
All types of card payment terminals are available with contactless functionality.
Andy Macauley is chief operating officer of Handepay.
Microsoft recently reminded Windows XP users that this venerable operating system is being retired in April 2014.
Windows XP has just passed its 12th birthday, and on 8 April next year Microsoft will end support for it. If you’re still using it, this means you will no longer receive security patches or updates — and Microsoft won’t be able to provide you with any sort of support for Windows XP.
Because Microsoft will no longer be updating Windows XP to guard against new security threats, it’s important to move away from the software before April next year.
This may pose a challenge for any companies still using Windows XP — and there are plenty of those. Despite just passing its twelfth birthday, according to Net Market Share Windows XP is still the second most popular operating system, with a significant 31% market share.
XP has been a great choice for businesses. It was relatively easy to pick up because it feels familiar to many users and supports a lot of bespoke business software. As a result, many businesses have been reluctant to upgrade.
However, desktop software has come a long way since Windows XP was released in October 2001. So has hardware. In fact, Microsoft released three new versions of Windows over those 12 years: Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8.
Vista never really gained a foothold with businesses, but Windows 7 now enjoys considerable market share.
If you currently use Windows XP on any of your business computers, it’s time to take action. Don’t put it off — once Microsoft drops support for Windows XP, so will many other software companies. You could soon find you’re unable to run some of your key business software.
More worryingly, in six months time you will be at an increased risk from malware and viruses, as hackers begin to target the unmaintained operating system. Consider your options now and plan to replace Windows XP before the deadline.
The most recent Microsoft operating system is Windows 8. It has a significantly different interface compared to its predecessors and has attracted some criticism for this, so you may be more comfortable upgrading to Windows 7, with its familiar look and feel.
There are also hardware factors to consider when you upgrade. A computer running Windows XP is likely to be as dated as the operating system itself.
Even if it can handle a newew operating system, it’s likely to be considerably slower than Microsoft intended — and this could hit your productivity. The end of Windows XP could therefore be a good time to replace your business computers, too.
On the morning of the 9 April, your Windows XP computers will still start up as they have done for the past decade. However, the lack of support and updates — not to mention the increased threat of malware — should be enough to put you off of doing so.
Quite simply, after 8 April, the longer you hold on to Windows XP, the greater the chance you’ll suffer some sort of problem or catastrophe from which it’s hard to recover.
Microsoft is keen to see businesses upgrade, as this allows it to focus resources on developing new software, rather than maintaining older versions. However, it costs to upgrade, so there’s certainly a commercial incentive too.
In all, Windows 8 is a considerably more advanced and future-proof operating system than Windows XP. If you’re currently persevering with this old software, there’s no better time to make the leap and upgrade.
This is a guest post from Adrian Case, technical director at Akita IT support in Kent.
Sometimes it's the simplest IT tips that can save you most time. So, for this week's Friday tech tip, we've identified a simple shortcut that'll help you find what you're looking for more quickly.
It works in almost every application, but it's particularly useful when you're looking for information on a lengthy web page, in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or Word document.
Instead of scrolling through pages of text and figures to find the thing you need, hit this easy shortcut:
(That means hold down the CTRL key, tap the F key, then release the CTRL key. If you use a Mac, hit CMD + F instead.)
In almost every major piece of software on your computer, a 'find' box will appear or pop up. Just enter in some text to identify what you're looking for, and hit the Enter key. The display on screen will highlight where that text appears.
This simple time saver is one I use several times a day. Once you become accustomed to it, you'll be using it to make life easier in all kinds of circumstances.
We recently stumbled upon an amazing website that can automatically remove the background from photos and other images.
To do this properly, you usually need a copy of photo editing software (like Photoshop or the free Paint.NET), a steady hand and some patience. But now this site promises to do the whole thing for you.
It's great for achieving effects like cutting a person out of a photo or removing a dark background from an icon. For this week's Friday tip, we explain how to use it.
The website is called Clipping Magic. It's currently being tested, but seems to work very well. Here's how to give it a try.
