Editor’s Note: Nancy Isaacs is “The Computer Maven.” For 12 years she has operated The Computer Maven, helping small businesses and personal users with their technology. She offers these answers to common technology questions asked by Baby Boomers.
What’s the best way to back up my computer?
There are two primary methods for backing up your computer: using an online (cloud) backup service or saving to a local external hard drive. I generally recommend setting up both, because each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Online backup of your data files (documents, photos, videos, spreadsheets) protects you in the event of a flood, fire, burglary, or any of the other usual wrath of God stuff directed at your home or office, because the files are stored offsite (in the cloud). The other approach – backing up locally to an external drive hardwired or networked to your computer enables you to make a copy of your entire hard drive, as well as your data files, and is usually the fastest way to restore your files.
Many of the online backup services offer access to your files from any computer browser (e.g., Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari), which can be very useful. Some services offer a small amount of free storage space (2-5 GB), but charge an annual subscription fee ($50-$100/year) for amounts over that. If you’re looking to back up Word, Excel and PDF documents, you may be able to take advantage of the free space offers. Photos and videos use a lot more data, and will likely mean you’ll have to purchase a subscription. In its December 2015 review of online backup services, PC Magazine gave iDrive high marks. I’ve installed it on several clients’ computers and have been happy with it. Here’s the review if you want to read more.
Local backup costs only the price of an external hard drive ($60-$80). It can be set to back up both your data files and your entire computer at regular intervals using a backup program included with the computer or from another company, such as Acronis. In the event of hard drive failure or serious infection (such as those that encrypt all of your files and demand ransom to regain access to them), restoring from a local backup can save you an enormous amount of time, money and hassle.
I think my computer has a virus. What should I do?
While cursing and praying are the typical options, the short answer is to get help. These days, you don’t have to visit a porn site to pick up a virus, worm or other infection that compromises your computer and puts your privacy at risk. It can happen by opening a seemingly legitimate e-mail message, by downloading a “free” program, or even by going to a web page that turned out to be infected. If anything strange happens, including unexpected pop-up windows while using a browser (“your computer is infected, call this number for help”), a home page that’s suddenly been changed, or icons on your desktop that you don’t recognize, I recommend immediately saving any documents you were working on and then closing all programs and rebooting the computer. The next step is to contact your IT person. Unless you are experienced at disinfecting computers, trying to do it yourself can easily make things worse. If you don’t have an IT resource, you can bring the computer to a reputable repair place (including Staples, Best Buy/Geek Squad, or individual computer consultants). Because the easiest way to fix a serious infection is to reformat the hard drive and reinstall the operating system, make sure you have your data files backed up and have discussed this possibility with your IT provider before authorizing any work.
Should I switch to a Gmail account?
That depends on what company currently provides your e-mail service. If you’re using an e-mail account from the company that provides your Internet access, such as Comcast or Verizon, I recommend switching to Gmail. Why? If you decide to switch providers for any reason, you will lose that e-mail account. In addition, Comcast and Verizon both have extremely sluggish browser interfaces that force you to view annoying ads, offer limited capabilities and make it difficult to transfer your contacts to another program. If you have an AOL e-mail account, the decision to switch is more a matter of personal choice. AOL’s Desktop software has become increasingly buggy, but if you’re checking your mail from a browser by going to aol.com and not getting too much junk mail, there’s no compelling reason to switch. If your e-mail is provided by Yahoo, Hotmail, MSN and you’re happy with it, then keep using it.
That being said, there are still reasons to consider switching to Gmail. You get outstanding e-mail service for free that’s faster, more reliable and has better spam filtering than any other mainstream option. You can use Gmail from any browser or a desktop e-mail program like Outlook or Mac Mail.
Are these your top questions? Use the comment box below and let’s discuss.