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To Your Health

Three programs to keep the PC bugs away.

If you keep sensitive data (your finances, for example) on your Windows PC, you might want to consider encrypting your files or even the entire hard drive itself. There are several programs out there that will do this for you, but none are arguably better (and inarguably cheaper) than True Crypt.

True Crypt, a free, open-source disk encryption program for Windows XP, Windows 2000, and Linux, allows you to encrypt an entire hard drive, a USB device such as a flash drive, or a virtual disk within a file that mounts as a real disk. It provides up to 448-bit key encryption (via the Blowfish standard) and can encrypt in a variety of formats, including AES-256, Serpent, and TwoFish.

So what does all of that mean to you? It means that, if you choose to encrypt your files, there’s almost no chance of anyone decoding them–including you if you lose your password!

Because there are so many things you can do with True Crypt–encode files, files within virtual hard drives, flash cards, movies, MP3’s and so on–the program’s learning curve is pretty steep, but the interface is pretty intuitive and it’s fairly easy to get started. If you want to encrypt everything on your external hard drive, for example, you just select the drive via a drop down menu, decide which of the many different encryption algorithm’s you want to use, decide on a password, and let the utility do its stuff.

The help files are incredibly thorough and include an extensive beginner’s tutorial, one you’ll definitely want to read before getting too involved with the program. If you work with sensitive information that you want to keep safe from prying eyes, True Crypt will more than do the job.

True Crypt can be downloaded for free.

Viruses Beware the Jolly Roger

Avast ye mateys and shiver me timbers, there’s a new antivirus program pirating business away from Symantec and McAfee. Arr! OK, enough pirate humor. Avast! 4.7, from Alwit Software, has actually been around for quite a while but has only recently begun to get recognized as a legitimate contender in the battle to become the No. 1 antivirus suite for the Windows PC.

The home edition, offering more than many commercial AV suites, is completely free (the Pro edition starts at $40 depending upon how many licenses you need), which is certainly part of its allure. But free doesn’t many anything if you’re talking about a subpar product, which Avast assuredly is not. In fact, on my PC, Avast routinely catches potential hazards that Norton sometimes misses, including a Trojan that could have potentially looted (sorry, another pirate reference) my hard drive.

Avast also offers a smaller footprint (uses less available memory) than Norton, and, unlike Norton, has yet to interfere with any other programs I happen to be running. In other words, if Norton is to AV software what Internet Explorer is to browsers, Avast is Firefox, offering a leaner program that runs faster and isn’t nearly as intrusive as Symantec’s powerhouse.

Of course, Avast doesn’t offer a firewall or any of the other programs that come with Symantec’s Norton Internet Security suite, but the one thing they do offer–a powerful anti-virus engine–they do just as well, if not better, than the competition.

And, unlike some AV programs that you constantly have to tinker with, once you’ve installed Avast there isn’t much else to do. The program runs seamlessly in the background and only makes itself known if it detects a potential threat to the health and well being of your system. Automatic updates keep the virus definitions current, and if you ever do need to alter the program’s settings (to go from normal sensitivity to high, for example) an easy-to-understand, user-friendly interface makes it simple.

Avast is a true hidden treasure for any landlubber that would like to save a little gold while still providing their Windows PC with the best protection possible.

Avast can be downloaded for free.

Uncluttering your Registry

Registry problems can slow down or, in some cases, even stop your Windows PC even faster than a virus. Remnants of programs past–unused and undeleted drivers, incorrect settings, and corrupt and fragmented entries–can slow down even the newest and fastest of PCs. Enter Registry Booster, a quick and simple program that helps you untangle the gnarled mess that is often the Windows registry.

The program, from Uniblue, can be set to scan your registry every time Windows boots up, as well as to make a backup of your registry before actually changing anything. The utility, which scans for corrupt or missing DLLs, Active X, drivers, application paths, file associations, and much more, is exceedingly easy to use. It begins scanning the registry the moment you start it and won’t change anything without your permission.

When I ran Registry Booster on my system, it found (brace yourself) 148 entries that needed to be fixed–and this was on a three-month-old system! (To be fair, I do test a lot of programs, all of which require a lot of installing and uninstalling.)

Because the program is shareware, however, the trial version would only let me fix 15 of those errors. To fix the whole tangled mess requires registration, which runs $30 for a year’s worth of updates. Is it worth it? Sure, you could search through your registry and eventually find all the problems–if you knew what you were doing and had a solid month of free time–but if you’re like me and your time is limited, and you don’t want to risk damaging your system, Registry Booster is just what the doctor ordered.

The trial version of Registry Booster can be downloaded from www.uniblue.com.

Contributing Editor Joe DeRouen writes Windows Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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