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Jim's "Tips, Tricks & Software Picks"
(updated 04-28-2012)


Some friends and family have asked how I have my computer set up and what software I use.
Here are some tips and links to what I recommend:

If you're looking for my Android "Apps Picks," that's a different page, click here

Tip #1. With Internet Explorer (IE), go to Microsoft's Windows Update page and make sure your computer is up to date. Windows Update has all the latest patches for the Windows Operating System (Windows 7, Vista, XP), Internet Explorer, Office, Outlook, etc. There are "Critical" and "Recommended" updates. The "Critical" updates are very important to download. They patch security holes and known bugs that could leave your computer vulnerable. The "Recommended" updates are patches and programs that make Microsoft products run better or add functionality. Some of these can be ignored. The "Driver" updates are software for hardware installed, like your video card, audio card, printer, etc. I recommend that you check with the manufacturer of these components for their drivers before downloading Microsoft's drivers. Drivers are what your hardware uses to communicate with Windows. Installing the wrong driver can cause hardware to stop working. Be sure you get the correct driver for your hardware. Typically hardware will come with a driver disk, which will work, but from time to time the manufacturer will update the driver and it should be downloaded from their website.

Having Windows check for updates automatically can be turned on in the "Security Center" section of the "Control Panel." Getting there and turning it on is different in Windows 7, Vista and XP. If you need specific instructions for your version, let me know, but keep reading, you might have more than one question.


Tip #2.  Get your computer secured.  Below are several programs that I feel are "must have" on everyone's computer.  Getting "infected" with adware/spyware/malware programs is a big problem that is affecting computer users today.  Spyware is a growing problem and I believe is now a bigger problem than viruses.

Tip #3. So, you've been getting a lot of junk e-mail a.k.a. "Spam" in your inbox!?!  One way to avoid this is to set up a web based e-mail account like GMail, YahooMail or Hotmail. My current favorite is GMail because of the space they give with their free account. It's over 7GB (and increasing) with a free account. All offer free e-mail accounts that you can use whenever you need to give out an e-mail address to anyone other than family, friends, etc.  I recommend that you use your primary e-mail for friends, family, work and use the web based one for everything else.  This will significantly reduce the spam you get.  As you may know I use the web based e-mail as my primary e-mail address.  They have built in spam filters that keep most of the junk out of your inbox. Also, if you change Internet Providers, you won't have to change you email address. "Gmail" is provided by Google, everyone's favorite search engine, and offers a lot of storage space, so you will never have to delete emails for fear of filling up your inbox. This works well as a back up solution. Just email yourself that important document or photos and they can be saved virtually forever in your email. I still use my Yahoo email as my primary "personal" (friends & family) email address but have Gmail for both a storage solution and as the email I can give out for when shopping online or when I don't want to give out my personal email address.

Tip #4. Consider switching your "Browser." If you're using Internet Explorer to surf the web, consider switching to Chrome or FireFox
Either one is an excellent alternative to IE because it is not vulnerable to the malicious programs and web sites that exploit known issues specific to IE. If you're thinking "Another program that I have to learn how to use?" Don't worry. they are very similar to IE in the way they look and work. They're (in my opinion) better and I recommend them both without hesitation.
Check them out, they're worth trying, and of course both are free.

Tip #5. Disable Javascript. There are plugins for your browser that can do this for you and allow you control so you can turn it on for trusted / known web sites that you need to have Javascript turned on to run. (which is most web sites these days)
The issue with Javascript is that there are known vulnerablities that could allow the bad guys out there take over your computer. I explain more about the bad guys later when I talk about viruses and spyware. I like browser extension/add on's NoScript for Firefox & ScriptNo for Chrome

Tip #6. Back up your data. Hard drives fail. It's not a matter of "if" but "when." I have external hard drives also called NAS's (Network Attached Storage) but they are not enough. You also need "offsite" back up. What I used to do was keep a couple of nas's and take one to/from work, but sometimes I would forget it and if your back up is sitting next to your computer in a fire, you're screwed. For offsite back up I am now using and recommending DropBox.com What I like about DropBox is that they offer 2GB of space for free. It is so easy to set up and use too. It's a great way to back up offsite. If you need more space, I would recommend Carbonite, for only $59.00 they have unlimited space. Disclaimer: I have set up an affiliation with DropBox.com If you sign up using my link here, they give me 500mb of more space for free. I recommend that you do the same and recommend to your friends/family/coworkers to get more free space. It's a "Win, Win."

