I do a lot of basic PC help for friends & family. Sometimes it’s cleaning a virus off, or replacing a failed hardware component. Sometimes I throw my advice out to poor souls asking for help on internet forums. I thoroughly enjoy troubleshooting any sort of computer or network related issue. If you are a technical person you’ve probably stepped on a few toes or bruised a tender ego here and there throughout your travels through the nasty terrain of the do-it-all help desk guy. It’s hard to offer advice while keeping oneself in check as to not offend people who are prone to destroying their expensive machines through ignorance and neglect. Given that, I’m going to do a best-effort in this write up to hit all the points of hardware, software & network do’s and don’ts as well as operational best practices for people at home who have ever found themselves buried within a crippling computer problem and no idea how they got there all while try my best not to offend anyone in the process. This is a broad generic overview for computing applications that can be applied to all users regardless of OS.
I’ll break this down into a few sections: Hardware Safety, Virus/Malware Prevention, Operational Best Practices.
One of the most common problems I find people having is heat damage. Heat damage usually results from air flow blockage, the usual culprit here is dust. Computer equipment (or anything with a cooling fan for that matter) is like a car. You change your oil in your car to keep the engine from being destroyed. Like an oil change, periodic maintenance is required to keep hardware running error free. Open your machine and clean out the dust. Pay careful attention to the heat sink on your graphics card, processor and power supply. Too much buildup stops airflow and will quickly destroy your hardware. If you can manage, buy a case that has air filtration. You can cut the maintenance intervals to about 6 months.
The 2nd and almost as common issue I see when people come to me with a hardware problem is laptop meltdown. So many people don’t realize that those little vents on the back and bottom of the laptop really are there for a reason. Laptops run HOT under load. Placing a laptop on a cloth surface like a pillow, bed, couch, ~your lap~ or any other kind of vent blocking surface is a surefire way to brick your machine. Games are the worst at generating heat. If you find yourself wanting to play a game on a laptop, put a cookie sheet under it so that the airflow stays open. If you value your hardware, buy a USB powered laptop cooler with a metal surface & fans. If you’re laying on your bed with your laptop propped up on a pillow, running around that BF3 map shooting your buddies and suddenly you see graphics artifacts blow up all over the screen you’re too late.. it’s fried.
I get a lot of pleas for help due to hard drive failure. Most of the time in the back of my head when I first hear about a problem likely to be associated with hard drive failure I immediately picture the PC stuffed under a desk where the feet are suppose to go. Most of the time that picture is actuality. Platter hard drives have spinning metallic discs in them with a metal arm floating just a fraction of a hairs width above the surface performing magnetic changes to the disc’s metal. Think of it as a very fast, very small record player. For those of you who have ever seen a record player, you know that if you were to walk up and kick it during operation your fine listening experience would not only be interrupted, but your record will likely suffer some damage. The same thing applies, albeit in much smaller scale, to hard drives. If you regularly tilt, bump, kick & move your PC while it’s on.. stop doing that. You are greatly shortening the lifespan of your investment. Move the PC somewhere safe & out of the way.
Unfortunately this issue is more common than one would ever want to acknowledge. I can happily say that I have never had any friends or family have this problem, but I have in my travels of tech work run into this issue many, many times. Roaches. Mice. Crickets. Roaches. Roaches. Roaches. If you live in a place of filth with your PC near your pile of dirty plates and sacks of half eaten fast food there’s a good chance that when your PC abruptly turns off one day, it’s due to the mountain of decomposing roach corpses and feces building up on your hardware components. Roach poop is acidic and will eat through your costly investment. If you fall into this category, please do not ever call a technician to your home. Do not ever bring your PC into a fix-it shop for repair – not only will they refuse to help you but will literally throw it out onto the concrete in a plastic trash sack. This type of damage can be easily prevented by major lifestyle changes.
90% of software related issues are due to virus, mal-ware, ad-ware & scare-ware. All of these are easily preventable with a combination of user education and proper software maintenance.
