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Your New Year's Resolutions, Courtesy of Tech Answers

Your New Year's Resolutions, Courtesy of Tech Answers
My goodness, I do hate resolutions. Far too resolute for my tastes. So I'm going to inflict some on you, instead. We're almost half-way through the second decade of the 21st century, a time defined by information technology. The future is here, and it requires a lot of passwords and software upgrades. This is the year you need to start getting your digital life in order.  
 
Change Your Passwords
Are you still using the same password for all the sites you log into?  Make 2014 the year you start taking your passwords seriously. If you’re using the same password for everything, all it takes is for one site with poor security practices to be compromised, like the recent exposure of Adobe.com passwords. Then hackers can use that exposed email address and password combination to enter any other site you’re a member of. Make this impossible by using a different password for each site, particularly those that house sensitive personal and financial information! Need help remembering all your passwords? Try a password manager such as LastPass. And remember to change your passwords periodically!
 
Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Even with complex, random passwords, the age of the simple email/password combination is, or should be anyway, coming to a close. It's simply too easy to hack. Many Web sites these days are enabling two-factor authentication which goes one step beyond. Say, for instance, I want to log into my bank's site on my computer. After correctly providing my access number and password, the bank's site will then text me a six-digit code which I only have a few minutes to input or the log-in process will fail. There are certainly more two-factor schemes out there, but this is one of the most common. It can be an irksome extra step, but consider using it at least for those sites that, again, have access to personal and financial information.  Read more about two-factor authentication over on LifeHacker. 
 
Update Your Internet Security
Have you updated your virus definitions lately?  Or renewed your anti-virus subscription?  Or run a scan for viruses and malware?  Get crackin'! My personal preference has been to use Microsoft Security Essentials, a free, quality anti-virus and anti-malware protection tool from Microsoft which you can download here for Windows 7 and earlier. It is already baked into Windows 8.  If you're looking for a program with more bells and whistles, or you just feel more comfortable spending money on an important piece of software such as a security suite (and I understand why you would), head over to PCMag.com for their review of the best choices. However, for those of you still running Windows XP, Security Essentials will not be available for much longer, because . . .
 
Windows XP Is Going Away. Time to Upgrade!
Here’s the bad news, folks. Microsoft is discontinuing support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. This means no more security updates, no more service packs, and no more telephone support if something goes so terribly wrong that you are willing to actually call Microsoft for help. Windows XP is still an okay (only barely) operating system, but it's 12 years old. Continued use is a risky proposition. As Microsoft support disappears, so, too, will we see updates begin to vanish for software such as third-party Web browsers, media players, office suites, games and more. So not only will you be using last decade’s programs, you will also be increasingly vulnerable to unpatched security issues.  
 
I recommend you upgrade to Windows 7 if you can, but since Windows 8 has been released it’s difficult to get your hands on a copy of 7 without buying a new computer that comes with 8 pre-installed.  Windows 8’s design is a radical departure from all previous versions, which is why your next tech resolution for 2014 should be . . .
 
Learn Windows 8. Ha-ha—Just Joking. Make Windows 8 Look and Behave like Windows 7
With the recent update to Windows 8.1, Microsoft made it possible to boot directly to the classic Desktop rather than that obnoxious tile interface Start Screen (click here to learn how), but the newly-returned Start button still takes you back to the Start Screen rather than giving you a regular Start menu like we’re use to. This may change in Windows 8.2, but for now you’ll need to install a third-party program to resurrect the classic Start menu.  I recommend spending $5 on Start8, but you can also try the free Classic Shell.  
 
Booting to the desktop by default and adding a Start menu will only take you two-thirds of the way to making Windows 8 usable on a computer lacking a touchscreen. See, Windows 8 has two sets of programs: those that we’re used to for the desktop and those that have been designed specifically for the touchscreen interface. Microsoft has enabled the touchscreen programs to be the default option, even on machines lacking that technology. We need to fix that in the worst way. I wish there was a batch operation to accomplish the switch in one fell swoop, but there isn’t.  Follow these directions to change the default programs for files such as music, pictures, text documents, and videos.  
 