1. Find an image to work with. We're going to use this photo of a boat, because it was the first photo that came to hand:
2. Go to the Clipping Magic website and select Choose file to upload your image. You can also drag and drop the image file into the page.
3. While the image is being uploaded, you'll see instructions about how to use Clipping Magic. Have a read if you like — it's pretty straightforward.
4. Next, you'll see your image on screen twice. On the left will be your original. On the right is how it'll look once the background has been removed.
5. To tell Clipping Magic which areas are the background, select the red minus sign, then click and drag to highlight the background on the left image.
6. Next, select the green plus sign, and use it to highlight the bits of the image you want to keep. Once you release the mouse button, the right image will change to preview the new image:
7. If the preview doesn't look right, you can highlight other areas to help Clipping Magic work out what to remove. Use the eraser icon to remove highlighting and the 20px dropdown to change the width of the highlighter.
8. Once you're happy, select Download to get a final copy of your image. Here's how ours turned out:
There are other settings to play with as well. It's best to just experiment with them to see what gets the best results.
We think that's not bad at all for a couple of minutes' work. Go on, give it a try yourself at Clipping Magic.
Keyboard shortcuts can make a big difference to the speed at which you use your computer, yet many people aren't aware they even exist.
We've covered some key keyboard shortcuts before (like copy, cut and paste), but here are two web browser shortcuts that will come in handy when you're browsing the internet.
Both shortcuts work in almost all common web browsers.
If you're typing an internet address like 'www.microsoft.com' into your browser, you don't actually need to type the '.com'.
Instead, you can just hit CTRL+ENTER. This web browser shortcut will add the '.com' to the end for you, and take you to that website.
You might already know that you can tap the TAB key to move to the next field in an online form. That's handy when you're entering your details or registering on a website.
But you might not realise that if you make a mistake, you can hit SHIFT+TAB to go back to the previous field.
What are your most-used web browser shortcuts?
It's not much fun being an Excel novice. While undeniably powerful, Microsoft's spreadsheet tool is pretty intimidating if you don't know your way around it properly.
One of the most common Excel tasks is to enter repetitive information, like a list of sequential dates or the same number over and over again.
These tasks are time-consuming and soul-destroying, unless you know these handy shortcuts.
Ok, say you want column A of your spreadsheet to contain a list of dates, running from 1 May - 30 May. You could type in each date manually. Or you could just follow these steps:
This also works for other data, including numbers, days of the week, times and more.
Sometimes you might need to enter the same number or text into several cells dotted around your spreadsheet. Here's how:
What are your most-used Excel shortcuts? Leave a comment and let us know.
Has a client or business partner ever emailed you a PDF contract, asking you to print it, sign it, scan it and then send it back by email? Creating your electronic signature will save you all that hassle.
What's more, if you have an Apple Mac then you can pop your signature on the bottom of a PDF without requiring any special software. This tip should work on any Mac as long as it has a webcam (all recent MacBook laptops have webcams built in).
Here's how to create your electronic signature and sign your first document:
1. First, get a blank piece of paper and sign it. You'll need this later.
2. On your Mac, open Preview. It's the icon that looks like a couple of photographs:
3. Click the Preview menu, then choose Preferences.
4. In the window that opens, click Signatures.
5. Click the Create Signature button.
6. A window will open and your computer's webcam will turn on.
7. Hold the paper up to your webcam. You'll see your digital signature appear on screen:
8. Once you've positioned it so you're happy, click Accept. Your signature is now saved.
9. Close the window by clicking the red button at the top left.
10. Next, open the PDF to which you wish to add your signature (go to File > Open and select the file).
11. Click the pen icon to show the annotations toolbar:
12. Click the 'S' signature icon, then choose your signature from the dropdown:
13. Click and hold the mouse where you want to add your signature. You can set the size of your signature by dragging while you hold the mouse button.
14. You can click and drag the signature to resize and reposition if required:
15. Once you're happy, click File, then Export. Enter a file name and click Save.
That's it - you've saved a copy of the PDF with your signature. And your signature will be saved in Preview so you can use it next time you need to sign a document too.
