We use our PCs and laptops for so many different tasks these days, it’s a wonder there’s a point in the day when we aren’t using technology in one form or another. Whether we’re getting all we can from this technology is, however, a very different matter.

Over the following pages, we present some of our favourite tips for getting your PC out of a fix, repairing a wonky installation, recovering from malware and avoiding social-networking pitfalls. Drunken tweets? Check!

There are a lot of tips here: some are satisfyingly techie; others are more about enhancing your PC and tablet-based entertainment. In other words: there is something for everyone.

Photos, music, video; PC Setup


Organise and edit photos for free

Picasa is a great free photo editor and manager. Get it from picasa.google.com and let it manage your images and display them in groups automatically organised by date. It supports tagging and face recognition, and offers some simple non-destructive edits.

Create a custom screensaver ?with Google Picasa

Google Photos Screensaver (get it free from tinyurl.com/2vrwuz) is another freebie based on Picasa. Launch Picasa, click the Tools, Configure Screensaver option and select a source from those listed in the Settings menu. RSS feeds, Flickr photostreams and your own photo library are all options. Pan, zoom and panorama are all supported.

Use Windows’ photo-printing tools

Windows may offer little more than Paint in terms of photo-editing tools, but its Fax and Photo print driver is rather clever. It can auto-arrange photos on a page, stretch or resize them, and help you choose the most appropriate paper type and resolution.

Create a musical slideshow ?in Windows Media Center

Windows Media Center usually offers up some exploding fractal graphics to accompany your choice of music. Head to the Tasks, Settings menu and add some photos to your Favourites menu – tagging any you wish with star ratings. Click Save, then go to the Music Library, select an album and press Play. Choose Play pictures from the far left to start the slideshow.

Sound advice

Windows audio can sometimes cause music playback to stop. If this happens go to Control Panel, Sound. Select the Playback tab and check your preferred sound output is selected as the default device. If it isn’t, highlight the preferred option and click Set Default.

Volume issues

Updating the drivers for the internal sound card or for any external speakers often clears a playback issue. Check the Sound, Properties, Advanced tab, and try adjusting the playback quality settings and clicking on Test to see if something else is interfering.

Play more video formats than just Mpeg4

QuickTime and Mpeg4 movies are actually a collection of video codecs, but they are fairly widely supported. If your tablet, PC or laptop won’t play a clip that you want to watch, try either VLC Media Player (videolan.org), which can handle most video files without additional software, or download the Combined Community Codec Pack for Windows Media Player (cccp-project.net).

Safari’s iTunes safe browser

Whenever we plug an iPhone into a Windows laptop, iTunes seems to spend ages thinking about synching our music, and so on. We’ve noticed it’s checking with Safari about safe browsing. There’s no real need, so just click cancel to go straight to your iTunes library.

Add album art

Missing album artwork in Windows can be tracked down by right-clicking on the album cover and choosing ‘Update Album Art’. In iTunes you need to choose ‘Enable Automatic Downloading’ for your cover art. To track down any that iTunes has missed, try the collection maintained by Amazon, which is also available as a widget from Apple’s downloads site at tinyurl.com/6etn85.

PC makeover

You can instantly change the look of your Windows PC by changing the desktop background to something other than the images that came with Windows. Right-click anywhere on the desktop, choose Personalize and then select a new wallpaper.

Warm to your Windows Theme

A theme is a combination of pictures, colours and sounds that give Windows PCs a particular look and feel. You can change the default one by right-clicking the desktop and choosing Theme, then selecting from those on offer. Alternatively, download one from tinyurl.com/273hutd.

High-resolution hell

Just because your display is capable of supporting HD resolutions, it doesn’t mean you should set it to do so all the time. Cramming more pixels into a smaller space results in a smaller onscreen image – so you’re more likely to squint. Right-click on the desktop, choose Screen resolution and select a slightly lower setting.

Beware screen fatigue

Of course, we all love our PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, but you can have too much of a good thing. Give your eyes a break from that backlit screen. If you’re forgetful, use a pop-up reminder app. The likes of AntiRSI can also be useful to stop you ending up with aching limbs.

Get a second screen

If you mainly use your laptop at the same desk or table, consider using an external LCD. You’ll enjoy a larger screen and will be sitting further back from the screen itself, making for a more comfortable viewing experience.

PRODUCTIVITY; WEBMAIL; CONNECTING ONLINE


Keyboard conflicts

Your Windows keyboard will almost certainly be set up for UK English, but third-party apps sometimes change this. When we installed Apple’s iCloud software to synchronise the contents of an iPhone, for example, some keys started displaying anomalous behaviour. To change the keyboard back, click on the Keyboard icon in your laptop’s System Tray and change the option to UK Extended.

