Getting your computer to work better - 2 - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Getting your computer to work better – 2

ADAM BERNSTEIN
in this second article on improving the
efficiency of computers, covers
memory, attacks, failures, the need for
backing-up and ways of avoiding
shutdowns

IT is very likely that any computer you buy, PC or Apple, will have been shipped with a minimal amount of memory (RAM). No doubt you’ll have been frustrated by the seemingly endless wait for a program to run or a file to load, especially if you have several applications running at the same time. The best way to speed up your computer is to throw more memory at it. Memory is generally incredibly cheap and is simple to install. The results are instant. The effect of extra memory can be likened to buying a much larger desk. With a small desk (i.e. minimal memory), to undertake more work you’ll first need to clear the desk by moving what you were working on elsewhere to make space so that you can place new work on the now cleared desk. That takes time. With a new, larger, desk (more memory) you can have all of the work at hand, on the same workspace, with no waiting. It’s this clearing of the desk – often many times – that causes the computer to slow down painfully. If you listen carefully you’ll hear your hard drive thrashing around. There are a number of memory suppliers out there, but one of the best, in my experience, is www.crucial.com/uk. You can select memory manually by choosing the manufacturer and then your computer model. Alternatively, Crucial offers a free downloadable system scanner that will tell you everything you need to know as well as which upgrades are available for your computer. I’ve no axe to grind here, but their products, pricing and customer service is very good. When you get the memory, handle it carefully as electrostatic discharge – the shock you get when touching a metal object after walking on, say, a nylon floorcovering – will destroy the memory in an instant. Either ask your supplier’s customer service to send the order with anti-static strap or earth yourself against the metal frame of the computer several times as you handle and fit the memory. Of course, remember to power the computer down before you fit the memory…

Infallibility?

So many people consider computers to be infallible and a good number believe that disasters will never happen to them. Sadly, time will prove them wrong on both counts. Man made computers and man is fallible. A disaster – given time – will befall everyone, albeit to differing degrees. Now whilst you cannot live your digital life wrapped up in cotton wool, there are simple, everyday steps that you can take to minimise the risk of computers turning your life upside down.

Intruder alert

Just like us, computers can get sick – very sick. Although some of the problems you’ll encounter could be put down to bad luck, say a power cut causing an unplanned shutdown (with all the attendant problems that can cause), a good number of the problems emanate from undesirable individuals who consider it good fun, if not very profitable, to try and break your computer.
There are many ways you can be attacked and in simple terms you are at risk from a virus (a nasty program that can literally destroy your computer or hard drive), a trojan (something equally nasty that can sit quietly in the background of your computer reporting on, for example, keys you depress – very dangerous when banking online), a hack attack (an attempt to break into your computer to take or plant information) or phishing (an attempt to redirect you to a lookalike web page that will take your login details for someone else to use against you on a legitimate site). Protection is possible and it needn’t cost you an arm and leg.

Antivirus software

First, if you’re on a PC, get antivirus software to cover you for viruses and trojans. Sure you can pay for it, and some products are better than others, but you can get a good product free
from Microsoft at www.microsoft.com/engb/ security_essentials/default.aspx.
For the latest reviews on other products, and there are many, Google “antivirus reviews”. Mac users are much less at risk from
viruses because of not only the greater security that the Mac operating system offers, but also because, so far, there aren’t enough Macs out there to make it worth while writing a virus. However, you can still get free software to protect your Mac from Sophos at www.sophos.com/en-us/products/… sophos-antivirus-for-mac-homeedition. aspx. Next make sure you have your firewall turned on. This should electronically stop unauthorised access to your computer and your network (if you have one). You may have two firewalls: one in your broadband router (you’ll have to look in your manual for this) and another on the computer. Mac users will find firewall settings in System Preferences > Security & Privacy. Windows 7 users will need to open their Control Panel and go to Windows Firewall. Lastly, phishing, a really underhand way of stealing your login details. These are harder to avoid and need you to use common-sense. Whenever you want to go to your bank’s login page, type in the address manually from correspondence it has sent you – don’t search for the login page from Google. Next, look at the address bar of your browser. A standard webpage will start “http:”. A bank’s login page should always start with “https:”. Those behind phishing attacks rarely create a secure “https” site. Finally, never respond to an e-mail asking you to confirm or re-enter details on a website, a link to which the e-mail making the request offers. No institution – bank, HMRC or anyone else – will ever ask you to do this.

Backed into a corner

You know that equipment, especially IT, can fail. The hard drive in your computer, for example, has a “mean time before failure” rating – in other words, how long it’s expected to operate before it fails. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t fail much sooner. Similarly, an (often automatic) update to the operating system on your computer may cause more problems than it cures. The key to both of these scenarios is to back-up your data regularly, at least once a day, and keep the back-up offsite and accessible.
There’s no point keeping the back-up in the same place as the original – fire, flood, theft could remove both from you at the same time. You can back-up your data in a number of ways. Without delving too deeply into all of the technologies and products available, you can simply write the data to a DVD (save money and use re-writable disks at 30p plus each); faster to a USB stick (much higher capacities – 16GB, which is just under four times the storage of a standard DVD, can be had for £16); faster still to Network Attached Storage (a hard drive in a “box” somewhere on your network) or to the Cloud (a remote server somewhere that is accessed via broadband). The Cloud can be great for quick, smallish, file back-ups and can be very useful if you want to share a file between devices. Take a peek at Dropbox at www.dropbox.com/. It offers 2GB free (you can subscribe up to 100GB) and you can drop a file into the Dropbox
file on one desktop and see it synchronised in your Dropbox on your laptop, your Smartphone or another desktop – automatically. Whichever option you take, make sure that you encrypt your data securely.

UPS can deliver

You may recall a reference earlier to unplanned shutdown following a power cut. Thankfully, power supplies in the UK are stable, but power cuts can happen and when the power goes your computer just dies and you may lose whatever you were working on at the time. System files can also get corrupted when computers crash or are turned off incorrectly. At best you’ll have to turn the computer on and shut it down correctly to get your computer back to normal. At worst you’ll need a specialist to fix and reboot your machine. The solution is quite simple: you need to buy an “uninterruptible power supply”. It’s plugged into the wall and sits between the mains supply and your computer (and other devices) and a decent unit can be had for around £100. In essence it’s a huge battery that keeps a charge ready to be dispensed when the power is cut. Depending on the size of UPS you buy and the devices you have plugged into it, you can have half an hour or more of UPS time with which to shut down your computer (after saving the work). An added benefit of using a UPS is that they invariably have filters built into them to remove any power spikes that could damage your equipment.

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