12 easy PC tasks you should be doing (but aren't)

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Encrypt your private data

How much of your life resides on your computer? Do you keep medical records, bank statements, or other files that you wouldn’t want other parties to access? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t store sensitive data on your computer—it’s one of the best ways to keep track of such things, assuming that you have a strong backup plan. You should encrypt those sensitive files, however, to make sure that your information stays safe and secret even if your data winds up in someone else’s hands.

First, find all of the sensitive files on your computer—financial and medical records, contracts, and anything else you wouldn’t want strangers to see. Place them all into a folder. You can (and should) organize them in subfolders, just as long as you have one root folder that encompasses all of them.

Next, install TrueCrypt, a free and open-source program that provides easy-to-use, government-grade encryption. TrueCrypt stores encrypted files inside a container file called a volume; think of a volume as a safe, and TrueCrypt as its key. Click the Create Volume button and then choose the Create an encrypted file containeroption. Proceed through the remainder of the volume-creation wizard. Each step is explained pretty clearly, and if you don’t understand something you can safely leave the default selected.

Once the utility has created your volume, you need to mount the volume. Think of this action as opening the safe, although it will remain open only while TrueCrypt is running. Click Select File, and find the volume file you just made. Click the Mount button, and enter the password you created with the wizard.

When TrueCrypt mounts a volume, your computer will see it as though it were a new hard drive. Open Windows’ File Explorer and look for the new drive on your system—it should be empty. Move the folder of sensitive files onto this drive. When you’re done, close TrueCrypt; the virtual hard drive will disappear. The sensitive files are now hidden inside the encrypted volume.

Whenever you want to access those files, you will need to remount the volume in TrueCrypt, so make sure that you don’t lose the volume file or forget its password. Speaking of passwords…

Change your passwords

Performing this task is just as crucial as backing up your data. Most users, unfortunately, make several fundamental password errors that can compromise their online accounts and data, and the easiest way to fix them is to start over from scratch. When you’re selecting new passwords, you should keep the following three tips in mind.

First, create a strong password. A password that’s too short or too simple is a password that’s easy to crack. To keep yours safe, make sure that it contains at least 10 characters, and include a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters as well as symbols and numbers. A letters-only password, however, can still be secure as long as it’s at least 20 characters long.

Second, don’t use the same password across multiple websites. Even people who pride themselves on using a secure password often fall into the trap of reusing passwords. Do that, and a security breach at any site you use could compromise your most sensitive accounts. If you absolutely can’t manage different passwords for each of your accounts, at least use a unique password for your email account and for any accounts with sensitive financial information.

Finally, don’t get too attached. No security system is perfect, which is why it’s important to change your passwords regularly. If somehow one of your passwords is cracked or leaks, you don’t want someone to be able to snoop on you indefinitely. By changing your most important passwords every six months and your less-sensitive passwords every year, you can minimize the damage done in the worst-case scenario.

If you’re following these three rules already, congratulations: You’re one of the responsible few. If not, it’s time to get serious about password security. If you’re worried that following these rules might be difficult, one simple program that can help you out is KeePass, a free, open-source password-management application that can track all of your passwords as well as generate randomized, highly secure passwords on demand.

Optimize startup

One of the most frustrating experiences in computing is waiting for a slow-as-molasses startup to finish. You have to wait through the POST (power-on self-test) screen, then pass the Windows Startup screen, and then tolerate the most irritating part of all: when you can see your desktop but the computer is still unresponsive and too slow to use. Of course, it wasn’t always like this—when you first bought the PC, startup was a breeze. So what happened?

Software happened. You installed all sorts of applications, and they took liberties with Windows, setting it up so that any variety of programs and services now launch automatically when the operating system boots. These days, Windows is launching 30 programs every time it starts up, meaning that you have to wait an extra few minutes before you can check your email.

You need to take back control of your computer’s startup sequence.

First, run CCleaner. You used this application earlier to clear out some hard-drive space, but the utility does double duty as a startup manager. Click the button labeled Tools at the left of the CCleaner window, and then click Startup. You’ll see a list of every program that is currently set to launch when Windows starts. Scan through the list, and whenever you see a program that you don’t need to use every time you start the computer, click it and select Disable.

If you want finer control over the startup process, I recommend WinPatrol, another great free application. Like other utilities, WinPatrol shows you a list of startup programs and services—but it also gives you the option to schedule startup so that your computer doesn’t try to load everything at once. To do this, find the program that you want to delay in the main Startup Programs tab, right-click that program, and select Move to Delayed Start Program List. After that, you can switch to the Delayed Start tab, select a program, and click the Delay Options tab, where you can choose how long you want Windows to wait before launching the selected program.

Organize your inbox

When you’re trying to get things done, email can be your worst enemy. Sure, it’s invaluable for doing business and for keeping in touch, but it can also be a distraction and a massive time sink. You might not be able to get back all of the hours you spend on email, but you can at least reclaim the wasted time spent staring at your overflowing, messy inbox.

First, create multiple folders (‘Labels’ in Gmail) dedicated to specific topics in order to better organize your messages. An average user’s selection might include folders designated for work, bills and receipts, newsletters, and the like. Create a new folder in Outlook 2010 by selecting the Folder tab and clicking New Folder (in the New group). In Gmail, click More labels > Create new labels in the left pane.

Next, clean out the inbox. I know that the task seems daunting, but the purpose of the inbox is to serve as a temporary holding zone for new messages, not to be a permanent warehouse for every email you’ve ever received. Sort your messages into the folders you just created, ruthlessly deleting any items that aren’t worth retaining. Keep email that needs responses in your inbox, or better yet, create a ‘Needs response’ folder and sort the messages there.

To keep your inbox clean going forward, continue the practice of sorting messages as you receive and respond to them. Alternatively, you could use Outlook rules (File > Manage rules & alerts > New Rule under the Email Rules tab) or Gmail filters (Gear icon > Settings > Filters tab > Create a new filter) to auto­matically sort incoming email to specific folders based on criteria such as the sender or specific words included in the message. Most major email clients support message filters.

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of manually maintaining your inbox’s sanctity or creating a plethora of automated rules and filters, check out Sanebox, a $5-per-month service that works with any IMAP email account and does a scarily good job of sorting your incoming messages.

Finally, get proactive and unsubscribe from any newsletters or daily-deal email that you don’t regularly read. You’ll be surprised at how much inbox clutter that action can eliminate.

Next page: Automate everything. Plus, should you defrag your drives?

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