Symbolic gestures

Add frequently used symbols to your custom keyboard with the shortcut key assignment tools in Word. Go to the Insert menu and click on those you need most often.

Fool the format tool

Formatting in Microsoft Word and other Office applications is often too clever by half. To paste an item into a text document without changing the formatting, use the Paste Special command at the top left. If you are pasting in items from multiple sources, you can ensure consistency under Paste Options by clicking on the Default button.

Image-embedding options

Image files also have their own paste options: choose Device Independent Bitmap if you need to precisely reproduce an image.

Instant replacement

Ctrl, H to find and replace is ideal for all sorts of things: you can make universal changes to the format or spellings, and can also override imported character symbols you don’t like. A common bugbear is that text pasted from the web uses clunky ‘straight quotes’ rather than more sophisticated ‘curly’ ones. Enter the before and after choice in the upper and lower fields to amend the lot.

Shortcut key drill

Keyboard shortcuts require less effort than using a mouse. Ctrl, N for a new document, Ctrl, X to cut, Ctrl, S to save, Ctrl, H to find and replace, and Ctrl, Z to undo are useful.

Fast undo and redo

Among the most useful shortcuts are Ctrl, Z (or Apple, Z on a Mac) to undo any errors you may have made, and Ctrl, Y to redo something you’ve accidentally deleted. Depending on the program you can use both commands multiple times to go back and forth through your document history or edits.

Down tools faster

Finished work for the day? In Windows 7 or Vista there’s no need to close all your open applications individually. Shut them all in one fell swoop with a click of the ‘Close All Windows’ icon.

Get more screen space

Move the Windows Taskbar and get more vertical onscreen space to view documents and web pages. Right-click an empty area of the Taskbar and clear the option next to Lock the Taskbar. Now drag it somewhere unobtrusive, such as one side of the screen.

Taskbar tweak

7 Taskbar Tweaker (rammichael.com) is a free application that gives you more control over items such as Windows Jump Lists. Our favourite tweak allows the middle mouse button to narrow what’s onscreen, rather than obliterating it with a new blank window.

Locked-file fix

Files that you should be able to open but can’t, and those that are falsely reported ?as being ‘open by another user’, can be ?prised open by a couple of helpful utilities. Unlocker 1.8.9 is a respected option, while iObit now offers Unlocker 1.0. Grab it from ?our Downloads site at tinyurl.com/dybdnf4.

Templates work

Don’t spend hours tinkering with logo placement and font choices when creating stationery and other standard documents. Microsoft Word has masses of templates built in, while extras can be downloaded from the internet. If you really want a distinctive look, Moo.com offers custom business cards. Similarly, WordPress and other preformatted website templates will serve you very well until you can afford a bespoke design. Devote your energy to the business plan and marketing your products instead.

Protected view and editing ?and printing docs

When you try to open a Word document that’s sent by email, it displays in Protected View. It takes several extra clicks in order to make it editable or for you to even be able ?to print it. Go to the File, Options menu to ?tell Windows this isn’t necessary.

Preview Gmail messages

There’s no split-pane preview option in Gmail. If, however, you click the gear icon at the top right of your account, choose Mail settings, Labs and then scroll down to ‘Message Sneak Peek’ and click Enable, you’ll be able to see an approximation.

View only unread Gmails

Gmail’s almost limitless inbox is great for archiving lots of messages. But if you want ?to filter out those you’ve already seen, and head straight for only unread messages, enter is:unread in the Search Mail field at ?the top of your inbox.

Don’t depend on Gmail

Having a seemingly limitless email archive to draw upon is great news; having a multi-gigabyte archive go missing isn’t. Having experienced just such an outage in early 2011, we quickly looked into ways to prevent it from happening again. Google Backup can save and store your mail box, and download it if required. See tinyurl.com/cfmywo6 for in-depth details.

Get a Hotmail address

Hotmail may sound like a throwback email client, but we can’t argue with the free 25GB of online storage that Microsoft offers in return for creating a Microsoft ID and using its SkyDrive (skydrive.live.com).

The SkyDrive’s the limit

Better yet, you can use an existing email address to log in at windowslive.co.uk/skydrive and still claim that 25GB of free storage space.

Zimbra Desktop ?email management

If you favour Hotmail or Yahoo Mail over Gmail, you can back up emails for free using Zimbra Desktop (zimbra.com).

Read-receipt wrangle

If you need to use Outlook email, but are forever being bugged for unnecessary receipt acknowledgements, head to Options, Mail, Tracking menu and choose either ‘Always send a read receipt’ or ‘Never send a read receipt’, rather than continuing to be prompted each time.

