Family and Friends: Protect Your Computer!

Header Photo Credit: Lorenzo Cafaro (Creative Commons Zero License)

Being in the tech industry, I occasionally get asked by family and friends to help with computer issues. Two items in particular come up, either because they asked, or more likely, because I bring it up:

  • Virus Protection
  • Backups

So, I decided to write down my thoughts for future reference.

Virus Protection:

Everyone should be running anti-virus software -- always.  Let me say that again: EVERYONE SHOULD BE RUNNING ANTI-VIRUS SOFTWARE. ALWAYS!

The Internet, being the giant series of tubes that it is, is great for sharing information, but is also a breeding ground for nasties.  You're first line of defense should be a network firewall.  Chances are you have a router, possibly built into your modem, sitting at the connection point between you and the Internet. In most cases, the router acts as a firewall too.  If it's a "NAT" router (that's Network Address Translation), it also provides an additional layer of protection by giving your computer a "private" IP address that's not directly accessible from the Internet at large.  This means the bad guys can't just attack your PC directly -- they have to find a way for your PC to come to them.  The bad news -- it's really easy to get you to come to them: email, social network sites, rouge ads on webpages, phishing links... you get the idea.

So, install an anti-virus package.  There are many, many choices, including Norton AntiVirus, AVG, avast!, McAfee, and many others.  But my recommendation is to use Microsoft Security Essentials.  It's free, it's integrated with Windows Update, and from my experience, it's just as accurate as the other guys and doesn't seem to hurt performance.

Now, it's not enough to just install the software.  You also need to keep it updated.  Out of the box, all of these programs are configured to auto-update their virus definitions.  In most cases, it's configured to do it in the middle of the night, one or more nights a week.  This is fine, as long as you keep your computer on all night.  But, if you turn off your PC, or have a laptop that turns off when you close the lid, make sure to change the settings to run during a time the computer is on.  It should be fine to run while you're using the PC.  If your PC isn't on frequently enough to have a set schedule, make sure to open the virus software (there should be an icon down by the clock in the lower left corner) and manually kick off the updates once a week.

I've been running Microsoft Security Essentials for years with good results; however my wife's laptop got hit pretty hard by a virus last year which was missed by Security Essentials and several other anti-virus packages I tried.  Eventually, after having to do a complete re-install of the machine twice, I found a secondary anti-malware package that did the job: MalwareBytes.  This program is not intended to be a replacement for your anti-virus, rather it's a supplement.  The designers do not try to catch the bad stuff that the anti-virus apps will find -- they target the stuff that's difficult for them to find.  It's a for-pay application (after a fairly long trial period) if you want real-time checking (which you probably do), but worth it if you find yourself frequently getting hit by nasty, slimy bits.

Note: "malware" (shortened for of "malicious software") is the larger category of viruses, worms, trojan horses, key loggers, root kits and other applications that intend harm or deception.  Most "anti-virus" software is really "anti-malware", as they protect against more than just viruses.


Backups are an insurance policy.  You don't need them until you really need them, and by that time, it's too late.  For years, I went without backups, and lost many, many files to accidental deletes, hardware failures, viruses and just stupidity.

There are several levels of backup, and anything is better than nothing!

File backups:

If you just need to make sure a handful of files are safe from getting nuked, you have a lot of options. I prefer DropBox, which is a cloud-based storage application.  It also has the added benefit of keeping the files sync'd across multiple computers. So in my case, I have the DropBox client running on my home machine, my work machine, my iPad and iPhone, as well as on the web, and it keeps the files updated in all those places with no actions on my part.   And, it's free for 2GB, with options to buy more storage. You can also unlock additional storage by recommending it to friends (thus, the link above has my "recommend to friends" info in them -- Disclaimer: If you signup using that link, I'll get some extra space too).

Microsoft has a similar product called SkyDrive, which as of this week, has a limit of 7GB for the free account. And Google is expected to go live with their solution soon, so expect to see free account size limits increase and the three companies compete for customers.

File and System backups:

For most versions of Windows, you can setup the built-in backup -- you'll likely want to by an external USB or firewire (if you're PC supports it) harddrive to store the files.  For full system backups, you'll want a big drive, since it'll keep multiple copies of your current harddisk -- so shoot for 2x to 5x the currently used size of your main harddrive.  It's generally a bad idea to use a second partition on your main harddisk, since a disk failure will kill your data and your backups at the same time.

There's also Carbonite, an online backup solution. I've not used it, but have heard good things. **Update: I now use Carbonite, and like it as an off-site backup. Be warned, though: It chews up a lot of bandwidth, especially as it uploads your initial files.

Finally, there's what I've been using for a little over a year: Microsoft Home Server.  You can purchase what is basically a server in a box (with no screen) with various levels of hardware and configuration.  I built my own, opting for uber-protection using RAID-5 arrays for harddrive protection inside the box.  Home Server will easily configure your Windows machines to not only backup your files to the network device, but also perform full system images.  This allows you to do a full system restoration, including harddrive partitioning, by just booting from a CD or USB drive you create from the server, selecting which backup image you want to restore (by date backup was taken) and sitting back to watch for about 45 minutes while it does all the work.  It also provides a personal website that you can access from anywhere, using SSL (https) encryption, where you can get access to files stored on the server, get Remote Desktop access to any machines online at home that support it, and more.  This is definitely NOT the cheap route to go, and is overkill for most. Update: Microsoft has chosen not to continue the Windows Home Server product, suggesting people move to Windows Server Essentials for that support. However, unless you're willing to seriously earn your IT merit badge, I wouldn't suggest going this route.

Now, go make sure you've got anti-virus running, backups in place, and spread the word!