Getting the best out of your Windows PC

In the 4 years (counting from 2006 when I purchased my first desktop computer) that I’ve been an active PC user, I have encountered the following scenario several times:

  1. User buys a PC because it’s cheap.
  2. User ignores all the how-tos included with PC including crucial information on how to keep the system running optimally.
  3. User keeps ignoring those pesky prompts to install updates or continues to cancel the installation of said updates.
  4. User goes deep into the weeds when infected and does things like installing multiple AV programs on 1 machines, reading & using advice obtained from sketchy forums on the internet.
  5. User’s PC slows to a painful halt and he/she either calls for a friend or has to spend money to fix the problems.

Of course, from time to time, stuff will get borked on your Windows machine and even through no fault of your own sometimes. Those kinds of problems can include having faulty hardware which can be rectified by getting firmware updates or updated drivers for the faulty hardware or . My main theme in my posts about taking care of your computer revolves around proactive user intervention. As a Windows user, you *absolutely* have to take care of your computer or else you *will* see degraded performance over time. If you are completely clueless around computers, look around your neighborhood for free community resources that can help you with your computer. For instance, I currently volunteer with Free IT Athens which is a “non-profit community advocate for free software and open technology” and they’ll be very happy to help with computer issues!

What does being proactive around your computer mean? For me, it entails *all* of the following:

  1. Regularly checking for Windows Updates if you have turned off Automatic Updates
  2. If you’ve got automatic updates turned on, visit the “Windows Updates” page occasionally to verify that the system hasn’t been waiting for your permission to install those updates.
  3. Check your PC manufacturer’s website for product/firmware/software updates
  4. Running your antispyware/antivirus utility weekly or daily (depending on how much on the at-risk scale you fall). Please try to be available when the scan is complete in order for you to be able to weed out false positives. Several AV engines have been known to accidentally mark critical system files as viruses. If you’ve set your AV scanner to run overnight and it detects your critical system files as viruses, you’ll be screwed if the AV ends up deleting such a file. So, my advice will be to start your AV scan early in the day so you don’t do overnight runs.

My list is not exhaustive, but by merely doing these things, I think a lot of issues could be avoided.Several good ways to see if your computer’s components has received any upgrade is to do the following (which is tailored to HP computers because my 2 notebooks are from Hewlett-Packard) include:

  1. Going to your Windows PC’s control panel and setting Automatic Updates to “install automatically” and *also* allowing Windows to check for updates to other products. See the relevant settting:

    These other products will show up as “optional” updates and I’ve found recent driver versions for things like my Nvidia graphics card, Ethernet/Internet, Synaptics touchpad, modem, etc. Case in point: my Realtek NIC driver recently received a driver update via Windows updates. As you’ll see, the HP support page for my notebook still has the old drivers!
    Old Realtek drivers:

    New Realtek drivers:

    My point: besides software updates meant to improve your system, driver and/or firmware updates can be very helpful to your system as well! Bear in mind that your laptop/desktop is composed of several 3rd party components that may have flaws in them. If you never check their website(s) to see if updates for their products (e.g. fingerprint reader driver, HP quicklaunch buttons, touchpad, etc) are available, how will you be able to fix any problems you are currently having with these items?

