July Tech Challenge: Update Antivirus Software

We know, you’ve had it up to here with talk of viruses. At the risk of agitating you further, we’re going to use the current global climate as a metaphor for computer viruses and an argument for why you should keep your antivirus software updated. Except, it’s not even a metaphor because computer viruses and antivirus software for your computer, behave exactly like viruses and vaccines in the human body.

What is a virus?

A virus on its own, can’t do anything. Whether it’s a physical virus just sitting on a door handle or some lines of computer code typed out on a screen, neither one can replicate, move around, or cause any harm. Viruses are made up of a set of instructions, but to follow those instructions they need to make their way into a host, whether that’s a computer or a human cell.

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A computer virus is made of a lines of code which only become active when the infected program is run.

Once a virus finds itself in a computer (or a cell) and gets activated, it springs to “life” and starts following the instructions written inside it. It begins attaching itself to other computer code (or cells) and modifying that code (or cells) to create the perfect environment in which to replicate itself. That’s when everything hits the fan.

How Do Viruses get in?

We all know by now how the current Coronavirus travels around (wash your hands, people! And don’t cough or sneeze on anyone. Although, frankly, those are just good rules to follow all the time.)

Like a human virus, computer viruses also travel around. They can arrive through email and text attachments (94% of malware is delivered by email), files you download from the Internet (1 in 13 web requests lead to malware), and questionable app downloads (apps in the lifestyle (15%) & entertainment (7%) categories are the most commonly seen source of malicious apps).

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Viruses can get onto your device through emails, downloads, and questionable apps. Your device can also be infected by other infected devices sharing the same network.

Once on your computer, a virus will lie dormant until you run the program the virus infected. This means there may be no signs or symptoms of a virus for days to weeks after your computer becomes infected. Once activated, the virus can infect other devices on your network at home or work.

How much can a computer virus cost me?

On average, a virus on your device will cost you $5600 in terms of lost time (figuring out what’s wrong with your device and taking it to be fixed or shopping to replace it), money (to have viruses removed, replace devices, and actual money taken from your accounts if your passwords have been exposed) and, productivity (from the loss of corrupted files and documents which will need to be recreated).

If you run a business, the cost can be much higher. Businesses spend billions of dollars every year dealing with viruses – whether that’s cleaning up after them or trying to prevent them.

How does antivirus software work?

Programmers who study computer viruses, identify common pieces of code that exist in all families of a particular virus. From that, they’re able to create generic pieces of innocuous code which they load into the antivirus software. The software works by scanning your device and searching for any code that looks like the generic code. When the software finds a match, it shuts down the viral code.

antivirus software blog scanning

Antivirus software works by scanning for harmful pieces of code and deactivating them.

(And in case the analogy wasn’t clear: this is exactly what vaccines do. Vaccines are harmless pieces of a virus, paired with antivirus “technology” which your body uses to match and shut down (or at least minimize the effects of) the actual virus.)

Do I really need antivirus software?

The only digital device I use is a single computer that never leaves the house, doesn’t access the internet, doesn’t run any programs, and isn’t connected to any other devices. Basically I use my computer as a giant calculator.

If this is you, you can probably get away with not having antivirus software.

I have a Mac.

While traditionally this statement has given Mac users a pass on having to invest in antivirus software, even Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior VP of Software Engineering, recently stated that, “Today, we have a level of malware on the Mac that we don’t find acceptable.” Noted.

I don’t really care if my computer gets a virus. None of my files or photos are valuable to me. I’m happy to ditch it all and get a new device if necessary.

In this (unlikely but theoretically possible) case, we’d just like to say: consider others. You may not care about your music and memories, but chances are, other people in your family, workplace, and contact book do. They won’t be too happy when they discover it was your unprotected device that sent them an email with the subject line, “Hey, check out this really cool video I found that I think you’ll love” which they then opened in a moment of distraction (47% of employees cited distraction as the reason for falling for a phishing scam while working from home).

Ok, I’m convinced. What do I do now?

It wouldn’t be a proper tech challenge if we didn’t put some of the responsibility on you. Now’s the time for you to do a little investigation work and figure out what kind of antivirus software you need. PCMag provides an excellent breakdown of the best antivirus software on the market this year, along with the pros and cons of each one, and how much they cost. For the sake of your devices, your friends’ devices, your coworkers’ devices, your bank account, and your peace of mind, we beg you, take this month’s challenge seriously! And when you’re done, get revved up for next month’s challenge!

