Five Essentials of Maintaining a Healthy Computer

Keeping your computer happy and healthy

We've seen too many computers slow down to a crawl, been overtaken by spyware or adware, or been infested by malicious worms and online viruses. This gradual degradation in performance can render a computer all but inoperable. Yet preventing this kind of damage is extremely easy--most people just don't know how or what to do. Therefore, we've created this list of the top five essentials to computer maintenance.

Note: If your computer is already really slow or has been infected with viruses or adware, you will still find the steps below to be helpful. However, this article focuses more on preventative maintenance; see the companion article, Revitalizing Your Computer, if you are already experiencing problems and to troubleshoot your symptomatic system.

The following maintenance essentials are listed in rough order of importance:

  1. Firewall
  2. Antivirus
  3. Getting the latest security updates
  4. Cleaning out adware and spyware
  5. Extra credit: defragment your hard drive, block popups, and more

1. Firewall

What it is: A firewall is software that protects your computer from online attack. It is absolutely essential in this age of the Internet-centered computing experience. Without a firewall, malicious hackers could potentially track your online activities and exploit security vulnerabilities. Going online or surfing the net without a firewall is like waltzing through a wasp colony naked.

Recommendations: We really like ZoneAlarm (http://www.zonelabs.com). The Pro version is shareware, but the free version features superb online protection and is extremely easy to use. Customizable alerts tell you when suspicious activity is entering or leaving from your computer. There are also a bunch of other firewall applications available for download (see: CNET's listing of firewall software).

2. Antivirus

What it is: Antivirus software protects your computer from viruses, worms, trojan horses, and other bad code. A firewall will not protect you from inadvertently downloading a malicious virus online or through e-mail. That's where antivirus software steps in: it scans your computer and alerts you when it has found a rogue application.

Recommendations: Again, there's a lot of options. Norton Antivirus (http://www.symantec.com) offers a plethora of features, advanced scanning, and a neat "quarantine" option that will isolate viruses safely away from the rest of your computer. There are also some freeware antivirus choices. Regardless of what you choose, the antivirus software is only as good as your latest definition files. The definition files are released by the maker of the antivirus software and keep it updated of new, emerging viruses. In the case of Norton Antivirus, the built-in LiveUpdate feature makes automatically downloading the latest virus definition files painless. The advertised links on this page also usually contain a number of antivirus software options which may be helpful.

3. Getting the latest security updates

What it is: No program is perfect, and this is especially true of the Microsoft Windows operating systems and popular web browsers such as Internet Explorer. Every few weeks to months, a new security problem is discovered in Internet Explorer or Windows, and Microsoft then releases new software (usually called a fix or patch) to correct it. Neglecting to download the latest security updates could put your computer at risk to hackers and other villains.

Recommendations: Fortunately, Microsoft now makes obtaining the latest security updates easy: simply visit http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. In Windows XP, you can also have Windows automatically download the latest updates: to do so, open your your Control Panels, open the System control panel, and click on the Automatic Updates tab. On a related note, keep in mind that security problems are not limited to Windows and web browsers; thus, you should check for updates for your other software from time to time as well, including your firewall and antivirus software.

4. Cleaning out adware and spyware

What it is: Almost as bad as viruses are adware and spyware. These programs, which are sometimes bundled with other software and sometimes install themselves on your computer without your explicit knowledge, can track the usage of your computer and display annoying windows and ads. They are a nuisance, hinder system performance, and can sometimes pose a security or privacy threat.

Recommendations: Our two favorite programs are Spybot - Search & Destroy (http://spybot.safer-networking.de/en/) and AdAware (http://www.lavasoft.de). Spybot - S&D is freeware (supported by donations--like us!), features very fast and thorough scanning and elimination of spyware/adware, and has a unique "immunize" feature for proactive protection. AdAware comes in free and shareware flavors; the free version has fully functional spyware/adware detection and elimination. Also, the advertised links on this page also point to adware/spyware removal software that might help. See also: CNET's listing of spyware/adware removers. As with antivirus software, be sure to update the definition/detection files to make sure you're keeping yourself safe from the latest threats.

5. Extra credit: defragment your hard drive, block popups, and more

What it is: There are a bunch of less essential measures to keep your computer in top shape. Advanced users will already be familiar with these, but all too often people are unaware of these simple steps. For example, defragmenting your hard drive regularly--once a week to once a month--will help to speed up file access and overall performance. Using a utility to scan your hard drive for problems is also recommended. Additionally, we highly recommend downloading a utility that will help stop pesky popup windows from websites.

Recommendations: All versions of Windows since Windows 95 have come with built-in tools to defragment and scan your hard drive for errors. You can access these tools by opening My Computer, right-clicking on the drive to defragment or scan (usually the C: drive), clicking on Properties in the menu that appears, and clicking on the Tools tab. Or, you can open your Start Menu, then click on Accessories, and finally System Tools. In addition, a number of third-party utilities can also do these tasks for you, such as Norton Utilities' Speed Disk and Disk Doctor. See also system utilities and optimizers and diagnostics on CNET. In more recent versions of Windows and many third-party utilities, you can schedule these maintenance tasks to run automatically at regular intervals.

Blocking popups is also easy, and a number of free applications will do it. We like the Google Toolbar best (http://toolbar.google.com) because it also comes with Google search features. Note, however, that the popup blocking functionality requires Internet Explorer 5.5 or above. More recent versions of Internet Explorer also feature built-in protection from popups.

There are also a whole bunch of other more advanced maintenance tips, but they are far from essential. Interested users may look into utilities that help maintain the Windows registry, for instance. However, the five suggestions explained above will be more than sufficient for almost all computer users.

And finally...use common sense!

Don't download software from disreputable sources or download programs that might contain spyware, adware, or viruses. Every once in a while (from once a week to once a month) scan your entire computer for adware/spyware and viruses to make sure your system is clean. Along with the tips given on this page, common sense is your best weapon in today's online world.

Good luck!

Note: In many cases, the freeware indicated on this page is free only for non-commercial use. Please follow the usage conditions of the programs' respective vendors.

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