Some options aren’t optional.
When it comes to a computer there are steps any semi-sane person should take before ever hitting the on/off button. Making sure you’ve covered the basics adds a protective layer that stands between your computer and disaster.
Let’s start by making a checklist of precautions I consider essential. I’ll list them first and then I’ll talk about each in more detail. Even if you can mentally check off each item as something you’ve done, stick around for the detailed conversation. I’ll list some gotchas — things that even folks who believe they’ve covered the basics may have missed.
OK. Let’s make our list first. Here are the basic items that you must have:
n A working and current back-up of all the data you create
n Anti-virus protection
n Anti-adware/spyware protection
n A firewall and router
n An uninterruptable power supply (UPS)
It’s fine with me if you buy the cheapest computer around. Nowadays even a brand new bottom-of-the-line computer can do a great job for most home users. But — when it comes to today’s checklist — we need to make sure you are doing things right.
If you use your computer long enough, it will fail. Perhaps your hard disk will crash, or maybe the end will come in an impressive puff of smoke. In some cases, all your data will be destroyed — family photos, tax records, emails. Luckily, modern versions of Windows come with a perfectly adequate program that will automatically save all your data to an external hard disk. Or, even better in my opinion, you can use an online back-up system that saves all your data to a commercial online site where it will remain safe even if a fire destroys your home.
Even if you’re doing that right now, you must be sure your back-up software is set to immediately save any data that is either newly-created or freshly changed. Then you should periodically test your back-up. Once every month or so select a single file from your backed up data and try to restore it. That accomplishes two things: You are verifying that the back-up is a good one and it makes sure you know how to use the back-up software to restore data. Believe me, it’s better to get comfortable with back-up software when all is going well, rather than waiting for the panic of the day your hard disk crashes.
Not protecting your computer against viruses is akin to driving a car without seat belts. There are two ways to go when it comes to virus protection. You can buy any brand-name anti-virus program including commercial products from McAfee, AVG, Norton or Kaspersky. That’s just a partial list. Almost any commercial program will work just fine.
There also are free anti-virus programs that do a good job. I like AVG’s free version, as well as its commercial program. The free Microsoft Security Essentials (a suite of security programs that includes anti-virus protection) also does a good job.
Now for the gotcha’s. There are free anti-virus programs available online that range from horrible to downright frauds. If you depart from my list of approved programs please do plenty of research before downloading and using a different anti-virus program. The same advice will hold in our next category — software to protect you from adware and spyware. In both cases, installing a bad program can be worse than having no protection at all.
Viruses are bad enough. But over the past few years I’m finding that adware and spyware create even more problems. These are tiny programs that install themselves on your computer and then use your Internet connection to report back to their creators. The fact that these programs constantly chug away makes more work for your processor and slows it down. The fact that they use your Internet connection slows it down. It’s common to find a couple of hundred of these ugly little critters in an unprotected computer.
I have a clear favorite when it comes to protecting your computer. It’s Superantispyware. In many cases, it will find and cure problems that can’t be touched by other programs. You’ll find it here: www.superantispyware.com. There is both a free and commercial program. Start with the free program and consider moving to the for-pay version if you can afford it.
The big gotcha here is the fact that the Internet is loaded with fraudulent software that serves as a pipeline to add adware and spyware rather than remove it.
Windows comes with a firewall that works great. You can also find commercial firewall software that’s even better. Most users will do fine using the free Windows software.
But the router that you already own — the device you use to share your Internet connection and to create a home network — is at least as important when it comes to protecting your system against hackers. You can read about how that works here: www.free-firewall.org/router-firewall.asp
Now the gotcha. Wireless routers — if not set-up correctly — can serve as a way into your computer system instead of protecting it against intruders. Read the manual that came with your router and make sure you are taking advantage of all the security measures it offers.
A UPS is a big battery that comes with circuitry to turn the DC battery power into AC current. When the power goes out the battery offers enough reserve power to give you time to safely turn it off. But a UPS does a lot more than that. It delivers filtered AC to your computer system, protecting it against electrical jolts, surges and dips.
I’ve had great luck with routers made by APC. While I’m sure there are other brands that do just as well, I’ve used APC brand UPS systems long enough to know that they are reliable and trouble-free.
The gotcha here is that some home users buy a UPS that isn’t powerful enough for their computer system. It’s important to get a UPS that doesn’t labor under the load. Feel free to ignore my recommendation for the APC brand if your own research finds a better option. But, no matter which brand you buy, I strongly recommend that you use this online calculator from APC: www.apc.com/template/size/apc. It will help you find the right-sized UPS for your specific computer system.
Now is the time to review this checklist and the possible gotchas I mention. If you want to protect your computer and its data there’s really no other option.
Bill Husted, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution technology writer, writes on computers and consumer technology subjects. He cannot answer every question, but may choose those of general interest for publication. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org