Keep your software up to date
Some viruses spread through direct network access with an infected machine. These infected machines blast out their infectious code to other machines with the hope that a portion of the targets will be vulnerable to the specific software flaw (exploit) that will allow it to continue the growth of the virulent online entity most commonly refereed to as a botnet. There is one blatantly obvious and one not-so-obvious method of protection against this type of issue.
- Update your software – For windows users, this can be as easy as turning on automatic windows updates.. However… I highly advise that you do not put your hard work solely in the hands of an automated process. Do your part and check to make sure that it is indeed performing the update functions. As often as you can, (max once per week), manually perform an update function. For windows users this means opening up internet explorer and going to windowsupdate.microsoft.com & clicking the next buttons to verify that all security patches have been applied. These patches protect you from already known internet viruses (worms). This does not however mean that you are fully protected. These worms are able to stick around because the bad guys are able to identify exploitable flaws in software products faster than the product vendors can. (An exploitable flaw that has yet to have a patch to fix it is referred to as a ‘zero day exploit’)
- NAT – Network Address Translation. Do not ever, EVER plug your PC directly into your cable or DSL modem. Always utilize a home router either wired and/or wireless between your local network (PC(s)) and your internet service provider’s equipment. Why? Because you introduce NAT’ing into the equation. These devices query your ISP for an IP address. This IP address is public. In order to understand how this works you must be knowledgeable about the difference between public and private subnets. Once you have read up on the differences on the two, you will understand that data destined for a private IP address cannot traverse the internet. Your home router receives the public IP address assigned from your ISP and uses it on the “outside” interface (the port on the home router that plugs into the cable/DSL modem). The router then creates its OWN separate group of IP addresses that it then passes out to devices inside your local network, such as your PC. The nice thing about this process is that these “inside” IP addresses are private. So, what that all boils down to is this – an attacking machine on the internet cannot ever, EVER send ANY data directly to your PC. Boiled down that basically means you’re immune to worm type viruses, hurray!
Do not store emails locally
- Use web-mail – most modern email methods these days have some form of web access; use it. Most people who have ever used a computer have the general knowledge that email can be used to send attachments, and that some of these attachments may be viruses. That’s fine and dandy. What people don’t know is that if you use an email client like microsoft outlook express, you don’t even need to open the attachment. Simply selecting the email to display the message body in the viewing area is enough to trigger the viral payload. If you are dead set on storing your email locally you probably want to have antivirus real-time email scanning enabled. BOOOOOO. This slows down your machine, makes your precious games load ever so slowly, and is all around sub-par. Why not use web-mail were you are 1. Immune to locally launched viral payloads, 2. Offloads the antivirus workload to the mail provider (which they do a much better job of than you ever would) and 3. Allows you to check your mail from anywhere, an added bonus.
Don’t fail your stupid check
Here is where I start to loose people. There is something on the internet that I refer to as a “stupid check” Real life examples of a stupid check would be things like:
- Looking down the barrel of a gun to see if there is a bullet in there.
- Kicking a bee hive because that sounds like a totally awesome thing to do.
- Putting your hand down the garbage disposal while it is on.
As you can probably tell, the stupid check is indeed, a separator between those that are stupid and those that are not. While looking down the barrel of a loaded gun is stupid, a 2 year old who’s never seen a gun before cannot be blamed for being stupid in that circumstance. The child simply does not know or understand the consequential actions of their mistake. Much in the same way as the child, new PC owners much of the time simply cannot comprehend when they are about to kick that bee hive until it is too late and the angry swarm is upon them. Here is where close attention should be paid.. You have someone tell you these things and that is good, but where you just go on drooling at your screen & clicking that big red “click here you’re an instant winner” only to realize shortly after that you should not have… you have failed your stupid check. I have not had a virus since 1997 at OU when my dear uncle Steve sent me an email with a picture of an FBI raid, ooo cool huh?! Yea no.. I’ve had 14 years of virus-free PC use without any form of antivirus software in use on my PC whatsoever. Living proof that if you take the appropriate steps to secure your local network, adhere to proper patch maintenance, and pass your stupid checks you will never have issues with harmful software.
