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There are a lot of tasks that computer users should really -- in an ideal world -- be doing every single week. The pressures of life, however, inevitably keep us from doing them regularly enough. As a substitute, then, many people would be well-served to adopt a policy of doing some computer "housekeeping" once a week, and rotating through four essential tasks. That way, none of those tasks go more than a month without getting done. It's imperfect, but it's far better than the common alternative -- never doing any of them at all.

The first week of every month, one should run a complete backup of personal information on the computer's hard drive. This is usually best done straight to a portable hard drive, and run overnight when it won't affect any users. Once every few months, one should go a step farther and burn the really essential files (financial files, family photos, important e-mails) to a DVD, and send that DVD somewhere far away for safe keeping. This step is important because there's always the risk -- no matter how low, it's ever-present -- that one's home and entire community could be destroyed in a massive disaster, like the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, or Parkersburg, Iowa. Having a solid-state backup (like one burned to a DVD) of the really essential files somewhere far away guarantees that those most precious files won't be lost forever, even if everything else in the home is gone. An easy rule of thumb: Find a bank in a town at least 100 miles away from your home, but someplace you're likely to visit at least a couple of times a year, and rent a safe-deposit box there. Whenever you're in town, drop off your latest DVD in the box and walk away knowing that your most precious data is safe and sound behind lock and key.

The second week of every month, check for updates to the programs on your computer. This includes programs like the Internet browsers Firefox and Chrome, mail programs like Thunderbird, office suites like LibreOffice, and the add-on programs that make other programs work, like Adobe Flash Player. This task falls to the second week because it should always follow a data backup.

The third week of every month, install the latest Microsoft updates issued on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of every month). This advice obviously doesn't pertain to Apple or Linux users, but they too should practice good housekeeping by looking for operating-system updates at least once a month. Microsoft, though, sets the Patch Tuesday schedule, so this task has a natural place in the normal monthly rhythm of good housekeeping on your computer.

The fourth week of every month, run a full (or "comprehensive") antivirus scan of your computer. Like a backup of the hard drive, this should be run overnight, when it won't interfere with any computer use. A thorough antivirus scan should also include a scan for spyware and other malware, and it could easily occupy 50% or more of the computer's processing power, so it can be a massive nuisance to run while the computer is in use. An overnight scan is just as effective and won't bother anyone in the process.

These recommendations, of course, depend on the precise circumstances of the individual computer user. But as general guidelines, they're good for ensuring that the truly essential steps for computer security get taken on a routine basis. Ideally, one would actually conduct a full backup, a round of program updates, and an antivirus scan every single week...but it's a sad fact of life that nobody but a small handful of hard-core enthusiasts does this. Committing to following at least a monthly cycle for these steps, though, will at least bring one's computer use to an acceptable level of safety and security.
People often wonder why the computers that seemed so fast when they were fresh out of the box turn out to become such slow-moving dullards after a year or two of use. While some slowdown is inevitable, there are some things that people can do to improve computer speed and performance, several of which are just good common-sense elements of a computer maintenance program.

Let's look at the reasons why a computer might be running slowly. First, we need to break down the problems into two categories: The physical and the digital. The home computer itself is, of course, a piece of machinery, and like all machinery, it has moving parts and things that wear out. There's not a lot that can be done for most computers from a physical standpoint -- when things break, they tend to break catastrophically, like a motherboard burning out or a hard drive failing. But when it comes to the speed of a computer, there's a persistent little problem that often goes overlooked by the novice user: Dust. Dust is everywhere and cannot be eliminated unless you live in a clean room. And though it may seem innocuous, dust accumulates inside the computer and builds up around the CPU and around fans. That's a problem, because a computer that can't keep its processing system cool is a computer that works harder than it needs to (physically) to do the job of computing. Hence, tip #1 is simple: Apply a good shot of compressed air to fans and ports to the computer once every few weeks. It may seem like a silly bit of nonsense, but keeping the inside of the computer well-cleaned of dust keeps the CPU cooler, and that helps the computer perform better -- not to mention, if it's a laptop, that it keeps the machine from burning your legs.

Most ordinary computer users shouldn't do a lot more than that to address the physical needs of the computer, so we turn to the digital. The main digital culprit to what slows down most computers is programs that run when they aren't needed. We can break these down into two categories, each with an action step: Programs we deliberately install, and programs we didn't choose to install.

Among programs that we deliberately install, there are a huge number of programs that essentially declare, "Hey, I'm such an important program that you'll need to use me a lot. To make me install faster when you use me, I'm going to create a little preloading routine that makes me start up every time you start your computer." These preloading routines are common -- you'll find them built in to everything from office suites like Microsoft Office and OpenOffice to instant messaging programs and Skype. The problem is that what might make sense for one or two programs doesn't make sense when you have dozens loaded onto your computer at once. Honestly, you just don't need a lot of programs to pre-load themselves every time you use your computer. Sure, you sometimes want Skype to run, but it doesn't really need to pre-load itself every time you hit the power switch. This brings us to tip #2: Shut off the pre-loading feature in any program you don't use every single time you boot up your computer. You can usually disable the pre-loading feature by looking inside the options menus of most programs. For programs where that doesn't work, or to take care of several programs at once, you can follow some simple instructions to manage your startup programs list. One of the worst offenders on this list of self-important programs is Apple's iTunes, which defaults back into your startup menu every time you update the software. It's an obnoxious feature, and the people at Apple should knock it off. There's no reason for iTunes to pre-load every time.