  2. Run HP Updates: If you’re using an HP computer, HP includes a software tool called HP Update which I highly recommend you run first. In my experience, HP Updates works for critical updates issued by HP.
  3. Go to this website which will take you to HP Support website. You should know your HP model number and that is what you need to search for (select “Downloads and Drivers”). Now, don’t go download-crazy yet. First thing to do is: go to Windows “Add and Remove” programs and see the installed programs and their version numbers. Knowing the version numbers will help you figure out if you are running an old version of your hardware’s drivers. If you can’t find that information via “Add and Remove” programs, I would recommend that you visit the “Device Management” section of your computer. Get to that section by clicking the Windows ‘Start’ button and type “device manager” into the search bar. Then, you can rightclick the product you’re looking to upgrade, check out its properties and verify that the driver is out-of-date. If it is, return to the page of “Downloads and Drivers” and be very sure that you are ONLY downloading the HP software drivers for your exact operating system. In my computer’s case, here’s what the screen looks like:
  4. Install Secunia PSI which is a security tool that lets you know which programs on your computer are ‘insecure’ primarily because they are out-of-date or a newly discovered vulnerability. I run this weekly on my computer to give me a status update (so to speak) on all the programs I’ve got installed on my computer. Secunia PSI is free for personal use and I strongly urge you to install it on your computer. On a side note (related to finding version information), I also use a tool (Belarc Advisor) to give me a nice .html page that contains a listing of all programs installed on my computer, software license information for certain products, and critical information about your computer & connected devices like serial numbers, version numbers, etc. I highly recommend this tool as part of your Windows user arsenal.
  5. Manually checking programs installed on your computer for software updates that could affect the performance of your computer. Sometimes, programs you install aren’t very smart about calling ‘home’ to notify the user of an update. In this case, you have to either go to the software maker’s website to check if there has been an update or look for a “check for updates” button which is usually found under the “Help” section.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I’d also like to list several pitfalls that can occur with well intentions:

  1. Running programs like DriverMax, DriverCure, etc and accepting all “updated” drivers blindly. Please, if you are unfamiliar with rolling back your system with system restore or “if it ain’t broke”, don’t go there. I’ve used DriverMax and DriverCure. They both always found outdated drivers. *HOWEVER* the driver matching algorithm is clearly not 100% foolproof. PC manufacturers’ have a good reason for wanting you to use their packaged executables for installing any driver updates. That said, there’s nothing wrong with using those programs to see what drivers are potentially out-of-date. Then, I strongly recommend that you go to the source to download said updates yourself. For instance, through DriverCure by Paretologic, I was found out that were updates to my Realtek HD audio drivers, Realtek NIC controller drivers and Intel wireless drivers! Windows Update didn’t detect these updates and the HP support site’s drivers had not been updated. Now, if “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If your PC’s running just fine with the old driver versions, then sit tight. If you’re obsessed with running the latest & greatest drivers for your devices, be aware that you will cause things to stop functioning at some point. Of course, I had nothing to do with that. You’re on your own in implementing any tips given on this website, m’kay?

    As I always stress, PLEASE for the love of data, create a system restore point, manually copy precious files over a removable USB drive, create a whole system image, create a backup of your files, just save your work BEFORE attempting a driver upgrade. True story: I’ve had to pave a PC after a botched driver installation. So, I’m a little paranoid when it comes to having several copies of the same data. πŸ™‚

An ongoing conversation on information security

Keeping myself and my data secure online is a topic that I never tire of talking about. If I could take a class about information security for free, I would commit to learning all I could stand about information security. Until you get your computer hacked into, your credit card fraudulently used, you still won’t fully understand the urgence about this matter. Thankfully, neither of those scenarios has been my portion, but I’m exceedingly careful about my habits online. For starters, McAfee released a pdf document about top search terms that led to malware infections. Guess what those top keywords were? Searches for lyrics keywords and search phrases that include the word, “free”. Now, since getting my first laptop in August 2008, I haven’t sustained a single successful infection of my laptop. How do I do it?

  1. Common Sense :- I monitor the links I’m clicking on and if it’s too good to be true, I check myself before clicking.
  2. Education :- I can’t get any tech news on the TV so I use the internet a lot to read up on latest threats and technologies.
  3. Common Sense:- Occasionally, I go through the programs installed on my PC to ensure that said programs are the latest versions. I can do this manually or the easy which is through the program, Secunia PSI. Secunia scans your computer and gives you a list of programs that are out-of-date so it saves you the trouble! It’s a no-brainer.

I could go on and on, but I won’t beat a dead horse. When in doubt about something, google.

My blog’s existential crisis … sort of. :)

I have the lamest (yet valid) reason for not blogging in over a weekΒ  now: I didn’t know what to say. For the first time in awhile, I felt thoroughly jaded about writing yet another how-to or kvetching about the latest software/hardware fault. There are a ton of sites that I’ll defer to when it comes down to the technical nitty gritty of things, but I hope that my scribblings may have made sense of someone out there. It’s been over 2 weeks since I moved back to Vista and I must confess that I have forgotten what Ubuntu feels like. That sounds like a betrayal even to me, but some context is in order.

