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Published in The National on June 2, 2000

Maintaining your PC

In the past month, Tok IT introduced the computer, talked about its history and gave a bit of detail on what to look out for when buying a computer. Now we look at maintaining the PC.

By Daniel Lam
Computers are machines. Like most machines, they need to be taken care of (then again, so do many other things that are NOT machines!).

Unfortunate though it may seem, computers may perform what they are tasked to do better than humans, but they are incapable of taking care of themselves (don't count certain computer applications and software that seem to enable your PC to take care of itself ... more on this later).

So we, as the computer users (who may also be the owners) need to maintain them, to make sure they stay in tip-top condition and to avoid having to spend a bomb on repairing problems that could have been avoided in the first place.


Before you start
Take the effort to discharge whatever static electricity you may have (whether you are aware of it or not). You can do this by simply touching the metal casing (within which the system unit is housed). Remember, static electricity isn't strong enough to cause a person permanent harm, but is sufficient to wreck the computer's sensitive components!


Cut off the power source
As mentioned in an earlier Tok IT article, power surges (either thanks to an act of God or more likely due to erratic power supply....) can spell doom for your computer. Even if you have some computer accessory that protects the computer from such surges (like a UPS or surge protector), to be on the safe side you should always disconnect the power supply if you are not using it.


Can't stand the heat (and dust, too)
One of the first things you should do, right from the beginning, is to keep the computer away from heat, humidity and dust.

In Papua New Guinea, that means keeping the computer in an air-conditioned room. But that is not always an option.

If possible, locate the computer away from a window (unless there are curtains) where it may be come under direct sunlight. It is not so much that the computer cannot withstand sunlight ... it is the heat that sunlight generates. And as is with most electronic equipment, heat is bad news.

The same goes with humidity and dust ... these make it difficult for the computer to "stay cool". Computers don't take very well to moisture, so make sure you keep it nice and dry.

Use a large piece of dry cloth to cover the computer (monitor, system unit, keyboard and all) when it is not in use ... and keep a smaller, lint-free cloth handy for wiping away the odd dust ball that may well collect, especially at the back of the system unit where the many wires are located.


Wipe the monitor
Many people forget to clean their computer screens. They can see that it's dirty, but they cannot understand that it needs cleaning. Dust likes monitor screens because of the static charge generated by the monitor.

Cleaning it isn't difficult ... just wipe with a (damp, not wet) soft cloth and leave to dry. There is no need to use cleaning liquids. In fact, cleaning liquids may damage the screen by stripping the coating. Some newer monitors have coated screens, which reduce glare and improve image quality.

For the other parts of the monitor, especially the cooling vents, you can use a damp (again, not wet) cloth. Make sure you leave it to dry before switching it on.

To extend the life of your monitor, avoid keeping it switched on for long periods of time. The reasons are simple: monitors consume a lot of power, which means if you can help it, switch it off. Because monitors use so much power, should they fail (mostly due to overheating), they may: i) explode; ii) ignite; or iii) fail to work. Naturally, if it HAS to fail, we hope for the third possibility....


Clean up the system (case)
Use a damp (not wet) cloth and wipe the case. By default the system case requires minimal care, since it is really little more than a box to hold some of the more important computer components (motherboard, CPU, peripherals, etc).

But once in a while (perhaps once every six months or so) it may be a good idea to give it a thorough clean up.

Although the case's interior gets dirty too, Tok IT does not recommend opening up the case and cleaning it ... unless you know exactly what you are doing, you risk damaging the computer components.

If you feel like taking the risk, use a cotton bud and a dry cloth.

The back of the case, where the wires and cables and the like are situated, may need a bit of cleaning (it is a favourite haunt of dust balls).


Things are getting hot here
Pay extra attention to the power supply fan vents ... they are the likeliest to get clogged up with dust. If they are clogged, your computer is on the road to disaster.

It may also be a good idea to check the positioning of the case ... there is a tendency for users to push the case as far back as possible towards the wall. This leaves insufficient space for the ventilation of the computer.

On a high-quality system, the power supply is one of the more reliable components that will function for years without giving much problem.

In fact, the power supply is probably the least likely component to fail on a typical system.

