Saturday, January 29, 2005

What You Need

In order to use a computer and the Internet, you need to understand a couple of things:

1. You can't do it "on the cheap" unless you are a severe nerd (or at least have nerdish tendencies) and can build your own.

2. You need to know that the Internet is made up of the best and worst of mankind (see posting on the Internet), and that you must armor up accordingly.

3. Computers are not "there" yet. It is still too hard to use these things. You can own and drive a car without ever opening the hood, or having the foggiest clue about whether the thing runs on gasoline, diesel, hydrogen, or electricity. But, a computer -- that's a different matter.

4. If a computer, therefore, ever crashes (stops working, locks up, freezes, chokes, whatever), it is fundamentally not your fault. It is the fault of the system designers who designed the programs you are running, and the programmers that wrote them. (This, of course, presupposes that you are not dunking the computer in water, or using it for target practice - tempting though that may be).

5. A computer virus is a program that some twerp wrote (or stole) that propagates itself from one computer to another, and usually does some damaging thing to the computers it infests. It does this, usually, by exploiting programming errors and bugs in operating systems (Microsoft Windows, really), e-mail clients (Microsoft Outlook), desktop applications (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office), and database servers (Microsoft SQL Server. You might see a trend, here). It can also do this by exploiting the generally open and trusting internet protocols.

6. You can mitigate against errant code and malicious viruses by setting up your computer system appropriately.

With these basic maxims in mind, what do you need?

First, you need to decide if you want to use Microsoft Windows or an Apple Macintosh. Uncle Mark does not really "do" Apples (I like them, but I am not an expert), so we will talk Windows here. You can also choose Linux, but if you choose that (at least at this writing), then you don't need me to tell you what to do. If you don't know, you'll never get it running. So, Windows it is.

Rule 1: Run Windows XP, Service Pack 2 or later. Just do it. If you have Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows NT, realize that they are obsolete. Windows 2000 is okay, but Windows XP is better. If you have Windows XP but it is not Service Pack 2, upgrade now. How do you know? Open up "My Documents" and go to the Help menu, and choose "About Windows." If it doesn't say somewhere in there "Windows XP" and "Service Pack 2", you need to get upgraded.

Rule 2: If you have a computer that cannot run Windows XP, it is time to retire it. If your computer is four years old or older, it is time to let go. Basically, almost any new computer that you can buy for $800 or more will do.

Rule 3: Get DSL or Cable or Satellite if you can. This is called "Broadband." Dial-up, i.e. using a modem, is slow.

Rule 4: Use a DSL/Cable router to connect to the DSL or Cable modem, rather than have the modem connect directly to your PC.

Rule 5: Always, always, always have a firewall in place. A "firewall" is a piece of communications software that runs on your PC, your DSL/Cable modem, or on a separate "appliance" that inspects, monitors, and outright prevents unwanted internet traffic from hitting your computer. Absolutely required. Windows XP has a firewall built-in. Windows XP Service Pack 2 has it turned on when you install it.

Rule 6: Always, always, always have virus control software in place on all your computers. Some firewalls have virus checking built-in.

Rule 7: Always, always, always have your virus control software check for updates daily.

Rule 8: Have Windows Automatic Updates check for updates daily, and automatically install them. Unless you have a business with a nice, fat Information Technology budget and network administrators to spare, you don't need to test the update first. Just assume that if Microsoft releases a bug fix (which is what these are, really), then you need to install it. You should know that the minute Microsoft announces a bug in Windows or one of its other programs, lowlife virus writers kick to life (if you can call something that low "life") and race to create a virus that exploits that bug. The update fixes the problem, so stymie these guys, and install the update. To do this, go to the Control Panel and then load the Security Center, and choose Automatic Updates.

Rule 9: Keep all your other software updated, as well. If you have Microsoft Office, or Quicken, or other programs, keep up to date with them.

Rule 10: Limit your use of software that is free but advertises to you. Some of these have trackers that track your use of the internet, and some just plain take over your system. These are called "Adware," for Advertising Software, and "Spyware," for software that spies on you. Microsoft has a new anti-spyware application in beta that helps get rid of some of these. There is also Ad-aware and Spybot. For really effective spyware killing, you need to run all three. And even then, unfortunately, some spyware can survive the onslaught.

Rule 11 (Some might call this rule 1): Always back up your data. Back up your documents and other data files to CD regularly. You need to have a CD writer on your computer. This is required. You don't necessarily need to back up your applications, unless you downloaded them and don't have installation CDs.

That's enough rules for now. This is an awful lot all at once, and some will need elaboration (which virus software, for example). Do the above, and your computer will be armored.

2 comments:

Eclectrix said...

Dear Uncle Mark,

While I believe that overall your rules and comments are very good advice, I do have a couple of minor disagreements. Keep in mind that I would probably fit into the "nerdy" category with computers, but nonetheless...

1) Concerning Windows XP, XP Pro is good. Windows XP Home Edition sucks. This is from numerous reviews and comments from friends who have dealt with both. There is a huge list of features not available in Home edition that are there in Pro, including networking support.

2) I know a lot of people who cross there fingers when SP2 is mentioned. They feel Microsoft is trying to take too much control of the machine or something. There are really good firewall programs available for free if this is needed and desired, such as ZoneAlarm and Sygate Personal Firewall. Also, hooking up on a router/hub in a home network often offers a large amount of protection.

3) Although Microsoft has been pushing this for a long time now I totally disagree with turning on Automatic Updates. First of all, I don't like Microsoft loading software on my machine without me knowing what it is about. Secondly, there has been sufficient history of Microsoft coming out with patchs which are not quite right which end up screwing up your computer. One patch caused system crashes til the patch for the patch came out. Recently, I installed a patch about jpeg (graphic) files vulnerablity and it disabled my ability to open any pictures in email (you have to save it to disk first and then go open it up). Really annoying. So if anything I recommend using Windows Update feature where you can at least choose the upgrades you want and then have windows install them for you.

Maybe I am just old-fashioned but I actually like Win2000 better than XP. Among other things there are tons of Windows Services which are automatically started with 'standard' XP which are totally unneeded. There can be 20 or 30 processes running in memory that you don't need, if you don't have the tech savvy to know which ones to kill and how to kill them. I use XP Pro at Work and it is fine for the most part, although I keep running into little glitchs which I don't have with Win2000. I use Win2000 at home and I like the lean and mean feel of the operating system. XP in fact is just 2000 with a lot of glitter stuff added. But that's just my preference.

Mark, you are doing a great job so far. Thanks for providing all the data about computers. I am going to start referring people to your website, so I won't have to answer so many questions (hehe).

Larry

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