Thursday, 16 December 2010

Top 10 mistakes that PC users make

1. Misbehaved Programs - You've probably heard of spyware, also known as adware or malware. These programs are generally designed to run silently in the background and make money for some person or company somehow. Some spyware simply tracks your surfing habits in order to sell for marketing purposes, while others pop-up ads, redirect you to different sites, install toolbars, change settings, and worse. Spyware often requires expert help to remove, and can often

But where do these misbehaved programs come from? Spyware does not directly spread in the manner of a computer virus or worm. Spyware gets on your system either through security 'holes' in unsafe programs (see #2) or by hitching a ride with another program (like the ancient Trojan horse).

So do some research before you download, and use some common sense. If the program is designed to do something illegal or semi-legal (like P2P programs Kazaa, Limewire, Morpheus, etc.) don't be surprised if they take some liberties with your PC along the way. Especially beware of free utilities and screensavers, which are also a major source of spyware. However, some of our favorite programs are free; so the point is, make sure to check the source and exercise caution when downloading.

2. Unsafe Web Browser - Internet Explorer is the default browser on almost all new PCs. Don't use it! Internet Explorer is the most common point of entry for spyware. Even on a fully updated install of Windows, many websites can install spyware AUTOMATICALLY.

The solution is simple: just download and use a different web browser. We like Mozilla Firefox (free download), and Opera is also good (and free). You can visit all the same websites with Mozilla Firefox without having to worry about spyware. However, please note Firefox won't remove spyware or in any way actively protect your PC; it is simply a safe way of viewing websites.

3. Backup Your Data - So what's the best way backup your data?

Well, there are many options. First, don't rely on floppy disks; they are too delicate, slow, and only hold 1.4MB of data. CDRs are a popular choice, since they are inexpensive (about $0.25 each in bulk), most PCs have CD-writers, and you can backup 700MB at a time. Blank DVDs hold about 4500MB each. Some also use flash drives (usually 1024MB and up), or external USB hard drives (80,000MB and up). Small business owners may want to consider a more automated backup system, like using an extra hard drive along with reliable backup software (we use Acronis True Image).

4. Security Software - Most computer users know that they need some sort of antivirus protection. But if you visit the software store, you'll encounter a vast array of 'internet security products' designed to protect you from spyware, hackers, pop-ups, junk mail, and so forth. Should you go for the extra protection?

No. Really, just don't. The best way to avoid problems with your PC is to keep things simple. Most security software is a bloated mess of programs that accomplish little more than slowing down your PC. We regularly 'fix' computers by removing such software, which can conflict with other programs or cause other networking problems. Plus, the extra protection isn't necessary. If you follow steps #1, 4, 6 and 10, you won't have any problems from hackers, spyware, or pop-ups.

However, you should use some sort of anti-virus protection. Viruses can spread in unusual ways. So search out a simple anti-virus product (not Norton or McAfee) and make sure it stays up to date. See our eBay store for our recommendations.

5. Surge Suppressor - Most PCs that are damaged by surges and lightning, by far, are hit through the TELEPHONE line, not the power cord. Most modern surge suppressors include phone line protection. Use it. And be sure it's a good one, like an APC or Belkin brand; we've seen cheap ones that failed and let the computer get fried anyway.

6. Keeping Windows Updated - You need the latest security patches and service packs to avoid the latest exploits that hackers and viruses use to attack your PC. All window users should either turn on automatic updates or manually get them regularly.

Some users are paranoid about allowing Microsoft to send them updates, thinking that it might damage their computer.

7. Inkjet Printers - Inkjet printer ink is priced a little higher than gold right now. Seriously. So when you're shopping for a printer, check the ink cartridge prices too. Don't be tempted by that £29.99 Lexmark deal. If you price the cartridges, you'll see where they're making the money.

Also, if you are a small business owner and you print in large volumes, you NEED a monochrome laser printer. Remember to look past the higher price for the printer and the toner cartridge, and instead calculate the MUCH lower cost per-page and all the time you'll save. And if you think you'll miss color, see #8 below.

8. Printing Digital Photos - If you just read #7, you know that operating an inkjet printer can be expensive and time-consuming. It's doubly so with printing photos (photo paper, ink costs, cleaning print heads, etc.). So consider bringing your memory card or CD to a place like Walgreens, CVS or Target where you can use a simple kiosk to select and print photos quickly.

Even better, import all of your photos into Picasa (free download from Google) where you can crop and enhance them. Then select your favorite photos and click the [Order Prints] button to select from a variety of online printing services to send them to. If you don't mind waiting to receive them for a few days, getting prints this way is generally less expensive, easier, and many of these services offer several free prints for new customers.

9. E-mail Attachments - This is one of the biggest area of frustration for new PC users. The first mistake is usually trying to send a file that is too large.

What is too large? Well, consider the rate at which the other person will receive the file: On a dial-up connection, which most of your friends are probably still using, they'll be receiving the files at about 4 or 5kB per second. So if you send them a photo straight from your 3 megapixel camera for instance, at about 900kB it will take 3 to 4 minutes per photo to download. Ouch. So resize that photo first before you send it.

Also, it's important to remember not to send someone a file that they can't open. For instance if you use WordPerfect to create a document, but your friend uses Microsoft Word, they won't be able to view it. What can you do? Pick up PDF Creator (free) to create a document that anyone can view and print, or you could both switch to OpenOffice (also free) which supports many document types and can also export to PDF.

10. Protect Your PC From Other Humans - That's right. Your friends and family can be one of the biggest threats to the health of your PC.

We see it all the time: Joe pays to have his PC cleaned and is told how to keep spyware out. Later, Bob comes over to check his e-mail, and then browses some 'fun' sites using Internet Explorer. Bob then decides to do you a favor and install some of his favorite free software. If you've read #1 and #4, you can imagine the state that Joe's PC is in right now.

What practical steps can be taken, other than locking the computer away? Well, if you use Windows XP, just let them use the 'Guest' account built into Windows. You see, the Guest account doesn't allow users to install programs or to change system settings. Note that you may need to visit the User Accounts section of the Control Panel in Windows to enable the Guest account.

Using the Guest account may not work out well for a family member, though. Working in a limited account environment can be frustrating in the long term, and also some utilities and games don't function correctly in a limited account. So instead of trying to install some kind of draconian security software, it may be best to just sit the family down and explain the dangers (and expenses) of unsafe computing to them.

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