June Tech Challenge: Restart Your Devices

A quick and easy challenge this month: restart your devices!

How many times have you had this experience: Your work computer is behaving strangely and won’t send or receive emails? Or, your smart phone freezes and you can’t type a message? Or, your home internet seems super slow and Netflix keeps crashing?

You pick up the phone, call tech support, and the first thing they say is:

“Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”

There’s something about the “turn it off, turn it on” directive that most of us find infuriating. It feels too simple. The tech industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that solves complex problems faster than we can roll our eyes. To hear someone who is educated in this field and paid good money to develop new technologies say, “turn it off and turn it back on” makes us wonder why they needed so many years of school.

But, in spite of our incredulity and frustration, this method does actually work. Computer slow downs and glitches are often caused by memory leaks. Programs get opened and closed and opened again, and with each activity the program takes up more and more working memory. Computers, like our brains, get stuck in loops trying to solve problems within programs that we’ve long since closed. A restart clears the working memory, closes any loops, and gives the system a fresh start. It’s like a good spring cleaning for your computer, but done in five minutes or less (that’s the kind of spring cleaning I can get behind!).

Should I Restart, or Shutdown Entirely?

If you’re looking to clear your computer’s working memory, end all processes, and give your machine a quick refresh so it runs a bit smoother and faster, then just perform a simple Restart (this goes for both Macs and Windows 8 or later). Your computer will shut itself down and spring back to life within a few minutes.

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Experts recommend a complete weekly shutdown of all your devices.

A complete shutdown, in which the computer doesn’t start up again until you turn it on, is worth doing if you’re going to be away from your machine for a while (overnight or longer). It’s more energy efficient and will prolong the life of your battery. It also makes your computer more secure; taking a computer completely offline removes the opportunity for it to be hacked.

How Often Should I Restart or Shutdown?

More often than you might think! Most experts suggest restarting your computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone every few days, and performing a complete shutdown about once a week. So maybe don’t wait a full year before you revisit this challenge!

Have fun with this month’s challenge and we’ll see you in July!

 

May Tech Challenge: Delete Old Files

Signs of spring are everywhere, which makes this is a good time to tackle some spring cleaning…on your computer. It may not seem like the most challenging of challenges to delete old files, and it may not make a huge difference to your computer’s operating speed (unless you’re deleting very large files). But it can make a difference to the speed at which you are able to find what you need and therefore the speed at which you operate.

The thought of permanently deleting files is making me break out in a cold sweat!

Permanently tossing out files is a bit like down-sizing your house. It’s time to throw out those boxes of junk you haven’t looked at in years and you’re thinking, “But what if I need this broken blender one day?”

If you completed last month’s challenge then you have a disaster recovery plan and are hopefully making good use of a Cloud service such as Google Drive or Dropbox to backup the files you can’t afford to lose. So instead of permanently trashing old files, consider uploading them to the Cloud and only deleting them from your local storage. This will make the files available if you ever do need them, but they won’t be taking up space on your desktop or in your downloads folder.

I have thousands of files…where do I start?

I recently asked a colleague (whom I consider to be pretty techy) what advice he would give in a blog post about how to delete old files. He said, “I don’t know, but I definitely need to read that post. I have way too many files and I don’t know where to start.”

If your job involves working on a computer for most of the day, chances are you have files on your desktop, files in your download folder, and multiple copies of files “just in case”. If you like the idea of going through all the folders on your laptop one by one and deleting what you don’t need, by all means go for it! But you can also use some of your computer’s automation features to make this process easier.

If you have a Mac: Use Smart Folders

The purpose of a Smart Folder is to collect files that fit specific criteria from anywhere on your computer. It’s an automation that saves you from having to search for certain types of files over and over again. But you can use a Smart Folder for other purposes too. If, for example, you know you created an image last month but you can’t find it, just create a Smart Folder to pull together all the image files on your computer created within the last month.

So, how does a Smart Folder help with this month’s challenge? The beauty of a Smart Folder is that you can use it to find any files you haven’t opened in a while. For example, I ran a Smart Folder filter to search for any files I haven’t opened since before December 2018. My theory was that if I haven’t opened the file in over three years, chances are I don’t need it anymore. I was right; my Smart Folder returned a very small number of files that I was able to view quickly and decide which ones to completely delete and which to upload to my Cloud storage. It took all of five minutes. I then ran a Smart Folder search on any files I haven’t opened since 2019. Admittedly that returned a more overwhelming number. But again, Smart Folder to the rescue. I used the filter feature to move month by month through 2019, breaking the larger task into more manageable bites.

