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 properly.

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, too.


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 computer is 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 money well-spent.)

Even if you only access the Internet via dial-up, you should run anti-virus software.

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:


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 up, and 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, C:.

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 be 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 C:\backup.
I don't back up my entire 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 away.  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.

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 bucks.

There are several flavors of backup that Backup4all and various other programs support.
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.

Here's how my backups work:
  1. I stick a rewriteable CD in my drive and erase it.
  2. 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).
  3. On days 2, 3, 4, and 5, Backup4all performs an incremental backup onto the CD (again, at 3am).
  4. Before the 6th backup occurs, I go back to step #1.
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 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) backups.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Move the big email in some other folder somewhere that doesn't change on a daily basis.
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.


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, see here.  This is not just for dial-up users, either-- everyone can (should!) do it!

Diary file

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.

Your browser

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 browser.

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, C:\backedup\computer\scripts\low 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" /BELOWNORMAL "C:\Program Files\\Mozilla\mozilla.exe" -nosplash

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 start command (the command that my batch file uses) here.

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