Outlook file fail-safe

We often get asked how to export or back up .pst files for Microsoft Outlook. Since these sometimes get corrupted, preventing the program from running, it’s useful to know. Note that you may first need to ‘unhide’ the file. The Outlook/.pst file is a hidden file within a hidden folder. Go to Folder Options and select ‘Show hidden files and folders’. To export the file, go to the File, Import and Export menu in Outlook 2003 or File, Data File Management in Outlook 2007. Save it to an external device for safekeeping.

Email massive missives

It’s considered bad form to email huge attachments of your children and grandchildren to blameless relatives. If your ‘outlaws’ haven’t yet heard of it, introduce them to YouSendIt – a free email delivery service that lets the recipient pull down the photos to their hard drive at their leisure.

iPod touch talk

There’s much to admire about Apple’s iPod touch, but one of its best features is that even though it’s not tied to a phone contract it can still be used for web chat. As an iOS device with full access to the App Store’s gems, the likes of Truphone, Vonage and Skype can all be used for Wi-Fi calls.

Find My iPhone

Siri may be all chat, but you’ll surely have plenty to say if your iPhone ever goes walkabout. Enable ‘Find My Phone’ in its Settings menu and you’ll be able to track its latest whereabouts (clue: under the cushion on the sofa).

Security

Don’t double up on antivirus

A two-way firewall, good anti-spyware and an antivirus that’s kept up to date will help protect your PC. Two antivirus products installed on the same PC will, however, wrestle each other for supremacy, rather than look out for rogue software. Removing one to let the other do its job usually involves lots of coaxing and restarting the PC in Safe mode.

Ignore bank notifications

You cheerfully ignore phishing messages that arrive in your inbox from financial institutions other than your own on the basis that there’s no reason for them to be contacting you. Do the same with any messages that purport to be from your bank. Hovering your mouse over the originating email address may uncover the deception, but this can also be spoofed. If you’re not sure whether an email is legitimate, call the number on the back of your credit card and ask if they’ve been trying to get in touch. Banks never email.

Odd messages from your mates

Facebook, Twitter and your email inbox are increasingly being used to dupe you, and it’s the messages that appear to be from your friends that are the delivery mechanism. If a message or an action isn’t the sort of language your friend would use, assume it’s spam or their account has been compromised, and let them know.

Just can the spam

Don’t reply to spam, or even open it if possible – it confirms that your email address is in use and encourages more spam.

Don’t click that link

Don’t click on links in emails – cut and paste them into a site checker such as mywot.com and have their integrity checked.

Short web address danger

Shortened web links take up less space on a Twitter message, but don’t always take you where you expect. Create ‘safe’ short links using mcaf.ee, which verifies the page it goes to and flags up any changes between the link’s creation and the user clicking on it.

Practice online prudence

Safe browsing isn’t just to stop kids seeing things they shouldn’t; raising the security settings in your web browser can also prevent you from viewing images and other elements you wish you hadn’t, as well as potentially endangering your PC’s security. A browser’s Tools options let you blacklist and whitelist specific sites, and give any with dodgy images, for example, a wide berth.

Don’t leave details

Clear your browsing history and remember to log out of any email or social network accounts after using someone else’s PC.

Be autocomplete-aware

Autocomplete is useful, but convenience has its down side, especially with keylogger programs able to harvest the data. Go to ?the Settings menu in your browser and ?switch off autocomplete.

User Account Control

For convenience and security, set UAC to tell you of actions that access the Registry, but not those you’ve initiated. Go to Control Panel, System and Security and, under Action Center, click Change User Account Settings and adjust the slider.

Back up and surrender

We know we bang on about backups, but we also know how annoying and time-consuming things become when you lose important files. Choose an external hard drive (see our group test on page 66) that autosyncs, can be encrypted and is small enough to fit in a pocket. Or why not try a web-only service such as iCloud or SkyDrive?

Secure that USB key

Backing up to a USB thumb drive that you lose within days is no way to look after your work or personal files. Email yourself a copy of important documents if you really can’t be bothered to back up properly. Just ensure that you use a service such as PKZIP or PGP to encrypt sensitive files.

Make better passwords

Most of us are guilty of using the same few passwords for everything. Use the brilliantly named Awesome Password Generator (tinyurl.com/bmd9tdf) and you’ll have neither need nor excuse.

BROADBAND; wireless security

Situating your router

Where you site your broadband router can have a significant effect on the Wi-Fi signal that’s carried around your home and the connection you experience. Thick walls, interference from other electrical items, and being placed low down rather than at waist height or higher all make a difference.

