My sister in law once asked me why they have so many computer problems and we do not. My wife and I are both technology consultants and our home network probably seems incredibly stable to the casual observer. This question, in one form or another, comes up pretty often. I thought about it at length and feel that there are really a number of common factors that are pretty common to find differing between how the average IT professional sets up their home computers (as opposed to their work computer) and how the average user does. Not every IT pro does these things and not ever non-IT person does not, but these are pretty common differentiators that all factor in to stability of the home computing environment.
- We Don’t Log In as the Administrator. This is probably the single biggest difference between normal users and IT professionals at home. Running as the administrator for every day computing just isn’t wise – any malicious or misbehaving application will be able to be malicious with your user privileges, which as the administrator are unlimited. I have been working in IT for over twenty years and would never use the administrator account for anything but system maintenance tasks. It just isn’t safe. The entire purpose of having these different types of accounts is for your protection.
- Keep the System Patched. A patched computer is, more or less, a safe computer. Those patches that come out from Microsoft, Apple and your application vendors are there for a reason – because a problem has been found and they want to get it fixed before something bad happens to you and it is their fault. Once a patch is released, you need to get it installed right away because the security hole that it patches is now public knowledge and you are particularly vulnerable in the time right after the patch is released. Nearly anytime that I log onto someone else’s computer the first thing that I notice is that there are a large number of security patches waiting to be installed. Never let this happen – patch immediately.
- Use AntiVirus and Software Firewall. Running a good antivirus (there are plenty of free ones for home users) is quite important as is having a firewall on your computer. AntiVirus helps your computer protect itself against known attacks and will look for dangerous files on your computer that may have been downloaded, found on removable media, on a website, etc. In theory, if you are not the administrator and are well patched viruses will be able to do only limited damage, but any damage you can prevent is a good thing. A software firewall on your computer is an added layer of protection as well – for home users it is pretty minor but it is free and you should never turn down valid protection.
- Use a Real Firewall. A software firewall on your computer is not enough, you should always have a real, hardware firewall as well. This does not have to be an expensive device and you will often need one for other purposes anyway – such as sharing your Internet connection with multiple users – just make sure that you have one installed. This is far more important than having a software firewall but neither is an excuse for not having the other. You need both.
- Never Use the Pre-Installed Operating System. This is one of those “tricks” that IT pros learn after working on many, many machines. Computers come with a pre-installed copy of the operating system on them. This pre-installed copy normally is loaded with horrible software that you would never, ever want to have installed on your computer and is often just trials of software that you will have to buy to use. You don’t want this. Instead, take the operating system installation media that came with your computer (you didn’t buy a computer without it, did you?) and install a fresh copy of your operating system without any of that additional stuff before you do anything with that computer. This is important for two reasons: first that you eliminate all of that useless advertising that might even go so far as to break your computer and second it gives you a basic install that you can repeat later, which is important.
- Reinstall the Operating System Periodically. Over time, on Windows especially, you will notice a deterioration of your computer over time. Except in the cases of hardware failure, this is caused by a sprawl of data, settings, registry changes, etc. on your hard drive. There are techniques for fixing this but none are perfect. From time to time, often once every one to two years, it is very advantageous to blow everything away and install the operating system fresh (as in the tip above) and start over with a “new” computer. As long as the hardware has not begun to fail your computer will now behave exactly as it did the day that you got it. (Do not forget to patch it immediately.) This also gives you the very important chance to reinstall only those applications that you actually need and use and leave unused ones behind (along with any malware that has found its way onto your system.)
- Have a Spare Computer. It is a rare IT professional who relies on a single desktop or laptop for everything that they do. There is too much riding on the ability to be online, all the time to only have one computer. The slightest hiccup and you are unable to do anything – including unable to look up what you need to know to fix your computer! Having a spare computer means that you have another computer to use while you are busy reinstalling the operating system on your main computer, for example. It also gives you a secondary location from which you can verify that all of your critical data is still available while working on your main machine which is some serious peace of mind.
- Take Good Backups. Nothing is more important to IT professionals than backups. Backups are what keep us in business. Most likely these days you will find IT pros not only have an external hard drive (or better, an actual storage server) in their homes on which they keep complete copies of everything that matter to them but also that they have online backups going to a cloud storage provider so that should their home be lost (flood, fire, tornado) that they would still have their precious files. Losing your photographs, home movies, financial records, etc. can be quite tragic – take steps to protect these. If you do it right, you should never fear your computer dying beyond the slight annoyance that it takes to install your operating system again.
- Don’t Install Just Anything. What you install and run on your computer matters. IT professionals are generally pretty wary of what they install and normally only install known applications from trusted vendors – not any random piece of software that is found on the Internet. It is important to know what you are installing and why you want it. The average computer user, IT pros included, actually need very few different applications on their computers. The fewer you install the fewer you need to maintain and the less chance that you will have one that damages your system or slows it down. Often when helping non-IT professionals with their computers I find that the computers are full of applications that no one has ever heard of and the person whose system has them installed has never really used or may not even know what they are! This is how the bulk of malware gets installed.
- Download Drivers, Don’t Use Vendor CDs. IT Pros know that drivers are critical to system stability and that the latest are available from vendor websites. Any CD with a driver for a new piece of hardware that you just bought is pretty much guaranteed to be out of date and, more often than not, the vendor will use the opportunity of you putting their CD into your drive to install extra software that you don’t want onto your computer. Avoid this completely; use the vendor website to get the latest drivers immediately and don’t use the media that comes with your hardware.
- Buy Commercial, Not Consumer, Equipment. I’ve written whole articles on this in the past – this is one of those industry insider tricks. In business, we look for computers to be stable and reliable, not flashy and “cool”. Nothing is cooler than a computer that works reliably. Big computer vendors make one line for consumers to be sold at your local store and another line for discerning companies who do their homework. Skip the in-store buying. Go directly to the big vendors (don’t even think about buying something made by the guy down the street) and stick exclusively to their commercial or business lines. These lines are built for buyers in the know who need their computers to be cost effective over their lifetimes, not to be cheap up front.
- Have a regular maintenance routine. There are simple tasks that need to be done all the time such as defragging your drives, cleaning up unneeded files and blowing the dust out of your machine. IT pros regularly maintain their computers to maintain system health. Computers are not just “set and forget” devices. They are just too complex for that. That being said, though, most tasks can be automated.
- Run wires. Wireless networking is simple, clean and easy. It is also slow and difficult to troubleshoot. When possible, consider running cabling in your home so that your computers, at least the desktops, game consoles and other stationary devices, can get the speed and stability advantages of cabling. The more devices on your cabled network also means the fewer devices that will be competing for wireless resources.
- Use a UPS. A UPS, or uninterruptable power supply, is a crucial component in protecting your computer equipment. It protects computers from disruptions and surges in the power grid. Computers are very sensitive to power problems and an inexpensive UPS can go a long way to keeping your computer healthy for a long time. More importantly, it protects against data loss.
The basic tip here is – treat your home like a business, not like a toy. The average home user doesn’t take their computer seriously at all and never gives it a second thought until something goes horribly wrong – and then it is likely too late. Your computer is one of your most expensive and most important possessions, treat it more like a car and less like a toaster.