PC safety toolbox: 5 steps to protecting your system
Often Press F1 is the bearer of bad news. If only readers had backed up, used a firewall, or taken some other preventive step, there would be no problem with their PCs.
As preemptive answers to your most frequent questions, here are five ways to avoid PC disasters. If you do only four of them, you’re courting danger.
Security step one is a full backup. A reader recently wrote that she had accidentally wiped out a term paper. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a copy on a floppy (or other removable storage medium).
CD-RW, DVD+RW and external hard drives make backing up easier and cheaper than ever. External hard drives in particular are terrific backup tools. For about $150, you can get a drive large enough to back up your programs as well as your data. However, if you want to keep multiple backup copies (a good idea), external drives can be an expensive option.
By comparison, CD-RW and DVD+RW discs are dirt cheap, and you probably already own one or both types of recordable drives. Backing up to rewritable (CD-RW) discs that you can record over many times rather than to write-once (CD-R) discs will save you money in the long run.
Copy your data files daily. If you use Windows 98 or Me, back up these folders (you may not have all of them): My Documents, Windows\All Users, Windows\Application Data, Windows\Desktop, Windows\Favorites, Windows\Local Settings, Windows\Profiles, Windows\SendTo, and Windows\Start Menu. In Windows 2000 and XP, everything you need to back up is probably in the Documents and Settings folder; but in that folder, don’t back up the History, Temp or Temporary Internet Files subfolders.
Automate full backups (which copy every file in your data folders and run once a week) and incremental backups (which copy only the files created or altered since the last backup and run daily). I start my automated backup routine at the end of every workday.
For a cheap back-up tool try Datahjaelp’s $40 Zip Backup to CD. Download the program, or it’s on our cover CD. If you own the WinZip compression program, you can use PC World’s Backup System; check Press F1 in the November 2003 issue for step-by-step instructions.
Back up your software
Backing up Windows and your applications isn’t as vital as protecting your data (you can always reinstall the programs). In an emergency, however, software backups can save you time and aggravation.
The perfect system backup program would back up the entire Windows folder (except the Temporary and History subfolders), the Master Boot Record, the boot files in your root directory, and optionally your program folders. It would save the information to a bootable CD or DVD for fast restores, with all your data intact.
V Communications’ $40 Recovery Commander comes closest to this ideal. Still, the program backs up to your hard drive rather than to removable media, and it doesn’t back up every file you need to protect. Recovery Commander is also part of VCom’s $90 SystemSuite collection of utilities. Visit http://www.v-com.com for more information.
At a minimum, you should regularly back up the Windows Registry — especially if you use Windows 2000. (Windows 98, Me and XP do automatic Registry backups.) For Windows 2000 backups, I recommend Lars Hederer’s free Emergency Recovery Utility NT. Its on our cover CD, or go to home.t-online.de/home/lars.hederer/erunt to download the program.
The safest full system backup is an image — a sector-by-sector copy of an entire hard drive or partition. When you restore an image, your drive returns to the condition it was in when the image was made. Everything that worked then will work now. But you lose every document, email and other data you received, created or changed since making the image. That’s why you should also back up your data incrementally.
The imaging program I prefer is Acronis True Image. It’s simple, direct, easy to use, and (at $80) cheaper than the competition. The program does both full (image) and incremental backups, so it’s useful for daily backups as well.
Make an Emergency disk
Are you prepared for the inevitable day when Windows refuses to boot? To be truly ready, you’ll need something more versatile than an image backup: an emergency startup floppy. (Of course, you’ll still need a restore program to put the image back on the hard drive.) Creating such a drive is easy to do in Windows 98 and Me: select Start•Settings•Control Panel•Add/Remove Programs. Get a blank, formatted floppy disc ready, click the Startup Disk tab, and then simply follow the prompts.
Windows 2000 and XP lack this capability, and the DOS-based tools you saved on your 98/Me emergency floppy are useless with the NTFS file system used by Windows 2000 and most XP machines. However, if you have a Microsoft Windows CD-ROM, you’ve got a pretty good tool called the Recovery Console. To get to it, reboot your system with the Windows CD inserted and press any key when you’re told to “Press any key to boot from CD”. At the “Welcome to Setup” screen, press r for Repair.
If you don’t have a Windows CD, your PC probably came with a restore CD for fixing problems. Boot from this disc as described above and see if it has any programs that fix the boot sector, scan your hard drive, or handle similar functions. If the CD just offers to restore the hard drive to factory condition, pass on this option and use another restore alternative.
Microsoft’s free Setup Disks for Floppy Boot Install program has the Recovery Console utility hidden inside. The Setup Disks programs install onto six floppies, the first of which is bootable. You have to swap through all six to get to the Recovery Console. Go to http://www.microsoft.com and do a search for “Setup Disks for Floppy Boot Install” to get to the download page. And read Press F1 from the Dec 2003/Jan 2004 issue to read up on emergency bootup options in Windows 2000 and XP.