Don’t let it snow

The weather can affect your web connection. Extreme cold, wind and wet can all hinder the service. “If you hear noise on your phone line it’s a fair indication of damage to the wiring itself. If you hear any hissing, crackling or popping you should report it to your telephone provider. When the noise is gone your broadband should return to normal,” advises broadband provider Plusnet.

Clean those filters

A fresh ADSL filter costs less than £5 and can improve your broadband connection. The BT Shop and some hardware stores sell them. Ensure the broadband connection is plugged in directly. A BT I-Plate may further boost the contact point, although it is debatable.

Wi-Fi check

With so many of us using wireless networks to get online, there’s bound to be some jostling for priority. Android users can check for channel congestion and make an informed choice of which one to switch to using Wi-Fi Analyzer (tinyurl.com/7woLkvp).

Reset your IP address

If your system’s connection to a network is unreliable, or you’re getting IP address conflict error messages, try renewing your IP address. First, click on the Start button, navigate to the Command Prompt (Start Menu, Applications, Accessories, Command Prompt), right-click it, and select ‘Run as Administrator’ from the menu. Then type ipconfig /renew and press Enter.

Flush your DNS cache

When you type an address into a browser, your PC asks the DNS server to translate ?that URL into an IP address, and caches ?that information. That data cache can occasionally become outdated or corrupt, which can cause internet connection problems. To clear your DNS cache, run a Command Prompt as the administrator, type ipconfig /flushdns and press Enter.

Restarting a Windows 7 system will also flush its DNS cache, but if any applications (malware, for example) are altering the cache, flushing manually could also help.

Raise the antennae

One of the limiting factors for Wi-Fi routers is that they tend to come as compact boxes, with little or no antenna protrusion. However, the interplay between their multiple antennae magnifies their effectiveness. We recommend that you screw on a larger, more powerful antenna for a noticeable Wi-Fi boost.

Bluetooth lament

Bluetooth is a very useful, localised communication and file-transfer technology. Gadgets with this feature switched on announce themselves by broadcasting their presence and seeking devices with which to pair. When not using the Bluetooth keyboard, headphones or headset for your laptop or smartphone, disable Bluetooth. Rogue files can be transmitted by passers-by.

Avoid torrents

There’s been a lot of press coverage ?about the ‘three strikes’ rule relating to customers downloading pirated music. We don’t condone file sharing of copyrighted content, but nor do we think much of the strong-arm tactics used by ACS:Law seeking to intimidate customers suspected of doing so. More pertinently, using torrent and ?peer-to-peer sites leaves your computer vulnerable to infection. Steer clear of ?such online temptations. It may well be cheaper in the long run.

INTERNET

Defeat Facebook tagging

Do you hate it when your friends tag you in photos? Facebook has recently added an option to report or block whoever is tagging you. Click the Report/Remove Tag option below the offending image, decide whether to simply tell Facebook to remove the tag, or go further and state how it offends, harasses or infringes your rights, click Continue, then request its removal. Better yet, have a quiet word with your friend.

Report Facebook spam

Facebook messages posted in your name are bad news, and tagged images can be an unpleasant surprise. If your Facebook account – or a friend’s – is compromised, immediately report it and change your password. This ?may be inconvenient, but it’s better than ?your friends being phished. Facebook’s Report/Remove Tag beneath photos makes reporting it easy, too.

Remove unfortunate tweets

If you said something in haste on Twitter, you can easily fix it. Go to your own feed and press Delete to remove the offending missive. With luck, no-one else will have seen it; if ?you think it necessary, immediately tweet ?an apology (but don’t repeat what you said). If you tend to tweet ill-advisedly late of an evening, use a tweet checker or tweet delayer to save future red faces.

Can the Twitter spam

Twitter spam is easy to block – simply click on the follower, then press Block Sender. Be particularly wary of people sending you @messages. These are often spam and are designed mainly to appear in your feed to trip up unsuspecting followers.

Internet Explorer has its uses

Not all browsers are the same. Google Chrome and Firefox are often regarded ?as better than Internet Explorer, but there ?are plenty of tasks that are optimised ?for Internet Explorer, which may not ?work properly in other browsers – FTP ?sites being one.

Keep your browser options open

It’s worth keeping your options open and having several browsers installed, so you can fire up an alternative if your usual one freezes. If you use only one browser and then have to install a new one if it goes down, you’ll lose precious time installing it. You can use one browser for work, one for email, and so on.

Get a custom home page

Why give MSN or Google your clicks? Either go to the Tools menu in your browser and choose the site you visit most often, for convenience, or give a charity site such as Everyclick (everyclick.com) a boost by launching to its home page by default.

Give as you shop

Whether you like books (Flashlight Worthy), bees (BBCT), animals or many other charities, clicking the links from its site as you go to Amazon or other large e-tailers can be used to earn them micro-payments.

