NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2009
What You Need With That New Holiday Computer
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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While doing my holiday shopping, I noticed that a lot of people were buying new computers for the holidays. I saw people mostly buying notebook or laptop computers, but still many purchased new desktop computers. All new computers typically work fine right out of the box, and often come bundled with either full versions of application software, or trial versions of software. Still, almost all new computers need some accessories, peripherals, or software to maximize usefulness and safety.

Almost all new computers, both desktop and laptop, come with a trial version of antivirus software, and possibly even a trial version of a security suite. Perusing the offerings at the local stores I saw trial versions running from 30 days to 6 months of the popular retail security suites, mostly from Norton, McAfee, and TrendMicro. While functional and requiring registration and updating when first loaded, these security software products will all perform an acceptable job while they are effective, and prior to their expiration. Most of the software publishers consider the pre-installation of their products on new computers as a form of paid (to the computer manufacturer) advertising, with the hope that the user will renew what is already installed. Some of the software publishers even pay commissions to the computer maker when the user pays to renew the trial software, and convert it to a paid annual subscription. The user needs to be aware that while the trial software installed, registered, and updated is typically adequate, it often renews at full retail price; the user can usually find the same product at retail (full retail package) for significantly less than the renewal price, or can find a competitive and possibly superior product at retail.

If the new computer does not come with a security suite, consisting of antivirus, anti-spyware, and a firewall, it will be necessary to purchase a suite, or download and install one of the freeware suites. My personal favorite, which I have installed on many new computers, is TrendMicro’s Internet Security Suite 2009 Pro. This suite is among the most comprehensive suites available, and as of now somewhat of an industry standard; it can be installed on up to three computers with a single license. While not a complete suite, I have also installed Sunbelt’s VIPRE on some computers, especially those which already have a hardware or software firewall installed. VIPRE in my own tests, and in published comparisons, does not significantly degrade the performance of the computer, unlike many competing products. VIPRE incorporates one of the most powerful antivirus and anti-spyware engines available, and unlike its competitors, can be installed on all computers in the household with a single license. For those who want a freeware suite of security products, Comodo (http://www.comodo.com) offers a totally free and excellent suite of products that can be downloaded and installed a’ la carte.

One of the lesser understood killers of both laptop and desktop computers is bad power, resulting from power surges and voltage variations. At a bare minimum, all computers should be plugged into a surge suppressor (not a plain power strip). Generally, the higher the “joule” rating, the more protection provided. Most surge suppressors also have connections for phone lines, network cables, coax, and other connections that can carry power spikes into the computer, causing damage. While there is some debate on the usefulness of filtering, and the possible degradation of signals when thus filtered, I believe that it is still a wise precaution to have the computer and peripherals plugged into a quality suppressor. Look for the “UL 1449” rating which indicates that it meets minimum safety standards for suppressors. For desktop computers, the physical size of the suppressor is not a major factor, but for laptop and notebook computers which will likely be transported, there are some excellent suppressors that are small in form factor. I carry a small but powerful Tripp Lite surge suppressor in my computer case, and use it whenever I plug my computer into a wall outlet.

For desktop computers, even better than a strip type surge suppressor, is an uninterruptible power supply, often referred to as a UPS. These devices, in addition to providing suppression functions, also provide battery backup power in order to allow an orderly shutdown in the event of a power failure, which protects both the computer itself, and also the data which can be properly saved before a forced shutdown. Many better UPS devices also incorporate AVR or automatic voltage regulation, to provide a constant voltage to the computer, which protects the computer’s power supply, and prolongs its useful life. If the user lives in an area with irregular voltage, or notices that lights and TVs dim whenever an air conditioner or major appliance kicks in, AVR is a “must have” feature. Because of their size and weight, UPS devices are not appropriate for laptop use unless used in a stationary environment such as a home or an office. In purchasing a UPS, in addition to AVR and other features, it is important that the battery capacity be enough to power the computer and monitor long enough to provide for an orderly shutdown, generally the larger the integral battery, the better.

For laptop and notebook computers, there are several items of necessity that are usually not included with the computer at the time of purchase. One item of necessity is a high quality computer case that offers complete protection to the computer on all six sides. One of the major killers of laptop computers is damage when dropped or banged; a good case will provide reasonable protection. I have learned first-hand not to skimp on the case, but have heard horror stories of people buying a thousand dollar notebook computer, and putting it in a $29 case, only to suffer unintended destruction while traveling, or by simply having the case fall off of a table or car seat. Most laptop and notebook computers are fragile, and the LCD screens can easily crack, so get a good case with excellent protection.

Another killer of notebook and laptop computers is heat, especially notorious when the computer is placed on a non-conductive surface, such as wood or a laminate, and allowed to run for long periods of time. When this occurs, the computer has a good possibility to overheat, as heat can not be dissipated through the case on the bottom. A good peripheral would be a laptop notebook cooler, which is a flat, thin, USB powered device, containing one or more fans to dissipate heat. The computer sits on the top of the cooler, and the fans blow room air around the base of the computer, cooling it. A poor man’s version is an iron or aluminum trivet available in the housewares department of any discount or dollar store. Likewise, a sturdy cake rack, available from similar sources, will allow cooling air to circulate around the computer if the computer is placed on it while running. If placed physically on the user’s lap, the user will easily know when it is getting too hot.

Congratulations if you were fortunate enough to get a new computer for the holidays. Now maybe you can also get the accessories and peripherals for it to maximize its useful life.

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