How do I make a Smart folder on my Mac:

  1. From your Finder, click on File: New Smart Folder.
  2. Select where you want to search (“This Mac” or “Desktop”)
  3. Click the Plus sign beside “Save” to reveal filter functionality
  4. Use the filters to select by File Type, Last Opened Date, Last Modified Date, etc
  5. Use the Plus button to create additional filters if desired

Create a smart folder and filter on old files

(For more reading on Smart Folders and some other great uses for them, check out this article.)

If you have a PC: Use Your File Explorer

You can create Smart Folders in Windows (and this post will show you how) but a quicker filter feature is available directly in your File Explorer.

  1. Open File Explorer
  2. From the left-hand menu, select the drive you want to search (select “This PC” if you want to search everything)
  3. Type “datemodified:” in the search bar and select the date range you want to search

Hold up…there’s one caveat

Your computer deals with way more files in a day than you do, from caching images on websites, to operating system applications, so be mindful of what you’re deleting. As I overheard once in a restaurant between a mother and her son: “If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.” Or in this case: don’t delete it.

Make spring cleaning a year-round event

Again, this isn’t a challenging challenge, but it is time-consuming. Consider setting aside a half hour each week and work through your files bit by bit. Once you’ve gone through all the effort to tidy up your files, keep that half hour blocked off in your calendar and use it to run a search on any files you worked with that week. Then you can quickly delete what’s no longer needed, and upload the rest to the Cloud.

Good luck with this month’s challenge and we’ll see you in June!

 

April Tech Challenge: Have a Disaster Recovery Plan

World Backup Day was on March 31, 2021. While doing a single backup of your devices is a great idea, it’s not much use to only do it once a year. So, this seems the perfect time to take on our Disaster Recovery Plan Challenge.

Why You Need a Disaster Recovery Plan

Off the top of your head, do you know what meetings you have scheduled for today? Do you know your best friend’s phone number by heart? Do you have physical copies of all the photos you took at your daughter’s wedding?

Family photos. Calendars. Contacts. Work in progress. Invoices. Customer orders….so much of our business and personal lives exist in a digital world. But if your laptop or phone died today, how much of your life would come to a stand still? How much information that you take for granted as being available at your fingertips, would disappear?

depressed businessman with closed eyes sitting at workplace with head on laptop near crumpled paper

Thinking about the loss of all that information can make your head spin, but don’t panic! Now that you understand how important it is to have a disaster recovery plan, let’s figure out how to do it…

Personal Disaster Recovery Plan Options

There are a few options to consider for how you can regularly backup your data and be able to retrieve it easily from various locations and devices.

External Drive:

External Hard disk drive connected to laptop

An external drive is a device that you plug into your computer. The device shows up as a drive on your desktop and then you manually drag all the files you want backed up, to the drive. Voila! You now have a copy of all your files.

An external drive is a simple and relatively cost-effective option as long as you remember to do it regularly and provided that the disaster that destroys your computer doesn’t also destroy the hard drive sitting right next to it (ie if your computer is destroyed in a house fire, chances are your external hard drive will be too). The other drawback to an external drive is that you’re unlikely the take it with you to work or on vacations, so access to your data may be limited if your device fails when you’re not physically in the same location as your external drive.

Woman plugging a USB drive into her laptop, technology and data storage concept

A thumb drive, or USB flash drive, is a smaller, and hence more portable, external storage option. However, because of its size, it can be more easily lost or damaged.

Cloud Storage:

Cloud storage is best for a disaster recovery plan

Cloud Storage offers the benefit of storing all of your data off-site. It also provides as much storage space as you need so, as your data grows, you don’t need to worry about running out of room or purchasing a larger external drive. Google Drive and Dropbox are both well-know, reliable Cloud Storage services. Both services ensure your files are available from any device you sign in with, and they also make it easy to share files with others.

Automatic Cloud Backups:

The best option is to choose a backup method which uses Cloud Storage and performs regular backs up for you. Making use of your devices’ built-in backup software and/or subscribing to a backup service such as Backblaze or Carbonite, ensures that all of your important documents, photos, contacts, music, and more are regularly backed-up and available when you need them.

This article provides instructions for backing up your PC to the cloud by making use of Dropbox, Google, OneDrive, or a full backup service such a Backblaze.

If you have an iOS device (iPhone, ipad, or iPod) you can follow these instructions to make sure they’re backed up and set up to backup regularly.

