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12 Easy Step Guides

12 Easy Steps...

...For Caring For Your Computer

Step #1

Use clean power. Power surges and dropouts can cause instant damage to electronic components, as well as data corruption if these events happen at critical processing times. Surge protectors are a good start. They contain MOV (metal-oxide varistors) that absorb voltages that are above normal household voltages. But keep in mind that power surges wear out these MOV devices, so they are no longer effective after being hit by a big surge, or after an accumulation of smaller surges. It is best to use a surge protector that has a test light. If not, replace your surge protector at least once per year.

Step #2

Install backup power. Small UPS (uninterruptible power supply) devices that contains a battery backup are relatively inexpensive these days. A UPS ensures that your computer gets clean power even during power outages. In the event of a long power outage, a UPS allows you time to save your data and shut down your PC. Some UPSs have a cable that you can connect to your PC. This allows you to monitor the status of your UPS, and allows the UPS to shut down your PC when the battery is running low. Be sure to test your UPS every 3 to 6 months by pulling the wall power plug and observing that your PC continues to run. Install surge protectors on both sides of your UPS (commercial power input side as well as the UPS output side). Note that some UPSs have power outlets on them that are not UPS protected, but rather, just surge protected. Ensure that your computer is plugged into one of the UPS protected outlets.

Step #3

Keep your PC clean. Most PC’s have a fan, and it will suck in any dust, dirt, or hair that falls near it. Over time, this will prevent your PC from cooling properly, or entirely plug up the fan. This will cause your PC to run too warm and shorten its lifetime. Putting your PC on the floor is the biggest problem, followed by cats and dogs that like the warm air given off by a computer. I have my machines on a rack above my desk. Sitting on a desk or table is OK, too, as long as you keep the pets away. If your PC has been in a dusty environment, open it up and blow out the dust. Use a can of clean compressed air, not an industrial or shop air compressor (they contain water and oil droplets suspended in the air). Tobacco smoke is also a computer killer since there is no way to blow off the residue that it leaves on electronic components.

Step #4

Keep your accessories clean. This includes mice, screens, and keyboards. Compressed air works well to clean keyboards. In the long run, it is best to try to avoid getting your keyboard dirty in the first place by not eating or drinking around it. But if you do have the munchies, just plan on spending the $30 it takes to replace your keyboard every year or two. Mice need to be periodically disassembled and have the moving parts cleaned. This is a pain, so I recommend using an optical mouse that has no moving parts. Most importantly, keep your screen clean to avoid any unnecessary eyestrain. Read your owner’s manual to see what chemicals are recommended for your monitor. Be careful with stuff like Windex or Ammonia since many computer screens have a thin plastic anti-glare coating that is easily damaged by harsh chemicals. I have found that pre-moisten wipes work well on my flat-screen monitor, while a very soft paint brush is handy for brushing off the dust that accumulates between cleanings.

Step #5

Environmental factors. Electronics that run cool are devices that will live long and happy lives. Ensure that your computer is kept in a relatively cool place, and that it has plenty of airflow available. Keeping a computer under your desk is a bad idea since there is little airflow down there, and heat will build up in the computer. A better idea is on a table or a shelf. Be sure that you do not block the air intakes and outlets. Put your computer in a room that is air conditioned if possible. Just as important is keeping a constant temperature. Frequent temperature variations can cause components to contract and expand, eventually causing them to push their way out of their sockets. The ideal is a room that stays at a constant 68 to 74 degrees.

As far as keeping a computer at a constant temperature, it is usually a good idea to keep it turned on for long periods of time rather than power cycling it often. If you use your computer a lot, keep it on 24 by 7. If not, once you power it up, leave it on until you are done with it for the day. The initial power on causes the most wear and tear on a machine.

Another tip for keeping your computer area cooler is to retire any tube-type video monitors with the newer flat-panel displays. The downside of flat-panel monitors is that they are still a bit more expensive, and the display is not as sharp as a good tube monitor. However, the fact that they run cooler and do not make any high pitch noise makes them much easier to live with.

Humidity is also a factor. If the air is too dry, you tend to get a lot of static electricity. One zap of static in the wrong place can kill a computer chip. Even worse, static damage can cause a chip to produce errors, not something you want to have when doing your taxes on-line. Air that is very dry can cause electrical arcs and discharges inside of your computer. Conversely, excess moisture can cause water droplets to accumulate in your computer, which can attack the circuitry. This process can be made worse if you have temperature variations that cause condensation. The ideal is 40% humidity year around. Computer data centers shoot for 60% humidity, but that is too high for a typical home.

