The 10 Best Ways to &*$% Up Your Computer

Amber Bouman

We expend bunches of keystrokes detailing how to recover from disaster, everything from sweeping spyware from your system to how to get your data back from the digital graveyard, but equally important is how to avoid potentially catastrophic scenarios in the first place. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in in the world of PCs, hours of frustration.

On the flip side, maybe you have a masochistic desire to destroy your system. What better way to force your hand at upgrading then to render your current rig all but unusable? We don't condone killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars of hardware, but hey, it's your stuff at stake, and how you choose to use (or abuse) it is up to you.

Either way, follow along as we show you the 10 worst things you can do to your PC and how to avoid them.

Downloading Virus Laden Torrents

We all know what really goes on with BitTorrent and we're not about to pretend the only reason it's popular is because of capacious game demos and open-source Linux distros. BitTorrent picks up where Napster left off (before it went legit as a subscription-based music streaming service), serving up everything from legal content to copyrighted movies, music, and software. There, we said it -- behind all the winks and posturing, BitTorrent, if we're being totally honest , is a bastion of illicit downloading.

Don't worry, we're not going to step on our soapbox and shout about the evils of stealing software, but if we can't convince you from a moral perspective to use BitTorrent only for snagging legal content, consider going kosher to keep your rig from becoming riddled with foul files.

Here's the deal. Virus writers know exactly how popular BitTorrent has become, and combined with the allure of getting something for nothing, the temptation to fire up a free app clouds good judgment, making it all to easy to spread malware among the masses; This is what happened to users who went in search of pirated copies of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty . Moral objections aside, you're playing a digital version of Russian Roulette whenever you download illegal torrents, and even legitimate torrents can come laced with dirty files.

We're not advocating that you should give up BitTorrent, but use the protocol wisely. Download your torrent links from trusted sources, and if you can't afford a piece of software, find a free or lower cost alternative before pirating a potentially booby-trapped package.

For more BitTorrent tips, see our 20 Essential Tricks and Skills Every BitTorrent User Should Know feature.

Liquid Cool the Wrong Way (Spilled Drinks)

Show of hands, how many of you have ever spilled a drink at your computer desk? For those of you who have, consider yourself lucky if the only thing that was ruined was your keyboard. And for everyone else, your time is coming. Knowing this, we still keep our caffeinated beverages close by, mainly because nobody has come out with a caffeine patch to get us going in the morning.

Unfortunately, water and electronics don't mix, and neither does coffee, soda, beer, or any other liquids. The solution? Be careful. Other than that, it just boils down to common sense. You know, like don't rest your can of Amp on your desktop tower or on the edge of your desk directly above it and, if applicable, put the cap back on in between sips.

If you do spill, not all is necessarily lost. Depending on where you spilled your drink, you'll want to unplug your PC as quick as you can, forgetting about a proper shutdown procedure. Disconnect the power supply from your motherboard and then assess the damage. Is there liquid all over the place? Carefully pat it dry. If you spilled something sticky, you can use a damp cloth to help remove the residue, and then pat your components dry again. Filtered water works best for this part, as it won't leave mineral deposits behind, and you can also use isopropyl rubbing alcohol for spot cleaning. When you're finished, keep the side panel off and let your rig air dry for a day or two. When it's completely dry, you can try turning it back on. If nothing fizzles and pops, you're back in business. Otherwise, sorry dude, your system is toast.

Liquid Cool the Lazy Way (Leaks)

The risk to reward ratio that comes from water cooling is dependent on how careful you are and how much research you put into your setup. Pre-assembled kits, for example, are about as safe as water cooling gets, though a sloppy install can still result in fried hardware.

Where the real fun begins is when you piece together your own water cooling loop. The more elaborate your loop, the more chances there are for something to go awry, and we're not just talking about wet hardware. Something as simple as removing a heatsink from your videocard can go terribly wrong if you rush things.

Once you have everything installed and ready to go, you'll want to test run your water cooling loop to look for any leaks. If you're fairly certain you did a good job securing the hoses, you can shortcut the testing process by strategically placing paper towels in and around your hardware and punching the power button. But if you want to play it extra cautious, a better idea is to turn on just the water pump and leave your PC out of the mix. You can do this by shorting the PSU's main 20/24-pin ATX connector -- all you need is a paperclip, which you'll bend and plug one end into the green wire and the other into any of the black wires, and then flip the switch on the back.

For more water cooling tips, see our " Build a Kick-Ass Liquid Cooling System -- 6 Simple Steps" feature.

Neglecting Air Vents

Those air vents might give your system an aggressive look, but they're not just for show. This is where cool air gets sucked into your rig and presumably blown over your components before being expelled from the back. A clogged vent will prevent your air cooling scheme from working its mojo, and that's bad for your hardware.

Some enclosures ship with air filters while others go commando. Either way, it's critical that you keep dust and grime from building up and clogging these vents/filters. If you do have filters, remove them once a week or every other week and give them a shakedown. If they're really dirty, run a bit of filtered water through them to break up the gunk and then air dry.

A can of compressed air also goes a long way. A series of short blasts will send dust packing. It doesn't get rid of the dust completely, but it does prevent the dirt from building up into clumps and clogging those vents.

We also recommend a deeper cleaning about once a month (give or take, depending on how dusty your environment). Shut down your system, unplug the power supply, and rip the side panel off. Keeping your can of compressed air upright (if you tilt it, liquid will come spraying out), give a few quick blasts to your CPU heatsink, videocard, and anywhere else you see dust accumulating.

