April 24, 2011

Computer Cooling – Does it matter which type?

If you’re a desktop PC gamer, enthusiast or just want to keep your rig from turning into a George Foreman Grill when it’s running the most demanding games (insert Crysis joke here), video editing, rendering pictures on Photoshop or just heavy multi-tasking, the manner in which your computer stays cool is very crucial in the long-term. Just like how synthetic motor oil does a better job of protecting vital engine parts in the long-run, having a good cooling system can preserve your computer’s motherboard and processor and reduce premature wear and tear. This Tech Tip will examine available cooling solutions and help you make an informed decision.

Air Cooling

Computer Cooling Systems The Good – Simplicity, relatively cheap, easy to install and has good cooling ability for overclocked CPUs (with the right heatsink/fan and configuration) for the price.

The Bad – Simplicity and outdated design, fan can die out, can have reduced cooling if case has poor ventilation.

The Ugly – Comes in all shapes and sizes so it can be confusing picking the right one.

What to look for – If you’re looking to save some cash but want a solid cooling solution, you can’t go wrong with a traditional fan/heatsink setup.

First, you have to examine your computer case and determine if there is enough space to fit a moderate or large-size cooler.

Second, you’ll want to check what fan(s) are around the CPU since these case fans help with pushing hot air out through the back. (or up the top and/or side) The popular trend nowadays is a cooling fan that’s placed perpendicular on top of the CPU and is connected with several copper heatpipes. The main issue with this is the installation can be intimidating for newbies if the cooler arrives fully disassembled. In addition, depending on what you’re hoping to achieve, you’ll want to check a prospective CPU cooler’s specifications.

  • For example, my personal preference is a near-silent cooling with long life. One of my favorites, the Thermaltake TR2-R1 spins at a whisper quiet 17-18 decibels and has a 50,000 hour Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) rating. If you’re all about efficient air movement, you’ll want to check out a CPU Cooler’s airflow rating. The Thermaltake TR2-R1 has a max airflow of 35.43 CFM which is generous for a cooling fan but its huge size makes it impractical for a very small computer case. Also, a cooling fan that supports several processors can be good if you’re upgrading CPUs. Salvaging your current CPU fan can be one less incurred expense when upgrading.

Lastly, if possible, try to find a CPU cooler that has a copper base (or completely copper heatsink) which is better at dissipating heat than aluminum.

Water-Cooling

The Good – Virtually silent operation, has way better cooling capability than a traditional CPU fan/heatsink

The Bad – Expensive, could be difficult to install and configure for beginners, could fail and damage computer parts

The Ugly – Maintenance-heavy, bulky cooling hoses and apparatus, might need a new case

Computer Cooling Systems  What to look for – Water-cooling solutions have become a popular alternative to PC gamers and enthusiasts as it absolutely does a better job cooling an overclocked high-performance processor. In addition, its design makes it near-silent as the only sound would be emanating from the radiator’s fan(s) which is minimal. (some are fanless!) However, you have to be careful and consider the costs involved. A water-cooling solution has a higher cost premium and involves the purchase of a radiator, pump, coolant, solution and heavy-duty tubing. (some have all parts in a kit)

If the water-cooling system malfunctions, either by manufacturer defect or after years of use and wear and tear, coolant can leak onto other vital computer components which could cause additional damage. Furthermore, you might have to mod your case to make room for the bulky tubing that extends out to the radiator and pump. This might involve having to buy a whole new water-cooling computer case all together.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, you have to consider what specific characteristics of a CPU cooler you’re looking for such as airflow, fan endurance and if you plan to overclock or not. For hardcore gamers and video editors looking to get the maximum cooling power from their hard-working CPUs and are okay with the maintenance, water-cooling is probably the more efficient cooling solution.

For beginners and moderate users, air-cooled fan designs have evolved to have a more efficient (and comprehensively bulky) direction such as the Cooler Master Hyper RR-920-N520-GP C which means you can leverage a little more power from your CPU (via overclocking) without having to invest the time, energy and money on a more expensive water-cooling alternative.

