Almost on a daily basis customer associates would ask Allora's computer technicians for IT help on his / her home PC. While it is true that Allora Consulting provides IT services only to businesses we have no problem giving out a free advice for home PC users every so often. After many years of doing so we assembled a PC guide for self IT help on:
a) "How to set up a computer properly from the start?"
b) "How to use a PC to maximize its efficiency and life span?"

As a rule you can avoid resorting to expensive IT help from a computer technician if you set up your PC as described in this PC guide and spare ~15-30 minutes a month on monitoring the health status and maintenance tasks.

How to set up a computer properly?

Although we are focusing on a PC guide here some advices would apply for a Mac computer as well.

PC protection with a UPS

A power outage or a voltage spike due to a thunderstorm can be a rare occurrence in some places while it's certainly a common event here in Raleigh area (actually, Chapel Hill's power grid is most vulnerable in the Triangle Area). Voltage Surge protection would surely protect your PC from a voltage spike however the computer would shut off as if it got unplugged from the circuit. Why is it bad? One can lose unsaved work, end up with corrupted files, databases, configuration conflicts, etc. That's why having a UPS is an imperative measure of PC protection. It'd give you enough time to perform a graceful shutdown. If you are not around it would also notify your computer that it's better to shut down because the UPS's battery is running out of energy.

Remove useless software

Out of the box most computers would come with dozens of various applications: helpers, accelerators, shops, try-outs - you name it. At times all of it can be categorized as junk and erased however there are certain programs that would turn out to be pretty handy. Our advice is to go through the Control's Panel's "Remove programs" and remove obviously unwanted applications. If you run into an unknown program it makes the most sense to try it out and/or Google it in order to understand its purpose before making a decision.

Deploy AntiVirus and Firewall protection

"How to set up a computer's Antivirus shield?" The odds are that your PC already came with a trial version of some AntiVirus product, 90-day period or what not. The shortest route is simply purchasing it before the end of the trial period. The drawback here is that:

1) it wasn't YOUR choice 2) Most likely you'd over-pay.

At home you could always use a free-edition of Avast or AVG or AntiVir. Please refer to this article on AntiVirus protection if you want to spend a little bit of time deciding what factors are most important to you: cost vs system impact vs antivirus strength, etc.

All Windows PC's come with a Microsoft's Firewall turned-on by default. It can definitely bail you out in certain situations however a pro-grade Firewall product would be more robust and deadly to network threats. More often than not an AntiVirus suite would come with a Firewall shield embedded. There's one  more thing to be cautious about: an aggressively set firewall might interfere with the normal operation of programs such as games, communication software, cloud applications, etc. There are scenarios when it'd be rather nontrivial for a novice user to resolve an unwanted interference from a Firewall shield.

Install productivity software

Out of the box a computer comes with a fair amount of features that most people use on a daily basis: Internet browser, picture viewer, Email client, etc. A trial or full version of Word-processing and Spreadsheet applications might be installed as well. If you intend to install additional applications like Adobe Photoshop or computer games it's worth developing a strategy for future installations and data allocations. Ideally there should be two hard drives: one dedicated to the OS and program files and the other for data. If there's only one Hard Drive it's worth considering splitting it into C: (system) and D: (data) partitions to separate files of different nature and purpose. It'd also help to avoid the danger of running out of space on C: drive should you get carried away with importing large media files or what not. Most media applications (video, music, pictures) come with a set of Options for temporary files or scratch disks thus it makes sense to dedicate some space on the Data drive for this duty.

De-fragment the Drive(s)

If your computer is equipped with a Solid Disk Drive you should disable Defragmentation schedule that's typicially activated by default. For more conventional computers with classic Hard Disk Drives it's important to de-fragment the drive upon the completion of the first-time configuration. There is a free utility from Piriform which we consider the best among all competition: Defraggler. It can replace the native windows de-fragmentation utility and it comes with a scheduler built-in. Defragmentation should be scheduled at least once a month but probably not more frequently than weekly. Aside from its prime duty the Defraggler can report on the Health status of the drive and benchmark its performance.

PC Backup

PC Backup is such an important issue that there are countless programs for this task around the market. Comparison of computer backup products falls out of the scope of our basic PC Guide especially when Windows with comes one built-in. It's pretty easy to follow the setup procedure for backup and ensure that you have a bootable recovery media and daily backup.

How to use a PC in the most reliable way?