The Windows blue screen of death. Seen one lately? (Image: namho on Flickr.)
We tend to focus on Microsoft Windows here on IT Donut. Although there are many alternative operating systems that are reliable capable and even free (like Linux), we've taken the view that it's easiest for small firms to stick with the status quo.
Quite simply, Microsoft Windows is one of the few pieces of software that's used almost universally by companies across the UK. Sit a new member of staff in front of a computer running Windows and there's a good chance they'll know how to use it.
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That's not to say for a moment that Windows doesn't have its problems. From the famed blue screen of death (see image) to the ridiculous Windows Update system that seems designed to kill productivity dead, Windows can be frustrating at times.
But by and large it gets the job done. And although it's arguable that the dominance of Windows has stifled innovation, if you're just trying to get stuff done then there's a lot to be said for having what pretty much amounts to a standard operating system.
However, having said all that, we're starting to wonder if change might be in the air. The ties that bind that businesses to Microsoft Windows may be loosening. Here's why:
But one story emerged this week that'll bring cheer to opponents of Windows, particularly those who prefer to use Linux. As it turns out, the International Space Station (ISS) is moving from Windows to Linux in order to improve reliability.
And let's be honest. If it's good enough to run the ISS, it's probably good enough for your average business.
If you've been working on a Word document in a team or have to send a report out for comments and approval, you may end up with a file that's covered in comments, tracked changes and markup.
You'll probably want to remove the markup and comments from your Word document, particularly if you're sending it outside your business (tracked changes have embarrassed organisations many times over the years).
So, for this tip of the week (TOTW), we explain how to remove markup, comments and other hidden data from your Word documents.
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Recent versions of Microsoft Word include a tool called the Document Inspector that helps you identify and remove comments, markup and hidden information. Bad news for Mac users though: the Document Inspector is only available on Word for PCs.
Here's how to use it:
That's it. Now you can save your document as normal and send it out without worrying that it might contain any hidden text or information.
Giving a presentation can be nerve-wracking. And let's be honest: although PowerPoint is a useful aid, many presenters rely on it too much.
But once you've made sure you're not committing any crimes with PowerPoint, here's a tip of the week (TOTW) with some useful shortcuts to make your presentation run smoothly and professionally:
The right equipment can go a long way to ensuring a smooth presentation. You might need:
Most people who use PowerPoint will know this already. However. if you tend to flail with your mouse to move through your presentation, why not try using the left and right arrows keys instead?
Tap these to step through your presentation one slide at a time - forwards or backwards.
For a more professional look to your presentations, consider using a presentation remote control. This will allow you to step through presentations without having to stay by your computer. Kensington and Targus both make good models.
Presentation technique matters just as much as the kit you use. Why not get advice from these great books?
If someone interrupts your presentation unexpectedly, or you want to hold a group discussion without the distraction of what's on screen, use these shortcuts:
Just tap the key again to resume your presentation.
You can literally underline a key point in PowerPoint, by drawing on the screen:
(If you use a Mac, tap the Command key instead of CTRL.)
The end is nigh for Windows XP
If your business is one of the millions still using Windows XP, it's time to start thinking about moving to a more modern operating system.
Actually, you can consider this your early warning that Microsoft will be ending support for Windows XP in just under a year's time, on 8 April 2014.
After that date, Windows XP will no longer receive software updates from Microsoft.
That means no more security patches to protect you from viruses, spyware and hackers. No more fixes for software bugs. And no more updates to improve performance and stability.
If you're using Windows XP, you can upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8.
It's a good idea to discuss the options with a reputable IT supplier.
You can purchase Windows from these outlets:
If you keep using Windows XP after 8 April next year then it will keep on working, probably. But the longer you keep using it, the greater the risk you'll be running.
The truth is Windows XP is more than 11 years old. Business technology has changed immensely in that time, and you're still reliant on this outdated software then you'll be doing yourself a real favour by upgrading.
If your computers are under three years old then you should be able to upgrade them to a more recent version of Windows without needing to invest in new computer equipment.
