Business-like, isn't he?



CyberSafety: Know your PC

by Alan Zisman (c) 2003

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You don't use your computer on the Internet in a vacuum. The more comfortable you are with your computer and the way it works, the more you will be able to tell when something is not working properly, and the more likely you will be to be able to diagnose and repair the problem. There are a few things that I hope you can do before we get started:

  • Create folders
  • Download files to the folder of your choice
  • Open compressed (zipped) files
  • Install programs
  • When in doubt, right-click

Create a new folder: Briefly, in Windows, you can create a folder to store files by navigating to the location where you want the folder to appear (on the Desktop or using My Computer or Explorer), then right-clicking on any open spot. Select New from the popup menu, then Folder. A new folder will be created, with the name New Folder highlighted so you can change it to the name of your choice. Change the name, then double-click to open it. Especially useful is the ability to create new folders while saving files, right in the Save or Save As dialogue box, right at the time when you're most likely to need a new folder. You can use the method described above, or click on the New Folder icon, second from the right along the top of the dialogue box:

Download a file: downloading a file online is generally easy-- simply click on a button or link that says download. People often lose track of where they sent it; pay attention to the location specified in the Save In field that opens up on your computer screen, which looks similar to the above picture. If the folder listed in the Save In field (which reads 'Download on Nantron' in the above example) isn't where you had in mind, click the down arrow beside it to see other drives, or look in the space below for other folders. If need be, create a new folder. Suggestion: Make a folder, perhaps inside My Documents and call it Download and always save programs and downloaded files there.

Open compressed files: Often, files on the Net are compressed, using a protocol called PKZIP so that they will take less space (downloading more quickly) and so that the multiple files that often make up a program can be downloaded all at once. To make use of them, you will first need to 'unzip' the file, restoring it to its original condition. Windows ME and XP includes basic ability to unzip compressed files-- zipped files (also referred to as 'archives') appear as a folder; double-click to enter the zipped folder, and copy the contents elsewhere. Users of other Windows versions will need to get additional software to open zipped files (and ME and XP users may prefer to use more powerful utilities, in any case). Perhaps the most popular is the US$29 shareware: WinZip (available from There are many other alternatives; such as the free EnZip or Iceows which works like WinME/XP's folder view.

Install a program: typically, when you've unzipped an archive, you end up with a folder full of files, one of which is often named Setup.exe or Install.exe or something similar. Double-click it to start to install the program. Pay attention to the options, don't just blindly click OK at every dialogue box. If there is an option of an Expert or Custom installation, choose it, and think whether or not you want to change any of the defaults. If a program wants to install itself outside of the standard C:\Program Files folder, maybe you want it to go to a subfolder of C:\Program Files instead. Or place the icons inside a different subfolder of your Start Menu. Do you really want yet another icon on the Desktop? Read the license-- yes the whole thing!-- do you really agree to what it says? Do you really need the program badly enough to agree to these terms? Pay attention and be in control.

When in doubt, right-click: This is the big secret of the Windows interface... right-clicking on almost anything pops up a context menu filled with options for whatever you've right-clicked on. You can use it to rename or copy files, change the desktop picture or screen saver, and more. The last option in the context menu is often Properties, which lets you view or change options.

Homework: If you aren't comfortable with these three skills, practise practise practise. Create a Download folder, go to and search for Enzip or xxx. Download it to your new Download folder; open it up and install it, paying attention to all your options. Download another, zipped file, and unzip it and install it. Right-click in various places on the screen and see what the options are. Check out the Properties options of the Desktop, My Computer, etc.

Take more control of your computer

Show file extensions:  DOS and Windows-based PCs use 3-letter file extensions (a three letter code tagged onto the end of file names) to tell the computer how to deal with every file. For example, Microsoft Word documents end in .doc or .rtf. Digital photos and many other graphics files end in .jpg or .tif. Program files typically end in .exe. When Microsoft released Windows 95, it tried to make a PC look and work more like a Mac, which had a reputation of being more user-friendly. Macs don't need file extensions at the end of their filenames to know how to use files (though cooperative Mac-users may add PC-friendly extensions to shared documents to make life easier for PC-users). In a misguided effort to make Windows friendlier, Microsoft decided to hide the still-necessary file extensions. When you save a file in Word, for instance, Word automatically adds .doc to your file name, but by default, it hides it from you.