What you should do is to make sure the vents are clear. Using a damp cloth may not do a good job ... try using either a mini vacuum cleaner or a cotton bud.


The right keys
Keyboards are one of the most abused parts of the average system. They get pounded on, covered with dirt, loaded with dust and food particles, and the occasional dribble of coffee....).

The extent to which keyboard care is important depends on how much you care about your keyboard, and what it costs. If the keyboard is cheap and you don't care about what kind of keyboard you use, you can practically treat them as a disposable item. Just get a new one when they get damaged or gummed up from excessive gunk.

Other people (such as yours truly) use keyboards with special features, some of which are hard to replace if they become damaged, and so care and maintenance become much more important.

First things first: Keep food and drink away. Unlike other computer components, the enemy of keyboards is not dust. It is spilled drink and bits of food.

Maybe you can have a policy of not eating or drinking at the computer ... saves a lot of heartache.

Clean it regularly. Over time, dirt and natural oils from your fingers will accumulate on the keycaps, and dust and debris will fall into the keyboard between the keys. These should be cleaned at least annually, by wiping with a damp cloth. Cleaning a keyboard isn't always that simple; opening it up can in fact ruin it, and some attempts at cleaning a keyboard can in fact make things worse.

Check the cable and connector: Make sure that the keyboard cable is not caught on anything or pinched between your desk drawers, etc, to prevent damage.

There should be slack in the cable as well; if the keyboard cable is too tight this can damage the cable, connector, or worst of all, the plug on the motherboard where the keyboard connects to it (this can result in your needing to replace your motherboard!).

In the unfortunate event that you spill coffee or other liquids into the keyboard, wipe immediately as best as you can. It is still possible in some cases to save the device, but often you will need to replace it.


Mousing around
Mice, too, are subject to plenty of abuse. They are in fact even more sensitive and vulnerable than keyboards. This is because the ball that rolls on the surface of the desk or mouse pad provides the input needed for the computer. By default they are designed to have traction (to "grip" the surface of the desk or mouse pad), which means they are great at attracting dirt and dust.

Mice are usually cheap, but it may be a better idea to keep it clean.

If the ball gets dirty, the computer mouse feels "sluggish". You should give the "internals" a quick clean up.

Turn the mouse over and remove the panel that keeps the mouse ball/roller. Using a dry soft cloth, wipe the ball clean. Use a cotton bud to lightly clean the insides of the mouse. Then replace the ball and the panel. Your mouse should feel like new.

That's not all. Make sure that the mouse cable does not get stuck in any part of your desk or workspace, to prevent damage. Like keyboards, there should be slack in the cable as well; if it is pulled too tight this can damage the mouse.


 

 

 

Published in The National on June 9, 2000

Internal clean-up

By Danie Lam
Your computer looks spanking clean now. You switch on the computer and wait for the familiar screen to show. All goes well ... then you get an error message.

If you are lucky, the reason can be as simple as you having left a diskette in the floppy disk drive and the computer cannot find the necessary files on the diskette to "boot up" (in this case, just remove the diskette and press any key on the keyboard ... as instructed by the error message).

If you are NOT lucky, the problem can be in the form of a corrupted hard disk (either physically or otherwise).


Back it up
If you fail to take care of the hardware portion of the computer, what is the worst thing that can happen? The unit gets damaged. You can either send it for repairs or get a new one. But there is something else that, once damaged, cannot be replaced as easily. We are talking data.

Data, once lost, cannot be readily replaced. It can only be protected against loss. This is why many corporations (especially financial institutions) spend lots of money to protect their data.

The best way to avoid loss of data is to use your computer wisely.

Data, although hard to replace, has one saving grace ... it can be easily duplicated. When you "back up your computer", you are essentially making copies of your hard disk's contents.

By creating backups of important data on a regular basis, you ensure that your data, or most of it anyway, will never be truly lost; at worst, some will be lost and you will experience the inconvenience of restoring it in the event of a hard disk failure, for example.

It is absolutely critical that you create backup copies of all important data, documents and programs on your hard disk, so that you have some protection in the event that catastrophe strikes.

If you are using Windows 98, simply go to Start, Program Files, Accessories, Systems Tools, Backup.