If your computers are older than that, then you might benefit from investing in new hardware at the same time.
You'll probably be presented with the option of upgrading either to Windows 7 or 8.
Windows 7 is a couple of years old and has been tried and tested in companies of all sizes. Windows 8 is the newest version, but has a revised interface that takes a little getting used to.
Which option is right for you will depend on the compatibility of your existing software, and your own preferences.
Don't panic though - you're hardly the only business out there still using Windows XP. Some statistics suggest nearly 40% of businesses are still are using the venerable software, with many experts expecting most of these companies to choose Windows 7 over Windows 8.
Do you still use Windows XP? Are you worried about the end of support?
Flying over London in Google Earth.
As we're about to head off for a nice long weekend, instead of the usual useful business IT tip of the week, this time round we thought we'd give you some useless ones. They're arguably more fun though.
Easter eggs aren't just big bits of chocolate you eat at this time of year. They're also hidden features in software that can be revealed if you know how. Here are our top four Easter eggs.
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You'll need to have Google Earth installed on your computer for this one, but it's worth getting just to see it in action.
Once you've opened Google Earth on your computer, press CTRL + ALT + A on your keyboard (on a Mac, hit CMD + ALT + A).
You'll enter the secret(ish) flight simulator mode, which allows you to pilot a plane through Google Earth. Be warned though, it's not easy to get the hang of. More instructions here.
Firefox may be losing ground to Google Chrome in the web browser wars, but it still has a surprise up its sleeve.
To see this Easter egg in action, open a new Firefox window, type about:mozilla into the address bar, then hit Enter. You should see a quote from The Book of Mozilla about the birth of Firefox. (Mozilla is the non-profit organisation behind Firefox.)
Go on, hop on over to Google. Then type in do a barrel roll and hit Enter. You can also try searching for tilt.
(Warning: not for those who get motion sick easily.)
Readers of a certain age will remember the game Snake from their Nokia phones with fondness.
But did you know you can play it on your Mac? Go to Applications, then Utilities, then Terminal. In the windows that opens, type emacs, then hit Enter.
A text editor called Emacs will open. Hold Esc and tap X, then once the cursor is at the bottom of the screen, type snake and hit Enter. Then prepare to waste the rest of your afternoon.
I'd hoped to include more Microsoft Easter eggs here, but it seems that by-and-large the company has stopped including them in its software. Spoilsports!
It's really irritating when you hit Caps Lock by mistake. Suddenly IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING and although there are ways to change how text is capitalised, it's nicer to avoid the problem in the first place.
There is an easy way to banish this annoyance, so for this Tip of the Week we explain how to make Windows play a sound whenever you hit Caps Lock.
To get started, make sure your computer's speakers are turned on and turned up.
Click the speaker icon at the bottom right of your screen and check the volume there is turned up too:
To find the setting you need, go to your Windows Control Panel:
In the Control Panel, click Ease of Access Center:
At this point your computer may start reading the items on screen. To switch this option off, untick the Always read this section aloud option:
Next, click Make the keyboard easier to use:
The setting to play a sound when you hit Caps Lock is called Toggle Keys. To switch it on, click the checkbox beside the Turn on Toggle Keys option:
Click OK, and then tap your Caps Lock key to make sure the new setting works. You should hear a high note when you turn Caps Lock on, and a lower tone when you turn it off again.
If your business has employees, you've probably already heard about Real Time PAYE.
Also called Real Time Information or RTI, it will require you to submit payroll information to HMRC every single time you run payroll.
Never heard of RTI?
Visit our Real Time PAYE resources page >>
Real Time PAYE comes in for most businesses from 6 April. If you outsource your payroll, then just make sure your payroll provider is fully prepared for RTI, and check if they need anything from you to get ready.
If you run payroll in-house, then it's inportant you're using payroll software or a payroll cloud computing service that can send your Real Time PAYE information to HMRC.
You need to use software because HMRC will only accept Real Time PAYE information sent over the internet.
Here are four reputable software packages that are ready for Real Time PAYE and can help you get prepared:
How prepared do you feel for RTI? Leave a comment to let us know.
