Sunday, December 18, 2011

Buying a PC This Holiday Season?

There are some great deals out there, but before you pull the trigger, there’s some important things you need to know.

I’m not going to get into the whole “what’s the right device for me” question. There are so many choices; desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets, and there’s a plethora of good deals in all categories. For most, usage patterns and pricing will drive their purchase. What I want to talk about today is ensuring that you get the most out of your purchase, and my advice holds true across all platforms.

First thing; whatever you end up buying, make sure you ask the question “How do I reload the system if it becomes hosed up?”

Some systems come with a copy of Windows, or a manufacturer specific recovery disc. Most systems require you to create your own recovery disc. You must do this immediately, and you must store your recovery disc somewhere safe. Store it where you can find it in say, a year or two, and label it boldly, so you don’t accidently toss it, should you find yourself in a cleaning frenzy one day.

You also need to have a plan in place to back up your data on a regular basis. By data, I mean your music, photos and documents. Basically the contents of you’re “My Documents” folder.

Last, but not least, you have to have a decent antivirus program loaded on your PC before you start surfing the web, and you have to update and run it regularly. Symantec/Norton antivirus is great, and usually comes preloaded on your new machine, but you need to pay for it, and renew your subscription periodically. I find that most people either put it off, or just forget. I recommend using a good free program, like MSE. Note: If you’re going to replace Symantec/Norton, you’re going to need the Norton Removal Tool, because a plain old uninstall just isn’t enough.

OK, so here’s why these things are so important;

This past month I’ve worked on 3 PC’s, all were hosed up to varying degrees with spyware and viruses. One of them was my own desktop, proving that no matter how careful you are, it will happen to you. It’s just a matter of time.

Of the 3 systems, the easiest to repair was my own. I have the system recovery discs, and I also have a couple of recent backups. All I needed to do was format the drive, reload the system from the recovery disc, run Windows update, and then reload my music, photos and documents. It took me all of one night and I now have the equivalent of a brand new machine. Anything I hadn’t used recently didn’t go back on, which freed up a ton of disk space, and the reformatting of the drive cured one of the biggest problems with an older system, fragmented files.

The other two systems were a different story. The owners didn't have the recovery discs, they weren’t even sure if they had ever made them, and they had never backed up their files. I could wipe their systems and reload them with another copy of XP, but then they’d lose all of their personal data.

If they had a copy of their My Documents folder, the fix would be easy. Without it, it’s a slow and painstaking process. You have to clean up the machine enough to be able to write the data to DVD, and if the machine is really hosed, that can be a daunting task.

Both machines had Norton Antivirus and Lava Soft’s Ad-Aware loaded on them when they were new, but neither program had been updated in months, and the last full scan run with either program was back when I had installed them.

After updating both, Norton found five viruses on the laptop and Ad-Aware flagged 253 suspicious items. That one went pretty well, all things considered. I was able to clean it up and save all the data.

On the desktop, neither program would even start. Some piece (or pieces) of malware had disabled both Norton and Ad-Aware, and the host table had been diddled, so I had to resort to reloading them from DVD, along with a few other cleanup tools. The machine was so slow that it took hours to load and configure them.

Very frustrating, and way too much time and labor to be spending on a frelative’s PC. In my spare time, no less, but what are you going to do? It would be a pretty costly endeavor for them to take it somewhere to be fixed, so I try to help, that’s what friends are for, but my rule of thumb is this; The first time it happens, I try to save things, but if you find yourself up the same tree a second time, it’s wipe and go service only.

I value my digital pictures, as do most, and I’ve seen the reaction when someone realizes that all of their files are dust in the wind; anger, anguish, remorse, and sometimes, tears. It’s an awful thing to see. Without those recovery disks and a recent backup, all you’re left with when the hammer comes down is a useless hunk of junk.

Don’t put yourself in that bad place; backing up isn’t so hard to do. I use an external drive with a built in backup program (HP SimpleSave) that’s brainless and painless. I also copy my pictures and documents to DVD and I run the iTunes backup tool periodically. It only takes a few minutes, and it’s time well invested. I keep the most recent copies with the recovery discs, someplace safe.

Also, don’t use rewritable DVD’s when you’re backing up your files (DVD-RW), use write once discs only (DVD-R). I had someone hand me a DVD recently, saying proudly “I have all of my pictures saved on here”. I found out later that they had been writing and rewriting to that same DVD-RW for days, and had overwritten most of the files. It was a hard drive replacement, and a hard lesson. Luckily, I was able to recover the contents of the drive later on, but that’s another story for another time. What I want you to focus on here is that rewritable DVD’s can be dangerous. Capisci?

So, to sum things up:

• Find out if the machine comes with a recovery disc.

• If it doesn’t, create one.

• Store the disc(s) somewhere safe.

• Add or activate antivirus software.

• Back up your important files regularly.

Simple, right?

I hope you’re all nodding your heads out there... If you're not, then we're both in trouble.

That is all.

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