Shut it down properly
If you are finished with your session with the computer, do NOT turn off the power or otherwise switch it off ... with today's operating systems such recklessness would often be rewarded with data loss.

The main reason why this is not good computer practise is that today's operating systems (OS), like Windows 95/98 and the various incarnations of Windows NT, have multiple tasks running at any one time. Many of these tasks are running "behind the scenes" - without the user's knowledge.

These include screen savers, anti-virus programs, etc. When the computer is switched off without these "background" programs properly shut off, whatever data that these programs may be accessing or using may be damaged. If these data are damaged, then your computer's file system may be corrupted, hence leading to major trouble.

Before you switch off your computer, always make sure you have exited all your running applications (that means saving all your work). Then shut down the OS.

Make your data childproof
Computers and children don't always mix. Well, if you use your computer for important work as well as home entertainment - as many of us do - you need to take special precautions to protect your data from both prying eyes and mischievous fingers. This is yet another good reason to back-up your data.

If what you wish to do is to prevent access to the system, passwords are a viable option. A BIOS password prevents the computer from booting up unless the correct code is entered (but if you forget the password....).

A screen saver with a password is a great help too. Some programs allow you to encrypt data files ... word processors like Microsoft Word have password options to prevent unauthorised reading.

You can also set the hidden and/or read-only file attributes of sensitive files or directories to make them harder to find and/or delete. This is a simple protective device that will work in many cases to protect against accidental damage (in Windows, just right-click on the file while in Windows Explorer, then select the required file attributes).


Spring-cleaning
The amount of hard disk space is limited. Today's hard disk capacities are enlarging at a ferocious rate (35Gb hard disks are now commercially available in many countries). But for most of us computer users, there is only so much available hard disk space.

After a few months, you may find that your hard disk seems to be getting smaller and smaller and instructions are taking longer and longer to be carried out.

The reason is simple ... many users enjoy installing this and that on their systems. These take up hard disk space. At the same time, some OSes, install programs and utilities have a habit of leaving bits and pieces of useless data that should be cleaned up.

Hard disks that are full (that is, having less than 20 or so megabytes free) can cause problems for the computer. This is because some operating systems, Windows in particular, operate a "swap file". This swap file allows the operating system to perform better and faster, and is "carved" out of your hard disk. If the hard disk is full, then the OS has no room to maneuver. When you push the computer just a wee bit (when performing some difficult task, for example), the OS crashes.

Tok IT recommends that you examine your hard disk regularly, at least once a month, and clear out the unnecessary files. Before you do any deletions, though, back it up!

Again, if you are using Windows 98, there is a utility called Disk Cleanup you can use to make things easier (Start, Program Files, Accessories, Systems Tools, Disk Cleanup).


Fragments all over
Fragmentation refers to the spreading of parts of files over the data area of the hard disk. Over time as many files are created and deleted, files will tend to become more and more fragmented.

While having a fragmented hard disk is not likely to cause data loss, it leads to a very inefficient (i.e. slow) computer system.

Defragmenting is easy ... from the Start button, select Programs, then Accessories, choose System Tools and lastly Disk Defragmenter.

Depending on the speed of your computer processor and the size of your hard disk, the process can take anything from 30 minutes to a few hours.

Tok IT recommends running Disk Defragmenter on a weekly basis.


Scanning for problems
A utility that comes with MS-DOS and Windows 95/98 that is most useful is ScanDisk. This utility scans the hard disk for filing errors and checks the overall condition of the hard disk.

For MS-DOS, type "Scandisk" at the "C:" to start this utility. For Windows 95/98, go to Start, Programs, Accessories, Systems Tools and ScanDisk.


 

 

 

Published in The National on June 16, 2000

Viral infections of a digital nature

In today's world of inter-connected computers, no one is truly free of it - the insidious enemy who creeps into your computer, replicates itself then spreads to other computers. We are talking about viruses, of course. This week Tok IT shall endeavour to help you understand viruses.

By Daniel Lam
Billions of dollars, mostly in production time, have been lost thanks to computer viruses. One may well wonder what these are, to be able to do so much damage.

A computer virus is a piece of software that has been written to enter your computer system and "infect" your files.