If you move your computer to a new location, make sure you power it down for at least 30 minutes before moving it, and allow it to adjust to its new location for 24 hours before powering it back on. In the first case, you want the hard disk to spin down and the chips to cool off before moving the box. In the latter case, you want the temperature and humidity to stabilize, and any condensation to evaporate prior to applying power.

Finally, check from time to time to ensure that your computer fan is working. You can tell by the noise, and by feeling the stream of warm air that it is blowing out of the back of your computer. If the fan makes any metal on metal noises, or is slow to start or run, replace it right away. This usually means that the fan bearings are going out, and that the fan may not start running the next time it is turned off and back on. If you start a computer without a fan, you will likely damage the machine. Dittos for running a computer with the cover removed (the cover is part of the air flow ducts that run through the inside of the computer).

Step #6

Data back-up. The purpose of doing routine backups of your computer is to help you recover from a hard disk drive failure. In the event of a hard disk failure, you end up reloading your operating system, all of your applications, and your data. If you don’t have a copy of your data, it is lost forever. If that would cause you pain, then you need to backup your data.

There are many different devices to use to backup your system. This includes floppy (too small), Zip (too small), CD (too slow and error prone), DVD (dittos), tape (slow and expensive), videotape (not mainstream), and hard disk (not independent). My recommendation is to invest in one of the new external hard disks that connects by Firewire, or USB 2.0 if you don’t have Firewire. Firewire is nearly as fast as the disk itself, so the backups will run fast, and it is hot-pluggable so you can disconnect the drive after the backup is finished. This is important since you don’t want some event to happen that nukes both your computer and your backup. Those who are paranoid might want to have two such drives, and alternate which one they use. That way, you always have a second slightly older backup to work from.

As far as software, any of the major packages would work. Hobbyists seem to like Retrospect the best. The strategy is to make a full backup once, then do incremental backups after that. An incremental copies all files that have changed since the last full backup. It would be a good idea to repeat the full backup every so often. Once or twice a year might be OK for a home user, while monthly or quarterly would be more appropriate for a power user

Step #7

Data archive. The purpose of doing data archive is for disaster recovery. In the event that you lost your computer, such as due to a fire, or a tornado destroys your home or office, you have not only lost your computer, but you have likely lost your backups as well. Doing a data archive means that you place a copy of your important data at a location other than where your computer is located. If you work out of your home, you might use a safe deposit box for your off-site storage. If you work out of an office, you might have employees take home a copy of the data. If your data has value, you might want to protect it more than simply by giving it to someone to keep. There are services that store data in large, secure, climate controlled buildings. One thing to consider is the largest disaster that could impact your operation. You don’t want both your main site and your off-site data to be destroyed by the same tornado or fire. Some folks use the 20 mile rule, that your data be stored at least 20 miles from the computer.

To make a data archive, copy your data to some type of media that is easy to transport and store. CD or DVD is the easiest, while tape is OK. CDs, DVDs, and tape can all develop subtle errors over time. It is best to make two copies just in case, and use the validation feature if your CD or tape software supports it. I do not recommend using a hard disk drive for data archiving since hard disks can be damaged during transport. When making a data archive, you not only want all of your documents, you also want your archived E-mail. Check with your E-mail software manual to see where it stores your mail, and ensure that those files are copied to your archive.

Maintaining a data archive protects you in the event of a disaster. It also serves as a record of what you have done over the years that you have been archiving data. This can be useful in the event that you have a dispute. You can go back to the archive and look up files and E-mail discussions related to the dispute. This is especially useful if your dispute ends up in court.

Step #8

Redundant hardware. Given that all computer hardware will eventually fail, the industry has developed methods to cope with many common hardware problems. The most fragile part of your computer is the hard disk drive. If it fails, some or all of your data is permanently gone, and your PC likely will not even boot up. The solution is to use mirrored hard disk drives. This is where you install a second hard disk in your PC that is exactly the same as your original hard disk. Windows can then be told to run these drives as a mirrored pair. Your data will be written to both hard disks. In the event that one fails, your computer can switch over to the other hard disk. This will keep you up and running at full speed until you can get the broken hard disk fixed, avoiding a major outage. Given the low cost of hard disks, this is rather inexpensive insurance.

It is also useful to have a second fan in your PC. Fans may fail after several years of usage. This might be somewhat rare for the typical home user, but less rare for office and power users. While it might not be common, when it does happen, it can destroy your PC in less than 30 minutes. Fans are very inexpensive, so there really is no excuse for running with only one.