PDF files aren't designed to be edited. But how many times have you received a PDF by email, only to find you need to make a change to it?
For this tip of the week (TOTW), we explain how to edit a PDF.
You probably use the free Adobe Reader software to open PDFs, but this is no good for making changes. One option is to fork out £250+ for Adobe's Acrobat package. But if that doesn't appeal, there are a number of free tools out there that let you edit PDF files.
Because PDF files simply aren't designed to be edited, it's a good idea to convert your troublesome PDF into something more edit-friendly.
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That's where PDF to Word comes in. It's a free online tool that converts your PDFs into Microsoft Word files. You can then open and edit them with a recent copy of Microsoft Word, which you'll almost certainly have on your business computers.
If your PDF has a complicated layout, lots of graphics or unusual fonts then PDF to Word isn't always able to convert perfectly. But it does a really good job most of the time, leaving you with a nice Word file that's easy to make changes to.
Here's how to convert your PDF into an editable Word document:
Your PDF file will be uploaded to the service, and after a minute or two you'll receive a Word document in your email. When you open it, it'll be the same as your PDF, but in fully editable form.
Saving a screenshot on a Windows PC is easy. Just hit the Print Screen key, then paste the image into a document or email (more details here).
However, if you use a Mac, you have to learn a different shortcut combination.
In fact, Macs have a number of different functions built-in if you want to save a screenshot. Here are two of the main options.
If you want to save an image of everything you can see on your screen, hold down the Command and Shift keys, then tap the number 3. This will save an image of your entire screen to your Mac's desktop, with a filename starting Screen Shot. You can open and edit this in normal graphics software.
Alternatively, press Command, Shift, Control and 3 to copy the image to your Mac's clipboard. You can then use the Paste option (Command-V) to paste this image into an email or document.
If you don't want to save an image of your whole screen, try Command, Shift and 4. This will turn your mouse pointer into a cross-hair. Click and hold the mouse to draw round the area you want to save. When you release the mouse button, the area you selected will be saved to the desktop.
Similarly, you can use Command, Shift, Control and 4 to copy the selected part of the screen to the clipboard. Easy!
If you've been struggling to cope without the Recent Documents folder in Windows 7, this tip of the week explains how to get it back.
The Recent Documents folder appears in your Start menu, giving you an easy way to access the files and documents you've been working on most recently. However, it isn't switched on as standard in Windows 7, which can be confusing if you usually rely on it to find your files.
Here's how to get it back:
That's it - you should now see a Recent option in your Start menu, which you can use to open the documents and files you worked on most recently.
(Image: Flickr user Marcin Wichary.)
Like death, taxes and your train being late when you're in a hurry, having to use Microsoft Office is one of life's certainties.
Competitors have come and gone over the years. There's even an excellent free alternative available. Yet nobody has made an impact on the Microsoft juggernaut, which is responsible for about a third of the company's total revenue and has 90% market share.
Microsoft Office has become so ingrained in the world of work that we never give it a second thought. It's an ever-present piece of software that we take for granted - both the good bits and the bad.
Some of its capabilities are genuinely impressive, and yet it can also be incredibly frustrating. Most of us just get on with it when Word keeps messing our bullets up or PowerPoint keeps reformatting a crucial presentation.
It was against this background of indifference that Microsoft last week launched Office 2013, the new version of its ubiquitous software.
It has the usual smattering of new features, and a refreshed look and feel. Here are a few of the key changes:
There are many other improvements and tweaks too. PC Pro has an excellent review examining some of the new capabilities in detail.
Although the home version of Office 2013 is available to buy now, the business packages won't be on sale until 27 February. Touch screen users will find it worth upgrading immediately.
It will be possible to rent Office 2013 from Microsoft too. As with many cloud services, you'll pay by the month. Stop paying, and Office will stop working. This version is called Office 365.
Over the long term, paying monthly is unlikely to work out much cheaper than buying the software outright. But renting will be more flexible, because you'll be able to cancel any time after the first 30 days - and you'll receive updates to new versions of Office as they're released.
