A miscellany of tech tips

Idea

Image credit: brunkfordbraun

I’ve been following the tech scene for about 2 years now since I discovered tech podcasts. Although I had reasonable tech knowledge before this, mostly from browsing tech forums, I found that listening to tech podcasts and subscribing to tech blogs in Google Reader uncovered many tech tips and great advice, and some of the best tips keep coming up again and again. I’ve tried to gather together some of the best that I can remember. If you’re a geek you’ll have heard most before, but for the tech beginner, hopefully there’s some useful advice here. I’ve tried to keep each tip as short and concise as possible. Just use Google to get lots of additional info.

Essentials

1. First and foremost, back up your data regularly. This can’t be stressed enough. Sooner or later, your hard drive will die and you don’t want all your photos, etc to die with it. Back all your data up to an external drive, or to one of a host of free online services like DropBox. If you’ve a lot of data, have a look at Carbonite, a paid service. Better still, image or clone your hard drive regularly onto an external drive using a product like Acronis True Image so you can quickly get back up and running after a disk disaster. I’ve written a how-to on avoiding a disk disaster.

2. Second and also really important, always use secure passwords online: long and with a combination of numbers, letters and symbols, never dictionary words. Don’t use the same password on multiple sites. Use a program like LastPass to manage your passwords. It’s free and will also help with filling out online forms.

3. Have a rescue CD to hand so that if you are caught with a non-booting drive, you can at least try to get your data off. A Knoppix CD or the Ultimate Boot CD may do the trick. And before disaster strikes, make sure your PC will boot off the CD drive when a CD is inserted at boot-up. You may have to change the boot order in the BIOS so that the PC boots off the CD first.

4. Make sure you always have a firewall enabled on your PC.

Hardware

1. If you’re using the default router username and password, change them immediately. The default settings are all commonly known and listed here or here. So anyone with this knowledge can effectively hack into your PC if you have a wireless router and they are in range.

2. Uncheck all unnecessary programs launching at startup. To do this in Windows XP, click on Start, Run and enter msconfig in the box. Then click the Startup tab and uncheck any programs you don’t need at startup. Google any you are not sure of. Or use the excellent free utility CCleaner to disable startup programs. Click the Tools tab on the left then the Startup button. Revo Uninstaller can also disable startup programs through its Autorun Manager.

3. Get as much RAM as you can into your PC, 2GB or more if possible. Use the Crucial System Scanner to check what type of memory you need and how much you can fit.

4. Disable the annoying Caps Lock key. Here’s a short how-to.

5. By all accounts, many PC users, particularly in the US, seem to suffer from dust and dirt clogging up the fans, etc. and causing overheating problems which can damage your PC. It’s well worthwhile unplugging your PC, removing the side panel, taking it outside and carefully blowing out all the dust and dirt before you do permanent damage to your system. If you found a lot of dust, clean it regularly.

6. When using you laptop with the mains cable plugged in, take great care not to strain or loosen the power jack by for example by tugging or tripping over the mains cable. Treat that connection with great care. Once the connection shears from the motherboard you’ll only have hours of battery life left before a trip to your local computer repair shop is needed – and they mightn’t be keen on doing this type of repair.

Software

1. Firefox is a great multi-platform browser, particularly because of the vast amount of extensions which improve the user experience. Don’t load up too many plugins though or you’ll slow it down.

2. Don’t use the bulky Adobe Reader to open pdfs. Lightweight, free Foxit Reader is fine.

3. Thunderbird is a great multi-platform email client.

4. If you haven’t tried Skype, sign up for it. You can make free calls from PC to PC with this. If you both have webcams you can make free video calls – excellent for keeping in touch with friends and family abroad. Our daughter is away at college now and Skype is invaluable for keeping in touch.

5. VLC is a great multi-platform media player. It’ll play virtually anything you throw at it.

6. You don’t have to spend money on commercial software. Products like OpenOffice are really excellent, multi-platform free solutions and suitable for most things you might want to do. You can even open and edit pdfs in OpenOffice Writer.

7. There are many free utilities to convert Word documents to pdfs. I use doPDF which effectively prints your doc to a pdf file.

8. CCleaner is an essential free utility for a Windows PC for deleting temporary files, history, cookies, etc. Use BleachBit on a Linux machine.

9. Use the free utility Recuva to recover deleted files.

10. Revo Uninstaller is a great free utility that does a thorough job of getting rid of installed applications and the junk that they can sometimes leave behind.

11. Two great Windows anti-spyware programs are SUPERAntiSpyware and Malwarebytes. Free AVG is a good antivirus program, but if you’re careful where you go on the net, you may not need any of them – particularly if you’re using a Linux distribution as your OS.

12. Evernote is great for collecting web clippings, etc. Give it a try. Doesn’t support Linux yet though.

Online services

1. GMail is a great spam filter. Route all your email account inboxes through GMail. I’ve been doing this for over a year now and I find it almost never puts genuine mail in the spam folder and is brilliant at filtering out any imported spam emails. In addition, it won’t import any email when it identifies a virus in an attachment. Excellent.

2. If you’re search on Google isn’t getting the results you wanted, try searching for exact keyword phrases by putting your keyword phrase in inverted commas – or use the exact phrase box in Google Advanced Search. I use this a lot so I always have Google Advanced Search loading up in one tab when I launch Firefox.

3. XMarks is great for syncing your browser bookmarks between all your PCs.

Operating systems

1. By all accounts, Windows 7 is going to be a great OS. Upgrade to it when you can.

2. Don’t be afraid to try Linux, particularly Ubuntu if you’re a beginner. Although things are done slightly differently from Windows, it really is well worth trying out and it isn’t hard to use. You may well decide to switch from Windows afterwards. You may be able to use Wine to get some of your favourite Windows programs running on Linux.

General

1. If you have to put your email address on your website, make sure to cloak it so it’s not picked up by spammers. Use a service like HideText to do this. Better still, use a contact form on your webpage.

2. Subscribe to @makeuseof in Twitter for lots of useful info on web applications and services.

3. Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog!

That’s all I can think of for the moment – I’ll come back and add additional tips when I think of them. Drop a comment if you have a great tech tip to share.

Oh and by the way, if this article has whetted your appetite for tech tips, have a look at David Pogue’s great article (and the comments) for even more useful tips.

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