Before throwing up my hands in despair and wiping off Windows fromΒ  my laptop, my laptop had a lot of experimental (beta quality) software on it and had witnessed scores of uninstallations that clog disk performance. My computer was rapidly becoming as sluggish as my 3 year old XP desktop PC and I didn’t know how to fix it. I was not infected with any virii or rootkits that I knew of, but I had a lot of programs installed and I experimented a lot with my laptop. The final straw was when some of my personal files became corrupted after running a couple of diagnose-and-repair programs and I threw up my hands in defeat. I’d experimented a lot with virtual machines and was becoming rapidly enamored of the Ubuntu/Linux distribution. I backed up my personal and professional files in two places and said “hasta luego” to Vista. Imagine my giddiness when my computer booted up & was ready to roll in less than 1 minute! However, Ubuntu’s “downfall” at my hands came because of a single issue.

Fast forward to mid-March when I restored my laptop to its factory conditions with my recovery DVDs. I installed my essential programs which are:

  1. Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007 (everything except the Business Contact Manager or Office Accounting 2008) :- I love Office 2007. Eye candy and extremely functional.
  2. Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 :- I paid for this and it is worth its weight in gold! Of course, this was an educational version so it was less than $60.
  3. Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer 2.1
  4. Acronis True Image 2009 :- Worth the money I’ve paid for it. I would purchase it again in a heartbeat!
  5. Acronis Disk Director 10 :- A master at slicing and dicing drives i.e. partitioning, etc
  6. Microsoft Expression Studio Suite :- Got this for free at Microsoft DreamSpark; The included Microsoft Expression Encoder 2 is one of the best converters for .AVI files i.e. AVI to WMV in high quality. I love it!
  7. Ultraedit Text Editor :- Fast and killer at handling huge text files. It’s mostly a Notepad replacement for me, but I wanted the best of the best and Ultraedit was the unanimous victor.
  8. Norton Internet Security 2009
  9. Secunia PSI :- For keeping tabs of programs that need updating or that have reached the end of life period.
  10. PC Wizard
  11. Fraps :- For high quality capture of games I’m playing or simply for recording the entire desktop by monitoring the desktop windows manager. Well worth the dough I dropped for it and it comes with free upgrades for life!
  12. Gizmo5 :- I love this program although the call quality could do with some work. I use this to communicate with my folks in Nigeria by buying Call Out minutes. I get the most bang for my buck that way.
  13. Imgburn :- this program lets the user be awesome as Kathy Sierra would say. It’s so easy to use that a cavewoman like me can use it without tearing out her hair!)
  14. Wireshark :- I fire this baby up whenever I’m out of my home network to monitor HTTP traffic leaving & entering my computer. I always use my SSH tunnel whenever I’m on public wifi or on an insecure/hostile network so I try to inspect my HTTP packets for any cleartext passwords, etc. Yes, I’m a tinfoil hat wearer. πŸ™‚
  15. Nmap :- I haven’t fully gotten the hang of this, but I know that I intend on tapping into its power.
  16. Camtasia Studio 6 :- THE name in creating awesome screencasts and I won a license of this fantastic program via a contest on Gottabemobile.
  17. Snagit 9 :- THE name in taking awesome screenshots of whatever you’re doing. πŸ™‚ I’ve paid for this baby twice because it’s that good.
  18. Netalyzer :- Every computer needs one of these. ‘Nuff said.
  19. 7-zip :- For unobtrusive unzipping & zipping needs, 7-Zip is the program to beat.
  20. FeedDemon :- I would be very lonely in the world without FeedDemon. πŸ™‚ I kid, but this program is a desktop RSS reader that backups up my subscriptions and has handled my feeds with minimal hiccups.
  21. Filezilla (and/or Winscp) :- The masters at FTP/SFTP/SSH connections.
  22. Putty :- For making SSH tunneling on my laptop possible. I heart you, Putty.
  23. Xobni :- the Outlook plugin
  24. Firefox :- bestest browser EVAR!!
  25. Cyberlink Youcam 2 (for whatever reason, this program won’t receive updates and I’m in the market for an alternative webcam program like Logitech’s Quickcam software for the Logitech Pro 9000)
  26. Speedcrunch :- This calculator is faster than the built-in calculator in Vista and has even more functionality. I love that it saves all calculations for me so it gives me a reason not to buy the latest shiny thing that catches my eye. πŸ™‚
  27. WinDirStat :- This nifty program tells me which folders are hogging up all my hard drive space. It’s thanks to this program that Nero 9 is not on my laptop anymore. I discovered several GBs in some folders created by Nero 9. I had no idea what those folders were for and I was too scared to delete them.
  28. TheSage dictionary :- Free dictionary that can search online (Wikipedia, Google, etc) from the application’s interface. I debated long & hard about replacing Wordweb Free with this program, but now, I have no regrets. The Sage is just as fast (if not faster) than Wordweb Free.