Tip #7. Seaching online. Most are using Google to search online. We now use Google as a verb and is completely synonymous with "searching." That said, I no longer use Google, I use DuckDuckGo.com as my default/primary search engine. What I learned is that Google tracks and taylors the search results to what it thinks you would like based on what you've searched before and also to what others like you have searched. Now, that can be useful, but I don't want that, necessarliy. I want the search engine I use to just find what I'm looking for based on the terms I'm searching for. If I'm not happy with the resultes, I do check out the others as well. Like: Bing & Yahoo. It's not like you have to use only one or the other. Check out DuckDuckGo's privacy policy and compare it to Google's. DDG's is far less scary than Googles.

Tip #8. Where to shop online? Simply doing a search online to find your product can take you into a dangerous world. You really can't trust just any website you find. I recommed you go with "known & trusted" websites. You're probably already using Amazon.com when you shop online. It's a great place to compare a bunch of different sellers & prices at once. For me, it's where I usually go first and come back to to make my purchase. I'm getting to a point where I don't even look any further. They consistantly have the lowest prices. And, what I really like about them is that the community (you, me & others) can rate & write reviews, not just about the product, but about the seller as well. I'm continually impressed with my shopping experience on Amazon.com Click here to go there now.

I also will check TigerDirect.com for tech related stuff and sometimes can find some good deals there.

And of course, there's always eBay. I use eBay for the "not necessarily new" items I'm looking for. When I need a unique gift or collectible I go to eBay. Sure, there's new stuff and I do check there, but not for the newer items. I stick with Amazon for that stuff.

Firewall software/hardware:  If you're using Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 then the firewall that is built in is adequate. To check and see if it's turned on and running, go to the "Start" button, the "Control Panel" and then "Security Center"  The firewall should be "On" Today's routers are excellent hardware firewalls and I recommend that everyone get "behind" a router. They're cheap enough at under $50.00 and I personally recommend Linksys routers, which you can shop for by using either of the links above. I recommend Linksys because: 1st: They are very popular and what that means is there is plenty of info about them online, which comes in handy if you have any questions. 2nd: It is what I've been using for years, so I'm very comfortable with the set up & configuration. If you have questions about the Linksys, I can probably help. If you have a laptop that's wireless you probably already have a wireless router and that's good. Some might say that if you have a hardware firewall you don't need a software firewall and visa-versa. I disagree. It can be argued that it's a belt & suspenders kind of thing, but as you will see from my comments below, I take security very seriously and neither one is perfect, I think everyone needs both...continue reading...

Anti-Virus software:.  As my #1 AV software I'm now recommending Microsoft's free "Microsoft Security Essentials" first & foremost. It's very effective and is easy to use. The others are more complicated. More info and download here.

I also recommed Avast. It's also free and is available here. They require you to register, which provides a license for free personal use for about a year. They just require you to re-register annually to keep using it for free. It comes highly recommended by Steve Gibson, a tech security expert and founder of grc.com. See more about grc.com below. I did try it for a little while but find Microsoft's easier to use. The jury is still out on which is better.

I have recommended AVG in the past, but have not used it since version 8.0. I used it for years and recommended it exclusively, but when they went to version 8.0, it got bloated and was a system resource hog so I switched to Avast and then switched again to Microsoft Security Essentials.

Go ahead and try them and see which you prefer. Just don't try to run more than one antivirus on your system at a time, they can conflict with each other.

