Dern's "Be Prepared -- A Paranoid's Guide to Computer Ownership"


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By Daniel P. Dern

(c) copyright 2003 Daniel P. Dern

Note: This article originally appeared in ComputerClick Magazine, but the site's no longer online, so I'm posting it on my site (which I have the right to do).

"Trust no one" isn't just the motto of X-Files fans. It's also the mantra for anyone who relies on a computer.

Don't trust the hardware. Don't trust the operating system (or the company that makes it). Don't trust e-mail programs, or the e-mail you get even from friends and co-workers. Don't trust anti-virus programs. Don't trust the electric company. Don't trust web sites. Don't even trust other people who use your computer.

Why? Because computers, like cars, have things which can go wrong with them -- and anybody or anything can be responsible, deliberately or inadvertently, for a problem that keeps you from being able to use your computer when you really, really need it.

It could be a part that goes bad, or a cyber-drive-by from a computer virus. Or lightning strikes -- or your cat/dog/roommate knocks your computer over. Next thing you know, your big presentation is scrambled, five months of records are deleted, and your computer's sent virus-laden e-mail to everybody in your address book.

Here are some things you can buy or do to prevent some problems, minimize the damage others will do, or make it easier to recover. All told, following the advice here may cost a couple hundred bucks you hadn't planned on spending, but I predict it will be cheaper than the alternative.

Remember, you're not just protecting your computer, any more than you're just taking care of your car: you're protecting your ability to get work done with the computer, and you're protecting the work you have done which resides on the computer's hard drive.

Step 1: Be Organized

Save your receipts and serial numbers. In a folder or notebook, put a copy of the original receipt, and write down the serial or registration numbers for the "big parts" (computer, monitor, printer), as well as for your operating system and the software you buy (including downloads you pay for).

Keep this information someplace nearby where you can find it quickly and easily. If you ever call customer service, that's when you'll need it.

Save your software CDs/floppies. Buy or find a small case or box, and use it to store the CD-ROMs and floppies that came with your computer and the programs that you install. This includes all the disks that come with your computer. Consider writing the software serial numbers on the paper sleeve for the CDs, to minimize frustration should you have to reinstall the software.

Step 2: Make "Rescue" and "Emergency" Disks

Your operating system, and some programs like Norton Utilities, include features for creating special floppy disks to use when you get into trouble. (Windows 2000 calls it the "Emergency Repair Disk" for example.)

Create and save these floppies -- consider making more than one of each -- label them, and put them in the box with your other important CD-ROMs. (You should probably try them before you put them away.) If one day your PC refuses to boot, youčll have a back door to get it running.

Step 3: Label Things

Computer stuff quickly gets out of hand; soon, you no longer know what goes with what.

If nothing else, label power adapters so you know what hardware they go with. If you're really compulsive, label the end of each cable with what it comes from and goes to.

Put your name on anything you take out of the home/office -- notebook, PDA, accessories.

Step 4: Protect Your Power with a UPS

An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) makes sure your computer gets "safe" electricity. UPSs include a surge protector, which stops jolts of power that can damage the hardware. In addition, like the name says, they'll supply power (using a built-in battery) for a few minutes in case there's a power outage, or even just a brief "brown-out" where the voltage level dips. Usually, half the outlets on a UPS will supply back-up power; half only do surge-protection.

Even though you probably don't plan to keep working when the power goes out, you want a UPS so that your computer will keep going during a brief few-second power blip, e.g. when the air condition goes on. For longer outages, youčll have time to save your work and do a normal shutdown.

You can get a good UPS for anywhere between $60-$150. I recommend one from either APC (www.apc.com) or Belkin (www.belkin.com). I like the Belkin Regulator Pro Gold series because they've got eight outlets -- four for power back-up, four surge-protection only, versus the more typical three-and-three, and, more importantly, the outlets are positioned and spaced so that you can plug in several A/C adapters. (Computer, monitor, CD-writers and other data devices need to go in the "back up power" outlets; printers to the surge-only.)

If you've just got a notebook computer, you don't need a UPS, just a surge protector, near your desk.

You also need to protect your computer from surges on phone lines and/or network connections. Most UPSs and many surge protectors include this; notebook users should consider something like TeleAdapt's TeleTester Pro (www.teleadaptusa.com/nme/order_modemaccess.htm) or Road Warrior's ModemSaver. (www.globalroadwarrior.com/connect/problem9.html) Under $40, worth every penny.

