A New User’s Guide to Owning a PC

May 30, 2006

Owning your own computer is wonderful. It’s an incredibly freeing experience to not have to share a computer with another person. The downside to a new PC in the 21st century is that the internet has become a scary place. Viruses, adware, spyware, and folks who want to cause trouble have made what was once an idyllic information paradise into a sketchy, sketchy place. Beyond that, if you’ve never owned a PC before things can be a bit daunting. Windows XP is a much more user friendly operating system than the previous versions of Windows, but there are still aspects of it that can be obscure. This, then, is a guide for the first time PC owner and college student. I’ll run through how to make sure your PC stays secure, programs that you should definitely make use of, how to do some basic troubleshooting, and tips on dealing with tech support.

Security Tips and Software

Mozilla –

The first and most important suggestion I can relate is *not* to use Internet Explorer as your web browser. The worms and viruses I mentioned are almost 100% tailored to work through Internet Explorer. Using another browser makes you about one hundred times safer than you might otherwise be. Another upside to using Mozilla is that it has a built-in pop-up blocker, enabling you to surf the internet without fear of unwanted ads. The latest version of Mozilla can be downloaded here. If you have some doubts, be aware that this isn’t just my opinion. Experts in computer security have been saying this for some time now, and CERT, the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team, actively recommends against the program’s use.

ZoneAlarm –

As a matter of course, miscreants use automated software to “sniff” out other computers on the network they inhabit. If you’re on a dorm network or one of the big cable networks (like Charter Communications), chances are very good that someone is using this type of software on your network. While XP does an “okay” job of hiding itself, there are ways to ensure that you have another layer of security between yourself and the network at large. This layer is free software called ZoneAlarm, which can be downloaded here. This software sets up a firewall on your computer that monitors what goes in and out from your PC. After you install the program, it’s going to prompt you the first time that a program tries to access the internet. Make sure and select “always choose this option” if it’s a program you recognize. After initial installation, you’ll get this a lot and it may surprise you how many things on your computer have to access the internet. The best part of ZoneAlarm is keeping things out, rather than stopping things from escaping your computer. The software lists unauthorized queries to your PC that it has stopped, and you’ll see in only a short amount of time how fast that number rises.

Spyware –

Not generally as destructive as a worm, Spyware can be even more annoying. Spyware is a malicious form of program that is installed onto your PC (often without your knowledge). Spyware’s primary purpose is to track your internet usage for marketing purposes, and to make sure that you see advertisements for the Spyware creator’s product. Popup ads, if launched from Internet Explorer, can install this form of adware. Additionally, “helpful” tools can often be spyware in disguise (such as the “Bonzer Buddy” gorilla or certain toolbars). Luckily, there are two great tools for removing spyware from your machine. You should download both of them, because they focus on different things. Between the two of them, you’ll probably get most of the Spyware off of your machine. The first to download and install is the aptly named Spybot. Run this program first. Once that’s done, download and install Ad-Aware from Lavasoft. You don’t need to run these programs every week, but a regimen of once a month or so will ensure that your computer stays in top condition and free from annoying and destructive software.

Peer to Peer Programs –

Okay…I’m going to come off as a crotchety old man here but so be it. Please don’t use filesharing programs. As a former network technician, I can tell you that something like 75% of our problems came up directly or indirectly as a result of filesharing programs. The two big reasons for not using them (besides the question of legality) is the possibility of infection and bandwidth usage. While your computer might be squeaky clean and free from viruses, chances are that other folks are not so lucky. When you download music files from someone with an infected computer you expose yourself to the same virus they are infected with. In fact, some viruses use Peer to Peer networks as a means of transmitting themselves around the world. You never know if that Moby song is actually phat beats or a payload of virusy goodness. Besides the personal danger associated with viruses, you risk exposing everyone else on your network to viruses because of your connection to the peer-to-peer network. Beyond the virus risk, peer-to-peer clients are not exactly bandwidth friendly. They are programmed to be greedy hogs. If you set up your client in the morning to download a few hundred songs, it will do it’s darndest to get those for you as quickly as possible. In doing this, it can chew up bandwidth on your network that other users could be using for other purposes. Online games slow to a crawl, web browsing becomes impossible, and legit users are shut out. In my technician position I once encountered an individual that ended up hogging almost 75% of the network’s resources for himself. He had over 1000 songs in a queue and didn’t care how it affected the people around him. The result was that the network had to be shut down, further inconveniencing everyone. Please keep in mind how your actions can affect others around you when you decide to fire up a peer to peer program.