For the Android: AVG for Android is my AV app recommendation.
I currently use it on my Droid. More info & download here


"Adware," "Spyware or "Malware:" For Windows users, as I said above, Microsoft's Security Essentials but there are a few of others: Malwarebytes, Spyware Blaster and SpyBot Search & Destroy
"Adware," "Spyware" or "Malware" (often used interchangeably) are programs that can track what you do and where you go on the net.  They can give others access to your computer and your personal information. At the very least they can slow down your computer and cause it to be unstable.
You can run more than one "malware" program at a time, unlike antivirus programs, mentioned earlier.

So...download, install, update, and run all these programs.  I know that it may take a while, but I feel it's important enough to do it.  I have these on disk, and would be glad to make you a copy or if you're local, I'd be happy to install them for you.  Just ask!!  I feel that strongly about these programs.
To keep your computer secure it is recommended that you check for updates and run these programs at least weekly, the jerks out there come out with new threats daily.

Remember, the programs I'm recommending are free but do have "Pro" versions that cost money, so if you're asked for payment info or are taken to shopping cart you may be installing the "paid" version. If you have question about what you're installing, stop, cancel and let me know so I can help you get the right one installed. Of course, if you want the paid version, for added features or support, I understand. But, while I have upgraded to some paid versions, some I have not and may not be familiar with that version and may not be able to help if you have any issues. Also, some of the download pages are cluttered with ads and I do want to make sure you're installing the right program.

Another thing to consider when installing free programs is that sometimes they have made deals with other parties like Yahoo or Google and one of the options when installing is to install one of their "toolbars" or other applications. Be sure to read each step when installing and if you are unsure, stop and cancel and let me know. I'd be happy to walk you through any of the installs of these programs.

Lock it down: Are you wondering..."Is my computer secure?"  "Is my computer at risk?"  "How would I know?"  Well there is a way to find out.  There is a web site that will test your computer to see if it is secure.  This is a free service and does not require you to give out any personal information, not even your email address.  The web site is grc.com and the test is called "Shields Up."  Click here to go there now. Scroll down to "Shields Up" link. Click on the link there and you will be taken to the Shields Up page, click on the "Proceed" button, you will see a pop up warning about encryption, it's ok, click "Continue" then click on the "All Service Ports" button. Your IP address will be displayed and the test will begin and "Test your shields and probe your ports."  It seems like a lot of steps and the test does take a minute but it really is quick & easy and nothing to download.  C'mon, go ahead, you know you're wondering if you're secure.  It is important. If you don't "Pass" let me know and we'll fix it.

Income tax software:  I use TaxAct  It is easy to use and it's inexpensive too. You can get the federal and state deluxe bundle for $19.95. This includes a free "e-file" option. This program will help take the pain out of doing your taxes.  I've been using this program for years and love it.  If you have any questions, just call or email me.

Office Suite: Your computer probably came with Microsoft Works or some other office suite. You may have paid $150-200 to upgrade to Microsoft Office. I hope you're reading this before you have done that, because I have found a free office suite that is completely compatible with Microsoft's Office, including Word and Excel. It looks almost identical and is so similar that you will hardly notice the difference. It is called OpenOffice. You can download it for free from here. Check it out. It wouldn't be on this page if I didn't think it was worthwhile. When you click on the link, you will be taken to their "please contribute" page. You can if you wish, but there is no obligation at all. All you have to do is click on their "continue to download" button, save the install file to your computer and then run it, following their instructions like any other installation of software.

Chicken Little said, "The sky is falling" and instilled fear in those around him. The above comments may seem to be similar in nature, but they are not. What I described above are real issues that we have to deal with regardless of how you feel about these issues and how you may or may not think they affect you. I don't mean to try and scare anyone, I just want to inform and help. If you have any questions let me know and I'd be happy to discuss with you further and/or help with any issues you may have with your computer, software and the Internet in general.

There are a ton of excellent (and free) programs and web sites that I didn't mention so if you're looking for a particular type of program or need a solution to a problem that is not covered here, let me know and I'd be happy to make a recommendation.

Questions? Need clarification? Step by step instructions? Call or email me. I really would be happy to help.

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