Defrag your hard drive
Though many readers will surely disagree, we’re convinced that defragging your hard drive doesn’t improve performance. Defragging does improve reliability, however: a fragmented drive is sure to encounter more problems. You should defrag once or twice a month.
And now to explode another myth: there is no reason to buy a third-party defragger. The one that comes with Windows works just fine. In Windows 98 and Me, select Start•Programs•Accessories•System Tools•Disk Defragmenter. In Windows 2000 and XP, open My Computer, right-click your C: drive and select
If that’s too hard to remember, set up Windows to defrag on a regular, automated schedule. Windows 2000 users must first download MorphaSys’s free AutoDeFrag program and then save the utility to their C:\WINNT folder. In all versions of Windows, select Start•Programs (All Programs in XP)•Accessories•System Tools•Scheduled Tasks. Double-click Add Scheduled Task to start the Scheduled Task Wizard. When you’re asked to select a program, pick any one; you’ll change it later. Name the task Defrag. Make your own decisions through the rest of the wizard, but when you get to the last page, check Open advanced properties for this task when I click Finish and then click Finish.
In the Defrag dialogue box, replace what is in the Run box with the appropriate command for your version of Windows: It’s defrag c: /noprompt /f in 98 and Me; in Windows 2000, type autodefrag c:; and in XP, enter defrag c:. (The ‘/noprompt’ and ‘/f’ operators automate the defrag startup.) Click OK, exit Scheduled Tasksand you’re set — unless you use XP, in which case the lack of a password will keep the task from running. The XP task scheduler won’t work unless you have a system password, and each task you run must know the password. There’s a good reason for this, too: a rogue program can’t use the scheduler to do something unpleasant at 2am.
To set up a password, select Start•Control Panel. Double-click the User Accounts icon (or select it from the Control Panel menu). In the User Accounts applet, double-click your account, and then click Create a password (if you already have a password, this option isn’t available). Enter a password, enter it again to confirm it. Finally, click Create Password.
Now when your PC boots, Windows will ask for your password. This may be secure, but it’s not convenient, and for many users, it’s simply not necessary. If you don’t worry about the wrong people logging in as you, use Microsoft’s free Tweak UI for Windows XP to keep from being asked for a password. If you don’t have it, grab a copy of PowerToys for Windows XP, which includes Tweak UI (available on the PC World Plus CD).
After you have installed Tweak UI, select Start•All Programs•Powertoys for Windows XP•TweakUI for Windows XP. In the left pane, double-click Logon and click Autologon. In the right pane, choose Log on automatically at system startup. End by clicking OK.
Now tell your Defrag scheduled task about your password: select Start•All Programs•Accessories•System Tools•Scheduled Tasks. Double-click the new Defrag task. On the resulting dialogue box’s Task tab, click the Set password button. Type the password twice, and then click OK twice and close the Scheduled Tasks window.
Block the bad guys
You may find this hard to believe, but there are some dishonest people on the internet. Really. Your first line of defence is a firewall — a program that controls the ports between your computer and the internet. Whenever something outside tries to access your PC, or a program on your machine tries to access the internet, the firewall asks whether to allow it.
Windows XP’s built-in firewall traditionally hasn’t been as protective as a good third-party firewall such as Zone Labs’ ZoneAlarm, which is thorough, powerful, easy to use and best of all, free (find it on this month’s PC World Plus CD). But if you’ve updated to XP Service Pack 2 you’ll find the Windows firewall has been given a decent revamp. Check “Windows XP’s big fix”, page 25 in September’s issue for details.
You also need an antivirus program to check your incoming and outgoing mail, as well as files on your hard drive to catch viruses already on it. Trend Micro’s $120 PC-cillin Internet Security suite — which we recently named our Editors’ Choice security utility — contains excellent virus protection, a very good firewall, a spam filter and other goodies. Visit http://www.trendmicro.com to download the trial version. Note: After we ran July security tools roundup, PC-cillin was found to be incompatible with ZoneAlarm.
Finally, keep an eye out for spyware — programs that surreptitiously install themselves onto your computer and track your activities for the benefit of advertisers. Some of these programs report your online shopping habits, while others alter how your browser displays websites, sometimes adding their own advertisements. Luckily, the two best programs for dealing with spyware are free. Lavasoft’s Ad-aware and Patrick M Kolla’s Spybot Search & Destroy are both on our cover CD.
Firewalls, antivirus scanners and spyware detectors require frequent updates. Keep your firewall and antivirus programs running in the background. Scan all the files that you download for viruses and spyware prior to installing them on your system. And don’t neglect this old security chestnut: never open an email attachment unless you know the sender and are expecting the message.