Keeping Your PC and Your Data Healthy
Got a PC? It can be tough being a PC owner these days! It
seems like there are threats coming from all sides that put your data
(and your privacy) at risk. Plus, that data that's so at-risk now
is more important than ever! The chances are good that you keep
some data on your computer that you consider rather important.
So here's a little advice on dealing with your PC. Some of this
advice applies (at least somewhat) to any
computer you might have, but the whole article is aimed fairly squarely
at PC owners running Windows.
Microsoft issues a ton of updates of its various
versions of Windows to fix various problems. Occasionally a "fix"
causes problems and needs a fix of its own, but most of these patches
are good to have. Some of them fix important problems that might
even be security vulnerabilities. I recommend that you just
install all patches from
Microsoft; you can do this by running Microsoft Windows Update on your
system. On some versions of Windows, you can tell your computer
that you want it to automatically download and install patches from
Microsoft, although I'm not quite clear that I've gotten this to work
In the interest of full disclosure, let me list some of the cons to
keeping Windows up-to-date:
Windows is not the only thing in the world that can be updated, of
course. It's a good idea to keep your other software up-to-date,
- Some patches are big and take a long time to download, especially
if you have a dial-up connection. Plus some of them can't be
downloaded together with other patches, and some of them require a
- If you install your system from scratch, you are likely to have a
long list of patches that need to be installed (although I think that
Microsoft periodically aggregates patches in an attempt to mitigate
your pain). Getting all of these downloaded and installed will
probably take a rather long period of mindless clicking and waiting.
- Patches can cause
problems. But the odds are high that you're better off with 'em
than without 'em.
There are all kinds of bad people in the world, and there's all kinds
of bad software out there, too. Even if you're a complete
computer guru, there are enough cracks in Windows to ensure that your
vulnerable. The bottom line: you should be running a good
anti-virus program. Probably the two biggest are symantec's Norton AntiVirus and McAfee's Internet
Security Suite. I think there might be freeware anti-virus
programs out there that work well, but let me emphasize that it's worth paying money for this!
You'll get a (hopefully) well-supported program with a big organization
backing it that is constantly figuring out ways to fight the latest
viruses. (If there's free stuff that works great, then more power
to you! I'm not saying that you have
to spend money on this, but I am
saying that if it costs money to remain safe from viruses, then that's
Even if you only access the Internet via dial-up, you should run
Even if you don't give a fig about your
computer and your data, you
should run anti-virus software. Some
viruses can take
over your computer and use it to send spam or to attack other
computers; to be a good citizen of the Internet, therefore, you have to
do what you can to maintain your system's integrity.
The other part of avoiding computer viruses is tougher: be careful
about what you do with your computer! Because the bad guys are
always finding new ways to attack, it's impossible to make an
exhaustive list that tells you what to do and what to avoid. But
here are just a few absolutes:
- Don't run random executable
programs. If you don't know what a program is, why would you run
- Set your email program so that it tells you the file type of file attachments (not just
the file name).
- Don't open file attachments on email unless you know that they're
- If an attachment is executable, it's probably not OK.
- If an attachment has a file type that you don't recognize, it's probably not OK.
- Don't ever open an
attachment on an email that's obviously spam or sent by a virus.
Don't even follow links on these emails!
Other nasty programs out there perhaps aren't as lethal as viruses, but
behave very badly nonetheless. Some of things these programs can
do are described here.
In addition, these programs are often poorly written and very hungry
for CPU cycles; as a side effect of whatever nastiness they perform,
they can also slow a powerful computer down to a crawl!
The best way to avoid suffering from scumware is not to install it in
the first place! Following the tips for
avoiding viruses will
also help you avoid scumware.
Unfortunately, however, scumware is often installed as an "add-on" of
sorts with more
legitimate software. Say you download some seemingly tasty bit of
freeware that's all the rage. Hidden somewhere in the 50-page
license that pops up on your screen at installation time there may be
mention of some bit of scumware, and when you click "OK" to install the
freeware, the scumware comes along for the ride. At present,
there's no easy solution to this problem-- but basically, you should
only install software obtained from "reputable" companies. This
is a judgment call on your part.
I also recommend installing Lavasoft's
Ad-Aware program. Their website has a link to a fully
functional free version of Ad-Aware that you can download, and you can
run it periodically. Ad-Aware looks for various types of scumware
on your system and can remove them. Running Ad-Aware can
sometimes take a computer that's all but unusable and return it to the
land of the living!
Everybody tells you that you should back up your data to prevent
heartache at some point down the line. It's annoying to do so,
though! I didn't start backing my stuff up for real until my
latest computer crash, which could have caused me some very serious
problems. So I finally got organized and started backing stuff
I'll be ready next time tragedy strikes!