- If you don’t know where that link will take you, don’t click it. <– THE #1 STUPID CHECK ON THE PLANET Many browsers are secure, but they cannot stop a user from clicking on a link that directly accesses a virus. This is THE number one way people get infected. Open your eyes and READ the link you are about to click, if you have no idea where it leads to or something doesn’t look right don’t click it. This applies to phishing attempts as well. That email from your bank asking you to verify your login credentials is NOT YOUR BANK.
- You are not an instant winner, you are a sucker and if you click it you will certainly be the newest instant looser on your block…
- Do not download & install ANYTHING from the internet unless you know ABSOLUTELY what you are doing..
- Do not agree to install that toolbar, it is NOT there to help you, it does not want to be your friend, and it will pave the way for all sorts of other mal-ware to march into your machine.
- Do not use internet explorer for anything other than windowsupdate.microsoft.com … ever
- Do not EVER let a child touch your machine, they fail every.. single.. stupid.. check.. there… is…………
- Do not frequent sleazy porn sites
- Do not participate in illegal file sharing <– THE #2 STUPID CHECK ON THE PLANET, SERIOUSLY PEOPLE…
Examples of stupid checks
If you were to see anything like this pop up on the screen and you fell for it, that was wrong.. don’t do that. Good luck fixing it. If you thought to yourself “ah haaa! I’m not falling for this.. “
and clicked “No” or “Cancel” or “Exit” nice one, you just interacted with the scam and allowed it to install its viral payload, you just failed your stupid check. DON’T CLICK ON ANYTHING IN THE ENTIRE WINDOW. The correct action to take is to press ALT-F4 (this keyboard shortcut is the universal ‘quit program’ combo) on your keyboard to close the window. If the window keeps popping up simply press the power button on your computer until it turns off, turn it back on, and go about your business. Internet Explorer is especially bad about this, don’t use it. Google chrome on the other hand is not only far less susceptible, but it also warns you of viral sites in real time as you attempt to visit them. This is done courtesy of Google via a repository of known mal-ware sites. Thank you Google.
Operational Best Practices
This topic is subject to much criticism as most of this is ‘my way’ of doing things. I’m not saying that my way is the best way, or that there aren’t other ways that work, but it’s a pretty good gerneric standard for at home computer use.
Backup your data.
- Never rely on one hard drive. Make copies of your important data (pictures, documents, whatever) to another hard drive. Buy another one if needed.
- Maintain your backups.
Know where your data is stored.
- Create a folder in the root of your hard drive called ARCHIVES. Put everything you have in it. Create sub-folders for pictures, videos, documents, downloads, music & whatever other categories you need. Use them, ignore the microsoft user profile generated “My Documents”, “My Photos”, “My Music”.
- Copy the entire ARCHIVES folder to your backup drive periodically.
- Do not ever, EVER keep anything you can’t do without on your desktop.
Keep your service overhead to a minimum
- Click start, run, type in “msconfig”. Click ok. Click on the startup tab in the upper right corner. Uncheck EVERYTHING. Click ok, Reboot. Repeat as needed.
- Based on your OS choice, look up a writeup on how to tweak the performance of your chosen operating system. Much of this is simply disabling un-needed system services to speed up the machine.
Install hardware monitoring utilities for temperature and fan control
- HWMonitor – Shows all of the need-to-know information about your computers operational metrics. Temperature being a key unit here. Don’t let anything get about 70C.
- Fan Control – Based on your graphics card and/or laptop vendor, download the appropriate fan control tool. NVIDIA and ATI both have these built into the video driver utilities. Crank them up to 100% and leave them that way. Only loosers with crummy sound systems complain about fan noise. Either use headphones, or drown it out with the awesome power of your multi-thousand watt bone crunching sound system. If you’re using the computer without sound, take comfort in the soothing hum of a well cooled machine.
- Keep your PC (and monitor…) in a well ventilated area.
Install common utilities
- 7-Zip – open source compression utility, supports 256bit AES encryption
- Google Picasa – excellent photograph management
- Google Chrome – my browser of choice
- LibreOffice – Open source office productivity suite (microsoft office clone)
- Winamp – Audio/Video Player. The install process for this app is a good example of how good software can come bundled with extra crap, tool bars and advertisement software. Pass your stupid check, make sure you un-check the install options for this garbage!