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Jan's Computer Basics:

System Software: Utilities

A utility program performs tasks related to the maintaining of your computer's health - hardware and data. Some are included with the operating system. But someone always thinks they have a better version for you to buy. And they are frequently right!

Icon: File ManagementFile Management programs make it easier to manage your files and folders. Windows currently includes many features that were first used in add-on file management programs.

In the high days of DOS it was easy to improve on the text-only type-it-all-yourself methods that DOS provided. Many programs were written to help the user find files, create and organize directories, copy, move, and rename files. Some even used the mouse to point and click to accomplish these tasks. You don't appreciate the vastness of the improvement until you've tried to do these things by typing the commands. The newer graphical interfaces that come with current operating systems have removed the need for alternate file management programs for the average computer user.

Icon: Disk ManagementDisk Management programs involve formatting, partitioning, and defragmenting disks.

Formatting means preparing a disk for use by setting up the file system.

Partitioning is dividing the space on a disk into two or more 'virtual' drives. This is necessary if the drive had more space than the operating system can manage. It can be useful in other situations also.

Defragmenting means putting files on the disk so that the whole file is in sequence instead of being scattered around in different areas. This reduces the time to access the file. Some disk management programs even let you specify that certain files that are accessed often, like the operating system itself and frequently used programs, are at the front of the disk. Anything that speeds things up will have customers.

Icon: Memory ManagementMemory Management software handles where programs put their current data in RAM. They move certain items around or even out of RAM memory onto the hard disk. This can effectively increase the memory available by getting all the unused pieces together in one spot, making a usable amount.

Icon: BackupsA backup program, which also restores the backed up data, is a must if you have any data at all that you want to keep around for a while. The software may compress the data to take up the least space (Recall the problem with slack space we found in the discussion of Storage: Disk Format).

Your backup files can be on a hard disk, SSD disk, flash disk, optical disc, or stored in the "cloud" (a remote server that you access over the Internet). Some online services will automatically synchronize files and even allow access to the online copy from a different computer or a smart phone.

Icon: TipTip: For important, hard-to-replace data, keep multiple copies on different kinds of media. Be sure that your backup is not stored in the same physical location as the computer! A fire or theft could get both.

Icon: Recover DataData Recovery programs are for those who just said "Whoops!" They attempt to recover deleted or damaged (corrupted) files. Use immediately or forget about it!

Icon: File CompressionData Compression programs squeeze out the slack space generated by the formatting schemes, as discussed under Storage: Disk Format.  

Security Software

Icon: Security SoftwareThis category includes a number of different kinds of programs, all of which are trying to protect your computer and your data from attacks and damage and from being controlled without your permission. No one program can protect against all of the bad guys out there. Using a set of overlapping programs is the best way to keep your computer and its data safe. But using too many at once creates its own problems.

Malware is what we call the whole category of things that try to do bad things to your computer or your data.

Malware: What you need protection from

  • Viruses copy themselves to other disks to spread to other computers. They can be merely annoying or they can be vastly destructive to your files.
  • Trojans hide inside something else to sneak in unwanted programs. You don't know that they are there, like the famous Trojan horse. These are often used to capture your logins and passwords.
  • Worms are unwanted programs that are transferred over network or Internet connections to spread themselves quickly.
  • Spyware programs lurk on your computer to steal important information, like your passwords and logins and other personal identification information and then send it off to someone else.
  • Zombie programs take control of your computer and use it and its Internet connection to attack other computers or networks or to perform other criminal activities.
  • Phishing (pronounced like the word 'fishing') is a message that tries to trick you into providing information like your social security number or bank account information or logon and password for a web site. The message may claim that if you do not click on the link in the message and log onto a financial web site that your account will be blocked, or some other disaster. The web page they send you to is not the real site, even though it may look like it.
  • Spam is email that you did not request and do not want. One person's spam is another's useful newsletter or sale ad. Spam is a common way to spread viruses, trojans, and the like.
  • Browser hijacking occurs when one of the nasties takes control of your browser, sending you to sites that you did not mean to go to. This may be a porn site or it may look like a real banking, sales, or credit card site. The purpose is to steal your personal and financial information or to run up the number of page views for ads on the page so that the advertisers will pay them more money.

Programs that add protection:

Anti-virus programs monitor the computer for the activity of viruses and similar nasties. 

Anti-spyware programs similarly monitor your computer, looking for known trouble-makers as well as suspicious behavior.

Anti-spam software tries to identify useless or dangerous messages for you.

A firewall blocks attempts to access your files over a network or internet connection. Your network router or modem or both may have a hardware firewall built into it. That will block incoming attacks. But you still need a software firewall on your computer to block outgoing attacks. Your computer can become infected through shared disks or even from another computer on the network. So you need to monitor what your computer is putting out over the network or internet also.