For the context of my advice below, I'll assume for simplicity's sake
that all your data currently lives on one hard drive,
What to back up?
That, of course, is up to you. I
back up all
of my data, more or less; I recommend that you consider doing
likewise. It will
easier for you to do this if all of your data lives in one place-- I
make a point of storing everything I can inside the directory
I don't back up my entire
- Most of your data probably isn't tightly associated with a
program, and so it's probably pretty easy to ensure that it lives
inside a special directory (such as
- Some programs have a default location for their data files, but
they also allow you to change that default location or otherwise
operate on files that live elsewhere. Intuit's Quicken is an example of this: my
initial Quicken data file was
but once this file was created, I was able to move it inside
Whenever I want to run quicken, I double-click on that file (actually,
I double-click on a desktop shortcut to that file that I created
(actually, I trigger that desktop shortcut by a shortcut key)).
- Some selfish programs don't let you specify where their data
live. Each such program required me to make an initial special
to track down its data files and configure my backup program to handle
them. At present, the only such "selfish" programs that I'm
running are Mozilla and Polar Electro's software for
keeping track of exercise.
C: drive because that would be
really slow and would take up a ton of space, and I don't have any
really big place to back it up onto. If these aren't a problem
for you, you could back the
whole thing up.
I also don't back up any actual applications (the programs themselves,
that is). I figure that if my machine dies, I'll install from CD
for the ones that I have physical CDs for, and I'll download &
install the others. An exception to this policy might be
made for programs that I pay money to download-- I don't want to have
to pay that money again! So I might keep the installers for such
programs around and backed up. (Or I could just burn CDs that
hold the installers once and for all, label them, and put them
That way I don't have to keep on backing them up over and over again.)
Where to back up to?
You need to figure out a place to which you can back up your
data. Here are the primary possibilities that come to mind:
Now, it's possible to back up arbitrary amounts of data onto CDs if
you're going to be present at the
time of the backup to swap CDs. However, if you want your
backup process to be low-maintenance (which is the only way you'll be able to put up
with it for more than a few days!), then the place you're backing stuff
up to has to have room for everything you're backing up.
- Somewhere on the same hard disk where your data currently
lives. I don't recommend this, because then you're still just one
hard disk crash away from a painful death.
- Onto another hard disk.
- Onto a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. This is what I do. A CD
will hold around 700M of compressed data; a DVD will hold around 4.7G
of compressed data (I think). For what follows, I'll only mention
CDs, but the info presented applies to DVDs, too.
How to back up?
You need to have some kind of program to actually perform your
backups. I can't say that I've performed an exhaustive survey of
the software that's out there for this purpose, but I looked at a few
(maybe two or three?) programs before deciding to use Backup4all. This program
is not free, but it's not very expensive. Frankly, as far as I'm
concerned, something as important as my data is worth spending a few
There are several flavors of backup that Backup4all and various other
I set Backup4all to do incremental backups, since incremental backups
occupy less space than the other backup types. This means that I
had to buy the "professional" version of Backup4all, which cost some
small number of dollars more than other versions.
- A full backup is just
what it sounds like: a complete copy of everything that the program was
configured to back up. The copy can be compressed so that it
occupies less space than the original did.
- A differential backup
is a copy of only those files that have changed since the last full backup (plus new files that
were created more recently than that, of course). The copy can be
- An incremental backup
is a copy of only those files that have changed since the last full or incremental backup (plus
new files that were created more recently than that, of course).
The copy can be compressed.
Here's how my backups work:
Rather than creating over time an infinite stack of CDs with backups of
my data, I back up to three different CDs. When disk #
- I stick a rewriteable CD in my drive and erase it.
- On day 1, Backup4all performs a full backup onto the CD at some
time that I should be sleeping instead of using the computer (3am).
- On days 2, 3, 4, and 5, Backup4all performs an incremental backup
onto the CD (again, at 3am).
- Before the 6th backup occurs, I go back to step #1.
has been used for 5 days, then it's disk #
(i+1) that gets
erased in step #1. Note that this is only possible if your CDs
are rewriteable (of course, your CD-ROM drive has to support
rewriteable disks, too!).
I have configured Backup4all without much trouble to use the above
procedure (one full backup, followed by four incremental
backups). This is because for me, one five-day cycle of backed up
data is about
as much as I can fit on a single CD. I have set Backup4all to run
this backup job automatically, and so the only work I have to do is
switch CDs every five days-- even I
can handle doing that!