  • Keep up with updates from Microsoft, AntiVirus, Productivity applications
  • Optimize the start-up routine and clean-up invalid or obsolete registry entries
  • Do a monthly check on free disk space, backup and defragmentation status
  • Clean-up the inside of your PC if it accumulates dust over years and heats up
  • Protect Web-browsers, scan your computer in case of suspicious behaviour
  • Consider potential upgrades around mid-life crisis 2-3 years into using a PC
Updates: critical and optional

When it comes to updates the simplest thing to do is to follow the default choice of automatic update deployment for Microsoft and AntiVirus products. Usually such updates are scheduled to be deployed at night. That does not mean that your PC must be turned ON all the time. Instead you could leave the computer ON for over-night duties like updates, full AtniVirus scans, defragementation scans over a weekend. Almost all  PC's won't consume any significant amount of electricity when idling these days thanks to standard Energy saving schemes. Alternatively one can establish a routine of automatic update downloads and manual authorization / deployment.

We need to drop a couple words on updates from vendors other than Microsoft or AntiVirus software. It appears that every applciation insists on deploying its own "quick start" agent and a weekly update. If you find it overly annoying (hard to blame anyone here) there's always a choice to disable such updates, nevertheless we'd advise that you choose wisely in order NOT to be overly aggressive and missing an important compatibity release, Service Pack, etc.

Optimize the startup routine

Now that we mentioned the "quick start" agents it's time to discuss the remedy against an onslaught of such "accelerators" that in the aggregate produce nothing good but slugish boot-up process and deflated overall performance. We are already familiar with Defraggler, now is the time to meet its sister-product CCleaner: a fantastic utility to clean-up junk files form your computer, optimize the startup process and fix registry issues. CCleaner and Defraggler on their own hold the majority of answers to the question "How to use a PC efficiently?"

Under CCleaner's interface we'd find:

  1. Cleaner for junk / temporary file removal (important!)
  2. Registry for identifying various problems and inconsistencies in Registry Entries
  3. Tools -> Startup

When cleaning Junk files we'd recommend to leave History, Form Data and Cookie browser options unchecked (CCleaner would also prompt you with a Cookie related quuestion).

Registry: make sure you'd backup before comitting the changes.

Tools -> Startup: we prefer disabling unwanted entries vs deleting. It's important to note that Applications would often re-enable their agents silently, please refer to an Application's setting itself in this case.

PC hardware maintenance

If you hear an elevated level of fan noise, if you feel that the computer case is warmer than usual to the touch, then perhaps it's time to clean-up the dust inside. Another cool program from Piriform - Speccy - can report the CPU, hard drive and motherboard temperatures.  Any temperature in yellow-red range presents a problem.

You'd need a gas duster and any vacuum cleaner. Open the case of your PC and inspect for areas of accumulated dust (beware of potentially voiding computer warranty if you open its case!). First go over with a vacuum cleaner while keeping the nozzle ~ 2 inches away from any hardware. Second use the gas duster to push the dust out while collecting it with the vacuum cleaner. Especially focus on CPU, GPU (video card) fan grills, memory and hard drive(s). If the problem doesn't go away and the CPU is still too hot then you could try replacing the heat compound between the CPU and its fan. It's a more delicate procedure of removal of the old, dried-out thermal grease described here and followed by the application of new heat compound and re-mounting the CPU. Please use professional IT help if you're not confident that you'd succeed on your own without inflicting any  damage!

Web-browser protection

Most people get their PC in trouble while browsing unsafe websites, for example hunting freebies like coupons, free games, etc. Every modern AntiVirus product comes with browser plug-ins which can:

a) intercept a virus before it reached your computer's hard drive

b) block a website known for malicious software distribution or at least report a potentially dangerous website for your further discretion.

We strongly recommend enabling Web agents by your AntiVirus security suite.

Hardware Upgrades

Almost every "the latest, the greatest" product that hits the IT market substantially drops in cost 1-2 years down the road. If you sought a cost-efficient way when shopping for a new computer you probably skipped the newest components available at that time. Perhaps it's worth re-evaluating 2-3 years after the purchase date if you could gain more capacity at a fraction of the original cost. Here's a few popular options:

  • memory upgrade
  • hard drive addition (migrating C-drive from a conventional Hard Drive to an affordable Solid State Drive)
  • if your motherboards support LSI / Crossfire technology and you have a suitable video card it could be a good idea to gain extra video processing power by purchasing a matching model for your video adapter at ~20-30% of the original price tag

 


 

We hope that this PC guide answered some potential questions like "How to use a PC proficiently?". If you need some extra IT help feel free to ask us questions via your Facebook account below.

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