NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2010
What You Need for that New Christmas Computer
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)

Now that Christmas and Hanukkah are past, many of you have opened that new computer and delved deep into its features. Preliminary estimates are that a huge number of new computers were purchased this holiday season, and a refresher is in order such that you have some idea of what you may need with that new computer in order to maximize your computing security and safety.

Most new computers came with some edition of Windows 7 installed, which appears to be a vast improvement over the Vista which was installed on last year’s holiday computers. Despite its improvements, Windows 7 still has vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Contrary to some allegations floating in cyberspace, I am utterly convinced that some comprehensive security software is an absolute necessity. Almost all new computers come with a limited trial version of security software, such as Symantec’s Norton, or a McAfee security product. While these trial versions are functional for their short life expectancies, the clear intent is to sell you a paid subscription, often at an un-discounted full retail price, once the limited version expires. Be aware that it is not the unbiased recommendation of your computer manufacturer that you purchase that particular software, but a crass commercial activity, whereby the computer maker may have been paid to put that trial version on the computer, and may receive a hefty commission in the event that you pay for a subscription. One major computer maker even offers not to install this commission bearing software on new computers for a $50 fee! That should be an indication of its value to the computer maker.

You need decent protective software, consisting, at a minimum, of antivirus, anti-spyware, and a firewall. While you may be protected for a short time by the trial versions of the security software factory installed on your computer, you have time to shop around for deals on security software, or to try some of the free titles that are available. Watch the Sunday sale books for the big box electronics stores and office supply companies, as many are offering deals, including high value rebates on major security titles. As I type this, one big box store in particular has three major comprehensive security suites advertised for between free and $10 after rebates; each package is good for up to three licenses, meaning that you can legally install it on up to three computers. Two of those three titles are the exact same products that are commonly installed as trial versions on new computers that offer an annual subscription for $40 to $70, but are available almost for free (after rebates) from the big box store.

Maybe holiday bills are coming due, and you would like to save some money by using some of the free security software that is available. There are some excellent freeware products available that will do as good a job protecting your new computer from cyber threats such as viruses, spyware, and malware as the expensive commercial software, and sometimes even better! One such free product is Microsoft’s new “Security Essentials” which is a no frills but competent security product that can protect that new computer from viruses, worms, Trojans, and most other malware attacks. Fully compatible with Windows 7 (and Vista), this product can be downloaded for free directly from Microsoft at http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials. Another excellent free product that can protect your new computer from malware threats is Panda’s new Cloud Antivirus, available at http://www.cloudantivirus.com. Other very reputable free products are AVG’s AntiVirus Free Edition (free.avg.com) and Avast’s Free Home Edition (http://www.avast.com).

You need to have a firewall to protect your computer from intrusions by outsiders, such as hackers and crackers. Users are often blissfully unaware that while online, inadequately protected computers are very commonly probed or attacked by miscreants looking for weak spots. A good firewall makes this more difficult as it acts like a guarded and locked gate that greatly restricts unauthorized access from others in cyberspace. The firewall built into Windows 7 is minimally adequate, and should be turned on unless supplanted by a third party firewall. Many of the comprehensive security suites include a firewall, and there are several free firewalls available. The most popular free firewall is ZoneAlarm Free Firewall, available for free download from CNet’s Download.com download.cnet.com/ZoneAlarm/3000-10435_4-10039884.html. With almost 50 million downloads from CNet alone, the ZoneAlarm Free Firewall is probably the world’s most widely used free firewall, and it has well earned that distinction.

One very strong warning is appropriate here; do not, under any circumstances, purchase security software that first appears as a popup window on your new computer and informs you that you are infected with a raft of viruses and Trojans, and that for a fee, you can download its product and forever rid yourself of the threats. This is a scam known in the trade as “scareware” or “scumware” and is often worse than useless, as it often installs even more malware on your computer and protects you from nothing, and possibly even opens up your computer to a wider attack by key loggers, password stealing Trojans, and other terrible threats.

Something that is often overlooked that is a threat to computers is the electricity that is essential to operate them. In reality, we do not always receive “clean” electricity, but instead receive power that varies and has surges, spikes, and other forms of electrical noise. Bad electricity, mostly in the form of power surges can kill a computer quicker than a bullet can. Another imperative is a good quality surge suppressor which should infallibly be used between the computer’s power plug and the wall socket. A surge suppressor may look somewhat like a common power strip, but its internal electronics are dramatically different. Look for a “UL 1449” label indicating that the suppressor meets UL standards, and the higher the “joule” rating and faster the response time, the better. I carry a small surge suppressor in my laptop case, and have a larger one (actually a “UPS” or Uninterruptible Power Supply) attached to my desktop computer. Many surge suppressors also come with connections to protect phone (and fax) lines, network cables, and TV cables, all of which can carry electrical noise and power spikes to the equipment. Bad electricity can instantly fry sensitive computer components, and a good suppressor offers some valuable protection. Most of the time the user will never know that a suppressor just saved their precious electronic equipment from certain destruction, as it typically performs its tasks silently. Suppressors do wear out and need to be replaced periodically, with failure often indicated by an LED showing that the suppressor is no longer protecting the equipment.

There are other useful items for that new computer that will increase its functionality and longevity. More memory will improve performance up to certain limits; 32 bit Windows 7 can use up to 4 gigs of memory, and the 64 bit Windows 7 can utilize much more than that. Memory is readily available and can often be installed by the user, but may not be cheap. I recently spent about $50 (after rebate; $75 before rebate) for 4 gigs of additional memory for my 64 bit Windows 7 machine, and there was an increase in performance.

That new laptop really needs a good case to protect it from bumps and physical shocks. Laptop and notebook computers are often fragile creatures, and need substantial protection from physical harm. Get a good carrying case for your size laptop, and be sure that it has a lot of padding on all 6 sides and gives the computer adequate protection from all directions. You may never know when that case protected you from a cracked screen or worse, which would have either been a very large repair bill, or an otherwise useless computer. Play it safe, and get and use a good case for your laptop.

My late grandmother Dora had an old-world expression that she said anytime anyone in my family made a major purchase or received a major gift, and I am wishing the same for you and your new computer, “Use it in good health!”

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