- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Sterling resident Robert Nakles habitually turns off his computer at night. That way, the director of the Information Technology Project Office at George Mason University won’t forget to log off the Internet. Staying connected gives hackers more time to find holes in his computer system.

“That can cause security problems,” he says.

Mr. Nakles also closes programs when he’s finished using them. Keeping too many open on the desktop can decrease his computer’s speed and efficiency, he says.

Mr. Nakles and those who sell and support computers offer advice for keeping computers secure, efficient and maintained, inside and out.

Starting with the exterior components, the most obvious piece of advice, says Matt Nelson of Norfolk-based Geeks on Call, is to keep food and drink away from the computer. Crumbs can fall between the keys, and liquids, such as soda and sugared coffee, can cause the keys to stick.

“It may seem obvious, but a lot of people don’t think about it,” says Mr. Nelson, a computer enthusiast and public relations manager for Geeks on Call, a troubleshooting, networking and computer-repair company with franchises in 12 states.

Food, dirt and dust can be blown out of the keyboard with a can of compressed air or removed with a soft brush attached to a vacuum cleaner set to a low setting. Mr. Nelson recommends that the keyboard be cleaned at least once a month, or as often as it gathers dust.

For extremely dusty or dirty keyboards, a mild household cleanser sprayed on a soft cloth can be used, says Michael Rios, owner of A. Mike Rios Computer Care Center, a computer troubleshooting and repair company based in Arlington.

The cleanser-sprayed cloth also can be used on the monitor’s casing, but not on the monitor screen, Mr. Rios says. Instead, a soft dry cloth, a soft thistle brush or canned air are recommended, he and Mr. Nelson say.

If fingerprints or smudges are on the screen, a soft damp cloth can be used to wipe them away, Mr. Nelson says. The cloth should be only damp, not wet, to prevent water from entering the monitor, he says.

Dusting the components inside the central processing unit can be accomplished with canned air, particularly for the fans in front and back that pull air, along with dust, through the computer to cool the unit, Mr. Nelson says. Most computers have a door or a panel that can be opened or removed to allow for access, recommended after the computer is shut down and unplugged.

“Dust can really harm your computer. It can cause electric components to fail or degrade the performance of those components,” Mr. Nelson says.

The mouse, if it has a roller ball, is the last external component that may need cleaning. The ball, ring and other parts can be cleaned with rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab, and the rest by running a vacuum cleaner over the opening, Mr. Rios says.

Or the parts can be cleaned with an anti-static monitor wipe, used for cleaning screens, or a cleanser-sprayed cloth, Mr. Nakles says.

The mouse, keyboard and monitor should be cleaned about once a month, he says. The hardware should be kept at room temperature and stored in an open area. Likewise, software needs to be protected and maintained.

“A big part of computer protection and maintenance is maintaining the security of your computer internally,” says Matthew Rubin, director of merchandising for software, music and books at Office Depot, headquartered in Delray Beach, Fla.

Products can be purchased or downloaded for free to protect Internet-connected computers from hackers, viruses and worms. A firewall, for example, can make the user invisible while online, or it can alert the user of suspicious Internet activity. Anti-virus software can scan programs for viruses and worms, which can hide in e-mail attachments and cause destruction once the attachments are opened.

The anti-virus software should be updated daily — or at least weekly — because new viruses and worms are discovered every day, Mr. Nelson says. The user can subscribe to a service after purchasing the software to access automatic updates every time the Internet is used.

“What we find is people will buy the software but not maintain it,” says Robert Smith, director of customer experience and support at Hewlett Packard’s Consumer PC Global Business Unit in Cupertino, Calif. “The problem is a new virus will come out and there will be no protection against it.”

Another protective measure is updating the computer’s operating system, such as Windows. The updates, which fill in security holes as they are identified, can be downloaded from the Internet once the main program is purchased.

Regularly using the computer’s utilities, tools included on a computer’s desktop and in software products, is another helpful measure.

“They are software applications that help you keep your computer running well or help you when you have problems,” says Leslie Painter, manager of Patriot Computers at George Mason University. The utilities are “your hammer and screwdriver,” she says.

The recycle bin, a utility that stores deleted files, should be emptied once a month, Mr. Smith says.

The defragmenter, another utility, should be used every six months, or every three months for frequent computer users, to organize files, he says. When files are saved to the hard drive, they are sent to the first available space and are scattered to other spaces if they are too large. The defragmenter matches pieces of files back together.

Files and programs not in use should be deleted, Mr. Nelson says, because they take up memory and can fill the hard drive after accumulating. “As your computer reaches maximum capacity, it will slow down,” he says.

Adding memory or hardware can increase the life of a computer, estimated to be five years, Mr. Nakles says. “The computer will maintain the same speed, but people’s expectations change,” he says. “You get a long life out of computers if your expectations don’t change every time.”

Most computers are replaced for upgrades or after they become obsolete, says Jamie Columbus, director of merchandising for personal computers and monitors for Office Depot.

“In most home-office and corporate environments, they are not getting banged around, and they can last for years and years,” Mr. Columbus says.

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