Lose the browser hangers-on

Browser extensions can cause issues. If your browser throws a wobbly, switching off all the extensions and then selectively reinstating them can quickly identify the culprit and banish them, while losing only a minimal number of convenience keys.

Share photo albums over Wi-Fi

Facebook and Flickr don’t have all the best tricks: you can show off a photo gallery stored anywhere you wish without the iniquity of sarcastic ‘friend’ comments using a SkyDrive and your smartphone or laptop.

PC problems

Get a web diagnosis

There are very few computing problems that the web is unaware of. Typing in error codes and brief descriptions of symptoms can be one of the most effective ways of identifying and troubleshooting a problem. If you can’t find an immediately obvious error message, look in Control Panel, Problem Reports and Solutions (Vista). For Windows 7, open Control Panel, Action Center, Maintenance, View reliability history, and click on View all problem reports at the bottom of the window.

A better process manager

Sysinternals Process Explorer is a strong alternative to Windows’ Task Manager. Click on one its four graphs – CPU usage, commit history, I/O bytes history and physical memory history – to bring up a full-sized window view that’s akin to the Performance tab in Task Manager, but with far more detail.

Analyse the Blue Screen of Death

Thankfully, the Blue Screen of Death is an uncommon Windows sight these days. Should you experience one, we recommend BlueScreenView (tinyurl.com/Ly4dmg), which can help identify the driver that caused it.

Find out what’s hogging disk space

WinDirStat (windirstat.info) generates easy-to-understand graphical reports about disk usage, so you can see at a glance which individual files or folders hidden deep within a directory tree are gobbling up your memory.

Start up faster with Delayer

Windows 7 is faster than its predecessors, but if you’ve been using it a while and have clogged it up with programs and files, it’ll be feeling the strain. Use Startup Delayer (tinyurl.com/7c48fgz) to prioritise which programs load when you first fire up Windows and which can be held back.

Restore-point revival

Windows automatically recreates a restore point when you install a program, make a certain type of change to your system, or simply because it’s scheduled to. If your PC throws a wobbly, type System Restore in the search box to bring up a calendar showing the last such point. Roll back your PC to before things went awry, then restart.

Don’t restore malware

An exception to the above restore point advice is if you’re trying to clear an infection. It’s possible the System Restore archive is itself infected. See page 156 for more.

Create a system repair disc

Before things go wrong is the best time to make a backup of Windows. To do so, insert a blank disc, click the Windows Start button, type repair, and choose ‘Create a System Repair Disc’. Follow the instructions from there, remembering to label the disc when you’ve finished.

More RAM

Windows used to be limited to only 2GB or 3GB of RAM. The days of 32bit computing are numbered; if you were canny enough to choose a 64bit Windows machine, you’ll be able to enjoy 3GB or more.

Instant RAM upgrade

Installing more RAM in your laptop is tricky, ?so for an instant boost you can use a USB flash drive. In the AutoPlay options, choose the option to use the drive’s available memory to boost performance.

Avoid electrical interference

Cable clutter is unsightly. It can also cause electrical items to short-circuit and data transfers to take longer than they ought. A cable tidy, or simply unfurling curled up cables, can help. Cable ties that tame excess lengths are also useful.

 Disk-integrity check

It’s a pain having to wait for Windows to check your USB drive or CD isn’t corrupt, but it can make the difference between peace of mind and a botnet infection. Allow your security software to proceed.

Revive a dead laptop battery

If your laptop is a few years old, the battery won’t hold a charge as long as it used to before needing to be plugged in. Before replacing the battery itself, try replacing the laptop fuse (if the charging light on the battery doesn’t come on, it’s the charger at fault). Compatible chargers can be bought if the manufacturer can’t supply one, just makes sure the voltage is the same.

Cleaner, faster computing

See all that grot that’s accumulated on your computer keyboard? The fan grille and the interior of your case also get dusty and grubby. Wipe a damp lint-free cloth over the exterior of a switched-off machine. A low-power mini vacuum to clean the innards occasionally will also help a PC’s efficiency.

Back up your system drives

Semper Software Drive (sempersoftware.nl) saves and restores all system drivers. This is invaluable since system manufacturers rarely supply drivers on disc any more, so if you ever need to wipe your hard drive and reinstall Windows, you might find yourself without a critical driver.

Carry your apps with you

Like the way your PC is set up? Carry your media manager, web browser, office software and preferences with you, and you can hotdesk with aplomb. A SanDisk U3 drive will let you log in at any Windows PC and get to work as if you were sitting at your usual PC desktop. Apps are available from PortableApps.com.

