There are a lot of perceived dangers for your computer. Some are real, most are not. There are lots of virus scares that float around through the Internet and email. Computers today are pretty robust. Disk drives do fail occasionally, but it's very rare. Operating systems do crash, but they rarely corrupt data on the disk.
A lot of things actually depend on how you use you computer. Is the system on a network or is it stand-alone? Do you have a portable or a desktop system? Do you leave your computer connected to the Internet all the time?
Most virus warnings are not real. As someone who spent 30 years in the computer software industry (much of that time writing programs) I am offering some opinions about how to protect your computer, and your sanity, and to bring some perspective to these issues.
I hope you find the list helpful.
- Use the prescribed method of shutting the system down. One of the ways computers are made faster is by writing data to the disk when the system is idle. If you just turn off the computer without going through the shutdown procedure, some of this data may not be written and the disk could become corrupted.
- Use anti-virus software and update the virus signatures often. A few of the more popular programs are: Norton, McAfee and Dr. Solomon. Enable them to start when you turn on your computer (this typically happens when you install the programs). Set them up to run the auto-update at least weekly, or run it yourself once a week. Even though you probably enabled the auto-protect feature when you installed the program, you should consider running a virus scan manually once a month.
- If you're running Windows, visit Microsoft's Windows update web site occasionally at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. This site will help you get various updates for you system-including security updates. The process is fairly automatic.
- If you get an email about a virus scare, check a web site from an anti-virus software developer like Symantec (http://symantec.com) or one of the private ones that have appeared (I like http://hoaxkill.com) to verify it's real before forwarding it to everyone you know. Checking only takes a few minutes and can save a lot of unnecessary panic among your friends and colleagues.
- Unfortunately, portable computers can be a target for theft. If you use one, buy a cable to lock it to a stationary object, like a desk, when you're not at home. This can be a good deterrent. There are a number of inexpensive cables and locks available. Using them can prevent your portable computer from disappearing.
- Back up your data. In the unlikely event that you disk gets corrupted or fails, or if you home or office burns down, or if your computer is stolen, at least you won't lose your data too. I back up the entire disk for two of my computers about once/month and back up the files that have changed since my last full backup about three times/week. I don't generally keep an off-site backup, but I do have a special fire safe designed for computer media. There are a number of commercial on-line backup services. I haven't used any of them, but they might be good options especially if you have high-speed Internet access.
- Be careful with food and especially drinks around your computer. Almost everyone has heard jokes about peanut butter sandwiches stuffed into diskette drives. The thing that's not a joke is spilling a cup of coffee on the keyboard of your laptop (a colleage did that and required a new keyboard) or spilling water on the desk and having it drip on the floor-standing computer. (Guilty your honor, but I was lucky and was able to cut the power before anything inside got wet. Of course another time, I turned on the sprinklers and, uh, forgot that my office window was open. I lost an external modem but everything else was ok.) I will continue to have food and drinks at my desk even though it could be considered risky behavior. One precaution I do take though is to use glasses with wide bases that, I believe, are harder to tip over. That's my personal mix of safety and comfort.
- Consider using an email program other than Microsoft Outlook for email. Microsoft has integrated a lot of their software and has provided a common programming language for developing application enhancements. Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that programmers can make all manner of fancy applications that use Microsoft programs at their core. The disadvantage is that a malicious person can write a program that does damage to someone's system and send it as an attachment to an email message. The recent spate of viruses, e.g., ILOVEYOU, employ exactly this method. That's why the only users who were affected were Windows users who also used Outlook for email. I use Outlook and will continue to use it because I don't want to take the time to find another program that also supports the Personal Information Manager functions I use and then switch to that program. (That's right, I'm being lazy, but I did consider switching.)
- Especially if you have a LAN (local area network) but even if you don't, make sure you're not exposing your systems to the entire Internet world. Visit someplace like Gibson Research's (http://grc.com) Shields Up area for information about how to protect your computer from Internet intruders.
- Should you turn your computer off when you're not going to use it for a while-say more than 4 hours? The main arguments for saying "no" are that cycling the power strains the disk and may send damaging power surges through the system. The main arguments for saying "yes" are that leaving the power on burns out the bearings on the disk and it wastes electricity. That said, I turn my systems off overnight.