If you have a Mac computer, you can backup your computer to the built-in Time Machine or backup to the Cloud by following these instructions.

Business Disaster Recovery Plan Options

Your business depends on keeping track of a lot of moving parts. A loss of information can mean a loss of revenue and trust from your customers. Fortunately, our Business Division, NEWT, posted a blog about this very thing last month, so definitely use that as a starting point to understand how NEWT’s Hybrid Business Phone System makes use of LTE wireless connectivity for backup disaster recovery.

small business owner on phone with NEWT Hybrid Cloud Edition phone system

Beyond that, many of the resources listed for the Personal disaster recovery plan can be used for business as well. Both Backblaze and Carbonite provide Personal and Business Cloud storage and backup options at comparable price points; it really just depends on what you’re looking for and which options fit your business needs best. And again, Dropbox and Google Drive are both excellent for file sharing and storage, allowing multiple people to contribute to documents and files, as well as access documents from any device, which can help keep your business running.

Take on April’s challenge and remove the stress of losing important information and valuable memories. Good luck and see you in May for our next tech challenge!

 

March Tech Challenge: Clear Your Cache

Our series of Tech Challenges are designed to help you get the most out of your devices. March’s Challenge is: Clear Your Cache; a phrase many of us have heard but maybe don’t fully understand why we do it, or how to do it.

What is a Cache?

The word “cache” refers to a collection of similar items that are stored and hidden away. You might have a cache of jewellery, a cache of weapons, or a cache of cash. Your computer stores data in a variety of places, and one of them is the cache. It’s an expensive piece of memory that allows for quick retrieval and faster processing.

your cache is like a table near your front door that holds your keys and walletThink of the cache in your computer like a table near your front door, holding your keys, wallet and other items you frequently need to grab in a hurry. The more cluttered the table becomes, the harder it is to find what you need, and the slower you are at getting out the door. Over time, certain items become obsolete – like the membership card to the gym you quit which you keep grabbing instead of the new card to the better gym you joined.

What Happens When the Cache Fills Up?

When you ask your computer to perform an operation or deliver information, it starts by checking the cache to try to quickly access what you want. This works well until the cache fills up or the information in it becomes obsolete. That’s when your computer starts to slow down.

Imagine that there’s a website with tons of race car images that you visit frequently. You want to show the site to your friend and you both access it from your laptops in your respective homes. Their laptop instantly pops up with the site, while yours is lagging. When it finally loads, you see empty image boxes with question marks in the centre. Your friend sees motorcycles. You blame your internet connection; your friend wonders where the cars are that you’ve been raving about. What’s going on?

white question mark in a blue box denoting missing image

This is an example of how your cache both helps and hinders. Websites are data-rich, with lots of images, fonts, and links. Your computer has to work hard to bring those items from the website’s server to your computer screen. So, the first time you visit a site, your computer does the heavy lifting and then stores data-rich items, like the images, in its cache. The next time you visit the site, it loads faster as your computer pops in the images from its cache.

But one day, the owners of the site change the images from cars to motorcycles. Now there’s a disconnect between what is actually on the site, and what your computer is trying to pull out of the cache to show you. And all those obsolete car images, not to mention images from sites you visited once three years ago and never visited again, are taking up valuable space and slowing things down.

This is why we clear the cache from time to time: to remove obsolete items and free up space for faster processing. The next time you visit the site, your computer will consult the cache to see if it has the information it needs. Your cache will have no memory of having visited this site before and your computer will take a few extra seconds accessing the website’s server to download and store all those new images. The next time you visit, you’ll have motorcycles on demand.

How to Clear the Cache

How you clear your cache depends on which web browser you’re using: Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, Opera, etc. If you want to take our March Challenge to its extreme, clear the cache on all your web browsers on all your devices including laptops, tablets, and smartphones. This article provides instructions for clearing the cache on all major web browsers.

IMPORTANT: When you clear your cache, you will have to sign into certain applications that you may normally be logged into automatically, such as your Google Drive. So before you clear your cache, make sure you’ve done our January challenge and set up a password manager so you can retrieve all your passwords!

Want to Dive Deeper into March’s Tech Challenge?

Interested in learning more about your computer’s cache and terms like “cache hit”, “cache miss”, and “cache mapping”? Check out these articles for a deeper dive:

A Guide to Cache Memory

How Caching Works

Why Do I Need to Clear My Cache?

Good luck with March’s Challenge and we’ll see you in April!