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April 17, 2011

How-To: Install a New Hard Drive

The more you use your desktop computer, the more stuff you’re going to be saving to the computers hard drive. Your photos, music, software, and all of your other critical data are stuck on that thing and unless you’re being extra careful, chances are you’re going to fill it to capacity. When this happens, instead of going on a deletion spree, why not just install another drive? If you’re installing a brand new one, this guide will be for you, but if you’re replacing a drive, you should find this helpful as well. In either case, installing a hard drive is very easy and an important skill to have in your arsenal. I’ll explain how to install a new hard drive to a desktop system and prepare it for a fresh operating system installation. If you’re a notebook computer or cheaper netbook user, the same principles will apply, but the connections and the sizes will differ. For the purpose of this guide, I’ll be referencing disk-based hard drives instead of solid-state drives, but the same principles apply for those as well.

What You’ll Need:

“…Before you start touching stuff, make sure you’ve grounded yourself to prevent any electrostatic discharge.”

A hard drive (IDE or Serial ATA) A screwdriver (usually a Phillips head) Four screws (usually included with the drive if purchased new) An available data connection (the cable, plugged into an available port on the motherboard) An available power connector (4-pin large “Molex” for IDE or 15-pin flat “wafer” for Serial ATA) An available drive bay (usually labeled in your case) Operating System Low-static environment or a place to ground yourself

Steps:

  1. Screw in the drive
  2. Connect the data cable
  3. Connect the power cable
  4. Partition and format

Note for IDE hard drives

Installing a New Hard Drive – Geeks.com

Since the cables they use can accommodate two drives per channel, the drive is equipped with jumpers that set its priority on the cable. The settings are Master, Slave, and Cable Select. When using two drives, Cable Select will allow the motherboard to select which drive gets priority on the cable. Otherwise, the Master drive gets the priority and the Slave must wait for the Master’s operations to complete before its own are allowed to go. Since Serial ATA drives are only one drive per channel, they do not require jumper settings. When using a dual head IDE cable and two drives, connect the Master to the middle connection and the Slave to the end. When using optical drives on the same channel as your hard drive, which I do not recommend for performance reasons, set the optical drive to the Slave and your hard drive to the Master setting. Most devices are labeled with the settings for each mode, but in any case, you can check your devices manufacturer’s website for the correct jumper settings.

Screw in the drive

Before you start touching stuff, make sure you’ve grounded yourself to prevent any electrostatic discharge. When you’ve chosen the drive bay you’re installing to, hold the drive in place with the label facing up and partially screw in two of the screws to the side facing you, but only enough to hold the drive steady. From here, check the power and data cables to make sure you have the length. Too many times I’ve screwed the whole thing in to find my one of my cables doesn't reach, enough times that I would be remiss to not pass it along to you. Once you’re confident your power and data cables will reach, you can begin screwing in the drive. Tighten each screw until it’s about three quarters of the way in, then tighten the opposite corners completely. This will help mount the drive securely in the bay and help prevent vibration during use.

Connect the data cable

For Serial ATA hard drives, the connection is very straight-forward. The L-shape design prevents you from inserting it incorrectly. For IDE connections, the red line on the cable goes to the right. Usually the cables are keyed to prevent improper insertion, but I’ve noticed through the years that this is not always the case, so just remember this rule of thumb: red to the right.

Connect the power cable

Installing a New Hard Drive – Geeks.com

Your drive isn’t going to be sending or receiving any data without getting any power. Serial ATA power cables are also L-shaped to prevent improper insertion, but much wider than their data-carrying counterparts. IDE drives use the large 4-pin Molex connectors; you probably have at least three or four of these hanging about in your case. The top corners of these connectors are slanted and the bottom corners form right angles to prevent improper insertion as well.

Partition and format

Installing a New Hard Drive – Geeks.com

Before you can use the drive, you need to create partitions and format them so they can be read and written to. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this, the easiest being just inserting your operating system into your optical drive, booting up your system, and starting the setup process. From here, the software should take you through the rest of the setup and prepare the drive for use. If for some reason it doesn’t, have your “pocket tech support” ready. From there, you’ll be able to prepare the drive for nearly any operating system.

Final Notes

Creating or deleting partitions as well as formatting a drive will delete all files stored on the drive. If you’re not using a brand new drive and you’re concerned about any data on the drive, you’ll need to copy that data to another place first. I personally recommend replacing hard drives every three years or so. A drive’s lifespan should be longer than that on average, but losing important data is a truly heartbreaking experience and erring on the side of caution is my suggestion.

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April 10, 2011

How To Backup Securely

This Tech Tip addresses some frequently asked questions about how to safeguard your computer data on a personal and business level. It assumes that you DO NOT have gigabytes of music and movies that require extensive security measures to protect.

