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Give me an update

If you’re tired of Windows updates, to the point of thinking it might be better to skip doing them, then it’s time to face reality. They may be a pain sometimes, but they’re necessary.

People who like to dabble with computers used to be called computer hobbyists. These days, all of us who use Microsoft Windows have a computer hobby. It is called Windows updating. And once we have our Windows updated we need to update our antivirus programs. Unlike the current and unrelated craze of speed dating, this hobby can cost us hours of productive time.

Some updates are small patches and take only a minute or two, even on dial-up connections–and remember that most home computer users still employ the venerable 56k modem. Some updates, though, like Service Pack 1 for Windows XP, may take more than half an hour to download and install even over a speedy broadband connection.

Some Windows users tire of Microsoft’s frequent update announcements. But by the time updates arrive, viruses and worms could be ready to take advantage of any system that isn’t up to date. You really need to keep up.

To update Windows, you can either go to the start button and look for a Windows update icon, or you can go straight to the source and click on the Scan for Updates link. The most important items are the Critical Updates and Service Packs. Other available updates may be important to you, but you will want to read their descriptions first to keep from clogging your hard drive with items you don’t need.

The easiest way to update is to let Windows do it. Here is the way to automate the process. In Windows XP go to the Start button and choose Control Panel and then System. At the System console click on the Automatic Updates tab and check the box that says “Keep my computer up to date…” I suggest that you select “Download the updates automatically and notify me when they are ready to be installed” in the settings options. That way you can have a look at the available updates and decide if you really need to be able to read Web pages in Japanese, if you need to spend disk space on the latest version of Windows Media Player, or if you only want to install the security updates. Note that if your computer has multiple logins, you will have to be logged in to an account with administrator privileges to make these changes.

The other item you need to keep up to date is your Antivirus program. If you have Norton Antivirus you can set the program to download and install updates automatically. With McAfee Virusscan, the program alerts you with a pop-up when new virus definitions are available.

Antivirus software is expensive to maintain. So, as you would expect, the programs usually cost some money. There are a few freeware antivirus programs, though. They are usually offered for personal use by companies who hope to become well known so that their commercial products will be adopted by businesses.

Two Czech companies provide freeware antivirus programs. Grisoft’s free AVG antivirus software requires manual updates. The free version is limited to nonbusiness use for one machine and will not work over a network. It’s not the best choice for new users or people who don’t want to have to remember to check for updates every few days. The paid versions of AVG have an automatic update feature and tech support.

Alwil software’s avast! 4 is a freeware antivirus program available for non-commercial home use that features automatic updates. It has an optional computer virus database that you may download in order to help repair any virus-damaged files. Avast! 4 claims to protect the computer from viruses due to instant messaging services and peer-to-peer connections. Alwil offers professional editions for users who work from home or in office environments.

Regular (and, ideally, automated) updates to your operating system and antivirus program will protect you from most security breaches. There are other security considerations we will discuss next month but, for now, let your hobby be enjoying your computer.

Alan Thornton runs Decatur Computer Help in Decatur, Ga., and has provided computer help and repair for end-users since 1995. You can contact him at [email protected]

Editor’s note: Newbie Advisor is a column devoted to providing tips, tricks, and advice for consumers and business owners who are relatively new to the world of computers–or who would rather not be immersed in the technology of the computer equipment they use.

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