Microsoft also promises some useful extra features for Office 365, like Office on Demand, a special copy of the software you can temporarily use on any PC.
Business package pricing and options should become clearer in the next week or two, but going by prices currently shown on the Microsoft website, you could be looking at anything up to £15 per person per month for a fully-featured version of Microsoft Office.
If you've recently made the move to Windows 8, you might be finding it tricky to adjust to life without a start menu. So, for this Friday's tip of the week, we explain how to add a start menu to Windows 8.
Because Windows 8 doesn't have a start menu at all, the best way to add one is to download and install a program that does the same job.
We like Classic Shell, because it's free and closely mimics the start menu from previous versions of Windows. Here's what you need to do:
Go to the Classic Shell website and click the Download Now! button.
Once the file has downloaded, run it to start the installation process. Just follow the instructions on the screen.
When it asks which features you want, leave the defaults selected.
Once Classic Shell has finished installing, you should see a shell icon at the bottom left of your screen (see right). Click it.
This should bring up your new start menu. To control how it looks, go to Programs > Classic Shell > Classic Start Menu Settings.
(You may find the settings box opens as soon as you click the shell. If so, don't worry - that's where you want to be.)
Now you can choose between styles of start menu. Just click the one you feel most comfortable with. Then click OK.
That's all you need to do to add a basic start menu to Windows 8. You can play around with the advanced settings in Classic Shell if you like.
(Image: Flickr user frankh.)
There are some pieces of free software that are too good not to share. In many cases, they're heaps better than paid-for alternatives that have crammed in useless feature after useless feature in an attempt to justify their cost.
Everyone should know about these great free tools, so to get your week off to a good start here's our guide to some of the best free Windows software out there. Please add your own suggestions in the comments too.
What are your favourite freebies? Leave a comment to share your recommendations.
Are you at risk of goating? (Image: Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr.)
When you step away from your computer, follow these three simple bits of advice to keep your data safe and make life easier for your colleagues:
If you're working on a document that's shared with other people, your colleagues may be unable to edit it while you have it open.
To make sure people can view and access files in your absence, always close shared documents if you're going to be away from your computer for more than a few minutes.
Some versions of Microsoft Windows have a habit of restarting automatically in order to install critical software updates.
If this happens while you're aware from your desk, you won't see the warning and could lose unsaved work as a result.
To avoid this, check for the Windows Update shield icon in your taskbar and restart as soon as Windows prompts you to. It's an inconvenience, but it's better than losing your work.
If you don't lock your computer so nobody else can use it, you're inviting problems.
It might just be a relatively-innocent piece of goating (jokily messing with your desktop wallpaper or changing your Facebook status), or it might be something much more serious, like another employee downloading your customer database onto a memory stick.
To lock your computer in Windows, hold down the Windows logo key, then tap L. You can release the Windows key - your computer will lock, requiring a password before anyone can use it.
Time for a computer clean-up? (Image: Flickr user garryknight.)
We're just easing ourselves back into the swing of things here at IT Donut, so normal service on the site will resume next week.
However, as is traditional at this time of year, we've been wondering how to start 2013 with a clean slate, ready and organised for whatever comes our way. As a result, we've identified some services that can make a real difference to how your year begins.
So, for this Donut tip of the week, here are three tools to help you declutter, get organised, reduce distractions and speed up your PC:
If you subscribe to a lot of email newsletters or receive lots of email notifications from services like Facebook and Twitter, Unroll.me can help you reduce the clutter in your email.
It works with Gmail, Google Apps and Yahoo Mail. Once you've signed up (it's free), Unroll.me analyses your inbox to find messages you receive regularly, then lists them for you.
You can unsubscribe from anything you no longer want in a single click, so there's no need to click lots of separate unsubscribe links. Unroll.me will then combine your remaining subscriptions into a 'rollup'.
This means instead of being distracted by messages throughout the day, you'll receive a single message containing everything in one go - at the time you select.
Also consider: clicking the unsubscribe link in every email newsletter you don't read over the next month.
