Your Computer Is Like Your Car: 7 Ways to Keep It Running Smoothly

By George Otte

Your car gets you from Point A to Point B. Your computer puts a world of information at your fingertips.

At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different. Your car is mobile, while your desktop computer is stationary and your laptop only goes where you carry it.

Yet your computer and your car have more in common than you realize. Both require regular care and maintenance to remain in good working order. If used improperly or left to languish for too long, both can fail before their time.

Every car owner has a basic understanding of their vehicle’s maintenance needs, even if they don’t feel comfortable getting under the hood themselves. Every computer user deserves to have the same basic breadth of knowledge about maintaining their machine, even if they don’t know a circuit board from a CPU.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at seven straightforward computer maintenance tips and tasks that can extend your computer’s lifespan and improve its performance for years to come.

1. Physically Clean Your Machine

Unlike cars, computers don’t need oil changes; however, they do need physical care from time to time. This is doubly true if your computer lives in a room with more than its fair share of dust, you have shedding pets such as cats and long-haired dogs, or you eat regularly around your computer. Proper physical care includes:

  • Using an approved screen cleaning solution and soft cloth to clean your monitor
  • Using a gentle cleaning solution to polish your computer’s hard surfaces
  • Using dampened cotton swabs to remove crumbs from your keyboard
  • Use a dampened cloth or air compressor to clean dust from your cooling fan outlets

2. Implement a Cord Management System

Depending on how much equipment you have in your computer area, you may have more cords than you can comfortably manage. If that’s the case, you need an effective cord management system that organizes all those wires and keeps them from impeding your workflow. There’s no one right answer here—you can use twist ties, string, wall fixtures or even fast-drying putty to keep your cords in a tight, untangled bundle.

3. Buy (And Update) Anti-Virus Software

If you’re not already using an anti-virus or anti-malware program, start researching your options. The digital world is crawling with potential threats to your computer, and many don’t immediately make themselves apparent.

When you first install your new program, run a full system scan to identify any threats already “living” on your computer. Then, run periodic scans (your program may do this automatically) and set your program to auto-update as new patches become available. You may have to pay for a quality anti-malware app, but you’ll thank yourself if and when your program thwarts a serious threat.

4. Delete Duplicate or Junk Files

Just as your car’s gas tank has a finite capacity, your computer’s hard drive can only hold so much information. Make sure you’re maximizing your available space by periodically deleting duplicate files, files you rarely or never use, and large files that you’ve backed up elsewhere. You may need to call on a professional to help, as it’s important not to delete essential files whose absence can threaten your system.

5. Continue Auditing Your System

Even if you don’t regularly delete programs and files, you want to check up on your computer system at regular intervals—just as you check your oil levels in between oil changes or scheduled maintenance visits to the garage. Also, if you’re using an older machine with a mechanical hard drive, you’ll need to periodically defragment your hard drive to boost its performance. (If you have a newer machine with a solid-state drive, you may still need to defragment, but many SSD computers do so automatically.)

6. Back Up Your Data

Your data is too precious to store in a single place. Instead of relying solely on your computer’s hard drive, you should back up your most important documents and bits of personal information to a secure cloud storage system and a physical storage device, such as a thumb drive. If you have concerns about backing up your data in the cloud, speak with a computer maintenance professional—while cloud storage is generally secure, the occasional breach reminds us that you can’t be too careful.

7. Reinstall Your Operating System

If your computer’s performance is really substandard, a defragging session might not be enough to restore the machine to its former glory. A complete uninstallation and reinstallation of your operating system may be warranted. If you’re not technically proficient, don’t attempt this on your own, as there’s a lot to keep straight during the process. A computer repair professional can easily assist.

Technologies Existent or Heretofore Created

In legal contracts, it’s commonplace to see vague language about “technologies existent or heretofore created,” or some variation thereof.

That’s not just legalese. The point is that technology is unlikely to stay the same as it was when the contract was signed. If new, pertinent technologies (or modifications to existing technologies) are developed while the contract remains valid, the contract’s terms must cover those technologies as well. Otherwise, the agreement has a glaring loophole: It applies only to gadgets that exist in the present, not gadgets that may arise in the future.

It’s like having one set of rules for the iPhone 6 and a completely different set for the iPhone 7. That’s not fair, is it?

By the same token, the tips and tricks outlined above pertain mainly to desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. They don’t cover certain other, newer technologies that already exist in the marketplace, such as smartwatches, or products that remain in development, such as augmented reality glasses. It’ll be exciting to see how those new technologies develop in the years ahead—and to learn all the unique strategies their users can employ to keep them running smoothly and effectively.

Do You Need a Virtual Private Network? And Other Cybersecurity Tips

By George Otte

How to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands online.