One PC; many users

Security and parental controls are two good reasons to have different login accounts for family members. Preferred desktop layouts, browsers, email clients, backgrounds and screen settings are another. Head to the Control Panel and click User Accounts to get a personalised desktop for everyone.

One careful user

If no-one else uses your PC, you can speed up logins by having a single user account with full admin rights and no password protection. This isn’t recommended if it’s a laptop that ever leaves the house, though.

Limited users are liberated users

You need one Windows user account for the administrator. Getting into the habit of instead logging into a separate ‘limited’ user account makes sense from a security point of view. Malware needs admin rights in order to get to the Registry and to make other substantive changes to your computer’s setup. It can’t do this if you’re using the PC in non-admin mode.

Switch your operating system

If you want to play it even safer, running Mac OS X or a Linux OS rather than Windows is a good alternative. If you’re comfortable partitioning a hard drive, you can dual-boot your PC and keep your OS options open. Parallels software is another good option ?and supports multiple OS environments.

Copyright your work

You’ve probably noticed watermarks on images on the web; you can add the equivalent to your own work by choosing the Tools, Protect document option in Microsoft Word. Click the Read Only button and select a password before allowing that report you composed to be published.

Protect it with a PDF

PDF creation used to be the preserve of the publishing industry, but there are now free tools such as Nitro Pro (tinyurl.com/dyy6cgv) that can create them at a much lower cost than Adobe’s Acrobat. More recent versions of Word and Excel also have a File, Save As, PDF option in their drop-down menus. By saving this way, you prevent someone easily editing your words or spreadsheet contents.

EMAIL

Micro-manage your email

Filters and rules are often used by office workers to keep on top of the vast amount of email flooding into their inboxes. Webmail software such as Hotmail and Gmail also support filtering. Go to the Filters tab and click Edit in the Gmail inbox view to create and apply rules for bypassing or filing items.

Visual email overview

Click on the Labels tab at the top of your Gmail inbox to start colour-coding contacts to earmark personal and work mail.

Trace an email’s origins

If you want to known the source of a suspicious email or URL, check its IP address. To trace the IP address of a web domain, such as pcadvisor.co.uk, go to Start, Run and type cmd. In the command prompt that pops up, type tracert, followed by the domain name. Tracert will track all stages of connection between you and the website, then provide a final line that includes its IP address. Use this to check the location of the server by using visualroute.visualware.com or ip-adress.com.

BROWSING

Perform a ping test

The simplest of all internet tools is the humble ping command, which lets you ?use the command prompt to contact a website and see whether it’s alive and responding. It also resolves host names to ?IP addresses, so if you issue the command ping www.pcadvisor.co.uk, it will tell you the site’s associated IP address. And it also tells you the speed of the connection and response – handy if you want to check on your own connection.

Manage browser add-ons

Use Microsoft’s Mats Run utility to check ?for browser toolbars and add-ons. To ?disable unwanted toolbars, right-click the Internet Explorer toolbar and deselect any you don’t use. You may need to look in Manage add-ons or Add/Remove Programs to disable them.

Update your browser to fix performance issues

If a once favoured browser no longer works flawlessly, upgrade to the latest version. Not only will that stop its makers bugging you about the upgrade’s availability, but it will improve stability and content handling, too.

Test your web connection

Another web speed test, speedtest.net, also uses a ping test to check the bandwidth between you and the web server your ISP has provided. Remember that connection speeds vary across the day, with peaks of usage in the early evening.

MUSIC & VIDEO

Download domains

For downloads, using a local mirror server somewhere in Europe rather than the US will generally result in faster access to the program you crave.

P2P file-sharing danger

Peer-to-peer file-sharing and torrent sites are among the most dangerous places you can visit on the web. They are fronts for the nastiest forms of malware, and are especially effective as they require you to open ports on your PC to let other users access your files.

Stream music and video for free

Rather than amassing a digital music library by buying through iTunes or Amazon MP3, you could use the web to stream music instead. There are thousands of online radio stations, but also free versions of music-streaming and subscription services. Napster and We7.com are two good examples; both allow you to enjoy music playlists and to save tracks you like for later offline listening.

Rent your tunes

As long as you’re happy to pay £5 per month, Spotify and Napster are content to share their seven million-strong music libraries with you – including live sets and unreleased studio sessions. Depending on the subscription model you choose, you can log into the account on your PC, laptop, tablet and smartphone, and bring up your chosen playlists whenever you like. Your favourite albums can even be enjoyed offline, so you can tune in without a web connection.

Google, Amazon and Tesco offer free video streaming

All of the above companies have recently launched video-on-demand services that let you rent or buy outright Hollywood blockbusters, British indie flicks and renowned TV series. Tesco’s is called Blinkbox and is preinstalled on some Smart TVs. A limited number of free films and programmes are also on offer, and you don’t even need to log in.

