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Guide to Painless Computing

The Essentials

Relax. Breathe. You really can approach a state of Windows computing bliss with just some free (or inexpensive) software and a little time to set it up, along with a few common-sense practices.

These are the essentials we'll cover:

  • Data Privacy: erasing and encryption (section to be added soon)

I'll recommend software and services that work quickly, work as expected, and whenever possible, work automatically.

Yes, sometimes, you have to invest a little money and time to play the game, knowing that just one trip to the computer repair shop, a burglary, or a security breach will likely cost more than the pain relievers I've prescribed. But whenever possible, I offer free solutions.

Network Security

Here's the bottom line: If you're connected to the Internet or share storage media with anyone, your security has likely already been breached. You are, or soon will be, infected with software intended to disrupt your computing experience or invade your privacy: it may show you ads you don't want to see, steal your personal information, turn your computer into a spam-spewing robot, or erase your data entirely. 

These are my favorites tools to stop that from happening. You need all of them.

1. Avira Antivir Premium Anti-Virus. Avira is thorough, easy on system resources, and best of all, the basic version is free. The free version updates and runs itself on a schedule, but you must manually click a button to quarantine or delete a found virus. The paid version does everything automatically and is strongly recommended.

2.
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. You need a dedicated anti-malware program in addition to an anti-virus program. The paid version of Malwarebytes unlocks realtime protection, scheduled scanning, and scheduled updating. That's the only way to go.

3.
Outpost Pro Firewall. I have used Outpost for over three years and it's great. You must have a decent firewall to monitor, and if necessary, block malevolent traffic between your computer and the Internet. You might be tempted to buy a "security suite" that includes a firewall, but be advised software suites tend be bloated, and not perform as well as the best individual programs such as Outpost Pro. Comodo Firewall is a free alternative.

4. Windows System Updates. Turn them ON. This will help plug security holes in your operating system.

 

Data Integrity

We've dealt with data security — blocking external threats. Now on to data integrity — protecting your existing data.

As before, I'm not giving you step-by-step instructions (that's available in Help files or on the Web). Instead I'm focusing on overall strategy and programs that will to do the job.

You probably know that your data resides on the magnetic platters of a standard hard drive, or more recently, in the memory of a solid state drive. It's ALL vunerable. Here's what you must do to avoid a "my data's GONE!!!" heart attack.

1. Dump your old drive. Drive technology is constantly improving, but all drives eventually fail. Replace them at least every five years. That's the drive every five rule. You'll probably be getting another computer by then anyway. Power users, who need all the speed they can get, will enjoy a productivity benefit from a new computer every three years, in which case, the old drives are irrelevant.

2. Separate your data from the operating system and applications (programs)
. Use two drives, one for data, one for the operating system and applications. Overall performance will improve, and more importantly, your data will be at least partially isolated from problems on the active system drive. If you buy a new computer, order it with two drives. If you're happy with your existing computer for now, consider having a second drive installed and put your data on that second drive. Standard drives are cheap, there's no excuse not to do it.

3. Maintain your drive.
Every month or two, run the Windows built-in drive Error-Checking. This makes sure the critical file system information is in order. Then run defragmentation software which ensures that data is packed efficiently on the drive and that its storage areas are working correctly. (Do not defragment solid state drives.)

Windows has a built-in defrag tool, but Auslogics is free, faster, and looks spiffy too.

Since defragmentation takes a long time, and must be done regularly, it's best to automate it. For that, you'll need a more sophisticated tool -- PerfectDisk

4. Don't stuff your drive.
  Keep some space free on your drive for the operating system and defragmentation process to work properly. If you're drive is more than 85% full, you should move some of your little-used data to archival media (like a DVD), or get a larger drive. 

5. Backup your data. If you do nothing else, do this one thing
. It's simply delusional to dump all your stuff into a computer and expect it to always be there. Too many things can and will go wrong.

Most folks buy a computer and think that's all they need. Sorry, that's just not true. A backup solution is mandatory. You must have a copy of your data stored elsewhere . . . on a external drive kept in a separate location, or far, far away on a remote server. These are the ONLY ways to protect against fire, flood, theft, or a direct meteorite hit.

The key is to painless backup is to do it automatically, on a regular schedule. Otherwise, it won't get done. And your data will, sooner or later, evaporate. And with that comes . . . you guessed it, severe pain.

Choosing a backup solution depends largely on what you want to protect against loss. There is some cost to each of these methods; balance that cost against the much higher cost of re-creating your data or suffering its permanent loss. Using more than one method lessens overall risk.

Backup plan A (best for completed projects or archiving data that won't change): Grab a box of high-quality DVD or Blu-ray media and start copying. Easy CD-DA Extractor is great for this and it's free. Don't keep the discs in the same location as your computer.

Backup plan B (best for small amounts of critical data):
Use a online backup / syncronization service. Cheap and effective. There's nothing to buy except the service itself. Uploading a lot of data can take a very, very long time though, so it's not realistic to backup your entire data drive this way, or even a good portion of it if you have lots of data. There is comfort in knowing your data is safely tucked away in a concrete bunker under a mountain in Utah (if that's where it is).

Backup plan C (best for large amounts of data):
Back up to an external hard drive or network drive with Windows Backup (included with Windows 7), Genie Backup Manager, Genie Timeline, or GoodSync.

This is a bigger commitment because you must buy the drive and the software, but if you have a lot of data, it's one of the best solutions. Genie is excellent all-purpose backup software if you don't need synchronization of multiple devices, for example, between a USB drive, a home computer, and an office computer. Timeline syncs between devices.

GoodSync has a strong focus on synchronization, and is also one of the simplest and most robust backup programs. And it does not use any proprietary and potentially problematic compression method, it just copies files as-is.

In either case, don't keep the backup drive in the same location as your computer.

Backup plan D (best for larger amounts of data including your operating system and applications):
In the event of a drive failure, re-installing and configuring all your applications is a time-consuming headache. To backup lots of data AND you operating system, applications, settings, etc., you'll need backup software that makes a mirror-image of your entire drive. Not many backup programs do this. One that does is Acronis True Image. Here again, you'll need an external drive to make it work.

If you're now saying to yourself, "This guy is nuts, there's no way I'm going to do all this!". OK, how about befriending a local technician to help you out? Or, if you have some extra dough, hire it done. If you value your data, isn't it worth a little effort to keep it? 

 

File Sharing & Other Risks

1. Understand the risks of file sharing. Public file-sharing is a cesspool of security risks, a unholy assembly of miscreants, malicious software, litigation-happy private organizations attempting to stop illegal file distribution, and government entities snooping around for who-knows-what.

If you choose to get anywhere near file-sharing sites, bittorrent networks, newsgroups, or the like, be sure to have all the measures I've listed here in place, and do some research to understand the landscape. You are especially at-risk if you choose to share files residing on your computer, or use Bittorent technology which exposes your IP number as part of its normal functioning.

2. THINK before you send messages or files over the network. Under court order, almost anything sent over the network, or published online, can be tracked back to you. This includes email messages, chat sessions, forum posts, file uploads, and search history. Even perfectly legal content may nevertheless incriminate you in the hands of an adversary: your employer, your future ex-spouse, your school, a disgruntled employee, a government entity . . . you get the idea. If you are not comfortable with the possibility, however remote, of public disclosure, do not send your sensitive data over the Internet.

Yes, it's possible to encrypt messages, which provides a very high level of security en-route. However, that security will be breached if a trusted recipient discloses the encryption key under threat of prosecution or violence.

Visit Truecrypt to learn more about encryption solutions.

 

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