After installing these 28 programs and installing their updates, I slowly “rolled” out more program installations while carefully monitoring the Performance Information and Tools monitor for any problem programs. One software tool is conspicuously absent and that is Nero 9 which I used to swear by. The reason I have kept Nero 9 off y computer lies in the fact that it is overkill for my purposes (as I’ve learnt the hard way). I don’t want this post to become a screed, but Nero 9 has actually gotten in the way of doing stuff instead of making stuff drop-dead easy. So, I went with Imgburn for its simple 1-click options.

As of today, I’ve added a lot more programs to my computer, but I’ve been discriminating in what I put on my laptop. These programs see less usage than the 21 above, but they are on my laptop because I want them there. They are:

  1. Windows Live Writer
  2. Microsoft Streets & Trips 2009 (with GPS)
  3. DVDFab
  4. ConceptDraw Professional 7 :- A worthy alternative to Microsoft Visio Professional 2007. For making neat drawings that would take forever in Word. πŸ˜›
  5. ConceptDraw MindMap 5
  6. Microsoft Math 3.0 :- Don’t ask. It’s not worth the 20 bucks I paid for it because it’s slower than molasses. I recommend SpeedCrunch if a vanilla calculator will suit your needs.
  7. GPG4Win :- Every now and then, I get this bee in my bonnet that I need to encrypt my email conversations. I’m not in cohorts with evil people so my paranoia is largely unjustified. However, if I did encrypt all my email, no one would be able to get in touch with me because my contacts are not tinfoil hat wearers like me!
  8. Quicktime 7 Pro and QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback Component :- I went Pro over 2 years ago and it’s definitely worth it. I purchased the MPEG add-on because at the time, I needed that capability. Worth it? Meh.
  9. Spacejock software :- You can’t beat free & high quality software. yBook is an e-Reader that simply works OOB (out of box). It is my alternative to the ~ $300 Amazon Kindle. Eat your hearts out, suckers! πŸ˜›
  10. Woopra :- A web analytics program
  11. Skype :- I have about 2 contacts on Skype (my husband and a friend of ours). πŸ™‚ However, I need Skype on the laptop because I can make video calls to my husband and when my husband is jamming with his friend (my 2nd contact), they call me via Skype and I can listen to their music.
  12. CCleaner :- This program is not on my must-have list because I already do a lot of the tasks it performs manually. I’ve been burned by mediocre “clean up” software (*cough* TuneUp *cough*) so I’m leery of such applications. However, CCleaner has a very good reputation so I’m comfortable with running this program once a quarter. πŸ™‚
  13. Bulk Rename Utility :- a free program by Jim Willsher for bulk renaming. It does what it does simply and fast. Tons of options to satisfy any needs (extension changes, sequential numbering, etc). A specialized tool, but not essential. It also has a dedicated 64 bit version.
  14. ColorPic :- Another specialized tool for when I’m optimizing my Adsense ads and I need to pick matching colors. πŸ™‚

Right now, my computer is humming right along with me when I click to open things, etc. I haven’t had the Performance Information and Tools monitor tell me that any issues have been documented by the computer. I haven’t had the computer bluescreen (BSOD) on me yet *knock on wood* although my experience with Windows tells me that even BSODs happen to the best of us.

I will be updating this post with links to the programs later so enjoy!