Okay, it may not be possible to crash-proof your computer. However, there are steps you can take to protect the data on your hard drive from being lost, in the event of a crash.
Computers. At the risk of sounding cliché, it sometimes feels like we can’t live with them, but can’t live without them. Of course, in today’s world, they are necessary tools for personal and business purposes. I don’t pretend to be an expert on computers; I just use them a lot and have done so for a long time. Here are ten things I do to keep my machine in good working condition. I hope you find these tips useful as well.
Back Up Important Documents
Almost everything gets saved on your computer’s hard disk drive. And with modern hard drives being as large as they are, it’s tempting to just leave everything on there. But the problem is that hard drives fail or “crash.” I’ve heard it said that all hard drives will eventually fail. Given the number of hard drives I’ve seen fail, I am inclined to believe it. Coincidentally, as I’m writing this, I am actually chatting online with a friend, whose hard drive just crashed, taking out everything he had.
If your hard drive fails, it could destroy everything you’ve got on your hard drive – family photos, tax information, personal letters, or anything else that you had saved. If you use your machine for business, a hard drive failure could wipe out contacts, invoices, accounting records, and all your business records.
There are companies that specialize in data recovery from failed disk drives, but depending on the severity of the drive failure, recovery might not be possible. As well, those companies charge dearly for the important service they render.
There is an easy way to protect yourself: back up everything you don’t want to lose. To back up is simply to save the same file twice (or even more), to another location or drive. The good news is that it has never been easier to back up. Years ago, to back up required clumsy tapes or numerous floppy disks. Presently, there are new, inexpensive options, including memory sticks; small portable hard drives; and recordable CDs and DVDs.
I usually work from different computers (home and work), and so I like to take my files with me on a portable hard drive. I save my files directly to the portable drive, rather than the hard drives built into my computers. Then, every so often (but not often enough) I simply copy all those files to my hard drive at home. Ideally, you should back up once a day, but if that’s not realistic, at least once a week.
When in Doubt, Reboot
Sometimes, the computer or something attached to it just stops working properly, for no apparent reason. For example, one minute the printer may work, but the next minute, you get a strange error message, or the printer just doesn’t do anything.
Windows is made up of a large number of programs that are all talking to each other and to the computer. Every so often, they clash. Or one just stops working, and refuses to straighten itself out.
Fortunately, most of the time when your computer starts behaving strangely, there is an easy answer: reboot the machine. That is, turn it off and then turn it on. That cleans out the memory of the machine, and starts everything running afresh.
Before rebooting, make sure you’ve saved any file you’re working on. Next, be sure to use the START menu when turning the machine off; if you just interrupt the power, or reset the machine using a reset button on the console itself, and then you risk interrupting the machine while it’s in the middle of doing something, leaving fragments of code on the hard drive that should not be there. Only use the reset button or the power button if the machine has frozen up so that it becomes impossible to get to the START menu.
Use a Surge-Protected Power Bar
Nothing ruins computer equipment like a spike or surge in the power supply. Parts burn out, and if you’re especially unlucky, a fire can start. Surges also can come through the phone lines, if you’re still using a telephone modem for Internet access.
Surges can happen without warning, although they are more likely to happen during a lightning storm. To protect your machine, purchase a surge-protected power bar, and plug your equipment into that. Those bars usually have a light on to show that they are protecting your machine. If the light goes off, that means it’s time for a new power bar. It’s not a bad idea to replace the bar every few years in any event.
To be on the extra-safe side, you may want to invest in a power bar that has a built-in battery. That way, if there is a blackout while you are computing, you’ll get a few minutes to save your files and shut the computer down the proper way, through the START menu.
Make Sure that Cords are Tight
A computer will have a variety of cords and cables attached to its back. It gets power through one, and talks to the Internet and the rest of your computer equipment through the others. Sometimes, a computer will freeze up unexpectedly if one of these cables comes loose. If you’re having unexplained computer problems, make sure that all the cable is nice and tight.
Use Antivirus Software
Viruses are programs that install themselves on your machine. Some viruses just display a message on a certain date. Others can be designed to destroy all your data. Sadly, some people seem to have nothing better to do with their time than make these pernicious bits of code.
There are trained professionals whose job in life is to come up with cures for these viruses or, even better, programs that stop your computer from being infected. An antivirus program can see that a virus is about to launch, block it from launching, and seal it away safely on your hard drive, where you can delete it before it causes harm. Antivirus programs will scan programs you run, your hard drive, and incoming and outgoing Email for viruses. Two of the more well-known commercial antivirus programs are Norton (www.nortons.com) and McAfee (www.mcafee.com). Both will do a fine job of protecting your system.
After buying the main program (which gets updated every year), you then subscribe to an update service. The first year is usually included with the purchase price. It is important to ensure that your antivirus software is updating itself regularly – often several times a week. As new viruses come out, new updates are released to improve your antivirus program to be able to handle the new viruses.
There is a down-side to most commercial antivirus software- they tends to use a lot of system resources. If you’ve got a reasonably recent machine (three or less years old), then there is no need to worry. However, if you have an older machine (mine is over five years), commercial antivirus software can cause your system to slow down, depending on what it’s trying to do.
Another option is to use a program like AVG (free.grisoft.com). The AVG antivirus software is free for personal, non-commercial use. It also uses up little in the way of system resources, so it’s very good for an older machine.