This makes it harder to find the file you want among many different similarly-named files, and gives virus-writers another tool to trick naive users. You can change this Windows default so that the file extension will be always shown. Trust me, it will help give you greater control over your computer, and make it safer for you to work with the many different types of files. To do this: 
  • Open My Computer or the Windows Explorer (notInternet Explorer)
  • Click Tools thenFolder Options. (In some versions of Windows, you may need to click View then Options or some other similar combination). 
  • Go to the View tab. You'll see a list of options similar to the dialogue box to the left...
  • Uncheck the checkmark beside [x] Hide extensions for known file types
  • Click OK or press Enter.

Check your installed programs: All versions of Windows from Win95 on include a very useful feature-- a Control Panel named Add-Remove Programs.  Despite the name, it's not very useful  or at all necessary when  installing new programs, but it's  very important when removing programs. Never remove programs by deleting the program's folder-- all sorts of junk and settings are left behind when you do this. (Well, not never... if a program isn't listed in the Add-Remove control panel, that may be your only choice... but always check this control panel first!)  To go there, click the Start  button, then Settings, then Control Panel. Double-click the Add-Remove Programs icon.

Look down the list. Do you know what all these programs are? Are there programs that you don't remember installing?  Are there programs you never use? Maybe you should consider removing some of these. Simply select one, and click on the Change/Remove button. (If you get a dialogue box telling you that some file is not used by anything else, agree to remove it). If you have software installed on your computer that you don't use, remove it... and if it's software that you don't remember installing, wonder how it got there! Then remove it.

Make an emergency boot diskette- if you are using Windows 95, 98, or ME, the Add-Remove dialogue box will have a tab labelled Startup Disk. Go there and follow the instructions to make an emergency boot diskette, if you don't already have one. (This doesn't apply to users of Windows NT, Windows 2000, or Windows XP). An emergency boot disk can be a very useful tool in many types of computer disaster.

Turn off un-needed Tray items: Take a look at the System Tray in the bottom right-corner of your screen. (In Windows XP, click on the little < to see all the items). Many of us have many little icons there. Once again, do you know what each does? Do you use each? Do you remember installing a program that asked if you wanted it? If you don't use an icon, consider turning it off. Your sound card or video card or mouse may have added an icon there that you may never use. If so, find out how to get rid of it. There's unfortunately no standard. Try clicking once, clicking twice, or right-clicking. If you get a popup menu, look for an item like 'Disable'. (If you pick one reading 'Close' you may find it pops up the next time you restart). In some cases, you may need to choose a menu item to open the application, and poke around the menus for an option that reads something like: [x] Load at Startup.  (You should probably leave an antivirus icons alone). The next item will give you more power over these pesky things and other programs that load at startup-- often without even loading a little icon.

MSCONFIG Know what programs are automatically starting up: Windows 98, ME, and XP have a very useful tool that lets you know what programs are automatically being started up, and lets you choose not to have them run automatically. If you change your mind, you can simply re-check the box and they'll run the next time you start up. To access this tool:
  • Click the Start button
  • Click the Run option
  • Type msconfig in the box. Click OK.
  • Click on the Startup tab
You'll see something like the picture to the left. It lists programs that run automatically at startup, giving the program name, the location of the file that starts it, and (WinXP) an arcane location of the command that loads it automatically. Unfortunately, this is harder to use than the Add-Remove item, but look over it. In WinXP, make the second column wider, so you can better see what folder the various startup items are in. This will give clues whether they're part of Windows or what program installed each. Again, check whether some look like they're from program files you aren't aware of installing. Try unchecking one, then restart and see if you miss it.

Several items are core parts of Windows and should not be removed!  If you see these, don't touch:

  • ScanRegistry
  • TaskMonitor
  • SystemTray
  • LoadPowerProfile
You may also notice items related to your antivirus program, your video card (popular ATI video cards load several items all starting ATI, for example), and programs that load little icons in the System Tray at the bottom right corner of your screen. You may choose to turn off some unneeded System Tray items-- if you don't use MSN or AOL Instant Messenger, for example. Or startup items for Real Player, QuickTime, or your sound card. Again, if something looks unfamiliar, think about unchecking it, at least for a temporary trial. If you notice it's missing, you can always run MSCONFIG again, and re-check it. If you're not sure what something does, try browsing to the Google search engine, and searching on its name. You'll almost always find a description. Or check the mystery names at or

Don't worry if several items such as LoadPowerProfile repeat... this is normal, and doesn't cause any problems, though you can uncheck the repetitions if you want.

