Probably the most common question I hear is “Why is my computer so slow/do I have a virus?” First, a caveat: when the average person tells me their computer is slow, what they really mean is it has stopped working. Windows comes up, and they can no longer do anything with it. Most typically, this did not happen overnight. Their computer has gotten to this point through a series of bad moves, all of which individually would have been a simple fix but collectively make for a pain in the neck to fix. The good news is that there are some really simple things you can do to prevent this from ever happening. This advice is all specific to Windows, but can apply to Mac as well. Other operating systems exist, but using them says something about your ability to support yourself so I’m not going to address them.
There are four basic things that will make your life a LOT more pleasant, and are listed here in decreasing order of importance and ease to setup.
1.) Update your system
2.) Update your anti-virus
3.) Back up your system
4.) Use a little common sense.
Updating Your System
Ever seen Windows pop up with the little “New updates are available for your system”? Do not, do not, DO NOT ignore these. Updates are created for a lot of reasons, but the most common reason is to correct a security flaw. In many instances, a security flaw will be noticed by a good guy, who will then notify the software creator (usually Microsoft since we are talking about Windows updates). When they notify the software maker, they will explain what the flaw is, and give them a timeline (i.e.”I will give you three weeks to fix this before telling the world about it.”) Microsoft creates a patch and makes it available to everybody to install so that when the world does find out about the security issue, it is already fixed. There is also what’s called a zero-day vulnerability: this is where a security flaw is exploited first and the software creator has not yet created a patch, so they have to play catch-up fixing it. These are not nearly as common.
The good news is that if you install the patch, viruses (and other bad software, but we’ll keep it simple) won’t be able to attack your machine. You will avoid the vast majority of malicious software by simply keeping your machine updated. Windows can be set up to download and install these updates automatically, and there is almost no good reason not to do this. You should also make it a point to update Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader since both are also big targets for malicious software. Additionally, updating your browser is really important. If you use Google Chrome, you have a bit of advantage there since it automatically updates itself and it’s copy of Adobe Flash; usually you just need to restart your machine. If you don’t know how to update Windows or Flash, a quick Google search is your best friend (or ask me via the comments/e-mail/smoke signals, etc.)
Updating Your Anti-Virus
Anti-virus essentially has a large database of viruses, and uses that database to identify programs that are known viruses or behave like known viruses. It’s very important to make sure it’s updated, because it is only as good as the information it has about viruses. Typically, this needs to be updated daily or every other day. Usually this can also be set to automatically update as well. If you are on Windows, I honestly don’t see any reason not to use Microsoft Security Essentials as opposed to paying for anti-virus. It won’t stop everything, but then again neither will paid anti-virus. It will provide good-enough protection however, and in combination with an updated system will stop almost everything from getting through.
Backing Up Your System
There is no software on earth that will prevent you from ever getting a virus. Maybe you accidentally installed the wrong program, maybe your kids got on the computer and clicked on the wrong link, maybe you got hit with the rare virus that patches and anti-virus couldn’t stop. It happens. Having a backup makes this situation an inconvenience rather than a disaster. There is free software that can do this for you, but I recommend paying for backup software that is easy to use and you are comfortable with. I believe in eating my own dogfood, so I recommend Acronis True Image Home (which is what I currently use). For under 100 dollars, you could get an external hard drive and Acronis and schedule your machine to back up every night. That way if you get infected you can restore the most recent working backup. It’s very important to note that there are two kinds of backup: files only or system image. Files will only save your documents: pictures, music, Word documents, etc. It will NOT save your programs, and that is a huge problem for many people who don’t have install discs for software they use every day. A system image take a snapshot of exactly how your computer looks: programs, everything and will restore it exactly as it is. Windows 7 will actually do both for you, but it is very particular about the system image: if you change anything about your hardware, it will not restore the image which is a real problem if your hard drive failed and needed to be replaced. Acronis is capable of restoring your system to different hardware. I should say that I’m placing a lot of faith in Acronis here: I have never restored my system from their system image, but at some point I will and I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s also got a couple of other nifty features such as Try & Decide which allows you to enter a virtual environment where you can do something to your computer (i.e.install a program) and decide if you like it. If you don’t, click a button and you are back to where you were with no changes made to the computer.
Use A Little Common Sense
I have never had a computer virus in my entire life. This is partially because I take my own advice and update my system, have anti-virus, etc., but mostly because I make intelligent choices on my computer. If a program requires you to install something special to print a coupon, it’s not worth it. If I install a program, I make sure it’s reputable first by checking sites I know, looking for reviews, etc. On a regular basis, I uninstall programs that I no longer use. I keep my browsers updated, and I don’t click on internet advertisements. Well, that’s actually not entirely true. I do click on advertisements on sites I trust, but that’s not a guarantee they are safe, just a better likelihood that they are safer than “You are our 1,000th visitor!” ads. I make an assumption that my father will probably never send me deals for off-brand Viagra, and I don’t open e-mails I’m not expecting if they look suspicious. The most common tip-off is a misspelling. If I get a notice that I need to update something or that I have a friend request on Facebook, etc., I don’t click the link in the e-mail. I log into the site directly and deal with it. There is nothing particularly amazing about what I do, but put together it really helps prevent most problems that I am likely to have.
Keeping your computer healthy and happy is not a one-time setup, it’s an on-going effort. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to do either: start with some low-hanging fruit by making sure Windows and your anti-virus is updated. If you have a little more time, take a look on Amazon for an external hard drive and look for Acronis (or another backup solution).