Use a Firewall
A firewall is simply a program that blocks unauthorized access to your machine from the Internet. Some hackers have nothing better to do with their time than try to find unprotected machines and “listen” to the data on those machines. Windows XP has a built-in firewall that should be activated. Norton and McAfee also make firewalls, although if you have an older machine without Windows XP, you may want to try Zone Alarm, which has the added benefit of being free for personal use.
Scan for Spyware
Spyware is a general term for a large number of programs that set themselves up on your machine and then broadcast information from your machine to specific locations. Spyware can be used to “harvest” data, such as your favourite kinds of web sites, or any other kind of information you can imagine. Spyware can also gum up your machine, so that it’s busy transmitting this data instead of doing your work.
Some Spyware comes bundled with other programs; many file-sharing programs came bundled with spyware.
Sometimes, commercial software comes with spyware. Even some “cookies”, or bits of code that land on your hard drive when you visit certain sites, are a form of spyware.
There is no practical way to prevent your machine from picking up spyware. The solution is to run a good spyware cleaning program. One good, free program is Ad-Aware. Another good, free program is PestPatrol. These are easy to download and install, and are frequently updated to seek out and destroy new spyware.
Use a Spam Filter
Spam is unwanted Email that just keeps on coming. A vast amount of Email – possibly the majority of Email sent over the Internet at this point – is spam. Once it starts hitting your inbox, it’s virtually impossible to prevent it from coming, bringing with it news of male enhancement drugs, weight loss pills, discounted drugs, stock tips, and some messages that simply make no sense whatsoever.
It’s futile to block the Email addresses from which the spam appears to originate; spam is sophisticated enough to originate on one machine while appearing to come from somewhere entirely different, usually from an Email address that doesn’t even exist. Usually, the same fake sending Email address is not used twice.
There are commercial programs that will help your Email filter out spam. Some Email providers, such as Shaw, have good built-in spam filters which, when activated for free, can stop spam from reaching your inbox, or can at least flag suspected spam in the subject line. If you set up a separate mailbox in Outlook or Outlook Express for Junk Email, you can create a message rule so that, every time a flagged Email comes through, it is moved automatically to the Junk Email folder. You can then review your suspected spam just in case a legitimate Email was wrongly flagged (it does happen). Spam is usually generated by automatic programs on unsuspecting computer owners’ machines. These owners did not use a virus protector or firewall. NEVER respond to spam, even to say to stop sending it (some spam has a place to click to do the same thing). All that a response does is confirm to the spam-sending program that your Email address is a real one, a viable target that can be spammed and sold to other spammers. The more you respond, the worse the problem will get.
Some spam messages also appear to be legitimate, even scary; one common scam has messages which really look like they were sent from Ebay or certain financial institutions; these insist that if you don’t go to a particular web-site and enter personal information, your accounts will be suspended or worse. These messages can be scary because they look real, and have been made to appear to come from the genuine Email address of those organizations. Never respond. Never click on the links in any unsolicited Email. Above all, NEVER give out financial or personal information over the Internet in response to an unsolicited Email. Even more important: never, ever open an attachment to an unsolicited Email, unless you are satisfied that it is legitimate. What may look to be a picture can turn out to be a pernicious bit of code that knocks out your virus protector and infects your machine.
On a somewhat lighter note, don’t take spam personally. One female friend of mine found it a bit offensive that she got many weight loss spam Emails, but as I observed, she was also getting a fair number of male enhancement ads. The spammers don’t know who you are.
Defragment Your Hard Drive
When a file is saved on your hard drive, it’s often saved in pieces that are scattered all over the hard drive. The computer knows where everything is, but the more you use the machine, the worse the scattering (fragmenting) becomes. This has been a problem with PC-based machines for as long as there have been hard drives. In extreme cases of fragmentation, the computer can slow down as it struggles to find all the pieces of whatever file it’s looking for. Eventually, the computer can fail.
Doing a full defragmentation every six months or so should keep your machine running smoothly. Windows has a built-in defragmentation program (under Start, Programs, Accessories). You may have to leave your machine on overnight as it defragments, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Know When To Get Help
Never panic. However, there are some things that go wrong with computers that require the skill of a professional repair person. If your machine makes a sound you never heard before, especially a clunk and a persistent grinding sound, it could be that your hard drive is failing or has failed. Get help. Your hard drive may have failed or may be in the process of failing. If you turn on your machine and it tells you that “Drive C is not bootable”, that can also be an indication that your hard drive has failed. In other words, your machine no longer knows what to do with itself when it’s turned on. Get help if this happens, as well. It is hard to know when your machine has been infected by a virus. Sometimes, hackers will make your machine display messages (like “Ha ha”) or display graphics or cartoons that you’ve never seen before. Sometimes data will vanish. If your machine really starts to act up, and rebooting doesn’t help, you may have a virus. If a virus gets past your virus scanning software and infects your machine, it is difficult to remove it fully and properly. Consult a professional if you suspect your machine to be infected.
If you are particularly unlucky, an electrical short in your machine can cause it to catch fire, or at least to smoke. If that happens, unplug the machine. Get help.
***I hope these tips also help you in keeping your computer running smoothly, so that it can perform its most important function: helping you be more productive.