Dual power supplies is another option to consider. Power supplies do fail from time to time. When they go out, you cannot run your computer, but you normally do not lose any data. Your biggest risk is lost time. Only top end computers have a dual power supply option. If you make a living with your PC, it is worth the expense. Production computer applications that serve multiple uses (like file and print servers) absolutely must have dual power supplies.

One option that is widely used is to have an entire spare PC available. This works well in office environments where your software and data reside on a central server. It doesn’t work so well for a home user due to the need to reload software and data, plus it is expensive to keep a lightly used machine available just as a backup.

One option that sounds helpful is dual processor chips. In reality, it doesn’t make your PC any more reliable. If one chip goes bad, your PC normally will no longer work. It does not work like redundant hardware where one part takes over when the other fails. In addition, few users ever benefit from the power that a second CPU offers, while the cost to get a second CPU is very high in comparison to other options we have looked at.

Step #9

Ergonomics. Having a broken computer is bad, but having a broken computer user is far worse. While I will not go into detail about ergonomics here, your long-term comfort, health, and productivity depend on following ergonomic best practices. Get a proper chair, a sturdy desk, a comfortable keyboard, a good mouse, and set your monitor at the proper height. And while we are on the subject of monitors, understand that you only get one set of eyes, and you should treat them like your sight depends on them. That is, don’t cheap out when buying a monitor, get a good one. And don’t put up with a monitor that is small, hard to read, blurry, or one that blinks or flashes. Your sight is too important to risk long term damage due to a cheap or sub-par monitor.

Step #10

Keep your software legal and up to date. Buying your computer hardware is only half of the puzzle. In order to be productive, you need a good set of software tools. While you can get buy with stealing software by copying it from a neighbor or downloading it from hacker websites, it leaves you with a product of dubious value. You cannot get support, bug fixes, or updates with stolen software. Given that all computers eventually break, chances are that you are going to need some type of support at some point in the future.

Once you pick out and install a set of software tools, check the support websites for your software from time to time. Each vendor will periodically post bug fixes, security updates, and new features. While I would not download and install a patch the first day that it was available, most updates are relatively safe after they have been on-line or a week or so. The only exception to this rule is for security patches. While a new one might cause problems when you install it, the problem that it fixes is likely far worse.

Microsoft has a feature built into recent versions of Windows that automatically keeps your software up to date. To use this feature, go to the Start menu, pick the Help and Support menu, and the Scan for Updates. In general, you should install all updates that are available.

Step #11

Keep your disks and media handy. All computers will eventually have some kind of problem. Murphy’s law says that any problems that do happen will happen when you have the least time available to deal with them. In order to get through a problem smoothly, make sure that you do your back-ups and archive your data. Beyond that, it helps to keep all of the manuals, disks, and CD’s that came with your computer handy. Keep these materials together, and know where they are so you can rapidly access them when needed. If your computer refuses to boot some morning, you may need your Windows install disk to temporarily boot your PC. If your hard disk goes bad, you will need your repair disk to reinstall Windows after the hard disk is replaced.

One item that is often overlooked is patches and device drivers that you install as part of updates that you apply to your computer. For example, some people update their CD drive to a faster drive, or add a CD writable drive to their machine. The problem is that the boot disks and repair CD that came with your PC might not recognize this new hardware. If you don’t have copies of the drivers on a floppy, or your forgot to make a new recovery disk for your Operating System, you may not be able to boot your PC without reinstalling the old hardware. The net-net is to make special backup copies of any new software that you download and install on your PC (not including updates from Windows Update, which are not critical at boot time).

Step #12

Anti-static protocols. The silicon chips inside of your computer are very sensitive to static electricity. A simple touch anywhere inside of your computer has the potential to knock out memory, CPU, or other logic chips, or worse yet, make them appear to work but insert errors in your data from time to time. To avoid damaging your computer, make sure that both you and your computer stay grounded anytime you attempt to open the case on the CPU unit. First, keep the PC plugged in. This may sound dangerous, and it does carry a certain level of danger for the novice, but this is the only way to keep the ground wire connected between your house ground system and your PC chassis. Next, ground yourself with an anti-static wristband. You can find these protective wrist bands at your local computer store. One end wraps around your wrist, the other end is attached to the metal case of the computer power supply. Note that grounding yourself does not protect you from electrical shocks, rather, it protects your computer from static zaps.

Once you are grounded, you still have to handle the electrical parts with care. Do not ever touch any of the logic chips or copper wire traces on the circuit boards. If you are installing a card or memory chip, handle them as little as possible, and hold them by their edges away from any components. Never set a card or memory chip down unless it is in its protective anti-static bag.

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
For further information, contact: john@johnweeks.com