Keep work, personal finance, and other critical tasks on a separate computer from the one used to play games or download programs.
It has been said that a computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila. Computers also make mistakes on their own, whether they're glitches, conflicts, bugs, crashes, or failures.
Avoiding glitches is considerably less frustrating than trying to fix them. Here are the most frequently mentioned preventative maintenance tips anybody can handle:
Use security software. Keep the software updated regularly by turning on automatic updates. Security software typically bundles together an anti-virus program, firewall program and anti-spyware program, and it may include other tools as well.
Some ISPs such as Comcast provide free security software from well-regarded companies such as McAfee. Make sure you enable the tools (not everybody does this). You can also buy such software if it's not provided to you. The free programs that come with Microsoft Windows, and the free programs that are available over the Internet, provide more or less basic protection. But in general they're less effective and more difficult to update than the bundled packages.
Update Windows regularly. Direct Windows to automatically check for "critical updates" of security and other patches. If you're running Windows Vista, hit the Start key or click on the Start button, click on System and Maintenance, and click on "Turn automatic updating on or off." If you're running Windows XP, after you've accessed the Start menu click on Control Panel, System, and Automatic Updates.
You should also regularly keep up to date with your office software, other programs you're running, and the small software programs called drivers that let your printer and other peripherals communicate with Windows. Companies such as Hewlett Packard let you update your drivers automatically.
Separate work and play. Try to keep your work, personal finance, and other critical tasks on a separate computer from the one used to play games or download and try out new programs. It can be more than worth the investment to buy the kids their own PC for this purpose.
Surfing the Web and downloading music file-sharing programs and free games and other software can infect a PC with viruses, spyware and zombie programs that take control of it to send out spam and other maliciousness. Internet security software greatly decreases the chance of this happening, but it doesn't eliminate it.
A parental control program, often part of Internet security software, can be cumbersome to use, but it's one way to help prevent children from visiting porn, gambling, and other seedy Web sites and discussion areas. Another common recommendation is to periodically talk to your children about safe computing habits as well as their own computing experiences.
Be wary of the bad guys. In the old days, hackers just did mischief for the challenge. These days more likely than not they're after your money.
Be especially suspicious of any e-mail message or pop-up window that asks you to confirm a credit card, bank, eBay, PayPal or similar account. Clicking on links in these messages will likely just direct you to a scam Web site.
Legitimate companies don't do this online. If you have any doubts, telephone the company in question or manually surf to its Web site by typing in its address or using a Favorite or Bookmark link that you created earlier. These "phishing attacks" can lead to many hours of frustration as you try to clean up the mess.
Don't open e-mail attachments from people you don't know. It can also be good practice to check with people you do know before opening attachments to make sure the e-mail actually came from them.
Zap those glitches. If you're experiencing a problem, you can often solve it by simply turning off your PC, waiting a minute, and turning it back on.
If this doesn't help, another option is to do a Google search. Type any error message you received on screen into Google, within quotation marks. If you experience other types of glitches, type the key words into Google along with the product's brand name or the type of product. Others no doubt have experienced, and solved, the same problem.
Back up. Save files you can't afford to lose in more than one place, whether it's a USB drive, CD or DVD disc, removable hard drive, backup tape or Internet backup site, with one backup ideally being offsite. Despite your best preventive maintenance efforts, hard disk crashes, fires, floods, theft, and other disasters can destroy critical data.