Some viruses are benign and won't harm your system, while others are destructive and can damage or destroy your data.

Like real viruses that strike living things, a computer virus will try to replicate itself and infect as many files and systems as possible.

If your system is infected, when you save or copy a file to a diskette you will probably infect the diskette, and in turn whoever uses that diskette will infect their system.

New computer viruses are being written all the time. Therefore it is important to understand how your system is exposed to them, and what you can do to protect your computer.

Note that a computer that is completely isolated cannot reasonably be "infected" ... if you remove the floppy disk drive, the CD-ROM drive and whatever means of installing, copying or downloading things (that means no modem or network links either) into your system, it cannot be infected unless it was already infected to begin with.

Since this is highly unlikely, read on.


Types Of Viruses
Computer viruses come under four categories: boot sector, file or program, macro, and multipartite viruses.

Boot sector viruses are most commonly transmitted - when an infected diskette is left in the drive and the system is rebooted. The virus is read from the infected boot sector of the floppy disk and written into the master boot record of the system's hard drive.

The master boot sector is the first place your system reads from when booting up from the hard drive....

Program or file viruses are pieces of programming code that attach themselves to executable programs. Once the infected program is run, the virus is transferred to your system's memory and may replicate itself further.

Macro viruses are currently the most commonly found viruses. They infect files run by applications that use macro languages, like Microsoft Word or Excel. The virus looks like a macro in the file, so when the file is opened, the virus executes commands understood by the application's macro language.

Multipartite viruses have characteristics of both boot sector viruses and file viruses. They may start out in the boot sector and spread to applications, or vice versa.

There are other malicious programs that are not technically viruses but are considered such just the same. These are known as worms and Trojan horses.

A worm is a program that replicates itself, but does not necessarily infect other programs.

Examples of recent worms are "Melissa" and "ILOVEYOU", both of which caused widespread havoc worldwide. These worms replicated themselves via e-mail, making use of any Microsoft Outlook address books.

In the case of "Melissa", the worm was activated when someone opens the infected attachment that came with a particulare-mail, thereby unleashing the virus.

The virus then "raids" the Microsoft Outlook address book and sends out upto 50 copies of itself to everyone with an entry. That sometimes meant that the virus multiplied itself at a tremendous rate. When you consider the amount of useless e-mail circulating around the Internet, you can imagine how servers around the world crashed under the sheer volume of activity.

"ILOVEYOU" was even more devastating. It was "Melissa" and more - not only was it capable of sending more copies of itself than "Melissa", it also destroyed files and made alterations to the computer system. It has been touted the most dangerous virus ever.

Trojan horses are harmless programs ... until they are triggered. Like the Trojan Horse that led to Troy's downfall, within the program is another seemingly harmless piece of software that turns "violent" when some condition is triggered.


How the computer gets infected
Viruses can be written into almost any type of file, so it is important to be aware of this when you add software to your system.

Generally, licenced software are safe ... be wary of pirated software, which are essentially "stolen" or "hacked" copies of the originals. Malicious programmers can easily slip in a virus or two.

Usually, viruses enter your system through files added to your system from diskettes (or other removable media like Zip disks) and from downloading from the Internet. You can also get a virus through an e-mail attachment, but not from a plain text e-mail message alone.

Check for viruses
Common symptoms that indicate your system may have been infected are:

    • Strange messages or displays on your monitor;

    • Unusual sounds or music played at random times;

    • Your system has less available memory than it should;

    • A disk or volume name has been changed (for example, if you named your hard drive "Tok IT" and it has become "Loveydovey");

    • Programs or files are suddenly missing;

    • Unknown programs or files have been created; and

    • Some of your files become corrupted or suddenly don't work properly (for example, if you can no longer open or retrieve them).


There are many programs (usually called anti-virus software) that will check your system for known viruses, scan incoming files, and warn you before any infected files are let in.

An important fact about these programs is that they are only as good as their database of known viruses. Since new and different viruses are being introduced all the time (in the region of thousands a day), anti-virus databases need to be updated often.

If your system does not have any anti-virus software running, here's a tip: get one. Fast.