BBC iPlayer is now even better

The BBC iPlayer app is so popular that UK ISPs groaned about the extra bandwidth we started using. It’s now available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles, but also on iPad and Android tablets, so you can enjoy it in comfort rather than simply through a PC screen.

Add a parental lock to iPlayer

A potential caveat of the iPlayer is that it will play anything it’s asked to, at any time. Click on a post-watershed programme title, click the padlock icon next to the Guidance button, and enter a password and your email address on the Parental Guidance page that pops up.

Act your age

DVDs have age ratings on the box; as do computer and console games. Prevent your children ignoring them by implementing Parental Controls in Windows. You’ll find it in the User Account settings.

WINDOWS


Remote access tools rule

If you can’t fix your PC, someone else surely can. Use the Remote Assistance tools in Windows to get context-based help or allow a technical support staffer to peer at what’s happening and apply a few tweaks.

Manage exclusions to ?Windows Firewall

Windows 7’s firewall constantly asks you to allow or deny an application’s access to your network. To unblock or block a program, you’ll have to manually change some settings in the Windows Firewall control panel.
Click on your Start button, type Allowed Applications into the search field, and press Enter. In the resulting window, all the programs installed on the system that were flagged by Windows Firewall will be listed. If there is an application communicating through the Firewall that you now want to block, click the Change Settings button at the top of the screen, then scroll through the list of programs until you find the offending software, and disable it from accessing the internet over Home/Work or Public networks. Conversely, if you’d like to allow a program that was previously blocked, find it on the list, and select the appropriate boxes next to the entry.

Revive a non-functioning PC
We can’t perform miracles, but we can suggest some common fixes. A non-starting PC may have power supply issues, but a poorly seated processor, RAM module or graphics card could also be at fault.

Crashing soon after startup

Uninstall anything you recently downloaded, then check your startup apps and background processes to see if something is going wrong. View the processes in the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl, Shift, Esc and clicking the Processes tab. Use ProcessLibrary.com as a reference to identify the obscure ones.

For startup items, enter msconfig in the Start menu Search bar, then launch the application and click on the Startup tab to see what’s going on. If something you recently installed shows up in there, it might be the culprit.

Unexplained PC crashes

If your crashes aren’t easy to reproduce, get your security software to scan for viruses and malware. If you’ve recently installed a new security suite and have started seeing problems, try uninstalling it and then use a different one. Security applications typically get deeper into the guts of your system than other apps, meaning they’re more prone to incompatibilities.

Windows won’t load

This is best addressed by booting into Safe mode – you’ll probably be offered this option if Windows fails to start. Uninstall whatever you installed most recently, update any drivers such as the Bios software, then head to the System Restore menu and select a recent date. Restart the PC.

HARDWARE


Hard-drive errors
A failing hard drive won’t be fixed using the Safe mode and System Restore tools, but going through the process may help alert you to it. Get your recovery disc, boot up from it, and save whatever data you haven’t backed up. Run your disk diagnostic app or Check Disk, which is built into Windows. Right-click your hard-drive icon, select Properties, Tools, then select Check now... under the Error Checking tab. There’s no cure for bad sectors – you’ll have to replace the drive.

Imminent motherboard failure

The motherboard issues a series of bleeps ?to alert you to its plight. Back up the drive and save what you can before calling on tech help or looking for a replacement component.

SOFTWARE


Change the operating system

We’ve already noted how Linux can bring security benefits. Using Ubuntu 11.10 ‘Oneiric Ocelot’ (the latest consumer version of Ubuntu) rather than Windows will also let you get more oomph from an elderly laptop. Another Linux choice: Puppy Linux (puppylinux.org) is lightweight and secure, as well as free, and can be run off a USB drive if you prefer.

A new Windows for old

Windows is getting less bloated and laggy. Hooray! You could dump Vista or XP for Windows 7 Home Premium and enjoy a slicker Windows experience. Alternatively, you could try out the unfinished Developer Preview version of Windows 8.
You can download it from the PC Advisor website at tinyurl.com/3zqh77t (32bit) or tinyurl.com/bwhhaL4 (64bit). The worry-free way to test drive Windows 8 – or if you simply don’t have a spare PC on which to run it – is to use virtualisation software. We like VirtualBox (tinyurl.com/cvs9qx6).

Enjoy easier Windows upgrades

You need to back up everything on your PC before doing so, but once you’ve completed the preparation, there’s still lots of hard graft ahead. You’ll need to reinstall your applications and transfer your programs files, email and browser bookmarks. Microsoft helps ease this task by offering its Windows Easy Transfer utility, which is available as a free download (tinyurl.com/y2o5wkr). It scans the software, saves everything to an external hard drive and assembles all the items you’ll need when you load up your new version of Windows. It also transfers your files to the correct locations on your new PC.