1.) How should I begin to secure important data on my desktop computer or laptop?

First, it makes sense to designate 1 or 2 specific folders on your computer as the main folder for confidential file back-ups for several reasons. If you have to do a quick back-up, all you do is copy that folder to an external drive for an instant back-up.

Second, It provides a centralized location for all important data. Instead of having to hunt down the menu, sub-menu, sub-sub-menu of where you normally download company financial spreadsheets, you can set your browser and programs (such as Quickbooks, etc.) to save/download all important files to this folder.

Third, let’s say you only save ALL important files on a flash drive/external hard drive. If your notebook gets lost/stolen, the thieves only have the programs and not the actual confidential files which are on the cheap flash drive.

2.) Great, now how do I actually back-up my designated BACK UP folder(s)?

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comHere’s where it gets tricky. You have several back-up options such as:

A.) Cloud – Services such as Carbonite and Mozy offer low-priced back-up solutions. You basically upload all your confidential files to their cloud servers and are able to access them anywhere in the world where there is Internet access. The main issue is that, from a business security perspective, you have no idea where your data is stored. If, for example, it’s stored in a server farm in China which gets hacked, then you’re in trouble.

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comB.) External Hard Drives – These nifty devices come in portable 2.5” and larger 3.5” flavors and offer more than generous dumping grounds for all things important. Once you plug it in, your OS recognizes it and pops you up with a folder showing it as a (giant) external drive with a letter (i.e. G:) Some even feature OTB (One Touch Backup) so you press one button and it backs up either your entire system or certain portions of it. Some external hard drives offer plug-in encryption that prevents unauthorized access. The issue with this solution is that you have to lug it around, which means it has a chance of getting lost/stolen and the formality of performing a back-up might become time-consuming to some.

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comC.) Flash Drive – These little drives are more nimble, have zero moving parts and are highly portable. Unfortunately, this is also its Achilles’ Heel as its relatively small size makes it prone to becoming misplaced or stolen. Also it does not have the capacity of a larger external drive. The good news is that some flash drives have built-in encryption which can be useful if it lands in the wrong hands.

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comD.) Home/Office Network Attached Storage Drive – Also called NAS, this is an excellent solution for comprehensive back-up protection as these hard drives function as dumping grounds for an entire home or office network. It provides a centralized location for files, folders and documents which any connected computer can access and come in large drive sizes. However, security precautions should be utilized if the NAS has built-in measures as an unsecured NAS may be prone to prying eyes. For example, a NAS without security protocols activated while connected to a home Wi-Fi network is prone to being breached. Because of this, it’s crucial to configure the NAS security as well as the router/network security for optimal protection.

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comE.) Backing up to CD/DVD/Blu-Ray – Optical media back-up is actually a very cost-effective solution because CDs and DVDs are very cheap nowadays. Furthermore, if you’re looking to close the books for a certain month on your business, burning to a CD-R or DVD+R sets the data in stone so it can’t be manipulated on the disc. The problem is that if you have lots of data to back-up, the formality of using several CD-R or DVD-R discs to save might also become time consuming. In addition, you would have to make sure said back-up discs are placed in a safe place where the chance of it getting stolen is minimized.

3.) Which back-up method should I pick?

Secure Data Backup – Geeks.comWhile the above solutions offer many ways to back up your confidential data, the best way to minimize a data breach/loss is to follow a combination of multiple back-up solutions and proactive behavior. For example, it would be a good idea to store important sensitive data on your flash drive and encrypting it with TRUE Crypt while also saving duplicate file copies on your home NAS drive via secure VPN connection. If your flash drive is lost/stolen, True Crypt prevents the drive from being used without proper credentials and you can still access the very same duplicate files on your NAS server.

Regarding proactive behavior, you should be mindful of back-ups so you don’t lose something you wish you saved 2 weeks ago.

There are also programs out there that can help secure data such as:

  • Folder Lock – Locks and can hide any folder you wish from prying eyes.

  • True Crypt– secures drives with extensive hardware encryption.

  • Acronis Drive Cleaner – Completely erases all drive data with several methods (DoD, Gutmann method, etc.) – works great if you’re planning to get ride of old computer hardware.

Remember, it’s all about being proactive and being mindful of what back-up security solutions to use for your personal or business needs!

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