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Must Read, Tips / How-To | January 22, 2008

Top 10 mistakes that PC users make

Frustrated laptop user

Here at BlueNova Computing we see the results of PC users’ most common mistakes. Well, now, you can benefit from their misfortune by reading about these common problems and also easy ways to avoid them yourself.

1. Misbehaved Programs

You’ve probably heard of spyware, also known as adware or malware. These programs are generally designed to run silently in the background and make money for some person or company somehow.

Some spyware simply tracks your surfing habits in order to sell for marketing purposes, while others pop-up ads, redirect you to different sites, install toolbars, change settings, and worse. Spyware often requires expert help to remove, and can even require a complete system re-install to resolve.

But where do these misbehaved programs come from? Spyware does not directly spread in the manner of a computer virus or worm. Spyware gets on your system either through security ‘holes’ in unsafe programs (see #2) or by hitching a ride with another program (like the old Trojan horse).

So do research before you download, and use common sense. If the program is designed to do something illegal or semi-legal (like P2P programs Kazaa, Limewire, Morpheus, etc.) don’t be surprised if they take some liberties with your PC along the way. Especially beware of free utilities and screensavers, which are also a major source of spyware.

However, some of our favorite programs are free (see our article: ‘Recommended Programs’). So the point is, make sure to check the source and exercise caution when downloading!

2. Unsafe Web Browser

Internet Explorer is the default browser on almost all new PCs. But be careful; Internet Explorer is a common point of entry for spyware. Even on a fully patched and clean install of Windows, some malicious websites can install unwanted software automatically, without your knowledge.

The solution is simple: just download and use a different web browser. We like Mozilla Firefox (free download), and Opera is also good (and free). You can visit all the same websites with Mozilla Firefox without having to worry about spyware. However, please note Firefox won’t remove spyware or in any way actively protect your PC; it is simply a safe way of viewing websites.

3. Backup Your Data

We deal with damaged PCs, hard drives, and data loss on a regular basis, and we notice that very few PC users, even business owners, make regular backups of their data. So what’s the best way backup your data?

There are many options. First, don’t rely on floppy disks; they are too delicate, slow, and only hold 1.4MB of data. CDRs are a popular choice, since they are inexpensive (about $0.25 each in bulk), most PCs have CD-writers, and you can backup 700MB at a time. Blank DVDs hold about 4500MB each. Some also use flash drives (usually 1024MB and up), or external USB hard drives (80,000MB and up). Small business owners may want to consider a more automated backup system, like using an extra hard drive along with reliable backup software (see our article: ‘Recommended Programs’).

4. Security Software

Most computer users know that they need some sort of antivirus protection. But if you visit the software store, you’ll encounter a vast array of ‘internet security products’ designed to protect you from spyware, hackers, pop-ups, junk mail, and so forth. Should you go for the extra protection?

No, you shouldn’t. The best way to avoid software problems is to keep things simple. Most security software is a bloated mess that accomplishes little more than slowing down your PC. Computer technicians regularly ‘fix’ computers by removing such software, which can conflict with other programs or cause other networking problems. Plus, the extra protection isn’t necessary. If you follow steps #1, 4, 6 and 10, you won’t have any problems from hackers, spyware, or pop-ups.

However, you should use some sort of anti-virus protection. Viruses can in rare cases attack your PC even if you are careful with software and updates. So search out a simple anti-virus product (see our recommended programs article for our picks) and make sure it stays up to date.

5. Surge Suppressor

Most PCs that are damaged by surges and lightning, by far, are hit through the TELEPHONE line, not the power cord. Most modern surge suppressers include phone line protection. Use it. And be sure it’s a decent brand, like APC or Belkin; we’ve seen many cheap ones that failed and allowed a computer to take damage.

6. Keeping Windows Updated

You need the latest security patches and service packs to avoid the latest exploits that hackers and viruses use to attack your PC. All window users should either turn on automatic updates or manually get them regularly.

Some users are paranoid about allowing Microsoft to send them updates, but in our experience they are safe and pose no risk.

7. Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printer ink, per ounce, is usually priced higher than gold. Really. So when you’re shopping for a printer, check those ink cartridge prices.

And be careful with very inexpensive inkjet printers. If you compare the cartridge price with the amount of ink in there, you’ll realize where they’re making money.

If you are a small business owner or you print in large volume, you really should be using a laser printer instead. Monochrome (black, greyscale) is fine. Remember to look past the higher price for the printer ($100+) and the toner cartridge ($60+), and instead look at the MUCH lower cost per-page (2500 pages and up on a single cart).

Also, laser printers last much longer, and are more easily repaired. And if you think you’ll miss color, see #8 below.

8. Printing Digital Photos

If you just read #7, you know that operating an inkjet printer can be expensive and time-consuming. It’s doubly so with printing photos (photo paper, ink costs, cleaning print heads, etc.). So consider bringing your memory card or CD to a place like Walgreens, CVS or Target where you can use a simple kiosk to select and print photos quickly.

Even better, import all of your photos into Picasa (see our article: ‘Recommended Programs’) where you can crop and enhance them. Then select your favorite photos and click the [Order Prints] button to select from a variety of online printing services to send them to. If you don’t mind waiting a few days to recieve them, getting prints this way is generally less expensive. Also, many of these services offer free prints to new customers.

9. E-mail Attachments

This is one of the biggest area of frustration for new PC users. The first mistake is usually trying to send a file that is too large.

What is too large? Well, consider the rate at which the other person will receive the file: On a dial-up connection, which some of your friends may still be using, they’ll be receiving the files at about 4 or 5kB per second. So if you send them a photo straight from your 3 megapixel camera for instance, at about 900kB it could take 3 to 4 minutes per photo to download. Ouch. So resize that photo first before you send it.

Also, it’s important to remember not to send someone a file that they can’t open. For instance if you use WordPerfect to create a document, but your friend uses Microsoft Word, they won’t be able to view it.

What can you do? Pick up PDF Creator (free) to create a document that anyone can view and print, or you could both switch to OpenOffice.org (also free) which supports many document types and can also export to PDF.

10. Protect Your PC From Other Humans

That’s right. Your friends and family can be one of the biggest threats to the health of your PC.

We see it all the time: Joe pays to have his PC cleaned and is told how to keep spyware out. Later, Bob comes over to check his e-mail, and then browses some ‘fun’ sites using Internet Explorer. Bob then decides to do you a favor and install some of his favorite free software. If you’ve read #1 and #4, you can imagine the state that Joe’s PC is in right now.

What practical steps can be taken, other than locking the computer away? Have them login with a limited, or ‘Guest’ account in Windows. You see, a limited account doesn’t allow users to install programs or to change system settings. You can visit the User Accounts section of the Control Panel in Windows in order to enable the Guest account or to change a user account to limited.

Using a limited account may not work out well for a family member, though. Working in a limited account environment can be frustrating in the long term, as some utilities and games may not function correctly. So instead of trying to install some kind of draconian security software, it may be best to just sit the family down and explain the dangers (and expenses) of unsafe computing to them.

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