Computing simplified

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There are certain problems we all deal with every day, but don’t know why. Why do I need to keep resetting my router? Do I have a virus? What happens when a site I use gets “hacked?”

Whether you’re the tech-savvy friend that’s always answering these questions or the friend doing the asking, here are the answers to the most common conundrums.

How do I keep my laptop’s battery in good health?

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You’ve probably heard some people say you should drain your battery completely before charging it, or that you should keep it between 40% and 80% all the time to make it last longer. A lot of this is confusion over how batteries used to work, not how they work today. Luckily, most or all of your gadgets these days run on Lithium Ion batteries, which are easy to take care of.

The gist is: they last longer when you perform shallow discharges, keep them cool, and don’t leave them plugged in while they’re running at 100% battery. Honestly, though, batteries have a finite life no matter what, and your efforts will only go so far-so don’t stress about it. Focus your efforts on getting better battery life out of your iPhone, Android phone, or laptop on a given charge instead.

What do viruses, trojans, and other malware actually do?

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Everyone knows viruses and trojans are bad, but a lot of people don’t know how exactly they work. Viruses, for example, are programs that copy themselves and infect a computer, spreading from one to another-just like, well, a real life virus. Trojans, on the other hand, are applications that look normal, but secretly have code that’s doing something else-like letting someone else control your computer.

We highly recommend reading this explanation for more detail on the different types of malware, as well as the biggest myths surrounding them. And, as always, make sure you’re running a good antivirus program-even if you have good browsing habits.

What’s wrong with using public Wi-Fi?

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Most of us put a lot of effort into finding free Wi-Fi, but public Wi-Fi networks have their own share of problems-particularly that it’s very insecure. Even if a Wi-Fi network has a password, that doesn’t keep you safe from other people on the network.

It’s notoriously easy for any of them to see what you’re doing and, in some cases, steal personal information or passwords. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to stay safe, whenever you’re on a public network, and you should be a-ok.

Do I really need to “eject” USB drives?

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Ever wonder why your computer warns you about ejecting those USB drives before you remove them? It’s because computers use something called write caching to improve performance-if you copy something to your drive, sometimes it’ll tell you it’s completed the task, but it’s actually waiting until it has a few other tasks to perform so it can do them all at once.

When you press eject, it finishes anything in the queue to make sure you don’t yank it out before it’s done. Windows does a better job of avoiding problems than OS X and Linux, but we recommend ejecting all your drives anyway. It’s small price to pay for avoiding lost data. While we’re on the subject: if you’ve ever wondered why your external drives never have as much space as the box claims they do, we’ve got answers for that as well.

How can I tell if an email is spam?

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Some spam is obvious (“I lost 30 pounds and made $24356 in five hours by taking this special pill!”), but other messages are more subtle. A lot of spam relies oh “phishing,” in which a spammer will try to make their email look like it’s coming from a legitimate source. They may tell you to click a link that looks like it’s going to paypal.com, but really goes to their PayPal-disguised site where you willingly type in your information.

Luckily, you can usually avoid those tricks by checking the URL and typing it in yourself instead. Be careful, too-sometimes those links will cause you to unknowingly spam one of your friends, too.

Why are cables so expensive?

So you’ve bought yourself a shiny new Blu-Ray player, but you need an HDMI cable to go with it. The Best Buy employee hands you a cable and-what the crap-it’s $40?! But you buy it grudgingly because you need it. Well, never again: the reason those cables are so expensive? Because they know you’ll buy it anyway. The truth is, back in the old days, cables with gold-plated connectors or fancy shielding actually produced a better picture, but with modern digital cables-like HDMI, USB, and others-things are much simpler (and cheaper).

A cheap cable from Monoprice will work just as well, so don’t waste your money. While you’re at it, buy refurbished and skip the extended warranty if you want to save even more money on your tech.

What happens when a site I use gets hacked?

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You’ve no doubt heard about all the sites that have gotten compromised in the last year, but what happens when they do? Usually those hackers are after your username and password, but whether they can get it depends on how a site stores your password, as well as your password’s strength (weak passwords are much easier to crack than you think).

After you’ve read up on those things, get started on protecting yourself with a good password manager, a different strong password for every site you use, and backup plans in case someone gets into your account anyway.

Why do I need to keep resetting my router?

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It’s a tale as old as time: your internet gets finicky, so you unplug your router, plug it back in, and all of a sudden it’s magically working again. But why does this happen, really? It could be a number of things: maybe it’s overheating, maybe it’s getting bogged down from too much traffic (like BitTorrent), or maybe it’s just a crappy router.

Luckily, there are a lot of things you can do to fix it. Make sure you’re waiting the full 10 seconds when you unplug it. There’s a real reason for that, too.

Will I get caught if I download a movie on BitTorrent?

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If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me about getting “caught” downloading stuff with BitTorrent, I’d be swimming through money like Scrooge McDuck. But seriously: yes, the media companies are always on the prowl, looking for people downloading their content.

Your internet provider may even watch your traffic to see if your torrenting. The legal ramifications of doing so aren’t as heavy as they used to be, but you may still get letters from your ISP, throttled speeds, or other punishments. There are ways to keep yourself anonymous, of course, but nothing is foolproof.

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