Wireless keyboard keeps playing up

It’s not uncommon for wireless peripherals such as keyboards and mice to present problems. They need to maintain a connection with their RF receiver base station – the small module that plugs into the PC via USB – in order to communicate to Windows what you’re typing. Unfortunately, other electronic items in the vicinity often interfere. If you work with your mobile phone by your side, it’s likely to be the culprit.

Is my software kosher?

When you install Windows for the first time, you’ll be prompted to activate it. You can run the operating system for the first 28 days ?without needing to do so but, after that, Microsoft will start reminding you that “this copy of Windows is not genuine”, hoping you will activate (or register) your copy. The licence key will be written on the embellished sticker on the disc’s paper jacket, or on the box. If you don’t have a licence key, you’ll need to buy one or face sudden shutdowns and screen blackouts.

I think I’ve bought pirate software

Software piracy is rife. Buying software through an auction site such as eBay is ?ill-advised; you transfer money into a stranger’s PayPal account, they cash it and provide a string of numbers to unlock the software you downloaded. Expect a nasty malware infection as well as there’s a high likelihood that the software is ‘cracked’ and therefore unusable (or not legally). Our advice is don’t bother. If you can’t afford to buy expensive software, there are many free alternatives for almost every computing and
creative task imaginable.

MOBILE

Keep files in sync

Always have the latest version of a given file to hand: use Dropbox (dropbox.com) or SugarSync (sugarsync.com) and they’ll do the sorting for you. Install the free software on your home and work PCs – and your iPhone, BlackBerry or Android device if you need to – and the most recent version of a file will arrive in the Dropbox folder that appears next to your Documents and Downloads one.

Share a mobile web connection

Got a 3G connection on your smartphone and need to get online to send an email from your laptop? If Wi-Fi isn’t an option, try tethering your laptop and phone. Pair them using Bluetooth and then head to the Settings menu on your phone to share the connection as a mobile hotspot.

Password protection

A PIN will stop someone picking up your iPhone and idling scrolling through your Facebook messages; another for your SIM will stop someone downloading your contacts list; a code for your voicemail could stop phone hacking.
Spare battery pack

An extended battery pack offers more oomph, but also adds to the bulk. Nonetheless, a fully charged spare is a more efficient alternative to waiting for your dead brick to charge from the mains. If you must travel light, the likes of Philips and Belkin offer external battery packs that you charge in advance and then transfer power to whatever they’re hooked up to. If mains power isn’t in reach but you still need to work, these could prove a lifesaver.

 Improve laptop battery life

Switching off Wi-Fi when you’re not using the web, not having lots of items running in the background, and setting the battery to balanced mode can all extend your phone’s life.

Add ports and possibilities

A sleek laptop that’s light enough to take with you is highly desirable; such a machine probably skimps on ports to keep weight to the bare minimum though. A docking station that stays at home, but adds supplementary ports, could prove a worthwhile investment. Think ethernet, multiple USB and FireWire connections and an HDMI-out.

MALWARE

Should you be duped into downloading a ‘virus scanner’ that ensures your PC is compromised by the time your antivirus software has kicked into action, the clean-up can be messy. Tell-tale signs include strange pop-ups and your web browser being hijacked with add-ons that won’t uninstall. If you suspect the worst, take your PC offline.

We used to get calls from worried readers who were concerned that even if the PC was no longer connected to the internet, viruses could still be ruining their computer’s innards. They can’t, but a Trojan or botnet virus could be lying dormant, waiting for the call to action from their master. Botnets are zombie PCs that have been taken over and are used to launch a denial of service (DoS) attack on a server somewhere. So it’s vital you thoroughly investigate before you allow the PC anywhere near a web connection again.

Start up your computer in Safe mode. Usually, you need to press the F8 button to boot into this before the Windows loading page appears. In the ‘Advanced Boot Options’ menu, select ‘Safe mode with Networking’ and press Enter. Run a Disk Cleanup (listed under Programs, Accessories, System Tools) to get rid of any strays, then run a scanner such as Malwarebytes (malwarebytes.org).

Since your existing antivirus software may have missed or been disabled by malware, don’t rely on this. If needs be, connect to the internet just to grab a suitable malware scanner, then come offline. Better yet, use another PC to download the file, copy it to a USB drive and install it from that.

With luck, the scan will complete successfully and you can follow its advice about deleting quarantined files. Restart the PC and run another scan to check all infections are gone. If the scanner fails, ?a deep-seated infection may be at play.