PC Preventive Maintenance: “Prevention is better than cure.”

January 15th, 2016

Many of us make resolutions to take better care of ourselves this time of year – we resolve to eat better, to exercise more, and to stress less. We may resolve to take better care of our homes – replacing the gutters or the roof, making much needed repairs to the exterior, or painting that room that’s been needing it for several years. Prevention, whether to protect ourselves, our homes, or our cars, is essential and worth, as Benjamin Franklin said, “a pound of cure”. So how about your computer? Are you completing scheduled preventive maintenance to protect your investment – or, more importantly, your data? Basic preventive maintenance for your computer should include completing data and system backups, external cleaning, antivirus definition updates, operating system and software updates, and cleaning out and defragmenting your hard disk drive. Over the next few months, we’ll use this newsletter to discuss each of these components of your computer’s preventive maintenance. Let’s start with backups.
Creating and maintaining a current set of backups is the first and most critical part of your computer’s preventive maintenance. Without backups, data recovery can be very expensive and, unfortunately, in some cases impossible. The primary storage component for your operating system, programs, and files is your computer’s hard disk drive or solid state drive (which is becoming more common). Hard disk drives provide magnetic storage of your data and are relatively robust. Most hard disk drives have life spans of seven years or better but all those moving parts, from stepper motors to read/write heads, can fail at any time leaving your data locked in a proverbial steel tomb. Additionally, there are malicious programs, often delivered through email attachments, which can encrypt your pictures, documents, and files, leaving them completely inaccessible. Solid state drives, propelled by the technological advancements, are small light-weight devices with no moving parts. Like a flash drive (or thumb drive), solid state drives rely on transistors situated on a thin oxide layer to store your data. Voltages exceeding the thresholds of these oxide layers, including static electricity, can cause catastrophic damage to the layers destroying the flash memory devices. Unlike hard disk drives which often emit growls and death rasps before their failure, solid state drives tend to just stop working.
Backups can be completed to local external drives, cloud-based storage facilities, or both. Windows operating systems offer a File History utility that allows you to schedule backups to a local external drive and recover or restore files at any time. Most external backup drives also come with their own software that can be used to create and schedule backups. Lastly, several companies offer cloud-based backups that store your data files off-site in a storage facility for a monthly subscription fee.
Next Month, we’ll discuss the second component of preventive maintenance, external cleaning.

Tech Support Scams Continue Into the New Year!

January 4th, 2016

Tech Support Scams have been by far one of the fastest growing malicious attacks to hit computer users in 2015 and they don’t appear to be slowing in 2016. These criminals manufacture authentic looking popups via advertising schemes to scare users into calling an overseas technical support site where the innocent user is scared into paying hundreds of dollars to get “phantom” infections removed from their computers. Beware of these scammers! Read more at https://blog.malwarebytes.org/fraud-scam/2015/12/safebrowsing-scam-from-amazon-to-rackspace/

Getting a New Computer For Christmas? (Repost from December 2009)

December 23rd, 2015

New Computer for Christmas? You’d better watch out.
New computers not always best option, experts say.
by Tim Grier, CET Computer Magician

It’s that time of year again and, very often, a new computer is on someone’s Christmas list, but buying a new computer may simply be a more complicated and expensive issue than you once thought. Perhaps all you really need is an upgrade to your existing machine.
The first question you need to ask: What will be the new computer’s primary use? It’s important to match the computer’s software and hardware to the needs of the user. If your computer is for gaming, make sure you get a high-end video card and lots of memory, a really large hard drive isn’t all that necessary. If you are planning on using the computer for pictures or music collections, make sure you get a large hard drive to store your information. A simple office computer rarely needs extensive resources. If your new system is for school, check on the school’s specific requirements regarding network connectivity options, operating system choices, anti-virus recommendations and, especially, any major-specific applications like PhotoShop, Adobe Illustrator, or Microsoft Office. These programs may have their own minimum requirements – make sure your system will support them. Even on new computers, you’ll rarely get applications “pre-loaded” and they can be pretty expensive; so make sure you know what you’re getting. There are free alternatives to many of these high priced applications such as Open Office and Inkscape, but make sure the school isn’t requiring the industry standard program before going a different way.
If your new system is just for surfing the internet and getting mail, a netbook may be your best choice. But if you’re going to be doing much more than that, you probably won’t be happy with the netbook. The video display and keyboard are small as are the drive capacities.
If you are buying a brand new computer, remember this: As your computer ages, it will invariably need to be upgraded to meet the demands of new software advances. Often times, proprietary computers like Compaq, HP, and Apple can be significantly more expensive to upgrade than the “off-the-shelf” custom-built systems. If you can afford it, get all of the “upgrades” upfront on these proprietary systems; purchase the extra memory or the larger hard drive when you initially purchase the system or get a custom-built computer which can easily and less expensively be upgraded in the future.
Laptop or desktop: The major advantage of a laptop is portability—that is what they are designed for. However, the laptop’s battery life is a significant consideration; so pay the extra and get the longer life battery if you’re going to use your laptop away from an outlet for very long. If you don’t need portability or you’re going to be gaming then the more expensive laptop isn’t really the best option. You can generally purchase desktops for much less and, and for gaming, they are much better options. Laptops also have a habit of overheating with prolonged use, desktops don’t generally have these types of issues.
Mac or PC:  Overall, Mac’s are great, yet expensive, computers. They aren’t as susceptible to viruses as PC’s – no hacker worth his “cred” would ever intentionally write a virus that would affect fewer users, he’d go to hit as many computers as possible and since more people use PC’s than Mac’s then the reason for the PC’s virus problems is obvious. Mac’s are also more stable than PC’s because they use proprietary components for the most part – the hardware and software are often developed together so they work better together. PC’s do crash more often than Mac’s. The downside of the Mac’s proprietary streak is that if you want an upgrade, be prepared to go to the Apple store and spend significant amounts of money. Also, Mac’s do not generally support the wide range of applications that PC’s do. Mac’s are big in the graphic design and video editing worlds because the applications needed to accomplish those things run much better on them, since they’re designed that way. My biggest issue with them is that Mac’s are several times more expensive than a traditional PC initially and in the long run.
Upgrading an older system: Adding memory can speed up most systems. While a slow computer is often the result of malware and registry errors, increasing your memory capacity often resolves the speed problems of a virus-free computer. Another option is to replace your existing hard drive with a larger one. Hard drives are analogous to an office filing cabinet, it stores everything (all of your data, files, pictures, and music) even when the computer is powered down. Upgrading your video card can provide for increased graphics potential and replacing an old network interface card, router and modem can increase your speed online.
Once you decide: Don’t forget antivirus software and backup options. Purchase a high quality antivirus option, but remember that the more your antivirus software does, the more of the computer’s resources it will require. So keep it simple and keep it updated. You also need to take the time to create a recovery disk when you get your new computer up and running, it will be an invaluable resource in the future. Finally, computers do crash. Backup your important documents and pictures. If you fail to do so, you may never be able to retrieve those items. When buying a new system, take your time, do some research, ask some questions, and take your computing needs into consideration—you’ll be happier with your purchase in the long run.