A computer is a complicated fusion of physical hardware, operating system, application software and data ... the problem is that a computer doesn't usually seem all that complicated. Unfortunately, that leads people to treat their computers with a lack of respect. I don't mean they throw them around all over the place (maybe some do), I mean they treat them badly, install all kinds of rubbish on them and drop food and drink all over them yet still expect them to work. Computers aren't like that; you can't just load the computer up with everything you like and you can't assume it won't react adversely to think dropped on it that it was never intended to deal with.
Imagine if you treated your nice new car that way, it would be a rubbish bin on wheels within a month and eventually it wouldn't work as well as it did. Presumably you'd treat your brand-new Lexus with consideration ... why not your computer?
This article aims to tell you how to care for your computer and keep it running well. The article is broken up into several sections which will be published periodically:
Cleanliness, it is said, is next to godliness and, with respect to computers, nothing could be truer; keeping a computer clean is more than just tidiness, it can affect it in functional terms. You know what dust and grit are, right? So do computers and, if a computer had any emotional capability, it would clearly tell you it didn't like either. Dust and grit get inside the system (even inside laptops and tablets) where it starts to block things, restrict airflow and cause heat. Cleaning the outside of your PC regularly and the inside less frequently (perhaps on a yearly basis) will make sure that cooling air flows freely. Cool air makes a computer run better and can prevent the early decay of hardware. When you are cleaning a computer, don't forget to clean the cables.
Cleaning the outside of a computer is all very well but how exactly do you go about cleaning the inside? Bear in mind I'm only really talking about desktop & tower PCs now. First of all, disconnect it, by which I mean ensure all power cords and other leads are unplugged (you might have to note where they go for later, after you have finished). Then unscrew the lid or panel and open it. Carefully, preferably using a small portable vacuum especially designed to vacuum out the insides of delicate equipment (if not *VERY* carefully use the hose or similar from a normal vacuum), vacuum the inside of the case and any air vents. You should use a clean, dry paintbrush or larger makeup brush to clean the fans and heat sink (you can hold the vacuum near, so that any dust disturbed is sucked into it). Then all you have to do is put the panel back, connect the various cables and power it up again.
If you're normal you'll understand the temptation to eat and drink around computers, I do it, almost everyone does because we all have things to do on our digital friends and we would all like to get on with them as we drink and munch our way through life. The problem is that food and drink can drop all too easily between the keys of your keyboard, even into cooling vents or ports if they're accessible, causing them to become sticky and often fail to work properly anymore. In more extreme cases (and yes, I've done this more than once) drinks can tip over soaking or even pouring into a computer that might be sitting under your desk. If you do tip water or similar on your PC, switch your computer off immediately (if it's not dangerous, just pull the plug), dry what you can with paper of real towels then put the machine in a dry place, say an airing cupboard, for a day or two to give it a chance to dry out completely. If you're lucky the machine will power up again. Just trust me on this, it is advisable not to eat and drink around your PC.
Let me ask you a question, would you wear glasses without cleaning them? Glass gets dirty even if only from natural oils from your skin, such oils attract and hold dust and dust is, of course, gritty and can scratch glass. So, like glasses, any equipment with a screen gets dirty and harder to see over time so it is important to keep your screen clean using appropriate cleaners. You can buy specific computer screen cleaners but, being honest, they're something of a rip-off, you can use relatively standard household cleaning products if you're careful to choose the right stuff. I tend to avoid spray polishes but have found that a fairly well-known glass cleaning spray (green, Mr M*****) works quite well if you use a chamois style cleaning cloth and don't let the liquid drip anywhere it shouldn't.
Finally, choose where you site your computer with care. Dust has a tendency to settle to the floor and PC vents can very easily suck that dust inside the system case. So, keep your PC off the floor if possible and make sure the area around it is kept clean. In addition, make sure your power leads are kept tidy, not only do kinked leads represent an electrical fire hazard but accumulating dust on the cables can cause problems as well.
In summary, be aware that your skin has natural oils meant to keep your skin functional and that includes fingers. Fingers leave prints, traces of biological oils get left on screens, keys, mice etc. so try to keep input devices clean i.e. don't use a keyboard or mouse if your fingers are sticky. Bear in mind that keyboards have moving parts and moving parts don't like physical stress such as fingers hitting them hard so don't smash the keys of your keyboard. DVD and Blu-ray drives also have moving parts and everyone knows that DVD and CD media can be easily scratched so treat them with respect and always take care when inserting or removing devices and media. Always take care with respect to cables, USB devices and other things attached to or plugged into your PC or laptop. Don’t yank or pull on cables or cords as doing so can damage the cable or, worse still, the socket itself. Ensure that your computer is used in a place where there is good ventilation and air circulation; computers rely on air to cool themselves so think carefully about where you place yours and make sure the vents are not blocked. Finally, as discussed above, food and drink near computers is a pretty bad idea, spilling stuff on computers makes them sticky and messy so keep food and drink away from them.
The operating system (or OS) is arguably the most important piece of software on a computer or, indeed, any device. Computers have them, tablets have them, smartphones have them, even other commercial devices such as Smart TVs have them ... being brutally honest almost every piece of "smart" hardware has some kind of operating system. In most cases there is little you can do about an operating system except use it but on computers they tend to be so configurable you need to know how to look after them. In this respect, I am talking about OSs such as Windows, Mac OSX and Linux ... there are others but this article will focus on Windows.