Have the software scan your hard drive. The software will identify any files that have been infected by any virus it recognises and offer you the option to repair the file if it can. In some cases infected files can be "cleaned" by the software; in others, the files will have to be deleted.

A few months back Tok IT had the pleasure of installing an anti-virus software on a colleague's computer. On a scan, a total of 116 infected files were found ... one-third of the contents in his hard disk! Evidently, his system had been a breeding ground for viruses (that explained why his computer crashed often).

Anyway, once you have determined that all the files in your system are virus-free, this would be a good time to do a complete backup of your system. If your system gets infected in the future, you will really appreciate having clean copies of your files.

Another method you can use to detect viruses is to monitor the byte size of the programs installed on your hard drive, particularly those with the "*.exe" and "*.com" extensions (like "Setup.exe" or "Command.com"). If you notice any unexplained change in file sizes, this is a good indication that your system has become infected. This can be a difficult and tedious method of checking your system, so certainly installing anti-virus software is a better alternative.


Immunising your system
Once you've scanned your system and determined it to be clean, it is time to put in place procedures to protect your system.

The number one thing to do - be careful whenever you're installing software or downloading files.

Most anti-virus software can be adjusted to scan all removable media inserted in your system and to scan files that are downloaded to your system, including email attachments. This Tok IT recommends - it is the most important thing you can do to protect your system.

It's also extremely important to keep your anti-virus software current, and you should check regularly with your chosen vendor (popular anti-virus programs include Norton and McAfee) for updates to their product. This can usually be done at the vendor's Web site, if you have Internet access, or via certain computer magazines that come with CDs.


Arrggh! I've been infected!
First thing you should remember in any situation: Don't panic. If you have installed anti-virus software and it has detected a virus in your system, first try to get the software to "clean" or "disinfect" the files. If this doesn't work, you'll most likely have to delete these files from your system.

If you receive an e-mail attachment and the anti-virus software detects it as infected, delete it immediately. It is a good idea to play it safe with attachments in general and not open any that aren't from a trusted source.

If you receive an e-mail message with an attachment containing a virus, you will not infect your system as long as you do not open the attachment.


Worst case scenario
In extreme cases, you may have to reformat your hard drive, destroying all of the data on it. Then you'll have to reinstall your software and data, assuming you have the original software disks and clean backups of your files.

In this case, it's a good idea to install your anti-virus software first on the empty hard drive, so that the integrity of your backup files and original software can be verified.


Ahem, excuse me....
You might also want to act responsibly and contact everyone you have recently exchanged data with - via diskettes, e-mail attachments, Zip disks - and let them know that your system has been infected and theirs may be infected, too.

You'd want to advise them to check their system for the appropriate virus or symptoms.


 

 

 

Published in The National on April 12, 2001

Spring cleaning ver 2.0

Do something useful this Easter weekend ... clean up your PC's hard drive

By Daniel Lam
Computers work better when they are lean and mean. Apart from getting new hardware or software, here are some tips to speed up your computer. Here's a reminder, though: some tips might "hurt".

Clean up the system
Of the many things you can do during the Easter weekend, cleaning the system does the most good. If you are new to computers, now is a good time to learn. If you are IT-savvy, it never hurts to get a reminder now and then.

First thing to do: trash unnecessary programs/software/applications and data files.

Let's face it - unnecessary stuff is like excess flab ... nobody really needs to have them around, and having them around slow things up. Data files are perhaps the number one "flab" on a computer. Why, because they take up precious hard disk space even when not in use, and they slow the computer down every time the hard disk is read.

Graphic files are among the biggest culprits ... if you have video files on your hard disk, then things are even worse. Data files have a tendency of filling up even multi-gigabyte hard drives in a zip. 

I should know ... I had a total of 20Gb free a few months ago. Because of the nature of my work, I keep a lot of pictures on the local hard disk. Within weeks I was down to about 2Gb.

True, I still had plenty of hard disk space, but a hard disk that's 90 per cent full would take longer to access than a hard disk that's half full.

Unnecessary programs mess thing up, too. For the purpose of an article some months back, I installed several freeware MP3 players on my computer. 

