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Posted by SONA's Tech Guy
SONA's Tech Guy
A computer maniac dating back to the days of the ZX81, Research Machines and BBC Micro, he has never quite got...
User is currently offline
on Friday, 28 October 2011
in Computing and Tech

Keep Your PC Running Smoothly and Securely for FREE!

Buy a PC from a vendor on the local high street or shopping park, and I can almost guarantee you that the salesperson will try to tease you into buying extra products to keep your computer running safely and smoothly.  Norton or McAfee security suites seem to be the favourites, and before you know it you have parted with another £30 plus, and that's if you manage to restrain yourself and only buy one product.

There is a often a triple downside to a number of mainstream products sold from retail stores.  Firstly, the ongoing price year on year of renewing these services soon starts to add up.  Secondly, a lot of this software is actually really quite poor at keeping your PC protected compared to lesser known brands, and lastly from my experience, also really good at slowing your machine down.

Norton for instance, was something I used for about 3 years in the mid-2000's and I found that it had a huge footprint on my system, tying up needed resources, and was also poor at keeping viruses out.   Times may have changed, but a quick Google search may suggest otherwise.

How to do it for free

If you are running Windows XP, Vista or 7, these options are open to you and it really is possible to keep things running along nicely for free, forever...

Firewalls

If you are connected to broadband, you are more than likely connected to the internet via a modem router (eg. a BT HomeHub, white Netgear box thing with flashing lights, or something similar).

These devices have a firewall built in, and if you weren't aware of this or have never tried to switch it off, then it is still on.

Windows also comes with a firewall built in, and with both activated your chances of anyone gaining direct access to your PC or network are close to non-existent.  Windows Firewall can also be setup to block access to the internet for specific programs, and is easier or harder depending on which version of operating system you own.

One could argue that if your system is compromised by malware (something nasty that can, depending on the type involved, feed information out from your system), Windows Firewall is vulnerable to being de-activated by the malware leaving you wide open.  However, follow the rest of my suggestions, and this isn't going to happen.

Don't believe me?  Google for ZoneAlarm, a free firewall that is a bit more robust against deactivation and is easier to configure for blocking programs.  The downside to it is that it does, like other more elaborate firewalls, cause other issues that do not arise with the Windows built-in firewall.

Anti-Virus

Avast Anti-Virus deservedly gets the only external link from my blog today.  I have installed, or caused it to be installed on over 100 PC's since I disovered it about 4 years ago.

It has a small footprint on your system, detects just about any virus as long as you keep the definitions and program up to date (a beautiful transparent update system included) and is totally free, forever, to home users.  It also detects spyware, and whenever someone brings a PC to me saying, "I think I have a virus", Avast always picks up loads of junk that another installed anti-virus program missed.

Yes there's a downside to Avast.  If you have your speakers on loud and you are sat in a quiet house, you WILL jump out of your skin when a loud American voice says, "Your virus database has been updated", completely out of the blue!  I've both seen it and experienced it, and after a few minutes of calming down, it's actually quite funny.

Now I must mention AVG, another free anti-virus software that some swear by.  I've never used it, nor do I intend to.  Avast is brilliant, and it's free.  Ultimately the choice is yours.

Malware

This takes many forms, but the worst case scenario is your PC can become crippled and information from your PC is fed to some spotty n'er-do-well in a country you have never heard of.

Avast, as mentioned above, checks for spyware.  Windows Defender, a free piece of software from Microsoft that is built in in Vista and 7 and downloadable in XP, protects in real-time for all sorts of malware, but truth be told it isn't great.  Personally I would still leave it activated unless you have another real-time solution installed (but for the purposes of this blog at least you won't have).

The "Daddy" of all anti-malware products as far as I am concerned is MalwareBytes, a free program that is updated daily with new malware definitions.  In my experience it detects any malware known to man ("person" may be the accepted term these days?) and can remove instantly all but the most ruthless of software.

If it's a stubborn little devil, the MalwareBytes forums have a number of enthusiast experts who will diagnose your problem for you and give instruction on how to manually remove the malware, based on a report that MalwareBytes generates for you.  They do this for free, just because they find it fun and they are geeks!

The free version of MalwareBytes unfortunately doesn't provide real-time scanning of your PC, so whilst it can detect just about anything during a user instigated system scan, it won't actually stop your PC being infected.  In my suggested free solution to protecting your PC, trust Avast and Defender and just scan your PC regularly with MalwareBytes.

Hard Drive Defragmentation

Fragementation of your hard driver occurs over time, where information such as programs and files get stored in several locations on the hard drive, instead of in one continuous area.  This can slow your PC down dramatically, especially on start-up and depending on your brand and age of hard drive, you can hear "scratching" coming from your PC.

Windows has it's own built in defragmentation tools in the Control Panel under "Administrative Tools > Computer Management".  This has to be run manually whenever you choose.

However, you can download Auslogic's Disk Defrag for free and set it to defragment your hard drive automatically when the PC is idle.  It works a treat!

The Bottom Line?

If you are the average home user, implementing the above software on your system should give you years of trouble free PC use, or at least for as long as your hardware holds out.

If you use illegally obtained music, software and video, surf warez and XXX websites, use Peer-2-Peer file sharing services or generally participate in dubious practices with your PC, then buckle up because at some stage you are going to get bitten.

The paid version of MalwareBytes at £19.99 should be your first port of call.  It's live scanning will prevent infected websites from opening, and will quarantine any infected files that arrive on your system. 

Also, make sure you update your virus and malware definitions daily and back-up everything you hold dear to you that is on your PC.

PC Running Slow?

When anyone calls or emails me to say that their PC is running slow and they think they have a virus, my first question is, "Are you using XP?".

The answer is yes at least 50 percent of the time.

You see, in 2001 anyone who had a PC with 256Mb of ram was (as a mate described me), "a flash .......".  Anyone with 512Mb was just totally showing off.  XP ran nicely on 128Mb.

10 years on and several service packs later, XP with a few programs installed has a footprint at start-up of over 500Mb (or about 700Mb if you have Norton installed... lol), meaning that if you only have 128 or 256Mb of ram, the rest has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is virtual ram on your hard drive (which incidentally, on a typical 2001 hard drive is a good 80 times slower than ram from 2001).

The solution is pretty simple and pretty cheap.  Less than £30 gets a gig of early 21st century ram, the computer suddenly runs like it was new, and the owner thinks I am wonderful.

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A computer maniac dating back to the days of the ZX81, Research Machines and BBC Micro, he has never quite gotten over the demise of cassette tapes and 5.25" floppy discs as the computer medium of choice!
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