Win95, WinNT, and Win2000 users don't have MSCONFIG. A good, free alternative is the Startup Control Panel available from I would recommend users of those Windows version download and install this. PC Magazine in December released an updated StartUp Cop Pro... not free, but cheap at US$5. Like MSConfig and the Startup Control Panel it lists the programs that auto-load, but it goes several steps further-- one click connects to the Internet to give information about what each is. It also alerts you when something is added to the startup list without your knowledge. Recommended:,4149,1406616,00.asp

Another useful utility can be a Startup Monitor-- a program that lets you know when something has added itself to your computer and set itself to startup automatically. If it's something you meant to do, you can allow it-- but if it's happening without your permission, you can block it. Check out the free StartUp Monitor: 

Use Windows Update

Most versions of Windows include a link to Microsoft’s Windows Update website; if you can’t locate this icon, you can use your browser to go to: . You will be asked to download a utility that searches your computer and reports what updates are already installed. Afterwards, you will receive a list of so-called critical updates, as well as other potential updates to Windows. You can safely ignore updates enabling you to read foreign alphabets, print Euro currency symbols, or get a newer version of Microsoft Movie Maker. But you really should download and install all the critical updates, and the driver updates for your installed hardware. You may have to install some updates separately, and will have to restart after many of the updates. But keep returning to Windows Update until it no longer reports any critical updates for your system. (Magically, a few more may appear after you think you’ve downloaded them all, so check repeatedly until it no longer finds any for you). This can take a while, with multiple restarts. A visit to Windows Update following a fresh installation of Win XP I recently did listed 39 critical updates, 2 driver updates, and 24 others! 

Note that Windows 95 systems are no longer supported by Windows Update. Windows XP users can set their systems to automatically download (and optionally install) updates without needing you to manually visit Windows Update. To do that, right-click My Computer, choose Properties from the popup menu, and go to the Automatic Updates tab.

MS Office users should also visit OfficeUpdates: Unlike the Windows Update site, this one can't be automated. In early September, for example, Microsoft released four Office-related security patches, with fixes for Office 2000, XP, and 2003 users. (Office 97 users will have to track down the patches manually).Office 2000 and XP users may want to click the 'More About Updates' link, then 'Order Office Service Packs on CD-ROM' to order free update CDs.

Windows 95 users don't get any help from Windows Update; they can manually download patches and updates at: or at (Note: Microsoft stopped patching Win95 in mid-2000). They may want to upgrade their Internet Explorer version to IE 5.5 SP2 (the latest version that will install on Win95).

As of this writing (Sept 2003), Windows 98 users are still supported on Windows Update-- but this may not continue. Microsoft has all the Win98 downloads available for manual download and installation at:

In the Spring of 2004, Microsoft released a free Windows Update CD, which works with versions of Windows from Win98 to XP. Updates are current as of Feb 2004 (so you'll still want to go to Windows Update after running the CD), but it's well worth getting:

Important aside: You may receive emails claiming to be from Microsoft, including files that it is claimed are Microsoft security patches. These messages are bogus-- the attached files are viruses. Do not open the attached files; delete them immediately. Microsoft does not send out updates to end-users directly. (Note that this is different from the pop-up message your computer may give if it is set to automatically connect to the Windows Update site to download legitimate update patches.


(Optionally) Clean up your Desktop and Start Menus: This isn't really security-related, but helps you take control of your computer and make it a more pleasant environment for work (or play). Read my online tutorial at:

Homework: Go home and do all these things! Don't be afraid to try things out. In particular:

  • Turn on display of file extensions
  • Inspect the Control Panel's Add-Remove Programs item. Feel free to uninstall programs if you don't know what it is or if you're sure you never use it. (If your computer is shared by others, check with them first!)
  • Make an emergency boot diskette (Win 95/98/Me only)
  • Inspect the System Tray and experiment to turn off unneeded items
  • Run msconfig and see if anything is there that looks unwanted or suspicious. If you're not sure about an item, search for its file name in Google.  Install the Startup Control Panel if necessary.

  • Go to Windows Update and make sure your system has all the critical updates or set your WinXP system to receive updates automatically.
A word from our sponsor:
This tutorial is part of my Internet Security series, accompanying CyberSafety, a Continuing Education course at BC's Capilano College. The entire series consists of:

The CyberSafety course includes the following modules:

Know your PC
Computer Viruses
Email and Spam
Networks and wireless issues

Or cut to the chase with 7 Steps to Internet Security!


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan