Just because computers are one big exercise in evolutionary progress, that doesn't mean certain computing maxims ever go out of style.
Technology never stops moving foward. Hardware gets faster, and operating systems gain new features and (we hope) finesse. This is natural computing law. But just because computers are one big exercise in evolutionary progress, that doesn't mean certain computing maxims ever go out of style. Take, for example, the nuggets of wisdom in the following list. All of these things are as true today as they were 2, 5, and in some cases even 10 or 20 years ago.
When in doubt, punch out
If something isn’t working on your PC, don’t wring your hands and yell at the screen. Just restart the system. That simple act alone will fix many of the problems you may be experiencing. When your PC restarts, it clears out all the temporary files in the RAM and relaunches the operating system. This wipes away any files that may have been giving your PC fits—and the operating system starts fresh and unfettered by whatever was affecting it. If you want to do these things without restarting, click Start, then Run, and type %temp% into the command line.
Expect your battery to let you down
It's simply Murphy's Law: Your laptop or tablet will poop out the moment you need it most. That is life. Always bring your power cables with you on the road, and if possible invest in backup and secondary battery options.
Crowdsource your troubleshooting
Chances are, the help resources at your device manufacturer’s website won’t address your exact headache, but if you type an error message or problem you're having into Google, you'll inevitably find helpful information from poor souls who have encountered the very same issue.
Back everything up
Never get caught with just one copy of anything that you want to keep. Always back up your data, and then back up your backups. Consider backing up both to an external drive and to a cloud storage service. It’s a good idea to keep separate system and data partitions—back up your data partition daily, and back up your system partition (Windows as well as your installed programs) at least quarterly.
Remember that thumb drives are your friends
It’s very easy to lose track of the recovery discs that come with a new PC, so keep a USB drive with recovery software on it in case something goes wrong. Store it away in a safe, easy-to-remember place. And in that same safe place, keep both electronic and print copies of all your software keys.
Skip the extended warranty
Don't be a sap. Extended warranties are designed to prey on your fear that the hardware you just purchased is already on its death bed. From a return-on-investment perspective, extended warranties almost never pay off—except for the companies that sell them.
Read the manual
You might be surprised at what you can learn by reading user manuals. It’s natural to just jump right in and begin doing the things you expect a device or application to do, but I've found that by reading the manual I can learn about features and functions I didn't know existed. Reading the manual can increase the benefit you derive from your device, and make you feel a whole lot better about buying it.
Consider the total cost of ownership
This maxim mostly applies to purchases of printers and subsidized phones. If you intend to do a lot of printing, pay close attention to the cost and efficiency of consumables, namely the ink or toner. And if you're investing in a new smartphone plan, consider what you'll be paying month to month...to month...to month...
Resist the urge to impulse-shop
A tech geek is never more dangerous than when perusing the aisles of a brick-and-mortar hardware store. If you absolutely must purchase a new toy in person, make sure to do your research beforehand. Don't be swayed by the razzle-dazzle of salespeople, and arm yourself with deep product knowledge before you enter a store. Also, always ask the retailer to match lower Internet pricing, if you can find it. (You'll want to bring your smartphone with you.)
Keyboard shortcuts: Use them, love them, live them
You can work far faster (and look way cooler) by mastering keyboard shortcuts for the programs, services, and operating systems you use every day. To learn these shortcuts, check out PCWorld's numerous articles containing keyboard shortcuts for every major OS and many popular applications. Get started with Windows 7 shortcuts.
Build your own
In many cases, building your own PC can be a less expensive proposition than buying a prefab system—and even when it isn't cheaper, building your own ensures that you get the precise configuration that fits your needs (this is especially true for gaming PCs).
Keep your software up-to-date
The message windows reminding you to update your software can get annoying, but it’s a good idea to stop what you’re doing and click the 'Update now' button. You'll get the all the functionality the software has to offer, and you'll also obtain vital security patches that can protect your system from software crashes and data loss.
Use an ergonomic keyboard and mouse tray
You might not realize how much time you spend at your desk. Hours can fly by when you’re “in the zone,” and those hours of typing and mousing add up. Carpal-tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-stress injuries are a real risk for the information workers of today, and they can cost you dearly in pain and missed work. A small investment in adjustable, ergonomic keyboard and mouse combos, coupled with some research on correct positioning, can save you a lot of trouble.
Encrypt sensitive stuff
Encrypt any file you wouldn't want to share with a thief, including email. My program of choice: TrueCrypt. But don't bother to encrypt the entire drive. Just create a TrueCrypt volume and keep your sensitive files there.
Label your power bricks
Every time you buy a new device, you wind up with a new power adapter. They collect under desks, behind PCs, and in boxes in the closet. It's almost as if they're breeding. It’s easy to lose track of which one goes to which device, and it’s possible to harm your gear by using the wrong power cable. So the first thing you should do after buying new gear is to label the power brick, permanently pairing it with the right device.
Hide those cables
The tangled mess of cables and wires under your desk will only get worse and worse—and you won’t realize how much it bugs you until you finally clean it all up. You can bundle groups of wires by running them through toilet paper tubes, or binding them with pipe cleaners or small bands of Velcro, and then use binder clips to tie the bundled wires to the underside of your desk, or any place where they’re out of sight.
Stay wired when you want to connect
Wired ethernet will always be faster and more reliable than wireless networking. If you regularly do something (for work or play) on your home computer that relies on a constant Web connection, you may be better off using a wired Internet connection. Wired connections are capable of far faster data speeds and are simply not subject to the many factors that can disrupt a wireless connection.
Put your router in the middle
Position your wireless router as close as you can to the center of your home. This action can help ensure that all the wireless devices in your home are within range of the access point. You’ll also find that the signals coming from your router are more likely to reach their destination if the antenna is elevated off the floor a few feet.
People store gigabytes of vital information on their portable devices, yet they rarely think about protecting their devices from theft. One of the best things you can do is to install a GPS-enabled antitheft program on your laptop, tablet, or phone. If your device goes missing, the software will lock the OS, report the device's location to you via GPS, and in some cases even capture and send some photos of the thief.
If your PC seems to crash frequently, the Windows Reliability Monitor (Control Panel > System and Security > Action Center > Reliability Monitor) can help isolate the cause. The utility keeps track of all hardware and software crashes and warnings, organizing them by date. By clicking on one, you can see the full details of what happened.
For gamers: Update your drivers
Confirm whether you have the latest drivers for your PC's graphics and sound hardware. Game developers create their titles using the latest features and functionality in graphics cards. If you’re using older drivers, your graphics card might not be up to the task of rendering the game properly on screen.
Use two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication simply means that logging in to a given service requires two separate forms of authentication: something you know (such as a password) and something you own, typically your smartphone. For example, you can enable two-factor authentication for your Gmail account. Doing so will require you to have your smartphone nearby every time you try to log in to your account so that the service can send you a unique alphanumeric code via SMS, but the arrangement makes it much more difficult for hackers to break into your account.
Change your router's default SSID
The easiest thing you can do to improve the security of your wireless network is to change both the login and the password for your router to unique alphanumeric phrases that only you know. Since finding the default login and password for almost every router on the market is child's play online, leaving your router at the defaults allows anyone to gain access to the wireless network in your home or small business.
Shun 'Free Public Wi-Fi'
The 'Free Public Wi-Fi' network you might see listed on your Windows laptop when you're in various public places is the result of an old Windows XP bug that causes the OS to set up an ad hoc data-sharing network for connected PCs if it can't connect to a trusted wireless network automatically.
Connecting to this type of device-to-device ad hoc network rarely poses any immediate danger, but it won't get you onto the Web, either. And malicious users could spy on the connection and steal valuable information from you.
Say no to cookies
Enable the Do Not Track feature on your browser. This feature will send a message to the websites you visit that it is not okay for them to install cookies in your browser that will record your movements around the Web. Unless you want that to happen, of course.
The best tip of all: Take a break
Every so often, take an electronic sabbatical. Go 24 hours without looking at a screen. It's good for your eyes, and it reduces the chance of burnout. It also reminds you of how powerful personal computers of all shapes and sizes have become—and that thought alone might make everyone a little more tolerant and patient when problems arise.
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