Virus Checking –

I don’t have a easy and free suggestion for this, but it’s very important that you have virus checking software on your PC. In the old days if you didn’t use Outlook for your email client (more on this in a bit) and were careful about what attachments you opened you were reasonably safe. Now viruses propagate themselves across networks without the need for human interaction. Simply connected to an infected network may be enough to sully your PC. As such, it’s very important that you obtain software to periodically check your computer for infection. The two most popular virus checking programs are Norton Antivirus and McAfee VirusScan. Both will do the job well enough. The key to ensuring that the software works to it’s full potential is to make sure that the software stays up to date. Periodically you’ll be asked if you want to update the software’s virus definitions. Do this. Up to date definitions means that you have the latest tools to uninfect your machine.

Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express –

Do Not Use Them. While people in a business environment are often hampered by corporate policy, on your home PC you have many many options when it comes to checking your email. Outlook and Outlook express are poorly made products with a bevy of security flaws in them. Look to other alternatives for checking your email. Two programs that I know to be reliable are Eudora and Mulberry. Webmail addresses are also very popular, and in addition to being safer than Outlook are more flexible as well. Yahoo is an obvious choice, but if you can swing it see if you can get a Gmail account. Gmail is a webmail system done by Google with a lot of storage space and a nice interface.

Windowsupdate.com –

Remember when I said not to use Internet Explorer? Well, you can use it for one thing, and that’s keeping your computer up to date. Every so often in the lower left corner of your screen a reminder will pop up telling you there are some updates for Windows XP. Lots of folks just ignore them, so the best way to make sure you’re up to date is to check it out yourself. Open up Internet Explorer and go to www.windowsupdate.com. There Internet Explorer will run a thing via the web to see what security updates you have installed. Choose the Highly Recommended option, and it will show you what it wants to download and install. Then just let it do it’s thing. These updates are an important part of keeping your PC virus and spyware free.

Useful Software

I’ve already mentioned Mozilla, Adaware, Spybot, Antivirus, and Eudora. Here are a few more pieces of software I install on any PC I use –

Basic TroubleshootingLoss of Internet Connectivity –

First and foremost make sure your connection is plugged in. I don’t mean this insultingly. It happens all the time that a cord will get slightly unseated, and it’s just enough to screw up the connection. The cord used to connect to a network is called “Category 5” or Cat5 cable. It’s thicker than regular telephone cable, and is often grey in color (though it can be any color). The Ethernet port should be a slightly larger than a normal telephone jack with green lights next to it. Unplug the network cable and then reconnect it. If the cable is making a connection, the little greed lights next to the plug should be flashing. That done, get back to your desktop. Open the start menu, and select the “Run” option. In the little box that pops up, type “cmd”. A black box with a prompt should appear. Now type “ipconfig”. It will show you information regarding your network settings. To try to reestablish your connection, type “ipconfig /release” and then “ipconfig /renew”. This will attempt to renew your connection and reestablish things for you.

General Slowdowns –

If your computer isn’t running as fast as it used to, the first thing you should do is check for viruses and adware (using the programs described above). That done, you’ll want to make sure that only the programs you want launching at startup are doing so. Open your start menu, and select the “Run” option. Type “msconfig” into the little box that appears. A program called the System Configuration Utility should appear. There will be a series of tabs inside the box and all the way on the right should be an option labeled “Startup”. Choose this tab. There will be a list with a series of checkboxes of all the programs that start up when your computer loads. If you don’t recognize the program, uncheck it. If you don’t care what it does, uncheck it. Something like 99% of all programs don’t need to be loaded at startup and the fewer programs that load on startup the faster your computer will boot. With fewer programs loaded at startup there will be less of a drag on your system during normal use as well, making your system faster overall.

General Information and Recommendations

  • If you download a program from the internet, install it and then delete the installation file. Leaving installation files lying around just takes up unnecessary space.
  • Use cut and paste extensively to avoid unneeded typing. To cut something, highlight it and hit cntrl-x. To paste something, hit cntrl-v. To select an entire page, hit cntrl-a.
  • If you want to email a website address to someone and the address is really long (like from Amazon.com), use a site called TinyUrl.com. Just cut and past the address that you want to send into the box on tinurl.com, and hit the button. The site will create an alias for the large address that can be easily emailed.
  • One of the best things about Mozilla is tabbed browsing. Go into “Edit -> Preferences -> Navigator -> Tabbed Browsing”. I have the following options checked : “Hide the tab bar when one tab is open”, “Load links in the background”, “Open tabs instead of windows for Middle-click, Ctrl+Click or Ctrl+Enter on links in a Web page”. This lets me load additional pages in the background when I visit a news site. Once I’ve scanned the news site for info, I can go ahead and read through the articles in turn.
  • Probably not something I need to state at this point, but do web searches using Google. It’s the best, fastest search engine around.
  • If you insist on using Internet Explorer, at least install Google’s Toolbar, which will provide some popup blocking for you.
  • A weblog is a simple interface to a dynamic website. It lets you have a simple site with the maximum content for a minimum of time. Popular (free) weblog services are available at Blogger.com and Livejournal.com.
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