Finally, we have the problem of software that you didn't deliberately install on your own computer. Broadly speaking, we call this stuff malware: It's our umbrella term for viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware -- anything bad (hence the prefix "mal-") that you don't want on your machine. This stuff can seriously hoover up more of your computer processor power than anyone should ever be willing to give away. There are two steps involved in cleaning up the malware on your computer, so we'll break up this third tip into two parts: Tip #3A is to run a complete and comprehensive anti-virus and anti-spyware scan of your computer. We are asked on the WHO Radio Wise Guys program all the time where people can get free antivirus software, and it's available from a number of sources (I think Avast is probably the best among them, at least as of this writing). But if there's one thing you should be willing to pay out-of-pocket to get on your computer, it's good antivirus software. Seriously. Pony up the $30 or $40 it takes for an annual subscription to a professional service like Norton Antivirus or Kaspersky, and get professional-quality antivirus protection. Most of the good (paid) antivirus programs also check for spyware. Yes, the free programs are better than nothing. But the paid stuff is better. Seriously, just pay for it -- just like automobile insurance and health insurance and homeowner's (or renter's) insurance, the cost of antivirus software is just the price you pay for having stuff you want to protect.

Once you've scanned the computer in full and have swept all of the bugs out, it's time to make sure that you don't let them back in again. Hence, we reach tip #3B: Use your administrator account only for installing and upgrading programs, and practice safe Internet browsing. Most people live dangerously by surfing the Internet and reading their e-mail while on an administrator-level access account on their computers. That's dangerous, because the computer assumes that the administrator is authorized to install programs whenever he or she wants. The trouble is, the computer is stupid and doesn't know the difference between you deliberately installing a program and you accidentally downloading a virus (which is, of course, a program). The computer, being stupid, allows you to do either thing without a lot of resistance when you're logged in as an administrator. The way to avoid this is by creating a second profile on your computer and giving it only limited powers -- not including the right to install programs. It's free and easy to create a limited-access account, and that account is where you should stay for 99.9% of your computer use, whether it's watching movies or surfing the Web or checking your e-mail. The limited part of "limited-access" doesn't keep you from doing these things, it just keeps you from installing programs. You can always log into your administrator account if you need to install something new, but -- honestly -- how often do you do that? Once a month? Get into the habit of doing most of your computing from behind the safety wall of a limited-access account. Remember, your computer doesn't know the difference between you and a virus pretending to be you. So if you're logged in with a limited-access account, the computer will just say "No" to installing new stuff -- whether it's you trying to do it, or (more likely) a virus trying to install itself. The limited-access account isn't a complete failsafe insurance policy, but it's probably 95% effective against allowing spyware and viruses onto your computer, all by itself. For additional safety, I recommend that you use an alternative Internet browser (by "alternative", I mean one that isn't the #1 browser, which at present and for about a decade has been Microsoft Internet Explorer). Use Firefox or Opera or Chrome or something else -- just do what you can to avoid using the same browser as the majority of other users. The IE browser itself is OK, but it's also so popular that it's a major target for crooks who write viruses. They know that most people are using IE, so they try to take advantage of its weaknesses. If you don't use it, you'll find yourself less exposed to danger.

These are three simple steps you can take towards faster computing, even on an old machine. Remember, computers don't last forever, so you should always backup your important data (like financial records and photographs), just in case something catastrophic happens to the machine itself. But these tips should generally help keep your computer running at its top available speed.

Antivirus for the cheap

David writes with this question:
Two or three weeks ago I heard you mention on your show that I need about three different pieces of software to protect against viruses and spyware. I was driving and couldn't write those down. Where can I find what you recommend for protection? I couldn't find these posted on your WHO webpage. I believe these were freeware but I might be wrong. I currently am using Trend Micro. Are the ones you recommend better? 

Brian says:
Dan and I differ on this subject. He recommends that people use AVG Antivirus, Spybot Search and Destroy, and Ad-Aware. I don't really mind Spybot Search & Destroy, nor do I mind Ad-Aware, though I don't actively use either one because I prefer other alternatives. But I got really angry with AVG Antivirus when they started bombarding the Internet with traffic that wasn't really necessary. To the best of my knowledge, they've gotten their ducks in a row and aren't hogging bandwidth like they used to, but the experience really soured my opinion of them. Today, I generally recommend that people pony up a few dollars for commercial antivirus software from a source like Symantec or Kaspersky. But if you're too cheap to do that, I've found Avast to be a decent free alternative for home users.

Maybe it's unfair of me to hold a grudge against AVG like I do, but as the operator of a number of websites for which I have to pay overage charges if I get too much traffic (even if it's bogus traffic from antivirus programs, like what AVG was doing), I think it's fair to punish those who have transgressed.

No matter what antivirus software or anti-spyware tools you're using, though, the single most effective way to avoid trouble is to use a limited-access Windows profile. I could repeat this every ten minutes on the air, put a 300-foot banner on the side of 801 Grand, and hire a pilot to go skywriting with the message over Des Moines every day, and I still could not get the message across to enough people. Use a limited-access account, and you'll avoid -- by my estimate -- 90% to 95% of most malware risks on the Internet.

By the way, if you ever need a reminder about the free tools we talk about on the air, I keep a list of most of them at

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