When every week brings fresh news of big-time data breaches and targeted cyberattacks, it’s tempting to assume that there’s nothing you can do to keep your most intimate details safe from people who want to do you harm.

Fortunately, the truth is a bit rosier. While there’s no way to guarantee safety and security on the digital web, it’s absolutely possible to reduce your risk.

One of the most effective forms of protection—one that’s surprisingly, not very well known—is a virtual private network, or VPN. While it’s not a cure-all (nothing is), a VPN can significantly improve your security as you browse the internet, especially if you’re downloading files, streaming video, accessing websites banned by your employer or local government, or simply trying to have a private conversation without strangers listening in.

More About VPNs

Lifehacker defines a virtual private network as “a group of computers (or discrete networks) networked together over a public network—namely, the internet.” Larger enterprises and government agencies often use their own VPNs, but retail users can access “public” VPNs—VPNs open to anyone with proper credentials—for a recurring fee or an agreement to accept certain types of advertising.

On a technical level, VPNs are quite complex, but their outcomes are easy to understand. First and foremost, VPNs encrypt your traffic such that it’s virtually impossible for outside observers to see what you’re doing online. Also, most VPNs use multiple servers in a variety of locations, often in different countries, and change your IP address in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to ascertain your true location. You can often choose which server to use—and, therefore, where you appear to be.

In other words, VPNs are great for keeping your geographical location and general online activities secret, or at least less public than usual.

Why You Should Probably Use a VPN

What if you have nothing to hide and don’t regularly access sensitive or personal data online? Is it still important to maintain security and secrecy in the digital realm?

Yes, for a number of reasons. Here’s a look at some of the most common reasons to use a VPN:

  • You Travel Internationally: If you travel abroad often for business, a VPN can keep you in touch with goings-on back home via social media sites that may be blocked by government firewalls where you are. It can also keep you up to date on American (or other countries’) shows and movies, which aren’t available in many countries due to licensing arrangements. Simply use a U.S.-based VPN server and you’ll be able to watch just like you would at home.
  • You Don’t Want Others To See That You’ve Been Reading Up on Them: With some effort, website administrators can identify individual visitors and review their on-site activities. A VPN obscures your identity, making it impossible for business competitors, job candidates and others to see that you’ve been checking up on them.
  • You Use Public Wi-Fi Often: Public Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure, meaning anyone can see data transmitted over them. Whenever you use public Wi-Fi, you should use a VPN.
  • Have a Firewall: Many computers have firewalls that prevent users from accessing certain websites while logged in to their network. A VPN helps you circumvent such restrictions, which are sometimes detrimental to legitimate work duties (for instance, conducting research on a blocked website).

Other Tips To Stay Safe and Secure Online

What else can you do to protect yourself and your family online? Keep these four simple strategies in mind.

  • Switch Up Your Passwords: Passwords matter. To reduce the risk that hackers and other malicious folks will guess your password outright, avoid weak or obvious passwords such as “password123” or your last name. Likewise, use a different password for each important account; that way, even if one of your passwords is discovered, it won’t singlehandedly unlock your entire online ecosystem. Finally, change up your passwords frequently—quarterly or better. If one of your passwords is stolen, it won’t necessarily be correct by the time the thief uses it.
  • Use an Anti-Malware Program: VPNs are secure, but they’re not foolproof. Add another layer of protection with an anti-malware program that identifies and blocks potential threats, such as viruses, worms, trojans, phishing links and more. Such programs can cost $50 or more per year, but they’re well worth the expense.
  • Look for SSL Certificates: Be careful about downloading or entering personal data on websites without up-to-date SSL certificates, which use a powerful protocol to encrypt and secure data transmitted to and from the site. Most browsers clearly distinguish secure sites from non-secure sites with lock icons or the word “secure” in the URL bar. You can also verify that the URL is preceded by “https”—a signifier of SSL protection.
  • Be Careful What You Download: A VPN might hide your true location or identity from prying eyes, but it can’t protect you from the nasty malware that may or may not lurk inside the files you download. There’s a whole universe of dodgy programs, from ransomware that literally holds your computer system hostage to trojans that turn your computer into a spam-producing zombie machine. Even if you have a top-notch VPN and an up-to-date anti-malware program, avoid downloading anything whose provenance you can’t confirm 100 percent.

An Ounce of Prevention…

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even if you have to pay $100 per year for a VPN and $50 per year for an anti-malware suite, that’s small change compared to the potential cost (in dollar terms, stress and aggravation, and lost time) of a major data breach.

Rather than log in to your online bank account to find zeroes where your balance should be, wouldn’t you rather take proactive steps to protect yourself and your family online before anything bad happens? Get started today—and look forward to your newfound peace of mind.