It'll also help you identify software that's running but not needed (this can slow your computer) and fix problems with the Windows Registry, a database which holds the settings for lots of your software.
Any.DO is a simple, elegant to-do list app that reckons it can help you 'make things happen'. It's a cloud-based tool that works on your computer and smart phone, so you can see your to-do list from almost anywhere.
It's all about simplicity, so instead of a bewildering array of options, you just see what you need to do today, tomorrow, soon and 'someday'.
Also consider: Remember The Milk, another great task list app. Or go old skool with pen and paper.
Whether you call it cloud software, or SaaS (software as a service), the premise is the same – your customer relationship management (CRM) system is accessible online, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from any computer, using a secure login.
We have moved away from the fear of holding our data online, and are gradually moving towards total acceptance of the cloud as a way to increase efficiency and deliver CRM systems.
Indeed, 20% of businesses will own no IT assets by next year, according to research carried out by Gartner last year. They declared 85% of those surveyed would increase their use of SaaS or cloud technology over the next three years.
And when Microsoft say they’re ‘all in’, that means it’s cloud or nothing. On-site IT is on the way out within the next five years.
The drive towards cloud services doesn’t just benefit the end user – it benefits the providers, too. It’s win-win, because it gives the providers greater room for investment in their technology. What’s more, it’s competitive, ensuring cloud technology is developing faster than any other.
So what are the main drivers for uptake of cloud CRM services? Why are people switching now and not when they are forced to?
We are moving towards a new IT world – one in which assets are not held within a business, but by the provider, and supplied online.
It’s not just happening in CRM, it’s happening in HR, email, accounting … even music – when’s the last time you bought a CD? There are online services that hold almost every song ever recorded. They’re part of the cloud too.
This CRM world where everything is hosted online provides huge savings for businesses – not just in the upfront cost of the service (which is always lower than on-site), but in the ongoing maintenance of the system, and in the deployment of an internal IT team.
So yes, cost is a driver. It always has been, and it always will be. Cloud CRM is, put simply, cheaper to implement and cheaper to maintain.
Within your business, everyone needs a reason to use CRM, otherwise any CRM project will be dead in the water. However, alongside that reason, simple, easy access is a must.
Nobody wants to spend five minutes trying to log on to a system that they can only ever access from their work computer. After all, the reality is that the workforce is becoming more fragmented, with remote and flexible working becoming more popular.
Cloud CRM is, if anything, a reaction to changes in the workplace that are happening right now. Indeed, it’s a reaction to the many changes that are happening with the ways in which we interact with technology.
We want everything right here, right now, wherever we are. Cloud CRM brings that attitude into the workplace, and increased uptake is therefore almost a given. Make it easy, and you remove barriers.
Microsoft Dynamics is a good example of why integration works well. This CRM product links into Microsoft Office, allowing you to share documents through libraries.
A successful CRM system should never operate in isolation. It needs to be part of an overall business cloud strategy – one that is driven by someone who has an overview of all your business departments and strategies.
Equally, the integration of external data such as billing means your cloud CRM is perfectly placed to act as the fulcrum around which your customer intelligence revolves.
If we have learned one thing from the last five years of financial difficulty, it is that flexibility and scalability have to be built into everything we do
The pre-2007 years of spend, spend, spend are a distant dream – we have all become experts at sourcing flexible, scalable solutions that allow us to maximise our spend. Cloud CRM meets that demand.
Businesses can start with an initial project team on SaaS, and expand their user base more quickly than with on-premise systems, which incur a fixed cost. The pay-as-you-go nature of cloud CRM means that businesses pay for what they get, and in this environment of austerity, this is a message that resonates well.
So – we’re going asset-free, we’re going online and we’re saving money and driving uptake. That’s not a lot unlike us, at home, in other environments such as music provision or even the shift from DVD to online delivery of movies.
The only surprise is that it has taken us so long to shake off our hesitancy and take the plunge into cloud, where everyone wins.
Gareth Cartman is a business blogger with a particular interest in direct & digital marketing, data marketing and outsourcing.