A trick for keeping your incremental backups small
It's nice to be able to be able to go for as long as possible without
having to change CDs. To maximize the time between changing CDs,
you need to minimize the size of the incremental (or differential)
One way you can help to do this is to ensure that the files that you know for sure are going to
change between backups (and hence need to be backed up) are as small as
possible. I'm specifically thinking about files related to your email here. In my case, I
have three rather large email folders for my Mozilla mail client: Inbox, Sent, and Trash. Each of these is some
tens of Megabytes, and it's pretty much guaranteed that each of them
will change every day. It might be worth expending a teeny bit of
effort to keep them from getting out of hand.
What makes your email folders get big? Basically, sending or
receiving big file attachments. If you have any huge emails in
these folders, here are three things you could to them that will help
shrink these files down somewhat:
You might also consider telling your backup program not to bother
backing up the Trash folder. If you do this, then you don't have
to worry much about huge emails that live in it.
- Save the file attachments (if you like) and then edit the email
and remove the attachments from it. I don't do this, because it
doesn't seem like Mozilla (the mail client I use) has a way to do it.
- Save the file attachments (if you like), save any other
information you want from the email, and then delete the email.
Note a common paradigm that might or might not hold for your mail
client: deleting emails from somewhere other than the Trash folder
sends them to the Trash folder, rather than actually getting rid of
them; deleting emails from the Trash folder really throws them away. If
this is how your mail client behaves, you'll have to sort of delete
huge emails twice.
- Move the big email in some other folder somewhere that doesn't
change on a daily basis.
Without getting into much detail, a firewall is something that blocks
various sorts of attacks from getting to your computer.
If you connect to the Internet other than via dial-up, I highly
recommend that you get a hardware firewall box to stick between your
computer and your Internet access. These don't cost that much and
can save you from a lot of problems.
Even if you use dial-up, you can to install some sort of a software firewall. In fact,
This is not just for dial-up users, either-- everyone can (should!) do
I like to keep a "diary" file that lists all the things I've installed
on my computer, together with some of the tweaks I've done. If my
computer ever dies and I want to set up a new one in more or less the
same way, this file will be a big timesaver! Naturally, this file
had better be in a location that's backed up!
I suggest that whenever you install software that requires some sort of
a license #, you put that license # (and any other information needed
to install the software) in your diary file, too.
Back in the day, many years ago, I used Netscape
Navigator as my browser.
When, at some point, too many websites were designed in a way that
required the use of Internet Explorer, I switched to using that.
Recently (mid-2004), there have been a lot of serious issues with
Internet Explorer, however. Various security professionals have
recommended that in order to protect themselves from security problems,
users should use a browser other than Internet Explorer. So for
the past few months, I've been using Mozilla, which
is more or less a better Netscape browser. It works well on
almost all websites; it's arguably safer; and it's not from
Microsoft. Sounds like a win-win-win! Plus I'm using the
Mozilla mail client that comes with it.
News flash! I have
recently switched to using the cutting-edge Firefox
browser (also from the Mozilla crowd). Try it! I can almost
guarantee that you'll like it! My biggest gripe with it is
actually a gripe with how it integrates with Mozilla mail (as opposed
to a gripe with the program itself): whenever I click a link in an
email, a Mozilla browser
window pops open, even though I'd actually like a Firefox browser window to pop
open. Small potatoes, in any case.
There are other non-Microsoft browsers out there, of course. Most
notable perhaps is the Opera
Task priorities (this section is not for novices!)
Windows has six different priorities
that programs can run at. From highest to lowest, these are:
Realtime, High, AboveNormal, Normal, BelowNormal, and Low. Most
of the programs you run on your computer are running at "normal"
priority. Unfortunately, sometimes a program gets a bit out of
hand and tries to eat up all your CPU cycles, and as a result, you find
that pretty much everything on your computer becomes unresponsive.
Although I don't want to point fingers, I have to say that this problem
seems to arise most often with browsers. (It could be that this
is simply because my browser is the application I use the most.)
So I've contrived a way to run my browser at the priority
BelowNormal. That way, if it gets out of hand, most of my other
programs still run fine, since Windows is more interested in giving
resources to them them to the runaway browser process (unless Windows
is really hosed).
To do this, I wrote a simple MS-DOS batch file,
priority starts\Mozilla belownormal priority start.bat (catchy,
no?). This cumbersomely named file has a single line in it:
start "" /D"C:\Program
Files\mozilla.org\Mozilla" /BELOWNORMAL "C:\Program
When I want to start browsing, I double-click on a desktop shortcut to
this file, and it launches Mozilla at BelowNormal priority. As a
bonus, any process that Mozilla spawns in the course of its operations (e.g., Adobe Reader)
will also run at BelowNormal priority. To make things look
slightly cleaner, I've modified the properties of the desktop shortcut
so that it runs minimized and so that its icon is the same as the icon
for the Mozilla executable itself.
If you're curious, there's more information about the MS-DOS
command (the command that my batch file uses) here.
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