Now programs not only take up hard disk space, they also create entries in the Windows Registry (a huge file that tells the operating system (OS) what's what and where it is). And the larger the Registry file, the more time the computer wastes time referring to it, especially at start-up (that's why your computer's OS may be slow to start or load sometimes).

Unnecessary programs also pepper your computer with tiny programs that take up permanent residence and use up precious Random Access Memory (RAM). 

Try this: hit Control, Alternate and the Delete keys all at once to open the Close Program window. 
See all the programs that are running, eating up memory? Only TWO of them are needed to run Windows - Explorer and Systray. The rest are not necessary for the OS to run, but may well be what you WANT to use.

Having too many programs running makes the computer unstable.

All right ... but how do you get rid of programs? 
Begin by going to the Control Panel and going to Add/Remove Programs. Select the stuff you never use, then Remove them. If you find that you need the programs later, you can always reinstall them.

On problem: this does not necessarily get rid of the entries in the Registry. 

You need Microsoft's regclean.exe, a free utility you can download from the Microsoft website.
Better yet, if you can get your hands on Symantec's Norton SystemWorks or Norton Utilities, then you can use their more powerful Registry cleaner and tools to trash programs.

What about data files?
This can be painful, because lost data files are lost unless you had the wisdom to back them up (which, by the way, takes up more hard disk space unless you save them in some other media!). 
Just make sure you know what files can go and what can't before you proceed.

Then go to Programs/Accessories/System Tools and run Disk Cleanup. This one gets rid of temporary files, old Internet files and old downloads. There are lots of utilities out there that help you find other candidates for deletion - for example, Norton SystemWorks will give you a list of files that haven't been accessed in months, and find duplicate files. 

Nothing beats rummaging through your own stuff and deciding what to trash, however.

Set your folders to display file size, and sort the list to show the biggest files first. Then you can see what the biggest offenders are.

Go to the Find function on the Start menu and locate files ending with .bmp, .tiff, .jpg, .gif, .avi and .mpg. Hands off .dll files and anything in the Windows directory.

Trash them all and you should have a much leaner machine.

That's not all
You've gone through the motions, but the computer's still slow. Okay, that means you must conduct the painful business of starting your computer afresh.

That means wiping the hard drive clean, reformatting it and reinstalling everything you need. 

This gets rid of ALL unnecessary files and Registry entries. Believe me, doing this can work wonders for a computer that's deemed obsolete.

Just make sure you have the installation disks ready, and lots of time and patience in your hands.

Optimise your computer
Tok IT has delved on this before, but just to recap....

Let's optimise settings that involve hard disk. Go to Control Panels and choose System. On the System window, click on Performance.

Under file system, select "Network Server" and "Full Read Ahead Optimisation". For CD-ROM, move the cache size to "Large" and optimise access for "Quad Speed or Higher".

Now, most times we let Windows manage virtual memory (it is recommended, of course). If you have plenty of hard disk space left, select "Let me specify my own settings" and set both the minimum and maximum to approximately three times the size of your RAM.

This creates a fixed block of several hundred megabytes of reserved space on your hard drive for the Windows swap file, which it uses as a slow substitute for physical RAM. Otherwise Windows grabs space as it can for the swap file, which can degrade performance. 

Tune up the hard drive
Run Scandisk with the "Thorough" option checked. This will test not just the integrity of your files and folders, but the physical disk surface's ability to hold data. It will map out weak spots that could lose data or slow down the system with multiple reads. 

Once that's done, run Disk Defragmenter. This takes files that are scattered around the disk and assembles them into contiguous blocks, another speed booster. It will also place system and program files in optimum locations. 

Get rid of silly start-up items
In System Tools, open up System Information. Under Tools, select the System Configuration Utility. You'll have to experiment here. You'll find a list of processes that load at start-up, and by unchecking the box next to each, you'll prevent that process from loading. 

This can save memory, speed the start-up process, and make your computer more stable by eliminating conflicts among programs. 

For advanced users
One last tip for advanced users: As an experiment, disable hardware functions you don't use in the setup BIOS (this is the screen that appears on start-up when you hold down a Delete key or other key particular to your computer). 

For example, if you don't use your serial or Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, you can turn these off. 

This tends to free up resources that other hardware may need.