Choosing Weak-Ass Passwords

Monalisa. ILovexxx (where "xxx" is the name of your significant other). 12345. QWERTY. Password. Can you guess what all these have in common? That's right Matlock, these are all terrible passwords that are easily guessed. Using one of these is like locking your car door but leaving the window wide open.

Follow these tips to avoid inviting virtual ruffians into your digital world:

  • Steer clear of common passwords at all costs. Sure, they're easy to remember, and by the same token,      they're  also easy to guess.
  • Use a combination of alphanumeric characters, symbols, and punctuation. This will help keep your account protected from brute force dictionary attacks.
  • If you have trouble remembering passwords, start with a phrase and use the first letter from each word, making sure to sprinkle in other characters (see #2).
  • Avoid the temptation to write your password down, particularly in an office environment or anywhere else bustling with activity.
  • For mission critical applications, consider using a password generator, like this one from PC Tools.

Keeping the Power On and Poking Around

Back in the day, you needed a blueprint just to get inside your case. Not only did you have to remove a bunch of screws, but sometimes you even had to remove the front panel before you could lift open the chassis. Things are much improved now -- just twist a couple of thumbscrews and yank the side panel off.

Before you go poking around inside, power down your system and unplug the power supply. You should also hold down the power button for a couple of seconds to discharge any lingering juice. The alternative is to go dinking around inside your system while it's still running. Not only do you risk frying something, but those fan blades hurt. Besides, there's not a whole lot you can do inside your computer while it's up and running anyway, so play it safe and power down.

Jam Your RAM

If you push hard enough, you can jam a square peg into a circle hole. Likewise, you can finagle a stick of DDR2 RAM into a DDR3 slot, insert a stick backwards, or plug just about anything in that doesn't belong with enough brute force. Sometimes it doesn't even take a lot of effort, or maybe we've just been working out.

The point is this: if it doesn't fit, stop trying and reassess the situation. Did you pick up the wrong stick of RAM? Pay attention to how it's keyed and then line it up correctly rather than going for that homerun install by slamming a component into its slot in one quick motion. That might work for Thor, but for the rest of us, that's asking for trouble.

This just doesn't apply to internal components. Those of you still rocking a PS/2 keyboard, we feel your pain. PS/2 connectors are notoriously finicky and have to be lined up perfectly or else the pins end up getting bent. And if you try forcing a USB stick in upside down, you could kill both the thumb drive and ruin your USB port.

Playing Rough with Processor Pins

Remember that scene in Tommy Boy where Tommy's sitting in a diner holding a bread roll, caressing it with his hands until he gets too rough and turns the bread into crumbs? Your processor is just as fragile, or if you're running an Intel LGA775 platform or later, the processor socket is what you need to worry about.

Let's start with AMD users and older Intel processor owners. Every pin on the bottom of your CPU matters, and the more pins there are, the easier they are to bend. If you're not extra careful when lining up your processor with the motherboard socket, you could bend or break a pin completely. If it's just bent, you can try readjusting it by using the tip of a mechanical pencil, but if it's broken off, it's game over.

The situation is even more delicate for those on an Intel LGA775 or later platform. Rather than stick the pins on the processor, Intel positioned them on the motherboard and they're incredibly easy to bend. Avoid the temptation to run your finger across them, and never force your processor into the socket. If you bend the pins, you've just rendered the entire motherboard unusable.

Ignoring Antivirus Software

Joe Blowhard from accounting swears that smart computing habits are all you need to surf safely on the Web and avoid falling prey to malware. Hell, we'll even concede it's entirely possible to shuffle unprotected through cyberspace without contracting a virus, and by playing it safe, you can even stack the odds considerably in your favor. But do we recommend going this route?

Not a chance. Virus writers have become increasingly crafty in coding their wares, as well in delivering their foul files. And it's not just the Internet you need to watch out for. We know of cases where malware has come preinstalled on digital photo frames, USB keys, and even driver discs straight from the factory.

Of course, the more risky your behavior -- like mucking around with keygens, downloading from untrusted sources, opening up email attachments with reckless abandon -- the quicker you'll take down your unprotected PC. If that's your goal, then skip our Security Shootout and roll through the Web naked (your PC, not you). Otherwise, suck it up and install antivirus software.

Leaving Software Updates Sitting on the Sideline

Once a month, Microsoft releases a handful of patches for Windows designed to plug up security holes, improve performance, and kick reliability up a notch (you know this as Patch Tuesday). Adobe updates its notoriously buggy Acrobat and Reader software on a quarterly basis, though more recently the company has mulled moving to a monthly update schedule as well. Other software vendors may or may not have a schedule in place, but most of them allow for automatic updating, and it's a good idea to leave this enabled.

Out of date software leaves you vulnerable to the latest hacks and exploits, making you an easy target for Internet scum. Think about it for a moment. If you're a hack looking to take down as many systems as possible, are you going to waste your time trying to punch your way through patched software, or prey on the lazy who have yet to update their software? It's a simple numbers game, and if you're rolling with unpatched software, you're at risk of becoming another statistic. This is how Conficker was able to spread so quickly.

You don't always have to rely on auto-update schemes. Security firm Secunia makes an awesome piece of software called PSI (Free , http.secuia.com ) that scans all your programs and shows which ones have patches available. You can even update your outdated software right from within PSI.

Can you think of any other computing no-nos we left off our list? Be sure to post them in the comments section below!

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