The following guidance is primarily for Windows 10 computers but some of it can be applied to earlier versions of Windows and even other operating systems.
All PCs, regardless of operating system, are sophisticated machines and need to be managed, Windows 10 provides a number of mechanisms to do this, for example:
- The Action Centre: The Action Centre pops up a lot of important information which you should always check ... don't ignore the messages.
- The Task Manager: Task manager gives you an insight into what your PC is doing and can help manage what can or cannot run as your system starts up. The Task Manager can be used to control whether a program autoloads (loads on start-up) to bring your machine to a useful state sooner than it otherwise might.
- Defragmentation: When your computer writes a new file to your hard drive it doesn't necessarily store it in the next most convenient space, it stores it in what it thinks is the best way. Being brutally honest, computers really aren’t that smart, it's one of the reasons some of us refer to them as "exceptionally fast rule following morons". Assume you have a nice tidy file system, with file A following file B following file C and so on (right up to file J). Let's also assume all those files are 1MB in size and, for whatever reason, you decide to delete files B, D and F. A bit later you write a new file, file K, but file K is 6MB in size ... the computer, being a bit stupid, doesn't write it at the end where there is an awful lot of space (much more than 6Mb) ... no, it writes the first part where file B was, the second part where file D was, the third where file F was and the rest at the end. Can you see that now file K is "fragmented" ... in simple terms, a defragmenter works to make all the files on your disk whole and contiguous. Windows 10 has a defragmenter that, by default, runs al the time when the computer is not doing much. Earlier versions of Windows need to be told to run the defragmenting tool.
Updates are irritating but they are also important as they address security issues and often provide your system with extra functionality ... Windows 10 operating system patches automatically and, although it can be a pain, you should allow it to do so. Other updates must be carried out manually, drivers (in simple terms, discreet pieces of software that allow a particular piece of hardware to work with your operating system) for example if you have a scanner that is not typically supported by the normal windows update process. You should check for driver updates regularly and apply them as they will often make your system faster as well as address possible security issues. Applications will also need to be updated, some (mostly Microsoft's own applications) are updated automatically but check for other application updates regularly and apply them as they will often make your applications better as well as address possible security issues.
The important thing to understand is that programs need to be managed, the OS will do some of that automatically but you can help ... if you no longer need or use a program, uninstall it.
In addition to keeping your system updated, the security profile of a Windows 10 system is highly configurable with a number of different functions. Windows 10 System Protection, a utility that is turned on by default, is a restore system that allows you to "rollback" your system to a previous restore point. Registering for a Microsoft online account (easily done at first logon) grants Windows users access to cloud backup services, allows for sophisticated data sharing and (if you're on Windows 10 Home) it allows access to the Microsoft Store, allowing you to install applications from it.
You should install both anti-virus and anti-malware software then run regular anti-virus and malware scans. Although this topic will be dealt with more comprehensively at a later date, my personal preference is to use Windows 10s own Defender anti-virus (which is free) combined with Spybot anti-malware (which is not free but can be used for free). In my opinion, these two applications, in combination to a sensible/cautious approach to online resources along with some form of offline backup are usually enough to protect a user from threats.
The other things you should do is set a strong password or passphrase and the standard advice is not to use the names of relatives, easily guessed numbers or keyboard sequences. Your password should be long, a minimum of 12 (TWELVE) characters, it should be random characters of mixed case and should include some non-alphanumeric characters. You should NOT use the same password on multiple online systems but this is particularly true for places you buy things from or for access to bank accounts and so on. Never give someone any of your passwords and, the one thing I CANNOT stress enough ... be aware that neither Microsoft or any of their agents NEVER, EVER contact you because they have noticed a problem with your computer. As far as I understand it that is also true of banks however, I will deal with passwords in more detail later.
It is worth noting that Windows 10 has an entire series of dialogs devoted to privacy; just click the Windows menu icon and type "privacy settings" to check the available options.
Finally, some very general advice.
Over my many years of IT computer support, I have found that many people use their computer's desktop as a place to store documents, pictures, music and many other kinds of file. This is not a good idea, not only because it gives your desktop a cluttered feel, it can literally affect a computer's performance. Windows scans the entire desktop during start-up so the number of files there can affect the length of time it takes a computer to boot up. It is also much more difficult to mirror your desktop to the cloud so it is generally considered better to clean up and organise your desktop. An easier way to still have access to files that you'd generally like on your desktop is to create shortcuts (links) to areas where you have actually stored stuff ... using those instead will make it "feel" like they are on the desktop but actually they won't be.
You should clean your OS regularly, by which I mean you should empty your trash, clean up any temporary files and manage some of the other things that can affect a computer's functions. There are a number of excellent utilities available that can do a lot of this kind of thing for you automatically.
Many people fall into the trap of continuously hibernating their computer, something that you can do simple by shutting a laptops lid. The problem with this is that, although the computer recovers to full functionality more rapidly, everything is as it was the time you last hibernated it. If you do this repeatedly programs don't reset themselves and systems starts to lose resources. All PC systems need to restart regularly so we advise turning your computer off when not in use or at least restarting it regularly. In short, don't always sleep/hibernate your computer ... fully restart your PC at least weekly.
The last thing I will mention are backups; backups are a subject worthy of a discussion in their own right but for now I simply advise that you ensure your PC is carrying out regular backups. After several system crashes and subsequent rebuilds where I always seemed to lose data, I finally learned this lesson and now carry out a backup each and every week.
RSQ: Part 3: "Passwords" will follow soon.