Most UPSs and surge protectors include a warranty against damage to connected equipment. However, this won't cover your data -- or the time and effort to replace things and get going again. So during thunderstorms or if youčre not going to be using the computer for a while, consider unplugging all the power cords (and disconnecting the phone line or broadband connection from your modem).

Step 5: Use Anti-Virus and Firewall Software & Hardware

E-mail can be full of files that can do bad things to the information on your hard drive. So are some web sites. Plus there are far too many people on the Internet looking for unprotected logged-on computers to break into.

Start with an anti-virus program, such as Norton Anti-Virus ($30-60). Install it as soon as possible after getting your computer set up. Then be sure to subscribed to the softwarečs update service, so youčre protected against new virus strains.

(And even then, don't open e-mail attachments you didn't expect, even from people you know!)

Next, get a "firewall" to block Internet intruders from your computer, and to keep "spyware" programs that may get installed on your computer from reporting home. I recommend Zone Alarm (www.zonealarm.com) -- they've got a free version, or you can splurge forty bucks for their Pro version.

If you connect to the Internet via broadband, especially if you've got more than one computer, also consider getting a broadband firewall/gateway, such as from D-Link, LinkSys or NetGear, for $50-$250.

Step 6: Backup! Backup! Backup!

No matter how cautious you are, something may happen to your computer, temporarily or permanently. But if you have a current copy of your files, you can use another computer. If you have a copy of key configuration files -- or your whole system -- you may be able to restore your working environment without too much pain.

Learn how to back up all your data easily. If possible, also how to save main configuration files (e.g., browser "bookmarks").

Good backup devices to choose from include:

  • CD/R or CD/RW burner (Micro Solutions, Plextor, Teac, etc.) for $150 to $300.
  • External hard drive -- $200 - $400. Simple and reliable.
  • "Internet backup" -- probably only for broadband users.

Get in the habit of leaving a copy of your backup "off-site" -- at a friend's house, safety deposit box, etc. --once a week.

Step 7: Insure Your Hardware

Your homeowner's or office insurance policy should cover computers. Ask about a specific "computer rider" or even separate policy, which can provide better coverage.

Notebook/portable computer owners especially should consider computer-specific insurance which covers not only fire and theft but also problems which conventional homeowners/renters insurance won't, like hardware damage (dropping) and a wider range of theft circumstances. One well-known computer insurance is SafeWare. (www.safeware.com) Be sure to check whether coverage applies to where your computer will be -- especially if the computer's going out of the country.

Be sure to save a copy of receipts -- and possibly some photos -- in a separate location such as a safety deposit box.

Step 8: Do These Chores Regularly

Here are some preventative maintenance tasks you should do on a regular basis. Some you should be able to have your computer schedule to do automatically, assuming you leave your system on most of the time.

  • Regular backups. Do data backups daily if possible, weekly at minimum. And especially before installing any new software. (Do a full system backup first as well, if you can.) Be sure to check the backups to make sure they worked -- e.g., see if you can find and view a file you've recently created.
  • Periodic full scans for viruses.
  • Virus updates. This should be done daily. Good virus software will do this automatically.
  • Periodic disk maintenance (such as Windowsč scandisk). Warning, this can take a while, plan the first one for when you can leave the computer on but unused for several hours!
  • Operating system and application updates (although these updates sometimes can cause more problems than they solve/prevent).

Step 9: Consider Stocking Spare Parts

Keep an extra keyboard and mouse on hand -- the one you use is likely to break, or get coffee spilled on it, at a critical time when the stores are closed or you don't have the time to go out and buy a replacement.

If you use a notebook computer, also consider:

  • An extra A/C adapter, in case you lose or leave behind your main one while traveling.
  • A second battery, for coping with long meetings, classes or plane trips.
  • "Grip-it" strips, which make it harder for a notebook to slip out of your hands.
  • A carrying case -- preferably one that doesn't scream out "I've got a computer inside me!"

Step 10: Pay Attention

A lot of computer problems are due to PEBKAC -- "Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair." Don't be too quick to click on things. Read error messages and alerts; when in doubt, take your fingers away from the keyboard and mouse and re-read what's on-screen. If you're still not sure what to do, call somebody.

And remember the classic advice, "If rebooting solves it, it wasn't a problem."


Daniel P. Dern (ddern@world.std.com) is a freelance technology writer. Most recently he was Executive Editor of Byte.com. His web site is www.dern.com.

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Last modified: Monday, 09-Feb-2004 10:08:23 EST