I now have my own computer back and in working order, thanks to Charles Lee of McTek Systems in Berkeley (510-525-5129). After carefully disassembling my machine, Charles soldered the power connector back onto the CPU. If you’re in the East Bay and your laptop needs surgery, go to McTek. (You’ll also get a chance to see some amazing working antique computers while in the shop.)
In addition to a loose power connector, Charles found lots and lots of cat hair in my computer. Even if the Furry Fiendette didn’t like to actually sit on top of the computer, there might well have been cat hair in it—cat hair is good at getting into things. (So is dog hair, for that matter.)
While it doesn’t hurt to have your computer physically cleaned once in a while, that’s not actually the kind of cleaning I want to talk about doing. I’m talking about removing viruses, spyware, and adware—not to mention temporary files and other unecessary items.
If your hard drive is infected when you back it up, then it will be infected when you restore it. If the files you copy onto a disk or another drive are infected, then you don’t really have a useful backup (and you may be spreading a virus to another computer). And why waste space backing up files that you don’t use?
You can avoid most viruses and a lot of other “malware” (“mal” meaning “bad”) by not opening unexpected attachments and by reading all your mail in plain text format. (You can avoid even more of them by using a Mac, but that isn’t an option for everyone.) You can avoid most adware and spyware—programs which send information about your browsing and spending habits to marketers, and which can slow your computer to a crawl when enough of them accumulate—by not using the Internet Explorer browser. (My preference is Firefox .)
Even if you’re careful, you can still pick up some stowaways, which is why it’s good to have some basic protections in place. First, a firewall. Best is a hardware firewall such as a router, which you’ll need anyway if you have more than one computer. Direct connections to DSL and cable are an invitation to invasion, and routers are only $50-$75, depending on the model. You can buy special hardware firewall “appliances,” but those are expensive, and most of us don’t need them.
As for software firewalls, the one in Windows XP Service Pack 2 is very basic, but sufficient if you’re using it to supplement a hardware firewall. Otherwise, try ZoneAlarm, which is free for personal use.
Then there are viruses. I’ve become a convert of the free home version of Grisoft’s AVG anti-virus. It does insert little “no viruses found in this message” notices on your outgoing mail.
If you think your computer might already be infected, try McAfee Avert Stinger, a handy free download that fits on a floppy. Run this before installing a regular anti-virus program. If you use Windows ME or XP, make sure you turn off System Restore before using Stinger or any other special virus-removal tool, or the virus will lurk hidden inside your restore points.
While viruses are spread substantially through e-mail and transfer of infected documents and media, adware and spyware attack through your web browser. Internet Explorer is particularly vulnerable to these, but Netscape, Mozilla, and Firefox are not completely immune, either. The bad news is that no single program seems to eliminate all adware or spyware. The good news is that there are free programs which do a good enough job for most of us. These are Spybot Search & Destroy, Spyware Blaster, and Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware SE Personal.
There’s also Microsoft’s AntiSpyware tool, but I’m hesitant to try that after an editor colleague told me how badly it trashed her system. I’ve been refusing the downloads ever since.
Once you’ve got these downloaded and installed, run Ad-Aware and Spybot once a week—say, right before you make your backups. (If your anti-virus program is doing its job, it should be protecting you on an ongoing basis and you shouldn’t need to run it specially.)
Finally, to get rid of accumulated temporary files, try running the Disk Cleanup utility, which can be found in Start|Programs|Accessories|System Tools. This will clean out at least the most obvious of the files which accumulate unnecessarily.
Then make your backups. And don’t worry—all this takes longer to write about than to do, once you have it set up. Questions? E-mail me or post a comment.