Here’s a quick cheatsheet for what programs to use with the different file types:
  • Picture File Types: BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, TIFF: choose Windows Photo Viewer
  • Music/Audio File Types: MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC: choose Windows Media Player (or your preferred third-party alternative, such as iTunes)
  • Text:
    • PDF: download and install Adobe Reader first then choose that as a default
    • DOC, RTF, TXT: choose Wordpad or Microsoft Word if you’ve got it installed.
  • Video: WMV, AVI, MP4, MOV, MPG: choose Windows Media Player, or install the free, superior VLC player.  
Back Up Your Important Files
Computers and now tablets and smartphones come and go, but your files should be eternal! At the very least you should have duplicate copies of your important documents and media on a flash drive or external USB drive. Go the extra step and also back them up on an online service such as Mozy, Backblaze, or many others. When it comes to important files, redundancy should be your religion.
 
Clean Out Your Downloads Folder and Desktop
In my experience, computer users have two extremely messy locations on their computers' hard drives: their desktops and their downloads folders.  On the desktop, I see icons for programs that came with the computer that are never used. Who needs an icon for eBay? Are you really using that “Order Supplies” or "Online Support" shortcut? Oh, and the downloads folder—I usually see 10 copies of the Flash Player and Adobe Reader installer alone, never mind dozens of other documents that have never been touched. Don't worry, it's okay to delete that stuff! And, by the way. . .
 
Empty Your Recycle/Trash Bin
When you delete something from your computer, it doesn’t immediately disappear. It first lands in the Recycle Bin if you’re using Windows or Trash if you’re using a Mac. Open this area and choose the option to empty the files that are stored there. Until you do, the files aren’t actually deleted and are, in fact, still taking up space on your machine. 
 
Make Certain All Your Recovery Media and Activation Keys Are in One Place
If something goes wrong with your computer and you need to reinstall all your programs, you’ll want to make sure you know where the activation keys for paid programs such as Microsoft Office or Photoshop are, not to mention your activation key for Windows if you manually installed or upgraded. Without those activation keys, you’ll be dead in the water when it comes time to reinstall.  
Not sure what your activation keys are?  Better find out now before the worst happens!  Download and install the free KeyFinder utility. Run the program, and it should reveal all the necessary keys you’ll need.  
 
Prune Your Friends List & “Likes”
2014 might be the year to curtail your Facebook usage. Consider:
 
According to, like, every news outfit everywhere, studies are showing that overuse of Facebook can lead to depression and low self-esteem. A leading cause stems from comparing our real lives to the fake lives everyone carefully sculpts online to show the world only the good things that happen. You know you do it.
 
Additionally, Facebook is one of the largest news and current events echo chambers in existence. If you use it as a news “aggregator,” as I have in the past, stop.  Every news source and organization on Facebook that you “like” cherry-picks stories and information to post that they think will drive traffic to their sites. This, as opposed to actually reading a full day’s headlines or a newspaper, results in an incredibly narrow view of the world and what is going on in it.  
 
And, finally, if you spend half your time on Facebook looking at cats, macros, cartoons, animated gifs, photobombs, selfies, and a bunch of other social media phenomenons I’m probably not hip enough to be familiar with—you might be Facebook addict.  Could be it’s time to “unlike” some of those "content" providers as well.  
 
Oh, and apparently all the cool kids are on The Snapchat and The Instagram and whatnot now that the oldsters have taken over Facebook. Facebook is soooo 2000&L8. That's a cool way to spell 2000 and late, right?  I mean, I think that's still cool to say. . . 
 
Lock Down Your Social Network Privacy Options
Now, I’m not suggesting you stop using social networks altogether. That’s social and sometimes even professional suicide these days. It would be for me! But you might want to go through and make certain all of your privacy options are set up the way you like so that you’re not revealing sensitive personal information to the general public. Here are links to various social networks' privacy settings:
Password-Protect Your Smartphone
If you use a smartphone, chances are that you, like me, keep your entire life on the thing. Web traffic, emails, texts, calendars, personal documents, location information, social networks, pictures, videos, entertainment media, etc. are all stored on your smartphone. And you’re not protecting it somehow? Tsk, tsk. Best get on that!  
Folks, I'm not kidding about this stuff, particularly where security is concerned. This isn't just a post to act as season-appropriate fluff. This is serious. If 2013 demonstrated anything, it's that the online world is a lot more risky than we realized, but good luck living outside it. You really need to start taking care of this. I could go on, and maybe I will in another post. Start with this. It's the important stuff, and I think it will keep you busy for a while.